The Captain, February 1906
seymour’s one success.
HIS polite epistle, it may be mentioned, was a revised version of the one which Drummond originally wrote in reply to Sheen’s request. His first impulse had been to answer in the four brief words, “Don’t be a fool”; for Sheen’s letter had struck him as nothing more than a contemptible piece of posing, and he had all the hatred for poses which is a characteristic of the plain and straightforward type of mind. It seemed to him that Sheen, as he expressed it to himself, was trying to “do the boy hero.” In the school library, which had been stocked during the dark ages, when that type of story was popular, there were numerous school stories in which the hero retrieved a rocky reputation by thrashing the bully, displaying in the encounter an intuitive but overwhelming skill with his fists. Drummond could not help feeling that Sheen must have been reading one of these stories. It was all very fine and noble of him to want to show that he was No Coward After All, like Leo Cholmondeley or whatever his beastly name was, in “The Lads of St. Ethelberta’s” or some such piffling book; but, thought Drummond in his cold, practical way, what about the house? If Sheen thought that Seymour’s was going to chuck away all chance of winning one of the inter-house events, simply in order to give him an opportunity of doing the Young Hero, the sooner he got rid of that sort of idea, the better. If he wanted to do the Leo Cholmondeley business, let him go and chuck a kid into the river, and jump in and save him. But he wasn’t going to have the house let in for twenty Sheens.
Such were the meditations of Drummond when the infirmary attendant brought Sheen’s letter to him; and he seized pencil and paper and wrote, “Don’t be a fool.” But pity succeeded contempt, and he tore up the writing. After all, however much he had deserved it, the man had had a bad time. It was no use jumping on him. And at one time they had been pals. Might as well do the thing politely.
All of which reflections would have been prevented had Sheen thought of mentioning the simple fact that it was Joe Bevan who had given him the lessons to which he referred in his letter. But he had decided not to do so, wishing to avoid long explanations. And there was, he felt, a chance that the letter might come into other hands than those of Drummond. So he had preserved silence on that point, thereby wrecking his entire scheme.
It struck him that he might go to Linton, explain his position, and ask him to withdraw in his favour, but there were difficulties in the way of that course. There is a great deal of red tape about the athletic arrangements of a house at a public-school. When once an order has gone forth, it is difficult to get it repealed. Linton had been chosen to represent the house in the light-weights, and he would carry out orders. Only illness would prevent him appearing in the ring.
Sheen made up his mind not to try to take his place, and went through the days a victim to gloom, which was caused by other things besides his disappointment respecting the boxing competition. The Gotford examination was over now, and he was not satisfied with his performance. Though he did not know it, his dissatisfaction was due principally to the fact that, owing to his isolation, he had been unable to compare notes after the examinations with the others. Doing an examination without comparing notes subsequently with one’s rivals, is like playing golf against a bogey. The imaginary rival against whom one pits oneself never makes a mistake. Our own “howlers” stand out in all their horrid nakedness; but we do not realise that our rivals have probably made others far worse. In this way Sheen plumbed the depths of depression. The Gotford was a purely Classical examination, with the exception of one paper, a General Knowledge paper; and it was in this that Sheen fancied he had failed so miserably. His Greek and Latin verse were always good; his prose, he felt, was not altogether beyond the pale; but in the General Knowledge paper he had come down heavily. As a matter of fact, if he had only known, the paper was an exceptionally hard one, and there was not a single candidate for the scholarship who felt satisfied with his treatment of it. It was to questions ten, eleven, and thirteen of this paper that Cardew, of the School House, who had entered for the scholarship for the sole reason that competitors got excused two clear days of ordinary school-work, wrote the following answer:
See “Encylopædia Britannica,” Times edition.
If they really wanted to know, he said subsequently, that was the authority to go to. He himself would probably misinform them altogether.
In addition to the Gotford and the House Boxing, the House Fives now came on, and the authorities of Seymour’s were in no small perplexity. They met together in Rigby’s study to discuss the matter. Their difficulty was this. There was only one inmate of Seymour’s who had a chance of carrying off the House Fives Cup. And that was Sheen. The house was asking itself what was to be done about it.
“You see,” said Rigby, “you can look at it in two ways, whichever you like. We ought certainly to send in our best man for the pot, whatever sort of chap he is. But then, come to think of it, Sheen can’t very well be said to belong to the house at all. When a man’s been cut dead during the whole term, he can’t be looked on as one of the house very well. See what I mean?”
“Of course he can’t,” said Mill, who was second in command at Seymour’s. Mill’s attitude towards his fellow men was one of incessant hostility. He seemed to bear a grudge against the entire race.
