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Yes, the beautiful princess, wearied at last of her bower, was coolly walking down the playground by the master's side-not leaning on his arm, though—no! I saw directly she wasn't of the leaning sort. I hate describing people, especially women, more particularly pretty women, and I can't this. I can better tell you what she was not. She wasn't tall, that is, not above the middle height; she wasn't a bit like Queen Mob; she had nothing angular about her ; every line was sweeping, rounded, and graceful; she had the daintiest little foot, and this she set upon the ground with what some of you poet chaps would call an “expression.” It said just as plainly as you can speak, "Here I choose to step, let the whole world oppose me.”
She had splendid dark hair, arranged in a deep band upon her white neck. The face, as far as it could be seen, exceeded our most romantic dreams; chin, mouth, and half the cheek and nose were visible enough, but, round the brow, she wore a curious broad fillet, made like the halfmask worn by harlequins. She' wasn't blindfolded, you understand. There were large circular holes cut for the eyes, and round these were, first a crimson, then a yellow, rim, imparting a ghastly and horrible expression, such as it is impossible to describe.
She walked with her little head inclined forward, and her white hands clasped tight together-something in the attitude of the adoring saints in a picture.
Not having seen me go down the playground, they no doubt believed it wholly deserted, and came slowly on, turning mechanically when they reached the tamarisks, instead of coming round, yet passing so close that the princess's light dress brushed the sprays. Styles was reading to her in a low, earnest voice. And what do you think it was ? A Greek play! It's as true as I sit here. The “ Alcestis” of Euripides.
I was rather forward in Greek, and I knew what he was saying. I won't bother you with the Greek, but my crib gives it thus :
Herc. Surely thy wife Alcestis is not dead ? Admet. There is a twofold tale to tell of her. Herc. But do you speak of her as dead or living ? Admet. She is and she is not-and I am wretched. The princess clasped her hands to her masked face, like one in agony, though I imagined she was only bored, for how should she know anything of Euripides ?-and they passed out of hearing.
The mysteries of Otranto were fading into nothing. It was, after all, only the ghost of a romance. Here was the real thing. Was the fillet a disguise ? But how strange ! how incomplete ! how likely to attract the very notice and inquiry she desired to sħun !-or was it to conceal some defect too horrible
Here they approached again. Styles had ceased reading, and both moved sadly and silently onward, buried in thought. To my immense consternation they did not turn off as before, but, pursuing the path, came round my ambush, and were upon
me ! The princess started and stopped.' Styles caught me by the collar. I didn't care. I was only in the playground, where I had a right to be ; and Styles himself was out of bounds, if anybody was.
The jolly old chap knew that as well as I did; so he didn't box my ears, but his eye fell upon the corner of the book I had tried to hide under
my jacket. He made a spiteful snatch at it, looked at it with an intense disgust, far from complimentary to the distinguished author, and put it in his pocket. Then he seized me by the arm.
“Now, pledge me your word, sir," he beganBut the princess quietly interposed : “ It is useless, my good friend ; let him go.” Styles obeyed; and wasn't I off like a shot? And wasn't it jolly that I had had to make no promises, and might relate my adventure the moment the fellows returned ? - which I did.
As though the princess knew that her remarkable appearance would be no longer a secret, or else because she was weary of her solitary room, or the society of Queen Mob, the very next day, and every succeeding one, she came down and dined with the school, still wearing her hideous mask, and regarded with mingled feelings of awe, suspicion, and admiration. The idea that such a creature was really hiding from justice, met with little credence; and the general, and certainly the most reasonable, impression was, that the hateful black fillet concealed some deformity even more repulsive than itself. She appeared, however, on all occasions perfectly at her ease, and used to gaze down the long table in a cool, superior way, as though taking in the characters of the chaps ; sometimes allowing her look to rest upon particular individuals long enough to make the said parties wince and shufe uncomfortably, as if they were pricked.
In this silent manner, we felt sure, she made the acquaintance of at least four fellows, namely, Harry Maitland, Charley Lysons, Looby Weekes, and Philip Balfour-(me).
Harry Maitland was, at that time, senior cock, and very nearly at the top of the school. The best fellow in it, full of life and frolic, and a great favourite of Styles's ; short silky hair, curling naturally, clear brown eyes —it's just one of those few faces one can recal at any distance of timepoor old Harry!
Charley Lysons was a mischievous little imp of the lower school-up to anything, and always in a row.
