The Pothunters/Chapter 13
Soon after Jim had taken his departure, Mr Thompson, after waiting a few minutes in case the Headmaster had anything more to say, drifted silently out of the room. The Head, like the gentleman in the ballad, continued to wear a worried look. The more he examined the matter, the less did he know what to make of it. He believed, as he had said to Mr Thompson, that Jim was entirely innocent. It was an incredible thing, he thought, that a public school boy, a School-prefect, too, into the bargain, should break out of his House and into a cricket pavilion, however great a crisis his finances might be undergoing. And then to steal two of the prizes for the Sports. Impossible. Against this, however, must be placed the theft of the two pounds. It might occur to a boy, as indeed Mr Thompson had suggested, to steal the cups in order to give the impression that a practised burglar had been at work. There was certainly something to be said in favour of this view. But he would never believe such a thing. He was a good judge of character—a headmaster generally is—and he thought he could tell when a boy was speaking the truth and when he was not.
His reflections were interrupted by a knock at the door. The butler entered with a card on a tray. 'Sir Alfred Venner, M.P., Badgwick Hall,' said—almost shouted—the card. He read the words without any apparent pleasure.
'Is Sir Alfred here himself, Parker?' he said.
'He is, sir.'
The Headmaster sighed inaudibly but very wearily. He was feeling worried already, and he knew from experience that a tete-a-tete with Sir Alfred Venner, M.P., of Badgwick Hall, would worry him still more.
The Head was a man who tried his very hardest to like each and all of his fellow-creatures, but he felt bound to admit that he liked most people a great, a very great, deal better than he liked the gentleman who had just sent in his card. Sir Alfred's manner always jarred upon him. It was so exactly the antithesis of his own. He was quiet and dignified, and addressed everybody alike, courteously. Sir Alfred was restless and fussy. His manner was always dictatorial and generally rude. When he had risen in the House to make his maiden speech, calling the attention of the Speaker to what he described as 'a thorough draught', he had addressed himself with such severity to that official, that a party of Siamese noblemen, who, though not knowing a word of English, had come to listen to the debate, had gone away with the impression that he was the prime minister. No wonder the Headmaster sighed.
'Show him in, Parker,' said he resignedly.
Parker retired, leaving the Head to wonder what his visitor's grievance might be this time. Sir Alfred rarely called without a grievance, generally connected with the trespassing of the School on his land.
'Good evening, Sir Alfred,' he said, as his visitor whirled into the room.
'O-o-o, this sort of thing won't do, you know, Mr Perceval,' said Sir Alfred fussily, adjusting a pair of gold pince-nez on his nose. The Head's name, which has not before been mentioned, was the Reverend Herbert Perceval, M.A. He had shivered at the sound of the 'O-o-o' which had preceded Sir Alfred's remark. He knew, as did other unfortunate people, that the great man was at his worst when he said 'O-o-o'. In moments of comparative calm he said 'Er'.
'I can't put up with it, you know, Mr Perceval. It's too much. A great deal too much.'
'You refer to—?' suggested the Head, with a patience that did him credit.
'This eternal trespassing and tramping in and out of my grounds all day.'
'You have been misinformed, I fear, Sir Alfred. I have not trespassed in your grounds for—ah—a considerable time.' The Head could not resist this thrust. In his unregenerate 'Varsity days he had been a power at the Union, where many a foeman had exposed himself to a verbal counter from him with disastrous results. Now the fencing must be done with buttons on the foils.
'You—what—I don't follow you, Mr Perceval.'
'I understand you to reproach me for trespassing and—ah—tramping in and out of your grounds all day. Was that not your meaning?'
Sir Alfred almost danced with impatience.
'No, no, no. You misunderstand me. You don't follow my drift.'
'In that case, I beg your pardon. I gathered from the extreme severity of your attitude towards me that I was the person to whom you referred.'
'No, no, no. I've come here to complain of your boys.'
It occurred to the Head to ask if the complaint embraced the entire six hundred of them, or merely referred to one of them. But he reflected that the longer he fenced, the longer his visitor would stay. And he decided, in spite of the illicit pleasure to be derived from the exercise, that it was not worth while.
'Ah,' he said.
'Yes,' continued Sir Alfred, 'my keepers tell me the woods were full of them, sir.'
The Head suggested that possibly the keepers had exaggerated.
'Possibly. Possibly they may have exaggerated. But that is not the point. The nuisance is becoming intolerable, Mr Perceval, perfectly intolerable. It is time to take steps.'
'I have already done all that can be done. I have placed your land out of bounds, considerably out of bounds indeed. And I inflict the severest penalties when a breach of the rule is reported to me.'
'It's not enough. It's not nearly enough.'
'I can scarcely do more, I fear, Sir Alfred. There are more than six hundred boys at St Austin's, and it is not within my power to place them all under my personal supervision.'
Here the Head, who had an eye to the humorous, conjured up a picture of six hundred Austinians going for walks, two and two, the staff posted at intervals down the procession, and himself bringing up the rear. He made a mental mem. to laugh when his visitor had retired.
'H'm,' said the baffled M.P. thoughtfully, adjusting his pince-nez once more. ''M no. No, perhaps not. But'—here he brightened up—'you can punish them when they do trespass.'
'That is so, Sir Alfred. I can and invariably do.'
'Then punish that what's-his-name, Plinkett, Plunkett—I've got the name down somewhere. Yes, Plunkett. I thought so. Punish Plunkett.'
'Plunkett!' said the Head, taken completely by surprise. He, in common with the rest of the world, had imagined Plunkett to be a perfect pattern of what should be. A headmaster, like other judges of character, has his failures.
