A Cutting Sarcasm: A Story of a Penny Shave
Introductory Note: Stories such as “A Cutting Sarcasm” from The Boy’s Own Paper provided a clean alternative to the penny dreadfuls, periodicals which had a tendency to be violent in nature. This particular personal narrative is about a group of boys playing a prank on the narrator by convincing him to get a shave. This story would appeal to the readers of the Boy’s Own Paper as an example of practical jokes, and as a story about growing up.
WHEN reading—as I always do with interest—the “B.O.P.” correspondence columns, I am not a little amused to observe how anxious a great many boys are about their prospective hirsute appendages.1“Hirsute” means hairy. Well, well! I suppose the feeling is a natural one. There was a time—exactly! It is of myself I am going to tell you, of course in strictest confidence.
Now if I were to reveal to you the number of years that have slipped away into the past since my terrible experience, you would think me a very old boy; but so long as I am privileged to try and instruct as well as amuse you, I want to feel genuinely young. Nor do I wish you to imagine me as entering upon man’s “third state.” A penny shave may not have a formidable ring; but to me it has, and with good reason. Since my first real experience, to this moment no other hand than mine has been allowed to wander lovingly and lightly around my throat and chin—when grasping a bright, keen razor.
I need not enter minutely into the causes which induced my schoolfellows, when I first appeared among them, to dub me “Sammy.” You who can guess are at liberty to do so, and others will fully understand!
A governess up to a certain age (when her authority over me ceased), and then a tutor who was anything but strict enough, was not the best way to train a boy for life at a certain public school.
Allow me to draw a veil over my first contact with boys I then called rough and rude, but came to understand better later on. They did not mean to be unkind; and I was so very verdant. I sometimes wonder what sort of a man I should have become if I had not begun life (as I always declare I did) by going to school at fifteen!
I arrived at the school on a Monday. Wednesday was half-holiday; but I was kept in over my first punishment lesson, the outcome of a trick played upon me. On Saturday I trooped joyously forth from the school with certain buoyant companions, who formed the brother of the “Merry Monarchs,” to which I had been elected a probationary member on payment of five shillings. This sum was to be expended at the village general stores, and the proceeds divided amongst us.
I confess I had no cause to complain of my companions’ treatment until after the five shillings had been invested in “solids and liquids,” as Dicky Dubble, our leader, described them.
We were gathered together outside the store, loudly debating in which direction to proceed. The town was a mile from the village, and was out of bounds after five o’clock. We had an hour and a half to spare, so the town was decided upon.
“I’ll tell you what must be first done,” presently cried Dicky, as we trooped into the little town. “‘Sammy’ has not been shaved yet, and to-morrow is Sunday.”
“Shaved!” cried I, blushing violently. “Why—er—” and I hesitated.
“Of course! We know that—you mean you have nothing to shave. But,” impressively, “if you tell the plain unvarnished truth, you have often wished you had?”
“And looked in the glass as a vain hope?”
“And, maybe, you have tried an occasional scrape with your pater’s razor.”
“It was only his old blunt one,” I blurted out. How they did shout with laughter.
“Bah!” cried Dicky. “Half the fun is departed from us. ‘Lathery Scrape’ always pays out a ‘greeny,’ but has no end of respect for old hands. He’ll take you for one at the first glance.”
“But—er—I don’t understand,” stammered I.
“No? Oh, I say, this is splitting!”
“If you mean having my hair cut,” replied I, as innocent as you please, “I don’t mind. I know it is long, but our barber”—I hesitated, but was almost immediately struck with a happy thought—“was gone for a holiday.”
Dicky doubled up, and I feared he was taken with a bad spasm. When he was somewhat recovered, he said:
“Precisely! And ‘Lathery Scrape’ (he’s the school barber, and comes regularly to the school, hair-cutting, or ‘snipping day,’ as we call it, spoiling a half-holiday) will be only too glad for you to pay him a visit.”
“All right,” said I, wishing to be agreeable. “You point out the shop, and wait for me.”
“We’re not allowed to go there in a body; but as it is only in the next street, we will wait for you round the corner here. Cut along, and make haste. Oh, I was forgetting. Mind you say, ‘Hair cut and shave!’ (Of course he will not attempt to shave you, but all must say that, as it gives him an opportunity to charge a penny a head extra, and it does the poor man a little good.) And then you must add: ‘Put it down to the school account.’ It’s one of the items that figure in our parents’ bills as sundries.”
It seemed a truthful explanation, as, indeed, it was, all excepting the shave. I thought, too, I was not so dense as to miss that little joke. It was only probable the barber would smile; not at all possible he would blunt his razors on my chin.
