It stood within two miles of Amyas Leigh’s house at Northam, overlooking the Burroughs and the Pebble-ridge, and the mouth of the Torridge whence the Rose sailed in search of Don Guzmán. From the front dormitory windows, across the long rollers of the Atlantic, you could see Lundy Island and the Shutter Rock, where the Santa Catherina galleon cheated Amyas out of his vengeance by going ashore. If you have ever read Kingsley’s Westward Ho! you will remember how all these things happened.
Inland lay the rich Devonshire lanes and the fat orchards, and to the west the gorse and the turf ran along the tops of the cliffs in combe after combe till you come to Clovelly and the Hobby and Gallantry Bower, and the homes of the Devonshire people that were old when the Armada was new.
The Burrows, lying between the school and the sea, was a waste of bent rush and grass running out into hundreds of acres of fascinating sandhills called the Bunkers, where a few old people played golf. In the early days of the School there was a small Club-house for golfers close to the Pebble-ridge, but, one wild winter night, the sea got up and drove the Pebble-ridge clean through the Club basement, and the walls fell out, and we rejoiced, for even then golfers wore red coats and did not like us to use the links. We played as a matter of course and thought nothing of it.
Now there is a new Club-house, and cars take the old, red, excited men to and from their game and all the great bunkers are known and written about; but we were there first, long before golf became a fashion or a disease, and we turned out one of the earliest champion amateur golfers of all England.
It was a good place for a school, and that School considered itself the finest in the world, excepting perhaps Haileybury, because it was modelled on Haileybury lines and our caps were Haileybury colours; and there was a legend that, in the old days when the School was new, half the boys had been Haileyburians.
Our Head-master had been Head of the Modern Side at Haileybury, and, talking it over with boys from other public schools afterwards, I think that one secret of his great hold over us was that he was not a clergyman, as so many headmasters are. As soon as a boy begins to think in the misty way that boys do, he is suspicious of a man who punishes him one day and preaches at him the next. But the Head was different, and in our different ways we loved him.
Through all of five years I never saw him lose his temper, nor among two hundred boys did any one at any time say or hint that he had his favourites. If you went to him with any trouble you were heard out to the end, and answered without being talked at or about or around, but always to. So we trusted him absolutely, and when it came to the choice of the various ways of entering the Army, what he said was so.
He knew boys naturally better than their fathers knew them, and considerably better than they knew themselves. When the time came to read for the Final Army Examinations, he knew the temper and powers of each boy, the amount of training each would stand and the stimulus or restraint that each needed, and handled them accordingly till they had come through the big race that led into the English Army. Looking back on it all, one can see the perfect judgment, knowledge of boys, patience, and above all, power, that the Head must have had.
Some of the masters, particularly on the classical side, vowed that Army examinations were making education no more than mark-hunting; but there are a great many kinds of education, and I think the Head knew it, for he taught us hosts of things that we never found out we knew till afterwards. And surely it must be better to turn out men who do real work than men who write about what they think about what other people have done or ought to do.
A scholar may, as the Latin masters said, get more pleasure out of his life than an Army officer, but only little children believe that a man’s life is given him to decorate with pretty little things, as though it were a girl’s room or a picture-screen. Besides, scholars are apt, all their lives, to judge from one point of view only, and by the time that an Army officer has knocked about the world for a few years he comes to look at men and things “by and large,” as the sailors say. No books in the world will teach that knack.
So we trusted the Head at school, and afterwards trusted him more.
There was a boy in the Canadian Mounted Police, I think, who stumbled into a fortune—he was the only one of us who ever did—and as he had never drawn more than seven shillings a day, he very properly wrote to the Head from out of his North-Western wilds and explained his situation, proposing that the Head should take charge of and look after all his wealth till he could attend to it; and was a little impatient when the Head pointed out that executors and trustees and that sort of bird wouldn’t hand over cash in that casual way. The Head was worth trusting—he saved a boy’s life from diphtheria once at much greater risk than being shot at, and nobody knew anything about it till years afterwards.
