Public School Magazine, February 1902
THE news, however, was not long in spreading. Robinson took care of that. On the way to school he overtook his friend Morrison, a young gentleman who had the unique distinction of being the rowdiest fag in Ward’s House, which, as any Austinian could have told you, was the rowdiest house in the School.
“I say, Morrison, heard the latest?”
“Chap broke into the pav. last night.”
“No, you ass, a regular burglar. After the Sport’s prizes.”
“Look here, Robinson, try that on the kids.”
“Just what I am doing,” said Robinson.
This delicate reference to Morrison’s tender years had the effect of creating a disturbance. Two School House juniors, who happened to be passing, naturally forsook all their other aims and objects and joined the battle.
“What’s up?” asked one of them, dusting himself hastily as they stopped to take breath. It was always his habit to take up any business that might attract his attention, and ask for explanations afterwards.
“This kid ——,” began Morrison.
“Kid yourself, Morrison.”
“This lunatic, then.” Robinson allowed the emendation to pass. “This lunatic’s got some yarn on about the pav. being burgled.”
“So it is. Tell you I saw it myself.”
“Did it yourself, probably.”
“How do you know, anyway? You seem so jolly certain about it.”
“Why, there’s a pane of glass cut out of the window in the first-room.”
“Shouldn’t wonder, you know,” said Dimsdale, one of the two School House fags, judicially, “if the kid wasn’t telling the truth for once in his life. Those pots must be worth something. Don’t you think so, Scott?”
Scott admitted that there might be something in the idea, and that, however foreign to his usual habits, Robinson might on this occasion be confining himself more or less to strict fact.
“There you are, then,” said Robinson, vengefully. “Shows what a fat lot you know what you’re talking about, Morrison.”
“Morrison’s a fool,” said Scott. “Ever since he got off the bottom bench in Form there’s been no holding him.”
“All the same,” said Morrison, feeling that matters were going against him, “I shan’t believe it till I see it.”
“What’ll you bet?” said Robinson.
“I never bet,” replied Morrison, with scorn.
“You daren’t. You know you’d lose.”
“All right, then, I’ll bet a penny I’m right.” He drew a deep breath, as who should say, “It’s a lot of money, but it’s worth risking it.”
“You’ll lose that penny, old chap,” said Robinson. “That’s to say,” he added thoughtfully, “if you ever pay up.”
“You’ve got us as witnesses,” said Dimsdale. “We’ll see that he shells out. Scott, remember you’re a witness.”
“Right ho,” said Scott.
At this moment the clock struck nine, and as each of the principals in this financial transaction and both the witnesses were expected to be in their places to answer their names at 8.58, they were late. And as they had all been late the day before, and the day before that, they were presented, on arrival, by their generous Form Master with 200 lines apiece. Which shows more than ever how wrong it is to bet.
The news continuing to circulate, by the end of morning school it was generally known that a gang of desperadoes, numbering at least a hundred, had taken the pavilion down, brick by brick, till only the foundations were left standing, and had gone off with every jot and tittle of the unfortunately-placed Sports prizes.
At the quarter-to-eleven interval, the School had gone out en masse to see what it could see, and had stared at the window with much the same interest as they were wont to use in inspecting the First Eleven pitch on the morning of a match—a curious custom, by the way, but one very generally observed.
Then the official news of the extent of the robbery was spread abroad. It appeared that the burglar had by no means done the profession credit, for out of a vast collection of prizes ranging from the vast and silver Mile Challenge Cup to the pair of fives-gloves with which the ‘under twelve’ disciple of Deerfoot was to be rewarded, he had selected only three. Two of these were worth having, being the challenge cup for the quarter and the non-challenge cup for the hundred yards, both silver, but the third was a valueless flask, and the general voice of the School was loud in condemning the business abilities of one who could select his swag in so haphazard a manner. It was felt to detract from the merit of the performance. The knowing ones, however, gave it as their opinion that the man must have been frightened by something, and so was unable to give the matter his best attention and do himself justice as a connoisseur.
“We had a burglary at my place once,” began Reade, of Philpott’s House. “The man——”
“That rotter, Reade,” said Barrett, also of Philpott’s, “has been telling us that burglary chestnut of his all the morning. I wish you chaps wouldn’t encourage him.”
“Why, what was it? First I’ve heard of it, at any rate.” Dallas and Vaughan, of Ward’s, added themselves to the group. “Out with it, Reade,” said Vaughan.
“It’s only a beastly reminiscence of Reade’s childhood,” said Barrett. “A burglar got into the wine-cellar and collared all the coals.”
“He didn’t. He was in the hall, and my pater got his revolver——”
“While you hid under the bed.”
“—and potted at him over the banisters.”
“The last time but three you told the story, your pater fired through the keyhole of the dining-room.”
“You idiot, that was afterwards.”
“Oh, well, what does it matter? Tell us something fresh.”
“It’s my opinion,” said Dallas, “that Ward did it. A man of the vilest antecedents. He’s capable of anything from burglary——”
“To attempted poisoning. You should see what we get to eat in Ward’s House,” said Vaughan.
