The Captain, September 1907
SILENCE followed. To Mike, lying in bed, holding his breath, it seemed a long silence. As a matter of fact it lasted for perhaps ten seconds. Then Mr. Wain spoke.
“You have been out, James?”
It is curious how in the more dramatic moments of life the inane remark is the first that comes to us.
“Yes, sir,” said Wyatt.
“I am astonished. Exceedingly astonished.”
“I got a bit of a start myself,” said Wyatt.
“I shall talk to you in my study. Follow me there.”
He left the room, and Wyatt suddenly began to chuckle.
“I say, Wyatt!” said Mike, completely thrown off his balance by the events of the night.
Wyatt continued to giggle helplessly. He flung himself down on his bed, rolling with laughter. Mike began to get alarmed.
“It’s all right,” said Wyatt at last, speaking with difficulty. “But, I say, how long had he been sitting there?”
“It seemed hours. About an hour, I suppose, really.”
“It’s the funniest thing I’ve ever struck. Me sweating to get in quietly, and all the time him camping out on my bed!”
“But look here, what’ll happen?”
Wyatt sat up.
“That reminds me. Suppose I’d better go down.”
“What’ll he do, do you think?”
“Ah, now, what!”
“But, I say, it’s awful. What’ll happen?”
“That’s for him to decide. Speaking at a venture, I should say——”
“You don’t think——?”
“The boot. The swift and sudden boot. I shall be sorry to part with you, but I’m afraid it’s a case of ‘Au revoir, my little Hyacinth.’ We shall meet at Philippi. This is my Moscow. To-morrow I shall go out into the night with one long, choking sob. Years hence a white-haired bank-clerk will tap at your door when you’re a prosperous professional cricketer with your photograph in Wisden. That’ll be me. Well, I suppose I’d better go down. We’d better all get to bed some time to-night. Don’t go to sleep.”
“I’ll tell you all the latest news when I come back. Where are me slippers? Ha, ’tis well! Lead on, then, minions. I follow.”
In the study Mr. Wain was fumbling restlessly with his papers when Wyatt appeared.
“Sit down, James,” he said.
Wyatt sat down. One of his slippers fell off with a clatter. Mr. Wain jumped nervously.
“Only my slipper,” explained Wyatt. “It slipped.”
Mr. Wain took up a pen, and began to tap the table.
Wyatt said nothing.
“I should be glad to hear your explanation of this disgraceful matter.”
“The fact is——” said Wyatt.
“I haven’t one, sir.”
“What were you doing out of your dormitory, out of the house, at that hour?”
“I went for a walk, sir.”
“And, may I inquire, are you in the habit of violating the strictest school rules by absenting yourself from the house during the night?”
“This is an exceedingly serious matter.”
Wyatt nodded agreement with this view.
The pen rose and fell with the rapidity of the cylinder of a motor-car. Wyatt, watching it, became suddenly aware that the thing was hypnotising him. In a minute or two he would be asleep.
“I wish you wouldn’t do that, father. Tap like that, I mean. It’s sending me to sleep.”
“It’s like a woodpecker.”
“I’m very sorry. Only it was sending me off.”
Mr. Wain suspended tapping operations, and resumed the thread of his discourse.
“I am sorry, exceedingly, to see this attitude in you, James. It is not fitting. It is in keeping with your behaviour throughout. Your conduct has been lax and reckless in the extreme. It is possible that you imagine that the peculiar circumstances of our relationship secure you from the penalties to which the ordinary boy——”
“I need hardly say,” continued Mr. Wain, ignoring the interruption, “that I shall treat you exactly as I should treat any other member of my house whom I had detected in the same misdemeanour.”
“Of course,” said Wyatt, approvingly.
“I must ask you not to interrupt me when I am speaking to you, James. I say that your punishment will be no whit less severe than would be that of any other boy. You have repeatedly proved yourself lacking in ballast and a respect for discipline in smaller ways, but this is a far more serious matter. Exceedingly so. It is impossible for me to overlook it, even were I disposed to do so. You are aware of the penalty for such an action as yours?”
“The sack,” said Wyatt laconically.
“It is expulsion. You must leave the school. At once.”
“As you know, I have already secured a nomination for you in the London and Oriental Bank. I shall write to-morrow to the manager asking him to receive you at once——”
“After all, they only gain an extra fortnight of me.”
“You will leave directly I receive his letter. I shall arrange with the headmaster that you are withdrawn privately——”
“Not the sack?”
“Withdrawn privately. You will not go to school to-morrow. Do you understand? That is all. Have you anything to say?”
“No, I don’t think——”
His eye fell on a tray bearing a decanter and a syphon.
“Oh, yes,” he said. “Can’t I mix you a whisky-and-soda, father, before I go off to bed?”
“Well?” said Mike.
Wyatt kicked off his slippers, and began to undress.
“Has he let you off?”
“Like a gun. I shoot off almost immediately. To-morrow I take a well-earned rest away from school, and the day after I become the gay young bank-clerk, all amongst the ink and ledgers.”
Mike was miserably silent.
“Buck up,” said Wyatt cheerfully. “It would have happened anyhow in another fortnight. So why worry?”
Mike was still silent. The reflection was doubtless philosophic, but it failed to comfort him.
AD news spreads quickly. By the quarter-to-eleven interval next day the facts concerning Wyatt and Mr. Wain were public property. Mike, as an actual spectator of the drama, was in great request as an informant. As he told the story to a group of sympathisers outside the school shop, Burgess came up, his eyes rolling in a fine frenzy.
