Shame and Consciences

adapted by Mihangel

7. Reassurances

Jan went back to Heriot's in a dull glow of injury and anger. He was angriest with himself, for grasping an unresponsive hand so warmly. But a little thought reduced the sense of injury. After all, faced with such a different relationship, the Master Evan of the past could hardly have said more than he said this afternoon. He could not have promised more. Jan's worst fears would never be realised now. Yet, for a boy, to escape the worst is to start sighing for the best. Evan might be loyal enough. But would he ever be a friend? The honest answer came without hesitation: no, he would not. Having confronted that, Jan thanked his stars that Evan was in a different house and a different form.

Shockley was lounging against the palings outside the door leading to the studies. This appeared to be his favourite haunt: it was an excellent place for joining a crony or kicking a small boy as he passed. Jan was preparing to submit to superior force when Shockley greeted him with a genial smile.

"Lot o' parcels for you, Tiger. I'll give you a hand with 'em if you like."

"Thank you very much. But where will they be?"

"Where will they be?" Shockley murmured under his breath. "I'll show you, Tiger."

Jan could not help suspecting that Carpenter might be right, that he had actually done himself good by his antics in the quad. Young Petrie had been civil within an hour, and here was Shockley doing the friendly thing before the afternoon was out. He had misjudged him, and tried to make up for it with profuse thanks. The slate table at the foot of the dormitory stairs, to which Shockley led him, was covered with parcels of all sizes, several labelled with the name of Rutter.

"Tolly-sticks -- don't drop 'em," said Shockley, handling one of the parcels. "This feels like your table-cloth. This must be tollies. And all the rest are books. I'll help you carry them over."

"I can manage, thanks," said Jan uncomfortably, but Shockley would not hear of his managing. Jan's study, they found, had also been visited in his absence. A folding chair with aggressively bright green upholstery stood against the wall, and every inch of the tiny floor was covered with carpet in another and still more startling shade of green.

"Curtains not come yet," observed Shockley. "I suppose they're to be green too?"

"I don't know. I left it to them."

"I rather like your greens," said Shockley, opening the soft parcel. "Why, you've gone and got a red table-cloth!"

"It's their doing, not mine."

"I wonder you don't take more interest in your study. Most chaps take a pride in theirs. Red and green! It'll spoil the whole thing. They don't go together, Tiger."

In the face of this kindly interest, Jan tried to shake off his indifference. "They might change it."

"I wouldn't trust 'em. They're none too obliging, the tradesmen here -- too much bloated monopoly. If you take my advice you'll leave well alone."

"Then I will! Thanks awfully, Shockley!"

"Not that it is well, yet." Shockley seemed worried. "You want a green table-cloth, Tiger, and a green table-cloth you must have."

"It's very good of you to bother," said Jan, devoutly wishing he would not.

Shockley only shook his head. "I've got one myself, you see," he explained reflectively as he examined the red cloth with a critical eye. "It's better than this. Better taste. And green. But I'd rather do a swap with you than see you spoil your study, Tiger."

"Very well," said Jan doubtfully.

Shockley promptly tucked the new table-cloth under his arm. "Now let's see your tolly-sticks!"

"Tolly-sticks?"

"Candle-sticks, you fool!"

Jan unpacked them, noting that the fatherly tone had been dropped.

"I suppose you wouldn't like a real old valuable pair instead of these beastly things?"

"No thanks."

"Well, anyway, you must have a picture or two."

"Why must I?" Jan had suddenly remembered Carpenter's story of the seven-and-sixpenny chair.

"Because I've got the very pair for you, and going cheap."

"I see," said Jan in his driest Yorkshire voice.

"Oh, I don't care whether you've a study or a sty!" Shockley went off glaring, with the new cloth under his arm. In a minute he was back with the green one rolled into a ball, which he flung in Jan's face. "There you are, you fool, and I'm glad you like your own colour!" He slammed the door behind him.

Jan had little mercy on himself as he fitted two candles into the two new china sticks and lit them with a wax match. Shockley's table-cloth might once have been green, but was now grey with dirt. It was spotted with ink and candle-grease and in one place cut through with a knife. To Jan, one table-cloth was much like another, but he was annoyed at being swindled, despite Carpenter's warning, and by the same impostor. But the whole thing appealed to that grim sense of the ironic which in Jan replaced the fun and nonsense of the ordinary boy, and it seemed wisest to say no more about it.

That was not to be. At tea Buggins was whispering to Eyre major before asking across the table how Jan liked his new table-cloth.

"You mean Shockley's old table-cloth? It'll do all right, but it's a good bargain for Shockley."

"A bargain's a bargain," remarked Buggins with his mouth full.

"And a cheat's a cheat!"

