"What's this? What's this?" cried the visitor authoritatively.
"A—a little drill, sir," stammered Foxy, saying nothing of first causes.
"Excellent—excellent. I only wish there were more of it," he chirruped. "Don't let me interrupt. You were just going to hand over to someone, weren't you?"
He sat down, breathing frostily in the chill air. "I shall muck it. I know I shall," whispered Stalky uneasily; and his discomfort was not lightened by a murmur from the rear rank that the old gentleman was General Collinson, a member of the College Board of Council.
"Eh—what?" said Foxy.
"Collinson, K.C.B.—He commanded the Pompadours-my father's old regiment," hissed Swayne major.
"Take your time," said the visitor. "I know how it feels. Your first drill—eh?"
"Yes, sir." He drew an unhappy breath. "'Tention. Dress!" The echo of his own voice restored his confidence.
The wheel was faced about, flung back, broken into fours, and restored to line without a falter. The official hour of punishment was long passed, but no one thought of that. They were backing up Stalky—Stalky in deadly fear lest his voice should crack.
"He does you credit, Sergeant," was the visitor's comment. "A good drill—and good material to drill. Now, it's an extraordinary thing: I've been lunching with your head-master and he never told me you had a cadet-corps in the College."
"We 'aven't, sir. This is only a little drill," said the Sergeant.
"But aren't they keen on it?" said McTurk, speaking for the first time, with a twinkle in his deep-set eyes.
"Why aren't you in it, though, Willy?"
"Oh, I'm not punctual enough," said McTurk. "The Sergeant only takes the pick of us."
"Dismiss! Break off!" cried Foxy, fearing an explosion in the ranks. "I—I ought to have told you, sir, that—"
"But you should have a cadet-corps." The General pursued his own line of thought. "You shall have a cadet-corps, too, if my recommendation in Council is any use. I don't know when I've been so pleased. Boys animated by a spirit like yours should set an example to the whole school."
"They do," said McTurk.
"Bless my soul! Can it be so late? I've kept my fly waiting half an hoar. Well, I must run away. Nothing like seeing things for one's self. Which end of the buildings does one get out at? Will you show me, Willy? Who was that boy who took the drill?"
"Corkran, I think his name is."
"You ought to know him. That's the kind of boy you should cultivate. Evidently an unusual sort. A wonderful sight. Five and twenty boys, who, I dare say, would much sooner be playing cricket"—(it was the depth of winter; but grown people, especially those who have lived long in foreign parts, make these little errors, and McTurk did not correct him)—"drilling for the sheer love of it. A shame to waste so much good stuff; but I think I can carry my point."
"An' who's your friend with the white whiskers?" demanded Stalky, on McTurk's return to the study.
"General Collinson. He comes over to shoot with my father sometimes. Rather a decent old bargee, too. He said I ought to cultivate your acquaintance, Stalky."
"Did he tip you?" McTurk exhibited a blessed whole sovereign.
"Ah," said Stalky, annexing it, for he was treasurer. "We'll have a hefty brew. You'd pretty average cool cheek, Turkey, to jaw about our keenness an' punctuality."
"Didn't the old boy know we were defaulters?" said Beetle.
"Not him. He came down to lunch with the Head. I found him pokin' about the place on his own hook afterwards, an' I thought I'd show him the giddy drill. When I found he was so pleased, I wasn't goin' to damp his giddy ardor. He mightn't ha' given me the quid if I had."
"Wasn't old Foxy pleased? Did you see him get pink behind the ears?" said Beetle. "It was an awful score for him. Didn't we back him up beautifully? Let's go down to Keyte's and get some cocoa and sassingers."
They overtook Foxy, speeding down to retail the adventure to Keyte, who in his time had been Troop Sergeant-Major in a cavalry regiment, and now, war-worn veteran, was local postmaster and confectioner.
"You owe us something," said Stalky, with meaning.
"I'm 'ighly grateful, Muster Corkran. I've 'ad to run against you pretty hard in the way o' business, now and then, but I will say that outside o' business—bounds an' smokin', an' such like—I don't wish to have a more trustworthy young gentleman to 'elp me out of a hole. The way you 'andled the drill was beautiful, though I say it. Now, if you come regular henceforward—"
"But he'll have to be late three times a week," said Beetle. "You can't expect a chap to do that—just to please you, Foxy."
"Ah, that's true. Still, if you could manage it—and you, Muster Beetle—it would give you a big start when the cadet-corps is formed. I expect the General will recommend it."
They raided Keyte's very much at their own sweet will, for the old man, who knew them well, was deep in talk with Foxy. "I make what we've taken seven and six," Stalky called at last over the counter; "but you'd better count for yourself."
"No—no. I'd take your word any day, Muster Corkran.—In the Pompadours, was he, Sergeant? We lay with them once at Umballa, I think it was."
"I don't know whether this ham-and-tongue tin is eighteen pence or one an' four."
"Say one an' fourpence, Muster Corkran... Of course, Sergeant, if it was any use to give my time, I'd be pleased to do it, but I'm too old. I'd like to see a drill again."
"Oh, come on, Stalky," cried McTurk. "He isn't listenin' to you. Chuck over the money."
"I want the quid changed, you ass. Keyte! Private Keyte! Corporal Keyte! Terroop-Sergeant-Major Keyte, will you give me change for a quid?"
"Yes—yes, of course. Seven an' six." He stared abstractedly, pushed the silver over, and melted away into the darkness of the back room.
"Now those two'll jaw about the Mutiny till tea-time," said Beetle.
"Old Keyte was at Sobraon," said Stalky. "Hear him talk about that sometimes! Beats Foxy hollow."
The Head's face, inscrutable as ever, was bent over a pile of letters.
"What do you think?" he said at last to the Reverend John Gillett.
"It's a good idea. There's no denying that—an estimable idea."
"We concede that much. Well?"
"I have my doubts about it—that's all. The more I know of boys the less do I profess myself capable of following their moods; but I own I shall be very much surprised if the scheme takes. It—it isn't the temper of the school. We prepare for the Army."
"My business—in this matter—is to carry out the wishes of the Council. They demand a volunteer cadet-corps. A volunteer cadet-corps will be furnished. I have suggested, however, that we need not embark upon the expense of uniforms till we are drilled. General Collinson is sending us fifty lethal weapons—cut-down Sniders, he calls them—all carefully plugged."
"Yes, that is necessary in a school that uses loaded saloon-pistols to the extent we do." The Reverend John smiled.
"Therefore there will be no outlay except the Sergeant's time."
"But if he fails you will be blamed."
"Oh, assuredly. I shall post a notice in the corridor this afternoon, and—"
"I shall watch the result."
"Kindly keep your 'ands off the new arm-rack." Foxy wrestled with a turbulent crowd in the gymnasium. "Nor it won't do even a condemned Snider any good to be continual snappin' the lock, Mr. Swayne.—Yiss, the uniforms will come later, when we're more proficient; at present we will confine ourselves to drill. I am 'ere for the purpose o' takin' the names o' those willin' to join.—Put down that Snider, Muster Hogan!"
"What are you goin' to do, Beetle?" said a voice.
"I've had all the drill I want, thank you."
"What! After all you've learned? Come on! Don't be a scab! They'll make you corporal in a week," cried Stalky.
"I'm not goin' up for the Army." Beetle touched his spectacles.
"Hold on a shake, Foxy," said Hogan. "Where are you goin' to drill us?"
"Here—in the gym—till you are fit an' capable to be taken out on the road." The Sergeant threw a chest.
"For all the Northam cads to look at? Not good enough, Foxibus."
"Well, we won't make a point of it. You learn your drill first, an' later we'll see."
"Hullo," said Ansell of Macrea's, shouldering through the mob. "What's all this about a giddy cadet-corps?"
"It will save you a lot o' time at Sandburst," the Sergeant replied promptly. "You'll be dismissed your drills early if you go up with a good groundin' before'and."
"Hm! 'Don't mind learnin' my drill, but I'm not goin' to ass about the country with a toy Snider. Perowne, what are you goin' to do? Hogan's joinin'."
"Don't know whether I've the time," said Perowne. "I've got no end of extra-tu as it is."
"Well, call this extra-tu," said Ansell. "'Twon't take us long to mug up the drill."
"Oh, that's right enough, but what about marchin' in public?" said Hogan, not foreseeing that three years later he should die in the Burmese sun-light outside Minhla Fort.
"Afraid the uniform won't suit your creamy complexion?" McTurk asked with a villainous sneer.
"Shut up, Turkey. You aren't goin' up for the Army."
"No, but I'm goin' to send a substitute. Hi! Morrell an' Wake! You two fags by the arm-rack, you've got to volunteer."
Blushing deeply—they had been too shy to apply before—the youngsters sidled towards the Sergeant.
"But I don't want the little chaps—not at first," said the Sergeant disgustedly. "I want—I'd like some of the Old Brigade the defaulters—to stiffen 'em a bit."
"Don't be ungrateful, Sergeant. They're nearly as big as you get 'em in the Army now." McTurk read the papers of those years and could be trusted for general information, which he used as he used his "tweaker." Yet he did not know that Wake minor would be a bimbashi of the Egyptian Army ere his thirtieth year.
Hogan, Swayne, Stalky, Perowne, and Ansell were deep in consultation by the vaulting-horse, Stalky as usual laying down the law. The Sergeant watched them uneasily, knowing that many waited on their lead.
"Foxy don't like my recruits," said McTurk, in a pained tone, to Beetle. "You get him some."
Nothing loath, Beetle pinioned two more fags—each no taller than a carbine. "Here you are, Foxy. Here's food for powder. Strike for your hearths an' homes, you young brutes—an' be jolly quick about it."
"Still he isn't happy," said McTurk.
"For the way we have with our Army Is the way we have with our Navy."
Here Beetle joined in. They had found the poem in an old volume of "Punch," and it seemed to cover the situation:
"An' both of 'em led to adversity, Which nobody can deny!"
