The Captain, November 1904
WITH the best intentions in the world, however, a headmaster cannot make a row about a thing unless he is given a reasonable amount of time to make it in. The concert being on the last evening of term, there was only a single morning before the summer holidays, and that morning was occupied with the prize-giving. The school assembled at ten o’clock with a shadowy hope that this prize-day would be more exciting than the general run of prize-days, but they were disappointed. The function passed off without sensation. The headmaster did not denounce the school in an impassioned speech from the daïs. He did not refer to the events of the previous evening. At the same time, his demeanour was far from jovial. It lacked that rollicking bonhomie which we like to see in headmasters on prize-day. It was evident to the most casual observer that the affair was not closed. The school would have to pay the bill sooner or later. But eight weeks would elapse before the day of reckoning, which was a comforting thought.
The last prize was handed over to its rightful owner. The last and dullest vote of thanks had been proposed by the last and dullest member of the board of governors. The Bishop of Rumtifoo (who had been selected this year to distribute the prizes) had worked off his seventy minutes’ speech (inaudible, of course, as usual), and was feeling much easier. The term had been formally declared at an end, and those members of the school corps who were going to camp were beginning to assemble in front of the buildings.
“I wonder why it always takes about three hours to get us off to the station,” said Jimmy Silver. “I’ve been to camp two years now, and there’s always been this rotting about in the grounds before we start. Nobody’s likely to turn up to inspect us for the next hour or so. If any gent cares to put in a modest ginger-beer at the shop, I’m with him.”
“I don’t see why we shouldn’t,” said Kennedy. He had seen Fenn go into the shop, and wished to talk to him. He had not seen him after the concert, and he thought it would be interesting to know how Kay had taken it and what his comments had been on meeting Fenn in the house that night.
Fenn had not much to say.
“He was rather worried,” he said, grinning as if the recollection of the interview amused him. “But he couldn’t do anything. Of course, there’ll be a row next term, but it can’t be helped.”
“If I were you,” said Silver, “I should point out to them that you’d a perfect right to play what you liked for an encore. How were you to know the gallery would go off like that? You aren’t responsible for them. Hullo, there’s that bugle. Things seem to be on the move. We must go.”
“So long,” said Fenn.
“Goodbye. Mind you come off against Middlesex.”
Kennedy stayed for a moment.
“Has the Old Man said anything to you yet?” he asked.
“Not yet. He’ll do that next term. It’ll be something to look forward to.”
Kennedy hurried off to take his place in the ranks.
Getting to camp at the end of the summer term is always a nuisance. Aldershot seems a long way from everywhere, and the trains take their time over the journey. Then, again, the heat always happens to be particularly oppressive on that day. Snow may have fallen on the day before, but directly one sets out for camp, the thermometer goes up into three figures. The Eckleton contingent marched into the lines damp and very thirsty.
Most of the other schools were already on the spot, and looked as if they had been spending the last few years there. There was nothing particular going on when the Eckleton warriors arrived, and everybody was lounging about in khaki and shirt-sleeves, looking exasperatingly cool. The only consolation which buoyed up the spirits of Eckleton was the reflection that in a short space of time, when the important-looking gentleman in uniform who had come to meet them had said all he wanted to say on the subject of rules and regulations, they would be like that too. Happy thought! If the man bucked up and cut short the peroration, there would be time for a bathe in Cove Reservoir. Those of the corps who had been to camp in previous years felt quite limp with the joy of the thought. Why couldn’t he get through with it, and give a fellow a chance of getting cool again?
The gist of the oration was apparently that the Eckleton cadets were to consider themselves not only as soldiers—and as such subject to Military Discipline, and the Rules for the Conduct of Troops Quartered in the Aldershot District—but also as members of a public school. In short, that if they misbehaved themselves they would get cells, and a hundred lines in the same breath, as it were.
The corps knew all this ages ago. The man seemed to think he was telling them something fresh. They began positively to dislike him after a while.
He finished at last. Eckleton marched off wearily, but in style, to its lines.
“And about time, too,” said Jimmy Silver. “I wish they would tie that man up, or something. He’s one of the worst bores I know. He may be full of bright conversation in private life, but in public he will talk about his beastly military regulations. You can’t stop him. It’s a perfect mania with him. Now, I believe—that’s to say, I have a sort of dim idea—that there’s a place round about here called a canteen. I seem to remember such a thing vaguely. We might go and look for it.”
Kennedy made no objection.
