And with this resolution he went to bed on Saturday night, feeling that this was a dreary finish to a most unpleasant week.
11. A Day of Rest
"There was a letter indeed to be intercepted by a man's father to do him good with him!"—Every Man in his Humour.
"I cannot lose the thought yet of this letter, Sent to my son; nor leave t' admire the change Of manners, and the breeding of our youth Within the kingdom, since myself was one."—Ibid.
Sunday came—a day which was to begin a new week for Mr. Bultitude, and, of course, for the rest of the Christian world as well. Whether that week would be better or worse than the one which had just passed away he naturally could not tell—it could hardly be much worse.
But the Sunday itself, he anticipated, without, however, any very firm grounds for such an assumption, would be a day of brief but grateful respite; a day on which he might venture to claim much the same immunity as was enjoyed in former days by the insolvent; a day, in short, which would glide slowly by with the rather drowsy solemnity peculiar to the British sabbath as observed by all truly respectable persons.
And yet that very Sunday, could he have foreseen it, was destined to be the most eventful day he had yet spent at Crichton House, where none had proved wanting in incident. During the next twelve hours he was to pass through every variety of unpleasant sensation. Embarrassment, suspense, fear, anxiety, dismay, and terror were to follow each other in rapid succession, and to wind up, strangely enough, with a delicious ecstasy of pure relief and happiness—a fatiguing programme for any middle-aged gentleman who had never cultivated his emotional faculties.
Let me try to tell how this came about. The getting-up bell rang an hour later than on week-days, but the boys were expected to prepare certain tasks suitable for the day before they rose. Mr. Bultitude found that he was required to learn by heart a hymn in which the rhymes "join" and "divine," "throne" and "crown," were so happily wedded that either might conform to the other—a graceful concession to individual taste which is not infrequent in this class of poetry. Trivial as such a task may seem in these days of School Boards, it gave him infinite trouble and mental exertion, for he had not been called upon to commit anything of the kind to memory for many years, and after mastering that, there still remained a long chronological list (the dates approximately computed) of the leading events before and immediately after the Deluge, which was to be repeated "without looking at the book."
While he was wrestling desperately with these, for he was determined, as I have said before, to do all in his power to keep himself out of trouble, Mrs. Grimstone, in her morning wrapper, paid a visit to the dormitories and, in spite of all Paul's attempts to excuse himself, insisted upon pomatuming his hair—an indignity which he felt acutely.
"When she knows who I really am," he thought, "she'll be sorry she made such a point of it. If there's one thing upon earth I loathe more than another, it's marrow-oil pomade!"
Then there was breakfast, at which Dr. Grimstone appeared, resplendent in glossy broadcloth, and dazzling shirt-front and semi-clerical white tie, and after breakfast, an hour in the schoolroom, during which the boys (by the aid of repeated references to the text) wrote out "from memory" the hymn they had learnt, while Paul managed somehow to stumble through his dates and events to the satisfaction of Mr. Tinkler, who, to increase his popularity, made a point of being as easily satisfied with such repetitions as he decently could.
After that came the order to prepare for church. There was a general rush to the little room with the shelves and bandboxes, where church books were procured, and great-coats and tight kid gloves put on.
When they were almost ready the Doctor came in, wearing his blandest and most paternal expression.
"A—it's a collection Sunday to-day, boys," he said. "Have you all got your threepenny-bits ready? I like to see my boys give cheerfully and liberally of their abundance. If any boy does not happen to have any small change, I can accommodate him if he comes to me."
And this he proceeded to do from a store he had with him of that most convenient coin—the chosen expression of a congregation's gratitude—the common silver threepence, for the school occupied a prominent position in the church, and had acquired a great reputation amongst the churchwardens for the admirable uniformity with which one young gentleman after another "put into the plate"; and this reputation the Doctor was naturally anxious that they should maintain.
I am sorry to say that Mr. Bultitude, fearing lest he should be asked if he had the required sum about him, and thus his penniless condition might be discovered and bring him trouble, got behind the door at the beginning of the money-changing transactions and remained there till it was over—it seemed to him that it would be too paltry to be disgraced for want of threepence.
Now, being thus completely furnished for their devotions, the school formed in couples in the hall and filed solemnly out for the march to church.
Mr. Bultitude walked nearly last with Jolland, whose facile nature had almost forgotten his friend's shortcomings on the previous day. He kept up a perpetual flow of chatter which, as he never stopped for an answer, permitted Paul to indulge his own thoughts unrestrained.
"Are you going to put your threepenny-bit in?" said Jolland; "I won't if you don't. Sometimes, you know, when the plate comes round, old Grim squints down the pews to see we don't shirk. Then I put in sixpence. Have you done your hymn? I do hate a hymn. What's the use of learning hymns? They won't mark you for them, you know, in any exam. I ever heard of, and it can't save you the expense of a hymnbook unless you learnt all the hymns in it, and that would take you years. Oh, I say, look! there's young Mutlow and his governor and mater. I wonder what Mutlow's governor does? Mutlow says he's a 'gentleman' if you ask him, but I believe he lies. See that fly driving past? Mother Grim" (the irreverent youth always spoke of Mrs. Grimstone in this way) "and Dulcie are in it. I saw Dulcie look at you, Dick. It's a shame to treat her as you did yesterday. There's young Tom on the box; don't his ears stick out rummily? I wonder if the 'ugly family' will be at church to-day? You know the ugly family; all with their mouths open and their eyes goggling, like a jolly old row of pantomime heads. And oh, Dick, suppose Connie Davenant's people have changed their pew—that'll be a sell for you rather, won't it?"
"I don't understand you," said Mr. Bultitude stiffly; "and, if you don't object, I prefer not to be called upon to talk just now."
"Oh, all right!" said Jolland, "there aren't so many fellows who will talk to you; but just as you please—I don't want to talk."
And so the pair walked on in silence; Jolland with his nose in the air, determined that after this he really must cut his former friend as the other fellows had done, since his devotion was appreciated so little, and Paul watching the ascending double line of tall chimney-pot hats as they surged before him in regular movement, and feeling a dull wonder at finding himself setting out to church in such ill-assorted company.
They entered the church, and Paul was sent down to the extreme end of a pew next to the one reserved for the Doctor and his family. Dulcie was sitting there already on the other side of the partition; but she gave no sign of having noticed his arrival, being apparently absorbed in studying the rose-window over the altar.
He sat down in his corner with a sense of rest and almost comfort, though the seat was not a cushioned one. He had the inoffensive Kiffin for a neighbour, his chief tormentors were far away from him in one of the back pews, and here at least he thought no harm could come to him. He could allow himself safely to do what I am afraid he generally did do under the circumstances—snatch a few intermittent but sweet periods of dreamless slumber.
But, while the service was proceeding, Mr. Bultitude was suddenly horrified to observe that a young lady, who occupied a pew at right angles to and touching that in which he sat, was deliberately making furtive signals to him in a most unmistakable manner.
She was a decidedly pretty girl of about fifteen, with merry and daring blue eyes and curling golden hair, and was accompanied by two small brothers (who shared the same book and dealt each other stealthy and vicious kicks throughout the service), and by her father, a stout, short-sighted old gentleman in gold spectacles, who was perpetually making the wrong responses in a loud and confident tone.
To be signalled to in a marked manner by a strange young lady of great personal attractions might be a coveted distinction to other schoolboys, but it simply gave Mr. Bultitude cold thrills.
"I suppose that's 'Connie Davenant,'" he thought, shocked beyond measure as she caught his eye and coughed demurely for about the fourth time. "A very forward young person! I think somebody ought to speak seriously to her father."
"Good gracious! she's writing something on the flyleaf of her prayer-book," he said to himself presently. "I hope she's not going to send it to me. I won't take it. She ought to be ashamed of herself!"
Miss Davenant was indeed busily engaged in pencilling something on a blank sheet of paper; and, having finished, she folded it deftly into a cocked-hat, wrote a few words on the outside, and placed it between the leaves of her book.
Then, as the congregation rose for the Psalms, she gave a meaning glance at the blushing and scandalised Mr. Bultitude and by dexterous management of her prayer-book shot the little cocked-hat, as if unconsciously, into the next pew.
By a very unfortunate miscalculation, however, the note missed its proper object, and, clearing the partition, fluttered deliberately down on the floor by Dulcie's feet.
Paul saw this with alarm; he knew that at all hazards he must get that miserable note into his own possession and destroy it. It might have his name somewhere about it; it might seriously compromise him.
So he took advantage of the noise the congregation made in repeating a verse aloud (it was not a high church) to whisper to Dulcie: "Little Miss Grimstone, excuse me, but there's a—a note in the pew down by your feet. I believe it's intended for me."
Dulcie had seen the whole affair and had been not a little puzzled by it, a clandestine correspondence being a new thing in her short experience; but she understood that in this golden-haired girl, her elder by several years, she saw her rival, for whom Dick had so basely abandoned her yesterday, and she was old enough to feel the slight and the sweetness of revenge.
So she held her head rather higher than usual, with her firm little chin projecting wilfully, and waited for the next verse but one before retorting, "Little Master Bultitude, I know it is."
