Further years of boyhood and additional crosses. Progress in study and music. I excel at the game of Nuts in May. I am to go to Hopkinson House School. But Providence again intervenes. I become a victim of the ring-worm. Devastating effect of an ointment. Mr Balfour Whey and his sons. A brutal County Court Judge. But my father obtains damages.
Physically shattered as I had been by the attack on my person, by Desmond O'Flaherty, the mental and spiritual consequences of this assault were far more serious and prolonged. Awakened for the first time to the contemporary existence of a depravity hitherto unsuspected by me, I was unable for several weeks to regain my previous composure, or indeed to venture unaccompanied beyond the precincts of the house. Nor could I bear even to contemplate the introduction of a successor to Mrs O'Flaherty.
For that reason, although still in poor health, my mother was obliged to resume her former duties, while my father was confirmed in his decision to postpone my schooldays for another three or four years. To this he had already been inclined, partly owing to the representations that. I myself had been compelled to make to him, and partly owing to his desire to assist me as far as possible in bearing the crosses with which Providence had entrusted me. Far beyond the average both in weight and number, I can realize now, of course, what a privilege these were. But in the earlier years of my boyhood they taxed my faith to its utmost powers.
Many were the times, for instance, when after a long morning's study, merely interrupted by an occasional cup of cocoa, I turned with avidity to a simple but abundant meal of roast pork and open jam tart, only to find myself, an hour or two later, rolling in agony upon the sofa, or even indeed summoned on certain occasions to yield it back whence it came. This was perhaps the hardest lesson of all. But I am happy to say that at last I learned it. And I can well remember the pride with which my father, hurrying into the parlour with a convenient. receptacle, first found me consoling myself with some appropriate verses from an early chapter of the book of Job.
That incident alone, as my father often used to say, was a complete justification of his decision to postpone my school life; and I am quite confident that, had I been earlier subjected to the propinquity of coarser-fibred boys, I should never have survived to render adult service to the men and women of my time. Nor should I have made, I am sure, such intellectual progress as I achieved between my sixth and eleventh birthdays. Familiar from cover to cover not only with the Holy Bible, but also with the Apocrypha, I had attained dexterity in simple division, was acquainted with the geography of the British Isles, and had read the history of England so far as the reign of Queen Anne. Passionately devoted to music, I had taught myself to play from memory the airs of a large number of well-known hymns, including several of the more rapid and accentuated of the late Messrs Moody and Sankey. Subject to my father's guidance, too, I ranged in boyish fashion amongst literature of a lighter order. With some of the works of Longfellow, for instance, I was soon so familiar as to be able to repeat them without a mistake, and I can still recall the delight with which I read a work of fiction in which Martin Luther was one of the characters portrayed.
Happy as I was, however, with some such volume as this, a pound or two of chocolates, and my rabbit Isaiah, or to settle down for a long summer afternoon with the Hymnal Companion to the Book of Common Prayer, I was not averse from an occasional ramble in the company of my father, or even from exercise of a more vehement order with younger and suitable comrades. The chief of these latter was Emily Smith, the granddaughter of Mrs Emily Smith, my mother's aunt, a gentle child, who was unfortunately an albino, but of a deeply religious and sympathetic nature.
A year or two older than myself, she lived with her grandmother at New Cross, and in her company and that of some of her school companions, I played several health-giving and mirthful games. One of our favourites, I remember, was Hide and Go Seek, combining both physical and mental exertion; and another, of which we were hardly less fond, was known as Nuts in May.
For the purposes of this latter game those who proposed to take part would first form themselves into equal groups, the members of each moiety then standing side by side, facing the same way and holding each other's hands. The two groups would then take up positions, each opposite each, in joyous anticipation, and so arranged as to secure a space between them sufficient for an alternating advance and retreat. By a previous arrangement one of the two sides would then approximate itself to the other, singing in unison and to an established melody, the following humorously incongruous lines:
Here we go gathering nuts in May, nuts in May, nuts in May,
Here we go gathering nuts in May
On a cold and frosty morning.
That we were not, in fact, doing so was of course obvious. But the innocent laughter that the words always provoked in us was quite sufficient, in the opinion of myself and my comrades, to rob them of any semblance of deliberate untruthfulness.
It would then become the turn of the previously silent and stationary players to advance singing a second stanza, in which they would merrily inquire which of their number was to be chosen as symbolic of these nuts in May. To them in reply the first group would designate a member of the second, whereupon the second group would once more advance with the very pertinent query:
Whom will you send to fetch her (or him, if it was
myself) away, fetch her (or him, if it was myself)
away, fetch her (or him, if it was myself)
Whom will you send to fetch her (or him, if it was myself) away,
On a cold and frosty morning?
The members of the first group would then select one of their comrades to be the emissary of conveyance, and to the same melody and with a similar gesture, would announce their choice to the second group. A pocket-handkerchief, folded upon itself diagonally, would then be stretched upon the grass, parallel to and midway between the merry and expectant companies of players. The symbolized nut and its would-be gatherer would then face each other across the extended handkerchief, grasp hands, and each earnestly endeavour to draw the other across the separating fabric. To whomsoever was successful the other would then be accorded as a member henceforward of the victor's group, and the game would proceed as before with ever-increasing mirth.
