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FATHERS OF MEN


CHAPTER I

BEHIND THE SCENES

The two new boys in Heriot's house had been suitably entertained at his table, and afterwards in his study with bound volumes of Punch. Incidentally they had been encouraged to talk, with the result that one boy had talked too much, while the other shut a stubborn mouth tighter than before. The babbler displayed an exuberant knowledge of contemporary cricket, a more conscious sense of humour, and other little qualities which told their tale. He opened the door for Miss Heriot after dinner, and even thanked her for the evening when it came to an end. His companion, on the other hand, after brooding over Leech and Tenniel with a sombre eye, beat a boorish retreat without a word.

Heriot saw the pair to the boys' part of the house. He was filling his pipe when he returned to the medley of books, papers, photographic appliances, foxes' masks, alpen-stocks and venerable oak, that made his study a little room in which it was difficult to sit down and impossible to lounge. His sister, perched upon a coffin-stool was busy mounting photographs at a worm-eaten bureau.

"How I hate our rule that a man mayn't smoke before a boy!" exclaimed Heriot, emitting a grateful cloud. "And how I wish we didn't have the new boys on our hands a whole day before the rest!"

"I should have thought there was a good deal to be said for that," remarked his sister, intent upon her task.

"You mean from the boys' point of view?"

"Exactly. It must be such a plunge for them as it is, poor things."

"It's the greatest plunge in life," Heriot vehemently agreed. "But here we don't let them make it; we think it kinder to put them in an empty bath, and then turn on the cold tap—after first warming them at our own fireside! It's always a relief to me when these evenings are over. The boys are never themselves, and I don't think I'm much better than the boys. We begin by getting a false impression of each other."

Heriot picked his way among his old oak things as he spoke; but at every turn he had a narrow eye upon his sister. He was a lanky man, many years her senior; his beard had grown grey, and his shoulders round, in his profession. A restless energy marked all his movements, and was traceable in the very obstacles to his present perambulations; they were the spoils of the inveterate wanderer from the beaten track, who wanders with open hand and eye. Spectacles in steel rims twinkled at each alert turn of the grizzled head; and the look through the spectacles, always quick and keen, was kindly rather than kind, and just rather than compassionate.

"I liked Carpenter," said Miss Heriot, as she dried a dripping print between sheets of blotting-paper.

"I like all boys until I have reason to dislike them."

"Carpenter had something to say for himself."

"There's far more character in Rutter."

"He never opened his mouth."

"It's his mouth I go by, as much as anything."

Miss Heriot coated the back of the print with starch, and laid it dexterously in its place. A sheet of foolscap and her handkerchief—an almost unfeminine handkerchief—did the rest. And still she said no more.

"You didn't think much of Rutter, Milly?"

"I thought he had a bad accent and——"

"Go on."

"Well—to be frank—worse manners!"

"Milly, you are right, and I'm not sure that I oughtn't to be frank with you. Let the next print wait a minute I like you to see something of the fellows in my house; it's only right that you should know something about them first. I've a great mind to tell you what I don't intend another soul in the place to know."

Heriot had planted himself in British attitude, heels to the fender.

Miss Heriot turned round on her stool. She was as like her brother as a woman still young can be like a rather elderly man; her hair was fair, and she had not come to spectacles; but her eyes were as keen and kindly as his own, her whole countenance as sensible and shrewd.

"You can trust me, Bob," she said.

"I know I can," he answered, pipe in hand. "That's why I'm going to tell you what neither boy nor man shall learn through me. What type of lad does this poor Rutter suggest to your mind?"

There was a pause.

"I hardly like to say."

"But I want to know."

"Well—then—I'm sure I couldn't tell you why—but he struck me as more like a lad from the stables than anything else."

"What on earth makes you think that?" Heriot spoke quite sharply in his plain displeasure and surprise.

"I said I couldn't tell you, Bob. I suppose it was a general association of ideas. He had his hat on, for one thing, when I saw him first; and it was far too large for him, and crammed down almost to those dreadful ears! I never saw any boy outside a stable-yard wear his hat like that. Then your hunting was the one thing that seemed to interest him in the least. And I certainly thought he called a horse a 'hoss'!"

