The little schoolboys went quietly to their own beds, and began undressing and talking to one another in whispers: while the elder, amongst whom was Tom, sat chatting about on one another's beds, with their jackets and waistcoats off.
Poor little Arthur was overwhelmed with the novelty of his position. The idea of sleeping in the room with strange boys had clearly never crossed his mind before, and was as painful as it was strange to him. He could hardly bear to take his jacket off. However, presently, with an effort, off it came, and then he paused and looked at Tom, who was sitting at the bottom of his bed, talking and laughing.
"Please, Brown," he whispered, "may I wash my face and hands?" "Of course, if you like," said Tom, staring. "That's your wash-stand under the window, second from your bed. You'll have to go down for more water in the morning if you use it all."
And on he went with his talk, while Arthur stole timidly from between the beds out to his wash-stand, and began his ablutions, thereby drawing for a moment on himself the attention of the room.
On went the talk and laughter. Arthur finished his washing and undressing, and put on his nightshirt. He then looked round more nervously than ever. Two or three of the little boys were already in bed, sitting up with their chins on their knees. The light burned clear, the noise went on.
It was a trying moment for the poor, little lonely boy. However, this time he did not ask Tom what he might or might not do, but dropped on his knees by his bedside, as he had done every day from his childhood, to open his heart to Him who heareth the cry and beareth the sorrows of the tender child, and the strong man in agony.
Tom was sitting at the bottom of his bed unlacing his boots, so that his back was towards Arthur, and he did not see what had happened, and looked up in wonder at the sudden silence. Then two or three boys laughed and sneered, and a big, brutal fellow, who was standing in the middle of the room, picked up a slipper and shied it at the kneeling boy, calling him a sniveling young shaver.
Then Tom saw the whole, and the next moment the boot he had just pulled off flew straight at the head of the bully, who had just time to throw up his arm and catch it on his elbow. "Confound you, Brown, what's that for?" he roared, stamping with pain. "Never mind what I mean," said Tom, stepping on the floor, every drop of blood in his body tingling. "If any fellow wants the other boot, he knows how to get it."
What would have been the result is doubtful , for at this moment the sixth-form boy came in, and not another word could be said. Tom and the rest rushed into bed and finished their unrobing there, and the old janitor had put out the candle in another minute, and toddled on to the next room, shutting the door with his usual, "Good night, gen'lm'n."
There were many boys in the room by whom that little scene was taken to heart before they slept. But sleep seemed to have deserted the pillow of poor Tom. For some time his excitement and the flood of memories which chased one another through his brain, kept him from thinking or resolving. His head throbbed, his heart leapt, and he could hardly keep himself from springing out of bed and rushing about the room.
Then the thought of his own mother came across him, and the promise he had made at her knee, years ago, never to forget to kneel by his bedside and give himself up to his Father before he laid his head on the pillow, from which it might never rise; and he lay down gently, and cried as if his heart would break. He was only fourteen years old.
It was no light act of courage in those days for a little fellow to say his prayers publicly, even at Rugby. A few years later, when Arnold's manly piety had begun to leaven the school, the tables turned, and before he died, in the Schoolhouse at least, and I believe in the other houses, the rule was the other way.
But poor Tom had come to school in other times. The first few nights after he came he did not kneel down because of the noise, but sat up in bed till the candle was out, and then stole out and said his prayers, in fear lest some one should find him out. So did many another poor little fellow. Then he began to think that he might just as well say his prayers in bed, and then that it did not matter whether he was kneeling, or sitting, or lying down. And so it had come to pass with Tom, as with all who will not confess their Lord before men; and for the last year he had probably not said his prayers in earnest a dozen times.
Poor Tom! The first and bitterest feeling, which was like to break his heart, was the sense of his own cowardice. The vice of all others which he loathed was brought in and burned in on his own soul. He had lied to his mother, to his conscience, to his God. How could he bear it? And then the poor, little weak boy, whom he had pitied and almost scorned for his weakness, had done that which he, braggart as he was, dared not do.
The first dawn of comfort came to him in vowing to himself that he would stand by that boy through thick and thin, and cheer him, and help him, and bear his burdens, for the good deed done that night. Then he resolved to write home next day and tell his mother all, and what a coward her son had been. And then peace came to him as he resolved, lastly, to bear his testimony next morning.
The morning would be harder than the night to begin with, but he felt that he could not afford to let one chance slip. Several times he faltered, for the Devil showed him, first, all his old friends calling him "Saint," and "Squaretoes," and a dozen hard names, and whispered to him that his motives would be misunderstood, and he would be left alone with the new boy; whereas, it was his duty to keep all means of influence, that he might do good to the largest number.
And then came the more subtle temptation, "Shall I not be showing myself braver than others by doing this? Have I any right to begin it now? Ought I not rather to pray in my own study, letting other boys know that I did so, and trying to lead them to it, while in public, at least, I should go on as I have done?" However, his good angel was too strong that night, and he turned on his side and slept, tired of trying to reason, but resolved to follow the impulse which had been so strong, and in which he had found peace.
Next morning he was up and washed and dressed, all but his jacket and waistcoat, just as the ten minutes' bell began to ring, and then in the face of the whole room he knelt down to pray. Not five words could he say, - the bell mocked him; he was listening for every whisper in the room: what were they all thinking of him?
He was ashamed to go on kneeling, ashamed to rise from his knees. At last, as it were from his inmost heart, a still, small voice seemed to breathe forth the words of the publican, "God, be merciful to me, a sinner!" He repeated them over and over, clinging to them as for his life, and rose from his knees comforted and humbled, and ready to face the whole world. It was not needed. Two other boys, besides Arthur had already followed his example, and he went down to the great school with a glimmering of another lesson in his heart - the lesson that he who has conquered his own coward spirit has conquered the whole outward world; and that other one which the old prophet learned in the cave at Mount Horeb, when he hid his face, and the still, small voice asked, "What doest thou here, Elijah?" - that however we may fancy ourselves alone on the side of good, the King and Lord of men is nowhere without His witnesses; for in every society, however seemingly corrupt and godless, there are those who have not bowed the knee to Baal.
He found, too, how greatly he had exaggerated the effect to be produced by his act. For a few nights there was a sneer or a laugh when he knelt down, but this passed off soon, and one by one all the other boys but three or four followed the lead.
An excerpt from Tom Brown's School Days by Thomas Hughes; first published 1857, republished 1988.[../../_private/oabot.htm]