“Rather! Aren’t you?”
“I’ve been. I came out again.”
“Because of the crib?”
“Did you tell them so, Chips?”
“I had to; and – and of course they heaved me out, Tiger! And I’ll never do another line with the brutes!”
He turned away; he was quite husky. Jan watched him with a shrug and a groan, hesitated, and then slammed his door.
“Aren’t you going, Tiger?” cried Chips, face about at the sound. “Don’t mind me, you know! I can sweat it out by myself.”
“Well you’re not going to,” growled Jan, flinging the little red book upon the table. “I’d rather work with an old ass like you, Chips, than a great brute like Shockley!”
So that alliance was cemented, and Chips at any rate was Jan’s friend for life. But Jan was slower to reciprocate so strong a feeling; his nature was much less demonstrative and emotional; moreover, the term he had applied to Carpenter was by no means one of mere endearment. There was in fact a good deal about Chips that appealed to Jan as little as to the other small boys in the house. He was indubitably “pi”; he thought too much of his study; he took in all kinds of magazines, and went in for the competitions, being mad about many things including cricket, but no earthly good at fives, and not allowed to play football. He had some bronchial affection that prevented him from running, and often kept him out of first school. “Sloper” and “sham” were neither of them quite the name for him; but both became unpleasantly familiar in the ears of Carpenter during the first half of his first term; and there was just enough excuse for them to keep such a lusty specimen as Jan rather out of sympathy with a fellow who neither got up in the morning nor played games like everybody else.
Nevertheless, they could hardly have seen more of each other than they did. They went up and down the hill together, for Chips was always at Jan’s elbow after school, and never sooner than when Jan had made a special fool of himself in form. Chips was as little to be deterred by the gibes of the rest on the way back, as by the sullen silence in which the Tiger treated his loyalty and their scorn. If Rutter had recovered tone enough to play fives after twelve, Carpenter was certain to be seen looking over the back wall; and as sure as Jan went up to football in the afternoon, Chips went with him in his top-coat, and followed the game wistfully at a distance. Down they would come together when the game was over, as twilight settled on the long stone street, and tired players shod in mud tramped heavily along either pavement. Now was Chips’s chance for the daily papers before the roaring fire in hall, while Jan changed with the rest in the lavatory; and as long as either had a tizzy there was just time for cocoa and buns at the nearest confectioner’s before third school.
The nearest confectioner’s was not the fashionable school resort, but it was quite good enough for the rank and file of the lower forms.
Milk and “dog-rocks” were indeed provided last thing at night and first thing in the morning; but if you chose to get up late there was hardly time for a mouthful as you sped out of the quad and along the street to prayers, buttoning your waistcoat as you ran. This was not often Jan’s case, but it was on the morning after the match between his house and another in the first round of the Under Sixteen. Heriot’s had won an exciting game, and Jan was conscious of having done his share in the bully. He was distinctly muscular for his age, and had grown perceptibly in even these few weeks at school. His sleep was haunted by an intoxicating roar of “Reds!” (his side’s colour for the nonce) and stinging counter cries of “Whites!” Once at least he had actually heard his own nickname shouted in approval by some big fellow of his house; and he heard it all again as he dressed and dashed out, on a particularly empty stomach, into a dark and misty morning, with the last bell flagging as if it must stop with every stroke; he heard it above his own palpitations all through prayers; on his knees he was down in another bully, smelling the muddy ball, thirsting to feel it at his feet again.
It chanced to be a mathematical morning, and Jan felt thankful as he went his way after prayers; for he was not in Haigh’s mathematical, but in the Spook’s; and the Spook was a peculiarly innocuous master, who had a class-room in his quarters in the town, but not a house.
“The Thirteenth Proposition of the First Book of Euclid,” sighed the Spook, exactly as though he were giving out a text in Chapel. “Many of you seem to have found so much difficulty over this that I propose to run over it again, if you will kindly hold your tongues. Hold your tongue, Kingdon! Another word from you, Pedley, and you’ll have whipping in front of you – or rather behind you!”
