In the house one boy and one only helped him. That boy ought to have been Kenrick; his monitorial authority and many responsible privileges were entrusted to him, as he well knew, for the main express purpose of putting down all immorality, and all cruelty, with a strong and remorseless hand. It required very little courage to do this; the sympathies of the majority of boys, unless they be suffered to grow corrupted with an evil leaven, are naturally and strongly on the side of right. In Mr Robertson's house, for instance, where Walter and Henderson were monitors, such wrong-doings could not have gone on with impunity, or rather could not have gone on at all. There, a little boy, treated with gross severity or injustice, would not have hesitated for an instant to invoke the assistance of the monitors, whom he looked upon as his natural guardians, and who would be eager to extend to him a generous and efficient protection.
The same was the case in Mr Edwardes's house, of which Power was the head. Power, indeed, had no coadjutor on whom he could at all rely. One of the monitors associated with him was Legrange, who rather followed Kenrick's lead, and the other was Brown, who, though well-intentioned, was a boy of no authority. Yet these two houses were in a better condition than any others in the school, because the heads of them did their duty; and it was no slight credit to Walter and Henderson that their house stood higher in character than any other, although it contained both Harpour and Jones. This could not have been the case had not those two worthies found a powerful counterpoise in two other fifth-form fellows, Franklin and Cradock, whose excellence was almost solely due to Walter's influence. Kenrick, on the other hand, never interfered in the house, and let things go on exactly as they liked, although they were going to rack and ruin.
Charlie's sole friend and helper in the house then was, not Kenrick, but Bliss. Poor Bliss quite belied his name, for his school work, in which he never could by any effort succeed, kept him in a state of lugubrious disappointment. Bliss lived a dim kind of life, seeing all sorts of young boys get above him and beat him in the race, and vaguely groping in thick mental darkness. Do what he could the stream of knowledge fled from his tantalised lip whenever he stooped to drink; and the fruits, which others plucked easily, sprang up out of his reach when he tried to touch the bough. He was constantly crushed by a desolating sense of his own stupidity; and yet his good temper was charming under all his trials, and he loved with a grateful humility all who tolerated his shortcomings. For this reason he had a sincere affection for Henderson, who plagued him, indeed, incessantly, but never in an unkind or insulting way; and who more than made up for the teasing by patient and constant help, without which Bliss would not have succeeded even as well as he did. Bliss was a strong active fellow, and good at the games, so that with most of the school he got on very well; but, nevertheless, he was generally set down as nearly half-witted—a mere dolt. Dolt or not, he did Charlie inestimable service; and if any boy is in like case with Bliss, let him take courage, for even the merest dolt has immense power for good as well as for harm, and Bliss extended to Charlie a gentle and manly sympathy which many a clever boy might have envied. He knew that Charlie was ill-used. Not being in the same dormitory, and joining very little in the house concerns, he was not able to interfere very directly in his aid; but he never failed to encourage him to resist iniquity of every kind. "Hold out, young Evson," he would often say to him; "you're a good, brave little chap, and don't give in; you're in the right and they in the wrong; and right is might, be sure of that."
It was something in those days to meet with approbation for well-doing among the Noelites; and Charlie, with genuine gratitude, never forgot Bliss's kind support; till Bliss left Saint Winifred's they continued firm friends and fast.
"Have you made any friends in the house?" asked Mr Noel of Charlie on one occasion; for he often seized an opportunity of talking to his younger boys, for whom he felt a sincere interest, and whom he would gladly have shielded from temptation to the very utmost of his power, had he but known that of which he was unhappily so ignorant—the bad state of things among the boys under his care.
"Not many, sir," said Charlie.
"Haven't you? I'm sorry to hear that. I like to see boys forming friendships for future life; and there are some very nice fellows in the house. Wilton, for instance, don't you like him? He's very idle and volatile, I know, but still he seems to me a pleasant boy."
Charlie could hardly suppress a smile, but said nothing; and Mr Noel continued, "Who is your chief friend, Evson, among my boys?"
"Bliss, sir," said Charlie, with alacrity.
"Bliss!" answered Mr Noel in surprise. "What makes you like him so much? Is he not very backward and stupid?"
But Charlie would not hear a word against Bliss, and speaking with all the open trustfulness of a new boy, he exclaimed, "O sir, Bliss is an excellent fellow; I wish there were many more like him; he's a capital fellow, sir, I like him very much; he's the best fellow in the house, and the only one who stands by me when I am in trouble."
"Well, I'm glad you've found one friend, Evson," said Mr Noel; "no matter who he is."
One way in which Bliss showed his friendship was by going privately to Kenrick, and complaining of the way in which Charlie was bullied. "Why don't you interfere, Kenrick?" he asked.
"Interfere, pooh! It will do the young cub good; he's too conceited, by half."
"I never saw a little fellow less conceited, anyhow."
Kenrick stared at him. "What business is it of yours, I should like to know?"
"It is business of mine; he is a good little fellow, and he's only kicked because the others can't make him as bad a lot as they are themselves; there's that Wilton—"
"Shut up about Wilton, he's a friend of mine."
"Then more shame for you," said Bliss.
"He's worth fifty such chickens as little Evson, any day."
"Chickens!" said Bliss, with a tone as nearly like contempt as he had ever assumed; "it's clear you don't know much about him; I wish, Kenrick, you'd do your duty more, and then the house would not be so bad as it is."
Kenrick opened his eyes wide; he had never heard Bliss speak like this before. "I don't want the learned, the clever, the profound Bliss to teach me my duty," he said, with a proud sneer; "what business have you to abuse the house, because it is not full of young ninnies like Evson? You're no monitor of mine, let me tell you."
"You may sneer, Kenrick, at my being stupid, if you like; but, for all your cleverness, I wouldn't be you for something; and if you won't interfere, as you ought, I will, if I can." And as Bliss said this, with clear flaming anger, and fixed on Kenrick his eyes, which were lighted up with honest purpose, Kenrick thought he had never seen him look so handsome, or so fine a fellow. "Yes, even he is superior to me now," he thought, with a sigh, as Bliss left the room. Poor Ken— there was no unhappier boy at Saint Winifred's; as he ate and ate of those ashy fruits of sin, they grew more and more dusty and bitter to his parched taste; as he drank of that napthaline river of wayward pride, it scorched his heart and did not quench his thirst.
CHAPTER THIRTY THREE.
"Since thou so deeply dost enquire, I will instruct thee briefly why no dread Hinders my entrance here. Those things alone Are to be feared whence evil may proceed, Nought else, for nought is terrible beside."
Gradually the persecutions to which Charlie was subjected mainly turned on one point. His tormentors were so far tired of bullying him, that they would have left him in comparative peace if he would have yielded one point—which was this.
The Noelites were accustomed now and then to have a grand evening "spread" as they called it, and when they had finished this supper, which was usually supplied by Dan, they generally began smoking, an amusement which they could enjoy after the lights were out. The smokers used to sit in the long corridor, which, as I have said, led to their dormitory, and the scout was always posted to warn them of approaching danger; but as they did not begin operations till the master had gone his nightly rounds, and were very quiet about it, there was not much danger of their being disturbed. Yet although the windows of the corridor and dormitory were all left wide open, and every other precaution was taken, it was impossible to get rid of the fumes of tobacco so entirely as to avoid all chance of detection. They had, indeed, bribed the servants to secrecy, but what they feared was being detected by some master. The Noelites, therefore, of that dormitory had been accustomed to agree that if they were questioned by any master about the smell of smoking, they would all deny that any smoking had taken place. The other nine boys in the dormitory, with the doubtful exception of Elgood, had promised that they would stick to this assertion in case of their being asked. The question was, "Would Charlie promise the same thing?" If not, the boys felt doubly insecure—insecure about the stability of their falsehood and the secrecy of their proceedings.
And Charlie Evson, of course, refused to promise this. Single-handed he fought this battle against the other boys in his house, and in spite of solicitation, coaxing, entreaty, threats and blows, steadily declared that he was no tell-tale, that he had never mentioned anything which had gone on in the house, but that if he were directly asked whether a particular act had taken place or not, he would still keep silence, but could not and would not tell a lie.
Now some of the house—and especially Mackworth and Wilton—had determined, by the help of the rest, to crush this opposition, to conquer this obstinacy, as they called it; and, since Charlie's reluctance could not be overcome by persuasion or argument, to break it down by sheer force. So, night after night, a number of them gathered round Charlie, and tried every means which ingenuity or malice could suggest to make him yield on this one point; the more so, because they well knew that to gain one concession was practically to gain all, and Charlie's uprightness contrasted so unpleasantly with their own base compliances, that his mere presence among them became, from this circumstance, a constant annoyance. One boy with a high and firm moral standard, steadily and consistently good, can hardly fail to be most unpopular in a large house full of bad and reckless boys.
