"And he turned us out himself—himself—himself!" This from McTurk. "He can't begin to suspect us. Oh, Stalky, it's the loveliest thing we've ever done."
"Gum! Gum! Dollops of gum!" shouted Beetle, his spectacles gleaming through a sea of lather. "Ink and blood all mixed. I held the little beast's head all over the Latin proses for Monday. Golly, how the oil stunk! And Rabbits-Eggs told King to poultice his nose! Did you hit Rabbits-Eggs, Stalky?"
"Did I jolly well not? Tweaked him all over. Did you hear him curse? Oh, I shall be sick in a minute if I don't stop."
But dressing was a slow process, because McTurk was obliged to dance when he heard that the musk basket was broken, and, moreover, Beetle retailed all King's language with emendations and purple insets.
"Shockin'!" said Stalky, collapsing in a helpless welter of half-hitched trousers. "So dam' bad, too, for innocent boys like us! Wonder what they'd say at 'St. Winifred's, or the World of School.'—By gum! That reminds me we owe the Lower Third one for assaultin' Beetle when he chivied Manders minor. Come on! It's an alibi, Samivel; and, besides, if we let 'em off they'll be worse next time."
The Lower Third had set a guard upon their form-room for the space of a full hour, which to a boy is a lifetime. Now they were busy with their Saturday evening businesses—cooking sparrows over the gas with rusty nibs; brewing unholy drinks in gallipots; skinning moles with pocket-knives; attending to paper trays full of silkworms, or discussing the iniquities of their elders with a freedom, fluency, and point that would have amazed their parents. The blow fell without warning. Stalky upset a form crowded with small boys among their own cooking utensils, McTurk raided the untidy lockers as a terrier digs at a rabbit-hole, while Beetle poured ink upon such heads as he could not appeal to with a Smith's Classical Dictionary. Three brisk minutes accounted for many silkworms, pet larvae, French exercises, school caps, half-prepared bones and skulls, and a dozen pots of home-made sloe jam. It was a great wreckage, and the form-room looked as though three conflicting tempests had smitten it.
"Phew!" said Stalky, drawing breath outside the door (amid groans of "Oh, you beastly ca-ads! You think yourselves awful funny," and so forth). "That's all right. Never let the sun go down upon your wrath. Rummy little devils, fags. Got no notion o' combinin'."
"Six of 'em sat on my head when I went in after Manders minor," said Beetle. "I warned 'em what they'd get, though."
"Everybody paid in full—beautiful feelin'," said McTurk absently, as they strolled along the corridor. "Don't think we'd better say much about King, though, do you, Stalky?"
"Not much. Our line is injured innocence, of course—same as when the Sergeant reported us on suspicion of smoking in the bunkers. If I hadn't thought of buyin' the pepper and spillin' it all over our clothes, he'd have smelt us. King was gha-astly facetious about that. 'Called us bird-stuffers in form for a week."
"Ah, King hates the Natural History Society because little Hartopp is president. Mustn't do anything in the Coll. without glorifyin' King," said McTurk. "But he must be a putrid ass, know, to suppose at our time o' life we'd go and stuff birds like fags."
"Poor old King!" said Beetle. "He's unpopular in Common-room, and they'll chaff his head off about Rabbits-Eggs. Golly! How lovely! How beautiful! How holy! But you should have seen his face when the first rock came in! And the earth from the basket!"
So they were all stricken helpless for five minutes.
They repaired at last to Abanazar's study, and were received reverently.
"What's the matter?" said Stalky, quick to realize new atmospheres.
"You know jolly well," said Abanazar. "You'll be expelled if you get caught. King is a gibbering maniac."
"Who? Which? What? Expelled for how? We only played the war-drum. We've got turned out for that already."
"Do you chaps mean to say you didn't make Rabbits-Eggs drunk and bribe him to rock King's rooms?"
"Bribe him? No, that I'll swear we didn't," said Stalky, with a relieved heart, for he loved not to tell lies. "What a low mind you've got, Pussy! We've been down having a bath. Did Rabbits-Eggs rock King? Strong, perseverin' man King? Shockin'!"
"Awf'ly. King's frothing at the mouth. There's bell for prayers. Come on."
"Wait a sec," said Stalky, continuing the conversation in a loud and cheerful voice, as they descended the stairs. "What did Rabbits-Eggs rock King for?"
"I know," said Beetle, as they passed King's open door. "I was in his study."
"Hush, you ass!" hissed the Emperor of China. "Oh, he's gone down to prayers," said Beetle, watching the shadow of the house-master on the wall. "Rabbits-Eggs was only a bit drunk, swearin' at his horse, and King jawed him through the window, and then, of course, he rocked King."
"Do you mean to say," said Stalky, "that King began it?"
King was behind them, and every well-weighed word went up the staircase like an arrow. "I can only swear," said Beetle, "that King cursed like a bargee. Simply disgustin'. I'm goin' to write to my father about it."
"Better report it to Mason," suggested Stalky. "He knows our tender consciences. Hold on a shake. I've got to tie my boot-lace."
The other study hurried forward. They did not wish to be dragged into stage asides of this nature. So it was left to McTurk to sum up the situation beneath the guns of the enemy.
"You see," said the Irishman, hanging on the banister, "he begins by bullying little chaps; then he bullies the big chaps; then he bullies some one who isn't connected with the College, and then catches it. Serves him jolly well right... I beg your pardon, sir. I didn't see you were coming down the staircase."
The black gown tore past like a thunder-storm, and in its wake, three abreast, arms linked, the Aladdin company rolled up the big corridor to prayers, singing with most innocent intention:
"Arrah, Patsy, mind the baby! Arrah, Patsy, mind the child! Wrap him up in an overcoat, he's surely goin' wild! Arrah, Patsy, mind the baby; just ye mind the child awhile! He'll kick an' bite an' cry all night! Arrah, Patsy, mind the child!"
AN UNSAVORY INTERLUDE.
It was a maiden aunt of Stalky who sent him both books, with the inscription, "To dearest Artie, on his sixteenth birthday;" it was McTurk who ordered their hypothecation; and it was Beetle, returned from Bideford, who flung them on the window-sill of Number Five study with news that Bastable would advance but ninepence on the two; "Eric; or, Little by Little," being almost as great a drug as "St. Winifred's." "An' I don't think much of your aunt. We're nearly out of cartridges, too—Artie, dear."
Whereupon Stalky rose up to grapple with him, but McTurk sat on Stalky's head, calling him a "pure-minded boy" till peace was declared. As they were grievously in arrears with a Latin prose, as it was a blazing July afternoon, and as they ought to have been at a house cricket-match, they began to renew their acquaintance, intimate and unholy, with the volumes.
"Here we are!" said McTurk. "'Corporal punishment produced on Eric the worst effects. He burned not with remorse or regret'—make a note o' that, Beetle—' but with shame and violent indignation. He glared'—oh, naughty Eric! Let's get to where he goes in for drink."
"Hold on half a shake. Here's another sample. 'The Sixth,' he says,'is the palladium of all public schools.' But this lot—" Stalky rapped the gilded book—"can't prevent fellows drinkin' and stealin', an' lettin' fags out of window at night, an'—an' doin' what they please. Golly, what we've missed—not goin' to St. Winifred's!..."
"I'm sorry to see any boys of my house taking so little interest in their matches."
Mr. Prout could move very silently if he pleased, though that is no merit in a boy's eyes. He had flung open the study-door without knocking—another sin—and looked at them suspiciously. "Very sorry, indeed, I am to see you frowsting in your studies."
"We've been out ever since dinner, sir," said. McTurk wearily. One house-match is just like another, and their "ploy" of that week happened to be rabbit-shooting with saloon-pistols.
"I can't see a ball when it's coming, sir," said Beetle. "I've had my gig-lamps smashed at the Nets till I got excused. I wasn't any good even as a fag, then, sir."
"Tuck is probably your form. Tuck and brewing. Why can't you three take any interest in the honor of your house?"
They had heard that phrase till they were wearied. The "honor of the house" was Prout's weak point, and they knew well how to flick him on the raw.
"If you order us to go down, sir, of course we'll go," said Stalky, with maddening politeness. But Prout knew better than that. He had tried the experiment once at a big match, when the three, self-isolated, stood to attention for half an hour in full view of all the visitors, to whom fags, subsidized for that end, pointed them out as victims of Prout's tyranny. And Prout was a sensitive man.
In the infinitely petty confederacies of the Common-room, King and Macrea, fellow house-masters, had borne it in upon him that by games, and games alone, was salvation wrought. Boys neglected were boys lost. They must be disciplined. Left to himself, Prout would have made a sympathetic house-master; but he was never so left, and with the devilish insight of youth, the boys knew to whom they were indebted for his zeal.
"Must we go down, sir?' said McTurk.
"I don't want to order you to do what a right-thinking boy should do gladly. I'm sorry." And he lurched out with some hazy impression that he had sown good seed on poor ground.
"Now what does he suppose is the use of that?" said Beetle.
"Oh, he's cracked. King jaws him in Common-room about not keepin' us up to the mark, an' Macrea burbles about 'dithcipline,' an' old Heffy sits between 'em sweatin' big drops. I heard Oke (the Common-room butler) talking to Richards (Prout's house-servant) about it down in the basement the other day when I went down to bag some bread," said Stalky.
