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In three years Mr. Pembroke had done much to solidify the day-boys at Sawston School. If they were not solid, they were at all events curdling, and his activities might reasonably turn elsewhere. He had served the school for many years, and it was really time he should be entrusted with a boarding-house. The headmaster, an impulsive man who darted about like a minnow and gave his mother a great deal of trouble, agreed with him, and also agreed with Mrs. Jackson when she said that Mr. Jackson had served the school for many years and that it was really time he should be entrusted with a boarding-house. Consequently, when Dunwood House fell vacant the headmaster found himself in rather a difficult position.
Dunwood House was the largest and most lucrative of the boarding-houses. It stood almost opposite the school buildings. Originally it had been a villa residence--a red-brick villa, covered with creepers and crowned with terracotta dragons. Mr. Annison, founder of its glory, had lived here, and had had one or two boys to live with him. Times changed. The fame of the bishops blazed brighter, the school increased, the one or two boys became a dozen, and an addition was made to Dunwood House that more than doubled its size. A huge new building, replete with every convenience, was stuck on to its right flank. Dormitories, cubicles, studies, a preparation-room, a dining-room, parquet floors, hot-air pipes--no expense was spared, and the twelve boys roamed over it like princes. Baize doors communicated on every floor with Mr. Annison's part, and he, an anxious gentleman, would stroll backwards and forwards, a little depressed at the hygienic splendours, and conscious of some vanished intimacy. Somehow he had known his boys better when they had all muddled together as one family, and algebras lay strewn upon the drawing room chairs. As the house filled, his interest in it decreased. When he retired--which he did the same summer that Rickie left Cambridge--it had already passed the summit of excellence and was beginning to decline. Its numbers were still satisfactory, and for a little time it would subsist on its past reputation. But that mysterious asset the tone had lowered, and it was therefore of great importance that Mr. Annison's successor should be a first-class man. Mr. Coates, who came next in seniority, was passed over, and rightly. The choice lay between Mr. Pembroke and Mr. Jackson, the one an organizer, the other a humanist. Mr. Jackson was master of the Sixth, and--with the exception of the headmaster, who was too busy to impart knowledge--the only first-class intellect in the school. But he could not or rather would not, keep order. He told his form that if it chose to listen to him it would learn; if it didn't, it wouldn't. One half listened. The other half made paper frogs, and bored holes in the raised map of Italy with their penknives. When the penknives gritted he punished them with undue severity, and then forgot to make them show the punishments up. Yet out of this chaos two facts emerged. Half the boys got scholarships at the University, and some of them--including several of the paper-frog sort-- remained friends with him throughout their lives. Moreover, he was rich, and had a competent wife. His claim to Dunwood House was stronger than one would have supposed.
The qualifications of Mr. Pembroke have already been indicated. They prevailed--but under conditions. If things went wrong, he must promise to resign.
"In the first place," said the headmaster, "you are doing so splendidly with the day-boys. Your attitude towards the parents is magnificent. I--don't know how to replace you there. Whereas, of course, the parents of a boarder--"
"Of course," said Mr. Pembroke.
The parent of a boarder, who only had to remove his son if he was discontented with the school, was naturally in a more independent position than the parent who had brought all his goods and chattels to Sawston, and was renting a house there.
"Now the parents of boarders--this is my second point-- practically demand that the house-master should have a wife."
"A most unreasonable demand," said Mr. Pembroke.
"To my mind also a bright motherly matron is quite sufficient. But that is what they demand. And that is why--do you see?--we have to regard your appointment as experimental. Possibly Miss Pembroke will be able to help you. Or I don't know whether if ever--" He left the sentence unfinished. Two days later Mr. Pembroke proposed to Mrs. Orr.
He had always intended to marry when he could afford it; and once he had been in love, violently in love, but had laid the passion aside, and told it to wait till a more convenient season. This was, of course, the proper thing to do, and prudence should have been rewarded. But when, after the lapse of fifteen years, he went, as it were, to his spiritual larder and took down Love from the top shelf to offer him to Mrs. Orr, he was rather dismayed. Something had happened. Perhaps the god had flown; perhaps he had been eaten by the rats. At all events, he was not there.
Mr. Pembroke was conscientious and romantic, and knew that marriage without love is intolerable. On the other hand, he could not admit that love had vanished from him. To admit this, would argue that he had deteriorated.
Whereas he knew for a fact that he had improved, year by year. Each year be grew more moral, more efficient, more learned, more genial. So how could he fail to be more loving? He did not speak to himself as follows, because he never spoke to himself; but the following notions moved in the recesses of his mind: "It is not the fire of youth. But I am not sure that I approve of the fire of youth. Look at my sister! Once she has suffered, twice she has been most imprudent, and put me to great inconvenience besides, for if she was stopping with me she would have done the housekeeping. I rather suspect that it is a nobler, riper emotion that I am laying at the feet of Mrs. Orr." It never took him long to get muddled, or to reverse cause and effect. In a short time he believed that he had been pining for years, and only waiting for this good fortune to ask the lady to share it with him.
