A PUBLIC SCHOOL STORY
BY FREDERICK SWAINSON
WITH TWELVE ILLUSTRATIONS
LONDON GEORGE NEWNES, LIMITED SOUTHAMPTON STREET, STRAND 1901
I. THE FOUL 1
II. THE PENALTY 8
III. THE REGENERATION OF BIFFEN'S HOUSE 15
IV. BIFFEN'S PROGRESS 22
V. COTTON AND HIS JACKAL 27
VI. THE LAST CAP 36
VII. THANKS TO ACTON 49
VIII. BIFFEN'S CONCERT 57
IX. THE END OF TERM 65
X. THE YOUNG BROTHER 75
XI. TODD PAYS THE BILL 88
XII. RAFFLES OF ROTHERHITHE 93
XIII. "EASY IS THE DOWNWARD ROAD" 99
XIV. IN THE STABLE 106
XV. GRIM'S SUSPICIONS 112
XVI. TODD "FINDS HIMSELF" 119
XVII. RAFFLES' BILL 126
XVIII. HODGSON'S QUIETUS 133
XIX. HOW THEY "'ELPED THE PORE FELLER" 138
XX. ACTON'S TRUMP CARD 146
XXI. LONDON AND BACK 156
XXII. THE PENFOLD TABLET FUND 161
XXIII. BOURNE v. ACTON 170
XXIV. A RENEWED FRIENDSHIP 179
XXV. A LITTLE ROUGH JUSTICE 187
XXVI. THE MADNESS OF W.E. GRIM 194
XXVII. CONCERNING TODD AND COTTON 204
XXVIII. ACTON'S LAST MOVE 209
XXIX. WHY BIFFEN'S LOST 215
XXX. THE END OF THE FEUD 225
I. SNOWED UP 237
II. OVER THE FELLS 248
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS
ACTON DROPPED TO THE GROUND LIKE A BLUDGEONED DOG Frontispiece
PHIL WALKED DOWN THE STEPS WITHOUT A FRIENDLY CHEER 40
ACTON JUST REACHED IT WITH HIS HEAD 50
AS THE TRAIN MOVED, GRIM SAID, "THREE CHEERS!" 74
ACTON THREW HIM INTO THE SNOW-HEAP 78
A LITTLE YELLOW, EAR-TORN DOG BUSTLED OUT OF SOME SHED 94
"I'M GOING TO HAVE THE SEVEN TEN, OR SHOW YOU UP" 128
THE GREEN POWDER UNDERWENT SOME WEIRD EXPERIMENTS 142
HE PUSHED UP HIS WINDOW AND CRAWLED THROUGH 160
"CUT, YOU MISERABLE PUPPY" 172
HE GAVE ME A LONG, STEADY LOOK OF HATRED 204
AS THE HORSES WHIRLED PAST, HE CLUTCHED MADLY AT THE LOOSE REINS 226
Shannon, the old Blue, had brought down a rattling eleven—two Internationals among them—to give the school the first of its annual "Socker" matches. We have a particular code of football of our own, which the school has played time out of mind; but, ten years ago, the Association game was introduced, despite the murmuring of some of the masters, many of the parents—all old Amorians—and of Moore, the Head, who had yielded to varied pressures, but in his heart thought "Socker" vastly inferior to the old game. Association had flourished exceedingly; so much so that the Head made it a law that, on each Thursday in the Michaelmas term, the old game, and nothing but the old game, should be played, and woe betide any unauthorized "cutters" thereof. This was almost the only rule that Corker never swerved a hair's breadth from, and bitter were the regrets when Shannon had sent word to Bourne, our captain, that he could bring down a really clinking team to put our eleven through their paces, if the match were played on Thursday. Saturday, on account of big club fixtures, was almost impossible. Corker consented to the eleven playing the upstart code for this occasion only, but for the school generally the old game was to be de rigueur.
So on this Thursday pretty well the whole school was out in the Acres, where the old game was in full swing; and, though I fancy the players to a man would have liked to have lined up on the touch-line in the next field and given Shannon the "whisper" he deserves, O.G. claimed them that afternoon for its own, and they were unwilling martyrs to old Corker's cast-iron conservatism. Consequently, when Bourne spun the coin and Shannon decided to play with the wind, there would not be more than seventy or eighty on the touch-line. Shannon asked me to referee, so I found a whistle, and the game started.
It was a game in which there seemed to be two or three players who served as motive forces, and the rest were worked through. On one side Shannon at back, Amber the International at half, and Aspinall, the International left-winger, were head and shoulders above the others; on our side, Bourne and Acton dwarfed the rest.
Bourne played back, and Acton was his partner. Bourne I knew well, since he was in the Sixth, and I liked him immensely; but of Acton I knew only a little by repute and nothing personally. He was in the Fifth, but, except in the ordinary way of school life, he did not come much into the circle wherein the Sixth moves. He was brilliantly clever, with that sort of showy brilliance which some fellows possess: in the exams, he would walk clean through a paper, or leave it untouched—no half measures. He was in Biffen's house and quite the most important fellow in it, and no end popular with his own crowd, for they looked to him to give their house a leg up, both in the schools and in the fields, for Biffen's were the slackest house in St. Amory's. He played football with a dash and vim good to see, and I know a good few of the eleven envied him his long, lungeing rush, which parted man and ball so cleanly, and his quick, sure kick that dropped the ball unerringly to his forwards. He was not in the eleven; but that he would be in before the term was over was a "moral." He was good-looking and rather tall, and had a certain foreign air, I thought; his dark face seemed to be hard and proud, and I had heard that his temper was fiery.
Bourne had chosen him to play against Shannon's team, and as Acton bottled up the forwards on his wing Bourne felt that the school's future right back would not be far to seek.
I soon saw that the school was not quite good enough for the others: Shannon was almost impassable, and Amber, the half, generally waltzed round our forwards, and when he secured he passed the ball on to Aspinall, who doubled like a hare along the touch-line. The question then was "Could Acton stop the flying International, who spun along like Bassett himself?" And he did, generally; or, if he could not, he forced him to part with the ball, and either Baines, our half, lying back, nipped in and secured, or Bourne cleared in the nick of time. Nine times out of ten, when Acton challenged Aspinall, the International would part with the ball to his inside partner; but twice he feinted, and before either of the school backs could recover, the ball was shot into the net with a high and catapultic cross shot. Again and again the game resolved itself into a duello between Acton and Aspinall, and Bourne, when he saw the dealings with the International and his wiles, smiled easily. He saw the school was stronger than he thought.
The interval came with the score standing at two against us. When I started the game again I found that our fellows were pulling along much better with the wind, and that some of Shannon's men were not quite so dangerous as before, for condition told. We quickly had one through, and when I found myself blowing the whistle for a second goal I began to think that the school might pull through after all. Meanwhile Acton and Aspinall were having their occasional tussles, though somewhat less often than before, and three or four times the school back was overturned pretty heartily in the encounters.
Though there was not a suspicion of unfairness or temper on Aspinall's part, I fancied that Acton was getting rather nettled at his frequent upsets. He was, I considered, heavier than Aspinall, and much taller, so I was both rather waxy and astonished to find that he was infusing a little too much vigour into his tackling, and, not to put too fine a point on it, was playing a trifle roughly. Aspinall was bundled over the touch-line a good half-dozen times, with no little animus behind the charge, and ultimately Bourne noticed it. Now, Bourne loathed anything approaching bad form, so he said sharply to Acton, though quietly, "Play the game, sir! Play the ball!" Acton flushed angrily, and I did not like the savage way he faced round to Bourne, who was particularly busy at that moment and did not notice it. The game went on until within about five minutes from time. Amber had been feeding Aspinall assiduously for the last ten minutes, and Acton had, despite his cleverness, more than he could really hold in the flying International. He stalled off the attack somehow, and Bourne always covered his exertions, so that it seemed as if there would be a draw after all. At last the ball was swung across, and Aspinall was off on a final venture. Acton stuck to him like a leech, but the winger tipped the ball to his partner, and as Acton moved to intercept the inside, the latter quickly and wisely poked the ball back again to Aspinall. He was off again in his own inimitable style, and I saw him smile as he re-started his run. I rather fancy Acton saw it too, and accepted the smile as a sneering challenge; anyhow, he set his lips and I believe made up his mind that in any case Aspinall should not get the winning goal. How it exactly happened I cannot say, but as Aspinall was steadying himself, when at top speed, for an almost point-blank delivery, I saw Acton break his own stride, shoot out his leg, and the next moment the International was stumbling forward, whilst the ball rolled harmlessly onward into our goal-keeper's hands. I could hardly believe my own eyes, but it was a deliberate trip, if ever there was one! Aspinall tried to recover himself, failed, and came with a sickening crash against the goal-post. I blew the whistle and rushed to Aspinall; his cheek was bleeding villainously and he was deadly pale. I helped him up, and he said with his usual smile—who could mistake it for a sneer?—"Thanks, old man. Yes, I do feel a bit seedy. That back of yours is an animal, though." He tried hard to keep his senses; I saw him battling against his faintness, but the pain and shock were too much for him; he fell down again in a dead faint.
We improvised a hurdle and carried him up to the school. Acton, pale to the lips, prepared to bear a hand, but Bourne unceremoniously took him by the arm and said with concentration, "No thanks, Acton. We'll excuse you—you beastly cad!" I heard Bourne's remark, though no one else saw or heard. Acton's hand closed involuntarily, and he gave Bourne a vitriolic look, but did nothing nor said anything. We took Aspinall up to Merishall's—his old house—where he was staying, and left him there still unconscious.
What astonished me was that no one save Bourne had noticed the trip, but when I came to think it over the explanation was easy. Acton had, whether from accident or of purpose, "covered" his man and blocked the view from behind. I myself had not really seen the trip, but it would have been plainly visible for any one opposite on the touch-line, and luckily there was no one opposite. The goal-keeper might have seen it, but Roberts never attends to anything but the ball—the reason he's the fine keeper that he is. Bourne had actually seen it, being practically with Acton, and I knew by his pale face and scornful eyes that he would dearly have liked to kick Acton on the spot.