"You be quiet, young gentlemen. If you can't 'elp—don't 'inder." Foxy's eye was still on the council by the horse. Carter, White, and Tyrrell, all boys of influence, had joined it. The rest fingered the rifles irresolutely. "Wait a shake," cried Stalky. "Can't we turn out those rotters before we get to work?"
"Certainly," said Foxy. "Any one wishful to join will stay 'ere. Those who do not so intend will go out, quietly closin' the door be'ind 'em."
Half a dozen of the earnest-minded rushed at them, and they had just time to escape into the corridor.
"Well, why don't you join?" Beetle asked, resettling his collar.
"Why didn't you?"
"What's the good? We aren't goin' up for the Army. Besides, I know the drill—all except the manual, of course. 'Wonder what they're doin' inside?"
"Makin' a treaty with Foxy. Didn't you hear Stalky say: 'That's what we'll do—an' if he don't like it he can lump it'? They'll use Foxy for a cram. Can't you see, you idiot? They're goin' up for Sandhurst or the Shop in less than a year. They'll learn their drill an' then they'll drop it like a shot. D'you suppose chaps with their amount of extra-tu are takin' up volunteerin' for fun?"
"Well, I don't know. I thought of doin' a poem about it—rottin' 'em, you know—'The Ballad of the Dogshooters'—eh?"
"I don't think you can, because King'll be down on the corps like a cartload o' bricks. He hasn't been consulted, he's sniffin' round the notice-board now. Let's lure him." They strolled up carelessly towards the honse-master—a most meek couple.
"How's this?" said King with a start of feigned surprise. "Methought you would be learning to fight for your country."
"I think the company's full, sir," said McTurk.
"It's a great pity," sighed Beetle.
"Forty valiant defenders, have we, then? How noble! What devotion! I presume that it is possible that a desire to evade their normal responsibilities may be at the bottom of this zeal. Doubtless they will be accorded special privileges, like the Choir and the Natural History Society—one must not say Bug-hunters."
"Oh, I suppose so, sir," said McTurk, cheerily. "The Head hasn't said anything about it yet, but he will, of course."
"Oh, sure to."
"It is just possible, my Beetle," King wheeled on the last speaker, "that the house-masters—a necessary but somewhat neglected factor in our humble scheme of existence—may have a word to say on the matter. Life, for the young at least, is not all weapons and munitions of war. Education is incidentally one of our aims."
"What a consistent pig he is," cooed McTurk, when they were out of earshot. "One always knows where to have him. Did you see how he rose to that draw about the Head and special privileges?"
"Confound him, he might have had the decency to have backed the scheme. I could do such a lovely ballad, rottin' it; and now I'll have to be a giddy enthusiast. It don't bar our pulling Stalky's leg in the study, does it?"
"Oh, no; but in the Coll. we must be pro-cadet-corps like anything. Can't you make up a giddy epigram, a' la Catullus, about King objectin' to it?" Beetle was at this noble task when Stalky returned all hot from his first drill.
"Hullo, my ramrod-bunger!" began McTurk. "Where's your dead dog? Is it Defence or Defiance?"
"Defiance," said Stalky, and leaped on him at that word. "Look here, Turkey, you mustn't rot the corps. We've arranged it beautifully. Foxy swears he won't take us out into the open till we say we want to go."
"Dis-gustin' exhibition of immature infants apin' the idiosyncrasies of their elders. Snff!"
"Have you drawn King, Beetle?" Stalky asked in a pause of the scuffle.
"Not exactly; but that's his genial style."
"Well, listen to your Uncle Stalky—who is a great man. Moreover and subsequently, Foxy's goin' to let us drill the corps in turn—privatim et seriatim—so that we'll all know how to handle a half company anyhow. Ergo, an' propter hoc, when we go to the Shop we shall be dismissed drill early; thus, my beloved 'earers, combinin' education with wholesome amusement."
"I knew you'd make a sort of extra-tu of it, you cold-blooded brute," said McTurk. "Don't you want to die for your giddy country?"
"Not if I can jolly well avoid it. So you mustn't rot the corps."
"We'd decided on that, years ago," said Beetle, scornfully. "King'll do the rottin'."
"Then you've got to rot King, my giddy poet. Make up a good catchy Limerick, and let the fags sing it."
"Look here, you stick to volunteerin', and don't jog the table."
"He won't have anything to take hold of," said Stalky, with dark significance.
They did not know what that meant till, a few days later, they proposed to watch the corps at drill. They found the gymnasium door locked and a fag on guard. "This is sweet cheek," said McTurk, stooping.
"Mustn't look through the key-hole," said the sentry.
"I like that. Why, Wake, you little beast, I made you a volunteer."
"Can't help it. My orders are not to allow any one to look."
"S'pose we do?" said McTurk. "S'pose we jolly well slay you?"
"My orders are, I am to give the name of anybody who interfered with me on my post, to the corps, an' they'd deal with him after drill, accordin' to martial law."
"What a brute Stalky is!" said Beetle. They never doubted for a moment who had devised that scheme.
"You esteem yourself a giddy centurion, don't you?" said Beetle, listening to the crash and rattle of grounded arms within.
"My ordcrs are, not to talk except to explain my orders—they'll lick me if I do."
McTurk looked at Beetle. The two shook their heads and turned away.
"I swear Stalky is a great man," said Beetle after a long pause. "One consolation is that this sort of secret-society biznai will drive King wild."
It troubled many more than King, but the members of the corps were muter than oysters. Foxy, being bound by no vow, carried his woes to Keyte.
"I never come across such nonsense in my life. They've tiled the lodge, inner and outer guard, all complete, and then they get to work, keen as mustard."
"But what's it all for?" asked the ex-Troop Sergeant-Major.
"To learn their drill. You never saw anything like it. They begin after I've dismissed 'em—practisin' tricks; but out into the open they will not come—not for ever so. The 'ole thing is pre-posterous. If you're a cadet-corps, I say, be a cadet-corps, instead o' hidin' be'ind locked doors."
"And what do the authorities say about it?"
"That beats me again." The Sergeant spoke fretfully. "I go to the 'Ead an' 'e gives me no help. There's times when I think he's makin' fun o' me. I've never been a Volunteer-sergeant, thank God—but I've always had the consideration to pity 'em. I'm glad o' that."
"I'd like to see 'em," said Keyte. "From your statements, Sergeant, I can't get at what they're after."
"Don't ask me, Major! Ask that freckle-faced young Corkran. He's their generalissimo."
One does not refuse a warrior of Sobraon, or deny the only pastry-cook within bounds. So Keyte came, by invitation, leaning upon a stick, tremulous with old age, to sit in a corner and watch.
"They shape well. They shape uncommon well," he whispered between evolutions.
"Oh, this isn't what they're after. Wait till I dismiss 'em."
At the "break-off" the ranks stood fast. Perowne fell out, faced them, and, refreshing his memory by glimpses at a red-bound, metal-clasped book, drilled them for ten minutes. (This is that Perowne who was shot in Equatorial Africa by his own men.) Ansell followed him, and Hogan followed Ansell. All three were implicitly obeyed. Then Stalky laid aside his Snider, and, drawing a long breath, favored the company with a blast of withering invective.
"'Old 'ard, Muster Corkran. That ain't in any drill," cried Foxy.
"All right, Sergeant. You never know what you may have to say to your men.—For pity's sake, try to stand up without leanin' against each other, you blear-eyed, herrin'-gutted gutter-snipes. It's no pleasure to me to comb you out. That ought to have been done before you came here, you—you militia broom-stealers."
"The old touch—the old touch. We know it," said Keyte, wiping his rheumy eyes. "But where did he pick it up?"
"From his father—or his uncle. Don't ask me! Half of 'em must have been born within earshot o' the barracks." (Foxy was not far wrong in his guess.) "I've heard more back-talk since this volunteerin' nonsense began than I've heard in a year in the service."
"There's a rear-rank man lookin' as though his belly were in the pawn-shop. Yes, you, Private Ansell," and Stalky tongue-lashed the victim for three minutes, in gross and in detail.
"Hullo!" He returned to his normal tone. "First blood to me. You flushed, Ansell. You wriggled."
"Couldn't help flushing," was the answer. "Don't think I wriggled, though."
"Well, it's your turn now." Stalky resumed his place in the ranks.
"Lord, Lord! It's as good as a play," chuckled the attentive Keyte. Ansell, too, had been blessed with relatives in the service, and slowly, in a lazy drawl—his style was more reflective than Stalky's—descended the abysmal depths of personality.
"Blood to me!" he shouted triumphantly. "You couldn't stand it, either." Stalky was a rich red, and his Snider shook visibly.
"I didn't think I would," he said, struggling for composure, "but after a bit I got in no end of a bait. Curious, ain't it?"
"Good for the temper," said the slow-moving Hogan, as they returned arms to the rack.
"Did you ever?" said Foxy, hopelessly, to Keyte.
"I don't know much about volunteers, but it's the rummiest show I ever saw. I can see what they're gettin' at, though. Lord! how often I've been told off an' dressed down in my day! They shape well—extremely well they shape."
"If I could get 'em out into the open, there's nothing I couldn't do with 'em, Major. Perhaps when the uniforms come down, they'll change their mind."
Indeed it was time that the corps made some concession to the curiosity of the school. Thrice had the guard been maltreated and thrice had the corps dealt out martial law to the offender. The school raged. What was the use, they asked, of a cadet-corps which none might see? Mr. King congratulated them on their invisible defenders, and they could not parry his thrusts. Foxy was growing sullen and restive. A few of the corps expressed openly doubts as to the wisdom of their course; and the question of uniforms loomed on the near horizon. If these were issued, they would be forced to wear them.
But, as so often happens in this life, the matter was suddenly settled from without.
