THE WHITE FEATHER
By P. G. Wodehouse
[Dedication] To MY BROTHER DICK
The time of this story is a year and a term later than that of The Gold Bat. The history of Wrykyn in between these two books is dealt with in a number of short stories, some of them brainy in the extreme, which have appeared in various magazines. I wanted Messrs Black to publish these, but they were light on their feet and kept away—a painful exhibition of the White Feather.
P. G. Wodehouse
I EXPERT OPINIONS
II SHEEN AT HOME
III SHEEN RECEIVES VISITORS AND ADVICE
IV THE BETTER PART OF VALOUR
V THE WHITE FEATHER
VI ALBERT REDIVIVUS
VII MR JOE BEVAN
VIII A NAVAL BATTLE AND ITS CONSEQUENCES
IX SHEEN BEGINS HIS EDUCATION
X SHEEN'S PROGRESS
XI A SMALL INCIDENT
XII DUNSTABLE AND LINTON GO UP THE RIVER
XIII DEUS EX MACHINA
XIV A SKIRMISH
XV THE ROUT AT RIPTON
XVI DRUMMOND GOES INTO RETIREMENT
XVII SEYMOUR'S ONE SUCCESS
XVIII MR BEVAN MAKES A SUGGESTION
XIX PAVING THE WAY
XX SHEEN GOES TO ALDERSHOT
XXI A GOOD START
XXII A GOOD FINISH
XXIII A SURPRISE FOR SEYMOUR'S
XXIV BRUCE EXPLAINS
"With apologies to gent opposite," said Clowes, "I must say I don't think much of the team."
"Don't apologise to me," said Allardyce disgustedly, as he filled the teapot, "I think they're rotten."
"They ought to have got into form by now, too," said Trevor. "It's not as if this was the first game of the term."
"First game!" Allardyce laughed shortly. "Why, we've only got a couple of club matches and the return match with Ripton to end the season. It is about time they got into form, as you say."
Clowes stared pensively into the fire.
"They struck me," he said, "as the sort of team who'd get into form somewhere in the middle of the cricket season."
"That's about it," said Allardyce. "Try those biscuits, Trevor. They're about the only good thing left in the place."
"School isn't what it was?" inquired Trevor, plunging a hand into the tin that stood on the floor beside him.
"No," said Allardyce, "not only in footer but in everything. The place seems absolutely rotten. It's bad enough losing all our matches, or nearly all. Did you hear that Ripton took thirty-seven points off us last term? And we only just managed to beat Greenburgh by a try to nil."
"We got thirty points last year," he went on. "Thirty-three, and forty-two the year before. Why, we've always simply walked them. It's an understood thing that we smash them. And this year they held us all the time, and it was only a fluke that we scored at all. Their back miskicked, and let Barry in."
"Barry struck me as the best of the outsides today," said Clowes. "He's heavier than he was, and faster."
"He's all right," agreed Allardyce. "If only the centres would feed him, we might do something occasionally. But did you ever see such a pair of rotters?"
"The man who was marking me certainly didn't seem particularly brilliant. I don't even know his name. He didn't do anything at footer in my time," said Trevor.
"He's a chap called Attell. He wasn't here with you. He came after the summer holidays. I believe he was sacked from somewhere. He's no good, but there's nobody else. Colours have been simply a gift this year to anyone who can do a thing. Only Barry and myself left from last year's team. I never saw such a clearance as there was after the summer term."
"Where are the boys of the Old Brigade?" sighed Clowes.
"I don't know. I wish they were here," said Allardyce.
Trevor and Clowes had come down, after the Easter term had been in progress for a fortnight, to play for an Oxford A team against the school. The match had resulted in an absurdly easy victory for the visitors by over forty points. Clowes had scored five tries off his own bat, and Trevor, if he had not fed his wing so conscientiously, would probably have scored an equal number. As it was, he had got through twice, and also dropped a goal. The two were now having a late tea with Allardyce in his study. Allardyce had succeeded Trevor as Captain of Football at Wrykyn, and had found the post anything but a sinecure.
For Wrykyn had fallen for the time being on evil days. It was experiencing the reaction which so often takes place in a school in the year following a season of exceptional athletic prosperity. With Trevor as captain of football, both the Ripton matches had been won, and also three out of the four other school matches. In cricket the eleven had had an even finer record, winning all their school matches, and likewise beating the M.C.C. and Old Wrykinians. It was too early to prophesy concerning the fortunes of next term's cricket team, but, if they were going to resemble the fifteen, Wrykyn was doomed to the worst athletic year it had experienced for a decade.
"It's a bit of a come-down after last season, isn't it?" resumed Allardyce, returning to his sorrows. It was a relief to him to discuss his painful case without restraint.
"We were a fine team last year," agreed Clowes, "and especially strong on the left wing. By the way, I see you've moved Barry across."
"Yes. Attell can't pass much, but he passes better from right to left than from left to right; so, Barry being our scoring man, I shifted him across. The chap on the other wing, Stanning, isn't bad at times. Do you remember him? He's in Appleby's. Then Drummond's useful at half."
"Jolly useful," said Trevor. "I thought he would be. I recommended you last year to keep your eye on him."
"Decent chap, Drummond," said Clowes.
"About the only one there is left in the place," observed Allardyce gloomily.
"Our genial host," said Clowes, sawing at the cake, "appears to have that tired feeling. He seems to have lost that joie de vivre of his, what?"
"It must be pretty sickening," said Trevor sympathetically. "I'm glad I wasn't captain in a bad year."
"The rummy thing is that the worse they are, the more side they stick on. You see chaps who wouldn't have been in the third in a good year walking about in first fifteen blazers, and first fifteen scarves, and first fifteen stockings, and sweaters with first fifteen colours round the edges. I wonder they don't tattoo their faces with first fifteen colours."
"It would improve some of them," said Clowes.
Allardyce resumed his melancholy remarks. "But, as I was saying, it's not only that the footer's rotten. That you can't help, I suppose. It's the general beastliness of things that I bar. Rows with the town, for instance. We've been having them on and off ever since you left. And it'll be worse now, because there's an election coming off soon. Are you fellows stopping for the night in the town? If so, I should advise you to look out for yourselves."
"Thanks," said Clowes. "I shouldn't like to see Trevor sand-bagged. Nor indeed, should I—for choice—care to be sand-bagged myself. But, as it happens, the good Donaldson is putting us up, so we escape the perils of the town.
"Everybody seems so beastly slack now," continued Allardyce. "It's considered the thing. You're looked on as an awful blood if you say you haven't done a stroke of work for a week. I shouldn't mind that so much if they were some good at anything. But they can't do a thing. The footer's rotten, the gymnasium six is made up of kids an inch high—we shall probably be about ninetieth at the Public Schools' Competition—and there isn't any one who can play racquets for nuts. The only thing that Wrykyn'll do this year is to get the Light-Weights at Aldershot. Drummond ought to manage that. He won the Feathers last time. He's nearly a stone heavier now, and awfully good. But he's the only man we shall send up, I expect. Now that O'Hara and Moriarty are both gone, he's the only chap we have who's up to Aldershot form. And nobody else'll take the trouble to practice. They're all too slack."
"In fact," said Clowes, getting up, "as was only to be expected, the school started going to the dogs directly I left. We shall have to be pushing on now, Allardyce. We promised to look in on Seymour before we went to bed. Friend let us away."
"Good night," said Allardyce.
"What you want," said Clowes solemnly, "is a liver pill. You are looking on life too gloomily. Take a pill. Let there be no stint. Take two. Then we shall hear your merry laugh ringing through the old cloisters once more. Buck up and be a bright and happy lad, Allardyce."
"Take more than a pill to make me that," growled that soured footballer.
Mr Seymour's views on the school resembled those of Allardyce. Wrykyn, in his opinion, was suffering from a reaction.
"It's always the same," he said, "after a very good year. Boys leave, and it's hard to fill their places. I must say I did not expect quite such a clearing out after the summer. We have had bad luck in that way. Maurice, for instance, and Robinson both ought to have had another year at school. It was quite unexpected, their leaving. They would have made all the difference to the forwards. You must have somebody to lead the pack who has had a little experience of first fifteen matches."
"But even then" said Clowes, "they oughtn't to be so rank as they were this afternoon. They seemed such slackers."
"I'm afraid that's the failing of the school just now," agreed Mr Seymour. "They don't play themselves out. They don't put just that last ounce into their work which makes all the difference."
Clowes thought of saying that, to judge by appearances, they did not put in even the first ounce; but refrained. However low an opinion a games' master may have—and even express—of his team, he does not like people to agree too cordially with his criticisms.
"Allardyce seems rather sick about it," said Trevor.
"I am sorry for Allardyce. It is always unpleasant to be the only survivor of an exceptionally good team. He can't forget last year's matches, and suffers continual disappointments because the present team does not play up to the same form."
"He was saying something about rows with the town," said Trevor, after a pause.
"Yes, there has certainly been some unpleasantness lately. It is the penalty we pay for being on the outskirts of a town. Four years out of five nothing happens. But in the fifth, when the school has got a little out of hand—"
"Oh, then it really has got out of hand?" asked Clowes.
"Between ourselves, yes," admitted Mr Seymour.
"What sort of rows?" asked Trevor.
