Shame and Consciences

adapted by Mihangel

25. Interlude in the wood

Morgan the house-man, and his minion who cleaned the boots and knives, were busy and out of sight in the pantry near the hall. Yet Jan was flushed and flurried as he ran down into the empty quad and dived into the closed fly which had just pulled up outside. He leant as far back as possible. The road broadened, the town came to an end. The driver drove on phlegmatically, barely wondering why one of the young gentlemen should be faring forth alone, in his cricket flannels too, and without any luggage either. He would be going to meet his friends at Molton, likely, and bring them back to see the cricket. So he thought, until a head stuck out behind him at Burston Corner, and he was told to pull up.

"Jump down a minute, will you? I want to speak to you."

The fly stopped in one of the great dappled shadows that trembled across the wooded road, and a bucolic face peered in.

"See here, here's nine bob for you. I'm sorry it isn't ten, but I'll make it up to a pound at the end of term."

"I'm very much obliged to you, sir, I'm sure!"

"Wait a bit. That's only on condition you keep your mouth shut. There may be a bit more when you've kept it shut till the holidays."

"You're not going to get me into any trouble, sir?"

"Not if you hold your tongue. We're only going round by Bardney Wood instead of to Molton, and I shan't keep you waiting there above half an hour. It's -- it's only a bit of a lark!"

A sinful smile grew into the crab-apple face at the window.

"I been a-watching you over them palings at bottom end o' ground all the morning, Mr Rutter, but I didn't see it was you just now, not at first. Lord, how you did bowl 'em down! I'll take an' chance it for you, sir, jiggered if I don't!"

The fly rolled to the left of Burston church, now buried belfry-deep in the foliage of its noble avenue. It threaded the road on which Chips had encountered Evan on their first Sunday walk -- there was the stile where Jan had waited in the background, against the hedge. Strange to think of Evan's attitude then and long afterwards, and of Jan's errand now. But lots of things were strange if you were fool enough to stop to think about them. Once committed to a definite course of action, Jan was not that sort of fool. And this was almost his first opportunity of considering seriously what to say in the coming interview, how to begin, what line to take, what tone to adopt. He would have to play it partly by ear, which was annoying. It was disconcerting, too, because the very words had come to him together with his plan. In his mind he had made short work of the noxious Mulberry. But, on second thoughts, perhaps he should not make too short work of a scoundrel with tales to tell, money or no money.

The horse was walking up the last hill. There lay the wood in its hollow, in the heavy sunlight so smoky in tint that it seemed likely any moment to burst into flames like a damp bonfire. But Jan only thought of the monster in its depths, as he marched down through the lush meadows, his pocket jingling at every other stride.

Bardney Wood was so formidable a tangle of trees and undergrowth that Jan headed straight for the only gate in the fence. It led into a broad green ride, spattered with buttercups as thick as freckles on a country face. Jan went through and peered into the sombre depths of thicket on either hand, unplumbed by a ray of sun. He had hardly penetrated a yard to one side when he became the target of a million flies which buzzed aggressively, while last year's leaves, dry even in that wet summer, rustled at every jingling step he took. His haphazard steps twisted and turned, following the line of least resistance, and were veering back towards the ride when the bulbous nose of Mulberry appeared under his very own.

It was making music worthy of its painful size, as he lay like a log on the broad of his back, in a small open space. His battered hat lay beside him, along with a stout green cudgel newly cut. Jan had half a mind to remove this ugly weapon, for the drunkard was a man of no light build. Neither did he lie like one particularly drunk, or even very sound asleep. The flies were not allowed to batten on his bloated face. Every now and then the snoring stopped as he shook them off, and presently a pair of bloodshot eyes rested on Jan's legs.

"So you've come, have you?" grunted Mulberry, and the eyes ostentatiously closed again without troubling to climb to Jan's face.

"I have," he said with dry emphasis. It was either too dry or not emphatic enough.

"You're late, then, hear that? Like your cheek to be late. Now you can wait for me."