I was, as you may guess, intensely pleased that no one had an idea of the foul except Bourne and myself, for I could imagine vividly where the rumour of this sort of "form" would spread to. We'd hear of it for years after.
I mentally promised that Acton should have a little of my opinion on the matter on the first opportunity.
I arranged to see Bourne that evening, when we should have heard the doctor's report on Aspinall. In the evening Bourne strolled into my room, looking a little less gloomy than I expected. "Briggs says that there is nothing broken, and that as soon as Aspinall gets over the shock he will be all right. The cut may leave a scar, but that will be about all. All the same, Carr, I think that's too heavy a price to pay for the bad temper of one of our fellows who can't stand a tumble into the mud at 'footer.' You saw the villainy, didn't you?"
"I can't say I actually saw him trip, but there's no doubt whatever that it was an abominable foul."
"None at all. I saw him, worse luck, tolerably plainly."
"Do you know anything about him?"
"I think Biffen's rather fancy he's going to lift them out of the mire."
"Can't say I envy them their champion."
"What strikes me as odd is that such a magnificent player should do such a vile trick."
"Rum, certainly. The affair will give quite a professional touch to our 'Socker' fixtures, and the Carthusians will ask us to bar our bullies when they come down again. Oh, this is sweet!"
"I say, Bourne, this business must not move one inch further. You've spoken to no one?"
"Is it likely?"
"We'll not have any of our dirty linen washed coram populo, old chap. Frightful bad form. No one knows but you, Aspinall, and self."
"Surely Aspinall will——"
"You don't know Aspinall, old man. He'd shrivel up sooner than say a word more. Bet you he'll speak of it as an accident. Remember, he was captain of the school here once."
"Which makes it a blacker shame than ever," said Bourne, wrathfully.
"I've inquired casually of the Fifth, and it seems our friend once distinguished himself in the gym. Lost his temper—as per recipe—and Hodgson had to knock him down before he could see that we put on the gloves here for a little healthy exercise, and the pleasure of lifting some of the public schools championships. He, however, apologized to Hodgson, but I don't think he'll do the honourable here."
"Then, the chief attraction of the beauty is its temper?"
"Or want of it."
"Who is he, anyhow?"
"Yorkshire people, I believe. Own half a town and no end of coin. Been to school in France and Germany, and consequently came here rather late. I know his head-piece Is all right, and I imagine his amiability is only a little foreign blood working its way out. He will be with us in the Sixth at Christmas."
"Delightful prospect. What I want to know is—how are we to settle this business as far as he is concerned? Ought Moore to know?"
"I don't think so. Never trouble Corker more than you can help, old man. That's a tip for you when I'm gone. Besides, masters generally mishandle affairs of this sort. I rather fancy I'll put it to Aspinall when he pulls through."
"Do. One thing, though, is pretty certain. He'll never get his cap as long as I'm captain of the footer eleven. I'd rather come out of it myself."
"Of course. I see there's no help for that, but, all the same, it will make complications. What a pity he can play!"
"It is, for he is a back out of a thousand."
Bourne's voice had in it a ring of genuine regret, and whilst I could almost have smiled at his unaffectedly tragic tone, I could see the vista which his resolution opened up. I heard the school shouting at Bourne to let the finest player out of the eleven in, and all the shouting would be across "seas of misunderstanding." I know Bourne saw the difficulties himself, and he left my study soon after with a rather anxious look on his face. Personally I determined not to think about the matter until I had seen Aspinall. From the very first I had never expected any help from Acton. There was something about the whole of his bearing in the caddish business that told me plainly that we would have to treat him, not as a fellow who had been betrayed to a vile action by a beastly temper and was bitterly sorry for it, but as a fellow who hated us for finding it out.
I saw Aspinall two days later, and as we walked towards the station I broached the matter.
"Certainly; I thought he tripped me, but he has written me and said how sorry he was for my accident, so, of course, it rests there."
"Candidly, Aspinall, have you any doubt yourself?"
"No, old fellow. I'm sorry, but I really think he tripped me. He was riled at a little hustling from Shannon's lot, and I may have upset him myself occasionally. But it is a small matter."
I looked at the bandages across his cheek, and I didn't think it small.
"But, Aspinall, even if we leave you out of the business, it isn't a small matter for us, especially for Bourne."
"Well, no; hardly for you," he admitted. "'Twas a piece of sheer bad form. It shouldn't be done at our place at all."
"If you were in Bourne's place would you bar him his place in the eleven?"
Aspinall considered a full minute.
"On the whole, I think I should—at least, for one term; but I'd most certainly let him know why he was not to have his cap—privately, of course. I should not like it to get about, and I do not fancy Acton will say much about it."
That night Bourne and I crossed over to Biffen's, and waylaid Acton in his den. I'm pretty sure there wasn't another room like his in the whole school. No end of swell pictures—foreign mostly; lovely little books, which, I believe, were foreign also; an etching of his own place up in Yorkshire; carpets, and rugs, and little statuettes—swagger through and through; a little too much so, I believe, for the rules, but Biffen evidently had not put his foot down. Acton was standing on the hearthrug with his back to the fire, and on seeing us he politely offered us chairs with the air of a gentleman and a something of grace, which was a trifle foreign.
I saw that Acton's polite cordiality nettled Bourne more than a little, but he solemnly took a chair, and in his blunt, downright fashion, plunged headlong into the business.
"Only came to say a word or two, Acton, about Thursday's match."
"A very good one," he remarked, with what Corker calls "detached interest." "Aspinall's accident was more than unfortunate."
"The fact is," said Bourne, bluntly, "neither Carr nor I believe it was an accident."
"No? What was it, then? Every one else thought it was, though."
"We know better. We know that you deliberately fouled him, and——"
Acton paled, and his eyes glittered viciously, though he said calmly, "That is a lie."
"And," continued Bourne, "though there is not a fellow even a respectable second to you at 'footer,' I shall not give you your cap as long as I am captain of the eleven. That is all I came to say."
Acton said quite calmly (why was he so uncommonly cool, I asked myself?)—though his face was red and white alternately: "Then listen carefully to what I say. I particularly wanted to have my footer cap—why, does not concern any one but myself—and I don't fancy losing it because a couple of fellows see something that a hundred others couldn't see, for the sufficient reason that there wasn't anything to see. I shall make no row about it; and, since you can dole out the caps to your own pet chums, and no one can stop you—do it! but I think you'll regret it all the same. I'm not going to moan about it—that isn't my way; but I really think you'll regret it. That is all; though"—this with a mocking sneer—"why it requires two of you to come and insult a man in his own room I don't understand."
"I came to say that if you'd apologize to Aspinall things might straighten."
"Might straighten! Oh, thanks!" he said, his face looking beastly venomous. "I think you'd better go, really."
So we went, and I could not but feel that Bourne was right when he said on parting, "Our friend will make himself superbly disagreeable over this, take my word for it! But he won't get into the eleven, and I won't have a soul know that old Aspinall's scar is the work of a fellow in St. Amory's, either. If they have to know, he must tell them himself."
THE REGENERATION OF BIFFEN'S HOUSE
To say that Acton was upset by our visit and our conversation and Bourne's ultimatum would be beside the mark; he was furious, and when he had cooled down somewhat, his anger settled into a long, steady stretch of hate towards us both, but especially towards Bourne. He simmered over many plans for getting "even" with him, and when he had finally mapped out a course he proceeded, as some one says, "diligently to ensue it;" for Acton was not of that kind to be "awkward" as occasion arose, but there was method in all his schemes.
It so happened that Worcester was captain of Biffen's house, and also of Biffen's "footer" team. My own opinion was that poor old Worcester would have given a lot to be out of such a house as Biffen's, and I know he utterly despised himself for having in a moment of inexplicable weakness consented to be permanent lead to Biffen's awful crowd on the Acres. He died a thousand deaths after each (usual) annihilation. Worcester and Acton had nothing in common, and, except that they were in the same house and form, they would not probably have come to nodding terms. Worcester, of course, looked up to the magnificent "footer" player as the average player looks up to the superlative. After the first game of the season, when Acton had turned out in all his glory, Dick had thereupon offered to resign his captaincy, even pressing, with perhaps suspicious eagerness, Acton's acceptance of that barren honour. But Acton did not bite. Captains were supposed to turn out pretty well every day with their strings, and Acton was not the sort of fellow to have his hands tied in any way. So he had gently declined.
"No, old man. Wouldn't dream of ousting you. You'll get a good team out of Biffen's yet. Plenty of raw material."
"That's just it," said Worcester, naively; "it is so jolly raw."
"Well, cook it, old man."
"It only makes hash," said Worcester, with a forlorn smile at his own joke.
But now Acton thought that the captaincy of Biffen's might dovetail into his schemes for the upsetting of Bourne, and therefore Dick's proposal was to be reconsidered. Thus it was that Worcester got a note from Acton asking him to breakfast.
Worcester came, and his eyes visibly brightened when he spotted Acton's table, for there was more than a little style about Acton's catering, and Worcester had a weakness for the square meal. Acton's fag, Grim, was busy with the kettle, and there was as reinforcement in Dick's special honour, young Poulett, St. Amory's champion egg-poacher, sustaining his big reputation in a large saucepan. Worcester sank into his chair with a sigh of satisfaction at sight of little Poulett; he was to be in clover, evidently.
"That's right, Worcester. That is the easiest chair. Got that last egg on the toast, Poulett? You're a treasure, and so I'll write your mamma. Tea or coffee, Dick? Coffee for Worcester, Grim, tea for me. Pass that cream to Worcester, and you've forgotten the knife for the pie. You're a credit to Sharpe's, Poulett; but remember that you've been poaching for Biffen's footer captain. That's something, anyhow. Don't grin, Poulett; it's bad form. Going? To Bourne's, eh? I can recommend you, though it would be no recommendation to him. You can cut, too, Grim, and clear at 9.30. See the door catches."
