Out of School

Mark you, I am not defending James Datchett. I hold no brief for James. On the contrary, I am very decidedly of the opinion that he should not have done it. I merely say that there were extenuating circumstances. Just that. Ext. circ. Nothing more.

Let us review the matter calmly and judicially, not condemning James off-hand, but rather probing the whole affair to its core, to see if we can confirm my view that it is possible to find excuses for him.

We will begin at the time when the subject of the Colonies first showed a tendency to creep menacingly into the daily chit-chat of his Uncle Frederick.

James’s Uncle Frederick was always talking more or less about the Colonies, having made a substantial fortune out in Western Australia, but it was only when James came down from Oxford that the thing became really menacing. Up to that time the uncle had merely spoken of the Colonies as Colonies. Now he began to speak of them with sinister reference to his nephew. He starred James. It became a case of “Frederick Knott presents James Datchett in ‘The Colonies,’ ” and there seemed every prospect that the production would be an early one; for if there was one section of the public which Mr. Knott disliked more than another, it was Young Men Who Ought To Be Out Earning Their Livings Instead Of Idling At Home. He expressed his views on the subject with some eloquence whenever he visited his sister’s house. Mrs. Datchett was a widow, and since her husband’s death had been in the habit of accepting every utterance of her brother Frederick as a piece of genuine all-wool wisdom; though, as a matter of fact, James’s uncle had just about enough brain to make a jay-bird fly crooked, and no more. He had made his money keeping sheep. And any fool can keep sheep. However, he had this reputation for wisdom, and what he said went. It was not long, therefore, before it was evident that the ranks of the Y.M.W.O.T.B.O.E.T.L.I.O.I.A.H. were about to lose a member.

James, for his part, was all against the Colonies. As a setting for his career, that is to say. He was no Little Englander. He had no earthly objection to Great Britain having Colonies. By all means have Colonies. They could rely on him for moral support. But when it came to legging it out to West Australia to act as a sort of valet to Uncle Frederick’s beastly sheep—no. Not for James. For him the literary life. Yes, that was James’s dream—to have a stab at the literary life. At Oxford he had contributed to the Isis, and since coming down had been endeavouring to do the same to the papers of the Metropolis. He had had no success so far. But some inward voice seemed to tell him—(Read on. Read on. This is no story about the young beginner’s struggles in London. We do not get within fifty miles of Fleet Street.)

A temporary compromise was effected between the two parties by the securing for James of a post as assistant-master at Harrow House, the private school of one Blatherwick, M.A., the understanding being that if he could hold the job he could remain in England and write, if it pleased him, in his spare time. But if he fell short in any way as a handler of small boys he was to descend a step in the animal kingdom and be matched against the West Australian sheep. There was to be no second chance in the event of failure. From the way Uncle Frederick talked James almost got the idea that he attached a spiritual importance to a connection with sheep. He seemed to strive with a sort of religious frenzy to convert James to West Australia. So James went to Harrow House with much the same emotions that the Old Guard must have felt on their way up the hill at Waterloo.

Harrow House was a grim mansion on the outskirts of Dover. It is better, of course, to be on the outskirts of Dover than actually in it, but when you have said that you have said everything. James’s impressions of that portion of his life were made up almost entirely of chalk. Chalk in the schoolroom, chalk all over the country-side, chalk in the milk. In this universe of chalk he taught bored boys the rudiments of Latin, geography, and arithmetic, and in the evenings, after a stately cup of coffee with Mr. Blatherwick in his study, went to his room and wrote stories. The life had the advantage of offering few distractions. Except for Mr. Blatherwick and a weird freak who came up from Dover on Tuesdays and Fridays to teach French, he saw nobody.

  By PanEris using Melati.

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