"Could you—can you manage to reach it?" whispered Paul entreatingly.
"Yes," said Dulcie, "I could."
"Then will you—when they sit down?"
"No," said Dulcie firmly, "I shan't."
The other girl, she noticed with satisfaction, had become aware of the situation and was evidently uneasy. She looked as imploringly as she dared at remorseless little Dulcie, as if appealing to her not to get her into trouble; but Dulcie bent her eyes obstinately on her book and would not see her.
If the letter had been addressed to any other boy in the school, she would have done her best to shield the culprits; but this she could not bring herself to do here. She found a malicious pleasure in remaining absolutely neutral, which of course was very wrong and ill-natured of her.
Mr. Bultitude began now to be seriously alarmed. The fatal paper must be seen by some one in the Doctor's pew as soon as the congregation sat down again; and, if it reached the Doctor's hands, it was impossible to say what misconstruction he might put upon it or what terrible consequences might not follow.
He was innocent, perfectly innocent; but though the consciousness of innocence is frequently a great consolation, he felt that unless he could imbue the Doctor with it as well, it would not save him from a flogging.
So he made one more desperate attempt to soften Dulcie's resolution: "Don't be a naughty little girl," he said, very injudiciously for his purpose, "I tell you I must have it. You'll get me into a terrible mess if you're not careful!"
But although Dulcie had been extremely well brought up, I regret to say that the only answer she chose to make to this appeal was that slight contortion of the features, which with a pretty girl is euphemised as a "moue," and with a plain one is called "making a face." When he saw it he knew that all hope of changing her purpose must be abandoned.
Then they all sat down, and, as Paul had foreseen, there the white cocked-hat lay on the dark pew-carpet, hideously distinct, with billet doux in every fold of it!
It could only be a question of time now. The curate was reading the first lesson for the day, but Mr. Bultitude heard not a verse of it. He was waiting with bated breath for the blow to fall.
It fell at last. Dulcie, either with the malevolent idea of hastening the crisis, or (which I prefer to believe for my own part) finding that her ex-lover's visible torments were too much for her desire of vengeance, was softly moving a heavy hassock towards the guilty note. The movement caught her mother's eye, and in an instant the compromising paper was in her watchful hands.
She read it with incredulous horror, and handed it at once to the Doctor.
The golden-haired one saw it all without betraying herself by any outward confusion. She had probably had some experience in such matters, and felt tolerably certain of being able, at the worst, to manage the old gentleman in the gold spectacles. But she took an early opportunity of secretly conveying her contempt for the traitress Dulcie, who continued to meet her angry glances with the blandest unconsciousness.
Dr. Grimstone examined the cocked-hat through his double eyeglasses, with a heavy thunder-cloud gathering on his brows. When he had mastered it thoroughly, he bent forward and glared indignantly past his wife and daughter for at least half a minute into the pew where Mr. Bultitude was cowering, until he felt that he was coming all to pieces under the piercing gaze.
The service passed all too quickly after that. Paul sat down and stood up almost unconsciously with the rest; but for the first time in his life he could have wished the sermon many times longer.
The horror of his position quite petrified him. After all his prudent resolutions to keep out of mischief and to win the regard and confidence of his gaoler by his good conduct, like the innocent convict in a melodrama, this came as nothing less than a catastrophe. He walked home in a truly dismal state of limp terror.
Fortunately for him none of the others seemed to have noticed his misfortune, and Jolland made no further advances. But even the weather tended to increase his depression, for it was a bleak, cheerless day, with a bitter and searching wind sweeping the gritty roads where yesterday's rain was turned to black ice in the ruts, and the sun shone with a dull coppery glitter that had no warmth or geniality about it.
The nearer they came to Crichton House the more abjectly miserable became Mr. Bultitude's state of mind. It was as much as he could do to crawl up the steps to the front door, and his knees positively clapped together when the Doctor, who had driven home, met them in the hall and said in a still grave voice, "Bultitude, when you have taken off your coat, I want you in the study."
He was as long about taking off his coat as he dared, but at last he went trembling into the study, which he found empty. He remembered the room well, with its ebony-framed etchings on the walls, bookcases and blue china over the draped mantelpiece, even to a large case of elaborately carved Indian chessmen in bullock-carts and palanquins, on horses and elephants, which stood in the window-recess. It was the very room to which he had been shown when he first called about sending his son to the school. He had little thought then that the time would come when he would attend there for the purpose of being flogged; few things would have seemed less probable. Yet here he was.
But his train of thought was abruptly broken by the entrance of the Doctor. He marched solemnly in, holding out the offending missive. "Look at this, sir!" he said, shaking it angrily before Paul's eyes. "Look at this! what do you mean by receiving a flippant communication like this in a sacred edifice? What do you mean by it?"
"I—I didn't receive it," said Paul, at his wits' end.
"Don't prevaricate with me, sir; you know well enough it was intended for you. Have the goodness to read it now, and tell me what you have to say for yourself!"
Paul read it. It was a silly little school-girl note, half slang and half sentiment, signed only with the initials C.D. "Well, sir?" said the Doctor.
"It's very forward and improper—very," said Paul; "but it's not my fault—I can't help it. I gave the girl no encouragement. I never saw her before in all my life!"
"To my own knowledge, Bultitude, she has sat in that pew regularly for a year."
"Very probably," said Paul, "but I don't notice these matters. I'm past that sort of thing, my dear sir."
"What is her name? Come, sir, you know that."
"Connie Davenant," said Paul, taken unawares by the suddenness of the question. "At least, I—I heard so to-day." He felt the imprudence of such an admission as soon as he had made it.
"Very odd that you know her name if you never noticed her before," said the Doctor.
"That young fellow—what's-his-name—Jolland told me," said Paul.
"Ah, but it's odder still that she knows yours, for I perceive it is directed to you by name."
"It's easily explained, my dear sir," said Paul; "easily explained. I've no doubt she's heard it somewhere. At least, I never told her; it is not likely. I do assure you I'm as much distressed and shocked by this affair as you can be yourself. I am indeed. I don't know what girls are coming to nowadays."
"Do you expect me to believe that you are perfectly innocent?" said the Doctor.
"Yes, I do," said Mr. Bultitude. "I can't prevent fast young ladies from sending me notes. Why, she might have sent you one!"
"We won't go into hypothetical cases," said the Doctor, not relishing the war being carried into his own country; "she happened to prefer you. But, although your virtuous indignation seems to me a trifle overdone, sir, I don't see my way clear to punishing you on the facts, especially as you tell me you never encouraged these—these overtures, and my Dulcie, I am bound to say, confirms your statement that it was all the other young lady's doing. But if I had had any proof that you had begun or responded to her—hem—advances, nothing could have saved you from a severe flogging at the very least—so be careful for the future."
"Ah!" said Paul rather feebly, quite overwhelmed by the narrowness of his escape. Then with a desperate effort he found courage to add, "May I—ah—take advantage of this—this restored cordiality to—to—in fact to make a brief personal explanation? It—it's what I've been trying to tell you for a long time, ever since I first came, only you never will hear me out. It's highly important. You've no notion how serious it is!"
"There's something about you this term, Richard Bultitude," said the Doctor slowly, "that I confess I don't understand. This obstinacy is unusual in a boy of your age, and if you really have a mystery it may be as well to have it out and have done with it. But I can't be annoyed with it now. Come to me after supper to-night, and I shall be willing to hear anything you may have to say."
Paul was too overcome at this unexpected favour to speak his thanks. He got away as soon as he could. His path was smoothed at last!
That afternoon the boys, or all of them who had disposed of the work set them for the day, were sitting in the schoolroom, after a somewhat chilly dinner of cold beef, cold tarts, and cold water, passing the time with that description of literature known as "Sunday reading."
And here, at the risk of being guilty of a digression, I must pause to record my admiration for this exceedingly happy form of compromise, which is, I think, peculiar to the British and, to a certain extent, the American nations.
It has many developments; ranging from the mild Transatlantic compound of cookery and camp-meetings, to the semi-novel, redeemed and chastened by an arrangement which sandwiches a sermon or a biblical lecture between each chapter of the story—a great convenience for the race of skippers.
Then there are one or two illustrated magazines which it is always allowable to read on the Sabbath without fear of rebuke from the strictest—though it is not quite easy to see why.
Open any one of the monthly numbers, and the chances are that you may possibly find at one part a neat little doctrinal essay by a literary bishop; the rest of the contents will consist of nothing more serious than a paper upon "cockroaches and their habits" by an eminent savant; a description of foreign travel, done in a brilliant and wholly secular vein; and, further on again, an article on aesthetic furniture—while the balance of the number will be devoted to instalments of two thrilling novels by popular authors, whose theology is seldom their strongest point.
Oddly enough, too, when these very novels come out later in three-volume form, with the "mark of the beast" in the shape of a circulating library ticket upon them, they will be fortunate if they are not interdicted altogether by some of the serious families who take in the magazines as being "so suitable for Sundays."
