Great Men in Little Worlds/The Schoolmaster's Vision

Great Men in Little Worlds by George Gissing
V.—The Schoolmaster's Vision

From The English Illustrated, Vol 15, 1896, pp. 487-495. Illustrations omitted.


IN the quarter of an hour before morning school, Mr. Donne, as was his wont, paced a strip of garden within view of the playground. He was bareheaded, and his magisterial gown, scarcely stirred by the breath of a calm, bright sky, draped him with the dignity he loved. His hands behind him—shapely hands, white and soft—his head inclined, and his features set in meditative mildness, Mr. Donne presented the ideal of head-mastership. He was the man with whom no boy would take a liberty, who ruled by spiritual awe (scornful of baser method), and in whom his mature associates respected the bland union of erudition and high breeding.

With half attention his eye remarked two youngsters who were approaching him; one of them, a lad of twelve, at length stepped up to the wicket by which Mr. Donne was passing, and respectfully made known his wish to be heard.

"What is it, Rogers?"

"If you please, Sir, Argent would like to speak to you."

"Certainly. Why need Argent send an ambassador? Ask him to come into the garden."

Rogers withdrew, and his companion, a pale, timid boy, two years younger, came forward. Willie Argent was in his first term, and still regarded the head master with dread rather than veneration. Having passed the wicket, he stood in a paralysed attitude, unable to raise his eyes or to utter a sound.

"Well, Argent," said Mr. Donne kindly, "what is it? You had a letter this morning, I think. Any news you wish to tell me?"

The poor little lad feebly commanded his tongue.

"Yes, Sir—please, Sir. It was from Mamma. She's coming to see me."

"Indeed? I'm very glad to hear it. When will she come?"

"To-day, Sir—some time—most likely the afternoon."

Mr. Donne knew nothing of Mrs. Argent save that she was a widow, and had for some years been living in France. The boy was placed with him by a relative residing at Bristol, a merchant of good position, whose house was Willie's home. These circumstances had excited no interest in Mr. Donne, and it was now perhaps for the first time that he carefully regarded the lad's countenance. Willie Argent had pretty, girlish features, indicative of delicate sensibilities, and of a nervous system altogether out of tone. When he had spoken a few more words, and had dismissed the pupil to his play, the schoolmaster mused a while on the probable character and appearance of Mrs. Argent. In all likelihood, a not very estimable woman; careless, perhaps, of her child—coming to see him merely when it suited her convenience. The boy did not seem particularly pleased. "Mamma" sounded awkwardly on his lips. Well, it was something, however trivial, to vary the monotony of the day. As he heard the school-bell begin to clang, Mr. Donne sighed. He turned from the garden with a weary reluctance, far more difficult to overcome than the spirit of the boys which bade them revolt against imprisonment on such a morning as this. From the steps of the private door he looked for a moment over a wide prospect of fields and woods, where on the horizon lay a murky cloud. That was Bristol. The city had no special attraction for him, but, in default of better resort, Mr. Donne would gladly have spent a truant day among the shops and shipping. But his "senior Greek" awaited him. The school had a moderate reputation. Fifteen years ago, soon after he left the University, and simultaneously with his marriage, Mr. Donne became its proprietor, deciding hurriedly upon a career for which everyone assured him that he was well fitted. As, indeed, he was, though—a common case—he might have done better in other walks of life. Marriage obliged him to decide in haste; otherwise, there would have been both time and opportunity for experimental efforts. While yet an undergraduate he had become engaged to a girl of his own rank, and the prospect of domestic happiness overcame all other considerations. For this also Mr. Donne Had abundant capacity. Youth entangled him in no passionate perplexities; nothing in his history asked for concealment; he married at the bidding of a tranquil, steadfast love, and found no reason to repent his choice. It was only that he might have done so much better not to marry at all—the common case.

Three children were born to him; all lived and were growing up in health. But the mother had been dead some six years. It was the result of a boating accident. Saved from drowning, Mrs. Donne died of an illness that followed upon the shock.

