Tales of St. Austin's/Chapter 8
'Might I observe, sir—'
'You may observe whatever you like,' said the referee kindly.
'The rules say—'
'I have given my decision. Twenty-five!' A spot of red appeared on the official cheek. The referee, who had been heckled since the kick-off, was beginning to be annoyed.
'The ball went behind without bouncing, and the rules say—'
'Twenty-FIVE!!' shouted the referee. 'I am perfectly well aware what the rules say.' And he blew his whistle with an air of finality. The secretary of the Bargees' F.C. subsided reluctantly, and the game was restarted.
The Bargees' match was a curious institution. Their real name was the Old Crockfordians. When, a few years before, the St Austin's secretary had received a challenge from them, dated from Stapleton, where their secretary happened to reside, he had argued within himself as follows: 'This sounds all right. Old Crockfordians? Never heard of Crockford. Probably some large private school somewhere. Anyhow, they're certain to be decent fellows.' And he arranged the fixture. It then transpired that Old Crockford was a village, and, from the appearance of the team on the day of battle, the Old Crockfordians seemed to be composed exclusively of the riff-raff of same. They wore green shirts with a bright yellow leopard over the heart, and C.F.C. woven in large letters about the chest. One or two of the outsides played in caps, and the team to a man criticized the referee's decisions with point and pungency. Unluckily, the first year saw a weak team of Austinians rather badly beaten, with the result that it became a point of honour to wipe this off the slate before the fixture could be cut out of the card. The next year was also unlucky. The Bargees managed to score a penalty goal in the first half, and won on that. The match resulted in a draw in the following season, and by this time the thing had become an annual event.
Now, however, the School was getting some of its own back. The Bargees had brought down a player of some reputation from the North, and were as strong as ever in the scrum. But St Austin's had a great team, and were carrying all before them. Charteris and Graham at half had the ball out to their centres in a way which made Merevale, who looked after the football of the School, feel that life was worth living. And when once it was out, things happened rapidly. MacArthur, the captain of the team, with Thomson as his fellow-centre, and Welch and Bannister on the wings, did what they liked with the Bargees' three-quarters. All the School outsides had scored, even the back, who dropped a neat goal. The player from the North had scarcely touched the ball during the whole game, and altogether the Bargees were becoming restless and excited.
The kick-off from the twenty-five line which followed upon the small discussion alluded to above, reached Graham. Under ordinary circumstances he would have kicked, but in a winning game original methods often pay. He dodged a furious sportsman in green and yellow, and went away down the touch-line. He was almost through when he stumbled. He recovered himself, but too late. Before he could pass, someone was on him. Graham was not heavy, and his opponent was muscular. He was swung off his feet, and the next moment the two came down together, Graham underneath. A sharp pain shot through his shoulder.
A doctor emerged from the crowd—there is always a doctor in a crowd—and made an examination.
'Anything bad?' asked the referee.
'Collar-bone,' said the doctor. 'The usual, you know. Rather badly smashed. Nothing dangerous, of course. Be all right in a month or so. Stop his playing. Rather a pity. Much longer before half-time?'
'No. I was just going to blow the whistle when this happened.'
The injured warrior was carried off, and the referee blew his whistle for half-time.
'I say, Charteris,' said MacArthur, 'who the deuce am I to put half instead of Graham?'
'Rogers used to play half in his childhood, I believe. But, I say, did you ever see such a scrag? Can't you protest, or something?'
'My dear chap, how can I? It's on our own ground. These Bargee beasts are visitors, if you come to think of it. I'd like to wring the chap's neck who did it. I didn't spot who it was. Did you see?'
'Rather. Their secretary. That man with the beard. I'll get Prescott to mark him this half.'
Prescott was the hardest tackler in the School. He accepted the commission cheerfully, and promised to do his best by the bearded one.
Charteris certainly gave him every opportunity. When he threw the ball out of touch, he threw it neatly to the criminal with the beard, and Prescott, who stuck to him closer than a brother, had generally tackled him before he knew what had happened. After a time he began to grow thoughtful, and when there was a line-out went and stood among the three-quarters. In this way much of Charteris's righteous retribution miscarried, but once or twice he had the pleasure and privilege of putting in a piece of tackling on his own account. The match ended with the enemy still intact, but considerably shaken. He was also rather annoyed. He spoke to Charteris on the subject as they were leaving the field.
'I was watching you,' he said, apropos of nothing apparently.
'That must have been nice for you,' said Charteris.
'Certainly. Any time you're passing, I'm sure—'
'You ain't 'eard the last of me yet.'
'That's something of a blow,' said Charteris cheerfully, and they parted.
Charteris, having got into his blazer, ran after Welch and MacArthur, and walked back with them to the House. All three of them were at Merevale's.
'Poor old Tony,' said MacArthur. 'Where have they taken him to? The House?'
'Yes,' said Welch. 'I say, Babe, you ought to scratch this match next year. Tell 'em the card's full up or something.'
'Oh, I don't know. One expects fairly rough play in this sort of game. After all, we tackle pretty hard ourselves. I know I always try and go my hardest. If the man happens to be brittle, that's his lookout,' concluded the bloodthirsty Babe.
'My dear man,' said Charteris, 'there's all the difference between a decent tackle and a bally scrag like the one that doubled Tony up. You can't break a chap's collar-bone without trying to.'
'Well, if you come to think of it, I suppose the man must have been fairly riled. You can't expect a man to be in an angelic temper when his side's been licked by thirty points.'
The Babe was one of those thoroughly excellent persons who always try, when possible, to make allowances for everybody.
'Well, dash it,' said Charteris indignantly, 'if he had lost his hair he might have drawn the line at falling on Tony like that. It wasn't the tackling part of it that crocked him. The beast simply jumped on him like a Hooligan. Anyhow, I made him sit up a bit before we finished. I gave Prescott the tip to mark him out of touch. Have you ever been collared by Prescott? It's a liberal education. Now, there you are, you see. Take Prescott. He's never crocked a man seriously in his life. I don't count being winded. That's absolutely an accident. Well, there you are, then. Prescott weighs thirteen-ten, and he's all muscle, and he goes like a battering-ram. You'll own that. He goes as hard as he jolly well knows how, and yet the worst he has ever done is to lay a man out for a couple of minutes while he gets his wind back. Well, compare him with this Bargee man. The Bargee weighs a stone less and isn't nearly as strong, and yet he smashes Tony's collar-bone. It's all very well, Babe, but you can't get away from it. Prescott tackles fairly and the Bargee scrags.'
'Yes,' said MacArthur, 'I suppose you're right.'
'Rather,' said Charteris. 'I wish I'd broken his neck.'
'By the way,' said Welch, 'you were talking to him after the match. What was he saying?'
'By Jove, I'd forgotten; he said I hadn't heard the last of him, and that I was to wait.'
'What did you say?'
'Oh, I behaved beautifully. I asked him to be sure and look in any time he was passing, and after a few chatty remarks we parted.'
'I wonder if he meant anything.'
'I believe he means to waylay me with a buckled belt. I shan't stir out except with the Old Man or some other competent bodyguard. "'Orrible outrage, shocking death of a St Austin's schoolboy." It would look rather well on the posters.'
Welch stuck strenuously to the point.
'No, but, look here, Charteris,' he said seriously, 'I'm not rotting. You see, the man lives in Stapleton, and if he knows anything of School rules—’
'Which he doesn't probably. Why should he? Well?'—'If he knows anything of the rules, he'll know that Stapleton's out of bounds, and he may book you there and run you in to Merevale.'
'Yes,' said MacArthur. 'I tell you what, you'd do well to knock off a few of your expeditions to Stapleton. You know you wouldn't go there once a month if it wasn't out of bounds. You'll be a prefect next term. I should wait till then, if I were you.'
'My dear chap, what does it matter? The worst that can happen to you for breaking bounds is a couple of hundred lines, and I've got a capital of four hundred already in stock. Besides, things would be so slow if you always kept in bounds. I always feel like a cross between Dick Turpin and Machiavelli when I go to Stapleton. It's an awfully jolly feeling. Like warm treacle running down your back. It's cheap at two hundred lines.'
'You're an awful fool,' said Welch, rudely but correctly.
Welch was a youth who treated the affairs of other people rather too seriously. He worried over them. This is not a particularly common trait in the character of either boy or man, but Welch had it highly developed. He could not probably have explained exactly why he was worried, but he undoubtedly was. Welch had a very grave and serious mind. He shared a study with Charteris—for Charteris, though not yet a School-prefect, was part owner of a study—and close observation had convinced him that the latter was not responsible for his actions, and that he wanted somebody to look after him. He had therefore elected himself to the post of a species of modified and unofficial guardian angel to him. The duties were heavy, and the remuneration exceedingly light.