“Ward’s the worst type of beak. He simply lives for the sake of booking chaps. If he books a chap out of bounds it keeps him happy for a week.”
“A man like that’s bound to be a criminal of sorts in his spare time. It’s action and reaction,” said Vaughan.
Mr. Ward happening to pass at this moment, the speaker went on to ask Dallas audibly if life was worth living, and Dallas replied that under certain conditions and in some Houses it was not.
Dallas and Vaughan did not like Mr. Ward. Mr. Ward was not the sort of man who inspires affection. He had an unpleasant habit of “jarring,” as it was called. That is to say, his conversation was shaped to one single end, that of trying to make the person to whom he talked feel uncomfortable. Many of his jars had become part of the school history. There was a legend that on one occasion he had invited his Prefects to supper, and regaled them with sausages. There was still one Prefect unhelped. To him he addressed himself.
“A sausage, Jones?”
“If you please, sir.”
“No, you won’t, then, because I’m going to have half myself.”
This story may or may not be true. Suffice it to say, that Mr. Ward was not popular.
The discussion was interrupted by the sound of the bell ringing for second lesson. The problem was left unsolved. It was evident that the burglar had been interrupted, but how or why nobody knew. The suggestion that he had heard Master R. Robinson training for his quarter-mile, and had thought it was an earthquake, found much favour with the junior portion of the assembly. Simpson, on whom Robinson had been given start in the race, expressed an opinion that he, Robinson, ran like a cow. At which Robinson smiled darkly, and advised the other to wait till Sports day and then he’d see, remarking that, meanwhile, if he gave him any of his cheek he might not be well enough to run at all.
“This sort of thing,” said Barrett to Reade, as they walked to their Form-room, “always makes me feel beastly. Once start a row like this, and all the beaks turn into regular detectives and go ferreting about all over the place, and it’s ten to one they knock up against something one doesn’t want them to know about.”
Reade was feeling hurt. He had objected to the way in which Barrett had spoiled a story that might easily have been true, and really was true in parts. His dignity was offended. He said “Yes” to Barrett’s observation in a tone of reserved hauteur. Barrett did not notice.
“It’s an awful nuisance. For one thing it makes them so jolly strict about bounds.”
“I wanted to go for a bike ride this afternoon. There’s nothing on at the School.”
“Why don’t you?”
“What’s the good if you can’t break bounds? A ride of about a quarter of a mile’s no good. There’s a ripping place about ten miles down the Stapleton Road. Big wood, with a ripping little hollow in the middle, all ferns and moss. I was thinking of taking a book out there for the afternoon. Only there’s roll-call.”
He paused. Ordinarily, this would have been the cue for Reade to say, “Oh, I’ll answer your name at roll-call.” But Reade said nothing. Barrett looked surprised and disappointed.
“I say, Reade,” he said.
“Would you like to answer my name at roll-call?” It was the first time he had ever had occasion to make the request.
“No,” said Reade.
Barrett could hardly believe his ears. Did he sleep? Did he dream? Or were visions about?
“What!” he said.
“Do you mean to say you won’t?”
“Of course I won’t. Why the deuce should I do your beastly dirty work for you?”
Barrett did not know what to make of this. Curiosity urged him to ask for explanations. Dignity threw cold water on such a scheme. In the end dignity had the best of it.
“Oh, very well,” he said, and they went on in silence. In all the three years of their acquaintance they had never before happened upon such a crisis.
The silence lasted until they reached the Form-room. Then Barrett determined, in the interests of the common good—he and Reade shared a study, and icy coolness in a small study is unpleasant—to chain up Dignity for the moment, and give Curiosity a trial.
“What’s up with you to-day?” he asked.
He could hardly have chosen a worse formula. The question has on most people precisely the same effect as that which the query, “Do you know where you lost it?” has on one who is engaged in looking for mislaid property.
“Nothing,” said Reade. Probably at the same moment hundreds of other people were making the same reply, in the same tone of voice, to the same question.
“Oh,” said Barrett.
There was another silence.
“You might as well answer my name this afternoon,” said Barrett, tentatively.
Reade walked off without replying, and Barrett went to his place feeling that curiosity was a fraud, and resolving to confine his attentions for the future to dignity. This was by-product number one of the pavilion burglary.
During the last hour of morning school, Tony got a note from Jim.
“Graham,” said Mr. Thompson, the master of the Sixth, sadly, just as Tony was about to open it.
“Kindly tear that note up, Graham.”
“Kindly tear that note up, Graham. Come, you are keeping us waiting.”
As the hero of the novel says, further concealment was useless. Tony tore the note up unread.
“Hope it didn’t want an answer,” he said to Jim after school. “Constant practice has made Thompson a sort of amateur lynx.”
“No. It was only to ask you to be in the study directly after lunch. There’s a most unholy row going to occur shortly, as far as I can see.”
“What, about this burglary business?”
“Yes. Havn’t time to tell you now. See you after lunch.”
