The Captain, April 1907
IT was a morning in the middle of April, and the Jackson family were consequently breakfasting in comparative silence. The cricket season had not begun, and except during the cricket season they were in the habit of devoting their powerful minds at breakfast almost exclusively to the task of victualling against the labours of the day. In May, June, July, and August the silence was broken. The three grown-up Jacksons played regularly in first-class cricket, and there was always keen competition among their brothers and sisters for the copy of the Sportsman which was to be found on the hall table with the letters. Whoever got it usually gloated over it in silence till urged wrathfully by the multitude to let them know what had happened; when it would appear that Joe had notched his seventh century, or that Reggie had been run out when he was just getting set, or, as sometimes occurred, that that ass Frank had dropped Fry or Hayward in the slips before he had scored, with the result that the spared expert had made a couple of hundred and was still going strong.
In such a case the criticisms of the family circle, particularly of the smaller Jackson sisters, were so breezy and unrestrained that Mrs. Jackson generally felt it necessary to apply the closure. Indeed, Marjory Jackson, aged fourteen, had on three several occasions been fined pudding at lunch for her caustic comments on the batting of her brother Reggie in important fixtures. Cricket was a tradition in the family, and the ladies, unable to their sorrow to play the game themselves, were resolved that it should not be their fault if the standard was not kept up.
On this particular morning silence reigned. A deep gasp from some small Jackson, wrestling with bread-and-milk, and an occasional remark from Mr. Jackson on the letters he was reading, alone broke it.
“Mike’s late again,” said Mrs. Jackson plaintively, at last.
“He’s getting up,” said Marjory. “I went in to see what he was doing, and he was asleep. So,” she added with a satanic chuckle, “I squeezed a sponge over him. He swallowed an awful lot, and then he woke up, and tried to catch me, so he’s certain to be down soon.”
“Well, he was on his back with his mouth wide open. I had to. He was snoring like anything.”
“You might have choked him.”
“I did,” said Marjory with satisfaction. “Jam, please, Phyllis, you pig.”
Mr. Jackson looked up.
“Mike will have to be more punctual when he goes to Wrykyn,” he said.
“Oh, father, is Mike going to Wrykyn?” asked Marjory. “When?”
“Next term,” said Mr. Jackson. “I’ve just heard from Mr. Wain,” he added across the table to Mrs. Jackson. “The house is full, but he is turning a small room into an extra dormitory, so he can take Mike after all.”
The first comment on this momentous piece of news came from Bob Jackson. Bob was eighteen. The following term would be his last at Wrykyn, and, having won through so far without the infliction of a small brother, he disliked the prospect of not being allowed to finish as he had begun.
“I say!” he said. “What?”
“He ought to have gone before,” said Mr. Jackson. “He’s fifteen. Much too old for that private school. He has had it all his own way there, and it isn’t good for him.”
“He’s got cheek enough for ten,” agreed Bob.
“Wrykyn will do him a world of good.”
“We aren’t in the same house. That’s one comfort.”
Bob was in Donaldson’s. It softened the blow to a certain extent that Mike should be going to Wain’s. He had the same feeling for Mike that most boys of eighteen have for their fifteen-year-old brothers. He was fond of him in the abstract, but preferred him at a distance.
Marjory gave tongue again. She had rescued the jam from Phyllis, who had shown signs of finishing it, and was now at liberty to turn her mind to less pressing matters. Mike was her special ally, and anything that affected his fortunes affected her.
“Hooray! Mike’s going to Wrykyn. I bet he gets into the first eleven his first term.”
“Considering there are eight old colours left,” said Bob loftily, “besides heaps of last year’s seconds, it’s hardly likely that a kid like Mike’ll get a look in. He might get his third, if he sweats.”
The aspersion stung Marjory.
“I bet he gets in before you, anyway,” she said.
Bob disdained to reply. He was among those heaps of last year’s seconds to whom he had referred. He was a sound bat, though lacking the brilliance of his elder brothers, and he fancied that his cap was a certainty this season. Last year he had been tried once or twice. This year it should be all right.
Mrs. Jackson intervened.
“Go on with your breakfast, Marjory,” she said. “You mustn’t say ‘I bet’ so much.”
Marjory bit off a section of her slice of bread-and-jam.
“Anyhow, I bet he does,” she muttered truculently through it.
There was a sound of footsteps in the passage outside. The door opened, and the missing member of the family appeared. Mike Jackson was tall for his age. His figure was thin and wiry. His arms and legs looked a shade too long for his body. He was evidently going to be very tall some day. In face he was curiously like his brother Joe, whose appearance is familiar to every one who takes an interest in first-class cricket. The resemblance was even more marked on the cricket field. Mike had Joe’s batting style to the last detail. He was a pocket edition of his century-making brother. “Hullo,” he said, “sorry I’m late.”
This was mere stereo. He had made the same remark nearly every morning since the beginning of the holidays.
“All right, Marjory, you little beast,” was his reference to the sponge incident.
His third remark was of a practical nature.
“I say, what’s under that dish?”
“Mike,” began Mr. Jackson—this again was stereo—“you really must learn to be more punctual——”
He was interrupted by a chorus.
“Mike, you’re going to Wrykyn next term,” shouted Marjory.
“Mike, father’s just had a letter to say you’re going to Wrykyn next term.” From Phyllis.
“Mike, you’re going to Wrykyn.” From Ella.
Gladys Maud Evangeline, aged three, obliged with a solo of her own composition, in six-eight time, as follows: “Mike Wryky. Mike Wryky. Mike Wryke Wryke Wryke Mike Wryke Wryke Mike Wryke Mike Wryke.”
“Oh, put a green baize cloth over that kid, somebody,” groaned Bob.
Whereat Gladys Maud, having fixed him with a chilly stare for some seconds, suddenly drew a long breath, and squealed deafeningly for more milk.
