Public School Magazine, March 1901
cannot be said to ask too much who seeks for exact information as to how a
young man ought in justice to himself and society to deal with his relations.
During his minority he has been entirely at their mercy: he has been their
butt, their martyr, their drudge, their corpus vile. Possessing all the
sinews of war, this stiff-necked tribe has consistently refused to “part,” even
for the provision of those luxuries which are so much more necessary than
THE part played by relations in school life is small but sufficient.
To the right-thinking youth who realizes that this is a hard world, in which a shilling down is more to be striven after than many thousand words of praise and endearment, the famous saying of Walpole to the effect that “all these men have their prices” is an ever-present beacon-light in his dealings with his relations. There is a story told, when the lights burn low and the dying embers cast eerie, fitful shadows upon the walls, about the hideous fate of one who forgot this precept. His was a trusting nature, and, hearing that his Uncle John from Australia was coming to see him on the morrow, he had speculated largely on the strength of the tip (which he considered a foregone conclusion), in gingerbeer and a peculiarly seductive species of raspberry ice at the school shop, with the result that when the relative came five shillings stood against his name on the “tick” list. This, however, did not dismay him, for his Uncle John was universally admitted to have struck it rich in sheep or gold or some such thing, and might be depended on for a half-sovereign. But it was not to be. The pair met, and so carried away was the nephew by the engaging personality and stirring tales of his uncle that for three solid hours he forgot to drop a single hint. Worse still, he let him out of his sight on his putting forward the ridiculous plea of wishing to see the Head Master. He saw the Head Master, and spent so long over the interview that, in order to catch his train, he had to go away in a cab without saying goodbye to his nephew, who was waiting patiently at the trysting-place, and wondering if it might not even be a five-pound note. The uncle caught his train, but what of the nephew? He was obliged to resort to desperate economy for the rest of the term so as to pay off the five shillings. His opinion of his Uncle John is a mystery too sacred to be pryed into.
It is the risk that we are forced to run daily from accidents such as this that steels our hearts against the most persuasive side-issues introduced into a conversation with an uncle. “Oh, take the cash and let the credit go,” observes Omar Khayyam neatly on the subject.
Fathers may be said to stand in the same relation to their sons as consols do to the investor. The income derived from them is safe, even if in many cases regretably small. Uncles, on the other hand, are exactly similar to those risky speculations which in a novel ruin the heavy father in the first chapter, but make the hero’s fortune in the last. It is not safe to plunge in uncles. They are not to be relied upon, however well advertised by reputed millions gleaned from the harvests of the golden East. Your Indian uncle, who has just come home minus a liver but plus more lacs of rupees than he can count, may utterly belie the flattering ideas you have formed about him, while your uncle by marriage, Ebenezer, popularly supposed to be the one blot on your family escutcheon, may turn out to be an angel unawares with a sovereign to bestow. You never can tell. Aunts are a complete drug on the market, and will even occasionally demean themselves by giving you a sixpenny bit, which but for the sake of politeness added to the fact that you particularly want sixpence at the moment, you would hurl contemptuously at their feet.
Uncles will occasionally do this sort of thing, but not often. They are creatures of extremes, and either pay their footing handsomely or not at all. It is this that makes an interview with an uncle so particularly interesting. Your foot may be on the threshold of wealth unheard of. Again it may not. A schoolfellow of my own once received a visit from an uncle. He gave up a cricket match in order to entertain him, showed him over the school buildings, the baths, the gymnasium, and put up with all manner of insulting advice and reproof at his hands. Every now and then he would strive to sow the good seed.
A boy passed.
“That’s a great friend of mine, uncle.”
“Eh? Ah! Oh!”
“Yes,” thoughtfully, “I owe him half-a-crown.”
This, of course, led to an avuncular lecture on the wickedness of borrowing.
“You must pay him back as soon as possible,” concluded uncle.
“Haven’t got any money,” gloomily, and yet hopefully.
“Ah! then you must save up till you get enough. Why, when I was a boy——”
At the station no opportunity occurred. Conversation languished.
“How is auntie?” asked the sorely-tried youth, in desperation. They discussed Auntie till the train was moving out of the station. Then the uncle felt in his pocket, and drew out a coin. My friend’s eyes glistened, and he thought that his afternoon had not been wasted after all. “I know you schoolboys always expect a tip,” said the uncle; “give threepence to the porter, and keep the rest yourself.” The train vanished, and with it the donor. The recipient looked at the coin, and it was a sixpence. He might have gazed for ever but for a significant cough at his elbow. He turned to see the porter scrutinising the roof of the station, but evidently keenly alive to the promised three-pence. My friend had not the heart to split such a trifle. He gave him the coin and went, the iron neatly inserted in his soul.
Concerning fathers. The age is gone of the father whose first remark on seeing his son at school was: “Bleshoo, my child, and what was the date of the Rye House Plot? Hey?” This odious practice is almost, if not quite, obsolete as the result partly of the icy silence in which the greeting was received by generation after generation of young England, and still more of the change which has taken place in education since those days. The modern father has very sensibly realised that it is athletics not work that makes us Englishmen what we are, so that he no longer thirsts for information as to Rye House plots, but babbles of warm scrums and stirring ventures on the cricket-field. This is as it should be.
