Something of Myself – II

The School Before its Time


by Rudyard Kipling

THEN came school at the far end of England. The Head of it was a lean, slow-spoken, bearded, Arab-complexioned man whom till then I had known as one of my Deputy-Uncles at The Grange—Cormell Price, otherwise ‘Uncle Crom.’ My Mother, on her return to India, confided my sister and me to the care of three dear ladies who lived off the far end of Kensington High Street over against Addison Road, in a house filled with books, peace, kindliness, patience and what to-day would be called ‘culture.’ But it was natural atmosphere. One of the ladies wrote novels on her knee, by the fireside, sitting just outside the edge of conversation, beneath two clay pipes tied with black ribbon, which once Carlyle had smoked. All the people one was taken to see either wrote or painted pictures or, as in the case of a Mr. and Miss de Morgan, ornamented tiles. They let me play with their queer, sticky paints. Somewhere in the background were people called Jean Ingelow and Christina Rossetti, but I was never lucky enough to see those good spirits. And there was choice in the walls of bookshelves of anything one liked from Firmilian to The Moonstone and The Woman in White and, somehow, all Wellington’s Indian Despatches, which fascinated me.

These treasures were realised by me in the course of the next few years. Meantime (Spring of ’78), after my experience at Southsea, the prospect of school did not attract. The United Services College was in the nature of a company promoted by poor officers and the like for the cheap education of their sons, and set up at Westward Ho! near Bideford. It was largely a caste-school—some seventy-five per cent of us had been born outside England and hoped to follow their fathers in the Army. It was but four or five years old when I joined, and had been made up under Cormell Price’s hand by drafts from Haileybury, whose pattern it followed, and, I think, a percentage of ‘hard cases’ from other schools. Even by the standards of those days, it was primitive in its appointments, and our food would now raise a mutiny in Dartmoor. I remember no time, after home tips had been spent, when we would not eat dry bread if we could steal it from the trays in the basement before tea. Yet the sick-house was permanently empty except for lawful accidents; I remember not one death of a boy; and only one epidemic—of chicken-pox. Then the Head called us together and condoled with us in such fashion that we expected immediate break-up and began to cheer. But he said that, perhaps, the best thing would be to take no notice of the incident, and that he would ‘work us lightly’ for the rest of the term. He did and it checked the epidemic.

Naturally, Westward Ho! was brutal enough, but, setting aside the foul speech that a boy ought to learn early and put behind him by his seventeenth year, it was clean with a cleanliness that I have never heard of in any other school. I remember no cases of even suspected perversion, and am inclined to the theory that if masters did not suspect them, and show that they suspected, there would not be quite so many elsewhere. Talking things over with Cormell Price afterwards, he confessed that his one prophylactic against certain unclean microbes was to ‘send us to bed dead tired.’ Hence the wideness of our bounds, and his deaf ear towards our incessant riots and wars between the Houses.

At the end of my first term, which was horrible, my parents could not reach England for the Easter holidays, and I had to stay up with a few big boys reading for Army Exams, and a batch of youngsters whose people were very far away. I expected the worst, but when we survivors were left in the echoing form-rooms after the others had driven cheering to the station, life suddenly became a new thing (thanks to Cormell Price). The big remote seniors turned into tolerant elder brothers, and let us small fry rove far out of bounds; shared their delicacies with us at tea; and even took an interest in our hobbies. We had no special work to do and enjoyed ourselves hugely. On the return of the school ‘all smiles stopped together,’ which was right and proper. For compensation I was given a holiday when my Father came home, and with him went to the Paris Exhibition of ’78, where he was in charge of Indian Exhibits. He allowed me, at twelve years old, the full freedom of that spacious and friendly city, and the run of the Exhibition grounds and buildings. It was an education in itself; and set my life-long love for France. Also, he saw to it that I should learn to read French at least for my own amusement, and gave me Jules Verne to begin with. French as an accomplishment was not well-seen at English schools in my time, and knowledge of it connoted leanings towards immorality. For myself;—


I hold it truth with him who sung
Unpublished melodies,
Who wakes in Paris, being young,
O’ summer, wakes in Paradise.

For those who may be still interested in such matters, I wrote of this part of my life in some Souvenirs of France, which are very close to the facts of that time.

My first year and a half was not pleasant. The most persistent bullying comes less from the bigger boys, who merely kick and pass on, than from young devils of fourteen acting in concert against one butt. Luckily for me I was physically some years in advance of my age, and swimming in the big open sea baths, or off the Pebble Ridge, was the one accomplishment that brought me any credit. I played footer (Rugby Union), but here again my sight hampered me. I was not even in the Second Fifteen.

