At the door of the senior block Burgess, going out, met Bob coming in, hurrying, as he was rather late.
“Congratulate you, Bob,” he said; and passed on.
Bob stared after him. As he stared, Trevor came out of the block.
“Congratulate you, Bob.”
“What’s the matter now?”
“Haven’t you seen?”
“Why the list. You’ve got your first.”
“My—what? you’re rotting.”
“No, I’m not. Go and look.”
The thing seemed incredible. Had he dreamed that conversation between Spence and Burgess on the pavilion steps? Had he mixed up the names? He was certain that he had heard Spence give his verdict for Mike, and Burgess agree with him.
Just then, Mike, feeling very ill, came down the steps. He caught sight of Bob and was passing with a feeble grin, when something told him that this was one of those occasions on which one has to show a Red Indian fortitude and stifle one’s private feelings.
“Congratulate you, Bob,” he said awkwardly.
“Thanks awfully,” said Bob, with equal awkwardness. Trevor moved on, delicately. This was no place for him. Bob’s face was looking like a stuffed frog’s, which was Bob’s way of trying to appear unconcerned and at his ease, while Mike seemed as if at any moment he might burst into tears. Spectators are not wanted at these awkward interviews.
There was a short silence.
“Jolly glad you’ve got it,” said Mike.
“I believe there’s a mistake. I swear I heard Burgess say to Spence——”
“He changed his mind probably. No reason why he shouldn’t.”
“Well, it’s jolly rummy.”
Bob endeavoured to find consolation.
“Anyhow, you’ll have three years in the first. You’re a cert. for next year.”
“Hope so,” said Mike, with such manifest lack of enthusiasm that Bob abandoned this line of argument. When one has missed one’s colours, next year seems a very, very long way off.
They moved slowly through the cloisters, neither speaking, and up the stairs that led to the Great Hall. Each was gratefully conscious of the fact that prayers would be beginning in another minute, putting an end to an uncomfortable situation.
“Heard from home lately?” inquired Mike.
Bob snatched gladly at the subject.
“Got a letter from mother this morning. I showed you the last one, didn’t I? I’ve only just had time to skim through this one, as the post was late, and I only got it just as I was going to dash across to school. Not much in it. Here it is, if you want to read it.”
“Thanks. It’ll be something to do during Math.”
“Marjory wrote, too, for the first time in her life. Haven’t had time to look at it yet.”
“After you. Sure it isn’t meant for me? She owes me a letter.”
“No, it’s for me all right. I’ll give it you in the interval.”
The arrival of the headmaster put an end to the conversation.
By a quarter to eleven Mike had begun to grow reconciled to his fate. The disappointment was still there, but it was lessened. These things are like kicks on the shin. A brief spell of agony, and then a dull pain of which we are not always conscious unless our attention is directed to it, and which in time disappears altogether. When the bell rang for the interval that morning, Mike was, as it were, sitting up and taking nourishment.
He was doing this in a literal as well as in a figurative sense when Bob entered the school shop.
Bob appeared curiously agitated. He looked round, and, seeing Mike, pushed his way towards him through the crowd. Most of those present congratulated him as he passed; and Mike noticed, with some surprise, that, in place of the blushful grin which custom demands from the man who is being congratulated on receipt of colours, there appeared on his face a worried, even an irritated look. He seemed to have something on his mind.
“Hullo,” said Mike amiably. “Got that letter?”
“Yes. I’ll show it you outside.”
“Why not here?”
Mike resented the tone, but followed. Evidently something had happened to upset Bob seriously. As they went out on the gravel, somebody congratulated Bob again, and again Bob hardly seemed to appreciate it.’
Bob led the way across the gravel and on to the first terrace. When they had left the crowd behind, he stopped.
“What’s up?” asked Mike.
“I want you to read——”
They both turned. The headmaster was standing on the edge of the gravel.
Bob pushed the letter into Mike’s hands.
“Read that,” he said, and went up to the headmaster. Mike heard the words “English Essay,” and, seeing that the conversation was apparently going to be one of some length, capped the headmaster and walked off. He was just going to read the letter when the bell rang. He put the missive in his pocket, and went to his form-room wondering what Marjory could have found to say to Bob to touch him on the raw to such an extent. She was a breezy correspondent, with a style of her own, but usually she entertained rather than upset people. No suspicion of the actual contents of the letter crossed his mind.