The nice pair glared at him, and glanced at Shockley, who was two places higher up but deep in ingratiating conversation with his neighbour.

"God help you when the Shocker hears that! You'll be murdered!"

"I may be, but not by you -- you prize pig!"

But, much as he was still to endure from the trio in school and house, this was the last Jan heard of the matter.

So this stormy Saturday came to a comparatively calm close, and Jan was left to wrestle in peace with a Latin prose set by Mr Haigh. Unfortunately, composition was Jan's weak point. By the dim light of the dictionary, with the frail support of a Latin grammar, he could grope his way through a page of Caesar or of Virgil without inevitably coming a cropper. But all the labours of the past few months had not brought him to the level of casting English back into Latin. He grappled with it until head and hand perspired. He hunted up noun after noun in his new dictionary and had a shot at case after case. When at last his fair copy was food for Haigh's blue pencil, Jan leant back to survey his own two candles and his own four walls, conscious that he had been taken out of himself and that a study to oneself was an unmixed blessing.

Not that he disliked his dormitory. There, nothing was said about the row in the quad; in fact nobody had said anything about it. He was embarrassed, though, by a command from Joyce to tell a story after the gas was out. This seemed to be a traditional duty for all new boys. But stories were not at all in Jan's line, and he was saved only by Bingley's sporting offer to stand in for him. Bingley launched with gusto into a detailed account of a gruesome murder committed in the holidays. Murders proved to be his strong point. His face would glow over the less savoury portions of the papers in hall, and tonight his voice was still vibrating with unctuous horror when Jan fell asleep.

School Sundays were not desecrated by a stroke of work. Breakfast was later. Heriot himself was deliberately late for prayers, which were held in houses and not, as on weekdays, in the big schoolroom. Morning and afternoon chapel seemed to monopolise the day. Yet there was time for a long walk after either, and ample time for letter-writing after dinner. But Jan had already posted a brief note to the rectory, and nowhere else was there a soul who could possibly want to hear from him. He spent the late morning in a solitary stroll along a country road, and the hour after dinner over a yellow-back novel borrowed from Chips.

Morning chapel had been quite a revelation. The irreligious Jan, having been forced to go to church in Norfolk, went to chapel in stoical spirit, expecting the worst. Yet the merry peal of the bells might have prepared him for brighter things, and the service proved bright beyond belief. The chapel itself was bright, full of sunlight and fresh air, with none of the gloomy twilight he associated with places of worship. The responses came with a hearty and unanimous ring. The psalms were the quickest thing in church music he had ever heard, and went with such a swing that for the first time in his life he found himself trying to sing. Crowning merit of the morning service, there was no sermon.

But in the afternoon the little man with the imperious air grew into a giant in his marble pulpit.

"Here you are gathered together in your youth, sheltered from every storm, with no cares of life demanding all your labour and all your time, no storm, no flood of business, no harrying attacks to fall upon you and try your whole being to the inmost nerve. No, you are set here simply to build, to build a life and character, which by and by shall stand immovable, unshaken, like a tower in the flood of the world's business, wrath, temptations and scorn. This is life, True Life."

He impressed Jan so powerfully that he wondered again how fellows could call him Jerry, until he saw some of them nodding off. Then he found he had lost the thread himself, that he could not pick it up again, that everything escaped him except a transfigured face and a voice both stern and tender. But these were flag and bugle to the soldier hidden inside most boys, and Jan for one came out of chapel at quick march.

The golden autumn day was still almost at its best, but Jan had no stomach for another lonely walk. True solitude was one thing, but to be unaccompanied and yet to meet hundreds of others in sociable twos and threes, bosom friends walking with linked arms and wagging tongues, was isolation. Carpenter had apparently found a friend -- at least Jan saw him obviously waiting for one after chapel -- yet hardly had Jan settled down to his novel than a listless step was followed by the banging of Chips's study door.

"I thought you'd gone for a walk," said Jan, having knocked and been admitted.

"You thought wrong, then."

This ungraciousness was more typical of Jan, and Chips smiled as if to soften it, but hardly succeeded. He was sitting under the window opposite the door. He had already put up a number of pictures and photographs in plush frames. Everything was neat and nice, with a notable absence of obtrusive or clashing colours.

"How on earth did you open the door from over there?"

"Lazy-pull," said Chips, showing off a cord running round three walls to a tassel at his elbow. "You can buy 'em all ready at Blunt's."

"No mistake, you have got fettled up!" The uncouth word made Chips open his eyes.

"I want to have a good study," he said. "I've one or two more pictures to put up yet, and I've a good mind to do them now."

"You wouldn't like to come for a walk instead?"

The suggestion was shyly made, and candidly considered.

