Paul sat next to Jolland and, in his desperate anxiety to avoid further unpleasantness, found himself, as he could not for his life have written a Latin or a German composition, reduced to copy down his neighbour's exercises. This Jolland (who had looked forward to an arrangement of a very opposite kind) nevertheless cheerfully allowed him to do, though he expressed doubts as to the wisdom of a servile imitation—more, perhaps, from prudence than conscientiousness.
Jolland, in the intervals of study, was deeply engaged in the production of a small illustrated work of fiction, which he was pleased to call The Adventures of Ben Buterkin at Scool. It was in a great measure an autobiography, and the cuts depicting the hero's flagellations—which were frequent in the course of the narrative—were executed with much vigour and feeling.
He turned out a great number of these works in the course of the term, as well as faces in pen and ink with moving tongues and rolling eyes, and these he would present to a few favoured friends with a secretive and self-depreciatory giggle.
Amidst scenes and companions like these, Paul sat out the evening hours on his hard seat, which was just at the junction of two forms—an exquisitely uncomfortable position, as all who have tried it will acknowledge—until the time for going to bed came round again. He dreaded the hours of darkness, but there was no help for it—to protest would have been madness just then, and, once more, he was forced to pass a night under the roof of Crichton House.
It was even worse than the first, though this was greatly owing to his own obstinacy.
The boys, if less subdued, were in better temper than the evening before, and found it troublesome to keep up a feud when the first flush of resentment had died out. There was a general disposition to forget his departure from the code of schoolboy honour, and give him an opportunity of retrieving the past.
But he would not meet them half-way; his repeated repulses by the Doctor and all the difficulties that beset his return to freedom had made him very sulky and snappish. He had not patience or adaptability enough to respond to their advances, and only shrank from their rough good nature—which naturally checked the current of good feeling.
Then, when the lights were put out, some one demanded a story. Most of the bedrooms possessed a professional story-teller, and in one there was a young romancist who began a stirring history the very first night of the term, which always ran on until the night before the holidays, and, if his hearers were apt to yawn at the sixth week of it, he himself enjoyed and believed in it keenly from beginning to end.
Dick Bultitude had been a valued raconteur, it appeared, and his father found accordingly, to his disgust, that he was expected to amuse them with a story. When he clearly understood the idea, he rejected it with so savage a snarl, that he soon found it necessary to retire under the bedclothes to escape the general indignation that followed.
Finding that he did not actively resent it (the real Dick would have had the occupant of the nearest bed out by the ears in a minute!), they profited by his prudence to come to his bedside, where they pillowed his weary head (with their own pillows) till the slight offered them was more than avenged.
After that, Mr. Bultitude, with the breath half beaten out of his body, lay writhing and spluttering on his hard, rough bed till long after silence had fallen over the adjoining beds, and the sleepy hum of talk in the other bedrooms had died away.
Then he, too, drifted off into wild and troubled dreams, which, at their maddest, were scattered into blankness by a sudden and violent shock, which jerked him, clutching and grasping at nothing, on to the cold, bare boards, where he rolled, shivering.
"An earthquake!" he thought, "an explosion ... gas—or dynamite! He must go and call the children ... Boaler ... the plate!"
But the reality to which he woke was worse still. Tipping and Coker had been patiently pinching themselves to keep awake until their enemy should be soundly asleep, in order to enjoy the exquisite pleasure of letting down the mattress; and, too dazed and frightened even to swear, Paul gathered up his bedclothes and tried to draw them about him as well as he might, and seek sleep, which had lost its security.
The Garuda Stone had done one grim and cruel piece of work at least in its time.
7. Cutting the Knot
"A Crowd is not Company; And Faces are but a Gallery of Pictures; And Talke but a Tinckling Cymball, where there is no Love." —BACON.
Once more Mr. Bultitude rose betimes, dressed noiselessly, and stole down to the cold schoolroom, where one gas-jet was burning palely—for the morning was raw and foggy.
This time, however, he was not alone. Mr. Blinkhorn was sitting at his little table in the corner, correcting exercises, with his chilly hands cased in worsted mittens. He looked up as Paul came in, and nodded kindly.
Paul went straight to the fire, and stood staring into it with lack-lustre eye, too apathetic even to be hopeless, for the work of enlightening the Doctor seemed more terrible and impossible than ever, and he began to see that, if the only way of escape lay there, he had better make up his mind with what philosophy he could to adapt himself to his altered circumstances, and stay on for the rest of the term.
But the prospect was so doleful and so blank, that he drew a heavy sigh as he thought of it. Mr. Blinkhorn heard it, and rose awkwardly from the rickety little writing-table, knocking over a pile of marble-covered copy-books as he did so.
Then he crossed over to Paul and laid a hand gently on his shoulder. "Look here," he said: "why don't you confide in me? Do you think I'm blind to what has happened to you? I can see the change in you—if others cannot. Why not trust me?"
Mr. Bultitude looked up into his face, which had an honest interest and kindliness in it, and his heart warmed with a faint hope. If this young man had been shrewd enough to guess at his unhappy secret, might he not be willing to intercede with the Doctor for him? He looked good-natured—he would trust him.
"Do you mean to say really," he asked, with more cordiality than he had spoken for a long time, "that you—see—the—a—the difference?"
"I saw it almost directly," said Mr. Blinkhorn, with mild triumph.
"That's the most extraordinary thing," said Paul, "and yet it ought to be evident enough, to be sure. But no, you can't have guessed the real state of things!"
"Listen, and stop me if I'm wrong. Within the last few days a great change has been at work within you. You are not the idle, thoughtless, mischievous boy who left here for his holidays——"
"No," said Paul, "I'll swear I'm not!"
"There is no occasion for such strong expressions. But, at all events, you come back here an altogether different being. Am I right in saying so?"
"Perfectly," said Paul, overjoyed at being so thoroughly understood, "perfectly. You're a very intelligent young man, sir. Shake hands. Why, I shouldn't be surprised, after that, if you knew how it all happened?"
"That too," said Mr. Blinkhorn smiling, "I can guess. It arose, I doubt not, in a wish?"
"Yes," cried Paul, "you've hit it again. You're a conjurer, sir, by Gad you are!"
"Don't say 'by Gad,' Bultitude; it's inconsistent. It began, I was saying, in a wish, half unconscious perhaps, to be something other than what you had been——"
"I was a fool," groaned Mr. Bultitude, "yes, that was the way it began!"
"Then insensibly the wish worked a gradual transformation in your nature (you are old enough to follow me?)."
"Old enough for him to follow me!" thought Paul; but he was too pleased to be annoyed. "Hardly gradual I should say," he said aloud. "But go on, sir, pray go on. I see you know all about it."
"At first the other part of you struggled against the new feelings. You strove to forget them—you even tried to resume your old habits, your former way of life—but to no purpose; and when you came here, you found no fellowship amongst your companions——"
"Quite out of the question!" said Paul.
"Their pleasures give you no delight——"
"Not a bit!"
"They, on their side, perhaps misunderstand your lack of interest in their pursuits. They cannot see—how should they?—that you have altered your mode of life, and when they catch the difference between you and the Richard Bultitude they knew, why, they are apt to resent it."
"They are," agreed Mr. Bultitude: "they resent it in a confounded disagreeable way, you know. Why, I assure you, that only last night I was——"
"Hush," said Mr. Blinkhorn, holding up one hand, "complaints are unmanly. But I see you wonder at my knowing all this?"
"Well," said Paul, "I am rather surprised."
"What would you say if I told you I had undergone it myself in my time?"
"You don't mean to tell me there are two Garuda Stones in this miserable world!" cried Paul, thoroughly astonished.
"I don't know what you mean now, but I can say with truth that I too have had my experiences—my trials. Months ago, from certain signs, I noticed, I foresaw that this was coming upon you."
"Then," said Mr. Bultitude, "I think, in common decency, you might have warned me. A post-card would have done it. I should have been better prepared to meet this, then!"
"It would have been worse than fruitless to attempt to hurry on the crisis. It might have even prevented what I fondly hoped would come to pass."
"Fondly hoped!" said Paul, "upon my word you speak plainly, sir."
"Yes," said Mr. Blinkhorn. "You see I knew the Dick Bultitude that was, so well; he was frolicksome, impulsive, mischievous even, but under it all there lay a nature of sterling worth."
"Sterling worth!" cried Paul. "A scoundrel, I tell you, a heartless, selfish young scoundrel. Call things by their right names, if you please."
"No, no," said Mr. Blinkhorn, "this extreme self-depreciation is morbid, very morbid. There was no actual vice."
"No actual vice! Why, God bless my soul, do you call ingratitude—the basest, most unfilial, most treacherous ingratitude—no vice, sir? You may be a very excellent young man, but if you gloss over things in that fashion, your moral sense must be perverted, sir—strangely perverted."
"There were faults on both sides, I fear," said Mr. Blinkhorn, growing a little scandalised by the boy's odd warmth of expression. "I have heard something of what you had to bear with. On the one hand, a father, undemonstrative, stern, easily provoked; on the other, a son, thoughtless, forgetful, and at times it may be even wilful. But you are too sensitive; you think too much of what seems to me a not unnatural (although of course improper) protest against coldness and injustice. I should be the last to encourage a child against a parent, but, to comfort your self-reproach, I think it right to assure you that, in my judgment, the outburst you refer to was very excusable."
"Oh," said Paul, "you do? You call that comfort? Excusable! Why, what the dooce do you mean, sir? You're taking the other side now!"
"This is not the language of penitence, Bultitude," said poor Mr. Blinkhorn, disheartened and bewildered. "Remember, you have put off the Old Man now!"
"I'm not likely to forget that," said Paul; "I only wish I could see my way to putting him on again!"
"You want to be your old self again?" gasped Mr. Blinkhorn.
"Why, of course I do," said Paul angrily; "I'm not an idiot!"
"You are weary of the struggle so soon?" said the other with reproach.
"Weary? I tell you I'm sick of it! If I had only known what was in store for me before I had made such a fool of myself!"
"This is horrible!" said Mr. Blinkhorn—"I ought not to listen to you."
"But you must," urged Paul; "I tell you I can't stand it any longer. I'm not fit for it at my age. You must see that yourself, and you must make Grimstone see it too!"
