“After all, why should you?” asked Jan, with a strange chuckle. “But I shall have to raise it somewhere, and I daresay you won’t tell anybody that I tried you first.”
And before there could be any answer to that, Jan had turned without ceremony into Heath’s, the saddler’s shop, where the boys bespoke flies to take them to their trains at the end of the term. As a rule these orders were booked weeks beforehand, but the fly that Jan now ordered was to be outside Mr. Heriot’s quad at 2.45 that afternoon.
“Is it to go to Molton, sir?”
“But there’s no train before the 4.10, Mr. Rutter.”
“I can’t help that. I was asked to order it for some people who’re down for the match. They may be going to see some of the sights of the country first.”
Outside the shop, he found Evan waiting for him.
“I say, Jan, what’s all this about your being seedy?”
“That’s my business. Do you think I’m shamming?”
Evan missed the twinkle again. There was some excuse for him. It was unintentional now.
“I don’t know, but if I thought you were going yourself – ”
“Shut up, Evan! That’s all settled. You go in fourth wicket down again, and mind you make some.”
“But if you’re seen – ”
“What on earth makes you think I’m going? I’ve fixed up the whole thing. That should be good enough. I thought you left it to me?”
At Heriot’s corner, old Bob himself was standing in conversation with Mr. Haigh, the two of them mechanically returning the no less perfunctory salutes of the passing stream. Charles Cave had paused a moment before going on into the house.
“I’m afraid the hero of the morning’s a bit off-colour, Mr. Heriot.”
“He says his head’s bad. I think it must be. It looks to me like a touch of the sun.”
“I hope not,” said Heriot, as Cave passed on. “He really is a fine fellow, Haigh, as well as the fine bowler you’ve just seen once more. I sometimes think you might forget what he was, after all these years.”
“Oh, I’ve nothing against the fellow,” said Haigh, rather grandly. “But I take a boy as I find him, and I found Rutter the most infernal nuisance I ever had in my form.”
“Well, at all events, there’s no question of a grudge on my side. I wouldn’t condescend to bear a grudge against a boy.”
Haigh spoke as though he really wished to mean what he said. His general principles were as sound as his heart could be kind, but both were influenced by a temper never meant for schoolmastering. At this moment Jan and Evan hove into sight, and Heriot detained the cricketer of his house, questioned him about his head, reassured himself as to a former authentic attack of measles, and finally agreed with Jan’s suggestion that he should stay quietly in his study until he felt fit to go back to the ground. He did not want any lunch.
Meanwhile, Haigh had not gone off up the hill, but had stayed to put in a difficult word or two of his own, as though to prove the truth of his assertion to Heriot. He went further as Jan was about to turn down to the quad.
“By the way, Rutter, I’ve a very good prescription for that kind of thing, now I think of it. I’ll send it up to you if you like.”
“Oh, thank you, sir,” said Jan politely.
“You shall have it as soon as they can make it up. They’ve probably kept a copy at the chemist’s. I’ll go in and see.”
Jan could only thank his old enemy again, and so retreat from the embarrassment of further tributes to his successful malingering. It was a loathsome part to play, especially for a blunt creature who had very seldom played a part in his life. But there were worse things in front of him, if he was to carry out his resolve, and do the deed which he never seriously dreamt of deputing to another. It was more than risky. But it could be done; nor was the risk the greatest obstacle. Money was at once the crux and the touchstone of the situation. No use tackling Cerberus without a decent sop up one’s sleeve! And Jan had only just eight shillings left.
He sat in his bleak, untidy study, listening to the sound of knives and forks and voices in the hall, and eyeing those few possessions of his which conceivably might be turned into substantial coin of the realm. There were the four or five second and third prizes that he had won in the sports, and there was his mother’s gold watch. It he had worn throughout his schooldays; and it had struck him very much in the beginning that nobody had ever asked him why he wore a lady’s watch; but there were some things about which even a new boy’s feelings were respected, now he came to think of it… He came to think of too many things that had nothing to do with the pressing question; of the other watch that he had won at the fair, and sold at the time for the very few shillings it would bring; of the mad way in which he had thrown himself into that adventure, just as he was throwing himself into this one now. But it was no good raking up the past and comparing it with the present. Besides, there had been no sense in the risk he ran then; and now there was not only sense but necessity.
