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Decline and Fall
By Evelyn Waugh
Little, Brown and CompanyCopyright © 2012 Evelyn Waugh
All right reserved.
Mr. Sniggs, the Junior Dean, and Mr. Postlethwaite, the Domestic Bursar, sat alone in Mr. Sniggs’ room overlooking the garden quad at Scone College. From the rooms of Sir Alastair Digby-Vaine-Trumpington, two staircases away, came a confused roaring and breaking of glass. They alone of the senior members of Scone were at home that evening, for it was the night of the annual dinner of the Bollinger Club. The others were all scattered over Boar’s Hill and North Oxford at gay, contentious little parties, or at other senior common rooms, or at the meetings of learned societies, for the annual Bollinger dinner is a difficult time for those in authority.
It is not accurate to call this an annual event, because quite often the club is suspended for some years after each meeting. There is tradition behind the Bollinger; it numbers reigning kings among its past members. At the last dinner, three years ago, a fox had been brought in in a cage and stoned to death with champagne bottles. What an evening that had been! This was the first meeting since then, and from all over Europe old members had rallied for the occasion. For two days they had been pouring into Oxford: epileptic royalty from their villas of exile; uncouth peers from crumbling country seats; smooth young men of uncertain tastes from embassies and legations; illiterate lairds from wet granite hovels in the Highlands; ambitious young barristers and Conservative candidates torn from the London season and the indelicate advances of debutantes; all that was most sonorous of name and title was there for the beano.
“The fines!” said Mr. Sniggs, gently rubbing his pipe along the side of his nose. “Oh, my! the fines there’ll be after this evening!”
There is some very particular port in the senior common room cellars that is only brought up when the College fines have reached £50.
“We shall have a week of it at least,” said Mr. Postlethwaite, “a week of Founder’s port.”
A shriller note could now be heard rising from Sir Alastair’s rooms; any who have heard that sound will shrink at the recollection of it; it is the sound of the English county families baying for broken glass. Soon they would all be tumbling out into the quad, crimson and roaring in their bottle-green evening coats, for the real romp of the evening.
“Don’t you think it might be wiser if we turned out the light?” said Mr. Sniggs.
In darkness the two dons crept to the window. The quad below was a kaleidoscope of dimly discernible faces.
“There must be fifty of them at least,” said Mr. Postlethwaite. “If only they were all members of the College! Fifty of them at ten pounds each. Oh my!”
“It’ll be more if they attack the Chapel,” said Mr. Sniggs. “Oh, please God, make them attack the Chapel.”
“It reminds me of the communist rising in Budapest when I was on the debt commission.”
“I know,” said Mr. Postlethwaite. Mr. Sniggs’ Hungarian reminiscences were well known in Scone College.
“I wonder who the unpopular undergraduates are this term. They always attack their rooms. I hope they have been wise enough to go out for the evening.”
“I think Partridge will be one; he possesses a painting by Matisse or some such name.”
“And I’m told he has black sheets in his bed.”
“And Sanders went to dinner with Ramsay MacDonald once.”
“And Rending can afford to hunt, but collects china instead.”
“And smokes cigars in the garden after breakfast.”
“Austen has a grand piano.”
“They’ll enjoy smashing that.”
“There’ll be a heavy bill for tonight; just you see! But I confess I should feel easier if the Dean or the Master were in. They can’t see us from here, can they?”
It was a lovely evening. They broke up Mr. Austen’s grand piano, and stamped Lord Rending’s cigars into his carpet, and smashed his china, and tore up Mr. Partridge’s sheets, and threw the Matisse into his lavatory; Mr. Sanders had nothing to break except his windows, but they found the manuscript at which he had been working for the Newdigate Prize Poem, and had great fun with that. Sir Alastair Digby-Vaine-Trumpington felt quite ill with excitement, and was supported to bed by Lumsden of Strathdrummond. It was half-past eleven. Soon the evening would come to an end. But there was still a treat to come.
