The Captain, August 1903
IGHT I observe, sir——”
“You may observe,” said the referee, kindly, “whatever you like. Twenty-five.”
“The rules say——”
“I have given my decision. Twenty-five!” A spot of red appeared on the official cheek. The referee, who had been heckled steadily since the kick-off, was beginning to be annoyed.
“The ball went be’ind without bouncing, and the rules say——”
“Twenty-five!!” shouted the referee. “I know what the rules say quite well.” And he blew his whistle with an air of finality. The secretary of the Bargees’ F.C. subsided reluctantly, and the game was re-started.
The Bargees’ match was a curious institution. Their real name was the Old Crockfordians. When, a few years before, the St. Austin’s secretary had received a challenge from them—dated from Stapleton, where their secretary happened to reside—he had argued within himself as follows: “This sounds all right. Old Crockfordians? Never heard of Crockford. Probably some large private school somewhere. Anyhow, they’re certain to be decent fellows.” And he arranged the fixture. It then transpired that Old Crockford was a village, and, to judge from their appearance on the day of battle, their football team seemed to have been recruited exclusively from the riff-raff of the same. They wore green shirts with a bright yellow leopard over the heart, and O.C.F.C. woven in large letters about the chest. One or two of the outsides played in caps, and the team to a man criticised the referee’s decisions with point and pungency.
Unluckily, the first year of the fixture saw a weak team of Austinians rather badly beaten, with the result that it became a point of honour to wipe this off the slate before the match could be cut out of the card. The next year was also unlucky. The Bargees managed to score a penalty goal in the first half, and won on that. In the following season the match resulted in a draw, and by that time the thing had become an annual event. Now, however, the school was getting some of its own back. The Bargees had brought down a centre-threequarter of some reputation from the North—who happened to be staying in the village at the time of the match—and were as strong in the scrum as ever. But St. Austin’s had a great team, and were carrying all before them. Charteris and Graham at half had the ball out of their centres in a way that made Merevale, who looked after the football of the school, feel that life was worth living. And when once it was out, things happened rapidly. MacArthur, the captain of the school fifteen, with Thomson as his fellow centre, and Welch and Bannister on the wings, did what they liked with the Bargees’ threequarters. All the school outsides had scored, even the back, who dropped a goal from near the half-way line. The player from the North had scarcely touched the ball during the whole game, and altogether the Bargees were becoming restless and excited. The kick-off from the twenty-five line, which followed upon the small discussion alluded to above, reached Graham. Under ordinary circumstances he would have kicked, but in a winning game original methods often pay. He dodged a furious sportsman in green and yellow, and went away down the touchline. He was almost through, when he stumbled. He recovered himself, but too late. Before he could pass, someone was on him. Graham was not particularly heavy, and his opponent was muscular. He was swung off his feet, and the next moment the two came down together, Graham underneath. A sharp pain shot through his shoulder. A doctor emerged from the crowd—there is always a doctor in every crowd—and made an examination.
“Anything bad?” enquired the referee.
“Collar-bone,” said the doctor. “Rather badly smashed. Be all right in a month or two. Stop his playing. Rather a pity. Much longer before half-time?”
“I was just going to blow the whistle, when this happened.”
Graham was carried off, and the referee blew his whistle for half-time.
“I say, Charteris,” said MacArthur, “who on earth am I to put half instead of Tony?”
“Swift used to play half in his childhood, I believe. I should try him. But, I say, did you ever see such a scrag? Can’t you protest or something?”
“My dear chap, how can I? It’s on our own ground. These people are visitors, if you come to think of it. I’d like to wring the chap’s neck, though, who did it. I didn’t spot who it was. Did you see?”
“Yes. It was their secretary. That man with the beard. I’ll get Prescott to mark him this half.”
Prescott was the hardest tackler in the school, with the single exception of MacArthur. He accepted the commission cheerfully, and promised to do his best by the bearded one. Charteris certainly gave him every opportunity. When he threw the ball out of touch, he threw it to the criminal with the beard, and Prescott, who stuck to him like glue, had generally tackled him before he knew what had happened. After a time he began to grow thoughtful, and whenever there was a line-out, went and stood among the threequarters. In this way much of Charteris’ righteous retribution miscarried, but once or twice he had the pleasure and privilege of putting in a piece of tackling on his own account. The match ended with the enemy still intact, but considerably shaken. He was also much annoyed. He spoke to Charteris on the subject as they were leaving the field.
“I was watching you,” he said.
“That must have been nice for you,” said Charteris.
“Certainly. Any time you’re passing, I’m sure——”
“You ain’t ’eard the last of me yet.”
