Your real, devastating row has many points of resemblance with a prairie fire. A man on a prairie lights his pipe, and throws away the match. The flame catches a bunch of dry grass, and, before any one can realise what is happening, sheets of fire are racing over the country; and the interested neighbours are following their example. (I have already compared a row with a thunderstorm; but both comparisons may stand. In dealing with so vast a matter as a row there must be no stint.)
The tomato which hit Wyatt in the face was the thrown-away match. But for the unerring aim of the town marksman great events would never have happened. A tomato is a trivial thing (though it is possible that the man whom it hits may not think so), but in the present case, it was the direct cause of epoch-making trouble.
The tomato hit Wyatt. Wyatt, with others, went to look for the thrower. The remnants of the thrower’s friends were placed in the pond, and “with them,” as they say in the courts of law, Police Constable Alfred Butt.
Following the chain of events, we find Mr. Butt, having prudently changed his clothes, calling upon the headmaster.
The headmaster was grave and sympathetic; Mr. Butt fierce and revengeful.
The imagination of the force is proverbial. Nurtured on motor-cars and fed with stop-watches, it has become world-famous. Mr. Butt gave free rein to it.
“Threw me in, they did, sir. Yes, sir.”
“Threw you in!”
“Yes, sir. Plop!” said Mr. Butt, with a certain sad relish.
“Really, really!” said the headmaster. “Indeed! This is—dear me! I shall certainly—They threw you in!—Yes, I shall—certainly——”
Encouraged by this appreciative reception of his story, Mr. Butt started it again, right from the beginning.
“I was on my beat, sir, and I thought I heard a disturbance. I says to myself, ‘’Allo,’ I says, ’a frakkus. Lots of them all gathered together, and fighting.’ I says, beginning to suspect something, ‘Wot’s this all about, I wonder?’ I says. ’Blow me if I don’t think it’s a frakkus.’ And,” concluded Mr. Butt, with the air of one confiding a secret, “and it was a frakkus!”
“And these boys actually threw you into the pond?”
“Plop, sir! Mrs. Butt is drying my uniform at home at this very moment as we sit talking here, sir. She says to me, ’Why, whatever ’ave you been a-doing? You’re all wet.’ And,” he added, again with the confidential air, “I was wet, too. Wringin’ wet.”
The headmaster’s frown deepened.
“And you are certain that your assailants were boys from the school?”
“Sure as I am that I’m sitting here, sir. They all ’ad their caps on their heads, sir.”
“I have never heard of such a thing. I can hardly believe that it is possible. They actually seized you, and threw you into the water——”
“Splish, sir!” said the policeman, with a vividness of imagery both surprising and gratifying.
The headmaster tapped restlessly on the floor with his foot.
“How many boys were there?” he asked.
“Couple of ’undred, sir,” said Mr. Butt promptly.
“It was dark, sir, and I couldn’t see not to say properly; but if you ask me my frank and private opinion I should say couple of ’undred.”
“H’m—Well, I will look into the matter at once. They shall be punished.”
“Yes—Thank you, constable. Good-night.”
The headmaster of Wrykyn was not a motorist. Owing to this disadvantage he made a mistake. Had he been a motorist, he would have known that statements by the police in the matter of figures must be divided by any number from two to ten, according to discretion. As it was, he accepted Constable Butt’s report almost as it stood. He thought that he might possibly have been mistaken as to the exact numbers of those concerned in his immersion; but he accepted the statement in so far as it indicated that the thing had been the work of a considerable section of the school, and not of only one or two individuals. And this made all the difference to his method of dealing with the affair. Had he known how few were the numbers of those responsible for the cold in the head which subsequently attacked Constable Butt, he would have asked for their names, and an extra lesson would have settled the entire matter.
As it was, however, he got the impression that the school, as a whole, was culpable, and he proceeded to punish the school as a whole.
It happened that, about a week before the pond episode, a certain member of the Royal Family had recovered from a dangerous illness, which at one time had looked like being fatal. No official holiday had been given to the schools in honour of the recovery, but Eton and Harrow had set the example, which was followed throughout the kingdom, and Wrykyn had come into line with the rest. Only two days before the O.W.’s matches the headmaster had given out a notice in the hall that the following Friday would be a whole holiday; and the school, always ready to stop work, had approved of the announcement exceedingly.
