Shame and Consciences

adapted by Mihangel

12. A Merry Christmas

It remained exceptionally cold. The fire in hall was twice its usual size. The study pipes became too hot to touch, yet remained a mockery until you had your tollies going as well and every chink stopped up. Sprawson himself appeared to rely more than ever on his surreptitious flask, but as he never displayed the usual symptoms except before a select audience, and could convincingly sham sober whenever necessary, his antics were more amusing than thrilling. It was Sprawson who, after lock-up on the last night, lit up the slide in the quad with tollies and kept the fun fast and furious until the school bell rang sharply through the frost, and the quad dispatched its quota of glowing faces to prize-giving in the big school-room.

The break-up concert had been given there the night before, but this final function was more exciting, with the Headmaster beaming behind a barricade of emblazoned volumes, the new school list in his hand. It was fascinating to learn the new order, form by form, and stirring to hear and swell the thunders of applause as the prize-winners steamed up for their books. Crabtree was the only one whom Jan clapped heartily. He was top of his form as usual, as was Devereux lower down the school, but Jan was not going to be seen applauding Evan unduly. When it came to the Middle Remove, Chips could not keep still and even Jan sat up with a tight mouth. On their places depended their chance of moving out of Haigh's clutches. Jan was higher than he expected to be, but Chips was higher still, with the Shocker and Jane Eyre just above him, and Buggins was the lowest of the group.

"I wish to blazes old Haigh would hop it in the holidays, Tiger," said Buggins on their way back through the snow. "You and I may have another term of the greaser if he don't."

Jan said little, but not because he was surprised at the sudden friendliness of an inveterate foe. Everyone was friendly on the last day. Jane Eyre was profuse in his hospitality at tea. Even Shockley himself was civil. As for Chips, he had already presented Jan with a silver pencil-case out of his journey-money. But Jan himself had never been more glum than when all the rest were packing, and looking up trains, and talking about their people and all they were going to do at home, and making Jan realise that he had no home and people to call his own.

That was perhaps an unfair way of putting it, even to himself. But Jan had some excuse. In all those thirteen weeks he had received no more than three letters from the rectory. This shortage had become notorious. He had soon given up looking for letters, and when one did come for him it lay on the window-sill until somebody told him it was there. This had supplied the chivalrous Shockley with yet another taunt. And the occasional letter never enclosed a money-order or heralded a hamper on its way by rail. Jan had brought so little with him by way of eatables or pocket-money that a time had come when he flatly refused Chips's potted meat because he saw no chance of ever having anything to offer in return.

These of course had been minor troubles, but they were the very ones a fellow's people might have foreseen and remedied, if they had cared for a moment to do the thing properly. But all they had done was to write three times to remind him of their charity in doing the thing at all, and to impress upon him what a chance in life they were giving him. That again was only Jan's view of their letters, and was perhaps as unfair as his whole instinctive feeling towards his mother's family. But it was strong enough to make him feel the outcast when he came down on the last morning, in his unaccustomed bowler, to the meat breakfast provided in the gas-lit hall, and out into the chilling dawn to squeeze into an omnibus because he had failed, back in the middle of term, to take Chips's advice and order a trap well in advance.

Jan's journey was all across country, and long before the end he had shaken off the last of his schoolfellows travelling in the same direction. He knew few of them even by name, yet he was sorry when they had all been left behind. They were the last links to a place where, he now realised, he felt more at home than he was ever likely to feel in the holidays. Eventually he reached a bleak rural station where there was nothing to meet him. Leaving casual instructions about his luggage, he walked up through the snow to the rectory.

The rectory was the nearest point of the thatched and straggling hamlet of which it was also the manor house. It stood in its own park, a mile from the vast flint church in which a handful of people were lost at its two perfunctory services a week. The rector was in fact more squire than parson, though he conducted a forbidding form of family prayer every weekday. He happened to be the first person whom Jan saw in the grounds, on the sweep of the drive between house and lawn. On the lawn itself a lady and a number of children were busy making a snowman, and the old gentleman, watching with amusement from the swept gravel, cut for the moment a sympathetic figure. Jan had to pass close by him and felt bound to report his return, but no one seemed to see him. He had been hovering for some moments almost at the rector's elbow, too shy to announce himself, when the lady came smiling across the snow.

"Surely this is Jan, papa?" she said, at which the rector turned round.

"Why, my good fellow, when did you turn up?"

Jan explained that he had just walked up from the station. There was an awkward interval while his grandfather took open stock of him, with a quite different face from the one which had beamed upon the children in the snow. The lady made amends with a kind smile.

"I'm your Aunt Alice, and these little people are all your cousins. We've come for Christmas, so you'll have plenty of time to get to know each other."

Clearly there was no time then. The children were already clamouring for their mother to return to the snowman, and she went back with a speed which told its tale. Jan did not know whether to go or stay, until the rector observed, "If you want anything to eat they'll look after you indoors." Jan accepted the dismissal thankfully, though he felt its cold abruptness. But the old man had been curt and chill to him from their first meeting, and throughout these holidays it remained clear that he took no sort of interest in the schooling which, on a whim, he was providing. This was nothing new, and Jan would not have minded for a moment if he had not caught such a very different old fellow smiling on the other grandchildren in the snow.

