Read PART III : CHAPTER VI of The Soul of a Child, free online book, by Edwin Bjorkman, on ReadCentral.com.

During the fall and spring terms of that first year Keith had no sense of time. Days and weeks and months rolled by so smoothly that their passing was unnoticed. It is a question whether at any other period of his life with one possible exception he was more completely interested and, for that reason, satisfied.

One day he observed casually that the old trees in the churchyard sported tiny green leaves under a deliciously blue but still rather cold sky. A few days more, and he heard that commencement was at hand.

It was a time of great excitement in school. Who would pass and who would not? Falling through might mean another year in the same class, but beyond all doubt it meant a summer spent at work instead of playing. It was worse than a disgrace. It was a menace to liberty at the time of the year when liberty meant most.

Being second in the class, it never occurred to Keith that he might fail of promotion to a higher grade, but at that end there were possible prizes to consider. The class was full of gossip and speculation. Boys who had hardly spoken to each other before broke into heated discussions or formed belated friendships. In one way and another the fever infected Keith and spread from him to his parents, though his father as usual feigned complete indifference. From his mother he learned long before the startling fact was meant to reach his ears, that his father had actually asked a day off at the bank in order to attend the exercises. This news increased Keith’s fear by several degrees. He had no idea what might happen, and it would be unthinkably dreadful to have the father present if anything went wrong. But on the other hand, if ... well, what was there to happen anyhow?

On the morning of the great day, a host of parents and relatives and other interested spectators crowded into the big assembly hall where places were reserved for them in the rear and along the walls. In the meantime the pupils gathered in their respective class-rooms, and from there they marched by twos to the hall, the lowest grade leading. Every boy was in his best clothes, and every one showed his nervousness in his own peculiar way. Keith laughed hysterically a few times before they started, and then he turned into an automaton that breathed and moved and heard and saw only as part of a gigantic machine. His own individuality seemed to melt and become a mere drop in the all-exclusive individuality of the school.

This mood lasted through the early part of the exercises, the prayer read by the primus of the senior class, the hymn singing, the Rector’s speech, and so on. Everything came to him as out of a mist, and he was not even sufficiently conscious of himself to look around for a glimpse of his parents. When the distribution of exercises began, the whole atmosphere changed. Until then it had been collective and impersonal. Now it became intensely personal. Every one wanted to hear. Necks were craned, whispered questions asked. It was as if a sudden breeze had stirred waters which until then had been still as the mirroring surface of a forest pool. Keith’s mood changed with the rest, and he grew painfully conscious of himself and his surroundings.

Starting with the lowest grade, the Rector read out the names of the prize winners, the character of the prizes, and sometimes the reasons why they were bestowed. At the mention of each name, a boy rose from his seat, squirmed past his closely packed comrades, marched up the centre aisle to the platform, bowed awkwardly to the Rector, grabbed the prize, bowed still more awkwardly if possible, and marched back to his seat with a face that burned or blanched, grinned or glowed, according to temperament.

The second grade was soon reached. Most of the prizes consisted of books. Davidson, primus, got two gilt-edged volumes of poetry. Keith caught a glimpse of them and experienced a twinge of envy. His heart was beating so that he thought he could hear it. His eyes clung to the Rector’s mouth, and when the next name was read, he half rose. Then he sank back, and around him an ominous stillness seemed to reign.

The name was that of Runge, tertius, who got some historical work. Then quartus, Blomberg, who was a passionate botanist, received a valuable text book on his favourite subject. Still the rector went on, and Keith felt sure that his name had been passed over by some mistake, and that now it would come.

“A German lexicon for special attention to the student of that language,” the Rector droned on.

Again Keith started to rise from his seat, but even as he did so, it flashed through his mind that he was given no more attention to German than to other studies.

“... to Otto Krass of the Second Grade,” the Rector completed his sentence, holding out a book.

As Keith sank back on the bench, Krass, quintus, rose with an expression on his face as if he had become personally involved in a particularly incredible miracle.

A whisper ran through the rest of the class. Glances were cast at Keith, who felt them like so many lashes on bare skin although in every other respect he had once more become utterly unconscious of what happened about him.

By slow degrees he recovered so far that he could try to think, but the process was unendurable. There could be no accident. It was a deliberate slight aimed at him for some specific reason. He tried to think of the past year and its happenings in and out of school, but this effort produced no solution to the riddle.

