Fathers of Men
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“I might have known you were hustling,” Jan said to Rawlinson, as they got out nearly an hour later than from ordinary second school. “I say, though, I do bar that old brute – don’t you?”
“What! When he’s coached a Cabinet Minister, and been staying as usual with the same old dukes and dukesses?”
“If he ever did,” said Jan, his whole mind poisoned by the treatment meted out to Evan. “It’s easy enough for him to stand up there scoring off chaps. I’d like to score off him!”
“Well, you wouldn’t be the first. He was properly scored off once, by a chap called Bewicke in the Upper Sixth. Come my way,” said Rawlinson, “and I’ll tell you. Bewicke had heard that opening speech about the Cabinet Minister, and all the rest of it, so often that he knew the whole thing by heart, and used to settle down to sleep as soon as old Abinger got a start. So one time Jerry catches him safe in the arms of Morpheus, and says, 'Bewicke, be good enough to get up and repeat to the school the substance of Professor Abinger’s last remarks.’ So Bewicke gets up, blinking, not having heard a blooming word, and begins: 'The other day, when I had the privilege of being an honoured guest of his Grace the Duke of – ’ 'Three o’clock!’ says Jerry, and they say Bewicke was jolly near bunked. It was before my time, worse luck! I wish I’d heard it, don’t you? I say, we were lucky to escape this morning, weren’t we? But I’m not sure I don’t wish we’d got it over, myself.”
Four of the lower forms had been polished off between ten and twelve-thirty, and three more followed in the hour-and-a-half of third school; but the Middle Remove was not one of the three. There remained only second school on the second day – a half-holiday – and Carpenter had heard that much of the morning would be devoted to a Sixth Form Competition for the Abinger Medal. He had also learnt for a fact that all the forms were not always called upon, and Jan agreed that in that case they were beginning to stand an excellent chance of being missed out. However, no sooner were the proceedings resumed on a pink and frosty morning, than the bolt fell for the Middle Remove.
The big schoolroom looked abnormally big as Jan took a shy peep down from the platform. It seemed to contain four thousand boys instead of four hundred. It felt as cold as an empty church. The Head Master’s fingers looked blue with a joiner’s pencil poised between them over a school list; and as he sat with bent head and raised ear his breath was just visible against his sombre gown. But Professor Abinger in black spats and mittens was brisker and crisper and more incisive than on the previous day; his paternal smile broke more abruptly into the grin of impaired benevolence; his flowing mane looked merely hoary, and his silvery voice had rather the staccato ring of steel.
He might almost have heard Haigh’s opinion of him, he was so hard upon that form. The passage which Haigh had chosen was from a story called “The Mermaid,” and the very first reader had to say “colossal mussel shells” – perhaps a better test of sobriety than of elocution – but Abinger would have it repeated until a drunken man could have done it better and the whole school was in a roar.Jan set his teeth at the back of the little knot upon the platform: he knew what he would do rather than make them laugh like that. But no one else made them laugh like that, though Buggins was asked whether he had been born within sound of Bow Bells, and created some amusement by the rich intonation of his denial. Gradually the little knot melted, and the bench below the platform filled up. Jan began reading over and over to himself the sentences that seemed certain to fall to him, as he was still doing when Carpenter left his side and lurched into the centre of the platform.
Now, poor Chips happened to have had a bad night with his tiresome malady, but on his speech it had the effect of a much more common disorder.
“The bleached bodes of bed,” he began, valiantly, and was still making a conscientious pause after the subject of the sentence when a hand fell on his shoulder and the wretched Chips was looking Professor Abinger in the face.
“Have you got a cold?” inquired the professor, with his most sympathetic smile.
“Yes, sir,” said Carpenter, too shy to explain the permanent character of the cold by giving it its proper name.
“Then stand aside, and blow your nose,” said the professor, grinning like a fatherly fiend, “while the next boy reads.”