Mike looked round the table. It was a great moment. He rose to it with the utmost dignity.
“Good,” he said. “I say, what’s under that dish?”
After breakfast, Mike and Marjory went off together to the meadow at the end of the garden. Saunders, the professional, assisted by the gardener’s boy, was engaged in putting up the net. Mr. Jackson believed in private coaching; and every spring since Joe, the eldest of the family, had been able to use a bat a man had come down from the Oval to teach him the best way to do so. Each of the boys in turn had passed from spectators to active participants in the net practice in the meadow. For several years now Saunders had been the chosen man, and his attitude towards the Jacksons was that of the Faithful Old Retainer in melodrama. Mike was his special favourite. He felt that in him he had material of the finest order to work upon. There was nothing the matter with Bob. In Bob he would turn out a good, sound article. Bob would be a Blue in his third or fourth year, and probably a creditable performer among the rank and file of a county team later on. But he was not a cricket genius, like Mike. Saunders would lie awake at night sometimes thinking of the possibilities that were in Mike. The strength could only come with years, but the style was there already. Joe’s style, with improvements.
Mike put on his pads; and Marjory walked with the professional to the bowling crease.
“Mike’s going to Wrykyn next term, Saunders,” she said. “All the boys were there, you know. So was father, ages ago.”
“Is he, miss! I was thinking he would be soon.”
“Do you think he’ll get into the school team?”
“School team, miss! Master Mike get into a school team! He’ll be playing for England in another eight years. That’s what he’ll be playing for.”
“Yes, but I meant next term. It would be a record if he did. Even Joe only got in after he’d been at school two years. Don’t you think he might, Saunders? He’s awfully good, isn’t he? He’s better than Bob, isn’t he? And Bob’s almost certain to get in this term.”
Saunders looked a little doubtful.
“Next term!” he said. “Well, you see, miss, it’s this way. It’s all there, in a manner of speaking, with Master Mike. He’s got as much style as Mr. Joe’s got, every bit. The whole thing is, you see, miss, you get these young gentlemen of eighteen, and nineteen perhaps, and it stands to reason they’re stronger. There’s a young gentleman, perhaps, doesn’t know as much about what I call real playing as Master Mike’s forgotten; but then he can hit ’em harder when he does hit ’em, and that’s where the runs come in. They aren’t going to play Master Mike because he’ll be in the England team when he leaves school. They’ll give the cap to somebody that can make a few then and there.”
“But Mike’s jolly strong.”
“Ah, I’m not saying it mightn’t be, miss. I was only saying don’t count on it, so you won’t be disappointed if it doesn’t happen. It’s quite likely that it will, only all I say is don’t count on it. I only hope that they won’t knock all the style out of him before they’re done with him. You know these school professionals, miss.”
“No, I don’t, Saunders. What are they like?”
“Well, there’s too much of the come-right-out-at-everything about ’em for my taste. Seem to think playing forward the alpha and omugger of batting. They’ll make him pat balls back to the bowler which he’d cut for twos and threes if he was left to himself. Still, we’ll hope for the best, miss. Ready, Master Mike? Play.”
As Saunders had said, it was all there. Of Mike’s style there could be no doubt. To-day, too, he was playing more strongly than usual. Marjory had to run to the end of the meadow to fetch one straight drive. “He hit that hard enough, didn’t he, Saunders?” she asked, as she returned the ball.
“If he could keep on doing ones like that, miss,” said the professional, “they’d have him in the team before you could say knife.”
Marjory sat down again beside the net, and watched more hopefully.
the journey down.
HE seeing-off of Mike on the last day of the holidays was an imposing spectacle, a sort of pageant. Going to a public school, especially at the beginning of the summer term, is no great hardship, more particularly when the departing hero has a brother on the verge of the school eleven and three other brothers playing for counties; and Mike seemed in no way disturbed by the prospect. Mothers, however, to the end of time will foster a secret fear that their sons will be bullied at a big school, and Mrs. Jackson’s anxious look lent a fine solemnity to the proceedings.
And as Marjory, Phyllis, and Ella invariably broke down when the time of separation arrived, and made no exception to their rule on the present occasion, a suitable gloom was the keynote of the gathering. Mr. Jackson seemed to bear the parting with fortitude, as did Mike’s Uncle John (providentially roped in at the eleventh hour on his way to Scotland, in time to come down with a handsome tip). To their coarse-fibred minds there was nothing pathetic or tragic about the affair at all. (At the very moment when the train began to glide out of the station Uncle John was heard to remark that, in his opinion, these Bocks weren’t a patch on the old-shaped Larranaga.) Among others present might have been noticed Saunders, practising late cuts rather coyly with a walking-stick in the background; the village idiot, who had rolled up on the chance of a dole; Gladys Maud Evangeline’s nurse, smiling vaguely; and Gladys Maud Evangeline herself, frankly bored with the whole business.
The train gathered speed. The air was full of last messages. Uncle John said on second thoughts he wasn’t sure these Bocks weren’t half a bad smoke after all. Gladys Maud cried, because she had taken a sudden dislike to the village idiot: and Mike settled himself in his corner, and opened a magazine.
He was alone in the carriage. Bob, who had been spending the last week of the holidays with an aunt further down the line, was to board the train at East Wobsley, and the brothers were to make a state entry into Wrykyn together. Meanwhile, Mike was left to his milk chocolate, his magazines, and his reflections.