Mr Seymour couldn't explain exactly. Nothing, as it were, definite—as yet. No actual complaints so far. But still—well, trouble—yes, trouble.
"For instance," he said, "a boy in my house, Linton—you remember him?—is moving in society at this moment with a swollen lip and minus a front tooth. Of course, I know nothing about it, but I fancy he got into trouble in the town. That is merely a straw which shows how the wind is blowing, but if you lived on the spot you would see more what I mean. There is trouble in the air. And now that this election is coming on, I should not wonder if things came to a head. I can't remember a single election in Wrykyn when there was not disorder in the town. And if the school is going to join in, as it probably will, I shall not be sorry when the holidays come. I know the headmaster is only waiting for an excuse to put the town out of bounds.'
"But the kids have always had a few rows on with that school in the High Street—what's it's name—St Something?" said Clowes.
"Jude's," supplied Trevor.
"St Jude's!" said Mr Seymour. "Have they? I didn't know that."
"Oh yes. I don't know how it started, but it's been going on for two or three years now. It's a School House feud really, but Dexter's are mixed up in it somehow. If a School House fag goes down town he runs like an antelope along the High Street, unless he's got one or two friends with him. I saved dozens of kids from destruction when I was at school. The St Jude's fellows lie in wait, and dash out on them. I used to find School House fags fighting for their lives in back alleys. The enemy fled on my approach. My air of majesty overawed them."
"But a junior school feud matters very little," said Mr Seymour. "You say it has been going on for three years; and I have never heard of it till now. It is when the bigger fellows get mixed up with the town that we have to interfere. I wish the headmaster would put the place out of bounds entirely until the election is over. Except at election time, the town seems to go to sleep."
"That's what we ought to be doing," said Clowes to Trevor. "I think we had better be off now, sir. We promised Mr Donaldson to be in some time tonight."
"It's later than I thought," said Mr Seymour. "Good night, Clowes. How many tries was it that you scored this afternoon? Five? I wish you were still here, to score them for instead of against us. Good night, Trevor. I was glad to see they tried you for Oxford, though you didn't get your blue. You'll be in next year all right. Good night."
The two Old Wrykinians walked along the road towards Donaldson's. It was a fine night, but misty.
"Jove, I'm quite tired," said Clowes. "Hullo!"
They were opposite Appleby's at the moment. Clowes drew him into the shadow of the fence.
"There's a chap breaking out. I saw him shinning down a rope. Let's wait, and see who it is."
A moment later somebody ran softly through the gateway and disappeared down the road that led to the town.
"Who was it?" said Trevor. "I couldn't see."
"I spotted him all right. It was that chap who was marking me today, Stanning. Wonder what he's after. Perhaps he's gone to tar the statue, like O'Hara. Rather a sportsman."
"Rather a silly idiot," said Trevor. "I hope he gets caught."
"You always were one of those kind sympathetic chaps," said Clowes. "Come on, or Donaldson'll be locking us out."
SHEEN AT HOME
On the afternoon following the Oxford A match, Sheen, of Seymour's, was sitting over the gas-stove in his study with a Thucydides. He had been staying in that day with a cold. He was always staying in. Everyone has his hobby. That was Sheen's.
Nobody at Wrykyn, even at Seymour's, seemed to know Sheen very well, with the exception of Drummond; and those who troubled to think about the matter at all rather wondered what Drummond saw in him. To the superficial observer the two had nothing in common. Drummond was good at games—he was in the first fifteen and the second eleven, and had won the Feather Weights at Aldershot—and seemed to have no interests outside them. Sheen, on the other hand, played fives for the house, and that was all. He was bad at cricket, and had given up football by special arrangement with Allardyce, on the plea that he wanted all his time for work. He was in for an in-school scholarship, the Gotford. Allardyce, though professing small sympathy with such a degraded ambition, had given him a special dispensation, and since then Sheen had retired from public life even more than he had done hitherto. The examination for the Gotford was to come off towards the end of the term.
The only other Wrykinians with whom Sheen was known to be friendly were Stanning and Attell, of Appleby's. And here those who troubled to think about it wondered still more, for Sheen, whatever his other demerits, was not of the type of Stanning and Attell. There are certain members of every public school, just as there are certain members of every college at the universities, who are "marked men". They have never been detected in any glaring breach of the rules, and their manner towards the powers that be is, as a rule, suave, even deferential. Yet it is one of the things which everybody knows, that they are in the black books of the authorities, and that sooner or later, in the picturesque phrase of the New Yorker, they will "get it in the neck". To this class Stanning and Attell belonged. It was plain to all that the former was the leading member of the firm. A glance at the latter was enough to show that, whatever ambitions he may have had in the direction of villainy, he had not the brains necessary for really satisfactory evildoing. As for Stanning, he pursued an even course of life, always rigidly obeying the eleventh commandment, "thou shalt not be found out". This kept him from collisions with the authorities; while a ready tongue and an excellent knowledge of the art of boxing—he was, after Drummond, the best Light-Weight in the place—secured him at least tolerance at the hand of the school: and, as a matter of fact, though most of those who knew him disliked him, and particularly those who, like Drummond, were what Clowes had called the Old Brigade, he had, nevertheless, a tolerably large following. A first fifteen man, even in a bad year, can generally find boys anxious to be seen about with him.
That Sheen should have been amongst these surprised one or two people, notably Mr Seymour, who, being games' master had come a good deal into contact with Stanning, and had not been favourably impressed. The fact was that the keynote of Sheen's character was a fear of giving offence. Within limits this is not a reprehensible trait in a person's character, but Sheen overdid it, and it frequently complicated his affairs. There come times when one has to choose which of two people one shall offend. By acting in one way, we offend A. By acting in the opposite way, we annoy B. Sheen had found himself faced by this problem when he began to be friendly with Drummond. Their acquaintance, begun over a game of fives, had progressed. Sheen admired Drummond, as the type of what he would have liked to have been, if he could have managed it. And Drummond felt interested in Sheen because nobody knew much about him. He was, in a way, mysterious. Also, he played the piano really well; and Drummond at that time would have courted anybody who could play for his benefit "Mumblin' Mose", and didn't mind obliging with unlimited encores.
So the two struck up an alliance, and as Drummond hated Stanning only a shade less than Stanning hated him, Sheen was under the painful necessity of choosing between them. He chose Drummond. Whereby he undoubtedly did wisely.
Sheen sat with his Thucydides over the gas-stove, and tried to interest himself in the doings of the Athenian expedition at Syracuse. His brain felt heavy and flabby. He realised dimly that this was because he took too little exercise, and he made a resolution to diminish his hours of work per diem by one, and to devote that one to fives. He would mention it to Drummond when he came in. He would probably come in to tea. The board was spread in anticipation of a visit from him. Herbert, the boot-boy, had been despatched to the town earlier in the afternoon, and had returned with certain food-stuffs which were now stacked in an appetising heap on the table.
Sheen was just making something more or less like sense out of an involved passage of Nikias' speech, in which that eminent general himself seemed to have only a hazy idea of what he was talking about, when the door opened.
He looked up, expecting to see Drummond, but it was Stanning. He felt instantly that "warm shooting" sensation from which David Copperfield suffered in moments of embarrassment. Since the advent of Drummond he had avoided Stanning, and he could not see him without feeling uncomfortable. As they were both in the sixth form, and sat within a couple of yards of one another every day, it will be realised that he was frequently uncomfortable.
"Great Scott!" said Stanning, "swotting?"
Sheen glanced almost guiltily at his Thucydides. Still, it was something of a relief that the other had not opened the conversation with an indictment of Drummond.
"You see," he said apologetically, "I'm in for the Gotford."
"So am I. What's the good of swotting, though? I'm not going to do a stroke."
As Stanning was the only one of his rivals of whom he had any real fear, Sheen might have replied with justice that, if that was the case, the more he swotted the better. But he said nothing. He looked at the stove, and dog's-eared the Thucydides.
"What a worm you are, always staying in!" said Stanning.
"I caught a cold watching the match yesterday."
"You're as flabby as—" Stanning looked round for a simile, "as a dough-nut. Why don't you take some exercise?"
"I'm going to play fives, I think. I do need some exercise."
"Fives? Why don't you play footer?"
"I haven't time. I want to work."
"What rot. I'm not doing a stroke."
Stanning seemed to derive a spiritual pride from this admission.
"Tell you what, then," said Stanning, "I'll play you tomorrow after school."
Sheen looked a shade more uncomfortable, but he made an effort, and declined the invitation.
"I shall probably be playing Drummond," he said.
"Oh, all right," said Stanning. "I don't care. Play whom you like."
There was a pause.
"As a matter of fact," resumed Stanning, "what I came here for was to tell you about last night. I got out, and went to Mitchell's. Why didn't you come? Didn't you get my note? I sent a kid with it."
Mitchell was a young gentleman of rich but honest parents, who had left the school at Christmas. He was in his father's office, and lived in his father's house on the outskirts of the town. From time to time his father went up to London on matters connected with business, leaving him alone in the house. On these occasions Mitchell the younger would write to Stanning, with whom when at school he had been on friendly terms; and Stanning, breaking out of his house after everybody had gone to bed, would make his way to the Mitchell residence, and spend a pleasant hour or so there. Mitchell senior owned Turkish cigarettes and a billiard table. Stanning appreciated both. There was also a piano, and Stanning had brought Sheen with him one night to play it. The getting-out and the subsequent getting-in had nearly whitened Sheen's hair, and it was only by a series of miracles that he had escaped detection. Once, he felt, was more than enough; and when a fag from Appleby's had brought him Stanning's note, containing an invitation to a second jaunt of the kind, he had refused to be lured into the business again.
