And Heriot sat down to attend to the daily detachment with orders on the tradesmen requiring his signature, while the rest of the house streamed out of the hall in a silence due partly to the eminence of the discomfited ringleaders, and partly to the guilty conscience of the mob as accessories after the fact. Sprawson alone made light of the situation, and that chiefly at the expense of his superfine confederate.
“All aboard the Black Maria!” said Sprawson, taking the other by the arm. “I say, Charles, old cock, I wonder how you’ll look with a convict’s crop and a quiverful of broad arrows?”
And for once the great Charles made use of the baser language of his inferiors, and tossed his tawny mane in anger as he stalked out of the quad, a Ph?bus Apollo setting in a cloud. But it really was the Major’s landau that awaited them, a cockaded footman standing at the door. Ph?bus gave a dying gleam, and stepped in as though the imposing equipage belonged to him.
And Sprawson shook every hand within reach, and played several kinds of fool with his handkerchief until the landau was out of sight.
Then indeed the quad became a Babel, from which a trained ear might have extracted a consensus of unshaken confidence in Sprawson and Cave major. The house, as a whole entirely trusted them to hoodwink Major Mangles as they had already hoodwinked the Spook and even old Heriot himself. It was the last feat which made all things possible to these arch impostors. And only a severe old sage like Crabtree would have entertained any doubt upon the point, which his trenchant tongue argued against all and sundry till the quad was empty for the afternoon.
Jan happened to be playing in the first game on the Middle, while Chips had a humble place in the second Lower; at the joint call-over for the two grounds (4.30) it was whispered that neither Cave nor Sprawson had returned to the Sixth Form match on the Upper. The whisper had swelled into a Bible Oath, and the indisputable fact into a farrago of pure fiction, before the return of the missing pair made it unsafe even to breathe their names in Heriot’s quad. They were not quite the same young men who had made a state departure in the Major’s landau. Their flannels were powdered with the drab dust of the wayside, and they limped a little in the fives-shoes for which they had changed their spikes before coming down from the Upper. Cave moreover looked a diabolically dangerous customer, to whom Loder himself shrank from addressing a remark, after crossing the quad with that obvious intention. Sprawson as usual preserved a genial countenance; but the unlucky Bingley, betrayed into a tactless question by a mysterious wink, had his arm nearly twisted out of its socket as he deserved.
“Now I feel better!” says Sprawson, with ferocious glee. “I’m much obliged to you, Toby, and I hope you’ll regain the use of your arm in time.”
But the house was no wiser until after prayers. At tea Cave major never spoke, and Sprawson only grinned into his plate.
“Major Mangles,” returned Cave major, with cutting deliberation, “may be Chief Constable of the county, and anything he likes by birth, but he’s no gentleman for all that.”
“Really, Cave? That’s a serious indictment. Why, what has he done?”
“You’d better ask Sprawson,” says Charles Cave, with a haughty jerk of his fine fair head. He looked a very stormy Ph?bus now, but still every inch that grand young god.
“I’m sure Cave can tell you better than I can, sir,” says Sprawson of the wicked humour.
“But Sprawson will make the most of it,” says the cricketer with icy sneer.
“It’s not a tale that wants much varnish, sir, if that’s what he means,” said Sprawson, happily. “I’ll tell you the facts, sir, and Cave can check them if he’ll be so kind. You said we should find the Major’s carriage waiting for us outside the quad, and so we did. It was the landau, sir, a very good one nicely hung, and capital cattle tooling us along like lords. The country was looking beautiful. Roads rather dusty, but a smell of hay that turned it into a sort of delicate snuff, sir. It really was a most delightful drive.”
“Speak for yourself, Sprawson, if you don’t mind.”
“I shouldn’t dream of speaking for you, Cave. You didn’t seem to me to take any interest in the scenery. I may be wrong, but I couldn’t help thinking your heart was at the wicket, flogging our poor bowling all over the parish, and I was so thankful to be where I was! But that was only on the way, sir, it was nothing to what we were in for at the other end. The footman said we should find the Major on the lawn. So we did, sir – playing tennis like a three-year-old – and half the county looking on!”
“Not a garden-party?” inquired Heriot incredulously.
“That sort of thing, sir.”
“My poor fellows! Pray go on.”
“Of course we couldn’t interrupt him in the middle of his set, sir, and when he’d finished it he crossed straight over and started another without ever seeming to see that we were there. Nobody else took any notice of us either,” continued Sprawson, with a sly glance at the still stately Cave. “We might have been a pair of garden statues, or tennis professionals waiting to play an exhibition match.”