"Shall I?" Chips asked himself aloud.

"You might as well."

"I'm not sure that I mightn't."

Off they went, not with linked arms or even very close together, for Chips still seemed annoyed at something and for once not in a mood to talk about it or anything else. It was very unlike him. But a young boy is not unlike himself for long. They took the road beside the studies, left the little town behind, dipped into a wooded hollow, and followed a couple far ahead over a stile and along a path through the fields. In the fields, bathed in a yellow mist and dusted with the first gold of autumn, Chips found his tongue.

He held forth on this new-found freedom, this intoxicating licence to roam where one would, a special boon to a boy from a cloistered preparatory school and one that Jan appreciated just as highly. It was not the only thing they agreed about that first Sunday afternoon. Jan was in a much less pugnacious mood than usual, and Chips less ponderously impressed with everything about their new life. They exchanged some prejudices as they strolled from stile to stile, and compared a good many notes. Haigh's uncertain temper came in for sharp criticism, though Heriot hardly figured. But a stray remark revealed that Chips, who had disappeared in the morning directly after house prayers, had actually been to breakfast with Heriot, on the first Sunday of his first term.

Jan was not jealous. From his viewpoint the master was the natural enemy of the boy, and he was not surprised when Chips dismissed the incident as if he was rather ashamed of it. He would have thought of it no more but for a chance encounter as they crossed their last stile and came back into the main road.

Swinging down the middle of the road came a trio arm-in-arm, clearly bosom friends, chattering so noisily and hilariously that both boys recognised Evan Devereux by his laugh before they saw his face. Evan was as quick to recognise Chips, who was first across the stile, and at once broke away from his companions.

"I'm awfully sorry!" he cried. "I quite forgot I'd promised these fellows when I promised you."

"It doesn't matter a bit," said Chips unconvincingly.

"You didn't go waiting about for me, did you?"

"Not long."

"Well, I really am awfully sorry. But, you see, I'd promised these men at the end of last term, and I quite forgot about it this morning at Heriot's."

"I see."

"I won't do it again, I swear."

"You won't get the chance!" muttered Chips as Devereux ran after his companions. He looked at his watch and turned to Jan. "There's plenty of time. Which way shall we go?"

Jan came out of the shadow of the hedge. He had remained instinctively in the background, and Evan might not have seen him. Certainly their eyes had never met. Yet there had been something in Evan's manner, something pointed in his fixed way of looking at Chips and not beyond him, something that might have left a doubt in Jan's mind if a greater doubt had not flooded it.

"Which way shall we go?" Chips repeated, as Jan looked at him strangely.

"Neither way, just yet," said Jan darkly. "I want to ask you something first."

"Right you are."

"As far as I can see, there aren't many you could say it for," continued Jan inscrutably, "but from what I've seen of you, Chips, you're straight. I don't believe you'd tell me a lie."

"I'd try not to," said Chips, smiling, but no more comfortable than Jan.

"That's good enough for me. So what did Devereux mean by 'this morning at Heriot's'?"

"Oh, he had breakfast with Heriot too. Didn't I tell you?"

"No, you didn't."

"Well, I never supposed it would interest you."

"Although I told you I knew something about him at home!"

They were facing each other, eye to eye. Jan's were filled with a furious suspicion.

"I wonder you didn't speak to him just now," remarked Chips, looking at his nails.

"He never saw me. Besides, I'd said all I'd got to say to him yesterday in his study."

"I see."

"Didn't Devereux tell you I'd been to see him?"

"Oh, I think he said he'd seen you, but that was all."

"At breakfast this morning?"

"Yes."

"Did Heriot ask him anything about me?"

"No."

"Has he told you anything about me at home, Chips?"

"Hardly anything."

"How much?"

"Only that he hardly knew you. That was all." Chips was looking Jan in the face once more. "And I must say I don't see what you're driving at!"

"You'd better go and ask Devereux," said Jan, unworthily. But, as luck would have it, he could not have diverted Chips's thoughts more effectively if he had tried.

"Devereux? I won't go near him! He promised to wait for me after chapel, and he cut me for those fellows he was with just now."

"Although you were friends at the same preparatory school?"

"If you call that friendship! He never wrote to me all last term, though I wrote twice to him!"

"I suppose that's why Heriot asked you both to breakfast," said Jan very thoughtfully, as they began walking back together. "I mean, you both coming from the same school."

"What? Oh yes, of course it was."

Jan threw one narrow look over his shoulder. "Of course it was!" he agreed, and walked on, nodding to himself.

"But he didn't know Evan Devereux, or he'd have known that an old friend was nothing to him!"

"I wouldn't be too sure," said Jan with gentle warmth. "I wouldn't be too sure, if I were you."

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