The line of action which Psmith had called Stout Denial is an excellent line to adopt, especially if you really are innocent, but it does not lead to anything in the shape of a bright and snappy dialogue between accuser and accused. Both Mike and the headmaster were oppressed by a feeling that the situation was difficult. The atmosphere was heavy, and conversation showed a tendency to flag. The headmaster had opened brightly enough, with a summary of the evidence which Mr. Downing had laid before him, but after that a massive silence had been the order of the day. There is nothing in this world quite so stolid and uncommunicative as a boy who has made up his mind to be stolid and uncommunicative; and the headmaster, as he sat and looked at Mike, who sat and looked past him at the bookshelves, felt awkward. It was a scene which needed either a dramatic interruption or a neat exit speech. As it happened, what it got was the dramatic interruption.
The headmaster was just saying, “I do not think you fully realise, Jackson, the extent to which appearances—” —which was practically going back to the beginning and starting again—when there was a knock at the door. A voice without said, “Mr. Downing to see you, sir,” and the chief witness for the prosecution burst in.
“I would not have interrupted you,” said Mr. Downing, “but——”
“Not at all, Mr. Downing. Is there anything I can——?”
“I have discovered—I have been informed—In short, it was not Jackson, who committed the—who painted my dog.”
Mike and the headmaster both looked at the speaker. Mike with a feeling of relief—for Stout Denial, unsupported by any weighty evidence, is a wearing game to play—the headmaster with astonishment.
“Not Jackson?” said the headmaster.
“No. It was a boy in the same house. Smith.”
Psmith! Mike was more than surprised. He could not believe it. There is nothing which affords so clear an index to a boy’s character as the type of rag which he considers humorous. Between what is a rag and what is merely a rotten trick there is a very definite line drawn. Masters, as a rule, do not realise this, but boys nearly always do. Mike could not imagine Psmith doing a rotten thing like covering a housemaster’s dog with red paint, any more than he could imagine doing it himself. They had both been amused at the sight of Sammy after the operation, but anybody, except possibly the owner of the dog, would have thought it funny at first. After the first surprise, their feeling had been that it was a scuggish thing to have done and beastly rough luck on the poor brute. It was a kid’s trick. As for Psmith having done it, Mike simply did not believe it.
“Smith!” said the headmaster. “What makes you think that?”
“Simply this,” said Mr. Downing, with calm triumph, “that the boy himself came to me a few moments ago and confessed.”
Mike was conscious of a feeling of acute depression. It did not make him in the least degree jubilant, or even thankful, to know that he himself was cleared of the charge. All he could think of was that Psmith was done for. This was bound to mean the sack. If Psmith had painted Sammy, it meant that Psmith had broken out of his house at night: and it was not likely that the rules about nocturnal wandering were less strict at Sedleigh than at any other school in the kingdom. Mike felt, if possible, worse than he had felt when Wyatt had been caught on a similar occasion. It seemed as if Fate had a special grudge against his best friends. He did not make friends very quickly or easily, though he had always had scores of acquaintances—and with Wyatt and Psmith he had found himself at home from the first moment he had met them.
He sat there, with a curious feeling of having swallowed a heavy weight, hardly listening to what Mr. Downing was saying. Mr. Downing was talking rapidly to the headmaster, who was nodding from time to time.
Mike took advantage of a pause to get up. “May I go, sir?” he said.
“Certainly, Jackson, certainly,” said the Head. “Oh, and er—, if you are going back to your house, tell Smith that I should like to see him.”
He had reached the door, when again there was a knock.
“Come in,” said the headmaster.
It was Adair.
Adair was breathing rather heavily, as if he had been running.
“It was about Sammy—Sampson, sir,” he said, looking at Mr. Downing.
“Ah, we know—. Well, Adair, what did you wish to say?”
“It wasn’t Jackson who did it, sir.”
“No, no, Adair. So Mr. Downing——”
“It was Dunster, sir.”
Terrific sensation! The headmaster gave a sort of strangled yelp of astonishment. Mr. Downing leaped in his chair. Mike’s eyes opened to their fullest extent.
