Long before the days of Cyrano de Bergerac, the Coll. knew that you might discuss his red nose with Dickson Quartus in all amity and safety, so long as it did not turn blue, and he did not gnash his teeth and speak with tongues. If that happened— why, anything might happen; and the worst generally happened after long stretches of lean living. For example, ‘Pussy’ Abanazar and Tertius, his study mates, being the junior sub-prefects of that winter term, were in the field, taking Lower School footer – which, of course, took both of their fags— and Dick coming up from place-kicking found the study fire out, too.
Naturally, he went up to Number Five, immediately overhead, and borrowed from Beetle, in riposo on the domestic hearth, a shovelful of burning coals. Coming down with it, he almost ran into Mr. King, his own House-master, at the bottom of the stairs, and from sheer nervous shock tilted out the whole affair at, if not over, his feet. There was some energetic dancing and denouncing, as Beetle noted through the banisters, and when it had ceased Dick had five hundred lines, which did not prevent him from being very happy with Beetle over the spirited action of King’s hindlegs among the cinders.
Last lesson that day was English Literature— Paradise Lost— and when Harrison major, whose voice is as a lost sheep’s, bleated about Satan treading on ‘burning marl,’ Beetle sputtered aloud. King might or might not have guessed the connection. But he said nothing beyond, ‘Two hundred Latin lines.’ Dick condoled with Beetle after tea; but also developed his own grievance, which was that Beede had heaped too many coals of fire on him.
‘I like that!’ was the retort. ‘I kept on tellin’ you your shovel wouldn’t hold ’em, you blue-snouted Mandrill.’ Beetle knew much about the coloration of Mandrills, and would often describe it to Dick.
But this time Dick’s nose blue-fired where it stood; he gnashed his teeth, and emitted the war-cry of the Royal Line of Ashantee. (His naval uncle had fought in those parts and, Dick swore, had taught him all the languages.) What followed, though painful for Beetle, who was alone (and Pussy was with Dick), was merely an affair of outposts. The Temple of Janus was opened ceremonially later. After prayers, Number Five, who were sitting up from nine to ten for ‘extra work,’ caught a fag of their House about to undress, hustled it into a nightgown over all for tabard, and sent it to Dick’s study with a stolen gym boxing-glove, which Turkey called ‘the Cartel.’ Dick spared the quavering herald, and pranced up to Number Five, robed in a tablecloth, at the very top of his rarely shown form. As Head of the Gaboon and the Dahomey Customs, he talked Fantee, which includes — with whistlings and quackings— Rabelaisian accounts of the manners of the West Coast, and the etiquette of native courts thereabouts; for his uncle had been an observant officer. It altogether destroyed Number Five. They clung to the table, beseeching Dick to stop and let them get breath; and they topped off the ribald hour with pickled onions and raspberry vinegar for a pledge of naked war.
When they went up to their study next morning, after second lesson, they found, when they could see, everything in it furred with a ghastly, greasy deposit; and a smell fouler than the sight. Dick had shut down their chimney damper, set an old ‘gutty’ golf-ball in a sardine-tin on the new-made fire, jammed their window, plugged up with paper beneath their door, and let nature do the rest. Their pictures left white squares on the walls when they took them down. Turkey felt it most, for Art was his province. Beetle wanted to bore holes in the floor, and pour melted lead through; but, as Stalky pointed out, Pussy and Tertius were sub-prefects, and could not include their study in the field of unrestricted warfare.
‘Dick’s flank is covered all right,’ he said. ‘Beetle ought to have thought of that. Yes, you ass, I have thought of snuff; but don’t you try to think, or you’ll hash it. Leave him alone!’
So when the King of Ashantee quacked his triumph at next call-over, they all looked straitly to their own front, and lifted neither hand nor hoof. Only Pussy, on an exquisite note between apology and authority, reminded Stalky that the day following would be a House-match (Macrea’s v. King’s), which would claim him, Tertius and Dick from three to five. As sub-prefect he could have commanded a truce, but as ally of Dick he had sanctioned the war and had taken part in the execution of Beede— Death by the Hundred Slices between two forms.