Paul Pennyfeather was reading for the Church. It was his second year of uneventful residence at Scone. He had come there after a creditable career at a small public school of ecclesiastical temper on the South Downs where he had edited the magazine, been President of the Debating Society, and had, as his report said, “exercised a wholesome influence for good” in the House of which he was head boy. At home he lived in Onslow Square with his guardian, a prosperous solicitor who was proud of his progress and abysmally bored by his company. Both his parents had died in India at the time when he won the essay prize at his preparatory school. For two years he had lived within his allowance, aided by two valuable scholarships. He smoked three ounces of tobacco a week—John Cotton, Medium—and drank a pint and a half of beer a day, the half at luncheon and the pint at dinner, a meal he invariably ate in Hall. He had four friends, three of whom had been at school with him. None of the Bollinger Club had ever heard of Paul Pennyfeather, and he, oddly enough, had not heard of them.
Little suspecting the incalculable consequences that the evening was to have for him, he bicycled happily back from a meeting of the League of Nations Union. There had been a most interesting paper about plebiscites in Poland. He thought of smoking a pipe and reading another chapter of the Forsyte Saga before going to bed. He knocked at the gate, was admitted, put away his bicycle, and diffidently, as always, made his way across the quad towards his rooms. What a lot of people there seemed to be about! Paul had no particular objection to drunkenness—he had read rather a daring paper to the Thomas More Society on the subject—but he was consumedly shy of drunkards.
Out of the night Lumsden of Strathdrummond swayed across his path like a druidical rocking-stone. Paul tried to pass.
Now it so happened that the tie of Paul’s old school bore a marked resemblance to the pale blue and white of the Bollinger Club. The difference of a quarter of an inch in the width of the stripes was not one that Lumsden of Strathdrummond was likely to appreciate.
“Here’s an awful man wearing the Boller tie,” said the Laird. It is not for nothing that since pre-Christian times his family has exercised chieftainship over unchartered miles of barren moorland.
Mr. Sniggs was looking rather apprehensively at Mr. Postlethwaite.
“They appear to have caught somebody,” he said. “I hope they don’t do him any serious harm.”
“They appear to be tearing off his clothes.”
“Dear me, can it be Lord Rending? I think I ought to intervene.”
“No, Sniggs,” said Mr. Postlethwaite, laying a hand on his impetuous colleague’s arm. “No, no, no. It would be unwise. We have the prestige of the senior common room to consider. In their present state they might not prove amenable to discipline. We must at all costs avoid an outrage.”
The crowd parted, and Mr. Sniggs gave a sigh of relief.
“But it’s quite all right. It isn’t Rending. It’s Pennyfeather—someone of no importance.”
“Well, that saves a great deal of trouble. I am glad, Sniggs; I am, really. What a lot of clothes the young man appears to have lost!”
Next morning there was a lovely College meeting. “Two hundred and thirty pounds,” murmured the Domestic Bursar ecstatically, “not counting the damage! That means five evenings, with what we have already collected. Five evenings of Founder’s port!”
“The case of Pennyfeather,” the Master was saying, “seems to be quite a different matter altogether. He ran the whole length of the quadrangle, you say, without his trousers. That is indecency. It is not the conduct we expect of a scholar.”
“Perhaps if we fined him really heavily?” suggested the Junior Dean.
“I very much doubt whether he could pay. I understand he is not well off. Without trousers, indeed! And at that time of night! I think we should do far better to get rid of him altogether. That sort of young man does the College no good.”
Two hours later, while Paul was packing his three suits in his little leather trunk, the Domestic Bursar sent a message that he wished to see him.
“Ah, Mr. Pennyfeather,” he said, “I have examined your rooms and notice two slight burns, one on the window-sill and the other on the chimney-piece, no doubt from cigarette ends. I am charging you five and sixpence for each of them on your battels. That is all, thank you.”
As he crossed the quad Paul met Mr. Sniggs.
“Just off?” said the Junior Dean brightly.
“Yes, sir,” said Paul.
And a little further on he met the Chaplain.
“Oh, Pennyfeather, before you go, surely you have my copy of Dean Stanley’s Eastern Church?”
“Yes. I left it on your table.”
“Thank you. Well, goodbye, my dear boy. I suppose that after that reprehensible affair last night you will have to think of some other profession. Well, you may congratulate yourself that you discovered your unfitness for the priesthood before it was too late. If a parson does a thing of that sort, you know, all the world knows. And so many do, alas! What do you propose doing?”
“I don’t really know yet.”