Rigby resumed. He was a pacific person, and hated anything resembling rows in the house. He had been sorry for Sheen, and would have been glad to give him a chance of setting himself on his legs again.
“You see,” he said, “this is what I mean. We either recognise Sheen’s existence or we don’t. Follow? We can’t get him to win this Cup for us, and then, when he has done it, go on cutting him and treating him as if he didn’t belong to the house at all. I know he let the house down awfully badly in that business, but still, if he lifts the Fives Cup, that’ll square the thing. If he does anything to give the house a leg-up, he must be treated as if he’d never let it down at all.”
“Of course,” said Barry. “I vote we send him in for the Fives.”
“What rot!” said Mill. “It isn’t as if none of the rest of us played fives.”
“We aren’t as good as Sheen,” said Barry.
“I don’t care. I call it rot letting a chap like him represent the house at anything. If he were the best fives-player in the world I wouldn’t let him play for the house.”
Rigby was impressed by his vehemence. He hesitated.
“After all, Barry,” he said, “I don’t know. Perhaps it might—you see, he did—well, I really think we’d better have somebody else. The house has got its knife into Sheen too much just at present to want him as a representative. There’d only be sickness, don’t you think? Who else is there?”
So it came about that Menzies was chosen to uphold the house in the Fives Courts. Sheen was not surprised. But it was not pleasant. He was certainly having bad luck in his attempts to do something for the house. Perhaps if he won the Gotford, they might show a little enthusiasm. The Gotford always caused a good deal of interest in the school. It was the best thing of its kind in existence at Wrykyn, and even the most abandoned loafers liked to feel that their house had won it. It was just possible, thought Sheen, that a brilliant win might change the feelings of Seymour’s towards him. He did not care for the applause of the multitude more than a boy should, but he preferred it very decidedly to the cut direct.
Things went badly for Seymour’s. Never in the history of the house, or, at any rate, in the comparatively recent history of the house, had there been such a slump in athletic trophies. To begin with, they were soundly beaten in the semi-final for the House football cup by Allardyce’s lot. With Drummond away, there was none to mark the captain of the School team at half, and Allardyce had raced through in a manner that must have compensated him to a certain extent for the poor time he had had in first fifteen matches. The game had ended in a Seymourite defeat by nineteen points to five.
Nor had the boxing left the house in a better position. Linton fought pluckily in the light weights, but went down before Stanning, after beating a representative of Templar’s. Mill did not show up well in the heavy weights, and was defeated in his first bout. Seymour’s were reduced to telling themselves how different it all would have been if Drummond had been there.
Sheen watched the light-weight contests, and nearly danced with irritation. He felt that he could have eaten Stanning. The man was quick with his left, but he couldn’t box. He hadn’t a notion of side-stepping, and the upper-cut appeared to be entirely outside his range. He would like to see him tackle Francis.
Sheen thought bitterly of Drummond. Why on earth couldn’t he have given him a chance? It was maddening.
The Fives carried on the story. Menzies was swamped by a Day’s man. He might just as well have stayed away altogether. The star of Seymour’s was very low on the horizon.
And then the house scored its one success. The headmaster announced it in the Hall after prayers in his dry, unemotional way.
“I have received the list of marks,” he said, “from the examiners for the Gotford Scholarship.” He paused. Sheen felt a sudden calm triumph flood over him. Somehow, intuitively, he knew that he had won. He waited without excitement for the next words.
“Out of a possible thousand marks, Sheen, who wins the scholarship, obtained seven hundred and one, Stanning six hundred and four, Wilson. . . .”
Sheen walked out of the Hall in the unique position of a Gotford winner with only one friend to congratulate him. Jack Bruce was the one. The other six hundred and thirty-three members of the school made no demonstration.
There was a pleasant custom at Seymour’s of applauding at tea any Seymourite who had won distinction, and so shed a reflected glory on the house. The head of the house would observe, “Well played, So-and-So!” and the rest of the house would express their emotion in the way that seemed best to them, to the subsequent exultation of the local crockery merchant, who had generally to supply at least a dozen fresh cups and plates to the house after one of these occasions. When it was for getting his first eleven or first fifteen cap that the lucky man was being cheered, the total of breakages sometimes ran into the twenties.
Rigby, good, easy man, was a little doubtful as to what course to pursue in the circumstances. Should he give the signal? After all, the fellow had won the Gotford. It was a score for the house, and they wanted all the scores they could get in these lean years. Perhaps, then, he had better. . . .
“Well played, Sheen,” said he.
