I found nothing in the school curriculum which interested me. I had no inkling of it at the time, but I was already in the thrall of the search for reality. Mathematics captured my imagination. I was brilliant at arithmetic until the subject degenerated into "practice", which was a matter for grocers. I might have liked geometry; but the arid method of presentation in Euclid put me off. I was asked to memorize what I did not understand; and, my memory being so good, it refused to be insulted in that manner. Similarly, I could never memorize the ordinary "repetitions" of Greek and Latin poetry. I took to trigonometry with ardour; but became disgusted as soon as I found my calculations were to be applied to such vulgarities as architecture. The only pure science for me was algebra and I progressed in that with amazing rapidity. On one occasion, at Malvern, the mathematical master wished to devote the whole hour to the three elder boys, who were going up for some scholarship, and set us juniors to work out quadratic equations. There were sixty-three in the chapter set. At the end of forty minutes I stood up and said, "Please, sir, what shall I do now?" he would not believe that I had worked them correctly, but I had. I seem to have an instinct for appreciating the relations of pure numbers and could find factors by intuition.
My intellectual activity has always been intense. It was for this very reason that I could not bear to waste a moment on subjects which seemed to me alien to my interest, though I had no idea what that interest was. As soon as I heard of chemistry, I realized that it dealt with reality as I understood the word. So I soon had "Little Roscoe" practically by heart, though it was not a school subject. I furnished a laboratory in the house at Streatham, and spent all my time and money in making experiments. It may be interesting to mention how my mind worked. I had heard of the petard as a military engine; and I was hoist with it. Roscoe told me that chloride of nitrogen was the most powerful and sensitive explosive known. My idea was to dissolve it in some volatile fluid; one could then leave a bucket of it at the enemy's gate. The fluid would evaporate and the chloride explode at the first vibration. After several minor misadventures, I collect it over benzine --- about a quart --- and the whole thing exploded and nearly burnt the house down.
I had also a plan for manufacturing diamonds. By various analogies I came to the conclusion that a true solution of carbon might be made in
iron and I proposed to crystallize it out in the regular way. The apparatus required was, however, hardly within the compass of a boy of fourteen and my diamonds are still theoretical.
Talking of theory, I came to the conclusion, which at that time was a damnable heresy and a dangerous delusion, that all the elements were modifications of one substance. My main argument was that the atomic weights of cobalt and nickel were practically identical and the characteristic colours of their salts suggested to me that they were geometrical isomers like dextrose and laevulose. This is all obvious enough today, but I still think that it was not bad for a boy in his 'teens in the early 'nineties, whose only source of information was "Little Roscoe".
An amusing situation arose out of this early devotion to the art of Flamel. In my last term at Malvern a panic-stricken board of governors determined to create a science side and started a chemistry class. With laudable economy they put it in charge of one Mr. Faber, a broken-down classical master, possibly in the belief that as he had a German name he knew as much as Ostwald. The result was that I had constantly to correct him in class; and he could do nothing, because the authorities, when consulted, proved to be on my side.
I had thus no difficulty at school as far as lessons were concerned, but in my three years at Champney's I had no lack of trouble; the nature of this can only be understood if I adduce a few facts to indicate the atmosphere. I used to tell people about my school life and met with such consistent incredulity that I made a little collection of incidents in the preface to my The World's Tragedy. I quote the passage as it stands.
A Boyhood in Hell
The Revd. H. d'Arcy Champney, M.A. Of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, had come out of sect.
He had voted at the parliamentary elections by crossing out the names of the candidates and writing, "I vote for King Jesus."
He had started a school for the sons of Brethren at 51 Bateman Street, Cambridge. May God bite into the bones of men the pain of that hell on earth (I have prayed often) that by them it may be sowed with salt, accursed for ever! May the maiden that passes it be barren and the pregnant woman that beholdeth it abort! May the birds of the air refuse to fly over it! May it stand as a curse, as a fear, as an hate, among men! May the wicked dwell therein! May the light of the sun be withheld therefrom and the light of the moon not lighten it! May it become the home of the shells of the dead and may the demons of the pit inhabit it! May it be accursed, accursed --- accursed for ever and ever!
And still, standing as I stand in the prime of early manhood, free from all the fetters of the body and the mind, do I curse the memory thereof unto the ages.
It was a good enough school from the point of view of examiners, I dare say. Morally and physically, it was an engine of destruction and corruption. I am just going to put down a few facts haphazard as they come to my memory; you may form your own judgment.
1. We were allowed to play cricket, but not to score runs, lest it should excite the vice of "emulation".
2. Champeny told me, a child of not yet twelve years old, that he had never consummated his marriage. (Only the very acute verbal memory which I possess enabled me years after to recall and interpret his meaning. He used a coarser phrase.)