After lunch, having closed the study door, Jim embarked on the following statement.
It appeared that on the previous night he had left a book of notes, which were of absolutely vital importance for the examination which the Sixth had been doing in the earlier part of the morning, in the identical room in which the prizes had been placed. Or rather, he had left it there several days before, and had not needed it till that night. At half-past six the pavilion had been locked up, and Biffen, the ground-man, had taken the key away with him, and it was only after tea had been consumed and the evening paper read, that Jim, thinking it about time to begin work, had discovered his loss. This was about half-past seven.
Being a House Prefect, Jim did not attend preparation in the Great Hall with the common herd of the Houses, but was part-owner with Tony of a study.
The difficulties of the situation soon presented themselves to him. It was only possible to obtain the notes in three ways—firstly, by going to the rooms of the Sixth Form master, who lived out of College; secondly, by borrowing from one of the other Sixth Form members of the House; and thirdly, by the desperate expedient of burgling the Pavilion. The objections to the first course were two. In the first place Merevale was taking prep. over in the Hall, and it was strictly forbidden for anyone to quit the House after lock-up without leave. And, besides, it was long odds that Thompson, the Sixth Form master, would not have the notes, as he had dictated them partly out of his head and partly from the works of various eminent scholars. The second course was out of the question. The only other Sixth Form boy in the House, Tony and Welch being away at Aldershot, was Charteris, and Charteris, who never worked much except the night before an exam. but worked then under forced draught, was appalled at the mere suggestion of letting his note-book out of his hands. Jim had sounded him on the subject and had met with the reply, “Kill my father and burn my ancestral home, and I will look on and smile. But touch these notes and you rouse the British Lion.” After which he had given up the borrowing idea.
There remained the third course, and there was an excitement and sporting interest about it that took him immensely. But how was he to get out to start with? He opened his study-window, and calculated the risks of a drop to the ground. No, it was too far. Not worth risking a sprained ankle on the eve of the mile. Then he thought of the matron’s sitting-room. This was on the ground-floor, and if it’s owner happened to be out, exit would be easy. As luck would have it she was out, and in another minute Jim had crossed the Rubicon and was standing on the gravel drive which led to the front gate.
A sharp sprint took him to the pavilion. Now the difficulty was not how to get out, but how to get in. Theoretically, it should have been the easiest of tasks, but in practice there were plenty of obstacles to success. He tried the lower windows, but they were firmly fixed. There had been a time when one of them would yield to a hard kick and fly bodily out of it’s frame, but somebody had been caught playing that game not long before, and Jim remembered with a pang that not only had the window been securely fastened up, but the culprit had had a spell of extra tuition and other punishments which had turned him for the time into a hater of his species. His own fate, he knew, would be even worse, for a Prefect is supposed to have something better to do in his spare time than breaking into pavilions. It would mean expulsion perhaps, or, at the least, the loss of his Prefect’s cap, and Jim did not want to lose that. Still the thing had to be done if he meant to score any marks at all in the forthcoming exam. He wavered a while between a choice of methods, and finally fixed on the crudest of all. No one was likely to be within earshot, thought he, so he picked up the largest stone he could find, took as careful aim as the dim light would allow, and hove it. There was a sickening crash, loud enough, he thought, to bring the whole school down on him, followed by a prolonged rattle as the broken pieces of glass fell to the ground.
He held his breath and listened. For a moment all was still, uncannily still. He could hear the tops of the trees groaning in the slight breeze that had sprung up, and far away the distant roar of a train. Then a queer thing happened. He heard a quiet thud, as if somebody had jumped from a height on to grass, and then quick footsteps.
He waited breathless and rigid, expecting every moment to see a form loom up beside him in the darkness. It was useless to run. His only chance was to stay perfectly quiet.
Then it dawned upon him that the man was running away from him, not towards him. His first impulse was to give chase, but prudence restrained him. Catching burglars is an exhilarating sport, but it is best to indulge in it when one is not on a burgling expedition oneself.
Besides he had come out to get his book, and business is business.
There was no time to be lost now, for someone might have heard one or both of the noises and given the alarm.
Once the window was broken the rest was fairly easy, the only danger being the pieces of glass. He took off his coat and flung it on to the sill of the upper window. In a few seconds he was up himself without injury. He found it a trifle hard to keep his balance, as there was nothing to hold on to, but he managed it long enough to enable him to thrust an arm through the gap and turn the handle. After this there was a bolt to draw, which he managed without difficulty.
The window swung open. Jim jumped in, and groped his way round the room till he found his book. The other window of the room was wide open. He shut it for no definite reason, and noticed that a pane had been cut out entire. The professional cracksman had done his work more neatly than the amateur.
“Poor chap,” thought Jim, with a chuckle, as he effected a retreat, “I must have given him a bit of a start with my half-brick.” After bolting the window behind him, he climbed down.
As he reached earth again the clock struck a quarter to nine. In another quarter of an hour prep. would be over and the House door unlocked, and he would be able to get in again. Nor would the fact of his being out excite remark, for it was the custom of the House Prefects to take the air for the few minutes which elapsed between the opening of the door and the final locking-up for the night.
