Tom, Dick and Harry
By Talbot Baines Reed Another of this author's well-written and entertaining school books. In this case the hero is young Master Jones. To prepare for entry to the school he had been given some tuition by a lady who was a teacher at a girls' school. Of course the other boys at the boys' school soon found out that he had come to them from a girls' school, and he became known, albeit affectionately, by the nickname of "Sarah".
But he is well respected, and enjoys his various friendships with the other boys, noticing even, at one point, that they seemed to be vieing with one another for his friendship.
Towards the end of the story his mother visits the school, and is a great hit with the other boys.
There some moments of drama, amusingly told, such as when our hero is unwittingly involved in almost blowing the school up! The boys involved off are hauled off to the magistrate by the local village policeman, who, comically, had imagined that a blazer, the top garment worn by schoolboys of that era (and mine) was a kind of lucifer, which in turn was a kind of match used before the invention of the safety-match. This is a particularly amusing episode, terminating in the magistrate awarding the school-keeper, who had been slightly injured, one guinea costs, to pay for his bandages, which he pays out of his own pocket.
There are no mountain-side dramas as in several other books by this author, and the rowing episodes on the river are quite tame. There are no wicked local beer-house owners. But it is a good story, quietly and evenly told. Best listened to rather than read. NH. TOM, DICK AND HARRY
BY TALBOT BAINES REED
WHO SHOT THE DOG?
A shot! a yell! silence!
Such, as soon as I could collect myself sufficiently to form an idea at all, were my midnight sensations as I sat up in my bed, with my chin on my knees, my hair on end, my body bedewed with cold perspiration, and my limbs trembling from the tips of my fingers to the points of my toes.
I had been peacefully dreaming—something about an automatic machine into which you might drop a Latin exercise and get it back faultlessly construed and written out. I had, in fact, got to the point of attempting nefariously to avail myself of its services. I had folded up the fiendish exercise on the passive subjunctive which Plummer had set us overnight, and was in the very act of consigning it to the mechanical crib, when the shot and the yell projected me, all of a heap, out of dreamland into the waking world.
At first I was convinced it must have been the sound of my exercise falling into the machine, and Plummer's howl of indignation at finding himself circumvented.
No! Machine and all had vanished, but the noises rang on in my waking ears.
Was it thunder and storm? No. The pale moonlight poured in a gentle flood through the window, and not a leaf stirred in the elms without.
Was it one of the fellows fallen out of bed? No. On every hand reigned peaceful slumber. There was Dicky Brown in the next bed, flat on his back, open-mouthed, snoring monotonously, like a muffled police rattle. There was Graham minor on the other side, serenely wheezing up and down the scale, like a kettle simmering on the hob. There opposite, among the big boys, lay Faulkner, with the moonshine on his pale face, his arms above his head, smirking even in his sleep. And there was Parkin just beyond, with the sheet half throttling him, as usual, sprawling diagonally across his bed, and a bare foot sticking out at the end. And here lay—
Hullo! My eyes opened and my teeth chattered faster. Where was Tempest? His bed was next to Parkin's, but it was empty. In the moonlight and in the midst of my fright I could see his shirt and waistcoat still dangling on the bed-post, while the coat and trousers and slippers were gone. The bed itself was tumbled, and had evidently been lain in; but the sleeper had apparently risen hurriedly, partly dressed himself, and gone out.
If only I could have got my tongue loose from the roof of the mouth to which it was cleaving, I should have yelled aloud at this awful discovery. As it was I yelled silently. For of all terrors upon earth, sleep-walking was the one I dreaded the most. Not that I had ever walked myself, or, indeed, enjoyed the embarrassing friendship of any one who did. But I had read the books and knew all about it. I would sooner have faced a dozen ghosts than a somnambulist.
I had no doubt in my mind that the Dux's empty bed was to be accounted for in this uncanny manner, and that the shot and yell were intimately connected with his mysterious disappearance. Now I thought of it, he had not been himself for some time. For a whole week he had not licked me. Ever since he had got his entrance scholarship at Low Heath he had been queerer than ever. He had not broken any rule of importance; he had been on almost friendly terms with Faulkner; he had even ceased to plot the assassination of Plummer. He was evidently in a low state, and suffering from unusual nervous excitement, thus violently to interrupt the usual tenor of his way; and, as I knew, such a state lends itself readily to the grisly practice of somnambulism.
What was to be done? Yell? I couldn't do it for the life of me. Get up and look for him? Wild horses could not have dragged a toe of me out of bed. Stay where I was till the unearthly truant returned? No, thank you. At the bare notion my rigid muscles relaxed, my erect hair lay down, and I collapsed, a limp heap, on to the pillow, with every available sheet and blanket drawn over my tightly closed eyes.
And yet, in my unimpassioned moments, I do not think I was a notorious coward. I had stood up to Faulkner's round-arms without pads, and actually blocked one of them once, and that was more than some of the fellows could say, I could take my header into the pool from the same step as Parkin. And once I had not run away from Hector when he broke loose from his kennel. Even now, but for the dim recollection of that awful automatic machine, I might have pulled myself together sufficiently to strike a light and jog my next-bed neighbour into wakefulness.
But somehow my nerves had suffered a shock, and since there was no one near to witness my poltroonery, and as, moreover, the night was chilly enough to warrant reasonable precautions against cold, I preferred on the whole to keep my head under the clothes, and drop for a season, so to speak, below the surface of human affairs.
But existence below the sheets, when prolonged for several minutes, is apt to pall upon a body, and in due time I had to face the problem whether, after all, the vague terrors without were not preferable to the certain asphyxia within.
I had put my nose cautiously outside for the purpose of considering the point, when my eyes, thus uncovered, chanced to fasten on the door.
As they did so paralysis once more seized my frame; for, at that precise moment, the door softly opened, and a figure, tall, pale, and familiar, glided noiselessly into the dormitory.
It was Tempest. He stood for a moment with the moonlight on him, and glanced nervously round. Then, apparently satisfied that slumber reigned supreme, he stepped cautiously to his deserted couch. My eyes followed him as the eyes of the fascinated dove follow the serpent. I saw him divest himself of his semi-toilet, and then solemnly wind up his watch, after which he slipped beneath the clothes, and all was silent.
I lay there, moving not a muscle, till the breathing of the truant grew long and heavy, and finally settled down to the regular cadence of sleep. Then I breathed once more myself; my staring eyes gradually drooped; my mind wandered over a large variety of topics, and finally relapsed into the happy condition of thinking of nothing at all.
When I awoke next morning, in obedience to the summons of the bell, the first thing I was aware of was that Tempest was complacently whistling a popular air as he performed his toilet.
"Poor Dux!" thought I, "he little dreams what a terrible night he has had. Good morning, Dux," I said deferentially.
Tempest went on brushing his hair till he had finished his tune, and then honoured me with a glance and a nod.
Something in my appearance must have attracted his attention, for he looked at me again, and said, "What makes you look so jolly fishy, eh, youngster?"
"Oh," said I, a little flattered to have my looks remarked upon, "I had a nightmare or something."
"Comes of eating such a supper as you did," replied the Dux.
"Wouldn't he open his eyes," thought I, "if I told him what the nightmare was! But I won't do it."
I therefore relapsed into my toilet, and, as time was nearly up, left the unconscious sleep-walker to finish his in silence.
Dr Hummer's "select young gentlemen" only numbered thirty, all told— chiefly sons of the trading community, who received at the establishment at Hampstead all the advantages of a good commercial education, combined with some of the elegances of a high-class preparatory school. Tipton's father, who was an extensive draper in an adjoining suburb, was rather fond, I believe, of telling his friends that he had a boy at Dangerfield College. It sounded well, especially when it was possible to add that "my boy and his particular chum, young Tempest, son of the late Colonel Tempest, you know, of the Guards, did this and that together, and might perhaps spend their next holidays together at Tempest Hall, in Lincolnshire, if he could spare the boy from home," and so on.
It was an awful fascination for some of us to speculate what the "Dux" would have to say if he could hear this sort of talk. We trembled for Tipton's father, and his shop, and the whole neighbourhood in which he flourished.
Tempest's presence at the "College" did, however, add quite a little prestige to the place. No one seemed to suppose that it had anything to do with the fact that the terms were exceptionally moderate, and that his gallant father had left very slender means behind him. Even Dr Plummer had a habit, so people said, of dragging his aristocratic head pupil's name into his conversation with possible clients, while we boys mingled a little awe with the esteem in which we held our broad-backed and well-dressed comrade.
Within the last few weeks especially the school had had reason to be proud of him. He had taken an exhibition at Low Heath, one of the crack public schools, and was going up there at Midsummer. This was an event in the annals of Plummer's which had never happened before and in all probability would never happen again.
To do the Dux justice, he set no special store by himself. He believed in the Tempests as a race, but did not care a snap whether anybody else believed in them or not. Any boy who liked him he usually liked back, and showed his affection, as he did in my case, by frequent lickings. Boys he did not like he left severely alone, and there were a good many such at Dangerfield.
As to the exhibition, that had been entirely his own idea. He had not said a word about it to Plummer or any of us, and it was not till after he had got it, and Plummer in the fulness of his heart gave us a holiday in celebration of the event, that we had any of us known that the Dux had been in for it.
The second bell had already sounded before I had completed my toilet, the finishing touches of which, consequently, I was left to add in solitude.
When I descended to the refectory I was struck at once by an unusual air of gloom and mystery about the place. Something unpleasant must have occurred, but what it was nobody appeared exactly to know, unless it was the principal himself. Dr Plummer was just about to make a communication when I made my belated entry.
"Jones," said he, as much in sorrow as in anger, "this is not the first time this term that you have been late."
It certainly was not.
"What is the reason?"
"Please, sir," said I, stammering out my stereotyped excuse, "I think I can't have heard the first bell."
"Perhaps the first six sums of compound proportion written out ten times will enable you to hear it more distinctly in future. We will try it, if you please, Jones."