“Anybody seen young—oh, here you are. What’s all this about Jimmy Wyatt? They’re saying he’s been sacked, or some rot.”
“So he has—at least, he’s got to leave.”
“He’s left already. He isn’t coming to school again.”
Burgess’s first thought, as befitted a good cricket captain, was for his team.
“And the Ripton match on Saturday!”
Nobody seemed to have anything except silent sympathy at his command.
“Dash the man! Silly ass! What did he want to do it for! Poor old Jimmy, though!” he added after a pause. “What rot for him!”
“Beastly,” agreed Mike.
“All the same,” continued Burgess, with a return to the austere manner of the captain of cricket, “he might have chucked playing the goat till after the Ripton match. Look here, young Jackson, you’ll turn out for fielding with the first this afternoon. You’ll play on Saturday.”
“All right,” said Mike, without enthusiasm. The Wyatt disaster was too recent for him to feel much pleasure at playing against Ripton vice his friend, withdrawn.
Bob was the next to interview him. They met in the cloisters.
“Hullo, Mike!” said Bob. “I say, what’s all this about Wyatt?”
“Wain caught him getting back into the dorm. last night after Neville-Smith’s, and he’s taken him away from the school.”
“What’s he going to do? Going into that bank straight away?”
“Yes. You know, that’s the part he bars most. He’d have been leaving anyhow in a fortnight, you see; only it’s awful rot for a chap like Wyatt to have to go and froust in a bank for the rest of his life.”
“He’ll find it rather a change, I expect. I suppose you won’t be seeing him before he goes?”
“I shouldn’t think so. Not unless he comes to the dorm. during the night. He’s sleeping over in Wain’s part of the house, but I shouldn’t be surprised if he nipped out after Wain has gone to bed. Hope he does, anyway.”
“I should like to say good-bye. But I don’t suppose it’ll be possible.”
They separated in the direction of their respective form-rooms. Mike felt bitter and disappointed at the way the news had been received. Wyatt was his best friend, his pal; and it offended him that the school should take the tidings of his departure as they had done. Most of them who had come to him for information had expressed a sort of sympathy with the absent hero of his story, but the chief sensation seemed to be one of pleasurable excitement at the fact that something big had happened to break the monotony of school routine. They treated the thing much as they would have treated the announcement that a record score had been made in first-class cricket. The school was not so much regretful as comfortably thrilled. And Burgess had actually cursed before sympathising. Mike felt resentful towards Burgess. As a matter of fact, the cricket captain wrote a letter to Wyatt during preparation that night which would have satisfied even Mike’s sense of what was fit. But Mike had no opportunity of learning this.
There was, however, one exception to the general rule, one member of the school who did not treat the episode as if it were merely an interesting and impersonal item of sensational news. Neville-Smith heard of what had happened towards the end of the interval, and rushed off instantly in search of Mike. He was too late to catch him before he went to his form-room, so he waited for him at half-past twelve, when the bell rang for the end of morning school.
“I say, Jackson, is this true about old Wyatt?”
Mike related the story for the sixteenth time. It was a melancholy pleasure to have found a listener who heard the tale in the right spirit. There was no doubt about Neville-Smith’s interest and sympathy. He was silent for a moment after Mike had finished.
“It was all my fault,” he said at length. “If it hadn’t been for me, this wouldn’t have happened. What a fool I was to ask him to my place! I might have known he would be caught.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” said Mike.
“It was absolutely my fault.”
Mike was not equal to the task of soothing Neville-Smith’s wounded conscience. He did not attempt it. They walked on without further conversation till they reached Wain’s gate, where Mike left him. Neville-Smith proceeded on his way, plunged in meditation.
The result of which meditation was that Burgess got a second shock before the day was out. Bob, going over to the nets rather late in the afternoon, came upon the captain of cricket standing apart from his fellow men with an expression on his face that spoke of mental upheavals on a vast scale.
“What’s up?” asked Bob.
“Nothing much,” said Burgess, with a forced and grisly calm. “Only that, as far as I can see, we shall play Ripton on Saturday with a sort of second eleven. You don’t happen to have got sacked or anything, by the way, do you?”
“What’s happened now?”
“Neville-Smith. In extra on Saturday. That’s all. Only our first and second change bowlers out of the team for the Ripton match in one day. I suppose by to-morrow half the others ’ll have gone, and we shall take the field on Saturday with a scratch side of kids from the Junior School.”
“Neville-Smith! Why, what’s he been doing?”
“Apparently he gave a sort of supper to celebrate his getting his first, and it was while coming back from that that Wyatt got collared. Well, I’m blowed if Neville-Smith doesn’t toddle off to the old man after school to-day and tell him the whole yarn! Said it was all his fault. What rot! Sort of thing that might have happened to any one. If Wyatt hadn’t gone to him, he’d probably have gone out somewhere else.”
“And the old man shoved him in extra.”
“Next two Saturdays.”
“Are Ripton strong this year?” asked Bob, for lack of anything better to say.
“Very, from all accounts. They whacked the M.C.C. Jolly hot team of M.C.C. too. Stronger than the one we drew with.”
“Oh, well, you never know what’s going to happen at cricket. I may hold a catch for a change.”
Bob went on his way to the nets. Mike was just putting on his pads.
“I say, Mike,” said Bob. “I wanted to see you. It’s about Wyatt. I’ve thought of something.”
