Chapter XIX. Into the Fire.




'Let me see, Le Breton,' Dr. Greatrex observed to the new master, 'you've taken rooms for yourself in West Street for the present--you'll take a house on the parade by-and-by, no doubt. Now, which church do you mean to go to?'

'Well, really,' Ernest answered, taken a little aback at the suddenness of the question, 'I haven't had time to think about it yet.'

The doctor frowned slightly. 'Not had time to think about it,' he repeated, rather severely. 'Not had time to think about such a serious question as your particular place of worship! You quite surprise me. Well, if you'll allow me to make a suggestion in the matter it would be that you and Mrs. Le Breton should take seats, for the present at least, at St. Martha's. The parish church is high, decidedly high, and I wouldn't recommend you to go there; most of our parents don't approve of it. You're an Oxford man, I know, and so I suppose you're rather high yourself; but in this particular matter I would strongly advise you to subordinate your own personal feelings to the parents' wishes. Then there's St. Jude's; St. Jude's is distinctly low--quite Evangelical in fact: indeed, I may say, scarcely what I should consider sound church principles at all in any way; and I think you ought most certainly to avoid it sedulously. Evangelicism is on the decline at present in Pilbury Regis. As to St. Barnabas--Barabbas they call it generally, a most irreverent joke, but, of course, inevitable--Barabbas is absolutely Ritualistic. Many of our parents object to it most strongly. But St. Martha's is a quiet, moderate, inoffensive church in every respect--sound and sensible, and free from all extremes. You can give no umbrage to anybody, even the most cantankerous, by going to St. Martha's. The High Church people fraternise with it on the one hand, and the moderate church people fraternise with it on the other, while as to the Evangelicals and the dissenters, they hardly contribute any boys to the school, or if they do, they don't object to unobtrusive church principles. Indeed, my experience has been, Le Breton, that even the most rabid dissenters prefer to have their sons educated by a sound, moderate, high-principled, and, if I may say so, neutral-tinted church clergyman.' And the doctor complacently pulled his white tie straight before the big gilt-framed drawing-room mirror.

'Then, again,' the doctor went on placidly in a bland tone of mild persuasion, 'there's the question of politics. Politics are a very ticklish matter, I can assure you, in Pilbury Regis. Have you any fixed political opinions of your own, Le Breton, or are you waiting to form them till you've had some little experience in your profession?'

'My opinions,' Ernest answered timidly, 'so far as they can be classed under any of the existing political formulas at all, are decidedly Liberal--I may even say Radical.'

The doctor bit his lip and frowned severely. 'Radical,' he said, slowly, with a certain delicate tinge of acerbity in his tone. 'That's bad. If you will allow me to interpose in the matter, I should strongly advise you, for your own sake, to change them at once and entirely. I don't object to moderate Liberalism--perhaps as many as one-third of our parents are moderate Liberals; but decidedly the most desirable form of political belief for a successful schoolmaster is a quiet and gentlemanly, but unswerving Conservatism. I don't say you ought to be an uncompromising old-fashioned Tory--far from it: that alienates not only the dissenters, but even the respectable middle-class Liberals. What is above all things expected in a schoolmaster is a central position in politics, so to speak--a careful avoidance of all extremes--a readiness to welcome all reasonable progress, while opposing in a conciliatory spirit all revolutionary or excessive changes--in short, an attitude of studied moderation. That, if you will allow me to advise you, Le Breton, is the sort of thing, you may depend upon it, that most usually meets the wishes of the largest possible number of pupils' parents.'

'I'm afraid,' Ernest answered, as respectfully as possible, 'my political convictions are too deeply seated to be subordinated to my professional interests.'