"Not another second!" cried Jan, all his premeditated plan forgotten. Mulberry sat up, blinking.

"I thought it was Mr Devereux!"

"I know you did."

"Have you come instead of him?"

"Looks like it, doesn't it?"

"I don't know you! I won't have anything to do with you," exclaimed Mulberry, getting to his feet with grotesque difficulty.

"Well, you certainly won't have anything more to do with Mr Devereux," retorted Jan. "So I'm afraid you'll have to put up with me," he added in a much more conciliatory voice, remembering his second thoughts on the way.

"Why? What's happened him?" asked Mulberry suspiciously.

"Never you mind. He can't come. That's good enough. But I've come instead -- to settle up with you."

"You have, have you?"

"On the spot. Once for all."

Jan slapped his pocket, which rang like a money-bag. The scoundrel looked impressed, but was still suspicious about Evan.

"He was to come here yesterday, and he never did."

"It wasn't his fault. That's why I've come today."

"I said I'd go in and report him to Mr Thrale, if he slipped me up twice."

"'Blab' was your word, Mulberry."

"Have you seen what I wrote?"

"I've got it in my pocket."

Mulberry lurched a little nearer. Jan shook his head with a grin.

"It may come in useful, Mulberry, if you ever get drunk enough to do as you threaten."

"Useful, may it?"

If the red eyes fixed on Jan had been capable of flashing, they would have done so now. But they merely watered. Till this moment man and boy had been almost as preoccupied with the flies as with each other, keeping the little brutes at bay, Mulberry with his battered hat, Jan with his handkerchief. But at this point the sot allowed the flies to cover his hideousness like a spotted veil. It was only for seconds, yet his expressionless stare had turned suddenly expressive. That could not be the flies. Nor was it what Jan thought it was.

"I've seen you before, young feller!"

"You've had chances enough of seeing me these four years."

"I don't mean at school. I don't mean at school." Mulberry was racking his muddled wits for whatever it might be that he did mean. Jan did not have to rack his own. Already he was back at the fair, that wet and fateful night in March -- but he did not intend Mulberry to join him there again.

"It's no good trying to change the subject, Mulberry! I've got your letter to Mr Devereux, and you'll hear more about it if you go making trouble at the school. If you want trouble, Mulberry, you shall have all the trouble you want, and p'r'aps we'll give the police a bit more to make 'em happy. See? But I came to square up with you, and the sooner we get it done the better for all of us."

Jan was at home. Something he had contracted ages ago, something that he had brought with him into the world, something of his father, was breaking through the layer of the last four years and more. It had broken through before. It had helped him to fight his earliest battles. But it had never had free play in all the intervening terms, or in the holidays between terms. This was neither home nor school. This was a bite of life as Jan would have had to swallow it if his old life had never altered. And all at once it was not a nice young gentleman but a strapping lad from the stables with whom the local ogre had to reckon.

"Come on!" said Mulberry. "Let's see the colour o' yer coin, an' done with it."

Jan gave a grin of triumph, yet knew in his heart that the tussle was still to come. If he had brought a cap with him, instead of driving out bare-headed, he would have given the peak a tug. He plunged his hand into the jingling pocket and brought out a fistful of silver of all sizes, and one or two half-sovereigns. In doing so he shifted his position and trod -- but left his foot firmly planted -- on that ugly cudgel just as its owner stooped to pick it up and almost overbalanced in the attempt.

"Look out, mister! That's my little stick. I'd forgotten it was there."

"Had you? I hadn't." Jan kept one eye on his money and the other on his man. "You don't want it now, do you?"

"Not partic'ly."

"Then attend to me. There's your money. Not so fast!"

His fist closed. Mulberry withdrew a dirty paw.

"I thought you said it was mine, mister?"

"It will be, in good time. Have a look at it first."

"Lot o' little silver, ain't it?"

"One or two bits of gold as well."

"It may be more than it looks. Better let me count it, mister."

"It's been counted. That's the amount. You sign this, and it's yours."