This was his first appearance at camp. Jimmy Silver, on the other hand, was a veteran. He had been there twice before, and meant to go again. He had a peculiar and extensive knowledge of the ins and outs of the place. Kennedy was quite willing to take him as his guide. He was full of information. Kennedy was surprised to see what a number of men from the other schools he seemed to know. In the canteen there were, amongst others, a Carthusian, two Tonbridge men, and a Haileyburian. They all greeted Silver with the warmth of old friends.
“You get to know a lot of fellows in camp,” explained Jimmy, as they strolled back to the Eckleton lines. “That’s the best of the place. Camp’s the best place on earth, if only you have decent weather. See that chap over there? He came here last year. He’d never been before, and one of the things he didn’t know was that Cove Reservoir’s only about three feet deep round the sides. He took a running dive, and almost buried himself in the mud. It’s about two feet deep. He told me afterwards he swallowed pounds of it. Rather bad luck. Somebody ought to have told him. You can’t do much diving here.”
“Glad you mentioned it,” said Kennedy. “I should have dived myself if you hadn’t.”
Many other curious and diverting facts did the expert drag from the bonded warehouse of his knowledge. Nothing changes at camp. Once get to know the ropes, and you know them for all time.
“The one thing I bar,” he said, “is having to get up at half-past five. And one day in the week, when there’s a divisional field-day, it’s half-past four. It’s hardly worth while going to sleep at all. Still, it isn’t so bad as it used to be. The first year I came to camp we used to have to do a three hours’ field-day before brekker. We used to have coffee before it, and nothing else till it was over. By Jove, you felt you’d had enough of it before you got back. This is Laffan’s Plain. The worst of Laffan’s Plain is that you get to know it too well. You get jolly sick of always starting on field-days from the same place, and marching across the same bit of ground. Still, I suppose they can’t alter the scenery for our benefit. See that man there? He won the sabres at Aldershot last year. That chap with him is in the Clifton footer team.”
When a school corps goes to camp, it lives in a number of tents, and, as a rule, each house collects in a tent of its own. Blackburn’s had a tent, and further down the line Kay’s had assembled. The Kay contingent were under Weyburn, a good sort, as far as he himself was concerned, but too weak to handle a mob like Kay’s. Weyburn was not coming back after the holidays, a fact which perhaps still further weakened his hold on the Kayites. They had nothing to fear from him next term.
Kay’s was represented at camp by a dozen or so of its members, of whom young Billy Silver alone had any pretensions to the esteem of his fellow man. Kay’s was the rowdiest house in the school, and the cream of its rowdy members had come to camp. There was Walton, for one, a perfect specimen of the public school man at his worst. There was Mortimer, another of Kay’s gems. Perry, again, and Callingham, and the rest. A pleasant gang, fit for anything, if it could be done in safety.
Kennedy observed them, and—the spectacle starting a train of thought—asked Jimmy Silver, as they went into their tent just before lights-out, if there was much ragging in camp.
“Not very much,” said the expert. “Chaps are generally too done up at the end of the day to want to do anything except sleep. Still, I’ve known cases. You sometimes get one tent mobbing another. They cut the ropes, you know. Low trick, I think. It isn’t often done, and it gets dropped on like bricks when it’s found out. But why? Do you feel as if you wanted to do it?”
“It only occurred to me that we’ve got a lively gang from Kay’s here. I was wondering if they’d get any chances of ragging, or if they’d have to lie low.”
“I’d forgotten Kay’s for the moment. Now you mention it, they are rather a crew. But I shouldn’t think they’d find it worth while to rot about here. It isn’t as if they were on their native heath. People have a prejudice against having their tent-ropes cut, and they’d get beans if they did anything in that line. I remember once there was a tent which made itself objectionable, and it got raided in the night by a sort of vigilance committee from the other schools, and the chaps in it got the dickens of a time. None of them ever came to camp again. I hope Kay’s’ll try and behave decently. It’ll be an effort for them; but I hope they’ll make it. It would be an awful nuisance if young Billy made an ass of himself in any way. He loves making an ass of himself. It’s a sort of hobby of his.”
As if to support the statement, a sudden volley of subdued shouts came from the other end of the Eckleton lines.
“Go it, Wren!”
“Stick to it, Silver!”
Silence, followed almost immediately by a gruff voice inquiring with simple directness what the dickens all this noise was about.
“Hullo!” said Kennedy. “Did you hear that? I wonder what’s been up? Your brother was in it, whatever it was.”
“Of course,” said Jimmy Silver, “he would be. We can’t find out about it now, though. I’ll ask him to-morrow, if I remember. I sha’n’t remember, of course. Good-night.”
Half an hour later, Kennedy, who had been ruminating over the incident in his usual painstaking way, reopened the debate.