‘That’s all right,’ Stalky answered him. ‘We wouldn’t, when they’re empty.’
‘Dick didn’t think,’ Pussy went on. It was the extreme limit of concession.
‘Don’t you worry, Kitten. He’s goin’ to.’ After which. Stalky removed from Beetle six penny stamps reserved for correspondence.
‘Want ’em all?’ said Beetle.
‘I didn’t. But I will now, you selfish hound. I do all the work an’. . . ’
‘All right. ’Tisn’t my fault if I can’t write home,’ said the robbed one in a relieved voice, and went on plaintively; ‘Who’s bagged my new socks, curse you?’
‘Those Mandrill ones? Wouldn’t be found dead in ’em. Turkey most likely. He’s aesthetic.’
Beetle sighed. They were a church-going pair of a provocative peacock-blue, which, when coquettishly exhibited across an aisle, would make Dick’s nose glow through half the sermon.
On Saturday afternoon, with everybody down at the House-match, Stalky brought out the communal frying-pan, and laid in it large slabs of the fattest bacon.
‘Old Mother Hunt gave me all that for fourpence. She thinks it’s a bit off. Fry it. Beetle.’
The slice rendered as generously as blubber. When the pan was about half full of fat, Stalky fished out three slices and tied each slice to a string from a new penny string-ball. Then he and the others leaned out of their window, and bobbed them against the window of the study below. In that crisp October air, each bob left a white blob of coagulated fat on the pane. When a slice ceased to register, it was hauled up and reconditioned: at intervals, some-one would go down to report on the effect from the ground-level, or to direct the more delicate stipplings. They put on a second coat to make sure, and judged that it would do.
The returning enemy were too full of their game to notice anything till they had washed, and were well at home again. Then, peering from above. Number Five saw Pussy’s huge paw put forth, and an experimenting finger drawn through the creamy deposit on the panes. ‘Go an’ jape with them, Turkey. Get Dick’s head well out. Keep that fat just off the bubble, Beetle,’ said Stalky.
Turkey presented himself on the area-railings outside the lower study and, as usual, let others make conversation. He had gifts that way. Things had not gone much beyond ‘Filthy swine!’ when the King of Ashantee, ousting his slower-minded mates, leaned forth, and addressed himself directly to Turkey, with two golf-balls, one after the other. Here Stalky took the pan from Beetle, and decanted, say, one pint of pure bacon fat on to Dick’s scalp, where it set at once into a frosty wig. The bag of flour, dashed down after it, was sheer waste of the sixth of Beetle’s penny stamps. Without a glance at the result, Turkey sauntered back, and pushed the study table against the door.
‘All right. To-morrow’s Sunday,’ said Stalky. ‘Good for Dick’s topper. But don’t you notice him. He’s the Lord’s Anointed.’
Saturday prayers were worth attending; but next day’s divine service was—just that! Dick’s locks had clotted into irregular overlapping scales which, when flattened by a desperate hand, sprang up again unrelatedly. Even his study-mates mocked him, but, for Number Five, it was as though he had never been upon earth or in memory. They merely put it about that his was a disease which comes from not brushing the hair, and that presently it would bleed.
That same Sabbath eve — disregarding advice and scorning reinforcements — the Head of the Gaboon tore upstairs alone to call upon them, when, seeing that he appeared to be armed, they fell on him — ankle, waist and neck — without a word. At last he was understood to say something about ‘slugs in a saw-pit.’ They let him up.
‘It’s your gloat,’ he gasped. ‘Let’s top off with a duel in the Bunkers. I challenge the lot of you. Death before dishonour! An’ give me some of that raspberry vinegar.’
‘Your sally any good?’ M‘Turk asked. He had Number Five’s armoury in his own care.
‘Hellish stiff. I was bringing it for you to clean a bit. I’ve got cartridges but no oil.’ He picked up from the floor a lock-jawed twenty-two rim-fire Belgian saloon-pistol, which Turkey took over at once.