Mr. Bultitude, at all events, had reason to be grateful for this toleration, for in one of the bound volumes supplied to him he found a most interesting and delightfully unsectarian novel, which appealed to his tastes as a business man, for it was all about commerce and making fortunes by blockade-running; and though he was no novel reader as a rule, his mind was so relieved and set at rest by the prospect of seeing the end of his trouble at last, that he was able to occupy his mind with the fortunes of the hero.
He naturally detected technical errors here and there. But that pleased him, and he was becoming so deeply absorbed in the tale that he felt seriously annoyed when Chawner came softly up to the desk at which he was sitting, and sat down close to him, crossing his arms before him, and leaning forward upon them with his sallow face towards Paul.
"Dickie," he began, in a cautious, oily tone, "did I hear the Doctor say before dinner that he would hear anything you have to tell him after supper? Did I?"
"I really can't say, sir," said Paul; "if you were near the keyhole at the time, very likely you did."
"The door was open," said Chawner, "and I was in the cloak-room, so I heard, and I want to know. What is it you're going to tell the Doctor?"
"Mind your own business, sir," said Paul sharply.
"It is my own business," said Chawner; "but I don't want to be told what you're going to tell him. I know."
"Good heavens!" said Mr. Bultitude, annoyed to find his secret in possession of this boy of all others.
"Yes," repeated Chawner. "I know, and I tell you what—I won't have it!"
"Won't have it! and why?"
"Never mind why. Perhaps I don't choose that the Doctor shall be told just yet; perhaps I mean to go up and tell him myself some other day. I want to have a little more fun out of it before I've done."
"But—but," said Paul, "you young ghoul, do you mean to say that all you care for is to see other people's sufferings?"
Chawner grinned maliciously. "Yes," he said suavely; "it amuses me."
"And so," said Paul, "you want to hold me back a little longer—because it's so funny; and then, when you're quite tired of your sport, you'll go up and tell the Doctor my—my unhappy story yourself, eh? No, my friend; I'd rather not tell him myself—but I'll be shot if I let you have a finger in it. I know my own interests better than that!"
"Don't get in a passion, Dickie," said Chawner; "it's Sunday. You'll have to let me go up instead of you—when I've frightened them a little more."
"Who do you mean by them, sir?" said Paul, growing puzzled.
"As if you didn't know! Oh, you're too clever for me, Dickie, I can see," sniggered Chawner.
"I tell you I don't know!" said Mr. Bultitude. "Look here, Chawner—your confounded name is Chawner, isn't it?—there's a mistake somewhere, I'm sure of it. Listen to me. I'm not going to tell the Doctor what you think I am!"
"What do I think you are going to tell him?"
"I haven't the slightest idea; but, whatever it is, you're wrong."
"Ah, you're too clever, Dickie; you won't betray yourself; but other people want to pay Coker and Tipping out as well as you, and I say you must wait."
"I shan't say anything to affect anyone but myself," said Paul; "if you know all about it, you must know that—it won't interfere with your amusement that I can see."
"Yes, it will," said Chawner irritably, "it will—you mayn't mean to tell of anyone but yourself; but directly Grimstone asks you questions, it all comes out. I know all about it. And, anyway, I forbid you to go up till I give you leave."
"And who the dooce are you?" said Mr. Bultitude, nettled at this assumption of authority. "How are you going to prevent me, may I ask?"
"S'sh! here's the Doctor," whispered Chawner hurriedly. "I'll tell you after tea. What am I doing out of my place, sir? Oh, I was only asking Bultitude what was the collect for to-day, sir. Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany? thank you, Bultitude."
And he glided back to his seat, leaving Paul in a state of vague uneasiness. Why did this fellow, with the infernal sly face and glib tongue, want to prevent him from righting himself with the world, and how could he possibly prevent him? It was absurd; he would take no notice of the young scoundrel—he would defy him.
But he could not banish the uneasy feeling; the cup had slipped so many times before at the critical moment that he could not be sure whose hand would be the next to jog his elbow. And so he went down to tea with renewed misgivings.
12. Against Time
"There is a kind of Followers likewise, which are dangerous, being indeed Espials; which enquire the Secrets of the House and beare Tales of them."—BACON.
"Then give me leave that I may turn the key, That no man enter till my tale be done."
Very possibly Chawner's interference in Mr. Bultitude's private affairs has surprised others besides the victim of it; but the fact is that there was a most unfortunate misunderstanding between them from the very first, which prevented the one from seeing, the other from explaining, the real state of the case.
Chawner, of course, no more guessed Paul's true name and nature than anyone else who had come in contact with him in his impenetrable disguise, and his motive for attempting to prevent an interview with the Doctor can only, I fear, be explained by another slight digression.
The Doctor, from a deep sense of his responsibility for the morals of those under his care, was perhaps a trifle over-anxious to clear his moral garden of every noxious weed, and too constant in his vigilant efforts to detect the growing shoot of evil from the moment it showed above the surface.
As he could not be everywhere, however, it is evident that many offences, trivial or otherwise, must have remained unsuspected and unpunished, but for a theory which he had originated and took great pains to propagate amongst his pupils.
The theory was that every right-minded boy ought to feel himself in such a fiduciary position towards his master, that it became a positive duty to acquaint him with any delinquencies he might happen to observe among his fellows; and if, at the same time, he was oppressed by a secret burden on his own conscience, it was understood that he might hope that the joint revelation would go far to mitigate his own punishment.
It is doubtful whether this system, though I believe it is found successful in Continental colleges, can be usefully applied to English boys; whether it may not produce a habit of mutual distrust and suspicion, and a tone the reverse of healthy.
For myself, I am inclined to think that a schoolmaster will find it better in the long run, for both the character and morals of his school, if he is not too anxious to play the detective, and refrains from encouraging the more weak-minded or cowardly boys to save themselves by turning "schoolmaster's evidence."
Dr. Grimstone thought otherwise; but it must be allowed that the system, as in vogue at Crichton House, did not work well.
There were boys, of course, who took a sturdier view of their own rights and duties, and despised the talebearers as they deserved; there were others, also, too timid and too dependent on the good opinion of others to risk the loss of it by becoming informers; but there were always one or two whose consciences were unequal to the burden of their neighbour's sin, and could only be relieved by frank and full confession.
Unhappily they had, as a general rule, contributed largely to the sum of guilt themselves, and did not resort to disclosure until detection seemed reasonably imminent.
Chawner was the leader of this conscientious band; he revelled in the system. It gave him the means at once of gratifying the almost universal love of power and of indulging a catlike passion for playing with the feelings of others, which, it is to be hoped, is more uncommon.
He knew he was not popular, but he could procure most of the incidents of popularity; he could have his little court of cringing toadies; he could levy his tribute of conciliatory presents, and vent many private spites and hatreds into the bargain—and he generally did.
Having himself a tendency to acts of sly disobedience, he found it a congenial pastime to set the fashion from time to time in some one of the peccadilloes to which boyhood is prone, and to which the Doctor's somewhat restrictive code added a large number, and as soon as he saw a sufficient number of his companions satisfactorily implicated, his opportunity came.
He would take the chief culprits aside, and profess, in strict confidence, certain qualms of conscience which he feared could only be appeased by unburdening his guilt-laden soul.
To this none would have had any right to object—had it not necessarily, or at least from Chawner's point of view, involved a full, true, and particular account of the misdoings of each and every one; and consequently, for some time after these professions of misgivings, Chawner would be surrounded by a little crowd of anxiously obsequious friends, all trying hard to overcome his scruples or persuade him at least to omit their names from his revelations.
Sometimes he would affect to be convinced by their arguments and send them away reassured; at others his scruples would return in an aggravated form; and so he would keep them on tenterhooks of suspense for days and weeks, until he was tired of the amusement—for this practising on the fears of weaker natures is a horribly keen delight to some—or until some desperate little dog, unable to bear his torture any longer, would threaten to give himself up and make an end of it.
Then Chawner, to do him justice, always relieved him from so disagreeable a necessity, and would go softly into the Doctor's study, and, in a subdued and repentant tone, pour out his general confession for the public good.
Probably the Doctor did not altogether respect the instruments he saw fit to use in this way; some would have declined to hear the informer out, flogged him well, and forgotten it; but Dr. Grimstone—though he was hardly likely to be impressed by these exhibitions of noble candour, and did not fail to see that the prospect of obtaining better terms for the penitent himself had something to do with them—yet encouraged the system as a matter of policy, went thoroughly into the whole affair, and made it the cause of an explosion which he considered would clear the moral atmosphere for some time to come.
I hope that, after this explanation, Chawner's opposition to Mr. Bultitude's plans will be better understood.
After tea, he made Paul a little sign to follow him, and the two went out together into the little glass-house beyond the schoolroom; it was dark, but there was light enough from the room inside for them to see each other's face.
"Now, sir," began Paul, with dignity, when he had closed the glass door behind him, "perhaps you'll be good enough to tell me how you mean to prevent me from seeing Dr. Grimstone, and telling him—telling him what I have to tell him?"
"I'll tell you, Dickie," said Chawner, with an evil smirk. "You shall know soon enough."
"Don't stand grinning at me like that, sir," said the angry Mr. Bultitude; "say it out at once; it will make no difference to me, I give you warning!"
