TALES OF ST AUSTIN'S
by P. G. Wodehouse
Most of these stories originally appeared in The Captain. I am indebted to the Editor of that magazine for allowing me to republish. The rest are from the Public School Magazine. The story entitled 'A Shocking Affair' appears in print for the first time. 'This was one of our failures.'
P. G. Wodehouse
[Dedication] AD MATREM
1 How Pillingshot Scored
2 The Odd Trick
3 L'Affaire Uncle John (A Story in Letters)
4 Harrison's Slight Error
5 Bradshaw's Little Story
6 A Shocking Affair
7 The Babe and the Dragon
8 The Manoeuvres of Charteris
9 How Payne Bucked Up
11 'The Tabby Terror'
12 The Prize Poem
15 Now, Talking About Cricket—
16 The Tom Brown Question
HOW PILLINGSHOT SCORED
Pillingshot was annoyed. He was disgusted, mortified; no other word for it. He had no objection, of course, to Mr Mellish saying that his work during the term, and especially his Livy, had been disgraceful. A master has the right to say that sort of thing if he likes. It is one of the perquisites of the position. But when he went on to observe, without a touch of shame, that there would be an examination in the Livy as far as they had gone in it on the following Saturday, Pillingshot felt that he exceeded. It was not playing the game. There were the examinations at the end of term. Those were fair enough. You knew exactly when they were coming, and could make your arrangements accordingly. But to spring an examination on you in the middle of the term out of a blue sky, as it were, was underhand and unsportsmanlike, and would not do at all. Pillingshot wished that he could put his foot down. He would have liked to have stalked up to Mr Mellish's desk, fixed him with a blazing eye, and remarked, 'Sir, withdraw that remark. Cancel that statement instantly, or—!' or words to that effect.
What he did say was: 'Oo, si-i-r!!'
'Yes,' said Mr Mellish, not troubling to conceal his triumph at Pillingshot's reception of the news, 'there will be a Livy examination next Saturday. And—' (he almost intoned this last observation)—'anybody who does not get fifty per cent, Pillingshot, fifty per cent, will be severely punished. Very severely punished, Pillingshot.'
After which the lesson had proceeded on its course.
'Yes, it is rather low, isn't it?' said Pillingshot's friend, Parker, as Pillingshot came to the end of a stirring excursus on the rights of the citizen, with special reference to mid-term Livy examinations. 'That's the worst of Mellish. He always has you somehow.'
'But what am I to do?' raved Pillingshot.
'I should advise you to swot it up before Saturday,' said Parker.
'Oh, don't be an ass,' said Pillingshot, irritably.
What was the good of friends if they could only make idiotic suggestions like that?
He retired, brooding, to his house.
The day was Wednesday. There were only two more days, therefore, in which to prepare a quarter of a book of Livy. It couldn't be done. The thing was not possible.
In the house he met Smythe.
'What are you going to do about it?' he inquired. Smythe was top of the form, and if he didn't know how to grapple with a crisis of this sort, who could know?
'If you'll kindly explain,' said Smythe, 'what the dickens you are talking about, I might be able to tell you.'
Pillingshot explained, with unwonted politeness, that 'it' meant the Livy examination.
'Oh,' said Smythe, airily, 'that! I'm just going to skim through it in case I've forgotten any of it. Then I shall read up the notes carefully. And then, if I have time, I shall have a look at the history of the period. I should advise you to do that, too.'
'Oh, don't be a goat,' said Pillingshot.
And he retired, brooding, as before.
That afternoon he spent industriously, copying out the fourth book of The Aeneid. At the beginning of the week he had had a slight disagreement with M. Gerard, the French master.
Pillingshot's views on behaviour and deportment during French lessons did not coincide with those of M. Gerard. Pillingshot's idea of a French lesson was something between a pantomime rally and a scrum at football. To him there was something wonderfully entertaining in the process of 'barging' the end man off the edge of the form into space, and upsetting his books over him. M. Gerard, however, had a very undeveloped sense of humour. He warned the humorist twice, and on the thing happening a third time, suggested that he should go into extra lesson on the ensuing Wednesday.
So Pillingshot went, and copied out Virgil.
He emerged from the room of detention at a quarter past four. As he came out into the grounds he espied in the middle distance somebody being carried on a stretcher in the direction of the School House. At the same moment Parker loomed in sight, walking swiftly towards the School shop, his mobile features shining with the rapt expression of one who sees much ginger-beer in the near future.
'Hullo, Parker,' said Pillingshot, 'who's the corpse?'
'What, haven't you heard?' said Parker. 'Oh, no, of course, you were in extra. It's young Brown. He's stunned or something.'
'How did it happen?'
'That rotter, Babington, in Dacre's. Simply slamming about, you know, getting his eye in before going in, and Brown walked slap into one of his drives. Got him on the side of the head.'
'Oh, no, I don't think so. Keep him out of school for about a week.'
'Lucky beast. Wish somebody would come and hit me on the head. Come and hit me on the head, Parker.'
'Come and have an ice,' said Parker.
'Right-ho,' said Pillingshot. It was one of his peculiarities, that whatever the hour or the state of the weather, he was always equal to consuming an ice. This was probably due to genius. He had an infinite capacity for taking pains. Scarcely was he outside the promised ice when another misfortune came upon him. Scott, of the First Eleven, entered the shop. Pillingshot liked Scott, but he was not blind to certain flaws in the latter's character. For one thing, he was too energetic. For another, he could not keep his energy to himself. He was always making Pillingshot do things. And Pillingshot's notion of the ideal life was complete dolce far niente.
'Ginger-beer, please,' said Scott, with parched lips. He had been bowling at the nets, and the day was hot. 'Hullo! Pillingshot, you young slacker, why aren't you changed? Been bunking half-holiday games? You'd better reform, young man.'
'I've been in extra,' said Pillingshot, with dignity.
'How many times does that make this term? You're going for the record, aren't you? Jolly sporting of you. Bit slow in there, wasn't it? 'Nother ginger-beer, please.'
'Just a bit,' said Pillingshot.
'I thought so. And now you're dying for some excitement. Of course you are. Well, cut over to the House and change, and then come back and field at the nets. The man Yorke is going to bowl me some of his celebrated slow tosh, and I'm going to show him exactly how Jessop does it when he's in form.'
Scott was the biggest hitter in the School. Mr Yorke was one of the masters. He bowled slow leg-breaks, mostly half-volleys and long hops. Pillingshot had a sort of instinctive idea that fielding out in the deep with Mr Yorke bowling and Scott batting would not contribute largely to the gaiety of his afternoon. Fielding deep at the nets meant that you stood in the middle of the football field, where there was no telling what a ball would do if it came at you along the ground. If you were lucky you escaped without injury. Generally, however, the ball bumped and deprived you of wind or teeth, according to the height to which it rose. He began politely, but firmly, to excuse himself.
'Don't talk rot,' said Scott, complainingly, 'you must have some exercise or you'll go getting fat. Think what a blow it would be to your family, Pillingshot, if you lost your figure. Buck up. If you're back here in a quarter of an hour you shall have another ice. A large ice, Pillingshot, price sixpence. Think of it.'
The word ice, as has been remarked before, touched chords in Pillingshot's nature to which he never turned a deaf ear. Within the prescribed quarter of an hour he was back again, changed.
'Here's the ice,' said Scott, 'I've been keeping it warm for you. Shovel it down. I want to be starting for the nets. Quicker, man, quicker! Don't roll it round your tongue as if it was port. Go for it. Finished? That's right. Come on.'
Pillingshot had not finished, but Scott so evidently believed that he had, that it would have been unkind to have mentioned the fact. He followed the smiter to the nets.
If Pillingshot had passed the earlier part of the afternoon in a sedentary fashion, he made up for it now. Scott was in rare form, and Pillingshot noticed with no small interest that, while he invariably hit Mr Yorke's deliveries a quarter of a mile or so, he never hit two balls in succession in the same direction. As soon as the panting fieldsman had sprinted to one side of the football ground and returned the ball, there was a beautiful, musical plonk, and the ball soared to the very opposite quarter of the field. It was a fine exhibition of hitting, but Pillingshot felt that he would have enjoyed it more if he could have watched it from a deck-chair.
'You're coming on as a deep field, young Pillingshot,' said Scott, as he took off his pads. 'You've got a knack of stopping them with your stomach, which the best first-class fields never have. You ought to give lessons at it. Now we'll go and have some tea.'
If Pillingshot had had a more intimate acquaintance with the classics, he would have observed at this point, 'Timeo Danaos', and made a last dash for liberty in the direction of the shop. But he was deceived by the specious nature of Scott's remark. Visions rose before his eyes of sitting back in one of Scott's armchairs, watching a fag toasting muffins, which he would eventually dispatch with languid enjoyment. So he followed Scott to his study. The classical parallel to his situation is the well-known case of the oysters. They, too, were eager for the treat.
They had reached the study, and Pillingshot was about to fling himself, with a sigh of relief, into the most comfortable chair, when Scott unmasked his batteries.
'Oh, by the way,' he said, with a coolness which to Pillingshot appeared simply brazen, 'I'm afraid my fag won't be here today. The young crock's gone and got mumps, or the plague, or something. So would you mind just lighting that stove? It'll be rather warm, but that won't matter. There are some muffins in the cupboard. You might weigh in with them. You'll find the toasting-fork on the wall somewhere. It's hanging up. Got it? Good man. Fire away.'
And Scott collected five cushions, two chairs, and a tin of mixed biscuits, and made himself comfortable. Pillingshot, with feelings too deep for words (in the then limited state of his vocabulary), did as he was requested. There was something remarkable about the way Scott could always get people to do things for him. He seemed to take everything for granted. If he had had occasion to hire an assassin to make away with the German Emperor, he would have said, 'Oh, I say, you might run over to Germany and kill the Kaiser, will you, there's a good chap? Don't be long.' And he would have taken a seat and waited, without the least doubt in his mind that the thing would be carried through as desired.
Pillingshot had just finished toasting the muffins, when the door opened, and Venables, of Merevale's, came in.