There was almost a wail in the headmaster’s voice. The situation had suddenly become too much for him. His brain was swimming. That Mike, despite the evidence against him, should be innocent, was curious, perhaps, but not particularly startling. But that Adair should inform him, two minutes after Mr. Downing’s announcement of Psmith’s confession, that Psmith, too, was guiltless, and that the real criminal was Dunster—it was this that made him feel that somebody, in the words of an American author, had played a mean trick on him, and substituted for his brain a side-order of cauliflower. Why Dunster, of all people? Dunster, who, he remembered dizzily, had left the school at Christmas. And why, if Dunster had really painted the dog, had Psmith asserted that he himself was the culprit? Why—why anything? He concentrated his mind on Adair as the only person who could save him from impending brain-fever.
“What—what do you mean?”
“It was Dunster, sir. I got a letter from him only five minutes ago, in which he said that he had painted Sammy—Sampson, the dog, sir, for a rag—for a joke, and that, as he didn’t want any one here to get into a row—be punished for it, I’d better tell Mr. Downing at once. I tried to find Mr. Downing, but he wasn’t in the house. Then I met Smith outside the house, and he told me that Mr. Downing had gone over to see you, sir.”
“Smith told you?” said Mr. Downing.
“Did you say anything to him about your having received this letter from Dunster?”
“I gave him the letter to read, sir.”
“And what was his attitude when he had read it?”
“He laughed, sir.”
“Laughed!” Mr. Downing’s voice was thunderous.
“Yes, sir. He rolled about.”
Mr. Downing snorted.
“But Adair,” said the headmaster, “I do not understand how this thing could have been done by Dunster. He has left the school.”
“He was down here for the Old Sedleighans’ match, sir. He stopped the night in the village.”
“And that was the night the—it happened?”
“I see. Well, I am glad to find that the blame cannot be attached to any boy in the school. I am sorry that it is even an Old Boy. It was a foolish, discreditable thing to have done, but it is not as bad as if any boy still at the school had broken out of his house at night to do it.”
“The sergeant,” said Mr. Downing, “told me that the boy he saw was attempting to enter Mr. Outwood’s house.”
“Another freak of Dunster’s, I suppose,” said the headmaster. “I shall write to him.”
“If it was really Dunster who painted my dog,” said Mr. Downing, “I cannot understand the part played by Smith in this affair. If he did not do it, what possible motive could he have had for coming to me of his own accord and deliberately confessing?”
“To be sure,” said the headmaster, pressing a bell. “It is certainly a thing that calls for explanation. Barlow,” he said, as the butler appeared, “kindly go across to Mr. Outwood’s house and inform Smith that I should like to see him.”
“If you please, sir, Mr. Smith is waiting in the hall.”
“In the hall!”
“Yes, sir. He arrived soon after Mr. Adair, sir, saying that he would wait, as you would probably wish to see him shortly.”
“H’m. Ask him to step up, Barlow.”
There followed one of the tensest “stage waits” of Mike’s experience. It was not long, but, while it lasted, the silence was quite solid. Nobody seemed to have anything to say, and there was not even a clock in the room to break the stillness with its ticking. A very faint drip-drip of rain could be heard outside the window.
Presently there was a sound of footsteps on the stairs. The door was opened.
“Mr. Smith, sir.”
The old Etonian entered as would the guest of the evening who is a few moments late for dinner. He was cheerful, but slightly deprecating. He gave the impression of one who, though sure of his welcome, feels that some slight apology is expected from him. He advanced into the room with a gentle half-smile which suggested good-will to all men.
“It is still raining,” he observed. “You wished to see me, sir?”
“Sit down, Smith.”
“Thank you, sir.”
He dropped into a deep arm-chair (which both Adair and Mike had avoided in favour of less luxurious seats) with the confidential cosiness of a fashionable physician calling on a patient, between whom and himself time has broken down the barriers of restraint and formality.
Mr. Downing burst out, like a reservoir that has broken its banks.
Psmith turned his gaze politely in the housemaster’s direction.
“Smith, you came to me a quarter of an hour ago and told me that it was you who had painted my dog Sampson.”
“It was absolutely untrue?”
“I am afraid so, sir.”
“But, Smith—” began the headmaster.
Psmith bent forward encouragingly.
“——This is a most extraordinary affair. Have you no explanation to offer? What induced you to do such a thing?”
Psmith sighed softly.
