Tales of St. Austin's/Chapter 10
J. S. M. Babington, of Dacre's House, was on the horns of a dilemma. Circumstances over which he had had no control had brought him, like another Hercules, to the cross-roads, and had put before him the choice between pleasure and duty, or, rather, between pleasure and what those in authority called duty. Being human, he would have had little difficulty in making his decision, had not the path of pleasure been so hedged about by danger as to make him doubt whether after all the thing could be carried through.
The facts in the case were these. It was the custom of the mathematical set to which J. S. M. Babington belonged, 4B to wit, to relieve the tedium of the daily lesson with a species of round game which was played as follows. As soon as the master had taken his seat, one of the players would execute a manoeuvre calculated to draw attention on himself, such as dropping a book or upsetting the blackboard. Called up to the desk to give explanation, he would embark on an eloquent speech for the defence. This was the cue for the next player to begin. His part consisted in making his way to the desk and testifying to the moral excellence of his companion, and giving in full the reasons why he should be discharged without a stain upon his character. As soon as he had warmed to his work he would be followed by a third player, and so on until the standing room around the desk was completely filled with a great cloud of witnesses. The duration of the game varied, of course, considerably. On some occasions it could be played through with such success, that the master would enter into the spirit of the thing, and do his best to book the names of all offenders at one and the same time, a feat of no inconsiderable difficulty. At other times matters would come to a head more rapidly. In any case, much innocent fun was to be derived from it, and its popularity was great. On the day, however, on which this story opens, a new master had been temporarily loosed into the room in place of the Rev. Septimus Brown, who had been there as long as the oldest inhabitant could remember. The Rev. Septimus was a wrangler, but knew nothing of the ways of the human boy. His successor, Mr Reginald Seymour, was a poor mathematician, but a good master. He had been, moreover, a Cambridge Rugger Blue. This fact alone should have ensured him against the customary pleasantries, for a Blue is a man to be respected. It was not only injudicious, therefore, but positively wrong of Babington to plunge against the blackboard on his way to his place. If he had been a student of Tennyson, he might have remembered that the old order is in the habit of changing and yielding place to the new.
Mr Seymour looked thoughtfully for a moment at the blackboard.
'That was rather a crude effort,' he said pleasantly to Babington, 'you lack finesse. Pick it up again, please.'
Babington picked it up without protest. Under the rule of the Rev. Septimus this would have been the signal for the rest of the class to leave their places and assist him, but now they seemed to realize that there was a time for everything, and that this was decidedly no time for indoor games.
'Thank you,' said Mr Seymour, when the board was in its place again. 'What is your name? Eh, what? I didn't quite hear.'
'Ah. You had better come in tomorrow at two and work out examples three hundred to three-twenty in "Hall and Knight". There is really plenty of room to walk in between that desk and the blackboard. It only wants practice.'
What was left of Babington then went to his seat. He felt that his reputation as an artistic player of the game had received a shattering blow. Then there was the imposition. This in itself would have troubled him little. To be kept in on a half-holiday is annoying, but it is one of those ills which the flesh is heir to, and your true philosopher can always take his gruel like a man.
But it so happened that by the evening post he had received a letter from a cousin of his, who was a student at Guy's, and from all accounts was building up a great reputation in the medical world. From this letter it appeared that by a complicated process of knowing people who knew other people who had influence with the management, he had contrived to obtain two tickets for a morning performance of the new piece that had just been produced at one of the theatres. And if Mr J. S. M. Babington wished to avail himself of the opportunity, would he write by return, and be at Charing Cross Underground bookstall at twenty past two.
Now Babington, though he objected strongly to the drama of ancient Greece, was very fond of that of the present day, and he registered a vow that if the matter could possibly be carried through, it should be. His choice was obvious. He could cut his engagement with Mr Seymour, or he could keep it. The difficulty lay rather in deciding upon one or other of the alternatives. The whole thing turned upon the extent of the penalty in the event of detection.
That was his dilemma. He sought advice.
'I should risk it,' said his bosom friend Peterson.
'I shouldn't advise you to,' remarked Jenkins.
Jenkins was equally a bosom friend, and in the matter of wisdom in no way inferior to Peterson.
'What would happen, do you think?' asked Babington.
'Sack,' said one authority.
'Jaw, and double impot,' said another.
'The Daily Telegraph,' muttered the tempter in a stage aside, 'calls it the best comedy since Sheridan.'
'So it does,' thought Babington. 'I'll risk it.'
'You'll be a fool if you do,' croaked the gloomy Jenkins. 'You're bound to be caught.' But the Ayes had it. Babington wrote off that night accepting the invitation.
It was with feelings of distinct relief that he heard Mr Seymour express to another master his intention of catching the twelve-fifteen train up to town. It meant that he would not be on the scene to see him start on the 'Hall and Knight'. Unless luck were very much against him, Babington might reasonably hope that he would accept the imposition without any questions. He had taken the precaution to get the examples finished overnight, with the help of Peterson and Jenkins, aided by a weird being who actually appeared to like algebra, and turned out ten of the twenty problems in an incredibly short time in exchange for a couple of works of fiction (down) and a tea (at a date). He himself meant to catch the one-thirty, which would bring him to town in good time. Peterson had promised to answer his name at roll-call, a delicate operation, in which long practice had made him, like many others of the junior members of the House, no mean proficient.
It would be pleasant for a conscientious historian to be able to say that the one-thirty broke down just outside Victoria, and that Babington arrived at the theatre at the precise moment when the curtain fell and the gratified audience began to stream out. But truth, though it crush me. The one-thirty was so punctual that one might have thought that it belonged to a line other than the line to which it did belong. From Victoria to Charing Cross is a journey that occupies no considerable time, and Babington found himself at his destination with five minutes to wait. At twenty past his cousin arrived, and they made their way to the theatre. A brief skirmish with a liveried menial in the lobby, and they were in their seats.
