A persecutional lull followed the prefects' licking. The facts of the case had got around the school—Croasdale and Otway saw to it that they did; and then, several fellows had seen the inscription on my collar—one or two of them had been next to MacMulaway when he wrote it. Croasdale started a fashion by holding his nose when he passed Bones or MacMulaway, for nothing was despised more than a sneak and a liar. Things were really beginning to brighten up for me when a death in his family obliged Croasdale to go home before the end of the term,
The morning after he left, as I was running into the cloister a few seconds late for chapel procession, I was furtively tripped and my mortarboard knocked out into the quad. I slipped over the wall to get it and got fifty lines as well from Read for walking on the grass. I noticed that Read said nothing to Bones. When we lined up for procession that evening Bones knocked off my mortarboard again. Exasperated, I picked it up and slung it at him. The hard square crown, skimming through the air like a slate, caught him on the side of the face as he took his place in line. For the time being he could do nothing; but I got another fifty lines for ragging in procession.
I managed to keep clear of Bones the next day, and then he caught me in the playground behind the library. There was a blue welt like a mouse under his eye from my mortarboard. He caught me around the neck and 'screwed' me across his back until he was winded. When he let me go I was so dizzy I could not keep on my feet. As soon as I got up I held the end of my nose with two fingers the way Croasdale had done, and called Bones a sneak. But I was too close to him. His fist landed smack in my face. I rushed away, the bizarre idea in my head to appeal to the warden.
When I reached the hall of the warden's house a man-servant was ushering in a clergyman. I saw him indistinctly against the light that shone through the glass doors and did not recognize him at once. His voice caused me to pull up. It was my father.
"What's the matter with your nose?" he asked. I blubbered out what had happened and begged him to take me home.
"Where is he now?" said my father.
"The warden?" I said.
"Bones," he said.
"I left him outside the library.
"We'll take a walk around that way," said my father.
At the top of the steps that led to the quadrangle I saw Bones major. MacMulaway and a couple of other boys were with him. Their backs were turned to us.
"There he is," I said, "the fellow at the top of the steps." And waited for my father to go after him. But instead he said:
"It's ashamed of yourself you should be. Even if he is head and shoulders over you he's nothing but a clodhopper. Paddy Carry could give him a hiding any day. Go on over and hit him on that big nose of his."
"He's got a terrible temper," I said. "And before I came he had a fight with a boy named Cave and threw an inkpot at him and cut his head open."
"Well, I see no inkpots around here," said my father.
Maybe it's better to do nothing," I said. "If I go and hit him I'll only get a licking—"
"If you don't you'll be getting a licking from me," he said.
When I saw he meant it I went over to Bones major. My teeth and fists were clenched. I could feel my face getting green with funk. He turned and looked at me, and my knees began to feel weak. I glanced back at my father, but from his expression I could tell there was no chance of backing out. So I balanced myself on my toes and let Bones major have it flush on the nose, and waited for the massacre to begin. But nothing happened. And when I saw him standing there doing nothing I realized I was no longer afraid of him. And then all the rancour in my blood mounted to my head and made my eyes burn, and I saw before me not only Bones major but Read too, and Powell and Scott, and I hit him again and the blood started from his nose. And then he recovered from his amazement and rushed at me. But this time it was my foot I used instead of my fist, and he took it right in the crotch and dropped to his knees groaning and holding himself. And while he was that way I swung at him again and knocked him flat on his back and, before anyone had time to stop me, I was on his chest and banging his head on the steps and spitting in his face and calling him a shit, crying all the while in a wild hysterical way. Then my father caught me by the neck and pulled me off and gave me a clout on the side of the head that sent me spinning.
"What was that word I heard you using?" he said. "Is that the sort of language they've been teaching you at Saint Columba's?"
"What word?" I said holding my ear.
"And fighting like a street urchin after all the time I've spent teaching you to stand up and box like a gentleman's son—you should be ashamed of yourself!"
This seemed to please all the fellows standing around; and though they knew I had fought a dirty fight, I saw that at last I had gained their respect. I think they figured that the difference in size between Bones and me excused my tactics to some extent. My father helped Bones up and said to him in a cheerful voice:
"That boy of mine has a terrible temper. There is no telling what he's liable to do when he loses it. It's a good thing there weren't any bricks or inkpots lying around or it's with them he'd have been hitting you."
Bones sat down on the steps. He wiped the blood and spittle off his face with his gown and stared dumbly at us. My father patted him on the back.
"It's nothing at all," he said. "Go in and take a cold bath and you'll come out feeling better than ever....Goodbye, boys.
"Goodbye, sir," they answered in chorus.
And then he walked off and I followed him, keeping well out of his reach, expecting another clip on the side of the head. But when we were out of earshot he said:
"That went off very nicely. He won't forget that in a hurry."
"What did you hit me for, then?" I asked.