"So he put you in mind of a stable-boy, did he?"

"Well, not exactly at the time, but he really does the more I think about him."

"That's very clever of you, Milly—because it's just what he is!"

Heriot's open windows were flush with the street, and passing footfalls sounded loud in his room; but at the moment there were none; and a clock ticked officiously on the chimneypiece while the man with his back to it met his sister's eyes.

"Of course you don't mean it literally?"

"Literally."

"I thought his grandfather was a country parson?"

"A rural dean, my dear; but the boy's father was a coachman, and the boy himself was brought up in the stables until six months ago."

"The father's dead, then?"

"He died in the spring. His wife has been dead fourteen years. It's a very old story. She ran away with the groom."

"But her people have taken an interest in the boy?"

"Never set eyes on him till his father died."

"Then how can he know enough to come here?"

Heriot smiled as he pulled at his pipe. He had the air of a man who has told the worst. His sister had taken it as he hoped she would; her face and voice betokened just that kind of interest in the case which he already felt strongly. It was a sympathetic interest, but that was all. There was nothing sentimental about either of the Heriots; they could discuss most things frankly on their merits; the school itself was no exception to the rule. It was wife and child to Robert Heriot—the school of his manhood—the vineyard in which he had laboured lovingly for thirty years. But still he could smile as he smoked his pipe.

"Our standard is within the reach of most," he said; "there are those who would tell you it's the scorn of the scholastic world. We don't go in for making scholars. We go in for making men. Give us the raw material of a man, and we won't reject it because it doesn't know the Greek alphabet—no, not even if it was fifteen on its last birthday! That's our system, and I support it through thick and thin; but it lays us open to worse types than escaped stable-boys."

"This boy doesn't look fifteen."

"Nor is he—quite—much less the type I had in mind. He has a head on his shoulders, and something in it too. It appears that the vicar where he came from took an interest in the lad, and got him on as far as Cæsar and Euclid for pure love."

"That speaks well for the lad," put in Miss Heriot, impartially.

"I must say that it appealed to me. Then he's had a tutor for the last six months; and neither tutor nor vicar has a serious word to say against his character. The tutor, moreover, is a friend of Arthur Drysdale's, who was captain of this house when I took it over, and the best I ever had. That's what brought them to me. The boy should take quite a good place. I should be very glad to have him in my own form, to see what they've taught him between them. I confess I'm interested in him; his mother was a lady; but you may almost say he never saw her in his life. Yet it's the mother who counts in the being of a boy. Has the gentle blood been hopelessly poisoned by the stink of the stables, or is it going to triumph and run clean and sweet? It's a big question, Milly, and it's not the only one involved."

Heriot had propounded it with waving pipe that required another match when he was done; through the mountain tan upon his face, and in the eager eyes behind the glasses, shone the zeal of the expert to whom boys are dearer than men or women. The man is rare; rarer still the woman who can even understand him; but here in this little room of books and antique lumber, you had the pair.

"I'm glad you told me," said Miss Heriot, at length. "I fear I should have been prejudiced if you had not."

"My one excuse for telling you," was the grave rejoinder. "No one else shall ever know through me; not even Mr. Thrale, unless some special reason should arise. The boy shall have every chance. He doesn't even know I know myself, and I don't want him ever to suspect. It's quite a problem, for I must keep an eye on him more than on most; yet I daren't be down on him, and I daren't stand up for him; he must sink or swim for himself."

"I'm afraid he'll have a bad time," said Miss Heriot, picking a print from the water and blotting it as before. Her brother had seated himself at another bureau to write his letters.

"I don't mind betting Carpenter has a worse," he rejoined without looking up.

"But he's so enthusiastic about everything?"

"That's a quality we appreciate; boys don't, unless there's prowess behind it. Carpenter talks cricket like a Lillywhite, but he doesn't look a cricketer. Rutter doesn't talk about it, but his tutor says he's a bit of a bowler. Carpenter beams because he's got to his public school at last. He has illusions to lose. Rutter knows nothing about us, and probably cares less; he's here under protest, you can see it in his face, and the chances are all in favour of his being pleasantly disappointed."

