The scene opens on the boys of St. Fintan’s School respecting a new master. They are determined to give him a bad time and all sorts of ideas as to how best annoy him are discussed, but when ‘Old Snuffy’ as the boys respectfully termed the Head Master introduces Kilgallon, something in the new master’s personality interests the boys who forget to rebel.
They nickname him ‘The Little Captain’ and soon are listening with intense interest to the stories of Wolfe Tone and other Irish heroes which arose out of History Class. Gradually the talk comes down to the date of our story, and soon the boys were taking a breathless interest in ‘The Wandering Hawk.’ This was the name given to John Dunleary, alias Warren, a young National Schoolmaster who had proved himself a great Fenian organiser, on whose head was the price of £500.
IN WHICH YOUNG CLERY GETS HIS EARS BOXED
The man was gaining a strange ascendancy over us. He had said or done nothing extraordinary; he had on the whole been silent and reserved; to the Fenian conversation, a conversation which turned all our minds into new paths, paths which seemed wonderful and adventurous and perilous, he had contributed only a sentence or two; and yet from that time on he dominated us. I do not think he aimed at exercising more than the ordinary ascendancy of a teacher; certainly he put forward no special effort, made use of no particular arts. In thinking of him now, after I have known three generations of men, it seems clear to me that the quality in virtue of which he ruled us, as I believe he would have ruled any others he might have come in contact with, was just an elemental simplicity and truth. It was characteristic of our relations with him that none of us could tell him a lie; none of us in his presence could ever be anything but his true self. One could not act before him. Our few attempts to do so were abject failures. His quickness in divining that we were only pretending to know something about Tone was typical. He seemed to see into every heart; yea, to read the hearts of dead men and of living men as others read books. Hypocrisy of any sort could not live in the presence of that great sincerity.
Our project of baiting the Little Captain and making his life a misery was being quietly dropped. It did not seem quite feasible; neither did it seem quite so heroic nor quite so mirth-promising as it had seemed when first conceived. How serious we had been in our intention none of us could quite say. In the beginning there had been at the bottom of the thing a feeling of genuine loyalty to the memory of Slattery. We had dallied with the idea partly out of fun, partly from a certain artistic pleasure which it gave us to weave elaborate schemes, partly because (the weather being too wet for much football) we had nothing better to do. In the end the idea had obtained possession of us, and up to the moment when the new master entered the classroom we had all felt it was in some way due to ourselves to make an effort to show him that he was not welcome.
But at that very moment the project really became impracticable, although we did not at first realise so. Up to the Fenian conversation we still meant to commence hostilities at the first favourable opening. After that we did not care to think of it. By common consent we avoided the subject, each one hoping that none of the others would be so tactless as to bring it up. We did not want to have to confess to one another that we had not the pluck to go on; or, which would have been equally difficult to acknowledge, that a finer feeling was restraining us.
But tact and Quominus were two things that were incompatible. The mission of Quominus in life seemed to be to say the wrong thing, to give shows away, to precipitate awkward crises.
‘What about getting on to Kilgallon?’ he said one evening in the billiard room while we were yawning over an exceedingly uninteresting game which MacGavock was playing against O’Driscoll; both of them execrable players.
‘Well, what about it?’ asked Sweeney in a non-committal way.
‘When are we going to start?’
‘Why don’t you start if you’re so keen on it?’ asked Burke.
‘I’m waiting for orders. I didn’t hatch the plot. I’m ready to fall in with the rest.’
‘Look here,’ said young Clery suddenly. ‘I vote we cry it off.’
We looked at him in surprise. Secretly we admired his courage. But he was putting it too bluntly. We should have preferred a strategical retreat to what looked like a mere surrender.
‘Why, the whole thing was your idea,’ exclaimed Joyce.
‘I know,’ said Clery calmly. ‘It is I that contribute all the ideas to our discussions.’
‘Well, why not go on with it?’
‘First, because it would be caddish; secondly, because the Little Captain would knock us all into cocked hats in two minutes.’
‘He wouldn’t,’ said Joyce. ‘He’s not a physical force man. He’s trying to keep us in good humour. He’s staving off the crisis from day to day by telling us stories.’
‘Like Schezer-What’s-Her-Name in the Arabian Nights,’ suggested MacGavock. MacGavock was much under the glamour of the East: witness his howdah and hookah inventions with regard to Slattery.
‘I bet you what you like,’ said Clery, ‘that the Little Captain will squash us in two minutes if we try anything on with him.’
