Sent Down
by Dunnage41

//
Horatio Hornblower straightened his spine and fought to keep his eyes open. The slight motion required caught the Greek master’s eye.
//
“Master Hornblower,” he said drily, “perhaps you would be kind enough to decline the verb ‘leo’ for us.”
//
Panic flashed through Hornblower’s mind. He swallowed hard and stood, bracing his hand against the scarred wooden desk.
//
“Uh … ‘lego,’ ‘I say,’ sir,” he stammered. ‘Lego.’” The rest flooded back to him in an imperfect rush. “ ‘Elega,’ I was saying, ‘Eipa,’ I said, ‘Tha lego,’ I will be saying, ‘Tha no,’ I will say, ‘Tha lego,’ to be saying, ‘Na lego,’ to say, ‘Lege,’ imperative, ‘Ego thei,’ I have said, ‘Tha lego pei,’ I will have said, ‘Tha eika legei,’ I would have said.”
//
“Correct,” the master said. He fixed a cold, unloving gaze on Hornblower, who found his knees shaking. “Correct, correct, correct, incorrect, incorrect, incorrect, correct, incorrect, incorrect, incorrect.” He cleared his throat. “You may wish to prepare, gentlemen, for the examination you will sit in here tomorrow.” His gaze remained fixed on Hornblower, who felt his face grow hot as he studied his desk.
//
At last the hour ended. Hornblower stood with the others, collected his books and papers, and filed out, ignoring the master’s fixed stare.
//
“Horatio.” Jasper Penrose clapped him on the arm. “You’re going to fail that examination.”
//
Jasper was as different from his classmate as chalk from cheese. Short and round, he had a rubicund face topped with a thatch of thick, straight, strawlike hair. He never wanted for pocket-money and rightly considered himself a fop. He was wearing at the moment his favorite suit, of bottle green velvet, whose jacket buttons did not come close to meeting. He laughed easily and often and found Hornblower’s moods amusing.
//
Hornblower shifted his books and papers, fished out a grubby handkerchief, and blew his nose. “No,” he said grimly. “I’m not.”
//
“But you couldn’t even decline ‘lego,’” Jasper returned, the perpetual smile beginning to fade from his ruddy face.
//
“No,” Hornblower agreed. “But by tomorrow, I will.” He turned a bleak gaze on his classmate. “I have all evening, do I not?”
//
“Oh, but,” Jasper’s face fell. “The fellows are all going to the ale-house tonight, it’ll be so jolly; you must come.”
//
Hornblower shook his head. “I know my duty, Jasper,” he said. “And it is not to ale but to ‘eimi,’” making a feeble joke that nonetheless prompted a dutiful chuckle. He gave a sharp bob of his head in farewell and turned his gangling frame toward the dormitory and away from Jasper and his temptations. Back in his room, he hauled himself onto the bed and looked over a history essay, scribbled a conclusion, and picked up his Greek lexicon. He pored over it all that forenoon and devoted the afternoon study hall -- after a hasty effort at calculus problems -- to writing out declensions, his prominent nose deep in the book.
//
He hurried through his supper, deaf to Jasper’s pleas to join that evening’s merriment, and went instead to the library and back to his verbs. The librarian, preparing to close the building, found him hours later with his head on his arm, quill flung across the table, snoring over sheets of conjugations. He roughly shook him awake. Hornblower, dazed with sleep, clumsily gathered up his books and papers and stumbled back to the dormitory. He undressed, dived into his nightshirt, and dutifully took the lexicon into the bed with him, but could not keep his eyes open. He slept soundly until Jasper’s noisy entrance roused him, whereupon he rose, dressed, and returned to the books in the predawn stillness.
//
It was two days later that an errand-boy, one of the youngest and smallest in the school, entered the study hall and looked round, eyes wide, at the older boys. “Master Horatio Hornblower to see the headmaster,” he piped. Hornblower started, then gathered his books and rose.
//
In the headmaster’s painfully tidy office, Hornblower stood, awkwardly, clasping his hands behind his back for want of anywhere to put them. The headmaster did not invite him to sit but instead leaned back in his chair and fixed his eyes on the pupil. My God, will he ever stop growing, was his first intemperate thought. He cleared his throat.
//
“Master Hornblower,” he said, “here are the results of your recent examination in Greek.”
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Hornblower’s brow furrowed as he took the papers. Why on earth was he being summoned to the headmaster’s office to look at his Greek examination? He raised his eyebrows as he saw the results. Not only a pass, but a nearly perfect mark.
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“Master Hornblower,” the headmaster snapped, “would you care to explain?”
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“Ex, ex, explain, sir?” Hornblower stammered.
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“Yes, explain. Only on Monday, Mister Halliday was in here despairing of your inability to decline even a relatively common verb, yet the next day -- the next day -- you turn in the highest marks in the class on an examination. I believe that requires an explanation, does it not?”
//
“I, er, de, devoted myself to, to, to study, sir,” Hornblower stammered, aware as he said the words that they sounded feeble even to his ears. They appeared, it seemed, feeble to the headmaster as well, for he favored Hornblower with a skeptical look.
//
“Master Hornblower,” he said, “you are consistently weak in your Greek studies. I find it as hard to believe as does Mister Halliday that your happy results in the examination are merely the result of increased devotion to your, ha -- h’m, your verbs.” He resettled his spectacles and glared at Hornblower, who flushed as the implication of the headmaster’s reply struck him.