Then turning sternly to the assembled school, he said, "I was about to say something to you, boys, when this disturbance interrupted me. A shameful act has been done by some one in the night, in which I sincerely hope no one here has had a hand. The dog has been killed."
A whistle of consternation went round the room. What? Hector killed?— Hector the collie—the beast—the brute—the sneak—the traitor—the arch-enemy of every boy at Plummer's? Hector, who was reported to be worth thirty guineas? Hector, the darling of Mrs P. and the young P.'s? Hector of the teeth, and the snarl, and the snap, the incorruptible, the sleepless, the unforgiving?
What miscreant hero had dared perform this sacrilegious exploit? "Perish Hector!" had been an immemorial war-cry at Plummer's; but Hector had never yet perished. No one had been found daring enough to bell the cat—that is, to shoot the dog. To what scoundrel was Dangerfield College now indebted for this inestimable blessing?
Dead silence followed the doctor's announcement. Boys' faces were studies as they stood there rent in twain by delight at the news and horror at the inevitable doom of the culprit.
"I repeat," said the head master, "Hector was found this morning shot in his kennel. Does any boy here know anything about it?"
Dead silence. The master's eyes passed rapidly along the forms, but returned evidently baffled.
"I trust I am to understand by your silence that none of you know anything about it. There is no doubt whatever that the guilty person will be found. I do not say that his name is known yet. If he is in this room,"—here he most unjustifiably fixed me with his eye—"he knows as well as I do what will be the consequence to him. Now go to breakfast. I shall have more to say about this matter presently."
If Dr Plummer had been anxious to save his tea and bread-and-butter from too fierce an inroad he could hardly have selected a better method. Dangerfield College was completely "off its feed" this morning. Indeed, Ramsbottom, the usher, had almost to bully the victuals down the boys' throats in order to get the meal over. The only boy who made any pretence to an appetite was the Dux, who ate steadily, much to my amazement, in the intervals of the conversation.
"It's a bit of a go, ain't it?" observed Dicky Brown, who, despite his educational advantages, could never quite master the politest form of his native tongue.
"Rather," said I—"awkward for somebody."
Then, as my eyes fell once more on Tempest, complacently cutting another slice off the loaf, an idea occurred to me.
"You know, Dicky," said I, feeling that I was walking on thin ice, "I almost fancied I heard a sound of a gun in the night."
"Trust you for knowing all about a thing after it's happened. It would have been a rum thing if you hadn't."
This was unfeeling of Dicky. I am sure I have never pretended to know as much about anything as he did.
"Oh, but I really did—a shot, and a yell too," said I.
"Go it, you're getting on," said Dicky. "You can pile it up, Tom. Why don't you say you saw me do it while you are about it?"
"Because I didn't."
"All I can say," said the Dux, buttering his bread liberally, "I'm precious glad the beast is off the hooks. I always hated him. Which of you kids did it?"
We both promptly replied that he was quite under a wrong impression. We were pained by the very suggestion.
"All right," said he, laughing in his reckless way, and talking quite loud enough for Plummer to hear him if he happened to come in, "you've less to be proud of than I fancied. If you didn't do it, who did, eh?"
That was the question which was puzzling every one, except perhaps myself, who was undergoing a most uncomfortable mental argument as I slowly recalled the events of last night.
"Give it up; ask another," said Faulkner. "I'm precious glad I've not got a pistol." Here the Dux coloured a little, and relapsed into silence. He disliked Faulkner, and objected to his cutting into the conversation.
"One comfort," said I, endeavouring to change the topic: "we may get off that brutal Latin exercise if Plummer takes on hard about this affair."
"Poor old Hector!" said Dicky. "If that's so, we shall owe him one good turn at least—eh, old Compound Proportion?"
This pointed allusion to my misfortunes disinclined me to hold further conversation with Richard Brown, and the meal ended in general silence.
As we trooped back to the schoolroom I overheard Faulkner say to another of the seniors—
"I say, did you see the way Tempest flared up when I said that about the pistol just now? Rather awkward for him, I fancy, if he's got one."
"What's the odds if he didn't shoot the dog?" was the philosophical reply.
For all that, I had observed the Dux's confusion, and the sight of it made me very uncomfortable on his account. Faulkner was right. It would be precious awkward for any one who might be discovered to possess a pistol. The fact that firearms were expressly forbidden at Dangerfield College was itself, I am sorry to say, a strong presumption in favour of Tempest having one. Besides, I had myself once heard him speak about shooting rooks at home with a pistol.
Oddly enough, chance was to put in my way a means of setting my mind at rest almost immediately.
"I say, kid," said the Dux, as I entered the schoolroom just before the time, "I've left my Latin grammar in my locker upstairs. Look sharp, or you'll be late again and catch it."
That was his style all over—insult and injury hand in hand. He only practised it on fellows he really liked, too.
"I say, I can't," pleaded I. "Plummer will give it me hot if he catches me again. I've got it pretty bad as it is."
"I know you have; that's why I tell you to look sharp." It was no good arguing with Tempest. I knew he would risk his neck for me any day. That would be much less exertion to him than running upstairs. So I went.
The Dux's locker, I grieve to say, was a model of untidiness. Cricket flannels, eatables, letters, tooth-powders, books, and keepsakes were all huddled together in admired disorder to the full extent of the capacity of the box. The books being well in the rear of the heap, and time being precious, I availed myself of the rough-and-ready method of emptying out the entire contents at one fell swoop and extracting the particular object of my quest from the debris.
I had done so, and was proceeding to huddle up the other things into a compact block of a size to fit once more into the receptacle, when something fell from the pocket of one of the garments with a clatter to the floor. It was a pistol!
With a face as white and teeth as chattering as if I had seen a ghost, I instinctively pounced upon the tell-tale weapon, and whisked it, with a shudder, into my own pocket. Then, with decidedly impaired energy, I punched the bundle back into its place, slammed down the lid, and returned to the schoolroom just in time to regain my place before Dr Plummer made his entry.
"You'll give yourself heart-disease if you rush up and down stairs like that," said Tempest as I handed him the book. "You look fishier than ever."
"Latin grammar, juniors," announced the doctor. "Close books. Jones, stand up and decline gradus."
I declined, and fell. The excitements of the past six hours had demoralised me altogether. I could not remember who or what gradus was—whether it was an active noun or a feminine verb or a plural conjunction, or what. In vain the faithful Dicky prompted me from behind and Graham minor from the side. As they both prompted at the same time, and each suggested different things, I only floundered deeper. I felt myself smiling vacantly first at one, then at the other, then at the doctor. I moved one hand feebly behind me in token of my despairing gratitude to Dicky, and the other I laid convulsively on the collar of Graham's coat. It was all of no avail, and finally, when I had almost reached the stage of laughing aloud, my mother wit came to my rescue and I sat down.
This was the beginning of a tragedy of errors. With the ghost of Hector haunting us, none of us, except the Dux, who always kept his head, could do anything. The doctor's favours were lavishly and impartially distributed. Watkins, the "baby" of the class, made an ingenious calculation that if all the "lines" which were doled out as the result of that morning's work were to be extended in one unbroken length, they would reach exactly from Plummer's desk to the late Hector's kennel. Hector again! Every one's thoughts veered round to the unlucky quadruped and the storm that was brewing over his mangled remains.
Morning school passed, however, without any further official announcement on the subject. When class was dismissed half an hour earlier than usual, it was tacitly understood that this was in consequence of the obsequies of the late lamented, which were attended by the Plummer family and the errand boy, not indeed in crape, but amid every sign of mourning.
We young gentlemen were not invited. Had we been, it is doubtful whether the alacrity with which some of us would have obeyed the summons would have been altogether complimentary to the memory of the deceased.
As it was, we loafed about dismally, discussing the topic of the hour in corners, and wished the storm would break and be done with.
We had not long to wait!
A CONSPIRACY OF SILENCE.
As for me, I was very poor company for any one that afternoon of Hector's funeral. Something was burning a hole in my pocket, and I felt myself in a most uncomfortable fix.
"It's all up with old Dux," said I to myself, "if it's found out. But suppose it's found on me? Still more precious awkward. I'd either have to lump it or let out. Don't see much fun in either myself. Seems to me the sooner I get rid of the beastly thing the better. Fancy his letting it lie about in his locker! He'd give me a hiding for interfering, I know, if he only knew. But I wouldn't for anything he got lagged. Old Dux is one of those chaps that has to be backed up against himself. Sha'n't be my fault if he isn't."
The reader will have judged by this time that I belonged to the species prig in my youthful days. Let that pass; I was not a unique specimen.
Full of my noble resolve of saving the Dux from himself, I went out to take the air, and strolled aimlessly in the direction of the pond. A professional burglar could not have ordered his footsteps more circumspectly. I perambulated the pool, whistling a cheerful tune, and looking attentively at the rooks overhead. Not a soul was in sight. I began to throw stones into the water, small to begin with, then larger, then bits of stick about six inches long. Then I smuggled the unlucky pistol out of my pocket in my handkerchief, and whistled still more cheerfully. Although no one was looking, it seemed prudent to adopt an air of general boredom, as if I was tired of throwing sticks into the pond. I would only throw one more. Even that was a fag, but I would do it.
What a plump, noisy splash it made, sending out circles far and near, and gurgling in a sickening way as it sank in a very unsticklike fashion to the bottom.
My whistling ceased, my air of dejection increased. I must be unsociable no longer. Let me rejoin my dear schoolfellows, making a little detour in order to appear to reach them from the direction not of the pond but of the orchard.
I was sheering off by the lower end of the pond, when, to my horror, I perceived a boy groping on the grass on all fours, apparently digging up the ground with a trowel.
On closer inspection I found that it was Dicky.
"Oh, it's you, is it?" said he, as I came upon him. "Have you done chucking things into the pond?"
"Why," said I, taken aback; "why, Dicky, what on earth are you up to?"
"Never mind—an experiment, that's all. I'm glad it's only you. I was afraid it was some one else. You must be jolly hard up for a bit of fun to come and chuck things into the pond."
