The Undiscovered Country
BEFORE Mr. Hyde reached the Chapel, a cold rain began to slant in at him from an unprotected quarter, so that he entered the vestibule a little damp and a good deal out of sorts. The boys had n’t come in yet. He walked up the empty aisle to his stall in the masters’ row and looked about at the familiar surroundings: the pulpit, superbly carved and supported by a pedestal of reddish stone; the row of stained-glass windows along the wall opposite him, in which crimson and dark green and brown blended exquisitely; the rows of empty benches, which would be filled in a moment or two with boys, breathless with running; and at the end of the nave, opposite the pulpit, the gallery, partly filled with parents who had come up to the school to see their boys.
All this had become familiar to Mr. Hyde during his half-dozen years as master at St. Olave’s, and ordinarily he liked it. It was sombre and restful and peaceful — necessary and not too common qualities in boarding-schools. But this morning he was hardly in a mood to be pleased with anything. In the first place, the coffee had been dreadfully weak, and the boys unusually annoying at breakfast. And now the smell of his damp woollen suit was offensive. He thought enviously of business men smoking their after-breakfast cigars and unfolding their morning papers at mahogany desks in steam-heated offices. It was not the first time since he had become a schoolteacher that such thoughts had come flitting through his mind, like disquieting shadows on what ought to have been a sunny, smiling sea. He believed his feet were damp, too, and the envious thoughts assailed him in a still more annoying fashion. But really the time of year was to blame: it was early December, and the inevitable term-end tension had begun to show itself.
By the time Mr. Hyde had reached this point in his mental perambulations the Chapel was filled with boys — boys of all sizes and in all stages of mental and physical development, from the Eton-collared, knickerbockered, blackbooted youngsters of the first form, to the stalwart, upstanding, confident sixth-formers. Almost four hundred of them there were, as they trooped in and took their seats. The sheer multitude of them oppressed Mr. Hyde — dozens, scores; they seemed to be everywhere, with their cheerful faces, and he felt like elbowing them savagely aside until he had cleared a small space and had breathing-room for himself. But as they subsided on their benches, their numbers seemed to diminish, and at least here they were quiet and comparatively inoffensive.
A latch clicked sharply near Mr. Hyde, and a door swung open to admit the choir — an immaculate procession headed by two blond-haired youngsters with shining cheeks and demure expressions; behind them came others, marching by twos, and getting taller as the end of the line was reached. Taken as a whole, with their spotless white cottas and black cassocks, their smoothly brushed hair and their pious faces, an unbiased observer might have seen in almost any of them the sentimental choir-boy of tradition. But Mr. Hyde, with his feet chilly and a little damp, and the smell of wet woollen in his nostrils, knew better. He had had glimpses behind the scenes, and knew the miniature pandemonium that reigned in the choir-room up to the very moment of the clicking of the latch and the opening of the door. Pious choir-boys, indeed! Mr. Hyde had seen them too often when they were not on exhibition, to be deceived by any mere trappings and suits of sanctimony. As he thought of it now, it seemed to him the zenith of hypocrisy for such impish youngsters to be garbed as choir-boys and taught to sing hymns. Usually this amused him and seemed altogether natural; but not this morning. The first week of December was past.
The service began and ended. At St. Olave’s there is a very orderly arrangement for getting the boys out of the Chapel: they march out, a benchful at a time, beginning at the front and working backwards. This makes an almost continuous column of boys marching out by twos for several minutes — by no means an unimpressive sight. Ordinarily Mr. Hyde watched them with interest and pleasure, even speculating sometimes on the qualities latent in each boy, and feeling cheerful on the whole as a result of his unspoken prophesies; for he enjoyed schoolteaching and liked boys. But to-day, as the column filed out, he unluckily glanced up at the gallery, and his pleasure was ruined, savage disgust filling his soul instead. His wet feet and the weak coffee were forgotten — inconsequential trifles in comparison with the new cause of wrath; for in the gallery he saw a number of parents or aunts or uncles or other ignorant adults standing and gazing in rapt ecstasy at the passing youth.
Ah! How perfectly Mr. Hyde could read their thoughts! They were thinking — if such mawkish sentimentality could be called thought — of the glory of youth, and the rare privilege of the masters in guiding the destinies and moulding the characters of such superb specimens of embryonic manhood! That was it. These adoring gazes from the balcony fairly indicated one attitude toward schoolmastering — converting, with the idealism of ignorance, and with the inevitable parental bias, a very unromantic job into a Cause, a Missionary Duty, a Divine Calling. They saw nothing but the sugar-coating outside the pill; so how could they help misjudging the men who, they supposed, lived on sugar-coatings alone? Mr. Hyde had read the letters and listened to the maunderings of these parents, and making every allowance for their proper and instinctive prejudice, had yet found it difficult to keep calm.
