THE Army Class ‘English,’ which included the Upper Fifth, was trying to keep awake; for ‘English’ (Literature–Augustan epoch — eighteenth century came at last lesson, and that, on a blazing July afternoon; meant after every one had been bathing. Even Mr. King found it hard to fight against the snore of the tide along the Pebble Ridge, and spurred himself with strong words.
Since, said he, the pearls of English Literature existed only to be wrenched from their settings and cast before young swine rooting for marks, it was his loathed business — in anticipation of the Army Preliminary Examination which, as usual, would be held at the term’s end, under the auspices of an official examiner sent down ad hoc — to prepare for the Form a General Knowledge test-paper, which he would give them next week. It would cover their studies, up to date, of the Augustans and King Lear, which was the selected — and strictly expurgated — Army Exam, play for that year. Now, English Literature, as he might have told them, was not divided into water-tight compartments, but flowed like a river. For example, Samuel Johnson, glory of the Augustans and no mean commentator of Shakespeare, was but one in a mighty procession which —
At this point Beetle’s nodding brows came down with a grunt on the desk. He had been soaking and sunning himself in the open sea-baths built out on the rocks under the cliffs, from two-fifteen to four-forty.
The Army Class took Johnson off their minds. With any luck, Beetle would last King till the tea-bell. King rubbed his hands and began to carve him. He had gone to sleep to show his contempt (a) for Mr. King, who might or might not matter, and (b) for the Augustans, who none the less were not to be sneered at by one whose vast and omnivorous reading, for which such extraordinary facilities had been granted (this was because the Head had allowed Beetle the run of his library), naturally overlooked such epigonoi as Johnson, Swift, Pope, Addison, and the like. Harrison Ainsworth and Marryat doubtless appealed —
Even so, Beetle salt-encrusted all over except his spectacles, and steeped in delicious languors, was sliding back to sleep again, when ‘Taffy’ Howell, the leading light of the Form, who knew his Marryat as well as Stalky did his Surtees, began in his patent, noiseless whisper: ‘“Allow me to observe — in the most delicate manner in the world — just to hint —”’
‘Under pretext of studying literature, a desultory and unformed mind would naturally return, like the dog of Scripture —’
‘“You’re a damned trencher-scrapin’, napkin-carryin’, shillin’-seekin’, up-an’-down-stairs.”’ Howell breathed.
Beetle choked aloud on the sudden knowledge that King was the ancient and eternal Chucks — later Count Shucksen — of Peter Simple. He had not realised it before.
‘Sorry, sir. I’m afraid I’ve been asleep, sir,’ he sputtered.
The shout of the Army Class diverted the storm. King was grimly glad that Beetle had condescended to honour truth so far. Perhaps he would now lend his awakened ear to a summary of the externals of Dr. Johnson, as limned by Macaulay. And he read, with intention, the just historian’s outline of a grotesque figure with untied shoe-strings, that twitched and grunted, gorged its food, bit its finger-nails, and neglected its ablutions. The Form hailed it as a speaking likeness of Beetle; nor were they corrected.
Then King implored him to vouchsafe his comrades one single fact connected with Dr. Johnson which might at any time have adhered to what, for decency’s sake, must, Mr. King supposed, be called his mind.
Beetle was understood to say that the only thing he could remember was in French.
‘You add, then, the Gallic tongue to your accomplishments? The information plus the accent?’Tis well! Admirable Crichton, proceed!’
And Beetle proceeded with the text of an old Du Maurier drawing in a back-number of Punch:
De tous ces defunts cockolores
Le moral Fenelon.
Michel Ange et Johnson
(Le Docteur) sont les plus awful bores.’
To which Howell, wooingly, just above his breath:
‘“Oh, won’t you come up, come up?”’
Result, as the tea-bell rang, one hundred lines, to be shown up at seven-forty-five that evening. This was meant to blast the pleasant summer interval between tea and prep. Howell, a favourite in ‘English’ as well as Latin, got off; but the Army Class crashed in to tea with a new Limerick.