“A way of getting him out of that bank. If it comes off, that’s to say.”
“By Jove, he’d jump at anything. What’s the idea?”
“Why shouldn’t he get a job of sorts out in the Argentine? There ought to be heaps of sound jobs going there for a chap like Wyatt. He’s a jolly good shot, to start with. I shouldn’t wonder if it wasn’t rather a score to be able to shoot out there. And he can ride, I know.”
“By Jove, I’ll write to father to-night. He must be able to work it, I should think. He never chucked the show altogether, did he?”
Mike, as most other boys of his age would have been, was profoundly ignorant as to the details by which his father’s money had been, or was being, made. He only knew vaguely that the source of revenue had something to do with the Argentine. His brother Joe had been born in Buenos Ayres; and once, three years ago, his father had gone over there for a visit, presumably on business. All these things seemed to show that Mr. Jackson senior was a useful man to have about if you wanted a job in that Eldorado, the Argentine Republic.
As a matter of fact, Mike’s father owned vast tracts of land up country, where countless sheep lived and had their being. He had long retired from active superintendence of his estate. Like Mr. Spenlow, he had a partner, a stout fellow with the work-taint highly developed, who asked nothing better than to be left in charge. So Mr. Jackson had returned to the home of his fathers, glad to be there again. But he still had a decided voice in the ordering of affairs on the ranches, and Mike was going to the fountain-head of things when he wrote to his father that night, putting forward Wyatt’s claims to attention and ability to perform any sort of job with which he might be presented.
The reflection that he had done all that could be done tended to console him for the non-appearance of Wyatt either that night or next morning—a non-appearance which was due to the simple fact that he passed that night in a bed in Mr. Wain’s dressing-room, the door of which that cautious pedagogue, who believed in taking no chances, locked from the outside on retiring to rest.
the ripton match.
IKE got an answer from his father on the morning of the Ripton match. A letter from Wyatt also lay on his plate when he came down to breakfast.
Mr. Jackson’s letter was short, but to the point. He said he would go and see Wyatt early in the next week. He added that being expelled from a public school was not the only qualification for success as a sheep-farmer, but that, if Mike’s friend added to this a general intelligence and amiability, and a skill for picking off cats with an air-pistol and bull’s-eyes with a Lee-Enfield, there was no reason why something should not be done for him. In any case he would buy him a lunch, so that Wyatt would extract at least some profit from his visit. He said that he hoped something could be managed. It was a pity that a boy accustomed to shoot cats should be condemned for the rest of his life to shoot nothing more exciting than his cuffs.
Wyatt’s letter was longer. It might have been published under the title “My First Day in a Bank, by a Beginner.” His advent had apparently caused little sensation. He had first had a brief conversation with the manager, which had run as follows:
“H’m. . . . Sportsman?”
“H’m. . . . Racquets?”
“H’m. . . . Well, you won’t get any more of it now.”
After which a Mr. Blenkinsop had led him up to a vast ledger, in which he was to inscribe the addresses of all out-going letters. These letters he would then stamp, and subsequently take in bundles to the post office. Once a week he would be required to buy stamps. “If I were one of those Napoleons of Finance,” wrote Wyatt, “I should cook the accounts, I suppose, and embezzle stamps to an incredible amount. But it doesn’t seem in my line. I’m afraid I wasn’t cut out for a business career. Still, I have stamped this letter at the expense of the office, and entered it up under the heading ‘Sundries,’ which is a sort of start. Look out for an article in the Wrykinian, ‘Hints for Young Criminals,’ by J. Wyatt, champion catch-as-catch-can stamp-stealer of the British Isles.’ So long. I suppose you are playing against Ripton, now that the world of commerce has found that it can’t get on without me. Mind you make a century, and then perhaps Burgess’ll give you your first after all. There were twelve colours given three years ago, because one chap left at half-term and the man who played instead of him came off against Ripton.”
This had occurred to Mike independently. The Ripton match was a special event, and the man who performed any outstanding feat against that school was treated as a sort of Horatius. Honours were heaped upon him. If he could only make a century! or even fifty. Even twenty, if it got the school out of a tight place. He was as nervous on the Saturday morning as he had been on the morning of the M.C.C. match. It was Victory or Westminster Abbey now. To do only averagely well, to be among the ruck, would be as useless as not playing at all, as far as his chance of his first was concerned.
It was evident to those who woke early on the Saturday morning that this Ripton match was not likely to end in a draw. During the Friday rain had fallen almost incessantly in a steady drizzle. It had stopped late at night; and at six in the morning there was every prospect of another hot day. There was that feeling in the air which shows that the sun is trying to get through the clouds. The sky was a dull grey at breakfast time, except where a flush of deeper colour gave a hint of the sun. It was a day on which to win the toss, and go in first. At eleven-thirty, when the match was timed to begin, the wicket would be too wet to be difficult. Runs would come easily till the sun came out and began to dry the ground. When that happened there would be trouble for the side that was batting.
Burgess, inspecting the wicket with Mr. Spence during the quarter-to-eleven interval, was not slow to recognise this fact.
“I should win the toss to-day, if I were you, Burgess,” said Mr. Spence.
“Just what I was thinking, sir.”
“That wicket’s going to get nasty after lunch, if the sun comes out. A regular Rhodes wicket it’s going to be.”
“I wish we had Rhodes,” said Burgess. “Or even Wyatt. It would just suit him, this.”
