With many blushes Rudd read it out.
"Ah, jolly suitable, too," said Foster. "What you want is a nurse. Good lord, man, can't you look after yourself in hall. Jolly ignominious, isn't it, having to call up a lot of prefects to back you up? Fine example to the rest of the House, isn't it?"
"Well," stammered Rudd, "I don't pretend to be a strong prefect."
"You certainly aren't," said Foster.
"That's beside the point," said Rudd. "I have been cheeked by Stockbrew, and I am a prefect. The punishment for that is a prefects' beating. There'll be a pre.'s meeting here to-morrow at eight, and if you have anything to grouse about, go to the Chief."
He flounced out of the room like a heroine of melodrama.
"I don't think we'll go to Chief," said Gordon, "he would be utterly fed up. But I am jolly well not going to be made an ass of by Rudd. Think what fools we shall look trotting about on Rudd's apron strings like policemen after a cook."
"Well, what can we do?" said Davenport.
"Do? Why, make Rudd look a bigger ass than we. We have got to give this lad a pre.'s beating. There's no way out of it. We have got to. But if we let the House know about this, a crowd will collect; Rudd will go first and make two fairly effective shots. We shall then proceed in rotation. We will just tap him; the crowd will roar with laughter; it will be damned amusing, and Rudd will look a most sanguinary ass."
"I see," said Foster. "Hat's off to the man with the brain."
"But is it quite the game?" suggested Davenport, a stickler for etiquette.
"Is it the game for Rudd to drag us in to back him up? In this world, unfortunately, two blacks invariably make a white."
"I suppose it's all right," said Davenport.
No one else made any objection. Foster and Gordon usually got their own way. The prefects dispersed. Gordon went to tell Morgan the glad tidings. The news was all round the House in a few minutes. Rudd was generally regarded as a priceless fool; it was sure to be good sport.
Then next morning Stockbrew presented himself at Rudd's study. He was terribly overcome at the sight of so formidable a gathering. He wished he had padded. No one had told him of what was to happen. It would have spoilt the situation.
The prefects sat in chairs round the room; Rudd, terribly nervous, was perched on the table. He delivered as short a lecture as possible on the sacredness of the prefectorial dignity and the insignificance of the day-room frequenter.
In a procession they moved to the V. A green. Stockbrew led, Rudd followed, cane in hand. It was all very impressive. Round the V. A green runs a stone path; a good many people were clustered there; there were faces in the V. B class-room just opposite; in the library on the right; even in the Sixth Form class-room on the left.
"Quite an audience for this degrading business," sighed Foster.
"'Butchered to make a Roman holiday,'" said Davenport, who loved a stale quotation. Stockbrew bent over the chain that ran round two sides of the green. Rudd delivered two fairly accurate shots. Stockbrew stirred uncomfortably. He had dim recollections of Claremont reading a poem by Mrs Browning on "the great God Pan" and how cruel it was to "make a poet out of a man!" He saw her meaning now. Then the farce began.
Gordon went up, carefully arranged the victim's coat, stepped back as if preparing a brutal assault, and then flicked him twice. A roar of laughter broke from all sides. Rudd shifted uneasily on his feet.
Foster went up and did the same, then Davenport, then the rest of the prefects. The very walls seemed shrieking with laughter.
Flushing dark red, Rudd strode across to his study. Such dignity as he had ever had, had been taken from him. Everyone had seen his ignominy.
The next time he took hall a pandemonium broke out such as never had been heard before. A game of cricket was played with a tennis ball and a Liddell and Scott; Gordon crossing the courts heard it, and he decided to clinch his victory. He went down to the day-room and walked straight in. There was instant silence. Gordon took no notice of Rudd whatever.
"Look here, you men, you are making a filthy row down here. I heard it right across the courts. The Chief might hear it easily. You have got to shut up. If I hear any more noise I shall give every man two hundred lines; so shut up."
There was comparative peace after this. Rudd had ceased to count in House politics. To all intents and purposes Gordon was head of the House, and the House regarded him as such. Rudd was generally known as the "nominal head." Gordon had got his power, and for the next six weeks he decided to enjoy it to the full. On the cricket field, although not quite keeping to the promise or the luck of May, he did well enough to make the batting cup quite certain. There was now no fear of any defeat clouding his last days. He had ceased to worry himself with analysing his emotions. He let himself enjoy the hour of happiness while he still had it, and did not trouble to question himself how long it would last. He had passed through the time of blind depression during the Easter term when he had seen hope after hope go down: he had come through somehow. It did not matter with what inward searchings of heart. Outwardly he had been a success. Now his outward triumph was even more pronounced. As a few weeks before he had been too prone to look at the inward to the total exclusion of the outward aspect of things, now he began to consider only the things that seem. It was the swing of the pendulum. It remained for him to find the media via.
