The County of Kent, England, 1802
The Frog-child, the Snake-child, and the Man of la Mancha
A strong blow to the head knocked Rick to the ground. “Ha! I have vanquished thee, knight!” bellowed his attacker.
“Dem it, John! Can you try not to kill me, for a change? It’s only a game!” shot back Rick as he rubbed his sore skull, his thick brown hair clutched tightly in his fingers. “That’s the third time you’ve knocked me over the head today!”
The boys were both about twelve years old, though John was clearly quite well-built for a boy his age and Rick was comparatively diminutive.
“Come along, Rick. I was the windmill. I was supposed to knock your block off. That’s the way the story goes, doesn’t it?” said John throwing his thick mane of black hair back away from his eyes with a cocky shake of his head.
“Humph!” Rick snorted. “Fine. But do it again and I’ll trounce you!”
John laughed heartily at this. “I’d like to see you try.” The altercation ceased when John got a sudden idea. Spotting a stick the length of his arm on the ground, John adeptly placed his foot underneath it, kicked it up into the air, and caught it with a flourish. “What say we play at fencing?”
Rick thought a moment. “Fine. Just don’t poke my eye out, will you?” he sighed as he kneeled to choose his own weapon. “Can I be Robin Hood?”
“Perfect. That means I can be Prince John. I was named for Prince John you know.”
— “Well then, Prince John, have at thee!” cried Robin Hood unsheathing his sword. Robin of Loxley danced lightly around his larger opponent, countering and parrying with rare finesse.
Then John did the unthinkable.
Releasing a hand from the hilt, John thrust his elbow squarely into Robin’s nose!—
“All right! That’s it!” Rick threw his every ounce of his frail body into John. The two lost balance and painfully tumbled down the hill, swearing and exchanging blows as they rolled one over the other.
—Years later, when both of those men reminisced about the day they first met, they might have been reminded of that old folktale of the snake-child and the frog-child, who were as different from one another as it is possible to be. (The Honorable John Lear was the only son of Squire Lear, an aristocrat born and bred. Rick Dering was the son of a humble law clerk.) These two, frog-child and snake-child happening upon each other one fine day, wiled away the hours playing together. Snake decided to teach frog lessons on how to slither around on his stomach. (John decided to teach Rick a lesson, and punched him in the stomach.) The frog, likewise, taught snake how to hop up and down. (Rick, likewise, hopped upon John’s back and rained down blows on his head.) Though they had only known each other one day, the frog-child and the snake-child formed a fast friendship.
Surprisingly, so would Rick and John.
John finally collapsed under the weight on his shoulders, and both boys lay exhausted on the ground.
“Well…fought…Rick,” gasped John.
“Not…so bad yourself…mate,” wheezed Rick.
“Next time…let’s not get so rough…agreed?”
“Right.” Both stood up, shook hands, agreed to meet the next day, and returned home, all transgression forgotten.
And it occurred to John of all the aristocratic snake-children he had ever played with, not one had ever stood up to his bullying. Rick had earned far more than John’s friendship that day.
The Grey Man
An old adage stipulates that a house must be full of life to become a home, otherwise the building itself seems to die. At the sight of a dilapidated old house, many have observed the edifice’s need to be “lived in.” Perhaps one could take this wisdom a step further and suppose that, as the exterior of a house reveals the presence of inhabitants, the interior of a home reveals something of their nature. Some houses are warm and inviting, suggesting that a charming personality lives there; others are immaculately well ordered, suggesting that the owner is a strict, no-nonsense sort of person; still others are sullen and grey, indicating the somber disposition of the owner.
The Dering household was a somewhat schizophrenic combination of the three.
The building itself had two floors. The sight which first greets the eyes when entering the door is a decidedly dull room: its walls bare, except for a few rows of thick, dusty books on law, its grey stone fireplace unused, and its scant articles of plain furniture—including a ponderous black desk covered with organized piles of paper work—are consigned to the corner areas, leaving the wide wooden floor chillingly empty. The silence is broken only by the ticking of an ancient, towering grandfather clock near the desk.
However, as one ascends the spiral staircase, a transformation seems to come over the whole abode. The setting sun shines through the tall windows of the second floor, illuminating the many decorations in strange and wondrous ways. Watercolors of the seashore grace these walls; these landscapes are certainly not the works of a professional painter, but are pleasant to look at nonetheless.
Up this staircase and through these rooms Rick dashed, into his mother’s chamber. She seemed to be the center of warmth of the whole house. She lay still in her bed, but her round face shone brightly. It seemed she loved to surround herself with beauty. Everything from the chairs, to the bedside tables, to the bed itself was a remarkable work of craftsmanship, and at least a dozen of the joyful watercolors adorned the walls. Of course, the good lady herself was the artist; in fact, she was in the very act of completing a brush stroke as her son entered. Seeing her darling boy, she laid the brushes and colors haphazardly in their wooden box and placed them on a marble table at the side of her bed.
“Rick, dear. You were out later than usual. I was beginning to worry when I saw that it was past seven and getting dark,” she said, gesturing for her son to come sit in the ornate chair by the side of her bed.
“I’m sorry, Mum. I lost track of time while I was playing,” he explained. He always felt guilty when he left his mother alone in the house for such a long time.
“You didn’t spend the whole day alone again, did you, dear?” she inquired seriously.
“Mum,” Rick said, rolling his eyes. He loved his mother, but she was always worrying about how much time he spent with other boys his age. “As a matter of fact, I made a new chum today.”
“Excellent!” his mother exclaimed, her perturbed look gone. “Tell me all, Rick.”
“Well, he’s a—” Rick searched for the right word, “—not mean—he’s a boisterous boy. He’s always talking about the military, and he loves to play at combat.”
“Which explains your bloody nose,” his mother added dryly.
“Oh,” Rick crossed his eyes as he tried to examine the offending injury. He should have known he couldn’t hide anything from his mother. “Yes, I suppose we did have a bit of a row at the end. But we shook hands afterwards, and John promised we wouldn’t fight next time.”
“Well, that’s something. And now I have a name, ‘John.’ And to whom does he belong? You’d best tell me dear as I’m determined to know everything,” she demanded as she sat up and rested her merry round chin on her palms, looking interested. However, the exertion of this simple gesture seemed to tax her strength and she sat her head back against the bed frame almost immediately.
At the sight of his mother’s weakness, Rick had become far more concerned with her state than with talking about his friend. “—Lear—he’s Squire Lear’s son,” Rick said absent-mindedly. Fortunately, this news seemed to breathe new life into Mrs. Dering.
“The son of a gentleman! Wonderful! Squire Lear is our landlord. I never knew he had a boy your age. You shall have to invite your friend here and introduce us, Rick.” This discussion was interrupted by the eight heavy chimes of the grandfather clock echoing through the household. “Eight o’clock. We can expect your father at any moment. In fact—go to the window, Rick, and tell me if you see him coming.” The lad scurried to the window and peered through it. The rain had chilled the warm summer day and resulted in a thick mist at dusk. However, through this mist, the coach bearing his father was clearly visible, punctual as always.
“He’s coming now, Mum,” he said looking at her. Rick began to move back to his seat, but his mother stopped him.
“Well, don’t just sit around up here. Go meet your father at the door,” she said, shooing him gently. Rick scampered down, and just as he reached the bottom step, the door inched open to reveal Mr. Gregory Dering.
Upon seeing Mr. Dering, one might vainly rub his eyes to check that all color had not drained from the world. Mr. Dering’s eyes were the color of steel, and his hair, which had once been a rich brown like his son’s, had gone prematurely grey. The chilling mist, clinging to his grey traveler’s cloak and his grey top hat, gave Gregory Dering the appearance of some ephemeral spirit, rather than a living man.
“Hello, father. How was your—” the question died in Rick’s throat as Mr. Dering silently brushed past his son.
Mr. Dering alighted up the staircase, the fog winding its way behind him. Rick followed the dissipating trail back to his mother’s room, where the grey man already sat bent over at his wife’s side. Holding her hand in his, Mr. Dering’s face flushed with what might have been color. “Hello, my sweet,” he whispered in his grave voice. At the sight of his son, Mr. Dering stiffened. “Richard, I would prefer if you left your mother and me in peace.”
“It’s all right, Greg. Let him tell you about his day. We don’t have long before he’s off to school again. Come and sit here, Rick.”
“Actually,” said Rick at the sight of his father’s cold eyes, “It’s getting late, and I’m tired. I think I’ll retire for the night.” And so, as Mr. Dering bent back over his wife, his lips twitching into what might have been a smile, Rick closed the door behind him.
The Irish Nationalist Army
John and Rick met, as promised, the following morning, and, as promised, John refrained from more bullying (however, as the rain started up again before noon, John did not have much time to break said promise). As John would not hear of Rick walking two miles back home in the rain, he invited Rick to his father’s manor, which was a good deal closer. If the rain stopped, Rick could return home safely. Of course, both boys hoped the shower would grow to a tempest, so that Rick would not have to return home.
When Rick glanced out of the window in the comfortable library of the Lear family abode, he was confident that his hopes had been answered. The heavy rain drops pelted the windows so hard, nothing could be seen. Rick turned his attention back to his cultivated friend, who was warming his rump at the fireside. “You look very dignified doing that,” Rick teased.