“That’s something of a blow,” said Charteris, cheerfully, and they parted.
Charteris, having got into his blazer, ran after Welch and MacArthur, and walked back with them to the house. They were all three at Merevale’s.
“Poor old Tony,” said MacArthur, “where have they taken him to? The house?”
“Yes,” said Welch. “I say, Babe, you ought to scratch this match next year. Tell them the card’s full up or something.”
“Oh, I don’t know. Do you think so? One expects pretty rough play in this sort of game. After all, we tackle pretty hard ourselves. I know I always go my hardest. If the man happens to be brittle, that’s his look-out,” concluded the bloodthirsty Babe.
“My dear man,” said Charteris, impatiently, “there’s all the difference between an ordinary hard tackle and a beastly scrag like the one that doubled Tony up. You can’t break a chap’s collar-bone without jolly well trying to.”
“Well, when you come to think of it, the man had some excuse for being rather sick. You can’t expect a fellow to be in an angelic temper when his side’s being beaten by about forty points.”
The Babe was one of those thoroughly excellent individuals who always try, when possible, to make allowances for everybody.
“Well, dash it,” said Charteris, indignantly, “if he had lost his hair, he might have drawn the line at falling on Tony like that. It wasn’t the actual tackling that crocked him. The brute simply jumped on him like a Hooligan. Anyhow, I made him sit up a bit before I finished. I gave Prescott the tip to mark him out of touch. Have you ever been collared by Prescott? It’s a liberal education. Now, there you are, you see. Prescott weighs thirteen-ten, and he’s all muscle, and he goes like a battering-ram. You’ll own that. He goes as hard as he jolly well knows how, and yet the worst that he ever does to a man is to lay him out for a couple of minutes while he gets his wind back. He’s never crocked a man seriously in his life. Well, compare him with this Bargee man. The Bargee isn’t nearly so strong, and he weighs about a stone less, I should say, and yet he smashes Tony’s collarbone. It’s all very well, Babe, but you can’t get away from it. Prescott tackles fairly, and the Bargee scrags.”
“Yes,” said MacArthur, “I suppose you’re right.”
“Rather,” said Charteris, “I wish I’d slain him.”
“By the way,” said Welch, “you were talking to him after the match. What was he saying?”
“By Jove, I’d forgotten. He said I hadn’t heard the last of him, and that I was to wait.”
“What did you say?”
“Oh, I behaved beautifully. I asked him to be sure and look in any time that he was passing, and after a few chatty remarks we parted.”
“I wonder if he meant anything.”
“I believe he means to waylay me with a buckled belt. I sha’n’t stir out except with the Old Man or some other competent body-guard. ’Orrible outrage. Shocking death of a Sint Orsting’s schoolboy. It would look rather well on the posters.”
Welch stuck strenuously to his point.
“No, but look here, Charteris,” he said, seriously, “I’m not joking. You see, the man lives in Stapleton, and if he knows anything of school rules——”
“Which he probably doesn’t. Why should he?”
“If he knows anything of school rules, he’ll know that Stapleton is out of bounds, and he may book you there, and report you.”
“Yes,” said MacArthur; “I tell you what, Alderman, you’d better knock off a few of your Stapleton expeditions. You know you wouldn’t go there once a month if it wasn’t out of bounds. You’ll be a prefect next term. I should wait till then, if I were you.”
“My dear chap, what does it matter? The worst that can happen to you for breaking bounds is a couple of hundred lines, and I’ve got a capital of four hundred already in stock. Besides, things would be so slow if you always kept in bounds. I always feel like a cross between Dick Turpin and Machiavelli when I go to Stapleton. It’s an awfully jolly feeling. Like warm treacle running down your back. It’s cheap at two hundred lines.”
“You’re an awful fool,” said Welch, rudely but correctly. Welch was a youth who treated the affairs of other people rather too seriously. He worried over them. This is not a particularly common trait in either boy or man, but Welch had it highly developed. He could not probably have explained exactly why he was worried, but he undoubtedly was. Welch had a very grave and serious mind. He shared a study with Charteris—for Charteris, though not yet a school prefect, was part-owner of a study—and close observation had convinced him that the latter was not responsible for his actions, and that he wanted somebody to look after him. He had, therefore, elected himself to the post of a species of modified and unofficial guardian angel to him. The duties were heavy, and the remuneration particularly light.
“Really, you know,” said MacArthur, “I don’t see what the point of all your lunacy is. I don’t know if you’re aware of it, but the Old Man’s getting jolly sick with you.”