He thought of her with a tender regret, and, could a word have brought her to his side again, would joyfully have spoken it. And yet, and yet, he had long ceased to suffer under his bereavement. He thought of himself as a man to whom the world still offered richer opportunities than he had hitherto known; it might be that Providence—such is the mould of some men's reflection—had designedly released him from an unsuitable bond. Poor Rachel was not exactly the wife for him; he had known it long before her death. An admirable woman; so sweet of temper, so loyal, so modest, so "right-thinking," but with not a spark of originality, and hopelessly astray in any sphere but that of home. After living with her for a few months he could anticipate all her views, her very phrases, with entire certainty. She thought of everything from one unchangeable point of view; the propriety of her sentiments defeated criticism; her conduct was flawless. And what more could a man desire in his wife? Mr. Donne many a time and oft rebuked himself for secret impatience. His perturbed mind presently gave admission to the strangest fancies. If only it was permissible to cherish the wife of one's bosom, and at the same time to let one's eyes wander in search of—— But the dissolute thought could have no abiding place in a mind of such integrity.

Mr. Donne's sister, a discreet domestic lady of something more than forty maiden years, now kept house for him, and relieved him of all minor cares about his children. As for the school, it might have prospered more decidedly under more energetic governance; the head-master taught only one or two classes, and these, not seldom, with a rather noticeable languor; but his assistants were well chosen, and he held his supremacy in a way which allowed no one to suspect that at heart he so often despised himself and all his functions. He had the grand manner, shaped on the best academic tradition. Though not in orders, he could on occasion discourse with the true clerical impressiveness; but of late years he was grown chary of exercising this talent to the full; his admonitions, public and private, were marked by a more secular tone than during Mrs. Donne's lifetime.

About eleven o'clock this morning, as he sat in his study trying to write letters, but actually overcome with a singular listlessness, it was announced that a lady—Mrs. Argent—would like to see him. He rose at once.

"Miss Donne is engaged, I suppose?"

"Yes, Sir. The lady is in the drawing-room."

Thither he at once betook himself, thinking not at all of Mrs. Argent as an interesting person or otherwise, but glad of the event as a distraction to his oppressive mood. As he entered the room, and became aware of its occupant, he felt a shock of surprise; there rose before him a lady whom he would never have imagined to be the mother of a boy ten years old; so fresh her complexion, so slim and lithe her figure, so spirited her whole aspect, that one would naturally have taken her for six-and-twenty at most. She was dressed, too, in an unfamiliar costume, with curiously short skirts. Before the schoolmaster could offer any greeting, Mrs. Argent, stepping forward with delightful frankness, her hand extended, addressed him almost gaily, as though they were old acquaintances.

"I am so afraid. Dr. Donne, that I have timed my visit awkwardly. But, really, the morning was so delightful, and—the fact is I have run down from Bristol on my machine—my bicycle. I thought at first of spending the time somehow till afternoon; but I really ought to be back again before evening. If you will forgive me—and allow my little son to play truant for once——"

Mr. Donne (not for the first time was he styled Doctor) found himself regarding the lady's skirts and her wonderful feet with indecorous fixity: he became a trifle confused, and at first could murmur only the indispensable words of politeness. The accidental peculiarity of Mrs. Argent's mode of travelling seemed to obscure for the moment her more essential characteristics. It was not until she had spoken again, praising the site of the school, that he became fully conscious of her very charming voice and manner and bearing. The Puritan strain in him prompted disapproval. After all, she was doubtless the neglectful mother he had supposed; a frivolous, sportive creature, enjoying life in her own way, and throwing her natural responsibilities on to other shoulders. His countenance betrayed the thought, even though he was endeavouring to shape it into such a smile as might be worn by a man of the world.

"Your son will be delighted. He expected you, I think, only in the afternoon——"

"Yes. Impatience has always been my fault. But what do you think of him, Dr. Donne? Not much life in him I'm afrad? This air ought to brace him up."