There was a dead silence. A giggle from the fags’ table showed that the comedy of the situation was not lost on the young mind.
The head of the house looked troubled. This was awfully awkward.
“Well played, Sheen,” he said again.
“Don’t mention it, Rigby,” said the winner of the Gotford politely, looking up from his plate.
mr. bevan makes a suggestion.
HEN one has been working hard with a single end in view, the arrival and departure of the supreme moment is apt to leave a feeling of emptiness, as if life had been drained of all its interest, and left nothing sufficiently exciting to make it worth doing. Horatius, as he followed his plough on a warm day over the corn land which his gratified country bestowed on him for his masterly handling of the traffic on the bridge, must sometimes have felt it was a little tame. The feeling is far more acute when one has been unexpectedly baulked in one’s desire for action. Sheen, for the first few days after he received Drummond’s brief note, felt that it was useless for him to try to do anything. The Fates were against him. In stories, as Mr. Austen has pointed out, the hero is never long without his chance of retrieving his reputation. A mad bull comes into the school grounds, and he alone (the hero, not the bull) is calm. Or there is a fire, and whose is that pale and gesticulating form at the upper window? The bully’s, of course. And who is that climbing nimbly up the Virginia creeper? Why, the hero. Who else? Three hearty cheers for the plucky hero.
But in real life opportunities of distinguishing oneself are less frequent.
Sheen continued his visits to the “Blue Boar,” but more because he shrank from telling Joe Bevan that all his trouble had been for nothing, than because he had any definite object in view. It was bitter to listen to the eulogies of the pugilist, when all the while he knew that, as far as any immediate results were concerned, it did not really matter whether he boxed well or feebly. Some day, perhaps, as Mr. Bevan was fond of pointing out when he approached the subject of disadvantages of boxing, he might meet a hooligan when he was crossing a field with his sister; but he found that but small consolation. He was in the position of one who wants a small sum of ready money, and is told that, in a few years, he may come into a fortune. By the time he got a chance of proving himself a man with his hands, he would be an Old Wrykinian. He was leaving at the end of the Summer term.
Jack Bruce was sympathetic, and talked more freely than was his wont.
“I can’t understand it,” he said. “Drummond always seemed a good sort. I should have thought he would have sent you in for the house like a shot. Are you sure you put it plainly in your letter? What did you say?”
Sheen repeated the main points of his letter.
“Did you tell him who had been teaching you?”
“No. I just said I’d been boxing lately.”
“Pity,” said Jack Bruce. “If you’d mentioned that it was Joe who’d been training you, he would probably have been much more for it. You see, he couldn’t know whether you were any good or not from your letter. But if you’d told him that Joe Bevan and Hunt both thought you good, he’d have seen there was something in it.”
“It never occurred to me. Like a fool, I was counting on the thing so much that it didn’t strike me there would be any real difficulty in getting him to see my point. Especially when he got mumps and couldn’t go in himself. Well, it can’t be helped now.”
And the conversation turned to the prospects of Jack Bruce’s father in the forthcoming election, the polling for which had just begun.
“I’m busy now,” said Bruce. “I’m not sure that I shall be able to do much sparring with you for a bit.”
“My dear chap, don’t let me——”
“Oh, it’s all right, really. Taking you to the ‘Blue Boar’ doesn’t land me out of my way at all. Most of the work lies round in this direction. I call at cottages, and lug oldest inhabitants to the poll. It’s rare sport.”
“Does your pater know?”
“Oh, yes. He rots me about it like anything, but, all the same, I believe he’s really rather bucked because I’ve roped in quite a dozen voters who wouldn’t have stirred a yard if I hadn’t turned up. That’s where we’re scoring. Pedder hasn’t got a car yet, and these old rotters round here aren’t going to move out of their chairs to go for a ride in an ordinary cart. But they chuck away their crutches and hop into a motor like one o’clock.”
“It must be rather a rag,” said Sheen.
The car drew up at the door of the “Blue Boar.” Sheen got out and ran upstairs to the gymnasium. Joe Bevan was sparring a round with Francis. He watched them while he changed, but without the enthusiasm of which he had been conscious on previous occasions. The solid cleverness of Joe Bevan and the quickness and cunning of the bantam-weight were as much in evidence as before, but somehow the glamour and romance which had surrounded them were gone. He no longer watched eagerly to pick up the slightest hint from these experts. He felt no more interest than he would have felt in watching a game of lawn tennis. He had been keen. Since his disappointment with regard to the House Boxing he had become indifferent.
Joe Bevan noticed this before he had been boxing with him a minute.
