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The Unclassed (Chapter8)

2006-08-22 22:38

  Chapter VIII. Academical

  The school in which Osmond Waymark taught was situated in “a pleasant suburb of southern London” (Brixton, to wit); had its “spacious playground and gymnasium” (the former a tolerable back-yard, the latter a disused coach-house); and, as to educational features, offered, at the choice of parents and guardians, either the solid foundation desirable for those youths predestined to a commercial career, or the more liberal training adapted to minds of a professional bias. Anything further in the way of information was to be obtained by applying to the headmaster, Dr. Tootle.

  At present the number of resident pupils was something under forty. The marvel was how so many could be accommodated in so small a house. Two fair-sized bedrooms, and a garret in which the servants could not be persuaded to sleep, served as dormitories for the whole school; the younger children sleeping two together.

  Waymark did not reside on the premises. For a stipulated sum of thirteen pounds per quarter he taught daily from nine till five, with an interval of an hour and a half at dinner-time, when he walked home to Walcot Square for such meal as the state of his exchequer would allow. Waymark occupied a prominent place in Dr. Tootle's prospectus. As Osmond Waymark, B.A.,——the degree was a bona fide one, of London University,——he filled the position of Senior Classical Master; anonymously he figured as a teacher of drawing and lecturer on experimental chemistry. The other two masters, resident, were Mr. O'Gree and Herr Egger; the former, teacher of mathematics, assistant classical master, and professor of gymnastics; the latter, teacher of foreign languages, of music, and of dancing. Dr. Tootle took upon himself the English branches, and, of course, the arduous duty of general superintendence. He was a very tall, thin, cadaverous, bald-headed man. Somehow or other he had the reputation of having, at an earlier stage in his career, grievously over-exerted his brain in literary labour; parents were found, on the whole, ready to accept this fact as an incontestable proof of the doctor's fitness to fill his present office, though it resulted in entire weeks of retreat from the school-room under the excuse of fearful headaches. The only known product of the literary toil which had had such sad results was a very small English Grammar, of course used in the school, and always referred to by the doctor as “my little compendium.”

  Now and then, Waymark sought refuge from the loneliness of his room in a visit to his colleagues at the Academy. The masters' sitting-room was not remarkable for cosiness, even when a fire burnt in the grate and the world of school was for the time shut out. The floor was uncarpeted, the walls illustrated only with a few maps and diagrams. There was a piano, whereon Herr Egger gave his music lessons. Few rooms in existence could have excelled this for draughts; at all times there came beneath the door a current of wind which pierced the legs like a knife; impossible to leave loose papers anywhere with a chance of finding them in the same place two minutes after.

  When Waymark entered this evening, he found his colleagues seated together in silence. Mr. Philip Q'Gree——“fill-up” was his own pronunciation of the name——would have been worse than insignificant in appearance, but for the expression of good-humour and geniality which possessed his irregular features. He was red-headed, and had large red whiskers.

  Herr Egger was a gentleman of very different exterior. Tall, thick, ungainly, with a very heavy, stupid face, coarse hands, outrageous lower extremities. A mass of coal-black hair seemed to weigh down his head. His attire was un-English, and, one might suspect, had been manufactured in some lonely cottage away in the remote Swiss valley which had till lately been the poor fellow's home. Dr. Tootle never kept his foreign masters long. His plan was to get hold of some foreigner without means, and ignorant of English, who would come and teach French or German in return for mere board and lodging; when the man had learnt a little English, and was in a position to demand a salary, he was dismissed, and a new professor obtained. Egger had lately, under the influence of some desperate delusion, come to our hospitable clime in search of his fortune. Of languages he could not be said to know any; his French and his German were of barbarisms all compact; English as yet he could use only in a most primitive manner. He must have been the most unhappy man in all London. Finding himself face to face with large classes of youngsters accustomed to no kind of discipline, in whom every word he uttered merely excited outrageous mirth, he was hourly brought to the very verge of despair. Constitutionally he was lachrymose; tears came from him freely when distress had reached a climax, and the contrast between his unwieldy form and this weakness of demeanour supplied inexhaustible occasion for mirth throughout the school. His hours of freedom were spent in abysmal brooding.