Concerning brothers. The most strongly-marked characteristic of brothers at school is their weakness for internecine strife. It is an interesting pathological phenomenon, the reason for which has long proven an insoluble mystery to scientists. Many trace its origin back to the days of Cain and Abel, and seek to prove it the outcome of heredity, a perpetual re-enaction in a somewhat milder form of that historic drama. Others, myself included, find a simpler theory, based on the two proverbs that familiarity breeds contempt, and that no prophet has honour in his own country. The private life of everyone is spotted with crimes of which the world knows nothing, but which cannot be concealed from one who, like a brother, is always at hand to find out, and when found to make a note of. This engenders a mutual suspicion, which in its turn leads to strife. Again, in the case of two people who are not brothers, the opportunities for friction are limited to school hours, whereas brothers can, and sometimes do, fight steadily all round the clock. In elder brothers, too, there is generally found an attitude of extreme watchfulness towards the actions of their juniors. There is probably nothing more unpleasant than reflected disgrace. One gets all the effects of crime without any of that Exegi monumentum feeling which is the truest of all joys, and which comes only to him who has successfully carried through in the teeth of law and order some effort worthy of a Macchiavelli or a Deadwood Dick. The cheeking of a Prefect or the bearding of a French master bring with them a satisfaction, temporary it is true, but sufficient in some degree to console the chief actor for such slings and arrows as fortune may be outrageous enough inflict him with as a result. But to the elder brother there is no such balm in Gilead. He not only obtains a generous share of undesirable publicity, but in some cases receives private reprimands for allowing his brother to get into mischief. This, it may be observed is passing, is distinctly hard on him, for a junior who has once fixed his mind on some dark deed is no more to be stopped than the car of Juggernaut (See Encyclopædia Brit.).
Fraternal relations become, therefore, more strained than ever. The elder brother, feeling that his reputation hangs on his brother’s conduct, broods over his actions like a policeman. The younger of the two feels himself hampered by this scrutiny, and considers his brother as being a nuisance totally deficient in sportsmanlike instincts.
Apart from this disadvantage, however, an elder brother, particularly if he be shrewd at the shaping of Elegiacs or Iambics, may undoubtedly be said to justify his existence. To the compleat slacker a brother high up in the Sixth is as necessary as his forty winks during afternoon school. Verses are not like translation. They must be done before being inspected by your form-master, and this is exactly where the brother proves that after all blood is thicker than water. Take your verses to him and ask him the Latin for “dog” or “sun.” Instead of replying canis or sol, as the case may be, he will in the majority of cases say “Let’s have a look.” Let him have a look by all means, and see that the look he has is a good look. It will be but rarely that, once having taken the bait, he will fail to dash off at least half your copy for you. Which proves the wisdom of the saying that we should be kind even to the very humblest. If the plan proves unsuccessful at first, do not despair. Continue to ask him the Latin of words until he feels that peace and quietude is only to be obtained in one way, namely, by doing his duty as a man and a brother. By these strenuous means you will avoid paining your form-master with false quantities and metrical stop-gaps, and may contrive, even in these days of unceasing competition and feverish energy, to attain to an enviable state of complete dolce far niente. It behoves you, therefore, in your treatment of your relations to take into account what few advantages there are that may be gained from them. Treat no uncle with the scorn he deserves until you are absolutely certain that what you gain by such an action morally will not be neutralised by heavy financial losses, and spurn your brother only as a last resource.
Deadwood Dick was Edward Lytton Wheeler’s western hero of Death Notch, Nevada, in a series of stories published in the penny dreadfuls. Walpole, Omar Khayyam and Cain and Abel top out the literary references and P.G. closes with a bit from a Horace ode: Exegi monumentum — I have raised a monument.)
corpus vile: Latin for “worthless body”; a person or animal thought of as expendable, fit only as an experimental subject.
Sir Robert Walpole (1676–1745), Prime Minister of Great Britain 1721–1742, created 1st Earl of Orford in 1742, was quoted as saying of pretended patriots that “all those men have their price.” The editor of The International Encyclopedia of Prose and Poetical Quotations says that persistent misquotation has resulted in the cynical general statement “all men have their prices” which has been attributed to him.
“tick”: credit, here extended at the school shop
half-sovereign: a gold coin worth ten shillings (half a pound sterling)
Consols (consolidated annuities) were and are bonds issued by the British government with an indefinite redemption date. From 1888 to 1903 the interest rate paid was 2¾%—a dull investment indeed, though a reliable one.
A lac or lakh of rupees is 100,000 rupees.
angel unawares: an echo of Hebrews 13:2
drug on the market: said of a commodity that is hard to sell, either because it is already widely owned or it is not particularly appealing to buyers. There are various explanations for the phrase: some think “drug” comes from drag; others consider it in the pharmaceutical sense, like an opiate that slows down body functions.
iron neatly inserted in his soul: See the annotations to Thank You, Jeeves.
Rye House Plot: a 1683 plan to assassinate King Charles II of England and his brother James, Duke of York.
car of Juggernaut: See the annotations to Summer Moonshine.
false quantities: See the annotations to “Food for the Mind”.
dolce far niente: Italian for “sweet idleness”