Jan would have seen that for himself; even if he had not seen it, he was the last person to confide in anybody if he could help it. But as it was there were three fellows in the secret of his escapade, and all three doubtless lying awake to learn its termination. It would be impossible not to talk to them. Jan could only resolve upon the fewest words, as he groped his way to the lead-lined stairs. In the two dormitories overlooking the quad, the last tongue had long been still, and in the utter silence Heriot’s voice sounded in startled greeting on his side of the house. Jan shivered as he sank down on the lowest stair but one, to take off his boots. Was it any good taking them off? Would not the green baize door burst open, and Heriot be upon him before the first lace was undone? He undid it with the heavy deliberation of an entirely absent mind. Still no Heriot appeared, and even Jan could catch no further sound of voices beyond the dividing door. He crept up, dangling his boots.
The small dormitory was as still as the other two. Jan could not believe that his comrades had fallen asleep, at their posts as it almost seemed to him, but for an instant the suspicion piqued him in spite of everything. Then came simultaneous whispers from opposite corners.
“Is it you, Tiger?”
“You old caution, I couldn’t have believed it of you!”
“You didn’t know him as well as I did.”
“I’m proud to know him now, though. Shake hands across the 'tish.”
“Thank goodness you’re back!”
“But how did you get back?”
“Same way I got out,” muttered Jan at last. “Are you all three awake.”
“All but young Eaton. Eaton!”
No answer from the new boy’s corner.
“He’s a pretty cool hand” – from Bingley.
“But he’s taken his dying oath not to tell a soul” – from Chips.
“He won’t have to keep it long, then.” Jan was creeping into bed.
“I’ve gone and got cobbed.”
“I’m afraid so.”
“But you’re back, man?”
“I was seen first. I’m certain I was. It’s no use talking about it now; you’ll all know soon enough. I’ve been a fool. I deserve all I’m bound to get.”
“I was worse!” gasped Bingley over the partition. “I dared you to do what I wouldn’t’ve done myself for a hundred pounds. But I never thought you would, either. I thought you were only hustling. I swear I did, Tiger!”
Bingley was in real distress. Chips combined sore anxiety with a curiosity which Jan might have gratified but for Dudley Relton’s parting piece of advice. It occurred to Jan that Relton might have been thinking of himself over that injunction; he might not wish it to be generally known that he had taken the delinquent up into his own rooms before haling him back to his house. At all events Jan felt he owed so good a fellow the benefit of any doubt upon the point. And his silence was the measure of his gratitude for the one redeeming feature of the whole miserable affair.
Miserable it was to the last degree, and most humiliating in its utterly unforeseen effect upon himself.
He had never despised it in his heart. He knew that now. He had begun by hating it as a wild creature hates captivity. He had learned to loathe it as the place where an awkward manner and a marked accent exposed one to incessant ridicule. But even in the days of hatred and of loathing, when his chief satisfaction had been to damp the ardour of an old enthusiast like Chips Carpenter, Jan himself had been conscious of a sneaking veneration for the great machine into which he had been thrust. He had meant it to make something of him, though that was not quite the light in which he had seen his own intention. He had meant at any rate to do as well as other fellows, to show them that he was as good as they were, though he might not have their manners or address. That had been the master impulse of his secret heart; he could trace it back to the beginning of his first term, to the football which was stopped, to the paper-chase in which he had run in spite of them, and then to last year’s Mile and the cricket which was stopped again. How many things had been against him, and yet how little he had suspected his own strongest point! Only to think that he might have bowled for the school this coming season.
Relton might have kept that to himself. He had talked about making things better, but he had only made them worse to bear. He need not have said that about Jan’s cricket. It was enough to drive a fellow mad with the thought of all that he was losing through his criminal folly. Individuals filled the stage of Jan’s cruel visions, Evan Devereux in the limelight; what would he have said if Jan had got into the Eleven? Might it not have brought them together again? Evan had got into the Sixth Upper; he had been in the First Lower the term before Jan came; and Jan had been left out of even the lowest eleven on the Middle Ground, which Evan had skipped altogether. It would have been a case of the hare and the tortoise, but in the end they might both have been in the school team together, and then they could scarcely have failed to be friends. So simply did Jan think of the fellow with whom he now seldom exchanged so much as a nod; he was nevertheless the one to whom Jan felt that he owed more than to the whole school put together; for had he not kept Something right loyally to himself?
