An Unsavoury Interlude
IT was a maiden aunt of Stalky who sent him both books, with the inscription, `To dearest Artie, on his sixteenth birthday'; it was M`Turk who ordered their hypothecation; and it was Beetle, returned from Bideford, who flung them on the window-sill of Number Five study with news that Bastable would advance but ninepence on the two; Eric; or, Little by Little, being almost as great a drug as St. Winifred's. `An' I don't think much of your aunt. We're nearly out of cartridges, too--Artie, dear.'
Whereupon Stalky rose up to grapple with him, but M`Turk sat on Stalky's head, calling him a `pure- minded boy' till peace was declared. As they were grievously in arrears with a Latin prose, as it was a blazing July afternoon, and as they ought to have been at a house cricket-match, they began to renew their acquaintance, intimate and unholy, with the volumes.
`Here we are!' said M`Turk. `"Corporal punishment produced on Eric the worst effects. He burned not with remorse or regret"--make a note o' that, Beetle--"but with shame and violent indignation. He glared"-- oh, naughty Eric! Let's get to where he goes in for drink.'
`Hold on half a shake. Here's another sample. "The Sixth," he says, "is the palladium of all public schools." But this lot'--Stalky rapped the gilded book--`can't prevent fellows drinkin' and stealin', an' lettin' fags out of window at night, an'--an' doin' what they please. Golly, what we've missed--not goin' to St. Winifred's! . . .'
`I'm sorry to see any boys of my house taking so little interest in their matches.'
Mr. Prout could move very silently if he pleased, though that is no merit in a boy's eyes. He had flung open the study-door without knocking--another sin--and looked at them suspiciously. `Very sorry, indeed, I am to see you frowsting in your studies.'
`We've been out ever since dinner, sir,' said M`Turk wearily. One house-match is just like another, and their `ploy' of that week happened to be rabbit-shooting with saloon-pistols.
`I can't see a ball when it's coming, sir,' said Beetle. `I've had my gig-lamps smashed at the Nets till I got excused. I wasn't any good even as a fag, then, sir.'
`Tuck is probably your form. Tuck and brewing. Why can't you three take any interest in the honour of your house?'
They had heard that phrase till they were wearied. The `honour of the house' was Prout's weak point, and they knew well how to flick him on the raw.
`If you order us to go down, sir, of course we'll go,' said Stalky, with maddening politeness. But Prout knew better than that. He had tried the experiment once at a big match, when the three, self-isolated, stood to attention for half an hour in full view of all the visitors, to whom fags, subsidised for that end, pointed them out as victims of Prout's tyranny. And Prout was a sensitive man.
In the infinitely petty confederacies of the Common-room, King and Macrea, fellow house-masters, had borne it in upon him that by games, and games alone, was salvation wrought. Boys neglected were boys lost. They must be disciplined. Left to himself, Prout would have made a sympathetic house-master; but he was never so left, and, with the devilish insight of youth, the boys knew to whom they were indebted for his zeal.
`Must we go down, sir?' said M`Turk.
`I don't want to order you to do what a right-thinking boy should do gladly. I'm sorry.' And he lurched out with some hazy impression that he had sown good seed on poor ground.
`Now what does he suppose is the use of that?' said Beetle.
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