"Yes, I got the note," he said.
"Then why didn't you come? Mitchell was asking where you were."
"It's so beastly risky."
"We should get sacked if we were caught."
"Well, don't get caught, then."
Sheen registered an internal vow that he would not.
"He wanted us to go again on Monday. Will you come?"
"I—don't think I will, Stanning," said Sheen. "It isn't worth it."
"You mean you funk it. That's what's the matter with you."
"Yes, I do," admitted Sheen.
As a rule—in stories—the person who owns that he is afraid gets unlimited applause and adulation, and feels a glow of conscious merit. But with Sheen it was otherwise. The admission made him if possible, more uncomfortable than he had been before.
"Mitchell will be sick," said Stanning.
Sheen said nothing.
Stanning changed the subject.
"Well, at anyrate," he said, "give us some tea. You seem to have been victualling for a siege."
"I'm awfully sorry," said Sheen, turning a deeper shade of red and experiencing a redoubled attack of the warm shooting, "but the fact is, I'm waiting for Drummond."
Stanning got up, and expressed his candid opinion of Drummond in a few words.
He said more. He described Sheen, too in unflattering terms.
"Look here," he said, "you may think it jolly fine to drop me just because you've got to know Drummond a bit, but you'll be sick enough that you've done it before you've finished."
"It isn't that—" began Sheen.
"I don't care what it is. You slink about trying to avoid me all day, and you won't do a thing I ask you to do."
"But you see—"
"Oh, shut up," said Stanning.
SHEEN RECEIVES VISITORS AND ADVICE
While Sheen had been interviewing Stanning, in study twelve, farther down the passage, Linton and his friend Dunstable, who was in Day's house, were discussing ways and means. Like Stanning, Dunstable had demanded tea, and had been informed that there was none for him.
"Well, you are a bright specimen, aren't you?" said Dunstable, seating himself on the table which should have been groaning under the weight of cake and biscuits. "I should like to know where you expect to go to. You lure me in here, and then have the cheek to tell me you haven't got anything to eat. What have you done with it all?"
"There was half a cake—"
"Bring it on."
"Young Menzies bagged it after the match yesterday. His brother came down with the Oxford A team, and he had to give him tea in his study. Then there were some biscuits—"
"What's the matter with biscuits? They're all right. Bring them on. Biscuits forward. Show biscuits."
"Menzies took them as well."
Dunstable eyed him sorrowfully.
"You always were a bit of a maniac," he said, "but I never thought you were quite such a complete gibberer as to let Menzies get away with all your grub. Well, the only thing to do is to touch him for tea. He owes us one. Come on."
They proceeded down the passage and stopped at the door of study three.
"Hullo!" said Menzies, as they entered.
"We've come to tea," said Dunstable. "Cut the satisfying sandwich. Let's see a little more of that hissing urn of yours, Menzies. Bustle about, and be the dashing host."
"I wasn't expecting you."
"I can't help your troubles," said Dunstable.
"I've not got anything. I was thinking of coming to you, Linton."
"Where's that cake?"
"Finished. My brother simply walked into it."
"Greed," said Dunstable unkindly, "seems to be the besetting sin of the Menzies'. Well, what are you going to do about it? I don't wish to threaten, but I'm a demon when I'm roused. Being done out of my tea is sure to rouse me. And owing to unfortunate accident of being stonily broken, I can't go to the shop. You're responsible for the slump in provisions, Menzies, and you must see us through this. What are you going to do about it?"
"Do either of you chaps know Sheen at all?"
"I don't," said Linton. "Not to speak to."
"You can't expect us to know all your shady friends," said Dunstable. "Why?"
"He's got a tea on this evening. If you knew him well enough, you might borrow something from him. I met Herbert in the dinner-hour carrying in all sorts of things to his study. Still, if you don't know him—"
"Don't let a trifle of that sort stand in the way," said Dunstable. "Which is his study?"
"Come on, Linton," said Dunstable. "Be a man, and lead the way. Go in as if he'd invited us. Ten to one he'll think he did, if you don't spoil the thing by laughing."
"What, invite ourselves to tea?" asked Linton, beginning to grasp the idea.
"That's it. Sheen's the sort of ass who won't do a thing. Anyhow, its worth trying. Smith in our house got a tea out of him that way last term. Coming, Menzies?"
"Not much. I hope he kicks you out."
"Come on, then, Linton. If Menzies cares to chuck away a square meal, let him."
Thus, no sooner had the door of Sheen's study closed upon Stanning than it was opened again to admit Linton and Dunstable.
"Well," said Linton, affably, "here we are."
"Hope we're not late," said Dunstable. "You said somewhere about five. It's just struck. Shall we start?"
He stooped, and took the kettle from the stove.
"Don't you bother," he said to Sheen, who had watched this manoeuvre with an air of amazement, "I'll do all the dirty work."
"But—" began Sheen.
"That's all right," said Dunstable soothingly. "I like it."
The intellectual pressure of the affair was too much for Sheen. He could not recollect having invited Linton, with whom he had exchanged only about a dozen words that term, much less Dunstable, whom he merely knew by sight. Yet here they were, behaving like honoured guests. It was plain that there was a misunderstanding somewhere, but he shrank from grappling with it. He did not want to hurt their feelings. It would be awkward enough if they discovered their mistake for themselves.
So he exerted himself nervously to play the host, and the first twinge of remorse which Linton felt came when Sheen pressed upon him a bag of biscuits which, he knew, could not have cost less than one and sixpence a pound. His heart warmed to one who could do the thing in such style.
Dunstable, apparently, was worried by no scruples. He leaned back easily in his chair, and kept up a bright flow of conversation.
"You're not looking well, Sheen," he said. "You ought to take more exercise. Why don't you come down town with us one of these days and do a bit of canvassing? It's a rag. Linton lost a tooth at it the other day. We're going down on Saturday to do a bit more."
"Oh!" said Sheen, politely.
"We shall get one or two more chaps to help next time. It isn't good enough, only us two. We had four great beefy hooligans on to us when Linton got his tooth knocked out. We had to run. There's a regular gang of them going about the town, now that the election's on. A red-headed fellow, who looks like a butcher, seems to boss the show. They call him Albert. He'll have to be slain one of these days, for the credit of the school. I should like to get Drummond on to him."
"I was expecting Drummond to tea," said Sheen.
"He's running and passing with the fifteen," said Linton. "He ought to be in soon. Why, here he is. Hullo, Drummond!"
"Hullo!" said the newcomer, looking at his two fellow-visitors as if he were surprised to see them there.
"How were the First?" asked Dunstable.
"Oh, rotten. Any tea left?"
Conversation flagged from this point, and shortly afterwards Dunstable and Linton went.
"Come and tea with me some time," said Linton.
"Oh, thanks," said Sheen. "Thanks awfully."
"It was rather a shame," said Linton to Dunstable, as they went back to their study, "rushing him like that. I shouldn't wonder if he's quite a good sort, when one gets to know him."
"He must be a rotter to let himself be rushed. By Jove, I should like to see someone try that game on with me."
In the study they had left, Drummond was engaged in pointing this out to Sheen.
"The First are rank bad," he said. "The outsides were passing rottenly today. We shall have another forty points taken off us when we play Ripton. By the way, I didn't know you were a pal of Linton's."
"I'm not," said Sheen.
"Well, he seemed pretty much at home just now."
"I can't understand it. I'm certain I never asked him to tea. Or Dunstable either. Yet they came in as if I had. I didn't like to hurt their feelings by telling them."
"What, they came without being asked! Heavens! man, you must buck up a bit and keep awake, or you'll have an awful time. Of course those two chaps were simply trying it on. I had an idea it might be that when I came in. Why did you let them? Why didn't you scrag them?"
"Oh, I don't know," said Sheen uncomfortably.
"But, look here, it's rot. You must keep your end up in a place like this, or everybody in the house'll be ragging you. Chaps will, naturally, play the goat if you let them. Has this ever happened before?"
Sheen admitted reluctantly that it had. He was beginning to see things. It is never pleasant to feel one has been bluffed.
"Once last term," he said, "Smith, a chap in Day's, came to tea like that. I couldn't very well do anything."
"And Dunstable is in Day's. They compared notes. I wonder you haven't had the whole school dropping in on you, lining up in long queues down the passage. Look here, Sheen, you really must pull yourself together. I'm not ragging. You'll have a beastly time if you're so feeble. I hope you won't be sick with me for saying it, but I can't help that. It's all for your own good. And it's really pure slackness that's the cause of it all."
"I hate hurting people's feelings," said Sheen.
"Oh, rot. As if anybody here had any feelings. Besides, it doesn't hurt a chap's feelings being told to get out, when he knows he's no business in a place."
"Oh, all right," said Sheen shortly.
"Glad you see it," said Drummond. "Well, I'm off. Wonder if there's anybody in that bath."
He reappeared a few moments later. During his absence Sheen overheard certain shrill protestations which were apparently being uttered in the neighbourhood of the bathroom door.
