One hundred runs for two wickets.
The Eton cheers are becoming exasperating. A few seats away Warde is twiddling his thumbs and biting his lips. Old Lord Fawley has slipped into the pavilion for a brandy and soda.
Scaife takes off Fluff and puts on a fast bowler, changing his own place in the field to short slip. The ball, a first ball and very fast, puzzles the batsman, accustomed to slows. He mistimes it; it grazes the edge of his bat, and whizzes off far to the right of Scaife, but the Demon has it. Somehow or other, ask of the spirits of the air—not of the writer—somehow his wonderful right hand has met and held the ball.
"Well caught, sir; well caught!"
"That boy ought to be knighted on the spot," says Charles Desmond. Then the three generously applaud the retiring batsman. He has played a brilliant innings, and restored the confidence of all Etonians.
The Eton captain descends the steps; a veteran this, not a dashing player, but sure, patient, and full of grit. He asks the umpire to give him middle and leg; then he notes the positions of the field.
"D——n it!" ejaculates Charles Desmond. Bishop and parson regard him with gratitude. There are times when an honest oath becomes expedient. The Eton captain has cut the first ball into Fluff's hands, and Fluff has dropped it! Alastair Kinloch, from the top of the Trent coach, screams out, "Jolly well muffed!" The great Minister silently thanks Heaven that point is the Duke's son and not his.
And, of course, the Eton captain never gives another chance till he is dismissed with half a century to his credit. Meantime five more wickets have fallen. Seven down for 191! Eton leaves the field with a score of 226 against Harrow's 289. Harrow goes in without delay, and one wicket is taken for 13 runs before the stumps are drawn. Charles Desmond looks at the sky.
"Looks like rain to-night," he says anxiously.
And so ends Friday's play.
* * * * *
The morrow dawned grey, obscured by mist rising from ground soaked by two hours' heavy rain. You may be sure that all our friends were early at Lord's, and that the pitch was examined by thousands of anxious eyes. The Eton fast bowler was seen to smile. Upon a similar wicket had he not done the famous hat-trick only three weeks before? The rain, however, was over, and soon the sun would drive away the filmy mists. No man alive could foretell what condition the pitch would be in after a few hours of blazing sunshine. The Rev. Septimus told Charles Desmond that he considered the situation to be critical, and, although he had read the morning paper, he was not alluding even indirectly to South African affairs. Charles Desmond said that, other things being equal, the Hill would triumph; but he admitted that other things were very far from equal. It looked as if Harrow would have to bat upon a treacherous wicket, and Eton on a sound one.
At half-past ten punctually the men were in the field. Scaife issued last instructions. "Block the bowling; don't try to score till you see what tricks the ground will play. A minute saved now may mean a quarter of an hour to us later." Caesar nodded cheerfully. The fact that the luck had changed stimulated every fibre of his being. And he said that he felt in his bones that this was going to be a famous match, like that of '85—something never to be forgotten.
Charles Desmond spoke few words while his son was batting. It was a tradition among the Desmonds that they rose superior to emergency. The Minister wondered whether his Harry would rise or fall. The fast bowler delivered the first ball. It bumped horribly. The Rev. Septimus shuddered and closed his eyes. Caesar got well over it. The third ball was cut for three. The fourth whizzed down—a wide. The fast bowler dipped the ball into the sawdust.
"It isn't all jam for him," whispered the Rev. Septimus.
"Well bowled—well bowled!"
Alas! the middle stump was knocked clean out of the ground. Caesar's partner, a steady, careful player, had been bowled by his first ball.
Two wickets for 17.
The crowd were expecting the hero, but Fluff was walking towards the wickets, wondering whether he should reach them alive. Never had his heart beat as at this moment. Scaife had come up to him as soon as he had examined the pitch.
"Fluff, I am putting you in early because you are a fellow I can trust. My first and last word is, hit at nothing that isn't wide of the wicket. The ground will probably improve fast."
Fluff nodded. A hive of bees seemed to have lodged in his head, and an active automatic hammer in his heart; but he didn't dare tell the Demon that funk, abject funk, possessed him, body and soul.
The second bowler began his first over. He bowled slows. Desmond played the six balls back along the ground. A maiden over.
And then that thick-set, muscular beast, for so Fluff regarded him, stared fixedly at Fluff's middle stump. Fluff glanced round. The wicket-keeper had a grim smile on his lips, for his billet was no easy one. Cosmo Kinloch at short slip looked as if it were a foregone conclusion that Fluff would put the ball into his hands. Then Fluff faced the bowler. Now for it!
The first ball was half a foot off the wicket, but Fluff let it go by. The second came true enough. Fluff blocked it. The third flew past Fluff's leg, but he just snicked it. Desmond started to run, and then stopped, holding up his hand. Cheers rippled round the ring for the first hit to the boundary. That was a bit of sheer luck, Fluff reflected.
After this both boys played steadily for some ten minutes. Then, very slowly, Caesar began to score. He had made about fifteen when he drove a ball hard to the on, Fluff backing up. Desmond, watching the travelling ball, called to him to run. It seemed to Desmond almost certain that the ball would go to the boundary. Too late he realized that it had been magnificently fielded. Desmond strained every nerve, but his bat had not reached the crease when the bails flew to right and left.
Out! And run out!
Three wickets for 41!
A quarter of an hour later Fluff was bowled with a yorker. He had made eleven runs, and kept up his wicket during a crisis. Harrow cheered him loudly.
And then came the terrible moment of the morning. Scaife went in when Fluff's wicket fell. The ground had improved, but it was still treacherous. The fast bowler sent down a straight one. It shot under Scaife's bat and spread-eagled his stumps.
The wicket-keeper knows what the Harrow captain said, but it does not bear repeating. Every eye was on his scowling, furious face as he returned to the pavilion; and the Rev. Septimus scowled also, because he had always maintained that any Harrovian could accept defeat like a gentleman. Upon the other side of the ground the Caterpillar was saying to his father. "I always said he was hairy at the heel."
* * * * *
It was admitted afterwards that the Duffer's performance was the one really bright spot in Harrow's second innings. Being a bowler, he went in last but one. It happened that Fluff's brother was in possession of the ball. It will never be known why the Duffer chose to treat Cosmo Kinloch's balk with utter scorn and contempt. The Duffer was tall, strong, and a terrific slogger. Nobody expected him to make a run, but he made twenty in one over—all boundary hits. When he left the wicket he had added thirty-eight to the score, and wouldn't have changed places with an emperor. The Rev. Septimus followed him into the room where the players change.
"My dear boy," he said, "I've never been able to give you a gold watch, but you must take mine; here it is, and—and God bless you!"
But the Duffer swore stoutly that he preferred his own Waterbury.
* * * * *
Eton went in to make 211 runs in four hours, upon a wicket almost as sound as it had been upon the Friday. Scaife put the Duffer on to bowl. The Demon had belief in luck.
"It's your day, Duffer," he said. "Pitch 'em up."
The Duffer, to his sire's exuberant satisfaction, "pitched 'em up" so successfully that he took four wickets for 33. Four out of five! The other bowlers, however, being not so successful, Eton accumulated a hundred runs. The captains had agreed to draw stumps at 7.30. To win, therefore, the Plain must make another hundred in two hours; and three of their crack batsmen were out.
After tea an amazing change took place in the temper of the spectators. Conviction seized them that the finish was likely to be close and thrilling; that the one thing worth undivided attention was taking place in the middle of the ground. As the minutes passed, a curious silence fell upon the crowd, broken only by the cheers of the rival schools. The boys, old and young alike, were watching every ball, every stroke. The Eton captain was still in, playing steadily, not brilliantly; the Harrow bowling was getting slack.
In the pavilion, the Rev. Septimus, Warde, and Charles Desmond were sitting together. Not far from them was Scaife's father, a big, burly man with a square head and heavy, strongly-marked features. He had never been a cricketer, but this game gripped him. He sat next to a world-famous financier of the great house of Neuchatel, whose sons had been sent to the Hill. Run after run, run after run was added to the score. Scaife's father turned to Neuchatel.
"I'd write a cheque for ten thousand pounds," he said, "if we could win."
Lionel Neuchatel nodded. "Yes," he muttered; "I have not felt so excited since Sir Bevis won the Derby."
In the deep field Desmond was standing, miserable because he had nothing to do. No balls came his way; for the Eton captain had made up his mind to win this match with singles and twos. Very carefully he placed his balls between the fielders; very carefully his partner followed his chief's example. No stealing of runs, no scoring off straight balls, no gallery play—till victory was assured.
