“Once to every man and nation, comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of Truth with Falsehood, for the good or evil side:
. . . .
Then it is the brave man chooses, while the coward stands aside,
Doubting in his abject spirit, till his Lord is crucified.”
THE turning-point in our hero’s school career had now come, and the manner of it was as follows. On the evening of the first day of the next half-year, Tom, East, and another School-house boy, who had just been dropped at the Spread Eagle by the old Regulator, rushed into the matron’s room in high spirits, such as all real boys are in when they first get back, however fond they may be of home.
“Well, Mrs. Wixie,” shouted one, seizing on the methodical, active little dark-eyed woman, who was busy stowing away the linen of the boys who had already arrived into their several pigeon-holes, “here we are again, you see, as jolly as ever. Let us help you put the things away.”
“And, Mary,” cried another (she was called indifferently by either name), “who’s come back? Has the Doctor made old Jones leave? How many new boys are there?”
“Am I and East to have Gray’s study? You know you promised to get it for us if you could,” shouted Tom.
“And am I to sleep in Number 4?” roared East.
“How’s old Sam, and Bogle, and Sally?”
“Bless the boys!” cries Mary, at last getting in a word, “why, you’ll shake me to death. There now, do go away up to the housekeeper’s room and get your suppers; you know I haven’t time to talk — you’ll find plenty more in the house. Now, Master East, do let those things alone — you’re mixing up three new boys’ things.” And she rushed at East, who escaped round the open trunks holding up a prize.
“Hullo, look here, Tommy,” shouted he, “here’s fun!” and he brandished above his head some pretty little night-caps, beautifully made and marked, the work of loving fingers in some distant country home. The kind mother and sisters, who sewed that delicate stitching with aching hearts, little thought of the trouble they might be bringing on the young head for which they were meant. The little matron was wiser, and snatched the caps from East before he could look at the name on them.
“Now, Master East, I shall be very angry if you don’t go,” said she; “there’s some capital cold beef and pickles up-stairs, and I won’t have you old boys in my room first night.”
“Hurrah for the pickles! Come along, Tommy; come along, Smith. We shall find out who the young Count is, I’ll be bound: I hope he’ll sleep in my room. Mary’s always vicious first week.”
As the boys turned to leave the room, the matron touched Tom’s arm, and said, “Master Brown, please stop a minute, I want to speak to you.”
“Very well, Mary. I’ll come in a minute: East, don’t finish the pickles — ”
“Oh, Master Brown,” went on the little matron, when the rest had gone, “you’re to have Gray’s study, Mrs. Arnold says. And she wants you to take in this young gentleman. He’s a new boy, and thirteen years old, though he don’t look it. He’s very delicate, and has never been from home before. And I told Mrs. Arnold I thought you’d be kind to him, and see that they don’t bully him at first. He’s put into your form, and I’ve given him the bed next to yours in Number 4; so East can’t sleep there this half.”
Tom was rather put about by this speech. He had got the double study which he coveted, but here were conditions attached which greatly moderated his joy He looked across the room, and in the far corner of the sofa was aware of a slight pale boy, with large blue eyes and light fair hair, who seemed ready to shrink through the floor. He saw at a glance that the little stranger was just the boy whose first half-year at a public school would be misery to himself if he were left alone, or constant anxiety to any one who meant to see him through his troubles. Tom was too honest to take in the youngster and then let him shift for himself; and if he took him as his chum instead of East, where were all his pet plans of having a bottled-beer cellar under his window, and making night-lines and slings, and plotting expeditions to Brownsover Mills and Caldecott’s Spinney? East and he had made up their minds to get this study, and then every night from locking-up till ten they would be together to talk about fishing, drink bottled-beer, read Marryat’s novels, and sort birds’ eggs. And this new boy would most likely never go out of the close, and would be afraid of wet feet, and always getting laughed at and called Molly, or Jenny, or some derogatory feminine nickname.
The matron watched him for a moment, and saw what was passing in his mind, and so, like a wise negotiator, threw in an appeal to his warm heart. “Poor little fellow,” said she in almost a whisper, “his father’s dead, and he’s got no brothers. And his mamma, such a kind sweet lady, almost broke her heart at leaving him this morning; and she said one of his sisters was like to die of decline, and so —— ”
“Well, well,” burst in Tom, with something like a sigh at the effort, “I suppose I must give up East. Come along, young un. What’s your name? We’ll go and have some supper, and then I’ll show you our study.”
“His name’s George Arthur,” said the matron, walking up to him with Tom, who grasped his little delicate hand as the proper preliminary to making a chum of him, and felt as if he could have blown him away. “I’ve had his books and things put into the study, which his mamma has had new papered, and the sofa covered, and new green-baize curtains over the door” (the diplomatic matron threw this in, to show that the new boy was contributing largely to the partnership comforts). “And Mrs. Arnold told me to say,” she added, “that she should like you both to come up to tea with her. You know the way, Master Brown, and the things are just gone up, I know.”