It was a long and hard struggle; so long that Charlie felt as if it would last for ever, and his strength would give way before he had wearied-out his persecutors. For now it seemed to be a positive amusement, a pleasant occupation to them, night after night, to bully him. He dreaded, he shuddered at the return of evening; he knew well that from the time when Preparation began, till the rest were all asleep, he could look for little peace. Sometimes he was tempted to yield. He knew that at the bottom the fellows did not really hate him, that he might be very popular if he chose, even without going to nearly the same lengths as the others, and that if he would but promise not to tell, his assent would be hailed with acclamations. Besides, said the tempter, the chances are very strongly in favour of your not being asked at all about the matter, so that there is every probability of your not being called upon to tell the "cram;" for by some delicate distinction the falsehood presented itself under the guise of a "cram," and not of a naked lie; that was a word the boys carefully avoided applying to it, and were quite angry if Charlie called it by its right name. One evening the poor little fellow was so weary and hopeless and sad at heart, and he had been thrashed so long and so severely, that he was very near yielding. A paper had been written, the signing of which was tacitly understood to involve a promise to deny that there had been any smoking at night if they were taxed with it; and all the boys except Elgood and Charlie had signed this paper. But the fellows did not care for Elgood; they knew that he dared not oppose them long, and that they could make him do their bidding whenever the time came. Well, one evening, Charlie, in a weak mood, was on the verge of signing the paper, and thus purchasing a cessation of the long series of injuries and taunts from which he had been suffering. He was sitting up in bed, and had taken the pencil in hand to sign his name. The boys, in an eager group round him, were calling him a regular brick, encouraging him, patting him on the back, and saying that they had been sure all along that he was a nice little fellow, and would come round at last. Elgood was among them, looking on with anxious eyes. He had immensely admired Charlie's brave firmness, and nothing but reliance on the strength of his stronger will had encouraged him in the shadow of opposition. "If young Evson does it," he whispered, "I will directly." Charlie caught the whisper; and in an agony of shame flung away the pencil. He had very nearly sinned himself, and forgotten the resolution which had been granted him in answer to his many prayers; but he had seen the effects of bad example, and nothing should induce him to lead others with him into sin. "Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil," was the instant supplication which rose from his inmost heart, as he threw down the pencil and pushed the paper aside.
"I can't do it," he said; "I must not do it; I never told a lie in my life that I remember. Don't ask me any more." Instantly the tone and temper of the boys changed. A shower of words, which I will not repeat, assailed his ears; he was dragged out of bed and thrashed more unmercifully than he had ever been before. "You shall give way in the end, mind that," was the last admonition he received from one of the bigger fellows, as he dragged himself to his bed, sobbing for pain, and aching with disquietude of heart. "The sooner it is the better; for you little muffs and would-be saints don't go down with us."
And then for a few evenings, when the candles were put out, and the fellows had nothing better to do, it used to be the regular thing for some one to suggest, "Come, let's bait No-thank-you; it'll be rare fun." Then another would say, "Come, No-thank-you, sign the paper like a good fellow, and spare yourself all the rest."
"Do," another insidious friend would add; "I am quite sorry to see you kicked and thrashed so often."
"I'll strike a light in one second if you will," suggested a fourth. "No, you won't? oh, then, look out, Master No-thank-you, look out for squalls." But still, however beaten or insulted, holding out like a man, and not letting the tears fall if he could help it, though they swam in his eyes for pain and grief, the brave boy resisted evil, and would not be forced to stain his white soul with the promise of a lie.
There were some who, though they dared not say anything, yet looked on at this struggle with mingled shame and admiration—shame for themselves, admiration for Charlie. It could not be but that there were some hearts among so many which had not seared the tender nerves of pity, and more than once Charlie saw kindly faces looking at him out of the cowardly group of tormentors, and heard timid words of disapprobation spoken to the worst of those who bullied him. More often, too, some young Noelite who met him during the day would seem to address him with a changed nature, would speak to him warmly and with friendliness, would show by little words and actions that he felt for him and respected him, although he had not courage enough to resist publicly the opposing stream. And others of the baser sort observed this. What if this one little new fellow should beat them after all, and end their domination, and introduce in spite of them a truer and better and more natural state of things? it was not to be tolerated for a moment, and he must be put down with a strong hand at once.
Meanwhile Charlie's heart was fast failing him, dying away within him; for under this persecution his health and spirits were worn out. His face, they noticed, was far paler than when he came, his looks almost haggard, and his manner less sprightly than before. He had honourably abstained hitherto from giving Walter any direct account of his troubles, but now he yearned for some advice and comfort, and went to Walter's study, not to complain, but to ask if Walter thought there was any chance of his father removing him to another school, because he felt that at Saint Winifred's he could neither be happy nor in any way succeed.
"Well, Charlie boy, what can I do for you?" said Walter, cheerfully pushing away the Greek Lexicon and Aristophanes over which he was engaged, and wheeling round the armchair to the fire, which he poked till there was a bright blaze.
"Am I disturbing you at your work, Walter?" said the little boy, whose dejected air his brother had not noticed.
"No, Charlie, not a bit; you never disturb me. I was just thinking that it was about time to shut up, for it's almost too dark too read, and we've nearly half an hour before tea-time; so come here and sit on my knee and have a chat. I haven't seen you for an age, Charlie."
Charlie said nothing, but he was in a weary mood, and was glad to sit on his brother's knee and put his arm round his neck; for he was more than four years Walter's junior, and had never left home before, and that night the homesickness was very strongly upon him.
"Why, what's the matter, Charlie boy?" asked Walter playfully. "What's the meaning of this pale face and red eyes? I'm afraid you haven't found Saint Winifred's so jolly as you expected; disenchanted already, eh?"
"O Walter, I'm very, very miserable," said Charlie, overcome by his brother's tender manner towards him; and leaning his head on Walter's shoulder he sobbed aloud.
"What is it, Charlie?" said Walter, gently stroking his light hair. "Never be afraid to tell me anything. You've done nothing wrong, I hope?"
"O no, Walter. It's because I won't do wrong that they bully me."
"Is that it? Then dry your tears, Charlie boy, for you may thank God, and nothing in earth or under the earth can make you do wrong if you determine not—determine in the right way, you know, Charlie."
"But it's so hard, Walter; I didn't know it would be so very hard. The house is so bad, and no one helps me except Bliss. I don't think you were ever troubled as I am, Walter."
"Never mind, Charlie. Only don't go wrong whatever they do to you. You don't know how much this will smooth your way all the rest of your school-life. It's quite true what you say, Charlie, and the state of the school is far worse than ever knew it; but that's all the more reason we should do our duty, isn't it."
"O Walter, but I know they'll make me do wrong some day. I wish I were at home. I wish I might leave. I get thrashed and kicked and abused every night, Walter, and almost all night long."
"Do you?" asked Walter, in angry amazement. "I knew that you were rather bullied—Eden told me that—but I never knew it was so bad as you say. By jove, Charlie, I should like to catch some one bullying you, and—well, I'll warrant that he shouldn't do it again."
"O, I forgot, Walter, I oughtn't to have told you; they made me promise not. Only it is so wretched."
"Never mind, my poor little Charlie," said Walter. "Do what's right and shame the devil. I'll see if I can't devise some way of helping you; but anyhow, hold up till the end of term, and then no doubt papa will take you away if you still wish it. But what am I to do without you, Charlie?"
"You're a dear, dear good brother," said Charlie, gratefully; "and but for you, Walter, I should have given in long ago."
"No, Charlie, not for me, but for a truer friend than even I can be, though I love you with all my heart. But will you promise me one thing faithfully?"
"Yes, that I will."
"Well, promise me then that, do what they will, they shan't make you tell a lie, or do anything else that you know to be wrong."
"I'll promise you, Walter, if I can," said the little boy humbly; "but I've been doing my best for a long time."
"You couldn't tell a lie, Charlie boy, without being found out; that I feel sure of," said Walter, smiling, as he held his brother's ingenuous face between his hands, and looked at it. "I don't doubt you for an instant; but I'll have a talk with Power about you. As head of the school he may be able to do something, perhaps. It's Kenrick's duty properly, but—"
"Kenrick, Walter? He's of no use; he lets the house do just as it likes, and I think he must have taken a dislike to me, for he turned me off quite roughly from being his fag."
"Never mind him or any one else, Charlie. You're a brave little fellow, and I'm proud of you. There's the tea-bell; come in with me."
"Ah, Walter, it's only in the evenings when you're away that I get pitched into. If I were but in the same house with you, how jolly it would be." And he looked wistfully after his brother as they parted at the door of the hall, and Walter walked up to the chief table where the monitors sat, while he went to find a place among the boys in his own form and house. He found that they had poured his tea into his plate over his bread and butter, so he got very little to eat or drink that evening.
It was dark as they streamed out after tea to go into the Preparation-room, and he heard Elgood's tremulous voice saying to him, "Oh, Evson, shall you give way to-night, and sign?"
"Why to-night in particular, Elgood?"
"Because I've heard them say that they're going to have a grand gathering to-night, and to make you, and me too; but I can't hold out as you do, Evson."
"I shall try not to give way; indeed, I won't be made to tell a lie," said Charlie, thinking of his interview with Walter, and the hopes it had inspired.
"Then I won't either," said Elgood, plucking up courage. "But we shall catch it awfully, both of us."
"They can't do more than lick us," said Charlie, trying to speak cheerily, "and I've been licked so often that I'm getting accustomed to it."
"And I'd rather be licked," said a voice beside them, "and be like you two fellows, than escape being licked, and be like Stone and Symes, or even like myself."
"Who's that?" asked Elgood hastily, for it was not light enough to see.
