Shame and Consciences

adapted by Mihangel

4. Settling in

Jan was determined not to be impressed. But he was not as indifferent as he pretended, and was still sensitive enough to respond to every new experience. Indeed on one particular matter he was highly sensitive, but that was a matter no longer likely to arise that night. Meanwhile there was quite enough to occupy his mind, and the fact that he was not too easily hurt helped immensely in keeping his wits about him.

There was the long-drawn-out arrival of the boys, one by one, in bowler hats soon changed into school caps, and in loud ties duly discarded for solemn black. Then there was tea in hall, a cheerful occasion with everyone bringing in some delicacy of his own, and newcomers arriving in the middle to be noisily saluted by their friends. Nobody took the slightest notice of Jan, who drifted to a humble place at the long table and fell to work on the plain bread and butter provided, until some fellow pushed a meat pie across to him without a word. The matron dispensed tea from a gigantic urn, and when anyone wanted another cup he simply rattled it in his saucer. Jan could have made even more primitive use of his saucer, for the tea was hot if not strong. But there were some things he did not have to be told, though his counsellor Carpenter had gone out to tea with another boy and his people who knew something about him at home.

Jan was allowed to spend the evening in an empty study which, depending on where he was placed in the school, he might or might not be allowed to take over next day. The bare floor, table, chair and bookshelf, with a cold hot-water pipe and the nails with which the last occupant had studded the walls, looked quite dismal in the light of the solitary candle supplied by Morgan. The passage outside rang with laughter and repartee. Either the captain of the house was not yet back or he was not one to play the martinet this first night of the term, and Jan was left as severely alone as he could have wished. But when someone pounded on his door and shouted that it was time for prayers, he was ready enough to mingle with the crowd in hall.

Everyone was standing at the tables, armed with hymn-books but chatting merrily, and one of the small fry was on the watch in the flagged passage leading to the green baize door. Scarcely had Jan found a place when this sentry flew in with a sepulchral "hush!" In the silence that descended, Miss Heriot entered, followed by her brother, who gave out the hymn which she played on the piano, and which the house sang heartily.

One of the many drawbacks -- if drawback it was -- of Jan's strange boyhood was that he had been brought up practically without religion. There had been none in his humble home or in the stable. The vicar who was the first to take an interest in his intellectual welfare had been so eccentric that Jan had picked up nothing spiritual from him. In his new home he had met another kind of clerical example which appealed to him even less. To most English schoolboys prayer, whether heartfelt or pretended, is normal practice. Not so to Jan, and he paid very little attention to the prayers which Heriot read.

After milk and biscuits (which he heard called "dog-rocks") he spent another dreary half-hour in the empty study until it was time to go up to bed. His thoughts were still so far from prayer that he was much impressed by what happened in the little dormitory at the top of the house, when he and his three companions were undressing. Joyce, the captain of the dormitory, who proved to be a rather delicate youth with a most indelicate vocabulary, suddenly demanded silence for "bricks."

"Know what bricks are?" asked Bingley, whose tish was next to Jan's and who turned out to be a boy of his own age, instead of the formidable figure of his imagination.

"It's your fucking prayers," said Joyce. Jan could hardly believe his ears.

"Joyce, you're a brute!" complained Crabtree, poking a red head round his curtain.

"Nevertheless, my boy" -- Joyce was imitating a master through his nose -- "I know what bricks are, and I say them."

"Obvious corruption of prex ..." Crabtree was beginning didactically when Joyce cut him short.

"Shut your arsehole!"

Silence reigned for the best part of a minute. Jan went on his knees with the others, marvelling at the language of the nice fellow in the corner. It was the kind of language he had constantly heard in the stable, but it was the last kind he had expected to hear in a public school. For the first time in his life it shocked him. But he was thankful to find himself in such pleasant company, and for the first time in his life it occurred to him to express his thankfulness, though not to anyone in particular, while he was on his knees.