'Really, you know,' said MacArthur, 'I don't see what the point of all your lunacy is. I don't know if you're aware of it, but the Old Man's getting jolly sick with you.'
'I didn't know,' said Charteris, 'but I'm very glad to hear it. For hist! I have a ger-rudge against the person. Beneath my ban that mystic man shall suffer,, Matilda. He sat upon me—publicly, and the resultant blot on my scutcheon can only be wiped out with blood, or broken rules,' he added.
This was true. To listen to Charteris on the subject, one might have thought that he considered the matter rather amusing than otherwise. This, however, was simply due to the fact that he treated everything flippantly in conversation. But, like the parrot, he thought the more. The actual casus belli had been trivial. At least the mere spectator would have considered it trivial. It had happened after this fashion. Charteris was a member of the School corps. The orderly-room of the School corps was in the junior part of the School buildings. Charteris had been to replace his rifle in that shrine of Mars after a mid-day drill, and on coming out into the passage had found himself in the middle of a junior school 'rag' of the conventional type. Somebody's cap had fallen off, and two hastily picked teams were playing football with it (Association rules). Now, Charteris was not a prefect (that, it may be observed in passing, was another source of bitterness in him towards the Powers, for he was fairly high up in the Sixth, and others of his set, Welch, Thomson, and Tony Graham, who were also in the Sixth—the two last below him in form order—had already received their prefects' caps). Not being a prefect, it would have been officious in him to have stopped the game. So he was passing on with what Mr Hurry Bungsho Jabberjee, B.A., would have termed a beaming simper of indescribable suavity, when a member of one of the opposing teams, in effecting a G. O. Smithian dribble, cannoned into him. To preserve his balance—this will probably seem a very thin line of defence, but 'I state but the facts'—he grabbed at the disciple of Smith amidst applause, and at that precise moment a new actor appeared on the scene—the Headmaster. Now, of all the things that lay in his province, the Headmaster most disliked to see a senior 'ragging' with a junior. He had a great idea of the dignity of the senior school, and did all that in him lay to see that it was kept up. The greater number of the juniors with whom the senior was found ragging, the more heinous the offence. Circumstantial evidence was dead against Charteris. To all outward appearances he was one of the players in the impromptu football match. The soft and fascinating beams of the simper, to quote Mr Jabberjee once more, had not yet faded from the act. A well-chosen word or two from the Headmagisterial lips put a premature end to the football match, and Charteris was proceeding on his way when the Headmaster called him. He stopped. The Headmaster was angry. So angry, indeed, that he did what in a more lucid interval he would not have done. He hauled a senior over the coals in the hearing of a number of juniors, one of whom (unidentified) giggled loudly. As Charteris had on previous occasions observed, the Old Man, when he did start to take a person's measure, didn't leave out much. The address was not long, but it covered a great deal of ground. The section of it which chiefly rankled in Charteris's mind, and which had continued to rankle ever since, was that in which the use of the word 'buffoon' had occurred. Everybody who has a gift of humour and (very naturally) enjoys exercising it, hates to be called a buffoon. It was Charteris's one weak spot. Every other abusive epithet in the language slid off him without penetrating or causing him the least discomfort. The word 'buffoon' went home, right up to the hilt. And, to borrow from Mr Jabberjee for positively the very last time, he had observed (mentally): 'Henceforward I will perpetrate heaps of the lowest dregs of vice.' He had, in fact, started a perfect bout of breaking rules, simply because they were rules. The injustice of the thing rankled. No one so dislikes being punished unjustly as the person who might have been punished justly on scores of previous occasions, if he had only been found out. To a certain extent, Charteris ran amok. He broke bounds and did little work, and—he was beginning gradually to find this out—got thoroughly tired of it all. Offended dignity, however, still kept him at it, and much as he would have preferred to have resumed a less feverish type of existence, he did not do so.
'I have a ger-rudge against the man,' he said.
'You are an idiot, really,' said Welch.
'Welch,' said Charteris, by way of explanation to MacArthur, 'is a lad of coarse fibre. He doesn't understand the finer feelings. He can't see that I am doing this simply for the Old Man's good. Spare the rod, spile the choild. Let's go and have a look at Tony when we're changed. He'll be in the sick-room if he's anywhere.'
'All right,' said the Babe, as he went into his study. 'Buck up. I'll toss you for first bath in a second.'
Charteris walked on with Welch to their sanctum.
'You know,' said Welch seriously, stooping to unlace his boots, 'rotting apart, you really are a most awful ass. I wish I could get you to see it.'
'Never you mind, ducky,' said Charteris, 'I'm all right. I'll look after myself.'
It was about a week after the Bargees' match that the rules respecting bounds were made stricter, much to the popular indignation. The penalty for visiting Stapleton without leave was increased from two hundred lines to two extra lessons. The venomous characteristic of extra lesson was that it cut into one's football, for the criminal was turned into a form-room from two till four on half-holidays, and so had to scratch all athletic engagements for the day, unless he chose to go for a solitary run afterwards. In the cricket term the effect of this was not so deadly. It was just possible that you might get an innings somewhere after four o'clock, even if only at the nets. But during the football season—it was now February—to be in extra lesson meant a total loss of everything that makes life endurable, and the School protested (to one another, in the privacy of their studies) with no uncertain voice against this barbarous innovation.
The reason for the change had been simple. At the corner of the High Street at Stapleton was a tobacconist's shop, and Mr Prater, strolling in one evening to renew his stock of Pioneer, was interested to observe P. St H. Harrison, of Merevale's, purchasing a consignment of 'Girl of my Heart' cigarettes (at twopence-halfpenny the packet of twenty, including a coloured picture of Lord Kitchener). Now, Mr Prater was one of the most sportsmanlike of masters. If he had merely met Harrison out of bounds, and it had been possible to have overlooked him, he would have done so. But such a proceeding in the interior of a small shop was impossible. There was nothing to palliate the crime. The tobacconist also kept the wolf from the door, and lured the juvenile population of the neighbourhood to it, by selling various weird brands of sweets, but it was only too obvious that Harrison was not after these. Guilt was in his eye, and the packet of cigarettes in his hand. Also Harrison's House cap was fixed firmly at the back of his head. Mr Prater finished buying his Pioneer, and went out without a word. That night it was announced to Harrison that the Headmaster wished to see him. The Headmaster saw him, though for a certain period of the interview he did not see the Headmaster, having turned his back on him by request. On the following day Stapleton was placed doubly out of bounds.
Tony, who was still in bed, had not heard the news when Charteris came to see him on the evening of the day on which the edict had gone forth.
'How are you getting on?' asked Charteris.
'Oh, fairly well. It's rather slow.'
'The grub seems all right.' Charteris absently reached out for a slice of cake.
'And you don't have to do any work.'
'Well, then, it seems to me you're having a jolly good time. What don't you like about it?'
'It's so slow, being alone all day.'
'Makes you appreciate intellectual conversation all the more when you get it. Mine, for instance.'
'I want something to read.'
'I'll bring you a Sidgwick's Greek Prose Composition, if you like. Full of racy stories.'
'I've read 'em, thanks.'
'How about Jebb's Homer? You'd like that. Awfully interesting. Proves that there never was such a man as Homer, you know, and that the Iliad and the Odyssey were produced by evolution. General style, quietly funny. Make you roar.'
'Don't be an idiot. I'm simply starving for something to read. Haven't you got anything?'
'You've read all mine.'
'Hasn't Welch got any books?'
'Not one. He bags mine when he wants to read. I'll tell you what I will do if you like.'
'Go into Stapleton, and borrow something from Adamson.' Adamson was the College doctor.
'By Jove, that's not a bad idea.'
'It's a dashed good idea, which wouldn't have occurred to anybody but a genius. I've been quite a pal of Adamson's ever since I had the flu. I go to tea with him occasionally, and we talk medical shop. Have you ever tried talking medical shop during tea? Nothing like it for giving you an appetite.'
'Has he got anything readable?'
'Rather. Have you ever tried anything of James Payn's?'
'I've read Terminations, or something,' said Tony doubtfully, 'but he's so obscure.'
'Don't,' said Charteris sadly, 'please don't. Terminations is by one Henry James, and there is a substantial difference between him and James Payn. Anyhow, if you want a short biography of James Payn, he wrote a hundred books, and they're all simply ripping, and Adamson has got a good many of them, and I'm hoping to borrow a couple—any two will do—and you're going to read them. I know one always bars a book that's recommended to one, but you've got no choice. You're not going to get anything else till you've finished those two.'
'All right,' said Tony. 'But Stapleton's out of bounds. I suppose Merevale'll give you leave to go in.'
'He won't,' said Charteris. 'I shan't ask him. On principle. So long.'
On the following afternoon Charteris went into Stapleton. The distance by road was almost exactly one mile. If you went by the fields it was longer, because you probably lost your way.
