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

CHAPTER XXI. THE FIGHT THAT DID NOT COME OFF


On reaching Saint Dominic’s the three boys discovered that the news of their afternoon’s adventure had arrived there before them. Paul, despite his promise of secrecy, had not been able to refrain from confiding to one or two bosom friends, in strict confidence, his version of the fracas on the tow-path. Of course the story became frightfully distorted in its progress from mouth to mouth, but it flew like wild fire through Saint Dominic’s all the same.

When Oliver and his friend with Stephen entered the school-house, groups of inquisitive boys eyed them askance and whispered as they went by. It seemed quite a disappointment to not a few that the three did not appear covered with blood, or as pale as sheets, or with broken limbs. No one knew exactly what had happened, but every one knew something had happened, and it would have been much more satisfactory if the heroes of the hour had had something to show for it.

Oliver was in no mood for gratifying the curiosity of anybody, and stalked off to his study in gloomy silence, attended by his chum and the anxious Stephen.

A hurried council of war ensued.

“I must go and challenge Loman at once,” said Oliver.

“Let me go,” said Wraysford.

“Why?”

“Because most likely if you go you’ll have a row in his study. Much better wait and have it out decently in the gymnasium. It go and tell him.”

Oliver yielded to this advice.

“Look sharp, old man,” he said, “that’s all.”

Wraysford went off on his mission without delay.

He found Loman in his study with his books before him.

“Greenfield senior wants me to say he’ll meet you after tea in the gymnasium if you’ll come there,” said the ambassador.

Loman, who was evidently prepared for the scene, looked up angrily as he replied—

“Fight me? What does he want to fight me for, I should like to know!”

“You know as well as I do,” said Wraysford.

“I know nothing about it, and what’s more I’ll have nothing to do with the fellow. Tell him that.”

“Then you won’t fight?” exclaimed the astounded Wraysford.

“No, I won’t to please him. When I’ve nothing better to do I’ll do it”; and with the words his face flushed crimson as he bent it once more over his book.

Wraysford was quite taken aback by this unexpected answer, and hesitated before he turned to go.

“Do you hear what I say?” said Loman. “Don’t you see I’m working?”

“Look here,” said Wraysford, “I didn’t think you were a coward.”

“Think what you like. Do you suppose I care? If Greenfield wants so badly to fight me, why didn’t he do it last term when I gave him the chance? Get out of my study, and tell him I’ll have nothing to do with him or any of your stuck-up Fifth!”

Wraysford stared hard at the speaker and then said—

“I suppose you’re afraid to fight me, either?”

“If you don’t clear out of my study I’ll report you to the Doctor, that’s what I’ll do,” growled Loman.

There was no use staying, evidently; and Wraysford returned dejectedly to Oliver.

“He won’t fight,” he announced.

“Not fight!” exclaimed Oliver. “Why ever not?”

“I suppose because he’s a coward. He says because he doesn’t choose.”

“But he must fight, Wray. We must make him!”

“You can’t. I called him a coward, and that wouldn’t make him. You’ll have to give it up this time, Noll.”

But Oliver wouldn’t hear of giving it up so easily. He got up and rushed to Loman’s study himself. But it was locked. He knocked, no one answered. He called through the keyhole, but there was no reply. Evidently Loman did not intend to fight, and Oliver returned crestfallen and disappointed to his study.

“It’s no go,” he said, in answer to his friend’s inquiry.

“Oh, well, never mind,” said Wraysford. “Even if you could have fought, I dare say it wouldn’t have done much good, for he’s such a sullen beggar there would have been no making it up afterwards. If I were you I wouldn’t bother any more about it. I’ll let all the fellows know he refused to fight you!”

“What’s the use of that?” said Oliver. “Why tell them anything about it?”

But tell them or not tell them, the fellows knew already. It had oozed out very soon that a fight was coming off, and instantly the whole school was in excitement. For however little some of them cared about the personal quarrel between Oliver and Loman, a fight between Fifth and Sixth was too great an event to be passed by unheeded.

