Tales of St. Austin's/Chapter 12
THE PRIZE POEM
Some quarter of a century before the period with which this story deals, a certain rich and misanthropic man was seized with a bright idea for perpetuating his memory after death, and at the same time harassing a certain section of mankind. So in his will he set aside a portion of his income to be spent on an annual prize for the best poem submitted by a member of the Sixth Form of St Austin's College, on a subject to be selected by the Headmaster. And, he added—one seems to hear him chuckling to himself—every member of the form must compete. Then he died. But the evil that men do lives after them, and each year saw a fresh band of unwilling bards goaded to despair by his bequest. True, there were always one or two who hailed this ready market for their sonnets and odes with joy. But the majority, being barely able to rhyme 'dove' with 'love', regarded the annual announcement of the subject chosen with feelings of the deepest disgust.
The chains were thrown off after a period of twenty-seven years in this fashion.
Reynolds of the Remove was indirectly the cause of the change. He was in the infirmary, convalescing after an attack of German measles, when he received a visit from Smith, an ornament of the Sixth.
'By Jove,' remarked that gentleman, gazing enviously round the sick-room, 'they seem to do you pretty well here.'
'Yes, not bad, is it? Take a seat. Anything been happening lately?'
'Nothing much. I suppose you know we beat the M.C.C. by a wicket?'
'Yes, so I heard. Anything else?'
'Prize poem,' said Smith, without enthusiasm. He was not a poet.
Reynolds became interested at once. If there was one role in which he fancied himself (and, indeed, there were a good many), it was that of a versifier. His great ambition was to see some of his lines in print, and he had contracted the habit of sending them up to various periodicals, with no result, so far, except the arrival of rejectedat meal-times in embarrassingly long envelopes. Which he blushingly concealed with all possible speed.
'What's the subject this year?' he asked.
'The College—of all idiotic things.'
'Couldn't have a better subject for an ode. By Jove, I wish I was in the Sixth.'
'Wish I was in the infirmary,' said Smith.
Reynolds was struck with an idea.
'Look here, Smith,' he said, 'if you like I'll do you a poem, and you can send it up. If it gets the prize—'
'Oh, it won't get the prize,' Smith put in eagerly. 'Rogers is a cert. for that.'
'If it gets the prize,' repeated Reynolds, with asperity, 'you'll have to tell the Old Man all about it. He'll probably curse a bit, but that can't be helped. How's this for a beginning?
"Imposing pile, reared up 'midst pleasant grounds,
The scene of many a battle, lost or won,
At cricket or at football; whose red walls
Full many a sun has kissed 'ere day is done."'
'Grand. Couldn't you get in something about the M.C.C. match? You could make cricket rhyme with wicket.' Smith sat entranced with his ingenuity, but the other treated so material a suggestion with scorn.
'Well,' said Smith, 'I must be off now. We've got a House-match on. Thanks awfully about the poem.'
Left to himself, Reynolds set himself seriously to the composing of an ode that should do him justice. That is to say, he drew up a chair and table to the open window, wrote down the lines he had already composed, and began chewing a pen. After a few minutes he wrote another four lines, crossed them out, and selected a fresh piece of paper. He then copied out his first four lines again. After eating his pen to a stump, he jotted down the two words 'boys' and 'joys' at the end of separate lines. This led him to select a third piece of paper, on which he produced a sort of edition de luxe in his best handwriting, with the title 'Ode to the College' in printed letters at the top. He was admiring the neat effect of this when the door opened suddenly and violently, and Mrs Lee, a lady of advanced years and energetic habits, whose duty it was to minister to the needs of the sick and wounded in the infirmary, entered with his tea. Mrs Lee's method of entering a room was in accordance with the advice of the Psalmist, where he says, 'Fling wide the gates'. She flung wide the gate of the sick-room, and the result was that what is commonly called 'a thorough draught' was established. The air was thick with flying papers, and when calm at length succeeded storm, two editions of 'Ode to the College' were lying on the grass outside.
Reynolds attacked the tea without attempting to retrieve his vanished work. Poetry is good, but tea is better. Besides, he argued within himself, he remembered all he had written, and could easily write it out again. So, as far as he was concerned, those three sheets of paper were a closed book.