The step which the headmaster decided to take by way of avenging Mr. Butt’s wrongs was to stop this holiday.
He gave out a notice to that effect on the Monday.
The school was thunderstruck. It could not understand it. The pond affair had, of course, become public property; and those who had had nothing to do with it had been much amused. “There’ll be a frightful row about it,” they had said, thrilled with the pleasant excitement of those who see trouble approaching and themselves looking on from a comfortable distance without risk or uneasiness. They were not malicious. They did not want to see their friends in difficulties. But there is no denying that a row does break the monotony of a school term. The thrilling feeling that something is going to happen is the salt of life....
And here they were, right in it after all. The blow had fallen, and crushed guilty and innocent alike.
The school’s attitude can be summed up in three words. It was one vast, blank, astounded “Here, I say!”
Everybody was saying it, though not always in those words. When condensed, everybody’s comment on the situation came to that.
There is something rather pathetic in the indignation of a school. It must always, or nearly always, expend itself in words, and in private at that. Even the consolation of getting on to platforms and shouting at itself is denied to it. A public school has no Hyde Park.
There is every probability—in fact, it is certain—that, but for one malcontent, the school’s indignation would have been allowed to simmer down in the usual way, and finally become a mere vague memory.
The malcontent was Wyatt. He had been responsible for the starting of the matter, and he proceeded now to carry it on till it blazed up into the biggest thing of its kind ever known at Wrykyn—the Great Picnic.
Any one who knows the public schools, their ironbound conservatism, and, as a whole, intense respect for order and authority, will appreciate the magnitude of his feat, even though he may not approve of it. Leaders of men are rare. Leaders of boys are almost unknown. It requires genius to sway a school.
It would be an absorbing task for a psychologist to trace the various stages by which an impossibility was changed into a reality. Wyatt’s coolness and matter-of-fact determination were his chief weapons. His popularity and reputation for lawlessness helped him. A conversation which he had with Neville-Smith, a day-boy, is typical of the way in which he forced his point of view on the school.
Neville-Smith was thoroughly representative of the average Wrykynian. He could play his part in any minor “rag” which interested him, and probably considered himself, on the whole, a daring sort of person. But at heart he had an enormous respect for authority. Before he came to Wyatt, he would not have dreamed of proceeding beyond words in his revolt. Wyatt acted on him like some drug.
Neville-Smith came upon Wyatt on his way to the nets. The notice concerning the holiday had only been given out that morning, and he was full of it. He expressed his opinion of the headmaster freely and in well-chosen words. He said it was a swindle, that it was all rot, and that it was a beastly shame. He added that something ought to be done about it.
“What are you going to do?” asked Wyatt.
“Well,” said Neville-Smith a little awkwardly, guiltily conscious that he had been frothing, and scenting sarcasm, “I don’t suppose one can actually do anything.”
“Why not?” said Wyatt.
“What do you mean?”
“Why don’t you take the holiday?”
“What? Not turn up on Friday!”
“Yes. I’m not going to.”
Neville-Smith stopped and stared. Wyatt was unmoved.
“I simply sha’n’t go to school.”
“No, but, I say, ragging barred. Are you just going to cut off, though the holiday’s been stopped?”
“That’s the idea.”
“You’ll get sacked.”
“I suppose so. But only because I shall be the only one to do it. If the whole school took Friday off, they couldn’t do much. They couldn’t sack the whole school.”
“By Jove, nor could they! I say!”
They walked on, Neville-Smith’s mind in a whirl, Wyatt whistling.
“I say,” said Neville-Smith after a pause. “It would be a bit of a rag.”
“Do you think the chaps would do it?”
“If they understood they wouldn’t be alone.”
“Shall I ask some of them?” said Neville-Smith.
“I could get quite a lot, I believe.”
“That would be a start, wouldn’t it? I could get a couple of dozen from Wain’s. We should be forty or fifty strong to start with.”
“I say, what a score, wouldn’t it be?”
“I’ll speak to the chaps to-night, and let you know.”
