The Fifth Form at St. Dominic's/Chapter III
It so happened that on the day following Stephen Greenfield’s arrival at Saint Dominic’s, the head-master, Dr. Senior, was absent.
This circumstance gave great satisfaction to the new boy when his brother told him of it, as it put off for another twenty-four hours the awful moment when he would be forced to expose his ignorance before that terrible personage.
“You’d better stick about in my room while I’m in school,” said Oliver, “and then you can come down to the cricket-field and see the practice. By the way, some of the fellows may be in to bag my ink; they always run short on Friday; but don’t let them take it, for I shall want it to-night. Ta, ta; give my love to the mater if you’re writing home. I’ll be back for you after the twelve bell.”
And off he went, leaving Stephen to follow his own sweet devices for three hours.
That young gentleman was at no loss how to occupy part of the time. He must write home. So after much searching he unearthed a crumpled sheet of note-paper from one of the drawers, and set himself to his task. As he wrote, and his thoughts flew back to the home and the mother he had left only yesterday, his spirits fell, and the home-sickness came over him worse than ever. What would he not give to change places with this very letter, and go back home!
Here, no one cared for him, every one seemed to despise him. He wasn’t used to those rough public schools, and would never get on at Saint Dominic’s. Ah! that wretched Tenth Fiji War. What would become of him to-morrow when the Doctor would be back? There was no one to help him. Even Oliver seemed determined to let him fight his own battles.
Poor boy! He sat in his chair and let his mind wander once more back to the snug little home he had left. And, as he did so, his eyes unconsciously filled with tears, and he felt as if he would give anything to escape from Saint Dominic’s.
At this moment the door opened and a small boy entered.
He did not seem to expect to find any one in the room, for he uttered a hurried “Hullo!” as he caught sight of Stephen.
Stephen quickly dashed away a tear and looked up.
“Where’s Greenfield?” demanded the small boy.
“He’s in school,” replied Stephen.
“Hullo! what are you blubbering at?” cried the small boy, growing very bold and patronising all of a sudden, “eh?”
Stephen did not answer this home question.
“I suppose you are a new kid, just left your mammy?” observed the other, with the air of a man of forty; “what’s your name, young ’un?”
“Oh, my! is it? What form are you in?”
“I don’t know yet.”
“Haven’t you been examined?”
“No, not yet.”
“Oh, of course; old Senior’s away. Never mind, you’ll catch it to-morrow, blub-baby!”
This last epithet was thrown in in such a very gratuitous and offensive way, that Stephen did not exactly like it.
The small youth, however, finding himself in a bantering mood, pursued his questions with increasing venom.
“I suppose they call you Steenie at home?” he observed, with a sneer that was meant to be quite annihilating.
“No, they don’t,” replied Stephen; “mother calls me Steevie.”
“Oh, Steevie, does she? Well, Steevie, were you ever licked over the knuckles with a ruler?”
“No,” replied Stephen; “why?”
“Because you will be—I know who’ll do it, too, and kick you on the shins, too, if you’re cheeky!”
Stephen was quite at a loss whether to receive this piece of news in the light of information or a threat. He was inclined to believe it the latter; and as he was a rash youth, he somewhat tartly replied—“You won’t!”
The small boy looked astounded—not that he ever contemplated attempting the chastisement about which he had talked; but the idea of a new boy defying him, one of the chosen leaders of the Tadpoles, who had been at Saint Dominic’s two years, was amazing. He glared at the rash Stephen for half a minute, and then broke out, “Won’t I? that’s all! you see, you pretty little blubber boy! Yow-ow-ow! little sneak! why don’t you cut behind your mammy’s skirt, if you’re afraid? I would cry if I were you. Where’s his bottle? Poor infant! Yow-ow-boo-boo!”
This tornado, delivered with increasing vehemence and offensiveness, quite overpowered Stephen, who stared at the boy as if he had been a talking frog.
That youth evidently seemed to expect that his speech would produce a far deeper impression than it did, for he looked quite angry when Stephen made no reply.
