The grey and lifeless Finnemore superintended the history, and, like everything else he superintended, it was scandalously neglected. Outhouse people occasionally did a little work; School House men never. Gordon began by taking quite modest privileges. He knew he had heaps of time to enlarge his advantages. He started by doing one prose and one "con" a week, instead of two proses and two "cons" like the rest of the form. He also gave up one Latin construe book and one Greek book. That meant about two hours a day to idle in his study. But he found it quite easy to turn that two into three, and he was well aware that by Christmas his daily hours of indolence would have reached five. Prothero at the present moment was only going into school for divinity and French, and as often as not he told his French master that he was so much occupied with history that he could not come to French at all. Nominally he went into school seven hours a week, actually he very rarely went in more than three.
The method of teaching history at Fernhurst had been the same from time immemorial. Gordon was told to buy Modern Europe, by Lodge, price seven shillings and sixpence. He did not, however, put his father to this expense. History specialists in the School House had for years used the same book. It had once belonged to a fabulous Van Hepworth, who had gained a History exhibition at Selwyn somewhere in the nineties.
No one knew anything of this Van Hepworth. His name was on the school boards, but he had never been seen or heard of since he had left Fernhurst for the romantic atmosphere of Cambridge. But he had left behind him a name that will be remembered in the School House as long as history is taught by Finnemore. For on his last day, in a fit of gratitude, he had left to future historians the legacy of his history notebook. It contained all that Finnemore knew!
Every week Finnemore set three questions to his specialists—to be done with books. He had a stock of these questions, and Van Hepworth had written exhaustive essays on every one of them. All that was needed was to consult the oracle, and then copy out what he had written. Sometimes, by way of a change, Finnemore would think of a new subject. But Gordon would say:
"Oh, sir, I have been reading about Mary de Medici, and am very much interested in her. I wondered if I could do a question on her."
"Of course. I always like you to do what you are interested in. Let me see. I have a nice little question on her: 'Mary de Medici: was she an unmixed evil?' An interesting subject which raises quite a lot of points. And I have one more question for you. 'Compare Richelieu and Mazarin,' an interesting little psychological study. I think you will enjoy them."
Then Gordon would have recourse to the unfailing authority, Van Hepworth. Sometimes he felt too slack to copy out the questions at all. On such occasions he would simply read Van Hepworth's essay straight out of the old, battered book.
"I hope you won't mind my reading this to you, but I was in rather a hurry and I doubt if you could quite read my handwriting."
Finnemore would listen with the greatest interest.
"Very nice indeed, Caruthers, very sound attitude to adopt. An essay well worth preserving. You will copy it out neatly, won't you?"
"Oh yes, sir."
Gordon wanted to institute a Van Hepworth memorial, and put up a plate to him somewhere. But there were many obstacles to this. The Chief might want to know more about him, and the legend had to be kept secret. In the end he contented himself with having the book bound in full morocco, so that it might be preserved for future generations, for already the cardboard cover had become sadly torn. Where Van Hepworth is now, who knows? This only is certain, that although he has most likely by now lost all clear recollection of Fernhurst and the grey School House studies, yet his name is remembered there to-day, with far greater veneration and respect than was ever paid to him during the days of his school career.
"Let us now praise famous men, Men of little showing, For their work continueth, Deep and long continueth, Wide and far continueth, far beyond their knowing."
And so Gordon's scholastic career came to an end. He had reached the "far border town." There would be no need to fret himself about form orders any more. "Strong men might go by and pass o'er him"; he had retired from the fray. While others crammed their brains with obscure interpretations of AEschylus, he lay back reading English poetry and English prose, striving to get a clear hold of the forces that went to produce each movement, and incidentally doing himself far more good than he would have done by binding himself down to the classical regime, which trained boys to imitate, and not to strike out on their own. Gordon had already acquired enough of the taste and sense of form which the classics alone can provide, and which are essential to a real culture. But he was lucky in stopping soon enough to prevent himself being forced into a groove, from which he could only judge new movements by the Ciceronian standards, without grasping the fact that technique and form are merely outward coverings of genius, and not genius in themselves.
To the other delights of this delightful term was added the sudden and unexpected success of Gordon's cricket. For the first fortnight Gordon found himself playing on House and Colts games. But as he gathered runs there with ease, he was soon transplanted to the First Eleven nets, which he thenceforward only left for a brief spell, after an attack of chicken-pox. For a member of the School Eleven life has nothing better to offer than a summer term. There were usually two matches a week. The team would get off work at ten o'clock, and just as the school was pouring out in break they would stroll leisurely down to the cricket field. Everything, in fact, was carried out leisurely. A wonderful atmosphere of repose hangs over a cricket field in the morning, when the grass is still sparkling with dew, and there is silence and vast emptiness where usually is the sound of shouting and hurrying feet. There was the long luncheon interval, when the members of the Eleven would wander round the field arm in arm, or lounge on the seats lazy and contented. Gordon loved to sit in the pavilion balcony watching the white forms change across between the overs, the red ball bounce along the grass, the wicket-keeper whip off the bails, the umpire's finger go up. The whole tableau was so unreal, so idealistic. Then the school would come down after lunch with rugs and cushions, and would clamour outside the tuck-shop for ices and ginger beer. Gordon could hardly connect his present existence with the past two years of doubts, uncertainties, wild excitements, hurry, bustle—never a second's peace.
One of his most perfect days was the Radley match. After a long journey, at the very end of the day they passed through Oxford, and Gordon caught one fleeting glimpse of those wonderful "dreaming spires," rising golden in the dying sun. As the team walked up from Abingdon to the college, Tester, who had at last got into the side, came up and took Gordon's arm.
"You know, when I saw Oxford lying out there so peaceful and calm, I thought I had at last reached the end of searching. This was my first view of Oxford; by passing the certificate I didn't need to go up for smalls. Thank God, I am going up there next term. I think I shall forget all my old misgivings in so completely peaceful an atmosphere. I can't shake off the Public School ideas yet; I am all adrift; still, I think it will be all right there."
Gordon wondered indeed how anyone could fail to find all their dreams realised in so secluded, so monastic a Utopia.
The next two days were supremely happy. Gordon, Lovelace and Foster were put into the same house; and they spent half the night ragging in their old light-hearted fashion. The match resembled most of the other performances of that year's Eleven. The whole side was out for eighty. Gordon hit two fours and was then leg before; Lovelace, with laborious efforts and much use of his pads, made twenty-three and five leg byes. But it was a sorry performance, and Radley put up over two hundred. Fernhurst went in again; and that day Gordon and Lovelace were sent in first.
It was an amazing performance. Gordon's cricket was, in honest fact, one of the biggest frauds that had ever been inflicted on an opposing side. He had three shots—a cut, a slash shot past cover, and a drive that landed the ball anywhere from mid-wicket to over short-slip. People used to say that he tried each of these shots in rotation. That perhaps was hardly fair; but he invariably cut straight balls and pulled good length balls on the off stump to the on boundary. This evening, at any rate, he was in luck. With terrific violence he smote the Radley bowling all round the field. Some shots went along the ground, more fell just out of reach of a fielder. It was invigorating but hardly classic cricket. Still, whatever it was, it produced seventy-two runs, while Lovelace had scored three. After he left Lovelace became still more cautious. A man from Christy's was in at the other end, who had been instructed to keep up his end for an hour. As a matter of fact, they scored exactly two runs between them in about half-an-hour. That two was from a drive from Lovelace past cover.
At such daring Lovelace became much elated.
"Come on, I say, come on. Lots of runs here. Come on."
The Radley men were very amused. Lovelace took nothing seriously. It was as well that "the Bull" was absent. Once, just as the bowler was rushing up to bowl, Lovelace flung out his hand and said: "Stop! Move the screen please; your hand is just behind a tree!"
With great difficulty the screens were moved.
Once he patted the ball a little way down the pitch, and shouted to the batsman at the other end, with hand extended: "Stay!"
There was some subdued laughter.
Lovelace turned round to the wicket-keeper and said: "Strange as it may seem, I am the worst member of this rotten side, and I am playing for my place. This is the way to keep your place at Fernhurst."
The final achievement was a successful appeal against the light.
The next day it rained in torrents.
"Jolly rotten luck," said Lovelace, "and I was certain for a bat for making my fifty, too."
"Do you think so?" said Tester. "You know, they don't play to a finish in England. You are thinking of Australian rules."
Commemoration came and went, with its tea-parties, parasols, calf-bound books, sermons and cricket match. The term drew to its close.
"This is the best term I have ever had," said Gordon. "By Jove, we have had some good days."
Yet, of all things, that which remained clearest in his memory was one day early in the term, when he and Lovelace were recovering from chicken-pox. The school had gone for a field day to Salisbury, and they were left behind with Archie Fletcher, who had been ragging Jenks, and had been kept back for punishment, and a quantity of small fry. No work was done. In the morning they all had to go into the big schoolroom and hear Claremont read Lycidas and parts of Comus.
Claremont read remarkably well, and Gordon, in an atmosphere of genial tolerance and good humour, was able to get a clearer insight into the real soul of the pedant of the Lower Fifth. For, shorn of his trappings, Claremont was "a dear old fellow." Among books he had found the lasting friendship and consolation that among his colleagues he had sought in vain. And as he read Comus, in many ways the most truly poetical poem in the English language, Gordon realised how sensitively Claremont's heart was wrought upon by every breath of beauty.
The afternoon they had to themselves. A net was put up on the field, and for an hour or so they beat about, regardless of science and footwork. A relaxation was a good thing now and again. Then they went back to the studies, and in the absence of its owner laid hold of the games study. They had the run of it now, and, with an enormous basket of strawberries before them, played tunes on the gramophone and roared the chorus. As the evening fell, and the lights began to wake, Gordon and Archie stole down to the fried fish shop, strictly out of bounds, and returned with an unsavoury, but none the less palatable, parcel of fried fish and chips.
