Uncle John's School Days

THIS picture reminds me, children, of some funny stories that I have heard your uncle John tell, when he and I were boy and girl together, of his exploits as a schoolboy. According to his account, not only he, but most of his schoolfellows, used to lead merry lives enough at school. They had what they called the “Academy Band,” and grand music it made, with a hat-box for a drum, cricket-bat for violoncello, and paper flute and trumpets. You would not recognize Uncle John, whom you know only as a man six feet high, in that little lad on the left side of the picture with a battledore for a fiddle. They had a great deal of what he called excellent fun, though I am afraid it sometimes bordered upon mischief or naughtiness. I used to consider that he and his schoolfellows were regular heroes as I listened to his stories when he came home for the holidays; and even now I must confess I cannot help laughing when I think of some of his naughty pranks.

Uncle John first went to a large school when he was eleven years old, and I remember now the tremendous hamper of good things he took with him. The boys who slept in his bedroom were so pleased with the contents of his hamper that they determined to make a great feast. To add to their enjoyment, they imagined themselves to be settlers in the backwoods of America or Australia. They built a log hut with bolsters, and had a sort of picnic. One of them mounted on the top of the log hut to look out with his telescope for any approaching savages, while the others enjoyed their suppers in and about the hut. When their fun was at its height, the door softly opened, and in walked Dr. Birchall, spectacles on nose and cane in hand. What followed may be imagined.

You know that Uncle John is an engineer now, and even as a little boy he had a great turn for mechanical inventions. Well, he pondered over some means by which such a sudden interruption to the enjoyment of his schoolfellows might be prevented in future; and I will tell you what he did.

It happened that the large room in which he slept formed the upper floor of a wing of the house which had been added to it when it became a school; and there was no access to this room from the principal staircase of the house. You had to pass through the room below and go up a little separate staircase to reach to the floor above. The lower room was also a bedroom for the boys, and Uncle John’s little scheme was this:

He made a hole with a gimlet in the frame of one of the windows of his bedroom, passed a piece of string through the hole, and carried it outside the wall of the house down to a similar hole in a window-frame of the room below. To the end of the string in the upper room was fastened a small rattle, while the other end of the string—that in the room below—was taken into the bed of a boy who slept near the window.

This admirable little invention once in order, there was more rioting in the upper room than ever; and the master, disturbed by the noise, soon went, cane in hand, to stop it. The instant he set foot in the lower room the boy there who held the string in bed gave it a little pull: the rattle sounded—ting! ting!—in the room above, and in an instant every boy was in bed and snoring. Perhaps they had been playing at leap-frog the moment before, but as Dr. Birchall entered the room—and he crept up the staircase very quietly, that he might catch them unawares—he found some twenty boys lying in bed, seemingly sound asleep, though snoring unnaturally loud.

The doctor was so disconcerted by this unexpected state of things that he retired at once, fancying perhaps that his ears had deceived him when he thought he had heard a noise in the room. The same thing happened two or three times; the doctor was puzzled, and the invention  appeared a complete success; but at last all was discovered.

The boys play their 'instruments' in the band


The boys one evening began imprudently to play at “tossing in the blanket” before they were undressed. The rattle sounded, and they had just time to hide away the blanket. But the doctor coming in, and finding they were only then beginning to undress, knew they must have been at some mischief, and began questioning one after another. Unluckily, while he was in the room the rattle sounded again by accident; perhaps the boy in the room below had pulled the string by moving in bed. The doctor looked about, found the rattle hanging just below the window, saw the string, opened the window and traced its course outside, went down into the room below, and understood the whole arrangement. Then he put the rattle in his pocket and went away without saying a word. The boys declared he had such difficulty in keeping himself from laughing that he was afraid to speak lest he should burst out.

However, next day every boy in that room had a slight punishment, and so the matter ended.

Now I will tell you another of Uncle John’s pranks at school. There was a large tree in the playground, the upper branches of which spread out very near to the windows of the bedroom I have been describing. One evening Uncle John got hold of a large hand-bell which was used for ringing the boys up in the morning; and climbing up the tree, he fastened it by a piece of string to a branch near the top. Then another boy threw him the end of a long string from a window of the bedroom into the tree, and he fastened it to the bell in such a way that when it was pulled in the bedroom it made the bell ring in the tree. Having accomplished this arrangement, he came down from the tree and went to bed.

At ten o’clock at night the household was disturbed by the loud ringing of this bell. The master, in his dressing-gown, came out into the playground, and soon discovered where the sound came from, but of course supposed that some boy had climbed up into the tree, and was ringing the bell there. It was the middle of summer, and a beautiful moonlight night, so the boys could see from the windows all that took place. Dr. Birchall stood at the foot of the tree, looking up, and exclaimed, angrily,

“Come down, you naughty boy! Come down, I say, directly! Oh, I’ll give you such a flogging! Stop that horrible noise, I tell you, and come down!”

The bell still went on ringing. At last the string—being pulled too hard, I suppose, in the excitement of the fun—broke, and the bell tumbled down from the top of the tree, falling very near the old schoolmaster. This was worse than all.

“What!” he exclaimed; “you throw the bell at me? Why, if it had hit me on the head, it might have killed me. Oh, you wicked boy! I’ll expel you, sir. I’ll find out who you are if I stop here till morning.”

At last, however, his patience was exhausted, and he went away, but left an old butler to watch the tree all night. The boys from the windows could see this man settle himself comfortably on a seat which was at the foot of the tree. He lighted his pipe, and prepared to carry out his master’s orders and watch till daylight. By three o’clock in the morning the dawn broke; then the man began to look up occasionally into the tree. Now and then he walked a little distance away, first in one direction, and then in another, to look into parts of the tree that he could not see from underneath. He kept this up till the sun had risen and it was broad daylight; then at last he became convinced that it was impossible there could be a boy in the tree. He walked slowly into the house, still smoking his pipe, with a puzzled expression on his face.

And I suspect he was not the only person who felt puzzled. The next day the boys were going home for the holidays, so that no further inquiry could be made. I wonder if Dr. Birchall ever found out how it had been managed?