The Fifth Form at St. Dominic's/Chapter XVI
If anything had been required to make the “strike” of the Guinea-pigs and Tadpoles a serious matter, the “affair of Greenfield senior’s right foot” undoubtedly had that effect. The éclat which that heroic exploit lent to the mutiny was simply marvellous. The story was told with fifty exaggerations all over the school. One report said that the whole body of the monitors had besieged the Fourth Junior door, and had been repulsed with heavy slaughter. Another declared that Oliver had been captured by the fags, and branded on the soles of his feet with a G and a T, to commemorate the emancipation of the Guinea-pigs and Tadpoles; and a third veracious narrative went so far as to say that the Upper Fifth and several members of the Sixth had humbly come and begged forgiveness for their past misdeeds, and were henceforth to become the fags of their late victims.
True or untrue as these stories were, any amount of glory accompanied the beginning of the strike, and there was sufficient sense of common danger to unite the youngsters in very close bonds. You rarely caught a Guinea-pig or a Tadpole alone now; they walked about in dozens, and were very wide awake. They assembled on every possible occasion in their room, and fortified their door with chairs and desks, and their zeal with fiery orations and excited conjurations. One wretched youth who the first evening had been weak enough to poke his master’s fire, was expelled ignominiously from the community, and for a week afterwards lived the life of an outcast in Saint Dominic’s.
The youngsters were in earnest, and no mistake.
Stephen Greenfield, as was only natural, did not altogether find cause for exultation over the event which led to the strike. For whole day he was very angry on his brother’s account, and threatened to stand aloof from the revolution altogether; but when it was explained to him this would lead to a general “smash-up” of the strike, and when it was further explained that the fellows who caught hold of his big brother’s right foot couldn’t possibly be expected to know to whom that foot belonged, he relented, and entered as enthusiastically as any one into the business.
Indeed, if all the rebels had been like Stephen, the fags at Saint Dominic’s would be on strike to this day. He contemplated martyrdom with the utmost equanimity, and the Inquisition itself never saw a more determined victim.
The morning after the famous “cricket feast” gave him his first opportunity of sacrificing himself for the good of his country. Loman met him in the passage after first-class.
“Why didn’t you turn up and get my breakfast, you idle young vagabond?” inquired the Sixth Form boy, half good-humouredly, and little guessing what was in the wind.
“I’m not idle,” said Stephen.
“Then what do you mean by not doing your work?”
“It’s not my work.”
Loman opened his eyes in amazement, and stared at this bold young hero as if he had dropped from the clouds.
“What!” he cried; “what do you say?”
“It’s not my work,” repeated Stephen, blushing, but very determined.
“Look here, young fellow,” said Loman, when he was sure that he had really heard correctly, “don’t you play any of your little games with me, or you’ll be sorry for it.”
Stephen said nothing, and waited with a tremor for what was to follow.
Loman was hardly a bully naturally. It was always easier for him to be civil than to be angry, especially with small boys, but this cool defiance on the part of his fag was too much for any one’s civility, and Loman began to be angry.
“What do you mean by it?” he said, catching the boy by the arm.
Stephen wrenched away his arm and stood dogged and silent.
Nothing could have irritated Loman more. To be defied and resisted by a youngster like this was an experience quite new to him.
“Just come to my room,” said he, gripping his fag angrily by the shoulder. “We’ll see who’s master of us two!”
Stephen was forced to submit, and allowed himself to be dragged to the study.
“Now!” said Loman, shutting the door.
“Now!” said Stephen, as boldly as he could, and wondering what on earth was to become of him.
“Are you going to do what you’re told, or not?” demanded Loman.
“Not what you tell me,” replied Stephen, promptly, but not exactly cheerfully.
“Oh!” said Loman, his face becoming crimson, “you’re quite sure?”
“Yes,” said Stephen.
“Then take that!” said Loman.
It was a sharp box on the ears, suddenly administered. Stephen recoiled a moment, but only a moment. He had expected something a good deal worse. If that was all, he would brave it out yet.
“Don’t you hit me!” he said, defiantly.
Loman could not stand to be defied. His vanity was his weak point, and nothing offended his vanity so much as to find any one as determined as himself.
He took up a ruler, and in his passion flung it at the luckless Stephen’s head. It struck him hard on the cheek. The blood flushed to the boy’s face as he stood a moment half-stunned and smarting with the pain, confronting his adversary. Then he rushed blindly in and flung himself upon the bully.
Of course it was no match. The small boy was at the mercy of the big one. The latter was indeed taken aback for a moment at the fury of his young assailant, impotent as it was, but that was all. He might have defended himself with a single hand; he might have carried the boy under one arm out into the passage. But the evil spirit had been roused within him, and that spirit knew no mercy. He struck out and fought his little foeman as if he had been one of his own size and strength. For every wild, feeble blow Stephen aimed, Loman aimed a hard and straight blow back. If Stephen wavered, Loman followed in as he would in a professional boxing match, and when at last the small boy gave up, exhausted, bleeding, and scarcely able to stand, his foe administered a parting blow, which, if he had struck no other, would have stamped him as a coward for ever.