The latter were not numerous, nor profound. He was excited. He had been petitioning the home authorities for the past year to be allowed to leave his private school and go to Wrykyn, and now the thing had come about. He wondered what sort of a house Wain’s was, and whether they had any chance of the cricket cup. According to Bob they had no earthly; but then Bob only recognised one house, Donaldson’s. He wondered if Bob would get his first eleven cap this year, and if he himself were likely to do anything at cricket. Marjory had faithfully reported every word Saunders had said on the subject, but Bob had been so careful to point out his insignificance when compared with the humblest Wrykynian that the professional’s glowing prophecies had not had much effect. It might be true that some day he would play for England, but just at present he felt he would exchange his place in the team for one in the Wrykyn third eleven. A sort of mist enveloped everything Wrykynian. It seemed almost hopeless to try and compete with these unknown experts. On the other hand, there was Bob. Bob, by all accounts, was on the verge of the first eleven, and he was nothing special.
While he was engaged on these reflections, the train drew up at a small station. Opposite the door of Mike’s compartment was standing a boy of about Mike’s size, though evidently some years older. He had a sharp face, with rather a prominent nose; and a pair of pince-nez gave him a supercilious look. He wore a bowler hat, and carried a small portmanteau.
He opened the door, and took the seat opposite to Mike, whom he scrutinised for a moment rather after the fashion of a naturalist examining some new and unpleasant variety of beetle. He seemed about to make some remark, but, instead, got up and looked through the open window.
“Where’s that porter?” Mike heard him say.
The porter came skimming down the platform at that moment.
“Are those frightful boxes of mine in all right?”
“Because, you know, there’ll be a frightful row if any of them get lost.”
“No chance of that, sir.”
“Here you are, then.”
“Thank you, sir.”
The youth drew his head and shoulders in, stared at Mike again, and finally sat down. Mike noticed that he had nothing to read, and wondered if he wanted anything; but he did not feel equal to offering him one of his magazines. He did not like the looks of him particularly. Judging by appearances, he seemed to carry enough side for three. If he wanted a magazine, thought Mike, let him ask for it.
The other made no overtures, and at the next stop got out. That explained his magazineless condition. He was only travelling a short way.
“Good business,” said Mike to himself. He had all the Englishman’s love of a carriage to himself.
The train was just moving out of the station when his eye was suddenly caught by the stranger’s bag, lying snugly in the rack.
And here, I regret to say, Mike acted from the best motives, which is always fatal.
He realised in an instant what had happened. The fellow had forgotten his bag.
Mike had not been greatly fascinated by the stranger’s looks; but, after all, the most supercilious person on earth has a right to his own property. Besides, he might have been quite a nice fellow when you got to know him. Anyhow, the bag had better be returned at once. The train was already moving quite fast, and Mike’s compartment was nearing the end of the platform.
He snatched the bag from the rack and hurled it out of the window. (Porter Robinson, who happened to be in the line of fire, escaped with a flesh wound.) Then he sat down again with the inward glow of satisfaction which comes to one when one has risen successfully to a sudden emergency.
The glow lasted till the next stoppage, which did not occur for a good many miles. Then it ceased abruptly, for the train had scarcely come to a standstill when the opening above the door was darkened by a head and shoulders. The head was surmounted by a bowler, and a pair of pince-nez gleamed from the shadow.
“Hullo, I say,” said the stranger. “Have you changed carriages, or what?”
“No,” said Mike.
“Then, dash it, where’s my frightful bag?”
Life teems with embarrassing situations. This was one of them.
“The fact is,” said Mike, “I chucked it out.”
“Chucked it out! what do you mean? When?”
“At the last station.”
The guard blew his whistle, and the other jumped into the carriage.
“I thought you’d got out there for good,” explained Mike. “I’m awfully sorry.”
“Where is the bag?”
“On the platform at the last station. It hit a porter.”
Against his will, for he wished to treat the matter with fitting solemnity, Mike grinned at the recollection. The look on Porter Robinson’s face as the bag took him in the small of the back had been funny, though not intentionally so.
The bereaved owner disapproved of this levity; and said as much.
“Don’t grin, you little beast,” he shouted. “There’s nothing to laugh at. You go chucking bags that don’t belong to you out of the window, and then you have the frightful cheek to grin about it.”
“It wasn’t that,” said Mike hurriedly. “Only the porter looked awfully funny when it hit him.”
“Dash the porter! What’s going to happen about my bag? I can’t get out for half a second to buy a magazine without your flinging my things about the platform. What you want is a frightful kicking.”
The situation was becoming difficult. But fortunately at this moment the train stopped once again; and, looking out of the window, Mike saw a board with East Wobsley upon it in large letters. A moment later Bob’s head appeared in the doorway.
“Hullo, there you are,” said Bob.
His eye fell upon Mike’s companion.
“Hullo, Gazeka!” he exclaimed. “Where did you spring from? Do you know my brother? He’s coming to Wrykyn this term. By the way, rather lucky you’ve met. He’s in your house. Firby-Smith’s head of Wain’s, Mike.”
Mike gathered that Gazeka and Firby-Smith were one and the same person. He grinned again. Firby-Smith continued to look ruffled, though not aggressive.
“Oh, are you in Wain’s?” he said.
“I say, Bob,” said Mike, “I’ve made rather an ass of myself.”
“I mean, what happened was this. I chucked Firby-Smith’s portmanteau out of the window, thinking he’d got out, only he hadn’t really, and it’s at a station miles back.”
“You’re a bit of a rotter, aren’t you? Had it got your name and address on it, Gazeka?”
“Oh, then it’s certain to be all right. It’s bound to turn up some time. They’ll send it on by the next train, and you’ll get it either to-night or to-morrow.”
“Frightful nuisance, all the same. Lots of things in it I wanted.”
“Oh, never mind, it’s all right. I say, what have you been doing in the holidays? I didn’t know you lived on this line at all.”
From this point onwards Mike was out of the conversation altogether. Bob and Firby-Smith talked of Wrykyn, discussing events of the previous term of which Mike had never heard. Names came into their conversation which were entirely new to him. He realised that school politics were being talked, and that contributions from him to the dialogue were not required. He took up his magazine again, listening the while. They were discussing Wain’s now. The name Wyatt cropped up with some frequency. Wyatt was apparently something of a character. Mention was made of rows in which he had played a part in the past.