“What? I’m an aristocrat! I can do just as I please,” the Squire’s son answered obstinately. “I’ll admit most noblemen wouldn’t be caught dead in this position in front of a peasant like you, Rick. But I prefer not to freeze my rear end off, thank you.” John stared at Rick defiantly, waiting for his new friend’s retort. When he saw that Rick was not going to argue with him, John straightened up. “Come along, Rick. I’ve been wanting to show you something I think you’ll like. No sense letting the rain ruin our fun.”
Rick followed his host through an ornate mahogany door into a dusty, dimly-lit room. As Rick’s eyes adjusted to the light, he realized that the room was enormous! Dozens of tall, heavy tables were arranged in rows, and there was still plenty of room to move about. Curious, Rick approached the nearest table.
On each side of the huge table, there were hundreds—no—thousands of small soldiers. Upon examining one, Rick saw that each must have been individually hand-carved, possibly from ivory. The figures all carried medieval weaponry, with armor to match, and each had been painted to the finest detail, even the links in their chain mail. Furthermore, each figure seemed to be unique: most charged headlong towards the soldiers on the opposite side, some successfully engaged the enemy, while others kneeled clutching at arrows penetrating from their arms, their chests, their eyes! The top of the table was not flat wood, but rose and fell, and was painted to resemble rolling hills, creating a vast, miniature landscape for the combatants. Rick felt as he was viewing a real battle from the skies, frozen in time.
“The Battle of Hastings,” pronounced John with pride in his voice.
“You did this?” Rick asked in awe.
“Father helped me with this one, but since then, I’ve become intensely interested. All of these, I set up on my own,” announced John, gesturing to the rows of tables, each of which represented a separate battle. Rick saw
“I want you to help me recreate a battle from scratch. This is the table,” said John gesturing to it. “It’s going to be the Battle of Oulart Hill. You may even remember it. We were both probably about five years old when it happened.”
“Wasn’t that a victory for the Irish?”
“I’ll say. I don’t think much of those demmed Catholic peasants, but I can’t pretend it wasn’t a brilliant victory. There were 1,000 rebels, many of them not even armed, and they decimated the North Cork Militia.” From the sheer energy John used in his explanation, Rick could tell that this was no mere hobby for Lear. It was his passion. “Here’s how they did it. The rebels were camped on a hill near the
Rick nodded. He could see himself trapped on that hill, surrounded by a rag tag band of poor farmers, knowing that the only chance of survival was victory.
“The second mistake the militia made was to make their move without waiting for artillery support. That fool Colonel Foote disobeyed orders and led his troops straight into the rebel’s base. And here is how the rebels did it!” As John explained, be began placing the militia soldiers almost absent-mindedly.
“The rebels selected a group to hold their position and act as decoys. These were the men the North Cork Troops saw as they approached the top of the hill. However, the rebels had prepared an ambush. Every man with a firearm was hiding at each side of the hill, at a right angle to the path of the approaching soldiers. The decoys stood their ground as they were fired upon, and couldn’t fire back because they were unarmed, until the moment the troops had marched right into their trap. Then, every Irish man with a gun barraged the militia with constant gunfire, round after round!”
There he was! Rifle in hand, Rick targeted the astonished troops. He and his companions stood undaunted against overwhelming odds!
“Then every man together rushed the survivors from all sides! Four militia men escaped with their lives, including Foote. Just four! The Yeoman Calvary retreated, and the Irish only suffered six casualties. The victory inspired all of Wexford to join the rebellion.”[i]
Victory! “Incredible,” whispered Rick. John nodded. For a minute, the two were silent as they arranged the miniature soldiers.
Finally, Rick asked a question which had been on his mind, “How did they lose the rebellion? The Irish?”
John’s smile disappeared. “Lack of unity. The rebels at Wexford weren’t even connected to the United Irishmen, the Protestant traitors who wanted to secede from
“They still made a brave attempt though,” said Rick impressed.
“Don’t feel too much sympathy for the rebels, Rick. Do you know what they did to the prisoners they took from the North Cork Militia? Butchered them. Their own countrymen, fellow Irishmen. They were an uncontrollable mob, Rick, just like the French in their revolution. There were entire families of Irish Protestants executed for no reason!” John slammed a figurine down on the table, cracking its base. “Like wild animals.”
Rick was sobered somewhat by this revelation, and did not pursue the subject. However, the two conversed lengthily as they created the detailed scene. Mostly, they argued about who was dreading the start of the next school term the most. It was only a week away, after all.
A Time for Joy
By the time the rain ceased, it had grown dark, so John’s father sent one of his servants to inform Rick’s parents that their son was spending the night.
The next morning, Squire Lear arranged for a grand horse and carriage to return Rick home.
The Squire’s manor was located in the country just outside of
The moment the coach arrived at Rick’s strange little home, the boy nimbly leapt down from the carriage to the cold, muddy street before the doorman even had time to assist him. Waving to the coachman over his shoulder, Rick skipped up the grey stone steps and pushed open the imposing black door.
The morning sun lighting up the living room, which doubled as his father’s study, seemed to choke on the fog of grey dust. A harsh voice from the shadows shattered the silence, “Richard, your spending the night with young Mr. Lear has been an extraordinary inconvenience.” Mr. Dering sat erect behind his ponderous black desk, grey top hat held firmly on his lap. As Rick’s father placed it on his head stiffly, he stood with a jerk, as if he were a wooden marionette yanked roughly by its threads. “I had to remain here all morning and wait for your return. Now, thanks entirely to you, Richard, I shall be late to work.”
“I couldn’t help it,” protested Rick, but at the sight of his father’s glare, he hastily added, “sir.”
Needlessly, Mr. Dering adjusted his tie. It was already perfect; everything about him was immaculate. Not one speck of the thick dust dared to rest on his shoulder. “You know I don’t like leaving your mother alone Richard. That’s why I had to wait for your return. She finds your presence comforting. This is the second time in a row you’ve left her all alone in this house for the whole day to play with that aristo’s brat!”
“Mum wanted me to play with someone my own age!”
“That’s because your mother is an unselfish creature, Richard. She puts your happiness above her safety. What if there was a fire in the house while you were out playing? Have you considered what would happen to her in her condition? Let me make myself clear to you, Richard. You are not to leave your mother’s side until I return home, no matter what she tells you! That is all I have to say to you.” As Mr. Dering glided towards the door, he glanced through the window. At the sight of the carriage, he added sardonically, “What courtesy you receive from Squire Lear. I could not afford such luxury with a month’s wages,” and disappeared into the thick autumn fog.
Rick stomped up the staircase, into his mother’ chamber. Clearly, he looked as furious as he felt, because, as Mrs. Dering immediately observed, “What’s wrong, dear? I heard raised voices.”
Rick sat down huffily. “Father. He hardly ever speaks to me, and when he does, it’s only to criticize me.”
Mrs. Dering listened to her son’s tirade quietly, and chose her words carefully, “If your father has a fault, it’s that he…worries about me too much. He probably thinks the earth will open up and swallow me if I don’t have someone around to watch my every movement. The summer days have flown by again this year, and I don’t want you cooped up with me during your last week of freedom, Rick. A boy your age needs more than an old cripple like me for company,” she said chuckling.
“Don’t talk like that, Mum,” Rick reprimanded with a shake of his finger.
“Humbug! It’s only the truth! Now, I don’t care what your father said. You will have a jolly time this summer, or so help me, I will stand from this bed and expel you from the house!” she pronounced with a jolly boom of a laugh. As her beautiful laugh finally died down, she settled her head back on her pillow. “Would you read to me, Rick?” she asked with a gesture to the nightstand where a Bible rested. Immediately Rick obliged her, opening the Good Book to the page they had left off two nights ago.
“Charming, just what I need to cheer me up!” said Rick’s mother, her voice full of her merry irony. “More of Solomon’s woe and misery on the lack of meaning in life!”
“We could skip it, if you’d like.”
“No dear, we shouldn’t gloss over Scripture.”
“Very well.” And Rick began to read aloud thus: “I said in mine heart, Go to now, I will prove thee with mirth, therefore enjoy pleasure: and, behold, this also is vanity. I said of laughter, It is mad: and of mirth, What doeth it?”
At this, Mrs. Dering couldn’t help but chortle, looking almost offended.
“If laughter makes one mad, I am a menace to all of God’s creation! I’m sorry, Rick. I didn’t mean to scoff at Scripture. I think what Solomon is saying is that there is more to life than laughter, which is true. Laughter alone won’t give you a meaningful life, but I still say you can’t have life without it. Keep reading, Rick.”
As Rick finished the last verse of the chapter and closed the Book carefully, his mother nodded to herself, pondering the words. After a moment, she perked up. “Rick, I have the solution! You invite your friend here! I can meet your new friend, you can spend time with him, and you can still keep an eye on me like father wants.”
At the sound of this idea, Rick’s mood suddenly brightened. But the mention of his father brought them crashing down again.
An aristo’s brat, those had been the words Mr. Dering had used. Rick wondered if his father was right in his assessment. Remembering the wondrous mansion where he had spent the previous night, Rick wondered how John would react if he saw this cramped, gloomy residence.
