Fathers of Men/Chapter 2
CHANGE AND CHANCE
Rutter had been put in the small dormitory at the very top of the house. Instead of two long rows of cubicles as in the other , in one of which he had left Carpenter on the way upstairs, here under the roof was a square chamber with a dormer window in the sloping side and a cubicle in each of its four corners. Cubicle was not the school word for them, according to the matron who came up with the boys, but "partition," or "tish" for short. They were about five feet high, contained a bed and a chair apiece, and were merely curtained at the foot. But the dormitory door opened into the one allotted to Rutter; it was large enough to hold a double wash-stand for himself and his next-door neighbour; and perhaps he was not the first occupant whom it had put in mind of a loose-box among stalls.
He noted everything with an eye singularly sardonic for fourteen, and as singularly alive to detail. The common dressing-table was in the dormer window. The boy had a grim look at himself in the glass. It was not a particularly pleasant face, with its sombre expression and stubborn mouth, but it looked brown and hard, and acute enough in its dogged way. It almost smiled at itself for the fraction of a second, but whether in resignation or defiance, or with a pinch of involuntary pride in his new state of life, it would have been difficult even for the boy to say. Certainly it was with a thrill that he read his own name over his partition, and then the other boys' names over theirs. Bingley was the fellow next him. Joyce and Crabtree were the other two. What would they be like? What sort of faces would they bring back to the glass in the dormer window?
Rutter was not conscious of an imagination, but somehow he pictured Joyce large and lethargic, Crabtree a humorist, and Bingley a bully of the Flashman type. He had just been reading Tom Brown by advice. He wondered would the humorist be man enough to join him in standing up to the brutes, and whether pillow-fights were still the fashion; he did not believe they were, because Master Evan had never mentioned them; but then Master Evan had only been at a preparatory school last spring, and he might have found it quite otherwise at Winchester. The new boy undressed with an absent mind. He was wondering what it would have been like if he had been sent to Winchester himself, and there encountered Master Evan on equal terms. He had never done so much wondering in his life; he found a school list in the dormitory, and took it to bed with him, and lay there doing more.
So there was an Upper Sixth and a Lower Sixth, and then a form called the Remove; and in the Remove, by the way, was friend Joyce of the corner opposite. Then came the Fifths—three of them—with Crabtree top of the Lower Fifth. Clever fellow, then, Crabtree! The bully Bingley was no doubt notoriously low in the school. The Middle Remove came next, and through each column of strange names the boy read religiously, with a fascination he could not have explained, here and there conjuring an incongruous figure from some name he knew. He had got down to the Middle Fourth when suddenly his breath was taken as by a blow.
Heriot came in to find a face paler than it had looked downstairs, but a good brown arm and hand lying out over the coverlet, and a Midsummer List tightly clutched. The muscles of the arm were unusually developed for so young a boy. Heriot saw them relax under his gaze as he stood over the bed.
"Got hold of a school list, have you?"
"Yessir," said Rutter with a slurring alacrity that certainly did not savour of the schoolroom. Heriot turned away before he could wince; but unluckily his eyes fell on the floor, strewn with the litter of the new boy's clothes.
"I like the way you fold your clothes!" he laughed.
"I beg your pardon, sir, but where am I to put them?"
It was refreshingly polite; but, again, the begging-pardon opening was not the politeness of a schoolboy.
"On this chair," said Heriot, suiting the action to the word. The boy would have leapt out of bed to do it himself. His shyness not only prevented him, but rendered him incapable of protest or acknowledgment; and the next moment he had something to be shy about. Mr. Heriot was holding up a broad and dirty belt, and without thinking he had cried, "What's this?"
Rutter could not answer for shame. And Heriot had time to think.
"I can sympathise," he said with a chuckle; "in the holidays I often wear one myself. But we mustn't betray each other, Rutter, or we shall never hear the last of it! I'll give you an order for a pair of braces in the morning."
"I have them, sir, thanks."
"That's right." Heriot was still handling the belt as though he really longed to buckle it about himself. Suddenly he noticed the initials "J. R."
"I thought your name was Ian, Rutter?"
"So it is, sir; but they used to call me Jan."
Heriot waited for a sigh, but the mouth that appealed to him was characteristically compressed. He sat a few moments on the foot of the bed. "Well, good-night, and a fair start to you, Jan! The matron will put out the gas at ten."
The lad mumbled something; the man looked back to nod, and saw him lying as he had found him, still clutching the list, only with his face as deep a colour as his arm.