Grim scuttled after the renowned egg-poacher, and Worcester and Acton were left alone. When Worcester was fed, and had pushed back his chair, Acton broached the business to which the breakfast was the preliminary.
"Fact is, Worcester, I've been thinking how it is that Biffen's is the slackest house in the place."
"Oh! it's got such a plucky reputation, you know. The kids weep when they're put down for Biffen's. Give a dog a bad name—"
"But why the bad name?"
"Dunno! Perhaps it's Biffen. I think so, anyhow. At any rate, there's not been a fellow from the house in the Lord's eleven or in the footer eleven, and in the schools Biffen's crowd always close the rear. By the way, how did you come among our rout?"
"I think mater knew Biffen; that's the explanation."
"Rather rough on you."
"Don't feel anything, really, Worcester."
"Well, Biffen has got a diabolical knack of picking up all the loose ends of the school; all the impossible fellows gravitate here: why, look at our Dervishes!" (Dervish was the slang for foreigners at St. Amory's.)
"We've certainly got more than our share of colour."
"That's Biffen's all the world over," said Dick, with intense heat; "you could match any colour between an interesting orange and a real jet black among our collection. Biffen simply can't resist a nigger. He must have him. What they come to the place at all for licks me. Can't the missionaries teach 'em to spell?"
"La haute politique," suggested Acton.
"Of Sarawack or Timbuctoo?" said Worcester, with scorn. "Bet my boots that Borneo one's governor went head-hunting in his time, and the darkest African one's knows what roasted man is."
Acton laughed, for a nigger was to Worcester as a red rag to a bull. "St. Amory's for niggers!" Dick would say with intense scorn.
"Anyhow," said Acton, "I think there's no need for us to be quite so slack."
"You'll pull us up a bit?" said Dick, with genuine admiration.
"Thanks. But I meant the whole house generally."
"Not much good. We're Biffen's, that never did nor never shall, etc."
"I don't know. There's sixty of us, barring your niggers; we ought to get eleven to look at a football with a business eye out of that lot, you know."
"We ought to, but don't."
"We ought to do something in the schools too."
"We ought to, but don't, though Raven is in for the Perry Exhibition. Guess he won't pull it off, though."
"We'll see about that, too," said Acton. "As for the niggers—"
"Oh, never mind them!" burst in Worcester. "Without humbug, Acton, do you really want our house to move a bit?"
"Well, then, consent to captain our footer eleven and we give ourselves a chance, for I can't make the fellows raise a gallop at any price, and I somehow think you can. Have a try. If you are sick of it at Christmas, I'll come in again; honour bright. It isn't too good-natured of me to ask you to pull Biffen's out of the mud, but you're the only fellow to do it if it can be done. Will you?"
"You wouldn't mind resigning?"
"By Jove, no!" said Worcester, precipitately.
"Don't mention it. Not at all, old man, not at all."
"Well, I've been thinking that, if you didn't mind, I'd like to try my hand on our crowd; though, since you don't move 'em, there can't be much chance for me to do anything smart."
"That doesn't follow, for you aren't me, old man."
"Then I'll have a shot at it."
Worcester grasped Acton's hand, as the French say, "with emotion."
"But the house will have to elect me, you know; perhaps they'd fancy Raven as captain. He can play decently, and they know him."
"Well, Biffen's are a dense lot, but I'm hanged if even their stupidity would do a thing like that. They've seen you play, haven't they?"
"Thanks. Fact is, Dick, I feel a bit bored by the patronage of Taylor's and Merishall's, and Sharpe's and Corker's, and all the rest of the houses."
"Oh! Biffen's laid himself out for that, you must see."
"I don't fancy Bourne's sneers and Hodgson's high stilts."
"Haven't noticed either," said Dick.
"H'm!" said Acton, rather nettled by Dick's dry tone. "I have. As for the niggers—"
"The other houses despise us on their account. We're the Dervish Camp to the rest."
"As for the niggers, they shall do something for Biffen's too," said Acton, rather thoughtfully.
"You mean in the sing-songs? Well, they'll spare the burnt cork certainly."
"Well, that's an idea too," said Acton, laughing, "but not the one I had. That will keep."
Worcester might have some curiosity to know what Acton's idea was, but he wasn't going to inquire anything about the niggers.
"It's awfully brickish of you, Worcester," said Acton, as Grim was heard trotting up the corridor "to stand down."
"Not at all; the sacrifice is on your altar."
"Then allons. Here's Grim knocking, and I've to see Corker at 9.40. You'll excuse me."
Grim came in and commenced to clear away, and the two sallied out.
That day, after morning school, Biffen's held a meeting, and thereat Acton was proposed captain by Worcester and seconded by Raven; and Biffen's confirmed Worcester's qualified opinion of their sense by electing him nem. con.
From that day Acton threw his heart and soul into the regeneration of Biffen's. There did not pass an afternoon but that he turned out for footer, and coached, encouraged, bullied, stormed, praised each individual member of the team with the strictest impartiality and Spartan justice.
The smallest fault was dragged out into the light of day, and commented on with choice fulness, and any clever concerted piece of work got its due reward. Acton would stand no half-hearted play; he wanted the last ounce out of his men. The fellows stared a bit at first at his deadly earnestness, so unlike Dick's disgusted resignation at their shortcomings; but they found the change refreshing on the whole, for they could stand a lot of bullying from a fellow like Acton, who never seemed to make a mistake, or to have an off-day, and who could give stones and a beating to the best man among them. They respected his skill, and buckled to the work in hand. In about a fortnight there was a suggestion of style about the moving of some of the fellows up the field. Worcester backed up Acton with whole-hearted enthusiasm, and Raven was lost in wonder at the forward movement. This backing Acton found rather useful, for Dick and Raven were as popular as any in St. Amory's.
Some of the fellows were inclined to turn restive after about a fortnight, when the novelty of earnestness in football had worn off, but Acton's demands were as inexorable as ever. Matters came to a head (probably, as I expect, to the new captain's inward satisfaction) when his girding upset Chalmers—about the best forward of Biffen's regenerated lot. There was to be a match with some of the Fifth for the Saturday, and Acton had arranged a preliminary canter the day before to test his attack. Chalmers was the winger, but on the day he was tremendously selfish, and stuck to the ball until he was robbed or knocked off it. Now, Acton loathed the "alone I did it" type of forward, and asked Chalmers pretty acidly what his inside man was for. This riled Chalmers considerably, for he had a large private opinion about his own play, and he said pretty hotly, "Mind your own business, Acton."
Acton said very coolly, "I am going to do so. Please remember, Chalmers, this is not a one-horse show."
"Seems distinctly like it, judging by the fellow who's been doing all the talking for the last age."
"Play the game, and don't be an ass."
"I object to being called an ass," said Chalmers, in a white rage.
"Well, mule, then," said Acton, cheerfully. "Anything to oblige you, Chalmers, bar your waltzing down the touch-line to perdition. You're not a Bassett nor a Bell yet, you know."
Chalmers would dearly have liked to have struck Acton, but Worcester looked so utterly disgusted at the whole business, that I fancy it was Dick's eye that suggested to Chalmers his getting into his coat and sweater. He did so, and stalked angrily off the field.
Now, Chalmers really liked the game, and did not fancy being crossed out of the eleven, which Acton would almost certainly proceed to do; so that night after tea, he went to Worcester's study, and boarded Dick.
"Apologize to Acton," said Dick.
"But he called me an ass!"
"You were one," said Dick, dryly. "Acton's putting in a lot of work over the slackest house that ever disgraced the old school, and this is how he's treated. Ass is a mild term."
Chalmers went to Raven.
"Apologize," said Raven.
"He called me a mule," urged Chalmers, despairingly.
"So you were. I quite expected to see the kicking begin, really. Acton's sweating no end to screw us up to concert-pitch, and flat mutiny is his reward. Apologize, and help us win the Fifth to-morrow."
So Chalmers moved reluctantly across to Acton's and made his apology.
"Don't mention it," said Acton, cheerfully. "Sorry I upset you, Chalmers, but you elected me captain, and I do want a little success in the houses, and how can we get it if the fellows don't combine? Say no more about it; I was rather afraid you weren't going to come, which is the unadorned truth."
This last delicate touch, which showed Chalmers that, without the apology, his captain had meant to cut him adrift, sans hesitation, and yet contained a pretty little compliment to his footer, embarrassed Chalmers more than a little; but Acton offered his forward tea and muffins, and five minutes afterwards Chalmers was finding out what a nice fellow Acton really could be. The next day Chalmers smoothed his ruffled feelings by piling on three goals against the Fifth, who sneaked off the Acres five goals to the bad. This was the first time for ages that Biffen's had tasted blood, and the news of the victory staggered others besides the victims. There was quite a flutter among the house captains, and Acton, by the way, had no more mutinies.
"Without haste, without rest," Biffen's captain started his second project for the elevation of his house. He had noticed what none of the other fellows would condescend to see, that two of the despised niggers of Biffen's were rather neat on the bars. He spent a quarter of an hour one evening quietly watching the two in the gym, and he went away thoughtful. Singh Ram and Mehtah thereupon each received a polite note, and "could they call about seven in Acton's study?" They came, and Acton talked to them briefly but to the point. When they sought their quarters again they were beaming, and "Singed" Ram carried a fat book of German physical exercises under his arm.
"Am I not coming out strong?" said Acton, laughing to himself, "when I set the very niggers a-struggling for the greater glory of Biffen's—or is it Acton's? Then, there's that exhibition, which we must try to get for this double-superlative house. Raven must beat that Sixth prig Hodgson, the very bright particular star of Corker's. Would two hours' classics, on alternate nights, meet his case? He shall have 'em, bless him! He shall know what crops Horace grew on his little farm, and all the other rot which gains Perry Exhibitions. Hodgson may strong coffee and wet towel per noctem; but, with John Acton as coach, Raven shall upset the apple-cart of Theodore Hodgson. There's Todd in for the Perry, too, I hear. Hodgson may be worth powder and shot, but I'm hanged if Raven need fear Cotton's jackal! If only half of my plans come off, still that will put Philip Bourne in a tighter corner than he's ever been in before. Therefore—en avant!"
