“This looks like your writing, Rutter?”
“It is mine.”
Jan was still more indignant than abashed.
“May I ask what it refers to?”
“You may ask what you please, Mr. Haigh.”
“Come, Rutter! I might have put worse posers, I should have thought. Still, as it won’t be for me to deal with you for being here, instead of wherever you’re supposed to be, I won’t press inquiries into the nature of your dealings with this man.”
It was Mulberry’s turn to burst into the breach; he did so as though it were the ring, dashing his battered hat to the ground with ominous exultation.
“Do you want to know what he’s had off me?” he demanded of Haigh. “If he won’t tell you, I will!”
Jan’s heart sank as he met a leer of vindictive triumph. “Who’s going to believe your lies?” he was rash enough to cry out, in a horror that increased with every moment he had for thought.
“I’m not going to listen to him,” remarked Haigh, unexpectedly. “Or to you either!” he snapped at Jan.
“Oh, ain’t you?” crowed Mulberry. “Well, you can shut your ears, and you needn’t believe anything but your own eyes. I’ll show you! I’ll show you!”
He dived into a bramble bush alongside the old forked tree. It was a literal dive. His head disappeared in the dense green tangle. He almost lost his legs. Then a hand came out behind him, and flung something at their feet. It was an empty champagne bottle. Another followed, then another and another till the open space was strewn with them. Neither Haigh nor Jan said a word; but from the bush there came a gust of ribaldry or rancour with every bottle, and last of all the man himself, waving one about him like an Indian club.
“A live 'un among the deaders!” he roared deliriously. “Now I can drink your blessed healths before I go!”
Master and boy looked on like waxworks, without raising a hand to stop him, or a finger between them to brush away a fly. Jan for his part neither realised nor cared what was happening; it was the end of all things, for him or Evan, if not for them both. Evan would hear of it – and then – and then! But would he hear? Would he, necessarily? Jan glanced at Haigh, and saw something that he almost liked in him at last; something human, after all these years; but only until Haigh saw him, and promptly fell upon the flies.
Mulberry meanwhile had knocked the neck off the unopened bottle with a dexterous blow from one of the empties. A fountain of foam leapt up like a plume of smoke; the pothouse expert blew it to the winds, and drank till the jagged bottle stood on end upon his upturned visage. His blood ran with the overflowing wine – scarlet on purple – and for a space the draught had the curiously clarifying effect of liquor on the chronic inebriate. It made him sublimely sober for about a minute. The sparkle passed from the wine into those dim red eyes. They fixed themselves on Jan’s set face. They burst into a flame of sudden recognition.
“Now I remember! Now I remember! I told him I’d seen him – ”
He stopped himself with a gleam of inspired cunning. He had nearly defeated his immediate ends. He looked Jan deliberately up and down, did the same by Haigh, and only then snatched up his ugly bludgeon.
“You’d better be careful with that,” snapped Haigh, with the face which had terrorised generations of young boys. “And the sooner you clear out altogether, let me tell you, the safer it’ll be for you!”
“No indecent haste,” replied Mulberry, leaning at ease upon his weapon. The sparkle of the wine even reached that treacherous tongue of his, reviving its humour and the smatterings of other days. “Festina Whats-'er-name – meaning don’t you be in such a blooming hurry! That nice young man o’ yours and me, we’re old partic’lars, though you mightn’t think it; don’t you run away with the idea that he’s emptied all them bottles by his little self! It wouldn’t be just. I’ve had my share; but he don’t like paying his, and that’s where there’s trouble. Now we don’t keep company no more, and I’m going to tell you where that nice young man an’ me first took up with each other. Strictly 'tween ourselves.”
“I’ve no wish to hear,” cried Haigh. He looked as Jan had seen him look before running some fellow out of his hall. “Are you going of your own accord – ”
“Let him finish,” said Jan, with a grim impersonal interest in the point. In any case it was all over with him now.
“Very kind o’ nice young man – always was nice young man!” said Mulberry. “Stric’ly 'tween shelves it was in your market-place, one blooming fair, when all good boys should ha’ been tucked up in bed an’ 'sleep. Nasty night, too! But that’s where I see 'im, havin’ barney about watch, I recollec’. That’s where we first got old partic’lars. Arcade Sambo – birds of eather – as we used say when I was at school. I seen better days, remember, an’ that nice young man’ll see worse, an’ serve him right for the way he’s tret his ol’ p’rtic’lar, that took such care of him at the fair! Put that in your little pipes an’ smoke it at the school. Farewell, a long farewell! Gobleshyer … Gobleshyer …”
They heard his reiterated blessings for some time after he was out of sight. It was not only distance that rendered them less and less distinct. The champagne was his master – but it had been a good servant first.