“It must be pretty rotten for him,” said Bob. “He and Wain never get on very well, and yet they have to be together, holidays as well as term. Pretty bad having a step-father at all—I shouldn’t care to—and when your house-master and your step-father are the same man, it’s a bit thick.”
“Frightful,” agreed Firby-Smith.
“I swear, if I were in Wyatt’s place, I should rot about like anything. It isn’t as if he’d anything to look forward to when he leaves. He told me last term that Wain had got a nomination for him in some beastly bank, and that he was going into it directly after the end of this term. Rather rough on a chap like Wyatt. Good cricketer and footballer, I mean, and all that sort of thing. It’s just the sort of life he’ll hate most. Hullo, here we are.”
Mike looked out of the window. It was Wrykyn at last.
mike finds a friendly native.
IKE was surprised to find, on alighting, that the platform was entirely free from Wrykynians. In all the stories he had read the whole school came back by the same train, and, having smashed in one another’s hats and chaffed the porters, made their way to the school buildings in a solid column. But here they were alone.
A remark of Bob’s to Firby-Smith explained this. “Can’t make out why none of the fellows came back by this train,” he said. “Heaps of them must come by this line, and it’s the only christian train they run.”
“Don’t want to get here before the last minute they can possibly manage. Silly idea. I suppose they think there’d be nothing to do.”
“What shall we do?” said Bob. “Come and have some tea at Cook’s?”
Bob looked at Mike. There was no disguising the fact that he would be in the way; but how convey this fact delicately to him?
“Look here, Mike,” he said, with a happy inspiration, “Firby-Smith and I are just going to get some tea. I think you’d better nip up to the school. Probably Wain will want to see you, and tell you all about things, which is your dorm. and so on. See you later,” he concluded airily. “Any one ’ll tell you the way to the school. Go straight on. They’ll send your luggage on later. So long.” And his sole prop in this world of strangers departed, leaving him to find his way for himself.
There is no subject on which opinions differ so widely as this matter of finding the way to a place. To the man who knows, it is simplicity itself. Probably he really does imagine that he goes straight on, ignoring the fact that for him the choice of three roads, all more or less straight, has no perplexities. The man who does not know feels as if he were in a maze.
Mike started out boldly, and lost his way. Go in which direction he would, he always seemed to arrive at a square with a fountain and an equestrian statue in its centre. On the fourth repetition of this feat he stopped in a disheartened way, and looked about him. He was beginning to feel bitter towards Bob. The man might at least have shown him where to get some tea.
At this moment a ray of hope shone through the gloom. Crossing the square was a short, thick-set figure clad in grey flannel trousers, a blue blazer, and a straw hat with a coloured band. Plainly a Wrykynian. Mike made for him.
“Can you tell me the way to the school, please,” he said.
“Oh, you’re going to the school,” said the other. He had a pleasant, square-jawed face, reminiscent of a good-tempered bull-dog, and a pair of very deep-set grey eyes which somehow put Mike at his ease. There was something singularly cool and genial about them. He felt that they saw the humour in things, and that their owner was a person who liked most people and whom most people liked.
“You look rather lost,” said the stranger. “Been hunting for it long?”
“Yes,” said Mike.
“Which house do you want?”
“Wain’s? Then you’ve come to the right man this time. What I don’t know about Wain’s isn’t worth knowing.”
“Are you there, too?”
“Am I not! Term and holidays. There’s no close season for me.”
“Oh, are you Wyatt, then?” asked Mike.
“Hullo, this is fame. How did you know my name, as the ass in the detective story always says to the detective, who’s seen it in the lining of his hat? Who’s been talking about me?”
“I heard my brother saying something about you in the train.”
“Who’s your brother?”
“Jackson. He’s in Donaldson’s.”
“I know. A stout fellow. So you’re the newest make of Jackson, latest model, with all the modern improvements? Are there any more of you?”
“Not brothers,” said Mike.
“Pity. You can’t quite raise a team, then? Are you a sort of young Tyldesley, too?”
“I played a bit at my last school. Only a private school, you know,” added Mike modestly.
“Make any runs? What was your best score?”
“Hundred and twenty-three,” said Mike awkwardly. “It was only against kids, you know.” He was in terror lest he should seem to be bragging.
“That’s pretty useful. Any more centuries?”
“Yes,” said Mike, shuffling.
“Seven altogether. You know, it was really awfully rotten bowling. And I was a good bit bigger than most of the chaps there. And my pater always has a pro. down in the Easter holidays, which gave me a bit of an advantage.”
“All the same, seven centuries isn’t so dusty against any bowling. We shall want some batting in the house this term. Look here, I was just going to have some tea. You come along, too.”
“Oh, thanks awfully,” said Mike. “My brother and Firby-Smith have gone to a place called Cook’s.”
“The old Gazeka? I didn’t know he lived in your part of the world. He’s head of Wain’s.”
“Yes, I know,” said Mike. “Why is he called Gazeka?” he asked after a pause.
“Don’t you think he looks like one? What did you think of him?”
“I didn’t speak to him much,” said Mike cautiously. It is always delicate work answering a question like this unless one has some sort of an inkling as to the views of the questioner.
“He’s all right,” said Wyatt, answering for himself. “He’s got a habit of talking to one as if he were a prince of the blood dropping a gracious word to one of the three Small-Heads at the Hippodrome, but that’s his misfortune. We all have our troubles. That’s his. Let’s go in here. It’s too far to sweat to Cook’s.”
It was about a mile from the tea-shop to the school. Mike’s first impression on arriving at the school grounds was of his smallness and insignificance. Everything looked so big—the buildings, the grounds, everything. He felt out of the picture. He was glad that he had met Wyatt. To make his entrance into this strange land alone would have been more of an ordeal than he would have cared to face.
