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Chapter XI.

MY musty old school—morally rank, as physically the most patriarchal ram, and butting at defenceless youngsters, in its corporate cruelty, full as viciously—has, I believe, been put into Chancery's Medea-cauldron, and come forth a most lamb-like institution; with new regulations, new buildings, even a new site—commanding a view of glittering crescents, instead of grimy coal-pits. God knows, a change was needed, but I wish that its very name had perished; that—once chopped up—the identity of the accursed gerund-mill had shared the fate of Pelias. I hate so everything that reminds me of the dismal, dingy hole wherein I flitted about, like a hunted bat, amongst barbarous tormenters, young and old, and soiled my soul by mean submission to their tyranny.

The fleshy Warden was not actively cruel. Indeed, except on very rare occasions, he was not actively anything. His offices were those of chaplain and general superintendent of the establishment; the last-named function procuring for him the title of “Daddy,” derisively corrupted into “Dodo,” in schoolboy satire on his puffy corpulence. Three times a day in the Hall (after each meal) he mumbled regulation-prayers, much as a toothless horse mumbles its unsatisfying fodder; rousing up from his sleepy and somniferous devotion, on some of the rare occasions I have hinted at, to drop his hand slily to his heel, draw off his slipper, and hurl it with unerring aim and startling impetus at any youngsters whom he detected in the distance, either napping under the influence of his narcotic supplications or digging their penknives into the school forms as they played at Tit-tat-toe, for stakes of fragmentary, rusty-looking apple, with


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their kneeling neighbours. But even then he did not hurry himself. His indignation, as Carlyle says of Dante's, was “slow, equable, silent, like that of a god.” He flung his shoe, as Jupiter might have cast a thunderbolt—calmly stern; and relapsed unruffled into his snuffling drone, filling the chamber with a drowsy boom like the buzz of a mammoth bumble-bee. On Sundays, after hearing the bigger boys repeat their catechism, he preached to us, morning and afternoon, in the school chapel; to which the people of the neighbourhood were admitted. A comatose feeling comes over me as I think of our hot Sunday afternoon sessions under the low, black gallery, projecting with a frown, like the brow of a negro with water on the brain. I seem once more to have gorged myself with cold plum pudding—the dainty of our Dominical dinner—mottled with broad blotches of white suet, thinly sprinkled with flat unstoned raisins—so far apart, that youthful waggery, to indicate the difficulty they would have felt in hailing each other, christened them “shouters”—the pips of which stuck between our teeth and tormented us all service-time; tough as leather, digestible as lead. I see the prim old women opposite nodding their bow-trimmed hats that look like oval trays set out with cups and saucers, the low crowns rising in the midst like spoutless tea-pots. A faint whiff of rosemary and fading wall-flowers floats across the pews as the somnolent worshippers shift the snowy kerchiefs in which they shroud their prayer-books. Overcome by pudding, heat, and perfume, I, too, begin to nod. I pull my own hair, and pinch the lobes of my ears until my nails almost meet. I bite my thumb until I can hardly bear, without screaming, the pressure of my teeth upon the whitened nail. I make my fingers rake like clippers' masts with backstays of pocket-handkerchief. I frantically twist them one over the other in the most fantastic of festoons. I run pins into my calves, and other fleshy places. All in vain, lower—lower—lower droops my head: until it springs back with a neck-cricking jerk, and I find a row of masters' eyes upon me, scintillating prophecies of cane and imposition. Ugh! and those dreary winter services, when teeth rattled like castanets, and every mouth sent out a column of breath white as cigar smoke; and the young bully on the bench behind (whose icy sheets I had to air at night with my personal caloric) made me sit upon his toes to keep them warm, spitefully scrunching my chilblained hands under his iron-shod heels, whenever I rashly attempted to appropriate any of my own fundamental heat for the solace of my tingling extremities. A double ugh! too, for the evening lecture in the ice-house of a school-room, and the banquet of stale bread, sapid as frozen deal, dilapidated cheese, and toothachey water in tin cans, that constituted—by way


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of treat—our Sunday's supper! Neighbouring clergymen sometimes availed themselves of the Warden's pulpit eloquence; and an impressive sight it was to see the mountainous Massillon start from home, when about to give his friends his assistance. An old-fashioned sociable—called, I believe, a “Coburg”—drawn by a stalwart dray-horse, was the vehicle that bore him. Masters and men-servants buttressed the carriage, and propped up the horse; but the steed staggered, and the chariot swayed, when the great man hung in transitu upon the step.