The rest of his adventures ran too smoothly to require a detailed description. Everything succeeded excellently. The only reminiscences of his escapade were a few cuts in his coat, which went unnoticed, and the precious book of notes, to which he applied himself with such vigour in the watches of the night, with a surreptitious candle and a hamper of apples as aids to study, that, though tired next day, he managed to do quite well enough in the exam. to pass muster. And, as he had never had the least prospect of coming out top, or even in the first five, this satisfied him completely.
Tony listened with breathless interest to Jim’s recital of his adventures, and at the conclusion yelled with mirth.
“What a mad thing to go and do,” he said. “Jolly sporting, though.”
Jim did not join in his laughter.
“Yes, but don’t you see,” he said, ruefully, “what a mess I’m in? If they find out that I was in the pav. at the time when the cups were bagged, how on earth am I to prove I didn’t take them myself?”
“By Jove. I never thought of that. But, hang it all, they’d never dream of accusing a Coll. chap of stealing Sports prizes. This isn’t a reformatory for juvenile Hooligans.”
“No, perhaps not.”
“Of course not.”
“Well, even if they didn’t, the Old Man would be frightfully sick if he got to know about it. I’d lose my Prefect’s cap for a cert.”
“You might, certainly.”
“I should. There wouldn’t be any question about it. Why, don’t you remember that business last summer about Cairns? He used to stay out after lock-up. That was absolutely all he did. Well, the old ’un dropped on him like a hundredweight of bricks. Multiply that by about ten and you get what he’ll do to me if he books me over this job.”
Tony looked thoughtful. The case of Cairns versus The Powers that were, was too recent to have escaped his memory. Even now Cairns was to be seen on the grounds with a common School House cap at the back of his head in place of the Prefect’s cap which had once adorned it.
“Yes,” he said, “you’d lose your cap all right, I’m afraid.”
“Rather. And the sickening part of the business is that this real, copper-bottomed burglary ’ll make them hunt about all over the shop for clues and things, and the odds are they’ll find me out, even if they don’t book the real man. Shouldn’t wonder if they had a detective down for a big thing of this sort.”
“They are having one, I heard.”
“There you are, then,” said Jim, dejectedly. “I’m done, you see.”
“I don’t know. I don’t believe detectives are much class.”
“Anyhow, he’ll probably have gumption enough to spot me.”
Jim’s respect for the abilities of our national sleuth-hounds was greater than Tony’s, and a good deal greater than that of most people.
“I wonder where the dear Mutual gets to these afternoons,” said Dallas.
“The who?” asked MacArthur. MacArthur, commonly known as the Babe, was a day boy. Dallas and Vaughan had invited him to tea in their study.
“Plunkett, you know.”
“Why the Mutual?”
“Mutual Friend, Vaughan’s and mine. Shares this study with us. I call him dear partly because he’s Head of the House, and therefore, of course, we respect and admire him.”
“And partly,” put in Vaughan, beaming at the Babe over a frying-pan full of sausages, “partly because we love him so. Oh, he’s a beauty.”
“No, but rotting apart,” said the Babe, “what sort of a chap is he? I hardly know him by sight, even.”
“Should describe him roughly,” said Dallas, “as a hopeless, forsaken, unspeakable worm.”
“Understates it considerably,” remarked Vaughan. “His manners are patronising, and his customs beastly.”
“He wears spectacles, and reads Herodotus in the original Greek for pleasure.”
“He sneers at footer, and jeers at cricket. Croquet is his form, I should say. Should doubt, though, if he even plays that.”
“But why on earth,” said the Babe, “do you have him in your study?”
Vaughan looked wildly and speechlessly at Dallas, who looked helplessly back at Vaughan.
“Don’t, Babe, please!” said Dallas. “You’ve no idea how a remark of that sort infuriates us. You surely don’t suppose we’d have the man in the study if we could help it?”
“It’s another instance of Ward at his worst,” said Vaughan. “Have you never heard the story of the Mutual Friend’s arrival?”
“It was like this. At the beginning of this term I came back expecting to be head of this show. You see, Richards left at Christmas and I was next man in. Dallas and I had made all sorts of arrangements for having a good time. Well, I got back on the last evening of the holidays. When I got into this study, there was the man Plunkett sitting in the best chair, reading.”
“Probably reading Herodotus in the original Greek,” snorted Dallas.
“He didn’t take the slightest notice of me. I stood in the doorway like Patience on a monument for about a quarter of an hour. Then I coughed. He took absolutely no notice. I coughed again, loud enough to crack the windows. Then I got tired of it, and said ‘Hullo.’ He did look up at that. ‘Hullo,’ he said, ‘you’ve got rather a nasty cough.’ I said ‘Yes,’ and waited for him to throw himself on my bosom and explain everything, you know.”
“Did he?” asked the Babe, deeply interested.
“Not a bit,” said Dallas, “he—sorry, Vaughan, fire ahead.”
