THE PASSING OF SLATTERY
‘Lads,’ said Sweeney, coming into the billiard room, ‘Slattery’s going!’
That dramatic entry, the prelude to such stirring things, is so fresh in my memory—Sweeney’s figure at the billiard room door, the very attitude in which he stood—that I can hardly believe it is fifty years ago. It looks like the other day.
‘Going where?’ asked Joyce, without raising his eyes from his cue. Joyce was in the middle of a grand break which his opponent Nelson was watching disgustedly. It was the semi-final of one of our numerous billiard tournaments. Like all our billiard tournaments, it had been organised by Joyce, and, like all our billiard tournaments, it would inevitably be won by Joyce. Joyce was our best billiard player at St. Fintan’s, and he was indefatigable in the organisation of billiard tournaments.
Each member of the Billiard Club had to subscribe sixpence to a tournament fund, and the combined sixpences used to make a handsome prize for Joyce. It was sometimes said that whenever Joyce was hard up he organised a billiard tournament. To do him justice, he never failed to give a ‘feed’ in his dormitory after a tournament. As I was in Joyce’s dormitory, I was subscribed to his tournament fund with alacrity, although I was probably the worst billiard player in the school.
‘Going where?’ asked Joyce, without looking up from his cue.
‘Going away. Clearing out. Vamoosing,’ explained Sweeney.
‘For good?’ asked everyone in chorus.
‘Aye,’ said Sweeney.
The announcement was so startling that Joyce, although the balls were in a delightful position for a sure run through with a pot off the red, missed his shot; and we were all so dumbfounded that no one thought of saying ‘hard lines,’ which is (or was in my time) the correct thing to say when anyone did a particularly silly thing at billiards.
‘Is he being chucked or what?’ asked Burke when we had all gaped sufficiently.
‘He’s passed some exam or other,’ said Sweeney. ‘He’s made an inspector of something. There’s a big screw attached to it. O’Doherty heard Old Snuffy congratulating him.’
O’Doherty was the School Captain that year. Old Snuffy was the President. If O’Doherty had heard Old Snuffy congratulating Slattery there must be some truth in the story … So Slattery was going. Worse luck!
Slattery was the most popular master that has been at St. Fintan’s in anyone’s memory; at least the most popular lay-master, for I think that in our hearts most of us had a softer feeling for Old Snuffy, though none of us would have admitted so for worlds. But of all the other masters, priests or laymen, Slattery stood first in our regard; and deservedly so. He had big, genial, masterful ways with him; he was a genuine scholar, but his scholarship had something sunny and manly and understandable in it that made it attractive and wholesome; he was a prodigious worker and made us work, too—Slattery was no joke in class, I tell you—but he seemed to know what to expect from a fellow, and no one was ever driven or bullied by Slattery; he was a grand sportsman, the best full-back we ever had, a famous hundred-yards’ sprinter although not light (for Slattery was big and tall), a regular terror across country, a good weight-thrower, clear-headed and just as a referee, the only one in the College who could beat Joyce in billiards. I think his influence in St. Fintan’s was one of the finest things the College had to give us: he was so thoroughly a man, so hearty and joyous in his manhood, that it was good to be his friend, to be taught by him, to obey him in the football field. And he made us think that scholarship was a very noble thing—this man whose academic distinctions were so many that his name on our College Prospectus, with all the letters after it, looked, as young Clery said, ‘like a sum in algebra,’ and who yet was so strenuous, so alive, so gay, so much like one of ourselves and yet so much better—like ourselves as we would like to be!
And Slattery was going. What would St. Fintan’s be like without Slattery?
When was he going? What exam. had he passed? What would his screw be? Why did he not tell us about it? When did he hear? What did Old Snuffy say to him? We crowded round Sweeney asking him these and a dozen other questions, and Sweeney (who really knew very little about the matter) gave us various and contradictory answers, all of which we afterwards found to be devoid of truth. But for the moment we accepted the more probable-looking of his inventions, and feasted our mind’s eye on the vision of a tall and genial Slattery, expensively dressed, ordering about sleek minions in Dublin Government offices, and driving to banks to cash cheques for unheard-of amounts.
‘I bet you he’ll send us a thundering fine subscription to the Football Club,’ said O’Sullivan, who was treasurer of that chronically bankrupt institution.
We were branching into a discussion as to the improvements in the way of new and brilliant jerseys, with shields on them, which Slattery’s princely subscription to the Football Club would enable us to introduce, when the bell rang for Rosary.
‘Dang it,’ said Sweeney, who was enjoying his role as purveyor of incredible tales to an eager billiard room.
We trooped along the corridor into Chapel. The President himself was on the Rosary that evening. I remember how curiously we looked at him as he came up the Chapel, wondering whether, after the prayers, he would make any announcement in the Study Hall on the great Slattery crisis. During the Rosary we watched with a sort of fascination the little round bald spot on the back of his head: it was thrilling to think that beneath it lurked the goings and the comings, the triumphs and the destinies of Slattery. Slattery himself was not present. Was he packing his trunks, we wondered? The Dean was there, tall and rigid, kneeling bolt upright on his priedieu: as well look to a graven image for information as to him. O’Doherty was in his place—he might know something. Among his privileges as School Captain was that of spending the half-hour between supper and Rosary in the Masters’ Room, where, it was rumoured, he was even allowed to smoke cigars. When Rosary was over we would ask O’Doherty.