* * * * *
The last days of June and the early weeks of July passed calmly. In the mornings he lounged in his study, reading novels, or talking to Morgan. The afternoons went by like a cavalcade, with the white figures on the cricket ground, the drowsy atmosphere of the pavilion, the shadows lengthening across the ground. Then the evenings came, with Morcombe sitting in his study getting helped in his work, or talking about books and people and ideas. The House matches began. A-K senior had an average side, but no one expected them to do very much, and it was a surprise when, by beating Christy's and Claremont's, they qualified to meet an exceptionally strong Buller's side in the final. Foster and Gordon looked forward to their last match at Fernhurst with the cheerful knowledge that they had no chance of winning, and that therefore they had nothing to fear of disappointment. It would be a jolly friendly game to finish up with. The days raced past so quickly that it came as a shock to Gordon to discover that his last week, with its examinations and threatening form lists, had really come.
"I shall be sorry to leave, you know," he said to Foster. "I am not at all looking forward to the army."
"Last Christmas I would have given anything to get out of this place," Foster answered. "But now, my Lord; I wish I was coming back. We've had a good time this term."
The first three days of that last week it rained incessantly. The Senior final was postponed till the Thursday. Examinations took their desultory course. Gordon had often in the past slacked in exams, but never had he treated them in quite the same indifferent way as he did this term. He had no intention of spoiling his last days by working. Every morning the Sixth went in for a three hours' paper, at nine-thirty. Before eleven Gordon had always shown up his papers, and strolled out of the room to read Paradise Lost in his study. In the afternoon he usually managed to toss off the two hours' exam. in three quarters of an hour.
He was "finishing in style." On Thursday the rain stopped at last, and the Senior final began.
"Foster," said Gordon, as the two walked down to the field, "I believe ours is one of the very worst sides that ever got into the final. There are two Firsts, you and I. Collins was tried for the Colts two years ago. There are eight others."
"Oh, you forget Bray, a fine, free bat with an unorthodox style. But ... I believe he made fourteen on a House game the other day."
"Yes, that is a recommendation, of course, but somehow I don't think we shall win."
"Win!" echoed Foster. "We shall be lucky if we avoid an innings defeat."
And this supposition proved still more likely when half-an-hour later the House, having won the toss, had lost three wickets for as many runs. Jack Whitaker, now captain of Buller's, had gone on to bowl first from the end nearest the National Schools. In his first over he clean bowled Gordon, and in the next he got Foster leg before, and Bradford caught in the slips.
"I foresee," said Collins, "that we shall spend most of this game fielding. A poor way of occupying our last few days."
"That's where I score," said Gordon; "the wicket-keeper has no running to do, and, besides, I rather enjoy a game in which there is nothing to lose, no anxiety or anything. It is a peaceful end to a turgid career.... Oh, well hit!"
Bray had just lifted a length ball off the middle stump over short-leg's head.
"That's the sort of cricket I like," said Gordon; "a splendid contempt for all laws and regulations. Heavens! there he goes again!"
A lucky snick flew over the slips to the boundary.
"This is something like," said Foster, and prepared to enjoy himself.
And certainly Bray's cricket was entertaining. He treated every ball the same; he stepped straight down the pitch with his left foot, raised his bat in the direction of point and then, as the ball was bowled, he pivoted himself violently on his left foot and, going through a complete half-circle, finished, facing the wicket-keeper, with both feet outside the crease, but his bat well over the line. The chief attraction of this gymnastic feat was the unexpectedness of it all. No one knew where the ball would go if it was hit. Once when he timed his shot a little late he caught the ball just as it was passing him and drove it flying past the wicket-keeper's head to where long-stop would have been. The fielding side was always glad to see Bray's back, and it usually did not have to wait long. But to-day he bore a charmed life. He was missed at point once, twice he gave a chance of being stumped, the ball shaved his wickets times innumerable. But nearly every other ball he managed to hit somewhere. In the pavilion the School House rocked with laughter.
At the other end Davenham poked about scoring singles here and there. The score crept up. Amid cheers in which laughter was blended, the fifty went up. Then Bray, in a particularly gallant effort to steer a ball well outside the off stump round to short-leg, hit, all three wickets flying out of the ground. It was a suitable end to an unusual innings.
He received a royal welcome in the pavilion.
"Bray, my son," said Gordon, "you are a sportsman. Come to the tuck-shop and have a drink. Nellie, mix this gentleman an ice and a lemonade, and put it down to my account. Thank you. Ah, there's Collins. Good luck, Collins; keep your head."