'I thought I heard you say something about tea this afternoon, Scott,' said Venables. 'I just looked in on the chance. Good Heavens, man! Fancy muffins at this time of year! Do you happen to know what the thermometer is in the shade?'
'Take a seat,' said Scott. 'I attribute my entire success in life to the fact that I never find it too hot to eat muffins. Do you know Pillingshot? One of the hottest fieldsmen in the School. At least, he was just now. He's probably cooled off since then. Venables—Pillingshot, and vice versa. Buck up with the tea, Pillingshot. What, ready? Good man. Now we might almost begin.'
'Beastly thing that accident of young Brown's, wasn't it?' said Scott. 'Chaps oughtn't to go slamming about like that with the field full of fellows. I suppose he won't be right by next Saturday?'
'Not a chance. Why? Oh, yes, I forgot. He was to have scored for the team at Windybury, wasn't he?'
'Who are you going to get now?'
Venables was captain of the St Austin's team. The match next Saturday was at Windybury, on the latter's ground.
'I haven't settled,' said Venables. 'But it's easy to get somebody. Scoring isn't one of those things which only one chap in a hundred understands.'
Then Pillingshot had an idea—a great, luminous idea.
'May I score?' he asked, and waited trembling with apprehension lest the request be refused.
'All right,' said Venables, 'I don't see any reason why you shouldn't. We have to catch the 8.14 at the station. Don't you go missing it or anything.'
'Rather not,' said Pillingshot. 'Not much.'
* * * * *
On Saturday morning, at exactly 9.15, Mr Mellish distributed the Livy papers. When he arrived at Pillingshot's seat and found it empty, an expression passed over his face like unto that of the baffled villain in transpontine melodrama.
'Where is Pillingshot?' he demanded tragically. 'Where is he?'
'He's gone with the team to Windybury, sir,' said Parker, struggling to conceal a large size in grins. 'He's going to score.'
'No,' said Mr Mellish sadly to himself, 'he has scored.'
THE ODD TRICK
The attitude of Philip St H. Harrison, of Merevale's House, towards his fellow-man was outwardly one of genial and even sympathetic toleration. Did his form-master intimate that his conduct was not his idea of what Young England's conduct should be, P. St H. Harrison agreed cheerfully with every word he said, warmly approved his intention of laying the matter before the Headmaster, and accepted his punishment with the air of a waiter booking an order for a chump chop and fried potatoes. But the next day there would be a squeaking desk in the form-room, just to show the master that he had not been forgotten. Or, again, did the captain of his side at football speak rudely to him on the subject of kicking the ball through in the scrum, Harrison would smile gently, and at the earliest opportunity tread heavily on the captain's toe. In short, he was a youth who made a practice of taking very good care of himself. Yet he had his failures. The affair of Graham's mackintosh was one of them, and it affords an excellent example of the truth of the proverb that a cobbler should stick to his last. Harrison's forte was diplomacy. When he forsook the arts of the diplomatist for those of the brigand, he naturally went wrong. And the manner of these things was thus.
Tony Graham was a prefect in Merevale's, and part of his duties was to look after the dormitory of which Harrison was one of the ornaments. It was a dormitory that required a good deal of keeping in order. Such choice spirits as Braithwaite of the Upper Fourth, and Mace, who was rapidly driving the master of the Lower Fifth into a premature grave, needed a firm hand. Indeed, they generally needed not only a firm hand, but a firm hand grasping a serviceable walking-stick. Add to these Harrison himself, and others of a similar calibre, and it will be seen that Graham's post was no sinecure. It was Harrison's custom to throw off his mask at night with his other garments, and appear in his true character of an abandoned villain, willing to stick at nothing as long as he could do it strictly incog. In this capacity he had come into constant contact with Graham. Even in the dark it is occasionally possible for a prefect to tell where a noise comes from. And if the said prefect has been harassed six days in the week by a noise, and locates it suddenly on the seventh, it is wont to be bad for the producer and patentee of same.
And so it came about that Harrison, enjoying himself one night, after the manner of his kind, was suddenly dropped upon with violence. He had constructed an ingenious machine, consisting of a biscuit tin, some pebbles, and some string. He put the pebbles in the tin, tied the string to it, and placed it under a chest of drawers. Then he took the other end of the string to bed with him, and settled down to make a night of it. At first all went well. Repeated inquiries from Tony failed to produce the author of the disturbance, and when finally the questions ceased, and the prefect appeared to have given the matter up as a bad job, P. St H. Harrison began to feel that under certain circumstances life was worth living. It was while he was in this happy frame of mind that the string, with which he had just produced a triumphant rattle from beneath the chest of drawers, was seized, and the next instant its owner was enjoying the warmest minute of a chequered career. Tony, like Brer Rabbit, had laid low until he was certain of the direction from which the sound proceeded. He had then slipped out of bed, crawled across the floor in a snake-like manner which would have done credit to a Red Indian, found the tin, and traced the string to its owner. Harrison emerged from the encounter feeling sore and unfit for any further recreation. This deed of the night left its impression on Harrison. The account had to be squared somehow, and in a few days his chance came. Merevale's were playing a 'friendly' with the School House, and in default of anybody better, Harrison had been pressed into service as umpire. This in itself had annoyed him. Cricket was not in his line—he was not one of your flannelled fools—and of all things in connection with the game he loathed umpiring most.
When, however, Tony came on to bowl at his end, vice Charteris, who had been hit for three fours in an over by Scott, the School slogger, he recognized that even umpiring had its advantages, and resolved to make the most of the situation.
Scott had the bowling, and he lashed out at Tony's first ball in his usual reckless style. There was an audible click, and what the sporting papers call confident appeals came simultaneously from Welch, Merevale's captain, who was keeping wicket, and Tony himself. Even Scott seemed to know that his time had come. He moved a step or two away from the wicket, but stopped before going farther to look at the umpire, on the off-chance of a miracle happening to turn his decision in the batsman's favour.
The miracle happened.
'Not out,' said Harrison.
'Awfully curious,' he added genially to Tony, 'how like a bat those bits of grass sound! You have to be jolly smart to know where a noise comes from, don't you!'
Tony grunted disgustedly, and walked back again to the beginning of his run.
If ever, in the whole history of cricket, a man was out leg-before-wicket, Scott was so out to Tony's second ball. It was hardly worth appealing for such a certainty. Still, the formality had to be gone through.
'How was that?' inquired Tony.
'Not out. It's an awful pity, don't you think, that they don't bring in that new leg-before rule?'
'Seems to me,' said Tony bitterly, 'the old rule holds pretty good when a man's leg's bang in front.'
'Rather. But you see the ball didn't pitch straight, and the rule says—'
'Oh, all right,' said Tony.
The next ball Scott hit for four, and the next after that for a couple. The fifth was a yorker, and just grazed the leg stump. The sixth was a beauty. You could see it was going to beat the batsman from the moment it left Tony's hand. Harrison saw it perfectly.
'No ball,' he shouted. And just as he spoke Scott's off-stump ricocheted towards the wicket-keeper.
'Heavens, man,' said Tony, fairly roused out of his cricket manners, a very unusual thing for him. 'I'll swear my foot never went over the crease. Look, there's the mark.'
'Rather not. Only, you see, it seemed to me you chucked that time. Of course, I know you didn't mean to, and all that sort of thing, but still, the rules—'
Tony would probably have liked to have said something very forcible about the rules at this point, but it occurred to him that after all Harrison was only within his rights, and that it was bad form to dispute the umpire's decision. Harrison walked off towards square-leg with a holy joy.
But he was too much of an artist to overdo the thing. Tony's next over passed off without interference. Possibly, however, this was because it was a very bad one. After the third over he asked Welch if he could get somebody else to umpire, as he had work to do. Welch heaved a sigh of relief, and agreed readily.
'Conscientious sort of chap that umpire of yours,' said Scott to Tony, after the match. Scott had made a hundred and four, and was feeling pleased. 'Considering he's in your House, he's awfully fair.'
'You mean that we generally swindle, I suppose?'
'Of course not, you rotter. You know what I mean. But, I say, that catch Welch and you appealed for must have been a near thing. I could have sworn I hit it.'
'Of course you did. It was clean out. So was the lbw. I say, did you think that ball that bowled you was a chuck? That one in my first over, you know.'
'Chuck! My dear Tony, you don't mean to say that man pulled you up for chucking? I thought your foot must have gone over the crease.'
'I believe the chap's mad,' said Tony.
'Perhaps he's taking it out of you this way for treading on his corns somehow. Have you been milling with this gentle youth lately?'
'By Jove,' said Tony, 'you're right. I gave him beans only the other night for ragging in the dormitory.'
'Well, he seems to have been getting a bit of his own back today. Lucky the game was only a friendly. Why will you let your angry passions rise, Tony? You've wrecked your analysis by it, though it's improved my average considerably. I don't know if that's any solid satisfaction to you.'
'You don't say so! Well, so long. If I were you, I should keep an eye on that conscientious umpire.'
'I will,' said Tony. 'Good-night.'
The process of keeping an eye on Harrison brought no results. When he wished to behave himself well, he could. On such occasions Sandford and Merton were literally not in it with him, and the hero of a Sunday-school story would simply have refused to compete. But Nemesis, as the poets tell us, though no sprinter, manages, like the celebrated Maisie, to get right there in time. Give her time, and she will arrive. She arrived in the case of Harrison. One morning, about a fortnight after the House-match incident, Harrison awoke with a new sensation. At first he could not tell what exactly this sensation was, and being too sleepy to discuss nice points of internal emotion with himself, was just turning over with the intention of going to sleep again, when the truth flashed upon him. The sensation he felt was loneliness, and the reason he felt lonely was because he was the only occupant of the dormitory. To right and left and all around were empty beds.
As he mused drowsily on these portents, the distant sound of a bell came to his ears and completed the cure. It was the bell for chapel. He dragged his watch from under his pillow, and looked at it with consternation. Four minutes to seven. And chapel was at seven. Now Harrison had been late for chapel before. It was not the thought of missing the service that worried him. What really was serious was that he had been late so many times before that Merevale had hinted at serious steps to be taken if he were late again, or, at any rate, until a considerable interval of punctuality had elapsed.
