Open main menu
 

CHAPTER XV

SPRAWSON'S MASTERPIECE

Sprawson was among those who congratulated the author of the "wild panegyric," though his praise was tempered with corporal punishment for the use of the word "eulogic" in the same opening stanza. Sprawson declared it was not a word at all, but the base coinage of the poetaster's brain, and when Chips showed him the epithet in a dictionary he got another cuff for defending the indefensible. A man of unsuspected parts was Sprawson; but there was no venom in his hearty violence. It was Sprawson who told Jan he had heard he was a bit of a bowler, and promised him a game on the Upper before the term was out, and a licking if he got less than five wickets. Sprawson himself was no cricketer, but as Athletic Champion he had been made captain of the second game on the Upper Ground.

He was a youth who took few things as seriously as his own events in the sports. He loved to pose as a prematurely hard liver, and perhaps he was one; the famous flask had been known to smell of spirits. He came into sharp contact at times with Heriot, who, however, had early diagnosed him as a rather theatrical villain, and treated him accordingly as a clown. Even Sprawson, even in the summer term, with Satan continually on his idle hands, got no change out of Mr. Heriot; but with a man like the unfortunate Spook he was a terrible handful. The Spook took the Upper Fifth, in which Sprawson had lain comfortably fallow for several terms: relays of moderate workers, who had found and left him there, compared notes upon his insolent audacity in what was known indeed as "Sprawson's form." How he would daily affix the page of Horace or of Sophocles by drawing-pin to the boys' side of the Spook's tall desk, and read off his "rep" under the master's nose; how methodically he devoured the Sportsman behind a zariba of dictionaries, every morning of his life in second school, and how the cover of his Bible was profaned as the cloak of fiction not to be found in the school library; these were but a few of the practices and exploits of Sprawson that were common talk not only in the school but among the younger masters. And yet when the Heriots lost an aged father in July, and hurried across England to the funeral, who but the gallant Spook should volunteer to look after the house in their absence!

The staff were divided as to whether it was an act of heroic hardihood or of supreme insensibility on the volunteer's part; they were perhaps most surprised at Heriot, who knew the Spook as well as they did, but had been in no mood to resist his dashing importunity. It was not the house that they distrusted as a whole. Heriot was a great house-master, though on principle disinclined to pick and choose as sedulously as some of them; he conceived it his whole duty to make the best of the material that came his way unsought; but he had not made much of Sprawson, and it was with Sprawson that the solicitous staff were reckoning on their colleague's account.

It did not say much for their knowledge of boys, as the Spook himself told them in common-room next day. Apparently the house was behaving like a nonconformist chapel. Cave major was indeed stated to have tried his haughty and condescending airs on the great proconsul, but without success according to proconsular report.

"I introduced a pestiferous insect into the young fellow's auricle," boasted the Spook; "our good Heriot will find his stature reduced by a peg or two, if I mistake not. As for the rest of the house, I can only say I have been treated as a gentleman by gentlemen—quorum pars maxima my friend Sprawson. His is a much misjudged character. I begin to fear that I myself have done him less than justice in form. I have been harsh with him—too harsh—poor Sprawson! And now he heaps coals of fire on my head; it has touched me deeply—deeply touched me—I assure you. He has quite constituted himself my champion in the house; amusing, isn't it? As if I needed one. But I haven't the heart to say him nay. A new boy, with a misguided sense of postprandial humour, brings me an order to sign for a ton of candles; only a ton, to go on with, I suppose. I just say, 'Make it out for a truck!' But what does Sprawson? I send the young gentleman about his business; back he comes, sobbing his little heart out in apologies for which I never stipulated. I had reckoned without my Sprawson! Sprawson, I fear, had spared neither rod nor child; the little man was in a pitiable state until I promised to tell Sprawson I had forgiven him. Sprawson, a thorn in my form, who must be sat upon, but the white rose of chivalry in his house!"

