When James first laid eyes on him, the boy was standing in mortified silence, tiny in relation to the raucous little crowd of boys that danced around him. He'd just been transferred to Appleton School, James was told, and he was being punished with taunts.
"He kicked when he ought to have said 'hello,'" a peacock-haired student in ill-fitting clothes said.
"Kicked?" James echoed. "What, that emaciated little thing?"
"He surprised us, too."
James looked at his slovenly companion. "Did he? I'd imagine that he was provoked. I can see you bullying him about, Butler."
The other boy shrugged. "Someone said something about his clothes, I think." Butler paused and considered, his brows wrinkling. "Or was it about his mother?"
"It was meant as a joke!"
James snorted his derision and watched the pale, sandy-haired boy as he endured the laughter and the taunts of his schoolfellows. His eyes were fixed on the ground, his hands wrung his soiled cap, and his mouth was pinched into a tight line. He appeared to be a penniless student, his clothes looking faded and a bit frayed. James wondered if he'd managed to enter the school on the basis of pure scholarship and nothing more. He'd heard about such things where universities were concerned, and perhaps a smaller, humbler establishment like Appleton School, tucked away in a more obscure corner of Wiltshire, was just as forgiving of promising scholars as it was gladly welcoming of moneyed ones.
"What's his name?" James asked just as the boy was nearly knocked off his feet from a hard shove given by a student a good head taller than he.
"Courtney, I think."
"I don't see him surviving."
The luckless Courtney was given another hard shove from a different boy that sent him sprawling. The group of students surrounding him exploded in a chorus of huzzahs before scampering away.
Harry Butler and James exchanged knowing glances. "I think you're right," Harry said. Together they watched Courtney pick himself up from the ground and look around for signs of his oppressors. He was now filthy, certainly not at all fit to appear before his schoolmaster, who'd likely subject him to more punishment for his negligence. James doubted if he had anything else suitable. Courtney, seeing himself finally released, retrieved his battered cap then scampered off in another direction and vanished around the corner.
"Pity," James sighed, shaking his head in vague sympathy before turning away to amble off, whistling at the sun.
A new schoolmate. Yet another miserable, unsuspecting soul about to be put on the rack at Appleton School, where spirits were methodically and systematically broken, where young minds were conditioned to mediocrity, where emotional growth was destined to be stunted. No one would have expected these horrors to take place in such a tiny patch of land as Brokenborough, but James had always been convinced that establishments that were hidden in less-frequented corners of the world were more likely to indulge in all sorts of horrific acts.
The school was really a converted old rectory in Brokenborough, made so by its last owner, John Appleton. Handsome and stately, its gray stone walls boasted a rich heritage and its interiors and plain grounds lovingly tended by the Head (whom Appleton himself handpicked when the latter was forced to retire due to bad health), his wife, and a few servants. With a tiny roster of assistant masters boasting degrees from Cambridge and Oxford, it offered boys from both middling and well-to-do families who lived in the northern parts of Wiltshire a respectable education free of the more lurid trappings of its urbane and more prestigious counterparts. It was an honored establishment. Its reputation remained spotless for several years.
James Ellsworth remained unimpressed, however. He longed for home, his parents' indulgence, and his freedom. Malmesbury was only two miles away, yet he was trapped elsewhere as though home were an impossible distance for him to cover on foot, let alone by coach or horseback. His father had wished it, thinking it a good way to develop the boy's spirit and independence. He treated the separation between them as though his son were, indeed, in an establishment near the northern English borders.
In spite of his academic progress, James was bored out of his wits. He was forever looking out for something with which to engage his mind--something, at least, that fell far outside the bleak realm of scholarly pursuits. The new boy, with his shabby clothes, his gloomy shyness, and his underfed state, offered James more promising prospects.
"I hope to be impressed," he said as he inhaled the welcome scent of the well-tended grounds, which he'd always associated with renewal.
At the age of twelve, James already knew his worth. Time and again he'd proven himself to be a great deal too clever for the curriculum. He'd spouted off endless lines of facts, philosophies, and written art. He'd asserted his dominance by virtue of his family connections and the all-too-obvious power they had over the school and its humbler inhabitants.
Appleton School had simply grown too dull now, and James was forced to turn to his peers for his amusement.