That threat had been uttered only yesterday, and here he was in all probability late once more.
There was no time to dress. He sprang out of bed, passed a sponge over his face as a concession to the decencies, and looked round for something to cover his night-shirt, which, however suitable for dormitory use, was, he felt instinctively, scarcely the garment to wear in public.
Fate seemed to fight for him. On one of the pegs in the wall hung a mackintosh, a large, blessed mackintosh. He was inside it in a moment.
Four minutes later he rushed into his place in chapel.
The short service gave him some time for recovering himself. He left the building feeling a new man. His costume, though quaint, would not call for comment. Chapel at St Austin's was never a full-dress ceremony. Mackintoshes covering night-shirts were the rule rather than the exception.
But between his costume and that of the rest there was this subtle distinction. They wore their own mackintoshes. He wore somebody else's.
The bulk of the School had split up into sections, each section making for its own House, and Merevale's was already in sight, when Harrison felt himself grasped from behind. He turned, to see Graham.
'Might I ask,' enquired Tony with great politeness, 'who said you might wear my mackintosh?'
'I suppose you didn't know it was mine?'
'No, no, rather not. I didn't know.'
'And if you had known it was mine, you wouldn't have taken it, I suppose?'
'Oh no, of course not,' said Harrison. Graham seemed to be taking an unexpectedly sensible view of the situation.
'Well,' said Tony, 'now that you know that it is mine, suppose you give it up.'
'Give it up!'
'Yes; buck up. It looks like rain, and I mustn't catch cold.'
'But, Graham, I've only got on—'
'Spare us these delicate details. Mack up, please, I want it.'
Finally, Harrison appearing to be difficult in the matter, Tony took the garment off for him, and went on his way.
Harrison watched him go with mixed feelings. Righteous indignation struggled with the gravest apprehension regarding his own future. If Merevale should see him! Horrible thought. He ran. He had just reached the House, and was congratulating himself on having escaped, when the worst happened. At the private entrance stood Merevale, and with him the Headmaster himself. They both eyed him with considerable interest as he shot in at the boys' entrance.
'Harrison,' said Merevale after breakfast.
'The Headmaster wishes to see you—again.'
'Yes, sir,' said Harrison.
There was a curious lack of enthusiasm in his voice.
L'AFFAIRE UNCLE JOHN (A Story in Letters)
From Richard Venables, of St Austin's School, to his brother Archibald Venables, of King's College, Cambridge:
Dear Archie—I take up my pen to write to you, not as one hoping for an answer, but rather in order that (you notice the Thucydidean construction) I may tell you of an event the most important of those that have gone before. You may or may not have heard far-off echoes of my adventure with Uncle John, who has just come back from the diamond-mines—and looks it. It happened thusly:
Last Wednesday evening I was going through the cricket field to meet Uncle John, at the station, as per esteemed favour from the governor, telling me to. Just as I got on the scene, to my horror, amazement, and disgust, I saw a middle-aged bounder, in loud checks, who, from his looks, might have been anything from a retired pawnbroker to a second-hand butler, sacked from his last place for stealing the sherry, standing in the middle of the field, on the very wicket the Rugborough match is to be played on next Saturday (tomorrow), and digging—digging—I'll trouble you. Excavating great chunks of our best turf with a walking-stick. I was so unnerved, I nearly fainted. It's bad enough being captain of a School team under any circs., as far as putting you off your game goes, but when you see the wicket you've been rolling by day, and dreaming about by night, being mangled by an utter stranger—well! They say a cow is slightly irritated when her calf is taken away from her, but I don't suppose the most maternal cow that ever lived came anywhere near the frenzy that surged up in my bosom at that moment. I flew up to him, foaming at the mouth. 'My dear sir,' I shrieked, 'are you aware that you're spoiling the best wicket that has ever been prepared since cricket began?' He looked at me, in a dazed sort of way, and said, 'What?' I said: 'How on earth do you think we're going to play Rugborough on a ploughed field?' 'I don't follow, mister,' he replied. A man who calls you 'mister' is beyond the pale. You are justified in being a little rude to him. So I said: 'Then you must be either drunk or mad, and I trust it's the latter.' I believe that's from some book, though I don't remember which. This did seem to wake him up a bit, but before he could frame his opinion in words, up came Biffen, the ground-man, to have a last look at his wicket before retiring for the night. When he saw the holes—they were about a foot deep, and scattered promiscuously, just where two balls out of three pitch—he almost had hysterics. I gently explained the situation to him, and left him to settle with my friend of the check suit. Biffen was just settling down to a sort of Philippic when I went, and I knew that I had left the man in competent hands. Then I went to the station. The train I had been told to meet was the 5.30. By the way, of course, I didn't know in the least what Uncle John was like, not having seen him since I was about one-and-a-half, but I had been told to look out for a tall, rather good-looking man. Well, the 5.30 came in all right, but none of the passengers seemed to answer to the description. The ones who were tall were not good looking, and the only man who was good looking stood five feet nothing in his boots. I did ask him if he was Mr John Dalgliesh; but, his name happening to be Robinson, he could not oblige. I sat out a couple more trains, and then went back to the field. The man had gone, but Biffen was still there. 'Was you expecting anyone today, sir?' he asked, as I came up. 'Yes. Why?' I said. 'That was 'im,' said Biffen. By skilful questioning, I elicited the whole thing. It seems that the fearsome bargee, in checks, was the governor's 'tall, good-looking man'; in other words, Uncle John himself. He had come by the 4.30, I suppose. Anyway, there he was, and I had insulted him badly. Biffen told me that he had asked who I was, and that he (Biffen) had given the information, while he was thinking of something else to say to him about his digging. By the way, I suppose he dug from force of habit. Thought he'd find diamonds, perhaps. When Biffen told him this, he said in a nasty voice: 'Then, when he comes back will you have the goodness to tell him that my name is John Dalgliesh, and that he will hear more of this.' And I'm uncommonly afraid I shall. The governor bars Uncle John awfully, I know, but he wanted me to be particularly civil to him, because he was to get me a place in some beastly firm when I leave. I haven't heard from home yet, but I expect to soon. Still, I'd like to know how I could stand and watch him ruining the wicket for our spot match of the season. As it is, it won't be as good as it would have been. The Rugborough slow man will be unplayable if he can find one of these spots. Altogether, it's a beastly business. Write soon, though I know you won't—Yours ever, Dick
Telegram from Major-General Sir Everard Venables, V.C., K.C.M.G., to his son Richard Venables:
Venables, St Austin's. What all this about Uncle John. Says were grossly rude. Write explanation next post—Venables.
Letter from Mrs James Anthony (nee Miss Dorothy Venables) to her brother Richard Venables:
Dear Dick—What have you been doing to Uncle John? Jim and I are stopping for a fortnight with father, and have just come in for the whole thing. Uncle John—isn't he a horrible man?—says you were grossly insolent to him when he went down to see you. Do write and tell me all about it. I have heard no details as yet. Father refuses to give them, and gets simply furious when the matter is mentioned. Jim said at dinner last night that a conscientious boy would probably feel bound to be rude to Uncle John. Father said 'Conscience be—'; I forget the rest, but it was awful. Jim says if he gets any worse we shall have to sit on his head, and cut the traces. He is getting so dreadfully horsey. Do write the very minute you get this. I want to know all about it.—Your affectionate sister, Dorothy
Part of Letter from Richard Venables, of St Austin's, to his father Major-General Sir Everard Venables, V.C., K.C.M.G.:
... So you see it was really his fault. The Emperor of Germany has no right to come and dig holes in our best wicket. Take a parallel case. Suppose some idiot of a fellow (not that Uncle John's that, of course, but you know what I mean) came and began rooting up your azaleas. Wouldn't you want to say something cutting? I will apologize to Uncle John, if you like; but still, I do think he might have gone somewhere else if he really wanted to dig. So you see, etc., etc.
Letter from Richard Venables, of St Austin's, to his sister Mrs James Anthony:
Dear Dolly—Thanks awfully for your letter, and thank Jim for his message. He's a ripper. I'm awfully glad you married him and not that rotter, Thompson, who used to hang on so. I hope the most marvellous infant on earth is flourishing. And now about Uncle John. Really, I am jolly glad I did say all that to him. We played Rugborough yesterday, and the wicket was simply vile. They won the toss, and made two hundred and ten. Of course, the wicket was all right at one end, and that's where they made most of their runs. I was wicket-keeping as usual, and I felt awfully ashamed of the beastly pitch when their captain asked me if it was the football-field. Of course, he wouldn't have said that if he hadn't been a pal of mine, but it was probably what the rest of the team thought, only they were too polite to say so. When we came to bat it was worse than ever. I went in first with Welch—that's the fellow who stopped a week at home a few years ago; I don't know whether you remember him. He got out in the first over, caught off a ball that pitched where Uncle John had been prospecting, and jumped up. It was rotten luck, of course, and worse was to follow, for by half-past five we had eight wickets down for just over the hundred, and only young Scott, who's simply a slogger, and another fellow to come in. Well, Scott came in. I had made about sixty then, and was fairly well set—and he started simply mopping up the bowling. He gave a chance every over as regular as clockwork, and it was always missed, and then he would make up for it with two or three tremendous whangs—a safe four every time. It wasn't batting. It was more like golf. Well, this went on for some time, and we began to get hopeful again, having got a hundred and eighty odd. I just kept up my wicket, while Scott hit. Then he got caught, and the last man, a fellow called Moore, came in. I'd put him in the team as a bowler, but he could bat a little, too, on occasions, and luckily this was one of them. There were only eleven to win, and I had the bowling. I was feeling awfully fit, and put their slow man clean over the screen twice running, which left us only three to get. Then it was over, and Moore played the fast man in grand style, though he didn't score. Well, I got the bowling again, and half-way through the over I carted a half-volley into the Pav., and that gave us the match. Moore hung on for a bit and made about ten, and then got bowled. We made 223 altogether, of which I had managed to get seventy-eight, not out. It pulls my average up a good bit. Rather decent, isn't it? The fellows rotted about a good deal, and chaired me into the Pav., but it was Scott who won us the match, I think. He made ninety-four. But Uncle John nearly did for us with his beastly walking-stick. On a good wicket we might have made any number. I don't know how the affair will end. Keep me posted up in the governor's symptoms, and write again soon.—Your affectionate brother, Dick
PS.—On looking over this letter, I find I have taken it for granted that you know all about the Uncle John affair. Probably you do, but, in case you don't, it was this way. You see, I was going, etc., etc.