The Fifth were delighted. They knew their man could beat Loman any day of the week, and however much they had once doubted his courage, now it was known he was the challenger every misgiving on that score was done away with.

“I tell you,” said Ricketts to a small knot of his class-fellows, “he could finish him up easily in one round.”

“Yes,” chimed in another knowing one, “Loman’s got such a wretched knack of keeping up his left elbow, that he’s not a chance. A child could get in under his guard, I tell you; and as for wind, he’s no more wind than an old paper bag!”

“I wish myself it was a closer thing, as long as our man won,” said Tom Senior, with a tinge of melancholy in his voice. “It will be such a miserably hollow affair, I’m afraid.”

“I’m sorry it’s not Wren, or Callonby, or one of them,” said another of these amiable warriors; “there’d be some pleasure in chawing them up.”

At this moment up came Pembury, with a very long face.

“It’s no fight after all, you fellows,” said he. “Loman funks it!”

“What! he won’t fight!” almost shrieked the rest. “It must be wrong.”

“Oh, all right, if it’s wrong,” snarled Pembury. “I tell you there’s no fight; you can believe it or not as you like,” and off he hobbled, in unusual ill-humour.

This was a sad blow to the Fifth. They saw no comfort anywhere. They flocked to Oliver’s study, but he was not there, and Wraysford’s door was locked. The news, however, was confirmed by other reporters, and in great grief and profound melancholy the Fifth swallowed their tea, and wondered if any set of fellows were so unlucky as they.

But their rage was as nothing to that of the Guinea-pigs and Tadpoles.

These amiable young animals had of course sniffed the battle from afar very early in the evening, and, as usual, rushed into all sorts of extremes of enthusiasm on the subject. A fight! A fight between Fifth and Sixth! A fight between Greenfield senior and a monitor! Oh, it was too good to be true, a perfect luxury; something to be grateful for, and no mistake!

Of course a meeting was forthwith assembled to gloat over the auspicious event.

Bramble vehemently expressed his conviction that the Sixth Form man would eat up his opponent, and went the length of offering to cut off his own head and Padger’s if it turned out otherwise.

Paul and his friends, on the other hand, as vehemently backed the Fifth fellow.

“When’s it to come off, I say?” demanded Bramble.

“To-night, I should say, or first thing in the morning.”

“Sure to be to-night. My eye! won’t Greenfield senior look black and blue after it!”

“No, he won’t,” cried Paul.

“Turn him out!” shouted Bramble. “No one wants you here; do we, Padger? Get yourself out of the meeting, you sneak!”

“Get out yourself!” retorted Paul.

The usual lively scene ensued, at the end of which the door suddenly opened, and a boy entered.

“Look sharp,” he cried; “it’s half over by now. They were—”

But what the end of his sentence was to be, history recordeth not. With a simultaneous yell the youngsters rushed headlong from the room, down the passages, out at the door, across the quadrangle, and into the gymnasium. Alas! it was empty. Only the gaunt parallel bars, and idle swings, and melancholy vaulting-horse.

With a yelp of anger the pack cried back, and made once more for the school-house. At the door they met Stephen.

“Where’s the fight, young Greenfield?” shouted Bramble.

“Nowhere,” replied Stephen.

“What! not coming off?” shrieked the youngsters.

“No,” laconically answered Stephen.

“Has your brother funked it again?” demanded Bramble, in his usual conciliatory way.

“He never funked, you young cad!” retorted the young brother.

“Yes, he did, didn’t he, Padger? That time, you know, last term. But I say, Greenfield junior, why ever’s the fight not coming off?”

“Loman won’t fight, that’s why,” said Stephen; and then, having had quite enough of catechising, turned on his heel and left the indignant youngsters to continue their rush back to the Fourth Junior, there to spend an hour or so in denouncing the caddishness of everybody and to make up by their own conflicts for the shortcomings of others.

Oliver meanwhile had settled down as best he could once more to work, and tried to forget all about the afternoon’s adventures. But for a long time they haunted him and disturbed him. Gradually, however, he found himself cooling down under the influence of Greek accents and Roman history.

