“Send me what you think,” he said. “It’s all one to me.”
Carpenter rallied him in all seriousness on their way back to the house.
“I can’t understand it, Rutter, when you have an absolute voice in everything.”
“I hadn’t a voice in coming here,” replied Rutter, so darkly as to close the topic.
“I suppose I go to the other extreme,” resumed Carpenter, with a reflective frankness which seemed a characteristic. “I shall have more chairs than I’ve room for if I don’t take care. I’ve bought one already from Shockley.”
“Good-night!” cried Jan. “Whatever made you do that?”
“Oh, he would have me into his study to have a look at it; and there were a whole lot of them there – that fellow Buggins, and Jane Eyre, and the one they call Cranky – and they all swore it was as cheap as dirt. There are some beasts here!” added Carpenter below his breath.
“How much was it?”
“Seven-and-six; and I didn’t really want it a bit; and one of the legs was broken all the time!”
“And,” added Jan, for his only comment, “the gang of them are in our form and all!”
They met most of the house trooping out of the quad, with bats and pads, but not in flannels. They were going to have a house-game on the Middle Ground, as the September day was warmer than many of the moribund summer, and there was no more school until five o’clock. Nor did it require the menaces of Shockley to induce the new pair to turn round and accompany the rest; but their first game of cricket was not a happy experience for either boy. Cave major, who was in the Eleven, was better employed among his peers on the Upper. Loder, who was no cricketer, picked up with a certain Shears major, who was not much of one. Nobody took the game in the least seriously except a bowler off whom the unlucky Carpenter managed to miss two catches. The two new men were chosen last on either side. They failed to make a run between them, and of course had no opportunity of showing whether they could bowl. Both were depressed when it was all over.
“It served me right for dropping those catches,” said Carpenter, however, with the stoicism of a true cricketer at heart.
“I only wish it was last term instead of this!” muttered Jan.
There was another thing that disappointed both boys. The Lodge happened to be playing a similar game on an adjacent pitch. But Devereux was not among the players, and Carpenter heard somebody say that he was not coming back till half-term. Jan’s heart jumped when he heard it in his turn: by half-term he would have settled down, by half-term many things might have happened. Yet the deferred meeting was still fraught in his mind with opposite possibilities, that swung to either extreme on the pendulum of his mood; and on the whole he would have been glad to get it over. At one moment this half-term’s grace was a keen relief to him; at another, a keener disappointment.
The ready invention and general felicity of the public-school nickname are points upon which few public-school men are likely to disagree.
It happened that on the Saturday afternoon, directly after dinner, the majority of the house were hanging about the quad when there entered an incongruous figure from the outer world. This was a peculiarly debased reprobate, a local character of pothouse notoriety, whose chief haunt was the courtyard of the Mitre, and whom the boys in the quad saluted familiarly as “Mulberry.” And that here was yet another instance of the appropriate nickname, a glance was enough to show, for never did richer hue or bigger nose deface the human countenance.
The trespasser was only slightly but quite humorously drunk, and the fellows in the quad formed a not unappreciative audience of the type of entertainment to be expected from a being in that precise condition. Mulberry, however, was not an ordinary stable sot; it was obvious that he had seen better days. He had ragged tags of Latin on the tip of a somewhat treacherous tongue: he inquired quite tenderly after the binominal theororum, but ascribed an unpleasant expression correctly enough to a lapsus linguae.
“I say, Mulberry, you are a swell!”
“We give you full marks for that, Mulberry!”
“My dear young friends,” quoth Mulberry, “I knew Latin before any of you young devils knew the light.”
“Draw it mild, Mulberry!”
“I wish you’d give us a construe before second school!”
Jan remembered all his days the stray strange picture of the debauched intruder in the middle of the sunlit quad, with the figures of young and wholesome life standing aloof from him in good-natured contempt, and more fresh faces at the ivy-mantled study windows. Jan happened to be standing nearest Mulberry, and to catch a bloodshot eye as it flickered over his audience in a comprehensive wink.
“You bet I wasn’t always a groom,” said Mulberry; “an’ if I had ha’ been, there are worse places than the stables, ain’t there, young fellow?”
Jan looked as though he only wished the ground would open and engulf him; and the look did not belie his momentary feeling. But he had a spirit more easily angered than abased, and the brown flush which swept him from collar to cap was not one of unmixed embarrassment.
