Regulus, a Roman general, defeated the Carthaginians 256 B.C., but was next year defeated and taken prisoner by the Carthaginians, who sent him to Rome with an embassy to ask for peace or an exchange of prisoners. Regulus strongly advised the Roman Senate to make no terms with the enemy. He then returned to Carthage and was put to death.
The Fifth Form had been dragged several times in its collective life, from one end of the school Horace to the other. Those were the years when Army examiners gave thousands of marks for Latin, and it was Mr. King’s hated business to defeat them.
Hear him, then, on a raw November morning at second lesson.
‘Aha!’ he began, rubbing his hands. ‘Cras ingens iterabimus aequor. Our portion today is the Fifth Ode of the Third Book, I believe — concerning one Regulus, a gentleman. And how often have we been through it?’
‘Twice, sir,’ said Malpass, head of the Form.
Mr. King shuddered. ‘Yes, twice, quite literally,’ he said. ‘To-day, with an eye to your Army viva-voce examinations — ugh! — I shall exact somewhat freer and more florid renditions. With feeling and comprehension if that be possible. I except’— here his eye swept the back benches —‘our friend and companion Beetle, from whom, now as always, I demand an absolutely literal translation.’ The form laughed subserviently.
‘Spare his blushes! Beetle charms us first.’
Beetle stood up, confident in the possession of a guaranteed construe, left behind by M’Turk, who had that day gone into the sick-house with a cold. Yet he was too wary a hand to show confidence.
‘Credidimus, we — believe — we have believed,’ he opened in hesitating slow time, ‘tonantem Joven, thundering Jove — regnare, to reign — caelo, in heaven. Augustus, Augustus — habebitur, will be held or considered — praesens divus, a present God — adjectis Britannis, the Britons being added — imperio, to the Empire — gravibusque Persis, with the heavy — er, stern Persians.’
‘The grave or stern Persians.’ Beetle pulled up with the ‘Thank–God-I-have-done-my-duty’ air of Nelson in the cockpit.
‘I am quite aware,’ said King, ‘that the first stanza is about the extent of your knowledge, but continue, sweet one, continue. Gravibus, by the way, is usually translated as “troublesome.”’
Beetle drew a long and tortured breath. The second stanza (which carries over to the third) of that Ode is what is technically called a ‘stinker.’ But M’Turk had done him handsomely.
‘Milesne Crassi, had — has the soldier of Crassus — vixit, lived — turpis maritus, a disgraceful husband —’
‘You slurred the quantity of the word after turpis,’ said King. ‘Let’s hear it.’
Beetle guessed again, and for a wonder hit the correct quantity. ‘Er — a disgraceful husband — conjuge barbara, with a barbarous spouse.’
‘Why do you select that disgustful equivalent out of all the dictionary?’ King snapped. ‘Isn’t “wife” good enough for you?’
‘Yes, sir. But what do I do about this bracket, sir? Shall I take it now?’
‘Confine yourself at present to the soldier of Crassus.’
‘Yes, sir. Et, and — consenuit, has he grown old — in armis, in the — er — arms — hositum socerorum, of his father-inlaw’s enemies.’
‘Who? How? Which?’
‘Arms of his enemies’ fathers-inlaw, sir.’
‘Tha-anks. By the way, what meaning might you attach to in armis?’
‘Oh, weapons — weapons of war, sir.’ There was a virginal note in Beetle’s voice as though he had been falsely accused of uttering indecencies. ‘Shall I take the bracket now, sir?’
‘Since it seems to be troubling you.’
‘Pro Curia, O for the Senate House — inversique mores, and manners upset — upside down.’
‘Ve-ry like your translation. Meantime, the soldier of Crassus?’
‘Sub rege Medo, under a Median King — Marsus et Apulus, he being a Marsian and an Apulian.’
‘Who? The Median King?’
‘No, sir. The soldier of Crassus. Oblittus agrees with milesne Crassi, sir,’ volunteered too-hasty Beetle.
‘Does it? It doesn’t with me.’
‘Oh-blight-us,’ Beetle corrected hastily, ‘forgetful — anciliorum, of the shields, or trophies — et nominis, and the — his name — et togae, and the toga — eternaeque Vestae, and eternal Vesta — incolumi Jove, Jove being safe — et urbe Roma, and the Roman city.’ With an air of hardly restrained zeal —‘Shall I go on, sir?’
Mr. King winced. ‘No, thank you. You have indeed given us a translation! May I ask if it conveys any meaning whatever to your so-called mind?’
‘Oh, I think so, sir.’ This with gentle toleration for Horace and all his works.
‘We envy you. Sit down.’
Beetle sat down relieved, well knowing that a reef of uncharted genitives stretched ahead of him, on which in spite of M’Turk’s sailing-directions he would infallibly have been wrecked.
Rattray, who took up the task, steered neatly through them and came unscathed to port.
‘Here we require drama,’ said King. ‘Regulus himself is speaking now. Who shall represent the provident-minded Regulus? Winton, will you kindly oblige?’
Winton of King’s House, a long, heavy, tow-headed Second Fifteen forward, overdue for his First Fifteen colours, and in aspect like an earnest, elderly horse, rose up, and announced, among other things, that he had seen ‘signs affixed to Punic deluges.’ Half the Form shouted for joy, and the other half for joy that there was something to shout about.
