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

CHAPTER XXII. A TURN OF THE TIDE


An earthquake could hardly have produced a greater shock than Oliver’s strange conduct produced on the Fifth Form at Saint Dominic’s. For a moment or two they remained almost stupefied with astonishment, and then rose a sudden clamour of tongues on every hand.

“What can he mean?” exclaimed one.

“Mean! It’s easy enough to see what he means,” said another, “the hypocrite!”

“I should never have thought Greenfield senior went in for that sort of thing!”

“Went in for what sort of thing?” cried Wraysford, with pale face and in a perfect tremble.

“Why—cheating!” replied the other.

“You’re a liar to say so!” shouted Wraysford, walking rapidly up to the speaker.

The other boys, however, intervened, and held the indignant Wraysford back.

“I tell you you’re a liar to say so!” again he exclaimed. “He’s not a cheat, I tell you; he never cheated. You’re a pack of liars, all of you!”

“I say, draw it mild, Wray, you know,” interposed Pembury. “You needn’t include me in your compliments.”

Wraysford glared at him a moment and then coloured slightly.

“You don’t call Oliver a cheat?” he said, inquiringly.

“I shouldn’t till I was cock-sure of the fact,” replied the cautious editor of the Dominican.

“Do you mean to say you aren’t sure?” said Wraysford.

Pembury vouchsafed no answer, but whistled to himself.

“All I can say is,” said Bullinger, who was one of Wraysford’s chums, “it looks uncommonly ugly, if what Simon says is true.”

“I don’t believe a word that ass says.”

“Oh, but,” began Simon, with a most aggravating cheerfulness, “I assure you I’m not telling a lie, Wraysford. I’m sorry I laid anything about it. I never thought there would be a row about it. I promise I’ll not mention it to anybody.”

“You blockhead! who cares for your promises? I don’t believe you.”

“Well, I know I met Greenfield senior coming out of the Doctor’s study on Saturday evening, about five minutes past nine. I’m positive of that,” said Simon.

“And I suppose he had the paper in his hand?” sneered Wraysford, looking very miserable.

“No; I expect he’d put it in his pocket, you know, at least, that is, I would have.”

This candid admission on the part of the ingenious poet was too much for the gravity of one or two of the Fifth. Wraysford, however, was in no laughing mood, and went off to his study in great perturbation.

He could not for a moment believe that his friend could be guilty of such a dishonourable act as stealing an examination paper, and his impulse was to go at once to Oliver’s study and get the suspicions of the Fifth laid there and then. But the fear of seeming in the least degree to join in those suspicions kept him back. He tried to laugh the thing to scorn inwardly, and called himself a villain and a traitor twenty times for admitting even the shadow of a doubt into his own mind. Yet, as Wraysford sat that afternoon and brooded over his friend’s new trouble, he became more and more uncomfortable.

When on a former occasion the fellows had called in question Oliver’s courage, he had felt so sure, so very sure the suspicion was a groundless one, that he had never taken it seriously to heart. But somehow this affair was quite different. What possible object would Simon, for instance, have for telling a deliberate lie? and if it had been a lie, why should Oliver have betrayed such confusion on hearing it?

These were questions which, try all he would, Wraysford could not get out of his mind.

When Stephen presently came in, cheery as ever, and eager to hear how the examination had gone off, the elder boy felt an awkwardness in talking to him which he had never experienced before. As for Stephen, he put down the short, embarrassed answers he received to Wraysford’s own uneasiness as to the result of the examination. Little guessed the boy what was passing in the other’s mind!

There was just one hope Wraysford clung to. That was that Oliver should come out anywhere but first in the result. If Loman, or Wraysford himself, were to win, no one would be able to say his friend had profited by a dishonourable act; indeed, it would be as good as proof he had not taken the paper.

And yet Wraysford felt quite sick as he called to mind the unflagging manner in which Oliver had worked at his paper that morning, covering sheet upon sheet with his answers, and scarcely drawing in until time was up. It didn’t look like losing, this.

He threw himself back in his chair in sheer misery.

“I would sooner have done the thing myself,” groaned he to himself, “than Oliver.” Then he suddenly added—

“But it’s not true! I’m certain of it! He couldn’t do it! I’ll never believe it of him!”

Poor Wraysford! It was easier to say the generous words than feel them.

Pembury looked in presently with a face far more serious and overcast than he usually wore.