It was a glorious day; they enjoyed all Fernhurst's privileges with its restrictions removed, and when the notes of Land of Hope and Glory proclaimed that the corps was marching up Cheap Street, they considered the return to realities to be almost an intrusion on their isolated peace.
In the last week of the term the Colts played Downside, and Gordon was still young enough to play for them. "The Bull" went with them, and could not have been kinder. He walked round the ground with Gordon in the interval, as if there had been never any cause of quarrel between them at all. They talked of books as well as cricket; and though "the Bull's" gods were not Gordon's, there was real sympathy between them for an hour. On the way back in the train, Gordon wondered whether, after all, he had not been right at the beginning, when he promised to curb his personality, and merge it into "the Bull's." What good was there in going his own way, in fighting for what he thought right? Buller always had had his own way, and things had gone on all right. Why should he try and alter things? Having realised "the Bull's" faults, should he not make allowance for them, seeing that his virtues so outnumbered his failings? He was certainly intolerant of any other opinions but his own; but then so was Ferrers, whom Gordon worshipped on the other side of idolatry. The pity was that Ferrers was intolerant of the things he hated, while Buller was intolerant of the things he admired. It was all very difficult. For the moment he did not feel ready to come to any decision. He was too happy to trouble himself. "Sufficient for the day were the day's evil things." Let the future reveal itself. He would see how things turned out.
The concert came, with its Valete of many memories. The school songs were howled out; hands crossed and swung in Auld Lang Syne; the Carmen nearly brought the roof down. Lying back in bed, Gordon saw little to regret in the school year that was just ending. Considering he had been second in the batting averages, he thought they might have given him his "Firsts"; but it did not matter very much. There was heaps of time. Three years of fulfilment. Half his school life was over. The threads of his youth had been unravelled at last; and in the coming year they would be woven upon the wonderful loom of youth, with its bright colours, its sunshine and its laughter. As the spring morn flings aside its winter raiment, so he had put off the garb of his wandering adolescence. He was prepared for whatever might come. But he was certain that it was only happiness that was waiting for him. Three years of success in which would be mingled the real poetry of existence. He would not write his poetry on paper; he would write it, as Herod had written it, in every action of his life. His innings was just about to begin.
BOOK IV: THE WEAVING
"Alba Ligustra cadunt; vaccinia nigra leguntur."
"Life like an army I could hear advance Halting at fewer, fewer intervals."
CHAPTER I: THE TWILIGHT OF THE GODS
It is good to dream; but "Man proposes: God in His time disposes," and Gordon's dream was scattered at its dawn. Hardly a week later a great nation forgot its greatness, and Europe trembled on the brink of war. During those days of awful suspense, when it was uncertain whether England would enter into the contest or not, Gordon could hardly keep still with nervous excitement. When on the Sunday before Bank Holiday J.L. Garvin poured out his warning to the Liberal Government, it seemed for a moment as if they were going to back out.
On the Tuesday Gordon went to the Oval; Lovelace major was playing against Surrey. In the Strand he ran into Ferrers.
"Come on, sir I am just off to the Oval to see Lovelace's brother bat. Great fellow! Captain of the House my first term."
"Right you are. Come on. There's a bus!"
For hours, or what seemed like hours, two painfully correct professionals pottered about, scoring by ones and twos. Gordon longed for them to get out. A catch was missed in the slips.
"Surrey are the worst slip-fielding side in England," announced Gordon fiercely. The Oval crowd, always so ferociously partisan, moved round him uneasily.
At last a roar went up, as Hitch knocked the leg stump flying out of the ground. Then Lovelace came in. He looked just as he had looked on the green Fernhurst sward, only perhaps a little broader. He was wearing the magenta and black of the School House scarf. He was an amateur of the R.E. Foster type—wrist shots past cover, and an honest off-drive.
A change came over the play at once. In his first over he hit two fours. There was a stir round the ground. His personality was as strong as ever.
A boy ran on the field with a telegram for him.
"I bet that means he has got to join his regiment," said Gordon, "and it also means we are going to fight."
Lovelace shoved the telegram into his pocket, and went on batting just as if nothing had happened, just as if he did not realise that this was his last innings for a very long time. He hit all round the wicket.
At last a brilliant piece of stumping sent him back to the pavilion amid a roar of cheering.
"My word, Mr Ferrers, there goes the finest man Fernhurst has turned out since I have been there. And, my word, it will be a long time before we turn out another like him. There will be nothing to see now he has gone."
They wandered out into the Kennington Road, excited, feverish. They had lunch at Gatti's, went into Potash and Perlmutter, and came out after the first act.
"This is no time for German Jews," said Ferrers, "let's try the Hippodrome."
It was an expensive day. They rushed from one thing to another. The strain was intolerable. After supper they went to the West End Cinema, and there, just before closing-time, a film, in which everyone was falling into a dirty duck-pond for no ostensible reason, was suddenly stopped, and there appeared across the screen the flaming notice:
ENGLAND HAS DECLARED WAR ON GERMANY
GOD SAVE THE KING!
There was dead silence for a moment. Then cheer upon cheer convulsed the house. The band struck up the National Anthem. The sequel to the tragedy of the duck-pond was never known.
"Glorious! Glorious!" said Ferrers, as they staggered out into the cool night air. "A war is what we want. It will wake us up from sleeping; stir us into life; inflame our literature. There's a real chance now of sweeping away the old outworn traditions. In a great fire they will all be burnt. Then we can build afresh. I wish I could go and fight. Damn my heart! To think of all the running it stood at Oxford; and then suddenly to give way. My doctor always tells me to be careful. If I could go, by God, I would have my shot at the bloody Germans; but still I'll do something at Fernhurst. Stoics, you know; Army class English. How old are you? Sixteen! We shall have you for two years yet. This war is going to save England and everything! Glorious!"
The flaring lights of Leicester Square, the tawdry brilliance of Piccadilly seemed to burst into one volcano of red splendour; a thousand cannons spitting flame; a thousand eyes bright with love of England. The swaying Tube swept Gordon home in a state of subconscious delirium to the starlit calm of Hampstead.
Throughout the long summer holidays this feeling of rejoicing sustained Gordon's heart. He saw an age rising out of these purging fires that would rival the Elizabethan. He saw a second Marlowe and a second Webster. His soul was aflame with hope. He had no doubt as to the result. Even the long retreat from Mons, with its bitter list of casualties, failed to terrorise him. Half the holidays he spent in Wychtown, a little Somersetshire village, and his enthusiasm at one time took the form of buying bundles of newspapers, which he distributed at the cottages, so as to keep everyone in touch with the state of affairs. At one time he thought of going round discussing the war with some of the villagers; but he soon abandoned this project. He began with an aged man who had fought at Majuba.
"Well, Mr Cavendish, and what do you think of the war this morning."
"Lor' bless you, things beant what they were in my young days. At Majuba, now, we did things a bit different-like. But these 'ere Germans, now, they be getting on right well. Be they for us?"
After this Gordon decided that the natural simplicity of the yokel was proof against anything he might have to say. He pitied electioneering agents.
A week before the beginning of term he received two letters. The first was from Lovelace, who had got a nomination to Sandhurst, and would not return to school next term. The other was from Hunter, saying that he had won a commission in the Dorsets.
"Well, Caruthers, old fellow," he added, "this means that you will be captain of the House. I had greatly looked forward to being captain myself, and had thought out a good many new ideas. But of course all that has got to go now, and I don't intend to try and pass off my theories on you; you'll probably have many more than I had, and a good deal better ones. All I can say is that I wish the very best of luck to you and to the House. I have no doubt you'll do jolly well. Good luck."
Gordon sat silent for a long while. Sorrow at losing Lovelace strove with the joy of reaching his heart's desire so soon. Finally all other emotions were lost in the overflowing sense of relief that his days of waiting for achievement were over.
In a mood of supreme self-confidence he returned to Fernhurst.
At Waterloo everyone was talking at the top of his voice.
"Is it true Akerman has left?"
"Yes; got a commission in the Middlesex."
"Good Lord! that'll mean Gregory captain."
"Hunter has left, too, I hear."
"Caruthers will be captain of the House, then."
Broken sentences were wafted like strange music to Gordon's ears. He felt that the eyes of those who once had been his equals looked at him with a sort of Oriental admiration, in which there lurked traces of fear.
He found himself addressed with more respect. One or two people came up to congratulate him. The green flag waved. The train moved majestically westward, and his reign had begun. He did not feel the slightest tremor of nervousness. He remembered Hunter saying at the end of last term that it was ticklish work being captain of the House. Was it? To Gordon it seemed no more than the inevitable entrance into a kingdom which was his by right of conquest.
The Eversham road swept in its broad curve up to the Abbey, black with moving figures. Gordon slowly walked up to the House. It was the privilege of School House prefects to enter by a small gate near the masters' common room. Haughtily he rang the bell. A wizened old lady opened the door, bowing with a "Hope you 'ad a good 'oliday, sir." It was the first sensation of power.
A crowd had collected round the notice-board in the changing-room. Gordon murmured "Thank you," and two or three Eton collars moved aside to give him room. What a change! All the giants of the former generation had gone. Betteridge had, at the express request of the Chief, come back for one term. But he alone remained. Gordon was fifth in the House; and, good Lord, that amazing ass Rudd was a prefect, and second in the House! He and Gordon had a double dormitory on the lower landing. The number of boys in the House had sunk to sixty-two, rather a desolating thought for House matches.
