Fathers of Men/Chapter 11

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CHAPTER XI

A MERRY CHRISTMAS

Christmas weather set in before the holidays. Old Boys came trooping down from Oxford and Cambridge, and stood in front of their old ball fires in astonishing ties and wondrous waistcoats, patronising the Loder of the house, familiar only with the Charles Cave. But when they went in a body to inspect the Upper, it was seen at once that the Old Boys' Match could not take place, for the ground was still thickly powdered with snow, and a swept patch proved as hard and slippery as the slide in Heriot's quad. This slide was a duly authorised institution, industriously swept and garnished by the small fry of the house under the personal supervision of old Mother Sprawson, who sent more than one of them down it barefoot, as a heroic remedy for chilblains rashly urged in excuse for absence. Indeed it was exceptionally cold, even for a nineteenth-century December. The fire in the hall was twice its usual size; the study pipes became too hot to touch, yet remained a mockery until you had your tollies going as well and every chink stopped up. Sprawson himself was understood to be relying more than ever on his surreptitious flask; but as he never betrayed the ordinary symptoms of indulgence, except before a select and appreciative audience, and could sham sober with complete success whenever necessary, these entertainments were more droll than thrilling. It was Sprawson, however, who lit up the slide with tollies after lock-up on the last night, and kept the fun fast and furious until the school bell rang sharply through the frost, and the quad opened to dispatch its quota of glowing faces to prize-giving in the big school-room.

The break-up concert had been given there the night before; but the final function was more exciting, with the Head Master beaming behind a barricade of emblazoned volumes, the new school list in his hand. It was fascinating to learn the new order form by form, and quite stirring to hear and abet the thunders of applause as the prize-winners went steaming up for their books and came back with them almost at a run. Crabtree was the only one whom Jan clapped heartily; he was top of his form as usual, as was Devereux lower down the school, but Jan was not going to be seen applauding Evan unduly. Chips could not keep still when it came to the Middle Remove, and even Jan sat up with a tight mouth then. On their places depended their chance of a remove out of the clutches of old Haigh. And Jan was higher than he expected to be, but Chips was higher still, with the Shocker and Jane Eyre just above him, and Buggins the lowest of the group.

"I wish to blazes old Haigh would hop it in the holidays, Tiger," said Buggins, and actually thrust his arm through Jan's on their way back through the snow. "You and I may have another term of the greaser if he don't."

Jan said little, but it was not because he was particularly surprised at the sudden friendliness of an inveterate foe. Everybody was friendly on the last day. Jane Eyre was profuse in his hospitality at tea. Shockley himself had borrowed a bit of string that he would certainly have seized a week ago; as for Chips, he had already presented Jan with a German-silver pencil-case out of his journey money. And what made these signs so remarkable was that Jan himself had never been more glum than during the last days of the term, when all the rest were packing or looking up trains, and talking about their people and all they were going to do at home, and making Jan realise that he had no home and no people to call his own.

That was not perhaps a very fair or a grateful way of putting it, even to himself; but Jan had some excuse for the bitterness of his heart. He had not received above three letters from the rectory in all these thirteen weeks; the poverty of his correspondence had in fact become notorious, because he soon ceased looking for a letter, and when there was one for him it lay on the window-sill until some fellow told him it was there. This circumstance had provided the chivalrous Shockley with yet another taunt. Then that occasional letter never by any chance enclosed a post-office order, or heralded a hamper on its way by rail; and Jan had brought so little with him in the first instance, in the way either of eatables or of pocket-money, that a time had come when he flatly refused Chips's potted-meat because he saw no chance of ever having anything to offer him in return. These of course had been among the minor troubles of the term; but they were the very ones a fellow's people might have foreseen and remedied, if they had really been his people, or cared for a moment to do the thing properly while they were about it. But all they had done was to write three times to remind him of their charity in doing the thing at all, and to impress upon him what a chance in life he was getting all through them! That again was only Jan's view of their letters, and was perhaps as ungrateful and unfair as his whole instinctive feeling towards his mother's family; but it was strong enough to make him more than ever the pariah at heart when he came down from dormitory on the last morning, in his unaccustomed bowler (but not the "loud tie" of all the bigger fellows), and partook of the meat breakfast provided in the gaslit hall; and so out into the chilling twilight, to squeeze into some omnibus because he had failed to take Chips's advice and order a trap in the middle of the term.