Later on in the afternoon, Montgomery of the Sixth happened to be passing by the infirmary, when Fate, aided by a sudden gust of wind, blew a piece of paper at him. 'Great Scott,' he observed, as his eye fell on the words 'Ode to the College'. Montgomery, like Smith, was no expert in poetry. He had spent a wretched afternoon trying to hammer out something that would pass muster in the poem competition, but without the least success. There were four lines on the paper. Two more, and it would be a poem, and capable of being entered for the prize as such. The words 'imposing pile', with which the fragment in his hand began, took his fancy immensely. A poetic afflatus seized him, and in less than three hours he had added the necessary couplet,
How truly sweet it is for such as me
To gaze on thee.
'And dashed neat, too,' he said, with satisfaction, as he threw the manuscript into his drawer. 'I don't know whether "me" shouldn't be "I", but they'll have to lump it. It's a poem, anyhow, within the meaning of the act.' And he strolled off to a neighbour's study to borrow a book.
Two nights afterwards, Morrison, also of the Sixth, was enjoying his usual during prep siesta in his study. A tap at the door roused him. Hastily seizing a lexicon, he assumed the attitude of the seeker after knowledge, and said, 'Come in.' It was not the House-master, but Evans, Morrison's fag, who entered with pride on his face and a piece of paper in his hand.
'I say,' he began, 'you remember you told me to hunt up some tags for the poem. Will this do?'
Morrison took the paper with a judicial air. On it were the words:
Imposing pile, reared up 'midst pleasant grounds,
The scene of many a battle, lost or won,
At cricket or at football; whose red walls
Full many a sun has kissed 'ere day is done.
'That's ripping, as far as it goes,' said Morrison. 'Couldn't be better. You'll find some apples in that box. Better take a few. But look here,' with sudden suspicion, 'I don't believe you made all this up yourself. Did you?'
Evans finished selecting his apples before venturing on a reply. Then he blushed, as much as a member of the junior school is capable of blushing.
'Well,' he said, 'I didn't exactly. You see, you only told me to get the tags. You didn't say how.'
'But how did you get hold of this? Whose is it?'
'Dunno. I found it in the field between the Pavilion and the infirmary.'
'Oh! well, it doesn't matter much. They're just what I wanted, which is the great thing. Thanks. Shut the door, will you?' Whereupon Evans retired, the richer by many apples, and Morrison resumed his siesta at the point where he had left off.
'Got that poem done yet?' said Smith to Reynolds, pouring out a cup of tea for the invalid on the following Sunday.
'Two lumps, please. No, not quite.'
'Great Caesar, man, when'll it be ready, do you think? It's got to go in tomorrow.'
'Well, I'm really frightfully sorry, but I got hold of a grand book. Ever read—?'
'Isn't any of it done?' asked Smith.
'Only the first verse, I'm afraid. But, look here, you aren't keen on getting the prize. Why not send in only the one verse? It makes a fairly decent poem.'
'Hum! Think the Old 'Un'll pass it?'
'He'll have to. There's nothing in the rules about length. Here it is if you want it.'
'Thanks. I suppose it'll be all right? So long! I must be off.'
The Headmaster, known to the world as the Rev. Arthur James Perceval, M.A., and to the School as the Old 'Un, was sitting at breakfast, stirring his coffee, with a look of marked perplexity upon his dignified face. This was not caused by the coffee, which was excellent, but by a letter which he held in his left hand.
'Hum!' he said. Then 'Umph!' in a protesting tone, as if someone had pinched him. Finally, he gave vent to a long-drawn 'Um-m-m,' in a deep bass. 'Most extraordinary. Really, most extraordinary. Exceedingly. Yes. Um. Very.' He took a sip of coffee.
'My dear,' said he, suddenly. Mrs Perceval started violently. She had been sketching out in her mind a little dinner, and wondering whether the cook would be equal to it.
'Yes,' she said.
'My dear, this is a very extraordinary communication. Exceedingly so. Yes, very.'
'Who is it from?'