Here was an announcement for Master Tom! He was to go up to tea the first night, just as if he were a sixth or fifth-form boy, and of importance in the school world, instead of the most reckless young scapegrace amongst the fags. He felt himself lifted on to a higher social and moral platform at once. Nevertheless, he couldn’t give up without a sigh the idea of the jolly supper in the housekeeper’s room with East and the rest, and a rush round to all the studies of his friends afterwards, to pour out the deeds and wonders of the holidays, to plot fifty plans for the coming half-year, and to gather news of who had left, and what new boys had come, who had got who’s study, and where the new præpostors slept. However, Tom consoled himself with thinking that he couldn’t have done all this with the new boy at his heels, and so marched off along the passages to the Doctor’s private house with his young charge in tow, in monstrous good humour with himself and all the world.
It is needless, and would be impertinent, to tell how the two young boys were received in that drawing-room. The lady who presided there is still living, and has carried with her to her peaceful home in the North the respect and love of all those who ever felt and shared that gentle and high-bred hospitality. Ay, many is the brave heart now doing its work and bearing its load in country curacies, London chambers, under the Indian sun, and in Australian towns and clearings, which looks back with fond and grateful memory to that School-house drawing-room, and dates much of its highest and best training to the lessons learnt there.
Besides Mrs. Arnold and one or two of the elder children, there were one of the younger masters, young Brooke — who was now in the sixth, and had succeeded to his brother’s position and influence — and another sixth-form boy there, talking together before the fire. The master and young Brooke, now a great strapping fellow six feet high, eighteen years old, and powerful as a coal-heaver, nodded kindly to Tom, to his intense glory, and then went on talking; the other did not notice them. The hostess, after a few kind words, which led the boys at once and insensibly to feel at their ease, and to begin talking to one another, left them with her own children while she finished a letter. The young ones got on fast and well, Tom holding forth about a prodigious pony he had been riding out hunting, and hearing stories of the winter glories of the lakes, when tea came in, and immediately after the Doctor himself.
How frank, and kind, and manly, was his greeting to the party by the fire! It did Tom’s heart good to see him and young Brooke shake hands, and look one another in the face; and he didn’t fail to remark, that Brooke was nearly as tall, and quite as broad as the Doctor. And his cup was full, when in another moment his master turned to him with another warm shake of the hand, and, seemingly oblivious of all the late scrapes which he had been getting into, said, “Ah, Brown, you here! I hope you left your father and all well at home?”
“Yes, sir, quite well.”
“And this is the little fellow who is to share your study. Well, he doesn’t look as we should like to see him. He wants some Rugby air, and cricket. And you must take him some good long walks, to Bilton Grange and Caldecott’s Spinney, and show him what a little pretty country we have about here.”
Tom wondered if the Doctor knew that his visits to Bilton Grange were for the purpose of taking rooks’ nests (a proceeding strongly discountenanced by the owner thereof), and those to Caldecott’s Spinney were prompted chiefly by the conveniences for setting night-lines. What didn’t the Doctor know? And what a noble use he always made of it! He almost resolved to abjure rook-pies and night-lines for ever. The tea went merrily off, the Doctor now talking of holiday doings, and then of the prospects of the half-year, what chance there was for the Balliol scholarship, whether the eleven would be a good one. Every body was at his ease, and every body felt that he, young as he might be, was of some use in the little school world, and had a work to do there.
Soon after tea the Doctor went off to his study, and the young boys a few minutes afterwards took their leave, and went out of the private door which led from the Doctor’s house into the middle passage.
At the fire, at the further end of the passage, was a crowd of boys in loud talk and laughter. There was a sudden pause when the door opened, and then a great shout of greeting, as Tom was recognised marching down the passage.
“Hullo, Brown, where do you come from?”
“Oh, I’ve been to tea with the Doctor,” says Tom, with great dignity.
“My eye!” cried East. “Oh! so that’s why Mary called you back, and you didn’t come to supper. You lost something — that beef and pickles was no end good.”
“I say, young fellow,” cried Hall, detecting Arthur, and catching him by the collar, “what’s your name? Where do you come from? How old are you?”
Tom saw Arthur shrink back, and look scared as all the group turned to him, but thought it best to let him answer, just standing by his side to support in case of need.
“Arthur, sir. I come from Devonshire.”
“Don’t call me ‘sir,’ you young muff. How old are you?”
“Can you sing?”
The poor boy, was trembling and hesitating. Tom struck in — “You be hanged, Tadpole. He’ll have to sing, whether he can or not, Saturday twelve weeks, and that’s long enough off yet.”