COTTON AND HIS JACKAL
As I said before, the victory of the despised Biffenites over the Fifth Form eleven—a moderate one, it is true—caused quite a little breeze of surprise to circulate around the other houses, which had by process of time come to regard that slack house as hopeless in the fields or in the schools. Over all the tea-tables that afternoon the news was commented on with full details; how Chalmers had gained in deadliness just as much as he had lost in selfishness, and how Raven and Worcester had worked like horses, and mown down the opposition—"Fifth Form opposition!" said the fags, with a lift of the eyebrows—like grass, and as for Biffen's new captain, well, if there was one player who could hold a candle to him it must be Phil Bourne, and he only.
In the Rev. E. Taylor's house, Cotton senior, who answered to the name of "Jim" among his familiars, and was "Bully Cotton" to his enemies—every Amorian below the Fifth, and a good sprinkling elsewhere—and Augustus Vernon Robert Todd, who was "Gus" to every one, sat at tea together in Todd's room. Cotton had been one of the slain that afternoon on the Acres, and was still in his footer clothes, plus a sweater, which almost came up to his ears. There was a bright fire in the grate, and though Todd's room was not decorative compared with most of the other fellows' dens, yet it was cheerful enough. Cotton had come back from the match hungry and a trifle bruised from a smart upset, only to find his own fire out, and preparations for tea invisible. Having uttered dire threats against his absent, erring fag, he moved into his friend's room, and the two clubbed together their resources, and the result was a square meal, towards which Cotton contributed something like 19/20, A.V.R. Todd's share being limited to the kettle, the water, and the fire. When Cotton had satisfied his footer appetite, he turned down his stocking and proceeded vigorously to anoint with embrocation his damaged leg, the pungent scent of the liniment being almost ornamental in its strength.
"How did you get that, Jim?" said Gus, surveying the brawny limb with interest.
"Acton brought me down like a house, my boy."
"Oh yes; but you've got to go down if he catches you in his swing."
"You fellows must have played beautifully to let Biffen's mob maul you to that extent."
"Gus, my boy, instead of frowsing up here all the afternoon with your books, you should have been on the touch-line watching those Biffenites at their new tricks. Your opinion then would have a little avoirdupois. As it is, you Perry Exhibit, it is worth exactly nothing."
"You're deucedly classical to-night, Jim."
"Oh, I'm sick of this forsaken match and all the compliments we've had over it. I'm going now to have a tub, and then we'll get that Latin paper through, and, thirdly, I'll have the chessmen out."
"Sony, I can't, Jim," said Todd, discontentedly. "There is that beastly Perry Scholarship—I must really do something for that!"
"Thomas Rot, Esq.!" said Cotton. "Haven't you been a-cramming and a-guzzling for that all this afternoon? You've a duty towards your chums, Toddy, so I tell you."
"That's all very well, Jim, for you, who are going to break some crammer's heart, and then crawl into the Army through the Militia, but my pater wants me to do something in the Perry, I tell you."
"Chess!" said Cotton, disregarding Todd's bleat, and then, with a sly smile, he added, "Shilling a game, Gus, and you know you always pull off the odd one."
"All right," said Todd, swallowing the bait with forlorn eagerness; "I'll have the board set out if you must come in."
"Oh, I must!" said Cotton, with a half-sneer at Todd's anxiety to pick up a small sum. "Clear the table, and we'll make a snug evening of it."
Todd's method of clearing a table was novel, if not original. He carried it bodily into Cotton's room, and then returned with his friend's mahogany, which was undoubtedly more ornamental than his own.
Acton was absolutely right when he sneeringly called Gus "Cotton's jackal." Todd was exactly of the material which makes a good jackal, though he never became quite Jim Cotton's toady. He was a sharp, selfish individual, good-looking in an aimless kind of way, with a slack, feeble mouth, and a wandering, indecisive glance. He had a quick, shallow cleverness, which could get up pretty easily enough of inexact knowledge to pass muster in the schools. Old Corker knew his capabilities to a hair, and would now and then, when Gus offered up some hazy, specious guess-work, blister him with a little biting sarcasm. Todd feared the Doctor as he feared no one else. Todd's chief private moan was that he never had any money. His father was a rich man, but had some ideas which were rather rough on his weak-kneed son. He tipped poor Gus as though he were some thrifty hairdresser's son, and Todd had to try to ruffle it with young Amorians on as many shillings as they had crowns. Not a lad who ever had naturally any large amount of self-respect, the little he had soon went, and he became, while still a fag, a hewer of wood and drawer of water to his better-tipped cronies. His destiny finished when, on his entry into the Fifth, Jim Cotton claimed him, and subsidized him as his man.
At the beginning of the term his father had told him that if he could make a good show in the Perry Exhibition there need not be any more grumbling about his tip. Gus came back to St. Amory's hysterically anxious to cut out all competitors for the Perry, but the shackles of his old serfdom were still about him. When he showed signs of being restive to the old claims, and recommended Cotton to do his own classics and mathematics, Cotton coolly and calmly demanded repayment of sundry loans contracted of old. Todd had not the pluck to face a term of plain living and high thinking by paying his former patron all he owed him and exhausting all his present tip by so doing, but flabbily, though discontentedly, caved in, and became Cotton's jackal as before.
Cotton was by no means as bad as his endearing name might make you think. He was a tall, heavy fellow, with a large, determined-looking face. He was wonderfully stupid in the schools, but was quite clever enough to know it. He had some good qualities. He was straight enough in all extra-school affairs, did not lie, nor fear any one; kept his word, and expected you to keep yours.
"You can't beat Hodgson of the Sixth, Gus, so what is the good of sweating all the term? Hodgson's got the deuce of a pull over you to start with."
"I'm not frightened of Hodgson if you wouldn't bother, Jim."
"Can't do without you, old cock. You're just the fellow to lift my Latin and those filthy mathematics high enough out of the mud to keep the beaks from worrying me to death. I tried Philips for a week, but he did such weird screeds in the 'unseens' that Merishall smelt a rat, and was most particular attentive to me, but your leverage is just about my fighting weight."
Gus had sniffed discontentedly at this dubious compliment; but Cotton had smiled stolidly, and continued to use Gus as his classical and mathematical hack. Besides, there was something about Gus's easy-going lackadaisical temperament which exactly suited Cotton, and he felt for his grumbling jackal a friendliness apart from Gus's usefulness to him.
This afternoon had been a fair sample of Todd's usual half-holiday. Feeling no heart for any serious work for the Perry, he had spent it in reading half a worthless novel, and skimming through a magazine, and feeling muddled and discontented in consequence. He had the uneasy feeling that he was an arrant ass in thus fooling time away, but had not sufficient self-denial to seize upon a quiet afternoon for a little genuine work.
Cotton soon returned from his bath, and the two cronies spent about an hour in getting up the least modicum of their classics which would satisfy Merishall; and then they played chess, by which Gus was one florin richer. A third game was in progress, but Todd managed to tip over the board when he was "going to mate in five moves." Cotton thereupon said he had had enough, but Gus avariciously tried to reconstruct the positions. He failed dismally, and Cotton laughed sweetly. Now Cotton's laugh would almost make his chum's hair curl, so he retorted pretty sweetly himself, "I say, Jim. I can't get out of my head that awful hammering you fellows got this afternoon. Think Biffen's lot likely to shape well in the House matches?"
"There's no telling, old man. But if they get moderate luck they'll be waltzing about in the final."
"That's absolute blazing idiocy!" said Todd, knocking over more chessmen in his astonishment.
"All right, Gus. To talk absolute blazing idiocy is my usual habit, of course. They may carry off the final even, but that, perhaps, is a tall order."
Todd nursed his astonishment for a full five minutes, whistling occasionally, as at some very fantastic idea. At last he said more seriously: "Aren't you now, Jim, really pulling my leg?"
"No, honour bright! Biffen's are really eye-openers."
Gus said with infinite slyness: "Look here, I'll bet you evens Biffen's don't pull off the final."
"Oh, that is rot, Gus, to talk about betting, for you can't pay if you lose."
Gus had not too much sensitiveness in his character, but this unmeant insult stung him.
"You've no right to say that. I've paid all I've ever betted with you."
Cotton considered heavily in his own mind for a moment. "That is almost true, but—"
"Well, what do you mean—" began Todd, in a paddy.
"All right," said Cotton; "shut up, confound you! I'll take you."
"Three quid Biffen's are not cock-house at 'footer.'"
"Done," said Cotton, unwillingly pulling out his note-book; "and straight, Todd, I shall expect you to pay if you lose."
"Oh, shut up, Cotton, you cad! I shall pay if I lose, man. What do you want to keep on insulting me like that for?"
"Steady, Gus. You'll have Taylor up if you howl like that. I meant nothing."
"Nothing!" said Gus in a fury, seeking for something particularly sweet to say to his patron. "I jolly well hope, then, that if our house should meet 'em in the rounds you will do your little best to put a stopper on their career. Don't, for the sake of pulling off your bet, present 'em with a few goals. You 'keep' for our house, you know."
"Oh, dash it all, Todd," said Cotton, in a white rage, "you are a bounder! Think I'd sell my side?" he demanded furiously.
"Ah!" said Gus, delighted at having got through Cotton's skin. "You don't stomach insults any more than I do. Then why do you ladle them out so jolly freely to me?"
"That was a particularly low one," said Cotton angrily; "and anyway, you avaricious beggar, you've got thundering good terms, for it is hardly likely that Biffen's can really be cock-house. There's Corker's house, with Bourne and Hodgson and a few more good men. You're a sight more likely to see my three sovs, that I am yours."
"I hope so," said Gus, with some relief at the anticipation of this pleasant prospect.
Then the anger of the two simmered down, each having given and received some very choice compliments, and as these little breezes were usual between the two, ten minutes afterwards they were amiably entertaining each other. Cotton was putting up a pair of dumb-bells three hundred times, and his crony was counting and criticising his form. The Perry Exhibition did not enter Todd's head, but his bet—"such a gilt-edged one," he chuckled—was never once out of it. And Todd's bet had some momentous consequences for him, too.