"Never!" said Mr. Blinkhorn firmly. "Nor do I see how that would help you. I will not let you go back in this deplorable way. You must nerve yourself to go on now in the path you have chosen; you must force your schoolfellows to love and respect you in your new character. Come, take courage! After all, in spite of your altered life, there is no reason why you should not be a frank and happy-hearted boy, you know."
"A frank and happy-hearted fiddlestick!" cried Paul rudely (he was so disgusted at the suggestion); "don't talk rubbish, sir! I thought you were going to show me some way out of all this, and instead of that, knowing the shameful way I've been treated, you can stand there and calmly recommend me to stay on here and be happy-hearted and frank!"
"You must be calm, Bultitude, or I shall leave you. Listen to reason. You are here for your good. Youth, it has been beautifully said, is the springtime of life. Though you may not believe it, you will never be happier than you are now. Our schooldays are——"
But Mr. Bultitude could not tamely be mocked with the very platitudes that had brought him all his misery—he cut the master short in a violent passion. "This is too much!" he cried—"you shall not palm off that miserable rubbish on me. I see through it. It's a plot to keep me here, and you're in it. It's false imprisonment, and I'll write to the Times. I'll expose the whole thing!"
"This violence is only ridiculous," said Mr. Blinkhorn. "If I were not too pained by it, I should feel it my duty to report your language to the Doctor. As it is, you have bitterly disappointed me; I can't understand it at all. You seemed so subdued, so softened lately. But until you come to me and say you regret this, I must decline to have anything more to say to you. Take your book and sit down in your place!"
And he went back to his exercises, looking puzzled and pained. The fact was, he was an ardent believer in the Good Boy of a certain order of school tales—the boy who is seized with a sudden conviction of the intrinsic baseness of boyhood, and does all in his power to get rid of the harmful taint; the boy who renounces his old comrades and his natural tastes (which after all seldom have any serious harm in them), to don a panoply of priggishness which is too often kick-proof.
This kind of boy is rare enough at most English schools, but Mr. Blinkhorn had been educated at a large Nonconformist College, where "Revivals" and "Awakenings" were periodical, and undoubtedly did produce changes of character violent enough, but sadly short in duration.
He was always waiting for some such boy to come to him with his confession of moral worthlessness and vows of unnatural perfection, and was too simple and earnest and good himself to realise that such states of the youthful mind are not unfrequently merely morbid and hysterical, and too often degenerate into Pharisaism, or worse still, hypocrisy.
So when he noticed Mr. Bultitude's silence and depression, his studied withdrawal from the others and his evident want of sympathy with them, he believed he saw the symptoms of a conscience at work, and that he had found his reformed boy at last.
It was a very unfortunate misunderstanding, for it separated Paul from, perhaps, the only person who would have had the guilelessness to believe his incredible story, and the good nature to help him to find escape from his misfortunes.
Mr. Bultitude on his part was more angry and disgusted than ever. He began to see that there was a muddle somewhere, and that his identity was unsuspected still. This young man, for all his fair speaking and pretended shrewdness, was no conjurer after all. He was left to rely on his own resources, and he had begun to lose all confidence in their power to extricate him.
As he brooded over this, the boys straggled down as before, and looked over their lessons for the day in a dull, lifeless manner. The cold, unsatisfying breakfast, and the half-hour assigned to "chevy," followed in due course, and after that Paul found himself set down with a class to await the German master, Herr Stohwasser.
He had again tried to pull himself together and approach the Doctor with his protest, but no sooner did he find himself near his presence than his heart began to leap wildly and then retired down towards his boots, leaving him hoarse, palpitating, and utterly blank of ideas.
It was no use—and he resigned himself for yet another day of unwelcome instruction.
The class was in a little room on the basement floor, with a linen-press taking up one side, some bare white deal tables and forms, and, on the walls, a few coloured German prints. They sat there talking and laughing, taking no notice of Mr. Bultitude, until the German master made his appearance.
He was by no means a formidable person, though stout and tall. He wore big round owlish spectacles, and his pale broad face and long nose, combined with a wild crop of light hair and a fierce beard, gave him the incongruous appearance of a sheep looking out of a gun-port.
He took his place with an air of tremendous determination to enforce a hard morning's work on the book they were reading—a play of Schiller's, of the plot of which, it is needless to say, no one of his pupils had or cared to have the vaguest notion, having long since condemned the whole subject, with insular prejudice, as "rot."
"Now, please," said Herr Stohwasser, "where we left off last term. Third act, first scene—Court before Tell's house. Tell is vid the carpenter axe, Hedwig vid a domestig labour occupied. Walter and Wilhelm in the depth sport with a liddle gross-bow. Biddlegom, you begin. Walter (sings)."
But Biddlecomb was in a conversational mood, and willing to postpone the task of translation, so he merely inquired, with an air of extreme interest, how Herr Stohwasser's German Grammar was getting on.
This was a subject on which (as he perhaps knew) the German never could resist enlarging, for in common with most German masters, he was giving birth to a new Grammar, which, from the daring originality of its plan, and its extreme simplicity, was destined to supersede all other similar works.
"Ach," he said, "it is brogressing. I haf just gompleted a gomprehensive table of ze irregular virps, vith ze eggserzizes upon zem. And zere is further an appendeeks which in itself gontains a goncise view of all ze vort-blays possible in the Charman tong. But, come, let us gontinue vith our Tell!"
"What are vort-blays?" persisted Biddlecomb insidiously, having no idea of continuing with his Tell just yet.
"A vort-blay," exclaimed Herr Stohwasser; "it is English, nicht so? A sporting vid vorts—a 'galembour'—a—Gott pless me, vat you call a 'pon.'"
"Like the one you made when you were a young man?" Jolland called out from the lower end of the table.
"Yes; tell us the one you made when you were a young man," the class entreated, with flattering eagerness.
Herr Stohwasser began to laugh with slow, deep satisfaction; the satisfaction of a successful achievement. "Hah, you remember dat!" he said, "ah, yes, I make him when a yong man; but, mind you, he was not a pon—he was a 'choke.' I haf told you all about him before."
"We've forgotten it," said Biddlecomb: "tell it us again."
As a matter of fact this joke, in all its lights, was tolerably familiar to most of them by this time, but, either on its individual merits, or perhaps because it compared favourably with the sterner alternative of translating, it was periodically in request, and always met with evergreen appreciation.
Herr Stohwasser beamed with the pride of authorship. Like the celebrated Scotchman, he "jocked wi' deeficulty," and the outcome of so much labour was dear to him.
"I zent him into ze Charman Kladderadatch (it is a paper like your Ponch). It—mein choke—was upon ze Schleswig-Holstein gomplication; ze beginning was in this way——"
And he proceeded to set out in great length all the circumstances which had given materials for his "choke," with the successive processes by which he had shaped and perfected it, passing on to a recital of the masterpiece itself, and ending up by a philosophical analysis of the same, which must have placed his pupils in full possession of the point, for they laughed consumedly.
"I dell you zis," he said, "not to aggustom your minds vid frivolity and lightness, but as a lesson in ze gonstruction of ze langwitch. If you can choke in Charman, you will be able also to gonverse in Charman."
"Did the German what's-its-name print your joke?" inquired Coggs.
"It has not appeared yet," Herr Stohwasser confessed; "it takes a long time to get an imbortant choke like that out in brint. But I vait—I write to ze editor every week—and I vait."
"Why don't you put it in your Grammar?" suggested Tipping.
"I haf—ze greater part of it—(it vas a long choke, but I gompressed him). If I haf time, some day I will make anozer liddle choke to aggompany, begause I vant my Crammar to be a goot Crammar, you understandt. And now to our Tell. Really you beople do noding but chadder!"
All this, of course, had no interest for Mr. Bultitude, but it left him free to pursue his own thoughts in peace, and indeed this lesson would never have been recorded here, but for two circumstances which will presently appear, both of which had no small effect on his fortunes.
He sat nearest the window, and looked out on the pinched and drooping laurels in the enclosure, which were damp with frost melting in the sunshine. Over the wall he could see the tops of passing vehicles, the country carrier's cart, the railway parcels van, the fly from the station. He envied even the drivers; their lot was happier than his!
His thoughts were busy with Dick. Oddly enough, it had scarcely occurred to him before to speculate on what he might be doing in his absence; he had thought chiefly about himself. But now he gave his attention to the subject, what new horrors it opened up! What might not become of his well-conducted household under the rash rule of a foolish schoolboy! The office, too—who could say what mischief Dick might not be doing there, under the cover of his own respectable form?
Then it might seem good to him any day to smash the Garuda Stone, and after that there would be no hope of matters being ever set right again!
And yet, miserable coward and fool that he was, with everything depending upon his losing no time to escape, he could not screw up his courage, and say the words that were to set him free.
All at once—and this is one of the circumstances that make the German lesson an important stage in this story—an idea suggested itself to him quite dazzling by its daring and brilliancy.
Some may wonder, when they hear what it was, why he never thought of it before, and it is somewhat surprising, but by no means without precedent. Artemus Ward has told us somewhere of a ferocious bandit who was confined for sixteen years in solitary captivity, before the notion of escape ever occurred to him. When it did, he opened the window and got out.
Perhaps a similar passiveness on Mr. Bultitude's part was due to a very natural and proper desire to do everything without scandal, and in a legitimate manner; to march out, as it were, with the honours of war. Perhaps it was simple dullness. The fact remains that it was not till then that he saw a way of recovering his lost position, without the disagreeable necessity of disclosing his position to anyone at Crichton House.
He had still—thank Heaven—the five shillings he had given Dick. He had not thrown them away with the other articles in his mad passion. Five shillings was not much, but it was more than enough to pay for a third-class fare to town. He had only to watch his opportunity, slip away to the station, and be at home again, defying the usurper, before anyone at Crichton House had discovered his absence.
He might go that very day, and the delight of this thought—the complete reaction from blank despair to hope—was so intense that he could not help rubbing his hands stealthily under the table, and chuckling with glee at his own readiness of resource.
When we are most elated, however, there is always a counteracting agent at hand to bring us down again to our proper level, or below it. The Roman general in the triumph never really needed the slave in the chariot to dash his spirits—he had his friends there already; the guests at an Egyptian dinner must have brought their own skeletons.
