His first idea had been to get out into the quad, as he had got out into it his very first morning in the place, through the hall windows. But the rain rather spoilt that plan; the rain was not an unmixed blessing after all. The umbrellas, now he came to think of it, were kept in the lower study passage; and how was he to break in there? Of course the outer doors would be locked; and he might get wet through in the quad, before effecting an entry into the lower studies, and even then leaving a dripping trail behind him.
No; if he wanted an umbrella he must borrow old Bob Heriot’s. That was a paralysing alternative, but it was the only one to returning humiliated to dormitory. After all, the hat-stand was only just on the other side of the green baize door under which Jan could see the thinnest thread of light from Heriot’s outer hall. And dear old Bob sat up till all hours; that was notorious; and his study was beyond the dining-room, leading out of it, so that in all probability there would be two shut doors between the intruder and the unsuspecting master of the house.
But the long lean figure of Robert Heriot, smoking his pipe in the inner sanctuary, cocking a quick ear at the furtive footstep on his side of the house, and finally confronting the audacious offender, with bristling beard and flashing spectacles, made all at once the most portentous picture in Jan’s mind. Heriot of all men! The one master with whom the boldest boy never dared to take a liberty; the one whose good opinion was best worth having, and perhaps hardest to win; why had he not thought of Heriot before? To think of him now so vividly was to abandon the whole adventure in a panic. Better the scorn of fifty Bingleys, for the rest of the term, than the wrath of one Heriot for a single minute such as he had just gone through in a paroxysm of the imagination.
Jan found himself creeping upstairs more gingerly than ever in his boots, climbing nearer and nearer to the dropping voices in the lower dormitory. That was Shockley’s guttural monologue. It was Shockley who had said the hardest thing to Jan about his running, in just that hateful voice. It was Shockley who would have the most and the worst to say if it came to his ears, as no doubt it would, that one of his special butts had made such a feeble fool of himself as Jan knew that he was making now. And then life would be duller even than it had been before, and school a rottener place, and himself a greater nonentity than ever. Nay, all these changes for the worse had already taken place in the last minute of ignominious retreat. But a minute ago, yes, a minute ago there had been some excitement in life, and a fellow had felt somebody for once!
“I’m blowed if I do,” said Jan deliberately to himself; and down he went with equal deliberation to the green baize door. It opened with scarcely a sound. A light was burning in the little entrance hall beyond. And the dining-room door was providentially shut.
Here was Heriot’s umbrella; and it was wet.
From his fit of cowardice Jan had flown to the opposite extreme of foolhardy audacity. What better disguise than Heriot’s coat and even Heriot’s hat, the soft felt one that was also rather wet already? Jan had them on in a twinkling, drunk as he was already with the magnitude of his impudence. It would give them something to talk about, whether he was caught or not. That was Jan’s way of expressing to himself his intention of contributing to the annals of the school, whatever happened.
The front door had not been locked up for the night, and it never was by day. Heriot had his happy-go-lucky ways, but the town as a rule was as quiet as the sleepiest hollow. Jan managed to shut the door almost noiselessly behind him, never thinking now of his return. Out in the rain the umbrella went up at once; like an extinguisher, he jammed it down about his ears; and the instinct of further concealment drove his left hand deep into a capacious pocket. It came upon one of old Heriot’s many pipes. Next instant the pipe was between the madman’s teeth, and Jan, on the opposite pavement of a dripping and deserted street, was flourishing the umbrella and pointing out the pipe to three white faces at a window in the shiny roof.
He would not have cared, at that moment, if he had known that he was going to be caught the next. But nobody was abroad just then in that rain to catch him. And not further down the street than Jan could have jerked a fives-ball, the glare of the market-place lit up the stone front and archway of the Mitre. And the blare of the steam merry-go-round waxed fast and furious as he marched under Heriot’s umbrella into the zone of light.
“He wears a penny flower in his coat —
And a penny paper collar round his throat —
In his hand a penny stick,
In his tooth a penny pick,
And a penny in his pocket —
Lardy-dah – lardy-dah —
And a penny in his pocket —
Jan had picked up the words from some fellow who used to render such rubbish to a worse accompaniment on the hall piano; and they ran in his head with the outrageous tune. They reminded him that he had scarcely a penny in his own pocket, thanks to his munificent people in Norfolk, and for once it was just as well. Otherwise he would certainly have had a ride, in Heriot’s well-known foul-weather garb, on one of “Collinson’s Royal Racing Thoroughbreds, the Greatest and Most Elaborate Machine now Travelling.”
