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CHAPTER XVIII

DARK HORSES

"Do you mind my coming under your umbrella?"

It was Dudley Relton, and his forearm felt like a steel girder. Yet his tone was preternaturally polite as between master and boy. There was not even the sound of his own surname to assure Jan that he was recognised. But he was far too startled to attempt to take advantage of that.

"Oh, sir!" he sang out as if in pain.

"I shouldn't tell all the town, if I were you," returned Relton, coolly. "You'd better come in here and pull yourself together."

He had thrust his latch-key into the side door of a shuttered shop. Over the shop were lighted windows which Jan suddenly connected with Relton's rooms. He had been up there once or twice with extra work, and now he was made to lead the way.

The sitting room was comfortably furnished, with a soft settee in front of a dying fire, and book-cases on either side of it. Jan awoke from a nightmare of certain consequences, never fully realised until now, to find himself meanwhile ensconced in the settee, and much fascinated with the muddy boots of Dudley Relton, who had poked the fire before standing upright with his back to it.

"Of course you know what is practically bound to happen to you, Rutter. Still, in case there's anything you'd like me to say in reporting the matter, I thought I'd give you the opportunity of speaking to me first. I don't honestly suppose that it can make much difference. But you're in my form, and I'm naturally sorry that you should have made such a fatal fool of yourself."

The young man sounded sorry. That was just like him. He had always been decent to Jan, and he was sorry because he knew that it was necessarily all over with a fellow who was caught getting out at night. Of course it was all over with him, so what was the good of saying anything? Jan kept his eyes on those muddy boots, and answered never a word.

"I suppose you got out for the sake of getting out, and saying you'd been to the fair? I don't suppose there was anything worse behind it. But I'm afraid that's quite bad enough, Rutter."

And Mr. Relton heaved an unmistakable sigh. It had the effect of breaking down the silence which Jan was still only too apt to maintain in any trouble. He mumbled something about "a lark," and the young master took him up quite eagerly.

"I know that! I saw you at the fair—spotted you in a moment as I was passing—but I wasn't going to make a scene for all the town to talk about. I can say what I saw you doing. But I'm afraid it won't make much difference. It's a final offence at any school, to go and get out at night."

Jan thought he heard another sigh; but he had nothing more to say. He was comparing the two pairs of boots under his downcast eyes. His own were the cleanest; they still had the boot-boy's shine on them, amid splashes of mud and dull blots of rain. They took him back to the little dormitory at the top of Heriot's house.

"Why did you want to do it?" cried Relton, with sudden exasperation. "Did you think it was going to make a hero of you in the eyes of the school?"

Sullen silence confessed some such thought.

"You!" continued Relton, with sharp contempt. "You who might really have been a bit of a hero, if only you'd waited till next term!"

Jan looked up at last.

"Next term, sir?"

"Yes, next term, as a left-hand bowler! I saw you bowl the only time you ever played on the Upper last year. It was too late then, but I meant to make something of you this season. You were my dark horse, Rutter. I had my eye on you for the Eleven, and you go and do a rotten thing for which you'll have to go as sure as you're sitting there!"

So that was the meaning of kind words and light penalties. The Eleven itself! Jan had not been so long at school without discovering that the most heroic of all distinctions was to become a member of the school eleven. Once or twice he had dreamt of it as an ultimate possibility in his own case; it was really Chips who had put the idea into his head, but even Chips had regarded it only as a distant goal. And to think it might have been next term—just when there was to be no next term at all!

"Don't make it worse than it is, sir," mumbled Jan, as the firelight played on the two pairs of drying boots. The other pair shifted impatiently on the hearthrug.

"I couldn't. It's as bad as bad can be; I'm only considering if it's possible to make it the least bit better. If I could get you off with the biggest licking you ever had in your life, I'd do so whether you liked it better or worse. But what can I do except speak to Mr. Heriot? And what can he do except report the matter to the Head Master? And do you think Mr. Thrale's the man to let a fellow off because he happens to be a bit of a left-hand bowler? I don't, I tell you frankly," said Dudley Relton. "I'll say and do all I can for you, Rutter, but it would be folly to pretend that it can make much difference."

