The Captain, April 1908
mr. jackson makes up his mind.
F Mike had been in time for breakfast that morning he might have gathered from the expression on his father’s face, as Mr. Jackson opened the envelope containing his school report and read the contents, that the document in question was not exactly a pæan of praise from beginning to end. But he was late, as usual. Mike always was late for breakfast in the holidays.
When he came down on this particular morning, the meal was nearly over. Mr. Jackson had disappeared, taking his correspondence with him; Mrs. Jackson had gone into the kitchen, and when Mike appeared the thing had resolved itself into a mere vulgar brawl between Phyllis and Ella for the jam, while Marjorie, who had put her hair up a fortnight before, looked on in a detached sort of way, as if these juvenile gambols distressed her.
“Hullo, Mike,” she said, jumping up as he entered; “here you are—I’ve been keeping everything hot for you.”
“Have you? Thanks awfully. I say—” his eye wandered in mild surprise round the table. “I’m a bit late.”
Marjorie was bustling about, fetching and carrying for Mike, as she always did. She had adopted him at an early age, and did the thing thoroughly. She was fond of her other brothers, especially when they made centuries in first-class cricket, but Mike was her favourite. She would field out in the deep as a natural thing when Mike was batting at the net in the paddock, though for the others, even for Joe, who had played in all five Test Matches in the previous summer, she would do it only as a favour.
Phyllis and Ella finished their dispute and went out. Marjorie sat on the table and watched Mike eat.
“Your report came this morning, Mike,” she said.
The kidneys failed to retain Mike’s undivided attention. He looked up interested. “What did it say?”
“I didn’t see—I only caught sight of the Wrykyn crest on the envelope. Father didn’t say anything.”
Mike seemed concerned. “I say, that looks rather rotten! I wonder if it was awfully bad. It’s the first I’ve had from Appleby.”
“It can’t be any worse than the horrid ones Mr. Blake used to write when you were in his form.”
“No, that’s a comfort,” said Mike philosophically. “Think there’s any more tea in that pot?”
“I call it a shame,” said Marjorie; “they ought to be jolly glad to have you at Wrykyn just for cricket, instead of writing beastly reports that make father angry and don’t do any good to anybody.”
“Last summer he said he’d take me away if I got another one.”
“He didn’t mean it really, I know he didn’t! He couldn’t! You’re the best bat Wrykyn’s ever had.”
“What ho!” interpolated Mike.
“You are. Everybody says you are. Why, you got your first the very first term you were there—even Joe didn’t do anything nearly so good as that. Saunders says you’re simply bound to play for England in another year or two.”
“Saunders is a jolly good chap. He bowled me a half-volley on the off the first ball I had in a school match. By the way, I wonder if he’s out at the net now. Let’s go and see.”
Saunders, the professional who had coached the Jacksons in the Easter holidays for years, was setting up the net when they arrived. Mike put on his pads and went to the wickets, while Marjorie and the dogs retired as usual to the far hedge to retrieve.
She was kept busy. Saunders was a good sound bowler of the M.C.C. minor match type, and there had been a time when he had worried Mike considerably, but Mike had been in the Wrykyn team for three seasons now, and each season he had advanced tremendously in his batting. He had filled out in three years. He had always had the style, and now he had the strength as well. Saunders’s bowling on a true wicket seemed simple to him. It was early in the Easter holidays, but already he was beginning to find his form. Saunders, who looked on Mike as his own special invention, was delighted.
“If you don’t be worried by being too anxious now that you’re captain, Master Mike,” he said, “you’ll make a century every match next term.”
“I wish I wasn’t; it’s a beastly responsibility.”
Henfrey, the Wrykyn cricket captain of the previous season, was not returning next term, and Mike was to reign in his stead. He liked the prospect, but it certainly carried with it a rather awe-inspiring responsibility. At night sometimes he would lie awake, appalled by the fear of losing his form, or making a hash of things by choosing the wrong men to play for the school and leaving the right men out. It is no light thing to captain a public school at cricket.
As he was walking towards the house, Phyllis met him. “Oh, I’ve been hunting for you, Mike; father wants you.”
“I don’t know.”
“He’s in the study. He seems—” added Phyllis, throwing in the information by way of a make-weight, “in a beastly wax.”
Mike’s jaw fell slightly. “I hope the dickens it’s nothing to do with that bally report,” was his muttered exclamation.
Mike’s dealings with his father were as a rule of a most pleasant nature. Mr. Jackson was an understanding sort of man, who treated his sons as companions. From time to time, however, breezes were apt to ruffle the placid sea of good-fellowship. Mike’s end-of-term report was an unfailing wind-raiser; indeed, on the arrival of Mr. Blake’s sarcastic résumé of Mike’s shortcomings at the end of the previous term, there had been something not unlike a typhoon. It was on this occasion that Mr. Jackson had solemnly declared his intention of removing Mike from Wrykyn unless the critics became more flattering; and Mr. Jackson was a man of his word.
It was with a certain amount of apprehension, therefore, that Jackson entered the study.
“Come in, Mike,” said his father, kicking the waste-paper basket; “I want to speak to you.”
Mike, skilled in omens, scented a row in the offing. Only in moments of emotion was Mr. Jackson in the habit of booting the basket.
There followed an awkward silence, which Mike broke by remarking that he had carted a half-volley from Saunders over the on-side hedge that morning.