“The craze for notoriety, sir,” he replied sadly. “The curse of the present age.”
“What!” cried the headmaster.
“It is remarkable,” proceeded Psmith placidly, with the impersonal touch of one lecturing on generalities, “how frequently, when a murder has been committed, one finds men confessing that they have done it when it is out of the question that they should have committed it. It is one of the most interesting problems with which anthropologists are confronted. Human nature——”
The headmaster interrupted.
“Smith,” he said, “I should like to see you alone for a moment. Mr. Downing might I trouble—? Adair, Jackson.”
He made a motion towards the door.
When he and Psmith were alone, there was silence. Psmith leaned back comfortably in his chair. The headmaster tapped nervously with his foot on the floor.
The headmaster seemed to have some difficulty in proceeding. He paused again. Then he went on.
“Er—Smith, I do not for a moment wish to pain you, but have you—er, do you remember ever having had, as a child, let us say, any—er—severe illness? Any—er—mental illness?”
“There is no—forgive me if I am touching on a sad subject—there is no—none of your near relatives have ever suffered in the way I—er—have described?”
“There isn’t a lunatic on the list, sir,” said Psmith cheerfully.
“Of course, Smith, of course,” said the headmaster hurriedly, “I did not mean to suggest—quite so, quite so.... You think, then, that you confessed to an act which you had not committed purely from some sudden impulse which you cannot explain?”
“Strictly between ourselves, sir——”
Privately, the headmaster found Psmith’s man-to-man attitude somewhat disconcerting, but he said nothing.
“I should not like it to go any further, sir.”
“I will certainly respect any confidence——”
“I don’t want anybody to know, sir. This is strictly between ourselves.”
“I think you are sometimes apt to forget, Smith, the proper relations existing between boy and—Well, never mind that for the present. We can return to it later. For the moment, let me hear what you wish to say. I shall, of course, tell nobody, if you do not wish it.”
“Well, it was like this, sir,” said Psmith. “Jackson happened to tell me that you and Mr. Downing seemed to think he had painted Mr. Downing’s dog, and there seemed some danger of his being expelled, so I thought it wouldn’t be an unsound scheme if I were to go and say I had done it. That was the whole thing. Of course, Dunster writing created a certain amount of confusion.”
There was a pause.
“It was a very wrong thing to do, Smith,” said the headmaster, at last, “but.... You are a curious boy, Smith. Good-night.”
He held out his hand.
“Good-night, sir,” said Psmith.
“Not a bad old sort,” said Psmith meditatively to himself, as he walked downstairs. “By no means a bad old sort. I must drop in from time to time and cultivate him.”
Mike and Adair were waiting for him outside the front door.
“Well?” said Mike.
“You are the limit,” said Adair. “What’s he done?”
“Nothing. We had a very pleasant chat, and then I tore myself away.”
“Do you mean to say he’s not going to do a thing?”
“Not a thing.”
“Well, you’re a marvel,” said Adair.
Psmith thanked him courteously. They walked on towards the houses.
“By the way, Adair,” said Mike, as the latter started to turn in at Downing’s, “I’ll write to Strachan to-night about that match.”
“What’s that?” asked Psmith.
“Jackson’s going to try and get Wrykyn to give us a game,” said Adair. “They’ve got a vacant date. I hope the dickens they’ll do it.”
“Oh, I should think they’re certain to,” said Mike. “Good-night.”
“And give Comrade Downing, when you see him,” said Psmith, “my very best love. It is men like him who make this Merrie England of ours what it is.”
“I say, Psmith,” said Mike suddenly, “what really made you tell Downing you’d done it?”
“The craving for——”
“Oh, chuck it. You aren’t talking to the Old Man now. I believe it was simply to get me out of a jolly tight corner.”
Psmith’s expression was one of pain.
“My dear Comrade Jackson,” said he, “you wrong me. You make me writhe. I’m surprised at you. I never thought to hear those words from Michael Jackson.”
“Well, I believe you did, all the same,” said Mike obstinately. “And it was jolly good of you, too.”
The Wrykyn match was three-parts over, and things were going badly for Sedleigh. In a way one might have said that the game was over, and that Sedleigh had lost; for it was a one day match, and Wrykyn, who had led on the first innings, had only to play out time to make the game theirs.
