Fathers of Men/Chapter 3
VERY RAW MATERIAL
It was all but a summer morning when Jan got back into the trousers without pockets and the black jacket and tie ordained by the school authorities. Peculiarly oppressive to Jan was the rule about trouser pockets; those in his jacket were so full in consequence that there was barely room for his incriminating belt, which he rolled up as small as it would go, and made into a parcel to be hidden away in his study when he had one. This was his last act before leaving the dormitory and marching downstairs at an hour when most of the household were presumably still in bed and asleep; but Jan was naturally an early riser, and he had none of the scruples of conventionality on the score of an essentially harmless act. He was curious to see something of his new surroundings, and there was nothing like seeing for oneself.
At the foot of the lead-lined stairs, worn bright as silver at the edges, there was a short tiled passage with a green baize door at one end and what was evidently the boys' hall at the other. The baize door communicated with the master's side of the house, for the new boys had come through it on their way up to dormitory. The hall was a good size, with one very long table under the windows and two shorter ones on either side of the fireplace. On the walls hung portraits of the great composers, which Jan afterwards found to be house prizes in part-singing competitions discontinued before his time; at the moment, however, he took no kind of interest in them, and but very little in the two challenge cups under the clock. What did attract him was the line of open windows, looking like solid blocks of sunlight and fresh air. On the sill of one a figure in print was busy with her wash-leather, and she accosted Jan cheerily.
"You are down early, sir!"
"I always am," remarked Jan, looking for a door into the open air.
"You're not like most of the gentlemen, then," the maid returned, in her cheerful Cockney voice. "They leaves it to the last moment, and then they 'as to fly. You should 'ear 'em come down them stairs!"
"Is there no way out?" inquired Jan.
"You mean into the quad?"
"That's the quad, is it? Then I do."
"Well, there's the door, just outside this door; but Morgan, 'e keeps the key o' that, and I don't think 'e's come yet."
"Then I'm going through that window," announced the new boy, calmly; and carried out his intention without a moment's hesitation.
Had his object been to run away on his very first morning, before his house-master was astir, as the maid seemed to fear by the way she leant out of her window to watch him, the next step would have taxed all Jan's resources.
Heriot's quad was a gravel plot very distinctively enclosed, on the left by the walls of buildings otherwise unconnected with the house, on the right by the boys' studies. At the further extremity were twin gables over gothic arches which left the two interiors underneath open at one end to all the elements; never in his life had Jan beheld such structures; but he had picked up enough from his tutor to guess that they were fives-courts, and he went up to have a look into them. To the right of the fives-courts was an alley ending at a formidable spiked gate which was yet the only obvious way of escape, had Jan been minded to make his. But nothing was further from his thoughts; indeed, there was a certain dull gleam in his eyes, and a sallow flush upon his face, which had not been there the previous evening. At all events he looked wider awake.
The studies interested him most. There was a double row of little lattice windows, piercing a very wall of ivy, like port-holes in a vessel's side. Not only were the little windows deep-set in ivy, but each had its little window-box, and in some of these still drooped the withered remnant of a brave display. Jan was not interested in flowers, or for that matter in anything that made for the mere beauty of life; but he peered with interest into one or two of the ground-floor studies. There was little to be seen beyond his own reflection broken to bits in the diamond panes. Between him and the windows was a border of shrubs, behind iron palings bent by the bodies and feet of generations, and painted green like the garden seats under the alien walls opposite. On the whole, and in the misty sunlight of the fine September morning, Jan liked Heriot's quad.
"You're up early, sir!"
It was not the maid this time, but a bearded man-servant whom the boy had seen the previous night. Jan made the same reply as before, and no sort of secret of the way in which he had got out into the quad. He added that he should like to have a look at the studies; and Morgan, with a stare and a smile quite lost on Jan, showed him round.
They were absurdly, deliciously, inconceivably tiny, the studies at Heriot's; each was considerably smaller than a dormitory "tish," and the saddle-room of Jan's old days would have made three or four of them. But they were undeniably cosy and attractive, as compact as a captain's cabin, as private as friar's cell, and far more comfortable than either. Or so they might well have seemed to the normal boy about to possess a study of his own, with a table and two chairs, a square of carpet as big as a bath-sheet, a book-shelf and pictures, and photographs and ornaments to taste, fretwork and plush to heart's content, a flower-box for the summer term, hot-water pipes for the other two, and above all a door of his own to shut at will against the world! But Jan Rutter had not the instincts of a normal schoolboy, nor the temperament favourable to their rapid growth. He had been brought up too uncomfortably to know the value of comfort, and too much in the open air to appreciate the merits of indoor sanctuary. Artistic impulse he had none; and the rudimentary signs of that form of grace, to be seen in nearly all the studies he was shown, left him thoroughly unimpressed.
"Is it true," he asked, "that every boy in the school has one of these holes?"
"Quite true," replied Morgan, staring. "You didn't say 'holes', sir?"
"I did," declared Jan, enjoying his accidental hit.