He read it during school, under the desk; and ceased to wonder. Bob had had cause to look worried. For the thousand and first time in her career of crime Marjory had been and done it! With a strong hand she had shaken the cat out of the bag, and exhibited it plainly to all whom it might concern.
There was a curious absence of construction about the letter. Most authors of sensational matter nurse their bomb-shell, lead up to it, and display it to the best advantage. Marjory dropped hers into the body of the letter, and let it take its chance with the other news-items.
“DEAR BOB” (the letter ran),—
“I hope you are quite well. I am quite well. Phyllis has a cold, Ella cheeked Mademoiselle yesterday, and had to write out ’Little Girls must be polite and obedient’ a hundred times in French. She was jolly sick about it. I told her it served her right. Joe made eighty-three against Lancashire. Reggie made a duck. Have you got your first? If you have, it will be all through Mike. Uncle John told Father that Mike pretended to hurt his wrist so that you could play instead of him for the school, and Father said it was very sporting of Mike but nobody must tell you because it wouldn’t be fair if you got your first for you to know that you owed it to Mike and I wasn’t supposed to hear but I did because I was in the room only they didn’t know I was (we were playing hide-and-seek and I was hiding) so I’m writing to tell you,
“From your affectionate sister
There followed a P.S.
“I’ll tell you what you ought to do. I’ve been reading a jolly good book called ‘The Boys of Dormitory Two,’ and the hero’s an awfully nice boy named Lionel Tremayne, and his friend Jack Langdale saves his life when a beast of a boatman who’s really employed by Lionel’s cousin who wants the money that Lionel’s going to have when he grows up stuns him and leaves him on the beach to drown. Well, Lionel is going to play for the school against Loamshire, and it’s the match of the season, but he goes to the headmaster and says he wants Jack to play instead of him. Why don’t you do that?
“P.P.S.—This has been a frightful fag to write.”
For the life of him Mike could not help giggling as he pictured what Bob’s expression must have been when his brother read this document. But the humorous side of the thing did not appeal to him for long. What should he say to Bob? What would Bob say to him? Dash it all, it made him look such an awful ass! Anyhow, Bob couldn’t do much. In fact he didn’t see that he could do anything. The team was filled up, and Burgess was not likely to alter it. Besides, why should he alter it? Probably he would have given Bob his colours anyhow. Still, it was beastly awkward. Marjory meant well, but she had put her foot right in it. Girls oughtn’t to meddle with these things. No girl ought to be taught to write till she came of age. And Uncle John had behaved in many respects like the Complete Rotter. If he was going to let out things like that, he might at least have whispered them, or looked behind the curtains to see that the place wasn’t chock-full of female kids. Confound Uncle John!
Throughout the dinner-hour Mike kept out of Bob’s way. But in a small community like a school it is impossible to avoid a man for ever. They met at the nets.
“Well?” said Bob.
“How do you mean?” said Mike.
“Did you read it?”
“Well, is it all rot, or did you—you know what I mean—sham a crocked wrist?”
“Yes,” said Mike, “I did.”
Bob stared gloomily at his toes.
“I mean,” he said at last, apparently putting the finishing-touch to some train of thought, “I know I ought to be grateful, and all that. I suppose I am. I mean it was jolly good of you—Dash it all,” he broke off hotly, as if the putting his position into words had suddenly showed him how inglorious it was, “what did you want to do it for? What was the idea? What right have you got to go about playing Providence over me? Dash it all, it’s like giving a fellow money without consulting him.”
“I didn’t think you’d ever know. You wouldn’t have if only that ass Uncle John hadn’t let it out.”
“How did he get to know? Why did you tell him?”
“He got it out of me. I couldn’t choke him off. He came down when you were away at Geddington, and would insist on having a look at my arm, and naturally he spotted right away there was nothing the matter with it. So it came out; that’s how it was.”
Bob scratched thoughtfully at the turf with a spike of his boot.