"Me—Hanley. Don't you fellows give in; it will only make you miserable, as it has done me."
They went in to Preparation, which was succeeded by chapel, and then to their dormitories. They undressed and got into bed, as usual, although they knew that they should be very soon disturbed, for various signs told them that the rest had some task in hand. Accordingly, the lights were barely put out, when a scout was posted, the candles were re-lighted, and a number of other Noelites, headed by Mackworth, came crowding into the dormitory.
"Now you, No-thank-you, you've got one last chance—here's this paper for you to sign; fellows have always signed it before, and you shall too, whether you like or no. We're not going to alter our rules because of you. We want to have a supper again in a day or two, and we can't have you sneaking about it." Mackworth was the speaker.
"I don't want to sneak," said Charlie firmly; "you've been making me wretched, and knocking me about, all these weeks, and I've never told of you yet."
"We don't want any orations; only Yes or No—will you sign?"
"Stop," said Wilton, "here's another fellow, Mac, who hasn't signed;" and he dragged Elgood out of bed by one arm.
"Oh, you haven't signed, haven't you? Well, we shall make short work of you. Here's the pencil, here's the paper, and here's the place for your name. Now, you poor little fool, sign without giving us any more trouble."
Elgood trembled and hesitated.
"Look here," said Mackworth brutally; "I don't want to break such a butterfly as you upon the wheel, but—how do you like that?" He drew a cane from behind his back, and brought it down sharply on Elgood's knuckles, who, turning very white, sat down and scrawled his name hastily on the paper; but no sooner had he done it than, looking up, he caught Charlie's pitying glance upon him, and running the pencil through his signature, said no more, but pushed the paper hastily away and cowered down, expecting another blow, while Charlie whispered, "Courage."
"You must take the other fellow first, Mac, if you want to get on," suggested Wilton. "Evson, as a friend, I advise you not to refuse."
"As a friend!" said Charlie, with simple scorn, looking full at Wilton. "You are no friend of mine; and, Wilton, I wouldn't even now change places with you."
"Wouldn't you?—Pitch into him, Mac. And you," he said to Elgood, "you may wait for the present." He administered a backhander to Elgood as he spoke, and the next minute Charlie, roused beyond all bearing, had knocked him down. Twenty times before he would have been tempted to fight Wilton, if he could have reckoned upon fair play; but what he could stand in his own person was intolerable to him to witness when applied to another.
Wilton sprang up in perfect fury, and a fight began; but Mackworth at once pulled Charlie off, and said, "Fight him another time, if you condescend to do so, Raven; don't you see now that it's a mere dodge of his to get off. Now, No-thank-you, the time has come for deeds; we've had words enough. You stand there." He pushed Charlie in front of him. "Now, will you sign?"
"Never," said Charlie, in a low but firm tone.
"Not with the cane, not with the cane, Mackworth," cried several voices in agitation, but not in time to prevent the cane descending with heavy hand across the child's back.
Charlie's was one of those fine, nervous, susceptible temperaments, which feel every physical sensation, and every mental emotion, with tenfold severity. During the whole of this scene; so painfully anticipated, in which he had stood alone among a group of boys, whose sole object seemed to be to show their hatred, and who were twice as strong as himself, his feelings had been highly wrought; and though he had had many opportunities of late to train his delicate organisation into manly endurance, yet the sudden anguish of this unexpected blow quite conquered him. A thrilling cry broke from his lips, and the next moment, when the cane again tore his shoulders, a fit of violent hysteria supervened, which alarmed the brutes who were trying to master his noble resolution.
And at this crisis the door burst open with a sudden crash, and Bliss entered in a state of burning indignation, followed more slowly by Kenrick.
"O, I am too late," he said, stamping his foot; "what have you been doing to the little fellow?" and thrusting some of them aside, he took up Charlie in his arms, and gradually soothed and calmed him till his wild sobs and laughter were hushed, while the rest looked on silent. But feeling that Charlie shrank as though a touch were painful to him, Bliss unbared his back, and the two blue weals all across it showed him what had been done.
"Look there, Kenrick," he said, with great sternness, as he pointed to the marks; and then, laying Charlie gently down on his bed, he thundered out, in a voice shaken with passion, "You dogs, could you look on and allow this? By heavens, Kenrick, if you mean to suffer this, I won't. Out of my way, you." Scattering the rest before him like a flock of sheep, he seized Mackworth with his strong hands, shook him violently by both shoulders, and then tearing the cane out of his grasp, he demanded, "Was it you who did this?"
"What are you about, you Bliss?" said Mackworth, with very ruffled dignity. "Mind what you're after, and don't make such a row, you ass's head," he continued authoritatively, "or you'll have Noel or some one in here."
"Ho! that's your tone, you cruel, reprobate bully," said Bliss, supplied by indignation with an unusual flow of words; "we've had enough of that, and too much. You can look at poor little Evson there, and not sink into the very earth for shame! By heavens, Belial, you shall receive what you've given. I'll beat you as if you were a dog. Take that." The cut which followed showed that he was in desperate earnest, and that, however immovable he might generally be, it was by no means safe to trifle with him in such a mood as this.
Mackworth tried in vain to seize the cane; Bliss turned him round and round as if he were a child; and as it was quite clear that he did not mean to have done with him just yet, Mackworth's impudent bravado was changed into abject terror as he received a second weighty stroke, so heartily administered that the cane bent round him, in the hideous way which canes have, and caught him a blow on the ribs.
Mackworth sprang away, and fled, howling with shame and pain, through the open door, but not until Bliss had given him two more blows on the back, with one of the two cutting open his coat from the collar downwards, with the other leaving a mark at least as black as that which he had inflicted on the defenceless Charlie.
"To your rooms, the rest of you wretches," said he, as they dispersed in every direction before him. "Kenrick," he continued, brandishing the cane, "I may be a dolt, as you've called me before now, but since you won't do your duty, henceforth I will do it for you."
Kenrick slank off, half afraid that Bliss would apply the cane to him; and, speaking in a tone of authority, Bliss said to the boys in the dormitory, "If one of you henceforth touch a hair of Evson's head, look out; you know me. You little scamp and scoundrel, Wilton, take especial care." He enforced the admonition by making Wilton jump with a little rap of the cane, which he then broke, and flung out of the window. And then, his whole manner changing instantly into an almost womanly tenderness, he sat by poor little Charlie, soothing and comforting him till his hysterical sobs had ceased; and, when he felt sure that the fit was over, gently bade him good-night, and went out, leaving the room in dense silence, which no one ventured to break but the warm-hearted little Hanley, who, going to Charlie's bedside, said—
"Oh, Charlie, are you hurt much?"
"No, not very much, thank you, Hanley."
Hanley pressed his hand, and said, "You've conquered, Charlie; you've held out to the end. Oh, I wish I were like you!"
CHAPTER THIRTY FOUR.
A CONSPIRACY FOILED.
As the feathery snows Fall frequent on some wintry day... The stony volleys flew.
Yes, Charlie had conquered, thanks to the grace that sustained him, and thanks, secondarily, to a good home training, and to Walter's strong and excellent influence. And in gaining that one point he had gained all. No one dared directly to molest him further, and he had never again to maintain so hard a struggle. He had resisted the beginnings of evil; he had held out under the stress of persecution; and now he could enjoy the smoother and brighter waters over which he sailed.
His enemies were for the time discomfited, and even the hardy Wilton was abashed. For a week or two there was considerably less bravado in his face and manner, and his influence over those of his own age was shaken. That little rap of the cane which Bliss had given him had a most salutary effect in diminishing his conceit. Hanley retracted his promise to deny all knowledge of anything wrong that went on, and openly defied Wilton; even Elgood ceased to fear him. Charlie had felt inclined to cut him, but, with generous impulse, he forgave all that was past, and, keeping on civil terms with him, did all he could to draw him to less crooked paths.
Mackworth was so ashamed that he hardly ventured to show his face. He had always made Bliss a laughing-stock, had nicknamed him Ass's Head, and had taught others to jeer at his backwardness. He had presumed on his lazy good humour, and affected to patronise and look down on him. An eruption in a long-extinct volcano could not have surprised him more than the sudden outburst of Bliss's wrath, and if the two blows which he had received as he fled before him in sight of the whole house had been branded on his back with a hot iron, they could hardly have caused him more painful humiliation. For some time he slunk about like a whipped puppy, and imagined, not without some ground, that no one saw him without an inclination to smile.
Kenrick, too, had reason to blush. Every one knew that it was Bliss, and not he, who had rescued the house from attaching to its name another indelible disgrace; and when he heard the monitors and sixth-form talking seriously among themselves of the bad state into which the Noelites had fallen, he felt that the stigma was deserved, and that he, as being the chief cause of the mischief, must wear the brand.