"Oh!" said I, with tell-tale embarrassment, "I just strolled down for the walk. I didn't know you'd taken to gardening."
"There goes the bell," said Dicky. "Cut up. I'll be there as soon as you."
I obeyed, mystified and uncomfortable. Suppose Dicky had seen the pistol! I found the fellows hanging about the school door waiting to go in.
"Been to the funeral, kid?" said the Dux, as I approached. I wished he would speak more quietly on such dangerous topics when Plummer was within earshot.
"No, I've been a stroll," said I. "It's rather hot walking."
"I guess it will be hotter before long," said some one. "Plummer looks as if he means to have it out this afternoon."
"I hope he won't go asking any awkward questions," said Dicky, who had by this time joined us.
"What's the odds, if you didn't do it?" demanded the Dux.
"Look out," said Faulkner; "here he comes. He's beckoning us in."
"Now we're in for it!" thought we all.
Plummer evidently meant business this time. The melancholy ceremony at which he had just assisted had kindled the fires within him, and he sat at his desk glowering as each boy dropped into his place, with the air of a wolf selecting his victim.
As I encountered that awful eye, I found myself secretly wondering whether by any chance I might have shot the dog in a fit of absence of mind. Brown, I think, was troubled by a similar misgiving. Some of the seniors evidently resented the way in which the head master glared at them, and tried to glare back. Faulkner assumed an air of real affliction, presumably for the departed. Tempest, on the other hand, drummed his fingers indifferently on the desk, and looked more than usually bored by the whole business.
"Now, boys," began Plummer, in the short sharp tones he used to affect when he was wont to administer justice; "about Hector."
Ah! that fatal name again! It administered a nervous shock all round, and the dead silence which ensued showed that every boy present was alive to the critical nature of the situation.
"I have already told you what has occurred, and have asked if any one here knows anything about the matter," said the doctor. "I repeat the question. If any of you know anything, let there be no hesitation in speaking up."
No reply. Boys looked straight in front of them and held their breaths.
"Very well," said the doctor, his voice becoming harder and sterner, "I am to understand no boy here is able to throw any light on the mystery. Is that so?"
If silence gives consent, no question was ever more emphatically answered in the affirmative.
"I hoped it would be unnecessary to ask the question twice," said Dr Plummer. "I decline to accept silence as an answer. Let the head boy come forward."
Tempest left his place and advanced to the desk.
"Tempest, do you know anything of this matter?"
"No, sir," said Tempest.
I felt the skin on the top of my head grow tight, and my breath catch in my throat. Never had I known the Dux to tell a he to any one. What was I to do when my turn came?
"Go to your seat. The next boy come forward."
Parkin obeyed, and answered the question with a clear negative.
"The next boy."
The next boy was Faulkner, who I suspected would fain have been able to say he knew anything. But for once he was at fault, and had to reply with an apologetic "No."
In due time it was Dicky's turn.
"Do you know anything of the matter, Brown?"
"No, sir," said Brown, almost noisily.
The doctor looked at him keenly, and then ordered him to his place.
"Jones, come forward."
I felt the blood fly out of my cheeks and my heart jump to my mouth as I obeyed. As I passed up the room I glanced nervously at the Dux where he sat listlessly regarding the scene. But he took no notice of me.
"Jones," said the doctor, "do you known anything of this matter?"
The words would not come; and I glanced around again for succour.
"Turn your face to me, sir," thundered the doctor, "and answer my question."
What could I say? Where could I look? The question was repeated once more.
"I only know I fancy I heard a shot in the night." I stammered at last.
A flutter of interest went round the room. Failing all other clues it evidently seemed to be something to most of those present to elicit even this.
"Why did you not say so when you were asked this morning?"
"Do you hear me, sir?"
"Please, sir, I couldn't be sure I had not been dreaming."
"When did you hear this sound?"
"I don't know what time, sir; I had been asleep."
"Was it light or dark?"
"Is that all you heard?"
"I thought I heard a yell, too."
"Did you get up or wake any of the others?"
"Did you do nothing at all?"
"I was frightened, sir, and hid under the clothes."
"Is that all?"
Wasn't it about enough? I thought.
I staggered back to my seat like a wounded man after a fray. I knew I had lost caste with the fellows; I had seriously compromised myself with the head master. At least, I told myself, I had escaped the desperate fate of saying anything against the Dux. For the sake of that, I could afford to put up with the other two consequences.
The grand inquest came to an end. One candid youth admitted that all he knew of the matter was that he was very glad Hector was dead, and for this impious irrelevance he was ordered to write an appalling imposition and forfeit several half-holidays. But that, for the time being, was the worst thunderbolt that fell from the doctor's armoury.
The Dux was kindly waiting for me outside. If he was grateful to me he concealed his feelings wonderfully; for he seized me by the coat collar and invited me to step with him to a quiet retreat where he administered the soundest thrashing I had had that term without interruption.
Explanation, I knew, would be of no avail. Tempest made a point of always postponing an explanation till after the deed was done.
When at length I gathered myself together, and inquired as pleasantly as I could to what special circumstances I was indebted for this painful incident, he replied—
"For being an idiot and a sneak. Get away, or I'll kick you."
Brown, whom I presently encountered, put the matter rather more precisely.
"Well," said he, "you told about as much as you could. How sorry you must have been not to tell more!"
"Don't, Dicky;" said I; "I—I—"
"You're almost as big an ass as you look," said Dicky, "and that's saying something. Come and see my experiment."
I was not in a scientific mood, but anything was welcome to change the subject. So I took Dicky's arm and went.
Dicky was a queer boy. He was of an inventive turn of mind, and given up to science. His experiments rarely succeeded, and when they did they almost invariably landed him in disgrace. Still he persevered and hoped some day to make a hit.
He explained to me, as we walked down the garden, that he had lately been taking an interest in the pond.
It was all I could do to appear only moderately interested in this announcement. Had not I an interest in the pond too? What followed was even more uncomfortable.
"You know Lesseps and all those chaps?" said he.
"He left before I came, I think," said I.
Dicky laughed unfeelingly.
"I mean the chap who cut the Suez Canal," said he.
"Oh! I beg your pardon," said I. "No, I don't know him."
"Well, I've been having a go in at the same kind of job," continued Dicky. "You know what a drop there is at the end of the pond, where you saw me yesterday, in the shrubbery? Well, it struck me it wouldn't take much engineering to empty it."
"What!" I exclaimed, "empty the pond! You'll get in an awful row, Dicky. Don't think of it."
"Think—it's done, I tell you," said the man of science. "That was what I was at when you saw me."
"I thought you were digging up primroses."
"Digging up grandmothers! I was letting in a pipe to drain it. It was a rare job to shove it in from the bottom corner of the pond through the bank into the shrubbery. But I managed it. It was coming through like one o'clock when I left. I expect the pond will be empty by this time."
I quailed with horror. If so, I should be discovered. I was tempted to turn tail: but that would be even worse. The only thing was to stay and see it through.
I confronted myself with the reflection that Dicky's experiments so rarely succeeded, that in all probability the pistol still lay safe under four feet of water. If not—
"Hooray!" exclaimed Dicky, as we came in sight of the place; "it's done the trick this time. See, Tom!"
I did see. In place of the water I left there in the morning was a large empty basin of mud, with a few large puddles of water lying at the bottom, and a few hillocks of mud denoting the places which had once been shallows.
My quick eye hurriedly took in the dismal landscape. For a moment my spirits rose, for I could nowhere discern the compromising object I dreaded to see. It was no doubt buried in the mud, and as safe as if the pond were full to the brim.
"Isn't it ripping?" said Dicky. "It wasn't easy to do, but it only wanted a little management. I mean to go in for engineer— Hullo, what's that rummy stone out there? or is it a stone, or a fish, or— I say, Tom," he added, clutching my arm, "I'm bothered if that's not a pistol!"
My white face and chattering teeth made reply unnecessary. There, snugly perched on a little heap of stones, as if set up for inspection, lay the unlucky pistol, gleaming in the afternoon sun.
Dicky looked first at the pistol, then at me; and began slowly to take in the state of affairs.
He took a cautious step out in the mud in the direction of the weapon, but came back.
"I thought you could hardly be chucking in all those things for fun," said he presently.
I stood gaping in an imbecile way, and said nothing.
"I know whose it is. He had it up here once before."
"I say," gulped I, "can't you let the water in again?" Dick had not considered this. His triumph had been letting the water out. However, he would see what could be done.
We went down into the shrubbery. About a foot of water lay on the ground, promising great fertility some day, but decidedly muddy-looking to-day.
"The thing will be to bung up the hole first," said Dicky.
So we set to work to hammer up the end of the zinc pipe and stuff the aperture round with sods and stones. I even sacrificed my cap to the good cause.
The bell began to ring before we had well completed the task. "That ought to keep any more from running out," said Dicky. "If we're lucky, the water will come in on its own hook at the other end."
The theory was not exactly scientific, for scientific men do not believe in luck. Still, it was the best we could think of as we turned to go.
"Stop a bit," said I, as we were leaving. "May as well tidy up a bit in there before we go, eh?"
"In there" was the bed of the pond.
"It might look better," said Dick, turning up his trousers. We decently interred the pistol in the mud, and raised a small heap of stones to keep it down; and then cautiously obliterating our footsteps in the mud, we made for terra firma, and scuttled back to school as fast as our legs would carry us.
Fortunately we entered unobserved, and disencumbered ourselves of our muddy boots without attracting attention to their condition. Ten minutes later we were deep in our work in the big schoolroom.
Preparation that night was a solemn and gloomy ceremony. Dicky and I kept catching one another's eyes, and then glancing on to where the Dux, cool as a cucumber, sat turning over the leaves of his lexicon.
"He's got a cheek of his own, has Dux," said I to myself.
"If I didn't know it was him," signalled the ungrammatical Dicky across the room, "I should never have believed it."