Mr. King opened and shut his eyes with great swiftness. ‘Signa adfixa delubris,’ he gasped. ‘So delubris is “deluges” is it? Winton, in all our dealings, have I ever suspected you of a jest?’
‘No, sir,’ said the rigid and angular Winton, while the Form rocked about him.
‘And yet you assert delubris means “deluges.” Whether I am a fit subject for such a jape is, of course, a matter of opinion, but. . . . Winton, you are normally conscientious. May we assume you looked out delubris?’
‘No, sir.’ Winton was privileged to speak that truth dangerous to all who stand before Kings.
‘‘Made a shot at it then?’
Every line of Winton’s body showed he had done nothing of the sort. Indeed, the very idea that ‘Pater’ Winton (and a boy is not called ‘Pater’ by companions for his frivolity) would make a shot at anything was beyond belief. But he replied, ‘Yes,’ and all the while worked with his right heel as though he were heeling a ball at punt-about.
Though none dared to boast of being a favourite with King, the taciturn, three-cornered Winton stood high in his House–Master’s opinion. It seemed to save him neither rebuke nor punishment, but the two were in some fashion sympathetic.
‘Hm!’ said King drily. ‘I was going to say — Flagito additis damnum, but I think — I think I see the process. Beetle, the translation of delubris, please.’
Beetle raised his head from his shaking arm long enough to answer: ‘Ruins, sir.’
There was an impressive pause while King checked off crimes on his fingers. Then to Beetle the much-enduring man addressed winged words:
‘Guessing,’ said he. ‘Guessing, Beetle, as usual, from the look of delubris that it bore some relation to diluvium or deluge, you imparted the result of your half-baked lucubrations to Winton who seems to have been lost enough to have accepted it. Observing next, your companion’s fall, from the presumed security of your undistinguished position in the rear-guard, you took another pot-shot. The turbid chaos of your mind threw up some memory of the word “dilapidations” which you have pitifully attempted to disguise under the synonym of “ruins.”’
As this was precisely what Beetle had done he looked hurt but forgiving. ‘We will attend to this later,’ said King. ‘Go on, Winton, and retrieve yourself.’
Delubris happened to be the one word which Winton had not looked out and had asked Beetle for, when they were settling into their places. He forged ahead with no further trouble. Only when he rendered scilicet as ‘forsooth,’ King erupted.
‘Regulus,’ he said, ‘was not a leader-writer for the penny press, nor, for that matter, was Horace. Regulus says: “The soldier ransomed by gold will come keener for the fight — will he by — by gum!” That’s the meaning of scilicet. It indicates contempt — bitter contempt. “Forsooth,” forsooth! You’ll be talking about “speckled beauties” and “eventually transpire” next. Howell, what do you make of that doubled “Vidi ego — ego vidi”? It wasn’t put in to fill up the metre, you know.’
‘Isn’t it intensive, sir?’ said Howell, afflicted by a genuine interest in what he read. ‘Regulus was a bit in earnest about Rome making no terms with Carthage — and he wanted to let the Romans understand it, didn’t he, sir?’
‘Less than your usual grace, but the fact. Regulus was in earnest. He was also engaged at the same time in cutting his own throat with every word he uttered. He knew Carthage which (your examiners won’t ask you this so you needn’t take notes) was a sort of God-forsaken nigger Manchester. Regulus was not thinking about his own life. He was telling Rome the truth. He was playing for his side. Those lines from the eighteenth to the fortieth ought to be written in blood. Yet there are things in human garments which will tell you that Horace was a flâneur — a man about town. Avoid such beings. Horace knew a very great deal. He knew! Erit ille fortis —“will he be brave who once to faithless foes has knelt?” And again (stop pawing with your hooves, Thornton!) hic unde vitam sumeret inscius. That means roughly — but I perceive I am ahead of my translators. Begin at hic unde, Vernon, and let us see if you have the spirit of Regulus.’
Now no one expected fireworks from gentle Paddy Vernon, sub-prefect of Hartopp’s House, but, as must often be the case with growing boys, his mind was in abeyance for the time being, and he said, all in a rush, on behalf of Regulus: ‘O magna Carthago probrosis altior Italiae ruinis, O Carthage, thou wilt stand forth higher than the ruins of Italy.’
Even Beetle, most lenient of critics, was interested at this point, though he did not join the half-groan of reprobation from the wiser heads of the Form.
‘Please don’t mind me,’ said King, and Vernon very kindly did not. He ploughed on thus: ‘He (Regulus) is related to have removed from himself the kiss of the shameful wife and of his small children as less by the head, and, being stern, to have placed his virile visage on the ground.’
Since King loved ‘virile’ about as much as he did ‘spouse’ or ‘forsooth’ the Form looked up hopefully. But Jove thundered not.
‘Until,’ Vernon continued, ‘he should have confirmed the sliding fathers as being the author of counsel never given under an alias.’
He stopped, conscious of stillness round him like the dread calm of the typhoon’s centre. King’s opening voice was sweeter than honey.