“Hullo, sir,” he said, “what’s this? Tired to-day? Not feeling well? You aren’t boxing like yourself, not at all you aren’t. There’s no weight behind ’em. You’re tapping. What’s the matter with your feet, too? You aren’t getting about as quickly as I should like to see. What have you been doing to yourself?”
“Nothing that I know of,” said Sheen. “I’m sorry I’m so rotten. Let’s have another try.”
The second try proved as unsatisfactory as the first. He was listless, and his leads and counters lacked conviction.
Joe Bevan, who identified himself with his pupils with that thoroughness which is the hall-mark of the first-class boxing instructor, looked so pained at his sudden loss of form, that Sheen could not resist the temptation to confide in him. After all, he must tell him some time.
“The fact is,” he said, as they sat on the balcony overlooking the river, waiting for Jack Bruce to return with his car, “I’ve had a bit of a sickener.”
“I thought you’d got sick of it,” said Mr. Bevan. “Well, have a bit of a rest.”
“I don’t mean that I’m tired of boxing,” Sheen hastened to explain. “After all the trouble you’ve taken with me, it would be a bit thick if I chucked it just as I was beginning to get on. It isn’t that. But you know how keen I was on boxing for the house?”
Joe Bevan nodded.
“Did you get beat?”
“They wouldn’t let me go in,” said Sheen.
“But, bless me! you’d have made babies of them. What was the instructor doing? Couldn’t he see that you were good?”
“I didn’t get a chance of showing what I could do.” He explained the difficulties of the situation.
Mr. Bevan nodded his head thoughtfully.
“So naturally,” concluded Sheen, “the thing has put me out a bit. It’s beastly having nothing to work for. I’m at a loose end. Up till now, I’ve always had the thought of the House Competition to keep me going. But now—well, you see how it is. It’s like running to catch a train, and then finding suddenly that you’ve got plenty of time. There doesn’t seem any point in going on running.”
“Why not Aldershot, sir?” said Mr. Bevan.
“What!” cried Sheen.
The absolute novelty of the idea, and the gorgeous possibilities of it, made him tingle from head to foot. Aldershot! Why hadn’t he thought of it before! The house competition suddenly lost its importance in his eyes. It was a trivial affair, after all, compared with Aldershot, that Mecca of the public school boxer.
Then the glow began to fade. Doubts crept in. He might have learned a good deal from Joe Bevan, but had he learned enough to be able to hold his own with the best boxers of all the public schools in the country? And if he had the skill to win, had he the heart? Joe Bevan had said that he would not disgrace himself again, and he felt that the chances were against his doing so, but there was the terrible possibility. He had stood up to Francis and the others, and he had taken their blows without flinching; but in these encounters there was always at the back of his mind the comforting feeling that there was a limit to the amount of punishment he would receive. If Francis happened to drive him into a corner where he could neither attack, nor defend himself against attack, he did not use his advantage to the full. He indicated rather than used it. A couple of blows, and he moved out into the open again. But in the Public Schools Competition at Aldershot there would be no quarter. There would be nothing but deadly earnest. If he allowed himself to be manœuvred into an awkward position, only his own skill, or the call of time, could extricate him from it.
In a word, at the “Blue Boar” he sparred. At Aldershot he would have to fight. Was he capable of fighting?
Then there was another difficulty. How was he to get himself appointed as the Wrykyn light-weight representative? Now that Drummond was unable to box, Stanning would go down, as the winner of the School Competition. These things were worked by an automatic process. Sheen felt that he could beat Stanning, but he had no means of publishing this fact to the school. He could not challenge him to a trial of skill. That sort of thing was not done.
He explained this to Joe Bevan.
“Well, it’s a pity,” said Joe regretfully. “It’s a pity.”
At this moment Jack Bruce appeared.
“What’s a pity, Joe?” he asked.
“Joe wants me to go to Aldershot as a light-weight,” explained Sheen, “and I was just saying that I couldn’t, because of Stanning.”
“What about Stanning?”
“He won the School Competition, you see, so they’re bound to send him down.”
“Half a minute,” said Jack Bruce. “I never thought of Aldershot for you before. It’s a jolly good idea. I believe you’d have a chance. And it’s all right about Stanning. He’s not going down. Haven’t you heard?”
“I don’t hear anything. Why isn’t he going down?”
“He’s knocked up one of his wrists. So he says.”
“How do you mean—so he says?” asked Sheen.
“I believe he funks it.”
“Why? What makes you think that?”
“Oh, I don’t know. It’s only my opinion. Still, it’s a little queer. Stanning says he crocked his left wrist in the final of the House Competition.”
