The Duffer by Talbot Baines Reed

Story type: Literature

What school is without its duffer, I wonder? Of course, none of us answer to the name, but we all know somebody who does, and it’s a curious thing nobody ever thoroughly dislikes a duffer. Why? Well, one reason may be that there’s nothing as a rule objectionable about such fellows, and another is that we are always ready enough to forgive one who makes us laugh; but I have an idea that the best reason why we are all so tolerant of duffers is that we are able to remind ourselves, when laughing at them, how very much the reverse of duffers we are ourselves.

However that may be, we had a glorious duffer at our school, who got himself and us into all sorts of scrapes, and yet was quite a favourite among his schoolfellows.

Billy Bungle (that was his name) was not by any means an idiot. He knew perfectly well that two and two made four, and yet, such a queer chap as he was, he would take any amount of pains to make five of it.

If there were two ways of doing anything, a right way and a wrong way, he invariably selected the latter; and if there seemed only one way, and that the right way, then he invented a wrong one for the occasion.

One day, one of the little boys in the school had a letter telling him to come home at once. He was not long in packing up his carpet bag, and getting the doctor’s leave to depart. But the doctor was unwilling for such a little helpless fellow as he to undertake the long journey all alone. He came down to the playground where we were, and beckoning to Billy, who happened to be the nearest at hand, said, “Bungle, will you go with this boy to the station, and see him off by the twelve train to X–? Here is the money to get his ticket; and carry his bag for him, there’s a man.”

Billy readily accepted the commission, and we watched him proudly marching from the playground with his small charge on one side and the carpet bag on the other. The station was a mile off, and it was nearly one o’clock when he returned home. We were in class at the time.

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“Well, did you see him off?” asked the doctor.

“Yes, sir, all right; we caught an earlier train than the one you said– at a quarter to,” replied Billy, with the tone of a clever man.

“But the quarter to doesn’t go to X–. Didn’t I tell you to see him off by the twelve train?”

“I thought it would be all the better to catch the early one.”

“Stupid boy, don’t you know that train doesn’t go to X–?”

“No one said it didn’t, sir,” put in Billy, with an injured face.

“Did any one say it did?”

“I didn’t hear,” said Billy; “shall I go back and ask?”

“That would not be the least use,” said the master, too vexed almost to speak.

Billy stood before him, staring at him, and looking anything but cheerful.

“I shall have to go down to the station myself,” said the doctor. “You are the stupidest boy I ever had to do with.”

Billy looked resigned; then fumbling in his waistcoat pocket, he pulled out a bit of blue cardboard. “Oh, here’s the ticket, sir.”

“What! Wasn’t it enough to send the poor boy off by a wrong train, without keeping his ticket? Go away, sir, this instant, to your room, and stay there till I give you leave to quit it!”

Billy obeyed, evidently unable to make the affair out.

By dint of telegrams and messengers, the missing boy turned up again; but it was a long time before Billy was allowed to forget the way he had “seen him off.”

This is just one specimen of our unlucky schoolfellow’s blunders. He was always in some trouble of the kind. He had to cease taking lessons in chemistry, because one time he nearly succeeded in blowing himself and three or four of us up by mixing certain combustibles together by mistake; and another time he upset a bottle of sulphuric acid over his clothes.

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He was always very near the bottom of his class, because he would prepare the wrong lessons, or misunderstand the questions asked him. And yet he was always anxious to get on. Once, I remember, he confidentially asked me, if he were to learn Liddell and Scott’s Lexicon by heart, whether I thought he would be able to get the Greek prize? But he bungled more in the playground than anywhere. Perhaps it was because we laughed at him and made him nervous.

It was rarely any one cared to have him on their side at cricket. He missed the easiest catches, he got leg before wicket, he stopped still in the middle of a run to see if he would have time to finish it, and whenever he did manage to score one he was sure, in his excitement, to knock down his own wicket with a flourish of his bat.

In football it’s no exaggeration to say he was more often on the ground than the ball itself, and was invariably of more service to the other side than to his own. In fact, the possession of him got to be quite a joke.

“Who’s going to win?” asks some one, before a match begins.

“Which side is Billy Bungle on?” is the counter question.

“Oh, he’s on our side.”

