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Mike: A Public School Story

CHAPTER XXIV

CAUGHT

“Got some rather bad news for you, I’m afraid,” began Mr. Appleby.  “I’ll smoke, if you don’t mind.  About Wyatt.”

“James!”

“I was sitting in my garden a few minutes ago, having a pipe before finishing the rest of my papers, and Wyatt dropped from the wall on to my herbaceous border.”

Mr. Appleby said this with a tinge of bitterness.  The thing still rankled.

“James!  In your garden!  Impossible.  Why, it is not a quarter of an hour since I left him in his dormitory.”

“He’s not there now.”

“You astound me, Appleby.  I am astonished.”

“So was I.”

“How is such a thing possible?  His window is heavily barred.”

“Bars can be removed.”

“You must have been mistaken.”

“Possibly,” said Mr. Appleby, a little nettled.  Gaping astonishment is always apt to be irritating.  “Let’s leave it at that, then.  Sorry to have disturbed you.”

“No, sit down, Appleby.  Dear me, this is most extraordinary.  Exceedingly so.  You are certain it was James?”

“Perfectly.  It’s like daylight out of doors.”

Mr. Wain drummed on the table with his fingers.

“What shall I do?”

Mr. Appleby offered no suggestion.

“I ought to report it to the headmaster.  That is certainly the course I should pursue.”

“I don’t see why.  It isn’t like an ordinary case.  You’re the parent.  You can deal with the thing directly.  If you come to think of it, a headmaster’s only a sort of middleman between boys and parents.  He plays substitute for the parent in his absence.  I don’t see why you should drag in the master at all here.”

“There is certainly something in what you say,” said Mr. Wain on reflection.

“A good deal.  Tackle the boy when he comes in, and have it out with him.  Remember that it must mean expulsion if you report him to the headmaster.  He would have no choice.  Everybody who has ever broken out of his house here and been caught has been expelled.  I should strongly advise you to deal with the thing yourself.”

“I will.  Yes.  You are quite right, Appleby.  That is a very good idea of yours.  You are not going?”

“Must.  Got a pile of examination papers to look over.  Good-night.”

“Good-night.”

Mr. Appleby made his way out of the window and through the gate into his own territory in a pensive frame of mind.  He was wondering what would happen.  He had taken the only possible course, and, if only Wain kept his head and did not let the matter get through officially to the headmaster, things might not be so bad for Wyatt after all.  He hoped they would not.  He liked Wyatt.  It would be a thousand pities, he felt, if he were to be expelled.  What would Wain do?  What would he do in a similar case?  It was difficult to say.  Probably talk violently for as long as he could keep it up, and then consider the episode closed.  He doubted whether Wain would have the common sense to do this.  Altogether it was very painful and disturbing, and he was taking a rather gloomy view of the assistant master’s lot as he sat down to finish off the rest of his examination papers.  It was not all roses, the life of an assistant master at a public school.  He had continually to be sinking his own individual sympathies in the claims of his duty.  Mr. Appleby was the last man who would willingly have reported a boy for enjoying a midnight ramble.  But he was the last man to shirk the duty of reporting him, merely because it was one decidedly not to his taste.

Mr. Wain sat on for some minutes after his companion had left, pondering over the news he had heard.  Even now he clung to the idea that Appleby had made some extraordinary mistake.  Gradually he began to convince himself of this.  He had seen Wyatt actually in bed a quarter of an hour before—­not asleep, it was true, but apparently on the verge of dropping off.  And the bars across the window had looked so solid....  Could Appleby have been dreaming?  Something of the kind might easily have happened.  He had been working hard, and the night was warm....

Then it occurred to him that he could easily prove or disprove the truth of his colleague’s statement by going to the dormitory and seeing if Wyatt were there or not.  If he had gone out, he would hardly have returned yet.

He took a candle, and walked quietly upstairs.

Arrived at his step-son’s dormitory, he turned the door-handle softly and went in.  The light of the candle fell on both beds.  Mike was there, asleep.  He grunted, and turned over with his face to the wall as the light shone on his eyes.  But the other bed was empty.  Appleby had been right.

If further proof had been needed, one of the bars was missing from the window.  The moon shone in through the empty space.

