The Unclassed by George Gissing
Chapter X. The Way Out
The ruling spirit of the Academy was Mrs. Tootle. Her husband's constitutional headache, and yet more constitutional laziness, left to her almost exclusively the congenial task of guiding the household, and even of disciplining the school. In lesson-time she would even flit about the classrooms, and not scruple to administer sharp rebukes to a teacher whose pupils were disorderly, the effect of this naturally being to make confusion worse confounded. The boys of course hated her with the hatred of which schoolboys alone are capable, and many a practical joke was played at her expense, not, however, with impunity. Still more pronounced, if possible, was the animus entertained against Mrs. Tootle's offspring, and it was upon the head of Master Felix that the full energy of detestation concentrated itself. He was, in truth, as offensive a young imp as the soil of a middle-class boarding-school could well produce. If Mrs. Tootle ruled the Academy, he in turn ruled Mrs. Tootle, and on all occasions showed himself a most exemplary autocrat. his position, however, as in the case of certain other autocratic rulers, had its disadvantages; he could never venture to wander out of earshot of his father or mother, who formed his body-guard, and the utmost prudence did not suffice to protect him from an occasional punch on the head, or a nip in a tender part, meant probably as earnest of more substantial kindnesses to be conferred upon him at the very earliest opportunity.
To poor Egger fell the unpleasant duty of instructing these young Tootles in the elements of the French language. For that purpose he went up every morning to the class-room on the first floor, and for a while relieved Miss Enderby of her charge. With anguish of spirit he felt the approach of the moment which summoned him to this dread duty, for, in addition to the lively spite of Master Felix and the other children, he had to face the awful superintendence of Mrs. Tootle herself; who was invariably present at these lessons. Mrs. Tootle had somehow conceived the idea that French was a second mother-tongue to her, and her intercourse with Mr. Egger was invariably carried on in that language. Now this was a refinement of torture, seeing that it was often impossible to gather a meaning from her remarks, whilst to show any such difficulty was to incur her most furious wrath. Egger trembled when he heard the rustle of her dress outside, the perspiration stood on his forehead as he rose and bowed before her.
"Bon jour, Monsieur," she would come in exclaiming. "Quel un beau matin! Vous trouverez les jeunes dames et messieurs en bons eaprits ce matin."
The spirits of Master Felix had manifested themselves already in his skilfully standing a book upright on the teacher's chair, so that when Egger subsided from his obeisance he sat down on a sharp edge and was thrown into confusion.
"Monsieur Felix," cried his mother, "que faites-vous la?--Les jeunes messieurs anglais sont plus spirituels que les jeunes messieurs suisses, n'est ce pas, Monsieur Egger?"
"En effet, madame," muttered the teacher, nervously arranging his books.
"Monsieur Egger," exclaimed Mrs. Tootle, with a burst of good humour, "est-ce vrai ce qu'on dit que les Suisses sont si excessivement sujets a etre chez-malades?"
The awful moment had come. What on earth did chez-malades mean? Was he to answer yes or no? In his ignorance of her meaning, either reply might prove offensive. He reddened, fidgeted on his chair, looked about him with an anguished mute appeal for help. Mrs. Tootle repeated her question with emphasis and a change of countenance which he knew too well. The poor fellow had not the tact to appear to understand, and, as he might easily have done, mystify her by some idiomatic remark. He stammered out his apologies and excuses, with the effect of making Mrs. Tootle furious.
Then followed a terrible hour, at the end of which poor Egger rushed down to the Masters' Room, covered his head with his hands and wept, regardless of the boy strumming his exercises on the piano. Waymark shortly came in to summon him to some other class, whereupon he rose, and, with gestures of despair, groaned out--
"Let me, let me!--I have made my possible; I can no more!"
Waymark alone feared neither Mrs. Tootle nor her hopeful son, and, in turn, was held in some little awe by both of them. The lady had at first tried the effect of interfering in his classes, as she did in those of the other masters, but the result was not encouraging.
