The Way of All Flesh/Chapter 44

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I may spare the reader more details about my hero's school days. He rose, always in spite of himself, into the Doctor's form, and for the last two years or so of his time was among the praepostors, though he never rose into the upper half of them. He did little, and I think the Doctor rather gave him up as a boy whom he had better leave to himself, for he rarely made him construe, and he used to send in his exercises or not, pretty much as he liked. His tacit, unconscious obstinacy had in time effected more even than a few bold sallies in the first instance would have done. To the end of his career his position inter pares was what it had been at the beginning, namely, among the upper part of the less reputable class—whether of seniors or juniors—rather than among the lower part of the more respectable.

Only once in the whole course of his school life did he get praise from Dr Skinner for any exercise, and this he has treasured as the best example of guarded approval which he has ever seen. He had had to write a copy of Alcaics on "The dogs of the monks of St Bernard," and when the exercise was returned to him he found the Doctor had written on it: "In this copy of Alcaics—which is still excessively bad—I fancy that I can discern some faint symptoms of improvement." Ernest says that if the exercise was any better than usual it must have been by a fluke, for he is sure that he always liked dogs, especially St Bernard dogs, far too much to take any pleasure in writing Alcaics about them.

"As I look back upon it," he said to me but the other day, with a hearty laugh, "I respect myself more for having never once got the best mark for an exercise than I should do if I had got it every time it could be got. I am glad nothing could make me do Latin and Greek verses; I am glad Skinner could never get any moral influence over me; I am glad I was idle at school, and I am glad my father overtasked me as a boy—otherwise, likely enough I should have acquiesced in the swindle, and might have written as good a copy of Alcaics about the dogs of the monks of St Bernard as my neighbours, and yet I don't know, for I remember there was another boy, who sent in a Latin copy of some sort, but for his own pleasure he wrote the following—

  The dogs of the monks of St Bernard go
  To pick little children out of the snow,
  And around their necks is the cordial gin
  Tied with a little bit of bob-bin.

I should like to have written that, and I did try, but I couldn't. I didn't quite like the last line, and tried to mend it, but I couldn't."

I fancied I could see traces of bitterness against the instructors of his youth in Ernest's manner, and said something to this effect.

"Oh, no," he replied, still laughing, "no more than St Anthony felt towards the devils who had tempted him, when he met some of them casually a hundred or a couple of hundred years afterwards. Of course he knew they were devils, but that was all right enough; there must be devils. St Anthony probably liked these devils better than most others, and for old acquaintance sake showed them as much indulgence as was compatible with decorum.

"Besides, you know," he added, "St Anthony tempted the devils quite as much as they tempted him; for his peculiar sanctity was a greater temptation to tempt him than they could stand. Strictly speaking, it was the devils who were the more to be pitied, for they were led up by St Anthony to be tempted and fell, whereas St Anthony did not fall. I believe I was a disagreeable and unintelligible boy, and if ever I meet Skinner there is no one whom I would shake hands with, or do a good turn to more readily."

At home things went on rather better; the Ellen and Mother Cross rows sank slowly down upon the horizon, and even at home he had quieter times now that he had become a praepostor. Nevertheless the watchful eye and protecting hand were still ever over him to guard his comings in and his goings out, and to spy out all his ways. Is it wonderful that the boy, though always trying to keep up appearances as though he were cheerful and contented—and at times actually being so—wore often an anxious, jaded look when he thought none were looking, which told of an almost incessant conflict within?

Doubtless Theobald saw these looks and knew how to interpret them, but it was his profession to know how to shut his eyes to things that were inconvenient—no clergyman could keep his benefice for a month if he could not do this; besides he had allowed himself for so many years to say things he ought not to have said, and not to say the things he ought to have said, that he was little likely to see anything that he thought it more convenient not to see unless he was made to do so.

It was not much that was wanted. To make no mysteries where Nature has made none, to bring his conscience under something like reasonable control, to give Ernest his head a little more, to ask fewer questions, and to give him pocket money with a desire that it should be spent upon menus plaisirs . . .