“It was just a bit short and off the leg stump, so I stepped out—may I bag the paper-knife for a jiffy? I’ll just show——”
“Never mind about cricket now,” said Mr. Jackson; “I want you to listen to this report.”
“Oh, is that my report, father?” said Mike, with a sort of sickly interest, much as a dog about to be washed might evince in his tub.
“It is,” replied Mr. Jackson in measured tones, “your report; what is more, it is without exception the worst report you have ever had.”
“Oh, I say!” groaned the record-breaker.
“ ‘His conduct,’ ” quoted Mr. Jackson, “ ‘has been unsatisfactory in the extreme, both in and out of school.’ ”
“It wasn’t anything really. I only happened——”
Remembering suddenly that what he had happened to do was to drop a cannon-ball (the school weight) on the form room floor, not once, but on several occasions, he paused.
“ ‘French bad; conduct disgraceful——’ ”
“Everybody rags in French.”
“ ‘Mathematics bad. Inattentive and idle.’ ”
“Nobody does much work in Math.”
“ ‘Latin poor. Greek, very poor.’ ”
“We were doing Thucydides, Book Two, last term—all speeches and doubtful readings, and cruxes and things—beastly hard! Everybody says so.”
“Here are Mr. Appleby’s remarks: ‘The boy has genuine ability, which he declines to use in the smallest degree.’ ”
Mike moaned a moan of righteous indignation.
“ ‘An abnormal proficiency at games has apparently destroyed all desire in him to realise the more serious issues of life.’ There is more to the same effect.”
Mr. Appleby was a master with very definite ideas as to what constituted a public school-master’s duties. As a man he was distinctly pro-Mike. He understood cricket, and some of Mike’s shots on the off gave him thrills of pure æsthetic joy; but as a master he always made it his habit to regard the manners and customs of the boys in his form with an unbiassed eye, and to an unbiassed eye Mike in a form room was about as near the extreme edge as a boy could be, and Mr. Appleby said as much in a clear firm hand.
“You remember what I said to you about your report at Christmas, Mike?” said Mr. Jackson, folding the lethal document and replacing it in its envelope.
Mike said nothing; there was a sinking feeling in his interior.
“I shall abide by what I said.”
Mike’s heart thumped.
“You will not go back to Wrykyn next term.”
Somewhere in the world the sun was shining, birds were twittering; somewhere in the world lambkins frisked and peasants sang blithely at their toil (flat, perhaps, but still blithely), but to Mike at that moment the sky was black, and an icy wind blew over the face of the earth.
The tragedy had happened, and there was an end of it. He made no attempt to appeal against the sentence. He knew it would be useless, his father, when he made up his mind, having all the unbending tenacity of the normally easy-going man.
Mr. Jackson was sorry for Mike. He understood him, and for that reason he said very little now.
“I am sending you to Sedleigh,” was his next remark.
Sedleigh! Mike sat up with a jerk. He knew Sedleigh by name—one of those schools with about a hundred fellows which you never hear of except when they send up their gymnasium pair to Aldershot, or their Eight to Bisley. Mike’s outlook on life was that of a cricketer, pure and simple. What had Sedleigh ever done? What were they ever likely to do? Whom did they play? What Old Sedleighan had ever done anything at cricket? Perhaps they didn’t even play cricket!
“But it’s an awful hole,” he said blankly.
Mr. Jackson could read Mike’s mind like a book. Mike’s point of view was plain to him. He did not approve of it, but he knew that in Mike’s place and at Mike’s age he would have felt the same. He spoke drily to hide his sympathy.
“It is not a large school,” he said, “and I don’t suppose it could play Wrykyn at cricket, but it has one merit—boys work there. Young Barlitt won a Balliol scholarship from Sedleigh last year.” Barlitt was the vicar’s son, a silent, spectacled youth who did not enter very largely into Mike’s world. They had met occasionally at tennis-parties, but not much conversation had ensued. Barlitt’s mind was massive, but his topics of conversation were not Mike’s.
“Mr. Barlitt speaks very highly of Sedleigh,” added Mr. Jackson.
Mike said nothing, which was a good deal better than saying what he would have liked to have said.
HE train, which had been stopping everywhere for the last half-hour, pulled up again, and Mike, seeing the name of the station, got up, opened the door, and hurled a Gladstone bag out on to the platform in an emphatic and vindictive manner. Then he got out himself and looked about him.
“For the school, sir?” inquired the solitary porter, bustling up, as if he hoped by sheer energy to deceive the traveller into thinking that Sedleigh station was staffed by a great army of porters.
Mike nodded. A sombre nod. The nod Napoleon might have given if somebody had met him in 1812, and said, “So you’re back from Moscow, eh?” Mike was feeling thoroughly jaundiced. The future seemed wholly gloomy. And, so far from attempting to make the best of things, he had set himself deliberately to look on the dark side. He thought, for instance, that he had never seen a more repulsive porter, or one more obviously incompetent than the man who had attached himself with a firm grasp to the handle of the bag as he strode off in the direction of the luggage-van. He disliked his voice, his appearance, and the colour of his hair. Also the boots he wore. He hated the station, and the man who took his ticket.
“Young gents at the school, sir,” said the porter, perceiving from Mike’s distrait air that the boy was a stranger to the place, “goes up in the ’bus mostly. It’s waiting here, sir. Hi, George!”
“I’ll walk, thanks,” said Mike frigidly.
“It’s a goodish step, sir.”
“Here you are.”
