E. F. (Edward Frederic) Benson.

David Blaize online

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THERE was a new class-room in course of construc-
tion for the first form at Helmsworth Preparatory
School, and the ten senior boys, whose united ages
amounted to some hundred and thirty years, were
taken for the time being in the school museum.
This was a big boarded room, covered with corru-
gated iron and built out somewhat separate from
the other class rooms at the corner of the cricket-
field. The arrangement had many advantages
from the point of view of the boys, for the room
was full of agreeably distracting and interesting
objects, and Cicero almost ceased to be tedious,
even when he wrote about friendship, if, when you
were construing, you -could, meditate on the skele-
ton of a kangaroo > which stood immediately in
front of you, and refresh yourself with the sight
of the stuffed seal on v/h^se iiose the short-sighted
Ferrers Major had balanced nib spectacles before
Mr. Button came in. Or, again, it was agreeable
to speculate on the number of buns a mammoth
might be able to put simultaneously into his
mouth, seeing that a huge yellowish object that
stood on the top of one of the cases was just one of
his teeth. . . .

Of course it depended on how many teeth a



mammoth had, but the number of a boy's teeth
might be some guide, and David, in the throes of
grinding out the weekly letter to his father, passed
his tongue round his own teeth, trying to count
them by the sensory quality of it. But, losing
count, he put an inky forefinger into his mouth in-
stead. There seemed to be fourteen in his lower
jaw and thirteen and a half in the upper, for half
of a front tooth had been missing ever since, a few
weeks ago, he had fallen out of a tree on to his
face, and the most industrious scrutiny of that
fatal spot had never resulted in his finding it.
In any case, then, he had twenty-seven and a half
teeth, and it was reasonable to suppose that a
mammoth, therefore, unless he had fallen out of
a tree (if there were such in the glacial age) had
at least twenty-eight. That huge yellow lump of
a thing, then, as big as David's whole head, was
only one twenty-eighth of his chewing apparatus.
Why, an entire bun could stick to it and be unob-
served. A mammoth could have twenty-eight buns
in his mouth and i-eaUy rema>:i unaware of the
fact. Fancy having a bun on every tooth and not
knowing! How much aught a -mammoth's pocket-
money to be if yoli'had to provide on this scale?
And when would, its' mpiitfe be really full? And
how . . . David was growing a little sleepy.

"Blaize!" said Mr. Dutton's voice.

David sucked his finger.

"Yes, sir!" he said.

"Have you finished your letter home!"

"No, sir," said David, with engaging candour.

"Then I would suggest that you ceased trying
to clean your finger and get on with it."


* 'Rather, sir!" said David.

The boys' desks, transferred from their old
class-room, stood in a three-sided square in the
centre of the museum, while Mr. Button's table,
with his desk on it, was in the window. The door
of the museum was open, so too was the window
by the master's seat, for the hour was between
four and five of the afternoon and the afternoon
that of a sweltering July Sunday. Mr. But-
ton himself was a tall and ineffective young man,
entirely undistinguished for either physical or
mental powers, who had taken a somewhat mod-
erate degree at Cambridge, and had played la-
crosse. By virtue of the mediocrity of his attain-
ments, his scholastic career had not risen to the
heights of a public school, and he had been obliged
to be content with a mastership at this prepara-
tory establishment. He bullied in a rather feeble
manner the boys under his charge, and drew in his
horns if they showed signs of not being afraid of
him. But in these cases he took it out of them by
sending in the gloomiest reports of their conduct
and progress at the end of term, to the fierce and
tremendous clergyman who was the head of the
place. The Head inspired universal terror both
among his assistant masters and his pupils, but
he inspired also a whole-hearted admiration. He
did not take more than half a dozen classes during
the week, but he was liable to descend on any form
without a moment's notice like a bolt from the blue.
He used the cane with remarkable energy, and
preached lamb-like sermons in the school chapel on
Sunday. The boys, who were experienced augurs
on such subjects, knew all about this, and dreaded


a notably lamb-like sermon as presaging trouble
on Monday. In fact, Mr. Acland had his notions
about discipline, and completely lived up to them
in his conduct.