“That’s Wain’s,” said Wyatt, pointing to one of half a dozen large houses which lined the road on the south side of the cricket field. Mike followed his finger, and took in the size of his new home.
“I say, it’s jolly big,” he said. “How many fellows are there in it?”
“Thirty-one this term, I believe.”
“That’s more than there were at King-Hall’s.”
“The private school I was at. At Emsworth.”
Emsworth seemed very remote and unreal to him as he spoke.
They skirted the cricket field, walking along the path that divided the two terraces. The Wrykyn playing-fields were formed of a series of huge steps, cut out of the hill. At the top of the hill came the school. On the first terrace was a sort of informal practice ground, where, though no games were played on it, there was a good deal of punting and drop kicking in the winter and fielding-practice in the summer. The next terrace was the biggest of all, and formed the first eleven cricket ground, a beautiful piece of turf, a shade too narrow for its length, bounded on the terrace side by a sharply sloping bank, some fifteen feet deep, and on the other by the precipice leading to the next terrace. At the far end of the ground stood the pavilion, and beside it a little ivy-covered rabbit-hutch for the scorers. Old Wrykynians always claimed that it was the prettiest school ground in England. It certainly had the finest view. From the verandah of the pavilion you could look over three counties.
Wain’s house wore an empty and desolate appearance. There were signs of activity, however, inside; and a smell of soap and warm water told of preparations recently completed.
Wyatt took Mike into the matron’s room, a small room opening out of the main passage.
“This is Jackson,” he said. “Which dormitory is he in, Miss Payne?”
The matron consulted a paper.
“He’s in yours, Wyatt.”
“Good business. Who’s in the other bed? There are going to be three of us, aren’t there?”
“Fereira was to have slept there, but we have just heard that he is not coming back this term. He has had to go on a sea-voyage for his health.”
“Seems queer any one actually taking the trouble to keep Fereira in the world,” said Wyatt. “I’ve often thought of giving him Rough On Rats myself. Come along, Jackson, and I’ll show you the room.”
They went along the passage, and up a flight of stairs.
“Here you are,” said Wyatt.
It was a fair-sized room. The window, heavily barred, looked out over a large garden.
“I used to sleep here alone last term,” said Wyatt, “but the house is so full now they’ve turned it into a dormitory.”
“I say, I wish these bars weren’t here. It would be rather a rag to get out of the window on to that wall at night, and hop down into the garden and explore,” said Mike.
Wyatt looked at him curiously, and moved to the window.
“I’m not going to let you do it, of course,” he said, “because you’d go getting caught, and dropped on, which isn’t good for one in one’s first term; but just to amuse you——”
He jerked at the middle bar, and the next moment he was standing with it in his hand, and the way to the garden was clear.
“By Jove!” said Mike.
“That’s simply an object-lesson, you know,” said Wyatt, replacing the bar, and pushing the screws back into their putty. “I get out at night myself because I think my health needs it. Besides, it’s my last term, anyhow, so it doesn’t matter what I do. But if I find you trying to cut out in the small hours, there’ll be trouble. See?”
“All right,” said Mike, reluctantly. “But I wish you’d let me.”
“Not if I know it. Promise you won’t try it on.”
“All right. But, I say, what do you do out there?”
“I shoot at cats with an air-pistol, the beauty of which is that even if you hit them it doesn’t hurt—simply keeps them bright and interested in life; and if you miss you’ve had all the fun anyhow. Have you ever shot at a rocketing cat? Finest mark you can have. Society’s latest craze. Buy a pistol and see life.”
“I wish you’d let me come.”
“I daresay you do. Not much, however. Now, if you like, I’ll take you over the rest of the school. You’ll have to see it sooner or later, so you may as well get it over at once.”
at the nets.
HERE are few better things in life than a public school summer term. The winter term is good, especially towards the end, and there are points, though not many, about the Easter term: but it is in the summer that one really appreciates public school life. The freedom of it, after the restrictions of even the most easy-going private school, is intoxicating. The change is almost as great as that from public school to ’Varsity.
For Mike the path was made particularly easy. The only drawback to going to a big school for the first time is the fact that one is made to feel so very small and inconspicuous. New boys who have been leading lights at their private schools feel it acutely for the first week. At one time it was the custom, if we may believe writers of a generation or so back, for boys to take quite an embarrassing interest in the newcomer. He was asked a rain of questions, and was, generally, in the very centre of the stage. Nowadays an absolute lack of interest is the fashion. A new boy arrives, and there he is, one of a crowd.
Mike was saved this salutary treatment to a large extent, at first by virtue of the greatness of his family, and, later, by his own performances on the cricket field. His three elder brothers were objects of veneration to most Wrykynians, and Mike got a certain amount of reflected glory from them. The brother of first-class cricketers has a dignity of his own. Then Bob was a help. He was on the verge of the cricket team and had been the school full-back for two seasons. Mike found that people came up and spoke to him, anxious to know if he were Jackson’s brother; and became friendly when he replied in the affirmative. Influential relations are a help in every stage of life.
It was Wyatt who gave him his first chance at cricket. There were nets on the first afternoon of term for all old colours of the three teams and a dozen or so of those most likely to fill the vacant places. Wyatt was there, of course. He had got his first eleven cap in the previous season as a mighty hitter and a fair slow bowler. Mike met him crossing the field with his cricket bag.
“Hullo, where are you off to?” asked Wyatt. “Coming to watch the nets?”
Mike had no particular programme for the afternoon. Junior cricket had not begun, and it was a little difficult to know how to fill in the time.
“I tell you what,” said Wyatt, “nip into the house and shove on some things, and I’ll try and get Burgess to let you have a knock later on.”
