Still Jan said nothing, even when explicitly challenged to deny it if he could. He only stood still and looked mysterious, while he racked his brain for something to explain his look along with those other appearances which Chips had interpreted so unerringly. He felt in a great rage with Chips, and yet somehow in nothing like such a rage as he had been in before. It had taken old Chips to see that he was not such a blackguard as he had made himself out; that was something to remember in the silly fool’s favour; he was the only one, when all was said and done, to believe the best of a fellow in spite of everything, even in spite of the fellow himself.
Condemned men cannot afford to send their only friends to blazes. But Chips soon went the way to get himself that happy dispatch.
“Why should you do all this for Evan Devereux?” he demanded.
“All what, Chips? I never said I’d done anything.”
“Oh, all right, you haven’t! But what’s he ever done for you?”
“Name something – anything – he’s ever done except when you were in a position to do more for him!”
And then Jan did tell him where to go. But Chips only laughed in his face, with the spendthrift courage of a fellow who did not as a rule show enough, though he had it all the same when his blood was up. And now he was in as great a passion as Jan, and just for a moment it was as fine a passion too.
“You start cursing me because you haven’t any answer. Curse away, and come to blows if you like; you shan’t shift me out of this until I’ve said what I’ve got to say, not if I have to hang on to this bedstead and bring the place about our ears!”
“Don’t be a fool, Chips,” said Jan, perceiving that he required self-control for two. “You know you’ve always had a down on Evan.”
“Well, perhaps I have. Doesn’t he deserve it? What did he ever do for you your first term – though he’d known you at home?”
“That was no reason why he should do anything. What could he do? We were in different houses and different forms; besides, I was higher up in the school, as it happened, as well as a bit older.”
“That’s nothing; still I rather agree with you, though he was here first, remember. But what about your second term or my third? He overtook us each in turn, but did he ever go out of his way to say a civil word to either of us, though he’d known us both before?”
“Yes; he did.”
“Yes, he did! When you’d made a little bit of a name for yourself over the Mile he was out for a walk with you in a minute. That’s the fellow all over, and has been all the time. I remember how it was when you got in the Eleven, if you don’t!”
But Jan did remember, and it made him think. Like most boys who are good at games, he had acquired in their practice great fairness of mind. He thought Chips was unfair to Evan, and yet he wanted to be fair to Chips, whom he recognised in his heart as by far the sounder fellow of the two. Chips was the loyal, unswerving, faithful friend who not only bore a friend’s infirmities but blew his trumpet as few would blow their own.
“The fact is, Chips, you’re such a good old chap yourself that you want everybody else to be the same as you. You wouldn’t hurt a fellow’s feelings, so you can’t forgive the chaps who do it without thinking. Not one in a hundred makes as much of things as you do, or takes things so to heart. But that’s because you’re what you are, Chips; you oughtn’t to be down on everybody who doesn’t happen to be built as straight and true.”
“Don’t be too sure that I’m either!” exclaimed Carpenter, flinching unaccountably.
“You’re only about the straightest chap in the whole school, Chips. Everybody knows that, I should think.”
“I’ve a good mind to set everybody right!” cried Carpenter, worked up to more than he had dreamed of saying, a wild impulse burning in his eyes. “I can’t see you bunked for nothing, when others including me have done all sorts of things to deserve it. Yes, Jan, including me! You think I’ve been so straight! So I was in the beginning; so I am now, if you like, but I’ve not been all the time. Don’t stop me. I won’t be stopped; but that’s about all I’ve got to say. I’ve always wanted you to know. You’re the only fellow in the place I care much for, who cares much for me, though not so much – ”
“Yes I do, Chips, yes I do! I never thought so much of you as I do this minute… I don’t say it never crossed my mind… But don’t you make yourself out worse than you ever were, even to me!”
“I don’t want to… It didn’t go on so long, and it’s all over now… But I shall get the pr?postor’s medal when I leave – unless I’m man enough to refuse it – and you’ve been bunked for standing by a fellow who never would have stood by you!”
“That’s where you’re wrong, Chips,” said Jan, gently.
“No, I’m not. It’s the other way about.”
“You don’t know how Evan’s stood by me all these years.”
Carpenter maintained a strange silence – very strange in him, just then especially – a silence that made him ashamed and yet exultant.
“Do you know, Chips?”
“It depends what you think he’s done.”