That was not the only instance. There had been some tittering at prayers. Sprawson had picked up the offenders like kittens, and gently hurled them into outer darkness; and now the house could not have been better behaved if it had accompanied poor Heriot on his sad errand. It was all quite true. Sprawson was ruling the house with a rod of iron. The order for the ton of candles was the instigation of some minor humorist, who caught it hotter than the tearful apologist. The giggling at prayers was a real annoyance to Sprawson. He meant the house to behave itself in Heriot's absence; he was going to keep order, whatever Loder did. This to Loder's face, after prayers, with half the house listening, and Charles Cave standing by with his air of supercilious detachment, but without raising voice or finger in defence of his brother præpostor.

The house went to bed like mice. Joyce in his partition used blood-curdling language about Sprawson, and Crabtree's criticism was not the less damaging for being fit for publication in the Times. They were alike, however, in employing a subdued tone, while Bingley and Jan exchanged lasting impressions in a whisper. Chips was still in another dormitory, where he was not encouraged to air his highly-coloured views; but the conversion of Sprawson in the hour of need was to him more like a page out of Bret Harte than any incident within his brief experience.

The house had seldom been sooner asleep. In the little dormitory Crabtree was the first to return no answer to Joyce, who told the other two to shut up as well, and was himself soon indulging in virtuous snores. There was no more talking in the neighbouring dormitory either, and none in the one downstairs so far as Jan could hear before he also sank into the heavy sleep of active youth.

It took a tremendous shaking to wake him up. It was not morning; it was the middle of the night. Yet there were mutterings and splutterings in the other partitions, and an unceremonious hand had Jan by the shoulder.

"Get up, will you? It's a case of burglars! All the chaps are getting up to go for them; but you can hide between the sheets if you like it better."

And Crabtree retreated to his corner as Jan swung his feet to the ground. He was still quite dazed; he asked whether anybody had told Heriot.

"Heriot's away, you fool!" Joyce reminded him in a stage whisper.

"That's why they've come," explained Bingley, in suppressed excitement. "They've seen his governor's death in the papers. I'll bet you it's a London gang."

Bingley was more than ever the precocious expert in matters criminal. He had seen a man condemned in the Easter holidays. But this was the night of Bingley's life.

Sounds of breakage came from Joyce's 'tish. "I'm not going down unarmed," said he. "Who wants a rung of my towel rail?" Crabtree and Bingley were supplied in the darkness. "None left for you, Rutter; take a boot to heave at their heads."

"I'll take my jug," said Jan, emptying it into his basin; "it'll do more damage."

"Come on, you chaps!" urged Crabtree. "He'll have got the Spook by this time."

Instinctively Jan guessed that the pronoun stood for old Mother Sprawson, and he was right. It was that born leader of boys and men who had alarmed the dormitories before going through into the private part to summon the Spook from his slumbers; but where the thieves were now, what damage they had done, or who had discovered their presence in the house, Jan had no idea as he accompanied the others down the leaden stairs. Here there was more light, or at any rate less darkness, for a fine moon streamed through skylight and staircase window, and spectre forms were drifting downward through its pallid rays. It was still the day of the obsolete nightshirt, and that ghostly garment was at its best or worst upon a moonlight night. Some boys had tucked theirs into their trousers; a few had totally eclipsed themselves in jackets or dressing-gowns as well; but the majority came as they had risen from their beds, white and whispering, tittering a little, but not too convincingly at first, and for the most part as ignorant of what had happened as Jan himself.

At the foot of the stairs, on the moonlit threshold of the open door into the quad, two portentous figures dammed the descending stream of unpresentable attire: one was the Spook, his master's gown (and little else that could be seen) covering his meagre anatomy, but in his hand a Kaffir battle-axe which usually hung over Heriot's stairs. His companion was the redoubtable Sprawson, a pioneer in striped pyjamahs, armed for his part with a carving-knife of prodigious length which was daily used in hall.

"My good boys!" expostulated the Spook. "My good boys! I wish you'd go back to your beds and leave the intruder to me!"