Then there was old Haigh. He would have seen that there might be something in a fellow who could not write Latin verses, something in even a sulky fellow! And Jan no longer sulked as he used; he was getting out of that; and yet he had done this thing, and would have to go.
Then there was Shockley and all that lot, the rotten element in the house. If he had really got into the Eleven, it would have made all the difference in the world between Jan and them. They never touched him as it was, but their words were often worse than blows, and far more difficult to return. But if Jan had got into the Eleven … and Relton spoke as if he really would have a chance, but for this thing that he had done!
He lay in his bed and groaned aloud, and then found himself listening for even an answering movement from one of the others. He felt he could have opened out to them now, to any one of them; but they were all three evidently fast asleep. The church clock had struck two some time ago. And Jan was still poignantly awake; he had not lain awake like this since his very first night in the school and that partition; and now it was most probably his last.
To-morrow night he might be back in the rectory attic where he was less at home than here, and back under the blackest cloud of all his boyhood. That was saying something. Term-time was still preferable to the holidays, except when he went to stay with Chips and see some of the sights of London. And now it was the last night of his last term, unless a miracle was wrought to save him.
And now it was the last morning, and Jan felt yet another creature, because he had slept like a top after all, and the wild adventure of the night was no longer the sharp reality which had kept him awake so many hours. It was much more like a dream; it might or might not have happened. If it had happened, and they knew it had, why were Chips and Bingley washing and dressing without a word about it? Jan forgot about young Eaton, similarly employed in the fourth partition; but at the back of his muddled mind he knew well enough that it was no dream, even before his muddy boots afforded final proof. Yet he rushed downstairs as the last bell was ringing, flew along the street without a bite of dog-rock or a drop of milk, and hurled himself through the school-room door as the pr?postor of the week was about to shut it in his face. As though it still mattered whether he was late or not!
He thought of that while he recovered his breath during the psalms; throughout the prayers he could only think of the awful voice reading them, and whether it would pronounce his doom before the whole school at ten o’clock, and whether it would not be even more appalling in private. Jan watched the pale old face, forearmed with another day’s stock of stern care. And he wondered whether his beggarly case would add a flash to those austere eyes, or a passing furrow to that formidable brow.
Heriot’s place at prayers was such that Jan could not see his face, but his shoulders looked inexorable, and from the poise of his head it was certain that his beard was sticking out. There was no catching Heriot’s eye after prayers; and yet even Relton, at first school, looked as though nothing had happened overnight. He took his form in Greek history with that rather perfunctory air which marked all his work in school; but so far from ignoring Jan, or showing him any special consideration, Relton was down upon him twice for inattention, and on the second occasion ordered him to stay behind the rest. Jan did so in due course, and was not called up until the last of the others had left.
“I didn’t keep you back for inattention,” calmly explained young Relton. “I could hardly expect you to attend this morning. I kept you back to tell you of my conversation with Mr. Heriot last night.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“I began by sounding him on the punishment for getting out at night – even on the venial pretext of a lark – in which I was prepared to corroborate your statement as far as possible.”
Dudley Relton was already falling into the schoolmaster’s trick of literary language, and here was at least one word of which Jan did not know the meaning. But he expressed his gratitude again. And Relton gathered his books together with some care before proceeding.
“It’s perfectly plain from what he says that the one and only punishment is – the sack!”
Jan said nothing. But neither did he wince. He was prepared for the blow, and from Dudley Relton he could bear it like a man.
“That being so,” continued the other, stepping down from his desk, “I said nothing about last night, Rutter.”
“You said nothing about it?”
This was far harder to hear unmoved. Jan even forgot to say “sir.”
“Please don’t raise your voice, Rutter.”
“But —sir! Do you mean that you never told Mr. Heriot at all?”