“There is always commerce, of course. Perhaps you may be able to bring to the great world of business some of the ideals you have learned at Scone. But it won’t be easy, you know. It is a thing to be lived down with courage. What did Dr. Johnson say about fortitude?… Dear, dear! no trousers!”
At the gates Paul tipped the porter.
“Well, goodbye, Blackall,” he said. “I don’t suppose I shall see you again for some time.”
“No, sir, and very sorry I am to hear about it. I expect you’ll be becoming a schoolmaster, sir. That’s what most of the gentlemen does, sir, that gets sent down for indecent behavior.”
“God damn and blast them all to hell,” said Paul meekly to himself as he drove to the station, and then he felt rather ashamed, because he rarely swore.
Sent down for indecent behavior, eh?” said Paul Pennyfeather’s guardian. “Well, thank God your poor father has been spared this disgrace. That’s all I can say.”
There was a hush in Onslow Square, unbroken except by Paul’s guardian’s daughter’s gramophone playing Gilbert and Sullivan in her little pink boudoir at the top of the stairs.
“My daughter must know nothing of this,” continued Paul’s guardian.
There was another pause.
“Well,” he resumed, “you know the terms of your father’s will. He left the sum of five thousand pounds, the interest of which was to be devoted to your education and the sum to be absolutely yours on your twenty-first birthday. That, if I am right, falls in eleven months’ time. In the event of your education being finished before that time, he left me with complete discretion to withhold this allowance should I not consider your course of life satisfactory. I do not think that I should be fulfilling the trust which your poor father placed in me if, in the present circumstances, I continued any allowance. Moreover, you will be the first to realize how impossible it would be for me to ask you to share the same home with my daughter.”
“But what is to happen to me?” said Paul.
“I think you ought to find some work,” said his guardian thoughtfully. “Nothing like it for taking the mind off nasty subjects.”
“But what kind of work?”
“Just work, good healthy toil. You have led too sheltered a life, Paul. Perhaps I am to blame. It will do you the world of good to face facts for a bit—look at life in the raw, you know. See things steadily and see them whole, eh?” And Paul’s guardian lit another cigar.
“Have I no legal right to any money at all?” asked Paul.
“None whatever, my dear boy,” said his guardian quite cheerfully…
That spring Paul’s guardian’s daughter had two new evening frocks and, thus glorified, became engaged to a well-conducted young man in the Office of Works.
“Sent down for indecent behavior, eh?” said Mr. Levy, of Church and Gargoyle, scholastic agents. “Well, I don’t think we’ll say anything about that. In fact, officially, mind, you haven’t told me. We call that sort of thing ‘Education discontinued for personal reasons,’ you understand.” He picked up the telephone. “Mr. Samson, have we any ‘education discontinued’ posts, male, on hand?… Right!… Bring it up, will you? I think,” he added, turning again to Paul, “we have just the thing for you.”
A young man brought in a slip of paper.
“What about that?”
Paul read it:
Private and Confidential Notice of Vacancy.
Augustus Fagan, Esquire, Ph.D., Llanabba Castle, N. Wales, requires immediately junior assistant master to teach Classics and English to University Standard with subsidiary Mathematics, German and French. Experience essential; first-class games essential.
status of school: School.
salary offered: £120 resident post.
Reply promptly but carefully to Dr. Fagan (“Esq., Ph.D.” on envelope), enclosing copies of testimonials and photograph, if considered advisable, mentioning that you have heard of the vacancy through us.
“Might have been made for you,” said Mr. Levy.
“But I don’t know a word of German, I’ve had no experience, I’ve got no testimonials, and I can’t play cricket.”
“It doesn’t do to be too modest,” said Mr. Levy. “It’s wonderful what one can teach when one tries. Why, only last term we sent a man who had never been in a laboratory in his life as senior Science Master to one of our leading public schools. He came wanting to do private coaching in music. He’s doing very well, I believe. Besides, Dr. Fagan can’t expect all that for the salary he’s offering. Between ourselves, Llanabba hasn’t a good name in the profession. We class schools, you see, into four grades: Leading School, First-rate School, Good School, and School. Frankly,” said Mr. Levy, “School is pretty bad. I think you’ll find it a very suitable post. So far as I know, there are only two other candidates, and one of them is totally deaf, poor fellow.”