“Do you know him at home, Brown?”
“No; but he’s my chum in Gray’s old study, and it’s near prayer time, and I haven’t had a look at it yet. Come along, Arthur.”
Away went the two, Tom longing to get his charge safe under cover, where he might advise him on his deportment.
“What a queer chum for Tom Brown,” was the comment at the fire; and it must be confessed so thought Tom himself, as he lighted his candle, and surveyed the new green-baize curtains and the carpet and sofa with much satisfaction.
“I say, Arthur, what a brick your mother is to make us so cosy. But look here now, you must answer straight up when the fellows speak to you, and don’t be afraid. If you’re afraid, you’ll get bullied. And don’t you say you can sing; and don’t you ever talk about home, or your mother and sisters.”
Poor little Arthur looked ready to cry.
“But please,” said he, “mayn’t I talk about — about home to you?”
“Oh yes, I like it. But don’t talk to boys you don’t know, or they’ll call you home-sick, or mamma’s darling, or some such stuff. What a jolly desk! Is that yours? And what stunning binding! why, your school-books look like novels!”
And Tom was soon deep in Arthur’s goods and chattels, all new and good enough for a fifth-form boy, and hardly thought of his friends outside, till the prayer-bell rung.
I have already described the School-house prayers; they were the same on the first night as on the other nights, save for the gaps caused by the absence of those boys who came late, and the line of new boys who stood all together at the farther table — of all sorts and sizes, like young bears with all their troubles to come, as Tom’s father had said to him when he was in the same position. He thought of it as he looked at the line, and poor little slight Arthur standing with them, and as he was leading him up-stairs to Number 4, directly after prayers, and showing him his bed. It was a huge high airy room, with two large windows looking on to the School close. There were twelve beds in the room. The one in the furthest corner by the fireplace, occupied by the sixth-form boy who was responsible for the discipline of the room, and the rest by boys in the lower-fifth and other junior forms, all fags (for the fifth-form boys, as has been said, slept in rooms by themselves). Being fags, the eldest of them was not more than about sixteen years old, and were all bound to be up and in bed by ten; the sixth-form boys came to bed from ten to a quarter-past (at which time the old verger came round to put the candles out), except when they sat up to read.
Within a few minutes therefore of their entry, all the other boys who slept in Number 4 had come up. The little fellows went quietly to their own beds, and began undressing and talking to each other in whispers; while the elder, amongst whom was Tom, sat chatting about on one another’s beds, with their jackets and waistcoats off. Poor little Arthur was overwhelmed with the novelty of his position. The idea of sleeping in the room with strange boys had clearly never crossed his mind before, and was as painful as it was strange to him. He could hardly bear to take his jacket off; however, presently, with an effort, off it came, and then he paused and looked at Tom, who was sitting at the bottom of his bed talking and laughing.
“Please, Brown,” he whispered, “may I wash my face and hands?”
“Of course, if you like,” said Tom, staring; “that’s your washhand-stand, under the window, second from your bed. You’ll have to go down for more water in the morning if you use it all.” And on he went with his talk, while Arthur stole timidly from between the beds out to his washhand-stand, and began his ablutions, thereby drawing for a moment on himself the attention of the room.
On went the talk and laughter. Arthur finished his washing and undressing, and put on his night-gown. He then looked round more nervously than ever. Two or three of the little boys were already in bed, sitting up with their chins on their knees. The light burned clear, the noise went on. It was a trying moment for the poor little lonely boy; however, this time he didn’t ask Tom what he might or might not do, but dropped on his knees by his bedside, as he had done every day from his childhood, to open his heart to Him who heareth the cry and beareth the sorrows of the tender child, and the strong man in agony.
Tom was sitting at the bottom of his bed unlacing his boots, so that his back was towards Arthur, and he didn’t see what had happened, and looked up in wonder at the sudden silence. Then two or three boys laughed and sneered, and a big brutal fellow, who was standing in the middle of the room, picked up a slipper, and shied it at the kneeling boy, calling him a snivelling young shaver. Then Tom saw the whole, and the next moment the boot he had just pulled off flew straight at the head of the bully, who had just time to throw up his arm and catch it on his elbow.
“Confound you, Brown, what’s that for?” roared he, stamping with pain.
“Never mind what I mean,” said Tom, stepping on to the floor, every drop of blood in his body tingling; “if any fellow wants the other boot, he knows how to get it.”
What would have been the result is doubtful, for at this moment the sixth-form boy came in, and not another word could be said. Tom and the rest rushed into bed and finished their unrobing there, and the old verger, as punctual as the clock, had put out the candle in another minute, and toddled on to the next room, shutting their door with his usual “Good night, genl’m’n.”