But I come back to the School that he made and put his mark upon. The boys said that those with whom Cheltenham could do nothing, whom Sherbourne found too tough, and whom even Marlborough had politely asked to leave, had been sent to the School at the beginning of things and turned into men. They were, perhaps, a shade rough sometimes. One very curious detail, which I have never seen or heard of in any school before or since, was that the Army Class, which meant the Prefects, and was generally made up of boys from seventeen and a half to nineteen or thereabouts, was allowed to smoke pipes (cigarettes were then reckoned the direct invention of the Evil One) in the country outside the College. One result of this was that, though these great men talked a good deal about the grain of their pipes, the beauty of their pouches, and the flavour of their tobacco, they did not smoke to any ferocious extent. The other, which concerned me more directly, was that it went much harder with a junior whom they caught smoking than if he had been caught by a master, because the action was flagrant invasion of their privilege, and, therefore, rank insolence—to be punished as such. Years later, the Head admitted that he thought something of this kind would happen when he gave the permission. If any Head-master is anxious to put down smoking nowadays, he might do worse than give this scheme a trial.
The School motto was, “Fear God, Honour the King “; and so the men she made went out to Boerland and Zululand and India and Burma and Cyprus and Hongkong, and lived or died as gentlemen and officers.
Even the most notorious bully, for whom an awful ending was prophesied, went to Canada and was mixed up in Riel’s rebellion, and came out of it with a fascinating reputation of having led a forlorn hope and behaved like a hero.
All these matters were noted by the older boys, and when their fathers, the grey-whiskered colonels and generals, came down to see them, or the directors, who were K.C.B.’s and had been officers in their time, made a tour of inspection, it was reported that the School tone was “healthy.”
Sometimes an old boy who had blossomed into a Subaltern of the Queen would come down for a last few words with the Head-master, before sailing with the regiment for foreign parts; and the lower-school boys were distracted with envy, and the prefects of the Sixth Form pretended not to be proud when he walked with one of their number and talked about “my men, you know,” till life became unendurable.
There was an unwritten law by which an old boy, when he came back to pay his respects to the School, was entitled to a night in his old dormitory. The boys expected it and sat up half the night listening to the tales of a subaltern that the boy brought with him—stories about riots in Ireland and camps at Aldershot, and all his first steps in the wonderful world.
Sometimes news came in that a boy had died with his men fighting, and the school said, “Killed in action, of course,” as though that were an honour reserved for it alone, and wondered when its own chance would come.
It was a curiously quiet School in many ways. When a boy was fourteen or fifteen he was generally taken in hand for the Army Preliminary Examination, and when that was past he was put down to “grind” for the entrance into Sandhurst or Woolwich; for it was our pride that we passed direct from the School to the Army, without troubling the “crammers.” We spoke of “the Shop,” which means Woolwich, as though we owned it. Sandhurst was our private reserve; and the old boys came back from foreign parts and told us that India was only Westward Ho! spread thin.
On account of this incessant getting ready for examinations there was hardly time for us (but we made it) to gather the beautiful Devonshire apples, or to ferret rabbits in the sand-hills by the golf-links, and saloon-pistols were forbidden because boys got to duelling-parties with dust-shot, and were careless about guarding their eyes.
Nor were we encouraged to lower each other over the cliffs with a box-rope and take the young hawks and jackdaws from their nests above the sea. Once a rope broke, or else the boys above grew tired of holding it, and a boy dropped thirty feet on to the boulders below. But as he fell on his head nothing happened, except punishment at the other end for all concerned.
In summer there was almost unlimited bathing from the Pebble-ridge, a whale-backed bank four miles long of rounded grey boulders, where you were taught to ride on the rollers as they came in, to avoid the under-tow, and to watch your time for getting back to the beach.
There was a big sea bath, too, in which all boys, had to qualify for open bathing by swimming a quarter of a mile, at least; and it was a matter of honour among the school-houses not to let the summer end with a single boy who could not “do his quarter,” at any rate.
Boating was impossible off that coast, but sometimes a fishing-boat would be wrecked on Braunton Bar, and we could see the lifeboat and the rocket at work; and once just after chapel there was a cry that the herring were in. The School ran down to the beach in, their Sunday clothes and fished them out with umbrellas. They were cooked by hand afterwards in all the studies and form-rooms till you could have smelt us at Exeter.
