The Firm of Girdlestone

Chapter IX.

A Nasty Cropper

Arthur Conan Doyle

BUT there were pitfalls ahead. As he moved to the botany table a grey-bearded examiner waved his hand in the direction of the row of microscopes as an intimation that the student was to look through them and pronounce upon what he saw. Tom seemed to compress his whole soul into his one eye as he glared hopelessly through the tube at what appeared to him to resemble nothing so much as a sheet of ice with the marks of skates upon it.

“Come along, come along!” the examiner growled impatiently. Courtesy is conspicuous by its absence in most of the Edinburgh examinations. “You must pass on to the next one, unless you can offer an opinion.”

This venerable teacher of botany, though naturally a kind-hearted man, was well known as one of the most malignant species of examiners, one of the school which considers such an ordeal in the light of a trial of strength between their pupils and themselves. In his eyes the candidate was endeavouring to pass, and his duty was to endeavour to prevent him, a result which, in a large proportion of cases, he successfully accomplished.

“Hurry on, hurry on!” he reiterated fussily.

“It’s a section of a leaf,” said the student.

“It’s nothing of the sort,” the examiner shouted exultantly. “You’ve made a bad mistake, sir; a very bad one, indeed. It’s the spirilloe of a water plant. Move on to the next.”

Tom, in much perturbation of mind, shuffled down the line and looked through the next brazen tube. “This is a preparation of stomata,” he said, recognizing it from a print in his book on botany.

The professor shook his head despondingly. “You are right,” he said; “pass on to the next.”

The third preparation was as puzzling to the student as the first had been, and he was steeling himself to meet the inevitable when an unexpected circumstance turned the scale in his favour. It chanced that the other examiner, being somewhat less of a fossil than his confreres, and having still vitality enough to take an interest in things which were foreign to his subject, had recognized the student as being the young hero who had damaged himself in upholding the honour of his country. Being an ardent patriot himself his heart warmed towards Tom, and perceiving the imminent peril in which he stood he interfered in his behalf, and by a few leading questions got him on safer ground, and managed to keep him there until the little bell tinkled once more. The younger examiner showed remarkable tact in feeling his way, and keeping within the very limited area of the student’s knowledge. He succeeded so well, however, that although his colleague shook his hoary head and intimated in other ways his poor opinion of the candidate’s acquirements, he was forced to put down another “S. B.” upon the paper in front of him. The student drew a long breath when he saw it, and marched across to the other table with a mixture of trepidation and confidence, like a jockey riding at the last and highest hurdle in a steeple-chase.

Alas! it is the last hurdle which often floors the rider, and Thomas too was doomed to find the final ordeal an insurmountable one. As he crossed the room some evil chance made him think of the gossip outside and of his allusion to the abstruse substance known as cacodyl. Once let a candidate’s mind hit upon such an idea as this, and nothing will ever get it out of his thoughts. Tom felt his head buzz round, and he passed his hand over his forehead and through his curly yellow hair to steady himself. He felt a frenzied impulse as he sat down to inform the examiners that he knew very well what they were going to ask him, and that it was hopeless for him to attempt to answer it.

The leading professor was a ruddy-faced, benevolent old gentleman, with spectacles and a kindly manner. He made a few commonplace remarks to his colleagues with the good-natured intention of giving the confused-looking student before him time to compose himself. Then, turning blandly towards him, he said in the mildest of tones—

“Have you ever rowed in a pond?”

Tom acknowledged that he had.

“Perhaps, on those occasions,” the examiner continued, “you may have chanced to touch the mud at the bottom with your oar.”

Tom agreed that it was possible.

“In that case you may have observed that a large bubble, or a succession of them has risen from the bottom to the surface. Now, of what gas was that bubble composed?”

The unhappy student, with the one idea always fermenting on his brain, felt that the worst had come upon him. Without a moment’s hesitation or thought he expressed his conviction that the compound was cacodyl.