“He went on reading. After a bit I said I hoped he was fairly comfortable. He said he was. Conversation languished again. I made another shot. ‘Looking for anybody?’ I said. ‘No,’ he said, ‘are you?’ ‘No.’ ‘Then why the dickens should I be?’ he said. I didn’t quite follow his argument. In fact, I don’t even now. ‘Look here,’ I said, ‘tell me one thing. Have you or have you not bought this place? If you have, all right. If you haven’t, I’m going to sling you out, and jolly soon, too.’ He looked at me in his superior sort of way, and observed without blenching that he was Head of the House.”
“Just another of Ward’s jars,” said Dallas.
“Knowing that Vaughan was keen on being Head of the House he actually went to the Old Man and persuaded him that it would be better to bring in some day boy who was a School Prefect than let Vaughan boss the show. What do you think of that?”
“Pretty low,” said the Babe.
“Said I was thoughtless and headstrong,” cut in Vaughan, spearing a sausage as if it were Mr. Ward’s body. “Muffins up, Dallas, old man. Which the sausages are done to a turn. ‘Thoughtless and headstrong.’ Those were his very words.”
“Can’t you imagine the old beast?” said Dallas, pathetically, “can’t you see him getting round the Old Man? A capital lad at heart, I am sure, distinctly a capital lad, but thoughtless and headstrong, far too thoughtless for a position so important as that of Head of my House. The abandoned old wreck!”
Tea put an end for the moment to conversation, but when the last sausage had gone the way of all flesh, Vaughan returned to the sore subject like a moth to a candle.
“It isn’t only the not being Head of the House that I bar. It’s the man himself. You say you haven’t studied Plunkett much. When you get to know him better, you’ll appreciate his finer qualities more. There are so few of them.”
“The only fine quality I’ve ever seen in him,” said Dallas, “is his habit of slinking off in the afternoons when he ought to be playing games, and not coming back till lock-up.”
“Which brings us back to where we started,” put in the Babe. “You were wondering what he did with himself.”
“Yes, it can’t be anything good so we’ll put beetles and butterflies out of the question right away. He might go and poach. There’s heaps of opportunity round here for a chap who wants to try his hand at that. I remember, when I was a kid, Morton-Smith, who used to be in this House—remember him?—took me to old what’s-his-name’s place. Who’s that frantic blood who owns all that land along the Badgwick road? The M.P., I mean.”
“Milord Sir Alfred Venner, M.P., of Badgwick Hall.”
“That’s the man. Generally very much of Badgwick Hall. Came down last summer on prize-day. One would have thought from the side on him that he was all sorts of dooks. Anyhow, Morton-Smith took me rabbiting there. I didn’t know it was against the rules or anything. Had a grand time. A few days afterwards, Milord Sir Venner copped him on the hop and he got sacked. There was an awful row. I thought my hair would have turned white.”
“I shouldn’t think the Mutual poaches,” said Vaughan. “He hasn’t got the enterprise to poach an egg even. No, it can’t be that.”
“Perhaps he bikes?” said the Babe.
“No, he’s not got a bike. He’s the sort of chap, though, to borrow somebody else’s without asking. Possibly he does bike.”
“If he does,” said Dallas, “it’s only so as to get well away from the Coll. before starting on his career of crime. I’ll swear he does break rules like an ordinary human being when he thinks it’s safe. Those aggressively pious fellows generally do.”
“I didn’t know he was that sort,” said the Babe. “Don’t you find it rather a jar?”
“Just a bit. He jaws us sometimes till we turn and rend him.”
“Yes, he’s an awful man,” said Vaughan.
“Don’t stop,” said the Babe, encouragingly, after the silence had lasted some time. “It’s a treat picking a fellow to pieces like this.”
“I don’t know if that’s your beastly sarcasm, Babe,” said Vaughan, “but, speaking for self and partner, I don’t know how we should get on if we didn’t blow off steam occasionally in this style.”
“We should probably last out for a week, and then there would be a sharp shriek, a hollow groan, and all that would be left of the Mutual Friend would be a slight discolouration on the study carpet.”
“Coupled with an aroma of fresh gore.”
“Perhaps that’s why he goes off in the afternoons,” suggested the Babe. “Doesn’t want to run any risks.”
“He’s such a rotten Head of the House, too,” said Vaughan. “Ward may gas about my being headstrong and thoughtless, but I’m dashed if I would make a bally exhibition of myself like the Mutual.”
“What’s he do?” enquired the Babe.
“It’s not so much what he does. It’s what he doesn’t do that sickens me,” said Dallas. “I may be a bit of a crock in some ways—for further details apply to Ward—but I can stop a couple of fags ragging if I try.”
“Not for nuts. He’s simply helpless when there’s anything going on that he ought to stop. Why, the other day there was a row in the fags’ room that you could almost have heard at your place, Babe. We were up here working. The Mutual was jawing as usual on the subject of cramming tips for the Aeschylus exam. Said it wasn’t scholarship, or some rot. What business is it of his how a chap works, I should like to know. Just as he had got under way, the fags began kicking up more row than ever.”
