The Captain, September 1908
clearing the air.
SMITH was one of those people who lend a dignity to everything they touch. Under his auspices the most unpromising ventures became somehow enveloped in an atmosphere of measured stateliness. On the present occasion, what would have been, without his guiding hand, a mere unscientific scramble, took on something of the impressive formality of the National Sporting Club.
“The rounds,” he said, producing a watch, as they passed through a gate into a field a couple of hundred yards from the house gate, “will be of three minutes’ duration, with a minute rest in between. A man who is down will have ten seconds in which to rise. Are you ready, Comrades Adair and Jackson? Very well, then. Time.”
After which, it was a pity that the actual fight did not quite live up to its referee’s introduction. Dramatically, there should have been cautious sparring for openings and a number of tensely contested rounds, as if it had been the final of a boxing competition. But school fights, when they do occur—which is only once in a decade nowadays, unless you count junior school scuffles—are the outcome of weeks of suppressed bad blood, and are consequently brief and furious. In a boxing competition, however much one may want to win, one does not dislike one’s opponent. Up to the moment when “time” was called, one was probably warmly attached to him, and at the end of the last round one expects to resume that attitude of mind. In a fight each party, as a rule, hates the other.
So it happened that there was nothing formal or cautious about the present battle. All Adair wanted was to get at Mike, and all Mike wanted was to get at Adair. Directly Psmith called “time,” they rushed together as if they meant to end the thing in half a minute.
It was this that saved Mike. In an ordinary contest with the gloves, with his opponent cool and boxing in his true form, he could not have lasted three rounds against Adair. The latter was a clever boxer, while Mike had never had a lesson in his life. If Adair had kept away and used his head, nothing could have prevented him winning.
As it was, however, he threw away his advantages much as Tom Brown did at the beginning of his fight with Slogger Williams, and the result was the same as on that historic occasion. Mike had the greater strength; and, thirty seconds from the start, knocked his man clean off his feet with an unscientific but powerful right-hander.
This finished Adair’s chances. He rose full of fight, but with all the science knocked out of him. He went in at Mike with both hands. The Irish blood in him, which for the ordinary events of life made him merely energetic and dashing, now rendered him reckless. He abandoned all attempt at guarding. It was the Frontal Attack in its most futile form, and as unsuccessful as a frontal attack is apt to be. There was a swift exchange of blows, in the course of which Mike’s left elbow, coming into contact with his opponent’s right fist, got a shock which kept it tingling for the rest of the day; and then Adair went down in a heap.
He got up slowly and with difficulty. For a moment he stood blinking vaguely. Then he lurched forward at Mike.
In the excitement of a fight—which is, after all, about the most exciting thing that ever happens to one in the course of one’s life—it is difficult for the fighters to see what the spectators see. Where the spectators see an assault on an already beaten man, the fighter himself only sees a legitimate piece of self-defence against an opponent whose chances are equal to his own. Psmith saw, as anybody looking on would have seen, that Adair was done. Mike’s blow had taken him within a fraction of an inch of the point of the jaw, and he was all but knocked out. Mike could not see this. All he understood was that his man was on his feet again and coming at him, so he hit out with all his strength; and this time Adair went down and stayed down.
“Brief,” said Psmith, coming forward, “but exciting. We may take that, I think, to be the conclusion of the entertainment. I will now have a dash at picking up the slain. I shouldn’t stop, if I were you. He’ll be sitting up and taking notice soon, and if he sees you he may want to go on with the combat, which would do him no earthly good. If it’s going to be continued in our next, there had better be a bit of an interval for alterations and repairs first.”
“Is he hurt much, do you think?” asked Mike. He had seen knock-outs before in the ring, but this was the first time he had ever effected one on his own account, and Adair looked unpleasantly corpse-like.
“He’s all right,” said Psmith. “In a minute or two he’ll be skipping about like a little lambkin. I’ll look after him. You go away and pick flowers.”
Mike put on his coat and walked back to the house. He was conscious of a perplexing whirl of new and strange emotions, chief among which was a curious feeling that he rather liked Adair. He found himself thinking that Adair was a good chap, that there was something to be said for his point of view, and that it was a pity he had knocked him about so much. At the same time, he felt an undeniable thrill of pride at having beaten him. The feat presented that interesting person, Mike Jackson, to him in a fresh and pleasing light, as one who had had a tough job to face and had carried it through. Jackson, the cricketer, he knew, but Jackson, the deliverer of knock-out blows, was strange to him, and he found this new acquaintance a man to be respected.
The fight, in fact, had the result which most fights have, if they are fought fairly and until one side has had enough. It revolutionised Mike’s view of things. It shook him up, and drained the bad blood out of him. Where, before, he had seemed to himself to be acting with massive dignity, he now saw that he had simply been sulking like some wretched kid. There had appeared to him something rather fine in his policy of refusing to identify himself in any way with Sedleigh, a touch of the stone-walls-do-not-a-prison-make sort of thing. He now saw that his attitude was to be summed up in the words, “Shan’t play.”
It came upon Mike with painful clearness that he had been making an ass of himself.
He had come to this conclusion, after much earnest thought, when Psmith entered the study.
“How’s Adair?” asked Mike.
“Sitting up and taking nourishment once more. We have been chatting. He’s not a bad cove.”
“He’s all right,” said Mike.
There was a pause. Psmith straightened his tie.
“Look here,” he said, “I seldom interfere in terrestrial strife, but it seems to me that there’s an opening here for a capable peace-maker, not afraid of work, and willing to give his services in exchange for a comfortable home. Comrade Adair’s rather a stoutish fellow in his way. I’m not much on the ‘Play up for the old school, Jones,’ game, but every one to his taste. I shouldn’t have thought anybody would get overwhelmingly attached to this abode of wrath, but Comrade Adair seems to have done it. He’s all for giving Sedleigh a much-needed boost-up. It’s not a bad idea in its way. I don’t see why one shouldn’t humour him. Apparently he’s been sweating since early childhood to buck the school up. And as he’s leaving at the end of the term, it mightn’t be a scaly scheme to give him a bit of a send-off, if possible, by making the cricket season a bit of a banger. As a start, why not drop him a line to say that you’ll play against the M.C.C. to-morrow?”