Having told Blaize to get on with his home-
letter, Mr. Dutton resumed his employment, which
was not what it seemed. On his desk, it is true,
was a large Prayer-book, for he had been hearing
the boys their Catechism, in the matter of which
Blaize had proved himself wonderfully ignorant,
and had been condemned to write out his duty
towards his neighbour (who had very agreeably
attempted to prompt him) three times, and show
it up before morning school on Monday. There
was a Bible there also, out of which, when the
Sunday letters home were finished, Mr. Dutton
would read a chapter about the second missionary
journey of St. Paul, and then ask questions. But
while these letters were being written Mr. Dutton
was not Sabbatically employed, for nestling be-
tween his books was a yellow-backed volume of
stories by Guy de Maupassant. . . . Mr. Dutton
found him most entertaining: he skated on such
very thin ice, and never quite went through.

Mr. Dutton turned the page. . . . Yes, how
clever not to go through, for there was certainly
mud underneath. He gave a faint chuckle of in-
terest, and dexterously turned the chuckle into a
cough. At that sound a small sigh of relief, a
sense of relaxation went round the class, for it
was clear that old Dutton (Dubs was his more
general nomenclature) was deep in his yellow
book. When that consummation, so devoutly


wished, was arrived at, any diversion of a mod-
erately quiet nature might be indulged in.

Crabtree began : he was a boy of goat-like face,
and had been known as Nanny, till the somewhat
voluminous appearance of his new pair of trousers
had caused him to be re-christened Bags. He had
finished his letter to his mother with remarkable
speed, and had, by writing small, conveyed quite
sufficient information to her on a half-sheet. There
was thus the other half-sheet, noiselessly torn off,
to be framed into munitions of aerial warfare. He
folded it neatly into the form of a dart, he inked
the point of it by dipping it into the china recep-
tacle at the top of his desk, and launched it with
unerring aim, enfilading the cross-bench where
David sat. It hit him just exactly where the other
half of his missing tooth should have been, for
his lip was drawn back and his tongue slightly
protruded in the agonies of composing a suitable
letter to his father. The soft wet point struck it
full, and spattered ink over his lip.

"Oh, damn/ said David very softly.

Then he paused, stricken to stone, and quite
ready to deny that he had spoken at all. His eyes
apprehensively sought Mr. Dutton, and he saw
that he had not heard, being deep in the misfor-
tunes that happened to Mademoiselle Fifi.

"I'll lick you afterwards, Bags," he said gently.

"Better lick yourself now," whispered Bags.

A faint giggle at Bags's repartee went round
the class, like the sound of a breaking ripple. This
penetrated into Mr. Dutton 's consciousness, and,
shifting his attitude a little without looking up,
he leaned his forehead on his open hand, so that


he could observe the boys through the chinks of
his fingers. David, of course, was far too old a
hand to be caught by this paltry subterfuge, for
"playing chinks' was a manoeuvre of the enemy
which had got quite stale through repetition, and
he therefore gently laid down on the sloping top
of his locker the dart which he had just dipped
again in his inkpot to throw back at Bags, and with
an industrious air turned to his letter again.

The twenty minutes allotted on Sunday after-
noon school for writing home to parents was al-
ready more than half spent, but the date which
he had copied off his neighbour and "My dear
Papa' ' was as far as the first fine careless rapture
of composition had carried him. It was really
difficult to know what to say to his dear papa, for
all the events of the past week were completely
thrown into shadow by the one sunlit fact that he
had got his school-colours for cricket, and had
made twenty-four runs in the last match. But, as
he knew perfectly well, his father cared as little
for cricket as he did for football; indeed, David
ironically doubted if he knew the difference be-
tween them, and that deplorable fact restricted
the zone of interests common to them. And really
the only other event of true importance was that
his aunt had sent him a postal order for five shil-
lings. It would not be politic to tell his father
about that, in case of inquiries being made as to
what he had done with it, when he got home in a
fortnight's time for the summer holidays.

He would have eaten it all long before then, for
it was strawberry-time. David bit heavily into his
wooden pen-holder in his efforts to think of some-


thing innocuous to say, and found his mouth full
of fragments of chewed wood. These he proceeded
to masticate rather ostentatiously while he still
sucked his inky lip, the joy of this being that old
Dubs was still playing chinks, and would certainly,
as a surprise, ask him before long what he was
eating. This was stimulating to the mind, and

he plunged into his letter.