“At any rate there was no truth in that, Rutter?” Haigh seemed almost to hope that there was none.
“It’s perfectly true, sir, that about the fair.”
“Yet you had the coolness to suggest that he was lying about the wine!”
“I don’t suggest anything now.”
Jan kicked an empty bottle out of the way. The man’s second tone had cut him as deep as in old odious days in form.
“Is that your money he’s left behind him?”
Jan’s answer was to go down on his knees and begin carefully picking up the forgotten coins from the carpet of last year’s leaves. Haigh watched him under arched eyebrows; and once more the flies were allowed to settle on the master’s limp collar and wet wry face. Then he moved a bottle or so with furtive foot, and kicked a coin or two into greater prominence, behind Jan’s bent back.
“When you’re quite ready, Rutter!” said Haigh at length.
It is remarked of many people, that though they go through life fretting and fuming over trifles, and making scenes out of nothing at all, yet in a real emergency their calmness is quite amazing. It need not amaze anybody who gives the matter a little thought; for a crisis brings its own armour, but a man is naked to the insect enemies of the passing moment, and he may have a tender moral and intellectual skin. This was the trouble with Mr. Haigh – a naturally irritable man, who in long years of chartered tyranny had gradually ceased to control his temper in the absence of some special reason why he should. But fellows in his house used to say that in the worst type of row they could trust Haigh to sort out the sinned against from the sinning, and not to lose his head, though he might still smack theirs for whistling in his quad.
Thus it is scarcely to be doubted that already Mr. Haigh had more sympathy with the serious offender whom he had caught red-handed with little clods who ended pentameters with adjectives or showed a depraved disregard for the c?sura. But for once he did not wear his heart upon his sleeve, or in his austere eyes and distended nostrils; his very shoulders, as Jan followed them through the wood, looked laden with fate inexorable. A composure so alien and abnormal is at least as terrible as the wrath that is slow to rise; it chilled Jan’s blood, but it also gave him time to see things, and to make up his mind.
In the wood and in the ride Haigh did not even turn his head to see that he was being duly followed; but in the lower meadow he stopped short, and waited sombrely for Jan.
“There’s nothing to be said, Rutter, as between you and me, except on one small point that doesn’t matter to anybody else. I gathered just now that you were not particularly surprised at being caught by me– that it’s what you would have expected of me – playing the spy! Well, I have played it during the last hour; but I never should have dreamt of doing so if your own rashness had not thrust the part upon me.”
“I suppose you saw me get into the fly?” said Jan, with a certain curiosity in the incidence of his frustration.
“I couldn’t help seeing you. I had called for this myself, and was in the act of bringing it to you for your – splitting head!”
Haigh had produced an obvious medicine bottle sealed up in white paper. Jan could not resent his sneer.
“I’m sorry you had the trouble, sir. There was nothing the matter with my head.”
“And you can stand there – ”
Haigh did not finish his sentence, except by dashing the medicine bottle to the ground in his disgust, so that it broke even in that rank grass, and its contents soaked the smooth white paper. This was the old Adam, but only for a moment. Jan could almost have done with more of him.
“I know what you must think of me, sir,” he said. “I had to meet a blackmailer at his own time and place. But that’s no excuse for me.”
“I’m glad you don’t make it one, I must say! I was going on to tell you that I followed the fly, only naturally, as I think you’ll agree. But it wasn’t my fault you didn’t hear me in the wood before you saw me, Rutter. I made noise enough, but you were so taken up with your – boon companion!”
Jan resented that; but he had made up his mind not even to start the dangerous game of self-defence.
“He exaggerated that part of it,” was all that Jan said, dryly.
“So I should hope. It’s not my business to ask for explanations – ”
“And I’ve none to give, sir.”
“It’s only for me to report the whole matter, Rutter, as of course I must at once.”
Jan looked alarmed.
“Do you mean before the match is over? Must the Eleven and all those Old Boys – ”
“Hear all about it? Not necessarily, I should say, but it won’t be in my hands. The facts are usually kept quiet in – in the worst cases – as you know. But I shan’t have anything to say to that.”
“You would if it were a fellow in your house!” Jan could not help rejoining. “You’d take jolly good care to have as little known as possible – if you don’t mind my saying so!”
