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The Longest Journey(Chapter17)

2006-08-29 01:09

  Part 2. Sawston Chapter XVII

  In practical matters Mr. Pembroke was often a generous man. He offered Rickie a good salary, and insisted on paying Agnes as well. And as he housed them for nothing, and as Rickie would also have a salary from the school, the money question disappeared——if not forever, at all events for the present.

  "I can work you in," he said. "Leave all that to me, and in a few days you shall hear from the headmaster.

  He shall create a vacancy. And once in, we stand or fall together. I am resolved on that."

  Rickie did not like the idea of being "worked in," but he was determined to raise no difficulties. It is so easy to be refined and high-minded when we have nothing to do. But the active, useful man cannot be equally particular. Rickie's programme involved a change in values as well as a change of occupation.

  "Adopt a frankly intellectual attitude," Mr. Pembroke continued. "I do not advise you at present even to profess any interest in athletics or organization. When the headmaster writes, he will probably ask whether you are an all-round man. Boldly say no. A bold 'no' is at times the best. Take your stand upon classics and general culture."

  Classics! A second in the Tripos. General culture. A smattering of English Literature, and less than a smattering of French.

  "That is how we begin. Then we get you a little post——say that of librarian. And so on, until you are indispensable."

  Rickie laughed; the headmaster wrote, the reply was satisfactory, and in due course the new life began.

  Sawston was already familiar to him. But he knew it as an amateur, and under an official gaze it grouped itself afresh. The school, a bland Gothic building, now showed as a fortress of learning, whose outworks were the boarding-houses. Those straggling roads were full of the houses of the parents of the day-boys. These shops were in bounds, those out. How often had he passed Dunwood House! He had once confused it with its rival, Cedar View. Now he was to live there——perhaps for many years. On the left of the entrance a large saffron drawing-room, full of cosy corners and dumpy chairs: here the parents would be received. On the right of the entrance a study, which he shared with Herbert: here the boys would be caned——he hoped not often. In the hall a framed certificate praising the drains, the bust of Hermes, and a carved teak monkey holding out a salver. Some of the furniture had come from Shelthorpe, some had been bought from Mr. Annison, some of it was new. But throughout he recognized a certain decision of arrangement. Nothing in the house was accidental, or there merely for its own sake. He contrasted it with his room at Cambridge, which had been a jumble of things that he loved dearly and of things that he did not love at all. Now these also had come to Dunwood House, and had been distributed where each was seemly——Sir Percival to the drawing-room, the photograph of Stockholm to the passage, his chair, his inkpot, and the portrait of his mother to the study. And then he contrasted it with the Ansells' house, to which their resolute ill-taste had given unity. He was extremely sensitive to the inside of a house, holding it an organism that expressed the thoughts, conscious and subconscious, of its inmates. He was equally sensitive to places. He would compare Cambridge with Sawston, and either with a third type of existence, to which, for want of a better name, he gave the name of "Wiltshire."

  It must not be thought that he is going to waste his time. These contrasts and comparisons never took him long, and he never indulged in them until the serious business of the day was over. And, as time passed, he never indulged in them at all. The school returned at the end of January, before he had been settled in a week. His health had improved, but not greatly, and he was nervous at the prospect of confronting the assembled house. All day long cabs had been driving up, full of boys in bowler hats too big for them; and Agnes had been superintending the numbering of the said hats, and the placing of them in cupboards, since they would not be wanted till the end of the term. Each boy had, or should have had, a bag, so that he need not unpack his box till the morrow, One boy had only a brown-paper parcel, tied with hairy string, and Rickie heard the firm pleasant voice say, "But you'll bring a bag next term," and the submissive, "Yes, Mrs. Elliot," of the reply. In the passage he ran against the head boy, who was alarmingly like an undergraduate. They looked at each other suspiciously, and parted. Two minutes later he ran into another boy, and then into another, and began to wonder whether they were doing it on purpose, and if so, whether he ought to mind. As the day wore on, the noises grew louder-trampings of feet, breakdowns, jolly little squawks——and the cubicles were assigned, and the bags unpacked, and the bathing arrangements posted up, and Herbert kept on saying, "All this is informal——all this is informal. We shall meet the house at eight fifteen."