'Eh! What!' the doctor cried sharply. 'Subordinate your principles to your personal interests! Oh, pray don't mistake me so utterly as that! Not at all, not at all, my dear Le Breton. I don't mean that for the shadow of a second. What I mean is rather this,' and here the doctor cleared his throat and pulled round his white tie a second time, 'that a schoolmaster, considering attentively what is best for his pupils, mark you--we all exist for our pupils, you know, my dear fellow, don't we?--a schoolmaster should avoid such action as may give any unnecessary scandal, you see, or seem to clash with the ordinary opinion of the pupils' parents. Of course, if your views are fully formed, and are of a mildly Liberal complexion (put it so, I beg of you, and don't use that distressful word Radical), I wouldn't for the world have you act contrary to them. But I wouldn't have you obtrude them too ostentatiously--for your own sake, Le Breton, for your own sake, I assure you. Remember, you're a very young man yet: you have plenty of time before you to modify your opinions in: as you go on, you'll modify them--moderate them--bring them into harmony with the average opinions of ordinary parents. Don't commit yourself at present--that's all I would say to you--don't commit yourself at present. When you're as old as I am, my dear fellow, you'll see through all these youthful extravagances.'

'And as to the church, Mr. Le Breton,' said Mrs. Greatrex, with bland suggestiveness from the ottoman, 'of course, we regard the present very unsatisfactory arrangement as only temporary. The doctor hopes in time to get a chapel built, which is much nicer for the boys, and also more convenient for the masters and their families--they all have seats, of course, in the chancel. At Charlton College, where the doctor was an assistant for some years, before we came to Pilbury, there was one of the under-masters, a young man of very good family, who took such an interest in the place that he not only contributed a hundred pounds out of his own pocket towards building a chapel, but also got ever so many of his wealthy friends elsewhere to subscribe, first to that, and then to the organ and stained-glass window. We've got up a small building fund here ourselves already, of which the doctor's treasurer, and we hope before many years to have a really nice chapel, with good music and service well done--the kind of thing that'll be of use to the school, and have an excellent moral effect upon the boys in the way of religious training.'

'No doubt,' Ernest answered evasively, 'you'll soon manage to raise the money in such a place as Pilbury.'

'No doubt,' the doctor replied, looking at him with a searching glance, and evidently harbouring an uncomfortable suspicion, already, that this young man had not got the moral and religious welfare of the boys quite so deeply at heart as was desirable in a model junior assistant master. 'Well, well, we shall see you at school to-morrow morning, Le Breton: till then I hope you'll find yourselves quite comfortable in your new lodgings.'

Ernest went back from this visit of ceremony with a doubtful heart, and left Dr. and Mrs. Greatrex alone to discuss their new acquisition.

'Well, Maria,' said the doctor, in a dubious tone of voice, as soon as Ernest was fairly out of hearing, 'what do you think of him?'

'Think!' answered Mrs. Greatrex, energetically. 'Why, I don't think at all. I feel sure he'll never, never, never make a schoolmaster!'

'I'm afraid not,' the doctor responded, pensively. 'I'm afraid not, Maria. He's got ideas of his own, I regret to say; and, what's worse, they're not the right ones.'

'Oh, he'll never do,' Mrs. Greatrex continued, scornfully. 'Nothing at all professional about him in any way. No interest or enthusiasm in the matter of the chapel; not a spark of responsiveness even about the stained-glass window; hardly a trace of moral or religious earnestness, of care for the welfare and happiness of the dear boys. He wouldn't in the least impress intending parents--or, rather, I feel sure he'd impress them most unfavourably. The best thing we can do, now we've got him, is to play off his name on relations in society, but to keep the young man himself as far as possible in the background. I confess he's a disappointment--a very great and distressing disappointment.'

'He is, he is certainly,' the doctor acquiesced, with a sigh of regretfulness. 'I'm afraid we shall never be able to make much of him. But we must do our best--for his own sake, and the sake of the boys and parents, it's our duty, Maria, to do our best with him.'

'Oh, of course,' Mrs. Greatrex replied, languidly: 'but I'm bound to say, I'm sure it'll prove a very thankless piece of duty. Young men of his sort have never any proper sense of gratitude.'

Meanwhile, Edie, in the little lodgings in a side street near the school-house, had run out quickly to open the door for Ernest, and waited anxiously to hear his report upon their new employers.