The imposition was a matter of book-keeping, as far as Beetle was concerned; for it was his custom of rainy afternoons to fabricate store of lines in anticipation of just these accidents. They covered such English verse as interested him at the moment, and helped to fix the stuff in his memory. After tea; he drew the required amount from his drawer in Number Five Study, thrust it into his pocket, went up to the Head’s house, and settled himself in the big Outer Library where, ever since the Head had taken him off all mathematics, he did precis-work and French translation. Here he buried himself in a close — printed, thickish volume which had been his chosen browse for some time. A hideous account of a hanging, drawing, and quartering had first attracted him to it; but later he discovered the book (Curiosities of Literature was its name) full of the finest confused feeding — such as forgeries and hoaxes, Italian literary societies, religious and scholastic controversies of old when men (even that most dreary John Milton, of Lycidas) slanged each other, not without dust and heat, in scandalous pamphlets; personal peculiarities of the great; and a hundred other fascinating inutilities. This evening he fell on a description of wandering, mad Elizabethan beggars, known as Tom-a-Bedlams, with incidental references to Edgar who plays at being a Tom-a-Bedlam in Lear, but whom Beetle did not consider at all funny. Then, at the foot of a left-hand page, leaped out on him a verse — of incommunicable splendour, opening doors into inexplicable worlds — from a song which Tom-a-Bedlams were supposed to sing. It ran:
With a heart of furious fancies
Whereof I am commander.
With a burning spear and a horse of air.
To the wilderness I wander.
With a knight of ghosts and shadows
I summoned am to tourney.
Ten leagues beyond the wide world’s end —
Methmks it is no journey.
He sat, mouthing and staring before him, till the prep-bell rang and it was time to take his lines up to King’s study and lay them, as hot from the press, in the impot-basket appointed. He carried his dreams on to Number Five. They knew the symptoms of old.
‘Readin’ again,’ said Stalky, like a wife welcoming her spouse from the pot-house.
‘Look here, I’ve found out something —’ Beetle began. ‘Listen —’
‘No, you don’t — till afterwards. It’s Turkey’s prep.’ This meant it was a Horace Ode through which Turkey would take them for a literal translation, and all possible pitfalls. Stalky gave his businesslike attention, but Beetle’s eye was glazed and his mind adrift throughout, and he asked for things to be repeated. So, when Turkey closed the Horace, justice began to be executed.
‘I’m all right,’ he protested. ‘I swear I heard a lot what Turkey said. Shut up! Oh, shut up! Do shut up, you putrid asses.’ Beetle was speaking from the fender, his head between Turkey’s knees, and Stalky largely over the rest of him.
‘What’s the metre of the beastly thing?’ McTurk waved his Horace. ‘Look it up, Stalky. Twelfth of the Third.’
‘Ionicum a minore,’ Stalky reported, closing his book in turn. ‘Don’t let him forget it’; and Turkey’s Horace marked the metre on Beetle’s skull, with special attention to elisions. It hurt.
‘Miserar’ est neq’ arnori dare ludum neque dulci
Mala vino layer’ aut ex —
Got it? You liar! You’ve no ear at all! Chorus, Stalky!’
Both Horaces strove to impart the measure, which was altogether different from its accompaniment. Presently Howell dashed in from his study below.
‘Look out! If you make this infernal din we’ll have some one up the staircase in a sec.’
‘We’re teachin’ Beetle Horace. He was goin’ to burble us some muck he’d read,’ the tutors explained.
‘‘Twasn’t muck! It was about those Tom-a-Bedlams in Lear.’
‘Oh!’ said Stalky. ‘Why didn’t you say so?’
‘‘Cause you didn’t listen. They had drinkin’-horns an’ badges, and there’s a Johnson note on Shakespeare about the meanin’ of Edgar sayin’ “My horn’s dry.” But Johnson’s dead-wrong about it. Aubrey says —’
‘Who’s Aubrey?’ Howell demanded. ‘Does King know about him?’
‘Dunno. Oh yes, an’ Johnson started to learn Dutch when he was seventy.’
‘What the deuce for?’ Stalky asked.
‘For a change after his Dikker, I suppose,’ Howell suggested.
‘And I looked up a lot of other English stuff, too. I’m goin’ to try it all on King.’
‘Showin’-off as usual,’ said the acid, McTurk, who, like his race, lived and loved to destroy illusions.
‘No. For a draw. He’s an unjust dog! If you read, he says you’re showin’-off. If you don’t, you’re a mark-huntin’ Philistine. What does he want you to do, curse him?’
‘Shut up, Beetle!’ Stalky pronounced. ‘There’s more than draws in this. You’ve cribbed your maths off me ever since you came to Coll. You don’t know what a co-sine is, even now. Turkey does all your Latin.’
‘I like that! Who does both your Picciolas?’
