"Of course," said the Old Gentleman, "you are going to school and probably for the first time—and therefore your legs are as weak as pins, you have a cold pain in the middle of your chest, and you have an intense desire to see your mother again."
Peter admitted that this was true, although it wasn't his mother whom he wished to see so much as a friend of his called Stephen, and, one or two places like the Grey Hill and The Bending Mule. All this interested the Old Gentleman very much.
"You, too, were at school?" Peter inquired politely.
"I was," said the Old Gentleman.
"And was it like David Copperfield?" said Peter.
"Parts of it—the nice parts. School was the best, the very best time of my life, my boy, and so you'll find it."
This was immensely reassuring, and Peter felt very much cheered. "You will make all the friends of your life there. You will learn to be a man. Dear me!" The Old Gentleman coughed. "I don't know what I would have done without school. You must have courage, you know," he added.
"I heard some one say once," said Peter, "that courage is the most important thing to have. It isn't life that matters, but courage, this man said."
"Bless my soul," the Old Gentleman said, "how old are you, boy?"
"Twelve—nearly thirteen," answered Peter.
"Well, the more you see of boys the better. You might be forty by the way you talk. You want games and fellows of your own age, that's what you want. Why I never heard of such a thing, talking about life at your age."
Peter felt that he had done something very wrong, although he hadn't the least idea of his crime, so he turned the conversation.
"I should like very much," he said, "to hear about your school if you wouldn't mind."
Then the Old Gentleman began in the most wonderful way, and to hear him talk you would imagine that school was the paradise to which all good boys were sent—a deliriously delightful place, with a shop full of sweets, games without end, friends galore, and a little work now and then to prevent one's being bored.
Peter listened most attentively with his head against the Old Gentleman's very warm coat, and then the warmth and the movement of the train caused the voice to swim further and further away into distance.
"Bless my soul!" Peter heard as though it had been whispered at the end of the train.
"Here's Exeter, young man. Your father said you were to change here."
A rubbing of eyes, and behold a stout guard in front of the door and no sign of the Old Gentleman whatever, but when he felt for his ticket in his side pocket he found also a glittering sovereign that had certainly not been there when he went asleep.
All this was very encouraging, and Peter followed the guard across the Exeter platform hopefully and expectantly. Right down the platform, on a side line, was a little train that reminded Peter of the Treliss to Truro one, so helpless and incapable did it look. The guard put him and his luggage into a carriage and then left him with a last word as to Salton being his destination. He waited here a very long time and nothing happened. He must have slept again, because when he next looked out of the window the platform was full of people.
He realised with terror that they were, many of them, boys—boys with friends and boys without. He watched them with a great feeling of desolation and homesickness as they flung themselves into carriages and shouted at one another.
A small boy with a very red face and a round fat body, attended by a tall, thin lady in black, got into the carriage, and behaving as if Peter weren't there at all, leaned out of the window.
"All right, mater. That's all right. I'll tell 'em about the socks—old Mother Gill will look after that."
"You won't forget to send me a post card to-night, Will, dear, will you?"
"No, mater, that's all right. I say, don't you bother to wait if you want to be off."
"No, dear, I'd like to wait. Don't forget to give father's letter to Mr. Raggett."
"All right. I say it's rotten for you waiting about, really. Give my love to Floss!"
"Well, perhaps I had better go. This train seems to be late. Good-bye, dearest boy."
An interval, during which the stout boy leaned out of the window and was embraced. Soon his bowler hat was flung wildly on to the rack and he was leaning out of the window, screaming:
"Cocker! I say, Cocker! Cocker! Oh! dash it, he's going in there. Cocker! Cocker! Hullo, Bisket! going strong? Cocker! Oh! there he is! Hullo, old man! Thought I should miss you. Come on in here! Thought I'd never get rid of the mater. They do hang about!"
A small boy with his hat on one side got into the carriage, stepped on Peter's feet without apologising, and then the two gentlemen sat down at the other end of the carriage and exchanged experiences.
"What sort of hols.?"
"Oh, pretty rotten! Got nothing for Christmas at all except a measly knife or two—governor played it awfully low down."
"I rather scored because my sister had a ripping writing case sent to her, and I gave her a rotten old book in exchange, and she jolly well had to."
And so it continued. To Peter it was completely unintelligible. The boys at old Parlow's had never talked like this. He was suddenly flung into a foreign country. The dismay in his heart grew as he remembered that he was going into this life entirely alone and without a friend in the world. He felt that he would, had it been possible, gladly have exchanged this dreadful plunge for a beating from his father.
At any rate, after that there were friends to whom one might go—after this?...
As the train dragged slowly and painfully along the dreariness and the loneliness increased. The dusk fell, and they stopped, as it seemed, every other minute, and always Peter thought that it must be Salton and prepared to get out. The two boys in his carriage paid no attention to him whatever, and their voices continued incessantly, and always the little train jolted along sleepily wandering through the dark country and carrying him to unknown terrors. But he set his teeth hard and remembered what the Old Gentleman had told him. He would fight it out and see it through.
"'Tisn't Life that matters, but the Courage—"
And then suddenly the train stopped, the two boys flung themselves at the window, and the porter outside, like a magician who kept a rabbit in a bag, suddenly shouted "Salton!" After that there were mixed impressions. He stood alone on the dark, windy platform whilst dark figures passed and repassed him. Then a tall, thin Somebody said "Are you Westcott?" and Peter said "Yes," and he was conveyed to a large wagonette already crowded with boys. Then there was a great deal of squeezing, a great deal of noise, and some one in authority said from somewhere, "Less noise, please."
The wagonette started in a jolting uncertain way, and then they seemed to go on for ever and ever between dark sweet-smelling hedges with black trees that swept their heads, and the faint blue of the evening sky on the horizon. Every one was very quiet now, and Peter fell asleep once more and dreamed of the Old Gentleman, plum cake, and Stephen.
A sudden pause—the sound of an iron gate being swung back, and Peter was awake again to see that they were driving up to a dark heavy building that looked like a hospital or a prison.
"The new boys please follow me," and he found himself, still struggling with sleep, blinded by the sudden light, following, with some ten others, a long and thin gentleman who wore a pince-nez. His strongest feeling was that he was very cold and that he hated everybody and everything. He heard many voices somewhere in the distance, doors were being continually opened and shut, and little winds blew down the dismal passages. They were suddenly in a study lined with books and a stout rubicund gentleman with a gold watch chain and a habit (as Peter at once discovered) of whistling through his teeth was writing at a table.
He turned round when he heard them enter and watched them for a moment as they stood by the door.
"Well, boys" (his voice came from somewhere near his watch chain), "come and shake hands. How are you all?"
Some eager boy in the front row, with a pleasant smile and a shrill piping voice said, "Very well, thank you, sir," and Peter immediately hated him.
Then they shook hands and their names were written in a book. The stout gentleman said, "Well, boys, here you all are. Your first term, you know—very important. Work and play—work and play. Work first and play afterwards, and then we'll be friends. Oh, yes! Supper at nine. Prayers at nine-thirty."
They were all bundled out, and the tall man with pince-nez said: "Now, boys, you have an hour before supper," and left them without another word in a long dark passage. The passage was hung with greatcoats and down each side of it were play-boxes. At the other end, mistily and vaguely, figures passed.
Peter sat down on one of the play-boxes and saw, to his disgust, that the eager boy with the piping voice sat down also.
"I say," said the piping boy, "don't you like school awfully?"
"No, I hate it," said Peter.
"Oh, I say! What's your name?"
"Peter! Oh! but your other name. The fellows will rag you most awfully if you tell them your Christian name."
"Mine's Cheeseman. I'm going to like everybody here and get on. I say, shall we be chums?"
"Oh, I say! Why not?"
"Because I don't like you."
"Oh, I say!"
"In another minute I'll break your neck."
"Oh! I say!" The piping boy sprang up from the play-box and stood away. "All right, you needn't be ratty about it! I'll tell the fellows you said your name was Peter! They'll give it you."
And the piping boy moved down the passage whistling casually.
After this, silence, and only all the greatcoats swaying a little in the draught and bulging out and then thinning again as though there were two persons inside them. Peter sat quite motionless for a long time with his face in his hands. He was very tired and very cold and very hungry.
A crowd advanced towards him—five or six boys, and one large fat boy was holding the piping one by the ear.
"Oh, I say! Let me go! Let me go! I'll do your boots up, really I will. I'll do whatever you like! Oh! I say! There's a new boy. He says his name is Peter!"
