When the Doctor sent for me to his study, I hoped it was about the fireworks, because I was head boy that term, and, in a great position like that, there were advantages to make up for the anxiety. You bossed the fireworks on the fifth of November and many other such-like things.
But the Doctor had nothing to say about fireworks. In fact
, a critical moment
had come in my life: I was to leave.
“Sit down, Corkey,” said the Doctor; and that in itself was a startler, because he never asked anybody to sit down except parents or guardians.
I sat and he looked at me with a friendly and regretful expression
, the same as he did when he had to tell me my father was dead.
“Corkey,” he began, “this morning brings a missive from your maternal aunt, Miss Augusta Medwin. As you know, she is your trustee until you come of age, four years hence. Your Aunt Augusta, mindful that the time was at hand when you would be called to take your place in the ranks of action, has for some time been on the lookout for you; and to-day I learn that her efforts have been crowned with success. It is my custom to require a term’s notice
, but such is my regard for your Aunt Augusta that I have decided to waive that rule in your case. A clerkship in London has been secured for you—a nomination to the staff of that famous institution, the Apollo Fire Office. The necessary examination, to one who has risen to be head boy of Merivale, should prove
but a trifle. And yet, since nothing can be left to chance, we must see that you are guarded at all points. In a fortnight, Corkey Major, you will be required to show that your mathematics are sound, your knowledge of grammatical construction above suspicion
, and your general
average of intellectual attainment all that the world of business—the great industrial centers of finance—have a right
to demand from their neophytes. I do not fear for you: the appointment and its requirements are not such as to demand a standard of accomplishment beyond your powers; but, at the same time, remember
that this modest beginning may lead the way to name and fame. The first step can never be too humble if we look upward to the next. I, myself, as all the world knows, was once engaged in the avocation of a bookseller’s assistant. I have already conferred with Mr. Brown as to your mathematical attainments, and, making due allowance for his generous ardour to all that pertains to the First Form, I have no doubt
with him that you will satisfy your examiners. Your handwriting, however, must be the subject of anxious thought
, and, as you will be called upon in the course of the examination to write a brief essay on any subject that may occur to the examining authorities, I trust that you will be at pains to state your views in careful
caligraphy. Again, if a word arises to your mind
concerning the spelling of which you feel doubtful, discard it at once and strive to find another that will meet the case. Spelling, I have reason
to know, is not a strong point with you.”
The Doctor sighed and continued.
“I am sorry to lose you,” he said. “You have been a reasonably good and industrious boy. Your faults were those of youth. You go into the world armed, I think, at all points. Be modest, patient
, and good-tempered, and choose high-minded friends. I may add, for your encouragement, that you will receive emolument from the outset of your official labours. The salary is fifty pounds a year, and you will work daily from ten o’clock until four. On Saturdays, they pursue our own scholastic custom and give their officials a half-holiday. Your vacation, however, is of a trivial character
. The world is a task
-master, not a schoolmaster. One fortnight a year will be all the holiday permitted; and since you enter the establishment at the bottom, you must be prepared to enjoy this relaxation at any month in the year most convenient to your superiors. Should time and chance allow of it, Corkey Major, I may tell you that it will give me personal
pleasure to see you on some occasion
of this annual vacation—as a guest. Your two brothers continue
with us until in their turn they pass out into the world from the little haven of Merivale.”
The idea of Merivale as a haven pleased the Doctor. I hoped he had finished, but he went off again.
“Yes, the simile is just. You come here empty and depart
on your voyage laden. You are loaded according to your accommodation--some more, some less; and I, the harbour-master—however, we will not push the image
, for, to be frank, I am not sure as to what exactly pertains to a harbour-master’s duties in respect
of cargo. To return, Mr. Brown will see you in his study after morning school with a view to some special lessons in arithmetic. He inclines to the opinion that the Rule of Three should prove
a tower of strength, and no doubt
he is right
. You may go.”
He waved his hand and I got up. One thing had stuck exceedingly fast in my mind
and now, though I did not mean
it in particular
, it came out. “Am I really worth fifty pounds a year to anybody, sir?”
