George Gissing

"The Schoolmaster's Vision"

IN the quarter of an hour before morning school, Mr. Donne, as was 
his wont, paced a strip of garden within view of the playground. He 
was bareheaded, and his magisterial gown, scarcely stirred by the 
breath of a calm, bright sky, draped him with the dignity he loved. 
His hands behind him - shapely hands, white and soft - his head 
inclined, and his features set in meditative mildness, Mr. Donne 
presented the ideal of head-mastership. He was the man with 
whom no boy would take a liberty, who ruled by spiritual awe 
(scornful of baser method), and in whom his mature associates 
respected the bland union of erudition and high breeding.
With half attention his eye remarked two youngsters who were 
approaching him; one of them, a lad of twelve, at length stepped up 
to the wicket by which Mr. Donne was passing, and respectfully 
made known his wish to be heard.

"What is it, Rogers?"
"If you please, Sir, Argent would like to speak to you."
"Certainly. Why need Argent send an ambassador? Ask him to come 
into the garden."
Rogers withdrew, and his companion, a pale, timid boy, two years 
younger, came forward. Willie Argent was in his first term, and still 
regarded the head-master with dread rather than veneration. 
Having passed the wicket, he stood in a paralysed attitude, unable 
to raise his eyes or to utter a sound.
"Well, Argent," said Mr. Donne kindly, "what is it You had a letter 
this morning, I think. Any news you wish to tell me?"
The poor little lad feebly commanded his tongue.
"Yes, Sir - please, Sir. It was from Mamma. She's coming to see me."
"Indeed? I'm very glad to hear it. When will she come?"
"To-day, Sir - some time - most likely the afternoon." Mr. Donne 
knew nothing of Mrs. Argent save that she was a widow, and had 
for some years been living in France. The boy was placed with him 
by a relative residing at Bristol, a merchant of good position, whose 
house was Willie's home. These circumstances had excited no 
interest in Mr. Donne, and it was now perhaps for the first time that 
he carefully regarded the lad's countenance. Willie Argent had 
pretty, girlish features, indicative of delicate sensibilities, and of a 
nervous system altogether out of tone. When he had spoken a few 
more words, and had dismissed the pupil to his play, the 
schoolmaster mused awhile on the probable character and 
appearance of Mrs. Argent. In all likelihood, a not very estimable 
woman; careless, perhaps, of her child-coming to see him merely 
when it suited her convenience. The boy did not seem particularly 
pleased. "Mamma" sounded awkwardly on his lips. Well, it was 
something, however trivial, to vary the monotony of the day. As he 
heard the school-bell begin to clang, Mr. Donne sighed. He turned 
from the garden with a weary reluctance, far more difficult to 
overcome than the spirit of the boys which bade them revolt 
against imprisonment on such a morning as this. From the steps of 
the private door he looked for a moment over a wide prospect of 
fields and woods, where on the horizon lay a murky cloud. That was 
Bristol. The city had no special attraction for him, but, in default of 
better resort, Mr. Donne would gladly have spent a truant day 
among the shops and shipping. But his "senior Greek" awaited him.
The school had a moderate reputation. Fifteen years ago, soon after 
he left the University, and simultaneously with his marriage, Mr. 
Donne became its proprietor, deciding hurriedly upon a career for 
which everyone assured him that he was well fitted. As, indeed, he 
was, though - a common case - he might have done better in other 
walks of life. Marriage obliged him to decide in haste; otherwise, 
there would have been both time and opportunity for experimental 
efforts. While yet an undergraduate he had become engaged to a 
girl of his own rank, and the prospect of domestic happiness 
overcame all other considerations. For this also Mr. Donne had 
abundant capacity. Youth entangled him in no passionate 
perplexities; nothing in his history asked for concealment; he 
married at the bidding of a tranquil, steadfast love, and found no 
reason to repent his choice. It was only that he might have done 80 
much better not to marry at all - the common case.
Three children were born to him; all lived and were growing up in 
health. But the mother had been dead some six years. It was the 
result of a boating accident. Saved from drowning, Mrs. Donne died 
of an illness that followed upon the shock.
He thought of her with a tender regret, and, could a word have 
brought her to his side again, would joyfully have spoken it. And 
yet, and yet, he had long ceased to suffer under his bereavement. 