The President’s sonorous voice was beginning the Litany. One’s thoughts could not well wander while the President invoked in that full sweet voice of his the holy names. There was something wonderfully devotional—wonderfully confident and at the same time wonderfully humble—in the way in which he seemed to appeal for divine pity for all weak mortals, men and boys. He did not pray arrogantly and dictatorially, as I have heard many pray; nor yet perfunctorily, as most pray. For the moment Slattery and his destinies seemed unimportant.
Our name for the President was, as I have said, Old Snuffy. Not that he was very old or very snuffy; but all presidents and headmasters are old to their pupils, and our President did sometimes take snuff. The name, therefore, seemed sufficiently justified. He took snuff, I always thought, in a somewhat elaborate and ceremonial manner as if the act were part of a ritual; and his customary way of declaring an interview at an end was the production of his snuff-box from a pocket in his cassock. One would then back towards the door, and as one closed the door behind one, one would hear the President’s sneeze. As I have already hinted, we liked Old Snuffy more than we would have cared to say. There was something very kindly and humorous in the little grey eyes that twinkled behind his spectacles, something very benignant, if authoritative, in the fine head crowned with its iron-grey hair beneath the velvet biretta. And Old Snuffy had seen men and cities: had studied in Paris, in Louvain, in Leipzig, in Rome: was a Doctor of Philosophy and a Doctor of Canon Law; had written some exceedingly bulky books (some of them in Latin) which he sometimes showed to us in his bookcase. Indeed we often felt a sort of glow as it were of reflected glory in remembering that we were pupils of so good and famous a man. In German periodicals with unpronounceable names he was referred to as ‘the eminent eschatologist Loughran.’ The ‘Freeman’s Journal’ and the local paper in chronicling his occasional presence at meetings always spoke of him as ‘the Very Rev. Canon Loughran, DPh., D.C.L., the distinguished President of St. Fintan’s College.’ To us he was simply Old Snuffy.
Very different from Old Snuffy was the Dean. I have described him as tall, but the word is not accurate. His figure conveyed the idea not so much of tallness, as of length. One found oneself measuring him not by feet but by yards. He was austere, ascetic. He seemed to suffer from melancholia, and certainly suffered from asthma. The only good pun ever made at St. Fintan’s was made by young Clery when he said that the Dean, who was panting very hard that day, was like a definition of Euclid, because he was ‘length without breath.’ The Dean’s name was Doody, the Rev. Dr. Doody, D. D. As a Dean he had only one fault: his passion for justice amounted to a disease. It was a torment of mind to him if one fellow had an extra blanket on his bed, if one table got an extra pot of jam, if one classroom were heated half a degree more than another, or if one lad had more visitors to see him in a term than the rest. He did everything by schedule. The first time you were send to him for a particular delinquency he spoke to you about the weather; the second time he cautioned you; the third time he caned you; the fourth time he gave you a treble dose—nine on each hand; the fifth time he flogged you. No one was ever sent to him more than five times for the same sort of offence. We often wondered what he would do on a sixth appearance, but none of us was ever sufficiently adventurous to try.
The President, the Dean, and Slattery were the outstanding personalities at St. Fintan’s. The other masters, clerical and lay, just filled their nooks. Nobody was very much interested in them, nor were they very much interested in anybody. They appeared at meals; they sat on stools in their classrooms; they played an odd game of billiards; they acted as referees or linesmen at football; for the rest, they waited patiently (or impatiently, for aught we knew) for curacies or for civil service appointments. When those desirable things materialised they vanished from our little world and were replaced by others of the same sort who similarly waited. But the President, the Dean, and Slattery were permanent institutions. They had been there, firmly-rooted traditions, when O’Doherty came to the school seven or eight years previously. It seemed probable that they had always been there. And now Slattery was going. Was it the end of the world?
The Rosary was over and we filed out of Chapel. There was a five minutes’ interval between Rosary and Second Study. We gathered round O’Doherty. What had Old Snuffy said to Slattery? What had Slattery said to Old Snuffy? Was he really going? If so, where? Was his salary really to be a thousand a year? Would there be a new master to succeed Slattery?
O’Doherty was vague and unsatisfactory. Important people like School Captains always are. Sweeney had at least given to our speculations a certain largeness and magnificence which seemed appropriate to any speculations touching the future of Slattery. O’Doherty doubted that he was to have a thousand a year; but could not really say what he was to have. On one point only was he definite: Slattery had passed an examination of amazing difficulty, a wholly incredible examination. He had got marks such as no one had ever got before or ever would again; he had fairly floored the examiners, ‘didn’t leave them a leg to stand on,’ said O’Doherty. Good old Slattery!