“Thank you, sir. I’ll send up your luggage by the ’bus, sir. Which ’ouse was it you was going to?”
“Right, sir. It’s straight on up this road to the school. You can’t miss it, sir.”
“Worse luck,” said Mike.
He walked off up the road, sorrier for himself than ever. It was such absolutely rotten luck. About now, instead of being on his way to a place where they probably ran a diabolo team instead of a cricket eleven, and played hunt-the-slipper in winter, he would be on the point of arriving at Wrykyn. And as captain of cricket, at that. Which was the bitter part of it. He had never been in command. For the last two seasons he had been the star man, going in first, and heading the averages easily at the end of the season; and the three captains under whom he had played during his career as a Wrykynian, Burgess, Enderby, and Henfrey had always been sportsmen to him. But it was not the same thing. He had meant to do such a lot for Wrykyn cricket this term. He had had an entirely new system of coaching in his mind. Now it might never be used. He had handed it on in a letter to Strachan, who would be captain in his place; but probably Strachan would have some scheme of his own. There is nobody who could not edit a paper in the ideal way; and there is nobody who has not a theory of his own about cricket-coaching at school.
Wrykyn, too, would be weak this year, now that he was no longer there. Strachan was a good, free bat on his day, and, if he survived a few overs, might make a century in an hour, but he was not to be depended upon. There was no doubt that Mike’s sudden withdrawal meant that Wrykyn would have a bad time that season. And it had been such a wretched athletic year for the school. The football fifteen had been hopeless, and had lost both the Ripton matches, the return by over sixty points. Sheen’s victory in the light weights at Aldershot had been their one success. And now, on top of all this, the captain of cricket was removed during the Easter holidays. Mike’s heart bled for Wrykyn, and he found himself loathing Sedleigh and all its works with a great loathing.
The only thing he could find in its favour was the fact that it was set in a very pretty country. Of a different type from the Wrykyn country, but almost as good. For three miles Mike made his way through woods and past fields. Once he crossed a river. It was soon after this that he caught sight, from the top of a hill, of a group of buildings that wore an unmistakably school-like look.
This must be Sedleigh.
Ten minutes’ walk brought him to the school gates, and a baker’s boy directed him to Mr. Outwood’s.
There were three houses in a row, separated from the school buildings by a cricket-field. Outwood’s was the middle one of these.
Mike went to the front door, and knocked. At Wrykyn he had always charged in at the beginning of term at the boys’ entrance, but this formal reporting of himself at Sedleigh suited his mood.
He inquired for Mr. Outwood, and was shown into a room lined with books. Presently the door opened, and the house-master appeared.
There was something pleasant and homely about Mr. Outwood. In appearance he reminded Mike of Smee in “Peter Pan.” He had the same eyebrows and pince-nez and the same motherly look.
“Jackson?” he said mildly.
“I am very glad to see you, very glad indeed. Perhaps you would like a cup of tea after your journey. I think you might like a cup of tea. You come from Crofton, in Shropshire, I understand, Jackson, near Brindleford? It is a part of the country which I have always wished to visit. I daresay you have frequently seen the Cluniac Priory of St. Ambrose at Brindleford?”
Mike, who would not have recognised a Cluniac Priory if you had handed him one on a tray, said he had not.
“Dear me! You have missed an opportunity which I should have been glad to have. I am preparing a book on Ruined Abbeys and Priories of England, and it has always been my wish to see the Cluniac Priory of St. Ambrose. A deeply interesting relic of the sixteenth century. Bishop Geoffrey, 1133–40——”
“Shall I go across to the boys’ part, sir?”
“What? Yes. Oh, yes. Quite so. And perhaps you would like a cup of tea after your journey? No? Quite so. Quite so. You should make a point of visiting the remains of the Cluniac Priory in the summer holidays, Jackson. You will find the matron in her room. In many respects it is unique. The northern altar is in a state of really wonderful preservation. It consists of a solid block of masonry five feet long and two and a half wide, with chamfered plinth, standing quite free from the apse wall. It will well repay a visit. Good-bye for the present, Jackson, good-bye.”
Mike wandered across to the other side of the house, his gloom visibly deepened. All alone in a strange school, where they probably played hopscotch, with a house-master who offered one cups of tea after one’s journey and talked about chamfered plinths and apses. It was a little hard.
He strayed about, finding his bearings, and finally came to a room which he took to be the equivalent of the senior day-room at a Wrykyn house. Everywhere else he had found nothing but emptiness. Evidently he had come by an earlier train than was usual. But this room was occupied.
A very long, thin youth, with a solemn face and immaculate clothes, was leaning against the mantelpiece. As Mike entered, he fumbled in his top left waistcoat pocket, produced an eyeglass attached to a cord, and fixed it in his right eye. With the help of this aid to vision he inspected Mike in silence for a while, then, having flicked an invisible speck of dust from the left sleeve of his coat, he spoke.
“Hullo,” he said.
He spoke in a tired voice.
“Hullo,” said Mike.
“Take a seat,” said the immaculate one. “If you don’t mind dirtying your bags, that’s to say. Personally, I don’t see any prospect of ever sitting down in this place. It looks to me as if they meant to use these chairs as mustard-and-cress beds. A Nursery Garden in the Home. That sort of idea. My name,” he added pensively, “is Smith. What’s yours?”
ACKSON,” said Mike.