“Who’s Wren?” he asked.
“Wha’?” murmured Silver, sleepily.
“Who’s Wren?” repeated Kennedy.
“I d’know. . . . oh. . . . Li’l’ beast. . . . Kay’s. . . . Red hair. . . . G’-ni’.”
And sleep reigned in Blackburn’s tent.
the raid on the guard-tent.
REN and Billy Silver had fallen out over a question of space. It was Silver’s opinion that Wren’s nest ought to have been built a foot or two further to the left. He stated baldly that he had not room to breathe, and requested the red-headed one to ease off a point or so in the direction of his next-door neighbour. Wren had refused, and, after a few moments’ chatty conversation, smote William earnestly in the wind. Trouble had begun upon the instant. It had ceased almost as rapidly owing to interruptions from without, but the truce had been merely temporary. They continued the argument outside the tent at five-thirty the next morning, after the réveille had sounded, amidst shouts of approval from various shivering mortals who were tubbing preparatory to embarking on the labours of the day.
A brisk first round had just come to a conclusion when Walton lounged out of the tent, yawning.
Walton proceeded to separate the combatants. After which he rebuked Billy Silver with a swagger-stick. Wren’s share in the business he overlooked. He was by way of being a patron of Wren’s, and he disliked Billy Silver, partly for his own sake and partly because he hated his brother, with whom he had come into contact once or twice during his career at Eckleton, always with unsatisfactory results.
So Walton dropped on to Billy Silver, and Wren continued his toilet rejoicing.
Camp was beginning the strenuous life now. Tent after tent emptied itself of its occupants, who stretched themselves vigorously, and proceeded towards the tubbing-ground, where there were tin baths for those who cared to wait until the same were vacant, and a good, honest pump for those who did not. Then there was that unpopular job, the piling of one’s bedding outside the tent, and the rolling up of the tent curtains. But these unpleasant duties came to an end at last, and signs of breakfast began to appear.
Breakfast gave Kennedy his first insight into life in camp. He happened to be tent-orderly that day, and it therefore fell to his lot to join the orderlies from the other tents in their search for the Eckleton rations. He returned with a cargo of bread (obtained from the quartermaster), and, later, with a great tin of meat, which the cook-house had supplied, and felt that this was life. Hitherto breakfast had been to him a thing of white cloths, tables, and food that appeared from nowhere. This was the first time he had ever tracked his food to its source, so to speak, and brought it back with him. After breakfast, when he was informed that, as tent-orderly for the day, it was his business to wash up, he began to feel as if he were on a desert island. He had never quite realised before what washing-up implied, and he was conscious of a feeling of respect for the servants at Blackburn’s, who did it every day as a matter of course, without complaint. He had had no idea before this of the intense stickiness of a jammy plate.
One day at camp is much like another. The schools opened the day with parade drill at about eight o’clock, and, after an instruction series of “changing direction half-left in column of double companies,” and other pleasant movements of a similar nature, adjourned for lunch. Lunch was much like breakfast, except that the supply of jam was cut off. The people who arrange these things—probably the War Office, or Mr. Brodrick, or someone—have come to the conclusion that two pots of jam per tent are sufficient for breakfast and lunch. The unwary devour theirs recklessly at the earlier meal, and have to go jamless until tea at six o’clock, when another pot is served out.
The afternoon at camp is perfect or otherwise, according to whether there is a four o’clock field-day or not. If there is, there are more manœuvrings until tea-time, and the time is spent profitably, but not so pleasantly as it might be. If there is no field-day, you can take your time about your bathe in Cove Reservoir. And a really satisfactory bathe on a hot day should last at least three hours. Kennedy and Jimmy Silver strolled off in the direction of the Reservoir as soon as they felt that they had got over the effects of the beef, potatoes, and ginger-beer which a generous commissariat had doled out to them for lunch. It was a glorious day, and bathing was the only thing to do for the next hour or so. Stump-cricket, that fascinating sport much indulged in in camp, would not be at its best until the sun had cooled off a little.
After a pleasant half hour in the mud and water of the Reservoir, they lay on the bank and watched the rest of the schools take their afternoon dip. Kennedy had laid in a supply of provisions from the stall which stood at the camp end of the water. Neither of them felt inclined to move.
“This is decent,” said Kennedy, wriggling into a more comfortable position in the long grass. “Hullo!”
“What’s up?” inquired Jimmy Silver, lazily.
He was almost asleep.
“Look at those idiots. They’re certain to get spotted.”
Jimmy Silver tilted his hat off his face, and sat up.