Dr Adamson's house was in the High Street. Charteris knocked at the door. The servant was sorry, but the doctor was out. Her tone seemed to suggest that, if she had had any say in the matter, he would have remained in. Would Charteris come in and wait? Charteris rather thought he would. He waited for half an hour, and then, as the absent medico did not appear to be coming, took two books from the shelf, wrote a succinct note explaining what he had done, and why he had done it, hoping the doctor would not mind, and went out with his literary trophies into the High Street again.
The time was now close on five o'clock. Lock-up was not till a quarter past six—six o'clock nominally, but the doors were always left open till a quarter past. It would take him about fifteen minutes to get back, less if he trotted. Obviously, the thing to do here was to spend a thoughtful quarter of an hour or so inspecting the sights of the town. These were ordinarily not numerous, but this particular day happened to be market day, and there was a good deal going on. The High Street was full of farmers, cows, and other animals, the majority of the former well on the road to intoxication. It is, of course, extremely painful to see a man in such a condition, but when such a person is endeavouring to count a perpetually moving drove of pigs, the onlooker's pain is sensibly diminished. Charteris strolled along the High Street observing these and other phenomena with an attentive eye. Opposite the Town Hall he was button-holed by a perfect stranger, whom, by his conversation, he soon recognized as the Stapleton 'character'. There is a 'character' in every small country town. He is not a bad character; still less is he a good character. He is just a 'character' pure and simple. This particular man—or rather, this man, for he was anything but particular—apparently took a great fancy to Charteris at first sight. He backed him gently against a wall, and insisted on telling him an interminable anecdote of his shady past, when, it seemed, he had been a 'super' in some travelling company. The plot of the story, as far as Charteris could follow it, dealt with a theatrical tour in Dublin, where some person or persons unknown had, with malice prepense, scattered several pounds of snuff on the stage previous to a performance of Hamlet; and, according to the 'character', when the ghost of Hamlet's father sneezed steadily throughout his great scene, there was not a dry eye in the house. The 'character' had concluded that anecdote, and was half-way through another, when Charteris, looking at his watch, found that it was almost six o'clock. He interrupted one of the 'character's' periods by diving past him and moving rapidly down the street. The historian did not seem to object. Charteris looked round and saw that he had button-holed a fresh victim. He was still gazing in one direction and walking in another, when he ran into somebody.
'Sorry,' said Charteris hastily. 'Hullo!'
It was the secretary of the Old Crockfordians, and, to judge from the scowl on that gentleman's face, the recognition was mutual.
'It's you, is it?' said the secretary in his polished way.
'I believe so,' said Charteris.
'Out of bounds,' observed the man.
Charteris was surprised. This grasp of technical lore on the part of a total outsider was as unexpected as it was gratifying.
'What do you know about bounds?' said Charteris.
'I know you ain't allowed to come 'ere, and you'll get it 'ot from your master for coming.'
'Ah, but he won't know. I shan't tell him, and I'm sure you will respect my secret.'
Charteris smiled in a winning manner.
'Ho!' said the man, 'Ho indeed!'
There is something very clinching about the word 'Ho'. It seems definitely to apply the closure to any argument. At least, I have never yet met anyone who could tell me the suitable repartee.
'Well,' said Charteris affably, 'don't let me keep you. I must be going on.'
'Ho!' observed the man once more. 'Ho indeed!'
'That's a wonderfully shrewd remark,' said Charteris. 'I can see that, but I wish you'd tell me exactly what it means.'
'You're out of bounds.'
'Your mind seems to run in a groove. You can't get off that bounds business. How do you know Stapleton's out of bounds?'
'I have made enquiries,' said the man darkly.
'By Jove,' said Charteris delightedly, 'this is splendid. You're a regular sleuth-hound. I dare say you've found out my name and House too?'
'I may 'ave,' said the man, 'or I may not 'ave.'
'Well, now you mention it, I suppose one of the two contingencies is probable. Well, I'm awfully glad to have met you. Good-bye. I must be going.'
'You're goin' with me.'
'Arm in arm?'
'I don't want to 'ave to take you.'
'No,' said Charteris, 'I should jolly well advise you not to try. This is my way.'
He walked on till he came to the road that led to St Austin's. The secretary of the Old Crockfordians stalked beside him with determined stride.
'Now,' said Charteris, when they were on the road, 'you mustn't mind if I walk rather fast. I'm in a hurry.'
Charteris's idea of walking rather fast was to dash off down the road at quarter-mile pace. The move took the man by surprise, but, after a moment, he followed with much panting. It was evident that he was not in training. Charteris began to feel that the walk home might be amusing in its way. After they had raced some three hundred yards he slowed down to a walk again. It was at this point that his companion evinced a desire to do the rest of the journey with a hand on the collar of his coat.
'If you touch me,' observed Charteris with a surprising knowledge of legal minutiae, 'it'll be a technical assault, and you'll get run in; and you'll get beans anyway if you try it on.'
The man reconsidered matters, and elected not to try it on.
Half a mile from the College Charteris began to walk rather fast again. He was a good half-miler, and his companion was bad at every distance. After a game struggle he dropped to the rear, and finished a hundred yards behind in considerable straits. Charteris shot in at Merevale's door with five minutes to spare, and went up to his study to worry Welch by telling him about it.
'Welch, you remember the Bargee who scragged Tony? Well, there have been all sorts of fresh developments. He's just been pacing me all the way from Stapleton.'
'Stapleton! Have you been to Stapleton? Did Merevale give you leave?'
'No. I didn't ask him.'
'You are an idiot. And now this Bargee man will go straight to the Old Man and run you in. I wonder you didn't think of that.'
'Curious I didn't.'
'I suppose he saw you come in here?'
'Rather. He couldn't have had a better view if he'd paid for a seat. Half a second; I must just run up with these volumes to Tony.' When he came back he found Welch more serious than ever.
'I told you so,' said Welch. 'You're to go to the Old Man at once. He's just sent over for you. I say, look here, if it's only lines I don't mind doing some of them, if you like.'
Charteris was quite touched by this sporting offer.
'It's awfully good of you,' he said, 'but it doesn't matter, really. I shall be all right.'
Ten minutes later he returned, beaming.
'Well,' said Welch, 'what's he given you?'
'Only his love, to give to you. It was this way. He first asked me if I wasn't perfectly aware that Stapleton was out of bounds. "Sir," says I, "I've known it from childhood's earliest hour." "Ah," says he to me, "did Mr Merevale give you leave to go in this afternoon?" "No," says I, "I never consulted the gent you mention."'
'Then he ragged me for ten minutes, and finally told me I must go into extra the next two Saturdays.'
'I thought so.'
'Ah, but mark the sequel. When he had finished, I said that I was sorry I had mistaken the rules, but I had thought that a chap was allowed to go into Stapleton if he got leave from a master. "But you said that Mr Merevale did not give you leave," said he. "Friend of my youth," I replied courteously, "you are perfectly correct. As always. Mr Merevale did not give me leave, but," I added suavely, "Mr Dacre did." And I came away, chanting hymns of triumph in a mellow baritone, and leaving him in a dead faint on the sofa. And the Bargee, who was present during the conflict, swiftly and silently vanished away, his morale considerably shattered. And that, my gentle Welch,' concluded Charteris cheerfully, 'put me one up. So pass the biscuits, and let us rejoice if we never rejoice again.'
The Easter term was nearing its end. Football, with the exception of the final House-match, which had still to come off, was over, and life was in consequence a trifle less exhilarating than it might have been. In some ways the last few weeks before the Easter holidays are quite pleasant. You can put on running shorts and a blazer and potter about the grounds, feeling strong and athletic, and delude yourself into the notion that you are training for the sports. Ten minutes at the broad jump, five with the weight, a few sprints on the track—it is all very amusing and harmless, but it is apt to become monotonous after a time. And if the weather is at all inclined to be chilly, such an occupation becomes impossible.
Charteris found things particularly dull. He was a fair average runner, but there were others far better at every distance, so that he saw no use in mortifying the flesh with strict training. On the other hand, in view of the fact that the final House-match had yet to be played, and that Merevale's was one of the two teams that were going to play it, it behoved him to keep himself at least moderately fit. The genial muffin and the cheery crumpet were still things to be avoided. He thus found himself in a position where, apparently, the few things which it was possible for him to do were barred, and the net result was that he felt slightly dull.
