The Captain, July 1905
HIS story deals with an earlier phase of the career of the ruthless Rankin, before he left Seymour’s. The events narrated covered a period of some weeks, and the beginning and the end of it were divided by the Easter holidays.
Shoeblossom began it. J. R. Leather-Twigg, of Seymour’s, frequently did begin trouble. It happened in this way. Towards the end of the Easter term there were sports. Not only the school sports, but also form sports. For the last three weeks of term you could not move in any direction on the school grounds without being warned off because you were in the track of some miserable race that was being or was going to be run. The sky was obscured by people high-jumping. Every now and then you walked within range of some putter of the shot, and narrowly escaped taking the same in the small of the back. Avoiding this danger, you were seized upon to hold the tape for the heats of the Lower Second Modern hundred yards or the Eighth Engineers half-mile. In fact, the only really safe place was the school shop. Even there you ran the risk of meeting some one who would place a bare foot beside your plate, and ask you whether you would put Elliman’s on it or not. It was a stirring, hustling time, and for one who was not an athlete it was a little boring.
Shoeblossom found it more than a little boring. He had never run a race in his life. And he hoped he never should. If he wanted exercise, he went into Seymour’s senior dayroom, and upset the table. Rankin, on the other hand, was an enthusiast. The beauty of these form sports was twofold. In the first place, the events were all handicaps; and such was the insignificance and general weediness of the diarist that he hoped to be limit man in every race for which he entered. In the second place, the prizes were in cash. Solid. None of your pen-knives and flasks and leather ink-pots, but hard coin. Every one in the form subscribed a certain sum; the form master gave of his plenty a further ten shillings; and the nett result was divided up as prizes. Theoretically, you were supposed to buy with the money you won a suitable trophy. On the other hand, nobody stood over you to see that you did it; and, as a rule, the money went into the school treasury across the counter of the Shop.
Reginald loved cash. He had never had enough of it. The more he got, the more he wanted. So he put his name down for all the races and half the other events, and started to train.
It was, I believe, an agreeable sight to see Reginald training. Before you saw him at it you thought that twenty yards was too much to give any body in the hundred. After you had feasted your eyes on the spectacle for a few minutes, you thought what a shame it was not giving him more.
Shoeblossom watched him one morning, and wished somebody had told him of it earlier. People are so thoughtless. Here was this gorgeous feast of comic relief going on day after day, and until now he had missed it. He saw it every morning after that, and it never staled. He was fascinated. He brought Barry and Drummond to watch. And Reginald, oblivious of everything, toiled on.
Shoeblossom was one of those youths who are never really happy unless they are promoting some demoniacal rag. He felt that he must base a rag on Reginald’s passion for training, or life would be hollow. So he conceived a deadly snare for the athlete.
“What you want to do,” he said to him sympathetically one night, as they were undressing in their dormitory, “is to rub yourself with stuff at nights. It keeps the muscles from getting stiff.”
“I do,” said Reginald, with some haughtiness; “I use Elliman’s.”
“I’ve got some stuff that’s better than that,” said Shoeblossom. “It’s called capsicum vaseline. It’s hot stuff.”
“What’s it do?” inquired Reginald, examining the saucer which Shoeblossom held up for his inspection.
“Sends a gentle glow all over you, and makes you supple. You’d better have some on to-night.”
“All right,” said the deluded athlete.
They rubbed it on then and there. Capsicum vaseline, according to the printed label on each packet, is “a tincture of the finest red pepper taken on to vaseline.” It is generally used as a substitute for mustard-plaster, over which it has this advantage, that, though a “powerful counter-irritant,” it does not blister the skin.
About five minutes after the dastard Shoeblossom had helped his friend to rub this specific well in, a sharp howl broke from his victim.
“Stop that noise,” said Mill, the prefect of the dormitory.
“Oo!” said Reginald.
“Don’t be an ass,” whispered Shoeblossom. “What’s up?”
“You’re all right,” said Shoeblossom consolingly. “That’s the gentle glow.”
“Stop—that—noise!” said Mill again. “Here, who’s that going out? Come back.”
The lights were out by this time, and he could just detect through the darkness a small figure racing out of the door. The next moment distant sounds of running water came from the bath-room. Reginald was taking a cold tub.
Mill shook the bath-room door, but it was locked.
“Come out of that, you little beast,” he hissed.
“Ow,” said the little beast, “Oo.”
Vigorous sounds of splashing from within. Mill retired baffled.