  And so, at eight ten, Rickie put on his cap and gown,——hitherto symbols of pupilage, now to be symbols of dignity,——the very cap and gown that Widdrington had so recently hung upon the college fountain. Herbert, similarly attired, was waiting for him in their private dining-room, where also sat Agnes, ravenously devouring scrambled eggs. "But you'll wear your hoods," she cried. Herbert considered, and them said she was quite right. He fetched his white silk, Rickie the fragment of rabbit's wool that marks the degree of B.A. Thus attired, they proceeded through the baize door. They were a little late, and the boys, who were marshalled in the preparation room, were getting uproarious. One, forgetting how far his voice carried, shouted, "Cave! Here comes the Whelk." And another young devil yelled, "The Whelk's brought a pet with him!"

  "You mustn't mind," said Herbert kindly. "We masters make a point of never minding nicknames——unless, of course, they are applied openly, in which case a thousand lines is not too much." Rickie assented, and they entered the preparation room just as the prefects had established order.

  Here Herbert took his seat on a high-legged chair, while Rickie, like a queen-consort, sat near him on a chair with somewhat shorter legs. Each chair had a desk attached to it, and Herbert flung up the lid of his, and then looked round the preparation room with a quick frown, as if the contents had surprised him. So impressed was Rickie that he peeped sideways, but could only see a little blotting-paper in the desk. Then he noticed that the boys were impressed too. Their chatter ceased. They attended.

  The room was almost full. The prefects, instead of lolling disdainfully in the back row, were ranged like councillors beneath the central throne. This was an innovation of Mr. Pembroke's. Carruthers, the head boy, sat in the middle, with his arm round Lloyd. It was Lloyd who had made the matron too bright: he nearly lost his colours in consequence. These two were grown up. Beside them sat Tewson, a saintly child in the spectacles, who had risen to this height by reason of his immense learning. He, like the others, was a school prefect. The house prefects, an inferior brand, were beyond, and behind came the indistinguishable many. The faces all looked alike as yet——except the face of one boy, who was inclined to cry.

  "School," said Mr. Pembroke, slowly closing the lid of the desk, ——"school is the world in miniature." Then he paused, as a man well may who has made such a remark. It is not, however, the intention of this work to quote an opening address. Rickie, at all events, refused to be critical: Herbert's experience was far greater than his, and he must take his tone from him. Nor could any one criticize the exhortations to be patriotic, athletic, learned, and religious, that flowed like a four-part fugue from Mr. Pembroke's mouth. He was a practised speaker——that is to say, he held his audience's attention. He told them that this term, the second of his reign, was the term for Dunwood House; that it behooved every boy to labour during it for his house's honour, and, through the house, for the honour of the school. Taking a wider range, he spoke of England, or rather of Great Britain, and of her continental foes. Portraits of empire-builders hung on the wall, and he pointed to them. He quoted imperial poets. He showed how patriotism had broadened since the days of Shakespeare, who, for all his genius, could only write of his country as——

  "This fortress built by nature for herself Against infection and the hand of war,This hazy breed of men, this little world,This precious stone set in the silver sea."

  And it seemed that only a short ladder lay between the preparation room and the Anglo-Saxon hegemony of the globe. Then he paused, and in the silence came "sob, sob, sob," from a little boy, who was regretting a villa in Guildford and his mother's half acre of garden.

  The proceeding terminated with the broader patriotism of the school anthem, recently composed by the organist. Words and tune were still a matter for taste, and it was Mr. Pembroke (and he only because he had the music) who gave the right intonation to

  "Perish each laggard! Let it not be said That Sawston such within her walls hath bred."

  "Come, come," he said pleasantly, as they ended with harmonies in the style of Richard Strauss. "This will never do. We must grapple with the anthem this term——you're as tuneful as——as day-boys!"

  Hearty laughter, and then the whole house filed past them and shook hands.

  "But how did it impress you?" Herbert asked, as soon as they were back in their own part. Agnes had provided them with a tray of food: the meals were still anyhow, and she had to fly at once to see after the boys.

  "I liked the look of them."

  "I meant rather, how did the house impress you as a house?"

  "I don't think I thought," said Rickie rather nervously. "It is not easy to catch the spirit of a thing at once. I only saw a roomful of boys."

  "My dear Rickie, don't be so diffident. You are perfectly right. You only did see a roomful of boys. As yet there's nothing else to see. The house, like the school, lacks tradition. Look at Winchester. Look at the traditional rivalry between Eton and Harrow. Tradition is of incalculable importance, if a school is to have any status. Why should Sawston be without?"