So did the wretched piping one endeavour to divert attention from his own person. The fat boy, accompanied by a complacent satellite, approached Peter.
"Hullo, you. What's your name?"
"'Tisn't. It's Peter."
"Well, Mr. Peter Westcott, stand up when you're spoken to by your betters. I say, hack him up, you fellows."
Peter was "hacked" up.
"Now, what do you mean by not speaking when you're spoken to?"
Peter stood square and faced him.
"Oh! you won't speak, won't you? See if this will do it."
Peter's arm and ear were twisted; he was also hit in the mouth.
He was still silent.
Some one in the back of the crowd said, "Oh, come on, you chaps—let's leave this kid, the other fellow's more fun."
And they passed on bearing the piping one with them.
Peter sat down again; he was feeling sick and his head ached. He buried his head in the greatcoat that hung above him, and cried quite silently for a very long time.
A bell rang, and boys ran past him, and he ran with them. He found that it was supper and that he was sitting with the other new boys at the bottom of the table, but he could not eat and his head was swimming. Then there were prayers and, as he knelt on the hard floor with his head against the form, some one stuck a pin into the soft part of his leg and gave him great pain.
Then at last, and all this time he had spoken to no one, upstairs to bed. A tall, thin woman in shining black was at the head of the stairs—she read out to the new boys the numbers of their dormitories in a harsh, metallic voice. Peter went to his, and found it a long room with twenty beds, twenty washing basins, and twenty chairs.
One last incident.
He slept and was dreaming. He was climbing the Grey Hill and Stephen was following him, calling on him. He remembered in his dream that he had not written Stephen the letter that he had promised, and he turned back down the hill. Then suddenly the ground began to toss under his feet, he cried for Stephen, he was flung into the air, he was falling....
He woke and found that he was lying on the floor amongst the tumbled sheets and blankets. In the distance he could hear stifled laughter. The terror of that awful wakening was still upon him, and he thought for a moment that he would die because his heart would never beat again.
Then slowly he gathered his clothes together and tried to arrange them on the bed. He was dreadfully cold and his toes stuck out at the end of the bed. He could not cover them.
But, tired as he was, he dared not fall asleep again, lest there should come once more that dreadful wakening.
DAWSON'S, THE GATE INTO HELL
A letter from Peter to Stephen:
_Dear, dear Steve,
There's a noise going on and boys are throwing paper and things and there's another boy jogging my elbows so that I can't hold my pen. Dear Steve, I hope that you are very, very happy as I am. I am very happy here. I am in the bottom form because my sums are so awful and my master beat me for them yesterday but he is nothing to father. I was top in the essay. I like football—I have a friend who is called Galion (I don't think that is the right way to spell it. He says that it is like a treasure-ship). He is a nice boy and Mrs. Trussit was his father's housekeeper once; his father writes stories. There is a boy I hate called Cheeseman, and one called Pollock. Please give my love to Mrs. Brant, the cows, Mollie and the pigs, Mr. and Mrs. Figgis, Mr. Tan and all my friends. Dear Steve, I love you very, very, very much. I am very happy.
Your loving friend,
A letter from Stephen to Peter:
_Dear Mr. Peter,
I have thought every day of you and I was mighty glad to get your bit of a letter fearing that, maybe, thiccy place in Devon might have driven your old friends out of your head. I am no hand with a pen and it is taking me a time to write this so I will just say that I'm right glad you're happy and that I'll greet the day I see you again, and that's it's poor trade here without you.
I am always, your friend,
But Peter had lied in his letter. He was not in any way happy at all. He had lied because he knew that it would have hurt Stephen if he had told him the truth—and the truth was something that must be met with clenched teeth and shoulders set back.
Taking him at the end of the first week one finds simple bewilderment and also a conviction that silence is the best policy. He was placed in the lowest form because of his ignorance of Latin and Mathematics, and here every one was younger and weaker. During school hours there was comparative peace, and he sat with perplexed brow and inky fingers, or was sent down to the bottom for inattention. It was not inattention but rather a complete incapacity for grasping the system on which everything worked. Meanwhile in this first week he had earned a reputation and made three friends, and although he did not know it that was not a bad beginning.
On the day after his arrival Peter, after midday dinner, standing desolately in the playground and feeling certain that he ought to be playing football somewhere but completely ignorant as to the place where lists commonly hung, saw another new boy and hailed him. This boy he had noticed before—he was shapeless of body, with big, round, good-tempered eyes, and he moved more slowly than any one whom Peter had ever seen. Nothing stirred him; he did not mind it when his ears were pulled or his arms twisted, but only said slowly, "Oh, drop it!" To this wonderful boy Peter made approach.
"Can you tell me where the lists are for football? I ought to have been playing yesterday only I didn't know where to look."
The slow boy smiled. "I'm going to look myself," he said, "come on."
And then two things happened. First sauntering down the playground there came a boy whom Peter had noticed on that first morning in school—some one very little older than Peter and not very much bigger, but with a grace, a dignity, an air that was very wonderful indeed. He was a dark boy with his hair carelessly tossed over his forehead; he was very clean and he had beautiful hands. To Peter's rough and clumsy figure he seemed everything that a boy should be, and, in his mind, he had called him "Steerforth." As this boy approached there suddenly burst into view a discordant crowd with some one in their midst. They were shouting and laughing, and Peter could hear that some one was crying. The crowd separated and formed a ring and danced shouting round a very small and chubby boy who was standing crying quite desperately, with his head buried in his arm. Every now and then the infant was knocked by one boy in the ring into another boy's arms, and so was tossed from side to side.
The hopeless sound of the chubby one's crying caused Peter suddenly to go red hot somewhere inside his chest, and like a bullet from a gun he was into the middle of the circle. "You beasts! You beasts," he sobbed hysterically. He began to hit wildly, with his head down, at any one near him, and very soon there was a glorious melee. The crowd roared with laughter as they flung the two small boys against one another, then suddenly one of the circle got a wild blow in the eye from Peter's fist and went staggering back, another was kicked in the shins, a third was badly winded. Peter had lost all sense of place or time, of reason or sanity; he was wild with excitement, and the pent-up emotions of the last five days found magnificent overwhelming freedom. He did not know whether he were hit or no, once he was down and in an instant up again—once a face was close to his and he drove hard at the mouth—but he was small and his arms and legs were short. Indeed it would have gone badly with him had there not been heard, in all the roar of battle, the mystic whisper "Binns," and in an instant, as the snow flies before the sun, so had that gallant crowd disappeared. Only the small cause of the disturbance and Peter remained. The tall form of a master passed slowly down the playground, but it appeared that he had seen nothing, and he did not speak. The small boy was gazing at Peter with wide-opened eyes, large in a white face on which were many tear stains. Peter, who was conscious now that blood was pouring from a cut in his cheek, that one of his teeth was missing and that one of his eyes was fast closing, was about to speak to him when he was aware that his "Steerforth" had sprung from nowhere and was advancing gracefully to meet him. Peter's heart beat very fast.
The boy smiled at him and held out his hand.
"I say, shake hands. You've got pluck—my eye! I never saw such a rag!"
Peter shook hands and was speechless.
"What's your name?"
"Mine's Cardillac. It isn't spelt as it's spoken, you know. C-a-r-d-i-l-l-a-c. I'm in White's—what do you say to places next each other at table?"
"Rather." Peter's face was crimson. "Thanks most awfully." He stammered in his eagerness.
"Right you are—see you after chapel." The boy moved away.
Peter said something to the infant whom he had delivered, and was considering where he might most unobtrusively wash when he was once more conscious of some one at his elbow. It was the slow boy who was smiling at him.
"I say, you're a sight. You'd better wash, you know."
"Yes, I was just thinking of that only I didn't quite know where to go."
"Come with me—I'll get round Mother Gill all right. She likes me. You've got some cheek. Prester and Banks Mi, and all sorts of fellows were in that crowd. You landed Prester nicely." He chuckled. "What's your name?"
"Galleon?" Peter's eyes shone. "I say, you didn't ever have a housekeeper called Mrs. Trussit?"
"Trussit? Yes, rather, of course I remember, when I was awfully small."
"Why, she's ours now! Then it must be your father who writes books!"
"Yes, rather. He's most awfully famous!"
Peter stopped still, his mouth open with excitement.
Of all the amazing things! What doesn't life give you if you trust it!
