The Fifth Form at St. Dominic's/Chapter IX

Loman, who had arrived at the same conclusion respecting Oliver’s bravery as the majority in the Fifth, did not allow his conscience to trouble him as to his share of the morning’s business. He never had liked Oliver, and lately especially he had come to dislike him. He was therefore glad to have made him smart; and now, since the blunder in the cricket match, he felt greatly inclined to repeat the blow, particularly as there did not seem much to fear if he did so.

He was quick, too, to see that Oliver had lost favour with his comrades, and had no hesitation in availing himself of every opportunity of widening the breach. He affected to be sorry for the poor fellow, and to feel that he had been too hard on him, and so on, in a manner which, while it offended the Fifth, as applied to one of their set, exasperated them all the more against Oliver. And so matters went on, getting more and more unsatisfactory.

Loman, however, had other things to think of than his rival’s cowardice, and foremost among these was his new fishing-rod—or rather, the rod which he coveted for his own. Until the day after the Alphabet Match he had not even had time to examine his treasure. Three pounds ten was an appalling figure to pay for a rod; “But then,” thought Loman, “if it’s really a good one, and worth half as much again, it would be a pity to miss such a bargain;” and everyone knew the Crippses, father and son, were authorities on all matters pertaining to the piscatorial art. Loman, too, was never badly off for pocket-money, and could easily raise the amount, he felt sure, when he represented the case at home. So he took the rod out of its canvas bag, and began to put it together.

Now, a boy’s study is hardly the place in which to flourish a fishing-rod, and Loman found that with the butt down in one bottom corner of the room, the top joint would have to be put on up in the opposite top corner. When this complicated operation was over, there was no room to move it from its position, still less to judge of its weight and spring, or attach the winch and line. Happy thought! the window! He would have any amount of scope there. So, taking it to pieces, and putting it together again in this new direction, he had the satisfaction of testing it at its full length. He was pleased with the rod, on the whole. He attached the line, with a fly at the end, in order to give it a thorough trial, and gave a scientific “cast” into an imaginary pool. It was a splendid rod, just right for him; how he wished he was up above Gusset Weir at that moment! Why, he could—

Here he attempted to draw up the rod. There was an ugly tug and a crack as he did so, and he found, to his disgust, that the hook, having nothing else to catch, had caught the ivy on the wall, and, what was worse, that the top joint of the rod had either snapped or cracked in its inability to bring this weighty catch to shore. It was a long time before Loman was able to disengage his line, and bring the rod in again at the window. The top joint was cracked. It looked all right as he held it, but when he tried to bend it it had lost its spring, and the crack showed only too plainly. Another misfortune still was in store. The reel in winding up suddenly stuck. Loman, fancying it had only caught temporarily, tried to force it, and in so doing the spring broke, and the handle turned uselessly round and round in his hand. This was a streak of bad luck, and no mistake! The rod was not his, and what was worse, it was (so Cripps said) a rod of extraordinary excellence and value. Loman had his doubts now about this. A first-rate top-piece would bend nearly double and then not break, and a reel that broke at the least pressure could hardly be of the best kind. Still, Cripps thought a lot of it, and Loman had undoubtedly himself alone to blame for the accidents which had occurred. As it was, the rod was now useless. He knew there was no place in Maltby where he could get it repaired, and it was hardly to be expected that Cripps would take it back.

What was to be done? Either he must pay £3 10 shillings for a rod of no value, or—

He slowly took the rod to pieces and put it back into the canvas bag. The top joint after all did not look amiss; and, yes, there was a little bit of elasticity in it. Perhaps the crack was only his fancy; or perhaps the crack was there when he got it. As to the reel, it looked as if it ought to work, and perhaps it would if he only knew the way. Ah! suppose he just sent the rod back to Cripps with a message that he found he did not require it? He would not say he had not used it, but if Cripps chose to imagine he received it back just as he sent it, well, what harm? Cripps would be sure to sell it to some one else, or else put it by (he had said he possessed a rod of his own). If he, Loman, had felt quite certain that he had damaged the rod himself, of course he would not think of such a thing; but he was not at all certain the thing was not defective to begin with. In any case it was an inferior rod—that he had no doubt about—and Cripps was not acting honestly by trying to pass it off on him as one of the best make. Yes, it would serve Cripps right, and be a lesson to him, and he was sure, yes, quite sure now, it had been damaged to begin with.