Rick tried to make up an excuse, “I – don’t think there is enough time. John leaves for boarding school this Sunday.“
“Oh, there’s time, Rick! There’s always time,” assured his mother.
Biting his lip, Rick persisted, “No. Last night both of us knew we might not get a chance to see each other again until next summer. We pretty much said our good-byes already.”
His mother nodded, looking a little disappointed. Settling back down, she asked Rick if he would kindly read her just one more chapter. “You have such a beautiful voice, Rick, it brings the words to life for me. If you wanted, you could become a fine pastor, like your grandfather Patrick.”
“Oh! I love this passage! Read it to me, and you’ll see why it’s one of my favorites
“To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted; A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance…”
* * *
As it turned out, the two boys did see each other one last time before John left, though only briefly. Rick waved to his friend as he watched him disappear in the fine coach. Rick’s final week of freedom was joyfully spent in his mother’s company, until the time came for Mr. Dering to deposit Rick at Pummelham’s Hall, the boarding school for young men. “Good day, Richard,” said Mr. Dering brusquely, and he too was whisked away by a carriage, this one dingy and grey. Mr. Dering had nothing else to say to the son he would not see for a full year.
The Gentle Art of Pummeling
Charles Fairfield was hyperventilating. Tucked away in a dark corner of the grounds, he listened for any voices. Had he lost them?
“Patty! Cum on out Patty!” boomed a coarse, insipid voice.
Patty. That was their name for him.
Charles closed his eyes and laid his head back against the cold stone wall.
“What are you doing back here?” came a small voice from right in front of him!
Charles started and looked around.
“I’m down here,” explained the voice. Charles looked down and discovered the speaker: a boy a full foot shorter than he with a thick crop of brown hair.
“You’re a new student, correct? I don’t remember you from last term,” said Rick Dering.
“You’ve gotten nicer, Pummelham! Why not do it yourself and save your uncle the trouble. I know you enjoy it!” answered Rick, his tone ironic.
“Oh no! You’re not going to trick me into fighting you, Dering!”
“I see you’re much too clever for me, Jack!”
Momentarily forgotten, Farfield stood between the two and witnessed this confrontation, a perfect picture of comic confusion.
“What’s going on here?” rang another voice, and two boys almost as hideous as young Jack Pummelham appeared, similarly armed with sticks. “Who’s this?” asked one, pointing to Rick. “What are you waitin’ for, Jack?” the other inquired. The two seemed to speak only in questions.
“Leave him be! That’s Rick Dering!” ordered Jack, but the two paid him no heed, and began accosting Rick.
“Why are you afraid of him?”
“Isn’t he tiny? Barely up to me middle?”
“How old are you, six? He’s not our age, is he?” The two poked and prodded Rick as if he were an odd sea creature they had discovered washed up on the shore.
“No, I am not six, but twelve years old, same as you both; and yes, I am short for my age. Remove your hands from me or I will trounce you both.”
“Can he even reach high enough to hit us?” guffawed one.
The other racked his brain, trying to think of a clever jibe as well, but in the end, could only think to say, “Yeah, how high can you reach?”
“I have no problem reaching this!” roared Rick as he slammed his foot straight down both their shins, one after the other. The two wailed pitifully, each grabbing his bruised leg and hopping about on one foot.
“You know, come to think of it, I would like to see an Irish jig,” said Rick with a threatening glare at Jack Pummelham.
The very fat in Jack’s cheeks trembled as he spoke, “Don’t you dare! I’m going to have you beaten for threatening me!”
“What a shame. But if I’m going to get thrashed anyway, I might as well get thrashed for having done something,” growled Rick, advancing on the rotund antagonist.
At this, Jack Pummelham seemed to suddenly change his mind. “All right! You win! I won’t tell! You got my word!”
Rick paused for a moment, contemplating this offer. Jack wiped the sweat from his brow relieved.
“I’m afraid your word is meaningless, Pummelham. I’m going to get whipped no matter what. Oh well.” And with that, little Rick pounced on the screaming Jack Pummelham.
* * *
“Spare the rod, murder the child!” The old cliché, amended by old Henry Pummelham for greater emphasis, was engraved above the great gate entrance to Pummelham’s Hall, the boarding school’s founding maxim.
In all of the Hall’s distinguished history of academic excellence through child abuse, it had always had a Pummelham as its headmaster; that is, until Henry’s grandson Paul Pummelham reached the age where his arm was simply too frail to cause delinquent students the same degree of pain it had been capable of inflicting in bygone days. At least, not the level of agony he felt was necessary to maintain order. No, those happy days of yore had gone, and little Jack Pummelham was only two, still too young to fulfill that fundamental requirement for a successful schoolmaster: the ability to intimidate the student. Then again, little Jack was such a hideous toad of an infant, he might have fulfilled this requirement after all, but, sadly, was still incapable of beating a ten-year-old to a pulp. Therefore, the position of headmaster was grudgingly surrendered to Jack’s uncle, Wesley Scuttles, who had married into the family.
This, of course, put the poor Scuttles in a unique situation. There was no doubt in anyone’s mind that the moment Jack Pummelham came of age, he would, in the tradition of Prince Hamlet, claim his father’s throne from his usurper uncle. The lad had no higher ambition in life than to succeed his father, and from the age of five had already started practicing by pounding any living thing smaller than himself. Strangely enough, the application of the rod was deemed unnecessary for little Jack’s education. Pain was as absolutely vital for the proper education of any child, except a Pummelham, of course.
Altogether, Wesley Scuttles, affectionately christened “The Scuttler” by his students, was not a cruel man. Fortunately, this failing did not prevent him meeting out the necessary discipline, though he almost always conscripted older students to do the honors for him. The Scuttler despised Jack, but remained his slave, because it was clear that, eventually, Jack would grow to be larger than he. Much like death, Jack’s ascension was inevitable . Perhaps, Jack would retain his services as a school teacher. The Scuttler pondered this thought, his one shred of hope, as he delivered Rick and Charles into the hands of the prefects. Weskey Scuttles was even skinnier than Charles, with wispy, glistening black hair, shining eyes like a lost creature’s, a trembling lip, and no distinguishable chin.
“Once again, Richard Dering, you persist in antagonizing your betters, such as the esteemed Jack Pummelham. I thought we had cured you of this last year, but after only two days, you have returned right to where you left off last term,” wheezed Scuttles. A part of him admired Rick for standing up to that snobbish toe rag, something he was too timid to do. However, the timid part preferred to have job security. “I would advise you to simply ignore young master Pummelham if you cannot stand him. He will have you whipped every time without exception.” With this sage advise, the Scuttler escorted the boys into the caning chamber, where hung the birch switches, hickory sticks and willow canes, shut the oak doors behind them, and left, again musing on the joyous possibility of his having a position under Jack Pummelham six years from now.
The two prefects, having forgotten the way the beatings had felt when they were younger, how the drubbings had deadened their spirits, grabbed Rick and Charles by their collars, dragged them to the desk, and bent them over to receive, not six-of-the-best, but sixty. Rick Dering fought them every step of the way.
* * *
The Hall seemed to be comprised exclusively of smaller halls, each unpleasant in its own way. Charles and Rick were silent as they marched through the high-ceilinged, chilling halls, past dull, empty lecture halls to the repugnant, messy dining hall.
One long maple table serviced all of the Hall’s fifty odd students. Charles sat down painfully at the end of the long bench closest to him; Rick took the place at his side without flinching. “So, Patty. Short for Patrick?”
“That’s not my name. I’m Charles Fairfield,” he murmured. “They call me that because I’m from
Intrigued, Rick quickly swallowed the cold porridge so he could pepper the new boy with more questions. “You’re Irish? But I don’t even hear a hint of a brogue in your voice.”
Charles wasn’t a talkative boy, but he tried to answer Rick’s questions. “I was born in
“Then why do you attend school in
“Almost everyone in
“Yes.” Charles was completely flustered. “Well, except that last one, no. I mean, the one before that. I haven’t kissed the Blarney Stone myself. I’ve heard some people swear it gave them the gift of gab, but I’m not sure if it’s just a legend.” Charles finally thought of a question of his own. “Why do you want to know so much about
Before Rick could answer, a small voice screamed, and the buzz of conversation died.
Jack Pummelham had pinned a younger student to the table. “You think I’m ‘portly’ do you? Well, I’m not stupid! I know what ‘portly’ means. And now I’m going to teach you the meaning of a word: ‘respect.’ Now, since I’m so ‘portly,’ it’d be best for me not to eat so much in one sitting would it? In fact, I’ll share my meal with you!” Crushing the boy’s head to the table with one hand, Jack lifted his bowl and spat full into it. Pressing it against the crying boy’s mouth, he crooned, “What’s a-matter? Not to your liking? Eat up, skinny!”
“Oy! Pummelham! Best be careful. You never know when you’re going to pick on another person who isn’t afraid to fight back!” Rick called as he hopped up on the table.
Jack suddenly grew serious. “I’m not bothering you, Dering.”
“You’re making me lose my appetite going on like that,” shot back Rick cockily.
Jack was the sort of fool who had brains. He knew enough not to challenge Rick again, but he also didn’t want to lose face in front of the entire class. A wicked idea suddenly occurred to him. “What are you going to do about it, then? I’ll just have you whipped again,” he taunted.
“One good turn deserves another,” Rick whispered as he took one single step.
