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CHAPTER XXX

HIS LAST FLING

Jan turned back to the bedroom window, and stood looking out with eyes that saw less than ever. The window was open at the bottom; he kept a discreet distance from the sill, but might have seen a strip of the pavement opposite, now dappled by a sudden shower. He was as the blind, however, until a slight crash below made him pop his head out without thinking. Then he saw that it was raining, because Mr. Heriot had emerged from the house, and broken into a run instead of returning for his umbrella.

The only thought Jan gave him was a twinge of wonder that he could go his ways so briskly with the virtual head of his house lying under sentence of expulsion in the spare room. Heriot was mighty keen on his house, keenly critical and appreciative of every fellow in it, but keener yet on a corporate entity, mysteriously independent of the individuals that made it up, which expressed itself in Jan's mind as "the house itself." He too had felt like that about the house cricket and the school Eleven; the best bat got measles, and it was no good giving him another thought. And yet somehow it made Jan himself feel bitterly small to see Heriot gadding about his business like that in the rain.

Otherwise the sight did him good, in liberating his mind from the overload of new ideas that weighed it down. Always a great talker, that poor old Chips had told him so much in such quick time that it was impossible to keep his outpourings distinct and apart from each other; they were like the blots of rain on the pavement, spreading, joining, overlapping into a featureless whole. But the shower ceased even as Jan looked down; the pavement began to dry before all semblance of design was obliterated; and the fusion of fresh impressions suffered an analogous arrest.

Evan dried by himself. . .

Jan brought a cane chair to the window, and sat down to think about Evan, to be fair to old Evan at all costs. It was easy to be down on him, to feel he had been guilty of unpardonable perfidy; but had he? Was there any great reason why he should not have told Chips—Chips whom he knew of old, and whom he had seen with Jan? Surely it was the most natural confidence in the world; and then it was the only one, even Chips thought that, though Jan was not so sure when he recalled the bold scorn of Sandham and some others in the Eleven—their indistinguishable whispers and their unmistakable looks. But, even so! Had he ever asked Evan to keep his secret? Had not Evan, on the other hand, kept it on the whole unasked? Was it not due to him first and last that the whole school had not got hold of it? Chips might say what he liked about Heriot, but no master could impose secrecy upon a boy against the boy's will. Evan's will towards Jan must always have been of the best. It was Jan's own fault if he had imagined himself under an inconceivable obligation; it only showed what a simpleton he had always been about Evan Devereux. That was it! He was far too simple altogether; even now he could not shake off all his unreasonable disappointment because Evan had been a trifle less loyal to him, in the very beginning, than he had chosen to flatter himself all these years.

It was a comfort to turn to the other side of the account. Thank goodness he had been able to do something for Evan in the end! He did owe it to him, whatever Chips chose to say or think. Chips was a jealous old fool; there was no getting away from that. Jan only hoped he had not given Chips an inkling of the real facts of the case. He did not think he had. It had been a happy thought to pretend that Evan's connection with his downfall was that of the feeble accomplice whom he and not Sandham had led astray; it really made expulsion too good for him, so Chips would be under no temptation to let it out or to drag in Evan's name at all. In any case he had promised. He was a man of his word. He was the soul of honour and integrity, old Chips . . . so at least Jan had always thought him down to this very afternoon. Simpleton again!

Chips, of all people, not always any better than he should have been . . . Jan could not get that out of his head; it was another disappointment to his simplicity. He had thought he knew the worst of Chips, his touchiness, his jealousy, taking too much notice of himself and sometimes thinking that other people did not take enough. A bit weak-minded and excitable, Jan would have called him, thinking of the morbid and emotional side of his friend's character which had certainly shown itself that day. But what enthusiasm, what a heart, and what a head too in its way! It only showed that you knew very little, really, about anybody else, even your intimate house-mate; but it might also have shown Jan that he was slow to think evil, slow to perceive the worst side of the life around him, and not only simple but pure in heart in spite of all those years about the stables. . . .

He supposed he had not the same temptations as other fellows. Here were his two friends, as opposite to each other as they were to him, the three of them as far apart as the points of an equilateral triangle. Each of the other two had gone wrong in his way. And yet perhaps neither of them would have touched money that did not belong to him, on any pretext or in any circumstances whatsoever!

The money took Jan back to the wood; the wood led him straight to Mulberry; and suddenly he wondered whether Evan had really heard the last of that vagabond. The very thought of a doubt about it made Jan uneasy. Had he frightened the blackmailer sufficiently as such? He had gone away without his money; that might or might not be mere drunken forgetfulness. Jan, however, would have felt rather more certain of his man if he had put himself more in the wrong by actually taking every penny he could get; that and the very drastic form of receipt—never signed—had been the pivot of his scheme for scotching Mulberry. If it were to miscarry after all, in its prime object of saving Evan from persecution and disgrace; if appearances should still be doubted, and Mulberry be bribed or frightened into telling the truth; why, then—good Lord!—then he himself might yet be reinstated—at Evan's expense!