"Oh," he said, " just to show I was impartial, and not give rise to any hard feelings which would do you more harm than good."
I felt my ear which was still burning and singing, and said nothing.
And then my father went to have tea in the warden's house. I was sent for later and found the warden in a very benign mood. He gave my father to understand that though he had noticed a slight improvement in my work I did not accept school discipline in the right spirit. My father said when a boy was punished the punishment should benefit him in some way, and the only thing copying out lines did was spoil his handwriting. He said the time could be better spent learning an ode of Horace that would really benefit him, though I could not see how very well.
"Someday I hope he'll follow in his dad's footsteps and become a classical scholar," my father finished up.
The warden beamed, but I could tell by his eye he was convinced I would never make any kind of a scholar at all.
Before he went back to Dublin, my father said to me :
"Now you see what a little idjit you've been for two terms? If you'd done that in the beginning, that lout would never have bothered you again."
"But Bones major wasn't the only one," I said.
"I know," he said, " I'd like to get all the prefects together in a room at the same time with the key of the door in my pocket. But it would only create ill-feeling, which would do you more harm than good."
Then he gave me a half-a-crown and I walked down to the Rathfarnham tram with him.
When I came to the school gates on the way back I no longer had that sinking feeling at the pit of the stomach, I held my head higher as I passed through them, and my step was sure. And as I came in through the cloister, boys who had consistently snubbed me made a point of speaking to me. Even one of the prefects nodded to me. At supper when I went into dininghall the fellows turned to look, and I felt as if I was stepping out of a morass that had been dragging me down by the feet for many months. The warden entoned the grace:
'Oculi omnium in te sperant Domine'
I joined in the response with a light heart and at the top of my voice:
'Et tu das escam illorum in tempore opportuno'.
At Saint Columba's the chapel choir was a privileged body. The members had special half-holidays and enjoyed benefits which those whom God had endowed with neither voice nor ear enjoyed not. While the Bones menace prevailed, the idea of singing never entered my mind. Now that it had been dispelled I was ready enough to sing if there was anything to be gained by singing. So I made my application to Mr. Cooper, the organist, for a voice test. I passed it and was accepted for the choir.
Mr. Steede, doyen of masters and professor of mathematics, had a tenor voice and sang the solo parts of the anthem every Sunday. He sat behind me in the top stall on the left as you entered the chapel, and I can still hear him singing:
Seek ye the Lord while He ma-ay be found.
Call ye upon Him while He-ee is near!
Mr. Steede had grey hair and asthma. His senses of humor and justice were highly developed. With the exceptions of R.M. Gwynn, an old Columban and fellow of Trinity College, Dublin, who once took over the duties of warden while the appointment of a new warden was pending, and of the bursar, Jerry Whelan, no master was as highly esteemed by the boys during my five years at Saint Columba's. I liked him myself because, instead of punishing me he tried to encourage me when I flunked my algebra and arithmetic, though in the end he gave me up as a bad job. The way he could juggle x + y's and columns of figures, and solve problems in geometry, trigonometry and logarithms—which always were and always have remained mysteries to me, filled me with admiration. His tenor voice decided me to become a tenor, and, as far as I could judge, singing tenor consisted in singing the same tune as everyone else at the same time, but in a different key. So I began to sing that way.
After a week or so Mr. Cooper had a tuner come out from Dublin to tune the organ. I continued singing tenor instead of treble. A few days later two tuners came out and there were long discussions with Mr. Cooper, and the second tuner said the first tuner was right and Mr. Cooper said they were both wrong. So all three of them tried the organ and it sounded all right. All the same, Mr. Cooper felt sure one of the stops was off key, only he could not find out which one.
On Sunday they noticed the same noise, and the following Sunday, while I was lustily singing tenor instead of treble, I did not notice that Mr. Steede was passing slowly behind the stall where I was sitting. After service the boys who sat on either side of me, Peet minor and Russell, and I were told to remain.
Mr. Cooper went to the organ and Mr. Steede stood beside us. Mr. Cooper played a psalm:
Like as the hart desireth the waterbrook
So longeth my soul after Thee, O God!
"You first, Russell," Mr. Steede said.
Russell sang the psalm through.
"You may go," said Mr. Steede.
He took Peet minor next. And then came my turn. I gave what I thought was a fine imitation of Mr. Steede and, when I had finished, felt I had never sung so beautifully in my life. And then I noticed a very sad expression on Mr. Steede's face, and he looked at Mr. Cooper and they both looked at me, and Mr. Steede said to go over and wait for Mr. Cooper in his room, and I did. And Mr. Cooper said I was at the age when a boy's voice began to break and my collaboration would no longer be needed in the choir. I explained at once that I had been singing tenor like Mr. Steede; but Mr. Cooper was very firm, though not unkind.
And so my chorister days ended almost before they had begun.