Poor Lord Fawley retired at this point into an inner room, pulling savagely at his white beard. Old Lyburn, who had been sitting beside him, gurgling and gasping, staggered after him. The Rev. Septimus kept wiping his forehead.
"I can't stand this much longer," said Warde, in a hoarse whisper.
"Well hit, sir! Well hit!"
The Eton cheering became frantic. After nearly an hour's pawky, uninteresting play, the Eton captain suddenly changed his tactics. His "eye" was in; now or never let him score. A half-volley came down from the pavilion end—a half-volley and off the wicket. The Etonian put all the strength and power he had suppressed so manfully into a tremendous swipe, and hit the ball clean over the ropes.
"Do you want to double that bet?" said Strathpeffer to the Caterpillar. They were standing on the top of the Trent coach.
"Give you two to one, Egerton?"
The unhappy bowler sent down another half-volley. Once more the Etonian smote, and smote hard; but this ball was not quite the same as the first, although it appeared identical. The ball soared up and up. Would it fall over the ropes? Thousands of eyes watched its flight. Desmond started to run. Golconda to a sixpence on the fall! It is falling, falling, falling.
"He'll never get there in time," says Charles Desmond.
"Yes he will," Warde answers savagely.
"He has!" screamed the Rev. Septimus. "He—has!"
Pandemonium broke loose. Grey-headed men threw their hats into the air; M.P.'s danced; lovely women shrieked; every Harrovian on the ground howled. For Caesar held the ball fast in his lean, brown hands.
The Eton captain walks slowly towards the pavilion. He had to pass Caesar on his way, and passing him he pauses.
"That was a glorious catch," he says, with the smile of a gallant gentleman.
And as Harrow, as cordially as Eton, cheers the retiring chieftain, the Caterpillar whispers to Mrs. Verney—
"Did you see that? Did you see him stop to congratulate Caesar?"
"Yes," says Mrs. Verney.
"I hope Scaife saw it too," the Caterpillar replies coolly. "That Eton captain is cut out of whole cloth; no shoddy there, by Jove!"
And Desmond. How does Desmond feel? It is futile to ask him, because he could not tell you, if he tried. But we can answer the question. If the country that he wishes to serve crowns him with all the honours bestowed upon a favoured son, never, never will Caesar Desmond know again a moment of such exquisite, unadulterated joy as this.
* * * * *
Six wickets down and 39 runs to get in less than half an hour!
Every ball now, every stroke, is a matter for cheers, derisive or otherwise. The Rev. Septimus need not prate of golden days gone by. Boys at heart never change. And the atmosphere is so charged with electricity that a spark sets the firmament ablaze.
Seven wickets for 192.
Eight wickets for 197.
Signs of demoralization show themselves on both sides. The bowling has become deplorably feeble, the batting even more so. Four more singles are recorded. Only ten runs remain to be made, with two wickets to fall.
And twelve minutes to play!
Scaife puts on the Duffer again. The lips of the Rev. Sep are seen to move inaudibly. Is he praying, or cursing, because three singles are scored off his son's first three balls?
"Well bowled—well bowled!"
A ball of fair length, easy enough to play under all ordinary circumstances, but a "teaser" when tremendous issues are at stake, has defeated one of the Etonians. The last man runs towards the pitch through a perfect hurricane of howls. Warde rises.
"I can't stand it," he says, and his voice shakes oddly. "You fellows will find me behind the Pavvy after the match."
"I'd go with you," says the Rev. Septimus, in a choked tone, "but if I tried to walk I should tumble down."
Charles Desmond says nothing. But, pray note the expression so faithfully recorded in Punch—the compressed lips, the stern, frowning brows, the protruded jaw. The famous debater sees all fights to a finish, and fights himself till he drops.
Seven runs to make, one wicket to fall, and five minutes to play!!!
Evidently the last man in has received strenuous instructions from his chief. The bowling has degenerated into that of anaemic girls—and two whacks to the boundary mean—Victory. The new-comer is the square, thick-set fast bowler, the worst bat in the Eleven, but a fellow of determination, a slogger and a run-getter against village teams.
He obeys instructions to the letter. The Duffer's fifth ball goes to the boundary.
Three runs to make and two and a half minutes to play!
The Duffer sends down the last ball. The Rev. Septimus covers his eyes. O wretched Duffer! O thou whose knees are as wax, and whose arms are as chop-sticks in the hands of a Griffin! O egregious Duff! O degenerate son of a noble sire, dost thou dare at such a moment as this to attack thine enemy with a—long hop?
The square, thick-set bowler shows his teeth as the ball pitches short. Then he smites and runs. Runs, because he has smitten so hard that no hand, surely, can stop the whirling sphere. Runs—ay—and so does the Demon at cover point. This is the Demon's amazing conjuring-trick—what else can you call it? And he has practised it so often, that he reckons failure to be almost impossible. To those watching he seems to spring like a tiger at the ball. By Heaven! he has stopped it—he's snapped it up! But if he despatches it to the wicket-keeper, it will arrive too late. The other Etonian is already within a couple of yards of the crease. Scaife does not hesitate. He aims at the bowler's wicket towards which the burly one is running as fast as legs a thought too short can carry him.
He aims and shies—instantaneously. He shatters the wicket.
The appeal comes from every part of the ground.
And then, clearly and unmistakably, the umpire's fiat is spoken—
The Rev. Sep rises and rushes off, upsetting chairs, treading on toes, bent only upon being the first to tell Warde that Harrow has won.
"Io! Io! Io!"
 The blue of the Harrow colours.
 Lamper, i.e. Lamp-post.
"If I perish, I perish"
"Since we deserved the name of friends, And thine effect so lives in me, A part of mine may live in thee And move thee on to noble ends."
The cheering at Bill upon the following Tuesday must be recorded, inasmuch as it has, indirectly, bearing upon our story. It will be guessed that the enthusiasm, the uproar, the tumultuous excitement were even greater than on a similar occasion some fifteen years before. But, to his amazement, Desmond, not Scaife, was made the particular hero of the hour. Scaife's display of temper festered in the hearts of boys who can forgive anything sooner than low breeding. The Hill had seen the Etonian stop to speak his cheery word of congratulation to Caesar, and not the Caterpillar alone, but urchins of thirteen had made comparisons.
Scaife, however, could not complain of his reception upon that memorable Tuesday afternoon; the cheering must have been heard a mile away. But Desmond was acclaimed differently. The cheers were no louder—that was impossible—but afterwards, when the excitement had simmered down, Caesar became the object of a special demonstration by the Monitors and Sixth Form. Nearly every boy of note in the Upper School insisted upon shaking his hand or patting him on the back. Scaife came up with the others, but he left the Yard almost immediately and retired to his room. He had won the great match; Desmond had saved it; and the School apprehended the subtle difference. More, Scaife knew that John had gone up to Desmond with outstretched hands after the match at Lord's. He could hear John's eager voice, see the flame of admiration in his eyes, as he said, "Oh, Caesar, I am glad it was you who made that catch!" And with those generous words, with that warm clasp of the hand, Scaife had seen the barrier which he had built between the friends dissolve like ice in the dog-days.
* * * * *
The attention of the Manor was now fixed upon the house matches. It seemed probable that with four members of the School Eleven in the team, the ancient house must prove invincible. But to John's surprise, as this delightful probability ripened into conviction, Warde betrayed unwonted anxiety and even irritability. Miss Iris confided to Desmond, who paid her much court, that she couldn't imagine what was the matter with papa. And mamma, it transpired (from the same source), really feared that the strain at Lord's had been too much, that her indefatigable husband was about to break down. Finally, John made up his mind to ask a question. He was second in command; he had a right to ask the chief if anything were seriously amiss. Accordingly, he waited upon Warde after prayers.
But when he put his question, and expressed, modestly enough, his anxiety and desire to help if he could, Warde bit his lips. Then he burst out violently—
"I am miserable, Verney."
John said nothing. His tutor rose and began to pace up and down the study; then, halting, facing John, he spoke quickly, with restless gestures indicating volcanic disturbance.
"I'm between the devil and the deep sea," he said, "as many a better man has been before me. I thought I'd wiped out the grosser evils in the Manor, but I haven't—I haven't. Do you know that a fellow in this house, perhaps two of 'em, but one at any rate, is getting out at night and going up to town? You needn't answer, Verney. If you do know it, you are powerless to prevent it, or it wouldn't occur."