"What did Oke say?" demanded McTurk, throwing "Eric" into a corner.
"Oh, he said, 'They make more nise nor a nest full o' jackdaws, an' half of it like we'd no ears to our heads that waited on 'em. They talks over old Prout—what he've done an' left undone about his boys. An' how their boys be fine boys, an' his'n be dom bad.' Well, Oke talked like that, you know, and Richards got awf'ly wrathy. He has a down on King for something or other. Wonder why?"
"Why, King talks about Prout in form-room—makes allusions, an' all that—only half the chaps are such asses they can't see what he's drivin' at. And d'you remember what he said about the 'Casual House' last Tuesday? He meant us. They say he says perfectly beastly things to his own house, making fun of Prout's," said Beetle.
"Well, we didn't come here to mix up in their rows," McTurk said wrathfully. "Who'll bathe after call-over? King's takin' it in the cricket-field. Come on." Turkey seized his straw and led the way.
They reached the sun-blistered pavilion over against the gray Pebbleridge just before roll-call, and, asking no questions, gathered from King's voice and manner that his house was on the road to victory.
"Ah, ha!" said he, turning to show the light of his countenance. "Here we have the ornaments of the Casual House at last. You consider cricket beneath you, I believe "—the crowd, flannelled, sniggered "and from what I have seen this afternoon, I fancy many others of your house hold the same view. And may I ask what you purpose to do with your noble selves till tea-time?"
"Going down to bathe, sir," said Stalky.
"And whence this sudden zeal for cleanliness? There is nothing about you that particularly suggests it. Indeed, so far as I remember—I may be at fault—but a short time ago—"
"Five years, sir," said Beetle hotly.
King scowled. "One of you was that thing called a water-funk. Yes, a water-funk. So now you wish to wash? It is well. Cleanliness never injured a boy or—a house. We will proceed to business," and he addressed himself to the call-over board.
"What the deuce did you say anything to him for, Beetle?" said McTurk angrily, as they strolled towards the big, open sea-baths.
"'Twasn't fair—remindin' one of bein' a water-funk. My first term, too. Heaps of chaps are—when they can't swim."
"Yes, you ass; but he saw he'd fetched you. You ought never to answer King."
"But it wasn't fair, Stalky."
"My Hat! You've been here six years, and you expect fairness. Well, you are a dithering idiot."
A knot of King's boys, also bound for the baths, hailed them, beseeching them to wash—for the honor of their house.
"That's what comes of King's jawin' and messin'. Those young animals wouldn't have thought of it unless he'd put it into their heads. Now they'll be funny about it for weeks," said Stalky. "Don't take any notice."
The boys came nearer, shouting an opprobrious word. At last they moved to windward, ostentatiously holding their noses.
"That's pretty," said Beetle. "They'll be sayin' our house stinks next."
When they returned from the baths, damp-headed, languid, at peace with the world, Beetle's forecast came only too true. They were met in the corridor by a fag—a common, Lower-Second fag—who at arm's length handed them a carefully wrapped piece of soap "with the compliments of King's House."
"Hold on," said Stalky, checking immediate attack. "Who put you up to this, Nixon? Rattray and White? (Those were two leaders in King's house.) Thank you. There's no answer."
"Oh, it's too sickening to have this kind o' rot shoved on to a chap. What's the sense of it? What's the fun of it?" said McTurk.
"It will go on to the end of the term, though," Beetle wagged his head sorrowfully. He had worn many jests threadbare on his own account.
In a few days it became an established legend of the school that Prout's house did not wash and were therefore noisome. Mr. King was pleased to smile succulently in form when one of his boys drew aside from Beetle with certain gestures.
"There seems to be some disability attaching to you, my Beetle, or else why should Burton major withdraw, so to speak, the hem of his garments? I confess I am still in the dark. Will some one be good enough to enlighten me?"
Naturally, he was enlightened by half the form.
"Extraordinary! Most extraordinary! However, each house has its traditions, with which I would not for the world interfere. We have a prejudice in favor of washing. Go on, Beetle—from 'jugurtha tamen'—and, if you can, avoid the more flagrant forms of guessing."
Prout's house was furious because Macrea's and Hartopp's houses joined King's to insult them. They called a house-meeting after dinner—an excited and angry meeting of all save the prefects, whose dignity, though they sympathized, did not allow them to attend. They read ungrammatical resolutions, and made speeches beginning, "Gentlemen, we have met on this occasion," and ending with, "It's a beastly shame," precisely as houses have done since time and schools began.
Number Five study attended, with its usual air of bland patronage. At last McTurk, of the lanthorn jaws, delivered himself:
"You jabber and jaw and burble, and that's about all you can do. What's the good of it? King's house'll only gloat because they've drawn you, and King will gloat, too. Besides, that resolution of Orrin's is chock-full of bad grammar, and King'll gloat over that."
"I thought you an' Beetle would put it right, an'—an' we'd post it in the corridor," said the composer meekly.
"Par si je le connai. I'm not goin' to meddle with the biznai," said Beetle. "It's a gloat for King's house. Turkey's quite right."
"Well, won't Stalky, then?"
But Stalky puffed out his cheeks and squinted down his nose in the style of Panurge, and all he said was, "Oh, you abject burblers!"
"You're three beastly scabs!" was the instant retort of the democracy, and they went out amid execrations.
"This is piffling," said McTurk. "Let's get our sallies, and go and shoot bunnies."
Three saloon-pistols, with a supply of bulleted breech-caps, were stored in Stalky's trunk, and this trunk was in their dormitory, and their dormitory was a three-bed attic one, opening out of a ten-bed establishment, which, in turn, communicated with the great range of dormitories that ran practically from one end of the College to the other. Macrea's house lay next to Prout's, King's next to Macrea's, and Hartopp's beyond that again. Carefully locked doors divided house from house, but each house, in its internal arrangements—the College had originally been a terrace of twelve large houses—was a replica of the next; one straight roof covering all.
They found Stalky's bed drawn out from the wall to the left of the dormer window, and the latter end of Richards protruding from a two-foot-square cupboard in the wall.
"What's all this? I've never noticed it before. What are you tryin' to do, Fatty?"
"Fillin' basins, Muster Corkran." Richards's voice was hollow and muffled. "They've been savin' me trouble. Yiss."
"'Looks like it," said McTurk. "Hi! You'll stick if you don't take care."
Richards backed puffing.
"I can't rache un. Yiss, 'tess a turncock, Muster McTurk. They've took an' runned all the watter-pipes a storey higher in the houses—runned 'em all along under the 'ang of the heaves, like. Runned 'em in last holidays. I can't rache the turncock."
"Let me try," said Stalky, diving into the aperture.
"Slip 'ee to the left, then, Muster Corkran. Slip 'ee to the left, an' feel in the dark."
To the left Stalky wriggled, and saw a long line of lead pipe disappearing up a triangular tunnel, whose roof was the rafters and boarding of the college roof, whose floor was sharp-edged joists, and whose side was the rough studding of the lath and plaster wall under the dormer.
"Rummy show. How far does it go?"
"Right along, Muster Corkran—right along from end to end. Her runs under the 'ang of the heaves. Have 'ee rached the stopcock yet? Mr. King got un put in to save us carryin' watter from down-stairs to fill the basins. No place for a lusty man like old Richards. I'm tu thickabout to go ferritin'. Thank 'ee, Muster Corkran."
The water squirted through the tap just inside the cupboard, and, having filled the basins, the grateful Richards waddled away.
The boys sat round-eyed on their beds considering the possibilities of this trove. Two floors below them they could hear the hum of the angry house; for nothing is so still as a dormitory in mid-afternoon of a midsummer term.
"It has been papered over till now." McTurk examined the little door. "If we'd only known before!"
"I vote we go down and explore. No one will come up this time o' day. We needn't keep cave'."
They crawled in, Stalky leading, drew the door behind them, and on all fours embarked on a dark and dirty road full of plaster, odd shavings, and all the raffle that builders leave in the waste room of a house. The passage was perhaps three feet wide, and, except for the struggling light round the edges of the cupboards (there was one to each dormer), almost pitchy dark.
"Here's Macrea's house," said Stalky, his eye at the crack of the third cupboard. "I can see Barnes's name on his trunk. Don't make such a row, Beetle! We can get right to the end of the Coll. Come on!... We're in King's house now—I can see a bit of Rattray's trunk. How these beastly boards hurt one's knees!" They heard his nails scraping, on plaster.
"That's the ceiling below. Look out! If we smashed that the plaster 'ud fall down in the lower dormitory," said Beetle.
"Let's," whispered McTurk.
"An' be collared first thing? Not much. Why, I can shove my hand ever so far up between these boards."
Stalky thrust an arm to the elbow between the joists.
"No good stayin' here. I vote we go back and talk it over. It's a crummy place. 'Must say I'm grateful to King for his water-works."
They crawled out, brushed one another clean, slid the saloon-pistols down a trouser-leg, and hurried forth to a deep and solitary Devonshire lane in whose flanks a boy might sometimes slay a young rabbit. They threw themselves down under the rank elder bushes, and began to think aloud.
"You know," said Stalky at last, sighting at a distant sparrow, "we could hide our sallies in there like anything."
"Huh!" Beetle snorted, choked, and gurgled. He had been silent since they left the dormitory. "Did you ever read a book called 'The History of a House' or something? I got it out of the library the other day. A French woman wrote it—Violet somebody. But it's translated, you know; and it's very interestin'. Tells you how a house is built."