From Archibald Venables, of King's College, Cambridge, to Richard Venables, of St Austin's:
Dear Dick—Just a line to thank you for your letter, and to tell you that since I got it I have had a visit from the great Uncle John, too. He is an outsider, if you like. I gave him the best lunch I could in my rooms, and the man started a long lecture on extravagance. He doesn't seem to understand the difference between the 'Varsity and a private school. He kept on asking leading questions about pocket-money and holidays, and wanted to know if my master allowed me to walk in the streets in that waistcoat—a remark which cut me to the quick, 'that waistcoat' being quite the most posh thing of the sort in Cambridge. He then enquired after my studies; and, finally, when I saw him off at the station, said that he had decided not to tip me, because he was afraid that I was inclined to be extravagant. I was quite kind to him, however, in spite of everything; but I was glad you had spoken to him like a father. The recollection of it soothed me, though it seemed to worry him. He talked a good deal about it. Glad you came off against Rugborough.—Yours ever, A. Venables
From Mr John Dalgliesh to Mr Philip Mortimer, of Penge:
Dear Sir—In reply to your letter of the 18th inst., I shall be happy to recommend your son, Reginald, for the vacant post in the firm of Messrs Van Nugget, Diomonde, and Mynes, African merchants. I have written them to that effect, and you will, doubtless, receive a communication from them shortly.—I am, my dear sir, yours faithfully, J. Dalgliesh
From Richard Venables, of St Austin's, to his father Major-General Sir Everard Venables, V.C., K.C.M.G.:
Dear Father—Uncle John writes, in answer to my apology, to say that no apologies will meet the case; and that he has given his nomination in that rotten City firm of his to a fellow called Mortimer. But rather a decent thing has happened. There is a chap here I know pretty well, who is the son of Lord Marmaduke Twistleton, and it appears that the dook himself was down watching the Rugborough match, and liked my batting. He came and talked to me after the match, and asked me what I was going to do when I left, and I said I wasn't certain, and he said that, if I hadn't anything better on, he could give me a place on his estate up in Scotland, as a sort of land-agent, as he wanted a chap who could play cricket, because he was keen on the game himself, and always had a lot going on in the summer up there. So he says that, if I go up to the 'Varsity for three years, he can guarantee me the place when I come down, with a jolly good screw and a ripping open-air life, with lots of riding, and so on, which is just what I've always wanted. So, can I? It's the sort of opportunity that won't occur again, and you know you always said the only reason I couldn't go up to the 'Varsity was, that it would be a waste of time. But in this case, you see, it won't, because he wants me to go, and guarantees me the place when I come down. It'll be awfully fine, if I may. I hope you'll see it.—Your affectionate son, Dick
PS.—I think he's writing to you. He asked your address. I think Uncle John's a rotter. I sent him a rattling fine apology, and this is how he treats it. But it'll be all right if you like this land-agent idea. If you like, you might wire your answer.
Telegram from Major-General Sir Everard Venables, V.C., K.C.M.G., to his son Richard Venables, of St Austin's:
Venables, St Austin's. Very well.—Venables
Extract from Letter from Richard Venables, of St Austin's, to his father Major-General Sir Everard Venables, V.C., K.C.M.G.:
... Thanks, awfully—
Extract from The Austinian of October:
The following O.A.s have gone into residence this year: At Oxford, J. Scrymgeour, Corpus Christi; R. Venables, Trinity; K. Crespigny-Brown, Balliol.
Extract from the Daily Mail's account of the 'Varsity match of the following summer:
... The St Austin's freshman, Venables, fully justified his inclusion by scoring a stylish fifty-seven. He hit eight fours, and except for a miss-hit in the slips, at 51, which Smith might possibly have secured had he started sooner, gave nothing like a chance. Venables, it will be remembered, played several good innings for Oxford in the earlier matches, notably, his not out contribution of 103 against Sussex—
HARRISON'S SLIGHT ERROR
The one o'clock down express was just on the point of starting. The engine-driver, with his hand on the lever, whiled away the moments, like the watchman in The Agamemnon, by whistling. The guard endeavoured to talk to three people at once. Porters flitted to and fro, cleaving a path for themselves with trucks of luggage. The Usual Old Lady was asking if she was right for some place nobody had ever heard of. Everybody was saying good-bye to everybody else, and last, but not least, P. St H. Harrison, of St Austin's, was strolling at a leisurely pace towards the rear of the train. There was no need for him to hurry. For had not his friend, Mace, promised to keep a corner-seat for him while he went to the refreshment-room to lay in supplies? Undoubtedly he had, and Harrison, as he watched the struggling crowd, congratulated himself that he was not as other men. A corner seat in a carriage full of his own particular friends, with plenty of provisions, and something to read in case he got tired of talking—it would be perfect.
So engrossed was he in these reflections, that he did not notice that from the opposite end of the platform a youth of about his own age was also making for the compartment in question. The first intimation he had of his presence was when the latter, arriving first at the door by a short head, hurled a bag on to the rack, and sank gracefully into the identical corner seat which Harrison had long regarded as his own personal property. And to make matters worse, there was no other vacant seat in the compartment. Harrison was about to protest, when the guard blew his whistle. There was nothing for it but to jump in and argue the matter out en route. Harrison jumped in, to be greeted instantly by a chorus of nine male voices. 'Outside there! No room! Turn him out!' said the chorus. Then the chorus broke up into its component parts, and began to address him one by one.
'You rotter, Harrison,' said Babington, of Dacre's, 'what do you come barging in here for? Can't you see we're five aside already?'
'Hope you've brought a sardine-opener with you, old chap,' said Barrett, the peerless pride of Philpott's, ''cos we shall jolly well need one when we get to the good old Junct-i-on. Get up into the rack, Harrison, you're stopping the ventilation.'
The youth who had commandeered Harrison's seat so neatly took another unpardonable liberty at this point. He grinned. Not the timid, deprecating smile of one who wishes to ingratiate himself with strangers, but a good, six-inch grin right across his face. Harrison turned on him savagely.
'Look here,' he said, 'just you get out of that. What do you mean by bagging my seat?'
'Are you a director of this line?' enquired the youth politely. Roars of applause from the interested audience. Harrison began to feel hot and uncomfortable.
'Or only the Emperor of Germany?' pursued his antagonist.
More applause, during which Harrison dropped his bag of provisions, which were instantly seized and divided on the share and share alike system, among the gratified Austinians.
'Look here, none of your cheek,' was the shockingly feeble retort which alone occurred to him. The other said nothing. Harrison returned to the attack.
'Look here,' he said, 'are you going to get out, or have I got to make you?'
Not a word did his opponent utter. To quote the bard: 'The stripling smiled.' To tell the truth, the stripling smiled inanely.
The other occupants of the carriage were far from imitating his reserve. These treacherous friends, realizing that, for those who were themselves comfortably seated, the spectacle of Harrison standing up with aching limbs for a journey of some thirty miles would be both grateful and comforting, espoused the cause of the unknown with all the vigour of which they were capable.
'Beastly bully, Harrison,' said Barrett. 'Trying to turn the kid out of his seat! Why can't you leave the chap alone? Don't you move, kid.'
'Thanks,' said the unknown, 'I wasn't going to.'
'Now you see what comes of slacking,' said Grey. 'If you'd bucked up and got here in time you might have bagged this seat I've got. By Jove, Harrison, you've no idea how comfortable it is in this corner.'
'Punctuality,' said Babington, 'is the politeness of princes.'
And again the unknown maddened Harrison with a 'best-on-record' grin.
'But, I say, you chaps,' said he, determined as a last resource to appeal to their better feelings (if any), 'Mace was keeping this seat for me, while I went to get some grub. Weren't you, Mace?' He turned to Mace for corroboration. To his surprise, Mace was nowhere to be seen.
His sympathetic school-fellows grasped the full humour of the situation as one man, and gave tongue once more in chorus.
'You weed,' they yelled joyfully, 'you've got into the wrong carriage. Mace is next door.'
And then, with the sound of unquenchable laughter ringing in his ears, Harrison gave the thing up, and relapsed into a disgusted silence. No single word did he speak until the journey was done, and the carriage emptied itself of its occupants at the Junction. The local train was in readiness to take them on to St Austin's, and this time Harrison managed to find a seat without much difficulty. But it was a bitter moment when Mace, meeting him on the platform, addressed him as a rotter, for that he had not come to claim the corner seat which he had been reserving for him. They had had, said Mace, a rattling good time coming down. What sort of a time had Harrison had in his carriage? Harrison's reply was not remarkable for its clearness.
The unknown had also entered the local train. It was plain, therefore, that he was coming to the School as a new boy. Harrison began to wonder if, under these circumstances, something might not be done in the matter by way of levelling up things. He pondered. When St Austin's station was reached, and the travellers began to stream up the road towards the College, he discovered that the newcomer was a member of his own House. He was standing close beside him, and heard Babington explaining to him the way to Merevale's. Merevale was Harrison's House-master.
It was two minutes after he had found out this fact that the Grand Idea came to Harrison. He saw his way now to a revenge so artistic, so beautifully simple, that it was with some difficulty that he restrained himself from bursting into song. For two pins, he felt, he could have done a cake-walk.
He checked his emotion. He beat it steadily back, and quenched it. When he arrived at Merevale's, he went first to the matron's room. 'Has Venables come back yet?' he asked.
Venables was the head of Merevale's House, captain of the School cricket, wing three-quarter of the School Fifteen, and a great man altogether.
'Yes,' said the matron, 'he came back early this afternoon.'
Harrison knew it. Venables always came back early on the last day of the holidays.
'He was upstairs a short while ago,' continued the matron. 'He was putting his study tidy.'
