And the two boys entered into a compact to that effect between themselves, though not without considerable reluctance on the part of poor Chips, who felt that he was locking up the conversational capital of a school lifetime. Yet within a week the adventure was being talked about, and that despite the fact that the Chief Constable of the county, an old friend of Heriot’s, had prevailed upon the County Coroner to dispense with the actual evidence of either boy.
Jan asked Chips if he had told anybody, only to meet with an indignant denial.
“I’ve never said a word, my good Tiger!”
“Well, I haven’t, that’s a sure thing.”
“Then it must be Devereux.”
“I thought you’d say that,” said Jan, but kept his ears open in form, and actually overheard Evan boasting of the adventure before Haigh came in. Moreover, as he was not questioned about it himself, Jan was forced to the conclusion that Evan was acting on the principle of one good turn deserving another, and leaving out every name but his own.
“Well?” asked Chips when next they met.
“Well, I’m afraid you’re right; and I don’t know what to think of it,” said poor Jan, hiding his feelings as best he could.
“I won’t say what I think,” returned Chips.
And he never did.
“O Summer-Term, sweet to the Cricketer, whose very existence is bliss;
O Summer-Term, sweet to the Editor, who needs write but two numbers of this– ”
“But he doesn’t write them,” objected Jan, “any more than the captain of a side makes all the runs.”
“Oh! I know it should be 'edit,’ but that doesn’t scan,” explained Chips, and continued:
“O Summer-Term, sweet to the sportsman, who makes a good book on the Oaks – ”
“Why the Oaks?” interrupted Jan again. “Why not the Derby, while you are about it?”
Chips told him he would see, confound him!
“O Summer-Term, sweet to the Jester, who’s plenty of food for his jokes!”
“I see; but not enough rhymes for them, eh?”
“That’s about it, I suppose.”
Chips was laughing, though Jan was just a little too sardonic for him, as had often been the case of late. The scene was the poet’s study, and the time after lock-up on a Sunday evening, when the friends always sat together until prayers. The tardy shades of early June were intensified by the opaque window overlooking the road and only opening at the top. Chips had his candles burning, and the minute den that he kept so spick and span, with its plush frames brushed, and its little pictures seldom out of the horizontal, looked quite fascinating in the two dim lights. The poet, looking the part in pince-nez started in the Easter holidays, was seated at his table; the critic lounged in the folding chair with the leg-rest up and a bag of biscuits in his lap.
The evolution of the Poet Chips was no novelty to Jan, who had been watching the phenomenon ever since Chips had received a Handsome Book as second prize for his “The school-bell tolls the knell of parting play,” in a parody competition in Every Boy’s Magazine.
It was really too bad of Jan, whose Easter holidays had been redeemed by a week of bliss at the Carpenters’ nice house near London. The two boys had done exactly what they liked – kept all hours – seen a play or two, besides producing one themselves (“Alone in the Pirates’ Lair”) in a toy theatre which showed the child in old Chips alongside the precocious poetaster. But even Jan had printed programmes and shifted scenes with a zest unworthy of the heavier criticism.
“Go it, Chips!” cried the critic through half a biscuit. “It’s first-class; let’s have some more.”
But Chips only went it for another couplet: —
“When 'tis joy on one’s rug to be basking, and watching a match on the Upper,
When the works of J. Lillywhite, junior, rank higher than those of one Tupper – ”
“Who’s he when he’s at home?” inquired the relentless Jan.
“Oh, dash it all, you want to know too much! You’re as bad as the old man; last time our form showed up verses to him I’d got Olympus, meaning sky. 'Who’s your friend Olympus?’ says Jerry, with a jab of his joiner’s pencil. And now you say the same about poor old Tupper!”
“I didn’t; but who is your friend Tupper?”
“He’s no friend of mine,” explained candid Chips, “but I’d a good rhyme ready for him, so he came in handy, like my old pal Olympus at the end of a hexameter. I expect he’s some old penny-a-liner. 'Tupper and Tennyson, Daniel Defoe,’ as the song says.”
Chips might or might not have been able to say what song he meant. His mind was full of the assorted smatterings of an omnivorous but desultory reader, and he never had time to tidy it like his study. He sat pinching the soft rim of one of the candles into a chalice that overflowed and soused his fingers in hot grease. He was not going to read any more aloud, because he knew what rot it all was; but there Jan warmly contradicted him, until he was allowed to listen to the rest like a better friend.