‘Get expelled for duellin’,’ Beetle observed sourly.
‘You abject cur! You’re the only one with gig-lamps, too,’ Stalky rebuked.
‘You called me The Mandrill,’ said the Head of the Gaboon. ‘An’ what was that beastliness of yours about my hair bleedin’, — thou— thou varlet?’ (That was Dick’s word of the week, so to say.)
‘Oh, Plica Polemica said Beetle, and brightly summarised as much as he could recall of Polish Plat out of a Heaven-sent old encyclopedia.
‘Two shots at Beetle for that,’ said Dick icily.
‘You shall have ’em!’ cried generous Stalky. ‘But look here, you can’t take us all on. What about a quadrilateral duel?’ Stalky saw himself excelling Marryat.
‘What for? You each get plugged at three times, same as me. I don’t mind.’
‘What distance?’ said Turkey, with his head in his playbox among the oiled rags.
‘Dunno, quite. Ten paces too much?’ Stalky suggested.
‘Rot!’ Beede protested. ‘You can make a Burrows donkey bray his head off at a hundred yards with dust-shot. I’ve done it.’
‘You unfeelin’ brute! Now you can do a little brayin’ on your own, an’ see how you like it. I vote we make it twelve paces for the duels, an’ after that we’ll pick sides and have a general stalk in the Bunkers.’
‘Who’s to give the range then?’ Beetle asked.
‘Guess it, you old burbler. Besides, dust-shot don’t hardly sting even at point-blank.’
Beetle explained what his spiritual adventures must be ere he lent himself to such speculations. His piety wearied them.
‘If you say much more we’ll decree you a rabbit — same as Maunsell did young Vivian. He made him cock-up at point-blank.’ Stalky was referring to an episode of their early and oppressed past.
‘Yes, an’ Gartside major got hold of it an’ half cut Maunsell’s fat soul out of him in the dormitory. That shows what prefects think of duellin’! An’ s’pose King spots us in the Bunkers with his filthy telescope? I’ve looked through it. I swear you can see the crabs runnin’ about on Braunton Sands.’ Beetle delivered this all in one passionate breath.
‘You’re sickenin’,’ said Turkey. ‘Maunsell was bullyin’ young Vivian. D’you mean to say you’re bein’ bullied? An’, tell me now, has King or Prout or Foxy — has anyone — ever told ye that duellin’ is forbidden at Coll.? Don’t prevaricate. Have you ever seen it posted in the corridor?’
‘Then get Pussy and Tertius for seconds,’ Beetle howled.
‘I’d not dream of runnin’ in on them for a little thing like this,’ Turkey concluded, and Dick added: (368/9)
‘Besides, this is a private affair. It’s the satisfaction of a gentleman, thou scurvy varlet.’
‘Oh, shut up an’ listen to your Uncle. The Bunkers to-morrow after call-over. Shots all round — an’ one extra for Beetle. First blood satisfies Honour. Then we’ll pick sides an’ have a general stalk till we’re out of ammunition.’
‘Good business,’ said the foe. ‘And a brew for the survivors after tea! My uncle hath remembered me. Selah! We’d better have it up here and ask Pussy and Tertius. It’s safer.’
At that epoch, the young of the English, alone of their kind, understood the exact difference between official and unofficial. Pussy and Tertius said they would be happy to attend the brew and, being men of substance, sent, as it were, milk and honey in advance. They had not been officially informed what the banquet would celebrate, but prying suspicion is beneath true authority.
‘Anyhow,’ said Pussy to his colleague, ‘I’ve been through Dick’s cartridges to make sure. All dust-shot.’
At three, then, next day, after Beetle, the housekeeper, had set out the table for a brew of six, four boys in prudent overcoats (‘sallies’ pack clumsily beneath short jackets) pushed into the wind for the rushy sand-dunes at the far end of the Pebble Ridge. It is true that certain old men who, though not in the Army, impiously wore red coats, used a fringe of the landscape for a senile diversion known as Golf— Turkey had played it for some weeks and pronounced it ‘sickenin’’ — but once off the line of their activities — the ‘fairway,’ they called it — a boy might have been in the Sahara.