Mike did not reply at once. He was feeling better-disposed towards Adair and Sedleigh than he had felt, but he was not sure that he was quite prepared to go as far as a complete climb-down.
“It wouldn’t be a bad idea,” continued Psmith. “There’s nothing like giving a man a bit in every now and then. It broadens the soul and improves the action of the skin. What seems to have fed up Comrade Adair, to a certain extent, is that Stone apparently led him to understand that you had offered to give him and Robinson places in your village team. You didn’t, of course?”
“Of course not,” said Mike indignantly.
“I told him he didn’t know the old noblesse oblige spirit of the Jacksons. I said that you would scorn to tarnish the Jackson escutcheon by not playing the game. My eloquence convinced him. However, to return to the point under discussion, why not?”
“I don’t—— What I mean to say——” began Mike.
“If your trouble is,” said Psmith, “that you fear that you may be in unworthy company——”
“Don’t be an ass.”
“—Dismiss it. I am playing.”
“You’re what? You?”
“I,” said Psmith, breathing on a coat-button, and polishing it with his handkerchief.
“Can you play cricket?”
“You have discovered,” said Psmith, “my secret sorrow.”
“You wrong me, Comrade Jackson.”
“Then why haven’t you played?”
“Why haven’t you?”
“Why didn’t you come and play for Lower Borlock, I mean?”
“The last time I played in a village cricket match I was caught at point by a man in braces. It would have been madness to risk another such shock to my system. My nerves are so exquisitely balanced that a thing of that sort takes years off my life.”
“No, but look here, Smith, bar rotting. Are you really any good at cricket?”
“Competent judges at Eton gave me to understand so. I was told that this year I should be a certainty for Lord’s. But when the cricket season came, where was I? Gone. Gone like some beautiful flower that withers in the night.”
“But you told me you didn’t like cricket. You said you only liked watching it.”
“Quite right. I do. But at schools where cricket is compulsory you have to overcome your private prejudices. And in time the thing becomes a habit. Imagine my feelings when I found that I was degenerating, little by little, into a slow left-hand bowler with a swerve. I fought against it, but it was useless, and after a while I gave up the struggle, and drifted with the stream. Last year, in a house match”—Psmith’s voice took on a deeper tone of melancholy—“I took seven for thirteen in the second innings on a hard wicket. I did think, when I came here, that I had found a haven of rest, but it was not to be. I turn out to-morrow. What Comrade Outwood will say, when he finds that his keenest archæological disciple has deserted, I hate to think. However——”
Mike felt as if a young and powerful earthquake had passed. The whole face of his world had undergone a quick change. Here was he, the recalcitrant, wavering on the point of playing for the school, and here was Psmith, the last person whom he would have expected to be a player, stating calmly that he had been in the running for a place in the Eton eleven.
Then in a flash Mike understood. He was not by nature intuitive, but he read Psmith’s mind now. Since the term began, he and Psmith had been acting on precisely similar motives. Just as he had been disappointed of the captaincy of cricket at Wrykyn, so had Psmith been disappointed of his place in the Eton team at Lord’s. And they had both worked it off, each in his own way—Mike sullenly, Psmith whimsically, according to their respective natures—on Sedleigh.
If Psmith, therefore, did not consider it too much of a climb-down to renounce his resolution not to play for Sedleigh, there was nothing to stop Mike doing so, as—at the bottom of his heart—he wanted to do.
“By Jove,” he said, “if you’re playing, I’ll play. I’ll write a note to Adair now. But, I say——” he stopped—“I’m hanged if I’m going to turn out and field before breakfast to-morrow.”
“That’s all right. You won’t have to. Adair won’t be there himself. He’s not playing against the M.C.C. He’s sprained his wrist.”
in which peace is declared.
PRAINED his wrist?” said Mike. “How did he do that?”
“During the brawl. Apparently one of his efforts got home on your elbow instead of your expressive countenance, and whether it was that your elbow was particularly tough or his wrist particularly fragile, I don’t know. Anyhow, it went. It’s nothing bad, but it’ll keep him out of the game to-morrow.”
“I say, what beastly rough luck! I’d no idea. I’ll go round.”
“Not a bad scheme. Close the door gently after you, and if you see anybody downstairs who looks as if he were likely to be going over to the shop, ask him to get me a small pot of some rare old jam and tell the man to chalk it up to me. The jam Comrade Outwood supplies to us at tea is all right as a practical joke or as a food for those anxious to commit suicide, but useless to anybody who values life.”
On arriving at Downing’s and going to Adair’s study, Mike found that his late antagonist was out. He left a note informing him of his willingness to play in the morrow’s match. The lock-up bell rang as he went out of the house.
A spot of rain fell on his hand. A moment later there was a continuous patter, as the storm, which had been gathering all day, broke in earnest. Mike turned up his coat-collar, and ran back to Outwood’s. “At this rate,” he said to himself, “there won’t be a match at all to-morrow.”
When the weather decides, after behaving well for some weeks, to show what it can do in another direction, it does the thing thoroughly. When Mike woke the next morning the world was grey and dripping. Leaden-coloured clouds drifted over the sky, till there was not a trace of blue to be seen, and then the rain began again, in the gentle, determined way rain has when it means to make a day of it.
It was one of those bad days when one sits in the pavilion, damp and depressed, while figures in mackintoshes, with discoloured buckskin boots, crawl miserably about the field in couples.
Mike, shuffling across to school in a Burberry, met Adair at Downing’s gate.
These moments are always difficult. Mike stopped—he could hardly walk on as if nothing had happened—and looked down at his feet.
“Coming across?” he said awkwardly.
“Right ho!” said Adair.
They walked on in silence.
“It’s only about ten to, isn’t it?” said Mike.
Adair fished out his watch, and examined it with an elaborate care born of nervousness.
“About nine to.”
“Good. We’ve got plenty of time.”
“I hate having to hurry over to school.”
“So do I.”
“I often do cut it rather fine, though.”
“Yes. So do I.”
“Beastly nuisance when one does.”