“It reminds me of Dr. Johnson and Lord Chesterfield,” said Heriot darkly. “Your fame is perhaps more parochial, Sprawson. But is it possible that you, Cave, are personally unknown to Major Mangles?”
“I haven’t the least idea,” replied Charles Cave magnificently. “I should have said he might have known me by the times I’ve bowled him.”
“And you never thought of coming away again? I shouldn’t have blamed you, upon my word.”
“Of course we thought of it, sir,” said Sprawson. “But the carriage had gone round to the stables, and we couldn’t very well order it ourselves.”
“I should have walked.”
“It’s a terrible tramp, sir, on a hot afternoon, and in rubber soles!” Sprawson winced involuntarily at the recollection; but the thought of his companion consoled him yet again. “Especially after bowling all the morning,” he added, “and expecting to go in the moment you got back!”
“Well, that wouldn’t have been necessary,” said Heriot. “It must be some satisfaction to you that the Sixth won so easily, even without your certain century, Cave.”
“It doesn’t alter the fact that he had to walk back after all,” said Sprawson, when the greater man had been given ample time to answer for himself.
“So had you!” he thundered then, not like a great man at all, but in a voice that gave some idea of that homeward tramp and its recriminations, in which Sprawson was suddenly felt to be having the last word now.
“But surely Major Mangles interviewed you first?” inquired Heriot, with becoming gravity.
“Oh, yes; he took us under the trees and asked us questions,” said Sprawson, forcing the gay note a little for the first time.
“Questions he’d no earthly right to ask!” cried Cave with confidence.
“You didn’t take that tone with Major Mangles, I hope, Cave?”
“I daresay I did, sir.”
“Then I can’t say I wonder at his letting you both walk back. Of course, if you didn’t answer his questions satisfactorily, it might alter his whole view of the matter, at least so far as you two were concerned in it.”
“We couldn’t tell him more than we knew ourselves, sir,” protested Sprawson.
“Not more,” said Heriot, pensively. “No – certainly not more!” It was only his tone that added “if as much” – and only the few who heard through it. “I hope, at any rate, that you got your tea?” said Heriot, with a brisk glance at the clock over the row of cups.
Cave major looked blacker than before, but Sprawson brightened at once.
“Oh, yes, sir, thank you! Lady Augusta sent for us on purpose, and it ended in our handing round the cups and things. That was the redeeming feature of the afternoon. But of course I’m only speaking for myself.”
Cave’s chiselled nostrils spoke for him.
“Well, there seems no more to be said,” remarked Heriot, in valedictory voice. The attentive throng parted before his stride. “I must confess,” he added, however, turning at the door, “that I myself don’t understand the Major’s tactics altogether —if you’ve reported him fully. I can’t help thinking that something or other has escaped your memory. Otherwise it sounds to me rather like a practical joke at your expense. But I should be sorry to suspect a real humorist, like Major Mangles, of that very poor form of humour, unless” – a moment’s pause, with twinkling glasses – “unless it were as a sort of payment in kind. That’s the only excuse for practical joking, in my opinion; and now I think we can let the whole subject drop. I only hope that the next time some knave, or fool, thinks of breaking into my house, he’ll have the pluck to come when I’m at home. Good-night all!”
The house filtered out into the quad, drifted over to the studies, and presently back again to bed, with few comments and less laughter; and that night there was little talk but much constraint in both the top and lower dormitories, ruled respectively by Sprawson and Cave major. Only in the little one, overlooking the street, was the topic in everybody’s mind on anybody’s lips; and there it was monopolised by Crabtree, who reviewed the entire episode in mordant monologue, broken only by the shaking of the bed beneath his fits of helpless mirth.
There were three days in the year when the venerable market-place was out of bounds, all but the draggled ribbon of pavement running round it and the few shops opening thereon. The rest was monopolised and profaned by the vans and booths of a travelling fair, which reached the town usually about the second week in March. The school took little notice of the tawdry encampment and its boorish revels; but the incessant strains of a steam merry-go-round became part of the place for the time being, and made night especially hideous in the town houses nearest the scene.
Nearest of all was Heriot’s house, and greatest of all sufferers the four boys in the little top room with the dormer window over the street. Jan was still one of them, and Bingley another. But Joyce had left, and Crabtree had taken charge of one of the long dormitories overlooking the quad. Chips Carpenter and a new boy had succeeded to their partitions; and if in one case the intellectual loss was irreparable, in the other that of an incorrigible vocabulary was perhaps less to be deplored.