“I know you don’t care, Dering, but what if I have him whipped as well?” he gurgled as he twisted the small boy’s head around by his hair. Rick paused. “And what about your new friend the papist? Is his hide as thick as yours? Don’t mind having that on your conscience? Then take another step, just one single step forward.”
All eyes were on Rick, waiting for his response.
“Seems you have me in check, Pummelham. You’re right, I don’t want anyone whipped on my account, so I can’t step forward. But if I step down, you’re going to keep tormenting that kid. I can’t have that on my conscience either. So I can’t move one way or the other. It’s your decision, Pummelham. Does the pleasure you would derive from having two innocent boys whipped outweigh the discomfort you will immediately experience, right here in front of every boy at the Hall, if you do not leave him be.” There was no doubt Rick was telling the truth.
Deciding that it was best to cut his losses, Jack reluctantly relinquished his victim, and marched away.
Rick returned to his seat triumphantly, but Charles gazed at him in disbelief. “You almost got me whipped, again? That would have been twice in less than two hours since I’ve met you!”
“I didn’t get you whipped, Pummelham did. And it would have been Pummelham who would have gotten you whipped the second time also.”
“Yeah, but it’s you he hates. And every time he wants to get back at you, I’ll be the one who gets the sore end of the deal. Being your friend is too painful for me.”
Rick bowed his head. “I’m sorry,” he said sincerely.
Charles instantly regretted his words. “Oh, I don’t mean I don’t want to be your friend. After all, you probably saved me from much worse when you stuck up for me. And that’s what you were doing for that other lad, too. Guess I’m just going to have to get used to the floggings.”
“Oh, the canings are a fact of life here, whether you’re my friend or not. And you do get used to it, eventually. In retrospect, first time’s always the worst.”
“I’ll take your word for it. Hind sight is always 20-20. So, that settles it, we’re mates.”
Rick clapped Charles on the back so soundly, Charles gasped. The welts stretched across his shoulders and back as well as his bottom. “Glad to hear it, chum. Besides, backing out of a friendship because you’re afraid of Jack is actually giving in to him. The weaker he thinks you are, the more he torments you,” said Rick bitterly. “Looks like your stuck with me!” he added, brightening up.
“Sounds like you speak from experience,” Charles groaned. “Would you mind telling me why there’s such animosity between you two?”
Surprisingly, Rick seemed eager to discuss the subject. “I don’t mind at all. Of course, it’s not that hard to guess. When Pummelham first saw me, he astutely observed that I was short for my age, and concluded that I would be an easy target. He can throw punches much quicker and stronger than I ever can, he can dodge most of my blows, and he can always have me whipped for good measure when he’s done.”
“Then why on earth is he so deathly afraid of you?”
Rick grinned as he continued, “Because every time he fought me, I hurt him a little. Even if I only got in one good punch for every ten of his, that was enough. He can’t stand even a little pain, Charles. He could beat me every time, but he grew more and more hesitant to fight me, because he knew it would be a little painful for him too. I guess fighting is something that anyone can learn with enough practice, and as I grew more bold, he grew more timid. Who knows? Maybe he could still beat me in a fight if he tried, but he doesn’t dare.”
“Incredible.” Charles mulled his words over before speaking. “Are you sure you should be butting heads with him all the time though? Why not turn the other cheek? Didn’t Christ say that? ‘That ye resist not evil?’”
“Yes, he did. Do you think I was wrong to stop Pummelham from abusing that kid, though? Should I have not stood up to him on your account either?”
“Didn’t Jesus also craft a whip out of grasses and drive the thieves and merchants out of his Father’s temple? He was standing up to a lot of evil people by doing that.”
“I think that’s different.”
“You’re right. A slap on the cheek is just an insult. Pummelham will insult you all the time, but you’ve just got to ignore it. When he moves beyond insults, though, and starts beating up kids half his size – I know what that feels like. If he were doing that to me I’d pray for someone to have the courage to stop him. I’m just trying to do for others what I would want them to do for me if I were in their situation, and I don’t think Jesus meant for us not to do that.”
Charles nodded, “Makes sense to me. You should be a priest.”
“My mother’s always saying that. My granddad Patrick was a pastor.”
“‘Patrick?’ That’s an Irish name, if ever I heard one. Are you named for him?”
“Actually, I’m named for my father’s father, Richard. My middle name is Patrick. Hey! Rick is short for both, isn’t it? That’s never occurred to me before! I’m named for both my granddads!” guffawed Rick, comprehension dawning in his face.
“That’s the silliest thing I ever heard!”
“You’re one to talk, ‘Patty.’”
“Hey! Don’t call me Patty! I already told you, I’m an Scotsman through and through,” said Charles, clearly affronted.
“I don’t know, you’re hair’s a ruddy shade of red!”
“It is not red! It’s brown!”
Rick thrust his fingers through his own mane. “No, this is brown. That is red.”
“It’s a little redder than yours, but it’s still brown! Look, I’ve seen what real red hair looks like, and it’s nothing like this! I know someone in
During this discourse, Charles was vehement in his objections, while Rick was more reserved, almost detached from the conversation. Now, his interest was piqued. “Whose hair?”
“She’s one of my father’s servants, the daughter of the Irish woman who is the house-keeper of our family manor.”
“Oh, an Irish girl. With red hair. Long?” Rick asked carefully.
“It flows all the way down her back,” answered Charles dreamily. Rick fought to hold back his smile.
“Not like yours,” Rick asked, innocently.
“No, nothing like mine. It’s lustrous and flowing, and such a shade of red…” Charles’ voice drifted off.
“Yes, she…” Charles seemed to be gazing far into the distance, perhaps across the seas all the way to
“You seem to know an awful lot about this servant girl’s hair, that’s all. Her hair is like a scarlet pimpernel? That’s quite a poetic comparison,” said Rick with a knowing smirk, leaning back in his chair and crossing his arms.
Charles stammered “I--What exactly are you suggesting?”
“I didn’t say anything!” said Rick, raising his hands in mock surrender. “You’re the one who’s clearly smitten by this bonnie wee lass.”
“I am not smitten!” Charles objected, with the same level of energy he had shown when Rick had accused him of having red hair.
“Of course not!” Rick crooned sympathetically.
“No! She’s a servant girl in my father’s employ! Don’t be ridiculous!”
“Yes, yes! How silly of me! You don’t love this girl, and you don’t have red hair!” protested Rick, his voice full of sincerity.
“Thank you,” sighed Charles.
“But you do have a bright red face.”
Dear Master Charles,
Master Fairfield shared your letter to home with me and mum, and we were pleased to hear from you.
I am writing to you with glad tidings: I am a new sister. Mum’s baby was delivered this month, and it’s a beautiful wee boy. His name is Conall Donelly. He has quite a grip for such a tiny fellow. Master Fairfield remarked that little Connal can already boast of a strong handshake with either hand.
I hope that terrible Pummelham boy doesn’t bother you anymore. I’m glad to hear you’ve made a fast friend. I cannot wait to meet Mr. Rick Dering. From what you’ve told me, he reminds me of my dad.
Your close friend and humble servant,
Having found a steady companion in Charles, Rick felt that the school term did not seem to drag on for eons as it had in past years. Time slipped by, England resumed its war with Napoleon Bonaparte and the spring flowers bloomed, a welcome sign to the boys that their prison term at the Hall was fast approaching its end.
Rick started awake when his friend burst through the door of the boys’ sleeping quarters, roaring, “Rick! My father is coming!”
“Wha?” mumbled Rick groggily, still bleary-eyed.
“Are you still asleep, Rick? It’s six o’clock in the morning! Day’s half over already!”
“It’s Saturday. Can’t a bloke sleep in once in a while?” Rick yawned.
“Well, I already had breakfast and picked up the post. Now that this is our last week of classes, my father is coming to bring me home to Fairborough, our manor in
“Swell,” sighed Rick, pulling the thin cloth blanket back over his head.
“Rick, you idiot! He’s coming today! I’ve told him all about you and he’ll be anxious to meet you. Make yourself presentable,” ordered Charles, grimacing at the sight of Rick’s tangled, flying locks of hair. In response, Rick shook his head like a dog. His hair was still everywhere, but at least it wasn’t flat on one side anymore.
“Finished. When did you tell your dad all about me, anyway?”
Not satisfied with Rick’s erratic appearance, Charles explained “Well, I’ve been writing home all year.”
“Bully for you. Any letters to your bonnie wee lass?”
Charles cheeks flushed as he tried to flatten Rick’s mane, “Of course not! I’ve told you again and again, Rick, Kelly is a servant girl. It wouldn’t be appropriate –” Rick knocked Charles’ hand away, and his bangs sprung back up into the skies.
“(Hands off my head.) Come on, you bloke! She’s going to feel like you don’t even know she exists. Do you really want to subject her to that?”
“No,” stammered Charles.
“Of course you don’t! In fact, it would only be gentlemanly to show her proper courtesy, wouldn’t you say? The very next opportunity you have, Charles, I want you to make sure that she knows that you know that she exists.”
Still attempting to straighten out what Rick had said, Charles also tried to straighten out the hair on the back of Rick’s head. In one swift motion, Rick spun around, grabbed the offending arm, and pulled himself out of bed. This threw Charles off balance, and he ended up flopped down on the mattress himself.