Mr. Spence, as a member of the staff, was not going to be drawn into discussing Wyatt and his premature departure, so he diverted the conversation on to the subject of the general aspect of the school’s attack.
“Who will go on first with you, Burgess?”
“Who do you think, sir? Ellerby? It might be his wicket.”
Ellerby bowled medium inclining to slow. On a pitch that suited him he was apt to turn from leg and get people out caught at the wicket or short slip.
“Certainly, Ellerby. This end, I think. The other’s yours, though I’m afraid you’ll have a poor time bowling fast to-day. Even with plenty of sawdust I doubt if it will be possible to get a decent foothold till after lunch.”
“I must win the toss,” said Burgess. “It’s a nuisance too, about our batting. Marsh will probably be dead out of form after being in the infirmary so long. If he’d had a chance of getting a bit of practice yesterday, it might have been all right.”
“That rain will have a lot to answer for if we lose. On a dry, hard wicket I’m certain we should beat them four times out of six. I was talking to a man who played against them for the Nomads. He said that on a true wicket there was not a great deal of sting in their bowling, but that they’ve got a slow leg-break man who might be dangerous on a day like this. A boy called de Freece. I don’t know of him. He wasn’t in the team last year.”
“I know the chap. He played wing three for them at footer against us this year on their ground. He was crocked when they came here. He’s a pretty useful chap all round, I believe. Plays racquets for them too.”
“Well, my friend said he had one very dangerous ball, of the Bosanquet type. Looks as if it were going away, and comes in instead.”
“I don’t think a lot of that,” said Burgess ruefully. “One consolation is, though, that that sort of ball is easier to watch on a slow wicket. I must tell the fellows to look out for it.”
“I should. And, above all, win the toss.”
Burgess and Maclaine, the Ripton captain, were old acquaintances. They had been at the same private school, and they had played against one another at football and cricket for two years now.
“We’ll go in first, Mac,” said Burgess, as they met on the pavilion steps after they had changed.
“It’s awfully good of you to suggest it,” said Maclaine. “but I think we’ll toss. It’s a hobby of mine. You call.”
“Tails it is. I ought to have warned you that you hadn’t a chance. I’ve lost the toss five times running, so I was bound to win to-day.”
“You’ll put us in, I suppose?”
“Oh, well, we shan’t have long to wait for our knock, that’s a comfort. Buck up and send some one in, and let’s get at you.”
And Burgess went off to tell the ground man to have plenty of sawdust ready, as he would want the field paved with it.
The policy of the Ripton team was obvious from the first over. They meant to force the game. Already the sun was beginning to peep through the haze. For about an hour run-getting ought to be a tolerably simple process; but after that hour singles would be as valuable as threes and boundaries an almost unheard-of luxury.
So Ripton went in to hit.
The policy proved successful for a time, as it generally does. Burgess, who relied on a run that was a series of tiger-like leaps culminating in a spring that suggested that he meant to lower the long jump record, found himself badly handicapped by the state of the ground. In spite of frequent libations of sawdust, he was compelled to tread cautiously, and this robbed his bowling of much of its pace. The score mounted rapidly. Twenty came in ten minutes. At thirty-five the first wicket fell, run out.
At sixty Ellerby, who had found the pitch too soft for him and had been expensive, gave place to Grant. Grant bowled what were supposed to be slow leg-breaks, but which did not always break. The change worked. Maclaine, after hitting the first two balls to the boundary, skied the third to Bob Jackson in the deep, and Bob, for whom constant practice had robbed this sort of catch of its terrors, held it.
A yorker from Burgess disposed of the next man before he could settle down; but the score, seventy-four for three wickets, was large enough in view of the fact that the pitch was already becoming more difficult, and was certain to get worse, to make Ripton feel that the advantage was with them. Another hour of play remained before lunch. The deterioration of the wicket would be slow during that period. The sun, which was now shining brightly, would put in its deadliest work from two o’clock onwards. Maclaine’s instructions to his men were to go on hitting.
A too liberal interpretation of the meaning of the verb “to hit” led to the departure of two more Riptonians in the course of the next two overs. There is a certain type of school batsman who considers that to force the game means to swipe blindly at every ball on the chance of taking it half-volley. This policy sometimes leads to a boundary or two, as it did on this occasion, but it means that wickets will fall, as also happened now. Seventy-four for three became eighty-six for five. Burgess began to look happier.
His contentment increased when he got the next man leg before wicket with the total unaltered. At this rate Ripton would be out before lunch for under a hundred.
But the rot stopped with the fall of that wicket. Dashing tactics were laid aside. The pitch had begun to play tricks, and the pair now in settled down to watch the ball. They plodded on, scoring slowly and jerkily till the hands of the clock stood at half-past one. Then Ellerby, who had gone on again instead of Grant, beat the less steady of the pair with a ball that pitched on the middle stump and shot into the base of the off. A hundred and twenty had gone up on the board at the beginning of the over.
That period which is always so dangerous, when the wicket is bad, the ten minutes before lunch, proved fatal to two more of the enemy. The last man had just gone to the wickets, with the score at a hundred and thirty-one, when a quarter to two arrived, and with it the luncheon interval.
So far it was anybody’s game.
mike wins home.
