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CHAPTER VII

REASSURANCE

Jan went back to his house in a dull glow of injury and anger. But he was angriest with himself, for the gratuitous and unwonted warmth with which he had grasped an unresponsive hand. And the sense of injury abated with a little honest reflection upon its cause. After all, with such a different relationship so fresh in his mind, the Master Evan of the other day could hardly have said more than he had said this afternoon; in any case he could not have promised more. Jan remembered his worst fears; they at least would never be realised now. And yet, in youth, to escape the worst is but to start sighing for the best. Evan might be loyal enough. But would he ever be a friend? Almost in his stride Jan answered his own question with complete candour in the negative; and having faced his own conclusion, thanked his stars that Evan and he were in different houses and different forms.

Shockley was lounging against the palings outside the door leading to the studies; the spot appeared to be his favourite haunt. It was an excellent place for joining a crony or kicking a small boy as he passed. Jan was already preparing his heart for submission to superior force, and his person for any violence, when Shockley greeted him with quite a genial smile.

"Lot o' parcels for you, Tiger," said he. "I'll give you a hand with 'em, if you like."

"Thank you very much," mumbled Jan, quite in a flutter. "But where will they be?"

"Where will they be?" the other murmured under his breath. "I'll show you, Tiger."

Jan could not help suspecting that Carpenter might be right after all. He had actually done himself good by his display of spirit in the quad! Young Petrie had been civil to him within an hour, and here was Shockley doing the friendly thing before the afternoon was out. He had evidently misjudged Shockley; he tried to make up for it by thanking him nearly all the way to the hall, which was full of fellows who shouted an embarrassing greeting as the pair passed the windows. They did not go into the hall, however, but stopped at the slate table at the foot of the dormitory stairs. It was covered with parcels of all sizes, on several of which Rutter read his name.

"Tolly-sticks—don't drop 'em," said Shockley, handing one of the parcels. "This feels like your table-cloth; that must be tollies; and all the rest are books. I'll help you carry them over."

"I can manage, thanks," said Jan, uncomfortably. But Shockley would not hear of his "managing," and led the way back past the windows, an ironical shout following them into the quad.

"You should have had the lot yesterday," continued Shockley in the most fatherly fashion. "I should complain to Heriot, if I were you."

Jan's study had also been visited in his absence. A folding chair, tied up with string, stood against the wall, with billows of bright green cretonne bulging through string and woodwork; an absurd bit of Brussels carpet covered every inch of the tiny floor; and it also was an aggressive green, though of another and a still more startling shade.

"Curtains not come yet," observed Shockley. "I suppose they're to be green too?"

"I don't know," replied Rutter. "I left it to them."

"I rather like your greens," said Shockley, opening the long soft parcel. "Why, you've gone and got a red table-cloth!"

"It's their doing, not mine," observed Jan, phlegmatically.

"I wonder you don't take more interest in your study," said Shockley. "Most chaps take a pride in theirs. Red and green! It'll spoil the whole thing; they don't go, Tiger."

Jan made some show of shaking off his indifference in the face of this kindly interest in his surroundings.

"They might change it, Shockley."

"I wouldn't trust 'em," said that authority, shaking and scratching a bullet head by turns. "They're not too obliging, the tradesmen here—too much bloated monopoly. If you take my advice you'll let well alone."

"Then I will," said Jan eagerly. "Thanks, awfully, Shockley!"

"Not that it is well," resumed Shockley, as though the matter worried him. "A green table-cloth's the thing for you, Tiger, and a green table-cloth you must have if we can work it."

"It's very good of you to bother," said Jan, devoutly wishing he would not.

Shockley only shook his head.

"I've got one myself, you see," he explained in a reflective voice, as he examined the red cloth critically. "It's a better thing than this—better taste—and green—but I'd rather do a swop with you than see you spoil your study, Tiger."

"Very well," said Jan, doubtfully.

Shockley promptly tucked the new table-cloth under his arm. "Let's see your tolly-sticks!" said he, briskly.

"Tolly-sticks?"

"Candle-sticks, you fool!"

Jan unpacked them, noting as he did so that the fatherly tone had been dropped.

"I suppose you wouldn't like a real old valuable pair instead of these beastly things?"