The Doctor smiled.
question, Corkey, and I think no worse of you for having asked it. The magnitude of the sum may reasonably puzzle a lad who as yet cannot appreciate the value of money. This, however, is no time to enter upon the complicated question of supply
and demand. It will be sufficient
for you to know that the Managers of the Apollo Fire Office are in reasonable hopes of getting their money’s worth—to speak colloquially. For my part, when I think upon your ten years of steady work at Merivale, I have no hesitation in saying the salary is not extravagant. Let it be your part to administer it with prudence and swiftly to convince those set in authority over you that you are worth more than that annual sum rather than less.”
I cleared out and told the chaps, and they were all fearfully interested, especially Morgan, because when I left Morgan would become the head of the school. He turned a sort of dirty-drab green when he heard that I was going; and first I thought
it was sorrow for me, and then I found it was funk for himself. He didn’t care a button about losing me, but he felt that to be lifted up all of a sudden to the top was almost too much.
“I feel like the Pope felt when he found he was going to be elected,” he said. “Only it’s far worse for me than him, because he needn’t have entered the competition for Pope, I suppose, if he didn’t want; but, in my case, the thing is a sort of law of nature
, and I’ve got to be head boy.”
“There are the advantages,” I said. But he could only see the responsibilities. He wasn’t pretending: he really hated the idea—for the moment
I told my chum, Frost, too; and I told him that I’d asked the Doctor whether I was worth fifty pounds a year to anybody.
“If he’d been straight,” said Frost, “he’d have told you that you’ve been worth fifty pounds a year to him, anyway—for countless years; because you came here almost as soon as you were born, and your brothers, too.”
It was a great upheaval, like things always seem to be when they happen, however much you expect them. Of course, I knew I had to go sometime, and was thankful to think so, and full of ambitions for grown-up life; but now that the moment
had actually come, I wasn’t particularly keen about it. Especially as I should miss the fireworks and lose the various prizes I was a snip for, if I’d stopped till Christmas. I rather wished my Aunt Augusta hadn’t been so busy and had left my career alone, at any rate until after the Christmas holidays.
Of course, my going was a godsend to various other chaps and, though they regretted it in a way, especially the footer eleven, such a lot of things were always happening from day to day at Merivale that there was no time really to mourn. One or two wanted to club up and give me a present, but it didn’t come to reality; though of course, they were frightfully sorry I was going, when they had time to think about it. They were, naturally, very keen on the various things that I left behind; but of course, these were all handed over to my brothers.
Then the rather solemn moment
came when a cab arrived for me and I went. But everybody was in class at the time and nobody missed me. In fact
, it wasn’t what you might
call really solemn to anybody but myself.
So I went to London, where, of course, I had always meant to go sooner or later. I had heard and read a great deal about this place, but had no idea that it was so as it really is. Perhaps the most extraordinary of all things in London is passing millions of people every day of your life and not knowing a single one. My Aunt Augusta met me at Paddington, and we drove to her home, where I was to stop for the time being. Her name was Miss Augusta Medwin, and she lived in a place called Cornwall Residences and was an R.B.A. It was a huge house divided into flats, and her flat was the top one of all. She was an artist, and R.B.A. stands for Royal British Artist. She had a little place leading out of her flat on to the roof of the building. This was built specially for her. It looked out on to the whole of the top of London and was a studio. The Metropolitan Railway had a yard
down below, where the engines got up steam before going to work in the mornings. It was, of course, a far more interesting spot than any I had ever yet met with. I had a little room in the flat, and my aunt had made it very nice and comfortable. But the engines always began to get up their steam at four o’clock in the morning, and it is a very noisy process, and it took me some time growing accustomed to the hissing noise, which was very loud. There is no real stillness and silence
in London even in the most select districts. Not, I mean
, like the country. My aunt had one servant
called Jane. She had been married, but her husband had changed his mind
and run away from her. She was old and grey and like a fowl, but very good-tempered. I told her about the engines and she said:
“This is London.”