But Jan’s was still the silent corner; even to Chips he would have little to say before the other two; for in this his fifth term he had fallen on another evil time. It had nothing to do with his work, however, and neither could he curse his luck for a split hand or a maligned heart. He had played football every day of his second winter term – not brilliantly, for he was never quite quick enough on the ball – but with a truculent tenacity which had been rewarded with the black trimmings of the Second Lower Upper. In form he was no longer a laughing-stock; and his form was now the Middle Fifth, where one began to cope with Greek iambics as well as Latin elegiacs. But all three Fifths were beds of roses after the Middle Remove, and Dudley Relton an angel of forbearance after that inhuman old Haigh.
Dudley Relton, however, besides being man enough to take the Middle Fifth on his accession to the staff, was that pioneer of cricket masters who had made a note of Jan’s name at the valued instigation of A. G. Swallow. He had also watched Jan bowling in the one game in which he had played on the Upper, thanks to the departed Sprawson, and he had his eye on the young left-hander with the queer individual action. But it was the cool eye of a long-headed cricketer, and Jan never read it for an instant. Chips might have done so if he had been in the form, but he was now in the Upper Fifth, and his sanguine prophecies were neither remembered nor renewed. Jan only wished that Relton would not look at him, sometimes, almost as though he knew all about a fellow; and it rather bothered him to get off lighter than he deserved for a false concord in his prose or a vile copy of verses.
But that was not his trouble on the nights when the steam merry-go-round enlivened the small dormitory with “Over the Garden Wall” and “Lardy-dah,” those egregious ditties of their day. It was the first round of the All Ages Mile that kept Jan from sleeping either night until the steam tunes stopped.
On the strength of his performance the year before and of several inches since added to his stature, Jan had found himself seriously fancied for a place in the Mile. The dash of premature notoriety, combined with a superfluity of sage advice, made him sadly self-conscious and over-anxious before the event, which ended in a complete fiasco so far as he was concerned. It was his fate to meet the ultimate winner (down with his eyes the year before) in the very first heat. Jan dogged him as gratuitously advised, instead of making the running as flesh and blood implored. And having no spurt he was not only badly beaten, but failed even to come in third, and was thus out of the running in the first round.
That was bad enough; hardy enemies of the Shockley type took care to make it worse. They became suddenly alive to an alleged “roll” put on by Jan in anticipation of his success; and Jan was sufficiently down on himself to take their remarks for once to heart. He felt still more the silence of many who had believed in him; even the cheery sympathy of a few only aggravated his sense of failure; and as for the loquacious Chips, and his well-meant efforts to keep the dormitory talk to any other topic, they were almost as maddening as the steam merry-go-round, that filled every pause with its infernal “Lardy-dah.” That tenacious tune had supplied the accompaniment to his hopes and fears of the night before; it had run in his head throughout the fatal race; and now it made merry over his utterly idiotic and unpardonable failure.
It will be seen that the robust Jan had grown a crop of sensibilities almost worthy of his friend Carpenter, except that Jan’s were wholly and grimly inarticulate. But he was now sixteen, and that is the age of surprises in a boy. It took Jan in more ways than one. It made him long to do startling things, and it made him do some foolish ones instead; hence his hard training for the mile, and his actual running when the time came. It made him feel that he had done less than nothing at school so far, that he was less than nobody, and yet that there was more in him than anybody knew; and now he wanted them to know it; and now he didn’t care a blow what happened to him, or what was thought, at a school to which he had been sent against his will. There was no forgetting that at a time like this. If he was a failure, if he went on failing, well, at any rate it would be a score off those who had sent him there, and never gave him enough pocket money, or wrote him an unnecessary line.
So Jan came back to a very early position of his, only trailing the accumulated grievances of a year and a half; and by the third and last night of the fair he had the whole collection to brood upon, in gigantic array, in proportion the more colossal and grotesque because he could not and would not speak of them to a soul. And there was that fool Chips, jawing away as usual to anybody who would listen, about anything and everything except the sports.
“I shall be jolly glad when that beastly old fair moves on,” quoth Chips after an interval of “Over the Garden Wall.”
Jan agreed so heartily that he could scarcely hold his tongue.
“I don’t know that I shall,” said the new boy in Crabtree’s corner. “It sounds rather jolly when you’re dropping off.”
Jan could have pulled every stitch off the little brute’s bed. But the remark was very properly ignored.
“I suppose you know,” said Bingley, “that two fellows were once bunked for going to it?”
“Going to what?” asked Chips.