  Waymark entered in good spirits. At the sight of him, Mr. O'Gree started from the fireside, snatched up the poker, brandished it wildly about his head, and burst into vehement exclamations.

  “Ha! ha! you've come in time, sir; you've come in time to hear my resolution. I can't stand ut any longer; I won't stand ut a day longer! Mr. Waymark, you're a witness of the outrageous way in which I'm treated in this academy——the way in which I'm treated both by Dr. Tootle and by Mrs. Tootle. You were witness of his insulting behaviour this very afternoon. He openly takes the side of the boys against me; he ridicules my accent; he treats me as no gentleman can treat another, unless one of them's no gentleman at all! And, Mr. Waymark, I won't stand ut!”

  Mr. O'Gree's accent was very strong indeed, especially in his present mood. Waymark listened with what gravity he could command.

  “You're quite right,” he said in reply. “Tootle's behaviour was especially scandalous to-day. I should certainly take some kind of notice of it.”

  “Notuss, sir, notuss! I'll take that amount of notuss of it that all the metropoluss shall hear of my wrongs. I'll assault 'um, sir; I'll assault 'um in the face of the school,——the very next time he dares to provoke me! I'll rise in my might, and smite his bald crown with his own ruler! I'm not a tall man, Mr. Waymark, but I can reach his crown, and that he shall be aware of before he knows ut. He sets me at naught in my own class, sir; he pooh-poohs my mathematical demonstrations, sir; he encourages my pupils in insubordination! And Mrs. Tootle! Bedad, if I don't invent some device for revenging myself on that supercilious woman. The very next time she presumes to address me disrespectfully at the dinner-table, sir, I'll rise in my might, sir,——see if I don't!——and I'll say to her, 'Mrs. Tootle, ma'am, you seem to forget that I'm a gentleman, and have a gentleman's susceptibilities. When I treat you with disrespect, ma'am, pray tell me of ut, and I'll inform you you speak an untruth!'”

  Waymark smiled, with the result that the expression of furious wrath immediately passed from his colleague's countenance, giving place to a broad grin.

  “Waymark, look here!” exclaimed the Irishman, snatching up a piece of chalk, and proceeding to draw certain outlines upon a black-board. “Here's Tootle, a veritable Goliath;——here's me, as it were David. Observe; Tootle holds in his hand his 'little compendium,' raised in haughty superciliousness. Observe me with the ruler!——I am on tiptoe; I am taking aim; there is wrath in every sinew of my arrum! My arrum descends on the very centre of Tootle's bald pate——”

  “Mr. O'Gree!”

  The tableau was most effective. Unnoticed by either the Irishman or Waymark, the door had opened behind them, and there had appeared a little red-faced woman, in slatternly dress. It was Mrs. Tootle. She had overheard almost the whole of O'Gree's vivid comment upon his graphic illustration, in silence, until at length she could hold her peace no longer, and gave utterance to the teacher's name in a voice which trembled with rage and mortification.

  “Mr. O'Gree! Are you aware of my presence, sir?”

  The chalk dropped from O'Gree's fingers, but otherwise his attitude remained unaltered; struck motionless with horror, he stood pointing to the drawing on the board, his face pale, his eyes fascinated by those of Mrs. Tootle. The latter went on in a high note.

  “Well, sir, as soon as you have had enough of your insulting buffoonery, perhaps you will have the goodness to attend to me, and to your duty! What do you mean by allowing the dormitories to get into this state of uproar? There's been a pillow-fight going on for the last half-hour, and you pay no sort of attention; the very house is shaking?”

  “I protest I had not heard a sound, ma'am, or I should have——”

  “Perhaps you hear nothing now, sir,——and the doctor suffering from one of his very worst headaches, utterly unable to rest even if the house were perfectly quiet!”

  O'Gree darted to the door, past Mrs. Tootle, and was lost to sight. There was indeed a desperate uproar in the higher regions of the house. In a moment the noise increased considerably. O'Gree had rushed up without a light, and was battling desperately in the darkness with a score of pillow-fighters, roaring out threats the while at the top of his voice. Mrs. Tootle retired from the masters' room with much affectation of dignity, leaving the door open behind her.

  Waymark slammed it to, and turned with a laugh to the poor Swiss.

