The Fifth Form at St. Dominic's/Chapter XV

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“I tell you what, Wray,” said Oliver one evening about a week after the match, “I heartily wish this term was over.”

“Why, that’s just what I heard your young brother say. He is going to learn the bicycle, he says, in the holidays.”

“Oh, it’s not the holidays I want,” said Oliver. “But somehow things have gone all wrong. I’ve been off my luck completely this term.”

“Off your luck! You great discontented, ungrateful bear. Haven’t you got the English prize? Aren’t you in the School Eleven? and didn’t you make top score in the match with the Sixth last Saturday? Whatever do you mean by ‘off your luck’?”

“Oh, it’s not that, you know,” said Oliver, pulling a quill pen to bits. “What I mean is—oh, bother!—a fellow can’t explain it.”

“So it seems,” laughed Wraysford; “but I wish a fellow could, for I’ve not a notion what you’re driving at.”

“Well, I mean I’m not doing much good. There’s that young brother of mine, for instance. What good have I been to him? There have I let him go and do just what he likes, and not looked after him a bit ever since he came here.”

“And I wager he’s got on all the better for not being tied up to your apron strings. He’s a fine honest little chap, is young Greenfield.”

“Oh, I dare say; but somehow I don’t seem to know as much of him now as I used to do before he came here.”

“That’s Loman’s fault, I bet you anything,” exclaimed Wraysford. “I’m sure he won’t do the kid any good. But Rastle was saying only yesterday how well Stephen was getting on in class.”

“Was he? It’s little thanks to me if he is,” said Oliver, gloomily.

“And what else have you got to grumble about?” asked his friend.

“Why, you know how I’m out with the Fifth over that affair with Loman. They all set me down as a coward, and I’m not that.”

“Of course you aren’t,” warmly replied the other. “But, Noll, you told me a little while ago you didn’t care a snap what they thought.”

“No more I do, in a way. But it’s very uncomfortable.”

“Why don’t you tell them straight out why you didn’t let out at Loman? They are sure to respect your motive.”

“Yes, and set me down as posing as a martyr or a saint! No! I’d sooner pass as a coward than set up as a saint when I’m not one. Why, Wray, if you’ll believe me, I’ve been a worse Christian since I began to try to be one, than I ever was before. I’m for ever losing my temper, and—”

“Shut up that tune, now,” interposed Wraysford, hurriedly. “If you are beginning at that again, I’ll go. As if you didn’t know you were the best fellow in the school!”

“I’m not the best, or anything like,” said Oliver, warmly; “I hate your saying so—I wish almost I had never told you anything about it.”

“Well, I don’t know,” said Wraysford, walking to the window and looking out. “Ever since you told me of it, I’ve been trying myself in a mild way to go straight. But it’s desperate hard work.”

“Desperate hard work even if you try in more than a mild way,” said Oliver.

Both were silent for a little, and then Oliver, hurriedly changing the subject, said—

“And then, to proceed with my growl, I’m certain to come a howler over the Nightingale.”

Wraysford turned from the window with a laugh.

“I suppose you expect me to sympathise with you about that, eh? The bigger the howler the better for me! I only wish you were a true prophet, Noll, in that particular.”

“Why, of course you’ll beat me—and if you don’t Loman will. I hear he’s grinding away like nuts.”

“Is he, though?” said Wraysford.

“Yes, and he’s going to get a ‘coach’ in the holidays too.”

“More likely a dog-cart. Anyhow, I dare say he will run us close. But he’s such a shifty fellow, there’s no knowing whether he will stay out.”

Just at that moment a terrific row came up from below.

“Whatever’s up down there?”

“Only the Guinea-pigs and Tadpoles. By the way,” said Wraysford, “they’ve got a grand ‘supper,’ as they call it, on to-night to celebrate their cricket match. Suppose we go and see the fun?”

“All right!” said Oliver. “Who won the match?”

“Why, what a question! Do you suppose a match between Guinea-pigs and Tadpoles ever came to an end? They had a free fight at the end of the first innings. The Tadpole umpire gave one of his own men ‘not out’ when he hit his wicket, and they made a personal question of it, and fell out. Your young brother, I hear, greatly distinguished himself in the argument.”

“Well, it doesn’t seem to interfere with their spirits now, to judge of the row they are making. Just listen!”

By this time they had reached the door of the Fourth Junior room, whence proceeded a noise such as one often hears in a certain popular department of the Zoological Gardens. Amid the tumult and hubbub the two friends had not much difficulty in slipping in unobserved and seating themselves comfortably in an obscure corner of the festive apartment, behind a pyramid of piled-up chairs and forms.

The Junior “cricket feast” was an institution in Saint Dominic’s, and was an occasion when any one who had nerves to be excruciated or ear-drums to be broken took care to keep out of the way. In place of the usual desks and forms, a long table ran down the room, round which some fifty or sixty urchins sat, regaling themselves with what was left of a vast spread of plum-cake, buns, and ginger-beer. How these banquets were provided was always a mystery to outsiders. Some said a levy of threepence a head was made; others, that every boy was bound in honour to contribute something eatable to the feast; and others averred that every boy had to bring his own bag and bottle, and no more. Be that as it might, the Guinea-pigs and Tadpoles at present assembled looked uncommonly tight about the jackets after it all, and not one had the appearance of actual starvation written on his lineaments.