All Kenrick's faults and errors had had their root in an overweening pride, a pride which grew fast upon him, and the intensity of which increased in proportion as it grew less and less justifiable. But now he had suffered a salutary rebuke. He had been openly blamed, openly slighted, and openly set aside, and was unable to gainsay the justice of the proceeding. He felt that with every boy in the school, who had any right feeling, Bliss was now regarded as a more upright and honourable— nay, even as a more important and influential, person than himself. Among other mortifications, it galled him especially to hear the warm thanks and cordial praise which Power and Walter and Henderson expressed when first they happened to meet Bliss. He saw Walter wring his hand, and overheard him saying in that genial tone in which he himself had once been addressed so often—"Thank you, Bliss, a thousand times for saving my dear little brother from the hands of those brutes. Charlie and I will not soon forget how much we owe you." Walter said it with tears in his eyes, and Bliss answered with a happy smile—"Don't thank me, Walter; I only did what any fellow would have done who was worth anything."
"And you'll look after Charlie for me now and then, will you?"
"That I will," said Bliss; "but you needn't fear for him—he's a hero, a regular hero—that's what I call him, and I'd do anything for him."
So Kenrick, vexed and discontented, almost hid himself in those days in his own study, the victim of that most wearing of intolerable and sickening diseases—a sense of shame. Except to play football occasionally, he seldom left his room or took any exercise, and fell into a dispirited, broken way of life, feeling unhappy and alone. He had no associates now except his inferiors, for his conduct had forfeited the regard of his equals, and with many of them he was at open feud. The only pleasure left to him was desperately hard work. Not only was he stimulated by a fiery ambition, a mad desire to excel in the half-year's competition, and show what he was yet capable of, and so to some extent redeem his unhappy position, but also his heart was fixed on getting, if possible, the chief scholarship of Saint Winifred's—a scholarship sufficiently valuable to pay the main part of those college expenses which it would be otherwise impossible for his mother to bear. He feared, indeed, that he had little or no chance against Power, or even against Walter, who were both competitors, but he would not give up all hope. His abilities were of the most brilliant order, and if he had often been idle at Saint Winifred's, he had, on the other hand, often worked exceedingly hard during the holidays at Fuzby, where, unlike other boys, he had little or nothing else to amuse him. Mrs Kenrick, sitting beside him silent at her work for long hours, would have been glad enough to see in him more elasticity, more kindliness, less absorption in his own selfish pursuits; but she rejoiced that at home, at any rate, he did not waste his vacant days in idleness, or spend them in questionable amusements and undesirable society.
Almost the only boy of whom he saw much now was Wilton, and but for him, I do believe, that in those days he would have changed his whole tone of thought and mode of life. But he had a strange liking for this worthless boy, who kept alive in him his jealousy of Walter, his opposition to the other monitors, his partisanship, his recklessness, and his pride. Sometimes Kenrick felt this. He saw that Wilton was bad as well as attractive, and that their friendship, instead of doing Wilton any good, only did himself harm. But he could not make up his mind to throw him off, for there was no one else who seemed to feel for him as a close and intimate friend. Many of Kenrick's failings rose from that. He had offended, and rejected, and alienated his early and true friends, and he felt now that it was easier to lose friends than to make them, or to recover their affection when it once was lost.
But the bad set at Saint Winifred's, though in one house their influence was weakened, were determined not to see it wane throughout the school. Harpour and his associates organised a regular conspiracy against the monitors. When the first light snow fell they got together a very large number of fellows, and snowballed all the monitors except Kenrick, as they came out of morning school. The exception was very much to Kenrick's discredit, and in his heart he felt it to be so. During the first day or two that this lasted the monitors took it good-humouredly, returning the snowballs, and regarding it as a joke, though an annoying one; but when it became more serious, when some snowballs had been thrown at the masters also, and when some of the worst fellows began to collect snowballs beforehand and harden them into great lumps of ice as hard as stones, and when Brown, who was short-sighted, and was therefore least able to protect himself, had received a serious blow, Power, by the advice of the rest, put up a notice that from that time the snowballing must cease, or the monitors would have to punish the boys who did it. This notice the school tried to resist, but the firmness of Power and his friends put a stop to their rebellion. If the notice was disregarded he determined, by Walter's, advice, to seize the ringleaders, and not notice the younger boys whom they incited. Accordingly next morning they found the school gathered as usual, in spite of the notice, for the purpose of pelting them, and, saying nothing, they kept their eyes on the biggest fellows in the group. A shower of snowballs fell among them, hitting several of them, and, to the great amusement of the school, knocking over several hats into the snow.
"Harpour," said Walter, very sternly, "I saw you throw a snowball. Aren't you ashamed of yourself that you, a fellow at the head of the eleven, should set such a bad example? Don't suppose that your size or position shall get you off. Come before the monitors directly after breakfast."
"Hanged if I do," answered Harpour, with a sulky laugh.
"Well, I daresay you will be hanged in the long-run," was the contemptuous reply; "but come, or else take the consequences."
"Tracy," said Henderson, "I saw you throw a snowball which knocked off Power's hat. It was a hard one too. You come before the monitors with Harpour."
"I shall be quaite delaighted," drawled out Tracy.
"Glad to hear it; I hope you'll be quaite equally delaighted when you leave us." The mimicry was so perfect that all the boys broke into a roar of laughter, which was all the louder because Tracy immediately began to chafe and "smoke."
"And, Jones," said Power, as the laugh against Tracy subsided, "I think I saw you throw a snowball and hit Smythe. I strongly suspect, too, that you were the fellow who hit Brown yesterday. I think every one will know, Jones, why you chose Smythe and Brown to pelt, instead of any other monitors. You too come to the sixth-form room after breakfast."
"I didn't throw one," said Jones.
"You astounding liar," said Henderson, "I saw you with my own eyes."
"Oh, ay; of course you'll say so to spite me."
"Spite you," said Henderson scornfully; "my dear fellow, you don't enter into my thoughts at all. But mark you, Master Jones, I know moreover that you've been the chief getter-up of this precious demonstration. You told the fellows that you'd lead them. I'm not sure that you didn't quote to them the lines—
"'Press where ye see my white plume shine amid the ranks of war, And be your oriflamme to-day the helmet of—Jones.'"
Another peal of laughter followed this allusion to Jones's well-known nickname of White-feather, a nickname earned by many acts of conspicuous cowardice.
"Hush, Flip," whispered Power, "we mustn't make this quite a joke. Jones," he continued aloud, "do you deny throwing a snowball just now at Smythe?"
"I didn't throw one," said Jones, turning pale as he heard the hiss, and the murmur of "White-feather again," which followed his denial.
"Why, what a pitiful, wretched, sneaking coward you are," burst out Franklin; "I heard you egging on these fellows to pelt the monitors— they wouldn't have done it but for you and Harpour—and I saw you hit Smythe just now. You took care to pelt no one else, and now you deny it before all of us who saw you. Upon my word, Jones, I feel inclined to kick you, and I will too."
"Stop, Franklin," said Walter, laying his hands on his shoulder, "leave him to us now. Do you still deny throwing, Jones?"
"Well, it was only just a little piece of snow," said Jones, showing in his blotched face every other contemptible passion fused into the one feeling of abject fear.
"Faugh!" said Power, with scorn and disgust curling his lip and burning in his glance; "really, Jones, you're almost too mean and nasty to have any dealings with. I don't think we can do you the honour of convening you. You shall apologise to Smythe here and now, and that shall be enough for you."
"What! do you hesitate?" said Franklin; "you don't know when you're well off. Be quick, for we all want our breakfast."
"Never mind making him apologise," said Smythe; "he's sunk quite low enough already."
"It's his own doing," said Walter. "We can't have lies like his told without a blush at Saint Winifred's. Apologise he must and shall."
"Don't do it," said Mackworth.
"What!" said Henderson, "is that Mackworth speaking? Ah! I thought so—Bliss isn't here!"
Henderson's manner was irresistibly comic; and as Mackworth winced and slunk back to the very outside of the crowd, the loud laugh which followed showed that the complete exposure of the worthlessness of their champions had already turned the current of feeling among the young conspirators, and that they were beginning to regret their unprovoked attack on the upper boys.
"Now then, Jones, this is what you have to read," said Walter, who had been writing it on a slip of paper—"I humbly beg Smythe's pardon for pelting him, and the pardon of all present for my abominable lies."
Jones began to mumble it out, but there arose a general shout of—
"On your knees, White-feather; on your knees, and much louder."
Franklin, who was boiling over with anger and contempt, sprang forward, took Jones by the neck, and forced him on his knees in the snow, where he made him read the apology, and then let him loose. A shower of snowballs followed him as he ran to the refuge of the breakfast-hall, for there was not a boy present, no matter to what faction he belonged, who did not feel for Jones a very hearty contempt.
"I hope we shall have no more of this, boys," said Power, before the rest dispersed. "There have been monitors at Saint Winifred's for a hundred years now, and it's infinitely better for the school that there should be. I suppose you would hardly prefer to be at the mercy of such a fellow as that," he said, pointing in the direction of Jones's flight. "I don't know why we should be unpopular amongst you. You know that not one of us has ever abused his authority, or behaved otherwise than kindly to you all. But I am sorry to see that you are set on—set on by fellows who ought to know better. Don't suppose, any of you, that they will frighten us from doing what we know to be right, or that you can intimidate us when we are acting for the good of the school."
They cheered his few simple words, for they were proud of him as head-monitor. They had never had at Saint Winifred's a better scholar, or a more honourable boy; and though Harpour and his friends affected to sneer at him, Power was a general favourite, and the firm attitude which he now assumed increased the respect and admiration which he had always inspired.