The Equinox drove the sand into their faces or round their legs, as they dived among the sheep-haunted hollows. The upstanding winter tide roared and trampled along the Pebble Ridge outside till they had to shout to each other, and racing slashes of low sunlight from seaward lit the sands and the bents with fierce coppery glares. In a secluded dell, out of the worst of the wind, Turkey posted Stalky and Dick Four — each edge-on. House-cap pulled down to the eyebrows, left elbow crooked, covering mouth and nose, and pistol ready to level over the crook at the Caution and to fire at the Word. For such had been the tradition of the Giants of the Prime — great names —now even greater Captains who, of course, stood fire daily.
‘Squad!’ croaked Turkey in Foxy’s best manner.
‘Fire!’ Both pistols popped together. It was a clean miss.
‘Didn’t you even hear mine?’ Stalky called.
The King of Coomassie shook his head gingerly. It was difficult for him to keep his cap on his matted hair.
‘Never mind. I’ll get you at the stalk.’ Then Stalky in turn placed Turkey and Dick. They fired.
‘Heard something that time,’ said Dick appreciatively. Turkey had raised his left elbow, knowing that his pistol threw low.
Beetle took the field of honour without parade. His first shot was well to the left.
‘Your man is in front of ye,’ said M‘Turk grimly. ‘Reload as ye stand.’
‘Now you pay for Mandrill !’ Dick shouted. But on the ‘Fire’ Beetle blazed skyward, which, with that uncertain sort of ammunition and by the help of a passing gust, was just enough to sling the charge well forward. The King of Ashantee rubbed his cheek and swore in purest English.
‘Blood!’ Turkey paced in. ‘Tip of Dick’s ear bleedin’.’
‘Pimple! Pimple!’ roared the King. ‘I’ve been scratchin’ it for weeks.’
Turkey dabbed with a handkerchief and held up the evidence.
‘Blood ! Honour satisfied. Let-off for you, Beetle !’
But Beetle was already treading his own conception of a reel to the chant of: ‘I’ve drilled the Mandrill — the Mandrill— the Mandrill !’
‘Bunk!’ Stalky warned him. ‘Run, you ass!’ The Head of the Gaboon was gnashing his teeth and reloading with intent. ‘We’ll start the stalk now. I’m on your side, Beetle.’
‘Are ye? Then I’m on Dick’s,’ said M‘Turk, wheeling, and fired into the skirts of the flying overcoat.
Beetle was out of that hollow and across several others before he found a ragged bunker— the old ‘Cockscomb’ —whose crest had been undercut by rabbits. Here he lay down and reloaded, resolved to sell his life dear, but not to go looking for many buyers. He knew what Stalky
could be as an ally, and it worried him; but, from broken words that rode the gale, it sounded as though Stalky must have stalked Dick Four, and so committed himself to a definite policy. Beede’s was to reach, as soon as might be, those very old red-coated men whom he had so often scorned. Deeply as they loathed his likes, they would not allow him to be peppered in their fairway. He crawled unfastidiously to the next bunker furthest from the sea, descended its face, and disturbed an old ewe. She bolted up wind, and brought down on him out of a side-ravine Dick Four, wrestling with a jammed pistol and roaring like a gorilla. Just when Beetle — as he ever afterwards explained — was about to blow his silly brains out, Dick scooped up tons of sand and tossed them into the blast. Beetle ate of it what he could not avoid, rubbed enough of the rest out of his spectacles and eyes to see a little, and ploughed on, the skirts of his unbuttoned overcoat ever being blown forward between his legs. Renewed poppings and yells from the rear indicated either that he had been ‘decreed a rabbit’ in absentia, or that civil war had broken out. But, like unthinking youth, he did not look back.
