Springhaven, by R. D. Blackmore

Chapter VIII

A Lesson in the Aeneid

In those days Stonnington was a very pretty village, and such it continued to be until it was ravaged by a railway. With the railway came all that is hideous and foul, and from it fled all that is comely. The cattle-shed, called by rail-highwaymen “the Station,” with its roof of iron Pan-pipes and red bull’s-eyes stuck on stack-poles, whistles and stares where the grand trees stood and the village green lay sleeping. On the site of the gray-stone grammar school is an “Operative Institute,” whose front (not so thick as the skin of a young ass) is gayly tattooed with a ringworm of wind-bricks. And the old manor-house, where great authors used to dine, and look out with long pipes through the ivy, has been stripped of every shred of leaf, and painted red and yellow, and barge-boarded into “the Temperance Tap.”

Ere ever these heathen so furiously raged, there was peace and content, and the pleasure of the eyes, and of neighborly feeling abundance. The men never burst with that bubble of hurry which every man now is inflated with; and the women had time enough to mind one another’s affairs, without which they grow scandalous. And the trees, that kept company with the houses, found matter for reflection in their calm blue smoke, and the green crop that promised a little grove upon the roof. So that as the road went up the hill, the traveller was content to leave his legs to nature, while his eyes took their leisure of pleasant views, and of just enough people to dwell upon.

At the top of the hill rose the fine old church, and next to it, facing on the road itself, without any kind of fence before it, stood the grammar school of many generations. This was a long low building, ridged with mossy slabs, and ribbed with green, where the drip oozed down the buttresses. But the long reach of the front was divided by a gable projecting a little into the broad high-road. And here was the way, beneath a low stone arch, into a porch with oak beams bulging and a bell-rope dangling, and thence with an oaken door flung back into the dark arcade of learning.

This was the place to learn things in, with some possibility of keeping them, and herein lay the wisdom of our ancestors. Could they ever have known half as much as they did, and ten times as much as we know, if they had let the sun come in to dry it all up, as we do? Will even the fourteen-coated onion root, with its bottom exposed to the sun, or will a clever puppy grow long ears, in the power of strong daylight?

The nature and nurture of solid learning were better understood when schools were built from which came Shakespeare and Bacon and Raleigh; and the glare of the sun was not let in to baffle the light of the eyes upon the mind. And another consideration is that wherever there is light, boys make a noise, which conduces but little to doctrine; whereas in soft shadow their muscles relax, and their minds become apprehensive. Thus had this ancient grammar school of Stonnington fostered many scholars, some of whom had written grammars for themselves and their posterity.

The year being only at the end of March, and the day going on for five o’clock, the light was just right, in the long low room, for correction of manners and for discipline. Two boys had been horsed and brushed up well, which had strengthened the conscience of all the rest, while sobs and rubs of the part affected diffused a tender silence. Dr. Swinks, the head-master, was leaning back in his canopied oaken chair, with the pride inspired by noble actions.

“What wonderfully good boys!” Dolly whispered, as she peeped in through the dark porch with Faith, while her father was giving the horses in charge to the hostler from the inn across the way; “I declare that I shall be frightened even to look at Mr. Scudamore, if this is a specimen of what he does. There is scarcely a boy looking off his book. But how old he does look! I suppose it must be the effect of so much hard teaching.”

“You silly thing,” her sister answered; “you are looking at the great head-master. Mr. Scudamore is here at the bottom of the school. Between these big hinges you can see him; and he looks as young as you do.”

Miss Dolly, who dearly loved any sly peep, kept her light figure back and the long skirt pulled in, as she brought her bright eyes to the slit between the heavy black door and the stone-work. And she speedily gave her opinion.

“He is nothing but a regular frump. I declare I am dreadfully disappointed. No wonder the title did not come on! He is nothing but a very soft-natured stupe. Why, the boys can do what they like with him!”

Certainly the scholars of the Virgil class, which Blyth Scudamore was dealing with, had recovered from the querimonies of those two sons of Ovid, on the further side of Ister, and were having a good laugh at the face of “Captain Scuddy,” as they called their beloved preceptor. For he, being gifted with a gentle sense of humor, together with a patient love of the origin of things, was questing in his quiet mind what had led a boy to render a well-known line as follows: “Such a quantity of salt there was, to season the Roman nation.” Presently he hit upon the clue to this great mystery. “Mola, the salted cake,” he said; “and the next a little error of conjugation. You have looked out your words, Smith, but chanced upon the wrong ones.”