The schoolmaster delivered himself with professional gravity of certain rounded periods, and, even whilst he spoke, abused himself inwardly for owlishness. Effort was vain; he could not assume a natural demeanour and, as he wished, converse with this interesting lady in her own spirit. Awed, no doubt, by a dignity which seemed expressly meant for her edification, Mrs. Argent grew more sedate, more self-conscious.

"You will be able, I trust," hummed the head master, "to give us the pleasure of your company at luncheon. My sister——"

Mrs. Argent accepted with formal amiability, using few words; and thereupon Mr. Donne withdrew to apprise Willie and send him to his mother.

Parent and child were together for half an hour in the drawing-room, and at length entered to them Miss Donne, who left no hospitable duty or grace undischarged.

"Willie wants to see me on my bicycle," said Mrs. Argent, "so we 'll go out together for an hour. The run will do him good, I daresay."

To Miss Donne the lady's manner touched upon condescension, had the unmistakable air of social superiority; a tone which might be held to justify itself, for Mrs. Argent diffused about her an atmosphere of wealth and fashion. The head master's sister was able to observe her from a window as she rode away on the bicycle, slowly, skilfully, the little lad trotting by her side; and presently she exchanged comments with Mr. Donne. "An unusual sort of person," remarked the schoolmaster, in an absent voice, "Of the newest type, I presume." And he would add little to this opinion, Miss Donne concluded, with satisfaction, that he thought more of Mrs. Argent than he cared to say.

On their return at the luncheon hour, mother and son sat side by side in Mr. Donne's dining-room. Willie's face showed an unwonted animation; though voiceless and unable to eat, he smiled with pleasure, and constantly sought his mother's eyes. The head master was able at length to note a likeness between the two, but he still marvelled at the lady's seeming youth; she and Willie might have been brother and sister. Mrs. Argent's talk, bright and entertaining, had no reference whatever to domestic affairs. She spoke of a recent journey she had made in a little-known part of Europe; then of meetings with people whom it interested Mr. Donne to hear of—politicians, learned men, celebrated women. The schoolmaster's eyes brightened; insensibly he took more claret than usual, and when the inevitable end drew near he felt a profound despondency.

"You think of making your home in this part of England, Mrs. Argent?" he asked, leaning forward a little.

"Oh, no!" she answered, with a smile which suggested some special meaning. "I return to London to-morrow, and——most likely I shall leave England again—for a time."

The schoolmaster's spirits sank; even his features betrayed a disappointment, though he forced himself to smile continuously. But he still had an hour's enjoyment of Mrs. Argent's company. Willie, dismissed the while, came back again to sit with his mother in the drawing-room until it was time for her to leave. Mrs. Argent proposed returning to Bristol as she had come.

"You don't cycle, Dr. Donne?"

The man would have given half his substance to be able to mount at her side. His jaw became rigid.

"Oh, I beg your pardon! It would hardly be——"

"Merely my neglect of rational exercise," interposed the schoolmaster quickly. "No point of etiquette is involved, I assure you."

When the moment came, he accompanied her into the garden, watched her wheel out the machine and spring to her seat with perfect grace, strode by her as far as to the gate, and stood bareheaded as she swept away, the boy running and leaping in her track. Then he went straight to his study.

There had vanished the very ideal of his dreaming soul—or perhaps of his restless, hungered emotion. A woman such as this he had never met—never even in the days long ago, before his marriage, when he mixed freely in the world. To him Mrs. Argent was indeed of a new type; and no woman had ever so wrought upon his imagination.

It might be—nay, undoubtedly it was the fact—that she fell far below ethical perfection; she was probably selfish at the core, incapable of the nobler feelings, a a mere flash of superficial brilliance. She cared little or nothing for her child; desired only not to be troubled by him. For all that—a woman! And Mr. Donne felt as though he had lived hitherto without consciousness of woman's existence. His eyes dazzled; his blood became a rushing torrent.