THE LAST CAP
While Acton was thus making such strenuous exertions to lift Biffen's out of the mire, Bourne was finding out the whole unpainted beauty of the situation—as far as it concerned himself.
The experimental footer elevens were chosen in what, I believe, is the usual manner. The old members of the school eleven formed a committee, and chose fellows to play in the weekly matches, and if any one of them showed special talent he was, of course, retained, and by-and-by the captain gave him his school cap, and he was henceforth a full-blown member of the eleven, with a seat on the committee like any of the old gang.
There were left of the last year's team five players—Bourne, Mivart, Vercoe, Baines, and Roberts. The final promotion of fellows into the eleven, however, rested with the captain alone, and when he considered any fellow good enough he signified the same by presenting him with the blue and silver cap of St. Amory.
The giving away of a cap had become quite a function. Whenever there was the rumour that some one was to have a cap after a match, pretty well the whole school swarmed round the pavilion, and when the new member came out in all the glory of his new blue and silver he got the cheers which his play or popularity deserved, and especially did the new member's house distinguish themselves in the shouting.
Thus Bourne had six caps at his disposal, and since "Socker" had been introduced, the last cap was always given so that when the school played the last match—the Carthusians—the eleven would be complete.
Bourne saw at once the cloud which was rising on the horizon when, at the first committee meeting to choose the eleven against "The Cognoscenti" Mivart said, "Well, Bourne, we've got your partner for to-morrow ready made. I think we may put that new chap Acton down right off."
"Rather," said Vercoe. "He can't be left out."
"Best back we've seen for an age-barring Phil, of course," said Baines.
"And the others we'll have to fight over, as usual. My choice is Hodgson for centre."
"Too lazy, Roberts. Mine is Chalmers."
"Rot! He's a winger."
And so the selection of an eleven against the Cognoscenti went on in the usual old-fashioned style.
Bourne dropped into my study afterwards and said, gloomily; "On the whole, Carr, had I not better tell the fellows that they may elect Acton for our school fixtures, but he cannot have his cap? That will take the bull by the horns from the beginning."
"By no means. The other fellows have nothing whatever to do with giving caps away; that is your business entirely. Besides, who knows? Acton may not care to play when he knows he cannot get his cap."
"I'd be agreeably surprised if he didn't. But that won't be his little game. Take my word for it, he'll turn out on every blessed occasion, play like a master of the game, and give us no end of trouble."
"Perhaps he may. Anyhow, something may turn up between now and the last match—we'll hope so, anyhow; and until the last cap is given away the fellows generally won't spot your little game."
"'Tis only putting off the evil day, Carr," said Phil, discontentedly.
"A good day to put off."
Thus, when Hodgson was given the first cap, there was the general comment that he was pretty sure to annex a cap sooner or later, and might as well have it soon. Acton's turn—so said the school would come later, though Biffen's house sneered. "Of course, Hodgson is in the Sixth. What else but a Sixth Form fellow is wanted in a footer eleven?"
Sharpe's house secured the next two caps, and Biffen's groaned aloud. "Whatever is old Phil about? One might think he was blind in his right eye and straddled in his left. We'll send him a pair of gig lamps, and then perhaps he may discover Acton—Acton, of Biffen's."
The weeks went by, and after a spirited display by Chalmers against the Emeriti, he was given his cap, and for the first time since Biffen's was a house they had a man in the eleven. But they gasped as Chalmers came out of the pavilion with his blue and silver cap on his curls. "That ass Bourne found the house at last, and then he goes and carefully spots the wrong man. Whatever is the matter with him? To pick Chalmers before Acton! Rot!"
Over tea that night Biffen's bubbled and choked, and the other houses began to take a lively interest in the next distribution, for this constant passing of Acton was becoming exciting. But still—and I was glad to see it—the school had faith in Phil; they counted on justice being done, as it were, in the last laps. No one mentioned a word to him about the intense curiosity and even anxiety that his odd bestowal of caps had excited amongst them, for Phil has that way with him that can shut up a fellow quicker than you can snap a knife if that fellow is travelling out of bounds.
However, when Place, of Merishall's, came out of the pavilion a full-blown member of the school eleven there was a scene. The whole body of fellows now thought that the comedy was pretty nearly becoming a tragedy, and they showed their feelings unmistakably. Place was cheered by Merishall's, but not overwhelmingly, and from the other houses there was an ominous silence. Place, as he trotted out, looked rather puzzled, and a bit undecided how to take his odd reception, and glanced rather helplessly round at the sea of faces all turned anxiously towards him. There would be pretty nearly seven hundred fellows round the pavilion, for there was no end of excitement.
"Keep up your pecker, Place! You're all right, anyhow!" shouted some one.
The other members came out one by one, and were cheered to the echo, and at last Phil came out with Hodgson. He was rather pale, but had his back very straight. There was a dead silence, and, for the first time since he had been captain, Phil walked down the steps without a friendly cheer. I think even now the old school behaved itself very well—the fellows were not behind the scenes, and didn't see more than was before their eyes, but there was not a single word thrown out at Phil. Acton came out with Worcester, and the pity was that he didn't deserve the cheers he got.
The week before the Carthusian match there was but one solitary player to be promoted. The position was back, and every fellow in the place knew that, bar Bourne himself, there wasn't another man that could hold a candle to Acton there. The committee doggedly, and with meaning, elected the only player there was to elect, and Acton signified that he was willing to play. Bourne, as usual, was there, and no one felt more than he the air of distrust and constraint which hung over the meeting. When Acton was unanimously elected for back Phil stolidly wrote out the list of the team and had it pinned up on the notice-board. He had carefully drawn the line in red ink above the last name—Acton's—which showed that the pride of Biffen's was not in the eleven yet.
Probably Acton on the next day played as well as even he had ever played in his life, for he was almost impassable, and the crowd of fellows cheered him till they were hoarse. The minute the whistle blew, like one man the whole school swarmed round the pavilion. The question each asked himself and his chum was, "Would Acton get the last cap?" And the answer was, "Why, of course! Who else should have it?"
That afternoon to most of the fellows the eleven seemed an age getting into their sweaters and coats. When Acton appeared first, and it was seen that he was wearing the pink cap of Biffen's on his head there was more than astonishment, there was consternation. Whatever did it mean? Acton smiled good-naturedly at the school as they cheered him to the echo, and hurried unconcernedly along. The others of the eleven came out dejectedly, and filed up the hill in gloomy little groups. The whole school waited for Phil, and when he came out, pale and worried, they received him in icy silence. As he was coming down the steps one of Biffen's fags shouted shrilly, "Three cheers for Acton!"
Phil stalked through the shouting school, and as I joined him and we walked up together, he said, through his clenched teeth—
"I wish, old man, I had never seen that brute."
That evening Bourne wrote to Worcester offering him the remaining cap.
Worcester flew across to Acton's room, and said, "Bourne has offered me the place—the last cap. He must be stark, staring mad!"
"Take it," said Acton, coolly.
"No fear," said Worcester. "We have a stupid kind of prejudice here for having the best eleven we can get, and it isn't the best if you're out of it. Bourne has always been a most impartial fellow up to this date, so this little occurrence has thrown us off the rails. Before I go to protest, though, have you any idea what is the matter?"
"He does not consider me fit for the eleven," said Acton with a light laugh, but also with perfect truth.
"Rot!" said Dick, hurrying away.
He hunted up the other nine fellows, and said bluntly his business.
"I vote we all protest to Bourne. A round robin should meet the case."
"Good," said Mivart. "Draw one up, Dicky dear."
Dick in time produced the following:—
"We, the undersigned, think that the St. Amory eleven is incomplete without John Acton, of Biffen's house, and, consequently, that he ought to have the last cap; and we would beg the captain to offer it him unless there be very good reasons for not doing so. We would suggest that if John Acton isn't to have the cap he be told the reason. The undersigned do not wish in the smallest degree to prejudice the right of the captain to select members for the eleven, but think that in the present case the withholding of a cap from John Acton inexplicable."
"You're a ready scribe, Dick," said Chalmers. "We may all sign that, eh?"
"Yes," said Worcester. "I first, because I am undeservedly offered the cap, and the rest of you in order of membership."
No one saw any objection to signing Dick's memorandum, and forthwith, with all legal formality, the round robin was signed by the ten, and sent to Phil by Dick's fag with orders to wait for an answer.
It came within five minutes.
"DEAR WORCESTER, I have no intention of offering John Acton a place in the St. Amory's football eleven. There are good reasons for not doing so, and I have already told Acton the reasons. Please let me know whether you accept the vacant place I had the pleasure of offering you. Yours sincerely, PHILIP BOURNE."
This was a thunderbolt among the fellows. Then Acton knew!
Worcester posted back to Acton, lost in amazement.
"Look at this, Acton!"
Acton carefully read Bourne's letter, and Dick, who was watching him anxiously, saw him bite his lips with rage; for Phil's icy contempt stood out in every word of the letter.
"He says you know why you are not in the eleven."
Acton knew that he would have to explain something, or else Bourne would win the day yet. So he said—
"That is true. He told me so at the beginning of the season, but, of course, I never bargained for his keeping his word; and when you hear the reason he gave me—if this is his reason—you'll gasp."
"Well," said Dick, "although I've no right to ask you, I'd like to hear the plain, unvarnished tale, for, speaking out, Phil Bourne has always passed for a decent, level fellow. This business, somehow, doesn't seem his form at all, and it is only fair to him to say it."
"Did you see the match we had with Shannon's scratch team when the term began?"
"Did you notice anything about my play?"
"You opened our eyes a bit, I remember."
"Did I play roughly?"
"No. Not quite that! You were not gentle; but you aren't that as a rule, though your game is fair enough."
"Not for Bourne. He doesn't like my game. I'm too rough. It's bad form, pace Bourne, therefore I'm barred my place in the eleven."