"Thank you, sir."
"I can only guess who it is. I am not certain. And to make certain, I must play the spy, creep and crawl, do what I loathe to do—suspect the innocent together with the guilty. It's almost breaking my heart."
"I can understand that, sir, after what you have done for us."
Warde smiled grimly. "I don't think you do quite understand," he said slowly. "At this moment I am tempted, tempted as I never have been tempted, to let things slide, to shut both eyes and ears, till this term is over. Next term"—he laughed harshly—"I shan't stand in such an awkward place. The deep sea will always be near me, but the devil—the devil will be elsewhere."
John nodded. His serious face expressed neither approval nor disapproval to the man keenly watching it. Afterwards Warde remembered this impassivity.
"If I do not act"—Warde's voice trembled—"I am damned as a traitor in my own eyes."
John had never doubted that his house-master would act. As for creeping and crawling, can peaks be scaled without creeping and crawling? Never——
"You are not to speak a word of warning," Warde continued vehemently. "If you know what I don't know yet, still you cannot speak to me, because the sinner in this case is a Sixth-Form boy. You cannot speak to me; and you will not speak to him, on your honour?"
There was interrogation in the last sentence. John replied almost inaudibly—
"I shall not speak—on my honour!"
"It is hard, hard indeed, that I should have to foul my own nest, but it must be so. Good night."
John went back to his room, calm without, terribly agitated within. What ruthless spirit had driven him to Warde's study? Yes; at last, inexorably, discovery, disgrace, the ineffaceable brand of expulsion, impended over the head of his enemy, to whom he was pledged to utter no word of warning. Like Warde, he did not know absolutely, but he guessed that Scaife had spent another riotous night in town since the match. He had read it in the eyes glittering with excitement, in the derisive smile of conscious power, in the magnetic audacity of Scaife's glance. And then he remembered Lawrence's parting words—
"It will be a fight to a finish, and, mark me, Warde will win!"
Two wretched days and nights passed. More than once John spurred himself to the point of going to Warde and saying, "Think what you like of me, I am going to warn the boy I loathe that you are at his heels." Still, always at the last moment he did not go. Some power seemed to restrain him. But when he tried to analyse his feelings, he confessed himself muddled. He had obtained, nay, invited, Warde's confidence; and he dared not abuse it. It was a time of anguish. He was unable to concentrate his mind upon work or play, deprived of sleep, haunted by the conviction that if Desmond knew all, he would turn from him for ever. Then, at the most difficult moment of his life, the way of escape was opened.
Since the match, John and Caesar had resumed the former unrestrained and continual intimacy and intercourse. John was in and out of Desmond's room, Desmond was in and out of John's room, at all hours. They "found" together, of course, but it is not, fortunately, at meals that boys or men discuss the things nearest to their hearts. But at night, just before lights were turned out, or just after, when an Olympian is privileged to work a little longer by the light of the useful "tolly," Caesar and Jonathan would talk freely of past, present, and future. It was during these much-valued minutes, or on Sunday afternoons, that John would read to his friend the essays or verses which always fired Desmond's admiration and enthusiasm. To John's intellectual activities Caesar played, so to speak, gallery; even as John upon many an afternoon had sat stewing in the covered racquet-court, applauding Desmond's service into the corner, or his hot returns just above the line. At home, in the holidays, the boys had always met upon the same plane. Of the two, John was the better rider and shot. Both were members of the Philathletic Club of Harrow, and the fact that Desmond was incomparably his superior as an athlete was counterbalanced by John's fine intellectual attainments. If John, at times, wished that he could cut behind the wicket in Caesar's faultless style, Desmond, on the other hand, spoke enviously of the Medal, or the Essay, or some other of John's successes. John spoke often and well in the Debating Society, getting up his subjects with intelligence and care. So it was give-and-take between them, and this adjusted the balance of their friendship, and without this no friendship can be pronounced perfect.
None the less, free and delightful as this resumption of the old intimacy had been, John knew Caesar too well not to perceive that between them lay an unmentionable five weeks, during which something had occurred. From signs only too well interpreted before, John guessed that Caesar was once more in debt to the Demon. And finally, Caesar confessed that he had been betting, that he had won, following Scaife's advice, and then had lost. The loss was greater than the gain, and the difference, some five and twenty pounds, had been sent to Scaife's bookmaker by Scaife. As before, Scaife ridiculed the possibility of such a debt causing his pal any uneasiness, but it chafed Desmond consumedly.
Upon the Saturday of the semi-final house match, in which the Manor had won a great victory by an innings and twenty-three runs, John went to Desmond's room after prayers. He noticed at once that his friend was unusually excited. John, however, attributed this to Caesar's big score. Success always inflamed Caesar, just as it seemed to tranquillize John. John began to talk, but he noticed that Caesar was abstracted, answered in monosyllables, and twice looked at his watch.
"Have you an appointment, Caesar?"
"No. What were you saying, Jonathan?"
"You look rather queer to-night."
"Do I?" He laughed nervously.
"You're not bothering over that debt?"
This time Caesar laughed naturally.
"Rather not. Why, that debt——" He stopped.
"Is it paid?" said John.
"It will be. Don't worry!"
But John looked worried. He perceived that Caesar's finely-formed hands were trembling, whenever they were still.
"Harry," said he—he never called Desmond Harry except when they were at home—"Harry, what's wrong?"
"Why, nothing—nothing, that is, which amounts to anything."
"Harry, you are the worst liar in England. Something is wrong. Can't you tell me? You must. I'm hanged if I leave you till you do tell me."
He looked steadily at Desmond. In his clear grey eyes were tiny, dancing flecks of golden brown, which Desmond had seen once or twice before,—which came whenever John was profoundly moved. The dancing flecks transformed themselves in Desmond's fancy into sprites, the airy creatures of John's will, imposing John's wishes and commands.
"Scaife said I might tell you, if I liked."
"Scaife?" John drew in his breath. "Then Scaife wanted you to tell me; I am sure of that." He felt his way by the dim light of smouldering suspicion. If Scaife wanted John to know anything, it was because such knowledge must prove pain, not pleasure. John did not say this. Then, very abruptly, Desmond continued. "You swear that what I'm about to tell you will be regarded as sacred?"
"It is a matter which concerns Scaife and me, not you. You won't interfere?"
"I'm going to London."
"Don't look at me like that, you silly old ass! It's not—not what you think," he laughed nervously. "I have bet Scaife twenty-five pounds, the amount of my debt in fact, that the bill-of-fare of to-night's supper at the Carlton Hotel will be handed to him after Chapel to-morrow morning. I bike up to town, and bike back. If I don't go this Saturday, I have one more chance before the term is over. That's all."
"That's all," repeated John, stupefied.
"If you can show me an easier way to make a 'pony,' I'll be obliged to you."
"Scaife egged you on to this piece of folly?"
"No, he didn't."
"You may as well make a clean breast of it."
Bit by bit John extracted the facts. Behind them, of course, stood Scaife, loving evil for evil's sake, planting evil, gleaning evil, deliberately setting about the devil's work. Desmond, it appeared, had persuaded Scaife not to go to town till the Lord's match was over. Since the match Scaife had spent two nights in London, whetting an inordinate appetite for forbidden fruit; exciting in Desmond also, not an appetite for the fruit itself, but for the mad excitement of a perilous adventure. Then, when the thoughtless "I'd like a lark of that sort" had been spoken, came the derisive answer, "You haven't the nerve for it." And then again the subtle leading of an ardent and self-willed nature into the morass, Scaife pretending to dissuade a friend, entreating him to consider the risk, urging him to go to bed, as if he were a headstrong child. And finally Desmond's challenge, "Bet you I have the nerve," and its acceptance, protestingly, by the other, and permission given that John should be told.
"And it's to-night?"
"I mean to have that bill-of-fare. Do you think I'd back out now?"
In his mind's eye, our poor John was gazing down a long lane with no turning at the end of it. Could he make his friend believe that Scaife had brought this thing to pass from no other motive than wishing to hurt mortally an enemy by the hand of a friend? No, never would such an ingenuous youth as Caesar accept, or even listen to, such an abominable explanation.
"Good night," said John.
"I see you're rather sick with me, Jonathan. Remember, you made me speak. To-morrow morning we'll have a good laugh over it. We'll walk to the Haunted House, and I'll tell my tale. I shall be on my way in less than an hour."
John went back to his room. The necessity for silence and thought had become imperative. What could he do? It was certain that Warde was waiting and watching. He had inexhaustible patience. Desmond, not the Demon, would be caught and expelled. John returned to Desmond's room.
