W. Somerset Maugham : Of Human Bondage
time went on Philip's deformity ceased to interest. It was accepted like
one boy's red hair and another's unreasonable corpulence. But meanwhile
he had grown horribly sensitive. He never ran if he could help it, because
he knew it made his limp more conspicuous, and he adopted a peculiar walk.
He stood still as much as he could, with his club-foot behind the other,
so that it should not attract notice, and he was constantly on the look
out for any reference to it. Because he could not join in the games which
other boys played, their life remained strange to him; he only interested
himself from the outside in their doings; and it seemed to him that there
was a barrier between them and him. Sometimes they seemed to think that
it was his fault if he could not play football, and he was unable to make
them understand. He was left a good deal to himself. He had been inclined
to talkativeness, but gradually he became silent. He began to think of the
difference between himself and others.
The biggest boy in his dormitory, Singer, took a dislike to him, and Philip, small for his age, had to put up with a good deal of hard treatment. About half-way through the term a mania ran through the school for a game called Nibs. It was a game for two, played on a table or a form with steel pens. You had to push your nib with the finger-nail so as to get the point of it over your opponent's, while he manoeuvred to prevent this and to get the point of his nib over the back of yours; when this result was achieved you breathed on the ball of your thumb, pressed it hard on the two nibs, and if you were able then to lift them without dropping either, both nibs became yours. Soon nothing was seen but boys playing this game, and the more skilful acquired vast stores of nibs. But in a little while Mr. Watson made up his mind that it was a form of gambling, forbade the game, and confiscated all the nibs in the boys' possession.
Philip had been very adroit, and it was with a heavy heart that he gave up his winning; but his fingers itched to play still, and a few days later, on his way to the football field, he went into a shop and bought a pennyworth of J pens. He carried them loose in his pocket and enjoyed feeling them. Presently Singer found out that he had them. Singer had given up his nibs too, but he had kept back a very large one, called a Jumbo, which was almost unconquerable, and he could not resist the opportunity of getting Philip's Js out of him. Though Philip knew that he was at a disadvantage with his small nibs, he had an adventurous disposition and was willing to take the risk; besides, he was aware that Singer would not allow him to refuse. He had not played for a week and sat down to the game now with a thrill of excitement. He lost two of his small nibs quickly, and Singer was jubilant, but the third time by some chance the Jumbo slipped round and Philip was able to push his J across it. He crowed with triumph. At that moment Mr. Watson came in.
"What are you doing?" he asked.
He looked from Singer to Philip, but neither answered.
"Don't you know that I've forbidden you to play that idiotic game?"
Philip's heart beat fast. He knew what was coming and was dreadfully frightened, but in his fright there was a certain exultation. He had never been swished. Of course it would hurt, but it was something to boast about afterwards.
"Come into my study."
The headmaster turned, and they followed him side by side Singer whispered to Philip:
"We're in for it."
Mr. Watson pointed to Singer.
Philip, very white, saw the boy quiver at each stroke, and after the third he heard him cry out. Three more followed.
"That'll do. Get up."
Singer stood up. The tears were streaming down his face. Philip stepped forward. Mr. Watson looked at him for a moment.
"I'm not going to cane you. You're a new boy. And I can't hit a cripple. Go away, both of you, and don't be naughty again."
When they got back into the school-room a group of boys, who had learned in some mysterious way what was happening, were waiting for them. They set upon Singer at once with eager questions. Singer faced them, his face red with the pain and marks of tears still on his cheeks. He pointed with his head at Philip, who was standing a little behind him.
"He got off because he's a cripple," he said angrily.
Philip stood silent and flushed. He felt that they looked at him with contempt.
"How many did you get?" one boy asked Singer.
But he did not answer. He was angry because he had been hurt.
"Don't ask me to play Nibs with you again," he said to Philip. "It's jolly nice for you. You don't risk anything."
"I didn't ask you."
He quickly put out his foot and tripped Philip up. Philip was always rather unsteady on his feet, and he fell heavily to the ground.
"Cripple," said Singer.
For the rest of the term he tormented Philip cruelly, and, though Philip tried to keep out of his way, the school was so small that it was impossible; he tried being friendly and jolly with him; he abased himself, so far as to buy him a knife; but though Singer took the knife he was not placated. Once or twice, driven beyond endurance, he hit and kicked the bigger boy, but Singer was so much stronger that Philip was helpless, and he was always forced after more or less torture to beg his pardon. It was that which rankled with Philip: he could not bear the humiliation of apologies, which were wrung from him by pain greater than he could bear. And what made it worse was that there seemed no end to his wretchedness;Singer was only eleven and would not go to the upper school till he was thirteen. Philip realised that he must live two years with a tormentor from whom there was no escape. He was only happy while he was working and when he got into bed. And often there recurred to him then that queer feeling that his life with all its misery was nothing but a dream, and that he would awake in the morning in his own little bed in London.
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Chapter 12, from Somerset Maugham's novel Of Human Bondage,
first published in 1915.
Download the complete novel Of
Human Bondage, by W. Somerset Maugham at Project Gutenberg
Return to the Somerset Maugham page
Read about The broken ebony pen-holder in Chapter 13
Real Nibs in George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four
All about steel pen nibs on Nibs.tk
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