"Oh, yes it will, though. I think it will. Wait. I heard all you said to Grimstone in the study to-day about that girl—Connie Davenant, you know."
"I don't care; I am innocent. I have nothing to reproach myself with."
"What a liar you are!" said Chawner, more in admiration than rebuke. "You told him you never gave her any encouragement, didn't you? And he said if he ever found you had, nothing could save you from a licking, didn't he?"
"He did," said Paul, "he was quite right from his point of view—what then?"
"Why, this," said Chawner: "Do you remember giving Jolland, the last Sunday of last term, a note for that very girl?"
"I never did!" said poor Mr. Bultitude, "I never saw the wretched girl before."
"Ah!" said Chawner, "but I've got the note in my pocket! Jolland was seedy and asked me to take it for you, and I read it, and it was so nicely written that I thought I should like to keep it myself, and so I did—and here it is!"
And he drew out with great caution a piece of crumpled paper and showed it to the horrified old gentleman. "Don't snatch ... it's rude; there it is, you see: 'My dear Connie' ... 'yours ever, Dick Bultitude.' No, you don't come any nearer ... there, now it's safe.... Now what do you mean to do?"
"I—I don't know," said Paul, feeling absolutely checkmated. "Give me time."
"I tell you what I mean to do; I shall keep my eye on you, and directly I see you making ready to go to Grimstone, I shall get up first and take him this ... then you'll be done for. You'd better give in, really, Dickie!"
The note was too evidently genuine; Dick must have written it (as a matter of fact he had; in a moment of pique, no doubt, at some caprice of his real enslaver Dulcie's—but his fickleness brought fatal results on his poor father's undeserving head)—if this diabolical Chawner carried out his threats he would indeed be "done for"; he did not yet fully understand the other's motive, but he thought that he feared lest Paul, in declaring his own sorrows, might also accuse Tipping and Coker of acts of cruelty and oppression, which Chawner proposed to denounce himself at some more convenient opportunity; he hesitated painfully.
"Well?" said Chawner, "make up your mind; are you going to tell him, or not?"
"I must!" said Paul hoarsely. "I promise you I shall not bring any other names in ... I don't want to ... I only want to save myself—and I can't stand it any longer. Why should you stand between me and my rights in this currish way? I didn't know there were boys like you in the world, sir; you're a young monster!"
"I don't mean you to tell the Doctor anything at all," said Chawner. "I shall do what I said."
"Then do your worst!" said Paul, stung to defiance.
"Very well, then," returned Chawner meekly, "I will—and we'll see who wins!"
And they went back to the schoolroom again, where Mr. Bultitude, boiling with rage and seriously alarmed as well, tried to sit down and appear as if nothing had happened.
Chawner sat down too, in a place from which he could see all Paul's movements, and they both watched one another anxiously from the corners of their eyes till the Doctor came in.
"It's a foggy evening," he said as he entered: "the younger boys had better stay in. Chawner, you and the rest of the first form can go to church; get ready at once."
Paul's heart leaped with triumph; with his enemy out of the way, he could carry out his purpose unhindered. The same thing apparently occurred to Chawner, for he said mildly, "Please, sir, may Richard Bultitude come too?"
"Can't Bultitude ask leave for himself?" said the Doctor.
"I, sir!" said the horrified Paul, "it's a mistake—I don't want to go. I—I don't feel very well this evening!"
"Then you see, Chawner, you misunderstood him. By the way, Bultitude, there was something you were to tell me, I think?"
Chawner's small glittering eyes were fixed on Paul menacingly as he managed to stammer that he did want to say something in private.
"Very well, I am going out to see a friend for an hour or so—when I come back I will hear you," and he left the room abruptly.
Chawner would very probably have petitioned to stay in that evening as well, had he had time and presence of mind to do so; as it was, he was obliged to go away and get ready for church, but when his preparations were made he came back to Paul, and leaning over him said with an unpleasant scowl, "If I get back in time, Bultitude, we'll see whether you baulk me quite so easily. If I come back and find you've done it—I shall take in that letter!"
"You may do what you please then," said Paul, in a high state of irritation, "I shall be well out of your reach by that time. Now have the goodness to take yourself off."
As he went, Mr. Bultitude thought, "I never in all my life saw such a fellow as that, never! It would give me real pleasure to hire someone to kick him."
The evening passed quietly; the boys left at home sat in their places, reading or pretending to read. Mr. Blinkhorn, left in charge of them, was at his table in the corner noting up his diary. Paul was free for a time to think over his position.
At first he was calm and triumphant; his dearest hopes, his long-wished-for opportunity of a fair and unprejudiced hearing, were at last to be fulfilled—Chawner was well out of the way for the best part of two hours—the Doctor was very unlikely to be detained nearly so long over one call; his one anxiety was lest he might not be able, after all, to explain himself in a thoroughly effective manner—he planned out a little scheme for doing this.
He must begin gradually of course, so as not to alarm the schoolmaster or raise doubts of his sincerity or, worse still, his sanity. Perhaps a slight glance at instances of extraordinary interventions of the supernatural from the earliest times, tending to show the extreme probability of their survival on rare occasions even to the present day, might be a prudent and cautious introduction to the subject—only he could not think of any, and, after all, it might weary the Doctor.
He would start somewhat in this manner: "You cannot, my dear sir, have failed to observe since our meeting this year, a certain difference in my manner and bearing"—one's projected speeches are somehow generally couched in finer language than, when it comes to the point, the tongue can be prevailed upon to utter. Mr. Bultitude learned this opening sentence by heart, he thought it taking and neat, the sort of thing to fix his hearer's attention from the first.
After that he found it difficult to get any further; he knew himself that all he was about to describe was plain, unvarnished fact—but how would it strike a stranger's ear? He found himself seeking ways in which to tone down the glaring improbability of the thing as much as possible, but in vain; "I don't know how I shall ever get it all out," he told himself at last; "if I think about it much longer I shall begin to disbelieve in it myself."
Here Biddlecomb came up in a confidential manner and sat down by Paul; "Dick," he began, in rather a trembling voice, "did I hear the Doctor say something about your having something to tell him?"
"Oh Lord, here's another of them now!" thought Paul. "You are right, young sir," he said: "have you any objection? mention it, you know, if you have, pray mention it. It's a matter of life and death to me, but if you at all disapprove, of course that ought to be final!"
"No, but," protested Biddlecomb, "I, I daresay I've not treated you very well lately, I——"
"You were kind enough to suggest several very uncommonly unpleasant ways of annoying me, sir," said Paul resentfully, "if you mean that. You've kicked me more than once, and your handkerchief, unless I am very much mistaken, had the biggest and the hardest knot in it yesterday. If that gives you the right to interfere and dictate to me now, like your amiable friend, Master Chawner, I suppose you have it."
"Now you're angry," said Biddlecomb humbly; "I don't wonder at it. I've behaved like a cad, I know, but, and this is what I wanted to say, I was sorry for you all the time."
"That's very comforting," said Paul drily; "thank you. I'm vastly obliged to you."
"I was, though," said Biddlecomb. "I, I was led away by the other fellows—I always liked you, you know, Bultitude."
"You've a very odd way of showing your affection," remarked Mr. Bultitude; "but go on, let me hear all you have to say."
"It isn't much," said Biddlecomb, quite broken down; "only don't sneak of me this time, Dick, let me off, there's a good fellow. I'll stick up for you after this, I will really. You used not to be a fellow for sneaking once. It's caddish to sneak!"
"Don't be alarmed, my good friend," said Paul; "I won't poach on that excellent young man Chawner's preserves. What I am going to tell the Doctor has nothing to do with you."
"On your honour?" said Biddlecomb eagerly.
"Yes," said Paul testily, "on my honour. Now, perhaps, you'll let me alone. No, I won't shake hands, sir. I've had to accept your kicks, but I don't want your friendship."
Biddlecomb went off, looking slightly ashamed of himself but visibly relieved from a haunting fear. "Thank goodness!" thought Paul, "he wasn't as obstinate as the other fellow. What a set they are! I knew it, there's another boy coming up now!"
And indeed one boy after another came up in the same way as Biddlecomb had done, some cringing more than others, but all vowing that they had never intended to do any harm, and entreating him to change his mind about complaining of his ill-treatment. They brought little offerings to propitiate him and prove the depth of their unaltered regard—pencil-cases and pocket-knives, and so forth, until they drove Paul nearly to desperation. However, he succeeded in dispelling their fears after some hot arguments, and had just sent away the last suppliant, when he saw Jolland too rise and come towards him.
Jolland leaned across Paul's desk with folded arms and looked him full in the face with his shallow light green eyes. "I don't know what you've said to all those chaps," he began; "they've come back looking precious glum, but they won't tell me what you said," (Mr. Bultitude had in satisfying their alarm taken care to let them know his private opinion of them, which was not flattering), "but I've got something to say to you, and it's this. I never thought you would quite come down to this sort of thing!"
"What sort of thing?" said Paul, who was beginning to have enough of it.