The Chief was not in his study. Gordon dropped a health certificate on his table, and gave instructions to one Morgan, a round-faced, ruddy youth, to shove his bag into his dormitory. Then he wandered over to the games study. And so this study was going to be his! He had often sat there with Carter; but he had always felt himself an excrescence. Now it was his own. He pictured the evenings after a hard game of football, sitting in front of the fire; the long mornings when he was supposed to be preparing history for Finnemore, spent in this atmosphere of luxurious calm. He planned his furnishing of the room. In the broad window he would hang two bookshelves for his smaller books. On each side of the fireplace there was also room for bookshelves. Then, standing against the wooden partition that jutted out into the room would be his large oak bookcase for the heavy volumes. He would repaper the room, and a new carpet was a necessity. He went over to the porter's lodge to give instructions.
He had already decided to ask Foster to share the study with him. Foster would be captain of cricket next summer. They would get on well together. Foster never quarrelled with anyone; and it would be a suitable combination. He met Foster by the eight-ten train from Exeter, and informed him of the fact.
When prayers came, and Gordon stood under the mantelpiece behind the arm-chair where the captain of the House sat, and looked down at the row of new boys at the day-room table, it seemed incredible to him that he had ever been like that. And yet it was only three years ago since he had sat there, dazed and frightened.
Prayers were ended. Gordon sat back, his hands resting on the arms of his big oak chair. The Chief came round, shaking hands.
"Caruthers, Foster and Davenport, you might come and speak to me for a moment after you have finished your supper."
That was not long. No one had ever been known to touch any of the first-night soup; Gordon had often wondered what happened to it. There was much of it, and all wasted.
The Chief greeted them with his invariable fluttering smile.
"I suppose you know what I want you for? Kitchener called up his reserves, so I have had to call up mine. None of you would, I think, in the ordinary course of events have become prefects this term. But as it is, I am sure you will all do well; and remember that being a prefect does not merely consist in the privilege of being late for breakfast. Some of you, who may very likely have views of your own on certain subjects, must try and make them conform with mine. We must all try to work together, and I am always ready to give any of you advice if I am able to, and of course——"
At this moment there came the discordant sounds that proclaimed the arrival of the last train from town. Gordon could imagine some wretched new boy huddled underneath the stairs, ignorant and timid.
Rudd burst in with a health certificate and outside came the babble of voices. "I must go and see Chief ... Health certificate ... Confirmation classes ... Going to specialise in stinks."
It was clear that the Chief was to have a hard time for the next twenty minutes interviewing all these candidates for a satisfactory division of labour.
"Well, I think that is all just now, thank you."
He gave them a nod of dismissal. They filed out into the passage, black with its crowd of clamouring applicants.
It was not until the next day, however, that Gordon fully realised the change that had come over Fernhurst. Nearly all the bloods had left. Gregory was still there, but he had sent his papers in, and expected to be gazetted in a week or so, and of the Fifteen of the year before he was the only remaining colour. Two members of the Second Fifteen remained: one because he was only seventeen, the other, Akerman's younger brother, because he was going to be a medical student and was not allowed to take a commission by the War Office.
The staff also had undergone several changes. Ferrers was practically the only master under thirty. The rest had all taken commissions, and their places were filled by grey-beards and bald-heads, long since past their prime. It was a case of extreme youth face to face with extreme age.
"There will be some fun this term," prophesied Archie Fletcher, for whom the immediate future stretched out into a long series of colossal "rags."
Rogers was imperially himself. The Corps was, of course, to be allowed considerably more time this term. There were two parades a week, one a company drill on Friday, the other a field day on Wednesday. Besides this, between twelve-thirty and lunch there would be section and platoon drill every day. Rogers imagined that O.T.C. work would shortly become more important and more popular than football; he saw himself taking the position once held by Buller. On the strength of this alluring prospect he bought a new uniform.
For the first few days life was entertainingly disorganised. The time-table worked out all wrong. Gregory got gazetted; and Akerman, on becoming captain, forgot the numbers of the football grounds, thus causing endless and hilarious confusion. No one quite knew what was happening, but everyone was happily excited, and vaguely garrulous about "how the war has changed things."
Gordon found that his new position brought with it certain other honours. In the Corps, for instance, where for three years he had so tempered slackness with insolence as to make him the worst private in the company, he found himself a lance-corporal, in charge of a section. He was elected to the Dolts Literary Society, under the placid autocracy of Claremont, who called them his "stolidi." But nothing showed more clearly the change wrought by the war than the fact that Gordon was nominated to the Games Committee, before which august body hardly six months ago he had cut such an inglorious figure. It was a strange irony.
In the School House every prefect was allowed four fags, so as Foster and Gordon were both prefects, the games study had a goodly crowd of menials. For the most part they were simple, insignificant, Eton-collared mortals, who flitted round the room after breakfast with dusters, and at various other times of the day came in to see after the fire. Gordon took little notice of them. Foster had made out a list of the days on which each fag was on duty; one, Hare, was put in charge, and when anything went wrong, Hare was considered responsible and beaten. After two such castigations the excellence of the fagging was maintained at an unusually high standard.
The first fortnight of the term was feverish. Corps work was revivified under the stimulus of war; the field days by Babylon Hill provided genuine excitement, in spite of the prolixity of Rogers's subsequent summary of the day's work. There were going to be very few football matches; but "uppers" were played with the old keenness, and there was fierce competition for the last places in the scrum. Ferrers wrote a long article to The Country on "The Public Schools and the War," which bubbled over with enthusiasm.
Gordon found authority a pleasant thing. There were, of course, bound to be little worries, but they were transient. The new boys caused him a certain amount of trouble. They never would take the trouble to find out if they were posted for House games. The result was that as often as not the House found itself playing with only six forwards. Gordon made a speech to the House on the subject. The very next day Golding, a most wretched-looking specimen, failed to turn up on a House game.
Gordon gave him a lecture on the insignificance of the new boy and the importance of games.
"This sort of thing can't go on," he said, using the formula that every prefect has used since the day prefects were first made. "If it did, we might find everyone cutting House games and going off to pick-ups! What would happen then?"
Golding was far too frightened to have any views on the subject.
"Well, I shall have to beat you."
Gordon led the way to the empty space by the cloisters where roll was called.
"Bend over there!"
Golding showed a natural reluctance to do anything of the sort.
"No, right down; and lift up your coat."
Gordon gave him a fairly hard stroke. Golding squealed "Oh!" and rose, holding his trousers, and looking round fretfully. Gordon's heart melted. After all, this was a new kid, and a pretty poor specimen at that.
The next shot was very gentle.
The sequel reached Gordon three days later. Golding had gone back down to the day-room. Rudd was taking hall, which was, of course, an excuse for everyone to talk.
"How many?" asked several voices. "Did he hurt?"
"Oh, only one and a half," announced Golding, puffed out with pride. "First hardly hurt me at all, and the second one was quite a misfire."
This was rather a surprise to those who remembered Gordon's driving power. Golding was thought rather a "lad" after all.
Gordon, however, soon dispelled this illusion. A week later he went down to the House game in which Golding was playing and cursed him roundly all the afternoon with perfect justice. After tea he gave him six for slacking: and all delusions about Golding's bravery were immediately dispelled.
"Damned little tick," said Gordon. "He made such a fuss that I let him off lightly, and then he goes down to the day-room and makes out I am a wreck. Collins, I charge thee, put away compassion! It does not pay with these degenerates."
There is nothing more interesting to the artist than watching a thing grow under one's hand. And Gordon, who had the ambition of the artist in embryo, was thoroughly engrossed in the training of his House sides. A-K Junior was a promising side; it beat Claremont's by twenty points, and Rogers's by over fifty.
Morgan captained the side, and was easily the best man in it, but among the lesser lights there was a great display of energy, much of it misplaced. The worst offender was Bray. To watch him play was to witness a gladiatorial display of frightfulness. His fists flew about like a flail, his legs were everywhere. On the whole he did more damage to his own side than to his opponents. And the amount of energy he wasted every game in hacking the bodies of any who got in his way must have been exhausting. Gordon had to speak to him almost severely once or twice.
In the game against Rogers's, Bray nearly got sent off the field. There had been a tight scrum which had more or less collapsed. The whistle blew. Jenks had been persuaded to referee.
"Now then, form up properly there."
When the two scrums assorted themselves, Bray was discovered about five yards from the ball, sitting on the head of a wretched, fat, unwashed product of Rogers's, punching him violently and ejaculating after each punch:
"Damn you! Damn you! Damn you!"
Jenks looked very fierce.
"Now then, you stupid fellows. If you go on like that, I shall have to report you to the Headmaster, and you know what that will mean."
Bray looked a little frightened, and for the future devoted his energies to the football and not the footballers, to the distinct advantage of the side.
But Gordon began to find that the more his interest increased in House games, the less interest he took in uppers and Fifteen puntabouts. He was always wanting to go and see how his House was getting on. As soon as the first keenness wore off he found the interminable "uppers," totally unrelieved by the excitement of matches, amazingly dull. Indeed, the whole school side was beginning to grow weary. Every Monday and Thursday there was a puntabout. Every Tuesday and Saturday there was the same game—First Fifteen v. Second Fifteen—with one or two masters, such as Christy, who were no longer as young as they had been. The result was invariably the same; the First Fifteen won by forty points, and were cursed by "the Bull" for not winning by sixty. No one could possibly enjoy such monotony. Every week the business became more unpopular.
"The Bull" stamped up and down with a whistle in his hand.
"I never saw such slackness. What good do you imagine you men will be in the trenches, if you can't last out a short game of rugger like this? I don't know what the school is coming to!"
The side, which had never been good, got worse daily. As a captain, the younger Akerman was a nonentity. Buller was captain of the side in everything but name.
"You know, Foster," said Gordon one Saturday evening after a more than usually dreary performance, "these uppers are getting about the ruddy limit."