"You may make as many faces as you like at young Brown," glared Tempest at me, "but if I catch you making any more at me, your mother will need some extra pocket-handkerchiefs."
"Jones," observed Dr Plummer aloud, "a double poena for aggravated inattention."
All right. I was getting pretty full up with engagements for one day, and began to think bed-time would be rather a relief.
It came at last. In the dormitory Ramsbottom successfully interfered with conversation by patrolling the chamber until the boys were asleep. No one doubted that he had been set to the task by the head master, and it augured rather badly for the resumption of the inquest next day.
However, even patrols go to sleep sometimes, and when I woke early next morning the usher had vanished to his own chamber. My first thought was not Hector, or the doctor, or my poenas, or the Dux, but the pond.
How, I wondered, was it getting on?
I routed up Dicky, and very quietly we dressed and slipped out. I knew that my early rising, if it were discovered, would probably be set down to my zeal for discharging impositions. But even they must wait now till we were sure about the pond.
For Dicky and I stood liable to as big a row as the assassin of Hector himself if anything went wrong with our experiment in engineering. Luckily very few fellows haunted this particularly muddy corner of the grounds, and now that Hector was above a daily bath, there was little chance of Plummer himself discovering the remarkably low tide on his premises—still less of his poking about among the stones in the bed of the pool.
To our great relief we found that our dam at the foot was holding out bravely, and that comparatively little water was trickling through the bank into the shrubbery. The flow at the upper end, however, was distressingly small, and though a whole night had passed we could still see the heap of stones under which the pistol was buried rising up from the shallow puddles around it, inviting investigation.
With astounding industry we worked away that morning, widening and deepening the little channel along which the rivulet made its way to the pond. And before we had done we had the satisfaction of seeing a fairly brisk inflow. We would fain have waited to see the fatal little island disappear below the surface. But the first bell was already an sounding when the water completed the circle, leaving it standing up more prominent than ever.
To our horror, at this precise moment Tempest strolled down.
"Hullo! what are you two after? Fishing? One way to catch them, letting all the water out."
"It was an experiment," said Dicky, who, like myself, was very pale as he looked first at the Dux, then at the guilty hillock in the pond.
"So it seems. In other words, you're making a jolly mess, and are enjoying yourselves. I hope you'll enjoy it equally, both of you, when Hummer sees what you've done."
"Shall you tell him?" I asked, somewhat breathlessly. The Dux laughed scornfully.
"You deserve a hiding for asking such a thing. Come here! Jump out on to that little island there, and stay there till I tell you."
"Oh, Dux, please not," said I, in a tone of terror, which was quite out of proportion to the penalty. The pistol was only two inches below the surface!
"Do you hear? Look sharp, or I'll chuck you there."
That might be worse. It might hurt me and cut up the soil. So I jumped gingerly out, and stood poised with a foot in the water on either side, dreading at any moment to see the stones slip and the tell-tale gleam of the buried weapon.
"If you don't stand properly," said the Dux, "I'll make you sit down. Come along, young Brown, it's time we went up to school."
"How long am I to stay, please?" I inquired.
"Till you're in water up to the knees," said the Dux, as he turned away, with the faithless Dicky beside him.
Up to the knees! I stood loyally for five minutes, during which the water gained about an eighth of an inch up my ankles. Then the second bell rang, and things became desperate.
Accordingly I knelt in the water until I could confidently assert that I was wet, very wet indeed, up to the knees; which done, I posted as fast as my ill-used legs would carry me to morning school.
"WHEN SHALL WE THREE MEET AGAIN?"
Once more Dr Plummer reserved himself for the afternoon. Perhaps it was the haunting tyranny of the defunct Hector; perhaps it was pique at being baffled, so far, in finding the culprit; whatever may have been the reason, he was in an ominously uncompromising mood when at last he returned to the fateful question.
"Come up, the first boy," said he abruptly.
The Dux was evidently getting tired of all this business (and no wonder, it seemed to me), and obeyed the summons not in the best of humours.
"Tempest," said the doctor, "I repeat my question of yesterday. Do you know anything whatever of this matter?"
"No, sir—I said so," replied the Dux, in a clear voice.
Dr Plummer scowled somewhat at this tart reply. He rather liked his head boy, and was not prepared to find him, of all others, recalcitrant.
"I do not ask what you said, sir; I ask what you say," said he.
"I said No. I'm not a liar," replied the Dux rather fiercely.
The doctor received this rather more meekly than most of us expected, and proceeded with his next question.
"Have you the slightest reason to suspect any one of having done it, or of knowing anything about it?"
Tempest remained silent, with flushed and angry face.
"Do you hear me, sir?" asked the doctor, now thoroughly roused.
"Then why don't you answer at once?"
"I would not answer the question if I could," said the Dux defiantly.
Dr Plummer stared at the boy as if he had been a wild beast.
"How dare you say such a thing to me?" he demanded. "You heard my question. Have you the slightest grounds for suspecting any one?"
The Dux bit his lips and remained silent.
"Do you hear, Tempest?"
"Go to your seat, sir. I will speak to you presently."
Tempest obeyed, with head erect and a red spot on either cheek.
We gazed at him in amazement. We had always given him credit for hardihood, but we had never believed him capable of mutiny of this kind; especially—
"Seems to me," whispered Dicky, "he might as well tell right away. He'll get expelled either way. Anyhow—"
"Brown, come forward."
Dicky started as if he had been detected in the act of holding a pistol to Hector's head. He was not in the least prepared to be summoned thus out of his turn; and morally he went to pieces as he rose to obey.
"Mum's the word!" whispered I, encouragingly, as he started for the front.
The doctor was on the alert with a vengeance to-day!
"Jones, come forward too," said he.
It was my turn to jump now.
"Now, sir, what was that you said to Brown just now?"
My back went up instinctively at his tone.
"I said, 'Mum's the word,'" I replied as doggedly as I could.
The doctor changed colour. This was getting serious. He had no precedents for such a case at Dangerfield, and for a moment was evidently at a loss how to proceed.
Perhaps he regretted for once in a way the policy of believing a boy guilty till he can prove himself innocent. Whether he did or no, it was too late to surrender it now.
"Go to your seat, Jones; I shall deal with you presently."
I marched off, with all the blood of the Joneses tingling in my veins. The ingenuous Dicky was left to his ordeal single-handed.
"Now, Brown," said the doctor, "you have heard the question, to which I mean to have an answer—and I caution you before I repeat it, to be careful—I shall know what interpretation to put on any attempt to prevaricate. Tell me, Brown, do you know anything at all of this matter, or have you grounds for suspecting any one of being concerned in it?"
Dicky shut his mouth with a snap, and looked as if he wished devoutly some one could turn a key on it and keep it so.
"Speak, sir," said the doctor, coming down from his desk.
By one of those strange freaks of perversity which are so hard to account for, Dicky's spirits went up higher every moment, and when the doctor stood over him and repeated the question a third time, he almost, I believe, enjoyed himself. He had never imagined courage was so easy.
To his surprise Dr Plummer did not strike, but returned quietly to his desk.
"Brown," said he, "you may go. Tell the housekeeper to pack your box in time for the early train to-morrow."
"What!" exclaimed poor old Dick, fairly electrified into speech; "am I expelled, sir?"
"You will be unless you speak at once. I give you a last chance."
Dicky looked up at the doctor, then down at the floor. I knew the struggle in his mind: the thought of his people at home, of the disgrace of being expelled, of the suspicions he would leave behind. Then I could see him steal a doubtful glance at the Dux and at me, and then pass his eye along the rows of faces eagerly waiting for his decision.
Then he held up his head, and I knew dear old Dicky was as sound as a bell. No one had the right to make him turn sneak—and no one should do it! "I'll go and pack," said he quietly, and turned to the door.
Neither the Dux nor I saw the last of poor Dicky Brown at Dangerfield. We were otherwise engaged when he departed home in a four-wheeled cab in charge of Mr Ramsbottom that evening. We were, in point of fact, in durance vile ourselves, with every prospect of speedily requiring the services of two more four-wheeled cabmen on our own accounts.
The Dux's fury at Dicky's summary expulsion had been quite a surprise even to me.
"It's a shame," he had shouted as the door closed; "a caddish shame!"
"Who said that?" asked Dr Plummer.
"I did. I say it's a caddish shame!"
"So do I!" yelled I at the top of my voice, and quite carried away by the occasion.
This was getting very embarrassing for Plummer. Perhaps he behaved in the best way open to him under the circumstances. He ignored us both, and proceeded to call up Faulkner to answer his precious questions.
Much depended on Faulkner then. If he had refused to answer, as the Dux had done, and Brown had done, and others were prepared to do, Plummer might have seen that his case was hopeless, and have given it up. Faulkner was nothing like such a favourite with the head master as Tempest, nor had he such a following among the boys. Still, he led his party, and if he chose now to leave us in the lurch Plummer was saved and we were lost.
"I know nothing of the matter, sir," said Faulkner, "and I have no reason at all to suspect any one."
It sounded a simple answer, but it was rank treason. For it was as good as saying Plummer had a right to ask these questions, and that he, Faulkner, would inform if he only knew who the culprit was.
After that it was evident the game, the Dux's game and mine, was up. Boy after boy was called up and interrogated, and one by one they followed Faulkner in his submission. A few—like Graham junior— attempted to hold out, but broke down under pressure. A few feebly compromised by explaining that had they known the culprit they would not have answered; but as they did not they saw no reason for not saying so.
"It comes to this, then," said the doctor: "that out of the entire school, three boys, and three only, are silent. The only conclusion I can draw from their conduct is that they dare not deny that they know something of this shameful outrage. Tempest, you are the head boy. I have always looked on you as a credit to the school, and a good example to your youngers. You see your present behaviour involves trouble to others than yourself. I do not wish to be hasty in this matter, and am willing to give you one more opportunity of answering my question. Do you know anything of this affair, or have you any grounds for suspecting any one of being connected with it?"