"We couldn't do that, sir," said one or two. "We'll stand by you, sir, never fear!"

"My brave lads! I wish you wouldn't, I do really. He'll have short shrift from me, I promise you. Short shrift——"

"Silence!" hissed Sprawson, as a titter spread on the stairs. "I'll murder the fellow who laughs again!" and his carving-knife filled with moonlight from haft to point. "It's no laughing matter. They've been at Mr. Heriot's silver; the dining-room's ransacked. I heard them come through this way; that made me look out. One at least is hiding in the studies."

"I'll hide him!" said the Spook, readily.

"Silence!" commanded Sprawson, with another flourish of his dreadful blade. "If you will make jokes, sir, we shall never have a chance; are we to take the whole house with us, or are we not?"

"I don't like leaving them behind, Sprawson, to the tender mercies of any miscreants whose ambush we may have overlooked. Are the whole house there?" inquired the Spook.

"Yes, sir! Yes, sir!" from a dozen tongues, and another terrifying "Silence!" from Sprawson.

"Shall I call over, sir?" suggested Loder, emerging from obscurity to raise a laugh from the rank and file. Sprawson was too quick for him with crushing snub: he was surprised at the captain of the house: what next? So the laugh that came was at Loder's expense, but it again was promptly quelled by the inimitable Sprawson.

"If we waste any more time here, sir, they'll have the bars off the back-study windows and get clean away. I believe all the house are here. I should let them come, sir, if I were you; there's safety in numbers, after all."

"Then I lead the way," said the Spook, diving under the raised carving-knife. "No, Sprawson, not even to you, my gallant fellow; second to none, if you'll permit me, Sprawson, on this occasion. Follow me, my lads, follow me!"

And follow him they did on bare tip-toe, over the cold flags of the alley alongside the hall, and so out into the untrammelled moonlight of the quad. Sure enough, the nearer door to the studies was seen to be ajar. But as the Spook approached it boldly, Sprawson plucked him by the gown.

"The fives-courts, sir! I thought I saw something moving behind the back-wall!"

All eyes flew to the fives-courts at the opposite end of the quad; the back-wall, their unorthodox peculiarity as Eton courts, would have sheltered a band of robbers until the last moment, when their pursuers peeping over might be shot down comfortably at arm's length. No better bulwark against carving-knives and battle-axes, no finer mask for a whole battery of small-arms; and yet the valiant Spook was for advancing single-footed, under that treacherous moon, upon this impregnable position. Sprawson would not hear of it; together, said Sprawson, or not at all, even if he got expelled for lifting his hand against a master. The master shook it melodramatically instead, and with a somewhat painful gait the pair started off across the stretch of moonlit gravel. Jan was the next to follow, with his jug; but all the small dormitory, being more or less armed, were to the fore in an advance which became all but universal before the leaders reached the rampart. Cave major alone had the wit to stay behind, a majestic rearguard with his hands in his dressing-gown pockets, and something suspiciously like a cigarette between his lips.

The courts were discovered empty at a glance; yet Sprawson seized Jan's jug, and dashed it to fragments against the buttress in the outer court while the Spook was busy peering into the inner.

"I thought I saw something move behind the pepper-box," explained Sprawson. "Very sorry, sir! I'll buy a new one. I'm ashamed of showing such bad nerve."

"Bad nerve! You're a hero, Sprawson. I'll pay for it myself," the Spook was saying, kindly enough, when a piercing "Yoicks!" rang out from the deserted end of the quad.

Charles Cave was holding his cigarette behind his back, and waving airily to the study windows with the other hand.

"It's all right, sir; you needn't hurry; only I thought you might like to know there was a light up there this minute!"

The stampede back across the gravel was in signal contrast to the stealthy and circumspect advance; and many a late laggard found himself swept off his feet in the van; but Sprawson outstripped all with a rush that spilt the small fry right and left, and he was first up the study stairs. But the Spook panted after him, and once more insisted on taking the actual lead.