Jan never forgot the angry, reproachful, and yet not unsympathetic expression of a face that was only less boyish than his own. He felt he liked Dudley Relton more than ever, and that Dudley Relton really had a sneaking fondness for him, even apart from his promise with the ball. But that only added poignancy to his self-reproaches, the bitterness of satire to his inevitable fate. Here was a friend who would have made all the difference to his school life, getting him into the Eleven next year if not next term, fanning his little spark of talent into a famous flame! It was too tragic only to see it as they marched back together, once more under Heriot's umbrella, to the house and Heriot himself, with his flashing spectacles and his annihilating rage.

The steam merry-go-round was still and dumb at last. In the emptying market-place the work of dismantling the fair was beginning even as the church clock struck twelve. Stalls were being cleared, and half the lights were already out. But Heriot's study windows threw luminous bars across the glistening pavement, and his front-door was still unlocked. Relton opened it softly, and shut it with equal care behind the quaking boy.

"You'd better take those things off and hang them up," he whispered. So he had recognised Heriot's garments, but had deemed that aggravation a detail compared with the cardinal crime!

Jan himself had forgotten it, but he took the hint with trembling hands.

"Now slip up to dormitory and hold your tongue. That's essential. I'll say what I can for you, but the less you talk the better."

Jan would have seen that for himself; even if he had not seen it, he was the last person to confide in anybody if he could help it. But as it was there were three fellows in the secret of his escapade, and all three doubtless lying awake to learn its termination. It would be impossible not to talk to them. Jan could only resolve upon the fewest words, as he groped his way to the lead-lined stairs. In the two dormitories overlooking the quad, the last tongue had long been still, and in the utter silence Heriot's voice sounded in startled greeting on his side of the house. Jan shivered as he sank down on the lowest stair but one, to take off his boots. Was it any good taking them off? Would not the green baize door burst open, and Heriot be upon him before the first lace was undone? He undid it with the heavy deliberation of an entirely absent mind. Still no Heriot appeared, and even Jan could catch no further sound of voices beyond the dividing door. He crept up, dangling his boots.

The small dormitory was as still as the other two. Jan could not believe that his comrades had fallen asleep, at their posts as it almost seemed to him, but for an instant the suspicion piqued him in spite of everything. Then came simultaneous whispers from opposite corners.

"Is it you, Tiger?"

"You old caution, I couldn't have believed it of you!"

"You didn't know him as well as I did."

"I'm proud to know him now, though. Shake hands across the 'tish."

"Thank goodness you're back!"

"But how did you get back?"

"Same way I got out," muttered Jan at last. "Are you all three awake."

"All but young Eaton. Eaton!"

No answer from the new boy's corner.

"He's a pretty cool hand"—from Bingley.

"But he's taken his dying oath not to tell a soul"—from Chips.

"He won't have to keep it long, then." Jan was creeping into bed.

"Why not?"

"I've gone and got cobbed."

"You haven't!"

"I'm afraid so."

"Oh, Tiger!"

"But you're back, man?"

"I was seen first. I'm certain I was. It's no use talking about it now; you'll all know soon enough. I've been a fool. I deserve all I'm bound to get."

"I was worse!" gasped Bingley over the partition. "I dared you to do what I wouldn't've done myself for a hundred pounds. But I never thought you would, either. I thought you were only hustling. I swear I did, Tiger!"

Bingley was in real distress. Chips combined sore anxiety with a curiosity which Jan might have gratified but for Dudley Relton's parting piece of advice. It occurred to Jan that Relton might have been thinking of himself over that injunction; he might not wish it to be generally known that he had taken the delinquent up into his own rooms before haling him back to his house. At all events Jan felt he owed so good a fellow the benefit of any doubt upon the point. And his silence was the measure of his gratitude for the one redeeming feature of the whole miserable affair.