So absolute was the necessity in Jan’s view that he would not have hesitated to part with his precious watch for the time being, if only there had been a pawnbroker’s shop within reach; but, perhaps by arrangement with the school authorities, there was no such establishment in the little town; and there was no time to try the ordinary tradesmen, even if there was one of them likely to comply and to hold his tongue. Jan thought of Lloyd, the authorised jeweller, thought of George Grimwood and old Maltby, and was still only thinking when the quad filled under his window, the study passage creaked and clattered with boots, and Chips Carpenter was heard demanding less noise in a far more authoritative voice than usual.
It was almost too much to hear poor old Chips steal into his own study next door like any mouse to hear what he was about, and how quietly, and then to see the solicitous face he poked into Jan’s study before going back to the Upper. Chips left him his Saturday allowance of a shilling – that made nine – but it was no good consulting or trying to borrow from a chap who hated Evan. Jan got rid of him with a twitch of preposterous excruciation, and in a very few minutes had the studies to himself.
Morgan, the man-servant, and his myrmidon of the boots and knives, were busy and out of sight in the pantry near the hall, as Jan knew they would be by this time. Yet he was flushed and flurried as he ran down into the empty quad, and dived into the closed fly which had just pulled up outside. He leant as far back as possible. The road broadened, the town came to an end. The driver drove on phlegmatically, without troubling his head as to why one of the cricketing young gentlemen should be faring forth alone, in his flannels, too, and without any luggage either. He would be going to meet his friends at Molton, likely, and bring them back to see the cricket. So thought the seedy handler of shabby ribbons, so far as he may be said to have thought at all, until a bare head stuck out behind him at Burston Corner, and he was told to pull up.
“Jump down a minute, will you? I want to speak to you.”
The fly stopped in one of the great dappled shadows that trembled across the wooded road. A bucolic countenance peered over a huge horse-shoe pin into the recesses of the vehicle.
“See here, my man; here’s nine bob for you. I’m sorry it isn’t ten, but I’ll make it up to a pound at the end of the term.”
“I’m very much obliged to you, sir, I’m sure!”
“Wait a bit. That’s only on condition you keep your mouth shut; there may be a bit more in it when you’ve kept it jolly well shut till then.”
“You’re not going to get me into any trouble, sir?”
“Not if I can help it and you hold your tongue. We’re only going round by Yardley Wood instead of to Molton, and I shan’t keep you waiting there above half an hour. It’s – it’s only a bit of a lark!”
A sinful smile grew into the crab-apple face at the fly-window.
“I been a-watching you over them palings at bottom end o’ ground all the morning, Mr. Rutter, but I didn’t see it was you just now, not at first. Lord, how you did bool ’em down! I’ll take an’ chance it for you, sir, jiggered if I don’t!”
The fly rolled to the left of Burston church, now buried belfry-deep in the fretful foliage of its noble avenue. It threaded the road in which Chips had encountered Evan on their first Sunday walk; there was the stile where Jan had waited in the background, against the hedge. Strange to think of Evan’s attitude then and long afterwards, and of Jan’s errand now; but lots of things were strange if you were fool enough to stop to think about them. That was not Jan’s form of folly when once committed to a definite course of action; and any such tendency was extremely quickly quelled on this occasion. He had more than enough to think about in the interview now before him. It was almost his first opportunity of considering seriously what he was to say, how he had better begin, what line exactly it would be wisest to take, and what tone at the start. It was annoying not to be able to decide absolutely beforehand; it was disconcerting, too, because in his first glow the very words had come to him together with his plan. He had made short work of the noxious Mulberry almost as soon as the creature had taken shape in his mind. But on second thoughts it appeared possible to make too short work of a scoundrel with tales to tell, money or no money. And by the time the horse was walking up the last hill, with the green lane on top, Jan had thought of the monstrous Cacus in the Aventine woods, without feeling in the least like the superhuman hero of the legend.
There lay the celebrated covert, in its hollow in the great grass country. In the heavy sunlight of a rainy summer, the smear of woodland, dense and compressed, was like a forest herded in a lane. So smoky was the tint of it, from the green heights above, that one would have said any moment it might burst into flames, like a damp bonfire. But Jan only thought of the monster in its depths, as he marched down through the lush meadows, with something jingling on him at every other stride.
Yardley Wood was bounded by a dyke and a fence, and presented such a formidable tangle of trees and undergrowth within, that Jan, though anxious for immediate cover, steered a bold course for the made opening. The white wicket looked positively painted on the dark edge of the wood. It led into a broad green ride, spattered with buttercups as thick as freckles on a country face.
