The Captain, May 1907
in which a tight corner is evaded.
OR a moment the situation paralysed Mike. Then he began to be equal to it. In times of excitement one thinks rapidly and clearly. The main point, the kernel of the whole thing, was that he must get into the garden somehow, and warn Wyatt. And at the same time, he must keep Mr. Wain from coming to the dormitory. He jumped out of bed, and dashed down the dark stairs.
He had taken care to close the dining-room door after him. It was open now, and he could hear somebody moving inside the room. Evidently his retreat had been made just in time.
He knocked at the door, and went in.
Mr. Wain was standing at the window, looking out. He spun round at the knock, and stared in astonishment at Mike’s pyjama-clad figure. Mike, in spite of his anxiety, could barely check a laugh. Mr. Wain was a tall, thin man, with a serious face partially obscured by a grizzled beard. He wore spectacles, through which he peered owlishly at Mike. His body was wrapped in a brown dressing-gown. His hair was ruffled. He looked like some weird bird.
“Please, sir, I thought I heard a noise,” said Mike.
Mr. Wain continued to stare.
“What are you doing here?” said he at last.
“Thought I heard a noise, please, sir.”
“Please, sir, a row.”
“You thought you heard——!”
The thing seemed to be worrying Mr. Wain.
“So I came down, sir,” said Mike.
The house-master’s giant brain still appeared to be somewhat clouded. He looked about him, and, catching sight of the gramophone, drew inspiration from it.
“Did you turn on the gramophone?” he asked.
“Me, sir!” said Mike, with the air of a bishop accused of contributing to the Police News.
“Of course not, of course not,” said Mr. Wain hurriedly. “Of course not. I don’t know why I asked. All this is very unsettling. What are you doing here?”
“Thought I heard a noise, please, sir.”
“A row, sir.”
If it was Mr. Wain’s wish that he should spend the night playing Massa Tambo to his Massa Bones, it was not for him to baulk the house-master’s innocent pleasure. He was prepared to continue the snappy dialogue till breakfast time.
“I think there must have been a burglar in here, Jackson.”
“Looks like it, sir.”
“I found the window open.”
“He’s probably in the garden, sir.”
Mr. Wain looked out into the garden with an annoyed expression, as if its behaviour in letting burglars be in it struck him as unworthy of a respectable garden.
“He might be still in the house,” said Mr. Wain, ruminatively.
“Not likely, sir.”
“You think not?”
“Wouldn’t be such a fool, sir. I mean, such an ass, sir.”
“Perhaps you are right, Jackson.”
“I shouldn’t wonder if he was hiding in the shrubbery, sir.”
Mr. Wain looked at the shrubbery, as who should say, “Et tu, Brute!”
“By Jove! I think I see him,” cried Mike.
He ran to the window, and vaulted through it on to the lawn. An inarticulate protest from Mr. Wain, rendered speechless by this move just as he had been beginning to recover his faculties, and he was running across the lawn into the shrubbery. He felt that all was well. There might be a bit of a row on his return, but he could always plead overwhelming excitement.
Wyatt was round at the back somewhere, and the problem was how to get back without being seen from the dining-room window. Fortunately a belt of evergreens ran along the path right up to the house. Mike worked his way cautiously through these till he was out of sight, then tore for the regions at the back.
The moon had gone behind the clouds, and it was not easy to find a way through the bushes. Twice branches sprang out from nowhere, and hit Mike smartly over the shins, eliciting sharp howls of pain.
On the second of these occasions a low voice spoke from somewhere on his right.
“Who on earth’s that?” it said.
“Is that you, Wyatt? I say——”
The moon came out again, and Mike saw Wyatt clearly. His knees were covered with mould. He had evidently been crouching in the bushes on all fours.
“You young ass,” said Wyatt. “You promised me that you wouldn’t get out.”
“Yes, I know, but——”
“I heard you crashing through the shrubbery like a hundred elephants. If you must get out at night and chance being sacked, you might at least have the sense to walk quietly.”
“Yes, but you don’t understand.”
And Mike rapidly explained the situation.
“But how the dickens did he hear you, if you were in the dining-room?” asked Wyatt. “It’s miles from his bedroom. You must tread like a policeman.”
“It wasn’t that. The thing was, you see, it was rather a rotten thing to do, I suppose, but I turned on the gramophone.”
“The gramophone. It started playing ‘The Quaint Old Bird.’ Ripping it was, till Wain came along.”
Wyatt doubled up with noiseless laughter.
“You’re a genius,” he said. “I never saw such a man. Well, what’s the game now? What’s the idea?”
“I think you’d better nip back along the wall and in through the window, and I’ll go back to the dining-room. Then it’ll be all right if Wain comes and looks into the dorm. Or, if you like, you might come down too, as if you’d just woke up and thought you’d heard a row.”
“That’s not a bad idea. All right. You dash along then. I’ll get back.”
Mr. Wain was still in the dining-room, drinking in the beauties of the summer night through the open window. He gibbered slightly when Mike reappeared.
“Jackson! What do you mean by running about outside the house in this way! I shall punish you very heavily. I shall certainly report the matter to the headmaster. I will not have boys rushing about the garden in their pyjamas. You will catch an exceedingly bad cold. You will do me two hundred lines, Latin and English. Exceedingly so. I will not have it. Did you not hear me call to you?”
“Please, sir, so excited,” said Mike, standing outside with his hands on the sill.
“You have no business to be excited. I will not have it. It is exceedingly impertinent of you.”