Haigh did mind; he was a man to mind the slightest word, and yet he took this from Jan without a word in reply. The fact was that, much to his annoyance and embarrassment, he was beginning to respect the youth more in his downfall than at the height of his cricketing fame. Indeed, while he had grudged a great and unforeseen school success to as surly a young numskull as ever impeded the work of the Middle Remove (and the only one who ever, ever scored off Mr. Haigh), he could not but recognise the manhood of the same boy’s bearing in adversity – and such adversity at such a stage in his career! There had been nothing abject about it for a moment, and now there was neither impertinence nor bravado, but rather an unsuspected sensibility, rather a redeeming spirit altogether. Yet it was an aggravated case, if ever there had been one in the whole history of schools; a more deliberate and daring piece of trickery could not be imagined. In that respect it was typical of the drinking row of Haigh’s experience. And yet he found himself making jaunty remarks to Jan about the weather, and even bringing off his raucous laugh about nothing, for the fly-man’s benefit, as they came up to where that vehicle was waiting in the lane.
Haigh, of all masters, and Jan Rutter of all the boys who had ever been through his hands!
That was the feeling that preyed upon the man, the weight he tried to get off his chest when they had dismissed the fly outside the town, and had walked in together as far as Heriot’s quad.
“Well, Rutter, there never was much love lost between us, was there? And yet – I don’t mind telling you – I wish any other man in the place had the job you’ve given me!”
The quad was still deserted, but Jan had scarcely reached his study when a hurried but uncertain step sounded in the passage, and a small fag from another house appeared at his open door.
“Oh, please, Rutter, I was sent to fetch you if you’re well enough to bat.”
“Who sent you?”
“How many of them are out?”
“Seven when I left.”
“How many runs?”
“Hundred and sixty just gone up.”
“It hadn’t! Who’s been getting them?”
The fag from another house always said that Rutter lit up at this as though the runs were already made, and then that he gave the most extraordinary laugh, but suddenly asked if Devereux was out.
“And when I told him he wasn’t,” said the fag, “he simply sent me flying out of his way, and by the time I got into the street he was almost out of sight at the other end!”
Certainly they were the only two creatures connected with the school who were to be seen about the town at half-past four that Saturday afternoon; and half the town itself seemed glued to those palings affected by Jan’s fly-man; and on the ground every available boy in the school, every master except Haigh, and every single master’s lady, watched the game without a word about any other topic under the sun. Even the tea-tent, a great feature of the festival, under the auspices of Miss Heriot and other ladies, was deserted alike by all parties to its usually popular entertainment.
Evan was still in, said to have made over 70, and to be playing the innings of his life, the innings of the season for the school. But another wicket must have fallen soon after the small fag fled for Jan, and Chilton who had gone in was not shaping with conspicuous confidence. Evan looked, however, as though he had enough for two, from the one glimpse Jan had of his heated but collected face, and the one stroke he saw him make, before diving into the dressing-room to clap on his pads. To think that Evan was still in, and on the high road to a century if anybody could stop with him! To think he should have chosen this very afternoon!
It was at this point that the hard Fates softened, for a time only, yet a time worth the worst they could do to Jan now. They might not have given him pause to put his pads on properly; they might not have suffered him to get his breath. When he had done both, and even had a wash, and pulled his cap well over his wet hair, they might have kept him waiting till the full flavour of their late misdeeds turned his heart sick and faint within him. Instead of all or any of this, they propped up Chilton for another 15 runs, and then sent Jan in with 33 to get and Evan not out 84.
But they might have spared the doomed wretch the tremendous cheering that greeted his supposed resurrection from the sick-room to which – obviously – his heroic efforts of the morning had brought him. It took Evan to counteract the irony of that reception with a little dose on his own account.
“Keep your end up,” whispered Evan, coming out to meet the captain a few yards from the pitch, “and I can get them. Swallow’s off the spot and the rest are pifflers. Keep up your end and leave the runs to me.”
It was the tone of pure injunction, from the one who might have been captain to his last hope. But that refinement was lost on Jan; he could only stare at the cool yet heated face, all eagerness and confidence, as though nothing whatever had been happening off the ground. And his stare did draw a change of look – a swift unspoken question – the least little cloud, that vanished at Jan’s reply.
“It’s all right,” said Jan, oracularly. “You won’t be bothered any more!”
“Good man!” said Evan. “Then only keep your end up, and we’ll have the fun of a lifetime between us!”
