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

The afternoon of the famous “indignation meeting” in the Fourth Junior was the afternoon of the week which Mr. Cripps the younger, putting aside for a season the anxieties and responsibilities of his “public” duties in Maltby, usually devoted to the pursuit of the “gentle craft,” at his worthy father’s cottage by Gusset Weir. Loman, who was aware of this circumstance, and on whose spirit that restless top joint had continued to prey ever since the evening of the misadventure a week ago, determined to avail himself of the opportunity of returning the unlucky fishing-rod into the hands from which he had received it.

He therefore instructed Stephen to take it up to the lock-house with a note to the effect that having changed his mind in the matter since speaking to Cripps, he found he should not require the rod, and therefore returned it, with many thanks for Mr. Cripps’s trouble.

Stephen, little suspecting the questionable nature of his errand, undertook the commission and duly delivered both rod and letter into the hands of Mr. Cripps, who greatly astonished him by swearing very violently at the contents of the letter. “Well,” said he, when he had exhausted his vocabulary (not a small one) of expletives—“well, of all the grinning jackanapeses, this is the coolest go! Do you take me for a fool?”

Stephen, to whom this question appeared to be directly applied, disclaimed any idea of the kind, and added—

“I don’t know what you mean.”

“Don’t you, my young master? All right! Tell Mr. Loman I’ll wait upon him one fine day, see if I don’t! Here’s me, given up a whole blessed day to serve him, and a pot of money out of my pocket, and here he goes! not a penny for my pains! Chucks the thing back on my ’ands as cool as a coocumber, all because he’s changed his mind. I’ll let him have a bit of my mind, tell him, Mr. Gentleman Schoolboy, see if I don’t. I ain’t a-going to be robbed, no! not by all the blessed monkeys that ever wrote on slates! I’ll wait upon him, see if I don’t!”

Stephen, to whom the whole of this oration, which was garnished with words that we can hardly set down in print, or degrade ourselves by suggesting, was about as intelligible as if it had been Hebrew, thought it better to make no reply, and sorrowed inwardly to find that such a nice man as Mr. Cripps should possess so short a temper. But the landlord of the Cockchafer soon recovered from his temporary annoyance, and even proceeded to apologise to Stephen for the warmth of his language.

“You’ll excuse me, young gentleman,” said he, “but I’m a plain-spoken man, and I was—there, I won’t deny it—I was a bit put out about this here rod first go off. You’ll excuse me—of course I don’t mean no offence to you or Mister Loman neither, who’s one of the nicest young gentlemen I ever met. Of course if you’d a’ paid seventy bob out of your own pocket it would give you a turn; leastways, if you was a struggling, honest working man, like me.”

“That’s it,” snivelled old Mr. Cripps, who had entered during this last speech; “that’s it, Benny, my boy. Honest Partisans, that’s what we is, who knows what it are to be in want of a shillin’ to buy a clo’ or two for the childer.”

What particular little “childer” Mr. Cripps senior and his son were specially interested in no one knew, for neither of them was blessed with any. However, it was one of old Mr. Cripps’s heart-moving phrases, and no one was rude enough to ask questions.

Stephen did not, on the present occasion, feel moved to respond to the old man’s lament, and Cripps junior, with more adroitness than filial affection, hustled the old gentleman out of the door.

“Never mind him,” said he to Stephen. “He’s a silly old man, and always pretends he’s starvin’. If you believe me, he’s a thousand pounds stowed away somewheres. I on’y wish,” added he, with a sigh, “he’d give me a taste of it, for it’s ’ard, up-’ill work makin’ ends meet, particular when a man’s deceived by parties. No matter. I’ll pull through; you see!”

Stephen once more did not feel called upon to pursue this line of conversation, and therefore changed the subject.

“Oh, Mr. Cripps, how much is that bat?”

“Bat! Bless me if I hadn’t nearly forgot all about it. Ain’t it a beauty, now?”

“Yes, pretty well,” said Stephen, whose friends had one and all abused the bat, and who was himself a little disappointed in his expectations.

“Pretty well! I like that. You must be a funny cricketer, young gentleman, to call that bat only pretty well. I suppose you want me to take that back, too?” and here Mr. Cripps looked very fierce.

“Oh, no,” said Stephen, hurriedly. “I only want to know what I am to pay for it.”

“Oh, come now, we needn’t mind about that. That’ll keep, you know. As if I wanted the money. Ha, ha!”

Even a green boy like Stephen could not fail to wonder why, if Mr. Cripps was as hard up as he had just described himself, he should now be so anxious to represent himself as not in want of money.

“Please, I want to know the price.”

“As if I was a-going to name prices to a young gentleman like you! Please yourself about it. I shall not be disappointed if you gives me only eighteen-pence, and if you think twelve bob is handsome, well let it be. I can struggle on somehow.”