“Of course, it was awfully decent——”
Then again the monstrous nature of the affair came home to him.
“But what did you do it for? Why should you rot up your own chances to give me a look in?”
“Oh, I don’t know.... You know, you did me a jolly good turn.”
“I don’t remember. When?”
“That Firby-Smith business.”
“What about it?”
“Well, you got me out of a jolly bad hole.”
“Oh, rot! And do you mean to tell me it was simply because of that——?”
Mike appeared to him in a totally new light. He stared at him as if he were some strange creature hitherto unknown to the human race. Mike shuffled uneasily beneath the scrutiny.
“Anyhow, it’s all over now,” Mike said, “so I don’t see what’s the point of talking about it.”
“I’m hanged if it is. You don’t think I’m going to sit tight and take my first as if nothing had happened?”
“What can you do? The list’s up. Are you going to the Old Man to ask him if I can play, like Lionel Tremayne?”
The hopelessness of the situation came over Bob like a wave. He looked helplessly at Mike.
“Besides,” added Mike, “I shall get in next year all right. Half a second, I just want to speak to Wyatt about something.”
He sidled off.
“Well, anyhow,” said Bob to himself, “I must see Burgess about it.”
There are situations in life which are beyond one. The sensible man realises this, and slides out of such situations, admitting himself beaten. Others try to grapple with them, but it never does any good. When affairs get into a real tangle, it is best to sit still and let them straighten themselves out. Or, if one does not do that, simply to think no more about them. This is Philosophy. The true philosopher is the man who says “All right,” and goes to sleep in his arm-chair. One’s attitude towards Life’s Little Difficulties should be that of the gentleman in the fable, who sat down on an acorn one day, and happened to doze. The warmth of his body caused the acorn to germinate, and it grew so rapidly that, when he awoke, he found himself sitting in the fork of an oak, sixty feet from the ground. He thought he would go home, but, finding this impossible, he altered his plans. “Well, well,” he said, “if I cannot compel circumstances to my will, I can at least adapt my will to circumstances. I decide to remain here.” Which he did, and had a not unpleasant time. The oak lacked some of the comforts of home, but the air was splendid and the view excellent.
To-day’s Great Thought for Young Readers. Imitate this man.
Bob should have done so, but he had not the necessary amount of philosophy. He still clung to the idea that he and Burgess, in council, might find some way of making things right for everybody. Though, at the moment, he did not see how eleven caps were to be divided amongst twelve candidates in such a way that each should have one.
And Burgess, consulted on the point, confessed to the same inability to solve the problem. It took Bob at least a quarter of an hour to get the facts of the case into the captain’s head, but at last Burgess grasped the idea of the thing. At which period he remarked that it was a rum business.
“Very rum,” Bob agreed. “Still, what you say doesn’t help us out much, seeing that the point is, what’s to be done?”
“Why do anything?”
Burgess was a philosopher, and took the line of least resistance, like the man in the oak-tree.
“But I must do something,” said Bob. “Can’t you see how rotten it is for me?”
“I don’t see why. It’s not your fault. Very sporting of your brother and all that, of course, though I’m blowed if I’d have done it myself; but why should you do anything? You’re all right. Your brother stood out of the team to let you in it, and here you are, in it. What’s he got to grumble about?”
“He’s not grumbling. It’s me.”
“What’s the matter with you? Don’t you want your first?”
“Not like this. Can’t you see what a rotten position it is for me?”
“Don’t you worry. You simply keep on saying you’re all right. Besides, what do you want me to do? Alter the list?”
But for the thought of those unspeakable outsiders, Lionel Tremayne and his headmaster, Bob might have answered this question in the affirmative; but he had the public-school boy’s terror of seeming to pose or do anything theatrical. He would have done a good deal to put matters right, but he could not do the self-sacrificing young hero business. It would not be in the picture. These things, if they are to be done at school, have to be carried through stealthily, after Mike’s fashion.
“I suppose you can’t very well, now it’s up. Tell you what, though, I don’t see why I shouldn’t stand out of the team for the Ripton match. I could easily fake up some excuse.”