To make matters worse, all the rest of his set were working full time at their various employments, and had no leisure for amusing him. Welch practised hundred-yard sprints daily, and imagined that it would be quite a treat for Charteris to be allowed to time him. So he gave him the stopwatch, saw him safely to the end of the track, and at a given signal dashed off in the approved American style. By the time he reached the tape, dutifully held by two sporting Merevalian juniors, Charteris's attention had generally been attracted elsewhere. 'What time?' Welch would pant. 'By Jove,' Charteris would observe blandly, 'I forgot to look. About a minute and a quarter, I fancy.' At which Welch, who always had a notion that he had done it in ten and a fifth that time, at any rate, would dissemble his joy, and mildly suggest that somebody else should hold the watch. Then there was Jim Thomson, generally a perfect mine of elevating conversation. He was in for the mile and also the half, and refused to talk about anything except those distances, and the best methods for running them in the minimum of time. Charteris began to feel a blue melancholy stealing over him. The Babe, again. He might have helped to while away the long hours, but unfortunately the Babe had been taken very bad with a notion that he was going to win the 'cross-country run, and when, in addition to this, he was seized with a panic with regard to the prospects of the House team in the final, and began to throw out hints concerning strict training, Charteris regarded him as a person to be avoided. If he fled to the Babe for sympathy now, the Babe would be just as likely as not to suggest that he should come for a ten-mile spin with him, to get him into condition for the final Houser. The very thought of a ten-mile spin made Charteris feel faint. Lastly, there was Tony. But Tony's company was worse than none at all. He went about with his arm in a sling, and declined to be comforted. But for his injury, he would by now have been training hard for the Aldershot Boxing Competition, and the fact that he was now definitely out of it had a very depressing effect upon him. He lounged moodily about the gymnasium, watching Menzies, who was to take his place, sparring with the instructor, and refused consolation. Altogether, Charteris found life a distinct bore.
He was reduced to such straits for amusement, that one Wednesday afternoon, finding himself with nothing else to do, he was working at a burlesque and remarkably scurrilous article on 'The Staff, by one who has suffered', which he was going to insert in The Glow Worm, an unofficial periodical which he had started for the amusement of the School and his own and his contributors' profit. He was just warming to his work, and beginning to enjoy himself, when the door opened without a preliminary knock. Charteris deftly slid a piece of blotting-paper over his MS., for Merevale occasionally entered a study in this manner. And though there was nothing about Merevale himself in the article, it would be better perhaps, thought Charteris, if he did not see it. But it was not Merevale. It was somebody far worse. The Babe.
The Babe was clothed as to his body in football clothes, and as to face, in a look of holy enthusiasm. Charteris knew what that look meant. It meant that the Babe was going to try and drag him out for a run.
'Go away, Babe,' he said, 'I'm busy.'
'Why on earth are you slacking in here on this ripping afternoon?'
'Slacking!' said Charteris. 'I like that. I'm doing berrain work, Babe. I'm writing an article on masters and their customs, which will cause a profound sensation in the Common Room. At least it would, if they ever saw it, but they won't. Or I hope they won't for their sake and mine. So run away, my precious Babe, and don't disturb your uncle when he's busy.'
'Rot,' said the Babe firmly, 'you haven't taken any exercise for a week.'
Charteris replied proudly that he had wound up his watch only last night. The Babe refused to accept the remark as relevant to the matter in hand.
'Look here, Alderman,' he said, sitting down on the table, and gazing sternly at his victim, 'it's all very well, you know, but the final comes on in a few days, and you know you aren't in any too good training.'
'I am,' said Charteris, 'I'm as fit as a prize fighter. Simply full of beans. Feel my ribs.'
The Babe declined the offer.
'No, but I say,' he said plaintively, 'I wish you'd treat it seriously. It's getting jolly serious, really. If Dacre's win that cup again this year, that'll make four years running.'
'Not so,' said Charteris, like the mariner of infinite-resource-and-sagacity; 'not so, but far otherwise. It'll only make three.'
'Well, three's bad enough.'
'True, oh king, three is quite bad enough.'
'Well, then, there you are. Now you see.'
Charteris looked puzzled.
'Would you mind explaining that remark?' he said. 'Slowly.'
But the Babe had got off the table, and was prowling round the room, opening cupboards and boxes.
'What are you playing at?' enquired Charteris.
'Where do you keep yourthings?'
'What do you want with my footer things, if you don't mind my asking?'
'I'm going to help you put them on, and then you're coming for a run.'
'Ah,' said Charteris.
'Yes. Just a gentle spin to keep you in training. Hullo, this looks like them.'
He plunged both hands into a box near the window and flung out a mass of football clothes. It reminded Charteris of a terrier digging at a rabbit-hole.
'Don't, Babe. Treat 'em tenderly. You'll be spoiling the crease in those bags if you heave 'em about like that. I'm very particular about how I look on the football field. I was always taught to dress myself like a little gentleman, so to speak. Well, now you've seen them, put 'em away.'
'Put 'em on,' said the Babe firmly.
'You are a beast, Babe. I don't want to go for a run. I'm getting too old for violent exercise.'
'Buck up,' said the Babe. 'We mustn't chuck any chances away. Now that Tony can't play, we shall have to do all we know if we want to win.'
'I don't see what need there is to get nervous about it. Considering we've got three of the First three-quarter line, and the Second Fifteen back, we ought to do pretty well.'
'But look at Dacre's scrum. There's Prescott, to start with. He's worth any two of our men put together. Then they've got Carter, Smith, and Hemming out of the first, and Reeve-Jones out of the second. And their outsides aren't so very bad, if you come to think of it. Bannister's in the first, and the other three-quarters are all good. And they've got both the second halves. You'll have practically to look after both of them now that Tony's crocked. And Baddeley has come on a lot this term.'
'Babe,' said Charteris, 'you have reason. I will turn over a new leaf. I will be good. Give me my things and I'll come for a run. Only please don't let it be anything over twenty miles.'
'Good man,' said the gratified Babe. 'We won't go far, and will take it quite easy.'
'I tell you what,' said Charteris. 'Do you know a place called Worbury? I thought you wouldn't, probably. It's only a sort of hamlet, two cottages, three public-houses, and a duck-pond, and that sort of thing. I only know it because Welch and I ran there once last year. It's in the Badgwick direction, about three miles by road, mostly along the level. I vote we muffle up fairly well, blazers and sweaters and so on, run to Worbury, tea at one of the cottages, and back in time for lock-up. How does that strike you?'
'It sounds all right. How about tea though? Are you certain you can get it?'
'Rather. The Oldest Inhabitant is quite a pal of mine.'
Charteris's circle of acquaintances was a standing wonder to the Babe and other Merevalians. He seemed to know everybody in the county.
When once he was fairly started on any business, physical or mental, Charteris generally shaped well. It was the starting that he found the difficulty. Now that he was actually in motion, he was enjoying himself thoroughly. He wondered why on earth he had been so reluctant to come for this run. The knowledge that there were three miles to go, and that he was equal to them, made him feel a new man. He felt fit. And there is nothing like feeling fit for dispelling boredom. He swung along with the Babe at a steady pace.
'There's the cottage,' he said, as they turned a bend of the road, and Worbury appeared a couple of hundred yards away. 'Let's sprint.' They sprinted, and arrived at the door of the cottage with scarcely a yard between them, much to the admiration of the Oldest Inhabitant, who was smoking a thoughtful pipe in his front garden. Mrs Oldest Inhabitant came out of the cottage at the sound of voices, and Charteris broached the subject of tea. The menu was sumptuous and varied, and even the Babe, in spite of his devotion to strict training, could scarce forbear to smile happily at the mention of hot cakes.
During the mauvais quart d'heure before the meal, Charteris kept up an animated conversation with the Oldest Inhabitant, the Babe joining in from time to time when he could think of anything to say. Charteris appeared to be quite a friend of the family. He enquired after the Oldest Inhabitant's rheumatics. It was gratifying to find that they were distinctly better. How had Mrs O. I. been since his last visit? Prarper hearty? Excellent. How was the O. I.'s ?
At the mention of his nevvy the O. I. became discursive. He told his audience everything that had happened in connection with the said nevvy for years back. After which he started to describe what he would probably do in the future. Amongst other things, there were going to be some sports at Rutton today week, and his nevvy was going to try and win the cup for what the Oldest Inhabitant vaguely described as 'a race'. He had won it last year. Yes, prarper good runner, his nevvy. Where was Rutton? the Babe wanted to know. About eight miles out of Stapleton, said Charteris, who was well up in local geography. You got there by train. It was the next station.
Mrs O. I. came out to say that tea was ready, and, being drawn into the conversation on the subject of the Rutton sports, produced a programme of the same, which her nevvy had sent them. From this it seemed that the nevvy's 'spot' event was the egg and spoon race. An asterisk against his name pointed him out as the last year's winner.
'Hullo,' said Charteris, 'I see there's a strangers' mile. I'm a demon at the mile when I'm roused. I think I shall go in for it.'
He handed the programme back and began his tea.
'You know, Babe,' he said, as they were going back that evening, 'I really think I shall go in for that race. It would be a most awful rag. It's the day before the House-match, so it'll just get me fit.'
'Don't be a fool,' said the Babe. 'There would be a fearful row about it if you were found out. You'd get extras for the rest of your life.'