3. We were told that "the Lord had a special care of the school and brought to light that which was done in darkness," etc., etc. Ad nauseam. "The instrument was on this occasion so-and-so, who had nobly come forward," etc., etc. In other words, hypocrisy and sneaking were the only virtues.
Naturally, one of several boys who might be involved in the same offence would take fright and save his skin by sneaking. The informer was always believed implicitly, as against probability, or even possibility, with complete disregard of the testimony of other and independent witnesses.
For instance, a boy named Glascott, with insane taint, told Mr. Champney that he had visited me (twelve years old) at my mother's house during the holidays --- true so far, he had --- and found me lying drunk at the bottom of the stairs. My mother was never asked about this; nor was I told of it. I was put into "Coventry", i.e. no master nor boy might speak to me, or I to them. I was fed on bread and water; during play hours I worked in the schoolroom; during work hours I walked solitary round and round the playground. I was expected to "confess" the crime of which I was not only innocent, but unaccused.
This punishment, which I believe criminal authorities would consider severe on a poisoner, went on for a term and a half. I was, at last, threatened with expulsion for my refusal to "confess", and so dreadful a picture of the horrors of expulsion did they paint me --- the guilty wretch, shunned by his fellows, slinks on through life to a dishonoured grave, etc. --- that I actually chose to endure my tortures and to thank my oppressor.
Physically, I broke down. The strain and the misery affected my kidneys; and I had to leave school altogether for two years. I should
add in fairness that there were other accusations against me, though, as you shall hear, almost equally silly.
I learnt at last, through the intervention of my uncle, in a lucid interval, what I was supposed to have done. I was said to have tried "to corrupt Chamberlain" --- not our great patriotic statesman, shifty Joe --- but a boy. (I was twelve years old and quite ignorant of all sexual matters till long after.) Also I had "held a mock prayer meeting". This I remembered. I had strolled up to a group of boys in the playground, who were indeed holding one. As they saw me one said, "Brother Crowley will now lead us in prayer." Brother Crowley was too wary and walked away. But instead of doing what a wise boy would have done: gone straight to the head and accused them of forty-six distinct unmentionable crimes, I let things slide. So, fearing that I might go, they hurried off themselves and told him how that wicked Crowley had tried to lead them away from Jesus.
Worse, I had called Page I a pharisee. That was true; I had said it. Dreadful of me! And Page I, who "walked very close to Jesus", of course went and told.
Yes, they all walked very close to Jesus --- as close as Judas did.
4. A boy named Barton was sentenced to one hundred and twenty strokes of the cane on his bare shoulders, for some petty theft of which he was presumably innocent.
Superb was the process of trial. It began by an extra long prayer time and Joshua's account of the sin of Achan, impressively read. Next, an hour or two about the Lord's care of the school, the way He brought sin to light. Next, when well worked up and all our nerves on the jump, who stole what? Silence. Next, the Lord's care in providing a witness --- like the witnesses against Naboth! Then the witness and his story, as smooth as a policeman's. Next, sentence. Last, execution, with intervals of prayer!
Champney's physique being impaired, one may suppose by his excessive devotion to Jesus, he arranged to give sixty strokes one day and sixty the next.
My memory fails --- perhaps Barton will one day oblige with his reminiscences --- but I fancy the first day came so near to killing him that he escaped the second.
I remember one licking I got --- on the legs, because flogging the buttocks excites the victim's sensuality! --- fifteen minutes prayer, fifteen strokes of the cane, fifteen minutes more prayer, fifteen more strokes --- and more prayer to top it!
5. On Sunday the day was devoted to "religion". Morning prayers and sermon (about forty-five minutes). Morning "meeting" (one and
a half to two hours). Open-air preaching on Parker's Piece1 (say one hour). Bible reading and learning by heart. Reading of the few books "sanctioned for Sunday" (say two hours). Prayer meeting (called voluntary, but to stay away meant that some sneak in the school would accuse you of something next day) (say one hour). Evening prayer and sermon (say thirty minutes). Preaching of the gospel in the meetingroom (one and a half hours). Ditto on Parker's Piece (say one hour). Prayer before retiring (say half an hour).
6. The "Badgers': meeting". Every Monday night the school was ranged round the back of the big schoolroom, and the scourgings of Barnswell (Cambridge's slum) let in, fed, preached to and dismissed.
Result, epidemics of ringworm, measles and mumps.
Oh no! Not a result; the Lord's hand was heavy upon us because of some undiscovered sin.
I might go on for a long while, but I will not. I hope there are some people in the world happy enough to think that I am lying, or at least exaggerating. But I pledge my word to the literal truth of all I have said, and there are plenty of witnesses alive to confirm me, or to refute me. I have given throughout the actual names, addresses and other details.