Yet just then Jan was not at his best as friend or companion; and it did rather try his temper to have to listen to fulsome numbers on a sore subject.
“An ode to the balmiest season endowed us by Nature’s decree,
A wild panegyric in praise of the jolliest term of the three!”
So Chips chose to characterise his doggerel and its theme; but as he rarely made a run at cricket, and was always upset about it, Jan could not think why. He only knew it was not “the jolliest term of the three” for him, but quite the unluckiest so far, despite the fact that he was free at last from the clutches of Mr. Haigh. It was out of school that the bad luck of his first term had repeated itself in aggravated form; his cricket had been knocked on the head even quicker than his football.
Cricket in a public school is a heavy sorrow to the average neophyte; if he goes with a reputation, he will get his chance; unknown talent has to wait for it, mere ardour is simply swamped. Jan had not only no reputation, but no private school where he could say that he had played the game. He did not know he was a cricketer, nor was he at that time any such thing; but he was a natural left-hand bowler. He began the term talking about “notches” instead of runs, “scouting” instead of fielding, and a “full” ball when he meant a fast one. Once he even said “cuddy-handed” for “left-handed,” in speaking of his own bowling to Chips. Luckily they were alone at the time. Chips was shocked to find his friend so unversed in the very alphabet of cricket, and began coaching him out of Lillywhite without delay. Yet the first three balls which Jan delivered, at their first net, did an informal hat-trick at the expense of the theoretical exponent of the game.
Chips, having had his stumps disturbed a great many times on that occasion, went about talking more generously than wisely of the Tiger’s prowess with the ball; for he was already accounted a bit of a windbag about the game, and his personal ineptitude soon found him out. Chips had put his name down for the Lower Ground, and Jan his for the adjoining Middle, owing to his decidedly superior stature. But there were plenty of lusty louts on the Middle, and Jan had to go some days without a game; when he got one he was not put on to bowl; and May was well advanced before he found himself taking wickets in the second Middle game.
It was Shockley of all people who had tossed the ball to him, with a characteristic reference to poor Chips’s vicarious bragging. “That young lubber Carpenter says you can bowl a bit; if you can’t I’ll give the ruddy little liar the biggest licking he’s ever had in his life!” It was significant that Jan himself was not threatened with violence; but perhaps it was the Shocker’s subtlety that devised the surest means of putting the new bowler on his mettle. The fact remains that Jan shambled up to the wicket, gave an ungainly twiddle of the left arm, and delivered a ball that removed the leg bail after pitching outside the off stump.
The defeated batsman proceeded to make a less creditable stand than the one the Tiger had broken up. “I’m not going,” said he, without stirring from the crease.
“You jolly well are!” thundered Shockley, who was first captain of the game. “The umpire didn’t give it a no-ball, did he?”
“No, and he didn’t give me guard, either. New guard for a left-hand bowler, if you don’t mind, Shockley; you should have said he was one.”
“I’m blowed if I knew,” replied the Shocker, truly enough, and turned from the other big fellow to the luckless bowler. “Why the blue blazes didn’t you tell us, Rutter?”
“I never thought of it, Shockley.”
Curses descended on Jan’s head; but the batsman would have to go. The batsman stuck to his crease. The umpires, as usual the two next men in, had a singular point to settle; one gave it “out” with indecent promptitude, and so off with his coat; the other umpire, a younger boy in the batsman’s house, was not so sure.
Jan offered a rash solution of the difficulty.
“Suppose I bowl him out again?” he suggested with the dryest brand of startling insolence.
“I don’t know your beastly name,” cried the batsman, “but you’ll know more about me when the game’s over.”
“Quite right,” said Shockley; “it’ll do the young lubber all the good in the world.” And partly because the batsman was an even bigger fellow than himself, partly out of open spite against Jan, the Shocker allowed the game to proceed.
The batsman took fresh guard, and Jan his shambling run. This time the ball seemed well off the wicket, and the batsman took a vindictive slash, only to find his off stump mown down.
“You put me off, you devil!” he cried, shaking his bat at Jan; but this time he did retire, to vow a vengeance which in the event he was man enough not to take. For the formidable Tiger had secured the remaining wickets at a nominal cost.
