Chapter X.

MY mother returned to her native town to open a Ladies' School: I was left, upon the road, at a Free Grammar School in———shire.

It was a sultry evening in July when the fly that had carried my mother and myself from our temporary lodgings in a Bristol square, still black with the smoke of the Reform Riots—with what a ghastly grin the gutted houses regarded us as we rattled by in the purple twilight—rolled over a road of coal-dust, between hedges powdered with grime, and through crowds of black-faced, white-teethed, devilish-looking men, queerly dressed in coarse flannel, and with dagger-like tin candlesticks stuck in their hatbands; mixed with others resplendent in velveteen coats with mother-of-pearl buttons as big as small saucers, and Belcher handkerchiefs—all

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beer-drinking and blaspheming: up to the play-ground gates. The Midsummer holidays were not yet over, and the great yard—its proportions made still more impressive to a matriculating youngster by the veil of gloom that hid its remote quarters—was silent as a tomb. Sombre elms thickly shaded it, and there was a sickly scent of flowering limes in the hot, heavy air. Past the headmaster's house, lurking in a dirty corner, with the spiteful, vigilant look of a spider; past the dark Chapel, feebly blinking its dull, drowsy windows; past the lofty Fives Wall, chalked with gigantic greetings of the vacation now almost at an end; past the prim offices surrounding a bald desert of paved court, sacred, in schooltime, as college grass-plat; on to the tall, many-windowed, desolate, old school-house, the vehicle creaked hearselike. Opposite stood the long low school-room: still, but grim, as a slumbering mastiff, with the Founder's name and date of the foundation in a brooch-like slab upon its forehead.

The Warden, a mountain of fat and broad cloth—it was a school joke to walk round him for an appetite—was ill in bed. I was, therefore, given in custody to his wife, a brisk, brown, business-like little woman, known in school parlance as “Dame.”

The brief colloquy in the dim, dusty, black-busted study was over. The bitter-sweet good-bye kiss had, at length, been snapped in two. The steps were slammed up. The fly drove off, and I stood in the hall sobbing, and loathing the sharp little lady who patted me on the head, as if she were boxing my ears, and told me so unconcernedly to cheer up. The first time we leave home to live amongst strangers, is a dismal time for all, and I was about as helpless a young bird as ever tumbled still callow from the nest.

The week that I spent in almost utter solitude before the boys came back, was like a dreary dream. All things were unfamiliar, but I took no interest in their novelty; each was a fresh stab to my homesick heart. And—again dream-like—as a ceaseless under-current beneath all my other feelings, flowed a vague dread of the boys' return. Still, though I dreaded it, I wished for it—to have it over, and know the worst. Everything kept them present in my mind: the lines of bare bedsteads stretching away in long vistas in the huge, low-pitched dormitory at the top of the house, the size of which, and its distance from any other occupied bed-room, nightly scared away my sleep; the forms piled on the lanky tables in the dining-hall, at the end of one of which I took my lonely meals, opposite a full-length portrait of the Founder, in canonicals, that made me feel uneasy as it watched my movements with ever-following

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eyes; the array of benches under one black oaken gallery in the chapel, into which I peeped through a side window; the pew-like desks of the school-room, up the aisle of which I peered—confronted by a fat-faced clock, over the head master's pulpit-throne, that seemed to wink and promise future floggings—when the cleaners had hooked back the finger-rubbed swing-door; tenantless mouse-cages, stray tops and marbles, bats with the pack thread off the handles, and fragments of copy-books, strewed about the play ground; and deep-cut names—suggesting ferocious individualities that owned them—on gate and wall and tree. Oh, how I wished to get out of the hateful place—how I pined for a free ramble on the dear, far-away Welsh hills! I was afraid to go “out of bounds,” because of the fierce colliers, and their fiercer sons, who prowled in the neighbourhood. Sometimes the latter crept into the play-ground, as I sauntered moping in the dusk, and tried to cut me off before I could get up to the house; and if I took a stroll in the garden, there was nothing to be seen outside except a melancholy landscape blotched with the black mounds of coal-pits, like a face with boils, and a volley of stones from a collier ambuscade on the other side of the hedge, soon made me run back to the buildings for shelter. (Between our boys and the pit boys there was a feud of long standing. There had been many fair, and many unfair, fights between them. Each party considered it was only making just reprisals when it thrashed mercilessly a solitary member of the opposite faction. The colliers, young and old, did not scruple to rob us when they could: tennis-balls and cutlery being the spoils most coveted. “Gie oi zhut knoife,” was their form of “Stand and deliver,” and not a ball that went over the play-ground walls would ever have been recovered, had it not been for the headmaster—an athletic, gipsy-looking man, known, on both sides of the boundary, as the “Black Devil”—who would sally forth to the rescue, heedless of odds; knocking down hulking fellows like nine-pins, laying six-footers across his knee to be searched, like children to be spanked, and always, if unsuccessful in his search, bringing back an old-clo'-Babel-tower of hostage hats, which were retained until the missing missile was restored.)