‘I am painfully aware by bitter experience that I cannot give you any idea of the passion, the power, the — the essential guts of the lines which you have so foully outraged in our presence. But —’ the note changed, ‘so far as in me lies, I will strive to bring home to you, Vernon, the fact that there exist in Latin a few pitiful rules of grammar, of syntax, nay, even of declension, which were not created for your incult sport — your Boeotian diversion. You will, therefore, Vernon, write out and bring to me tomorrow a word-for-word English–Latin translation of the Ode, together with a full list of all adjectives — an adjective is not a verb, Vernon, as the Lower Third will tell you — all adjectives, their number, case, and gender. Even now I haven’t begun to deal with you faithfully.’
‘I— I’m very sorry, sir,’ Vernon stammered.
‘You mistake the symptoms, Vernon. You are possibly discomfited by the imposition, but sorrow postulates some sort of mind, intellect, nous. Your rendering of probrosis alone stamps you as lower than the beasts of the field. Will some one take the taste out of our mouths? And — talking of tastes —’ He coughed. There was a distinct flavour of chlorine gas in the air. Up went an eyebrow, though King knew perfectly well what it meant.
‘Mr. Hartopp’s st — science class next door,’ said Malpass.
‘Oh yes. I had forgotten. Our newly established Modern Side, of course. Perowne, open the windows; and Winton, go on once more from interque maerentes.’
‘And hastened away,’ said Winton, ‘surrounded by his mourning friends, into — into illustrious banishment. But I got that out of Conington, sir,’ he added in one conscientious breath.
‘I am aware. The master generally knows his ass’s crib, though I acquit you of any intention that way. Can you suggest anything for egregius exul? Only “egregious exile”? I fear “egregious” is a good word ruined. No! You can’t in this case improve on Conington. Now then for atqui sciebat quae sibi barbarus tortor pararet. The whole force of it lies in the atqui.’
‘Although he knew,’ Winton suggested.
‘Stronger than that, I think.’
‘He who knew well,’ Malpass interpolated.
‘Ye-es. “Well though he knew.” I don’t like Conington’s “well-witting.” It’s Wardour Street.’
‘Well though he knew what the savage torturer was — was getting ready for him,’ said Winton.
‘Ye-es. Had in store for him.’
‘Yet he brushed aside his kinsmen and the people delaying his return.’
‘Ye-es; but then how do you render obstantes?’
‘If it’s a free translation mightn’t obstantes and morantem come to about the same thing, sir?’
‘Nothing comes to “about the same thing” with Horace, Winton. As I have said, Horace was not a journalist. No, I take it that his kinsmen bodily withstood his departure, whereas the crowd — populumque — the democracy stood about futilely pitying him and getting in the way. Now for that noblest of endings — quam si clientum,’ and King ran off into the quotation:
‘As though some tedious business o’er
Of clients’ court, his journey lay
Towards Venafrum’s grassy floor
Or Sparta-built Tarentum’s bay.
All right, Winton. Beetle, when you’ve quite finished dodging the fresh air yonder, give me the meaning of tendens — and turn down your collar.’
‘Me, sir? Tendens, sir? Oh! Stretching away in the direction of, sir.’
‘Idiot! Regulus was not a feature of the landscape. He was a man, self-doomed to death by torture. Atqui, sciebat — knowing it — having achieved it for his country’s sake — can’t you hear that atqui cut like a knife? — he moved off with some dignity. That is why Horace out of the whole golden Latin tongue chose the one word “tendens”— which is utterly untranslatable.’
The gross injustice of being asked to translate it, converted Beetle into a young Christian martyr, till King buried his nose in his handkerchief again.
‘I think they’ve broken another gas-bottle next door, sir,’ said Howell. ‘They’re always doing it.’ The Form coughed as more chlorine came in.
‘Well, I suppose we must be patient with the Modern Side,’ said King. ‘But it is almost insupportable for this Side. Vernon, what are you grinning at?’
Vernon’s mind had returned to him glowing and inspired. He chuckled as he underlined his Horace.
‘It appears to amuse you,’ said King. ‘Let us participate. What is it?’
‘The last two lines of the Tenth Ode, in this book, sir,’ was Vernon’s amazing reply.
‘What? Oh, I see. Non hoc semper erit liminis aut aquae caelestis patiens latus2.’ King’s mouth twitched to hide a grin. ‘Was that done with intention?’
2 ‘This side will not always be patient of rain and waiting on the threshold.’
‘I— I thought it fitted, sir.’
‘It does. It’s distinctly happy. What put it into your thick head, Paddy?’
‘I don’t know, sir, except we did the Ode last term.’
‘And you remembered? The same head that minted probrosis as a verb! Vernon, you are an enigma. No! This Side will not always be patient of unheavenly gases and waters. I will make representations to our so-called Moderns. Meantime (who shall say I am not just?) I remit you your accrued pains and penalties in regard to probrosim, probrosis, probrosit and other enormities. I oughtn’t to do it, but this Side is occasionally human. By no means bad, Paddy.’
‘Thank you, sir,’ said Vernon, wondering how inspiration had visited him.
Then King, with a few brisk remarks about Science, headed them back to Regulus, of whom and of Horace and Rome and evil-minded commercial Carthage and of the democracy eternally futile, he explained, in all ages and climes, he spoke for ten minutes; passing thence to the next Ode — Delicta Majorum — where he fetched up, full-voiced, upon —‘Dis te minorem quod geris imperas’ (Thou rulest because thou bearest thyself as lower than the Gods)— making it a text for a discourse on manners, morals, and respect for authority as distinct from bottled gases, which lasted till the bell rang. Then Beetle, concertinaing his books, observed to Winton, ‘When King’s really on tap he’s an interestin’ dog. Hartopp’s chlorine uncorked him.’