He arrived, well on all fours, at the lip of a big crater known in those pure days as The Pit. Directly beneath him stood an ancient in a red coat, scrabbling, like King David, with a niblick. While Beetle, on both elbows, removed his spectacles to get a little more damp sand off them, the unkind wind hove his coattails clean over his head, and plunged him into darkness, Almost at the same instant he felt a pain behind, which urged him to plunge out of it. . . . And thus it was that this innocent boy, with life’s golden promise before him, and that withered zealot, trifling blasphemously through his few remaining days, met all of a heap, on much the same selection of mots justes— cries of lost souls and defeated generals.
‘Blast you! Who are you?’ the elder began; but Beetle, his spectacles in his hand, disengaged and fled on — he felt at the moment that he could run for ever — to the protection of the fairway. Here, as he cleaned and reshipped his glasses, he realised that his personal grief was now more like the dying memory of an efficient ground-ash than any portent of fatal haemorrhage. Presently, life, as it tingled through his young system, seemed rather prosperous. At any rate, he had drilled the Mandrill; escaped further active service; the old goat in The Pit had not seen him with his spectacles on, which ought to be a perfect alibi; and a brew of brews awaited him. He returned towards Coll.
A sobbing voice hailed, and Stalky ranged or, rather, tottered alongside. Without turning his head, Beetle asked him what he had done that for.
‘Because you deserted! You left me to fight a rearguard action alone, you cad!’ Then, clinging to Beede’s cold shoulder: ‘I didn’t mean to. I swear I didn’t drill you; your coat blew up! Then I couldn’t help it. Wasn’t it a beauty? Did it sting much? Never mind! Turkey’s got it in the ankle— point-blank. He left his silly foot stickin’ out of some rushes an’ Dick thought it was you! Turkey’s a bit wrathy.’
Turkey limped up with Dick. They were obviously estranged. Dick was talking about ‘lousy Fenians,’ and Turkey’s nose was high in air.
‘Well?’ said Beetle, a thought comforted. Stalky continued;
‘Turkey got my cap. I stuck it up to draw his fire. Then he got me on the hand!’ A dirty rag round a limb was proof. ‘Oh, but before that, I got Dick where I got you, but much tighter. Turkey changed sides after Dick plugged him. That was really why I had to plug you — to make things fair. See, you old burbler?’
‘But,’ Dick was pleading with Turkey, ‘how the devil was I to know you were wearing Beetle’s ungodly socks? I couldn’t smell ’em in this wind, could I? It was your fault for baggin’ ’em!’
Beetle chortled. There seemed to be some justice in things after all.
‘I hope Turkey plugged you, you murderer,’ he rounded on Dick.
‘Only once.’ Dick rubbed his neck again. He might have lightly brushed a bough of gorse.
‘That’s nothing.’ Beetle looked pointedly at his own salient work on the rim of the ear.
‘Yours was an infernal fluke,’ said Dick hotly. ‘You were in a blue funk all the time, — thou — thou noisome varlet.’
‘Thou notch-eared knave,’ was the reply.
But the crisis had passed, and Dick beamed; he, too, had a sound taste in epithets.
They were going through pockets for overlooked cartridges (one has to explain so much if any are found), and throwing them into Goosey Pool, when, out of the autumn dusk, a robin-like old man hopped, and almost pecked, at Turkey. The others delicately walked on; Beetle for once leading.
‘You were the boy who swore at me just now,’ the stranger began.
Turkey took no notice, except that his nose went up a little more.
‘I was in a bunker, and you knocked into me. Using filthy language, sir!’
‘An’ what were ye doin’ in the bunker? An’ which bunker was it?’ Turkey spoke like all the wearied and disbelieving magistracy of the Ireland of those days.
‘The Pit,’ said the Ancient, being a golfer— which is to say a monomaniac.
Turkey came to life with a jerk.
‘Bunkered? In The Pit? With this wind blowin’? Comin’ or goin’ ye could nott.
‘But I tell you I did.’ The other seemed to have forgotten his original grievance.
‘Ah, then, ye’re not worth a curse — an’ never will be.’
