Shame and Consciences

adapted by Mihangel

3. Very raw material

The sun was barely up when Jan swung himself out of bed and padded to the water closet next door. He had been impressed, last night, to find so modern a facility here. The Norfolk rectory had enjoyed no more than earth closets. So too, less fragrantly, had the coachman's cottage at Middlesbrough. The only water closet he had encountered before was in the Devereuxs' house, which Master Evan had once introduced him to.

Relieved, he put on the trousers without pockets and the Eton collar, black jacket and tie ordained by the school authorities. He was particularly offended by the rule about trouser pockets. Those in his jacket were already so full that there was barely room for his incriminating belt. But he rolled it up as small as it would go and crammed it in, to be hidden away in his study when he had one. He then marched downstairs. Most of the household were presumably still in bed and asleep. But Jan was naturally an early riser, he was curious about his new surroundings, and convention meant little to him.

The lead-lined stairs, worn bright as silver at the edges, took him down to a short tiled passage. At one end was a green baize door which, he remembered from last night, led to the private side of the house. At the other end, he found, was the boys' hall, of good size, with one very long table under the windows and two shorter ones either side of the fireplace. On the walls hung portraits of the great composers, under the clock was a shelf with two silver challenge cups, and under the shelf was a piano, but he took no interest in them. What did attract him was the line of open windows, solid blocks of sunlight and fresh air. In front of one a maid was busy with her wash-leather, and she accosted Jan cheerily.

"You are down early, sir!"

"I always am." Jan was looking for a door into the open air.

"You're not like most of the gentlemen, then. They leave it to the last moment, and then they have to fly. You should hear 'em come down them stairs!"

"Is there no way out?"

"Into the quad, you mean?"

"That's the quad, is it? Then I do."

"Well, there's the door, just outside this door. But Morgan, he keeps the key, and I don't think he's come yet."

"Then I'm going through that window," and through it he went.

From the way she leant out to watch him, the maid seemed to fear that he was running away on his very first morning, before his house-master was astir. Had he intended to, he would have been thwarted. Heriot's quad was a gravel plot entirely enclosed, at the back by the house, on the right by the boys' studies, on the left by buildings next door, and ahead by two strange structures, open-ended under gothic arches. Jan had never seen the like, but he had picked up enough about public schools to guess that they were fives courts. To their right was an alley ending at a formidable spiked gate which offered the only way of escape, if Jan had been minded to escape. But nothing was further from his mind. Indeed there was a gleam in his eyes and a flush on his face which had not been there the evening before.

The studies interested him most. Small lattice windows, on two floors, pierced a wall of ivy like portholes in a ship's side. Each had its little window box, in some of which still drooped the withered remnant of a brave display. Jan was indifferent to flowers, or to anything in life that made for mere beauty, but he peered with interest into one of the ground-floor studies. There was little to be seen beyond his own reflection broken into bits in the diamond panes, one eye level with his nostrils, an ear sprouting grotesquely from his chin. Between him and the windows was a border of shrubs, behind iron palings bent by the bodies and feet of generations and painted green like the garden seats under the wall opposite. On the whole, and in the misty sunlight of the fine September morning, Jan liked Heriot's quad.

"You're up early, sir!"

It was not the maid this time, but a bearded man-servant he had seen the previous night. Jan made the same reply as before, and no secret of how he had got into the quad. He would like to have a look at the studies, he added, and Morgan, with a stare and a smile quite lost on him, showed him round.

They were absurdly, delightfully, inconceivably tiny, the studies at Heriot's. Each was considerably smaller than a dormitory tish, and the saddle-room of Jan's old days would have made five or six of them. But they were undeniably cosy and attractive, as compact as a captain's cabin, as private as a friar's cell, and far more comfortable than either. Or so they might seem to the normal boy about to possess a study of his own, with a table and two chairs, a square of carpet as big as a bath-towel, a bookshelf, pictures and ornaments to taste, a flower-box for the summer term, hot-water pipes for the other two, and above all a door to shut against the world.

But Jan Rutter did not have the instincts of a normal boy. He had been brought up too uncomfortably to know the value of comfort, and too much in the open air to appreciate the merits of an indoor sanctuary. He lacked all artistic impulse, and the attempts at artistry visible in the studies left him thoroughly unimpressed.

"Is it true," he asked, "that every boy has one of these holes?"

"Quite true," replied Morgan, staring. "You didn't say 'holes,' sir?"

"I did," declared Jan, enjoying his accidental hit.

"You'd better not let Mr Heriot hear you, sir, or any of the gentlemen either!"