The little joke was a stock felicity of the Spook’s, and it was received in the usual fashion. At first there was a little titter, but nothing more until the Spook himself was seen to wear a sickly smile; thereupon the titter grew into a roar, and the roar rose into a bellow, and the bellow into one prolonged and insolent guffaw which the cadaverous but smiling Spook seemed to enjoy as much as the smallest boy in his mathematical. Jan alone did not join in the derisive chorus; to him it sounded almost as though it were in another room; and the figure of the Spook, standing before his blackboard, holding up a piece of chalk for silence, had become a strangely nebulous and wavering figure.
“'The angles that one straight line makes with another straight line,’” began the Spook at last, in a voice that Jan could hardly hear, “'are together equal … together equal … together equal …’”
Jan wondered how many more times he was to hear those two words; his head swam with them; the Spook had paused, and was staring at him with fixed eyes and open mouth; and yet the words went on ringing in the swimming head, fainter and fainter, and further and further away, as Jan fell headlong into the unfathomable pit of insensibility.
He came to earth and life on a dilapidated couch in the Spook’s study, where the Spook himself was in the act of laying him down, and of muttering in sepulchral tones, “A little faint, I fear!”
Jan had never fainted before, and in his heart he was rather proud of the achievement; but he was thankful that he had chosen the one first school of the week that was given over to mathematics. He would have been very sorry to have come to himself in the arms of Haigh. The Spook was a man who had obviously mistaken his vocation; but it was least obvious when mere kindness and goodness were required of him. Jan was detained in his study half the morning, and regaled with tea and toast and things to read. Heriot also looked in before second school, but was rather brusque and unsympathetic (after the Spook) until Jan ventured to say he hoped he would be allowed to play football that afternoon, as he had never felt better in his life. Heriot said that was a question for the doctor, who would be in to see Jan during the forenoon.
The doctor came, and Jan could not remember the last time a doctor had been to see him. This one sat over him with a long face, felt his pulse, peered into his eyes, looked as wise as an owl at the other end of his stethoscope, and then began asking questions in a way that put Jan very much on his guard.
“So you’ve been playing football for your house?”
“Yessir – Under Sixteen.”
“I suppose you played football before you came here?”
“No, sir,” said Jan, beginning to feel uncomfortable.
“Weren’t you allowed?”
This question came quickly, but Jan took his time over it as coolly as he could. Obviously the doctor little dreamt that this was his first school. On no account must he suspect it now. And it was true, as it happened, that his father had once and for all forbidden Jan to play football with Master Evan, because he played so roughly.
“You were not allowed?”
“Do you know why?”
“Well, I think I do,” said the doctor, rising. “And you mustn’t play here, either, at any rate for the present.”
Jan shot upright on the sofa.
“Your heart isn’t strong enough,” said the doctor.
“My heart’s all right!” cried Jan, indignantly.
“Perhaps you’ll allow me to be the best judge of that,” returned the doctor. “You may go back to your house, and I shall send a line to Mr. Heriot. There’s no reason why you should lie up; this is Saturday, you’ll be quite fit for school on Monday; but no football, mind, until I give you leave.”
Jan tried to speak, but he had tied his own tongue. He could not explain to the doctor, he could not explain to Heriot. He did not know why he had fainted for the first time in his life that morning; he only knew that it was not his heart, that he had never felt better than after yesterday’s match. And now he was to be deprived of the one thing he liked at school, the one thing he was by way of getting good at, his one chance of showing what was in him to those who seemed to think there was nothing at all! And another Under Sixteen house-match would be played next week, perhaps against Haigh, who had also won their tie. And all he would be able to do would be to stand by yelling “Reds!” and having his shins lashed by some beastly pr?postor, and hearing himself bracketed with Chips as a “sham” and a “sloper” – and knowing it was true!
That was the worst of it. His heart was all right. It was all a complete misunderstanding and mistake. It was a mistake that Jan knew he could have set right by going to Heriot and explaining why he had never played football before, and why it was barely true to say that he had not been allowed.
But Jan was not going to anybody to say anything of the kind.
On the notice-board in the colonnade there was a sudden announcement which no new boy could understand. It was to the effect that Professor Abinger would pay his annual visit on the Monday and Tuesday of the following week. Neither Carpenter nor Rutter had ever heard his name before, and, on the way up the hill to second school, they inquired of Rawlinson, the small fellow in his own house whom Haigh had begun reviling on the first morning of the term.