 Loud groaned the beechen axle with the weight,

and the springs collapsed, as if about to snap, when he mounted to the seat; taking care to plant himself exactly in the centre, or there would inevitably have been a capsize. The human “shores” having been removed, the clumsy Coburg rumbled like a launched herring-buss down the inclined plane that led to the great gates; almost lifting “Monarch” off his legs, as with collar about his ears, slack traces, slipping hoofs, and resistent rump jammed close against the splash-board, he was carried along by the impetus communicated to the car by its ponderous cargo. But terribly had he to toil—for he was nearly as fat as his master—in dragging his load up the slight hill with which the outside road commenced. He generally made short stages of it, stopping at the end of every dozen yards; when, amidst the jeers of the congregated colliers, the groom who ran behind blocked the wheels with stones, and gave the old horse panting-time—Daddy, meanwhile, gravely perusing the MS. of his sermon. Carving was one of the Warden's principal secular duties. He performed it attired in a black glazed calico apron, which gave his portly person a very episcopal appearance; Dame assisting him, with one of her husband's old surplices over her dress to protect it from the gravy,—the voluminous folds of the dingy ephod almost smothering the little woman. A trifle of pocket-money was given to each boy, according to the terms of the endowment, but, as he was expected to subscribe this “voluntarily” to some propagation society or other, our only genuine funds were those allowed us by our friends,—called “white-book,” from a vellum-covered volume in which the payments were recorded. Daddy presided over both disbursements, re-pocketing the propagation money, and advising us to spend our white-book with Dame, rather than with an emissary from “Old Giles's”—a sweet-stuff shop hard by, kept by a collier, amicable for commercial reasons—who on pay-days pervaded the play-ground. Dame on such days attempted to do a rival trade, seating herself just inside the school-room door, before a little trunk, filled with parliament, bulls'-eyes, liquorice, peppermint-drops, etc., etc.,—all warranted “wholesome”—and


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was fabled to dispose of her goods at prime cost, merely for our convenience; but as Old Giles's were both cheaper and of better quality, we preferred, when we could, to purchase our confectionery from his establishment. It required some nerve, though, to endure the glare of Daddy's eye, when he saw us sneaking past the black box without buying, and Dame, indignant at the ingratitude that led us to disregard her maternal, disinterested anxiety for the welfare of our pockets and digestions, took care to draw his eye to such offenders, by clucking after them like a hen whose ducklings are about to take the water: so, generally speaking, the 'cute little matron managed to dispose of all her musty stock. To pelt the chestnut trees was another crime that hugely excited Daddy's wrath. We wanted the nuts for a local game called “conquerors,” played upon cap-crowns—previously sufficiently injured by the abstraction of the cane for smoking purposes. To be engaged in this game, or preparing for it by knocking down chestnuts (I can see now the green balls, spined like hedgehogs, pattering down amid a shower of slowly-falling, fan-like leaves, and showing, through their cracks, their treasures of gleaming mahogany peeping out from their snowy coverings like so many Mulatto beauties from between the sheets) was a misdemeanour that Daddy, when he discovered it, always exerted himself personally to punish. Summoning the culprits, he delivered a long charge; and then, merging the judge in the executioner, suddenly aimed at them an open-handed blow, with the benevolent intention of bringing their heads forcibly together. His tactics, however, being understood, the delinquents kept a sharp look out, and ducked when they saw the plump paw approaching; whereupon its owner—unable to stop himself, when under anything like way, until the impulse had exhausted, itself—spun round and round like a sable humming-top; staggering like it, too, as his gyrations became less violent. He had a nasty trick, moreover, of posting himself in the shade beside the dormitory door, as we went up to bed, and of mowing down, in case of any noise, a swath of the first boys who reached the stair-head with one sweeping swing of his great arm. I remember rushing up one night, pursued by a pinching persecutor, and, in my eagerness to escape from him, unwittingly precipitating myself upon—or rather, into—the paternal paunch. Down into its dark depths I dived, like a pellet driven into dough, Empedocles leaping into Etna, or Poe's fisherman sucked down by the Maelstrom; but just as I was choking, the dough become elastic—the rumbling volcano heaved for an eruption—the back-swirl of the vortex began, and I was sent sprawling into the distance—projected, without any exaggeration, a good couple of yards. However, I have gossipped long


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enough about the fat old man. He let me off a flogging once, and twice gave me twopence. May he rest in peace!

