It was during the “Mother Cross row,” as it was long styled among the boys, that a remarkable phenomenon was witnessed at Roughborough. I mean that of the head boys under certain conditions doing errands for their juniors. The head boys had no bounds and could go to Mrs Cross’s whenever they liked; they actually, therefore, made themselves go-betweens, and would get anything from either Mrs Cross’s or Mrs Jones’s for any boy, no matter how low in the school, between the hours of a quarter to nine and nine in the morning, and a quarter to six and six in the afternoon. By degrees, however, the boys grew bolder, and the shops, though not openly declared in bounds again, were tacitly allowed to be so.
I may spare the reader more details about my hero’s school days. He rose, always in spite of himself, into the Doctor’s form, and for the last two years or so of his time was among the praepostors, though he never rose into the upper half of them. He did little, and I think the Doctor rather gave him up as a boy whom he had better leave to himself, for he rarely made him construe, and he used to send in his exercises or not, pretty much as he liked. His tacit, unconscious obstinacy had in time effected more even than a few bold sallies in the first instance would have done. To the end of his career his position inter pares was what it had been at the beginning, namely, among the upper part of the less reputable class—whether of seniors or juniors—rather than among the lower part of the more respectable.
Only once in the whole course of his school life did he get praise from Dr Skinner for any exercise, and this he has treasured as the best example of guarded approval which he has ever seen. He had had to write a copy of Alcaics on “The dogs of the monks of St Bernard,” and when the exercise was returned to him he found the Doctor had written on it: “In this copy of Alcaics—which is still excessively bad—I fancy that I can discern some faint symptoms of improvement.” Ernest says that if the exercise was any better than usual it must have been by a fluke, for he is sure that he always liked dogs, especially St Bernard dogs, far too much to take any pleasure in writing Alcaics about them.
“As I look back upon it,” he said to me but the other day, with a hearty laugh, “I respect myself more for having never once got the best mark for an exercise than I should do if I had got it every time it could be got. I am glad nothing could make me do Latin and Greek verses; I am glad Skinner could never get any moral influence over me; I am glad I was idle at school, and I am glad my father overtasked me as a boy—otherwise, likely enough I should have acquiesced in the swindle, and might have written as good a copy of Alcaics about the dogs of the monks of St Bernard as my neighbours, and yet I don’t know, for I remember there was another boy, who sent in a Latin copy of some sort, but for his own pleasure he wrote the following—