‘ Harold is a very sensitive boy — he responds so readily to kindness and craves sympathy. His health has not been good, but the doctors say that he is quite well now and should develop rapidly. I am sure that you will understand. He has difficulty in concentrating, and we sometimes wonder whether he has ever learned how to study.’
Mr. Hyde looked grim; perhaps a school of Harolds would produce a set of masters who lived on the sugar-coatings of pills; he could n’t say surely, but it was a fair guess. Honestly, it looked sometimes as if the reason why schoolmasters were so misjudged by such parents was that they knew only one side of their boys—or at least believed that the cherubic, tender, and sensitive side was the real and important one, and the one commonly revealed to their teachers. It was a horrible reflection, and Mr. Hyde shuddered! Probably there was little or no truth in it. At any rate, not all parents were like that.
But the spectacle of that gallery, with the boys filing out below! Could he believe his eyes, or was that dear middle-aged lady in the feather boa using her handkerchief under her glasses? Mr. Hyde gnashed his teeth.
When at last the Chapel was empty, he departed hurriedly to his room for a pipe before dinner. He had been goaded into a mood of savage reaction. He knew these Harolds, and he knew what sort of treatment they needed. The oldfashioned birch rod or mahogany ferule. What a job he had chosen when he had innocently stepped into schoolteaching! The whole rotten business was nothing but playing a part. You could n’t talk to the boys as man to man — you could n’t be sincere with them. They had to be guarded and protected and sheltered, until you felt more like a nurse than like a man. You could n’t give them anything but orthodox stuff, because, even if you labeled it as mere personal opinion, they would n’t understand you. There were n’t more than half a dozen in the whole bunch that had a full set of brains. They were utterly without imagination — so horribly literal that, if you told them Dr. Johnson was an old bear, they thought you were talking slang, and told you the next day that he was the greatest writer of the ages, puritanizing for you colloquial language. If you told them that the frank vulgarity of Fielding was vastly more moral than a show such as ‘The Pink Lady,’ they translated it into ‘Vulgarity is better than refinement.’ They had no ideas of their own, and gave you nothing; only turned your hair gray for you, and after graduating forgot your existence.
But this was n’t the worst of it, thought Mr. Hyde, as he marched up and down his room and blew out pipesmoke in great, savage clouds. You could stand the imbecility of the boys, because you had long since been disillusioned into expecting nothing else of them. What was really intolerable was the cramped, petty, exacting routine life that you had to lead, with its crowded, monotonous schedules that gave you no chance to expand or grow or develop. It dwarfed and stunted any ability that might once have lain dormant within you, awaiting only a touch of the wand of opportunity to blossom into accomplishment. Here you were deliberately killing it — the chances were more than even that it was already dead. He tried to think of something that he had got out of his six years’ schoolmastering, and could think of nothing except an uncanny glibness in quoting fragments of hymns. And for this he had stifled his ambition, killed his ability, sold his immortal soul.
In his present mood it seemed to him little better than suicide to seal himself hermetically into this insignificant corner of New England, when the Seven Seas and the Whole World lay alluring before him. Wildly he wanted to run big risks; to ship before the mast in sailing-vessels, to knock down Malays with iron belaying-pins. By Jove, he would do it! He would throw off the shackles of the cloistered academic and sail to the South Seas, where he would live in bamboo huts on Tahiti, stagger through typhoons under bare poles, and loll under persimmon trees in a pith helmet!
In his agitation his geography had become a little mixed, and his sense of humor — or perhaps the spectatorial attitude in which he was wont to detach himself from the universe and watch the pageant of life unroll itself for his particular benefit — had temporarily vanished; for no more incongruous, wildly comic spectacle could be imagined than that of Mr. Hyde brandishing belaying-pins! He was n’t even sure what they were; and he had never so much as gone deep-sea fishing in summer without being dreadfully sick, and lying helpless with sunburn for several days afterward. But all such trifles were forgotten, and he saw himself quite clearly as a second Captain Waterman, subjecting mutinous crews and breaking records in clipper ships.
His adventurous fancies were harshly interrupted by the electric dinner-gong, which abruptly transformed him into a mild-mannered, inoffensive pedagogue. He laid down his pipe, glanced in the mirror to see whether his hair needed brushing, and walked sedately downstairs, murmuring to himself fragments of a doggerel about teaching, wellknown to rebellious schoolmasters: —
It’s kiss ’em good-night sharp at nine;
It’s show ’em the short road to heaven;
It’s tell ’em that Cæsar is fine.’