The Dux flushed with indignation, glared straight at the head master by way of reply, and closed his lips.
"Very well, sir. Jones, I now repeat the question to you. You are a little boy, and there is more excuse for you, as you were led astray by the bad example of a senior. I caution you now to do as the others have done, and give me a plain answer to a plain question. Otherwise you must take the consequences."
I am afraid I blushed and looked far less determined than I would have liked. But I did my best to glare back and tighten my lips like the Dux.
"Very well. Tempest and Jones, go to my study and remain there till I come."
We had not long to wait for our doom. The doctor was in the study almost as soon as we.
We stood there while he wrote some letters and put away some books on the shelves. Then he rang the bell, and handed the letters to the servant to post. After that he sat in his chair for a quarter of an hour in silence, evidently ruminating.
At last he deigned to notice our presence.
"Tempest," he said, "I am very grieved at this. I had hoped better things of you. You know what the consequence must be to you?"
"I'm to be expelled, I know," said the Dux. "The sooner the better."
The doctor raised his eyebrows. There was no dealing with a reprobate like this.
"I have written to your grandfather to say you will return home to- morrow."
"I'm sorry it's not to-night," said the Dux.
"And you, Jones," said the doctor to me, not heeding the last speech,—"I am more sorry for you. You are a foolish, misguided boy. Even now, if you atone for your fault by replying to my questions, I am willing to spare your mother the misery you seem bent on bringing upon her."
This was a cruel thrust. The thought of my mother had crossed my mind once or twice already, and almost brought the tears to my eyes. It would be hard to explain all to her—and yet, and yet, anything was better than turning sneak.
"I won't answer," said I. "I'd sooner be expelled."
"Your desire shall be gratified," said the doctor drily; "to-morrow you will go too."
"Thank you, sir."
"Tempest, you will remain here for the rest of the day—Jones, you will go to the dormitory and remain there. I forbid you, either of you, to hold any communication with your late schoolfellows while you remain here."
Next morning after breakfast we were finally brought up before the whole school and harangued publicly by the head master. Our punishment, he told us, we had deliberately brought on our own heads. Aggravated insubordination like ours was not to be tolerated in any school. He was sure we should soon regret and be ashamed of our conduct, if we were not so already. For his own part he would try to forget the unfortunate affair, and to think kindly of us both. Mr Ramsbottom would see Tempest to the station, and the matron would escort me.
"Good-bye, Tempest," said he, holding out his hand.
"Good-bye," said the Dux, not heeding the hand, and walking to the door.
I shook hands. After all, Plummer, I thought, meant to be kind, though he took an odd way of showing it. I was thankful when the ceremony was over, and the Dux and I found ourselves with our luggage in the hall waiting for our cabs.
All at once the old school we were leaving seemed to become dearer than I had thought.
The hall where we stood was full of the memory of jolly comings and goings. The field out there seemed to echo with the whizzing of balls and the war-whoops of combatants. The very schoolroom we had just left, from which even now came the hum of work in which we were no more to join, had its pleasant associations of battles fought, friends gained, difficulties mastered. How I would have liked to run down to get a last look at the pond, or upstairs for a farewell glance round the dormitory! But now we were out of it—Dux and I. The place belonged to us no more. We were outsiders, visitors whose time was up, and whose cabs were due at the front door at any moment.
And what was it all for?
"If it hadn't been for that beast Hector," said the Dux rather dismally, "we shouldn't have been out here, Tommy."
He rarely called me by my Christian name. It was always a sign he was out of sorts.
"I do wish you'd missed him," said I.
"Missed him! What on earth do you mean?"
"Not made such a good shot—that's what I mean."
"Shot! Young Brown, are you crazy?"
"Most likely," said I, beginning to get hot and cold at the same time. "Why, do you mean to say you didn't, then?"
"Shoot him? Me shoot? I no more shot the beast than you did."
The perspiration started to my forehead.
"But the pistol. Dux?"
"The one I found in your locker, when I went to get your book, you know."
"That thing? It's been there all the term. It hasn't even got a trigger!"
"It's not there now. It's at the bottom of the pond."
The Dux looked at me as if he were about to eat me up, I looked back as if I were ready for it.
"You didn't shoot Hector, then?" I faltered.
"What do you take me for, you young ass? Of course not."
"Then Brown and I have both—"
"Brown? What about him? He didn't think I'd done it?"
"He wouldn't have been expelled if he hadn't."
The Dux gave a whistle of mingled dismay and fury.
"You know," said I, "I saw you come in that night, just after I'd heard the shot, and made sure—"
"Oh, you—you beauty!" cried the Dux, with a bitter laugh. "Why, I'd just gone down for my watch, which I'd left in my blazer, so as to wind it up—and you—you actually go and set me down as a murderer!"
"Oh, Dux, I'm so awfully sorry! Let me go and tell Plummer."
"If you do, I'll wring your neck. I wouldn't stay in this hole another day if he came on his knees and asked me. What right has he to want to make sneaks of us? Do you mean to say you and young Brown thought all along I had done it, and that I was telling lies when I said I didn't?"
"I thought perhaps you'd done it in your sleep, and didn't know."
He laughed scornfully.
"That's why you two were mum?" asked he. "Didn't want to let out on me?"
"Well, yes, partly. I'm awfully sorry, Dux. Will you ever forgive me?"
"Forgive you, kid! If I'd time I'd thrash you within an inch of your life for being such a fool, and then I'd thank you for being such a trump—you and Brown too."
"Is it too late to do anything now?" asked I again.
"Not for me—nothing would keep me here. But I don't see why you should be expelled. I'll tell Plummer it was a mistake."
"No, you won't," said I, catching his arm. "I wouldn't stay here now for worlds."
"It's rough all round," said Tempest, looking profoundly miserable, as the rumble of a cab came up to the hall door.
"What will your mater say, kid?"
"She'll understand. I hope she won't send me back though."
"Get her to send you to Low Heath."
"She couldn't afford it. You'll write to me, Dux?"
"Most likely. Tell Brown how sorry I am."
"Now, Tempest, ready?" said Mr Ramsbottom.
"Good-bye, kid. I sha'n't forget you."
Next minute he was off, and I was left alone.
I do not deny that for a moment or two I found it convenient to rub my eyes. It was a hot day, and the light through the window was dazzling, I think.
Then to my relief up came my cab, and under the stalwart escort of Mrs Potts, the matron, I quitted Dangerfield for good.
My journey home was, as may be imagined, not a festive one. What would my mother say, or my guardian? What version of the story had Plummer given them? It consoled me to work myself up into a fury as I sat in the corner of the railway carriage, and prepare an indictment of his conduct which should make my conduct appear not only justifiable, but heroic.
Alas! heroism can rarely endure the rattle of a long railway journey. Long before we reached Fallowfield my heart was in my boots, and my fierceness had all evaporated.
But a year ago my father had died, leaving me, his only child, to be the comfort and support of my mother. What message of comfort or support was I carrying home to-day? What would my guardian, who had given me such yards of stern advice about honouring my betters, say when he heard? Should I be sent to an office to run errands, or passed on to a school for troublesome boys, or left to knock about with no one to care what became of me?
With such pleasant misgivings in my mind I reached Fallowfield, and braced myself up for the interview before me.
BRUSHING-UP THE CLASSICS.
My guardian, I am bound to say, disappointed me. I had rather hoped, as I travelled home, that I would be able to put my conduct before him in such a way that he would think me rather a fine young fellow, and consider himself honoured in being my guardian. That my mother would take on, I felt sure.
"Women," said I to myself—I was thirteen, and therefore was supposed to know what women thought about things—"women can't see below the surface of things. But old Girdler was a boy himself once, and knows what it is for a fellow to get into a row for being a brick."
My sage prognostications were falsified doubly. My mother, though she wept to see me come home in this style, did me justice at once. To think I could ever have doubted her!
"Of course, sonny dear," said she, kissing me, "it was very hard. Still, I am sure it would have been a shabby thing to tell tales."
"I wasn't going to do it, at any rate," said I, growing a little cocky, and deciding that some women, at any rate, can see more than meets the eye.
But Mr Girdler, when he called in during the evening, was most disappointing.
"So this is what you call being a comfort to your mother?" began he, without so much as giving me a chance to say a word.
"Oh, but you don't understand, sir," began I.
"Don't understand!" said he. "I understand you are a naughty little boy"—to think that I should live to be called a little boy!—"and that the mischief about your schooling is that you've not been smacked as often as you ought. Understand, indeed! What do you suppose your mother's to do with a boy like you, that's wasted his time, and then tells people they don't understand?"
"I don't think Tommy meant—" began my mother; but my guardian was too quick for her.
"No, that's just it. They never do, and yet you pay fifty pounds a year to teach him. It doesn't matter to some children who else is troubled as long as they enjoy themselves."
Children! And I had once caught Parkin at cover-point! "Go up to bed now," said my guardian. "Your mother and I must see what's to be done with you. Don't I understand, indeed?"
The conceit was fairly taken out of me now. To be called a little boy was bad enough; to be referred to as a child was even worse; but to be sent to bed at a quarter to eight on a summer evening was the crowning stroke. Certainly, Plummer's itself was better than this.
What my mother and guardian said to one another I do not know. My mother, I think, had great faith in Mr Girdler's wisdom; and although she tried not to think ill of me, would probably feel that he knew better than she did.
I knew my fate next morning—it was worse than my most hideous forebodings.
I was to work at my guardian's office every morning, and in the afternoon I was to go up and learn Latin and arithmetic at—oh, how shall I say it?—a girls' school!
For an hour after this discovery I candidly admit that I was sorry, unfeignedly sorry, I had not turned sneak and informed against Harry Tempest. I think even he would have wished me to do it rather than suffer this awful humiliation.
I had serious thoughts of running away, of going to sea, or sweeping a London crossing. But there were difficulties in the way; the chief of them being my mother.