"We are being taken in the museum, because
they are building a new first-form class-room.
There was dry-rot, too, in the wanescotting of the
old one. We have been doing Cicero this week, as
well as Virgil, and Xenophon in Greek, and Medea,
and Holland in geography and James 2. I have
got to division of decimals which is very interest-
ing, and square-root which is most difficult, be-
cause some have it and others don't-

David gave one fleeting blue-eyed glance at Mr.
Dutton, and saw that the blessed moment was ap-
proaching. The chink had widened, and there was
no doubt whatever that it was he who was being
observed. Then he bent his yellow head over his
letter again, and chewed the fragments of pen-
holder with 'renewed vigour.

"It was very hot all this week, and I and two
other chaps were taken to bathe at the Richmond
bathing-place day before yesterday by-

"Blaize, what are you eating?" said Mr. Dutton

David looked up in bland and innocent surprise.


' * Eating, sir ? " lie asked. 1 ' My penholder, sir. '

A slight titter went round the class, for David
had the enviable reputation of "drawing" his pas-
tors and masters (always excepting the Head) by
the geniality and unexpectedness of his replies.
But on this occasion the blandness was a little
overdone, and instead of "taking a back seat'
Mr. Dutton put down his yellow novel on his desk,
back upwards, and came across the room to where
David was sitting. The dart, with its wet, inky
point lay there, and it was too late to draw his
blotting-paper over it. But a more dramatic de-
nouement than the mere discovery of an inky dart,
which might be assessed at fifty lies or perhaps a
hundred, since it was Sunday hung in the air.

"Open your mouth/ said Mr. Dutton, not yet
seeing the dart.

David had a good large useful mouth, and he
opened it very suddenly to its extremest extent,
putting out his tongue a little, which might or
might not have been an accident. That unruly
member was undoubtedly covered with splinters
of common penholder, and nothing else at all.

"Sir-may-I-shut-it-again?" said David all in
one breath, opening it, the moment he had spoken,
to its widest.

Mr. Dutton 's eye fell on the inky dart.

"What is that?" he said.

David gave a prodigious gulp, and swallowed
as much wood-fibre as was convenient.

"That, sir?" he said politely. "A paper dart,
sir, inked.'

4 'Did you make it?" asked Dubs.

David's face assumed an expression of horror.


"Sir, no, sir,' he said in a tone of wounded
and innocent indignation.

Suddenly David became conscious that his im-
peccable scene with Mr. Dutton was arousing no
interest or amusement among the audience, and
his artistic feelings were hurt, for he hated playing
to apathetic benches. He looked earnestly and
soulfully at Mr. Dutton, but missed appreciative
giggles. Nobody appeared to be taking the smallest
interest in the dialogue, and all round were bent
heads and pens industriously scratching. Then
he saw what the rest of the class had already seen.
Standing just outside the open window, his foot
noiseless on the grass, was the Head, austere and
enormous, and fierce and frowning. He had picked
up from Mr. Dutton 's desk the yellow-backed novel
that lay there, and was looking at it with a porten-
tous face.

' ' Then who made it, if I say, ' if ' you did
not?" said Mr. Dutton, still unconscious of the
presence of his superior.

"I suppose another fellow/' said David in very
different tones from those in which his moral in-
dignation had found dramatic utterance.

Mr. Dutton took up the dart, and inked his shirt-
cuff, but David did not smile.

"Who made " he began, and turned and


"Oh, jam!" said David under his breath.

The Head left the window with the yellow book
in his hand, took two steps to the door, and
entered the class-room. He was a tall, grizzle-
bearded man, lean and wiry, with cold grey eyes.
To the boys he appeared of gigantic height, and


was tragedy and fate personified. Terror encom-
passed him : be scintillated with it, as radium scin-
tillates and is unconsumed. But he scintillated
also with splendour: he was probably omniscient,
and of his omnipotence there was no doubt what-
ever. He had rowed for Oxford against Cam-
bridge, and the boys wondered that Cambridge had
dared to put a boat on the river at all that year.
He had also got a double-first, which in itself was
less impressive, and he was believed to be fabu-
lously wealthy. How any woman had ever ven-
tured to marry him no one knew ; but, after all, if
he had expressed a wish that way, it was equally
inconceivable that it should not be gratified.
Though there was not a boy in the school who did
not dread his displeasure above everything else
in the world, there was none who would not have
taken an infinity of trouble to be sure of winning
his approbation. One of his legs was slightly
shorter than the other, which gave him a swaying
or rocking motion when he walked, which David
could imitate admirably. But he would nearly
have died of astonishment if he had known that
more than once the Head had seen him do it, and
had laughed in his beard with twinkling eyes.

