Chapter IX: A Nasty Cropper

The Firm of Girdlestone

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.

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