"You mustn't worry about it, Tommy," said she. "Mr Girdler says it will be the best thing for you. It will be good for you to learn some business, you know, and then in the afternoon you will find Miss Bousfield very nice and clever."
"It's not the work I mind, mother," said I; "it's—it's going to a girls' school."
"There's nothing very dreadful about it, I'm sure," said my mother, with a smile. "I was at one myself once."
"But," argued I, "you are only a—"
No—that wouldn't quite do to one's own mother. So I stopped short.
"Besides," said she, "Mr Girdler thinks it the best thing, and he is your guardian."
This was unanswerable, and I gave it up.
But I was not at all consoled. The bare idea of Tempest, or Brown, or any of the other fellows getting to know that I, Thomas Jones, aged thirteen, who had held my own at Plummer's, and played in my day in the third Eleven, was going to attend a girls' school, and be taught Latin and sums by a—a female, was enough to make my hair stand on end. How they would laugh and wax merry at my expense! How they would draw pictures of me in the book covers with long curls and petticoats! How they would address me as "Jemima," and talk to one another about me in a high falsetto voice! How they would fall into hysterics when they met me, and weep copiously, and ask me to lend them hairpins and parasols! I knew what it would be like only too well, and I quaked as I imagined it.
My one hope was that at Fallowfield nobody knew me; at least, nobody who mattered.
"At least," said I to myself, "if I am to go and herd with a parcel of girls, I'll let them see I'm something better than a girl myself."
When I presented myself at my guardian's office on the appointed morning in order to start on my commercial career, I met with a reception even less flattering than I had pictured to myself.
Mr Girdler was out, and had left no instructions about me. So for two hours I sat in the waiting-room, balancing my cap on my knee, and trying to work up the spots on the dingy wall-paper into geometrical figures.
When at last he came, so far from commending my patience, he had the face to reproach me for sitting there idle instead of getting some one to set me to work.
"You are not at school here, remember," said he, by way of being sarcastic; "you come here to work."
"I worked at school," said I meekly.
"So I hear," said he. "Now go to Mr Evans, and tell him you want a job."
Whereupon my genial guardian quitted me. But he came back a moment after.
"Remember you are to be at the girls' school at 2:30. Tell Miss Bousfield you are the little boy I spoke to her about, and mind you behave yourself up there."
Was ever a young man in such a shameful disgrace?
Three days ago I had imagined myself everybody; two days ago I had at least imagined myself somebody; yesterday I had discovered with pain that I was nobody; and to-day I was destined to wonder if I was even that.
Mr Evans raised his eyebrows when I delivered my message to him.
"Are you the governor's little ward," he inquired, "who's just finished his education? All right, my little man, we'll find a job for you. Run up High Street and bring me the time by the market clock, and here's a halfpenny to buy yourself sweets on the way."
It occurred to me as odd that Mr Evans should want to know the time by a clock which was quite ten minutes' walk from the office. Still, perhaps he had to set the office clocks by it, so I set off, wondering whether I ought to take the halfpenny, but taking it all the same.
I decided that the dignified course would be to buy the sweets, but to take them all back to him, so as to impress him with the fact that I was not as devoted to juvenile creature comforts as he evidently thought me.
"Is that all you have left?" said he, when, after accomplishing my errand, I presented them to him. "My eye! you've made good use of your time, and no mistake."
"I've not eaten a single one," said I.
"It would have been better for your digestion if you had only eaten a single one, instead of swallowing half the lot. I know the ways of you boys. Well, what's the time?"
"It was twenty-five past ten."
"I didn't ask you what it was—I want to know what it is."
It then occurred to me for the first time that Mr Evans was a humourist. It seemed to me a feeble joke, but he evidently thought it a good one, as did also the other clerks to whom he communicated it.
The worst of it was that the more I tried to explain that, not having a watch of my own, I could not answer for the time by the market clock at any moment but that at which I saw it, the more they seemed to be amused. Some suggested I should go back with a bag and bring the time in it. Others, that I should put it on ten minutes, and then come back, so as to arrive at the exact moment it was when I left it. Others were of opinion that the best way would be for me to go and fetch the market clock with me.
Mr Evans, however, decided that my talents were not equal to the task of bringing the time in any shape or form, and that the best thing I could do was to sit down and lick up envelopes. Which I accordingly did, feeling rather small. I cut my tongue and spoiled my appetite over the operation, and was heartily glad when, after a couple of hours, Mr Evans said—
"Master Tommy, we're going to lunch. You've had yours, so you can stop here, and keep shop till we return."
"I have to go to Miss Bousfield's at 2:30," said I.
"To go where?" they all inquired. And as I blushed very red, and tried to explain myself away, they made a great deal out of my unlucky admission.
"You're young for that sort of thing," said one. "I didn't go courting myself before I was fifteen."
"I'd made up my mind Sarah Bousfield was going to be an old maid," said another. "Heigho! it's never too late to mend."
"I hear she keeps sugar-plums for good little girls," said another.
"And the bad little ones get whipped and put in the corner."
"He mustn't go like that, anyhow," said Mr Evans, who, for a responsible head clerk of a big business, was the most flippant person I had ever met; "look at his hair—all out of curl! Come here, little girl, and be made tidy."
Once at Hummer's I had come in second for the half-mile under fourteen, and been captain of my side in the junior tug of war! Now I was to have my hair curled publicly!
It was no use resisting. I was held fast while Evans with a long penholder made ringlets of my back hair, and Scroop, with his five fingers, made a fringe of my front. My hat, moreover, was decorated with quills by way of feathers, and a fan made of blotting-paper was thrust into my hands. Then I was pronounced to be nice and tidy, and fit to go and join the other little girls.
I fear that the energy with which, as soon as I was released, I deranged my locks and flung the feathers from my hat, amused my persecutors as much as it solaced me. I was conscious of their hilarious greetings as I strolled up the street, trying to walk in a straight masculine way, but hideously conscious of blushing cheeks and nervous gait. I so far forgot myself that, in my eagerness to display my male superiority, I jostled against a lady, and disgraced myself by swaggering on without even apologising for my rudeness—when, to my consternation, the lady uttered my name, "Tommy."
It was my mother! I was still within sight of the office. How Evans and his lot would make merry over this contretemps! They wouldn't know who it was who was putting her hand on my shoulder. And yet I am glad to say that I was spared that day the disgrace of being ashamed of my own dear mother. Let the fellows think what they liked. If they had mothers like mine they wouldn't be the cads they were!
So, with almost unnecessary pomp, I raised my hat to my parent, and put my hand in her arm.
"You're going up to Miss Bousfield's," said she; "I thought I should meet you. What a hurry you were in!"
"Yes; I'm sorry I knocked against you, mother."
"I'm glad you did. I'm longing to hear how you got on to-day."
"Oh, pretty well."
"Was it very hard work?"
"You'll soon be quite a man of business."
It occurred to me that if my business career was to be based on no better experience than that I had hitherto had in my guardian's office, I should not rank as a merchant prince in a hurry.
"Would you like me to go with you to Miss Bousfield's?"
"If you like, mother. But I can go alone all right." She was a brick. She guessed what I hoped she would say, and she said it.
"Well, I'll be looking out for you at tea-time, dear boy," said she. And she patted my arm lovingly as I started on.
I wished those fellows could have heard her voice and seen her kind face. She treated me like a man—which was more than could be said for them.
I went on my way soothed in my ruffled spirits. But my perturbation revived when I stood on the doorstep of the Girls' High School, and rang the head mistress's bell. It was a bitter pill, I can tell you, for a fellow who had once been caned by Plummer for practising on the horizontal bar without the mattress underneath to fall on.
Miss Bousfield was a shrewd, not disagreeable-looking little body, who saved me all the trouble of self-introduction by knowing who I was and why I came.
"Well, Jones," said she—I liked that, I had dreaded she would call me Tommy—"here you are. How is your mother? Why, what a state your hair is in! I really think you'd like to go into the cloak room; you'll find a brush and comb there. It looks as if your hair were standing on end with horror at me, you know."
Little she knew what my hair was on end about. I was almost grateful to her for the way she put it, and meekly retired to the cloak room, where—I confess it—with a long-tailed girl's comb, and a soft brush, and a big looking-glass, I contrived to restore my truant locks to their former masculine order.
When I returned to the room. Miss Bousfield was sitting at a table, at which was also seated a young lady of about twenty, with an exercise book and dictionary in front of her.
Was it a trap? Was I to be taught along with the girls after all? Miss Bousfield evidently divined my perturbation and hastened to explain.
"Miss Steele, this is Master Jones, who is going to read Latin with us. Miss Steele is one of my teachers, Jones, and we three are going to brush up our classics together, you see."
Oh, all right. That wasn't so bad. I had no objection to assist Miss Steele, or Miss Bousfield, for the matter of that, in brushing-up their classics, as long as the girls at large were kept out of the way.
I acknowledged Miss Steele's greeting in a patronising way, and then looked about for a chair. I wished Mr Evans and his lot could see how far removed I was from the common schoolgirl; here were two females actually going to pick my brains for their own good. If women must learn Latin at all, they could hardly do better than secure a public schoolboy to brush them up.
"Now, let us see," said Miss Bousfield, "how far we have all got. Miss Steele, you have read some Cicero, I know, already."
Cicero! That girl read Cicero, when I had barely begun Caesar! This was a crusher for me. How about the brushing-up now?
"And you, Jones, have you begun Cicero yet?"
"Well, no," I said, "not yet."
"Caesar, then; I think we shall both be ready to take that up again. How far were you—or shall we begin at the beginning?"
"Better begin at the beginning," said I, anxious not to have to confess that I had not yet got through the first chapter.
But before we had gone many lines, Miss Bousfield, I could see, began to have her doubts about my syntax; and after a little conference about syntax, the question of verbs came up, unpleasantly for me; and after deciding we had a little brushing-up to do there, the conversation turned on declensions, a subject on which I had very little definite information to afford to these two females in distress.