"Well, if you're in a sweat to find out that, you can go down to the new cottages they're building for the coastguard."
"My Hat! I will." He felt in his pockets. "Give me tuppence, some one."
"Rot! Stay here, and don't mess about in the sun."
"Gi' me tuppence."
"I say, Beetle, you aren't stuffy about anything, are you?" said McTurk, handing over the coppers. His tone was serious, for though Stalky often, and McTurk occasionally, manoeuvred on his own account, Beetle had never been known to do so in all the history of the confederacy.
"No, I'm not. I'm thinking."
"Well, we'll come, too," said Stalky, with a general's suspicion of his aides.
"Don't want you."
"Oh, leave him alone. He's been taken worse with a poem," said McTurk. "He'll go burbling down to the Pebbleridge and spit it all up in the study when he comes back."
"Then why did he want the tuppence, Turkey? He's gettin' too beastly independent. Hi! There's a bunny. No, it ain't. It's a cat, by Jove! You plug first."
Twenty minutes later a boy with a straw hat at the back of his head, and his hands in his pockets, was staring at workmen as they moved about a half-finished cottage. He produced some ferocious tobacco, and was passed from the forecourt into the interior, where he asked many questions.
"Well, let's have your beastly epic," said Turkey, as they burst into the study, to find Beetle deep in Viollet-le-Duc and some drawings. "We've had no end of a lark."
"Epic? What epic? I've been down to the coastguard."
"No epic? Then we will slay you, O Beetle," said Stalky, moving to the attack. "You've got something up your sleeve. I know, when you talk in that tone!"
"Your Uncle Beetle"—with an attempt to imitate Stalky's war-voice—"is a great man."
"Oh, no; he jolly well isn't anything of the kind. You deceive yourself, Beetle. Scrag him, Turkey!"
"A great man," Beetle gurgled from the floor. "You are futile—look out for my tie!—futile burblers. I am the Great Man. I gloat. Ouch! Hear me!"
"Beetle, de-ah"—Stalky dropped unreservedly on Beetle's chest—"we love you, an' you're a poet. If I ever said you were a doggaroo, I apologize; but you know as well as we do that you can't do anything by yourself without mucking it."
"I've got a notion."
"And you'll spoil the whole show if you don't tell your Uncle Stalky. Cough it up, ducky, and we'll see what we can do. Notion, you fat impostor—I knew you had a notion when you went away! Turkey said it was a poem."
"I've found out how houses are built. Le' me get up. The floor-joists of one room are the ceiling-joists of the room below."
"Don't be so filthy technical."
"Well, the man told me. The floor is laid on top of those joists—those boards on edge that we crawled over—but the floor stops at a partition. Well, if you get behind a partition, same as you did in the attic, don't you see that you can shove anything you please under the floor between the floor-boards and the lath and plaster of the ceiling below? Look here. I've drawn it."
He produced a rude sketch, sufficient to enlighten the allies. There is no part of the modern school curriculum that deals with architecture, and none of them had yet reflected whether floors and ceilings were hollow or solid. Outside his own immediate interests the boy is as ignorant as the savage he so admires; but he has also the savage's resource.
"I see," said Stalky. "I shoved my hand there. An' then?"
"An' then They've been calling us stinkers, you know. We might shove somethin' under—sulphur, or something that stunk pretty bad—an' stink 'em out. I know it can be done somehow." Beetle's eyes turned to Stalky handling the diagrams.
"Stinks?" said Stalky interrogatively. Then his face grew luminous with delight. "By gum! I've got it. Horrid stinks! Turkey!" He leaped at the Irishman. "This afternoon—just after Beetle went away! She's the very thing!"
"Come to my arms, my beamish boy," caroled McTurk, and they fell into each other's arms dancing. "Oh, frabjous day! Calloo, callay! She will! She will!"
"Hold on," said Beetle. "I don't understand."
"Dearr man! It shall, though. Oh, Artie, my pure-souled youth, let us tell our darling Reggie about Pestiferous Stinkadores."
"Not until after call-over. Come on!"
"I say," said Orrin, stiffly, as they fell into their places along the walls of the gymnasium. "The house are goin' to hold another meeting."
"Hold away, then." Stalky's mind was elsewhere.
"It's about you three this time."
"All right, give 'em my love... Here, sir," and he tore down the corridor.
Gamboling like kids at play, with bounds and sidestarts, with caperings and curvetings, they led the almost bursting Beetle to the rabbit-lane, and from under a pile of stones drew forth the new-slain corpse of a cat. Then did Beetle see the inner meaning of what had gone before, and lifted up his voice in thanksgiving for that the world held warriors so wise as Stalky and McTurk.
"Well-nourished old lady, ain't she?" said Stalky. "How long d'you suppose it'll take her to get a bit whiff in a confined space?"
"Bit whiff! What a coarse brute you are!" said McTurk. "Can't a poor pussy-cat get under King's dormitory floor to die without your pursuin' her with your foul innuendoes?"
"What did she die under the floor for?' said Beetle, looking to the future.
"Oh, they won't worry about that when they find her," said Stalky.
"A cat may look at a king." McTurk rolled down the bank at his own jest. "Pussy, you don't know how useful you're goin' to be to three pure-souled, high-minded boys."
"They'll have to take up the floor for her, same as they did in Number Nine when the rat croaked. Big medicine—heap big medicine! Phew! Oh, Lord, I wish I could stop laughin'," said Beetle.
"Stinks! Hi, stinks! Clammy ones!" McTurk gasped as he regained his place. "And"—the exquisite humor of it brought them sliding down together in a tangle—"it's all for the honor of the house, too!"
"An' they're holdin' another meeting—on us," Stalky panted, his knees in the ditch and his face in the long grass. "Well, let's get the bullet out of her and hurry up. The sooner she's bedded out the better."
Between them they did some grisly work with a penknife; between them (ask not who buttoned her to his bosom) they took up the corpse and hastened back, Stalky arranging their plan of action at the full trot.
The afternoon sun, lying in broad patches on the bed-rugs, saw three boys and an umbrella disappear into a dormitory wall. In five minutes they emerged, brushed themselves all over, washed their hands, combed their hair, and descended.
"Are you sure you shoved her far enough under?" said McTurk suddenly.
"Hang it, man, I shoved her the full length of my arm and Beetle's brolly. That must be about six feet. She's bung in the middle of King's big upper ten-bedder. Eligible central situation, I call it. She'll stink out his chaps, and Hartopp's and Macrea's, when she really begins to fume. I swear your Uncle Stalky is a great man. Do you realize what a great man he is, Beetle?"
"Well, I had the notion first, hadn't I—? only—"
"You couldn't do it without your Uncle Stalky, could you?"
"They've been calling us stinkers for a week now," said McTurk. "Oh, won't they catch it!"
"Stinker! Yah! Stink-ah!" rang down the corridor.
"And she's there," said Stalky, a hand on either boy's shoulder. "She—is—there, gettin' ready to surprise 'em. Presently she'll begin to whisper to 'em in their dreams. Then she'll whiff. Golly, how she'll whiff! Oblige me by thinkin' of it for two minutes."
They went to their study in more or less of silence. There they began to laugh—laugh as only boys can. They laughed with their foreheads on the tables, or on the floor; laughed at length, curled over the backs of chairs or clinging to a book-shelf; laughed themselves limp.
And in the middle of it Orrin entered on behalf of the house. "Don't mind us, Orrin; sit down. You don't know how we respect and admire you. There's something about your pure, high young forehead, full of the dreams of innocent boyhood, that's no end fetchin'. It is, indeed."
"The house sent me to give you this." He laid a folded sheet of paper on the table and retired with an awful front.
"It's the resolution! Oh, read it, some one. I'm too silly-sick with laughin' to see," said Beetle. Stalky jerked it open with a precautionary sniff. "Phew! Phew! Listen. 'The house notices with pain and contempt the attitude of indiference' —how many f's in indifference, Beetle?"
"Two for choice."
"Only one here—'adopted by the occupants of Number Five study in relation to the insults offered to Mr. Prout's house at the recent meeting in Number Twelve form-room, and the House hereby pass a vote of censure on the said study. That's all."
"And she bled all down my shirt, too!" said Beetle.
"An' I'm catty all over," said McTurk, "though I washed twice."
"An' I nearly broke Beetle's brolly plantin' her where she would blossom!"
The situation was beyond speech, but not laughter. There was some attempt that night to demonstrate against the three in their dormitory; so they came forth.
"You see," Beetle began suavely as he loosened his braces, "the trouble with you is that you're a set of unthinkin' asses. You've no more brains than spidgers. We've told you that heaps of times, haven't we?"
"We'll give the three of you a dormitory lickin'. You always jaw at us as if you were prefects," cried one.
"Oh, no, you won't," said Stalky, "because you know that if you did you'd get the worst of it sooner or later. We aren't in any hurry. We can afford to wait for our little revenges. You've made howlin' asses of yourselves, and just as soon as King gets hold of your precious resolutions to-morrow you'll find that out. If you aren't sick an' sorry by to-morrow night, I'll—I'll eat my hat."