The animal part of the feast, however, was now over, and the intellectual was beginning. The tremendous noise which had brought Oliver and Wraysford on to the scene had indeed been but the applause which followed the chairman’s opening song—a musical effort which was imperatively encored by a large and enthusiastic audience.

The chairman, by the way, was no other than our friend Bramble, who by reason of seniority—he had been two years in the Fourth Junior, and showed no signs of rising higher all his life—claimed to preside on all such occasions. He sat up at the top end in stately glory, higher than the rest by the thickness of a Liddell and Scott, which was placed on his chair to lift him up to the required elevation, blushingly receiving the applause with which his song was greeted, and modestly volunteering to sing it again if the fellows liked.

The fellows did like. Mr. Bramble mounted once more on to the seat of his chair, and saying, “Look out for the chorus!” began one of the time-honoured Dominican cricket songs. It consisted of about twelve verses altogether, but three will be quite enough for the reader.

    “There was a little lad,
                        (Well bowled!)
    And a little bat he had;
                        (Well bowled!)
    He skipped up to the wicket,
    And thought he’d play some cricket,
    But he didn’t, for he was—
                        Well bowled!
    “He thought he’d make a score
                        (So bold),
    And lead off with a four
                        (So bold);
    So he walked out to a twister,
    But somehow sort of missed her,
    And she bailed him, for he was
                        Too bold.
    “Now all ye little boys
                        (So bold),
    Who like to make a noise
                        (So bold),
    Take warning by young Walker,
    Keep your bat down to a yorker,
    Or, don’t you see? you’ll be—
                        Well bowled!”

The virtue of the pathetic ballad was in the chorus, which was usually not sung, but spoken, and so presented a noble opportunity for variety of tone and expression, which was greedily seized upon by the riotous young gentlemen into whose mouths it was entrusted. By the time the sad adventures of Master Walker had been rehearsed in all their twelve verses, the meeting was so hoarse that to the two elder boys it seemed as if the proceedings must necessarily come abruptly to a close for want of voice.

But no! If the meeting was for the moment incapable of song, speech was yet possible, and behold there arose Master Paul in his place to propose a toast.

Now Master Paul was a Guinea-pig, and accounted a mighty man in his tribe. Any one might have supposed that the purpose for which he had now risen was to propose in complimentary terms the health of his gallant opponents the Tadpoles. This, however, was far from his intention. His modesty had another theme. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he began. There were no ladies present, but that didn’t matter. Tremendous cheers greeted this opening. “You all know me; I am one of yourselves.” Paul had borrowed this expression from the speech of a Radical orator, which had appeared recently in the papers. Every one knew it was borrowed, for he had asked about twenty of his friends during the last week whether that wouldn’t be “a showy lead-off for his cricket feast jaw?”

The quotation was, however, now greeted as vociferously as if it had been strictly original, and shouts of “So you are!”

“Bravo, Paul!” for a while drowned the orator’s voice. When silence was restored his eloquence took a new and unexpected departure. “Jemmy Welch, I’ll punch your head when we get outside, see if I don’t!” Jemmy Welch was a Guinea-pig who had just made a particularly good shot at the speaker’s nose with a piece of plum-cake. “Now, ladies and gentlemen, I shall not detain you with a speech (loud cheers from all, and ‘Jolly good job!’ from Bramble). I shall go on speaking just as long as I choose, Bramble, so now! (Cheers.) I’ve as much right to speak as you have. (Applause.) You’re only a stuck-up duffer. (Terrific cheers, and a fight down at the end of the table.) I beg to drink the health of the Guinea-pigs. (Loud Guinea-pig cheers.) We licked the old Tadpoles in the match. (‘No you didn’t!’ ‘That’s a cram!’ and groans from the Tadpoles.) I say we did! Your umpire was a cheat—they always are! We beat you hollow, didn’t we, Stee Greenfield?”

“Yes, rather!” shouted Stephen, snatching a piece of cake away from a Tadpole and shying it to a Guinea-pig.

“That’s eight matches we’ve won,” proceeded Paul; “and—all right, Spicer! I saw you do it this time! See if I don’t pay you for it!” whereat the speaker hurriedly quitted his seat, and, amid howls and yells, proceeded to “pay out” Spicer.

Meanwhile, Stephen heard his name suddenly called upon for a song, an invitation he promptly obeyed. But as the clamour was at the time deafening, and the attention of the audience was wholly monopolised by the commercial transactions taking place between Paul and Spicer, the effect of the performance was somewhat lost. Oliver certainly did see his young brother mount up on the table, turn very red in the face, open his mouth and shut it, smile in one part, look sorrowful in another, and wave his hand above his head in another. But that was the only intimation he had of a musical performance proceeding. Words and tune were utterly inaudible by any one except the singer himself—even if he heard them.