He had, for a boy, an unusually sound instinct for character and, as they lay talking in the dark, nothing cropped up to modify his first impression of his room-mates, nor did it as the weeks went by. Joyce's only foible was his fondness for dirty words: it was not what he said but how he said it, and he had a fine sense of humour. Crabtree was impeccable in his language, and a kindly creature in his cooler moods, but he suffered from the curse of intellect -- he was precociously didactic and dogmatic -- and his temper was as fiery as his hair. Bingley was a gay, irresponsible, curly-headed dog who enjoyed life in an insignificant position both in and out of school. The other two had nicknames which were not for the lips of new boys, but Jan called Bingley "Toby" after the first night.

Presently the talk died down, but the silence was not quite complete. Someone's bed-springs were rhythmically creaking, very quietly at first, then more audibly and rapidly as caution was thrown to the winds. Jan smiled to himself: so this was another realm where gentlemen's sons differed not a whit from stable-boys. But tonight he did not feel like following suit.

There was nothing, on the first morning of term, until ten o'clock when the whole school assembled in the big schoolroom to hear the new school order. Jan found himself wedged in a crowd converging at the foot of the worn stone stairs. Yesterday he had trotted freely up and down them. Now he was slowly hoisted in the press, the breath crushed from his body, his toes only occasionally encountering a solid step, a helpless mouse in a monster's maw. At the top of the stairs, however, and through the studded oak door, there was room for all. A careful but furtive search revealed nobody he knew from former days.

Carpenter, who had squeezed into the next seat, was watching the watcher, and whispered, "He's not come back yet."

"Who's not?"

"Evan Devereux. I asked a fellow in his house."

"What made you think of him now?"

"Oh, nothing. I only thought you might be looking to see if he was here."

"Well, perhaps I was," admitted Jan with grumpy candour. "But I'm sure I don't care where he is."

"No more do I, goodness knows!"

Between three and four hundred boys were chattering with subdued animation. The pollies more or less kept order but themselves chatted to each other, as was only natural this first morning. Then suddenly there fell an impressive silence. The oak door opened with a tremendous click of the latch like the cocking of a huge revolver, and in trooped all the masters, cap in hand and gown on shoulders, led by a little old man with a kindly, solemn and imperious air. Jan felt that this could only be Mr Thrale, the Headmaster, but Carpenter whispered, "That's Jerry!"


"Old Thrale, of course, but everybody calls him Jerry."

Jan liked everybody's impudence as Mr Thrale took his place behind a simple desk on the platform and read out the new list, form by form, as impressively as if it were holy writ. The first names that Jan recognised were those of Loder, the captain of Heriot's, and Cave major, its most distinguished cricketer, in the Upper and Lower Sixth respectively. Joyce was still in the Remove, but Crabtree had moved from the Lower to the Upper Fifth. The next that Jan knew was Shockley -- the fellow who had threatened to make him wish he was dead -- and then thrillingly, long before he had expected it, Carpenter's name and his own in quick succession.

"What form will it be?" he whispered into Carpenter's ear.

"Middle Remove. And we don't have to fag after all."

Devereux was the next and the last name that Jan remembered hearing, and in the Upper Fourth, the form below his!

The new boys had already learnt that masters took their classes in hall in their own houses. They now discovered that Mr Haigh, the form master of the Middle Remove, had just succeeded to the most remote of the hill houses. His new form therefore trudged out there, and on the ten minutes' walk Carpenter and Rutter had their heads knocked together by Shockley, for having the cheek to get so high and to escape fagging their first term.

"But you needn't think you have," he added ominously. "If you young swots come flying into forms it takes the rest of us two years to get to by the sweat of our brow, by God you'll have all the swot you want! You'll do the construe" -- he meant the translation -- "for Buggins and me and Eyre major every morning of your miserable lives!"