"Call that not much indeed," laughed Ernest, as I read him what I have just written. "Why it is the whole duty of a father, but it is the mystery-making which is the worst evil. If people would dare to speak to one another unreservedly, there would be a good deal less sorrow in the world a hundred years hence."

To return, however, to Roughborough. On the day of his leaving, when he was sent for into the library to be shaken hands with, he was surprised to feel that, though assuredly glad to leave, he did not do so with any especial grudge against the Doctor rankling in his breast. He had come to the end of it all, and was still alive, nor, take it all round, more seriously amiss than other people. Dr Skinner received him graciously, and was even frolicsome after his own heavy fashion. Young people are almost always placable, and Ernest felt as he went away that another such interview would not only have wiped off all old scores, but have brought him round into the ranks of the Doctor's admirers and supporters—among whom it is only fair to say that the greater number of the more promising boys were found.

Just before saying good-bye the Doctor actually took down a volume from those shelves which had seemed so awful six years previously, and gave it to him after having written his name in it, and the words [Greek text], which I believe means "with all kind wishes from the donor." The book was one written in Latin by a German—Schomann: "De comitiis Atheniensibus"—not exactly light and cheerful reading, but Ernest felt it was high time he got to understand the Athenian constitution and manner of voting; he had got them up a great many times already, but had forgotten them as fast as he had learned them; now, however, that the Doctor had given him this book, he would master the subject once for all. How strange it was! He wanted to remember these things very badly; he knew he did, but he could never retain them; in spite of himself they no sooner fell upon his mind than they fell off it again, he had such a dreadful memory; whereas, if anyone played him a piece of music and told him where it came from, he never forgot that, though he made no effort to retain it, and was not even conscious of trying to remember it at all. His mind must be badly formed and he was no good.

Having still a short time to spare, he got the keys of St Michael's church and went to have a farewell practice upon the organ, which he could now play fairly well. He walked up and down the aisle for a while in a meditative mood, and then, settling down to the organ, played "They loathed to drink of the river" about six times over, after which he felt more composed and happier; then, tearing himself away from the instrument he loved so well, he hurried to the station.

As the train drew out he looked down from a high embankment on to the little house his aunt had taken, and where it might be said she had died through her desire to do him a kindness. There were the two well-known bow windows, out of which he had often stepped to run across the lawn into the workshop. He reproached himself with the little gratitude he had shown towards this kind lady—the only one of his relations whom he had ever felt as though he could have taken into his confidence. Dearly as he loved her memory, he was glad she had not known the scrapes he had got into since she died; perhaps she might not have forgiven them—and how awful that would have been! But then, if she had lived, perhaps many of his ills would have been spared him. As he mused thus he grew sad again. Where, where, he asked himself, was it all to end? Was it to be always sin, shame and sorrow in the future, as it had been in the past, and the ever-watchful eye and protecting hand of his father laying burdens on him greater than he could bear—or was he, too, some day or another to come to feel that he was fairly well and happy?

There was a gray mist across the sun, so that the eye could bear its light, and Ernest, while musing as above, was looking right into the middle of the sun himself, as into the face of one whom he knew and was fond of. At first his face was grave, but kindly, as of a tired man who feels that a long task is over; but in a few seconds the more humorous side of his misfortunes presented itself to him, and he smiled half reproachfully, half merrily, as thinking how little all that had happened to him really mattered, and how small were his hardships as compared with those of most people. Still looking into the eye of the sun and smiling dreamily, he thought how he had helped to burn his father in effigy, and his look grew merrier, till at last he broke out into a laugh. Exactly at this moment the light veil of cloud parted from the sun, and he was brought to terra firma by the breaking forth of the sunshine. On this he became aware that he was being watched attentively by a fellow-traveller opposite to him, an elderly gentleman with a large head and iron-grey hair.

"My young friend," said he, good-naturedly, "you really must not carry on conversations with people in the sun, while you are in a public railway carriage."

The old gentleman said not another word, but unfolded his Times and began to read it. As for Ernest, he blushed crimson. The pair did not speak during the rest of the time they were in the carriage, but they eyed each other from time to time, so that the face of each was impressed on the recollection of the other.