Shame and Consciences
adapted by Mihangel
Public-school nicknames are readily invented and generally apt. Carpenter's and Rutter's were not outstanding examples, but at least both were awarded before the boys had been three days in the school, and both were too good an accidental fit to be easily dropped or forgotten. Thus, although almost every Carpenter has at some stage been "Chips," in this case a rather big head on rather round shoulders, and a tendency to dawdle when not excited, did recall the slowest of workmen. Chips Carpenter, although unduly sensitive in some things, had the wit to accept his nickname as a compliment. In the end it was the same with Rutter. But the way in which he earned it made it a secret bitterness, in spite of the reputation it gave him.
On the Saturday afternoon, directly after dinner, most of the house were hanging about the quad when there entered from the outside world a peculiarly disreputable scoundrel, a local character notorious among the alehouses, whose chief haunt was the Red Lion. The boys in the quad hailed him as "Mulberry," another highly appropriate nickname, for never did richer complexion or bigger nose adorn the human face. The trespasser, being slightly but quite amusingly drunk, found in the boys an appreciative audience. He was not an ordinary stable sot, and had clearly seen better days. He had ragged tags of Latin on the tip of a treacherous tongue. He now asked tenderly after the binominal theororum, but correctly ascribed a swear-word to a lapsus linguae.
"I say, Mulberry, you are a swell!"
Full marks for that, Mulberry!"
"My dear young friends, I knew Latin before any of you young devils knew the light."
"Draw it mild, Mulberry!"
"I wish you'd give us a construe before second school!"
For all his days, Jan remembered the incongruous picture of the debauched intruder in the middle of the sunlit quad, with young and wholesome figures standing aloof from him in good-natured contempt, and more faces at the ivy-mantled study windows. Mulberry's bloodshot eye flickered over his audience in a comprehensive wink which stopped by chance on Jan, who happened to be nearest to him.
"You bet I wasn't always a groom," said Mulberry, "an' if I had been, there are worse places than the stables, ain't there, young fellow?"
Jan wished the earth would swallow him, but he was more easily angered than cowed, and the brown flush which swept his face was due not only to embarrassment.
"How should I know?" he cried. His voice had not wholly finished breaking, and in his indignation it rose an octave above its usual level.
"He seems to know more about it than he'll say," observed Mulberry, and with another wink he fastened his red eyes upon Jan, who as usual had his cap pulled over his eyes, and arms akimbo in the absence of trouser pockets.
"Just the cut of a jock!" A jockey, he meant, but his weasel mind recalled that "jock" was also a low expression for the private parts. "But only a colt's jock," he added.
"You're an ugly blackguard," shouted Jan, understanding both allusions, "and I wonder anybody can stand and listen to you!"
At this point Heriot appeared very suddenly upon the scene, seized the intruder by both shoulders, and had him out of the quad in about a second. He rejoined the group, his face pale and his spectacles flashing.
"You're quite right," he said to Jan. "I wonder too -- at every one of you -- at every one!"
He turned on his heel and was gone, leaving them stinging with his scorn. Jan would have given a finger from his hand to be gone as well, but he found himself hemmed in by clenched fists and furious faces, his back to the green palings under the study windows.
"You saw Heriot coming!"
"You said that to suck up to him!"
"Beastly cheek, for a beastly new man!"
"But we saw through it, and so did he!"
"Trust old Heriot! You don't find that sort of thing pays with him."
"I never saw him," said Jan steadily, despite a thumping heart, "so you can say what you like."
"And why should you lose your wool with poor old Mulberry?" Shockley demanded with a fine show of charity, dealing a heavy blow which Jan took without wincing. "Makes one think there was something in what he said."
"You fairly stink of the racing stables," said Buggins. "You know you do, you brute!"
Eyre major led the laugh.
"Racing stables!" echoed Shockley. "There's more of the stable-boy about him than the jock."
Jan folded his arms and listened stoically.
"Ostler's lad," said someone.
"Nineteenth groom," said someone else.
"The tiger!" piped a smaller boy than Jan, using the current term for a smartly-dressed boy groom. "The tiger that sits behind the dog-cart -- see how he folds his arms!" And the imp folded his.
This was more than Jan was going to stand. His common sense knew that submission to superior force was a law of nature, which his self-control allowed him to obey. He would have taken the insult from a bigger boy, but to take it from a smaller boy was too much. His left hand flew out and fell with a resounding smack on the side of an undefended head.
In a moment Jan was pinned against the palings by the bigger fellows, his arm twisted, his person kicked, his own ears soundly boxed and filled with abuse. He fought and kicked back as long as he had a free leg or arm. But through it all the satisfaction of that one resounding smack survived, and kept him just sane enough to stop short of tooth and nail.
"Tiger's the word," panted Shockley when they finally overwhelmed him. "But if you try playing the tiger here, ever again, you little bastard, you'll be killed by inches, as sure as you're blubbing now! So you'd better creep into your lair, you young tiger, and lie down and die like a mangy dog!"