‘Yes; but why did you tell me delubris was “deluges,” you silly ass?’ said Winton.
‘Well, that uncorked him too. Look out, you hoof-handed old owl!’ Winton had cleared for action as the Form poured out like puppies at play and was scragging Beetle. Stalky from behind collared Winton low. The three fell in confusion.
‘Dis te minorem quod geris imperas,’ quoth Stalky, ruffling Winton’s lint-white locks. ‘Mustn’t jape with Number Five study. Don’t be too virtuous. Don’t brood over it. ‘Twon’t count against you in your future caree-ah. Cheer up, Pater.’
‘Pull him off my — er — essential guts, will you?’ said Beetle from beneath. ‘He’s squashin’ ’em.’
They dispersed to their studies.
No one, the owner least of all, can explain what is in a growing boy’s mind. It might have been the blind ferment of adolescence; Stalky’s random remarks about virtue might have stirred him; like his betters he might have sought popularity by way of clowning; or, as the Head asserted years later, the only known jest of his serious life might have worked on him, as a sober-sided man’s one love colours and dislocates all his after days. But, at the next lesson, mechanical drawing with Mr. Lidgett who as drawing-master had very limited powers of punishment, Winton fell suddenly from grace and let loose a live mouse in the form-room. The whole form, shrieking and leaping high, threw at it all the plaster cones, pyramids, and fruit in high relief — not to mention ink-pots — that they could lay hands on. Mr. Lidgett reported at once to the Head; Winton owned up to his crime, which, venial in the Upper Third, pardonable at a price in the Lower Fourth, was, of course, rank ruffianism on the part of a Fifth Form boy; and so, by graduated stages, he arrived at the Head’s study just before lunch, penitent, perturbed, annoyed with himself and — as the Head said to King in the corridor after the meal — more human than he had known him in seven years.
‘You see,’ the Head drawled on, ‘Winton’s only fault is a certain costive and unaccommodating virtue. So this comes very happily.’
‘I’ve never noticed any sign of it,’ said King. Winton was in King’s House, and though King as pro-consul might, and did, infernally oppress his own Province, once a black and yellow cap was in trouble at the hands of the Imperial authority King fought for him to the very last steps of Caesar’s throne.
‘Well, you yourself admitted just now that a mouse was beneath the occasion,’ the Head answered.
‘It was.’ Mr. King did not love Mr. Lidgett. ‘It should have been a rat. But — but — I hate to plead it — it’s the lad’s first offence.’
‘Could you have damned him more completely, King?’
‘Hm. What is the penalty?’ said King, in retreat, but keeping up a rear-guard action.
‘Only my usual few lines of Virgil to be shown up by tea-time.’
The Head’s eyes turned slightly to that end of the corridor where Mullins, Captain of the Games (‘Pot,’ ‘old Pot,’ or ‘Potiphar’ Mullins), was pinning up the usual Wednesday notice —‘Big, Middle, and Little Side Football — A to K, L to Z, 3 to 4.45 P.M.’
You cannot write out the Head’s usual few (which means five hundred) Latin lines and play football for one hour and three-quarters between the hours of 1.30 and 5 P.M. Winton had evidently no intention of trying to do so, for he hung about the corridor with a set face and an uneasy foot. Yet it was law in the school, compared with which that of the Medes and Persians was no more than a non-committal resolution, that any boy, outside the First Fifteen, who missed his football for any reason whatever, and had not a written excuse, duly signed by competent authority to explain his absence, would receive not less than three strokes with a ground-ash from the Captain of the Games, generally a youth between seventeen and eighteen years, rarely under eleven stone (‘Pot’ was nearer thirteen), and always in hard condition.
King knew without inquiry that the Head had given Winton no such excuse.
‘But he is practically a member of the First Fifteen. He has played for it all this term,’ said King. ‘I believe his Cap should have arrived last week.’
‘His Cap has not been given him. Officially, therefore, he is naught. I rely on old Pot.’
‘But Mullins is Winton’s study-mate,’ King persisted.
Pot Mullins and Pater Winton were cousins and rather close friends.
‘That will make no difference to Mullins — or Winton, if I know ’em,’ said the Head.
‘But — but,’ King played his last card desperately, ‘I was going to recommend Winton for extra sub-prefect in my House, now Carton has gone.’
‘Certainly,’ said the Head. ‘Why not? He will be excellent by tea-time, I hope.’
At that moment they saw Mr. Lidgett, tripping down the corridor, waylaid by Winton.
‘It’s about that mouse-business at mechanical drawing,’ Winton opened, swinging across his path.
‘Yes, yes, highly disgraceful,’ Mr. Lidgett panted.
‘I know it was,’ said Winton. ‘It — it was a cad’s trick because —’
‘Because you knew I couldn’t give you more than fifty lines,’ said Mr. Lidgett.
‘Well, anyhow I’ve come to apologise for it.’
‘Certainly,’ said Mr. Lidgett, and added, for he was a kindly man, ‘I think that shows quite right feeling. I’ll tell the Head at once I’m satisfied.’