“I do. I went in to tell him, but I soon saw it meant the end of you. So I said nothing about you after all. You’ll kindly return the compliment, Rutter, or it may mean the end of me.”
They faced each other in the empty class-room, the very young man and the well-grown boy. In actual age there were only some seven years between them, but at the moment there might have been much less. The spice of boyish mischief made the man look younger than his years, while a sudden sense of responsibility aged the boy.
It was Jan who first broke into a smothered jumble of thanks, expostulations, and solemn vows. There were only three fellows who knew he had got out at all; but even they did not know that he had actually encountered any master, and now they never should. His gratitude was less coherent, but his anxiety on Mr. Relton’s behalf such as that unconventional usher was compelled to laugh to scorn.
“We’re in each other’s hands,” said he, “and perhaps my motives were not so pure as you think. Remember at any rate, that you’re my dark horse, Rutter. Run like a good 'un, and you’ll soon be even with me. But never you run amuck again as you did last night!”
“I never will, sir, that I’ll swear.”
“I don’t only mean to that extent. I saw a pipe in your mouth before the row. You weren’t actually smoking, but I fancy you do.”
“I have done, sir,” said Jan, without entering into particulars about that pipe.
“Well, give it up. If you want to do something for me, don’t go smoking again while you’re here. It’s bad for your eye and worse for your hand, and a bowler has need of both. Run as straight as a die, Rutter, and let’s hope you’ll bowl as straight as you run!”
There was really only one bowler in that year’s Eleven, and Chips Carpenter was his prophet. There were others who took turns at the other end, who even captured a few wickets between them in the course of the season; but “the mainstay of our attack was Rutter,” as the Mag. found more than one occasion to remark. That organ betrayed a marked belief in the new bowler, from his very first appearance, with the black school cap of previous obscurity pulled down behind his prominent ears. Its rather too pointed praises were widely attributed to the new Editor, none other than Jan’s old Crabtree, now a pr?postor and captain of Heriot’s house. The fact was, however, that Crabtree employed Carpenter as cricket scribe and occasional poetaster, and had to edit him severely both in prose and verse, but especially in those very remarks which found disfavour in other houses.
Old Crabtree, who had suddenly grown into a young man, made by far the best captain the house ever had in Jan’s time. But he was a terrible martinet. You had to shut yourself up in your study to breathe the mildest expletive with any safety, and it cost you sixpence to cast the smallest stone in the quad. Crabtree was not precisely popular; but he was respected for his scornful courage and his caustic tongue. It was his distinction to rule by dint of personality unaided by athletic prowess, and during his four terms of authority there can have been few better houses than Heriot’s in any school. Shockley likened it to a nunnery without the nuns, and left in disgust for reasons best known to himself and Crabtree. Buggins and the portly Eyre grew into comparatively harmless and even useful members of the community. And the fluent and versatile Chips learnt a lesson or so for the term of his literary life.
“I wish you’d write of people by their names, instead of 'the latter’ and 'the former’!” said Crabtree, coming into Chips’s study with a proof. “And I say, look here! I’m blowed if I have 'The Promise of May’ dragged in because we happen to have lost a match in June! And we won’t butter Rutter more than twice in four lines, if you don’t mind, Chips.”
But Crabtree was not cricketer enough to perceive the quality of the butter apart from the quantity, and some sad samples escaped detection. They still disfigure certain back numbers to be found upon the shelves of the new school library. “Rutter took out his bat for a steadily-played five,” for instance; and “the third ball – a beauty – bowled Rutter for a well-earned eight.” They were certainly Jan’s two longest scores for the team, for he was no batsman, but even on firmer ground the partial historian went much too far. “Better bowling than Rutter’s in this match it would be impossible to imagine. His length was only surpassed by his break, and many of his deliveries were simply unplayable.” Jan really had taken six wickets on the occasion of this eulogy, but at no inconsiderable cost, and the writer was unable to maintain his own note in the concluding paragraph of the report: “At the end of the first day’s play I. T. Rutter received his first XI colours, which it is needless to say, were thoroughly well merited.”