‘French don’t count. It’s time you began to work for your giddy livin’ an’ help us. You aren’t goin’ up for anythin’ that matters. Play for your side, as Heffles says, or die the death! You don’t want to die the death, again, do you? Now, let’s hear about that stinkard Johnson swottin’ Dutch. You’re sure it was Sammivel, not Binjamin? You are so dam’ inaccurate!’
Beetle conducted an attentive class on the curiosities of literature for nearly a quarter of an hour. As Stalky pointed out, he promised to be useful.
The Horace Ode next morning ran well; and King was content. Then, in full feather, he sailed round the firmament at large, and, somehow, apropos to something or other, used the word ‘della Cruscan’—‘if any of you have the faintest idea of its origin.’ Some one hadn’t caught it correctly; which gave Beetle just time to whisper ‘Bran-an’ mills’ to Howell, who said, promptly: ‘Hasn’t it somethin’ to do with mills-an’ bran, sir?’ King cast himself into poses of stricken wonder. ‘Oddly enough,’ said he, ‘it has.’
They were then told a great deal about some silly Italian Academy of Letters which borrowed its office furniture from the equipment of mediaeval flour-mills. And: ‘How has our Ap–Howell come by his knowledge?’ Howell, being, indeed, Welsh, thought that it might have been something he had read in the holidays. King openly purred over him.
‘If that had been me,’ Beetle observed while they were toying with sardines between lessons, ‘he’d ha’ dropped on me for showin’-off.’
‘See what we’re savin’ you from,’ Stalky answered. ‘I’m playin’ Johnson, ‘member, this afternoon.’
That, too, came cleanly off the bat; and King was gratified by this interest in the Doctor’s studies. But Stalky hadn’t a ghost of a notion how he had come by the fact.
‘Why didn’t you say your father told you?’ Beetle asked at tea.
‘My-y Lord! Have you ever seen the guv’nor?’ Stalky collapsed shrieking among the piles of bread and butter. ‘Well, look here. Taffy goes in tomorrow about those drinkin’ horns an’ Tom-a-Bedlams. You cut up to the library after tea, Beetle. You know what King’s English papers are like. Look out useful stuff for answers an’ we’ll divvy at prep.’
At prep, then, Beetle, loaded with assorted curiosities, made his forecast. He argued that there were bound to be a good many ‘what-do-you-know-abouts’ those infernal Augustans. Pope was generally a separate item; but the odds were that Swift, Addison, Steele, Johnson, and Goldsmith would be lumped under one head. Dryden was possible, too, though rather outside the Epoch.
‘Dryden. Oh! “Glorious John!” ‘Know that much, anyhow,’ Stalky vaunted.
‘Then lug in Claude Halcro in The Pirate,’ Beetle advised. ‘He’s always sayin’ “Glorious John.” King’s a hog on Scott, too.’
‘No-o. I don’t read Scott. You take this Hell Crow chap, Taffy.’
‘Right. What about Addison, Beetle?’ Howell asked.
‘‘Drank like a giddy fish.’
‘We all know that,’ chorused the gentle children.
‘He said, “See how a Christian can die”; an’ he hadn’t any conversation, ‘cause some one or other —’
‘Guessin’ again, as usual,’ McTurk sneered. ‘Who?’
‘‘Cynical man called Mandeville — said he was a silent parson in a tie-wig.’
‘Right-ho! I’ll take the silent parson with wig and ‘purtenances. Taffy can have the dyin’ Christian,’ Stalky decided.
Howell nodded, and resumed: ‘What about Swift, Beetle?’
‘‘Died mad. Two girls. Saw a tree, an’ said: “I shall die at the top.” Oh yes, an’ his private amusements were “ridiculous an’ trivial.”’
Howell shook a wary head. ‘Dunno what that might let me in for with King. You can have it, Stalky.’
‘I’ll take that,’ McTurk yawned. ‘King doesn’t matter a curse to me, an’ he knows it. “Private amusements contemptible.”’ He breathed all Ireland into the last perverted word.
‘Right,’ Howell assented. ‘Bags I the dyin’ tree, then.’
‘‘Cheery lot, these Augustans,’ Stalky sighed. ‘‘Any more of ’em been croakin’ lately, Beetle?’
‘My Hat!’ the far-seeing Howell struck in. ‘King always gives us a stinker half-way down. What about Richardson — that “Clarissa” chap, y’know?’
