Tales of St. Austin's/Chapter 16
THE TOM BROWN QUESTION
The man in the corner had been trying to worry me into a conversation for some time. He had asked me if I objected to having the window open. He had said something rather bitter about the War Office, and had hoped I did not object to smoking. Then, finding that I stuck to my book through everything, he made a fresh attack.
'I see you are reading Tom Brown's Schooldays,' he said.
This was a plain and uninteresting statement of fact, and appeared to me to require no answer. I read on.
'Fine book, sir.'
'I suppose you have heard of the Tom Brown Question?'
I shut my book wearily, and said I had not.
'It is similar to the Homeric Question. You have heard of that, I suppose?'
I knew that there was a discussion about the identity of the author of the Iliad. When at school I had been made to take down notes on the subject until I had grown to loathe the very name of Homer.
'You see,' went on my companion, 'the difficulty about Tom Brown's Schooldays is this. It is obvious that part one and part two were written by different people. You admit that, I suppose?'
'I always thought Mr Hughes wrote the whole book.'
'Dear me, not really? Why, I thought everyone knew that he only wrote the first half. The question is, who wrote the second. I know, but I don't suppose ten other people do. No, sir.'
'What makes you think he didn't write the second part?'
'My dear sir, just read it. Read part one carefully, and then read part two. Why, you can see in a minute.'
I said I had read the book three times, but had never noticed anything peculiar about it, except that the second half was not nearly so interesting as the first.
'Well, just tell me this. Do you think the same man created East and Arthur? Now then.'
I admitted that it was difficult to understand such a thing.
'There was a time, of course,' continued my friend, 'when everybody thought as you do. The book was published under Hughes's name, and it was not until Professor Burkett-Smith wrote his celebrated monograph on the subject that anybody suspected a dual, or rather a composite, authorship. Burkett-Smith, if you remember, based his arguments on two very significant points. The first of these was a comparison between the football match in the first part and the cricket match in the second. After commenting upon the truth of the former description, he went on to criticize the latter. Do you remember that match? You do? Very well. You recall how Tom wins the toss on a plumb wicket?'
'Then with the usual liberality of young hands (I quote from the book) he put the M.C.C. in first. Now, my dear sir, I ask you, would a school captain do that? I am young, says one of Gilbert's characters, the Grand Duke, I think, but, he adds, I am not so young as that. Tom may have been young, but would he, could he have been young enough to put his opponents in on a true wicket, when he had won the toss? Would the Tom Brown of part one have done such a thing?'
'Never,' I shouted, with enthusiasm.
'But that's nothing to what he does afterwards. He permits, he actually sits there and permits, comic songs and speeches to be made during the luncheon interval. Comic Songs! Do you hear me, sir? COMIC SONGS!! And this when he wanted every minute of time he could get to save the match. Would the Tom Brown of part one have done such a thing?'
'Never, never.' I positively shrieked the words this time.
'Burkett-Smith put that point very well. His second argument is founded on a single remark of Tom's, or rather—'
'Or rather,' I interrupted, fiercely,' or rather of the wretched miserable—'
'Contemptible,' said my friend.
'Despicable, scoundrelly, impostor who masquerades as Tom in the second half of the book.'
'Exactly,' said he. 'Thank you very much. I have often thought the same myself. The remark to which I refer is that which he makes to the master while he is looking on at the M.C.C. match. In passing, sir, might I ask you whether the Tom Brown of part one would have been on speaking terms with such a master?'
I shook my head violently. I was too exhausted to speak.
'You remember the remark? The master commented on the fact that Arthur is a member of the first eleven. I forget Tom's exact words, but the substance of them is this, that, though on his merits Arthur was not worth his place, he thought it would do him such a lot of good being in the team. Do I make myself plain, sir? He—thought—it—would—do— him—such—a—lot—of—good—being—in—the—team!!!'
There was a pause. We sat looking at one another, forming silently with our lips the words that still echoed through the carriage.