“Please, sir, may I come in?”
“Come in! Of course, come in. Have you no sense, boy? You are laying the seeds of a bad cold. Come in at once.”
Mike clambered through the window.
“I couldn’t find him, sir. He must have got out of the garden.”
“Undoubtedly,” said Mr. Wain. “Undoubtedly so. It was very wrong of you to search for him. You might have been seriously injured. Exceedingly so.”
He was about to say more on the subject when Wyatt strolled into the room. Wyatt wore the rather dazed expression of one who has been aroused from deep sleep. He yawned before he spoke.
“I thought I heard a noise, sir,” he said.
He called Mr. Wain “father” in private, “sir” in public. The presence of Mike made this a public occasion.
“Has there been a burglary?”
“Yes,” said Mike, “only he has got away.”
“Shall I go out into the garden, and have a look round, sir?” asked Wyatt helpfully.
The question stung Mr. Wain into active eruption once more.
“Under no circumstances whatever,” he said excitedly. “Stay where you are, James. I will not have boys running about my garden at night. It is preposterous. Inordinately so. Both of you go to bed immediately. I shall not speak to you again on this subject. I must be obeyed instantly. You hear me, Jackson? James, you understand me? To bed at once. And, if I find you outside your dormitory again to-night, you will both be punished with extreme severity. I will not have this lax and reckless behaviour.”
“But the burglar, sir?” said Wyatt.
“We might catch him, sir,” said Mike.
Mr. Wain’s manner changed to a slow and stately sarcasm, in much the same way as a motor-car changes from the top speed to its first.
“I was under the impression,” he said, in the heavy way almost invariably affected by weak masters in their dealings with the obstreperous, “I was distinctly under the impression that I had ordered you to retire immediately to your dormitory. It is possible that you mistook my meaning. In that case I shall be happy to repeat what I said. It is also in my mind that I threatened to punish you with the utmost severity if you did not retire at once. In these circumstances, James—and you, Jackson—you will doubtless see the necessity of complying with my wishes.”
They made it so.
in which mike is discussed.
REVOR and Clowes, of Donaldson’s, were sitting in their study a week after the gramophone incident, preparatory to going on the river. At least Trevor was in the study, getting tea ready. Clowes was on the window-sill, one leg in the room, the other outside, hanging over space. He loved to sit in this attitude, watching some one else work, and giving his views on life to whoever would listen to them. Clowes was tall, and looked sad, which he was not. Trevor was shorter, and very much in earnest over all that he did. On the present occasion he was measuring out tea with a concentration worthy of a general planning a campaign.
“One for the pot,” said Clowes.
“All right,” breathed Trevor. “Come and help, you slacker.”
“You aren’t doing a stroke.”
“My lad, I’m thinking of Life. That’s a thing you couldn’t do. I often say to people, ‘Good chap, Trevor, but can’t think of Life. Give him a tea-pot and half a pound of butter to mess about with,’ I say, ‘and he’s all right. But when it comes to deep thought, where is he? Among the also-rans.’ That’s what I say.”
“Silly ass,” said Trevor, slicing bread. “What particular rot were you thinking about just then? What fun it was sitting back and watching other fellows work, I should think.”
“My mind at the moment,” said Clowes, “was tensely occupied with the problem of brothers at school. Have you got any brothers, Trevor?”
“One. Couple of years younger than me. I say, we shall want some more jam to-morrow. Better order it to-day.”
“See it done, Tigellinus, as our old pal Nero used to remark. Where is he? Your brother, I mean.”
“That shows your sense. I have always had a high opinion of your sense, Trevor. If you’d been a silly ass, you’d have let your people send him here.”
“Why not? Shouldn’t have minded.”
“I withdraw what I said about your sense. Consider it unsaid. I have a brother myself. Aged fifteen. Not a bad chap in his way. Like the heroes of the school stories. ‘Big blue eyes literally bubbling over with fun.’ At least, I suppose it’s fun to him. Cheek’s what I call it. My people wanted to send him here. I lodged a protest. I said, ‘One Clowes is ample for any public school.’ ”
“You were right there,” said Trevor.
“I said, ‘One Clowes is luxury, two excess.’ I pointed out that I was just on the verge of becoming rather a blood at Wrykyn, and that I didn’t want the work of years spoiled by a brother who would think it a rag to tell fellows who respected and admired me——”
“Such as who?”
“——Anecdotes of a chequered infancy. There are stories about me which only my brother knows. Did I want them spread about the school? No, laddie, I did not. Hence, we see my brother two terms ago, packing up his little box, and tooling off to Rugby. And here am I at Wrykyn, with an unstained reputation, loved by all who know me, revered by all who don’t; courted by boys, fawned upon by masters. People’s faces brighten when I throw them a nod. If I frown——”
“Oh, come on,” said Trevor.
Bread and jam and cake monopolised Clowes’s attention for the next quarter of an hour. At the end of that period, however, he returned to his subject.
“After the serious business of the meal was concluded, and a simple hymn had been sung by those present,” he said, “Mr. Clowes resumed his very interesting remarks. We were on the subject of brothers at school. Now, take the melancholy case of Jackson Brothers. My heart bleeds for Bob.”
“Jackson’s all right. What’s wrong with him? Besides, naturally, young Jackson came to Wrykyn when all his brothers had been here.”
“What a rotten argument. It’s just the one used by chaps’ people, too. They think how nice it will be for all the sons to have been at the same school. It may be all right after they’re left, but while they’re there, it’s the limit. You say Jackson’s all right. At present, perhaps, he is. But the term’s hardly started yet.”