The house-master sat down quietly on the vacant bed.  He blew the candle out, and waited there in the semi-darkness, thinking.  For years he and Wyatt had lived in a state of armed neutrality, broken by various small encounters.  Lately, by silent but mutual agreement, they had kept out of each other’s way as much as possible, and it had become rare for the house-master to have to find fault officially with his step-son.  But there had never been anything even remotely approaching friendship between them.  Mr. Wain was not a man who inspired affection readily, least of all in those many years younger than himself.  Nor did he easily grow fond of others.  Wyatt he had regarded, from the moment when the threads of their lives became entangled, as a complete nuisance.

It was not, therefore, a sorrowful, so much as an exasperated, vigil that he kept in the dormitory.  There was nothing of the sorrowing father about his frame of mind.  He was the house-master about to deal with a mutineer, and nothing else.

This breaking-out, he reflected wrathfully, was the last straw.  Wyatt’s presence had been a nervous inconvenience to him for years.  The time had come to put an end to it.  It was with a comfortable feeling of magnanimity that he resolved not to report the breach of discipline to the headmaster.  Wyatt should not be expelled.  But he should leave, and that immediately.  He would write to the bank before he went to bed, asking them to receive his step-son at once; and the letter should go by the first post next day.  The discipline of the bank would be salutary and steadying.  And—­this was a particularly grateful reflection—­a fortnight annually was the limit of the holiday allowed by the management to its junior employees.

Mr. Wain had arrived at this conclusion, and was beginning to feel a little cramped, when Mike Jackson suddenly sat up.

“Hullo!” said Mike.

“Go to sleep, Jackson, immediately,” snapped the house-master.

Mike had often heard and read of people’s hearts leaping to their mouths, but he had never before experienced that sensation of something hot and dry springing in the throat, which is what really happens to us on receipt of a bad shock.  A sickening feeling that the game was up beyond all hope of salvation came to him.  He lay down again without a word.

What a frightful thing to happen!  How on earth had this come about?  What in the world had brought Wain to the dormitory at that hour?  Poor old Wyatt!  If it had upset him (Mike) to see the house-master in the room, what would be the effect of such a sight on Wyatt, returning from the revels at Neville-Smith’s!

And what could he do?  Nothing.  There was literally no way out.  His mind went back to the night when he had saved Wyatt by a brilliant coup.  The most brilliant of coups could effect nothing now.  Absolutely and entirely the game was up.


Every minute that passed seemed like an hour to Mike.  Dead silence reigned in the dormitory, broken every now and then by the creak of the other bed, as the house-master shifted his position.  Twelve boomed across the field from the school clock.  Mike could not help thinking what a perfect night it must be for him to be able to hear the strokes so plainly.  He strained his ears for any indication of Wyatt’s approach, but could hear nothing.  Then a very faint scraping noise broke the stillness, and presently the patch of moonlight on the floor was darkened.

At that moment Mr. Wain relit his candle.

The unexpected glare took Wyatt momentarily aback.  Mike saw him start.  Then he seemed to recover himself.  In a calm and leisurely manner he climbed into the room.

“James!” said Mr. Wain.  His voice sounded ominously hollow.

Wyatt dusted his knees, and rubbed his hands together.  “Hullo, is that you, father!” he said pleasantly.

CHAPTER XXV

MARCHING ORDERS

A silence followed.  To Mike, lying in bed, holding his breath, it seemed a long silence.  As a matter of fact it lasted for perhaps ten seconds.  Then Mr. Wain spoke.

“You have been out, James?”

It is curious how in the more dramatic moments of life the inane remark is the first that comes to us.

“Yes, sir,” said Wyatt.

“I am astonished.  Exceedingly astonished.”

“I got a bit of a start myself,” said Wyatt.

“I shall talk to you in my study.  Follow me there.”

“Yes, sir.”

He left the room, and Wyatt suddenly began to chuckle.

“I say, Wyatt!” said Mike, completely thrown off his balance by the events of the night.

Wyatt continued to giggle helplessly.  He flung himself down on his bed, rolling with laughter.  Mike began to get alarmed.

“It’s all right,” said Wyatt at last, speaking with difficulty.  “But, I say, how long had he been sitting there?”

“It seemed hours.  About an hour, I suppose, really.”