“I said,” cut in Vaughan, “that instead of minding other people’s business, he’d better mind his own for a change, and go down and stop the row.”
“He looked a bit green at that,” said Dallas. “Said the row didn’t interfere with him. ‘Does with us,’ I said. ‘It’s all very well for you. You aren’t doing a stroke of work. No amount of row matters to a chap who’s only delivering a rotten sermon on scholarship. Vaughan and I happen to be trying to do some work.’ ‘All right,’ he said, ‘if you want the row stopped, why don’t you go and stop it? What’s it got to do with me?’ ”
“Rotter!” interpolated the Babe.
“Wasn’t he? Well, of course we couldn’t stand that.”
“We crushed him,” said Vaughan.
“I said: ‘In my young days the Head of the House used to keep order for himself.’ I asked him what he thought he was here for. Because he isn’t ornamental. So he went down after that.”
“Well?” said the Babe. Being a miserable day boy he had had no experience of the inner life of a boarding-house, which is the real life of a Public School. His experience of life at St. Austin’s was limited to doing his work and playing centre-three-quarters for the XV. Which, it may be remarked in passing, he did extremely well.
Dallas took up the narrative. “Well, after he’d been gone about five minutes, and the row seemed to be getting worse than ever, we thought we’d better go down and investigate. So we did.”
“And when we got to the fags’ room,” said Vaughan, pointing the toasting-fork at the Babe by way of emphasis, “there was the Mutual standing in the middle of the room gassing away with an expression on his face a cross between a village idiot and an unintelligent fried egg. And all round him was a seething mass of fags, half of them playing socker with a top-hat, and the other half cheering wildly whenever the Mutual opened his mouth.”
“What did you do?”
“We made an aggressive movement in force. Collared the hat, brained every fag within reach, and swore we’d report them to the beak and so on. They quieted down in about three and a quarter seconds by stop-watch, and we retired, taking the hat as a prize of war, and followed by the Mutual Friend.”
“He looked worried, rather,” said Vaughan. “And, thank goodness, he let us alone for the rest of the evening.”
“That’s only a sample, though,” explained Dallas. “That sort of thing has been going on the whole term. If the Head of a House is an abject lunatic, there’s bound to be ructions. Fags simply live for the sake of kicking up rows. It’s meat and drink to them.”
“I wish the Mutual would leave,” said Vaughan. “Only that sort of chap always lingers on until he dies or gets sacked.”
“He’s not the sort of fellow to get sacked, I should say,” said the Babe.
“ ’Fraid not. I wish I could shunt into some other House. Between Ward and the Mutual life here isn’t worth living.”
“There’s Merevale’s, now,” said Vaughan. “I wish I was in there. In the first place you’ve got Merevale. He gets as near perfection as a beak ever does. Coaches the House footer and cricket, and takes an intelligent interest in things generally. Then there are some decent fellows in Merevale’s, Charteris, Welch, Graham, Thomson, heaps of them.”
“Pity you came to Ward’s,” said the Babe. “Why did you?”
“My pater knew Ward a bit. If he’d known him well, he’d have sent me somewhere else.”
“My pater knew Vaughan’s pater well, who knew Ward slightly and there you are. Voilá comme des accidents arrivent.”
“If Ward wanted to lug in a day boy to be Head of the House,” said Vaughan, harping once more on the old string, “he might at least have got somebody decent.”
“There’s the great Babe himself. Babe, why don’t you come in next term?”
“Not much,” said the Babe, with a shudder.
“Well, even barring present company, there are lots of chaps who would have jumped at the chance of being Head of a House. But nothing would satisfy Ward but lugging the Mutual from the bosom of his beastly family.”
“We haven’t decided that point about where he goes to,” said the Babe.
At this moment the door of the study opened, and the gentleman in question appeared in person. He stood in the doorway for a few seconds, gasping and throwing his arms about as if he found a difficulty in making his way in.
“I wish you two wouldn’t make such an awful froust in the study every afternoon,” he observed, pleasantly. “Have you been having a little tea-party? How nice!”
“We’ve been brewing, if that’s what you mean,” said Vaughan, shortly.
“Oh,” said Plunkett, “I hope you enjoyed yourselves. It’s nearly lock-up, MacArthur.”
“That’s Plunkett’s delicate way of telling you you’re not wanted, Babe.”
“Well, I suppose I ought to be going,” said the Babe. “So long.”
And he went, feeling grateful to Providence for not having made his father, like the fathers of Vaughan and Dallas, a casual acquaintance of Mr. Ward.
The Mutual Friend really was a trial to Vaughan and Dallas. Only those whose fate it is or has been to share a study with an uncongenial companion can appreciate their feelings to the full. Three in a study is always something of a tight fit, and when the three are in a state of perpetual warfare, or, at the best, of armed truce, things become very bad indeed.
“Do you find it necessary to have tea-parties every evening?” enquired Plunkett, after he had collected his books for the night’s work. “The smell of burnt meat—”
“Fried sausages,” said Vaughan. “Perfectly healthy smell. Do you good.”