‘I’ve found out lots about him,’ said Beetle, promptly. ‘He was the “Shakespeare of novelists.”’
‘King won’t stand that. He says there’s only one Shakespeare. ‘Mustn’t rot about Shakespeare to King,’ Howell objected.
‘An’ he was “always delighted with his own works,”’ Beetle continued.
‘Like you,’ Stalky pointed out.
‘Shut up. Oh yes, an’—’ he consulted some hieroglyphics on a scrap of paper —‘the — the impassioned Diderot (dunno who he was) broke forth: “O Richardson, thou singular genius!”’
Howell and Stalky rose together, each clamouring that he had bagged that first.
‘I must have it!’ Howell shouted. ‘King’s never seen me breakin’ forth with the impassioned Diderot. He’s got to! Give me Diderot, you impassioned hound!’
‘Don’t upset the table. There’s tons more. An’ his genius was “fertile and prodigal.”’
‘All right! I don’t mind bein’ “fertile and prodigal” for a change,’ Stalky volunteered. ‘King’s going to enjoy this exam. If he was the Army Prelim. chap we’d score.’
‘The Prelim. questions will be pretty much like King’s stuff,’ Beetle assured them.
‘But it’s always a score to know what your examiner’s keen on,’ Howell said, and illustrated it with an anecdote. ‘‘Uncle of mine stayin’ with my people last holidays —’
‘Your Uncle Diderot?’ Stalky asked.
‘No, you ass! Captain of Engineers. He told me he was up for a Staff exam. to an old Colonel-bird who believed that the English were the lost Tribes of Israel, or something like that. He’d written tons o’ books about it.’
‘All Sappers are mad,’ said Stalky. ‘That’s one of the things the guv’nor did tell me.’
‘Well, ne’er mind. My uncle played up, o’course. ‘Said he’d always believed it, too. And so he got nearly top-marks for field-fortification. ‘Didn’t know a thing about it, either, he said.’
‘Good biznai!’ said Stalky. ‘Well, go on, Beetle. What about Steele?’
‘Can’t I keep anything for myself?’
‘Not much! King’ll ask you where you got it from, and you’d show off, an’ he’d find out. This ain’t your silly English Literature, you ass. It’s our marks. Can’t you see that?’
Beetle very soon saw it was exactly as Stalky had said.
Some days later a happy, and therefore not too likeable, King was explaining to the Reverend John in his own study how effort, zeal, scholarship, the humanities, and perhaps a little natural genius for teaching, could inspire even the mark-hunting minds of the young. His text was the result of his General Knowledge paper on the Augustans and King Lear.
‘Howell,’ he said, ‘I was not surprised at. He has intelligence. But, frankly, I did not expect young Corkran to burgeon. Almost one might believe he occasionally read a book.’
‘And McTurk too?’
‘Yes. He had somehow arrived at a rather just estimate of Swift’s lighter literary diversions. They are contemptible. And in the “Lear” questions — they were all attracted by Edgar’s character — Stalky had dug up something about Aubrey on Tom-a-Bedlams from some unknown source. Aubrey, of all people! I’m sure I only alluded to him once or twice.’
‘Stalky among the prophets of “English”! And he didn’t remember where he’d got it either?’
‘No. Boys are amazingly purblind and limited. But if they keep this up at the Army Prelim., it is conceivable the Class may not do itself discredit. I told them so.’
‘I congratulate you. Ours is the hardest calling in the world, with the least reward. By the way, who are they likely to send down to examine us?’
‘It rests between two, I fancy. Martlett — with me at Balliol — and Hume. They wisely chose the Civil Service. Martlett has published a brochure on Minor Elizabethan Verse — journeyman work, of course — enthusiasms, but no grounding. Hume I heard of lately as having infected himself in Germany with some Transatlantic abominations about Shakespeare and Bacon. He was Sutton.’ (The Head, by the way, was a Sutton man.)
King returned to his examination-papers and read extracts from them, as mothers repeat the clever sayings of their babes.
‘Here’s old Taffy Howell, for instance — apropos to Diderot’s eulogy of Richardson. “The impassioned Diderot broke forth: ‘Richardson, thou singular genius!’”’
It was the Reverend John who stopped himself, just in time, from breaking forth. He recalled that, some days ago, he had heard Stalky on the stairs of Number Five, hurling the boots of many fags at Howell’s door and bidding the ‘impassioned Diderot’ within ‘break forth’ at his peril.