"Have you taken all this time to find that out?" growled Foster. "I used to like footer once. Last year we had a good time on those Colts games. Of course the old buffalo lost his hair a good deal, but the games were level at any rate. I can see no sort of fun in winning every time by forty points. Why can't we have pick-up games, so as to get level sides."
"I suppose 'the Bull' wants to get the side working together."
"Perhaps he does; but why, if there are going to be no matches till half-way through November? The Downside match is four weeks off, and till then we have to continue this silly farce twice a week. And, after all, it does not teach us defence in the least. Our three-quarter men have not to do any collaring. If we run up against a side that is any use at attack, we shall be hopelessly dished."
"I think we shall be dished anyhow. And I am damned if I care much. Buller has knocked all the keenness out of me, and the rest of the side say the same thing. Do you know, I actually look forward to Corps parade day."
"The same with me. I am fed to death with footer."
"Still we are having a jolly good time off the field."
"Oh, yes; we are prefects; we haven't got to do any work, and it's interesting coaching the kids."
Foster looked dubiously at him. He had no side to coach. He also had to do some work for his Sandhurst exam. next term. But Gordon's crown was as yet too fresh to feel the tarnishing damp of disappointment.
* * * * *
October went by with its red-gold leaves and amber sunlight. November swept in bringing a procession of long evenings and flickering lights. The first boom of the war fever died down. The Fifteen played listlessly, Upper followed Upper. Puntabout followed puntabout. No one cared who was in the side. Foster was left out—and thanked heaven!
"I am about sick of being cursed off my feet, and told I shall be no good in the trenches because I miss my passes. 'The Bull' has gone war-mad."
Gordon had to keep in the side; it would not do for the House captain to get a reputation for slackness. His play lacked its old fire and dash, but was still good enough to earn him his place. He knew he was going off; that he was not nearly so good as he had been the year before; the thought worried him. But still A-K Junior was doing very well.
One Saturday evening there came the sound of thumping feet down the passage, someone banged himself against the door, and a well-known voice was shouting:
"Hullo, Caruthers, my lad!"
Gordon swung round to find Mansell, with out-stretched hand, looking magnificent in the top-boots and spurs of the R.F.A.
"Come in. Sit down. By Jove! this is like old times. I must call up Archie! Archie!... Here's someone to see you."
Mansell was just the same as he had been a year ago, a little older, a little stronger, a little more the man of the world. He was full of stories; how his men had nearly mutinied because they thought their separation allowance insufficient; how he had chased deserters half across England; how he had taken the pretty waitress at the cafe to the music hall.
"It's life, that's what it is! I never knew what life was till I went to Bournemouth. Oh, my God, we do have a time! Damned hard work, of course, but we do have a time in the evenings! My lord, I nearly put my foot in it the other night. I saw the devil of a smart girl walking down the street, and I could have sworn I knew her. I went up and said: 'Coming for a stroll?' O Lord, you should have seen her turn round. I thought she would fetch a policeman. And we have a jolly good footer side, too. We fairly smashed the S.W.B. last week. Oh, it's grand. But, still, I suppose you are not having a bad time here. It's good to see you lads again."
On the next day Mansell stood an enormous tea in the games study. Everyone of any importance came. The gramophone played, songs were sung. Never was there seen so much food before. Mansell seemed like a Greek god who had for a moment descended to earth to reveal a glimpse of what Olympus was like.
Gordon went down and saw him off by the five-forty-five.
"My word! I envy you, Mansell," he said.
"I shouldn't. I often wish I was back again in the House. All those old days with Claremont and Trundle, the footer; and all that. We had a darned fine time. Make the most of it while you've got it."
As Gordon walked back alone, he had the unpleasant feeling that the best was over, that the days of ragging, of footer, of Claremont, of Trundle had gone beyond recall. The friends of his first term, Hunter, Lovelace, Mansell, they had all gone, scattered to the winds. He alone remained, and with a sudden pain he wondered whether he had not outlived his day, whether, like Tithonus, he was not taking more than he had been meant to take. But then, as he walked through the small gateway, and majestically wandered up the Chief's drive, he reflected that, even if his splendour was a lonely one, without the laughter and comradeship he could have wished for, yet it was none the less a splendour. He must hold on. As Mansell had said, he must make the best of it while he had it.
A small boy came up nervously.
"Please, Caruthers, may I have leave off games for a week? I have had a bad foot."
"Did Matron say so?"
"All right, then."
He walked up the stairs to his study, smiling to himself. What had he been fretting himself about? He had his power. He had the things he had wanted.
"Is it not brave to be a king? Is it not passing brave to be a king And ride in triumph through Persepolis?"
Marlowe had been right, Marlowe with the pagan soul that loved material things, glitter and splendour, crowns and roses, red lips and gleaming arms.
"A god is not so glorious as a king ... To ask and have, command and be obeyed."
And there was no doubt he was a king. He must make the best of his kingdom while he held it.
CHAPTER II: SETTING STARS
The same atmosphere of monotonous depression that overhung football soon began to affect the military side of school life as well. At first there had been the spur of novelty. The substitution of platoon drill for the old company routine and the frequent field days led to keenness. But even the most energetic get weary of doing exactly the same thing three times a week. There are only three different formations in platoon drill, which anyone can learn in half-an-hour; and the days were long past when Gordon's extraordinary commands would form his platoon into an impossible rabble that could only be extricated by the ungrammatical but effective command that School House section commanders had used from the first day of militarism: "As you did ought."
Those days were over. No mistakes. For thirty-five minutes every Monday, Wednesday and Friday the School House platoon would move round the courts in lifeless and perfect formation. And by now the School had begun to suspect that the field days were conducted mainly to satisfy Rogers's inordinate conceit. His house had always the advantage. The limit of endurance was reached one day early in November, when Rogers took his house out to defend Babylon Hill against the rest of the corps.
The attack was really rather brilliant. Babylon Hill overlooks the country for miles. There was a splendid field of fire. It was a boiling hot day. Rogers's men lay happily on the hill firing spasmodically at khaki figures crawling up the long valley. Their position seemed impregnable.
Early in the proceedings, however, Ferrers, who was conducting the attack, sent Betteridge with the School House platoon on an enormous detour to bring in a flank attack. If successful the School House platoon would be quite sufficient to wipe out the defence, and Rogers would never notice their loss, as they were sent off at a moment when the attack was crossing some dead ground.
Forlorn hopes occasionally come off, and, by a fluke, at the very moment when the attack surged over the crest of the hill, Betteridge's exhausted platoon, with shouts and cheers, burst into Rogers's flank. There was not the slightest doubt that the defence had been cut to pieces.
For a minute or two Rogers looked perplexed at the sea of enemies. Then with customary urbanity he told Ferrers to form up his men and seat them on the ground, while he gave his impression of the day's work.
"I think the attack was quite satisfactory. Of course, it stood little chance against the well-organised defence for which I myself was in a way responsible. I believe most of the forces would have been destroyed coming up the hill. But I think the day had a good effect on the morale of the troops. Now morale——" He enlarged on the qualities of morale and discipline for about ten minutes, and concluded with the following courteous reference to the School House flanking movement:—
"I could not clearly discern what those persons were doing who came up on my left. They would have been entirely wiped out. I considered it somewhat foolish."
A contemptuous titter broke from the School House platoon, in which amusement and annoyance were equally mixed.
"What is the good of trying at all?" said Gordon at tea that night. "There were we, sweating over ploughed fields, banging through fences, racing up beastly paths, and then that mouthing prelate says 'rather silly'! What's the use of trying?"
"There is none," said Betteridge. "I am going to conduct this platoon in future on different lines. 'Evil be thou my good,' as the lad Milton said. We will be unorthodox, original and rebellious."
A few days later, Gordon and Rudd saw displayed in a boot-shop window a wondrous collection of coloured silk shoe-laces.
"Does anyone really wear those things?" said Gordon.
"I suppose so, or they wouldn't show them."
"They are certainly amazing."
They stood looking at them as one would at a heathen god. Then suddenly Gordon clutched Rudd's sleeve.
"A notion! My word, a notion! Let's buy some pairs and wear them at platoon drill to-morrow."
Gordon was about to burst in to the shop when Rudd detained him.
"Steady, man, this is a great idea. Let's buy enough for the whole platoon. It will be a gorgeous sight! Let's fetch Betteridge."
Flinging prefectorial dignity to the winds, they rushed down to the studies.
"Betteridge, you've got to let us draw upon the House funds for a good cause."
They poured out the idea. Betteridge was enthusiastic. For six shillings they bought forty pairs of coloured laces.
At twelve-thirty next morning a huge crowd lined up under the lindens to watch the School House parade. Rumour had flown round.
It was a noble spectacle. Each section wore a different coloured shoe-lace. Gordon's wore pale blue, Rudd's pink, Foster's green, and Collin's orange. Everyone was shaking with laughter. Betteridge formed the platoon up in line facing the School House dormitories; sooner or later Rogers would pass by on his way from the common room. At last he was sighted turning the corner of the Chief's drive. Half the school had assembled by the gates.
"Private Morgan," shouted Betteridge, "fall out and do up your shoe-lace.
Rogers was far too self-satisfied and certain of his own importance to see that the demonstration was meant for him. But the school saw it, and so did certain members of the staff, who made everything quite clear to Rogers that afternoon. Finally, the Chief learnt of the affair. Betteridge got a lecture on military discipline and on prefectorial dignity. But a good many of the younger masters thoroughly enjoyed the rag, and the story of the coloured shoe-laces is still recounted in common room, when Rogers has made himself unusually tedious about his own virtues and his cleverness in scoring off his enemies.
CHAPTER III: ROMANCE
The Tonford match was a sad travesty of Fernhurst football. The school lost by over forty points. Gordon got his "Seconds," in company with nearly the entire Fifteen. He was not very elated. These things had lost their value. Still, it was as well to have them.