“I didn’t know,” said Charteris, “but I’m very glad to hear it. For hist! I have a ger-rudge against the person. Beneath my ban that mystic man shall suffer côute qui côute, Matilda. He sat upon me—publicly, and the resulting blot on my escutcheon can only be wiped out with gore—or broken rules.”
To listen to Charteris on the subject, one might have thought that he considered the matter rather amusing than otherwise. This, however, was simply due to the fact that he treated everything flippantly in conversation. But, like the parrot, he thought the more. The actual casus belli had been trivial. At least, the mere spectator would have considered it trivial. But Charteris, though he would have considered it an insult if anybody had told him so, was sensitive. The affair had happened after this fashion. Charteris was a member of the school corps. The orderly-room of the school corps was in the junior part of the school buildings. Charteris had been to replace his rifle in that shrine of Mars after a mid-day drill, and on coming out into the passage had found himself in the middle of a junior school rag of the conventional type. Somebody’s cap had fallen off, and two hastily picked teams were playing football with it (Association Rules). Now, Charteris was not a prefect. (That, by the way, was another source of bitterness in him towards the Powers, for he was well up in the Sixth, and the others of his set, Welch, Thomson, the Babe, and Tony Graham, who were also in the Sixth—the two last below him in form order, had already received their prefect’s caps). Not being a prefect, it would have been officious in him to have stopped the game. So he was passing on with what Mr. Hurry Bungsho Jabberjee, B.A. would have termed a beaming simper of indescribable suavity, when a member of one of the opposing teams, in effecting a G. O. Smithian dribble, cannoned into him. To preserve his balance, he grabbed at the disciple of Smith amidst applause, and at the precise moment that he did so, a new actor appeared upon the scene—the Headmaster. Now, of all things that lay in his province, the Headmaster most disliked to see a senior “ragging” with a junior. He had a great idea of the dignity of the senior school, and did all that in him lay to see that it was kept up. The greater the number of the juniors with whom the senior was discovered ragging, the more heinous the offence. Circumstantial evidence was dead against Charteris. To all outward appearances, he was one of the players in the impromptu football match. The soft and fascinating beams of the simper, to quote Mr. Jabberjee once more, had not yet faded from his face. In fact, there he was—caught in the act.
A well-chosen word or two in the Headmagisterial bass put a premature end to the football match, and Charteris was proceeding on his way, when the Headmaster called him. He stopped. The Headmaster was angry. So angry, indeed, that he did what, in a more lucid interval, he would not have done. He hauled a senior over the coals in the hearing of a number of juniors, one of whom (unidentified) giggled feebly. As Charteris had on previous occasions observed, the Old Man, when he did start to talk to anyone, didn’t leave out much. The address was not long, but it covered a good deal of ground. The section of it which chiefly rankled in Charteris’ mind, and which had continued to rankle ever since, was that in which the use of the word “buffoon” had occurred. Everybody who has a gift of humour and who (very naturally) enjoys exercising it, hates to be called a “buffoon.” It was Charteris’ one weak spot. Every other abusive epithet in the language slid off without penetrating or causing him the least discomfort. The word “buffoon” went home, right up to the hilt. And, to borrow from Mr. Jabberjee for positively the last time, he had said to himself: “Henceforward I will perpetrate heaps of the lowest dregs of vice.” He had, in fact, started upon a perfect bout of breaking rules simply because they were rules. The injustice of the thing rankled. No one so dislikes being punished unjustly as the person who might have been punished justly on scores of previous occasions, if he had only been found out. To a certain extent Charteris ran amok. He broke bounds and did little work, and—he was beginning to find this out gradually—got thoroughly tired of it all. Offended dignity, however, still kept him at it, and, much as he would have preferred to have resumed a less feverish type of existence, he did not do so.
“I have a ger-rudge against the man,” he said.
“You are an idiot, really,” said Welch.
“Welch,” said Charteris, by way of explanation to the Babe, “is a lad of coarse fibre. He doesn’t understand the finer feelings a bit. He can’t see that I’m doing this simply for the Old Man’s good. Spare the rod, spile the choild. Let’s go and have a look at Tony, when we’ve changed. He’ll be in the sick-room if he’s anywhere.”
“All right,” said the Babe, as he went into his study. “Buck up. I’ll toss you for first bath. Heads. Heads it is. Good.”
Charteris walked on with Welch to their sanctum.
“You know,” said Welch, seriously, stooping to unlace his boots, “rotting apart, you really are a most awful ass. I wish I could get you to see it.”
“Never you mind, ducky,” replied Charteris. “I’m all right. I’ll look after myself.”