There was a small flaxen-haired little boy sitting next to Mr. Bultitude, seemingly a quite inoffensive being, who at this stage served to sober him by furnishing another complication.
"Oh, I say, Bultitude," he piped shrilly in Paul's ear, "I forgot all about it. Where's my rabbit?"
The unreasonable absurdity of such a question annoyed him excessively. "Is this a time," he said reprovingly, "to talk of rabbits? Mind your book, sir."
"Oh, I daresay," grumbled little Porter, the boy in question: "it's all very well, but I want my rabbit."
"Hang it, sir," said Paul angrily, "do you suppose I'm sitting on it?"
"You promised to bring me back a rabbit," persisted Porter doggedly; "you know you did, and it's a beastly shame. I mean to have that rabbit, or know the reason why."
At the other end of the table Biddlecomb had again dexterously allured Herr Stohwasser into the meshes of conversation; this time upon the question (a propos de bottes) of street performances. "I vill tell you a gurious thing," he was saying, "vat happened to me de oder day ven I vas valking down de Strandt. I saw a leedle gommon dirty boy with a tall round hat on him, and he stand in a side street right out in de road, and he take off his tall round hat, and he put it on de ground, and he stand still and look zo at it. So I shtop too, to see vat he vould do next. And bresently he take out a large sheet of baper and tear it in four pieces very garefully, and stick zem round de tall round hat, and put it on his head again, and zen he set it down on de grount and look at it vonce more, and all de time he never speak von vort. And I look and look and vonder vat he would do next. And a great growd of beoples com, and zey look and vonder too. And zen all at once de leedle dirty boy he take out all de paper and put on de hat, and he valk avay, laughing altogetter foolishly at zomzing I did not understand at all. I haf been thinking efer since vat in the vorldt he do all zat nonsence for. And zere is von ozer gurious thing I see in your London streets zat very same day. Zere vas a poor house cat dat had been by a cab overrun as I passed by, and von man vith a kind varm heart valk up and stamp it on de head for to end its pain. And anozer man vith anozer kind heart, he gom up directly and had not seen de cat overrun, but he see de first man stamping and he knock him down for ill-treating animals; it was quite gurious to see; till de policeman arrest dem both for fighting. Goggs, degline 'Katze,' and gif me ze berfect and bast barticiple of 'kampfen,' to fight." This last relapse into duty was caused by the sudden entrance of the Doctor, who stood at the door looking on for some time with a general air of being intimately acquainted with Schiller as an author, before suggesting graciously that it was time to dismiss the class.
Wednesday was a half-holiday at Crichton House, and so, soon after dinner, Paul found himself marshalled with the rest in a procession bound for the football field. They marched two and two, Chawner and three of the other elder boys leading with the ball and four goal-posts ornamented with coloured calico flags, and Mr. Blinkhorn and Mr. Tinkler bringing up the rear.
Mr. Bultitude was paired with Tom Grimstone, who, after eyeing him askance for some time, could control his curiosity no longer.
"I say, Dick," he began, "what's the matter with you this term?"
"My name is not Dick," said Paul stiffly.
"Oh, if you're so particular then," said Tom: "but, without humbug, what is the matter?"
"You see a change then," said Paul, "you do see a difference, eh?"
"Rather!" said Tom expressively. "You've come back what I call a beastly sneak, you know, this term. The other fellows don't like it; they'll send you to Coventry unless you take care."
"I wish they would," said Paul.
"You don't talk like the same fellow either," continued Tom; "you use such fine language, and you're always in a bait, and yet you don't stick up for yourself as you used to. Look here, tell me (we were always chums), is it one of your larks?"
"Larks!" said Paul. "I'm in a fine mood for larks. No, it's not one of my larks."
"Perhaps your old governor has been making a cad of himself then, and you're out of sorts about it."
"I'll thank you not to speak about him in that way," said Paul, "in my presence."
"Why," grumbled Tom, "I'm sure you said enough about him yourself last term. It's my belief you're imitating him now."
"Ah," said Paul, "and what makes you think that?"
"Why, you go about strutting and swelling just like he did when he came about sending you here. I say, do you know what Mums said about him after he went away?"
"No," said Paul, "your mother struck me as a very, sensible and agreeable woman—if I may say so to her son."
"Well, Mums said your governor seemed to leave you here just like they leave umbrellas at picture galleries, and she believed he had a large-sized money-bag inside him instead of a heart."
"Oh!" said Paul, with great disgust, for he had thought Mrs. Grimstone a woman of better taste; "your mother said that, did she? Vastly entertaining to be sure—ha, ha! He would be pleased to know she thought that, I'm sure."
"Tell him, and see what he says," suggested Tom; "he is an awful brute to you though, isn't he?"
"If," growled Mr. Bultitude, "slaving from morning till night to provide education and luxury for a thankless brood of unprofitable young vipers is 'being a brute,' I suppose he is."
"Why, you're sticking up for him now!" said Tom. "I thought he was so strict with you. Wouldn't let you have any fun at home, and never took you to pantomimes?"
"And why should he, sir, why should he? Tell me that. Tell me why a man is to be hunted out of his comfortable chair after a well-earned dinner, to go and sit in a hot theatre and a thorough draught, yawning at the miserable drivel managers choose to call a pantomime? Now in my young days there were pantomimes. I tell you, sir, I've seen——"
"Oh, if you're satisfied, I don't care!" said Tom, astonished at this apparent change of front. "If you choose to come back and play the corker like this, it's your look-out. Only, if you knew what Sproule major said about you just now——"
"I don't want to know," said Paul; "it doesn't concern me."
"Perhaps it doesn't concern you what pa thinks either? Dad told Mums last night that he was altogether at a loss to know how to deal with you, you had come back so queer and unruly. And he said, let me see, oh, he said that 'if he didn't see an alteration very soon he should resort to more drastic measures'—drastic measures is Latin for a whopping."
"Good gracious!" thought Paul, "I haven't a moment to lose! he might 'resort to drastic measures' this very evening. I can't change my nature at my time of life. I must run for it, and soon."
Then he said aloud to Tom, "Can you tell me, my—my young friend, if, supposing a boy were to ask to leave the field—saying for instance that he was not well and thought he should be better at home—whether he would be allowed to go?"
"Of course he would," said Tom, "you ought to know that by this time. You've only to ask Blinkhorn or Tinkler; they'll let you go right enough."
Paul saw his course quite clearly now, and was overcome with relief and gratitude. He wrung the astonished Tom's hand warmly; "Thank you," he said, briskly and cheerfully, "thank you. I'm really uncommonly obliged to you. You're a very intelligent boy. I should like to give you sixpence."
But although Tom used no arguments to dissuade him, Mr. Bultitude remembered his position in time, and prudently refrained from such ill-judged generosity. Sixpences were of vital importance now, when he expected to be starting so soon on his perilous journey.
And so they reached the field where the game was to be played, and where Paul was resolved to have one desperate throw for liberty and home. He was more excited than anxious as he thought of it, and it certainly did seem as if all the chances were in his favour, and that fortune must have forsaken him indeed, if anything were allowed to prevent his escape.
8. Unbending the Bow
"I pray you, give me leave to go from hence, I am not well;" Merchant of Venice.
"He will not blush, that has a father's heart, To take in childish plays a childish part; But bends his sturdy back to any toy That youth takes pleasure in,—to please his boy."
The football field was a large one, bounded on two sides by tall wooden palings, and on the other two by a hedge and a new shingled road, separated from the field by a post and rails.
Two of the younger boys, proud of their office, raced down to the further end to set up the goal-posts. The rest lounged idly about without attempting to begin operations, except the new boy Kiffin, who was seen walking apart from the rest, diligently studying the "rules of the game of football," as laid down in a small Boy's Own Pocket Book and Manual of Outdoor Sports, with which he had been careful to provide himself.
At last Tipping suggested that they had better begin, and proposed that Mr. Blinkhorn and himself should toss up for the choice of sides, and this being done, Mr. Bultitude presently, to his great dismay, heard his name mentioned. "I'll have young Bultitude," said Tipping; "he used to play up decently. Look here, you young beggar, you're on my side, and if you don't play up it will be the worse for you!"
It was not worth while, however, to protest, since he would so soon be rid of the whole crew for ever, and so Paul followed Tipping and his train with dutiful submission, and the game began.
It was not a spirited performance. Mr. Tinkler, who was not an athlete, retired at once to the post and rails, on which he settled himself to enjoy a railway novel with a highly stimulating cover. Mr. Blinkhorn, who had more conscientious views of his office, charged about vigorously, performing all kinds of wonders with the ball, though evidently more from a sense of duty than with any idea of enjoyment.
Tipping occasionally took the trouble to oppose him, but as a concession merely, and with a parade of being under no necessity to do so; and these two, with a very small following of enthusiasts on either side, waged a private and confidential kind of warfare in different parts of the field, while the others made no pretence of playing for the present, but strolled about in knots, exchanging and bartering the treasures valuable in the sight of schoolboys, and gossiping generally.
As for Paul, he did not clearly understand what "playing up" might mean. He had not indulged in football since he was a genuine boy, and then only in a rudimentary and primitive form, and without any particular fondness for the exercise. But being now, in spirit at all events, a precise elderly person, with a decided notion of taking care of himself, he was resolved that not even Tipping should compel him to trust his person within range of that dirty brown globe, which whistled past his ear or seemed spinning towards his stomach with such a hideous suggestion of a cannon-ball about it.
All the ghastly instances, too, of accidents to life and limb in the football field came unpleasantly into his memory, and he saw the inadvisability of mingling with the crowd and allowing himself to be kicked violently on the shins.
So he trotted industriously about at a safe distance in order to allay suspicion, while waiting for a good opportunity to put his scheme of escape into execution.
At last he could wait no longer, for the fearful thought occurred to him, that if he remained there much longer, the Doctor—who, as he knew from Dick, always came to superintend, if not to share the sports of his pupils—might make his appearance, and then his chance would be lost for the present, for he knew too well that he should never find courage to ask permission from him.
With a beating heart he went up to Mr. Tinkler, who was still on the fence with his novel, and asked as humbly as he could bring himself to do:
"If you please, sir, will you allow me to go home? I'm—I'm not feeling at all well."