“All right,” said Wyatt. “Tell them that I shall be going anyhow. I should be glad of a little company.”
The school turned in on the Thursday night in a restless, excited way. There were mysterious whisperings and gigglings. Groups kept forming in corners apart, to disperse casually and innocently on the approach of some person in authority.
An air of expectancy permeated each of the houses.
Morning school at Wrykyn started at nine o’clock. At that hour there was a call-over in each of the form-rooms. After call-over the forms proceeded to the Great Hall for prayers.
A strangely desolate feeling was in the air at nine o’clock on the Friday morning. Sit in the grounds of a public school any afternoon in the summer holidays, and you will get exactly the same sensation of being alone in the world as came to the dozen or so day-boys who bicycled through the gates that morning. Wrykyn was a boarding-school for the most part, but it had its leaven of day-boys. The majority of these lived in the town, and walked to school. A few, however, whose homes were farther away, came on bicycles. One plutocrat did the journey in a motor-car, rather to the scandal of the authorities, who, though unable to interfere, looked askance when compelled by the warning toot of the horn to skip from road to pavement. A form-master has the strongest objection to being made to skip like a young ram by a boy to whom he has only the day before given a hundred lines for shuffling his feet in form.
It seemed curious to these cyclists that there should be nobody about. Punctuality is the politeness of princes, but it was not a leading characteristic of the school; and at three minutes to nine, as a general rule, you might see the gravel in front of the buildings freely dotted with sprinters, trying to get in in time to answer their names.
It was curious that there should be nobody about to-day. A wave of reform could scarcely have swept through the houses during the night.
And yet—where was everybody?
Time only deepened the mystery. The form-rooms, like the gravel, were empty.
The cyclists looked at one another in astonishment. What could it mean?
It was an occasion on which sane people wonder if their brains are not playing them some unaccountable trick.
“I say,” said Willoughby, of the Lower Fifth, to Brown, the only other occupant of the form-room, “the old man did stop the holiday to-day, didn’t he?”
“Just what I was going to ask you,” said Brown. “It’s jolly rum. I distinctly remember him giving it out in hall that it was going to be stopped because of the O.W.’s day row.”
“So do I. I can’t make it out. Where is everybody?”
“They can’t all be late.”
“Somebody would have turned up by now. Why, it’s just striking.”
“Perhaps he sent another notice round the houses late last night, saying it was on again all right. I say, what a swindle if he did. Some one might have let us know. I should have got up an hour later.”
“So should I.”
“Hullo, here is somebody.”
It was the master of the Lower Fifth, Mr. Spence. He walked briskly into the room, as was his habit. Seeing the obvious void, he stopped in his stride, and looked puzzled.
“Willoughby. Brown. Are you the only two here? Where is everybody?”
“Please, sir, we don’t know. We were just wondering.”
“Have you seen nobody?”
“We were just wondering, sir, if the holiday had been put on again, after all.”
“I’ve heard nothing about it. I should have received some sort of intimation if it had been.”
“Do you mean to say that you have seen nobody, Brown?”
“Only about a dozen fellows, sir. The usual lot who come on bikes, sir.”
“None of the boarders?”
“No, sir. Not a single one.”
“This is extraordinary.”
Mr. Spence pondered.
“Well,” he said, “you two fellows had better go along up to Hall. I shall go to the Common Room and make inquiries. Perhaps, as you say, there is a holiday to-day, and the notice was not brought to me.”
Mr. Spence told himself, as he walked to the Common Room, that this might be a possible solution of the difficulty. He was not a house-master, and lived by himself in rooms in the town. It was just conceivable that they might have forgotten to tell him of the change in the arrangements.
But in the Common Room the same perplexity reigned. Half a dozen masters were seated round the room, and a few more were standing. And they were all very puzzled.
A brisk conversation was going on. Several voices hailed Mr. Spence as he entered.
“Hullo, Spence. Are you alone in the world too?”
“Any of your boys turned up, Spence?”
“You in the same condition as we are, Spence?”
Mr. Spence seated himself on the table.
“Haven’t any of your fellows turned up, either?” he said.