"No, thanks, Shockley."

"Well, anyhow you must have a picture or two."

"Why must I?" asked Jan. He had suddenly remembered Carpenter's story of the seven-and-sixpenny chair.

"Because I've got the very pair for you, and going cheap."

"I see," said Jan, in his dryest Yorkshire voice.

"Oh, I don't care whether you've a study or a sty!" cried Shockley, and away he went glaring, but with the new cloth under his arm. In a minute he was back with the green one rolled into a ball, which he flung in Jan's face. "There you are, you fool, and I'm glad you like your own colour!" he jeered as he slammed the door behind him.

Neither had Jan much mercy on himself, when he had fitted two candles into the two new china sticks, and lit them with a wax match from the shilling box included in his supplies. Shockley's table-cloth might once have been green, but long service had reduced it to a more dubious hue; it was spotted with ink and candle-grease, and in one place cut through with a knife. To Jan, indeed, one table-cloth was like another; he was only annoyed to think, he had been swindled as badly as Carpenter, by the same impudent impostor, and with Carpenter's experience to put him on his guard. But even in his annoyance the incident appealed to that prematurely grim sense of the ironic which served Jan Butter for the fun and nonsense of the ordinary boy; and on the whole he thought it wiser to avoid another row by saying no more about it.

But he was not suffered to keep his resolution to the letter: at tea Buggins and Eyre major were obviously whispering about Jan before Buggins asked him across the table how he liked his new table-cloth.

"I suppose you mean Shockley's old one?" retorted Jan at once. "It'll do all right; but it's a good bargain for Shockley."

"A bargain's a bargain," remarked Buggins with his mouth full.

"And a Jew's a Jew!" said Jan.

The nice pair glared at him, and glanced at Shockley, who was two places higher up than Jan, but deep in ingratiating conversation with a good-looking fellow on his far side.

"God help you when the Shocker hears that!" muttered Buggins under his breath.

"You'll be murdered before you've been here a week, you brute!" added Eyre major with a titter.

"I may be," said Jan, "but not by you—you prize pig!"

And, much as he was still to endure from the trio in his form and house, this was the last Jan heard directly of the matter. Whether his reckless words ever reached the ears of Shockley, or whether the truth was in them, Jan never knew. As a good hater, however, he always felt that apart from thick lips, heavy nostrils, pale eyes and straight light hair, his arch-enemy combined all the most objectionable characteristics of Jew and Gentile.

So this stormy Saturday came to a comparatively calm close, and Jan was left to wrestle in peace with a Latin prose set by Mr. Haigh at second school. On other nights everybody went back to his form-master after tea, for a bout of preparation falsely called "private work"; but on Saturdays some kind of composition was set throughout the school, was laboriously evolved in the solitude of the study, and signed by the house-master after prayers that night or on the Sunday morning. Unfortunately, composition was Jan's weak point. By the dim light of the dictionary, with the frail support of a Latin grammar, he could grope his way through a page of Cæsar or of Virgil without inevitably plunging to perdition; but the ability to cast English back into Latin implies a point of scholarship which Jan had not reached by all the forced marches of the past few months. He grappled with his prose until head and hand perspired in the warm September evening. He hunted up noun after noun in his new English-Latin, and had a shot at case after case. And when at length his fair copy was food for Haigh's blue pencil, and Jan leant back to survey his own two candles and his own four walls, he was conscious, in the first place, that he had been taken out of himself, and in the second that a study to oneself was a mitigating circumstance in school life.

Not that he disliked his dormitory either; there, nothing was said to him about the row in the quad, of which in fact he had heard very little since it occurred. He was embarrassed, however, by a command from Joyce to tell a story after the gas was out; stories were not at all in Jan's line; and the situation was only relieved by Bingley's sporting offer to stand proxy in the discharge of what appeared to be a traditional debt on the part of all new boys entering that house. Bingley, permitted to officiate as a stop-gap only, launched with much gusto and more minutiæ into a really able account of a revolting murder committed in the holidays. Murders proved to be Bingley's strong point; his face would glow over the less savoury portions of the papers in hall; and that night his voice was still vibrating with unctuous horror when Jan got off to sleep.