"Not well! What's the matter with you?" said Mr. Tinkler, without looking up.
Paul had not prepared himself for details, and the sudden question rather threw him off his guard.
"A slight touch of liver," he said at length. "It takes me after meals sometimes."
"Liver!" said Mr. Tinkler, "you've no right to such a thing at your age; it's all nonsense, you know. Run in and play, that'll set you up again."
"It's fatal, sir," said Paul. "My doctor expressly warned me against taking any violent exercise soon after luncheon. If you knew what liver is, you wouldn't say so!"
Mr. Tinkler stared, as well he might, but making nothing of it, and being chiefly anxious not to be interrupted any longer, only said, "Oh, well, don't bother me; I daresay it's all right. Cut along!"
So Mr. Bultitude was free; the path lay open to him now. He knew he would have little difficulty in finding his way to the station, and, once there, he would have the whole afternoon in which to wait for a train to town.
"I've managed that excellently," he thought, as he ran blithely off, almost like the boy he seemed. "Not the slightest hitch. I defy the fates themselves to stop me now!"
But the fates are ladies, and—not of course that it follows—occasionally spiteful. It is very rash indeed to be ungallant enough to defy them—they have such an unpleasant habit of accepting the challenge.
Mr. Bultitude had hardly got clear of the groups scattered about the field, when he met a small flaxen-haired boy, who was just coming down to join the game. It was Porter, his neighbour of the German lesson.
"There you are, Bultitude, then," he said in his squeaky voice: "I want you."
"I can't stop," said Paul, "I'm in a hurry—another time."
"Another time won't do," said little Porter, laying hold of him by his jacket. "I want that rabbit."
This outrageous demand took Mr. Bultitude's breath away. He had no idea what rabbit was referred to, or why he should be required to produce such an animal at a moment's notice. This was the second time an inconvenient small boy had interfered between him and liberty. He would not be baffled twice. He tried to shake off his persecutor.
"I tell you, my good boy, I haven't such a thing about me. I haven't indeed. I don't even know what you're talking about."
This denial enraged Porter.
"I say, you fellows," he called out, "come here! Do make Bultitude give me my rabbit. He says he doesn't know anything about it now!"
At this several of the loungers came up, glad of a distraction.
"What's the matter?" some of them asked.
"Why," whined Porter, "he promised to bring me back a rabbit this term, and now he pretends he does not know anything about it. Make him say what he's done with it!"
Mr. Bultitude was not usually ready of resource, but now he had what seemed a happy thought.
"Gad!" he cried, pretending to recollect it, "so I did—to be sure, a rabbit, of course, how could I forget it? It's—it's a splendid rabbit. I'll go and fetch it!"
"Will you?" cried Porter, half relieved. "Where is it, then?"
"Where?" said Paul sharply (he was growing positively brilliant). "Why, in my playbox to be sure; where should it be?"
"It isn't in your playbox, I know," put in Siggers: "because I saw it turned out yesterday and there was no rabbit then. Besides, how could a rabbit live in a playbox? He's telling lies. I can see it by his face. He hasn't any rabbit!"
"Of course I haven't!" said Mr. Bultitude. "How should I? I'm not a conjurer. It's not a habit of mine to go about with rabbits concealed on my person. What's the use of coming to me like this? It's absurd, you know; perfectly absurd!"
The crowd increased until there was quite a ring formed round Mr. Bultitude and the indignant claimant, and presently Tipping came bustling up.
"What's the row here, you fellows?" he said. "Bultitude again, of course. What's he been doing now?"
"He had a rabbit he said he was keeping for me," explained little Porter: "and now he won't give it up or tell me what he's done with it."
"He has some mice he ought to give us, too," said one or two new-comers, edging their way to the front.
Mr. Bultitude was of course exceedingly annoyed by this unlooked-for interruption, and still more by such utterly preposterous claims on him for animals; however, it was easy to explain that he had no such things in his possession, and after that of course no more could be said. He was beginning to disclaim all liability, when Siggers stopped him.
"Keep that for the present," he said. "I say, we ought to have a regular trial over this, and get at the truth of it properly. Let's fetch him along to the goal-posts and judge him!"
He fixed upon the goal-posts as being somehow more formal, and, as his proposal was well received, two of them grasped Mr. Bultitude by the collar and dragged him along in procession to the appointed spot between the two flags, while Siggers followed in what he conceived to be a highly judicial manner, and evidently enjoying himself prodigiously.
Paul, though highly indignant, allowed himself to be led along without resistance. It was safest to humour them, for after all it would not last long, and when they were tired of baiting him he could watch his time and slip quietly away.
When they reached the goal-posts Siggers arranged them in a circle, placing himself, the hapless Paul, and his accusers in the centre. "You chaps had better all be jurymen," he said. "I'll be judge, and unless he makes a clean breast of it," he added with judicial impartiality, "the court will jolly well punch his ugly young head off."
Siggers' father was an Old Bailey barrister in good and rather sharp practice, so that it was clearly the son's mission to preside on this occasion. But unfortunately his hour of office was doomed to be a brief one, for Mr. Blinkhorn, becoming aware that the game was being still more scantily supported, and noticing the crowd at the goal, came up to know the reason of it at a long camel-like trot, his hat on the back of his head, his mild face flushed with exertion, and his pebble glasses gleaming in the winter sunshine.
"What are you all doing here? Why don't you join the game? I've come here to play football with you, and how can I do it if you all slink off and leave me to play by myself?" he asked with pathos.
"Please, sir," said Siggers, alarmed at the threatened loss of his dignity, "it's a trial, and I'm judge."
"Yes, sir," the whole ring shouted together. "We're trying Bultitude, sir."
On the whole, perhaps, Mr. Bultitude was glad of this interference. At least justice would be done now, although this usher had blundered so unpardonably that morning.
"This is childish, you know," said Mr. Blinkhorn, "and it's not football. The Doctor will be seriously angry if he comes and sees you trifling here. Let the boy go."
"But he's cheated some of the fellows, sir," grumbled Tipping and Siggers together.
"Well, you've no right to punish him if he has. Leave him to me."
"Will you see fair play between them, sir? He oughtn't to be let off without being made to keep his word."
"If there is any dispute between you and Bultitude," said Mr. Blinkhorn, "I have no objection to settle it—provided it is within my province."
"Settle it without me," said Paul hurriedly. "I've leave to go home. I'm ill."
"Who gave you leave to go home?" asked the master.
"That young man over there on the rails," said Paul.
"I am the proper person to apply to for leave; you know that well enough," said Mr. Blinkhorn, with a certain coldness in his tone. "Now then, Porter, what is all this business about?"
"Please, sir," said Porter, "he told me last term he had a lot of rabbits at home, and if I liked he would bring me back a lop-eared one and let me have it cheap, and I gave him two shillings, sir, and sixpence for a hutch to keep it in; and now he pretends he doesn't know anything about it!"
To Paul's horror two or three other boys came forward with much the same tale. He remembered now that during the holidays he had discovered that Dick was maintaining a sort of amateur menagerie in his bedroom, and that he had ordered the whole of the livestock to be got rid of or summarily destroyed.
Now it seemed that the wretched Dick had already disposed of it to these clamorous boys, and, what was worse, had stipulated with considerable forethought for payment in advance. For the first time he repented his paternal harshness. Like the netted lion, a paltry white mouse or two would have set him free; but, less happy than the beast in the fable, he had not one!
He tried to stammer out excuses. "It's extremely unfortunate," he said, "but the fact is I'm not in a position to meet this—this sudden call upon me. Some other day, perhaps——"
"None of your long words, now," growled Tipping. (Boys hate long words as much as even a Saturday Reviewer.) "Why haven't you brought the rabbits?"
"Yes," said Mr. Blinkhorn. "Why, having promised to bring the rabbits with you, haven't you kept your word? You must be able to give some explanation."
"Because," said Mr. Bultitude, wriggling with embarrassment, "I—that is my father—found out that my young rascal of a son—I mean his young rascal of a son (me, you know) was, contrary to my express orders, keeping a couple of abominable rabbits in his bedroom, and a quantity of filthy little white mice which he tried to train to climb up the banisters. And I kept finding the brutes running about my bath-room, and—well, of course, I put a stop to it; and—no, what am I saying?—my father, of course, he put a stop to it; and, in point of fact, had them all drowned in a pail of water."
It might be thought that he had an excellent opportunity here of avowing himself, but there was the risk that Mr. Blinkhorn would disbelieve him, and, with the boys, he felt that the truth would do anything but increase his popularity. But dissembling fails sometimes outside the copy-books, and Mr. Bultitude's rather blundering attempt at it only landed him in worse difficulties.
There was a yell of rage and disappointment from the defrauded ones, who had cherished a lingering hope that young Bultitude had those rabbits somewhere, but (like Mr. Barkis and his wooden lemon) found himself unable to part with them when the time came to fulfil his contract. And as contempt is a frame of mind highly stimulating to one's self-esteem, even those who had no personal interest in the matter joined in the execrations with hearty goodwill and sympathy.
"Why did you let him do it? They were ours, not his. What right had your governor to go and drown our rabbits, eh?" they cried wrathfully.
"What right?" said Paul. "Mustn't a man do as he pleases in his own house, then? I—he was not obliged to see the house overrun with vermin, I suppose?"
But this only made them angrier, and they resented his defence with hoots, and groans, and hisses.
Mr. Blinkhorn meanwhile was pondering the affair conscientiously. At last he said, "But you know the Doctor would never allow animals to be kept in the school, if Bultitude had brought them. The whole thing is against the rules, and I shall not interfere."
"Ah, but," said Chawner, "he promised them all to day-boarders. The Doctor couldn't object to that, could he, sir?"
"True," said Mr. Blinkhorn, "true. I was not aware of that. Well then, Bultitude, since you are prevented from performing what you promised to do, I'm sure you won't object to do what is fair and right in the matter?"
"I don't think I quite follow you," said Mr. Bultitude. But he dreaded what was coming next.
"It's very simple. You have taken money from these boys, and if you can't give them value for it, you ought to return all you took from them. I'm sure you see that yourself."