“It’s only about a couple of minutes from the houses to the school, I should think, shouldn’t you?”
“Not much more. Might be three.”
“Yes. Three if one didn’t hurry.”
“Oh, yes, if one didn’t hurry.”
“Beastly day,” said Adair.
“I say,” said Mike, scowling at his toes, “awfully sorry about your wrist.”
“Oh, that’s all right. It was my fault.”
“Does it hurt?”
“Oh, no, rather not, thanks.”
“I’d no idea you’d crocked yourself.”
“Oh, no, that’s all right. It was only right at the end. You’d have smashed me anyhow.”
“I bet you anything you like you would.”
“I bet you I shouldn’t. . . . Jolly hard luck, just before the match.”
“Oh, no. . . . I say, thanks awfully for saying you’d play.”
“Oh, rot. . . . Do you think we shall get a game?”
Adair inspected the sky carefully.
“I don’t know. It looks pretty bad, doesn’t it?”
“Rotten. I say, how long will your wrist keep you out of cricket?”
“Be all right in a week. Less, probably.”
“Now that you and Smith are going to play, we ought to have a jolly good season.”
“Rummy, Smith turning out to be a cricketer.”
“Yes. I should think he’d be a hot bowler, with his height.”
“He must be jolly good if he was only just out of the Eton team last year.”
“What’s the time?” asked Mike.
Adair produced his watch once more.
“We’ve heaps of time.”
“Let’s stroll on a bit down the road, shall we?”
Mike cleared his throat.
“I’ve been talking to Smith. He was telling me that you thought I’d promised to give Stone and Robinson places in the——”
“Oh, no, that’s all right. It was only for a bit. Smith told me you couldn’t have done, and I saw that I was an ass to think you could have. It was Stone seeming so dead certain that he could play for Lower Borlock if I chucked him from the school team that gave me the idea.”
“He never even asked me to get him a place.”
“No, I know.”
“Of course, I wouldn’t have done it, even if he had.”
“Of course not.”
“I didn’t want to play myself, but I wasn’t going to do a rotten trick like getting other fellows away from the team.”
“No, I know.”
“It was rotten enough, really, not playing myself.”
“Oh, no. Beastly rough luck having to leave Wrykyn just when you were going to be captain, and come to a small school like this.”
The excitement of the past few days must have had a stimulating effect on Mike’s mind—shaken it up, as it were: for now, for the second time in two days, he displayed quite a creditable amount of intuition. He might have been misled by Adair’s apparently deprecatory attitude towards Sedleigh, and blundered into a denunciation of the place. Adair had said “a small school like this” in the sort of voice which might have led his hearer to think that he was expected to say, “Yes, rotten little hole, isn’t it?” or words to that effect. Mike, fortunately, perceived that the words were used purely from politeness, on the Chinese principle. When a Chinaman wishes to pay a compliment, he does so by belittling himself and his belongings.
He eluded the pitfall.
“What rot!” he said. “Sedleigh’s one of the most sporting schools I’ve ever come across. Everybody’s as keen as blazes. So they ought to be, after the way you’ve sweated.”
Adair shuffled awkwardly.
“I’ve always been fairly keen on the place,” he said. “But I don’t suppose I’ve done anything much.”
“You’ve loosened one of my front teeth,” said Mike, with a grin, “if that’s any comfort to you.”
“I couldn’t eat anything except porridge this morning. My jaw still aches.”
For the first time during the conversation their eyes met, and the humorous side of the thing struck them simultaneously. They began to laugh.
“What fools we must have looked!” said Adair.
“You were all right. I must have looked rotten. I’ve never had the gloves on in my life. I’m jolly glad no one saw us except Smith, who doesn’t count. Hullo, there’s the bell. We’d better be moving on. What about this match? Not much chance of it from the look of the sky at present.”
“It might clear before eleven. You’d better get changed, anyhow, at the interval, and hang about in case.”
“All right. It’s better than doing Thucydides with Downing. We’ve got math. till the interval, so I don’t see anything of him all day; which won’t hurt me.”
“He isn’t a bad sort of chap, when you get to know him,” said Adair.
“I can’t have done, then. I don’t know which I’d least soon be, Downing or a black-beetle, except that if one was Downing one could tread on the black-beetle. Dash this rain. I got about half a pint down my neck just then. We shan’t get a game to-day, or anything like it. As you’re crocked, I’m not sure that I care much. You’ve been sweating for years to get the match on, and it would be rather rot playing it without you.”
“I don’t know that so much. I wish we could play, because I’m certain, with you and Smith, we’d walk into them. They probably aren’t sending down much of a team, and really, now that you and Smith are turning out, we’ve got a jolly hot lot. There’s quite decent batting all the way through, and the bowling isn’t so bad. If only we could have given this M.C.C. lot a really good hammering, it might have been easier to get some good fixtures for next season. You see, it’s all right for a school like Wrykyn, but with a small place like this you simply can’t get the best teams to give you a match till you’ve done something to show that you aren’t absolute rotters at the game. As for the schools, they’re worse. They’d simply laugh at you. You were cricket secretary at Wrykyn last year. What would you have done if you’d had a challenge from Sedleigh? You’d either have laughed till you were sick, or else had a fit at the mere idea of the thing.”
“By Jove, you’ve struck about the brightest scheme on record. I never thought of it before. Let’s get a match on with Wrykyn.”
“What! They wouldn’t play us.”
“Yes, they would. At least, I’m pretty sure they would. I had a letter from Strachan, the captain, yesterday, saying that the Ripton match had had to be scratched owing to illness. So they’ve got a vacant date. Shall I try them? I’ll write to Strachan to-night, if you like. And they aren’t strong this year. We’ll smash them. What do you say?”
Adair was as one who has seen a vision.
“By Jove,” he said at last, “if we only could!”
mr. downing moves.
HE rain continued without a break all the morning. The two teams, after hanging about dismally, and whiling the time away with stump-cricket in the changing-rooms, lunched in the pavilion at one o’clock. After which the M.C.C. captain, approaching Adair, moved that this merry meeting be considered off and himself and his men permitted to catch the next train back to town. To which Adair, seeing that it was out of the question that there should be any cricket that afternoon, regretfully agreed, and the first Sedleigh v. M.C.C. match was accordingly scratched.