This was getting monotonous, and the two visitors were thinking of withdrawing, when the door suddenly opened, and a dead silence prevailed. The new-comer was the dirtiest and most ferocious-looking of all the boys in the lower school, who rushed into the room breathless, and in what would have been a white heat had his face been clean enough to show it. “What do you think?” he gasped, catching hold of the back of a chair for support; “Tony Pembury’s kept me all this while brushing his clothes! I told him it was cricket feast, but he didn’t care! What do you think of that? Of course, you’ve finished all the grub; I knew you would!”

This last plaintive wail of disappointment was drowned in the clamour of execration which greeted the boy’s announcement. Lesser feuds were instantly forgotten in presence of this great insult. The most sacred traditions of Guinea-pigs and Tadpoles were being trampled upon by the tyrants of the upper school! Not even on cricket feast night was a fag to be let off fagging!

It was enough! The last straw breaks the camel’s back, and the young Dominicans had now reached the point of desperation.

It was long before silence enough could be restored, and then the redoubtable Spicer yelled out, “Let’s strike!”

The cry was taken up with yells of enthusiasm—“Strike! No more fagging!”

“Any boy who fags after this,” screamed Bramble, “will be cut dead! Those who promise hold up your hands—mind, it’s a promise!”

There was no mistaking the temper of the meeting, every hand in the room was held up.

“Mind now, no giving in!” cried Paul. “Let’s stick all together. Greenfield senior shall kill me before I do anything more for him!”

“Poor fellow!” whispered Oliver, laughing; “what a lot of martyrdoms he’ll have to put up with!”

“And Pembury shall kill me,” squealed the last comer, who had comforted himself with several crusts of plum-cakes and the dregs of about a dozen bottles of ginger-beer.

And every one protested their willingness to die in the good cause.

At this stage Oliver and Wraysford withdrew unobserved.

“I’m afraid we’ve been eavesdropping,” said Oliver. “Anyhow, I don’t mean to take advantage of what I’ve heard.”

“What a young ruffian your brother is!” said Wraysford; “he looked tremendously in earnest!”

“Yes, he always is. You’ll find he’ll keep his word far better than most of them.”

“If he does, I’m afraid Loman will make it unpleasant for him,” said Wraysford.

“Very likely.”

“Then you’ll have to interfere.”

“Why, what a bloodthirsty chap you are, Wray! You are longing for me to quarrel with Loman. I’ll wait till young Stephen asks me to.”

“Do you think he will? He’s a proud little chap.”

Oliver laughed. “It’ll serve him right if he does get a lesson. Did ever you see such a lot of young cannibals as those youngsters? Are you coming to have supper with me?”

The nine o’clock bell soon rang, and, as usual Oliver went to his door and shouted for Paul.

No Paul came.

He shouted again and again, but the fag did not appear. “They mean business,” he said. “What shall I do? Paul!”

This time there came a reply down the passage—“Sha’n’t come!”

“Ho, ho!” said Oliver; “this is serious; they are sticking to their strike with a vengeance! I suppose I must go and look for my fag, eh, Wray? Discipline must be maintained.”

So saying, Oliver stepped out into the passage and strolled off in the direction from which the rebel’s voice had proceeded. The passages were empty; only in the Fourth Junior room was there a sound of clamour.

Oliver went to the door; it was shut. He pushed; it was fortified. He kicked on it; a defiant howl greeted him from the inside. He called aloud on his fag; another “Sha’n’t come!” was his only answer.

It was getting past a joke, and Oliver’s temper was, as we have seen, not of the longest. He kicked again, angrily, and ordered Paul to appear.

The same answer was given, accompanied with the same yell, and Oliver’s temper went faster than ever. He forgot he was making himself ridiculous; he forgot he was only affording a triumph to those whom he desired to punish; he forgot the good resolutions which had held him back on a former occasion, and, giving way to sudden rage, kicked desperately at the door once more.

This time his forcible appeal had some effect. The lower panel of the door gave way before the blow and crashed inwards, leaving a breach large enough to admit a football.

It was an unlucky piece of success for Oliver, for next moment he felt his foot grabbed by half a dozen small hands within and held firmly, rendering him unable to stir from his ridiculous position. In vain he struggled and raged; he was a tight prisoner, at the mercy of his captors.

It was all he could do to stand on his one foot, clinging wildly to the handle of the door. In this dignified attitude Wraysford presently found his friend, and in such a state of passion and fury as he had never before seen him.

To rap the array of inky knuckles inside with a ruler, and so disengage the captive foot, was the work of a minute. Oliver stood for a moment facing the door and trembling with anger, but Wraysford, taking him gently by the arm, said, “Come along, old boy!”

There was something in his voice and look which brought a sudden flush into the pale face of the angry Oliver. Without a word, he turned from the door and accompanied his friend back to the study. There were no long talks, no lectures, no remorseful confessions that evening. The two talked perhaps less than usual, and when they did it was about ordinary school topics.

No reference was made either then or for a long while afterwards to the events of the evening. And yet Oliver and Wraysford, somehow, seemed more than ever drawn together, and to understand one another better after this than had ever been the case before.