“Look here, what’s at the bottom of this sending young brothers to the same school as elder brothers?”
“Elder brother can keep an eye on him, I suppose.”
“That’s just it. For once in your life you’ve touched the spot. In other words, Bob Jackson is practically responsible for the kid. That’s where the whole rotten trouble starts.”
“Well, what happens? He either lets the kid rip, in which case he may find himself any morning in the pleasant position of having to explain to his people exactly why it is that little Willie has just received the boot, and why he didn’t look after him better: or he spends all his spare time shadowing him to see that he doesn’t get into trouble. He feels that his reputation hangs on the kid’s conduct, so he broods over him like a policeman, which is pretty rotten for him and maddens the kid, who looks on him as no sportsman. Bob seems to be trying the first way, which is what I should do myself. It’s all right, so far, but, as I said, the term’s only just started.”
“Young Jackson seems all right. What’s wrong with him? He doesn’t stick on side any way, which he might easily do, considering his cricket.”
“There’s nothing wrong with him in that way. I’ve talked to him several times at the nets, and he’s very decent. But his getting into trouble hasn’t anything to do with us. It’s the masters you’ve got to consider.”
“What’s up? Does he rag?”
“From what I gather from fellows in his form he’s got a genius for ragging. Thinks of things that don’t occur to anybody else, and does them, too.”
“He never seems to be in extra. One always sees him about on half-holidays.”
“That’s always the way with that sort of chap. He keeps on wriggling out of small rows till he thinks he can do anything he likes without being dropped on, and then all of a sudden he finds himself up to the eyebrows in a record smash. I don’t say young Jackson will land himself like that. All I say is that he’s just the sort who does. He’s asking for trouble. Besides, who do you see him about with all the time?”
“He’s generally with Wyatt when I meet him.”
“Yes. Well, then!”
“What’s wrong with Wyatt? He’s one of the decentest men in the school.”
“I know. But he’s working up for a tremendous row one of these days, unless he leaves before it comes off. The odds are, if Jackson’s so thick with him, that he’ll be roped into it too. Wyatt wouldn’t land him if he could help it, but he probably wouldn’t realise what he was letting the kid in for. For instance, I happen to know that Wyatt breaks out of his dorm. every other night. I don’t know if he takes Jackson with him. I shouldn’t think so. But there’s nothing to prevent Jackson following him on his own. And if you’re caught at that game, it’s the boot every time.”
Trevor looked disturbed.
“Somebody ought to speak to Bob.”
“What’s the good? Why worry him? Bob couldn’t do anything. You’d only make him do the policeman business, which he hasn’t time for, and which is bound to make rows between them. Better leave him alone.”
“I don’t know. It would be a beastly thing for Bob if the kid did get into a really bad row.”
“If you must tell anybody, tell the Gazeka. He’s head of Wain’s, and has got far more chance of keeping an eye on Jackson than Bob has.”
“The Gazeka is a fool.”
“All front teeth and side. Still, he’s on the spot. But what’s the good of worrying. It’s nothing to do with us, anyhow. Let’s stagger out, shall we?”
Trevor’s conscientious nature, however, made it impossible for him to drop the matter. It disturbed him all the time that he and Clowes were on the river; and, walking back to the house, he resolved to see Bob about it during preparation.
He found him in his study, oiling a bat.
“I say, Bob,” he said, “look here. Are you busy?”
“It’s this way. Clowes and I were talking——”
“If Clowes was there he was probably talking. Well?”
“About your brother.”
“Oh, by Jove,” said Bob, sitting up. “That reminds me. I forgot to get the evening paper. Did he get his century all right?”
“Who?” asked Trevor, bewildered.
“My brother, J. W. He’d made sixty-three not out against Kent in this morning’s paper. What happened?”
“I didn’t get a paper either. I didn’t mean that brother. I meant the one here.”
“Oh, Mike? What’s Mike been up to?”
“Nothing as yet, that I know of; but, I say, you know, he seems a great pal of Wyatt’s.”
“I know. I spoke to him about it.”
“Oh, you did? That’s all right, then.”
“Not that there’s anything wrong with Wyatt.”
“Not a bit. Only he is rather mucking about this term, I hear. It’s his last, so I suppose he wants to have a rag.”
“Don’t blame him.”
“Nor do I. Rather rot, though, if he lugged your brother into a row by accident.”
“I should get blamed. I think I’ll speak to him again.”
“I should, I think.”
“I hope he isn’t idiot enough to go out at night with Wyatt. If Wyatt likes to risk it, all right. That’s his look out. But it won’t do for Mike to go playing the goat, too.”
“Clowes suggested putting Firby-Smith on to him. He’d have more chance, being in the same house, of seeing that he didn’t come a mucker than you would.”
“I’ve done that. Smith said he’d speak to him.”
“That’s all right, then. Is that a new bat?”
“Got it to-day. Smashed my other yesterday against the school house.”
Donaldson’s had played a friendly with the school house during the last two days, and had beaten them.
“I thought I heard it go. You were rather in form.”
“Better than at the beginning of the term, anyhow. I simply couldn’t do a thing then. But my last three innings have been 33 not out, 18, and 51.”
“I should think you’re bound to get your first all right.”
“Hope so. I see Mike’s playing for the second against the O.W.s.”
“Yes. Pretty good for his first term. You have a pro. to coach you in the holidays, don’t you?”
“Yes. I didn’t go to him much this last time. I was away a lot. But Mike fairly lived inside the net.”