"No more notice will be taken of this, you little fellows," said Walter to the crowd of smaller boys; "we know very well that you have merely been the tools in other hands, and that is why we only singled out three fellows. I am quite sure you won't behave in this way again; but if you do, remember we shan't pass it over so lightly."
"Come here you, Wilton," said Henderson, as the rest were dispersing. "You've been particularly busy, I see. So! six good hard snowballs in your jacket pocket, eh? Now, you just employ yourself in collecting every one of these snowballs that are lying ready here, and throw them into the pond. Don't let me see one when I come out. Belial junior will have to curtail his breakfast-time this morning, I guess," he continued to Whalley; "the young villain! shall we ever bring him to a right mind?"
Wilton, in a diabolical frame of mind, began his appointed task, and had just finished it as the boys came out of breakfast. "That will do," said Henderson. "I must trouble you for one minute more. Come with me." Shaking with cold and alarm, Wilton obeyed, muttering threats of vengeance, and driven almost frantic by the laughter with which Henderson received them. He walked across to the sixth-form room, and then seeing that all the monitors were assembled, sent him "to tell his friends, Harpour and Tracy, that their presence was demanded immediately."
"Never mind, Raven," said Kenrick to him; "it's a shame of them to bully you."
"I have made him collect some snowballs which he had a chief hand in making, and with one of which yesterday a monitor was seriously hurt; then I have sent him a message for two worthless fellows, whose counsels he generally follows; both of which things I have done to teach him a mild but salutary lesson. Is that what you call bullying?"
"I believe you spite the boy because you know I like him. It's just the kind of conduct worthy of you."
"If it gives you any comfort to say so, Kenrick, pray do; but let me tell you, that after the way you have allowed young Evson and others to be treated in your house, the charge of bullying comes with singularly ill grace from you."
An angry retort sprang to Kenrick's lips; but at that moment the two offenders came to the door, and Power said, "Hush, you two. We need unity now, if ever, and it will be very harmful if these fellows find a quarrel going on Kenrick, I wish you would try to—"
"Oh; yes; it's always Kenrick, of course," said he angrily. "I'll have nothing to do with your proceedings;" and, rising, from his place, he flung out of the room, not sorry to be absent from a scene which he thought might compromise his popularity with some of those who excepted him from the list of the monitors, whom they professed to consider as their natural enemies.
Harpour and Tracy had thought that when convened before the monitors they would have an opportunity for displaying plenty of insolence and indifference; but when they found themselves standing in the presence of those fifteen upper boys, each one of whom was in all respects their superior, all their courage evaporated. But they were let off very easily. The monitors were content with the complete triumph they had gained that morning, and with the disgrace to which these fellows had been compelled to submit. All that they now required from them was an expression of regret for what they had done, and a promise not to offend in the same way again; and when these had been extorted, they were dismissed by Power with some good advice, and a tolerably stern reprimand. Power did this with an ease and force which moved the admiration of all his brother monitors; no one could have done it as he did it, who was not supported by the authority of a high and stainless character consistently maintained. What he said was not without effect; even the coarse burly Harpour dared not look up, but could only fix his eyes on the floor and kick the matting in sullen wrath while this virtuous and noble boy looked at him and rebuked him; but Tracy was more deeply moved. Tracy, weak, foolish, and feebly fast as he was, had some elements of good and gentlemanly feeling in him, and, with more wisely chosen associates, would have developed a much less contemptible character. When Power had done speaking, he looked up and said, without one particle of his usual affectation—
"I really am sorry for helping to get up this affair. I see I've been in the wrong, and I beg pardon sincerely. You may depend on my not having anything more to do with a thing of this kind."
"Thank you, Tracy," said Walter; "that was spoken like a man. We've known each other for some time now, and I wish we could get on more unitedly. You might do some good in the school if you chose."
"Not much, I'm afraid now," said Tracy, "but I'll tr(ai)y."
"Well, then, Tracy, we'll shake hands on that resolve, and bygones shall be bygones," said Henderson. "You'll forgive my making fun of you this morning."
He shook hands with Henderson and with Walter, while Power, holding out his hand, said, smiling, "It's never too late to mend."
"No," said Tracy, looking at one of his boots, which he had a habit of putting out before the other.
"He applied your remark to his boots, Power," said Henderson, laughing. "Did you observe how the hole in one of them distressed him."
So the monitors separated, not without hopes that things were beginning to look a little brighter than before.
CHAPTER THIRTY FIVE.
THE FINAL FRACAS.
Harpour, and all who, like him, had long been endeavouring to undermine the authority which was the only safeguard to the morality of the school, felt themselves distinctly baffled. Mackworth had been put to utter rout by Bliss, and though he was almost bursting with dark spite, would not venture to do much; Jones had become a perfect joke through the whole school, and was constantly having white hen's feathers and goose-feathers enclosed to him in little envelopes until he was half mad with impotent wrath; Harpour himself had been made very decidedly to swallow the leek of public humiliation; and as for Wilton, he began to feel rather small.
Tracy again had openly deserted them. After the interview with Power, Harpour had abused him roundly as a turncoat, and he had told his former associates that he was sorry to have had anything to do with their machinations; that they were going all wrong, and were ruining the school, and that he at any rate felt that he had done mischief enough already, and meant to do no more. This proof of their failing influence exasperated them greatly. Harpour threatened, and Mackworth said all the pungent and insulting things he could, contemptuously mimicking all Tracy's dandiacal affectations. Tracy winced under this treatment; high words followed, and after a scene of noisy altercation, Tracy broke with his former "party," and after the quarrel spoke to them no more.
Dr Lane, too, had now recovered from his fever, and returned to the school. When the reins were in his strong hands, the difference was soon perceived. The abuses which had crept in during his absence were quietly and firmly rectified, and all tendencies to insubordination were repressed with a stern and just decision which it was impossible to gainsay or to resist. The whole aspect of things altered, and, lonely as he was among the Noelites, even Charlie Evson began to like Saint Winifred's better, and to feel more at home in its precincts.
Still, those who were rebelliously inclined were determined not to give in at once, and anxiously looked out for some opportunity in which they could have Kenrick on their side. If they could but secure this, they felt tolerably confident of giving the monitors a rebuff, and of carrying with them that numerous body in the school who had been taught under their training to resist authority on every possible occasion.
The opportunity was not long wanting. One fine afternoon a poor old woman had come up to the playground with a basket of trifles, by the sale of which she hoped to support herself during the unexpectedly long absence of a sailor son. Her extreme neatness of person, and her quiet, respectable manners had interested some of the boys in her appearance; and when she came up to sell the little articles, many of which her own industry had made, she generally found ready purchasers. Walter, who knew her well, had visited her cottage, and had often seen the sailor boy on whose earnings she in a great measure depended. This only son had now been away for some time on a distant voyage, and the poor woman, being pressed for the necessaries of life, took her basket once more to the playground of Saint Winifred's. Charlie had often heard about her from Walter, and he gladly made from her a few small purchases, in which the other boys followed his example. While he was doing this, he distinctly saw one of the Noelites—an ill-conditioned fellow in the shell, named Penn—thrust his hand into the old woman's basket, which was now surrounded by a large group of boys, and secrete a small bottle of scent. Charlie waited a moment, expecting to see him pay for it, but Penn, who fancied that he had been unobserved, dropped it quietly into his pocket, and stood looking on with an innocent and indifferent air.
Instantly Charlie's indignation knew no bounds. He could hardly believe his own eyes; he knew that a few of the very worst in the school, and some in his own house in particular, would regard this as a venial offence. They would not call it stealing but "bagging a thing," or, at the worst, "cribbing it"—concealing the villainy under a new name, a name with no very odious associations attached to it; just as they called lying "cramming," under which title it sounded much less repulsive. In fact, these young Noelites took a most Spartan view of these petty larcenies, confining the criminality to the incurring of detection. But they had never succeeded in making Charlie take this view; he never would adopt the change of language by which they altered the accepted meaning of words in accordance with their own propensities and dispositions, and to him this particular act which Penn committed with perfect nonchalance, appeared to be not only a theft, but a theft accompanied by a cruelty and deadness to all sense of pity, which dipped it in the very blackest and most revolting dye. He could not restrain, and did not attempt to restrain, the passionate contempt and horror which he felt for this act.
"Penn," he said, in a loud and excited voice, not doubting that the sympathies of the others would be as warm as his own, "Penn, you wicked brute, you have stolen that bottle of scent. Here, Mrs Hart, you shan't suffer at any rate if there is a fellow so base and wicked," and he at once pulled out his last half-crown, and insisted on her taking it in payment for the stolen article.
Penn, for the moment, was quite taken aback by the scathing flame of Charlie's righteous anger. If there had been none but Noelites there he would have made very light of the accusation, and probably have laughed it off; but there were others looking on who would, he knew, view the transaction in a very different light, so he thought that his safest course lay in a flat denial. It was not reasonable to expect that he would stick at this; a boy who has no scruples about "bagging" the property of a poverty-stricken old woman, is not likely to hesitate about telling a "cram" to escape exposure.
"What's all this about, you little fool? I haven't bagged anything."
Charlie was still more amazed; he positively could not understand a great brazen lie like this, and yet it was impossible to doubt that it was a lie, against the evidence of his own senses.