“After all,” said he to Wraysford, “if the fellow is a coward why need I bother? Only I should have rather liked to thrash him for what he did to Stee.”

“Never mind—thrash him over the Nightingale instead.”

The mention of the Nightingale, however, did not serve to heighten Oliver’s spirits at all.

He turned dejectedly to his books, but soon gave up further study.

“You can go on if you like,” said he to Wraysford. “I can’t. It’s no use. I think I shall go to bed.”

“What! It’s not quite nine yet.”

“Is that all it is? Never mind; good-night, old man. I’m glad it will all be over on Monday.”

Before Oliver went to bed he had a talk with Stephen in his study. He succeeded in putting pretty vividly before his young brother the position in which he had placed himself by going down to the public-house and associating with a man like Cripps.

“What I advise you is, to make a clean breast of it to the Doctor at once. If he hears of it any other way, you’re done for.” Oliver certainly had an uncompromising way of putting things.

“Oh, Noll, I never could! I know I couldn’t. I say, will you? You can tell him anything you like.”

Oliver hesitated a moment, and then said: “All serene; I’ll do it. Mind, I must tell him everything, though.”

“Oh, yes! I say, do you think I’ll be expelled?”

“I hope not. There’s no knowing, though.”

“Oh, Noll! what shall I do?”

“It’s your only chance, I tell you. If Cripps come up and talks about it, or Loman tells, you’re sure to be expelled.”

“Well,” said Stephen, with a gulp, “I suppose you’d better tell him, Noll. Need I come too?”

“No, better not,” said Oliver. “I’ll go and see if he’s in his study now. You go up stairs, and I’ll come and tell you what he says.”

Stephen crawled dismally away, leaving his brother to fulfil his self-imposed task.

Oliver went straight to the Doctor’s study. The door stood half-open, but the Doctor was not there. He entered, and waited inside a couple of minutes, expecting that the head-master would return; but no one came. After all, he would have to put off his confession of Stephen’s delinquencies till to-morrow; and, half relieved, half disappointed, he quitted the room. As he came out he encountered Simon in the passage.

“Hullo, Greenfield!” said that worthy; “what have you been up to in there?”

“I want the Doctor,” said Oliver; “do you know where he is?”

“I saw him go up stairs a minute ago; that is, I mean down stairs, you know,” said the lucid poet.

This information was sufficiently vague to determine Oliver not to attempt a wild-goose chase after the Doctor that night, so, bidding a hurried good-night to Simon, he took his way down the passage which led to Stephen’s dormitory.

He had not, however, gone many steps when a boy met him. It was Loman. There was a momentary struggle in Oliver’s breast. Here was the very opportunity which an hour or two ago he had so eagerly desired. The whole picture of that afternoon’s adventures came up before his mind, and he felt his blood tingle as his eyes caught sight of Stephen’s persecutor. Should he pay off the score now?

Loman saw him, and changed colour. He evidently guessed what was passing through his enemy’s mind, for a quick flush came to his face and an angry scowl to his brow.

Oliver for one moment slackened pace. Then suddenly there came upon him a vision of Stephen’s appealing face as he interceded that afternoon for the boy who had done him such mischief, and that vision settled the thing.

Hurriedly resuming his walk, Oliver passed Loman with averted eyes and went on his way.

“Well?” said Stephen, in the midst of undressing, as his brother entered the dormitory.

“He wasn’t there. I’ll see him in the morning,” said Oliver. “Good-night, Stee.”

“Good-night, Noll, old man! I say, you are a brick to me!” and as the boy spoke there was a tremble in his voice which went straight to his brother’s heart.

“You are a brick to me!” A pretty “brick” he had been, letting the youngster drift anywhere—into bad company, into bad ways, without holding out a hand to warn him; and in the end coming to his help only by accident, and serving him by undertaking a task which would quite possibly result in his expulsion from the school.

A brick, indeed! Oliver went off to his own bed that night more dispirited and dissatisfied with himself than he had ever felt before. And all through his dreams his brother’s troubled face looked up at him, and the trembling voice repeated, again and again, “You are a brick to me—a brick to me!”