Turkey rejoined his companions, to whom Beetle was giving a theory of cause and effect. The four linked arms and swept up the old sunken lane to Coll. Honour was satisfied; there remained but their own young appetites. When, just before last lesson, Beetle connected the rubber tube from the gas-bracket to their dear little stove — turning the jet down to that exact degree which will bring milk-cocoa to perfection in one hour and a half— and counted the potted ham-and-tongue jars, the chicken-and-ham sausage, the sardine-tins, the three jams, the condensed milk, the two pounds of Devonshire cream, and the whole pound of real butter, he would not have changed 1 is lot with kings. Nor, as he went to the form-room, did it strike him that a spare, accurately dressed person standing in the Head’s porch had anything to do with the old goat he had heard, rather than seen, cursing in The Pit.
Ten minutes before the close of last lesson (their mouths were watering already). Foxy knocked and laid a well-known slip on King’s desk.
‘The Head to see,’ King read, and paused to let suspense soak in. ‘Ah! Only our usual three— plus Dickson Quartus. This, I fear, portends tragedy. All four of you —at once— if you please!’
They agreed that, for the first time in their knowledge of him, the Head must have been drunk. Nothing else explained his performance.
‘The way he talked was enough,’ said Dick Four. ‘All the studies brew, and he knows it. But he went on as if he’d heard of it for the first time.’
‘At the top of his voice, too. When Bates is wrathy, he whispers. But he shouted like Rabbits-Eggs. That proves it’ said Stalky.
‘Then, all that putrid rot about “the criminality” of havin’ a tube. All the studies have ’em. He said it was theft— of gas! There you are!’ Dick continued.
‘An’ his rot about “gorgin’.” He knows we can’t live on the muck they give us. He— he said brewin’ was “an insult to the bountiful provision made for us by the authorities.” Mad! Ravin’ mad!’ This was Beetle’s kinder judgment.
Turkey scratched an ankle and spoke: —
‘Authority! He’s never said a word about any authority except himself since I’ve been here.’
‘Then you think he’s tight, too?’
‘I do not. If he’d drunk enough to make him talk like that, he’d have been lyin’ on the floor to say it.’
‘Anyhow, he licked like hell,’ Beetle went on.
‘He did nott, either. His arm was never shoulder-high once.’
‘But if he wasn’t tight, what made him count the cuts aloud? No one does that, except Justus Prout,’ said Stalky.
Dick Four pointed at the untouched table.
‘He hasn’t confiscated the grub. Better eat it and have Pussy and Tertius in for cover,’
‘Better make sure first,’ said Beetle. ‘J don’t want the Head japin’ with me again just now. I’ll ask Foxy.’
He found him in the gym as usual. 377/8
‘No orders about it at all,’ said the Sergeant, and there was an unfathomable twinkle in his little red eye.
But Turkey sat on the window-seat asking of nobody: —
‘For what would he be roarin’ like that? The man was out of his nature, I tell ye.’
* * *
Years— some years — later, Captain ‘Pussy’ Abanazar, R.E., seconded for duty in the Indian Political, at home on leave, was invited by the Head to spend a few days of the Easters at Coll., in a mild, early, Devon Spring. Half-a-dozen of the Army Class stayed up ‘to read for their exams.’, and perhaps as many juniors whose people were abroad. When the last shooting-brake-load had left, and emptiness filled the universe, the Head turned into a most delightful and comprehending uncle, so that that forlorn band remembered those Easters through the rest of their lives. And when Captain Abanazar rolled in, and was to each of them equally a demi-god and an elder brother of the right sort (he tipped like Croesus), their cups overflowed.
One soft evening in the Head’s private study, with the sea churning up old memories all along the Ridge, Pussy asked:
‘Bates Sahib, do you remember lickin’ Number Five and Dick Four for brewin’ in—’ He gave the year and added: ‘My first term as a sub, you know.’
The Head smiled and nodded.
‘And giving ’em a pi-jaw?’
‘Pi-jaws aren’t my line. There was a jaw, though. Why? What did they think about it?’