And so the boy argued with himself and coquetted with the tempter. Before the afternoon was over he felt (as he imagined) quite comfortable in his own mind over the affair. The rod was tied up again in its bag exactly as it had been before, and only wanted an opportunity to be returned to Mr. Cripps.

After that Loman settled down to an evening’s study. But things were against him again. Comfortable as his conscience was, that top joint would not let him alone. It seemed to get into his hand in place of the pen, and to point out the words in the lexicon in place of his finger. He tried not to mind it, but it annoyed him, and, what was worse, interfered with his work. So, shutting up his books, and imagining a change of air might be beneficial, he went off to Callonby’s study, there to gossip for an hour or two, and finally rid himself of his tormentor.

Stephen, meanwhile, had had Mr. Cripps on his mind too, for that afternoon his bat had come home. It was addressed to “Mr. Greenfield, Saint Dominic’s,” and of course taken to Oliver, who wondered much to receive a small size cricket-bat in a parcel. Master Paul, however, who was in attendance, was able to clear up the mystery.

“Oh! that’s your young brother’s, I expect; he said he had got a bat coming.”

“All I can say is, he must be more flush of cash than I am, to go in for a thing like this. Send him here, Paul.”

So Paul vanished, and presently Stephen put in an appearance, blushing, and anxious-looking.

“Is this yours?” asked the elder brother.

“Yes; did Mr. Cripps send it?”

“Mr. Cripps the lock-keeper?”

“No, his son. He said he would get it for me. I say, is that a good bat, Oliver?”

“Nothing out of the way. But I say, young ’un, how much have you given for it?”

“Not anything yet. Mr. Cripps said I could pay in June, when I get my next pocket-money.”

“What on earth has he to do with when you get your pocket-money?” demanded Oliver. “Who is this young Cripps? He’s a cad, isn’t he?”

“He seemed a very nice man,” said Stephen.

“Well, look here! the less you have to do with men like him the better. What is the price of the bat?”

“I don’t know; it’s one Mr. Cripps had himself when he was a boy. He says it’s a beauty! I say, it looks as good as new, Oliver.”

“You young muff!” said the elder brother; “I expect the fellow’s swindling you. Find out what he wants for it at once, and pay him; I’m not going to let you run into debt.”

“But I can’t; I’ve only two shillings left,” said Stephen, dejectedly.

“Why, whatever have you done with the five shillings you had last week?”

Stephen blushed, and then faltered, “I spent sixpence on stamps and sixpence on—on brandy-balls!”

“I thought so. And what did you do with the rest?”

“Oh! I—I—that is—I—gave them away.”

“Gave them away! Who to—to Bramble?”

“No,” said Stephen, laughing at the idea; “I gave them to a poor old man!”

“Where?—when? Upon my word, Stephen, you are a jackass—who to?”

And then Stephen confessed, and the elder brother rated him soundly for his folly, till the little fellow felt quite miserable and ashamed of himself. In the end, Oliver insisted on Stephen finding out at once what the price of the bat was, and promised he would lend his brother the money for it. In return for this, Stephen promised to make no more purchases of this kind without first consulting Oliver, and at this juncture Wraysford turned up, and Stephen beat a retreat with his bat over his shoulder.

The two friends had not been alone together since the fracas in the Fifth two days before, and both now appeared glad of an opportunity of talking over that and subsequent events.

“I suppose you know a lot of the fellows are very sore at you for not thrashing Loman?” said Wraysford.

