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Chapter VI

Reasons for remaining at Hopkinson House School. I pass from boyhood to early young manhood. Expeditions both urban and rural in the company of my dear father. An excellent and little-known diversion. Youthful adventures by sea and land. But what is to be my career leaving school? Various alternatives prayerfully considered. A vision is vouchsafed to us by Providence. A commercial Xtian. My first razor.

I have frequently been asked, and I have but little doubt that hosts of my readers will put the same query to me, why I did not, after such an experience, transfer my attendance to another school. And I ought to say at once, perhaps, that both my father and myself were strongly disposed to this course. Having regard to the facts, however, that Hopkinson House School was the only one in the neighbourhood for sons of gentlemen; that my moral position had now been defined there beyond any possibility of doubt; that the apologies elicited would probably secure me in the future from any further corporal interference; and that both Simeon and Silas Whey had expressed their horror at my treatment — in view of these facts, we came to the conclusion that, for the present at any rate, I had better remain there. That it could never be the same to me was of course the case. But then my hopes had not been extravagant. And although, as I have indicated, my boyhood had been ruthlessly plucked from me like a geranium in full bud, my early young manhood found me securer than ever in the approval of a wise and discerning Providence. Apart from an occasional boil, too, and a somewhat intractable and disfiguring affection known as acne, my health was giving rise to less anxiety than for some time past, and I have always looked back on the next two years as amongst the happiest of my life.

Necessarily thrown, as the result of what had happened, very largely upon my own resources, I was agreeably surprised to find that these were even richer and more varied than I had supposed; and I frequently walked, on a Saturday afternoon, as far as Dulwich or Blackheath, thoroughly contented with the company of none other than myself. What was my joy, too, to discover, a couple of weeks after my fifteenth birthday, that my voice had broken into a full-toned bass that promised to be even more powerful than my father's; and many a long hour did we spend at the harmonium together in friendly competition over our favourite hymns. Though he was rather more accurate than myself in the matter of tune, in the matter of time there was little to choose between us, while in the actual volume of sound produced I was soon my father's equal, if not his superior.

Nor was singing our only mutual occupation, for once a month, thanks to my father's generosity, we would journey to such a place of instructional interest as the Tower of London or Sir John Soane's Museum. We even visited, I remember, the National Gallery of Art, with its remarkable collection of hand-painted pictures; and I can still recall the delicacy with which my father would intervene to shelter me from any that contained an undraped female figure.

Perhaps our happiest times, however, were those spent with Nature during my father's annual fortnight's holiday, when we would usually procure lodgings at some such salubrious resort as Clacton-on-Sea or Cliftonville, near Margate. Here we would abandon ourselves to the contemplation of the waves, and here, under my father's skilful tuition, I became quite an adept at an entrancing pursuit less well known, I think, than it should be.

Consisting in the first place of the selection of a flat-shaped stone — itself often a gleeful and difficult task — it then becomes the object of the participators in the game to propel this seawards across the surface of the ocean. Being heavier than water, it would naturally be supposed that at the first impact with the latter the stone would sink; and indeed, if projected by an unskilled player, this is what usually eventuates. As I was happy to demonstrate, however, to our Sunday School mistresses only last year at Southend, in the hands of a careful and experienced performer this is by no means necessarily the case. Supporting the stone, with its flatter surface downwards, on the flexed middle finger of the thrower's hand, his (or her) forefinger should lie along its circumference, the thumb gently resting on its superior surface. It should then be so cast as to travel horizontally, its flat surface parallel to the surface of the water, with the surprising result that, when at last it drops, it bounces into the air again and proceeds onwards. Nay, it may even, in the hands of the most expert, repeat this process two or three times, to the intense and delighted fascination of those who have been privileged to witness him.

Not lacking in the element of competition, yet devoid of all possibility of personal danger, affording healthful exercise, but at the same time immune from the perils of over-exertion, it has always seemed strange to me that, up to the present, it has played so small a part in our national life. An island community, here if anywhere is a diversion that should surely appeal to us; and I for one should rejoice to see the day when, instead of the football ground and the tennis pitch, our coasts should be thronged with eager young men and women enjoying this hygienic and innocent pastime.