‘No — no!’ The boy’s still unmended voice jumped from the growl to the squeak. ‘I didn’t mean that! I— I did it on principle. Please don’t — er — do anything of that kind.’
Mr. Lidgett looked him up and down and, being an artist, understood.
‘Thank you, Winton,’ he said. ‘This shall be between ourselves.’
‘You heard?’ said King, indecent pride in his voice.
‘Of course. You thought he was going to get Lidgett to beg him off the impot.’
King denied this with so much warmth that the Head laughed and King went away in a huff.
‘By the way,’ said the Head, ‘I’ve told Winton to do his lines in your form-room — not in his study.’
‘Thanks,’ said King over his shoulder, for the Head’s orders had saved Winton and Mullins, who was doing extra Army work in the study, from an embarrassing afternoon together.
An hour later, King wandered into his still form-room as though by accident. Winton was hard at work.
‘Aha!’ said King, rubbing his hands. ‘This does not look like games, Winton. Don’t let me arrest your facile pen. Whence this sudden love for Virgil?’
‘Impot from the Head, sir, for that mouse-business this morning.’
‘Rumours thereof have reached us. That was a lapse on your part into Lower Thirdery which I don’t quite understand.’
The ‘tump-tump’ of the puntabouts before the sides settled to games came through the open window. Winton, like his House–Master, loved fresh air. Then they heard Paddy Vernon, sub-prefect on duty, calling the roll in the field and marking defaulters. Winton wrote steadily. King curled himself up on a desk, hands round knees. One would have said that the man was gloating over the boy’s misfortune, but the boy understood.
‘Dis te minorem quod geris imperas,’ King quoted presently. ‘It is necessary to bear oneself as lower than the local gods — even than drawing-masters who are precluded from effective retaliation. I do wish you’d tried that mouse-game with me, Pater.’
Winton grinned; then sobered ‘It was a cad’s trick, sir, to play on Mr. Lidgett.’ He peered forward at the page he was copying.
‘Well, “the sin I impute to each frustrate ghost”—’ King stopped himself. ‘Why do you goggle like an owl? Hand me the Mantuan and I’ll dictate. No matter. Any rich Virgilian measures will serve. I may peradventure recall a few.’ He began:
‘Tu regere imperio populos Romane memento
Hae tibi erunt artes pacisque imponere morem,
Parcere subjectis et debellare superbos.
There you have it all, Winton. Write that out twice and yet once again.’
For the next forty minutes, with never a glance at the book, King paid out the glorious hexameters (and King could read Latin as though it were alive), Winton hauling them in and coiling them away behind him as trimmers in a telegraph-ship’s hold coil away deep-sea cable. King broke from the Aeneid to the Georgics and back again, pausing now and then to translate some specially loved line or to dwell on the treble-shot texture of the ancient fabric. He did not allude to the coming interview with Mullins except at the last, when he said, ‘I think at this juncture, Pater, I need not ask you for the precise significance of atqui sciebat quae sibi barbarus tortor.’
The ungrateful Winton flushed angrily, and King loafed out to take five o’clock call-over, after which he invited little Hartopp to tea and a talk on chlorine-gas. Hartopp accepted the challenge like a bantam, and the two went up to King’s study about the same time as Winton returned to the form-room beneath it to finish his lines.
Then half a dozen of the Second Fifteen, who should have been washing, strolled in to condole with ‘Pater’ Winton, whose misfortune and its consequences were common talk. No one was more sincere than the long, red-headed, knotty-knuckled ‘Paddy’ Vernon, but, being a careless animal, he joggled Winton’s desk.
‘Curse you for a silly ass!’ said Winton. ‘Don’t do that.’
No one is expected to be polite while under punishment, so Vernon, sinking his sub-prefectship, replied peacefully enough:
‘Well, don’t be wrathy, Pater.’
‘I’m not,’ said Winton. ‘Get out! This ain’t your House form-room.’
‘‘Form-room don’t belong to you. Why don’t you go to your own study?’ Vernon replied.
‘Because Mullins is there waitin’ for the victim,’ said Stalky delicately, and they all laughed. ‘You ought to have shaken that mouse out of your trouser-leg, Pater. That’s the way I did in my youth. Pater’s revertin’ to his second childhood. Never mind, Pater, we all respect you and your future caree-ah.’
Winton, still writhing, growled. Vernon leaning on the desk somehow shook it again. Then he laughed.
‘What are you grinning at?’ Winton asked.
‘I was only thinkin’ of you being sent up to take a lickin’ from Pot. I swear I don’t think it’s fair. You’ve never shirked a game in your life, and you’re as good as in the First Fifteen already. Your Cap ought to have been delivered last week, oughtn’t it?’
It was law in the school that no man could by any means enjoy the privileges and immunities of the First Fifteen till the black velvet cap with the gold tassel, made by dilatory Exeter outfitters, had been actually set on his head. Ages ago, a large-built and unruly Second Fifteen had attempted to change this law, but the prefects of that age were still larger, and the lively experiment had never been repeated.
‘Will you,’ said Winton very slowly, ‘kindly mind your own damned business, you cursed, clumsy, fat-headed fool?’
The form-room was as silent as the empty field in the darkness outside. Vernon shifted his feet uneasily.
‘Well, I shouldn’t like to take a lickin’ from Pot,’ he said.
