For some time afterward, Stalky and Beetle thought the incident began with the rats. Turkey maintained a remote, Hibernian silence.
It was not until some years after that, the humor of the situation bloomed, and they understood that the real beginning was far earlier, during what Stalky had dismissed as Turkey’s experiment in stenches.
“What is that stink?” he asked on a September day that felt more like July. “Put down that book, Beetle. We’ll have to heave all the furniture out, because something’s gone and died in here.”
Beetle, yanked from an edition of Catullus that was not given to schoolboys, blinked as he made an effort to transport himself from Rome’s brilliant forum to the familiar frowst of the study. “Those old Roman bargees had verbs for everything,” he said, with a finger on Poem 16. And when Stalky hove a well-thumbed copy of Black Bess at him, he dodged, saying with an injured air, “What?”
“”Observe, Mr. Simple, how one thing leads to another.’ Something, or someone, is a regular Pomposo Stinkadore,” Stalky proclaimed. “Therefore we must rouse out our digs to uncover it.”
Now, since Stalky knew very well that the ‘stink’ was the strong odor of Macassar oil, to which had been added some vile herb that—according to the bottle—made one irresistible to the fair sex, and that the wearer was Turkey, he sighed impatiently as Beetle lifted the lid of the coal box and blinked owlishly into its depths. “Maybe a mouse got in and croaked. But I don’t whiff ‘im.”
Turkey’s long, lean face, looking longer and leaner with his mahogany hair slicked back in an unnatural dark sheen, peered into an ancient looking glass stuck up on the wall, gave a tug to his collar, and he walked out.
“Stalky?” Beetle asked plaintively. “No, don’t rot. I don’t smell anything dead.”
“You fat-hoofed ass. Don’t you whiff that putrid oil Turkey has taken to washing his head in?”
Of the three boys, M’Turk was the only one in the habit of making elaborate toilet of a morning. Stalky and Beetle had given up trying to reform him. Beetle sighed. “Oh, that. I thought I got a beakful o’ that stuff from sitting in form with Macrea. You know he waxes his mustache with it.”
“It’s Turkey,” Stalky stated. “He’s been wearin’ it for near a week, now, and further, he’s been vanishin’ in the afternoons, before five o’clock callover. You didn’t notice?”
“It’s too hot to notice anything,” Beetle said defensively. “Unless we can bathe. Maybe he’s making up a house somewhere else?” He contemplated his own personal record, nine bathes in a week when three was the strict allowance per House. He’d become adept at adding to a number of wheedling boys around the kinder-hearted masters, if the Padre wasn’t about.
Stalky hove a worn copy of Fors at Beetle, who used the Head’s Catullus to bat it aside. “Why would he dunk his head in oil and put on a Sunday shirt to go bathing?”
Beetle acknowledged the logic of this, but with the indifference engendered by the mid-afternoon swelter. Their unspoken rule was that Number Five moved together, but ever since they had gained a study, Beetle was content to cast himself down in an armchair to read, if left alone. The days of crawling through gorse and being bit by hordes of insects were over, except if they pinched something to smoke.
Stalky did not like individual maneuvering. If Turkey was attempting a ruse on his own, he would just get himself into trouble. But whatever it was, Beetle obviously had no more idea than Stalky did, and so he subsided, and, too annoyed to read, occupied the heavy tread of afternoon by digging his initials in the desk with his knife.
Turkey, meanwhile, with much backward glancing—Stalky was very stalky—made a roundabout path until he was satisfied that he was not being followed. Safe in the knowledge that the fags were being run on the cricket field under Mullins’ exacting eye, systematically searched through the fags’ lockers and boxes until he found what he had located after two days of stealthy delving: a cage of pet rats.
Though he would scorn snaffling actual belongings, rats could be found in infinite number. He did not see why he should sweat them out when fags could just as well, having nothing better to do with their time.
He upended the cage into a sack that he had already purloined from the shed behind Richards’ lair, set the empty cage back down behind the trunk where he had found it, and slipped out, the writhing, bulging sack carried half-hidden by his footer bags.
He bore this burden in a wider circle until he approached the back garden behind the Head’s house, where he found Her seated decorously on the stone bench beside the roses, reading a book.
He stood for a long moment, just looking at Her. She sat there, dressed in pink and white, with a pink bonnet framing her face. Within that bonnet he glimpsed a round cheek, dusted lightly with freckles, and a quantity of light hair strictly confined to braids.