Some philosopher, of extraordinary powers of intuition, once informed the world that the best of things come at last to an end. The statement was tested, and is now universally accepted as correct. To apply the general to the particular, the play came to an end amidst uproarious applause, to which Babington contributed an unstinted quotum, about three hours after it had begun.
'What do you say to going and grubbing somewhere?' asked Babington's cousin, as they made their way out.
'Hullo, there's that man Richards,' he continued, before Babington could reply that of all possible actions he considered that of going and grubbing somewhere the most desirable. 'Fellow I know at Guy's, you know,' he added, in explanation. 'I'll get him to join us. You'll like him, I expect.'
Richards professed himself delighted, and shook hands with Babington with a fervour which seemed to imply that until he had met him life had been a dreary blank, but that now he could begin to enjoy himself again. 'I should like to join you, if you don't mind including a friend of mine in the party,' said Richards. 'He was to meet me here. By the way, he's the author of that new piece—The Way of the World.'
'Why, we've just been there.'
'Oh, then you will probably like to meet him. Here he is.'
As he spoke a man came towards them, and, with a shock that sent all the blood in his body to the very summit of his head, and then to the very extremities of his boots, Babington recognized Mr Seymour. The assurance of the programme that the play was by Walter Walsh was a fraud. Nay worse, a downright and culpable lie. He started with the vague idea of making a rush for safety, but before his paralysed limbs could be induced to work, Mr Seymour had arrived, and he was being introduced (oh, the tragic irony of it) to the man for whose benefit he was at that very moment supposed to be working out examples three hundred to three-twenty in 'Hall and Knight'.
Mr Seymour shook hands, without appearing to recognize him. Babington's blood began to resume its normal position again, though he felt that this seeming ignorance of his identity might be a mere veneer, a wile of guile, as the bard puts it. He remembered, with a pang, a story in some magazine where a prisoner was subjected to what the light-hearted inquisitors called the torture of hope. He was allowed to escape from prison, and pass guards and sentries apparently without their noticing him. Then, just as he stepped into the open air, the chief inquisitor tapped him gently on the shoulder, and, more in sorrow than in anger, reminded him that it was customary for condemned men to remain inside their cells. Surely this was a similar case. But then the thought came to him that Mr Seymour had only seen him once, and so might possibly have failed to remember him, for there was nothing special about Babington's features that arrested the eye, and stamped them on the brain for all time. He was rather ordinary than otherwise to look at. At tea, as bad luck would have it, the two sat opposite one another, and Babington trembled. Then the worst happened. Mr Seymour, who had been looking attentively at him for some time, leaned forward and said in a tone evidently devoid of suspicion: 'Haven't we met before somewhere? I seem to remember your face.'
'Er—no, no,' replied Babington. 'That is, I think not. We may have.'
'I feel sure we have. What school are you at?'
Babington's soul began to writhe convulsively.
'What, what school? Oh, what school? Why, er—I'm at—er—Uppingham.'
Mr Seymour's face assumed a pleased expression.
'Uppingham? Really. Why, I know several Uppingham fellows. Do you know Mr Morton? He's a master at Uppingham, and a great friend of mine.' The room began to dance briskly before Babington's eyes, but he clutched at a straw, or what he thought was a straw.
'Uppingham? Did I say Uppingham? Of course, I mean Rugby, you know, Rugby. One's always mixing the two up, you know. Isn't one?'
Mr Seymour looked at him in amazement. Then he looked at the others as if to ask which of the two was going mad, he or the youth opposite him. Babington's cousin listened to the wild fictions which issued from his lips in equal amazement. He thought he must be ill. Even Richards had a fleeting impression that it was a little odd that a fellow should forget what school he was at, and mistake the name Rugby for that of Uppingham, or vice versa. Babington became an object of interest.
'I say, Jack,' said the cousin, 'you're feeling all right, aren't you? I mean, you don't seem to know what you're talking about. If you're going to be ill, say so, and I'll prescribe for you.'
'Is he at Rugby?' asked Mr Seymour.
'No, of course he's not. How could he have got from Rugby to London in time for a morning performance? Why, he's at St Austin's.'
Mr Seymour sat for a moment in silence, taking this in. Then he chuckled. 'It's all right,' he said, 'he's not ill. We have met before, but under such painful circumstances that Master Babington very thoughtfully dissembled, in order not to remind me of them.'
He gave a brief synopsis of what had occurred. The audience, exclusive of Babington, roared with laughter.
'I suppose,' said the cousin, 'you won't prosecute, will you? It's really such shocking luck, you know, that you ought to forget you're a master.'
Mr Seymour stirred his tea and added another lump of sugar very carefully before replying. Babington watched him in silence, and wished that he would settle the matter quickly, one way or the other.
'Fortunately for Babington,' said Mr Seymour, 'and unfortunately for the cause of morality, I am not a master. I was only a stop-gap, and my term of office ceased today at one o'clock. Thus the prisoner at the bar gets off on a technical point of law, and I trust it will be a lesson to him. I suppose you had the sense to do the imposition?'
'Yes, sir, I sat up last night.'
'Good. Now, if you'll take my advice, you'll reform, or another day you'll come to a bad end. By the way, how did you manage about roll-call today?'
'I thought that was an awfully good part just at the end of the first act,' said Babington.
Mr Seymour smiled. Possibly from gratification.
'Well, how did it go off?' asked Peterson that night.
'Don't, old chap,' said Babington, faintly.
'I told you so,' said Jenkins at a venture.
But when he had heard the whole story he withdrew the remark, and commented on the wholly undeserved good luck some people seemed to enjoy.