We were in Study Hall when the Headmaster came in, followed by a “newfellow” not wearing school uniform, and a janitor carrying alarge desk. Those who had been asleep awoke, and we all stood up in surprise as though interrupted at our work.
The Headmaster motioned us to sit down. Then, turning to the teacher —
“Monsieur Roger, here is a pupil whom I recommend to your care; he’ll be in the fifth. If his work and conduct are satisfactory, he’ll go into one of the senior classes, as becomes his age.”
The “new fellow”, half-hidden in the corner behind the door, was a country lad of about fifteen, and taller than any of us. His hair was cut square across his forehead like a village chorister’s and he looked reasonable enough, but very ill at ease. Although he was not broad-shouldered, his green coat-jacket with black buttons seemed too tight under the arms and exposed red wrists at the cuff openings, that were evidently accustomed to being bare. A pair of blue-stockinged legs stuck out from beneath his yellow trousers, pulled up short by suspenders. He wore stout, ill-cleaned, hob-nailed boots.
We began repeating the lesson. He listened all ears, as attentive as if he were at a sermon, not daring even to cross his legs or lean on his elbow. When the bell rang at two o’clock, the master was obliged to tell him to fall into line with the rest of us.
Whenever we came back into class, we were in the habit of throwing our caps on the ground in order to free up our hands; we used to toss them under the benches from the door, so they would hit the wall and raise a cloud of dust: it was “the thing” to do.
But, whether he had not noticed the trick, or did not dare attempt it, the “new fellow,” was still holding his cap on his knees at the end of prayers. This headgear was of a composite nature, uniting aspects of the busby, the shako, the bowler, the otter-skin, and the cotton nightcap: in a word, one of those poor things whose dumb ugliness has its own depths of expression, like the face of an imbecile. Oval-shaped and stiff with whalebone, it began with three circular sausages, followed by alternating patches of velvet and rabbit-skin, cut into diamond shapes and separated by a red band, culminating in a kind of cardboard-lined polygon-shaped bag, covered with complicated braiding, from which hung a long thin cord with a little cross of twisted gold thread at the very end. The cap was new, its visor shiny.
“Rise,” said the master.
He stood up; his cap fell. The whole class began to laugh. He stooped to pick it up. A boy beside him knocked it down again with his elbow; he bent to pick it up once more.
“Do get rid of your helmet,” said the master, who was a bit of a wag.
There was a burst of laughter from the boys, which so thoroughly put the poor lad out of countenance that he did not know whether to keep his cap in his hand, leave it on the ground, or put it on his head. He sat down again and placed it on his knee.
“Rise,” repeated the master, “and tell me your name.”
The new boy stammered something unintelligible.