When she looked up with those blue, blue eyes, he flushed painfully to the tips of his ears—he knew they were red, because they itched—and then she smiled. “Why, there you are, William!”
He nearly fainted at the pleasure of hearing his name on her lips; they had begun with proper formality, but when, on their second secret meeting, she had asked him to call her ‘Elizabeth,’ he had managed—after considerably more than two minutes of manful effort— to return his own.
“You said you should dearly like a pet rat or two. Well, I’ve brought you six. Oh, I say, you probably want a cage.” He gazed in dismay at the sack. "I, er, didn't think to bring one."
“Oh, please, don’t bother yourself over that,” she assured him. Her blue eyes widened with admiration, and she held out her mittened hands. “Thank you ever so much.”
Their fingers actually touched—well, there were her neat white gloves between his fingers and her actual girl fingers—as he relinquished the prize, and he found himself sitting beside her on the stone bench, the bulging, boiling sack of angry rats resting a few inches beyond the toes of her slippers, as Turkey and Miss Elizabeth chatted about books. Having expected her to favor the likes of L.E.L. and the Cranford stories, he was profoundly charmed to discover that she had read Jack Harkaway and Marryat, Surtees, and Scott. The book she laid aside was a well-thumbed adventure by Captain Mayne Reid.
At that moment he heard the school bell clanging. He stammered his farewell and bunked, the footer bags rolled up and stuffed under his coat. As he pitched his clothes into his trunk and joined the throng assembling for callover, he gloated to himself, giddy with his success in keeping his romance secret.
That autumn evening, with the sun closing in ever earlier, darkness had fallen when it was time for prep., which King was to take. The study was far too hot to sit in. Turkey and Beetle chose to do prep in the form room, where a slight breeze moved, though King presided. Turkey decided he may as well attend to the study’s Latin exercises, getting the work done for all three; and if guilt motivated him—for Stalky seemed aloof, which Turkey ignored because he liked not the notion of sharing Miss Elizabeth—the end result was beneficial for all, or so he reasoned.
He was halfway through Stalky’s Latin when he became aware of a stirring at the far end of the form room, near the empty fireplace. No more than a shuffle of feet, a whisper, and choked laugh, but the rest of the boys, sensitive to the prospect of diversion, stole a glance. Those seated near the fireplace peered downward. Turkey did, too, but saw nothing, and as the magisterial mortar-board prowled the perimeter of the form-room and King’s eye ranged for prey, Turkey resigned himself once again to the heavy tread of Horace.
Scarcely had he completed all forms of two verbs whence shrill voices broke out from the next form down. With a whirr of the gown, King crossed the distance to the corridor shared by all the forms and dormitories alike. He stopped in the doorway, a silhouette expressive of extreme ire, half a heartbeat before a haze of inkpots struck the walls, the floor, and one ill-flung object knocked King’s mortarboard spinning.
“Rats!” squeaked the chorus of the damned.
Without pausing to check the veracity of the accusation, King strode forth to pass judgment and execution.
After prep, there was much dolor in the lower forms. As the study boys trod upstairs to their dormitory, Stalky summed up the general dissatisfaction to Number Five by observing, “What’s the use of King being infested by rats if we don’t get a squint at ‘em?”
“Bad form. Bad form.” Beetle shook his head. “Copyin’ us against Mason, but wastin’ em’ on the fags. Where’s the use in that?”
Turkey walked silently, puzzled by a shrill complaint rising above the young voices that drifted up the stairwell, “See, you ape! My cage is empty! I told you that one with the gray spots was mine!”
England was probably filled with gray-spotted rats, but the coincidence bothered Turkey with sufficient persistence. He let himself get crocked in the compulsory games the next day, giving him an excuse to return to the dormitory, change, and skirt the entire school to come out on the other side of the Head’s house.
There, he investigated the garden, and, not finding Miss Elizabeth, he prowled the perimeter of the house until he spied a familiar figure on the shaded terrace. Today his inamorata wore yellow beneath her white pinafore. She stared across the placid sea beating against Pebble Ridge, Niobe at Mt. Siplyon.
At Turkey’s step on the terrace, she looked up, and her expression brightened. “William! I thought the Coll was at cricket.”
“Off-break bumper,” Turkey said, wincing as he fingered his shoulder. Pretense being nigh impossible under the hard eyes of Mullins, he’d had to take his chance with Orrin’s bowling. Already he could feel the ball-shaped bruise forming, but it was worth it, he thought dazedly, to see that brief smile.