Next day Paul went to Church and Gargoyle to interview Dr. Fagan. He had not long to wait. Dr. Fagan was already there interviewing the other candidates. After a few minutes Mr. Levy led Paul into the room, introduced him, and left them together.
“A most exhausting interview,” said Dr. Fagan. “I am sure he was a very nice young man, but I could not make him understand a word I said. Can you hear me quite clearly?”
“Perfectly, thank you.”
“Good; then let us get to business.”
Paul eyed him shyly across the table. He was very tall and very old and very well dressed; he had sunken eyes and rather long white hair over jet black eyebrows. His head was very long, and swayed lightly as he spoke; his voice had a thousand modulations, as though at some remote time he had taken lessons in elocution; the backs of his hands were hairy, and his fingers were crooked like claws.
“I understand you have had no previous experience?”
“No, sir, I am afraid not.”
“Well, of course, that is in many ways an advantage. One too easily acquires the professional tone and loses vision. But of course we must be practical. I am offering a salary of one hundred and twenty pounds, but only to a man with experience. I have a letter here from a young man who holds a diploma in forestry. He wants an extra ten pounds a year on the strength of it, but it is vision I need, Mr. Pennyfeather, not diplomas. I understand, too, that you left your University rather suddenly. Now—why was that?”
This was the question that Paul had been dreading, and, true to his training, he had resolved upon honesty.
“I was sent down, sir, for indecent behavior.”
“Indeed, indeed? Well, I shall not ask for details. I have been in the scholastic profession long enough to know that nobody enters it unless he has some very good reason which he is anxious to conceal. But, again to be practical, Mr. Pennyfeather, I can hardly pay one hundred and twenty pounds to anyone who has been sent down for indecent behavior. Suppose that we fix your salary at ninety pounds a year to begin with? I have to return to Llanabba tonight. There are six more weeks of term, you see, and I have lost a master rather suddenly. I shall expect you tomorrow evening. There is an excellent train from Euston that leaves at about ten. I think you will like your work,” he continued dreamily; “you will find that my school is built upon an ideal—an ideal of service and fellowship. Many of the boys come from the very best families. Little Lord Tangent has come to us this term, the Earl of Circumference’s son, you know. Such a nice little chap, erratic, of course, like all his family, but he has tone.” Dr. Fagan gave a long sigh. “I wish I could say the same for my staff. Between ourselves, Pennyfeather, I think I shall have to get rid of Grimes fairly soon. He is not out of the top drawer, and boys notice these things. Now, your predecessor was a thoroughly agreeable young man. I was sorry to lose him. But he used to wake up my daughters coming back on his motor bicycle at all hours of the night. He used to borrow money from the boys, too, quite large sums, and the parents objected. I had to get rid of him… Still, I was very sorry. He had tone.”
Dr. Fagan rose, put on his hat at a jaunty angle, and drew on a glove.
“Goodbye, my dear Pennyfeather. I think, in fact I know, that we are going to work well together. I can always tell these things.”
“Goodbye, sir,” said Paul…
“Five per cent of ninety pounds is four pounds ten shillings,” said Mr. Levy cheerfully. “You can pay now or on receipt of your first term’s salary. If you pay now there is a reduction of fifteen per cent. That would be three pounds sixteen shillings and sixpence.”
“I’ll pay when I get my wages,” said Paul.
“Just as you please,” said Mr. Levy. “Only too glad to have been of use to you.”
Llanabba Castle presents two quite different aspects, according as you approach it from the Bangor or the coast road. From the back it looks very much like any other large country house, with a great many windows and a terrace, and a chain of glass houses and the roofs of innumerable nondescript kitchen buildings disappearing into the trees. But from the front—and that is how it is approached from Llanabba station—it is formidably feudal; one drives past at least a mile of machicolated wall before reaching the gates; these are towered and turreted and decorated with heraldic animals and a workable portcullis. Beyond them at the end of the avenue stands the Castle, a model of medieval impregnability.
The explanation of this rather striking contrast is simple enough. At the time of the cotton famine in the ’sixties Llanabba House was the property of a prosperous Lancashire mill-owner. His wife could not bear to think of their men starving; in fact, she and her daughters organized a little bazaar in their aid, though without very substantial results. Her husband had read the Liberal economists and could not think of paying without due return. Accordingly “enlightened self-interest” found a way. An encampment of mill hands was settled in the park, and they were put to work walling the grounds and facing the house with great blocks of stone from a neighboring quarry. At the end of the American war they returned to their mills, and Llanabba House became Llanabba Castle after a great deal of work had been done very cheaply.