The school Sunday in his time was not desecrated by a stroke of work; breakfast of course was later, and Heriot himself deliberately late for prayers, which were held in the houses as on the first day of the term, instead of in the big schoolroom. Chapel seemed to monopolise morning and afternoon. Yet there was time for a long walk after either chapel, and abundant time for letter-writing after dinner. Not that Jan availed himself of the opportunity; he had already posted a brief despatch to the rectory, and nowhere else was there a soul who could possibly care to hear from him. He spent the latter end of the morning in a solitary stroll along a very straight country road, and the hour after dinner over a yellow-back borrowed from Chips.

Morning chapel had been quite a revelation to Jan. He had been forced to go to church in Norfolk; he went to chapel in the stoical spirit born of chastening experience. Yet there was something in the very ringing of the bells that might have prepared him for brighter things; they were like joy-bells in their almost merry measure. The service proved bright beyond belief. The chapel itself was both bright and beautiful. It was full of sunlight and fresh air, it lacked the heavy hues and the solemn twilight which Jan associated with a place of worship. The responses came with a hearty and unanimous ring. The psalms were the quickest thing in church music that Jan had ever heard; they went with such a swing that he found himself trying to sing for the first time in his life. His place in chapel had not yet been allotted to him, and he stood making his happily inaudible effort between two tail-coated veterans with stentorian lungs. Crowning merit of the morning service, there was no sermon; but in the afternoon the little man with the imperious air grew into a giant in his marble pulpit, and impressed Jan so powerfully that he wondered again how the fellows could call him Jerry, until he looked round and saw some of them nodding in their chairs. Then he found that he had lost the thread himself, that he could not pick it up again, that everything escaped him except a transfigured face and a voice both stern and tender. But these were flag and bugle to the soldier concealed about most young boys, and Jan for one came out of chapel at quick march.

The golden autumn day was still almost at its best, but Jan had no stomach for another lonely walk. A really lonely walk would have been different; but to go off by oneself, and to meet hundreds in sociable twos and threes, with linked arms and wagging tongues, was to cut too desolate a figure before the world. Carpenter apparently had found a friend; at least Jan saw him obviously waiting for one after chapel; yet hardly had he settled to his novel, than a listless step was followed by the banging of the study door next his own.

"I thought you'd gone for a walk," said Jan, when he had gained admission by pounding on Carpenter's door.

"Did you! You thought wrong, then."

Carpenter smiled as though to temper an ungraciousness worthier of Jan, but the effort was hardly a success. He was reclining in a chair with a leg-rest, under the window opposite the door. He had already put up a number of pictures and brackets, and photograph frames in the plush of that period. Everything was very neat and nice, and there was a notable absence of inharmonious or obtrusive shades.

"How on earth did you open the door from over there?" asked Jan.

"Lazy-pull," said Carpenter, showing off a cord running round three little walls and ending in a tassel at his elbow. "You can buy 'em all ready at Blunt's."

"You have got fettled up," remarked Jan, "and no mistake!"

Carpenter opened his eyes at the uncouth participle.

"I want to have a good study," he said. "I've one or two pictures to put up yet, and I've a good mind to do them now."

"You wouldn't like to come for a walk instead?"

The suggestion was very shyly made, and as candidly considered by Chips Carpenter.

"Shall I?" he asked himself aloud.

"You might as well," said Jan without pressing it.

"I'm not sure that I mightn't."

And off they went, but not with linked arms, or even very close together; for Chips still seemed annoyed at something or other, and for once not in a mood to talk about it or anything else. It was very unlike him; and a small boy is not unlike himself very long. They took the road under the study windows, left the last of the little town behind them, dipped into a wooded hollow, and followed a couple far ahead over a stile and along a right-of-way through the fields; and in the fields, bathed in a mellow mist, and as yet but thinly dusted with the gold of autumn, Carpenter found his tongue. He expatiated on this new-found freedom, this intoxicating licence to roam where one would within bounds of time alone, a peculiar boon to the boy from a private school, and one that Jan appreciated as highly as his companion. It was not the only thing they agreed about that first Sunday afternoon. Jan was in a much less pugnacious mood than usual, and Carpenter less ponderously impressed with every phase of their new life. They exchanged some prejudices, and compared a good many notes, as they strolled from stile to stile. Haigh came in for some sharp criticism from his two new boys; the uncertainty of his temper was already apparent to them; but Heriot, as yet a marked contrast in that respect, hardly figured in the conversation at all. A stray remark, however, elicited the fact that Carpenter, who had disappeared in the morning directly after prayers, had actually been to breakfast with Heriot on the first Sunday of his first term.

