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CHAPTER XX

THE EVE OF OFFICE

Thenceforward the career of Jan was that of the public-school cricketer who is less readily remembered as anything else. One forgets that he had to rush out to early school like other people, and even work harder than most to keep afloat in form. It takes a dip into bound volumes of the Mag. to assure one that "solid work in the bullies" (of the old hybrid game) eventually landed him into the Fifteen, and that he was placed more than once in the Mile and the Steeplechase without ever winning either. Those were not Jan's strong points, though he took them no less seriously at the time. They kept him fit during the winter, but not through them would his name be alive to-day. Some of his bowling analyses, on the other hand, are as unforgettable as the date of the Conquest; and it is with his Eleven cap pulled down over his eyes, and a grim twinkle under the peak, that the mind's eye sees him first and almost last.

His second year in the Eleven was nearly—not quite—as successful as his first. He took even more Haileyburian and Reptonian wickets, but experienced batsmen who came down with other teams made sometimes almost light of that clockwork break from the off. The cheery Swiller (who of course owed his nickname to a notorious teetotalism) did not again fail to compile his habitual century for the Old Boys. It was a hotter summer, and the wickets just a trifle faster than those after Jan's own heart.

Still he had a fine season, and a marvellously happy one. He was now somebody on the side; not a mere upstart bowler of no previous status, rather out of it with the Eleven off the field. The new captain was a very nice fellow in one of the hill houses; he not only gave Jan his choice of ends on all occasions, and an absolute say in the placing of his field, but took his best bowler's opinion on the others and consulted him on all sorts of points. Jan found himself in a position of high authority without the cares of office, and the day came when he appreciated the distinction.

Stratten and Jellicoe were in the team for their second and last year, and the All Ages cup remained undisturbed on the baize shelf in Heriot's hall. Crabtree, moreover, was still the captain of a house in which his word was martial law. But he also was leaving; all the bigwigs were, except Jan himself. And after the holidays Heriot had to face a younger house than for some years past, with a certain colourless præpostor in command till Christmas, and only old Chips Carpenter to succeed him.

Chips was now a præpostor himself, being actually in the Upper Sixth, thanks to the deliberately modest standard of learning throughout the school. He could write Latin verses against the best of them, however, and he now edited the precious periodical to which he had so long contributed. This gave him his own standing in the school, while a really genial temperament was no longer discounted by the somewhat assertive piety of his earlier youth. And yet it was not only a touch of priggishness that Chips had outgrown; the old enthusiasm was often missing; it was his bad patch of boyhood, and he had struck it rather later than most, and was taking himself to heart under all the jokes and writings of this period.

Chips was still in no eleven at all; he thought he ought to have been in one on the Middle, at any rate, and perhaps he was right. He was a very ardent wicket-keeper, who had incurred a certain flogging in his saintliest days by cutting a detention when engaged to keep wicket on the Lower. In the winter months, with his new Lillywhite usually concealed about his person, he used still to dream of runs from his own unhandy bat; but in his heart he must have known his only place in the game, as student and trumpeter of glories beyond his grasp. Was he not frank about it in his lament for the holiday task he had failed to learn "in the holidays, while there was time?"

"But 'tis no use lamenting. What is done
You couldn't undo if you tried . . .
O, if only they'd set us some Wisden,
Or Lillywhite' s Guide!"

Many fellows liked old Chips nowadays, and more took a charitable view of his writings; but few would have picked him out as a born leader of men, and he certainly had no practice in the little dormitory at the top of the house. It was rather by way of being a cripples' ward, for Carpenter was still debarred from football by his bronchitis, and the small boy Eaton, who was not so young as he looked, but an amusing rogue, had trumped up a heart of the type imputed to Jan Rutter when he fainted in the Spook's mathematical. Eaton was a shameless "sloper," but he had heaps of character, and he saved the prospective captain of the house some embarrassment by leaving at Christmas.