But before it became a question of individuals there is the place to be considered. This Dawson's of twenty years ago does not exist now nor, let us pray the Fates, are there others like it. It is not only with bitterness that a boy whom Dawson's had formed would look back on it but also with a dim, confused wonder that he had escaped with a straight soul and a straight body from that Place. There were many, very many indeed, who did not escape, and it would indeed have been better for them all had they died before they were old enough to test its hospitality. If any of those into whose hands this story of Peter may fall were, by the design of God, themselves trained by the place of which I speak, they will understand that all were not as fortunate as Peter—and for those others there should be sympathy....
To Peter indeed it all came very slowly because he had known so little before. He had not been a week in the place before there were very many things that he was told—there were other things that he saw for himself.
There is, for instance, at the end of the third week, the incident of Ferris, the Captain of the School. He was as a God in Peter's eyes, he was greater, more wonderful than Stephen, than any one in the world. His word was law....
One late afternoon Peter cleaned plates for him in his study, and Ferris watched him. Ferris was kind and talked about many things out of his great wisdom, and then he asked Peter whether he would always like to be his fag, and Peter, delighted, said "Yes."
Then Ferris smiled and spoke, dropping his voice. Three weeks earlier Peter would not have understood, but now he understood quite well and he went very white and broke from the room, leaving the plates where they were—and Cheeseman became Ferris' fag—
This was all very puzzling and perplexing to Peter.
But after that first evening when he had hidden his head in the greatcoat and cried, he had shown no sign of fear and he soon found that, on that side of Life, things became easy. He was speedily left alone, and indeed he must have been, in spite of his small size, something of a figure even then.
His head was so very firm on his shoulders, his grey eyes were so very straight, and his lip curled in a disagreeable way when he was displeased; he was something of the bulldog, and even at this early period the First and Second forms showed signs of meek surrender to his leadership. But he was, of course, not happy—he was entirely miserable. He would be happier later on when he had been able to arrange all these puzzling certainties so different from those dazzling imaginations that he had painted. How strange of him to have been so glad to leave Stephen and the others—even old Curtis! What could he have thought was coming!
He remembered as though it had been another life that Christmas Eve, the fight, the beating, the carols....
And yet, with it all, with the dreariness and greyness and fierceness and dirtiness of it all, he would not change it for those earlier things—this was growing, this was growing up!
He was certainly happier after his meeting with Cardillac—"Cards" as he was always called. Here was a hero indeed! Not to displace, of course, Stephen, who remained as a stained-glass window remains, to be looked at and treasured and remembered—but here was a living wonder! Every movement that Cards made was astounding, and not only Peter felt it. Even the masters seemed to suggest that he was different from the rest and watched him admiringly. Cards was only fourteen, but he had seen the world. He had been with his mother (his father was dead) about Europe, he knew London, he had been to the theatres; school, he gave them all to understand, was an interim in the social round. He took Peter's worship very easily and went for walks with him and talked in a wonderful way. He admired Peter's strength.
Peter found that Galleon—Bobby Galleon—was disappointing, not very interesting. He had never read his father's books, and he couldn't tell Peter very much about the great man; he was proud of him but rather reserved. He had not many ideas about anything and indeed when he went for a walk with Peter was usually very silent, although always in a good temper. Cards thought Galleon very dull and never spoke to him if he could avoid doing so, and Peter was sometimes quite angry with Galleon because he would "turn up so" when one might have had Cards to oneself.
Peter's main feeling about it all when half term arrived was that one must just stand with one's back to the wall if one was to avoid being hurt. He did not now plunge into broils to help other people; he found that it did not in reality help them and that it only meant that he got kicked as well as the other boy. One's life was a diligent watchfulness with the end in view of avoiding the enemy. The enemy was to be found in any shape and form; there was no security by night or day, but on the whole life was safer if one spoke as little as possible and stuck to the wall. There were Devils—most certainly Devils—roaming the world, and as he watched the Torture and the Terror and then the very dreadful submission, he vowed with clenched lips that he would never Submit...and so gradually he was learning the truth of that which Frosted Moses had spoken...
Cornwall, meanwhile—the Grey Hill, Scaw House, the hills above Truro—remained to him during these weeks, securely hidden.
There remains to be chronicled of that first term only the Comber Fight and, a little conversation, one windy day, with Galleon. The small boy, by name Beech Minimus, whom Peter had defended on that earlier occasion, had attached himself with unswerving fidelity to his preserver. He was round and fat, and on his arrival had had red cheeks and sparkling eyes—now he was pale and there were lines under his eyes; he started if any one spoke to him, and was always eager to hide when possible. Peter was very sorry for him, but, after a month of the term had passed he had, himself, acquired the indifference of those that stand with their backs to the wall. Beech would go on any kind of errand for him and would willingly have died for him had it been required of him—he did indeed during the hours that he was left in peace in his dormitory, picture to himself wonderful scenes in which he saved Peter from horrible deaths and for his own part perished.
It may have been that he clung to Peter partly because there was more safety in his neighbourhood, for amongst the lower school boys at any rate, very considerable fear of Peter was to be noticed, but Beech's large eyes raised to the other boy's face or his eager smile as he did something that Peter required of him, spoke devotion.
Beech Minimus was forced, however, for the good of his soul, to suffer especial torture between the hours of eight and nine in the evening. It was the custom that the Lower School should retire from preparation at eight o'clock, it being supposed that at that hour the Lower School went to bed. But Authority, blinded by trustful good nature and being engaged at that hour with its wine and dinner, left the issue to chance and the Gods, and human nature being what it is, the Lower School triumphed in freedom. There was a large, empty class room at the back of the building where much noise might safely be made, and in this place and at this hour followed the nightly torture of Beech and his minute companions—that torture named by the Gods, "Discipline," by the Authorities, "Boys will be Boys," by the Parent, "Learning to be a Man," and by the Lower School "A Rag." Beech and his companions had not as yet a name for it. Peter was, as a rule, left to his own thoughts and spent the hours amongst the greatcoats in the passage reading David Copperfield or talking in whispers to Bobby Galleon. But nevertheless he was not really indifferent, he was horribly conscious even in his sleep, of Beech's shrill "Oh! Comber, don't! Please, Comber, oh!" and Beech being in the same dormitory as himself he noticed, almost against his will, that shivering little mortal as he crept into bed and cowered beneath the sheets wondering whether before morning he would be tossed in sheets or would find his bed drenched in water or would be beaten with hair brushes. Peter's philosophy of standing it in silence and hitting back if he were himself attacked was scarcely satisfactory in Beech's case, and, again and again, his attention would be dragged away from his book to that other room where some small boys were learning lessons in life.
The head of this pleasant sport was one Comber, a large, pale-faced boy, some years older than his place in the school justified, but of a crass stupidity, a greedy stomach and a vicious cruelty. Peter had already met him in football and had annoyed him by collaring him violently on one occasion, it being the boy's habit, owing to his size and reputation, to run down the field in the Lower School game, unattacked. Peter's hatred of him grew more intense week by week; some days after Mid-Term, it had swollen into a passion. He finally told Bobby Galleon one day at luncheon that on that very evening he was going to defy this Comber. Galleon besought him not to do this, pointing out Comber's greater strength and the natural tendency of the Lower School to follow their leader blindly. Peter said nothing in reply but watched, when eight o'clock had struck and the Lower School had assembled in the class room, for his moment. It was a somewhat piteous spectacle. Comber and some half a dozen friends in the middle of the room, and forty boys ranging in years from eight to twelve, waiting with white faces and propitiatory smiles, eager to assist in the Torture if they only might themselves be spared.
"Now you chaps," this from Comber—"we'll have a Gauntlet. I votes we make young Beech run first."
"Rather! Come on, Beech—you've jolly well got to."
"Buck up, you funk!" from those relieved that they were themselves, for the instant, safe.
Peter was sitting on a bench at the back of the room—he stood on the bench and shouted, "You're a beast. Comber."
There was immediate silence—every one turned first to Comber, and then back to Peter. Comber paused in the preparation of the string whip that he was making, and his face was crimson.
"Oh, it's you, you young skunk, is it? Bring him here some of you fellows."
Eager movements were made in his direction, but Peter, still standing on his bench, shouted: "I claim a fight."
There was silence again—a silence now of incredulity and amazement. But there was nothing to be done; if any one claimed a fight, by all the rules and traditions of Dawson's he must have it. But that Westcott, a new boy and in the bottom form should challenge Comber! Slowly, and as it were against their will, hearts beat a little faster, faces brightened. Of course Westcott would be most hopelessly beaten, but might not this prove the beginning of the end of their tyrant?