Mike and Psmith, wandering back to the house, were met by a damp junior from Downing’s, with a message that Mr. Downing wished to see Mike as soon as he was changed.
“What’s he want me for?” inquired Mike.
The messenger did not know. Mr. Downing, it seemed, had not confided in him. All he knew was that the housemaster was in the house, and would be glad if Mike would step across.
“A nuisance,” said Psmith, “this incessant demand for you. That’s the worst of being popular. If he wants you to stop to tea, edge away. A meal on rather a sumptuous scale will be prepared in the study against your return.”
Mike changed quickly, and went off, leaving Psmith, who was fond of simple pleasures in his spare time, earnestly occupied with a puzzle which had been scattered through the land by a weekly paper. The prize for a solution was one thousand pounds, and Psmith had already informed Mike with some minuteness of his plans for the disposition of this sum. Meanwhile, he worked at it both in and out of school, generally with abusive comments on its inventor.
He was still fiddling away at it when Mike returned.
Mike, though Psmith was at first too absorbed to notice it, was agitated.
“I don’t wish to be in any way harsh,” said Psmith, without looking up, “but the man who invented this thing was a blighter of the worst type. You come and have a shot. For the moment I am baffled. The whisper flies round the clubs, ‘Psmith is baffled.’ ”
“The man’s an absolute drivelling ass,” said Mike warmly.
“Me, do you mean?”
“What on earth would be the point of my doing it?”
“You’d gather in a thousand of the best. Give you a nice start in life.”
“I’m not talking about your rotten puzzle.”
“What are you talking about?”
“That ass Downing. I believe he’s off his nut.”
“Then your chat with Comrade Downing was not of the old-College-chums-meeting-unexpectedly-after-years’-separation type? What has he been doing to you?”
“He’s off his nut.”
“I know. But what did he do? How did the brain-storm burst? Did he jump at you from behind a door and bite a piece out of your leg, or did he say he was a tea-pot?”
Mike sat down.
“You remember that painting Sammy business?”
“As if it were yesterday,” said Psmith. “Which it was, pretty nearly.”
“He thinks I did it.”
“Why? Have you ever shown any talent in the painting line?”
“The silly ass wanted me to confess that I’d done it. He as good as asked me to. Jawed a lot of rot about my finding it to my advantage later on if I behaved sensibly.”
“Then what are you worrying about? Don’t you know that when a master wants you to do the confessing-act, it simply means that he hasn’t enough evidence to start in on you with? You’re all right. The thing’s a stand-off.”
“Evidence!” said Mike. “My dear man, he’s got enough evidence to sink a ship. He’s absolutely sweating evidence at every pore. As far as I can see, he’s been crawling about, doing the Sherlock Holmes business for all he’s worth ever since the thing happened. And now he’s dead certain that I painted Sammy.”
“Did you, by the way?” asked Psmith.
“No,” said Mike shortly, “I didn’t. But after listening to Downing I almost began to wonder if I hadn’t. The man’s got stacks of evidence to prove that I did.”
“Such as what?”
“It’s mostly about my boots. But, dash it, you know all about that. Why, you were with him when he came and looked for them.”
“It is true,” said Psmith, “that Comrade Downing and I spent a very pleasant half-hour together inspecting boots, but how does he drag you into it?”
“He swears one of the boots was splashed with paint.”
“Yes. He babbled to some extent on that point when I was entertaining him. But what makes him think that the boot, if any, was yours?”
“He’s certain that somebody in this house got one of his boots splashed, and is hiding it somewhere. And I’m the only chap in the house who hasn’t got a pair of boots to show, so he thinks it’s me. I don’t know where the dickens my other boot has gone. Edmund swears he hasn’t seen it, and it’s nowhere about. Of course I’ve got two pairs, but one’s being soled. So I had to go over to school yesterday in pumps. That’s how he spotted me.”
“Comrade Jackson,” he said mournfully, “all this very sad affair shows the folly of acting from the best motives. In my simple zeal, meaning to save you unpleasantness, I have landed you, with a dull, sickening thud, right in the cart. Are you particular about dirtying your hands? If you aren’t, just reach up that chimney a bit.”
“What the dickens are you talking about?”
“Go on. Get it over. Be a man, and reach up the chimney.”
“I don’t know what the game is,” said Mike, kneeling beside the fender and groping, “but—Hullo!”
“Ah ha!” said Psmith moodily.
Mike dropped the soot-covered object in the fender, and glared at it.
“It’s my boot!” he said at last.
“It is,” said Psmith, “your boot. And what is that red stain across the toe? Is it blood? No, ’tis not blood. It is red paint.”
Mike seemed unable to remove his eyes from the boot.
“How on earth did—— By Jove! I remember now. I kicked up against something in the dark when I was putting my bicycle back that night. It must have been the paint-pot.”
“Then you were out that night?”
“Rather. That’s what makes it so jolly awkward. It’s too long to tell you now——”
“Your stories are never too long for me,” said Psmith. “Say on!”
“Well, it was like this.” And Mike related the events which had led up to his midnight excursion. Psmith listened attentively.
“This,” he said, when Mike had finished, “confirms my frequently stated opinion that Comrade Jellicoe is one of Nature’s blitherers. So that’s why he touched us for our hard-earned, was it?”
“Yes. Of course there was no need for him to have the money at all.”
“And the result is that you are in something of a tight place. You’re absolutely certain you didn’t paint that dog? Didn’t do it, by any chance, in a moment of absent-mindedness, and forgot all about it? No? No, I suppose not. I wonder who did!”
“It’s beastly awkward. You see, Downing chased me that night. That was why I rang the alarm bell. So, you see, he’s certain to think that the chap he chased, which was me, and the chap who painted Sammy, are the same. I shall get landed both ways.”
“It is a tightish place,” he admitted.
“I wonder if we could get this boot clean,” said Mike, inspecting it with disfavour.
“Not for a pretty considerable time.”
