Chapter IV: The Worms Turn
 

"I say, it's a shame, a beastly shame!" Ned Sankey exclaimed passionately as the boys came out from school one day.

Generally they poured out in a confused mass, eager for the fresh air and anxious to forget in play the remembrance of the painful hours in school; but today they came out slowly and quietly, each with a book in his hand, for they had tasks set them which would occupy every moment till the bell sounded again.

"Every one says they know nothing about the cat. I don't know whether it's true or not, for I am sorry to say some of the fellows will tell lies to escape the cane, but whether it is so or not he's no right to punish us all for what can only be the fault of one or two."

That morning the cat, which was the pet of Mr. Hathorn and his wife, had been found dead near the door of the schoolhouse. It had been most brutally knocked about. One of its eyes had been destroyed, its soft fur was matted with blood, and it had evidently been beaten to death. That the cat was no favorite with the boys was certain. The door between the schoolroom and the house was unfastened at night, and the cat in her pursuit of mice not unfrequently knocked over inkstands, and the ink, penetrating into the desks, stained books and papers, and more than one boy had been caned severely for damage due to the night prowlings of the cat.

Threats of vengeance against her had often been uttered, and when the cat was found dead it was the general opinion in the school that one or other of their comrades had carried out his threats, but no suspicion fell upon any one in particular. The boys who were most likely to have done such a thing declared their innocence stoutly.

Mr. Hathorn had no doubt on the subject. The cane had been going all the morning, and he had told them that extra tasks would be given which would occupy all their playtime until the offender was given up to judgment.

In point of fact the boys were altogether innocent of the deed. Pussy was a noted marauder, and having been caught the evening before in a larder, from which she had more than once stolen titbits, she had been attacked by an enraged cook with a broomstick, and blows had been showered upon her until the woman, believing that life was extinct, had thrown her outside into the road; but the cat was not quite dead, and had, after a time, revived sufficiently to drag her way home, only, however, to die.

"I call it a shame!" Ned repeated. "Mind, I say it's a brutal thing to ill treat a cat like that. If she did knock down inkstands and get fellows into rows it was not her fault. It's natural cats should run after mice, and the wainscoting of the schoolroom swarmed with them. One can hear them chasing each other about and squeaking all day. If I knew any of the fellows had killed the cat I should go straight to Hathorn and tell him.

"You might call it sneaking if you like, but I would do it, for I hate such brutal cruelty. I don't see how it could have been any of the fellows, for they would have had to get out of the bedroom and into it again; besides, I don't see how they could have caught the cat if they did get out; but whether it was one of the fellows or not makes no difference. I say it's injustice to punish every one for the fault of one or two fellows.

"I suppose he thinks that in time we shall give up the names of the fellows who did it. As far as I am concerned, it will be just the other way. If I had known who had done it this morning, when he accused us, I should have got up and said so, because I think fellows who treat dumb animals like that are brutes that ought to be punished, but I certainly would not sneak because Hathorn punished me unjustly. I vote we all refuse to do the work he has set us."

This bold proposition was received with blank astonishment.

"But he would thrash us all fearfully," Tompkins said.

"He daren't if we only stuck together. Why, he wouldn't have a chance with us if we showed fight. If we were to say to him, 'We won't do these extra tasks; and if you touch one of us the whole lot will pitch into you,' what could he do then?"

"I will tell you what he could do, Sankey," Tom Room, a quiet, sensible boy, replied. "If we were in a desert island it would be all well enough, he could not tyrannize over us then: but here it is different. He would just put on his hat and go into the town, and in ten minutes he would he back again with the six constables, and if that wasn't enough he could get plenty of other men, and where would our fighting be then? We should all get the most tremendous licking we have ever had, and get laughed at besides through the town for a pack of young fools."

Ned broke into a good tempered laugh.

"Of course you are right, Room. I only thought about Hathorn himself. Still, it is horribly unfair. I will do it today. But if he goes on with it, as he threatens, I won't do it, let him do what he likes."

For some days this state of things continued. There was no longer any sound of shouting and laughter in the playground. The boys walked about moody and sullen, working at their lessons. They were fast becoming desperate. No clue had been obtained as to the destroyer of the cat, and the schoolmaster declared that if it took him months to break their spirits he would do it.