‘They didn’t understand it at all. I believe they thought you were tight.’
‘Would I had been! But it was worse. It was cowardice, Pussy— it was bowing down in the House of Rimmon. And they noticed what I said?’
‘I should say they did!’
‘No wonder! We had a Board of Directors in those days — retired Colonels — martial men with the habit of command. I’m glad I never had that.’
‘Yes, we all deplored your lack of it, sir.’
‘Don’t misunderstand me. They were excellent men. I’m sure we were all deeply indebted to them. One of the very best was a Colonel — Coll — Coll — wait a minute — Curthwen. But he’s in Abraham’s bosom now. (Awkward bed-fellow!) He knew about education and the prices of things. So useful at Board meetings. I always moved the vote of thanks to him. He was exceptionally nice to me. Advice — the soundest advice. You see, he knew about— er — everything except, yes, golf. He had to come down here to learn that. I only dared go round with him once. I enjoyed it too much. Little runny-nosed Northam caddies told him where to put his horrible feet. Ah! When he came down here, you see, his evenings were quite free, and he could drop in on me at any time, and — er — offer a few suggestions.’
Pussy shuddered all over; and he was not of the smaller makes.
‘Yes,’ the Head mused. ‘It’s a shameful story. That evening, he dropped in complaining that one of us — you — a boy— had nearly knocked him over in a bunker, and then used filthy language. No. I never found out who the boy was. I could only envy. But the shock and the language— he was, of course, a churchwarden— made him a little — excessive, perhaps. He gave me an hour’s sound advice — with a tang to it. Then I walked with him to the old Fives Court to see him off, but he sniffed like a hound opposite Number Five, and said he smelt gas escaping. (You can’t smell it any other way, can you?) Then he began all over again. Pussy — on economics in the abstract. An eye like a lizard’s. That type have the lust of detail. Yes! After one hour, he began again. Then I lied— as overworked children do.’
‘By Jove! I remember your warning me about that, when I worked Lower School too hard at footer. It’s true of men, too.’
‘It is. I lied like a scullion — like the hireling that I was! I told him the gas was always shut off from the studies when not required. I think I told him I kept the key of the meter in my— bath-room. I don’t want o think what I told him. He was good enough to say he took my word for it, but ’
‘Did he? Wish I’d been there. Well?’
‘He tracked the stink upstairs foot by foot — like Prout on a moral trail. It was I — I — who threw open the study door to show his suspicions were wrong. And there was that glorious brew laid out on the table, and the tube from the gas-jet to the stove! A tiny, little, bright, blue flame. Pussy. It went wheee-whee, like a toy balloon deflating. That was me, I deflated. He inflated for ten minutes. I am a wicked old man— as you know. I have terrorised infants and perjured myself to mothers, and intrigued with and against my Staff; but I paid for my sins then. Pussy. You’d have loved it.’
‘But I’d have dropped him out of the window first,’ said Pussy.
‘Why? He had the obvious right of it. There was the smell. There was the waste. (As a matter of fact, it was traced to the basement.) And, 1 suppose, there was a chance of burning down the Coll. Then he was shocked at the brew. He said it showed you didn’t appreciate your lawful food. Yes! He sawed at me with his voice. Pussy, till I fell. I connived— I confederated with him. I suggested that he should eaves drop in my private study — yes, here — and listen to ‘what I should say’ when I sacrificed those innocent children. Thank goodness, I have forgotten my discourse, but I know that I addressed them — him, next door, I mean — out of his own Philistine vocabulary. And you say they noticed the falling-off in my style? Aha! Non omnis moriar!‘ The Head purred.
‘They couldn’t make any sense of it. And did you count the cuts aloud?’
‘Very like. Why should I have stopped at any crime? I was playing up to the Board — to appearances — to expediency — to fear of consequences — to all those little dirty things that I brought you children up to spit upon. Except that I didn’t kneel and pray with them — Heavens! he might have exacted that — there was only one redeeming feature. When it came to the execution, that little red cupboard-door stuck.’
