That same term there took place at Dunwood House another event. With their private tragedy it seemed to have no connection; but in time Rickie perceived it as a bitter comment. Its developments were unforeseen and lasting. It was perhaps the most terrible thing he had to bear.
Varden had now been a boarder for ten months. His health had broken in the previous term,--partly, it is to be feared, as the result of the indifferent food--and during the summer holidays he was attacked by a series of agonizing earaches. His mother, a feeble person, wished to keep him at home, but Herbert dissuaded her. Soon after the death of the child there arose at Dunwood House one of those waves of hostility of which no boy knows the origin nor any master can calculate the course. Varden had never been popular--there was no reason why he should be--but he had never been seriously bullied hitherto. One evening nearly the whole house set on him. The prefects absented themselves, the bigger boys stood round and the lesser boys, to whom power was delegated, flung him down, and rubbed his face under the desks, and wrenched at his ears. The noise penetrated the baize doors, and Herbert swept through and punished the whole house, including Varden, whom it would not do to leave out. The poor man was horrified. He approved of a little healthy roughness, but this was pure brutalization. What had come over his boys? Were they not gentlemen's sons? He would not admit that if you herd to- gether human beings before they can understand each other the great god Pan is angry, and will in the end evade your regulations and drive them mad. That night the victim was screaming with pain, and the doctor next day spoke of an operation. The suspense lasted a whole week. Comment was made in the local papers, and the reputation not only of the house but of the school was imperilled. "If only I had known," repeated Herbert--"if only I had known I would have arranged it all differently. He should have had a cubicle." The boy did not die, but he left Sawston, never to return.
The day before his departure Rickie sat with him some time, and tried to talk in a way that was not pedantic. In his own sorrow, which he could share with no one, least of all with his wife, he was still alive to the sorrows of others. He still fought against apathy, though he was losing the battle.
"Don't lose heart," he told him. "The world isn't all going to be like this. There are temptations and trials, of course, but nothing at all of the kind you have had here."
"But school is the world in miniature, is it not, sir?" asked the boy, hoping to please one master by echoing what had been told him by another. He was always on the lookout for sympathy--: it was one of the things that had contributed to his downfall.
"I never noticed that myself. I was unhappy at school, and in the world people can be very happy."
Varden sighed and rolled about his eyes. "Are the fellows sorry for what they did to me?" he asked in an affected voice. "I am sure I forgive them from the bottom of my heart. We ought to forgive our enemies, oughtn't we, sir?"
"But they aren't your enemies. If you meet in five years' time you may find each other splendid fellows."
The boy would not admit this. He had been reading some revivalistic literature. "We ought to forgive our enemies," he repeated; "and however wicked they are, we ought not to wish them evil. When I was ill, and death seemed nearest, I had many kind letters on this subject."
Rickie knew about these "many kind letters." Varden had induced the silly nurse to write to people--people of all sorts, people that he scarcely knew or did not know at all--detailing his misfortune, and asking for spiritual aid and sympathy.
"I am sorry for them," he pursued. "I would not like to be like them."
Rickie sighed. He saw that a year at Dunwood House had produced a sanctimonious prig. "Don't think about them, Varden. Think about anything beautiful--say, music. You like music. Be happy. It's your duty. You can't be good until you've had a little happiness. Then perhaps you will think less about forgiving people and more about loving them."
"I love them already, sir." And Rickie, in desperation, asked if he might look at the many kind letters.
Permission was gladly given. A neat bundle was produced, and for about twenty minutes the master perused it, while the invalid kept watch on his face. Rooks cawed out in the playing-fields, and close under tile window there was the sound of delightful, good-tempered laughter. A boy is no devil, whatever boys may be. The letters were chilly productions, somewhat clerical in tone, by whomsoever written. Varden, because he was ill at the time, had been taken seriously. The writers declared that his illness was fulfilling some mysterious purpose: suffering engendered spiritual growth: he was showing signs of this already. They consented to pray for him, some majestically, others shyly. But they all consented with one exception, who worded his refusal as follows:--
Dear A.C. Varden,--
I ought to say that I never remember seeing you. I am sorry that you are ill, and hope you are wrong about it. Why did you not write before, for I could have helped you then? When they pulled your ear, you ought to have gone like this (here was a rough sketch). I could not undertake praying, but would think of you instead, if that would do. I am twenty-two in April, built rather heavy, ordinary broad face, with eyes, etc. I write all this because you have mixed me with some one else, for I am not married, and do not want to be. I cannot think of you always, but will promise a quarter of an hour daily (say 7.00-7.15 A.M.), and might come to see you when you are better--that is, if you are a kid, and you read like one. I have been otter-hunting--
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