"Have you come across any names you know?"
"He won't know me."
They were the sullen answers that had made a bad impression downstairs; but they were strangely uttered, and Rutter no longer lay still.
"He must have a name," said Heriot, coming back into the room.
"I'm sorry you're ashamed of your friend," said Heriot, laughing.
"He's not my friend, and——"
"I think that's very likely," put in Heriot, as the boy shut his lips once more. "What's in a name? The chances are that it's only a namesake after all."
He turned away without a sign of annoyance or of further interest in the matter. But another mumble from the bed intercepted him at the door.
"Name of Devereux," he made out.
"Do you know him, sir?"
"I should think I do!"
"He'll not be in this house?"
Rutter was holding his breath.
"No, but he got my prize last term."
"Do you know his other name?"
It was a tremulous mumble now.
"I'm afraid I don't. Wait a bit! His initials are either E. P. or P. E. He only came last term."
"He only would. But I thought he was going to Winchester!"
"That's the fellow; he got a scholarship and came here instead, at the last moment."
The new boy in the top dormitory made no remark when the matron put out the gas. He was lying on his back with his eyes wide open, and his lips compressed out of sight, just as Heriot had left him. It was almost a comfort to him to know the worst for certain; and now that he did know it, beyond all possibility of doubt, he was beginning to wonder whether it need necessarily be the worst after all. It might easily prove the bust. He had always liked Master Evan; that was as much as this boy would admit even in his heart. The fact would have borne a warmer recognition. Best or worst, however, he knew it as well as though Evan Devereux had already come back with the rest of the school, and either cut him dead or grasped his hand. The one thing not to be suspected for an instant was that the lean oldish man, with the kind word and the abrupt manner, could possibly know the secret of a new boy's heart, and have entered already into his hopes and fears.
It was very quiet in the top dormitory. Rutter wondered what it would be like when all the boys came back. Carpenter's dormitory was downstairs, but they were all within earshot of each other. He wondered what it would have been like if Master Evan had been in that house, in that little dormitory, in the partition next his own. Master Evan! Yet he had never thought of him as anything else, much less addressed him by any other name. What if it slipped out at school! It easily might; indeed, far more easily and naturally than "Devereux." That would sound very like profanity, in his ears, and on his lips.
The new boy grinned involuntarily in the dark. It was all too absurd. He had enjoyed ample opportunity of picking up the phraseology of the class to which he had been lately elevated: "too absurd" would certainly have been their expression for the situation in which he found himself. He tried to see it from that point of view. He was not without a wry humour of his own. He must take care not to magnify a matter which nobody else might think twice about. A public school was a little world, in which two boys in different houses, even two of an age, might seldom or never meet; days might elapse before Evan as much as recognised him in the throng. But then he might refuse to have anything to do with him. But then—but then—he might tell the whole school why!
"He was our coachman's son at home!"
The coachman's son heard the incredible statement as though it had been shouted in his ear. He felt a thousand eyes on his devoted face. He knew that he lay blushing in the dark. It took all his will to calm him by degrees.
"If he does," he decided, "I'm off. That's all."
But why should he? Why should a young gentleman betray a poor boy's secret? Rutter was the stable-boy again in spirit; he might have been back in his trucklebed in the coachman's cottage at Mr. Devereux's. The transition of standpoint at any rate was complete. He had always liked Master Evan; they had been very good friends all their lives. Incidents of the friendship came back in shoals. Evan had been the youngest of a large family, and that after a gap; in one sense he had been literally the only child. Often he had needed a boy to play with him, and not seldom Jan Rutter had been scrubbed and brushed and oiled to the scalp in order to fill the proud position of that boy. He must have known how to behave himself as a little kid, though he remembered as he grew older that the admonition with which he was always dispatched from the stables used to make it more difficult; there were so many things to "think on" not to do, and somehow it was harder not to do them when you had always to keep "thinking on." Still, he distinctly remembered hearing complimentary remarks passed upon him by the ladies and gentlemen, together with whispered explanations of his manners. It was as easy to supply as to understand those explanations now; but it was sad to feel that the manners hail long ago been lost.