‘Odd,’ said he, gravely, when his pipe drew again. ‘Where did Diderot say that?’
‘I’ve forgotten for the moment. Taffy told me he’d picked it up in the course of holiday reading.’
‘Possibly. One never knows what heifers the young are ploughing with. Oh! How did Beetle do?’
‘The necessary dates and his handwriting defeated him, I’m glad to say. I cannot accuse myself of having missed any opportunity to castigate that boy’s inordinate and intolerable conceit. But I’m afraid it’s hopeless. I think I touched him somewhat, though, when I read Macaulay’s stock piece on Johnson. The others saw it at once.’
‘Yes, you told me about that at the time,’ said the Reverend John, hurriedly.
‘And our esteemed Head having taken him off maths for this precis-writing — whatever that means! — has turned him into a most objectionable free-lance. He was without any sense of reverence before, and promiscuous cheap fiction — which is all that his type of reading means — aggravates his worst points. When it came to a trial he was simply nowhere.’
‘Ah, well! Ours is a hard calling — specially if one’s sensitive. Luckily, I’m too fat.’ The Reverend John went out to bathe off the Pebble Ridge, girt with a fair linen towel whose red fringe signalled from half a mile away.
There lurked on summer afternoons, round the fives-court or the gym, certain watchful outcasts who had exhausted their weekly ration of three baths, and who were too well known to Cory the bathman to outface him by swearing that they hadn’t. These came in like sycophantic pups at walk, and when the Reverend John climbed the Pebble Ridge, more than a dozen of them were at his heels, with never a towel among them. One could only bathe off the Ridge with a House Master, but by custom, a dozen details above a certain age, no matter whence recruited, made a ‘House’ for bathing, if any kindly Master chose so to regard them. Beetle led the low, growing reminder: ‘House! House, sir? We’ve got a House now, Padre.’
‘Let it be law as it is desired,’ boomed the Reverend John. On which word they broke forward, hirpling over the unstable pebbles and stripping as they ran, till, when they touched the sands, they were as naked as God had made them, and as happy as He intended them to be.
It was half-flood-dead-smooth, except for the triple line of combers, a mile from wing to wing, that broke evenly with a sound of ripping canvas, while their sleek rear-guards formed up behind. One swam forth, trying to copy the roll, rise, and dig-out of the Reverend John’s sidestroke, and manoeuvred to meet them so that they should crash on one’s head, when for an instant one glanced down arched perspectives of beryl, before all broke in fizzy, electric diamonds, and the pulse of the main surge slung one towards the beach. From a good comber’s crest one was hove up almost to see Lundy on the horizon. In its long cream-streaked trough, when the top had turned over and gone on, one might be alone in mid-Atlantic. Either way it was divine. Then one capered on the sands till one dried off; retrieved scattered flannels, gave thanks in chorus to the Reverend John, and lazily trailed up to five-o’clock call-over, taken on the lower cricket field.
‘Eight this week,’ said Beetle, and thanked Heaven aloud.
‘Bathing seems to have sapped your mind,’ the Reverend John remarked. ‘Why did you do so vilely with the Augustans?’
‘They are vile, Padre. So’s Lear.’
‘The other two did all right, though.’
‘I expect they’ve been swottin’,’ Beetle grinned.
‘I’ve expected that, too, in my time. But I want to hear about the “impassioned Diderot,” please.’
‘Oh, that was Howell, Padre. You mean when Diderot broke forth: “Richardson, thou singular genius”? He’d read it in the holidays somewhere.’
‘I beg your pardon. Naturally, Taffy would read Diderot in the holidays. Well, I’m sorry I can’t lick you for this; but if any one ever finds out anything about it, you’ve only yourself to thank.’