Ultimately it might happen, and indeed it often did, that one of the sides would finally absorb the other, and the absorbing side usually including myself, my services were naturally in the keenest demand. I soon found, in fact, that, in spite of my ill-health, I was singularly adapted to this form of recreation. Inheriting, as I did, to a very great extent, my father's powerful and sonorous voice, I was able to throw myself with dominating effect into the preliminary vocal exchanges, while my physique stood me in admirable stead in the later stages of the game. For though I was short, with singularly slender arms, my abdomen was large and well covered, while my feet, with their exceptional length and breadth and almost imperceptible arches, enabled me to obtain a tenacious hold of the ground upon which they were set.
So proficient, in fact, did I become that when I went to school I was bitterly disappointed to find that this, my favourite game of play, was not even included in the curriculum. In later years I have heard this game criticized both on moral and physical grounds, and even my friend and vicar, the Reverend Simeon Whey, has had grave doubts as to its permissibility. On many occasions indeed we have sat far into the night arguing about its effects on the Xtian character. But I am happy to say that he has now gone so far as to approve of it for others. Indeed, as I have more than once facetiously suggested to him, his real objections to the game have been personal, founded on a lack of success in its practice that may well have prejudiced his outlook. For though he is no mean exponent of the game of Draughts, as well as that of Word Making and Word Taking, at Nuts in May he has seldom, if ever, avoided being drawn across the handkerchief. As the result of my protests, however, he has continued to permit the game to be one of the brightest features of our annual Sunday School gatherings; and most of our school-mistresses, I think, would be compelled to testify that I have retained all my old-time skill.
In such fashion; then, I emerged into my twelfth year; and, albeit with considerable misgivings, my father arranged at last for my entry into a high-class school in the neighbourhood. Known as Hopkinson House School for the Sons of Gentlemen, it was conveniently situated in Jasmine Grove on the southern outskirts of Camberwell, and included features in its dignified exterior of almost every type of architecture. Approached by a semi-circular gravel drive with gates of entry and exit, it was flanked on both sides, and isolated in the rear, by an asphalt recreation-ground.
Above the front steps, two chocolate-coloured pillars supported a classical portico, and the windows of the first-floor rooms were surrounded with characteristic Gothic mouldings. The windows of the first, second and third storeys were of a simpler Georgian pattern, but the roof was uplifted, at its anterior corners, into castellated Norman turrets. Midway between these, an Elizabethan gable formed a pleasing contrast, and the two chimney-stacks, each bearing a lightning-conductor, were decorated with Moorish relief work.
Conducted by a Mr Septimus Lorton, the successor to Mr Hopkinson, the founder of the school, it was daily attended by some seventy or eighty of the sons of the Peckham and Camberwell gentry. Concerning Mr Lorton, I shall have more to say presently; but just about a week before what was to have been my first term, a tender but inscrutable Providence once again intervened. The agent of this new affliction was a parasite commonly known, I understand, as the ring-worm, and within a brief period it had established upon my head no less than four separate colonies. That being the case, not only was my school-life yet a second time postponed, but I was obliged to render up, under medical orders; and that the extent of the malady might be the more easily discernible, the greater proportion of my abundant and not unattractive chestnut hair. To the first of these consequences I was reconciled with no great difficulty, but to the second, I must confess, resignation was not so easy; and for night after night my pillow was moistened with tears scarcely restrained during the day. But worse was to follow. For upon the appearance of a fifth and even more intractable settlement, the doctor in charge of the case took this opportunity of prescribing a wholly unjustifiable ointment. That it slew the parasites was undoubtedly true. But such were the ravages of this violent medicament that, to an accompaniment of the acutest distress, the whole of my hair disappeared.
Even in this, however, probably up till then the darkest hour of my existence, Providence had set a rainbow across my despair from which I have never since failed to glean comfort. Roused to the very depths of his indignant paternity, my father immediately began to take steps against the doctor, while both Mrs Emily Smith, the grandmother of my little comrade, and the aunt that had stood with my mother's mother at the bottom of the stairs, provided me with velveteen skull-caps, skilfully embroidered with forget-me-nots.
Perhaps the most fruitful, however, of the issues of this affliction, apart from the damages that my father ultimately secured, was the lifelong friendship that it produced between ourselves and the Whey family. A junior sidesman to my father at St James-the-Least-of-All, Mr Balfour Whey was not only a rising solicitor, but the father of two boys, Simeon and Silas. To the elder of these, Simeon, I have already referred as the vicar of the parish in which I at present reside. But Silas, since dead under distressing circumstances, to which I shall refer in due course, was but half an hour younger, and they were usually regarded as being twins.
Xtian lads of about my own age, and each with an impediment in his speech, both were destined on this account for eventual ordination in the Church of England. What knitted us together, however, at this painful juncture was the curious fact that, in addition to others, both of them were suffering like myself from an invasion of the ring-worm. Adequately treated however, they had retained their hair, and, as their father immediately perceived, might for this reason prove invaluable witnesses in the prosecution upon which we had determined.