Meanwhile, Comber between his teeth: "All right, you young devil, I'll give you such a hiding as you damned well won't forget. Then we'll treat you properly afterwards."
A ring was made, and there was silence, so that the prefects might not be attracted, because fighting in the Lower School was forbidden. Coats were taken off and Peter faced Comber with the sensation of attacking a mountain. Peter knew nothing about fighting at all, but Comber had long subsisted on an easy reputation and he was a coward at heart. There swung into Peter's brain the picture of The Bending Mule, the crowding faces, the swinging lamp, Stephen with the sledge-hammer blow...it was the first time for weeks that he had thought of Treliss.
He was indifferent—he did not care; things could not be worse, and he did not mind what happened to him, and Comber minded very much indeed, and he had not been hit in the face for a long time. His arms went round like windmills, and the things that he would like to have done were to pull Peter's hair from its roots and to bite him on the arm. As the fight proceeded and he knew that his face was bleeding and that the end of his nose had no sensation in it at all he kicked with his feet and was conscious of cries that he was not playing the game. Infuriated that his recent supporters should so easily desert him, he now flung himself upon Peter, who at once gave way beneath the bigger boy's weight. Comber then began to bite and tear and scratch, uttering shrill screams of rage and kicking on the floor with his feet. He was at once pulled away, assured by those dearest friends who had so recently and merrily assisted him in his "rags" that he was not playing the game and was no sportsman. He was moreover a ludicrous sight, his trousers being torn, one blue-black eye staring from a confused outline of dust and blood, his hair amazingly on end.
There were also many cries of "Shame, Comber," "Dirty game," and even "Well played young Westcott!"
He knew as he wept bitter tears into his blood-stained hands that his reign was at an end.
There were indeed, for the time at any rate, no more "rags," and Peter might, an he would, have reigned magnificently over the Lower School. But he was as silent and aloof as ever, and was considered "a sidey devil, but jolly plucky, by Gad."
And for himself he got at any rate the more continued companionship of Cards, who languidly, and, perhaps a younger Sir Willoughby Patterne "with a leg," admired his muscle.
Finally, towards the end of the term, Peter and Bobby Galleon may be seen sitting on a high hill. It is a Sunday afternoon in spring, and far away there is a thin line of faintly blue hills. Nearer to view there are grey heights more sharply outlined and rough, like drawing paper—painted with a green wood, a red-roofed farm, a black church spire, and a brown ploughed field. Immediately below them a green hedge hanging over a running stream that has caught the blue of the sky. Above them vast swollen clouds flooding slowly with the faint yellow of the coming sunset, hanging stationary above the stream and seeming to have flung to earth some patches of their colour in the first primroses below the hedge. A rabbit watches, his head out of his hole.
The boys' voices cut the air.
"I say, Bobby, don't you ever wonder about things—you never seem to want to ask questions."
"No, I don't suppose I do. I'm awfully stupid. Father says so."
"It's funny your being stupid when your father's so clever."
"Do you mind my being stupid?"
"No—only I'd like you to want to know things—things like what people are like inside—their thinking part I mean, not their real insides. People like Mother Gill and old Binns and Prester Ma: and then what one's going to do when one's grown up—you never want to know that."
"No, it'll just come I suppose. Of course, I shan't be clever like the governor."
"No, I don't think you will."
Once again: "Do you mind my being so stupid, Peter?"
"No—I'm awfully stupid too. But I like to wonder about things. There was once a man I met at home with rings and things who lived in London...." Peter stops, Galleon wouldn't be interested in that.
"Anyhow, you know, you've got Cards—he's an awfully clever chap."
"Yes, he's wonderful," Peter sighs, "and he's seen such a lot of things."
"Yes, but you know I don't think Cards really cares for you as much as I do." This is an approach to sentiment, and Peter brushes it hastily aside:
"I like you both awfully. But I say, won't it be splendid to be grown up in London?"
"I don't know—lots of fellows don't like it."
"That's nothing," Peter says slowly, "to do with its not being splendid!"
And the rabbit, tired of listening to such tiresome stuff, thinks that they must be very young boys indeed.
A LOOKING-GLASS, A SILVER MATCH-BOX, A GLASS OF WHISKY, AND—VOX POPULI
Peter, thirteen to sixteen!—and left, so it appears, very much the same, as far as actual possessions go, at the end of it as at the poverty-struck commencement. Friendship, Honour, Glory—how these things came and went with him during these years might have a book to themselves were it not that our business is with a wider stage and more lasting issues—and there is but little room for a full-fledged chronicle. Though Dawson's—and to take the history of Miss Gill only—of her love affair with the curate, of her final desperate appeal to him and of his ultimate confession that he was married already—provides a story quite sufficient for three excellent volumes. Or there is the history of Benbow, that bucolic gentleman into whose study we led Peter a chapter or two ago, Head for this year or two of Dawson's—soon to be head of nothing but the dung-heap and there to crow only dismally—with a childlike Mrs. Benbow, led unwittingly to Dawson's as a lamb to the slaughter-house—later to flee, crying, back to her hearth and home, her life smashed to the tiniest pieces and no brain nor strength to put it together again. Or there is the natural and interesting progression, on the part of any child, behind whose back those iron gates of Dawson's have swung, from innocence to knowledge, from knowledge to practice, from practice to miserable Submission, Concealment, and a merry prospective Hell—this is a diverting study with which it would be easy to fill these pages....
But the theme is Peter's education, and Dawson's is only an incident to that history—an incident that may be taken by the percipient reader, for a most admirable Symbol—even an early rehearsal of a Comedy entitled "How to Learn to be a Man, or The World as a Prancing Ground."...
But with Peter, if you take him from that first asking Mrs. Trussit (swinging his short legs from the table and diving into the mixed biscuit tin). "Is it, Mrs. Trussit, like David Copperfield?"... to his meeting of her again, he still rather short-legged but no longer caring over much for mixed biscuits, in his sixteenth year, with Dawson's over and done with—"No, Mrs. Trussit, not in the least like," and grimly said in addition, the changes, alterations and general growing-up Development may be said to be inside him rather than out, and there they are vital enough.
With those three and a half years it is a case of Things sticking out, like hillocks in a flat country, and it is retrospection rather than impressions at the time that show what mattered and what did not. But, on the whole, the vital things at Dawson's are pretty plain to the eye and must be squeezed into a chapter as best they can.
Treliss, as it appeared in the holidays, seemed to Peter to change very little. His relations with his father were curiously passive during this time, and suggested, in their hint of future developments, something ominous and uneasy. They scarcely ever spoke to one another, and it was Peter's object to avoid the house as often as possible, but in his father's silence now (Peter himself being older and intuitively sharper as to the reason of things) he saw active dislike, and even, at times, a suggested fear. Outwardly they—his father, his grandfather, his aunt, Mrs. Trussit—had changed not at all; his grandfather the same old creature of grey hairs and cushions and rugs, his father broad and square and white in the face with his black hair carefully brushed, his aunt with her mittens and trembling hands and silly voice, Mrs. Trussit with her black silk gown and stout prosperous face—Oh! they were all there, but he fancied—and this might easily be imagination—that they, like the portraits of the old Westcotts about the walls, watched him, as he grew, knowing that ever, as the months passed, the day came nearer when father and son must come to terms. And beyond this he had, even at this early time, a consciousness that it was round his mother's room that the whole matter hung—his mother whom he saw once or twice a week for a very little time in the morning, when that old terror of the white silent room would creep upon him and hold him tongue-tied.
And yet, with it all, he knew, as every holiday came, more clearly, that again and again they, his mother and himself, were on the verge of speech or action. He could see it in her eyes, her beautiful grey eyes that moved him so curiously. There were days when he was on the edge of a rush of questions, and then something held him back—perhaps the unconscious certainty that his mother's answers would precipitate his relations with his father—and he was not, as yet, ready.
Anyhow a grim place, Scaw House, grimmer with every return to it, and not a brightly coloured interlude to Dawson's, grim enough in its own conditions. The silence that was gradually growing with Peter—the fixed assurance, whether at home or at school, that life was easier if one said nothing—might have found an outlet in Stephen's company, but here again there was no cheerful chronicle.