But or ever the dinner-bell rang the next day Prout's were sadly aware of their error. King received stray members of that house with an exaggerated attitude of fear. Did they purpose to cause him to be dismissed from the College by unanimous resolution? What were their views concerning the government of the school, that he might hasten to give effect to them? he would not offend them for worlds; but he feared—he sadly feared—that his own house, who did not pass resolutions (but washed), might somewhat deride.
King was a happy man, and his house, basking in the favor of his smile, made that afternoon a long penance to the misled Prouts. And Prout himself, with a dull and lowering visage, tried to think out the rights and wrongs of it all, only plunging deeper into bewilderment. Why should his house be called "Stinkers"? Truly, it was a small thing, but he had been trained to believe that straws show which way the wind blows, and that there is no smoke without fire. He approached King in Common-room with a sense of injustice, but King was pleased to be full of airy persiflage that tide, and brilliantly danced dialectical rings round Prout.
"Now," said Stalky at bedtime, making pilgrimage through the dormitories before the prefects came by, "now what have you got to say for yourselves? Foster, Carton, Finch, Longbridge, Marlin, Brett! I heard you chaps catchin' it from King—he made hay of you—an' all you could do was to wriggle an' grin an' say, 'Yes, sir,' an' 'No, sir,'' an' 'O, sir,' an' 'Please, sir'! You an' your resolution! Urh!"
"Oh, shut up, Stalky."
"Not a bit of it. You're a gaudy lot of resolutionists, you are! You've made a sweet mess of it. Perhaps you'll have the decency to leave us alone next time."
Here the house grew angry, and in many voices pointed out how this blunder would never have come to pass if Number Five study had helped them from the first.
"But you chaps are so beastly conceited, an'—an' you swaggered into the meetin' as if we were a lot of idiots," growled Orrin of the resolution.
"That's precisely what you are! That's what we've been tryin' to hammer into your thick heads all this time," said Stalky. "Never mind, we'll forgive you. Cheer up. You can't help bein' asses, you know," and, the enemy's flank deftly turned, Stalky hopped into bed.
That night was the first of sorrow among the jubilant King's. By some accident of under-floor drafts the cat did not vex the dormitory beneath which she lay, but the next one to the right; stealing on the air rather as a pale-blue sensation than as any poignant offense. But the mere adumbration of an odor is enough for the sensitive nose and clean tongue of youth. Decency demands that we draw several carbolized sheets over what the dormitory said to Mr. King and what Mr. King replied. He was genuinely proud of his house and fastidious in all that concerned their well-being. He came; he sniffed; he said things. Next morning a boy in that dormitory confided to his bosom friend, a fag of Macrea's, that there was trouble in their midst which King would fain keep secret.
But Macrea's boy had also a bosom friend in Prout's, a shock-headed fag of malignant disposition, who, when he had wormed out the secret, told—told it in a high-pitched treble that rang along the corridor like a bat's squeak.
"An'—an' they've been calling us 'stinkers' all this week. Why, Harland minor says they simply can't sleep in his dormitory for the stink. Come on!"
"With one shout and with one cry" Prout's juniors hurled themselves into the war, and through the interval between first and second lesson some fifty twelve-year-olds were embroiled on the gravel outside King's windows to a tune whose leit-motif was the word "stinker."
"Hark to the minute-gun at sea!" said Stalky. They were in their study collecting books for second lesson—Latin, with King. "I thought his azure brow was a bit cloudy at prayers. 'She is comin', sister Mary. She is—'"
"If they make such a row now, what will they do when she really begins to look up an' take notice?"
"Well, no vulgar repartee, Beetle. All we want is to keep out of this row like gentlemen."
"'Tis but a little faded flower.' Where's my Horace? Look here, I don't understand what she means by stinkin' out Rattray's dormitory first. We holed in under White's, didn't we?" asked McTurk, with a wrinkled brow.
"Skittish little thing. She's rompin' about all over the place, I suppose."
"My Aunt! King'll be a cheerful customer at second lesson. I haven't prepared my Horace one little bit, either," said Beetle. "Come on!"
They were outside the form-room door now. It was within five minutes of the bell, and King might arrive at any moment.
Turkey elbowed into a cohort of scuffling fags, cut out Thornton tertius (he that had been Harland's bosom friend), and bade him tell his tale.
It was a simple one, interrupted by tears. Many of King's house trod already battered him for libel.
"Oh, it's nothing," McTurk cried. "He says that King's house stinks. That's all."
"Stale!" Stalky shouted. "We knew that years ago, only we didn't choose to run about shoutin' 'stinker.' We've got some manners, ir they haven't. Catch a fag, Turkey, and make sure of it."
Turkey's long arm closed on a hurried and anxious ornament of the Lower Second.
"Oh, McTurk, please let me go. I don't stink—I swear I don't!"
"Guilty conscience!" cried Beetle. "Who said you did?"
"What d'you make of it?" Stalky punted the small boy into Beetle's arms.
"Snf! Snf! He does, though. I think it's leprosy—or thrush. P'raps it's both. Take it away."
"Indeed, Master Beetle"—King generally came to the house-door for a minute or two as the bell rang—"we are vastly indebted to you for your diagnosis, which seems to reflect almost as much credit on the natural unwholesomeness of your mind as it does upon your pitiful ignorance of the diseases of which you discourse so glibly. We will, however, test your knowledge in other directions."
That was a merry lesson, but, in his haste to scarify Beetle, King clean neglected to give him an imposition, and since at the same time he supplied him with many priceless adjectives for later use, Beetle was well content, and applied himself most seriously throughout third lesson (algebra with little Hartopp) to composing a poem entitled "The Lazar-house."
After dinner King took his house to bathe in the sea off the Pebbleridge. It was an old promise; but he wished he could have evaded it, for all Prout's lined up by the Fives Court and cheered with intention. In his absence not less than half the school invaded the infected dormitory to draw their own conclusions. The cat had gained in the last twelve hours, but a battlefield of the fifth day could not have been so flamboyant as the spies reported.
"My word, she is doin' herself proud," said Stalky. "Did you ever smell anything like it? Ah, an' she isn't under White's dormitory at all yet."
"But she will be. Give her time," said Beetle. "She'll twine like a giddy honeysuckle. What howlin' Lazarites they are! No house is justified in makin' itself a stench in the nostrils of decent—"
"High-minded, pure-souled boys. Do you burn with remorse and regret?" said McTurk, as they hastened to meet the house coming up from the sea. King had deserted it, so speech was unfettered. Round its front played a crowd of skirmishers—all houses mixed—flying, reforming, shrieking insults. On its tortured flanks marched the Hoplites, seniors hurling jests one after another—simple and primitive jests of the Stone Age. To these the three added themselves, dispassionately, with an air of aloofness, almost sadly.
"And they look all right, too," said Stalky. "It can't be Rattray, can it? Rattray?"
"Rattray, dear? He seems stuffy about something or other. Look here, old man, we don't bear any malice about your sending that soap to us last week, do we? Be cheerful, Rat. You can live this down all right. I dare say it's only a few fags. Your house is so beastly slack, though."
"You aren't going back to the house, are you?" said McTurk. The victims desired nothing better. "You've simply no conception of the reek up there. Of course, frowzin' as you do, you wouldn't notice it; but, after this nice wash and the clean, fresh air, even you'd be upset. 'Much better camp on the Burrows. We'll get you some straw. Shall we'?" The house hurried in to the tune of "John Brown's body," sung by loving schoolmates, and barricaded themselves in their form-room. Straightway Stalky chalked a large cross, with "Lord, have mercy upon us," on the door, and left King to find it.
The wind shifted that night and wafted a carrion-reek into Macrea's dormitories; so that boys in nightgowns pounded on the locked door between the houses, entreating King's to wash. Number Five study went to second lesson with not more than half a pound of camphor apiece in their clothing; and King, too wary to ask for explanations, gibbered a while and hurled them forth. So Beetle finished yet another poem at peace in the study.
"They're usin' carbolic now. Malpas told me," said Stalky. "King thinks it's the drains."
"She'll need a lot o' carbolic," said McTurk. "No harm tryin', I suppose. It keeps King out of mischief."
"I swear I thought he was goin' to kill me when I sniffed just now. He didn't mind Burton major sniffin' at me the other day, though. He never stopped Alexander howlin' 'Stinker!' into our form-room before—before we doctored 'em. He just grinned," said Stalky. "What was he frothing over you for, Beetle?"
"Aha! That, was my subtle jape. I had him on toast. You know he always jaws about the learned Lipsius."
"'Who at the age of four'—that chap?" said McTurk.
"Yes. Whenever he hears I've written a poem. Well, just as I was sittin' down, I whispered, 'How is our learned Lepsius?' to Burton major. Old Butt grinned like an owl. He didn't know what I was drivin' at; but King jolly well did. That was really why he hove us out. Ain't you grateful? Now shut up. I'm goin' to write the 'Ballad of the Learned Lipsius.'"
"Keep clear of anything coarse, then," said Stalky. "I shouldn't like to be coarse on this happy occasion."
"Not for wo-orlds. What rhymes to 'stenches,' someone?"
In Common-room at lunch King discoursed acridly to Prout of boys with prurient minds, who perverted their few and baleful talents to sap discipline and corrupt their equals, to deal in foul imagery and destroy reverence.
"But you didn't seem to consider this when your house called us—ah—stinkers. If you hadn't assured me that you never interfere with another man's house, I should almost believe that it was a few casual remarks of yours that started all this nonsense."
