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Mike: A Public School Story

CHAPTER XXXVIII

THE FIRE BRIGADE MEETING

Cricket is the great safety-valve.  If you like the game, and are in a position to play it at least twice a week, life can never be entirely grey.  As time went on, and his average for Lower Borlock reached the fifties and stayed there, Mike began, though he would not have admitted it, to enjoy himself.  It was not Wrykyn, but it was a very decent substitute.

The only really considerable element making for discomfort now was Mr. Downing.  By bad luck it was in his form that Mike had been placed on arrival; and Mr. Downing, never an easy form-master to get on with, proved more than usually difficult in his dealings with Mike.

They had taken a dislike to each other at their first meeting; and it grew with further acquaintance.  To Mike, Mr. Downing was all that a master ought not to be, fussy, pompous, and openly influenced in his official dealings with his form by his own private likes and dislikes.  To Mr. Downing, Mike was simply an unamiable loafer, who did nothing for the school and apparently had none of the instincts which should be implanted in the healthy boy.  Mr. Downing was rather strong on the healthy boy.

The two lived in a state of simmering hostility, punctuated at intervals by crises, which usually resulted in Lower Borlock having to play some unskilled labourer in place of their star batsman, employed doing “over-time.”

One of the most acute of these crises, and the most important, in that it was the direct cause of Mike’s appearance in Sedleigh cricket, had to do with the third weekly meeting of the School Fire Brigade.

It may be remembered that this well-supported institution was under Mr. Downing’s special care.  It was, indeed, his pet hobby and the apple of his eye.

Just as you had to join the Archaeological Society to secure the esteem of Mr. Outwood, so to become a member of the Fire Brigade was a safe passport to the regard of Mr. Downing.  To show a keenness for cricket was good, but to join the Fire Brigade was best of all.  The Brigade was carefully organised.  At its head was Mr. Downing, a sort of high priest; under him was a captain, and under the captain a vice-captain.  These two officials were those sportive allies, Stone and Robinson, of Outwood’s house, who, having perceived at a very early date the gorgeous opportunities for ragging which the Brigade offered to its members, had joined young and worked their way up.

Under them were the rank and file, about thirty in all, of whom perhaps seven were earnest workers, who looked on the Brigade in the right, or Downing, spirit.  The rest were entirely frivolous.

The weekly meetings were always full of life and excitement.

At this point it is as well to introduce Sammy to the reader.

Sammy, short for Sampson, was a young bull-terrier belonging to Mr. Downing.  If it is possible for a man to have two apples of his eye, Sammy was the other.  He was a large, light-hearted dog with a white coat, an engaging expression, the tongue of an ant-eater, and a manner which was a happy blend of hurricane and circular saw.  He had long legs, a tenor voice, and was apparently made of india-rubber.

Sammy was a great favourite in the school, and a particular friend of Mike’s, the Wrykynian being always a firm ally of every dog he met after two minutes’ acquaintance.

In passing, Jellicoe owned a clock-work rat, much in request during French lessons.

We will now proceed to the painful details.


The meetings of the Fire Brigade were held after school in Mr. Downing’s form-room.  The proceedings always began in the same way, by the reading of the minutes of the last meeting.  After that the entertainment varied according to whether the members happened to be fertile or not in ideas for the disturbing of the peace.

To-day they were in very fair form.

As soon as Mr. Downing had closed the minute-book, Wilson, of the School House, held up his hand.

“Well, Wilson?”

“Please, sir, couldn’t we have a uniform for the Brigade?”

“A uniform?” Mr. Downing pondered

“Red, with green stripes, sir,”

Red, with a thin green stripe, was the Sedleigh colour.

“Shall I put it to the vote, sir?” asked Stone.

“One moment, Stone.”

“Those in favour of the motion move to the left, those against it to the right.”

A scuffling of feet, a slamming of desk-lids and an upset blackboard, and the meeting had divided.

Mr. Downing rapped irritably on his desk.

“Sit down!” he said, “sit down!  I won’t have this noise and disturbance.  Stone, sit down—­Wilson, get back to your place.”

“Please, sir, the motion is carried by twenty-five votes to six.”

“Please, sir, may I go and get measured this evening?”

“Please, sir——­”

“Si-lence!  The idea of a uniform is, of course, out of the question.”

“Oo-oo-oo-oo, sir-r-r!”

“Be quiet! Entirely out of the question.  We cannot plunge into needless expense.  Stone, listen to me.  I cannot have this noise and disturbance!  Another time when a point arises it must be settled by a show of hands.  Well, Wilson?”

“Please, sir, may we have helmets?”

“Very useful as a protection against falling timbers, sir,” said Robinson.

