First experiences at Hopkinson House School. It is amongst the masters that I hope to find spiritual companionship. I do not do so. Apology of Mr Muglington. I am struck by a football. Subsequent apology of Mr Beerthorpe. Degraded habits of my fellow-scholars. A fearful discovery and its sequel. Amazing ineptitude of Mr Lorton. Concerted assault upon my person. I am rescued by my father, who procures a public apology.
Owing to the successive delays imposed by my general ill-health, the assault upon my person by Desmond O'Flaherty, the sudden invasion of the ring-worm, and the cranial nudity wrought by the ointment, it was not until I was nearly fourteen that I was at last able to attend school; and even then it was perhaps doubtful whether my father should have recommended it. For, although by that time my health was somewhat less precarious, the chastening experiences that I had been called upon to endure had naturally lifted me, in almost every aspect, far above the plane of most of my contemporaries. And while it was true, of course, that in Simeon and Silas Whey I should find sympathetic and well-liked comrades, I was so much older, both mentally and spiritually, than such of their acquaintances as I had chanced to meet that it was only amongst the masters that there seemed any reasonable hope of obtaining an equal and appropriate companionship.
It was to this end, therefore, while endeavouring at the same time to place my services at the disposal of my fellow-scholars, that I resolved from the outset to encourage my tutors to perceive in me a staunch and valuable associate. For the first few days this was not of course easy, owing to the natural confusion incident upon a new term, and it was only by the interjection of an occasional informative remark that I was enabled to adumbrate my ultimate purpose.
Thus when our form-master, a Mr Muglington, asked me if I knew the capital of Belgium, I replied that while I had not as yet enjoyed the opportunity of paying the town a personal visit, I had been credibly informed that it was known as Brussels, so indissolubly associated with the well-known brassica.* Though he was a repellent-looking man with a ginger moustache, I had nevertheless accompanied the words with a friendly smile. But he merely stared at me in what I was compelled to recognize as a singularly crude and offensive fashion.
`Let me see,' he said, `I think your name is Carp.'
`Augustus Carp,' I replied, `of Angela Gardens.'
`Then kindly remember,' he said, `to confine yourself in future to the information asked for and nothing else.'
It was, of course, the speech of a peculiarly narrow-minded and vindictive man, fortuitously thrust into a position of authority that had evidently nourished his worst propensities. But I had not as yet realized how deplorably typical he was of the class to which he belonged, and it was a considerable time before I could restrain the sobs that his infamous words had provoked. Nor did he fail to take a further and dastardly advantage of my emotion.
`Perhaps,' he observed, with a malignant sneer, `when you've quite finished chewing the cud, you'd be so kind as to oblige us by enumerating the principal exports of Finland.'
Afterwards, I am glad to say, thanks to the instant and imperative demand of my father, he was obliged to apologize to me both in my father's presence and in that of the head master, Mr Septimus Lorton. But it was not an apology, as I discerned at once, founded on any real and heart-felt contrition, and although I assured him that, so far as I was concerned, he might consider the incident closed, it was perfectly apparent to me that I could never in the future admit him to the privileges of friendship.
Nor was I destined to receive a more satisfying response from the next advance that it seemed my duty to make. Excused on moral grounds from the study of French by a special stipulation of my father, I was permitted instead to take extra lessons in German from a Mr Beerthorpe. A stoutly-built man with extremely short sight, corrected by lenses of exceptional thickness, I was at first attracted to this person by an expression of what I soon discovered was a spurious amiability. I was also distressed to find him almost universally alluded to by the first syllable of his name only, to which the letter y, not originally present in it, had been appended by way of suffix.
Whether or not he was aware of this I did not, of course, know, but both as an act of kindness and injustice to myself, I felt it incumbent on me to seek the earliest chance of dissociating myself from such a practice. I accordingly took the opportunity one day, when he was acting as arbitrator in a game of football in the playground, of approaching him and touching him on the elbow and suggesting that I should like to have a few words with him.
`Eh, what?' he said. `Foul,' and he then blew a blast, I remember, on a small whistle. Taken unawares, I could not refrain from shuddering a little, and instinctively put my hands to my ears.
`Well, what is it?' he asked. `What's the matter?'
`Perhaps we might withdraw,' I replied, `to some quieter place.'