Suddenly MacGavock approached. He had gathered a quite new and different version of the great Slattery legend. Slattery, it appeared, had not got a mere inspectorship. He was not destined to drag out a dull, if dignified, official life in Dublin. He had, said MacGavock, been appointed President of a College in Bombay, in which his mission would be to expound Political Economy, English, and Christianity to little Parsees. This seemed quite probable; at any rate it was duly picturesque. We began to see Slattery, a transfigured and godlike figure, dawning on India and moving through the vast Orient with great strides, scattering beneficence. He would wear a turban; he would ride on howdahs; he would recline on divans; he would smoke hookahs; he would be fanned by dusky attendants; he would be called ‘Sahib’; his little Parsees would gather solemnly around him with turbans on their little heads and loin-cloths round their little loins; he would teach them billiards and handball and football: he would, said O’Sullivan, send a jewelled hookah as a prize to the Club and bring over a team of little Parsees in their turbans and loin-cloths to play us. Upon that the Study bell rang.
Sweeney was not a little chagrined that MacGavock’s story had been so much more gorgeous than his. He was accordingly filled with a righteous thirst for truth. We had scarcely settled down in Study when he tossed me over a note. MacDonnell was on Study that evening. Now, MacDonnell had two qualifications which in our opinions admirably suited him for presiding at Study: he was near-sighted, and he was deeply interested in conic sections. So absorbing did he find conic sections that when he worked at them, as he always did during Study, he was oblivious to all his surroundings. I have known a three-round boxing match to be fought out in the Study Hall, and the Marseillaise to be sung in a sort of subdued chorus, while MacDonnell was wrestling with conic sections. Occasionally he would chuckle to himself, and we used to take these chuckles (very remarkable phenomena they were) as signifying that he had proved to his satisfaction the conicity or the non-conicity of a section. Sections, we thought, must be queer things.
I opened Sweeney’s note and read: ‘Tell Clery to go to Old Snuffy and find out about Slattery. He can ask for a prayer-book.’
Whenever we wanted a particular favour from the President we used to send young Clery to him. He liked young Clery, as indeed we all did, for there was something very winning and gracious about all his ways. We had never known the President to refuse young Clery a request, and even the Dean had once consented to allow his table an extra pot of marmalade on the ground, gravely put forward by Clery, that it was his aunt’s birthday. I scribbled a note and tossed it to young Clery, who sat in the next row of benches, a little behind me. It hit him right on the nose.
‘Oh!’ said young Clery, but with a loudness that made me jump. But the invaluable MacDonnell worked on undisturbed.
Clery opened the note and read it. Presently an answer came back in his almost illegible handwriting: ‘I have already got five prayer-books from Old Snuffy. I will ask him for a Rosary beads.’
In a few minutes Clery rose demurely and asked permission to leave the room. He looked like a little saint, his hair, which was fair and in crisp little curls, making a sort of aureole round him. I always thought that his head was very shapely, and that it was very nobly poised on the neck and shoulders. His face was almost like a girl’s and had a way of flushing up when he was spoken to by a master. But he was not girlish in any other of his ways. He was our centre-forward in football. He was our best swimmer. He was by far the cleverest and most daring of us all in the gymnasium—there was hardly anything he could not do with his body. And he had the sunniest temper I have ever known, he had a quaint humour, and a very valiant heart.
MacDonnell nodded, and Clery left the Study Hall. We awaited his return impatiently. He was a full half-hour gone. At last he came. He sat down and solemnly took out of his pocket Rosary beads which he silently held up to me. Then he proceeded with great deliberation to write his despatch. In due time he tossed it over to me, dextrously catching me on the ear. I opened the paper and found that Cleary, who knew well that his writing was execrable, had printed out his message in large capitals so as to make a proper impression upon me; and this is the amazing thing I read: ‘SLATTERY IS GONE. LEFT AT 8.15. HE IS BOUND FOR MOUNT MELLARY. HE IS GOING TO BE A TRAPPIST.’
Slattery a Trappist! After such a zestful life the silence of Melleray! I passed on the news to Sweeney, and it travelled mysteriously round the Study Hall. We were hushed and abashed. It was so unlike what we thought Slattery would do, so different from the thousand a year and the howdahs’ and the jewelled hookahs and all the glory he seemed destined for. Poor old Slattery! … The rest of the Study hour was as quiet as if the Dean or Slattery himself had been presiding. MacDonnell must have been surprised at the unwonted hush if anything that was not conic and a section could surprise him.
Though it may well have been (and I think some of us felt so) that Slattery had done a more wonderful thing than anything we had imagined for him, we were strangely despondent, silent, almost morose, for the rest of the night. There was little talking in the dormitory as we undressed; still less (contrary to custom) when MacDonnell had put out the lights and shambled back to his conic sections. We were thinking of days with Slattery. One by one we dropped asleep.
Suddenly we were startled by a young Clery’s voice. I believe to this day that Clery had been asleep for some time and that the idea which he now launched upon the world had come to him in a dream.
‘Lads,’ said the voice of young Clery, ‘we’ll give the new master a hell of a time!’
They seemed golden words. This counsel, revealed as it were in a vision of the night, strangely illuminated us, exalted us. Our path was now clear and straight. Our duty was defined. Our policy was adopted. We would give the new master a hell of a time.