Jan's journey was all across country, and long before the end he had shaken off the last of his schoolfellows travelling in the same direction. It happened that he knew very few of that contingent even by name, and yet he was sorry when they had all been left behind; they were the last links with a place where he now realised that he felt more at home than he was ever likely to feel in the holidays. Eventually he reached a bleak rural station, where there was nothing to meet him, and walked up to the rectory, leaving casual instructions about his luggage.

It was not a pleasant walk; there had evidently been more snow in Norfolk than at school, and it had started to thaw while Jan was in the train. The snow stuck to his boots, and the cold was far more penetrating than it had seemed during the frost. The rectory, however, was the nearest point of the thatched and straggling hamlet of which it was also the manor house. It stood in its own park, a mile and more from the vast flint church in which a handful of people were lost at its two perfunctory services a week. The rector was in fact more squire than parson, though he wore a white tie as often as not, and conducted a forbidding form of family prayer every week-day of his life. He chanced to be the first person whom Jan saw in the grounds, on the sweep of the drive between house and lawn. On the lawn itself a lady and a number of children were busy making a snow-man; and the old gentleman, watching with amusement from the swept gravel, cut for the moment a sympathetic figure enough. Jan had to pass so close that he felt bound to go up and report his return; but no one seemed to see him, which made it awkward. He had been for some moments almost at the rector's elbow, too shy to announce himself in words, when the lady came smiling across the snow.

"Surely this is Jan, papa?" she said, whereupon the rector turned round and exclaimed: "Why, my good fellow, when did you turn up?"

Jan succeeded in explaining that he had just walked up from the station; then there was another awkward interval, in which his grandfather took open stock of him, with quite a different face from that which had beamed upon the children in the snow. The lady made amends with a readier and heartier hand, and a kind smile into the bargain.

"I'm your Aunt Alice," she announced, "and these little people are all your cousins. We've come for Christmas, so you'll have plenty of time to get to know each other."

Clearly there was no time then; the children were already clamouring for their mother's return to the work in hand, and she rejoined them with a meek alacrity that told its tale. Jan did not know whether to go or stay, until the rector relieved him by observing, "If you want anything to eat they'll look after you indoors;" and Jan accepted his dismissal thankfully, though he felt its cold abruptness none the less. But the old man had been curt and chilling to him from the first moment of their first meeting, and throughout these holidays it was to remain evident that he took no sort of interest in the schooling which it was his arbitrary whim to provide. Nor would Jan have minded this for a moment—for it was nothing new—if he had not caught such a very different old fellow smiling on the other grandchildren in the snow.

His grandmother went to the opposite extreme; she took only too much notice of the lad, for it was notice of a most embarrassing kind. Her duty towards Jan, as she conceived it, was to supplement the Public School in turning him out as much of a gentleman as was possible at this advanced stage of his development. Mrs. Ambrose began the holidays by searching through her spectacles for the first term's crop of visible improvements. Very few were brought to light by this method; but a number of inveterate blemishes were found to have survived, and each formed a subject of summary stricture as it reappeared. Mrs. Ambrose was one of those formidable old ladies whom no exigencies of time or place can restrain from saying exactly what they think. Jan could not come into a room, but her spectacles dogged his footsteps, and he was always liable to be turned back on the threshold "to wipe them properly"; if he had changed his boots, his fingers and nails came in for scrutiny instead, or it might be his collar or his hair. He seldom sat at table without hearing that he had used the wrong fork, or that knives were not made to enter mouths, even with cheese upon their point. As in the case of his reception by the rector, the lad would have been much less resentful if the other grandchildren had not been present, and their equally glaring misdemeanours consistently overlooked; he did not realise that the old lady's sight was failing, and that she deliberately had him next her "for his own good."

He disliked the other grandchildren none the less, but chiefly because his Aunt Alice was the one member of the party whom he really did like, and they would never let him have a word with her. They were the most whining, selfish, exacting little wretches; and their father spent most of his time shooting with another uncle, a soldier son of the house, and left the whole onus of correction to dear uncomplaining Aunt Alice. But now and then Jan got her to himself; and her gentle influence might have sweetened all the holidays if her eldest had not celebrated the New Year by nearly putting out Jan's eye with a snowball containing a lump of gravel. Now, Jan was externally good-tempered and long-suffering with his small cousins, but on this occasion he told the offender exactly what he thought of him, in schoolboy terms.