After my strength came suddenly to me about my fourteenth year, there was no more bullying; and either my natural sloth or past experience did not tempt me to bully in my turn. I had by then found me two friends with whom, by a carefully arranged system of mutual aids, I went up the school on co-operative principles.

How we—the originals of Stalky, M‘Turk, and Beetle—first came together I do not remember, but our Triple Alliance was well established before we were thirteen. We had been oppressed by a large toughish boy who raided our poor little lockers. We took him on in a long, mixed rough-and-tumble, just this side of the real thing. At the end we were all-out (we worked by pressure and clinging, much as bees ‘ball’ a Queen) and he never troubled us again.

Turkey possessed an invincible detachment—far beyond mere insolence—towards all the world and a tongue, when he used it, dipped in some Irish-blue acid. Moreover, he spoke, sincerely, of the masters as ‘ushers,’ which was not without charm. His general attitude was that of Ireland in English affairs at that time.

For executive capacity, the organisation of raids, reprisals, and retreats, we depended on Stalky, our Commander-in-Chief and Chief of his own Staff. He came of a household with a stern head, and, I fancy, had training in the holidays. Turkey never told us much about his belongings. He turned up, usually a day or two late, by the Irish packet, aloof, inscrutable, and contradictious. On him lay the burden of decorating our study, for he served a strange God called Ruskin. We fought among ourselves ‘regular an’ faithful as man an’ wife,’ but any debt which we owed elsewhere was faithfully paid by all three of us.

Our ‘socialisation of educational opportunities’ took us unscathed up the school, till the original of Little Hartopp, asking one question too many, disclosed that I did not know what a cosine was and compared me to ‘brute beasts.’ I taught Turkey all he ever knew of French, and he tried to make Stalky and me comprehend a little Latin. There is much to be said for this system, if you want a boy to learn anything, because he will remember what he gets from an equal where his master’s words are forgotten. Similarly, when it was necessary to Stalky that I should get into the Choir, he taught me how to quaver ‘I know a maiden fair to see’ by punching me in the kidneys all up and down the cricket-field. (But some small trouble over a solitaire marble pushed from beneath the hem of a robe down the choir-steps into the tiled aisle ended that venture.)

I think it was his infernal impersonality that swayed us all in our wars and peace. He saw not only us but himself from the outside, and in later life, as we met in India and elsewhere, the gift persisted. At long last, when with an equipment of doubtful Ford cars and a collection of most-mixed troops, he put up a monumental bluff against the Bolsheviks somewhere in Armenia (it is written in his Adventures of Dunsterforce) and was as nearly as possible destroyed, he wrote to the authorities responsible. I asked him what happened. ‘They told me they had no more use for my services,’ said he. Naturally I condoled. ‘Wrong as usual,’ said the ex-Head of Number Five study. ‘If any officer under me had written what I did to the War Office, I’d have had him broke in two twos.’ That fairly sums up the man—and the boy who commanded us. I think I was a buffer state between his drivings and his tongue-lashings and his campaigns in which we were powers; and the acrid, devastating Turkey who, as I have written, ‘lived and loved to destroy illusions’ yet reached always after beauty. They took up room on tables that I wanted for writing; they broke into my reveries; they mocked my Gods; they stole, pawned or sold my outlying or neglected possessions; and—I could not have gone on a week without them nor they without me.

But my revenge was ample. I have said I was physically precocious. In my last term I had been thrusting an unlovely chin at C—— in form. At last he blew up, protested he could no longer abide the sight, and ordered me to shave. I carried this word to my House-master. He, who had long looked on me as a cultivated sink of iniquities, brooded over this confirmation of his suspicions, and gave me a written order on a Bideford barber for a razor, etc. I kindly invited my friends to come and help, and lamented for three miles the burden of compulsory shaving. There were no ripostes. There was no ribaldry. But why Stalky and Turkey did not cut their throats experimenting with the apparatus I do not understand.

We will now return to the savage life in which all these prodigious events ‘transpired.’

We smoked, of course, but the penalties of discovery were heavy because the Prefects, who were all of the ‘Army Class’ up for the Sandhurst or Woolwich Preliminary, were allowed under restrictions to smoke pipes. If any of the rank and file were caught smoking, they came up before the Prefects, not on moral grounds, but for usurping the privileges of the Ruling Caste. The classic phrase was; ‘You esteem yourself to be a Prefect, do you? All right. Come to my study at six, please.’ This seemed to work better than religious lectures and even expulsions which some establishments used to deal out for this dread sin.