"You've told me so much," he said; "tell me a little more. How are you going to do it?"
"To do what?"
"Get out of the house? Get a bike—and all that?"
"Easy. Lovell went out that way, and others. You jump from the sill of the first landing window into the horse-chestnut. One must be able to jump, of course; but I can jump. Then you shin down the tree, nip through the shrubbery, and over the locked wicket-gate."
"Yes," John said slowly, "over the gate."
"I borrowed a bike from one of the Cycle Corps, and have ridden it in the garden, in a bush to the right of the gate."
"It's moonlight after ten; I shall enjoy the ride immensely."
"You will try to get back into the house at night?"
"Too dangerous. Lovell did it; but the Demon marches in boldly just before Chapel. He may have slipped out on half a dozen errands as soon as the door is opened in the morning. I shall sleep under a stack. It's a lovely night. Now, old Jonathan, I hope you're satisfied that I'm not either the fool or the sinner you took me to be."
"Look here, Harry. If I appeal to you in the name of our friendship; if I ask you for my sake and for my mother's sake not to do this thing——"
"Jonathan, I must go. Don't make it harder than it is."
"Then it is hard?"
"I won't whine about that. I courted this adventure, and, by Jove! I'm going to see it through. The odds are a hundred to one against my being nailed."
"All right; I'll say no more. Good night."
"Good night, old Jonathan."
John went back to his room, waited three minutes, and then, in despair, made up his mind to seek Scaife. He felt certain that the Demon's extraordinary luck was about to stand between him and expulsion. Desmond would be caught red-handed, but not he. John ground his teeth with rage at the thought. He found Scaife alone—at work on cricketing accounts.
"Caesar tells me that he is going up to London to-night."
"Oh, he told you that, did he?"
"Yes; you wished him to tell me?"
"Perhaps." Scaife laughed louder.
"You want to prove to me," said John slowly, "that you are the stronger?"
"Perhaps." Scaife laughed.
"Well, if I surrender, if I admit that you are the stronger, that you have defeated me, won't that be enough?"
"Eh? I don't quite take you."
"You are the stronger." John's voice was very miserable. "I have tried to dissuade him, as you knew I should try, and I have failed. Isn't that enough? You have your triumph. But now be generous. Turn round and use your strength the other way. Make him give up this folly. You don't want to see your own pal—sacked?"
"Precious little chance of that!"
"There is the chance."
Scaife hesitated. Did some worthier impulse stir within him? Who can tell? His keen eye softened, and then hardened again.
"No," he said quickly. "If I agree to what you propose, it is, after all, you who triumph, not I. And I doubt if I could stop him now, even if I tried." He laughed again, for the third time, savagely. "You are hoist with your own petard, Verney. You wanted to see me sacked; and now that there is a chance in a thousand that Caesar will be sacked, you squirm. I swore to get my knife into you, and, by God, I've done it."
John went out, very pale. He passed through into the private side, and tapped at Warde's study door. Mrs. Warde's voice bade him enter. She looked at John's face. Afterwards she testified that he looked singularly cool and self-possessed.
"I wish to see Mr. Warde," he said.
"He's dining at the Head Master's."
"Will he be in soon?"
"I—er—don't know. Perhaps not. I wouldn't wait for him, Verney, if I were you."
"Thank you," said John. "Good night."
He went back to his room. In Mrs. Warde's eyes he had read—what? Excitement? Apprehension? Suddenly, conviction came to him that this dinner at the Head Master's was a blind. Why, during that very afternoon, Warde had mentioned casually to Scaife that he was dining out. He had deliberately informed the Demon that the coast was clear. And at this moment, probably, Warde lay concealed near the chestnut tree, waiting, watching, about to pounce upon the—wrong man!
The temptation to cry "Cave!" tore at his vitals. Till this moment the tyranny of honour had never oppressed John. Having resolved to tell Warde that he meant to break his word, it may seem inexplicable that he shouldn't go a step further and break his word without warning the house-master. Upon such nice points of conscience hang issues of world-wide importance. To John, at any rate, the difference between the two paths out of a tangled wood was greater than it might appear to some of us. Warde had trusted him implicitly: could he bring himself to violate Warde's confidence without giving the man notice?
However, what he might have done under pressure must remain a matter of surmise. At this moment a third path became visible. And down it John rushed, without consideration as to where it might lead. The one thing plain at this crisis was the certainty that he had discovered a plan of action which would save two things he valued supremely—his friendship for Caesar and his word of honour.
Here we are to liberty to speculate what John would have done had he considered dispassionately the consequences of an action to be accomplished at once or not at all. But he had not time to consider anything except the fact that action would put to rout some very tormenting thoughts.
He crumpled his bed, disarranged his room, and put on a cap and a thin overcoat, as all lights in the boys' side of the Manor were extinguished. Then he stole out of his room, and crept to the window at the end of the passage. A moment later, he had squeezed through it, and was standing upon the sill outside, gazing fearfully at the void beneath, and the distance between the sill and the branch in front of him. Afterwards, he confessed that this moment was the most difficult. He was an active boy, but he had never jumped such a chasm. If he missed the bough——
To hesitate meant shameful retreat. John felt the sweat break upon him; craven fear clutched his heart-strings, and set them a-jangling.
The ease with which he caught the branch was such a physical relief that he almost forgot his errand. He slid quietly down the tree, pausing as he reached the bottom of it. The moon was just rising above the horizon, but under the trees the darkness was Stygian. John pushed quietly through the shrubberies, treading as lightly as possible. Every moment he expected to see the flash of a lantern, to hear Warde's voice, to feel an arresting hand upon the shoulder. It was quite impossible to guess with any reasonable accuracy what part of the garden Warde had selected for a hiding-place. Very soon he reached the edge of the shrubbery, and gazed keenly into the moonlit, park-like meadow below him. Peer as he might, he could see no trace of Warde. A dozen trees might conceal him. Perhaps with the omniscience of the house-master, he had divined that the wicket-gate was the ultimate place of egress. Perhaps the wicket had been used for a similar purpose when Warde himself was a boy at the Manor. It was vital to John's plan that Warde should see him without recognizing him, and give chase. The chase would end in capture at some point as reasonably far from the Manor as possible. Warde might ask for explanations, but none would be forthcoming till the morrow. Meantime, the coast would be clear for Desmond. John, in fine, was playing the part of a pilot-engine.
But where was Warde?
The question answered itself within a minute, and after a fashion absolutely unforeseen. As John was crossing from the shrubbery to the wicket he looked back. To his horror, he saw lights in the boys' side, light in the window of Scaife's room. Instantly John divined what had come to pass, and cursed himself for a fool. Warde, from some coign of vantage, had seen a boy leave his house. Why should he try to arrest the boy? why should he risk the humiliation of running after him, and, perhaps, failing to capture him? No, no; men forty were not likely to work in that boyish fashion. Warde had adopted an infinitely better plan. Assured that a boy had left the house, he had nothing to do but walk round the rooms and find out which one was absent. He had begun with Scaife. Next to Scaife was the room belonging to the Head of the House; then came John's room, and then Caesar's. Long before Warde reached Caesar's room, Caesar would have heard him. Caesar, at any rate, was saved. John crept back under cover of the shrubberies. He saw the light flicker out of Scaife's window, and shine more steadily in the next room. The window of this room was open, and John could hear the voice of Warde and the Head of the House. John waited. And then the light shone in Desmond's room. John crouched against the wall, trembling. If Caesar had not heard the voices, if he were fully dressed, if—— Suddenly he caught Warde's reassuring words: "Ah, Desmond, sorry to disturb you. Good night."
John waited. Very soon Scaife would come to Desmond's room. Ah! Just so. The night was so still that he could hear quite plainly the boys' muffled voices.
"Warde is going his rounds. Perhaps he smells a rat."
And then whispers! John strained his ears. Only a word or two more reached him. "Verney—— D——d interfering sneak! Let's see!" It was Scaife who was speaking.
John heard his own door opened and shut. Scaife, then, had discovered his absence, and naturally leaped to the conclusion that he had warned Warde. Let him think so! The boys were still whispering together. "Not to-night," Scaife said decisively. "No, no," Desmond replied.
John wondered what remained to be done. Warde, of course, would satisfy himself that no boy in his house was missing except John, before he pronounced him the absentee. Poor Warde! This would be a hard knock for him. John's thoughts were jostling each other freely, when he recalled Desmond's words: "I have one more chance before the term is over." He had wished to clear the way for his friend, not to block it. Then he remembered the terms of the bet, and laughed.