“I do. I don’t know if it’s occurred to you, but the idea is rather to win the Ripton match, if possible. So that I’m a lot keen on putting the best team into the field. Sorry if it upsets your arrangements in any way.”
“You know perfectly well Mike’s every bit as good as me.”
“He isn’t so keen.”
“What do you mean?”
“Fielding. He’s a young slacker.”
When Burgess had once labelled a man as that, he did not readily let the idea out of his mind.
“Slacker? What rot! He’s as keen as anything.”
“Anyhow, his keenness isn’t enough to make him turn out for house-fielding. If you really want to know, that’s why you’ve got your first instead of him. You sweated away, and improved your fielding twenty per cent.; and I happened to be talking to Firby-Smith and found that young Mike had been shirking his, so out he went. A bad field’s bad enough, but a slack field wants skinning.”
“Smith oughtn’t to have told you.”
“Well, he did tell me. So you see how it is. There won’t be any changes from the team I’ve put up on the board.”
“Oh, all right,” said Bob. “I was afraid you mightn’t be able to do anything. So long.”
“Mind the step,” said Burgess.
At about the time when this conversation was in progress, Wyatt, crossing the cricket-field towards the school shop in search of something fizzy that might correct a burning thirst acquired at the nets, espied on the horizon a suit of cricket flannels surmounted by a huge, expansive grin. As the distance between them lessened, he discovered that inside the flannels was Neville-Smith’s body and behind the grin the rest of Neville-Smith’s face. Their visit to the nets not having coincided in point of time, as the Greek exercise books say, Wyatt had not seen his friend since the list of the team had been posted on the board, so he proceeded to congratulate him on his colours.
“Thanks,” said Neville-Smith, with a brilliant display of front teeth.
“Not the word for it. I feel like—I don’t know what.”
“I’ll tell you what you look like, if that’s any good to you. That slight smile of yours will meet behind, if you don’t look out, and then the top of your head’ll come off.”
“I don’t care. I’ve got my first, whatever happens. Little Willie’s going to buy a nice new cap and a pretty striped jacket all for his own self! I say, thanks for reminding me. Not that you did, but supposing you had. At any rate, I remember what it was I wanted to say to you. You know what I was saying to you about the bust I meant to have at home in honour of my getting my first, if I did, which I have—well, anyhow it’s to-night. You can roll up, can’t you?”
“Delighted. Anything for a free feed in these hard times. What time did you say it was?”
“Eleven. Make it a bit earlier, if you like.”
“No, eleven’ll do me all right.”
“How are you going to get out?”
“‘Stone walls do not a prison make, nor iron bars a cage.’ That’s what the man said who wrote the libretto for the last set of Latin Verses we had to do. I shall manage it.”
“They ought to allow you a latch-key.”
“Yes, I’ve often thought of asking my pater for one. Still, I get on very well. Who are coming besides me?”
“No boarders. They all funked it.”
“The race is degenerating.”
“Said it wasn’t good enough.”
“The school is going to the dogs. Who did you ask?”
“Clowes was one. Said he didn’t want to miss his beauty-sleep. And Henfrey backed out because he thought the risk of being sacked wasn’t good enough.”
“That’s an aspect of the thing that might occur to some people. I don’t blame him—I might feel like that myself if I’d got another couple of years at school.”
“But one or two day-boys are coming. Clephane is, for one. And Beverley. We shall have rather a rag. I’m going to get the things now.”
“When I get to your place—I don’t believe I know the way, now I come to think of it—what do I do? Ring the bell and send in my card? or smash the nearest window and climb in?”
“Don’t make too much row, for goodness sake. All the servants’ll have gone to bed. You’ll see the window of my room. It’s just above the porch. It’ll be the only one lighted up. Heave a pebble at it, and I’ll come down.”
“So will the glass—with a run, I expect. Still, I’ll try to do as little damage as possible. After all, I needn’t throw a brick.”
“You will turn up, won’t you?”
“Nothing shall stop me.”
As Wyatt was turning away, a sudden compunction seized upon Neville-Smith. He called him back.
“I say, you don’t think it’s too risky, do you? I mean, you always are breaking out at night, aren’t you? I don’t want to get you into a row.”