Prout had endured much, for King always took his temper to meals.
"You spoke to Beetle yourself, didn't you? Something about not bathing, and being a water-funk?" the school chaplain put in. "I was scoring in the pavilion that day."
"I may have—jestingly. I really don't pretend to remember every remark I let fall among small boys; and full well I know the Beetle has no feelings to be hurt."
"May be; but he, or they—it comes to to same thing—have the fiend's own knack of discovering a man's weak place. I confess I rather go out of my way to conciliate Number Five study. It may be soft, but so far, I believe, I am the only man here whom they haven't maddened by their—well—attentions."
"That is all beside the point. I flatter myself I can deal with them alone as occasion arises. But if they feel themselves morally supported by those who should wield an absolute and open-handed justice, then I say that my lot is indeed a hard one. Of all things I detest, I admit that anything verging on disloyalty among ourselves is the first."
The Common-room looked at one another out of the corners of their eyes, and Prout blushed.
"I deny it absolutely," he said. "Er—in fact, I own that I personally object to all three of them. It is not fair, therefore, to—"
"How long do you propose to allow it?" said King.
"But surely," said Macrea, deserting his usual ally, "the blame, if there be any, rests with you, King. You can't hold them responsible for the—you prefer the good old Anglo-Saxon, I believe—stink in your house. My boys are complaining of it now."
"What can you expect? You know what boys are. Naturally they take advantage of what to them is a heaven-sent opportunity," said little Hartopp. "What is the trouble in your dormitories, King?"
Mr. King explained that as he had made it the one rule of his life never to interfere with another man's house, so he expected not to be too patently interfered with. They might be interested to learn—here the chaplain heaved a weary sigh—that he had taken all steps that, in his poor judgment, would meet the needs of the case. Nay, further, he had himself expended, with no thought of reimbursement, sums, the amount of which he would not specify, on disinfectants. This he had done because he knew by bitter—by most bitter—experience that the management of the college was slack, dilatory, and inefficient. He might even add, almost as slack as the administration of certain houses which now thought fit to sit in judgment on his actions. With a short summary of his scholastic career, and a precis of his qualifications, including his degrees, he withdrew, slamming the door.
"Heigho!" said the chaplain. "Ours is a dwarfing life—a belittling life, my brethren. God help all schoolmasters! They need it."
"I don't like the boys, I own"—Prout dug viciously with his fork into the table-cloth—"and I don't pretend to be a strong man, as you know. But I confess I can't see any reason why I should take steps against Stalky and the others because King happens to be annoyed by—by—"
"Falling into the pit he has digged," said little Hartopp. "Certainly not, Prout. No one accuses you of setting one house against another through sheer idleness."
"A belittling life—a belittling life." The chaplain rose. "I go to correct French exercises. By dinner King will have scored off some unlucky child of thirteen; he will repeat to us every word of his brilliant repartees, and all will be well."
"But about those three. Are they so prurient-minded?"
"Nonsense," said little Hartopp. "If you thought for a minute, Prout, you would see that the 'precocious flow of fetid imagery,' that King complains of, is borrowed wholesale from King. He 'nursed the pinion that impelled the steel.' Naturally he does not approve. Come into the smoking-room for a minute. It isn't fair to listen to boys; but they should be now rubbing it into King's house outside. Little things please little minds."
The dingy den off the Common-room was never used for anything except gowns. Its windows were ground glass; one could not see out of it, but one could hear almost every word on the gravel outside. A light and wary footstep came up from Number Five.
"Rattray!" in a subdued voice—Rattray's study fronted that way. "D'you know if Mr. King's anywhere about? I've got a—" McTurk discreetly left the end of the sentence open.
"No, he's gone out," said Rattray unguardedly.
"Ah! The learned Lipsius is airing himself, is he? His Royal Highness has gone to fumigate." McTurk climbed on the railings, where he held forth like the never-wearied rook.
"Now in all the Coll. there was no stink like the stink of King's house, for it stank vehemently and none knew what to make of it. Save King. And he washed the fags privatim et seriatim. In the fishpools of Hesbon washed he them, with an apron about his loins."
"Shut up, you mad Irishman!" There was the sound of a golf-ball spurting up gravel.
"It's no good getting wrathy, Rattray. We've come to jape with you. Come on, Beetle. They're all at home. You can wind 'em."
"Where's the Pomposo Stinkadore? 'Tisn't safe for a pure-souled, high-minded boy to be seen round his house these days. Gone out, has he? Never mind. I'll do the best I can, Rattray. I'm in loco parentis just now."
("One for you, Prout," whispered Macrea, for this was Mr. Prout's pet phrase.)
"I have a few words to impart to you, my young friend. We will discourse together a while."
Here the listening Prout sputtered: Beetle, in a strained voice, had chosen a favorite gambit of King's.
"I repeat, Master Rattray, we will confer, and the matter of our discourse shall not be stinks, for that is a loathsome and obscene word. We will, with your good leave—granted, I trust, Master Rattray, granted, I trust—study this—this scabrous upheaval of latent demoralization. What impresses me most is not so much the blatant indecency with which you swagger abroad under your load of putrescence" (you must imagine this discourse punctuated with golf-balls, but old Rattray was ever a bad shot) "as the cynical immorality with which you revel in your abhorrent aromas. Far be it from me to interfere with another's house—"
("Good Lord!" said Prout, "but this is King."
"Line for line, letter for letter; listen;" said little Hartopp.)
"But to say that you stink, as certain lewd fellows of the baser sort aver, is to say nothing—less than nothing. In the absence of your beloved house-master, for whom no one has a higher regard than myself, I will, if you will allow me, explain the grossness—the unparalleled enormity—the appalling fetor of the stenches (I believe in the good old Anglo-Saxon word), stenches, sir, with which you have seen fit to infect your house... Oh, bother! I've forgotten the rest, but it was very beautiful. Aren't you grateful to us for laborin' with you this way, Rattray? Lots of chaps 'ud never have taken the trouble, but we're grateful, Rattray."
"Yes, we're horrid grateful," grunted McTurk. "We don't forget that soap. We're polite. Why ain't you polite, Rat?"
"Hallo!" Stalky cantered up, his cap over one eye. "Exhortin' the Whiffers, eh? I'm afraid they're too far gone to repent. Rattray! White! Perowne! Malpas! No answer. This is distressin'. This is truly distressin'. Bring out your dead, you glandered lepers!"
"You think yourself funny, don't you?" said Rattray, stung from his dignity by this last. "It's only a rat or something under the floor. We're going to have it up to-morrow."
"Don't try to shuffle it off on a poor dumb animal, and dead, too. I loathe prevarication. 'Pon my soul, Rattray—"
"Hold on. The Hartoffles never said 'Pon my soul' in all his little life," said Beetle critically.
("Ah!" said Prout to little Hartopp.)
"Upon my word, sir, upon my word, sir, I expected better things of you, Rattray. Why can you not own up to your misdeeds like a man? Have I ever shown any lack of confidence in you?"
("It's not brutality," murmured little Hartopp, as though answering a question no one had asked. "It's boy; only boy.")
"And this was the house," Stalky changed from a pecking, fluttering voice to tragic earnestness. "This was the—the—open cesspit that dared to call us 'stinkers.' And now—and now, it tries to shelter itself behind a dead rat. You annoy me, Rattray. You disgust me! You irritate me unspeakably! Thank Heaven, I am a man of equable temper—"
("This is to your address, Macrea," said Prout.
"I fear so, I fear so.")
"Or I should scarcely be able to contain myself before your mocking visage."
"Cave!" in an undertone. Beetle had spied King sailing down the corridor.
"And what may you be doing here, my little friends?" the house-master began. "I had a fleeting notion—correct me if I am wrong" (the listeners with one accord choked)—"that if I found you outside my house I should visit you with dire pains and penalties."
"We were just goin' for a walk, sir," said Beetle.
"And you stopped to speak to Rattray en route?"
"Yes, sir. We've been throwing golf-balls," said Rattray, coming out of the study.
("Old Rat is more of a diplomat than I thought. So far he is strictly within the truth," said little Hartopp. "Observe the ethics of it, Prout.")
"Oh, you were sporting with them, were you? I must say I do not envy you your choice of associates. I fancied they might have been engaged in some of the prurient discourse with which they have been so disgustingly free of late. I should strongly advise you to direct your steps most carefully in the future. Pick up those golf-balls." He passed on.
Next day Richards, who had been a carpenter in the Navy, and to whom odd jobs were confided, was ordered to take up a dormitory floor; for Mr. King held that something must have died there.
"We need not neglect all our work for a trumpery incident of this nature; though I am quite aware that little things please little minds. Yes, I have decreed the boards to be taken up after lunch under Richards's auspices. I have no doubt it will be vastly interesting to a certain type of so-called intellect; but any boy of my house or another's found on the dormitory stairs will ipso facto render himself liable to three hundred lines."
The boys did not collect on the stairs, but most of them waited outside King's. Richards had been bound to cry the news from the attic window, and, if possible, to exhibit the corpse.
"'Tis a cat, a dead cat!" Richards's face showed purple at the window. He had been in the chamber of death and on his knees for some time.
"Cat be blowed!" cried McTurk. "It's a dead fag left over from last term. Three cheers for King's dead fag!"
They cheered lustily.