"I don't admit that I owe them anything," said Paul; "and at all events it is highly inconvenient to pay them now."
"If your own sense of honour isn't enough," said Mr. Blinkhorn, "I must take the matter into my own hands. Let every boy who has any claim upon him tell me exactly what it is."
One boy after another brought forward his claim. One had entrusted Dick, it appeared, with a shilling, for which he was to receive a mouse with a "plum saddle," and two others had invested ninepence each in white mice. With Porter's half-crown, the total came to precisely five shillings—all Paul had in the world, the one rope by which he could ever hope to haul himself up to his lost pinnacle!
Mr. Blinkhorn, naturally enough, saw no reason why the money, being clearly due, should not be paid at once. "Give me any money you have about you, Bultitude," he said, "and I'll satisfy your debts with it, as far as it goes."
Paul clasped his arm convulsively. "No!" he cried hoarsely, "not that! Don't make me do that! I—I can't pay them—not now. They don't understand. If they only give me time they shall have double their money back—waggon-loads of rabbits, the best rabbits money can buy—if they'll wait. Tell them to wait. My dear sir, don't see me wronged! I won't pay now!"
"They have waited long enough," said Mr. Blinkhorn; "you must pay them."
"I tell you I won't!" cried Paul; "do you hear? Not one sixpence. Oh, if you knew! That infernal Garuda Stone! What fools people are!"
Then in his despair he did the most fatal thing possible. He tried to save himself by flight, and with a violent plunge broke through the circle and made for the road which led towards the station.
Instantly the whole school, only too glad of the excitement, was at his heels. The unhappy Colonial Produce merchant ran as he had not run for a quarter of a century, faster even than he had on his first experience of Coggs' and Coker's society on that memorable Monday night. But in spite of his efforts the chase was a short one. Chawner and Tipping very soon had him by the collar, and brought him back, struggling and kicking out viciously, to Mr. Blinkhorn, whose good opinion he had now lost for ever.
"Please, sir," said Chawner, "I can feel something like a purse in his pocket. Shall I take it out, sir?"
"As he refuses to act with common honesty—yes," said Mr. Blinkhorn.
It was Dick's purse, of course; and in spite of Paul's frantic efforts to retain it, it was taken from him, its contents equitably divided amongst the claimants, and the purse itself returned to him—empty.
"Now, Bultitude," said Mr. Blinkhorn, "if you really wish to leave the field, you may."
Mr. Bultitude lost what little temper he had yet to lose; he flung the useless purse from him and broke away from them all in a condition little removed from insanity.
Leave the field! What a mockery the permission was now. How was he to get home, a distance of more than fifty miles, without a penny in his pocket? Ten minutes before, and freedom was within his grasp, and now it had eluded him and was as hopelessly out of reach as ever!
No one pitied him; no one understood the real extent of his loss. Mr. Blinkhorn and the few enthusiasts went back to their unobtrusive game, while the rest of the school discussed the affair in groups, the popular indignation against young Bultitude's hitherto unsuspected meanness growing more marked every instant.
It might have even taken some decided and objectionable form before long, but when it was at its height there was a sudden cry of alarm. "Cave, you fellows, here's Grim!" and indeed in the far distance the Doctor's portly and imposing figure could be seen just turning the corner into the field.
Mr. Bultitude felt almost cheered. This coming to join his pupils' sports showed a good heart; the Doctor would almost certainly be in a good humour, and he cheated himself into believing that, at some interval in the game, he might perhaps find courage to draw near and seek to interest him in his incredible woes.
It was quite extraordinary to see how the game, which had hitherto decidedly languished and hung fire, now quickened into briskness and became positively spirited. Everyone developed a hearty interest in it, and it would almost seem as if the boys, with more delicacy than they are generally credited with, were unwilling to let their master guess how little his indulgence was really appreciated. Even Mr. Tinkler, whose novel had kept him spell-bound on his rail all through the recent excitement, now slipped it hurriedly into his pocket and rushed energetically into the fray, shouting encouragement rather indiscriminately to either side, till he had an opportunity of finding out privately to which leader he had been assigned.
Dr. Grimstone came down the field at a majestic slow trot, calling out to the players as he came on—"Well done, Mutlow! Finely played, sir! Dribble it along now. Ah, you're afraid of it! Run into it, sir, run into it! No running with the ball now, Siggers; play without those petty meannesses, or leave the game! There, leave the ball to me, will you—leave it to me!"
And, as the ball had rolled in his direction, he punted it up in an exceedingly dignified manner, the whole school keeping respectfully apart, until he had brought it to a reasonable distance from the goal, when he kicked it through with great solemnity, amidst faint, and it is to be feared somewhat sycophantic applause, and turned away with the air of a man surfeited of success.
"For which side did I win that?" he asked presently, whereupon Tipping explained that his side had been the favoured one. "Well then," he said, "you fellows must all back me up, or I shall not play for you any more;" and he kicked off the ball for the next game.
It was noticeable that the party thus distinguished did not seem precisely overwhelmed with pleasure at the compliment, which, as they knew from experience, implied considerable exertion on their part, and even disgrace if they were unsuccessful.
The other side too looked unhappy, feeling themselves in a position of extreme delicacy and embarrassment. For if they played their best, they ran some risk of offending the Doctor, or, what was worse, drawing him over into their ranks; while if, on the other hand, they allowed themselves to be too easily worsted, they might be suspected of sulkiness and temper—offences which he was very ready to discover and resent.
Dr. Grimstone for his part enjoyed the exercise, and had no idea that he was not a thoroughly welcome and valued playmate. But though it was pleasant to outsiders to see a schoolmaster permitting himself to share in the recreation of his pupils, it must be owned that to the latter the advantages of the arrangement seemed something more than dubious.
Mr. Bultitude, being on the side adopted by the Doctor, found too soon that he was expected to bestir himself. More than ever anxious now to conciliate, he did his very best to conquer his natural repugnance and appear more interested than alarmed as the ball came in his way; but although (in boating slang) he "sugared" with some adroitness, he was promptly found out, for his son had been a dashing and plucky player.
It was bitter for him to run meekly about while scathing sarcasms and comments on his want of courage were being hurled at his head. It shattered the scanty remnants of his self-respect, but he dared not protest or say a single word to open the Doctor's eyes to the injustice he was doing him.
He was unpleasantly reminded, too, of the disfavour he had acquired amongst his companions, by some one or other of them running up to him every moment when the Doctor's attention was called elsewhere, and startling his nerves by a sly jog or pinch, or an abusive epithet hissed viciously into his ears—Chawner being especially industrious in this respect.
And in this unsatisfactory way the afternoon dragged along until the dusk gathered and the lamps were lighted, and it became too dark to see goal-posts or ball.
By the time play was stopped and the school reformed for the march home, Mr. Bultitude felt that he was glad even to get back to labour as a relief from such a form of enjoyment. It was perhaps the most miserable afternoon he had ever spent in his whole easy-going life. In the course of it he had passed from brightest hope to utter despair; and now nothing remained to him but to convince the Doctor, which he felt quite unequal to do, or to make his escape without money—which would inevitably end in a recapture.
May no one who reads this ever be placed upon the horns of such a dilemma!
9. A Letter from Home
"Here are a few of the unpleasantest words That ever blotted paper.... A letter, And every word in it a gaping wound." Merchant of Venice.
If it were not that it was so absolutely essential to the interest of this story, I think I should almost prefer to draw a veil over the sufferings of Mr. Bultitude during the rest of that unhappy week at Crichton House; but it would only be false delicacy to do so.
Things went worse and worse with him. The real Dick in his most objectionable moods could never have contrived to render himself one quarter so disliked and suspected as his substitute was by the whole school—masters and boys.
It was in a great measure his own fault, too; for to an ordinary boy the life there would not have had any intolerable hardships, if it held out no exceptional attractions. But he would not accommodate himself to circumstances, and try, during his enforced stay, to get as much instruction and enjoyment as possible out of his new life.
Perhaps, in his position, it would be too much to expect such a thing and, at all events, it never even occurred to him to attempt it. He consumed himself instead with inward raging and chafing at his hard lot, and his utter powerlessness to break the spell which bound him.
Sometimes, indeed, he would resolve to bear it no longer, and would start up impulsively to impart his misfortunes to some one in minor authority—not the Doctor, he had given that up in resigned despair long since. But as surely as ever he found himself coming to the point, the words would stick fast in his throat, and he was only too thankful to get away, with his tale untold, on any frivolous pretext that first suggested itself.
This, of course, brought him into suspicion, for such conduct had the appearance of a systematic course of practical joking, and even the most impartial teachers will sometimes form an unfavourable opinion of a particular boy on rather slender grounds, and then find fresh confirmation of it in his most insignificant actions.
As for the school generally, his scowls and his sullenness, his deficiency in the daring and impudence that had warmed their hearts towards Dick, and, above all, his strange knack of getting them into trouble—for he seldom received what he considered an indignity without making a formal complaint—all this brought him as much hearty dislike and contempt as, perhaps, the most unsympathetic boy ever earned since boarding-schools were first invented.
The only boy who still seemed to retain a secret tenderness for him, as the Dick he had once looked up to and admired, was Jolland, who persisted in believing, and in stating his belief, that this apparent change of demeanour was a perverted kind of joke on Bultitude's part, which he would condescend to explain some day when it had gone far enough, and he wearied and annoyed Paul beyond endurance by perpetually urging him to abandon his ill-judged experiment and discover the point of the jest.
But for Jolland's help, which he persevered in giving in spite of the opposition and unpopularity it brought upon himself, Mr. Bultitude would have found it impossible to make any pretence of performing the tasks required of him.
He found himself expected, as a matter of course, to have a certain familiarity with Greek paradigms and German conversation scraps, propositions in Euclid and Latin gerunds, of all of which, having had a strict commercial education in his young days, he had not so much as heard before his metamorphosis. But by carefully copying Jolland's exercises, and introducing enough mistakes of his own to supply the necessary local colour, he was able to escape to a great degree the discovery of his blank ignorance on all these subjects—an ignorance which would certainly have been put down as mere idleness and obstinacy.
But it will be readily believed that he lived in constant fear of such discovery, and as it was, his dependence on a little scamp like his son's friend was a sore humiliation to one who had naturally supposed hitherto that any knowledge he had not happened to acquire could only be meretricious and useless.