Harrison knew it. Venables always put his study tidy on the last day of the holidays. He took a keen and perfectly justifiable pride in his study, which was the most luxurious in the House.
'Is he there now?' asked Harrison.
'No. He has gone over to see the Headmaster.'
'Thanks,' said Harrison, 'it doesn't matter. It wasn't anything important.'
He retired triumphant. Things were going excellently well for his scheme.
His next act was to go to the fags' room, where, as he had expected, he found his friend of the train. Luck continued to be with him. The unknown was alone.
'Hullo!' said Harrison.
'Hullo!' said the fellow-traveller. He had resolved to follow Harrison's lead. If Harrison was bringing war, then war let it be. If, however, his intentions were friendly, he would be friendly too.
'I didn't know you were coming to Merevale's. It's the best House in the School.'
'Yes, for one thing, everybody except the kids has a study.'
'What? Not really? Why, I thought we had to keep to this room. One of the chaps told me so.'
'Trying to green you, probably. You must look out for that sort of thing. I'll show you the way to your study, if you like. Come along upstairs.'
'Thanks, awfully. It's awfully good of you,' said the gratified unknown, and they went upstairs together.
One of the doors which they passed on their way was open, disclosing to view a room which, though bare at present, looked as if it might be made exceedingly comfortable.
'That's my den,' said Harrison. It was perhaps lucky that Graham, to whom the room belonged, in fact, as opposed to fiction, did not hear the remark. Graham and Harrison were old and tried foes. 'This is yours.' Harrison pushed open another door at the end of the passage.
His companion stared blankly at the Oriental luxury which met his eye. 'But, I say,' he said, 'are you sure? This seems to be occupied already.'
'Oh, no, that's all right,' said Harrison, airily. 'The chap who used to be here left last term. He didn't know he was going to leave till it was too late to pack up all his things, so he left his study as it was. All you've got to do is to cart the things out into the passage and leave them there. The Moke'll take 'em away.'
The Moke was the official who combined in a single body the duties of butler and bootboy at Merevale's House. 'Oh, right-ho!' said the unknown, and Harrison left him.
Harrison's idea was that when Venables returned and found an absolute stranger placidly engaged in wrecking his carefully-tidied study, he would at once, and without making inquiries, fall upon that absolute stranger and blot him off the face of the earth. Afterwards it might possibly come out that he, Harrison, had been not altogether unconnected with the business, and then, he was fain to admit, there might be trouble. But he was a youth who never took overmuch heed for the morrow. Sufficient unto the day was his motto. And, besides, it was distinctly worth risking. The main point, and the one with which alone the House would concern itself, was that he had completely taken in, scored off, and overwhelmed the youth who had done as much by him in the train, and his reputation as one not to be lightly trifled with would be restored to its former brilliance. Anything that might happen between himself and Venables subsequently would be regarded as a purely private matter between man and man, affecting the main point not at all.
About an hour later a small Merevalian informed Harrison that Venables wished to see him in his study. He went. Experience had taught him that when the Head of the House sent for him, it was as a rule as well to humour his whim and go. He was prepared for a good deal, for he had come to the conclusion that it was impossible for him to preserve his incognito in the matter, but he was certainly not prepared for what he saw.
Venables and the stranger were seated in two armchairs, apparently on the very best of terms with one another. And this, in spite of the fact that these two armchairs were the only furniture left in the study. The rest, as he had noted with a grin before he had knocked at the door, was picturesquely scattered about the passage.
'Hullo, Harrison,' said Venables, 'I wanted to see you. There seems to have been a slight mistake somewhere. Did you tell my brother to shift all the furniture out of the study?'
Harrison turned a delicate shade of green.
'Your—er—brother?' he gurgled.
'Yes. I ought to have told you my brother was coming to the Coll. this term. I told the Old Man and Merevale and the rest of the authorities. Can't make out why I forgot you. Slipped my mind somehow. However, you seem to have been doing the square thing by him, showing him round and so on. Very good of you.'
Harrison smiled feebly. Venables junior grinned. What seemed to Harrison a mystery was how the brothers had managed to arrive at the School at different times. The explanation of which was in reality very simple. The elder Venables had been spending the last week of the holidays with MacArthur, the captain of the St Austin's Fifteen, the same being a day boy, suspended within a mile of the School.
'But what I can't make out,' went on Venables, relentlessly, 'is this furniture business. To the best of my knowledge I didn't leave suddenly at the end of last term. I'll ask if you like, to make sure, but I fancy you'll find you've been mistaken. Must have been thinking of someone else. Anyhow, we thought you must know best, so we lugged all the furniture out into the passage, and now it appears there's been a mistake of sorts, and the stuff ought to be inside all the time. So would you mind putting it back again? We'd help you, only we're going out to the shop to get some tea. You might have it done by the time we get back. Thanks, awfully.'
Harrison coughed nervously, and rose to a point of order.
'I was going out to tea, too,' he said.
'I'm sorry, but I think you'll have to scratch the engagement,' said Venables.
Harrison made a last effort.
'I'm fagging for Welch this term,' he protested.
It was the rule at St Austin's that every fag had the right to refuse to serve two masters. Otherwise there would have been no peace for that down-trodden race.
'That,' said Venables, 'ought to be awfully jolly for Welch, don't you know, but as a matter of fact term hasn't begun yet. It doesn't start till tomorrow. Weigh in.'
Various feelings began to wage war beneath Harrison's Eton waistcoat. A profound disinclination to undertake the suggested task battled briskly with a feeling that, if he refused the commission, things might—nay, would—happen.
'Harrison,' said Venables gently, but with meaning, as he hesitated, 'do you know what it is to wish you had never been born?'
And Harrison, with a thoughtful expression on his face, picked up a photograph from the floor, and hung it neatly in its place over the mantelpiece.
BRADSHAW'S LITTLE STORY
The qualities which in later years rendered Frederick Wackerbath Bradshaw so conspicuous a figure in connection with the now celebrated affair of the European, African, and Asiatic Pork Pie and Ham Sandwich Supply Company frauds, were sufficiently in evidence during his school career to make his masters prophesy gloomily concerning his future. The boy was in every detail the father of the man. There was the same genial unscrupulousness, upon which the judge commented so bitterly during the trial, the same readiness to seize an opportunity and make the most of it, the same brilliance of tactics. Only once during those years can I remember an occasion on which Justice scored a point against him. I can remember it, because I was in a sense responsible for his failure. And he can remember it, I should be inclined to think, for other reasons. Our then Headmaster was a man with a straight eye and a good deal of muscular energy, and it is probable that the talented Frederick, in spite of the passage of years, has a tender recollection of these facts.
It was the eve of the Euripides examination in the Upper Fourth. Euripides is not difficult compared to some other authors, but he does demand a certain amount of preparation. Bradshaw was a youth who did less preparation than anybody I have ever seen, heard of, or read of, partly because he preferred to peruse a novel under the table during prep., but chiefly, I think, because he had reduced cribbing in form to such an exact science that he loved it for its own sake, and would no sooner have come tamely into school with a prepared lesson than a sportsman would shoot a sitting bird. It was not the marks that he cared for. He despised them. What he enjoyed was the refined pleasure of swindling under a master's very eye. At the trial the judge, who had, so ran report, been himself rather badly bitten by the Ham Sandwich Company, put the case briefly and neatly in the words, 'You appear to revel in villainy for villainy's sake,' and I am almost certain that I saw the beginnings of a gratified smile on Frederick's expressive face as he heard the remark. The rest of our study—the juniors at St Austin's pigged in quartettes—were in a state of considerable mental activity on account of this Euripides examination. There had been House-matches during the preceding fortnight, and House-matches are not a help to study, especially if you are on the very fringe of the cock-house team, as I was. By dint of practising every minute of spare time, I had got the eleventh place for my fielding. And, better still, I had caught two catches in the second innings, one of them a regular gallery affair, and both off the captain's bowling. It was magnificent, but it was not Euripides, and I wished now that it had been. Mellish, our form-master, had an unpleasant habit of coming down with both feet, as it were, on members of his form who failed in the book-papers.
We were working, therefore, under forced draught, and it was distinctly annoying to see the wretched Bradshaw lounging in our only armchair with one of Rider Haggard's best, seemingly quite unmoved at the prospect of Euripides examinations. For all he appeared to care, Euripides might never have written a line in his life.
Kendal voiced the opinion of the meeting.
'Bradshaw, you worm,' he said. 'Aren't you going to do any work?'
'Think not. What's the good? Can't get up a whole play of Euripides in two hours.'
'Mellish'll give you beans.'
'You'll get a jolly bad report.'
'Shan't get a report at all. I always intercept it before my guardian can get it. He never says anything.'
'Mellish'll probably run you in to the Old Man,' said White, the fourth occupant of the study.
Bradshaw turned on us with a wearied air.
'Oh, do give us a rest,' he said. 'Here you are just going to do a most important exam., and you sit jawing away as if you were paid for it. Oh, I say, by the way, who's setting the paper tomorrow?'
'Mellish, of course,' said White.
'No, he isn't,' I said. 'Shows what a lot you know about it. Mellish is setting the Livy paper.'
'Then, who's doing this one?' asked Bradshaw.
Yorke was the master of the Upper Fifth. He generally set one of the upper fourth book-papers.
'Certain?' said Bradshaw.
'Thanks. That's all I wanted to know. By Jove, I advise you chaps to read this. It's grand. Shall I read out this bit about a fight?'
'No!' we shouted virtuously, all together, though we were dying to hear it, and we turned once more to the loathsome inanities of the second chorus. If we had been doing Homer, we should have felt more in touch with Bradshaw. There's a good deal of similarity, when you come to compare them, between Homer and Haggard. They both deal largely in bloodshed, for instance. As events proved, the Euripides paper, like many things which seem formidable at a distance, was not nearly so bad as I had expected. I did a fair-to-moderate paper, and Kendal and White both seemed satisfied with themselves. Bradshaw confessed without emotion that he had only attempted the last half of the last question, and on being pressed for further information, merely laughed mysteriously, and said vaguely that it would be all right.
It now became plain that he had something up his sleeve. We expressed a unanimous desire to know what it was.