‘The rope breaking on the gallows,’ Pussy amplified. ‘It never did with me!’
‘And I saw my face in the glass, like an ape’s — a frightened, revengeful ape’s. (And, so far as I have a gospel, it is never to carry things to the sweating point.) That saved a remnant of my integrity. Saved them something, as well. The licking was a noisy one —for his benefit — but artistically, my dear boy, you understand, a sketch— the merest outline.’ ‘That squares with the evidence, too. And you didn’t confiscate the grub. I know, because I helped eat it.’
‘There are limits to my brutality. Besides, he’d gone to gorge at his dreadful Golf Club; and I could have eaten a horse. But it was all abject— paltry— timeserving — unjust. Not that I believe in Justice, but 1 don’t like to think that I ever licked out of personal mortification and revenge.’
‘Don’t you worry, Bates dear. Those young devil had been out duellin’ in the Bunkers the whole afternoon. Every one of ’em was a casualty as he stood to you. What was our allowance for that?’ 382/3
‘Threats of expulsion — followed by twelve of the best. The young scoundrels! But you’ve taken a load off my mind. Pussy. If I’d known that, I could have paid ’em honourably!’
‘Beetle was the chap who attended to your Colonel, too. Stalky plugged him — bending — on the edge of The Pit, and he fell into it, cursing Stalky for all he was worth. The Colonel was bunkered at the bottom. You see?’
‘I see. Never again will I hear a word against Beetle — unless I say it myself’ The Head spoke with genuine gratitude. ‘But how did they hound him into the fray? Was he — er — “decreed a rabbit”?’
‘Bates, dear, is there one single dam’ thing about us that you don’t know?’ Pussy spoke after an admiring pause.
‘We-ell! It’s a shameful confession, but, you see, I loved you all. The rest was only sending you all to bed dead-tired. You want a sheet of impot-paper? You know where it lives. What for?’
‘I’m going to restore your prestige an’ give Stalky pain. He needs a tonic where he is now, poor devil! . . . Please, sir, what are common nouns in io called?’
What Pussy sent out (as ‘code,’ at State expense) from the overwhelmed little Post Office ran:— ‘Capitem vidi. Stop. Constat flagellatio Studii Quinti Ricardique Quarti utsi oh caenam vere propter duellum vestrum inter arenas donata fuisse. Stop. Matutinissime si Capitem decipere vis surgendum. Stop. Amorem expedit. Stop. Felis Catus.’
What Stalky, doing station-master in a freezing internationalised lamp-room, received, after two or three telegraphists of the Nearer and Farther Easts had had their flying shots at it, was: —
‘Captain vids. Stop. Constance plageltio studdi quinti ricandk que qualte cuts obscene very prabst duel in vestry iter arimas donala puistse. Stop. Matushima so cahutem discipere via sargentson. Stop. Amend expent. Stop. Fehx Cotes.’
He had trouble enough on his own fork at the time, so, as Pussy foretold, it proved a tonic. The office of origin and ‘studdi quinti’ gave him a bearing, but he upset half the railway system of Cathay, as then working, to arrive at epigraphists with a College education. A Captain of Native infantry happened to remember the catchword, ‘You must get up pretty early to take in the Head. ’The rest was combined deductive scholarship. In due time a cable went back, not to F. Cotes, but to the Head:—
‘Have seen the Head. He says the licking of Number Five Study and Dick Four ostensibly for brewing was really for your duel in the Bunkers. You’ve got to get up very early to take in the Head. He sends love. The Cat. These from Sinim. Stop. Knew it all along. Delighted your character for downiness cleared. Stop. Ours nationally and personally more than indifferent here. Stop. Best loves for birthday.’
Four or five names out of an Army Class followed in school order.
Not till several years later did Pussy tell Stalky and the others how they had been deceived; and cruelly rubbed in that ‘Knew it all along.’ As they were, then, far too senior to go to war in the ancient formation, they passed the docket over to Beetle, with instructions to ‘report and revenge.’
Which had to be done.’