“Well, what’s wrong with that? Why shouldn’t he have done so?”
Sheen objected strongly to Stanning, but he had the elements of justice in him, and he was not going to condemn him on insufficient evidence, particularly of a crime of which he himself had been guilty.
“Of course he may have done,” said Bruce. “But it’s a bit fishy that he should have been playing fives all right two days running just after the competition.”
“He might have crocked himself then.”
“Then why didn’t he say so?”
A question which Sheen found himself unable to answer.
“Then there’s nothing to prevent you fighting, sir,” said Joe Bevan, who had been listening attentively to the conversation.
“Do you really think I’ve got a chance?”
“I do, sir.”
“Of course you have,” said Jack Bruce. “You’re quite as good as Drummond was, last time I saw him box.”
“Then I’ll have a shot at it,” said Sheen.
“Good for you, sir,” cried Joe Bevan.
“Though it’ll be a bit of a job getting leave,” said Sheen. “How would you start about it, Bruce?”
“You’d better ask Spence. He’s the man to go to.”
“That’s all right. I’m rather a pal of Spence’s.”
“Ask him to-night after prep.,” suggested Bruce.
“And then you can come here regular,” said Joe Bevan, “and we’ll train you till you’re that fit you could eat bricks, and you’ll make babies of them up at Aldershot.”
paving the way.
RUCE had been perfectly correct in his suspicions. Stanning’s wrist was no more sprained than his ankle. The advisability of manufacturing an injury had come home to him very vividly on the Saturday morning following the Ripton match, when he had read the brief report of that painful episode in that week’s number of the Field in the school library. In the list of the Ripton team appeared the name R. Peteiro. He had heard a great deal about the dusky Riptonian when Drummond had beaten him in the Feather-Weights the year before. Drummond had returned from Aldershot on that occasion cheerful, but in an extremely battered condition. His appearance as he limped about the field on Sports Day had been heroic, and, in addition, a fine advertisement for the punishing powers of the Ripton champion. It is true that at least one of his injuries had been the work of a Pauline whom he had met in the opening bout; but the great majority were presents from Ripton, and Drummond had described the dusky one, in no uncertain terms, as a holy terror.
These things had sunk into Stanning’s mind. It had been generally understood at Wrykyn that Peteiro had left school at Christmas. When Stanning, through his study of the Field, discovered that the redoubtable boxer had been one of the team against which he had played at Ripton, and realised that, owing to Drummond’s illness, it would fall to him, if he won the House Competition, to meet this man of wrath at Aldershot, he resolved on the instant that the most persuasive of wild horses should not draw him to that military centre on the day of the Public Schools Competition. The difficulty was that he particularly wished to win the House Cup. Then it occurred to him that he could combine the two things—win the competition and get injured while doing so.
Accordingly, two days after the House Boxing he was observed to issue from Appleby’s with his left arm slung in a first fifteen scarf. He was too astute to injure his right wrist. What happens to one’s left wrist at school is one’s own private business. When one injures one’s right arm, and so incapacitates oneself for form work, the authorities begin to make awkward investigations.
Mr. Spence, who looked after the school’s efforts to win medals at Aldershot, was the most disappointed person in the place. He was an enthusiastic boxer—he had represented Cambridge in the Middle-Weights in his day—and with no small trouble had succeeded in making boxing a going concern at Wrykyn. Years of failure had ended, the Easter before, in a huge triumph, when O’Hara, of Dexter’s, and Drummond had won silver medals, and Moriarty, of Dexter’s, a bronze. If only somebody could win a medal this year, the tradition would be established, and would not soon die out. Unfortunately, there was not a great deal of boxing talent in the school just now. The rule that the winner at his weight in the House Competitions should represent the school at Aldershot only applied if the winner were fairly proficient. Mr. Spence exercised his discretion. It was no use sending down novices to be massacred. This year Drummond and Stanning were the only Wrykinians up to Aldershot form. Drummond would have been almost a certainty for a silver medal, and Stanning would probably have been a runner-up. And here they were, both injured; Wrykyn would not have a single representative at the Queen’s Avenue Gymnasium. It would be a set-back to the cult of boxing at the school.
Mr. Spence was pondering over this unfortunate state of things when Sheen was shown in.
“Can I speak to you for a minute, sir?” said Sheen.
“Certainly, Sheen. Take one of those cig—I mean, sit down. What is it?”
Sheen had decided how to open the interview before knocking at the door. He came to the point at once.
“Do you think I could go down to Aldershot, sir?” he asked.
Mr. Spence looked surprised.