I verily believe we should have come to exchanging views on the indefinite article itself, had not Miss Bousfield taken the bull by the horns, and said—
"I think the best thing, Jones, will be for us to assume we know nothing, to begin with, and start at the beginning. We shall easily get over the ground then, and it will be all the better to be sure of our footing. Let us take Exercise 1. in the grammar."
Miss Steele pouted a little, as if to indicate it was hardly worth her while, as a reader of Cicero, to waste her time over "a high tree," "a bad boy," "a beautiful table," and so on. But I felt sure the exercise would do her good, and was glad Miss Bousfield set her to it.
She irritated me by having it all written down in a twinkling, and going on with Cicero on her own account, while I plodded on up the "high tree" and around the "beautiful table." I hoped Miss Bousfield would rebuke her for insubordination, but she did not, and I began to think much less of both ladies as the afternoon went on.
It did not add to my satisfaction to get my exercise back with fifteen corrections scored across it in bold red pencil—whereas Miss Steele's was not even looked at.
I thought of suggesting that it would be only fair that she and I should be treated alike, when Miss Bousfield capped all by saying to her governess—
"Perhaps, Miss Steele, you will go through the exercise with Jones and show him where he has gone wrong. Then he can write it out again for you, and try not to have any mistake this time."
This was really too much! To be passed on to a girl who was learning Latin herself, and for her to score about my exercises! It was a conspiracy to degrade me in the eyes of myself and my fellow-mortals.
But protest was rendered impossible by Miss Bousfield quitting the room and leaving me to the mercies of her deputy.
"Why," said Miss Steele, not at all unkindly, but with a touch of raillery in her voice—"why were you such a goose, Jones, as to pretend you knew what you didn't?"
"I didn't; I forgot, that's all," said I.
"Well, look here, Jones," said she, in a friendly way—and, by the way, she was not at all bad-looking—"if you really want to get up Latin, and mean to work, I'll do my best to coach you; but if you're only playing at learning, I've something better to do."
"I'm not playing," said I. "I don't know why I've got to come and learn Latin at all."
"I suppose you are going to a school some day, aren't you?"
"I've been to one, and I've left," said I.
"Left?" said she, with a little laugh.
"Well, then, I was expelled," said I.
"Tell me all about it."
And I did, and found her not only interested and sympathetic, but decidedly indignant on my account.
"It was a great shame," said she, "especially as your friend never shot the dog at all."
"He's all right, lucky chap," said I; "he's got an exhibition to Low Heath, and is going there after the holidays."
"Why don't you get an exhibition too, Jones?"
The question astounded me. I get an exhibition! I who had been licked once a week for bad copies, and had been told by every teacher I had had anything to do with that I was a hopeless dunce.
"Why not?" said the siren at my side. "You're not a dunce. I can tell that by the way you picked up some of the Caesar just now. You're lazy, that's all. That's easily cured."
"But I'd have no chance at Low Heath. Tempest was a dab at lessons."
"He's older than you. Besides, the junior exhibitions are not as hard to get. When will you be fourteen?"
"July next year."
"Just twelve months. Why not try, Jones? I'll back you up. I've coached my young brother, and he got into Rugby. You needn't tell any one—so if you miss nobody will be any the wiser. It will make all the difference to have an exam, to aim at."
I stared in wonder at Miss Steele. That young woman could have twisted me round her finger.
"I'll try," said I.
"Not unless you mean to work like a horse," said she.
"All serene," said I; "honour bright."
"Then it's a bargain. Mark my word, we'll pull through."
Whereat we fell hammer and tongs on Exercise Number 1. of the grammar.
A "COACH" DRIVE!
If any one had told me two days ago that it would be reserved to an assistant teacher in a girls' school to inspire me with an ardent interest in Latin and arithmetic I should have laughed him to scorn.
Miss Steele, however, succeeded in achieving the impossible. I am bound to confess that my new-born ardour was not mainly due to affection for the dead language in question, or even to esteem for my preceptress. But the idea of taking Low Heath, so to speak, by storm, had fairly roused my ambition. The glory of rising superior to my fate, of shaking off the ill-tutored Mr Evans and his works, and rejoining my old school-comrade with all the prestige of a fellow-exhibitioner, captivated my imagination and steeled me to the endurance of hardships of which I had hitherto conceived myself utterly incapable.
Miss Steele had no notion of letting me off my bargain. She procured particulars of the examinations, and very formidable appeared the list of subjects as we conned them. Still she was firm in her belief that I could do it if I only worked, and since her eagerness fully equalled my own, there was not much chance of my work dropping slack.
If any other incentive was wanted it was the supreme discomfort of my position at my guardian's office.
My comrades there persistently misunderstood me.
They put me down as an opiniated young prig, with whom all sorts of liberties might be taken, and out of whom it was lawful, for their own amusement, to take unlimited "rise."
I was, of course, unmercifully chaffed about the girls' school.
"He's getting on," said one of them, on the very morning after my debut. "They walk out together."
"That was not Miss Bousfield you saw me with at all," I explained. "That was my mother."
"Quite time she came to look after you, too. How did she like your curls? You should put them in papers overnight, then we shouldn't have to do them every day."
Where upon I was seized, and had my locks tied up in wads of blotting- paper, and ordered to sit down and lick envelopes, and not dare to put my hand to my head till leave was accorded me from headquarters.
In this plight my guardian came in and discovered me.
"Please, Mr Girdler—" said I, not waiting for him to remark on my curious appearance.
But Mr Girdler, who was not ordinarily given to mirth, abruptly left the room with a smile on his face before I could proceed.
When he re-entered he was stern and severe.
"Make yourself decent at once, sir," said he. "No, I don't want any of your explanations. No doubt they are highly satisfactory. I begin to understand now why you were sent away from school. It strikes me an idiot asylum is the proper place for you."
I dismally tore my curl-papers out of my hair and went on with my work till the blessed hour of release came.
Then I hied straight to the nearest barber.
"I want my hair as short as you can cut it," said I.
"Very good, sir; we can give you the county crop, if you like."
"Is that the shortest you do?" inquired I, not knowing what the "county crop" was.
"Well, sir, we ain't asked to take more off as a rule, unless it is a clean shave you want."
"No, the county crop will do," said I.
And, to do the barber justice, I got it. I barely knew myself in the glass when the operation was over. I had some misgivings as to the remarks of Evans & Company in the morning—at any rate, they wouldn't curl my hair any more.
Miss Bousfield and Miss Steele regarded me with something like dismay when they saw me, but were polite enough to make no remark beyond giving me permission to wear my hat if I felt a draught.
"Miss Steele has been telling me of your plan of work," said Miss Bousfield; "and I fully approve, on the understanding you are serious about it. I am not so sanguine as Miss Steele is; still, I do not wish to discourage you, Jones. But understand, it means a year's hard work."
I assured her I was prepared for any amount of work, and Miss Steele, whose ambition was as keenly aroused as mine, gave a general promise on my behalf that I would work like a horse.
"Now," said she, when Miss Bousfield had left us, "you're in for it, Jones. If you don't work, mind, it will be a disgrace to me as well as you."
I fear, during the months that followed, this ardent young "coach" was frequently on the point of disgrace. For a week or two I surprised myself with my industry. Then I caught myself wondering at odd times whether I was really as sure of passing as I fancied, and whether, if I failed, it would not be a horrible sell to have worked so hard for nothing.
Then for a day or so I came in a little late, and took to grumbling over my tasks.
"Now, look here, Jones," said she, one day, "you were five minutes late on Monday, ten minutes late on Tuesday and Wednesday, and a quarter of an hour late to-day. How much is that in the week?"
"Forty minutes," said I; mental arithmetic was a strong point with me.
"Very good; there's forty minutes lost. The examination may turn on the very lesson you might have learned in that time. Now, I'm not going to threaten you, but what should you say if I were to call at the office and fetch you every day?"
I nearly jumped out of my chair.
"Oh, don't, please don't, Miss Steele!" said I. "I'll be here to the second, in future, I promise."
"All right," said she, with a smile, and the subject dropped.
This dreadful threat kept me up to the mark for the next few weeks, but even it lost its terrors in time, and my preceptress had to apply the spur in other ways as the time went on.
Once, after I had been particularly slack, and had, moreover, been so rude to her that she ended the lesson abruptly, I thought it was all up. For, when I presented myself next day, I was informed by the servant that Miss Steele was busy, and had no time to see me.
I was locked out! My dismay knew no bounds. Suppose she had "chucked" me altogether, what would become of my chance of getting into Low Heath?
I retired home in great perturbation, and confided the state of the case to my mother, who advised me there and then to sit down and write an apology.
I had never done such a thing in my life. Once I had verbally begged Tempest's pardon for some error; but to commit myself in writing to a girl!
"My dear Miss Steele," I wrote,—"I'm sorry. Yours truly, T. Jones."
"That will do very well," said my mother. "It's not too long, at the same time it says what you want to say."
I wasn't altogether pleased with it myself, but allowed the maid to take it up to the school, with instructions to wait for an answer.
In due time she returned with a missive from Miss Steele.
"My dear Jones,—To-morrow as usual. Yours truly, M. Steele."
I am sure no model letter-writer ever said as much in as few words.
This little correspondence cleared the air for the time. No reference was made to it when I turned up as usual the next day; but from the way I worked, and the way she taught, it was evident we had both had a shake.
My next relapse was even more serious. It came early in the spring, after our work had proceeded for about nine months.
I really had made good progress all round. Not in Latin only, but in Greek grammar, arithmetic, and English, and was naturally inclined to feel a little cocky of the result.
"Don't crow, Jones," she said; "you've a lot to do yet."
But I did not altogether agree with her, and was inclined to indulge myself a little of an evening when I was supposed to be preparing my work. In an evil day I fell across an old book-shop, and found two books, which helped to undo me. One was a rollicking story of a pirate who swept the Western Main, and captured treasure, and seized youths and maidens, and ran blockades, and was finally brought to book in a sportsmanlike manner by a jolly young English middy, amid scenes of terrific slaughter amidships. That was one purchase. The other was even more disturbing. It was a "crib" to the arithmetic I was doing, with all the sums beautifully worked out and the answers given.
