The Scholar’s Tale

Part 2: The abler soul

15. At thy feet we lay

O’er the harvest reaped or lost,
Falls the eve; our tasks are over.
Purpose crowned or purpose crossed,
None may mar and none recover.
Now, O merciful and just,
Trembling lay we down our trust:
Slender fruit of thriftless day,
Father, at thy feet we lay.

J. H. Skrine, Yarborough end-of-term hymn

The next evening after tea, Andrew and I took up our places. As duty pollies for this last night, we stood at attention side by side in the Chapel porch.

My mind was in turmoil. Five years and a term ago a small and trembling mouse of a new boy had arrived in Yarborough. In his luggage had been a razor blade. He did not need it for shaving, not in those days. He had stolen it from his father to slit his wrists with, should his fears prove justified. Why had he not needed to use it?

Since then the mouse that was Leon had been propelled, against all his instincts, to the very top. How had that happened?

The short answer to both questions was standing beside me, strengthening me still.

The longer answer was all around. It was the luck of the draw, wasn’t it? Had I been sent to almost any other school I might long since have been six feet under. So too even at Yarborough — had I been a little older, for example, and put to share a study with Spud. Instead, I had found myself rubbing shoulders with people who cared and who understood. With Jim and Hez. With Bob and Nick. With Steve and Wally and the HM. It was a strange old world. In my case, an undeservedly benign one. I was profoundly grateful.

And tonight was my last formal appearance in this benign world. I knew my ships and their crews better now, both the smaller and the larger. The Crusade had not foundered. I had done my bit. True, without help from all sides I would soon have capsized. It was friends who had seen me through. Still, I had done my bit. I had led the way.

I was glad, now, that I had shouldered the job, on Andrew’s behalf since he could not do it himself. Glad because I had not let him down. Glad because I was now at peace within. Glad because it had unearthed that missing part of myself.

I had always known I had a brain. As I crept through the black pit of my childhood it was the sole asset that kept me going. Then those early bludgeonings of chance gave way to bolsterings which built me up, block by block. First I discovered my heart, and the strength of love. Next I found the capacity to make friends and to inspire. Now, at last, I was unapologetic and unafraid. Now, at last, I was captain of my soul.

True, Andrew was still its admiral. But he had been right. Given the incentive, I could lead. Nonetheless, as I had known all along, leading had not come naturally. I was heartily glad to be casting off the mantle.

One thing I was not glad about, though. I was leaving the place that had saved me. I was leaving the people who had made me. Alongside the deep gratitude was a deep sadness. But at least I was not leaving my principal saviour, my principal maker, my god. He understood my turmoil. He was shoulder to shoulder beside me, and I felt his hand find mine, pull it back out of sight, and press it. It uplifted me.

Everybody was now inside and we were alone. The bell stopped tolling and the organ prelude swelled out through the open doorway. We exchanged a smile and a quick kiss on the lips. Side by side we went in, and side by side marched up the centre of Chapel to our places on either side of the aisle. As usual, Bob was among the cantoris tenors. Unusually, Nick was at the very end of the decani trebles, plumb in front of Andrew. The HM and Steve swept past to their stalls. The organ died away.

First the bidding prayer. Then the Magnificat. Yes, I had been exalted, against my inclination. In a few minutes I would once more be humble and meek. Then, re-humbled, I would go forth from this safe and familiar haven into an unknown world of unforeseen perils and novel challenges. I could face them, now. And Andrew would be with me still.

The Lord’s Prayer, followed by a psalm. Number 91.

He shall defend thee under his wings, and thou shalt be safe under his feathers. His faithfulness and truth shall be thy shield and buckler. Thou shalt not be afraid for any terror by night, nor for the arrow that flieth by day; for the pestilence that walketh in darkness, nor for the sickness that destroyeth in the noon-day.

No, I need not be afraid. And the world outside, remember, contains not only unforeseen perils. It is also a world of richness and subtlety.

Now it was my turn. Under Andrew’s wings I climbed the three steps to the choir. The HM had asked me to choose the lesson, and had been surprised at my choice. But Andrew and I shared the opinion that these were the best words in the whole Bible.

I surveyed the sea of faces in front of me, gathering their attention. “1 Corinthians, chapter 13,” I pronounced. I saw Andrew’s eyes widen. I saw Nick’s and Bob’s mouths open. Then I read.

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal …

Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends …

When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became a man, I gave up childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood.

So faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.

That was it. Fully understood, accepting love that never ends, I closed the book and resumed my place. Andrew’s and Nick’s and Bob’s eyes were still on me.

Then the anthem — Purcell’s Evening Hymn, according to the service sheet in the porch. I did not know it. It turned out not to be an anthem, not in the usual sense. Only Nick stood up. It was a treble solo with organ accompaniment.

Now that the sun hath veiled his light,
And bid the world goodnight,
To the soft bed my body I dispose;
But where shall my soul repose?
Dear God, even in thy arms.
And can there be any so sweet security?
Then to thy rest, O my soul,
And singing, praise the mercy
That prolongs thy days. Alleluia!

How had Nick wangled it to sing this? He was addressing his hymn not only to his own god, but to me and to mine. His clear voice carried on, weaving through the intricacies and grace-notes of the alleluias, sixteen times repeated. On the penultimate syllable his voice cracked, and the final syllable went missing. He glanced in turn at Bob and me and Andrew, not in the least discomfited. Satisfied, rather, that his treble had, as promised, survived so long; long enough to utter this tribute from his soul.

A couple of prayers from Steve, and the organ launched, fortississimo, into the climax of the service, the end-of-term hymn.

I loved it, almost sentimentally, for its association with a place I deeply loved. I knew the words by heart. I looked across at Andrew and held his eyes. My task was over. It was for him that I had taken it on. It was to him that I was handing the fruits. A better Yarborough, yes. And with it a better Leon, too.

O’er the harvest reaped or lost,
Falls the eve; our tasks are over.
Purpose crowned or purpose crossed,
None may mar and none recover.
Now, O merciful and just,
Trembling lay we down our trust:
Slender fruit of thriftless day,

, at thy feet we lay.