“Well, it’s not been chucked away. I suppose he’ll get his first next year. There’ll be a big clearing-out of colours at the end of this term. Nearly all the first are leaving. Henfrey ’ll be captain, I expect.”
“Saunders, the pro. at home, always says that Mike’s going to be the star cricketer of the family. Better than J. W. even, he thinks. I asked him what he thought of me, and he said, ‘You’ll be making a lot of runs some day, Mr. Bob.’ There’s a subtle difference, isn’t there? I shall have Mike cutting me out before I leave school if I’m not careful.”
“Sort of infant prodigy,” said Trevor. “Don’t think he’s quite up to it yet, though.”
He went back to his study, and Bob, having finished his oiling and washed his hands, started on his Thucydides. And, in the stress of wrestling with the speech of an apparently delirious Athenian general, whose remarks seemed to contain nothing even remotely resembling sense and coherence, he allowed the question of Mike’s welfare to fade from his mind like a dissolving view.
a row with the town.
THE beginning of a big row, one of those rows which turn a school upside down like a volcanic eruption and provide old boys with something to talk about, when they meet, for years, is not unlike the beginning of a thunderstorm.
You are walking along one seemingly fine day, when suddenly there is a hush, and there falls on you from space one big drop. The next moment the thing has begun, and you are standing in a shower-bath. It is just the same with a row. Some trivial episode occurs, and in an instant the place is in a ferment. It was so with the great picnic at Wrykyn.
The bare outlines of the beginning of this affair are included in a letter which Mike wrote to his father on the Sunday following the Old Wrykynian matches.
This was the letter:
“Dear Father,—Thanks awfully for your letter. I hope you are quite well. I have been getting on all right at cricket lately. My scores since I wrote last have been 0 in a scratch game (the sun got in my eyes just as I played, and I got bowled); 15 for the third against an eleven of masters (without G. B. Jones, the Surrey man, and Spence); 28 not out in the Under Sixteen game; and 30 in a form match. Rather decent. Yesterday one of the men put down for the second against the O. W.s second couldn’t play because his father was very ill, so I played. Wasn’t it luck? It’s the first time I’ve played for the second. I didn’t do much, because I didn’t get an innings. They stop the cricket on O. W. matches day because they have a lot of rotten Greek plays and things which take up a frightful time, and half the chaps are acting, so we stop from lunch to four. Rot I call it. So I didn’t go in, because they won the toss and made 215, and by the time we’d made 140 for 6 it was close of play. They’d stuck me in eighth wicket. Rather rot. Still, I may get another shot. And I made rather a decent catch at mid-on. Low down. I had to dive for it. Bob played for the first, but didn’t do much. He was run out after he’d got ten. I believe he’s rather sick about it.
“Rather a rummy thing happened after lock-up. I wasn’t in it, but a fellow called Wyatt (awfully decent chap. He’s Wain’s step-son, only they bar one another) told me about it. He was in it all right. There’s a dinner after the matches on O. W. day, and some of the chaps were going back to their houses after it when they got into a row with a lot of brickies from the town, and there was rather a row. There was a policeman mixed up in it somehow, only I don’t quite know where he comes in. I’ll find out and tell you next time I write. Love to everybody. Tell Marjory I’ll write to her in a day or two.
“Your loving son,
“P.S.—I say, I suppose you couldn’t send me five bob, could you? I’m rather broke.
“P.P.S.—Half-a-crown would do, only I’d rather it was five bob.”
And, on the back of the envelope, these words: “Or a bob would be better than nothing.”
The outline of the case was as Mike had stated. But there were certain details of some importance which had not come to his notice when he sent the letter. On the Monday they were public property.
The thing had happened after this fashion. At the conclusion of the day’s cricket, all those who had been playing in the four elevens which the school put into the field against the old boys, together with the school choir, were entertained by the headmaster to supper in the Great Hall. The banquet, lengthened by speeches, songs, and recitations which the reciters imagined to be songs, lasted as a rule, till about ten o’clock, when the revellers were supposed to go back to their houses by the nearest route, and turn in. This was the official programme. The school usually performed it with certain modifications and improvements.
About midway between Wrykyn, the school, and Wrykyn, the town, there stands on an island in the centre of the road a solitary lamp-post. It was the custom, and had been the custom for generations back, for the diners to trudge off to this lamp-post, dance round it for some minutes singing the school song or whatever happened to be the popular song of the moment, and then race back to their houses. Antiquity had given the custom a sort of sanctity, and the authorities, if they knew—which they must have done—never interfered.
But there were others.
Wrykyn, the town, was peculiarly rich in “gangs of youths.” Like the vast majority of the inhabitants of the place, they seemed to have no work of any kind whatsoever to occupy their time, which they used, accordingly, to spend prowling about and indulging in a mild, brainless, rural type of hooliganism. They seldom proceeded to practical rowdyism and never except with the school. As a rule, they amused themselves by shouting rude chaff. The school regarded them with a lofty contempt, much as an Oxford man regards the townee. The school was always anxious for a row, but it was the unwritten law that only in special circumstances should they proceed to active measures. A curious dislike for school-and-town rows and most misplaced severity in dealing with the offenders when they took place, were among the few flaws in the otherwise admirable character of the headmaster of Wrykyn. It was understood that one scragged bargees at one’s own risk, and, as a rule, it was not considered worth it.
But after an excellent supper and much singing and joviality, one’s views are apt to alter. Risks which before supper seemed great, show a tendency to dwindle.
