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Breaking Up

The schools have by this time all "broken up," if that is still the term which expresses the beginning of their vacation. "Breaking up" is no longer the festival that it was in the good old coaching days--nothing is what it was in the good old coaching days. Boys can no longer pass a whole happy day driving through the country and firing peas at the wayfaring man. They have to travel by railway, and other voyagers may well pray that their flight be not on breaking-up day. The untrammelled spirits of boyhood are very much what they have always been. Boys fill the carriages to overflowing. They sing, they shout, they devour extraordinary quantities of refreshment, they buy whole libraries of railway novels, and, generally speaking, behave as if the earth and the fulness of it were their own. This is trying to the mature traveller, who has plenty of luggage on his mind, and who wishes to sleep or to read the newspaper. Boys have an extraordinary knack of losing their own luggage, and of appearing at home, like the companions of Ulysses, "bearing with them only empty hands." This is usually their first exploit in the holidays. Their arrival causes great excitement among their little sisters, and in the breasts of their fathers wakens a presentiment of woe. When a little boy comes home his first idea is to indulge in harmless swagger. When Tom Tulliver went to school, he took some percussion caps with him that the other lads might suppose him to be familiar with the use of guns. The schoolboy has other devices for keeping up the manly character in the family circle. The younger ones gather round him while he narrates the adventures of himself, and Smith minor, and Walker (of Briggs's house), in a truly epic spirit. He has made unheard-of expeditions up the river, has chaffed a farmer almost into apoplexy, has come in fifth in the house paper-chase, has put the French master to open shame, and has got his twenty-two colours. These are the things that make a boy respected by his younger brothers, and admired by his still younger sisters. They of course have a good deal to tell him. The setter puppies must be inspected. A match is being got up with the village eleven, who are boastful and confident in the possession of a bowling curate. To this the family hero rejoins that "he will crump the parson," a threat not so awful as it sounds. There is a wasps' nest which has been carefully preserved for this eventful hour, and which is to be besieged with boiling water, gunpowder, and other engines of warfare. Thus the schoolboy's first days at home are a glorious hour of crowded sport.

It cannot be denied that, as the holidays go on, a biggish boy sometimes finds time hang heavy on his hands, while his father and mother find him hang heavy on theirs. The first excitement rubs off. The fun of getting up handicap races among children under twelve years of age wears away. One cannot always be taking wasps' nests. Of course there are many happy boys who live in the country, and pursue the pleasures of manhood with the zest of extreme youth. Before they are fourteen, they have a rod on a salmon river, a gun on a moor, horses and yachts, and boats at their will, with keepers and gillies to do their bidding. Others, not so much indulged by fortune and fond parents, live at least among hills and streams, or by the sea. They are never "in the way," for they are always in the open air. Their summer holidays may be things to look back upon all through life. Natural history, and the beauty of solitary nature; the joys of the swimmer in deep river pools shut in with cool grey walls of rock, and fringed with fern; the loveliness of the high table lands, and the intense hush that follows sunset by the trout stream--these things are theirs, and become a part of their consciousness. In later and wearier years these spectacles will flash before their eyes unbidden, they will see the water dimpled by rising trout, and watch the cattle stealing through the ford, and disappearing, grey shapes, in the grey of the hills.

In boyhood, the legends that cling to ancient castles where only a shell of stone is standing, and to the ash-trees that grow by the feudal gateway, and supplied the wood for spear shafts--these and all the stories of red men that haunt the moors, and of kelpies that make their dwelling in the waters, become very real to us when standing in the dusk by a moorland loch. If some otter or great fish breaks the water and the stillness with a sudden splash, a boy feels a romantic thrill, a pause of expectation, that later he will never experience. "The thoughts of a boy are long, long thoughts," says the poet; he thinks them out by himself on the downs, or the hills, and tells them to nobody.

If we all lived in the country, the advent of boys would not be a thing to contemplate with secret dread. It is rather a terrible thing, a houseful of boys in a town, or in a pretty thickly populated district. Boys, it is true, are always a source of pleasure to the humorist and the scientific observer of mankind. They are scarcely our fellow-creatures, so to speak; they live in a world of their own, ruled by eccentric traditional laws. They have their own heroes, and are much more interested in Mr. Alan Steel or Lohmann than in persons like Mr. Arthur Balfour, whose cricket is only middling. They have rules of conduct which cannot be called immoral, but which are certainly relics of a very ancient state of tribal morality. The humour of it is that the modern boy is so grave, so self-assured, and has such abundance of aplomb. He has acquired an air of mysterious sagacity, and occasionally seems to smile at the petty interests with which men divert themselves. In a suburban or city home, he can find very little that he thinks worth doing, and then he becomes discontented and disagreeable. It is better that he should do that, perhaps, than that he should aim at being a dandy. The boy-dandy is an odd, and at bottom a slovenly, creature. He is fond of varnished boots, of pink neckties, of lavender-coloured gloves, and, above all, of scent. The quantity of scent that a lad of sixteen will pour on his handkerchief is something perfectly astounding. In this stage of his development he is addicted to falling into love, or rather into flirtation. He keeps up a correspondence with a young lady in Miss Pinkerton's establishment. They see each other in church, when he looks unutterable things from the gallery. This kind of boy is not unlikely to interest himself, speculatively, in horse-races. He has communications with a bookmaker who finds Boulogne a salubrious residence. He would like to know the officers, if his home is in a garrison town, and he humbly imitates these warriors at an immense distance. He passes much time in trying to colour a pipe. This is not a nice sort of boy to have at home for the holidays, nor is it likely that he does much good when he is at school. It is pleasanter to think of the countless jolly little fellows of twelve, who are happily busy all day with lawn-tennis, cricket, and general diversion in the open air. Their appearance, their manly frankness, their modesty and good temper, make their homes happier in the holidays than in the quieter nine months of the year. Let us hope that they will not put off their holiday tasks to be learned in the train on their way back to school. This, alas, is the manner of boyhood.


Andrew Lang