"I don't care who hears me," retorted Jan boastfully. After all, he had come to school against his will, and this was his first chance to air a not unnatural antagonism.

"You wait till you've got one of your own, with a nice new carpet and tablecloth, and your own family portraits and sportin' picters!"

"At any rate I know a horse from a cow" -- Jan was examining a sporting print -- "and wouldn't hang up rot like that!"

"You let Mr Shockley hear you! You'll catch it!"

"I probably will," said Jan grimly. He followed Morgan into an empty study and asked if it was likely to be his.

"Not unless you take a pretty high place in the school. It's only the top dozen in the house that get these front studies upstairs. You'll get one at the back, most likely, and be glad if it's not downstairs, where everybody can see in and throw in stones."

Jan felt he had not made a friend in Morgan. Yet he was more impressed with what he had seen than his queer temperament allowed him to show. Little as their furnishings appealed to him, there was something very attractive about this system of separate studies. It appealed, and intentionally so, to a boy's spirit of independence, which happened to be one of his stronger points. He could, moreover, imagine a happy closeness between two real friends in one of these little dens. He brought a brighter face to the breakfast table than he had shown the night before. Heriot glanced at it with an interested twinkle, but whatever he may have guessed he kept to himself.

After breakfast Rutter and Carpenter went out with orders signed by Heriot for a school cap apiece, and saw the long old-fashioned country street for the first time in broad daylight. It gave the impression of a street with nothing behind it on either side, the remnant of a vanished town. Nothing could have been more solid than the fronts of the stone houses, nothing more startling than the glimpses of vivid meadow-land like a backdrop close behind. The caps were on sale at the shop of the cricket professional, a former star (whose glorious career was at Carpenter's finger tips) now sadly run to seed. The caps were black and not comely, a cross between a cricket cap and that of a naval officer, with the school badge in red above the peak. Jan chose the biggest he could find, and crammed it over his skull as though he was going out to exercise a horse.

The day was fully occupied with the examination designed to put the right boy in the right form. There were three papers in the morning alone. But there was a short break between each, much of which Carpenter spent in boring Rutter with appreciative comments on the decorations of the great schoolroom where the examination was held. There were forty-two new boys, some of them quite small, some hulking fellows of fifteen or more. None, surely, was more impressed than Carpenter by the reproductions of classical statuary or by the frieze of literary figures, and none less than Rutter. To pacify his companion he did cast a look at them, but it was the same look as he had cast into the studies before breakfast.

The two had more in common when they compared notes on the various papers.

"I didn't mind the Latin grammar and history," said Jan, whose spirits seemed quite high. "I've had my nose in my grammar for the last six months, and you only had to answer half the history questions."

"But what about the unseen?" asked Carpenter.

"I'd done it before," said Jan, chuckling, "and not so long ago, either!"

Carpenter looked at him. "Then it wasn't unseen at all?"

"Not to me."

"You didn't think of saying so on your paper?"

"Not I! It's their look-out, not mine."

Carpenter pointedly made no comment. It was the long break in the middle of the day, and they were on their way back to Heriot's for dinner. "I wish they'd set us some verses," he said at last. "They'd be my best chance."

"Then you'd be a fool if you took it," put in a good-humoured lout who had joined them in the street.

"But it's the only thing I can do at all decently. I'm a backward sort of ass at most things, but I rather like Latin verses."

"Well, you're another sort of ass if you do your best in any of these piffling papers."

"I see! You mean to make sure of a nice easy form?"

"Rather!"

"There's no fagging above the Upper Fourth, let me tell you, even for us."

"Perhaps not. But there's more kinds of fagging than one, and I prefer to do mine for pollies in the house, not over lessons."

The big new boy headed for his own house, and Carpenter wanted to discuss what he had meant. But Jan was not interested, and was not to be led into any discussion against his will. He had a gift of silence remarkable in a boy and irritating in a companion. Yet he broke it again to the extent of asking Heriot at dinner, apropos of nothing, when the other boys would start to arrive.

"The tap will be turned on any minute now. In some houses I expect it's running already."

"Which house is Devereux in?" asked Rutter, always direct when he spoke at all.

"Let me think. I know -- the Lodge. The house opposite the chapel with the study doors opening into the quad."

The boys had time for a short walk after the meal, and more than a hint to take one. They only went together because they were thrown together. They seemed to have as little in common as boys could have. Yet there was something else, and neither dreamt what a bond it was to be.

"Do you know Devereux?" Carpenter began before they were out of their quad.

"Why? Do you know him?"

Jan was not unduly taken aback. He was prepared for anything to do with Devereux, including the next question long before it came.