When, therefore, the twenty or so Wrykynians who were dancing round the lamp-post were aware, in the midst of their festivities, that they were being observed and criticised by an equal number of townees, and that the criticisms were, as usual, essentially candid and personal, they found themselves forgetting the headmaster’s prejudices and feeling only that these outsiders must be put to the sword as speedily as possible, for the honour of the school.
Possibly, if the town brigade had stuck to a purely verbal form of attack, all might yet have been peace. Words can be overlooked.
But tomatoes cannot.
No man of spirit can bear to be pelted with over-ripe tomatoes for any length of time without feeling that, if the thing goes on much longer, he will be reluctantly compelled to take steps.
In the present crisis, the first tomato was enough to set matters moving.
As the two armies stood facing each other in silence under the dim and mysterious rays of the lamp, it suddenly whizzed out from the enemy’s ranks, and hit Wyatt on the right ear.
There was a moment of suspense. Wyatt took out his handkerchief and wiped his face, over which the succulent vegetable had spread itself.
“I don’t know how you fellows are going to pass the evening,” he said quietly. “My idea of a good after-dinner game is to try and find the chap who threw that. Anybody coming?”
For the first five minutes it was as even a fight as one could have wished to see. It raged up and down the road without a pause, now in a solid mass, now splitting up into little groups. The science was on the side of the school. Most Wrykynians knew how to box to a certain extent. But at any rate at first, it was no time for science. To be scientific one must have an opponent who observes at least the more important rules of the ring. It is impossible to do the latest ducks and hooks taught you by the instructor if your antagonist butts you in the chest, and then kicks your shins, while some dear friend of his, of whose presence you had no idea, hits you at the same time on the back of the head. The greatest expert would lose his science in such circumstances.
Probably what gave the school the victory in the end was the righteousness of their cause. They were smarting under a sense of injury, and there is nothing that adds a force to one’s blows and a recklessness to one’s style of delivering them more than a sense of injury.
Wyatt, one side of his face still showing traces of the tomato, led the school with a vigour that could not be resisted. He very seldom lost his temper, but he did draw the line at bad tomatoes.
Presently the school noticed that the enemy were vanishing little by little into the darkness which concealed the town. Barely a dozen remained. And their lonely condition seemed to be borne in upon these by a simultaneous brain-wave, for they suddenly gave the fight up, and stampeded as one man.
The leaders were beyond recall, but two remained, tackled low by Wyatt and Clowes after the fashion of the football-field.
The school gathered round its prisoners, panting. The scene of the conflict had shifted little by little to a spot some fifty yards from where it had started. By the side of the road at this point was a green, depressed-looking pond. Gloomy in the daytime, it looked unspeakable at night. It struck Wyatt, whose finer feelings had been entirely blotted out by tomato, as an ideal place in which to bestow the captives.
“Let’s chuck ’em in there,” he said.
The idea was welcomed gladly by all, except the prisoners. A move was made towards the pond, and the procession had halted on the brink, when a new voice made itself heard.
“Now then,” it said, “what’s all this?”
A stout figure in policeman’s uniform was standing surveying them with the aid of a small bull’s-eye lantern.
“What’s all this?”
“It’s all right,” said Wyatt.
“All right, is it? What’s on?”
One of the prisoners spoke.
“Make ’em leave hold of us, Mr. Butt. They’re a-going to chuck us in the pond.”
“Ho!” said the policeman, with a change in his voice. “Ho, are they? Come now, young gentleman, a lark’s a lark, but you ought to know where to stop.”
“It’s anything but a lark,” said Wyatt in the creamy voice he used when feeling particularly savage. “We’re the Strong Right Arm of Justice. That’s what we are. This isn’t a lark, it’s an execution.”
“I don’t want none of your lip, whoever you are,” said Mr. Butt, understanding but dimly, and suspecting impudence by instinct.
“This is quite a private matter,” said Wyatt. “You run along on your beat. You can’t do anything here.”
“Shove ’em in, you chaps.”
“Stop!” From Mr. Butt.
“Oo-er!” From prisoner number one.
There was a sounding splash as willing hands urged the first of the captives into the depths. He ploughed his way to the bank, scrambled out, and vanished.
Wyatt turned to the other prisoner.
“You’ll have the worst of it, going in second. He’ll have churned up the mud a bit. Don’t swallow more than you can help, or you’ll go getting typhoid. I expect there are leeches and things there, but if you nip out quick they may not get on to you. Carry on, you chaps.”
It was here that the regrettable incident occurred. Just as the second prisoner was being launched, Constable Butt, determined to assert himself even at the eleventh hour, sprang forward, and seized the captive by the arm. A drowning man will clutch at a straw. A man about to be hurled into an excessively dirty pond will clutch at a stout policeman. The prisoner did.
Constable Butt represented his one link with dry land. As he came within reach he attached himself to his tunic with the vigour and concentration of a limpet.
At the same moment the executioners gave their man the final heave. The policeman realised his peril too late. A medley of noises made the peaceful night hideous. A howl from the townee, a yell from the policeman, a cheer from the launching party, a frightened squawk from some birds in a neighbouring tree, and a splash compared with which the first had been as nothing, and all was over.
The dark waters were lashed into a maelstrom; and then two streaming figures squelched up the further bank.
The school stood in silent consternation. It was no occasion for light apologies.
“Do you know,” said Wyatt, as he watched the Law shaking the water from itself on the other side of the pond, “I’m not half sure that we hadn’t better be moving!”
before the storm.