“Wretched little sneak!” the amiable one continued; “I suppose he’ll go preaching to his big brother. Never mind, we’ll pay you out, see if we don’t! Go and kiss your mammy, and tell your big brother what they did to little duckie Steevie, did they then? they shouldn’t! Give him a suck of his bottle! oh, my!” and he finished up with a most withering laugh. Then, suddenly, remembering his errand, he walked up to the table, and said, “I want that ink-pot!”
Now was Stephen’s time. He was just in the humour for an argument with this young Philistine.
“What’s that to you? give it up!”
“I sha’n’t give it up; Oliver said it was not to be taken.”
“What do you say?” yelled the small boy, almost beside himself with rage and astonishment.
“It’s my brother’s ink, and I’m not to give it up,” said Stephen, shutting the top and keeping his hand on it.
It was enough! The patriarch of the Tadpoles knew his strong point was in words rather than action; but this could not be endured. At whatever risk, the dignity of his order must be maintained, and this insolent, mad new boy must be—kicked.
“I’ll kick you on the legs if you don’t give it up,” said the Tadpole, in a suppressed white heat.
Stephen said nothing, but kept his hand on the top, and awaited what was to follow.
The hero stepped back a pace or two, to allow of a run worthy of the coming kick; and what might have happened no one knows. At that moment the door opened, and Pembury entered on his crutches.
At sight of this Fifth Form celebrity the Tadpole cringed and cowered, and tried to sneak out of the study unobserved. But Anthony was too quick for him. Gently hooking him by the coat-collar with the end of a crutch, he brought him back.
“What are you doing here?”
“Yes, he is,” shouted Stephen; “he’s been trying to take away Oliver’s ink.”
“Silence, young gentleman, pray!” said Pembury, very grandly. Then, turning to the Tadpole, he added, “Oh, so you’ve been trying to bag some ink, have you?”
“Well, I only wanted a little; and this—”
“Silence! how much ink did you want?”
“Only half a potful.”
“You shall have half a potful!” said Pembury. “Come here.”
The Tadpole obeyed, and glared triumphantly at Stephen.
“Now, Master Greenfield,” said Pembury, addressing Stephen; “have the kindness to hand me the ink.”
Stephen hesitated; he felt sure Anthony was a master; and yet Oliver’s directions had been explicit.
“Do you hear?” thundered Anthony.
“Do you hear?” squeaked the Tadpole, delighted to have the tables turned on his adversary.
“Oliver said I wasn’t to let it go,” faltered Stephen.
“Do you hear me, sir?” again demanded Anthony.
“Do you hear? give it up!” again squeaked the Tadpole.
Stephen sighed, and surrendered the ink-pot. There was an air of authority about Pembury which he dared not defy.
“Now, Master Tadpole, here’s your ink; half a pot you said? Put your hands behind you, and stir if you dare!” and Pembury looked so awful as he spoke that the wretched boy was quite petrified.
The Fifth Form boy then solemnly emptied half the ink-pot on to the top of the young gentleman’s head, who ventured neither by word nor gesture to protest.
“Now you can go, sir!” and without another word he led the small youth, down whose face trickled a dozen tiny streams of black, making it look very like a gridiron, to the door, and there gently but firmly handed him into the passage. The wretched youth flew off to proclaim his sorrows to his confederates, and vow vengeance all over Tadpole and Guinea-pig-land against his tormentor and the new boy, who was the author of all his humiliation.
Pembury meanwhile returned to Stephen. That young gentleman had felt his belief in Pembury’s authority somewhat shaken by this unusual mode of punishment, but the Fifth Form boy soon reassumed his ascendency. He produced from his pocket a paper, and thus addressed Stephen: “Dr. Senior regrets that he should be absent at such an important time in the history of Saint Dominic’s as the day or your arrival, Master Greenfield, but he will be back to-morrow. Meanwhile, you are to occupy yourself with answering the questions on this paper, and take the answers to the head-master’s study at ten to-morrow. Of course you will not be so dishonourable as to show the questions to any one, not even your brother, or attempt to get the slightest help in answering them. Good-bye, my boy. Don’t trouble to stare at my left leg, if it is shorter than the other. Good-bye.”
Poor Stephen felt so confused by the whole of this oration, particularly the last sentence, which made him blush scarlet with shame, that for some time after the lame boy had hobbled off he could not bring himself to look at the paper. At last, however, he took it up.