This was uncomfortable for Stephen, who, too green, fortunately, to comprehend the drift of Mr. Cripps’s gentle hints, again asked that he would name a price.

This time Mr. Cripps answered more precisely.

“Well, that there bat is worth a guinea, if you want to know, but I’ll say a sov. for cash down.”

Stephen whistled a long-drawn whistle of dismay.

“A sovereign! I can’t pay all that! I thought it would be about seven shillings!”

“Did you? You may think what you like, but that’s my price, and you are lucky to get it at that.”

“I shall have to send it back. I can’t afford so much,” said Stephen, despondingly.

“Not if I know it! I’ll have none of your second-hand bats, if I know it. Come, young gentleman, I may be a poor man, but I’m not a fool, and you’ll find it out if I’ve any of your nonsense. Do you suppose I’ve nothing to do but wait on jackanapeses like you and your mates? No error! There you are. That’ll do, and if you don’t like it—well, the governor shall know about it!”

Stephen was dreadfully uncomfortable. Though, to his knowledge, he had done nothing wrong, he felt terribly guilty at the bare notion of the Doctor being informed of his transactions with Mr. Cripps, besides greatly in awe of the vague threats held out by that gentleman. He did not venture on further argument, but, bidding a hasty farewell, returned as fast as he could to Saint Dominic’s, wondering whatever Oliver would say, and sorely repenting the day when first he was tempted to think of the unlucky bat.

He made a clean breast of it to his brother that evening, who, of course, called him an ass, and everything else complimentary, and was deservedly angry. However, Stephen had reason to consider himself lucky to possess an elder brother at the school who had a little more shrewdness than himself. Oliver was determined the debt should be paid at once, without even waiting to write home, and by borrowing ten shillings from Wraysford, and adding to it the residue of his own pocket-money, the sovereign was raised and dispatched that very night to Mr. Cripps; after which Oliver commanded his brother to sit down and write a full confession of his folly home, and ask for the money, promising never to make such a fool of himself again. This task the small boy, with much shame and trembling at heart, accomplished; and in due time an answer came from his mother which not only relieved his mind but paid off his debts to Oliver and Wraysford, and once for all closed the business of the treble-cane splice bat.

It would have been well for Loman if he could have got out of his difficulties as easily and as satisfactorily.

Ever since he had gathered from Stephen Mr. Cripps’s wrath on receiving the returned rod, he had been haunted by a dread lest the landlord of the Cockchafer should march up to Saint Dominic’s, and possibly make an exposure of the unhappy business before the Doctor and the whole school. He therefore, after long hesitation and misgiving, determined himself to call at the Cockchafer, and try in some way to settle matters. One thing reassured him. If Cripps had discovered the crack or the fracture in the rod, he would have heard of it long before now; and if he had not, then the longer the time the less chance was there of the damage being laid at his door. So he let three weeks elapse, and then went to Maltby. The Cockchafer was a small, unpretentious tavern, frequented chiefly by carriers and tradesmen, and, I regret to say, not wholly unknown to some of the boys of Saint Dominic’s, who were foolish enough to persuade themselves that skittles, and billiards, and beer were luxuries worth the risk incurred by breaking one of the rules of the school. No boy was permitted to enter any place of refreshment except a confectioner’s in Maltby under the penalty of a severe punishment, which might, in a bad case, mean expulsion. Loman, therefore, a monitor and a Sixth Form boy, had to take more than ordinary precautions to reach the Cockchafer unobserved, which he succeeded in doing, and to his satisfaction—as well as to his trepidation—found Mr. Cripps the younger at home.

“Ho, ho! my young shaver,” was that worthy’s greeting, “here you are at last.”

This was not encouraging to begin with. It sounded very much as if Mr. Cripps had been looking forward to this visit. However, Loman put as bold a face as he could on it, and replied—

“Hullo, Cripps, how are you? It’s a long time since I saw you; jolly day, isn’t it?”

“Jolly!” replied Mr. Cripps, looking very gloomy, and drawing a glass of beer for the young gentleman before he ordered it. Loman did not like it at all. There was something about Cripps’s manner that made him feel very uncomfortable.

“Oh, Cripps,” he presently began, in as off-hand a manner as he could assume under the depressing circumstances—“Oh, Cripps, about that rod, by the way. I hope you didn’t mind my sending it back. The fact is,” (and here followed a lie which till that moment had not been in the speaker’s mind to tell)—“the fact is, I find I’m to get a present of a rod this summer at home, or else of course I would have kept it.”

Mr. Cripps said nothing, but began polishing up a pewter pot with a napkin.

“I hope you got it back all right,” continued Loman, who felt as if he must say something. “They are such fragile things, you know. I thought I’d just leave it in the bag and not touch it, but send it straight back, for fear it should be damaged.”