So, thinking to gain the laudation of my friends, I turned into the next street, and was soon confronted by a barber’s pole, as well as a big brown blind before a great square window. On it was printed in big black letters:
THE RAPID HAIR CUTTING
GENERAL SHAVING EMPORIUM.
W. S. Frizzle.
Perhaps I was too dense even to feel nervous. Be that as it may, I marched boldly into the little passage, thence into the shop behind the curtain. I was kept waiting some few minutes. I employed the interval by gazing around. A big wooden chair was in the middle of the room. On the floor were numerous locks of hair, showing that trade had not been slack, or that Mr. Frizzle had not tidied up his shop for some days.
I had observed this much when the proprietor glided in. So quietly had he come upon me, I was quite startled. He was a little dapper man, of rotund figure, and a florid pleasing complexion. I began to gain confidence—in fact, nothing had yet transpired to make me view the simple act of hair-cutting in a serious light; because I did not literally construe my friends’ remarks. So I boldly met his eyes, and saw that his head was bald and shining. This was due (so Dicky Dubble had told me) to an accidental application of his special hair-restorer to his own cranium.
“Your pleasure, young gentleman?” mildly said he.
“Hair cut,” said I pat enough, “and—er—and—sh—shave, please!” I finally blurted out.
Dense as I was, I fancied his jolly face took a more set expression. But from first to last he never once relaxed his studious politeness.
“Yes, sir; di-rect-ly, sir,” giving his scissors a few preliminary snips close to my left ear. Then he tucked a nice clean cloth under my chin, and sat me before a large mirror. Somehow, I was puzzled at the expression of my own countenance. Did I indeed require—that is, would the barber really shave me? His “Yes, sir!” had implied as much. An icy feeling trickled down my back.
Whilst my hair was being cut, I had leisure to think and to look about me. The left side of the mirror was taken up by a marble-top table, on which stood a small oil-stove which kept the water in a pint copper mug at boiling pitch. A big razor was hanging on the side of the mug, the blade being in the water. I remember I wondered if it were necessary to boil a razor to insure a clean shave. By the side of the hot-water mug was a big soap-dish, in which lay what seemed to me a gigantic lather brush. I am certain it was first cousin to a whitewash brush. I almost groaned when I saw how everything was to hand.
My eyes wandered round the walls of the shop. From sundry nails and hooks were suspended hoops, skipping-ropes, and various toys, articles of his trade, and locks and plaits of partially dressed ladies’ hair; but what more particularly attracted my attention was a number of hideous masks, all of which were possessed of crooked noses. One in particular fixed my eye. There was a diabolical grin playing around its red lips and half-open mouth. I was sure it thoroughly enjoyed my growing discomfort, and I could not prevent my eyes returning to its grinning face each time they wandered round the shop.
“Excuse me, sir,” presently said the barber. “Nothing personal meant—but are you new at the school, and to our little town?”
“I am new to both,” replied I, attempting a smile.
“I thought so! Well, well! But no matter!” These ambiguous exclamations were unintelligible to me.
And then he grew quite playful, pretending to nip my nose and ears with his scissors, and immediately afterwards felt my chin in a suggestive manner, as delicately as he might have done a peach.
“Hem!” he commented. “One at least of the rising generation is like to have his wish gratified.”
There was something so suggestive in the tone of his voice that it almost decided me to make a bolt for it there and then. But a moment’s reflection told me I must at least allow him to finish the hair-cutting. Perhaps he guessed my thoughts, especially as I began to move uneasily whilst he was “polishing off.” The door was behind me, and I gradually edged round until I had it in a line to bolt out; but he gently took hold of my shoulders and set me facing the window again. Then his left hand suddenly glided down over my forehead, and his thumb and forefinger caught me by the nose—only politely, though they tightened when I attempted to slip from the chair. My heart sank, and I felt that I was in his toils.
The big lather brush was within reach. He caught it up, and plunged it into the hot water. Then he rapidly worked up a lather. Before I had time to say (as I fully intended), “I am not feeling well; I will call again,” the big lather brush came across my lips with a nasty flick. Unfortunately my mouth was open. I spluttered and spat, and attempted to wipe my mouth in the apron, but my hands were entangled in its folds.
“Beg pardon, sir!” cried the jolly barber. “Accidents will occasionally happen in the best-regulated barber’s shop. You were about to speak. Regrettable clumsiness on my part.”