It had taken some time to produce the tears, and they had dried before Jan gained his study and slammed the door. There he sat in his misery, hot, dishevelled, aching and ashamed, yet rejoicing at the one shrewd smack he had landed on an impudent head. That consoled him all the afternoon. The studies emptied. It was another belated summer's day, and there was a game worth watching on the Upper. Soon there was no sound to be heard but those from the street, but Jan sat staring at the wall as though the fresh air was nothing to him, as though he had not been brought up in his shirtsleeves in the open in all weathers. He was still sitting and staring when a hesitant step came along the passage, paused in the next study, and then at Jan's door.
"What do you want?" he demanded rudely when he opened the door to Carpenter's half-hearted knock.
"Oh, I don't exactly want anything. I can clear out if you'd rather."
"All right. I'd rather."
"Only I thought I'd tell you it's roll-call on the Upper in half an hour."
"I'm not going to roll-call."
Carpenter winced. He did not like swearing, and he liked Rutter enough to wince when he swore. But still less did he like Rutter's meaning. He was a law-abiding boy who had been at a good preparatory school, and he could scarcely believe his ears. Rutter certainly looked as if he meant it, with his tight mouth and sullen eyes. But he obviously could not carry out his mad intention.
"My dear man, it's one of the first rules of the school. You'd get into a frightful row."
"The bigger the better."
"You might even get bunked" -- Chips was acquiring school terminology as fast as he could -- "for cutting roll-call on purpose."
"Let them bunk me! Do you think I care? I never wanted to come here. I'd as soon've gone to prison. It can't be worse. At any rate they let you alone there -- they've got to. But here ... let them bunk me! It's the very thing I want. I loathe this hole and everything about it. I don't care if you say it's one of the best schools going, or what you say!"
"I say it's the best. I wouldn't swap it for any other -- or let a little bullying put me against it. And I have been bullied, if you want to know."
"Perhaps you're proud of that?"
"I hate it. I hate lots of things more than you think. You're in that little dormitory. You're well off. But I didn't come here expecting to find it all skittles. And I wouldn't be anywhere else if it was twenty times worse than it is!"
Jan looked at the small ungainly boy with the round shoulders, the hanging head, and the squeaky voice, improved for the moment out of knowledge, his flat chest swelling, big head thrown proudly back. The pride was conscious, but it was real, and Jan could only marvel at it. He could not understand this pride of school, but he could see it, and he could envy it. He wished he was not so much the opposite. He could not know that very few came to school with such ready-made enthusiasm, or that fewer still came with his own antagonism. But Carpenter did not understand that, and never would.
"You weren't in the quad just now," said Jan grimly.
"I was. At the end. And I feel such a brute!"
"You? Why?" Jan was frowning at him. "You weren't one of them?"
"Of course I wasn't! But ... I might have stood by you ... and I didn't do a thing!"
Like his romantic outlook on school life, this wish to show spirit, this admiration of a quality he knew he did not have, were part and parcel of Chips's nature. They were equally incomprehensible to Jan, who tried to visualise him floundering to the rescue with his big head and his thin wrists. It made him laugh, though not unkindly.
"You would have been a fool."
"I wish I had been!"
"Then you must be as big a fool as I was."
"But you weren't, Rutter! That's just it. You don't know!"
"I know I was fool enough to lose my wool, as they call it."
"Man enough, you mean! I reckon chaps respect a chap who lets fly without thinking twice about it." Carpenter was treading on a truth unawares. "I'd always be frightened of being laughed at all the more." This inward glance made him sigh. "But you've done better than you think. The fellows at the bottom of the house won't hustle you. I heard Petrie telling them he'd never had his head smacked so hard in his life."
Jan broke into smiles. "I did catch him a warm 'un." In his satisfaction, warm rhymed with harm. "I wish you'd been there."
"I only wish it had been one of the big brutes." Chips was visualising a David against a Goliath.
"I don't. He was trading on them being there, and by gum he was right! But they didn't prevent me from catching him a warm 'un!"
Jan looked better and brighter as he stood up and asked what his collar was like. Not fit to be seen, was the answer, and that he'd better go to the matron for a clean one.
"Shall we go down to the Upper together?" asked Chips.
"I don't mind."
"Then I'll wait, if you won't be long."
Chips, as he waited in the quad, thought Jan had quite forgotten his mad idea of cutting roll-call -- which was not far from the truth -- and that he had not meant it for a moment -- which was as far from the truth as could be. But he hardly realised that it was he, by the least intentional of his arguments, who had put Jan in a better humour.
Upstairs, meanwhile, Jan was being told that he was not supposed to go to his dormitory in daytime, but that since he was there he had better have a good wash as well as a clean collar. As he came down, smarter than at any time since he arrived, he glanced into hall and saw a few boys looking at the illustrated papers. One of them was young Petrie. Jan stood at the door, watching. Was he imagining it, or was Petrie's right ear still rather red? But he was a good type of small boy, clear-skinned, bright-eyed, well-groomed. He put down the Graphic, stretched, glanced at the clock, and smiled quite pleasantly as they met face to face in the doorway.
"I'm sorry," said Jan, not as if he were unduly sorry, but without a moment's thought.
"That's all right, Tiger! But I wouldn't lose my wool again if I were you. It don't pay, Tiger, you take my tip."
[For those who use webmail: 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, etc). Each browser is subtly different or we'd give fuller instructions here. If it pastes with %40 in the middle, replace that with an @ sign.]