Mr. Hyde had once more experienced, and emerged from, the second attitude toward school-teaching — an attitude that prevails among masters toward the fag end of long terms, and is merely another manifestation of the term-end tension aforesaid.
The table at which Mr. Hyde presided during meals was long and narrow, with places for some fifteen boys; but the only ones who greatly concerned him were his two or three immediate neighbors. In this respect he was fortunate, for at his right sat Low, a polished, gentlemanly youth of athletic proclivities, whose home was Philadelphia, and whose lessons were his smallest concern. Opposite Low was Smallie, of Minneapolis, a genial light-weight, with a fondness for conversation and a mild interest in good books. Next to Smallie was Tris, a magnetic ball-player from St. Louis, whose passion was argument, who backed every good thing in the school, and who was the best student of the three. All were fifth-formers. Their average age was seventeen.
On this occasion Destiny decreed, while Mr. Hyde was ladling soup, that these three young gentlemen should embark undaunted on the subject of Literature; and since generalities are rarely of enduring interest to boys, the question was soon reduced to shrewdly naïve comments on the book they were reading in their English course, The House of Seven Gables. The situation was the more intricate because no two of the boys had reached the same point in the story. Low had labored doggedly through the first two chapters and was in a hopelessly bewildered state of mind as to the chronology of the events, and was not at all sure which of the characters were alive and which were dead; Smallie had read it all and had an intelligent but superficial line of comment to contribute; Tris was about half-way through, and found it a fertile field for debate. They attacked their soup and the book simultaneously and with equal vigor. Low opened fire.
‘How far have you got in The House of the Seven Gables ?’
‘Page one-fifty-six,’ came like a flash from the corner of Tris’s mouth.
‘Talk sense, will you! Who’s going to know where page one-fifty-six is? What’s happening?’
Tris scented an opening for an argument. ‘Well, you asked me how far I ’d got and I told you, did n’t I? “How far” means what page.’
‘I suppose you expect a guy to know just exactly what’s on every page. That’s sensible all right!’
‘Accuracy, feller! That’s me. If you want to know what’s happening, say so.’
In spite of himself, Mr. Hyde began to be amused.
‘All right — what’s happening? Can you understand that?’
‘That’s more like it,’ said Tris complacently. ‘Phœbe’s blown in and started to patch up old Cliff.’
Low was far beyond his depth. His muddled ideas of two chapters hardly qualified him to enter this discussion. But he ploughed manfully on.
‘Cliff? Is that the guy with the bubbles in his throat?’
‘Say, wake up! How much of this book have you read anyhow? Did you get beyond the title? Cliff’s the duke that’s dippy.’
At this point, much to the secret relief of Low, Smallie piped up.
‘You’re dippy yourself. Cliff’s all right. He’s only dizzy from being in the jug.’
Low took a long shot and missed.
‘Sure. They got him for doing old Matt out of his house and barn.’
‘Hey, feller,’ observed Tris; ‘you don’t bat in this league. Talk sense, will you?’
‘You can’t talk so much yourself. You thought he was dippy and he’s only dizzy.’
‘Any guy that smells a rose and starts raving about it looks dippy to me, that’s all I got to say.’
Smallie continued his defense of Clifford’s sanity.
‘Just because you haven’t got any sentiment in you does n’t mean that nobody else has. You mean to say any guy that likes roses is bats? ’
‘Well, how about his starting to pike off the roof through the window to join the parade? Was n’t that bats?’
‘He did n’t do it, did he? If he’d done it, he’d have been bugs, but he did n’t do it, so he’s all right.’
Mr. Hyde was beginning to enjoy himself, and had been guilty of several chuckles, He had nearly forgotten his longing for belaying-pins and mutinous Malays. The conversation jumped to another phase of the same subject.
‘You can’t learn anything from old Stuffy, anyhow,’ said Low. ‘All he does is talk for three quarters of an hour, and I never know what he’s talking about; and every once in a while he’ll ask you a question, and you can’t answer questions if you’ve just waked up; and then he gives you zero for the week and says he ought to have known better than to expect intelligence from youth. He thinks that’s funny.’ Low’s tone was replete with a fine scorn.
‘He might know the stuff all right,’ remarked Smallie, conscious of the virtue of his tolerance, ‘but he can’t get it across to me. You got to hand it to him, that ’s a bone-dome outfit though.’