"Is that the explanation?"
"Yes. Honour bright! Except"—Acton paused diplomatically for a moment—"except, I don't think he likes me."
"Then Phil is a fool, and he'll find out pretty speedily that we can't stand rot of this quality. I, of course, can't take the cap."
"My dear fellow, why in the world not? If you don't, some other house will get it. Biffen's deserves two fellows in the eleven this year."
"They do, by Jove!"
"Then let us have the satisfaction of keeping out another Corker fellow."
Dick told the other fellows plainly and without any gilding, his conversation with Acton, and they pressed him to go and see Phil personally; so Dick marched heavily to Bourne's quarters.
"Sorry, Worcester, but I cannot explain anything. Not even to you. But I do hope you'll come into the eleven."
Dick said shortly, "I think I shall, for Biffen's deserves the other cap, though the right fellow isn't getting it. By the way, Bourne, you'll not be very sweet to the school generally after this. They—the fellows—to a man, are no end cut up over Acton's treatment."
"I supposed they would be. I knew it would be so."
"Look here, Phil. You always did the square thing. Let us have the reason for this," said Dick, earnestly.
"Sorry, Worcester, I can't."
"Good night, then."
The rage and consternation of the Biffenites when they found that Bourne was immovable in his decision can be imagined. Some were inclined to take the matter up to Corker's throne, but they were a miserable minority.
"Let Corker have a finger in our own private affairs!" said Dick, with intense disgust. "What next, gentlemen? We won't be able to blow our own noses without his permission. Keep the masters out of this, whatever we do. Can't we see the thing through ourselves? I vote we try, anyhow."
Some were inclined to blame Dick for accepting the cap; but pretty generally it was agreed that, if Acton was not to have it, Dick was the next best man, but at what a distance! The honour of having two men in the eleven was no solatium for the wounded pride of Biffen's, when they considered their great injury. The reason, though, was, naturally, what puzzled them—and, for the matter of that, the whole school. Did Bourne expect his team to play footer as though it were a game of croquet? Were drawing-room manners to be introduced on to the Acres' clay? Were the famous eleven of St. Amory's to amble about, like a swarm of bread-and-butter misses? One wit suggested wadded coats and respirators. Acton rough, indeed! Phil Bourne must be an embodiment of his grandmother, then! Most of the fags in Biffen's house sent Phil elaborate instructions for "a nice drawing-room game to take the place of 'Socker' football—nasty, rough 'Socker' footer—for one-and-six, and guaranteed to do no injury to the most delicate constitution. A child can play it!" These letters were anonymous, of course; but Biffen's house-paper was freely used. "Anyhow," said Phil, with a gentle smile to me, "the spelling is obviously Biffen's."
Acton went on his own way, serenely indifferent to his house, which would have made a god of him on the smallest provocation. He cheerfully ignored Bourne, and he had the art of never seeing Phil when they met, in school or out, though, of course, Phil minded this not at all. When the Carthusians were played, Acton spent the afternoon reading with Raven, whose exam, was now very near; and, whilst the two were grinding out all the absurd details of Horace and his patron, "and the poet's little farm, and the other rot which gains Perry Exhibitions," the shouts and cheers of the school down at the Acres came floating up the hill to their room.
The school lost their match with the Carthusians—the match which a good St. Amorian would rather win than any two others—and it was plain that Dick, though a useful fellow, could not bottle up the forwards in the Actonian style. This defeat was the last straw to break the back of the school's patience.
It was customary, after the Carthusian match, for the footer captain to give his eleven a formal tea, Phil arranged the usual preliminaries, sick at heart, and wearily certain as to the result. Three put in an appearance—Vercoe, Baines, and Roberts—and in place of the burly forms of the rest of the St. Amory's eleven, the sylph-like figures of their fags flitted to Phil's hall of entertainment with curt little notes. Worcester and the rest "regretted they were unable to avail themselves of the captain's invitation."
The tea was not a success.
The school followed the plain lead of the eleven, and as Phil hurried along to chapel the next day no one hooked in with him, as had been done "the day before yesterday!" He was left severely alone.
In plain words, St Amory's School consigned Phil Bourne to Coventry.
THANKS TO ACTON
After the Carthusian match there was but one topic, or to be strictly accurate, perhaps, two topics of interest in the school—who would be cock-house at footer and who would get the Perry Exhibition.
The rest of the houses knew that Biffen's house was not now the unconsidered article it was once; that it wasn't the door-mat upon which any one might wipe his feet before proceeding into the inner circles of the housers' competition, and there was more than a little curiosity to see how far the "resurrected" house would mount.
But not a single soul dreamt that it would reach the final. The whole school gasped for a fortnight on end as Biffen's annihilated Dover's, Hargen's, Sharpe's, and Merishall's seriatim, and at last faced Corker's house in the final. This was a resurrected house with a vengeance! Corker's had had a bye in the first round and had been drawn against rather rickety houses since, but they were generally fancied to pull off the final as usual, for Bourne was captain, and they had Hodgson and Roberts of the eleven as well. The wonderful progress of Biffen's had thrown an awful lot of excitement into the game.
The match was fixed for the last Saturday in the term, and the result of the Perry Exhibition was to be announced on the evening of the same day, so the last Saturday was going to be the memorable day of the Michaelmas stretch.
If you want a full account of the match you had better write to the editor of The Amorian. He will send you the magazine with a page or so of description and account, but all I'm going to say is that Bourne and Acton played as they had never played before—I think I've said that before about Acton, but he really was superlative in the housers' final—and that five minutes from time the score was "one all." Then Acton showed the school a stroke of genius. He brought Raven out from centre-forward, where he was quite unable to cope with Bourne, whispered him to go "back" with Worcester, and before any one could realize what was happening he was playing forward himself. He' was a "lambent flame along the ground" if you like. In a second Biffen's were swarming round Roberts in goal, Acton passed out to Chalmers, who was ready for the pass, and in a twinkling the ball was in the net. From the row you might have imagined the school had gone mad.
The ball was kicked off again. Almost immediately Acton secured near the centre. He dribbled through the ruck of his opponents until he saw Bourne upon him. With a smile of triumph upon his lips he gently rolled the leather to Chalmers, who was hungrily waiting for the pass out on the touch-line. Chalmers waltzed beautifully for the short run almost to the corner flag. He steadied himself for one instant after his run, and then lifted the ball magnificently into the goal mouth. As the leather was skimming past, Acton just reached it with his head and deflected it high and dry out of Roberts' reach into the net. It was the supreme effort of his splendid game.
Biffen's had won by three goals to one!
They carried Acton off the field in ecstasy, and nearly scared Dame Biffen out of her wits by the "whisper" of "cock-house." Well, it certainly was unusual.
After tea the whole of St. Amory's crowded into the Speech Room to hear the result of the Perry Exhibition. There would not be a fellow away, I should fancy, bar the cripples in the hospital, for there was no end of excitement. Was this to be another Biffen's triumph? Was Raven of the Fifth to beat Hodgson, the chosen of the Sixth, for the Perry? It was not to be expected that he would, but when the whisper circled round that Acton had '"coached" him in classics it was agreed that perhaps there would be another feather in Acton's cap.
The masters were there on the platform in serried ranks, the whole fifty of them, from Corker to Pfenning who "does" the music.
Corker, as usual, went straight to the mark, whilst the entire mass of fellows kept a death-like silence. "The result of the examination for the Perry Exhibition is as follows:—
1st. Arthur Raven, 672 marks. 2nd. Theodore Hodgson, 591 marks. 3rd. Augustus Vernon Robert Todd, 114 marks."
Then out broke the usual uproar, "shivering the silence," as some one says, "into clamour." We all cheered for Raven, who scored a popular and unexpected victory, for why should a Fifth Form fellow beat one of the Sixth? Biffen's crowd kept up the cheering until Corker rose again.
"I can heartily congratulate Raven on his success, for his classical knowledge was distinctly good. Hodgson I can also congratulate, for his papers too were good. As for Augustus Vernon Robert Todd"—we all yelled with laughter as Dr. Moore scrambled in hot haste through Todd's awful list of names, but were again quiet when he dropped his eye-glasses from his eagle's beak, a sure sign he was going to "savage" somebody—"as for his performance in this examination, I can only regard it as a very bad practical joke, or as his ballon d'essai for some kindergarten scholarship."
Raven got up from his seat near the door. He was pale to the lips, but his voice was clear and unhesitating. "If you please, sir, may I say a word?"
"Eh, what?" said Corker. "Say a word? Oh, certainly."
"I am very glad indeed to hear that I have won the Perry Exhibition. I know in my own mind that I could never have beaten my friend Hodgson if I had not had Acton's help. I owe the winning of the Exhibition entirely to him, for he has read the whole of the classics with me and helped me in every way in his power. I cannot thank him enough for all he has done, but at least I owe him this open acknowledgment."
Corker looked no end pleased, and turned round and beamed on Biffen, whose good-natured easy face shone with pleasure and delight.
"Biffen," said good old Corker, audibly, "your house is fortunate in having Acton, and St. Amory such a good amateur coach in classics. Cock-house, too, bless me!"
And can you wonder that Biffen's, frenzied with delight, carried Raven and Acton shoulder high through the gas-lit streets?
Whilst the Biffenites were thus shouting their way home, one unhappy youth hurried to his room feeling as though the moon had fallen out of heaven and crushed him—Todd. After that night when he had made the bet with Cotton, he had neither worked for the Perry nor yet left it alone, but loafed about with Cotton as usual, and piffled with the work for the Exhibition. As a last-lap spurt, he had, in the last week or so, desperately stuffed himself with cunning tips leading twistingly to nowhere. Never had any one faced a serious examination with such a rag-bag of tips as Todd, and the examination had found him out with a vengeance. As he slunk along to his quarters, Corker's words were buzzing in his ears unendingly. "As for Augustus Vernon Robert Todd"—"ballon d'essai"—"Kindergarten!" Oh! it was a sickener, and how the fellows had laughed!