Nor did we confine ourselves, while at the seaside, merely to terrestrial amusement, and we would frequently indulge, for perhaps a quarter of an hour, in the enjoyable practice of pedal immersion. Wholly precluded, of course, for constitutional reasons, from the fuller development of this art involved in swimming, we nevertheless found this to be a most laughable and even exciting occupation; and I can recall at least two occasions when, owing to a momentary inadversion, our rolled-up trousers became partially submerged. A short run home, however, a cup of hot milk, and immediate retirement to bed sufficed, in both instances, to protect us from any untoward results.

With my two friends, also, Simeon and Silas Whey, I had many hours of fruitful companionship. Equally segregated with myself from the majority of their schoolfellows, though less upon moral and intellectual than purely physical grounds, they were yet earnest and high-minded lads with many notably endearing qualities. Reticent to an extreme, partly, in the case of Silas, owing to an initial difficulty in articulating anything at all, and in the case of Simeon, owing to a kind of laryngeal click from which he is still unfortunately a sufferer, they appeared to find a comfort in my own natural eloquence that I was only too glad to bestow upon them. In return for this, their ample pocket-money was always entirely at my disposal, and many a pound of toffee and Turkish delight was I able to enjoy at their expense. Like myself unaddicted to athletics, and thereby preserved from its associated vices, they would saunter for hours with me discussing some favourite Bible character or humming in unison some well-known hymn; and we were further united, if that were possible, in our eventual confirmation by the self-same Bishop.

Nevertheless, as I have said, it was chiefly upon myself that I had to depend for company; and in my walks abroad, my studies of the shop-windows, and my exploration of the neighbouring churches, my closest comrade was myself, and I can honestly say that I have never regretted it. Nor must it be supposed that the hours so spent were entirely devoid of legitimate adventure. On two or three occasions, for instance, I was abruptly addressed by some surprised or suspicious verger, and once, owing to ignorance of its usual closing hours, I was incarcerated in a local cemetery. Confined by railings too lofty to scale and too narrowly approximated to permit egress, for a few moments the prospects were sufficiently black to cause a sensible quickening of my pulse. A felicitous remark, however, addressed to an under-gardener, secured my exit by a private gate, and I hurried home, not without relief, but none the worse for my little mischance.

Nor shall I forget the thrill, perhaps a trifle guilty, with which I discovered, soon after I was sixteen, how to descend from a vehicle in motion without the sacrifice of an erect position. Hitherto, like my father, when travelling by tram or omnibus, I had always insisted upon complete immobility prior both to entrance into and departure from one of these public conveyances; and many a conductor had been reported by us both for failing to secure the requisite lack of motion. Upon my sixteenth birthday, however, perceiving that the omnibus in which I was journeying could not be brought to a standstill at the desired position, I decided to alight from it notwithstanding and boldly descended from its posterior step.

Naturally leaving this at right angles, what was my rather rueful amazement to discover myself, in the next instant, lying upon my side in the roadway. At first I imagined that I must have stepped upon something slippery or that some such article must have been adhering to my footwear. But a minute examination both of this and the roadway failed to reveal any such cause. Completely baffled, I made a second attempt, but with an equally discomforting result, and time after time, in spite of my utmost efforts, I was the victim of a similar loss of equilibrium. Many a less determined and timider lad would indeed have given up the venture, and again I ought to confess, perhaps, in view of municipal regulations, that my pertinacity was not wholly defensible.

Robbed of candour, however, such a record as the present would lose the greater part of its spiritual value; and while I am prepared to admit that, in this particular instance, my youthful conduct may have been open to misjudgement, I cannot concede that it was in any degree incompatible with the highest expression of the Xtian character. Refusing to be cast down, therefore, save in the most literal sense, I continued dauntlessly with my efforts, to be rewarded at last with a final success no less gratifying than entire. Failing to remain upright in departing from the moving vehicle either at right angles to it or with my back towards the driver, I found that by facing in the same direction I could not only descend from it with greater immunity, but that by running after it, as it were, for two or three steps, I could do so with complete integrity. Needless to say, having acquired this knowledge, I only made use of it in an occasional emergency, and for some years now, owing to declining success, I have discontinued the practice altogether.