‘Any outfit would look foolish with a guy like that trying to teach it. Did you get what he said to me this morning? He picked two words, something about an “impalpable now,” and asked what I thought about it. Good-night!’
Mr. Hyde’s curiosity and amusement were by this time considerable, so, instead of checking this flow of vernacular, he joined in the conversation.
‘What did you tell him?’ he asked.
‘I told him it looked all right to me — I could n’t see any mistake in it,’ replied Tris; ‘and then he got sarcastic and said no doubt Hawthorne would be vastly gratified to have the approval of such high authority. He gets my goat. What was the right answer, sir?’
Mr. Hyde laughed outright. ‘Don’t know, I’m sure, Tris,’ he said.
‘I did n’t even know what “impalpable” meant,’ Tris went on. ‘What does it mean?’
‘Unreal,’ said Mr. Hyde.
‘That’s about his speed: ask a guy what’s an “unreal now” and get sarcastic if he does n’t know. That’s about the way the whole book is, as far as I can see — “unreal.” Look at the way the picture of the old bird starts to jazz around with its eyes every once in a while. Hot dope!’
‘It’s a romance, you boob,’ said Smallie. ‘ The notes say it’s a romance, and that stuff goes in romances.’
‘Some romance without a Jane,’ interjected Low; but luck was against him again.
‘Sure there’s a Jane, you plumber! Is n’t Phœb a dame? Have n’t you read anything at all in the book?’
‘That is n’t the kind of romance it is, anyhow,’ said Smallie. ‘This kind of a romance means a fairy story.’
‘That’s about their speed,’ grumbled Low — ‘giving us fairy stories to read.’
‘I guess it has n’t bothered you much reading it,’ remarked Tris.
Even Low the persistent had no reply to this, and the conversation veered off on a new tack. Mr. Hyde, in a vastly more tolerant frame of mind, finished his pie and folded his napkin. A bell rang, announcing that dinner was officially over; he left the table amid a pandemonium of scraping chairs and jostling boys, and jockeyed his way to the door. After all, he thought, these youngsters were not quite without virtue: they were at least amusing sometimes. He smiled half-heartedly as he thought of the literary discussion he had just listened to. That was really funny, if only he had been in an appreciative state of mind. Well — probably he was getting old, and he must be careful not to become crabbed and narrow.
He selected a cigar from a glass tobacco-jar, lowered himself into a wellworn Morris chair beside the window, and looked out. Already a dozen boys had donned old clothes and were somersaulting and tumbling and romping about on the snow-covered lawn, unconsciously working off some of that inexhaustible store of energy that seems to increase miraculously in the very act of being consumed. Yes, they were good boys, thought Mr. Hyde; terribly youthful, of course, and inexperienced, but that was inevitable. It was n’t fair to blame them for what they could n’t help. And really they had cheered him up a good deal during dinner, with their careless, irresponsible chatter.
But that was the trouble, — the shadow of a frown flickered across Mr. Hyde’s face, — they were so irresponsible. Sometimes it seemed as if there were no seriousness in them; they were undeniably comic, frequently entertaining, and sometimes altogether charming; but Mr. Hyde wished they had, as a leaven to these virtues, a dash of seriousness and some feeling, if only a little, of responsibility. But then, he reflected, he must n’t expect too much. No doubt they would lose more than they gained if they had it. Boys were boys. He sighed gently. His cigar was drawing well. There were, after all, worse fates than being a schoolmaster. He had known all this for the last four years; he never really forgot it. It was only now and then, when he saw parents in the gallery of the Chapel, or when his digestion was a bit upset, that this knowledge vanished momentarily. He determined never to let it vanish again, even for an instant. But he was in his normal state of mind once more, so he grinned a bit ruefully, reflecting that vaulting ambition exists, even in schoolteachers.
His glance rested on the clock. Good Lord! Quarter to three! In the excitement of his rapidly shifting emotions, he had forgotten that he was a schoolteacher in fact as well as in theory. He was fifteen minutes overdue at the Lower School study, to take charge of the younger boys for an hour.
He grabbed his hat and coat, threw away his half-finished cigar, and bolted. The study would be chaos! There was just a chance that one of the other masters had happened in and started the period for him, but it was n’t likely. They had enough duties of their own. If he could only get there before Smythe, the head of the Lower, heard the row! Smythe was a fine old boy and a good friend of his, but a terrible stickler for routine. An interrupted schedule broke his heart!
Mr. Hyde began to run unsteadily along the slippery board-walk. By the time he got to the study, he would be twenty minutes late. As he approached the Lower School, he listened anxiously for sounds of riot; but everything seemed calm and peaceful. He took heart; no doubt one of the other masters had saved the situation for him, after all. He entered the Lower and climbed the stairs to the big study-hall on the second floor. The youngsters were all in their places, quiet, and apparently busy, and at the desk, cheerfully vigilant, sat Tom Hallett, a sixth-former!