  “In low spirits to-night, I'm afraid, Mr. Egger?”

  Egger let his chair tilt forward, rose slowly, drew a yellow handkerchief from his mouth and wiped his eyes with it, then exclaimed, in the most pitiful voice——

  “Mr. Waymark, I have made my possible!——I can no more!”

  It was his regular phrase on these occasions; Waymark had always much ado to refrain from laughter when he heard it repeated, but he did his best to be seriously sympathetic, and to attempt consolation in such German as was at his command. Egger's despondency only increased, and he wept afresh to hear accents which were intelligible to him. Mr. O'Gree re-entered the room, and the Swiss retired to his comer.

  Philip was hot with excitement and bodily exertion; he came in mopping his forehead, and, without turning to Waymark, stood with eyes fixed on the chalk caricatures. Very gradually he turned round. Waymark was watching him, on his face an expression of subdued mirth. Their looks met, and both exploded in laughter.

  “Bedad, my boy,” exclaimed O'Gree, “I'm devilish sorry! I wouldn't have had it happen for a quarter's salary,——though I sadly need a new pair of breeches. She's a supercilious cat-o-mountain, and she loses no opportunity of insulting me, but after all she's a woman.”

  “By-the-by, Waymark,” he added in a moment, “what a stunner the new governess is! You're a lucky dog, to sit in the same room with her. What's her name, I say?”

  “Miss Enderby. You've seen her, have you?”

  “I caught a glimpse of her as she came downstairs; it was quite enough; she floored me. She's never been out of my thoughts for a minute since I saw her. 'I love her, I love her, and who shall dare, to chide me for loving that teacher fair!'”

  “Well, yes,” said Waymark, “she has a tolerable face; seems to me a long way too good to be teaching those unlicked cubs. The dragon wasn't too civil to her, though it was the first day.”

  “Not civil to her? If I were present, and heard that woman breathe the slight eat incivility, I'd——”

  He broke off in the midst of his vehemence with a startled look towards the door.

  “Mr. Egger,” he exclaimed, “a song; I beg, a song. Come, I'll lead off.

  'Miss Enderby hath a beaming eye'——

  Bah! I'm not in voice to-night.“

  Egger was persuaded to sit down to the piano. It was a mournful instrument, reduced to discordant wheeziness by five-finger exercises, but the touch of the Swiss could still evoke from it some kind of harmony. He sang a Volkslied, and in a way which showed that there was poetry in the man's nature, though his outward appearance gave so little promise of it. His voice was very fair, and well suited to express the tender pathos of these inimitable melodies. Waymark always enjoyed this singing; his eyes brightened, and a fine emotion played about his lips. And as he walked along the dark ways to his lodgings, Egger's voice was still in his ears——

  “Der Mensch wenn er fortgeht, der kommt nimmermefr.”

  “Heaven be thanked, no!” the young man said to himself.

  Poverty was his familiar companion, and had been so for years. His rent paid each week, there often remained a sum quite insufficient for the absolute necessities of existence; for anything more, he had to look to chance pupils in the evenings, and what little he could earn with his pen. He wrote constantly, but as yet had only succeeded in getting two articles printed. Then, it was a necessity of his existence to mix from time to time in the life of the town, and a stroll into the Strand after nightfall inevitably led to the expenditure of whatever cash his pocket contained. He was passionately found of the theatre; the lights about the open entrance drew him on irresistibly, and if, as so often, he had to choose between a meal and a seat in the gallery, the meal was sacrificed. Hunger, indeed, was his normal state; semi-starvation, alternating with surfeits of cheap and unwholesome food, brought about an unhealthy condition of body. Often he returned to Walcot Square from his day-long drudgery, and threw himself upon the bed, too exhausted to light a fire and make his tea,——for he was his own servant in all things except the weekly cleaning-out of the room. Those were dark hours, and they had to be struggled through in solitude.