  "Yes. Tradition is of incalculable value. And I envy those schools that have a natural connection with the past. Of course Sawston has a past, though not of the kind that you quite want. The sons of poor tradesmen went to it at first. So wouldn't its traditions be more likely to linger in the Commercial School?" he concluded nervously.

  "You have a great deal to learn——a very great deal. Listen to me. Why has Sawston no traditions?" His round, rather foolish, face assumed the expression of a conspirator. Bending over the mutton, he whispered, "I can tell you why. Owing to the day-boys. How can traditions flourish in such soil? Picture the day-boy's life——at home for meals, at home for preparation, at home for sleep, running home with every fancied wrong. There are day-boys in your class, and, mark my words, they will give you ten times as much trouble as the boarders, late, slovenly, stopping away at the slightest pretext. And then the letters from the parents! 'Why has my boy not been moved this term?' 'Why has my boy been moved this term?' 'I am a dissenter, and do not wish my boy to subscribe to the school mission.' 'Can you let my boy off early to water the garden?' Remember that I have been a day-boy house-master, and tried to infuse some esprit de corps into them. It is practically impossible. They come as units, and units they remain. Worse. They infect the boarders. Their pestilential, critical, discontented attitude is spreading over the school. If I had my own way——"

  He stopped somewhat abruptly.

  "Was that why you laughed at their singing?"

  "Not at all. Not at all. It is not my habit to set one section of the school against the other."

  After a little they went the rounds. The boys were in bed now. "Good-night!" called Herbert, standing in the corridor of the cubicles, and from behind each of the green curtains came the sound of a voice replying, "Good-night, sir!" "Good-night," he observed into each dormitory.

  Then he went to the switch in the passage and plunged the whole house into darkness. Rickie lingered behind him, strangely impressed. In the morning those boys had been scattered over England, leading their own lives. Now, for three months, they must change everything——see new faces, accept new ideals. They, like himself, must enter a beneficent machine, and learn the value of esprit de corps. Good luck attend them——good luck and a happy release. For his heart would have them not in these cubicles and dormitories, but each in his own dear home, amongst faces and things that he knew.

  Next morning, after chapel, he made the acquaintance of his class. Towards that he felt very differently. Esprit de corps was not expected of it. It was simply two dozen boys who were gathered together for the purpose of learning Latin. His duties and difficulties would not lie here. He was not required to provide it with an atmosphere. The scheme of work was already mapped out, and he started gaily upon familiar words——

  "Pan, ovium custos, tua si tibi Maenala curae Adsis, O Tegaee, favens."

  "Do you think that beautiful?" he asked, and received the honest answer, "No, sir; I don't think I do." He met Herbert in high spirits in the quadrangle during the interval. But Herbert thought his enthusiasm rather amateurish, and cautioned him.

  "You must take care they don't get out of hand. I approve of a lively teacher, but discipline must be established first."

  "I felt myself a learner, not a teacher. If I'm wrong over a point, or don't know, I mean to tell them at once." Herbert shook his head.

  "It's different if I was really a scholar. But I can't pose as one, can I? I know much more than the boys, but I know very little. Surely the honest thing is to be myself to them. Let them accept or refuse me as that. That's the only attitude we shall any of us profit by in the end."

  Mr. Pembroke was silent. Then he observed, "There is, as you say, a higher attitude and a lower attitude. Yet here, as so often, cannot we find a golden mean between them?"

  "What's that?" said a dreamy voice. They turned and saw a tall, spectacled man, who greeted the newcomer kindly, and took hold of his arm. "What's that about the golden mean?"

  "Mr. Jackson——Mr. Elliot: Mr. Elliot——Mr. Jackson," said Herbert, who did not seem quite pleased. "Rickie, have you a moment to spare me?"

  But the humanist spoke to the young man about the golden mean and the pinchbeck mean, adding, "You know the Greeks aren't broad church clergymen. They really aren't, in spite of much conflicting evidence. Boys will regard Sophocles as a kind of enlightened bishop, and something tells me that they are wrong."

  "Mr. Jackson is a classical enthusiast," said Herbert. "He makes the past live. I want to talk to you about the humdrum present."