"You didn't take that scent-bottle? oh! how can you tell such a lie? I saw you with my own eyes."
"What do I care for you or your eyes?" was the only answer which Penn vouchsafed to return.
"You're always flying out at fellows like a young turkey-cock, you No-thank-you," said Wilton. "Why don't you thrash him, Penn, for his confounded impudence?"
"Thrash him yourself if you like, Raven; I don't care the snap of a finger for what he says."
"What do you mean, No-thank-you, by charging him with bagging the thing when he says he didn't?" said Wilton in a threatening tone to Charlie; and as Charlie took no notice, he enforced the question by a slap on the cheek; for Wilton had old grudges against Charlie to pay off.
"I didn't speak to you, Wilton; but you shan't hit me for nothing; you force me to fight against my will," said Charlie, returning the blow; "you can't say that I'm doing it to get off anything this time, as you did once before."
A long and desperate fight ensued between Charlie and Wilton; too long and too desperate in the opinion of several of the bystanders; but as there was no one near who had any authority, nobody liked to interfere. So, as they were very equally matched, neither of the combatants showed the least sign of giving in, though their faces and clothes were smeared with blood. At last Henderson and Whalley, who were strolling through the playground, caught sight of the crowd, and came up to see what was the matter.
"It's a fight," said Henderson; "young Evson and Belial junior; I'd much rather see them fight than see them friends."
"Yes, Flip; but they've evidently been fighting quite long enough to be good for them. You're a monitor—couldn't you see if they ought not to be separated, and shake hands?"
"Hallo, stop, you two," said Henderson, pushing his way into the crowd. "What's all this about? let's see that it's all right."
"It's a fair fight," said several; "you've no right to stop it."
"I won't stop it unless there's good reason, though I think it's gone on long enough. What began it?"
"No-thank-you charged Penn with—"
"Who is No-thank-you?" asked Whalley.
"Young Evson, then," said Mackworth sulkily, "charged Penn with bagging a scent-bottle from the old woman's basket, and then he was impudent, so Wilton was going to pitch into him."
"And couldn't manage it, apparently," said Whalley; "come, you two, shake hands now."
Charlie, after a moment's hesitation, frankly held out his hand; but Wilton said, "He'd no right to accuse a Noelite falsely as he did."
"It wasn't falsely," said Charlie; "I saw him take it, and a horrid shame it was."
"Is one of your bottles missing, Mrs Hart?" asked Whalley.
"Yes, sir; but now young Master Evson has paid for it, and I don't want no more fighting about it, sir, please."
"Well, my good woman, there's something for you," said Henderson, giving her a shilling; "and I hope nobody will treat you so badly again; you'd better go now. And now, Penn, if you didn't take the bottle, of course you won't mind being searched?"
"Of course I shall," said Penn, edging uneasily away to try if possible to get rid of the unlucky bottle, which now felt as if it burned his pocket.
"Stay, my friend," said Whalley, collaring him; "no shuffling away, if you please."
"What the devil is your right to search me?" said Penn, struggling in vain under Whalley's grasp; "don't you fellows let him search me."
The attention of all was now fairly diverted from the fight, which, therefore, remained undecided; while the boys, especially the Noelites, formed an angry group round Henderson and Whalley, to prevent them, if possible, from any attempt to search Penn. Meanwhile, seeing that something was going on, other boys came flocking up until a large number of the school were assembled there, while Whalley still kept tight hold of Penn, and Henderson watched that he should play no tricks; the Noelites meantime exclaiming very loudly against the supposed infringement of their abstract rights.
Kenrick was one of those who had now come up; and as several fellows entreated him to stick up for his own house, and not to let Penn be searched, he worked himself into a passion, and pushing into the circle, said loudly, "You've no right to search him; you shan't do it."
"Here's the head of the school, he shall decide," said Henderson, as Power and Walter approached. "State your own case, Kenrick."
"Well, the case simply is, that a scent-bottle has been taken from Mrs Hart; and Penn doesn't see—nor do I—why he should be searched."
"You haven't mentioned that young Evson says he saw him take it."
"Why, Charlie, what have you been doing?" said Walter, looking at his brother's bruised and smeared face in surprise.
"Only a fight," said Charlie; "I couldn't help it, Walter; Wilton struck me because I charged Penn with taking the bottle."
"Are you absolutely certain that you saw him, Charlie?"
"Yes; I couldn't possibly be mistaken."
"Well, then, clearly Penn must be searched," said Walter.
"But stop," said Power; "aren't we beginning at the wrong end? Penn, no doubt, if we ask him quietly, will empty his pockets for our satisfaction?"
"No I won't," said Penn, who was now dogged and sullen.
"Well, Kenrick has taken your part, will you let him or me search you privately?"
"Then search him, Henderson."
Instantly a rapid movement took place among the boys as though to prevent this; but before anything could be done, Henderson had seized Penn by both wrists and Whalley, diving a hand into his right pocket, drew out and held up a little ornamental scent-bottle!
This decisive proof produced for a moment a dead silence among the loud voices raised in altercation; and then Power said—
"Penn, you are convicted of lying and theft. What is Saint Winifred's coming too, when fellows can act like this? How am I to punish him?" he asked, turning to some of the monitors.
"Here and now, red-handed, flagrante delicto," said Walter. "Some of these lower fellows need an example."
"I think you are right. Symes, fetch me a cane."
"You shan't touch him," said Kenrick; "you'd no right to search him, in the first place."
"I mean to cane him, Kenrick. Who will prevent me?"
"We will," said several voices; among which Harpour's and Mackworth's were prominent.
"You mean to try and prevent it by force?"
"And, Kenrick, you abet this?"
"I do," said Kenrick, who had lost all self-control.
"I shall do it, nevertheless; it is my plain duty."
"And I recommend you all not to interfere," said Walter; "for it must and shall be done."
"Harpour," said Franklin, "remember, if you try force, I for one am against you the moment you stir."
"And I," said Bliss, stepping in front of Power; "and I," said Eden, Cradock, Anthony, and others—among whom was Tracy—taking their places by the monitors, and forming a firm front together.
Symes brought the cane. Power took it, and another monitor held Penn firmly by the wrists. At the first stroke, some of the biggest fifth-form fellows made a rush forward, but they were flung back, and could not break the line, while Harpour measured his full length on the turf from the effects of the buffet which Franklin dealt him. Kenrick was among those who pressed forward; and then, to his surprise and shame, Walter, who was the stronger of the two, grasped him by the shoulder, held him back, and said in a low tone, firm yet kind, "You must excuse my doing this, Kenrick; but otherwise you might suffer for it, and I think you will thank me afterwards."
Kenrick was astonished, and he at once desisted. Those were the first and only words which Walter had spoken to him, the only time Walter had touched him, for nearly three years; and in spite of all the abuse, calumny, and opposition which Walter had encountered at his hands, Kenrick could not but feel that they were wise words, prompted, like the action itself, by the spirit of true kindness. He said nothing, but abruptly turned away and left the ground.
The struggle had not lasted a moment, and it was thoroughly repulsed. There could not be the least doubt of that, or of the fact that those who were on the side of righteous order outnumbered and exceeded in strength the turbulent malcontents. Power inflicted on Penn a severe caning there and then. The attempt to prevent this, audacious and unparalleled as it was, afforded by its complete failure yet another proof that things were coming round, and that these efforts of the monitors to improve the tone of the lower boys would tell with greater and greater force. Even the character of the Noelites was beginning to improve; in that bad house not a single little new boy had successfully braved an organised antagonism to all that was good, and by his victorious virtuous courage had brought over others to the side of right, triumphing, by the mere force of good principle, over a banded multitude of boys far older, abler, and stronger than himself.
So that now Harpour, Mackworth, and Jones, were confined more and more to their own society, and were forced to keep their misconduct more and more to themselves. They sullenly admitted that they were foiled and thwarted, and from that time forward left the school to recover as fast as it could from their vicious influence. Among their other consolations—for they found themselves shunned on all sides—they proposed to go and have a supper at Dan's. One day, before the events last narrated, Power had seen them go in there. He had sent for them at once, and told them that they must know how strictly this was forbidden, what a wretch Dan was, and how ruinous such visits to his cottage must be. They knew well that if he informed of them they would be instantly expelled, and entreated him with very serious earnestness to pass it over this time, the more so because they had no notion that any monitor would ever tell of them, because since he had been a monitor, Kenrick had accompanied them there. Shocked as he was to hear this, it had determined Power not to report them, on the condition, which he made known to the other monitors, and of which he specially and pointedly gave warning to Kenrick, that they would not so offend again. This promise they wilfully broke, feeling perfectly secure, because Dan's cottage was at a remote and lonely part of the shore, where few boys ever walked, and where they had very little chance of being seen, if they took the precaution of entering by a back gate. But within a week of Penn's thrashing, Walter was strolling near the cottage with Eden and Charlie, and having climbed the cliff a little way to pluck for Eden (who had taken to botany) a flower of the yellow horned poppy which was waving there, he saw them go into Dan's door, and with them—as he felt sure—little Wilton. The very moment, however, that he caught sight of them, the fourth boy, seeing him on the cliff, had taken vigorously to his heels and scrambled away behind the rocks. Walter had neither the wish nor the power to overtake him, and as he had not so much seen Wilton as inferred with tolerable certainty that it was he, he only reported Harpour, Mackworth, and Jones to Dr Lane; at the same time sending for Wilton to tell him of his suspicion, and to give him a severe and earnest warning.