The Head had duly informed the Council that their recommendation had been acted upon, and that, so far as he could learn, the buys were drilling. He said nothing of the terms on which they drilled. Naturally, General Collinson was delighted and told his friends. One of his friends rejoiced in a friend, a Member of Parliament—a zealous, an intelligent, and, above all, a patriotic person, anxious to do the most good in the shortest possible time. But we cannot answer, alas! for the friends of our friends. If Collinson's friend had introduced him to the General, the latter would have taken his measure and saved much. But the friend merely spoke of his friend; and since no two people in the world see eye to eye, the picture conveyed to Collinson was inaccurate. Moreover, the man was an M.P., an impeccable Conservative, and the General had the English soldier's lurking respect for any member of the Court of Last Appeal. He was going down into the West country, to spread light in somebody's benighted constituency. Wouldn't it be a good idea if, armed with the General's recommendation, he, taking the admirable and newly established cadet-corps for his text, spoke a few words—"Just talked to the boys a little—eh? You know the kind of thing that would be acceptable; and he'd be the very man to do it. The sort of talk that boys understand, you know."
"They didn't talk to 'em much in my time," said the General, suspiciously.
"Ah! but times change—with the spread of education and so on. The boys of to-day are the men of to-morrow. An impression in youth is likely to be permanent. And in these times, you know, with the country going to the dogs?"
"You're quite right." The island was then entering on five years of Mr. Gladstone's rule; and the General did not like what he had seen of it. He would certainly write to the Head, for it was beyond question that the boys of to-day made the men of to-morrow. That, if he might say so, was uncommonly well put.
In reply, the Head stated that he should be delighted to welcome Mr. Raymond Martin, M.P., of whom he had heard so much; to put him up for the night, and to allow him to address the school on any subject that he conceived would interest them. If Mr. Martin had not yet faced an audience of this particular class of British youth, the Head had no doubt that he would find it an interesting experience.
"And I don't think I am very far wrong in that last," he confided to the Reverend John. "Do you happen to know anything of one Raymond Martin?"
"I was at College with a man of that name," the chaplain replied. "He was without form and void, so far as I remember, but desperately earnest."
"He will address the Coll. on 'Patriotism' next Saturday."
"If there is one thing our boys detest more than another it is having their Saturday evenings broken into. Patriotism has no chance beside 'brewing.'"
"Nor art either. D'you remember our 'Evening with Shakespeare'?" The Head's eyes twinkled. "Or the humorous gentleman with the magic lantern?"
"An' who the dooce is this Raymond Martin, M.P.?" demanded Beetle, when he read the notice of the lecture in the corridor. "Why do the brutes always turn up on a Saturday?"
"Ouh! Reomeo, Reomeo. Wherefore art thou Reomeo?" said McTurk over his shoulder, quoting the Shakespeare artiste of last term. "Well, he won't be as bad as her, I hope. Stalky, are you properly patriotic? Because if you ain't, this chap's goin' to make you."
"Hope he won't take up the whole of the evening. I suppose we've got to listen to him."
"Wouldn't miss him for the world," said McTurk. "A lot of chaps thought that Romeo-Romeo woman was a bore. I didn't. I liked her! 'Member when she began to hiccough in the middle of it? P'raps he'll hiccough. Whoever gets into the Gym first, bags seats for the other two."
There was no nervousness, but a brisk and cheery affability about Mr. Raymond Martin, M.P., as he drove up, watched by many eyes, to the Head's house.
"Looks a bit of a bargee," was McTurk's comment. "Shouldn't be surprised if he was a Radical. He rowed the driver about the fare. I heard him."
"That was his giddy patriotism," Beetle explained. After tea they joined the rush for seats, secured a private and invisible corner, and began to criticise. Every gas-jet was lit. On the little dais at the far end stood the Head's official desk, whence Mr. Martin would discourse, and a ring of chairs for the masters.
Entered then Foxy, with official port, and leaned something like a cloth rolled round a stick against the desk. No one in authority was yet present, so the school applauded, crying: "What's that, Foxy? What are you stealin' the gentleman's brolly for?—We don't birch here. We cane! Take away that bauble!—Number off from the right"—and so forth, till the entry of the Head and the masters ended all demonstrations.
"One good job—the Common-room hate this as much as we do. Watch King wrigglin' to get out of the draft."
"Where's the Raymondiferous Martin? Punctuality, my beloved 'earers, is the image o' war—"
"Shut up. Here's the giddy Dook. Golly, what a dewlap!" Mr. Martin, in evening dress, was undeniably throaty—a tall, generously designed, pink-and-white man. Still, Beetle need not have been coarse.
"Look at his back while he's talkin' to the Head. Vile bad form to turn your back on the audience! He's a Philistine—a Bopper—a Jebusite—an' a Hivite." McTurk leaned back and sniffed contemptuously.
In a few colorless words, the Head introduced the speaker and sat down amid applause. When Mr. Martin took the applause to himself, they naturally applauded more than ever. It was some time before he could begin. He had no knowledge of the school—its tradition or heritage. He did not know that the last census showed that eighty per cent. of the boys had been born abroad—in camp, cantonment, or upon the high seas; or that seventy-five per cent. were sons of officers in one or other of the services—Willoughbys, Paulets, De Castros, Maynes, Randalls, after their kind—looking to follow their fathers' profession. The Head might have told him this, and much more; but, after an hour-long dinner in his company, the Head decided to say nothing whatever. Mr. Raymond Martin seemed to know so much already.
He plunged into his speech with a long-drawn, rasping "Well, boys," that, though they were not conscious of it, set every young nerve ajar. He supposed they knew—hey?—what he had come down for? It was not often that he had an opportunity to talk to boys. He supposed that boys were very much the same kind of persons—some people thought them rather funny persons—as they had been in his youth.
"This man," said McTurk, with conviction, "is the Gadarene Swine."
But they must remember that they would not always be boys. They would grow up into men, because the boys of to-day made the men of to-morrow, and upon the men of to-morrow the fair fame of their glorious native land depended.
"If this goes on, my beloved 'earers, it will be my painful duty to rot this bargee." Stalky drew a long breath through his nose.
"Can't do that," said McTurk. "He ain't chargin' anything for his Romeo."
And so they ought to think of the duties and responsibilities of the life that was opening before them. Life was not all—he enumerated a few games, and, that nothing might be lacking to the sweep and impact of his fall, added "marbles." "Yes, life was not," he said, "all marbles."
There was one tense gasp—among the juniors almost a shriek—of quivering horror, he was a heathen—an outcast—-beyond the extremest pale of toleration—self-damned before all men. Stalky bowed his head in his hands. McTurk, with a bright and cheerful eye, drank in every word, and Beetle nodded solemn approval.
Some of them, doubtless, expected in a few years to have the honor of a commission from the Queen, and to wear a sword. Now, he himself had had some experience of these duties, as a Major in a volunteer regiment, and he was glad to learn that they had established a volunteer corps in their midst. The establishment of such an establishment conduced to a proper and healthy spirit, which, if fostered, would be of great benefit to the land they loved and were so proud to belong to. Some of those now present expected, he had no doubt—some of them anxiously looked forward to leading their men against the bullets of England's foes; to confronting the stricken field in all the pride of their youthful manhood.
Now the reserve of a boy is tenfold deeper than the reserve of a maid, she being made for one end only by blind Nature, but man for several. With a large and healthy hand, he tore down these veils, and trampled them under the well-intentioned feet of eloquence. In a raucous voice, he cried aloud little matters, like the hope of Honor and the dream of Glory, that boys do not discuss even with their most intimate equals, cheerfully assuming that, till he spoke, they had never considered these possibilities. He pointed them to shining goals, with fingers which smudged out all radiance on all horizons. He profaned the most secret places of their souls with outcries and gesticulations, he bade them consider the deeds of their ancestors in such a fashion that they were flushed to their tingling ears. Some of them—the rending voice cut a frozen stillness—might have had relatives who perished in defence of their country. They thought, not a few of them, of an old sword in a passage, or above a breakfast-room table, seen and fingered by stealth since they could walk. He adjured them to emulate those illustrious examples; and they looked all ways in their extreme discomfort.
Their years forbade them even to shape their thoughts clearly to themselves. They felt savagely that they were being outraged by a fat man who considered marbles a game.
And so he worked towards his peroration—which, by the way, he used later with overwhelming success at a meeting of electors—while they sat, flushed and uneasy, in sour disgust. After many, many words, he reached for the cloth-wrapped stick and thrust one hand in his bosom. This—this was the concrete symbol of their land—worthy of all honor and reverence! Let no boy look on this flag who did not purpose to worthily add to its imperishable lustre. He shook it before them—a large calico Union Jack, staring in all three colors, and waited for the thunder of applause that should crown his effort.
They looked in silence. They had certainly seen the thing before—down at the coastguard station, or through a telescope, half-mast high when a brig went ashore on Braunton Sands; above the roof of the Golf-club, and in Keyte's window, where a certain kind of striped sweetmeat bore it in paper on each box. But the College never displayed it; it was no part of the scheme of their lives; the Head had never alluded to it; their fathers had not declared it unto them. It was a matter shut up, sacred and apart. What, in the name of everything caddish, was he driving at, who waved that horror before their eyes? Happy thought! Perhaps he was drunk.
The Head saved the situation by rising swiftly to propose a vote of thanks, and at his first motion, the school clapped furiously, from a sense of relief.
"And I am sure," he concluded, the gaslight full on his face, "that you will all join me in a very hearty vote of thanks to Mr. Raymond Martin for the most enjoyable address he has given us."
To this day we shall never know the rights of the case. The Head vows that he did no such thing; or that, if he did, it must have been something in his eye; but those who were present are persuaded that he winked, once, openly and solemnly, after the word "enjoyable." Mr. Raymond Martin got his applause full tale. As he said, "Without vanity, I think my few words went to their hearts. I never knew boys could cheer like that."
He left as the prayer-bell rang, and the boys lined up against the wall. The flag lay still unrolled on the desk, Foxy regarding it with pride, for he had been touched to the quick by Mr. Martin's eloquence. The Head and the Common-room, standing back on the dais, could not see the glaring offence, but a prefect left the line, rolled it up swiftly, and as swiftly tossed it into a glove and foil locker.
Then, as though he had touched a spring, broke out the low murmur of content, changing to quick-volleyed hand-clapping.
They discussed the speech in the dormitories. There was not one dissentient voice. Mr. Raymond Martin, beyond question, was born in a gutter, and bred in a board-school, where they played marbles. He was further (I give the barest handful from great store) a Flopshus Cad, an Outrageous Stinker, a Jelly-bellied Flag-flapper (this was Stalky's contribution), and several other things which it is not seemly to put down.