He thought of himself as a man to whom the world still offered 
richer opportunities than he had hitherto known; it might be that 
Providence - such is the mould of some men's reflection - had 
designedly released him from an unsuitable bond. Poor Rachael was 
not exactly the wife for him; he had known it long before her death. 
An admirable woman; so sweet of temper, so loyal, so modest, so 
"right-thinking," but with. not a spark of originality, and hopelessly 
astray in any sphere but that of home. After living with her for a 
few months he could anticipate all her views, her very phrases, 
with entire certainty. She thought of everything from one 
unchangeable point of view; the propriety of her sentiments 
defeated criticism; her conduct was flawless. And what more could 
a man desire in his wife? Mr. Donne many a time and oft rebuked 
himself for secret impatience. His perturbed mind presently gave 
admission to the strangest fancies. If only it was permissible to 
cherish the wife of one's bosom, and at the same time to let one's 
eyes wander in search of ---- But the dissolute thought could have 
no abiding place in a mind of such integrity.
Mr. Donne's sister, a discreet domestic lady of something more than 
forty maiden years, now kept house for him, and relieved him of all 
minor cares about his children. As for the school, it might have 
prospered more decidedly under more energetic governance; the 
head-master taught only one or two classes, and these, not seldom, 
with a rather noticeable languor; but his assistants were well 
chosen, and he held his supremacy in a way which allowed no one 
to suspect that at heart he so often despised himself and all his 
functions. He had the grand manner, shaped on the best academic 
tradition. Though not in orders, he could on occasion discourse with. 
the true clerical impressiveness; but of late years he was grown 
chary of exercising this talent to the full; his admonitions, public 
and private, were marked by a more secular tone than during Mrs. 
Donne's lifetime.
About eleven o'clock this morning, as he sat in his study trying to 
write letters, but actually overcome with a singular listlessness, it 
was announced that a lady - Mrs. Argent - would like to see him. He 
rose at once.
"Miss Donne is engaged, I suppose?"
"Yes, Sir. The lady is in the drawing-room."
Thither he at once betook himself, thinking not at all of Mrs. Argent 
as an interesting person or otherwise, but glad of the event as a 
distraction to his oppressive mood. As he entered the room, and 
became aware of its occupant, he felt a shock of surprise; there rose 
before him a lady whom he would never have imagined to be the 
mother of a boy ten years old; so fresh her complexion, 80 slim and 
lithe her figure, so spirited her whole aspect, that one would 
naturally have taken her for six-and-twenty at most. She was 
dressed, too, in an unfamiliar costume, with curiously short skirts. 
Before the schoolmaster could offer any greeting, Mrs. Argent, 
stepping forward with delightful frankness, her hand extended, 
addressed him almost gaily, as though they were old acquaintances.
"I am so afraid, Dr. Donne, that I have timed my visit awkwardly. 
But, really, the morning was so delightful, and-the fact is I have run 
down from Bristol on my machine - my bicycle. I thought at first of 
spending the time somehow till afternoon; but I really ought to be 
back again before evening. If you will forgive me - and allow my 
little son to play truant for once ----"
Mr. Donne (not for the first time was he styled Doctor) found 
himself regarding the lady's skirts and her wonderful feet with 
indecorous fixity: he became a trifle confused, and at first could 
murmur only the indispensable words of politeness. The accidental 
peculiarity of Mrs. Argent's mode of travelling seemed to obscure 
for the moment her more essential characteristics. It was not until 
she had spoken again, praising the site of the school, that he became 
fully conscious of her very charming voice and manner and bearing. 
The Puritan strain in him prompted disapproval. After all, she was 
doubtless the neglectful mother he had supposed; a frivolous, 
sportive creature, enjoying life '.in her own way, and throwing her 
natural responsibilities on to other shoulders. His countenance 
betrayed the thought, even though he was endeavouring to shape it 
into such a smile as might be worn by a man of the world.
"Your son will be delighted. He expected you, I think, only in the 
afternoon ----"
"Yes. Impatience has always been my fault. But what do you think 
of him, Dr. Donne? Not much life in him I'm afraid This air ought to 
brace him up."