“It’s quite disgusting. Really, the air in here is hardly fit to breathe.”
“You’ll find an excellent brand of air down in the senior study,” said Dallas, pointedly.
“Don’t stay and poison yourself here on our account,” he added. “Think of your family.”
“I shall work where I choose,” said the Mutual Friend, with dignity.
“Of course, so long as you do work. You mustn’t talk. Vaughan and I have got some Livy to do.”
Plunkett snorted, and the passage of arms ended, as it usually did, in his retiring with his books to the senior study, leaving Dallas and Vaughan to discuss his character once more in case there might be any points of it left upon which they had not touched in previous conversations.
“This robbery of the pots is a rum thing,” said Vaughan, thoughtfully, when the last shreds of Plunkett’s character had been put through the mincing-machine to the satisfaction of all concerned.
“Yes. It’s the sort of thing one doesn’t think possible till it actually happens.”
“What the dickens made them put the things in the pav. at all? They must have known it wouldn’t be safe.”
“Well, you see, they usually cart them into the Board room, I believe, only this time the governors were going to have a meeting there. They couldn’t very well meet in a room with the table all covered with silver pots.”
“Don’t see why.”
“Well, I suppose they could really, but some of the governors are fairly nuts on strict form. There’s that crock who makes the two hour vote of thanks speeches on prize day. You can see him rising to a point of order, and fixing the old ’un with a fishy eye.”
“Well, anyhow, I don’t see that they can blame a burglar for taking the pots if they simply chuck them in his way like that.”
“No. I say we’d better weigh in with the Livy. The man Ward ’ll be round directly. Where’s the dic.? And our invaluable friend, Mr. Bohn? Right. Now, you reel it off, and I’ll keep an eye on the notes.” And they settled down to the business of the day.
After a while Vaughan looked up.
“Who’s going to win the mile?” he asked.
“What’s the matter with Thomson?”
“How about Drake then?”
“Thomson won the half.”
“I knew you’d say that. The half isn’t a test of a chap’s mile form. Besides, did you happen to see Drake’s sprint?”
“Jolly good one.”
“I know, but look how late he started for it. Thomson crammed on the pace directly he got into the straight. Drake only began to put it on when he got to the pav. Even then he wasn’t far behind at the tape.”
“No. Well, I’m not plunging either way. Ought to be a good race.”
“Rather. I say, I wonder Welch doesn’t try his hand at the mile. I believe he would do some rattling times if he’d only try.”
“Why, Welch is a sprinter.”
“I know. But I believe for all that that the mile’s his distance. He’s always well up in the cross-country runs.”
“Anyhow, he’s not in for it this year. Thomson’s my man. It’ll be a near thing, though.”
“Jolly near thing. With Drake in front.”
“All right, we’ll see. Wonder why the beak doesn’t come up. I can’t sit here doing Livy all the evening. And yet if we stop he’s bound to look in.”
“Oh Lord, is that what you’ve been worrying about? I thought you’d developed the work habit or something. Ward’s all right. He’s out on the tiles to-night. Gone to a dinner at Philpott’s.”
“Good man, how do you know? Are you certain?”
“Heard him telling Prater this morning. Half the staff have gone. Good opportunity for a chap to go for a stroll if he wanted to. Shall we, by the way?”
“Not for me, thanks. I’m in the middle of a rather special book. Ever read ‘Great Expectations’? Dickens, you know.”
“I know. Haven’t read it, though. Always rather funk starting on a classic, somehow. Good?”
“My dear chap! Good’s not the word.”
“Well, after you. Exit Livy, then. And a good job, too. You might pass us the great Sherlock. Thanks.”
He plunged with the great detective into the mystery of the speckled band, while Vaughan opened “Great Expectations” at the place where he had left off the night before. And a silence fell upon the study.
Curiously enough, Dallas was not the only member of Ward’s House to whom it occurred that evening that the absence of the House-master supplied a good opportunity for a stroll. The idea had also struck Plunkett favourably. He was not feeling very comfortable down stairs. On entering the senior study he found Galloway, an Upper Fourth member of the House, already in possession. Galloway had managed that evening to insinuate himself with such success into the good graces of the matron, that he had been allowed to stay in the House instead of proceeding with the rest of the study to the Great Hall for preparation. The palpable failure of his attempt to hide the book he was reading under the table when he was disturbed led him to cast at the Mutual Friend, the cause of his panic, so severe and forbidding a look, that that gentleman retired, and made for the junior study.
The atmosphere in the junior study was close, and heavy with a blend of several strange odours. Plunkett went to the window. Then he noticed what he had never noticed before, that there were no bars to the window. Only the glass stood between him and the outer world. He threw up the sash as far as it would go. There was plenty of room to get out. So he got out. He stood for a moment inhaling the fresh air. Then, taking something from his coat-pocket, he dived into the shadows. An hour passed. In the study above, Dallas, surfeited with mysteries and villainy, put down his book and stretched himself.