The volunteer cadet-corps fell in next Monday, depressedly, with a face of shame. Even then, judicious silence might have turned the corner.
Said Foxy: "After a fine speech like what you 'eard night before last, you ought to take 'old of your drill with re-newed activity. I don't see how you can avoid comin' out an' marchin' in the open now."
"Can't we get out of it, then, Foxy?" Stalky's fine old silky tone should have warned him.
"No, not with his giving the flag so generously. He told me before he left this morning that there was no objection to the corps usin' it as their own. It's a handsome flag."
Stalky returned his rifle to the rack in dead silence, and fell out. His example was followed by Hogan and Ansell. Perowne hesitated. "Look here, oughtn't we—?" he began.
"I'll get it out of the locker in a minute," said the Sergeant, his back turned. "Then we can—"
"Come on!" shouted Stalky. "What the devil are you waiting for? Dismiss! Break off."
"Why—what the—where the—?"
The rattle of Sniders, slammed into the rack, drowned his voice, as boy after boy fell out.
"I—I don't know that I shan't have to report this to the Head," he stammered.
"Report, then, and be damned to you," cried Stalky, white to the lips, and ran out.
"Rummy thing!" said Beetle to McTurk. "I was in the study, doin' a simply lovely poem about the Jelly-Bellied Flag-Flapper, an' Stalky came in, an' I said 'Hullo!' an' he cursed me like a bargee, and then he began to blub like anything. Shoved his head on the table and howled. Hadn't we better do something?"
McTurk was troubled. "P'raps he's smashed himself up somehow."
They found him, with very bright eyes, whistling between his teeth.
"Did I take you in, Beetle? I thought I would. Wasn't it a good draw? Didn't you think I was blubbin'? Didn't I do it well? Oh, you fat old ass!" And he began to pull Beetle's ears and checks, in the fashion that was called "milking."
"I knew you were blubbin'," Beetle replied, composedly. "Why aren't you at drill?"
"Drill! What drill?"
"Don't try to be a clever fool. Drill in the Gym."
"'Cause there isn't any. The volunteer cadet-corps is broke up—disbanded—dead—putrid—corrupt—-stinkin'. An' if you look at me like that, Beetle, I'll slay you too... Oh, yes, an' I'm goin' to be reported to the Head for swearin'."
THE LAST TERM.
It was within a few days of the holidays, the term-end examinations, and, more important still, the issue of the College paper which Beetle edited. He had been cajoled into that office by the blandishments of Stalky and McTurk and the extreme rigor of study law. Once installed, he discovered, as others have done before him, that his duty was to do the work while his friends criticized. Stalky christened it the "Swillingford Patriot," in pious memory of Sponge—and McTurk compared the output unfavorably with Ruskin and De Quincey. Only the Head took an interest in the publication, and his methods were peculiar. He gave Beetle the run of his brown-bound, tobacco-scented library; prohibiting nothing, recommending nothing. There Beetle found a fat arm-chair, a silver inkstand, and unlimited pens and paper. There were scores and scores of ancient dramatists; there were Hakluyt, his voyages; French translations of Muscovite authors called Pushkin and Lermontoff; little tales of a heady and bewildering nature, interspersed with unusual songs—Peacock was that writer's name; there was Borrow's "Lavengro"; an odd theme, purporting to be a translation of something, called a "Ruba'iyat," which the Head said was a poem not yet come to its own; there were hundreds of volumes of verse—-Crashaw; Dryden; Alexander Smith; L. E. L.; Lydia Sigourney; Fletcher and a purple island; Donne; Marlowe's "Faust "; and—this made McTurk (to whom Beetle conveyed it) sheer drunk for three days—Ossian; "The Earthly Paradise"; "Atalanta in Calydon"; and Rossetti—to name only a few. Then the Head, drifting in under pretense of playing censor to the paper, would read here a verse and here another of these poets, opening up avenues. And, slow breathing, with half-shut eyes above his cigar, would he speak of great men living, and journals, long dead, founded in their riotous youth; of years when all the planets were little new-lit stars trying to find their places in the uncaring void, and he, the Head, knew them as young men know one another. So the regular work went to the dogs, Beetle being full of other matters and meters, hoarded in secret and only told to McTurk of an afternoon, on the sands, walking high and disposedly round the wreck of the Armada galleons, shouting and declaiming against the long-ridged seas.
Thanks in large part to their house-master's experienced distrust, the three for three consecutive terms had been passed over for promotion to the rank of prefect—an office that went by merit, and carried with it the honor of the ground-ash, and liberty, under restrictions, to use it.
"But," said Stalky, "come to think of it, we've done more giddy jesting with the Sixth since we've been passed over than any one else in the last seven years."
He touched his neck proudly. It was encircled by the stiffest of stick-up collars, which custom decreed could be worn only by the Sixth. And the Sixth saw those collars and said no word. "Pussy," Abanazar, or Dick Four of a year ago would have seen them discarded in five minutes or... But the Sixth of that term was made up mostly of young but brilliantly clever boys, pets of the house-masters, too anxious for their dignity to care to come to open odds with the resourceful three. So they crammed their caps at the extreme back of their heads, instead of a trifle over one eye as the Fifth should, and rejoiced in patent-leather boots on week-days, and marvellous made-up ties on Sundays—no man rebuking. McTurk was going up for Cooper's Hill, and Stalky for Sandhurst, in the spring; and the Head had told them both that, unless they absolutely collapsed during the holidays, they were safe. As a trainer of colts, the Head seldom erred in an estimate of form.
He had taken Beetle aside that day and given him much good advice, not one word of which did Beetle remember when he dashed up to the study, white with excitement, and poured out the wondrous tale. It demanded a great belief.
"You begin on a hundred a year?" said McTurk unsympathetically. "Rot!"
"And my passage out! It's all settled. The Head says he's been breaking me in for this for ever so long, and I never knew—I never knew. One don't begin with writing straight off, y'know. Begin by filling in telegrams and cutting things out o' papers with scissors."
"Oh, Scissors! What an ungodly mess you'll make of it," said Stalky. "But, anyhow, this will be your last term, too. Seven years, my dearly beloved 'earers—though not prefects."
"Not half bad years, either," said McTurk. "I shall be sorry to leave the old Coll.; shan't you?"
They looked out over the sea creaming along the Pebbleridge in the clear winter light. "Wonder where we shall all be this time next year?" said Stalky absently.
"This time five years," said McTurk.
"Oh," said Beetle, "my leavin's between ourselves. The Head hasn't told any one. I know he hasn't, because Prout grunted at me to-day that if I were more reasonable—yah!—I might be a prefect next term. I s'ppose he's hard up for his prefects."
"Let's finish up with a row with the Sixth," suggested McTurk.
"Dirty little schoolboys!" said Stalky, who already saw himself a Sandhurst cadet. "What's the use?"
"Moral effect," quoth McTurk. "Leave an imperishable tradition, and all the rest of it."
"Better go into Bideford an' pay up our debts," said Stalky. "I've got three quid out of my father—ad hoc. Don't owe more than thirty bob, either. Cut along, Beetle, and ask the Head for leave. Say you want to correct the 'Swillingford Patriot.'"
"Well, I do," said Beetle. "It'll be my last issue, and I'd like it to look decent. I'll catch him before he goes to his lunch."
Ten minutes later they wheeled out in line, by grace released from five o'clock call-over, and all the afternoon lay before them. So also unluckily did King, who never passed without witticisms. But brigades of Kings could not have ruffled Beetle that day.
"Aha! Enjoying the study of light literature, my friends," said he, rubbing his hands. "Common mathematics are not for such soaring minds as yours, are they?"
("One hundred a year," thought Beetle, smiling into vacancy.)
"Our open incompetence takes refuge in the flowery paths of inaccurate fiction. But a day of reckoning approaches, Beetle mine. I myself have prepared a few trifling foolish questions in Latin prose which can hardly be evaded even by your practised acts of deception. Ye-es, Latin prose. I think, if I may say so—but we shall see when the papers are set—'Ulpian serves your need.' Aha! 'Elucescebat, quoth our friend.' We shall see! We shall see!"
Still no sign from Beetle. He was on a steamer, his passage paid into the wide and wonderful world—a thousand leagues beyond Lundy Island.
King dropped him with a snarl.
"He doesn't know. He'll go on correctin' exercises an' jawin' an' showin' off before the little boys next term—and next." Beetle hurried after his companions up the steep path of the furze-clad hill behind the College.
They were throwing pebbles on the top of the gasometer, and the grimy gas-man in change bade them desist. They watched him oil a turncock sunk in the ground between two furze-bushes.
"Cokey, what's that for?" said Stalky.
"To turn the gas on to the kitchens," said Cokey. "If so be I didn't turn her on, yeou young gen'lemen 'ud be larnin' your book by candlelight."
"Um!" said Stalky, and was silent for at least a minute.
"Hullo! Where are you chaps going?" A bend of the lane brought them face to face with Tulke, senior prefect of King's house—a smallish, white-haired boy, of the type that must be promoted on account of its intellect, and ever afterwards appeals to the Head to support its authority when zeal has outrun discretion.
The three took no sort of notice. They were on lawful pass. Tulke repeated his question hotly, for he had suffered many slights from Number Five study, and fancied that he had at last caught them tripping.
"What the devil is that to you?" Stalky replied with his sweetest smile.
"Look here, I'm not goin'—I'm not goin' to be sworn at by the Fifth!" sputtered Tulke.
"Then cut along and call a prefects' meeting," said McTurk, knowing Tulke's weakness.
The prefect became inarticulate with rage.
"Mustn't yell at the Fifth that way," said Stalky. "It's vile bad form."
"Cough it up, ducky!" McTurk said calmly.
"I—I want to know what you chaps are doing out of bounds?" This with an important flourish of his ground-ash.
"Ah," said Stalky. "Now we're gettin' at it. Why didn't you ask that before?"
"Well, I ask it now. What are you doing?"