Jan entered the ride, and peered into the tangled thicket on either hand. Its sombre depths, unplumbed by a ray of sun, reminded him of a striking description in one of the many novels that Chips had made him read: it was twilight there already, it must be “dark as midnight at dusk, and black as the ninth plague of Egypt at midnight.” And there was another plague of Egypt that Jan recalled before he had penetrated a yard into the fringe of tangle-wood. He became at once the sport and target of a myriad flies. The creatures buzzed aggressively in the sudden stillness of the natural catacomb; and yet above their hum the tree-tops made ?olian music from the first moment that he stood beneath them, while last year’s leaves, dry enough there even in that wet summer, rustled at every jingling step he took.
And now his steps followed the wavering line of least resistance, and so turned and twisted continually; but he would not have taken very many in this haphazard, tentative fashion, and was beginning in fact to bend them back towards the ride, when the bulbous nose of Mulberry appeared under his very own.
It was making music worthy of its painful size, as he lay like a log on the broad of his back, in a small open space. His battered hat lay beside him, along with a stout green cudgel newly cut, Jan had half a mind to remove this ugly weapon as a first preliminary; but it was not the half which had learnt to give points rather than receive them, and the impulse was no sooner felt than it was scorned. Yet the drunkard was a man of no light build. Neither did he lie like one just then particularly drunk, or even very sound asleep. The flies were not allowed to batten on his bloated visage; every now and then the snoring stopped as he shook them off; and presently a pair of bloodshot eyes rested on Jan’s person.
“So you’ve come, have you?” grunted Mulberry; and the red eyes shut again ostentatiously, without troubling to climb to Jan’s face.
“I have,” said he, with dry emphasis. It was either too dry or else not emphatic enough for Mulberry.
“You’re late, then, hear that? Like your cheek to be late. Now you can wait for me.”
“Not another second!” cried Jan, all his premeditated niceties forgotten in that molecule of time. Mulberry sat up, blinking.
“I thought it was Mr. Devereux!”
“I know you did.”
“Have you come instead of him?”
“Looks like it, doesn’t it?”
“I don’t know you! I won’t have anything to do with you,” exclaimed Mulberry, with a drunken dignity rendered the more grotesque by his difficulty in getting to his feet.
“Well, you certainly won’t have anything more to do with Mr. Devereux,” retorted Jan, only to add: “So I’m afraid you’ll have to put up with me,” in a much more conciliatory voice. He had just remembered his second thoughts on the way.
“Why? What’s happened him?” asked Mulberry, suspiciously.
“Never you mind. He can’t come; that’s good enough. But I’ve come instead – to settle up with you.”
“You have, have you?”
“On the spot. Once for all.”
Jan slapped one of the pockets that could not be abolished in cricket trousers. It rang like a money-bag flung upon a counter. The reprobate looked impressed, but still suspicious about Evan.
“He was to come here yesterday, and he never did.”
“It wasn’t his fault; that’s why I’ve come to-day.”
“I said I’d go in and report him to Mr. Thrale, if he slipped me up twice.”
“'Blab’ was your word, Mulberry!”
“Have you seen what I wrote?”
“I happen to have got it in my pocket.”
Mulberry lurched a little nearer. Jan shook his head with a grin.
“It may come in useful, Mulberry, if you ever get drunk enough to do as you threaten.”
“Useful, may it?”
If the red eyes fixed on Jan had been capable of flashing, they would have done so now. They merely watered as though with blood. Till this moment man and boy had been only less preoccupied with the flies than with each other. Mulberry with the battered hat had vied with Jan and his handkerchief in keeping the little brutes at bay. But at this point the swollen sot allowed the flies to cover his hideousness like a spotted veil. It was only for seconds, yet to Jan it was almost proof that the scamp had something to fear, that his pressure on Evan was rather more than extortionate. His expressionless stare had turned suddenly expressive. That could not be the flies. Nor was it only what Jan thought it was.
“I’ve seen you before, young feller!” exclaimed Mulberry.
“You’ve had chances enough of seeing me these four years.”
“I don’t mean at school. I don’t mean at school,” repeated Mulberry, racking his muddled wits for whatever it might be that he did mean. Jan was under no such necessity; already he was back at the fair, that wet and fateful night in March – but he did not intend Mulberry to join him there again.
“It’s no good you trying to change the subject, Mulberry! I’ve got your letter to Mr. Devereux, and you’ll hear more about it if you go making trouble at the school. If you want trouble, Mulberry, you shall have all the trouble you want, and p’r’aps we’ll give the police a bit more to make ’em happy. See? But I came to square up with you, and the sooner we get it done the better for all the lot of us.”