“It’s the funniest thing I’ve ever struck.  Me sweating to get in quietly, and all the time him camping out on my bed!”

“But look here, what’ll happen?”

Wyatt sat up.

“That reminds me.  Suppose I’d better go down.”

“What’ll he do, do you think?”

“Ah, now, what!”

“But, I say, it’s awful.  What’ll happen?”

“That’s for him to decide.  Speaking at a venture, I should say——­”

“You don’t think——?”

“The boot.  The swift and sudden boot.  I shall be sorry to part with you, but I’m afraid it’s a case of ‘Au revoir, my little Hyacinth.’  We shall meet at Philippi.  This is my Moscow.  To-morrow I shall go out into the night with one long, choking sob.  Years hence a white-haired bank-clerk will tap at your door when you’re a prosperous professional cricketer with your photograph in Wisden.  That’ll be me.  Well, I suppose I’d better go down.  We’d better all get to bed some time to-night.  Don’t go to sleep.”

“Not likely.”

“I’ll tell you all the latest news when I come back.  Where are me slippers?  Ha, ’tis well!  Lead on, then, minions.  I follow.”


In the study Mr. Wain was fumbling restlessly with his papers when Wyatt appeared.

“Sit down, James,” he said.

Wyatt sat down.  One of his slippers fell off with a clatter.  Mr. Wain jumped nervously.

“Only my slipper,” explained Wyatt.  “It slipped.”

Mr. Wain took up a pen, and began to tap the table.

“Well, James?”

Wyatt said nothing.

“I should be glad to hear your explanation of this disgraceful matter.”

“The fact is——­” said Wyatt.

“Well?”

“I haven’t one, sir.”

“What were you doing out of your dormitory, out of the house, at that hour?”

“I went for a walk, sir.”

“And, may I inquire, are you in the habit of violating the strictest school rules by absenting yourself from the house during the night?”

“Yes, sir.”

“What?”

“Yes, sir.”

“This is an exceedingly serious matter.”

Wyatt nodded agreement with this view.

“Exceedingly.”

The pen rose and fell with the rapidity of the cylinder of a motor-car.  Wyatt, watching it, became suddenly aware that the thing was hypnotising him.  In a minute or two he would be asleep.

“I wish you wouldn’t do that, father.  Tap like that, I mean.  It’s sending me to sleep.”

“James!”

“It’s like a woodpecker.”

“Studied impertinence——­”

“I’m very sorry.  Only it was sending me off.”

Mr. Wain suspended tapping operations, and resumed the thread of his discourse.

“I am sorry, exceedingly, to see this attitude in you, James.  It is not fitting.  It is in keeping with your behaviour throughout.  Your conduct has been lax and reckless in the extreme.  It is possible that you imagine that the peculiar circumstances of our relationship secure you from the penalties to which the ordinary boy——­”

“No, sir.”

“I need hardly say,” continued Mr. Wain, ignoring the interruption, “that I shall treat you exactly as I should treat any other member of my house whom I had detected in the same misdemeanour.”

“Of course,” said Wyatt, approvingly.

“I must ask you not to interrupt me when I am speaking to you, James.  I say that your punishment will be no whit less severe than would be that of any other boy.  You have repeatedly proved yourself lacking in ballast and a respect for discipline in smaller ways, but this is a far more serious matter.  Exceedingly so.  It is impossible for me to overlook it, even were I disposed to do so.  You are aware of the penalty for such an action as yours?”

“The sack,” said Wyatt laconically.

“It is expulsion.  You must leave the school.  At once.”

Wyatt nodded.

“As you know, I have already secured a nomination for you in the London and Oriental Bank.  I shall write to-morrow to the manager asking him to receive you at once——­”

“After all, they only gain an extra fortnight of me.”

“You will leave directly I receive his letter.  I shall arrange with the headmaster that you are withdrawn privately——­”

Not the sack?”

“Withdrawn privately.  You will not go to school to-morrow.  Do you understand?  That is all.  Have you anything to say?”

Wyatt reflected.

“No, I don’t think——­”

His eye fell on a tray bearing a decanter and a syphon.

“Oh, yes,” he said.  “Can’t I mix you a whisky and soda, father, before I go off to bed?”