But the game of the School, setting aside golf, which every one could play if he had patience, was foot-ball. Both cricket and foot-ball were compulsory. That is to say, unless a boy could show a doctor’s certificate that he was physically unfit to stand up to the wicket or go into the scrimmage, he had to play a certain number of afternoons at the game of the season. If he had engagements elsewhere—we called it “shirking”—he was reasonably sure of three cuts with a ground-ash, from the Captain of the Games, delivered cold in the evening. A good player, of course, could get leave off on any fair excuse, but it was a beautiful rule for fat boys and loafers. The only unfairness was that a Master could load you with an imposition to be shown up at a certain hour, which, of course, prevented you from playing and so secured you a licking in addition to the imposition. But the, Head always told us that there was not much justice in the world, and that we had better accustom ourselves to the lack of it early.
Curiously enough, the one thing that the School did not understand was an attempt to drill it in companies with rifles, by way of making a volunteer cadet corps. We took our lickings for not attending that cheerfully, because we considered it “playing at soldiers,” and boys reading for the Army are apt to be very particular on these points.
We were weak at cricket, but our foot-ball team (Rugby Union) at its best devastated the country from Blundell’s—we always respected Blundell’s because “Great John Ridd” had been educated there—to Exeter, whose team were grown men. Yet we, who had been taught to play together, once drove them back over the November mud, back to their own goal-posts, till the ball was hacked through and touched down, and you could hear the long-drawn yell of “Schoo-ool! Schoo-ool!” as far as Appledore.
When the enemy would not come to us our team went to the enemy, and if victorious, would return late at night in a three-horse brake, chanting:
It’s a way we have in the Army,
It’s a way we have in the Navy,
It’s a way we have in the Public Schools,
Which nobody can deny!
Then the boys would flock to the dormitory windows, and wave towels and join in the “Hip-hip-hip-hurrah” of the chorus, and the winning team would swagger through the dormitories and show the beautiful blue marks on their shins, and the little boys would be allowed to get the sponges and hot water.
Very few things that the world can offer make up for having missed a place in the First Fifteen, with its black jersey and white—snow-white—knickerbockers, and the velvet skull-cap with the gold tassel—the cap that you leave out in the rain and accidentally step upon to make it look as old as if you had been in the First Fifteen for years..
The other outward sign of the First Fifteen that the happy boy generally wore through a hard season was the “jersey-mark”—a raw, red scrape on ear and jawbone where the skin had been fretted by the rough jerseys in either side in the steady drive of many scrimmages. We were trained to put our heads down, pack in the shape of a wedge and shove, and it was in that shape that the First Fifteen stood up to a team of trained men for two and twenty counted minutes. We got the ball through in the end.
At the close of the winter term, when there were no more foot-ball teams to squander and the Christmas holidays were coming, the School set itself to the regular yearly theatricals—a farce and a three-act play all complete. Sometimes it was The Rivals, or sometimes an attempt at a Shakespearean play; but the farces were the most popular.
All ended with the School-Saga, the “Vive la Compagnie!” in which the Senior boy of the School chanted the story of the School for the past twelve months. It was very long and very difficult to make up, though all the poets of all the forms had been at work on it for weeks; and the School gave the chorus at the top of its voice.
On the last Sunday of the term the last hymn in chapel was “Onward, Christian Soldiers.” We did not know what it meant then, and we did not care, but we stood up and sang it till the music was swamped in the rush. The big verse, like the “tug-of-war” verse in Mrs. Ewing’s Story of a Short Life, was:
We are not divided,
All one body we,
One in faith and doctrine,
One in charity.
Then the organ would give a hurricane of joyful roars, and try to get us in hand before the refrain. Later on, meeting our men all the world over, the meaning of that hymn became much too plain.
Except for this outbreak we were not very pious. There was a boy who had to tell stories night after night in the Dormitory, and when his stock ran out he fell back on a book called Eric, or Little by Little, as comic literature, and read it till the gas was turned off. The boys laughed abominably, and there was some attempt to give selections from it at the meeting of the Reading Society. That was quashed by authority because it was against discipline.
There were no public-houses near us except tap-rooms that sold cider; and raw Devonshire cider can only be drunk after a long and very hot paper-chase. We hardly ever saw, and certainly never spoke to, anything in the nature of a woman from one year’s end to the other; for our masters were all unmarried. Later on, a little colony of mothers came down to live near the School, but their sons were day-boys who couldn’t do this and mustn’t do that, and there was a great deal too much dressing up on week-days and going out to tea, and things of that kind, which, whatever people say nowadays, are not helpful for boys at work.