Ned Sankey had said nothing at home as to his troubles. His father noticed that he ran off again as soon as his dinner was over, and that he no longer said anything as to the sports in which he was engaged in playtime; also, that his lessons occupied him from tea time until he went up to bed.

"Anything is better than this," Ned said one day to some of the boys of his own age. "In my opinion it's better to have a regular row. What Room said was quite true; we shall get the worst of it; but the story will then come out, and it will be seen what a beastly tyranny we have been undergoing. I tell you, I for one will not stand it any longer, so here goes," and he threw his book up into a tree, in whose branches it securely lodged.

His comrades followed his example, and the news that Sankey and some of the other fellows were determined to put up with it no longer soon spread, and in five minutes not a book was to be seen in the playground. The spirit of resistance became strong and general, and when the bell rang the boys walked into the schoolroom silent and determined, but looking far less moody and downcast than usual. Mr. Hathorn took his seat at his desk.

"The first class will come up and say their tasks."

Not a boy moved in his seat.

"The first class will come up and say their tasks," the master repeated, bringing his cane down with angry emphasis on the desk.

Still no one moved.

"What does this mean?" he shouted, rising from his seat.

"It means, sir," Ned Sankey said, rising also, "that we are determined, all of us, that we will learn no more extra tasks. None of us, so far as we know, ever touched your cat, and we are not going to submit to be punished any longer for a fault which none of us have committed."

"No, no," rose in a general chorus through the schoolroom, "we will do no more tasks."

Mr. Hathorn stood petrified with astonishment and white with anger.

"So you are at the bottom of this, Sankey. I will make an example of you."

So saying, he took a stride forward toward Ned. In an instant a shower of books flew at him from all parts of the room. Infuriated by the attack, he rushed forward with his cane raised. Ned caught up a heavy inkstand.

"If you touch me," he shouted, "I will fling this at your head."

Mr. Hathorn hesitated. The shower of books had not affected him, but the heavy missile in Ned's hand was a serious weapon. In another moment he sprang forward and brought his cane down with all his force upon Ned's back.

Ned at once hurled the heavy inkstand at him. The schoolmaster sprang on one side, but it struck him on the shoulder, and he staggered back.

"You have broken my shoulder, you young scoundrel!" he exclaimed.

"I shouldn't care if I had broken your head," Ned retorted, white with passion; "it would have served you right if I had killed you, you tyrant."

"One of you go and fetch a constable," Mr. Hathorn said to the boys.

"Let him send his servant. He will find me at home. Mr. Hathorn, I am not going to run away, you need not think it. Give me in charge if you dare; I don't care what they do to me, but the whole country shall know what a tyrant you are."

So saying, he collected his books, put his cap on his head, and walked from the schoolroom, the boys cheering him loudly as he went. On reaching home he went at once to his father's study.

"I am sorry to say, sir, that there has been a row in the school, and Hathorn has threatened to send a constable here after me for throwing an inkstand at him."

"Throwing an inkstand!" Captain Sankey exclaimed. "Is it possible?"

"It is quite possible and quite true; he has been treating us shamefully for the last ten days; he has been always a cruel brute all along, though I never wanted to make a fuss about it, but it has been getting worse and worse. Ten days ago some one killed his cat, and I am almost sure it was none of the boys, but he chose to believe it was, and because he couldn't find out who, he has punished the whole school, and all our play hours have been taken up with lessons ever since, and he said he would keep on so till he found out who did it, if it was months.

"So at last we could not stand it any longer, and we all agreed that we wouldn't do the extra tasks, and that we would stick together when we told him so. He rushed at me with his cane, and gave me one with all his might, and I threw an inkstand at him, and it caught him on the shoulder, and he says it has broken it, and that he would send for a constable. So I told him to do so if he dared, and here I am."

"This is a very serious business, Ned," his father said gravely. "In the first place, there is something like a rebellion in the school, of which, I suppose, you were one of the leaders or he would not have singled you out. In the second place, you threw a missile at him, which has broken his shoulder, and might have killed him had it struck him on the head. I have warned you, my boy, over and over again against giving way to that passionate temper of yours, and have told you that it would lead you into serious trouble."