And, boy as he was, and dimly as may be, he did feel this: that in the beginning there had been very little to choose between Evan and himself, but that afterwards the gulf had been at one time very wide. He could recall with shame a phase in which Master Evan had been forbidden, and not without reason, to have anything to do with Jan Rutter. There was even a cruel thrashing which he had received for language learnt from the executioner's own lips; and it was characteristic of Jan that he had never quite forgiven his father for that, though he was dead, and had been a kind father on the whole. Later, the boy about the stables had acquired more sense; the eccentric vicar had taken him in hand, and spoken up for him; and nothing was said if he bowled to Master Evan after his tea, or played a makeshift kind of racquets with him in the stable-yard, so long as he kept his tongue and his harness clean. So the gulf had narrowed again of late years; but it had never again been shallow.
It was spanned, however, by quite a network of mutual offices. In the beginning Evan used to take all his broken toys to Jan, who was a fine hand at rigging ships and soldering headless horsemen. Jan's reward was the reversion of anything broken beyond repair, or otherwise without further value to its original owner. Jan was also an adept at roasting chestnuts and potatoes on the potting-shed fire, a daring manipulator of molten lead, a comic artist with a piece of putty, and the pioneer of smoking in the loft. Those were the days when Evan was suddenly forbidden the back premises, and Jan set definitely to work in the stables when he was not at the village school. Years elapsed before the cricket stage that drew the children together again as biggish boys; in the interim Jan had imbibed wisdom of more kinds than one. On discovering himself to be a rude natural left-hand bowler, who could spoil the afternoon at any moment by the premature dismissal of his opponent, he was sagacious enough to lose the art at times in the most sudden and mysterious manner, and only to recover it by fits and starts when Evan had made all the runs he wanted. And as Jan had but little idea of batting, there was seldom any bad blood over the game. But in all their relations Jan took care of that, for he had developed a real devotion to Evan, who could be perfectly delightful to one companion at a time, when everything was going well.
And then things had happened so thick and fast that it was difficult to recall them in their chronological order; but the salient points were that Rutter the elder, that fine figure on a box, with his bushy whiskers and his bold black eyes, had suddenly succumbed to pneumonia after a bout of night-work in the month of February, and that the son of an ironmaster's coachman by a northern town awoke to find himself the grandson of an East Anglian clergyman whose ancient name he had never heard before, but who sent for the lad in hot haste, to make a gentleman of him if it was not too late.
The change from the raw red outworks of an excessively modern and utilitarian town, to the most venerable of English rectories, in a countryside which has scarcely altered since the Conquest, was not appreciated as it might have been by Jan Rutter. He had nothing against the fussy architecture and the highly artificial garden of his late environment; on the contrary, he heartily preferred those familiar immaturities to the general air of complacent antiquity which pervaded his new home. That was the novelty to Jan, and there was a prejudice against it in his veins. It was the very atmosphere which had driven his mother before him to desperation. Her blood in him rebelled again; nor did he feel the effect the less because he was too young to trace the cause. He only knew that he had been happier in a saddle-room that still smelt of varnish than he was ever likely to be under mellow tiles and mediæval trees. The tutor and the strenuous training for a public school came to some extent as a relief; but the queer lad took quite a pride in showing no pride at all in his altered conditions and prospects. The new school and the new home were all one to him. He had not been consulted about either. He recognised an authority which he was powerless to resist, but there the recognition ended. There could be no question of gratitude for offices performed out of a cold sense of duty, by beings of his own blood who never so much as mentioned his father's death, or breathed his mother's name. There was a tincture of their own pride even in him.
He had heard of public schools from Evan, and even envied that gilded child his coming time at one; but, when his own time came so unexpectedly, Jan had hardened his heart, and faced the inevitable as callously as any criminal. And then at its hardest his heart had melted within him: an arbitrary and unkind fate held out the hope of amends by restoring to his ken the one creature he really wished to see again. It was true that Jan had heard nothing of Evan since the end of the Christmas holidays; but then the boys had never exchanged a written word in their lives. And the more he thought of it, the less Jan feared the worst that might accrue from their meeting on the morrow or the day after. Not that he counted on the best: not that his young blood had warmed incontinently to the prospect which had chilled it hitherto. Master Evan as an equal was still an inconceivable figure; and the whole prospect remained grey and grim; but at least there was a glint of excitement in it now, a vision of depths and heights.
So the night passed, his first at a public school. The only sounds were those that marked its passage: the muffled ticking of his one treasure, the little watch under his pillow, and the harsh chimes of an outside clock which happened to have struck ten as he opened the Midsummer List. It had since struck eleven; he even heard it strike twelve. But life was more exciting, when he fell asleep soon after midnight, than Jan Rutter had dreamt of finding it when he went to bed.