The Last Term

IT was within a few days of the holidays, the term-end examinations, and, more important still, the issue of the College paper which Beetle edited. He had been cajoled into that office by the blandishments of Stalky and M`Turk and the extreme rigour of study law. Once installed, he discovered, as others have done before him, that his duty was to do the work while his friends criticised. Stalky christened it the Swillingford Patriot, in pious memory of Sponge--and M`Turk compared the output unfavourably with Ruskin and De Quincey. Only the Head took an interest in the publication, and his methods were peculiar. He gave Beetle the run of his brown-bound, tobacco-scented library; prohibiting nothing, recommending nothing. There Beetle found a fat armchair, a silver inkstand, and unlimited pens and paper. There were scores and scores of ancient dramatists; there were Hakluyt, his voyages; French translations of Muscovite authors called Pushkin and Lermontoff; little tales of a heady and bewildering nature, interspersed with unusual songs--Peacock was that writer's name; there was Borrow's Lavengro; an odd theme, purporting to be a translation of something called a `Rubáiyát,' which the Head said was a poem not yet come to its own; there were hundreds of volumes of verse--Crashaw; Dryden; Alexander Smith; L.E.L.; Lydia Sigourney; Fletcher and a purple island; Donne; Marlowe's Faust; and--this made M`Turk (to whom Beetle conveyed it) sheer drunk for three days--Ossian; The Earthly Paradise; Atalanta in Calydon; and Rossetti--to name only a few. Then the Head, drifting in under pretence of playing censor to the paper, would read here a verse and here another of these poets, opening up avenues. And, slow breathing, with half-shut eyes above his cigar, would he speak of great men living, and journals, long dead, founded in their riotous youth; of years when all the planets were little new-lit stars trying to find their places in the uncaring void, and he, the Head, knew them as young men know one another. So the regular work went to the dogs, Beetle being full of other matters and metres, hoarded in secret and only told to M`Turk of an afternoon, on the sands, walking high and disposedly round the wreck of the Armada galleon, shouting and declaiming against the long-ridged seas.

Thanks in large part to their house-master's experienced distrust, the three for three consecutive terms had been passed over for promotion to the rank of prefect--an office that went by merit, and carried with it the honour of the ground-ash, and liberty, under restrictions, to use it.

`But,' said Stalky, `come to think of it, we've done more giddy jesting with the Sixth since we've been passed over than any one else in the last seven years.'

He touched his neck proudly. It was encircled by the stiffest of stick-up collars, which custom decreed could be worn only by the Sixth. And the Sixth saw those collars and said no word. `Pussy,' Abanazar, or Dick Four of a year ago would have seen them discarded in five minutes or . . . But the Sixth of that term was made up mostly of young but brilliantly clever boys, pets of the house-masters, too anxious for their dignity to care to come to open odds with the resourceful three. So they crammed their caps at the extreme back of their heads, instead of a trifle over one eye as the Fifth should, and rejoiced in patent- leather boots on week-days, and marvellous made-up ties on Sundays--no man rebuking. M`Turk was going up for Cooper's Hill, and Stalky for Sandhurst, in the spring; and the Head had told them both that, unless they absolutely collapsed during the holidays, they were safe. As a trainer of colts, the Head seldom erred in an estimate of form.

He had taken Beetle aside that day and given him much good advice, not one word of which did Beetle remember when he dashed up to the study, white with excitement, and poured out the wondrous tale. It demanded a great belief.

`You begin on a hundred a year?' said M`Turk unsympathetically. `Rot!'

`And my passage out! It's all settled. The Head says he's been breaking me in for this for ever so long, and I never knew--I never knew. One don't begin with writing straight off, y'know. Begin by filling in telegrams and cutting things out o' papers with scissors.'

`Oh, Scissors! What an ungodly mess you'll make of it,' said Stalky. `But, anyhow, this will be your last term, too. Seven years, my dearly beloved 'earers--though not prefects.'

  By PanEris using Melati.

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