'Plunkett. Yes, that is the name. Boy with spectacles. Good gracious, Mr Perceval, don't tell me the boy gave me a false name.'
'No. His name is Plunkett. Am I to understand that he was trespassing on your land? Surely there is some mistake? The boy's a School-prefect.'
Here it suddenly flashed upon his mind that he had used that expression before in the course of the day, on the occasion when Mr Thompson first told him of his suspicions in connection with Jim. 'Why, Mr Thompson, the boy's a School-prefect,' had been his exact words. School-prefects had been in his eyes above suspicion. It is a bad day for a school when they are not so. Had that day arrived for St Austin's? he asked himself.
'He may be a School-prefect, Mr Perceval, but the fact remains that he is a trespasser, and ought from your point of view to be punished for breaking bounds.'
The Head suddenly looked almost cheerful again.
'Of course,' he said, 'of course. I thought that there must be an explanation. The rules respecting bounds, Sir Alfred, do not apply to School-prefects, only to the rest of the School.'
'Indeed?' said Sir Alfred. His tone should have warned the Head that something more was coming, but it did not. He continued.
'Of course it was very wrong of him to trespass on your land, but I have no doubt that he did it quite unintentionally. I will speak to him, and I think I can guarantee that he will not do it again.'
'Oh,' said his visitor. 'That is very gratifying, I am sure. Might I ask, Mr Perceval, if School-prefects at St Austin's have any other privileges?'
The Head began to look puzzled. There was something in his visitor's manner which suggested unpleasant possibilities.
'A few,' he replied. 'They have a few technical privileges, which it would be a matter of some little time to explain.'
'It must be very pleasant to be a prefect at St Austin's,' said Sir Alfred nastily. 'Very pleasant indeed. Might I ask, Mr Perceval, if the technical privileges to which you refer include—smoking?'
The Head started as if, supposing such a thing possible, someone had pinched him. He did not know what to make of the question. From the expression on his face his visitor did not appear to be perpetrating a joke.
'No,' he said sharply, 'they do not include smoking.'
'I merely asked because this was found by my keeper on the boy when he caught him.'
He produced a small silver match-box. The Head breathed again. The reputation of the School-prefect, though shaky, was still able to come up to the scratch.
'A match-box is scarcely a proof that a boy has been smoking, I think,' said he. 'Many boys carry matches for various purposes, I believe. I myself, though a non-smoker, frequently place a box in my pocket.'
For answer Sir Alfred laid a bloated and exceedingly vulgar-looking plush tobacco-pouch on the table beside the match-box.
'That also,' he observed, 'was found in his pocket by my keeper.'
He dived his hand once more into his coat. 'And also this,' he said.
And, with the air of a card-player who trumps his opponent's ace, he placed on the pouch a pipe. And, to make the matter, if possible, worse, the pipe was not a new pipe. It was caked within and coloured without, a pipe that had seen long service. The only mitigating circumstance that could possibly have been urged in favour of the accused, namely that of 'first offence', had vanished.
'It is pleasant,' said Sir Alfred with laborious sarcasm, 'to find a trespasser doing a thing which has caused the dismissal of several keepers. Smoking in my woods I—will—not—permit. I will not have my property burnt down while I can prevent it. Good evening, Mr Perceval.' With these words he made a dramatic exit.
For some minutes after he had gone the Head remained where he stood, thinking. Then he went across the room and touched the bell.
'Parker,' he said, when that invaluable officer appeared, 'go across to Mr Ward's House, and tell him I wish to see Plunkett. Say I wish to see him at once.'
After ten minutes had elapsed, Plunkett entered the room, looking nervous.
'Sit down, Plunkett.'
Plunkett collapsed into a seat. His eye had caught sight of the smoking apparatus on the table.
The Head paced the room, something after the fashion of the tiger at the Zoo, whose clock strikes lunch.
'Plunkett,' he said, suddenly, 'you are a School-prefect.'
'Yes, sir,' murmured Plunkett. The fact was undeniable.
'You know the duties of a School-prefect?'
'And yet you deliberately break one of the most important rules of the School. How long have you been in the habit of smoking?'
Plunkett evaded the question.
'My father lets me smoke, sir, when I'm at home.'
(A hasty word in the reader's ear. If ever you are accused of smoking, please—for my sake, if not for your own—try to refrain from saying that your father lets you do it at home. It is a fatal mistake.)
At this, to employ a metaphor, the champagne of the Head's wrath, which had been fermenting steadily during his late interview, got the better of the cork of self-control, and he exploded. If the Mutual Friend ever has grandchildren he will probably tell them with bated breath the story of how the Head paced the room, and the legend of the things he said. But it will be some time before he will be able to speak about it with any freedom. At last there was a lull in the storm.
'I am not going to expel you, Plunkett. But you cannot come back after the holidays. I will write to your father to withdraw you.' He pointed to the door. Plunkett departed in level time.
'What did the Old 'Un want you for?' asked Dallas, curiously, when he returned to the study.
Plunkett had recovered himself by this time sufficiently to be able to tell a lie.
'He wanted to tell me he'd heard from my father about my leaving.'
'About your leaving!' Dallas tried to keep his voice as free as possible from triumphant ecstasy.
'Are you leaving? When?'
'Oh!' said Dallas. It was an uncomfortable moment. He felt that at least some conventional expression of regret ought to proceed from him.
'Don't trouble to lie about being sorry,' said Plunkett with a sneer.
'Thanks,' said Dallas, gratefully, 'since you mention it, I rather think I won't.'