'Well, Ernest dear,' she asked, with something of the old childish brightness in her eager manner, 'and what do you think of them?'

'Why, Edie,' Ernest answered, kissing her white forehead gently, 'I don't want to judge them too hastily, but I'm inclined to fancy, on first sight, that both the doctor and his wife are most egregious and unmitigated humbugs.'

'Humbugs, Ernest! why, how do you mean?'

'Well, Edie, they've got the moral and religious welfare of the boys at their very finger ends; and, do you know--I don't want to be uncharitable--but I somehow imagine they haven't got it at heart as well. However, we must do our best, and try to fall in with them.'

And for a whole year Ernest and Edie did try to fall in with them to the best of their ability. It was hard work, for though the doctor himself was really at bottom a kind-hearted man, with a mere thick veneer of professional humbug inseparable from his unhappy calling, Mrs. Greatrex was a veritable thorn in the flesh to poor little natural honest-hearted Edie. When she found that the Le Bretons didn't mean to take a house on the Parade or elsewhere, but were to live ingloriously in wee side street lodgings, her disappointment was severe and extreme; but when she incidentally discovered that Mrs. Le Breton was positively a grocer's daughter from a small country town, her moral indignation against the baseness of mankind rose almost to white heat. To think that young Le Breton should have insinuated himself into the position of third master under false pretences--should have held out as qualifications for the post his respectable connections, when he knew perfectly well all the time that he was going to marry somebody who was not in Society--it was really quite too awfully wicked and deceptive and unprincipled of him! A very bad, dishonest young man, she was very much afraid; a young man with no sense of truth or honour about him, though, of course, she wouldn't say so for the world before any of the parents, or do anything to injure the poor young fellow's future prospects if she could possibly help it. But Mrs. Greatrex felt sure that Ernest had come to Pilbury of malice prepense, as part of a deep-laid scheme to injure and ruin the doctor by his horrid revolutionary notions. 'He does it on purpose,' she used to say; 'he talks in that way because he knows it positively shocks and annoys us. He pretends to be very innocent all the time; but at heart he's a malignant, jealous, uncharitable creature. I'm sure I wish he had never come to Pilbury Regis! And to go quarrelling with his own mother, too--the unnatural man! The only respectable relation he had, and the only one at all likely to produce any good or salutary effect upon intending parents!'

'My dear,' the doctor would answer apologetically, 'you're really quite too hard upon young Le Breton. As far as school-work goes, he's a capital master, I assure you--so conscientious, and hard-working, and systematic. He does his very best with the boys, even with that stupid lout, Blenkinsopp major; and he has managed to din something into them in mathematics somehow, so that I'm sure the fifth form will pass a better examination this term than any term since we first came here. Now that, you know, is really a great thing, even if he doesn't quite fall in with our preconceived social requirements.'

'I'm sure I don't know about the mathematics or the fifth form, Joseph,' Mrs. Geatrex used to reply, with great dignity. 'That sort of thing falls under your department, I'm aware, not under mine. But I'm sure that for all social purposes, Mr. Le Breton is really a great deal worse than useless. A more unchristian, disagreeable, self-opinionated, wrong-headed, objectionable young man I never came across in the whole course of my experience. However, you wouldn't listen to my advice upon the subject, so it's no use talking any longer about it. I always advised you not to take him without further enquiry into his antecedents; and you overbore me: you said he was so well-connected, and so forth, and would hear nothing against him; so I wish you joy now of your precious bargain. The only thing left for us is to find some good opportunity of getting rid of him.'

'I like the young man, as far as he goes,' Dr. Greatrex replied once, with unwonted spirit, 'and I won't get rid of him at all, my dear, unless he obliges me to. He's really well meaning, in spite of all his absurdities, and upon my word, Maria, I believe he's thoroughly honest in his opinions.'

Mrs. Greatrex only met this flat rebellion by an indirect remark to the effect that some people seemed absolutely destitute of the very faintest glimmering power of judging human character.



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