“What’s the matter? Which idiot?”
Kennedy pointed to a bush on their right. Walton and Perry were seated beside it. Both were smoking.
“Oh, that’s all right,” said Silver. “Masters never come to Cove Reservoir. It’s a sort of unwritten law. They’re rotters to smoke, all the same. Certain to get spotted some day. . . . Not worth it. . . . Spoils lungs. . . . Beastly bad. . . . training.”
He dozed off. The sun was warm, and the grass very soft and comfortable. Kennedy turned his gaze to the Reservoir again. It was no business of his what Walton and Perry did.
Walton and Perry were discussing ways and means. The conversation changed as they saw Kennedy glance at them. They were the sort of persons who feel a vague sense of injury when anybody looks at them, perhaps because they feel that those whose attention is attracted to them must say something to their discredit when they begin to talk about them.
“There’s that beast Kennedy,” said Walton. “I can’t stick that man. He’s always hanging round the house. What he comes for, I can’t make out.”
“Pal of Fenn’s,” suggested Perry.
“He hangs on to Fenn. I bet Fenn bars him really.”
Perry doubted this in his innermost thoughts, but it was not worth while to say so.
“Those Blackburn chaps,” continued Walton, reverting to another grievance, “will stick on no end of side next term about that cup. They wouldn’t have had a look in if Kay hadn’t given Fenn that extra. Kay ought to be kicked. I’m hanged if I’m going to care what I do next term. Somebody ought to do something to take it out of Kay for getting his own house licked like that.”
Walton spoke as if the line of conduct he had mapped out for himself would be a complete reversal of his customary mode of life. As a matter of fact, he had never been in the habit of caring very much what he did.
Walton’s last remarks brought the conversation back to where it had been before the mention of Kennedy switched it off on to new lines. Perry had been complaining that he thought camp a fraud, that it was all drilling and getting up at unearthly hours. He reminded Walton that he had only come on the strength of the latter’s statement that it would be a rag. Where did the rag come in? That was what Perry wanted to know.
“When it’s not a ghastly sweat,” he concluded, “it’s slow. Like it is now. Can’t we do something for a change?”
“As a matter of fact,” said Walton, “nearly all the best rags are played out. A chap at a crammer’s told me last holidays that when he was at camp he and some other fellows cut the ropes of the guard-tent. He said it was grand sport.”
Perry sat up.
“That’s the thing,” he said, excitedly. “Let’s do that. Why not?”
“It’s beastly risky,” objected Walton.
“What’s that matter? They can’t do anything, even if they spot us.”
“That’s all you know. We should get beans.”
“Still, it’s worth risking. It would be the biggest rag going. Did the chap tell you how they did it?”
“Yes,” said Walton, becoming animated as he recalled the stirring tale, “they bagged the sentry. Chucked a cloth or something over his head, you know. Then they shoved him into the ditch, and one of them sat on him while the others cut the ropes. It took the chaps inside no end of a time getting out.”
“That’s the thing. We’ll do it. We only need one other chap. Leveson would come if we asked him. Let’s get back to the lines. It’s almost tea-time. Tell him after tea.”
Leveson proved agreeable. Indeed, he jumped at it. His life, his attitude suggested, had been a hollow mockery until he heard the plan, but now he could begin to enjoy himself once more.
The lights-out bugle sounded at ten o’clock; the last post at ten-thirty. At a quarter to twelve the three adventurers, who had been keeping themselves awake by the exercise of great pains, satisfied themselves that the other occupants of the tent were asleep, and stole out.
It was an excellent night for their purpose. There was no moon, and the stars were hidden by clouds.
They crept silently towards the guard-tent. A dim figure loomed out of the blackness. They noted with satisfaction, as it approached, that it was small. Sentries at the public-school camp vary in physique. They felt that it was lucky that the task of sentry-go had not fallen that night to some muscular forward from one of the school fifteens, or worse still, to a boxing expert who had figured in the Aldershot competition at Easter. The present sentry would be an easy victim.
They waited for him to arrive.
A moment later Private Jones, of St. Asterisk’s—for it was he—turning to resume his beat, found himself tackled from behind. Two moments later he was reclining in the ditch. He would have challenged his adversary, but unfortunately that individual happened to be seated on his face.
He struggled, but to no purpose.
He was still struggling when a muffled roar of indignation from the direction of the guard-tent broke the stillness of the summer night. The roar swelled into a crescendo. What seemed like echoes came from other quarters out of the darkness. The camp was waking.
The noise from the guard-tent waxed louder.
The unknown marauder rose from his seat on Private Jones, and vanished.