'Well, the final Houser comes off on a Thursday, so it won't affect that.'
'Yes, but still—'
'I shall think about it,' said Charteris. 'You needn't go telling anyone.'
'If you'll take my advice, you'll drop it.'
'Your suggestion has been noted, and will receive due attention,' said Charteris. 'Put on the pace a bit.'
They lengthened their stride, and conversation came to an abrupt end.
'I shall go, Babe,' said Charteris on the following night.
The Sixth Form had a slack day before them on the morrow, there being a temporary lull in the form-work which occurred about once a week, when there was no composition of any kind to be done. The Sixth did four compositions a week, two Greek and two Latin, and except for these did not bother themselves very much about overnight preparation. The Latin authors which the form were doing were Livy and Virgil, and when either of these were on the next day's programme, most of the Sixth considered that they were justified in taking a night off. They relied on their ability to translate both authors at sight and without previous acquaintance. The popular notion that Virgil is hard rarely appeals to a member of a public school. There are two ways of translating Virgil, the conscientious and the other. He prefers the other.
On this particular night, therefore, work was 'off'. Merevale was over at the Great Hall, taking preparation, and the Sixth-Form Merevalians had assembled in Charteris's study to talk about things in general. It was after a pause of some moments, that had followed upon a lively discussion of the House's prospects in the forthcoming final, that Charteris had spoken.
'I shall go, Babe,' said he.
'Go where?' asked Tony, from the depths of a deck-chair.
The Babe turned to the company and explained.
'The lunatic's going in for the strangers' mile at some sports at Rutton next week. He'll get booked for a cert. He can't see that. I never saw such a man.'
'Rally round,' said Charteris, 'and reason with me. I'll listen. Tony, what do you think about it?'
Tony expressed his opinion tersely, and Charteris thanked him. Welch, who had been reading, now awoke to the fact that a discussion was in progress, and asked for details. The Babe explained once more, and Welch heartily corroborated Tony's remarks. Charteris thanked him too.
'You aren't really going, are you?' asked Welch.
'Rather,' said Charteris.
'The Old Man won't give you leave.'
'Shan't worry the poor man with such trifles.'
'But it's miles out of bounds. Stapleton station is out of bounds to start with. It's against rules to go in a train, and Rutton's even more out of bounds than Stapleton.'
'And as there are sports there,' said Tony, 'the Old Man is certain to put Rutton specially out of bounds for that day. He always bars a St Austin's chap going to a place when there's anything going on there.'
'I don't care. What have I to do with the Old Man's petty prejudices? Now, let me get at my time-table. Here we are. Now then.'
'Don't be a fool,' said Tony,
'Certainly not. Look here, there's a train starts from Stapleton at three. I can catch that all right. Gets to Rutton at three-twenty. Sports begin at three-fifteen. At least, they are supposed to. Over before five, I should think. At least, my race will be, though I must stop to see the Oldest Inhabitant's nevvy win the egg and spoon canter. But that ought to come on before the strangers' race. Train back at a quarter past five. Arrives at a quarter to six. Lock up six-fifteen. That gives me half an hour to get here from Stapleton. What more do you want? I shall do it easily, and … the odds against my being booked are about twenty-five to one. At which price if any gent present cares to deposit his money, I am willing to take him. Now I'll treat you to a tune, if you're good.'
He went to the cupboard and produced his gramophone. Charteris's musical instruments had at one time been strictly suppressed by the authorities, and, in consequence, he had laid in a considerable stock of them. At last, when he discovered that there was no rule against the use of musical instruments in the House, Merevale had yielded. The stipulation that Charteris should play only before prep. was rigidly observed, except when Merevale was over at the Hall, and the Sixth had no work. On such occasions Charteris felt justified in breaking through the rule. He had a gramophone, a banjo, a penny whistle, and a mouth organ. The banjo, which he played really well, was the most in request, but the gramophone was also popular.
'Turn on "Whistling Rufus",' observed Thomson.
'Whistling Rufus' was duly turned on, giving way after an encore to 'Bluebells'.
'I always weep when I hear this,' said Tony.
'It is beautiful, isn't it?' said Charteris.
I'll be your sweetheart, if you—will be—mine,
All my life, I'll be your valentine.
Bluebells I've gathered—grrhhrh.
The needle of the gramophone, after the manner of its kind, slipped raspingly over the surface of the wax, and the rest of the ballad was lost.
'That,' said Charteris, 'is how I feel with regard to the Old Man. I'd be his sweetheart, if he'd be mine. But he makes no advances, and the stain on my scutcheon is not yet wiped out. I must say I haven't tried gathering bluebells for him yet, nor have I offered my services as a perpetual valentine, but I've been very kind to him in other ways.'
'Is he still down on you?' asked the Babe.
'He hasn't done much lately. We're in a state of truce at present. Did I tell you how I scored about Stapleton?'
'You've only told us about a hundred times,' said the Babe brutally. 'I tell you what, though, he'll score off you if he finds you going to Rutton.'
'Let's hope he won't.'
'He won't,' said Welch suddenly.
'Because you won't go. I'll bet you anything you like that you won't go.'
That settled Charteris. It was the sort of remark that always acted on him like a tonic. He had been intending to go all the time, but it was this speech of Welch's that definitely clinched the matter. One of his mottoes for everyday use was 'Let not thyself be scored off by Welch.'
'That's all right,' he said. 'Of course I shall go. What's the next item you'd like on this machine?'
The day of the sports arrived, and the Babe, meeting Charteris at Merevale's gate, made a last attempt to head him off from his purpose. 'How are you going to take your things?' he asked. 'You can't carry a bag. The first beak you met would ask questions.'
If he had hoped that this would be a crushing argument, he was disappointed.
Charteris patted a bloated coat pocket.
'Bags,' he said laconically. 'Vest,' he added, doing the same to his other pocket. 'Shoes,' he concluded, 'you will observe I am carrying in a handy brown paper parcel, and if anybody wants to know what's in it, I shall tell them it's acid drops. Sure you won't come, too?'
'All right. So long then. Be good while I'm gone.'
And he passed on down the road that led to Stapleton.
The Rutton Recreation Ground presented, as the Stapleton Herald justly remarked in its next week's issue, 'a gay and animated appearance'. There was a larger crowd than Charteris had expected. He made his way through them, resisting without difficulty the entreaties of a hoarse gentleman in a check suit to have three to two on 'Enery something for the hundred yards, and came at last to the dressing-tent.
At this point it occurred to him that it would be judicious to find out when his race was to start. It was rather a chilly day, and the less time he spent in the undress uniform of shorts the better. He bought a correct card for twopence, and scanned it. The strangers' mile was down for four-fifty. There was no need to change for an hour yet. He wished the authorities could have managed to date the event earlier.
Four-fifty was running it rather fine. The race would be over by about five to five, and it was a walk of some ten minutes to the station, less if he hurried. That would give him ten minutes for recovering from the effects of the race, and changing back into his ordinary clothes again. It would be quick work. But, having come so far, he was not inclined to go back without running in the race. He would never be able to hold his head up again if he did that. He left the dressing-tent, and started on a tour of the field.
The scene was quite different from anything he had ever witnessed before in the way of sports. The sports at St Austin's were decorous to a degree. These leaned more to the rollickingly convivial. It was like an ordinary race-meeting, except that men were running instead of horses. Rutton was a quiet little place for the majority of the year, but it woke up on this day, and was evidently out to enjoy itself. The Rural Hooligan was a good deal in evidence, and though he was comparatively quiet just at present, the frequency with which he visited the various refreshment stalls that dotted the ground gave promise of livelier times in the future. Charteris felt that the afternoon would not be dull.
The hour soon passed, and Charteris, having first seen the Oldest Inhabitant's nevvy romp home in the egg and spoon event, took himself off to the dressing-tent, and began to get into his running clothes. The bell for his race was just ringing when he left the tent. He trotted over to the starting place.
Apparently there was not a very large 'field'. Two weedy-looking youths of about Charteris's age, dressed in blushing pink, put in an appearance, and a very tall, thin man came up almost immediately afterwards. Charteris had just removed his coat, and was about to get to his place on the line, when another competitor arrived, and, to judge by the applause that greeted his appearance, he was evidently a favourite in the locality. It was with shock that Charteris recognized his old acquaintance, the Bargees' secretary.
He was clad in running clothes of a bright orange and a smile of conscious superiority, and when somebody in the crowd called out 'Go it, Jarge!' he accepted the tribute as his due, and waved a condescending hand in the speaker's direction.
Some moments elapsed before he recognized Charteris, and the latter had time to decide upon his line of action. If he attempted concealment in any way, the man would recognize that on this occasion, at any rate, he had, to use an adequate if unclassical expression, got the bulge, and then there would be trouble. By brazening things out, however, there was just a chance that he might make him imagine that there was more in the matter than met the eye, and that, in some mysterious way, he had actually obtained leave to visit Rutton that day. After all, the man didn't know very much about School rules, and the recollection of the recent fiasco in which he had taken part would make him think twice about playing the amateur policeman again, especially in connection with Charteris.