"Why, going up and letting on against all of us—it's mean, you know. If you have got bashed about pretty well since you came back, it's been all your own fault, and you know it. Last term you got on well enough—this time you began to be queer and nasty the very first day you came. I thought it was one of your larks at first, but I don't know what it is now, and I don't care. I stood up for you as long as I could, till you acted like a funk yesterday. Then I took my share in lamming you, and I'd do it again. But if you are cad enough to pay us all out in this way, I'll have no more to do with you—mind that. That's all I came to say."
This was an unpalatable way of putting things, but Paul could not help seeing that there was some truth in it. Jolland had been kind to him, too, in a careless sort of way, and at some cost to himself; so it was with more mildness than temper that he answered him.
"You're on the wrong tack, my boy, the wrong tack. I've no wish to tell tales of anyone, as I've been trying to explain to your friends. There's something the matter with me which you wouldn't understand if I told you."
"Oh, I didn't know," said Jolland, mollified; "if it's only physic you want."
"Whatever it is," said Paul, not caring to undeceive him, "it won't affect you or anyone here, but myself. You're not a bad young fellow, I believe. I don't want to get you into trouble, sir; you don't want much assistance, I'm afraid, in that department. So be off, like a good fellow, and leave me in peace."
All these interviews had taken time. He was alarmed on looking at the clock to see that it was nearly eight; the Doctor was a long time over that call—for the first time he began to feel uneasy—he made hurried mental calculations as to the probability of the Doctor or Chawner being the first to return.
The walk to church took about twenty minutes; say the service took an hour, allowing for the return, he might expect Chawner by about half-past eight; it was striking the hour now—half an hour only in which he could hope for any favourable result from the interview!
For he saw this plainly, that if Chawner were once permitted to get the Doctor's ear first and show him that infamous love-note, no explanation of his (even if he had nerve to make it then, which he doubted) could possibly seem anything more than a desperate and far-fetched excuse; if he could anticipate Chawner, on the other hand, and once convince the Doctor of the truth of his story, the informer's malice would fall flat.
And still the long hand went rapidly on, as Mr. Bultitude sat staring stupidly at it with a faint sick feeling—it had passed the quarter now—why did the Doctor delay in this unwarrantable manner? What a farce social civilities were—if he had allowed himself to be prevailed on to stay to supper! Twenty minutes past; Chawner and the others might return at any moment—a ring at the bell; they were there! all was over now—no, he was saved, that was Dr. Grimstone's voice in the hall—what an unconscionable time he was taking off his greatcoat and gloves.
But all comes to the man who waits. In another moment the Doctor looked in, singled out Mr. Bultitude with a sharp glance, and a, "Now, Bultitude, I will hear you!" and led the way to his study.
Paul staggered rather than walked after him: as usual at the critical moment his carefully prepared opening had deserted him—his head felt heavy and crowded—he wanted to run away, but forced himself to overcome such a suicidal proceeding and follow to the study.
There was a lighted reading-lamp with a green glass shade upon the table. The Doctor sat down by it in an armchair by the fire, crossed his legs, and joined the tops of his fingers together. "Now, Bultitude," he said again.
"Might I—might I sit down?" said poor Mr. Bultitude in a thick voice; it was all that occurred to him to say.
"Sit by all means," said the Doctor blandly.
So Paul drew a chair opposite the Doctor and sat down. He tried desperately to clear his head and throat and begin; but the only distinct thought in his mind just then was that the green lamp-shade lent a particularly ghastly hue to the Doctor's face.
"Take your time, Bultitude," said the latter, after a long minute, in which a little skeleton clock on the mantelpiece ticked loudly—"there's no hurry, my boy."
But this only reminded Paul that there was every need for hurry—Chawner might come in, and follow him here, unless he made haste.
Still, he could only say, "You see me in a very agitated state, Dr. Grimstone—a very agitated state, sir."
The Doctor gave a short, dry cough. "Well, Bultitude," he said.
"The fact is, sir, I'm in a most unfortunate position, and—and the worst of it is, I don't know how to begin." Here he made another dead stop, while the Doctor raised his heavy eyebrows, and looked at the clock.
"Do you see any prospect of your finding yourself able to begin soon?" he inquired at last, with rather suspicious suavity. "Perhaps if you came to me later on——"
"Not for the world!" said Paul, in a highly nervous condition. "I shall begin very soon, Doctor, I shall begin directly. Mine is such a very singular case; it's difficult, as you see, to, to open it!"
"Have you anything on your mind?" asked the Doctor suddenly.
Paul could hear steps and voices in the adjoining cloakroom—the churchgoers had returned. "Yes—no!" he answered, losing his head completely now.
"That's a somewhat extraordinary, not to say an ambiguous, reply," said the Doctor; "what am I to understand by——"
There was a tap at the door. Paul started to his feet in a panic. "Don't let him in!" he shrieked, finding his voice at last. "Hear me first—you shall hear me first! Say that other rascal is not to come in. He wants to ruin me!"
"I was going to say I was engaged," said the Doctor; "but there's something under this I must understand. Come in, whoever you are."
And the door opened softly, and Chawner stepped meekly in; he was rather pale and breathed hard, but was otherwise quite composed.
"Now, then, Chawner," said the Doctor impatiently, "what is it? Have you something on your mind, too?"
"Please, sir," said Chawner, "has Bultitude told you anything yet?"
"No, why? Hold your tongue, Bultitude. I shall hear Chawner now—not you!"
"Because, sir," explained Chawner, "he knew I had made up my mind to tell you something I thought you ought to know about him, and so he threatened to come first and tell some falsehood (I'm sure I don't know what) about me, sir. I think I ought to be here too."
"It's a lie!" shouted Paul, "What a villain that boy is! Don't believe a word he says, Dr. Grimstone; it's all false—all!"
"This is very suspicious," said the Doctor; "if your conscience were good, Bultitude, you could have no object in preventing me from hearing Chawner. Chawner, in spite of some obvious defects in his character," he went on, with a gulp (he never could quite overcome a repulsion to the boy), "is, on the whole, a right-minded and, ah, conscientious boy. I hear Chawner first."
"Then, sir, if you please," said Chawner, with an odious side smirk of triumph at Paul, who, quite crushed by the horror of the situation, had collapsed feebly on his chair again, "I thought it was my duty to let you see this. I found it to-day in Bultitude's prayerbook, sir." And he handed Dick's unlucky scrawl to the Doctor, who took it to the lamp and read it hurriedly through.
After that there was a terrible moment of dead silence; then the Doctor looked up and said shortly, "You did well to tell me of this, Chawner; you may go now."
When they were alone once more he turned upon the speechless Paul with furious scorn and indignation. "Contemptible liar and hypocrite," he thundered, pacing restlessly up and down the room in his excitement, till Paul felt very like Daniel, without his sense of security, "you are unmasked—unmasked, sir! You led me to believe that you were as much shocked and pained at this girl's venturing to write to you as I could be myself. You called it, quite correctly, 'forward and improper'; you pretended you had never given her the least encouragement—had not heard her name even—till to-day. And here is a note, written, as I should imagine, some time since, in which you address her as 'Connie Davenant,' and have the impudence to admire the hat she wore the Sunday before! I shudder, sir, to think of such duplicity, such precocious and shameless depravity. It astounds me. It deprives me of all power to think!"
Paul made some faint and inarticulate remark about being a family man—always most particular, and so forth—luckily it passed unheard.
"What shall I do with you?" continued the Doctor; "how shall I punish such monstrous misconduct?"
"Don't ask me, sir," said Paul, desperately—"only, for heaven's sake, get it over as soon as possible."
"If I linger, sir," retorted the Doctor, "it is because I have grave doubts whether your offence can be expiated by a mere flogging—whether that is not altogether too light a retribution."
"He can't want to torture me," thought Paul.
"Yes," said the Doctor again, "the doubt has prevailed. On a mind so hardened the cane would leave no lasting impression. I cannot allow your innocent companions to run the risk of contamination from your society. I must not permit this serpent to glide uncrushed, this cockatrice to practise his epistolary wiles, within my peaceful fold. My mind is made up—at whatever cost to myself—however it may distress and grieve your good father, who is so pathetically anxious for you to do him credit, sir. I must do my duty to the parents of the boys entrusted to my care. I shall not flog you, sir, for I feel it would be useless. I shall expel you."
"What!" Paul leaped up incredulous. "Expel me? Do I hear you aright, Dr. Grimstone? Say it again—you will expel me?"
"I have said it," the Doctor said sternly; "no expostulations can move me now" (as if Mr. Bultitude was likely to expostulate!) "Mrs. Grimstone will see that your boxes are packed the first thing to-morrow morning, and I shall take you myself to the station and consign you to the home you have covered with blushes and shame, by the 9.15 train, and I shall write a letter to-night explaining the causes for your dismissal."
Mr. Bultitude covered his face with his hands, to hide, not his shame and distress, but his indecent rapture. It seemed almost too good to be true! He saw himself about to be provided with every means of reaching home in comfort and safety. He need dread no pursuit now. There was no chance, either, of his being forced to return to the prison-house—the Doctor's letter would convince even Dick of the impossibility of that. And, best of all, this magnificent stroke of good luck had been obtained without the ignominy and pain of a flogging, without even the unpleasant necessity of telling his strange secret.
