The Fifth Form at St. Dominic's/Chapter X

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Stephen, before he had been a fortnight in the school, found himself very much at home in Saint Dominic’s. He was not one of those exuberant, irrepressible boys who take their class-fellows by storm, and rise to the top of the tree almost as soon as they touch the bottom. Stephen, as the reader knows, was not a very clever boy, or a very dashing boy, and yet he somehow managed to get his footing among his comrades in the Fourth Junior, and particularly among his fellow guinea-pigs. He had fought Master Bramble six times in three days during his second week, and was engaged to fight him again every Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday during the term. He had also taken the chair at one indignation meeting against the monitors, and spoken in favour of a resolution at another. He had distributed brandy-balls in a most handsome manner to his particular adherents, and he had been the means of carrying away no less than two blankets from the next dormitory. This was pretty good for a fortnight. Add to this that he had remained steadily at the bottom of his class during the entire period, and that once he had received an “impot” (or imposition) from Mr. Rastle, and it will easily be understood that he soon gained favour among his fellows.

This last cause of celebrity, however, was one which did not please Stephen. He had come to Saint Dominic’s with a great quantity of good resolutions, the chief of which was that he would work hard and keep out of mischief, and it grieved him much to find that in neither aim was he succeeding.

The first evening or two he had worked very diligently at preparation. He had taken pains with his fractions, and looked out every word in his Caesar. He had got Oliver to look over his French, and Loman had volunteered to correct the spelling of his “theme”; and yet he stuck at the bottom of the class. Other boys went up and down. Some openly boasted that they had had their lessons done for them, and others that they had not done them at all. A merry time they had of it; but Stephen, down at the bottom, was in dismal dumps. He could not get up, and he could not get down, and all his honest hard work went for nothing.

And so, not content to give that system a longer trial, he grew more lax in his work. He niched the answers to his sums out of the “Key,” and copied his Caesar out of the “crib.” It was much easier, and the result was the same. He did not get up, and he could not get down.

Oliver catechised him now and then as to his progress, and received vague answers in reply, and Loman never remembered a fag that pestered him less with lessons. Stephen was, in fact, settling down into the slough of idleness, and would have become an accomplished dunce in time, had not Mr. Rastle come to the rescue. That gentleman caught the new boy in an idle mood, wandering aimlessly down the passage one afternoon.

“Ah, Greenfield, is that you? Nothing to do, eh? Come and have tea with me, will you, in my room?”

Stephen, who had bounded as if shot on hearing the master’s unexpected voice behind him, turned round and blushed very red, and said “Thank you,” and then looked like a criminal just summoned to the gallows.

“That’s right, come along;” and the master took the lad by the arm and marched him off to his room.

Here the sight of muffins and red-currant jam, in addition to the ordinary attractions of a tea-table, somewhat revived Stephen’s drooping spirits.

“Make yourself comfortable, my boy, while the tea is brewing,” said Mr. Rastle, cheerily. “Have you been playing any cricket since you came?”

“Only a little, sir,” said Stephen.

“Well, if you only turn out as good a bat as your brother—how well he played in the Alphabet Match!”

Stephen was reviving fast now, and embarked on a lively chat about his favourite sport, by the end of which the tea was brewed, and he and Mr. Rastle sitting “cheek by jowl” at the table, with the muffins and jam between them.

Presently Mr. Rastle steered the talk round to Stephen’s home, a topic even more delightful than cricket. The boy launched out into a full account of the old house and his mother, till the tears very nearly stood in his eyes and the muffins very nearly stuck in his throat. Mr. Rastle listened to it all with a sympathetic smile, throwing in questions now and then which it charmed the boy to answer.

“And how do you like Saint Dominic’s?” presently inquired the master. “I suppose you’ve made plenty of friends by this time?”

“Oh yes, sir. It’s not as slow as it was at first.”

“That’s right. You’ll soon get to feel at home. And how do you think you are getting on in class?”

Stephen was astonished at this question. If any one knew how he was getting on in class Mr. Rastle did, and, alas! Mr. Rastle must know well enough that Stephen was getting on badly.

“Not very well, I’m afraid, sir, thank you,” replied the boy, not feeling exactly comfortable.