It is impossible to suppose that the character of the school had completely changed between my father's death and my return from the funeral. Yet before that I was completely happy and in sympathy with my surroundings. Not three weeks later, Ishmael was my middle name. I cannot account for it at all satisfactorily. I had been perfectly genuine in my ambition to lead a life of holiness; the idea of intimate communion with "Jesus" was constantly present to my mind. I do not remember any steps in the volte-face. I asked one of the masters one day how it was that Jesus was three days and three nights in the grave, although crucified on Friday and risen again on Sunday morning. He could not explain and said that it had never been explained. So I formulated the ambition to become a shining light in Christianity by doing this thing that had never yet been done. This idea, by the way, is very characteristic. I am totally unable to take any interest in doing anything which has been done before. But tell me of an alleged impossibility; and health, wealth, life itself are nothing. I am out to do it. The apparent discrepancy in the gospel narrative aroused no doubt in my mind as to the literal truth of either of the texts. Indeed, my falling away from grace was not occasioned by any intellectual qualms; I accepted the theology of the Plymouth Brethren. In fact, I could hardly conceive of the existence of people who might doubt it. I simply went over to Satan's side; and to this hour I cannot tell why.
But I found myself as passionately eager to serve my new master as I had been to serve the old. I was anxious to distinguish myself by committing sin. Here again my attitude was extraordinarily subtle. It never occurred to me to steal or in any other way to infringe the decalogue. Such conduct would have been petty and contemptible. I wanted a supreme spiritual sin; and I had not the smallest idea how to set about it. There was a good deal of morbid curiosity among the saints about "the sin against the Holy Ghost" which "could never be forgiven". Nobody knew what it was. It was even considered rather blasphemous to offer any very positive conjecture on the point. The idea seems to have been that it was something like an ill-natured practical joke on the part of Jesus. This mysterious offence which could never be forgiven might be inadvertently committed by the greatest saint alive, with the result that he would be bowled out at the very gate of glory. Here was another impossibility to catch my youthful fancy; I must find out what that sin was and do it very thoroughly.
For (evidently) my position was exceedingly precarious. I was opposed to an omnipotent God; and for all I knew to the contrary, He might have predestined me to be saved. No matter how much I disbelieved in Jesus, no matter how many crimes I piled up, He might get me in spite of myself. The only possibility of outwitting Him was to bring him up against His own pledge that this particular sin should never be forgiven, with a certificate from the recording angel that I had duly done it.
It seems incredible that such insane conclusions should form the basis of practical action in any human being above the level of a bushman. But they follow logically enough from the blasphemous and superstitious premisses of Christian theology. Besides this, I had never a moment's inclination to take the material world seriously. In the Apologia pro Vita Sua, Cardinal Newman tells us, I suspect truthfully, that as a child he wished that The Arabian Nights were true. As we all know, he gratified his ambitions by accepting for reality the Freudian phantasm of hashed-up paganism with Semitic sauce which led him to the hat. But I went further. My senses and my rational judgment created a subconscious feeling of uneasiness that supernaturalism might not be true. This insulted my inmost consciousness of myself. But the reply was not to accept the false for the true, but to determine to make it true. I resolved passionately to reach the spiritual causes of phenomena, and to dominate the material world which I detested by their means. I was not content to believe in a personal devil and serve him, in the ordinary sense of the word. I wanted to get hold of him personally and become his chief of staff.
In my search for a suitable sin which might earn me the diabolical V.C., I
obviously enough came in touch with the usual thing. Champney was always sniffing around it, but --- to me --- he was completely unintelligible. I frequented the boys whose reputation for wickedness was best established, and was further directed in my inquiry by an intuitive sense of magnetism or appreciation of physiognomy. But the reign of terror was so firmly established in the school that nobody cared tell me outright the nature of this sin, even when the knowledge of it was admitted. Mysterious hints were given; and at last a boy named Gibson told me what action to make, but he did not tell me to what object to apply the process. It seems extraordinary that nature should have afforded me no indication. I nowise connected the organ of reproduction with any voluntary act. I made conjectures dictated by purely intellectual considerations, and carried out experiments based on their results; but they were absolutely ill-directed. I never guessed what organ was in question. The discovery was delayed for years.
My revolt must have manifested itself by actions which were technically not blameworthy. I cannot accuse myself of any overt crime. The battle between myself and the school was conducted on the magical plane, so to speak. It was as if I had made wax figures of the most inoffensive sort, that yet were recognized by the spiritual instinct of Champney as idols or instruments of witchcraft. I was punished with absolute injustice and stupidity, yet at the same time the mystical apprehension of Champney made no mistake.