Beetle went up to College and to the Outer Library, where he had on tap the last of a book called Elsie Venner, by a man called Oliver Wendell Holmes — all about a girl who was interestingly allied to rattlesnakes. He finished what was left of her, and cast about for more from the same hand, which he found on the same shelf, with the trifling difference that the writer’s Christian name was now Nathaniel, and he did not deal in snakes. The authorship of Shakespeare was his theme — not that Shakespeare with whom King oppressed the Army Class, but a low-born, poaching, ignorant, immoral village lout who could not have written one line of any play ascribed to him. (Beetle wondered what King would say to Nathaniel if ever they met.) The real author was Francis Bacon, of Bacon’s Essays, which did not strike Beetle as any improvement. He had ‘done’ the essays last term. But evidently Nathaniel’s views annoyed people, for the margins of his book — it was second-hand, and the old label of a public library still adhered — flamed with ribald, abusive, and contemptuous comments by various hands. They ranged from ‘Rot!’ ‘Rubbish!’ and such-like to crisp counter-arguments. And several times some one had written: ‘This beats Delia.’ One copious annotator dissented, saying: ‘Delia is supreme in this line,’ ‘Delia beats this hollow.’ ‘See Delia’s Philosophy, page so and so.’ Beetle grieved he could not find anything about Delia (he had often heard King’s views on lady-writers as a class) beyond a statement by Nathaniel, with pencilled exclamation-points rocketing all round it, that ‘Delia Bacon discovered in Francis Bacon a good deal more than Macaulay.’ Taking it by and large, with the kind help of the marginal notes, it appeared that Delia and Nathaniel between them had perpetrated every conceivable outrage against the Head–God of King’s idolatry: and King was particular about his idols. Without pronouncing on the merits of the controversy, it occurred to Beetle that a well-mixed dose of Nathaniel ought to work on King like a seidlitz powder. At this point a pencil and a half sheet of impot-paper came into action, and he went down to tea so swelled with Baconian heresies and blasphemies that he could only stutter between mouthfuls. He returned to his labours after the meal, and was visibly worse at prep.
‘I say,’ he began, ‘have you ever heard that Shakespeare never wrote his own beastly plays?’
‘‘Fat lot of good to us!’ said Stalky. ‘We’ve got to swot ’em up just the same. Look here! This is for English parsin’ tomorrow. It’s your biznai.’ He read swiftly from the school Lear (Act II. Sc. 2) thus
STEWARD: ‘Never any:
It pleased the King his master, very late.
To strike at me, upon his misconstruction;
When he, conjunct, an’ flatterin’ his displeasure.
Tripped me behind: bein’ down, insulted, railed.
And put upon him such a deal of man.
That worthy’d him, got praises of the King
For him attemptin’ who was self-subdued;
And, in the fleshment of this dread exploit.
Drew on me here again.
‘Now then, my impassioned bard, construez! That’s Shakespeare.’
‘‘Give it up! He’s drunk,’ Beetle declared at the end of a blank half minute.
‘No, he isn’t,’ said Turkey. ‘He’s a steward — on the estate — chattin’ to his employers.’
‘Well — look here, Turkey. You ask King if Shakespeare ever wrote his own plays, an’ he won’t give a dam’ what the steward said.’
‘I’ve not come here to play with ushers,’ was McTurk’s view of the case.
‘I’d do it,’ Beetle protested, ‘only he’d slay me! He don’t love me when I ask about things. I can give you the stuff to draw him — tons of it!’ He broke forth into a precis, interspersed with praises, of Nathaniel Holmes and his commentators — especially the latter. He also mentioned Delia, with sorrow that he had not read her. He spoke through nearly the whole of prep; and the upshot of it was that McTurk relented and promised to approach King next ‘English’ on the authenticity of Shakespeare’s plays.
The time and tone chosen were admirable. While King was warming himself by a preliminary canter round the Form’s literary deficiencies, Turkey coughed in a style which suggested a reminder to a slack employee that it was time to stop chattering and get to work. As King began to bristle, Turkey inquired: ‘I’d be glad to know, sir, if it’s true that Shakespeare did not write his own plays at all?’
‘Good God!’ said King most distinctly. Turkey coughed again piously. ‘They all say so in Ireland, sir.’
‘Ireland–Ireland — Ireland!’ King overran Ireland with one blast of flame that should have been written in letters of brass for instruction today. At the end, Turkey coughed once more, and the cough said: ‘It is Shakespeare, and not my country, that you are hired to interpret to me.’ He put it directly, too: ‘An’ is it true at all about the alleged plays, sir?’
‘It is not,’ Mr. King whispered, and began to explain, on lines that might, perhaps, have been too freely expressed for the parents of those young (though it gave their offspring delight), but with a passion, force, and wealth of imagery which would have crowned his discourse at any university. By the time he drew towards his peroration the Form was almost openly applauding. Howell noiselessly drummed the cadence of ‘Bonnie Dundee’ on his desk; Paddy Vernon framed a dumb: ‘Played! Oh, well played, sir!’ at intervals; Stalky kept tally of the brighter gems of invective; and Beetle sat aghast but exulting among the spirits he had called up. For though their works had never been mentioned, and though Mr. King said he had merely glanced at the obscene publications, he seemed to know a tremendous amount about Nathaniel and Delia — especially Delia.