Each holiday showed Peter less of Stephen than the last had done, and he was afraid to ask himself why this was. Perhaps in reality he did not know, but at any rate he was sure that the change was in Stephen. He cared for Stephen as devotedly as ever, and, indeed, in that perhaps he needed him more than ever and saw him so little, his affection was even stronger than it had been. But Stephen had changed, not, Peter knew, in any affection towards himself, but in his own habits and person. Burstead—his old enemy—had taken a farm near his own farm, in order, so they said at The Bending Mule, that he might flaunt Mrs. Burstead (once Stephen's sweetheart) in Stephen's face.
They also said that Burstead beat his wife and ill-used her horribly, and that she would give all her soul now that she was Stephen Brant's wife, but that she was a weak, silly young woman, poor thing. They said that Stephen knew all this, and that he could hear her crying at nights, and that it was sending him off his head—and that he was drinking. And they shook their heads, down at The Bending Mule, and foreboded ill. Moreover, that old lady, Mrs. Brant, had died during Peter's first year at Dawson's, and Stephen was alone now. He had changed in his appearance, his beard tangled and untidy, his clothes unbrushed and his eyes wild and bloodshot, and once Peter had ventured up to Stephen's farm and had climbed the stairs and had opened the door and had seen Stephen (although it was early evening) sitting all naked on his bed, very drunk and shouting wildly—and he had not recognised Peter. But the boy knew when he met him again, sober this time, by the sad look in his eyes, that Stephen must go his way alone now, lead him where it would.... A boy of fifteen could not help.
And so those holidays were more and more lonely, as the days passed and Peter's heart was very heavy. He did not go often to The Bending Mule now because Stephen was not there. He went once or twice to Zachary Tan's shop, but he did not see Mr. Zanti again nor any one who spoke of London. He had not, however, forgotten Mr. Zanti's talk of looking-glasses. As he grew and his mind distinguished more clearly between fact and fancy, he saw that it was foolish to suppose that one saw anything in looking-glasses but the immediate view. Tables and chairs, walls and windows, dust and fire-places, there was the furniture of a looking-glass. Nevertheless during his first year at school he had, on occasions, climbed to his dormitory, seen that he was alone and then gazed into his glass and thought of London ... London in his young brain, being a place of romantic fog, pantomime, oranges, fat, chivalrous old gentlemen, Queen Victoria and Punch and Judy. Nothing had happened—of course nothing had happened—it was only very cold and unpleasant up there all alone, and, at the end of it, a silly thing to do.
And then one night something did happen. He woke suddenly and heard in the distance beyond the deep breathing of twenty-four sleepers, a clock strike three. He turned and lay on his back; he was very sleepy and he did not know why he had wakened. The long high room was dark, but directly opposite him beyond the end of his bed, the light seemed to shine full on to the face of his looking-glass. As he sat up in bed and looked at it seemed to stand out like a sheet of silver.
He gripped the sides of the bed and stared. He rubbed his eyes. He could see no reflection in the glass at all but only this shining expanse, and then, as he looked at it, that too seemed to pass away, and in its place at first confusedly, like smoke across the face of the glass, and then, settling into shape and form, there appeared the interior of a room—a small low-roofed dark room. There was a large fire burning, and in front of it, kneeling on the floor, with their backs to Peter, were two men, and they were thrusting papers into the fire. The glass seemed to stretch and broaden out so that the whole of the room was visible, and suddenly Peter saw a little window high in the top of the wall, and behind that window was a face that watched the two men.
He wanted to warn them—he suddenly cried out aloud "Look out!" and with that he was wide awake and saw that his glass could be only dimly discerned in the grey of the advancing morning—and yet he had heard that clock strike three!... So much for confusing dreams, and so vivid was it that in the morning he remembered the face at the window and knew that he would recognise it again if he saw it.
But out of the three years there stand his relations with Cards and young Galleon, a symbol of so much that was to come to him later. As he grew in position in the school Cards saw him continually. Cards undoubtedly admired his stocky, determined strength, his grey eyes, his brusque speech, his ability at games. He did not pretend also that he was not flattered by Peter's attentions. Curiously, for so young a boy, he had a satirical irony that showed him the world very much in the light that he was always afterwards to see it. To Cards the world was a show, a Vanity Fair—a place where manner, savoir-faire, dignity, humour and ease, mattered everything; he saw also that there was nothing by which people are so easily deceived.
Peter had none of these things; he would always be rough, he would never be elegant, and afterwards, in life, Cards did not suppose that he would see very much of Peter, their lives would be along different paths; but now, more genuinely perhaps than ever again, Cards was to admire that honest bedrock of feeling, of sentiment, of criticism, of love and anger, that gave Peter his immense value.
"There is a fellow here," wrote Cards to his mother, "whom I like very much. He's got a most awful lot of stuff in him although he doesn't say much and he looks like nothing on earth sometimes. He's very good at football, although he's only been here a year. His name is Westcott—Peter Westcott. I expect I'll bring him back one holiday."
But, of course, he never did. Peter, when it came to actuality, wouldn't look right at home. It was during Peter's second year that these things were happening, and, all this time, Peter was climbing slowly to a very real popularity. Cards was leaving at the end of this second year—had he stayed until the end of the third his superficialities would have been most severely tested.
To him Peter gave all that whole-hearted love and devotion that only Stephen had known before. He gave it with a very considerable sense of humour and with no sentiment at all. He saw Cards quite clearly, he watched his poses and his elaborate pretences, and he laughed at him sometimes and called him names.
Cards' pride was, on several occasions, distinctly hurt by this laughter, but his certain conviction of his own superiority always comforted him. Nor was Peter ever sentimental in his attitude. He never told Cards that he cared for him, and he even hung back a little when Cards was in a demonstrative mood and wanted to be told that he was "wonderful." Cards sometimes wondered whether Peter cared for him at all and whether he wasn't really fonder of that "stupid ass Galleon" who never had a word to say for himself. Peter's grey eyes would have told Cards a great deal if he had cared to examine them, but he did not know anything about eyes. Peter noticed, a little against his will, that as he advanced up the school so Cards cared increasingly about him. He grasped this discovery philosophically; after all, there were many fellows who took their colour from the world's opinion, and it was natural enough that they should. He himself regarded his growing popularity as a thing of no importance whatever; it did not touch him anywhere at all because he despised and hated the place. "When the time does come," he said once to Cards, "and one is allowed to do things, I'll stop a lot of this filth."
"You'll have your work cut out," Cards told him. "What does it all matter to us? Let 'em wallow—and they'll only hate you."
Cards added this because he knew that Peter had a curious passion for being liked. Cards wanted to be admired, but to be liked!... what was the gain? But that second year was, in spite of it all, the best time that Peter had ever had. There was warmth of a kind in their appreciation of him. He was only fifteen and small for his age, but his uncompromising attitude about things, his silence, his football, gave him a surprising importance—but even now it was respect rather than popularity. He was growing more like a bull-dog than ever, his hair was stiff and short, rather shaggy eyebrows, a square jaw, his short legs rather far apart, a broad back and thick strong arms.
Now that Stephen had slipped so sadly into the background he built up his life about Cards. He put everything into that room—not the old room that had held Stephen, but a new shining place that gained some added brilliance from the fact that its guest realised so little the honour that was done him. He would lie awake at night and think about Cards, of the things that he would do for him, of the way that he would serve him, of the guardian that he would be.
And then, as that summer term, at the end of the second year, wore on the pain of Cards' departure grew daily more terrible. He didn't know, as the days advanced, how he would be able to bear that place without Cards. There would be no life, no interest, and all the disorganisation, the immorality, the cruelty would oppress him as they had never oppressed him before. Besides next year he would be a person of some importance—he would probably be Captain of the Football and a Monitor...everything would be terribly hard. Of course there was old Bobby Galleon, who was a very good chap and really fond of Peter, but there was no excitement about that relationship. Bobby was quite ready to play servant to Peter's master, and Peter could never respect any one very much who did that. Beside Cards, so brilliant, so handsome, with such an "air," old Bobby really didn't come off very well.
Bobby also at times was inclined to be a little sentimental. He used to ask Peter whether he liked him—whether he would miss him if he died—and he used to tell Peter that he would very gladly die for him. There were things that one didn't—if one had self-respect—say.
That year the summer was of a blazing heat. Every morning saw a sky of steely blue, the corn stood like a golden band about the hills, and little clouds like the softest feathers were blown by the Gods about the world. A mist clung about the distant hills and clothed them in purple grey. As the term grew to its close Peter felt that the world was a prison of coloured steel, and that Dawson's was a true Hell...he would escape from it with Cards. And then when he saw that such an escape would be running away and a confession of defeat—he turned back and held his will in command.