Sedleigh were paying the penalty for allowing themselves to be influenced by nerves in the early part of the day. Nerves lose more school matches than good play ever won. There is a certain type of school batsman who is a gift to any bowler when he once lets his imagination run away with him. Sedleigh, with the exception of Adair, Psmith, and Mike, had entered upon this match in a state of the most azure funk. Ever since Mike had received Strachan’s answer and Adair had announced on the notice-board that on Saturday, July the twentieth, Sedleigh would play Wrykyn, the team had been all on the jump. It was useless for Adair to tell them, as he did repeatedly, on Mike’s authority, that Wrykyn were weak this season, and that on their present form Sedleigh ought to win easily. The team listened, but were not comforted. Wrykyn might be below their usual strength, but then Wrykyn cricket, as a rule, reached such a high standard that this probably meant little. However weak Wrykyn might be—for them—there was a very firm impression among the members of the Sedleigh first eleven that the other school was quite strong enough to knock the cover off them. Experience counts enormously in school matches. Sedleigh had never been proved. The teams they played were the sort of sides which the Wrykyn second eleven would play. Whereas Wrykyn, from time immemorial, had been beating Ripton teams and Free Foresters teams and M.C.C. teams packed with county men and sending men to Oxford and Cambridge who got their blues as freshmen.
Sedleigh had gone on to the field that morning a depressed side.
It was unfortunate that Adair had won the toss. He had had no choice but to take first innings. The weather had been bad for the last week, and the wicket was slow and treacherous. It was likely to get worse during the day, so Adair had chosen to bat first.
Taking into consideration the state of nerves the team was in, this in itself was a calamity. A school eleven are always at their worst and nerviest before lunch. Even on their own ground they find the surroundings lonely and unfamiliar. The subtlety of the bowlers becomes magnified. Unless the first pair make a really good start, a collapse almost invariably ensues.
To-day the start had been gruesome beyond words. Mike, the bulwark of the side, the man who had been brought up on Wrykyn bowling, and from whom, whatever might happen to the others, at least a fifty was expected—Mike, going in first with Barnes and taking first over, had played inside one from Bruce, the Wrykyn slow bowler, and had been caught at short slip off his second ball.
That put the finishing-touch on the panic. Stone, Robinson, and the others, all quite decent punishing batsmen when their nerves allowed them to play their own game, crawled to the wickets, declined to hit out at anything, and were clean bowled, several of them, playing back to half-volleys. Adair did not suffer from panic, but his batting was not equal to his bowling, and he had fallen after hitting one four. Seven wickets were down for thirty when Psmith went in.
Psmith had always disclaimed any pretensions to batting skill, but he was undoubtedly the right man for a crisis like this. He had an enormous reach, and he used it. Three consecutive balls from Bruce he turned into full-tosses and swept to the leg-boundary, and, assisted by Barnes, who had been sitting on the splice in his usual manner, he raised the total to seventy-one before being yorked, with his score at thirty-five. Ten minutes later the innings was over, with Barnes not out sixteen, for seventy-nine.
Wrykyn had then gone in, lost Strachan for twenty before lunch, and finally completed their innings at a quarter to four for a hundred and thirty-one.
This was better than Sedleigh had expected. At least eight of the team had looked forward dismally to an afternoon’s leather-hunting. But Adair and Psmith, helped by the wicket, had never been easy, especially Psmith, who had taken six wickets, his slows playing havoc with the tail.
It would be too much to say that Sedleigh had any hope of pulling the game out of the fire; but it was a comfort, they felt, at any rate, having another knock. As is usual at this stage of a match, their nervousness had vanished, and they felt capable of better things than in the first innings.
It was on Mike’s suggestion that Psmith and himself went in first. Mike knew the limitations of the Wrykyn bowling, and he was convinced that, if they could knock Bruce off, it might be possible to rattle up a score sufficient to give them the game, always provided that Wrykyn collapsed in the second innings. And it seemed to Mike that the wicket would be so bad then that they easily might.