He led a nightmare sort of existence for some days, until something happened which roused him from his state of passive misery into one more attempt at protest.
It was Saturday morning, and he had come down to breakfast, after being knocked about as usual in the dormitory over night, with a dull wonder how long this horrible state of things could possibly be going to last, when he saw on his plate a letter with the Paddington post-mark, addressed in a familiar hand—his daughter Barbara's.
For an instant his hopes rose high. Surely the impostor had been found out at last, and the envelope would contain an urgent invitation to him to come back and resume his rights—an invitation which he might show to the Doctor as his best apology.
But when he looked at the address, which was "Master Richard Bultitude," he felt a misgiving. It was unlikely that Barbara would address him thus if she knew the truth; he hesitated before tearing it open.
Then he tried to persuade himself that of course she would have the sense to keep up appearances for his own sake on the outside of the letter, and he compelled himself to open the envelope with fingers that trembled nervously.
The very first sentences scattered his faint expectations to the winds. He read on with staring eyes, till the room seemed to rock with him like a packet-boat and the sprawling school-girl handwriting, crossed and recrossed on the thin paper, changed to letters of scorching flame. But perhaps it will be better to give the letter in full, so that the reader may judge for himself whether it was calculated or not to soothe and encourage the exiled one.
Here it is:
"MY DEAREST DARLING DICK,—I hope you have not been expecting a letter from me before this, but I had such lots to tell you that I waited till I had time to tell it all at once. For I have such news for you! You can't think how pleased you will be when you hear it. Where shall I begin? I hardly know, for it still seems so funny and strange—almost like a dream—only I hope we shall never wake up.
"I think I must tell you anyhow, just as it comes. Well, ever since you went away, dear Father has been completely changed; you would hardly believe it unless you saw him. He is quite jolly and boyish—only fancy! and we are always telling him he is the biggest baby of us all, but it only makes him laugh. Once, you know, he would have been awfully angry if we had even hinted at it.
"Do you know, I really think that the real reason he was so cross and sharp with us that last week was because you were going away; for now the wrench of parting is over, he is quite light-hearted again. You know how he always hates showing his feelings.
"He is so altered now, you can't think. He has actually only once been up to the city since you left, and then he came home at four o'clock, and he seems to quite like to have us all about him. Generally he stays at home all the morning and plays at soldiers with baby in the dining-room. You would laugh to see him loading the cannons with real powder and shot, and he didn't care a bit when some of it made holes in the sideboard and smashed the looking-glass.
"We had such fun the other afternoon; we played at brigands—papa and all of us. Papa had the upper conservatory for a robber-cave, and stood there keeping guard with your pop-gun; and he wouldn't let the servants go by without a kiss, unless they showed a written pass from us! Miss McFadden called in the middle of it, but she said she wouldn't come in, as papa seemed to be enjoying himself so. Boaler has given warning, but we can't think why. We have been out nearly every evening—once to Hengler's and once to the Christy Minstrels, and last night to the Pantomime, where papa was so pleased with the clown that he sent round afterwards and asked him to dine here on Sunday, when Sir Benjamin and Lady Bangle and Alderman Fishwick are coming. Won't it be jolly to see a clown close to? Should you think he'd come in his evening dress? Miss Mangnall has been given a month's holiday, because papa didn't like to see us always at lessons. Think of that!
"We are going to have the whole house done up and refurnished at last. Papa chose the furniture for the drawing-room yesterday. It is all in yellow satin, which is rather bright, I think. I haven't seen the carpet yet, but it is to match the furniture; and there is a lovely hearthrug, with a lion-hunt worked on it.
"But that isn't the best of it; we are going to have the big children's party after all! No one but children invited, and everyone to do exactly what they like. I wanted so much to have you home for it, but papa says it would only unsettle you and take you away from your work.
"Had Dulcie forgotten you? I should like to see her so much. Now I really must leave off, as I am going to the Aquarium with papa. Mind you write me as good a letter as this is, if that old Doctor lets you. Minnie and Roly send love and kisses, and papa sends his kind regards, and I am to say he hopes you are settling down steadily to work.
"With best love, your affectionate sister, "BARBARA BULTITUDE."
"P.S.—I nearly forgot to say that Uncle Duke came the other day and has stayed here ever since. He is going to make papa's fortune! I believe by a gold mine he knows about somewhere, and a steam tramway in Lapland. But I don't like him very much—he is so polite."
It would be nothing short of an insult to the reader's comprehension, if I were to enter into an elaborate explanation of the effect this letter had upon Mr. Bultitude. He took it in by degrees, trying to steady his nerves at each additional item of poor Barbara's well-meant intelligence by a sip at his tin-flavoured coffee. But when he came to the postscript, in spite of its purport being mercifully broken to him gradually by the extreme difficulty of making it out from two undercurrents of manuscript, he choked convulsively and spilt his coffee.
Dr. Grimstone visited this breach of etiquette with stern promptness. "This conduct at table is disgraceful, sir—perfectly disgraceful—unworthy of a civilised being. I have been a teacher of youth for many years, and never till now did I have the pain of seeing a pupil of mine choke in his breakfast-cup with such deplorable ill-breeding. It's pure greediness, sir, and you will have the goodness to curb your indecent haste in consuming your food for the future. Your excellent father has frequently complained to me, with tears in his eyes, of the impossibility of teaching you to behave at meals with common propriety!"
There was a faint chuckle along the tables, and several drank coffee with studied elegance and self-repression either as a valuable example to Dick, or as a personal advertisement. But Paul was in no mood for reproof and instruction. He stood up in his excitement, flourishing his letter wildly.
"Dr. Grimstone!" he said; "never mind my behaviour now. I've something to tell you. I can't bear it any longer. I must go home at once—at once, sir!"
There was a general sensation at this, for his manner was peremptory and almost dictatorial. Some thought he would get a licking on the strength of it, and most hoped so. But the Doctor dismissed them to the playground, keeping Paul back to be dealt with in privacy.
Mrs. Grimstone played nervously with her dry toast at the end of the table, for she could not endure to see the boys in trouble and dreaded a scene, while Dulcie looked on with wide bright eyes.
"Now, sir," said the Doctor, looking up from his marmalade, "why must you go home at once?"
"I've just had a letter," stammered Paul.
"No one ill at home, I hope?"
"No, no," said Paul. "It's not that; it's worse! She doesn't know what horrible things she tells me!"
"Who is 'she'?" said the Doctor—and Dulcie's eyes were larger still and her face paled.
"I decline to say," said Mr. Bultitude. It would have been absurd to say 'my daughter,' and he had not presence of mind just then to transpose the relationships with neatness and success. "But indeed I am wanted most badly!"
"What are you wanted for, pray?"
"Everything!" declared Paul; "it's all going to rack and ruin without me!"
"That's absurd," said the Doctor; "you're not such an important individual as all that, Bultitude. But let me see the letter."
Show him the letter—lay bare all those follies of Dick's, the burden of which he might have to bear himself very shortly—never! Besides, what would be the use of it? It would be no argument in favour of sending him home—rather the reverse—so Paul was obliged to say, "Excuse me, Dr. Grimstone, it is—ah—of a private nature. I don't feel at liberty to show it to anyone."
"Then, sir," said the Doctor, with some reason, "if you can't tell me who or what it is that requires your presence at home, and decline to show me the letter which would presumably give me some idea on the subject, how do you expect that I am to listen to such a preposterous demand—eh? Just tell me that!"
Once more would Paul have given worlds for the firmness and presence of mind to state his case clearly and effectively; and he could hardly have had a better opportunity, for schoolmasters cannot always be playing the tyrant, and the Doctor was, in spite of his attempts to be stern, secretly more amused than angry at what seemed a peculiarly precocious piece of effrontery.
But Paul felt the dismal absurdity of his position. Nothing he had said, nothing he could say, short of the truth, would avail him, and the truth was precisely what he felt most unable to tell. He hung his head resignedly, and held his tongue in confusion.
"Pooh!" said the Doctor at last; "let me have no more of this tomfoolery, Bultitude. It's getting to be a positive nuisance. Don't come to me with any more of these ridiculous stories, or some day I shall be annoyed. There, go away, and be contented where you are, and try to behave like other people."
"'Contented!'" muttered Paul, when out of hearing, as he went upstairs and through the empty schoolroom into the playground. "'Behave like other people!' Ah, yes, I suppose I shall have to come to that in time. But that letter—— Everything upside down—— Bangle asked to meet a common clown! That fellow Duke letting me in for gold-mines and tramways! It's all worse than I ever dreamed of; and I must stay here and be 'contented!' It's—it's perfectly damnable!"
All through that morning his thoughts ran in the same doleful groove, until the time for work came to an end, and he found himself in the playground, and free to indulge his melancholy for a few minutes in solitude; for the others were still loitering about in the schoolroom, and a glass outhouse originally intended for a conservatory, but now devoted to boots and slates, and the books liberally besmeared with gilt, and telling of the exploits of boy-heroes so beloved of boys.
Mr. Bultitude, only too delighted to get away from them for a little while, was leaning against the parallel bars in dull despondency, when he heard a rustling in the laurel hedge which cut off the house garden from the gravelled playground, and looking up, saw Dulcie slip through the shrubs and come towards him with an air of determination in her proud little face.
She looked prettier and daintier than ever in her grey hat and warm fur tippet; but of course Paul was not of the age or in the mood to be much affected by such things—he turned his head pettishly away.
"It's no use doing that, Dick," she said: "I'm tired of sulking. I shan't sulk any more till I have an explanation."
Paul made the sound generally written "Pshaw!"
"You ought to tell me everything. I will know it. Oh, Dick, you might tell me! I always told you anything you wanted to know; and I let mamma think it was I broke the clock-shade last term, and you know you did it. And I want to know something so very badly!"
"It's no use coming to me, you know," said Paul. "I can't do anything for you."
"Yes, you can; you know you can!" said Dulcie impulsively. "You can tell me what was in that letter you had at breakfast—and you shall too!"
"What an inquisitive little girl you are," said Paul sententiously. "It's not nice for little girls to be so inquisitive—it doesn't look well."