“Now!” exclaimed Loman, looking down on his victim, “will you do what you’re told now, eh?”
It was a critical moment for poor Stephen. After all, was the “strike” worth all this hardship? A single word would have saved him; whereas if he again defied his enemy, it was all up with him.
He did waver a moment; and lucky for him he did. For just then the door opened, and Simon entered. Stephen saw his chance. Slipping to the open door, he mustered up energy to cry as loud as he could—
“No, I won’t;” and with that made good his escape into the passage, as done up as a small boy well could be without being quite floored.
A dozen eager friends were at hand to aid in stopping the bleeding of their hero’s nose, and to apply raw steak to his black eye. The story of his desperate encounter flew on the wings of fame all over the school, and the glory and pride of the youngsters reached its climax when, that afternoon, Stephen with his face all on one side, his eye a bright green and yellow, and his under lip about twice its ordinary thickness, took his accustomed place in the arithmetic class of the Fourth Junior.
“Why, Greenfield,” exclaimed Mr. Rastle, when in due time the young hero’s turn came to stand up and answer a question, “what have you been doing to yourself?”
“Nothing sir,” remarked Stephen, mildly.
“How did you come by that black eye?” asked the master.
“Fighting, sir,” said Stephen, rather pompously.
“Ah! what did you say forty-eight sixths was equal to?”
This was Mr. Rastle’s way. He very rarely hauled a boy over the coals before the whole class.
But after the lesson he beckoned Stephen into his study.
“I’m afraid you got the worst of that fight,” he said.
Stephen, who by this time knew Mr. Rastle too well to be afraid of him, and too well, also, not to be quite frank with him, answered meekly—
“The fellow was bigger than me.”
“I should guess that by the state of your face. Now, I don’t want to know what the fight was about though I dare say you’d like to tell me [Stephen was boiling to tell him]. You small boys have such peculiar reasons for fighting, you know, no one can understand them.”
“But this was because—”
“Hush! Didn’t I tell you I won’t hear what it was about, sir!” said Mr. Rastle, sharply. “Did you shake hands afterwards?”
“No, I didn’t, and I won’t!” exclaimed Stephen, forgetting, in his indignation, to whom he was speaking.
“Then,” said Mr. Rastle, quietly, “write me out one hundred lines of Caesar, Greenfield; and when you have recollected how to behave yourself, we will talk more about this. You can go.”
Mr. Rastle was a queer man; he never took things as one expected. When Stephen expected him to be furious he was as mild as a lamb. There was no making him out.
But this was certain: Stephen left his room a good deal more crestfallen than he entered it. He had hoped to win Mr. Rastle’s sympathy and admiration by an account of his grievances, and, instead of that, he was sent off in disgrace, with an imposition for being rude, and feeling anything but a hero.
Even the applause of his friends failed to console him quite. Besides, his head ached badly, and the bruise on his cheek, which he had scarcely felt among his other wounds, now began to swell and grow painful. Altogether, he was in the wars.
He was groaning over his imposition late that evening in the class-room, feeling in dreadful dumps, and wishing he had never come to Saint Dominic’s, when a hand laid on his shoulder made him start. He looked up and saw Mr. Rastle.
“Greenfield,” said the master, kindly, “how much of your imposition have you done?”
“Seventy lines, sir.”
“Hum! That will do this time. You had better get to bed.”
“Oh, sir!” exclaimed Stephen, moved far more by Mr. Rastle’s kind tone than by his letting him off thirty lines of the Caesar, “I’m so sorry I was rude to you.”
“Well, I was sorry, too; so we’ll say no more about that. Why, what a crack you must have got on your cheek!”
“Yes, sir; that was the ruler did that.”
“The ruler! Then it wasn’t a fair fight? Now don’t begin telling me all about it. I dare say you were very heroic, and stood up against terrible odds. But you’ve a very black eye and a very sore cheek now, so you had better get to bed as fast as you can.”
And certainly the pale, bruised, upturned face of the boy did not look very bright at that moment.
Stephen Greenfield went off to bed that night in a perturbed state of mind and body. He had stuck loyally to his promise not to fag, and he had earned the universal admiration of his comrades. But, on the other hand, he had been awfully knocked about, and, almost as bad, he had been effectively snubbed by Mr. Rastle. He did not exactly know what to think of it all. Had he done a fine deed or a foolish one? and what ought he to do to-morrow?
Like a sensible little man, he went sound asleep over these questions, and forgot all about them till the morrow.
When he woke Stephen was like a giant refreshed. His eye was certainly a rather more brilliant yellow than the day before, and his cheek still wore a dull red flush. But somehow he felt none of the misgivings and dumps that had oppressed him the night before. He was full of hope again and full of courage. The Guinea-pigs should never charge him with treachery and desertion, and what he had gone through already in the “good cause” he would go through again.