"We were at the same preparatory school, and great pals there," replied Carpenter wistfully. "I suppose you knew him at home?"

"I used to, but only in a sort of way. I don't suppose we'll see anything of each other here. He mayn't even recognise me, to start with."

"Or me, for that matter! He's never written to me since he left, though I wrote to him twice last term, and once in the holidays."

It was on the tip of Jan's tongue to defend the absent Evan. But he remembered what he had just said, and held his tongue as he always could. Carpenter, apparently regretting his little show of pique, changed the subject and chattered more freely than ever about the school buildings they passed. There was a house with three tiers of ivy-covered study windows but no quad, there were other houses tucked more out of sight, and Carpenter knew about them all, and which Cambridge cricketing hero had been at this one or at that. His interest in the school was romantic and imaginative, and it contrasted strongly with Jan's indifference, which grew more perverse as his companion waxed enthusiastic.

A number of boys from Carpenter's part of the world, it appeared, had already been through the school and had passed on to him a smattering of its lore. The best houses of all, he had heard, were not in the town at all but on the hill a quarter of a mile away. The pair went to inspect, and found regular mansions standing back in their own grounds, their studies and fives courts hidden from the road. Rutter at once expressed a laconic preference for the hill houses, at which Carpenter stood up for the town.

"There's no end of rivalry between the two," he explained as they trotted back across the valley, pressed for time. "I wouldn't be in a hill house for any money, or in any house but ours, if I had my choice of the lot."

"And I wouldn't be here at all," retorted Jan. That took Carpenter's breath away, or what little breath he still had after hurrying up the hill. But, by following a group of other new boys in the same hurry, they found themselves approaching the chapel and the schoolroom by a shorter route, through a large square quad.

"There's plenty of time," said Jan, with a furtive look at the little gold lady's watch that he pulled out. "I wonder if this is the Lodge?"

"No. It's the next house, opposite the chapel. This is School House. Do come on!"

School House and the Lodge were like none of the other houses. Instead of standing by themselves, they were part of the cluster of buildings which was dominated by the chapel and schoolroom. In both of them, the study doors opened straight on to the quadrangles, which adjoined each other with no demarcation line between. But in neither was a soul to be seen as Carpenter and Rutter caught up with the last of the new boys at the schoolroom door.

"Let's go back by the Lodge," said Jan when at last they were let out for good. By now the scene was changing. Groups of two or three were dotted about in conversation, some still in their journey hats, others in old school caps with faded badges, but none who took the smallest notice of the new boys with the new badges. Rutter horrified his companion by coolly accosting a big fellow just emerged from one of the Lodge studies.

"Canst tha' tell me if a boy they call Devereux has gotten back yet?" asked Jan, with more of his own idioms than usual.

"I haven't seen him." His answer was civil enough, but his stare followed them.

"I shouldn't talk about 'a boy', if I were you," Carpenter said as nicely as he could, taking Jan's arm. But Jan was well aware of his other slips, and was already too furious with himself to accept rebuke.

"Oh, isn't it the fashion? Then I'll bet you wouldn't!" he cried, as he shook off the first arm that had ever been thrust through his own by a gentleman's son.

Back at Heriot's, a ball like a big white bullet was making staccato music in the fives court, and a great thick-lipped lad of sixteen or seventeen was hanging about the door leading to the studies. He promptly asked the new boys their names.

"What's your gov'nor?" he added, addressing Carpenter first.

"A merchant."

"A rag-merchant, I should think! And yours?"

Jan was not embarrassed by the question. He was best prepared at all his most vulnerable points. But his natural bluntness had recently made him so annoyed with himself that he replied as politely as he possibly could, "My father happens to be dead."

"Oh, he does, does he? Well, if you happen to think it's funny to talk about 'happening' to me, you may jolly soon happen to wish you were dead yourself!"

The tap had indeed been turned on, and the water was indeed rather cold. The more fortunate for Rutter that his skin was thick enough to respond with a glow rather than a shiver.

Talk about this story on our forum

Authors deserve your feedback. It's the only payment they get. If you go to the top of the page you will find the author's name. Click that and you can email the author easily.* Please take a few moments, if you liked the story, to say so.

[For those who use webmail, or whose regular email client opens when they want to use webmail instead: Please right click the author's name. A menu will open in which you can copy the email address to paste into your webmail system (Hotmail, Gmail, Yahoo etc). Each browser is subtly different, each Webmail system is different, or we'd give fuller instructions here. We trust you to know how to use your own system. Note: If the email address pastes or arrives with %40 in the middle, replace that weird set of characters with an @ sign.]

* Some browsers may require a right click instead