Haggart's Lie by Geraldine Glasgow
Crawley Major was talking very impressively in the great class-room
of Felton College. Even the few slow boys who were still mumbling over
their Latin grammar for next day had one ear pricked up to hear what he
was saying. I'll tell you what it is, said Crawley Major, addressing
them generally: the Doctor is in a furious wax, and he will be pretty
free with his canings and impositions to-morrow. I just happened to be
taking a message to Barclay, when he comes fussing in, not seeing me,
and just swells up to Barclay, purple with rage.
`Somebody has had the boat out on the river again, Mr Barclay,' he
says, `notwithstanding my orders and all the fines and punishments I
have imposed, and I'm determined to find out who it is.' Then he saw me
and turned purple again. `Now, Crawley, you have heard what I said, and
you can just return to the class-room and tell your companions that I
shall come down in half an hour, and I intend to have the truth about
that boat if I have to keep every boy in the school under punishment
for the next month;' so here I am.
Oh, stop that, Crawley, said a bright, handsome lad, who was
standing on the table so as to get a better view of the proceedings.
The Doctor's not often in a wax, and it's no joke when he is. I didn't
think there was a fellow in the school would have touched the boat
after what he said last time.
All the boys hurled themselves at the table from which Haggart had
been giving out his opinions, and there was a general shout of: No!
It must be all right, said Haggart again. He was looking
carelessly round, and he suddenly caught sight of a frightened face a
long way beneath him. Don't be in such a funk, Harry, he said
good-humouredly. It will all come right in the end! The Doctor's
awfully hard sometimes, but he's always justeh, Crawley?
He canes you first, and he's just afterwards, said Crawley grimly.
The little boy shivered, and, when he tried to speak, his teeth
chattered. Doesdoes he cane very hard?
Oh, dear, yes, said Crawley mischievously; you don't forget it
for some days, I can tell you! Just look at little Parker, he went on,
pointing to the child's terrified face: wouldn't any unprejudiced
person think he had done it himself?
Oh, no, no, cried the boy angrily, how dare you say so? How could
I? What would I want with a boat?
Reserve your defence for the Doctor, sir, said Crawley
Something in the boy's piteous eagerness had attracted Haggart's
attention, and he turned and looked at him sharply. His eyes were wide
open and had a terrified look, and his thin lips were trembling, his
small childish hand was fidgeting with the buttons of his coat.
First, a breath of suspicion came to Haggart, and a great rush of
pity and contempt; then, as the child's eyes seemed to rise unwillingly
to his, the secret leaped from one heart to the other, and he knew. His
lips curled disdainfully, and he jumped off the table, hustling his
little band of followers out of the way.
There's the Doctor, he said; let me pass.
All the boys stood up as the master majestically moved over to the
fireplace and kicked the logs into a blaze. Then he faced round
suddenly, and spoke in his peculiarly clear, decisive tones. There has
been an act of great disobedience perpetrated here during the last
twenty-four hours, he said. Crawley overheard me speaking on the
subject to Mr Barclay, and has probably told you what it is. I had, as
you all know, given strict orders that the boat was not to be taken on
the river by any of the boys, and this morning it was found outside the
boathouse tied to a stake. There is no doubt that one of my boys did
this, and the only reparation he can make is to own his fault at once,
and take the punishment!
There was dead silence.
One heart in the room was beating like a sledge-hammer against the
Eton jacket that enclosed it, but no one spoke. Only Haggart turned his
head, and looked again at the fourth-form boys, and as if they were
under a spell, the grey eyes, full of terrified entreaty, were lifted
to his. He tried to forget the look. He wished he could make that
foolish chap understand that a caning was nothing, after all! All
fellows worth their salt got caned at school. Well, after all, he had
to take his chance with the others, but he wished he would not keep
looking across at him in that beastly way, as if he had
the keeping of his conscience!
Well? said the Doctor.
But no one spoke.
I am sorry, said the Doctor more quietly, that the boy who did it
has not had the courage to own up, but I will give him another chance.