Last nights are popular nights, and the fair was crowded in spite of the rain. Round and round went the wooden horses, carrying half the young bloods of the little place, with here and there an apple-cheeked son or daughter of the surrounding soil. Jan tilted his umbrella to have a look at them; their shouts were drowned by the shattering crash of the steam organ, but their flushed faces caught fresh fire from a great naked light as they whirled nearest to where Jan stood. One purple countenance he recognised as the pace slackened; it was Mulberry, the local reprobate of evil memory, swaying in his stirrups and whacking his wooden mount as though they were in the straight.
The deafening blare sank to a dying whine; the flare-light sputtered audibly in the rain, and Jan jerked his umbrella forward as the dizzy riders dismounted within a few yards of him. Jan turned his back on them, and contemplated the cobbles under his nose, and the lighted puddles that ringed them round, like meshes of liquid gold. He watched for the unsteady corduroys of Mulberry, and withdrew at their approach. But there was no certain escape short of immediate departure from the fair, which occupied little more than the area of a full-sized lawn tennis court, and covered half of that with the merry-go-round, and another quarter with stalls and vans.
One of the stalls displayed a legend which seemed to Jan to deserve more custom than it attracted.
The watches lay in open cardboard boxes on a sloping board. There was a supply of wooden rings that just fitted round the boxes. Jan watched one oaf run through several coppers, his rings always lying between the boxes or on top of one. Jan felt it was a case for a spin, and he longed to have a try with that cunning left hand of his. But he had actually only twopence on him, and the first necessity was two-pennyworth of evidence that he had really been to the fair. Yet what trophy could compare with one of those cheap watches in its cardboard box?
It so happened that Jan had a watch of his own worth everything on sale at this trumpery fair; but he could almost have bartered it for one of these that would show the top dormitory, at any rate, the kind of chap he was. And yet he was not the kind who often saw himself in heroic proportions; but an abnormal mood was at the back and front of this whole adventure; and perhaps no more fitting climax could have inflamed a reeling mind. He produced his pennies with sudden determination, yet with a hand as cool as his brain was hot, and as cool a preliminary survey to make sure that Mulberry was not already dogging him.
“Two rings a penny,” said the fur-capped custodian of the watches, handing the rings to Jan. “An’ wot you rings you 'aves.”
Jan stood alone before the sloping board, kept a few feet off by an intervening table, and he poised his first ring as the steam fiend broke out again with “Over the Garden Wall.” A back-handed spin sent it well among the watches, and it went on spinning until it settled at an angle over one of the boxes, as though loth to abandon the attempt to ring it properly.
“Rings must lie flat to win,” said the fellow in the fur cap, with a quick squint at Jan. “Try again, mister; you’ll do better with less spin.”
Jan grinned dryly as he resolved to put on a bit more. He had heard his father drive hard bargains in the Saturday night’s marketing aforetime. Old Rutter had known how to take care of himself across any stall or barrow, even when his gait was like Mulberry’s on the way home; and Jan had a sense of similar capacity as he poised his second ring against the voluminous folds of Mr. Heriot’s cape. Thence it skimmed with graceful trajectory, in palpable gyrations; had circled one of the square boxes before he knew it, and was spinning down it like a nut on a bolt, when the man in the fur cap whipped a finger between the ring and the table.
“That’s a near one, mister!” cried he. “But it don’t lie flat.”
Nor did it. The ring had jammed obliquely on the cardboard box, a finger’s breadth from the board.
“It would’ve done if you’d left it alone!” shouted Jan above the steam fiend’s roar.
“That it wouldn’t! It’s a bit o’ bad luck, that’s wot it is; never knew it to 'appen afore, I didn’t; but it don’t lie straight, now do it?”
“It would’ve done,” replied Jan through his teeth. “And the watch is mine, so let’s have it.”