Private Jones also rose. He climbed out of the ditch, shook himself, looked round for his assailant, and, not finding him, hurried to the guard-tent to see what was happening.
THE guard-tent had disappeared.
Private Jones’ bewildered eye, rolling in a fine frenzy from heaven to earth, and from earth to heaven, in search of the missing edifice, found it at last in a tangled heap upon the ground. It was too dark to see anything distinctly, but he perceived that the canvas was rising and falling spasmodically like a stage sea, and for a similar reason—because there were human beings imprisoned beneath it.
By this time the whole camp was up and doing. Figures in déshabille, dashing the last vestiges of sleep away with their knuckles, trooped on to the scene in twos and threes, full of inquiry and trenchant sarcasm.
“What are you men playing at? What’s all the row about? Can’t you finish that game of footer some other time, when we aren’t trying to get to sleep? What on earth’s up?”
Then the voice of one having authority.
“What’s the matter? What are you doing?”
It was perfectly obvious what the guard was doing. It was trying to get out from underneath the fallen tent. Private Jones explained this with some warmth.
“Somebody jumped at me and sat on my head in the ditch. I couldn’t get up. And then some blackguard cut the ropes of the guard-tent. I couldn’t see who it was. He cut off directly the tent went down.”
Private Jones further expressed a wish that he could find the chap. When he did, there would, he hinted, be trouble in the old homestead.
The tent was beginning to disgorge its prisoners.
“Guard, turn out!” said a facetious voice from the darkness.
The camp was divided into two schools of thought. Those who were watching the guard struggle out thought the episode funny. The guard did not. It was pathetic to hear them on the subject of their mysterious assailants.
Matters quieted down rapidly after the tent had been set up again. The spectators were driven back to their lines by their officers. The guard turned in again to try and restore their shattered nerves with sleep until their time for sentry-go came round. Private Jones picked up his rifle and resumed his beat. The affair was at an end as far as that night was concerned.
Next morning, as might be expected, nothing else was talked about. Conversation at breakfast was confined to the topic. No halfpenny paper, however many times its circulation might exceed that of any penny morning paper, ever propounded so fascinating and puzzling a breakfast-table problem. It was the utter impossibility of detecting the culprits that appealed to the schools. They had swooped down like hawks out of the night, and disappeared like eels into mud, leaving no traces.
Jimmy Silver, of course, had no doubts.
“It was those Kay’s men,” he said. “What does it matter about evidence? You’ve only got to look at ’em. That’s all the evidence you want. The only thing that makes it at all puzzling is that they did nothing worse. You’d naturally expect them to slay the sentry, at any rate.”
But the rest of the camp, lacking that intimate knowledge of the Kayite which he possessed, did not turn the eye of suspicion towards the Eckleton lines. The affair remained a mystery. Kennedy, who never gave up a problem when everybody else did, continued to revolve the mystery in his mind.
“I shouldn’t wonder,” he said to Silver, two days later, “if you were right.”
Silver, who had not made any remark for the last five minutes, with the exception of abusive comments on the toughness of the meat which he was trying to carve with a blunt knife for the tent, asked for an explanation.
“I mean about that row the other night.”
“That guard-tent business.”
“Oh, that! I’d forgotten. Why don’t you move with the times? You’re always thinking of something that’s been dead and buried for years.”
“You remember you said you thought it was those Kay’s chaps who did it. I’ve been thinking it over, and I believe you’re right. You see, it was probably somebody who’d been to camp before, or he wouldn’t have known that dodge of cutting the ropes.”
“I don’t see why. Seems to me it’s the sort of idea that might have occurred to anybody. You don’t want to study the thing particularly deeply to know that the best way of making a tent collapse is to cut the ropes. Of course, it was Kay’s lot who did it. But I don’t see how you’re going to have them simply because one or two of them have been here before.”
“No, I suppose not,” said Kennedy.
After tea the other occupants of the tent went out of the lines to play stump-cricket. Silver was in the middle of a story in one of the magazines, so did not accompany them. Kennedy cried off on the plea of slackness.
“I say,” he said, when they were alone.
“Hullo,” said Silver, finishing his story, and putting down the magazine. “What do you say to going after those chaps? I thought that story was going to be a long one that would take half an hour to get through. But it collapsed. Like that guard-tent.”
“About that tent business,” said Kennedy. “Of course that was all rot what I was saying just now. I suddenly remembered that I didn’t particularly want anybody but you to hear what I was going to say, so I had to invent any rot that I could think of.”
