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As Mr Wilkins had kindly read his initial sentence aloud for my benefit, I had my doubts as to whether Corydon's accent, if he really picked it up from his teacher, would quite pass muster in Paris, and even fancied that he might be better understood if he kept to English. But I was glad, nevertheless, that Wilkins should pocket the honorarium offered for the teaching of the French language by our local Education Committee, and I am sure that his pupils got full value for the money when they were informed that their instructor's nephew had the merit, in addition to his good looks, of being "always kind to the cat of his family, which catches many mice in the garden."
I ought to add that it was only when I came to read this sentence in print that I fully appreciated the good points of the family cat. For when Erasmus read it aloud to ne, not being a skilled interpreter, I gathered the impression that the animal's favourite diet was buttercups, and that Mr Wilkins had temporarily forgotten the correct French rendering for this "unwonted food." And now I have something in the nature of a tragedy to chronicle, a less gruesome tragedy perhaps than some, inasmuch as it had a distinctly comic side. On Monday morning I received the following comfollowing communication from my friend Wilkins ::
"MY DEAR SIR,-It is my intention on Thursday next to give a Public Exhibition of the
Proficiency of the Pupils who attend the Board School in Mental Arithmetic and other branches of Education. The pleasure of your company is requested, and you will be invited to put any appropriate question that may occur to you. Faithfully yours, ERASMUS WILKINS.
"The doors of the Board School will be open at 7 o'clock.”
My first impulse was to decline the invitation. Eight o'clock is my ordinary dinnerhour, and independently of the fact that I had a man coming to dine with me, I am unenterprising enough not to care for shows of any kind or at any hour of day or night, and this particular form of show just at my dinner-time did not appeal to me in the least. So I even wrote a polite note to the worthy Erasmus, pleading a prior engagement, and expressing my readiness to take the proficiency of any pupil of his, whether in mental arithmetic or in any other branch of education, for granted, &c., &c. However he was by no means satisfied to accept my excuse, and when happening to meet him on the road I found that he had really set his heart upon my being present, and was inclined to make a personal matter of it, I effected a compromise, and agreed to form one one of the audience during the display of mental arithmetic, on the distinct understanding that that I should not be expected to put any questions. For I seemed to have read a story some
where about a bishop and a caterpillar.
The eventful evening came, and I will plead guilty to having made a slight mistake in the matter of my costume. I have been told that man who, with the courage of his own opinions, went to Lord's arrayed in white ducks and a straw hat when the rest of the male sex had donned frock-coats and tall hats, albeit he was not easily disconcerted, did rather wish once or twice in the day that he had stopped at home. And again, a friend of mine, when he was run out in a country match up in Yorkshire, seemed to be rather unreasonably annoyed at the incident; but later on in the day condescended to explain that it was not the fact of being run out that upset his equilibrium, but that he felt it infra dig. to be run out by "a d-d exciseman." Some similar sort of feelings now, I will acknowledge, possessed my soul when, having, after due reflection, made up my mind to put on a decent morning coat for Mr Wilkins's entertainment, I found, to my surprise, that the man himself and two or three members of the audience were attired in dress clothes, with white ties, smart button-holes, and everything else up to date. However, I will let that pass, and describe the show to the best of my ability. We, and by we I mean the more-dare I say it?-highly educated part of the audience, were seated on a sort of dais at the upper end of the room, while a goodly muster of the parents of the
school-children either sat on benches or leant against the wall at the lower end. The centre was occupied by the children; but just in front of our dais was a large vacant space, in the middle of which stood Erasmus Wilkins with a gardenia in his button-hole and a white wand in his hand, looking, so at least I thought, very much like the man who stands in the ring and acts as master of ceremonies at a circus.
"By your leave, ladies and gentlemen," he said, bowing to the chairman of the school board, a gentleman who in private life is occasionally kind enough to kill and cut up a pig for me, and charges half-acrown for the job. On this particular night he was looking quite at his best, having donned for the occasion a dress-coat which had once been my property, but had passed out of iny possession at our recent rummage sale. I had acted as a salesman on the day of the sale, and did not seem to identify Mr William Ives as the original purchaser of the garment, but it possibly changed hands later on. In due obedience to the proverb which warns us not to talk to the man at the wheel, and lacking the hardihood to proffer advice to the chairman of a school board, I did not presume to suggest to Mr William Ives that the poor dress-coat during the tenancy of its first proprietor had not been in the habit of being buttoned up all the way down or yet of being company with a bottle
green scarf tied in a huge bow. And, after all, these things are only petty matters of taste, and I see no reason to doubt that Mr Ives's taste in the matter of personal adornment is quite as reliable as my own. At any rate, he had done what I had neglected to do, namely, put on a dress-coat, and so had the advantage of me.
But to proceed. Permission having been graciously conceded by the chairman, sharp at the word there stepped forward into the arena twelve boys in their Sunday best, and with that extra pennyworth of hairoil which a late Bishop of Peterborough always declared to be a sine qua non addition to the ordinary toilet affected by the rural candidates at a confirmation. A wave of Mr Wilkins's wand, and a bevy of giggling damsels also appeared, and as they wore white dresses and white cotton gloves, for the moment it looked as though the affair was going to resolve itself into a country-dance or kiss-in-the-ring. But no! Mr Wilkins now again bowed to the chair.
"These boys and girls will now show you a few ordinary exercises in mental arithmetic, at the conclusion of which I shall invite any member of the audience to put any arithmetical question that may occur to them. Now, children, attention all!" and there followed what I considered at the moment one of the most extraordinary performances that I had ever witnessed in my life. Speaking at exactly the same rate as if he were reading aloud
a lengthy English sentence with two or three commas in it, Mr Wilkins proceeded to dictate a sum much after this fashion :—
"From 247 subtract 166, take square root, multiply by 34, halve result, add 77, divide by 5, subtract a quarter, multiply by 12, subtract twice 7, divide by 40, square," and then, just as I I was beginning to wonder how much longer this awful sum was going on, he came to a sudden stop, and exclaimed, "Hands up those who have finished!"