‘I told you so!’ said Beetle, proudly, at the end.
‘What? Him! I wasn’t botherin’ myself to listen to him an’ his Delia,’ McTurk replied.
Afterwards King fought his battle over again with the Reverend John in the Common Room.
‘Had I been that triple ass Hume, I might have risen to the bait. As it is, I flatter myself I left them under no delusions as to Shakespeare’s authenticity. Yes, a small drink, please. Virtue has gone out of me indeed. But where did they get it from?’
‘The devil! The young devil,’ the Reverend John muttered, half aloud.
‘I could have excused devilry. It was ignorance. Sheer, crass, insolent provincial ignorance! I tell you, Gillett, if the Romans had dealt faithfully with the Celt, ab initio, this — this would never have happened.’
‘Quite so. I should like to have heard your remarks.’
‘I’ve told ’em to tell me what they remember of them, with their own conclusions, in essay form next week.’
Since he had loosed the whirlwind, the fairminded Beetle offered to do Turkey’s essay for him. On Turkey’s behalf, then, he dealt with Shakespeare’s lack of education, his butchering, poaching, drinking, horse-holding, and errandrunning as Nathaniel had described them; lifted from the same source pleasant names, such as ‘rustic’ and ‘sorry poetaster,’ on which last special hopes were built; and expressed surprise that one so ignorant could have done ‘what he was attributed to.’ His own essay contained no novelties. Indeed, he withheld one or two promising ‘subsequently transpireds’ for fear of distracting King.
But, when the essays were read, Mr. King confined himself wholly to Turkey’s pitiful, puerile, jejune, exploded, unbaked, half-bottomed thesis. He touched, too, on the ‘lie in the soul,’ which was, fundamentally, vulgarity — the negation of Reverence and the Decencies. He broke forth into an impassioned defence of ‘mere atheism,’ which he said was often no more than mental flatulence — transitory and curable by knowledge of life — in no way comparable, for essential enormity, with the debasing pagan abominations to which Turkey had delivered himself. He ended with a shocking story about one Jowett, who seemed to have held some post of authority where King came from, and who had told an atheistical undergraduate that if he could not believe in a Personal God by five that afternoon he would be expelled — as, with tears of rage in his eyes, King regretted that he could not expel McTurk. And Turkey blew his nose in the middle of it.
But the aim of education being to develop individual judgment, King could not well kill him for his honest doubts about Shakespeare. And he himself had several times quoted, in respect to other poets: ‘There lives more faith in honest doubt, Believe me, than in half the creeds.’ So he treated Turkey in Form like a coiled puff-adder; and there was a tense peace among the Augustans. The only ripple was the day before the Army Examiner came, when Beetle inquired if he ‘need take this exam., sir, as I’m not goin’ up for anything.’ Mr. King said there was great need — for many reasons, none of them flattering to vanity.
As far as the Army Class could judge, the Examiner was not worse than his breed, and the written ‘English’ paper ran closely on the lines of King’s mid-term General Knowledge test. Howell played his ‘impassioned Diderot’ to the Richardson lead; Stalky his parson in the wig; McTurk his contemptible Swift; Beetle, Steele’s affectionate notes out of the spunginghouse to ‘Dearest Prue,’ all in due order. There were, however, one or two leading questions about Shakespeare. A boy’s hand shot up from a back bench.
‘In answering Number Seven — reasons for Shakespeare’s dramatic supremacy,’ he said, ‘are we to take it Shakespeare did write the plays he is supposed to have written, sir?’
The Examiner hesitated an instant. ‘It is generally assumed that he did.’ But there was no reproof in his words. Beetle began to sit down slowly.
Another hand and another voice: ‘Have we got to say we believe he did, sir? Even if we do not?’
‘You are not called upon to state your beliefs. But we can go into that at viva voce this afternoon — if it interests you.’
‘Thank you, sir.’
‘What did you do that for?’ Paddy Vernon demanded at dinner.
‘It’s the lost tribes of Israel game, you ass,’ said Howell.