With the unfolding of my seventeenth year, however, I was definitely approaching the great problems of adult life, and much of my time now began to be occupied with the contemplation of my future career. Thanks to the tempered foresight of my father, a firm believer, as a rule, in unlimited families, in the exceptional circumstances of his own case he had refrained from further parentage. On his demise, therefore, as he had given me to understand, I should inherit some two thousand pounds, this being the amount to which his insurance and savings would by then probably have accrued. Should my mother survive him, I should, of course, be expected, and would gladly, as I assured him, make her some allowance. But her health was so precarious as to render this sacrifice a very improbable necessity.

Devoid of anxiety, therefore, as to ultimate no less than immediate penury, I could afford to regard the future with an adequate deliberation, and I need scarcely say, perhaps, that the Church of England was the subject of my first and most prolonged consideration. Financially inadequate as were even its highest rewards, I was yet so adapted to its every need that both my father and myself would have been willing to overlook this very serious disadvantage. But to become ordained presupposed an examination, and I had been seriously handicapped in this particular respect by a proven disability, probably hereditary in origin, to demonstrate my culture in so confined a form.

For a similar reason, even had I been attracted to it, the profession of Medicine would have been unavailable, while from that of the Law, nobler in every way, I was equally precluded. For some time, however, we canvassed very carefully the strong claims of Diplomacy, for which in many ways, as my father agreed with me, I was most admirably fitted. And I am still convinced that both as attaché and ambassador I should have found congenial and Xtian employment. Unhappily, however, such a career involved the acquirement of the French language, with attendant dangers, to which my father could not persuade himself to expose me. Whether he was right in this is perhaps open to argument, and I have since met several apparently devout men who have not only spoken this tongue with reported fluency, but have deliberately sojourned in the country of its origin. Personally, however. while reluctant to condemn them, I must confess to sharing my father's views, and I am happy in the knowledge,that the vicar of my parish holds precisely the same opinion. Abandoning Diplomacy, therefore, we considered the Consolidated Water Board, in which my father, of course, had considerable influence. But here, as in the Church of England, the emoluments were unsatisfactory, while the spiritual opportunities, of course, were far more restricted.

Thus step by step, as though by the hand of Providence — and indeed, as my father said, it could have been by no other hand — we were slowly led to the conclusion that in some branch of Commerce lay my future destiny. Requiring no previous examinations, with liberal, nay, illimitable, monetary possibilities, this was the field — the highest, perhaps, of all  — that was now unfolded before our gaze. For a few moments, I remember, we sat there speechless, one on each side of the parlour table. Then my father rose and stood for another few moments with his right hand resting on the harmonium. In his face there was a great joy, not unmixed with solemnity. His eyes looked beyond me out towards eternity. Indeed it was to, eternity that he addressed himself.

‘Augustus,’ he said, ‘my son Augustus — a Xtian tradesman, preferably wholesale.’

My mother came in to announce the supper. But almost impatiently he motioned her aside.

‘Oh, can’t you see,’ he cried, ‘that we’re standing on Pisgah?’

For a moment, not comprehending him, she stared at his feet. Then very softly she withdrew, and he came toward me with outstretched hands.

‘A Xtian magnate,’ he said, ‘a commercial Xtian — what better could I have desired for you?’

Impulsively I kissed him, perhaps a little too impulsively. But he scarcely flinched as he received the impact, merely remarking that, upon the next day, he would present me with my first razor. Nor did he fail to do so, partly reminded by myself, and partly by the appearance, early the next morning, of a slight but painful urticaria or nettle-rash in the region of our most vehement facial adjustment. But that was a penalty, as he several times assured me, that many a father would have been glad to pay, and one that yielded, in less than a fortnight, to an inunction embracing the oxide of zinc.

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