Dr Lane, on the best possible grounds, had repeatedly announced that he would expel any boy who had any dealings with the scoundrel Dan. He was not likely to swerve from that declaration in any case, still less for the sake of boys whose school career had been so dishonourable and reprobate as that of these three offenders. They were all three publicly expelled without mercy and without delay; and they departed, carrying with them, as they well-deserved to do, the contempt and almost the execration of the great majority of the school.
In the course of their examination before the headmaster, Jones, with a meanness and malice thoroughly characteristic, had said, "that he did not know there was any harm in going to Dan's, because Kenrick, one of the monitors, had done the same thing." At the time, Dr Lane had contemptuously silenced him, with the remark, "that he would gain nothing by turning informer;" but as Dr Lane was always kept pretty well informed of all that went on by the Famulus, he had reason to suspect, and even to know, that what Jones said was in this instance true. He knew, too, from other quarters how unsatisfactorily Kenrick had been going on, and the part he had taken in several acts of insubordination and disobedience. Accordingly, no sooner had Harpour, Jones, and Mackworth been banished from Saint Winifred's, than he sent for Kenrick, and administered to him a reprimand so uncompromising and stern, that Kenrick never forgot it to the end of his life. After upbraiding him for those many inconsistencies and follies, which had forfeited the strong esteem and regard which he once felt for him, he pointed out finally how he was wasting his school-life, and how little his knowledge and ability could redeem his neglect of duty and betrayal of trust; and he ended by saying, "All these reasons, Kenrick, have made me seriously doubt whether I should not degrade you altogether from your position of monitor and head of a house. It would be a strong step, but not stronger than you deserve. I am alone prevented by a deep and sincere wish that you should yet recover from your fall; and that, by knowing that some slight trust is still reposed in you, you may do something to prove yourself worthy of that trust, and to regain our confidence. I content myself, therefore, with putting you from your present place to the lowest on the list of monitors—a public mark of my displeasure, which I am sure you will feel to be just; and I must also remove you from the headship of your house—a post which I grieve to know that you have very grievously misused. I shall put Whalley in your place, as it happens that no monitor can be conveniently spared. He, therefore, is now the head of Mr Noel's house; and, so far, you will be amenable to his authority, which, I hope, you will not attempt to resist."
Kenrick, very full of bitter thoughts, hung his head, and said nothing. To know Dr Lane was to love and to respect him; and this poor fatherless boy did feel very great pain to have incurred his anger.
"I am unwilling, Kenrick," continued the Doctor, "to dismiss you without adding one word of kindness. You know, my dear boy, that I have your welfare very closely at heart, and that I once felt for you a warm and personal regard; I trust that I may yet be able to bestow it upon you again. Go and use your time better; remember that you are a monitor; remember that the well-being of many others depends in no slight measure on your conscientious discharge of your duties; check yourself in a career which only leads fast to ruin; and thank God, Kenrick, that you are not actually expelled as those three boys have been, but that you have still time and opportunity to amend, and to win again the character you once had."
Turned out of his headship to give way to a fifth-form boy, turned down to the bottom of the monitors, poor Kenrick felt unspeakably degraded; but he was forced to endure a yet more bitter mortification. Before going to Dr Lane he had received a message that he was wanted in the sixth-form room, and, with a touch of his old pride, had answered, "Tell them I won't come." Hardly had he reached his own study after leaving the Doctor, when Henderson entered with a grave face, and saying, "I am sorry, Kenrick, to be the bearer of this," handed to him a folded sheet of paper. Opening it he found that, at the monitors' meeting, to which he had been summoned, an unanimous vote of censure had been passed upon him in his absence, for the opposition which he had always displayed against his colleagues, and for the disgraceful part which he had taken in attempting to coerce them by force in the case of Penn. The document concluded, "We are therefore obliged, though with great and real reluctance, to take the unusual step of recording in the monitors' book this vote of censure against Kenrick, fourth monitor, for the bad example he has set and the great harm he has done, in at once betraying our interests and violating the first conditions on which he received his own authority: and we do this, not in a spirit of anger, but solely in the earnest and affectionate hope that this unanimous condemnation of his conduct by all his coadjutors may serve to recall him to a sense of his duty."
Appended were the names of all the monitors—but, no; as he glanced over the names he saw that one was absent, the name of Walter Evson. Evidently, it was not because Walter disapproved of the measure, for, had this been the case, Kenrick knew that his name would have appeared at the end as a formal dissentient; no, the omission of his name was due, Kenrick saw, to that same high reserve, and delicate, courteous consideration which had marked the whole of Walter's behaviour to him since the day of their disastrous quarrel.
Kenrick appreciated this delicacy, and his eyes were suffused with tears. Wilton, somewhat cowed by recent occurrences, was the only boy in his study at the time, and though Kenrick would have been glad to have some one near him, to whom he could talk of the disgraces which had fallen so heavily upon him, and to whom he could look for a little sympathy and counsel, yet to Wilton he felt no inclination to be at all communicative. There was, indeed, something about Wilton which he could not help liking, but there was and could be no sort of equality between them.
"Ken," said Wilton, "do you remember telling me the other day that I was shedding crocodile tears?—what are crocodile tears? I've always been wanting to ask you."
"It's just a phrase, Ra, for sham tears; and it was very rude of me, wasn't it? Herodotus says something about crocodiles; perhaps he'll explain it for us. I'd look and see if I had my Herodotus here, but I lost it nearly three years ago."
By one of those curious coincidences, which look strange in books, but which happen daily in common life, Tracy at this moment entered with the lost Herodotus in his hand, saying—
"Kenrick, I happened to be hunting out the classroom cupboard just now for a book I'd mislaid, when I found a book with your name in it—an Herodotus; so I thought I'd bring it you."
"By Jove!" said Wilton, "talk of—"
"Herodotus, and he'll appear," said Kenrick; "how very odd. It's mine, sure enough! I lost it, as I was just telling Wilton, I don't know how long ago. Now, Raven, I'll find you all he says about crocodiles."
"Before you look, may I tell you something?" asked Tracy. "I wanted an opportunity to speak with you."
"Do you mind coming out into the court, then?" said Tracy, glancing at Wilton.
"Oh, never mind me," said Wilton; "I'll go out."
"I shan't be a minute," said Tracy, "and then you can come back. What I wanted to say, Kenrick, was only this, and it was a great shame of me not to tell you before; but I see now that I've been a poor tool in the hands of those fellows. Jones made you believe, you know, that Evson had told him all about your home affairs, and about the pony-chaise, and so on," said Tracy, hurrying over the obnoxious subject.
"Yes, yes," said Kenrick impatiently. "Well, he never did, you know. I've heard Jones confess it often with his own lips."
"How can I believe him in one lie more than another, then? I believe the fellow couldn't open his lips without a lie flying out of them. How could Jones possibly have known about it any other way? There was only one fellow who could have told him, and that was Evson. Evson must have told me a lie when he said that he'd mentioned it to no one but Power."
"I don't believe Evson ever told a lie in his life," said Tracy. "However, I can explain your difficulty. Jones was in the some train as Evson; he saw you and him ride home; and, staying at Littleton, the next town to where you live, he heard all about you there. I've heard him say so."
"The black-hearted brute!" was all that Kenrick could ejaculate, as he paced up and down his study with agitated steps. "O Tracy, what an utter, utter ass, and fool, and wretch, I've been."
"So have I," said Tracy; "but I'm sorry now, and hope to improve. Better late than never. Good morning, Kenrick."
When Wilton returned to the study a quarter of an hour after, he found Kenrick's attention riveted by a note which he held in his hand, and which he seemed to be reading with his whole soul. So absorbed was he that he was not even disturbed by Wilton's entrance. Listlessly turning over the pages of his Herodotus to divert his painful thoughts by looking for the passage about the crocodiles, Kenrick had found an old note directed to himself. Painful thoughts, it seems, were to give him no respite that day; how well he knew that handwriting, altered a little now, more firm and mature, but even then a good, though a boyish hand. He tore it open; it was dated three years back, and signed Walter Evson. It was the long lost note in which Walter, once or twice rebuffed, had frankly and even earnestly asked pardon for any supposed fault, and begged for an immediate reconciliation—the very note of which Walter of course imagined that Kenrick had received, and from his not taking any notice of it, inferred, that all hope of renewing their friendship was finally at an end. Kenrick could not help thinking how very different a great part of his school-life would have been, had that note but come to hand!
He saw it all now as clearly as possible—his haste, his rash and false inferences, his foolish jealousy, his impetuous pride, his quick degeneracy, all the mischief he had caused, all the folly he had done, all the time he had wasted. Disgraced, degraded, despised by the best fellows in the school, censured unanimously by his colleagues, given up by masters whom he respected, without a single true friend, grievously and hopelessly in the wrong from the very commencement, he now felt bowed down and conquered, and, to Wilton's amazement, he laid his head upon his arms on the table before him without saying a word, and broke into a heavy sob. If his conscience had not declared against him, he could have borne everything else; but when conscience is our enemy, there is no chance of a mind at ease. Kenrick sat there miserable and self-condemned; he had injured his friend, injured his fellows, and injured, most deeply of all, himself. For, as the poet sings—
"He that wrongs his friend, Wrongs himself more; and ever bears about A silent court of justice in his breast; Himself the judge and jury, and himself The prisoner at the bar, ever condemned. And that drags down his life."