THE Ripton last wicket man was de Freece, the slow bowler. He was apparently a young gentleman wholly free from the curse of nervousness. He wore a cheerful smile as he took guard before receiving the first ball after lunch, and Wrykyn had plenty of opportunity of seeing that that was his normal expression when at the wickets. There is often a certain looseness about the attack after lunch, and the bowler of googlies took advantage of it now. He seemed to be a batsman with only one hit; but he had also a very accurate eye, and his one hit, a semicircular stroke, which suggested the golf-links rather than the cricket-field, came off with distressing frequency. He mowed Burgess’s first ball to the square-leg boundary, missed his second, and snicked the third for three over long-slip’s head. The other batsman played out the over, and de Freece proceeded to treat Ellerby’s bowling with equal familiarity. The scoring-board showed an increase of twenty as the result of three overs. Every run was invaluable now, and the Ripton contingent made the pavilion re-echo as a fluky shot over mid-on’s head sent up the hundred and fifty.
There are few things more exasperating to the fielding side than a last-wicket stand. It resembles in its effect the dragging-out of a book or play after the dénouement has been reached. At the fall of the ninth wicket the fieldsmen nearly always look on their outing as finished. Just a ball or two to the last man, and it will be their turn to bat. If the last man insists on keeping them out in the field, they resent it.
What made it especially irritating now was the knowledge that a straight yorker would solve the whole thing. But when Burgess bowled a yorker, it was not straight. And when he bowled a straight ball, it was not a yorker. A four and a three to de Freece, and a four bye sent up a hundred and sixty.
It was beginning to look as if this might go on for ever, when Ellerby, who had been missing the stumps by fractions of an inch, for the last ten minutes, did what Burgess had failed to do. He bowled a straight, medium-paced yorker, and de Freece, swiping at it with a bright smile, found his leg-stump knocked back. He had made twenty-eight. His record score, he explained to Mike, as they walked to the pavilion, for this or any ground.
The Ripton total was a hundred and sixty-six.
With the ground in its usual true, hard condition, Wrykyn would have gone in against a score of a hundred and sixty-six with the cheery intention of knocking off the runs for the loss of two or three wickets. It would have been a gentle canter for them.
But ordinary standards would not apply here. On a good wicket Wrykyn that season were a two hundred and fifty to three hundred side. On a bad wicket—well, they had met the Incogniti on a bad wicket, and their total—with Wyatt playing and making top score—had worked out at a hundred and seven.
A grim determination to do their best, rather than confidence that their best, when done, would be anything record-breaking, was the spirit which animated the team when they opened their innings.
And in five minutes this had changed to a dull gloom.
The tragedy started with the very first ball. It hardly seemed that the innings had begun, when Morris was seen to leave the crease, and make for the pavilion.
“It’s that googly man,” said Burgess blankly.
“What’s happened?” shouted a voice from the interior of the first eleven room.
“Morris is out.”
“Good gracious! How?” asked Ellerby, emerging from the room with one pad on his leg and the other in his hand.
“L.b.w. First ball.”
“My aunt! Who’s in next? Not me?”
“No. Berridge. For goodness sake, Berry, stick a bat in the way, and not your legs. Watch that de Freece man like a hawk. He breaks like sin all over the shop. Hullo, Morris! Bad luck! Were you out, do you think?” A batsman who has been given l.b.w. is always asked this question on his return to the pavilion, and he answers it in nine cases out of ten in the negative. Morris was the tenth case. He thought it was all right, he said.
“Thought the thing was going to break, but it didn’t.”
“Hear that, Berry? He doesn’t always break. You must look out for that,” said Burgess helpfully. Morris sat down and began to take off his pads.
“That chap’ll have Berry, if he doesn’t look out,” he said.
But Berridge survived the ordeal. He turned his first ball to leg for a single.
This brought Marsh to the batting end; and the second tragedy occurred.
It was evident from the way he shaped that Marsh was short of practice. His visit to the infirmary had taken the edge off his batting. He scratched awkwardly at three balls without hitting them. The last of the over had him in two minds. He started to play forward, changed his stroke suddenly and tried to step back, and the next moment the bails had shot up like the débris of a small explosion, and the wicket-keeper was clapping his gloved hands gently and slowly in the introspective, dreamy way wicket-keepers have on these occasions.
A silence that could be felt brooded over the pavilion.
The voice of the scorer, addressing from his little wooden hut the melancholy youth who was working the telegraph-board, broke it.
“One for two. Last man duck.”
Ellerby echoed the remark. He got up, and took off his blazer.
“This is all right,” he said, “isn’t it! I wonder if the man at the other end is a sort of young Rhodes too!”
Fortunately he was not. The star of the Ripton attack was evidently de Freece. The bowler at the other end looked fairly plain. He sent them down medium-pace, and on a good wicket would probably have been simple. But to-day there was danger in the most guileless-looking deliveries.
Berridge relieved the tension a little by playing safely through the over, and scoring a couple of twos off it. And when Ellerby not only survived the destructive de Freece’s second over, but actually lifted a loose ball on to the roof of the scoring-hut, the cloud began perceptibly to lift. A no-ball in the same over sent up the first ten. Ten for two was not good; but it was considerably better than one for two.
With the score at thirty, Ellerby was missed in the slips off de Freece. He had been playing with slowly increasing confidence till then, but this seemed to throw him out of his stride. He played inside the next ball, and was all but bowled: and then, jumping out to drive, he was smartly stumped. The cloud began to settle again.
Bob was the next man in.