He ran back to the wicket, found the bicycle, lit the lamp, and hoisted the machine over the gate. Then he laughed again. After all, this escaping from bondage, this midnight adventure beneath the impending sword of expulsion, thrilled him to the marrow.
* * * * *
When John returned on Sunday to the Manor, shortly after the doors were unlocked in the morning, he found Dumbleton awaiting him. Dumber's face expressed such amazement and consternation that John nearly laughed in spite of himself.
"It's all hup, sir," said the butler. Only in moments of intense excitement did Dumber misplace or leave out the aspirate. "You're to come with me at once to Mr. Warde's study."
John followed the butler into the familiar room. Warde was not down yet, but evidently Dumber had instructions not to leave the prisoner. John stared at the writing-desk. Then he turned to Dumbleton, and said carelessly—
"This means the sack, eh, Dumber?"
"Yes, sir. 'Ow could you do it, sir? Such a well-be'aved gentleman, too!"
"Thank you, Dumber." John took an envelope from the desk, and wrote Scaife's name upon it.
"Dumber, please give Mr. Scaife this—with my compliments. It is, as you see, a bill of fare."
"Very good, sir."
John placed the card into the envelope and handed both to Dumbleton.
"With my compliments!"
"And after Chapel."
A moment later Warde came in. Dumbleton went out immediately with a sorrowful, backward glance at John. The good fellow looked terribly bewildered. For John's face, John's deportment, had amazed him. John was quite unaware of it, but he looked astonishingly well. Excitement had flushed his cheek and lent a sparkle to his grey eyes. He had enjoyed his ride to town and back; he had slept soundly under the lee of a haystack; and he had washed his face and hands in the horse-trough at the foot of Sudbury Hill. And the certainty that Desmond was safe, that in the end he, John, had triumphed over Scaife, filled his soul with joy. Warde, on the other hand, looked wretched; he had passed a sleepless night; he was pale, haggard, gaunt.
"What have you to say, Verney?"
"Nothing." Warde clenched his hands, and burst into speech, letting all that he had suffered and suppressed escape in tumultuous words and gestures. "Nothing. You dare to stand there and say—nothing. That you should have done this thing! Why, it's incredible! And I who trusted you. And you listened to me with a face like brass, laughing in your sleeve, no doubt, at the fool who betrayed himself. And you came here, so my wife tells me, to see if I was out of the way, if the coast was clear. And you were cool as a cucumber. Oh, you hypocrite, you damnable hypocrite! I have to see you now, but never again will I look willingly upon your face, never! Well, this wretched business must be ended. You got out of my house last night. You heard I was dining with the Head Master. I returned early, and I saw you jump from the passage window. You don't deny that you went up to London, I suppose?"
"No, sir; I don't deny it."
At the moment John, quite unconsciously, looked as if he were glorying in what he had done. Warde could have struck his clean, clear face, unblushingly meeting his furious glance. In disgust, he turned his back and walked to the window. John felt rather than saw that his tutor was profoundly moved. When he turned, two tears were trickling down his cheeks. The sight of them nearly undid John. When Warde spoke again, his voice was choked by his emotion.
"Verney," he said, "I spoke just now in an unrestrained manner, because you—you"—his voice trembled—"have shaken my faith in all I hold most dear. I say to you—I say to you that I believed in you as I believe in my wife. Even now I feel that somehow there is a mistake—that you are not what you confess yourself to be—a brazen-faced humbug. You have worked as I have worked for this House, and in one moment you undo that work. Have you paused to think, what effect this will have upon the others?"
"Not yet, sir."
John looked respectfully sympathetic. Poor Warde! This was rough indeed upon him.
Suddenly the door was flung open, and Desmond burst into the room, with a complete disregard of the customary proprieties, and rushed up to Warde.
"Sir," he said vehemently, "Verney did this to save—me!"
Warde saw the slow smile break upon John's face. And, seeing it, he came as near hysterical laughter as a man of his character and temperament can come. He perceived that John, for some amazing reason, had played the scape-goat; that, in fact, he was innocent—not a humbug, not a hypocrite, not a brazen-faced sinner. And the relief was so stupendous that the tutor flung himself back into a chair, gasping. Desmond spoke quietly.
"I was going to town, sir. For the first time, I swear. And only to win a bet, and for the excitement of jumping out of a window. John tried to dissuade me. When he exhausted every argument, he went himself."
"The Lord be praised!" said Warde. He had divined everything; but he let Desmond tell the story in detail. Scaife's name was left out of the narrative.
Then Warde said slowly, "I shall not refer this business to the Head Master; I shall deal with it myself. For your own sake, Desmond, for the sake of your father, and, above all else, for the sake of this House, I shall do no more than ask you to promise that, for the rest of your time at Harrow, you will endeavour to atone for what has been."
* * * * *
All boys worth their salt are creatures of reserves; let us respect them. It is easy to surmise what passed between the friends—the gratitude, the self-reproach, the humiliation on one side; the sympathy, the encouragement and shy, restrained affection on the other. A bitter-sweet moment for John this, revealing, without disguise, the weakness of Desmond's character, but illuminating the triumph over Scaife, the all-powerful. John had been inhuman if this knowledge had not been as spikenard to him.
Chapel over, the boys came pouring back into the house. In a minute the fags would be hurrying up with the tea and the jam-pots, asking for orders; in a minute Scaife would rush in with questions hot upon his lips. John chuckled to himself as he heard Scaife's step.
"Hullo, Caesar! Why did you cut Chapel? And——"
John saw that the Carlton supper-card was in his hand. He chuckled again.
"Dumber has just given me—this. Did you go, after all?" he asked Caesar. They had not met since Warde's visit of the night before.
"I didn't go," said Caesar.
"Dumber gave it to me, with Verney's compliments."
"You've lost your bet," said John.
"Jonathan went to town instead of me," said Desmond. "We thought he was with Warde—he wasn't. This morning, early, I found out that he hadn't slept in his bed. I saw him come back, and I saw Dumber waiting for him. When Dumber came out of Warde's room, he told me that Jonathan had been up to town, and was going to be—sacked."
He blurted out the rest of the story, to which Scaife listened attentively. When Desmond finished, there was a pause.
"You're devilish clever," said Scaife to John.
"I shall pay up the pony," said Desmond.
"No, you won't," said Scaife. "As for the money, I never cared a hang about that. I'm glad—and you ought to know it—that you've won the bet. All the same, Verney isn't entitled to all the glory that you give him."
"He is, he is—and more, too."
Scaife laughed. John felt rather uncomfortable. Always Scaife exhibited his amazing resource at unexpected moments.
"Never mind," Scaife continued, "I won't burst the pretty bubble. And I admit, remember, Verney's cleverness."
He was turning to go, but Desmond clutched his sleeve. When he spoke his fair face was scarlet.
"You sneer at the wrong man and at the wrong time," he said angrily, "and you talk as though I was a fool. Well, I am a fool, perhaps, and I blow bubbles. Prick this one, if you can. I challenge you to do it."
Scaife shrugged his shoulders. "It's so obvious," he said coolly, "that your kind friend ran no risks other than a sprained ankle or a cold."
"What do you mean?"
"He was certain that you would come forward. He forced your hand. There was never the smallest chance of his being sacked, and he knew it."
"Yes," said John, calmly, "I knew it."
"Just so," said Scaife. He went out whistling.
Desmond had time to whisper to John before the fags called them to breakfast in John's room—
"I say, Jonathan, I'm glad you knew that I wouldn't fail you. As the Demon says, you are clever; you are a sight cleverer than he is."
John shook his head. "I'm slow," he said. "As a matter of fact, the thought that you would come to the rescue never occurred to me till I was biking back from town."
"Anyway, you saved me from being sacked, and as long as I live I——"
"Come on to breakfast," said John.
 The Philathletic Club deals primarily with all matters which concern Harrow games; it is also a social club. Distinguished athletes, monitors, and so forth, are eligible for membership. The Head of the School is ex-Officio President.
"Good night! Sleep, and so may ever Lights half seen across a murky lea, Child of hope, and courage, and endeavour, Gleam a voiceless benison on thee! Youth be bearer Soon of hardihood; Life be fairer, Loyaller to good; Till the far lamps vanish into light, Rest in the dreamtime. Good night! Good night!"