Driving up from the station in a little closed taxi, Paul saw little of all this. It was almost dark in the avenue and quite dark inside the house.
“I am Mr. Pennyfeather,” he said to the butler. “I have come here as a master.”
“Yes,” said the butler, “I know all about you. This way.”
They went down a number of passages, unlit and smelling obscurely of all the ghastly smells of school, until they reached a brightly lighted door.
“In there. That’s the Common Room.” Without more ado, the butler made off into the darkness.
Paul looked round. It was not a very big room. Even he felt that, and all his life he had been accustomed to living in constricted spaces.
“I wonder how many people live here,” he thought, and with a sick thrust of apprehension counted sixteen pipes in a rack at the side of the chimney-piece. Two gowns hung on a hook behind the door. In a corner were some golf clubs, a walking stick, an umbrella and two miniature rifles. Over the chimney-piece was a green baize notice-board covered with lists; there was a typewriter on the table. In a bookcase were a number of very old text-books and some new exercise-books. There were also a bicycle-pump, two armchairs, a straight chair, half a bottle of invalid port, a boxing glove, a bowler hat, yesterday’s Daily News and a packet of pipe-cleaners.
Paul sat down disconsolately on the straight chair.
Presently there was a knock at the door, and a small boy came in.
“Oh!” he said, looking at Paul intently.
“Hullo!” said Paul.
“I was looking for Captain Grimes,” said the little boy.
“Oh!” said Paul.
The child continued to look at Paul with a penetrating, impersonal interest.
“I suppose you’re the new master?” he said.
“Yes,” said Paul. “I’m called Pennyfeather.”
The little boy gave a shrill laugh. “I think that’s terribly funny,” he said, and went away.
Presently the door opened again, and two more boys looked in. They stood and giggled for a time and then made off.
In the course of the next half-hour six or seven boys appeared on various pretexts and stared at Paul.
Then a bell rang, and there was a terrific noise of whistling and scampering. The door opened, and a very short man of about thirty came into the Common Room. He had made a great deal of noise in coming because he had an artificial leg. He had a short red mustache, and was slightly bald.
“Hullo!” he said.
“Hullo!” said Paul.
“Come in, you,” he said to someone outside.
Another boy came in.
“What do you mean,” he said, “by whistling when I told you to stop?”
“Everyone else was whistling,” said the boy.
“What’s that got to do with it?” he said.
“I should think it had a lot to do with it,” said the boy.
“Well, just you do a hundred lines, and next time, remember, I shall beat you,” he said, “with this,” he said, waving the walking stick.
“That wouldn’t hurt much,” said the boy, and went out.
“There’s no discipline in the place,” said the master, and then he went out too.
“I wonder whether I’m going to enjoy being a schoolmaster,” thought Paul.
Quite soon another and older man came into the room.
“Hullo!” he said to Paul.
“Hullo!” said Paul.
“Have some port?” he said.
“Thank you, I’d love to.”
“Well, there’s only one glass.”
“Oh, well, it doesn’t matter, then.”
“You might get your tooth-glass from your bedroom.”
“I don’t know where that is.”
“Oh, well, never mind; we’ll have some another night. I suppose you’re the new master?”
“You’ll hate it here. I know. I’ve been here ten years. Grimes only came this term. He hates it already. Have you seen Grimes?”
“Yes, I think so.”
“He isn’t a gentleman. Do you smoke?”
“A pipe, I mean.”
“Those are my pipes. Remind me to show them to you after dinner.”
At this moment the butler appeared with a message that Dr. Fagan wished to see Mr. Pennyfeather.
Dr. Fagan’s part of the Castle was more palatial. He stood at the end of a long room with his back to a rococo marble chimney-piece; he wore a velvet dinner-jacket.
“Settling in?” he asked.
“Yes,” said Paul.
Sitting before the fire, with a glass bottle of sweets in her lap, was a brightly dressed woman in early middle age.
“That,” said Dr. Fagan with some disgust, “is my daughter.”