Ellerby took off his pads, and dropped into the chair next to Mike’s. Mike was silent and thoughtful. He was in after Bob, and to be on the eve of batting does not make one conversational.
“You in next?” asked Ellerby.
“It’s getting trickier every minute,” said Ellerby. “The only thing is, if we can only stay in, we might have a chance. The wicket’ll get better, and I don’t believe they’ve any bowling at all bar de Freece. By George, Bob’s out. . . . No, he isn’t.”
Bob had jumped out at one of de Freece’s slows, as Ellerby had done, and had nearly met the same fate. The wicket-keeper, however, had fumbled the ball.
“That’s the way I was had,” said Ellerby. “That man’s keeping such a jolly good length that you don’t know whether to stay in your ground or go out at them. If only somebody would knock him off his length, I believe we might win yet.”
The same idea apparently occurred to Burgess. He came to where Mike was sitting.
“I’m going to shove you down one, Jackson,” he said. “I shall go in next myself and swipe, and try and knock that man de Freece off.”
“All right,” said Mike. He was not quite sure whether he was glad or sorry at the respite.
“It’s a pity old Wyatt isn’t here,” said Ellerby. “This is just the sort of time when he might have come off.”
“Bob’s broken his egg,” said Mike.
“Good man. Every little helps. . . . Oh, you silly ass, get back!”
Berridge had called Bob for a short run that was obviously no run. Third man was returning the ball as the batsmen crossed. The next moment the wicket-keeper had the bails off. Berridge was out by a yard.
“Forty-one for four,” said Ellerby. “Help!”
Burgess began his campaign against de Freece by skying his first ball over cover’s head to the boundary. A howl of delight went up from the school, which was repeated, fortissimo, when, more by accident than by accurate timing, the captain put on two more fours past extra-cover. The bowler’s cheerful smile never varied.
Whether Burgess would have knocked de Freece off his length or not was a question that was destined to remain unsolved, for in the middle of the other bowler’s over Bob hit a single; the batsmen crossed; and Burgess had his leg-stump uprooted while trying a gigantic pull-stroke.
The melancholy youth put up the figures, 54, 5, 12, on the board.
Mike, as he walked out of the pavilion to join Bob, was not conscious of any particular nervousness. It had been an ordeal having to wait and look on while wickets fell, but now that the time of inaction was at an end he felt curiously composed. When he had gone out to bat against the M.C.C. on the occasion of his first appearance for the school, he experienced a quaint sensation of unreality. He seemed to be watching his body walking to the wickets, as if it were some one else’s. There was no sense of individuality.
But now his feelings were different. He was cool. He noticed small things—mid-off chewing bits of grass, the bowler re-tying the scarf round his waist, little patches of brown where the turf had been worn away. He took guard with a clear picture of the positions of the fieldsmen photographed on his brain.
Fitness, which in a batsman exhibits itself mainly in an increased power of seeing the ball, is one of the most inexplicable things connected with cricket. It has nothing, or very little, to do with actual health. A man may come out of a sick-room with just that extra quickness in sighting the ball that makes all the difference; or he may be in perfect training and play inside straight half-volleys. Mike would not have said that he felt more than ordinarily well that day. Indeed, he was rather painfully conscious of having bolted his food at lunch. But something seemed to whisper to him, as he settled himself to face the bowler, that he was at the top of his batting form. A difficult wicket always brought out his latent powers as a bat. It was a standing mystery with the sporting Press how Joe Jackson managed to collect fifties and sixties on wickets that completely upset men who were, apparently, finer players. On days when the Olympians of the cricket world were bringing their averages down with ducks and singles, Joe would be in his element, watching the ball and pushing it through the slips as if there were no such thing as a tricky wicket. And Mike took after Joe.
A single off the fifth ball of the over opened his score and brought him to the opposite end. Bob played ball number six back to the bowler, and Mike took guard preparatory to facing de Freece.
The Ripton slow bowler took a long run, considering his pace. In the early part of an innings he often trapped the batsmen in this way, by leading them to expect a faster ball than he actually sent down. A queer little jump in the middle of the run increased the difficulty of watching him.
The smiting he had received from Burgess in the previous over had not had the effect of knocking de Freece off his length. The ball was too short to reach with comfort, and not short enough to take liberties with. It pitched slightly to leg, and whipped in quickly. Mike had faced half-left, and stepped back. The increased speed of the ball after it had touched the ground beat him. The ball hit his right pad.
“ ’S that?” shouted mid-on. Mid-on has a habit of appealing for l.b.w. in school matches.
De Freece said nothing. The Ripton bowler was as conscientious in the matter of appeals as a good bowler should be. He had seen that the ball had pitched off the leg-stump.
The umpire shook his head. Mid-on tried to look as if he had not spoken.
Mike prepared himself for the next ball with a glow of confidence. He felt that he knew where he was now. Till then he had not thought the wicket was so fast. The two balls he had played at the other end had told him nothing. They had been well pitched up, and he had smothered them. He knew what to do now. He had played on wickets of this pace at home against Saunders’s bowling, and Saunders had shown him the right way to cope with them.
The next ball was of the same length, but this time off the off-stump. Mike jumped out, and hit it before it had time to break. It flew along the ground through the gap between cover and extra-cover, a comfortable three.
Bob played out the over with elaborate care.
Off the second ball of the other man’s over Mike scored his first boundary. It was a long-hop on the off. He banged it behind point to the terrace-bank. The last ball of the over, a half-volley to leg, he lifted over the other boundary.