My aunt painted very beautiful pictures in oil colours, and also made etchings of the most exquisite workmanship. She was made R.B.A. to reward her for her great genius in her art. She hung her pictures at exhibitions and was a well-known painter, though she told me that she did not make a great deal of money. I hoped that she would take at least half of my fifty pounds a year for letting me live with her, and assured her that I cared nothing for money; then she said we would look into that if I passed my examination. She was a good deal interested in me and said that I had my dead mother’s eyes and artist’s hands. She was quite old herself and might
have been at least forty. She was not yet withered, like the very old. She wore double eyeglasses when she painted. Her expression
was gloomy, but her eyes were blue and still bright. I found her very much more interesting to talk to than any other woman I had met; and I told her my great secret hope for the future
“Some day, if things happen as I should like, I am going to be an actor. It is a very difficult
and uphill course of life, I know; but still, that is what I want to be, because I have a great feeling for the stage, and I shall often and often go to a theatre at night after I have done my day’s work, if you don’t mind
She didn’t laugh at the idea or scoff at it but she thought
that I mustn’t fill my head with anything but fire insurance for the present. And of course, I said that my first thought
would be to work in the office and thoroughly
earn my fifty pounds, and perhaps even earn more than I was paid, and so be applauded as a clerk rather out of the common.
She took me to a tailor’s shop and I was measured for a tail-coat. I also had to get a top hat, such as men wear. I was tall and thin, and when the things came I put them on, and Aunt Augusta said that the effect
was good, and Jane said that I looked “quite the man.” Aunt Augusta took me to several
picture-galleries, and I went about a good deal by myself and made strange
Many people seemed to know that I was new in London without my telling them. Once I was nearly killed, showing how easily accidents happen. I had dropped a half-penny in Oxford Street, as I crossed the road, and was naturally stopping to pick it up when the chest of a horse came bang against me and rolled me over. Fortunately, I was not in my new clothes. It was a hansom-cab horse that had run into me, and the driver pulled him up so that the horse simply skated along on his shoes and pushed me in front of him. Neither of us was hurt. A policeman appeared, and the driver asked me whether I thought
the middle of Oxford Street was the right
place for playing marbles. He meant it in an insulting way as if I was still a boy. And I said that I had dropped a halfpenny and couldn’t surely be expected
to leave it in the middle of London for anybody to pick up.
The driver said that no doubt
I was one of God’s chosen—meaning it rudely—and the people laughed, and the policeman told us all to move on. I went down a side street and cleaned myself up as well as I could. Then I found a lavatory and washed myself and got a shoeblack to rub the mud off me. London mud is very different from all other mud, not being pure, like country mud, but adulterated with oil and tar and many other products. The shoeblack charged three-pence, so it was an expensive accident
for me, besides the danger.
I passed the examination though they didn’t praise me much, or give any evidence
of pleasure or surprise
, and then my aunt said that she thought
I ought to call on the Director of the Apollo Fire Office and thank him for his great kindness in giving her his nomination for me. The Director was out, but when he heard that I had called, he invited me to dine with him. I had never been invited to dinner before and rather wished my aunt would come too; but she said that she had not been asked, though she had often been there—to see Mr. Benyon Pepys and his original etchings. He followed art in his spare time, which was considerable, and my aunt had given him etching lessons, at which she was a great dab. He was also a descendant of the great Pepys of diary fame—so my aunt told me. He was a bachelor and very fond
of pictures and very rich, as all Directors must be before they can rise to that high walk of life.
“You ought to wear dress clothes,” said Aunt Augusta; “however, it is not vital. He will understand
“You can hire ’em for a song,” declared Jane; but my aunt decided that I should put on my new tail-coat—with a white tie.
When it came to putting on this tie, however, she didn’t care about it, and thought
that I looked too much like a curate. She showed a sort of objection to curates that much surprised me; because at Merivale there had never been any feeling against them; in fact
, quite the contrary. Many of the masters at Merivale used to read for the Church while they taught us; and when they had read enough, they went away and gradually became curates, as the next stage in their careers.
But Aunt Augusta didn’t want me to look like one, and for that matter
I didn’t myself, having no feeling for the Church; and so I put on a dark blue tie and wore my new silver watch and chain and went like that.