“I say, Wray,” said he, in troubled tones, “I’m regularly floored by all this. Do you believe it?”

“No, I don’t,” replied Wraysford, but so sadly and hesitatingly that had he at once confessed he did, he could not have expressed his meaning more plainly.

“I’d give anything to be sure it was all false,” said Pembury, “and so would a lot of the fellows. As for that fool Simon—”

“Bah!” exclaimed Wraysford, fiercely, “the fellow ought to be kicked round the school.”

“He’s getting on that way already, I fancy,” said Pembury. “I was saying I’d think nothing at all about it if what he says was the only thing to go by, but—well, you saw what a state Greenfield got into about it?”

“Maybe he was just in a sudden rage with the fellow for thinking of such a thing,” said Wraysford.

“It looked like something more than rage,” said Pembury, dismally, “something a good deal more.”

Wraysford said nothing, but fidgeted in his chair.

A long silence followed, each busy with his own thoughts and both yearning for any sign of hope.

“I don’t see what good it could have done him if he did take the paper. He’d have no time to cram it up yesterday. He was out with you, wasn’t he, all the afternoon?”

“No,” said Wraysford, not looking up, “he had a headache and stayed in.”

Pembury gave a low whistle of dismay.

“I say, Wray,” said he, presently, “it really does look bad, don’t you think so yourself?”

“I don’t know what to think,” said Wraysford, with a groan; “I’m quite bewildered.”

“It’s no use pretending not to see what’s as plain as daylight,” said Pembury, as he turned and hobbled away.

The Fifth meanwhile had been holding a sort of court-martial on the affair.

Simon was made to repeat his story once more, and stuck to it too, in spite of all the browbeating he got.

“What makes you so sure of the exact time?” asked one of his inquisitors.

“Oh, because, you know, I wanted to get off a letter by the post, and thought I was in time till I saw the clock opposite the Doctor’s study said five minutes past.”

“Did Greenfield say anything to you when he saw you?” some one else asked.

“Oh, yes, he asked me if I knew where the Doctor was.”

“Did you tell him?”

“Oh, yes, I said he’d gone down to the hall or somewhere.”

“And did Greenfield go after him?”

“Oh, no, you know, he went off the other way as quick as he could,” said Simon, in a voice as though he would say, “How can you ask such an absurd question?”

“Did you ask him what he wanted in the study?”

“Oh, yes; but of course he didn’t tell me—not likely. But I say I suppose we’re sure to win the Nightingale now, aren’t we? Mind, I’m not going to tell anybody, because, of course, it’s a secret.”

“Shut up, you miserable blockhead, unless you want to be kicked!” shouted Bullinger. “No one wants to know what you’re going to do. You’ve done mischief enough already.”

“Oh, well, I didn’t mean, you know,” said the poet; “all I said was I met him coming—”

“Shut up, do you hear? or you’ll catch it!” once more exclaimed Bullinger.

The wretched Simon gave up further attempts to explain himself. Still, what he had said, in his blundering way, had been quite enough.

The thing was beyond a doubt; and as the Fifth sat there in judgment, a sense of shame and humiliation came over them, to which many of them were unused.

“I know this,” said Ricketts, giving utterance to what was passing in the minds of nearly all his class-fellows, “I’d sooner have lost the scholarship twenty times over than win it like this.”

“Precious fine glory it will be if we do get it!” said Braddy.

“Unless Wray wins,” suggested Ricketts.

“No such luck as that, I’m afraid,” said Bullinger. “That’s just the worst of it. He’s not only disgraced us, but he’s swindled his best friend. It’s a blackguard shame!” added he, fiercely.

“At any rate, Loman is out of it, from what I hear; he got regularly stuck in the exam.”

“I tell you,” said Ricketts, “I’d sooner have had Loman take the scholarship and our two men nowhere at all, than this.”

There was nothing more than this to be said, assuredly, to prove the disgust of the Fifth at the conduct of their class-fellow.

“I suppose Greenfield will have the grace to confess it, now it’s all come out,” said Ricketts.

“If he doesn’t I fancy we can promise him a pretty hot time of it among us,” said Braddy.

One or two laughed at this, but to most of those present the matter was past a joke.