The last Saturday of the summer term saw the Manor cock-house at cricket: almost a foregone conclusion, and therefore not particularly interesting to outsiders. During the morning Scaife gave his farewell "brekker" at the Creameries; a banquet of the Olympians to which John received an invitation. He accepted because Desmond made a point of his so doing; but he was quite aware that beneath the veneer of the Demon's genial smile lay implacable hatred and resentment. The breakfast in itself struck John as ostentatious. Scaife's father sent quails, a la Lucullus, and other delicacies. Throughout the meal the talk was of the coming war. At that time most of the Conservative papers pooh-poohed the possibility of an appeal to arms, but Scaife's father, admittedly a great authority on South African affairs, had told his son a fight was inevitable. More, he and his friends were already preparing to raise a regiment of mounted infantry. At breakfast Scaife announced this piece of news, and added that in the event of hostilities he would join this regiment, and not try to pass into Sandhurst. And he added that any of his friends who were present, and over eighteen years of age, were cordially invited to send in their names, and that he personally would do all that was possible to secure them billets. The words were hardly out of his mouth, when Caesar Desmond was on his feet, with an eager—
"Put me down, Demon; put me down first!"
And then Scaife glanced at John, as he answered—
"Right you are, Caesar, and if things go well with us, I fancy that we shall get our commissions in regular regiments soon enough. The governor had had a hint to that effect. Let's drink success to 'Scaife's Horse.'"
The toast was drunk with enthusiasm.
During the holidays, John saw nothing of Desmond, although they wrote to each other once a week. John was reading hard with an eye to a possible scholarship at Oxford; Desmond was playing cricket with Scaife. Later, Desmond went to the Scaife moor in Scotland. John noted that his friend's letters were full of two things only: sport, and the ever-increasing probability of war. At the end of August John Verney, the explorer, returning to Verney Boscobel after an absence of nearly four years, began to write his now famous book on the Far East. Then John learned from his mother that his uncle had borne all the charges of his education. When he thanked him, the uncle said warmly—
"You have more than repaid me, my dear boy; not another word, please, about that. Warde tells me they expect great things of you at Oxford."
Uncle and nephew were alone, after dinner. John had noticed that the hardships endured in Manchuria and Thibet had left scars upon the traveller. His hair was white, he looked an old man; one whose wanderings in wild places must perforce come soon to an end.
"Uncle," said John, "I want to chuck Oxford."
"I should like to go into the Army."
"Bless my soul!"
The explorer eyed his nephew with wrinkled brow. John gave reasons; we can guess what they were. The prospect of war had set all ardent souls afire.
"I must think this over, my boy," the uncle replied presently. "I must sleep on it. Have you told your mother?"
"No; I counted upon you to persuade her."
"Um. Now tell me about Lord's! Ah! I'm sorry I missed that match."
Next day, his uncle said nothing of what lay next to John's heart, but the pair rode together over the estate. During that ride it became plain to the young man that his uncle had no intention of settling down. Once or twice, in the driest, most matter-of-fact tone, the elder spoke as if his heir were likely to inherit soon. Finally, John blurted out a protest—
"But, uncle, you are a strong man. Why do you talk as if—as if——" the boy couldn't finish the phrase.
"Tut, tut," said the uncle. "I know what I know"; and he fell into silence.
Not till the evening, after Mrs. Verney had gone to bed, did the man of many wanderings speak freely.
"John," said he, quietly, "I have a story to tell you. Years ago, your father and I fell in love with the same girl. She married the better man." He paused to fill a pipe: John saw that his uncle's fingers trembled slightly; but his voice was cool, measured, almost monotonous. "I made my first expedition to Patagonia. When I came back you were just born; and I asked that I might be your godfather. I went to Africa after the christening. And six years later your father died. I think he had the purest and most unselfish love of the poor and helpless that I have ever known. He wore away his life in the service of the outcast and forlorn. And before he died, he expressed a wish that you should work as he did, for others, but not in precisely the same way. He knew, none better, the limitations imposed upon a parson. He prayed that you might labour in a field larger than one parish. And I promised him that I would do what I could when the time came. It has come—to-night. In my opinion, in Warde's opinion, in your dear mother's opinion, Parliament is the place for you. You will be sufficiently well off. Take all Oxford can give you, and then try for the House of Commons. Charles Desmond will make you one of his Private Secretaries. I have spoken to him. You have a great career before you."
"But if war breaks out, uncle——"
"War will break out. Don't misunderstand me! If you are wanted out there, and the thing is going to be very serious, if you are wanted, you must go; but decidedly you are not wanted yet. And you are an only son; all your mother has. John, you must think of her, and you will think of her, I know."
The conviction in his quiet voice communicated itself to his nephew. There was a pause of nearly a minute; and then John answered, in a voice curiously like his uncle's—
Verney senior held out his hand. "I knew you would say that," he murmured.
* * * * *
On the 18th of September, when John returned to the Hill, the country had just learned that the proposals of the Imperial Government to accept the note of August 19th (provided it were not encumbered by conditions which would nullify the intention to give substantial representation to the Uitlanders) had not been accepted. That this meant war, none, least of all a schoolboy, doubted. Desmond could talk of nothing else. He told John that his father had promised to let him leave Harrow before the end of the term, if war were declared. The Demon, so John was informed, had made already preparations. He was taking out his three polo ponies, and had hopes of being appointed Galloper to a certain General. Scaife's Horse was being organized, but in any case would not take the field before several months had elapsed; the Demon intended to be on the spot when the first shot was fired.
To all this gunpowder-talk John listened with envious ears and a curious sinking of the heart. He had looked forward to having Desmond to himself; and lo! his friend was seven thousand miles away—on the veldt, not on the Hill.
"You are not keen," said Desmond.
On the day of the Goose Match, Saturday, September 30th, Scaife came down to Harrow to take leave of his friends. Already, John noted an extraordinary difference in his manner and appearance. He treated John to a slightly patronizing smile, called him Jonathan, asked if he could be of service to him, and posed most successfully as a sort of sucking Alexander.
That he absorbed Desmond's eyes and mind was indisputable. Everything outside South Africa, and in particular the Hill and all things thereon, dwindled into insignificance. Scaife made Desmond a present of the very best maps obtainable, and nailed them on the wall above the mantelpiece, pulling down a fine engraving which John had given to Desmond about a year before. Desmond uttered no protest. The engraving was bundled out of sight behind a sofa.
And after Scaife's departure, Desmond talked of him continually, and always with enthusiasm. Warde added a note or two to the chorus.
"This is an opportunity for Scaife," he told John. "He may distinguish himself very greatly, and the discipline of the camp will transmute the bad metal into gold. War is an alchemist."
Upon the 11th of October war was declared.
After that, Desmond became as one possessed. He went about saying that he pitied his father profoundly because he was a civilian and a non-combatant. Warde wrote to Charles Desmond: "If you mean to send Harry out, send him at once. He's fretting himself to fiddle-strings, doing no work, and causing others to do no work also."
Sir William Symons' victory and death followed, and then the mortifying retreat of General Yule. Upon the 30th day of the month eight hundred and fifty officers and men were isolated and captured. Who does not remember the wave of passionate incredulity that swept across the kingdom when the evil tidings flashed over-seas? But Buller and his staff were on the Dunottar Castle, and all Harrovians believed devoutly that within a month of landing the Commander-in-Chief would drive the invaders back and conquer the Transvaal.
Day after day, Desmond importuned his father. The "fun" would be over, he pointed out, before he got there—and so on. At last word came. A billet had been obtained. Desmond received a long envelope from the War Office. He showed it to all his friends, old and young. Duff junior—Caesar's fag—became so excited that he asked Warde for permission to enlist as a drummer-boy. The School cheered Caesar at four Bill.
And then came the parting.
Caesar was to join the Headquarters' Staff as soon as possible. He spent the last hours with John, but his mind, naturally enough, was concentrated upon his kit. He chattered endlessly of saddlery, revolvers, sleeping bags, and Zeiss glasses. John packed his portmanteau. And on the morrow the friends parted at the station without a word beyond—
"Good-bye, old Jonathan. Wish you were coming."
"Good-bye, Caesar. Good luck!"
And then the shrill whistle, the inexorable rolling of the wheels, the bright, eager face leaning far out of the window, the waved handkerchief, the last words: "So long!" and John's reply, "So long!"