The school authorities then came to the conclusion that the expense of travelling was too great during war-time, and the Dulbridge match was scratched.
The Fifteen continued to play uppers. There was nothing to train for. There was no chance of there being any matches, but the same routine went on.
It was in this period of depression that Gordon began to take an interest in Morcombe.
Morcombe was considerably Gordon's junior; not so much in years—there was, as a matter of fact, only a few months between them—as in position. Morcombe had come late; had made little mark at either footer or cricket; and had drifted into the Army class, where, owing to private tuition and extra hours, he found himself somewhat "out of it" in the House. In hall he used to sit at the top of the day-room table.
Gordon very rarely took hall. He generally managed to find someone to assume the duty for him; but one day everyone seemed engaged on some pursuit or other, so with every anticipation of a dull evening he went down to hall. He began to read Shelley but the surroundings were unpropitious. All about him sat huddled fragments of humanity scratching half-baked ideas with crossed nibs into dog-eared notebooks. There was a general air of unrest. Gordon tried Sinister Street; some of the episodes in Lepard Street were more in harmony with his feelings, but there was in Compton Mackenzie's prose a Keats-like perfection of phrase which seemed almost as much out of place as Adonais. As a last resort he began to talk to the two boys nearest him, Bray and Morcombe. Bray always amused him; his whole outlook on life was so exactly like his footer. But for once Gordon found him dull. Morcombe was so much more interesting.
In second hall that evening Gordon discovered from a House list that Morcombe was in the Army class. He consulted Foster on the subject.
"Know anything about a lad called Morcombe?"
"Yes; he is in the Army class. Rather a fool. Why?"
"Oh, nothing. I was talking to him in hall to-night. He didn't seem so bad."
"Perhaps he isn't. I haven't taken much interest in him."
Gordon returned to his book. Five minutes later he began again.
"Is Morcombe fairly high in form?"
"Not very. Why this sudden interest?"
Foster looked at him for a second, then burst out laughing.
"What the hell's the matter with you?" said Gordon.
Gordon looked fierce, and returned once more to the history of Michael Fane.
Two nights later Gordon came into his study to find Morcombe sitting with Foster, preparing some con.
"Hope you don't mind me bringing this lad in," said Foster, "I am in great difficulties with some con."
Gordon grunted, and proceeded to bury himself in The Pot of Basil.
"I say, Caruthers," broke in Foster. "You might help us with this Vergil? It's got us licked. Here you are: look, 'Fortunate Senex——'"
Gordon went through the familiar passage with comparative ease.
"There now, you see," said Foster, "there's some use in these Sixth Form slackers after all. By the way, what did you think of Claremont's sermon last night?"
Conversation flowed easily. Morcombe was quick, and, at times, amusing. Gordon unaccountably found himself trying to appear at his best.
"You know," he was saying, "I do get so sick of these masters who go about with the theory of 'God's in his heaven, all's right with the world,' and in war-time, too! With all these men falling, and no advance being made from day to day."
"Yes," said Morcombe; "I agree with the 'much good, but much less good than ill' philosophy."
Gordon was surprised out of himself.
"I shouldn't have thought you had read the Shropshire Lad."
"We are not all Philistines, you know."
Thus began a friendship entirely different from any Gordon had known before. He did not know what his real sentiments were; he did not even attempt to analyse them. He only knew that when he was with Morcombe he was indescribably happy. There was something in him so natural, so unaffected, so sensitive to beauty. After this Morcombe came up to Gordon's study nearly every evening, and usually Foster left them alone together, and went off in search of Collins.
Indeed this friendship, coupled with his admiration for Ferrers, was all that kept Gordon from wild excesses during the dark December days and the drear opening weeks of the Easter term. During the long morning hours, when Gordon was supposed to be reading history, more than once there came over him a wish to plunge himself into the feverish waters of pleasure, and forget for a while the doubts and disappointments that overhung everything in his life. At times he would sit in the big window-seat, when the school was changing class-rooms, and as he saw the sea of faces of those, some big, some small, who had drifted with the stream, and had soon forgotten early resolutions and principles in the conveniently broadminded atmosphere of a certain side of Public School life, he realised how easily he could slip into that life and be engulfed. No one would mind; his position would be the same; no one would think worse of him. Unless, of course, he was caught. Then probably everyone would turn round upon him; that was the one unforgivable sin—to be found out. But it was rarely that anyone was caught; and the descent was so easy. In his excitement he might perhaps forget a little.
And then, perhaps, Ferrers would come rushing up to his study, aglow with health and clean, fresh existence. And he would talk of books and poetry, and life and systems, and Gordon would realise the ugliness of his own misgivings when set beside the noble idealism of art. Ferrers was not a preacher; he never lectured anyone. He believed in setting boys high ideals. "We needs must love the highest when we see it." And during these months his influence on Gordon was tremendous.
Then, when the long evenings came, with Morcombe sitting in the games study, his face flushed with the glow of the leaping fire, talking of Keats and Shelley, himself a poem, Gordon used to wonder how he could ever have wished to dabble in ugly things, out of his cowardice to face the truth. Those evenings were, in fact, the brightest of his Fernhurst days; their happiness was unsubstantial, inexplicable, incomprehensible, but none the less a real happiness.
They vanished, however; and the day would begin again, with the lonely hours of morning school, when Gordon realised once more the emptiness of his position, and how hopelessly he had failed to do any of the things he had set out to do.
* * * * *
The state of affairs was summed up by Archie Fletcher in the last week of the Christmas term.
"This place is simply ghastly, all the best fellows have gone," he said. "Next term we shall have Rudd head of the House. All the young masters have gone, and we are left with fossils, fretting because they are too old to fight, and making our lives unbearable because we are too young. As soon as I am old enough I mean to go and fight; but I can't stick the way these masters croak away about the trenches all day long. If you play badly at rugger you are asked what use you will be in a regiment. If your French prose is full of howlers, you are told that slackers aren't wanted in the trenches. Damn it all, we know that all these O.F.'s who are now fighting in France slacked at work and cribbed; and they weren't all in the Fifteen. And splendid men they are, too. Fernhurst isn't what it was. Last term we had a top-hole set of chaps, and I loved Fernhurst, but I am not going to stick here now. I am going back home till I am eighteen. Then I'll go and fight. This is no place for me."
It was the requiem of all "the old dreams"; and Gordon knew it for his own as well.
During the Christmas holidays Gordon tried to forget as far as possible Fernhurst, and all that Fernhurst stood for. More and more he found himself turning for consolation to the poets; but now it was to different poets that he turned. The battle-cry of Byron, the rebel flag of Swinburne lost their hold over him. He himself was so entangled in strife that he wanted soothing companions. In the poetry of Ernest Dowson he read something of his own failure to realise the things he had hoped for. Endymion, rolling like a stream through valleys and wooden plains, carried him outside the hoarse babble of voices; Comus lulled him into a temporary security with its abundance of perfect imagery. He discovered The Poetry Bookshop in Devonshire Street and went there for the evening readings. There was a perfect serenity in the small room at the top of the wooden stairs, with the dark blue curtains, the intent faces, the dim, shaded lights, the low voice reading. He wished that thus, in some monastic retreat, he might spend his whole life in a world of dreams and illusions. But he realised that the hold of life was too strong on him. At the same time he loved and hated the blare of trumpets, the stretching plain, the spears glimmering in the sun. He had sought for power and position; yet when they were won he despised them. The future was impenetrable. But he returned for the Easter term determined to do his duty by the House, however much he might disappoint himself.
On the very first day of the term "the Bull" called him up.
"You remember," he began, "there was some talk last year about altering the conditions of the Three Cock. I think it would be much better in every way if we could come to some arrangement by which you should play against two houses instead of three. Conditions are so very changed. When the match was started you had ninety boys and each outhouse had thirty. Now you have under seventy and each outhouse over thirty-five. It is ten years now since you won, and it is a pity it is not more of a game. Your men can't enjoy it, and I know mine don't. What do you think?"
"I think we would all rather go on as we are at present, sir."
"But don't you see how hard it is for you ever to win?"
"Yes, sir; and it is also rather hard for us to accept charity."
"Of course, I can't force anything on you. It is a matter for you to decide. But it does seem a pity to make a match like the Three Cock a permanent farce, merely because you are too proud to see that you can't take on the whole school. We'll discuss the matter at the end of the term again."
When the House learnt of this interview it raged furiously.
"Confounded insolence calling it a farce," said Foster. "And, after all, we stand a chance of winning. Heavens! we will boot them to blazes."
Everyone in the School House considered the idea of a change preposterous. Gordon alone realised that the present was an impossible state of affairs. Sixty-four against a hundred and twenty! They couldn't hope to win more than once in six years. He pointed this out to Morcombe in second hall that evening.
"As a matter of fact, if we win this year, I believe I shall go to 'the Bull' and offer to change it."
"But why?" said Morcombe. "There are times when I can't understand you, and this is one of them. Surely, if we win, it is a proof that we are good enough to go on playing! Why stop then?"
"Because, if we did win, it would be only once in a way. And I can't bear to think of our giving in after a beating by seventy points. It is an anti-climax. I would much rather lay down our privilege willingly. That's why I admire Sulla so much. At the very height of his power he laid it down, and went into a glorious retirement. His is the most dramatic exit in history. I should like the House to do that. We have taken on too big a thing. We have got to give in sooner or later."
"Perhaps so," said Morcombe; "and I suppose 'the Bull' thinks you are thoroughly conceited and proud."
"I believe so," said Gordon. "But let us talk about something else."
* * * * *
As a whole the Easter term began far more satisfactorily than the Christmas term had ended.