‘I bet you my hat he won’t,’ said Joyce. Joyce was always betting people his hat. It was a large straw hat which he detested because an aunt of his, who used to send him half-a-crown a month for pocket money, had discontinued doing so as a protest against his having worn the hat at a funeral. No one ever took up Joyce’s bets, because no one wanted his hat.
‘We’ll either have to chuck this altogether,’ said Clery, ‘or bring things to a head at once. It’s mean and caddish to go on making friends with a man and to have a plot against him in the back of your head all the time. I tell you he’s fit to lick the whole of us. You say he’s not. Let’s try to-morrow.’
It was a relief to have a definite proposal. Everyone felt that the present situation must be ended. We would provoke a crisis and if the Little Captain showed himself our master (as most felt he would) so much the better.
‘What’ll we do?’ said I.
‘Something dignified and artistic,’ said young Clery.
‘Thick a bloomin’ big nail in hith thool where he’ll thit on it,’ said Splothery, whose ideas of the dignified and artistic were somewhat raw. Splothery was reclining on a form eating a large piece of Peggy’s Leg. It was popularly believed that Splothery’s fatness was due to his inordinate consumption of Peggy’s Leg. He expended vast sums on that sweetmeat, and the risks he ran in getting over the wall to procure supplies were the only exciting part of an otherwise humdrum and undistinguished career. We all liked it in moderation, but Splothery’s affection for Peggy’s Leg was, as young Clery put it, ‘positively indecent.’
‘Thick a bloomin’ big nail in hith thool where he’ll thit on it,’ said Splothery as he sucked complacently.
‘No,’ said young Clery with decision. ‘Too crude and bloody.’
We discussed various plans. At length it was agreed, on the suggestion of O’Driscoll, that we should all sing ‘John Brown’s Body’ in chorus when Kilgallon entered the classroom next day. ‘John Brown’s Body’ was our favourite anthem. Its chief recommendation was that it gave great scope to the lungs. Who John Brown was or why his soul should persist in perambulating we did not very well know, but it was always an immense satisfaction to be able to vociferate in unison (or in what we regarded as unison):
‘John Brown’s body is lying in his grave,
But his soul goes marching on!’
We would simply deafen Kilgallon with this next day in class, and by his action or inaction we would regulate our future attitude towards him.
Next day came. The Little Captain’s quick light step was heard outside the classroom door.
‘Now, lads!’ said O’Driscoll.
The door opened. Our mouths opened simultaneously. The learned in psychology must explain the fact that from twenty-nine of the thirty or so open mouths no sound issued. For my own part, I tried to sing, but I only gaped. My mouth assumed ridiculous shapes, but it produced no articulate sound. One voice only was heard. Alone among the thirty, young Clery sang through the chorus of ‘John Brown.’
I have never seen any face wear so astonished an expression as the Little Captain’s wore as he came across the room,—except one, and that was young Clery’s when he perceived that he was the only one in the class that was singing. In the midst of my own confusion I was irresistibly struck by the comicality of the two expressions. Clery’s voice died away at the last few words:
‘… soul goes marching o—,’ he said; and stopped.
With a few swift steps the Little Captain was beside young Clery, and quicker than thought he had caught him a box on the ear. It was not a cruel blow, and yet it appalled us. Its promptness and decision were terrible. Everything was over before anything had well begun. And that was characteristic of the Little Captain. His mind, as we were afterwards to know, always acted like lightning; his decisions were instantaneous; his action, when he meant to act, was swift and final.
There was a tense silence. We all felt very mean. I glanced at young Clery. He was trying to open his book unconcernedly, but his lip was quivering, and there was a crimson mark on his delicate cheek. I felt sorrier for him that I would have liked to confess. The Little Captain took his seat and commenced the lesson. Except that his lips were pressed more tightly than usual, there was no change in his habitual demeanour. We felt we were in for a very awful time. But as the lesson proceeded, the tight lip relaxed and towards the end the Little Captain’s manner was kinder and more friendly than ever, especially when he addressed young Clery. Just before the bell rang he laid down his book and surprised us by saying:
‘Why did you arrange that demonstration this morning?’
No one had told him that we had arranged a demonstration; but Kilgallon, as I have said, was able to read people’s minds. We all looked very sheepish; at least the others did, and I suppose I did, for I felt so sheepish that I could have baahed at myself in derision. We were silent, and he looked from one to another. Finally, it was young Clery who spoke. The crimson mark had not quite yet died out of his cheek, but his eye had its old twinkle of fun in it.