In any other game, on any one of the three grounds, such a performance would have led to the player’s immediate promotion to the game above; but Shockley managed to keep Jan down, and on his own side, over the next half-holiday, when another untoward event marked the progress of the second Middle game.
It was a rainy day, hardly fit for cricket, but sawdust was a refinement then unknown on the Middle, and Jan would not have understood its uses if it had been there. He had never bowled with a wet ball before, and he lost his length so completely that Shockley abused him like a pickpocket, and took him off after a couple of expensive overs. But nobody else could do any better, and Jan had just resumed when a half-volley was returned between himself and mid-off. Jan shot out his left hand, but the wet ball passed clean through his fingers, which he shook with pain while a single was being run. He was about to bowl again before he observed blood pouring over his flannels, from his bowling hand. It was split so badly that he could see between the knuckles of the second and third fingers.
He went dripping to the doctor who had falsely convicted him of a heart. That practitioner was out, and the dripping ceased before he came in; so he washed nothing, but strapped the two fingers together in their drying blood, and in the next three weeks they grew almost into one. The greater part of that time Jan carried his arm in a sling, and the days were full of ironies not incorporated by Chips in his gushing p?an. House matches began, and in the Under Sixteen Heriot’s were promptly defeated by a side which must have perished before a decent bowler; in the All Ages, in spite of Charles Cave and the runs he could not help making in house matches, they only survived one round; and Chips would have it that even there Jan would just have made the difference. It is right to add that the rest of the house did not realise their loss, though Shockley might have made them if he had chosen. Then the Elevens came out, and Jan was not even in the Fifth Middle, then the lowest on the ground; Chips just scraped into the Fourth Lower, the lowest Eleven of all, and one for which (to his grief) no cap was given.
Founder’s Day came with the Old Boys’ Match, and a galaxy of gay and brilliant young men, from whom a very good side was chosen to do battle against the school; and Founder’s Day was a whole holiday, when you were free to take your rug to the Upper directly after chapel. Jan took his ball as well, because his arm was out of a sling, though he was still forbidden to play in a game. That did not prevent him from bowling to one of the long line of cricketers who stuck single stumps down the length of the white palings that bounded the ground on one side. Volunteer batteries bombarded each, but Jan’s batsman eventually requested the other volunteers to wait while the left-hander gave him a little practice. And after that (but not before the single stump had been laid low once) the Old Boy asked Jan his name, and why he was not bowling for the school; it is true that he was laughing as he spoke, and a knot of listeners laughed louder, which sent Jan off to his rug in some little dudgeon.
There Chips soon joined him with a startling statement to the effect that Jan’s fortune was as good as made. “I suppose you know who it was you were bowling to?” he inquired in self-defence against the Tiger’s claws.
“No, I don’t, and I don’t care either.”
“It’s only A. G. Swallow!”
“I never heard of him.”
“He was captain here before we were born, and only about the best all-round man we ever turned out! He’s played for the Gentlemen again and again.”
“What’s that to me?”
“It may be everything! He went straight up to Dudley Relton and told him all about you. I’ll swear he did. I saw him imitate your action – no mistaking it – and I saw Relton look this way.”
Jan did not affect any further indifference; but he refused to accept a sanguine interpretation of the alleged interview. Dudley Relton was a new master that term, but as an Oxford cricketer his fame was scarcely past its height. He had led that University at Lord’s the very year before; and here he was in the van of a new movement, as perhaps the earliest pioneer of the so-called “cricket master” to whom the school professional now plays second fiddle. The innovation was characteristic of Mr. Thrale, and not out of harmony with a general feeling that no mere player could replace the giant who had completed his mortal innings since Chips and Jan obtained their first school caps of him. It remained to be seen, however, whether Dudley Relton was the right man in an anomalous place. It was said that he was disposed to interfere with the composition of the Eleven, that a strong captain would have put him in his place, that the great Charles Cave had done so on his own account, and that Dudley Relton had still to justify his existence as a professed discoverer of buried talent. Of such material Chips constructed a certain castle in the air, and put in Jan as tenant for the term of his school life; and was so full of his unselfish dream that the July Mag., actually containing the “wild panegyric in praise of the jolliest term of the three,” came out, as it were, behind the poet’s back; and he had the rare experience of hearing himself quoted before he saw himself in print.