“I’ll tell you,” said Jan with sudden yet quiet resolution, and a lift of his head as though the peak of a cap had been pulled down too far. “I had a secret when I came here, and Evan knew it but nobody else. It was a big secret – about my people and me too – and if it had come out then I’d have bolted like a rabbit. I know now that it wouldn’t have mattered as much as I thought it would; things about your people, or anything that ever happened anywhere else, don’t hurt or help much in a place like this. It’s what you can do and how you take things that matters here. But I didn’t know that then and I don’t suppose Evan did either. Yet he kept a quiet tongue in his head about everything he did know. And that’s what I owe him – all it meant to me then, and does still in a way – his holding his tongue like that!”
Still Chips held his; and now Jan was the prey of doubts which his own voice had silenced. All that the familiar debt had gained by clear statement was counteracted by the stony demeanour of its first auditor.
“Did he ever tell you, Chips?”
“The very first time I saw him, our very first term!”
“Not – not about my father and – the stables – and all that?”
Jan threw himself back four years.
“Yet when I sounded you at the time – ”
“I told you the lie of my life!” said Chips. “I couldn’t help myself. But this is the truth!”
And Jan took it with the enviable composure which had only deserted him when Evan was being traduced; it was several seconds before he made a sound, still standing there with his back to the bedroom window; and then the sound was very like a chuckle.
“Well, at any rate he can’t have told many!”
“I don’t suppose he did.”
“Then he picked the right one, Chipsey, and I still owe him almost as much as I do you.”
“You owe old Heriot more than either of us.”
“Heriot! Why? Does he know?”
“He knew all along, but he never meant you to know that he knew. He guessed how you’d feel it if you did; he guesses everything! Why, that very first Saturday, if you remember, when Devereux turned up for call-over and began telling me the minute afterwards, it was as though Bob Heriot simply saw what he was saying! He pounced upon us both that instant, dropped a pretty plain hint on the spot, but asked us to breakfast next morning and then absolutely bound us over never to let out a single word about you in all our days here!”
“So Evan’d been talking before he told me he never would,” mused Jan. “Well, I can’t blame him so much for that. I’m not sure, Chips, that I should have done so differently now even if I’d known. I liked him even in the old days when we were kids. Must you go?”
The question was asked in a very wistful tone. Chips felt, rather uneasily, that in these few minutes he had ousted Evan and taken his old place. He could not help it if he had. It had not been his intention on coming into the room. It was no use regretting it now.
“I told Heriot I wouldn’t stay very long,” he answered. “I’ll get him to let me come up again.”
“And you won’t tell him anything about Evan?”
“How do you mean?”
“You won’t tell him a single word about our having seen him and Sandham that day?”
Chips was silent.
“Surely you wouldn’t go getting them bunked as well as me?”
“Well – no – not exactly.”
“I should think not! It wouldn’t do any good, you see, even if you did,” said Jan, suddenly discovering why he had looked so mysterious some minutes back. “You forget that Evan and I used to go about together quite as much as he and Sandham have been doing all this year. What if it was me that first started playing the fool in Yardley Wood? What if old Mulberry knows more against me than anybody else? It wouldn’t do me much good to put them in the same boat, would it?”
“But does he, Jan, honestly?”
“Honestly, I’m sorry to say.”
“It’s too awful!”
“But you will hold your tongue about the other two, won’t you, Chips?”
“If you like.”
“Very well. I promise.”
But Chips Carpenter was reckoning without Mr. Heriot, a magnificent schoolmaster, but a Grand Inquisitor at getting things out of fellows when he liked. To his credit, he never did like a task which some schoolmasters seem to enjoy; but he was not the man to shirk a distasteful duty. Carpenter had long outstayed his leave upstairs and the spare room was directly over Heriot’s study. Voices had been raised at one time to an angry pitch, and this had set the man below thinking, but certainly not listening more than he could help. Nor had he caught a single word; but he had to remember that Carpenter’s pretext for the visit was a private money matter, and other circumstances connected with Jan’s finances.
He waylaid Chips on his way down.
“Well, Carpenter, you’ve been a long time?”
“I’m afraid I have, sir.”
“I gave you ten minutes and you took five-and-twenty. However, I hope you got your money?”
“What money, sir?”
“Didn’t you go to collect a private debt?”
“I don’t know how you knew, sir.”
“I happen to know that Rutter had a good deal of money on Saturday, and that he never as a rule has half enough.”
“Yes, sir; he paid me back every penny,” said Chips, without attempting to escape.