"Show it, show it! Let's have a squint at it!" yelled the juniors. "Give her to the Bug-hunters." (This was the Natural History Society). "The cat looked at the King—and died of it! Hoosh! Yai! Yaow! Maiow! Ftzz!" were some of the cries that followed.
Again Richards appeared.
"She've been"—he checked himself suddenly—"dead a long taime."
The school roared.
"Well, come on out for a walk," said Stalky in a well-chosen pause. "It's all very disgustin', and I do hope the Lazar-house won't do it again."
"Do what?" a King's boy cried furiously.
"Kill a poor innocent cat every time you want to get off washing. It's awfully hard to distinguish between you as it is. I prefer the cat, I must say. She isn't quite so whiff. What are you goin' to do, Beetle?"
"Je vais gloater. Je vais gloater tout le blessed afternoon. Jamais j'ai gloate' comme je gloaterai aujourd'hui. Nous bunkerons aux bunkers."
And it seemed good to them so to do.
Down in the basement, where the gas flickers and the boots stand in racks, Richards, amid his blacking-brushes, held forth to Oke of the Common-room, Gumbly of the dining-halls, and fair Lena of the laundry.
"Yiss. Her were in a shockin' staate an' condition. Her nigh made me sick, I tal 'ee. But I rowted un out, and I rowted un out, an' I made all shipshape, though her smelt like to bilges."
"Her died mousin', I reckon, poor thing," said Lena.
"Then her moused different to any made cat o' God's world, Lena. I up with the top-board, an' she were lying on her back, an' I turned un ovver with the brume-handle, an' 'twas her back was all covered with the plaster from 'twixt the lathin'. Yiss, I tal 'ee. An' under her head there lay, like, so's to say, a little pillow o' plaster druv up in front of her by raison of her slidin' along on her back. No cat niver went mousin' on her back, Lena. Some one had shoved her along right underneath, so far as they could shove un. Cats don't make theyselves pillows for to die on. Shoved along, she were, when she was settin' for to be cold, laike."
"Oh, yeou'm too clever to live, Fatty. Yeou go get wed an' taught some sense," said Lena, the affianced of Gumbly.
"Larned a little 'fore iver some maidens was born. Sarved in the Queen's Navy, I have, where yeou'm taught to use your eyes. Yeou go 'tend your own business, Lena."
"Do 'ee mean what you'm been tellin' us?" said Oke.
"Ask me no questions, I'll give 'ee no lies. Bullet-hole clane thru from side to side, an' tu heart-ribs broke like withies. I seed un when I turned un ovver. They're clever, oh, they'm clever, but they'm not too clever for old Richards! 'Twas on the born tip o' my tongue to tell, tu, but... he said us niver washed, he did. Let his dom boys call us 'stinkers,' he did. Sarve un dom well raight, I say!"
Richards spat on a fresh boot and fell to his work, chuckling.
They had dropped into the chaplain's study for a Saturday night smoke—-all four house-masters—and the three briars and the one cigar reeking in amity proved the Rev. John Gillett's good generalship. Since the discovery of the cat, King had been too ready to see affront where none was meant, and the Reverend John, buffer-state and general confidant, had worked for a week to bring about a good understanding. He was fat, clean-shaven, except for a big mustache, of an imperturbable good temper, and, those who loved him least said, a guileful Jesuit. He smiled benignantly upon his handiwork—four sorely tried men talking without very much malice.
"Now remember," he said, when the conversation turned that way, "I impute nothing. But every time that any one has taken direct steps against Number Five study, the issue has been more or less humiliating to the taker."
"I can't admit that. I pulverize the egregious Beetle daily for his soul's good; and the others with him," said King.
"Well, take your own case, King, and go back a couple of years. Do you remember when Prout and you were on their track for hutting and trespass, wasn't it? Have you forgotten Colonel Dabney?"
The others laughed. King did not care to be reminded of his career as a poacher.
"That was one instance. Again, when you had rooms below them—I always said that that was entering the lion's den—you turned them out."
"For making disgusting noises. Surely, Gillett, you don't excuse—"
"All I say is that you turned them out. That same evening your study was wrecked."
"By Rabbits-Eggs—most beastly drunk—from the road," said King. "What has that?"
The Reverend John went on.
"Lastly, they conceive that aspersions are cast upon their personal cleanliness—a most delicate matter with all boys. Ve-ry good. Observe how, in each case, the punishment fits the crime. A week after your house calls them 'stinkers,' King, your house is, not to put too fine a point on it, stunk out by a dead cat who chooses to die in the one spot where she can annoy you most. Again the long arm of coincidence! Summa. You accuse them of trespass. Through some absurd chain of circumstances—they may or may not be at the other end of it—you and Prout are made to appear as trespassers. You evict them. For a time your study is made untenable. I have drawn the parallel in the last case. Well?"
"She was under the centre of White's dormitory," said King. "There are double floor-boards there to deaden noise. No boy, even in my own house, could possibly have pried up the boards without leaving some trace—and Rabbits-Eggs was phenomenally drunk that other night."
"They are singularly favored by fortune. That is all I ever said. Personally, I like them immensely, and I believe I have a little of their confidence. I confess I like being called 'Padre.' They are at peace with me; consequently I am not treated to bogus confessions of theft."
"You mean Mason's case?" said Prout heavily. "That always struck me as peculiarly scandalous. I thought the Head should have taken up the matter more thoroughly. Mason may be misguided, but at least he is thoroughly sincere and means well."
"I confess I cannot agree with you, Prout," said the Reverend John. "He jumped at some silly tale of theft on their part; accepted another boy's evidence without, so far as I can see, any inquiry; and—frankly, I think he deserved all he got."
"They deliberately outraged Mason's best feelings," said Prout. "A word to me on their part would have saved the whole thing. But they preferred to lure him on; to play on his ignorance of their characters—"
"That may be," said King, "but I don't like Mason. I dislike him for the very reason that Prout advances to his credit. He means well."
"Our criminal tradition is not theft—among ourselves, at least," said little Hartopp.
"For the head of a house that raided seven head of cattle from the innocent pot-wallopers of Northam, isn't that rather a sweeping statement?" said Macrae.
"Precisely so," said Hartopp, unabashed. "That, with gate-lifting, and a little poaching and hawk-hunting on the cliffs, is our salvation."
"It does us far more harm as a school—" Prout began.
"Than any hushed-up scandal could? Quite so. Our reputation among the farmers is most unsavory. But I would much sooner deal with any amount of ingenious crime of that nature than—some other offenses."
"They may be all right, but they are unboylike, abnormal, and, in my opinion, unsound," Prout insisted. "The moral effect of their performances must pave the way for greater harm. It makes me doubtful how to deal with them. I might separate them."
"You might, of course; but they have gone up the school together for six years. I shouldn't care to do it," said Macrae.
"They use the editorial 'we,'" said King, irrelevantly. "It annoys me. 'Where's your prose, Corkran?' 'Well, sir, we haven't quite done it yet.' 'We'll bring it in a minute,' and so on. And the same with the others."
"There's great virtue in that 'we,'" said little Hartopp. "You know I take them for trig. McTurk may have some conception of the meaning of it; but Beetle is as the brutes that perish about sines and cosines. He copies serenely from Stalky, who positively rejoices in mathematics."
"Why don't you stop it?" said Prout.
"It rights itself at the exams. Then Beetle shows up blank sheets, and trusts to his 'English' to save him from a fall. I fancy he spends most of his time with me in writing verse."
"I wish to Heaven he would transfer a little of his energy in that direction to Elegiaes." King jerked himself upright. "He is, with the single exception of Stalky, the very vilest manufacturer of 'barbarous hexameters' that I have ever dealt with."
"The work is combined in that study," said the chaplain. "Stalky does the mathematics, McTurk the Latin, and Beetle attends to their English and French. At least, when he was in the sick-house last month—"
"Malingering," Prout interjected.
"Quite possibly. I found a very distinct falling off in their 'Roman d'un Jeune Homme Pauvre' translations."
"I think it is profoundly immoral," said Prout. "I've always been opposed to the study system."
"It would be hard to find any study where the boys don't help each other; but in Number Five the thing has probably been reduced to a system," said little Hartopp. "They have a system in most things."
"They confess as much," said the Reverend John. "I've seen McTurk being hounded up the stairs to elegise the 'Elegy in a Churchyard,' while Beetle and Stalky went to punt-about."
"It amounts to systematic cribbing," said Prout, his voice growing deeper and deeper.
"No such thing," little Hartopp returned. "You can't teach a cow the violin."
"In intention it is cribbing."
"But we spoke under the seal of the confessional, didn't we?" said the Reverend John.
"You say you've heard them arranging their work in this way, Gillett," Prout persisted.
"Good Heavens! Don't make me Queen's evidence, my dear fellow. Hartopp is equally incriminated. If they ever found out that I had sneaked, our relations would suffer—and I value them."
"I think your attitude in this matter is weak," said Prout, looking round for support. "It would be really better to break up the study—for a while—wouldn't it?"
"Oh, break it up by all means," said Macrae. "We shall see then if Gillett's theory holds water."
"Be wise, Prout. Leave them alone, or calamity will overtake you; and what is much more important, they will be annoyed with me. I am too fat, alas! to be worried by bad boys. Where are you going?"