“(My hair is fine at it is). Furthermore, Charles Fairfield, I personally think you should go above and beyond the call of behaving like a gentleman towards her, which you ought to do whatever the case may be. However, you’ve as good as admitted to me on a dozen occasions, friend, that the sight of this girl sends your heart a flutter. Well, either act on your inclinations or forget them. ‘Those who today spend their time pondering on what might be will tomorrow speculate on what might have been,’ as my mother often says,” quoted Rick as he marched circles around the bed in military fashion, the very image of a drill sergeant but for his hair. “Therefore, my friend, the very next time you meet Kelly face to face, act decisively.”
“Decide if you’re going to endeavor to win her affection, or (if you simply cannot look past her station in life) forget your feelings. But for God’s sake,
“Rick, she’s accompanying my father here. I’ll see her face to face in under an hour.”
Rick froze mid step, and stared at Charles, completely taken aback. Then he dashed over to the wash basin and submerged his whole head under water. When he straightened up, water dripping from his hair, he shouted, “Well, come on, you idiot! You’ve got to smarten yourself up!”
Dressed in their Sunday clothes, the two schoolboys stepped lightly through the high-ceilinged halls, the light of dawn reflecting in their eyes. “Your hair’s still damp, you know,” said Charles. In answer, Rick shook his head like a dog. “Hey! Don’t get me soaked!”
“Well, don’t worry about me, then. Worry about yourself. Fix your collar.”
“Rick, it’s my father! It’s not like I’m meeting a prospective employer. And my marks were good considering it’s my first year. What could go wrong?”
“It’s not your father I’m concerned about. You’re not going to win any hearts by being fifth in a class of twenty!
“Would I win more hearts if I were, say, sixteenth?”
“So long as I’m ahead of Pummelham and his ilk.”
“Isn’t Pummelham twentieth? Your ambition is inspiring. What I don’t understand is that you’re smarter than I’ll ever be. I never would have survived The Iliad without your help. Maybe if you hadn’t played sick for a week –”
“I told you, I wanted to finish Robinson Crusoe,” Rick said defensively, as he pushed open the tall doors of the entrance way and stood underneath the school’s motto engraved above, “Spare the rod, murder the child!”
The coach bearing Dick Fairfield had arrived. He was a plump little plum of a man, with his golden yellow shirt stretched over his belly, framed by his violet overcoat and trousers. His waving white hair was swept back exactly like his son’s, his cheeks were red, and his ever-squinting eyes were grey. “Top o’ the morning, son!” he boomed, with barely a hint of an Irish accent in his voice. “Kelly! Bring my luggage. You asked to come along, so best hop to it!” he barked, slipping back into his native Scottish/British accent. Kelly Donelly, whom Rick had heard described by Charles so many times, stepped into the sunlight, precariously hugging three over-stuffed suitcases to her chest; she pinned the corner of one between her arm and her left side, the second resting of her left forearm, gripped by her fingertips, and the third was so large she needed her whole right arm to carry it. She looked very awkward, yet at the same time, this display of skill and balance was impressive. “Shake my hand, son! Fifth in a class of twenty! Not bad, sir, not bad! Haw hoo-hoo!” brayed Mr. Fairfield, having completely forgotten about Kelly.
Richard, on the other had, was transfixed by this his first glimpse of
There was an audible “Thump!” as she hopped down to the ground from the interior of the carriage, and she walked lopsided, due to the weight on her right side. “And you must be Mr. Dering! Shake my hand, sir!” bellowed Mr. Fairfield.
Dick Fairfield was the sort of fellow who judged a man’s character by his first handshake.
Unfortunately, Rick was so distracted, the handshake took him by surprise, and he did not make quite as good a first impression as he might have.
Tolerably firm, not extraordinary, concluded Mr. Fairfield.
Rick ended the handshake brusquely, and immediately moved to assist Kelly, leaving Dick Fairfied chatting amiably, and loudly, with his son.
“You’re Kelly Donelly? Charles told me all about you. Please, allow me to assist you,” offered Rick, gesturing to the suitcase tightly pinned by one corner under her left arm.
“Nossir! I have this under control,” she reassured. As if Kelly’s full concentration were the only thing suspending it in air, the suitcase in question slipped a few inches before she tightened her grip, and adeptly secured it under her arm again. “Hold that,” she pleaded, nodding her head to the left.
“Of course!” Eager to please, Rick eased her of the burden. When she set down the second small suitcase, Rick assumed she meant him to take that as well, but when he bent down to grab it, she snatched it back up.
“T’aint heavy. It’s just a matter o’ balance.” She now held the large suitcase in front of her with both hands, so she could rest the smaller articles on top of it. “I’ll be takin’ that back now, young sir,” she said.
“It’s no trouble, I’m – ” Rick started, but Kelly interjected.
“Oy! Do as you please. Makes no difference t’ me, one way or t’other.”
Now that the suitcases were not hiding most of her face, one could see that Kelly was a very pretty girl; not beautiful, but charming in her way. Freckles spotted her nose and cheeks, and her curly red hair tumbled madly down, much like Rick’s had that morning.
“Hoo hoo, haw!” guffawed Dick Fairfield. His laugh was something like the hoot of a wise owl, or maybe the bray of a donkey; it was impossible to tell. “And where are we staying tonight? Never mind, Charles. I shall submit inquiries to your headmaster, this Scuttlery fellow.”
“Wesley Scuttles, father,” corrected Charles.
“That self-same man! Ah, Haw, Hoo! Is that he?”
The Scuttler himself had appeared, framed by the great doorway to the Hall. “My Lord,” greeted the Scuttler, slouching into a bow.
“Oh hoo! None of that! We are all gentlemen here!”
This won a rare smile from the Scuttler, who thanked Mr. Fairfield profusely.
“Shake my hand, man!” interrupted Mr. Fairfield, extending his broad hand.
Taken aback, the Scuttler hesitantly offered his hand, and let his wrist flop around limply as Mr. Fairfield shook it.
“Hmm! Well, show me to my quarters, then!” ordered Dick, using the same tone of voice he had reserved for his servant Kelly moments ago. Charles made a small, indistinguishable noise.
As the two adults discussed the details of Mr. Fairfield’s accommodation, Charles stepped back and took Rick aside as they walked. “Rick, I meant to tell you – well, I guess it’s too late now – but, have you ever heard the expression, ‘You only get one chance to make a first impression?’”
“Well, that’s especially true of my father. And the only way to make a good first impression with my father is a good handshake. He thinks it tells him all he ever needs to know about a person.”
“You’re pulling my leg?”
“Not at all. Furthermore, it can be hard to change his opinion of you, once he’s formed his first impression.”
“How’d I do?”
“Not great, but well enough. I’ve seen him do this a thousand times. Of course, a child may change over time, which he takes into account, but for adults, his judgments are final and irrefutable. You saw how the Scuttler shook his hand?” Rick quickly observed the Scuttler jovially droning on about the history of the Hall, while Dick Fairfield looked on ahead stiffly, clearly bored. “Lord, I hope father will let me come back next year,” muttered Charles. “That was not impressive.”
“You’re telling me a handshake could affect where you’re educated?”
“When he’s hiring Irishmen to work his fields, the handshake is the deciding factor.”
The mention of Irishmen reminded Rick of a particular Irish girl Charles seemed to be ignoring. “Charles, stop worrying and say hello to Kelly!” whispered Rick.
“Oh, hello Kelly,” greeted Charles.
Charles seemed to think that was sufficient, but Rick goaded him on silently.
“Erm,” Charles’ mind raced for the right words. “May I help carry the luggage?” Kelly’s green eyes flicked ahead towards the back of Dick Fairfield.
“Master Dering already offered, didn’ he? I’m fine, but thank’ee, sir,” she answered stiffly.
“Mr. Fairfield, or shall I call you Dick, eh?” chortled the Scuttler with sickening familiarity.
“Hmm,” mumbled the landlord from
“Erm, what shall we do with the girl?”
Dick snapped back to attention. “What do you mean? Didn’t you prepare a room for her arrival?” he barked.
“Well, you did not – I mean, I did not know of her presence until I saw her just now!” explained the Scuttler, shocked back into timidity by this rebuke.
“Understandable. So tell me, Scumler, where shall the girl stay?”
“Well, she might take a bunk in the boys’ sleeping quarters, just for –”
“Absolute nonsense! I know what brutes those prefects can be! I wouldn’t entrust another person’s child with them for a minute, especially a little girl!”
“Of course not! We might get some blankets and put two tables together in the cellar.”
“Ah! I see! Kelly will take the private room you prepared for me, and I shall sleep in the cellar!”
“No! Lord! What I meant was –”
“I know what you meant, Scrubler. Surely you must understand that a proper gentleman would not snooze in a warm bed while his valued servant shivers in a cellar,” Dick remonstrated, while affixing a steady gaze on the Scuttler. Now that the Irish lord had ceased squinting, the Scuttler saw that one of his eyes was glass. It was terribly unnerving, with one eye staring him straight in the face while the other seemed to point down straight through his trembling heart. “Now, what are we going to do?” continued Mr. Fairfield. “Kelly will have the quarters you had prepared for me, and I? What accommodations can you arrange for my sake?”