With angry contempt he swept aside his old scholastic judgment of female excellence. A simple maiden, a humdrum housewife, an indefatigable mother—yes, yes, all very good in their way; but man is man, and woman is woman, and love is something other than domestic tranquillity. Had he but known himself and life before the marriage which made of him a respectable piece of mechanism! The mere thought that he might have lived to love, and be loved by, such a woman as Mrs. Argent shook him with a frenzy.

He struggled to command himself; the mental habits of a lifetime would not utterly yield to calenture such as this—natural and pardonable in a very young man, but in one who had turned his fortieth year a mere depravity of the senses. He tried to fix his thoughts on the routine of the day, but the effort merely increased his loathing for customary occupations. From the cricket-field sounded voices of the boys at play, and he wished to stop his ears against them. There came into his mind the contemptuous word "pedagogue," and he kept repeating it. A pedagogue he; no man at all, but a pedagogue; presumed, in the nature of things, to be passionless, arid—a guide-post to examinations and all the virtues. In the end his torture became intolerable; he could combat no longer in this stifling atmosphere of classics and dictionaries; without a word to anyone he prepared himself as if for an ordinary walk, and set out by a field-path, leaving the school behind him as quickly as possible.

Until of late he had always kept himself in good physical condition; that was part of his duty as a head master, as an exemplar; but now, for a month or two, he had all but foregone custom of exercise. The warm spring, following on a severe winter, relaxed his muscles, and a corresponding state of mind drew him into habits of indolence. After walking half a mile at brisk speed he felt tired and breathless. Indignant at this new revolt of the flesh, fiercely determined to subdue his body, he strode along until the sweat streamed from him. He had reached higher ground; a sea wind blew upon his face, and gave him an access of vigour. On he went, careless of direction, so long as he moved farther and farther from the hated school.

As the sun sank, he looked about him for an inn where he could eat and drink. The house into which he at length turned afforded better accommodation than he had hoped for; on an impulse, while sitting over his meal, he asked whether he could have a room there for the night, and without difficulty obtained it. Very well, he would grant himself these few hours of liberty. His absence from home would cause surprise, and, perhaps, a little uneasiness; no matter; as early as possible in the morning a telegram should set his sister's mind at rest.

Weary as he was, he again strolled about dark lanes, where now and then a perfume made his soul faint within him. When at length he went to bed, fatigue and the strangeness of his surroundings allied themselves with mental excitement to forbid sleep. On the staircase, for a long time, there sounded a whispered conversation; the giggling of a girl ever and again sent a hot flush through his veins. Then, of a sudden, heavy slumber overcame him.

He passed into a dream-world, more feverish and phantasmal than that in which he had been agonising. First of all came a sense of speeding through vast spaces, he knew not by what mode of locomotion; beside him sped—not a person, but a voice. A woman's voice, clear as a silver bell, ever rising to the note of merry laughter. And it seemed to urge him on, until the exhausting violence of his efforts made him aware that he was neither running nor flying, but—riding on a bicycle. He marvelled at his sudden skill in the management of this machine. "Do I ride well?" he shouted, against the wind that all but stopped his breath. And the answer was a gay, echoing laugh, which shook him with such delirium of passion that he started up from the bed, and half awoke.

Now he was climbing, still unutterably fatigued, but resolute in advance, though it cost him his life; for the same voice still accompanied him, inflamed his blood, and made his brain whirl with rapture. The dream was in part a reminiscence of bygone holidays in Switzerland; he saw the gleaming summits, the pine-forests down below, and lower still the great expanse of a lake. With this blended the school-room legend of Orpheus. The voice—now behind him—was that of Eurydice. He knew that he must not turn to look upon her, or all was lost. "Follow me! Follow me!" he kept crying, and the answer was a reassuring laugh. "The peak—and you are mine!" To that rapturous exclamation there came no answer. Terror-stricken, he called again: "At the peak, you are mine!" The awful silence overwhelmed him; spite of himself, he turned, and, even as he did so, plunged into the gloom of fathomless depths. Again he woke, and lay trembling, bathed in sweat.