Suddenly he bethought himself of his speculations concerning his place in the class. It seemed that he had been deeply envious of Davidson all that year. With a quick turn of the head he surveyed for a moment the haughty expression and narrowly drawn postures of the boy beside him. There was a trace of a sneer on that face, and again Keith’s heart was flooded with resentment. But this mood changed abruptly into contriteness. Perhaps he was being punished by some one, by God he hesitated at that thought for grudging his schoolmate the place and the honours that he probably had deserved. Keith was the meanest of the mean....

Krass was back in his seat showing his book. He showed it to Keith also, but with a palpable embarrassment that touched the latter as an additional blow. Keith tried to say that it was nice, but his lips were too dry and stiff to produce a sound.

The Rector was still reading off names. To save himself from his own thoughts, Keith tried to listen. Soon he noticed that, without fail, the prizes went in unbroken sequence to the first four or five pupils in every grade. And suddenly he wondered whether his father and mother had noticed. What would they say? What could he say?

Then he remembered his mother’s remark on hearing about his place in the class, and he wondered if it could be possible.... But the parents of Krass had neither wealth nor position. That much he knew.

The Rector’s voice and manner became more and more impressive, and the prizes more and more valuable, as he passed higher and higher, until at last the senior class was reached the boys who were now graduating into the gymnasium. They were his own pupils, and for each of the prize winners from the two branches of that class he had a word of special praise and good-will.

A restless stirring passed through the assembly as the boy expected to be the last recipient of special honours made his way to the platform and everybody prepared to rise for the singing of a closing hymn.

Still the old Rector, with his smooth-shaven and deeply furrowed Roman face, remained standing, and once more an expectant hush fell upon pupils and spectators. Apparently he intended, contrary to custom, to follow up the main ceremony of the day with some important announcement.

“One more prize remains to be distributed,” he resumed with more than usual deliberation. “We do not have the pleasure of bestowing it regularly, because its conditions are unusual. It was the will of the donor that it should be given to that pupil who, regardless of grade and age, during the previous year had shown the relatively greatest aptitude, industry, and actual advance in knowledge. This year the prize, which consists of one hundred crowns in gold and is the largest at the disposal of our school, is to be distributed, and the pupil found worthy of this exceptional honour is....”

Every eye was on the Rector as he paused dramatically. Every one in the hall listened breathlessly to catch the favoured name. Keith listened like the rest, a little enviously perhaps, but without serious attention, for it had just occurred to him for the tenth time that the situation would have been so much less unbearable if only his father had stayed away.

“... this pupil is Keith Wellander of the Second Grade,” the Rector concluded.

A murmur swept the hall, and Keith felt himself the centre of many eyes. The murmur grew as the winner failed to appear, but Keith could not move a limb. Dumbly and unbelievingly he stared at the Rector and the group of teachers seated around him on the platform.

“Come forward, Wellander,” the Rector said in a friendly voice as if he could well understand the overwhelming effect of such distinction. At the same time Keith noticed Lector Dahlstroem rising partly from his seat on the platform as if to see whether anything might be the matter.

Had the ceiling opened and an angel appeared in a fiery chariot to call him heavenward, the boy could not have been more startled. It was as if a terrific blow had paralyzed all his senses. His classmates had to push him forward. He never knew how he reached the platform, where the Rector was waiting for him with a small package ready for delivery. Keith felt the weight of that package in his own hand and the gentle touch of the Rector’s hand on his head. Words were uttered that he did not catch, and the room became filled with the noise of boisterous applause.

He bowed mechanically and turned to walk back to his seat, and as he did so, he noticed a white handkerchief waving at him from the rear of the hall. Behind the handkerchief he caught a glimpse of his mother’s face, and a thought shot through his head:

“Papa is here and has heard all this!”

Then he relapsed into a state of utter oblivion of the surrounding world. The thing was too tremendous to be felt even. Automatically he moved out of the hall and back to the classroom with the rest. Dally was saying things to him, but he could not grasp a word. Now and then he became vaguely conscious of awed glances cast at him by the other boys. Some of them spoke to him, and in some strange way he managed to realize that Davidson was not among these.

At last he woke into full consciousness on the street, where he found himself walking homeward by his father’s hand. The pressure of that hand seemed unusually soft and pleasant. The mother was talking eagerly and wiping her eyes between little happy bursts of laughter. The father listened for a long while in silence.

“Yes,” he said at last, “it is not a bad beginning if he can keep it up.”

Keith felt for a moment as if he were walking on air, and he knew that he would keep it up that after such a day nothing could prevent him from keeping it up. Then a bewildering thought appeared out of nowhere and began to buzz in his tired and over-excited brain.

“If I have done all that the Rector said,” this thought demanded of him, “why in the world has Dally kept me sitting below Davidson who got nothing but books?”