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CHAPTER XXI

OUT OF FORM

There was one great loss which the school and Jan had suffered since the previous summer. Tempted by the prospect of a free hand, unfettered by tradition, and really very lucky in his selection for the post, Dudley Relton had accepted the head-mastership of a Church of England Grammar School in Victoria. Already he was out there, doubtless at work on the raw material of future Australia teams, while Jan was left sighing for the rather masterful support which the last two captains had been apt a little to resent. Relton was not replaced by another of his still rare kind, but by the experienced captain of a purely professional county team—a fine player and a steady man—but not an inspired teacher of the game. To coach anybody in anything, it is obviously better to know a little and to be able to impart it, than to know everything but the art of transmitting your knowledge. George Grimwood had plenty of patience, but expended too much in a vain attempt to inculcate certain strokes of genius which he himself made by light of nature. He flew a bit too high for his young beginners, and he naturally encouraged Jan to persevere with his leg-breaks.

Not a day of that term but the Captain of Cricket sighed for Dudley Relton, with his confident counsels and his uncanny knowledge of the game. Especially was this the case in the early part of May, when trial matches had to be arranged without the assistance of a single outsider who knew anything about anybody's previous form. Jan found that he knew really very little about the new men himself; and Grimwood's idea of a trial match was that it was "matterless" who played for the Eleven and who for the Rest (with Grimwood). The new captain no doubt took his duties too seriously from the first, but he had looked to the new professional for more assistance outside his net. On the other hand, he was under a cross-fire of suggestions from the other fellows already in the team—of whom there were four. Now, five old choices make a fine backbone to any school eleven; but Jan could not always resist the thought that his task would have been lighter with only one or two in a position to offer him advice, especially as house feeling ran rather high in the school.

Thus old Goose, who as Captain of Football deserved his surname but little in public opinion, though very thoroughly in that of the masters, would have filled half the vacant places from his own house; and his friend Ibbotson, a steady bat but an unsteady youth, had other axes to grind. Tom Buckley, a dull good fellow who ought to have been second to Jan in authority, invariably advocated the last view confided to him. But what annoyed Jan most was the way in which Sandham ran Evan as his candidate, from the very first day of the term, pressing his claims as though other people were bent on disregarding them.

"I saw Evan play before you did, Sandham," said Jan, bluntly; "and there's nobody keener than me to see him come off."

"But you didn't see him play in the holidays. The two bowlers we had down from Lord's thought no end of him. I don't think you know what a fine bat Evan is."

"Well, I'm only too ready to learn. He's got the term before him, like all the lot of us."

"Yes, but he's the sort to put in early, Rutter; you take my word for it. He has more nerves in his little finger than you and I in our whole bodies."

"I know him," said Jan, rather tickled at having Evan of all people expounded to him.

"Then you must know that he's not the fellow to do himself justice till he gets his colours."

"Well, I can't give him them till he does, can I?"

"I don't know. You might if you'd seen him playing those professors. And then you're a friend of his, aren't you, Rutter?"

"Well, I can't give him his colours for that!"

"Nobody said you could; but you might give him a chance," returned Sandham, sharply.

"I might," Jan agreed, "even without you telling me, Sandham!"

And they parted company with mutual displeasure; for Jan resented the suggestion that he was not going to give his own friend a fair chance, even more than the strong hint to favour him as such; and Sandham, who had expected a rough dog like Rutter to be rather flattered by his confidential advice, went about warning the others that they had to deal with a Jack-in-office who wouldn't listen to a word from any of them.

Nevertheless Evan played in the first two matches, made 5, and 1, and was not given a place against the M.C.C. Jan perhaps unwisely sent him a note of very real regret, which Evan acknowledged with a sneer when they met on the Upper.

Jan had even said in his note, in a purple patch of deplorable imprudence, that on his present form he knew he ought not to be playing himself, only as captain he supposed it was his duty to do his best. He could not very well kick himself out, but if he could he would have given Evan his place that day.

Indeed, he had not proved worth his place in either of the first two matches. Scores were not expected of him, though he no longer went in absolutely last; but his bowling had given away any number of runs, while accounting for hardly any wickets at all. Jan had lost his bowling. That was the simple truth of the matter. He had squandered his natural gifts of length and spin in the sedulous cultivation of a ball which Nature had never intended him to bowl. In striving to acquire a new and conscious subtlety, his hand had lost its original and innate cunning. It is a phase in the development of every artist, but it had come upon Jan at a most inopportune stage of his career. Moreover it had come with a gust of unpopularity in itself enough to chill the ardour of a more enthusiastic cricketer than Jan Rutter.

Jan had never professed a really disinterested enthusiasm for the game. He had been a match-winning bowler, who had thoroughly enjoyed winning matches, especially when they looked as bad as lost; he could never have nursed a hopeless passion for the game, like poor old futile Chips Carpenter. But he still had the faculty of meeting his troubles with a glow rather than a shiver; and he bowled like a lonely demon against the M.C.C. It was a performance not to be named in the same breath as his olden deeds, but he did get wickets, and all of them with the old ball that whipped off the pitch with his arm. The new ball betrayed itself by an unconscious change of action—pitched anywhere—and went for four nearly every time. Nevertheless, in the obstinacy of that glowing heart of his, Jan still bowled the new ball once or twice an over. And the school were beaten by the M.C.C.