//
“Sir,” he said breathlessly. “Sir.” His eyes darted round the room and he found himself unable to meet the headmaster’s stare.
//
“That is all,” the headmaster said coldly. “You may go.” He busied himself with papers and Hornblower stood dumbly gazing at the floor until he found his feet again. He stumbled out of the office, head bowed and hands still clasped behind his back, ink-stained fingers fidgetting compulsively in their own grip. He plodded up the worn, narrow stair-case to the senior boys’ sleeping-room, kicked off his shoes and climbed onto the narrow iron-frame bed, clasping his bony knees to his chest.
//
He sank his chin onto his breast and, thus arrayed, brooded. He could see no way forward. The Greek master and the headmaster believed that he had cheated. He had no influence; nor should he. If these men in a position of unlimited power over him were convinced of his dishonesty, his own knowledge of the truth would hold no weight. He swallowed hard, fighting the lump forming in his throat. He was disgraced, through no fault of his own. He would be sent down; he would have to return to the village; and his father would naturally believe the headmaster. He jerked his head up and swiped at his now flushed and tearstained cheeks. He would run away. He would pack his belongings and slip out. He could easily pass for eighteen and find some sort of employment. His father need never know; the school would not find him.
//
Surprisingly, it was Jasper Penrose who stopped this seemingly salvific plan.
//
“Horatio, you can’t.” For once the perpetually cheerful Jasper was troubled, his ruddy face and dancing eyes earnest, broad brow furrowed.
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“Why not?” Horatio demanded. His own eyes flashed with anger and zeal. His temper had been aroused and was now a living thing, threatening and overshadowing his own reason.
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“They’ll catch you,” Jasper said practically.
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Horatio’s face twisted. “Don’t care,” he said darkly.
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“Yes, you do.” Jasper’s voice rose. “You must. They’ll catch you, and you’ll be sent down, and your father …” his voice trailed off.
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Horatio scowled. “There’s no way out,” he said thickly. He turned and stared out the window, bracing his long fingers on the broad scarred sill. “They’ll send me down anyway.”
//
Jasper sighed. “But I saw you studying,” he pointed out hopefully. “I saw you asleep over your notes -- and you stayed in from the village.”
//
Horatio turned back to the room and met Jasper’s troubled gaze with his own, still clouded with doubt. He tugged at his chin and ran a hand through his disordered curls.
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The library master turned me out with my notes earlier that night,” he said slowly.
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“There, you see?” Jasper said triumphantly.
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“But, Jasper,” Horatio said. “They won’t listen to me. They needn’t. They can do as they please.”
//
Any reply Jasper had thought to make was cut short by the abrupt entrance of the headmaster into the room. He gave the boys a curt nod.
//
“Hornblower. Pack your things,” he said. “There’s no place in this school for a dishonest boy.”
//
“S-s-sir,” Horatio stuttered, at the same time grabbing the back of Jasper’s coat to stop him rushing forward. He swallowed hard. He was being thrown out; there was nothing to be lost by saying something, anything.
//
“S-s-sir,” he said again.
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“Hm? What is it?” the headmaster snapped.
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Horatio gulped convulsively. “I … I … I have witnesses, sir,” he said in a rush. “Who … saw me … studying.” He exhaled and looked down at the floor, feeling his cheeks grow hot.
//
The silence seemed to go on forever, weighted with import. Horatio could hear the clock in the corner ticking loudly.
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“Master Hornblower,” the headmaster said at last, “Mister Halliday has given convincing evidence of your dishonesty. No more is needed. Pack your trunk,” he snapped.
//
Jasper’s eyes grew wide. He sidled to the wall and slid awkwardly past the headmaster and clumped down the stairs.
//
“Yes, sir,” Horatio said thickly. He silently turned away and tugged his trunk out from under his bed. He took his greatcoat from its hook and folded it clumsily and laid it in the trunk. He took the flannel that was his from the wash-stand, and his toothbrush and hairbrush. He scooped up the two tattered hair-ribbons that lay there and glanced over his disordered pile of books and papers. Abruptly he turned and closed the lid on the trunk.
//
Jasper burst into the room, knocking into the headmaster and dragging behind him a startled and reluctant library-master.
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“Please, sir,” Jasper panted. “Please, sir, say what you saw.”
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The headmaster scowled. “I hardly think we require more disruption, sir.”
//
The librarian, however, stood his ground. “On Monday night last,” he said steadily, “I observed Master Hornblower come into the library immediately after the supper-hour. He appeared to be studying his Greek and was at the table for several hours. In fact, in preparation for closing the library, I was required to turn him out with his notes.” The librarian was kind enough not to mention that Horatio had been asleep at the time.
//
The headmaster’s expression softened, imperceptibly.
//
“And sir,” Jasper gulped, “Horatio studied all afternoon, even though many of us went into the village.. He stayed behind and studied, and he was still at it when we returned.”
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“When did you return, Master Penrose?”
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“Ah, ah, r-rather late, sir,” Jasper admitted.
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“H’m.” The headmaster swiveled his gaze to Horatio, who was gazing at the floor.
//
“Master Hornblower,” the headmaster said finally, “I am not entirely convinced of your newfound passion for, h’m, Greek. However, if Mister Halliday is so inclined, I suppose we can give you a week’s trial.”
//
Horatio’s head snapped up. His eyes were moist and his cheeks flushed.
//
“Thank you, sir,” he managed. He bit his lip. Life could begin anew, he thought.