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The Preay Chamber by An Old Boy

 

Before I had been long at Mr. Gray's boarding-school, to which I was sent when I was a very young boy, and which was very different from such schools as St. Paul's, I heard of a mysterious and horrible place called, as the boys said, the Preay Chamber. We supposed it to be a gloomy and awful dungeon, but nobody knew just where it was, and nobody pretended that he had ever been imprisoned in it. The truth was that it was thought to be a punishment so dreadful that whenever a boy was sentenced to the chamber of torture, good, motherly Mrs. Gray, whom we all loved, always interceded for the culprit. Good woman, how we did bless her!

I am an old boy now, but all younger boys will understand how easy it was for me one evening when we were all marching out from tea, and I passed close by the table with the open sugar bowl upon it, to raise my hand quietly, without stopping or looking, seize a lump of sugar, and let my hand drop again.

"Joe!" instantly shouted Mr. Gray, who sat in his chair watching us as we filed out.

"Yes, Sir."

"Come here, Joe, and all the boys remain."

I was a little fellow of seven years old, and I pity my poor little self as I look back upon that moment. I advanced to the master's chair, and stood before him in the presence of the school, with my guilty right hand closed at my side. There was awful silence as the master said,

"Joe, what have you in your hand?"

"Nothing, Sir."

"Joe, hold out your right hand."

I held it out.

"Now, Joe, you say that there is nothing in your hand?"

"Yes, Sir."

"Open your hand, Joe."

I opened it, and the lump of sugar dropped to the floor.

It was the first lie I had ever told, and my terror and shame were such that the recollection has been a kind of good angel to me ever since. The master said a few solemn words, the justice of which my poor little heart could not deny, although he had exposed me to a cruel ordeal; and then, with an air like that of a Lord Chief Justice putting on the black cap to sentence a murderer to death, he concluded: "Joe, you must be severely punished. Go to Mrs. Gray, and tell her that you are to go to the Preay Chamber."

There was a silent shudder of sympathy among the boys as I departed; and finding Mrs. Gray, I told her, with sobs of terror, my doom. The good woman listened kindly; and then, with the tenderness of a mother, she pointed out to me the meanness of the theft and of the falsehood, and we both sat and cried together. Then she said, "Joe, I am sure that you see that you have done wrong, and that you are very sorry, and don't mean to do so any more."

I was utterly broken down, and sobbed in a kind of hysterical paroxysm.

"Now, Joe, go back to Mr. Gray, tell him that we have been talking together, and that you are truly sorry, and will try to do better, and that this time, and for my sake, I hope that you may be let off from the Preay Chamber."

I went back, and with tears and catchings of the breath I repeated the message. Mr. Gray listened; and when I had done, he said:

"Joe, you are a very naughty boy; but as you say that you are sorry, and will try to mend, and as dear Mrs. Gray intercedes for you, you need not go this time to the Preay Chamber. But remember, it is only for this time."

I was like a victim suddenly released from the stake, and the narrow escape I had had from the mysterious chamber of doom made that dungeon still more awful. There were very few sentences to the chamber afterward, and gradually its name disappeared from our talk and from our fear. Now and then some boy asked, "What has become of the Preay Chamber?" But nobody answered. If an older boy asked Mr. or Mrs. Gray, they only smiled, and said nothing. The terror gradually died away, and the chamber of horrors became a mere legend. Long afterward it was known that it was all a kindly but deceitful understanding between Mr. and Mrs. Gray. If a young boy did wrong, and it was thought that reproof and the mere dread of punishment would be penalty severe enough, it was agreed that Mr. Gray would send the offender to Mrs. Gray to be immured in the Preay Chamber. That message was a hint to her to beg—or, in the French language, prier—that for this once the culprit, upon his promise to do better, should be pardoned.

There is no doubt that the fear of the chamber exercised some restraint upon mischievous boys. But it was a kind of deceit which is in itself mischievous. The very name still haunts my imagination, although I am a bald-headed old boy, for what the most secret chamber of the Inquisition was to the timid heretic, the Preay Chamber was to the little boy I used to be.