"We're admiring you, Tulke," said Stalky. "We think you're no end of a fine chap, don't we?"
"We do! We do!" A dog-cart with some girls in it swept round the corner, and Stalky promptly kneeled before Tulke in the attitude of prayer; so Tulke turned a color.
"I've reason to believe—" he began.
"Oyez! Oyez! Oyez!" shouted Beetle, after the manner of Bideford's town crier, "Tulke has reason to believe! Three cheers for Tulke!"
They were given. "It's all our giddy admiration," said Stalky. "You know how we love you, Tulke. We love you so much we think you ought to go home and die. You're too good to live, Tulke."
"Yes," said McTurk. "Do oblige us by dyin'. Think how lovely you'd look stuffed!"
Tulke swept up the road with an unpleasant glare in his eye.
"That means a prefects' meeting—sure pop," said Stalky. "Honor of the Sixth involved, and all the rest of it. Tulke'll write notes all this afternoon, and Carson will call us up after tea. They daren't overlook that."
"Bet you a bob he follows us!" said McTurk. "He's King's pet, and it's scalps to both of 'em if we're caught out. We must be virtuous."
"Then I move we go to Mother Yeo's for a last gorge. We owe her about ten bob, and Mary'll weep sore when she knows we're leaving," said Beetle.
"She gave me an awful wipe on the head last time—Mary," said Stalky.
"She does if you don't duck," said McTurk. "But she generally kisses one back. Let's try Mother Yeo."
They sought a little bottle-windowed half dairy, half restaurant, a dark-brewed, two-hundred-year-old house, at the head of a narrow side street. They had patronized it from the days of their fagdom, and were very much friends at home.
"We've come to pay our debts, mother," said Stalky, sliding his arm round the fifty-six-inch waist of the mistress of the establishment. "To pay our debts and say good-by—and—and we're awf'ly hungry."
"Aie!" said Mother Yeo, "makkin' love to me! I'm shaamed of 'ee."
"'Rackon us wouldn't du no such thing if Mary was here," said McTurk, lapsing into the broad North Devon that the boys used on their campaigns.
"Who'm takin' my name in vain?" The inner door opened, and Mary, fair-haired, blue-eyed, and apple-checked, entered with a bowl of cream in her bands. McTurk kissed her. Beetle followed suit, with exemplary calm. Both boys were promptly cuffed.
"Niver kiss the maid when 'e can kiss the mistress," said Stalky, shamelessly winking at Mother Yeo, as he investigated a shelf of jams.
"Glad to see one of 'ee don't want his head slapped no more?" said Mary invitingly, in that direction.
"Neu! Reckon I can get 'em give me," said Stalky, his back turned.
"Not by me—yeou little masterpiece!"
"Niver asked 'ee. There's maids to Northam. Yiss—an' Appledore." An unreproducible sniff, half contempt, half reminiscence, rounded the retort.
"Aie! Yeou won't niver come to no good end. Whutt be 'baout, smellin' the cream?"
"'Tees bad," said Stalky. "Zmell 'un."
Incautiously Mary did as she was bid.
"Niver amiss," said Stalky, taking it without injury.
"Yeou—yeou—yeou—" Mary began, bubbling with mirth.
"They'm better to Northam—more rich, laike an' us gets them give back again," he said, while McTurk solemnly waltzed Mother Yeo out of breath, and Beetle told Mary the sad news, as they sat down to clotted cream, jam, and hot bread.
"Yiss. Yeou'll niver zee us no more, Mary. We're goin' to be passons an' missioners."
"Steady the Buffs!" said McTurk, looking through the blind. "Tulke has followed us. He's comin' up the street now."
"They've niver put us out o' bounds," said Mother Yeo. "Bide yeou still, my little dearrs." She rolled into the inner room to make the score.
"Mary," said Stalky, suddenly, with tragic intensity. "Do 'ee lov' me, Mary?"
"Iss—fai! Talled 'ee zo since yeou was zo high!" the damsel replied.
"Zee 'un comin' up street, then?" Stalky pointed to the unconscious Tulke. "He've niver been kissed by no sort or manner o' maid in hees borned laife, Mary. Oh, 'tees shaamful!"
"Whutt's to do with me? 'Twill come to 'un in the way o' nature, I rackon." She nodded her head sagaciously. "You niver want me to kiss un—sure-ly?"
"Give 'ee half-a-crown if 'ee will," said Stalky, exhibiting the coin.
Half-a-crown was much to Mary Yeo, and a jest was more; but
"Yeu'm afraid," said McTurk, at the psychological moment.
"Aie!" Beetle echoed, knowing her weak point. "There's not a maid to Northam 'ud think twice. An' yeou such a fine maid, tu!"
McTurk planted one foot firmly against the inner door lest Mother Yeo should return inopportunely, for Mary's face was set. It was then that Tulke found his way blocked by a tall daughter of Devon—that county of easy kisses, the pleasantest under the sun. He dodged aside politely. She reflected a moment, and laid a vast hand upon his shoulder.
"Where be 'ee gwaine tu, my dearr?" said she.
Over the handkerchief he had crammed into his mouth Stalky could see the boy turn scarlet.
"Gie I a kiss! Don't they larn 'ee manners to College?"
Tulke gasped and wheeled. Solemnly and conscientiously Mary kissed him twice, and the luckless prefect fled.
She stepped into the shop, her eyes full of simple wonder. "Kissed 'un?" said Stalky, handing over the money.
"Iss, fai! But, oh, my little body, he'm no Colleger. 'Zeemed tu-minded to cry, like."
"Well, we won't. Yell couldn't make us cry that way," said McTurk. "Try."
Whereupon Mary cuffed them all round.
As they went out with tingling ears, said Stalky generally, "Don't think there'll be much of a prefects' meeting."
"Won't there, just!" said Beetle. "Look here. If he kissed her—which is our tack—he is a cynically immoral hog, and his conduct is blatant indecency. Confer orationes Regis furiosissimi, when he collared me readin' 'Don Juan.'"
"'Course he kissed her," said McTurk. "In the middle of the street. With his house-cap on!"
"Time, 3.57 p.m. Make a note o' that. What d'you mean, Beetle?" said Stalky.
"Well! He's a truthful little beast. He may say he was kissed."
"Why, then!" Beetle capered at the mere thought of it. "Don't you see? The corollary to the giddy proposition is that the Sixth can't protect 'emselves from outrages an' ravishin's. Want nursemaids to look after 'em! We've only got to whisper that to the Coll. Jam for the Sixth! Jam for us! Either way it's jammy!"
"By Gum!" said Stalky. "Our last term's endin' well. Now you cut along an' finish up your old rag, and Turkey and me will help. We'll go in the back way. No need to bother Randall."
"Don't play the giddy garden-goat, then?" Beetle knew what help meant, though he was by no means averse to showing his importance before his allies. The little loft behind Randall's printing office was his own territory, where he saw himself already controlling the "Times." Here, under the guidance of the inky apprentice, he had learned to find his way more or less circuitously about the case, and considered himself an expert compositor.
The school paper in its locked formes lay on a stone-topped table, a proof by the side; but not for worlds would Beetle have corrected from the mere proof. With a mallet and a pair of tweezers, he knocked out mysterious wedges of wood that released the forme, picked a letter here and inserted a letter there, reading as he went along and stopping much to chuckle over his own contributions.
"You won't show off like that," said McTurk, "when you've got to do it for your living. Upside down and backwards, isn't it? Let's see if I can read it."
"Get out!" said Beetle. "Go and read those formes in the rack there, if you think you know so much."
"Formes in a rack! What's that? Don't be so beastly professional."
McTurk drew off with Stalky to prowl about the office. They left little unturned.
"Come here a shake, Beetle. What's this thing?" aid Stalky, in a few minutes. "Looks familiar."
Said Beetle, after a glance: "It's King's Latin prose exam. paper. In—In Varrem: actio prima. What a lark!"
"Think o' the pure-souled, high-minded boys who'd give their eyes for a squint at it!" said McTurk.
"No, Willie dear," said Stalky; "that would be wrong and painful to our kind teachers. You wouldn't crib, Willie, would you?"
"Can't read the beastly stuff, anyhow," was the reply. "Besides, we're leavin' at the end o' the term, so it makes no difference to us."
"'Member what the Considerate Bloomer did to Spraggon's account of the Puffin'ton Hounds? We must sugar Mr. King's milk for him," said Stalky, all lighted from within by a devilish joy. "Let's see what Beetle can do with those forceps he's so proud of."
"Don't see now you can make Latin prose much more cock-eye than it is, but we'll try," said Beetle, transposing an aliud and Asiae from two sentences. "Let's see! We'll put that full-stop a little further on, and begin the sentence with the next capital. Hurrah! Here's three lines that can move up all in a lump."
"'One of those scientific rests for which this eminent huntsman is so justly celebrated.'" Stalky knew the Puffington run by heart.
"Hold on! Here's a vol—voluntate quidnam all by itself," said McTurk.
"I'll attend to her in a shake. Quidnam goes after Dolabella."
"Good old Dolabella," murmured Stalky. "Don't break him. Vile prose Cicero wrote, didn't he? He ought to be grateful for—"
"Hullo!" said McTurk, over another forme. "What price a giddy ode? Qui—quis—oh, it's Quis multa gracilis, o' course."
"Bring it along. We've sugared the milk here," said Stalky, after a few minutes' zealous toil. "Never thrash your hounds unnecessarily."
"Quis munditiis? I swear that's not bad," began Beetle, plying the tweezers. "Don't that interrogation look pretty? Heu quoties fidem! That sounds as if the chap were anxious an' excited. Cui flavam religas in rosa—Whose flavor is relegated to a rose. Mutatosque Deos flebit in antro."
"Mute gods weepin' in a cave," suggested Stalky. "'Pon my Sam, Horace needs as much lookin' after as—Tulke."
They edited him faithfully till it was too dark to see.