“I say, Vaughan,” he said. “Have you settled the House Gym. team yet? It’s about time the list went up.”
“Eh? What?” said Vaughan, coming slowly out of his book.
Dallas repeated his question.
“Yes,” said Vaughan, “got it somewhere on me. Haynes, Jarvis, and myself are going in. Only the Mutual has to stick up the list.”
It was the unwritten rule in Ward’s, as in most of the other Houses at the School, that none but the Head of the House had the right of placing notices on the House board.
“I know,” said Dallas. “I’ll go and buck him up now.”
“Don’t trouble. After prayers ’ll do.”
“It’s all right. No trouble. Whom did you say? Yourself, Haynes—”
“And Jarvis. Not that he’s any good. But the third string never matters much, and it’ll do him good to represent the House.”
“Right. I’ll go and unearth the Mutual.”
The result was that Galloway received another shock to his system.
“Don’t glare, Galloway. It’s rude,” said Dallas.
“Where’s Plunkett got to?” he added.
“Junior study,” said Galloway.
Dallas went to the junior study. There were Plunkett’s books on the table, but of their owner no signs were to be seen. The Mutual Friend had had the good sense to close the window after he had climbed through it, and Dallas did not suspect what had actually happened. He returned to Vaughan.
“The Mutual isn’t in either of the studies,” he said. “I didn’t want to spend the evening playing hide-and-seek with him, so I’ve come back.”
“It doesn’t matter, thanks all the same. Later on ’ll do just as well.”
“Do you object to the window going up?” asked Dallas. “There’s a bit of a froust on in here.”
“Rather not. Heave it up.”
Dallas hove it. He stood leaning out, looking towards the College buildings, which stood out black and clear against the April sky. From out of the darkness in the direction of Stapleton sounded the monotonous note of a corn-crake.
“Jove,” he said, “it’s a grand night. If I was at home now I shouldn’t be cooped up indoors like this.”
“Holidays in another week,” said Vaughan, joining him. “It is ripping, isn’t it? There’s something not half bad in the Coll. buildings on a night like this. I shall be jolly sorry to leave, in spite of Ward and the Mutual.”
“Same here, by Jove. We’ve each got a couple more years, though, if it comes to that. Hullo, prep’s over.”
The sound of footsteps began to be heard from the direction of the College. Nine had struck from the school clock, and the Great Hall was emptying.
“Your turn to read at prayers, Vaughan. Hullo, there’s the Mutual. Didn’t hear him unlock the door. Glad he has, though. Saves us trouble.”
“I must be going down to look up a bit to read. Do you remember when Harper read the same bit six days running? I shall never forget Ward’s pained expression. Harper explained that he thought the passage so beautiful that he couldn’t leave it.”
“Why don’t you try that tip?”
“Hardly. My reputation hasn’t quite the stamina for the test.”
Vaughan left the room. At the foot of the stairs he was met by the matron.
“Will you unlock the door, please, Vaughan,” she said, handing him a bunch of keys. “The boys will be coming in in a minute.”
“Unlock the door?” repeated Vaughan. “I thought it was unlocked. All right.”
“By Jove,” he thought, “the plot thickens. What is our only Plunkett doing out of the House when the door is locked, I wonder.”
Plunkett strolled in with the last batch of the returning crowd, wearing on his face the virtuous look of one who has been snatching a whiff of fresh air after a hard evening’s preparation.
“Oh, I say, Plunkett,” said Vaughan, when they met in the study after prayers, “I wanted to see you. Where have you been?”
“I have been in the junior study. Where did you think I had been?”
“Do you doubt my word?”
“I’ve the most exaggerated respect for your word, but you weren’t in the junior study at five to nine.”
“No, I went up to my dormitory about that time. You seem remarkably interested in my movements.”
“Only wanted to see you about the House gym. team. You might shove up the list to-night. Haynes, Jarvis, and myself.”
“I didn’t say anything to him,” said Vaughan to Dallas as they were going to their dormitories, “but, you know, there’s something jolly fishy about the Mutual. That door wasn’t unlocked when we saw him outside. I unlocked it myself. Seems to me the Mutual’s been having a little private bust of his own on the quiet.”
“That’s rum. He might have been out by the front way to see one of the beaks, though.”
“Well, even then he would be breaking rules. You aren’t allowed to go out after lock up without House beak’s leave. No, I find him guilty.”
“If only he’d go and get booked!” said Vaughan. “Then he might have to leave. But he won’t. No such luck.”
“No,” said Dallas. “Good-night.”
Certainly there was something mysterious about the matter.
(To be continued.)
Printer’s error corrected above:
In chapter IV, magazine had “Jolly sporting, though.” on a new indented line of dialogue rather than as a continuation of Tony’s speech.
I have not changed the instances of a 19th-century style of possessive pronouns, which treated them the same way as ordinary nouns (it’s, who’s) rather than using the declined forms for pronouns (its, whose). No doubt this was a P.S.M. preference, as I have not seen it elsewhere in Wodehouse.