By the time the cooling-off process was complete, both Mill and Shoeblossom were sleeping like angels. With even his passion for retaliation quenched, Reginald clambered into bed, and on the following morning got up early, being wishful to keep out of Mill’s way as far as possible. But he was not in such a hurry to leave the room that he forgot to abstract Shoeblossom’s studs—a feat which led to the humourist being late for breakfast and getting a hundred lines in lieu of porridge. But Reginald did not consider this Revenge. It was simply an earnest of more to come, a little on account, as it were. Nor, when he positively won the second prize in the Form quarter-mile did Shoeblossom’s statement that it was all due to the capsicum vaseline, and that he, Shoeblossom, ought to have a commission on the prize, soothe him. If ever a look spoke, Reginald’s look at that moment said, “Aha! a time will come, and then——!”
The Easter term ended without event; and he came back at the conclusion of the holidays full of stern resolve. The entry in his diary:
“Got up. Washed. Said my prayers. Trained. That beast Leather-Twigg rubbed some stuff on to me which burnt like anything and hurt awfully,”
still lacked a corresponding entry on the credit side.
Early in the summer term, the weather being fine, it being a Saturday, and, finally, it being the day of the School v. Regiment match, Shoeblossom, who had no soul for cricket, slid softly away in the direction of the town. He meant to have a long afternoon on the river. Wrykyn is on the Severn, which, in parts, is a very jolly river, affording much pleasure to the not over-energetic oarsman. Shoeblossom was perhaps the laziest oarsman in existence. He hated rowing. If he could have got to the spot he wished to reach in a steam-launch, he would have done it. Having no launch, he was obliged to set to and pull.
His destination was a small, wooded island up-stream. It was not known to many of the school, as most Wrykinians got aboard at the School boat-house, which was further down-stream past the town, and went the other way. Owing to various regrettable encounters between Wrykyn fags and the young bloods of the town, which had in one instance culminated immediately opposite the Mayor’s house in a naval battle of a kind that made Trafalgar seem like the effort of a band of amateurs, rules and regulations had been issued by the Head Master to the effect that the school must keep to its own waters. On the occasion referred to, three boats had been sunk, and ten fags from Dexter’s and the School House had returned dripping to their quarters. Shoeblossom was therefore out of bounds. But did his dauntless spirit reck of that? No, indeed it did not.
Half an hour’s rowing brought him to the island. He pulled in, tied up his Argo to the branch of a willow, and disembarked. Then he proceeded to haul from the seat, in the following order, a vast bag of cherries, a bottle of ginger-beer, sixpennyworth of plain chocolate, a copy of “Many Cargoes,” and, by way of a variant, a shilling paper-covered volume entitled “The Montresors of the Grange.” This done, he placed them under a tree, and started on a round tour of the island to see if the scenery and the local flora and fauna generally had altered at all since his last visit—a year ago now.
The island was oval in shape, and about seventy yards long by twenty wide. It was densely wooded, and the vegetation might have been described as rank. The stinging-nettles in places, for instance, had to be felt to be realised. Also there were brambles. But apart from these disadvantages, it was as romantic, satisfactory an island as you could wish to find, and Shoeblossom, who had a romantic nature, was fond of it. He liked to fancy that he owned it.
The distance from the island to the banks on either side was in each case from ten to fifteen yards. The water was deep, and ran strongly. Not that Shoeblossom minded that. Like most Wrykinians, he could swim well. As at Eton, before going on the river you had to pass an examination in swimming.
Having reached the upper end of the island, Shoeblossom worked his way back along the coast, as it were, to the spot where he had left his books and provisions, which he proceeded to carry inland. Being out of bounds, it was necessary that he should not be seen by passing boats or by strollers on the bank. One never knew when a master might not take it into his head to scull up-stream instead of down, and petty discussions with masters on the subject of bounds revolted Shoeblossom. He disappeared, therefore, into the interior, whence presently came a musical pop, as the ginger-beer bottle was broached.
Now, while Shoeblossom was making the tour of the island, he had been observed, though he did not know it. There was another member of Seymour’s who had no soul for cricket. To wit, Reginald Rankin. And Reginald, wearying of the monotony of the lower and lawful part of the river—which he knew by heart—and caring as little as did Shoeblossom for the prejudices of the Head Master respecting bounds, had hired a boat at the town landing-stage and set off up-stream to spend a happy afternoon.
He was rounding a bend in the river when, looking over his shoulder, he caught sight of the island and of Shoeblossom disappearing into the jungle. His first impulse was to turn back. The earth was barely big enough to hold the two of them since the vaseline incident. The island would be a great deal too small. Then he reflected that so far the river had been pretty dull, and that once past this island he might come on some pleasant spot where he could moor his vessel, and read, and brood over his wrongs.
So he sculled slowly and painfully up on the right of the island; and, when he had gone a little way, he came upon Shoeblossom’s boat tied to its willow. And something seemed to whisper to him,
“Cut her adrift.”
He gazed at the island. No sign of Shoeblossom. Somewhere within the recesses of the bushes that wanderer lurked; but he was not in sight.