“I don’t think my people would be pleased, sir, if they knew I was going out to fires without a helmet,” said Stone.

The whole strength of the company:  “Please, sir, may we have helmets?”

“Those in favour—­” began Stone.

Mr. Downing banged on his desk.  “Silence!  Silence!!  Silence!!!  Helmets are, of course, perfectly preposterous.”

“Oo-oo-oo-oo, sir-r-r!”

“But, sir, the danger!”

“Please, sir, the falling timbers!”

The Fire Brigade had been in action once and once only in the memory of man, and that time it was a haystack which had burnt itself out just as the rescuers had succeeded in fastening the hose to the hydrant.

“Silence!”

“Then, please, sir, couldn’t we have an honour cap?  It wouldn’t be expensive, and it would be just as good as a helmet for all the timbers that are likely to fall on our heads.”

Mr. Downing smiled a wry smile.

“Our Wilson is facetious,” he remarked frostily.

“Sir, no, sir!  I wasn’t facetious!  Or couldn’t we have footer-tops, like the first fifteen have?  They——­”

“Wilson, leave the room!”

“Sir, please, sir!”

“This moment, Wilson.  And,” as he reached the door, “do me one hundred lines.”

A pained “OO-oo-oo, sir-r-r,” was cut off by the closing door.

Mr. Downing proceeded to improve the occasion.  “I deplore this growing spirit of flippancy,” he said.  “I tell you I deplore it!  It is not right!  If this Fire Brigade is to be of solid use, there must be less of this flippancy.  We must have keenness.  I want you boys above all to be keen.  I—­What is that noise?”

From the other side of the door proceeded a sound like water gurgling from a bottle, mingled with cries half-suppressed, as if somebody were being prevented from uttering them by a hand laid over his mouth.  The sufferer appeared to have a high voice.

There was a tap at the door and Mike walked in.  He was not alone.  Those near enough to see, saw that he was accompanied by Jellicoe’s clock-work rat, which moved rapidly over the floor in the direction of the opposite wall.

“May I fetch a book from my desk, sir?” asked Mike.

“Very well—­be quick, Jackson; we are busy.”

Being interrupted in one of his addresses to the Brigade irritated Mr. Downing.

The muffled cries grew more distinct.

“What—­is—­that—­noise?” shrilled Mr. Downing.

“Noise, sir?” asked Mike, puzzled.

“I think it’s something outside the window, sir,” said Stone helpfully.

“A bird, I think, sir,” said Robinson.

“Don’t be absurd!” snapped Mr. Downing.  “It’s outside the door.  Wilson!”

“Yes, sir?” said a voice “off.”

“Are you making that whining noise?”

“Whining noise, sir?  No, sir, I’m not making a whining noise.”

“What sort of noise, sir?” inquired Mike, as many Wrykynians had asked before him.  It was a question invented by Wrykyn for use in just such a case as this.

“I do not propose,” said Mr. Downing acidly, “to imitate the noise; you can all hear it perfectly plainly.  It is a curious whining noise.”

“They are mowing the cricket field, sir,” said the invisible Wilson.  “Perhaps that’s it.”

“It may be one of the desks squeaking, sir,” put in Stone.  “They do sometimes.”

“Or somebody’s boots, sir,” added Robinson.

“Silence!  Wilson?”

“Yes, sir?” bellowed the unseen one.

“Don’t shout at me from the corridor like that.  Come in.”

“Yes, sir!”

As he spoke the muffled whining changed suddenly to a series of tenor shrieks, and the india-rubber form of Sammy bounded into the room like an excited kangaroo.

Willing hands had by this time deflected the clockwork rat from the wall to which it had been steering, and pointed it up the alley-way between the two rows of desks.  Mr. Downing, rising from his place, was just in time to see Sammy with a last leap spring on his prey and begin worrying it.

Chaos reigned.

“A rat!” shouted Robinson.

The twenty-three members of the Brigade who were not earnest instantly dealt with the situation, each in the manner that seemed proper to him.  Some leaped on to forms, others flung books, all shouted.  It was a stirring, bustling scene.

Sammy had by this time disposed of the clock-work rat, and was now standing, like Marius, among the ruins barking triumphantly.

The banging on Mr. Downing’s desk resembled thunder.  It rose above all the other noises till in time they gave up the competition and died away.

Mr. Downing shot out orders, threats, and penalties with the rapidity of a Maxim gun.

“Stone, sit down!  Donovan, if you do not sit down, you will be severely punished.  Henderson, one hundred lines for gross disorder!  Windham, the same!  Go to your seat, Vincent.  What are you doing, Broughton-Knight?  I will not have this disgraceful noise and disorder!  The meeting is at an end; go quietly from the room, all of you.  Jackson and Wilson, remain. Quietly, I said, Durand!  Don’t shuffle your feet in that abominable way.”

