He turned away without a sign of annoyance or of further interest in the matter. But another mumble from the bed intercepted him at the door.
“Name of Devereux,” he made out.
“Do you know him, sir?”
“I should think I do!”
“He’ll not be in this house?”
Rutter was holding his breath.
“No, but he got my prize last term.”
“Do you know his other name?”
It was a tremulous mumble now.
“I’m afraid I don’t. Wait a bit! His initials are either E. P. or P. E. He only came last term.”
“He only would. But I thought he was going to Winchester!”
“That’s the fellow; he got a scholarship and came here instead, at the last moment.”
The new boy in the top dormitory made no remark when the matron put out the gas. He was lying on his back with his eyes wide open, and his lips compressed out of sight, just as Heriot had left him. It was almost a comfort to him to know the worst for certain; and now that he did know it, beyond all possibility of doubt, he was beginning to wonder whether it need necessarily be the worst after all. It might easily prove the best. He had always liked Master Evan; that was as much as this boy would admit even in his heart. The fact would have borne a warmer recognition. Best or worst, however, he knew it as well as though Evan Devereux had already come back with the rest of the school, and either cut him dead or grasped his hand. The one thing not to be suspected for an instant was that the lean oldish man, with the kind word and the abrupt manner, could possibly know the secret of a new boy’s heart, and have entered already into his hopes and fears.
It was very quiet in the top dormitory. Rutter wondered what it would be like when all the boys came back. Carpenter’s dormitory was downstairs, but they were all within earshot of each other. He wondered what it would have been like if Master Evan had been in that house, in that little dormitory, in the partition next his own. Master Evan! Yet he had never thought of him as anything else, much less addressed him by any other name. What if it slipped out at school! It easily might; indeed, far more easily and naturally than “Devereux.” That would sound very like profanity, in his ears, and on his lips.
The new boy grinned involuntarily in the dark. It was all too absurd. He had enjoyed ample opportunity of picking up the phraseology of the class to which he had been lately elevated: “too absurd” would certainly have been their expression for the situation in which he found himself. He tried to see it from that point of view. He was not without a wry humour of his own. He must take care not to magnify a matter which nobody else might think twice about. A public school was a little world, in which two boys in different houses, even two of an age, might seldom or never meet; days might elapse before Evan as much as recognised him in the throng. But then he might refuse to have anything to do with him. But then – but then – he might tell the whole school why!
“He was our coachman’s son at home!”
The coachman’s son heard the incredible statement as though it had been shouted in his ear. He felt a thousand eyes on his devoted face. He knew that he lay blushing in the dark. It took all his will to calm him by degrees.
“If he does,” he decided, “I’m off. That’s all.”
But why should he? Why should a young gentleman betray a poor boy’s secret? Rutter was the stable-boy again in spirit; he might have been back in his trucklebed in the coachman’s cottage at Mr. Devereux’s. The transition of standpoint at any rate was complete. He had always liked Master Evan; they had been very good friends all their lives. Incidents of the friendship came back in shoals. Evan had been the youngest of a large family, and that after a gap; in one sense he had been literally the only child. Often he had needed a boy to play with him, and not seldom Jan Rutter had been scrubbed and brushed and oiled to the scalp in order to fill the proud position of that boy. He must have known how to behave himself as a little kid, though he remembered as he grew older that the admonition with which he was always dispatched from the stables used to make it more difficult; there were so many things to “think on” not to do, and somehow it was harder not to do them when you had always to keep “thinking on.” Still, he distinctly remembered hearing complimentary remarks passed upon him by the ladies and gentlemen, together with whispered explanations of his manners. It was as easy to supply as to understand those explanations now; but it was sad to feel that the manners had long ago been lost.
And, boy as he was, and dimly as may be, he did feel this: that in the beginning there had been very little to choose between Evan and himself, but that afterwards the gulf had been at one time very wide. He could recall with shame a phase in which Master Evan had been forbidden, and not without reason, to have anything to do with Jan Rutter. There was even a cruel thrashing which he had received for language learnt from the executioner’s own lips; and it was characteristic of Jan that he had never quite forgiven his father for that, though he was dead, and had been a kind father on the whole. Later, the boy about the stables had acquired more sense; the eccentric vicar had taken him in hand, and spoken up for him; and nothing was said if he bowled to Master Evan after his tea, or played a makeshift kind of racquets with him in the stable-yard, so long as he kept his tongue and his harness clean. So the gulf had narrowed again of late years; but it had never again been shallow.