Two minutes later Collins returned to the pavilion with a downcast face.
"The damned thing broke," he said, as if he considered breaks illegal in House matches.
The rest of the side played in the usual light-hearted School House spirit. There were some fine hits made, and some scandalous ones, too. It was like a cinematograph show. Everyone slammed about; the Buller's men missed catches galore. Davenport was missed four times in making fourteen. Somehow the score reached respectable heights. Byes helped considerably. The final score was one hundred and twenty.
"And now," said Collins, "we have got to field for two hours to-day. To-morrow is not a half, so we shall have to field all the time; we sha'n't get a knock till after roll on Saturday. Five hours' fielding. Damn!"
"And it will do you a lot of good, too," said Foster. "Are you all ready, House? Come on then."
A-K Senior filed out into the field. A loud cheer rose from the crowd. The House was amazingly partisan. Whether a House side is losing by an innings or winning by two hundred runs, it is always sure of the same reception when it goes on to the field from its own men. The light had grown rather bad and Foster began bowling with the trees at his back, so as to hide his delivery. At the other end Bradford was to bowl.
The start was sensational.
Buller's sent in Crampin and Mitchell first, two hefty footballers, with strong wrists and no science, who had run up some big scores in the preliminary rounds.
Foster ran up to bowl. Crampin had a terrific swipe. The ball turned from the bat. The bat only just touched it.
"How's that?" roared Gordon.
The finger went up. A ripple of clapping ran along the side of the ground.
"You stick to that," said Collins, "and we shall get them out by to-morrow night."
"Dry up," said Gordon ironically. "Can't you see we are going to win?... Man in!"
Jack Whitaker came in. He was far and away the most stylish bat in the school, and had scored a lot of runs during the season. He faced the bowling confidently; he had played Foster a hundred times at the nets, and knew his tricks well. He played through the over with ease. The last ball he placed in front of short-leg for a single.
Bradford went on to bowl. He was a House match class of bowler. No idea of length, or direction, only an indefatigable energy and considerable pace. His first ball was a long hop wide on the off. Whitaker banged it past point for four.
The next ball was a full pitch to leg. Collins had to run about a hundred yards to rescue it from the road. Bradford looked fierce. He took a longer run than usual, rushed up to the wicket, and plunged the ball in with all his force. A howl of untuneful applause rose from under the trees. The ball not only happened to be straight, but was also a yorker. Whitaker's middle stump fell flat.
There are times when a panic seizes the very best side, and for the next hour and a half the House had the pleasant experience of watching an unusually strong Buller side rabbit out before a very moderate attack. Buller's side contained four First and two Second Eleven colours, to say nothing of three Colts caps. And yet by six o'clock the whole team was dismissed for eighty-three. There was nothing to account for the rot. Foster and Bradford bowled unchanged. Bradford took six of the wickets, four clean bowled. It was incomprehensible.
"I can't understand it," said Gordon at tea. "Bradford was bowling the most utter drivel half the time, I would have given anything to have been batting. And you were not bowling at your best, you know, Foster."
"I am well aware of that; but, heavens! it was sheer joy. Look at old Collins, down there, beaming at the thought of not having to field to-morrow."
"It's all right," mumbled Collins from a huge cup of tea.
"By Jove! wouldn't it be gorgeous if we could win this match, and finish up by beating the Buller crowd at their own game?" said Gordon. "Damn it all, I don't see why we shouldn't. What we have done once we can do again. They are a better side, I know, but we'll have a damned good shot at winning."
Of course Buller's laughed at the whole thing.
"It's really rather funny," they said. "But, of course, we are in absolutely no danger of losing. We couldn't wreck like that again; and, what's more, we shouldn't let an ass like Bray make so many runs again. We are quite safe!"
The School House kept quiet. They were not going to shout their hopes all over the school. It would look so bad if they got thoroughly beaten in the end. But in the studies and dormitories that night there was only one thought in all those minds—that victory was possible.
The next day it rained the whole time. The courts were flooded with water, the branches dripped with a tired languor. Gordon polished off two exams with masterly speed, and returned to his study.
Saturday morning broke grey and wet. It rained spasmodically till mid-day, and then cleared up. With a sigh of relief Gordon walked up the big schoolroom to show up the last piece of work that he would do at Fernhurst. For a last composition it was hardly creditable. A long paper on the OEdipus Tyrannus was finished in under an hour. But Gordon had ceased to care for academic distinctions. As he closed the door of the big school, and went out into the cloisters, he realised that a certain stage of his journey was over and done with for ever.