Next to him I liked—or, perhaps, I should rather say, disliked the least—“Crane,” the fourth master, indebted, for his sobriquet, to his long legs and neck, and a proneness to pounce upon fleshy youngsters as his godbird pounces on a puffy frog. Whether it was my lack of fat, or a little lingering feeling in the breast of Crane, that procured me exemption from his torture, I know not; but certainly he scarcely ever laid a finger on me. Rhadamanthus, I trust, remembered this when he passed sentence on the otherwise ruthless scourger. My third negative favourite was “Black Devil,” the head master. True, it was no joke to be “laid across the desk” by him, for he had an awful knack of screwing up the seats of breeches, until their occupants stood out round and tight-rinded as plums just going to burst, before he began to flog; and his long fingers left their crimson marks upon one's ears for hours after the box had been inflicted. Still he always seemed to have a reason for his canings, whilst the other masters laced our jackets, or made us hold out our hands, evidently merely to vent and relieve their own ill temper; and Black Devil had a gentlemanly-looking, Brown-Windsor-scented hand that somehow made it seem pleasanter to suffer under it, than to get a cuff from the podgy, yellow-soaped palms of his snobbish underlings. With the doubtful exception of Crane, they were a hateful set—with most appropriate nicknames: “Skinner”—sweet sucking evangelist—reading for the Church; “Bear,” supposed to have growled an offer to the Warden's daughter, and not to have had his natural amiability increased by a contemptuous refusal on the part of the damsel, and a threat of dismissal on that of the dada; “Dumpty,” the writing-master, a stunted, sturdy, consequential despot, whom, nathless, we heartily despised because he didn't know Latin; “Horse,” a blundering, black-maned blockhead, who flung out his fists right and left, as a vicious cart-horse lashes with his hoofs; and “Pig,” an execrable, pimply-faced, cowardly, greedy, little beast, who cottoned to the big fellows (having not long been elevated from their ranks himself), but smuggled kids into his bed-room, and beat them about the head with clothes-brushes—and then “made friends” again as soon as any of them received a hamper. This small fiend, I believe, was publicly hooted out of the play-ground, some time after I left the school, for a bit of barbarity too rank even for its digestion. I wish I could have joined in the maledictory hisses!

Punished half-hourly in schooltime by this noble staff of guides, philosophers, and friends, and pummelled momentarily in playtime by my equally


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detestable mates, I was as miserable a little devil as ever wandered out of hell. My only comforts were my letters from home, and they seemed to have had their bloom rubbed off by the Warden's previous perusal. I found no consolation in writing home—the monthly task, indeed, only increased my misery, for each epistle had to be crammed with mendacious assurances of my happiness and the kindness—kindness!—of my teachers. The big boys clandestinely posted unsupervised correspondence,—“breaking bounds” in the evening, and slipping up to the village Post-Office; but this was an infringement of school rules that I was not hardy enough to venture on.

Rendered desperate at last, however, I determined on a bolder deed. I made up my mind to throw off the school yoke entirely—to run away.

Beneath the great elms, with the leaves that fell in autumn, we made al fresco couches or divans, denominated “squats.” What was the good of them I do n't know, but to make them was the mode; followed, as in the case of many other fashions, none the less universally because unintelligently. Those of the Dii Majores of the school were long and broad and deep, with cupboards scooped out beneath the tree roots, wherein provender was stored for the somewhat chilly picnics to which the proprietors of these damp beds of tarnished gold and rotting crimson invited each other. The youngsters getting only the leavings of the leaves, the fecal foliage that their superiors disdained, had to content themselves with humbler structures, and were too wise to make closets that they knew would soon have nothing to enclose, where so many potent pirates prowled around.

I was lying curled up on my scanty squat, like a dog upon his mat, one misty evening in November, when the thought of running away first struck me. Dim through the fog, I saw the red blaze of the school fire, as it flickered on the distant schoolroom windows. I could not help contrasting that inhospitable hearth (to which I was never admitted, save to be roasted, and then rubbed down until my hot clothes made me dance like a young bear with pain), with a fancy picture, sketched by memory, of a snug home fireside. I wondered what my mother and sisters, bending over such a fire, would say if they knew that I lay shivering in the cold; and the recollection of their gentle voices made the rough shouts and boisterous laughter, that rang out to me from the school through the raw air, seem doubly odious. Home I resolved to get.