Never did two men look more surprised, and never did two generally grave savants laugh more heartily than did the two examiners when they realized what the candidate had answered. Their mirth speedily brought him back to his senses. He saw with a feeling of despair that it was marsh gas which they had expected—one of the simplest and commonest of chemical combinations. Alas! it was too late now. He knew full well that nothing could save him. With poor marks in botany and zoology, such an error in chemistry was irreparable. He did what was perhaps the best thing under the circumstances. Rising from his chair he made a respectful bow to the examiners, and walked straight out of the room—to the great astonishment of the janitor, who had never before witnessed such a breach of decorum. As the student closed the door behind him he looked back and saw that the other professors had left their respective tables and were listening to an account of the incident from one of the chemists—and a roar of laughter the moment afterwards showed that they appreciated the humour of it. His fellow-students gathered round Tom outside in the hope of sharing in the joke, but he pushed them angrily aside and strode through the midst of them and down the University steps. He knew that the story would spread fast enough without his assistance. His mind was busy too in shaping a certain resolution which he had often thought over during the last few months.

The two old people and Miss Kate Harston waited long and anxiously in their sitting-room at the hotel for some news of the absentee. The doctor had, at first, attempted a lofty cynicism and general assumption of indifference, which rapidly broke down as the time went by, until at last he was wandering round the room, drumming upon the furniture with his fingers and showing every other sign of acute impatience. The window was on the first floor, and Kate had been stationed there as a sentinel to watch the passing crowd and signal the first sign of tidings.

“Can’t you see him yet?” the doctor asked for the twentieth time.

“No, dear, I don’t,” she answered, glancing up and down the street.

“He must be out now. He should have come straight to us. Come away from the window, my dear. We must not let the young monkey see how anxious we are about him.”

Kate sat down by the old man and stroked his broad brown hand with her tender white one. “Don’t be uneasy, dear,” she said; “it’s sure to be all right.”

“Yes, he is sure to pass,” the doctor answered; “but—bless my soul, who’s this?”

The individual who caused this exclamation was a very broad-faced and rosy-cheeked little girl, coarsely clad, with a pile of books and a slate under her arm, who had suddenly entered the apartment.

“Please sir,” said this apparition, with a bob, “I’m Sarah Jane.”

“Are you, indeed?” said the doctor, with mild irony. “And what d’ye want here, Sarah Jane?”

“Please, sir, my mithar, Mrs. McTavish, asked me if I wudna’ gie ye this letter frae the gentleman what’s lodgin’ wi’ her.” With these words the little mite delivered her missive and, having given another bob, departed upon her ways.

“Why,” the doctor cried in astonishment, “it’s directed to me and in Tom’s writing. What can be the meaning of this?”

“Oh dear! oh dear!” Mrs. Dimsdale cried, with the quick perception of womanhood; “it means that he has failed.”

“Impossible!” said the doctor, fumbling with nervous fingers at the envelope. “By Jove, though,” he continued, as he glanced over the contents, “you’re right. He has. Poor lad! he’s more cut up about it than we can be, so we must not blame him.”

The good physician read the letter over several times before he finally put it away in his note-book, and he did so with a thoughtful face which showed that it was of importance. As it has an influence upon the future course of our story we cannot end the chapter better than by exercising our literary privilege, and peeping over the doctor’s shoulder before he has folded it up. This is the epistle in extenso:—


“You will be sorry to hear that I have failed in my exam. I am very cut up about it, because I fear that it will cause you grief and disappointment, and you deserve neither the one nor the other at my hands.”

“It is not an unmixed misfortune to me, because it helps me to make a request which I have long had in my mind. I wish you to allow me to give up the study of medicine and to go in for commerce. You have never made a secret of our money affairs to me, and I know that if I took my degree there would never be any necessity for me to practise. I should therefore have spent five years of my life in acquiring knowledge which would not be of any immediate use to me. I have no personal inclination towards medicine, while I have a very strong objection to simply living in the world upon money which other men have earned. I must therefore turn to some fresh pursuit for my future career, and surely it would be best that I should do so at once. What that fresh pursuit is to be I leave to your judgment. Personally, I think that if I embarked my capital in some commercial undertaking I might by sticking to my work do well. I feel too much cast down at my own failure to see you to-night, but to-morrow I hope to hear what you think from your own lips.”


“Perhaps this failure will do no harm after all,” the doctor muttered thoughtfully, as he folded up the letter and gazed out at the cold glare of the northern sunset.

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