"'Aha! Elucescebat, quoth our friend.' Ulpian serves my need, does it? If King can make anything out of that, I'm a blue-eyed squatteroo," said Beetle, as they slid out of the loft window into a back alley of old acquaintance and started on a three-mile trot to the College. But the revision of the classics had detained them too long. They halted, blown and breathless, in the furze at the back of the gasometer, the College lights twinkling below, ten minutes at least late for tea and lock-up.
"It's no good," puffed McTurk. "Bet a bob Foxy is waiting for defaulters under the lamp by the Fives Court. It's a nuisance, too, because the Head gave us long leave, and one doesn't like to break it."
"'Let me now from the bonded ware'ouse of my knowledge,'" began Stalky.
"Oh, rot! Don't Jorrock. Can we make a run for it?" snapped McTurk.
"'Bishops' boots Mr. Radcliffe also condemned, an' spoke 'ighly in favor of tops cleaned with champagne an' abricot jam.' Where's that thing Cokey was twiddlin' this afternoon?"
They heard him groping in the wet, and presently beheld a great miracle. The lights of the Coastguard cottages near the sea went out; the brilliantly illuminated windows of the Golf-club disappeared, and were followed by the frontages of the two hotels. Scattered villas dulled, twinkled, and vanished. Last of all, the College lights died also. They were left in the pitchy darkness of a windy winter's night.
"'Blister my kidneys. It is a frost. The dahlias are dead!'" said Stalky. "Bunk!"
They squattered through the dripping gorse as the College hummed like an angry hive and the dining-rooms chorused, "Gas! gas! gas!" till they came to the edge of the sunk path that divided them from their study. Dropping that ha-ha like bullets, and rebounding like boys, they dashed to their study, in less than two minutes had changed into dry trousers and coat, and, ostentatiously slippered, joined the mob in the dining-hall, which resembled the storm-centre of a South American revolution.
"'Hellish dark and smells of cheese.'" Stalky elbowed his way into the press, howling lustily for gas. "Cokey must have gone for a walk. Foxy'll have to find him."
Prout, as the nearest house-master, was trying to restore order, for rude boys were flicking butter-pats across chaos, and McTurk had turned on the fags' tea-urn, so that many were parboiled and wept with an unfeigned dolor. The Fourth and Upper Third broke into the school song, the "Vive la Compagnie," to the accompaniment of drumming knife-handles; and the junior forms shrilled bat-like shrieks and raided one another's victuals. Two hundred and fifty boys in high condition, seeking for more light, are truly earnest inquirers.
When a most vile smell of gas told them that supplies had been renewed, Stalky, waistcoat unbuttoned, sat gorgedly over what might have been his fourth cup of tea. "And that's all right," he said. "Hullo! 'Ere's Pomponius Ego!"
It was Carson, the head of the school, a simple, straight-minded soul, and a pillar of the First Fifteen, who crossed over from the prefects' table and in a husky, official voice invited the three to attend in his study in half an hour. "Prefects' meetin'! Prefects' meetin'!" hissed the tables, and they imitated barbarically the actions and effects of the ground-ash.
"How are we goin' to jest with 'em?" said Stalky, turning half-face to Beetle. "It's your play this time!"
"Look here," was the answer, "all I want you to do is not to laugh. I'm goin' to take charge o' young Tulke's immorality—a' la King, and it's goin' to be serious. If you can't help laughin' don't look at me, or I'll go pop."
"I see. All right," said Stalky.
McTurk's lank frame stiffened in every muscle and his eyelids dropped half over his eyes. That last was a war-signal.
The eight or nine seniors, their faces very set and sober, were ranged in chairs round Carson's severely Philistine study. Tulke was not popular among them, and a few who had had experience of Stalky and Company doubted that he might, perhaps, have made an ass of himself. But the dignity of the Sixth was to be upheld. So Carson began hurriedly: "Look here, you chaps, I've—we've sent for you to tell you you're a good deal too cheeky to the Sixth—have been for some time—and—and we've stood about as much as we're goin' to, and it seems you've been cursin' and swearin' at Tulke on the Bideford road this afternoon, and we're goin' to show you you can't do it. That's all."
"Well, that's awfully good of you," said Stalky, "but we happen to have a few rights of our own, too. You can't, just because you happen to be made prefects, haul up seniors and jaw 'em on spec., like a house-master. We aren't fags, Carson. This kind of thing may do for Davies Tertius, but it won't do for us."
"It's only old Prout's lunacy that we weren't prefects long ago. You know that," said McTurk. "You haven't any tact."
"Hold on," said Beetle. "A prefects' meetin' has to be reported to the Head. I want to know if the Head backs Tulke in this business?"
"Well—well, it isn't exactly a prefects' meeting," said Carson. "We only called you in to warn you."
"But all the prefects are here," Beetle insisted. "Where's the difference?"
"My Gum!" said Stalky. "Do you mean to say you've just called us in for a jaw—after comin' to us before the whole school at tea an' givin' 'em the impression it was a prefects' meeting? 'Pon my Sam, Carson, you'll get into trouble, you will."
"Hole-an'-corner business—hole-an'-corner business," said McTurk, wagging his head. "Beastly suspicious."
The Sixth looked at each other uneasily. Tulke had called three prefects' meetings in two terms, till the Head had informed the Sixth that they were expected to maintain discipline without the recurrent menace of his authority. Now, it seemed that they had made a blunder at the outset, but any right-minded boy would have sunk the legality and been properly impressed by the Court. Beetle's protest was distinct "cheek."
"Well, you chaps deserve a lickin'," cried one Naughten incautiously. Then was Beetle filled with a noble inspiration.
"For interferin' with Tulke's amours, eh?" Tulke turned a rich sloe color. "Oh, no, you don't!" Beetle went on. "You've had your innings. We've been sent up for cursing and swearing at you, and we're goin' to be let off with a warning! Are we? Now then, you're going to catch it."
"I—I—I" Tulke began. "Don't let that young devil start jawing."
"If you've anything to say you must say it decently,'' said Carson.
"Decently? I will. Now look here. When we went into Bideford we met this ornament of the Sixth—is that decent enough?—hanging about on the road with a nasty look in his eye. We didn't know then why he was so anxious to stop us, but at five minutes to four, when we were in Yeo's shop, we saw Tulke in broad daylight, with his house-cap on, kissin' an' huggin' a woman on the pavement. Is that decent enough for you?"
"I didn't—I wasn't."
"We saw you!" said Beetle. "And now—I'll be decent, Carson—you sneak back with her kisses" (not for nothing had Beetle perused the later poets) "hot on your lips and call prefects' meetings, which aren't prefects' meetings, to uphold the honor of the Sixth." A new and heaven-cleft path opened before him that instant. "And how do we know," he shouted—"how do we know how many of the Sixth are mixed up in this abominable affair?"
"Yes, that's what we want to know," said McTurk, with simple dignity.
"We meant to come to you about it quietly, Carson, but you would have the meeting," said Stalky sympathetically.
The Sixth were too taken aback to reply. So, carefully modelling his rhetoric on King, Beetle followed up the attack, surpassing and surprising himself, "It—it isn't so much the cynical immorality of the biznai, as the blatant indecency of it, that's so awful. As far as we can see, it's impossible for us to go into Bideford without runnin' up against some prefect's unwholesome amours. There's nothing to snigger over, Naughten. I don't pretend to know much about these things—but it seems to me a chap must be pretty far dead in sin" (that was a quotation from the school chaplain) "when he takes to embracing his paramours" (that was Hakluyt) "before all the city" (a reminiscence of Milton). "He might at least have the decency—you're authorities on decency, I believe—to wait till dark. But he didn't. You didn't! Oh, Tulke. You—you incontinent little animal!"
"Here, shut up a minute. What's all this about, Tulke?" said Carson.
"I—look here. I'm awfully sorry. I never thought Beetle would take this line."
"Because—you've—no decency—you—thought—I hadn't," cried Beetle all in one breath.
"Tried to cover it all up with a conspiracy, did you?" said Stalky.
"Direct insult to all three of us," said McTurk. "A most filthy mind you have, Tulke."
"I'll shove you fellows outside the door if you go on like this," said Carson angrily.
"That proves it's a conspiracy," said Stalky, with the air of a virgin martyr.
"I—I was goin' along the street—I swear I was," cried Tulke, "and—and I'm awfully sorry about it—a woman came up and kissed me. I swear I didn't kiss her."
There was a pause, filled by Stalky's long, liquid whistle of contempt, amazement, and derision.
"On my honor," gulped the persecuted one. "Oh, do stop him jawing."
"Very good," McTurk interjected. "We are compelled, of course, to accept your statement."
"Confound it!" roared Naughten. "You aren't head-prefect here, McTurk."
"Oh, well," returned the Irishman, "you know Tulke better than we do. I am only speaking for ourselves. We accept Tulke's word. But all I can say is that if I'd been collared in a similarly disgustin' situation, and had offered the same explanation Tulke has, I—I wonder what you'd have said. However, it seems on Tulke's word of honor—"
"And Tulkus—beg pardon—kiss, of course—-Tulkiss is an honorable man," put in Stalky.
"—that the Sixth can't protect 'emselves from bein' kissed when they go for a walk!" cried Beetle, taking up the running with a rush. "Sweet business, isn't it? Cheerful thing to tell the fags, ain't it? We aren't prefects, of course, but we aren't kissed very much. Don't think that sort of thing ever enters our heads; does it, Stalky?"
"Oh, no!" said Stalky, turning aside to hide his emotions. McTurk's face merely expressed lofty contempt and a little weariness.
"Well, you seem to know a lot about it," interposed a prefect.
"Can't help it—when you chaps shove it under our noses." Beetle dropped into a drawling parody of King's most biting colloquial style—the gentle rain after the thunder-storm. "Well, it's all very sufficiently vile and disgraceful, isn't it? I don't know who comes out of it worst: Tulke, who happens to have been caught; or the other fellows who haven't. And we—" here he wheeled fiercely on the other two—"we've got to stand up and be jawed by them because we've disturbed their intrigues."
"Hang it! I only wanted to give you a word of warning," said Carson, thereby handing himself bound to the enemy.