The schoolmaster delivered himself with professional gravity of 
certain rounded periods, and, even whilst he spoke, abused himself 
inwardly for owlishness. Effort was vain; he could not assume a 
natural demeanour and, as he wished, converse with this 
interesting lady in her own spirit. Awed, no doubt, by a dignity 
which seemed expressly meant for her edification, Mrs. Argent 
grew more sedate, more self-conscious.
"You will be able, I trust," hummed the head-master, "to give us the 
pleasure of your company at luncheon. My sister ----"
Mrs. Argent accepted with formal amiability, using few words; and 
thereupon Mr. Donne withdrew to apprise Willie and send him to 
his mother.
Parent and child were together for half an hour in the drawing-
room, and at length entered to them Miss Donne, who left no 
hospitable duty or grace undischarged.
"Willie wants to see me on my bicycle," said Mrs. Argent, "so we'll 
go out together for an hour. The run will do him good, I daresay."
To Miss Donne the lady's manner touched upon condescension, had 
the unmistakable air of social superiority; a tone which might be 
held to justify itself, for Mrs. Argent diffused about her an 
atmosphere of wealth and fashion. The head-master's sister was 
able to observe her from a window as she rode away on the bicycle, 
slowly, skilfully, the little lad trotting by her side; and presently she 
exchanged comments with Mr. Donne. "An unusual sort of person," 
remarked the schoolmaster, in an absent voice. "Of the newest type, 
I presume." And he would add little to this opinion. Miss Donne 
concluded, with satisfaction, that he thought more of Mrs. Argent 
than he cared to say.
On their return at the luncheon hour, mother and son sat side by 
side in Mr. Donne's dining-room. Willie's face showed an unwonted 
animation; though voiceless and unable to eat, he smiled with 
pleasure, and constantly sought his mother's eyes. The head-master 
was able at length to note a likeness between the two, but he still 
marvelled at the lady's seeming youth; she and Willie might have 
been brother 'and sister. Mrs. Argent's talk, bright and entertaining, 
had no reference whatever to domestic affairs. She spoke of a 
recent journey she had made in a little-known part of Europe; then 
of meetings with people whom it interested Mr. Donne to hear of - 
politicians, learned men, celebrated women. The schoolmaster's 
eyes brightened; insensibly he took more claret than usual, and 
when the inevitable end drew near he felt a profound despondency.
"You think of making your home in this part of England, Mrs. 
Argent?" he asked, leaning forward a little.
"Oh, no!" she answered, with a smile which suggested some special 
meaning. "I return to London to-morrow, and - most likely I shall 
leave England again - for a time."
The schoolmaster's spirits sank; even his features betrayed a 
disappointment, though he forced himself to smile continuously. But 
he still had an hour's enjoyment of Mrs. Argent's company. Willie, 
dismissed the while, came back again to sit with his mother in the 
drawing-room until it was time for her to leave. Mrs. Argent 
proposed returning to Bristol as she had come.
"You don't cycle, Dr. Donne?"
The man would have given half his substance to be able to mount at 
her side. His jaw became rigid.
"Oh, I beg your pardon! It would hardly be ----"
"Merely my neglect of rational exercise," interposed the 
schoolmaster quickly. "No point of etiquette is involved, I assure 
When the moment came, he accompanied her into the garden, 
watched her wheel out the machine and spring to her seat with 
perfect grace, strode by her as far as to the gate, and stood 
bareheaded as she swept away, the boy running and leaping in her 
track. Then he went straight to his study.
There had vanished the very ideal of his dreaming soul - or 
perhaps of his restless, hungered emotion. A woman such as this he 
had never met - never even in the days long ago, before his 
marriage, when he mixed freely in the world. To him Mrs. Argent 
was indeed of a new type; and no woman had ever so wrought upon 
his imagination.
It might be - nay, undoubtedly it was the fact - that she fell far 
below ethical perfection; she was probably selfish at the core, 
incapable of the nobler feelings, a mere flash of superficial 
brilliance. She cared little or nothing for her child; desired only not 
to be troubled by him. For all that-a woman And Mr. Donne felt as 
though he had lived hitherto without consciousness of woman's 
existence. His eyes dazzled; his blood became a rushing torrent.