Crash!

“Wolferstan, I distinctly saw you upset that black-board with a movement of your hand—­one hundred lines.  Go quietly from the room, everybody.”

The meeting dispersed.

“Jackson and Wilson, come here.  What’s the meaning of this disgraceful conduct?  Put that dog out of the room, Jackson.”

Mike removed the yelling Sammy and shut the door on him.

“Well, Wilson?”

“Please, sir, I was playing with a clock-work rat——­”

“What business have you to be playing with clock-work rats?”

“Then I remembered,” said Mike, “that I had left my Horace in my desk, so I came in——­”

“And by a fluke, sir,” said Wilson, as one who tells of strange things, “the rat happened to be pointing in the same direction, so he came in, too.”

“I met Sammy on the gravel outside and he followed me.”

“I tried to collar him, but when you told me to come in, sir, I had to let him go, and he came in after the rat.”

It was plain to Mr. Downing that the burden of sin was shared equally by both culprits.  Wilson had supplied the rat, Mike the dog; but Mr. Downing liked Wilson and disliked Mike.  Wilson was in the Fire Brigade, frivolous at times, it was true, but nevertheless a member.  Also he kept wicket for the school.  Mike was a member of the Archaeological Society, and had refused to play cricket.

Mr. Downing allowed these facts to influence him in passing sentence.

“One hundred lines, Wilson,” he said.  “You may go.”

Wilson departed with the air of a man who has had a great deal of fun, and paid very little for it.

Mr. Downing turned to Mike.  “You will stay in on Saturday afternoon, Jackson; it will interfere with your Archaeological studies, I fear, but it may teach you that we have no room at Sedleigh for boys who spend their time loafing about and making themselves a nuisance.  We are a keen school; this is no place for boys who do nothing but waste their time.  That will do, Jackson.”

And Mr. Downing walked out of the room.  In affairs of this kind a master has a habit of getting the last word.

CHAPTER XXXIX

ACHILLES LEAVES HIS TENT

They say misfortunes never come singly.  As Mike sat brooding over his wrongs in his study, after the Sammy incident, Jellicoe came into the room, and, without preamble, asked for the loan of a sovereign.

When one has been in the habit of confining one’s lendings and borrowings to sixpences and shillings, a request for a sovereign comes as something of a blow.

“What on earth for?” asked Mike.

“I say, do you mind if I don’t tell you?  I don’t want to tell anybody.  The fact is, I’m in a beastly hole.”

“Oh, sorry,” said Mike.  “As a matter of fact, I do happen to have a quid.  You can freeze on to it, if you like.  But it’s about all I have got, so don’t be shy about paying it back.”

Jellicoe was profuse in his thanks, and disappeared in a cloud of gratitude.

Mike felt that Fate was treating him badly.  Being kept in on Saturday meant that he would be unable to turn out for Little Borlock against Claythorpe, the return match.  In the previous game he had scored ninety-eight, and there was a lob bowler in the Claythorpe ranks whom he was particularly anxious to meet again.  Having to yield a sovereign to Jellicoe—­why on earth did the man want all that?—­meant that, unless a carefully worded letter to his brother Bob at Oxford had the desired effect, he would be practically penniless for weeks.

In a gloomy frame of mind he sat down to write to Bob, who was playing regularly for the ’Varsity this season, and only the previous week had made a century against Sussex, so might be expected to be in a sufficiently softened mood to advance the needful. (Which, it may be stated at once, he did, by return of post.)

Mike was struggling with the opening sentences of this letter—­he was never a very ready writer—­when Stone and Robinson burst into the room.

Mike put down his pen, and got up.  He was in warlike mood, and welcomed the intrusion.  If Stone and Robinson wanted battle, they should have it.

But the motives of the expedition were obviously friendly.  Stone beamed.  Robinson was laughing.

“You’re a sportsman,” said Robinson.

“What did he give you?” asked Stone.

They sat down, Robinson on the table, Stone in Psmith’s deck-chair.  Mike’s heart warmed to them.  The little disturbance in the dormitory was a thing of the past, done with, forgotten, contemporary with Julius Caesar.  He felt that he, Stone and Robinson must learn to know and appreciate one another.