"I can't help it, sir," Ned said doggedly. "I've put up with a tremendous lot there, and have said nothing about it, because I did not wish to give you trouble; but when it came to downright tyranny like this I would rather be killed than put up with it. I warned him fairly that if he struck me I would throw the inkstand at him, and he brought it on himself."

Captain Sankey seeing that in his son's present state of mind talking would be useless to him, ordered him to remain in his study till his return, and putting on his hat went toward the school. Ned's temper had always been a source of anxiety to him. The boy was, no doubt, of a passionate nature, but had he had the advantage of a proper supervision and care when he was a child the tendency might have been overcome. Unfortunately this had not been the case. His mother had left the children entirely to the care of ayahs, he himself had been far too occupied with his regimental duties to be able to superintend their training, while Abijah's hands had been too full with the management of the house, which entirely devolved upon her, and with the constant attention demanded by Mrs. Sankey, to give them any close superintendence. Thus like most children born in India and left entirely in the charge of colored nurses, Ned had acquired the habit of giving way to bursts of ungovernable passion; for the black nurses have no authority over their young charges, unless seconded and supported by the firmness of their mothers. In this case no such support had been forthcoming.

Mrs. Sankey hated being troubled, and the ayahs always found that any complaints to her recoiled upon themselves, for she always took the part of her children, and insisted that the fault lay on the side of the nurses and not on them. The natural result was, that the ayahs ceased to trouble her, and found it easier to allow the children to do as they chose, and to give way quietly to Ned's outbursts of passion.

Captain Sankey knew nothing of all this. Ned was very fond of him, and was always bright and good tempered when with his father, and it was not until he left India and was thrown more with him that Captain Sankey discovered how grievously Ned's disposition, which was in other respects a fine one, was marred by the habit which had been encouraged by indulgence and want of control. Then he set to work earnestly to remedy the mischief, but the growth of years is hard to eradicate, and although under the influence of the affection for his father and his own good sense Ned had so far conquered himself that his fits of passion were few and far between, the evil still existed, and might yet, as his father felt, lead to consequences which would mar his whole life.

Thinking the matter sadly over, Captain Sankey was proceeding toward the school when he met one of the constables. The man touched his hat and stopped.

"This be a moighty oonpleasant business, captain," he said; "your boy, he ha' been and battered schoolmaister; and t' doctor says he ha' broke his collarbone. Oi ha' got to take him afore t' magistrate."

"Very well, Harper," Captain Sankey said quietly; "of course you must do your duty. It is a sad business, and I was on my way to the school to see if the matter could not be arranged; however, as it has been put in your hands it is now too late, and things must take their course; the magistrates are not sitting today. I will guarantee that my son shall be present at the sitting on Thursday, I suppose that will be sufficient?"

"Yes, oi supposes if you promises to produce him, that will do," the constable said. "Oi doan't suppose as nought will come o't; these schoolmaister chaps does thrash t' boys cruel, and oi ain't surprised as t' little chaps roises ag'in it soometoimes. T'others all seem moighty glad o' it: oi heard 'em shouting and, cheering in t' yard as if they was all mad."

Captain Sankey shook his head. "I'm afraid the magistrates won't see it in that light, Harper; discipline is discipline. However, we must hope for the best."

The story that there had been a rebellion among the boys at Hathorn's, that the schoolmaster had his shoulder broken, and that Captain Sankey's son was to go before the magistrates, spread rapidly through Marsden, and the courthouse was crowded at the sitting of the magistrates on Thursday.

There were two magistrates on the bench. Mr. Thompson the local banker, and Squire Simmonds of Lathorpe Hall, three miles from the town. Several minor cases were first disposed of, and then Ned's name was called. Captain Sankey had been accommodated with a seat near the magistrates, with both of whom he had some personal acquaintance. Ned was sitting by the side of the lawyer whom his father had retained to defend him; he now moved quietly into the dock, while Mr. Hathorn, with his arm in a sling, took his place in the witness box.

Ned had recovered now from his fit of passion, and looked amused rather than concerned as the schoolmaster gave his evidence as to the fray in the schoolroom.