Mr. Hyde could hardly believe his eyes. He hurried up to the desk.
‘How the deuce did you get here, Tommy ?’ he whispered. ‘ I ’m eternally obliged to you, but how did it happen?’
Hallett grinned happily.
‘Oh,’ said he, ‘I was going by and heard a young riot up here, and thought something must be the matter, so I came up. The kids were all over the place, rough-housing and yelling, waiting for someone to come and ring the bell and start them off. So I straightened ’em out. I knew some one of the masters would be along pretty soon.’
In his enthusiasm Mr. Hyde shook Hallett warmly by the hand and repeated his thanks. Hallett grinned more broadly still and went his way, leaving Mr. Hyde at the desk. This was a new experience for the schoolmaster! In six years he had never known anything like it! It was puzzling and needed thinking out. Mr. Hyde knit his brows in bewilderment; he knew that boys were fine stuff— delightful, care-free, and, he had always believed, irresponsible; but here was a case of one who had not only accepted responsibility when it was given him, but had gone out of his way to find it. There was no call for Hallett to go up to the study and quell an incipient riot. It was n’t his business. Why had he done it? Was it possible, after all, that the boys, the older ones, took an interest in the welfare of the school? Did they really prefer to see things run smoothly, and were they willing to help?
In his dealings with boys Mr. Hyde had always, in theory, adopted the platform that they are whatever you expect them to be. He argued that, if you expect them to be crooked, they probably will be crooked, and that, if you take it for granted that they are straight, they will probably be straight. But he had never been optimist enough to subject his theory to any such test as this, for this was Quite beyond the bounds of mere crookedness or straightness: it was the unhesitating assuming of a responsibility that belonged to the masters.
Mr. Hyde positively glowed with excitement. Where, thought he, were those embittered old pedagogues now, who sang the song of youth’s ingratitude? What would they have to say to this? Why, it was perfectly amazing! Where, indeed, was his own sufficiently cheerful doctrine that he had worked out half an hour before in his room? Inadequate and antiquated — a relic of the days of darkness. Deep and powerful emotions stirred in the sensitive heart of Mr. Hyde. He could hardly define them, so subtly were they composed: there was joy, affection, pride, mingled with perfect confidence and a glorious enthusiasm. Ponce de León need not have sought in far countries the Fountain of Youth: he need only have been a schoolteacher. For who could thus associate daily with these splendidly youthful boys and fail himself to be rejuvenated? Who could see their perfect trustworthiness and fail to get inspiration? Did there exist anywhere in the four corners of the earth — nay, or in the Seven Seas he had but now so savagely desired — anything more wholly satisfying than boys? It seemed now to Mr. Hyde that they were everything — not merely exuberant, spontaneous, and joyous, but responsible as well. He had heard talk in learned circles about the defiant irresponsibility of youth, and he had believed it. But now he realized that these wise men had not seen below the surface; these boys of his (for they all suddenly belonged to him) seemed irresponsible, and because of their lightheartedness deceived the unwary into believing that they did n’t care. But Hallett had shown him that they did care greatly, and yet had treated the whole incident as a joke.
If only he had realized this before! So far, in his conversation with the boys, he had carefully confined himself to subjects that had no connection with the management of the school; for, in his blindness, he had supposed that they had no useful ideas on the subject. But now he was beginning to realize the enormity of his mistake — he, who had thought he understood and sympathized with boys! The sixth-formers were, after all, almost mature, and what they lacked in wisdom because of inexperience, they made up for in freshness of ideas and force of imagination. Mr. Hyde had known this for some time but had never thought of applying it to school matters. He began to wonder how far down the forms this might extend. The sixth at all events; probably the fifth; the fourth? Who could say?
The end of the study-period came as he reached this point in his meditations. He rang the bell, dismissed the youngsters, and walked toward his room, excited, enlightened, humbled, like a man who looks for the first time on an unexplored continent. It had been a great day for him. In it he had passed through all the attitudes, right and wrong, that people hold toward schoolteaching. He had seen its faults and its excellencies, its vices and its virtues, its sacrifices and its rewards. And at the end he had discovered that there remained far more to be learned than he had yet mastered. How much more he could not say, — time and his conversations with sixth-formers would tell, — but, in any case, a great deal; so Mr. Hyde forgot his thirst for blood and his yearning for tropic isles, and continued to teach school.