"Nonsense! They would not dare—-but I am going to think this out," said Prout. "It needs thought. In intention they cribbed, and I must think out my duty."
"He's perfectly capable of putting the boys on their honor. It's I that am a fool." The Reverend John looked round remorsefully. "Never again will I forget that a master is not a man. Mark my words," said the Reverend John. "There will be trouble."
But by the yellow Tiber Was tumult and affright.
Out of the blue sky (they were still rejoicing over the cat war) Mr. Prout had dropped into Number Five, read them a lecture on the enormity of cribbing, and bidden them return to the form-rooms on Monday. They had raged, solo and chorus, all through the peaceful Sabbath, for their sin was more or less the daily practice of all the studies.
"What's the good of cursing?" said Stalky at last. "We're all in the same boat. We've got to go back and consort with the house. A locker in the form-room, and a seat at prep. in Number Twelve." (He looked regretfully round the cozy study which McTurk, their leader in matters of Art, had decorated with a dado, a stencil, and cretonne hangings.)
"Yes! Heffy lurchin' into the form-rooms like a frowzy old retriever, to see if we aren't up to something. You know he never leaves his house alone, these days," said McTurk. "Oh, it will be giddy!"
"Why aren't you down watchin' cricket? I like a robust, healthy boy. You mustn't frowst in a form-room. Why don't you take an interest in your house? Yah!" quoted Beetle.
"Yes, why don't we? Let's! We'll take an interest in the house. We'll take no end of interest in the house! He hasn't had us in the form-rooms for a year. We've learned a lot since then. Oh, we'll make it a be-autiful house before we've done! 'Member that chap in 'Eric' or 'St. Winifred's'—Belial somebody? I'm goin' to be Belial," said Stalky, with an ensnaring grin.
"Right O," said Beetle, "and I'll be Mammon. I'll lend money at usury—that's what they do at all schools accordin' to the B.O.P. Penny a week on a shillin'. That'll startle Heffy's weak intellect. You can be Lucifer, Turkey."
"What have I got to do?" McTurk also smiled.
"Head conspiracies—and cabals—and boycotts. Go in for that 'stealthy intrigue' that Heffy is always talkin' about. Come on!"
The house received them on their fall with the mixture of jest and sympathy always extended to boys turned out of their study. The known aloofness of the three made them more interesting.
"Quite like old times, ain't it?" Stalky selected a locker and flung in his books. "We've come to sport with you, my young friends, for a while, because our beloved house-master has hove us out of our diggin's."
"'Serve you jolly well right," said Orrin, "you cribbers!"
"This will never do," said Stalky. "We can't maintain our giddy prestige, Orrin, de-ah, if you make these remarks."
They wrapped themselves lovingly about the boy, thrust him to the opened window, and drew down the sash to the nape of his neck. With an equal swiftness they tied his thumbs together behind his back with a piece of twine, and then, because he kicked furiously, removed his shoes. There Mr. Prout happened to find him a few minutes later, guillotined and helpless, surrounded by a convulsed crowd who would not assist.
Stalky, in an upper form-room, had gathered himself allies against vengeance. Orrin presently tore up at the head of a boarding party, and the form-room grew one fog of dust through which boys wrestled, stamped, shouted, and yelled. A desk was carried away in the tumult, a knot of warriors reeled into and split a door-panel, a window was broken, and a gas-jet fell. Under cover of the confusion the three escaped to the corridor, whence they called in and sent up passers-by to the fray.
"Rescue, Kings! Kings! Kings! Number Twelve form-room! Rescue, Prouts—Prouts! Rescue, Macraes! Rescue, Hartopps!"
The juniors hurried out like bees aswarm, asking no questions, clattered up the staircase, and added themselves to the embroilment.
"Not bad for the first evening's work," said Stalky, rearranging his collar. "I fancy Prout'll be somewhat annoyed. We'd better establish an alibi." So they sat on Mr. King's railings till prep.
"You see," quoth Stalky, as they strolled up to prep. with the ignoble herd, "if you get the houses well mixed up an' scufflin', it's even bettin' that some ass will start a real row. Hullo, Orrin, you look rather metagrobolized."
"It was all your fault, you beast! You started it. We've got two hundred lines apiece, and Heffy's lookin' for you. Just see what that swine Malpas did to my eye!"
"I like your saying we started it. Who called us cribbers? Can't your infant mind connect cause and effect yet? Some day you'll find out that it don't pay to jest with Number Five."
"Where's that shillin' you owe me?" said Beetle suddenly.
Stalky could not see Prout behind him, but returned the lead without a quaver. "I only owed you ninepence, you old usurer."
"You've forgotten the interest," said McTurk. "A halfpenny a week per bob is Beetle's charge. You must be beastly rich, Beetle."
"Well, Beetle lent me sixpence." Stalky came to a full stop and made as to work it out on his fingers. "Sixpence on the nineteenth, didn't he?"
"Yes; but you've forgotten you paid no interest on the other bob—the one I lent you before."
"But you took my watch as security." The game was developing itself almost automatically.
"Never mind. Pay me my interest, or I'll charge you interest on interest. Remember, I've got your note-of-hand!" shouted Beetle.
"You are a cold-blooded Jew," Stalky groaned.
"Hush!" said McTurk very loudly indeed, and started as Prout came upon them.
"I didn't see you in that disgraceful affair in the form-room just now," said he.
"What, sir? We're just come up from Mr. King's," said Stalky. "Please, sir, what am I to do about prep.? They've broken the desk you told me to sit at, and the form's just swimming with ink."
"Find another seat—find another seat. D'you expect me to dry-nurse you? I wish to know whether you are in the habit of advancing money to your associates, Beetle?"
"No, sir; not as a general rule, sir."
"It is a most reprehensible habit. I thought that my house, at least, would be free from it. Even with my opinion of you, I hardly thought it was one of your vices."
"There's no harm in lending money, sir, is there?"
"I am not going to bandy words with you on your notions of morality. How much have you lent Corkran?"
"I—I don't quite know," said Beetle. It is difficult to improvise a going concern on the spur of the minute.
"You seemed certain enough just now."
"I think it's two and fourpence," said McTurk, with a glance of cold scorn at Beetle. In the hopelessly involved finances of the study there was just that sum to which both McTurk and Beetle laid claim, as their share in the pledging of Stalky's second-best Sunday trousers. But Stalky had maintained for two terms that the money was his "commission" for effecting the pawn; and had, of course, spent it on a study "brew."
"Understand this, then. You are not to continue your operations as a money-lender. Two and fourpence, you said, Corkran?"
Stalky had said nothing, and continued so to do.
"Your influence for evil is quite strong enough without buying a hold over your companions." He felt in his pockets, and (oh joy!) produced a florin and fourpence. "Bring me what you call Corkran's note-of-hand, and be thankful that I do not carry the matter any further. The money is stopped from your pocket-money, Corkran. The receipt to my study, at once!"
Little they cared! Two and fourpence in a lump is worth six weekly sixpences any hungry day of the week.
"But what the dooce is a note-of-hand?" said Beetle. "I only read about it in a book."
"Now you've jolly well got to make one," said Stalky.
"Yes—but our ink don't turn black till next day. S'pose he'll spot that?"
"Not him. He's too worried," said McTurk. "Sign your name on a bit of impot-paper, Stalky, and write, 'I O U two and fourpence.' Aren't you grateful to me for getting that out of Prout? Stalky'd never have paid... Why, you ass!"
Mechanically Beetle had handed over the money to Stalky as treasurer of the study. The custom of years is not lightly broken. In return for the document, Prout expounded to Beetle the enormity of money-lending, which, like everything except compulsory cricket, corrupted houses and destroyed good feeling among boys, made youth cold and calculating, and opened the door to all evil. Finally, did Beetle know of any other cases? If so, it was his duty as proof of repentance to let his house-master know. No names need be mentioned.
Beetle did not know—at least, he was not quite sure, sir. How could he give evidence against his friends? The house might, of course—here he feigned an anguished delicacy—be full of it. He was not in a position to say. He had not met with any open competition in his trade; but if Mr. Prout considered it was a matter that affected the honor of the house (Mr. Prout did consider it precisely that), perhaps the house-prefects would be better...
He spun it out till half-way through prep.
"And," said the amateur Shylock, returning to the form-room and dropping at Stalky's side, "if he don't think the house is putrid with it, I'm several Dutch-men—that's all... I've been to Mr. Prout's study, sir." This to the prep.-master. "He said I could sit where I liked, sir... Oh, he is just tricklin' with emotion... Yes, sir, I'm only askin' Corkran to let me have a dip in his ink."
After prayers, on the road to the dormitories, Harrison and Craye, senior house-prefects, zealous in their office, waylaid them with great anger. "What have you been doing to Heffy this time, Beetle? He's been jawing us all the evening."
"What has His Serene Transparency been vexin' you for?" said McTurk.
"About Beetle lendin' money to Stalky," began Harrison; "and then Beetle went and told him that there was any amount of money-lendin' in the house."
"No, you don't," said Beetle, sitting on a boot-basket. "That's just what I didn't tell him. I spoke the giddy truth. He asked me if there was much of it in the house; and I said I didn't know."
"He thinks you're a set of filthy Shylocks," said McTurk. "It's just as well for you he don't think you're burglars. You know he never gets a notion out of his conscientious old head."