Once more Jan despised himself for harbouring any such thought for a single moment; he kicked it out like a very Mulberry of the mind, and saw it in the mental gutter as a most unlikely contingency. He considered his own handling of the creature, the motive given him for revenge, the dexterous promptitude with which revenge had been taken. No; such an enemy, so made, would never willingly avow a very inspiration of low cunning. …

The mossy, wrinkled roofs of the old tiled houses opposite Heriot's stood out once more against a cloudless sky; the pavement underneath was dry as a bone; the little town was basking in the sleepy sunshine of the Sunday afternoon. Suddenly those irrepressible chapel bells broke out with their boyish clangour.

Boyish they are and always will be while there are boys to hear them; they ring in the veins after thirty years, and make old blood pelt like young. Surely there is no such hearty, happy peal elsewhere on earth! It got into Jan's blood though he was only leaving next morning, and would never, never be able to come down as an authorised Old Boy. So he would never be allowed in chapel again, unless he stole in when nobody was about, some day, a bearded bushman "home for a spell." It seemed hard. There went the bells again! They might have let him obey their kindling call for the last time; it might have made some difference to his life.

How could they stop him? Could they stop him? Would they if they could? The questions followed each other almost as quickly as the three bright bells; they got into his blood as well. And it was blood always susceptible to a sudden impulse; that was a thing Jan did not see in himself, though all his escapades came of that hereditary drop of pure recklessness. It did not often come to a bubble, but when it did the precipitate was some rash act.

Already the street was "alive with boys and masters," like another more famous but not more dear; masters in silken hoods, masters in humble rabbit-skins, and boys in cut-away coats, boys in Eton jackets. Jan had put on his Sunday tails as usual; it had never occurred to him not to dress that morning as a member of the school still subject to the rules. His school cap was already packed, a sad memento filled with collars. He had it out in an instant, and the collars strewed the floor, for he was going to chapel whether they liked it or not. They would never make a scandal by turning him out, but he must slip in at the last moment after everybody else, and the last bell had not begun yet. Jan was waiting for it in great excitement, touching up his hair in the dressing-room, when the landing shook to a familiar stride and the bedroom door opened unceremoniously for the second time that afternoon.

"Rutter! Where are you, Rutter?"

Heriot, of course, when he was least wanted! Jan slipped behind the dressing-room door, and saw him through the crack as he looked in hastily. Luckily there was no time for an exhaustive search. Heriot gave it up, the door below drowned the opening strokes of the last bell, and Jan had shut it softly in his turn before they stopped.

The fellows went into chapel there in droves under gowned and hooded shepherds. Jan so timed matters as to enter in the wake of the last lot, but well before the appearance of Mr. Thrale and his chaplain. Not being in the choir, his place in chapel, where the seats were allotted on a principle unknown to the boys, was mercifully unexalted, and he reached it with no worse sign or portent than the raised eyebrows and whispered welcome of his immediate neighbours. A congregation of four hundred persons absorbs even a Captain of Cricket more effectually than he thinks. And a voluntary, bright and exhilarating as all the music in that chapel, gave him heart and hope until the arrival of the officiating pair afforded an ineffable sense of security and relief.

Jan stood up with the rest, not quite at his full height, yet with his eyes turned in sheer fascination towards the little old Head Master. He looked very pale and stern, but his eyes could not have been fixed more steadfastly in front of him if he himself had been marching to his doom. In his left hand he held something that Jan was glad to see; it was dear old Jerry's purple and embroidered sermon-case, a gift no doubt, and yet almost an incongruous vanity in that uncompromising hand.

Jan sank down and breathed his thanks for the last mercy of this service, for his perhaps undeserved escape from open humiliation and public shame. It was not to be seen through his forcible composure, but the glow of momentary victory filled every cell of a heart which the bells had first expanded. And he had never joined in the quick and swinging psalms with a zest more grateful to himself or so distressing to one or two of his hypercritical neighbours; there could not have been much wrong with Rutter, either physically or morally, these opined; or else he had been let off, and was already wallowing in an indecent odour of sanctity.

Wallowing he was, but for once only in the present, without dwelling on old days or on the wrath already come. This was not the house of wrath, but of brightness and light; he was not going to darken it for the last time with cheap memories and easy phantoms. Any fool could think of his first Sunday, and recall his first impressions of chapel; it was rather Jan's desire so to receive his last impression as to have something really worth recalling all the days of his life; but even that was a vague and secondary consideration, whereas the present recompense was certain, vivid, and acute.