"Don't you think, Mr. Waymark," she had said one day, as she walked through the school-room and paused to listen to our friend's explanation of some rule in English grammar; "don't you think it would be better to confine yourself to the terms of the doctor's little compendium? The boys are used to it."
"In this case," replied Waymark calmly, "I think the terms of the compendium are rather too technical for the fourth class."
"Still, it is customary in this school to use the compendium, and it has never yet been found unsatisfactory. Whilst you are discoursing at such length, I observe your class gets very disorderly."
Waymark looked at her, but kept silence. Mrs. Tootle stood still.
"What are you waiting for, Mr. Waymark?" she asked sharply.
"Till your presence has ceased to distract the boys' attention, Mrs. Tootle," was the straightforward reply.
The woman was disconcerted, and, as Waymark preserved his calm silence, she had no alternative but to withdraw, after giving him a look not easily forgotten.
But there was another person whose sufferings under the tyranny of mother and children were perhaps keenest of all. Waymark had frequent opportunities of observing Miss Enderby under persecution, and learned to recognise in her the signs of acutest misery. Many times he left the room, rather than add to her pain by his presence; very often it was as much as he could do to refrain from taking her part, and defending her against Mrs. Tootle. He had never been formally introduced to Miss Enderby, and during several weeks held no kind of communication with her beyond a "good morning" when he entered the room and found her there. The first quarter of a year was drawing to a close when there occurred the first conversation between them. Waymark had been giving some of the children their drawing-lesson, whilst the governess taught the two youngest. The class-time being over, the youngsters all scampered off. For a wonder, Mrs. Tootle was not present, anti Waymark seized the opportunity to exchange a word with the young lady.
"I fear your pupils give you dreadful trouble," he said, as he stood by the window pointing a pencil.
She started at being spoken to.
"They are full of life," she replied, in the low sad voice which was natural to her.
"Which would all seem to be directed towards shortening that of others," said Waymark, with a smile.
"They are intelligent," the governess ventured to suggest, after a silence. "It would be a pleasure to teach them if they--if they were a little more orderly."
"Certainly. If their parents had only common sense--"
He stopped. A flush had risen to the girl's face, and a slight involuntary motion of her hand seemed to warn him. The reason was that Mrs. Tootle stood in the doorway, to which he had his back turned. Miss Enderby said a quick "good morning" and left him.
He was taking up some papers, preparatory to leaving the room, when he noticed that the governess had left behind her a little book in which she was accustomed to jot down lessons for the children. He took it up and examined it. On the first page was written "Maud Enderby, South Bank, Regent's Park." He repeated the name to himself several times. Then he smiled, recalling the way in which the governess had warned him that Mrs. Tootle could overhear what he said. Somehow, this slight gesture of the girl's had seemed to bring them closer to each other; there was an unpremeditated touch of intimacy in the movement, which it pleased him to think of. This was by no means the first time that he had stood with thoughts busied about her, but the brief exchange of words and what had followed gave something of a new complexion to his feelings. Previously he had been interested in her; her striking features had made him wonder what was the history which their expression concealed; but her extreme reticence and the timid coldness of her look had left his senses unmoved. Now he all at once experienced the awakening of quite a new interest; there had been something in her eyes as they met his which seemed to desire sympathy; he was struck with the possibilities of emotion in the face which this one look had revealed to him. Her situation seemed, when he thought of it, to affect him more strongly than hitherto; he felt that it would be more difficult henceforth to maintain his calmness when he saw her insulted by Mrs. Tootle or disrespectfully used by the children.