“I suppose not. I say, I am in the cart. If I can’t produce this boot, they’re bound to guess why.”
“What exactly,” asked Psmith, “was the position of affairs between you and Comrade Downing when you left him? Had you definitely parted brass-rags? Or did you simply sort of drift apart with mutual courtesies?”
“Oh, he said I was ill-advised to continue that attitude, or some rot, and I said I didn’t care, I hadn’t painted his bally dog, and he said very well, then, he must take steps, and—well, that was about all.”
“Sufficient, too,” said Psmith, “quite sufficient. I take it, then, that he is now on the war-path, collecting a gang, so to speak.”
“I suppose he’s gone to the Old Man about it.”
“Probably. A very worrying time our headmaster is having, taking it all round, in connection with this painful affair. What do you think his move will be?”
“I suppose he’ll send for me, and try to get something out of me.”
“He’ll want you to confess, too. Masters are all whales on confession. The worst of it is, you can’t prove an alibi, because at about the time the foul act was perpetrated, you were playing Round-and-round-the-mulberry-bush with Comrade Downing. This needs thought. You had better put the case in my hands, and go out and watch the dandelions growing. I will think over the matter.”
“Well, I hope you’ll be able to think of something. I can’t.”
“Possibly. You never know.”
There was a tap at the door.
“See how we have trained them,” said Psmith. “They now knock before entering. There was a time when they would have tried to smash in a panel. Come in.”
A small boy, carrying a straw hat adorned with the school-house ribbon, answered the invitation.
“Oh, I say, Jackson,” he said, “the Headmaster sent me over to tell you he wants to see you.”
“I told you so,” said Mike to Psmith.
“Don’t go,” suggested Psmith. “Tell him to write.”
Mike got up.
“All this is very trying,” said Psmith. “I’m seeing nothing of you to-day.” He turned to the small boy. “Tell Willie,” he added, “that Mr. Jackson will be with him in a moment.”
The emissary departed.
“You’re all right,” said Psmith encouragingly. “Just you keep on saying you’re all right. Stout denial is the thing. Don’t go in for any airy explanations. Simply stick to stout denial. You can’t beat it.”
With which expert advice, he allowed Mike to go on his way.
He had not been gone two minutes, when Psmith, who had leaned back in his chair, wrapped in thought, heaved himself up again. He stood for a moment straightening his tie at the looking-glass; then he picked up his hat and moved slowly out of the door and down the passage. Thence, at the same dignified rate of progress, out of the house and in at Downing’s front gate.
The postman was at the door when he got there, apparently absorbed in conversation with the parlour-maid. Psmith stood by politely till the postman, who had just been told it was like his impudence, caught sight of him, and, having handed over the letters in an ultra-formal and professional manner, passed away.
“Is Mr. Downing at home?” inquired Psmith.
He was, it seemed. Psmith was shown into the dining-room on the left of the hall, and requested to wait. He was examining a portrait of Mr. Downing which hung on the wall, when the housemaster came in.
“An excellent likeness, sir,” said Psmith, with a gesture of the hand towards the painting.
“Well, Smith,” said Mr. Downing shortly, “what do you wish to see me about?”
“It was in connection with the regrettable painting of your dog, sir.”
“Ha!” said Mr. Downing.
“I did it, sir,” said Psmith, stooping and flicking a piece of fluff off his knee.
the artist claims his work.
HE line of action which Psmith had called Stout Denial is an excellent line to adopt, especially if you really are innocent, but it does not lead to anything in the shape of a bright and snappy dialogue between accuser and accused. Both Mike and the headmaster were oppressed by a feeling that the situation was difficult. The atmosphere was heavy, and conversation showed a tendency to flag. The headmaster had opened brightly enough, with a summary of the evidence which Mr. Downing had laid before him, but after that a massive silence had been the order of the day. There is nothing in this world quite so stolid and uncommunicative as a boy who has made up his mind to be stolid and uncommunicative; and the headmaster, as he sat and looked at Mike, who sat and looked past him at the bookshelves, felt awkward. It was a scene which needed either a dramatic interruption or a neat exit speech. As it happened, what it got was the dramatic interruption.
The headmaster was just saying, “I do not think you fully realise, Jackson, the extent to which appearances——”—which was practically going back to the beginning and starting again—when there was a knock at the door. A voice without said, “Mr. Downing to see you, sir,” and the chief witness for the prosecution burst in.
“I would not have interrupted you,” said Mr. Downing, “but——”
“Not at all, Mr. Downing. Is there anything I can——?”
“I have discovered——I have been informed——. In short, it was not Jackson who committed the—— who painted my dog.”
Mike and the headmaster both looked at the speaker. Mike with a feeling of relief—for Stout Denial, unsupported by any weighty evidence, is a wearing game to play—the headmaster with astonishment.
“Not Jackson?” said the headmaster.
“No. It was a boy in the same house. Smith.”
Psmith! Mike was more than surprised. He could not believe it. There is nothing which affords so clear an index to a boy’s character as the type of rag which he considers humorous. Between what is a rag and what is merely a rotten trick there is a very definite line drawn. Masters, as a rule, do not realise this, but boys nearly always do. Mike could not imagine Psmith doing a rotten thing like covering a housemaster’s dog with red paint, any more than he could imagine doing it himself. They had both been amused at the sight of Sammy after the operation, but anybody, except possibly the owner of the dog, would have thought it funny at first. After the first surprise, their feeling had been that it was a scuggish thing to have done and beastly rough luck on the poor brute. It was a kid’s trick. As for Psmith having done it, Mike simply did not believe it.
“Smith!” said the headmaster. “What makes you think that?”
“Simply this,” said Mr. Downing, with calm triumph, “that the boy himself came to me a few moments ago and confessed.”
Mike was conscious of a feeling of acute depression. It did not make him in the least degree jubilant, or even thankful, to know that he himself was cleared of the charge. All he could think of was that Psmith was done for. This was bound to mean the sack. If Psmith had painted Sammy, it meant that Psmith had broken out of his house at night: and it was not likely that the rules about nocturnal wandering were less strict at Sedleigh than at any other school in the kingdom. Mike felt, if possible, worse than he had felt when Wyatt had been caught on a similar occasion. It seemed as if Fate had a special grudge against his best friends. He did not make friends very quickly or easily, though he had always had scores of acquaintances: and with Wyatt and Psmith he had found himself at home from the first moment he had met them.