Oddly enough ‘fagging’ did not exist, though the name ‘fag’ was regularly used as a term of contempt and sign of subordination against the Lower School. If one needed a ‘varlet’ to clean things in a study or run errands, that was a matter for private bargaining in our only currency—food. Sometimes such service gave protection, in the sense that it was distinct cheek to oppress an accredited ‘varlet.’ I never served thus, owing to my untidiness; but our study entertained one sporadically, and to him we three expounded all housewifely duties. But, as a rule, Turkey would tidy up like the old maid to whom we always compared him.

Games were compulsory unless written excuse were furnished by competent authority. The penalty for wilful shirking was three cuts with a ground-ash from the Prefect of Games. One of the most difficult things to explain to some people is that a boy of seventeen or eighteen can thus beat a boy barely a year his junior, and on the heels of the punishment go for a walk with him; neither party bearing malice or pride.

So too in the War of ’14 to ’18 young gentlemen found it hard to understand that the Adjutant who poured vitriol on their heads at Parade, but was polite and friendly at Mess, was not sucking up to them to make amends for previous rudeness.

Except in the case of two House-masters I do not recall being lectured or preached at on morals or virtue. It is not always expedient to excite a growing youth’s religious emotions, because one set of nerves seems to communicate with others, and Heaven knows what mines a ‘pi-jaw’ may touch off. But there were no doors to our bare windy dormitories, nor any sort of lock on the form-rooms. Our masters, with one exception who lived outside, were unmarried. The school buildings, originally cheap lodging-houses, made one straight bar against a hillside, and the boys circulated up and down in front of it. A penal battalion could not have been more perfectly policed, though that we did not realise. Mercifully we knew little outside the immediate burden of the day and the necessity for getting into the Army. I think, then, that when we worked we worked harder than most schools.

My House-master was deeply conscientious and cumbered about with many cares for his charges. What he accomplished thereby I know not. His errors sprang from pure and excessive goodness. Me and my companions he always darkly and deeply suspected. Realising this, we little beasts made him sweat, which he did on slight provocation.

My main interest as I grew older was C——, my English and Classics Master, a rowing-man of splendid physique, and a scholar who lived in secret hope of translating Theocritus worthily. He had a violent temper, no disadvantage in handling boys used to direct speech, and a gift of schoolmaster’s ‘sarcasm’ which must have been a relief to him and was certainly a treasure-trove to me. Also he was a good and House-proud House-master. Under him I came to feel that words could be used as weapons, for he did me the honour to talk at me plentifully; and our year-in year-out form-room bickerings gave us both something to play with. One learns more from a good scholar in a rage than from a score of lucid and laborious drudges; and to be made the butt of one’s companions in full form is no bad preparation for later experiences. I think this ‘approach’ is now discouraged for fear of hurting the soul of youth, but in essence it is no more than rattling tins or firing squibs under a colt’s nose. I remember nothing save satisfaction or envy when C—— broke his precious ointments over my head.

I tried to give a pale rendering of his style when heated in a ‘Stalky’ tale, ‘Regulus,’ but I wish I could have presented him as he blazed forth once on the great Cleopatra Ode—the 27th of the Third Book. I had detonated him by a very vile construe of the first few lines. Having slain me, he charged over my corpse and delivered an interpretation of the rest of the Ode unequalled for power and insight. He held even the Army Class breathless.

There must be still masters of the same sincerity; and gramophone records of such good men, on the brink of profanity, struggling with a Latin form, would be more helpful to education than bushels of printed books. C—— taught me to loathe Horace for two years; to forget him for twenty, and then to love him for the rest of my days and through many sleepless nights.

After my second year at school, the tide of writing set in. In my holidays the three ladies listened—it was all I wanted—to anything I had to say. I drew on their books, from The City of Dreadful Night which shook me to my unformed core, Mrs. Gatty’s Parables from Nature which I imitated and thought I was original, and scores of others. There were few atrocities of form or metre that I did not perpetrate and I enjoyed them all.

I discovered, also, that personal and well-pointed limericks on my companions worked well, and I and a red-nosed boy of uncertain temper exploited the idea—not without dust and heat; next, that the metre of Hiawatha saved one all bother about rhyme; and that there had been a man called Dante who, living in a small Italian town at general issue with his neighbours, had invented for most of them lively torments in a nine-ringed Hell, where he exhibited them to after-ages. C—— said, ‘He must have made himself infernally unpopular.’ I combined my authorities.