With his other hand Jan had taken from another pocket an envelope, stamped and inscribed but not as for the post, and a stylograph pen. The stamp was in the middle of the envelope. Below was the date. Above was written, in Jan's hand and in ink:

Received in final payment for everything supplied in Bardney Wood to end of June -- £2 18s. 6d.

"Sign across the stamp."

The envelope fluttered in the drunkard's fingers.

"Two pun' eighteen -- look here -- this won't do!" he cried less thickly than he had spoken yet. "What the devil d'you take me for? It's close on five sovereigns that I'm owed. This is under three."

"It's all you'll get, Mulberry, and it's a damned sight more than you deserve for swindling and blackmailing. If you don't take this you won't get anything, except what you don't reckon on!"

The man understood, but he was almost foaming at the mouth.

"I tell you it's a dozen and a half this summer! Half a dozen bottles and a dozen --"

"I don't care what it is. I know what there's been, what you've charged for it, and what you've been paid already." Jan thought it time for a bit of bluff. "This is all you'll get. But you don't touch a penny of it till you've signed the receipt."

"Don't I!" snarled Mulberry.

Without lowering his eyes or giving Jan time to lower his, he slapped the back of the upturned hand and sent the money flying in all directions. Neither looked where it fell. Mulberry was ready for a blow, but Jan never moved an eye, and scarcely a muscle.

"You'll simply have to pick it all up again. But if you don't sign this, Mulberry, I'm going to break every bone in your beastly body with your own infernal stick."

Jan had spoken quietly, and it must have been his face that said still more, or his long and lissom body, or his cricketer's wrists. Whatever the medium, the message was understood, and twitching hands were held out in submission. Jan put the pen in one, the prepared receipt in the other, and Mulberry turned a back bowed with defeat. Close behind him grew a stunted old oak, forked like a catapult, with ivy winding up the stems. Down sat Mulberry in the fork, with so little difficulty that Jan might have seen it was a favourite seat, and the whole open space, with its rustling carpet and its whispering roof, its acorns and its cigar ends, an old haunt of others besides Mulberry. But he kept a close an eye on his man. The receipt was being signed, on one corduroy knee, before Jan looked up to see the broad body of a third party enclosed in the same oak frame.

It was Mr Haigh, and redder than Mulberry himself. It was Haigh with a limp collar and a streaming face. So he had smelt a rat, he had kept a watch -- just like him -- and he had followed the fly on foot -- like the old athlete that he was! Jan came tumbling back, not only into school life, but back with a thud into the Middle Remove and all its old miseries and animosities.

"I might have known what to expect!" he cried with futile passion. "It's just your style, doing the spy!"

Haigh took much less notice of this insult than he took of a false quantity in a Latin verse. He turned his attention to Mulberry, who had scrambled to his feet. Leaning through the forked tree, Haigh held out his hand for the stamped envelope, was given it without a word, and read it as he came round into the open.

"This looks like your writing, Rutter?"

"It is mine." Jan was still more angry than abashed.

"May I ask what it refers to?"

"You may ask what you please, Mr Haigh."

"Come, Rutter! I might have put more awkward questions, I'd have had thought. Still, as it won't be for me to deal with you for being here instead of where you're supposed to be, I won't press inquiries into the nature of your dealings with this man."

It was Mulberry's cue. He dashed his battered hat to the ground with ominous relief.

"D'you want to know what he's had off me? If he won't tell you, I will!"

Jan's heart sank as he met a leer of vindictive triumph. "Who's going to believe your lies?" he cried out, in a horror that increased with every moment he had for thought.

"I'm not going to listen to him," remarked Haigh unexpectedly. "Or to you either!" he snapped at Jan.

"Oh, ain't you?" crowed Mulberry. "Well, you can shut your ears, and you needn't believe anything but your own eyes. I'll show you! I'll show you!"