“When I accepted the honourable post of Lower Fourth master in this abode of sin,” said Mr. Seymour, “it was on the distinct understanding that there was going to be a Lower Fourth. Yet I go into my form-room this morning, and what do I find? Simply Emptiness, and Pickersgill II. whistling ‘The Church Parade,’ all flat. I consider I have been hardly treated.”
“I have no complaint to make against Brown and Willoughby, as individuals,” said Mr. Spence; “but, considered as a form, I call them short measure.”
“I confess that I am entirely at a loss,” said Mr. Shields precisely. “I have never been confronted with a situation like this since I became a schoolmaster.”
“It is most mysterious,” agreed Mr. Wain, plucking at his beard. “Exceedingly so.”
The younger masters, notably Mr. Spence and Mr. Seymour, had begun to look on the thing as a huge jest.
“We had better teach ourselves,” said Mr. Seymour. “Spence, do a hundred lines for laughing in form.”
The door burst open.
“Hullo, here’s another scholastic Little Bo-Peep,” said Mr. Seymour. “Well, Appleby, have you lost your sheep, too?”
“You don’t mean to tell me——” began Mr. Appleby.
“I do,” said Mr. Seymour. “Here we are, fifteen of us, all good men and true, graduates of our Universities, and, as far as I can see, if we divide up the boys who have come to school this morning on fair share-and-share-alike lines, it will work out at about two-thirds of a boy each. Spence, will you take a third of Pickersgill II.?”
“I want none of your charity,” said Mr. Spence loftily. “You don’t seem to realise that I’m the best off of you all. I’ve got two in my form. It’s no good offering me your Pickersgills. I simply haven’t room for them.”
“What does it all mean?” exclaimed Mr. Appleby.
“If you ask me,” said Mr. Seymour, “I should say that it meant that the school, holding the sensible view that first thoughts are best, have ignored the head’s change of mind, and are taking their holiday as per original programme.”
“They surely cannot——!”
“Well, where are they then?”
“Do you seriously mean that the entire school has—has rebelled?”
“‘Nay, sire,’” quoted Mr. Spence, “‘a revolution!’”
“I never heard of such a thing!”
“We’re making history,” said Mr. Seymour.
“It will be rather interesting,” said Mr. Spence, “to see how the head will deal with a situation like this. One can rely on him to do the statesman-like thing, but I’m bound to say I shouldn’t care to be in his place. It seems to me these boys hold all the cards. You can’t expel a whole school. There’s safety in numbers. The thing is colossal.”
“It is deplorable,” said Mr. Wain, with austerity. “Exceedingly so.”
“I try to think so,” said Mr. Spence, “but it’s a struggle. There’s a Napoleonic touch about the business that appeals to one. Disorder on a small scale is bad, but this is immense. I’ve never heard of anything like it at any public school. When I was at Winchester, my last year there, there was pretty nearly a revolution because the captain of cricket was expelled on the eve of the Eton match. I remember making inflammatory speeches myself on that occasion. But we stopped on the right side of the line. We were satisfied with growling. But this——!”
Mr. Seymour got up.
“It’s an ill wind,” he said. “With any luck we ought to get the day off, and it’s ideal weather for a holiday. The head can hardly ask us to sit indoors, teaching nobody. If I have to stew in my form-room all day, instructing Pickersgill II., I shall make things exceedingly sultry for that youth. He will wish that the Pickersgill progeny had stopped short at his elder brother. He will not value life. In the meantime, as it’s already ten past, hadn’t we better be going up to Hall to see what the orders of the day are?”
“Look at Shields,” said Mr. Spence. “He might be posing for a statue to be called ‘Despair!’ He reminds me of Macduff. Macbeth, Act iv., somewhere near the end. ’What, all my pretty chickens, at one fell swoop?’ That’s what Shields is saying to himself.”
“It’s all very well to make a joke of it, Spence,” said Mr. Shields querulously, “but it is most disturbing. Most.”
“Exceedingly,” agreed Mr. Wain.
The bereaved company of masters walked on up the stairs that led to the Great Hall.