CHAPTER THIRTY SIX.
IN THE DEPTHS.
How easy to keep free from sin, How hard that freedom to recall! For dreadful truth it is, that men Forget the heavens from which they fall.
It may be thought strange that Kenrick did not at once, while his heart was softened, and when he saw so clearly how much he had erred, go there and then to Walter, confess to him that everything was now explained, that he had never received his last note, and that, for his own sake, he desired to be restored, as far as was possible, to his former footing. If that had not been for Kenrick a period of depression and ill-repute, he would undoubtedly have done so; but he did not like to go, now that he was in disgrace, now that his friendship could do no credit, and, as he feared, confer no pleasure on any one, and under circumstances which would make it appear that he had changed his views under the influence of selfish interest, rather than of true conviction or generous impulse. He thought, too, that friendship over was like water spilt, and could not be gathered up again; that it was like a broken thread which cannot again be smoothly reunited. So things remained on the same footing as before, except that Kenrick's whole demeanour was changed for the better. He bore his punishment in a quiet and manly way; took his place without a murmur below Henderson at the bottom of the monitors; did not by any bravado attempt to conceal that he felt justly humiliated, and gave Whalley his best assistance in governing the Noelites, and bringing them back by slow but sure degrees to a better tone of thought and feeling. Towards Walter especially his whole manner altered. Hitherto he had made a point of always opposing him, and taking every opportunity to show him a strong dislike. If Walter had embraced one opinion at a monitors' meeting, it was quite sufficient reason for Kenrick to support another; if Walter had spoken on one side at the debating society, Kenrick held it to be a logical consequence that, whatever he thought, he should speak on the other, and use his powers of speaking, which were considerable, to throw on Walter's illustrations and arguments all the ridicule he could. All this folly and virulence was now abandoned; the swagger which Kenrick had adopted was from that time entirely laid aside. At the very next meeting of the debating society he spoke, as indeed he generally thought, on the same side with Walter; and spoke, not in his usual flippant conceited style, but more seriously and earnestly, treating Walter's speech with approval and almost with deference. Every one noticed and rejoiced in this change of manner, and none more so than Walter Evson and Power.
Kenrick finished with these words—"Gentlemen, before I sit down I have a task to perform, which, however painful it may be to me, it is due to you that I should not neglect. I may do it now, because I see that none but the sixth-form are present, and because I may not have another early opportunity. I have incurred, as you are all well aware, a unanimous vote of censure from my colleagues—unanimous, although, through a delicacy which I am thankful to be still capable of keenly appreciating, the name of one..." the word "friend" sprang to his lips, but humility forbade him to adopt it, and he said... "the name of one monitor is absent from the appended signatures. Gentlemen, I do not like public recantations or public professions, but I feel it my duty to acknowledge without palliation that I feel the censure to have been deserved." His voice faltered with emotion as he proceeded: "I have been misled, gentlemen, and I have been labouring for a long time under a grievous mistake, which has led me to do much injustice and inflict many wrongs; for these errors I now ask the pardon of all, and especially of those who are most concerned. Your censure, gentlemen, concluded with a kind and friendly wish, and I cannot trust myself to say more now, than to echo that wish with all my heart, and to hope that ere long the efforts which I shall endeavour to make may succeed in persuading you to give me back your confidence and esteem, and to erase from the book the permanent record of your recent disapproval."
Every one present felt how great must have been the suffering which could wring such an expression of regret from a nature so proud as Kenrick's. They listened in silence, and when he sat down greeted him with an applause which showed how readily he might win their regard; while many of them came round him and shook hands with warmth.
"Gentlemen," said Power, rising, "I am sure we all feel that the remarks we have just heard do honour to the speaker. I hold in my hand the monitors' book, open at the page on which our censure was written. After what we have heard there can be no necessity why that page should remain where it is for a single day. I beg to move that leave may be given me to tear it out at once."
"And I am eager to second the motion," said Henderson, starting up at the same moment with several others; "and, Kenrick—if I may break through, on such an occasion as this, our ordinary forms, and address you by name—I am sure you will believe that though I have very often opposed you, no one will be more glad than myself to welcome you back as a friend, and to hope that you may soon be, what you are so capable of being, not only our greatest support, but also one of the brightest ornaments of our body." He held out his hand, which Kenrick readily grasped, whispering, with a sigh, "Ah, Flip, how I wish that we had never broken with each other!"
The proposal was carried by acclamation, and Power accordingly tore out the sheet and put it in the fire. And that night brightened for Kenrick into the dawn of better days. Twenty times over Walter thought that Kenrick was going to speak to him—for his manner was quite different; but Kenrick, though every particle of ill-will had vanished from his mind, and had been replaced by his old unimpaired affection, put off the reconciliation until he should have been able in some measure to recover his old position, and to meet his friend on a footing of greater equality.
Do not let any one think that his reformation was too easy. It took him long to conquer himself, and he found the task sorely difficult; but after many failures and relapses, the words of another who had sinned and suffered three thousand years ago, and who, after many a struggle, had discovered the true secret, came home to Kenrick and whispered to him the message—"Then I said, It is mine own infirmity: but I will remember the years of the right-hand of the Most Highest."
It was not long before one great difficulty confronted him, the consequence of former misdeeds, and put him under circumstances which demanded the whole courage of his character, and thoroughly tested the sincerity of his repentance.
After Mackworth's expulsion, and under Whalley's good government, the state of the Noelites greatly improved. Charlie Evson, for whom, now, by the by, Kenrick always did everything that lay in his power, became far more a model among the younger boys than Wilton had ever been, and there was a final end of suppers, smoking parties, organised cribbing, and recognised "crams." But just as the house was recovering lost ground, and had ceased to be quite a byeword in the school, it was thrown into consternation by a long-continued series of petty thefts.
Small sums were extracted from the boys' jacket pockets after they had gone to bed; from the play-boxes which were not provided with good locks and keys; from the private desks in the classrooms, from the dormitories, and from several of the studies. There was no clue to the offender, and first of all suspicion fell strongly on the new boy, little Elgood. A few trifling items of circumstantial evidence seemed to point him out, and it began to be gradually whispered, no one exactly knew how or by whom, that he must be the guilty boy. Hints were thrown out to him to this effect; little bits of paper, on which were written the words "Thou shalt not steal," or "The devil will have thieves," were dropped about in his books and wherever he was likely to find them, and whenever the subject was brought on the tapis his manner was closely watched. The effect was unsatisfactory; for Elgood was a timid nervous boy, and the uneasiness to which this nervousness gave rise was set down as a sign of guilt. At length a sovereign and a half were stolen out of Whalley's study, and as Elgood, being Whalley's fag, had constant access to the study, and might very well have known that Whalley had the money, and in what place he kept it, the prevalent suspicions were confirmed. The boys, with their usual thoughtless haste, leapt to the conclusion that he must have been the thief.
The house was in a perfect ferment. However lightly one or two of them, like Penn, may have thought about taking trifles from small tradesmen, there was not a single one among them, not even Penn himself, whose morality did not brand this thieving from schoolfellows as wicked and mean. The boys felt, too, that it was a stigma on their house, and unhappily Just at the time when the majority were really anxious to raise their corporate reputation. Every one was filled with annoyance and disgust, and felt an anxious determination to discover and give up the thief.
At last the suspicions against Elgood proceeded so far, that out of mere justice to him the heads of the house, Whalley, Kenrick, and Bliss, thought it right that he should be questioned. So, after tea, all the house assembled in the classroom, and Elgood was formally charged with the delinquency, and questioned about it, Wilton, in particular, urging him in almost a bullying tone to surrender and confess. The poor child was overwhelmed with terror—cried, blushed, answered incoherently, and lost his head, but would not for a moment confess that he had done it, and protested his innocence with many sobs and tears.
"Well, I suppose if he persists in denying it, we can't go any further," said Kenrick; "but I'm afraid, Elgood, that you must have had something to do with it, as every one seems to see ground for suspecting you."
"Oh, I hadn't, I hadn't; indeed I hadn't," wailed Elgood; "I wish you wouldn't say so, Kenrick; indeed I'm innocent, and I'd rather write home for the money ten times over than be suspected."
"So would any one, you little fool," said Wilton.
"Don't bully him in that way, Wilton," said Whalley; "it's not the way to get the truth out of him. Elgood, I should have thought you innocent, if you didn't behave so oddly."
"May I speak?" modestly asked a new voice. The speaker was Charlie Evson.
"Yes, certainly," said Kenrick, in an encouraging tone.
"Well then, please, Kenrick, and the whole of you, I think you have had the truth out of him; and I think he is innocent."
"Why, Charlie?" said Whalley; "what makes you think so?"
"Because I've asked him, and talked to him privately about it," said Charlie; "when you frighten him he gets confused, and contradicts himself, but he can explain whatever looks suspicious if you ask him kindly and Quietly."