He was in fact extremely interested in this question of the money, which had been driven out of his mind by other matters, only to return now with evident and yet puzzling significance. He was wondering whether this was not a point on which he could confide honourably in Heriot, since Jan had laid no embargo on the subject. He might only have forgotten to do so – Chips had a high conception of honour in such matters – but anything to throw light on the mystery before it was too late!
“Now, you and Rutter have been great friends, haven’t you, Carpenter?”
It was the skilful questioner proceeding on his own repugnant lines.
“Yes, sir, I think we have, on the whole.”
“Has he ever borrowed money from you before?”
“Never a penny, sir.”
“Had he rather strong principles on the point?”
“I used to think he had, sir.”
“Do you think he’d break them for his own sake, Carpenter?”
“No, sir, I don’t! I – I practically told him so,” replied Chips, after considering whether he was free to say as much.
“I’ve only one other question to ask you, Carpenter. You told me, before I let you go up, that several of the leading fellows know something about what’s happened.”
“They do, sir.”
“Can you think of anybody who doesn’t know, and perhaps ought to know, while there’s time?”
Chips felt his heart leap within him, only to sink under the weight of his last promise to Jan; he shrank from the very mention of Evan’s name after such a solemn undertaking as that. And yet Jan came first.
“Well, sir, I —could.”
“Then won’t you?”
“If you wouldn’t ask me for my reasons, sir.”
Heriot smiled in incipient inquisitorial triumph. It was a wry smile over a wry job, but he had come to his feet, and his spectacles were flashing formidably. The poor lad’s honest reservation was more eloquent than unconditional indiscretion in ears attuned to puerile nuances.
“I may ask you anything I like, Carpenter, but I can’t make you answer anything you don’t like! I can only suggest to you that there’s probably some fellow who might help us if he were not in the dark. Will you give me the name that occurred to you?”
Jan turned back to the bedroom window, and stood looking out with eyes that saw less than ever. The window was open at the bottom; he kept a discreet distance from the sill, but might have seen a strip of the pavement opposite, now dappled by a sudden shower. He was as the blind, however, until a slight crash below made him pop his head out without thinking. Then he saw that it was raining, because Mr. Heriot had emerged from the house, and broken into a run instead of returning for his umbrella.
The only thought Jan gave him was a twinge of wonder that he could go his ways so briskly with the virtual head of his house lying under sentence of expulsion in the spare room. Heriot was mighty keen on his house, keenly critical and appreciative of every fellow in it, but keener yet on a corporate entity, mysteriously independent of the individuals that made it up, which expressed itself in Jan’s mind as “the house itself.” He too had felt like that about the house cricket and the school Eleven; the best bat got measles, and it was no good giving him another thought. And yet somehow it made Jan himself feel bitterly small to see Heriot gadding about his business like that in the rain.
Otherwise the sight did him good, in liberating his mind from the overload of new ideas that weighed it down. Always a great talker, that poor old Chips had told him so much in such quick time that it was impossible to keep his outpourings distinct and apart from each other; they were like the blots of rain on the pavement, spreading, joining, overlapping into a featureless whole. But the shower ceased even as Jan looked down; the pavement began to dry before all semblance of design was obliterated; and the fusion of fresh impressions suffered an analogous arrest.
Evan dried by himself…
Jan brought a cane chair to the window, and sat down to think about Evan, to be fair to old Evan at all costs. It was easy to be down on him, to feel he had been guilty of unpardonable perfidy; but had he? Was there any great reason why he should not have told Chips – Chips whom he knew of old, and whom he had seen with Jan? Surely it was the most natural confidence in the world; and then it was the only one, even Chips thought that, though Jan was not so sure when he recalled the bold scorn of Sandham and some others in the Eleven – their indistinguishable whispers and their unmistakable looks. But, even so! Had he ever asked Evan to keep his secret? Had not Evan, on the other hand, kept it on the whole unasked? Was it not due to him first and last that the whole school had not got hold of it? Chips might say what he liked about Heriot, but no master could impose secrecy upon a boy against the boy’s will. Evan’s will towards Jan must always have been of the best. It was Jan’s own fault if he had imagined himself under an inconceivable obligation; it only showed what a simpleton he had always been about Evan Devereux. That was it! He was far too simple altogether; even now he could not shake off all his unreasonable disappointment because Evan had been a trifle less loyal to him, in the very beginning, than he had chosen to flatter himself all these years.
