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

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The Fifth Form at St. Dominic's by Talbot Baines Reed
Chapter XVII
CHAPTER XVII. THE DOCTOR AMONG THE GUINEA-PIGS


The Dominican appeared once more before the holidays, and, as might have been expected (besides its usual articles at the expense of the Sixth Form), made itself particularly merry over the rebellion of the Guinea-pigs and Tadpoles.

Pembury was not the fellow to give quarter in his own particular line of attack; and it must be confessed he had the proud satisfaction of making his unfortunate young victims smart.

The “leading article” of the present number bore the suggestive tide, “Thank Goodness!” and began as follows:—

“Thank goodness, we are at last rid of the pest which has made Saint Dominic’s hideous for months past! At a single blow, with a single clap of the hands, we have sent Guinea-pigs and Tadpoles packing, and can now breathe pure air. No longer shall we have to put up with the plague. We are to be spared the disgust of seeing them, much more of talking to them or hearing their hideous voices. No longer will our morning milk be burned; no longer will our herrings be grilled to cinders; no longer will our jam be purloined; no longer will our books and door-handles be made abominable by contact with their filthy hands! Thank goodness! The Doctor never did a more patriotic deed than this! The small animals are in future to be kept to their own quarters, and will be forbidden the liberty they have so long abused of mixing with their betters. It is as well for all parties; and if any event could have brightened the last days of this term, it is this,”—and so on.

Before this manifesto a swarm of youngsters puzzled on the day of publication with no little bewilderment and fury. They had refused to allow any of their number to act as policeman, and had secretly been making merry over the embarrassment of their late persecutors, and wondering whatever they would be able to say for their humiliated selves in the Dominican—and lo! here was an article which, if it meant anything, meant that the heroic rebellion of the juniors was regarded not with dismay, but with positive triumph, by the very fellows it had been intended to “squash!”

“What does it mean, Padger?” asked Bramble, who, never much of a scholar, was quite unable to master the meaning of this.

“It’s all a pack of crams,” replied Padger, not quite sure of the sense himself.

“It means,” said Stephen, “the fellows say they are jolly glad to get rid of us.”

“Eh?” yelled Bramble; “oh, I say, you fellows, come to the meeting! Jolly glad! They aren’t a bit glad.”

“They say so,” said Paul. “Hold hard, Bramble, let’s read the rest.”

It was all his friends could do to restrain the ardent Bramble from summoning a meeting on the spot to denounce the Dominican and all its “crams.” But they managed to hold him steady while they read on.

“The Doctor never did a more—pat—pat—ri—what do you call it?—patriotic deed than this!”

“Hullo, I say, look here!” cried Stephen, turning quite yellow; “the Doctor’s in it, they say, Bramble. ‘The small animals’—that’s you and Padger—‘are to be kept in their own quarters.’ Whew! there’s a go.”

“What!” shrieked Bramble, “who says so? The Doctor never said so. I shall do what I choose. He never said so. Bother the Doctor! Who’s coming to the meeting, eh?”

But at that moment the grave form of Doctor Senior appeared in the midst of the group, just in time to hear Master Bramble’s last complimentary shout.

The head-master was in the most favourable times an object of terror to the “guilty-conscienced youth” of the Fourth Junior, and the sight even of his back often sufficed to quell their tumults. But here he stood face to face with his unhappy victims, one of whom had just cried, “Bother the Doctor!” and all of whom had by word and gesture approved of the sentiment. Why would not the pavement yawn and swallow them? And which of them would not at that moment have given a thousand pounds (if he had it) to be standing anywhere but where he was?

“Go to your class-room,” said the Doctor, sternly, eyeing the culprits one by one, “and wait there for me.”

They slunk off meekly in obedience to this order, and waited the hour of vengeance in blank dismay.

Dr. Senior did not keep them long in suspense, however. His slow, firm step sounded presently down the corridor, and at the sound each wretched culprit quaked with horror.

Mr. Rastle was in the room, and rose as usual to greet his chief; the boys also, as by custom bound, rose in their places. “Good morning, Mr. Rastle,” said the Doctor. “Are your boys all here?”

“Yes, sir, we have just called over.”

“Ah! And what class comes on first?”

“English literature, sir.”

“Well, Mr. Rastle, I will take the class this morning, please—instead of you.”

A groan of horror passed through the ranks of the unhappy Guinea-pigs and Tadpoles at these words. Bramble looked wildly about him, if haply he might escape by a window or lie hid in a desk; while Stephen, Paul, Padger, and the other ringleaders, gave themselves up for lost, and mentally bade farewell to joy forever.