T was about a week after the Bargees’ match that the rules respecting bounds were made stricter, much to the popular indignation. The penalty for visiting Stapleton without leave was increased from two hundred lines to two extra lessons. The venomous characteristic of extra lesson was that it cut into one’s football, for the criminal was turned into a formroom from two till four on half-holidays, and so had to scratch all athletic engagements for those days, unless he chose to go for a run afterwards, which he generally did not. In the cricket term the effect was not so deadly. It was just possible that you might get an innings somewhere after four o’clock, even if only at the nets. But during the football season—it was now February—to be in extra lesson meant a total loss of everything that makes life endurable, and the school protested (to one another in undertones) with no uncertain voice against this barbarous innovation.
The reason for the change had been simple. At the corner of Stapleton High Street was a tobacconist’s shop, and Mr. Prater, strolling in one evening to renew his stock of Pioneer, was interested to observe P. St. H. Harrison, of Merevale’s, busy purchasing a consignment of “Girl of My Heart” cigarettes (at twopence-halfpenny the packet of twenty, including a coloured portrait of Lord Kitchener). Now, Mr. Prater was one of the most sportsmanlike of masters. If he had merely met Harrison out of bounds, and it had been possible to have overlooked him, he would have done so. But such a proceeding in the interior of a small shop was impossible. There was nothing to palliate the crime. The tobacconist also kept the wolf from the door and lured the juvenile population of the neighbourhood to it by selling various brands of sweets, but it was perfectly obvious that Harrison was not after these. Guilt was in his eye, and the packet of cigarettes in his hand. Also, Harrison’s house cap was fixed firmly at the back of his head. Mr. Prater finished buying his Pioneer, and went out without a word. That night it was announced to Harrison that the Headmaster wished to see him. The Headmaster saw him; the interview was short and not sweet, and on the following day Stapleton was placed doubly out of bounds.
Tony, who was still in bed, had not heard the news when Charteris came to see him on the evening of the day on which the edict had gone forth.
“How are you getting on?” asked Charteris.
“Oh, fairly well. It’s rather slow.”
“The grub seems all right,” said Charteris, absently reaching out for a slice of cake.
“And you don’t have to do any work.”
“Well, then, it seems to me that you’re having a jolly good time. What don’t you like about it?”
“It’s so slow, being alone all day.”
“Makes you appreciate intellectual conversation all the more when you get it. Mine, for instance.”
“I want something to read.”
“Bring you a Sidgwick’s Greek Prose Composition, if you like. Full of racy stories.”
“I’ve read ’em, thanks.”
“How about Jebb’s Homer? You’d like that. Awfully interesting. Proves that there never was such a man as Homer, you know, and that the Iliad and the Odyssey were produced by evolution. General style, quietly funny. Make you roar.”
“Don’t be an idiot. I’m simply starving for something to read. Haven’t you got anything?”
“You’ve read all mine.”
“Hasn’t Welch got any books?”
“Not one. He bags mine when he wants to read. I’ll tell you what I will do, if you like.”
“I’ll go into Stapleton, and borrow something from Adamson.”
Adamson was the College doctor. Residence: Number Three, High Street, Stapleton. Disposition, mild and obliging.
“By Jove, that’s not a bad idea.”
“It’s a dashed good idea, which wouldn’t have occurred to anyone except a genius. I’ve been quite a pal of Adamson’s ever since I had the flu. I go to tea with him occasionally, and we talk medical shop. Have you ever tried talking medical shop during tea? Gives you an appetite. Ever read anything of James Payn’s?”
“I’ve read ‘Terminations,’ or something,” said Tony doubtfully, “but he’s so obscure.”
“Don’t,” said Charteris sadly, “please don’t. ‘Terminations’ is by one Henry James, and there is a substantial difference between him and James Payn. Anyhow, if you want a biography of James Payn, he wrote a hundred books, and they’re all simply ripping, and Adamson has got a good many of them, and I’m going to borrow a couple, and you’re going to read them. I know one always bars a book that’s recommended to one, but you’ve got no choice. You’re not going to get anything else till you’ve finished those two.”
“All right,” said Tony; “but,” he added, Stapleton’s out of bounds. I suppose Merevale will give you leave to go in?”
“I shan’t ask him. On principle. So long.”
On the following afternoon Charteris went into Stapleton. The distance by road was exactly a mile. If you went by the fields it was longer, because you probably lost your way.