“Are you the Bully, the Pride of the School, or the Boy who is Led Astray and takes to Drink in Chapter Sixteen?”
“The last, for choice,” said Mike, “but I’ve only just arrived, so I don’t know.”
“The boy—what will he become? Are you new here, too, then?”
“Yes! Why, are you new?”
“Do I look as if I belonged here? I’m the latest import. Sit down on yonder settee, and I will tell you the painful story of my life. By the way, before I start, there’s just one thing. If you ever have occasion to write to me, would you mind sticking a P at the beginning of my name? P-s-m-i-t-h. See? There are too many Smiths, and I don’t care for Smythe. My father’s content to worry along in the old-fashioned way, but I’ve decided to strike out a fresh line. I shall found a new dynasty. The resolve came to me unexpectedly this morning, as I was buying a simple penn’orth of butterscotch out of the automatic machine at Paddington. I jotted it down on the back of an envelope. In conversation you may address me as Rupert (though I hope you won’t), or simply Smith, the P not being sounded. Cp. the name Zbysco, in which the Z is given a similar miss-in-baulk. See?”
Mike said he saw. Psmith thanked him with a certain stately old-world courtesy.
“Let us start at the beginning,” he resumed. “My infancy. When I was but a babe, my eldest sister was bribed with a shilling an hour by my nurse to keep an eye on me, and see that I did not raise Cain. At the end of the first day she struck for one-and-six, and got it. We now pass to my boyhood. At an early age, I was sent to Eton, everybody predicting a bright career for me. But,” said Psmith solemnly, fixing an owl-like gaze on Mike through the eye-glass, “it was not to be.”
“No?” said Mike.
“No. I was superannuated last term.”
“For Eton, yes. But what Eton loses, Sedleigh gains.”
“But why Sedleigh, of all places?”
“This is the most painful part of my narrative. It seems that a certain scug in the next village to ours happened last year to collar a Balliol——”
“Not Barlitt!” exclaimed Mike.
“That was the man. The son of the vicar. The vicar told the curate, who told our curate, who told our vicar, who told my father, who sent me off here to get a Balliol too. Do you know Barlitt?”
“His pater’s vicar of our village. It was because his son got a Balliol that I was sent here.”
“Do you come from Crofton?”
“I’ve lived at Lower Benford all my life. We are practically long-lost brothers. Cheer a little, will you?”
Mike felt as Robinson Crusoe felt when he met Friday. Here was a fellow human being in this desert place. He could almost have embraced Psmith. The very sound of the name Lower Benford was heartening. His dislike for his new school was not diminished, but now he felt that life there might at least be tolerable.
“Where were you before you came here?” asked Psmith. “You have heard my painful story. Now tell me yours.”
“Wrykyn. My pater took me away because I got such a lot of bad reports.”
“My reports from Eton were simply scurrilous. There’s a libel action in every sentence. How do you like this place from what you’ve seen of it?”
“I am with you, Comrade Jackson. You won’t mind my calling you Comrade, will you? I’ve just become a Socialist. It’s a great scheme. You ought to be one. You work for the equal distribution of property, and start by collaring all you can and sitting on it. We must stick together. We are companions in misfortune. Lost lambs. Sheep that have gone astray. Divided, we fall, together we may worry through. Have you seen Professor Radium yet? I should say Mr. Outwood. What do you think of him?”
“He doesn’t seem a bad sort of chap. Bit off his nut. Jawed about apses and things.”
“And thereby,” said Psmith, “hangs a tale. I’ve been making inquiries of a stout sportsman in a sort of Salvation Army uniform, whom I met in the grounds—he’s the school sergeant or something, quite a solid man—and I hear that Comrade Outwood’s an archæological cove. Goes about the country beating up old ruins and fossils and things. There’s an Archæological Society in the school, run by him. It goes out on half-holidays, prowling about, and is allowed to break bounds and generally steep itself to the eyebrows in reckless devilry. And, mark you, laddie, if you belong to the Archæological Society you get off cricket. To get off cricket,” said Psmith, dusting his right trouser-leg, “was the dream of my youth and the aspiration of my riper years. A noble game, but a bit too thick for me. At Eton I used to have to field out at the nets till the soles of my boots wore through. I suppose you are a blood at the game? Play for the school against Loamshire, and so on.”
“I’m not going to play here, at any rate,” said Mike.
He had made up his mind on this point in the train. There is a certain fascination about making the very worst of a bad job. Achilles knew his business when he sat in his tent. The determination not to play cricket for Sedleigh as he could not play for Wrykyn gave Mike a sort of pleasure. To stand by with folded arms and a sombre frown, as it were, was one way of treating the situation, and one not without its meed of comfort.
Psmith approved the resolve.
“Stout fellow,” he said. “ ’Tis well. You and I, hand in hand, will search the countryside for ruined abbeys. We will snare the elusive fossil together. Above all, we will go out of bounds. We shall thus improve our minds, and have a jolly good time as well. I shouldn’t wonder if one mightn’t borrow a gun from some friendly native, and do a bit of rabbit-shooting here and there. From what I saw of Comrade Outwood during our brief interview, I shouldn’t think he was one of the lynx-eyed contingent. With tact we ought to be able to slip away from the merry throng of fossil-chasers, and do a bit on our own account.”
“Good idea,” said Mike. “We will. A chap at Wrykyn, called Wyatt, used to break out at night and shoot at cats with an air-pistol.”
