Fathers of Men/Chapter 29
CHIPS AND JAN
Anybody entering the room just then would have smelt bad blood between the fellow looking out of the window and the other fellow sitting on the edge of the bed. Jan's whole attitude was one of injury, and Chips looked thoroughly guilty of a grave offence against the laws of friendship. Even when Jan turned round it was with the glare which is the first skin over an Englishman's wound; only a hoarse solicitude of tone confessed the wound self-inflicted, and the visitor a bringer of balm hardly to be borne.
"I suppose you know what's happened, Chips?"
"I don't know much."
"Not that I'm—going?"
"That's about all."
"Isn't it enough, Chips?"
"No. I want to know why."
Jan's look grew searching.
"If Heriot told you so much——"
"He didn't till I pressed him."
"Why should you have pressed him, Chips? What had you heard?"
"Only something they were saying in the Sixth Form Room; there's nothing really got about yet."
"You might tell me what they're saying! I—I don't want to be made out ever so much worse than I am."
That was not quite the case. He wanted to know whether there was any movement, or even any strong feeling, in his favour; but it was a sudden want, and he could not bring himself to clothe it in words. It was his prototype's hope of a reprieve, entertained with as little reason, more as a passing irresistible thought.
"They say there was nothing the matter with you yesterday afternoon."
"No more there was. I was shamming."
Chips experienced something of Heriot's revulsion at this avowal.
"They say you went off—to—meet somebody."
"How did they get hold of that, I should like to know?"
Of course the masters had been talking; why should they not? But then why had Heriot pretended that nobody was to know just yet? Why had Haigh talked about the worst cases being kept quiet? Chips allayed rising resentment by saying he believed it had come through a fly-man, whereupon Jan admitted that it was perfectly true.
"They say you drove out to Yardley Wood."
"So I did."
"It was madness!"
Jan shrugged his powerful shoulders.
"I took my risks, and I was bowled out, that's all."
Chips looked at him; the cynically glib admissions were ceasing to grate on him, were beginning to excite the incredulity with which he had first heard of the suicidal escapade. This shameless front was not a bit like Jan, whatever he had done, and Chips who knew him best was the first to perceive it.
"I wish I knew why you'd done it!" he exclaimed ingenuously.
"What do they say about that?" inquired Jan.
"Well, there was some talk about—about a bit of a—romance!"
Jan's grin made him look quite himself.
"Nicely put, Chips! But you can contradict that on the best authority."
"Now it's got about that it's a drinking row."
"That's more like it."
"It's what most fellows believe," said Chips, with questionable tact.
"Oh, is it? Think I look the part, do they?"
"Not you, Jan——"
Chips did not like going on, but was obliged to now.
"Well, some fellows seem to think that—except yesterday, of course—your bowling——"
"Has suffered from it, eh? Go on, Chips! I like this. I like it awfully!"
And this time Jan laughed outright, but did not look himself.
"It's not what I say, Jan! I wouldn't hear of it."
"Very kind of you, I'm sure; but I shouldn't wonder if you thought it all the same."
"I don't, I tell you!"
"I wouldn't blame you if you did. How things fit in! Any other circumstantial evidence against me?"
Chips hesitated again.
"Out with it, man. I may as well know."
"Well, some say—but only some—that's why you've been going about so much by yourself!"
"To go off on the spree alone?"
Chips nodded. "You see, you often refused to go out even with me," he said reproachfully; not as though he believed the worst himself, but in a tone of excuse for those who did.
Jan could only stare. His unsociability had been due of course to his unpopularity with his Eleven, his estrangement from Evan, and his delicacy about falling back on Chips. And even Chips could not see that for himself, but saw if anything with the other idiots! This was too much for Jan; it made him look more embittered than was wise if he still wished to be taken as the only villain of the piece. But the fact was that for the moment he was forgetting to act.
"Solitary drinking!" he ejaculated. "Bad case, isn't it?"