Charteris arrived at the High Street, and knocked at Dr. Adamson’s door. The servant was sorry, but the doctor was out. Her tone seemed to suggest that, if she had had any say in the matter, he would have remained in. Would Charteris come in and wait? Charteris rather thought he would. He waited half an hour, and then, as the absent medico did not appear to be coming, took two books from the shelf, wrote a succinct note explaining what he had done and why he had done it, and hoping the doctor did not object, and went out with his literary spoil into the High Street again.
The time was now close on five o’clock. Lockup was not till a quarter past six—six o’clock, nominally, but the doors were always left open till a quarter past. It would take him about fifteen minutes to get back—less if he trotted.
Obviously the thing to do here was to spend a thoughtful quarter of an hour or so inspecting the sights of the town. These were ordinarily not numerous, but this particular day happened to be market day, and there was a good deal going on. The High Street was full of farmers and animals, the majority of the former being well on the road to intoxication. It is, of course, extremely painful to see a man in such a condition, but when such a person is endeavouring to count a perpetually shifting drove of pigs, the onlooker’s pain is sensibly diminished. Charteris strolled along the High Street observing these and other phenomena with an attentive eye. Opposite the Town Hall he was buttonholed by a perfect stranger, whom by his conversation he soon recognised as the Stapleton “character.” There is a “character” in every small country town. He is not a bad character; still less is he a good character. He is just a “character,” pure and simple. This particular man—though, strictly speaking, he was anything but particular—apparently took a great fancy to Charteris at first sight. He backed him gently against a wall, and insisted on telling him an interminable anecdote of his shady past, when, it appeared, he had been a “super” in a travelling company. The plot of the story, as far as Charteris could follow it, dealt with the company’s visit to Dublin, where some person or persons unknown had with malice prepense scattered several pounds of snuff on the stage previous to a performance of Hamlet. And according to the “character,” when the ghost sneezed steadily throughout his great scene, there was not a dry eye in the house. The “character” had concluded that anecdote, and was half-way through another, when, looking at his watch, Charteris found that it was almost six o’clock. So he interrupted one of his friend’s periods by diving past him and moving rapidly down the street. The historian did not seem to object. Charteris looked round and saw that he had buttonholed a fresh victim. Charteris was still looking in one direction and walking in another when he collided with somebody.
“Sorry,” he said hastily. “Hullo!”
It was the secretary of the Old Crockfordians, and, as that gentleman’s face wore a scowl, the recognition appeared to be mutual.
“It’s you, is it?” said the secretary in his polished way.
“I believe so,” said Charteris.
“Out of bounds,” said the man. Charteris was surprised. This grasp of technical lore on the part of a total outsider was as unexpected as it was gratifying.
“What do you know about bounds?” he said.
“I know you ain’t allowed to come ’ere, and you’ll get it ’ot from your master for coming.”
“Ah, but he won’t know. I shan’t tell him, and I’m sure you will respect my secret.” And Charteris smiled in an ensnaring manner.
“Ho,” said the man, “Ho, indeed.”
There is something very clinching about the word “Ho!” It seems definitely to apply the closure to any argument. At least, I have never yet met anybody who could tell me the suitable repartee.
“Well,” said Charteris, affably, “don’t let me keep you. I must be going on.”
“Ho,” observed the man once more, “ho, indeed.”
“That’s a wonderfully shrewd remark,” said Charteris, “but I’d like to know exactly what it means.”
“You’re out of bounds.”
“Your mind seems to run in a groove. You can’t get off that bounds idea. How do you know Stapleton’s out of bounds?”
“I have made enquiries,” said the man darkly.
“By Jove,” said Charteris, delightedly, “this is splendid. You’re a regular sleuth-hound. I daresay you’ve found out my name and house.”
“I may ’ave,” said the man, “or I may not ’ave.”
“Well, now you mention it, I suppose one of the two is probable. Well, I’m awfully glad to have met you. Good-bye. I must be going.”
“You are going with me.”
“Arm in arm?”
“I don’t want to ’ave to take you.”
“No,” said Charteris, “I should jolly well advise you not to try. This is my way.”
He walked on till he came to the road that led to St. Austin’s. The secretary of the Old Crockfordians stalked beside him with determined stride.
“Now,” said Charteris, when they were on the road, “you mustn’t mind if I walk rather fast. I’m in a hurry.”
Charteris’ idea of walking rather fast was to dash off down the road at quarter-mile pace. The move took the man by surprise, but after a moment he followed with much panting. It was evident that he was not in training. Charteris began to feel that the walk home might be amusing in its way. After he had raced some three hundred yards he slowed down to a walk again. It was at this point that his companion evinced a desire to do the rest of the journey with a hand on the collar of his coat.