Whether he said that more than once, or what the fur-capped foe replied, Jan never knew. The merry-go-round robbed him of half that passed between them, and all that was to follow blurred the rest as soon as it had taken place. One or two salient moments were to stand out in his mind like rocks. He was sprawling across the intervening table, he had seized the watch that he had fairly won, and the ruffian in the cap had seized his wrist. That horny grip remained like the memory of a handcuff. The thing developed into a semi-recumbent tug-of-war, in which Jan more than held his own. The watches in their boxes came sliding down the sloping board, the fur-cap followed them, and a head like a fluffy melon hung a-ripening as the blood rushed into it. Jan beheld swelling veins in a stupor of angry satisfaction, and without a thought of his own position until a rap on the back went through him like a stab.
It was only a country policeman in streaming leggings; but he had not arrived alone upon the scene; and Jan felt the flooded cobble-stones heaving under him, as he relinquished his prize at once, and recoiled from the gaze of countless eyes.
Yet the policeman for one was not looking at him. The policeman was levelling an open hand at the melon-headed rogue, and reiterating a demand which only added to Jan’s embarrassment.
“You give this young feller what he fairly won. I saw what you did. I’ve had my eye on you all night. You give him that watch, or you’ll hear a bit more about it!”
Jan tried to raise his voice in cowardly repudiation, but his tongue refused the base office. The lights of the fair were going round and round him. The policeman, the rogue, and three or four more, had been joined by the drunken Mulberry, who was staring and pointing and trying to say something which nobody could understand. The policeman sent him about his business with a cuff, and Jan began to breathe. He felt the watch put into his unwilling hand. He heard a good-humoured little cheer. He saw the policeman looking at him strangely, and he wondered if a tip was expected of him. Even at that moment Jan felt a bitter wave of resentment against those who sent him to school, against his will, with half-a-sovereign for a whole term’s pocket-money. He could only thank the policeman with a stutter and a gulp, and slink from the scene like the beaten dog he felt.
Luckily his legs were cooler than his head; they carried him down the street in the opposite direction to his house and the school buildings; and he had not taken many strides on the comparatively dark and quite deserted pavement, when his mind began to recover tone rapidly. It recovered more tone than it had lost. He had given himself up, and now he realised that he was not only safe so far, but successful beyond his wildest dreams. Not only had he been to the fair, but thanks to the policeman (whom he wished more than ever to reward substantially) he had come away with a silver watch to show for the adventure. What would they have to say to that in the small dormitory? They would never be able to keep it to themselves; it would get about the school, and make him somebody after all. He would acquire, perhaps, undying fame as the fellow who got out at a moment’s notice, and went to the fair in a master’s hat and coat, and won a prize at watch-la, and brought it back in triumph to dormitory, at Heriot’s of all houses in the school!
He would probably tell Heriot before he left. Old Bob was just the man to laugh over such an escapade, more heartily perhaps if one kept it till one came down as an Old Boy. Jan felt ridiculously brave again under old Bob’s umbrella, which he had dropped for a moment during the fracas at the fair. That, of course, was why he had also lost his head. But now he was as bold as any lion, and particularly determined to do something at school after all, so that he might come down as an Old Boy to recount this very adventure.
Not that he had the egotistical temperament, even to the extent that (for instance) poor old Chips had it. But this was that abnormal mood which had only been interrupted by a minute of pure panic at the fair. And now the swimming pavement floated under his feet like air.
Still airier was an overtaking stride which Jan never so much as heard until a strong arm slid through his, and a voice that he heard every day addressed him in every-day tones.
“Do you mind my coming under your umbrella?”
It was Dudley Relton, and his forearm felt like a steel girder. Yet his tone was preternaturally polite as between master and boy. There was not even the sound of his own surname to assure Jan that he was recognised. But he was far too startled to attempt to take advantage of that.
“Oh, sir!” he sang out as if in pain.
“I shouldn’t tell all the town, if I were you,” returned Relton, coolly. “You’d better come in here and pull yourself together.”
He had thrust his latch-key into the side door of a shuttered shop. Over the shop were lighted windows which Jan suddenly connected with Relton’s rooms. He had been up there once or twice with extra work, and now he was made to lead the way.
The sitting room was comfortably furnished, with a soft settee in front of a dying fire, and book-cases on either side of it. Jan awoke from a nightmare of certain consequences, never fully realised until now, to find himself meanwhile ensconced in the settee, and much fascinated with the muddy boots of Dudley Relton, who had poked the fire before standing upright with his back to it.
“Of course you know what is practically bound to happen to you, Rutter. Still, in case there’s anything you’d like me to say in reporting the matter, I thought I’d give you the opportunity of speaking to me first. I don’t honestly suppose that it can make much difference. But you’re in my form, and I’m naturally sorry that you should have made such a fatal fool of yourself.”