“Go down? You mean—? Do you want to watch the competition? Really, I don’t know if the headmaster——”
“I mean, can I box?”
Mr. Spence’s look of surprise became more marked.
“Box?” he said. “But surely—I didn’t know you were a boxer, Sheen.”
“I’ve only taken it up lately.”
“But you didn’t enter for the House Competitions, did you? What weight are you?”
“Just under ten stone.”
“A light-weight. Why, Linton boxed for your house in the light-weights, surely?”
“Yes sir. They wouldn’t let me go in.”
“You hurt yourself?”
“Then why wouldn’t they let you go in?”
“Drummond thought Linton was better. He didn’t know I boxed.”
“But—this is very curious. I don’t understand it at all. You see, if you were not up to House form, you would hardly— At Aldershot, you see, you would meet the best boxers of all the public schools.”
There was a pause.
“It was like this, sir,” said Sheen nervously. “At the beginning of the term there was a bit of a row down in the town, and I got mixed up in it. And I didn’t—I was afraid to join in. I funked it.”
Mr. Spence nodded. He was deeply interested now. The office of confessor is always interesting.
“Go on, Sheen. What happened then?”
“I was cut by everybody. The fellows thought I had let the house down, and it got about, and the other houses scored off them, so I had rather a rotten time.”
Here it occurred to him that he was telling his story without that attention to polite phraseology which a master expects from a boy, so he amended the last sentence.
“I didn’t have a very pleasant time, sir,” was his correction.
“Well?” said Mr. Spence.
“So I was a bit sick,” continued Sheen, relapsing once more into the vernacular, “and I wanted to do something to put things right again, and I met—anyhow, I took up boxing. I wanted to box for the house, if I was good enough. I practised every day, and stuck to it, and after a bit I did become pretty good.”
“Then Drummond got mumps, and I wrote to him asking if I might represent the house instead of him, and I suppose he didn’t believe I was any good. At any rate, he wouldn’t let me go in. Then Joe—a man who knows something about boxing—suggested I should go down to Aldershot.”
“Joe?” said Mr. Spence inquiringly.
Sheen had let the name slip out unintentionally, but it was too late now to recall it.
“Joe Bevan, sir,” he said. “He used to be champion of England, light-weight.”
“Joe Bevan!” cried Mr. Spence. “Really? Why, he trained me when I boxed for Cambridge. He’s one of the best of fellows. I’ve never seen any one who took such trouble with his man. I wish we could get him here. So it was Joe who suggested that you should go down to Aldershot? Well, he ought to know. Did he say you would have a good chance?”
“My position is this, you see, Sheen. There is nothing I should like more than to see the school represented at Aldershot. But I cannot let anyone go down, irrespective of his abilities. Aldershot is not child’s play. And in the light-weights you get the hardest fighting of all. It wouldn’t do for me to let you go down if you are not up to the proper form. You would be half killed.”
“I should like to have a shot, sir,” said Sheen.
“Then this year, as you probably know, Ripton are sending down Peteiro for the light-weights. He was the fellow whom Drummond only just beat last year. And you saw the state in which Drummond came back. If Drummond could hardly hold him, what would you do?”
“I believe I could beat Drummond, sir,” said Sheen.
Mr. Spence’s eyes opened wider. Here were brave words. This youth evidently meant business. The thing puzzled him. On the one hand, Sheen had been cut by his house for cowardice. On the other, Joe Bevan, who of all men was best able to judge, had told him that he was good enough to box at Aldershot.
“Let me think it over, Sheen,” he said. “This is a matter which I cannot decide in a moment. I will tell you to-morrow what I think about it.”
“I hope you will let me go down, sir,” said Sheen. “It’s my one chance.”
“Yes, yes, I see that, I see that,” said Mr. Spence, “but all the same—well, I will think it over.”
All the rest of that evening he pondered over the matter, deeply perplexed. It would be nothing less than cruel to let Sheen enter the ring at Aldershot if he were incompetent. Boxing in the Public Schools Boxing Competition is not a pastime for the incompetent. But he wished very much that Wrykyn should be represented, and also he sympathised with Sheen’s eagerness to wipe out the stain on his honour, and the honour of the house. But, like Drummond, he could not help harbouring a suspicion that this was a pose. He felt that Sheen was intoxicated by his imagination. Every one likes to picture himself doing dashing things in the limelight, with an appreciative multitude to applaud. Would this mood stand the test of action?
Against this there was the evidence of Joe Bevan. Joe had said that Sheen was worthy to fight for his school, and Joe knew.
Mr. Spence went to bed still in a state of doubt.