For it must be said of the Dominicans—and I think it may be said of a good many English public school-boys besides—that, however foolish they may have been in other respects, however riotous, however jealous of one another, however well satisfied with themselves, a point of honour was a point which they all took seriously to heart. They could forgive a school-fellow for doing a disobedient act sometimes, or perhaps even a vicious act, but a cowardly or dishonourable action was a thing which nothing would excuse, and which they felt not only a disgrace to the boy perpetrating it, but a disgrace put upon themselves.

Had Oliver been the most popular boy in the school it would have been all the same. As it was, he was a long way from being the most popular. He never took any pains to win the good opinion of his fellows. When, by means of some achievement in which he excelled, he had contrived (as in the case of the cricket match last term) to bring glory on his school and to make himself a hero in the eyes of Saint Dominic’s, he had been wont to take the applause bestowed on him with the utmost indifference, which some might even construe into contempt. And in precisely the same spirit would he take the displeasure which he now and then managed to incur.

Boys don’t like this. It irritates them to see their praise or blame made little of; and for this reason, if for no other, Oliver would hardly have been a favourite.

But there was another reason. Now that the Fifth found their faith in Greenfield senior rudely dashed to the ground, they were not slow to recall the unpleasant incidents of last term, when, by refusing to thrash Loman, he had discredited the whole Form, and laid himself under the suspicion of cowardice.

Most of the fellows had at the time of the Nightingale examination either forgotten, or forgiven, or repented of their suspicions, and, indeed, by his challenge to Loman the previous Saturday Oliver had been considered quite to have redeemed his reputation in this respect. But now it all came up again. A fellow who would do a cowardly deed at one time could do a mean one at another. If one was natural to his character, so was the other, and in fact one explained the other. He was mean when he showed himself a coward last term. He was a coward when he did a mean act this term.

What wonder, in these circumstances, if the Fifth felt sore, very sore indeed, on the subject of Oliver Greenfield?

To every one’s relief, he did not put in an appearance again that day. He kept his study, and Paul brought down word at prayer time that he had a headache and had gone to bed.

At this the Fifth smiled grimly and said nothing.

Next morning, however, Oliver turned up as usual in his place. He looked pale, but otherwise unconcerned, and those who looked for traces of shame and self-abasement in his face were sorely disappointed.

He surely must have known or guessed the resolution the Fifth had come to with regard to him; but from his unabashed manner he was evidently determined not to take it for granted till the hint should be given pretty clearly.

On Ricketts, whose desk was next to that of Oliver, fell the task of first giving this hint.

“How did you get on yesterday in the English Literature?” asked Oliver.

Ricketts’ only answer was to turn his back and begin to talk to his other neighbour.

Those who were watching this incident noticed a sudden flush on Oliver’s cheek as he stared for an instant at his late friend. Then with an effort he seemed to recover himself.

He did not, however, attempt any further conversation either with Ricketts or his other neighbour, Braddy, who in a most marked manner had moved as far as possible away from him. On the contrary, he coolly availed himself of the extra room on the desk and busied himself silently with the lessons for the day.

But he now and then looked furtively up in the direction of Wraysford, who was seated at an opposite desk. The eyes of the two friends met now and then, and when they did each seemed greatly embarrassed. For Wraysford, after a night’s heart-searching, had come to the determination not, after all, to cut his friend; and yet he found it impossible to feel and behave towards him as formerly. He tried very hard indeed not to appear constrained, but the more he tried the more embarrassed he felt. After class he purposely walked across the room to meet his old chum.

“How are you?” he said, in a forced tone and manner utterly unlike his old self.

It was a ridiculous and feeble remark to make, and it would have been far better had he said nothing. Oliver stared at him for a moment in a perplexed way, and then, without answering the question, walked somewhere else.

Wraysford was quite conscious of his own mistake; still it hurt him sorely that his well-meant effort, which had cost him so much, should be thus summarily thrust aside without a word. For the first time in his life he felt a sense of resentment against his old friend, the beginning of a gap which was destined to become wider as time went on.

The only person in the room who did meet Oliver on natural ground was the poetic Simon. To him Oliver walked up and said, quietly—

“I beg your pardon for hitting you yesterday.”

“Oh,” said Simon, with a giggle. “Oh, it’s all right, Greenfield, you know; I never meant to let it out. It’ll soon get hushed up; I don’t intend to let it go a bit farther.”

The poet was too much carried away by the enthusiasm of his own magnanimity to observe that he was in imminent risk, during the delivery of this speech, of another blow a good deal more startling than that of yesterday. When he concluded, he found Oliver had left him to himself and hurriedly quitted the room.