"I don't care what you think," retorted the child, who was quite old enough to be at a preparatory school but had refused to go to one. "Who are you to call a thing 'caddish?' You're only a stable-boy—I heard Daddy say so!"

Jan promptly committed the unpardonable sin of "bullying" by smacking the head of "a boy not half your size." It was no use his repeating in his own defence what the small boy had said to him. "And so you are!" cried his poor Aunt Alice, mixing hysterical tears with her first-born's passionate flood. And coming from those gentle lips, the words cut Jan to the heart, for he could not see that the poor soul was not a reasonable being where her children were concerned; he only saw that it was no use his trying to justify his conduct for a moment. Everybody was against him. His grandfather threatened him with a horse-whipping; his grandmother said it was "high time school began again"; and Jan broke his sullen silence to echo the sentiment rudely enough. He had to spend the rest of that day in his own room, and to support a further period of ostracism until the military uncle's return from a country-house visit. The military uncle, being no admirer of his younger nephews and nieces, took a seditious view of the heinous offence reported to him by the ladies, and backed it by tipping the offender a furtive half-sovereign at the earliest opportunity.

"I'm afraid you've been having a pretty poor time of it," said Captain Ambrose; "but take my advice and don't treat little swabs spoiling for school as though you'd actually got 'em there. They'll get there in time, thank the Lord, and I wouldn't be in their little breeches then! Found something good to read?"

"I'm not reading," said Jan, displaying the book which had occupied him in his disgrace. "I'm learning 'The Burial-March of Dundee.'"

"That sounds cheerful," remarked the captain. "So they give you saying-lessons for holiday tasks at your school?"

"I can't say what they do," replied Jan. "There's no holiday task these holidays; this is something special."

And he explained what without much hesitation, and likewise why and wherefore under friendly pressure from the gallant captain, whose sympathetic attitude was making another boy of Jan, but whose views were more treasonable than ever on the matter of the vindictive punishment meted out by Haigh.

"But I never heard of such a thing in my life!" cried he. "A master spoil a boy's holidays for something he's done at school? It's perfectly monstrous, if not illegal, and if I were you I wouldn't learn a line of it."

"I doubt I've learnt very near every line already," responded Jan, shamefacedly. "And there's a hundred and eighty-eight altogether."

"A hundred and eighty-eight lines in the Christmas holidays! I should like to have seen any of our old Eton beaks come a game like that!"

"He said he'd tell Jerry if either of us makes a single mistake when we get back."

"Let him! Thrale's an O.E. himself, and one of the very best; let your man go to him if he likes, and see if he comes away without a flea in his ear. Anyhow you shan't hang about the house to learn another line while I'm here; out you come with me, and try a blow at a bird!"

So after all Jan had a few congenial days, in which he slew his first pheasant and conceived a secret devotion to his Uncle Dick, who occasionally missed a difficult shot, but never a single opportunity of encouraging a young beginner. Now encouragement in any direction was what Jan needed even more than open sympathy and affection; and a natural quickness of hand and eye enabled him to repay the pains which were bestowed upon him. Captain Ambrose told his mother they would make something of the boy yet, if they did not worry him too much about trifles, and he only wished his own leave could last all the holidays. But he had to go about the middle of January, a few days after Aunt Alice and her party, and Jan had a whole dreary week to himself after that. It is to be feared that he spent much of the time in solitary prowling with a pipe and tobacco bought out of Uncle Dick's tip. Of course he had learnt to smoke in his stable days, and, unlike most boys, he genuinely enjoyed the practice; at any rate a pipe passed the time, albeit less nobly than a gun; but he was not allowed to shoot alone, and his grandfather never took him out, or showed the slightest interest in his daily existence under the rectory roof. His grandmother, however, continued to equalise matters with such unwearied fault-finding, and so many calls to order in the course of every day, that the end of the holidays found Jan longing for the privacy of his unsightly little study at school, and for a life in which at all events there were no old ladies and no little children.

He was therefore anything but overjoyed when a telegraph-boy tramped up through the heavy snow of what should have been the eve of his return to school, with a telegram to say that the line was blocked and it was no use his starting till the day after to-morrow. Some four hundred of these telegrams had been hurriedly dispatched from the school to the four quarters of Great Britain; and one may suppose that the other three hundred and ninety-nine had been received with acclamation as surprise packets of rapture and reprieve. But Jan took his news, not indeed without a smile, but with a very strange one for a boy of fifteen on the verge of that second term which is notorious for all the hard features of a first, without its redeeming novelty and excitement.