By lunch-time all signs of rain had cleared off, and the sun shone down on an absolutely sodden ground. Runs would be very hard to get. A lead of thirty-seven meant a lot on such a wicket. An atmosphere of nervous expectation overhung the House. Everyone was glad when the meal was over.
The match began directly after lunch. There would be very likely some difficulty in finishing the game that day. Collins and Foster went in first. Gordon had asked to be kept back till later. The start was dull. Foster was taking no risks, and Collins seemed unable to time the ball at all, which was luckily always off the wicket. Ten went up after quarter of an hour's play.
And then Foster, reaching out to play forward, slipped on the wet grass and was stumped. Three balls later Bradford was caught and bowled. It was Gordon's turn to go in. Nearly everything depended on him. If he failed, the whole side would probably collapse. The tail had done miracles in the first innings; but it could not be expected to do the same again.
Gordon took guard nervously. He resolved to play himself in carefully, but he never could resist the temptation to have a "go." The first ball was well up, just outside the off stump. Gordon stepped across and let fly. He had forgotten how slow the pitch was. The ball hung; he was much too soon; the ball sailed straight up into the air! Point and cover-point both ran for it. "Crampin!" yelled out Whitaker. Neither heard; they crashed into one another; the ball fell with a dull thud. The House gave a gasp of relief.
It was a costly mistake. For when once he got his eye in, Gordon was very hard to get out. And, moreover, he was one of the few people who could get runs quickly on a really wet wicket, for the simple reason that nearly all his shots went into the air; and so he did not find the sodden ground making off drives which should have resulted in fours only realise singles.
That afternoon Gordon found the bowling perfectly simple. At the other end wickets fell slowly, but he himself was scoring fast. A hard shot over cover-point sent up his individual fifty, and two overs later he drove a length ball on the off stump past mid on to the boundary, and the hundred went up amid cheers.
"It is a mystery to me," said Foster, "how that man Caruthers ever gets a run at all; he has no defence, and hits straight across everything."
"Don't let's worry about that," said Collins; "sufficient be it that he is hitting these Buller's swine all over the place. Oh, good shot!"
A half-volley had landed first bounce among the masters sitting under the wall. The umpire signalled six.
One hundred and fifty went up.
And then Gordon mistimed a slow yorker, and was clean bowled for eighty-five.
He was received with a storm of clapping; the House lined up cheering as he ran in between the ropes.
"Gratters! Well done!" shouted Foster. "That's a damned fine knock to finish your Fernhurst cricket days with! Well done!"
Everyone came up and congratulated him. It was a proud moment, in some ways the proudest of his whole career.
A few minutes later another burst of clapping signalled the end of the innings. The side had made one hundred and eighty-six. Buller's were left with two hundred and twenty-three to win. Anything might happen. Just before five Foster led the House on to the field.
The next hour and a half was fraught with delirious happiness and excitement. Foster bowled magnificently, Bradford managed to keep a length; the whole side fielded splendidly. Wicket after wicket fell. Victory became a certainty. Gloom descended over the Buller's side. Round the pavilion infants with magenta hat ribbons yelled themselves hoarse. It was one of those occasions in which eternity seems compressed into an hour. Half-past six came. No one went up to tea, everyone was waiting for the end. At last it came. Whitaker, who alone had been able to withstand the School House attack, over-reached himself, Gordon gathered the ball quickly, the bails flew off. The umpire's hand rose. A wild shriek rose from the crowd. Gordon's last game at Fernhurst was over; his last triumph had come; at last "Samson had quit himself like Samson." Through the lines of shrieking juniors the team passed into the pavilion. Gordon began to collect his things, to pack up his bag. He gave it to a fag to carry up.
Collins and Foster and Gordon walked up from the field arm in arm.
"Well, if we stopped on here for a hundred years," said Foster, "we shouldn't find a better hour to leave."
"Yes, the end has made up for any disappointments on the way. It will be a long time before we have as wonderful a time again," Gordon said, as he passed in the sunset, for the last time, through the gate of the cricket-field which had been, for him, the place of so many happy hours.
CHAPTER VI: THE TAPESTRY COMPLETED
To Gordon this match seemed the ideal rounding off of his career. There had been no anti-climax, with him the best had come at the end. He would not have to look back and compare his last term unfavourably with the glories of yester year. He had done what he set out to do, he would step rose-garlanded out of the lighted room, in the flush of his success. It was exactly as he had wished. Perfectly satisfied, he lay back in his chair, with his feet on the table, too tired to do anything, merely thinking.
There was a knock at the door.
Rudd came in nervously with a House list in his hand.