It was spanned, however, by quite a network of mutual offices. In the beginning Evan used to take all his broken toys to Jan, who was a fine hand at rigging ships and soldering headless horsemen. Jan’s reward was the reversion of anything broken beyond repair, or otherwise without further value to its original owner. Jan was also an adept at roasting chestnuts and potatoes on the potting-shed fire, a daring manipulator of molten lead, a comic artist with a piece of putty, and the pioneer of smoking in the loft. Those were the days when Evan was suddenly forbidden the back premises, and Jan set definitely to work in the stables when he was not at the village school. Years elapsed before the cricket stage that drew the children together again as biggish boys; in the interim Jan had imbibed wisdom of more kinds than one. On discovering himself to be a rude natural left-hand bowler, who could spoil the afternoon at any moment by the premature dismissal of his opponent, he was sagacious enough to lose the art at times in the most sudden and mysterious manner, and only to recover it by fits and starts when Evan had made all the runs he wanted. And as Jan had but little idea of batting, there was seldom any bad blood over the game. But in all their relations Jan took care of that, for he had developed a real devotion to Evan, who could be perfectly delightful to one companion at a time, when everything was going well.
And then things had happened so thick and fast that it was difficult to recall them in their chronological order; but the salient points were that Rutter the elder, that fine figure on a box, with his bushy whiskers and his bold black eyes, had suddenly succumbed to pneumonia after a bout of night-work in the month of February, and that the son of an ironmaster’s coachman by a northern town awoke to find himself the grandson of an East Anglian clergyman whose ancient name he had never heard before, but who sent for the lad in hot haste, to make a gentleman of him if it was not too late.
The change from the raw red outworks of an excessively modern and utilitarian town, to the most venerable of English rectories, in a countryside which has scarcely altered since the Conquest, was not appreciated as it might have been by Jan Rutter. He had nothing against the fussy architecture and the highly artificial garden of his late environment; on the contrary, he heartily preferred those familiar immaturities to the general air of complacent antiquity which pervaded his new home. That was the novelty to Jan, and there was a prejudice against it in his veins. It was the very atmosphere which had driven his mother before him to desperation. Her blood in him rebelled again; nor did he feel the effect the less because he was too young to trace the cause. He only knew that he had been happier in a saddle-room that still smelt of varnish than he was ever likely to be under mellow tiles and medi?val trees. The tutor and the strenuous training for a public school came to some extent as a relief; but the queer lad took quite a pride in showing no pride at all in his altered conditions and prospects. The new school and the new home were all one to him. He had not been consulted about either. He recognised an authority which he was powerless to resist, but there the recognition ended. There could be no question of gratitude for offices performed out of a cold sense of duty, by beings of his own blood who never so much as mentioned his father’s death, or even breathed his mother’s name. There was a tincture of their own pride even in him.
He had heard of public schools from Evan, and even envied that gilded child his coming time at one; but, when his own time came so unexpectedly, Jan had hardened his heart, and faced the inevitable as callously as any criminal. And then at its hardest his heart had melted within him: an arbitrary and unkind fate held out the hope of amends by restoring to his ken the one creature he really wished to see again. It was true that Jan had heard nothing of Evan since the end of the Christmas holidays; but then the boys had never exchanged a written word in their lives. And the more he thought of it, the less Jan feared the worst that might accrue from their meeting on the morrow or the day after. Not that he counted on the best: not that his young blood had warmed incontinently to the prospect which had chilled it hitherto. Master Evan as an equal was still an inconceivable figure; and the whole prospect remained grey and grim; but at least there was a glint of excitement in it now, a vision of depths and heights.
So the night passed, his first at a public school. The only sounds were those that marked its passage: the muffled ticking of his one treasure, the little watch under his pillow, and the harsh chimes of an outside clock which happened to have struck ten as he opened the Midsummer List. It had since struck eleven; he even heard it strike twelve. But life was more exciting, when he fell asleep soon after midnight, than Jan Rutter had dreamt of finding it when he went to bed.