“If you touch me,” said Charteris, with a surprising knowledge of legal minutiæ, “it’ll be a technical assault, and you’ll get run in. And you’ll get beans anyway if you try it on.”
The man reconsidered the matter and elected not to try it on. Half a mile from the college Charteris began to walk rather fast again. He was a good half-miler, and his companion was bad at any distance. After a game struggle he dropped to the rear, and finished a hundred yards behind in considerable straits. Charteris shot in at Merevale’s door with five minutes to spare, and went up to his study to worry Welch by telling him about it.
“Welch, you remember the Bargee who scragged Tony? Well, there have been all sorts of fresh developments. He’s just been pacing me all the way from Stapleton.”
“Stapleton! You haven’t been to Stapleton?”
“Yes. I went to get some books for Tony.”
“Did Merevale give you leave?”
“No. I didn’t ask him.”
“You are an idiot. And now this Bargee man will go straight to the Old Man and run you in. I wonder you didn’t think of that.”
“It is curious, now you mention it.”
“I suppose he saw you come in here?”
“Rather. He couldn’t have had a better view if he’d paid for a seat. Half a second, I must just run up to Tony with these.”
When he came back he found Welch more serious than over.
“I told you so,” said Welch; “you’re to go to the Old Man at once. He’s just sent over for you. I say, look here, if it’s only lines, I don’t mind doing some if you like.”
Charteris was quite touched by this sporting offer.
“It’s awfully good of you,” he said, “but it doesn’t matter, really. I shall be all right.”
Ten minutes later he returned, beaming.
“Well,” said Welch, “what has he given you?”
“Only his love, to give to you. It was this way. He first asked me if I didn’t know perfectly well that Stapleton was out of bounds. ‘Sir,’ says I, ‘I have known it from childhood’s earliest hour.’ ‘Ah,’ says he to me, ‘did Mr. Merevale give you leave to go in this afternoon?’ ‘No,’ says I, ‘I never consulted the gent. you mention.’”
“Then he ragged me for ten minutes, and finally told me I must go into extra the next two Saturdays.”
“I thought so.”
“Ah, but mark the sequel. When he had finished, I said I was sorry I had mistaken the rules, but I had thought that a chap was allowed to go into Stapleton if he got leave from a master. ‘But you said that Mr. Merevale did not give you leave,’ said he. ‘Friend of my youth,’ I replied courteously, ‘you are perfectly correct—as always. Mr. Merevale did not give me leave. But,’ I added suavely, ‘Mr. Dacre did.’ And came away, chanting hymns of triumph in a mellow baritone, and leaving him in a dead faint on the sofa. And the Bargee, who was present during the conflict, swiftly and silently vanished away, his morale considerably shattered. And that, my gentle Welch,” concluded Charteris cheerfully, “puts me one up. So pass the biscuits and let us rejoice to-day if we never rejoice again.”
HE Easter term was nearing its end. Football, with the exception of the final house-match, which had still to be played, was over, and life was in consequence a trifle less exhilarating than it might have been. In some ways the last few weeks of the Easter term are not unpleasant. You can put on running shorts and a blazer and potter about the grounds, feeling strong and athletic, and delude yourself into a notion that you are training for the sports. Ten minutes at the broad jump, five with the weight, a few sprints on the track—it is amusing in its way, but it is apt to become monotonous. And if the weather is at all inclined to be chilly, such an occupation becomes impossible.
Charteris found things particularly dull. He was a fair average runner, but there were others far better at every distance, so that he saw no use in mortifying the flesh with strict training. On the other hand, in view of the fact that the final house-match was still an event of the future and that Merevale’s was one of the two teams that were going to play it, it behoved him to keep himself at least moderately fit. The muffin and the crumpet were still things to be reluctantly avoided. He thus found himself in a position where, apparently, the few things which it was possible for him to do were barred, and the nett result was that he felt slightly dull.
To make matters worse, all the rest of his set were working full time at their various employments, and had no leisure for amusing him. Welch practised hundred yards sprints daily, and imagined that it would be quite a treat for Charteris to be allowed to time him. So he gave him the stop-watch, saw him safely to the end of the track, and at a given signal dashed off in the approved American style. By the time he reached the tape, dutifully held by two sporting Merevalian juniors, Charteris’ attention had generally been attracted elsewhere. What time?” Welch would pant. “By Jove,” Charteris would reply blandly, “I forgot to look. About a minute and a quarter, I fancy.” At which Welch, who always had a notion that he had done it in ten and a fifth that time, at any rate, would dissemble his joy, and mildly suggest that somebody else should hold the watch. Then there was Jim Thomson, generally a perfect mine of elevating conversation. He was in for the mile and also the half-mile, and refused to talk about anything except those distances, and the best methods for running them in the minimum of time. Charteris began to feel a blue melancholy stealing over him. The Babe, again. He might have helped to while away the long hours, but unfortunately he had been taken very bad with a notion that he was going to win the cross-country race, and when in addition to this he was seized with a panic with regard to the prospects of Merevale’s house team in the final, and began to throw out hints concerning strict training, Charteris regarded him as a person to be avoided. If he fled for sympathy to the Babe just now, the Babe would be as likely as not to suggest that he should come for a ten mile spin with him, to get him into condition for the final houser. The very thought of a ten mile spin gave Charteris that tired feeling.