This, then, was the awful examination paper which was to determine his position at Saint Dominic’s, or else expose his ignorance to the scorn of his masters. How he wished he was on the other side of it, and that the ordeal was over!
“Question 1. Grammar. Parse the sentence, ‘Oh, ah!’ and state the gender of the following substantives; ‘and,’ ‘look,’ ‘here.’”
Stephen scratched his head and rubbed his eyes. This was not like anything he had learned at home. They must learn out of quite different books at Saint Dominic’s.
“Question 2. History—”
“Hullo,” thought Stephen, “they don’t give many questions in grammar; that’s a good job.”
“Question 2. History. Whose daughter was Stephen the Second, and why was he nicknamed the ‘Green’?”
Stephen laughed. He had found out a mistake in his examiners. “‘Daughter,’ the paper said, should be ‘son’ of course. Funny for Dr. Senior to make such a slip,” thought he.
“Question 3. History and Geography. Who built England? and state the latitude and longitude of Saint Dominic’s, and the boundaries of Gusset Weir.”
“However am I to know?” murmured Stephen, in despair. “I was never here before in my life. Oh, dear, I shall never pass!”
“Question 4. Compound Theology. Give a sketch of the rise and history of the Dominicans from the time of Herod the Conqueror to the death of Titmus.”
“Whew!” was Stephen’s despairing ejaculation. “I never heard of Titmus; it sounds like a Latin name.”
“Question 5. Pure Theology. Who was Mr. Finis? Give a list of the works bearing his signature, with a short abstract of their contents. What is he particularly celebrated for?”
“Mr. Finis?” groaned Stephen. “How can they expect a boy like me to know who he was? And yet I seem to know the name. Oh dear me!”
“Question 6, and last but one,” (“That’s a comfort,” sighed Stephen). “Mathematics. What is a minus? Describe its shape, and say how many are left when the whole is divided by seven. Reduce your answer to vulgar decimals.”
“I’m certain I can never do that. Minus? Minus? I know the name, too. But here’s the last.”
“Question 7. Miscellaneous. Give a brief history of your own life from the earliest times, being particular to state your vicious deeds in chronological order.”
Stephen sighed a sigh of relief. “I can answer that, after a fashion,” he said; “but I can’t even then be sure of all the dates. As for the others—” and he dashed the paper down on the table with an air of bewildered despair.
“What am I to do? They are all too hard for me. Oh! I wish I might just show them to Oliver. If I was only at home, mother could help me. Oh, dear! I wish I had never, come here!”
And he gave himself over to the extreme of misery, and sat staring at the wall until the twelve bell rang, and Oliver and Wraysford broke in on his solitude.
“Hullo, young ’un; in the dumps? Never mind; you’ll be used to it in a day or two, won’t he, Wray?”
“Of course you will,” said Wraysford, cheerily; “it’s hard lines at first. Keep your pecker up, young ’un.”
The young ’un, despite this friendly advice, felt very far from keeping up his pecker. But he did his best, and worked his face into a melancholy sort of a smile.
“Fish us my spike shoes out of that cupboard, Stee, there’s a good fellow,” said Oliver, “and come along to the cricket-field. There’s a big practice on this afternoon.”
“I’ve got to do my examination before ten to-morrow. Some one brought me up the paper and said so. Perhaps I’d better stop here and do it?”
“I thought you weren’t to be had up till the Doctor came back. Who brought you the paper? I suppose it was Jellicott, the second master?”
“I suppose so,” said Stephen, who had never heard of Mr. Jellicott in his life before.
“Let’s have a look at it,” said the elder brother.
“I promised I wouldn’t.”
“Oh, all serene; I only wanted to see the questions. It’s a new dodge giving papers, isn’t it, Wray? We were examined vivâ voce in the Doctor’s study. Well, come on, old man, or we shall be late. You’ll have lots of time for that this evening.”
And off they went, the wretched Stephen wrestling mentally with his problems all the while.
Of course, profound reader, you have made the brilliant discovery by this time that Master Stephen Greenfield was a very green boy. So were you and I at his age; and so, after all, we are now. For the more we think we know, the greener we shall find we are; that’s a fact!