Cards looked upon his approaching departure as a great deliverance. He was to be a man immediately; not for him that absurdly dilatory condition of pimples and hobbledehoy boots that mark a transition period. Dawson's had been the most insignificant sojourn in the tent of the enemy, and the world, it was implied, had lamented his enforced absence. But, as the end of term flung its shadows in front of it in the form of examinations, and that especial quality of excited expectancy hovering about the corridors, Cards felt, for the first time in his existence, a genuine emotion. He minded, curiously, leaving Peter. He felt, although in this he wrongly anticipated the gods, that he would never see him again, and he calculated perhaps at the little piece of real affection and friendship that stood out from the Continental Tour that he wished Life to be, like a palm tree on the limitless desert. And yet it was characteristic of them both that on the last day when, seated under a hedge at the top of the playing fields, the school buildings a grey mist below them and the air tensely rigid with heat, they said good-bye to one another, it was Cards who found all the words.
Peter had nothing to say at all; he only clutched at tufts of grass, lugged them from the earth and flung them before him. But Cards, as usual, rose to the occasion.
"You know, Peter, it's been most splendid knowing you here. I don't think I'd ever have got through Dawson's if it hadn't been for you. It's a hell of a place and I suppose if the mater hadn't been abroad so much I should never have stayed on. But it's no use making a fuss. Besides, it's only for a little while—one will have forgotten all about it in a year's time."
Peter smiled. "You will, I shan't."
"Why, of course you will. And you must come and stay with us often. My mother's most awfully anxious to know you. Won't it be splendid going out to join her in Italy? It'll be a bit hot this time of year I expect."
Peter seemed to struggle with his words. "I say—Cards—you won't—altogether—forget me?"
"Forget you! Why, good Lord, I'll be always writing. I'll have such lots to tell you. I've never liked any one in all my life (this said with a great sense of age) as I've liked you!"
He stood up and fumbled in his coat. Peter always remembered him, his dark slim body against the sky, his hair tumbled about his forehead, the grace and ease with which his body was balanced, the trick that he had of swaying a little from the hips. He felt in his pocket.
"I say—I've got something for you. I bought it down in the town the other day and I made them put your name on it." He produced it, wrapped in tissue paper, out of his pocket, and Peter took it without a word. It was a silver match-box with "Peter Westcott from his friend Cardillac," and the month and the year printed on it.
"Thanks most awfully," Peter said gruffly. "Jolly decent of you. Good-bye old man."
They shook hands and avoided each other's eyes, and Cardillac had a sudden desire to fling the Grand Tour and the rest of it to the dogs and to come back for another year to Dawson's.
"Well, I must get back, got to be in library at four," he said.
"I'm going to stop here a bit," said Peter.
He watched Cards walk slowly down the hill and then he flung himself on his face and pursued with a vacant eye the efforts of an ant to climb a swaying blade of grass ... he was there for a long time.
And so he entered into his third year at Dawson's with a dogged determination to get through with it as well as possible and not to miss Cards more than he could help. He did, as an actual fact, miss Cards terribly. There were so many places, so many things that were connected with him, but he found, as a kind of reward, that Bobby Galleon was more of a friend than before. Now that Cards had departed Galleon came a little out of his shell. He anticipated, obviously with very considerable enjoyment, that year when he would have Peter all to himself. Bobby Galleon's virtue was, at any rate, that one was not conscious of him, and during the time of Peter's popularity he was useful without being in the very least evident. When that year was over and he had seen the last shining twinkle of Cards' charms and fascinations he looked at Peter a little wistfully, "Peter, old man, next year will be topping...." and Peter, the pleasant warmth of popularity about him, felt that there was a great deal to be said for Galleon after all.
* * * * *
But with the first week of that third year trouble began. Things lifted between the terms, into so different an air; at the end of the summer with Peter's authority in prospect and his splendid popularity (confined by no jailer-like insistence on rules) around him that immediate year seemed simple enough. But in the holidays that preceded the autumn term something had occurred; Peter returned in the mists and damp of September with every eye upon him. Although only fifteen and a half he was a Monitor and Captain of the Football ... far too young for both these posts, with fellows of a great size and a greater age in the school, but Barbour (his nose providing, daily, a more lively guide to his festal evenings) was seized by Peter's silence and imperturbability in the midst of danger, "That kid's got guts" (this a vinous confidence amongst friends) "and will pull the place up—gettin' a bit slack, yer know—Young? Lord bless yer, no—wonderful for his age and Captain of the Football—that's always popular."
So upon Peter the burden of "pulling things up" descended. How far Cards might have helped him here it is difficult to say. Cards had, in his apparently casual contempt of that school world, a remarkably competent sense of the direction in which straws were blowing. That most certainly Peter had not, being inclined, at this stage of things, to go straight for the thing that he saw and to leave the outskirts of the subject to look after themselves. And here Bobby Galleon was of no use to him, being as blundering and near-sighted and simple as a boy could very well be. Moreover his implicit trust in the perfection of that hero, Peter, did not help clarity of vision. He was never aware of the causes of things and only dimly noticed effects, but he was unflinchingly faithful.
"The primrose path" was, of course, open to Peter. He was popular enough, at the beginning of that Autumn term, to do anything, and, had he followed the "closed-eyes" policy of his predecessor, smiling pleasantly upon all crime and even gently with his own authority "lending a hand," all would have been well. There were boys with strangely simple names, simple for such criminals—Barton, Jerrard, Watson, West, Underbill—who were old-established hands at their own especial games, and they saw no reason at all for disturbance. "Young Westcott had better not come meddling here," they muttered darkly, having discerned already a tendency on his part to show disapproval. Nothing happened during the first term—no concrete incident—but Peter had stepped, by the end of it, from an exultant popularity to an actual distrust and suspicion. The football season had not been very successful and Peter had not the graces and charm of a leader. He distrusted the revelation of enthusiasm because he was himself so enthusiastic and his silence was mistaken for coldness. He hated the criminals with the simple names and showed them that he hated them and they in their turn, skilfully and with some very genuine humour, persuaded the school that he cut a very poor figure.
At the absurd concert that closed the Autumn term (Mr. Barbour, red-nosed and bulging shirt-front, hilariously in the chair) Peter knew that he had lost his throne. He had Bobby—there was no one else—and in a sudden bitterness and scorn at the fickle colour of that esteem that he had valued so highly he almost wished that he were altogether alone.... Bobby only accentuated things.
Nothing to go home to—nothing to come back to. The Christmas holidays over he returned to the Easter term with an eager determination to improve matters.
It was geniality that he lacked: he knew that that was the matter with him, and he felt a kind of despair about it because he seemed to return at the end of every holiday from Cornwall with that old conviction in his head that the easiest way to get through the world was to stand with your back to the wall and say nothing ... and if these fellows, who thought him so pleasant last year, thought him pleasant no longer, well, then he must put up with it. He had not changed—there he was, as ever.
But the Easter term was a chronicle of mistakes. He could not be genial to people who defied and mocked him; he found, dangerously, that they could all be afraid of him. When his face was white and his voice very quiet and his whole body tense like a bow, then they feared him—the biggest and strongest of those criminals obeyed. He was sixteen now and he could when he liked rule them all, and gradually, as the term advanced, he used his strength more and more and was more and more alone. Days would come when he would hate his loneliness and would rush out of it with friendly advances and always he would be beaten back into his reserve again. Had only Cards been there!... But what side would Cards have taken? Perhaps Peter was fortunate in that the test was not demanded. Poor Bobby simply did not understand it at all. Peter! the most splendid fellow in the world! What were they all up to? But that point of view did not help matters. No other monitor spoke to Peter now if he could help it, and even the masters, judging that where there was smoke there must be fire, passed him coldly. That Easter term, in the late winds and rains of March, closed hideously. The Easter holidays, although perhaps he did not realise it, were a deliberate backing for the ordeal that was, he knew, to come.
He faced it on his return almost humorously, prepared, with a self-consciousness that was unusual in him, for all the worst things, and it is true enough that they were as bad as they could be. Bobby Galleon shared in it all, of course, but he had never been a popular person and he did not miss anything so long as there was Peter. Once he said, as Cards had said before:
"Leave 'em alone, Peter. After all, we can't do anything. They're too many for us, and, most important thing of all, they aren't worth it."
"Not much," said Peter, "things have got to be different."