"Warn? You?" This with the air of one who finds loathsome gifts in his locker. "Carson, would you be good enough to tell us what conceivable thing there is that you are entitled to warn us about after this exposure? Warn? Oh, it's a little too much! Let's go somewhere where it's clean."
The door banged behind their outraged innocence.
"Oh, Beetle! Beetle! Beetle! Golden Beetle!" sobbed Stalky, hurling himself on Beetle's panting bosom as soon as they reached the study. "However did you do it?"
"Dear-r man" said McTurk, embracing Beetle's head with both arms, while he swayed it to and fro on the neck, in time to this ancient burden—
"Pretty lips—sweeter than—cherry or plum. Always look—jolly and—never look glum; Seem to say—Come away. Kissy!—come, come! Yummy-yum! Yummy-yum! Yummy-yum-yum!"
"Look out. You'll smash my gig-lamps," puffed Beetle, emerging. "Wasn't it glorious? Didn't I 'Eric' 'em splendidly? Did you spot my cribs from King? Oh, blow!" His countenance clouded. "There's one adjective I didn't use—obscene. Don't know how I forgot that. It's one of King's pet ones, too."
"Never mind. They'll be sendin' ambassadors round in half a shake to beg us not to tell the school. It's a deuced serious business for them," said McTurk. "Poor Sixth—poor old Sixth!"
"Immoral young rips," Stalky snorted. "What an example to pure-souled boys like you and me!"
And the Sixth in Carson's study sat aghast, glowering at Tulke, who was on the edge of tears. "Well," said the head-prefect acidly. "You've made a pretty average ghastly mess of it, Tulke."
"Why—why didn't you lick that young devil Beetle before he began jawing?" Tulke wailed.
"I knew there'd be a row," said a prefect of Prout's house. "But you would insist on the meeting, Tulke."
"Yes, and a fat lot of good it's done us," said Naughten. "They come in here and jaw our heads off when we ought to be jawin' them. Beetle talks to us as if we were a lot of blackguards and—and all that. And when they've hung us up to dry, they go out and slam the door like a house-master. All your fault, Tulke."
"But I didn't kiss her."
"You ass! If you'd said you had and stuck to it, it would have been ten times better than what you did," Naughten retorted. "Now they'll tell the whole school—and Beetle'll make up a lot of beastly rhymes and nick-names."
"But, hang it, she kissed me!" Outside of his work, Tulke's mind moved slowly.
"I'm not thinking of you. I'm thinking of us. I'll go up to their study and see if I can make 'em keep quiet!"
"Tulke's awf'ly cut up about this business," Naughten began, ingratiatingly, when he found Beetle.
"Who's kissed him this time?"
"—and I've come to ask you chaps, and especially you, Beetle, not to let the thing be known all over the school. Of course, fellows as senior as you are can easily see why."
"Um!" said Beetle, with the cold reluctance of one who foresees an unpleasant public duty. "I suppose I must go and talk to the Sixth again."
"Not the least need, my dear chap, I assure you," said Naughten hastily. "I'll take any message you care to send."
But the chance of supplying the missing adjective was too tempting. So Naughten returned to that still undissolved meeting, Beetle, white, icy, and aloof, at his heels.
"There seems," he began, with laboriously crisp articulation, "there seems to be a certain amount of uneasiness among you as to the steps we may think fit to take in regard to this last revelation of the—ah—obscene. If it is any consolation to you to know that we have decided—for the honor of the school, you understand—to keep our mouths shut as to these—ah—obscenities, you—ah—have it."
He wheeled, his head among the stars, and strode statelily back to his study, where Stalky and McTurk lay side by side upon the table wiping their tearful eyes—too weak to move.
The Latin prose paper was a success beyond their wildest dreams. Stalky and McTurk were, of course, out of all examinations (they did extra-tuition with the Head), but Beetle attended with zeal.
"This, I presume, is a par-ergon on your part," said King, as he dealt out the papers. "One final exhibition ere you are translated to loftier spheres? A last attack on the classics? It seems to confound you already."
Beetle studied the print with knit brows. "I can't make head or tail of it," he murmured. "What does it mean?"
"No, no!" said King, with scholastic coquetry. "We depend upon you to give us the meaning. This is an examination, Beetle mine, not a guessing-competition. You will find your associates have no difficulty in—"
Tulke left his place and laid the paper on the desk. King looked, read, and turned a ghastly green.
"Stalky's missing a heap," thought Beetle. "Wonder hew King'll get out of it!"
"There seems," King began with a gulp, "a certain modicum of truth in our Beetle's remark. I am—er—inclined to believe that the worthy Randall must have dropped this in ferule—if you know what that means. Beetle, you purport to be an editor. Perhaps you can enlighten the form as to formes."
"What, sir! Whose form! I don't see that there's any verb in this sentence at all, an'—an'—the Ode is all different, somehow."
"I was about to say, before you volunteered your criticism, that an accident must have befallen the paper in type, and that the printer reset it by the light of nature. No—" he held the thing at arm's length—"our Randall is not an authority on Cicero or Horace."
"Rather mean to shove it off on Randall," whispered Beetle to his neighbor. "King must ha' been as screwed as an owl when he wrote it out."
"But we can amend the error by dictating it."
"No, sir." The answer came pat from a dozen throats at once. "That cuts the time for the exam. Only two hours allowed, sir. 'Tisn't fair. It's a printed-paper exam. How're we goin' to be marked for it! It's all Randall's fault. It isn't our fault, anyhow. An exam.'s an exam.," etc., etc.
Naturally Mr. King considered this was an attempt to undermine his authority, and, instead of beginning dictation at once, delivered a lecture on the spirit in which examinations should be approached. As the storm subsided, Beetle fanned it afresh.
"Eh? What? What was that you were saying to MacLagan?"
"I only said I thought the papers ought to have been looked at before they were given out, sir."
"Hear, hear!" from a back bench. Mr. King wished to know whether Beetle took it upon himself personally to conduct the traditions of the school. His zeal for knowledge ate up another fifteen minutes, during which the prefects showed unmistakable signs of boredom.
"Oh, it was a giddy time," said Beetle, afterwards, in dismantled Number Five. "He gibbered a bit, and I kept him on the gibber, and then he dictated about a half of Dolabella & Co."
"Good old Dolabella! Friend of mine. Yes?" said Stalky, pensively.
"Then we had to ask him how every other word was spelt, of course, and he gibbered a lot more. He cursed me and MacLagan (Mac played up like a trump) and Randall, and the 'materialized ignorance of the unscholarly middle classes,' 'lust for mere marks,' and all the rest. It was what you might call a final exhibition—a last attack—a giddy par-ergon."
"But o' course he was blind squiffy when he wrote the paper. I hope you explained that?" said Stalky.
"Oh, yes. I told Tulke so. I said an immoral prefect an' a drunken house-master were legitimate inferences. Tulke nearly blubbed. He's awfully shy of us since Mary's time."
Tulke preserved that modesty till the last moment—till the journey-money had been paid, and the boys were filling the brakes that took them to the station. Then the three tenderly constrained him to wait a while.
"You see, Tulke, you may be a prefect," said Stalky, "but I've left the Coll. Do you see, Tulke, dear?"
"Yes, I see. Don't bear malice, Stalky."
"Stalky? Curse your impudence, you young cub," shouted Stalky, magnificent in top-hat, stiff collar, spats, and high-waisted, snuff-colored ulster. "I want you to understand that I'm Mister Corkran, an' you're a dirty little schoolboy."
"Besides bein' frabjously immoral," said McTurk. "Wonder you aren't ashamed to foist your company on pure-minded boys like us."
"Come on, Tulke,' cried Naughten, from the prefects' brake.
"Yes, we're comin'. Shove up and make room, you Collegers. You've all got to be back next term, with your 'Yes, sir,' and 'Oh, sir,' an' 'No sir' an' 'Please sir'; but before we say good-by we're going to tell you a little story. Go on, Dickie" (this to the driver); "we're quite ready. Kick that hat-box under the seat, an' don't crowd your Uncle Stalky."
"As nice a lot of high-minded youngsters as you'd wish to see," said McTurk, gazing round with bland patronage. "A trifle immoral, but then—boys will be boys. It's no good tryin' to look stuffy, Carson. Mister Corkran will now oblige with the story of Tulke an' Mary Yeo!"
SLAVES OF THE LAMP.
That very Infant who told the story of the capture of Boh Na Ghee [A Conference of the Powers: "Many Inventions"] to Eustace Cleaver, novelist, inherited an estateful baronetcy, with vast revenues, resigned the service, and became a landholder, while his mother stood guard over him to see that he married the right girl. But, new to his position, he presented the local volunteers with a full-sized magazine-rifle range, two miles long, across the heart of his estate, and the surrounding families, who lived in savage seclusion among woods full of pheasants, regarded him as an erring maniac. The noise of the firing disturbed their poultry, and Infant was cast out from the society of J.P.'s and decent men till such time as a daughter of the county might lure him back to right thinking. He took his revenge by filling the house with choice selections of old schoolmates home on leave—affable detrimentals, at whom the bicycle-riding maidens of the surrounding families were allowed to look from afar. I knew when a troop-ship was in port by the Infant's invitations. Sometimes he would produce old friends of equal seniority; at others, young and blushing giants whom I had left small fags far down in the Lower Second; and to these Infant and the elders expounded the whole duty of man in the Army.
"I've had to cut the service," said the Infant; "but that's no reason why my vast stores of experience should be lost to posterity." He was just thirty, and in that same summer an imperious wire drew me to his baronial castle: "Got good haul; ex Tamar. Come along."
It was an unusually good haul, arranged with a single eye to my benefit. There was a baldish, broken-down captain of Native Infantry, shivering with ague behind an indomitable red nose—and they called him Captain Dickson. There was another captain, also of Native Infantry, with a fair mustache; his face was like white glass, and his hands were fragile, but he answered joyfully to the cry of Tertius. There was an enormously big and well-kept man, who had evidently not campaigned for years, clean-shaved, soft-voiced, and cat-like, but still Abanazar for all that he adorned the Indian Political Service; and there was a lean Irishman, his face tanned blue-black with the suns of the Telegraph Department. Luckily the baize doors of the bachelors' wing fitted tight, for we dressed promiscuously in the corridor or in each other's rooms, talking, calling, shouting, and anon waltzing by pairs to songs of Dick Four's own devising.