Next morning he hit upon a solution of the difficulty. Wandering in the grounds before school, he came upon O’Hara, who, as has been stated before, had won the light-weights at Aldershot in the previous year. He had come to Wrykyn for the Sports. Here was the man to help him. O’Hara should put on the gloves with Sheen and report.
“I’m in rather a difficulty, O’Hara,” he said, “and you can help me.”
“What’s that?” inquired O’Hara.
“You know both our light-weights are on the sick list? I had just resigned myself to going down to Aldershot without any one to box, when a boy in Seymour’s volunteered for the vacant place. I don’t know if you knew him at school? Sheen. Do you remember him?”
“Sheen?” cried O’Hara in amazement. “Not Sheen!”
His recollections of Sheen were not conducive to a picture of him as a public-school boxer.
“Yes. I had never heard of him as a boxer. Still, he seems very anxious to go down, and he certainly has one remarkable testimonial, and as there’s no one else——”
“And what shall I do?” asked O’Hara.
“I want you, if you will, to give him a trial in the dinner-hour. Just see if he’s any good at all. If he isn’t, of course, don’t hit him about a great deal. But if he shows signs of being a useful man, extend him. See what he can do.”
“Very well, sir,” said O’Hara.
“And you might look in at my house at tea-time, if you have nothing better to do, and tell me what you think of him.”
At five o’clock, when he entered Mr. Spence’s study, O’Hara’s face wore the awe-struck look of one who had seen visions.
“Well?” said Mr. Spence. “Did you find him any good?”
“Good?” said O’Hara. “He’ll beat them all. He’s a champion. There’s no stopping him.”
“What an extraordinary thing!” said Mr. Spence.
sheen goes to aldershot.
T Sheen’s request Mr. Spence made no announcement of the fact that Wrykyn would be represented in the light-weights. It would be time enough, Sheen felt, for the School to know that he was a boxer when he had been down and shown what he could do. His appearance in his new rôle would be the most surprising thing that had happened in the place for years, and it would be a painful anti-climax if, after all the excitement which would be caused by the discovery that he could use his hands, he were to be defeated in his first bout. Whereas, if he happened to win, the announcement of his victory would be all the more impressive, coming unexpectedly. To himself he did not admit the possibility of defeat. He had braced himself up for the ordeal, and he refused to acknowledge to himself that he might not come out of it well. Besides, Joe Bevan continued to express hopeful opinions.
“Just you keep your head, sir,” he said, “and you’ll win. Lots of these gentlemen, they’re champions when they’re practising, and you’d think nothing wouldn’t stop them when they get into the ring. But they get wild directly they begin, and forget everything they’ve been taught, and where are they then? Why, on the floor, waiting for the referee to count them out.”
This picture might have encouraged Sheen more if he had not reflected that he was just as likely to fall into this error as were his opponents.
“What you want to remember is to keep that guard up. Nothing can beat that. And push out your left straight. The straight left rules the boxing world. And be earnest about it. Be as friendly as you like afterwards, but while you’re in the ring say to yourself, ‘Well, it’s you or me,’ and don’t be too kind.”
“I wish you could come down to second me, Joe,” said Sheen.
“I’ll have a jolly good try, sir,” said Joe Bevan. “Let me see. You’ll be going down the night before—I can’t come down then, but I’ll try and manage it by an early train on the day.”
“How about Francis?”
“Oh, Francis can look after himself for one day. He’s not the sort of boy to run wild if he’s left alone for a few hours.”
“Then you think you can manage it?”
“Yes, sir. If I’m not there for your first fight, I shall come in time to second you in the final.”
“If I get there,” said Sheen.
“Good seconding’s half the battle. These soldiers they give you at Aldershot—well, they don’t know the business, as the saying is. They don’t look after their man, not like I could. I saw young what’s-his-name, of Rugby—Stevens: he was beaten in the final by a gentleman from Harrow—I saw him fight there a couple of years ago. After the first round he was leading—not by much, but still, he was a point or two ahead. Well! He went to his corner and his seconds sent him up for the next round in the same state he’d got there in. They hadn’t done a thing to him. Why, if I’d been in his corner I’d have taken him and sponged him and sent him up again as fresh as he could be. You must have a good second if you’re to win. When you’re all on top of your man, I don’t say. But you get a young gentleman of your own class, just about as quick and strong as you are, and then you’ll know where the seconding comes in.”
“Then, for goodness’ sake, don’t make any mistake about coming down,” said Sheen.
“I’ll be there, sir,” said Joe Bevan.