With angry contempt he swept aside his old scholastic judgment of 
female excellence. A simple maiden, a humdrum housewife, an 
indefatigable mother - yes, yes, all very good in their way; but man 
is man, and woman is woman, and love is something other than 
domestic tranquillity. Had he but known himself and life before the 
marriage which made of him a respectable piece of mechanism! The 
mere thought that he might have lived to love, and be loved by, 
such a woman as Mrs. Argent, shook him with a frenzy.
He struggled to command himself; the mental habits of a lifetime 
would not utterly yield to calenture such as this - natural and 
pardonable in a very young man, but in one who had turned his 
fortieth year a mere depravity of the senses. He tried to fix his 
thoughts on the routine of the day, but the effort merely increased 
his loathing for customary occupations. From the cricket-field 
sounded voices of the boys at play, and he wished to stop his ears 
against them. There came into his mind the contemptuous word 
"pedagogue," and he kept repeating it. A pedagogue he; no man at 
all, but a pedagogue; presumed, in the nature of things, to be 
passionless, arid - a guide - post to examinations and all the virtues. 
In the end his torture became intolerable; he could combat no 
longer in this stifling atmosphere of classics and dictionaries; 
without a word to anyone he prepared himself as if for an ordinary 
walk, and set out by a field-path, leaving the school behind him as 
quickly as possible.
Until of late he had always kept himself in good physical condition; 
that was part of his duty as a headmaster, as an exemplar; but now, 
for a month or two, he had all but foregone custom of exercise. The 
warm spring, following on a severe winter, relaxed his muscles, and 
a corresponding state of mind drew him into habits of indolence. 
After walking half a mile at brisk speed he felt tired and breathless. 
Indignant at this new revolt of the flesh, fiercely determined to 
subdue his body, he strode along until the sweat streamed from 
him. He had reached higher ground; a sea wind blew upon his face, 
and gave him an access of vigour. On he went, careless of direction, 
so long as he moved farther and farther from the hated school.
As the sun sank, he looked about him for an inn where he could eat 
and drink. The house into which he at length turned afforded better 
accommodation than he had hoped for; on an impulse, while sitting 
over his meal, he asked whether he could have a room there for the 
night, and without difficulty obtained it. Very well, he would grant 
himself these few hours of liberty. His absence from home would 
cause surprise, and, perhaps, a little uneasiness; no matter; as early 
as possible in the morning a telegram should set his sister's mind at 
Weary as he was, he again strolled about dark lanes, where now 
and then a perfume made his soul faint within him. When at length 
he went to bed, fatigue and the strangeness of his surroundings 
allied themselves with mental excitement to forbid sleep. On the 
staircase, for a long time, there sounded a whispered conversation; 
the giggling of a girl ever and again sent a hot flush through his 
veins. Then, of a sudden, heavy slumber overcame him.
He passed into a dream-world, more feverish and phantasmal than 
that in which he had been agonising. First of all came a sense of 
speeding through vast spaces, he knew not by what mode of 
locomotion; beside him sped - not a person, but a voice. A woman's 
voice, clear as a silver bell, ever rising to the note of merry 
laughter. And it seemed to urge him on, until the exhausting 
violence of his efforts made him aware that he was neither running 
nor flying, but-riding on a bicycle. He marvelled at his sudden skill 
in the management of this machine. "Do I ride well?" he shouted, 
against the wind that all but stopped his breath. And the answer 
was a gay, echoing laugh,, which shook him with such delirium of 
passion that he started up from the bed, and half awoke.
Now he was climbing, still unutterably fatigued, but resolute in 
advance, though it cost him his life; for the same voice still 
accompanied him, inflamed his blood, and made his brain whirl 
with rapture. The dream was in part a reminiscence of bygone 
holidays in Switzerland; he saw the gleaming summits, the pine-
forests down below, and lower still the great expanse of a lake. 
With this blended the school-room legend of Orpheus. The voice - 
now behind him - was that of Eurydice. He knew that he must not 
turn to look upon her, or all was lost. "Follow me! Follow me!" he 
kept crying, and the answer was a reassuring laugh. "The peak-and 
you are mine!" To that rapturous exclamation there came no 
answer. Terror-stricken, he called again: "At the peak, you are 
mine!" The awful silence overwhelmed him; spite of himself, he 
turned, and, even as he did so, plunged into the gloom of fathomless 
depths. Again he woke, and lay trembling, bathed in sweat.