“Oh, that’s all right,” said Wyatt. “Don’t you worry about me. I should have gone out anyhow to-night.”
“You may not know it,” said Wyatt to Mike in the dormitory that night, “but this is the maddest, merriest day of all the glad New Year.”
Mike could not help thinking that for himself it was the very reverse, but he did not state his view of the case.
“What’s up?” he asked.
“Neville-Smith’s giving a meal at his place in honour of his getting his first. I understand the preparations are on a scale of the utmost magnificence. No expense has been spared. Ginger-beer will flow like water. The oldest cask of lemonade has been broached; and a sardine is roasting whole in the market-place.”
“Are you going?”
“If I can tear myself away from your delightful society. The kick-off is fixed for eleven sharp. I am to stand underneath his window and heave bricks till something happens. I don’t know if he keeps a dog. If so, I shall probably get bitten to the bone.”
“When are you going to start?”
“About five minutes after Wain has been round the dormitories to see that all’s well. That ought to be somewhere about half-past ten.”
“Don’t go getting caught.”
“I shall do my little best not to be. Rather tricky work, though, getting back. I’ve got to climb two garden walls, and I shall probably be so full of Malvoisie that you’ll be able to hear it swishing about inside me. No catch steeple-chasing if you’re like that. They’ve no thought for people’s convenience here. Now at Bradford they’ve got studies on the ground floor, the windows looking out over the boundless prairie. No climbing or steeple-chasing needed at all. All you have to do is to open the window and step out. Still, we must make the best of things. Push us over a pinch of that tooth-powder of yours. I’ve used all mine.”
Wyatt very seldom penetrated further than his own garden on the occasions when he roamed abroad at night. For cat-shooting the Wain spinneys were unsurpassed. There was one particular dustbin where one might be certain of flushing a covey any night; and the wall by the potting-shed was a feline club-house.
But when he did wish to get out into the open country he had a special route which he always took. He climbed down from the wall that ran beneath the dormitory window into the garden belonging to Mr. Appleby, the master who had the house next to Mr. Wain’s. Crossing this, he climbed another wall, and dropped from it into a small lane which ended in the main road leading to Wrykyn town.
This was the route which he took to-night. It was a glorious July night, and the scent of the flowers came to him with a curious distinctness as he let himself down from the dormitory window. At any other time he might have made a lengthy halt, and enjoyed the scents and small summer noises, but now he felt that it would be better not to delay. There was a full moon, and where he stood he could be seen distinctly from the windows of both houses. They were all dark, it is true, but on these occasions it was best to take no risks.
He dropped cautiously into Appleby’s garden, ran lightly across it, and was in the lane within a minute.
There he paused, dusted his trousers, which had suffered on the two walls, and strolled meditatively in the direction of the town. Half-past ten had just chimed from the school clock. He was in plenty of time.
“What a night!” he said to himself, sniffing as he walked.
Now it happened that he was not alone in admiring the beauty of that particular night. At ten-fifteen it had struck Mr. Appleby, looking out of his study into the moonlit school grounds, that a pipe in the open would make an excellent break in his night’s work. He had acquired a slight headache as the result of correcting a batch of examination papers, and he thought that an interval of an hour in the open air before approaching the half-dozen or so papers which still remained to be looked at might do him good. The window of his study was open, but the room had got hot and stuffy. Nothing like a little fresh air for putting him right.
For a few moments he debated the rival claims of a stroll in the cricket-field and a seat in the garden. Then he decided on the latter. The little gate in the railings opposite his house might not be open, and it was a long way round to the main entrance. So he took a deck-chair which leaned against the wall, and let himself out of the back door.
He took up his position in the shadow of a fir-tree with his back to the house. From here he could see the long garden. He was fond of his garden, and spent what few moments he could spare from work and games pottering about it. He had his views as to what the ideal garden should be, and he hoped in time to tinker his own three acres up to the desired standard. At present there remained much to be done. Why not, for instance, take away those laurels at the end of the lawn, and have a flower-bed there instead? Laurels lasted all the year round, true, whereas flowers died and left an empty brown bed in the winter, but then laurels were nothing much to look at at any time, and a garden always had a beastly appearance in winter, whatever you did to it. Much better have flowers, and get a decent show for one’s money in summer at any rate.