'You might tell a chap,' I said.
'Out with it, Bradshaw, or we'll lynch you,' added Kendal.
Bradshaw, however, was not to be drawn. Much of his success in the paths of crime, both at school and afterwards, was due to his secretive habits. He never permitted accomplices.
On the following Wednesday the marks were read out. Out of a possible hundred I had obtained sixty—which pleased me very much indeed—White, fifty-five, Kendal, sixty-one. The unspeakable Bradshaw's net total was four.
Mellish always read out bad marks in a hushed voice, expressive of disgust and horror, but four per cent was too much for him. He shouted it, and the form yelled applause, until Ponsonby came in from the Upper Fifth next door with Mr Yorke's compliments, 'and would we recollect that his form were trying to do an examination'.
When order had been restored, Mellish settled his glasses and glared through them at Bradshaw, who, it may be remarked, had not turned a hair.
'Bradshaw,' he said, 'how do you explain this?'
It was merely a sighting shot, so to speak. Nobody was ever expected to answer the question. Bradshaw, however, proved himself the exception to the rule.
'I can explain, sir,' he said, 'if I may speak to you privately afterwards.'
I have seldom seen anyone so astonished as Mellish was at these words. In the whole course of his professional experience, he had never met with a parallel case. It was hard on the poor man not to be allowed to speak his mind about a matter of four per cent in a book-paper, but what could he do? He could not proceed with his denunciation, for if Bradshaw's explanation turned out a sufficient excuse, he would have to withdraw it all again, and vast stores of golden eloquence would be wasted. But, then, if he bottled up what he wished to say altogether, it might do him a serious internal injury. At last he hit on a compromise. He said, 'Very well, Bradshaw, I will hear what you have to say,' and then sprang, like the cat in the poem, 'all claws', upon an unfortunate individual who had scored twenty-nine, and who had been congratulating himself that Bradshaw's failings would act as a sort of lightning-conductor to him. Bradshaw worked off his explanation in under five minutes. I tried to stay behind to listen, on the pretext of wanting to tidy up my desk, but was ejected by request. Bradshaw explained that his statement was private.
After a time they came out together like long-lost brothers, Mellish with his hand on Bradshaw's shoulder. It was some small comfort to me to remember that Bradshaw had the greatest dislike to this sort of thing.
It was evident that Bradshaw, able exponent of the art of fiction that he was, must have excelled himself on this occasion. I tried to get the story out of him in the study that evening. White and Kendal assisted. We tried persuasion first. That having failed, we tried taunts. Then we tried kindness. Kendal sat on his legs, and I sat on his head, and White twisted his arm. I think that we should have extracted something soon, either his arm from its socket or a full confession, but we were interrupted. The door flew open, and Prater (the same being our House-master, and rather a good sort) appeared.
'Now then, now then,' he said. Prater's manner is always abrupt.
'What's this? I can't have this. I can't have this. Get up at once. Where's Bradshaw?'
I rose gracefully to my feet, thereby disclosing the classic features of the lost one.
'The Headmaster wants to see you at once, Bradshaw, at the School House. You others had better find something to do, or you will be getting into trouble.'
He and Bradshaw left together, while we speculated on the cause of the summons.
We were not left very long in suspense. In a quarter of an hour Bradshaw returned, walking painfully, and bearing what, to the expert's eye, are the unmistakable signs of a 'touching up', which, being interpreted, is corporal punishment.
'Hullo,' said White, as he appeared, 'what's all this?'
'How many?' enquired the statistically-minded Kendal. 'You'll be thankful for this when you're a man, Bradshaw.'
'That's what I always say to myself when I'm touched up,' added Kendal.
I said nothing, but it was to me that the wounded one addressed himself.
'You utter ass,' he said, in tones of concentrated venom.
'Look here, Bradshaw—' I began, protestingly.
'It's all through you—you idiot,' he snarled. 'I got twelve.'
'Twelve isn't so dusty,' said White, critically. 'Most I ever got was six.'
'But why was it?' asked Kendal. 'That's what we want to know. What have you been and gone and done?'
'It's about that Euripides paper,' said Bradshaw.
'Ah!' said Kendal.
'Yes, I don't mind telling you about it now. When Mellish had me up after school today, I'd got my yarn all ready. There wasn't a flaw in it anywhere as far as I could see. My idea was this. I told him I'd been to Yorke's room the day before the exam, to ask him if he had any marks for us. That was all right. Yorke was doing the two Unseen papers, and it was just the sort of thing a fellow would do to go and ask him about the marks.'
'Then when I got there he was out, and I looked about for the marks, and on the table I saw the Euripides paper.'
'By Jove!' said Kendal. We began to understand, and to realize that here was a master-mind.
'Well, of course, I read it, not knowing what it was, and then, as the only way of not taking an unfair advantage, I did as badly as I could in the exam. That was what I told Mellish. Any beak would have swallowed it.'
'Well, didn't he?'
'Mellish did all right, but the rotter couldn't keep it to himself. Went and told the Old Man. The Old Man sent for me. He was as decent as anything at first. That was just his guile. He made me describe exactly where I had seen the paper, and so on. That was rather risky, of course, but I put it as vaguely as I could. When I had finished, he suddenly whipped round, and said, "Bradshaw, why are you telling me all these lies?" That's the sort of thing that makes you feel rather a wreck. I was too surprised to say anything.'
'I can guess the rest,' said Kendal. 'But how on earth did he know it was all lies? Why didn't you stick to your yarn?'
'And, besides,' I put in, 'where do I come in? I don't see what I've got to do with it.'
Bradshaw eyed me fiercely. 'Why, the whole thing was your fault,' he said. 'You told me Yorke was setting the paper.'
'Well, so he did, didn't he?'
'No, he didn't. The Old Man set it himself,' said Bradshaw, gloomily.
A SHOCKING AFFAIR
The Bradshaw who appears in the following tale is the same youth who figures as the hero—or villain, label him as you like—of the preceding equally veracious narrative. I mention this because I should not care for you to go away with the idea that a waistcoat marked with the name of Bradshaw must of necessity cover a scheming heart. It may, however, be noticed that a good many members of the Bradshaw family possess a keen and rather sinister sense of the humorous, inherited doubtless from their great ancestor, the dry wag who wrote that monument of quiet drollery, Bradshaw's Railway Guide. So with the hero of my story.
Frederick Wackerbath Bradshaw was, as I have pointed out, my contemporary at St Austin's. We were in the same House, and together we sported on the green—and elsewhere—and did our best to turn the majority of the staff of masters into confirmed pessimists, they in the meantime endeavouring to do the same by us with every weapon that lay to their hand. And the worst of these weapons were the end-of-term examination papers. Mellish was our form-master, and once a term a demon entered into Mellish. He brooded silently apart from the madding crowd. He wandered through dry places seeking rest, and at intervals he would smile evilly, and jot down a note on the back of an envelope. These notes, collected and printed closely on the vilest paper, made up the examination questions.
Our form read two authors a term, one Latin and one Greek. It was the Greek that we feared most. Mellish had a sort of genius for picking out absolutely untranslatable passages, and desiring us (in print) to render the same with full notes. This term the book had been Thucydides, Book II, with regard to which I may echo the words of a certain critic when called upon to give his candid opinion of a friend's first novel, 'I dare not say what I think about that book.'
About a week before the commencement of the examinations, the ordinary night-work used to cease, and we were supposed, during that week, to be steadily going over the old ground and arming ourselves for the approaching struggle. There were, I suppose, people who actually did do this, but for my own part I always used to regard those seven days as a blessed period of rest, set apart specially to enable me to keep abreast of the light fiction of the day. And most of the form, so far as I know, thought the same. It was only on the night before the examination that one began to revise in real earnest. One's methods on that night resolved themselves into sitting in a chair and wondering where to begin. Just as one came to a decision, it was bedtime.
'Bradshaw,' I said, as I reached page 103 without having read a line, 'do you know any likely bits?'
Bradshaw looked up from his book. He was attempting to get a general idea of Thucydides' style by reading Pickwick.
'What?' he said.
I obliged with a repetition of my remark.
'Likely bits? Oh, you mean for the Thucydides. I don't know. Mellish never sets the bits any decent ordinary individual would set. I should take my chance if I were you.'
'What are you going to do?'
'I'm going to read Pickwick. Thicksides doesn't come within a mile of it.'
I thought so too.
'But how about tomorrow?'
'Oh, I shan't be there,' he said, as if it were the most ordinary of statements.
'Not there! Why, have you been sacked?'
This really seemed the only possible explanation. Such an event would not have come as a surprise. It was always a matter for wonder to me why the authorities never sacked Bradshaw, or at the least requested him to leave. Possibly it was another case of the ass and the bundles of hay. They could not make up their minds which special misdemeanour of his to attack first.
'No, I've not been sacked,' said Bradshaw.
A light dawned upon me.
'Oh,' I said, 'you're going to slumber in.' For the benefit of the uninitiated, I may mention that to slumber in is to stay in the House during school on a pretence of illness.
'That,' replied the man of mystery, with considerable asperity, 'is exactly the silly rotten kid's idea that would come naturally to a complete idiot like you.'
As a rule, I resent being called a complete idiot, but this was not the time for asserting one's personal dignity. I had to know what Bradshaw's scheme for evading the examination was. Perhaps there might be room for two in it; in which case I should have been exceedingly glad to have lent my moral support to it. I pressed for an explanation.
'You may jaw,' said Bradshaw at last, 'as much as you jolly well please, but I'm not going to give this away. All you're going to know is that I shan't be there tomorrow.'
'I bet you are, and I bet you do a jolly rank paper too,' I said, remembering that the sceptic is sometimes vouchsafed revelations to which the most devout believer may not aspire. It is, for instance, always the young man who scoffs at ghosts that the family spectre chooses as his audience. But it required more than a mere sneer or an empty gibe to pump information out of Bradshaw. He took me up at once.
'What'll you bet?' he said.