“You”—(poof)—“let me”—(splutter). It was useless attempting to add “let me get out of this.” The barber at once plunged into the “professional flip,” and applied his brush so effectually that in half a minute my face, right up to my eyes, was hidden beneath a thick coat of lather.
How that awful mask on the wall did glare at me through its eyeless sockets, whilst its grin was simply appalling. The nauseous taste of the strong yellow soap caused my stomach to heave, and I really felt unwell.
I suppose my companions tired of waiting for me, or else wished to see the progress of their joke, for just then they came up. The barber now left me and went to the window, the lower sash of which he threw up. He was at once greeted with a cheeky remark from Dicky Dubble. As the repartee went on, I began to understand how I had been made a scapegoat.
“Come, Sammy,” presently said Dicky, “we can’t wait.—Are you going to keep our chum all day?” to the barber.
“I’m forced to wait,” was the reply. Then, after a tantalizing pause, “You see, his beard ain’t grown yet!”’
“Ha! ha! Good for you,” cried Dicky; and the others shouted their appreciation of the joke. “But you will have a long wait—he, he! Come on, you chaps,” to the other boys; “we can’t afford to wait for Sammy’s beard to grow.”
I could have cried; in fact, tears were in my eyes—but only from the lather, of course!
“I like to be obliging, sir,” said the barber, suddenly turning away from the window; “and though you ain’t got a beard such as some favours me with, there’s enough ground for me to go over to earn my penny. So I had best be making a beginning.”
He took the razor (such a big bright blade it had!) out of the copper mug, gave it a wild flourish in the air, and then passed it with lightning rapidity backward and forward over a big strop. I cannot account for the horror that suddenly fell upon me. Something seemed to tell me that the very least he contemplated was to cut my throat from ear to ear! My life, then, depended on prompt action. I was a bit of an athlete. Never before nor since have I so distinguished myself. I sprang from the chair, and gave a terrific yell of pent-up fear. The barber started back as if his life were endangered, falling over a chair and going down with a tremendous crash. As for myself, one bound carried me clean through the open window! Then away down the street.
A number of boys immediately gave chase.
“His droat be cut!” shouted one.
“Look at the blood!” cried another. (It was the pink cloth still around my neck.)
“He’ll drop in his tracks in about a minute!” cried a third.
“Hurrah! Well stopped, old fellow!” was the last of the rabble’s cries I remember hearing. It was also the most appropriate. In my wild flight I had shot round a corner. The next moment I had collided with an elderly gentleman, sending him doubled up into the middle of the road, whilst I landed in the muddy gutter.
The next thing I remember was being in the grasp of our head-master, who shook me violently. He was very red in the face, and spoke in stern accents.
“What fooling is this?” he demanded; my dress showing I was from the school, and he may have recognised my features. As I did not immediately reply, for I had not yet collected my scattered senses, he sharply repented his interrogation.
“Shaving, sir!” I gasped. “That is—” But he would not listen to my explanation.
“Come with me!” he cried; and hauled me by the collar back to the barber’s shop.
He at once demanded an explanation, which Mr. Frizzle was eager to give. For a long time past he had received much annoyance from the young gentlemen (the stress is his), and when the opportunity presented itself for reprisals he could not resist the temptation.
Then the Doctor bade me make myself presentable, which I lost no time in doing; but not until I had been supplied with hot water could I remove the thick coating of lather, which, as far as I could feel, had drawn up my skin as tight as the head of a drum!
“In future, Mr. Frizzle,” said the head-master, as he left the barber’s shop, “you will not make an exhibition of my young gentlemen, but report direct to me.”
He made me accompany him back to the school. On the way he plied me with many questions. Perhaps I succeeded in letting him see how very “green” I was. He shook hands with me at the school gates.
“Aim, my boy,” said he, “to be manly without apeing all men’s frivolities; and remember that Nature has laws which no one dare disobey. All good things—even hirsute appendages—come to those who wait.”
My chums were so pleased with the termination to their little joke that they there and then elected me a “full-fledged” member of the “Merry Monarchs.”
The head-master’s words, and the severe lesson I had learnt, lasted me for many a long year!
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How To Cite (MLA Format)
Burnett Fallow. “A Cutting Sarcasm: A Story of a Penny Shave.” The Boy’s Own Paper, vol. 19, no. 966, 1897, pp. 665-7. Edited by Kendra Cox. Victorian Short Fiction Project, 29 November 2023, https://vsfp.byu.edu/index.php/title/a-cutting-sarcasm-a-story-of-a-penny-shave/.
5 March 2021
28 November 2023
|↑1||“Hirsute” means hairy.|