One wonders whether any fellow ever loved a public-school chapel as much as Jan loved his that afternoon, and not from the conscious promptings of reverence and piety, but purely as a familiar place of peace and comfort which he might never see again. The circumstances were probably unique, and they gave him that new eye for an old haunt which had been opened on the pitch the day before. But then he had been as a dying man, and now he was as the dead come sneaking back to life for an hour or less; the defiant enjoyment of forbidden fruit was among the springs of his infinite exaltation.

The great east window made the first impress on his sensitised film of vision; he had not been at the school four years, on a cricketer's easy footing with so many of the masters, without hearing that window frankly depreciated; but it was light and bright, and good enough for Jan. Then there were the huge brass candelabra in the chancel, pyramids of light on winter evenings, trees of gold this golden afternoon; for the summer sun came slanting in over everybody's right shoulder, as all sat in rows facing the altar, and not in the long opposing lines of other school chapels. Tablets to Old Boys who had lived great lives or died gallant deaths brought a sigh of envy for the first time. They were the only sight that reminded Jan sorely of himself, until he looked up and saw dear old Jerry standing in his marble pulpit for the last time. The hymn ceased. The organ purred like a cat until the last stop had been driven in. Jan supposed it must have done it always. A sparrow chirped outside, and Mr. Thrale pronounced the invocation in that voice which knew no lip-service, but prayed and preached as it taught and thundered, from the heart.

"He that findeth his life shall lose it: and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it."

That was his text; and many there were present, boys and Old Boys, masters and masters' wives, who reverenced the preacher before all living men, yet knew what was coming and faced it with something akin to resignation. Life was the first word in his language, if not his last. It meant so much to him. He never used it in the narrow sense. True Life was his simple watchword; where the noun was, the adjective was never far away, and together the two rolled out like noble thunder. The corporate life, the life of a nation, the life of that school, it was into those great streams that he sought to pour the truth that was in him—sometimes at the expense of the individual ripple. Boys do not listen to abstractions; abstract truths are better read than heard by boy or man. Mr. Thrale was too elusive, perhaps too deep, for ordinary ears; in his daily teaching he was direct, concrete, and dramatic, but from his pulpit he soared above heads of all ages. Yet that earnest voice and noble mien, which had so impressed Jan on his very first Sunday in the school, were as the voice from Sinai and the face of God to him to-day.

He began by drinking in every syllable; but again it was too soon the look and tone rather than the words that thrilled him. He began listening with eyes glued to that noble countenance in its setting of silver hair; but soon they drooped to the edge and corners of the purple sermon-case, to the leaves that rose and fell, at regular intervals: under that strong, unrelenting, and yet most tender hand. Jan could feel its farewell grip again; he was back in the study full of garden smells and midges in the lamplight … Goodness! He really had been back there for an instant; it was the old trouble of keeping awake at this time of the afternoon. It had struck him painfully in others, on his very first Sunday in the school; but almost ever since he had felt it himself, say after a long walk; and he simply could not help feeling it after an almost sleepless night and that condemned man's allowance of beer. …

I say! It was incredible, it was contemptible, unpardonable in Jan of all the congregation that sunny afternoon. But it would not happen again; something had awakened him once and for all.

It was something in the old man's voice. His voice had changed, his manner had changed, he was no longer reading from the purple case, but speaking directly and dramatically as was his wont elsewhere. His hands were clasped upon his manuscript. He was looking steadfastly before him—just a trifle downward—looking indeed Jan's way, in clear-sighted criticism, in gentle and yet strong rebuke.

" … There is the life of the individual too. 'He that findeth his life shall lose it: and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it.' But let him be sure for whose sake he would lose his life; let him not take his own life, on any provocation or under temptation whatsoever—not even to save his dearest friend—for Christ did not make and cannot countenance such a sacrifice. No soldier of Christ can die by his own hand, even to save his comrade; he must think of the army, think of those to whom his own life is valuable and dear, before he throws it away from a mistaken or unbalanced sense of sacrifice. I will have no false or showy standards of self-sacrifice in this school; I will have no moral suicides. Suicide is a crime, no matter the motive; evil is evil, good cannot come of it, and to step in between a friend and his folly is to stand accessory after the fact. And yet—humanum est errare! And he who errs only to save an erring brother has the divine spark somewhere in his humanity: may it light his brain as well as fire his heart, give him judgment as well as courage, and burn out of him the Upas growth of wrong-headed self-sacrifice. You cannot rob Peter to pay Paul, just because you happen to be Peter yourself. Has Paul the first or only claim upon you? Yet my heart goes out to the boy or man who can pick his own pocket, ay, or shed his own blood for his friend! Blame him I do, but I honour him, and I forgive him."

In such parables spake their Master to those who sat daily at his feet; not often so to the school in chapel, nor was it to them that he was speaking now. Yet few indeed knew that he was addressing Jan Rutter, who sat spellbound in his place, chidden and yet shriven, head and heart throbbing in a flood of light and warmth.