"I have a few questions to ask you, Mr. Hathorn," Mr. Wakefield, Ned's lawyer, said. "Had you any reason for expecting any outbreak of this kind among your boys?"

"None whatever," Mr. Hathorn said.

"You use the cane pretty freely, I believe, sir."

"I use it when it is necessary," Mr. Hathorn replied.

"Ah, and how often do you consider it necessary?"

"That must depend upon circumstances."

"You have about thirty boys, I think?"

"About thirty."

"And you consider it necessary that at least fifteen out of that thirty should be caned every day. You must have got a very bad lot of boys, Mr. Hathorn?"

"Not so many as that," the schoolmaster said, flushing.

"I shall be prepared to prove to your worships," the lawyer said, "that for the last six months the average of boys severely caned by this man has exceeded sixteen a day, putting aside such minor matters as one, two, or three vicious cuts with the cane given at random. It fortunately happened, as I find from my young friend in the dock, that one of the boys has, from motives of curiosity, kept an account for the last six months of the number of boys thrashed every day. I have sent round for him, and he is at present in court."

Mr. Hathorn turned pale, and he began to think that it would have been wiser for him to have followed Ned's advice, and not to have brought the matter into court.

"Your worships," the lawyer said, "you have been boys, as I have, and you can form your own ideas as to the wretchedness that must prevail among a body of lads of whom more than half are caned daily. This, your worships, is a state of tyranny which might well drive any boys to desperation. But I have not done with Mr. Hathorn yet.

"During the ten days previous to this affair things wore even more unpleasant than usual in your establishment, were they not, sir? I understand that the whole of the boys were deprived of all play whatever, and that every minute was occupied by extra tasks, and moreover the prospect was held out to them that this sort of thing would continue for months."

There had already been several demonstrations of feeling in court, but at this statement by the lawyer there was a general hiss. The schoolmaster hesitated before replying.

"Now, Mr. Hathorn," the lawyer said briskly, "we want neither hesitation nor equivocation. We may as well have it from you, because if you don't like telling the truth I can put the thirty miserable lads under your charge into the box one after the other."

"They have had extra tasks to do during their play time," Mr. Hathorn said, "because they refused to reveal which among them brutally murdered my cat."

"And how do you know they murdered your cat?"

"I am sure they did," the schoolmaster said shortly.

"Oh! you are sure they did! And why are you so sure? Had they any grudge against your cat?"

"They pretended they had a grudge."

"What for, Mr. Hathorn?"

"They used to accuse her of upsetting the ink bottles when they did it themselves."

"You did not believe their statements, I suppose?"

"Not at all."

"You caned them just the same as if they had done it themselves. At least I am told so."

"Of course I caned them, especially as I knew that they were telling a lie."

"But if it was a lie, Mr. Hathorn, if this cat did not upset their ink, why on earth should these boys have a grudge against her and murder her?"

The schoolmaster was silent.

"Now I want an answer, sir. You are punishing thirty boys in addition to the sixteen daily canings divided among them; you have cut off all their play time, and kept them at work from the time they rise to the time they go to bed. As you see, according to your own statement, they could have had no grudge against the cat, how are you sure they murdered her?"

"I am quite sure." Mr. Hathorn said doggedly. "Boys have always a spite against cats."

"Now, your honors, you hear this," Mr. Wakefield said. "Now I am about to place in the witness box a very respectable woman, one Jane Tytler, who is cook to our esteemed fellow townsman, Mr. Samuel Hawkins, whose residence is, as you know, not far from this school. She will tell you that, having for some time been plagued by a thieving cat which was in the habit of getting into her larder and carrying off portions of food, she, finding it one day there in the act of stealing a half chicken, fell upon it with a broomstick and killed it, or as she thought killed it, and I imagine most cooks would have acted the same under the circumstances.

"She thought no more about it until she heard the reports in the town about this business at the school, and then she told her master. The dates have been compared, and it is found that she battered this cat on the evening before the Hathorn cat was found dead in the yard. Furthermore, the cat she battered was a white cat with a black spot on one side, and this is the exact description of the Hathorn cat; therefore, your honors, you will see that the assumption, or pretense, or excuse, call it what you will, by which this man justifies his tyrannical treatment of these unfortunate boys has no base or foundation whatever. You can go now, Mr. Hathorn; I have nothing further to say to you."