The procession which he headed down the long study passage was no longer the somewhat faltering force which had deployed in the moonlit quad; it was as though confidence had come with protracted immunity, and high spirits had come of confidence; in any case, Sprawson had to lay about him more than once to stop a giggle or a merry scuffle in the dark. He appealed to Loder to keep better order (Cave major was finishing his cigarette quietly in the quad), and Loder promptly smacked the unoffending head of Chips. Merriment, moreover, was unpreventible under the Spook's leadership in the study passage; for into each of the little dark dens would he peer after pounding on the door with the blunt end of the Kaffir battle-axe, and his cry was always, "Come out, fellow!" or "You'd better come out, my man!" or "It's fourteen years for this, you know; only fourteen years' hard labour!" and once—"You think I can see you, but I can't!"—a signal instance of absence of mind in the presence of danger.

There were other diversions to which the Spook did not contribute, as when Sprawson screamed "Got him!" from the depths of some study, and emerged dragging young Petrie after him by the hair of his innocent head; but the dramatic effect of this interlude was immediately discounted by a clumsy imitation on the part of Shockley, of whom wonderfully little had been seen or heard during the earlier proceedings. Sprawson made short work of him now.

"You fool, do you want to spoil the whole thing?" whispered Sprawson, fiercely, in Jan's hearing; and those few words spoilt the whole thing for Jan. He retired into his own study, and sat down in the dark, wiping his forehead on his sleeve, and chuckling and shaking his head by turns, as amusement mingled in his mind with a certain vexatious disappointment.

Meanwhile a climax was deducible in or about the big studies up the two or three steps at the inner end of the passage. General clamour drowned the individual voice; but the devil's own tattoo with the battle-axe proclaimed a door fastened on the inside according to the best burgling traditions as expounded by Bingley in dormitory. Jan was not going to see the fun; he was not out of bed for fun; but he could not resist a grin when the belaboured door gave way audibly, and the crash was succeeded by a louder outcry than ever from the bloodthirsty pack. It was a chorus of disgust and discomfiture, shouted down eventually by Sprawson, and at length followed by some muffled remarks from the Spook and subdued cheers from his audience. Then master and boys trooped back along the passage, and all but Chips Carpenter passed Jan's open door without looking in.

"Tiger! is that you?"

"It's me, Chips. I'd had enough."

"But you missed the best of all! The thief or thieves had got out through Sprawson's study—locked the door—fixed a rope to his table leg, and heaved it back through the open window after they'd got down into the street!"

"Does anybody know what they took away with them?"

"Nothing, it's hoped, because Sprawson disturbed them at their work."

"Oh, he did, did he? And it was Sprawson's study they got out by?"

"Yes. That was a bit of a coincidence, wasn't it?"

"Just a bit! But I think all the more of Sprawson."

"So does all the house," said Chips, eagerly. "The old Spook's let the lot of us off first school to-morrow, or rather to-day, and he and Sprawson are looking for the key of the beer-barrel to serve out some all round! So I advise you to look sharp."

But Jan elected to enlighten his friend about something on the way; and the now lighted hall presented an animated scene when at length they passed the windows. Flushed faces emerging from the various degrees of dishabille were congregated by force of habit about the fireplace. Sprawson and Cave major ("bracketed supreme," as Chips afterwards remarked) were the salient and central pair; Loder and others, such as Shockley, were plying them with questions, only to receive subtle smiles and pregnant shakes of the head; on the outer skirts were the nobodies, and the less than nobodies, whispering together in excited knots, or pressing forward for a crumb of first-hand information.

"And I never saw it!" muttered Chips outside the door. "But old Bob Heriot will, the very moment he hears. And what on earth do you think he'll do?"

"Score off the whole house," Jan suggested, "to make sure of one or two!"

"And make a laughing-stock of the wretched Spook into the bargain? No fear! Bob's not another Haigh. He'll do something cleverer than that, or he won't do anything at all."