So he smiled genially, and expressed a hope that the man enjoyed robust health.
The man replied by glaring in a simple and unaffected manner.
'Looked up the Headmaster lately?' asked Charteris.
'What are you doing here?'
'I'm going to run. Hope you don't mind.'
'You're out of bounds.'
'That's what you said before. You'd better enquire a bit before you make rash statements. Otherwise, there's no knowing what may happen. Perhaps Mr Dacre has given me leave.'
The man said something objurgatory under his breath, but forbore to continue the discussion. He was wondering, as Charteris had expected that he would, whether the latter had really got leave or not. It was a difficult problem.
Whether such a result was due to his mental struggles, or whether it was simply to be attributed to his poor running, is open to question, but the fact remains that the secretary of the Old Crockfordians did not shine in the strangers' mile. He came in last but one, vanquishing the pink sportsman by a foot. Charteris, after a hot finish, was beaten on the tape by one of the weedy youths, who exhibited astounding sprinting powers in the last two hundred yards, overhauling Charteris, who had led all the time, in fine style, and scoring what the Stapleton Herald described as a 'highly popular victory'.
As soon as he had recovered his normal stock of wind—which was not immediately—it was borne in upon Charteris that if he wanted to catch the five-fifteen back to Stapleton, he had better be beginning to change. He went to the dressing-tent, and on examining his watch was horrified to find that he had just ten minutes in which to do everything, and the walk to the station, he reflected, was a long five minutes. He literally hurled himself into his clothes, and, disregarding the Bargee, who had entered the tent and seemed to wish to continue the discussion at the point where they had left off, shot off towards the gate nearest the station. He had exactly four minutes and twenty-five seconds in which to complete the journey, and he had just run a mile.
Fortunately the road was mainly level. On the other hand, he was hampered by an overcoat. After the first hundred yards he took this off, and carried it in an unwieldy parcel. This, he found, answered admirably. Running became easier. He had worked the stiffness out of his legs by this time, and was going well. Three hundred yards from the station it was anybody's race. The exact position of the other competitor, the train, could not be defined. It was at any rate not yet within earshot, which meant that it still had at least a quarter of a mile to go. Charteris considered that he had earned a rest. He slowed down to a walk, but after proceeding at this pace for a few yards, thought that he heard a distant whistle, and dashed on again. Suddenly a raucous bellow of laughter greeted his ears from a spot in front of him, hidden from his sight by a bend in the road.
'Somebody slightly tight,' thought Charteris, rapidly diagnosing the case. 'By Jove, if he comes rotting about with me I'll kill him.' Having to do anything in a desperate hurry always made Charteris's temper slightly villainous. He turned the corner at a sharp trot, and came upon two youths who seemed to be engaged in the harmless occupation of trying to ride a bicycle. They were of the type which he held in especial aversion, the Rural Hooligan type, and one at least of the two had evidently been present at a recent circulation of the festive bowl. He was wheeling the bicycle about the road in an aimless manner, and looked as if he wondered what was the matter with it that it would not stay in the same place for two consecutive seconds. The other youth was apparently of the 'Charles-his-friend' variety, content to look on and applaud, and generally to play chorus to his companion's 'lead'. He was standing at the side of the road, smiling broadly in a way that argued feebleness of mind. Charteris was not quite sure which of the two types he loathed the more. He was inclined to call it a tie.
However, there seemed to be nothing particularly lawless in what they were doing now. If they were content to let him pass without hindrance, he, for his part, was content generously to overlook the insult they offered him in daring to exist, and to maintain a state of truce. But, as he drew nearer, he saw that there was more in this business than the casual spectator might at first have supposed. A second and keener inspection of the reptiles revealed fresh phenomena. In the first place, the bicycle which Hooligan number one was playing with was a lady's bicycle, and a small one at that. Now, up to the age of fourteen and the weight of ten stone, a beginner at cycling often finds it more convenient to learn to ride on a lady's machine than on a gentleman's. The former offers greater facilities for rapid dismounting, a quality not to be despised in the earlier stages of initiation. But, though this is undoubtedly the case, and though Charteris knew that it was so, yet he felt instinctively that there was something wrong here. Hooligans of twenty years and twelve stone do not learn to ride on small ladies' machines, or, if they do, it is probably without the permission of the small lady who owns the same. Valuable as his time was, Charteris felt that it behoved him to spend a thoughtful minute or so examining into this affair. He slowed down once again to a walk, and, as he did so, his eye fell upon the character in the drama whose absence had puzzled him, the owner of the bicycle. And from that moment he felt that life would be a hollow mockery if he failed to fall upon those revellers and slay them. She stood by the hedge on the right, a forlorn little figure in grey, and she gazed sadly and helplessly at the manoeuvres that were going on in the middle of the road. Her age Charteris put down at a venture at twelve—a correct guess. Her state of mind he also conjectured. She was letting 'I dare not' wait upon 'I would', like the late Macbeth, the cat i' the adage, and numerous other celebrities. She evidently had plenty of remarks to make on the subject in hand, but refrained from motives of prudence.
Charteris had no such scruples. The feeling of fatigue that had been upon him had vanished, and his temper, which had been growing steadily worse for some twenty minutes, now boiled over gleefully at the prospect of something solid to work itself off upon. Even without a cause Charteris detested the Rural Hooligan. Now that a real, copper-bottomed motive for this dislike had been supplied to him, he felt himself capable of dealing with a whole regiment of the breed. The criminal with the bicycle had just let it fall with a crash to the ground when Charteris went for him low, in the style which the Babe always insisted on seeing in members of the First Fifteen on the football field, and hove him without comment into a damp ditch. 'Charles his friend' uttered a shout of disapproval and rushed into the fray. Charteris gave him the straight left, of the type to which the great John Jackson is reported to have owed so much in the days of the old Prize Ring, and Charles, taking it between the eyes, stopped in a discouraged and discontented manner, and began to rub the place. Whereupon Charteris dashed in, and, to use an expression suitable to the deed, 'swung his right at the mark'. The 'mark', it may be explained for the benefit of the non-pugilistic, is that portion of the anatomy which lies hid behind the third button of the human waistcoat. It covers—in a most inadequate way—the wind, and even a gentle tap in the locality is apt to produce a fleeting sense of discomfort. A genuine flush hit on the spot, shrewdly administered by a muscular arm with the weight of the body behind it, causes the passive agent in the transaction to wish fervently, as far as he is at the moment physically capable of wishing anything, that he had never been born. 'Charles his friend' collapsed like an empty sack, and Charteris, getting a grip of the outlying portions of his costume, dragged him to the ditch and rolled him in on top of his friend, who had just recovered sufficiently to be thinking about getting out again. The pair of them lay there in a tangled heap. Charteris picked up the bicycle and gave it a cursory examination. The enamel was a good deal scratched, but no material damage had been done. He wheeled it across to its owner.
'It isn't much hurt,' he said, as they walked on slowly together. 'Bit scratched, that's all.'
'Thanks awfully,' said the small lady.
'Oh, not at all,' replied Charteris. 'I enjoyed it.' (He felt he had said the right thing there. Your real hero always 'enjoys it'.) 'I'm sorry those bargees frightened you.'
'They did rather. But'—she added triumphantly after a pause—'I didn't cry.'
'Rather not,' said Charteris. 'You were awfully plucky. I noticed. But hadn't you better ride on? Which way were you going?'
'I wanted to get to Stapleton.'
'Oh. That's simple enough. You've merely got to go straight on down this road, as straight as ever you can go. But, look here, you know, you shouldn't be out alone like this. It isn't safe. Why did they let you?'
The lady avoided his eye. She bent down and inspected the left pedal.
'They shouldn't have sent you out alone,' said Charteris, 'why did they?'
'They—they didn't. I came.'
There was a world of meaning in the phrase. Charteris felt that he was in the same case. They had not let him. He had come. Here was a kindred spirit, another revolutionary soul, scorning the fetters of convention and the so-called authority of self-constituted rules, aha! Bureaucrats!
'Shake hands,' he said, 'I'm in just the same way.'
They shook hands gravely.
'You know,' said the lady, 'I'm awfully sorry I did it now. It was very naughty.'
'I'm not sorry yet,' said Charteris, 'I'm rather glad than otherwise. But I expect I shall be sorry before long.'
'Will you be sent to bed?'
'I don't think so.'
'Will you have to learn beastly poetry?'
She looked at him curiously, as if to enquire, 'then if you won't have to learn poetry and you won't get sent to bed, what on earth is there for you to worry about?'
