Open main menu
 

CHAPTER XXIII

INTERLUDE IN A STUDY

It was in Jan's study, now of course one of the large ones up the steps at the end of the passage. Chips was in there, jawing away about the match, and the prospect of a wicket after Jan's own heart at last. Jan sat under him with the tolerant twinkle which was quite enough to encourage Chips to go on and on. It was tolerance tinged with real affection, especially of late months; and never had captain of a house a more invaluable ally. If Chips raised the voice of command, it was the thews and sinews in the next study that presented themselves to the insubordinate mind as an argument against revolt. And old Chips was man enough not to trade on this, and yet to recognise in his heart the true source of nearly all the power that he contrived to wield. And the house as a whole was in satisfactory case, because the two big fellows were such friends.

Yet Jan seldom dropped into Chips's study, and never dragged him out for walks, but preferred to go alone unless Chips took the initiative. And this was his delicacy, not a cricketer's superiority; he was really afraid of seeming to fall back on old Chips as the second string to Evan that he really was; for, of course, it was just in these days that Evan had taken up with Sandham, after having honoured Jan off and on since his first year in the Eleven. And yet Sandham had only to vanish to the Sanatorium, for Evan to come round to Jan's study directly after breakfast, this second morning of the Old Boys' Match!

Chips retired with speaking spectacles. They flashed out plainly that Evan had no shame; but the funny thing was that Evan did for once look very much ashamed of himself, as he shut the door with a mumbled apology, and so turned awkwardly to Jan. He had reddened characteristically, and his words ran together in a laboured undertone that betrayed both effort and precaution.

"I say, Jan, do you think there's any chance of our getting them out again this morning?"

"This morning!" Jan grinned. "Why, they've got to get us out first, Evan. And they may make us follow on."

"You'll save that, won't you?"

"I hope so, but you never know. We want other five runs. Suppose we get them, it'd be a job to run through a side like that by tea-time, let alone lunch."

"You did it two years ago."

"Well, that's not now. But what's the hurry, Evan, if we can save the match?"

"Oh, nothing much; only—I'm afraid I shan't be able to field after lunch."

Evan had floundered to his point over some stiff impediment. He was not even looking at Jan, who jumped out of his chair with one glance at Evan.

"I knew it!"

"What did you know?"

"You're not fit. You weren't yesterday, but now it's as plain as a pikestaff. You're in for these infernal measles!"

It was a fair deduction from a face so flushed and such heavy eyes: again Evan dropped them, and shook a head that looked heavier still.

"Oh, no, I'm not. I rather wish I was!" he muttered bitterly.

"Why? What's happened? What's wrong?"

Evan flung up his hangdog head in sudden desperation.

"I'm in a frightful scrape!"

"Not you, Evan!"

"I am, though."

"What sort of scrape?"

"I don't know how to tell you. I don't know what you'll think."

Jan got him into the arm-chair, and took the other one himself. It was something to feel that Evan cared what he thought.

"Come! I don't suppose it's anything so very bad," said he, encouragingly.

"Bad enough to prevent me from playing to-day, I'm afraid."

"You surely don't mean—that anybody's dead?"

"I know I wish I was!"

"It isn't that, then?"

"No; but I've got to meet somebody at two o'clock. I simply must," declared Evan, with an air of dull determination.

"Some of your people?" asked Jan, and supplied the negative himself before Evan could shake his head. "I thought not. Then do you mind telling me who it is?"

No answer from Evan but averted looks.

"Well, where is it that you've got to meet them?"

"Yardley Wood."

Jan was there in a flash; he was looking over the posts and rails at the besotted figure waving and beckoning in the lower meadow; he was meeting Sandham and Evan, hurrying up the lane, not five minutes afterwards.

"Is it old Mulberry?" asked Jan, with absolute certainty that it was.

"What do you know about him?" cried Evan suspiciously.

Jan forced a conciliatory grin. "I thought everybody knew something about Mulberry," he said.

"But what makes you think of him the moment I mention Yardley Wood?"

"I saw him come out the other Sunday."

"I daresay. He hides there half the summer. But what's that got to do with me?"

"He waved to us by mistake, and the next thing was that we met you and Sandham coming up as we went down."

"So you put two and two together on the spot?"

"Well, more or less, between us."

"Oh, Carpenter, of course! He was with you, wasn't he?"