He sat there, with a curious feeling of having swallowed a heavy weight, hardly listening to what Mr. Downing was saying. Mr. Downing was talking rapidly to the headmaster, who was nodding from time to time.
Mike took advantage of a pause to get up. “May I go, sir?” he said.
“Certainly, Jackson, certainly,” said the Head. “Oh, and er—, if you are going back to your house, tell Smith that I should like to see him.”
He had reached the door, when again there was a knock.
“Come in,” said the headmaster.
It was Adair.
Adair was breathing rather heavily, as if he had been running.
“It was about Sammy—Sampson, sir,” he said, looking at Mr. Downing.
“Ah, we know——. Well, Adair, what did you wish to say?”
“It wasn’t Jackson who did it, sir.”
“No, no, Adair. So Mr. Downing——”
“It was Dunster, sir.”
Terrific sensation! The headmaster gave a sort of strangled yelp of astonishment. Mr. Downing leaped in his chair. Mike’s eyes opened to their fullest extent.
There was almost a wail in the headmaster’s voice. The situation had suddenly become too much for him. His brain was swimming. That Mike, despite the evidence against him, should be innocent, was curious, perhaps, but not particularly startling. But that Adair should inform him, two minutes after Mr. Downing’s announcement of Psmith’s confession, that Psmith, too, was guiltless, and that the real criminal was Dunster—it was this that made him feel that somebody, in the words of an American author, had played a mean trick on him, and substituted for his brain a side-order of cauliflower. Why Dunster, of all people? Dunster, who, he remembered dizzily, had left the school at Christmas. And why, if Dunster had really painted the dog, had Psmith asserted that he himself was the culprit? Why—why anything? He concentrated his mind on Adair as the only person who could save him from impending brain-fever.
“What—what do you mean?”
“It was Dunster, sir. I got a letter from him only five minutes ago, in which he said that he had painted Sammy—Sampson, the dog, sir, for a rag—for a joke, and that, as he didn’t want any one here to get into a row—be punished for it, I’d better tell Mr. Downing at once. I tried to find Mr. Downing, but he wasn’t in the house. Then I met Smith outside the house, and he told me that Mr. Downing had gone over to see you, sir.”
“Smith told you?” said Mr. Downing.
“Did you say anything to him about your having received this letter from Dunster?”
“I gave him the letter to read, sir.”
“And what was his attitude when he had read it?”
“He laughed, sir.”
“Laughed!” Mr. Downing’s voice was thunderous.
“Yes, sir. He rolled about.”
Mr. Downing snorted.
“But Adair,” said the headmaster, “I do not understand how this thing could have been done by Dunster. He has left the school.”
“He was down here for the Old Sedleighans’ match, sir. He stopped the night in the village.”
“And that was the night the—— it happened?”
“I see. Well, I am glad to find that the blame cannot be attached to any boy in the school. I am sorry that it is even an Old Boy. It was a foolish, discreditable thing to have done, but it is not as bad as if any boy still at the school had broken out of his house at night to do it.”
“The sergeant,” said Mr. Downing, “told me that the boy he saw was attempting to enter Mr. Outwood’s house.”
“Another freak of Dunster’s, I suppose,” said the headmaster. “I shall write to him.”
“If it was really Dunster who painted my dog,” said Mr. Downing, “I cannot understand the part played by Smith in this affair. If he did not do it, what possible motive could he have had for coming to me of his own accord and deliberately confessing?”
“To be sure,” said the headmaster, pressing a bell. “It is certainly a thing that calls for explanation. Barlow,” he said, as the butler appeared, “kindly go across to Mr. Outwood’s house and inform Smith that I should like to see him.”
“If you please, sir, Mr. Smith is waiting in the hall.”
“In the hall!”
“Yes, sir. He arrived soon after Mr. Adair, sir, saying that he would wait, as you would probably wish to see him shortly.”
“H’m. Ask him to step up, Barlow.”
There followed one of the tensest “stage waits” of Mike’s experience. It was not long, but, while it lasted, the silence was quite solid. Nobody seemed to have anything to say, and there was not even a clock in the room to break the stillness with its ticking. A very faint drip-drip of rain could be heard outside the window.
Presently there was a sound of footsteps on the stairs. The door was opened.
“Mr. Smith, sir.”
The old Etonian entered as would the guest of the evening who is a few moments late for dinner. He was cheerful, but slightly deprecating. He gave the impression of one who, though sure of his welcome, feels that some slight apology is expected from him. He advanced into the room with a gentle half-smile which suggested good-will to all men.
“It is still raining,” he observed. “You wished to see me, sir?”
“Sit down, Smith.”
“Thank you, sir.”
He dropped into a deep arm-chair (which both Adair and Mike had avoided in favour of less luxurious seats) with the confidential cosiness of a fashionable physician calling on a patient, between whom and himself time has broken down the barriers of restraint and formality.
Mr. Downing burst out, like a reservoir that has broken its banks.
Psmith turned his gaze politely in the house-master’s direction.
“Smith, you came to me a quarter of an hour ago and told me that it was you who had painted my dog Sampson.”
“It was absolutely untrue?”
“I am afraid so, sir.”
“But, Smith—” began the headmaster.
Psmith bent forward encouragingly.
“—This is a most extraordinary affair. Have you no explanation to offer? What induced you to do such a thing?”
Psmith sighed softly.
“The craze for notoriety, sir,” he replied sadly. “The curse of the present age.”
“What!” cried the headmaster.
“It is remarkable,” proceeded Psmith placidly, with the impersonal touch of one lecturing on generalities, “how frequently, when a murder has been committed, one finds men confessing that they have done it when it is out of the question that they should have committed it. It is one of the most interesting problems with which anthropologists are confronted. Human nature——”
The headmaster interrupted.
“Smith,” he said, “I should like to see you alone for a moment. Mr. Downing might I trouble——? Adair, Jackson.”