She would probably have gone on to investigate the problem further, but at that moment there came the sound of a whistle. Then another, closer this time. Then a faint rumbling, which increased in volume steadily. Charteris looked back. The railway line ran by the side of the road. He could see the smoke of a train through the trees. It was quite close now, and coming closer every minute, and he was still quite a hundred and fifty yards from the station gates.
'I say,' he cried. 'Great Scott, here comes my train. I must rush. Good-bye. You keep straight on.'
His legs had had time to grow stiff again. For the first few strides running was painful. But his joints soon adapted themselves to the strain, and in ten seconds he was sprinting as fast as he had ever sprinted off the running-track. When he had travelled a quarter of the distance the small cyclist overtook him.
'Be quick,' she said, 'it's just in sight.'
Charteris quickened his stride, and, paced by the bicycle, spun along in fine style. Forty yards from the station the train passed him. He saw it roll into the station. There were still twenty yards to go, exclusive of the station's steps, and he was already running as fast as it lay in him to run. Now there were only ten. Now five. And at last, with a hurried farewell to his companion, he bounded up the steps and on to the platform. At the end of the platform the line took a sharp curve to the left. Round that curve the tail end of the guard's van was just disappearing.
'Missed it, sir,' said the solitary porter, who managed things at Rutton, cheerfully. He spoke as if he was congratulating Charteris on having done something remarkably clever.
'When's the next?' panted Charteris.
'Eight-thirty,' was the porter's appalling reply.
For a moment Charteris felt quite ill. No train till eight-thirty! Then was he indeed lost. But it couldn't be true. There must be some sort of a train between now and then.
'Are you certain?' he said. 'Surely there's a train before that?'
'Why, yes, sir,' said the porter gleefully, 'but they be all exprusses. Eight-thirty be the only 'un what starps at Rootton.'
'Thanks,' said Charteris with marked gloom, 'I don't think that'll be much good to me. My aunt, what a hole I'm in.'
The porter made a sympathetic and interrogative noise at the back of his throat, as if inviting him to explain everything. But Charteris felt unequal to conversation. There are moments when one wants to be alone. He went down the steps again. When he got out into the road, his small cycling friend had vanished. Charteris was conscious of a feeling of envy towards her. She was doing the journey comfortably on a bicycle. He would have to walk it. Walk it! He didn't believe he could. The strangers' mile, followed by the Homeric combat with the two Hooligans and that ghastly sprint to wind up with, had left him decidedly unfit for further feats of pedestrianism. And it was eight miles to Stapleton, if it was a yard, and another mile from Stapleton to St Austin's. Charteris, having once more invoked the name of his aunt, pulled himself together with an effort, and limped gallantly on in the direction of Stapleton. But fate, so long hostile to him, at last relented. A rattle of wheels approached him from behind. A thrill of hope shot through him at the sound. There was the prospect of a lift. He stopped, and waited for the dog-cart—it sounded like a dog-cart—to arrive. Then he uttered a shout of rapture, and began to wave his arms like a semaphore. The man in the dog-cart was Dr Adamson.
'Hullo, Charteris,' said the Doctor, pulling up his horse, 'what are you doing here?'
'Give me a lift,' said Charteris, 'and I'll tell you. It's a long yarn. Can I get in?'
'Come along. Plenty of room.'
Charteris climbed up, and sank on to the cushioned seat with a sigh of pleasure. What glorious comfort. He had never enjoyed anything more in his life.
'I'm nearly dead,' he said, as the dog-cart went on again. 'This is how it all happened. You see, it was this way—'
And he embarked forthwith upon his narrative.
By special request the Doctor dropped Charteris within a hundred yards of Merevale's door.
'Good-night,' he said. 'I don't suppose you will value my advice at all, but you may have it for what it is worth. I recommend you stop this sort of game. Next time something will happen.'
'By Jove, yes,' said Charteris, climbing painfully down from the dog-cart, 'I'll take that advice. I'm a reformed character from this day onwards. This sort of thing isn't good enough. Hullo, there's the bell for lock-up. Good-night, Doctor, and thanks most awfully for the lift. It was frightfully kind of you.'
'Don't mention it,' said Dr Adamson, 'it is always a privilege to be in your company. When are you coming to tea with me again?'
'Whenever you'll have me. I must get leave, though, this time.'
'Yes. By the way, how's Graham? It is Graham, isn't it? The fellow who broke his collar-bone?'
'Oh, he's getting on splendidly. Still in a sling, but it's almost well again now. But I must be off. Good-night.'
'Good-night. Come to tea next Monday.'
'Right,' said Charteris; 'thanks awfully.'
He hobbled in at Merevale's gate, and went up to his study. The Babe was in there talking to Welch.
'Hullo,' said the Babe, 'here's Charteris.'
'What's left of him,' said Charteris.
'How did it go off?'
'Did you win?' asked Welch.
'No. Second. By a yard. Oh, Lord, I am dead.'
'Rather. It wasn't that, though. I had to sprint all the way to the station, and missed my train by ten seconds at the end of it all.'
'Then how did you get here?'
'That was the one stroke of luck I've had this afternoon. I started to walk back, and after I'd gone about a quarter of a mile, Adamson caught me up in his dog-cart. I suggested that it would be a Christian act on his part to give me a lift, and he did. I shall remember Adamson in my will.'
'Tell us what happened.'
'I'll tell thee everything I can,' said Charteris. 'There's little to relate. I saw an aged, aged man a-sitting on a gate. Where do you want me to begin?'
'At the beginning. Don't rot.'
'I was born,' began Charteris, 'of poor but honest parents, who sent me to school at an early age in order that I might acquire a grasp of the Greek and Latin languages, now obsolete. I—'
'How did you lose?' enquired the Babe.
'The other man beat me. If he hadn't, I should have won hands down. Oh, I say, guess who I met at Rutton.'
'Not a beak?'
'No. Almost as bad, though. The Bargee man who paced me from Stapleton. Man who crocked Tony.'
'Great Scott!' cried the Babe. 'Did he recognize you?'
'Rather. We had a very pleasant conversation.'
'If he reports you,' began the Babe.
Charteris looked up. Tony Graham had entered the study.
'Hullo, Tony! Adamson told me to remember him to you.'
'So you've got back?'
Charteris confirmed the hasty guess.
'But what are you talking about, Babe?' said Tony. 'Who's going to be reported, and who's going to report?'
The Babe briefly explained the situation.
'If the man,' he said, 'reports Charteris, he may get run in tomorrow, and then we shall have both our halves away against Dacre's. Charteris, you are a fool to go rotting about out of bounds like this.'
'Nay, dry the starting tear,' said Charteris cheerfully. 'In the first place, I shouldn't get kept in on a Thursday anyhow. I should be shoved into extra on Saturday. Also, I shrewdly conveyed to the Bargee the impression that I was at Rutton by special permission.'
'He's bound to know that that can't be true,' said Tony.
'Well, I told him to think it over. You see, he got so badly left last time he tried to compass my downfall, that I shouldn't be a bit surprised if he let the job alone this journey.'
'Let's hope so,' said the Babe gloomily.
'That's right, Babby,' remarked Charteris encouragingly, nodding at the pessimist.
'You buck up and keep looking on the bright side. It'll be all right. You see if it won't. If there's any running in to be done, I shall do it. I shall be frightfully fit tomorrow after all this dashing about today. I haven't an ounce of superfluous flesh on me. I'm a fine, strapping specimen of sturdy young English manhood. And I'm going to play a very selfish game tomorrow, Babe.'
'Oh, my dear chap, you mustn't.' The Babe's face wore an expression of horror. The success of the House-team in the final was very near to his heart. He could not understand anyone jesting on the subject. Charteris respected his anguish, and relieved it speedily.
'I was only ragging,' he said. 'Considering that our three-quarter line is our one strong point, I'm not likely to keep the ball from it, if I get a chance of getting it out. Make your mind easy, Babe.'
The final House-match was always a warmish game. The rivalry between the various Houses was great, and the football cup especially was fought for with immense keenness. Also, the match was the last fixture of the season, and there was a certain feeling in the teams that if they did happen to disable a man or two, it would not matter much. The injured sportsman would not be needed for School-match purposes for another six months. As a result of which philosophical reflection, the tackling was ruled slightly energetic, and the handing-off was done with vigour.
This year, to add a sort of finishing touch, there was just a little ill-feeling between Dacre's and Merevale's. The cause of it was the Babe. Until the beginning of the term he had been a day boy. Then the news began to circulate that he was going to become a boarder, either at Dacre's or at Merevale's. He chose the latter, and Dacre's felt slightly aggrieved. Some of the less sportsmanlike members of the House had proposed that a protest should be made against his being allowed to play, but, fortunately for the credit of Dacre's, Prescott, the captain of the House Fifteen, had put his foot down with an emphatic bang at the suggestion. As he sagely pointed out, there were some things which were bad form, and this was one of them. If the team wanted to express their disapproval, said he, let them do it on the field by tackling their very hardest. He personally was going to do his best, and he advised them to do the same.