Jan was not jealous; from his primitive point of view the master was the natural enemy of the boy; and he was not at the time surprised when Carpenter dismissed the incident as briefly as though he were rather ashamed of it. He would have thought no more of the matter but for a chance encounter as they crossed their last stile and came back into the main road.

Swinging down the middle of the road came a trio arm-in-arm, full of noisy talk, and so hilarious that both boys recognised Evan Devereux by his laugh before they saw his face. Evan, on his side, must have been almost as quick to recognise Carpenter, who was first across the stile, for he at once broke away from his companions.

"I'm awfully sorry!" he cried. "I quite forgot I'd promised these fellows when I promised you."

"It doesn't matter a bit," said Carpenter, in a rather unconvincing voice.

"You didn't go waiting about for me, did you?"

"Not long," replied Carpenter, dryly.

"Well, I really am awfully sorry; but, you see, I'd promised these men at the end of last term, and I quite forgot about it this morning at Heriot's."

"I see."

"I won't do it again, I swear."

"You won't get the chance!" muttered Carpenter, as Devereux ran after his companions. He looked at his watch, and turned to Jan. "There's plenty of time, Rutter. Which way shall we go?"

Jan came out of the shadow of the hedge; he had remained instinctively in the background, and had no reason to think that Evan had seen him. Certainly their eyes had never met. And yet there had been something in Evan's manner, something pointed in his fixed way of looking at Carpenter and not beyond him, something that might have left a doubt in Jan's mind if a greater doubt had not already possessed it.

"Which way shall we turn?" Carpenter repeated as Jan stood looking at him strangely.

"Neither way, just yet a bit," said Jan, darkly. "I want to ask you something first."

"Right you are."

"There are not so many here that you could say it for, so far as I can see," continued Jan, the inscrutable: "but from what I've seen of you, Carpenter, I don't believe you'd tell me a lie."

"I'd try not to," said the other, smiling, yet no easier than Jan in his general manner.

"That's good enough for me," said Jan. "So what did Devereux mean just now by talking about 'this morning at Heriot's'?"

"Oh, he had breakfast with Heriot, too; didn't I tell you?"

"No; you didn't."

"Well, I never supposed it would interest you."

"Although I told you I knew something about him at home!"

The two were facing each other, eye to eye. Those of Jan were filled with a furious suspicion.

"I wonder you didn't speak to him just now," remarked Carpenter, looking at his nails.

"He never saw me; besides, I'd gone and said all I'd got to say to him yesterday in his study."

"I see."

"Didn't Devereux tell you I'd been to see him?"

"Oh, I think he said he'd seen you, but that was all."

"At breakfast this morning?"

"Yes."

"Did Heriot ask him anything about me?"

"No."

"Has he told you anything about me at home, Chips?"

"Hardly anything."

"How much?"

"Only that he hardly knew you; that was all," declared Carpenter, looking Jan in the face once more. "And I must say I don't see what you're driving at, Rutter!"

"You'd better go and ask Devereux," said Jan, unworthily; but, as luck would have it, he could not have diverted his companion's thoughts more speedily if he had tried.

"Devereux? I don't go near him!" he cried. "He promised to wait for me after chapel, and he cut me for those fellows we saw him with just now."

"Although you were friends at the same private school?"

"If you call that friendship! He never wrote to me all last term, though I wrote twice to him!"

"I suppose that would be why Heriot asked you both to breakfast," said Jan, very thoughtfully, as they began walking back together. "I mean, you both coming from the same school."

"What? Oh, yes, of course it was."

Jan threw one narrow look over his shoulder.

"Of course it was!" he agreed, and walked on nodding to himself.

"But he didn't know Evan Devereux, or he'd have known that an old friend was nothing to him!"

"I wouldn't be too sure," said Jan with gentle warmth. "I wouldn't be too sure, if I were you."