I bought a fat, American-cloth-bound notebook, and set to work on an Inferno, into which I put, under appropriate torture, all my friends and most of the masters. This was really remunerative because one could chant his future doom to a victim walking below the windows of the study which I with my two companions now possessed. Then, ‘as rare things will,’ my book vanished, and I lost interest in the Hiawatha metre.

Tennyson and Aurora Leigh came in the way of nature to me in the holidays, and C—— in form once literally threw Men and Women at my head. Here I found ‘The Bishop orders his Tomb,’ ‘Love among the Ruins’ and ‘Fra Lippo Lippi,’ a not too remote—I dare to think—ancestor of mine.

Swinburne’s poems I must have come across first at the Aunt’s. He did not strike my very young mind as ‘anything in particular’ till I read Atalanta in Calydon, and one verse of verses which exactly set the time for my side-stroke when I bathed in the big rollers off the Ridge. As thus:—


Who shall seek—thee and bring
And restore thee thy day [Half roll]
When the dove dipt her wing
And the oars won their way [Other half roll]
Where the narrowing Symplegades whitened
The Straits of Propontis with spray? [Carry on with the impetus]

If you can time the last line of it to end with a long roller crashing on your head, the cadence is complete. I even forgave Bret Harte, to whom I owed many things, for taking that metre in vain in his ‘Heathen Chinee.’ But I never forgave C—— for bringing the fact to my notice.

Not till years later—talking things over with my ‘Uncle Crom’—did I realise that injustices of this sort were not without intention. ‘You needed a tight hand in those days,’ he drawled. ‘C—— gave it to you.’ ‘He did,’ said I, ‘and so did H——,’ the married master whom the school thoroughly feared.

‘ I remember that,’ Crom answered. ‘Yes, that was me too.’ This had been an affair of an Essay—’A Day in the Holidays,’ or something of that nature. C—— had set it but the papers were to be marked by H——. My essay was of variegated but constant vileness, modelled, I fancy, on holiday readings of a journal called The Pink ’Un. Even I had never done anything worse. Normally H——’s markings would have been sent in to C—— without comment. On this occasion, however (I was in Latin form at the time), H—— entered and asked for the floor. C—— yielded it to him with a grin. H—— then told me off before my delighted companions in his best style, which was acid and contumelious. He wound up by a few general remarks about dying as a ‘scurrilous journalist.’ (I think now that H—— too may have read The Pink ’Un.) The tone, matter, and setting of his discourse were as brutal as they were meant to be—brutal as the necessary wrench on the curb that fetches up a too-flippant colt. C—— added a rider or two after H—— had left.

(But it pleased Allah to afflict H—— in after years. I met him in charge of a ‘mixed’ College in New Zealand, where he taught a class of young ladies Latinity. ‘And when they make false quantities, like you used to, they make-eyes at me!’ I thought of my chill mornings at Greek Testament under his ready hand, and pitied him from the bottom of my soul.)

Yes—I must have been ‘nursed’ with care by Crom and under his orders. Hence, when he saw I was irretrievably committed to the ink-pot, his order that I should edit the School Paper and have the run of his Library Study. Hence, I presume, C——’s similar permission, granted and withdrawn as the fortunes of our private war varied. Hence the Head’s idea that I should learn Russian with him (I got as far as some of the cardinal numbers) and, later, précis-writing. This latter meant severe compression of dry-as-dust material, no essential fact to be omitted. The whole was sweetened with reminiscences of the men of Crom’s youth, and throughout the low, soft drawl and the smoke of his perpetual Vevey he shed light on the handling of words. Heaven forgive me! I thought these privileges were due to my transcendent personal merits.

Many of us loved the Head for what he had done for us, but I owed him more than all of them put together; and I think I loved him even more than they did. There came a day when he told me that a fortnight after the close of the summer holidays of ’82, I would go to India to work on a paper in Lahore, where my parents lived, and would get one hundred silver rupees a month! At term-end he most unjustly devised a prize poem—subject ‘The Battle of Assaye ‘, which, there being no competitor, I won in what I conceived was the metre of my latest ‘infection’—Joaquin Miller. And when I took the prize-book, Trevelyan’s Competition Wallah, Crom Price said that if I went on I might be heard of again.

I spent my last few days before sailing with the beloved Aunt in the little cottage that the Burne-Jones’ had bought for a holiday house at Rottingdean. There I looked across the village green and the horse-pond at a house called ‘The Elms’ behind a flint wall, and at a church opposite; and—had I known it—at ‘The bodies of those to be In the Houses of Death and of Birth.’