This suited Mike admirably. A quarter of an hour later he was sitting at the back of the first eleven net, watching the practice.
Burgess, the captain of the Wrykyn team, made no pretence of being a bat. He was the school fast bowler and concentrated his energies on that department of the game. He sometimes took ten minutes at the wicket after everybody else had had an innings, but it was to bowl that he came to the nets.
He was bowling now to one of the old colours whose name Mike did not know. Wyatt and one of the professionals were the other two bowlers. Two nets away Firby-Smith, who had changed his pince-nez for a pair of huge spectacles, was performing rather ineffectively against some very bad bowling. Mike fixed his attention on the first eleven man.
He was evidently a good bat. There was style and power in his batting. He had a way of gliding Burgess’s fastest to leg which Mike admired greatly. He was succeeded at the end of a quarter of an hour by another eleven man, and then Bob appeared.
It was soon made evident that this was not Bob’s day. Nobody is at his best on the first day of term; but Bob was worse than he had any right to be. He scratched forward at nearly everything, and when Burgess, who had been resting, took up the ball again, he had each stump uprooted in a regular series in seven balls. Once he skied one of Wyatt’s slows over the net behind the wicket; and Mike, jumping up, caught him neatly.
“Thanks,” said Bob austerely, as Mike returned the ball to him. He seemed depressed.
Towards the end of the afternoon, Wyatt went up to Burgess.
“Burgess,” he said, “see that kid sitting behind the net?”
“With the naked eye,” said Burgess. “Why?”
“He’s just come to Wain’s. He’s Bob Jackson’s brother, and I’ve a sort of idea that he’s a bit of a bat. I told him I’d ask you if he could have a knock. Why not send him in at the end net? There’s nobody there now.”
Burgess’s amiability off the field equalled his ruthlessness when bowling.
“All right,” he said. “Only if you think that I’m going to sweat to bowl to him, you’re making a fatal error.”
“You needn’t do a thing. Just sit and watch. I rather fancy this kid’s something special.”
Mike put on Wyatt’s pads and gloves, borrowed his bat, and walked round into the net.
“Not in a funk, are you?” asked Wyatt, as he passed.
Mike grinned. The fact was that he had far too good an opinion of himself to be nervous. An entirely modest person seldom makes a good batsman. Batting is one of those things which demand first and foremost a thorough belief in oneself. It need not be aggressive, but it must be there.
Wyatt and the professional were the bowlers. Mike had seen enough of Wyatt’s bowling to know that it was merely ordinary “slow tosh,” and the professional did not look as difficult as Saunders. The first half-dozen balls he played carefully. He was on trial, and he meant to take no risks. Then the professional over-pitched one slightly on the off. Mike jumped out, and got the full face of the bat on to it. The ball hit one of the ropes of the net, and nearly broke it.
“How’s that?” said Wyatt, with the smile of an impresario on the first night of a successful piece.
“Not bad,” admitted Burgess.
A few moments later he was still more complimentary. He got up and took a ball himself.
Mike braced himself up as Burgess began his run. This time he was more than a trifle nervous. The bowling he had had so far had been tame. This would be the real ordeal.
As the ball left Burgess’s hand he began instinctively to shape for a forward stroke. Then suddenly he realised that the thing was going to be a yorker, and banged his bat down in the block just as the ball arrived. An unpleasant sensation as of having been struck by a thunderbolt was succeeded by a feeling of relief that he had kept the ball out of his wicket. There are easier things in the world than stopping a fast yorker.
“Well played,” said Burgess.
Mike felt like a successful general receiving the thanks of the nation.
The fact that Burgess’s next ball knocked middle and off stumps out of the ground saddened him somewhat; but this was the last tragedy that occurred. He could not do much with the bowling beyond stopping it and feeling repetitions of the thunderbolt experience, but he kept up his end; and a short conversation which he had with Burgess at the end of his innings was full of encouragement to one skilled in reading between the lines.
“Thanks awfully,” said Mike, referring to the square manner in which the captain had behaved in letting him bat.
“What school were you at before you came here?” asked Burgess.
“A private school in Hampshire,” said Mike. “King-Hall’s. At a place called Emsworth.”
“Get much cricket there?”
“Yes, a good lot. One of the masters, a chap called Westbrook, was an awfully good slow bowler.”
“You don’t run away, which is something,” he said.
Mike turned purple with pleasure at this stately compliment. Then, having waited for further remarks, but gathering from the captain’s silence that the audience was at an end, he proceeded to unbuckle his pads. Wyatt overtook him on his way to the house.
“Well played,” he said. “I’d no idea you were such hot stuff. You’re a regular pro.”
“I say,” said Mike gratefully, “it was most awfully decent of you getting Burgess to let me go in. It was simply ripping of you.”
“Oh, that’s all right. If you don’t get pushed a bit here you stay for ages in the hundredth game with the cripples and the kids. Now you’ve shown them what you can do you ought to get into the Under Sixteen team straight away. Probably into the third, too.”
“By Jove, that would be all right.”
“I asked Burgess afterwards what he thought of your batting, and he said, ‘Not bad.’ But he says that about everything. It’s his highest form of praise. He says it when he wants to let himself go and simply butter up a thing. If you took him to see N. A. Knox bowl, he’d say he wasn’t bad. What he meant was that he was jolly struck with your batting, and is going to play you for the Under Sixteen.”
“I hope so,” said Mike.
The prophecy was fulfilled. On the following Wednesday there was a match between the Under Sixteen and a scratch side. Mike’s name was among the Under Sixteen. And on the Saturday he was playing for the third eleven in a trial game.
“This place is ripping,” he said to himself, as he saw his name on the list. “Thought I should like it.”
And that night he wrote a letter to his father, notifying him of the fact.
revelry by night.