‘Wouldn’t you?’ Winton asked, as he paged the sheets of lines with hands that shook.
‘No, I shouldn’t,’ said Vernon, his freckles growing more distinct on the bridge of his white nose.
‘Well, I’m going to take it’— Winton moved clear of the desk as he spoke. ‘But you’re going to take a lickin’ from me first.’ Before any one realised it, he had flung himself neighing against Vernon. No decencies were observed on either side, and the rest looked on amazed. The two met confusedly, Vernon trying to do what he could with his longer reach; Winton, insensible to blows, only concerned to drive his enemy into a corner and batter him to pulp. This he managed over against the fire-place, where Vernon dropped half-stunned. ‘Now I’m going to give you your lickin’,’ said Winton. ‘Lie there till I get a ground-ash and I’ll cut you to pieces. If you move, I’ll chuck you out of the window.’ He wound his hands into the boy’s collar and waistband, and had actually heaved him half off the ground before the others with one accord dropped on his head, shoulders, and legs. He fought them crazily in an awful hissing silence. Stalky’s sensitive nose was rubbed along the floor; Beetle received a jolt in the wind that sent him whistling and crowing against the wall; Perowne’s forehead was cut, and Malpass came out with an eye that explained itself like a dying rainbow through a whole week.
‘Mad! Quite mad!’ said Stalky, and for the third time wriggled back to Winton’s throat. The door opened and King came in, Hartopp’s little figure just behind him. The mound on the floor panted and heaved but did not rise, for Winton still squirmed vengefully. ‘Only a little play, sir,’ said Perowne. ‘‘Only hit my head against a form.’ This was quite true.
‘Oh,’ said King. ‘Dimovit obstantes propinquos. You, I presume, are the populus delaying Winton’s return to — Mullins, eh?’
‘No, sir,’ said Stalky behind his claret-coloured handkerchief. ‘We’re the maerentes amicos.’
‘Not bad! You see, some of it sticks after all,’ King chuckled to Hartopp, and the two masters left without further inquiries.
The boys sat still on the now-passive Winton.
‘Well,’ said Stalky at last, ‘of all the putrid he-asses, Pater, you are the —’
‘I’m sorry. I’m awfully sorry,’ Winton began, and they let him rise. He held out his hand to the bruised and bewildered Vernon. ‘Sorry, Paddy. I— I must have lost my temper. I— I don’t know what’s the matter with me.’
‘‘Fat lot of good that’ll do my face at tea,’ Vernon grunted. ‘Why couldn’t you say there was something wrong with you instead of lamming out like a lunatic? Is my lip puffy?’
‘Just a trifle. Look at my beak! Well, we got all these pretty marks at footer — owin’ to the zeal with which we played the game,’ said Stalky, dusting himself. ‘But d’you think you’re fit to be let loose again, Pater? ‘Sure you don’t want to kill another sub-prefect? I wish I was Pot. I’d cut your sprightly young soul out.’
‘I s’pose I ought to go to Pot now,’ said Winton.
‘And let all the other asses see you lookin’ like this! Not much. We’ll all come up to Number Five Study and wash off in hot water. Beetle, you aren’t damaged. Go along and light the gas-stove.’
‘There’s a tin of cocoa in my study somewhere,’ Perowne shouted after him. ‘Rootle round till you find it, and take it up.’
Separately, by different roads, Vernon’s jersey pulled half over his head, the boys repaired to Number Five Study. Little Hartopp and King, I am sorry to say, leaned over the banisters of King’s landing and watched.
‘Ve-ry human,’ said little Hartopp. ‘Your virtuous Winton, having got himself into trouble, takes it out of my poor old Paddy. I wonder what precise lie Paddy will tell about his face.’
‘But surely you aren’t going to embarrass him by asking?’ said King.
‘Your boy won,’ said Hartopp.
‘To go back to what we were discussing,’ said King quickly, ‘do you pretend that your modern system of inculcating unrelated facts about chlorine, for instance, all of which may be proved fallacies by the time the boys grow up, can have any real bearing on education — even the low type of it that examiners expect?’
‘I maintain nothing. But is it any worse than your Chinese reiteration of uncomprehended syllables in a dead tongue?’
‘Dead, forsooth!’ King fairly danced. ‘The only living tongue on earth! Chinese! On my word, Hartopp!’
‘And at the end of seven years — how often have I said it?’ Hartopp went on — ‘seven years of two hundred and twenty days of six hours each, your victims go away with nothing, absolutely nothing, except, perhaps, if they’ve been very attentive, a dozen — no, I’ll grant you twenty — one score of totally unrelated Latin tags which any child of twelve could have absorbed in two terms.’
‘But — but can’t you realise that if our system brings later — at any rate — at a pinch — a simple understanding — grammar and Latinity apart — a mere glimpse of the significance (foul word!) of, we’ll say, one Ode of Horace, one twenty lines of Virgil, we’ve got what we poor devils of ushers are striving after?’
‘And what might that be?’ said Hartopp.
‘Balance, proportion, perspective — life. Your scientific man is the unrelated animal — the beast without background. Haven’t you ever realised that in your atmosphere of stinks?’
‘Meantime you make them lose life for the sake of living, eh?’