For what seemed a long time, he tried in vain to sleep. He wished 
for a renewal of the dreams, an agony yet a rapture. A cock crowed 
in the night; a horseman came galloping beneath the windows. Then 
all was quiet again, and again he slept.
He was once more on the bicycle, but this time had no control of it; 
he wriggled, tumbled, could not advance a yard, and fumed in the 
anguish of feeling himself, of making himself ridiculous. Near him 
stood Mrs. Argent, holding her own machine as he had seen her just 
before she mounted to ride away from the school; but she wore a 
magnificent dress, such as would have become her on some brilliant 
occasion of festivity, her bosom bare, save for gleaming jewels, and 
her arms a glory of living flesh. She was beginning to show 
impatience. "Oh, can't you do better than that? You really must be 
quick; I can't wait for you." He made a desperate attempt to mount, 
but his eyes would not turn from the woman's beauty, and again he 
came ignominiously to the ground. Then she gave a loud, scornful 
laugh; he saw her spring to the saddle, bend her shining head, and 
float away. He pursued, and had strength to keep her in sight for a 
long way on a country road; ever calling, imploring, with wondrous 
vocabulary of passionate desire. All at once he saw by the roadside 
a little boy, who, without moving, held out his hands after the 
woman, and cried to her, "Mamma! Mamma!" At the pitiful sight, a 
great indignation possessed him. "Stop!" he shouted. "It's your own 
child! Stop!" But in that moment the radiant figure passed out of his 
sight. He heard the boy weeping bitterly, and he too wept.
Amid innumerable phases of less distinct nightmare, there came 
one which, even as he dreamt, alarmed him by its grotesque 
caricaturing of a solemn ceremony in his actual life. He saw himself 
in the study, closeted with a boy - or, rather, a young man - who 
was about to leave school, and to whom, his wont on such occasions, 
he was imparting grave advice. First of all came the accustomed 
injunctions, sober, paternal, altogether excellent. But presently he 
lost control of his tongue, which; as though at the prompting of a 
Mephistopheles, began to utter counsel such as appalled his own 
ear. "And now there is one point on which I feel obliged to touch, 
delicate though it may be. You are nineteen years of age; you are 
already going out into the world: the probability is that, before 
many years are over, you will think of marrying. My dear boy, let 
me beg of you, for your own sake, not to marry. Believe me, 
marriage is the check upon civilisation. What men might do if only 
they remained free through all their active years? We find 
ourselves drudging to support wife and family, and it leaves us no 
strength for anything else. Besides - you are sure to marry the 
wrong woman. Imagine what it means, when you are irrevocably 
bound, to meet with your ideal in the other sex! That fleeting 
always comes much later in life, and the bitterness of it! Of all my 
advice to you this is the most precious, because it comes of my own 
miserable experience. Store it in your mind and heart!" The young 
man said something, turned away, and went from the room. No 
sooner had he gone than the dreamer felt a revulsion. Unutterably 
shocked and ashamed, he rushed after his pupil, meaning to 
obliterate that outrageous folly, to make a confession of temporary 
insanity - anything, so that the words might be unspoken. But he 
sought in vain all over the school-buildings, in the playground, the 
fields. He tore about, his gown flying in the wind - and with a 
choking shout returned to consciousness.
When morning glimmered at the windows he rose and dressed. 
What a night! It had effectually cured him of his erotic fever; for he 
ached throughout his body, and had a brain like lead. To make 
things worse, the weather had changed; rain was falling, and 
seemed likely to continue. He descended the stairs with uncertain 
step, and stood by the open door of the inn drinking fresh air. After 
a pretence of breakfast, a ramshackle conveyance bore him to the 
nearest railway-station, and he reached home about midday.
Miss Donne did not press for explanations. She was accustomed to 
regard her brother as wisdom in the flesh, and his strange worried 
look suggested matters too deep for her inquiry. The head-master 
kept very much to himself for the rest of the day. He did nothing, 
and in his enforced idleness felt an older man.
The next morning he arose in a mood of indifference, ready to 
pursue the familiar course with little more than the wonted 
distaste. But something happened to affect the sluggish current of 
his thoughts. His youngest child, a little girl of seven, had fallen ill 
in the night; the symptoms were alarming, and a doctor had to be 
sent for. Mr. Donne felt his paternal affection revive, and 
throughout the day he had no temptation to think of Mrs. Argent, or 
of his recent extravagances.