“Well?” said Mike.

Wyatt kicked off his slippers, and began to undress.

“What happened?”

“We chatted.”

“Has he let you off?”

“Like a gun.  I shoot off almost immediately.  To-morrow I take a well-earned rest away from school, and the day after I become the gay young bank-clerk, all amongst the ink and ledgers.”

Mike was miserably silent.

“Buck up,” said Wyatt cheerfully.  “It would have happened anyhow in another fortnight.  So why worry?”

Mike was still silent.  The reflection was doubtless philosophic, but it failed to comfort him.

CHAPTER XXVI

THE AFTERMATH

Bad news spreads quickly.  By the quarter to eleven interval next day the facts concerning Wyatt and Mr. Wain were public property.  Mike, as an actual spectator of the drama, was in great request as an informant.  As he told the story to a group of sympathisers outside the school shop, Burgess came up, his eyes rolling in a fine frenzy.

“Anybody seen young—­oh, here you are.  What’s all this about Jimmy Wyatt?  They’re saying he’s been sacked, or some rot.”

“So he has—­at least, he’s got to leave.”

“What?  When?”

“He’s left already.  He isn’t coming to school again.”

Burgess’s first thought, as befitted a good cricket captain, was for his team.

“And the Ripton match on Saturday!”

Nobody seemed to have anything except silent sympathy at his command.

“Dash the man!  Silly ass!  What did he want to do it for!  Poor old Jimmy, though!” he added after a pause.  “What rot for him!”

“Beastly,” agreed Mike.

“All the same,” continued Burgess, with a return to the austere manner of the captain of cricket, “he might have chucked playing the goat till after the Ripton match.  Look here, young Jackson, you’ll turn out for fielding with the first this afternoon.  You’ll play on Saturday.”

“All right,” said Mike, without enthusiasm.  The Wyatt disaster was too recent for him to feel much pleasure at playing against Ripton vice his friend, withdrawn.

Bob was the next to interview him.  They met in the cloisters.

“Hullo, Mike!” said Bob.  “I say, what’s all this about Wyatt?”

“Wain caught him getting back into the dorm. last night after Neville-Smith’s, and he’s taken him away from the school.”

“What’s he going to do?  Going into that bank straight away?”

“Yes.  You know, that’s the part he bars most.  He’d have been leaving anyhow in a fortnight, you see; only it’s awful rot for a chap like Wyatt to have to go and froust in a bank for the rest of his life.”

“He’ll find it rather a change, I expect.  I suppose you won’t be seeing him before he goes?”

“I shouldn’t think so.  Not unless he comes to the dorm. during the night.  He’s sleeping over in Wain’s part of the house, but I shouldn’t be surprised if he nipped out after Wain has gone to bed.  Hope he does, anyway.”

“I should like to say good-bye.  But I don’t suppose it’ll be possible.”

They separated in the direction of their respective form-rooms.  Mike felt bitter and disappointed at the way the news had been received.  Wyatt was his best friend, his pal; and it offended him that the school should take the tidings of his departure as they had done.  Most of them who had come to him for information had expressed a sort of sympathy with the absent hero of his story, but the chief sensation seemed to be one of pleasurable excitement at the fact that something big had happened to break the monotony of school routine.  They treated the thing much as they would have treated the announcement that a record score had been made in first-class cricket.  The school was not so much regretful as comfortably thrilled.  And Burgess had actually cursed before sympathising.  Mike felt resentful towards Burgess.  As a matter of fact, the cricket captain wrote a letter to Wyatt during preparation that night which would have satisfied even Mike’s sense of what was fit.  But Mike had no opportunity of learning this.

There was, however, one exception to the general rule, one member of the school who did not treat the episode as if it were merely an interesting and impersonal item of sensational news.  Neville-Smith heard of what had happened towards the end of the interval, and rushed off instantly in search of Mike.  He was too late to catch him before he went to his form-room, so he waited for him at half-past twelve, when the bell rang for the end of morning school.

“I say, Jackson, is this true about old Wyatt?”

Mike nodded.

“What happened?”

Mike related the story for the sixteenth time.  It was a melancholy pleasure to have found a listener who heard the tale in the right spirit.  There was no doubt about Neville-Smith’s interest and sympathy.  He was silent for a moment after Mike had finished.