"The Chief wants a list of the trains people are going home by."
"Eight-forty to Waterloo."
Rudd walked towards the door, but as he put his hand on the knob he turned round.
"Well," he began falteringly, "I suppose you are jolly proud of yourself now, aren't you?"
"What the hell do you mean?"
"You know quite well. You have done damned well according to your own point of view. You have aimed at getting the supreme power, and you have got it all right." Rudd had lost his nervousness now, he was shifting his feet a little, but the sentences flowed easily. "I am a weak head, I know, and you have managed to smash me quite easily. It wasn't very hard, although you pretend you are the devil of a fellow."
"What on earth are you driving at?"
"Oh, not much; only I want to show you how much you have done for the House. You are big, and you're strong, and all that; you've broken up any authority I ever had, and you've taken it yourself. And, of course, as long as you are here, it's all very well. But what about when you have left? You are too self-centred to see anybody else's point of view. Apres moi le deluge; that's your philosophy. As long as you yourself prosper, you don't care a damn what happens to anyone else, and you have prospered right enough. You'll have left a name behind you, all right."
"I don't want to have to kick you out, Rudd," said Gordon.
"I don't care what you say; I'm going to finish what I have got to say. You'll probably not understand, you are too short-sighted. But what sort of future have you left the House? Order was kept all right when you were here; you are strong. But when you have left, who is going to take your place? Foster could have, but he's leaving. Davenport's leaving too, so's Collins. The new prefects will be weak. At the best they would have had a hard time. But probably the prefectorial dignity would have been sufficient, if you hadn't smashed it up. You say 'personality' must rule, but there is not so much personality flying about. We weak men have got to shelter ourselves behind the strength of a system, and you have smashed that. No one is going to obey me next term. They know I am incapable; but they wouldn't have found it out but for you. That's what you've done this term. You yourself have succeeded, but your success has meant the ruin of the House for at least a year, that's what you have done. And I expect you are jolly proud of yourself, too. You only care for yourself."
Rudd finished exhausted, and stood there gasping. Gordon looked straight at him for a second or so, then picked up a book and began to read; Rudd shifted from foot to foot for a minute and then moved out quickly.
What an ass the man was, thought Gordon. The beaten man always tries to make the victor's defeat seem less. It is all he has to do. Damn it all, a man has to look after himself in this world; everyone was struggling to get to the top, and the weak had to be knocked out of the way.
Then Foster came in aglow with excitement, and the two went up to the tuck-shop and ate numerous ices, and made a great row, and knocked over many chairs, and threw sugar about. Rudd was clean forgotten, as they rolled back triumphantly, just as the roll bell was ringing. Work was over. Gordon wandered round the studies, talking to everyone; in second hall they had a celebration supper for the whole side. They had two huge pies, a ham, countless eclairs; they sang songs, laughed and told anecdotes. They finished with the school Carmen, and drank to the House's future success. Laughing and singing, they at last made for the dormitories.
But when the lights went out, and silence descended on the dormitory, Gordon began to think of his conversation with Rudd; and, as he thought, there came over him again the fierce longing to get to the heart of things and to see life as it was, shorn of its coverings. Looking at his career from the spectator's point of view, even Christy would have to own that it had been eminently successful. He had been captain of the House; no one had blamed him that the House had failed to win their matches; no one can make bricks without straw; what did matter was that he had always stood up for the House's rights, he had never given way to "the Bull," he had been strong. This last term he had been head of the House in all but name; he had won the batting cup; and he had finished by playing a big part in the biggest triumph that the House had achieved for several years. In all outward aspects he had been a great success.
But Gordon had had enough of outward aspects. He wanted to get to the root of things, to get on terms of equality with life; he was tired of seeing everything through flickering glass. What had he actually done?
And when he began to sum up his achievements, he was forced to own that most of them were athletic triumphs, and athletics meant little to him. He had long ceased to worship them. Because a man could make a big score in a House match, it did not mean that he was in any way fit for the battle of life; and what else had he done? He had carried on guerrilla warfare with "the Bull." It had never come to a real head; so little does. Most things are left unaccomplished in the end; and what had he gained by this contest, and what had been the use of it? "The Bull" was one of the few really fine masters in the school. He was a man, and towered above the puny pettiness of Rogers; he was the "noblest Roman of them all," yet Gordon had spent a whole year fighting against a man whom he at heart admired. It was, of course, the inevitable clash of two egotisms; but that did not alter the facts. He had been wasting himself fighting against a fine man, when there were so many rotten traditions and useless customs that ought to be attacked; but he had let them alone. The only abuse he had attacked was the worship of sport, and he began to wonder whether it had been worth it. Might it not have been better to have let the school go on believing in its gods a little longer? He had broken down a false god, but had he given the School anything to worship in its stead? Better a false god than no god at all.
