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Chapter 29

TOMMY THE SCHOLAR


So Miss Ailie could be brave, but what a poltroon she was also! Three
calls did she make on dear friends, ostensibly to ask how a cold was or
to instruct them in a new device in Shetland wool, but really to
announce that she did not propose keeping school after the end of the
term--because--in short, Mr. Ivie McLean and she--that is he--and so on.
But though she had planned it all out so carefully, with at least three
capital ways of leading up to it, and knew precisely what they would
say, and pined to hear them say it, on each occasion shyness conquered
and she came away with the words unspoken. How she despised herself, and
how Mr. McLean laughed! He wanted to take the job off her hands by
telling the news to Dr. McQueen, who could be depended on to spread it
through the town, and Miss Ailie discovered with horror that his simple
plan was to say, "How are you, doctor? I just looked in to tell you that
Miss Ailie and I are to be married. Good afternoon." The audacity of
this captivated Miss Ailie even while it outraged her sense of decency.
To Redlintie went Mr. McLean, and returning next day drew from his
pocket something which he put on Miss Ailie's finger, and then she had
the idea of taking off her left glove in church, which would have
announced her engagement as loudly as though Mr. Dishart had included it
in his pulpit intimations. Religion, however, stopped her when she had
got the little finger out, and the Misses Finlayson, who sat behind and
knew she had an itchy something inside her glove, concluded that it was
her threepenny for the plate. As for Gavinia, like others of her class
in those days, she had never heard of engagement rings, and so it really
seemed as if Mr. McLean must call on the doctor after all. But "No,"
said he, "I hit upon a better notion to-day in the Den," and to explain
this notion he produced from his pocket a large, vulgar bottle, which
shocked Miss Ailie, and indeed that bottle had not passed through the
streets uncommented on.

Mr. McLean having observed this bottle afloat on the Silent Pool, had
fished it out with his stick, and its contents set him chuckling. They
consisted of a sheet of paper which stated that the bottle was being
flung into the sea in lat. 20, long. 40, by T. Sandys, Commander of the
Ailie, then among the breakers. Sandys had little hope of weathering the
gale, but he was indifferent to his own fate so long as his enemy did
not escape, and he called upon whatsoever loyal subjects of the Queen
should find this document to sail at once to lat. 20, long. 40, and
there cruise till they had captured the Pretender, _alias_ Stroke, and
destroyed his Lair. A somewhat unfavorable personal description of
Stroke was appended, with a map of the coast, and a stern warning to all
loyal subjects not to delay as one Ailie was in the villain's hands and
he might kill her any day. Victoria Regina would give five hundred
pounds for his head. The letter ended in manly style with the writer's
sending an affecting farewell message to his wife and little children.

"And so while we are playing ourselves," said Mr. McLean to Miss Ailie,
"your favorite is seeking my blood."

"Our favorite," interposed the school-mistress, and he accepted the
correction, for neither of them could forget that their present
relations might have been very different had it not been for Tommy's
faith in the pass-book. The boy had shown a knowledge of the human
heart, in Miss Ailie's opinion, that was simply wonderful; inspiration
she called it, and though Ivie thought it a happy accident, he did not
call it so to her. Tommy's father had been the instrument in bringing
these two together originally, and now Tommy had brought them together
again; there was fate in it, and if the boy was of the right stuff
McLean meant to reward him.

"I see now," he said to Miss Ailie, "a way of getting rid of our
fearsome secret and making my peace with Sandys at one fell blow." He
declined to tell her more, but presently he sought Gavinia, who dreaded
him nowadays because of his disconcerting way of looking at her
inquiringly and saying "I do!"

"You don't happen to know, Gavinia," he asked, "whether the good ship
Ailie weathered the gale of the 15th instant? If it did," he went on,
"Commander Sandys will learn something to his advantage from a bottle
that is to be cast into the ocean this evening."

Gavinia thought she heard the chink of another five shillings, and her
mouth opened so wide that a chaffinch could have built therein. "Is he
to look for a bottle in the pond?" she asked, eagerly.

"I do," replied McLean with such solemnity that she again retired to the
coal-cellar.

That evening Mr. McLean cast a bottle into the Silent Pool, and
subsequently called on Mr. Cathro, to whom he introduced himself as one
interested in Master Thomas Sandys. He was heartily received, but at the
name of Tommy, Cathro heaved a sigh that could not pass unnoticed. "I
see you don't find him an angel," said Mr. McLean, politely.

"'Deed, sir, there are times when I wish he was an angel," the dominie
replied so viciously that McLean laughed. "And I grudge you that laugh,"
continued Cathro, "for your Tommy Sandys has taken from me the most
precious possession a teacher can have--my sense of humor."

"He strikes me as having a considerable sense of humor himself."

"Well he may, Mr. McLean, for he has gone off with all mine. But bide a
wee till I get in the tumblers, and. I'll tell you the latest about
him--if what you want to hear is just the plain exasperating truth.