Mr Perceval shuddered. He was a purist in speech. 'From whom, you should say. It is from Mr Wells, a great College friend of mine. I—ah—submitted to him for examination the poems sent in for the Sixth Form Prize. He writes in a very flippant style. I must say, very flippant. This is his letter:—"Dear Jimmy (really, really, he should remember that we are not so young as we were); dear—ahem—Jimmy. The poems to hand. I have read them, and am writing this from my sick-bed. The doctor tells me I may pull through even yet. There was only one any good at all, that was Rogers's, which, though—er—squiffy (tut!) in parts, was a long way better than any of the others. But the most taking part of the whole programme was afforded by the three comedians, whose efforts I enclose. You will notice that each begins with exactly the same four lines. Of course, I deprecate cribbing, but you really can't help admiring this sort of thing. There is a reckless daring about it which is simply fascinating. A horrible thought—have they been pulling your dignified leg? By the way, do you remember"—the rest of the letter is—er—on different matters.'
'James! How extraordinary!'
'Um, yes. I am reluctant to suspect—er—collusion, but really here there can be no doubt. No doubt at all. No.'
'Unless,' began Mrs Perceval, tentatively. 'No doubt at all, my dear,' snapped Reverend Jimmy. He did not wish to recall the other possibility, that his dignified leg was being pulled.
'Now, for what purpose did I summon you three boys?' asked Mr Perceval, of Smith, Montgomery, and Morrison, in his room after morning school that day. He generally began a painful interview with this question. The method had distinct advantages. If the criminal were of a nervous disposition, he would give himself away upon the instant. In any case, it was likely to startle him. 'For what purpose?' repeated the Headmaster, fixing Smith with a glittering eye.
'I will tell you,' continued Mr Perceval. 'It was because I desired information, which none but you can supply. How comes it that each of your compositions for the Poetry Prize commences with the same four lines?' The three poets looked at one another in speechless astonishment.
'Here,' he resumed, 'are the three papers. Compare them. Now,'—after the inspection was over—'what explanation have you to offer? Smith, are these your lines?'
'I—er—ah—wrote them, sir.'
'Don't prevaricate, Smith. Are you the author of those lines?'
'Ah! Very good. Are you, Montgomery?'
'Very good. Then you, Morrison, are exonerated from all blame. You have been exceedingly badly treated. The first-fruit of your brain has been—ah—plucked by others,You can go, Morrison.'
'I didn't write them, sir.'
'I—ah—don't quite understand you, Morrison. You say that you are indebted to another for these lines?'
'Then, Morrison, may I ask to whom you are indebted?'
'I found them in the field on a piece of paper, sir.' He claimed the discovery himself, because he thought that Evans might possibly prefer to remain outside this tangle.
'So did I, sir.' This from Montgomery. Mr Perceval looked bewildered, as indeed he was.
'And did you, Smith, also find this poem on a piece of paper in the field?' There was a metallic ring of sarcasm in his voice.
'Ah! Then to what circumstance were you indebted for the lines?'
'I got Reynolds to do them for me, sir.'
Montgomery spoke. 'It was near the infirmary that I found the paper, and Reynolds is in there.'
'So did I, sir,' said Morrison, incoherently.
'Then am I to understand, Smith, that to gain the prize you resorted to such underhand means as this?'
'No, sir, we agreed that there was no danger of my getting the prize. If I had got it, I should have told you everything. Reynolds will tell you that, sir.'
'Then what object had you in pursuing this deception?'
'Well, sir, the rules say everyone must send in something, and I can't write poetry at all, and Reynolds likes it, so I asked him to do it.'
And Smith waited for the storm to burst. But it did not burst. Far down in Mr Perceval's system lurked a quiet sense of humour. The situation penetrated to it. Then he remembered the examiner's letter, and it dawned upon him that there are few crueller things than to make a prosaic person write poetry.
'You may go,' he said, and the three went.
And at the next Board Meeting it was decided, mainly owing to the influence of an exceedingly eloquent speech from the Headmaster, to alter the rules for the Sixth Form Poetry Prize, so that from thence onward no one need compete unless he felt himself filled with the immortal fire.