Rudd had been right. He had smashed through a garden of dandelions. He had rooted up flowers and weeds indiscriminately. He had done nothing wonderful; and he had left desolation behind him. Nothing would grow for some time in the plot he had ruined. And yet he was "a great success," the world said.
"Only the superficial do not judge by appearances," Wilde had said, mocking at society; and he had been right. Life was a sham, a mass of muddled evolutions; the world was too slack to find out the truth, or perhaps it was afraid to discover it. For the truth was not pleasant. Gordon did not know what it was; all he saw was that life was built of shams, that no one worshipped anything but the god of things that seem. He lay supine, cursing at the darkness.
The next morning he woke with the same feeling of depression; he looked round his dormitory. There were seven of them, all perfectly happy and contented. And why? Merely because they looked at the surface, because they did not take the trouble to find out what was true and what was false. They were happy in their ignorance, and he, too, could be happy if he just took things as they were. His last few weeks had been so full of joy, because he had not taken the trouble to think. Thought was the cause of unhappiness. And yet he had to think. He hated half measures. For a certain space he had to live on earth, and he wanted to discover what life really was. What lay beyond the grave he did not know, "sufficient for the day were the day's evil things." But he felt that he must try and plumb the depth or shallowness of the day's interests. He could not bear the idea of a contentment purchased by cowardice.
Yet he had learn from Tester that the soul is man's most sacred possession, and must not be shown to the crowd; that he must always mask his true emotions, except in the company of those who could understand them.
So he went down to breakfast telling Collins the latest joke from The London Mail. On his way back to the studies he ran into a fag.
"Caruthers, Chief wants to see you in his study."
Gordon found the Chief waiting for him.
"You are not busy, I hope, are you, Caruthers?"
"Oh no, sir."
"Well, at any rate, I shall keep you only for a minute. I just wanted to speak to you for a second before you left. Everything is such a rush on the last day. I suppose you have found that authority brings a good many difficulties with it, and I have heard that you have had a row or two. But I think you have done very well on the whole. I did not say very much about it at the time, but about two years ago I had very grave doubts about how you were going to turn out; I must say that I was very nervous about making you a prefect. But, still, I think your last year has really developed your character, and you certainly have had the wisdom and luck, shall we say, like the host at the wedding, to keep your best till last."
The Chief smiled the smile that was peculiarly his own, and peculiarly winning. "I must not keep you any longer. But I did want to take this opportunity of telling you that I have been pleased with you this term, though perhaps my praise sounds weak beside the applause you got after your innings. At any rate, I wish you the very best of luck."
With mixed feelings Gordon left the study. He valued the Chief's opinion amazingly, but he could not help knowing that he did not deserve it. He felt as though he had deceived the Chief. If only the Chief knew how he had plunged along in his own way, an egotist, an iconoclast! And then suddenly there came over him the shock of discovery, that everything in life was so distorted and hidden by superficial coverings, that even the wisest failed to discern between the true and the false.
He was able to see himself as he was, to realise the littleness of his own performances. Yet the Chief who, if anyone "saw life steadily, and saw it whole," who was always more ready to judge an action by the intention than by the result—the Chief himself had not really seen how far his achievements were below his possibilities. And if the Chief was at times deceived by the superficial, how was he, a self-willed, blundering boy, ever likely to be able to come to a true understanding?
He shrugged. There still remained a few hours in which to enjoy the fruits of a success which, if it meant little to him, conveyed a good deal to the world outside. And power is very sweet.
He tried to fling himself into the light-hearted atmosphere of rejoicing in which the whole House was revelling, but he found it impossible. His laughter was forced; yet his friends noticed no change in him; he was to them just as he had always been.
Even Morcombe, who was to him more than other friends, had failed to understand.
"It must be rather decent to be leaving in the way you are," he said, as they were sitting in the games study before evening chapel. "I doubt if you stopped on if you would ever quite equal the appropriateness of that last innings."
"Yes," said Gordon, with a conscious irony, "it's certainly dramatic."
What use was it to try and show him what he was thinking? He had learnt that it is better to leave illusions untouched.
Often in the past he had tried to imagine what a last chapel service must be like. The subject has been done to death by the novelist. In every school story he had read, the hero had always felt the same emotions: contentment with work well done, sorrow at leaving a well-loved place. He had wondered whether he would want to cry; and if so, whether he would be able to stop it. He had looked inquiringly in the faces of those who were leaving and had never read anything very new. Some were enigmas; some looked glad in a way that they were going to begin a life so full of possibilities. Some vaguely realised that they had reached the height of their success at nineteen.