Looby Weekes—I forget his Christian name—I don't think he knew it himself ; having been told, on his first appearance at Styles's, that he would be licked if he ever called himself anything but “ Looby," he had got the habit of it, and even signed his exercises “ L. Weekes." He was one of the biggest boys (and asses) in the school; I know you won't believe it, but that fellow was still in Corderius and Whitaker; nothing inspired him or quickened his apprehension ; you might as well have caned the stump of a tree. Styles gave it up, after a few months, and, finding it useless to instruct him, made him a kind of bridge for others. Looby was thenceforth charged with the duty of bringing up fellows for punishment, and holding them, if necessary, during its infliction. This was not of frequent occurrence. Styles hated punishment, regarding it as an unseemly interruption to the pursuit of the learning he delighted in. But when he was provoked, you didn't forget it in a hurry! Thus the call of “Mr. Weekes," echoing through the vaulted room, has made many a chap's heart give a quicker jump; for no one was ever guilty of the absurdity of believing that Mr. Weekes was needed for any purpose of instruction!
I myself was the last of the four that seemed to attract the especial
notice of the mysterious princess, and that was probably because she had seen me before, or was it that she had a spite against me for telling of her? At all events, I didn't feel happy under her gaze. Happy!- I would positively have dived under the table to escape it! I'm sure she saw this, and visited me with those fearful eyes twice as much as anybody else. Just like women, bother them!
About this period of the half there was a good deal of agitation in the school, originating in another matter, of a less mysterious kind—I refer to the dinners. Queen Mob had taken it into her head that bullocks' hearts were civilised food-cheap, at all events—and as Styles ate anything that was offered him, this objectionable dish was served up twice a week-Tuesdays and Fridays-and when cold (as it always was) tasted and felt like greasy india-rubber.
As if this wasn't enough, Queen Mob established a most oppressive institution, viz., having the pudding first, by which the fine edge of appetite was supposed to be considerably dulled, and no small amount of animal food preserved to the domestic economy. Who could turn from Norfolk dumplings with sweet sauce to cold bullock's heart ?
We tried a deputation to Styles. It failed, though headed by Harry Maitland. Styles would hear of no objections to Queen Mob's arrangements. He himself fared like his boys, and he dismissed the deputation with a half-holiday.
Such was our respect for the jolly old fellow himself, that it is possible we might have given in, starving, or sickening, over Queen Mob's dietary, till our stomachs got accustomed to the worse than Spartan fare, but for the unlooked-for event upon which my story turns.
One morning the master did not appear. The senior usher passed in and out of the room with an unusually anxious face, and, returning after a longer absence than common, addressed the school to the effect that Styles had been seized in the night with severe illness, which was momently increasing, and that he was now delirious. Feeling the approach of the attack, he had, with his usual presence of mind, prescribed some regulations for the conduct of the school, earnestly requesting that the boys should not be dismissed, and dictating a pressing message to a neighbouring clergyman—a fellow-collegian-begging him to undertake for a few days the superintendence. The messenger, however, had just returned with the intelligence that Mr. Ringrose was in Wales, and would not be back for three days.
I don't now, much as we liked old Styles, pretend that some of the idler spirits among us did not find comfort in the relaxation of discipline that inevitably followed; still, I do believe everything would have gone on smoothly enough had it not been for those confounded hearts ! 'The second day of Styles's illness, Mary Percival did not appear. The hearts did. This was bad enough, but who can picture the rage
and consternation of the hungry crowd, when, on the following day, the abominable dish appeared again? It was a direct and positive insult—an actual challenge to disaffection and mutiny. Boys couldn't stand it. We didn't; but on this occasion, with the exception of a few deep, significant murmurs, there was no row. The fellows simply pushed away their plates in disgust, and refused to eat.
Though we observed Queen Mob glare round with a malignant smile,
we were sca:
carcely prepared for the determined purpose of her soul. It isn't pretty to talk Latin before ladies, but there's a well-known proverb that means, literally, when the gods take a spite against any ebap, they begin by circumfoozling his comprehensive faculties, and making a muff of him. So they did with Queen Mob. She had sense enough of her own, and can you conceive her being guilty of the absurdity of supposing she could starve us into eating any stuff she chose ? By Jove ! sir, the hearts came up the third day, with an intimation that, until they were eaten, no other dinners would be served!
Then the shell exploded !