“Sixty up,” said Ellerby, in the pavilion, as the umpire signalled another no-ball. “By George! I believe these chaps are going to knock off the runs. Young Jackson looks as if he was in for a century.”
“You ass,” said Berridge. “Don’t say that, or he’s certain to get out.”
Berridge was one of those who are skilled in cricket superstitions.
But Mike did not get out. He took seven off de Freece’s next over by means of two cuts and a drive. And, with Bob still exhibiting a stolid and rock-like defence, the score mounted to eighty, thence to ninety, and so, mainly by singles, to a hundred.
At a hundred and four, when the wicket had put on exactly fifty, Bob fell to a combination of de Freece and extra-cover. He had stuck like a limpet for an hour and a quarter, and made twenty-one.
Mike watched him go with much the same feelings as those of a man who turns away from the platform after seeing a friend off on a long railway journey. His departure upset the scheme of things. For himself he had no fear now. He might possibly get out off his next ball, but he felt set enough to stay at the wickets till nightfall. He had had narrow escapes from de Freece, but he was full of that conviction, which comes to all batsmen on occasion, that this was his day. He had made twenty-six, and the wicket was getting easier. He could feel the sting going out of the bowling every over.
Henfrey, the next man in, was a promising rather than an effective bat. He had an excellent style, but he was uncertain. Two years later, when he captained the Wrykyn teams, he made a lot of runs. But this season his batting had been spasmodic.
To-day he never looked like settling down. He survived an over from de Freece, and hit a fast change bowler who had been put on at the other end for a couple of fluky fours. Then Mike got the bowling for three consecutive overs, and raised the score to a hundred and twenty-six. A bye brought Henfrey to the batting end again, and de Freece’s pet googly, which had not been much in evidence hitherto, led to his snicking an easy catch into short-slip’s hands.
A hundred and twenty-seven for seven against a total of a hundred and sixty-six gives the impression that the batting side has the advantage. In the present case, however, it was Ripton who were really in the better position. Apparently, Wrykyn had three more wickets to fall. Practically they had only one, for neither Ashe, nor Grant, nor Devenish had any pretensions to be considered batsmen. Ashe was the school wicket-keeper. Grant and Devenish were bowlers. Between them the three could not be relied on for a dozen in a decent match.
Mike watched Ashe shape with a sinking heart. The wicket-keeper looked like a man who feels that his hour has come. Mike could see him licking his lips. There was nervousness written all over him.
He was not kept long in suspense. De Freece’s first ball made a hideous wreck of his wicket.
“Over,” said the umpire.
Mike felt that the school’s one chance now lay in his keeping the bowling. But how was he to do this? It suddenly occurred to him that it was a delicate position that he was in. It was not often that he was troubled by an inconvenient modesty, but this happened now. Grant was a fellow he hardly knew, and a school prefect to boot. Could he go up to him and explain that he, Jackson, did not consider him competent to bat in this crisis? Would not this get about and be accounted to him for side? He had made forty, but even so. . . .
Fortunately Grant solved the problem on his own account. He came up to Mike and spoke with an earnestness born of nerves. “For goodness’ sake,” he whispered, “collar the bowling all you know, or we’re done. I shall get outed first ball.”
“All right,” said Mike, and set his teeth. Forty to win! A large order. But it was going to be done. His whole existence seemed to concentrate itself on those forty runs.
The fast bowler, who was the last of several changes that had been tried at the other end, was well-meaning but erratic. The wicket was almost true again now, and it was possible to take liberties.
Mike took them.
A distant clapping from the pavilion, taken up a moment later all round the ground, and echoed by the Ripton fieldsmen, announced that he had reached his fifty.
The last ball of the over he mishit. It rolled in the direction of third man.
“Come on,” shouted Grant.
Mike and the ball arrived at the opposite wicket almost simultaneously. Another fraction of a second, and he would have been run out.
The last balls of the next two overs provided repetitions of this performance. But each time luck was with him, and his bat was across the crease before the bails were off. The telegraph-board showed a hundred and fifty.
The next over was doubly sensational. The original medium-paced bowler had gone on again in place of the fast man, and for the first five balls he could not find his length. During those five balls Mike raised the score to a hundred and sixty.
But the sixth was of a different kind. Faster than the rest and of a perfect length, it all but got through Mike’s defence. As it was, he stopped it. But he did not score. The umpire called “Over!” and there was Grant at the batting end, with de Freece smiling pleasantly as he walked back to begin his run with the comfortable reflection that at last he had got somebody except Mike to bowl at.
That over was an experience Mike never forgot.
Grant pursued the Fabian policy of keeping his bat almost immovable and trusting to luck. Point and the slips crowded round. Mid-off and mid-on moved half-way down the pitch. Grant looked embarrassed, but determined. For four balls he baffled the attack, though once nearly caught by point a yard from the wicket. The fifth curled round his bat, and touched the off-stump. A bail fell silently to the ground.
Devenish came in to take the last ball of the over.
It was an awe-inspiring moment. A great stillness was over all the ground. Mike’s knees trembled. Devenish’s face was a delicate grey.
The only person unmoved seemed to be de Freece. His smile was even more amiable than usual as he began his run.
The next moment the crisis was past. The ball hit the very centre of Devenish’s bat, and rolled back down the pitch.
The school broke into one great howl of joy. There were still seven runs between them and victory, but nobody appeared to recognise this fact as important. Mike had got the bowling, and the bowling was not de Freece’s.