But (having gained some experience during his short stay at the school) he had the duplicity to pretend to sob bitterly.
"But one night more, sir," continued the Doctor, "shall you pass beneath this roof, and that apart from your fellows. You will occupy the spare bedroom until the morning, when you quit the school in disgrace—for ever."
I said in another chapter that this Sunday would find Paul, at its close, after a trying course of emotions, in a state of delicious ecstasy of pure relief and happiness—and really that scarcely seems too strong an expression for his feelings.
When he found himself locked securely into a comfortable, warm bedroom, with curtains and a carpet in it, safe from the persecutions of all those terrible boys, and when he remembered that this was actually the last night of his stay here—that he would certainly see his own home before noon next day, the reaction was so powerful that he could not refrain from skipping and leaping about the room in a kind of hysterical gaiety.
And as he laid his head down on a yielding lavender-scented pillow, his thoughts went back without a pang to the varied events of the day; they had been painful, very painful, but it was well worth while to have gone through them to appreciate fully the delightful intensity of the contrast. He freely forgave all his tormentors, even Chawner—for had not Chawner procured his release?—and he closed his eyes at last with a smile of Sybaritic satisfaction and gentle longing for the Monday's dawn to break.
And yet some, after his experiences, would have had their misgivings.
13. A Respite
"Discipulorum inter jubeo plorare cathedras."
Blithe and gay was Mr. Bultitude when he opened his eyes on Monday morning and realised his incredible good fortune; in a few hours he would be travelling safely and comfortably home, with every facility for regaining his rights. He chuckled—though his sense of humour was not large—he chuckled, as he lay snugly in bed, to think of Dick's discomfiture on seeing him return so unexpectedly; he began to put it down, quite unwarrantably, to his own cleverness, as having conceived and executed such a stroke of genius as procuring his own expulsion.
He remained in bed until long after the getting-up bell had rung, feeling that his position ensured him perfect impunity in this, and when he rose at length it was in high spirits, and he dressed himself with a growing toleration for things in general, very unlike his ordinary frame of mind. When he had finished his toilet, the Doctor entered the room.
"Bultitude," he said gravely, "before sending you from us, I should like to hear from your own lips that you are not altogether without contrition for your conduct."
Mr. Bultitude considered that such an acknowledgment could not possibly do any harm, so he said—as, indeed, he might with perfect truth—that "he very much regretted what had passed."
"I am glad to hear that," said the Doctor, more briskly, "very glad; it relieves me from a very painful responsibility. It may not impossibly induce me to take a more lenient view of your case."
"Oh!" gasped Mr. Bultitude, feeling very uncomfortable all at once.
"Yes; it is a serious step to ruin a boy's career at its outset by unnecessary harshness. Nothing, of course, can palliate the extreme baseness of your behaviour. Still from certain faint indications in your character of better things, I do not despair even yet (after you have received a public lesson at my hands, which you will never forget) of rearing you to become in time an ornament to the society in which it will be your lot to move. I will not give up in despair—I will persevere a little longer."
"Thank you!" Paul faltered, with a sudden sinking sensation.
"Mrs. Grimstone, too," said the Doctor, "has been interceding for you; she has represented to me that a public expression of my view of your conduct, together with a sharp, severe dose of physical pain, would be more likely to effect a radical improvement in your character, and to soften your perverted heart, than if I sent you away in hopeless disgrace, without giving you an opportunity of showing a desire to amend."
"It's—very kind of Mrs. Grimstone," said Paul faintly.
"Then I hope you will show your appreciation of her kindness. Yes, I will not expel you. I will give you one more chance to retrieve your lost reputation. But, for your own sake, and as a public warning, I shall take notice of your offence in public. I shall visit it upon you by a sound flogging before the whole school at eleven o'clock. You need not come down till then—your breakfast will be sent up to you."
Paul made a frantic attempt to dissuade him from his terrible determination. "Dr. Grimstone," he said, "I—I should much prefer being expelled, if it is all the same to you."
"It is not all the same to me," said the Doctor. "This is mere pride and obstinacy, Bultitude; I should do wrong to take any notice of it."
"I—I tell you I have great objection to—to being flogged," said Paul eagerly; "it wouldn't improve me at all; it would harden me, sir,—harden me. I—I cannot allow you to flog me, Dr. Grimstone. I have strong prejudices against the system of corporal punishment. I object to it on principle. Expulsion would make me quite a different being, I assure you; it would reform me—save me—it would indeed."
"So, to escape a little personal inconvenience, you would be content to bring sorrow upon your worthy father's grey head, would you, sir?" said the Doctor. "I shall not oblige you in this. Nor, I may add, will your cowardice induce me to spare you in your coming chastisement. I leave you, sir—we shall meet again at eleven!"
And he stalked out of the room. Perhaps, though he did not admit this even to himself, there were more considerations for commuting the sentence of expulsion than those he had mentioned. Boys are not often expelled from private schools, except for especially heinous offences, and in this case there was no real reason why the Doctor should be Quixotic enough to throw up a portion of his income—particularly if he could produce as great a moral effect by other means.
But his clemency was too much for Mr. Bultitude; he threw himself on the bed and raved at the hideous fate in store for him; ten short minutes ago, and he had been so happy—so certain of release—and now, not only was he as far from all hope of escape as ever, but he had the certainty before him of a sound flogging in less than two hours!
Just after something has befallen us which, for good or ill, will make a great change in our lives, what a totally new aspect the common everyday things about us are apt to wear—the book we were reading, the letter we had begun, the picture we knew—what a new and tender attraction they may have for us, or what a grim and terrible irony!
Something of this Paul felt dimly, as he finished dressing, in a dazed, unconscious manner. The comfortable bedroom, with its delicately-toned wall-paper and flowery cretonnes, had become altogether hateful in his eyes now. Instead of feeling grateful (as he surely ought to have been) for the one night of perfect security and comfort he had passed there, he only loathed it for the delusive peace it had brought him.
There was a gentle tap at the door, and Dulcie came in, bearing a tray with his breakfast, and looking like a little Royalist bearing food to a fugitive Cavalier; though Paul did not quite carry out his share of the simile.
"There!" she said, almost cheerfully; "I got Mummy to let me take up your breakfast; and there's an egg for you, and muffins."
Mr. Bultitude sat on a chair and groaned.
"You might say 'thank you,'" said Dulcie, pouting. "That other girl wouldn't have brought you up much breakfast if she'd been in my place. I was going to tell you that I'd forgiven you, because very likely you never meant her to write to you" (Dulcie had not been told the sequel to the Davenant episode, which was quite as well for Paul). "But you don't seem to care whether I do or not."
"I feel so miserable!" sighed Paul.
"Then you must drink some coffee," prescribed Dulcie decidedly; "and you must eat some breakfast. I brought an egg on purpose; it's so strengthening, you know."
"Don't!" cried Paul, with a short howl of distress at this suggestion. "Don't talk about the—the flogging, I can't bear it."
"But it's not papa's new cane, you know, Dick," said Dulcie consolingly. "I've hidden that; it's only the old one, and you always said that didn't hurt so very much, after a little while. It isn't as if it was the horsewhip, either. Daddy lost that out riding in the holidays."
"Oh, the horsewhip's worse, is it?" said Paul, with a sickly smile.
"Tom says so," said Dulcie. "After all, Dick, it will be all over in five minutes, or, perhaps, a little longer, and I do think you oughtn't to mind that so much, now, after mamma and I have begged you off from being expelled. We might never have seen one another again, Dick!"
"You begged me off!" cried Paul.
"Yes," said Dulcie; "Daddy wouldn't change his mind for ever so long—till I coaxed him. I couldn't bear to let you go."
"You've done a very cruel thing," said Paul. "For such a little girl as you are, you've done an immense amount of mischief. But for you, that letter would not have been found out. You need not have spoilt my only chance of getting out of this horrible place!"
Dulcie set down the tray, and, putting her hands behind her, leaned against a corner of a wardrobe.
"And is that all you say to me!" she said, with a little tremble in her voice.
"That is all," said Paul. "I've no doubt you meant well, but you shouldn't have interfered. All this has come upon me through that. Take away the breakfast. It makes me ill even to look at it."
Dulcie shook out her long brown hair, and clenched her small fist in an undeniable passion, for she had something of her father's hot temper when roused. "Very well, then," she said, moving with great dignity towards the door. "I'm very sorry I ever did interfere. I wish I'd let you be sent home to your papa, and see what he'd do to you. But I'll never, never interfere one bit with you again. I won't say one single word to you any more.... I'll never even look at you if you want me to ever so much.... I shall tell Tipping he can hit you as much as ever he likes, and I shall show Tom where I put the new cane—and I only hope it will hurt!" And with this parting shot she was gone.
Mr. Bultitude wandered disconsolately about the upper part of the house after this, not daring to go down, and not able to remain in any one place. The maids who came up to make the beds looked at him with pitiful interest, but he was too proud to implore help from them. To hide would only make matters worse, for, as he had not a penny in his pocket, and no probability of being able to borrow one, he must remain in the house till hunger forced him from his hiding-place—supposing they did not hunt him out long before that time.