“This very fair.”
“They must’ve been fools!” said Jan, raising his voice at last.
“I thought you were asleep?” cried the new boy, who had no sense.
“You keep your thoughts to yourself,” growled Jan, “or I’ll come and show you whether I am or not.”
“They were fools,” assented Bingley, “but they were rather sportsmen too. They got out of one of the hill houses at night, and came down in disguise, in bowlers and false beards! But they were spotted right enough, and they’d got to go.”
“And serve them jolly well right!” said Jan, cantankerously.
“I don’t call it such a crime, Tiger.”
“Who’s talking about crimes? You’ve got ’em on the brain, Bingley.”
“I thought you said they deserved to be bunked?”
“So they did – for going and getting cobbed.”
“Oh, I see! You’d’ve looked every master in the face, I suppose, without being recognised?”
“I wouldn’t’ve made them look twice at me, by sticking on a false beard,” snorted Jan, stung by the tone he had been the first to employ. Chips understood his mood, and liked him too much to join in the discussion. But Bingley had been longer in the school than either of them, and he was not going to knuckle under in a minute.
“It’s a pity you weren’t here, Tiger,” said he, “to show them how to do it.”
“It’s a thing any fool could do if he tried,” returned Jan. “I’d back myself to get out of this house in five minutes.”
“Not you, old chap!” said Chips, making an unfortunate entry into the discussion after all.
“I would so,” declared Jan hot-headedly. “I’d do it to-morrow if the fair wasn’t going away.”
Bingley began to jeer.
“I like that, when you jolly well know it is going!”
“I’ll go to-night, if you say much more, you fool!”
Jan’s springs twanged and wheezed as he sat bolt upright in his bed.
“You know you won’t be such a silly idiot,” said Chips, in an earnest voice.
“Of course he does!” jeered Bingley. “Nobody knows it quite so well.”
There was an instant’s pause, filled by a sounding blast from the market-place, and then the thud of bare feet planted on the floor.
“Surely you’re not going to let him dare you – ”
“Not he; don’t you worry!”
It was Bingley who cut Chips short, and Jan thanked him as he slid into his trousers in the dark. His voice was strange, and not without the tremor of high excitement. There was a jingle of curtain rings across the dormitory. Carpenter was out of his partition in defiance of the rules; he appeared dimly at the foot of Jan’s, into which Bingley was already peering over the partition.
“Are you off your chump?” demanded Chips.
“Not he,” said Bingley again. “He’s only bunging us up!”
Bingley might have been an infant Mephistopheles; but he was really only an incredulous, irritated, and rather excited schoolboy.
“You’ll see directly,” muttered Jan, slipping his braces over his night-shirt.
“You’ll be caught to a certainty, and bunked if you’re caught!”
That was Chips, in desperation now.
“And a good job too! I’ve had about enough of this place.”
That was the Jan of their first term together.
“And it’s raining like the very dickens!”
This was the child in Crabtree’s corner, an insensible little sinner, who seemed to take the imminent enormity as an absolute matter of course.
“So much the better,” said Jan. “I’ll take a brolly and run all the less risk of being seen, and you see if I don’t bring you all something from the fair.”
“It’s something he’s gone and got to-day,” whispered Bingley for Chips’s consolation. “It’s all a swizzle, you’ll see.”
“You look out of the window in about five minutes,” retorted Jan from the door, “and p’r’aps you’ll see!”
And out he actually stole, carrying the clean boots that he had brought up to dormitory in readiness for first school, and leaving Chips in muzzled consternation on the threshold.
The rain pelted on the skylight over the stairs. It had been a showery day, but it was a very wet night, and Jan was almost as glad of it as he had just professed himself. He saw a distant complication of wet clothes, but as a mere umbrella among umbrellas he stood a really fair chance of not being seen. It was still only a chance; but that was half the fun. And fun it was, though a terrifying form of fun, and though Jan was already feeling a bit unsound about the knees, he had to go on with it; there was as yet no question in his mind about that, and hardly any looking back at the ridiculous combination of taunt and impulse which had committed him to this mad adventure.
Conversation had ceased in the top long dormitory; in the one below a dropping fire was still maintained; and the intervening flight of lead-lined stairs, taken one at a time, with terrible deliberation, and in his socks, struck a chill to the adventurer’s marrow. He began to think he really was a fool; but he would look a bigger one if he went back now. So he gained the foot of the second flight in safety, and paused to consider his next move. The flags were colder than the leaden stairs; so he sat on the slate table while he put on his boots; and the slate table was colder than the flags.