“It would take a lot to make me do that. I am all against anything that interferes with my sleep. But rabbits in the daytime is a scheme. We’ll nose about for a gun at the earliest opp. Meanwhile we’d better go up to Comrade Outwood, and get our names shoved down for the Society.”
“I vote we get some tea first somewhere.”
“Then let’s beat up a study. I suppose they have studies here. Let’s go and look.”
They went upstairs. On the first floor there was a passage with doors on either side. Psmith opened the first of these.
“This’ll do us well,” he said.
It was a biggish room, looking out over the school grounds. There were a couple of deal tables, two empty bookcases, and a looking-glass, hung on a nail.
“Might have been made for us,” said Psmith approvingly.
“I suppose it belongs to some rotter.”
“You aren’t going to collar it!”
“That,” said Psmith, looking at himself earnestly in the mirror, and straightening his tie, “is the exact programme. We must stake out our claims. This is practical Socialism.”
“But the real owner’s bound to turn up some time or other.”
“His misfortune, not ours. You can’t expect two master-minds like us to pig it in that room downstairs. There are moments when one wants to be alone. It is imperative that we have a place to retire to after a fatiguing day. And now, if you want to be really useful, come and help me fetch up my box from downstairs. It’s got an Etna and various things in it.”
staking out a claim.
SMITH, in the matter of decorating a study and preparing tea in it, was rather a critic than an executant. He was full of ideas, but he preferred to allow Mike to carry them out. It was he who suggested that the wooden bar which ran across the window was unnecessary, but it was Mike who wrenched it from its place. Similarly, it was Mike who abstracted the key from the door of the next study, though the idea was Psmith’s.
“Privacy,” said Psmith, as he watched Mike light the Etna, “is what we chiefly need in this age of publicity. If you leave a study door unlocked in these strenuous times, the first thing you know is, somebody comes right in, sits down, and begins to talk about himself. I think with a little care we ought to be able to make this room quite decently comfortable. That putrid calendar must come down, though. Do you think you could make a long arm, and haul it off the parent tin-tack? Thanks. We make progress. We make progress.”
“We shall jolly well make it out of the window,” said Mike, spooning up tea from a paper bag with a post card, “if a sort of young Hackenschmidt turns up and claims the study. What are you going to do about it?”
“Don’t let us worry about it. I have a presentiment that he will be an insignificant-looking little weed. How are you getting on with the evening meal?”
“Just ready. What would you give to be at Eton now? I’d give something to be at Wrykyn.”
“These school reports,” said Psmith sympathetically, “are the very dickens. Many a bright young lad has been soured by them. Hullo. What’s this, I wonder.”
A heavy body had plunged against the door, evidently without a suspicion that there would be any resistance. A rattling at the handle followed, and a voice outside said, “Dash the door!”
“Hackenschmidt!” said Mike.
“The weed,” said Psmith. “You couldn’t make a long arm, could you, and turn the key? We had better give this merchant audience. Remind me later to go on with my remarks on school reports. I had several bright things to say on the subject.”
Mike unlocked the door, and flung it open. Framed in the entrance was a smallish, freckled boy, wearing a bowler hat and carrying a bag. On his face was an expression of mingled wrath and astonishment.
Psmith rose courteously from his chair, and moved forward with slow stateliness to do the honours.
“What the dickens,” inquired the newcomer, “are you doing here?”
“We were having a little tea,” said Psmith, “to restore our tissues after our journey. Come in and join us. We keep open house, we Psmiths. Let me introduce you to Comrade Jackson. A stout fellow. Homely in appearance, perhaps, but one of us. I am Psmith. Your own name will doubtless come up in the course of general chit-chat over the tea-cups.”
“My name’s Spiller, and this is my study.”
Psmith leaned against the mantelpiece, put up his eyeglass, and harangued Spiller in a philosophical vein.
“Of all sad words of tongue or pen,” said he, “the saddest are these: ‘It might have been.’ Too late! That is the bitter cry. If you had torn yourself from the bosom of the Spiller family by an earlier train, all might have been well. But no. Your father held your hand and said huskily, ‘Edwin, don’t leave us!’ Your mother clung to you weeping, and said, ‘Edwin, stay!’ Your sisters——”
“I want to know what——”
“Your sisters froze on to your knees like little octopuses (or octopi), and screamed, ‘Don’t go, Edwin!’ And so,” said Psmith, deeply affected by his recital, “you stayed on till the later train; and, on arrival, you find strange faces in the familiar room, a people that know not Spiller.” Psmith went to the table, and cheered himself with a sip of tea. Spiller’s sad case had moved him greatly.
The victim of Fate seemed in no way consoled.
“It’s beastly cheek, that’s what I call it. Are you new chaps?”
“The very latest thing,” said Psmith.
“Well, it’s beastly cheek.”
Mike’s outlook on life was of the solid, practical order. He went straight to the root of the matter.
“What are you going to do about it?” he asked.
Spiller evaded the question.
“It’s beastly cheek,” he repeated. “You can’t go about the place bagging studies.”
“But we do,” said Psmith. “In this life, Comrade Spiller, we must be prepared for every emergency. We must distinguish between the unusual and the impossible. It is unusual for people to go about the place bagging studies, so you have rashly ordered your life on the assumption that it is impossible. Error! Ah, Spiller, Spiller, let this be a lesson to you.”