The shouts of the boys in the playground during their half-hour's play had long since died away; he heard the clock in the hall strike eleven—time for him to seek his awful rendezvous. The Doctor had not forgotten him, he found, for presently the butler came up and ceremoniously announced that the Doctor "would see him now, if he pleased."
He stumbled downstairs in a half-unconscious condition, the butler threw open the two doors which led to the schoolroom, and Paul tottered in, more dead than alive with shame and fear.
The whole school were at their places, with no books before them, and arranged as if to hear a lecture. Mr. Blinkhorn alone was absent, for, not liking these exhibitions, he had taken an opportunity of slipping out into the playground, round which he was now solemnly trotting at the "double" with elbows squared and head up; an exercise which he said was an excellent thing for the back and lungs. He had a habit of suddenly leaving the class he was taking to indulge in it for a few minutes, returning breathless but refreshed.
Mr. Tinkler was at his seat, wearing that faint grin on his face with which he might have prepared to see a pig killed or a bull-fight, and all the boys fixed their eyes expectantly on Mr. Bultitude as he appeared at the doorway.
"Stand there, sir," said the Doctor, who was standing at his writing-table in an attitude; "out there in the middle, where your schoolfellows can see you." Paul obeyed and stood where he was told, looking, as he felt, absolutely boneless.
"Some of those here," began the Doctor in an impressive bass, "may wonder why I have called you all together on this, the first day of the week; most of those who reside under my roof are acquainted with, and I trust execrate, the miserable cause of my doing so.
"If there is one virtue which I have striven to implant more than any other in your breasts," he continued, "it is the cultivation of a modest and becoming reserve in your intercourse with those of the opposite sex.
"With the majority I have, I hope, been successful, and it is as painful for me to tell as for you to hear, that there exists in your midst a youthful reprobate, trained in all the arts of ensnaring the vagrant fancies of innocent but giddy girlhood.
"See him as he cowers there before your gaze, in all the bared hideousness of his moral depravity" (the Doctor on occasions like these never spared his best epithets, and Paul soon began to feel himself a very villain); "a libertine, young in years, but old in—in everything else, who has not scrupled to indite an amatory note, so appalling in its familiarity, and so outrageous in the warmth of its sentiments, that I cannot bring myself to shock your ears with its contents.
"You do well to shun him as a moral leper; but how shall I tell you that, not satisfied with pressing his effusions upon the shrinking object of his precocious affections, the impious wretch has availed himself of the shelter of a church to cloak his insidious advances, and even force a response to them from a heedless and imprudent girl!
"If," continued the Doctor, now allowing his powerful voice to boom to its full compass—"if I can succeed in bringing this coward, this unmanly dallier in a sentiment which the healthy mind of boyhood rejects as premature, to a sense of his detestable conduct; if I can score the lesson upon his flesh so that some faint notion of its force and purport may be conveyed to what has been supplied to him as a heart, then I shall not have lifted this hand in vain!
"He shall see whether he will be allowed to trail the fair name of the school for propriety and correctness of deportment in the dust of a pew-floor, and spurn my reputation as a preceptor like a church hassock beneath his feet!
"I shall say no more; I will not prolong these strictures, deserved though they be, beyond their proper limits.... I shall now proceed to act. Richard Bultitude, remain there till I return to mete out to you with no sparing hand the punishment you have so richly merited."
With these awful words the Doctor left the room, leaving Paul in a state of abject horror and dread which need not be described. Never, never again would he joke, as he had been wont to do with Dick in lighter moods, on the subject of corporal punishment under any circumstances—it was no fit theme for levity; if this—this outrage were really done to him, he could never be able to hold up his head again. What if it were to get about in the city!
The boys, who had sunk, as they always did, into a state of torpid awe under the Doctor's eloquence, now recovered spirits enough to rally Paul with much sprightly humour.
"He's gone to fetch his cane," said some, and imitated for Paul's instruction the action of caning by slapping a ruler upon a copy-book with a dreadful fidelity and resonance; others sought to cross-examine him upon the love-letter, it appearing from their casual remarks that not a few had been also honoured by communications from the artless Miss Davenant.
It is astonishing how unfeeling even ordinary good-natured boys can be at times.
Chawner sat at his desk with raised shoulders, rubbing his hands, and grinning like some malevolent ape: "I told you, Dickie, you know," he murmured, "that it was better not to cross me."
And still the Doctor lingered. Some kindly suggested that he was "waxing the cane." But the more general opinion was that he had been detained by some visitor; for it appeared that (though Paul had not noticed it) several had heard a ring at the bell. The suspense was growing more and more unbearable.
At last the door opened in a slow ominous manner, and the Doctor appeared. There was a visible change in his manner, however. The white heat of his indignation had died out: his expression was grave but distinctly softened—and he had nothing in his hand.
"I want you outside, Bultitude," he said; and Paul, still uncertain whether the scene of his disgrace was only about to be shifted, or what else this might mean, followed him into the hall.
"If anything can strike shame and confusion into your soul, Richard," said the Doctor, when they were outside, "it will be what I have to tell you now. Your unhappy father is here, in the dining-room."
Paul staggered. Had Dick the brazen effrontery to come here to taunt him in his slavery? What was the meaning of it? What should he say to him? He could not answer the Doctor but by a vacant stare.
"I have not seen him yet," said the Doctor. "He has come at a most inopportune moment" (here Mr. Bultitude could not agree with him). "I shall allow you to meet him first, and give you the opportunity of breaking your conduct to him. I know how it will wring his paternal heart!" and the Doctor shook his head sadly, and turned away.
With a curious mixture of shame, anger, and impatience, Paul turned the handle of the dining-room door. He was to meet Dick face to face once more. The final duel must be fought out between them here. Who would be the victor?
It was a strange sensation on entering to see the image of what he had so lately been standing by the mantelpiece. It gave a shock to his sense of his own identity. It seemed so impossible that that stout substantial frame could really contain Dick. For an instant he was totally at a loss for words, and stood pale and speechless in the presence of his unprincipled son.
Dick on his side seemed at least as much embarrassed. He giggled uneasily, and made a sheepish offer to shake hands, which was indignantly declined.
As Paul looked he saw distinctly that his son's fraudulent imitation of his father's personal appearance had become deteriorated in many respects since that unhappy night when he had last seen it. It was then a copy, faultlessly accurate in every detail. It was now almost a caricature, a libel!
The complexion was nearly sallow, with the exception of the nose, which had rather deepened in colour. The skin was loose and flabby, and the eyes dull and a little bloodshot. But perhaps the greatest alteration was in the dress. Dick wore an old light tweed shooting-coat of his, and a pair of loose trousers of blue serge; while, instead of the formally tied black neckcloth his father had worn for a quarter of a century, he had a large scarf round his neck of some crude and gaudy colour; and the conventional chimney-pot hat had been discarded for a shabby old wide-brimmed felt wideawake.
Altogether, it was by no means the costume which a British merchant, with any self-respect whatever, would select, even for a country visit.
And thus they met, as perhaps never, since this world was first set spinning down the ringing grooves of change, met father and son before!
14. An Error of Judgment
"The Survivorship of a worthy Man in his Son is a Pleasure scarce inferior to the Hopes of the Continuance of his own Life." Spectator.
"Du bist ein Knabe—sei es immerhin Und fahre fort, den Froehlichen zu spielen." SCHILLER, Don Carlos.
Paul was the first to break a very awkward silence. "You young scoundrel!" he said, with suppressed rage. "What the devil do you mean by laughing like that? It's no laughing matter, let me tell you, sir, for one of us!"
"I can't help laughing," said Dick; "you do look so queer!"
"Queer! I may well look queer. I tell you that I have never, never in my whole life, spent such a perfectly infernal week as this last!"
"Ah!" observed Dick, "I thought you wouldn't find it all jam! And yet you seemed to be enjoying yourself, too," he said with a grin, "from that letter you wrote."
"What made you come here? Couldn't you be content with your miserable victory, without coming down to crow and jeer at me?"
"It isn't that," said Dick. "I—I thought I should like to see the fellows, and find out how you were getting on, you know." These, however, were not his only and his principal motives. He had come down to get a sight of Dulcie.
"Well, sir," said Mr. Bultitude, with ponderous sarcasm, "you'll be delighted to hear that I'm getting on uncommonly well—oh, uncommonly! Your high-spirited young friends batter me to sleep with slippers on most nights, and, as a general thing, kick me about during the day like a confounded football! And last night, sir, I was going to be expelled; and this morning I'm forgiven, and sentenced to be soundly flogged before the whole school! It was just about to take place as you came in; and I've every reason to believe it is merely postponed!"
"I say, though," said Dick, "you must have been going it rather, you know. I've never been expelled. Has Chawner been sneaking again? What have you been up to?"
"Nothing. I solemnly swear—nothing! They're finding out things you've done, and thrashing me."
"Well," said Dick soothingly, "you'll work them all off during the term, I daresay. There aren't many really bad ones. I suppose he's seen my name cut on his writing-table?"
"No; not that I'm aware of," said Paul.