Our masters, luckily, were never gushing. They did not call us Dickie or Johnnie or Tommy, but Smith or Thompson; and when we were undoubtedly bad we were actually and painfully beaten with an indubitable cane on a veritable back till we wept unfeigned tears. Nobody seemed to think that it brutalized our finer feelings, but everybody was relieved when the trouble was over.
Canes, especially when they are brought down with a drawing stroke, sting like hornets; but they are a sound cure for certain offences; and a cut or two, given with no malice, but as a reminder, can correct and keep corrected a false quantity or a wandering mind, more completely than any amount of explanation.
There was one boy, however, to whom every Latin quantity was an arbitrary mystery, and he wound up his crimes by suggesting that he could do better if Latin verse rhymed as decent verse should. He was given an afternoon’s reflection to purge himself of his contempt; and feeling certain that he was in for something rather warm, he turned “Donec gratus eram” into pure Devonshire dialect, rhymed, and showed it up as his contribution to the study of Horace.
He was let off, and his master gave him the run of a big library, where he found as much verse and prose as he wanted; but that ruined his Latin verses and made him write verses of his own. There he found all the English poets from Chaucer to Matthew Arnold, and a book called Imaginary Conversations which he did not understand, but it seemed to be a good thing to imitate. So he imitated and was handed up to the Head, who said that he had better learn Russian under his own eye, so that if ever he were sent to Siberia for lampooning the authorities he might be able to ask for things.
That meant the run of another library—English Dramatists this time; hundreds of old plays; as well as thick brown books of voyages told in language like the ringing of bells. And the Head would sometimes tell him about the manners and customs of the Russians, and sometimes about his own early days at college, when several people who afterwards became great, were all young, and the Head was young with them, and they wrote wonderful things in college magazines.
It was beautiful and cheap—dirt cheap, at the price of a permanent load of impositions, for neglecting mathematics and algebra.
The School started a Natural History Society, which took the birds and plants of North Devon under its charge, reporting first flowerings and first arrivals and new discoveries to learned societies in London, and naturally attracting to itself every boy in the School who had the poaching instinct.
Some of us made membership an excuse for stealing apples and pheasant eggs and geese from farmers’ orchards and gentlemen’s estates, and we were turned out with disgrace. So we spoke scornfully of the Society ever afterwards. None the less, some of us had our first introduction to gunpowder in the shape of a charge of salt which stings like bees, fired at our legs by angry game-keepers.
The institution that caused some more excitement was the School paper. Three of the boys, who had moved up the School side by side for four years and were allies in all things, started the notion as soon as they came to the dignity of a study of their own with a door that would lock. The other two told the third boy what to write, and held the staircase against invaders.
It was a real printed paper of eight pages, and at first the printer was more thoroughly ignorant of type-setting, and the Editor was more completely ignorant of proof-reading, than any printer and any Editor that ever was. It was printed off by a gas engine; and even the engine despised its work, for one day it fell through the floor of the shop, and crashed—still working furiously—into the cellar.
The paper came out at odd times and seasons, but every time it came out there was sure to be trouble, because the Editor was learning for the first time how sweet and good and profitable it is—and how nice it looks on the page—to make fun of people in actual print.
For instance, there was friction among the study-fags once, and the Editor wrote a descriptive account of the Lower School,—the classes whence the fags were drawn,—their manners and customs, their ways of cooking half-plucked sparrows and imperfectly cleaned blackbirds at the gas jets on a rusty nib, and their fights over sloe-jam made in a gallipot. It was an absolutely truthful article, but the Lower School knew nothing about truth, and would not even consider it as literature.
It is less safe to write a study of an entire class than to discuss individuals one by one; but apart from the fact that boys throw books and inkpots with a straighter eye, there is very little difference between the behaviour of grown-up people and that of children.
In those days the Editor had not learned this; so when the study below the Editorial study threw coal at the Editorial legs and kicked in the panels of the door, because of personal paragraphs in the last number, the Editorial Staff—and there never was so loyal and hard-fighting a staff—fried fat bacon till there was half an inch of grease in the pan, and let the greasy chunks down at the end of a string to bob against and defile the lower study windows.
When that lower study—and there never was a public so low and unsympathetic as that lower study—looked out to see what was frosting their window-panes, the Editorial Staff emptied the hot fat on their heads, and it stayed in their hair for days and days, wearing shiny to the very last.