With a shout of execration, the school rose, pushed over the forms with a crash, and rushed out, the two masters (themselves disgusted) feebly striving to arrest the rout, and insisting upon saying grace! “ Grace !" Arrived in the playground, consultations were held, and plans hastily agreed upon. “No food-no lessons !” was the unanimous resolve. The rebellion had in fact begun. Yells of defiance resounded on all sides. Seditious sentiments appeared in chalky characters upon the walls, and even the black board, which hung above the master's chair, for the purpose of illustrating problems, &c., was made the medium of public opinion.
* No viscera !” “Hearts be hanged!” “No Mob law!" &c. &c., were among the expressions heard. One youth, inspired by an agency which has made greater poets-an empty stomach-improvised the following revolutionary stanza, which being sung in chorus to a popular tune, produced a fine effect :
Hard hearts, tough hearts, greasy and cold,
At jolly old Styles's school!
So long as Queen Mob doth rule – Hooray! Poor Styles's illness, even the mysterious princess, were, in the excitement of the moment, utterly forgotten. We all did exactly as we liked. As for the masters, they wandered wildly about, bullying the smaller and appealing to the older fellows, equally in vain. The former process we stopped in a summary manner.
Our second master was a fellow of the name of Hornidge-Gilbert Hornidge. He'd been a master's mate before he was a master, and had brought with him into his new sphere all the roughness of his former profession, without its heartiness. He was a confounded bully, and never lost an opportunity of pitching into one of us juniors. Seeing him boxing the ears of a little chap who had been executing a war-dance round him, but had miscalculated his distance, Harry Maitland, accompanied by four of the biggest fellows, walked quietly up to him, and apologising politely for the odds it was necessary to bring against a gentleman of such proportions, informed him that the next overt act of violence on his part would be visited with condign punishment. Whereupon Mr. Hornidge retired into his private den.
It was about two o'clock, when the school bell (which might be sounded either from the house or the schoolroom) gave out a sudden
summons. This we thought proper to obey ; not, however, with the slightest intention of resuming study, but rather of bullying the bewildered masters in the very seat of authority.
This pleasant game had scarcely begun, when the door opened, and Mr. Ringrose made his appearance. He was a quiet, amiable man, somewhat older than Styles, and was personally acquainted with two or three of the upper school. To these he addressed himself in the tone of quiet surprise that sometimes pays better than direct reproof, or doubtful threatenings, demanding the reason of their selecting the moment of our respected master's illness for so disgraceful a demonstration.
Shouts of “No hearts!” “Give us Christian food !" &c. &c., replied.
Now it happened that worthy Mr. Ringrose, kind and gentle as he was by nature, had an immense idea of the rights and powers of all constituted authorities, and would have risked anything rather than yield to intimidation, no matter how just the complaint. According to him, submission must precede concession.
This sentiment he at once avowed, in the very teeth of the enraged and hungry boys; and then proceeded to inform us that it was impossible for him to assume the superintendence of the school, his presence being urgently required elsewhere; that a fitting substitute having been vainly sought, it had been at first determined to dismiss the boys to their homes; but, in deference to the earnest charge of our poor master, and at the pressing solicitation of a lady, now resident in the house, this resolution had been rescinded.
“On appealing,” concluded Mr. Ringrose, with a half smile, “ to the young lady in question how it was possible to carry on the school in the absence of a proper classical teacher, Miss Percival replied that shem
Roars of laughter, and shouts of “The princess !" “ The princess !" “ Hooray for the princess!" drowned the remainder of the speech. The seniors, however, already anticipating some fun, rather bestirred themselves to quiet the demonstration, lest, perhaps, our too ready enthusiasm should awaken in the breast of the worthy Ringrose any misgiving as to its sincerity.
That gentleman-though not a little puzzled as to what was meant by the term “ Princess ”_accepted the shout as a proof of our satisfaction, and, observing that he would allow us ten minutes to decide whether we were prepared to recognise the proposed authority, and yield to it that implicit deference without which no study could be carried on, quitted the room, it being arranged that the sounding of the school bell should signify our consent. An eager consultation followed among the seniors, uninterrupted by any disorder, the smaller chaps feeling that they had no alternative but to follow the seniors' lead, and the latter foreseeing no end of fun in the plan proposed.
Within the given period, therefore, the resolution was carried, the signal given, and Mr. Ringrose re-entered the schoolroom, with the slight, graceful figure of our masked princess on his arm. He led her to the master's seat, which was in a corner of the room, upon a portion of the floor a little elevated above the rest. It was fronted, moreover, with a sort of office-screen, glazed and curtained at the top, so that the teacher might observe his charge at pleasure, without being himself