Though it was brief. A terrible thought occurred. Had some foul cad had the gall to pinch them from this sweet, defenseless maiden? “Are the rats all settled?”
Elizabeth’s gaze shifted in a way that would have raised instant suspicion in a boy. He began in a high head voice, “Someone snaffled ‘em? Say the word, and I’ll . . .”
“No, no,” she said, waving her hands. “I—they—no one, that is, oh, promise you shan’t peach.”
He declared fervently, “Never.”
“I needed them. For . . . a purpose.” Elizabeth took a step closer, looked up soulfully into M’Turk’s unlovely face, and whispered, “Revenge.”
“Revenge?” he repeated, struggling with a paradigm-shift as massive as those sudden swelling combers that rise out of the ocean after a set of gentle ripples, tumbling the unwary like ninepins. He swam out of it, his heart laboring. How could she possibly be more perfect?
“You think I’m terrible,” she said sorrowfully. “Never mind, Mr. M’Turk. I’m ever so sorry to have troubled you.”
Turkey was still swimming in a mental vortex. He had no sisters, and until this halcyon encounter had never actually met any girls to talk to. His idea of them had come through literature; he had been perfectly ready to accept ribbons and lace, maidenly and soft-voiced, but he had never expected interesting. “No, no,” he said. “I don’t think you’re terrible at all. I don’t understand who you want revenge against. I mean . . .” And horror suffused him at a thought. “It ain’t the Head?”
Now it was her turn to exclaim, “No, no.” She heaved a sigh. “Not at all! Mr. Bates has been ever so kind.” Her eyes narrowed in a vaguely familiar expression as she added, “It was he who had suggested that I might be permitted to sit quietly at the very back of the fifth form for lessons, while I am here. He presented it to the Common Room, and I believe the others would not have minded, save that beastly rotter—Mr. King—was adamant. I would be a disruptive influence, it would initiate the worst sorts of sins against order and decorum, and what female mind could possibly comprehend the depths of scholarship native to the male?”
That scornful tone was as familiar as that narrow-eyed look; Turkey was too amazed by her words to pursue the connection. This girl was expressing the same sort of emotion he himself might. Weren’t girls supposed to be tender and frail, next thing to angels?
Moreover, why would one sit in at lessons if she were not obliged?
Love demanded instant loyalty, and his heart surged. Of course she ought to, if she so wished. Where was the harm? He’d become acquainted with Miss Elizabeth after leaving the Head’s library, whence he had returned Sesame and Lilies. Some of its ideas about the education of women had lingered, and he said with heartfelt contempt, “It would be King, of course.”
“Therefore I set out to get revenge,” Elizabeth said, as if it were the most natural thing in the world. And so it would have been to Number Five— to anyone who wasn’t a rabbit or a swot.
“With the rats?” Turkey persevered, fascinated.
“Yes,” Elizabeth said. “There are none within the bounds I am confined to—at least, I did find one, but it was after the kitchen cat found it first.” She clasped her hands, beaming. “That is why I asked you to find them for me, as you have such freedom. I apologize if I mislead you just a bit. I thought it would be ripping if King’s prep was overrun with rats.”
Turkey gazed at her, more stunned than he’d been after his first scragging by Stalky for talking Irish. “You did that?”
She tossed her head in a little gesture that set her braids to bouncing. “Oh, that was nothing. I lifted some cricket bags and a shirt from the laundry, and found a school cap some chap had left on a boulder at the shore. It was dark, and I got on the roof by the fives-court when you were all at prep, easier than climbing the oak at home. But dropping them down the chimney without being bit, that was harder, and then, I couldn’t see anything, of course. I wanted to witness King dancing about.”
Turkey had to admit the truth. “The rats bunked for the next form-room over.”
“I know! I heard the little boys sing out, rats, rats, and shortly after they were all blubbing.” Her face fell. “I did not want them to catch the blame.”
Turkey said, “Wilson Quartus and his chums caught it worst, for they were assing about heaving ink pots, and knocked King’s lid off.”
“Oh, to have seen that!”
“Twas a cracking good score,” Turkey said generously, avoiding mention that one of King’s boys from his House had sycophantically fetched the mortar board for the master, who had not even noticed it missing until he had collared the fags chucking inkpots. “King gave ‘em beans.” And seeing her grimace, he added, “It comes out all right. Wilson Quartus is a putrid little beast, and funks owning up to half the devilry he starts.”