He made a motion towards the door.
When he and Psmith were alone, there was silence. Psmith leaned back comfortably in his chair. The headmaster tapped nervously with his foot on the floor.
The headmaster seemed to have some difficulty in proceeding. He paused again. Then he went on.
“Er—Smith, I do not for a moment wish to pain you, but have you—er, do you remember ever having had, as a child, let us say, any—er—severe illness? Any—er—mental illness?”
“There is no—forgive me if I am touching on a sad subject—there is no—none of your near relatives have ever suffered in the way I—er—have described?”
“There isn’t a lunatic on the list, sir,” said Psmith cheerfully.
“Of course, Smith, of course,” said the headmaster hurriedly, “I did not mean to suggest—quite so, quite so. . . . You think, then, that you confessed to an act which you had not committed purely from some sudden impulse which you cannot explain?”
“Strictly between ourselves, sir——”
Privately, the headmaster found Psmith’s man-to-man attitude somewhat disconcerting, but he said nothing.
“I should not like it to go any further, sir.”
“I will certainly respect any confidence——”
“I don’t want anybody to know, sir. This is strictly between ourselves.”
“I think you are sometimes apt to forget, Smith, the proper relations existing between boy and—— well, never mind that for the present. We can return to it later. For the moment, let me hear what you wish to say. I shall, of course, tell nobody, if you do not wish it.”
“Well, it was like this, sir,” said Psmith. “Jackson happened to tell me that you and Mr. Downing seemed to think he had painted Mr. Downing’s dog, and there seemed some danger of his being expelled, so I thought it wouldn’t be an unsound scheme if I were to go and say I had done it. That was the whole thing. Of course, Dunster writing created a certain amount of confusion.”
There was a pause.
“It was a very wrong thing to do, Smith,” said the headmaster at last, “but . . . You are a curious boy, Smith. Good-night.”
He held out his hand.
“Good-night, sir,” said Psmith.
“Not a bad old sort,” said Psmith meditatively to himself, as he walked downstairs. “By no means a bad old sort. I must drop in from time to time and cultivate him.”
Mike and Adair were waiting for him outside the front door.
“Well?” said Mike.
“You are the limit,” said Adair. “What’s he done?”
“Nothing. We had a very pleasant chat, and then I tore myself away.”
“Do you mean to say he’s not going to do a thing?”
“Not a thing.”
“Well, you’re a marvel,” said Adair.
Psmith thanked him courteously. They walked on towards the houses.
“By the way, Adair,” said Mike, as the latter started to turn in at Downing’s, “I’ll write to Strachan to-night about that match.”
“What’s that?” asked Psmith.
“Jackson’s going to try and get Wrykyn to give us a game,” said Adair. “They’ve got a vacant date. I hope the dickens they’ll do it.”
“Oh, I should think they’re certain to,” said Mike. “Good-night.”
“And give Comrade Downing, when you see him,” said Psmith, “my very best love. It is men like him who make this Merrie England of ours what it is.”
“I say, Psmith,” said Mike suddenly, “what really made you tell Downing you’d done it?”
“The craving for——”
“Oh, chuck it. You aren’t talking to the Old Man now. I believe it was simply to get me out of a jolly tight corner.”
Psmith’s expression was one of pain.
“My dear Comrade Jackson,” said he, “you wrong me. You make me writhe. I’m surprised at you. I never thought to hear those words from Michael Jackson.”
“Well, I believe you did, all the same,” said Mike obstinately. “And it was jolly good of you, too.”
sedleigh v. wrykyn.
HE Wrykyn match was three-parts over, and things were going badly for Sedleigh. In a way one might have said that the game was over, and that Sedleigh had lost; for it was a one day match, and Wrykyn, who had led on the first innings, had only to play out time to make the game theirs.
Sedleigh were paying the penalty for allowing themselves to be influenced by nerves in the early part of the day. Nerves lose more school matches than good play ever won. There is a certain type of school batsman who is a gift to any bowler when he once lets his imagination run away with him. Sedleigh, with the exception of Adair, Psmith, and Mike, had entered upon this match in a state of the most azure funk. Ever since Mike had received Strachan’s answer and Adair had announced on the notice-board that on Saturday, July the twentieth, Sedleigh would play Wrykyn, the team had been all on the jump. It was useless for Adair to tell them, as he did repeatedly, on Mike’s authority, that Wrykyn were weak this season, and that on their present form Sedleigh ought to win easily. The team listened, but were not comforted. Wrykyn might be below their usual strength, but then Wrykyn cricket, as a rule, reached such a high standard that this probably meant little. However weak Wrykyn might be—for them—there was a very firm impression among the members of the Sedleigh first eleven that the other school was quite strong enough to knock the cover off them. Experience counts enormously in school matches. Sedleigh had never been proved. The teams they played were the sort of sides which the Wrykyn second eleven would play. Whereas Wrykyn, from time immemorial, had been beating Ripton teams and Free Foresters teams and M.C.C. teams packed with county men and sending men to Oxford and Cambridge who got their blues as freshmen.
Sedleigh had gone on to the field that morning a depressed side.
It was unfortunate that Adair had won the toss. He had had no choice but to take first innings. The weather had been bad for the last week, and the wicket was slow and treacherous. It was likely to get worse during the day, so Adair had chosen to bat first.
Taking into consideration the state of nerves the team was in, this in itself was a calamity. A school eleven are always at their worst and nerviest before lunch. Even on their own ground they find the surroundings lonely and unfamiliar. The subtlety of the bowlers becomes magnified. Unless the first pair make a really good start, a collapse almost invariably ensues.
To-day the start had been gruesome beyond words. Mike, the bulwark of the side, the man who had been brought up on Wrykyn bowling, and from whom, whatever might happen to the others, at least a fifty was expected—Mike, going in first with Barnes and taking first over, had played inside one from Bruce, the Wrykyn slow bowler, and had been caught at short slip off his second ball.
That put the finishing touch on the panic. Stone, Robinson, and the others, all quite decent punishing batsmen when their nerves allowed them to play their own game, crawled to the wickets, declined to hit out at anything, and were clean bowled, several of them, playing back to half-volleys. Adair did not suffer from panic, but his batting was not equal to his bowling, and he had fallen after hitting one four. Seven wickets were down for thirty when Psmith went in.