The young man sounded sorry. That was just like him. He had always been decent to Jan, and he was sorry because he knew that it was necessarily all over with a fellow who was caught getting out at night. Of course it was all over with him, so what was the good of saying anything? Jan kept his eyes on those muddy boots, and answered never a word.
“I suppose you got out for the sake of getting out, and saying you’d been to the fair? I don’t suppose there was anything worse behind it. But I’m afraid that’s quite bad enough, Rutter.”
And Mr. Relton heaved an unmistakable sigh. It had the effect of breaking down the silence which Jan was still only too apt to maintain in any trouble. He mumbled something about “a lark,” and the young master took him up quite eagerly.
“I know that! I saw you at the fair – spotted you in a moment as I was passing – but I wasn’t going to make a scene for all the town to talk about. I can say what I saw you doing. But I’m afraid it won’t make much difference. It’s a final offence at any school, to go and get out at night.”
Jan thought he heard another sigh; but he had nothing more to say. He was comparing the two pairs of boots under his downcast eyes. His own were the cleanest; they still had the boot-boy’s shine on them, amid splashes of mud and dull blots of rain. They took him back to the little dormitory at the top of Heriot’s house.
“Why did you want to do it?” cried Relton, with sudden exasperation. “Did you think it was going to make a hero of you in the eyes of the school?”
Sullen silence confessed some such thought.
“You!” continued Relton, with sharp contempt. “You who might really have been a bit of a hero, if only you’d waited till next term!”
Jan looked up at last.
“Next term, sir?”
“Yes, next term, as a left-hand bowler! I saw you bowl the only time you ever played on the Upper last year. It was too late then, but I meant to make something of you this season. You were my dark horse, Rutter. I had my eye on you for the Eleven, and you go and do a rotten thing for which you’ll have to go as sure as you’re sitting there!”
So that was the meaning of kind words and light penalties. The Eleven itself! Jan had not been so long at school without discovering that the most heroic of all distinctions was to become a member of the school eleven. Once or twice he had dreamt of it as an ultimate possibility in his own case; it was really Chips who had put the idea into his head, but even Chips had regarded it only as a distant goal. And to think it might have been next term – just when there was to be no next term at all!
“Don’t make it worse than it is, sir,” mumbled Jan, as the firelight played on the two pairs of drying boots. The other pair shifted impatiently on the hearth-rug.
“I couldn’t. It’s as bad as bad can be; I’m only considering if it’s possible to make it the least bit better. If I could get you off with the biggest licking you ever had in your life, I’d do so whether you liked it better or worse. But what can I do except speak to Mr. Heriot? And what can he do except report the matter to the Head Master? And do you think Mr. Thrale’s the man to let a fellow off because he happens to be a bit of a left-hand bowler? I don’t, I tell you frankly,” said Dudley Relton. “I’ll say and do all I can for you, Rutter, but it would be folly to pretend that it can make much difference.”
Jan never forgot the angry, reproachful, and yet not unsympathetic expression of a face that was only less boyish than his own. He felt he liked Dudley Relton more than ever, and that Dudley Relton really had a sneaking fondness for him, even apart from his promise with the ball. But that only added poignancy to his self-reproaches, the bitterness of satire to his inevitable fate. Here was a friend who would have made all the difference to his school life, getting him into the Eleven next year if not next term, fanning his little spark of talent into a famous flame! It was too tragic only to see it as they marched back together, once more under Heriot’s umbrella, to the house and Heriot himself, with his flashing spectacles and his annihilating rage.
The steam merry-go-round was still and dumb at last. In the emptying market-place the work of dismantling the fair was beginning even as the church clock struck twelve. Stalls were being cleared, and half the lights were already out. But Heriot’s study windows threw luminous bars across the glistening pavement, and his front-door was still unlocked. Relton opened it softly, and shut it with equal care behind the quaking boy.
“You’d better take those things off and hang them up,” he whispered. So he had recognised Heriot’s garments, but had deemed that aggravation a detail compared with the cardinal crime!
Jan himself had forgotten it, but he took the hint with trembling hands.
“Now slip up to dormitory and hold your tongue. That’s essential. I’ll say what I can for you, but the less you talk the better.”