The rumour of this bad blood had got about the School in some mysterious manner, and when Swift, Merevale's only First Fifteen forward, kicked off up the hill, a large crowd was lining the ropes. It was evident from the outset that it would be a good game.
Dacre's were the better side—as a team. They had no really weak spot. But Merevale's extraordinarily strong three-quarter line somewhat made up for an inferior scrum. And the fact that the Babe was in the centre was worth much.
At first Dacre's pressed. Their pack was unusually heavy for a House-team, and they made full use of it. They took the ball down the field in short rushes till they were in Merevale's twenty-five. Then they began to heel, and, if things had been more or less exciting for the Merevalians before, they became doubly so now. The ground was dry, and so was the ball, and the game consequently waxed fast. Time after time the ball went along Dacre's three-quarter line, only to end by finding itself hurled, with the wing who was carrying it, into touch. Occasionally the centres, instead of feeding their wings, would try to dodge through themselves. And that was where the Babe came in. He was admittedly the best tackler in the School, but on this occasion he excelled himself. His man never had a chance of getting past. At last a lofty kick into touch over the heads of the spectators gave the players a few seconds' rest.
The Babe went up to Charteris.
'Look here,' he said, 'it's risky, but I think we'll try having the ball out a bit.'
'In our own twenty-five?' said Charteris.
'Wherever we are. I believe it will come off all right. Anyway, we'll try it. Tell the forwards.'
For forwards playing against a pack much heavier than themselves, it is easier to talk about letting the ball out than to do it. The first half dozen times that Merevale's scrum tried to heel they were shoved off their feet, and it was on the enemy's side that the ball went out. But the seventh attempt succeeded. Out it came, cleanly and speedily. Daintree, who was playing instead of Tony, switched it across to Charteris. Charteris dodged the half who was marking him, and ran. Heeling and passing in one's own twenty-five is like smoking—an excellent practice if indulged in in moderation. On this occasion it answered perfectly. Charteris ran to the half-way line, and handed the ball on to the Babe. The Babe was tackled from behind, and passed to Thomson. Thomson dodged his man, and passed to Welch on the wing. Welch was the fastest sprinter in the School. It was a pleasure—if you did not happen to be one of the opposing side—to see him race down the touch-line. He was off like an arrow. Dacre's back made a futile attempt to get at him. Welch could have given the back fifteen yards in a hundred. He ran round him, and, amidst terrific applause from the Merevale's-supporting section of the audience, scored between the posts. The Babe took the kick and converted without difficulty. Five minutes afterwards the whistle blew for half-time.
The remainder of the game does not call for detailed description. Dacre's pressed nearly the whole of the last half hour, but twice more the ball came out and went down Merevale's three-quarter line. Once it was the Babe who scored with a run from his own goal-line, and once Charteris, who got in from half-way, dodging through the whole team. The last ten minutes of the game was marked by a slight excess of energy on both sides. Dacre's forwards were in a decidedly bad temper, and fought like tigers to break through, and Merevale's played up to them with spirit. The Babe seemed continually to be precipitating himself at the feet of rushing forwards, and Charteris felt as if at least a dozen bones were broken in various portions of his anatomy. The game ended on Merevale's line, but they had won the match and the cup by two goals and a try to nothing.
Charteris limped off the field, cheerful but damaged. He ached all over, and there was a large bruise on his left cheek-bone. He and Babe were going to the House, when they were aware that the Headmaster was beckoning to them.
'Well, MacArthur, and what was the result of the match?'
'We won, sir,' boomed the Babe. 'Two goals and a try to nil.'
'You have hurt your cheek, Charteris?'
'How did you do that?'
'I got a kick, sir, in one of the rushes.'
'Ah. I should bathe it, Charteris. Bathe it well. I hope it will not be very painful. Bathe it well in warm water.'
He walked on.
'You know,' said Charteris to the Babe, as they went into the House, 'the Old Man isn't such a bad sort after all. He has his points, don't you think?'
The Babe said that he did.
'I'm going to reform, you know,' continued Charteris confidentially.
'It's about time,' said the Babe. 'You can have the bath first if you like. Only buck up.'
Charteris boiled himself for ten minutes, and then dragged his weary limbs to his study. It was while he was sitting in a deck-chair eating mixed biscuits, and wondering if he would ever be able to summon up sufficient energy to put on garments of civilization, that somebody knocked at the door.
'Yes,' shouted Charteris. 'What is it? Don't come in. I'm changing.'
The melodious treble of Master Crowinshaw, his fag, made itself heard through the keyhole.
'The Head told me to tell you that he wanted to see you at the School House as soon as you can go.'
'All right,' shouted Charteris. 'Thanks.'
'Now what,' he continued to himself, 'does the Old Man want to see me for? Perhaps he wants to make certain that I've bathed my cheek in warm water. Anyhow, I suppose I must go.'
A quarter of an hour later he presented himself at the Headmagisterial door. The sedate Parker, the Head's butler, who always filled Charteris with a desire to dig him hard in the ribs just to see what would happen, ushered him into the study.
The Headmaster was reading by the light of a lamp when Charteris came in. He laid down his book, and motioned him to a seat; after which there was an awkward pause.
'I have just received,' began the Head at last, 'a most unpleasant communication. Most unpleasant. From whom it comes I do not know. It is, in fact—er—anonymous. I am sorry that I ever read it.'
He stopped. Charteris made no comment. He guessed what was coming. He, too, was sorry that the Head had ever read the letter.
'The writer says that he saw you, that he actually spoke to you, at the athletic sports at Rutton yesterday. I have called you in to tell me if that is true.' The Head fastened an accusing eye on his companion.
'It is quite true, sir,' said Charteris steadily.
'What!' said the Head sharply. 'You were at Rutton?'
'You were perfectly aware, I suppose, that you were breaking the School rules by going there, Charteris?' enquired the Head in a cold voice.
'Yes, sir.' There was another pause.
'This is very serious,' began the Head. 'I cannot overlook this. I—'
There was a slight scuffle of feet in the passage outside. The door flew open vigorously, and a young lady entered. It was, as Charteris recognized in a minute, his acquaintance of the afternoon, the young lady of the bicycle.
'Uncle,' she said, 'have you seen my book anywhere?'
'Hullo!' she broke off as her eye fell on Charteris.
'Hullo!' said Charteris, affably, not to be outdone in the courtesies.
'Did you catch your train?'
'No. Missed it.'
'Hullo! what's the matter with your cheek?'
'I got a kick on it.'
'Oh, does it hurt?'
'Not much, thanks.'
Here the Head, feeling perhaps a little out of it, put in his oar.
'Dorothy, you must not come here now. I am busy. And how, may I ask, do you and Charteris come to be acquainted?'
'Why, he's him,' said Dorothy lucidly.
The Head looked puzzled.
'Him. The chap, you know.'
It is greatly to the Head's credit that he grasped the meaning of these words. Long study of the classics had quickened his faculty for seeing sense in passages where there was none. The situation dawned upon him.
'Do you mean to tell me, Dorothy, that it was Charteris who came to your assistance yesterday?'
Dorothy nodded energetically.
'He gave the men beans,' she said. 'He did, really,' she went on, regardless of the Head's look of horror. 'He used right and left with considerable effect.'
Dorothy's brother, a keen follower of the Ring, had been good enough some days before to read her out an extract from an account in The Sportsman of a match at the National Sporting Club, and the account had been much to her liking. She regarded it as a masterpiece of English composition.
'Dorothy,' said the Headmaster, 'run away to bed.' A suggestion which she treated with scorn, it wanting a clear two hours to her legal bedtime. 'I must speak to your mother about your deplorable habit of using slang. Dear me, I must certainly speak to her.'
And, shamefully unabashed, Dorothy retired.
The Head was silent for a few minutes after she had gone; then he turned to Charteris again.
'In consideration of this, Charteris, I shall—er—mitigate slightly the punishment I had intended to give you.'
Charteris murmured his gratification.
'But,' continued the Head sternly, 'I cannot overlook the offence. I have my duty to consider. You will therefore write me—er—ten lines of Virgil by tomorrow evening, Charteris.'
'Latin and English,' said the relentless pedagogue.
'And, Charteris—I am speaking now—er—unofficially, not as a headmaster, you understand—if in future you would cease to break School rules simply as a matter of principle, for that, I fancy, is what it amounts to, I—er—well, I think we should get on better together. And that is, on my part at least, a consummation—er—devoutly to be wished. Good-night, Charteris.'
The Head extended a large hand. Charteris took it, and his departure.
The Headmaster opened his book again, and turned over a new leaf. Charteris at the same moment, walking slowly in the direction of Merevale's, was resolving for the future to do the very same thing. And he did.