"There was," he said, putting his head into the study and grinning cheerfully at Sheen. "There was young Renford, who had no earthly business to be there. I've just looked in to point the moral. Suppose you'd have let him bag all the hot water, which ought to have come to his elders and betters, for fear of hurting his feelings; and gone without your bath. I went on my theory that nobody at Wrykyn, least of all a fag, has any feelings. I turfed him out without a touch of remorse. You get much the best results my way. So long."
And the head disappeared; and shortly afterwards there came from across the passage muffled but cheerful sounds of splashing.
THE BETTER PART OF VALOUR
The borough of Wrykyn had been a little unfortunate—or fortunate, according to the point of view—in the matter of elections. The latter point of view was that of the younger and more irresponsible section of the community, which liked elections because they were exciting. The former was that of the tradespeople, who disliked them because they got their windows broken.
Wrykyn had passed through an election and its attendant festivities in the previous year, when Sir Eustace Briggs, the mayor of the town, had been returned by a comfortable majority. Since then ill-health had caused that gentleman to resign his seat, and the place was once more in a state of unrest. This time the school was deeply interested in the matter. The previous election had not stirred them. They did not care whether Sir Eustace Briggs defeated Mr Saul Pedder, or whether Mr Saul Pedder wiped the political floor with Sir Eustace Briggs. Mr Pedder was an energetic Radical; but owing to the fact that Wrykyn had always returned a Conservative member, and did not see its way to a change as yet, his energy had done him very little good. The school had looked on him as a sportsman, and read his speeches in the local paper with amusement; but they were not interested. Now, however, things were changed. The Conservative candidate, Sir William Bruce, was one of themselves—an Old Wrykinian, a governor of the school, a man who always watched school-matches, and the donor of the Bruce Challenge Cup for the school mile. In fine, one of the best. He was also the father of Jack Bruce, a day-boy on the engineering side. The school would have liked to have made a popular hero of Jack Bruce. If he had liked, he could have gone about with quite a suite of retainers. But he was a quiet, self-sufficing youth, and was rarely to be seen in public. The engineering side of a public school has workshops and other weirdnesses which keep it occupied after the ordinary school hours. It was generally understood that Bruce was a good sort of chap if you knew him, but you had got to know him first; brilliant at his work, and devoted to it; a useful slow bowler; known to be able to drive and repair the family motor-car; one who seldom spoke unless spoken to, but who, when he did speak, generally had something sensible to say. Beyond that, report said little.
As he refused to allow the school to work off its enthusiasm on him, they were obliged to work it off elsewhere. Hence the disturbances which had become frequent between school and town. The inflammatory speeches of Mr Saul Pedder had caused a swashbuckling spirit to spread among the rowdy element of the town. Gangs of youths, to adopt the police-court term, had developed a habit of parading the streets arm-in-arm, shouting "Good old Pedder!" When these met some person or persons who did not consider Mr Pedder good and old, there was generally what the local police-force described as a "frakkus".
It was in one of these frakkuses that Linton had lost a valuable tooth.
Two days had elapsed since Dunstable and Linton had looked in on Sheen for tea. It was a Saturday afternoon, and roll-call was just over. There was no first fifteen match, only a rather uninteresting house-match, Templar's versus Donaldson's, and existence in the school grounds showed signs of becoming tame.
"What a beastly term the Easter term is," said Linton, yawning. "There won't be a thing to do till the house-matches begin properly."
Seymour's had won their first match, as had Day's. They would not be called upon to perform for another week or more.
"Let's get a boat out," suggested Dunstable.
"Such a beastly day."
"Let's have tea at the shop."
"Rather slow. How about going to Cook's?"
"All right. Toss you who pays."
Cook's was a shop in the town to which the school most resorted when in need of refreshment.
"Wonder if we shall meet Albert."
Linton licked the place where his tooth should have been, and said he hoped so.
Sergeant Cook, the six-foot proprietor of the shop, was examining a broken window when they arrived, and muttering to himself.
"Hullo!" said Dunstable, "what's this? New idea for ventilation? Golly, massa, who frew dat brick?"
"Done it at ar-parse six last night, he did," said Sergeant Cook, "the red-'eaded young scallywag. Ketch 'im—I'll give 'im—"
"Sounds like dear old Albert," said Linton. "Who did it, sergeant?"
"Red-headed young mongrel. 'Good old Pedder,' he says. 'I'll give you Pedder,' I says. Then bang it comes right on top of the muffins, and when I doubled out after 'im 'e'd gone."
Mrs Cook appeared and corroborated witness's evidence. Dunstable ordered tea.
"We may meet him on our way home," said Linton. "If we do, I'll give him something from you with your love. I owe him a lot for myself."
Mrs Cook clicked her tongue compassionately at the sight of the obvious void in the speaker's mouth.
"You'll 'ave to 'ave a forlse one, Mr Linton," said Sergeant Cook with gloomy relish.
The back shop was empty. Dunstable and Linton sat down and began tea. Sergeant Cook came to the door from time to time and dilated further on his grievances.
"Gentlemen from the school they come in 'ere and says ain't it all a joke and exciting and what not. But I says to them, you 'aven't got to live in it, I says. That's what it is. You 'aven't got to live in it, I says. Glad when it's all over, that's what I'll be."
"'Nother jug of hot water, please," said Linton.
The Sergeant shouted the order over his shoulder, as if he were addressing a half-company on parade, and returned to his woes.
"You 'aven't got to live in it, I says. That's what it is. It's this everlasting worry and flurry day in and day out, and not knowing what's going to 'appen next, and one man coming in and saying 'Vote for Bruce', and another 'Vote for Pedder', and another saying how it's the poor man's loaf he's fighting for—if he'd only buy a loaf, now—'ullo, 'ullo, wot's this?"
There was a "confused noise without", as Shakespeare would put it, and into the shop came clattering Barry and McTodd, of Seymour's, closely followed by Stanning and Attell.
"This is getting a bit too thick," said Barry, collapsing into a chair.
From the outer shop came the voice of Sergeant Cook.
"Let me jest come to you, you red-'eaded—"
Roars of derision from the road.
"That's Albert," said Linton, jumping up.
"Yes, I heard them call him that," said Barry. "McTodd and I were coming down here to tea, when they started going for us, so we nipped in here, hoping to find reinforcements."
"We were just behind you," said Stanning. "I got one of them a beauty. He went down like a shot."
"Albert?" inquired Linton.
"No. A little chap."
"Let's go out, and smash them up," suggested Linton excitedly.
Dunstable treated the situation more coolly.
"Wait a bit," he said. "No hurry. Let's finish tea at any rate. You'd better eat as much as you can now Linton. You may have no teeth left to do it with afterwards," he added cheerfully.
"Let's chuck things at them," said McTodd.
"Don't be an ass," said Barry. "What on earth's the good of that?"
"Well, it would be something," said McTodd vaguely.
"Hit 'em with a muffin," suggested Stanning. "Dash, I barked my knuckles on that man. But I bet he felt it."
"Look here, I'm going out," said Linton. "Come on, Dunstable."
Dunstable continued his meal without hurry.
"What's the excitement?" he said. "There's plenty of time. Dear old Albert's not the sort of chap to go away when he's got us cornered here. The first principle of warfare is to get a good feed before you start."
"And anyhow," said Barry, "I came here for tea, and I'm going to have it."
Sergeant Cook was recalled from the door, and received the orders.
"They've just gone round the corner," he said, "and that red-'eaded one 'e says he's goin' to wait if he 'as to wait all night."
"Quite right," said Dunstable, approvingly. "Sensible chap, Albert. If you see him, you might tell him we shan't be long, will you?"
A quarter of an hour passed.
"Kerm out," shouted a voice from the street.
Dunstable looked at the others.
"Perhaps we might be moving now," he said, getting up "Ready?"
"We must keep together," said Barry.
"You goin' out, Mr Dunstable?" inquired Sergeant Cook.
"Yes. Good bye. You'll see that we're decently buried won't you?"
The garrison made its sortie.
* * * * *
It happened that Drummond and Sheen were also among those whom it had struck that afternoon that tea at Cook's would be pleasant; and they came upon the combatants some five minutes after battle had been joined. The town contingent were filling the air with strange cries, Albert's voice being easily heard above the din, while the Wrykinians, as public-school men should, were fighting quietly and without unseemly tumult.
"By Jove," said Drummond, "here's a row on."
Sheen stopped dead, with a queer, sinking feeling within him. He gulped. Drummond did not notice these portents. He was observing the battle.
Suddenly he uttered an exclamation.
"Why, it's some of our chaps! There's a Seymour's cap. Isn't that McTodd? And, great Scott! there's Barry. Come on, man!"
Sheen did not move.
"Ought we...to get...mixed up...?" he began.
Drummond looked at him with open eyes. Sheen babbled on.
"The old man might not like—sixth form, you see—oughtn't we to—?"
There was a yell of triumph from the town army as the red-haired Albert, plunging through the fray, sent Barry staggering against the wall. Sheen caught a glimpse of Albert's grinning face as he turned. He had a cut over one eye. It bled.
"Come on," said Drummond, beginning to run to the scene of action.
Sheen paused for a moment irresolutely. Then he walked rapidly in the opposite direction.