Nor did the new feelings subside as rapidly as they had arisen. At home that night he was unable to settle to his usual occupations, and, as a visit to his friends in the Masters' Room would have been equally distasteful, he rambled about the streets and so tired himself. His duties did not take him up to the children's classroom on the following morning, but he invented an excuse for going there, and felt rewarded by the very faint smile and the inclination of the head with which Miss Enderby returned his "good morning." Day after day, he schemed to obtain an opportunity of speaking with her again, and he fancied that she herself helped to remove any chances that might have occurred. Throughout his lessons, his attention remained fixed upon her; he studied her face intently, and was constantly discovering in it new meanings. When she caught his eyes thus busy with her, she evinced, for a moment, trouble and uneasiness; he felt sure that she arranged her seat so as to have her back to him more frequently than she had been accustomed to do. Her work appeared to him to be done with less self-forgetfulness than formerly; the rioting and impertinence of the children seemed to trouble her more; she bore Mrs. Tootle's interference with something like fear. Once, when Master Felix had gone beyond his wonted licence, in his mother's absence, Waymark went so far as to call him to order. As soon as he had spoken, the girl looked up at him in a startled way, and seemed silently to beg him to refrain. All this only strengthened the influence she exercised upon Waymark.
Since the climax of wretchedness which had resulted in his advertisement and the forming of Julian Casti's acquaintance, a moderate cheerfulness had possessed him. Now he once more felt the clouds sinking about him, was aware of many a threatening portent, the meaning whereof he too well understood. There had been a week or two of prevailing bad weather, a state of things which always wrought harmfully upon him; his thoughts darkened under the dark sky, and the daily downpour of rain sapped his energies. It was within a few days of Easter, but the prospect of a holiday had no effect upon him. Night after night he lay in fever and unrest. He felt as though some voice were calling upon him to undertake a vaguely hazardous enterprise which yet he knew not the nature of.
On one of these evenings, Mr. O'Gree announced to him that Miss Enderby was going to give up her position at the end of the quarter. Philip had gathered this from a conversation heard during the day between Dr. Tootle and his wife.
"The light of my life will be gone out," exclaimed O'Gree, "when I am no longer able to catch a glimpse of her as she goes past the schoolroom door. And I've never even had a chance of speaking to her. You know the tale of Raleigh and Queen Elizabeth. Suppose I were to rush out and throw my top-coat on the muddy door-step, just as she's going out; d'ye think she'd say thank you?"
"Probably," muttered Waymark, without knowing what he said. It was Mr. O'Gree's habit to affect this violent devotion to each new governess in turn, but Waymark did not seem to find the joke amusing at present.
"Bedad, I'll do it then! Or, rather, I would, if I'd two top-coats. Hang it! There's no behaving like a gentleman on twenty-five pounds a year."
Waymark walked about the streets the greater part of the night, and the next morning came to school rather late. Dr. Tootle had to consult with him about some matter as soon as he arrived.
"You seem indisposed, Mr. Waymark," the doctor remarked, when he had in vain tried to elicit intelligible replies to his questions.
"I am a little out of sorts," the other returned carelessly. "Perhaps we could talk about these things to-morrow."
"As you please," said Dr. Tootle, a little surprised at his assistant's indifference.
It was a drawing-lesson morning. As he went upstairs, his ears apprised him of the state of things he would find m Miss Enderby's room. The approach of the Easter holidays was making the youngsters even more than usually uproarious, and their insubordination had passed beyond all pretence of attending to tasks. When Waymark entered, his first glance, as always, was towards the governess. She looked harassed and ill; was in vain endeavouring to exert some authority with her gentle voice. Her eyes showed unmistakable gratitude as the teacher appeared, for his approach meant that she would be relieved from the three elder children. Waymark called sharply to his pupils to come and take their places, but without any attention on their part. Master Felix openly urged the rest to assume a defiant attitude, and began to improvise melodies on a trumpet formed by rolling up a copy-book.
"Felix," said Miss Enderby, "give me your copy-book and go to the drawing-lesson."