“Look here, I tell you what it——”
“I was in a motor with a man once. I said to him: ‘What would happen if you trod on that pedal thing instead of that other pedal thing?’ He said, ‘I couldn’t. One’s the foot brake, and the other’s the accelerator.’ ‘But suppose you did?’ I said. ‘I wouldn’t,’ he said. ‘Now we’ll let her rip.’ So he stamped on the accelerator. Only it turned out to be the foot brake after all, and we stopped dead, and skidded into a ditch. The advice I give to every young man starting life is: ‘Never confuse the unusual and the impossible.’ Take the present case. If you had only realised the possibility of somebody some day collaring your study, you might have thought out dozens of sound schemes for dealing with the matter. As it is, you are unprepared. The thing comes on you as a surprise. The cry goes round: ‘Spiller has been taken unawares. He cannot cope with the situation.’ ”
“Can’t I! I’ll——”
“What are you going to do about it?” said Mike.
“All I know is, I’m going to have it. It was Simpson’s last term, and Simpson’s left, and I’m next on the house list, so, of course, it’s my study.”
“But what steps,” said Psmith, “are you going to take? Spiller, the man of Logic, we know. But what of Spiller, the Man of Action? How do you intend to set about it? Force is useless. I was saying to Comrade Jackson before you came in, that I didn’t mind betting you were an insignificant-looking little weed. And you are an insignificant-looking little weed.”
“We’ll see what Outwood says about it.”
“Not an unsound scheme. By no means a scaly project. Comrade Jackson and myself were about to interview him upon another point. We may as well all go together.”
The trio made their way to the Presence, Spiller pink and determined, Mike sullen, Psmith particularly debonair. He hummed lightly as he walked, and now and then pointed out to Spiller objects of interest by the wayside.
Mr. Outwood received them with the motherly warmth which was evidently the leading characteristic of his normal manner.
“Ah, Spiller,” he said. “And Smith, and Jackson. I am glad to see that you have already made friends.”
“Spiller’s, sir,” said Psmith, laying a hand patronisingly on the study-claimer’s shoulder—a proceeding violently resented by Spiller—“is a character one cannot help but respect. His nature expands before one like some beautiful flower.”
Mr. Outwood received this eulogy with rather a startled expression, and gazed at the object of the tribute in a surprised way.
“Er—quite so, Smith, quite so,” he said at last. “I like to see boys in my house friendly towards one another.”
“There is no vice in Spiller,” pursued Psmith earnestly. “His heart is the heart of a little child.”
“Please, sir,” burst out this paragon of all the virtues, “I——”
“But it was not entirely with regard to Spiller that I wished to speak to you, sir, if you were not too busy.”
“Not at all, Smith, not at all. Is there anything——”
“Please, sir——” began Spiller.
“I understand, sir,” said Psmith, “that there is an Archæological Society in the school.”
Mr. Outwood’s eyes sparkled behind their pince-nez. It was a disappointment to him that so few boys seemed to wish to belong to his chosen band. Cricket and football, games that left him cold, appeared to be the main interest in their lives. It was but rarely that he could induce new boys to join. His colleague, Mr. Downing, who presided over the School Fire Brigade, never had any difficulty in finding support. Boys came readily at his call. Mr. Outwood pondered wistfully on this at times, not knowing that the Fire Brigade owed its support to the fact that it provided its light-hearted members with perfectly unparalleled opportunities for ragging, while his own band, though small, were in the main earnest.
“Yes, Smith.” he said. “Yes. We have a small Archæological Society. I—er—in a measure look after it. Perhaps you would care to become a member?”
“Please, sir——” said Spiller.
“One moment, Spiller. Do you want to join, Smith?”
“Intensely, sir. Archæology fascinates me. A grand pursuit, sir.”
“Undoubtedly, Smith. I am very pleased, very pleased indeed. I will put down your name at once.”
“And Jackson’s, sir.”
“Jackson, too!” Mr. Outwood beamed. “I am delighted. Most delighted. This is capital. This enthusiasm is most capital.”
“Spiller, sir,” said Psmith sadly, “I have been unable to induce to join.”
“Oh, he is one of our oldest members.”
“Ah,” said Psmith, tolerantly, “that accounts for it.”
“Please, sir——” said Spiller.
“One moment, Spiller. We shall have the first outing of the term on Saturday. We intend to inspect the Roman Camp at Embury Hill, two miles from the school.”
“We shall be there, sir.”
“Please, sir——” said Spiller.
“One moment, Spiller,” said Psmith. “There is just one other matter, if you could spare the time, sir.”
“Certainly, Smith. What is that?”
“Would there be any objection to Jackson and myself taking Simpson’s old study?”
“By all means, Smith. A very good idea.”
“Yes, sir. It would give us a place where we could work quietly in the evenings.”
“Quite so. Quite so.”
“Thank you very much, sir. We will move our things in.”
“Thank you very much, sir,” said Mike.
“Please, sir,” shouted Spiller, “aren’t I to have it? I’m next on the list, sir. I come next after Simpson. Can’t I have it?”
“I’m afraid I have already promised it to Smith, Spiller. You should have spoken before.”
Psmith eyed the speaker pityingly.
“This tendency to delay, Spiller,” he said, “is your besetting fault. Correct it, Edwin. Fight against it.”
He turned to Mr. Outwood.
“We should, of course, sir, always be glad to see Spiller in our study. He would always find a cheery welcome waiting there for him. There is no formality between ourselves and Spiller.”
