With Mr. Perkins you could work or not as you chose. He was at once eager and abstracted. The Sixth Form room was in a part of the old abbey which had been restored, and it had a gothic window: Philip tried to cheat his boredom by drawing this over and over again; and sometimes out of his head he drew the great tower of the Cathedral or the gateway that led into the precincts. He had a knack for drawing. Aunt Louisa during her youth had painted in water colours, and she had several albums filled with sketches of churches, old bridges, and picturesque cottages. They were often shown at the vicarage tea-parties. She had once given Philip a paint-box as a Christmas present, and he had started by copying her pictures. He copied them better than anyone could have expected, and presently he did little pictures of his own. Mrs. Carey encouraged him. It was a good way to keep him out of mischief, and later on his sketches would be useful for bazaars. Two or three of them had been framed and hung in his bed-room.
But one day, at the end of the morning’s work, Mr. Perkins stopped him as he was lounging out of the form-room.
‘I want to speak to you, Carey.’
Philip waited. Mr. Perkins ran his lean fingers through his beard and looked at Philip. He seemed to be thinking over what he wanted to say.
‘What’s the matter with you, Carey?’ he said abruptly.
Philip, flushing, looked at him quickly. But knowing him well by now, without answering, he waited for him to go on.
‘I’ve been dissatisfied with you lately. You’ve been slack and inattentive. You seem to take no interest in your work. It’s been slovenly and bad.’
‘I’m very sorry, sir,’ said Philip.
‘Is that all you have to say for yourself?’
Philip looked down sulkily. How could he answer that he was bored to death?
‘You know, this term you’ll go down instead of up. I shan’t give you a very good report.’
Philip wondered what he would say if he knew how the report was treated. It arrived at breakfast, Mr. Carey glanced at it indifferently, and passed it over to Philip.
‘There’s your report. You’d better see what it says,’ he remarked, as he ran his fingers through the wrapper of a catalogue of second-hand books.
Philip read it.
‘Is it good?’ asked Aunt Louisa.
‘Not so good as I deserve,’ answered Philip, with a smile, giving it to her.
‘I’ll read it afterwards when I’ve got my spectacles,’ she said.
But after breakfast Mary Ann came in to say the butcher was there, and she generally forgot.
Mr. Perkins went on.
‘I’m disappointed with you. And I can’t understand. I know you can do things if you want to, but you don’t seem to want to any more. I was going to make you a monitor next term, but I think I’d better wait a bit.’
Philip flushed. He did not like the thought of being passed over. He tightened his lips.
‘And there’s something else. You must begin thinking of your scholarship now. You won’t get anything unless you start working very seriously.’
Philip was irritated by the lecture. He was angry with the headmaster, and angry with himself.
‘I don’t think I’m going up to Oxford,’ he said.
‘Why not? I thought your idea was to be ordained.’
‘I’ve changed my mind.’
Philip did not answer. Mr. Perkins, holding himself oddly as he always did, like a figure in one of Perugino’s pictures, drew his fingers thoughtfully through his beard. He looked at Philip as though he were trying to understand and then abruptly told him he might go.
Apparently he was not satisfied, for one evening, a week later, when Philip had to go into his study with some papers, he resumed the conversation; but this time he adopted a different method: he spoke to Philip not as a schoolmaster with a boy but as one human being with another. He did not seem to care now that Philip’s work was poor, that he ran small chance against keen rivals of carrying off the scholarship necessary for him to go to Oxford: the important matter was his changed intention about his life afterwards. Mr. Perkins set himself to revive his eagerness to be ordained. With infinite skill he worked on his feelings, and this was easier since he was himself genuinely moved. Philip’s change of mind caused him bitter distress, and he really thought he was throwing away his chance of happiness in life for he knew not what. His voice was very persuasive. And Philip, easily moved by the emotion of others, very emotional himself notwithstanding a placid exterior—his face, partly by nature but also from the habit of all these years at school, seldom except by his quick flushing showed what he felt—Philip was deeply touched by what the master said. He was very grateful to him for the interest he showed, and he was conscience-stricken by the grief which he felt his behaviour caused him. It was subtly flattering to know that with the whole school to think about Mr. Perkins should trouble with him, but at the same time something else in him, like another person standing at his elbow, clung desperately to two words.
‘I won’t. I won’t. I won’t.’
He felt himself slipping. He was powerless against the weakness that seemed to well up in him; it was like the water that rises up in an empty bottle held over a full basin; and he set his teeth, saying the words over and over to himself.
‘I won’t. I won’t. I won’t.’
At last Mr. Perkins put his hand on Philip’s shoulder.
‘I don’t want to influence you,’ he said. ‘You must decide for yourself. Pray to Almighty God for help and guidance.’
When Philip came out of the headmaster’s house there was a light rain falling. He went under the archway that led to the precincts, there was not a soul there, and the rooks were silent in the elms. He walked round slowly. He felt hot, and the rain did him good. He thought over all that Mr. Perkins had said, calmly now that he was withdrawn from the fervour of his personality, and he was thankful he had not given way.
In the darkness he could but vaguely see the great mass of the Cathedral: he hated it now because of the irksomeness of the long services which he was forced to attend. The anthem was interminable, and you had to stand drearily while it was being sung; you could not hear the droning sermon, and your body twitched because you had to sit still when you wanted to move about. Then philip thought of the two services every Sunday at Blackstable. The church was bare and cold, and there was a smell all about one of pomade and starched clothes. The curate preached once and his uncle preached once. As he grew up he had learned to know his uncle; Philip was downright and intolerant, and he could not understand that a man might sincerely say things as a clergyman which he never acted up to as a man. The deception outraged him. His uncle was a weak and selfish man, whose chief desire it was to be saved trouble.
Mr. Perkins had spoken to him of the beauty of a life dedicated to the service of God. Philip knew what sort of lives the clergy led in the corner of East Anglia which was his home. There was the Vicar of Whitestone, a parish a little way from Blackstable: he was a bachelor and to give himself something to do had lately taken up farming: the local paper constantly reported the cases he had in the county court against this one and that, labourers he would not pay their wages to or tradesmen whom he accused of cheating him; scandal said he starved his cows, and there was much talk about some general action which should be taken against him. Then there was the Vicar of Ferne, a bearded, fine figure of a man: his wife had been forced to leave him because of his cruelty, and she had filled the neighbourhood with stories of his immorality. The Vicar of Surle, a tiny hamlet by the sea, was to be seen every evening in the public house a stone’s throw from his vicarage; and the churchwardens had been to Mr. Carey to ask his advice. There was not a soul for any of them to talk to except small farmers or fishermen; there were long winter evenings when the wind blew, whistling drearily through the leafless trees, and all around they saw nothing but the bare monotony of ploughed fields; and there was poverty, and there was lack of any work that seemed to matter; every kink in their characters had free play; there was nothing to restrain them; they grew narrow and eccentric: Philip knew all this, but in his young intolerance he did not offer it as an excuse. He shivered at the thought of leading such a life; he wanted to get out into the world.