  "And I am warning him against the humdrum past. "That's another point, Mr. Elliot. Impress on your class that many Greeks and most Romans were frightfully stupid, and if they disbelieve you, read Ctesiphon with them, or Valerius Flaccus. Whatever is that noise?"

  "It comes from your class-room, I think," snapped the other master.

  "So it does. Ah, yes. I expect they are putting your little Tewson into the waste-paper basket."

  "I always lock my class-room in the interval——"

  "Yes?"

  "——and carry the key in my pocket."

  "Ah. But, Mr. Elliot, I am a cousin of Widdrington's. He wrote to me about you. I am so glad. Will you, first of all, come to supper next Sunday?"

  "I am afraid," put in Herbert, "that we poor housemasters must deny ourselves festivities in term time."

  "But mayn't he come once, just once?"

  "May, my dear Jackson! My brother-in-law is not a baby. He decides for himself."

  Rickie naturally refused. As soon as they were out of hearing, Herbert said, "This is a little unfortunate. Who is Mr. Widdrington?"

  "I knew him at Cambridge."

  "Let me explain how we stand," he continued, after a pause.

  "Jackson is the worst of the reactionaries here, while I——why should I conceal it?——have thrown in my lot with the party of progress. You will see how we suffer from him at the masters' meetings. He has no talent for organization, and yet he is always inflicting his ideas on others. It was like his impertinence to dictate to you what authors you should read, and meanwhile the sixth-form room like a bear-garden, and a school prefect being put into the waste-paper basket. My good Rickie, there's nothing to smile at. How is the school to go on with a man like that? It would be a case of 'quick march,' if it was not for his brilliant intellect. That's why I say it's a little unfortunate. You will have very little in common, you and he."

  Rickie did not answer. He was very fond of Widdrington, who was a quaint, sensitive person. And he could not help being attracted by Mr. Jackson, whose welcome contrasted pleasantly with the official breeziness of his other colleagues. He wondered, too, whether it is so very reactionary to contemplate the antique.

  "It is true that I vote Conservative," pursued Mr. Pembroke, apparently confronting some objector. "But why? Because the Conservatives, rather than the Liberals, stand for progress. One must not be misled by catch-words."

  "Didn't you want to ask me something?"

  "Ah, yes. You found a boy in your form called Varden?"

  "Varden? Yes; there is."

  "Drop on him heavily. He has broken the statutes of the school. He is attending as a day-boy. The statutes provide that a boy must reside with his parents or guardians. He does neither. It must be stopped. You must tell the headmaster."

  "Where does the boy live?"

  "At a certain Mrs. Orr's, who has no connection with the school of any kind. It must be stopped. He must either enter a boarding-house or go."

  "But why should I tell?" said Rickie. He remembered the boy, an unattractive person with protruding ears, "It is the business of his house-master."

  "House-master——exactly. Here we come back again. Who is now the day-boys' house-master? Jackson once again——as if anything was Jackson's business! I handed the house back last term in a most flourishing condition. It has already gone to rack and ruin for the second time. To return to Varden. I have unearthed a put-up job. Mrs. Jackson and Mrs. Orr are friends. Do you see? It all works round."

  "I see. It does——or might."

  "The headmaster will never sanction it when it's put to him plainly."

  "But why should I put it?" said Rickie, twisting the ribbons of his gown round his fingers.

  "Because you're the boy's form-master."

  "Is that a reason?"

  "Of course it is."

  "I only wondered whether——" He did not like to say that he wondered whether he need do it his first morning.

  "By some means or other you must find out——of course you know already, but you must find out from the boy. I know——I have it! Where's his health certificate?"

  "He had forgotten it."

  "Just like them. Well, when he brings it, it will be signed by Mrs. Orr, and you must look at it and say, 'Orr——Orr——Mrs. Orr?' or something to that effect, and then the whole thing will come naturally out."

  The bell rang, and they went in for the hour of school that concluded the morning. Varden brought his health certificate——a pompous document asserting that he had not suffered from roseola or kindred ailments in the holidays——and for a long time Rickie sat with it before him, spread open upon his desk. He did not quite like the job. It suggested intrigue, and he had come to Sawston not to intrigue but to labour. Doubtless Herbert was right, and Mr. Jackson and Mrs. Orr were wrong. But why could they not have it out among themselves? Then he thought, "I am a coward, and that's why I'm raising these objections," called the boy up to him, and it did all come out naturally, more or less. Hitherto Varden had lived with his mother; but she had left Sawston at Christmas, and now he would live with Mrs. Orr. "Mr. Jackson, sir, said it would be all right."