YOUR real, devastating row has many points of resemblance with a prairie fire. A man on a prairie lights his pipe, and throws away the match. The flame catches a bunch of dry grass, and, before any one can realise what is happening, sheets of fire are racing over the country; and the interested neighbours are following their example. (I have already compared a row with a thunderstorm; but both comparisons may stand. In dealing with so vast a matter as a row there must be no stint.)
The tomato which hit Wyatt in the face was the thrown-away match. But for the unerring aim of the town marksman great events would never have happened. A tomato is a trivial thing (though it is possible that the man whom it hits may not think so), but in the present case, it was the direct cause of epoch-making trouble.
The tomato hit Wyatt. Wyatt, with others, went to look for the thrower. The remnants of the thrower’s friends were placed in the pond, and “with them,” as they say in the courts of law, Police Constable Alfred Butt.
Following the chain of events, we find Mr. Butt, having prudently changed his clothes, calling upon the headmaster.
The headmaster was grave and sympathetic; Mr. Butt fierce and revengeful.
The imagination of the force is proverbial. Nurtured on motor-cars and fed with stop-watches, it has become world-famous. Mr. Butt gave free rein to it.
“Threw me in, they did, sir. Yes, sir.”
“Threw you in!”
“Yes, sir. Plop!” said Mr. Butt, with a certain sad relish.
“Really, really!” said the headmaster. “Indeed! This is—dear me! I shall certainly—They threw you in!—Yes, I shall—certainly——”
Encouraged by this appreciative reception of his story, Mr. Butt started it again, right from the beginning.
“I was on my beat, sir, and I thought I heard a disturbance. I says to myself, ‘ ’Allo,’ I says, ‘a frakkus. Lots of them all gathered together, and fighting.’ I says, beginning to suspect something, ‘Wot’s this all about, I wonder?’ I says. ‘Blow me if I don’t think it’s a frakkus.’ And,” concluded Mr. Butt, with the air of one confiding a secret, “and it was a frakkus!”
“And these boys actually threw you into the pond?”
“Plop, sir. Mrs. Butt is drying my uniform at home at this very moment as we sit talking here, sir. She says to me, ‘Why, whatever ’ave you been a-doing? You’re all wet.’ And,” he added, again with the confidential air, “I was wet, too. Wringin’ wet.”
The headmaster’s frown deepened.
“And you are certain that your assailants were boys from the school?”
“Sure as I am that I’m sitting here, sir. They all ’ad their caps on their heads, sir.”
“I have never heard of such a thing. I can hardly believe that it is possible. They actually seized you, and threw you into the water——”
“Splish, sir!” said the policeman, with a vividness of imagery both surprising and gratifying.
The headmaster tapped restlessly on the floor with his foot.
“How many boys were there?” he asked.
“Couple of ’undred, sir,” said Mr. Butt promptly.
“It was dark, sir, and I couldn’t see not to say properly; but if you ask me my frank and private opinion I should say couple of ’undred.”
“H’m—Well, I will look into the matter at once. They shall be punished.”
“Yes—Thank you, constable. Good-night.”
The headmaster of Wrykyn was not a motorist. Owing to this disadvantage he made a mistake. Had he been a motorist, he would have known that statements by the police in the matter of figures must be divided by any number from two to ten, according to discretion. As it was, he accepted Constable Butt’s report almost as it stood. He thought that he might possibly have been mistaken as to the exact numbers of those concerned in his immersion; but he accepted the statement in so far as it indicated that the thing had been the work of a considerable section of the school, and not of only one or two individuals. And this made all the difference to his method of dealing with the affair. Had he known how few were the numbers of those responsible for the cold in the head which subsequently attacked Constable Butt, he would have asked for their names, and an extra lesson would have settled the entire matter.
As it was, however, he got the impression that the school, as a whole, was culpable, and he proceeded to punish the school as a whole.
It happened that, about a week before the pond episode, a certain member of the Royal Family had recovered from a dangerous illness, which at one time had looked like being fatal. No official holiday had been given to the schools in honour of the recovery, but Eton and Harrow had set the example, which was followed throughout the kingdom, and Wrykyn had come into line with the rest. Only two days before the O. W.’s matches the headmaster had given out a notice in the hall that the following Friday would be a whole holiday; and the school, always ready to stop work, had approved of the announcement exceedingly.
The step which the headmaster decided to take by way of avenging Mr. Butt’s wrongs was to stop this holiday.
He gave out a notice to that effect on the Monday.
The school was thunderstruck. It could not understand it. The pond affair had, of course, become public property; and those who had had nothing to do with it had been much amused. “There’ll be a frightful row about it,” they had said, thrilled with the pleasant excitement of those who see trouble approaching and themselves looking on from a comfortable distance without risk or uneasiness. They were not malicious. They did not want to see their friends in difficulties. But there is no denying that a row does break the monotony of a school term. The thrilling feeling that something is going to happen is the salt of life. . . .
And here they were, right in it after all. The blow had fallen, and crushed guilty and innocent alike.
The school’s attitude can be summed up in three words. It was one vast, blank, astounded “Here, I say!”
Everybody was saying it, though not always in those words. When condensed, everybody’s comment on the situation came to that.
There is something rather pathetic in the indignation of a school. It must always, or nearly always, expend itself in words, and in private at that. Even the consolation of getting on to platforms and shouting at itself is denied to it. A public school has no Hyde Park.
There is every probability—in fact, it is certain—that, but for one malcontent, the school’s indignation would have been allowed to simmer down in the usual way, and finally become a mere vague memory.