"Yes. But Chips wouldn't let out a word, any more than I would, Evan. Not," added Jan, "that there's anything to let out in what you've told me as yet. . . Is there, Evan?" The opportunity afforded by a pointed pause had not been taken. "You may as well tell me now you've got so far—but don't you if you've thought better of it." There again was the studious delicacy that was growing on Jan, that had always been in his blood.

Evan flung up his head once more.

"I'll tell you, of course. I came to tell you. It's nothing awful after all. There's no harm in it, really; only you can do things at home, quite openly, with your people, that become a crime if you do them here."

"That's true enough," said Jan, who still smoked his pipe in Norfolk. He felt relieved. Evidently it was some such trifle that law-abiding Evan was magnifying in his constitutional horror of a row.

Jan asked outright if it was smoking, if Mulberry had been getting them cigars, and was at once informed eagerly that he had. But that was not all; the old tell-tale face was scarlet with the rest. And out it all came at last.

"The fact is, Sandham and I have had a bit of a spree now and again in Yardley Wood. Champagne. Not a drop too much, of course, or you'd have heard of it, and so should we. No more harm in it than if you had it in the holidays. I know at one time we used to have champagne every night at home. Heaps of people do; they certainly did at Lord Allenborough's. And yet it's such a frightful crime to touch it here!"

"I suppose Mulberry found out?"

"No—he got it for us."

"I see. And I suppose you paid him through the nose?" continued Jan at length. He would have been the first to take Evan's lenient view of such a peccadillo, if Evan himself had said less in extenuation. But just as Chips Carpenter would dry Jan's genial currents by the overflow of his own, so even Evan had taken the excuses out of his mouth, and left it shut awhile.

"That's just it," replied Evan. "We have paid a wicked price, but we haven't quite squared up, and now it's all falling on me."

"How much do you still owe him?"

"Between four and five pounds."

Jan looked grave; any such sum seemed a great deal to him.

"Can't you raise it from your people?" he suggested.

"No, I can't. They're all abroad, for one thing."

"What about Sandham and his lot?"

"I can't write to him, you see. Anybody might get hold of it; besides, there's no time."

"He's pressing you, is he?"

"I've got to pay up this afternoon."

"The moment Sandham's out of the way!"

Jan's eyes had brightened; but Evan was too miserable to meet them any more; he could speak more freely without facing his confessor. His tone was frankly injured, ingenuously superior, as though the worst of all was having to come with his troubles to the likes of Jan, if he would kindly bear that in mind.

Details came out piecemeal, each with its covering excuse. As some debaters fight every inch in controversy, so Evan went over the humiliating ground planting flags of defiant self-justification. The business had begun last term; and still Sandham had been easy Champion; that showed how harmless the whole thing had been. But when Jan asked how much Mulberry had been paid already, the amount amazed him. Evan had given it without thinking; but when asked whether he and Sandham had got through all that alone, he refused to answer, saying that was their business, and turning again very red. At any rate he was not going to drag in anybody else, he declared, as though he were standing up to old Thrale himself, and by way of suffering the extreme penalty for his silence.

Jan saw exactly what had happened. It was Sandham who had led Evan into mischief; but that was the last thing of all that Evan could be expected to admit. Between them these two might have led others; but all that mattered to Jan was the old story of the strong villain and the weak-kneed accomplice. Of course it was the villain who escaped the consequences; and very hard it seemed even to Jan. Sandham was reported to have his own banking account; he could have written a cheque for four or five pounds without feeling it; probably he had refused to do so, probably the whole thing was a dexterous attempt to blackmail Evan while his masterful friend was out of reach.

Jan asked a few questions, and extracted answers which left him nodding to himself with rare self-satisfaction. On Evan they had an opposite effect. Unless he went with the money to the wood, before three o'clock, the villainous Mulberry was "coming in to blab the whole thing out to Jerry." And he would do it, too, a low wretch like that, with nothing to lose by it! And what would that mean but being bunked in one's last term—but breaking one's people's hearts—Jan knew them—as well as one's own?

Evan's voice broke as it was. He laid his forehead on his hand, thus hiding and yet trying to save his face; and Jan could not help a thrill of joy at the sight of Evan, of all people, come to him, of all others, for aid in such a pass. He was ashamed of feeling as he did; and yet it was no ignoble sense of power, much less of poetic justice or revenge, that touched and fired this still very simple heart. It was only the final conviction that here at last was his chance of doing something for Evan, something to win a new place in his regard, and to efface for ever the subtly tenacious memory of the old ignominious footing between them. That was all Jan felt, as he sat and looked, with renewed compassion, yet with just that thrilling human perception of his own great ultimate gain, at the bowed head and abject figure of him whom he had loved and envied all his days.