“But now,” said Jimmy Silver, sinking his voice to a melodramatic whisper, “the villagers have left us to continue their revels on the green, our wicked uncle has gone to London, his sinister retainer, Jasper Murgleshaw, is washing his hands in the scullery sink, and—we are alone!”
“Don’t be an ass,” pleaded Kennedy.
“Tell me your dreadful tale. Conceal nothing. Spare me not. In fact, say on.”
“I’ve had a talk with the chap who was sentry that night,” began Kennedy.
“Astounding revelations by our special correspondent,” murmured Silver.
“You might listen.”
“I am listening. Why don’t you begin? All this hesitation strikes me as suspicious. Get on with your shady story.”
“You remember the sentry was upset——”
“Somebody collared him from behind, and upset him into the ditch. They went in together, and the other man sat on his head.”
“A touching picture. Proceed, friend.”
“They rolled about a bit, and this sentry chap swears he scratched the man. It was just after that that the man sat on his head. Jones says he was a big chap, strong and heavy.”
“He was in a position to judge, anyhow.”
“Of course, he didn’t mean to scratch him. He was rather keen on having that understood. But his fingers came up against the fellow’s cheek as he was falling. So you see we’ve only got to look for a man with a scratch on his cheek. It was the right cheek, Jones was almost certain. I don’t see what you’re laughing at.”
“I wish you wouldn’t spring these good things of yours on me suddenly,” gurgled Jimmy Silver, rolling about the wooden floor of the tent. “You ought to give a chap some warning. Look here,” he added, imperatively, “swear you’ll take me with you when you go on your tour through camp examining everybody’s right cheek to see if it’s got a scratch on it.”
Kennedy began to feel the glow and pride of the successful sleuth-hound leaking out of him. This aspect of the case had not occurred to him. The fact that the sentry had scratched his assailant’s right cheek, added to the other indubitable fact that Walton, of Kay’s, was even now walking abroad with a scratch on his right cheek, had seemed to him conclusive. He had forgotten that there might be others. Still, it was worth while just to question him. He questioned him at Cove Reservoir next day.
“Hullo, Walton,” he said, with a friendly carelessness which would not have deceived a prattling infant, “nasty scratch you’ve got on your cheek. How did you get it?”
“Perry did it when we were ragging a few days ago,” replied Walton, eyeing him distrustfully.
“Oh,” said Kennedy.
“Silly fool,” said Walton.
“Talking about me?” inquired Kennedy politely.
“No,” replied Walton, with the suavity of a Chesterfield, “Perry.”
They parted, Kennedy with the idea that Walton was his man still more deeply rooted, Walton with an uncomfortable feeling that Kennedy knew too much, and that, though he had undoubtedly scored off him for the moment, a time (as Jimmy Silver was fond of observing with a satanic laugh) would come, and then—!
He felt that it behoved him to be wary.
a night adventure.—the dethronement of fenn.
NE of the things which make life on this planet more or less agreeable is the speed with which alarums, excursions, excitement, and rows generally, blow over. A nine-days’ wonder has to be a big business to last out its full time nowadays. As a rule the third day sees the end of it, and the public rushes whooping after some other hare that has been started for its benefit. The guard-tent row, as far as the bulk of camp was concerned, lasted exactly two days; at the end of which period it was generally agreed that all that could be said on the subject had been said, and that it was now a back number. Nobody, except possibly the authorities, wanted to find out the authors of the raid, and even Private Jones had ceased to talk about it—this owing to the unsympathetic attitude of his tent.
“Jones,” the corporal had observed, as the ex-sentry’s narrative of his misfortunes reached a finish for the third time since réveille that morning, “if you can’t manage to switch off that infernal chestnut of yours, I’ll make you wash up all day and sit on your head all night.”
So Jones had withdrawn his yarn from circulation. Kennedy’s interest in detective work waned after his interview with Walton. He was quite sure that Walton had been one of the band, but it was not his business to find out; even had he found out, he would have done nothing. It was more for his own private satisfaction than for the furtherance of justice that he wished to track the offenders down. But he did not look on the affair, as Jimmy Silver did, as rather sporting; he had a tender feeling for the good name of the school, and he felt that it was not likely to make Eckleton popular with the other schools that went to camp if they got the reputation of practical jokers. Practical jokers are seldom popular until they have been dead a hundred years or so.
As for Walton and his colleagues, to complete the list of those who were interested in this matter of the midnight raid, they lay remarkably low after their successful foray. They imagined that Kennedy was spying on their every movement. In which they were quite wrong, for Kennedy was doing nothing of the kind. Camp does not allow a great deal of leisure for the minding of other people’s businesses. But this reflection did not occur to Walton, and he regarded Kennedy, whenever chance or his duties brought him into the neighbourhood of that worthy’s tent, with a suspicion which increased whenever the latter looked at him.