THE WHITE FEATHER
It was not until he had reached his study that Sheen thoroughly realised what he had done. All the way home he had been defending himself eloquently against an imaginary accuser; and he had built up a very sound, thoughtful, and logical series of arguments to show that he was not only not to blame for what he had done, but had acted in highly statesmanlike and praiseworthy manner. After all, he was in the sixth. Not a prefect, it was true, but, still, practically a prefect. The headmaster disliked unpleasantness between school and town, much more so between the sixth form of the school and the town. Therefore, he had done his duty in refusing to be drawn into a fight with Albert and friends. Besides, why should he be expected to join in whenever he saw a couple of fellows fighting? It wasn't reasonable. It was no business of his. Why, it was absurd. He had no quarrel with those fellows. It wasn't cowardice. It was simply that he had kept his head better than Drummond, and seen further into the matter. Besides....
But when he sat down in his chair, this mood changed. There is a vast difference between the view one takes of things when one is walking briskly, and that which comes when one thinks the thing over coldly. As he sat there, the wall of defence which he had built up slipped away brick by brick, and there was the fact staring at him, without covering or disguise.
It was no good arguing against himself. No amount of argument could wipe away the truth. He had been afraid, and had shown it. And he had shown it when, in a sense, he was representing the school, when Wrykyn looked to him to help it keep its end up against the town.
The more he reflected, the more he saw how far-reaching were the consequences of that failure in the hour of need. He had disgraced himself. He had disgraced Seymour's. He had disgraced the school. He was an outcast.
This mood, the natural reaction from his first glow of almost jaunty self-righteousness, lasted till the lock-up bell rang, when it was succeeded by another. This time he took a more reasonable view of the affair. It occurred to him that there was a chance that his defection had passed unnoticed. Nothing could make his case seem better in his own eyes, but it might be that the thing would end there. The house might not have lost credit.
An overwhelming curiosity seized him to find out how it had all ended. The ten minutes of grace which followed the ringing of the lock-up bell had passed. Drummond and the rest must be back by now.
He went down the passage to Drummond's study. Somebody was inside. He could hear him.
He knocked at the door.
Drummond was sitting at the table reading. He looked up, and there was a silence. Sheen's mouth felt dry. He could not think how to begin. He noticed that Drummond's face was unmarked. Looking down, he saw that one of the knuckles of the hand that held the book was swollen and cut.
Drummond lowered the book.
"Get out," he said. He spoke without heat, calmly, as if he were making some conventional remark by way of starting a conversation.
"I only came to ask—"
"Get out," said Drummond again.
There was another pause. Drummond raised his book and went on reading.
Sheen left the room.
Outside he ran into Linton. Unlike Drummond, Linton bore marks of the encounter. As in the case of the hero of Calverley's poem, one of his speaking eyes was sable. The swelling of his lip was increased. There was a deep red bruise on his forehead. In spite of these injuries, however, he was cheerful. He was whistling when Sheen collided with him.
"Sorry," said Linton, and went on into the study.
"Well," he said, "how are you feeling, Drummond? Lucky beggar, you haven't got a mark. I wish I could duck like you. Well, we have fought the good fight. Exit Albert—sweep him up. You gave him enough to last him for the rest of the term. I couldn't tackle the brute. He's as strong as a horse. My word, it was lucky you happened to come up. Albert was making hay of us. Still, all's well that ends well. We have smitten the Philistines this day. By the way—"
"What's up now?"
"Who was that chap with you when you came up?"
"I thought I saw some one."
"You shouldn't eat so much tea. You saw double."
"There wasn't anybody?"
"No," said Drummond.
"No," said Drummond, irritably. "How many more times do you want me to say it?"
"All right," said Linton, "I only asked. I met him outside."
"You might be sociable."
"I know I might. But I want to read."
"Lucky man. Wish I could. I can hardly see. Well, good bye, then. I'm off."
"Good," grunted Drummond. "You know your way out, don't you?"
Linton went back to his own study.
"It's all very well," he said to himself, "for Drummond to deny it, but I'll swear I saw Sheen with him. So did Dunstable. I'll cut out and ask him about it after prep. If he really was there, and cut off, something ought to be done about it. The chap ought to be kicked. He's a disgrace to the house."
Dunstable, questioned after preparation, refused to commit himself.
"I thought I saw somebody with Drummond," he said, "and I had a sort of idea it was Sheen. Still, I was pretty busy at the time, and wasn't paying much attention to anything, except that long, thin bargee with the bowler. I wish those men would hit straight. It's beastly difficult to guard a round-arm swing. My right ear feels like a cauliflower. Does it look rum?"
"Beastly. But what about this? You can't swear to Sheen then?"
"No. Better give him the benefit of the doubt. What does Drummond say? You ought to ask him."
"I have. He says he was alone."
"Well, that settles it. What an ass you are. If Drummond doesn't know, who does?"
"I believe he's simply hushing it up."
"Well, let us hush it up, too. It's no good bothering about it. We licked them all right."
"But it's such a beastly thing for the house."
"Then why the dickens do you want it to get about? Surely the best thing you can do is to dry up and say nothing about it."
"But something ought to be done."
"What's the good of troubling about a man like Sheen? He never was any good, and this doesn't make him very much worse. Besides, he'll probably be sick enough on his own account. I know I should, if I'd done it. And, anyway, we don't know that he did do it."
"I'm certain he did. I could swear it was him."
"Anyhow, for goodness' sake let the thing drop."
"All right. But I shall cut him."
"Well, that would be punishment enough for anybody, whatever he'd done. Fancy existence without your bright conversation. It doesn't bear thinking of. You do look a freak with that eye and that lump on your forehead. You ought to wear a mask."
"That ear of yours," said Linton with satisfaction, "will be about three times its ordinary size tomorrow. And it always was too large. Good night."
On his way back to Seymour's Mason of Appleby's, who was standing at his house gate imbibing fresh air, preparatory to going to bed, accosted him.
"I say, Linton," he said, "—hullo, you look a wreck, don't you!—I say, what's all this about your house?"
"What about my house?"
"Funking, and all that. Sheen, you know. Stanning has just been telling me."
"Then he saw him, too!" exclaimed Linton, involuntarily.
"Oh, it's true, then? Did he really cut off like that? Stanning said he did, but I wouldn't believe him at first. You aren't going? Good night."
So the thing was out. Linton had not counted on Stanning having seen what he and Dunstable had seen. It was impossible to hush it up now. The scutcheon of Seymour's was definitely blotted. The name of the house was being held up to scorn in Appleby's probably everywhere else as well. It was a nuisance, thought Linton, but it could not be helped. After all, it was a judgment on the house for harbouring such a specimen as Sheen.
In Seymour's there was tumult and an impromptu indignation meeting. Stanning had gone to work scientifically. From the moment that, ducking under the guard of a sturdy town youth, he had caught sight of Sheen retreating from the fray, he had grasped the fact that here, ready-made, was his chance of working off his grudge against him. All he had to do was to spread the news abroad, and the school would do the rest. On his return from the town he had mentioned the facts of the case to one or two of the more garrulous members of his house, and they had passed it on to everybody they met during the interval in the middle of preparation. By the end of preparation half the school knew what had happened.
Seymour's was furious. The senior day-room to a man condemned Sheen. The junior day-room was crimson in the face and incoherent. The demeanour of a junior in moments of excitement generally lacks that repose which marks the philosopher.
"He ought to be kicked," shrilled Renford.
"We shall get rotted by those kids in Dexter's," moaned Harvey.
"Disgracing the house!" thundered Watson.
"Let's go and chuck things at his door," suggested Renford.
A move was made to the passage in which Sheen's study was situated, and, with divers groans and howls, the junior day-room hove football boots and cricket stumps at the door.
The success of the meeting, however, was entirely neutralised by the fact that in the same passage stood the study of Rigby, the head of the house. Also Rigby was trying at the moment to turn into idiomatic Greek verse the words: "The Days of Peace and Slumberous calm have fled", and this corroboration of the statement annoyed him to the extent of causing him to dash out and sow lines among the revellers like some monarch scattering largesse. The junior day-room retired to its lair to inveigh against the brutal ways of those in authority, and begin working off the commission it had received.
The howls in the passage were the first official intimation Sheen had received that his shortcomings were public property. The word "Funk!" shouted through his keyhole, had not unnaturally given him an inkling as to the state of affairs.
So Drummond had given him away, he thought. Probably he had told Linton the whole story the moment after he, Sheen, had met the latter at the door of the study. And perhaps he was now telling it to the rest of the house. Of all the mixed sensations from which he suffered as he went to his dormitory that night, one of resentment against Drummond was the keenest.
Sheen was in the fourth dormitory, where the majority of the day-room slept. He was in the position of a sort of extra house prefect, as far as the dormitory was concerned. It was a large dormitory, and Mr Seymour had fancied that it might, perhaps, be something of a handful for a single prefect. As a matter of fact, however, Drummond, who was in charge, had shown early in the term that he was more than capable of managing the place single handed. He was popular and determined. The dormitory was orderly, partly because it liked him, principally because it had to be.
He had an opportunity of exhibiting his powers of control that night. When Sheen came in, the room was full. Drummond was in bed, reading his novel. The other ornaments of the dormitory were in various stages of undress.