“Quite so. An excellent arrangement, Smith. I like this spirit of comradeship in my house. Then you will be with us on Saturday?”
“On Saturday, sir.”
“All this sort of thing, Spiller,” said Psmith, as they closed the door, “is very, very trying for a man of culture. Look us up in our study one of these afternoons.”
HERE are few pleasures,” said Psmith, as he resumed his favourite position against the mantelpiece and surveyed the commandeered study with the pride of a householder, “keener to the reflective mind than sitting under one’s own roof-tree. This place would have been wasted on Spiller; he would not have appreciated it properly.”
Mike was finishing his tea. “You’re a jolly useful chap to have by you in a crisis, Smith,” he said with approval. “We ought to have known each other before.”
“The loss was mine,” said Psmith courteously. “We will now, with your permission, face the future for awhile. I suppose you realise that we are now to a certain extent up against it. Spiller’s hot Spanish blood is not going to sit tight and do nothing under a blow like this.”
“What can he do? Outwood’s given us the study.”
“What would you have done if somebody had bagged your study?”
“Made it jolly hot for them!”
“So will Comrade Spiller. I take it that he will collect a gang and make an offensive movement against us directly he can. To all appearances we are in a fairly tight place. It all depends on how big Comrade Spiller’s gang will be. I don’t like rows, but I’m prepared to take on a reasonable number of bravoes in defence of the home.”
Mike intimated that he was with him on the point. “The difficulty is, though,” he said, “about when we leave this room. I mean, we’re all right while we stick here, but we can’t stay all night.”
“That’s just what I was about to point out when you put it with such admirable clearness. Here we are in a stronghold, they can only get at us through the door, and we can lock that.”
“And jam a chair against it.”
“And, as you rightly remark, jam a chair against it. But what of the nightfall? What of the time when we retire to our dormitory?”
“Or dormitories. I say, if we’re in separate rooms we shall be in the cart.”
Psmith eyed Mike with approval. “He thinks of everything! You’re the man, Comrade Jackson, to conduct an affair of this kind—such foresight! such resource! We must see to this at once; if they put us in different rooms we’re done—we shall be destroyed singly in the watches of the night.”
“We’d better nip down to the matron right off.”
“Not the matron—Comrade Outwood is the man. We are as sons to him; there is nothing he can deny us. I’m afraid we are quite spoiling his afternoon by these interruptions, but we must rout him out once more.”
As they got up, the door handle rattled again, and this time there followed a knocking.
“This must be an emissary of Comrade Spiller’s,” said Psmith. “Let us parley with the man.”
Mike unlocked the door. A light-haired youth with a cheerful, rather vacant face and a receding chin strolled into the room, and stood giggling with his hands in his pockets.
“I just came up to have a look at you,” he explained.
“If you move a little to the left,” said Psmith, “you will catch the light and shade effects on Jackson’s face better.”
The newcomer giggled with renewed vigour. “Are you the chap with the eyeglass who jaws all the time?”
“I do wear an eyeglass,” said Psmith; “as to the rest of the description——”
“My name’s Jellicoe.”
“Mine is Psmith—P-s-m-i-t-h—one of the Shropshire Psmiths. The object on the skyline is Comrade Jackson.”
“Old Spiller,” giggled Jellicoe, “is cursing you like anything downstairs. You are chaps! Do you mean to say you simply bagged his study? He’s making no end of a row about it.”
“Spiller’s fiery nature is a byword,” said Psmith.
“What’s he going to do?” asked Mike, in his practical way.
“He’s going to get the chaps to turn you out.”
“As I suspected,” sighed Psmith, as one mourning over the frailty of human nature. “About how many horny-handed assistants should you say that he would be likely to bring? Will you, for instance, join the glad throng?”
“Me? No fear! I think Spiller’s an ass.”
“There’s nothing like a common thought for binding people together. I think Spiller’s an ass.”
“How many will there be, then?” asked Mike.
“He might get about half a dozen, not more, because most of the chaps don’t see why they should sweat themselves just because Spiller’s study has been bagged.”
“Sturdy common sense,” said Psmith approvingly, “seems to be the chief virtue of the Sedleigh character.”
“We shall be able to tackle a crowd like that,” said Mike. “The only thing is we must get into the same dormitory.”
“This is where Comrade Jellicoe’s knowledge of the local geography will come in useful. Do you happen to know of any snug little room, with, say, about four beds in it? How many dormitories are there?”
“Five—there’s one with three beds in it, only it belongs to three chaps.”
“I believe in the equal distribution of property. We will go to Comrade Outwood and stake out another claim.”
Mr. Outwood received them even more beamingly than before. “Yes, Smith?” he said.
“We must apologise for disturbing you, sir——”
“Not at all, Smith, not at all! I like the boys in my house to come to me when they wish for my advice or help.”
“We were wondering, sir, if you would have any objection to Jackson, Jellicoe and myself sharing the dormitory with the three beds in it. A very warm friendship——” explained Psmith, patting the gurgling Jellicoe kindly on the shoulder, “has sprung up between Jackson, Jellicoe and myself.”
“You make friends easily, Smith. I like to see it—I like to see it.”
“And we can have the room, sir?”
“Certainly—certainly! Tell the matron as you go down.”
“And now,” said Psmith, as they returned to the study, “we may say that we are in a fairly winning position. A vote of thanks to Comrade Jellicoe for his valuable assistance.”
“You are a chap!” said Jellicoe.