There was no twinkle or laughter there to-day.
Still with the yellow volume in his hand, he came
and stood before the skeleton of the kangaroo, and
a silence fell that will perhaps be equalled for
breathlessness on the day that the judgment books
are opened, but probably not before. Then he
spoke :

"Silence! "he said.


(There was not any more silence possible, so
he had to be content with that.)

He addressed his lieutenant, who stood abjectly
twirling a small moustache and trying to look tall.
But what was the use of trying to look tall be-
side that Matterhorn, or to twirl an adolescent
moustache when the Head's hand clawed his
beard! It was simply silly.

"Mr. Button/ 7 said the Head, when the silence
had begun to sing in the ears of the listeners. ' * By
some strange mischance I repeat, by some
strange mischance, I have found this disgusting
and licentious book on your desk. How it got there,
how it happened to be opened at at page 56, I
do not wish to inquire. It is more than enough
for me to have found it there. I am willing to be-
lieve, and to tell you so publicly, Mr. Button, be-
fore the boys whom you are superintending on this
Sunday afternoon, I am willing to believe that
some obscene bird passed over the museum and
dropped from its claws this stinking yes, sir,
stinking carrion. Dropped it, sir, while your
back was turned, on the very table where I see the
Book of books, and also the book of Common
Prayer. With your leave, with your leave, Mr.
Button, I will do thus and thus to this unholy car-


Then ensued a slight anticlimax, for the Head,
though a very strong man in hand and arm, found
it impossible to do as he had designed, and tear
three hundred pages across and across. But the
form generally, and Mr. Button in particular, were
too stiff with horror to notice it. So, instead, the
Head tore off section after section of the lightly


sewn leaves, instead of tearing the pages, laid the
dismembered carrion on the floor, and stamped
on it, and then, with an indescribable ejaculation
of disgust, threw the mutilated remains into the

4 'You are excused, Mr. Button,' ' he said, "from
the rest of this lesson, which I will take myself ; but
you will do me the honour to call on me immedi-
ately after evensong this afternoon. '

His fierce eye wandered from Mr. Button's
stricken face to David's desk, where lay the inky

"You are engaged now, I see, in some inquiry,'
he said. "A paper dart, I perceive, on Blaize's
desk. I will conduct the inquiry myself, and wish
you a good afternoon."

He waited in tense silence till Mr. Button had
taken his hat and left the room. Then he turned
to Bavid.

"Blaize, did you make that dart, or did you
throw it 1 " he asked.

An expression of despairing determination had
come into Bavid 's face. He was conscious also of
a large ink-stain on his lips.

"Neither, sir,' he said.

"Then who made it?" said the Head. "And
also, for I perceive the point is blunted, who threw

Bead silence on Bavid 's part.

"Bo you know?" asked the Head.

"Yes, sir," said Bavid.

"And do you refuse to tell me? I am not here
to be bullied, I may remind you. ' '


David felt slightly sick, but he had swallowed
a good deal of chewed pen-handle.

"Do you refuse to tell me?" repeated the Head.

' ' Yes, sir, ' ' said David.

Then came one of those strange calms in the
middle of cyclones, which sometimes puzzled the
boys. But their conjecture, a perfectly right one,
was that the Head, in spite of questions like these,
did not like ' ' sneaking. ' Anyhow, for a moment
his fierceness faded, and he nodded at David, just
as one pal might nod to another in sympathetic

1 ' Quite right, my boy, ' he said.

Then he turned to the rest of the class, holding
up the bedraggled weapon.

' l Name, ' ' he said.

The miserable Bags stood up, without speech.