Mr. Benyon Pepys was a short, clean-shaved man and lived in the utmost magnificence in a house not far from Cavendish Square. Naturally, I had never seen such a house or such magnificence. It was an abode of the highest art. There were three footmen and a church organ with golden pipes in the hall alone; and everything was done on the same scale throughout
. One footman asked me my name and another took my overcoat and top-hat and hung them up on a hat-stand, of which every hat-peg was the twisted horn of an antelope! Then the man who had asked my name threw open a door, on which were painted rare flowers—probably
orchids—and announced my arrival. “Mr. Corkey!” he said in a deep voice.
I walked in and found Mr. Benyon Pepys and Miss Benyon Pepys sitting one on each side of a palatial mantelpiece, which was supported by the figures of naked girls in pure white marble. They both rose from their chairs as I walked down the room amid wonderful creations of art. They did not seem to realise the fact
that they were surrounded by such amazing things. There were flowers and pictures in huge gold frames and statues on pedestals; and, strange
to say, amid all this profusion they allowed a mere, live pug-dog with a pink bow tied round his neck! He sat on a rug, which must once have been the skin of a perfectly enormous tiger. It had glass eyes and its teeth were left in its jaws, which were red, as in life, and wide open. The pug lounged upon it, as though to the manner born.
“Well, Mr. Corker, so you’ve passed your examination and will join us next week, I hear,” said Mr. Benyon Pepys. He spoke in a light, easy—you might
almost say a jaunty—tone of voice, though he was in full dress clothes and wore a gold watch-chain on a spotless white waistcoat. Miss Benyon Pepys was just as kind as him. There was not a spark of side about either of them. They were both of great age and Mr. Pepys was of a shining and complete
baldness, as well as being clean-shaved. I told him my name was Corkey, not Corker; and he said, “Yes, yes, Corker—I know.”
“And how do you like London?” asked Miss Benyon Pepys. She was clad in some rare fabric—probably
some fabulous embroidery from the Middle Ages—and richly adorned with jewels, which flashed when she moved her limbs; but she paid no attention
to them, and was indeed far more interested in the pug-dog than anything in the room.
He was called “Peter,” and made a steady and disgusting noise like a man snoring. He came in to dinner with us, and had a light meal off a blue china plate, prepared by Miss Benyon Pepys.
I was just saying that I liked London, and had pretty well mastered Oxford Street and Edgware Road, when a deep and musical chime of bells rang out and the door was thrown open.
“Will you take my sister in to dinner?” said Mr. Benyon Pepys; but I was prepared for this, because Aunt Augusta had warned me that it might
happen. So I gave her my right
arm, and she put the tips of her left hand fingers upon it, and I remember
feeling curiousl that, what with diamonds and rubies and one thing and another, her hand, small though it was, might
easily have been worth many thousands of pounds.
“If the mere sister of a Director can do this sort of thing, how majestic must be the wealth
of the Director himself!” I thought
. In fact
I very nearly said it, because it seemed to me that the idea was a great compliment and ought to have pleased them both. It would have been well meant anyway. But I found it difficult
to make conversation, owing to the immense
number of things all around me that had to be noticed.
As a matter
, I couldn’t be said to take Miss Benyon Pepys in to dinner, not knowing the way. But she took me in, and it was no mere dinner, but a dazzling banquet on a table groaning with massive silver and other forms of plate. There was no tablecloth in the usual acceptation of the word; but a strip of rich fabric—probably
antique tapestry from France or Turkey—spread
on a polished table which glittered and reflected in its ebony depths the wax candles and silver and various pieces of rare workmanship arranged upon the hospitable board.
One would have thought
, to see them, that a dinner of this kind—seven courses not counting dessert—was an everyday thing with the Benyon Pepys! It may have been, for all I know. Wine flowed like water—at least, it would have done so if there had been anybody there to drink it; but, of course, I didn’t, knowing well that wine goes to the head if you’re not used to it—and Miss Benyon Pepys merely
drank hot water with a little tablet of some chemical that fizzed away in it—medicine, I suppose. It was sad in a way to see her pass the luxurious dishes without touching them. She little knew what she was missing. Even Mr. Benyon Pepys himself only sipped each wine in turn, with birdlike sips, but he never drank his glass quite empty. I expect the footmen dashed off what he left, doubtless tossing up among themselves which should have it.