Jan nodded as he went to the crease; really the fellow had done him good. And in yet another little thing the Fates were kind; he had not to take the next ball, and Evan took care to make a single off the last one of the over, which gave the newcomer a good look at both bowlers before being called upon to play a ball.
But then it was A. G. Swallow whom he had to face; and, in spite of Evan’s expert testimony to the contrary, that great cricketer certainly looked as full of wisdom, wiles, and genial malice as an egg is full of meat.
A. G. Swallow took his rhythmical little ball-room amble of a run, threw his left shoulder down, heaved his right arm up, and flicked finger and thumb together as though the departing ball were a pinch of snuff. I. T. Rutter – one of the many left-hand bowlers who bat right, it is now worth while to state – watched its high trajectory with terror tempered by a bowler’s knowledge of the kind of break put on. He thought it was never going to pitch, but when it did – well to the off – he scrambled in front of his wicket and played the thing somehow with bat and pads combined. But A. G. Swallow awaited the ball’s return with a smile of settled sweetness, and E. Devereux had frowned.
The next ball flew higher, with even more spin, but broke so much from leg as to beat everything except Stratten’s hands behind the sticks. But Jan had not moved out of his ground; he had simply stood there and been shot at, yet already he was beginning to perspire. Two balls and two such escapes were enough to upset anybody’s nerve; and now, of course, Jan knew enough about batting to know what a bad bat he was, and the knowledge often made him worse still. He had just one point: as a bowler he would put himself in the bowler’s place and consider what he himself would try next if he were bowling.
Now perhaps the finest feature of Swallow’s slow bowling was the fast one that he could send down, when he liked, without perceptible change of action; but the other good bowler rightly guessed that this fast ball was coming now, was more than ready for it, let go early and with all his might, and happened to time it to perfection. It went off his bat like a lawn-tennis ball from a tight racket, flew high and square (though really intended for an on drive), and came down on the pavilion roof with a heavenly crash.
The school made music, too; but Evan Devereux looked distinctly disturbed, and indeed it was a good thing there was not another ball in the over. A. G. Swallow did not like being hit; it was his only foible; but to hit him half by accident was to expose one’s wicket to all the knavish tricks that could possibly be combined and concentrated in the very next delivery.
Now, however, Evan had his turn again, and picked five more runs off three very moderate balls from the vigorous Whitfield; the fourth did not defeat Jan, and Evan had Swallow’s next over. He played it like a professional, but ran rather a sharp single off the last ball, and in short proceeded to “nurse” the bowling as though his partner had not made 25 not out in the first innings and already hit a sixer in his second.
Jan did not resent this in the least. The height of his own momentary ambition was simply to stay there until the runs were made; the next essential was for Evan to achieve his century, but the larger hope involved that consummation, and at this rate he would not be very long about it. To Jan his performance was a composite revelation of character and capacity. Surely it was not Evan Devereux batting at all, but a higher order of cricketer in Evan’s image, an altogether stronger soul in his skin! Even that looked different, so fiery red and yet so free from the nervous perspiration welling from Jan’s pores; surely some sheer enchantment had quickened hand and foot, and sharpened an eye that looked abnormally bright at twenty yards!
So thought Jan at the other end; and he wondered if the original stimulus could have been the very weight of an anxiety greater than any connected with the game; but he entertained these searching speculations almost unawares, and alongside all manner of impressions, visions and reminiscences, of a still more intimate character. The truth was that Jan himself was in a rarefied atmosphere, out there on the pitch, seeing and doing things for the last time, and somehow more vividly and with greater zest than he had ever seen or done such things before.
Though he had played upon it literally hundreds of times, never until to-day had he seen what a beautiful ground the Upper really was. On three sides a smiling land fell away in fine slopes from the very boundary, as though a hill-top had been sliced off to make the field; on those three sides you could see for miles, and they were miles of grazing country checkered with hedges, and of blue distance blotted with trees. But even as a cricket-field Jan felt that he had never before appreciated his dear Upper as he ought. It lay so high that at one end the batsman stood in position against the sky from the pads upwards, and the empyrean was the screen behind the bowler’s arm.
Of course these fresh features of a familiar scene were due more to mental exaltation than to the first perfect day of the term; but they owed little or nothing to the conscientious sentimentality of a farewell appearance. Jan was a great deal too excited to think of anything but the ball while the ball was in play. But between the overs the spectres of the early afternoon were at his elbow, and in one such pause he espied Haigh in the flesh watching from the ring.