  "Yes, yes," said Rickie; "quite so." He remembered Herbert's dictum: "Masters must present a united front. If they do not——the deluge." He sent the boy back to his seat, and after school took the compromising health certificate to the headmaster. The headmaster was at that time easily excited by a breach of the constitution. "Parents or guardians," he reputed——"parents or guardians," and flew with those words on his lips to Mr. Jackson. To say that Rickie was a cat's-paw is to put it too strongly. Herbert was strictly honourable, and never pushed him into an illegal or really dangerous position; but there is no doubt that on this and on many other occasions he had to do things that he would not otherwise have done. There was always some diplomatic corner that had to be turned, always something that he had to say or not to say. As the term wore on he lost his independence—— almost without knowing it. He had much to learn about boys, and he learnt not by direct observation——for which he believed he was unfitted——but by sedulous imitation of the more experienced masters. Originally he had intended to be friends with his pupils, and Mr. Pembroke commended the intention highly; but you cannot be friends either with boy or man unless you give yourself away in the process, and Mr. Pembroke did not commend this. He, for "personal intercourse," substituted the safer "personal influence," and gave his junior hints on the setting of kindly traps, in which the boy does give himself away and reveals his shy delicate thoughts, while the master, intact, commends or corrects them. Originally Rickie had meant to help boys in the anxieties that they undergo when changing into men: at Cambridge he had numbered this among life's duties. But here is a subject in which we must inevitably speak as one human being to another, not as one who has authority or the shadow of authority, and for this reason the elder school-master could suggest nothing but a few formulae. Formulae, like kindly traps, were not in Rickie's line, so he abandoned these subjects altogether and confined himself to working hard at what was easy. In the house he did as Herbert did, and referred all doubtful subjects to him. In his form, oddly enough, he became a martinet. It is so much simpler to be severe. He grasped the school regulations, and insisted on prompt obedience to them. He adopted the doctrine of collective responsibility. When one boy was late, he punished the whole form. "I can't help it," he would say, as if he was a power of nature. As a teacher he was rather dull. He curbed his own enthusiasms, finding that they distracted his attention, and that while he throbbed to the music of Virgil the boys in the back row were getting unruly. But on the whole he liked his form work: he knew why he was there, and Herbert did not overshadow him so completely.

  What was amiss with Herbert? He had known that something was amiss, and had entered into partnership with open eyes. The man was kind and unselfish; more than that he was truly charitable, and it was a real pleasure to him to give——pleasure to others. Certainly he might talk too much about it afterwards; but it was the doing, not the talking, that he really valued, and benefactors of this sort are not too common. He was, moreover, diligent and conscientious: his heart was in his work, and his adherence to the Church of England no mere matter of form. He was capable of affection: he was usually courteous and tolerant. Then what was amiss? Why, in spite of all these qualities, should Rickie feel that there was something wrong with him——nay, that he was wrong as a whole, and that if the Spirit of Humanity should ever hold a judgment he would assuredly be classed among the goats? The answer at first sight appeared a graceless one——it was that Herbert was stupid. Not stupid in the ordinary sense——he had a business-like brain, and acquired knowledge easily——but stupid in the important sense: his whole life was coloured by a contempt of the intellect. That he had a tolerable intellect of his own was not the point: it is in what we value, not in what we have, that the test of us resides. Now, Rickie's intellect was not remarkable. He came to his worthier results rather by imagination and instinct than by logic. An argument confused him, and he could with difficulty follow it even on paper. But he saw in this no reason for satisfaction, and tried to make such use of his brain as he could, just as a weak athlete might lovingly exercise his body. Like a weak athlete, too, he loved to watch the exploits, or rather the efforts, of others——their efforts not so much to acquire knowledge as to dispel a little of the darkness by which we and all our acquisitions are surrounded. Cambridge had taught him this, and he knew, if for no other reason, that his time there had not been in vain. And Herbert's contempt for such efforts revolted him. He saw that for all his fine talk about a spiritual life he had but one test for things——success: success for the body in this life or for the soul in the life to come. And for this reason Humanity, and perhaps such other tribunals as there may be, would assuredly reject him.

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