Elizabeth accepted that, but her scowl did not lessen. “Then the only one who scored was King. He gets to lick half the lower school, and I still have to sit here, because girls cannot learn—cannot think—cannot read—disrupt the entire school just by walking through a door. Humbug!”
A smothered laugh from above, followed by a pebble bouncing down the terrace roof as if knocked off a window sill, caused Turkey and Elizabeth to look up. A shadowy figure ducked out of the open library window. Turkey exclaimed, “Beetle? My hat! What are you doing skulking around up there?”
“Skulking?” Beetle reappeared in the window, his spectacles flashing glints of sunlight as he exclaimed indignantly, “How’s a fellow to read when you’re hallooing about rats all over the shop?”
Turkey stared aghast. Beetle intuited that his presence was as noxious to his study-mate as a certain feline visitor had been over King’s ten bedder, and raced downstairs, before Turkey could bunk.
Turkey fumed. All was up. There was no chance of fending off Beetle. Another horrible problem loomed. For the schoolboy there are home manners and school manners. Encountering a girl for the first time, he had unthinkingly reverted to home manners, proffering his first name. With unerring insight, Turkey knew that Beetle only had to hear that lovely voice pronounce one ‘William’ and there would be centuries of blackmail ahead. Worse, if Beetle could turn up so suddenly, who else in the school might be lurking about with evil intent?
“I say, I’d rather you call me Turkey,” he breathed, mere seconds before Beetle burst out of the back door.
“Head about?” Turkey asked, reconnaissance trumping mere manners. "Or . . . anyone else?"
“No one,” Beetle said briefly. “Smelled the Head's ‘baccy, but it’s stale. He’s out.”
Beetle knew plenty of girls, but that was in London. When the blue eyes turned his way, Beetle discovered that he had too many hands, and his feet were larger and clumsier than the Hefter’s, and he had no idea what to do with any of them. He swallowed a couple of times.
Elizabeth said, “Did you hear us, Beetle?” She didn’t blink at the name.
He managed a nod.
“You will keep my secret won’t you?” she asked winsomely.
Beetle stuttered a series of syllables to which Turkey listened with unholy glee. At least if the girl slipped out with a ‘William’ he’d have Beetle on toast.
Beetle blushed a rich red. Elizabeth did not seem to notice as she smiled brightly, then said, “I’ll just have to come up with a better plan. Oh! There goes your bell. Good-day, boys.”
They muttered polite farewells, touched their caps, and pelted away, not stopping until they were well out of sight of the Head’s house. Then Turkey turned on Beetle. “What were you doing there?”
Beetle straightened his specs. “Returning Catullus, you unmitigated ass. How long have I been excused games, reading instead?” And when Turkey looked less wrathy, he said, “What was I supposed to do when your voice comes floating in through the windows?”
“You might have let a fellow know you were there.”
“And miss a second of your disgustful amours, William?”
Turkey did his best to ignore that, knowing that Beetle would be ten times worse if he suspected he’d fetched Turkey. “Listen. Let’s not tell Stalky, all right?”
Beetle was far too entertained by the spectacle of Turkey in the throes of love to relinquish this delicious secret, which promised no end of opportunities for future jests. Besides— “Was the rats caper really hers?”
“Yes. That is, I didn’t see her, but I believe those were the rats I lifted from Brown’s cage.”
Beetle considered this, then delivered his judgment. “Stalky’s been jawing about the burbling ass who had the cheek to copy his lark with Mason and the rats. I think we should let him think it was Wilson Quartus.”
“Good notion, that. Those fags have been sticking on side ever since Hoophats up and hove us out of our study, so they could use a dose of Stalky, if you ask me.” He grinned as they reached the gravel drive. “Besides, I want to see what she thinks up.”
They did not have long to wait.
The next morning, both had the same idea: to remain close enough to observe King, while staying out of range of his notice, as everyone marched off to prayers. When King slapped his neck impatiently, they thought at first he’d been bit by a gnat, but moments later a pebble quoited along the gravel, bouncing up to strike the master on the leg. His billowing gown kept him from feeling it, but the two boys following twenty paces behind held their breath.
Who would have thought a girl could tweak so expertly with a slingshot? She got Manders Minor squarely in the back, and when he gave tongue, tickled up three other boys, sending them hopping. King turned, in time to meet a tiny stone that hit his sleeve, then spun away.