"You'd better not let Mr. Heriot hear you, sir, or any of the gentlemen either!"
"I don't care who hears me," retorted Jan, boastfully; but it must not be forgotten that he had come to school against his will, and that this was his first opportunity of airing a not unnatural antagonism.
"You wait till you've got one of your own," said the well-meaning man, "with a nice new carpet and table-cloth, and your own family portraits and sportin' picters!"
"At any rate I should know a horse from a cow," returned Jan, examining something in the nature of a sporting print, "and not hang up rot like that!"
"You let Mr. Shockley hear you!" cried Morgan, with a laugh. "You'll catch it!"
"I've no doubt I shall do that," said Jan, grimly. He followed Morgan into an empty study, and asked if it was likely to be his.
"Not unless you take a pretty high place in the school. It's only the top dozen in the house that get these front studies upstairs. You can make up your mind to one at the back, and be glad if it's not downstairs, where everybody can see in and throw in stones."
Jan felt he had not made a friend of Morgan; and yet in his heart he was more favourably impressed with what he had seen than his peculiar temperament permitted him to show. Little as their adventitious attractions might appeal to him, there was something attractive to Jan about this system of separate studies. It appealed, and not without design, to that spirit of independence which happened to be one of his stronger points. Moreover he could conceive a very happy intimacy between two real friends in one of these little dens; and altogether he brought a brighter face to the breakfast-table than he had shown for an instant overnight. Heriot glanced at it with an interested twinkle, as though he had been at the explorer's elbow all the morning; but whatever he might have known, he betrayed his knowledge neither by word nor sign.
After breakfast the two boys sallied forth with orders signed by Heriot for a school cap apiece; and saw the long old-fashioned country street for the first time in broad daylight. It gave the impression of a street with nothing behind it on either side, the chance remnant of a vanished town. Nothing could have been more solid than the fronts of the drab stone houses, and nothing more startling than the glimpses of vivid meadowland like a black-cloth close behind. The caps were procured from the cricket professional, a maker of history whose fame provided Carpenter with a congenial topic on the way, but sat sadly on the failing giant who was there to serve them in the little shop. The caps were black but not comely, as Carpenter more than once remarked; they were a cross between a cricket-cap and that of a naval officer, with the school badge in red above the peak. Jan chose the biggest he could find, and crammed it over his skull as though he was going out to exercise a horse.
The day was fully occupied with the rather exhaustive examination designed to put the right boy in the right form. There were no fewer than three papers in the morning alone. There was, however, a short break between each, which Carpenter was inclined to spend in boring Rutter with appreciative comments upon the striking mural decorations of the great schoolroom in which the examination was held. There were forty-two new boys, some of them hulking fellows of fifteen or more, some quite small boys in Eton jackets; and the chances are that none among them was more impressed than Carpenter by the reproductions of classical statuary hung upon the walls of Pompeian red, or by the frieze of ancient and modern authors which a great mind had planned and a cunning hand had made; but it is certain that none thought less of them than Jan Rutter. To pacify his companion he did have a look at the frieze, but it was exactly the same look as he had cast into the studies before breakfast. The two had more in common when they compared notes on the various papers.
"I didn't mind the Latin grammar and history," said Jan. "I've had my nose in my grammar for the last six months, and you only had to answer half the history questions."
Jan's spirits seemed quite high.
"But what about the unseen?" asked Carpenter.
"I happened to have done the hardest bit before," said Jan, chuckling consumedly; "and not so long since, either!"
Carpenter looked at him.
"Then it wasn't unseen at all?"
"Not to me."
"You didn't think of saying so on your paper?"
"Not I! It's their look-out, not mine," chuckled Jan.
The other made no comment. It was the long break in the middle of the day, and the pair were on their way back to Heriot's for dinner.
"I wish they'd set us some verses," said Carpenter. "They'd be my best chance."
"Then you're a fool if you take it," put in a good-humoured lout who had joined them in the street.
"But it's the only thing I can do at all decently," explained the ingenuous Carpenter. "I'm a backward sort of ass at most things, but I rather like Latin verses."
"Well, you're another sort of ass if you do your best in any of these piffling papers."
"I see! You mean to make sure of a nice easy form?"
"There's no fagging over the Upper Fourth, let me tell you, even for us."
"Perhaps not, but there's more kinds of fagging than one, you take my word for it; and I prefer to do mine out of school," said the big new boy, significantly, as their ways parted.
Carpenter wanted to discuss his meaning, but Jan took no interest in it, and was evidently not to be led into any discussion against his will. He had in fact a gift of silence remarkable in a boy and not a little irritating to a companion. Yet he broke it again to the extent of asking Heriot at table, and that à propos of nothing, when the other boys would "start to arrive."
"The tap will be turned on any minute now," said Heriot, with a look at his sister. "In some houses I expect it's running already."
"Which house is Devereux in?" asked Rutter, always direct when he spoke at all.
"Let me think. I know—the Lodge—the house opposite the chapel with the study doors opening into the quad."
Carpenter's silence was the companion feature of this meal.