‘To make sure,’ Stalky amplified. ‘If he was like King, he’d have shut up Beetle an’ Turkey at the start, but he’d have thought King gave us the Bacon notion. Well, he didn’t shut ’em up; so they’re playin’ it again this afternoon. If he stands it then, he’ll be sure King gave us the notion. Either way, it’s dead-safe for us, an’ King.’
At the afternoon’s viva voce, before they sat down to the Augustans, the Examiner wished to hear, ‘with no bearing on the examination, of course,’ from those two candidates who had asked him about Question Seven. Which were they?
‘Take off your gigs, you owl,’ said Stalky between his teeth. Beetle pocketed them and looked into blurred vacancy with a voice coming out of it that asked: ‘Who — what gave you that idea about Shakespeare?’ From Stalky’s kick he knew the question was for him.
‘Some people say, sir, there’s a good deal of doubt about it nowadays, sir.’
‘Ye-es, that’s true, but —’
‘It’s his knowin’ so much about legal phrases.’ Turkey was in support — a lone gun barking somewhere to his right.
‘That is a crux, I admit. Of course, whatever one may think privately, officially Shakespeare is Shakespeare. But how have you been taught to look at the question?’
‘Well, Holmes says it’s impossible he could —’
‘On the legal phraseology alone, sir,’ McTurk chimed in.
‘Ah, but the theory is that Shakespeare’s experiences in the society of that day brought him in contact with all the leading intellects.’ The Examiner’s voice was quite colloquial now.
‘But they didn’t think much of actors then, sir, did they?’ This was Howell cooing like a cushat dove. ‘I mean —’
The Examiner explained the status of the Elizabethan actor in some detail, ending: ‘And that makes it the more curious, doesn’t it?’
‘And this Shakespeare was supposed to be writin’ plays and actin’ in ’em all the time?’ McTurk asked, with sinister meaning.
‘Exactly what I— what lots of people have pointed out. Where did he get the time to acquire all his special knowledge?’
‘Then it looks as if there was something in it, doesn’t it, sir?’
‘That,’ said the Examiner, squaring his elbows at ease on the desk, ‘is a very large question which —’
‘Yes, sir!’— in half-a-dozen eagerly attentive keys . . .
For decency’s sake a few Augustan questions were crammed in conscience-strickenly, about the last ten minutes. Howell took them since they involved dates, but the answers, though highly marked, were scarcely heeded. When the clock showed six-thirty the Examiner addressed them as ‘Gentlemen’; and said he would have particular pleasure in speaking well of this Army Class, which had evinced such a genuine and unusual interest in English Literature, and which reflected the greatest credit on their instructors. He passed out: the Form upstanding, as custom was.
‘He’s goin’ to congratulate King,’ said Howell. ‘Don’t make a row! “Don’t-make-a-noise-Or else you’ll wake the Baby!”’ . . .
Mr. King of Balliol, after Mr. Hume of Sutton had complimented him, as was only just, before all his colleagues in Common Room, was kindly taken by the Reverend John to his study, where he exploded on the hearth-rug.
‘He — he thought I had loosed this — this rancid Baconian rot among them. He complimented me on my breadth of mind — my being abreast of the times! You heard him? That’s how they think at Sutton. It’s an open stye! A lair of bestial! They have a chapel there, Gillett, and they pray for their souls — their souls!’
‘His particular weakness apart, Hume was perfectly sincere about what you’d done for the Army Class. He’ll report in that sense, too. That’s a feather in your cap, and a deserved one. He said their interest in Literature was unusual. That is all your work, King.’
‘But I bowed down in the House of Rimmon while he Baconised all over me! — poor devil of an usher that I am! You heard it! I ought to have spat in his eye! Heaven knows I’m as conscious of my own infirmities as my worst enemy can be; but what have I done to deserve this? What have I done?’
‘That’s just what I was wondering,’ the Reverend John replied. ‘Have you, perchance, done anything?’
‘In the Army Class, for example.’
‘Assuredly not! My Army Class? I couldn’t wish for a better — keen, interested enough to read outside their allotted task — intelligent, receptive! They’re head and shoulders above last year’s. The idea that I, forsooth, should, even by inference, have perverted their minds with this imbecile and unspeakable girls’— school tripe that Hume professes! You at least know that I have my standards; and in Literature and in the Classics, I hold maxima debetur pueris reverentia.’
‘It’s singular, not plural, isn’t it?’ said the Reverend John. ‘But you’re absolutely right as to the principle! . . . Ours is a deadly calling, King — especially if one happens to be sensitive.’
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:56