“He hit me,” Manders Minor whined to King. “Sir, Campbell Tertius hit me in the back.”
“I did not, sir. I was miles away, and anyway, he kicked me on the ankle!”
This promising scene ended abruptly with King handing out lines, as he commented with fluency and point about the future of such buffoons, and—catching sight of Beetle and Turkey—added acidly that the unfortunate influence inspiring such lamentable exhibitions was not far to seek.
No more missiles rent the air. Beetle sighed in disappointment as they passed into chapel.
Turkey could scarcely contain his impatience. He had seen no boys, and who would be mad enough to carry a slingshot on the way to prayers? He longed to interview the fair Elizabeth, and alone. When he had free time at last, his first idea was to ditch his study mates, but Beetle stuck to him like a burr. He wanted another squint at the fair young maid, and he was not to be done out of what promised to be a lark of empyrean magnitude.
Turkey surrendered to the inevitable, and in a tactical shift, employed Beetle in fobbing off Stalky, who said that the Padre was collecting a crowd for bathing. Beetle brandished a book that smelled of tobacco, saying that he must exchange it, and Turkey, at his most wooden, said his shoulder hurt too much for bathing, so he would walk with Beetle.
Stalky shrugged, commenting that at least the putrid air had gone, for Turkey had elected to muzzle his guns, and with regret, slid the blue bottle of Macassar oil—enriched with Secret Herbs of China, bought at Bidefort for a whopping six and three-pence—into his trunk.
As soon as they were safely out the door, Beetle whispered, “I think that was her, tweaking Manders Minor! Did you see him howl? You’d think he’d been slain by artillery fire.”
“I did not think a girl could shoot. And what shots!” Turkey said reverently.
Upstairs, Stalky had opened the study window in hopes the sultry air might move, and spied them below on the gravel, talking in a furtive manner. Now there were two of them sneaking around. Well, he wasn’t going to meddle with the biznai. If they wanted to land in the briar patch by attempting maneuvers without Uncle Stalky, let ‘em.
Unaware of being observed, Beetle said, “What’s a girl doing, staying with the Head? It’s kind of a rummy thing, if you think about it.”
Rot,” Turkey said shortly. “Not the least bit rummy. Her pater is recoverin’ at the hotel. Crocked in India. Army shipped him and Elizabeth here. He’s some connection with the Head—she did not say, and I didn’t think it polite to ask. When the doctors said he had to have quiet, the Head said she could come here.”
Beetle saw enlightenment. “The Head thought she might as well sit in at the Coll. while they put her father to rights, only King kinged all over it? He would, of course.”
They reached the garden behind the Head’s house, which was their preferred method of egress. The library lay at the back of the house, and you never knew what kind of bargee might be coming and going at the main door.
They found Elizabeth on the grass, a stack of books laid aside on the stone bench. She was occupied with dragging a bit of yarn through the grass for a litter of lively kittens. She welcomed the boys with a distracted smile, and abandoned the kittens to their play, while the three withdrew under the spreading branches of a maple.
Now that he was face to face with her, Beetle fell silent. Turkey, more accustomed to the glory, opened discourse with a compliment. “Fine shot on Manders Minor,” he said. “Could not have done better myself.”
“I wanted to knock his school cap off,” was the practical reply. “I’ve been watching them. Golly, what a little swot. ‘May I fetch your book, sir? Ooo, sir!’” She mimicked in a plummy voice. “My hat, how sickening! But I daren’t try it twice—the only reason I could then was, Mr. Bates rode into town.” She scowled down at her pinafore. “One squint at this dress, and I’m blowed. But I daren’t try my disguise during daylight. Everyone knows everyone else by sight, and there’s no real hiding these.” She flung her braids impatiently over her shoulder. “I can shove them into the cap, but no one would be fooled. They make the cap bulge like a sack of turnips.”
The boys agreed.
“I won’t give up,” she finished. “When I think I could be listening to Hartopp talking this minute about astronomy, I want to set fire to King’s hat.”
It demonstrated the depths of Turkey’s love that he could agree most solemnly. Beetle just stared. The first sentiment astonished him. He’d not thought it possible that any human being could stick astronomy, outside of masters, whose claim to humanity had yet to be proved. However, with the second sentiment he found himself in perfect accord.