There was a queer smile about Mr. Cripps’s mouth as he asked, “Then you didn’t have a look at it even?”

“Well, no, I thought I would—I thought I wouldn’t run any risk.”

Loman was amazed at himself. He had suddenly made up his mind to tell one lie, but here they were following one after another, as if he had told nothing but lies all his life! Alas, there was no drawing back either!

“The fact is,” he began again, speaking for the sake of speaking, and not even knowing what he was going to say—“the fact is—”

Here the street door opened, and there entered hurriedly a boy whom Loman, to his confusion and consternation, recognised as Simon of the Fifth, the author of the “Love-Ballad.” What could the monitor say for himself to explain his presence in this prohibited house?

“Hullo, Loman, I say, is that you?” remarked Simon.

“Oh, Simon, how are you?” faltered the wretched Loman; “I’ve just popped in to speak to Cripps about a fishing-rod. You’d better not come in; you might get into trouble.”

“Oh, never mind. You won’t tell of me, and I won’t tell of you. Glass of the usual, please, Cripps. I say, Loman, was that the fishing-rod you were switching about out of your window that afternoon three weeks ago?”

Loman turned red and white by turns, and wished the earth would swallow him! And to think of this fellow, the biggest donkey in Saint Dominic’s, blurting out the very thing which of all things he had striven to keep concealed!

Mr. Cripps’s mouth worked up into a still more ugly smile.

“I was below in the garden, you know, and could not make out what you were up to. You nearly had my eye out with that hook. I say, what a smash you gave it when it caught in the ivy. Was it broken right off, or only cracked, eh? Cripps will mend it for you, won’t you, Cripps?”

Neither Mr. Cripps nor Loman spoke a word. The latter saw that concealment was no longer possible; and bitterly he rued the day when first he heard the name of Cripps.

That worthy, seeing the game to have come beautifully into his own hands, was not slow to take advantage of it. He beckoned Loman into the inner parlour, whither the boy tremblingly followed, leaving Simon to finish his glass of “the usual” undisturbed.

I need not repeat the painful conversation that ensued between the sharper and the wretched boy. It was no use for the latter to deny or explain. He was at the mercy of the man, and poor mercy it was. Cripps, with many oaths and threats, explained to Loman that he could, if he chose, have him up before a magistrate for fraud, and that he would do so for a very little. Loman might choose for himself between a complete exposure, involving his disgrace for life or paying the price of the rod down and £20 besides, and he might consider himself lucky more was not demanded.

The boy, driven to desperation between terror and shame, implored mercy, and protested with tears in his eyes that he would do anything, if only Cripps did not expose him.

“You know what it is, then,” replied Cripps.

“But how am I to get the £20? I daren’t ask for it at home, and there’s no one here will lend it me. Oh, Cripps, what shall I do?” and the boy actually caught Mr. Cripps’s hand in his own as he put the question.

“Well, look here,” said Mr. Cripps, unbending a little, “that £20 I must have, there’s no mistake about it; but I don’t want to be too hard on you, and I can put you up to raising the wind.”

“Oh, can you?” gasped Loman, eager to clutch at the faintest straw of hope. “I’ll do anything.”

“Very good; then it’s just this: I’ve just got a straight tip about the Derby that I know for certain no one else has got—that is, that Sir Patrick won’t win, favourite and all as he is. Now there’s a friend of mine I can introduce you to, who’s just wanting to put a twenty on the horse, if he can find any one to take it. It wouldn’t do for me to make the wager, or he’d smell a rat; but if you put your money against the horse, you’re bound to win, and all safe. What do you say?”

“I don’t know anything about betting,” groaned Loman. “Are you quite sure I’d win?”

“Certain. If you lose I’ll only ask £10 of you, there! that’s as good as giving you £10 myself on the horse, eh?”

“Well,” said Loman, “I suppose I must. Where is he?”

“Wait here a minute, and I’ll bring him round.”

Loman waited, racked by a sense of ignominy and terror. Yet this seemed his only hope. Could he but get this £20 and pay off Cripps he would be happy. Oh, how he repented listening to that first temptation to deceive!

In due time Mr. Cripps returned with his friend, who was very civil on hearing Loman’s desire to bet against Sir Patrick.

“Make it a £50 note while you are about it,” said he.

“No, £20 is all I want to go for,” replied Loman.

“Twenty then, all serene, sir,” said the gentleman, booking the bet. “What’ll you take to drink?”

“Nothing, thank you,” said Loman, hurriedly rising to leave.

“Good-day, sir,” said Cripps, holding out his hand.

Loman looked at the hand and then at Mr. Cripps’s face. There was the same ugly leer about the latter, into which a spark of anger was infused as the boy still held back from the proffered hand.

With an inward groan Loman gave the hand a spiritless grasp, and then hurried back miserable and conscience-stricken to Saint Dominic’s.