Very cautiously Reginald paddled in till he could reach the rope. The knot was loosely tied and it was an easy task to undo it. He did not wish to cut it. Shoeblossom must be led to believe that accident, not design, was at the bottom of his misfortunes. He did not send the captured boat spinning down stream, as had been his intention at first. It would be better, he reflected, simply to borrow it for a time, and restore it when it was certain that Shoeblossom had missed roll-call. It was now half-past two all but a few minutes, and roll-call was at four. To be in time, Shoeblossom would have to start for home at a quarter past three. He himself had arranged that little matter of roll-call. The master on duty had to call four hundred names in something under seven minutes, and, so long as a name was answered, never made particular inquiries as to who had answered it. So Reginald had arranged that Renford, of Seymour’s, should perform that kind office. Renford liked watching cricket, and would be on the ground the whole afternoon.
So he tied the boat on to the stern of his own, and continued his pull up-stream. He was prepared at any moment to be accosted in abusive terms by the bereaved proprietor, but no wail of anguish cleft the air, and he got out of sight round another bend in safety. Here he moored his boat, and, howbeit a trifle blistered about the hands from rowing, felt on the whole satisfied with life.
Shoeblossom, meanwhile, was too absorbed in his book to pay attention to anything else. The march of time did not trouble him. Curiously enough, he, too, had arranged the question of roll-call in precisely the same way. His understudy was Barry, who, though reviling him as unpatriotic for not watching the school match, nevertheless consented to answer his name. So on the subject of roll-call Shoeblossom’s mind was at rest.
It was only when he had finished “The Montresors of the Grange,” and also the cherries, and had begun to find the ground a little hard as a couch, that he fancied another stroll would do him good.
He then discovered the flight of his boat.
If Reginald could have seen him at that moment, he would have felt that his toil had not been in vain.
It was certainly a staggerer. He stood at the water’s edge breathing heavily.
It occurred to him that the boat might have drifted in again, and be stuck lower down the island. As he made his way in that direction, the sound of oars striking the water made him dive into the bushes once more.
Somebody was coming up-stream.
He listened. Voices made themselves heard.
“Oh, Rupert, what a pretty island!”
“Not bad. Shall we land?”
Hope and anxiety in this query. Rupert had been rowing against the stream, and wanted a rest.
Sounds of boat crushing through a willow-branch.
“Look out for your dress, Effie. I’m going to ship oars. Now, where’s that painter? Right ho.”
They passed within a couple of yards of Shoeblossom. “Effie” stopped and looked round her.
“It’s splendid,” she said.
She was a handsome girl, with lovely hair, and she made a pretty picture standing with her profile towards him; but nevertheless Shoeblossom wished she would move on. He wished very much that she would move on.
She did at last.
“I’m going to explore,” she said, and walked away, followed by the attentive Rupert.
Shoeblossom was sorry for them, but it had to be. After all, they had only to shout, and some one was bound to hear them. They didn’t want the thing half so much as he did. Besides, they ought to be glad of a good excuse for over-staying their time on the island together by an hour or two.
In short. . . .
Exactly one hour and a half after this event Reginald thought that the time had come to restore Shoeblossom’s boat. He got out the sculls, and drifted lazily down to the island.
He was fastening the painter noiselessly to a tree when a large hand suddenly swooped down from nowhere on his neck, and a voice observed, apparently from between somebody’s teeth:
“Now, you young brute, what—do—you—mean—by—it?”
Rankin gasped helplessly.
The young man shook him with some violence. Things had been happening on the island. Tempers were not so angelic as they had been earlier in the afternoon. Effie had been stating icily that it was Rupert’s fault, and that had not brightened Rupert up.
“What the—what do you mean, you little beast, by collaring our boat! And having the infernal cheek to bring it back and tie it up, too! What you want——”
People who insist on telling us what we want are always a nuisance. So Reginald found in this case. So far from being what he wanted, it was particularly painful and unpleasant.
“Now,” said the young man, more calmly, “having got that off to the right address, we can talk business. I see you’re at the School. Seymour’s, I notice. Don’t look surprised. I’m an O.W. myself. And I know the rules about the school and this part of the river. Your name is——”
He removed Reginald’s cap, looked at the interior, and replaced it.
“—Rankin. Thanks. I’ll drop a line to Mr. Seymour to-night. One oughtn’t to keep a funny joke like this to one’s self. Good-bye.”
And perhaps the bitterest part of it all, reflected Reginald, after his interview with Mr. Seymour, on the following day, was that he did not know the man’s name or where he lived. It was monstrous that such a criminal should go scot free, but there was nothing to be done.
He could not even poison the wedding-cake. As for Shoeblossom, he lived happily ever after.