' ' Oh you, Crabtree, ' ' said the awful voice. i i And
so Master Crabtree thinks that the calm and quiet
of Sunday afternoon is made to give him leisure
to forge these filthy weapons : that the paper you
are given to write home on is designed to be dese-
crated to these foul usages, and the ink to supply
filth to them. You will write out with the ink you
have so strangely misused two hundred lines of
Virgil in copper-plate hand, and eat your dinner
at the pig-table, apart from your companions, for
the next week. '

The pig-table, it may be mentioned, was a sepa-
rate table in the dining-room without chairs, where
boys detected in swinish habits had to take their
meals standing for the period of their sentence.
But poor Bags's cup was not full yet, for the
Head's eagle eye fell on David's inky mouth.


"I infer that the ink on Blaize's lips was made
by this weapon, ' ' he said. * * That is so ? Then you
will now beg Blaize's pardon, and as soon as the
Catechism and Bible-class is over, you will fetch
a basin of water and bathe Blaize's mouth with
your own sponge, until it is pronounced clean by
your matron. The hour for writing home is up.
Sign your names, and direct your envelopes. Cate-
chism ! '

Now the Catechism-class had already been held,
and the marks for it had been put down in the
mottled-covered book which lay on Mr. Button's
desk. But to suggest or hint this was not less in-
conceivable than to propose playing leap-frog.
The more imaginative saw that there might be
fresh trouble when Catechism marks were put
down, and it was found that Mr. Button had al-
ready entered them in his neat small handwriting,
but the idea of venturing to correct the Head when
lie was in this brimstone-mood was merely un-
thinkable. David, indeed, the boldest of them all,
and, at the moment, with something of the halo
of martyrdom about him, wondered what would
happen if he did so, but quailed before the possible

So Catechism began again, and for a little all
went smoothly. The Head, of course, knew that
among small boys at school Christian names are
held to be effeminate and disgraceful things, and
so, omitting the first question, asked Stone, the
head-boy, who had given him his name, and Stone
knew. Ferrers also knew what his godfathers and
godmothers then did for him, and David expressed
himself accurately as bound to believe and to do


what they had promised for him. The Command-
ments went smoothly, but trouble began when the
boys had to explain what they chiefly learned from
those Commandments. Any meaning that they
might have possessed, any effort to attach rational
ideas to them, was overshadowed by the fact that,
primarily, this was a lesson that should have been
acquired by heart in order to recite it faultlessly
to that awe-inspiring presence that frowned at Mr.
Button 's desk. His duty towards his neighbour
had already baffled David that afternoon, but for
the moment, having recited the eighth Command-
ment, his turn was passed, and, troubles never
coming singly, Bags was faced with this abstruse
question. The first sentences went rightly enough,
but then he began to falter.

' ' To honour and obey the King and all that are
put in authority under her '

"Her I "asked the Head.

Bags's Prayer-book, a comparatively ancient
one, given him at his christening by a godmother,
was a Queen's Prayer-book.

"Queen, and all that are put in authority under
her," he quavered, getting confused.

"Next," said the Head.

"King and all that are put in authority under
him," said Sharpe Major in a shrill treble. "To
submit myself to all my governors, teachers, spir-
itual pastors and masters ; to order myself lowly
and reverently to all my betters; to to honour
and obey the King

"Next," said the Head, with ominous calm.

The dreary tale of failure went on: with that
portentous figure sitting in the chair of the in-


nocuous Mr. Button, consecutive thought became
impossible, and memory took wings and fled. Boys
who had got full marks earlier in the afternoon
found themselves unable, when facing this grim
mood of the Head's, to repeat their duty towards
anything. The ground already covered was taken
again, in order to give them a fresh start, and now
the Creed itself presented pitfalls and stumbling-
blocks. Already the normal hour for the class
had been exceeded, and from other and happier
class-rooms the boys poured out into the field in
front of the windows, or lay on rugs under the
shade of the big still elms, and with linked arms
and treble intercourse wandered across the sunny
grass. And even when the Catechism was done,
there was the Bible-lesson to follow, and before
the Bible-lesson there was certain to be the dis-
covery that the Catechism had already been put
down. All this was that ass Dubs's fault for leav-
ing his rotten French novel on his desk.

Worse than anything, the Bible-lesson, when it
came, was that most inexplicable second voyage of

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Online LibraryE. F. (Edward Frederic) BensonDavid Blaize → online text (page 1 of 22)