For what seemed a long time, he tried in vain to sleep. He wished for a renewal of the dreams, an agony yet a rapture. A cock crowed in the night; a horseman came galloping beneath the windows. Then all was quiet again, and again he slept.

He was once more on the bicycle, but this time had no control of it; he wriggled, tumbled, could not advance a yard, and fumed in the anguish of feeling himself, of making himself, ridiculous. Near him stood Mrs. Argent, holding her own machine as he had seen her just before she mounted to ride away from the school; but she wore a magnificent dress, such as would have become her on some brilliant occasion of festivity, her bosom bare, save for gleaming jewels, and her arms a glory of living flesh. She was beginning to show impatience. "Oh, can't you do better than that? You really must be quick; I can't wait for you." He made a desperate attempt to mount, but his eyes would not turn from the woman's beauty, and again he came ignominiously to the ground. Then she gave a loud, scornful laugh; he saw her spring to the saddle, bend her shining head, and float away. He pursued, and had strength to keep her in sight for a long way on a country road; ever calling, imploring, with wondrous vocabulary of passionate desire. All at once he saw by the roadside a little boy, who, without moving, held out his hands after the woman, and cried to her, "Mamma! Mamma!" At the pitiful sight, a great indignation possessed him. "Stop!" he shouted. "It's your own child! Stop!" But in that moment the radiant figure passed out of his sight. He heard the boy weeping bitterly, and he too wept.

Amid innumerable phases of less distinct nightmare, there came one which, even as he dreamt, alarmed him by its grotesque caricaturing of a solemn ceremony in his actual life. He saw himself in the study, closeted with a boy—or, rather, a young man—who was about to leave school, and to whom, his wont on such occasions, he was imparting grave advice. First of all came the accustomed injunctions, sober, paternal, altogether excellent. But presently he lost control of his tongue, which, as though at the prompting of a Mephistopheles, began to utter counsel such as appalled his own ear. "And now there is one point on which I feel obliged to touch, delicate though it may be. You are nineteen years of age; you are already going out into the world: the probability is that, before many years are over, you will think of marrying. My dear boy, let me beg of you, for your own sake, not to marry. Believe me, marriage is the curse of life. I mean it! Look at me, a horrible example. I married young, and forthwith I was condemned to a paltry routine existence such as my soul loathes. But for marriage, who knows to what heights I might have risen! Take warning I Marriage is the check upon civilisation. What men might do if only they remained free through all their active years! We find ourselves drudging to support wife and family, and it leaves us no strength for anything else. Besides—you are sure to marry the wrong woman. Imagine what it means, when you are irrevocably bound, to meet with your ideal in the other sex! That meeting always comes much later in life, and the bitterness of it! Of all my advice to you this is the most precious, because it comes of my own miserable experience. Store it in your mind and heart!" The young man said something, turned away, and went from the room. No sooner had he gone than the dreamer felt a revulsion. Unutterably shocked and ashamed, he rushed after his pupil, meaning to obliterate that outrageous folly, to make a confession of temporary insanity—anything, so that the words might be unspoken. But he sought in vain all over the school-buildings, in the playground, the fields. He tore about, his gown flying in the wind—and with a choking shout returned to consciousness.

When morning glimmered at the windows he rose and dressed. What a night! It had effectually cured him of his erotic fever: for he ached throughout his body, and had a brain like lead. To make things worse, the weather had changed; rain was falling, and seemed likely to continue. He descended the stairs with uncertain step, and stood by the open door of the inn drinking fresh air. After a pretence of breakfast, a ramshackle conveyance bore him to the nearest railway-station, and he reached home about midday.

Miss Donne did not press for explanations. She was accustomed to regard her brother as wisdom in the flesh, and his strange worried look suggested matters too deep for her inquiry. The head master kept very much to himself for the rest of the day. He did nothing, and in his enforced idleness felt an older man.