Chips had taken to photography as a winter pursuit; and so rare was the hobby in those days that for some time he was the only photographer in the school. Eaton accompanied him on many a foray, and swung the tripod while Chips changed the case containing the camera from hand to hand. They obtained excellent negatives of some of the delightful old churches in the neighbourhood, including the belfry tower at Burston, seen through its leafless beeches, and the alabaster monument in the chancel at Stoke Overton. But by far the most popular success was the speaking picture of Mr. and Mrs. Maltby, on the doorstep of their famous resort in the market-place; to satisfy the vast demand for that masterpiece, the præpostor was placed in a bit of a quandary, but young Eaton borrowed the negative and did a roaring-trade at sixpence a print.

In the meantime Evan Devereux had been elected Captain of Games: a most important officer in the Easter term, the games in question being nothing of the kind, except in an Olympic sense, but just the ordinary athletic sports. The Captain of Games arranged the heats, fixed the times, acted as starter, superintended everything and exercised over all concerned a control that just suited Evan. He proved himself a born master of ceremonies, with a jealous eye for detail, but a little apt to fuss and strut at the last moment on a course cleared of the common herd. He dressed well, and had a pointed way of taking off his hat to the masters' ladies. There were those, of course, who crudely described his mannerisms as mere "roll"; but on the whole it would have been hard to find a keener or more capable Captain of Games.

The office was usually held by a member of the Eleven or of the Fifteen. Evan was in neither yet, though on the edge of both. On the other hand, he was very high in the Upper Sixth; for he had lost neither his facility for acquiring knowledge, nor his inveterate horror of laying himself open to rebuke.

It is at first sight a little odd that such a blameless boy should ever have made a friend of one Sandham, a big fellow low down in the school, and in another house. Sandham, however, was a handsome daredevil of strong but questionable character, and it suited him to have a leading præpostor for his friend. One hesitates to add that he was a younger son of a rather prominent peer, lest the statement be taken as in any way accounting for Evan's side of the friendship. It is only the thousandth boy, however, who troubles himself to think twice about another fellow's people, high or low. Of all beings boys are in this respect the least snobbish, and Evan Devereux was of all schoolboys the last to embody an exception to that or any other general rule. Sandham was not the only fellow whose hereditary quality was denoted by a "Mr." in the list; the others were nobodies in the school, and neither Evan nor anybody else made up to them. But to the aristocracy of athletics he could bow as low as his neighbour, and his friend Sandham was an athlete of the first water. Half-back in the Fifteen, as good a bat as there was in the Eleven, and a conjuror at extra cover, the gifted youth must needs signalise his friend's Captaincy of Games by adding the Athletic Championship to his bag of honours. Winner of the Steeplechase, Hurdles, Hundred-yards, Quarter-mile and Wide-jump, not only was Sandham Champion but the rest were nowhere in the table of marks. It must be added that he wore his halo with a rakish indifference which lent some colour to the report that "Mr." Sandham had been removed from Eton before old Thrale gave him another chance.

"He's a marvellous athlete, whatever else he is," said Chips to Jan, on the last Sunday of the Easter term.

"I'm blowed if I know what else he is," replied Jan, "but I should be sorry to see quite so much of him if I were Evan."

"Not you," cried Chips, "if you were Evan! You'd jolly well see all you could of anybody at the top of the tree!"

"Look here, Chips, dry up! Evan's pretty near the top himself."

"Are you going to stick him in the Eleven?"

"If he's good enough, and I hope he will be."

"Of course it's expected of you."

"Who expects it?"

"Sandham for one, and Devereux himself for another. Didn't you see how they stopped to make up to you when they overtook us just now?"

"I don't know what you mean. Evan's a friend of mine, and of course I've seen a lot of Sandham. They only asked if I was going to get any practice in the holidays."

"They took good care to let you know they were going to have some. So Evan's going to stay with Sandham's people, is he?"

"It was Sandham said that."

"And they're going to have a professor down from Lord's!"

"Well, they might be worse employed."

"They might so. I should rather like to know what they're up to at this very minute."

The scene was one of the many undulating country roads that radiated from the little town like tentacles. Chips and Jan were strolling lazily between the jewelled hedge-rows of early April; the other two had overtaken them rather suddenly, walking very fast, and had stopped, as if on second thoughts, to make perfunctory conversation. Evan had turned rather red, as he still would in a manner that must have been a trial to him. There had followed the few words about the holidays to which Chips had alluded, but in which he had not joined. He also had his old faults in various stages of preservation; touchiness was one of them, jealousy another. But his last words had been called forth by nothing more or worse than a fresh sight of Evan and Sandham on the sky-line, climbing a gate into a field.