John saw the face fade; the wheels of the vanishing train seemed to have rolled over his heart; the scream of the engine was the scream of anguish from himself. He left the station and ran to the Tower. There, after the first indescribable moments, some kindly spirit touched him. He became whole. But he had ceased to be a boy. Alone upon the tower he prayed for his friend, prayed fervently that it might be well with him, now and for ever—Amen.
When he returned to the Manor, however, peace seemed to forsake him. The horrible gap, ever-widening, between himself and Desmond might, indeed, be bridged by prayer, but not by the shouts of boys and the turmoil of a Public School.
During the rest of the term he worked furiously. Desmond was now on the high seas, whither John followed him at night and on Sundays. Warde, guessing, perhaps, what was passing in John's heart, talked much of Desmond, always hopefully. From Warde, John learned that Charles Desmond had tried to dissuade his favourite son from becoming a soldier.
"He wanted him to go into Parliament," said Warde.
"It was a disappointment. Yes; a great disappointment. Harry would have made a debater. Yes; yes; a nimble wit, an engaging manner, and the gift of the gab. And the father would have had him under his own eye."
"But he wanted to go to South Africa from the beginning."
"You wanted to go," said Warde; "your uncle told me so. It was a greater thing for you, John, to stand aside."
And then John put a question. "Do you think that Harry ought to have stood aside too?"
Warde, however, unwilling to commit himself, spoke of Harry's ardour and patriotism. But at the end he let fall a straw which indicated the true current of his thoughts—
"Mr. Desmond is very lonely."
John swooped on this.
"Then you think, you do think, that Harry should have stayed behind?"
"Perhaps. One hesitates to accuse the boy of anything more than thoughtlessness."
"If he wished to serve his country," began John, warmly.
Warde smiled. "Yes, yes," he assented. "Let us believe that, John; but there has been too much cheap excitement."
Dark days followed. Who will ever forget Stormberg and Magersfontein? A pall seemed to hang over the kingdom. Ladysmith remained in the grip of the invader; the Boers were not yet driven out of Natal. Meantime Caesar had reached Sir Redvers Buller. A letter to his father, describing the few incidents of the voyage out, and his arrival in South Africa, was sent on to John and received by him on the 1st of February. "John will understand," said Caesar, in a postscript, "that I have little time for writing." But John did not understand. He wrote regularly to Desmond; no answer came in return.
* * * * *
At the end of the Christmas holidays John returned to Harrow. He was now Head of his House, and very nearly Head of the School. The weeks went by slowly. Soon, he and a few others would travel to Oxford for their examination; there would be the strenuous excitement of competition, and the final announcement of success or failure. To all this John told himself that he was lukewarm. Nothing seemed to matter since he had lost sight of Caesar's face, since the train whirled his friend out of his life. But he worked hard, so hard that the Head Master bade him beware of a breakdown.
* * * * *
The hour of triumph came. John had gratified his own and Warde's ambition; he was a Scholar of Christ Church. And this well-earned success seemed to draw something in his heart. The congratulations, the warm hand-clasps, the generous joy of schoolfellows not as fortunate, restored his moral circulation. A whole holiday was granted in honour of his success at Oxford. He told himself that now he would take things easy and enjoy himself. The clouds in South Africa were lifting, everybody said the glorious end was in sight. And so far Desmond had escaped wounds and sickness. He had received a commission in Beauregard's Irregular Horse; in the five days' action about Spion Kop he behaved with conspicuous gallantry. Scaife, having obtained his billet of Galloper, was with a General under Lord Methuen.
On the last Monday but one in the term, John was entering the Manor just before lock-up, when a Sixth Form boy from another house passed him, running.
"Have you heard about poor Scaife?" he called out.
"Warde will tell you; he knows." The boy ran on, not wishing to be late.
John ran, too, with his heart thumping against his side. He felt certain, from the expression upon the boy's face, that Scaife was dead. And John recalled with intense bitterness and humiliation moments in past years when he had wished that Scaife would die. Charles Desmond had told him only three weeks before that his Harry hoped to join the smart cavalry regiment in which a commission had been promised to Scaife. At that moment John was sensible of an inordinate desire for anything that might come between this wish and its fulfilment. And now, Scaife might be lying dead.
He found Warde in his study staring at a telegram. He looked up as John entered, and in silence handed him the message.
"Demon dead. Died gloriously."
The telegram came from an Harrovian, an old Manorite at the War Office.
John sat down, stunned by the news; Warde regarded him gravely. John met his glance and could not interpret it. Presently, Warde said nervously—
"Why did the fellow write 'Demon' instead of 'Scaife'? I don't like that." He looked sharply at John, who did not understand. Then he added, "I've wired for confirmation. There may be a—mistake."
"What mistake?" said John. Warde's manner confused him, frightened him. "What mistake, sir?"
Warde, twisting the paper, answered miserably—
"There has been an action, but not in Scaife's part of Africa. Beauregard's Horse were engaged and suffered severely. And would any one say 'Demon' in such a serious context?"
"Oh, my God!" said John, pale and trembling. At last he understood. Add two letters to "Demon" and you have "Desmond." How easily such a mistake could be made!—"Desmond," ill-written, handed to an old Manorite to copy and despatch.
"It's Scaife—it's Scaife," John cried.
Warde said nothing, staring at the thin slip of paper as if he were trying to wrest from it its secret.
"Everybody called him 'Demon,'" said John.
"Still, one ought to be prepared."
For many hideous minutes they sat there, silent, waiting for the second telegram. Dumbleton brought it in, and lingered, anxiously expectant; but Warde dismissed him with a gesture. As the door closed, Warde stood up.
"If our fears are well founded," he said solemnly, "may God give you strength, John Verney, to bear the blow."
Then he tore open the envelope and read the truth—
"Henry Desmond killed in action."
"No," said John, fiercely. "It is Scaife, Scaife!"
Warde shook his head, holding John's hand tight between his sinewy fingers. John's face appalled him. He had known, he had guessed, the strength of John's feeling for Desmond, but, he had not known the strength of John's hatred of Scaife. And Desmond had been taken—and Scaife left. The irony of it tore the soul.
"Don't speak," commanded Warde.
John closed his lips with instinctive obedience. When he opened them again his face had softened; the words fell upon the silence with a heartrending inflection of misery.
"And now I shall never know—I shall never know."
He broke down piteously. Warde let the first passion of grief spend itself; then he asked John to explain. The good fellow saw that if John could give his trouble words it would be lightened enormously. He divined what had been suppressed.
"What is it that you will never know, John?"
At that John spoke, laying bare his heart. He gave details of the never-ending struggle between Scaife and himself for the soul of his friend; gave them with a clearness of expression which proved beyond all else how his thoughts had crystallized in his mind. Warde listened, holding John's hand, gripping it with sympathy and affection. The romance of this friendship stirred him profoundly; the romance of the struggle for good and evil; a struggle of which the issues remained still in doubt; a romance which Death had cruelly left unfinished—this had poignant significance for the house-master.
"I shall never know now," John repeated, in conclusion.
"But you have faith in your friend."
"He never wrote to me," said John.
At last it was out, the thorn in his side which had tormented him.
"If he had written," John continued, "if only he had written once. When we parted it was good-bye—just that, nothing more; but I thought he would write, and that everything would be cleared up. And now, silence."
* * * * *
The week wore itself away. A few details were forthcoming: enough to prove that a glorious deed had been done at the cost of a gallant life. England was thrilled because the hero happened to be the son of a popular Minister. The name of Desmond rang through the Empire. John bought every paper and devoured the meagre lines which left so much between them. It seemed that a certain position had to be taken—a small hill. For the hundredth time in this campaign too few men were detailed for the task. The reek of that awful slaughter on Spion Kop was still strong in men's nostrils. Beauregard and his soldiers halted at the foot of the hill, halted in the teeth of a storm of bullets. Then the word was given to attack. But the fire from invisible foes simply exterminated the leading files. The moment came when those behind wavered and recoiled. And then Desmond darted forward—alone, cheering on his fellows. They were all afoot. The men rallied and followed. But they could not overtake the gallant figure pressing on in front. He ran—so the Special Correspondent reported—as if he were racing for a goal. The men staggered after him, aflame with his ardour. They reached the top, captured the guns, drove down the enemy, and returned to the highest point to find their leader—shot through the heart, and dead, and smiling at death. Of all the men who passed through that blizzard of bullets he was the youngest by two years.
Warde told John that the Head Master would preach upon the last Sunday evening of the term, with special reference to Harry Desmond. Could John bear it? John nodded. Since the first breakdown in Warde's study, his heart seemed to have turned to ice. His religious sense, hitherto strong and vital, failed him entirely. He abandoned prayer.