On the night before camp broke up, a second incident of a sensational kind occurred, which, but for the fact that they never heard of it, would have given the schools a good deal to talk about. It happened that Kennedy was on sentry-go that night. The manner of sentry-go is thus. At seven in the evening the guard falls in, and patrols the fringe of the camp in relays till seven in the morning. A guard consists of a sergeant, a corporal, and ten men. They are on duty for two hours at a time, with intervals of four hours between each spell, in which intervals they sleep the sleep of tired men in the guard-tent, unless, as happened on the occasion previously described, some miscreant takes it upon himself to cut the ropes. The ground to be patrolled by the sentries is divided into three parts, each of which is entrusted to one man.
Kennedy was one of the ten privates, and his first spell of sentry-go began at eleven o’clock.
On this night there was no moon. It was as black as pitch. It is always unpleasant to be on sentry-go on such a night. The mind wanders, in spite of all effort to check it, through a long series of all the ghastly stories one has ever read. There is one in particular of Conan Doyle’s about a mummy that came to life and chased people on lonely roads—but enough! However courageous one may be, it is difficult not to speculate on the possible horrors which may spring out on one from the darkness. That feeling that there is somebody—or something—just behind one can only be experienced in all its force by a sentry on an inky night at camp. And the thought that, of all the hundreds there, he and two others are the only ones awake, puts a sort of finishing touch to the unpleasantness of the situation.
Kennedy was not a particularly imaginative youth, but he looked forward with no little eagerness to the time when he should be relieved. It would be a relief in two senses of the word. His beat included that side of the camp which faces the road to Aldershot. Between camp and this road is a ditch and a wood. After he had been on duty for an hour this wood began to suggest a variety of possibilities, all grim. The ditch, too, was not without associations. It was into this that Private Jones had been hurled on a certain memorable occasion. Such a thing was not likely to happen again in the same week, and, even if it did, Kennedy flattered himself that he would have more to say in the matter than Private Jones had had; but nevertheless he kept a careful eye in that direction whenever his beat took him along the ditch.
It was about half-past twelve, and he had entered upon the last section of his two hours, when Kennedy distinctly heard footsteps in the wood. He had heard so many mysterious sounds since his patrol began at eleven o’clock that at first he was inclined to attribute this to imagination. But a crackle of dead branches and the sound of soft breathing convinced him that this was the real thing for once, and that, as a sentry of the Public Schools’ Camp on duty, it behoved him to challenge the unknown.
He stopped and waited, peering into the darkness in a futile endeavour to catch a glimpse of his man. But the night was too black for the keenest eye to penetrate it. A slight thud put him on the right track. It showed him two things; first, that the unknown had dropped into the ditch, and, secondly, that he was a camp man returning to his tent after an illegal prowl about the town at lights-out. Nobody save one belonging to the camp would have cause to cross the ditch.
Besides, the man walked warily, as one not ignorant of the danger of sentries. The unknown had crawled out of the ditch now. As luck would have it he had chosen a spot immediately opposite to where Kennedy stood. Now that he was nearer Kennedy could see the vague outline of him.
“Who goes there?” he said.
From an instinctive regard for the other’s feelings he did not shout the question in the regulation manner. He knew how he would feel himself if he were out of camp at half-past twelve, and the voice of the sentry were to rip suddenly through the silence fortissimo.
As it was, his question was quite loud enough to electrify the person to whom it was addressed. The unknown started so violently that he nearly leapt into the air. Kennedy was barely two yards from him when he spoke.
The next moment this fact was brought home to him in a very practical manner. The unknown, sighting the sentry, perhaps more clearly against the dim whiteness of the tents than Kennedy could sight him against the dark wood, dashed in with a rapidity which showed that he knew something of the art of boxing. Kennedy dropped his rifle and flung up his arm. He was altogether too late. A sudden blaze of light, and he was on the ground, sick and dizzy, a feeling he had often experienced before in a slighter degree, when sparring in the Eckleton gymnasium with the boxing instructor.
The immediate effect of a flush hit in the regions about the jaw is to make the victim lose for the moment all interest in life. Kennedy lay where he had fallen for nearly half a minute before he fully realised what it was that had happened to him. When he did realise the situation, he leapt to his feet, feeling sick and shaky, and staggered about in all directions in a manner which suggested that he fancied his assailant would be waiting politely until he had recovered. As was only natural, that wily person had vanished, and was by this time doing a quick change into garments of the night. Kennedy had the satisfaction of knowing—for what it was worth—that his adversary was in one of those tents, but to place him with any greater accuracy was impossible.