It was after second school, and Chips had gone into hall to see the cricket in the papers. He found a group of fellows skimming the new Magazine, just out that minute, and chuckling indulgently over some item or other in its contents.
“That’s not bad about 'basking on the rugs on the Upper,’” remarked Crabtree, critically; and Chips felt his heart between his teeth.
“The whole thing isn’t bad,” affirmed no other than Charles Cave, and that made Chips feel as though a royal palm had rested on his head; but there was just an element of doubt about the matter, owing to Crabtree’s slight misquotation, which was more than literary flesh and blood could stand.
“You might let me see!” gasped Chips, at Crabtree’s elbow.
“Why should I?” demanded that worthy, with all the outraged dignity of his very decided seniority.
Chips knew too well that he had taken a liberty which the actual circumstances alone could excuse; but nobody else was listening yet, so he whispered in Crabtree’s ear, “Because I wrote it!”
“You what?” cried Crabtree, irritably.
“I wrote that thing.”
Everybody was listening now.
“That thing you’re reading about 'Summer-Term,’” said Chips shamefacedly.
“What a lie!” cried half the fellows in the hall.
“It isn’t. I swear I did.”
Charles Cave was too great a man either to pass any comment on the situation, or to withdraw the one he had already made on the verses themselves. But Crabtree was nodding his great red head with intimidating violence.
“Oh! so you wrote the thing, did you?”
“I did, I swear!”
“Then it’s the greatest rot I ever read in my life,” said Crabtree, “and the most infernal piece of cheek for a kid of your standing!”
Chips never forgave himself for not having held his tongue; but there was something bracing both about this rough sally and the laugh it raised. The laughter at any rate was not ill-natured, and Chips received a good many compliments mingled with the chaff to which his precocious flight exposed him. He was always sorry that he had not held his tongue and enjoyed the sweets of anonymity a little longer. But nothing could rob him of that great moment in which Cave major praised “the whole thing” in the highest schoolboy terms, which were not afterwards retracted.
Sprawson was among those who congratulated the author of the “wild panegyric,” though his praise was tempered with corporal punishment for the use of the word “eulogic” in the same opening stanza. Sprawson declared it was not a word at all, but the base coinage of the poetaster’s brain, and when Chips showed him the epithet in a dictionary he got another cuff for defending the indefensible. A man of unsuspected parts was Sprawson; but there was no venom in his hearty violence. It was Sprawson who told Jan he had heard he was a bit of a bowler, and promised him a game on the Upper before the term was out and a licking if he got less than five wickets. Sprawson himself was no cricketer, but as Athletic Champion he had been made captain of the second game on the Upper Ground.
He was a youth who took few things as seriously as his own events in the sports. He loved to pose as a prematurely hard liver, and perhaps he was one; the famous flask had been known to smell of spirits. He came into sharp contact at times with Heriot, who, however, had early diagnosed him as a rather theatrical villain, and treated him accordingly as a clown. Even Sprawson, even in the summer term, with Satan continually on his idle hands, got no change out of Mr. Heriot; but with a man like the unfortunate Spook he was a terrible handful. The Spook took the Upper Fifth, in which Sprawson had lain comfortably fallow for several terms: relays of moderate workers, who had found and left him there, compared notes upon his insolent audacity in what was known indeed as “Sprawson’s form.” How he would daily affix the page of Horace or of Sophocles by drawing-pin to the boys’ side of the Spook’s tall desk, and read off his “rep” under the master’s nose; how methodically he devoured the Sportsman behind a zariba of dictionaries, every morning of his life in second school, and how the cover of his Bible was profaned as the cloak of fiction not to be found in the school library; these were but a few of the practices and exploits of Sprawson that were common talk not only in the school but among the younger masters. And yet when the Heriots lost an aged father in July, and hurried across England to the funeral, who but the gallant Spook should volunteer to look after the house in their absence!
The staff were divided as to whether it was an act of heroic hardihood or of supreme insensibility on the volunteer’s part; they were perhaps most surprised at Heriot, who knew the Spook as well as they did, but had been in no mood to resist his dashing importunity. It was not the house that they distrusted as a whole. Heriot was a great house-master, though on principle disinclined to pick and choose as sedulously as some of them; he conceived it his whole duty to make the best of the material that came his way unsought; but he had not made much of Sprawson, and it was with Sprawson that the solicitous staff were reckoning on their colleague’s account.