A loud hiss rose again from the crowded court as the schoolmaster stepped down from the witness box, and Jane Tytler took his place. After giving her evidence she was succeeded by Dick Tompkins in much trepidation. Dick was a most unwilling witness, but he produced the notebook in which he had daily jotted down the number of boys caned, and swore to the general accuracy of the figures.

Mr. Wakefield then asked the magistrates if they would like to hear any further witnesses as to the state of things in the schoolroom. They said that what they had heard was quite sufficient. He then addressed them on the merits of the case, pointing out that although in this case one of the parties was a master and the other a pupil this in no way removed it in the eye of the law from the category of other assaults.

"In this case," he said, "your worships, the affair has arisen out of a long course of tyranny and provocation on the part of one of the parties, and you will observe that this is the party who first commits the assault, while my client was acting solely in self defense.

"It is he who ought to stand in the witness box; and the complainant in the dock, for he is at once the aggressor and the assailant. The law admits any man who is assaulted to defend himself, and there is, so far as I am aware, no enactment whatever to be found in the statute book placing boys in a different category to grownup persons. When your worships have discharged my client, as I have no doubt you will do at once, I shall advise him to apply for a summons for assault against this man Hathorn."

The magistrates consulted together for some time, then the squire, who was the senior, said:

"We are of opinion that Master Sankey, by aiding this rebellion against his master, has done wrongly, and that he erred grievously in discharging a heavy missile at his master; at the same time we think that the provocation that he received by the tyranny which has been proved to have been exercised by Mr. Hathorn toward the boys under his charge, and especially by their unjust punishment for an offense which the complainant conceived without sufficient warrant, or indeed without any warrant at all, that they had committed, to a great extent justifies and excuses the conduct of Master Sankey. Therefore, with a reprimand as to his behavior, and a caution as to the consequences which might have arisen from his allowing his temper to go beyond bounds, we discharge him.

"As to you, sir," he said to the schoolmaster, "we wish to express our opinion that your conduct has been cruel and tyrannical in the extreme, and we pity the unfortunate boys who are under the care of a man who treats them with such cruel harshness as you are proved to have done."

The magistrates now rose, and the court broke up. Many of those present crowded round Ned and shook his hand, congratulating him on the issue; but at a sign from his father the boy drew himself away from them, and joining Captain Sankey, walked home with him.

"The matter has ended better than I expected, Ned," he said gravely; "but pray, my boy, do not let yourself think that there is any reason for triumph. You have been gravely reprimanded, and had the missile you used struck the schoolmaster on the head, you would now be in prison awaiting your trial for a far graver offense, and that before judges who would not make the allowances for you that the magistrates here have done.

"Beware of your temper, Ned, for unless you overcome it, be assured that sooner or later it may lead to terrible consequences."

Ned, who had in fact been inclined to feel triumphant over his success, was sobered by his father's grave words and manner; and resolved that he would try hard to conquer his fault; but evil habits are hard to overcome, and the full force of his father's words was still to come home to him.

He did not, of course, return to Mr. Hathorn's, and indeed the disclosures of the master's severity made at the examination before the magistrates obtained such publicity that several of his pupils were removed at once, and notices were given that so many more would not return after the next holidays that no one was surprised to hear that the schoolmaster had arranged with a successor in the school, and that he himself was about to go to America.

The result was that after the holidays his successor took his place, and many of the fathers who had intended to remove their sons decided to give the newcomer a trial. The school opened with nearly the usual number of pupils. Ned was one of those who went back. Captain Sankey had called on the new master, and had told him frankly the circumstances of the fracas between Ned and Mr. Hathorn.

"I will try your son at any rate, Mr. Sankey," the master said. "I have a strong opinion that boys can be managed without such use of the cane as is generally adopted; that, in my opinion, should be the last resort. Boys are like other people, and will do more for kindness than for blows. By what you tell me, the circumstances of your son's bringing up in India among native servants have encouraged the growth of a passionate temper, but I trust that we may be able to overcome that; at any rate I will give him a trial."

And so it was settled that Ned should return to Porson's, for so the establishment was henceforth to be known.