“Not? That’s a pity. Are the lessons too hard for you?” kindly inquired Mr. Rastle.

“No, I don’t think so—that is—no, they’re not, sir.”

“Ah, your Latin exercise I thought was very fair in parts to-day.”

Stephen stared at his master, and the master looked very pleasantly at Stephen.

“I copied it off Raddleston,” said the boy, in a trembling voice, and mentally resigning himself to his fate.

“Ah!” said Mr. Rastle, laughing; “it’s a funny thing, now, Greenfield, I knew that myself. No two boys could possibly have translated ‘nobody’ into ‘nullus corpus’ without making common cause!”

Stephen was desperately perplexed. He had expected a regular row on the head of his confession, and here was his master cracking jokes about the affair!

“I’m very sorry I did it. I won’t do it again,” said he.

“That’s right, my boy; Raddleston isn’t infallible. Much better do it yourself. I venture to say, now, you can tell me what the Latin for ‘nobody’ is without a dictionary.”

“Nemo,” promptly replied Stephen.

“Of course! and therefore if you had done the exercise yourself you wouldn’t have made that horrid—that fearful mistake!”

Stephen said, “Yes, sir,” and meditated.

“Come now,” said Mr. Rastle, cheerily, “I’m not going to scold you. But if you take my advice you will try and do the next exercise by yourself. Of course you can’t expect to be perfect all at once, but if you always copy off Raddleston, do you see, you’ll never get on at all.”

“I’ll try, sir,” said Stephen, meaning what he said.

“I know you will, my boy. It’s not easy work to begin with, but it’s easier far in the long run. Try, and if you have difficulties, as you are sure to have, come to me. I’m always here in the evenings, and we’ll hammer it out between us. School will not be without its temptations, and you will find it hard always to do your duty. Yet you have, I hope, learnt the power of prayer; and surely the Saviour is able not only to forgive us our sins, but also to keep us from falling. At school, my boy, as elsewhere, it is a safe rule, whenever one is in doubt, to avoid everything, no matter who may be the tempter, of which one cannot fearlessly speak to one’s father or mother, and above all to our Heavenly Father. Don’t be afraid of Him—He will always be ready to help you and to guide you with His Holy Spirit. Have another cup of tea?”

This little talk, much as he missed at the time its deeper meaning, saved Stephen from becoming a dunce. He still blundered and boggled over his lessons, and still kept pretty near to the bottom form in his class, but he felt that his master had an interest in him, and that acted like magic to his soul. He declined Master Raddleston’s professional assistance for the future, and did the best he could by himself. He now and then, though hesitatingly, availed himself of Mr. Rastle’s offer, and took his difficulties to head-quarters; and he always, when he did so, found the master ready and glad to help, and not only that, but to explain as he went along, and clear the way of future obstacles of the same sort.

And so things looked up with Stephen. He wrote jubilant letters home; he experienced all the joys of an easy conscience, and he felt that he had a friend at court.

But as long as he was a member of the honourable fraternity of Guinea-pigs, Stephen Greenfield was not likely to be dull at Saint Dominic’s.

The politics of the lower school were rather intricate. The Guinea-pigs were not exactly the enemies of the Tadpoles, but the rivals. They were always jangling among themselves, it was true; and when Stephen, for the second time in one week, had hit Bramble in the eye, there was such jubilation among the Guinea-pigs that any one might have supposed the two clans were at daggers drawn. But it was not so—at least, not always—for though they fell out among themselves, they united their forces against the common enemy—the monitors!

Monitors, in the opinion of these young republicans, were an invention of the Evil One, invented for the sole purpose of interfering with them. But for the monitors they could carry out their long-cherished scheme of a pitched battle on the big staircase, for asserting their right to go down the left side, when they chose, and up on the right. As it was, the monitors insisted that they should go up on the left and come down on the right. It was intolerable tyranny! And but for the monitors their comb-and-paper musical society might give daily recitals in the top corridor and so delight all Saint Dominic’s. What right had the monitors to forbid the performance and confiscate the combs? Was it to be endured? And but for the monitors, once more, they might perfect themselves in the art of pea-shooting. Was such a thing ever heard of, as that fellows should be compelled to shoot peas at the wall in the privacy of their own studies, instead of at one another in the passages? It was a shame—it was a scandal—it was a crime!