Lastly, there was Tony. But Tony’s company was worse than none at all. He went about with his arm in a sling, and declined to be comforted. But for his injury he would by now have been training hard for the Aldershot Boxing Competition, and the fact that he was now definitely out of it had a very depressing effect upon him. He lounged moodily about the gymnasium, watching Menzies, who was to take his place in the ring, sparring with the instructor, and refused consolation. Altogether, Charteris was finding life a bore.
He was in such straits for amusement, that one Wednesday afternoon, finding himself with nothing else to do, he set to work on a burlesque and remarkably scurrilous article on “The Staff, by One who has suffered,” which he was going to insert in the Glow-Worm, an unofficial periodical which he had just started for the amusement of the school and his own and his contributors’ profit. He was just warming to his work, and beginning to enjoy himself, when the door opened without a preliminary knock. Charteris deftly slid a piece of blotting-paper over his MS., for Merevale occasionally entered a study in this manner. And though there was nothing about Merevale himself in the article, it would be better perhaps, thought Charteris, if he did not see it.
But it was not Merevale. It was somebody far worse. The Babe. The Babe was clothed as to his body in football clothes, and as to his face in a look of holy enthusiasm. Charteris knew what that look meant. It meant that the Babe was going to try and drag him out for a run.
“Go away, Babe,” he said, “I’m busy.”
“Why on earth are you slacking in here on this ripping afternoon?”
“Slacking!” said Charteris, “I like that. I’m doing ber-rain work, Babe. I’m writing an article on masters and their customs, which will cause a profound sensation in the Common Room. At least, it would, if they ever read it, but they won’t. Or I hope they won’t, for their sakes and mine. So run away, my precious Babe, and don’t disturb your uncle when he’s busy.”
“Rot,” said the Babe, firmly; “you haven’t taken any exercise for a week. Look here, Alderman,” he added, sitting down on the table, and gazing sternly at his victim, “it’s all very well, you know, but the final comes on in a few days, and you know you aren’t in any too good training.”
“I am,” said Charteris. “I’m as fit as anything. Simply full of beans. Feel my ribs.”
The Babe declined the offer.
“No, but I say,” he said, plaintively, “I wish you’d treat the thing seriously. It’s getting jolly serious, really. If Dacre’s win that cup again this year, that’ll make four years running.”
“Not so,” replied Charteris, like the mariner of infinite-resource-and-sagacity, “not so, but far otherwise. It’ll only make three.”
“Well, three’s bad enough.”
“True, O king! Three is quite bad enough.”
“Well, then, there you are. Now you see.”
Charteris looked puzzled.
“Would you mind explaining that remark?” he said slowly. “Your brain works too rapidly for me.”
But the Babe had jumped down from the table, and was prowling round the room, opening Charteris’ boxes.
“What are you playing at?” enquired Charteris.
“Where do you keep your footer things?”
“What do you want with my footer things? Excuse my asking.”
“I’m going to watch you put them on, and then you’re coming for a run.”
“Oh,” said Charteris.
“Yes, just a gentle spin to keep you in condition. Hullo, this looks like them.”
He plunged both hands into a box, and flung out a mass of football clothes. It reminded Charteris of a terrier digging at a rabbit hole. He protested.
“Don’t, Babe. Treat ’em tenderly. You’ll be spoiling the crease in those bags if you heave them about like that. I’m very particular about how I look on the footer field. I was always taught to look like a little gentleman. Well, now you’ve seen them, put ’em away.”
“Put ’em on,” said the Babe firmly.
“You are a beast, Babe. I don’t want to go for a run. I’m getting too old for violent exercise.”
“Buck up. We mustn’t chuck any chances away. Now that Tony’s crocked, we shall have to do all we know to win that match.”
“I don’t see what need there is to get excited about it. Considering we’ve got three of the first threequarters and the second fifteen back, we ought to do pretty well.”