`But what's the trouble?' he said. `Look out,' and he abruptly leapt back to avoid the oncoming football. Not so fortunate, and left entirely unprotected by Mr Beerthorpe's sudden retreat, I received the full impact of the hurtling projectile upon the upper part of my neck and my left ear, and for some moments I was entirely unable to proceed with the conversation. Indeed had the missile been of the egg-shaped variety frequently employed, I understand, in the same barbarous pursuit, the blow might well have had the most serious, if not fatal, consequences. Nor could I help feeling a trifle disheartened to perceive, when I had regained my powers of speech, that Mr Beerthorpe was still callously blowing his whistle in a remote corner of the playground. Under such circumstances many another lad would have been deflected from his purpose. But in spite of what followed, I have always been glad to remember that I did not allow myself to be deterred. Approaching him a second time, I again touched his elbow.
`Good God,' he said, `are you still there?'
Naturally flinching a little at the expletive, I reminded him that I had still something to communicate.
`Oh, all right,' he said. `Come along then.'
He handed his instrument to a neighbouring boy.
`Well, what is it?' he asked.
We entered an empty schoolroom.
`Perhaps I may first,' I said, `ask you to accept this.'
It was a box of chocolates weighing half a pound and tastefully adorned with a lemon-coloured ribbon.
`It is merely a token,' I proceeded, `albeit I hope an acceptable one, of a desire to inaugurate friendly relations.'
For a moment he stared at it with his mouth open and then made a rasping noise in the back of his throat.
`But look here,' he said, `you don't mean to tell me that you've interrupted a game of football just to bring me in here and give me half a pound of chocolates?'
`Not wholly,' I said, `nor even principally, though I am naturally a little wounded by your tone of voice. But I also desired to inform you that you were the subject of a prevalent indignity from which personally I have strongly dissented.'
`Good God!' he said. `What on earth do you mean?'
After flinching a second time, I lowered my voice a little.
`I thought you ought to know,' I said, `that you are very generally referred to - I trust without foundation - as Beery.'
For perhaps twelve, or it might have been thirteen, seconds, the silence was only broken by the cries of the footballers. But I observed that his cheeks were suffused with blood and his myopic eyes beginning to bulge. It was a repulsive sight, and then, like Mr Muglington, he stood revealed in his true character. No less intoxicated than the former with the petty authority conferred by his position, his general conduct, as well as his verbiage, was even coarser and more debased.
`Look here,' he said, `young What's-your-name, I don't know your name, and I don't want to. But if I have any more of your insolence I shall report you to the headmaster. And now you can clear out and take your chocolates with you.'
Stung to the quick, and with the tears running down my cheeks, I nevertheless held up my hand.
`One moment,' I said. `You have misapprehended me, and it was perhaps foolish of me to have supposed that it could have been otherwise. But I must clearly point out to you, both for my own sake and that of the school to which we both belong, that it will be rather I who shall be obliged to report you for the language that I have listened to this day.'
Florid to an extreme that I have seldom seen equalled, he opened his mouth once or twice in silence. Then he wiped his forehead with the back of his hand.
`I had rather flattered myself,' he said, `on my temperance.'
`On the contrary,' I said, `I am obliged to remind you that you have twice openly invoked the Deity.'
`Good God!' he gasped.
I opened the door for him.
`That makes the third time,' I said. `You will hear more of this.'
I had preserved my self-control, but it was only with an effort that left me pitiably weak and wretched and induced a gastritis that robbed me of several minutes' sleep as well as of most of my evening meal. Thanks, however, to a second and even more trenchant interview between my father and Mr Lorton, during which it transpired that Mr Beerthorpe was the father of five unfortunate children, he, too, was obliged to apologize to me and give me an undertaking to restrain his blasphemy. But, as my father agreed, it was an apology obviously given with the utmost reluctance and affording no hope of the happier communion to which I had at one time looked forward.
Meanwhile I had not neglected my fellow-students, unattractive to me as most of them were, and more than once had I offered my spiritual services to an inexperienced or erring classmate. That these had been fruitless I am not prepared to say. But it was perhaps not surprising, considering the standard of the masters, that the general moral status of their pupils should have left almost everything to be desired. Such a rule, for example, as that forbidding the ingestion of sweetmeats during the hours set apart for study was daily infringed, not only by the younger boys, but by many far older than myself. Exhibitions, too, of personal violence were only too common in the playground, and I had even heard boys, presumably the sons of gentlemen, making use of the word damn.*
It was not until nearly half-term, however, under the eyes of Mr Lorton, and in the most sacred hour of the scholastic week, that I suddenly became conscious of the existence of an evil that for a moment completely paralysed me. Himself an organizer rather than a scholar, a proprietor rather than a professor, Mr Lorton confined himself, in respect of actual teaching, to the exposition of the Holy Scriptures. For this purpose he visited each class once a week in rotation, the textbook employed being the Lorton Bible for Schools, published by his brother, Mr Chrysostom Lorton. We had been studying, I remember, the Second Book of Kings, and considering the evil reign of Pekahiah, when Mr Lorton suddenly asked the head boy of the form if he could tell him the name of his successor.