"Well-meanin' man. Did it all for the best." Stalky curled gracefully round the stair-rail. "Head in a drain-pipe. Full confession in the left boot. Bad for the honor of the house—very."
"Shut up," said Harrison. "You chaps always behave as if you were jawin' us when we come to jaw you."
"You're a lot too cheeky," said Craye.
"I don't quite see where the cheek comes in, except on your part, in interferin' with a private matter between me an' Beetle after it has been settled by Prout." Stalky winked cheerfully at the others.
"That's the worst of clever little swots," said McTurk, addressing the gas. "They get made prefects before they have any tact, and then they annoy chaps who could really help 'em to look after the honor of the house."
"We won't trouble you to do that!" said Craye hotly.
"Then what are you badgerin' us for?" said Beetle. "On your own showing, you've been so beastly slack, looking after the house, that Prout believes it's a nest of money-lenders. I've told him that I've lent money to Stalky, and no one else. I don't know whether he believes me, but that finishes my case. The rest is your business."
"Now we find out," Stalky's voice rose, "that there is apparently an organized conspiracy throughout the house. For aught we know, the fags may be lendin' and borrowin' far beyond their means. We aren't responsible for it. We're only the rank and file."
"Are you surprised we don't wish to associate with the house?" said McTurk, with dignity. "We've kept ourselves to ourselves in our study till we were turned out, and now we find ourselves let in for for this sort of thing. It's simply disgraceful."
"Then you hector and bullyrag us on the stairs," said Stalky, "about matters that are your business entirely. You know we aren't prefects."
"You threatened us with a prefect's lickin' just now," said Beetle, boldly inventing as he saw the bewilderment in the faces of the enemy. "And if you expect you'll gain anything from us by your way of approachin' us, you're jolly well mistaken. That's all. Good-night."
They clattered upstairs, injured virtue on every inch of their backs.
"But—but what the dickens have we done?" said Harrison, amazedly, to Craye.
"I don't know. Only—it always happens that way when one has anything to do with them. They're so beastly plausible."
And Mr. Prout called the good boys into his study anew, and succeeded in sinking both his and their innocent minds ten fathoms deeper in blindfolded bedazement. He spoke of steps and measures, of tone and loyalty in the house and to the house, and urged them to take up the matter tactfully.
So they demanded of Beetle whether he had any connection with any other establishment. Beetle promptly went to his house-master, and wished to know by what right Harrison and Craye had reopened a matter already settled between him and his house-master. In injured innocence no boy excelled Beetle.
Then it occurred to Prout that he might have been unfair to the culprit, who had not striven to deny or palliate his offense. He sent for Harrison and Craye, reprehending them very gently for the tone they had adopted to a repentant sinner, and when they returned to their study, they used the language of despair. They then made headlong inquisition through the house, driving the fags to the edge of hysterics, and unearthing, with tremendous pomp and parade, the natural and inevitable system of small loans that prevails among small boys.
"You see, Harrison, Thornton minor lent me a penny last Saturday, because I was fined for breaking the window; and I spent it at Keyte's. I didn't know there was any harm in it. And Wray major borrowed twopence from me when my uncle sent me a post-office order—I cashed it at Keyte's—for five bob; but he'll pay me back before the holidays. We didn't know there was anything wrong in it."
They waded through hours of this kind of thing, but found no usury, or anything approaching to Beetle's gorgeous scale of interest. The seniors—for the school had no tradition of deference to prefects outside compulsory games—told them succinctly to go about their business. They would not give evidence on any terms. Harrison was one idiot, and Craye was another; but the greatest of all, they said, was their house-master.
When a house is thoroughly upset, however good its conscience, it breaks into knots and coteries—small gatherings in the twilight, box-room committees, and groups in the corridor. And when from group to group, with an immense affectation of secrecy, three wicked boys steal, crying "Cave'" when there is no need of caution, and whispering "Don't tell!" on the heels of trumpery confidences that instant invented, a very fine air of plot and intrigue can be woven round such a house.
At the end of a few days, it dawned on Prout that he moved in an atmosphere of perpetual ambush. Mysteries hedged him on all sides, warnings ran before his heavy feet, and countersigns were muttered behind his attentive back. McTurk and Stalky invented many absurd and idle phrases—catch-words that swept through the house as fire through stubble. It was a rare jest, and the only practical outcome of the Usury Commission, that one boy should say to a friend, with awful gravity, "Do you think there's much of it going on in the house?" The other would reply, "Well, one can't be too careful, you know." The effect on a house-master of humane conscience and good intent may be imagined. Again, a man who has sincerely devoted himself to gaining the esteem of his charges does not like to hear himself described, even at a distance, as "Popularity Prout" by a dark and scowling Celt with a fluent tongue. A rumor that stories—unusual stories—are told in the form-rooms, between the lights, by a boy who does not command his confidence, agitates such a man; and even elaborate and tender politeness—for the courtesy wise-grown men offer to a bewildered child was the courtesy that Stalky wrapped round Prout—restores not his peace of mind.
"The tone of the house seems changed—changed for the worse," said Prout to Harrison and Craye. "Have you noticed it? I don't for an instant impute—"
He never imputed anything; but, on the other hand, he never did anything else, and, with the best intentions in the world, he had reduced the house-prefects to a state as nearly bordering on nervous irritation as healthy boys can know. Worst of all, they began at times to wonder whether Stalky & Co. had not some truth in their often-repeated assertions that Prout was a gloomy ass.
"As you know, I am not the kind of man who puts himself out for every little thing he hears. I believe in letting the house work out their own salvation—with a light guiding hand on the reins, of course. But there is a perceptible lack of reverence—-a lower tone in matters that touch the honor of the house, a sort of hardness."
Oh, Prout he is a nobleman, a nobleman, a nobleman! Our Heffy is a nobleman— He does an awful lot, Because his popularity Oh, pop-u-pop-u-larity— His giddy popularity Would suffer did he not!
The study door stood ajar; and the song, borne by twenty clear voices, came faint from a form-room. The fags rather liked the tune; the words were Beetle's.
"That's a thing no sensible man objects to," said Prout with a lop-sided smile; "but you know straws show which way the wind blows. Can you trace it to any direct influence? I am speaking to you now as heads of the house."
"There isn't the least doubt of it," said Harrison angrily. "I know what you mean, sir. It all began when Number Five study came to the form-rooms. There's no use blinkin' it, Craye. You know that, too."
"They make things rather difficult for us, sometimes," said Craye. "It's more their manner than anything else, that Harrison means."
"Do they hamper you in the discharge of your duties, then?"
"Well, no, sir. They only look on and grin—and turn up their noses generally."
"Ah," said Prout sympathetically.
"I think, sir," said Craye, plunging into the business boldly, "it would be a great deal better if they wore sent back to their study—better for the house. They are rather old to be knocking about the form-rooms."
"They are younger than Orrin, or Flint, and a dozen others that I can think of."
"Yes, sir; but that's different, somehow. They're rather influential. They have a knack of upsettin' things in a quiet way that one can't take hold of. At least, if one does—"
"And you think they would be better in their own study again?"
Emphatically Harrison and Craye were of that opinion. As Harrison said to Craye, afterwards, "They've weakened our authority. They're too big to lick; they've made an exhibition of us over this usury business, and we're a laughing-stock to the rest of the school. I'm going up (for Sandhurst, understood) next term. They've managed to knock me out of half my work already with their—their lunacy. If they go back to their study we may have a little peace."
"Hullo, Harrison." McTurk ambled round the corner, with a roving eye on all possible horizons. "Bearin' up, old man? That's right. Live it down! Live it down!"
"What d'you mean?"
"You look a little pensive," said McTurk. "Exhaustin' job superintendin' the honor of the house, ain't it? By the way, how are you off for mares'-nests?"
"Look here," said Harrison, hoping for instant reward. "We've recommended Prout to let you go back to your study."
"The dooce you have! And who under the sun are you to interfere between us and our house-master? Upon my Sam, you two try us very hard—you do, indeed. Of course we don't know how far you abuse your position to prejudice us with Mr. Prout; but when you deliberately stop me to tell me you've been makin' arrangements behind our back—in secret—with Prout—I—I don't know really what we ought to do."
"That's beastly unfair!" cried Craye.
"It is." McTurk had adopted a ghastly solemnity that sat well on his long, lean face. "Hang it all! A prefect's one thing and an usher's another; but you seem to combine 'em. You recommend this—you recommend that! You say how and when we go back to our study!"
"But—but—we thought you'd like it, Turkey. We did, indeed. You know you'll be ever so much more comfortable there." Harrison's voice was almost tearful.
McTurk turned away as though to hide his emotions.
"They're broke!" He hunted up Stalky and Beetle in a box-room. "They're sick! They've been beggin' Heffy to let us go back to Number Five. Poor devils! Poor little devils!"
"It's the olive branch," was Stalky's comment. "It's the giddy white flag, by gum! Come to think of it, we have metagrobolized 'em."
Just after tea that day, Mr. Prout sent for them to say that if they chose to ruin their future by neglecting their work, it was entirely their own affair. He wished them, however, to understand that their presence in the form-rooms could not be tolerated one hour longer. He personally did not care to think of the time he must spend in eliminating the traces of their evil influences. How far Beetle had pandered to the baser side of youthful imagination he would ascertain later; and Beetle might be sure that if Mr. Prout came across any soul-corrupting consequences—