The handle began to revolve again.
“That door,” said Psmith, “is getting a perfect incubus! It cuts into one’s leisure cruelly.”
This time it was a small boy. “They told me to come up and tell you to come down,” he said.
Psmith looked at him searchingly through his eyeglass.
“The senior day-room chaps.”
“Spiller and Robinson and Stone, and some other chaps.”
“They want us to speak to them?”
“They told me to come up and tell you to come down.”
“Go and give Comrade Spiller our compliments and say that we can’t come down, but shall be delighted to see him up here. Things,” he said, as the messenger departed, “are beginning to move. Better leave the door open, I think; it will save trouble. Ah, come in, Comrade Spiller, what can we do for you?”
Spiller advanced into the study; the others waited outside, crowding in the doorway.
“Look here,” said Spiller, “are you going to clear out of here or not?”
“After Mr. Outwood’s kindly thought in giving us the room? You suggest a black and ungrateful action, Comrade Spiller.”
“You’ll get it hot, if you don’t.”
“We’ll risk it,” said Mike.
Jellicoe giggled in the background; the drama in the atmosphere appealed to him. His was a simple and appreciative mind.
“Come on, you chaps,” cried Spiller suddenly.
There was an inward rush on the enemy’s part, but Mike had been watching. He grabbed Spiller by the shoulders and ran him back against the advancing crowd. For a moment the doorway was blocked, then the weight and impetus of Mike and Spiller prevailed, the enemy gave back, and Mike, stepping into the room again, slammed the door and locked it.
“A neat piece of work,” said Psmith approvingly, adjusting his tie at the looking-glass. “The preliminaries may now be considered over, the first shot has been fired. The dogs of war are now loose.”
A heavy body crashed against the door.
“They’ll have it down,” said Jellicoe.
“We must act, Comrade Jackson! Might I trouble you just to turn that key quietly, and the handle, and then to stand by for the next attack.”
There was a scrambling of feet in the passage outside, and then a repetition of the onslaught on the door. This time, however, the door, instead of resisting, swung open, and the human battering-ram staggered through into the study. Mike, turning after re-locking the door, was just in time to see Psmith, with a display of energy of which one would not have believed him capable, grip the invader scientifically by an arm and a leg.
Mike jumped to help, but it was needless; the captive was already on the window-sill. As Mike arrived, Psmith dropped him on to the flower-bed below.
Psmith closed the window gently and turned to Jellicoe. “Who was our guest?” he asked, dusting the knees of his trousers where they had pressed against the wall.
“Robinson. I say, you are a chap!”
“Robinson, was it? Well, we are always glad to see Comrade Robinson, always. I wonder if anybody else is thinking of calling?”
Apparently frontal attack had been abandoned. Whisperings could be heard in the corridor.
Somebody hammered on the door.
“Yes?” called Psmith patiently.
“You’d better come out, you know; you’ll only get it hotter if you don’t.”
“Leave us, Spiller; we would be alone.”
A bell rang in the distance.
“Tea,” said Jellicoe; “we shall have to go now.”
“They won’t do anything till after tea, I shouldn’t think,” said Mike. “There’s no harm in going out.”
The passage was empty when they opened the door; the call to food was evidently a thing not to be treated lightly by the enemy.
In the dining-room the beleaguered garrison were the object of general attention. Everybody turned to look at them as they came in. It was plain that the study episode had been a topic of conversation. Spiller’s face was crimson, and Robinson’s coat-sleeve still bore traces of garden mould.
Mike felt rather conscious of the eyes, but Psmith was in his element. His demeanour throughout the meal was that of some whimsical monarch condescending for a freak to revel with his humble subjects.
Towards the end of the meal Psmith scribbled a note and passed it to Mike. It read: “Directly this is over, nip upstairs as quickly as you can.”
Mike followed the advice; they were first out of the room. When they had been in the study a few moments, Jellicoe knocked at the door. “Lucky you two cut away so quick,” he said. “They were going to try and get you into the senior day-room and scrag you there.”
“This,” said Psmith, leaning against the mantelpiece, “is exciting, but it can’t go on. We have got for our sins to be in this place for a whole term, and if we are going to do the Hunted Fawn business all the time, life in the true sense of the word will become an impossibility. My nerves are so delicately attuned that the strain would simply reduce them to hash. We are not prepared to carry on a long campaign—the thing must be settled at once.”
“Shall we go down to the senior day-room, and have it out?” said Mike.
“No, we will play the fixture on our own ground. I think we may take it as tolerably certain that Comrade Spiller and his hired ruffians will try to corner us in the dormitory to-night. Well, of course, we could fake up some sort of barricade for the door, but then we should have all the trouble over again to-morrow and the day after that. Personally I don’t propose to be chivvied about indefinitely like this, so I propose that we let them come into the dormitory, and see what happens. Is this meeting with me?”
“I think that’s sound,” said Mike. “We needn’t drag Jellicoe into it.”
“As a matter of fact—if you don’t mind——” began that man of peace.
“Quite right,” said Psmith; “this is not Comrade Jellicoe’s scene at all; he has got to spend the term in the senior day-room, whereas we have our little wooden chalet to retire to in times of stress. Comrade Jellicoe must stand out of the game altogether. We shall be glad of his moral support, but otherwise, ne pas. And now, as there won’t be anything doing till bedtime, I think I’ll collar this table and write home and tell my people that all is well with their Rupert.”
(To be continued.)