If the form-rooms had been lonely, the Great Hall was doubly, trebly, so. It was a vast room, stretching from side to side of the middle block, and its ceiling soared up into a distant dome. At one end was a dais and an organ, and at intervals down the room stood long tables. The panels were covered with the names of Wrykynians who had won scholarships at Oxford and Cambridge, and of Old Wrykynians who had taken first in Mods or Greats, or achieved any other recognised success, such as a place in the Indian Civil Service list. A silent testimony, these panels, to the work the school had done in the world.
Nobody knew exactly how many the Hall could hold, when packed to its fullest capacity. The six hundred odd boys at the school seemed to leave large gaps unfilled.
This morning there was a mere handful, and the place looked worse than empty.
The Sixth Form were there, and the school prefects. The Great Picnic had not affected their numbers. The Sixth stood by their table in a solid group. The other tables were occupied by ones and twos. A buzz of conversation was going on, which did not cease when the masters filed into the room and took their places. Every one realised by this time that the biggest row in Wrykyn history was well under way; and the thing had to be discussed.
In the Masters’ library Mr. Wain and Mr. Shields, the spokesmen of the Common Room, were breaking the news to the headmaster.
The headmaster was a man who rarely betrayed emotion in his public capacity. He heard Mr. Shields’s rambling remarks, punctuated by Mr. Wain’s “Exceedinglys,” to an end. Then he gathered up his cap and gown.
“You say that the whole school is absent?” he remarked quietly.
Mr. Shields, in a long-winded flow of words, replied that that was what he did say.
“Ah!” said the headmaster.
There was a silence.
“’M!” said the headmaster.
There was another silence.
“Ye—e—s!” said the headmaster.
He then led the way into the Hall.
Conversation ceased abruptly as he entered. The school, like an audience at a theatre when the hero has just appeared on the stage, felt that the serious interest of the drama had begun. There was a dead silence at every table as he strode up the room and on to the dais.
There was something Titanic in his calmness. Every eye was on his face as he passed up the Hall, but not a sign of perturbation could the school read. To judge from his expression, he might have been unaware of the emptiness around him.
The master who looked after the music of the school, and incidentally accompanied the hymn with which prayers at Wrykyn opened, was waiting, puzzled, at the foot of the dais. It seemed improbable that things would go on as usual, and he did not know whether he was expected to be at the organ, or not. The headmaster’s placid face reassured him. He went to his post.
The hymn began. It was a long hymn, and one which the school liked for its swing and noise. As a rule, when it was sung, the Hall re-echoed. To-day, the thin sound of the voices had quite an uncanny effect. The organ boomed through the deserted room.
The school, or the remnants of it, waited impatiently while the prefect whose turn it was to read stammered nervously through the lesson. They were anxious to get on to what the Head was going to say at the end of prayers. At last it was over. The school waited, all ears.
The headmaster bent down from the dais and called to Firby-Smith, who was standing in his place with the Sixth.
The Gazeka, blushing warmly, stepped forward.
“Bring me a school list, Firby-Smith,” said the headmaster.
The Gazeka was wearing a pair of very squeaky boots that morning. They sounded deafening as he walked out of the room.
The school waited.
Presently a distant squeaking was heard, and Firby-Smith returned, bearing a large sheet of paper.
The headmaster thanked him, and spread it out on the reading-desk.
Then, calmly, as if it were an occurrence of every day, he began to call the roll.
“Here, sir,” from a table at the end of the room. Allenby was a prefect, in the Science Sixth.
The headmaster made a mark against his name with a pencil.
He began to call the names more rapidly.
“Arlington. Arthur. Ashe. Aston.”
“Here, sir,” in a shrill treble from the rider in motorcars.
The headmaster made another tick.
The list came to an end after what seemed to the school an unconscionable time, and he rolled up the paper again, and stepped to the edge of the dais.
“All boys not in the Sixth Form,” he said, “will go to their form-rooms and get their books and writing-materials, and return to the Hall.”
("Good work,” murmured Mr. Seymour to himself. “Looks as if we should get that holiday after all.”)
“The Sixth Form will go to their form-room as usual. I should like to speak to the masters for a moment.”
He nodded dismissal to the school.
The masters collected on the daïs.
“I find that I shall not require your services to-day,” said the headmaster. “If you will kindly set the boys in your forms some work that will keep them occupied, I will look after them here. It is a lovely day,” he added, with a smile, “and I am sure you will all enjoy yourselves a great deal more in the open air.”