“Who’s Abinger?” repeated Rawlinson. “You wait and see! You’ll love him, Tiger, as much as I do!”
“Why shall I?” asked Jan, who liked Rawlinson, and only envied him his callous gaiety under oppression.
“Because he’ll get us off two days of old Haigh,” said Rawlinson, capering as though the two days would never end.
“I’m not hustling. I take my oath I’m not. Grand old boy, Abinger, besides being just about the biggest bug alive on elocution!”
“Who says so?”
“Jerry, for one! Anyhow he comes down twice a year, and takes up two whole days, barring first school and private work; that’s why Abinger’s a man to love.”
“But what does he do? Give us readings all the time?” asked Chips, one of whose weaknesses was the inane question.
“Give us readings? I like that!” cried Rawlinson, shouting with laughter. “It’s the other way about, my good ass!”
“Do we have to read to him?”
“Every mother’s son of us, before the whole school, and all the masters and the masters’ wives!”
Chips went on asking questions, and Jan was only silent because he took a greater interest in the answers than he cared to show. The ordeal foreshadowed by Rawlinson was indeed rather alarming to a new boy with an accent which had already exposed him to some contumely. Yet his ear, sharpened by continual travesties of his speech, informed Jan that he was by no means the only boy in the school whose vowels were of eccentric breadth. It was a point on which he was not unduly sensitive, but, in his heart, only too willing to improve. He was, however, more on his guard against the outlandish word and the rustic idiom, which still cropped up in his conversation, but could not possibly affect his reading aloud. The result of the last reflection was that Jan subdued his fears, and rejoiced with Rawlinson at the prospect of a break in the term’s work.
Their joy was enhanced by the obvious exasperation of Haigh, who scarcely concealed from his form his own opinion of Professor Abinger and the impending function. Many were his covert sneers, and loud his angry laughter, as he hit upon something for the Middle Remove to declaim piecemeal between them. The chosen passage was taken almost at random from one of Hans Andersen’s Fairy Tales, which for some reason formed a standard work throughout the school, and which drew from Haigh the next thing to a personal repudiation of the volume in his hands. It was at least plain that means and end shared his cordial disapproval, but outward loyalty clipped the spoken word, and the form were not surprised when he finished with a more satisfying fling at Jan.
“Some of you fellows in Mr. Heriot’s house,” said Haigh, “may perhaps find time to rehearse Rutter in the few words that are likely to fall to his tender mercies. Otherwise we may trust him to disgrace us before everybody.”
Indignant glances were cast at Jan’s hangdog head by those who wished to stand well with Haigh; one within reach dealt him a dexterous kick upon the shins; and Jan took it all with leaden front, for that was his only means of getting the least bit even with his adult tormentor. Nevertheless, on the Sunday evening, when one could sit in another’s study after lock-up by special leave, and Jan and Chips had availed themselves of the privilege, Hans Andersen was the author that each had open before him, as the pair munched their way through a bag of biscuits bought with their Saturday allowance.
They were not disappointed in the elderly gentleman who opened his campaign next morning. He had an admirable platform presence, and a fine histrionic face in a cascade of silvery hair. Nor had he made many of his opening observations – in a voice like a silver bell – before the youngest of his new hearers perceived that Professor Abinger was really as distinguished as he looked. He was evidently the companion of even more distinguished men. He spoke of the statesmen and the judges whom he had specially coached for the triumphs of their political and forensic careers. He mentioned a certain Cabinet Minister as a particularly painstaking pupil in his younger days. He laid the scene of a recent personal experience in a ducal mansion, and that led him into an indiscreet confession involving an even more illustrious name. Professor Abinger seemed quite embarrassed by his inadvertence; and the Head Master, who had taken a side seat on his own platform, might have been seen frowning at his watch, which he closed with a very loud snap. But the two new boys in the Middle Remove saw how difficult it must be for a member of such exalted circles to avoid all mention of his most intimate acquaintance. And when Rawlinson looked at them and laughed, they nodded their complete agreement with his estimate of the eminent professor.