As Sheen appeared, a sudden hissing broke out from the farther corner of the room. Sheen flushed, and walked to his bed. The hissing increased in volume and richness.
"Shut up that noise," said Drummond, without looking up from his book.
The hissing diminished. Only two or three of the more reckless kept it up.
Drummond looked across the room at them.
"Stop that noise, and get into bed," he said quietly.
The hissing ceased. He went on with his book again.
Silence reigned in dormitory four.
By murdering in cold blood a large and respected family, and afterwards depositing their bodies in a reservoir, one may gain, we are told, much unpopularity in the neighbourhood of one's crime; while robbing a church will get one cordially disliked especially by the vicar. But, to be really an outcast, to feel that one has no friend in the world, one must break an important public-school commandment.
Sheen had always been something of a hermit. In his most sociable moments he had never had more than one or two friends; but he had never before known what it meant to be completely isolated. It was like living in a world of ghosts, or, rather, like being a ghost in a living world. That disagreeable experience of being looked through, as if one were invisible, comes to the average person, it may be half a dozen times in his life. Sheen had to put up with it a hundred times a day. People who were talking to one another stopped when he appeared and waited until he had passed on before beginning again. Altogether, he was made to feel that he had done for himself, that, as far as the life of the school was concerned, he did not exist.
There had been some talk, particularly in the senior day-room, of more active measures. It was thought that nothing less than a court-martial could meet the case. But the house prefects had been against it. Sheen was in the sixth, and, however monstrous and unspeakable might have been his acts, it would hardly do to treat him as if he were a junior. And the scheme had been definitely discouraged by Drummond, who had stated, without wrapping the gist of his remarks in elusive phrases, that in the event of a court-martial being held he would interview the president of the same and knock his head off. So Seymour's had fallen back on the punishment which from their earliest beginnings the public schools have meted out to their criminals. They had cut Sheen dead.
In a way Sheen benefited from this excommunication. Now that he could not even play fives, for want of an opponent, there was nothing left for him to do but work. Fortunately, he had an object. The Gotford would be coming on in a few weeks, and the more work he could do for it, the better. Though Stanning was the only one of his rivals whom he feared, and though he was known to be taking very little trouble over the matter, it was best to run as few risks as possible. Stanning was one of those people who produce great results in their work without seeming to do anything for them.
So Sheen shut himself up in his study and ground grimly away at his books, and for exercise went for cross-country walks. It was a monotonous kind of existence. For the space of a week the only Wrykinian who spoke a single word to him was Bruce, the son of the Conservative candidate for Wrykyn: and Bruce's conversation had been limited to two remarks. He had said, "You might play that again, will you?" and, later, "Thanks". He had come into the music-room while Sheen was practising one afternoon, and had sat down, without speaking, on a chair by the door. When Sheen had played for the second time the piece which had won his approval, Bruce thanked him and left the room. As the solitary break in the monotony of the week, Sheen remembered the incident rather vividly.
Since the great rout of Albert and his minions outside Cook's, things, as far as the seniors were concerned, had been quiet between school and town. Linton and Dunstable had gone to and from Cook's two days in succession without let or hindrance. It was generally believed that, owing to the unerring way in which he had put his head in front of Drummond's left on that memorable occasion, the scarlet-haired one was at present dry-docked for repairs. The story in the school—it had grown with the days—was that Drummond had laid the enemy out on the pavement with a sickening crash, and that he had still been there at, so to speak, the close of play. As a matter of fact, Albert was in excellent shape, and only an unfortunate previous engagement prevented him from ranging the streets near Cook's as before. Sir William Bruce was addressing a meeting in another part of the town, and Albert thought it his duty to be on hand to boo.
In the junior portion of the school the feud with the town was brisk. Mention has been made of a certain St Jude's, between which seat of learning and the fags of Dexter's and the School House there was a spirited vendetta.
Jackson, of Dexter's was one of the pillars of the movement. Jackson was
a calm-brow'd lad, Yet mad, at moments, as a hatter,
and he derived a great deal of pleasure from warring against St Jude's. It helped him to enjoy his meals. He slept the better for it. After a little turn up with a Judy he was fuller of that spirit of manly fortitude and forbearance so necessary to those whom Fate brought frequently into contact with Mr Dexter. The Judies wore mortar-boards, and it was an enjoyable pastime sending these spinning into space during one of the usual rencontres in the High Street. From the fact that he and his friends were invariably outnumbered, there was a sporting element in these affairs, though occasionally this inferiority of numbers was the cause of his executing a scientific retreat with the enemy harassing his men up to the very edge of the town. This had happened on the last occasion. There had been casualties. No fewer than six house-caps had fallen into the enemy's hands, and he himself had been tripped up and rolled in a puddle.
He burned to avenge this disaster.
"Corning down to Cook's?" he said to his ally, Painter. It was just a week since the Sheen episode.
"All right," said Painter.
"Suppose we go by the High Street," suggested Jackson, casually.
"Then we'd better get a few more chaps," said Painter.
A few more chaps were collected, and the party, numbering eight, set off for the town. There were present such stalwarts as Borwick and Crowle, both of Dexter's, and Tomlin, of the School House, a useful man to have by you in an emergency. It was Tomlin who, on one occasion, attacked by two terrific champions of St Jude's in a narrow passage, had vanquished them both, and sent their mortar-boards miles into the empyrean, so that they were never the same mortar-boards again, but wore ever after a bruised and draggled look.
The expedition passed down the High Street without adventure, until, by common consent, it stopped at the lofty wall which bounded the playground of St Jude's.
From the other side of the wall came sounds of revelry, shrill squealings and shoutings. The Judies were disporting themselves at one of their weird games. It was known that they played touch-last, and Scandal said that another of their favourite recreations was marbles. The juniors at Wrykyn believed that it was to hide these excesses from the gaze of the public that the playground wall had been made so high. Eye-witnesses, who had peeped through the door in the said wall, reported that what the Judies seemed to do mostly was to chase one another about the playground, shrieking at the top of their voices. But, they added, this was probably a mere ruse to divert suspicion.
They had almost certainly got the marbles in their pockets all the time.
The expedition stopped, and looked itself in the face.
"How about buzzing something at them?" said Jackson earnestly.
"You can get oranges over the road," said Tomlin in his helpful way.
Jackson vanished into the shop indicated, and reappeared a few moments later with a brown paper bag.
"It seems a beastly waste," suggested the economical Painter.
"That's all right," said Jackson, "they're all bad. The man thought I was rotting him when I asked if he'd got any bad oranges, but I got them at last. Give us a leg up, some one."
Willing hands urged him to the top of the wall. He drew out a green orange, and threw it.
There was a sudden silence on the other side of the wall. Then a howl of wrath went up to the heavens. Jackson rapidly emptied his bag.
"Got him!" he exclaimed, as the last orange sped on its way. "Look out, they're coming!"
The expedition had begun to move off with quiet dignity, when from the doorway in the wall there poured forth a stream of mortar-boarded warriors, shrieking defiance. The expedition advanced to meet them.
As usual, the Judies had the advantage in numbers, and, filled to the brim with righteous indignation, they were proceeding to make things uncommonly warm for the invaders—Painter had lost his cap, and Tomlin three waistcoat buttons—when the eye of Jackson, roving up and down the street, was caught by a Seymour's cap. He was about to shout for assistance when he perceived that the newcomer was Sheen, and refrained. It was no use, he felt, asking Sheen for help.
But just as Sheen arrived and the ranks of the expedition were beginning to give way before the strenuous onslaught of the Judies, the latter, almost with one accord, turned and bolted into their playground again. Looking round, Tomlin, that first of generals, saw the reason, and uttered a warning.
A mutual foe had appeared. From a passage on the left of the road there had debouched on to the field of action Albert himself and two of his band.
The expedition flew without false shame. It is to be doubted whether one of Albert's calibre would have troubled to attack such small game, but it was the firm opinion of the Wrykyn fags and the Judies that he and his men were to be avoided.
The newcomers did not pursue them. They contented themselves with shouting at them. One of the band threw a stone.
Then they caught sight of Sheen.
Albert said, "Oo er!" and advanced at the double. His companions followed him.
Sheen watched them come, and backed against the wall. His heart was thumping furiously. He was in for it now, he felt. He had come down to the town with this very situation in his mind. A wild idea of doing something to restore his self-respect and his credit in the eyes of the house had driven him to the High Street. But now that the crisis had actually arrived, he would have given much to have been in his study again.
Albert was quite close now. Sheen could see the marks which had resulted from his interview with Drummond. With all his force Sheen hit out, and experienced a curious thrill as his fist went home. It was a poor blow from a scientific point of view, but Sheen's fives had given him muscle, and it checked Albert. That youth, however, recovered rapidly, and the next few moments passed in a whirl for Sheen. He received a stinging blow on his left ear, and another which deprived him of his whole stock of breath, and then he was on the ground, conscious only of a wish to stay there for ever.
MR JOE BEVAN
Almost involuntarily he staggered up to receive another blow which sent him down again.
"That'll do," said a voice.
Sheen got up, panting. Between him and his assailant stood a short, sturdy man in a tweed suit. He was waving Albert back, and Albert appeared to be dissatisfied. He was arguing hotly with the newcomer.
"Now, you go away," said that worthy, mildly, "just you go away."