'Burkett-Smith,' continued my companion, 'makes a great deal of that remark. His peroration is a very fine piece of composition. "Whether (concludes he) the captain of a school cricket team who could own spontaneously to having been guilty of so horrible, so terrible an act of favouritismical jobbery, who could sit unmoved and see his team being beaten in the most important match of the season (and, indeed, for all that the author tells us it may have been the only match of the season), for no other reason than that he thought a first eleven cap would prove a valuable tonic to an unspeakable personal friend of his, whether, I say, the Tom Brown who acted thus could have been the Tom Brown who headed the revolt of the fags in part one, is a question which, to the present writer, offers no difficulties. I await with confidence the verdict of a free, enlightened, and conscientious public of my fellow-countrymen." Fine piece of writing, that, sir?'
'Very,' I said.
'That pamphlet, of course, caused a considerable stir. Opposing parties began to be formed, some maintaining that Burkett-Smith was entirely right, others that he was entirely wrong, while the rest said he might have been more wrong if he had not been so right, but that if he had not been so mistaken he would probably have been a great deal more correct. The great argument put forward by the supporters of what I may call the "One Author" view, was, that the fight in part two could not have been written by anyone except the author of the fight with Flashman in the school-house hall. And this is the point which has led to all the discussion. Eliminate the Slogger Williams episode, and the whole of the second part stands out clearly as the work of another hand. But there is one thing that seems to have escaped the notice of everybody.'
'Yes?' I said.
He leant forward impressively, and whispered. 'Only the actual fight is the work of the genuine author. The interference of Arthur has been interpolated!'
'By Jove!' I said. 'Not really?'
'Yes. Fact, I assure you. Why, think for a minute. Could a man capable of describing a fight as that fight is described, also be capable of stopping it just as the man the reader has backed all through is winning? It would be brutal. Positively brutal, sir!'
'Then, how do you explain it?'
'A year ago I could not have told you. Now I can. For five years I have been unravelling the mystery by the aid of that one clue. Listen. When Mr Hughes had finished part one, he threw down his pen and started to Wales for a holiday. He had been there a week or more, when one day, as he was reclining on the peak of a mountain looking down a deep precipice, he was aware of a body of men approaching him. They were dressed soberly in garments of an inky black. Each had side whiskers, and each wore spectacles. "Mr Hughes, I believe?" said the leader, as they came up to him.
'"Your servant, sir," said he.
'"We have come to speak to you on an important matter, Mr Hughes. We are the committee of the Secret Society For Putting Wholesome Literature Within The Reach Of Every Boy, And Seeing That He Gets It. I, sir, am the president of the S.S.F.P.W.L.W.T.R.O.E.B.A.S.T.H.G.I." He bowed.
'"Really, sir, I—er—don't think I have the pleasure," began Mr Hughes.
'"You shall have the pleasure, sir. We have come to speak to you about your book. Our representative has read Part I, and reports unfavourably upon it. It contains no moral. There are scenes of violence, and your hero is far from perfect."
'"I think you mistake my object," said Mr Hughes; "Tom is a boy, not a patent medicine. In other words, he is not supposed to be perfect."
'"Well, I am not here to bandy words. The second part of your book must be written to suit the rules of our Society. Do you agree, or shall we throw you over that precipice?"
'"Never. I mean, I don't agree."
'"Then we must write it for you. Remember, sir, that you will be constantly watched, and if you attempt to write that second part yourself—"' (he paused dramatically). 'So the second part was written by the committee of the Society. So now you know.'
'But,' said I, 'how do you account for the fight with Slogger Williams?'
'The president relented slightly towards the end, and consented to Mr Hughes inserting a chapter of his own, on condition that the Society should finish it. And the Society did. See?'
'Ticket, please, sir.'
I looked up. The guard was standing at the open door. My companion had vanished.
'Guard,' said I, as I handed him my ticket, 'where's the gentleman who travelled up with me?'
'Gentleman, sir? I haven't seen nobody.'
'Not a man in tweeds with red hair? I mean, in tweeds and owning red hair.'
'No, sir. You've been alone in the carriage all the way up. Must have dreamed it, sir.'
Possibly I did.