I will take every boy's separate answer, and, after that, the whole
school will be kept in the playground until the end of the term, unless
the guilty boy will take the punishment on himself.
Haggart's face was very anxious as he, too, leant forth to see the
fourth-form fellows, but all he could catch a sight of was a smooth,
fair head that had drooped very low.
The Doctor, with a disappointed face, turned to the senior class.
It seems hardly necessary to go through the form, he said. I think I
can count on my senior boys. You, Crawley? You, Brown? You, Haggart?
I did it, said Haggart, in a clear, loud voice, and the Doctor's
outstretched finger fell.
You, Haggartyou? he said, in an incredulous voice.
Impossible! You? said the Doctor again.
Then there is nothing more to be saidnow. Only, I am
surprised, anddisappointed. You can go now; you will sleep to-night
in the small spare room, and I will see you to-morrow. Go!
Haggart moved slowly to the door, and as he turned the handle, he
heard a noise, and then the Doctor's voice, speaking sharply: What is
that? What are they doing on the fourth form?
Harry Parker has a fit, or he's dead, or something, said a scared
No, he has only fainted, said Mr Barclay. Take him to Miss
Simpson, Barclay, said the Doctor. He is a delicate little fellow.
Wasn't there a fellow called something Curtius, who saved a city
once? said a first-form boy, in a whisper.
Yes; he leaped into a gulf.
Well, that's what Haggart's done, said the boy.
Rot! said the other boy, still whispering.
Nothing seemed very clear to Haggart's mind as he slowly undressed
in the cold, unused room. His brain was worried and confused. He wished
he could have had the light of the Doctor's clear mind upon it, but, of
course, that was impossible.
If he is waxy, he's always just, he found himself saying
out loud; and then, just before he went to sleep, but, at any rate, I
can bear it better.
There is no need to dwell upon the weeks that followed. Haggart took
his punishment bravely enough, but that time was always, in after-life,
a hideous memory to him. To be unloved, untrusted, solitary, and
despised, to be coldly disbelieved or contemptuously contradicted, was
so very hard to bear! But, with a strange and sickening sense of dread,
he found himself longing, most of all, to hear of Harryto know if he
were sorry, or remorseful, or only thankful to be spared! Then, at
last, in some roundabout way the news came to him.
Harry had been taken ill with brain fever the very day after the
tragedy, and had been sent home; and it gave Haggart his first moment
of conscious happiness to realise that he had perhaps saved the poor,
weak, little, trembling creature from one night of fear and anguish.
The boys were always kind to him in their peculiar way. There seemed
to be a bewildered feeling in their minds of cruelty and injustice, and
they were glad that he had not stuck out to the last and included the
whole school in the punishment; so sticks of liquorice, and jam-tarts,
and even white mice, were secretly conveyed to his desk as tokens of
friendship; but, although Haggart was grateful for the attentions, he
could never quite shake off the longing to make a clean breast of it to
the Doctor, and get his troubled mind set straight.
But one morning before the holidays a thrill went through the whole
school when the Doctor stood silently for a minute after prayers and
then in his peculiarly quiet voice called to Haggart to come forward.
Boys, he said, I have had a letter this morning from Harry
Parker's Mother, and she says that he has told her the truth about the
boat. He has been very ill, poor child, and, in his delirium, it
haunted him that Haggart had suffered for his sake. Let him be cleared
before you all from the unjust suspicion. But, Haggart, and he laid
his hand very kindly on the boy's shoulder, you must remember that the
injustice came from youno one would have doubted you if you
had not first accused yourself! I had my doubts always, but I did not
know enough to understand. You told a lie; nothing can palliate or do
away with that! No motives can make a lie anything but a lie,
and a lie is always a cowardly thing, whether we try to shield
ourselves with it or others.
But the kindness which prompted it, the courage that bore the
punishment so bravely, the silence that has made a false heroism out of
itthese are fine qualities, Haggart, and I hope you will carry them
with you through life.