“Then of course the other fellows will win,” is the uncomplimentary conclusion; and Billy, poor boy, who overhears it, half chokes with wounded feelings, and tucks up his sleeves and goes into the game, determined for once he will disappoint those who mock at him. Alas I scarcely has the ball been kicked off than he gets in the way of everybody he ought not to get in the way of, and lets the others pass him; he collars his own men, and kicks the ball towards his own goal, and falls down just in time to cause half a dozen of his side to tumble over him, and just as the ball rises, straight as an arrow, to fly over the enemy’s goal, his unlucky head gets in the way and spoils everything. No wonder he is in very poor demand as an ally.

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Now, the question is, is it altogether Billy’s fault he is such a duffer? Of course it is, say nineteen out of every twenty of my readers. Any one with an ounce of brains and common sense could avoid such stupid blunders. But the twentieth is not quite so positive. “Perhaps it’s not altogether Billy’s fault,” he says. And I must confess I am inclined to agree with this. Of course, a great deal of his “duffingness” (I believe that’s the proper word) is due to his carelessness. If he took the trouble to think about what he was doing, he would never translate a French exercise into Latin, or learn his arithmetic by heart instead of his history; he would never mix together (under his nose) two chemicals that would assuredly explode and nearly blow his head off. For he has a few brains in that head, which makes such blunders all the less excusable. But I am not sure if a good deal of his bad luck is not due to the merciless way in which he was laughed at, and called “duffer,” and taught to believe that he could no more do a thing right than a bull could walk through a china-shop without making a smash. He got it into his head he was a duffer, and therefore did not take the pains he might have done.

“What’s the use of my bothering? I’m sure to make a mess of it!”

Fancy a boy saying this to himself at cricket, while a ball is flying beautifully towards him, an easy catch, even for a duffer. Do you suppose he will catch it? Not he. He will stand where he is, and put up his hands, and look another way. In fact, he won’t do his best. And why? Because all of us never expect him to catch it; and if he did, we should probably call it a “fluke,” and laugh at him all the more. Yes, it’s our fault in a certain measure that Billy is the awful “duffer” he is.

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Sometimes, as in the game of football we have referred to, he does make up his mind to do his best; but even then the idea that “destiny” is against him, and that everybody is expecting him to make a fool of himself, as usual, is enough to make any fellow nervous and a duffer.

However, whatever excuses we may make for Billy, he was undoubtedly a duffer. I have named one reason of his bad luck–want of thought–and another was hurry. In fact, the two reasons become one, for it was chiefly because Billy would never give himself time to think that he made so many mistakes. All his thinking came after the thing was done. As soon as the chemicals had blown up, for instance, it entered his head he had mixed the wrong ingredients, and as soon as the ball was flying to the wrong goal it occurred to him he had kicked it in a wrong direction.

And this really brings me to the moral of my discourse. Don’t despair, if you are a duffer, for you may cure yourself of it, if you will only think and take your time. If we are not quick-witted, it does not follow we have no wits, and if we only use them carefully, we shall be no greater duffers than some of our sharp fellows.

The great philosopher Newton once appeared in the light of a great duffer. He had a cat, and that cat had a kitten, and these two creatures were continually worrying him by scratching at his study door to be let either in or out. A brilliant idea occurred to the philosopher–he would make holes in the bottom of his door through which they might pass in or out at pleasure without troubling him to get up and open the door every time. And thereupon he made a big hole for the cat and a little hole for the kitten, as if both could not have used the big hole!

Well, you say, one could fancy Billy Bungle doing a thing like that, but what an extraordinary error for a philosopher to fall into! It was, but the reason in both cases is alike. Neither thought sufficiently about what he was doing. Newton was absorbed with other things, and Billy was thinking of nothing, and yet both he and Newton were duffers, which goes to prove that without care any one may belong to that class.

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How many men who have begun life as reputed “duffers” have turned out great men! but you will find that none of them ever did themselves any good till they had cured themselves of that fault. That’s what you, and I, and Billy Bungle must all do, boys.

Just two words more about Billy. We all liked him, as I have said, for he was imperturbably good-tempered. He bore no malice for all our laughing, and now and then, when he was able to see the joke, would assist in laughing at himself.

And then he never tried to make himself out anything but what he was. Of all detestable puppies, the duffer who tries to pass himself off for a clever man is the most intolerable; for nothing will convince him of his error, and nothing will keep him in his place. He’s about the one sort of character nobody knows how to deal with, for he sets everybody else but himself down as duffers. What can anybody do to such a one?

But there is another extreme. Billy’s great fault was that he was too ready to believe others who called him a duffer. Don’t take it for granted you are a duffer because any one tells you so. Find it out for yourself, and when you’ve found it out–“don’t be a duffer!”

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