Jan was the next boy, and the last; and he strode forward too indignant on his friend’s account to think of himself, and cut straight into the laugh at Carpenter’s expense. Nothing, in fact, could have given Jan such a moral fillip at the last moment. He cried out his bit aggressively at the top of his voice, but forgot none of the rules laid down, and even felt he had come through with flying colours. He saw no smile upon the sea of faces upturned from the body of the schoolroom. Not a syllable fell from the Head Master on his right. Yet he was not given his dismissal, and was consequently about to begin another sentence when Professor Abinger took the book from Jan’s hand.
“I think you must hear yourself as others hear you,” said he. “Have the goodness to listen to me.” And he read: “‘The bleached bawnes of men who had perished at sea and soonk belaw peeped forth from the arms of soome, w’ile oothers clootched roodders and sea chests or the skeleeton of some land aneemal; and most horreeble of all, a little mermaird whom they had caught and sooffercairted.’ There!” cried the professor, holding up his hand to quell the shouts of laughter. “What do you think of that?”
Jan stood dumfounded by his shame and rage, a graceless and forbidding figure enough, with untidy hair and a wreck of a tie, and one lace trailing: a figure made to look even meaner than it was by the spruce old handsome man at his side.
“What dost tha’ think o’ yon?” pursued the professor, dropping into dialect with ready humour.
“It’s not what I said,” muttered Jan, so low that his questioner alone could hear.
“Not what you said, eh? We’ll take you through it. How do you pronounce 'bones’?”
No answer, but a firmer cast to the jaw of Jan, a less abject droop of the shoulders, a good inch more in actual stature.
“B, o, n, e, s!” crooned the professor, shewing all his teeth.
But Jan had turned into a human mule. And the silence in the great room had suddenly grown profound.
“Well, we’ll try something else,” said the professor, consulting the text somewhat unsteadily, and speaking in a rather thin voice. “Let us hear you say the word 'sunk.’ S, u, n, k – sunk. Now, if you please, no more folly. You are wasting all our time.”
Jan had forgotten that; the reminder caused him a spasm of satisfaction. Otherwise he was by this time as entirely aware of his folly as anybody else present; but it was too late to point it out to him; it was too late to think of it now; his head was burning, his temples throbbed, his tongue clave. He could not have spoken now if he had tried. But it would have taken a better man than Abinger to make him try. And the better man sat by without a word, pale, stern, and troubled with a complex indignation.
“I can do nothing with this boy,” said Abinger, turning to him with just a tremor in his thin high tones. “I must leave him to you, Mr. Thrale.”
“Twelve o’clock!” cried the other with ominous emphasis; and as he stabbed the school list with his joiner’s pencil, the Middle Remove rose and returned down the gangway to their accustomed place.
Jan went with them as one walking in his sleep. And Carpenter followed Jan with a tragic face and tears very near the surface. But as one sees furthest before rain, so Chips saw a good deal as he walked back blinking for his life. And one of the things he happened to see was Evan Devereux and the fellow next him doubled up in fits of laughter.
The Head Master usually sat in judgment on the culprits of the day without vacating his oaken throne in the Upper Sixth class-room until the first of them knelt down for his deserts. But the Abinger visitation upset everything; and on this occasion, when the campaign ended with the award of a medal to the pr?postor who had done least violence to a leading article in the day’s Times, Mr. Thrale remained on his platform in conversation with Professor Abinger while the school filed out form by form. Meanwhile three delinquents besides Jan awaited his arrival on the scene of trial and execution, while a number of the smaller fry pressed their noses to the diamond panes of the windows overlooking the school yard; and the public gallery in a criminal court could not have been better patronised for a notorious case than were these windows to-day.
One of the other malefactors had brought a slip of paper which he showed to Jan; on it was set forth a crime of a type which Mr. Thrale was at that time taking Draconic measures to stamp out of the school. “Hornton says ?????????? is a Dative Plural… I think he deserves a good flogging,” the committing master had written, and signed the warrant with his initials. Jan had just reached that hieroglyph when in sailed their judge and executioner in his cap and gown.