There were sixty years of mixed work to be sifted out between us, and since we had met one another from time to time in the quick scene-shifting of India—a dinner, camp, or a race-meeting here; a dak-bungalow or railway station up country somewhere else—we had never quite lost touch. Infant sat on the banisters, hungrily and enviously drinking it in. He enjoyed his baronetcy, but his heart yearned for the old days.
It was a cheerful babel of matters personal, provincial, and imperial, pieces of old call-over lists, and new policies, cut short by the roar of a Burmese gong, and we went down not less than a quarter of a mile of stairs to meet Infant's mother, who had known us all in our school-days and greeted us as if those had ended a week ago. But it was fifteen years since, with tears of laughter, she had lent me a gray princess-skirt for amateur theatricals.
That was a dinner from the "Arabian Nights," served in an eighty-foot hall full of ancestors and pots of flowering roses, and, what was more impressive, heated by steam. When it was ended and the little mother had gone away—("You boys want to talk, so I shall say good-night now")—we gathered about an apple-wood fire, in a gigantic polished steel grate, under a mantel-piece ten feet high, and the Infant compassed us about with curious liqueurs and that kind of cigarette which serves best to introduce your own pipe.
"Oh, bliss!" grunted Dick Four from a sofa, where he had been packed with a rug over him. "First time I've been warm since I came home."
We were all nearly on top of the fire, except Infant, who had been long enough at home to take exercise when he felt chilled. This is a grisly diversion, but much affected by the English of the Island.
"If you say a word about cold tubs and brisk walks," drawled McTurk, "I'll kill you, Infant. I've got a liver, too. 'Member when we used to think it a treat to turn out of our beds on a Sunday morning—thermometer fifty-seven degrees if it was summer—and bathe off the Pebbleridge? Ugh!"
"'Thing I don't understand," said Tertius, "was the way we chaps used to go down into the lavatories, boil ourselves pink, and then come up with all our pores open into a young snow-storm or a black frost. Yet none of our chaps died, that I can remember."
"Talkin' of baths," said McTurk, with a chuckle, "'member our bath in Number Five, Beetle, the night Rabbits-Eggs rocked King? What wouldn't I give to see old Stalky now! He is the only one of the two Studies not here."
"Stalky is the great man of his Century," said Dick Four.
"How d'you know?" I asked.
"How do I know?" said Dick Four, scornfully. "If you've ever been in a tight place with Stalky you wouldn't ask."
"I haven't seen him since the camp at Pindi in '87," I said. "He was goin' strong then—about seven feet high and four feet through."
"Adequate chap. Infernally adequate," said Tertius, pulling his mustache and staring into the fire.
"Got dam' near court-martialed and broke in Egypt in '84," the Infant volunteered. "I went out in the same trooper with him—as raw as he was. Only I showed it, and Stalky didn't."
"What was the trouble?" said McTurk, reaching forward absently to twitch my dress-tie into position.
"Oh, nothing. His colonel trusted him to take twenty Tommies out to wash, or groom camels, or something at the back of Suakin, and Stalky got embroiled with Fuzzies five miles in the interior. He conducted a masterly retreat and wiped up eight of 'em. He knew jolly well he'd no right to go out so far, so he took the initiative and pitched in a letter to his colonel, who was frothing at the mouth, complaining of the 'paucity of support accorded to him in his operations.' Gad, it might have been one fat brigadier slangin' another! Then he went into the Staff Corps."
"That—is—entirely—Stalky," said Abanazar from his arm-chair.
"You've come across him, too?" I said.
"Oh, yes," he replied in his softest tones. "I was at the tail of that—that epic. Don't you chaps know?"
We did not—Infant, McTurk, and I; and we called for information very politely.
"'Twasn't anything," said Tertius. "We got into a mess up in the Khye-Kheen Hills a couple o' years ago, and Stalky pulled us through. That's all."
McTurk gazed at Tertius with all an Irishman's contempt for the tongue-tied Saxon.
"Heavens!" he said. "And it's you and your likes govern Ireland. Tertius, aren't you ashamed?"
"Well, I can't tell a yarn. I can chip in when the other fellow starts bukhing. Ask him." He pointed to Dick Four, whose nose gleamed scornfully over the rug.
"I knew you wouldn't," said Dick Four. "Give me a whiskey and soda. I've been drinking lemon-squash and ammoniated quinine while you chaps were bathin' in champagne, and my head's singin' like a top."
He wiped his ragged mustache above the drink; and, his teeth chattering in his head, began: "You know the Khye-Kheen-Malo't expedition, when we scared the souls out of 'em with a field force they daren't fight against? Well, both tribes—there was a coalition against us—came in without firing a shot; and a lot of hairy villains, who had no more power over their men than I had, promised and vowed all sorts of things. On that very slender evidence, Pussy dear—"
"I was at Simla," said Abanazar, hastily.
"Never mind, you're tarred with the same brush. On the strength of those tuppenny-ha'penny treaties, your asses of Politicals reported the country as pacified, and the Government, being a fool, as usual, began road-makin'—dependin' on local supply for labor. 'Member that, Pussy? 'Rest of our chaps who'd had no look-in during the campaign didn't think there'd be any more of it, and were anxious to get back to India. But I'd been in two of these little rows before, and I had my suspicions. I engineered myself, summa ingenio, into command of a road-patrol—no shovellin', only marching up and down genteelly with a guard. They'd withdrawn all the troops they could, but I nucleused about forty Pathans, recruits chiefly, of my regiment, and sat tight at the base-camp while the road-parties went to work, as per Political survey."
"Had some rippin' sing-songs in camp, too," said Tertius.
"My pup"—thus did Dick Four refer to his subaltern—"was a pious little beast. He didn't like the sing-songs, and so he went down with pneumonia. I rootled round the camp, and found Tertius gassing about as a D.A.Q.M.G., which, God knows, he isn't cut out for. There were six or eight of the old Coll. at base-camp (we're always in force for a frontier row), but I'd heard of Tertius as a steady old hack, and I told him he had to shake off his D.A.Q.M.G. breeches and help me. Tertius volunteered like a shot, and we settled it with the authorities, and out we went—forty Pathans, Tertius, and me, looking up the road-parties. Macnamara's—'member old Mac, the Sapper, who played the fiddle so damnably at Umballa?—Mac's party was the last but one. The last was Stalky's. He was at the head of the road with some of his pet Sikhs. Mac said he believed he was all right."
"Stalky is a Sikh," said Tertius. "He takes his men to pray at the Durbar Sahib at Amritzar, regularly as clockwork, when he can."
"Don't interrupt, Tertius. It was about forty miles beyond Mac's before I found him; and my men pointed out gently, but firmly, that the country was risin'. What kind o' country, Beetle? Well, I'm no word-painter, thank goodness, but you might call it a hellish country! When we weren't up to our necks in snow, we were rolling down the khud. The well-disposed inhabitants, who were to supply labor for the road-making (don't forget that, Pussy dear), sat behind rocks and took pot-shots at us. 'Old, old story! We all legged it in search of Stalky. I had a feeling that he'd be in good cover, and about dusk we found him and his road-party, as snug as a bug in a rug, in an old Malo't stone fort, with a watch-tower at one corner. It overhung the road they had blasted out of the cliff fifty feet below; and under the road things went down pretty sheer, for five or six hundred feet, into a gorge about half a mile wide and two or three miles long. There were chaps on the other side of the gorge scientifically gettin' our range. So I hammered on the gate and nipped in, and tripped over Stalky in a greasy, bloody old poshteen, squatting on the ground, eating with his men. I'd only seen him for half a minute about three months before, but I might have met him yesterday. He waved his hand all sereno.
"'Hullo, Aladdin! Hullo, Emperor!' he said. 'You're just in time for the performance.'"
"I saw his Sikhs looked a bit battered. 'Where's your command? Where's your subaltern?' I said.
"'Here—all there is of it,' said Stalky. 'If you want young Everett, he's dead, and his body's in the watch-tower. They rushed our road-party last week, and got him and seven men. We've been besieged for five days. I suppose they let you through to make sure of you. The whole country's up. 'Strikes me you've walked into a first-class trap.' He grinned, but neither Tertius nor I could see where the deuce the fun was. We hadn't any grub for our men, and Stalky had only four days' whack for his. That came of dependin' upon your asinine Politicals, Pussy dear, who told us that the inhabitants were friendly.
"To make us quite comfy, Stalky took us up to the watch-tower to see poor Everett's body, lyin' in a foot o' drifted snow. It looked like a girl of fifteen—not a hair on the little fellow's face. He'd been shot through the temple, but the Malo'ts had left their mark on him. Stalky unbuttoned the tunic, and showed it to us—a rummy sickle-shaped cut on the chest. 'Member the snow all white on his eyebrows, Tertius? 'Member when Stalky moved the lamp and it looked as if he was alive?"
"Ye-es," said Tertius, with a shudder. "'Member the beastly look on Stalky's face, though, with his nostrils all blown out, same as he used to look when he was bullyin' a fag? That was a lovely evening."
"We held a council of war up there over Everett's body. Stalky said the Malo'ts and Khye-Kheens were up together; havin' sunk their blood feuds to settle us. The chaps we'd seen across the gorge were Khye-Kheens. It was about half a mile from them to us as a bullet flies, and they'd made a line of sungars under the brow of the hill to sleep in and starve us out. The Malo'ts, he said, were in front of us promiscuous. There wasn't good cover behind the fort, or they'd have been there, too. Stalky didn't mind the Malo'ts half as much as he did the Khye-Kheens. He said the Malo'ts were treacherous curs. What I couldn't understand was, why in the world the two gangs didn't join in and rush us. There must have been at least five hundred of 'em. Stalky said they didn't trust each other very well, because they were ancestral enemies when they were at home; and the only time they'd tried a rush he'd hove a couple of blasting-charges among 'em, and that had sickened 'em a bit.