There were no "uppers." House captains ran everything. Morgan had been promoted into the Lower Sixth, and Gordon found him a most entertaining person. Naturally clever and naturally indolent, Morgan's work presented a strange contrast. He and Gordon would settle down to prepare OEdipus Tyrannus for Finnemore. They would begin lethargically. After ten lines Morgan would ask whether they had done enough; Gordon would fling a book at his head; somehow or other they would slop through thirty lines. Then Morgan would shut his book, and refuse to do any more.
"Thirty lines is enough for Finnemore, and, besides, I feel rather slack to-night."
Gordon did not take the trouble to point out that the same feeling of slackness overcame him every night.
They would both pull up their chairs in front of the fire, and waste the rest of hall talking. The next morning, however, Gordon would discover that the lines they had prepared the night before conveyed no meaning to him at all. He would curse Morgan, and then go up to the library, rout out Jebbs' translation, and prepare the Greek. Then he would move across to school with the contented feeling of work well done.
Morgan would be put on to con. Gordon would wait, laughing to himself. He was sure Morgan would make an awful mess of things. But somehow or other Morgan always managed to translate it correctly, if not stylishly.
"Morgan, you did that again when I wasn't there," Gordon would say afterwards.
"Oh no; we prepared it pretty well last night for a change."
After a while Gordon got used to this apparent miracle; but he himself had invariably to consult the English authority. He did not tell Morgan that. The climax was reached when Finnemore, who liked Gordon and thought him rather clever, wrote in Morgan's report: "He relies rather too much on Caruther's help for his Sophocles translation." It was an interpretation that had occurred to neither.
CHAPTER IV: THE DAWN OF NOTHING
Slowly the Easter term moved on. As the days went by the sense of failure, which had overhung everything Gordon had done the term before, returned with an increased poignancy. The Thirds ended in a defeat which was rendered no more pleasant by the fact that it was inevitable. No one expected the House to win. The defeat was no reflection on Gordon's leadership. The Chief, in fact, said to him: "We were much too small a side, Caruthers, but I think we put up a plucky fight. You haven't anything to grumble at. We did much better than I expected."
But Gordon was always too prone to judge by results. He contrasted the game with last year's triumphs, and with the glorious defeat of the year before, which had brought more honour than many victories. It was very different from what he had hoped for. There would not be much to remember his captaincy by.
One morning towards the middle of February he was glancing down the casualty list, when he saw Jeffries's name among those killed. He put the paper down, and walked very quietly across to his study. Jeffries was well out of it, perhaps; but still Gordon wished he could have seen him once more. That last terrible scene in Study 16 rose before his eyes. He could almost hear the bang of the Chief's door. And now Jeffries was dead; and no one would care. A master, perhaps, might notice his name and say: "Just as well; he would have made a mess of his life." They had never known Jeffries.
"You look rather upset this morning," murmured Morgan from a corner of the room. Gordon had not noticed him.
"I am rather; a chap who had a study with me ... Jeffries ... he is in the casualty list this morning."
"Yes. But you didn't know him, did you?"
"Oh no; but I saw his photo in a winning Thirds group."
"Yes, that would be him. He was a fine forward."
Gordon was glad to think that that was what his friend was remembered for. Only the good remained. It was as Jeffries would have wished....
The Two Cock drew near. There had been a good chance of winning once, but influenza had played havoc with the side. Gordon told them they were going to win, encouraged them, presented a smiling face, but his heart was heavy. He saw another cup going to join the silver regiment on the Buller's sideboard. He had never found life quite so hard before; only Morgan's unshatterable optimism, Ferrer's volcanic energy, and his own friendship for Morcombe made things bearable at all. And yet he had all the things he had once wanted. Now Betteridge had left, he was indisputably the big man in the House. Rudd was a broken reed. At last he began to see that the mere trappings of power might deceive the world, but not their wearer.
A week before the Two Cock Tester paid an unexpected week-end visit. He was full of vitality and exuberance. He was just the same, debonair, light-hearted, thoroughly happy. Everyone was pleased to see him; he was pleased to see everyone. He was almost hilarious. But as Gordon watched him carefully, his mirth seemed like that of Byron in Don Juan, laughter through his tears. The others did not notice, because they had never known Tester.
Just after prayers he met Tester on his way back from supper with the Chief.
"Hullo! I have been looking for you," he said; "come for a stroll round the courts."
"Well," said Tester, as soon as they were out of earshot, "what do you make of it?"
"Yes, I suppose you have seen a good many ideals go tumbling down. All our generation has been sacrificed; of course it is inevitable. But it is rather hard. The older men have seen some of their hopes realised; we shall see none. I don't know when this war will end; not just yet, I think. But whenever it does, just as far as we are concerned the days of roses will be over. For the time being art and literature are dead. Look at the rotten stuff that's being written to-day. At the beginning we were deceived by the tinsel of war; Romance dies hard. But we know now. We've done with fairy tales. There is nothing glorious in war, no good can come of it. It's bloody, utterly bloody. I know it's inevitable, but that's no excuse. So are rape, theft, murder. It's a bloody business. Oh, Caruthers, my boy, the world will be jolly Philistine the next few years. Commercialism will be made a god."
"Do you mean there is going to be nothing for us after the war?" said Gordon.
"Not for you or me; for the masses, perhaps. No one can go through this without having his senses dulled, his individuality knocked out of him. It will take at least twenty years to recover what we have lost, and there won't be much fire left in you and me by then. Oh, I can tell you I am frightened of what's coming after. I can't face it. Of course there may be a great revival some day. Do you remember what Rupert Brooke said in Second Best about there waiting for the 'great unborn some white tremendous daybreak'? That's what may happen. But our generation will have been sacrificed for it. I suppose we should not grumble. But we only live once. Do you remember that day of the Radley match, and what I said about Oxford? I longed for Oxford. I wanted to begin life over again, to sweep out the past. I was beginning to realise what beauty meant. And then down comes the war. And I don't suppose I shall ever have a chance now. I don't know whether there is an after life or not, but if there is, I shall cut a pretty sorry figure, if there is going to be a judgment. Well, it is my own fault. I put things off too late. But I should have been a different chap, I think, if——"
Foster's voice rang out across the night:
"Come on, you two. What are you doing out there? The coffee's boiling over. Buck up."
"Right you are."
In a second Tester had resumed his old pose of indifference. He played his part through thoroughly; no one, as he danced with Collins up and down the narrow study, would have associated him with the despairing philosopher of a few moments ago. Gordon looked at him in amazement. What a consummate actor he was! How successfully he kept his true character to himself.
Early on the Sunday morning he went back to his regiment. Gordon walked down to the station with him.
"I am going to the front in about a week, you know," said Tester, as they were standing on the platform.
"Good Lord! man, why didn't you tell us before?"
"Oh, I don't know. I didn't want them all unburdening themselves to me.... Here's the train. Well, good-bye, Caruthers. Good luck."
"Thanks awfully; and mind you come back all right."
Tester smiled at him rather sadly.
"I am not coming back," he said.
* * * * *
The Two Cock came and went. The score was not very high against the House. But it was a poor game. The school deserved to win, because they played less badly than the House. But there was very little life in the game. This may have been due to a heavy field day two days before; but whatever it was, the result was pitiable. Gordon had almost ceased to expect anything. Day followed day. Everyone was discontented; even Ferrers began to doubt whether the war was having such a good effect on the Public Schools after all. He said as much in an article in The Country. He was always saying things in The Country. It was his clearing ground.
The Three Cock drew near. And each day Gordon began to think the House less likely to win. He had watched the outhouses play, and knew how good they were. One afternoon the Buller's captain challenged the House to a friendly game. A very hard game resulted in a draw. There was nothing to choose between the sides. And in the Three Cock Buller's would have Claremont's and Rogers's to help them.
There were discussions in the House as to whether the score would be kept under twenty. Someone suggested it would have been a much better game if they had accepted "the Bull's" offer of playing two houses instead of three. When the day came the outhouse bloods were confidently laying three to one on their chances of running up a score of over thirty.
As Gordon sat in his study after lunch, before going down to change, he found it hard to believe that this was actually the day that he and his friends had looked forward to for so long. It was to have marked the start of a new era of School House greatness. It was to have been the beginning of the new epoch. With a slightly cynical smile he compared it with the way in which the Germans had toasted "Der Tag!" Both results would be much the same. Lethargically he got up, put a coal or two on the fire, and went down to change.
The game followed much the same course that other Three Cocks had followed during the last four years. For the first half the House did fairly well, and kept the score down to thirteen to nil. Collins played magnificently; Morgan was in form; Gordon himself was not conspicuous. Then came the second half, when the light School House pack grew tired, and was pushed about all over the field. The cheering of tries grew desultory, and unenthusiastic. The final score was forty-seven to nil.
"You know, Caruthers," said Collins on the way up from the field, "we should have done better to have only taken on two houses."
"Yes," said Gordon shortly.
As soon as he had changed, he went over to "the Bull's" study. He had already decided that it would be better to alter the condition of the match once and for all. It meant to him the complete failure of all his plans. He had set out to lead the House to victory. In the end not only had he retired, he had actually surrendered.
"The Bull" received him kindly.
"Ah, come round about the match, Caruthers?"
"Yes, sir. I think we had better play a Two Cock in future. Three houses are a good deal more than we can take on."
"Well, of course, I had seen that all along," said "the Bull." "It is too much. The conditions are so changed. Of course, we can't do this without the consent of the Games Committee. I think we had better have a meeting to-morrow afternoon. You might tell the others, will you?"
On the next day after lunch the Games Committee met in "the Bull's" study. "The Bull" stood with his back to the fireplace.
"As you know, I have called you here this afternoon about the Three Cock. Of course conditions have so changed that it would be no reflection on the School House——"
"The Bull" went on. Gordon sat forward on the sofa listening subconsciously. Scenes rose before his mind. Of Mansell two years back, after Richard's Thirds, saying: "Wait till 1915." Of Hazelton in the dormitory saying: "Our day's coming, and you'll see it, Caruthers." Everyone had expected this year to a triumph. And here he was signing the death warrant of School House football.