Mrs. Orr was quiet, clever, kindly, capable, and amusing and they were old acquaintances. Altogether it was not surprising that he should ask her to be his wife, nor very surprising that she should refuse. But she refused with a violence that alarmed them both. He left her house declaring that he had been insulted, and she, as soon as he left, passed from disgust into tears.
He was much annoyed. There was a certain Miss Herriton who, though far inferior to Mrs. Orr, would have done instead of her. But now it was impossible. He could not go offering himself about Sawston. Having engaged a matron who had the reputation for being bright and motherly, he moved into Dunwood House and opened the Michaelmas term. Everything went wrong. The cook left; the boys had a disease called roseola; Agnes, who was still drunk with her engagement, was of no assistance, but kept flying up to London to push Rickie's fortunes; and, to crown everything, the matron was too bright and not motherly enough: she neglected the little boys and was overattentive to the big ones. She left abruptly, and the voice of Mrs. Jackson arose, prophesying disaster.
Should he avert it by taking orders? Parents do not demand that a house-master should be a clergyman, yet it reassures them when he is. And he would have to take orders some time, if he hoped for a school of his own. His religious convictions were ready to hand, but he spent several uncomfortable days hunting up his religious enthusiasms. It was not unlike his attempt to marry Mrs. Orr. But his piety was more genuine, and this time he never came to the point. His sense of decency forbade him hurrying into a Church that he reverenced. Moreover, he thought of another solution: Agnes must marry Rickie in the Christmas holidays, and they must come, both of them, to Sawston, she as housekeeper, he as assistant-master. The girl was a good worker when once she was settled down; and as for Rickie, he could easily be fitted in somewhere in the school. He was not a good classic, but good enough to take the Lower Fifth. He was no athlete, but boys might profitably note that he was a perfect gentleman all the same. He had no experience, but he would gain it. He had no decision, but he could simulate it. "Above all," thought Mr. Pembroke, "it will be something regular for him to do." Of course this was not "above all." Dunwood House held that position. But Mr. Pembroke soon came to think that it was, and believed that he was planning for Rickie, just as he had believed he was pining for Mrs. Orr.
Agnes, when she got back from the lunch in Soho, was told of the plan. She refused to give any opinion until she had seen her lover. A telegram was sent to him, and next morning he arrived. He was very susceptible to the weather, and perhaps it was unfortunate that the morning was foggy. His train had been stopped outside Sawston Station, and there he had sat for half an hour, listening to the unreal noises that came from the line, and watching the shadowy figures that worked there. The gas was alight in the great drawing-room, and in its depressing rays he and Agnes greeted each other, and discussed the most momentous question of their lives. They wanted to be married: there was no doubt of that. They wanted it, both of them, dreadfully. But should they marry on these terms?
"I'd never thought of such a thing, you see. When the scholastic agencies sent me circulars after the Tripos, I tore them up at once."
"There are the holidays," said Agnes. "You would have three months in the year to yourself, and you could do your writing then."
"But who'll read what I've written?" and he told her about the editor of the "Holborn."
She became extremely grave. At the bottom of her heart she had always mistrusted the little stories, and now people who knew agreed with her. How could Rickie, or any one, make a living by pretending that Greek gods were alive, or that young ladies could vanish into trees? A sparkling society tale, full of verve and pathos, would have been another thing, and the editor might have been convinced by it.
"But what does he mean?" Rickie was saying. "What does he mean by life?"
"I know what he means, but I can't exactly explain. You ought to see life, Rickie. I think he's right there. And Mr. Tilliard was right when he said one oughtn't to be academic."
He stood in the twilight that fell from the window, she in the twilight of the gas. "I wonder what Ansell would say," he murmured.
"Oh, poor Mr. Ansell!"
He was somewhat surprised. Why was Ansell poor? It was the first time the epithet had been applied to him.
"But to change the conversation," said Agnes.
"If we did marry, we might get to Italy at Easter and escape this horrible fog."
"Yes. Perhaps there--" Perhaps life would be there. He thought of Renan, who declares that on the Acropolis at Athens beauty and wisdom do exist, really exist, as external powers. He did not aspire to beauty or wisdom, but he prayed to be delivered from the shadow of unreality that had begun to darken the world. For it was as if some power had pronounced against him--as if, by some heedless action, he had offended an Olympian god. Like many another, he wondered whether the god might be appeased by work-- hard uncongenial work. Perhaps he had not worked hard enough, or had enjoyed his work too much, and for that reason the shadow was falling.
"--And above all, a schoolmaster has wonderful opportunities for doing good; one mustn't forget that."
To do good! For what other reason are we here? Let us give up our refined sensations, and our comforts, and our art, if thereby we can make other people happier and better. The woman he loved had urged him to do good! With a vehemence that surprised her, he exclaimed, "I'll do it."
"Think it over," she cautioned, though she was greatly pleased.
"No; I think over things too much."
The room grew brighter. A boy's laughter floated in, and it seemed to him that people were as important and vivid as they had been six months before. Then he was at Cambridge, idling in the parsley meadows, and weaving perishable garlands out of flowers. Now he was at Sawston, preparing to work a beneficent machine. No man works for nothing, and Rickie trusted that to him also benefits might accrue; that his wound might heal as he laboured, and his eyes recapture the Holy Grail.
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