It was all but a summer morning when Jan got back into the trousers without pockets and the black jacket and tie ordained by the school authorities. Peculiarly oppressive to Jan was the rule about trouser pockets; those in his jacket were so full in consequence that there was barely room for his incriminating belt, which he rolled up as small as it would go, and made into a parcel to be hidden away in his study when he had one. This was his last act before leaving the dormitory and marching downstairs at an hour when most of the household were presumably still in bed and asleep; but Jan was naturally an early riser, and he had none of the scruples of conventionality on the score of an essentially harmless act. He was curious to see something of his new surroundings, and there was nothing like seeing for oneself.
At the foot of the lead-lined stairs, worn bright as silver at the edges, there was a short tiled passage with a green baize door at one end and what was evidently the boys’ hall at the other. The baize door communicated with the master’s side of the house, for the new boys had come through it on their way up to dormitory. The hall was a good size, with one very long table under the windows and two shorter ones on either side of the fireplace. On the walls hung portraits of the great composers, which Jan afterwards found to be house prizes in part-singing competitions discontinued before his time; at the moment, however, he took no kind of interest in them, and but very little in the two challenge cups under the clock. What did attract him was the line of open windows, looking like solid blocks of sunlight and fresh air. On the sill of one a figure in print was busy with her wash-leather, and she accosted Jan cheerily.
“You are down early, sir!”
“I always am,” remarked Jan, looking for a door into the open air.
“You’re not like most of the gentlemen, then,” the maid returned, in her cheerful Cockney voice. “They leaves it to the last moment, and then they 'as to fly. You should 'ear ’em come down them stairs!”
“Is there no way out?” inquired Jan.
“You mean into the quad?”
“That’s the quad, is it? Then I do.”
“Well, there’s the door, just outside this door; but Morgan, 'e keeps the key o’ that, and I don’t think 'e’s come yet.”
“Then I’m going through that window,” announced the new boy, calmly; and carried out his intention without a moment’s hesitation.
Had his object been to run away on his very first morning, before his house-master was astir, as the maid seemed to fear by the way she leant out of her window to watch him, the next step would have taxed all Jan’s resources.
Heriot’s quad was a gravel plot very distinctively enclosed, on the left by the walls of buildings otherwise unconnected with the house, on the right by the boys’ studies. At the further extremity were twin gables over gothic arches which left the two interiors underneath open at one end to all the elements; never in his life had Jan beheld such structures; but he had picked up enough from his tutor to guess that they were fives-courts, and he went up to have a look into them. To the right of the fives-courts was an alley ending at a formidable spiked gate which was yet the only obvious way of escape, had Jan been minded to make his. But nothing was further from his thoughts; indeed, there was a certain dull gleam in his eyes, and a sallow flush upon his face, which had not been there the previous evening. At all events he looked wider awake.
The studies interested him most. There was a double row of little lattice windows, piercing a very wall of ivy, like port-holes in a vessel’s side. Not only were the little windows deep-set in ivy, but each had its little window-box, and in some of these still drooped the withered remnant of a brave display. Jan was not interested in flowers, or for that matter in anything that made for the mere beauty of life; but he peered with interest into one or two of the ground-floor studies. There was little to be seen beyond his own reflection broken to bits in the diamond panes. Between him and the windows was a border of shrubs, behind iron palings bent by the bodies and feet of generations, and painted green like the garden seats under the alien walls opposite. On the whole, and in the misty sunlight of the fine September morning, Jan liked Heriot’s quad.
“You’re up early, sir!”
It was not the maid this time, but a bearded man-servant whom the boy had seen the previous night. Jan made the same reply as before, and no sort of secret of the way in which he had got out into the quad. He added that he should like to have a look at the studies; and Morgan, with a stare and a smile quite lost on Jan, showed him round.