Now I was prepared to wager imaginary sums to any extent he might have cared to name, but as my actual worldly wealth at that moment consisted of one penny, and my expectations were limited to the shilling pocket-money which I should receive on the following Saturday—half of which was already mortgaged—it behoved me to avoid doing anything rash with my ready money. But, since a refusal would have meant the downfall of my arguments, I was obliged to name a figure. I named an even sixpence. After all, I felt, I must win. By what means, other than illness, could Bradshaw possibly avoid putting in an appearance at the Thucydides examination?
'All right,' said Bradshaw, 'an even sixpence. You'll lose.'
'Slumbering in barred.'
'Real illness barred too,' I said. Bradshaw is a man of resource, and has been known to make himself genuinely ill in similar emergencies.
'Right you are. Slumbering in and real illness both barred. Anything else you'd like to bar?'
'No. Unless—' an idea struck me—'You're not going to run away?'
Bradshaw scorned to answer the question.
'Now you'd better buck up with your work,' he said, opening his book again. 'You've got about as long odds as anyone ever got. But you'll lose all the same.'
It scarcely seemed possible. And yet—Bradshaw was generally right. If he said he had a scheme for doing—though it was generally for not doing—something, it rarely failed to come off. I thought of my sixpence, my only sixpence, and felt a distinct pang of remorse. After all, only the other day the chaplain had said how wrong it was to bet. By Jove, so he had. Decent man the chaplain. Pity to do anything he would disapprove of. I was on the point of recalling my wager, when before my mind's eye rose a vision of Bradshaw rampant and sneering, and myself writhing in my chair a crushed and scored-off wreck. I drew the line at that. I valued my self-respect at more than sixpence. If it had been a shilling now—. So I set my teeth and turned once more to my Thucydides. Bradshaw, having picked up the thread of his story again, emitted hoarse chuckles like minute guns, until I very nearly rose and fell upon him. It is maddening to listen to a person laughing and not to know the joke.
'You will be allowed two hours for this paper,' said Mellish on the following afternoon, as he returned to his desk after distributing the Thucydides questions. 'At five minutes to four I shall begin to collect your papers, but those who wish may go on till ten past. Write only on one side of the paper, and put your names in the top right-hand corner. Marks will be given for neatness. Any boy whom I see looking at his neighbour's—where's Bradshaw?'
It was already five minutes past the hour. The latest of the late always had the decency to appear at least by three minutes past.
'Has anybody seen Bradshaw?' repeated Mellish. 'You, what's-your-name—' (I am what's-your-name, very much at your service) '—you are in his House. Have you seen him?'
I could have pointed out with some pleasure at this juncture that if Cain expressed indignation at being asked where his brother was, I, by a simple sum in proportion, might with even greater justice feel annoyed at having to locate a person who was no relative of mine at all. Did Mr Mellish expect me to keep an eye on every member of my House? Did Mr Mellish—in short, what did he mean by it?
This was what I thought. I said, 'No, sir.'
'This is extraordinary,' said Mellish, 'most extraordinary. Why, the boy was in school this morning.'
This was true. The boy had been in school that morning to some purpose, having beaten all records (his own records) in the gentle sport of Mellish-baiting. This evidently occurred to Mellish at the time, for he dropped the subject at once, and told us to begin our papers.
Now I have remarked already that I dare not say what I think of Thucydides, Book II. How then shall I frame my opinion of that examination paper? It was Thucydides, Book II, with the few easy parts left out. It was Thucydides, Book II, with special home-made difficulties added. It was—well, in its way it was a masterpiece. Without going into details—I dislike sensational and realistic writing—I may say that I personally was not one of those who required an extra ten minutes to finish their papers. I finished mine at half-past two, and amused myself for the remaining hour and a half by writing neatly on several sheets of foolscap exactly what I thought of Mr Mellish, and precisely what I hoped would happen to him some day. It was grateful and comforting.
At intervals I wondered what had become of Bradshaw. I was not surprised at his absence. At first I had feared that he would keep his word in that matter. As time went on I knew that he would. At more frequent intervals I wondered how I should enjoy being a bankrupt.
Four o'clock came round, and found me so engrossed in putting the finishing touches to my excursus of Mr Mellish's character, that I stayed on in the form-room till ten past. Two other members of the form stayed too, writing with the despairing energy of those who had five minutes to say what they would like to spread over five hours. At last Mellish collected the papers. He seemed a trifle surprised when I gave up my modest three sheets. Brown and Morrison, who had their eye on the form prize, each gave up reams. Brown told me subsequently that he had only had time to do sixteen sheets, and wanted to know whether I had adopted Rutherford's emendation in preference to the old reading in Question II. My prolonged stay had made him regard me as a possible rival.
I dwell upon this part of my story, because it has an important bearing on subsequent events. If I had not waited in the form-room I should not have gone downstairs just behind Mellish. And if I had not gone downstairs just behind Mellish, I should not have been in at the death, that is to say the discovery of Bradshaw, and this story would have been all beginning and middle, and no ending, for I am certain that Bradshaw would never have told me a word. He was a most secretive animal.
I went downstairs, as I say, just behind Mellish. St Austin's, you must know, is composed of three blocks of buildings, the senior, the middle, and the junior, joined by cloisters. We left the senior block by the door. To the captious critic this information may seem superfluous, but let me tell him that I have left the block in my time, and entered it, too, though never, it is true, in the company of a master, in other ways. There are windows.
Our procession of two, Mellish leading by a couple of yards, passed through the cloisters, and came to the middle block, where the Masters' Common Room is. I had no particular reason for going to that block, but it was all on my way to the House, and I knew that Mellish hated having his footsteps dogged. That Thucydides paper rankled slightly.
In the middle block, at the top of the building, far from the haunts of men, is the Science Museum, containing—so I have heard, I have never been near the place myself—two stuffed rats, a case of mouldering butterflies, and other objects of acute interest. The room has a staircase all to itself, and this was the reason why, directly I heard shouts proceeding from that staircase, I deduced that they came from the Museum. I am like Sherlock Holmes, I don't mind explaining my methods.
'Help!' shouted the voice. 'Help!'
The voice was Bradshaw's.
Mellish was talking to M. Gerard, the French master, at the moment. He had evidently been telling him of Bradshaw's non-appearance, for at the sound of his voice they both spun round, and stood looking at the staircase like a couple of pointers.
'Help,' cried the voice again.
Mellish and Gerard bounded up the stairs. I had never seen a French master run before. It was a pleasant sight. I followed. As we reached the door of the Museum, which was shut, renewed shouts filtered through it. Mellish gave tongue.
'Yes, sir,' from within.
'Are you there?' This I thought, and still think, quite a superfluous question.
'Yes, sir,' said Bradshaw.
'What are you doing in there, Bradshaw? Why were you not in school this afternoon? Come out at once.' This in deep and thrilling tones.
'Please, sir,' said Bradshaw complainingly, 'I can't open the door.' Now, the immediate effect of telling a person that you are unable to open a door is to make him try his hand at it. Someone observes that there are three things which everyone thinks he can do better than anyone else, namely poking a fire, writing a novel, and opening a door.
Gerard was no exception to the rule.
'Can't open the door?' he said. 'Nonsense, nonsense.' And, swooping at the handle, he grasped it firmly, and turned it.
At this point he made an attempt, a very spirited attempt, to lower the world's record for the standing high jump. I have spoken above of the pleasure it gave me to see a French master run. But for good, square enjoyment, warranted free from all injurious chemicals, give me a French master jumping.
'My dear Gerard,' said the amazed Mellish.
'I have received a shock. Dear me, I have received a most terrible shock.'
So had I, only of another kind. I really thought I should have expired in my tracks with the effort of keeping my enjoyment strictly to myself. I saw what had happened. The Museum is lit by electric light. To turn it on one has to shoot the bolt of the door, which, like the handle, is made of metal. It is on the killing two birds with one stone principle. You lock yourself in and light yourself up with one movement. It was plain that the current had gone wrong somehow, run amock, as it were. Mellish meanwhile, instead of being warned by Gerard's fate, had followed his example, and tried to turn the handle. His jump, though quite a creditable effort, fell short of Gerard's by some six inches. I began to feel as if some sort of round game were going on. I hoped that they would not want me to take a hand. I also hoped that the thing would continue for a good while longer. The success of the piece certainly warranted the prolongation of its run. But here I was disappointed. The disturbance had attracted another spectator, Blaize, the science and chemistry master. The matter was hastily explained to him in all its bearings. There was Bradshaw entombed within the Museum, with every prospect of death by starvation, unless he could support life for the next few years on the two stuffed rats and the case of butterflies. The authorities did not see their way to adding a human specimen (youth's size) to the treasures in the Museum, so—how was he to be got out?
The scientific mind is equal to every emergency.
'Bradshaw,' shouted Blaize through the keyhole.
'Are you there?'
I should imagine that Bradshaw was growing tired of this question by this time. Besides, it cast aspersions on the veracity of Gerard and Mellish. Bradshaw, with perfect politeness, hastened to inform the gentleman that he was there.
'Have you a piece of paper?'
'Will an envelope do, sir?'
'Bless the boy, anything will do so long as it is paper.'
Dear me, I thought, is it as bad as all that? Is Blaize, in despair of ever rescuing the unfortunate prisoner, going to ask him to draw up a 'last dying words' document, to be pushed under the door and despatched to his sorrowing guardian?
'Put it over your hand, and then shoot back the bolt.'
'But, sir, the electricity.'
The scientific mind is always intolerant of lay ignorance.
'Pooh, boy, paper is a non-conductor. You won't get hurt.'
Bradshaw apparently acted on his instructions. From the other side of the door came the sharp sound of the bolt as it was shot back, and at the same time the light ceased to shine through the keyhole. A moment later the handle turned, and Bradshaw stepped forth—free!
'Dear me,' said Mellish. 'Now I never knew that before, Blaize. Remarkable. But this ought to be seen to. In the meantime, I had better ask the Headmaster to give out that the Museum is closed until further notice, I think.'
And closed the Museum has been ever since. That further notice has never been given. And yet nobody seems to feel as if an essential part of their life had ceased to be, so to speak. Curious. Bradshaw, after a short explanation, was allowed to go away without a stain—that is to say, without any additional stain—on his character. We left the authorities discussing the matter, and went downstairs.