‘Blind again, Hartopp! I told you about Paddy’s quotation this morning. (But he made probrosis a verb, he did!) You yourself heard young Corkran’s reference to maerentes amicos. It sticks — a little of it sticks among the barbarians.’
‘Absolutely and essentially Chinese,’ said little Hartopp, who, alone of the common-room, refused to be outfaced by King. ‘But I don’t yet understand how Paddy came to be licked by Winton. Paddy’s supposed to be something of a boxer.’
‘Beware of vinegar made from honey,’ King replied. ‘Pater, like some other people, is patient and long-suffering, but he has his limits. The Head is oppressing him damnably, too. As I pointed out, the boy has practically been in the First Fifteen since term began.’
‘But, my dear fellow, I’ve known you give a boy an impot and refuse him leave off games, again and again.’
‘Ah, but that was when there was real need to get at some oaf who couldn’t be sensitised in any other way. Now, in our esteemed Head’s action I see nothing but —’
The conversation from this point does not concern us.
Meantime Winton, very penitent and especially polite towards Vernon, was being cheered with cocoa in Number Five Study. They had some difficulty in stemming the flood of his apologies. He himself pointed out to Vernon that he had attacked a sub-prefect for no reason whatever, and, therefore, deserved official punishment.
‘I can’t think what was the matter with me today,’ he mourned. ‘Ever since that blasted mouse-business —’
‘Well, then, don’t think,’ said Stalky. ‘Or do you want Paddy to make a row about it before all the school?’
Here Vernon was understood to say that he would see Winton and all the school somewhere else.
‘And if you imagine Perowne and Malpass and me are goin’ to give evidence at a prefects’ meeting just to soothe your beastly conscience, you jolly well err,’ said Beetle. ‘I know what you did.’
‘What?’ croaked Pater, out of the valley of his humiliation.
‘You went Berserk. I’ve read all about it in Hypatia.’
‘What’s “going Berserk”?’ Winton asked.
‘Never you mind,’ was the reply. ‘Now, don’t you feel awfully weak and seedy?’
‘I am rather tired,’ said Winton, sighing.
‘That’s what you ought to be. You’ve gone Berserk and pretty soon you’ll go to sleep. But you’ll probably be liable to fits of it all your life,’ Beetle concluded. ‘‘Shouldn’t wonder if you murdered some one some day.’
‘Shut up — you and your Berserks!’ said Stalky. ‘Go to Mullins now and get it over, Pater.’
‘I call it filthy unjust of the Head,’ said Vernon. ‘Anyhow, you’ve given me my lickin’, old man. I hope Pot’ll give you yours.’
‘I’m awfully sorry — awfully sorry,’ was Winton’s last word.
It was the custom in that consulship to deal with games’ defaulters between five o’clock call-over and tea. Mullins, who was old enough to pity, did not believe in letting boys wait through the night till the chill of the next morning for their punishments. He was finishing off the last of the small fry and their excuses when Winton arrived.
‘But, please, Mullins’— this was Babcock tertius, a dear little twelve-year-old mother’s darling —‘I had an awful hack on the knee. I’ve been to the Matron about it and she gave me some iodine. I’ve been rubbing it in all day. I thought that would be an excuse off.’
‘Let’s have a look at it,’ said the impassive Mullins. ‘That’s a shin-bruise — about a week old. Touch your toes. I’ll give you the iodine.’
Babcock yelled loudly as he had many times before. The face of Jevons, aged eleven, a new boy that dark wet term, low in the House, low in the Lower School, and lowest of all in his home-sick little mind turned white at the horror of the sight. They could hear his working lips part stickily as Babcock wailed his way out of hearing.
‘Hullo, Jevons! What brings you here?’ said Mullins.
‘Pl-ease, sir, I went for a walk with Babcock tertius.’
‘Did you? Then I bet you went to the tuck-shop — and you paid, didn’t you?’
A nod. Jevons was too terrified to speak.
‘Of course, and I bet Babcock told you that old Pot ‘ud let you off because it was the first time.’
Another nod with a ghost of a smile in it.
‘All right.’ Mullins picked Jevons up before he could guess what was coming, laid him on the table with one hand, with the other gave him three emphatic spanks, then held him high in air.
‘Now you tell Babcock tertius that he’s got you a licking from me, and see you jolly well pay it back to him. And when you’re prefect of games don’t you let any one shirk his footer without a written excuse. Where d’you play in your game?’
‘You can do better than that. I’ve seen you run like a young buck-rabbit. Ask Dickson from me to try you as three-quarter next game, will you? Cut along.’
Jevons left, warm for the first time that day, enormously set up in his own esteem, and very hot against the deceitful Babcock.
Mullins turned to Winton. ‘Your name’s on the list, Pater.’ Winton nodded.
‘I know it. The Head landed me with an impot for that mouse-business at mechanical drawing. No excuse.’
‘He meant it then?’ Mullins jerked his head delicately towards the ground-ash on the table. ‘I heard something about it.’
Winton nodded. ‘A rotten thing to do,’ he said. ‘Can’t think what I was doing ever to do it. It counts against a fellow so; and there’s some more too —’
‘All right, Pater. Just stand clear of our photo-bracket, will you?’
The little formality over, there was a pause. Winton swung round, yawned in Pot’s astonished face and staggered towards the window-seat.
‘What’s the matter with you, Dick? Ill?’