He dived into a bramble bush alongside the forked tree. His head disappeared in the dense green tangle. He almost lost his legs. Then a hand came out behind him, and flung something at their feet. It was an empty champagne bottle. Another followed, then another and another till the open space was strewn with them. Neither Haigh nor Jan said a word, but from the bush there came a gust of bawdy coarseness with every bottle, and last of all the man himself waving one around like an Indian club.

"A live 'un among the deaders!" he hooted rapturously. "Now I can drink your blessed healths before I go!"

Master and boy looked on like waxworks, without raising a hand to stop him or a finger to brush away a fly. Jan neither realised nor cared what was happening. It was the end of all things, for him or for Evan, if not for them both. Evan would hear of it -- and then -- and then! But would he hear? Would he necessarily hear? Jan glanced at Haigh, and saw something that he almost liked in him at last, something human after all these years -- but only until Haigh noticed him looking and promptly fell upon the flies.

Mulberry meanwhile had knocked the neck off the unopened bottle with a dextrous blow from one of the empties. A fountain of foam leapt up like a plume of smoke. The expert blew it to the winds, and drank till the jagged bottle stood on end upon his upturned face. His blood ran scarlet with the overflowing wine, which had the curiously clarifying effect that liquor does on the chronic alcoholic. It made him sublimely sober for about a minute. He belched resoundingly. Then those dim red eyes fixed themselves on Jan's set face, and burst into a flame of recognition.

"Now I remember! Now I remember! I told him I'd seen him --"

He pulled himself up short. He had nearly spoilt his own story. He looked Jan deliberately up and down, did the same to Haigh, and only then snatched up his ugly cudgel.

"You'd better be careful with that," snapped Haigh with the face which had terrorised generations of young boys. "And the sooner you clear out altogether, let me tell you, the safer it'll be for you!"

"No indecent haste," replied Mulberry, leaning at ease upon his weapon. The wine even reached that treacherous tongue of his, reviving its humour and the smatterings of earlier days. "Festina whats-'er-name -- meaning don't you be in such a blooming hurry! That nice young man o' yours and me, we're old partic'lars, though you mightn't think it. Don't you run away with the idea that he's emptied all them bottles by his little self! It wouldn't be just. I've had my share. But he don't like paying his, and that's where the trouble is. Now we don't keep company no more, and I'm going to tell you where that nice young man an' me first took up with each other. Strictly 'tween ourselves."

"I've no wish to hear," cried Haigh. He looked exactly as Jan had seen him look before running some fellow out of his hall. "Are you going of your own accord --"

"Let him finish," said Jan, with a grim impersonal interest. In any case it was all over with him now.

"Very kind o' nice young man -- always was nice young man!" said Mulberry. "Stric'ly 'tween shelves, it was in your market place, one blooming fair, when all good boys should ha' been tucked up in bed an' 'sleep. Nasty night, too! But that's where I see 'im, havin' barney about watch, I recollec'. That's where we first got old partic'lars. Arcade Sambo, as we used say when I was at school. I seen better days, remember, an' that nice young man'll see worse, an' serve him right for the way he's tret his ol' partic'lar, that took such care of him at the fair! Put that in your little pipes an' smoke it at the school. Farewell, a long farewell ! Gobleshyer ... Gobleshyer ..."

They heard his repeated blessings for some time after he was out of sight. It was not only distance that made them less and less distinct. The champagne was now his master -- but it had been a good servant first.

"At any rate there was no truth in that, Rutter?" Haigh seemed almost to hope that there was none.

"It's perfectly true, sir, that about the fair."

"Yet you had the coolness to suggest that he was lying about the wine!"

"I don't suggest anything now."

Jan kicked an empty bottle out of the way. Haigh's new tone had cut him as deep as in old odious days in form.

"Is that your money he's left behind him?" Jan's answer was to go down on his knees and begin carefully picking up the forgotten coins from the carpet of last year's leaves. Haigh watched him under arched eyebrows, and once more the flies were allowed to settle on his limp collar and wet wry face. Then he moved a bottle or two with furtive foot, and kicked a coin or two into greater prominence, behind Jan's bent back.

"When you're quite ready, Rutter!" said Haigh at length.

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