"His humor that you spoke of," resumed the school-master presently,
addressing his words to the visitor, and his mind to a toddy ladle of
horn, "is ill to endure in a school where the understanding is that the
dominie makes all the jokes (except on examination-day, when the
ministers get their yearly fling), but I think I like your young friend
worst when he is deadly serious. He is constantly playing some new
part--playing is hardly the word though, for into each part he puts an
earnestness that cheats even himself, until he takes to another. I
suppose you want me to give you some idea of his character, and I could
tell you what it is at any particular moment; but it changes, sir, I do
assure you, almost as quickly as the circus-rider flings off his layers
of waistcoats. A single puff of wind blows him from one character to
another, and he may be noble and vicious, and a tyrant and a slave, and
hard as granite and melting as butter in the sun, all in one forenoon.
All you can be sure of is that whatever he is he will be it in excess."

"But I understood," said McLean, "that at present he is solely engaged
on a war of extermination in the Den."

"Ah, those exploits, I fancy, are confined to Saturday nights, and
unfortunately his Saturday debauch does not keep him sober for the rest
of the week, which we demand of respectable characters in these parts.
For the last day or two, for instance, he has been in mourning."

"I had not heard of that."

"No, I daresay not, and I'll give you the facts, if you'll fill your
glass first. But perhaps--" here the dominie's eyes twinkled as if a
gleam of humor had been left him after all--"perhaps you have been more
used of late to ginger wine?"

The visitor received the shock impassively as if he did not know he had
been hit, and Cathro proceeded with his narrative. "Well, for a day or
two Tommy Sandys has been coming to the school in a black jacket with
crape on the cuffs, and not only so, he has sat quiet and forlorn-like
at his desk as if he had lost some near and dear relative. Now I knew
that he had not, for his only relative is a sister whom you may have
seen at the Hanky School, and both she and Aaron Latta are hearty. Yet,
sir (and this shows the effect he has on me), though I was puzzled and
curious I dared not ask for an explanation."

"But why not?" was the visitor's natural question.

"Because, sir, he is such a mysterious little sacket," replied Cathro,
testily, "and so clever at leading you into a hole, that it's not
chancey to meddle with him, and I could see through the corner of my eye
that, for all this woeful face, he was proud of it, and hoped I was
taking note. For though sometimes his emotion masters him completely, at
other times he can step aside as it were, and take an approving look at
it. That is a characteristic of him, and not the least maddening one."

"But you solved the mystery somehow, I suppose?"

"I got at the truth to-day by an accident, or rather my wife discovered
it for me. She happened to call in at the school on a domestic matter I
need not trouble you with (sal, she needna have troubled me with it
either!), and on her way up the yard she noticed a laddie called Lewis
Doig playing with other ungodly youths at the game of kickbonnety.
Lewis's father, a gentleman farmer, was buried jimply a fortnight since,
and such want of respect for his memory made my wife give the loon a
dunt on the head with a pound of sugar, which she had just bought at the
'Sosh. He turned on her, ready to scart or spit or run, as seemed
wisest, and in a klink her woman's eye saw what mine had overlooked,
that he was not even wearing a black jacket. Well, she told him what the
slap was for, and his little countenance cleared at once. 'Oh' says he,
'that's all right, Tommy and me has arranged it,' and he pointed
blithely to a corner of the yard where Tommy was hunkering by himself in
Lewis's jacket, and wiping his mournful eyes with Lewis's hanky. I
daresay you can jalouse the rest, but I kept Lewis behind after the
school skailed, and got a full confession out of him. He had tried hard,
he gave me to understand, to mourn fittingly for his father, but the
kickbonnety season being on, it was up-hill work, and he was relieved
when Tommy volunteered to take it off his hands. Tommy's offer was to
swop jackets every morning for a week or two, and thus properly attired
to do the mourning for him."

The dominie paused, and regarded his guest quizzically. "Sir," he said
at length, "laddies are a queer growth; I assure you there was no
persuading Lewis that it was not a right and honorable compact."

"And what payment," asked McLean, laughing, "did Tommy demand from Lewis
for this service?"

"Not a farthing, sir--which gives another uncanny glint into his
character. When he wants money there's none so crafty at getting it, but
he did this for the pleasure of the thing, or, as he said to Lewis, 'to
feel what it would be like.' That, I tell you, is the nature of the
sacket, he has a devouring desire to try on other folk's feelings, as if
they were so many suits of clothes."

"And from your account he makes them fit him too."

"My certie, he does, and a lippie in the bonnet more than that."

So far the school-master had spoken frankly, even with an occasional grin
at his own expense, but his words came reluctantly when he had to speak
of Tommy's prospects at the bursary examinations. "I would rather say
nothing on that head," he said, almost coaxingly, "for the laddie has a
year to reform in yet, and it's never safe to prophesy."

"Still I should have thought that you could guess pretty accurately how
the boys you mean to send up in a year's time are likely to do? You have
had a long experience, and, I am told, a glorious one."

"'Deed, there's no denying it," answered the dominie, with a pride he
had won the right to wear. "If all the ministers, for instance, I have
turned out in this bit school were to come back together, they could
hold the General Assembly in the square."