Jan was at home. Something contracted ages ago, nay, something that he had brought with him into the world, something of his father, was breaking through the layer of the last five years. It had broken through before. It had helped him to fight his earliest battles. But it had never had free play in all these terms, or in the holidays between terms. This was neither home nor school; this was a bite of life as Jan would have had to swallow it if his old life had never altered. And all at once it was a strapping lad from the stables, an Alcides of his own kidney and no young gentleman, with whom the local Cacus had to reckon.
“Come on!” said he sullenly. “Let’s see the colour o’ yer coin, an’ done with it.”
Jan gave a conquerer’s grin; yet knew in his heart that the tussle was still to come; and if he had brought a cap with him, instead of driving out bare-headed this was the moment at which he would have given the peak a tug. He plunged his hand into the jingling pocket. He brought out a fistful of silver of all sizes, and one or two half-sovereigns. In the act he shifted his position, and happened to tread – but left his foot firmly planted – upon that ugly cudgel just as its owner stooped to pick it up and almost overbalanced in the attempt.
“Look out, mister! That’s my little stick. I’d forgotten it was there.”
“Had you? I hadn’t,” said Jan, one eye on his money and the other on his man. “You don’t want it now, do you, Mulberry?”
“Then attend to me. There’s your money. Not so fast!”
His fist closed. Mulberry withdrew a horrid paw.
“I thought you said it was mine, mister?”
“It will be, in good time. Have a look at it first.”
“Lot o’ little silver, ain’t it?”
“One or two bits of gold as well.”
“It may be more than it looks; better let me count it, mister.”
“It’s been counted. That’s the amount; you sign that, and it’s yours.”
With his other hand Jan had taken from another pocket an envelope, stamped and inscribed, but not as for the post, and a stylographic pen. The stamp was just under the middle of the envelope; above was written, in Jan’s hand and in ink:
“Sign across the stamp.” said Jan briskly. Underneath was the date.
The envelope fluttered in the drunkard’s fingers.
“Two p’un’ eighteen – look here – this won’t do!” he cried less thickly than he had spoken yet. “What the devil d’you take me for? It’s close on five golden sovereigns that I’m owed. This is under three.”
“It’s all you’ll get, Mulberry, and it’s a darned sight more than you deserve for swindling and blackmailing. If you don’t take this you won’t get anything, except what you don’t reckon on!”
The man understood; but he was almost foaming at the mouth.
“I tell you it’s a dozen and a half this summer! Half a dozen bottles and a dozen – ”
“I don’t care what it is. I know what there’s been, what you’ve charged for it, and what you’ve been paid already.” Jan thought it time for a bit of bluff. “This is all you’ll get; but you don’t touch a penny of it till you’ve signed the receipt.”
“Don’t I!” snarled Mulberry. Without lowering his flaming eyes, or giving Jan time to lower his, he slapped the back of the upturned hand and sent the money flying in all directions. Neither looked where it fell. Mulberry was ready for a blow. Jan never moved an eye, scarcely a muscle. And over them rose and fell such sylvan music as had been rising and falling all the time; only now their silence brought it home.
“You’ll simply have to pick it all up again,” said Jan quietly. “But if you don’t sign this, Mulberry, I’m going to break every bone in your beastly body with your own infernal stick.”
He finished as quietly as he had begun; it must have been his face that said still more, or his long and lissom body, or his cricketer’s wrists. Whatever the medium, the message was understood, and twitching hands held out in token of submission. Jan put the pen in one, the prepared receipt in the other, and Mulberry turned a back bowed with defeat. Close behind him grew a stunted old oak, forked like a catapult, with ivy winding up the twin stems. Down sat Mulberry in the fork, and with such careless precision that Jan might have seen it was a favourite seat, and the whole little open space, with its rustling carpet and its whispering roof, its acorns and its cigar ends, a tried old haunt of others besides Mulberry. But Jan kept so close an eye on his man that the receipt was being signed, on one corduroy knee, before he looked up to see the broad bust of a third party enclosed in the same oak frame.
It was Mr. Haigh, and in an instant Jan saw him redder than Mulberry himself. It was Haigh with a limp collar and a streaming face. So he had smelt a rat, set a watch, and followed the fly on foot like the old athlete that he was! But how much more like him all the rest. Jan not only came tumbling back into school life, as from that other which was to have been his, but back with a thud into the Middle Remove and all its old miseries and animosities.
“I might have known what to expect!” he cried with futile passion. “It’s about your form, doing the spy!”
Haigh took less notice of this insult than Jan had known him to take of a false quantity in school. His only comment was to transfer his attention to Mulberry, who by now had scrambled to his legs. Leaning through the forked tree, the master held out his hand for the stamped envelope, obtained possession of it without a word, and read it as he came round into the open.