With this determination he dressed and went down to school. Loman, whose summons he expected every moment to hear, did not put him to the necessity of a renewed struggle. From all quarters, too, encouraging reports came in from the various insurgents. Paul announced that Greenfield senior took it “like a lamb”; Bramble recounted how his “nigger-driver,” as he was pleased to call Wren, had chased him twice round the playground and over the top of the cricket-shed without being able to capture him; and most of the others had exploits equally heroic to boast of. Things were looking up in the Fourth Junior.
They spent a merry morning, these young rebels, wondering in whispers over their lessons what this and that Sixth or Fifth Form fellow had done without them. With great glee they imagined Raleigh blacking his own boots and Pembury boiling his own eggs, and the very idea of such wonders quite frightened them. At that rate Saint Dominic’s would come to a standstill altogether.
“Serve ’em right!” said Bramble; “they want a lesson. I wish I’d two fellows to strike against instead of one!”
“One’s enough if he strikes you back,” said Stephen, with a rueful grin.
Master Bramble evinced his sympathy by laughing aloud. “I say, you look just like a clown; doesn’t he, Padger, with his eye all sorts of colours and his cheek like a house on fire?”
“All very well,” said Stephen; “I wish you’d got my cheek.”
“Bramby’s got cheek enough of his own, I guess,” put in Paul; whereat Master Bramble fired up, and a quarrel became imminent.
However, Stephen prevented it by calling back attention to his own picturesque countenance. “I don’t mind the eye, that don’t hurt; but I can tell you, you fellows, my cheek’s awful!”
“I always said you’d got an awful cheek of your own, young Greenfield,” said Bramble, laughing, as if he was the inventor of the joke.
Stephen glowered at him.
“Well, you said so yourself,” put in Bramble, a little mildly, for since Stephen’s exploit yesterday that young hero had advanced a good deal in the respect of his fellows. “But, I say, why don’t you stick some lotion or something on it? It’ll never get right if you don’t, will it, Padger?”
Padger suggested that young Greenfield might possibly have to have his cheek cut off if he didn’t look out, and Paul said the sooner he “stashed his cheek” the better.
The result of this friendly and witty conference was that Stephen took it into his head to cure his cheek, and to that end applied for leave from Mr. Rastle to go down that afternoon to Maltby to get something from the chemist.
Mr. Rastle gave him leave, and told him the best sort of lotion to ask for, and so, as soon as afternoon school was over, our young champion sallied boldly forth on his errand. He felt very self-satisfied and forgiving to all the world as he walked along. There was no doubt about it, he was a hero. Every one seemed to take an interest in his black eye and sore cheek, from Mr. Rastle downwards. Very likely that fight of his with Loman yesterday would be recorded as long as Saint Dominic’s remained, as the event which saved the lower school from the tyranny of the upper!
His way to the chemist’s lay past the turning up to the Cockchafer, and the idea occurred to him to turn in on the way back and talk over the event of the hour with Mr. Cripps, whom he had not seen since the bagatelle-lesson a week ago. He was sure that good gentleman would sympathise with him, and most likely praise him; and in any case it would be only civil, after promising to come and see him sometimes, to look in.
The only thing was that the Cockchafer, whatever one might say about it, was a public-house. The private door at the side hardly sufficed to satisfy Stephen that he was not breaking rules by going in. He would not have entered by the public door for worlds, and the thought did occur to him, Was there very much difference after all between one door and the other? However, he had not answered the question before he found himself inside, shaking hands with Mr. Cripps.
That gentleman was of course delighted, and profuse in his gratitude to the “young swell” for looking him up. He listened with profound interest and sympathy to his story, and made some very fierce remarks about what he would do to “that there” Loman if he got hold of him. Then the subject of bagatelle happened to come up, and presently Stephen was again delighting and astonishing the good gentleman by his skill in that game. Then in due time it came out that the boy’s mother had bought him a bicycle, and he was going to learn in the holidays, a resolution Mr. Cripps highly approved of, and was certain a clever young fellow like him would learn in no time, which greatly pleased Stephen.
Before parting, Mr. Cripps insisted on lending his young friend a lantern for his bicycle, when he rode it in the dark. It was a specially good one, he said, and the young gentleman could easily return it to him after the holidays, and so on.
Altogether it was a delightful visit, and Stephen wondered more than ever how some of the fellows could think ill of Mr. Cripps.
“Oh, I say,” said the boy, at parting; “don’t do what you said you would to Loman. I’m not afraid of him, you know.”
“I’d like to knock his ugly head off for him!” cried Mr. Cripps, indignantly.
“No, don’t; please don’t! I’d rather not. I dare say he’s sorry for it.”
“I’ll see he is!” growled Mr. Cripps.
“Besides, I’ve forgiven him,” said Stephen, “and oughtn’t to have told tales of him; so mind you don’t do it, Mr. Cripps, will you?”
“I’ll see,” said Mr. Cripps. “Good-bye for the present, young gentleman, and come again soon.”
And so, at peace with all the world, and particularly with himself, Stephen strolled back to Saint Dominic’s, whistling merrily.