The boy who suggested this sort of warfare was then reading a sort of magazine, called Fors Clavigera, which he did not in the least understand,—it was not exactly a boy’s paper,—and when the lower study had scraped some of the fat off their heads and were thundering with knobby pokers on the door-lock, this boy began to chant pieces of the Fors as a war-song, and to show that his mind was free from low distractions. He was an extraordinary person, and the only boy in the School who had a genuine contempt for his masters. There was no affectation in his quiet insolence. He honestly did despise them; and threats that made us all wince only caused him to put his head a little on one side and watch the master as a sort of natural curiosity.
The worst of this was that his allies had to take their share of his punishments, for they lived as communists and socialists hope to live one day, when everybody is good. They were bad, as bad as they dared to be, but their possessions were in common, absolutely. And when “the Study” was out of funds they took the most respectable clothes in possession of the Syndicate, and leaving the owner one Sunday and one week day suit, sold the rest in Bideford town. Later, when there was another crisis, it was not the respectable one’s watch that was taken by force for the good of the Study and pawned, and never redeemed.
Later still, money came into the Syndicate honestly, for a London paper that did not know with whom it was dealing, published and paid a whole guinea for some verses that one of the boys had written and sent up under a nom de plume, and the Study caroused on chocolate and condensed milk and pilchards and Devonshire cream, and voted poetry a much sounder business than it looks.
So things went on very happily till the three were seriously warned that they must work in earnest, and stop giving amateur performances of Aladdin and writing librettos of comic operas which never came off, and worrying their housemasters into grey hairs.
Then they all grew very good, and one of them got into the Army; and another—the Irish one—became an engineer, and the third one found himself on a daily paper half a world away from the Pebble Ridge and the sea-beach. The three swore eternal friendship before they parted, and from time to time they met boys of their year in India, and magnified the honour of the old School.
The boys are scattered all over the world, one to each degree of land east and west, as their fathers were before them, doing much the same kind of work; and it is curious to notice how little the character of the man differs from that of the boy of sixteen or seventeen.
The general and commander-in-chief of the Study, he who suggested selling the clothes, never lost his head even when he and his friends were hemmed round by the enemy—the Drill Sergeant—far out of bounds and learning to smoke under a hedge. He was sick and dizzy, but he rose to the occasion, took command of his forces, and by strategic manœuvres along dry ditches and crawlings through tall grass, outflanked the enemy and got into safe ground without losing one man of the three.
A little later, when he was a subaltern in India, he was bitten by a mad dog, went to France to be treated by Pasteur, and came out again in the heat of the hot weather to find himself almost alone in charge of six hundred soldiers, and his Drill Sergeant dead and his office clerk run away, leaving the Regimental books in the most ghastly confusion. Then we happened to meet; and as he was telling his story there was just the same happy look on his face as when he steered us down the lanes with the certainty of a superior thrashing if we were caught.
And there were others who went abroad with their men, and when they got into tight places behaved very much as they had behaved at football.
The boy who used to take flying jumps on to the ball and roll over and over with it, because he was big and fat and could not run, took a flying jump on to a Burmese dacoit whom he had surprised by night in a stockade; but he forgot that he was much heavier than he had been at School, and by the time he rolled off his victim the little dacoit was stone dead.
And there was a boy who was always being led astray by bad advice, and begging off punishment on that account. He got into some little scrape when he grew up, and we who knew him knew, before he was reprimanded by his commanding officer, exactly what his excuse would be. It came out almost word for word as he was used to whimper it at School. He was cured, though, by being sent off on a small expedition here he alone would be responsible for any advice that was going, as well as for fifty soldiers.
And the best boy of them all—who could have become anything—was wounded in the thigh as he was leading his men up the ramp of a fortress. All he said was, “Put me up against that tree and take my men on”; and when his men came back he was dead.
Ages and ages ago, when Queen Victoria was shot at by a man in the street, the School paper made some verses about it that ended like this:
One school of many, made to make
Men who shall hold it dearest right
To battle for their ruler’s sake,
And stake their being in the fight,
Sends greeting, humble and sincere,
Such greetings as should come from those
For we are bred to do your will
Once more we greet you, though unseen
And there are one or two places in the world that can bear witness how the School kept its word.