The Queen’s Avenue Gymnasium at Aldershot is a roomy place, but it is always crowded on the public schools’ day. Sisters and cousins and aunts of competitors flock there to see Tommy or Bobby perform, under the impression, it is to be supposed, that he is about to take part in a pleasant frolic, a sort of merry parlour game. What their opinion is after he emerges from a warm three rounds is not known. Then there are soldiers in scores. Their views on boxing as a sport are crisp and easily defined. What they want is Gore. Others of the spectators are Old Boys, come to see how the school can behave in an emergency, and to find out whether there are still experts like Jones, who won the Middles in ’96, or Robinson, who was runner-up in the Feathers in the same year; or whether, as they have darkly suspected for some time, the school has Gone To The Dogs Since They Left.
The usual crowd was gathered in the seats round the ring when Sheen came out of the dressing-room and sat down in an obscure corner at the end of the barrier which divides the gymnasium into two parts on these occasions. He felt very lonely. Mr. Spence and the school instructor were watching the gymnastics, which had just started upon their lengthy course. The Wrykyn pair were not expected to figure high on the list this year. He could have joined Mr. Spence, but, at the moment, he felt disinclined for conversation. If he had been a more enthusiastic cricketer, he would have recognised the feeling as that which attacks a batsman before he goes to the wicket. It is not precisely funk. It is rather a desire to accelerate the flight of Time, and get to business quickly. All things come to him who waits, and among them is that unpleasant sensation of a cold hand upon the portion of the body which lies behind the third waistcoat button.
The boxing had begun with a bout between two feather-weights, both obviously suffering from stage-fright. They were fighting in a scrambling and unscientific manner, which bore out Mr. Bevan’s statements on the subject of losing one’s head. Sheen felt that both were capable of better things. In the second and third rounds this proved to be the case and the contest came to an end amidst applause.
The next pair were light-weights, and Sheen settled himself to watch more attentively. From these he would gather some indication of what he might expect to find when he entered the ring. He would not have to fight for some time yet. In the drawing for numbers, which had taken place in the dressing-room, he had picked a three. There would be another light-weight battle before he was called upon. His opponent was a Tonbridgian, who, from the glimpse Sheen caught of him, seemed muscular. But he (Sheen) had the advantage in reach, and built on that.
After opening tamely, the light-weight bout had become vigorous in the second round, and both men had apparently forgotten that their right arms had been given them by Nature for the purpose of guarding. They were going at it in hurricane fashion all over the ring. Sheen was horrified to feel symptoms of a return of that old sensation of panic which had caused him, on that dark day early in the term, to flee Albert and his wicked works. He set his teeth, and fought it down. And after a bad minute he was able to argue himself into a proper frame of mind again. After all, that sort of thing looked much worse than it really was. Half those blows, which seemed as if they must do tremendous damage, were probably hardly felt by their recipient. He told himself that Francis, and even the knife-and-boot boy, hit fully as hard, or harder, and he had never minded them. At the end of the contest he was once more looking forward to his entrance to the ring with proper fortitude.
The fighting was going briskly forward now, sometimes good, sometimes moderate, but always earnest, and he found himself contemplating, without undue excitement, the fact that at the end of the bout which had just begun, between middle-weights from St. Paul’s and Wellington, it would be his turn to perform. As luck would have it, he had not so long to wait as he had expected, for the Pauline, taking the lead after the first few exchanges, out-fought his man so completely that the referee stopped the contest in the second round. Sheen got up from his corner and went to the dressing-room. The Tonbridgian was already there. He took off his coat. Somebody crammed his hands into the gloves, and from that moment the last trace of nervousness left him. He trembled with the excitement of the thing, and hoped sincerely that no one would notice it, and think that he was afraid.
Then, amidst a clapping of hands which sounded faint and far-off, he followed his opponent to the ring, and ducked under the ropes.
The referee consulted a paper which he held, and announced the names.
“R. D. Sheen, Wrykyn College.”
Sheen wriggled his fingers right into the gloves, and thought of Joe Bevan. What had Joe said? Keep that guard up. The straight left. Keep that guard—the straight left. Keep that——
“A. W. Bird, Tonbridge School.”
There was a fresh outburst of applause. The Tonbridgian had shown up well in the competition of the previous year, and the crowd welcomed him as an old friend.
Keep that guard up—straight left. Straight left—guard up.
“Seconds out of the ring.”
Guard up. Not too high. Straight left. It beats the world. What an age that man was calling Time. Guard up. Straight——
“Time,” said the referee.
Sheen, filled with a great calm, walked out of his corner and shook hands with his opponent.
(To be concluded.)