“I could,” began the Scuttler. The Lord nodded for him to continue. “Give you my bed.” The Irish Lord nodded and made an affirmative grunt to show his approval. “And I shall sleep in the cellar,” finished the Scuttler, looking quite pleased with himself for working out this solution.
“Do as you wish!” laughed Mr. Fairfield, returning to his cheery voice and manner, his eyes squinting again.
Scuttles looked only partially relieved. Rick believed he understood why the Scuttler was more nervous than usual. Clearly, Mr. Fairfield was a rich man in
“What do you want, Uncle?” demanded Jack.
“I would like you, please, to show this man to my private room, where he will be spending the night,” implored the Scuttler.
“And why would I do that, then?” crooned young Pummelham.
The Scuttler whimpered, “Jack, Mr. Fairfield is a gentleman, a man of breeding. People like that are some of your father’s closest and most important friends, Pummelham.”
“Jack Pummelham? Ole Paul Pummelham’s son? I knew your father, boy! Shake my hand!”
Jack seized the hand in his and did his best to crush the elder man’s fingers.
As his smile vanished, Mr. Fairfield opened his squinting eyes wide, shocking the impudent boy with a glare from his one good eye.
Charles jabbed Rick in the ribs. “Watch this,” Charles whispered excitedly.
“Well, you’re a hardy lad,” Mr. Fairfield growled. Then, wearing his wan smile again, he added cheerfully, “Here, Kelly, hand those over. A strong young man like you, Mr. Pummelham, should have no trouble with these,” as he retrieved his luggage from Kelly and thrust the suitcases into Pummelham’s fleshy grasp.
“Hey! I never agreed to—” spat Pummelham, but Mr. Fairfield clicked his tongue forcefully.
“Tsk! Tsk! Tsk! I’d say it’s your duty as a gentleman!” stipulated Mr. Fairfield as he turned the rotund boy around and clapped him soundly on the back. “Lead on, Master Pummelham! Lead on!”
And Pummelham lead them to a comfortable, fully-furbished bedroom.
“These are the quarters we prepared for you, Mister Fairfield,” said the Scuttler. “Though, now it seems you want them for your – servant girl?”
“If they are to her liking,” chimed Mr. Fairfield, “What do you say, Kell?”
“Oh, it suits me fine, sir,” said Kelly, respectfully.
Gasping, Pummelham had dropped the heavy luggage the moment he entered the room. Noticing this, Mr. Fairfield immediately added, “Smashing. Then, Squire Warbley, let us proceed to my new quarters directly. Master Pummelham, I’ll need the luggage of course.”
“Can’t – Can’t you get your servant-girl to carry it for you?” said Pummelham through gritted teeth.
He was silenced by Dick Fairfield’s crooked gaze. “Is it so heavy, that Paul Pummelham’s boy can’t manage without a little girl’s assistance. Come boy! I know there’s strength enough in your hands for the task!” His pride stung, Jack Pummelham gruffly lifted the load and proceeded out the door after his Uncle. Mr. Fairfield followed, then popped his head back through the door to address his son, “Charles! You two don’t have to follow us all the way back, if you don’t have a mind to. As it’s almost seven, what say we just meet in the mess hall for breakfast?” Charles agreed. “Capital, see you all then,” beamed Mr. Fairfield, and then his head popped out of sight behind the door again.
Now it was only Rick, Charles, and Kelly left in the room.
Closing her eyes, Kelly sighed. Then her serious expression vanished, replaced by a toothy grin. “How are you, Charles?” she asked warmly, pulling him into an embrace.
“It’s good to see you, Kelly!”
“Rick Dering, thank you for protecting my friend from that Pummelham brute all this year.”
“You know about that?” said Rick modestly.
“Charles only talks about you all the time in his letters to home, don’t he? By the way, I’m sorry I was so aloof earlier. You see, Master Fairfield doesn’t like it when I act too familiar towards English fellows,” Kelly explained cautiously.
“Think nothing of it, Kelly,” answered Rick, somewhat distracted by her vibrant green eyes.
“Well, to quote Master Fairfield, ‘Shake my hand, sir!’”
Rick grasped her hand in his. She did not try to impress him by overpowering his grip, neither did she meekly offer her hand and allow it to be wagged lifelessly. It was purely a handshake offered in friendship: simple, straightforward, and sincere.
Perhaps one might call Mr. Fairfield’s practice of judging a person only by a handshake eccentric or ridiculous. Perhaps he was set in his ways and unbending in his opinions. But, perhaps, there was just a shred of wisdom in his judgment after all.
* * *
Early Tuesday morning saw the Fairfields and Kelly making the final preparations for their journey home. Classes were over, and a glorious summer holiday, two whole months away from the Hall and the Scuttler, was ahead for the boys.
Minutes before Charles’ departure, Rick pulled him aside.
“Charles, listen to my advice: I want you to write a few letters.”
“Write you from
“No, you chuckle-head! I mean I want you to write letters to Kelly, tell her how life is treating you.”
“Well, Rick, isn’t that a bit pointless? I’m going home for the holiday. I’ll see her every day at Fairborrough –”
“Fine. When you get back here next term, you are going to write to Kelly. Not just letters to home! I mean letters specifically addressed to Kelly!
“Rick, isn’t that far too forward?”
“Of course not! Write her every day if you want to!”
“Charles, you only get two months out of the year with your family in
“Of course.” Charles seemed to be holding an internal dialogue. “You’re absolutely right, Rick, I should write to her. Kelly’s been my best friend for years. And you’ve been just as good a friend to me this year.”
“Then it’s settled. Til next term, mate!”
“Yes.” Charles bit his lip before adding, “Rick, do you –”
“Do I what?”
“Do you – want to get revenge on Pummelham?” Charles said hastily.
“Always! You don’t mean right now, though? Your dad’s practically about to drag you our the door!”
“Next term. We can talk more about it when we write.”
“I look forward to it.”
Despite their starkly contrasting personalities, the two schoolboys shared this in common: neither liked prolonged farewells.
When Rick was out of earshot, Charles whispered to himself, “Kelly and I, ever the best of friends. And now you too, Rick. But, I wonder. . .”
Man Bites Dog
“This is deplorable,” scowled Mr. Gregory Dering.
“Have you any sense of pounds, schillings and pence, boy? Do the words carry any weight with you to the slightest degree?”
Rick was silent in the overpowering presence of his father.
“Because when I look at your marks, all I can see is pounds, schillings and pence. Why is that? Is it because they indicate that my son is on the path to a lucrative career? No. I see the countless pounds, schillings and pence wasted. Your mother asked me to send you to Pummelham’s Hall, you know. It is a reputable school, but perhaps if you did not have so many holidays, you would have time to apply yourself, Richard. There is another school I wanted to send you to, Richard. They have no summer holidays there, quite an innovation, in my opinion. Furthermore, the tuition is far more affordable. Unfortunately, it is a good deal away, in
“So, for now, you attend Pummelham’s. To an extent, I suppose I can lay the blame on that institution for my wasted pounds, schillings, and pence. However, no matter what consideration is given, you yourself, Richard, bear the lion’s share of the blame for my wasted pounds, schillings, and pence. When a man owes me a dept, I demand restitution of him, if I must seize his furniture, his paintings, the very dresses from his wife and daughter’s closets, I shall have recompense. And I will have some restitution from you Richard, for my lost pounds, schillings and pence.”
And Mr. Dering took it from Rick, pound for pound, with his cane.
* * *
A few peculiar moments from our early youth remain engraved on our minds for years for no apparent reason. One can perhaps recall an event in vivid detail, though why that particular moment should be so clearly engrained in the memory is a mystery.
When Rick was about four years old, years before he had met and befriended John, he had been walking alongside his father and watched Mr. Dering tip his cap to the Squire, Henry Lear. What had made a particular impression on Rick was the stark contrast between the politeness of the gesture and the grudging, debased expression in Mr. Gregory Dering’s face and manner when he gave it.
Ironically, Rick could vividly recall this brief interaction with Squire Edward Lear, but not once had Rick been introduced to the Squire since meeting John.
During the first few weeks of that glorious summer holiday, Rick visited John Lear practically every day. Rick told John so much about Charles, John remarked that he felt as if he knew Charles already.
For the Squire, it seemed, long absences were common place. It was not until late in July that the honorable Squire returned home.
The Squire was completely bald, but his pride and glory was his military moustache. Except for a few flecks of white, it was black as India ink, and he had styled it after the moustaches of the upper-caste Hindus he had met during his service in
Though this was his most distinguishing feature, his pugnacious face was equally imposing; the Squire was noticeably squat, certainly not as obese as Jack Pummelham, but hefty.
After being introduced to Charles’ eccentric, charming father, Rick was curious to see what sort of person Squire Lear might be.
With respect to eccentricity, the Squire was the equal of Mr. Fairfield, though that was the only comparison that could be drawn between the two.
It had been the Squire’s custom, these many years, to study The London Times thoroughly every morning (the paper was simply known only as The Times in those days). Of course, this “morning ritual” is not at all uncommon, except that, in Squire Lear’s remarkable case, the “morning ritual” was the only thing the he did all morning, whether he was home or abroad. Hours were spent examining every word of The Times, and when he finished he might turn to The Observer, the Morning Chronicle, or the Manchester Guardian. Eventually, though, he would return to his favorite, The Times, and even return to some of its older issues.