He lay back in his big chair, a complacent dominie again. "Guess the
chances of my laddies!" he cried, forgetting what he had just said, and
that there was a Tommy to bother him. "I tell you, sir, that's a matter
on which I'm never deceived, I can tell the results so accurately that a
wise Senatus would give my lot the bursaries I say they'll carry,
without setting them down to examination-papers at all." And for the
next half-hour he was reciting cases in proof of his sagacity.

"Wonderful!" chimed in McLean. "I see it is evident you can tell me how
Tommy Sandys will do," but at that Cathro's rush of words again subsided
into a dribble.

"He's the worst Latinist that ever had the impudence to think of
bursaries," he groaned.

"And his Greek--" asked McLean, helping on the conversation as far as
possible.

"His Greek, sir, could be packed in a pill-box."

"That does not sound promising. But the best mathematicians are
sometimes the worst linguists."

"His Greek is better than his mathematics," said Cathro, and he fell
into lamentation. "I have had no luck lately," he sighed. "The laddies I
have to prepare for college are second-raters, and the vexing thing is,
that when a real scholar is reared in Thrums, instead of his being
handed over to me for the finishing, they send him to Mr. Ogilvy in
Glenquharity. Did Miss Ailie ever mention Gavin Dishart to you--the
minister's son? I just craved to get the teaching of that laddie, he was
the kind you can cram with learning till there's no room left for
another spoonful, and they bude send him to Mr. Ogilvy, and you'll see
he'll stand high above my loons in the bursary list. And then Ogilvy
will put on sic airs that there will be no enduring him. Ogilvy and I,
sir, we are engaged in an everlasting duel; when we send students to the
examinations, it is we two who are the real competitors, but what chance
have I, when he is represented by a Gavin Dishart and my man is Tommy
Sandys?"

McLean was greatly disappointed. "Why send Tommy up at all if he is so
backward?" he said. "You are sure you have not exaggerated his
deficiencies?"

"Well, not much at any rate. But he baffles me; one day I think him a
perfect numskull, and the next he makes such a show of the small drop
of scholarship he has that I'm not sure but what he may be a genius."

"That sounds better. Does he study hard?"

"Study! He is the most careless whelp that ever--"

"But if I were to give him an inducement to study?"

"Such as?" asked Cathro, who could at times be as inquisitive as the
doctor.

"We need not go into that. But suppose it appealed to him?"

Cathro considered. "To be candid," he said, "I don't think he could
study, in the big meaning of the word. I daresay I'm wrong, but I have a
feeling that whatever knowledge that boy acquires he will dig out of
himself. There is something inside him, or so I think at times, that is
his master, and rebels against book-learning. No, I can't tell what it
is; when we know that we shall know the real Tommy."

"And yet," said McLean, curiously, "you advise his being allowed to
compete for a bursary. That, if you will excuse my saying so, sounds
foolish to me."

"It can't seem so foolish to you," replied Cathro, scratching his head,
"as it seems to me six days in seven."

"And you know that Aaron Latta has sworn to send him to the herding if
he does not carry a bursary. Surely the wisest course would be to
apprentice him now to some trade--"

"What trade would not be the worse of him? He would cut off his fingers
with a joiner's saw, and smash them with a mason's mell; put him in a
brot behind a counter, and in some grand, magnanimous mood he would sell
off his master's things for nothing; make a clerk of him, and he would
only ravel the figures; send him to the soldiering, and he would have a
sudden impulse to fight on the wrong side. No, no, Miss Ailie says he
has a gift for the ministry, and we must cling to that."

In thus sheltering himself behind Miss Ailie, where he had never skulked
before, the dominie showed how weak he thought his position, and he
added, with a brazen laugh, "Then if he does distinguish himself at the
examinations I can take the credit for it, and if he comes back in
disgrace I shall call you to witness that I only sent him to them at her
instigation."

"All which," maintained McLean, as he put on his top-coat, "means that
somehow, against your better judgment, you think he may distinguish
himself after all."

"You've found me out," answered Cathro, half relieved, half sorry. "I
had no intention of telling you so much, but as you have found me out
I'll make a clean breast of it. Unless something unexpected happens to
the laddie--unless he take to playing at scholarship as if it were a
Jacobite rebellion, for instance--he shouldna have the ghost of a chance
of a bursary, and if he were any other boy as ill-prepared I should be
ashamed to send him up, but he is Tommy Sandys, you see, and--it is a
terrible thing to say, but it's Gospel truth, it's Gospel truth--I'm
trusting to the possibility of his diddling the examiners!"

It was a startling confession for a conscientious dominie, and Cathro
flung out his hands as if to withdraw the words, but his visitor would
have no tampering with them. "So that sums up Tommy, so far as you know
him," he said as he bade his host good-night.

"It does," Cathro admitted, grimly, "but if what you wanted was a
written certificate of character I should like to add this, that never
did any boy sit on my forms whom I had such a pleasure in thrashing."

James M. Barrie