The boys had time for a short walk afterwards, and more than a hint to take one. But they only went together because they were thrown together; these two had obviously as little else in common as boys could have; and yet, there was something else, and neither dreamt what a bond it was to be.
"Do you know Devereux?" Carpenter began before they were out of their quad.
"Why? Do you know him?"
Jan was not unduly taken aback; he was prepared for anything with regard to Devereux, including the next question long before it came.
"We were at the same preparatory school, and great pals there," replied Carpenter, wistfully. "I suppose you know him at home?"
"I used to, but only in a sort of way," said Jan, warily. "I don't suppose we shall see anything of each other here; he mayn't even recognise me, to start with."
"Or me, for that matter!" cried Carpenter, with less reserve. "He's never written to me since we left, though I wrote to him twice last term, and once in the holidays to ask him something."
It was on the tip of Jan's tongue to defend the absent Evan with injudicious warmth; but he remembered what he had just said, and held his tongue as he always could. Carpenter, on the other hand, apparently regretting his little show of pique, changed the subject with ingenuous haste and chattered more freely than ever about the various school buildings that they passed upon their way. There was a house at the end of the street with no fewer than three tiers of ivy-covered study windows; but it had no quad. There were other houses tucked more out of sight; but Carpenter knew about them, and which hero of the Cambridge eleven had been at this, that, or the other. His interest in his school was of the romantic and imaginative order; it contrasted very favourably with Jan's indifference, which grew the more perversely pronounced as his companion waxed enthusiastic. It appeared that Carpenter was following a number of youths from his part of the world, who had been through the school before him, and from whom he had acquired a smattering of its lore. The best houses of all, he had heard, were not in the town at all, but on the hill a quarter of a mile away. The pair went to inspect, and found regular mansions standing back in their own grounds, their studies and fives-courts hidden from the road; for the new boys trespassed far enough to see for themselves; and Rutter at once expressed a laconic preference for the hill houses, whereat Carpenter stood up as readily for the town.
"There's no end of rivalry between the two," he explained, as they trotted down into the valley, pressed for time. "I wouldn't be in a hill house for any money, or in any house but ours if I had my choice of all the lot."
"And I wouldn't be here at all," retorted Jan, depriving his companion of what breath he had as they hurried up the hill towards the town. By turning to the left, however, in the wake of other new boys in a like hurry, they found themselves approaching the chapel and the great schoolroom by a shorter route. It led through a large square quad with study doors opening upon it down two sides, and nothing over these studies but their own roof.
"There's plenty of time," said Jan, with rather a furtive look at a little gold lady's watch that he pulled out in his fist. "I wonder if this is the Lodge?"
"No—it's the next—opposite the chapel. This is the School House. Do come on!"
The School House and the Lodge were like none of the other houses. Instead of standing by themselves in the town or on the hill, each formed a part of the distinctive group of which the chapel and the great schoolroom were the salient features. Their quadrangles not only adjoined, but there was no line of demarcation to show where one began or the other ended. In both the study doors opened straight into the fresh air; but in neither was a boy to be seen as Carpenter and Rutter caught up the flying remnant of the forty-two.
"Let's go back by the Lodge," said Jan, when at last they were let out for good. But now the scene was changing. Groups of two and three were dotted about in animated conversation, some still in their journey hats, others in old school caps with faded badges, but none who took the smallest notice of the new boys with the new badges, which they had still to learn to crease correctly over the peak.
And now it was that Rutter horrified his companion by accosting with apparent coolness a big fellow just emerged from one of the Lodge studies.
"Do you mind telling us if a boy they call Devereux has got back yet?" asked Jan, with more of his own idioms than he had often managed to utter in one breath.
"I haven't seen him," the big fellow answered civilly enough. But his stare followed the retreating couple, one of whom had caught the other by the arm.
"I shouldn't talk about 'a boy,' if I were you," Carpenter was saying as nicely as he could.
But Rutter was quite aware of his other solecisms, though not of this one, and was already too furious with himself to brook a gratuitous rebuke.
"Oh! isn't it the fashion? Then I'll bet you wouldn't!" he cried, as he shook off the first arm which had ever been thrust through his by a gentleman's son.
A ball like a big white bullet was making staccato music in Heriot's outer fives-court; two school caps were bobbing above the back wall; and a great thick-lipped lad of sixteen or seventeen, who was hanging about the door leading to the studies, promptly asked the new boys their names.
"What's your gov'nor?" he added, addressing Carpenter first.
"A rag-merchant, I should think! And yours?"
Jan was not embarrassed by the question; he was best prepared at all his most vulnerable points. But his natural bluntness had so recently caused him such annoyance with himself, that he replied as politely as he possibly could:
"My father happens to be dead."
"Oh, he does, does he?" cried the other with a scowl. "Well, if you happen to think it funny to talk about 'happening' to me, you may jolly soon happen to wish you were dead yourself!"
The tap had indeed been turned on, and the water was certainly rather cold; the more fortunate for Rutter that his skin was thick enough to respond with a glow rather than a shiver.