So—I must make the confession—I astonished Miss Steele greatly for a while by my extraordinary proficiency in arithmetic, and during the same time spent my evenings in imagination on the high seas, flying aloft the black flag, and shooting across the bows of Her Majesty's ships wherever I sighted them.
This career of duplicity could not be expected to last long. One afternoon Miss Steele brought matters to a crisis by calling upon me to work a sum on the spot which was not in the book.
I failed egregiously.
"That's singular," said she; "it's far simpler than those you brought with you to-day. How long did it take you to do them?"
I looked hard at Miss Steele, and she looked hard at me. The pirate game was up at last.
"About two minutes each," said I.
"Yes—as fast as I could copy them out of the crib. I'm sorry, Miss Steele."
She shut up her book abruptly.
"I didn't expect it of you, Jones," said she; "you've been making a fool of me. I've lost confidence in you; now you can go."
"Oh, I say. Miss Steele, I'm so awfully—"
"Be quiet, sir, and go!" said she, more fiercely than I had ever known her.
I took up my cap and went. She was in no humour to listen to explanations, but it was clear I had done for myself now. After what had happened she was not likely to give me another chance.
I did not care to tell my mother how matters stood this time. It would be difficult to put my case in a favourable light, and I was quite sure my mother could not help me out of my difficulty.
I solemnly burned my crib that night in the parlour fire, after every one was in bed. It took ages to consume, and nearly set the chimney on fire in the operation. But when that was done I was as far off a solution of my difficulty as ever.
I hardly slept a wink, and in the morning my mother added to my discomfort by remarking on my looks.
"You're working too hard, dear boy," said she. "I must ask Miss Steele to give you a little holiday, or you'll be quite knocked up."
"Please don't," said I. "I'm all right."
Here the postman's knock caused a diversion.
"A letter for you, Tommy," said my mother.
It was from Tempest, of all people—the first he had condescended to write me since we had parted company in Plummer's hall nearly a year ago.
It was a rambling, patronising effusion, in his usual style; but every word of it, in my present plight, had a sting for me.
"It's a pity you're not here," wrote he; "it's a ripping place. Everything about the place is ripping except the drilling master and the dumplings on Mondays, which are both as vile as vile can be. I'm in the upper fifth, and shall probably get my ribbon and perhaps my house after summer. Plummer's was regular tomfooling to this. We've a match on with Rugby this term, and I'm on the reserve for the Eleven. I suppose you know young Brown is coming here; though I'm sorry to say as a day boy. His people are going to live in the town, so he'll be able to come on the cheap. I shall do what I can for him, but I expect he'll have a hot time, for the day boys are rather small beer. The exhibitioners have the best time of it. If Brown could get a junior exhibition and live in school, he could fag for me and have a jolly time. But poor Dicky hasn't got it in him. I got rather lammed after I got home from Plummer's; but it was all right when Plummer wrote to say that a burglar had shot the dog, and he was sorry there had been a mistake, and hoped I'd go back. Catch me! It's better fun here—as much cricket as you like, and a river, and gymnasium, and all sorts of sprees. It wouldn't be half bad if you were here, kid; but I suppose you're a young gent with a topper and a bag at your guardian's office. I hope it suits you—wouldn't me—" and so on.
How this letter made me long to be at Low Heath, and how it made me realise what an ass I had been to go in for that crib! I really felt too bad to go that day to Miss Steele, even if she would have let me! and wandered about cudgelling my brains how on earth I could get her to take me back again.
She wouldn't believe my protestations, I knew; but she might believe deeds, not words.
So I shut myself up in my room and took down my arithmetic, and worked out sum after sum all off my own bat, till my brain reeled and I could hardly distinguish one figure from another. Some I knew were wrong, others I hoped were right; all were bona fide. I stuck to it till nearly midnight, and then, merely writing my name on the top, put them into an envelope, under the flap of which I wrote, "I've burnt the crib. Try me this once," and posted them to my offended teacher.
No answer came for twenty-four hours, which I spent on pins and needles, working away frantically during my leisure hours, and occupying part of my business time in personally avenging an insult offered to Miss Steele's name by one of my guardian's junior clerks. I wished she could have seen me. I got a terrible blow on the eye, but I gave him two, and caused him to regret audibly that he had spoken disparagingly of my cruel fair.
Next morning a note came to my mother.
"Please tell your boy I shall be in this afternoon."
In fear and trembling I presented myself, and confronted not Miss Steele but Miss Bousfield, who addressed me in terse and forcible language, and gave me to understand that I was a person of extremely second-rate character and attainments. I acknowledged it, but hoped for an opportunity of improving her impressions.
"I shall leave it to Miss Steele to do as she thinks best," said the head mistress. "I am sorry indeed her time has been wasted over a worthless pupil. You had better wait till she comes."
I waited grimly, like a culprit for the jury. When she came in and saw, as I suppose, my woebegone face, I read hope in her manner.
"I got your note, Jones," said she.
"Oh! I say, Miss Steele, I'm really frightfully sorry. I know it was a caddish thing to do, especially when you had been so kind. Look here, I did all those sums myself, without help; and here's another batch I've done since; and—and—" (here I resolved to play a trump card) "and I got this black eye sticking up for you."
That settled it. She smiled once more and said, "Well, Jones, I'll say no more about it this once. I had made up my mind it was no use our going on together; but I'll try, if you will."
"Try—I'll kill myself working," said I, "to make up."
"That wouldn't do much good," said she; "but I'll try to forget all this ever happened, and we'll go on just where we left off."
"That was page 72," said I eagerly; "and, I say, Miss Steele, you remember my telling you about Tempest, and Dicky Brown, you know; well—"
"Is that on page 72, or is it something which we can talk about when work is done?"
So I got my chance once again, and this time I stuck to it.
The nearer the time came, the more desperately we worked. Sometimes Miss Steele had positively to hunt me out for a walk, or, if I would not go alone, to drag me along with her to some place where, regardless of our possible detection by Evans and his friends, we could combine fresh air and education.
The fatal day came at last when I had to go off to my ordeal. I was obliged at the last moment to disclose my well-kept secret to my mother and my guardian. The former fell on my neck, the latter grunted incredulously and embarrassed me by presenting me with a five-shilling piece.
Miss Steele came down to see me off at the station. "Keep cool," said she; "sit where you can see the clock, and don't try to answer two questions at once."
Never did tyro get better advice!
I was too excited to heed much of the big stately building I was so eager some day to claim as my own school. It was holiday time, and only a little band of combatants like myself huddled into one corner of the big hall, and gazed up in an awestruck way at the portrait of the Jacobean knight to whom Low Heath owed its foundation.
To me it was all like a dream. I woke to discover a paper on the desk before me; a paper bristling with questions, each of them challenging me to get into the school if I could. Then I remember dashing my pen into the ink and beginning to write.
"Keep cool. Keep your eye on the clock. Try one question at a time," echoed a voice in my ear.
How lonely I felt there all by myself! How I wished I could turn and see her at my side!
The clock crawled round from eleven to three, and I went on writing. Then I remember a hand coming along the desk and taking the papers out of my sight. Then a bewildered train journey home, and a hundred questions at the other end.
I went on dreaming for a week, conscious sometimes of my mother's face, sometimes of Miss Steele's, sometimes of Mr Evans's. But what I did with myself in the interval I should be sorry to be called upon to tell.
At last, one morning, I woke with a vengeance, as I held in my hand a paper on which were printed a score or so of names, third among which I made out the words—
"Jones, T.—(Miss M. Steele, High School, Fallowfield): Exhibition, L40."
So I was a Low Heathen at last!
UP TO FORM.
I have reason to fear that for a fortnight after I received the astounding news of my scholastic success I was an intolerable nuisance to my friends and a ridiculous spectacle to my enemies.
I may have had some excuse. I had worked hard, and got myself into a "tilted" state of mind altogether. Still, that was no reason why I should consider that the whole world was standing still to look on at my triumph; still less why I should patronise my mother and Miss Steele and Miss Bousfield as three well-intentioned persons who had just had an object-lesson in the inferiority of their sex.
My mother and Miss Steele were too delighted to mind my airs. They were really proud—one to be my mother, the other to be my "coach." And when I strutted in and talked as if they barely knew how honoured they were by my company, they laughed good-humouredly, and said to one another,—
"No wonder he's pleased with himself, dear boy."
Miss Bousfield was less disposed to bow the knee.
"I hope you won't forget what you owe to Miss Steele," said she. "I never hoped she could make as much as she did of such unpromising material. It's what I always have said—good teaching can make a scholar of a dunce."
"Ah," said I, "you thought I was a dunce. I determined you should see I wasn't. I am glad your school gets the credit of the exhibition."
"I'll wait and see how you turn out, before I am glad," said she. "I hope the High School will not get a reputation for turning out prigs, Jones."
I couldn't quite understand Miss Bousfield. She was not as cordial as I thought she might be, considering the honour I had brought upon her school.
My guardian's clerks were even less impressed by my distinction than she.
"What's the matter this morning?" said Mr Evans on the day of my triumph, as I sat smiling inwardly at my desk.
"Nothing particular," said I.
"It looks as if it was bad stomach-ache—I'd try camomile pills, if I were you."
"Thank you—I don't require pills. If you want to know, I've been up for an exam, and passed."
"Been up where?"
"Up for an exam.—an examination," said I, surprised at their density.
"Where, at the girls' school?"
"Girls' school, no; at Low Heath." Mr Evans looked grave, and beckoned his comrades a little nearer.
"Awfully sad, isn't it?" said he, with a seriousness which surprised me.
"Yes. It's a good institution, though. My uncle tried to get a case in there once, but failed." I wasn't surprised to hear that.
"They only let the very dotty ones in," said Mr Evans. "Besides, it'll be a part payment case—at least, I should think the governor will plank down something."