“Pleased to meet you,” said Miss Fagan. “Now what I always tell the young chaps as comes here is, ‘Don’t let the Dad overwork you.’ He’s a regular Tartar is Dad, but then you know what scholars are—inhuman. Ain’t you,” said Miss Fagan, turning on her father with sudden ferocity—“ain’t you inhuman?”
“At times, my dear, I am grateful for what little detachment I have achieved. But here,” he added, “is my other daughter.”
Silently, except for a scarcely perceptible jingling of keys, another woman had entered the room. She was younger than her sister, but far less gay.
“How do you do?” she said. “I do hope you have brought some soap with you. I asked my father to tell you, but he so often forgets these things. Masters are not supplied with soap or with boot polish or with washing over two shillings and sixpence weekly. Do you take sugar in your tea?”
“I will make a note of that and have two extra lumps put out for you. Don’t let the boys get them, though.”
“I have put you in charge of the fifth form for the rest of this term,” said Dr. Fagan. “You will find them delightful boys, quite delightful. Clutterbuck wants watching, a very delicate little chap. I have also put you in charge of the games, the carpentering class and the fire drill. And I forget, do you teach music?”
“No, I’m afraid not.”
“Unfortunate, most unfortunate. I understood from Mr. Levy that you did. I have arranged for you to take Beste-Chetwynde in organ lessons twice a week. Well, you must do the best you can. There goes the bell for dinner. I won’t detain you. Oh, one other thing. Not a word to the boys, please, about the reasons for your leaving Oxford! We schoolmasters must temper discretion with deceit. There, I fancy I have said something for you to think about. Good night.”
“Tootle-oo,” said the elder Miss Fagan.
Captain Grimes’ Story
Paul had very little difficulty in finding the dining-hall. He was guided there by the smell of cooking and the sound of voices. It was a large, paneled room, far from disagreeable, with fifty or sixty boys of ages ranging from ten to eighteen settled along four long tables.
He was led to a place at the head of one of the tables. The boys on either side of him stood up very politely until he sat down. One of them was the boy who had whistled at Captain Grimes. Paul thought he rather liked him.
“I’m called Beste-Chetwynde,” he said.
“I’ve got to teach you the organ, I believe.”
“Yes, it’s great fun: we play in the village church. Do you play terribly well?”
Paul felt this was not a moment for candor, and so, “tempering discretion with deceit,” he said, “Yes, remarkably well.”
“I say, do you really, or are you rotting?”
“Indeed, I’m not. I used to give lessons to the Master of Scone.”
“Well, you won’t be able to teach me much,” said Beste-Chetwynde cheerfully. “I only do it to get off gym. I say, they haven’t given you a table-napkin. These servants are too awful. Philbrick,” he shouted to the butler, “why haven’t you given Mr. Pennyfeather a napkin?”
“Forgot,” said Philbrick, “and it’s too late now because Miss Fagan’s locked the linen up.”
“Nonsense!” said Beste-Chetwynde; “go and get one at once. That man’s all right, really,” he added, “only he wants watching.”
In a few minutes Philbrick returned with the napkin.
“It seems to me that you’re a remarkably intelligent boy,” said Paul.
“Captain Grimes doesn’t think so. He says I’m half-witted. I’m glad you’re not like Captain Grimes. He’s so common, don’t you think?”
“You mustn’t talk about the other masters like that in front of me.”
“Well, that’s what we all think about him, anyway. What’s more, he wears combinations. I saw it in his washing-book one day when I was fetching him his hat. I think combinations are rather awful, don’t you?”
There was a commotion at the end of the hall.
“I expect that’s Clutterbuck being sick,” said Beste-Chetwynde. “He’s usually sick when we have mutton.”
The boy on Paul’s other side now spoke for the first time.
“Mr. Prendergast wears a wig,” he said, and then became very confused and subsided into a giggle.
“That’s Briggs,” said Beste-Chetwynde, “only everyone calls him Brolly, because of the shop, you know.”
“They’re silly rotters,” said Briggs.
All this was a great deal easier than Paul had expected; it didn’t seem so very hard to get on with boys, after all.
After a time they all stood up, and amid considerable noise Mr. Prendergast said grace. Someone called out “Prendy!” very loudly just by Paul’s ear.
“… per Christum Dominum nostrum. Amen,” said Mr. Prendergast. “Beste-Chetwynde, was that you who made that noise?”