“When I look about me in this schoolroom,” concluded Mr. Abinger somewhat hastily, as he beamed upon the serried ranks before him, “and when I see the future generals and admirals, bishops and statesmen, lawyers and physicians of high standing – men of mark in every sphere – even Peers of the Realm itself – who hear me now, whom I myself am about to hear in my turn – when I dip into your futures far as human eye can see – then I realise afresh the very wide responsibility – the – the imperial importance – of these visits to this school!”
There might have been applause; a certain amount of sly merriment there was; but Mr. Thrale prevented the one, and cut the other mighty short, by sternly summoning the Upper Fourth.
There was a scraping and shambling of feet in the rows behind the Middle Remove, and up to the platform trooped the pioneer force. Jan could only think of the narrowness of his escape – he had heard that the forms were called up in any order – and he was wondering whether there was so much to fear after all, from such a perfect gentleman and jolly old boy, when Evan Devereux passed quite close to him with the other pioneers. And Evan’s ears were red to the tip – Evan who looked neat and dapper enough to stand up before the world – Evan who was a gentleman if there was one in the school!
The Upper Fourth huddled together on the platform, each boy with a fat blue volume of Hans Christian Andersen open at the fatal place. Then, at a sign from the Head Master, the captain of the form took a step forward, threw out his chest like a man, and plunged into the middle of one of the tales with a couple of sentences that made the rafters ring. The professor stood smiling his approval at the intrepid youth’s side, and Mr. Thrale nodded his head as he called for the second boy in form’s order. The successful performer sidled to the end of an empty bench immediately below the platform, and sat down against the wall. His place was taken by one bent on following his good example, but in too great a hurry to get it over. “'A myrtle stood in a pot in the window,’” he had begun in a breath, when the Head Master exclaimed “Three o’clock!” in portentous tones, and the second performer melted from the platform like a wraith.
“That’s the worst he does to you,” whispered Carpenter, who had been making his usual inquiries. “It only means coming in at three for another shot with the other failures.”
Meanwhile the professor was pointing out the second boy’s mistake. He laid it down as the first of first principles that a distinct pause must separate the subject of any sentence from its predicate; he added that he had preached that doctrine in that place for so many years that he had hoped it was unnecessary to begin preaching it again; but perhaps he had never had the advantage of meeting his young friend before? His young friend had to rise in his place of premature retirement, next but one to the wall, and confess with burning cheeks that such was not the case. And when the point had been duly laboured, proceedings were resumed by a lad who cleared the obstacle with an audaciously protracted pause after the word “myrtle.”
It was an obstacle at which many fell throughout the morning, the three o’clock sentence being promptly pronounced upon each; but there were other interludes more entertaining to the audience and more trying to the temporary entertainer. There were several stammerers who were made to beat time and to release a syllable at each beat; and there was more than one timid child to be paternally conducted by the professor to the very far end of the huge room, and made to call out, “Can you hear my voice?” until the Head Master at his end signified that he could. (“No, I can’t!” he replied very sternly on one occasion.) There were even a few mirthful seconds supplied by Devereux, of all fellows, over something which Jan quite failed to follow, but which made him almost as hot and miserable as Evan had turned upon the platform.
Devereux, however, had looked rather nervous all the time; as he waited his turn at Abinger’s elbow he seemed uncomfortably conscious of himself, and he stepped into the breach at last as though the cares of the school were on his insignificant shoulders. Jan felt for him so keenly as to hold his breath. Evan had to utter an extravagant statement about a bottle, but his reading was no worse than nervous until he came to the word “exhilarated.” He said “exhilyarated.” The professor invited him to say it again, and with the request his paternal smile broadened into a grin of less oppressive benevolence. It was a very slight change of expression, which had occurred more than once before, but on this occasion it filled Jan with a sudden revulsion of feeling towards Professor Abinger. Then Evan said “ex-hill-yarated,” making a mountain of the hill, and a stern voice cried “Three o’clock!” The unlucky culprit looked utterly wretched and crestfallen, and yet so attractive in his trouble that the professor himself was seen to intercede on his behalf. But a still sterner voice reiterated “Three o’clock!”
That was all, and it was so quickly over that Devereux was himself again before the Upper Fourth returned in a body to their place. Indeed, he came back smiling, and with a jaunty walk, as some criminals foot it from the dock. But Jan could not catch his eye, though his own were soft with a sympathy which he longed to show, but only succeeded in betraying to Carpenter.