They were absurdly, deliciously, inconceivably tiny, the studies at Heriot’s; each was considerably smaller than a dormitory “tish,” and the saddle-room of Jan’s old days would have made three or four of them. But they were undeniably cosy and attractive, as compact as a captain’s cabin, as private as friar’s cell, and far more comfortable than either. Or so they might well have seemed to the normal boy about to possess a study of his own, with a table and two chairs, a square of carpet as big as a bath-sheet, a book-shelf and pictures, and photographs and ornaments to taste, fretwork and plush to heart’s content, a flower-box for the summer term, hot-water pipes for the other two, and above all a door of his own to shut at will against the world! But Jan Rutter had not the instincts of a normal schoolboy, nor the temperament favourable to their rapid growth. He had been brought up too uncomfortably to know the value of comfort, and too much in the open air to appreciate the merits of indoor sanctuary. Artistic impulse he had none; and the rudimentary signs of that form of grace, to be seen in nearly all the studies he was shown, left him thoroughly unimpressed.
“Is it true,” he asked, “that every boy in the school has one of these holes?”
“Quite true,” replied Morgan, staring. “You didn’t say 'holes,’ sir?”
“I did,” declared Jan, enjoying his accidental hit.
“You’d better not let Mr. Heriot hear you, sir, or any of the gentlemen either!”
“I don’t care who hears me,” retorted Jan, boastfully; but it must not be forgotten that he had come to school against his will, and that this was his first opportunity of airing a not unnatural antagonism.
“You wait till you’ve got one of your own,” said the well-meaning man, “with a nice new carpet and table-cloth, and your own family portraits and sportin’ picters!”
“At any rate I should know a horse from a cow,” returned Jan, examining something in the nature of a sporting print, “and not hang up rot like that!”
“You let Mr. Shockley hear you!” cried Morgan, with a laugh. “You’ll catch it!”
“I’ve no doubt I shall do that,” said Jan, grimly. He followed Morgan into an empty study, and asked if it was likely to be his.
“Not unless you take a pretty high place in the school. It’s only the top dozen in the house that get these front studies upstairs. You can make up your mind to one at the back, and be glad if it’s not downstairs, where everybody can see in and throw in stones.”
Jan felt he had not made a friend of Morgan; and yet in his heart he was more favourably impressed with what he had seen than his peculiar temperament permitted him to show. Little as their adventitious attractions might appeal to him, there was something attractive to Jan about this system of separate studies. It appealed, and not without design, to that spirit of independence which happened to be one of his stronger points. Moreover he could conceive a very happy intimacy between two real friends in one of these little dens; and altogether he brought a brighter face to the breakfast-table than he had shown for an instant overnight. Heriot glanced at it with an interested twinkle, as though he had been at the explorer’s elbow all the morning; but whatever he might have known, he betrayed his knowledge neither by word nor sign.
After breakfast the two boys sallied forth with orders signed by Heriot for a school cap apiece; and saw the long old-fashioned country street for the first time in broad daylight. It gave the impression of a street with nothing behind it on either side, the chance remnant of a vanished town. Nothing could have been more solid than the fronts of the drab stone houses, and nothing more startling than the glimpses of vivid meadowland like a black-cloth close behind. The caps were procured from the cricket professional, a maker of history whose fame provided Carpenter with a congenial topic on the way, but sat sadly on the failing giant who was there to serve them in the little shop. The caps were black but not comely, as Carpenter more than once remarked; they were a cross between a cricket-cap and that of a naval officer, with the school badge in red above the peak. Jan chose the biggest he could find, and crammed it over his skull as though he was going out to exercise a horse.
The day was fully occupied with the rather exhaustive examination designed to put the right boy in the right form. There were no fewer than three papers in the morning alone. There was, however, a short break between each, which Carpenter was inclined to spend in boring Rutter with appreciative comments upon the striking mural decorations of the great schoolroom in which the examination was held. There were forty-two new boys, some of them hulking fellows of fifteen or more, some quite small boys in Eton jackets; and the chances are that none among them was more impressed than Carpenter by the reproductions of classical statuary hung upon the walls of Pompeian red, or by the frieze of ancient and modern authors which a great mind had planned and a cunning hand had made; but it is certain that none thought less of them than Jan Rutter. To pacify his companion he did have a look at the frieze, but it was exactly the same look as he had cast into the studies before breakfast. The two had more in common when they compared notes on the various papers.
“I didn’t mind the Latin grammar and history,” said Jan. “I’ve had my nose in my grammar for the last six months, and you only had to answer half the history questions.”
Jan’s spirits seemed quite high.
“But what about the unseen?” asked Carpenter.