There were many boys in the room by whom that little scene was taken to heart before they slept. But sleep seemed to have deserted the pillow of poor Tom. For some time his excitement, and the flood of memories which chased one another through his brain, kept him from thinking or resolving. His head throbbed, his heart leapt, and he could hardly keep himself from springing out of bed and rushing about the room. Then the thought of his own mother came across him, and the promise he had made at her knee, years ago, never to forget to kneel by his bedside, and give himself up to his Father, before he laid his head on the pillow, from which it might never rise; and he lay down gently and cried as if his heart would break. He was only fourteen years old.
It was no light act of courage in those days, my dear boys, for a little fellow to say his prayers publicly, even at Rugby. A few years later, when Arnold’s manly piety had begun to leaven the School the tables turned; before he died, in the School-house at least, and I believe in the other houses, the rule was the other way. But poor Tom had come to school in other times. The first few nights after he came he did not kneel down because of the noise, but sat up in bed till the candle was out, and then stole out and said his prayers in fear, lest some one should find him out. So did many another poor little fellow. Then he began to think that he might just as well say his prayers in bed, and then that it didn’t matter whether he was kneeling, or sitting, or lying down. And so it had come to pass with Tom as with all who will not confess their Lord before men: and for the last year he had probably not said his prayers in earnest a dozen times.
Poor Tom! the first and bitterest feeling which was like to break his heart was the sense of his own cowardice. The vice of all others which he loathed was brought in and burned in on his own soul. He had lied to his mother, to his conscience, to his God. How could he bear it? And then the poor little weak boy, whom he had pitied and almost scorned for his weakness, had done that which he, braggart as he was, dared not do. The first dawn of comfort came to him in swearing to himself that he would stand by that boy through thick and thin, and cheer him, and help him, and bear his burdens, for the good deed done that night. Then he resolved to write home next day and tell his mother all, and what a coward her son had been. And then peace came to him as he resolved, lastly, to bear his testimony next morning. The morning would be harder than the night to begin with, but he felt that he could not afford to let one chance slip. Several times he faltered, for the devil showed him, first, all his old friends calling him “Saint” and “Square-toes,” and a dozen hard names, and whispered to him that his motives would be misunderstood, and he would only be left alone with the new boy; whereas it was his duty to keep all means of influence, that he might do good to the largest number. And then came the more subtle temptation, “Shall I not be showing myself braver than others by doing this? Have I any right to begin it now? Ought I not rather to pray in my own study, letting other boys know that I do so, and trying to lead them to it, while in public at least I should go on as I have done?” However, his good angel was too strong that night, and he turned on his side and slept, tired of trying to reason, but resolved to follow the impulse which had been so strong, and in which he had found peace.
Next morning he was up and washed and dressed, all but his jacket and waistcoat, just as the ten minutes’ bell began to ring, and then in the face of the whole room knelt down to pray. Not five words could he say — the bell mocked him; he was listening for every whisper in the room — what were they all thinking of him? He was ashamed to go on kneeling, ashamed to rise from his knees. At last, as it were from his inmost heart, a still small voice seemed to breathe forth the words of the publican, “God be merciful to me a sinner!” He repeated them over and over, clinging to them as for his life, and rose from his knees comforted and humbled, and ready to face the whole world. It was not needed: two other boys besides Arthur had already followed his example, and he went down to the great School with a glimmering of another lesson in his heart — the lesson that he who has conquered his own coward spirit has conquered the whole outward world; and that other one which the old prophet learnt in the cave in Mount Horeb, when he hid his face, and the still small voice asked, “What doest thou here, Elijah?” that however we may fancy ourselves alone on the side of good, the King and Lord of men is nowhere without His witnesses; for in every society, however seemingly corrupt and godless, there are those who have not bowed the knee to Baal.
He found too how greatly he had exaggerated the effect to be produced by his act. For a few nights there was a sneer or a laugh when he knelt down, but this passed off soon, and one by one all the other boys but three or four followed the lead. I fear that this was in some measure owing to the fact, that Tom could probably have thrashed any boy in the room except the præpostor; at any rate, every boy knew that he would try upon very slight provocation, and didn’t choose to run the risk of a hard fight because Tom Brown had taken a fancy to say his prayers. Some of the small boys of Number 4 communicated the new state of things to their chums, and in several other rooms the poor little fellows tried it on; in one instance or so where the præpostor heard of it and interfered very decidedly, with partial success; but in the rest, after a short struggle, the confessors were bullied or laughed down, and the old state of things went on for some time longer. Before either Tom Brown or Arthur left the School-house, there was no room in which it had not become the regular custom. I trust it is so still, and that the old heathen state of things has gone out for ever.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55