The malcontent was Wyatt. He had been responsible for the starting of the matter, and he proceeded now to carry it on till it blazed up into the biggest thing of its kind ever known at Wrykyn—the Great Picnic.
Any one who knows the public schools, their iron-bound conservatism, and, as a whole, intense respect for order and authority, will appreciate the magnitude of his feat, even though he may not approve of it. Leaders of men are rare. Leaders of boys are almost unknown. It requires genius to sway a school.
It would be an absorbing task for a psychologist to trace the various stages by which an impossibility was changed into a reality. Wyatt’s coolness and matter-of-fact determination were his chief weapons. His popularity and reputation for lawlessness helped him. A conversation which he had with Neville-Smith, a day-boy, is typical of the way in which he forced his point of view on the school.
Neville-Smith was thoroughly representative of the average Wrykynian. He could play his part in any minor “rag” which interested him, and probably considered himself, on the whole, a daring sort of person. But at heart he had an enormous respect for authority. Before he came to Wyatt, he would not have dreamed of proceeding beyond words in his revolt. Wyatt acted on him like some drug.
Neville-Smith came upon Wyatt on his way to the nets. The notice concerning the holiday had only been given out that morning, and he was full of it. He expressed his opinion of the headmaster freely and in well-chosen words. He said it was a swindle, that it was all rot, and that it was a beastly shame. He added that something ought to be done about it.
“What are you going to do?” asked Wyatt.
“Well,” said Neville-Smith a little awkwardly, guiltily conscious that he had been frothing, and scenting sarcasm, “I don’t suppose one can actually do anything.”
“Why not?” said Wyatt.
“What do you mean?”
“Why don’t you take the holiday?”
“What? Not turn up on Friday!”
“Yes. I’m not going to.”
Neville-Smith stopped and stared. Wyatt was unmoved.
“I simply shan’t go to school.”
“No, but, I say, ragging barred. Are you just going to cut off, though the holiday’s been stopped?”
“That’s the idea.”
“You’ll get sacked.”
“I suppose so. But only because I shall be the only one to do it. If the whole school took Friday off, they couldn’t do much. They couldn’t sack the whole school.”
“By Jove, nor could they! I say!”
They walked on, Neville-Smith’s mind in a whirl, Wyatt whistling.
“I say,” said Neville-Smith after a pause. “It would be a bit of a rag.”
“Do you think the chaps would do it?”
“If they understood they wouldn’t be alone.”
“Shall I ask some of them?” said Neville-Smith.
“I could get quite a lot, I believe.”
“That would be a start, wouldn’t it? I could get a couple of dozen from Wain’s. We should be forty or fifty strong to start with.”
“I say, what a score, wouldn’t it be!”
“I’ll speak to the chaps to-night, and let you know.”
“All right,” said Wyatt. “Tell them that I shall be going anyhow. I should be glad of a little company.”
The school turned in on the Thursday night in a restless, excited way. There were mysterious whisperings and gigglings. Groups kept forming in corners apart, to disperse casually and innocently on the approach of some person in authority.
An air of expectancy permeated each of the houses.
the great picnic.
ORNING school at Wrykyn started at nine o’clock. At that hour there was a call-over in each of the form-rooms. After call-over the forms proceeded to the Great Hall for prayers.
A strangely desolate feeling was in the air at nine o’clock on the Friday morning. Sit in the grounds of a public school any afternoon in the summer holidays, and you will get exactly the same sensation of being alone in the world as came to the dozen or so day-boys who bicycled through the gates that morning. Wrykyn was a boarding-school for the most part, but it had its leaven of day-boys. The majority of these lived in the town, and walked to school. A few, however, whose homes were farther away, came on bicycles. One plutocrat did the journey in a motor-car, rather to the scandal of the authorities, who, though unable to interfere, looked askance when compelled by the warning toot of the horn to skip from road to pavement. A form master has the strongest objection to being made to skip like a young ram by a boy to whom he has only the day before given a hundred lines for shuffling his feet in form.
It seemed curious to these cyclists that there should be nobody about. Punctuality is the politeness of princes, but it was not a leading characteristic of the school; and at three minutes to nine, as a general rule, you might see the gravel in front of the buildings freely dotted with sprinters, trying to get in in time to answer their names.
It was curious that there should be nobody about to-day. A wave of reform could scarcely have swept through the houses during the night.
And yet—where was everybody?
Time only deepened the mystery. The form-rooms, like the gravel, were empty.
The cyclists looked at one another in astonishment. What could it mean?
It was an occasion on which sane people wonder if their brains are not playing them some unaccountable trick.
“I say,” said Willoughby, of the Lower Fifth, to Brown, the only other occupant of the form-room, “the old man did stop the holiday to-day, didn’t he?”
“Just what I was going to ask you,” said Brown. “It’s jolly rum. I distinctly remember him giving it out in hall that it was going to be stopped because of the O. W.’s day row.”
“So do I. I can’t make it out. Where is everybody?”
“They can’t all be late.”
“Somebody would have turned up by now. Why, it’s just striking.”
“Perhaps he sent another notice round the houses late last night, saying it was on again all right. I say, what a swindle if he did. Some one might have let us know. I should have got up an hour later.”
“So should I.”
“Hullo, here is somebody.”
It was the master of the Lower Fifth, Mr. Spence. He walked briskly into the room, as was his habit. Seeing the obvious void, he stopped in his stride, and looked puzzled.