“What have the boys been reading?” inquired Dr. Senior of Mr. Rastle.

“Grey’s Elegy, sir. We have just got through it.”

“Oh! Grey’s Elegy,” said the Doctor; and then, as if forgetting where he was, he began repeating to himself—

    “The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
    The lowing herds wind slowly o’er the lea.”

“The first boy,—what can you tell me about the curfew?” The first boy was well up in the curfew, and rattled off a “full, true, and particular account” of that fine old English institution, much to everybody’s satisfaction.

The Doctor went on repeating two or three verses till he came to the line—

“The rude Forefathers of the hamlet sleep.”

“What does that line mean?” he asked of a boy on the second desk.

The boy scarcely knew what it meant; but the boy below him did, and was quite eager for the question to be passed on. It was passed on, and the genius answered promptly—

“Four old men.”

“Four rude old men,” shouted the next, seeing a chance.

“Four rude old men who used to sleep in church,” cried another, ready to cap all the rest.

The Doctor passed the question on no further; but gravely explained the meaning of the line, and then proceeded with his repetition in rather a sadder voice.

Now and again he stopped short and demanded an explanation of some obscure phrase, the answers to which were now correct, now hazy, now brilliantly original. On the whole it was not satisfactory; and when for a change the Doctor gave up reciting, and made the boys read, the effect was still worse. One boy, quite a master of elocution, spoilt the whole beauty of the lines—

    “Nor Grandeur hear with a disdainful smile.
    The short and simple annals of the Poor...”

by reading “animals” instead of “annals”; while another, of an equally zoological turn of mind, announced that—

    “On some fond beast the parting soul relies,—”

instead of “breast.”

But the climax of this “animal mania” was reached when the wretched Bramble, finally pitched upon to go on, in spite of all his efforts to hide, rendered the passage “Haply some hoary-headed swain may say, Oft have we seen him at the peep of dawn,” etcetera, as—

“Happy some hairy-headed swine may say.”

This was a little too much.

“That will do, sir,” said the Doctor, sternly. “That will do. What is your name, sir?”

“Bramble, please, sir.”

“Well, Bramble, how long have you been in this class?”

“Two years, sir.”

“And have you been all the while on the bottom desk?”

“Yes, please, sir.”

“Sir, it displeases me. You are a dunce, sir.”

And then, to Bramble’s utter despair and to the terror of all the other unprofitable members of the class, the Doctor proceeded to catechise sharply the unhappy youth on his general knowledge of the subjects taught during the term.

As might be expected, the exhibition was a miserable one; Bramble was found wanting in every particular. The simplest questions could hardly coax a correct answer out of him, whereas an ordinary inquiry was hopelessly beyond his powers. He mixed up William the Conqueror and William of Orange; he subtracted what ought to be multiplied, and floundered about between conjunctions and prepositions in a sickening way. The Doctor did not spare him. He went ruthlessly on—exposing the boy’s ignorance, first in one thing, then another. Bramble stood and trembled and perspired before him, and wished he was dead, but the questions still came on. If he had answered a single thing correctly it would have been a different matter, but he knew nothing. I believe he did know what twice two was, but that was the one question the Doctor did not ask him. As to French, Latin, Grammar, and Euclid, the clock on the wall knew as much of them as Bramble.

It came to an end at last.

“Come here, Bramble,” said the Doctor, gravely; “and come here, you, and you, and you,” added he, pointing to Stephen and Paul and four or five others of the party who had been reading the Dominican that morning.

The luckless youngsters obeyed, and when they stood in a row before the dreaded Doctor, the bottom form and half of the bottom form but one were empty.

“Now, you boys,” began the head-master, very gravely, “I hadn’t intended to examine you to-day; but, from something I heard one of you say, I felt rather anxious to know how some of you are doing in your studies. These half-dozen boys I was particularly anxious to know of, because I heard them talking to-day as if they were the most important boys in the whole school. They are the most important; for they are the most ignorant, and require, and in future will receive, the closest looking after. You, little boys,” said the Doctor, turning to the row of abashed culprits, “take a word of warning from me. Do not be silly as well as dunces. Do not think, as long as you know least of any one in the school you can pretend to rule the school. I hope some of you have been led to see to-day you are not as clever as you would like to be. If you try, and work hard, and stick like men to your lessons, you will know more than you do now; and when you do know more you will see that the best way for little boys to get on is not by giving themselves ridiculous airs, but by doing their duty steadily in class, and living at peace with one another, and submitting quietly to the discipline of the school. Don’t let me hear any more of this recent nonsense. You’ll be going off in a day or two for the holidays. Take my advice, and think over what I have said; and next term let me see you in your right minds, determined to work hard and do your part honestly for the credit of the good old school. Go to your places, boys.”