Jan's grandmother went to the opposite extreme by taking too much notice of him, and embarrassing notice at that. Her duty, she felt, was to supplement the school in turning him into a gentleman. She searched through her spectacles for the first term's crop of visible improvements. She found few, but plenty of surviving blemishes, each of which she berated. Mrs Ambrose was one of those formidable old ladies who have to say exactly what they think, whatever the time or place. Jan could hardly come into a room without being told to wipe his boots properly, without his fingers and nails being inspected, or his collar or hair. He seldom sat at table without hearing that he had used the wrong fork or that knives were not made to enter mouths. Again he would have been less resentful if the other grandchildren had not been present and their equally glaring misdemeanours consistently overlooked.

But he disliked the other grandchildren chiefly because Aunt Alice was the one person present whom he really did like, and they would never let him have a word with her. They were whining, selfish, demanding little wretches. Their father spent most of his time shooting with another uncle, a military one, thus leaving the burden of discipline to Aunt Alice. Now and then Jan did get her to himself, and her gentleness might have sweetened his holidays if her eldest had not celebrated the New Year by nearly putting out Jan's eye with a stone contained in a snowball. Usually good-tempered and long-suffering with his small cousins, on this occasion Jan told the offender exactly what he thought of him, in schoolboy terms.

"I don't care what you think," retorted the child, who was quite old enough to be at a preparatory school but had refused to go to one. "Who are you to call a thing 'caddish'? You're only a stable-boy -- I heard Daddy say so!"

Jan promptly committed the unpardonable sin of "bullying" by smacking the head of "a boy not half your size." In futile self-defence he repeated what the boy had called him. "And so you are!" cried Aunt Alice, her tears as hysterical as her child's. That cut Jan to the heart, for he could not see that, where her children were concerned, she lost her reason. He only saw it was no use trying to justify his conduct. Everybody was against him. His grandfather threatened him with a horse-whipping. His grandmother said it was "high time school began again," and Jan broke his sullen silence to agree, wholeheartedly and rudely.

He had to spend the rest of the day in his room and to endure a further period of ostracism until Captain Ambrose, the military uncle, returned from a few days away and heard from the ladies of Jan's heinous offence. Being no admirer of his younger nephews and nieces, he took a seditious view of it, which he reinforced by tipping the offender half a sovereign.

"Thank you very much, sir!"

"Not sir, please! Call me Uncle Dick. And don't thank me -- you deserve it, for I'm afraid you've been having a pretty poor time. But take my advice. Don't treat little swabs spoiling for school as though you'd actually got 'em there. They'll get there in time, thank God, and I wouldn't be in their little breeches then! By the time they reach your age they might be wiser. How old are you, by the way?"

"Fifteen. And eight days," said Jan a trifle bitterly.

"And eight days? So your birthday was on --"

"December the twenty-seventh."

"And nobody marked it? Or even mentioned it? I didn't know." He pointedly refrained from saying that his parents must have known. "I'm sorry about that. Let me make amends."

Another half-sovereign changed hands. He smothered Jan's thanks by repeating, "I'm afraid you are having a poor time of it. Found something good to read?"

"I'm not reading." Jan showed him his book. "I'm learning The Burial-March of Dundee."

"That sounds cheerful! So they give you holiday tasks at your school?"

"Not exactly. This is something special."

Under friendly pressure he explained what and why. Uncle Dick's sympathetic attitude was making another boy of Jan, and his views on Haigh and his vindictive punishment verged on the treasonable.

"I never heard of such a thing in my life! A master spoil a boy's holidays for something he's done at school? It's monstrous, if not illegal, and if I were you I shouldn't learn a line of it."

"I've learnt very near every line already. And there's a hundred and eighty eight altogether."

"A hundred and eighty eight lines in the Christmas holidays! I should like to have seen any of our old Eton beaks try a game like that!"

"He said he'd tell Jerry if either of us makes a single mistake when we get back."

"Let him! Thrale's an Old Etonian himself, and one of the very best. Let your man go to him if he likes, and see if he comes away without a flea in his ear. Anyhow, you shan't hang about the house to learn another line while I'm here. Out you come with me, and try a blow at a bird!"

So Jan did after all have a few congenial days, in which he slew his first pheasant and acquired a devotion to his Uncle Dick, who might miss a difficult shot but never missed an opportunity of encouraging a youngster. That was precisely what Jan needed, even more than open sympathy and affection. Captain Ambrose told his mother they would make something of the boy if they did not bother too much about trifles, and wished his own leave could last all the holidays. But he had to go about the middle of January, a few days after Aunt Alice and her party, and after that Jan had a dreary week to himself.

He spent much of the time in solitary prowling with a pipe and tobacco bought out of Uncle Dick's tips. He had learnt to smoke in his stable days and, unlike most boys, genuinely enjoyed it. At any rate a pipe passed the time, if less challengingly than a gun. But he was not allowed to shoot alone, and his grandfather never took him out or showed the slightest interest in his life under the rectory roof. But his grandmother made up for that, with such incessant fault-finding and calling-to-order that, by the end of the holidays, Jan was longing for the privacy of his unsightly little study, and for a life free of old ladies and little children.

He was therefore anything but overjoyed, the day before he was due to return to school, when a telegraph-boy tramped up through the heavy snow with a telegram to say that the railway was blocked and the start of term had been postponed. Some four hundred such telegrams had been hurriedly sent to the four quarters of Britain, and all but one were doubtless received with rapture. Jan received his with a smile, but a very strange smile for a boy on the brink of his second term, which is notoriously as hard as the first but without its redeeming novelty.

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