"It isn't a case at all," returned Chips, looking him in the face. "I don't believe a word of the whole thing! Even if it's true that you went out to Yardley to meet Mulberry——"
"Who says that?"
"Oh, it's one of the things that's got about. But I can jolly well see that if you did go to meet him it wasn't on your own account!"
Confound old Chips! He was looking as if he could fairly see into a fellow's skull, and very likely making a fellow look in turn as big a fool as he felt!
"Of course you know more about it than I do!" sneered Jan, desperately. "But do you suppose I'd do a thing like that for anybody but myself?"
"I believe you'd do a jolly sight more," replied Chips, "for Evan Devereux!"
Jan made no reply beyond an unconvincing little laugh; of plain denial he looked as incapable as he actually was, in his surmise at so shrewd a thrust.
"The whole thing was for Devereux!" pursued Carpenter with explosive conviction. "What about him and Sandham out at Yardley the other Sunday, when old Mulberry beckoned to us by mistake? Obviously he mistook us for them; I thought so at the time, but you wouldn't have it, just because it was Devereux! What about his coming to you yesterday morning, in such a stew about something? Oh, I didn't listen, but anybody could spot that something was up. What a fool I was not to see the whole thing from the first! Why, of course you'd never have touched that money for yourself, let alone planting out the thing I know you value more than anything else you've got!"
Still Jan said nothing, even when explicitly challenged to deny it if he could. He only stood still and looked mysterious, while he racked his brain for something to explain his look along with those other appearances which Chips had interpreted so unerringly. He felt in a great rage with Chips, and yet somehow in nothing like such a rage as he had been in before. It had taken old Chips to see that he was not such a blackguard as he had made himself out; that was something to remember in the silly fool's favour; he was the only one, when all was said and done, to believe the best of a fellow in spite of everything, even in spite of the fellow himself.
Condemned men cannot afford to send their only friends to blazes. But Chips soon went the way to get himself that happy dispatch.
"Why should you do all this for Evan Devereux?" he demanded.
"All what, Chips? I never said I'd done anything."
"Oh, all right, you haven't! But what's he ever done for you?"
"Name something—anything—he's ever done except when you were in a position to do more for him!"
And then Jan did tell him where to go. But Chips only laughed in his face, with the spendthrift courage of a fellow who did not as a rule show enough, though he had it all the same when his blood was up. And now he was in as great a passion as Jan, and just for a moment it was as fine a passion too.
"You start cursing me because you haven't any answer. Curse away, and come to blows if you like; you shan't shift me out of this until I've said what I've got to say, not if I have to hang on to this bedstead and bring the place about our ears!"
"Don't be a fool, Chips," said Jan, perceiving that he required self-control for two. "You know you've always had a down on Evan."
"Well, perhaps I have. Doesn't he deserve it? What did he ever do for you your first term—though he'd known you at home?"
"That was no reason why he should do anything. What could he do? We were in different houses and different forms; besides, I was higher up in the school, as it happened, as well as a bit older."
"That's nothing; still I rather agree with you, though he was here first, remember. But what about your second term or my third? He overtook us each in turn, but did he ever go out of his way to say a civil word to either of us, though he'd known us both before?"
"Yes; he did."
"Yes, he did! When you'd made a little bit of a name for yourself over the Mile he was out for a walk with you in a minute. That's the fellow all over, and has been all the time. I remember how it was when you got in the Eleven, if you don't!"
But Jan did remember, and it made him think. Like most boys who are good at games, he had acquired in their practice great fairness of mind. He thought Chips was unfair to Evan, and yet he wanted to be fair to Chips, whom he recognised in his heart as by far the sounder fellow of the two. Chips was the loyal, unswerving, faithful friend who not only bore a friend's infirmities but blew his trumpet as few would blow their own. But he had without doubt some of the usual defects of such qualities; he was touchy, he could be jealous, though Jan was not the one to tell him that; but on the touchiness he dwelt with a tact made tender by his own trouble.