I tried to talk at dinner, though there was little time, and once a good thing, full of rich and rare flavours, was swept away before I had finished it, because I stopped to speak.
I asked after the Pepys diaries and hoped they were successful. I said:
“I shall, of course, keep a diary in London, and I was going to get a Raphael Tuck diary; but I shall buy a Pepys now.”
Looking back, I don’t think either of them heard this. At any rate, that night when my Aunt Augusta explained about it, I prayed to God in my prayers that they might
not have heard. The footmen, however, must have.
But I made Mr. Benyon Pepys laugh with a remark which, curiously enough, was not in the least amusing nor intended to be. I said:
“Of course, the business of a Director is to direct?”
Because I thought
it would show a proper spirit
to be interested in his great work. But he laughed and said:
“Not always, Mr. Corker, not always! I am not myself a man of business, but a connoisseur and creator. Art is my occupation. Do not, however, think that I am not exceedingly interested in the Apollo. You will find upon the face of each policy an allegorical representation
of the sun-god in a chariot drawn by four horses. I cannot claim
that the actual design is mine, but the conception sprang from my brain
twenty-five years ago. The creation, though severely Greek, is my own.”
He explained that he had found the greatest difficulty
to get anybody to accept his nomination to the Apollo Fire Office.
“But fortunately,” he said, “your aunt, the accomplished artist, was able
to help me, and I feel under no little obligation to her—and you.”
In this graceful and gentlemanly way, he spoke to me. He told me that the staff was very large and included men of all ages—many brilliant and some ordinary
“You will begin work in the Country Department,” he said; “they are a bit rough-and-ready up there, I fancy
, but I speak only from hearsay. Certain adventurous members of the Board have penetrated to those savage regions, though I cannot honestly say that I have ever ventured. After signing a hundred or two policies, my intellect reels and I have to totter over to Murch’s for turtle-soup. It is a curious fact
that turtle restores brain
-fag quicker than any other form of food.”
“I am glad it has such a good effect
on you, sir,” I said.
Miss Pepys left when the magnificent dessert was served. She never touched so much as a grape, though they were the largest I had ever seen; and after she had gone, Mr. Pepys asked me to smoke. Knowing, of course, that a cigarette is nothing on a full stomach, and also knowing that my own stomach was now perfectly adapted for it, I consented and had a priceless box of chased silver containing rare Egyptian cigarettes handed to me by one of the footmen. With it he brought a lamp, which appeared to be—and very likely was—of solid
gold. We then had coffee; and when all was over, Mr. Benyon Pepys proposed that we should again join Miss Benyon Pepys; so we returned to the drawing-room and he showed me a portfolio of his etchings. They were black and grubby and mysterious and no doubt
great masterpieces, if I had only understood them. Even as it was, I rather came off over the etchings and recognised many things about them in a way that everybody didn’t. At least, I gathered so from the fact
that Mr. Benyon Pepys was surprised and pleased. He said that “chiaroscuro” was the secret of his success, and no doubt
it may have been. He praised my Aunt Augusta very highly; and I was exceedingly glad to hear him speak so well of her great genius in her art.
At ten o’clock I got up to go, and a footman whistled at the door for a cab, and I luckily had a sixpence which I pressed into his hand as I leapt into the cab. But the effect
was spoiled because I forgot my overcoat and had to leap out again. The footman helped me into it, but didn’t mention
the sixpence. I dare
say to him it was a thing of nought.
So I returned to Aunt Augusta’s flat, and told her all about the wonders of the evening, and she was pleased and said that she hoped Mr. Benyon Pepys would someday ask me again. But no such thing happened. And, of course, there was no reason
why it should. Probably they did hear what I said about the diary but were too highly born and refined to take any notice