Things were not different. They were too many for him, but he struggled on. The more open bullying he stopped, and there were other things that he drove into dark corners. But they remained there—in those corners. There were so many dark places at Dawson's, and it began to get on his brain so that he heard whispers and suspicions and marked the trail of the beast at every minute of the day. He could find nothing now in the open—they were too clever for him. The Captain of the Citadel—Ellershaw—was as he knew the worst fellow in the school, but there was nothing to be done, nothing unless something were caught in the open. As the term advanced the whispers grew and he felt that there were plots in the air. He was obeyed, Ellershaw and some of the others were politer than they had ever been, and for many weeks now there had been no disturbance—then suddenly the storm broke.
One hot afternoon he was sitting in his study alone, trying to read. Things seemed to him that day at their very worst, there was no place to which he might turn. People were playing cricket beyond his window. Some fly buzzed on his window pane, the sunlight was golden about his room and little ladders of dust twisted and curved against the glare—the house was very still. Then suddenly, from a neighbouring study, there were sounds. At first they did not penetrate his day dream, then they caught his ear and he put his book down and listened. The sounds were muffled; there was laughter and then some one cried out.
He knew that it was Jerrard's study and he hated Jerrard more than any one in the school. The fellow was a huge stupid oaf, low down in the middle fourth, but the best bowler that the school had; yes, he hated him. He opened his study door and listened. The passage was deserted, and, for a moment, there was no sound save some one shouting down in the cricket field and the buzzing of the fly on the pane. Then he heard voices from behind Jerrard's door.
"No, I say—Jerrard—don't give me any more—please ... please don't."
"There I say—hold his mouth open; that's right, pour it down. We'll have him singing in a moment."
"Oh I say—" there were sounds of a struggle and then silence again. At last there began the most horrible laughter that Peter had ever known; weak, silly, giggling, and little excited cries.
Then Jerrard's voice: "There, that will do; he's merry enough now."
Peter waited for no more, but strode across the passage and flung open the door. Some chairs were overturned; Jerrard and a friend, hearing the door open, had turned round. Leaning against the table, very flushed, his eyes shining, his hair covered with dust, waving his arms and singing in a quivering voice, was a small boy, very drunk. A glass and a whisky bottle were on the table.
"You damned hound!" Peter was trembling from head to foot. "You shall get kicked out for this."
Peter closed the door quietly behind him, and went back to his study. Here at last was the moment for which he had been waiting. Jerrard should be expelled if he, Peter, died in the attempt. Jerrard was the school's best bowler; he was immensely popular ... it would, indeed, be a matter of life and death. On that same evening he called a meeting of the Monitors; they were bound to meet if one of their number had anything of sufficient importance to declare, but they came reluctantly and showed Peter that they resented his action. When they heard what Peter had to say their attitude was even more mutinous. Jerrard, the school's best bowler, was their one thought. The end of the term was at hand, and the great match of the year against Radford, a neighbouring school, approached. Without Jerrard Dawson's would be hopelessly defeated. If Barbour heard of the incident Jerrard would be expelled; Barbour might be reluctant to act, but act he must. They were not, by an absurd and ancient rule, allowed to punish any grave offence without reporting it to the head-master. If, therefore, they took any action at all, it must be reported, Jerrard would be expelled, a boon companion and the great cricket match of the year, would be lost. And all this through that interfering prig of a Westcott! Any ordinary fellow would have shut his eyes to the whole affair. After all what is there to make a fuss about in having a rag with a kid? What are kids for? Thus the conclave sourly regarding Peter who watched them in turn, and sat sternly, ominously militant. They approached him with courtesy; Ellershaw showed him what this might mean to the school were it persisted in. After all, Jerrard was, in all probability, sorry enough ... it was a rotten thing to do—he should apologise to them. No, Peter would have none of it, they must 'act; it must be reported to the Head. He would, if necessary, report it himself.
Then they turned and cursed him, asking him whom he thought that he was, warned him about the way that the school would take his interference when the school knew, advised him for his own good to drop the matter; Peter was unmoved.
Barbour was informed; Jerrard was expelled—the school was beaten in the cricket match by an innings.
Then the storm broke. Peter moved, with Bobby Galleon, through a cloud of enemies. It was a hostility that cut like a knife, silent, motionless, but so bitter that every boy from Ellershaw to the tiniest infant at the bottom of the first took it as the motif of his day. That beast Westcott was the song that rang through the last fortnight.
Bobby Galleon was cowed by it; he did not mind his own ostracism, and he was proud that he could give practical effect to his devotion for his friend, but deep down in his loyalty, there was an unconfessed suspicion as to whether Peter, after all, hadn't been a little unwise and interfering—what was the good of making all this trouble? He even wondered whether Peter didn't rather enjoy it?
And Peter, for the first time in his school life, was happy. There was something after all in being up against all these people. He was a general fighting against tremendous odds. He would show them next year that they must obey.
On the last afternoon of the term he sat alone in his study. Bobby was with the matron, packing. He was conscious, as he sat there, of the sound of many feet shuffling. There were many whispers beyond his door, and yet a great silence.
He waited for a little, and then he opened his door and looked out. As he did so the bell for roll-call rang through the building, and he knew that it was his roll.
Afternoon roll-call was always taken in the gymnasium, a large empty room beyond the study passage, and it was the custom for boys to come up as their name was about to be called and thus to pass on.
But to-day he saw that the whole of the school was gathered there, along the dusky passage and packed, in a silent motionless throng, into the gymnasium.
He knew that they were all there with a purpose, and suddenly as he realised the insult that they intended, that spirit of exultation came upon him again. Ah! it was worth while, this battle!
They made way in silence as he passed quietly to the other end of the gymnasium and stood, a little above them, on the steps that led to the gallery. He started the roll-call with the head of the school and the sixth form ... there was no answer to any name; only perfect silence and every eye fixed upon him. For a wild moment he wished to burst out upon them, to crash their heads together, to hurt—then his self-control returned. Very quietly and clearly he read through the school list, a faint smile on his lips. Bobby Galleon was the only boy, out of three hundred, who answered.
When he had finished he called out as was the custom, "Roll is over," then for a brief instant, with the list in his hand, smiling, he faced them all. Every eye was upon him—Ellershaw, West, Barton smiling a little, some faces nervous, some excited, all bitterly, intensely hostile ... and he must return next year!
He came down from the steps and walked very slowly to the door, and then as his fingers touched the handle there was a sound—a whisper, very soft and then louder; it grew about his ear like a shot ... the whole school, motionless as before, was hissing him.
There was no word spoken, and he closed the door behind him.
That same night he walked, before chapel, with Bobby to the top of the playing fields. The night was dark and heavy, with no moon nor stars—but there was a cool wind that touched his cheek.
"Well, I've been a pretty good failure, Bobby. You've stuck to me like a brick. I shall never forget it.... But you know never in all my life have I been as happy as I was this afternoon. The devils! I'll have 'em under next year."
"That's not the way—" Bobby tried timorously to explain.
"Oh, yes, it is.... Anyhow it's my way. I wonder what there is about me that makes people hate me so."
"Yes, they do. At home, here—it's all the same. I'm always having to fight about something, always coming up against things."
"I suppose it's your destiny," said Bobby. "You always say it's to teach you pluck."
"That's what an old chap I knew in Cornwall said. But why can't I be let alone? How I loved that bit last year when the fellows liked me—only the decent things never last."
"It'll be all right later," Bobby answered, thinking that he had never seen anything finer than the way Peter had taken that afternoon. "In a way," he went on, "you fellows are lucky to get a chance of standing up against that sort of thing; it's damned good practice. Nobody ever thinks I'm worth while."
"Well," said Peter, throwing a clod of dark, scented earth into the air and losing sight of it in the black wall about him—"Here's to next year's battle!"
PRIDE OF LIFE
Peter never saw Dawson's again. When the summer holidays had run some three weeks a letter arrived stating, quite simply and tersely that, owing to the non-payment by evading parents of bills long overdue and to many other depressing and unavoidable circumstances Mr. Barbour and that House of Cards, his school, had fallen to pieces. There at any rate was an end to that disastrous accumulation of brick and mortar, and the harm that, living, it had wrought upon the souls and bodies of its victims its dying could not excuse. No tears were shed for Dawson's.