A SUCCESSION of events combined to upset Mike during his first fortnight at school. He was far more successful than he had any right to be at his age. There is nothing more heady than success, and if it comes before we are prepared for it, it is apt to throw us off our balance. As a rule, at school, years of wholesome obscurity make us ready for any small triumphs we may achieve at the end of our time there. Mike had skipped these years. He was older than the average new boy, and his batting was undeniable. He knew quite well that he was regarded as a find by the cricket authorities; and the knowledge was not particularly good for him. It did not make him conceited, for his was not a nature at all addicted to conceit. The effect it had on him was to make him excessively pleased with life. And when Mike was pleased with life he always found a difficulty in obeying Authority and its rules. His state of mind was not improved by an interview with Bob.
Some evil genius put it into Bob’s mind that it was his duty to be, if only for one performance, the Heavy Elder Brother to Mike; to give him good advice. It is never the smallest use for an elder brother to attempt to do anything for the good of a younger brother at school, for the latter rebels automatically against such interference in his concerns; but Bob did not know this. He only knew that he had received a letter from home, in which his mother had assumed without evidence that he was leading Mike by the hand round the pitfalls of life at Wrykyn; and his conscience smote him. Beyond asking him occasionally, when they met, how he was getting on (a question to which Mike invariably replied, “Oh, all right"), he was not aware of having done anything brotherly towards the youngster. So he asked Mike to tea in his study one afternoon before going to the nets.
Mike arrived, sidling into the study in the half-sheepish, half-defiant manner peculiar to small brothers in the presence of their elders, and stared in silence at the photographs on the walls. Bob was changing into his cricket things. The atmosphere was one of constraint and awkwardness.
The arrival of tea was the cue for conversation.
“Well, how are you getting on?” asked Bob.
“Oh, all right,” said Mike.
“Sugar?” asked Bob.
“Thanks,” said Mike.
“How many lumps?”
Bob pulled himself together.
“I asked Firby-Smith to keep an eye on you,” said Bob.
“What!” said Mike.
The mere idea of a worm like the Gazeka being told to keep an eye on him was degrading.
“He said he’d look after you,” added Bob, making things worse.
Look after him! Him!! M. Jackson, of the third eleven!!!
Mike helped himself to another chunk of cake, and spoke crushingly.
“He needn’t trouble,” he said. “I can look after myself all right, thanks.”
Bob saw an opening for the entry of the Heavy Elder Brother.
“Look here, Mike,” he said, “I’m only saying it for your good——”
I should like to state here that it was not Bob’s habit to go about the world telling people things solely for their good. He was only doing it now to ease his conscience.
“Yes?” said Mike coldly.
“It’s only this. You know, I should keep an eye on myself if I were you. There’s nothing that gets a chap so barred here as side.”
“What do you mean!” said Mike, outraged.
“Oh, I’m not saying anything against you so far,” said Bob. “You’ve been all right up to now. What I mean to say is, you’ve got on so well at cricket, in the third and so on, there’s just a chance you might start to side about a bit soon, if you don’t watch yourself. I’m not saying a word against you so far, of course. Only you see what I mean.”
Mike’s feelings were too deep for words. In sombre silence he reached out for the jam; while Bob, satisfied that he had delivered his message in a pleasant and tactful manner, filled his cup, and cast about him for further words of wisdom.
“Seen you about with Wyatt a good deal,” he said at length.
“Yes,” said Mike.
“Yes,” said Mike cautiously.
“You know,” said Bob, “I shouldn’t—I mean, I should take care what you’re doing with Wyatt.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, he’s an awfully good chap, of course, but still——”
“Well, I mean, he’s the sort of chap who’ll probably get into some thundering row before he leaves. He doesn’t care a hang what he does. He’s that sort of chap. He’s never been dropped on yet, but if you go on breaking rules you’re bound to be sooner or later. Thing is, it doesn’t matter much for him, because he’s leaving at the end of the term. But don’t let him drag you into anything. Not that he would try to. But you might think it was the blood thing to do to imitate him, and the first thing you knew you’d be dropped on by Wain or somebody. See what I mean?”
Bob was well-intentioned, but tact did not enter greatly into his composition.
“What rot!” said Mike.
“All right. But don’t you go doing it. I’m going over to the nets. I see Burgess has shoved you down for them. You’d better be going and changing. Stick on here a bit, though, if you want any more tea. I’ve got to be off myself.”
Mike changed for net-practice in a ferment of spiritual injury. It was maddening to be treated as an infant who had to be looked after. He felt very sore against Bob.
A good innings at the third eleven net, followed by some strenuous fielding in the deep, soothed his ruffled feelings to a large extent; and all might have been well but for the intervention of Firby-Smith.
That youth, all spectacles and front teeth, met Mike at the door of Wain’s.
“Ah, I wanted to see you, young man,” he said. (Mike disliked being called “young man.”) “Come up to my study.”
Mike followed him in silence to his study, and preserved his silence till Firby-Smith, having deposited his cricket-bag in a corner of the room and examined himself carefully in a looking-glass that hung over the mantelpiece, spoke again.
“I’ve been hearing all about you, young man.” Mike shuffled.
“You’re a frightful character from all accounts.” Mike could not think of anything to say that was not rude, so said nothing.
“Your brother has asked me to keep an eye on you.”
Mike’s soul began to tie itself into knots again. He was just at the age when one is most sensitive to patronage and most resentful of it.
“I promised I would,” said the Gazeka, turning round and examining himself in the mirror again. “You’ll get on all right if you behave yourself. Don’t make a frightful row in the house. Don’t cheek your elders and betters. Wash. That’s all. Cut along.”
Mike had a vague idea of sacrificing his career to the momentary pleasure of flinging a chair at the head of the house. Overcoming this feeling, he walked out of the room, and up to his dormitory to change.