In this Mr Balfour Whey had already consented to act as my father's legal adviser, on the understanding that, if the case should fail, my father should be exempt from the payment of charges, while, if it should succeed, the damages should be shared between them on agreed and equitable terms. An extremely forcible Hibernian barrister was then engaged on a similar basis, and never shall I forget the noble determination of these two earnest and devoted men. Fortified with the assistance, somewhat expensive, but under the circumstances deemed necessary, of an extremely adaptable, intelligent, and experienced medical expert, they proved far too powerful both for the doctor, a young man unrepresented by counsel, and even for the County Court judge, a sinister-looking person, evidently addicted to alcohol. Nevertheless, it was no easy fight and the bias of the judge was obvious from the outset. Time after time when my father rose from his seat in the well of the court to make ejaculations, he commanded him to be silent in a tone of voice that no gentleman should have used to another. And once when my mother's aunt, Mrs Emily Smith, and the aunt that had stood with my mother's mother at the foot of the stairs, rose simultaneously and cried, `Oh, you story,' after an unveracious comment by the doctor, he actually threatened to have them ejected by one of his underlings in the court.
Nor was he more polite to my mother's eight sisters, industrious young, women who had brought their knitting, even going so far as to say that, if they continued to rattle their needles, he should have them similarly transported. To this my father very naturally objected in one of his most dignified and impassioned speeches, again cut short, though not without the utmost difficulty, by this self-assertive and presumptuous man. Even to Simeon and Silas Whey, each of whom had covered the Bible with kisses, he behaved in such a fashion as entirely to rob them of their natural joy in being in the witness-box. For though it was true, and only to be expected, that their vocal disabilities were increased by their excitement, he not only professed to consider them irrelevant, but brutally informed them that they were unintelligible. For a moment we were stunned. But then, as one woman, my mother's eight sisters rose to their feet, as did Mrs Balfour Whey, Mrs Emily Smith, and the aunt that had stood with my mother's mother at the foot of the stairs. Led by my father they shouted `Shame' in tones that shook the very roof, while the Hibernian barrister, with a gesture that I have never seen equalled, swept his papers from the desk before him, and sank speechless into his seat.
It was such a scene as no one in the court had probably ever before witnessed, and even the judge seemed slightly taken aback by the volume of resentment that he had aroused. It was, at any rate, with a distinct tremor and in markedly altered tones that he ordered the proceedings to be resumed. And when I myself, as the prosecution's last witness, proceeded to take the oath in my velveteen skull-cap, his change of colour was so manifest as to become the subject of general comment.
Keeping my face firmly towards him, upon the advice of my counsel, I stood unshaken, albeit not unmoved, during the latter's preliminary remarks. Here was a lad, he said, in the soft and vibrant tones of the convinced and accomplished pleader, the only lad, nay, the only child, the solitary hope of his devoted parents. Too delicate hitherto to have been sent to the school - the scholastic establishment for which his abilities had long since qualified him, he had been happily expecting, with all the ardour that His Honour would observe imprinted on his countenance, to have entered this academy of learning some seven weeks before. But what had happened? His Honour had heard. It was the subject matter of this action. Not only had his career, since time was money, been already seriously crippled, but he had been subjected to a personal mutilation, the moral effect of which it was impossible to appraise. One moment a happy - nay, he might almost say without unduly straining the truth - one moment, a happy, but not only a happy, a positively handsome young gentleman, he had been reduced in the next, either by wilful design, by malevolent neglect, or by an infamous want of knowledge, to the spectacle that he would be obliged - how reluctantly His Honour could imagine - to submit to His Honour's inspection.
Here a low ripple of sympathy and horror broke involuntarily from most of those present; and it was perhaps significant, as Mr Whey remarked to my father, that the judge took no steps to suppress it. Then, after a brief question or two, since, as my counsel said, mine was an ordeal that he dared not long prolong, he asked me to remove my velveteen skull-cap and let His Honour see what was underneath. It was an effort. But I achieved it, and the effect on the judge was instantaneous. In spite of his pallor, he had still, up to that point, retained some evidences of his gross habit of life. But now the last vestige of his colour had left him, and he seemed visibly to have lost weight. Contracted to pin-points, his pupils were fixed upon my scalp in a haggard yet fascinated stare; and great beads of perspiration began to glisten upon his forehead. Then, with a sharp expiration like that of a punctured bicycle tyre, he covered his eyes for a moment with his hand, and I knew instinctively, as I replaced my skull-cap, that the case was won.
There were further arguments, of course, and technical exchanges, but to everyone in court they must have seemed of little moment; and I was soon being embraced by father, my aunts and great-aunts, in the happy consciousness that right had triumphed. Nor was that all. For thanks to the damages awarded, my father and myself were enabled to spend a month at Scarborough, while a generous fee was paid by a well-known firm of hair-restorers for a copy of a photograph of my head that my father had thoughtfully taken. Two years later they paid a similar sum for a photograph of the same area normally covered, both being subsequently reproduced, under another name, of course, and with the interval diminished for commercial purposes, as illustrative of the effects of what has since become, I believe, a very profitable commodity.