“How should I know?” he cried in a voice shrill with indignation.
“He seems to know more about it than he’ll say,” observed Mulberry, and with another wink he fastened his red eyes on Jan, who had his cap pulled over his eyes as usual, and arms akimbo for the want of trousers pockets. “Just the cut of a jock!” added Mulberry, in quite a complimentary murmur.
“You’re an ugly blackguard,” shouted Jan, “and I wonder anybody can stand and listen to you!”
It was at this point that Heriot appeared very suddenly upon the scene, took the intruder by either shoulder, and had him out of the quad in about a second; in another Heriot rejoined the group in the sun, with a pale face and flashing spectacles.
“You’re quite right,” he said sharply to Jan. “I wonder, too – at every one of you – at every one!”
And he turned on his heel and was gone, leaving them stinging with his scorn; and Jan would have given a finger from his hand to have gone as well without more words; but he found himself hemmed in by clenched fists and furious faces, his back to the green iron palings under the study windows.
“You saw Heriot coming!”
“You said that to suck up to him!”
“The beastly cheek, for a beastly new man!”
“But we saw through it, and so did he!”
“Trust old Heriot! You don’t find that sort o’ thing pay with him.”
“I never saw him,” said Jan steadily, despite a thumping heart, “so you can say what you like.”
And he took a heavy buffet from Shockley without wincing.
“And why should you lose your wool with poor old Mulberry?” that worthy demanded with a fine show of charity. “One would think there was something in what he said.”
“You fairly stink of the racing-stables,” said Buggins. “You know you do, you brute!”
And Eyre major led a laugh.
“Racing-stables!” echoed Shockley. “There’s more of the stable-boy about him than the jock.”
Jan folded his arms and listened stoically.
“Ostler’s lad,” said one satirist.
“Nineteenth groom,” from another.
“The tiger!” piped a smaller boy than Jan. “The tiger that sits behind the dog-cart – see how he folds his arms!”
And the imp folded his at the most untimely moment; for this was more than Jan was going to stand. Submission to superior force was a law of nature which his common sense recognised and his self-control enabled him to keep; but to take from a boy inches shorter than himself what had to be taken from one as many inches taller, just because they were all against him, was further than his forbearance would go. His flat left hand flew out as the smaller boy folded his arms, and it fell with a resounding smack upon the side of an undefended head.
Within the fewest possible moments Jan had been pinned against the palings by the bigger fellows, his arm twisted, his person violently kicked, his own ears soundly boxed and filled with abuse. This was partly because he fought and kicked as long as he had a free leg or arm. But through it all the satisfaction of that one resounding smack survived, and kept the infuriated Jan just sane enough to stop short of tooth and nail when finally overwhelmed.
“Tiger’s the word,” panted Shockley, when they were about done with him. “But if you try playing the tiger here, ever again, you son of a gun, you’ll be killed by inches, as sure as you’re blubbing now! So you’d better creep into your lair, you young tiger, and lie down and die like a mangy dog!”
It had taken some minutes to produce the tears, but the tears did not quench the fierce animosity of the eyes that shed them, and they were dry before Jan gained his study and slammed the door. And there you may picture him in the chair at the table, on the still bare boards: hot, dishevelled, aching and ashamed, yet rejoicing in his misery at the one shrewd left-hand smack he had somehow administered upon an impudent though defenceless head.
He could hear it for his consolation all the afternoon!
The studies emptied; it was another belated summer’s day, and there was a game worth watching on the Upper. Soon there was no sound to be heard but those from the street, which came through the upper part of the ground-glass window, the only part of the back study windows that was made to open; but Jan sat staring at the wall before his eyes, as though the fresh air was nothing to him, as though he had not been brought up in his shirtsleeves in and out of the open air in all weathers… And so he was still sitting when a hesitating step came along the passage, paused in the next study, and then, but not for a minute or two, at Jan’s door.
“What do you want?” he demanded rudely, when he had responded to a half-hearted knock by admitting Chips Carpenter. Now, Chips had witnessed just the bitter end of the scene in the quad, but Jan did not know he had been there at all.
“Oh, I don’t exactly want anything. I can clear out if you’d rather, Rutter.”
“All right. I’d rather.”
“Only I thought I’d tell you it’s call-over on the Upper in half-an-hour.”