"The fact is, Chips, you're such a good old chap yourself that you want everybody else to be the same as you. You wouldn't hurt a fellow's feelings, so you can't forgive the chaps who do it without thinking. Not one in a hundred makes as much of things as you do, or takes things so to heart. But that's because you're what you are, Chips; you oughtn't to be down on everybody who doesn't happen to be built as straight and true."
"Don't be too sure that I'm either!" exclaimed Carpenter, flinching unaccountably.
"You're only about the straightest chap in the whole school, Chips. Everybody knows that, I should think."
"I've a good mind to set everybody right!" cried Carpenter, worked up to more than he had dreamed of saying, a wild impulse burning in his eyes. "I can't see you bunked for nothing, when others including me have done all sorts of things to deserve it. Yes, Jan, including me! You think I've been so straight! So I was in the beginning; so I am now, if you like, but I've not been all the time. Don't stop me. I won't be stopped; but that's about all I've got to say. I've always wanted you to know. You're the only fellow in the place I care much for, who cares much for me, though not so much——"
"Yes I do, Chips, yes I do! I never thought so much of you as I do this minute . . . I don't say it never crossed my mind . . . But don't you make yourself out worse than you ever were, even to me!"
"I don't want to . . . It didn't go on so long, and it's all over now . . . But I shall get the præpostor's medal when I leave—unless I'm man enough to refuse it—and you've been bunked for standing by a fellow who never would have stood by you!"
"That's where you're wrong, Chips," said Jan, gently.
"No, I'm not. It's the other way about."
"You don't know how Evan's stood by me all these years."
Carpenter maintained a strange silence—very strange in him, just then especially—a silence that made him ashamed and yet exultant.
"Do you know, Chips?"
"It depends what you think he's done."
"I'll tell you," said Jan, with sudden yet quiet resolution, and a lift of his head as though the peak of a cap had been pulled down too far. "I had a secret when I came here, and Evan knew it but nobody else. It was a big secret—about my people and me too—and if it had come out then I'd have bolted like a rabbit. I know now that it wouldn't have mattered as much as I thought it would; things about your people, or anything that ever happened anywhere else, don't hurt or help much in a place like this. It's what you can do and how you take things that matters here. But I didn't know that then and I don't suppose Evan did either. Yet he kept a quiet tongue in his head about everything he did know. And that's what I owe him—all it meant to me then, and does still in a way—his holding his tongue like that!"
Still Chips held his; and now Jan was the prey of doubts which his own voice had silenced. All that the familiar debt had gained by clear statement was counteracted by the stony demeanour of its first auditor.
"Did he ever tell you, Chips?"
"The very first time I saw him, our very first term!"
"Not—not about my father and—the stables—and all that?"
Jan threw himself back four years.
"Yet when I sounded you at the time——"
"I told you the lie of my life!" said Chips. "I couldn't help myself. But this is the truth!"
And Jan took it with the enviable composure which had only deserted him when Evan was being traduced; it was several seconds before he made a sound, still standing there with his back to the bedroom window; and then the sound was very like a chuckle.
"Well, at any rate he can't have told many!"
"I don't suppose he did."
"Then he picked the right one, Chipsy, and I still owe him almost as much as I do you."
"You owe old Heriot more than either of us."
"Heriot! Why? Does he know?"
"He knew all along, but he never meant you to know that he knew. He guessed how you'd feel it if you did; he guesses everything! Why, that very first Saturday, if you remember, when Devereux turned up for call-over and began telling me the minute afterwards, it was as though Bob Heriot simply saw what he was saying! He pounced upon us both that instant, dropped a pretty plain hint on the spot, but asked us to breakfast next morning and then absolutely bound us over never to let out a single word about you in all our days here!"
"So Evan'd been talking before he told me he never would," mused Jan. "Well, I can't blame him so much for that. I'm not sure, Chips, that I should have done so differently now even if I'd known. I liked him even in the old days when we were kids. Must you go?"