But now that his time had come, his thoughts were very different from what he had imagined. He felt the sorrow that is inevitable to anyone who is putting a stage of his life clean out of sight behind him; but for all that he had come to the conclusion that he was not really sad at leaving. Fernhurst was for him too full of ghosts; so many dreams were buried there. His feelings were mixed. He felt himself that he had failed, but he knew that he was hailed a success. He half wished that in the light of experience he could go through his four years again; but if he did, he saw that in outward show, at any rate, he could never eclipse the glory that was his for the moment. He remembered that sermon over three years back in which the Chief had asked each boy to imagine himself passing his last hours at school. "How will it feel," the Chief had said, "if you have to look back and think only of shattered hopes and bright unfulfilled promises?... To the pathos of human sorrow there is no need to add the pathos of failure." What was he to think?—he whose career had so curiously mingled failure and success.
The service slowly drew to its end. The final hymn was shouted by small boys, happy at the thought of seven weeks' holiday. The organ boomed out God Save the King; there was a moment's silence. Then the school poured out into the cloisters. Gordon hardly realised his last service was over. He had been so long a spectator of these partings that he could not grasp the fact that he was himself a participator in them.
He felt very tired, and was glad when bed-time came. He experienced the same sensations that he had known as a new boy—a physical and mental weariness that longed for the ending of the day.
For a few hours silence hung round the ghostly Abbey; then, tremendous in the east, Gordon's last whole day at Fernhurst dawned.
As far as the Sixth were concerned, work was over. The rest of the school had to go in for two hours for the rep. exam. The drowsy atmosphere of a hot summer morning overhung everything. The studies were very quiet. Gordon took a deck-chair on to the Sixth Form green and settled down to read Endymion.
But he found it impossible to concentrate his thoughts on anything but the riotous wave of introspection that was flooding his brain. He soon gave up the attempt; and putting down the book, he lay back, his hands behind his head, gazing at the great grey Abbey opposite him, while through his brain ran Gilbert Cannan's words: "Life is round the corner." He had failed. He knew he had failed. But where and why? Then, as he began to question himself, suddenly he saw it all clearly. He had failed because he had set out to gain only the things that the world valued. He had sought power, and he had gained it; he had asked for praise, and he had won it; he had fought, and he had conquered. But at the moment of his triumph he had realised the vanity of all such success; when he had come to probe it to the root, he had found it shallow. For all the things that the world valued were shallow and without depth, because the world never looked below the surface. He had found no continuing city; his house was built upon sand.
The truth flashed in on him; he knew now that as long as he was content to take the world's view of anything, he was bound to meet with disillusionment. He would have to sift everything in the sieve of his own experience. The judgment of others would be of no avail. He would be an iconoclast. The fact that the world said a thing was beautiful or ugly, and had to be treated as such, must mean nothing to him. He would search for himself, he would plumb the depths, if needs be, in search of the true ideal which was lurking somewhere in the dark. Tester had been right. It was useless to look back to the past for guidance. He had a few hours back asked for some fixed standard by which to judge the false from the true. There were no standards except a man's own experience. Here at Fernhurst he had failed to find anything, because he had sought for the wrong things; he had at once accepted the crowd's statement for the truth. Now it would be different. In his haste he had said that Fernhurst had taught him nothing. He had been wrong. It had taught him what many took years to learn, and sometimes never learnt at all. It had taught him to rely upon himself. In the future he would take his courage in his hands, and work out his own salvation on the hard hill-road of experience.
The school was just pouring out from the rep. exam. He heard Foster shouting across the courts.
"Caruthers, you slacker, come up to the tuck-shop."
"Right-o!" he yelled back; and racing across the green jumped the railings, and went laughing up to the tuck-shop.
"I say, Foster, let's have a big tea this afternoon. We had a supper for the A-K side on Saturday. Let's have the rest up to-day."
Gordon flushed with excitement at what lay before him. He wanted everyone else to laugh with him too. An enormous tea was ordered. Men from the outhouses came down, the tables were drawn up on the V. A green, and the afternoon went by in a whirl of happiness. They rolled out arm in arm for the prize-giving. For the last time Gordon saw the whole staff sitting on "their dais serene." He looked at the row of faces. There was Rogers puffed out with pride; Christy, pharisee and humbug, superbly satisfied with himself. Finnemore sat in the background, a pale grey shadow, that had been too weak to get to grips with life at all. Trundle nursed his chin, twittering in a haze of indecision. Ferrers was fidgeting about, impatient of delay. He, at any rate, was not being misled by outside things; if he was misled by anything, it was by the impulse of his own feverish temperament. He was the splendid rebel leader of forlorn hopes, the survival of those
"Lonely antagonists of destiny That went down scornful before many spears."