“There is nothing so useless as yesterday’s newspaper.”
Never, under any circumstances, would one utter this obscene cliché in the presence of Squire Lear.
Stacked next to his favorite arm chair was an orderly pile of older editions of the Times. If anything, the Squire regarded these with even greater respect than the current issue, not less. Like fine wine, the newspapers had only improved with age, for as the Squire was fond of stating, “The news of the day shall soon pass into history, so in a way reading the newspaper is like peering into the future. What the next generation shall record in its history books, we can read in advance!”
Furthermore, it is doubtful that he ever spoke this many sentences in a row to his wife. The marriage between Squire Lear and Mrs. Lear had been arranged by both their parents. Mrs. Lear was a simple creature, timid, kindly, but utterly incapable of understanding anything outside the cloistered borders of her little life.
That isn’t to say she hadn’t been offered exemplary educational opportunities as a child. But anything that is offered must be received, or it is useless. She had gleaned little from her expensive instruction, understood little, and was interested by little.
This shortcoming frustrated Squire Lear, who, having gotten the duty of producing a male heir out the way, felt that he had fully fulfilled his marital vows and, therefore, further conversation with his wife was purely superfluous. If seems cold-hearted on the part of Squire Lear, it should be noted that any conversation with Mrs. Lear was superfluous, and that, on occasion, he did try to start a conversation with her. These blunt attempts on Squire Lear’s part occurred during the “morning ritual,” and rarely met with success.
As Rick watched the Squire read the paper, he was oddly mesmerized.
“Those thrice-damned Irish papists are on the rampage again!” snarled Squire Lear, not looking up from The Times.
“Are they now?” inquired Mrs. Lear, not looking up from her knitting.
Mrs. Lear, who thought he was asking her a direct question, panicked. Surely he would expect a response? What could she say to such an inquiry? If only he would ask her as to the state of her knitting, or for a detailed account of the cats who trespassed in her garden, then she could converse with him for hours. “Perhaps, you read it in the newspaper,” she suggested. Without question, this was the single most brilliant deduction she had made in her small, quiet life.
“Indeed!” The Squire glanced at the stack of newspapers at his side. “Not The Times,” he recalled as he lightly caressed the more recent issues, “one of the older ones.” Lear was referring to the mountain of newspapers stacked behind his favorite chair, which may have represented a decade of history. Calculating in his tremendous bald head, he reached around behind him and felt for the right issue. Aided only the sense of touch, he retrieved the exact issue he sought without looking. “Here it is! Ah, Arthur Wolfe, that was the Lord Kilwarden’s name. He was the one who did such an excellent job prosecuting that Willim Orr character, the United Irishman.”
“Arthur Wolfe? He wasn’t related to Theobald Wolfe Tone, was he?” asked Rick.
Only then did the Squire seem to recognize that someone else was in the room, apart from his wife and son. He was slightly annoyed by being interrupted by a strange child, yet at the same time, impressed by this boy’s interest in current events.
“Who are you?” the Squire said to Rick, but he looked first to his wife then his son for the answer.
“I’m Rick Dering,” he answered for them.
“Richard?” The Squire asked.
“Friend of John’s?”
“Dering. Now where have I heard that name before?” the Squire mused, though this time, the papers would not provide the answer. He furrowed his brow slightly, and then still further, until his whole bald fate was wrinkled in concentration. “Gregory Dering. One of the law clerks. For Mr. Jaggers. Your father, correct?” Rick nodded again. “Good firm. Your father’s a good worker,” Lear added bluntly, failing to conceal his smile, which was clearly visible despite the stupendous moustache, when he spoke the word “worker.” The idea of someone having to work for a living always elicited a smile from Squire Lear, who never needed to toil for his earnings. “So, you know who Theobald Wolfe Tone is, do you boy?”
“I’ve heard his name, and I’ve been taught that he lead the Irish war for independence, but I’ve always wanted to know more about the man. Was he a relative of this Arthur Wolfe?”
“Now, that is a topic of immense speculation,” said Lear as he again reached behind his chair. “Arthur Wolfe was a cousin of one landlord named Theobald Wolfe, Wolfe Tone’s godfather (and very likely his natural father as well, though Tone was raised by a local coach-maker).”[ii] Almost absent-mindedly, he had found the exact issue he was looking for. “If Lord Kilwarden was related to Theobald Wolfe Tone, that certainly would explain – ” as he opened the paper, the squire’s voice suddenly became belligerent “ – why that weak-kneed lawyer defended that bloody, murderous, pernicious, revolutionary!” he roared.
“Did he now?” asked Mrs. Lear. “There were two cats in the garden this morning. An orange one and the brown one with the white belly and tan markings, and I chased them off.”
“What did Theobald Wolfe Tone do wrong?” asked Rick.
“Do wrong? Why, nothing much. He was only the leading figure in the Irish revolution against the Empire! He only allied himself with the butchering peasants of the French Revolution! It made no sense! The Protestant blood on the streets had not yet dried, and Lord Kilwaren was more worried about Habeus Corpus for the man responsible. Humph! In the end it made no difference I suppose. Wolfe Tone slit his own throat while cowering in his cell, rather than face the noose. Coward!” With an audible “Humph!” which set his moustache a flutter, Squire Lear settled back comfortably.
Rick wanted to say that he had been told all that already, that he wanted to know what specifically Wolfe Tone had done to deserve death, but Rick didn’t risk testing Squire Lear’s temper.
“Squire,” John finally chimed in, “what you said reminded me: do you think we could set up a historical battle?”
“Hmm? I suppose. You’ll have to choose the battle you want to do beforehand, and make sure you have all the soldiers you need, so as not to waste my time.”
“I already have three battles we could do, and the soldiers. All that’s waiting is to set them up.”
“Very good. Remind me again later.” Snatching the current edition of The Times back up, Squire Lear spoke to his wife as if the two had been chatting amiably for the past few minutes without interruption, “Well, Lord Kilwarden’s pro-Irish sentiments didn’t save him from the Irish revolutionaries in the end. That is irony.”
Mrs. Lear, who had no understanding of the concept of irony, took her husband’s word for it that it was.
“And here again,” Lear continued, “no sooner does
“The least those Irish could do is actually fight a decent revolution! I could respect that (figuratively speaking, of course). If they actually had any chance of succeeding, of winning the freedoms for which they opine ceaselessly, it would be logical for them to resist our authority, (unjustifiable, still, but logical). However, they persist with the struggle when it is painfully obvious that no good will come of it. This so-called rebellion in
* * *
The morning ritual dragged on uneventfully, John and Rick grew bored, and left to find something to entertain themselves. John took Rick to the highest point of the manor, a terrace where they could see miles of green countryside.
Rick started when John Lear casually straddled the guardrail and sat leaning back, dangerously close to falling into nothingness.
“You know, I’m surprised you got my father to have a decent conversation with you during his morning ritual. You and he seem to share a common interest. The Squire and I usually just talk about the military.”
“That’s why you and he like to set up those massive miniature battle scenes?” asked Rick tentatively.
“Yes, though, we haven’t done one for quite a while. The Squire is abroad most of the time,”
“You’re lucky. My dad seems to be omnipresent, he thinks he’s omniscient, and as far as my life’s concerned, he is omnipotent.”
John made a noise to himself, which may or may not have been an agreement, then twisted around where he sat to stare out into the distance. The wind was blowing forcefully, sending John’s mane of black hair fluttering.
Rick hesitated, then nimbly climbed up and sat beside him, gripping the rail to keep himself from slipping to his death.
“Rick, have you ever seen the white cliffs of
Rick shook his head, hoping that his white knuckles were not noticeable. “I did once,” continued John Lear, “Years ago, with my father. I’d like to see them again before I join the service. I love
Rick thought a moment, and though he did not answer, in his mind’s eye he saw himself and his mother, living alone together, on the Emerald Isle.
Provoke Not Your Children to Wrath
“Have you grown at all, Rick?” asked Mrs. Dering.
Rick had been lost in his own little world for a moment, but snapped back to attention. He himself hadn’t told his mother about his altercation with Mr. Dering, but he was still fuming about it silently.
With a motion of her hand, Mrs. Dering gestured Rick to stand against the tall bed post as she sat up. “This is the best way to tell. Lord, I hope you gain a foot or two, at least! Even standing up, you’re still shorter than I am!” She hummed to herself as she instructed her son to stand straight against the bed post, which was the perfect instrument for such a measurement. It was a simple design, but the carpenter had added a slight ornate flourish to the post: the wood undulated in repeating waves, each about an inch from crest to crest. Mrs. Dering counted the waves silently and quickly, then, arriving at the final figure, announced, “A gain of two inches! Well, that’s some progress at least.” Something in his mother’s voice told Rick that there was more on her mind than trivialities like his height. Sure enough, she sighed, and added, “I understand you and father are having difficulties.”
Perceptive as always, thought Rick. “It’s nothing to worry about,” he assured her.
“No, Rick, I think this does concern me, whether or not your father agrees. He caned you, correct?” Upon receiving an affirmative answer, Mrs. Dering’s expression grew grim. “How hard?”
“Didn’t count,” Rick answered honestly, “Over a dozen strokes.”