The next day was Saturday, and on it I commenced my preparations for my journey. I had the audacity to discontinue my subscription to the propagation fund—for one week only, I tremblingly intimated to Daddy, who, supposing that I had got into debt, grimly permitted me to pocket


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for once the pence of which I had hitherto been robbed by some plague-some pagans somewhere—that was all I knew of the objects of my very reluctant charity. The sum, even when supplemented with my white book, did not constitute an overwhelming amount of capital—considering that I had a two-hundred miles' tramp before me. On Saturdays, moreover, the dining-hall being in the hands of the cleaners, we had a peripatetic dinner of bread-and-cheese. My prandial rations I carefully secreted in my locker, as I did, also, the solid portion of my tea, and as much as I could spare of my next day's meals, including the whole of its insipid supper. With this store of money and food, I resolved to start early on Monday morning; selecting that day because it would enable me to go away in my best clothes, our Sunday toggery not being locked up in the garret, which was its weekly receptacle, until after we had left our rooms on the Monday morning. The girl hired to look after our linen, etc., reserved all her wardrobe cares for the big fellows with whom she flirted, and had neglected me, amongst other youngsters, so shamefully, that my week-day clothes would have formed a very creditable suit for a scarecrow; and though I did n't much mind how I looked within school bounds, I was too proud to make my first appearance in the world without—what vague notions, by the bye, I had of that same world!—in the character of a little tatterdemalion. A quasi-religious feeling, coupled with a fear of being more speedily missed, kept me from running away on the Sunday.

I had noticed a stone loose in the wall, near the great gates. Tilting the stone, I discovered a cavity behind it, and into this—to be handy when I wanted them—on the Sunday evening when the playground was deserted, I put my provisions and some books that I meant to sell when my funds were exhausted: a Valpy's Delectus, a Latin Grammar, Peter Parley's Tales of Animals, and Robinson Crusoe. I had selected the last two from my little library, as being the most attractive books that it contained, and, therefore, most likely to find purchasers; the thought of ever parting from them though cost me a bitter pang, and I determined not to dispose of them until absolutely compelled—meanwhile they would be a kind of company. I took the two school books, because I hated them for the tears that they had made me shed. I might be brought back, and put under the yoke of precisely similar successors to the desk, but they, at all events—who has not felt this detestation of particular schoolbooks, just as if they were sentient foes?—should never more have dominion over me. No, they should be sold into bondage for their insolence. I had heard that buttermen buy second-hand books, and I revelled in the fancy of a pat of Wiltshire being sent to the school wrapt up in Fio, or a pound of


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Double Gloucester in the Garrula lingua nocet page of the Delectus; Irregular Verbs and the Second Concord being just then my stones of stumbling and rocks of offence. I imagined that my tormentors would feel the degradation of returning as tradesmen's wrappages to the scene of their former triumphs, where their brother tyrants still held undisputed sway.

Having got everything ready for my departure, I went back to the school-room gayer than I had ever felt since I first saw it; and at the usual hour filed across the flags that separated it from the schoolhouse, hid my cap behind my boots in my shoe-hole, and went almost merrily up to bed.

Pig's voice woke me in the morning—calling up the boys. I had overslept myself. My Sunday clothes were carried away, and I resigned myself to captivity for another week,

But Pig behaved so brutally towards me in the course of the day, because (as many a puzzled young Latinist has done before) I confounded Fierem and Ferrem; and, when “turned down,” could give no satisfactory account of my missing grammar; I got such an extra allowance of kicks for getting in the way at football, and of cracks across the shins for a similar offence at hockey; and my dandy despot leathered me so unmercifully at five, because, having been “kept in,” I could not go for my diurnal drubbing at half-past twelve; that I determined to creep up to the garret in the dark, taking the chance of its being left unlocked, and, if I could not get my clothes, to start, nevertheless, next morning in my weekday rags.

Martin Luther was not more haunted by the Devil than, according to tradition, was our clerical Founder when he lived in what was then the receutly erected Schoolhouse. He certainly deserved to be haunted for instituting such a dismal den. No wonder Satan felt himself at home in it. Diabolical legends were told of every room; more especially of the garret and the Founder's study. This latter apartment appears to have been Apollyon's favorite lounge. He was almost always in it: singeing the horsehair of the fundatorial throne, by sitting down in it; setting the fundatorial wig on fire, as he patted its proprietor upon the head, in mocking approbation of his prayers; turning the fundatorial sermons into tinder, as he slyly abstracted the wet sheets with his hot fingers, whilst the writer nodded over his Bible and his pad; breaking the fundatorial nose by accelerating with a heavy hand those fundatorial nods. At other times he stole the fundatorial slippers, shuffled his cloven feet into them, and ran round and round the table, filling the room with a powerful perfume of scorched leather, as he playfully dodged behind the chairs, whilst the defrauded owner wrathfully pursued; and occasionally, alas! he victoriously