Psmith had always disclaimed any pretensions to batting skill, but he was undoubtedly the right man for a crisis like this. He had an enormous reach, and he used it. Three consecutive balls from Bruce he turned into full-tosses and swept to the leg-boundary, and, assisted by Barnes, who had been sitting on the splice in his usual manner, he raised the total to seventy-one before being yorked, with his score at thirty-five. Ten minutes later the innings was over, with Barnes not out sixteen, for seventy-nine.
Wrykyn had then gone in, lost Strachan for twenty before lunch, and finally completed their innings at a quarter to four for a hundred and thirty-one.
This was better than Sedleigh had expected. At least eight of the team had looked forward dismally to an afternoon’s leather-hunting. But Adair and Psmith, helped by the wicket, had never been easy, especially Psmith, who had taken six wickets, his slows playing havoc with the tail.
It would be too much to say that Sedleigh had any hope of pulling the game out of the fire; but it was a comfort, they felt, at any rate, having another knock. As is usual at this stage of a match, their nervousness had vanished, and they felt capable of better things than in the first innings.
It was on Mike’s suggestion that Psmith and himself went in first. Mike knew the limitations of the Wrykyn bowling, and he was convinced that, if they could knock Bruce off, it might be possible to rattle up a score sufficient to give them the game, always provided that Wrykyn collapsed in the second innings. And it seemed to Mike that the wicket would be so bad then that they easily might.
So he and Psmith had gone in at four o’clock to hit. And they had hit. The deficit had been wiped off, all but a dozen runs, when Psmith was bowled, and by that time Mike was set and in his best vein. He treated all the bowlers alike. And when Stone came in, restored to his proper frame of mind, and lashed out stoutly, and after him Robinson and the rest, it looked as if Sedleigh had a chance again. The score was a hundred and twenty when Mike, who had just reached his fifty, skied one to Strachan at cover. The time was twenty-five past five.
As Mike reached the pavilion, Adair declared the innings closed.
Wrykyn started batting at twenty-five minutes to six, with sixty-nine to make if they wished to make them, and an hour and ten minutes during which to keep up their wickets if they preferred to take things easy and go for a win on the first innings.
At first it looked as if they meant to knock off the runs, for Strachan forced the game from the first ball, which was Psmith’s, and which he hit into the pavilion. But, at fifteen, Adair bowled him. And when, two runs later, Psmith got the next man stumped, and finished up his over with a c-and-b, Wrykyn decided that it was not good enough. Seventeen for three, with an hour all but five minutes to go, was getting too dangerous. So Drummond and Rigby, the next pair, proceeded to play with caution, and the collapse ceased.
This was the state of the game at the point at which this chapter opened. Seventeen for three had become twenty-four for three, and the hands of the clock stood at ten minutes past six. Changes of bowling had been tried, but there seemed no chance of getting past the batsmen’s defence. They were playing all the good balls, and refused to hit at the bad.
A quarter past six struck, and then Psmith made a suggestion which altered the game completely.
“Why don’t you have a shot this end?” he said to Adair, as they were crossing over. “There’s a spot on the off which might help you a lot. You can break like blazes if only you land on it. It doesn’t help my leg-breaks a bit, because they won’t hit at them.”
Barnes was on the point of beginning to bowl, when Adair took the ball from him. The captain of Outwood’s retired to short leg with an air that suggested that he was glad to be relieved of his prominent post.
The next moment Drummond’s off-stump was lying at an angle of forty-five. Adair was absolutely accurate as a bowler, and he had dropped his first ball right on the worn patch.
Two minutes later Drummond’s successor was retiring to the pavilion, while the wicket-keeper straightened the stumps again.
There is nothing like a couple of unexpected wickets for altering the atmosphere of a game. Five minutes before, Sedleigh had been lethargic and without hope. Now there was a stir and buzz all round the ground. There were twenty-five minutes to go, and five wickets were down. Sedleigh was on top again.
The next man seemed to take an age coming out. As a matter of fact, he walked more rapidly than a batsman usually walks to the crease.
Adair’s third ball dropped just short of the spot. The batsman, hitting out, was a shade too soon. The ball hummed through the air a couple of feet from the ground in the direction of mid-off, and Mike, diving to the right, got to it as he was falling, and chucked it up.
After that the thing was a walk-over. Psmith clean bowled a man in his next over; and the tail, demoralised by the sudden change in the game, collapsed uncompromisingly. Sedleigh won by thirty-five runs with eight minutes in hand.
Psmith and Mike sat in their study after lock-up, discussing things in general and the game in particular.
“I feel like a beastly renegade, playing against Wrykyn,” said Mike. “Still, I’m glad we won. Adair’s a jolly good sort, and it’ll make him happy for weeks.”
“When I last saw Comrade Adair,” said Psmith, “he was going about in a sort of trance, beaming vaguely and wanting to stand people things at the shop.”
“He bowled awfully well.”
“Yes,” said Psmith. “I say, I don’t wish to cast a gloom over this joyful occasion in any way, but you say Wrykyn are going to give Sedleigh a fixture again next year?”
“Well, have you thought of the massacre which will ensue? You will have left, Adair will have left. Incidentally, I shall have left. Wrykyn will swamp them.”
“I suppose they will. Still, the great thing, you see, is to get the thing started. That’s what Adair was so keen on. Now Sedleigh has beaten Wrykyn, he’s satisfied. They can get on fixtures with decent clubs, and work up to playing the big schools. You’ve got to start somehow. So it’s all right, you see.”
“And, besides,” said Psmith, reflectively, “in an emergency they can always get Comrade Downing to bowl for them, what? Let us now sally out and see if we can’t promote a rag of some sort in this abode of wrath. Comrade Outwood has gone over to dinner at the School House, and it would be a pity to waste a somewhat golden opportunity. Shall we stagger?”
Printer’s error corrected above:
In Ch. 26, magazine omitted ‘a’ in “in exchange for a comfortable home.”