"He doesn't happen to have put his threat into black and white, I suppose?"

Jan felt that he was asking a stupid question. Of course he would have heard of anything of the kind before this. He did not realise the break that Evan's vanity was still putting on Evan's tongue. But when a dirty little document was produced, even now reluctantly, and found to contain that very word "blab," with the time, place and exact amount stipulated, Jan soon saw why it had not been put in before. It referred to a broken appointment on the day of writing. That was another thing Evan had not mentioned. It accounted for his strange unreadiness to play in the match, as well as for the threats accompanying the impudently definite demand.

"This is what he asks, eh? So this would settle him?"

"There's no saying," replied Evan, doubtfully. "I thought we had settled, more or less."

"More or less is no good. Have you nothing to show by way of a receipt?"

"Sandham may have. I know he stumped up a lot that very Sunday you saw us."

"Then what did you think of doing, if you did get out to see him after dinner?"

"Stave him off till the holidays, I suppose."

"You didn't mean to stump up any more?"

"No, I'm hard up, that's the point."

"And you'd have staved him off by promising him a good bit more if he'd wait?"

"By hook or crook!" cried Evan, desperately. "But unless I can get away from the match, I'm done."

Jan put on an air of sombre mystery, lightened only by the crafty twinkle in his eyes. Chips would have read it as Jan's first step to the rescue. But Evan missed the twinkle, and everything else except the explicit statement:

"You can't get away, Evan."

"Then it's all up with me!"

"Not yet a bit."

"But the fellow means it!"

"Let him mean it."

"If I'm not there——"

"Somebody else may take your place."

"In the field? My dear fellow——"

"No, not in the field, Evan, nor yet at the crease. In Yardley Wood!"

Jan allowed himself a smile at last. And Chips could not have been quicker than Evan to see his meaning now.

"Who will you get to go, Jan?" he was asking eagerly without more ado.

"You must leave that to me, Evan."

"One of the Old Boys?"

"If I'm to help you, Evan, you must leave it all to me.

"Of course you know so many more of them than I do. It's your third year. . . ."

Evan was unconsciously accounting for an enviable influence among the young men with the famous colours. To be sure, Jan was now a Pilgrim himself; he was already one of them. Jan Rutter! But it was certainly decent of him, very decent indeed, especially when they had seen so little of each other all the year. Evan was not unaware that he had treated Jan rather badly, that Jan was therefore treating him really very well. It enabled him to overlook the rather triumphant air of secrecy which it pleased Jan to adopt. After all, it was perhaps better that he should not know beforehand who was actually going to step into the breach. The chances were that almost any Old Boy, remembering that blackguard Mulberry, would be only too glad to give him a fright, if not to lend the money to pay him off.

But even Evan was not blinded, by these lightening onsiderations, to his immediate obligations to Jan.

"I never expected you to help me like this," he said frankly. "I only came to ask you about this afternoon. I—I was thinking of shamming seedy!"

Jan seemed struck with the idea; he said, more than once, that it was a jolly good idea; but there would have been a great risk of his being seen, and now thank goodness all that was unnecessary. If only they could first save the follow, and then get those Old Boys out quickly before lunch! That would be worth doing still, Jan hastened to add, as though aware of some inconsistency in his remarks. His eyes were alight. He looked capable of all his old feats, as he stood up in the litter from which a fag could not cleanse the Augean study.

But Evan fell into a shamefaced mood; he was getting a sad insight into himself as compared with Jan; his self-conceit was suffering even on the surface. Jan would never have fallen into Mulberry's clutches; he would have kept him in his place, as indeed Sandham had done; either of those two were capable of coping with fifty Mulberries, whereas Evan had to own to himself that he was no match for one. He may even have realised, even at that early stage of his career, that in all the desperate passes of life he was a natural follower and a ready leaner on others. If he was not so very ready to lean on Jan, there were reasons for his reluctance. . . . And at least one reason did him credit.

"I don't know why you should want to do all this for me," he murmured on their way down to the ground, "It isn't as if I'd ever done anything fur you!"

"Haven't you!" said Jan. They were arm-in-arm once more, to his huge inward joy.

"I'll do anything in the world after this. I'll never forget it in all my days."

"You've done quite enough as it is."

"I wish I knew what!" sighed Evan, honestly.

And he seemed quite startled when Jan reminded him.