“But, man, look at Dacre’s scrum. There’s Prescott to start with. He’s worth any two of our men put together. Then they’ve got Carter, Smith, and Hennesey out of the first, and Reeve-Jones out of the second. And their outsides aren’t so very bad, if you come to think of it. Bannister’s in the first, and the other three-quarters are all good. And they’ve got both the second halves. You’ll have practically to look after both of them now that Tony can’t play. And Baddeley has come on a lot since last term.”
“Babe,” said Charteris, “you have reason. I will turn over a new leaf. I will be good. Give me my things and I’ll come for a run. Only please don’t let it be more than twenty miles.”
“Good man,” said the gratified Babe; “we won’t go far and we’ll take it quite easy.”
“I tell you what,” said Charteris, “do you know a place called Worbury? I thought you wouldn’t. It’s only a sort of hamlet. Two cottages, four public-houses, and a duckpond, and that sort of thing. Welch and I ran out there one time last year. It’s in the Badgwick direction, about three miles by road, mostly along the level. I vote we muffle up fairly well, blazers and sweaters, and so on, run to Worbury, tea at one of the cottages, and be back in time for lock-up. How does that strike you?”
“It sounds all right. How about tea, though? Are you certain you can get it?”
“Rather. The oldest inhabitant is quite a pal of mine.”
Charteris’ circle of acquaintances was a standing wonder to the Babe and other Merevalians. He seemed to know everybody in the county.
When once he was fairly started on any business, Charteris generally shaped well. It was the starting that he found the difficulty. Now that he was actually in motion, he was enjoying himself thoroughly. He wondered why on earth he had been so reluctant to come for this run. The knowledge that there were three miles to go, and that he was equal to them, made him feel a new man. He felt fit. And there is nothing like feeling fit for dispelling boredom. He swung along with the Babe at a steady pace.
“There’s the cottage,” he said, as they turned a bend of the road, and Worbury appeared a couple of hundred yards away. “Let’s sprint.”
They arrived at the door with scarcely a yard between them, much to the admiration of the Oldest Inhabitant, who was smoking a thoughtful pipe in his front garden. Mrs. Oldest Inhabitant came out of the cottage at the sound of voices, and Charteris broached the subject of tea. The menu was varied and indigestible, but even the Babe, in spite of his devotion to strict training, could scarcely forbear smiling happily at the mention of hot cakes.
During the mauvais quart d’heure before the meal, Charteris kept up an animated flow of conversation with the Oldest Inhabitant, the Babe joining in from time to time when he could think of something to say. Charteris appeared to be quite a friend of the family. He enquired after the Oldest Inhabitant’s rheumatics, and was gratified to find that they were distinctly better. How was Mrs. O. I.? Prarper hearty? Excellent. How was the O. I.’s nevvy?
At the mention of his nevvy, the Oldest Inhabitant became discursive. He told his audience everything that had happened in connection with the said nevvy for years back. After which he started to describe what he would probably do in the future. Amongst other things, there were going to be some sports at Rutton that day week, and his nevvy intended to try and win the cup for what the Oldest Inhabitant vaguely described as “a race!” He had won it last year. Yes, prarper good runner, his nevvy. Where was Rutton, the Babe wanted to know. About eight miles out of Stapleton, said Charteris, who was well up in the local geography. You got there by train. It was the next station.
Mrs. O. I. came out to say that tea was ready, and being drawn into the conversation on the subject of the Rutton Sports, produced a programme of the same, which the nevvy had sent her. From this it appeared that the nevvy’s “spot” event was the egg and spoon race. An asterisk against his name pointed him out as last year’s winner.
“Hullo,” said Charteris, “I see there’s a Strangers’ Mile. I think I shall go in for that. I’m a demon at the mile, when roused.”
As they were going back that evening, he reverted to the subject.
“You know, Babe,” he said, “I really think I shall go in for that race. It would be a most awful rag. And it’s the day before the house-match, so it would just keep me fit.”
“Don’t be a fool,” said the Babe; “there would be a fearful row about it, if you were found out. You’d get extras for the rest of the term.”
“Well the houser comes off on a Thursday, so it won’t affect that.”
“Yes, but still——”
“I shall ponder on the subject. You needn’t go telling anyone.”
“If you’ll take my advice, you will drop it.”
“Your suggestion has been noted and will receive due attention,” said Charteris. “Put the pace on a bit.”
They lengthened their stride, and conversation ceased.
Printer’s errors corrected above:
Magazine had “It he knows anything of school rules, he’ll know”; corrected to “If”.
In ch. III, magazine had “And if the weather it at all inclined”; corrected to “is”.