On burning questions such as these, Guinea-pigs and Tadpoles sunk all petty differences, and thought and felt as one man; and not the least ardent among them was Stephen.

“Come on, quick! Greenfield junior,” squeaked the voice of Bramble, one afternoon, as he and Stephen met on the staircase.

Stephen had fought Bramble yesterday at four o’clock, and was to fight him again to-morrow at half-past twelve, but at the call of common danger he forgot the feud and tore up the stairs, two steps at a time, beside his chronic enemy.

“What’s the row?” he gasped, as they flew along.

“Row? Why, what do you think? Young Bellerby has been doctored for tying a string across the passage!”

“Had up before the Doctor? My eye, Bramble!”

“It is your eye indeed! One of the monitors tripped over it, and got in a rage, and there’s Bellerby now catching it in the Black Hole. Come on to the meeting; quick!”

The two rushed on, joined by one and another of their fellows who had heard the terrible news. The party rushed pellmell into the Fourth Junior class-room, where were already assembled a score or more youths, shouting, and stamping, and howling like madmen. At the sight of Bramble, the acknowledged leader of all malcontents, they quieted down for a moment to hear what he had to say.

“Here’s a go!” classically began that hero.

At this the clamour, swelled twofold by the new additions, rose louder than ever. It was a go!

“I wish it had been me.” again yelled Bramble: “I’d have let them know.”

Once more the shouts rose high and loud in approval of this noble sentiment.

“I’d have kicked their legs!” once more howled Bramble, as soon as he could make himself heard.

“So would we; kicked their legs!”

“They ought to be hanged!” screamed Bramble.

“I’ll not fag any more for Wren!” bellowed Bramble.

“I’ll not fag any more for Greenfield senior!” thundered Paul.

“I’ll not fag any more for Loman!” shrieked Stephen.

“Why don’t some of you put poison in their teas?” cried one.

“Or blow them up when they’re in bed with gunpowder?”

“Or flay them alive?”

“Or boil them in tar?”

“Or throw them into the lions’ den?”

“Those who say we won’t stand it any longer,” shouted Bramble, jumping up on to a form, “hold up your hands!”

A perfect forest of inky hands arose, and a shout with them that almost shook the ceiling.

At that moment the door opened, and Wren appeared. The effect was magical; every one became suddenly quiet, and looked another way.

“The next time there’s a noise like that,” said the monitor, “the whole class will be detained one hour,” and, so saying, departed.

After that the indignation meeting was kept up in whispers. Now and then the feelings of the assembly broke out into words, but the noise was instantly checked.

“If young Bellerby has been flogged,” said Bramble, in a most sepulchral undertone, “I’ve a good mind to fight every one of them!”

“Yes, every one of them,” whispered the multitude.

“They’re all as bad as each other!” gasped Bramble.

“We’ll let them know,” muttered the audience.

“I’ll tell you what I’ve a good mind to—to—ur—ur—I’ve a good mind to—ugh!”

Again the door opened. This time it was Callonby.

“Where’s young Raddleston?—What are you young beggars up to?—is Raddleston here?”

“Yes,” mildly answered the voice of Master Raddleston, who a moment ago had nearly broken a blood-vessel in his endeavours to scream in a whisper.

“Come here, then.”

The fag meekly obeyed.

“Oh, and Greenfield junior,” said Callonby, as he was turning to depart, “Loman wants to know when you are going to get his tea; you’re to go at once, he says.”

Stephen obeyed, and was very humble in explaining to Loman that he had forgotten (which was the case) the time. The meeting in the Fourth class-room lasted most of the afternoon; but as oratory in whispers is tedious, and constant repetition of the same sentiments, however patriotic, is monotonous, it nagged considerably in spirit towards the end, and degenerated into one of the usual wrangles between Guinea-pigs and Tadpoles, in the midst of which Master Bramble left the chair, and went off in the meekest manner possible to get Wren to help him with his sums for next day.

Stephen meanwhile was engaged in doing a little piece of business for Loman, of which more must be said in a following chapter.