The next morning he arose in a mood of indifference, ready to pursue the familiar course with little more than the wonted distaste. But something happened to affect the sluggish current of his thoughts. His youngest child, a little girl of seven, had fallen ill in the night; the symptoms were alarming, and a doctor had to be sent for. Mr. Donne felt his paternal affection revive, and throughout the day he had no temptation to think of Mrs. Argent, or of his recent extravagances.

The day after that, when his mind was eased somewhat regarding the child, he chanced in the afternoon to look into one of the smaller school-rooms. As soon as he pushed the door open he heard a sob. Within, at one of the desks, sat a boy with head bowed upon his arms, crying desolately. It was Willie Argent. The head master entered, closed the door, and from a short distance spoke with as much kindness as his voice could convey.

"What is the matter, my boy? Why are you crying?"

Willie gave a start, and sprang up. His face showed that he must have been here for some time indulging a bitter grief. Mr. Donne strove to reassure him; laid a hand on his shoulder; again speaking as gently as possible.

"Do you feel home-sick, Willie?"

"It's more that—that I haven't got a home," broke from the boy's quivering lips, with phrase and accents of sincerity which touched the hearer profoundly.

"Oh, don't think that! Be sure your mother will make a home for you before long."

Willie looked up, became shamefaced, struggled to speak, and, after more encouragement, brought forth the news which weighed so upon his heart.

"Mamma is going to be married, Sir."

Mr. Donne heard it without surprise or any other emotion.

"She told you so? Why, then, you will have a home so much the sooner."

"No, Sir. She said I should live with my uncle and aunt just the same."

The head master cleared his throat, again kindly patted the boy's shoulder, and began to discourse in set phrase.

"My dear Willie, you have begun your experience of the troubles of life rather early, it is true, but remember that all trials, all sorrows, are for our ultimate good. Boys are sent to school that they may learn many other things besides lessons out of books. One of these things is manly independence. I am sure your mother has a satisfactory purpose in arranging thus for you. Doubtless she has observed that you are inclined to cling too much to the comforts of home; she wishes to see you more like other boys—less sensitive, more vigorous. You are going through a period of rather hard discipline, but in the end you will reap a benefit. My boy, suffering is the price of all good things in this world. It is suffering that forms a manly character. It would never do if we had everything as we wished. The noblest minds have gone through the hardest discipline...."

With much else to the same effect. And Mr. Donne did not believe a word of it. His inner voice accompanied the audible with a running comment. "Cant! Rubbish! Misery such as this never did anything but grievous harm to body and soul. Why haven't you the honesty to keep silence, where truth cannot be told?"

Of a sudden he recollected a portion of his dreams at the village inn, that grotesque interview with the boy who was leaving school. It had never recurred to his mind till now. He fell into abrupt silence.

Willie was no longer sobbing.

"I will try, Sir," he said, when Mr. Donne seemed to have ended his hortatory remarks.

"There's a brave lad! Come, now, you must go out and join in the boys' games. And—if ever you would like to speak to me in private about anything, don't be timid. Come to me whenever you see me walking in the garden. There's no reason whatever to be afraid of me, I assure you." The head master smiled, averting his look. "Come as to a friend, my dear boy, and I will do my utmost to help you in trouble such as this, or any other."

A day or two, and all was as before. Mr. Donne had lost no dignity in the eyes of his subjects; he swayed the sceptre with no less authority and grace than heretofore. If he knew himself somewhat better, that was a purely private affair; perhaps he murmured to himself the old philosopher's injunction, in Greek or in Latin, and felt that it had a fuller significance for him. But the strange experience in no way affected his conduct.

When the head boy left school Mr. Donne imparted his final counsel with even more unction than of wont.

"And one word more, of wider application. Whatever the path in which Providence directs you, cultivate a reasonable contentment. There is a spirit abroad—a spirit of restlessness, of revolt. Be not misled by it. However dull, however wearisome your appointed task, discharge it thankfully; for, I assure you, there's nothing so wholesome for man as steady and fruitful labour. Do not become the plaything of a restive imagination; always consult your calm reason; always——"