“I wish he had consulted me,” she muttered to herself, quite perturbed.
“He didn’t even give me a chance to defend myself,” Rick continued indignantly. He was used to beatings from the prefects, but his father’s biting lectures, his refusal to hear anything his son had to say, violated Rick’s sense of fairness. “He’s never interested in what I have to say. He only gives orders and threats and –”
“That’s enough, dear. You have not been performing your best and you know it. Your father and I expect you to be diligent in your studies. Do you want to enter the church?”
“Well, undisciplined men should never become preachers. I’d prefer they become lawyers, or doctors for all the good they do me! What good is a shepherd if he’s more foolish than the sheep?”
Understanding that this last remark was directed at him, Rick’s pride was stung.
“I’m not a fool! Don’t call me that! I’m as bright as any boy in my class.”
“In that case, even worse! Rick, look into my eyes. God gives all of us, every one, certain gifts, though some are more gifted than others. It would be better for you to have no brains, no potential at all, than to shirk from using God’s gifts to you to their full potential. Where’s that father of yours? When is he due back?”
“Any minute,” Rick answered, chastened.
Mrs. Dering sat up straight, folding her hands in front of her with an air of authority.
“Dear, bring me my Bible,” she said, pointing to where he had set it down by the window. Rick retrieved the book and placed it in his mother’s grasp. She opened it almost forcefully, then regaining her composure thumbed through the pages respectfully. However, even the act of sitting erect seemed to tax her strength. She turned the pages more slowly. Rick watched the trembling hand, heard her heavy breathing, and understood that she could not even turn the pages now. “Son, help me find Ephesians 6:4,” she instructed calmly, as if nothing was the matter. Rick leaned over and located the page for the trembling little woman.
Straightening up, Rick realized that his mother had been wrong about his height. He was a bit taller than her now, when she was seated and he was standing up. Of course, she would have been taller if she was standing, but Rick had never in his life seen her do so. It struck Rick, now, how minute his mother was, not just in height, but in every respect. A slight frame, perennially draped in a nightgown, with delicate wrists and thin arms, even her voice sounded like a tiny creature’s, except when she laughed; only then did her rich voice fill the room.
There, the clatter of the coach, Rick knew without looking, bearing his father, still trailing the fog of
“Let me speak with your father privately, dear,” ordered Mrs. Dering.
Rick went directly to his room, not wanting to meet his father on the stair case. Minutes slipped by, and he caught the sound of raised voices.
“Do not quote your book at me!” roared his father.
“You would do well to listen to it, sir, and remember it!” she answered in her loudest voice, which Rick was barely able to catch. Her voice returned to normal again, and though he was unable to discern her words, he knew she was reciting Scripture.
“Enough! I wish to enjoy your company, and you think and speak only of that boy!”
Her answer reverberated through the empty hallways, “Our son!” Then she began to read her passage out loud again in her normal voice. Rick crept to his door and opened it cautiously, straining to catch his mother’s words.
“No! I will hear no more from that book. I do not share your views. If your religion offers you some comfort, then I have nothing to say for it or against it, but I need no crutch!”
“You call this a crutch?” she remonstrated. “Surely you speak the truth, for that is exactly what it is, a crutch! And all men are cripples, too prideful to admit they need it! To stand up and walk!”
Mr. Dering burst from his wife’s chamber and stormed to the stair case, coming right towards where Rick was peeping through his door! Rick leapt back out of sight, but too late. His eyes and his father’s had met for an instant.
The footsteps approached slowly, and with a gentle motion, Mr. Dering eased the door open. “Despite her condition, you’re mother is as spirited and energetic as ever. Those qualities are what attracted her to my attention, once, when we were young.” He seemed to be thinking out loud, not really addressing Rick. Mr. Dering needed to put his thoughts into words, and as no one else was around to listen, he had turned to his son. “She is as determined and incorrigible as ever,” he growled.
“And I love her for it,” he added meekly.
Suddenly, he addressed his son directly, as if Mr. Dering had only just become aware of his presence. “Thank you, Richard, for ruining my evening.”
Mr. Dering closed the door behind him, leaving his son shaken and thoroughly confused.
The Epitaph of Robert Emmet
“They finally caught that bastard, Robert Emmet!” Squire Lear startled everybody when he made this frank declaration.
“Did they, now?” Mrs. Lear answered.
“He’ll be hanged of course. Oh, I do hope he is spared being drawn and quartered,” said Lear, feigning distress at the thought.
Mrs. Lear, ever deaf to both the utterance and the notion of sarcasm, answered, “I agree, dear. It’s a dreadful punishment!”
“How dare you foolish woman!” boomed Squire Lear, his bald head reddening. When there was nothing but bad news to be reported, it always put Squire Lear in a foul mood. It spoiled what was always his favorite part of the day.
Startled by this outburst, Mrs. Lear hid her face behind her knitting. Misunderstanding her husband’s statement, she had forgotten to give a non-committal answer. This always seemed to happen when they discussed politics. Oh, why couldn’t he ask about how many cats had defecated in the garden today, and whether she was greatly distressed?
It was the 28th of August, and term started for Rick in three days. He and John had seen each other practically every day that summer. They had assembled a few more battle scenes, mostly involving Napoleon, and though Rick was not nearly as astute as John about military matters, he enjoyed arranging the figures. It was like chess, with more room for artistic expression. Also, John had introduced Rick to Shakespeare that summer, and the Bard quickly became one of Rick’s favorite authors, alongside Cervantes, Defoe, and Jonathan Swift.
“He didn’t get that far,” continued Squire Lear. “No man can escape justice from the
“How did they find him?” asked Rick. He had heard so much about Robert Emmet over the past few weeks that he was curious to see how the story of Emmet’s infamously ineffective revolution had come to a close.
“Apparently he had a safe hiding place in – Rath –” Mr. Lear held the paper away and squinted, having trouble making out the name of Emmet’s hiding place. “Rathfarnham, where is that? Oh, it’s a town in southern
Having finished his rant, Squire Lear turned the page with a grunt.
“Father,” said John tremulously. The tone of John’s voice struck Rick as unusual. John often spoke in a bold, cheerful, roaring manner, as if he was ready to conquer the world single-handed; there was always laughter in his voice and a slight edge of sarcasm in his speech, as if he found the whole world tremendously entertaining. Right now, Rick observed, John sounded quite timid in the presence of his father. John coughed, and lowered his voice an octave. “Sorry, my voice must still be cracking. Squire, what do you say we put together a historical battle today. I have several we could do:
“Hmm, yes,” grunted Squire Lear. “Though aren’t you getting a little old for playing with toy soldiers, John? Soon enough, we’ll have to start considering your enlistment in the army. You’ll be a real soldier yourself, then.”
John looked crestfallen. “You’re right father, I suppose I am getting a bit old for those toys.” With an effort, he regained his usual voice, full of laughter. “Can’t wait to give Napoleon hell!” he joked.
With a chuckle, Squire Lear nodded, then returned to the newspaper by adding, “I see little Mr. Bonaparte’s still making a right jack-ass of himself. French shite, that’s what he is. Shite stuffed in a silk stocking.”
“Three cats defecated in the garden today. I was greatly distressed,” stated Mrs. Lear, clearly believing that this comment followed naturally from Squire Lear’s.
After another burst of swearing by the Squire, Rick and John crept out of the room unnoticed.
* * *
In the library, John Lear was noticeably quiet. Rick’s eyes flicked to the ornate, mahogany door, where all of the battle scenes were stored away.
“Would you like to set up one of them with me, John? I’d like to learn more about William Wallace, actually.”
“We could,” sighed Lear. “Though, you know what would be more exciting? Some time, we should go on a fox hunt.”
“You’re inviting me to the hunt? I’ve never even held a gun before. Besides, we’re only thirteen, John.”
“I think I’m old enough for the hunt,” snapped Lear. “Though, you’re right, perhaps we should do it another time. Next summer, I’ll show you how to handle a rifle.”
Lear paused, then added, “I’ll be able to hunt the fox with father next year. He loves the hunt.” He spoke as if he had to reassure himself.
John clapped his hands together and rubbed them. “Well, let’s put together the Battle of Falkirk, then. It is a bit dull though, don’t you think?”
“Well, I think it’s fascinating,” said Rick hesitantly. Truth be admitted, Rick was not as interested as Lear in the military, and studying historical battles in detail was not something Rick would ever have thought to do for fun before he met John Lear. But Rick loved to learn, and he enjoyed sharing this hobby with John because John was his friend, and the military was John’s passion. When John talked about the military, about complex strategies and important victories, he somehow made it interesting for Rick.
“If you’re sure, we might as well. Better than sitting around doing nothing, at any rate,” said Lear, without emotion. “Have you ever considered the military, Rick? Britannia needs sharp soldiers to face down that blighter Napoleon. You have the makings of an officer, in my opinion.”
At the idea of being dressed in the uniform of a British officer, Rick laughed. “Me, an officer? Do you think they could find a uniform small enough for me? I think the sight of Rick Dering in a baggy uniform with over-long sleeves and the hat down over his eyes would just instill the French with courage!”
John Lear laughed thunderously. “Well, if Napoleon has proven anything, it’s that even midgets like you can make smashing soldiers.”