And so the Doctor’s visitation came to an end. It made a very deep impression on the youthful members of the Fourth Junior. Most of them felt very much ashamed of themselves; and nearly every one felt his veneration and admiration for the Doctor greatly heightened. Only a few incorrigibles like Bramble professed to make light of the scene through which they had just passed, and even he, it was evident, was considerably chastened by his experience.

That evening, after the first bed-bell, Dr. Senior requested some of the masters to meet with him for a few minutes in his study.

“Do any of you know,” asked the head-master, “anything about this newspaper, the Dominican, which I see hanging outside the Fifth door?”

“I hear a great many boys talking about it,” said Mr. Jellicott of the Fifth. “It is the joint production of several of the boys in my form.”

“Indeed! A Fifth form paper!” said the Doctor. “Has any one perused it?”

“I have,” said Mr. Rastle. “It seems to me to be cleverly managed, though perhaps a little personal.”

“Ah, only natural with school-boys,” said the Doctor. “I should like to see it. Can you fetch it, Rastle?”

“It is nailed to the wall,” said Mr. Rastle, smiling, “like Luther’s manifesto; but I can get one of the boys, I dare say, to unfasten it for you.”

“No, do not do that,” said the Doctor. “If the mountain will not come to Mahomet, you know, Mahomet and his disciples must go to the mountain, eh, Mr. Harrison? I think we might venture out and peruse it where it hangs.” So half-stealthily, when the whole school was falling asleep, Dr. Senior and his colleagues stepped out into the passage, and by the aid of a candle satisfied their curiosity as to the mysterious Dominican.

A good deal of its humour was, of course, lost upon them, as they could hardly be expected to understand the force of all the allusions it contained. But they saw quite enough to enable them to gather the general tenor of the paper; it amused and it concerned them.

“It shows considerable ability on the part of its editor,” said the Doctor, after the masters had returned to his study, “but I rather fear its tone may give offence to some of the boys—in the Sixth, for instance.”

“I fancy there is a considerable amount of rivalry between the two head forms,” said Mr. Harrison.

“If there is,” said Mr. Jellicott, “this newspaper is hardly likely to diminish it.”

“And it seems equally severe on the juniors,” said Mr. Rastle.

“Ah,” said the Doctor, smiling, “about that ‘strike.’ I can’t understand that. Really the politics of your little world, Rastle, are too intricate for any ordinary mortal. But I gather the small boys have a grievance against the big ones?”

“Yes, on the question of fagging, I believe.”

“Oh!” said the Doctor. “I hope that is not coming up. You know I’m heretic enough to believe that a certain amount of fagging does not do harm in a school like ours.”

“Certainly not,” said Mr. Jellicott. “But these small boys are really very amusing. They appear to be regularly organised, and some of them have quite a martyr spirit about them.”

“As I can testify,” said Mr. Rastle, proceeding to recount the case of Stephen Greenfield and his sore cheek. The Doctor listened to it all, half gravely, half amused, and presently said—

“Well, it is as well the holidays are coming. Things are sure to calm down in them; and next term I dare say we shall be all the wiser for the lessons of this. Meanwhile I should like to see the editor of this paper to-morrow. Who is he, Jellicott?”

“I believe it is Pembury.”

“Very well. Send him to me, will you, to-morrow at ten? Good night. Thank you for your advice!”

Next morning the Doctor talked to Pembury about the Dominican He praised the paper generally, and congratulated him on the success of his efforts. But he took exception to its personal tone.

“As long as you can keep on the broad round of humour and pure fun, nothing can please us more than to see you improving your time in a manner like this. But you must be very careful to avoid what will give pain or offence to any section of your schoolfellows. I was sorry to see in the present number a good deal that might have been well omitted of that kind. Remember this, Pembury, I want all you boys, instead of separating off one set from another, and making divisions between class and class, to try to make common cause over the whole school, and unite all the boys in common cause for the good of Saint Dominic’s. Now your paper could help not a little in this direction. Indeed, if it does not help, it had better not be issued. There! I shall not refer to the matter again unless you give me cause. I do not want to discourage you in your undertaking, for it’s really an excellent idea, and capitally carried out. And verbum sap, you know, is quite sufficient.”

Anthony, with rather a long face, retired from the Doctor’s presence.

A few days later the school broke up for the summer holidays.