So he gave up the search, found his rifle, and resumed his patrol. And at one o’clock his successor relieved him.
On the following day camp broke up.
Kennedy always enjoyed going home, but, as he travelled back to Eckleton on the last day of these summer holidays, he could not help feeling that there was a great deal to be said for term. He felt particularly cheerful. He had the carriage to himself, and he had also plenty to read and eat. The train was travelling at fifty miles an hour. And there were all the pleasures of a first night after the holidays to look forward to, when you dashed from one friend’s study to another’s, comparing notes, and explaining—five or six of you at a time—what a good time you had had in the holidays. This was always a pleasant ceremony at Blackburn’s, where all the prefects were intimate friends, and all good sorts, without that liberal admixture of weeds, worms, and outsiders which marred the list of prefects in most of the other houses. Such as Kay’s! Kennedy could not restrain a momentary gloating as he contrasted the state of affairs in Blackburn’s with what existed at Kay’s. Then this feeling was merged in one of pity for Fenn’s hard case. How he must hate the beginning of term, thought Kennedy.
All the well-known stations were flashing by now. In a few minutes he would be at the junction, and in another half-hour back at Blackburn’s. He began to collect his baggage from the rack.
Nobody he knew was at the junction. This was the late train that he had come down by. Most of the school had returned earlier in the afternoon.
He reached Blackburn’s at eight o’clock, and went up to his study to unpack. This was always his first act on coming back to school. He liked to start the term with all his books in their shelves, and all his pictures and photographs in their proper places on the first day. Some of the studies looked like lumber rooms till near the end of the first week.
He had filled the shelves, and was arranging the artistic decorations, when Jimmy Silver came in. Kennedy had been surprised that he had not met him downstairs, but the matron had answered his inquiry with the statement that he was talking to Mr. Blackburn in the other part of the house.
“When did you arrive?” asked Silver, after the conclusion of the first outbreak of holiday talk.
“I’ve only just come.”
“Seen Blackburn yet?”
“No. I was thinking of going up after I had got this place done properly.”
Jimmy Silver ran his eye over the room.
“I haven’t started mine yet,” he said. “You’re such an energetic man. Now, are all those books in their proper places?”
“Yes,” said Kennedy.
“How about the pictures? Got them up?”
“All but this lot here. Sha’n’t be a second. There you are. How’s that for effect?”
“Not bad. Got all your photographs in their places?”
“Then,” said Jimmy Silver, calmly, “you’d better start now to pack them all up again. And why, my son? Because you are no longer a Blackburnite. That’s what.”
“I’ve just had the whole yarn from Blackburn,” continued Jimmy Silver. “Our dear old pal, Mr. Kay, wanting somebody in his house capable of keeping order, by way of a change, has gone to the Old Man and borrowed you. So you’re head of Kay’s now. There’s an honour for you.”
the Bishop of Rumtifoo: Borrowed from W. S. Gilbert’s Bab Ballad “The Bishop of Rum-ti-foo.”
cut the ropes: When this novel was published in book form, all but one of the references to cutting tent-ropes were amended to loosing them. I assume this is the correction suggested by the correspondent mentioned in the Preface to the hardcover first edition (right). This is the only significant change I have found in the camp chapters when comparing the 1986 Penguin edition of the book to this serial.
Mr. Brodrick: William St John Fremantle Brodrick (1856–1942) was Secretary of State for War 1900–03; he later became Viscount Midleton at his father’s death in 1907 and was created 1st Earl of Midleton in 1920.
eye, rolling in a fine frenzy: Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, V, i:
The poet's eye, in fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to Earth, from Earth to heaven.
No halfpenny paper . . . breakfast-table problem: The halfpenny Daily Mail, founded in 1896, had by 1902 reached a circulation of one million; the penny Daily Telegraph, leader in its category, sold about a fifth of that amount. The puzzle competitions and other gimmicky features with which which the Harmsworths promoted the Daily Mail were copied by other publishers; Wodehouse and Westbrook spoofed these in The Globe By the Way Book.
Jasper Murgleshaw is a name twice before used by Wodehouse (see “My Medical Opera” and “The Baronet’s Redemption”); many other evil Jaspers can be found in his works.
Conan Doyle . . . mummy: A short story, “Lot No. 249” (1892), which can be downloaded in .pdf format from the website of Harper’s magazine, where it originally appeared in the October 1892 issue.