At length the masters and the boys returned, “business” recommenced, and my Purgatory was exchanged for Hell.

It makes me sick to read Willis's rant about his “brave, free-hearted, noble boy.” Heaven may, perhaps, hang about us in our infancy, but every lingering trace of celestial origin has vanished from the bulk of school-boys. If the Boy were, indeed, Father to the Man, the world would be peopled with demons. Schoolboys are incarnate devils. The shameless

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imps revel in torture, in cowardly cruelty of all kinds. Most despicably base is the barbarity of the play-ground, fastening always on the weak and unresisting. Because I was feeble, because I was fearful, I was hourly beaten and bullied. The hump upon my back was a sufficient reason why I should “run the gauntlet.”

Long I loitered in the bed-room that bright August morning (my pocket-money was now spent, so that I could no longer purchase forbearance), undoing buttons buttoned a moment before, hiding my handkerchief that I might consume time in pretending to hunt for it, awkwardly playing a thousand little tricks (my heart all the time thumping so that I could hear it) in order to defer my dreaded descent to torture; but my tormentors grew impatient, and two familiars were sent to summon me—I was lugged by the ears down the stone staircase—bumped against the iron balusters, if for a second I held back—scarcely allowed time to shuffle on my shoes—and then pitched headlong into the lane of boys (some fifty on each side) drawn up to receive me; who raised a yell of triumph such as I can fancy fiends greet a fresh damned soul with, and pounced upon me as the assembled dogs of a parish rush upon a vagrant cat. Fists, sticks, whips, and knotted handkerchiefs, some with stones in them, fell upon my head and back like hail. Being a novice at this kind of work, and bewildered by the sudden onset, I at first stood still, when I had staggered to my feet. This was prime sport for the gay gauntleteers. They had plenty of time for aim. It was a rare lark, too, when, after I had started, I fell down dead beat before I had got through half of my allotted round. Those whom my agony of terror had enabled me to outstrip, thus leisurely recovered their lost ground, and could aid in sending me in at last a breathless mass of blood and bruises,—the master “on play-ground duty” satisfactorily discharging it at his desk in practising “Rousseau's dream” upon the flute. The cool tune dribbled derisively into my burning brain, as I rushed under the open school-room windows up to the poplar appointed as the goal of my release; and, to this day, I can never hear the namby-pamby melody without breaking out into blasphemy.

This gauntlet affair was an exceptional case of cruelty, perhaps, but nightly was I knocked down, with fives-bats and Latin dictionaries slipped into pillow cases, in the “big fellows”' bolstering raids on the “little fellows”' bed-room—how I used to shake when I saw the bare-footed white bullies creeping along the corridor, barred with the still blue moonlight, that led from their room to ours! And by day, in addition to the miscellaneous cuffs and kicks that are the legitimate inheritance—gladly would

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he cut off the entail!—of the youngest boy of a hundred, a long-legged, dandified puppy whom all the women petted, and whom I have since heard preach a most pious, pathetic charity sermon, used regularly at halfpast twelve to send me to his locker for his “warming-strap”—a thick cord with nine knots in it—which I had to carry submissively to his lordship, standing with hand on hip, to display his fine figure to the sempstress at the “work-room” window—under “the limes,” and there receive, for nothing, two dozen lashes.

Yes, Mr. Willis, boys are, indeed, most noble creatures—well worth writing poetry about! The metamorphosis of the brutal British Boy into the humane British Man (in both instances I refer to average character) is to me a change far more marvellous than that of the grub into the butterfly.