"I knew it!" cried Dulcie; "you don't want to tell me—because—because it's from that other horrid girl you like better than me. And you promised to belong to me for ever and ever, and now it's all over! Say it isn't! Oh, Dick, promise to give the other girl up. I'm sure she's not a nice girl. She's written you an unkind letter; now hasn't she?"
"Upon my word," said Paul, "this is very forward; at your age too. Why, my Barbara——"
"Your Barbara! you dare to call her that? Oh, I knew I was right; I will see that letter now. Give it me this instant!" said Dulcie imperiously; and Paul really felt almost afraid of her.
"No, no," he said, retreating a step or two, "it's all a mistake; there's nothing to get into such a passion about—there isn't indeed! And—don't cry—you're really a pretty little girl. I only wish I could tell you everything; but you'd never believe me!"
"Oh, yes, I would, Dick!" protested Dulcie, only too willing to be convinced of her boy-lover's constancy; "I'll believe anything, if you'll only tell me. And I'm sorry I was so angry. Sit down by me and tell me from the very beginning. I promise not to interrupt."
Paul thought for a moment. After all, why shouldn't he? It was much pleasanter to tell his sorrows to her little ear and hear her childish wonder and pity than face her terrible father—he had tried that. And then she might tell her mother; and so his story might reach the Doctor's ears after all, without further effort on his part.
"Well," he said at last, "I think you're a good-natured little girl; you won't laugh. Perhaps I will tell you!"
So he sat down on the bench by the wall, and Dulcie, quite happy again now at this proof of good faith, nestled up against him confidingly, waiting for his first words with parted lips and eager sparkling eyes.
"Not many days ago," began Paul, "I was somebody very different from——"
"Oh, indeed," said a jarring, sneering voice close by; "was you?" And he looked up and saw Tipping standing over him with a plainly hostile intent.
"Go away, Tipping," said Dulcie; "we don't want you. Dick is telling me a secret."
"He's very fond of telling, I know," retorted Tipping. "If you knew what a sneak he was you'd have nothing to do with him, Dulcie. I could tell you things about him that——"
"He's not a sneak," said Dulcie. "Are you, Dick? Why don't you go, Tipping. Never mind what he says, Dick; go on as if he wasn't there. I don't care what he says!"
It was a most unpleasant situation for Mr. Bultitude, but he did not like to offend Tipping. "I—I think—some other time, perhaps," he said nervously. "Not now."
"Ah, you're afraid to say what you were going to say now I'm here," said the amiable Tipping, nettled by Dulcie's little air of haughty disdain. "You're a coward; you know you are. You pretend to think such a lot of Dulcie here, but you daren't fight!"
"Fight!" said Mr. Bultitude. "Eh, what for?"
"Why, for her, of course. You can't care much about her if you daren't fight for her. I want to show her who's the best man of the two!"
"I don't want to be shown," wailed poor Dulcie piteously, clinging to the reluctant Paul; "I know. Don't fight with him, Dick. I say you're not to."
"Certainly not!" said Mr. Bultitude with great decision. "I shouldn't think of such a thing!" and he rose from the bench and was about to walk away, when Tipping suddenly pulled off his coat and began to make sundry demonstrations of a martial nature, such as dancing aggressively towards his rival and clenching his fists.
By this time most of the other boys had come down into the playground, and were looking on with great interest. There was an element of romance in this promised combat which gave it additional attractions. It was like one of the struggles between knightly champions in the Waverley novels. Several of them would have fought till they couldn't see out of their eyes if it would have given them the least chance of obtaining favour in Dulcie's sight, and they all envied Dick, who was the only boy that was not unmercifully snubbed by their capricious little princess.
Paul alone was blind to the splendour of his privileges. He examined Tipping carefully, as the latter was still assuming a hostile attitude and chanting a sort of war-cry supposed to be an infallible incentive to strife.
"Yah, you're afraid!" he sang very offensively. "I wouldn't be a funk!"
"Pooh!" said Paul at last; "go away, sir, go away!"
"Go away, eh?" jeered Tipping. "Who are you to tell me to go away? Go away yourself!"
"Certainly," said Paul, only too happy to oblige. But he found himself prevented by a ring of excited backers.
"Don't funk it, Dick!" cried some, forgetting recent ill-feeling in the necessity for partisanship. "Go in and settle him as you did that last time. I'll second you. You can do it!"
"Don't hit each other in the face," pleaded Dulcie, who had got upon a bench and was looking down into the ring—not, if the truth must be told, without a certain pleasurable excitement in the feeling that it was all about her.
And now Mr. Bultitude discovered that he was seriously expected to fight this great hulking boy, and that the sole reason for any disagreement was an utterly unfounded jealousy respecting this little girl Dulcie. He had not a grain of chivalry in his disposition—chivalry being an eminently unpractical virtue—and naturally he saw no advantage in letting himself be mauled for the sake of a child younger than his own daughter.
Dulcie's appeal enraged Tipping, who took it as addressed solely to himself. "You ought to be glad to stick up for her," he said between his teeth. "I'll mash you for this—see if I don't!"
Paul thought he saw his way clear to disabuse Tipping of his mistaken idea. "Are you proposing," he asked politely, "to—to 'mash' me on account of that little girl there on the seat?"
"You'll soon see," growled Tipping. "Shut your head, and come on!"
"No, but I want to know," persisted Mr. Bultitude. "Because," he said with a sickly attempt at jocularity which delighted none, "you see, I don't want to be mashed. I'm not a potato. If I understand you aright, you want to fight me because you think me likely to interfere with your claim to that little girl's—ah—affections?"
"That's it," said Tipping gruffly; "so you'd better waste no more words about it, and come on."
"But I don't care about coming on," protested Paul earnestly. "It's all a mistake. I've no doubt she's a very nice little girl, but I assure you, my good boy, I've no desire to stand in your way for one instant. She's nothing to me—nothing at all! I give her up to you. Take her, young fellow, with my blessing! There, now, that's all settled comfortably—eh?"
He was just looking round with a self-satisfied and relieved air, when he began to be aware that his act of frank unselfishness was not as much appreciated as it deserved. Tipping, indeed, looked baffled and irresolute for one moment, but a low murmur of disgust arose from the bystanders, and even Jolland declared that it was "too beastly mean."
As for Dulcie, she had been looking on incredulously at her champion's unaccountable tardiness in coming to the point. But this public repudiation was too much for her. She gave a little low wail as she heard the shameless words of recantation, and then, without a word, jumped lightly down from her bench and ran away to hide herself somewhere and cry.
Even Paul, though he knew that he had done nothing but what was strictly right, and had acted purely in self-protection, felt unaccountably ashamed of himself as he saw this effect of his speech. But it was too late now.
10. The Complete Letter-Writer
"Accelerated by ignominious shovings—nay, as it is written, by smitings, twitchings, spurnings a posteriori not to be named." —French Revolution.
"This letter being so excellently ignorant will breed no terror in the youth."—Twelfth Night.
Mr. Bultitude had meant to achieve a double stroke of diplomacy—to undeceive Dulcie and conciliate the lovesick Tipping. But whatever his success may have been in the former respect, the latter object failed conspicuously.
"You shan't get off by a shabby trick like that," said Tipping, exasperated by the sight of Dulcie's emotion; "you've made her cry now, and you shall smart for it. So, now, are you going to stand up to me like a man, or will you take a licking?"
"I'm not going to help you to commit a breach of the peace," said Paul with great dignity. "Go away, you quarrelsome young ruffian! Get one of your schoolfellows to fight you, if you must fight. I don't want to be mixed up with you in any way."
But at this Tipping, whose blood was evidently at boiling point, came prancing down on him in a Zulu-like fashion, swinging his long arms like a windmill, and finding that his enemy made no attempt at receiving him, but only moved away apprehensively, he seized him by the collar as a prelude to dealing him a series of kicks behind.
Although Mr. Bultitude, as we have seen, was opposed to fighting as a system he could not submit to this sort of thing without at least some attempt to defend himself; and judging it of the highest importance to disable his adversary in the most effectual manner before the latter had time to carry out his offensive designs, he turned sharply round and hit him a very severe blow in the lower part of his waistcoat.
The result fulfilled his highest expectations. Tipping collapsed like a pocket-rule, and staggered away speechless, and purple with pain, while Paul stood calm and triumphant. He had shown these fellows that he wasn't going to stand any nonsense. They would leave him alone after this, perhaps.
But once more there were cries and murmurs of "Shame!" "No hitting below the belt!" "Cad—coward!"
It appeared that, somehow, he had managed to offend their prejudices even in this. "It's very odd," he thought; "when I didn't fight they called me a coward, and now, when I do, I don't seem to have pleased them much. I don't care, though. I've settled him."
But after a season of protracted writhing by the parallel bars, Tipping came out, still gasping and deadly pale, leaning on Biddlecomb's shoulder, and was met with universal sympathy and condolence.
"Thanks!" he said with considerable effort. "Of course—I'm not going—to fight him after a low trick like that; but perhaps you fellows will see that he doesn't escape quite as easily as he fancies?"
There was a general shout. "No; he shall pay for it! We'll teach him to fight fair! We'll see if he tries that on again!"
Paul heard it with much uneasiness. What new devilry were they about to practise upon him? He was not left long in doubt.
"I vote," suggested Biddlecomb, as if he were proposing a testimonial, "we make him run the gauntlet. Grim won't come out and catch us. I saw him go out for a drive an hour ago." And the idea was very favourably entertained.
Paul had heard of "running the gauntlet," and dimly suspected that it was not an experience he was likely to enjoy, particularly when he saw everyone busying himself with tying the end of his pocket-handkerchief into a hard knot. He tried in vain to excuse himself, declaring again and again that he had never meant to injure the boy. He had only defended himself, and was under the impression that he was at perfect liberty to hit him wherever he could, and so on. But they were in no mood for excuses.
With a stern magisterial formality worthy of a Vehm-Gericht, they formed in two long lines down the centre of the playground; and while Paul was still staring in wonder at what this strange manoeuvre might mean, somebody pounced upon him and carried him up to one end of the ranks, where Tipping had by this time sufficiently recovered to be able to "set him going," as he chose to call it, with a fairly effective kick.