It was a comfort to turn to the other side of the account. Thank goodness he had been able to do something for Evan in the end! He did owe it to him, whatever Chips chose to say or think. Chips was a jealous old fool; there was no getting away from that. Jan only hoped he had not given Chips an inkling of the real facts of the case. He did not think he had. It had been a happy thought to pretend that Evan’s connection with his downfall was that of the feeble accomplice whom he and not Sandham had led astray; it really made expulsion too good for him, so Chips would be under no temptation to let it out or to drag in Evan’s name at all. In any case he had promised. He was a man of his word. He was the soul of honour and integrity, old Chips … so at least Jan had always thought him down to this very afternoon. Simpleton again!
Chips, of all people, not always any better than he should have been… Jan could not get that out of his head; it was another disappointment to his simplicity. He had thought he knew the worst of Chips, his touchiness, his jealousy, taking too much notice of himself and sometimes thinking that other people did not take enough. A bit weak-minded and excitable, Jan would have called him, thinking of the morbid and emotional side of his friend’s character which had certainly shown itself that day. But what enthusiasm, what a heart, and what a head too in its way! It only showed that you knew very little, really, about anybody else, even your intimate house-mate; but it might also have shown Jan that he was slow to think evil, slow to perceive the worst side of the life around him, and not only simple but pure in heart in spite of all those years about the stables.
He supposed he had not the same temptations as other fellows. Here were his two friends, as opposite to each other as they were to him, the three of them as far apart as the points of an equilateral triangle. Each of the other two had gone wrong in his way. And yet perhaps neither of them would have touched money that did not belong to him, on any pretext or in any circumstances whatsoever!
The money took Jan back to the wood; the wood led him straight to Mulberry; and suddenly he wondered whether Evan had really heard the last of that vagabond. The very thought of a doubt about it made Jan uneasy. Had he frightened the blackmailer sufficiently as such? He had gone away without his money; that might or might not be mere drunken forgetfulness. Jan, however, would have felt rather more certain of his man if he had put himself more in the wrong by actually taking every penny he could get; that and the very drastic form of receipt – never signed – had been the pivot of his scheme for scotching Mulberry. If it were to miscarry after all, in its prime object of saving Evan from persecution and disgrace; if appearances should still be doubted and Mulberry be bribed or frightened into telling the truth; why, then – good Lord! —then he himself might yet be reinstated – at Evan’s expense!
Once more Jan despised himself for harbouring any such thought for a single moment; he kicked it out like a very Mulberry of the mind, and saw it in the mental gutter as a most unlikely contingency. He considered his own handling of the creature, the motive given him for revenge, the dexterous promptitude with which revenge had been taken. No; such an enemy, so made, would never willingly avow a very inspiration of low cunning…
The mossy, wrinkled roofs of the old tiled houses opposite Heriot’s stood out once more against a cloudless sky; the pavement underneath was dry as a bone; the little town was basking in the sleepy sunshine of the Sunday afternoon. Suddenly those irrepressible chapel bells broke out with their boyish clangour.
Boyish they are and always will be while there are boys to hear them; they ring in the veins after thirty years, and make old blood pelt like young. Surely there is no such hearty, happy peal elsewhere on earth! It got into Jan’s blood though he was only leaving next morning, and would never, never be able to come down as an authorised Old Boy. So he would never be allowed in chapel again, unless he stole in when nobody was about, some day, a bearded bushman “home for a spell.” It seemed hard. There went the bells again! They might have let him obey their kindling call for the last time; it might have made some difference to his life.
How could they stop him? Could they stop him? Would they if they could? The questions followed each other almost as quickly as the three bright bells; they got into his blood as well. And it was blood always susceptible to a sudden impulse; that was a thing Jan did not see in himself, though all his escapades came of that hereditary drop of pure recklessness. It did not often come to a bubble, but when it did the precipitate was some rash act.
Already the street was “alive with boys and masters,” like another more famous but not more dear; masters in silken hoods, masters in humble rabbit-skins, and boys in cut-away coats, boys in Eton jackets. Jan had put on his Sunday tails as usual; it had never occurred to him not to dress that morning as a member of the school still subject to the rules. His school cap was already packed, a sad memento filled with collars. He had it out in an instant, and the collars strewed the floor, for he was going to chapel whether they liked it or not. They would never make a scandal by turning him out, but he must slip in at the last moment after everybody else, and the last bell had not begun yet. Jan was waiting for it in great excitement, touching up his hair in the dressing-room, when the landing shook to a familiar stride and the bedroom door opened unceremoniously for the second time that afternoon.