The boy who deserved the good flogging advanced and delivered his certificate of demerit. Mr. Thrale examined the damning document, and when he came to the pious opinion at the end, exclaimed with simple fervour, “So do I!” With that he opened his desk and took out his cane, and the boy who deserved it knelt down with stolid alacrity. The venerable executioner then gathered half his gown into his left hand, and held it away at arm’s length to give free play to his right. And there followed eight such slashing cuts as fetched the dust from a taut pair of trousers, and sent their wearer waddling stiffly from the room.
“Wasn’t padded,” whispered one of those left to Jan, who put an obvious question with a look, which was duly answered with a wink.
Meanwhile a sturdy youth in round spectacles was being severely interrogated, and replying promptly and earnestly, without lowering his glasses from the awful aspect of the flogging judge.
“You may go,” said Mr. Thrale at length. “Your honesty has saved you. Trevor next. I’ve heard about you, Trevor; kneel down, shirker!”
And the wily Trevor not only knelt with futile reluctance, but writhed impotently during his castigation, though the eight strokes made half the noise of the other eight; and once up he went his way serenely with another wink at Jan.
Now by these days Jan had discovered that out of his pulpit Mr. Thrale was sufficiently short and sharp of speech, rough and ready of humour, with a trick of talking down to fellows in their own jargon as well as over their heads in parables. “Sit down, Rutter, and next time you won’t sit down so comfortably!” he had rapped out at Jan when the Middle Remove went to construe to the Head Master early in the term. And it was next time now.
Jan was left alone in the presence, and that instant became ashamed to find he was already trembling. He had not trembled on the platform before the whole school; his blood had been frozen then, now it was bubbling in his veins. He was being looked at. That was all. He was receiving such a look as he had never met before, a look from wide blue eyes with hidden fires in them, and dilated nostrils underneath, and under them a mouth that looked as though it would never, never open.
It did at last.
“Rebel!” said a voice of unutterable scorn. “Do you know what they do with rebels, Rutter?”
It never occurred to Jan not to answer now.
“Shoot them! You deserve to be shot!”
Jan felt he did. The parable was not over his diminished head; it might have been carefully concocted from uncanny knowledge of his inmost soul. All the potential soldier in him – the reserve whom this General alone called out – was shamed and humbled to the dust.
“You are not only a rebel,” the awful voice went on, “but a sulky rebel. Some rebels are good men gone wrong; there’s some stuff in them; but a sulky rebel is neither man nor devil, but carrion food for powder.”
Jan agreed with all his contrite heart; he had never seen himself in his true colours before, had never known how vile it was to sulk; but now he saw, and now he knew, and the firing-party could not have come too quick.
The flogging judge had resumed his carved oak seat of judgment behind the desk. Jan had not seen him do it – he had seen nothing but those pregnant eyes and lips – but there he was, and in the act of putting his homely weapon back in the desk. Jan could have groaned. He longed to expiate his crime.
“Thrashing is too good for you,” the voice resumed. “Have you any good reason to give me for keeping a sulky rebel in a standing army? Any reason for not drumming him out?”
Drumming him out! Expelling him! Sending him back to the Norfolk rectory, and thence very likely straight back to the nearest stables! More light rushed over Jan. He had seen his enormity; now he saw his life, what it had been, what it was, what it might be again.
“Oh, sir,” he cried, “I know I speak all wrong – I know I speak all wrong! You see – you see – ”
But he broke down before he could explain, and the more piteously because now he felt he never could explain, and this hard old man would never, never understand. That is the tragic mistake of boys – to feel they can never be understood by men!
Yet already the hard old man was on his feet again, and with one gesture he had cleared the throng from the diamond-paned windows, and laid tender hand upon Jan’s heaving shoulder.
“I do see,” he said, gently. “But so must you, Rutter – but so must you!”