As for his bet with Cotton about cock-house, why, he had, when he saw those goals put on at the last moment, felt a cold shiver run down his back. He had crawled off the Acres a sick and sorry and miserable wretch. Cotton had, being rather riled at his chum's temper for the last month, hinted, in unmistakable terms, that the debt was to be paid on return after holidays. Todd contemplated the ravishing prospect of the future with unmixed feelings. Between the upper and nether millstones of the lost Exhibition and the lost bet he had been crashed, annihilated!
When he had shut the study door, in sheer despair of spirit, he laid his head on the table and—Well, did he blub? All I know is, the Rev. E. Taylor knocked at the door once, twice, thrice, and Todd heard him not. The house master came in and surveyed the bowed form of poor Gus with a good-natured smile, tempered with some scorn. He took the liberty of loudly poking Gus's decaying fire, whereat the young gentleman sprang up instanter.
"I knocked, Todd, but I suppose you were thinking too deeply to hear me."
"Sorry, sir," said Gus, hurriedly getting the master a chair, "and, as a matter of fact, I was thinking."
"What an awful ass I've been, sir!" "I don't know quite about the ass, but you've certainly not been an epitome of all that's wise this term. It was on that very subject that I came here to have a word with you before we go for the holidays."
Gus looked blankly into the grate.
"This exhibition of yours, Todd, in the examination is just the answer you might expect to the problem you've set yourself. 'How can I get something of value by doing nothing for it?' I must say... etc." Taylor spoke very much to the point to Todd for about half an hour, taking the ribs out of Gus's conceit one by one, until he felt very much like a damp, damaged gamp, and about as helpless. One by one he took him through the catalogue of the aimless, stupid, footling performances in the term, and Gus blankly wondered how the dickens Taylor knew quite so much of his doings, He felt that the house master was not a bad imitation of Corker on a flaying expedition. I must say that Taylor's performance was a considerable trifle above the average "beak's wigging," but the sting of his discourse was in the tail. "Now, Todd, would you like me to ask Dr. Moore to transfer you to some other house, where your very intimate friends will not absorb so much of your time?"
Todd blushed purple at this very broad hint.
"I'd rather stay where I am; I am not quite an incapable, sir."
"No; I don't think you are—not quite. Dr. Moore, however, is somewhat out of patience with you, and proposes drastic measures."
"Home?" inquired Todd, with gloomy conviction.
"Yes," said the house master. "Dr. Moore has written your father. But you are coming back next term, when you will have the chance of showing that that awful performance in the Exhibition is not your true form. I hope you'll take it."
Todd said bitterly, "I will, sir."
"I am glad of that," said Taylor, "and I believe you will. Good night, Todd."
"Good night, sir."
Todd packed up his portmanteaux that night as gloomily and as savagely as though his shirts were his deadly enemies. But there was a square, determined thrust-out of his weak chin which boded ill for Jim Cotton's classics and mathematics in the future.
It was the inalienable right of the juniors of the cock-house to give a concert the last night of the term, and to have free and undisputed possession of the concert-room. Corker made it a rule that the captain of the school should be there to see there were no riots, which, as the fags were off home on the morrow, was more than possible. So when I got a polite note from Grim about half an hour after the results of the Perry Exhibition had been announced, telling me that Corker had given the customary consent, I strolled about looking up a cohort of monitors to help me in maintaining the "sacred cause of order and decency." I knew of old those junior concerts. "Pandemonium" was nearer the word.
Biffen's juniors, red-hot from their exertions and hoarse from their shouting in the speech-room, held a meeting in their own private quarters to deliberate as to their concert.
"I vote Father Grim to the chair," said Wilson.
"Thanks, my son," said Grim, with alacrity "Somebody second that, and let's get to business."
Somebody obligingly seconded, and Grim enthroned himself with dignity in the chair, and said cheerfully, "Carried nem. con. That's the way to commence biz. Now, you fellows, I thank you for this unexpected honour, which has quite taken me by surprise. I shall always—"
"Shut up, Grim," said Brown. "You know jolly well you asked Wilson to propose you."
"All right, Brown; I'll talk with you afterwards. Sorry your Roman nose is out of joint; but nobody proposed you, you know, so shut up. Gentlemen—"
"Biffen's are cock-house at last" (deafening cheers) "and we must make our concert a stunner. It must go with a bang from start to finish. It must lick every other fag's concert that ever was, and 'be the bright harbinger of—' What is the rest of the quote, Wilson?"
"'Of future joys,' you ass."
"'Of future joys,' you asses."
"I'll punch your head, Grim; you said you remembered it."
"All serene, old man, never mind the cackle."
"What about our concert?" asked Brown.
"It's going to be great. Does any one happen to have a programme of that awful performance of Corker's house last year?"
"Rather!" said half a dozen of Biffen's ornaments. "Did you think we'd burn a curiosity like that?"
"Cut out and get yours, Rogers, my pet."
"My pet" bolted and came back with the year-old programme of the Corker's fags.
"Pass the abomination this way, Rogers. Gentlemen," said Grim, with intense scorn, "those unspeakable Corker asses started off with a prologue."
"We must go one better—eh, you fellows?" said Rogers.
"Rather!" they all shrieked.
"I vote," said young Cherry, "that we lead off with an epilogue. That will leave 'em standing."
"Hear, hear!" said Fruity.
"Who'll second that?" said Grim.
"I will," said Rogers, cheerfully.
"Then do it, you ass," said the chairman.
"I second," said Rogers, hurriedly, "and you needn't be so beastly strict, Grim."
"Gentlemen, the proposal before the meeting is that we lead off with an epilogue. Item number one on the programme to be 'An Epilogue.' Those in favour signify. Carried unanimously."
"I say, Grim, what is an epilogue, anyhow?" said a voice.
"Oh, I say," said the chairman, "pass that young ignoramus this way. Lamb, do you mean to say you don't know what an epilogue is?"
"No, I don't."
"This is sickening," said Grim, with disgust. "A fellow in Biffen's not know what an epilogue is! Tell him, Fruity," he added, with pathetic vexation.
"He asked you," said Cherry, hurriedly.
"I'm the chairman," said Grim, in a wax, but with great relief. "Explain away, Fruity!"
"Oh, every first-class concert starts with one," he said vaguely.
"See now, Lamb?"
Lamb professed himself satisfied, but he did not appear absolutely blinded by the light either.
"Anyhow," said Wilson, "Fruity will see to that. I propose he does."
"I second it," said Lamb, viciously, whereupon Cherry kicked the seconder on the shins, for he did not exactly thirst for that honour. "I'm an ass," he said to himself; "but, anyhow, I'll look up what the blessed word does mean, and try to do it."
"I see," said Grim, "they've got a poem on 'Cock House' for number two. That seems all right, eh?"
"Oh yes; it's always done."
"Well, we'll have one too, eh? Who's got to do the poetry, though? Somebody propose somebody"—thereupon every fag proposed his chiefest enemy, and the battles raged along the line. "And you call yourselves gentlemen!" said Grim in disgust—he had been overlooked for the time being.
"I propose Sharpe," said Wilson, dusting himself. "He does no end swell construes from 'Ovid.'"
"I second that," said Rogers. "He has long hair. Poets always have. Milton had."
"That bit is side," said the chairman, judicially. "Those who are in favour of Sharpe doing the poetry hold—Carried, nem. con."
"Nem. con. is side too, Grim," said Rogers.
"Shut up, you mule! Sharpe, you'll have to do the poem."
"I say, you fellows, it will be horse work," said Sharpe, disconsolately. "There isn't a rhyme to Biffen's."
"Oh! isn't there? What about 'spiffing'?"
Lamb squeaked out "stiff 'un," and some one gently led him out—even Biffen's fags caved in at that.
"Sharpe, you're booked for number two, old man. Gentlemen, I direct your attention to number three—Corker's did Indian clubs and the gold-fish dodge."
"Oh, well," said Wilson, "we're not going to copy Corker's, anyhow. Let's do dumb-bells and something else."
"I propose that Wilson does the something else," said Cherry, good-naturedly.
Wilson said he was ready to do something to Cherry any time that was convenient. Rogers suggested that they ask the niggers to do something on the bars, and Sharpe seconded it, so the dervishes were written to and promised a scragging if they didn't turn themselves inside out for the glory of Biffen's concert.
"I say, you fellows," said Grim, "it's to be a concert, you know, and except for Fruity's epilogue there isn't any music down yet." Cherry groaned to think he'd been let in for a song.
"What about Thurston?" asked half a dozen of the fags.
"Right, oh! Now, 'Dicky Bird,' hop up to the front, and trot out your list."
Thurston wasn't shy, and rather fancied his bleat, so he said, "Oh! I don't mind at all."
"We thought you wouldn't," said the chairman, winking.
"What do you say to 'Alice, where art thou'?"
"We don't fancy your shouting five minutes for her at all. Next, please."
"'Only to see her face again,' then?"
"Whose?" said Sharpe, irreverently.
"Why, the girl's the fellow is singing about," said Thurston, hotly.
"Oh! you'll see her the day after to-morrow, Dicky Bird, so don't you fret about that now. Do you know 'My first cigar'?"
"Do you mean the one that sent you to hospital, Grimmy?"
"No I don't. None of your cheek. I'm chairman. I mean the one Corney Grain used to sing."
"Well, you sing that and you'll make the fellows die with laughing. And mind you illustrate it with plenty of life-like pantomime, do you hear?"
"Carried, nem. con.," shouted all the fags with enthusiasm.
"Hear, hear, Grimmy!"
"So that's settled for you, and if you get an encore, Dicky Bird, you can trot 'Alice' out if you like."
"Which of the fellows have we to invite out of the eleven to help us?"
"Acton," was the universal yell.
"We'll see him, then, to-night."
"Three cheers for Acton," said someone, and the roof echoed.
"Well, we're getting on, and I say, you chaps, I have an idea."
"Hear, hear!" said Cherry, acidly; "Grimmy has an idea."
"A grand idea, Fruity. Your epilogue isn't in it."
"What is it, Grim?"