The day after that, when his mind was eased somewhat regarding 
the child, he chanced in the afternoon to look into one of the smaller 
school-rooms. As soon as he pushed the door open he heard a sob. 
Within, at one of the desks, sat a boy with head bowed upon his 
arms, crying desolately. It was Willie Argent. The head-master 
entered, closed the door, and from a short distance spoke with as 
much kindness as his voice could convey.
"What is the matter, my boy? Why are you crying?"
Willie gave a start, and sprang up. His face showed that he must 
have been here for some time indulging a bitter grief. Mr. Donne 
strove to reassure him; laid a hand on his shoulder; again speaking 
as gently as possible.
"Do you feel home-sick, Willie?"
"It's more that - that I haven't got a home," broke from the boy's 
quivering lips, with phrase and accents of sincerity which touched 
the hearer profoundly.
"Oh, don't think that! Be sure your mother will make a home for you 
before long."
Willie looked up, became shamefaced, struggled to speak, and, after 
more encouragement, brought forth the news which weighed so 
upon his heart.
"Mamma is going to be married, Sir."
Mr. Donne heard it without surprise or any other emotion.
"She told you so? Why, then, you will have a home so much the 
"No, Sir. She said I should live with my uncle and aunt just the 
The head-master cleared his throat, again kindly patted the boy's 
shoulder, and began to discourse in set phrase.
"My dear Willie, you have begun your experience of the troubles of 
life rather early, it is true, but remember that all trials, all sorrows, 
are for our. ultimate good. Boys are sent to school that they may 
learn many other things besides lessons out of books. One of these 
things is manly independence. I am sure your mother has a 
satisfactory purpose in arranging thus for you. Doubtless she has 
observed that you are inclined to cling too much to the comforts of 
home; she wishes to see you more like other boys-less sensitive, 
more vigorous. You are going through a period of rather hard 
discipline, but in the end you will reap a benefit. My boy, suffering 
is the price of all good things in this world. It is suffering that forms 
a manly character. It would never do if we had everything as we 
wished. The noblest minds have gone through the hardest 
discipline. . . ."
With much else to the same effect. And Mr. Donne did not believe a 
word of it. His inner voice accompanied the audible with a running 
comment. "Cant! Rubbish! Misery such as this never did anything 
but grievous harm to body and soul. Why haven't you the honesty 
to keep silence, where truth cannot be told?"
Of a sudden he recollected a portion of his dreams at the village inn, 
that grotesque interview with the boy who was leaving school. It 
had never recurred to his mind till now. He fell into abrupt silence.
Willie was no longer sobbing.
"I will try, Sir," he said, when Mr. Donne seemed to have ended his 
hortatory remarks.
"There's a brave lad! Come, now, you must go out and join in the 
boys' games. And-if ever you would like to speak to me in private 
about anything, don't be timid. Come to me whenever you see me 
walking in the garden. There's no reason whatever to be afraid of 
me, I assure you." The head-master smiled, averting his look. "Come 
as to a friend, my dear boy, and I will do my utmost to help you in 
trouble such as this, or any other."
A day or two, and all was as before. Mr. Donne had lost no dignity 
in the eyes of his subjects; he swayed the sceptre with no less 
authority and grace than heretofore. If he knew himself somewhat 
better, that was a purely private affair; perhaps he murmured to 
himself the old philosopher's injunction, in Greek or in Latin, and 
felt that it had a fuller significance for him. But the strange 
experience in no way affected his conduct.
When the head boy left school Mr. Donne imparted his final counsel 
with even more unction than of wont.
"And one word more, of wider application. Whatever the path in 
which Providence directs you, cultivate a reasonable contentment. 
There is a spirit abroad- a spirit of restlessness, of revolt. Be not 
misled by it. However dull, however wearisome your appointed 
task, discharge it thankfully; for, I assure you, there's nothing so 
wholesome for man as steady and fruitful labour. Do not become 
the plaything of a restive imagination; always consult your calm 
reason; always ----"


Provided by Mitsuharu Matsuoka, Nagoya University, Japan,
on 18 July 2002.

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