The problem of the bed at the end of the lawn occupied his complete attention for more than a quarter of an hour, at the end of which period he discovered that his pipe had gone out.
He was just feeling for his matches to relight it when Wyatt dropped with a slight thud into his favourite herbaceous border.
The surprise, and the agony of feeling that large boots were trampling among his treasures kept him transfixed for just the length of time necessary for Wyatt to cross the garden and climb the opposite wall. As he dropped into the lane, Mr. Appleby recovered himself sufficiently to emit a sort of strangled croak, but the sound was too slight to reach Wyatt. That reveller was walking down the Wrykyn road before Mr. Appleby had left his chair.
It is an interesting point that it was the gardener rather than the schoolmaster in Mr. Appleby that first awoke to action. It was not the idea of a boy breaking out of his house at night that occurred to him first as particularly heinous; it was the fact that the boy had broken out via his herbaceous border. In four strides he was on the scene of the outrage, examining, on hands and knees, with the aid of the moonlight, the extent of the damage done.
As far as he could see, it was not serious. By a happy accident Wyatt’s boots had gone home to right and left of precious plants but not on them. With a sigh of relief Mr. Appleby smoothed over the cavities, and rose to his feet.
At this point it began to strike him that the episode affected him as a schoolmaster also.
In that startled moment when Wyatt had suddenly crossed his line of vision, he had recognised him. The moon had shone full on his face as he left the flowerbed. There was no doubt in his mind as to the identity of the intruder.
He paused, wondering how he should act. It was not an easy question. There was nothing of the spy about Mr. Appleby. He went his way openly, liked and respected by boys and masters. He always played the game. The difficulty here was to say exactly what the game was. Sentiment, of course, bade him forget the episode, treat it as if it had never happened. That was the simple way out of the difficulty. There was nothing unsporting about Mr. Appleby. He knew that there were times when a master might, without blame, close his eyes or look the other way. If he had met Wyatt out of bounds in the day-time, and it had been possible to convey the impression that he had not seen him, he would have done so. To be out of bounds is not a particularly deadly sin. A master must check it if it occurs too frequently, but he may use his discretion.
Breaking out at night, however, was a different thing altogether. It was on another plane. There are times when a master must waive sentiment, and remember that he is in a position of trust, and owes a duty directly to his headmaster, and indirectly, through the headmaster, to the parents. He receives a salary for doing this duty, and, if he feels that sentiment is too strong for him, he should resign in favour of some one of tougher fibre.
This was the conclusion to which Mr. Appleby came over his relighted pipe. He could not let the matter rest where it was.
In ordinary circumstances it would have been his duty to report the affair to the headmaster but in the present case he thought that a slightly different course might be pursued. He would lay the whole thing before Mr. Wain, and leave him to deal with it as he thought best. It was one of the few cases where it was possible for an assistant master to fulfil his duty to a parent directly, instead of through the agency of the headmaster.
Knocking out the ashes of his pipe against a tree, he folded his deck-chair and went into the house. The examination papers were spread invitingly on the table, but they would have to wait. He turned down his lamp, and walked round to Wain’s.
There was a light in one of the ground-floor windows. He tapped on the window, and the sound of a chair being pushed back told him that he had been heard. The blind shot up, and he had a view of a room littered with books and papers, in the middle of which stood Mr. Wain, like a sea-beast among rocks.
Mr. Wain recognised his visitor and opened the window. Mr. Appleby could not help feeling how like Wain it was to work on a warm summer’s night in a hermetically sealed room. There was always something queer and eccentric about Wyatt’s step-father.
“Can I have a word with you, Wain?” he said.
“Appleby! Is there anything the matter? I was startled when you tapped. Exceedingly so.”
“Sorry,” said Mr. Appleby. “Wouldn’t have disturbed you, only it’s something important. I’ll climb in through here, shall I? No need to unlock the door.” And, greatly to Mr. Wain’s surprise and rather to his disapproval, Mr. Appleby vaulted on to the window-sill, and squeezed through into the room.