The question was asked in a very wistful tone. Chips felt, rather uneasily, that in these few minutes he had ousted Evan and taken his old place. He could not help it if he had. It had not been his intention on coming into the room. It was no use regretting it now.
"I told Heriot I wouldn't stay very long," he answered. "I'll get him to let me come up again."
"And you won't tell him anything about Evan?"
"How do you mean?"
"You won't tell him a single word about our having seen him and Sandham that day?"
Chips was silent.
"Surely you wouldn't go getting them bunked as well as me?"
"I should think not! It wouldn't do any good, you see, even if you did," said Jan, suddenly discovering why he had looked so mysterious some minutes back. "You forget that Evan and I used to go about together quite as much as he and Sandham have been doing all this year. What if it was me that first started playing the fool in Yardley Wood? What if old Mulberry knows more against me than anybody else? It wouldn't do me much good to put them in the same boat, would it?"
"But does he, Jan, honestly?"
"Honestly, I'm sorry to say."
"It's too awful!"
"But you will hold your tongue about the other two, won't you, Chips?"
"If you like."
"Very well. I promise."
But Chips Carpenter was reckoning without Mr. Heriot, a magnificent schoolmaster, but a Grand Inquisitor at getting things out of fellows when he liked. To his credit, he never did like a task which some schoolmasters seem to enjoy; but he was not the man to shirk a distasteful duty. Carpenter had long outstayed his leave upstairs, and the spare room was directly over Heriot's study. Voices had been raised at one time to an angry pitch, and this had set the man below thinking, but certainly not listening more than he could help. Nor had he caught a single word; but he had to remember that Carpenter's pretext for the visit was a private money matter, and other circumstances connected with Jan's finances.
He waylaid Chips on his way down.
"Well, Carpenter, you've been a long time?"
"I'm afraid I have, sir."
"I gave you ten minutes and you took five-and-twenty. However, I hope you got your money?"
"What money, sir?"
"Didn't you go to collect a private debt?"
"I don't know how you knew, sir."
"I happen to know that Rutter had a good deal of money on Saturday, and that he never as a rule has half enough."
"Yes, sir; he paid me back every penny," said Chips, without attempting to escape.
He was in fact extremely interested in this question of the money, which had been driven out of his mind by other matters, only to return now with evident and yet puzzling significance. He was wondering whether this was not a point on which he could confide honourably in Heriot, since Jan had laid no embargo on the subject. He might only have forgotten to do so—Chips had a high conception of honour in such matters—but anything to throw light on the mystery before it was too late!
"Now, you and Rutter have been great friends, haven't you, Carpenter?"
It was the skilful questioner proceeding on his own repugnant lines.
"Yes, sir, I think we have, on the whole."
"Has he ever borrowed money from you before?"
"Never a penny, sir."
"Had he rather strong principles on the point?"
"I used to think he had, sir."
"Do you think he'd break them for his own sake, Carpenter?"
"No, sir, I don't! I—I practically told him so," replied Chips, after considering whether he was free to say as much.
"I've only one other question to ask you, Carpenter. You told me, before I let you go up, that several of the leading fellows know something about what's happened."
"They do, sir."
"Can you think of anybody who doesn't know, and perhaps ought to know, while there's time?"
Chips felt his heart leap within him, only to sink under the weight of his last promise to Jan; he shrank from the very mention of Evan's name after such a solemn undertaking as that. And yet Jan came first.
"Well, sir, I—could."
"Then won't you?"
"If you wouldn't ask me for my reasons, sir."
Heriot smiled in incipient inquisitorial triumph. It was a wry smile over a wry job, but he had come to his feet, and his spectacles were flashing formidably. The poor lad's honest reservation was more eloquent than unconditional indiscretion in ears attuned to puerile nuances.
"I may ask you anything I like, Carpenter, but I can't make you answer anything you don't like! I can only suggest to you that there's probably some fellow who might help us if he were not in the dark. Will you give me the name that occurred to you?"