* * * * *
Evensong was over in Harrow Chapel. The Head Master, stately in surplice and scarlet hood, entered the pulpit, and, in his clear, calm tones, announced his text, taken from the 17th verse of the First Chapter of the Book of Ruth—
* * * * *
"The Lord do so to me, and more also, if ought but death part thee and me."
The subject of the sermon was "Friendship:" the heart's blood of a Public School: Friendship with its delights, its perils, its peculiar graces and benedictions.
"To-night," concluded the preacher, amid the breathless silence of the congregation, "this thought of Friendship has for us a special solemnity. It is consecrated by the memory of one whom we have just lost. You, who are leaving the school, have been the friends and contemporaries of Henry Julius Desmond; his features are fresh in your memories, and will remain fresh as long as you live.
"Tall, eager, a face to remember, A flush that could change as the day; A spirit that knew not December, That brightened the sunshine of May."
"Those lines, as you know, were written of another Harrovian, who died here on this Hill. Henry Desmond died on another hill, and died so gloriously that the shadow of our loss, dark as it seemed to us at first, is already melting in the radiance of his gain. To die young, clean, ardent; to die swiftly, in perfect health; to die saving others from death, or worse—disgrace—to die scaling heights; to die and to carry with you into the fuller, ampler life beyond, untainted hopes and aspirations, unembittered memories, all the freshness and gladness of May—is not that cause for joy rather than sorrow? I say—yes. Henry Desmond is one stage ahead of us upon a journey which we all must take, and I entreat you to consider that, if we have faith in a future life, we must believe also that we carry hence not only the record of our acts, whether good or evil, but the memory of them; and that memory, undimmed by falsehood or self-deception, will create for us Heaven or Hell. I do not say—God forbid!—that you should desire death because you are still young, and, comparatively speaking, unspotted from the world; but I say I would sooner see any of you struck down in the flower of his youth than living on to lose, long before death comes, all that makes life worth the living. Better death, a thousand times, than gradual decay of mind and spirit; better death than faithlessness, indifference, and uncleanness. To you who are leaving Harrow, poised for flight into the great world of which this school is the microcosm, I commend the memory of Henry Desmond. It stands in our records for all we venerate and strive for: loyalty, honour, purity, strenuousness, faithfulness in friendship. When temptation assails you, think of that gallant boy running swiftly uphill, leaving craven fear behind, and drawing with him the others who, led by him to the heights, made victory possible. You cannot all be leaders, but you can follow leaders; only see to it that they lead you, as Henry Desmond led the men of Beauregard's Horse, onward and upward."
The preacher ended, and then followed the familiar hymn, always sung upon the last Sunday evening of the term:—
"Let Thy father-hand be shielding All who here shall meet no more; May their seed-time past be yielding Year by year a richer store; Those returning, Make more faithful than before."
The last blessing was pronounced, and with glistening eyes the boys streamed out of Chapel; some of them for the last time.
* * * * *
Upon the next Tuesday, John travelled down into the New Forest. April was abroad in Hampshire; the larches already were bright green against the Scotch firs; the beech buds were bursting; only the oaks retained their drab winter's-livery.
During the few days preceding Easter Sunday, John rode or walked to every part of the forest which he had visited in company with his dead friend. At Beaulieu, standing in the ruins of the Abbey, he could hear Desmond's delightful laugh as he recited the misadventures of Hordle John; at Stoneycross he sat upon the bank overlooking the moor, whence they had seen the fox steal into the woods about Rufus's Stone; at the Bell tavern at Brook they had lunched; at Hinton Admiral they had played cricket.
To his mother's and his uncle's silent sympathy John responded but churlishly. His friend had departed without a word, without a sign; that ate into John's heart and consumed it. For the first time since he had been confirmed, he refused to receive the Sacrament. He went to church as a matter of form; but he dared not approach the altar in his present rebellious mood.
Again and again he accused himself of having yielded to a craven fear of offending Desmond by speech too plain. Always he had been so terribly afraid of losing his friend; and now he had lost him indeed. This poignancy of grief may be accounted for in part by the previous long-continued strain of overwork. And it is ever the habit of those who do much to think that they might have done more.
At the beginning of May, John came back to the Hill, for his last term. Out of the future rose the "dreaming spires" of Oxford; beyond them, vague and shadowy, the great Clock-tower of Westminster, keeping watch and ward over the destinies of our Empire.
In a long letter from Charles Desmond, the Minister had spoken of the secretaryship to be kept warm for him, of the pleasure and solace the writer would take in seeing his son's best friend in the place where that son might have stood.
His best friend? Was that true?
The question tormented John. Because Caesar had been so much to him, he desired, more passionately than he had desired anything in his life, the assurance that he had been something—not everything, only something—to Caesar.
* * * * *
One day, about the middle of the month, John had been playing cricket, the game of all games which brought Caesar most vividly to his mind. Then, just before six Bill, he strolled up the Hill and into the Vaughan Library, where so many relics dear to Harrovians are enshrined. Sitting in the splendid window which faces distant Hampstead, John told himself that he must put aside the miseries and perplexities of the past month. Had he been loyal to his friend's memory? Would not a more ardent faith have burned away doubt?
John gazed across the familiar fields to the huge city on the horizon. Soon night would fall, darkness would encompass all things. And then, out of the mirk, would shine the lamps of London.
Warde's voice put his thoughts to instant flight. Some intuition told John that something had happened. Warde said quietly—
"A letter has come for you in Harry Desmond's handwriting."
John, unable to speak, stretched out his hand.
"Take it," said Warde, "to some quiet spot where you cannot be disturbed."
"I have seen how it was with you," Warde continued, with deep emotion, "and you have had my acute sympathy, the more acute, perhaps, because long ago a friend went out of my life without a sign." Warde paused. "Now, unless my whole experience is at fault, you hold in your hand what you want—and what you deserve."
Warde left the library; John put the letter into his pocket. Where should he go? One place beckoned him. Upon the tower, looking towards the Hill, he would read the last letter of his friend.
Within half an hour he was passing through the iron gates. He had not visited the garden since that forlorn winter's afternoon, when he came here, alone, after bidding Desmond good-bye. He could recall the desolation of the scene: bleak Winter dripping tears upon the tomb of Summer. With what disgust he had perceived the decaying masses of vegetation, the sodden turf, the soot upon the bare trunks of the trees. He had rushed away, fancying that he heard Desmond's voice, "There is a curse on the place."
Now, May had touched what had seemed dead and hideous, and, lo! a miracle. The hawthorns shone white against the brilliant green of the laurels; the horse-chestnuts had—to use a fanciful expression of Caesar's—"lit their lamps." Out of the waving grass glimmered and sparkled a thousand wild flowers. John heard the glad Fruehlingslied of bees and birds. Then, opening his lungs, he inhaled the life-renewing odours of earth renascent; opening his heart he felt a spiritual essence pervading every fibre of his being. Once more the chilled sap in his veins flowed generously. It was well with him and well with his friend. This conviction possessed him, remember, before he opened the letter.
He ascended the tower, and broke the seal.
* * * * *
"I have been meaning to write to you, dear old chap, ever since we parted; but, somehow, I couldn't bring myself to tackle it in earnest till to-night. To-morrow, we have a thundering big job ahead of us; the last job, perhaps, for me. Old Jonathan, you have been the best friend a man ever had, the only one I love as much as my own brothers—and even more. It was from knowing you that I came to see what good-for-nothing fools some fellows are. You were always so unselfish and straight! and you made me feel that I was the contrary, and that you knew it, and that I should lose your friendship if I didn't improve a bit. So, if we don't meet again in this jolly old world, it may be a little comfort to you to remember that what you have done for a very worthless pal was not thrown away.
"Good night, Jonathan. I'm going to turn in; we shall be astir before daybreak. Over the veldt the stars are shining. It's so light, that I can just make out the hill upon which, I hope, our flag will be waving within a few hours. The sight of this hill brings back our Hill. If I shut my eyes, I can see it plainly, as we used to see it from the tower, with the Spire rising out of the heart of the old school. I have the absurd conviction strong in me that, to-morrow, I shall get up the hill here faster and easier than the other fellows because you and I have so often run up our Hill together—God bless it—and you! Good night."
 Brekker, i.e. breakfast.
PRINTED AND BOUND IN ENGLAND BY WILLIAM CLOWES AND SONS LIMITED, LONDON AND BECCLES