"I votes we go some other way," said Jan. "I don't like spying on chaps, even when it's only a case of a cigarette."

"No more do I," his friend agreed, thoughtfully. And another way they went. But the conversation languished between them, until rather suddenly Carpenter ran his arm through Jan's.

"Isn't it beastly to be so near the end of our time, Tiger? Only one more term!"

"It is a bit," assented Jan, lukewarmly. "I know you feel it, but I often think I'd have done better to have left a year ago."

Chips looked round at him as they walked.

"And you Captain of Cricket!"

"That's why," said Jan, in the old grim way.

"But, my dear chap, it's by far the biggest honour you can possibly have here!"

"I know all that, Chipsy; but there's a good deal more in it than honour and glory. There's any amount to do. You're responsible for all sorts of things. Bruce used to tell me last year. It isn't only writing out the order, nor yet changing your bowling and altering the field."

"No; you've first got to catch your Eleven."

"And not only that, but all the other elevens on the Upper, and captains for both the other grounds. You're responsible for all the lot, and you've got to make up your mind that you can't please everybody."

Chips said nothing. Some keen præpostor was invariably made Captain of the Middle. Chips would have loved the unexalted post; but as he had never been in any eleven at all, even that distinction would be denied him by a rigid adherence to tradition. And evidently Jan had no intention of favouring his friends, if indeed this particular idea had crossed his mind.

"One ought to know every fellow in the school by sight," he continued. "But I don't know half as many as I did. Do you remember how you were always finding out fellows' names, Chips, our first year or so? You didn't rest till you could put a name to everybody above us in the school; but I doubt we neither of us take much stock of the crowd below."

"I find the house takes me all my time, and you must feel the same way about the Eleven, only much more so. By Jove, but I'd give all I'm ever likely to have on earth to change places with you!"

"And I'm not sure that I wouldn't change places with you. Somehow things always look different when you really get anywhere," sighed Jan, discovering an eternal truth for himself.

"But to captain the Eleven!"

"To make a good captain! That's the thing."

"But you will, Jan; look at your bowling."

"It's not everything. You've got to drive your team; it's no good only putting your own shoulder to the wheel. And they may be a difficult team to drive."

"Sandham may. And if Devereux——"

"Sandham's not the only one," interrupted Jan, who was not talking gloomily, but only frankly as he felt. "There's Goose and Ibbotson—who're in already—and Chilton who's bound to get in. A regular gang of them, and I'm not in it, and never was."

"But you're in another class!" argued Carpenter, forgetting himself entirely in that affectionate concern for a friend which was his finest point. "You're one of the very best bowlers there ever was in the school, Jan."

"I may have been. I'm not now. But I might be again if I could get that leg-break."

"You shall practise it every day on our lawn when you come to us these holidays."

"Thanks, old chap. Everybody says it's what I want. That uncle of mine said so the very first match we played together, when he was home again last year."

"Well, he ought to know."

And the conversation declined to a highly technical discussion in which Chips Carpenter, the rather puny præpostor who could never get into any eleven, held his own and more; for the strange fact was that he still knew more about cricket than the captain of the school team. At heart, indeed, he was the more complete cricketer of the two; for Jan was just a natural left-hand bowler, only too well aware of his limitations, and in some danger of losing his gift through the laborious cultivation of quite another knack which did not happen to be his by nature.

The trouble had begun about the time of the last Old Boys' Match, when Jan had heard more than enough of the break which was not then at his command; egged on by Captain Ambrose in the summer holidays, he had tried it with some success in village cricket, and had thought about it all the winter. Now especially it was the question uppermost in his mind. Was he going to make the ball break both ways this season? The point mattered more than the constitution of the Eleven, Evan's inclusion in it (much as that was to be desired), or the personal relations of the various members. If only Jan himself could bowl better than ever, or even up to his first year's form, then he would carry the whole side to victory on his shoulders.