Albert gave it as his opinion that the speaker would do well not to come interfering in what didn't concern him. What he wanted, asserted Albert, was a thick ear.
"Coming pushing yourself in," added Albert querulously.
"You go away," repeated the stranger. "You go away. I don't want to have trouble with you."
Albert's reply was to hit out with his left hand in the direction of the speaker's face. The stranger, without fuss, touched the back of Albert's wrist gently with the palm of his right hand, and Albert, turning round in a circle, ended the manoeuvre with his back towards his opponent. He faced round again irresolutely. The thing had surprised him.
"You go away," said the other, as if he were making the observation for the first time.
"It's Joe Bevan," said one of Albert's friends, excitedly.
Albert's jaw fell. His freckled face paled.
"You go away," repeated the man in the tweed suit, whose conversation seemed inclined to run in a groove.
This time Albert took the advice. His friends had already taken it.
"Thanks," said Sheen.
"Beware," said Mr Bevan oracularly, "of entrance to a quarrel; but, being in, bear't that th' opposed may beware of thee. Always counter back when you guard. When a man shows you his right like that, always push out your hand straight. The straight left rules the boxing world. Feeling better, sir?"
"He got that right in just on the spot. I was watching. When you see a man coming to hit you with his right like that, don't you draw back. Get on top of him. He can't hit you then."
That feeling of utter collapse, which is the immediate result of a blow in the parts about the waistcoat, was beginning to pass away, and Sheen now felt capable of taking an interest in sublunary matters once more. His ear smarted horribly, and when he put up a hand and felt it the pain was so great that he could barely refrain from uttering a cry. But, however physically battered he might be, he was feeling happier and more satisfied with himself than he had felt for years. He had been beaten, but he had fought his best, and not given in. Some portion of his self-respect came back to him as he reviewed the late encounter.
Mr Bevan regarded him approvingly.
"He was too heavy for you," he said. "He's a good twelve stone, I make it. I should put you at ten stone—say ten stone three. Call it nine stone twelve in condition. But you've got pluck, sir."
Sheen opened his eyes at this surprising statement.
"Some I've met would have laid down after getting that first hit, but you got up again. That's the secret of fighting. Always keep going on. Never give in. You know what Shakespeare says about the one who first cries, 'Hold, enough!' Do you read Shakespeare, sir?"
"Yes," said Sheen.
"Ah, now he knew his business," said Mr Bevan enthusiastically. "There was ring-craft, as you may say. He wasn't a novice."
Sheen agreed that Shakespeare had written some good things in his time.
"That's what you want to remember. Always keep going on, as the saying is. I was fighting Dick Roberts at the National—an American, he was, from San Francisco. He come at me with his right stretched out, and I think he's going to hit me with it, when blessed if his left don't come out instead, and, my Golly! it nearly knocked a passage through me. Just where that fellow hit you, sir, he hit me. It was just at the end of the round, and I went back to my corner. Jim Blake was seconding me. 'What's this, Jim?' I says, 'is the man mad, or what?' 'Why,' he says, 'he's left-handed, that's what's the matter. Get on top of him.' 'Get on top of him? I says. 'My Golly, I'll get on top of the roof if he's going to hit me another of those.' But I kept on, and got close to him, and he couldn't get in another of them, and he give in after the seventh round."
"What competition was that?" asked Sheen.
Mr Bevan laughed. "It was a twenty-round contest, sir, for seven-fifty aside and the Light Weight Championship of the World."
Sheen looked at him in astonishment. He had always imagined professional pugilists to be bullet-headed and beetle-browed to a man. He was not prepared for one of Mr Joe Bevan's description. For all the marks of his profession that he bore on his face, in the shape of lumps and scars, he might have been a curate. His face looked tough, and his eyes harboured always a curiously alert, questioning expression, as if he were perpetually "sizing up" the person he was addressing. But otherwise he was like other men. He seemed also to have a pretty taste in Literature. This, combined with his strong and capable air, attracted Sheen. Usually he was shy and ill at ease with strangers. Joe Bevan he felt he had known all his life.
"Do you still fight?" he asked.
"No," said Mr Bevan, "I gave it up. A man finds he's getting on, as the saying is, and it don't do to keep at it too long. I teach and I train, but I don't fight now."
A sudden idea flashed across Sheen's mind. He was still glowing with that pride which those who are accustomed to work with their brains feel when they have gone honestly through some labour of the hands. At that moment he felt himself capable of fighting the world and beating it. The small point, that Albert had knocked him out of time in less than a minute, did not damp him at all. He had started on the right road. He had done something. He had stood up to his man till he could stand no longer. An unlimited vista of action stretched before him. He had tasted the pleasure of the fight, and he wanted more.
Why, he thought, should he not avail himself of Joe Bevan's services to help him put himself right in the eyes of the house? At the end of the term, shortly before the Public Schools' Competitions at Aldershot, inter-house boxing cups were competed for at Wrykyn. It would be a dramatic act of reparation to the house if he could win the Light-Weight cup for it. His imagination, jumping wide gaps, did not admit the possibility of his not being good enough to win it. In the scene which he conjured up in his mind he was an easy victor. After all, there was the greater part of the term to learn in, and he would have a Champion of the World to teach him.
Mr Bevan cut in on his reflections as if he had heard them by some process of wireless telegraphy.
"Now, look here, sir," he said, "you should let me give you a few lessons. You're plucky, but you don't know the game as yet. And boxing's a thing every one ought to know. Supposition is, you're crossing a field or going down a street with your sweetheart or your wife—"
Sheen was neither engaged nor married, but he let the point pass.
—"And up comes one of these hooligans, as they call 'em. What are you going to do if he starts his games? Why, nothing, if you can't box. You may be plucky, but you can't beat him. And if you beat him, you'll get half murdered yourself. What you want to do is to learn to box, and then what happens? Why, as soon as he sees you shaping, he says to himself, 'Hullo, this chap knows too much for me. I'm off,' and off he runs. Or supposition is, he comes for you. You don't mind. Not you. You give him one punch in the right place, and then you go off to your tea, leaving him lying there. He won't get up."
"I'd like to learn," said Sheen. "I should be awfully obliged if you'd teach me. I wonder if you could make me any good by the end of the term. The House Competitions come off then."
"That all depends, sir. It comes easier to some than others. If you know how to shoot your left out straight, that's as good as six months' teaching. After that it's all ring-craft. The straight left beats the world."
"Where shall I find you?"
"I'm training a young chap—eight stone seven, and he's got to get down to eight stone four, for a bantam weight match—at an inn up the river here. I daresay you know it, sir. Or any one would tell you where it is. The 'Blue Boar,' it's called. You come there any time you like to name, sir, and you'll find me."
"I should like to come every day," said Sheen. "Would that be too often?"
"Oftener the better, sir. You can't practise too much."
"Then I'll start next week. Thanks very much. By the way, I shall have to go by boat, I suppose. It isn't far, is it? I've not been up the river for some time, The School generally goes down stream."
"It's not what you'd call far," said Bevan. "But it would be easier for you to come by road."
"I haven't a bicycle."
"Wouldn't one of your friends lend you one?"
"No, I'd better come by boat, I think. I'll turn up on Tuesday at about five. Will that suit you?"
"Yes, sir. That will be a good time. Then I'll say good bye, sir, for the present."
Sheen went back to his house in a different mood from the one in which he had left it. He did not care now when the other Seymourites looked through him.
In the passage he met Linton, and grinned pleasantly at him.
"What the dickens was that man grinning at?" said Linton to himself. "I must have a smut or something on my face."
But a close inspection in the dormitory looking-glass revealed no blemish on his handsome features.
A NAVAL BATTLE AND ITS CONSEQUENCES
What a go is life!
Let us examine the case of Jackson, of Dexter's. O'Hara, who had left Dexter's at the end of the summer term, had once complained to Clowes of the manner in which his house-master treated him, and Clowes had remarked in his melancholy way that it was nothing less than a breach of the law that Dexter should persist in leading a fellow a dog's life without a dog licence for him.
That was precisely how Jackson felt on the subject.
Things became definitely unbearable on the day after Sheen's interview with Mr Joe Bevan.
'Twas morn—to begin at the beginning—and Jackson sprang from his little cot to embark on the labours of the day. Unfortunately, he sprang ten minutes too late, and came down to breakfast about the time of the second slice of bread and marmalade. Result, a hundred lines. Proceeding to school, he had again fallen foul of his house-master—in whose form he was—over a matter of unprepared Livy. As a matter of fact, Jackson had prepared the Livy. Or, rather, he had not absolutely prepared it; but he had meant to. But it was Mr Templar's preparation, and Mr Templar was short-sighted. Any one will understand, therefore, that it would have been simply chucking away the gifts of Providence if he had not gone on with the novel which he had been reading up till the last moment before prep-time, and had brought along with him accidentally, as it were. It was a book called A Spoiler of Men, by Richard Marsh, and there was a repulsive crime on nearly every page. It was Hot Stuff. Much better than Livy....
Lunch Score—Two hundred lines.
During lunch he had the misfortune to upset a glass of water. Pure accident, of course, but there it was, don't you know, all over the table.
Mr Dexter had called him—
(a) clumsy; (b) a pig;
and had given him
(1) Advice—"You had better be careful, Jackson". (2) A present—"Two hundred lines, Jackson".