'Sixpence isn't enough,' I said, 'take this penny. It's all I've got. You shall have the sixpence on Saturday.'
'Thanks,' said Bradshaw.' Was the Thucydides paper pretty warm?'
'Warmish. But, I say, didn't you get a beastly shock when you locked the door?'
'I did the week before last, the first time I ever went to the place. This time I was more or less prepared for it. Blaize seems to think that paper dodge a special invention of his own. He'll be taking out a patent for it one of these days. Why, every kid knows that paper doesn't conduct electricity.'
'I didn't,' I said honestly.
'You don't know much,' said Bradshaw, with equal honesty.
'I don't,' I replied. 'Bradshaw, you're a great man, but you missed the best part of it all.'
'What, the Thucydides paper?' asked he with a grin.
'No, you missed seeing Gerard jump quite six feet.'
Bradshaw's face expressed keen disappointment.
'No, did he really? Oh, I say, I wish I'd seen it.'
The moral of which is that the wicked do not always prosper. If Bradshaw had not been in the Museum, he might have seen Gerard jump six feet, which would have made him happy for weeks. On second thoughts, though, that does not work out quite right, for if Bradshaw had not been in the Museum, Gerard would not have jumped at all. No, better put it this way. I was virtuous, and I had the pleasure of witnessing the sight I have referred to. But then there was the Thucydides paper, which Bradshaw missed but which I did not. No. On consideration, the moral of this story shall be withdrawn and submitted to a committee of experts. Perhaps they will be able to say what it is.
THE BABE AND THE DRAGON
The annual inter-house football cup at St Austin's lay between Dacre's, who were the holders, and Merevale's, who had been runner-up in the previous year, and had won it altogether three times out of the last five. The cup was something of a tradition in Merevale's, but of late Dacre's had become serious rivals, and, as has been said before, were the present holders.
This year there was not much to choose between the two teams. Dacre's had three of the First Fifteen and two of the Second; Merevale's two of the First and four of the Second. St Austin's being not altogether a boarding-school, many of the brightest stars of the teams were day boys, and there was, of course, always the chance that one of these would suddenly see the folly of his ways, reform, and become a member of a House.
This frequently happened, and this year it was almost certain to happen again, for no less a celebrity than MacArthur, commonly known as the Babe, had been heard to state that he was negotiating with his parents to that end. Which House he would go to was at present uncertain. He did not know himself, but it would, he said, probably be one of the two favourites for the cup. This lent an added interest to the competition, for the presence of the Babe would almost certainly turn the scale. The Babe's nationality was Scots, and, like most Scotsmen, he could play football more than a little. He was the safest, coolest centre three-quarter the School had, or had had for some time. He shone in all branches of the game, but especially in tackling. To see the Babe spring apparently from nowhere, in the middle of an inter-school match, and bring down with violence a man who had passed the back, was an intellectual treat. Both Dacre's and Merevale's, therefore, yearned for his advent exceedingly. The reasons which finally decided his choice were rather curious. They arose in the following manner:
The Babe's sister was at Girton. A certain Miss Florence Beezley was also at Girton. When the Babe's sister revisited the ancestral home at the end of the term, she brought Miss Beezley with her to spend a week. What she saw in Miss Beezley was to the Babe a matter for wonder, but she must have liked her, or she would not have gone out of her way to seek her company. Be that as it may, the Babe would have gone a very long way out of his way to avoid her company. He led a fine, healthy, out-of-doors life during that week, and doubtless did himself a lot of good. But times will occur when it is imperative that a man shall be under the family roof. Meal-times, for instance. The Babe could not subsist without food, and he was obliged, Miss Beezley or no Miss Beezley, to present himself on these occasions. This, by the way, was in the Easter holidays, so that there was no school to give him an excuse for absence.
Breakfast was a nightmare, lunch was rather worse, and as for dinner, it was quite unspeakable. Miss Beezley seemed to gather force during the day. It was not the actual presence of the lady that revolted the Babe, for that was passable enough. It was her conversation that killed. She refused to let the Babe alone. She was intensely learned herself, and seemed to take a morbid delight in dissecting his ignorance, and showing everybody the pieces. Also, she persisted in calling him Mr MacArthur in a way that seemed somehow to point out and emphasize his youthfulness. She added it to her remarks as a sort of after-thought or echo.
'Do you read Browning, Mr MacArthur?' she would say suddenly, having apparently waited carefully until she saw that his mouth was full.
The Babe would swallow convulsively, choke, blush, and finally say—
'No, not much.'
'Ah!' This in a tone of pity not untinged with scorn.
'When you say "not much", Mr MacArthur, what exactly do you mean? Have you read any of his poems?'
'Oh, yes, one or two.'
'Ah! Have you read "Pippa Passes"?'
'No, I think not.'
'Surely you must know, Mr MacArthur, whether you have or not. Have you read "Fifine at the Fair"?'
'Have you read "Sordello"?'
'What have you read, Mr MacArthur?'
Brought to bay in this fashion, he would have to admit that he had read 'The Pied Piper of Hamelin', and not a syllable more, and Miss Beezley would look at him for a moment and sigh softly. The Babe's subsequent share in the conversation, provided the Dragon made no further onslaught, was not large.
One never-to-be-forgotten day, shortly before the end of her visit, a series of horrible accidents resulted in their being left to lunch together alone. The Babe had received no previous warning, and when he was suddenly confronted with this terrible state of affairs he almost swooned. The lady's steady and critical inspection of his style of carving a chicken completed his downfall. His previous experience of carving had been limited to those entertainments which went by the name of 'study-gorges', where, if you wanted to help a chicken, you took hold of one leg, invited an accomplice to attach himself to the other, and pulled.
But, though unskilful, he was plucky and energetic. He lofted the bird out of the dish on to the tablecloth twice in the first minute. Stifling a mad inclination to call out 'Fore!' or something to that effect, he laughed a hollow, mirthless laugh, and replaced the errant fowl. When a third attack ended in the same way, Miss Beezley asked permission to try what she could do. She tried, and in two minutes the chicken was neatly dismembered. The Babe re-seated himself in an over-wrought state.
'Tell me about St Austin's, Mr MacArthur,' said Miss Beezley, as the Babe was trying to think of something to say—not about the weather. 'Do you play football?'
A prolonged silence.
'Do you—' began the Babe at last.
'Tell me—' began Miss Beezley, simultaneously.
'I beg your pardon,' said the Babe; 'you were saying—?'
'Not at all, Mr MacArthur. You were saying—?'
'I was only going to ask you if you played croquet?'
'Yes; do you?'
'If this is going to continue,' thought the Babe, 'I shall be reluctantly compelled to commit suicide.'
There was another long pause.
'Tell me the names of some of the masters at St Austin's, Mr MacArthur,' said Miss Beezley. She habitually spoke as if she were an examination paper, and her manner might have seemed to some to verge upon the autocratic, but the Babe was too thankful that the question was not on Browning or the higher algebra to notice this. He reeled off a list of names.
'... Then there's Merevale—rather a decent sort—and Dacre.'
'What sort of a man is Mr Dacre?'
'Rather a rotter, I think.'
'What is a rotter, Mr MacArthur?'
'Well, I don't know how to describe it exactly. He doesn't play cricket or anything. He's generally considered rather a crock.'
'Really! This is very interesting, Mr MacArthur. And what is a crock? I suppose what it comes to,' she added, as the Babe did his best to find a definition, 'is this, that you yourself dislike him.' The Babe admitted the impeachment. Mr Dacre had a finished gift of sarcasm which had made him writhe on several occasions, and sarcastic masters are rarely very popular.
'Ah!' said Miss Beezley. She made frequent use of that monosyllable. It generally gave the Babe the same sort of feeling as he had been accustomed to experience in the happy days of his childhood when he had been caught stealing jam.
Miss Beezley went at last, and the Babe felt like a convict who has just received a free pardon.
One afternoon in the following term he was playing fives with Charteris, a prefect in Merevale's House. Charteris was remarkable from the fact that he edited and published at his own expense an unofficial and highly personal paper, called The Glow Worm, which was a great deal more in demand than the recognized School magazine, The Austinian, and always paid its expenses handsomely.
Charteris had the journalistic taint very badly. He was always the first to get wind of any piece of School news. On this occasion he was in possession of an exclusive item. The Babe was the first person to whom he communicated it.
'Have you heard the latest romance in high life, Babe?' he observed, as they were leaving the court. 'But of course you haven't. You never do hear anything.'
'Well?' asked the Babe, patiently.
'You know Dacre?'
'I seem to have heard the name somewhere.'
'He's going to be married.'
'Yes. Don't trouble to try and look interested. You're one of those offensive people who mind their own business and nobody else's. Only I thought I'd tell you. Then you'll have a remote chance of understanding my quips on the subject in next week's Glow Worm. You laddies frae the north have to be carefully prepared for the subtler flights of wit.'
'Thanks,' said the Babe, placidly. 'Good-night.'
The Headmaster intercepted the Babe a few days after he was going home after a scratch game of football. 'MacArthur,' said he, 'you pass Mr Dacre's House, do you not, on your way home? Then would you mind asking him from me to take preparation tonight? I find I shall be unable to be there.' It was the custom at St Austin's for the Head to preside at preparation once a week; but he performed this duty, like the celebrated Irishman, as often as he could avoid it.
The Babe accepted the commission. He was shown into the drawing-room. To his consternation, for he was not a society man, there appeared to be a species of tea-party going on. As the door opened, somebody was just finishing a remark.
'... faculty which he displayed in such poems as "Sordello",' said the voice.
The Babe knew that voice.
He would have fled if he had been able, but the servant was already announcing him. Mr Dacre began to do the honours.
'Mr MacArthur and I have met before,' said Miss Beezley, for it was she. 'Curiously enough, the subject which we have just been discussing is one in which he takes, I think, a great interest. I was saying, Mr MacArthur, when you came in, that few of Tennyson's works show the poetic faculty which Browning displays in "Sordello".'
The Babe looked helplessly at Mr Dacre.
'I think you are taking MacArthur out of his depth there,' said Mr Dacre. 'Was there something you wanted to see me about, MacArthur?'