There was, however, one continual excuse for a bowler of this type that term. It was no summer; the easy wet wicket seldom dried into a really difficult one. When it did, that was not the wicket on which Jan was most dangerous; and for all his erudition in the matter, Chips was quite beside the great mark made aforetime by his friend, when he sang of the game for almost the last time in the Mag.—

"Break, break, break,
On a dead slow pitch, O Ball!
And I would that the field would butter

The catch that's the end of all!
"And the beastly balls come in——"

But the trouble was that Jan's came in so slowly on the juicy wickets that a strong back-player had leisure to put them where he liked.

Some matches were abandoned without a ball being bowled; but towards Founder's Day there was some improvement; and to insult the injured cricketer there had been several fine Sundays before that. On one of these, the last of a few dry days in early June, Chips and Jan were out for another walk together, in the direction of Yardley Wood.

It was the road on which Devereux and Sandham had overhauled them before the Easter holidays; this time they pursued it to a pleasant upland lane where they leant against some posts and rails, and looked down across a couple of great sloping meadows to the famous covert packed into the valley with more fields rising beyond. The nearest meadow was bright emerald after so much rain. The next one had already a glint of gold in the middle distance. But the fields that rose again beyond the dense, dark wood, over a mile away, were neither green nor yellow, but smoky blue.

It was the wood itself, within half that distance, that drew and held the boys' attention. It might have been a patch of dark green lichen in the venerable roof of England, and the further fields its mossy slates.

"It looks about as good a jungle as they make," said Chips. "I should go down and practise finding my way across it, if I was thinking of going out to Australia."

Chips looked round as he spoke. But Jan confined his attention to the wood.

"It'd take you all your time," he answered. "It's more like a bit of overgrown cocoanut matting than anything else."

Chips liked the simile, especially as a sign of liveliness in Jan; but it dodged the subject he was trying to introduce. The fact was that Jan's future was just now a matter of anxiety to himself and his friends. There had long been some talk of his going to Australia, to an uncle who had settled out there, whereas he himself would have given anything to go for a soldier like his other uncle. This was an impracticable dream; but Dudley Relton, consulted on the alternative, had written back to say that in his opinion Australia was the very place for such as Jan. Heriot, on the other hand, had quite other ideas; and Jan was too divided in his own mind, and too sick of the whole question, to wish to discuss it for the hundredth time with such a talker as old Chips.

"Just about room for the foxes," he went on about the covert, "and that's all."

"Is it, though!" cried Carpenter.

"Well, I'm blowed," muttered Jan.

An arresting figure had emerged from one of the rides for which Yardley Wood was celebrated. At least Jan pointed out a white mark in the dense woodland wall, and Chips could believe it was a gate, as he screwed up his eyes to sharpen their vision of the man advancing into the lower meadow. All he could make out was a purple face, a staggering gait, and a pair of wildly waving arms.

"What's up, do you suppose?" asked Chips, excitedly.

"I'm just waiting to see."

The unsteady figure was signalling and gesticulating with increasing vivacity. The dark edge of the wood threw out the faded brown of his corduroys, the incredible plum-colour of his complexion. Signals were never flown against better background.

"Something must have happened!" exclaimed Chips. "Hadn't we better go and see what it is?"

"Not quite. Don't you see who it is?"

Chips screwed his eyes into slits behind his glasses.

"Is it old Mulberry?"

"Did you ever see another face that colour?"

"You're right. But what does he want with us? Look at him beckoning! Can you hear what he's shouting out?"

A hoarse voice had reached them, roaring.

"No, and I don't want to; he's as drunk as a fool, as usual."

"I'm not so sure, Jan. I believe something's up."

"Well, we'll soon see. I'm not sure but what you're right after all."

Mulberry was nearing the nearer meadow, still waving and ranting as he came. Chips said he knew he was right, and it was a shame not to meet the fellow half-way; there might have been some accident in the wood. Chips had actually mounted the lowest of the rails against which they had been leaning, and so far Jan had made no further protest, when the drunkard halted in the golden meadow, snatched off his battered hat, and bowed so low that he nearly fell over on his infamous nose. Then he turned his back on them, and retreated rapidly to the wood, with only an occasional stumble in his hurried stride.

"Come on," said Jan with a swing of the shoulder. "I never could bear the sight of that brute. He's spoilt the view."

In a minute the boys were out of the green lane, and back upon the hilly road, one in the grip of a double memory, the other puzzling over what had just occurred.

"I can't make out what he meant by it, can you, Jan? It was as though he thought he knew us, and then found he didn't."

Jan came back to the present to consider this explanation. He not only agreed with it, but he carried it a step further on his own account.

"You've hit it! He took us for two other fellows in the school."

"In the school? I hadn't thought of that."

"Who else about here wears a topper on Sundays, except you Pollies?[1] Besides, he came near enough to see my school cap."

"But what fellows in the school would have anything to do with a creature like that?"

"I don't know," said Jan. "We're not all nobility and gentry; there's some might get him to do some dirty work or other for them. It might be a bet, or it might be a bit of poaching, for all you know."

"That doesn't sound like a præpostor," said Chips, speaking up for the Upper Sixth like a man after old Thrale's heart.

"You never know," said Jan.

The discussion was not prolonged. It was interrupted, first by a rising duet of invisible steps, and then by the apparition of Evan Devereux and his friend Sandham hurrying up the hill with glistening faces.

"Talk of the nobility and gentry!" said Chips, when the pair had passed with a greeting too curt to invite a stoppage. But Jan's chance phrase was not the only coincidence. The encounter had occurred at the very corner where the same four fellows had met by similar accident on the last Sunday of last term. Moreover Evan, like Chips, was wearing the præpostor's Sunday hat, while Sandham and Jan were in their ordinary school caps.


  1. præpostors