Peter, at the news, knew that now his battle never could be won. That battle at any rate must be left behind him with his defeat written large upon the plain of it, and this made in some unrealised way the penalty of the future months harder to bear. He had, behind him, defeat. Look at it as he might, he had been a failure at Dawson's—he had not done the things that he had been put there to do—and yet through the disaster he knew that in so far as he had refused to bend to the storm so far there had been victory; of that at any rate he was sure.
So he turned resolutely from the past and faced the future. It was as though suddenly Dawson's had never existed—a dream, a fantasy, a delirium—something that had left no external things behind it and had only in the effect that it had worked upon himself spiritually made its mark. He faced his House....
Scaw House had seemed to him, during these last three years, merely an interlude at Dawson's. There had been hurried holidays that had been spent in recovering from and preparing for the term and the House had scarcely, and only very quietly, raised its head to disturb him. He had not been disturbed—he had had other things to think about—and now he was very greatly disturbed indeed; that was the first difference that he consciously realised. The disturbance lay, of course, partly in the presence of his father and in the sense that he had had growing upon him, during the last two years, that their relationship, the one to the other, would, suddenly, one fine day, spring into acute emotion. They were approaching one another gradually as in a room whose walls were slowly closing. "Face to face—and then body to body—at last, soul to soul!"
He did not, he thought, actively hate his father; his father did not actively hate him, but hate might spring up at any moment between them, and Peter, although he was only sixteen, was no longer a child. But the feeling of apprehension that Scaw House gave him was caused by wider influences than his father. Three years at Dawson's had given Peter an acute sense of expecting things, it might be defined as "the glance over the shoulder to see who followed"—some one was always following at Scaw House. He saw in this how closely life was bound together, because every little moment at Dawson's contributed to his present active fear. Dawson's explained Scaw House to Peter. And yet this was all morbidity and Peter, square, broad-shouldered, had no scrap of morbidity in his clean body. He did not await the future with the shaking candle of the suddenly awakened coward, but rather with the planted feet and the bared teeth of the bull-dog....
He watched the faces of his father, his aunt and Mrs. Trussit. He observed the frightened dreams of his grandfather, the way that old Curtis the gardener would suddenly cease his fugitive digging and glance with furtive eyes at the windows of the house; about them were the dark shadows of the long passages, the sharp note of some banging door in a distant room, the wail of that endless wind beyond the walls. He felt too that Mrs. Trussit and his aunt were furtively watching him. He never caught them in anything tangible but he knew that, when his back was turned, their eyes followed him—questioning, wondering.
Something must be done or he could not answer for his control. If he were not to return to Dawson's, what then?
It was his seventeenth birthday one hot day towards the end of August, and at breakfast his father, without looking up from his paper, said:
"I have made arrangements for you with Mr. Aitchinson to enter his office next week. You'll have to work—you've been idling long enough."
The windows were wide open, the lawn was burning in the sun, bees carried the scent of the flowers with them into the air that hung like shining metal about the earth, a cart rattled as though it were a giant clattering his pleasure at the day down the road. It was a wonderful day and somewhere streams were flowing under dark protecting trees, and the grass was thick in cool hollows and the woods were so dense that no blue sky reached the moss, but only the softest twilight ... and old Aitchinson, the town's solicitor, with his nutcracker face, his snuffling nose, his false teeth—and the tightly-closed office, the piles of paper, the ink, the silly view from the dusty windows of Treliss High Street—and life always in the future to be like that until he died.
But Peter showed no emotion.
"Very well, father—What day do I go?"
Nothing more was said. At any rate Aitchinson and his red tape and his moral dust would fill the day—no time then to dwell on these dark passages and Mrs. Trussit's frightened eyes and the startled jump of the marble clock in the dining-room just before it struck the hour....
And so for weeks it proved. Aitchinson demanded no serious consideration. He was a hideous little man with eyes like pins, shaggy eyebrows, a nose that swelled at the end and was pinched by the sharpest of pince-nez, cheeks that hung white and loose except when he was hungry or angry, and then they were tight and red, a little body rather dandily dressed with a flowered waistcoat, a white stock, a skirted coat and pepper-and-salt trousers—and last of all, tiny feet, of which he was inordinately proud and with which, like Agag, he always walked delicately. He had a high falsetto voice, fingers that were always picking, like eager hens, at the buttons on his waistcoat or the little waxed moustache above his mouth, and hair that occupied its time in covering a bald patch that always escaped every design upon it. So much for Mr. Aitchinson. Let him be flattered sufficiently and Peter saw that his way would be easy. The wizened little creature had, moreover, a certain admiration for Peter's strength and broad shoulders and used sometimes in the middle of the morning's work to ask Peter how much he weighed, whether he'd ever considered taking up prize-fighting as a profession, and how much he measured across the chest.
There were two other youths, articled like Peter, stupid sons of honest Treliss householders, with high collars, faces that shone with soap and hair that glistened with oil, languid voices and a perpetual fund of small talk about the ladies of the town, moral and otherwise. Peter did not like them and they did not like Peter. One day, because he was tired and unhappy, he knocked their heads together, and they plotted to destroy him, but they were afraid, and secretly admired what they called his coarse habits.
The Summer stole away and Autumn crept into its place, and at the end of October something occurred. Something suddenly happened at Scaw House that made action imperative, and filled his brain all day so that Aitchinson's office and his work there was only a dream and the people in it were shadows. He had heard his mother crying from behind her closed door....
He had been coming, on a wet autumnal afternoon, down the dark stairs from his attic and suddenly at the other end of the long passage there had been this sound, so sudden and so pitiful coming upon that dreary stillness that he had stopped with his hands clenched and his face white and his heart beating like a knock on a door. Instantly all those many little moments that he had had in that white room with that heavy-scented air crowded upon him and he remembered the smile that she had always given him and the way that her hair lay so tragically about the pillow. He had always been frightened and eager to escape; he felt suddenly so deeply ashamed that the crimson flooded his face there in the dark passage. She had wanted him all these years and he had allowed those other people to prevent him from going to her. What had been happening to her in that room? The sound of her crying came to him as though beseeching him to come and help her. He put his hands to his ears and went desperately into the dark wet garden. He knew now when he thought of it, that his behaviour to his mother had been, during these months since he had left Dawson's, an unconscious cowardice. Whilst he had been yet at school those little five minutes' visits to his mother's room might have been excused, but during these last months there had been, with regard to her, in his conscience, if he had cared to examine it, sharp accusation.
The defence that she did not really want to see him, that his presence might bring on some bad attack, might excite her, was no real defence. He had postponed an interview with her from day to day because he realised that that interview would strike into flame all the slumbering relations that that household held. It would fling them all, as though from a preconcerted signal, into war....
But now there could be only one thought in his mind. He must see his mother—if he could still help her he must be at her service. There was no one whom he could ask about her. Mrs. Trussit now never spoke to him (and indeed never spoke to any one if she could help it), and went up and down the stairs in her rustling black and flat white face and jingling keys as though she was no human being at all but only a walking automaton that you wound up in the morning and put away in the cupboard at night—Mrs. Trussit was of no use.
There remained Stephen, and this decided Peter to break through that barrier that there was between them and to find out why it had ever existed. He had not seen Stephen that summer at all—no one saw Stephen—only at The Bending Mule they shook their heads over him and spoke of the wild devil that had come upon him because the woman he loved was being tortured to death by her husband only a mile away. He was drinking, they said, and his farm was going to ruin, and he would speak to nobody—and they shook their heads. It was not through cowardice that Peter had avoided him, but since those three years at Dawson's he had been lonely and silent himself, and Stephen had never sent for him as he would have done, Peter thought, if he had wanted him. Now the time had come when he could stand alone no longer....
He slipped away one night after supper, leaving that quiet room with his aunt playing Patience at the table, his old grandfather mumbling in his sleep, his father like a stone, staring at his paper but not, Peter was sure, reading any of it.
Mrs. Trussit, silent before the fire in her room, his aunt not seeing the cards that she laid upon the table, his father not reading his paper—for what were they all listening?
It was a fierce night and the wind rushed up the high road as though it would tear Peter off his feet and fling him into the sea, but he walked sturdily, no cap on his head and the wind streaming through his hair. Some way along the road he found a child crying in a ditch. He loved children, and, picking the small boy up, he found that he had been sent for beer to the Cap and Feathers, at the turn of the road, and been blown by the wind into the ditch and was almost dead with terror. At first at the sight of Peter the child had cried out, but at the touch of his warm hand and at the sound of his laugh he had been suddenly comforted, and trotted down the road with his hand in Peter's and his tears dried.