There was, as a matter of fact, nothing much wrong with Stone and Robinson.  They were just ordinary raggers of the type found at every public school, small and large.  They were absolutely free from brain.  They had a certain amount of muscle, and a vast store of animal spirits.  They looked on school life purely as a vehicle for ragging.  The Stones and Robinsons are the swashbucklers of the school world.  They go about, loud and boisterous, with a whole-hearted and cheerful indifference to other people’s feelings, treading on the toes of their neighbour and shoving him off the pavement, and always with an eye wide open for any adventure.  As to the kind of adventure, they are not particular so long as it promises excitement.  Sometimes they go through their whole school career without accident.  More often they run up against a snag in the shape of some serious-minded and muscular person who objects to having his toes trodden on and being shoved off the pavement, and then they usually sober down, to the mutual advantage of themselves and the rest of the community.

One’s opinion of this type of youth varies according to one’s point of view.  Small boys whom they had occasion to kick, either from pure high spirits or as a punishment for some slip from the narrow path which the ideal small boy should tread, regarded Stone and Robinson as bullies of the genuine “Eric” and “St. Winifred’s” brand.  Masters were rather afraid of them.  Adair had a smouldering dislike for them.  They were useful at cricket, but apt not to take Sedleigh as seriously as he could have wished.

As for Mike, he now found them pleasant company, and began to get out the tea-things.

“Those Fire Brigade meetings,” said Stone, “are a rag.  You can do what you like, and you never get more than a hundred lines.”

“Don’t you!” said Mike.  “I got Saturday afternoon.”

“What!”

“Is Wilson in too?”

“No.  He got a hundred lines.”

Stone and Robinson were quite concerned.

“What a beastly swindle!”

“That’s because you don’t play cricket.  Old Downing lets you do what you like if you join the Fire Brigade and play cricket.”

“‘We are, above all, a keen school,’” quoted Stone.  “Don’t you ever play?”

“I have played a bit,” said Mike.

“Well, why don’t you have a shot?  We aren’t such flyers here.  If you know one end of a bat from the other, you could get into some sort of a team.  Were you at school anywhere before you came here?”

“I was at Wrykyn.”

“Why on earth did you leave?” asked Stone.  “Were you sacked?”

“No.  My pater took me away.”

“Wrykyn?” said Robinson.  “Are you any relation of the Jacksons there—­J.  W. and the others?”

“Brother.”

“What!”

“Well, didn’t you play at all there?”

“Yes,” said Mike, “I did.  I was in the team three years, and I should have been captain this year, if I’d stopped on.”

There was a profound and gratifying sensation.  Stone gaped, and Robinson nearly dropped his tea-cup.

Stone broke the silence.

“But I mean to say—­look here!  What I mean is, why aren’t you playing?  Why don’t you play now?”

“I do.  I play for a village near here.  Place called Little Borlock.  A man who played against Wrykyn for the Free Foresters captains them.  He asked me if I’d like some games for them.”

“But why not for the school?”

“Why should I?  It’s much better fun for the village.  You don’t get ordered about by Adair, for a start.”

“Adair sticks on side,” said Stone.

“Enough for six,” agreed Robinson.

“By Jove,” said Stone, “I’ve got an idea.  My word, what a rag!”

“What’s wrong now?” inquired Mike politely.

“Why, look here.  To-morrow’s Mid-term Service day.  It’s nowhere near the middle of the term, but they always have it in the fourth week.  There’s chapel at half-past nine till half-past ten.  Then the rest of the day’s a whole holiday.  There are always house matches.  We’re playing Downing’s.  Why don’t you play and let’s smash them?”

“By Jove, yes,” said Robinson.  “Why don’t you?  They’re always sticking on side because they’ve won the house cup three years running.  I say, do you bat or bowl?”

“Bat.  Why?”

Robinson rocked on the table.

“Why, old Downing fancies himself as a bowler.  You must play, and knock the cover off him.”

“Masters don’t play in house matches, surely?”

“This isn’t a real house match.  Only a friendly.  Downing always turns out on Mid-term Service day.  I say, do play.”

“Think of the rag.”

“But the team’s full,” said Mike.

“The list isn’t up yet.  We’ll nip across to Barnes’ study, and make him alter it.”

They dashed out of the room.  From down the passage Mike heard yells of “Barnes!” the closing of a door, and a murmur of excited conversation.  Then footsteps returning down the passage.

Barnes appeared, on his face the look of one who has seen visions.

“I say,” he said, “is it true?  Or is Stone rotting?  About Wrykyn, I mean.”

“Yes, I was in the team.”

Barnes was an enthusiastic cricketer.  He studied his Wisden, and he had an immense respect for Wrykyn cricket.

“Are you the M. Jackson, then, who had an average of fifty-one point nought three last year?”

“Yes.”

Barnes’s manner became like that of a curate talking to a bishop.

“I say,” he said, “then—­er—­will you play against Downing’s to-morrow?”

“Rather,” said Mike.  “Thanks awfully.  Have some tea?”


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