“That,” said Mr. Seymour to Mr. Spence, as they went downstairs, “is what I call a genuine sportsman.”
“My opinion neatly expressed,” said Mr. Spence. “Come on the river. Or shall we put up a net, and have a knock?”
“River, I think. Meet you at the boat-house.”
“All right. Don’t be long.”
“If every day were run on these lines, school-mastering wouldn’t be such a bad profession. I wonder if one could persuade one’s form to run amuck as a regular thing.”
“Pity one can’t. It seems to me the ideal state of things. Ensures the greatest happiness of the greatest number.”
“I say! Suppose the school has gone up the river, too, and we meet them! What shall we do?”
“Thank them,” said Mr. Spence, “most kindly. They’ve done us well.”
The school had not gone up the river. They had marched in a solid body, with the school band at their head playing Sousa, in the direction of Worfield, a market town of some importance, distant about five miles. Of what they did and what the natives thought of it all, no very distinct records remain. The thing is a tradition on the countryside now, an event colossal and heroic, to be talked about in the tap-room of the village inn during the long winter evenings. The papers got hold of it, but were curiously misled as to the nature of the demonstration. This was the fault of the reporter on the staff of the Worfield Intelligencer and Farmers’ Guide, who saw in the thing a legitimate “march-out,” and, questioning a straggler as to the reason for the expedition and gathering foggily that the restoration to health of the Eminent Person was at the bottom of it, said so in his paper. And two days later, at about the time when Retribution had got seriously to work, the Daily Mail reprinted the account, with comments and elaborations, and headed it “Loyal Schoolboys.” The writer said that great credit was due to the headmaster of Wrykyn for his ingenuity in devising and organising so novel a thanksgiving celebration. And there was the usual conversation between “a rosy-cheeked lad of some sixteen summers” and “our representative,” in which the rosy-cheeked one spoke most kindly of the head-master, who seemed to be a warm personal friend of his.
The remarkable thing about the Great Picnic was its orderliness. Considering that five hundred and fifty boys were ranging the country in a compact mass, there was wonderfully little damage done to property. Wyatt’s genius did not stop short at organising the march. In addition, he arranged a system of officers which effectually controlled the animal spirits of the rank and file. The prompt and decisive way in which rioters were dealt with during the earlier stages of the business proved a wholesome lesson to others who would have wished to have gone and done likewise. A spirit of martial law reigned over the Great Picnic. And towards the end of the day fatigue kept the rowdy-minded quiet.
At Worfield the expedition lunched. It was not a market-day, fortunately, or the confusion in the narrow streets would have been hopeless. On ordinary days Worfield was more or less deserted. It is astonishing that the resources of the little town were equal to satisfying the needs of the picnickers. They descended on the place like an army of locusts.
Wyatt, as generalissimo of the expedition, walked into the “Grasshopper and Ant,” the leading inn of the town.
“Anything I can do for you, sir?” inquired the landlord politely.
“Yes, please,” said Wyatt, “I want lunch for five hundred and fifty.”
That was the supreme moment in mine host’s life. It was his big subject of conversation ever afterwards. He always told that as his best story, and he always ended with the words, “You could ha’ knocked me down with a feather!”
The first shock over, the staff of the “Grasshopper and Ant” bustled about. Other inns were called upon for help. Private citizens rallied round with bread, jam, and apples. And the army lunched sumptuously.
In the early afternoon they rested, and as evening began to fall, the march home was started.
At the school, net practice was just coming to an end when, faintly, as the garrison of Lucknow heard the first skirl of the pipes of the relieving force, those on the grounds heard the strains of the school band and a murmur of many voices. Presently the sounds grew more distinct, and up the Wrykyn road came marching the vanguard of the column, singing the school song. They looked weary but cheerful.
As the army drew near to the school, it melted away little by little, each house claiming its representatives. At the school gates only a handful were left.
Bob Jackson, walking back to Donaldson’s, met Wyatt at the gate, and gazed at him, speechless.
“Hullo,” said Wyatt, “been to the nets? I wonder if there’s time for a ginger-beer before the shop shuts.”