“Me, sir? No, sir.”
“Pennyfeather, did Beste-Chetwynde make that noise?”
“No, I don’t think so,” said Paul, and Beste-Chetwynde gave him a friendly look, because, as a matter of fact, he had.
Captain Grimes linked arms with him outside the dining-hall.
“Filthy meal, isn’t it, old boy?” he said.
“Pretty bad,” said Paul.
“Prendy’s on duty tonight. I’m off to the pub. How about you?”
“All right,” said Paul.
“Prendy’s not so bad in his way,” said Grimes, “but he can’t keep order. Of course, you know he wears a wig. Very hard for a man with a wig to keep order. I’ve got a false leg, but that’s different. Boys respect that. Think I lost it in the war. Actually,” said the Captain, “and strictly between ourselves, mind, I was run over by a tram in Stoke-on-Trent when I was one-over-the-eight. Still, it doesn’t do to let that out to everyone. Funny thing, but I feel I can trust you. I think we’re going to be pals.”
“I hope so,” said Paul.
“I’ve been feeling the need of a pal for some time. The bloke before you wasn’t bad—a bit stand-offish, though. He had a motor bike, you see. The daughters of the house didn’t care for him. Have you met Miss Fagan?”
“I’ve met two.”
“They’re both bitches,” said Grimes, and added moodily, “I’m engaged to be married to Flossie.”
“Good God! Which is she?”
“The elder. The boys call them Flossie and Dingy. We haven’t told the old boy yet. I’m waiting till I land in the soup again. Then I shall play that as my last card. I generally get into the soup sooner or later. Here’s the pub. Not such a bad little place in its way. Clutterbuck’s father makes all the beer round here. Not bad stuff, either. Two pints, please, Mrs. Roberts!”
In the further corner sat Philbrick, talking volubly in Welsh to a shady-looking old man.
“Damned cheek his coming in here!” said Grimes.
Mrs. Roberts brought them their beer. Grimes took a long draft and sighed happily.
“This looks like being the first end of term I’ve seen for two years,” he said dreamily. “Funny thing, I can always get on all right for about six weeks, and then I land in the soup. I don’t believe I was ever meant by Nature to be a schoolmaster. Temperament,” said Grimes, with a far-away look in his eyes—“that’s been my trouble, temperament and sex.”
“Is it quite easy to get another job after—after you’ve been in the soup?” asked Paul.
“Not at first, it isn’t, but there are ways. Besides, you see, I’m a public school man. That means everything. There’s a blessed equity in the English social system,” said Grimes, “that ensures the public school man against starvation. One goes through four or five years of perfect hell at an age when life is bound to be hell anyway, and after that the social system never lets one down.
“Not that I stood four or five years of it, mind; I left soon after my sixteenth birthday. But my housemaster was a public school man. He knew the system. “Grimes,” he said, “I can’t keep you in the House after what has happened. I have the other boys to consider. But I don’t want to be too hard on you. I want you to start again.” So he sat down there and then and wrote me a letter of recommendation to any future employer, a corking good letter, too. I’ve got it still. It’s been very useful at one time or another. That’s the public school system all over. They may kick you out, but they never let you down.
“I subscribed a guinea to the War Memorial Fund. I felt I owed it to them. I was really sorry,” said Grimes, “that that check never got through.
“After that I went into business. Uncle of mine had a brush factory at Edmonton. Doing pretty well before the war. That put the lid on the brush trade for me. You’re too young to have been in the war, I suppose? Those were the days, old boy. We shan’t see the like of them again. I don’t suppose I was really sober for more than a few hours for the whole of that war. Then I got into the soup again, pretty badly that time. Happened over in France. They said, ‘Now, Grimes, you’ve got to behave like a gentleman. We don’t want a court-martial in this regiment. We’re going to leave you alone for half an hour. There’s your revolver. You know what to do. Goodbye, old man,’ they said quite affectionately.
“Well, I sat there for some time looking at that revolver. I put it up to my head twice, but each time I brought it down again. ‘Public school men don’t end like this,’ I said to myself. It was a long half-hour, but luckily they had left a decanter of whisky in there with me. They’d all had a few, I think. That’s what made them all so solemn. There wasn’t much whisky left when they came back, and, what with that and the strain of the situation, I could only laugh when they came in. Silly thing to do, but they looked so surprised, seeing me there alive and drunk.