Miserable it was to the last degree, and most humiliating in its utterly unforeseen effect upon himself. His previous expressions of magnificent indifference, as to whether he was expelled or not, had not been altogether the boyish idle boast that they had sounded at the time. He had meant them rather more than less. His whole school life had seemed a failure; his early hatred of it had taken fresh hold of him. The provocation supplied by Bingley had been but a spark to the tinder already in Jan's heart. He had seen no prospect of creditable notoriety, and that of a discreditable kind had suddenly appealed to his aching young ambition. The fact that he had ambitions, however crude and egotistical, might have shown him that school meant more to him than to many who accepted a humdrum lot with entire complacency. But Jan was not naturally introspective; the curse of consciousness was in him a recent growth; and like other young healthy minds, forced by circumstance into that alien habit, he misconceived himself on very many points. It had seemed a really fine thing to have got out at night, a fine fate even to be caught and expelled for it. But now that he really had been caught, and the drab reality of expulsion stared him in the face, he saw not only how inglorious it all was, but the glory that might have been his at the school he had affected to despise.

He had never despised it in his heart. He knew that now. He had begun by hating it as a wild creature hates captivity. He had learned to loathe it as the place where an awkward manner and a marked accent exposed one to incessant ridicule. But even in the days of hatred and of loathing, when his chief satisfaction had been to damp the ardour of an old enthusiast like Chips Carpenter, Jan himself had been conscious of a sneaking veneration for the great machine into which he had been thrust. He had meant it to make something of him, though that was not quite the light in which he had seen his own intention. He had meant at any rate to do as well as other fellows, to show them that he was as good as they were, though he might not have their manners or address. That had been the master impulse of his secret heart; he could trace it back to the beginning of his first term, to the football which was stopped, to the paper-chase in which he had run in spite of them, and then to last year's Mile and the cricket which was stopped again. How many things had been against him, and yet how little he had suspected his own strongest point! Only to think that he might have bowled for the school this coming season!

Relton might have kept that to himself. He had talked about making things better, but he had only made them worse to bear. He need not have said that about Jan's cricket. It was enough to drive a fellow mad with the thought of all that he was losing through his criminal folly. Individuals filled the stage of Jan's cruel visions, Evan Devereux in the limelight; what would he have said if Jan had got into the Eleven? Might it not have brought them together again? Evan had got into the Sixth Upper; he had been in the First Lower the term before Jan came; and Jan had been left out of even the lowest eleven on the Middle Ground, which Evan had skipped altogether. It would have been a case of the hare and the tortoise, but in the end they might both have been in the school team together, and then they could scarcely have failed to be friends. So simply did Jan think of the fellow with whom he now seldom exchanged so much as a nod; he was nevertheless the one to whom Jan felt that he owed more than to the whole school put together; for had he not kept Something right loyally to himself?

Then there was old Haigh. He would have seen that there might be something in a fellow who could not write Latin verses, something in even a sulky fellow! And Jan no longer sulked as he used; he was getting out of that; and yet he had done this thing, and would have to go. . . .

Then there was Shockley and all that lot, the rotten element in the house. If he had really got into the Eleven, it would have made all the difference in the world between Jan and them. They never touched him as it was, but their words were often worse than blows, and far more difficult to return. But if Jan had got into the Eleven . . . and Relton spoke as if he really would have had a chance, but for this thing that he had done!

He lay in his bed and groaned aloud, and then found himself listening for even an answering movement from one of the others. He felt he could have opened out to them now, to any one of them; but they were all three evidently fast asleep. The church clock had struck two some time ago. And Jan was still poignantly awake; he had not lain awake like this since his very first night in the school and that partition; and now it was most probably his last!

To-morrow night he might be back in the rectory attic where he was less at home than here, and back under the blackest cloud of all his boyhood. That was saying something. Term-time was still preferable to the holidays, except when he went to stay with Chips and see some of the sights of London. And now it was the last night of his last term, unless a miracle was wrought to save him. . .