"The Bull" had finished speaking.... A resolution was passed....
"It is a lovely day," said "the Bull," "and I don't want to keep you in. I expect you all want to be out doing something."
Gordon got out of the study somehow or other.
One of the Games Committee came up to him.
"Jolly good idea of 'the Bull's,' I think. It was much too big a job for you. Much better arrangement."
Gordon went back to the old games study, the very walls of which seemed eloquent with voices of the dead. The rest of the House had gone for a run. He was all alone. His head fell forward on his hands. The captaincy he had tried so hard to gain had ended in pitiable failure. It was the desolation, the utter desolation!...
Of all that he had worked for during those four years nothing remained, nothing.
And as Gordon's mind dwelt on this the love of the monastic life which had so overwhelmed him the holidays before swept over him again with renewed vigour. In the Roman Church at any rate was there not something permanent? Quod semper, quod ubique, quod ab omnibus.... That boast was surely not in vain. He longed to surrender himself completely, to fling away his own aims and inclinations, and abandon himself to a life of quiet devotion safe from the world. It was the natural reaction. He had been tossed on the waters of trouble and had grown weary of strife. In Plato's Republic Ulysses asked for the life of a private individual free from care. "After battle sleep is best. After noise, tranquillity." Dowson's exquisite lines on the Nuns of the Perpetual Adoration came back to him:
"They saw the glory of the world displayed, They saw the bitter of it and the sweet. They knew the roses of the world would fade And be trod under by the hurrying feet. Therefore they rather put away desire...."
That was what he wanted, to merge himself into the great silent poetry of the Catholic life. The Protestant creed could never give him what he wanted. There was too much tolerance, too much sheltering of the individuality; he wanted a complete, an utter surrender. He passed the entire holidays in the world of ideas; he read nothing but poetry, or what dealt with poetry. He tried to recapture the wonderful full-blooded enjoyment of that last summer term. But for all that he found material thoughts stealing in on his most sacred moments. A chance phrase, a word even, and there would suddenly rise before him the spectre of his own failure. And he was forced to realise that as yet he was unfit to lay down the imperious burden of his own personality. The hold of life was too strong. He still wanted the praise of the populace, "the triumph and the roses and the wine."
Well, there was one more term; let him make the most of the roses while he could. In this state of indecision he returned for what was to be his last term.
* * * * *
A big programme of First Eleven matches had been arranged; and the first game was at Downside on the second Saturday of the term. Fernhurst won with ease, and Gordon knocked up forty-two. The match was over before tea; and, as the side had not to go back till six o'clock, they spent the interval in walking round the grounds.
Few schools are situated in more perfect surroundings than Downside. There are wide gardens and flowery walks. Rhododendrons were flaming red and white, a hedge of gorse shone gold. It was a Roman Catholic school, and now and then a noble Calvary rose out of the flowers. The Abbey watched over the place. Monks in long black robes moved about slowly, magisterially. Gordon went up to one of them and spoke to him shyly.
"A wonderful place this, sir."
"Yes; it is the right sort of place to train a boy in. Surround him with beautiful things, make a real perception of beauty the beacon light of his life, when he is young, and he will be safe. For there are so many things that are beautiful and poisonous like iridescent fungi, and it is so hard to differentiate between the true and the false. But everything here is so pure and unworldly that I think we manage to show our boys what is the highest. We fail at times, but on the whole we succeed."
He looked so kind, so sympathetic, this old man, that Gordon felt bound to pour out his feelings to him.
"You know, sir," he said, "I have awfully wanted to talk to a Roman Catholic whom I thought would understand me, and especially one like yourself, who has willingly abandoned all his own ambitions. There is something very fine in the complete surrender of your Church. In ours there is so much room for difference of opinion, so much toleration of various doctrines. There seems so little certainty. In Rome there seems no doubt at all."
"Yes, the Catholic Faith is a very beautiful creed," said the old man; "we are misjudged; we are called narrow-minded and bigoted. They say we want to make everyone conform to one type, and that we bind them with chains. But, my son, it is not with chains that the Holy Church binds her children. It is with loving arms thrown round them. The Church loves her children far too much to wish them to leave her even for a minute. She wants them entirely, hers and hers alone. Perhaps you will say that is selfish; but I do not think so. It is the great far-seeing love that sees what is best for its own. Love is nearly always right. But if you wish to keep your own views, to worship God in your own way, well, there are other creeds. Protestantism, it seems to me, lets out its followers, as it were, on strings and lets them wander about a little, laugh and pluck flowers, in the certainty that at the last she can draw her own to her. Well, that is one way of serving God, and in the Kingdom of God there is no right or wrong way, provided the service be sincere. There are many roads to heaven. Our road is one of an infinite love that draws everything to itself. There are other ways; but that is ours."
"But supposing there was a person," said Gordon, "who really wanted to surrender himself to that perfect love, but who found the call of the world too strong. You know, sir, I should give anything to be as you, safe and secure. But I know I should break away; the world would call me again. I should return, but when I give myself, I want to give myself wholly, unconditionally. I want there to be no doubt; and I want to come to-day."
"I will tell you a story," said the monk. "I was a boy here years ago, and there was one boy, brilliant at games and work, whom I admired very much, and by the time I had myself reached a high position he came back to us as a monk. I used to live in a little village, just behind that hill, and I used to ask him down to supper sometimes. And I remember one day my father said to him: 'You know, I envy you a lot.'
"'Why?' he asked.
"'Well,' said my father, 'as far as this world is concerned you are well provided for. You live in beautiful surroundings, comfortable and happy. And for the next world, as far as we know, no one could be more certain of happiness than you.'
"The young monk looked at my father rather curiously, and said:
"'Perhaps so; but when I look round at your happy little family and your home interests, I think we have given up a good deal.'
"And only a year later that young man ran away with a girl in the village, and he was excommunicated from the Church. And yet I expect that the whole time he really loved our life best; only the call of worldly things was too strong; and he was too weak."
"Then what will be the end of me?" asked Gordon.
"Wait, my son. I waited a long time before I knew for certain that God's way was best, and that the things men worshipped were vain. Those are the most fortunate, perhaps, who can see the truth at once, and go out into the world spreading the truth by the influence of a blameless life. But we are not all so strong as that. It takes a long time for us to be quite certain; and even then we have to come and shut ourselves away from the world. We are too weak. But we have our place. And in the end you, too, I expect, will so probe the happiness and grief of the world and find them of little value, and when you have, you will find the Holy Church waiting for you. It does not matter when or how you come; only you must bring yourself wholly. It is not so very much we ask of you. And we give with so infinite a prodigality."
"Yes," said Gordon, "I suppose there will be rest at last."
That evening as he sat discussing the cricket match with Morgan the captain of the school came in and gave him his "Firsts." Morgan was profuse with congratulations. Everyone seemed pleased. It was the hour he had long pictured in his imagination—the hour when he should get his coveted "Firsts." He himself had wanted them so badly; but somehow or other they did not mean very much just now.
CHAPTER V: THE THINGS THAT SEEM
But the heart of youth is essentially fickle; and Gordon's lambent spirit, which had for some time almost ceased to strive for anything, suddenly swept round to the other extreme, and was filled with the desire to reassert itself at all costs. Suddenly, almost without realising it, Gordon was fired with the wish to finish his school career strongly, not to give way before adversity, but to end as he had begun. He would be the Ulysses of Tennyson, not of Plato. "Though much is taken, much abides ... 'tis not too late to seek a newer world." ... Like a tiger he looked round, growling for his prey, and his opportunity was not slow in coming.
Ferrers was sitting in his study one afternoon, talking very despondently about the general atmosphere at Fernhurst.
"It is not what I had hoped for," he said; "in fact, it is quite the reverse. The young masters are gone, the bloods are gone. The new leaders are not sure of their feet, and these old pedants have taken their chance of getting back their old power. And the whole school is discontented, fed up; no keenness anywhere. The masters tell them: 'If you aren't good at games you'll be useless in the trenches.' Wretched boys begin to believe them. They think they are wrong, when really they are just beginning to see the light. They are beginning to look at games as they are. There's no glory attached to them now—no true victories—glamour is all removed. They see games as they are, see the things they have been worshipping all these years. But the masters tell them games are right, they are wrong; it is their duty to do as others did before them. Oh, I wish we could smash those cracked red spectacles through which every Public School boy is forced to look at life."
"But can't we, sir?"
"It would be no good; they wouldn't believe you. I am getting sick. For years I have been shouting out, and trying to prove to them what's wrong. They won't believe. They are blind, and it is the masters' fault, curse them. There they sit, talking and doing nothing. I begin to worship that man, I forget his name, who said: 'Those who can, do—those who can't, teach.' It sums up our modern education. It is all hypocrisy and show."
"But, sir," said Gordon, "we can't do much, but let's do what we can. Now, when the glamour has fallen off athleticism, let's show the school what wretched things they have been serving so long. If we can in any way put a check on this nonsense now, if in Fernhurst only, we shall be doing something. After the war we shall have a fine Fifteen winning matches, and the school will feel its feet. We must stop it now—now, when there is no glamour, when the school is tired of endless 'uppers,' and sick of the whole business. Now's the time."
"Yes; but how? This sort of thing doesn't happen in a night."
"I know; but we can sow the seeds now. The Stoics is the thing. We can have a debate on the 'Value of Athletics,' and, heavens! I bet the whole House will vote against them. The House is sick of it all. We'll carry the motion. We'll get the best men to speak. We'll give sound arguments. Then we'll have formed a precedent. It will appear in the school magazine that the Stoics, the representative society of Fernhurst thought, has decided that the blind worship of games is harmful. It will make the school think. It's a start, sir, it's a start."