“ ‘The man’s a cad,’ said the colonel, but even then I couldn’t stop laughing, so they put me under arrest and called a court-martial.
“ ‘God bless my soul,’ he said, ‘if it isn’t Grimes of Podger’s! What’s all this nonsense about a court-martial?’ So I told him. ‘H’m,’ he said, ‘pretty bad. Still it’s out of the question to shoot an old Harrovian. I’ll see what I can do about it.’ And next day I was sent to Ireland on a pretty cushy job connected with postal service. That saw me out as far as the war was concerned. You can’t get into the soup in Ireland, do what you like. I don’t know if all this bores you?”
“Not at all,” said Paul. “I think it’s most encouraging.”
“I’ve been in the soup pretty often since then, but never quite so badly. Someone always turns up and says, ‘I can’t see a public school man down and out. Let me put you on your feet again.’ I should think,” said Grimes, “I’ve been put on my feet more often than any living man.”
Philbrick came across the bar parlor towards them.
“I’ve been talking to the stationmaster here,” he said, “and if either of you ever wants a woman, his sister—”
“Certainly not,” said Paul.
“Oh, all right,” said Philbrick, making off.
“Women are an enigma,” said Grimes, “as far as Grimes is concerned.”
Mr. Prendergast’s Story
Paul was awakened next morning by a loud bang on his door, and Beste-Chetwynde looked in. He was wearing a very expensive-looking Charvet dressing-gown.
“Good morning, sir,” he said. “I thought I’d come and tell you, as you wouldn’t know: there’s only one bathroom for the masters. If you want to get there before Mr. Prendergast, you ought to go now. Captain Grimes doesn’t wash much,” he added, and then disappeared.
Paul went to the bath and was rewarded some minutes later by hearing the shuffling of slippers down the passage and the door furiously rattled.
As he was dressing Philbrick appeared.
“Oh, I forgot to call you. Breakfast is in ten minutes.”
After breakfast Paul went up to the Common Room. Mr. Prendergast was there polishing his pipes, one by one, with a chamois leather. He looked reproachfully at Paul.
“We must come to some arrangement about the bathroom,” he said. “Grimes very rarely has a bath. I have one before breakfast.”
“So do I,” said Paul defiantly.
“Then I suppose I shall have to find some other time,” said Mr. Prendergast, and he gave a deep sigh as he returned his attention to his pipes. “After ten years, too,” he added, “but everything’s like that. I might have known you’d want the bath. It was so easy when there was only Grimes and that other young man. He was never down in time for breakfast. Oh dear! oh dear! I can see that things are going to be very difficult.”
“But surely we could both have one?”
“No, no, that’s out of the question. It’s all part of the same thing. Everything has been like this since I left the ministry.”
Paul made no answer, and Mr. Prendergast went on breathing and rubbing.
“I expect you wonder how I came to be here?”
“No, no,” said Paul soothingly. “I think it’s very natural.”
“It’s not natural at all; it’s most unnatural. If things had happened a little differently I should be a rector with my own house and bathroom. I might even have been a rural dean, only”—and Mr. Prendergast dropped his voice to a whisper—“only I had Doubts.
“I don’t know why I’m telling you all this; nobody else knows. I somehow feel you’ll understand.
“Ten years ago I was a clergyman of the Church of England. I had just been presented to a living in Worthing. It was such an attractive church, not old, but very beautifully decorated, six candles on the altar, Reservation in the Lady Chapel, and an excellent heating apparatus which burned coke in a little shed by the sacristy door; no graveyard, just a hedge of golden privet between the church and the rectory.
“As soon as I moved in my mother came to keep house for me. She bought some chintz, out of her own money, for the drawing-room curtains. She used to be ‘at home’ once a week to the ladies of the congregation. One of them, the dentist’s wife, gave me a set of the Encyclopedia Britannica for my study. It was all very pleasant until my Doubts began.”
“Were they as bad as all that?” asked Paul.
“They were insuperable,” said Mr. Prendergast; “that is why I am here now. But I expect I am boring you?”
Excerpted from Decline and Fall by Evelyn Waugh Copyright © 2012 by Evelyn Waugh. Excerpted by permission.
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