“Oh, Captain Scuddy,” cried the head boy, grinning wisely, though he might have made just the same blunder himself; “after that, do tell us one of your sea-stories. It will strike five in about five minutes. Something about Nelson, and killing ten great Frenchmen.”

“Oh, do,” cried the other little fellows, crowding round him. “It is ever so much better than Virgil, Captain Scuddy!”

“I am not Captain Scuddy, as I tell you every day. I’m afraid I am a great deal too good-natured with you. I shall have to send a dozen of you up to be caned.”

“No, you couldn’t do that if you tried, Captain Scuddy. But what are you thinking of, all this time? There are two pretty ladies in riding-habits peeping at you from the bell porch. Why, you have got sweethearts, Captain Scuddy! What a shame of you never to have told us!”

The youngest and fairest of all the boys there could scarcely have blushed more deeply than their classical tutor did, as he stooped for his hat, and shyly went between the old desks to the door in the porch. All the boys looked after him with the deepest interest, and made up their minds to see everything he did. This was not at all what he desired, and the sense of it increased his hesitation and confusion. Of the Admiral’s lovely daughters he had heard while in the navy, and now he was frightened to think that perhaps they were come here to reconnoitre him. But luckily the Admiral was by this time to the fore, and he marched into the school-room and saluted the head-master.

“Dr. Swinks,” he said, “I am your very humble servant, Vice–Admiral of the Blue, Charles Darling, and beg a thousand pardons for intrusion on deep learning. But they tell me that your watch is over in some half a minute. Allow me to ask for the son of an old friend, Blyth Scudamore, late of the Diomede frigate, but now of this ancient and learned grammar school. When his labors are over, I would gladly speak with him.”

“Boys may go,” the head-master pronounced, as the old clock wheezed instead of striking. “Sir, my valued young coadjutor is advancing from the fourth form toward you.”

The Doctor was nice in his choice of words, and prided himself on Johnsonian precision, but his young coadjutor’s advance was hardly to be distinguished from a fine retreat. Like leaves before the wind, the boys rushed out by a back door into the play-ground, while the master solemnly passed to his house, with a deep slow bow to the ladies; and there was poor Scudamore — most diffident of men whenever it came to lady-work — left to face the visitors with a pleasing knowledge that his neckcloth was dishevelled, and his hair sheafed up, the furrows of his coat broadcast with pounce, and one of his hands gone to sleep from holding a heavy Delphin for three-quarters of an hour.

As he came out thus into the evening light, which dazed his blue eyes for a moment, Miss Dolly turned away to hide a smile, but Faith, upon her father’s introduction, took his hand and looked at him tenderly. For she was a very soft-hearted young woman, and the tale of his troubles and goodness to his mother had moved her affection toward him, while as one who was forever pledged — according to her own ideas — to a hero beyond comparison, she was able to regard young men with mercy, and with pity, if they had none to love. “How hard you have been at work!” she said; “it makes us seem so lazy! But we never can find any good thing to do.”

“That’s a cut at me,” cried the Admiral. “Scudamore, when you come to my age, be wiser than to have any daughters. Sure enough, they find no good to do; and they not only put all the fault of that on me, but they make me the victim of all the mischief they invent. Dolly, my darling, wear that cap if it fits. But you have not shaken hands with Mr. Scudamore yet. I hope you will do so, some hundreds of times.”

“Not all at once, papa; or how thankful he would be! But stop, I have not got half my glove off; this fur makes them stick so.”

Miss Dolly was proud of her hands, and lost few chances of getting them looked at. Then with a little smile, partly at herself for petulance, partly to him for forgiveness, she offered her soft warm rich white hand, and looked at him beautifully as he took it. Alack and alas for poor “Captain Scuddy”!

His eyes, with a quick shy glance, met hers; and hers with soft inquiry answered, “I wonder what you think of me?” Whenever she met a new face, this was her manner of considering it.

“Scudamore, I shall not allow you any time to think about it,” Admiral Darling broke in suddenly, so that the young man almost jumped. “Although you have cut the service for a while, because of our stingy peacefulness, you are sure to come back to us again when England wants English, not Latin and Greek. I am your commanding officer, and my orders are that you come to us from Saturday till Monday. I shall send a boat — or at least I mean a buggy — to fetch you, as soon as you are off duty, and return you the same way on Monday. Come, girls, ’twill be dark before we are home; and since the patrols were withdrawn, I hear there’s a highwayman down this road again. That is one of the blessings of peace, Scudamore; even as Latin and Greek are. ‘Apertis otia portis’— Open the gates for laziness. Ah, I should have done well at old Winton, they tell me, if I had not happened to run away to sea.”

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31