On the match being resumed at two o'clock, with four hundred lines on the score-sheet, he had played a fine, free game during afternoon school, and Mr Dexter, who objected to fine, free games—or, indeed, any games—during school hours, had increased the total to six hundred, when stumps were drawn for the day.
So on a bright sunny Saturday afternoon, when he should have been out in the field cheering the house-team on to victory against the School House, Jackson sat in the junior day-room at Dexter's copying out portions of Virgil, Aeneid Two.
To him, later on in the afternoon, when he had finished half his task, entered Painter, with the news that Dexter's had taken thirty points off the School House just after half-time.
"Mopped them up," said the terse and epigrammatic Painter. "Made rings round them. Haven't you finished yet? Well, chuck it, and come out."
"What's on?" asked Jackson.
"We're going to have a boat race."
"Pile it on."
"We are, really. Fact. Some of these School House kids are awfully sick about the match, and challenged us. That chap Tomlin thinks he can row.
"He can't row for nuts," said Jackson. "He doesn't know which end of the oar to shove into the water. I've seen cats that could row better than Tomlin."
"That's what I told him. At least, I said he couldn't row for toffee, so he said all right, I bet I can lick you, and I said I betted he couldn't, and he said all right, then, let's try, and then the other chaps wanted to join in, so we made an inter-house thing of it. And I want you to come and stroke us."
Jackson hesitated. Mr Dexter, setting the lines on Friday, had certainly said that they were to be shown up "tomorrow evening." He had said it very loud and clear. Still, in a case like this....After all, by helping to beat the School House on the river he would be giving Dexter's a leg-up. And what more could the man want?
"Right ho," said Jackson.
Down at the School boat-house the enemy were already afloat when Painter and Jackson arrived.
"Buck up," cried the School House crew.
Dexter's embarked, five strong. There was room for two on each seat. Jackson shared the post of stroke with Painter. Crowle steered.
"Ready?" asked Tomlin from the other boat.
"Half a sec.," said Jackson. "What's the course?"
"Oh, don't you know that yet? Up to the town, round the island just below the bridge,—the island with the croquet ground on it, you know—and back again here. Ready?"
"In a jiffy. Look here, Crowle, remember about steering. You pull the right line if you want to go to the right and the other if you want to go to the left."
"All right," said the injured Crowle. "As if I didn't know that."
"Thought I'd mention it. It's your fault. Nobody could tell by looking at you that you knew anything except how to eat. Ready, you chaps?"
"When I say 'Three,'" said Tomlin.
It was a subject of heated discussion between the crews for weeks afterwards whether Dexter's boat did or did not go off at the word "Two." Opinions were divided on the topic. But it was certain that Jackson and his men led from the start. Pulling a good, splashing stroke which had drenched Crowle to the skin in the first thirty yards, Dexter's boat crept slowly ahead. By the time the island was reached, it led by a length. Encouraged by success, the leaders redoubled their already energetic efforts. Crowle sat in a shower-bath. He was even moved to speech about it.
"When you've finished," said Crowle.
Jackson, intent upon repartee, caught a crab, and the School House drew level again. The two boats passed the island abreast.
Just here occurred one of those unfortunate incidents. Both crews had quickened their stroke until the boats had practically been converted into submarines, and the rival coxswains were observing bitterly to space that this was jolly well the last time they ever let themselves in for this sort of thing, when round the island there hove in sight a flotilla of boats, directly in the path of the racers.
There were three of them, and not even the spray which played over them like a fountain could prevent Crowle from seeing that they were manned by Judies. Even on the river these outcasts wore their mortar-boards.
"Look out!" shrieked Crowle, pulling hard on his right line. "Stop rowing, you chaps. We shall be into them."
At the same moment the School House oarsmen ceased pulling. The two boats came to a halt a few yards from the enemy.
"What's up?" panted Jackson, crimson from his exertions. "Hullo, it's the Judies!"
Tomlin was parleying with the foe.
"Why the dickens can't you keep out of the way? Spoiling our race. Wait till we get ashore."
But the Judies, it seemed, were not prepared to wait even for that short space of time. A miscreant, larger than the common run of Judy, made a brief, but popular, address to his men.
"Splash them!" he said.
Instantly, amid shrieks of approval, oars began to strike the water, and the water began to fly over the Wrykyn boats, which were now surrounded. The latter were not slow to join battle with the same weapons. Homeric laughter came from the bridge above. The town bridge was a sort of loafers' club, to which the entrance fee was a screw of tobacco, and the subscription an occasional remark upon the weather. Here gathered together day by day that section of the populace which resented it when they "asked for employment, and only got work instead". From morn till eve they lounged against the balustrades, surveying nature, and hoping it would be kind enough to give them some excitement that day. An occasional dog-fight found in them an eager audience. No runaway horse ever bored them. A broken-down motor-car was meat and drink to them. They had an appetite for every spectacle.
When, therefore, the water began to fly from boat to boat, kind-hearted men fetched their friends from neighbouring public houses and craned with them over the parapet, observing the sport and commenting thereon. It was these comments that attracted Mr Dexter's attention. When, cycling across the bridge, he found the south side of it entirely congested, and heard raucous voices urging certain unseen "little 'uns" now to "go it" and anon to "vote for Pedder", his curiosity was aroused. He dismounted and pushed his way through the crowd until he got a clear view of what was happening below.
He was just in time to see the most stirring incident of the fight. The biggest of the Judy boats had been propelled by the current nearer and nearer to the Dexter Argo. No sooner was it within distance than Jackson, dropping his oar, grasped the side and pulled it towards him. The two boats crashed together and rocked violently as the crews rose from their seats and grappled with one another. A hurricane of laughter and applause went up from the crowd upon the bridge.
The next moment both boats were bottom upwards and drifting sluggishly down towards the island, while the crews swam like rats for the other boats.
Every Wrykinian had to learn to swim before he was allowed on the river; so that the peril of Jackson and his crew was not extreme: and it was soon speedily evident that swimming was also part of the Judy curriculum, for the shipwrecked ones were soon climbing drippingly on board the surviving ships, where they sat and made puddles, and shrieked defiance at their antagonists.
This was accepted by both sides as the end of the fight, and the combatants parted without further hostilities, each fleet believing that the victory was with them.
And Mr Dexter, mounting his bicycle again, rode home to tell the headmaster.
That evening, after preparation, the headmaster held a reception. Among distinguished visitors were Jackson, Painter, Tomlin, Crowle, and six others.
On the Monday morning the headmaster issued a manifesto to the school after prayers. He had, he said, for some time entertained the idea of placing the town out of bounds. He would do so now. No boy, unless he was a prefect, would be allowed till further notice to cross the town bridge. As regarded the river, for the future boating Wrykinians must confine their attentions to the lower river. Nobody must take a boat up-stream. The school boatman would have strict orders to see that this rule was rigidly enforced. Any breach of these bounds would, he concluded, be punished with the utmost severity.
The headmaster of Wrykyn was not a hasty man. He thought before he put his foot down. But when he did, he put it down heavily.
Sheen heard the ultimatum with dismay. He was a law-abiding person, and here he was, faced with a dilemma that made it necessary for him to choose between breaking school rules of the most important kind, or pulling down all the castles he had built in the air before the mortar had had time to harden between their stones.
He wished he could talk it over with somebody. But he had nobody with whom he could talk over anything. He must think it out for himself.
He spent the rest of the day thinking it out, and by nightfall he had come to his decision.
Even at the expense of breaking bounds and the risk of being caught at it, he must keep his appointment with Joe Bevan. It would mean going to the town landing-stage for a boat, thereby breaking bounds twice over.
But it would have to be done.
SHEEN BEGINS HIS EDUCATION
The "Blue Boar" was a picturesque inn, standing on the bank of the river Severn. It was much frequented in the summer by fishermen, who spent their days in punts and their evenings in the old oak parlour, where a picture in boxing costume of Mr Joe Bevan, whose brother was the landlord of the inn, gazed austerely down on them, as if he disapproved of the lamentable want of truth displayed by the majority of their number. Artists also congregated there to paint the ivy-covered porch. At the back of the house were bedrooms, to which the fishermen would make their way in the small hours of a summer morning, arguing to the last as they stumbled upstairs. One of these bedrooms, larger than the others, had been converted into a gymnasium for the use of mine host's brother. Thither he brought pugilistic aspirants who wished to be trained for various contests, and it was the boast of the "Blue Boar" that it had never turned out a loser. A reputation of this kind is a valuable asset to an inn, and the boxing world thought highly of it, in spite of the fact that it was off the beaten track. Certainly the luck of the "Blue Boar" had been surprising.
Sheen pulled steadily up stream on the appointed day, and after half an hour's work found himself opposite the little landing-stage at the foot of the inn lawn.
His journey had not been free from adventure. On his way to the town he had almost run into Mr Templar, and but for the lucky accident of that gentleman's short sight must have been discovered. He had reached the landing-stage in safety, but he had not felt comfortable until he was well out of sight of the town. It was fortunate for him in the present case that he was being left so severely alone by the school. It was an advantage that nobody took the least interest in his goings and comings.
Having moored his boat and proceeded to the inn, he was directed upstairs by the landlord, who was an enlarged and coloured edition of his brother. From the other side of the gymnasium door came an unceasing and mysterious shuffling sound.