Jan’s best performance, however, was in the match of the season, against the Old Boys on Founder’s Day. Repton and Haileybury it was good to meet, and better to defeat, especially on the home ground with a partisan crowd applauding every stroke. Yet for the maintenance of high excitement the whole of the rival school should have been there as well; on the other hand, it cannot be contended that even the Old Boys’ Match was necessarily exciting from a cricket point of view. It had other qualities less dependent on the glorious uncertainty of the game. It was the most popular feature of the prime festival in the school year. It afforded the rising generation an inspiring glimpse of famous forerunners, and it enabled those judges of the game to gauge the prowess of posterity. The Old Boys’ Match had proved itself the cradle of many a reputation, and the early grave of one or two.
This year the Old Boys came down in force. There was old Boots Ommaney, the apple of the late professional’s eye, who had played for England time and again at both ends of the earth. There was A. G. Swallow, for some seasons the best bowler, and still the finest all-round player, the school had ever turned out. There was the inevitable Swiller Wilman, a younger cricketer of less exalted class who nevertheless compiled an almost annual century in the match, and was the cheeriest creature in either team. In all there were six former captains of the Eleven, and four old University Blues. But Jan had seven of them in the first innings – five clean blowed – on a wicket just less than fast but as true as steel.
“Well bowled again!” said Dudley Relton in the pavilion. “Don’t be disappointed if you don’t do quite as well next innings, or even next year. But on that wicket you might run through the best side in England – for the first time of asking.”
“It’s the break that does it,” replied Jan, modestly; “and I don’t even know how I put it on.”
“It’s that break when they’re expecting the other. Most left-handers break away from you; it’s expected of them, and you do the unexpected, therefore you can bowl. Your break is the easier to play, once they’re ready for it. If you only had ’em both, with your length and pace of the pitch, there’d be no holding you in any state of life. You’re coming to the Conversazione, of course?”
“I don’t think so, sir,” answered Jan, blushing furiously.
“But you’ve got your colours, and all the team came last year. It’s the school songs from the choir, and ices and things for all hands, you know.”
“I know, sir.”
“Then why aren’t you coming?”
Jan looked right and left to see that no inquisitive ear was cocked above the collar of contiguous blazer. And then for a second he contemplated the characteristic person of Dudley Relton, as dapper and well-groomed and unlike a pedagogue as Jan knew him to be in grain.
“I haven’t got a dress-suit; that’s why, sir!” he whispered bitterly.
“What infernal luck!” Relton looked as indignant as Jan felt – and then lit up. “I say, though, we’re much the same build, aren’t we? I suppose you wouldn’t let me see if I can fix you up, Jan?”
Had it been possible to strengthen the peculiar bond already existing between man and boy, these words and their successful sequel would have achieved that result. But indeed the last and least of the words counted for more with Jan than anything that came of them. It was the first time that Dudley Relton had called him by his Christian name. True, it was a school tradition that the Eleven went by theirs among their peers. But as yet the Eleven had not treated Jan precisely as one of themselves. He was younger than any of them, and lower in the school than most. In moments of excitement, such as occur in every match, there was still an unfortunate breadth about his vowels; and when he pulled even his Eleven cap tight over his head, making his ears stick out more than ever, and parting his back hair horizontally to the skin, there was sometimes a wink or a grin behind his back, though the little trick was not seldom the prelude to a wicket. It was characteristic, at all events, and as quickly noted by the many on the rugs as by the rest of the side in the field.
“Don’t hustle,” you would hear some fellow say; “the Tiger’s got his cap pulled down, and I want to watch.”
The saying was to acquire almost proverbial value. It proclaimed an omen as sinister in its way as the cloth on Table Mountain, or the sticking out of Bob Heriot’s beard. But Crabtree censured an allusion to it in his cricket scribe’s account of the Old Boys’ Match.
That was a halcyon term for Jan, and to crown all he was still in Dudley Relton’s form, and treated with cynical indulgence by that uncompromising specialist. Relton was there to uphold a cricketing tradition, to bridge a gap that could not be filled, and he would not have upset his best bowler even if there had been no other tie between them. The other tie never passed the lips of either, but the memory of it sweetened the bowler’s triumph, and very likely that of the coach as well.