"Oh, he'd let you hear of it if he had!" said Dick. "It's good for a swishing, that is. But, after all, what's a swishing? I never cared for a swishing."
"But I do care, sir. I care very much, and, I tell you, I won't stand it. I can't! Dick," he said abruptly as a sudden hope seized him. "You, you haven't come down here to say you're tired of your folly, have you? Do you want to give it up?"
"Rather not," said Dick. "Why should I? No school, no lessons, nothing to do but amuse myself, eat and drink what I like, and lots of money. It's not likely, you know."
"Have you ever thought that you're bringing yourself within reach of the law, sir?" said Paul, trying to frighten him. "Perhaps you don't know that there's an offence known as 'false personation with intent to defraud,' and that it's a felony. That's what you're doing at this moment, sir!"
"Not any more than you are!" retorted Dick. "I never began it. I had as much right to wish to be you as you had to wish to be me. You're just what you said you wanted to be, so you can't complain."
"It's useless to argue with you, I see," said Paul. "And you've no feelings. But I'll warn you of one thing. Whether that is my body or not you've fraudulently taken possession of, I don't know; if it is not, it is very like mine, and I tell you this about it. The sort of life you're leading it, sir, will very soon make an end of you, if you don't take care. Do you think that a constitution at my age can stand sweet wines and pastry, and late hours? Why, you'll be laid up with gout in another day or two. Don't tell me, sir. I know you're suffering from indigestion at this very minute. I can see your liver (it may be my liver for anything I know) is out of order. I can see it in your eyes."
Dick was a little alarmed at this, but he soon said: "Well, and if I am seedy, I can get Barbara to take the stone and wish me all right again, can't I? That's easy enough, I suppose."
"Oh, easy enough!" said Paul, with a suppressed groan. "But, Dick, you don't go up to Mincing Lane in that suit and that hat? Don't tell me you do that!"
"When I do go up, I wear them," said Dick composedly. "Why not? It's a roomy suit, and I hate a great topper on my head; I've had enough of that here on Sundays. But it's slow up at your office. The chaps there aren't half up to any larks. I made a first-rate booby-trap, though, one day for an old yellow buffer who came in to see you. He was in a bait when he found the waste-paper basket on his head!"
"What was his name?" said Paul, with forced calm.
"Something like 'Shells.' He said he was a very old friend of mine, and I told him he lied."
"Shellack—my Canton correspondent—a man I was anxious to be of use to when he came over!" moaned Mr. Bultitude. "Miserable young cub, you don't know what mischief you've done!"
"Well, it won't matter much to you now," said Dick; "you're out of it all."
"Do you—do you mean to keep me out of it for ever, then?" asked Paul.
"As long as ever I can!" returned Dick frankly. "It will be rather interesting to see what sort of a fellow you'll grow into—if you ever do grow. Perhaps you will always be like that, you know. This magic is a rum thing to meddle with."
This suggestion almost maddened Paul. He made one stride forward, and faced his son with blazing eyes. "Do you think I will put up with it?" he said, between his teeth. "Do you suppose I shall stand calmly by and see you degrading and ruining me? I may never be my old self again, but I don't mean to play into your hands for all that. You can't always keep me here, and wherever I go I'll tell my tale. I know you, you clumsy rogue, you haven't the sense to play your part with common intelligence now. You would betray yourself directly I challenged you to deny my story.... You know you would.... You couldn't face me for five minutes. By Gad! I'll do it now. I'll expose you before the Doctor—before the whole school. You shall see if you can dispose of me quite so easily as you imagine!"
Dick had started back at first in unmistakable alarm at this unexpected defiance, probably feeling his self-possession unequal to such a test; but, when Paul had finished, he said doggedly: "Well, you can do it if you choose, I suppose. I can't stop you. But I don't see what good it would do."
"It would show people you were an impudent impostor, sir," said Paul sternly, going to the door as if to call the Doctor, though he shrank secretly from so extreme and dangerous a measure.
There was a hesitation in his manner, in spite of the firmness of his words, which Dick was not likely to miss. "Stop!" he said. "Before you call them in, just listen to me for a minute. Do you see this?" And, opening his coat, he pulled out from his waistcoat pocket one end of his watch-chain. Hanging to it, attached by a cheap gilt fastening of some sort, was a small grey tablet. Paul knew it at once—it was the Garuda Stone. "You know it, I see," said Dick, as Paul was about to move towards him—with what object he scarcely knew himself. "Don't trouble to come any closer. Well, I give you fair warning. You can make things very nasty for me if you like. I can't help that—but, if you do—if you try to score off me in any way, now or at any time—if you don't keep it up when the Doctor comes in—I tell you what I shall do. I shall go straight home and find young Roly. I shall give him this stone, and just tell him to say some wish after me. I don't believe there are many things it can't do, and all I can say is—if you find yourself and all this jolly old school (except Dulcie) taken off somewhere and stuck down all at once thousands of miles away on a desolate island, or see yourself turned into a Red Indian, or, or a cabhorse, you'll have yourself to thank for it—that's all. Now you can have them all up and fire away."
"No," said Paul, in a broken voice, for, wild as the threat was, he could not afford to despise it after his experiences of the stone's power, "I—I was joking, Dick; at least I didn't mean it. I know of course I'm helpless. It's a sad thing for a father to say, but you've got the best of it.... I give in ... I won't interfere with you. There's only one thing I ask. You won't try any more experiments with that miserable stone.... You'll promise me that, at least?"
"Yes," said Dick: "it's all right. I'll play fair. As long as you behave yourself and back me up I won't touch it. I only want to stay as I am. I don't want to hurt you."
"You won't lose it?" said Paul anxiously. "Couldn't you lock it up? that fastening doesn't look very safe."
"It will do well enough," said Dick. "I got it done at the watchmaker's round the corner, for sixpence. But I'll have a stronger ring put in somewhere, if I think of it."
There was a pause, in which the conversation seemed about to flag hopelessly, but at last Dick said, almost as if he felt some compunction for his present unfilial attitude: "Now, you know, it's much better to take things quietly. It can't be altered now, can it? And it's not such bad fun being a boy after all—for some things. You'll get into it by-and-by, you see if you don't, and be as jolly as a sandboy. We shall get along all right together, too. I shan't be hard on you. It isn't my fault that you happen to be at this particular school—you chose it! And after this term you can go to any other school you like—Eton or Rugby, or anywhere. I don't mind the expense. Of, if you'd rather, you can have a private tutor. And I'll buy you a pony, and you can ride in the Row. You shall have a much better time of it than I ever had, as long as you let me go on my own way."
But these dazzling bribes had no influence upon Mr. Bultitude; nothing short of complete restitution would ever satisfy him, and he was too proud and too angry at his crushing defeat to even pretend to be in the least pacified.
"I don't want your pony," he said bitterly; "I might as well have a white elephant, and I don't suppose I should enjoy myself much more at a public school than I do here. Let's have no humbug, sir. You're up and I'm down—there's no more to be said—I shall tell the Doctor nothing, but I warn you, if ever the time comes——"
"Oh, of course," said Dick, feeling tolerably secure, now he had disposed of the main difficulty. "If you can turn me out, I suppose you will—that's only fair. I shall take care not to give you the chance. And, oh, I say, do you want any tin? How much have you got left?"
Paul turned away his head, lest Dick should see the sudden exultation he knew it must betray, as he said, with an effort to appear unconcerned, "I came away with exactly five shillings, and I haven't a penny now!"
"I say," said Dick, "you are a fellow; you must have been going it. How did you get rid of it all in a week?"
"It went, as far as I can understand," said Mr. Bultitude, "in rabbits and mice. Some boys claimed it as money they paid you to get them, I believe."
"All your own fault," said Dick, "you would have them drowned. But you'd better have some tin to get along with. How much do you want? Will half-a-crown do?"
"Half-a-crown is not much, Dick," said his father, almost humbly.
"It's—ahem—a handsome allowance for a young fellow like you," said Dick, rather unkindly; "but I haven't any half-crowns left. I must give you this, I suppose."
And he held out a sovereign, never dreaming what it signified to Paul, who clutched it with feelings too great for words, though gratitude was not a part of them, for was it not his own money?
"And now look out," said Dick, "I hear Grim. Remember what I told you; keep it up."
Dr. Grimstone came in with the air of a man who has a painful duty to perform; he started slightly as his eye noted the change in his visitor's dress and appearance. "I hope," he began gravely, "that your son has spared me the pain of going into the details of his misbehaviour; I wish I could give you a better report of him."
Dick was plainly, in spite of his altered circumstances, by no means at ease in the schoolmaster's presence; he stood, shifting from foot to foot on the hearth-rug, turning extremely red and obstinately declining to raise his eyes from the ground.
"Oh, ah," he stammered at last, "you were just going to swish him, weren't you, when I turned up, sir?"
"I found myself forced," said the Doctor, slightly shocked at this coarse way of putting things, "forced to contemplate administering to him (for his ultimate benefit) a sharp corrective in the presence of his schoolfellows. I distress you, I see, but the truth must be told. He has no doubt confessed his fault to you?"