In the dormitory that night the feeling of revolt, of wanting to do something actively illegal, increased. Like Eric, he burned, not with shame and remorse, but with rage and all that sort of thing. He dropped off to sleep full of half-formed plans for asserting himself. He was awakened from a dream in which he was batting against Firby-Smith’s bowling, and hitting it into space every time, by a slight sound. He opened his eyes, and saw a dark figure silhouetted against the light of the window. He sat up in bed.
“Hullo,” he said. “Is that you, Wyatt?”
“Are you awake?” said Wyatt. “Sorry if I’ve spoiled your beauty sleep.”
“Are you going out?”
“I am,” said Wyatt. “The cats are particularly strong on the wing just now. Mustn’t miss a chance like this. Specially as there’s a good moon, too. I shall be deadly.”
“I say, can’t I come too?”
A moonlight prowl, with or without an air-pistol, would just have suited Mike’s mood.
“No, you can’t,” said Wyatt. “When I’m caught, as I’m morally certain to be some day, or night rather, they’re bound to ask if you’ve ever been out as well as me. Then you’ll be able to put your hand on your little heart and do a big George Washington act. You’ll find that useful when the time comes.”
“Do you think you will be caught?”
“Shouldn’t be surprised. Anyhow, you stay where you are. Go to sleep and dream that you’re playing for the school against Ripton. So long.”
And Wyatt, laying the bar he had extracted on the window-sill, wriggled out. Mike saw him disappearing along the wall.
It was all very well for Wyatt to tell him to go to sleep, but it was not so easy to do it. The room was almost light; and Mike always found it difficult to sleep unless it was dark. He turned over on his side and shut his eyes, but he had never felt wider awake. Twice he heard the quarters chime from the school clock; and the second time he gave up the struggle. He got out of bed and went to the window. It was a lovely night, just the sort of night on which, if he had been at home, he would have been out after moths with a lantern.
A sharp yowl from an unseen cat told of Wyatt’s presence somewhere in the big garden. He would have given much to be with him, but he realised that he was on parole. He had promised not to leave the house, and there was an end of it.
He turned away from the window and sat down on his bed. Then a beautiful, consoling thought came to him. He had given his word that he would not go into the garden, but nothing had been said about exploring inside the house. It was quite late now. Everybody would be in bed. It would be quite safe. And there must be all sorts of things to interest the visitor in Wain’s part of the house. Food, perhaps. Mike felt that he could just do with a biscuit. And there were bound to be biscuits on the sideboard in Wain’s dining-room.
He crept quietly out of the dormitory.
He had been long enough in the house to know the way, in spite of the fact that all was darkness. Down the stairs, along the passage to the left, and up a few more stairs at the end The beauty of the position was that the dining-room had two doors, one leading into Wain’s part of the house, the other into the boys’ section. Any interruption that there might be would come from the further door.
To make himself more secure he locked that door; then, turning up the incandescent light, he proceeded to look about him.
Mr. Wain’s dining-room repaid inspection. There were the remains of supper on the table. Mike cut himself some cheese and took some biscuits from the box, feeling that he was doing himself well. This was Life. There was a little soda-water in the syphon. He finished it. As it swished into the glass, it made a noise that seemed to him like three hundred Niagaras; but nobody else in the house appeared to have noticed it.
He took some more biscuits, and an apple.
After which, feeling a new man, he examined the room.
And this was where the trouble began.
On a table in one corner stood a small gramophone. And gramophones happened to be Mike’s particular craze.
All thought of risk left him. The soda-water may have got into his head, or he may have been in a particularly reckless mood, as indeed he was. The fact remains that he inserted the first record that came to hand, wound the machine up, and set it going.
The next moment, very loud and nasal, a voice from the machine announced that Mr. Godfrey Field would sing “The Quaint Old Bird.” And, after a few preliminary chords, Mr. Field actually did so.
“Auntie went to Aldershot in a Paris pom-pom hat.”
Mike stood and drained it in.
“. . . Good gracious (sang Mr. Field), what was that?”
It was a rattling at the handle of the door. A rattling that turned almost immediately into a spirited banging.
A voice accompanied the banging. “Who is there?” inquired the voice. Mike recognised it as Mr. Wain’s. He was not alarmed. The man who holds the ace of trumps has no need to be alarmed. His position was impregnable. The enemy was held in check by the locked door, while the other door offered an admirable and instantaneous way of escape.
Mike crept across the room on tip-toe and opened the window. It had occurred to him, just in time, that if Mr. Wain, on entering the room, found that the occupant had retired by way of the boys’ part of the house, he might possibly obtain a clue to his identity. If, on the other hand, he opened the window, suspicion would be diverted. Mike had not read his “Raffles” for nothing.
The handle-rattling was resumed. This was good. So long as the frontal attack was kept up, there was no chance of his being taken in the rear—his only danger.
He stopped the gramophone, which had been pegging away patiently at “The Quaint Old Bird” all the time, and reflected. It seemed a pity to evacuate the position and ring down the curtain on what was, to date, the most exciting episode of his life; but he must not overdo the thing, and get caught. At any moment the noise might bring reinforcements to the besieging force, though it was not likely, for the dining-room was a long way from the dormitories; and it might flash upon their minds that there were two entrances to the room. Or the same bright thought might come to Wain himself.
“Now what,” pondered Mike, “would A. J. Raffles have done in a case like this? Suppose he’d been after somebody’s jewels, and found that they were after him, and he’d locked one door, and could get away by the other.”
The answer was simple.
“He’d clear out,” thought Mike.
Two minutes later he was in bed.
He lay there, tingling all over with the consciousness of having played a masterly game, when suddenly a gruesome idea came to him, and he sat up, breathless. Suppose Wain took it into his head to make a tour of the dormitories, to see that all was well! Wyatt was still in the garden somewhere, blissfully unconscious of what was going on indoors. He would be caught for a certainty!
(To be continued.)