‘No. Perfectly all right, thanks. Only — only a little sleepy.’ Winton stretched himself out, and then and there fell deeply and placidly asleep.
‘It isn’t a faint,’ said the experienced Mullins, ‘or his pulse wouldn’t act. ‘Tisn’t a fit or he’d snort and twitch. It can’t be sunstroke, this term, and he hasn’t been over-training for anything.’ He opened Winton’s collar, packed a cushion under his head, threw a rug over him and sat down to listen to the regular breathing. Before long Stalky arrived, on pretence of borrowing a book. He looked at the window-seat.
‘‘Noticed anything wrong with Winton lately?’ said Mullins.
‘‘Notice anything wrong with my beak?’ Stalky replied. ‘Pater went Berserk after call-over, and fell on a lot of us for jesting with him about his impot. You ought to see Malpass’s eye.’
‘You mean that Pater fought?’ said Mullins.
‘Like a devil. Then he nearly went to sleep in our study just now. I expect he’ll be all right when he wakes up. Rummy business! Conscientious old bargee. You ought to have heard his apologies.’
‘But Pater can’t fight one little bit,’ Mullins repeated.
‘‘Twasn’t fighting. He just tried to murder every one.’ Stalky described the affair, and when he left Mullins went off to take counsel with the Head, who, out of a cloud of blue smoke, told him that all would yet be well.
‘Winton,’ said he, ‘is a little stiff in his moral joints. He’ll get over that. If he asks you whether today’s doings will count against him in his —’
‘But you know it’s important to him, sir. His people aren’t — very well off,’ said Mullins.
‘That’s why I’m taking all this trouble. You must reassure him, Pot. I have overcrowded him with new experiences. Oh, by the way, has his Cap come?’
‘It came at dinner, sir.’ Mullins laughed.
Sure enough, when he waked at tea-time, Winton proposed to take Mullins all through every one of his day’s lapses from grace, and ‘Do you think it will count against me?’ said he.
‘Don’t you fuss so much about yourself and your silly career,’ said Mullins. ‘You’re all right. And oh — here’s your First Cap at last. Shove it up on the bracket and come on to tea.’
They met King on their way, stepping statelily and rubbing his hands. ‘I have applied,’ said he, ‘for the services of an additional sub-prefect in Carton’s unlamented absence. Your name, Winton, seems to have found favour with the powers that be, and — and all things considered — I am disposed to give my support to the nomination. You are therefore a quasi-lictor.’
‘Then it didn’t count against me,’ Winton gasped as soon as they were out of hearing.
A Captain of Games can jest with a sub-prefect publicly.
‘You utter ass!’ said Mullins, and caught him by the back of his stiff neck and ran him down to the hall where the sub-prefects, who sit below the salt, made him welcome with the economical bloater-paste of mid-term.
King and little Hartopp were sparring in the Reverend John Gillett’s study at 10 P.M. — classical versus modern as usual.
‘Character — proportion — background,’ snarled King. ‘That is the essence of the Humanities.’
‘Analects of Confucius,’ little Hartopp answered.
‘Time,’ said the Reverend John behind the soda-water. ‘You men oppress me. Hartopp, what did you say to Paddy in your dormitories to-night? Even you couldn’t have overlooked his face.’
‘But I did,’ said Hartopp calmly. ‘I wasn’t even humorous about it as some clerics might have been. I went straight through and said naught.’
‘Poor Paddy! Now, for my part,’ said King, ‘and you know I am not lavish in my praises, I consider Winton a first-class type; absolutely first-class.’
‘Ha-ardly,’ said the Reverend John. ‘First-class of the second class, I admit. The very best type of second class but’— he shook his head —‘it should have been a rat. Pater’ll never be anything more than a Colonel of Engineers.’
‘What do you base that verdict on?’ said King stiffly.
‘He came to me after prayers — with all his conscience.’
‘Poor old Pater. Was it the mouse?’ said little Hartopp.
‘That, and what he called his uncontrollable temper, and his responsibilities as sub-prefect.’
‘If we had had what is vulgarly called a pi-jaw he’d have had hysterics. So I recommended a dose of Epsom salts. He’ll take it, too — conscientiously. Don’t eat me, King. Perhaps, he’ll be a K.C.B.’
Ten o’clock struck and the Army class boys in the further studies coming to their houses after an hour’s extra work passed along the gravel path below. Some one was chanting, to the tune of ‘White sand and grey sand,’ Dis te minorem quod geris imperas. He stopped outside Mullins’ study. They heard Mullins’ window slide up and then Stalky’s voice:
‘Ah! Good-evening, Mullins, my barbarus tortor. We’re the waits. We have come to inquire after the local Berserk. Is he doin’ as well as can be expected in his new caree-ah?’
‘Better than you will, in a sec, Stalky,’ Mullins grunted.
‘Glad of that. We thought he’d like to know that Paddy has been carried to the sick-house in ravin’ delirium. They think it’s concussion of the brain.’
‘Why, he was all right at prayers,’ Winton began earnestly, and they heard a laugh in the background as Mullins slammed down the window.
‘‘Night, Regulus,’ Stalky sang out, and the light footsteps went on.
‘You see. It sticks. A little of it sticks among the barbarians,’ said King.
‘Amen,’ said the Reverend John. ‘Go to bed.’
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:10