Up went twenty-four hands without the slightest hesitation, and twenty-four voices proclaimed with one accord that the answer was 100.
"Has any lady or gentleman any reason to doubt the correctness of the answer?" inquired the great Erasmus, bowing to the platform; and as most of the audience were, like myself, absolute strangers to an exhibition of the sort, no one had the temerity to question the accuracy of the working. I will own that for an instant a wicked thought flashed across me that if the answer given had been a million instead of a hundred, it would have been much the same thing to most of us. But happening to catch the curate's eye, and knowing that he was a bit of a mathematician, I signalled to him for information, and gathered from the nod that he gave me that the answer was correct. Our curate, I should say, if not a man of many words, and for that very reason a distinctly popular preacher in this part of the world, generally speaks to
the point when he does open his lips, and is seldom likely to "give himself away."
The entertainment then proceeded merrily enough, much on the same lines as I have indicated, and no one could have failed to be impressed by the rapidity of the working as well as by the uniformity and accuracy of the answers. Just as I was pondering in my mind how in the world our young clodhoppers could have been brought to this pitch of perfection, Mr Wilkins, on the termination of a particularly intricate sum, suddenly turned round, and addressing the dress - circle, if I may so call the occupants of our platform, inquired with a suave and very superior smile if any lady or gentleman would now have the kindness to put a few questions in arithmetic. As well might the ringmaster -I must really apologise for harping upon that circus-invite some respectable matron in the half-crown seats to doff her skirts, appear in the light and airy costume affected by the lady performers, and ride bareback on a piebald horse or jump through paper hoops.
Instinctively all eyes were turned upon the worthy chairman, who rose quite grandly to the occasion, and expressed our feelings in a short but wholly characteristic oration. It was a disappointment to me that he did not think it consorted with his dignity to stand up when he delivered himself, as I was curious to know how the coattails were standing the buttoning-up ordeal.
"I dunno as I ever clapped
eyes upon a primer piece of schoolin' not in all my born days. It's a credit to its teaching and the man as teached it.”
I fancied that I had heard our worthy chairman make a similar speech once or twice before under not exactly similar circumstances, but far be it from me to make reflections on the oratory of the leaders of the people.
Of course we all said "Hear, hear," and Mr William Ives smiled upon us benignly.
And now comes the sad part of my story. It is indeed a melancholy circumstance that some men never seem to know when they are well off, and, intoxicated by success, fail to appreciate the fact that there is a point at which it were better to stop. As that great man Napoleon Bonaparte tempted fortune once too often and marched upon Moscow, so now that other great man Erasmus Wilkins most unnecessarily and most unadvisedly rushed upon his fate. It may have been that just for the moment my esteemed friend was, to borrow a slang expression, "a little bit above himself," and, as I think I have already sufficiently explained, in his case this is saying a great deal. For at all times and on divers grounds our board schoolmaster has been prone to fancy that one Erasmus Wilkins is a person of no ordinary mental calibre. At any rate, he now evinced a slight want of tact in addressing what I must call the gallery as opposed to the dress circle by the
title of "people," after calling us "ladies and gentlemen,' making a sort of invidious distinction where a difference could hardly be said to exist. For, as our baker had once been at pains to inform me when he caught me smiling because he had spoken of the great Alfred who "mucks out my sties" as a very affable gentleman," it is the custom in our part of the world to call every man who pays twenty shillings in the pound a gentleman, and every woman who wears black stockings a lady. Moreover, it was with a sort of half-pitying and half-contemptuous air that Mr Wilkins now inquired, "I suppose none of you people there want to ask any questions?" and his tone, too, evidently implied that no one was expected to say "Yes," or even to speak at all.
Not John of Anjou or any one of that brilliant ring of spectators who graced the lists at Ashby with their presence, not the redoubtable Templar himself, could have felt more astonished-nay, I might even say, more disagreeably surprised by the Knight of Ivanhoe's sudden and altogether unlooked-for defiance than was Erasmus now, when a voice from the gallery was heard, "I've a moind as I'd loike to ask a thing or two, if as how you're quite agreeable, Mister."
Horresco referens, where angels-for we were, as I have said, a bit aloft-had feared to tread, now rushed wildly in a big journeyman blacksmith. I saw, as he stood up, that he
was, like myself, wearing a sort of undress uniform, the difference between us being that he had on an apron but no coat, while I had a coat of a sort, but, being neither a bishop nor a blacksmith, could not aspire to an apron. The man was well known to me by sight as a mighty hitter on our village green, respectable enough, though, unlike Alfred, not always affable in his manners, which were rather those of an Orlick than of a Joe Gargery. That he could shoe a horse or ring a sow against any man in the parish were points in his favour; but he was the last person in the world whom I should have suspected to see volunteering to act as mathematical poser.
It was not till the rector was discussing the evening's proceedings with me. on the following morning that I earnt that our Orlick, having had some difference of opinion with the board school attendance officer, considered himself as an aggrieved individual, and bore a grudge against the schoolmaster as a real or imaginary particeps criminis. However, there he was, apron and all, standing side by side with the spruce Wilkins, who, in his character as ringmaster, did not seem wholly to relish the prospect of the clown's assistance. The latter appeared to be in no way abashed by the publicity into which he had suddenly thrust himself; but, after favouring me with a nod of recognition, proceeded to pass the time of day to the chairman of the school board.
"Evenin,' Bill, old man;