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tempted the fundatorial chastity, by assuming the forms of lovely damsels come to seek for pious consolation, spiritual advice,—who vanished, with derisive laughter and a smell of burning brimstone, just when the fundatorial arms had clasped to the fundatorial breast their pink and palpitating bosoms in an embrace too fond for ghostly father's. In the garret he was said to have appeared in the form of a white rabbit, with parson's bands and spectacles on, popping its head from behind a beam, and grinning at the Founder who had just caught and was hugging a buxom and by no means unwilling housemaid of the period. When shot at, the myth went on to say, the Devil reassumed his hoofs and horns, danced a hornpipe—beating time with his harpoon-tail—and then blazed like a sky-rocket through the roof. A hole in the roof and two black hoof-marks in the floor were shown to trembling youngsters in my time, as evidences of this “fact.” Although a few bold rationalists hinted that these “Devil's Footmarks” had been made by the monitors' pocket-knives and candles, their supernatural origin was, for the most part, devoutly believed in by the lower forms. It may be supposed, therefore, that a youngster did not consider the garret a very inviting chamber to visit after sun-down. With a beating heart I stole up the stairs. The door to my great joy was ajar, but the room, lighted by one dingy skylight, looked so dreary in the November dusk, when I peeped in,—so full of mysterious brooding shadows, palpable gloom, that I scarcely liked to enter: more especially as my clothes were kept in the very last compartment of the long rack that stretched like a grim slumbering monster down the middle of the floor. What was my horror, when I reached it, to see two green, glowing eyes glaring out of the darkness directly above it! A spiteful spitting, and a scuttering run along the creaking deals hardly convinced me that my terrifier was merely a mortal cat. With a hasty hand I seized my bundle, and was out of the room almost as soon as the cat was—descending to the dormitory, where I hid the clothes between my mattress and the bedstead.

On the Tuesday morning I woke in excellent time. The bedroom was still as a churchyard, and the occupants of the swelling blanket-graves slept on whilst I hurriedly and noiselessly dressed. I believed in prayers in those days, and knelt down, before I left my room, to supplicate God's blessing on my truancy—more particularly His protection from “Mercury,” the truculent hero of the pit-boys,—a squinting, double-jointed, left-handed young collier who was the dread of all the school. He owed his name to a white gossamer which, in a recent scuffle with the elder boys, he had carried off as his share of the spolia opima. In the sides he had made slashes, for the sake of ventilation: and the flaps projecting, gave the castor very


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much the appearance of the Hermeän hat. Though grimy now, as if it had been hung up in a smoky chimney corner, like a ham to cure, this hat was an oriflamme as efficient as the snowy plume of Henry of Navarre. Friends gathered triumphant around it: foes fell back dismayed before it. Fervently I prayed that I might not fall into the hands of Mercury. I had been reading Bunyan's Holy War, and I identified the ferocious pit-boy with Diabolus. He used to mount a ruined cottage that commanded the playground, and hurl defiances and stones over the wall just as Diabolus did into the beleagured city. My orisons completed, I slipped off my pillow-case to serve as a knapsack for my stores, and glided, silent as a ghost, down the stone stairs. It made me feel almost like a ghost, to be the only one awake in all that great slumbering house. My heart very nearly failed me when I approached the huge lobby-door, for the purpose of unlocking it. The broad box of a lock seemed to frown frightfully at my audacity, and bid me go back to bed again, and not make a fool of myself. At length I summoned courage to seize the gigantic key. It was as much as both my straining hands could accomplish to force back the grating catch; but, at last, the door stood open, and the frosty morning breeze blew in fresh upon my brow with a cheering kiss of encouragement. Yonder hung the rusty school-bell that soon would summon my mates to their treadmill tasks, but me—oh, nevermore! Glad of heart, I ran down to my cave, leaping over the shadow of the “Founder's Tree” that sprawled black and gaunt in the bright moonlight across my path, as though it were a night master on duty determined to cut me off. My books and prog were soon swallowed by my sack, and flung across my shoulder. Half through nervousness, and half in triumph, I slammed the gate behind me, and, plunged, at the top of my speed, into the dread collier country—my fears for the moment, all mastered by the ecstatic feeling of being once more FREE!

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