Heriot's quill was squeaking as he spoke, for he was a man with the faculty of doing and even thinking of more than one thing at a time; but though his sister continued mounting photographs in her album with extreme care, her mind was full of the two young boys who had come that night to live under their roof for good or ill. She wondered whether her brother was right in his ready estimate of their respective characters. She knew him for the expert that he was; these were not the first boys that she had heard him sum up as confidently on as brief an acquaintance; and though her knowledge had its obvious limitations, she had never known him wrong. He had a wonderfully fair mind. And yet the boy of action, in whom it was possible to stimulate thought, would always be nearer his heart than the thoughtful boy who might need goading into physical activity. She could not help feeling that he was prepared to take an unsympathetic view of the boy who had struck her as having more in him than most small boys; it was no less plain that his romantic history and previous disadvantages had already rendered the other newcomer an object of sympathetic interest in the house-master's eyes. The material was new as well as raw, and so doubly welcome to the workman's hand. Yet the workman's sister, who had so much of his own force and fairness in her nature, felt that she could never like a sulky lout, however cruel the circumstances which had combined to make him one.

She felt a good deal more before the last print was in her album; in the first place that she would see really very little of these two boys until in years to come they rose to the Sixth Form table over which she presided in hall. Now and then they might have headaches and be sent in to keep quiet and look at the Punches; but she would never be at all in touch with them until they were big boys at the top of the house; and then they would be shy and exceedingly correct, of few words but not too few, and none too much enthusiasm, like all the other big boys. And that thought drew a sigh.

"What's the matter?" came in an instant from the other bureau, where the quill had ceased to squeak.

"I was thinking that, after all, these two boys have more individuality than most who come to us."

"One of them has."

"Both, I think; and I was wondering how much will be left to either when we run them out of the mould in five years' time!"

Heriot came to his feet like an exasperated advocate.

"I know where you get that from!" he cried with a kind of jovial asperity. "You've been reading some of these trashy articles that every wiseacre who never was at a public school thinks he can write about them now! That's one of their stock charges against us, that we melt the boys down and run them all out of the same mould like bullets. We destroy individuality; we do nothing but reduplicate a type that thinks the same thoughts and speaks the same speech, and upholds the same virtues and condones the same vices. As if real character were a soluble thing! As if it altered in its essence from the nursery to the cemetery! As if we could boil away a strong will or an artistic temperament, a mean soul or a saintly spirit, even in the crucible of a public school!"

His breezy confidence was almost overwhelming; but it did not overwhelm his hearer, or sweep her with him to his conclusion. She had her own point of view; more, she had her own coigne of observation. Not every boy who had passed through the house in her time was the better for having been there. She had seen the weak go under—into depths she could not plumb—and the selfish ride serenely on the crest of the wave. She had seen an unpleasant urchin grow into a more and more displeasing youth, and inferiority go forth doubly inferior for the misleading stamp—that precious stamp—which one and all acquired. She loved the life as she saw it, perforce so superficially; it was a life that appealed peculiarly to Miss Heriot, who happened to have her own collegiate experience, an excellent degree of her own, and her own ideas on education. But from the boys in her brother's house she held necessarily aloof; and in her detachment a clear and independent mind lay inevitably open to questionings, misgivings, intuitions, for which there was little time in his laborious days.

"But you admit it is a crucible," she argued. "And what's a crucible but a melting-pot?"

"A melting-pot for characteristics, but not for character!" he cried. "Take the two boys upstairs: in four or five years one will have more to say for himself, I hope, and the other will leave more unsaid; but the self that each expresses will be the same self, even though we have turned a first-rate groom into a second-rate gentleman. 'The Child,' remember, and not the school, 'is father of the Man.'"

"Then the school's his mother!" declared Miss Heriot without a moment's hesitation.

Heriot gave the sudden happy laugh which his house was never sorry to hear, and his form found the more infectious for its comparative rarity.

"Does she deny it, Milly? Doesn't she rub it into every one of them in Latin that even they can understand? Let's only hope they'll be fathers of better men for the help of this particular alma mater!"

The house-master knocked out his pipe into a wooden Kaffir bowl, the gift of some exiled Old Boy, and went off to bid the two new boys good-night.