“I’m not going to call-over.”
Carpenter winced: he did not like swearing, and he did like Rutter well enough to wince when he swore. But the spirit of the oath promptly blotted the letter from his mind. Carpenter was a law-abiding boy who had been a few terms at a good preparatory school; he could scarcely believe his ears, much less a word of Rutter’s idle boast. Rutter certainly looked as though he meant it, with his closed lid of a mouth, and his sullen brooding eyes. But his mad intention was obviously not to be carried out.
“My dear man,” said Carpenter, “it’s one of the first rules of the school. Have you read them? You’d get into a frightful row!”
“The bigger the better.”
“You might even get bunked,” continued Chips, who was acquiring the school terminology as fast as he could, “for cutting call-over on purpose.”
“Let them bunk me! Do you think I care? I never wanted to come here. I’d as soon’ve gone to prison. It can’t be worse. At any rate they let you alone – they got to. But here … let them bunk me! It’s the very thing I want. I loathe this hole, and everything about it. I don’t care whether you say it’s one of the best schools going, or what you say!”
“I say it’s the best. I know I wouldn’t swop it for any other – or let a little bullying put me against it. And I have been bullied, if you want to know!”
“Perhaps you’re proud of that?”
“I hate it, Rutter! I hate lots of things more than you think. You’re in that little dormitory. You’re well off. But I didn’t come here expecting to find it all skittles. And I wouldn’t be anywhere else if it was twenty times worse than it is!”
Rutter looked at the ungainly boy with the round shoulders and the hanging head; for the moment he was improved out of knowledge, his flat chest swelling, his big head thrown back, a proud flush upon his face. There was a touch of consciousness in the pride, but it was none the less real for that, and Jan could only marvel at it. He could not understand this pride of school; but he could see it, and envy it in his heart, even while a fresh sneer formed upon his lips. He wished he was not such an opposite extreme to Carpenter: he could not know that the other’s attitude was possibly unique, that few at all events came to school with such ready-made enthusiasm for their school, if fewer still brought his own antagonism.
But, after all, Carpenter did not understand, and never would.
“You weren’t in the quad just now,” said Jan, grimly.
Chips looked the picture of guilt.
“I was. At the end. And I feel such a brute!”
“You? Why?” Jan was frowning at him. “You weren’t one of them?”
“Of course I wasn’t! But – I might have stood by you – and I didn’t do a thing!”
The wish to show some spirit in his turn, the envious admiration for a quality of which he daily felt the want, both part and parcel of one young nature, like the romantic outlook upon school life, were equally foreign and incomprehensible to the other. Jan could only see Carpenter floundering to the rescue, with his big head and his little wrists; and the vision made him laugh, though not unkindly.
“You would have been a fool,” he said.
“I wish I had been!”
“Then you must be as big a one as I was.”
“But you weren’t, Rutter! That’s just it. You don’t know!”
“I know I was fool enough to lose my wool, as they call it.”
“You mean man enough! I believe the chaps respect a chap who lets out without thinking twice about it,” said Carpenter, treading on a truth unawares. “I should always be frightened of being laughed at all the more,” he added, with one of his inward glances and the sigh it fetched. “But you’ve done better than you think. The fellows at the bottom of the house won’t hustle you. I heard Petrie telling them he’d never had his head smacked so hard in his life!”
Jan broke into smiles.
“I did catch him a warm 'un,” he said. “I wish you’d been there.”
“I only wish it had been one of the big brutes,” said Chips, conceiving a Goliath in his thirst for the ideal.
“I don’t,” said Jan. “He was trading on them being there, and by gum he was right! But they didn’t prevent me from catching him a warm 'un!”
And in his satisfaction the epithet almost rhymed with harm.
Nevertheless, Jan looked another and a brighter being as he stood up and asked Carpenter what his collar was like.
Carpenter had to tell him it was not fit to be seen.
Jan wondered where he could find the matron to give him a clean one.
“Her room’s at the top of the house near your dormitory. I daresay she’d be there.”
“I suppose I’d better go and see. Come on!”
“Shall we go down to the Upper together?” Chips asked as they reached the quad.
“I don’t mind.”
“Then I’ll wait, if you won’t be long.”
