The Master of Man. The Story of a Sin

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We were in full school after breakfast, when the Principal came from his private room with his high, quick, birdlike step and almost leapt up to his desk to speak to us. He was a rather small, slight man, of middle age, with pale face and nervous gestures, liable to alternate bouts of a somewhat ineffectual playfulness and gusts of ungovernable temper. It was easy to see that he was in his angry mood that morning. He looked round the school for a moment over the silver rims of his spectacles, and then said,

"Boys, before you go to your classes for the day I have something to tell you. One of you has brought disgrace upon King William's, and I must know which of you it is."

Then followed the "degrading story." The facts of it had just been brought to his notice by the Inspector of Police for Castletown. He had no intention of entering into details. They were too shameful. Briefly, one of our boys, a senior boy apparently, had lately made a practice of escaping from his house after hours, and had so far forfeited his self-respect as to go walking in the dark roads with a young girl—a servant girl, he was ashamed to say, from the home of the High Bailiff. He had been seen repeatedly, and although not identified, he had been recognised by his cap as belonging to the College. Last night two young townsmen had set out to waylay him. There had been a fight, in which our boy had apparently used a weapon, probably a stick. The result was that one of the young townsmen was now in hospital, still insensible, the other was seriously injured about the face. Probably a pair of young blackguards who had intervened from base motives of their own and therefore deserved no pity. But none the less the conduct of the King William's boy had been disgraceful. It must be punished, no matter who he was, or how high he might stand in the school.

"I tell you plainly, boys, I don't know who he is. Neither do the police—the townsmen never having heard his name and the girl refusing to speak."

But he had a suspicion—a very strong suspicion, based upon an unmistakable fact. He might have called the boy he suspected to his room and dealt with him privately. But a matter like this, known to the public authorities and affecting the honour and welfare of the college, was not to be hushed up. In fact the police had made it a condition of their foregoing proceedings in the Courts that an open inquiry should be made here. He had undertaken to make it, and he must make it now.

"Therefore, I give the boy who has been guilty of this degrading conduct the opportunity of voluntary confession—of revealing himself to the whole school, and asking pardon of his Principal, his masters and his fellow-pupils for the disgrace he has brought on them. Who is it?"

None of us stirred, spoke or made sign. The Principal was rapidly losing his temper.

"Boys," he said, "there is something I have not told you. According to the police the disgraceful incident occurred between nine and nine-thirty last night, and it is known to the house-master of one of your houses that one boy, and one only, who had been out without permission, came in after that hour. I now give that boy another chance. Who is he?"

Still no one spoke or stirred. The Principal bit his lip, and again looked down the line of our desks over the upper rims of his spectacles.

"Does nobody speak? Must I call a name? Is it possible that any King William's boy can ask for the double shame of being guilty and being found out?"

Even yet there was no sign from the boys, and no sound except their audible breathing through the nose.

"Very well. So be it. I've given that boy his chance. Now he must take the consequences."

With that the Principal stepped down from his desk, turned his blazing eyes towards the desks of the fifth form and said,

"Stowell, step forward."

We gasped. Stowell was the head boy of the school and an immense and universal favourite. Through the mists of years some of us can see him still, as he heaved up from his seat that morning and walked slowly across the open floor in front to where the Principal was standing. A big, well-grown boy, narrowly bordering on eighteen, dark-haired, with broad forehead, large dark eyes, fine features, and, even in those boyish days, a singular air of distinction. There was no surprise in his face, and not a particle of shame, but there was a look of defiance which raised to boiling point the Principal's simmering anger.

"Stowell," he said, "you will not deny that you were out after hours last night?"

"No, Sir."

"Then it was you who were guilty of this disgraceful conduct?"

Stowell seemed to be about to speak, and then with a proud look to check himself, and to close his mouth as with a snap.

"It was you, wasn't it?"

Stowell straightened himself up and answered, "So you say, Sir."

"I say? Speak for yourself. You've a tongue in your head, haven't you?"

"Perhaps I have, Sir."

"Then it was you?"

Stowell made no answer.

"Why don't you answer me? Answer, Sir! It was you," said the Principal.

And then Stowell, with a little toss of the head and a slight curl of the lip, replied,

"If you say it was, what is the use of my saying anything, Sir?"

The last remnant of the Principal's patience left him. His eyes flamed and his nostrils quivered. A cane, seldom used, was lying along the ledge of his desk. He turned to it, snatched it up, and brought it down in two or three rapid sweeps on Stowell's back, and (as afterwards appeared) his bare neck also.

It was all over in a flash. We gasped again. There was a moment of breathless silence. All eyes were on Stowell. He was face to face with the Principal, standing, in his larger proportions, a good two inches above him, ghastly white and trembling with passion. For a moment we thought anything might happen. Then Stowell appeared to recover his self-control. He made another little toss of the head, another curl of the lip and a shrug of the shoulders.

"Now go back to your study, Sir," said the Principal, between gusts of breath, "and stay there until you are told to leave it."

Stowell was in no hurry, but he turned after a moment and walked out, with a strong step, almost a haughty one.

"Boys, go to your classes," said the Principal, in a hoarse voice, and then he went out, too, but more hurriedly.

Something had gone wrong, wretchedly wrong, we scarcely knew what—that was our confused impression as we trooped off to the class-rooms, a dejected lot of lads, half furious, half afraid.

Fiction & Literature
20 April
Rectory Print

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