Buggins (who rejoiced in a real name of less distinction, and a strong London accent) was climbing the hill arm-in-arm with Eyre major (better known as Jane), who was his bosom friend, his echo and his shadow. Buggins embroidered Shockley's threats, Eyre major contributed a faithful laugh. Jan heard them all unmoved, and thought the less of Carpenter when his thinner skin turned pale.

Mr Haigh gave his new form a genial welcome, and vastly reassured those who knew least about him by laughing uproariously at things too subtle for them to understand. He was a muscular man with a high colour, a very clever head, and a body that bulged as bodies do which are no longer young and energetic. Energy he did have, but spasmodic and intemperate, though on this occasion he only showed it by pouncing savagely on a small boy who happened to be in his house. Up to that moment Carpenter and Rutter had been congratulating themselves on their form master. But, though he left them considerately alone for a day or two, they were never sure of Mr Haigh again.

This morning he merely announced the scheme of the term's work and gave out a list of the books required. Some of them were enough to strike terror in Jan's heart, and others made Carpenter look worried. Ancient Greek geography was not an attractive subject to one who had not even set eyes on a modern atlas until the last six months; and to anyone as poorly grounded as Carpenter claimed to be, it was an inhuman jump from Stories in Attic Greek to unadulterated Thucydides.

"I suppose it's because I did extra well at something else," said Carpenter innocently on their way down the hill. "What a fool I was not to take that fat chap's advice! Why, I've never even done a page of Xenophon, and I'm not sure I could say the Greek alphabet to save my life!"

"I only hope," Jan replied, "that they haven't gone and judged me by that unseen!"

But their work began lightly enough, and that first day the furnishing of his study gave Carpenter food for much anxious thought. Not so Jan. He was genuinely indifferent to his surroundings, and his companion's enthusiasm made him pretend to be even more indifferent than he felt. He was to keep the upstairs study at the back in which he had spent the previous evening, and Carpenter had the one next to it. After dinner Heriot signed orders for carpet, curtains, candles and candlesticks, a table-cloth and a folding armchair apiece, as well as for stationery and books, and Carpenter led the way to the upholsterer's. He took an age choosing his curtains, carpet and table-cloth, all of a harmonious shade of red. Jan made all the more point of leaving the choice of his entirely to the shopkeeper.

"Send me what you think," he said. "It's all one to me."

On the way back Carpenter reproached him. "I can't understand it, Rutter, when you have an absolute voice in everything."

"I hadn't a voice in coming here," replied Jan, so darkly as to close the topic.

"I suppose I go to the other extreme." Carpenter was characteristically frank. "I shall have more chairs than I've room for if I don't take care. I've already bought one from Shockley."

"Good night! Whatever made you do that?"

"Oh, he dragged me into his study to have a look at it, and there were a whole lot of them there -- Buggins, and Jane Eyre, and the one they call Cranky -- and they all swore it was cheap as dirt. There are some beasts here!" he added under his breath.

"How much was it?"

"Seven and six. And I didn't really want it a bit. And one of the legs was broken all the time!"

"And the gang of them are in our form and all!"

They met most of the house trooping out of the quad with bats and pads, on the way to the Middle Ground for a house game. The September day was warm, and there was no more school until five o'clock. The new boys did not need Shockley's threats to turn round and go with the rest, but their first game of cricket was not a happy one. They found that nobody took it in the least seriously, except a bowler off whom Carpenter missed two catches; they failed to make a run between them; and of course they had no chance of showing whether they could bowl. Both were depressed when it was all over.

"It served me right for dropping those catches," said Carpenter with the stoicism of a true cricketer.

"I only wish it was last term instead of this!" muttered Jan.

There was another disappointment. The Lodge happened to be playing on the next pitch, but Devereux was not among the players, and they heard somebody say that he was not coming back until half term. Jan's heart jumped: by half term he would have settled down, by half term many things might have happened. Yet postponing the meeting might make it worse. On the whole he would have been glad to get it over. At one moment this half-term's grace was a relief, at another it was a sharp disappointment.

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