And the boy in the quad thought the other had quite forgotten his mad idea of cutting call-over – which was not far from the truth – and that he had not meant it for a moment – which was as far from the truth as it could be. But even Carpenter hardly realised that it was he who had put Rutter on better terms with himself, and in saner humour altogether, by the least conscious and least intentional of all his arguments.
Jan meanwhile was being informed upstairs that he was not supposed to go to his dormitory in daytime, but that since he was there he had better have a comfortable wash as well as a clean collar. So he came down looking perhaps smarter and better set-up than at any moment since his arrival. And at the foot of the stairs the hall door stood open, showing a boy or two within looking over the new illustrated papers; and one of the boys was young Petrie.
Jan stood a moment at the door. Either his imagination flattered him, or young Petrie’s right ear was still rather red. But he was a good type of small boy, clear-skinned, bright-eyed, well-groomed. And even as Jan watched him he cast down the Graphic, stretched himself, glanced at the clock, and smiled quite pleasantly as they stood face to face upon the threshold.
“I’m sorry,” said Jan, not as though he were unduly sorry, but yet without a moment’s thought.
“That’s all right, Tiger!” replied young Petrie, brightly. “But I wouldn’t lose my wool again, if I were you. It don’t pay, Tiger, you take my tip.”
The match on the Upper, although an impromptu fixture on the strength of an Indian summer’s day, was exciting no small interest in the school. It was between the champion house at cricket and the best side that could be got together from all the other houses; and the interesting point was the pronounced unpopularity of the champions (one of the hill houses), due to the insufferable complacency with which they were said to have received the last of many honours. The whole house was accused of having “an awful roll on,” and it was the fervent hope of the rest of the school that their delegates would do something to diminish this offensive characteristic. Boys were lying round the ground on rugs, and expressing their feelings after almost every ball, when Chips and Jan crept shyly upon the scene. But within five minutes a bell had tinkled on top of the pavilion; the game had been stopped because it was not a real match after all; and three or four hundred boys, most of them with rugs over their arms, huddled together in the vicinity of the heavy roller.
It so happened that Heriot was call-over master of the day. He stood against the roller in a weather-beaten straw hat, rapping out the names in his abrupt, unmistakable tones, with a lightning glance at almost every atom that said “Here, sir!” and detached itself from the mass. The mass was deflating rapidly, and Jan was moistening his lips before opening them for the first time in public, when a reddish head, whose shoulders were wedged not far in front of him, suddenly caught Jan’s eye.
No answer. Heriot looking up with pencil poised.
And out slips Jan in dire confusion, to join Carpenter on the outskirts of the throng; to be cursed under Shockley’s breath; and just to miss the stare of the boy with reddish hair, who has turned a jovial face on hearing the name for the second time.
“I say, Carpenter!”
“Did you see who that was in front of us?”
“You bet! And they said he wasn’t coming back till half-term! I’m going to wait for him.”
“Then don’t say anything about me – see? He never saw me, so don’t say anything about me.”
And off went Jan to watch the match, more excited than when he had lost self-control in the quad; the difference was that he did not lose it for a moment now. He heard the name of Devereux called over in its turn. He knew that Carpenter had joined Devereux a moment later. He wondered whether Devereux had seen him also – seen him from the first and pretended not to see him – or only this minute while talking to Chips? Was he questioning Chips, or telling him everything in a torrent?
Jan felt them looking at him, felt their glances like fire upon his neck and ears, as one told and the other listened. But he did not turn round. He swore in his heart that no power should induce him to turn round. And he kept his vow for minutes and minutes that seemed like hours and hours.
It was just as well, for he would have seen with his eyes exactly what he saw in his mind, and that was not all there was to see. There was something else that Jan must have seen – and might have seen through – had his will failed him during the two minutes after call-over. That was the celerity with which Heriot swooped down upon Devereux and Carpenter; laid his hand upon the shoulder of the boy who had won his last term’s prize; stood chatting energetically with the pair, chatting almost sharply, and then left them in his abrupt way with a nod and a smile.
But Jan stood square as a battalion under fire, watching a game in which he did not follow a single ball; and as he stood his mind changed, though not his will. He wanted to speak to Evan Devereux now. At least he wanted Evan to come and speak to him; in a few minutes, he was longing for that. But no Evan came. And when at length he did turn round, there was no Evan to come, and no Chips Carpenter either.