“I guessed they would be. Are you riled, too, Wray?”

“Not I! I know what I should have done myself, but I suppose you know your own business best.”

“I was greatly tempted to let out,” said Oliver, “but the fact is—I know you’ll jeer, Wray—the fact is, I’ve been trying feebly to turn over a new leaf this term.”

Wraysford said “Oh!” and looked uncomfortable.

“And one of the things I wanted to keep out of was losing my temper, which you know is not a good one.”

“Not at all,” said Wraysford, meaning quite the opposite to what he said.

“Well, if you’ll believe me, I’ve lost my temper oftener in trying to keep this resolution than I ever remember to have done before. But on Friday it came over me just as I was going to thrash Loman. That’s why I didn’t.”

Wraysford looked greatly relieved when this confession was over. “You are a rum fellow, Noll,” said he, after a pause, “and of course it is all right; but the fellows don’t know your reason, and think you showed the white feather.”

“Let them think!” shouted Oliver, in a voice so loud and angry that Master Paul came to the door and asked what he wanted.

“What do I care what they think?” continued Oliver, forgetting all about his temper; “they can think what they like, but they had better let me alone. I’d like to knock all their heads together! so I would!”

“Steady, old man!” said Wraysford, good-humouredly; “I quite agree with you. But I say, Noll, I think it’s a pity you don’t put yourself right with them and the school generally, somehow. Everybody heard Loman call you a fool yesterday, and you know our fellows are so clannish that they think, for the credit of the Fifth, something ought to be done.”

“Let them send Braddy to thrash him, then; I don’t intend to fight to please them.”

“Oh! that’s all right. And if they all knew what you’ve told me they would understand; but as it is, they don’t.”

“They’ll find out some day, most likely,” growled Oliver; “I’m not going to bother any more about it. I say, Wray, do you know anything of Cripps’s son?”

“Yes. Don’t you know he keeps a dirty public-house in Maltby?—a regular cad, they say. The fishing-fellows have seen him up at the Weir now and then.”

“I don’t know how he came across him, but my young brother has just been buying a bat from him, and I don’t much fancy it.”

“No, the youngster won’t get any good with that fellow; you had better tell him,” said Wraysford.

“So I have, and he won’t do it again.”

Shortly after this Pembury hobbled in on his way to bed.

“You’re a pretty fellow,” said he to Oliver; “not one of our fellows cares a rush about the Dominican since you made yourself into the latest sensation.”

“Oh, don’t let us have that up again,” implored Oliver.

“All very well, but what is to become of the Dominican?”

“Oh, have a special extra number about me. Call me a coward, and a fool, and a Tadpole, any mortal thing you like, only shut up about the affair now!”

Pembury looked concerned.

“Allow me to feel your pulse,” said he to Oliver.

“Feel away,” said Oliver, glad of any diversion.

“Hum! As I feared—feverish. Oliver, my boy, you are not well. Wandering a bit in your mind, too; get to bed. Be better soon. Able to talk like an ordinary rational animal then, and not like an animated tom-cat. Good-bye!”

And so saying he departed, leaving the friends too much amused to be angry at his rudeness.

The two friends did a steady evening’s work after this, and the thought of the Nightingale Scholarship drove away for the time all less pleasant recollections.

They slept, after it all, far more soundly than Loman, whose dreams were disturbed by that everlasting top joint all the night long.

The reader will no doubt have already decided in his own mind whether Oliver Greenfield did rightly or wrongly in putting his hands into his pockets instead of using them to knock down Loman. It certainly did not seem to have done him much good at the time. He had lost the esteem of his comrades, he had lost the very temper he had been trying to keep—twenty times since the event—and no one gave him credit for anything but “the better part of valour” in the whole affair.

And yet that one effort of self-restraint was not altogether an unmanly act. At least, so thought Wraysford that night, as he lay meditating upon his friend’s troubles, and found himself liking him none the less for this latest singular piece of eccentricity.