"You are right, Caruthers, you are right. We'll flutter the Philistine dovecots."
Gordon had not the slightest doubt about the success of the scheme. He himself was at the very summit of his power. He had been making scores for the Eleven out of all proportion to his skill; he was almost certain for the batting cup. His influence was not to be discounted. He could get the House to vote as he wanted; he was sure of it. He told Davenport of the scheme, and he also was enthusiastic.
"By Jove! that's excellent. It's about time the school realised that caps and pots are not the alpha and omega of our existence."
The air was full of the din of onset.
Nearly the whole House attended the meeting, and the outhouses rolled up in good numbers, more out of curiosity than anything else. They thought the whole thing rather silly. There had been a debate more than two years back on "whether games should be compulsory." Only six had voted against compulsion. "The Bull" remembered this, and came to the debate, strong in his faith in the past. He wanted to see this upstart Ferrers squashed.
Ferrers himself opened the discussion with typical exuberance.
"How much longer," he finished, "are we going to waste our time, our energy, our force on kicking a football? We have no strength for anything else. And all the time, while Germany has been plotting against us, piling up armaments, we have been cheering on Chelsea and West Ham United. Look at the result. We were not prepared, we are only just getting ready now. And why? Because we had wasted our time on trivial things, instead of things that mattered; and unless we turn away from all this truck, trash and cant about athleticism, England is not going to stand for anything worth having."
He sat down amid tempestuous applause. The audience were really excited. They had gradually grown sick of games during the last two terms, and now apparently they had the best authority for doing so. Everyone likes being congratulated.
The opposition suffered in having Burgess to support them. We have heard of him before. Years had not altered him much. He was the same conceited, self-righteous puppet as of old. People got tired of listening to him. There was a sound of shuffling, a window began to bang with unnecessary noise. He sat down to an apathetic recognition.
Davenport then made a very biting speech against games.
"The Bull" was surprised to see him speaking on Ferrer's side. He was in the Second Fifteen, and a very useful outside.
"Whatever we may have done before the war," he cried, "and we did many foolish things, it is quite obvious that now this worship of sport must cease. Let us hope it is not revived. We are sent here to be educated—that is, to have our minds trained; instead of that, we have our bodies developed, our minds starved. We play footer in the afternoon, we have gym. at all hours of the day, and other experiments in voluntary compulsion, such as puntabouts after breakfast. The result is we work at our play, and play at our work...." He elaborated the scheme in an amusing way. There was a lot of laughter. "The Bull" looked fierce. Rudd, who had for a "rag" insisted on speaking for the opposition, discoursed on the value of "mens sana in corpore sano." Everyone shrieked with laughter.
He finished up thus:
"Well, look at me. I am the hardest-working fellow in the school." A roar of laughter went up. Rudd had nearly been deprived of his position of school prefect for doing so little work. "I am also a fine athlete. To-day I clean bowled two people on the pick-up, and hit a splendid four over short-slip's head. I am what I am because of our excellent system of work and play. Look at me, I say, and vote for athleticism."
Buffoonery is often more powerful than the truest oratory.
The motion was put before the House.
A lot of people spoke. All in favour of the motion. It was great fun watching "the Bull's" face grow gradually darker. Morgan said that only fools and Philistines cared for games. They were amusing to pass an afternoon with, and because one had to have exercise, but that was all.
Gordon waited till near the end, then he got up.
"I must first congratulate everyone on the broadminded view they have taken of this important question; and I think it is an infallible proof that the days of athletic domination are ended. For, after all, is it any wonder that clear-thinking men like A.C. Benson pull our system to pieces, when we have to own that for the last twenty years at least the only thing Public School boys have cared about is games? And with such a belief they go out into life, to find the important posts seized by men who have really worked. No one works at a Public School. People who do are despised. If they happen to be good at games as well, they are tolerated. It is a condemnation of the whole system. And, after all, what are games? Merely a form of exercise; we have got to keep our bodies healthy, because, as Mr Rudd so wisely put it, a healthy mind means a healthy body. Games were invented because people wanted to enjoy their exercise. We all enjoy games. I love cricket; but that does not make me worship it. I like eating; but I don't make a god of a chocolate eclair. We can like a thing without bowing down to it, and that's how we have got to treat games. Some fool said 'the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton'; and a fool he was, too. Games don't win battles, but brains do, and brains aren't trained on the footer field. It is time we realised that; and I think from the way the speaking has gone to-night, the school is beginning to understand. Now is the chance to show that you think so. There are no good athletes in the school to-day, the Eleven's rotten and the Fifteen is worse. Men like Lovelace major were almost worth worshipping, because they were men; they made athletics appear grand, because they were such glorious creatures themselves; but there are none of that sort here now. We can see games as they really are without any false mist of sentiment, and we can see that for years we have been worshipping something utterly wrong."
Gordon's speech really made an impression. After all, he was a blood, one of the best all-round athletes in the school, and if he thought like that, there must be something in what so many people were saying.
The question was put to the vote, and was carried by an enormous majority.
"The Bull" looked for a moment at the crowd of faces that had spurned the things he admired, looked as one who saw nothing, turned on his heel and strode out of the room.
"Well, we won! Glorious!" said Ferrers.
"Yes," said Gordon, "'we have lit this day a candle that, by the grace of God, shall never be put out'!"
He went down to hall, flushed with triumph. After all, there were some compensations for everything; but he could not remove the feeling that out of all the change and turmoil of his Fernhurst career he had retained nothing tangible. He had written his name upon water; he had as yet found nothing that would accompany him to the end of his journey. He knew that his friendship for Morcombe would lead to nothing: very few school friendships last more than a year or so after one or other has left. He thought of Byron's line: "And friendships were formed too romantic to last." It was too true, he had yet to find his real ideal. He was about to begin the serious battle of life. He was standing on the threshold. The night was black before him; he had no beacon fire to lead him. He dimly perceived that beauty was the goal to which he was striving. But he had only a vague comprehension of its meaning. He had no philosophy. Doubtless in the end the Roman Church, the mother of wanderers, would take him to her breast. But that was a long way off yet, and he wished to bring himself to the final surrender, strong and clean-hearted, not a vessel broken on the back-wash of existence. And yet he had no true guide for the years that stretched before him. This last episode of the debate seemed to bring it home to him more clearly. His life had so far been composed of isolated triumphs and isolated defeats, which had not yet so combined one with another as to form a bedrock of experience which would serve as a standard for future judgments. He had made merry, careless of what the next day would bring. He had fought with "the Bull"; and in the struggle he had achieved some things, and failed to achieve more. He had at one time prayed for the long contention to cease; at another he had laughed in the face of his enemy, flushed with the joy of battle. Gazing back on his past, he seemed to stand as a spectator, watching a person who was himself and yet not himself, going through a life of many varied experiences, now plunging in the mud, now soaring to the heights. But the incidents only affected him in a dull, subconscious manner. He had learnt nothing from them. His school days would soon be over, and yet he felt as though he were beginning life all over again. He had found nothing that could stand the wear of time and chance.
But still there remained a few more weeks of Fernhurst; whatever happened, he swore that he would finish as befitted a king. "Samson would quit himself like Samson." There would be time enough for doubts and introspection when it was all over, when for the last time the familiar eight-forty swept him out of Fernhurst's life for ever. At present it was his to leave behind him a name that would survive a little while, "nor all glut the devouring grave." It should be remembered of him that during his day of power he had never once given way, had stood his ground, had never known the poignancy of the "second-best."
Until now Gordon had never really quarrelled with anyone in his own house. All his encounters had been with outhouse men or "the Bull": he might have helped to make the House feel independent of the school, but he had always aimed at the unity of the House's aim. It was a pity that his last contest should have been with the head of his own house.
Rudd was a bad head; there could be no doubt about that. His dormitory made him apple-pie beds, and soaked his candle in water, so that it would not light. The day-room ragged him mercilessly. Gordon had never minded. In comparison with Rudd's weakness his own strength shone the more. It made him so essentially the big power in the House. But things reached a limit shortly after half term, when Rudd tried to drag him in to help him in his troubles, and shelter behind the rest of the prefects.
It all arose from a most "footling" source. Rudd was taking hall, and the usual music hall performance was in full swing. Bray had asked to borrow some ink, and having once gained a pretext for walking about, was dancing up and down the floor singing What would the Seaside be without the Ladies? Everyone was, of course, talking. Now a certain Stockbrew, imagining himself a poet, immortalised the occasion with the following stirring lyric:—
"Ruddy-doodle went to town In his little suit of brown, As he could not find his purse He cried aloud, 'Oh, where's my nurse?'"
Like the famous quatrain The Purple Cow, this poem immediately achieved a success totally out of proportion to its merits. It was passed slowly down the table. Finally it reached Bray.
"Ah, Rudd," he said, "I believe this is meant for you."
Rudd read it, and flushed a dusky red.
"Who wrote this?"
Proudly the author claimed his work.
"Well—er—let me see," said Rudd: "it is er—gross impertinence. Come and see me after breakfast to-morrow."
The poet sat down, and his friends showered condolences on him; Bray recommenced his wanderings.
That night in second hall Rudd called a prefects' meeting to discuss the affair. He pointed out that it was gross insolence to a prefect, and that a prefects' beating was the recognised punishment for such an offence. Gordon protested vehemently.
"But, damn it all, Rudd, if you are such a weak-kneed ass as to be ragged by a fool like Stockbrew, you jolly well oughtn't to be head of the House. And, by the way, we haven't heard this masterpiece of satire read out yet."
"I don't think there's any need," said Rudd.
"Well, I think there is," said Gordon. "I am not going to see a kid beaten for an unknown piece of cheek. Read the thing out!"