There, again, was Macdonald, with the same benign smile that time could not change. As he looked at him, Gordon thought that he at least could not have been deceived, but had too kind, too wide a heart to disillusion the young. And, above all, sat Buller, a second Garibaldi, with a heart of gold, an indomitable energy, a splendid sincerity, the most loyal of Fernhurst's sons. And as Gordon looked his last at his old foe, he felt that "the Bull" was so essentially big, so strong, so noble of heart, that it hardly mattered what he worshipped. There hung round him no false trapping of the trickster; sincerity was the keynote of his life. Gordon would search in vain, perhaps, for a brighter lodestar. As two vessels that have journeyed a little way together down a river, on taking their different courses at the ocean mouth, signal one another "good luck," so Gordon from the depth of his heart wished "the Bull" farewell and Godspeed.
At last the form lists were read out. A titter rewarded Gordon's position of facile ultimus. The cups were distributed. Gordon went up for the batting cups, his own individual one, and the challenge one that went to the House. Foster went up for the Senior cricket; it was a veritable School House triumph. The Chief made his usual good-bye speech, kindly, hopeful, encouraging. The head of the school shouted "Three cheers for the masters!"—the gates swept open, the cloisters were filled with hurrying feet.
The last hours passed all too swiftly. In a far corner of the gallery Gordon sat with Morgan, listening to his last school concert. Opposite the choir in their white shirts, and brushed-back hair, sang the school songs inseparable from the end of the school year. There was the summer song, the "Godspeed to those that go," the poignant Valete:
"We shall watch you here in our peaceful cloister, Faring onward, some to renown, to fortune, Some to failure—none if your hearts are loyal— None to dishonour."
To Gordon every word brought back with it a flood of memories. He could see himself, the small boy, reading those verses for the first time before he went to Fernhurst, ignorant of what lay before him. How soon he had changed his fresh innocency! How soon his bright gold had grown dim! Then he saw himself this time last year, listening to those words with an unbounded confidence, certain that he at least would never achieve failure. Visions in the twilight! And what was the dawn to bring?
The Latin Carmen began. The school stood on their seats and howled it out. Then came Auld Lang Syne. They clasped hands, swaying in chorus. The echoes of God Save the King shook the timbered ceiling, someone was shouting "Three cheers for the visitors!"; the school surged towards the door; Gordon found his feet on the small stone stairway. He looked back once at the warm lights; the honour-boards that would never bear his name; the choir still in their places; the visitors putting on their coats and wraps. Then the stream moved on; the picture faded out; and from the courts came the noise of motors crunching on the gravel.
As Gordon walked into the cool air he ran into Ferrers.
"You are off, are you? Well, good luck. Write to me in the hols; I'll look you up if I'm in town. If not, cheer-o!"
He was gone in a second.
"'So some time token the last of all our evenings Crowneth memorially the last of all our days ...'"
Gordon murmured to himself as he walked slowly down to the dining hall....
The next morning there was the inevitable bustle, the tipping of the servants, the good-byes, the promises to write at least twice during the holidays, the promises which were never kept.
"Here, Bamford, I say," shouted Gordon, "take my bag down to the station."
Bamford looked almost surly at being told to do anything on that last day. "Authority forgets a dying king," thought Gordon. His power could not have been so great if it began to wane almost before he had gone.
The eight-forty came into the station, snorting and puffing.
Gordon secured a corner seat, and leant out of the window, shaking hands with everyone he could see.
"You'll be down next term, won't you?" yelled Morgan, bursting as ever with good will.
"I expect so," said Gordon.
But in his heart of hearts he knew that he would never come back. He would be afraid lest he should find the glamour with which he had surrounded the grey studies and green walks of Fernhurst merely a mist of sentiment that would fade away. So many things that he had believed in he had found untrue. But he wanted to keep fresh in his mind the memory of Fernhurst as he had last seen it, beautiful and golden in the morning sun.
The train slowly steamed out. Hands were waved, handkerchiefs fluttered. Slowly the Abbey turned from ochre-brown to blue, till it was hidden out of sight.
Gordon sank back into his seat. He was on the threshold of life; and he stepped out into the sunlight with a smile, which, though it might be a little cynical, as if he had been disillusioned, held none the less the quiet confidence of a wayfarer who knew what lay before him, and felt himself well equipped and fortified "for the long littleness of life."