The boy removed the trumpet from his mouth, and, waving it once round his head, sent it flying across the room at the speaker; it hit her on the cheek. In the same minute, Waymark had bent across his knee a large pointer which stood in a corner of the room, and had snapped it into two pieces. Holding the lighter of these in one hand, with the other hand he suddenly caught Master Felix by the coat-collar, and in a second had him out of the room and on to the landing. Then did the echoes of the Academy wake to such a bellowing as they had probably never heard before. With a grip impossible even to struggle against, Waymark held the young imp under his arm, and plied the broken pointer with great vigour; the stripes were almost as loud as the roarings. There was a rush from the rooms below in the direction of the disturbance; all the boys were in a trice leaping about delightedly on the stairs, and behind them came O'Gree, Egger, and Dr. Tootle himself. From the room above rushed out all the young Tootles, yelling for help. Last of all, from still higher regions of the house there swept down a vision of disordered female attire, dishevelled hair, and glaring eyes; it was Mrs. Tootle, disturbed at her toilet, forgetting all considerations of personal appearance at the alarming outcry. Just as she reached the spot, Waymark's arm dropped in weariness; he flung the howling young monkey into one corner, the stick into another, and deliberately pulled his coat-sleeves into position once more. He felt vastly better for the exercise, and there was even a smile on his heated face.
"You brutal ruffian!" shrieked Mrs. Tootle. "How dare you touch my child? You shall answer for this in the police court, sir."
"Waymark," cried her husband, who had struggled to the scene through the crowd of cheering boys, "what's the meaning of this? You forget yourself, sir. Who gave you authority to use corporal chastisement?"
"The boy has long deserved a good thrashing," he said, "and I'm glad I lost my temper sufficiently to give him a portion of his deserts. If you wish to know the immediate cause, it simply was that he threw a book at his governess's head and hit her."
"Mr. O'Gree," called out the doctor, "take your boys back to their duties, sir! I am quite unable to understand this disgraceful lack of discipline. Every boy who is not at his seat in one minute will have five hundred verses of the Psalms to write out!--Mr. Waymark, I shall be obliged to you if you will step into my study."
Five minutes after, Waymark was closeted with Dr. Tootle. The latter had all at once put off his appearance of indignation.
"Really," he began, "it's a great pity you let yourself be carried away like that. I think it very probable indeed that Felix deserved castigation of some kind, but you would have done much better to report him to me, you know, and let me see to it. You have put me in an awkward position. I fear you must make an apology to Mrs. Tootle, and then perhaps the matter can be allowed to blow over."
"I think not," replied Waymark, whose mind was evidently made up. There was a look of recklessness on his face which one could at any time have detected lurking beneath the hard self-control which usually marked him. "I don't feel disposed to apologise, and I am tired of my position here. I must give it up."
Dr. Tootle was annoyed. It would not be easy to get another teacher of the kind at so cheap a rate.
"Come, you don't mean this," he said. "You are out of temper for the moment. Perhaps the apology could be dispensed with; I think I may promise that it can be. The lad will be no worse for his little correction. Possibly we can come to some more satisfactory arrangements for the future--"
"No," interposed Waymark; "I have quite made up my mind. I mean to give up teaching altogether; it doesn't suit me. Of course I am willing to come as usual the next two days."
"You are aware that this notice should have been given me at the beginning of the quarter?" hinted the principal.
"Oh yes. Of course you will legally owe me nothing. I am prepared for that."
"Well, I shall have to consider it. But I still think that you--"
"As far as I am concerned, the matter is decided. I go at Easter."
"Very well. I think you are blind to your own interest, but of course you do as you please. If Mrs. Tootle should press me to take out a summons against you for assault, of course I--"
"Good morning, Dr. Tootle."
The summons was not taken out, but Waymark's resolution suffered no change. There was another interview between him and the principal, from which he issued with the sum of six pounds ten in his pocket, being half the quarter's salary. He had not applied for this, but did not refuse it when it was offered. Seeing that the total amount of cash previously in his possession was something less than five shillings, he did wisely, perhaps, to compromise with his dignity, and let Dr. Tootle come out of the situation with a certain show of generosity.