"We'll have a boxing competition open to St. Amory's juniors only. Rogers should pull that off, eh?"
"Rather," said they all. "One more feather in Biffen's cap.".
"But, Grimmy," said Rogers, "I don't last, you know."
"Ah!" said the chairman, brilliantly, "we'll only have one two-minutes' round each draw. It will go by points. You're safe as a house, my pet, really."
"Who'll be judge about points? I propose you, Grim," said Rogers, with intent.
"Thanks, old cock, but I really couldn't do the honourable if you were 'rocky' in the last rounds. We'll ask Carr to see us through that part. You'll be all right, I tell you."
"Who's to accompany on the P and O?"
"Oh, Brown must see to that!"
"I propose Brown key-thumper."
"I second that."
"Carried," said the chair, smartly.
"I say," said Grim, "I propose myself stage manager. I'm the only fellow who knows a ha'porth about it."
"A ha'porth is an awful lot; besides, a chairman can't propose himself," said Cherry, revengefully.
"I second the chairman's proposal," said Wilson, backing up his chum.
"Carried, nem. con."
"No, I'm hanged if it was!" said Cherry. "You're a fraud, Grimmy."
"All right now, you chaps, the meeting is over. Wilson and I will go up to Acton, and see what he'll do for us, and then we'll rough out a swagger programme."
THE END OF TERM
The two worthies, Grim and Wilson, after seeing Acton, began to get out their programme. Here it is:—
BIFFEN'S JUNIORS' CONCERT.
Cock House, December, 1898.
(1) Epilogue. B.A.M. CHERRY.
(2) Poem on the subject of Cock House. B. SHARPE.
(3) Bar Act.
(4) First Round Junior Boxing Competition. PRINCE RUNJIT MEHTAH and RAM SINGH.
(5) SONG. "My First Cigar." R.E. THURSTON.
(6) PIANOFORTE SOLO. "Oh! listen to the band." O. BROWN.
(7) Second Round Boxing.
(8) SONG. "Jim." J. ACTON, ESQ.
(9) Third and Concluding Rounds Boxing.
(10) SONG. "Well, suppose you did?" R.E. THURSTON.
GOD SAVE THE QUEEN.
ACCOMPANIST O.E. BROWN. Trinity College (by Examination).
STAGE MANAGER W.E. GRIM.
N.B.—The Manager begs to state that there will be no Latin or classical allusions throughout the evening. No waits. No charge for programmes. No antediluvian jokes.
This was printed on paper blushing pink—Biffen's colours—and Grim and Wilson, when they got the advance proof last thing on Saturday night, almost embraced in their jubilation. There was such a swagger look about the "N.B."
Meanwhile B.A.M. Cherry had consulted his dictionary, and therein found that an "epilogue" was defined as "a concluding speech in an oration or play." He broke into a cold sweat of horror. That was an epilogue, then! Where could he find one? What would be the good of one if he did find it? And supposing he had one and could recite it, it was at the wrong end of the programme—the programme which had already been printed in such hot haste? It was too late to tell Grim, who would have instantly summoned all the strength of Biffen's to scrag him. The wretched Cherry shuddered at his awful plight.
Nothing could he do or dare he do. In desperation he determined to fall ill on the concert night. B.A.M. Cherry hadn't the heroic soul, and when Grim asked him cheerfully how the epilogue was going on, he said "spiffing," in the tone of a martyr at the stake.
On the Monday Grim scuttled about all day—now on the stage, listening to Thurston going over his songs with Brown, now getting entries for his boxing competition, now encouraging Sharpe, who was in the throes of composition, and now criticizing the Dervishes with much force. Acton put in an appearance in the concert-room, and gave Brown the accompaniment to "Jim;" and, after hearing him play it through, went and read his novel the rest of his spare time.
At 7.30 the juniors of St. Amory's began to stroll in, Biffen's lot collaring the front seats as per custom. The programmes were distributed to each one as he came in, and created no end of sensation, and W.E. Grim was allowed to have come out very strong in the programme line. St. Amory's fags did not spot anything wrong about item one, but the older fellows chuckled a little and said "the manager was a funny ass." This opinion was instantly conveyed to Grim by one of his cronies, and made that young gentleman think himself no end of a sly dog.
Punctually to the minute Grim rang his bell, and, darting into the dressing-room, said, "Now, Cherry, come along with your epilogue, They're all waiting. Where is that ass?"
"Cherry has not turned up yet, Grim."
"What?" he said in horror.
"Not turned up yet!"
"I'll go and fetch the beggar at once."
Grim darted out of the room, tore along the street, and was hammering at Cherry's door within the minute.
"Fruity, hurry up, they're all waiting."
"I'm not well, Grim."
"I'm not well—I'm in bed."
"You miserable beast!" shouted Grim. "I'll massacre you. You'll make us the laughing stock of the whole school. Get up, man, Be a man."
"I'm ill," moaned Cherry from within.
"You miserable beast! You'll be dead to-morrow." He shook the door violently, but Cherry was not quite the utter fool Grim took him for, for he had locked the door. Grim stood outside on the corridor for some seconds, petrified with rage and disgust, and then flew like a madman back to the concert-room. He cannoned up against some one leisurely strolling up to the dressing-room, and was darting on again sans apology. A hand gently closed upon his collar and pulled him back.
"Hallo, young shaver! Little boys used to apologize when they—Why, it's Grim! What in the name——"
Grim, almost blubbing with anger and shame, poured out his tale, and Acton listened with an amused smile. "Sheer funk, Grim. Well, go on, and tell 'em their Cherry has rotted, but that I'll come and tell 'em a little tale instead."
Grim would have embraced Acton if he'd been a little taller, but he gurgled, "Acton, you are a brick," and darted on to the stage.
He was received with deafening cheers, and shrieks of "No waits!" "Manager!" "Don't hurry, Grim!" "We'll send out for supper!" "We want Cherry!" "Go off," etc.
When Grim could get a word in he panted, "Gentlemen, I am sorry to say B.A.M. Cherry is indisposed and cannot favour you with the epilogue."
"Funked it!" roared all the delighted juniors.
"He says he is unwell," said Grim, anger getting the better of him, "but he'll be a jolly sight worse in the morning."
There was a hurricane of thunderous cheers at this sally, but Grim managed to shout above the laughing, "I have great pleasure in announcing that John Acton, Esq., will take Fruity's—I mean Cherry's—place and tell you a little tale; even Corker fags will understand it," added Grim, viciously.
Acton came on and received his hearty welcome with easy good nature. He plunged right into his contribution: "A London cabby's account of his different fares"—from the double-superfine gilt-edged individual to the fat old dowager who will have the parrot inside with her. Acton gave it perfectly. Grim, who had his ears glued to the exit door, vowed he could almost hear the swell drop his eyeglass.
Sharpe stepped on to the stage amid the polite attentions of his natural enemies. "Be a man, Sharpe." "Don't cry." "You'll see mamma soon." "Speak up." "He did it all alone, remember." "No help." "Oh, dear no!"
"When on the bosom of the sleeping pool, That's shaded o'er by trees in greenest dress, Upon its breast of snow its gem of gold The water lily swims—"
The juniors howled with dismay at this commencement, and Corker juniors instantly began to keep time to Sharpe's delivery in the organ-grinder's fashion. But Sharpe toiled remorselessly on. He compared Biffen's house to a water lily growing in a muddy pond, and again as a Phoenix risen from the ashes; and he gave us, with circumstantial details, every round of the footer housers, their two eleven caps, and the Perry Exhibition, and darkly hinted at Acton's exclusion from the eleven.
He wound up his awful farrago in one glorious burst of solemn fury—
"And even Fate girds on her sword, and her right arm she stiffens, As thunders to the icy pole the glorious name of Biffen's."
When Sharpe finally made his bow, according to the invariable custom, every junior except a Biffenite imitated with rare fidelity the mixed sensations of channel passengers after a stormy passage.
Sharpe, cheered to the echo by the Biffenites on the front row, went proudly off.
The Dervishes were received with enthusiasm, and went through their performance to the shouts of "Well wriggled, Java!" "Why don't you oil!" "Do it again—orang-outang!" They amiably smiled acknowledgments as they backed away.
Then I myself stepped on to the stage, prepared to judge the two-minutes' rounds. Grim had whipped up sixteen fags, each willing to do battle for the honour of his house. The rounds proceeded to the accompaniment of ear-splitting encouragement, and I had the satisfaction of knowing that not a solitary one of the defeated heroes thought he had really been beaten on points.
No mistake about it, Biffen's had a fag who could sing. Thurston's "My First Cigar" only lacked one thing—it should have lasted a little longer to suit the audience.
"She called it an Intimidad, It had spots of a yellowish hue, She said the best brands always had, And I firmly believed it was true."
A good number of the fellows knew "The Soldiers in the Park," and Brown hammered it out in a good old breezy style.
As he was racing home, and the jolly chorus was crashing out from the piano, one fag started "Oh, listen to the band!"
Instantly the whole school, juniors and seniors as well, joined in the chorus, keeping time with their feet.
"Oh, listen to the band! Who doesn't love to hark To the shout of 'Here they come' And the banging of the drum— Oh, listen to the soldiers in the park."
When the dust had settled, every one acknowledged that Biffen's concert was going with a bang. I am not going to bore you with a longer account of Biffen's concert. Thurston sang "Alice, where art thou?" the fellows telling him between the verses that "She wasn't going to come," "Spoony songs barred," etc., and Rogers carried off the fags' boxing competition with a big rush in the final round, and Biffen's crew howled with delight.
Finally the bell rang for Acton's song. Brown rattled through the preliminary bars, and the song commenced. The singer held himself slightly forward, in a rather stiff and awkward fashion, and his eyes were staring intently into vacancy. There was not the shadow of a shade of any expression in his face. A feeling of pity for Acton was the universal sensation when the first words fell from his lips. Acton had not the ghost of a singing voice, and the school shuddered at the awful exhibition. There was an icy silence, but Acton croaked remorselessly on. This is the song:—