So he and Psmith had gone in at four o’clock to hit. And they had hit. The deficit had been wiped off, all but a dozen runs, when Psmith was bowled, and by that time Mike was set and in his best vein. He treated all the bowlers alike. And when Stone came in, restored to his proper frame of mind, and lashed out stoutly, and after him Robinson and the rest, it looked as if Sedleigh had a chance again. The score was a hundred and twenty when Mike, who had just reached his fifty, skied one to Strachan at cover. The time was twenty-five past five.
As Mike reached the pavilion, Adair declared the innings closed.
Wrykyn started batting at twenty-five minutes to six, with sixty-nine to make if they wished to make them, and an hour and ten minutes during which to keep up their wickets if they preferred to take things easy and go for a win on the first innings.
At first it looked as if they meant to knock off the runs, for Strachan forced the game from the first ball, which was Psmith’s, and which he hit into the pavilion. But, at fifteen, Adair bowled him. And when, two runs later, Psmith got the next man stumped, and finished up his over with a c-and-b, Wrykyn decided that it was not good enough. Seventeen for three, with an hour all but five minutes to go, was getting too dangerous. So Drummond and Rigby, the next pair, proceeded to play with caution, and the collapse ceased.
This was the state of the game at the point at which this chapter opened. Seventeen for three had become twenty-four for three, and the hands of the clock stood at ten minutes past six. Changes of bowling had been tried, but there seemed no chance of getting past the batsmen’s defence. They were playing all the good balls, and refused to hit at the bad.
A quarter past six struck, and then Psmith made a suggestion which altered the game completely.
“Why don’t you have a shot this end?” he said to Adair, as they were crossing over. “There’s a spot on the off which might help you a lot. You can break like blazes if only you land on it. It doesn’t help my leg-breaks a bit, because they won’t hit at them.”
Barnes was on the point of beginning to bowl, when Adair took the ball from him. The captain of Outwood’s retired to short leg with an air that suggested that he was glad to be relieved of his prominent post.
The next moment Drummond’s off-stump was lying at an angle of forty-five. Adair was absolutely accurate as a bowler, and he had dropped his first ball right on the worn patch.
Two minutes later Drummond’s successor was retiring to the pavilion, while the wicket-keeper straightened the stumps again.
There is nothing like a couple of unexpected wickets for altering the atmosphere of a game. Five minutes before, Sedleigh had been lethargic and without hope. Now there was a stir and buzz all round the ground. There were twenty-five minutes to go, and five wickets were down. Sedleigh was on top again.
The next man seemed to take an age coming out. As a matter of fact, he walked more rapidly than a batsman usually walks to the crease.
Adair’s third ball dropped just short of the spot. The batsman, hitting out, was a shade too soon. The ball hummed through the air a couple of feet from the ground in the direction of mid-off, and Mike, diving to the right, got to it as he was falling, and chucked it up.
After that the thing was a walk-over. Psmith clean bowled a man in his next over; and the tail, demoralised by the sudden change in the game, collapsed uncompromisingly. Sedleigh won by thirty-five runs with eight minutes in hand.
Psmith and Mike sat in their study after lock-up, discussing things in general and the game in particular.
“I feel like a beastly renegade, playing against Wrykyn,” said Mike. “Still, I’m glad we won. Adair’s a jolly good sort, and it’ll make him happy for weeks.”
“When I last saw Comrade Adair,” said Psmith, “he was going about in a sort of trance, beaming vaguely and wanting to stand people things at the shop.”
“He bowled awfully well.”
“Yes,” said Psmith. “I say, I don’t wish to cast a gloom over this joyful occasion in any way, but you say Wrykyn are going to give Sedleigh a fixture again next year?”
“Well, have you thought of the massacre which will ensue? You will have left, Adair will have left. Incidentally, I shall have left. Wrykyn will swamp them.”
“I suppose they will. Still, the great thing, you see, is to get the thing started. That’s what Adair was so keen on. Now Sedleigh has beaten Wrykyn, he’s satisfied. They can get on fixtures with decent clubs, and work up to playing the big schools. You’ve got to start somehow. So it’s all right, you see.”
“And, besides,” said Psmith, reflectively, “in an emergency they can always get Comrade Downing to bowl for them, what? Let us now sally out and see if we can’t promote a rag of some sort in this abode of wrath. Comrade Outwood has gone over to dinner at the School House, and it would be a pity to waste a somewhat golden opportunity. Shall we stagger?”