“Willoughby. Brown. Are you the only two here? Where is everybody?”
“Please, sir, we don’t know. We were just wondering.”
“Have you seen nobody?”
“We were just wondering, sir, if the holiday had been put on again, after all.”
“I’ve heard nothing about it. I should have received some sort of intimation, if it had been.”
“Do you mean to say that you have seen nobody, Brown?”
“Only about a dozen fellows, sir. The usual lot who come on bikes, sir.”
“None of the boarders?”
“No, sir. Not a single one.”
“This is extraordinary.”
Mr. Spence pondered.
“Well,” he said, “you two fellows had better go along up to Hall. I shall go to the Common Room and make inquiries. Perhaps, as you say, there is a holiday to-day, and the notice was not brought to me.”
Mr. Spence told himself, as he walked to the Common Room, that this might be a possible solution of the difficulty. He was not a house-master, and lived by himself in rooms in the town. It was just conceivable that they might have forgotten to tell him of the change in the arrangements.
But in the Common Room the same perplexity reigned. Half a dozen masters were seated round the room, and a few more were standing. And they were all very puzzled.
A brisk conversation was going on. Several voices hailed Mr. Spence as he entered.
“Hullo, Spence. Are you alone in the world too?”
“Any of your boys turned up, Spence?”
“You in the same condition as we are, Spence?”
Mr. Spence seated himself on the table.
“Haven’t any of your fellows turned up, either?” he said.
“When I accepted the honourable post of Lower Fourth master in this abode of sin,” said Mr. Seymour, “it was on the distinct understanding that there was going to be a Lower Fourth. Yet I go into my form-room this morning, and what do I find? Simply Emptiness, and Pickersgill II., whistling ‘The Church Parade,’ all flat. I consider I have been hardly treated.”
“I have no complaint to make against Brown and Willoughby, as individuals,” said Mr. Spence; “but, considered as a form, I call them short measure.”
“I confess that I am entirely at a loss,” said Mr. Shields precisely. “I have never been confronted with a situation like this since I became a schoolmaster.”
“It is most mysterious,” agreed Mr. Wain, plucking at his beard. “Exceedingly so.”
The younger masters, notably Mr. Spence and Mr. Seymour, had begun to look on the thing as a huge jest.
“We had better teach ourselves,” said Mr. Seymour. “Spence, do a hundred lines for laughing in form.”
The door burst open.
“Hullo, here’s another scholastic Little Bo-Peep,” said Mr. Seymour. “Well, Appleby, have you lost your sheep, too?”
“You don’t mean to tell me——,” began Mr. Appleby.
“I do,” said Mr. Seymour. “Here we are, fifteen of us, all good men and true, graduates of our Universities, and, as far as I can see, if we divide up the boys who have come to school this morning on fair share-and-share-alike lines, it will work out at about two-thirds of a boy each. Spence, will you take a third of Pickersgill II.?”
“I want none of your charity,” said Mr. Spence loftily. “You don’t seem to realise that I’m the best off of you all. I’ve got two in my form. It’s no good offering me your Pickersgills. I simply haven’t room for them.”
“What does it all mean?” exclaimed Mr. Appleby.
“If you ask me,” said Mr. Seymour, “I should say that it meant that the school, holding the sensible view that first thoughts are best, have ignored the head’s change of mind, and are taking their holiday as per original programme.”
“They surely cannot——!”
“Well, where are they then?”
“Do you seriously mean that the entire school has—has rebelled?”
“ ‘Nay, sire,’ ” quoted Mr. Spence, “ ‘a revolution!’ ”
“I never heard of such a thing!”
“We’re making history,” said Mr. Seymour.
“It will be rather interesting,” said Mr. Spence, “to see how the head will deal with a situation like this. One can rely on him to do the statesmanlike thing, but I’m bound to say I shouldn’t care to be in his place. It seems to me these boys hold all the cards. You can’t expel a whole school. There’s safety in numbers. The thing is colossal.”
“It is deplorable,” said Mr. Wain, with austerity. “Exceedingly so.”
“I try to think so,” said Mr. Spence, “but it’s a struggle. There’s a Napoleonic touch about the business that appeals to one. Disorder on a small scale is bad, but this is immense. I’ve never heard of anything like it at any public school. When I was at Winchester, my last year there, there was pretty nearly a revolution because the captain of cricket was expelled on the eve of the Eton match. I remember making inflammatory speeches myself on that occasion. But we stopped on the right side of the line. We were satisfied with growling. But this——!”
Mr. Seymour got up.
“It’s an ill wind,” he said. “With any luck we ought to get the day off, and it’s ideal weather for a holiday. The head can hardly ask us to sit indoors, teaching nobody. If I have to stew in my form-room all day, instructing Pickersgill II., I shall make things exceedingly sultry for that youth. He will wish that the Pickersgill progeny had stopped short at his elder brother. He will not value life. In the meantime, as it’s already ten past, hadn’t we better be going up to Hall to see what the orders of the day are?”
“Look at Shields,” said Mr. Spence. “He might be posing for a statue to be called ‘Despair!’ He reminds me of Macduff. Macbeth, Act iv., somewhere near the end. ‘What, all my pretty chickens, at one fell swoop?’ That’s what Shields is saying to himself.”
“It’s all very well to make a joke of it, Spence,” said Mr. Shields querulously, “but it is most disturbing. Most.”
“Exceedingly,” agreed Mr. Wain.
The bereaved company of masters walked on up the stairs that led to the Great Hall.
(To be continued)