This was, of course, Pekah, the son of Remaliah, with whom I had been familiar for several years. But unfortunately my position in the centre of the class forbade my giving an immediate answer. Nevertheless, I perceived, as boy after boy mutely revealed the depths of his ignorance, that I had probably been destined by the grace of Providence to become the means of their enlightenment. What was my horror, then, on this beautiful autumn day, with the November sunlight slanting through the window, to observe Harold Harper, the boy on my left, and Henry Hancock, the boy on my right, each studying the Second Book of Kings under the shelter conferred by his desk. Objectionable lads as I knew them both to be, I had never dreamed them to have been capable of this, and when Henry Hancock rose in his place and without a tremor said, `Pekah, son of Remaliah,' it was as though each syllable had been a knife deeply plunged into my very vitals. Pale with wrath I rose to my feet.
`Sir,' I cried, `Henry Hancock was deceiving you. He read his answer from the open Scripture.'
There was a deathly pause.
`And not only that,' I said, `but Harold Harper was prepared to do the same.'
Mr Lorton removed his eye-glasses.
`Flancock and Harper,' he said, `stand up.'
They did so, but with marked reluctance.
`Flancock and Harper,' he said, `is this true?'
They were silent. But their faces betrayed them, as did Harper's Bible, that slipped to the floor.
`Hancock and Harper,' said Mr Lorton, `I am ashamed of you. You must each write me out fifty lines.'
`But, sir,' I cried, `in justice to myself, who knew the correct answer without committing sacrilege, nay, injustice to my fellow-scholars, to say nothing of Holy Writ, surely these lads must be subjected to some less trivial and severer penalty.'
Mr Lorton readjusted his glasses. Then he removed them again and began to wipe them.
`Hanper and Harcock,' he said, `I mean Harcock and Hanper, as Carp has reminded you, you have sinned very grievously. But I hope - er - this publicity, this publicity, I say, will not be lacking in its due effect upon you.'
`But, sir,' I cried, `these are mere words.'
`They are very serious ones,' he said, `very serious ones. Also, as I said, you will each write me fifty lines. And now perhaps Smith Major can tell us who Argob was.'
Petrified by the levity with which the very owner of the school was able to endure so shattering an exposure, I remained standing for several seconds, wholly unable to utter a syllable. And when I sank at last, stunned and unsupported, into the seat from which I had so lately risen, it was as though my boyhood (and indeed this was actually the case) had been finally snatched from me for ever. Nor was this the end. For, when we emerged into the playground, I found myself surrounded by an opprobrious mob, evidently suborned by Harper and Hancock for the purposes of physical assault and battery. Thrust from one to the other, my collar was disarranged, I was several times smitten upon the face, and it was only by the exercise of my utmost lung-power that I succeeded in attracting adult attention. Indeed I am almost certain that I observed Mr Muglington and Mr Beerthorpe lurking supine behind a curtain, and it was by no less a person than my own father that I was ultimately removed from danger.
Collecting an account a couple of streets away, he had instantly recognized my screams, and, abandoning everything, had rushed to my aid just as Mr Lorton hurried into the playground. But my father was first, and never shall I forget the stentorian thunder of his tones. Seizing in each hand one of my lesser persecutors, he shook them like thistles before the wind, while time after time, breaking into his highest falsetto, he overtopped even my most piercing note. Colourless and stricken, a little group of masters stood huddled against the wall of the house, while an ever-growing stream of neighbours and local tradesmen began to throng every inch of the asphalt. Then, with a final and supreme imprecation, he flung the two ruffians into the midst of their fellows, and clasping me to his bosom, clove his way through the now vociferously applauding multitude. It was perhaps the greatest moment of his career, but like myself he had to pay the penalty of it, and for the following two weeks we were confined in adjacent bedrooms, while my mother had to wait upon us night and day. Afterwards, shaken as he was, he had a third interview with Mr Lorton, insisting upon and obtaining a public apology as the only alternative to legal proceedings.