“It was all my fault,” he said at length.  “If it hadn’t been for me, this wouldn’t have happened.  What a fool I was to ask him to my place!  I might have known he would be caught.”

“Oh, I don’t know,” said Mike.

“It was absolutely my fault.”

Mike was not equal to the task of soothing Neville-Smith’s wounded conscience.  He did not attempt it.  They walked on without further conversation till they reached Wain’s gate, where Mike left him.  Neville-Smith proceeded on his way, plunged in meditation.

The result of which meditation was that Burgess got a second shock before the day was out.  Bob, going over to the nets rather late in the afternoon, came upon the captain of cricket standing apart from his fellow men with an expression on his face that spoke of mental upheavals on a vast scale.

“What’s up?” asked Bob.

“Nothing much,” said Burgess, with a forced and grisly calm.  “Only that, as far as I can see, we shall play Ripton on Saturday with a sort of second eleven.  You don’t happen to have got sacked or anything, by the way, do you?”

“What’s happened now?”

“Neville-Smith.  In extra on Saturday.  That’s all.  Only our first- and second-change bowlers out of the team for the Ripton match in one day.  I suppose by to-morrow half the others’ll have gone, and we shall take the field on Saturday with a scratch side of kids from the Junior School.”

“Neville-Smith!  Why, what’s he been doing?”

“Apparently he gave a sort of supper to celebrate his getting his first, and it was while coming back from that that Wyatt got collared.  Well, I’m blowed if Neville-Smith doesn’t toddle off to the Old Man after school to-day and tell him the whole yarn!  Said it was all his fault.  What rot!  Sort of thing that might have happened to any one.  If Wyatt hadn’t gone to him, he’d probably have gone out somewhere else.”

“And the Old Man shoved him in extra?”

“Next two Saturdays.”

“Are Ripton strong this year?” asked Bob, for lack of anything better to say.

“Very, from all accounts.  They whacked the M.C.C.  Jolly hot team of M.C.C. too.  Stronger than the one we drew with.”

“Oh, well, you never know what’s going to happen at cricket.  I may hold a catch for a change.”

Burgess grunted.

Bob went on his way to the nets.  Mike was just putting on his pads.

“I say, Mike,” said Bob.  “I wanted to see you.  It’s about Wyatt.  I’ve thought of something.”

“What’s that?”

“A way of getting him out of that bank.  If it comes off, that’s to say.”

“By Jove, he’d jump at anything.  What’s the idea?”

“Why shouldn’t he get a job of sorts out in the Argentine?  There ought to be heaps of sound jobs going there for a chap like Wyatt.  He’s a jolly good shot, to start with.  I shouldn’t wonder if it wasn’t rather a score to be able to shoot out there.  And he can ride, I know.”

“By Jove, I’ll write to father to-night.  He must be able to work it, I should think.  He never chucked the show altogether, did he?”

Mike, as most other boys of his age would have been, was profoundly ignorant as to the details by which his father’s money had been, or was being, made.  He only knew vaguely that the source of revenue had something to do with the Argentine.  His brother Joe had been born in Buenos Ayres; and once, three years ago, his father had gone over there for a visit, presumably on business.  All these things seemed to show that Mr. Jackson senior was a useful man to have about if you wanted a job in that Eldorado, the Argentine Republic.

As a matter of fact, Mike’s father owned vast tracts of land up country, where countless sheep lived and had their being.  He had long retired from active superintendence of his estate.  Like Mr. Spenlow, he had a partner, a stout fellow with the work-taint highly developed, who asked nothing better than to be left in charge.  So Mr. Jackson had returned to the home of his fathers, glad to be there again.  But he still had a decided voice in the ordering of affairs on the ranches, and Mike was going to the fountain-head of things when he wrote to his father that night, putting forward Wyatt’s claims to attention and ability to perform any sort of job with which he might be presented.

The reflection that he had done all that could be done tended to console him for the non-appearance of Wyatt either that night or next morning—­a non-appearance which was due to the simple fact that he passed that night in a bed in Mr. Wain’s dressing-room, the door of which that cautious pedagogue, who believed in taking no chances, locked from the outside on retiring to rest.


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