‘When we heard a new master was coming,’ he said, ‘I proposed that we’d give him a hell—that is, a hot time of it.’ The pleasant amused look that we liked so well had passed over the Little Captain’s face. Young Clery went on: ‘It didn’t seem to work. So I proposed that we’d do something to-day to bring it to a head. We decided to sing “John Brown” … “John Brown” burst it up.’ Young Clery ended somewhat lamely. He had blamed no one but himself. We all felt like cheering for him, but a cheer would have been out of place.
‘I am very grateful to “John Brown”,’ said the Little Captain. ‘He has gained me a friend.’
He stretched out his hand, which young Clery took. I felt then and often after that there was something akin between the souls of those two: the same sincerity, the same valour, the same gift of leadership was theirs, masked though they were in the boy under a fantastic and often freakish humour. Kilgallon turned towards us and said, but without any bitterness:
‘You haven’t shown up as well in this as Clery has. You ought to have joined in the chorus, you know.’
‘We meant to, Sir,’ said Sweeney awkwardly.
‘Be sure you do it next time,’ cautioned Kilgallon.
‘There won’t be any next time, Sir,’ said young Clery. ‘You hit too hard.’
And we all laughed aloud, the Little Captain laughing as loud as any of us. When MacDonnell entered the room to take the next class he stared out of his sleepy eyes. He could not understand the hilarity arising from any cause except the solving of a conic section.
The days that followed were the most spacious we ever spent at St. Fintan’s. To be in class with Kilgallon was a perpetual adventure. He revealed to us beauty and wonder where we had seen only difficult words or dry facts. ‘Esther’ itself became musical when he declaimed its lines in French ‘juth like a Frenthman’th,’ as Splothery said; and he positively thrilled us by his accounts of the rising of Spain in 1808 and of Prussia in 1813. That brought us naturally to the subject of Irish risings, and from Kilgallon we first heard stories of ’41, ’98, 1803, and ’48. And then our thoughts would come back to the Fenians, and we would ask the Little Captain when they were going to rise, and whether they would win, and would Stephens come back to lead them or would the new Wandering Hawk take the place of the Hawk that had flown. To which questions he would give no answer.
One day a curious thing happened. We were sitting in class at a history lesson when we were startled by the sound of a tin whistle played just outside the classroom door. The classroom was on the ground floor and opened on a covered verandah. Through the window we could see the musician. He was a poorly-dressed man with a tangle of short red beard and a weather-beaten face. He played very lugubriously a doleful Irish air.
‘That’s Bantry Bay,’ whispered O’Sullivan.
Presently the musician broke into a jig tune. He set all our hearts dancing, and if any other master than the Little Captain had been over us at the moment our toes too would have beaten time on the floor. The tune grew fast and furious, and we marvelled that a mere tin whistle could discourse such hilarious and welkin-maddening a music. It seemed as if the very soul of the musician were in a frolic. Suddenly, at the height of the fun, he struck the first notes of the most gallant marching tune I had ever heard, at once proud and solemn and lively. At the first sound of that noble music the Little Captain paused in what he had been saying; he listened for a few bars and then quietly resumed the lesson. In a few minutes he got up and went to the door. The music stopped. The Little Captain seemed to be giving the tin-whistler something. They exchanged a few words which we did not catch. It did not sound like English. What language was it?
‘It’s Irish they’re talking,’ whispered O’Driscoll.
The Little Captain came back.
‘What air was that last one, Sir?’ asked O’Sullivan.
‘“Billy Byrne of Ballymanus”,’ said the Little Captain.
The tin-whistler played ‘St. Patrick’s Day’ for a finale and then wandered away.
That afternoon Splothery brought a breathless tale into the handball court.
‘I’m juth after goin’ over the wall,’ he said, ‘for thum Peggy’th Leg. When I got out on the road I nearly walked into the Little Captain. He was talkin’ to thumbody in the thadow of the wall. I dodged round on th’ other thide of the road. When I came out of the thop I nearly walked into—’
‘The Little Captain again?’ we cried.
‘No,’ said Splothery, ‘the tin-whithtler. The man with the red beard that played “Billy Byrne of Ballymanuth.” I thaw the Little Captain goin’ away. He muth have been talkin’ to the tin-whithler. I wonder ith he a friend of hith?’
We all wondered too.