  Weary as he was he seldom went to bed before midnight, sometimes long after, for he clung to those few hours of freedom with something like savage obstinacy; during this small portion of each day at least, he would possess his own soul, be free to think and read. Then came the penalty of anguish unutterable when the morning had to be faced. These dark, foggy February mornings crushed him with a recurring misery which often drove him to the verge of mania. His head throbbing with the torture of insufficient sleep, he lay in dull half-conscious misery till there was no longer time to prepare breakfast, and he had to hasten off to school after a mouthful of dry bread which choked him. There had been moments when his strength failed, and he found his eyes filling with tears of wretchedness. To face the hideous drudgery of the day's teaching often cost him more than it had cost many men to face the scaffold. The hours between nine and one, the hours between half-past two and five, Waymark cursed them minute by minute, as their awful length was measured by the crawling hands of the school-clock. He tried sometimes, in mere self-defence, to force himself into an interest in his work, that the time might go the quicker; but the effort was miserably vain. His senses reeled amid the din and rattle of classes where discipline was unknown and intelligence almost indiscoverable. Not seldom his temper got the better even of sick lassitude; his face at such times paled with passion, and in ungoverned fury he raved at his tormentors. He awed them, too, but only for the moment, and the waste of misery swallowed him up once more.

  Was this to be his life?——he asked himself. Would this last for ever?

  For some reason, the morning after the visit to the masters' room just spoken of found him in rather better spirits than usual. Perhaps it was that he had slept fairly well; a gleam of unwonted sunshine had doubtless something to do with it. Yet there was another reason, though he would scarcely admit it to himself. It was the day on which he gave a drawing-lesson to Dr. Tootle's two eldest children. These drawing-lessons were always given in a room upstairs, which was also appropriated to the governess who came every morning to teach three other young Tootles, two girls and a boy, the latter considered not yet old enough to go into the school. On the previous day, Waymark had been engaged in the room for half an hour touching up some drawings of boys in the school, which were about to be sent home. He knew that he should find a fresh governess busy with the children, the lady hitherto employed having gone at a moment's notice after a violent quarrel with Mrs. Tootle, an incident which had happened not infrequently before. When he entered the room, he saw a young woman seated with her back to him, penning a copy, whilst the children jumped and rioted about her in their usual fashion. The late governess had been a mature person of features rather serviceable than handsome; that her successor was of a different type appeared sufficiently from the fair round head, the gracefully handed neck, the perfect shoulders, the slight, beautiful form. Waymark took his place and waited with some curiosity till she moved. When she did so, and, rising, suddenly became aware of his presence, there was a little start on both sides; Miss Enderby——so Waymark soon heard her called by the pupils——had not been aware, owing to the noise, of a stranger's entrance, and Waymark on his side was so struck with the face presented to him. He had expected, at the most, a pretty girl of the commonplace kind: he saw a countenance in which refinement was as conspicuous as beauty. She was probably not more than eighteen or nineteen. In speaking with the children she rarely if ever smiled, but exhibited a gentle forbearance which had something touching in it; it was almost as though she appealed for gentleness in return, and feared a harsh word or look.

  “That's Mr. Waymark,” cried out Master Percy Tootle, when his overquick eyes perceived that the two had seen each other. “He's our drawing-master. Do you like the look of him?”

  Miss Enderby reddened, and laid her hand on the boy's arm, trying to direct his attention to a book. But the youngster shook off her gentle touch, and looked at his brothers and sisters with a much too knowing grin. Waymark had contented himself with a slight bow, and at once bent again over his work.

  Very shortly the two eldest children, both girls, came in, and with them their mother. The latter paid no attention to Waymark, but proceeded to cross-examine the new governess as to her methods of teaching, her experience, and so on, in the coarse and loud manner which characterised Mrs. Tootle.

  “You'll find my children clever,” said Mrs. Tootle, “at least, that has been the opinion of all their teachers hitherto. If they don't make progress, it certainly will not be their own fault. At the same time, they are high-spirited, and require to be discreetly managed. This, as I previously informed you, must be done without the help of punishment in any shape; I disapprove of those methods altogether. Now let me hear you give them a lesson in geography.”

  Waymark retired at this juncture; he felt that it would be nothing less than cruelty to remain. The episode, however, had lightened his day with an interest of a very unusual kind. And so it was that, on the following morning, not only the gleam of watery sunshine, but also the thought of an hour to be spent in the presence of that timid face, brought him on his way to the school with an unwonted resignation. Unfortunately his drawing lessons were only given on two mornings in the week. Still, there would be something in future to look forward to, a novel sensation at The Academy.

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