And now it was the last morning, and Jan felt yet another creature, because he had slept like a top after all, and the wild adventure of the night was no longer the sharp reality which had kept him awake so many hours. It was much more like a dream; it might or might not have happened. If it had happened, and they knew it had, why were Chips and Bingley washing and dressing without a word about it? Jan forgot about young Eaton, similarly employed in the fourth partition; but at the back of his muddled mind he knew well enough that it was no dream, even before his muddy boots afforded final proof. Yet he rushed downstairs as the last bell was ringing, flew along the street without a bite of dog-rock or a drop of milk, and hurled himself through the school-room door as the præpostor of the week was about to shut it in his face. As though it still mattered whether he was late or not!

He thought of that while he recovered his breath during the psalms; throughout the prayers he could only think of the awful voice reading them, and whether it would pronounce his doom before the whole school at ten o'clock, and whether it would not be even more appalling in private. Jan watched the pale old face, forearmed with another day's stock of stern care. And he wondered whether his beggarly case would add a flash to those austere eyes, or a passing furrow to that formidable brow.

Heriot's place at prayers was such that Jan could not see his face, but his shoulders looked inexorable, and from the poise of his head it was certain that his beard was sticking out. There was no catching Heriot's eye after prayers; and yet even Relton, at first school, looked as though nothing had happened overnight. He took his form in Greek history with that rather perfunctory air which marked all his work in school; but so far from ignoring Jan, or showing him any special consideration, Relton was down upon him twice for inattention, and on the second occasion ordered him to stay behind the rest. Jan did so in due course, and was not called up until the last of the others had left.

"I didn't keep you back for inattention," calmly explained young Relton. "I could hardly expect you to attend this morning. I kept you back to tell you of my conversation with Mr. Heriot last night."

"Thank you, sir."

"I began by sounding him on the punishment for getting out at night—even on the venial pretext of a lark—in which I was prepared to corroborate your statement as far as possible."

Dudley Relton was already falling into the school-master's trick of literary language, and here was at least one word of which Jan did not know the meaning. But he expressed his gratitude again. And Relton gathered his books together with some care before proceeding.

"It's perfectly plain from what he says that the one and only punishment is—the sack!"

Jan said nothing. But neither did he wince. He was prepared for the blow, and from Dudley Relton he could bear it like a man.

"That being so," continued the other, stepping down from his desk, "I said nothing about last night, Rutter."

"You said nothing about it?"

This was far harder to hear unmoved. Jan even forgot to say "sir."

"Please don't raise your voice, Rutter."

"But—sir! Do you mean that you never told Mr. Heriot at all?"

"I do. I went in to tell him, but I soon saw it meant the end of you. So I said nothing about you after all. You'll kindly return the compliment, Rutter, or it may mean the end of me!"

They faced each other in the empty class-room, the very young man and the well-grown boy. In actual age there were only some seven years between them, but at the moment there might have been much less. The spice of boyish mischief made the man look younger than his years, while a sudden sense of responsibility aged the boy.

It was Jan who first broke into a smothered jumble of thanks, expostulations, and solemn vows. There were only three fellows who knew he had got out at all; but even they did not know that he had actually encountered any master, and now they never should. His gratitude was less coherent, but his anxiety on Mr. Helton's behalf such as that unconventional usher was compelled to laugh to scorn.

"We're in each other's hands," said he, "and perhaps my motives were not so pure as you think. Remember at any rate, that you're my dark horse, Rutter. Run like a good 'un, and you'll soon be even with me. But never you run amuck again as you did last night!"

"I never will, sir, that I'll swear."

"I don't only mean to that extent. I saw a pipe in your mouth before the row. You weren't actually smoking, but I fancy you do."

"I have done, sir," said Jan, without entering into particulars about that pipe.

"Well, give it up. If you want to do something for me, don't go smoking again while you're here. It's bad for your eye and worse for your hand, and a bowler has need of both. Run as straight as a die, Rutter, and let's hope you'll bowl as straight as you run!"