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Decline and Fall by Evelyn Waugh

Read the first chapter of Evelyn Waugh's first novel - a darkly comic satire set in 1920's Britain

Decline and Fall

‘I understand you have had no previous experience?’ ‘No, sir, I am afraid not.’ ‘Well, of course, that is in many ways an advantage...'

A young man brought in a slip of paper.

‘What about that?’

Paul read it:

Private and Confidential Notice of Vacancy. Augustus Fagan, Esquire, Ph.D., Llanabba Castle, N. Wales, requires immediately junior assistant master to teach Classics and English to University Standard with subsidiary Mathematics, German and French. Experience essential; first-class games essential.


SALARY OFFERED: £120 resident post.

Reply promptly but carefully to Dr Fagan (‘Esq., Ph.D.’ on envelope), enclosing copies of testimonials and photograph, if considered advisable, mentioning that you have heard of the vacancy through us.

‘Might have been made for you,’ said Mr Levy.

‘But I don’t know a word of German, I’ve had no experience, I’ve got no testimonials, and I can’t play cricket.’

‘It doesn’t do to be too modest,’ said Mr Levy. ‘It’s wonderful what vocation one can teach when one tries. Why, only last term we sent a man who had never been in a laboratory in his life as senior Science Master to one of our leading public schools. He came wanting to do private coaching in music. He’s doing very well, I believe. Besides, Dr Fagan can’t expect all that for the salary he’s offering. Between ourselves, Llanabba hasn’t a good name in the profession. We class schools, you see, into four grades: Leading School, First-rate School, Good School, and School. Frankly,’ said Mr Levy, ‘School is pretty bad. I think you’ll find it a very suitable post. So far as I know, there are only two other candidates, and one of them is totally deaf, poor fellow.’

Next day Paul went to Church and Gargoyle to interview Dr Fagan. He had not long to wait. Dr Fagan was already there interviewing the other candidates. After a few minutes Mr Levy led Paul into the room, introduced him, and left them together. ‘A most exhausting interview,’ said Dr Fagan. ‘I am sure he was a very nice young man, but I could not make him understand a word I said. Can you hear me quite clearly?’

‘Perfectly, thank you.’

‘Good; then let us get to business.’

Paul eyed him shyly across the table. He was very tall and very old and very well dressed; he had sunken eyes and rather long white hair over jet black eyebrows. His head was very long, and swayed lightly as he spoke; his voice had a thousand modulations, as though at some remote time he had taken lessons in elocution; the backs of his hands were hairy, and his fingers were crooked like claws.

‘I understand you have had no previous experience?’

‘No, sir, I am afraid not.’

‘Well, of course, that is in many ways an advantage. One too easily acquires the professional tone and loses vision. But of course we must be practical. I am offering a salary of one hundred and twenty pounds, but only to a man with experience. I have a letter here from a young man who holds a diploma in forestry. He wants an extra ten pounds a year on the strength of it, but it is vision I need, Mr Pennyfeather, not diplomas. I understand, too, that you left your University rather suddenly. Now – why was that?’

This was the question that Paul had been dreading, and, true to his training, he had resolved upon honesty.

‘I was sent down, sir, for indecent behaviour.’

‘Indeed, indeed? Well, I shall not ask for details. I have been in the scholastic profession long enough to know that nobody enters it unless he has some very good reason which he is anxious to con- ceal. But, again to be practical, Mr Pennyfeather, I can hardly pay one hundred and twenty pounds to anyone who has been sent down for indecent behaviour. Suppose that we fix your salary at ninety pounds a year to begin with? I have to return to Llanabba tonight. There are six more weeks of term, you see, and I have lost a master rather suddenly. I shall expect you tomorrow evening. There is an excellent train from Euston that leaves at about ten. I think you will like your work,’ he continued dreamily; ‘you will find that my school is built upon an ideal – an ideal of service and fellowship. Many of the boys come from the very best families. Little Lord Tangent has come to us this term, the Earl of Circumference’s son, you know. Such a nice little chap, erratic, of course, like all his family, but he has tone.’ Dr Fagan gave a long sigh. ‘I wish I could say the same for my staff. Between ourselves, Pennyfeather, I think I shall have to get rid of Grimes fairly soon. He is not out of the top drawer, and boys notice these things. Now, your predecessor was a thoroughly agreeable young man. I was sorry to lose him. But he used to wake up my daughters coming back on his motor bicycle at all hours of the night. He used to borrow money from the boys, too, quite large sums, and the parents objected. I had to get rid of him. . . . Still, I was very sorry. He had tone.’

Dr Fagan rose, put on his hat at a jaunty angle, and drew on a glove.

‘Goodbye, my dear Pennyfeather. I think, in fact I know, that we are going to work well together. I can always tell these things.’

‘Goodbye, sir,’ said Paul. . . .

‘Five per cent of ninety pounds is four pounds ten shillings,’ said Mr Levy cheerfully. ‘You can pay now or on receipt of your first term’s salary. If you pay now there is a reduction of fifteen per cent. That would be three pounds sixteen shillings and sixpence.’

‘I’ll pay when I get my wages,’ said Paul.

‘Just as you please,’ said Mr Levy. ‘Only too glad to have been of use to you.’

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