It seemed almost an anti-climax when a four to leg and two two’s through the slips settled the thing.
Devenish was caught and bowled in de Freece’s next over; but the Wrykyn total was one hundred and seventy-two.
* * * * *
“Good game,” said Maclaine, meeting Burgess in the pavilion. “Who was the man who made all the runs? How many, by the way?”
“Eighty-three. It was young Jackson. Brother of the other one.”
“That family! How many more of them are you going to have here?”
“He’s the last. I say, rough luck on de Freece. He bowled rippingly.”
Politeness to a beaten foe caused Burgess to change his usual “not bad.”
“The funny part of it is,” continued he, “that young Jackson was only playing as a sub.”
“You’ve got a rum idea of what’s funny,” said Maclaine.
IT was a morning in the middle of September. The Jacksons were breakfasting. Mr. Jackson was reading letters. The rest, including Gladys Maud, whose finely chiselled features were gradually disappearing behind a mask of bread-and-milk, had settled down to serious work. The usual catch-as-catch-can contest between Marjory and Phyllis for the jam (referee and time-keeper, Mrs. Jackson) had resulted, after both combatants had been cautioned by the referee, in a victory for Marjory, who had duly secured the stakes. The hour being nine-fifteen, and the official time for breakfast nine o’clock, Mike’s place was still empty.
“I’ve had a letter from MacPherson,” said Mr. Jackson.
MacPherson was the vigorous and persevering gentleman, referred to in a previous chapter, who kept a fatherly eye on the Buenos Ayres sheep.
“He seems very satisfied with Mike’s friend Wyatt. At the moment of writing Wyatt is apparently incapacitated owing to a bullet in the shoulder, but expects to be fit again shortly. That young man seems to make things fairly lively wherever he is. I don’t wonder he found a public school too restricted a sphere for his energies.”
“Has he been fighting a duel?” asked Marjory, interested.
“Bushrangers,” said Phyllis.
“There aren’t any bushrangers in Buenos Ayres,” said Ella.
“How do you know?” said Phyllis clinchingly.
“Bush-ray, bush-ray, bush-ray,” began Gladys Maud, conversationally, through the bread-and-milk; but was headed off.
“He gives no details. Perhaps that letter on Mike’s plate supplies them. I see it comes from Buenos Ayres.”
“I wish Mike would come and open it,” said Marjory. “Shall I go and hurry him up?”
The missing member of the family entered as she spoke.
“Buck up, Mike,” she shouted. “There’s a letter from Wyatt. He’s been wounded in a duel.”
“With a bushranger,” added Phyllis.
“Bush-ray,” explained Gladys Maud.
“Is there?” said Mike. “Sorry I’m late.”
He opened the letter and began to read.
“What does he say?” inquired Marjory. “Who was the duel with?”
“How many bushrangers were there?” asked Phyllis.
Mike read on.
“Good old Wyatt! He’s shot a man.”
“Killed him?” asked Marjory excitedly.
“No. Only potted him in the leg. This is what he says. First page is mostly about the Ripton match and so on. Here you are.‘I’m dictating this to a sportsman of the name of Danvers, a good chap who can’t help being ugly, so excuse bad writing. The fact is we’ve been having a bust-up here, and I’ve come out of it with a bullet in the shoulder, which has crocked me for the time being. It happened like this. An ass of a Gaucho had gone into the town and got jolly tight, and coming back, he wanted to ride through our place. The old woman who keeps the lodge wouldn’t have it at any price. Gave him the absolute miss-in-baulk. So this rotter, instead of shifting off, proceeded to cut the fence, and go through that way. All the farms out here have their boundaries marked by wire fences, and it is supposed to be a deadly sin to cut these. Well, the lodge-keeper’s son dashed off in search of help. A chap called Chester, an Old Wykehamist, and I were dipping sheep close by, so he came to us and told us what had happened. We nipped on to a couple of horses, pulled out our revolvers, and tooled after him. After a bit we overtook him, and that’s when the trouble began. The johnny had dismounted when we arrived. I thought he was simply tightening his horse’s girths. What he was really doing was getting a steady aim at us with his revolver. He fired as we came up, and dropped poor old Chester. I thought he was killed at first, but it turned out it was only his leg. I got going then. I emptied all the six chambers of my revolver, and missed him clean every time. In the meantime he got me in the right shoulder. Hurt like sin afterwards, though it was only a sort of dull shock at the moment. The next item of the programme was a forward move in force on the part of the enemy. The man had got his knife out now—why he didn’t shoot again I don’t know—and toddled over in our direction to finish us off. Chester was unconscious, and it was any money on the Gaucho, when I happened to catch sight of Chester’s pistol, which had fallen just by where I came down. I picked it up, and loosed off. Missed the first shot, but got him with the second in the ankle at about two yards; and his day’s work was done. That’s the painful story. Danvers says he’s getting writer’s cramp, so I shall have to stop. . . .’ ”
“By Jove!” said Mike.
“What a dreadful thing!” said Mrs. Jackson.
“Anyhow, it was practically a bushranger,” said Phyllis.
“I told you it was a duel, and so it was,” said Marjory.
“What a terrible experience for the poor boy!” said Mrs. Jackson.
“Much better than being in a beastly bank,” said Mike, summing up. “I’m glad he’s having such a ripping time. It must be almost as decent as Wrykyn out there. . . . I say, what’s under that dish?”