After that he had a confused sense of flying madly along the double line of avengers under a hail of blows which caught him on every part of his head, shoulders, and back till he reached the end, where he was dexterously turned and sent spinning up to Tipping again, who in his turn headed him back on his arrival, and forced him to brave the terrible lane once more.
Never before had Mr. Bultitude felt so sore and insulted. But they kept it up long after the thing had lost its first freshness—until at last exhaustion made them lean to mercy, and they cuffed him ignominiously into a corner, and left him to lament his ill-treatment there till the bell rang for dinner, for which, contrary to precedent, his recent violent exercise had excited little appetite.
"I shall be killed soon if I stay here," he moaned; "I know I shall. These young brigands would murder me cheerfully, if they were not afraid of being caned for it. I'm a miserable man, and I wish I was dead!"
Although that afternoon, being Saturday, was a half-holiday, Mr. Bultitude was spared the ordeal of another game at football; for a smart storm of rain and sleet coming on about three o'clock kept the school—not altogether unwilling prisoners—within doors for the day.
The boys sat in their places in their schoolroom, amusing themselves after their several fashions—some reading, some making libellous copies of drawings that took their fancy in the illustrated papers, some playing games; others, too listless to play and too dull to find pleasure in the simplest books, filled up the time as well as they could by quarrelling and getting into various depths of hot water. Paul sat in a corner pretending to read a story relating the experiences of certain infants of phenomenal courage and coolness in the Arctic regions. They killed bears and tamed walruses all through the book; but for the first time, perhaps, since their appearance in print their exploits fell flat. Not, however, that this reflected any discredit upon the author's powers, which are justly admired by all healthy-minded boys; but it was beyond the power of literature just then to charm Mr. Bultitude's thoughts from the recollection of his misfortunes.
As he took in all the details of his surroundings—the warm close room; the raw-toned desks and tables at which a rabble of unsympathetic boys were noisily whispering and chattering, with occasional glances in his direction, from which, taught by experience, he augured no good; the high uncurtained windows, blurred with little stars of half-frozen rain, and the bare, bleak branches of the trees outside tossing drearily against a low leaden sky—he tried in vain to cheat himself into a dreamy persuasion that all this misery could not be real, but would fade away as suddenly and mysteriously as it had stolen upon him.
Towards the close of the afternoon the Doctor came in and took his place at the writing-table, where he was apparently very busy with the composition of some sort of document, which he finished at last with evident satisfaction at the result of his labour. Then he observed that, according to their custom of a Saturday afternoon, the hour before tea-time should be devoted to "writing home."
So the books, chess-boards, and dominoes were all put away, and a new steel pen and a sheet of notepaper, neatly embossed with the heading "Crichton House School" in old English letters, having been served out to everyone, each boy prepared himself to write down such things as filial affection, strict truthfulness, and the desire of imparting information might inspire between them.
Paul felt, as he clutched his writing materials, much as a shipwrecked mariner might be expected to do at finding on his desolate island a good-sized flag and a case of rockets. His hopes revived once more; he forgot the smarts left by the knots in the handkerchiefs, he had a whole hour before him—it was possible to set several wires in motion for his release in an hour.
Yes, he must write several letters. First, one to his solicitor detailing, as calmly and concisely as his feelings would allow, the shameful way in which he had been treated, and imploring him to take measures of some sort for getting him out of his false and awkward position; one to his head clerk, to press upon him the necessity of prudence and caution in dealing with the impostor; notes to Bangle and Fishwick putting them off—they should not be outraged by an introduction to a vulgar pantomime clown under his roof; and lastly (this was an outburst he could not deny himself), a solemn impressive appeal to the common humanity, if not to the ordinary filial instincts, of his undutiful son.
His fingers tingled to begin. Sentences of burning, indignant eloquence crowded confusedly into his head—he would write such letters as would carry instant conviction to the most practical and matter-of-fact minds. The pathos and dignity of his remonstrances should melt even Dick's selfish, callous heart.
Perhaps he overrated the power of his pen—perhaps it would have required more than mere ink to persuade his friends to disbelieve their own senses, and see a portly citizen of over fifty packed into the frame of a chubby urchin of fourteen. But, at all events, no one's faith was put to so hard a test—those letters were never written.
"Don't begin to write yet, any of you," said the Doctor; "I have a few words to say to you first. In most cases, and as a general rule, I think it wisest to let every boy commit to paper whatever his feelings may dictate to him. I wish to claim no censorship over the style and diction of your letters. But there have been so many complaints lately from the parents of some of the less advanced of you, that I find myself obliged to make a change. Your father particularly, Richard Bultitude," he added, turning suddenly upon the unlucky Paul, "has complained bitterly of the slovenly tone and phrasing of your correspondence; he said very justly that they would disgrace a stable-boy, and unless I could induce you to improve them, he begged he might not be annoyed by them in future."
It was by no means the least galling part of Mr. Bultitude's trials, that former forgotten words and deeds of his in his original condition were constantly turning up at critical seasons, and plunging him deeper into the morass just when he saw some prospect of gaining firm ground.
So, on this occasion, he did remember that, being in a more than usually bad temper one day last year, he had, on receiving a sprawling, ill-spelt application from Dick for more pocket-money, to buy fireworks for the 5th of November, written to make some such complaint to the schoolmaster. He waited anxiously for the Doctor's next words; he might want to read the letters before they were sent off, in which case Paul would not be displeased, for it would be an easier and less dangerous way of putting the Doctor in possession of the facts.
But his complaints were to be honoured by a much more effectual remedy, for it naturally piqued the Doctor to be told that boys instructed under his auspices wrote like stable-boys. "However," he went on, "I wish your people at home to be assured from time to time of your welfare, and to prevent them from being shocked and distressed in future by the crudity of your communications, I have drawn up a short form of letter for the use of the lower boys in the second form—which I shall now proceed to dictate. Of course all boys in the first form, and all in the second above Bultitude and Jolland, will write as they please, as usual. Richard, I expect you to take particular pains to write this out neatly. Are you all ready? Very well then, ... now;" and he read out the following letter, slowly—
"My dear Parents (or parent according to circumstances) comma" (all of which several took down most industriously)—"You will be rejoiced to hear that, having arrived with safety at our destination, we have by this time fully resumed our customary regular round of earnest work relieved and sweetened by hearty play. ('Have you all got "hearty play" down?'" inquired the Doctor rather suspiciously, while Jolland observed in an undertone that it would take some time to get that down.) "I hope, I trust I may say without undue conceit, to have made considerable progress in my school-tasks before I rejoin the family circle for the Easter vacation, as I think you will admit when I inform you of the programme we intend" ('D.V. in brackets and capital letters'—as before, this was taken down verbatim by Jolland, who probably knew very much better), "intend to work out during the term.
"In Latin, the class of which I am a member propose to thoroughly master the first book of Virgil's magnificent Epic, need I say I refer to the soul-moving story of the Pious AEneas?" (Jolland was understood by his near neighbours to remark that he thought the explanation distinctly advisable), "whilst, in Greek, we have already commenced the thrilling account of the 'Anabasis' of Xenophon, that master of strategy! nor shall we, of course, neglect in either branch of study the syntax and construction of those two noble languages"—("noble languages," echoed the writers mechanically, contriving to insinuate a touch of irony into the words).
"In German under the able tutelage of Herr Stohwasser, who, as I may possibly have mentioned to you in casual conversation, is a graduate of the University of Heidelberg" ("and a silly old hass," added Jolland parenthetically), "we have resigned ourselves to the spell of the Teutonian Shakespeare" (there was much difference of opinion as to the manner of spelling the "Teutonian Shakespeare"), "as, in my opinion, Schiller may be not inaptly termed, and our French studies comprise such exercises, and short poems and tales, as are best calculated to afford an insight into the intricacies of the Gallic tongue.
"But I would not have you imagine, my dear parents (or parent, as before), that, because the claims of the intellect have been thus amply provided for, the requirements of the body are necessarily overlooked!
"I have no intention of becoming a mere bookworm, and, on the contrary, we have had one excessively brisk and pleasant game at football already this season, and should, but for the unfortunate inclemency of the weather, have engaged again this afternoon in the mimic warfare.
"In the playground our favourite diversion is the game of 'chevy,' so called from the engagement famed in ballad and history (I allude to the battle of Chevy Chase), and indeed, my dear parents, in the rapid alternations of its fortunes and the diversity of its incident, the game (to my mind) bears a striking resemblance to the accounts of that ever-memorable contest.
"I fear I must now relinquish my pen, as the time allotted for correspondence is fast waning to its close, and tea-time is approaching. Pray give my kindest remembrance to all my numerous friends and relatives, and accept my fondest love and affection for yourselves, and the various other members of the family circle.
"I am, I am rejoiced to say, in the enjoyment of excellent health, and surrounded as I am by congenial companions, and employed in interesting and agreeable pursuits, it is superfluous to add that I am happy.
"And now, my dear parents, believe me, your dutiful and affectionate son, so and so."
The Doctor finished his dictation with a roll in his voice, as much as to say, "I think that will strike your respective parents as a chaste and classical composition; I think so!"
But unexceptionable as its tone and sentiments undoubtedly were, it was far from expressing the feelings of Mr. Bultitude. The rest accepted it not unwillingly as an escape from the fatigue of original composition, but to him the neat, well-balanced sentences seemed a hollow mockery. As he wrote down each successive phrase, he wondered what Dick would think of it, and when at last it was finished, the precious hour had gone for another week!
In speechless disgust but without protest, for his spirit was too broken by this last cruel disappointment, he had to fold, put into an envelope and direct this most misleading letter under the Doctor's superintending eye, which of course allowed him no chance of introducing a line or even a word to counteract the tone of self-satisfaction and contentment which breathed in every sentence of it.
He saw it stamped, and put into the postbag, and then his last gleam of hope flickered out; he must give up struggling against the Inevitable; he must resign himself to be educated, and perhaps flogged here, while Dick was filling his house with clowns and pantaloons, destroying his reputation and damaging his credit at home. Perhaps, in course of time, he would grow accustomed to it, and, meanwhile, he would be as careful as possible to do and say nothing to make himself remarkable in any way, by which means he trusted, at least, to avoid any fresh calamity.