Turkey was thinking along similar lines. If Beetle had not been present, he would have offered to venture on any quest, dared any danger, for his lady fair. Those words would never be spoken within earshot of Beetle and his penchant for descriptive doggerel.
However much as Beetle desired the outcome, he knew that planning an attack was not his strength. “There is someone who might help . . .”
“No,” Elizabeth said. She relented quickly, adding, “No one else. This is my campaign. If you’ll serve as my pickets, and sing out tomorrow morning when the Coll comes out of prayers, I can carry my ruse under the guns of the enemy, see if I don’t.”
Beetle agreed, but then an idea occurred. “What happens if King sees the damage?”
“Then I shall cry fids!”
“He’ll be hauling up the entire school. Not that I wouldn’t mind ownin’ up, for you, if he gives us a good show first, but—”
Elizabeth tossed her head. “I’ll own up to anything I do. I want him to know who did it. If I can’t sit in those precious form-rooms, nobody will.” She lifted her chin, giving a loud sniff through flaring nostrils. “I’ll be sure to attend to his books,” she added. “If I bring it off, you won’t have to bother with prep.”
“With King, that will be Horace,” Beetle said with satisfaction. “There ought to be a law against construing Horace when it’s this beastly hot.”
“You don’t like the Epodes?” she asked. “There’s some ripping stuff in ‘em.”
“I like readin’ 'em. But the masters go and rot them up with vocatives, ablatives, and other blatant obscenities. One might as well be doing mathematics. In any case, we’re doing the Odes. It’s too hot to construe burblings about Cleopatra.”
Elizabeth grinned. “I shall glue together the pages of his Horace first thing.”
The sound of male voices drifting on the summery air from inside the house caused them to part company.
The boys retraced their steps. In his fair one’s presence, Turkey was lost in celestial realms; it took widening distance to restore him to the warp and weft of normal life, and that with a jolt: why had that sneaking rotter Beetle been grinning at her? Worse she’d smiled back.
With familiarity, Beetle had settled into friendly admiration. She had pluck, but he suspected what Stalky might say: jolly tactics, putrid strategy. Action was good, but only if you gave them nothing to come back at you for.
“She’s going to get metagrobolized,” Beetle said presently. “Unless she funks it, and tries to push the blame off on us.”
Turkey, simmering in his first stew of jealousy, made an outraged swipe at Beetle’s head, and the latter danced out of the way, “No, I take it back, Turkey! She’s a dashed heroine, a — a she-paladin, but you know what Stalky would say. I think we should tell him. Nobody keeps a secret tighter. Maybe he’ll have an idea how to keep us this side of disaster, twiggez-vous?”
Jealousy burned the brighter. If the divine fair met Stalky, then there would be two infernally conniving, loathsome beasts for her to grin at. Especially Stalky, who took the lead in everything. “If you want to peach,” he said shortly, “I can’t stop you. But I shall keep my word of honor.”
Beetle suppressed a groan. The last time he’d heard that voice of Turkey’s, it had been at Colonel Dabney’s. There was no stopping Turkey when he came the pomposo Pooh-Bah.
“At all events, contemplate the vision of King’s study thrashed,” Beetle offered. “And if she does bring it off, King can’t thrash a girl. Fids! Fids! Ha, and the best of the jest is, I haven’t opened my Horace yet, and now I shan’t have to. ‘Oh, Pigg, let us fraternise—joy and exultation!’”
Beetle executed the shuffling gloat, and Turkey, much mollified by Beetle’s obvious delight in the prospective execution rather than the executioner, descended from his remote fastness. Both were too preoccupied to look up.
They did not see Stalky watching grimly as Beetle strutted his gloat, black hair flopping, his gig-lamps flashing with reflections of the strong sunlight. So Turkey had lugged Beetle bung into the middle of his idiotic plot. Stalky would pretend to see nothing, but if and when they squattered away again, it was time for Stalky to be stalky.
On the surface, normal relations resumed in Number Five. Turkey occupied himself with pencil and paper, trying to sketch his inamorata; Beetle fell blissfully into FitzGerald’s Rubaiyat, and Stalky dealt with the study’s mathematics, so that when the inevitable disaster was over, they would recollect Uncle Stalky always looks out for them.
Turkey veered between worry and anticipation through the remainder of the day. By the next morning, the two emotions had bonded into an unreal sense of dread, not far from hilarity; he had managed to work through not only the Latin exercises but some of the English—more solid work than he might normally complete in a week or more—as if to propitiate the grim gods of old.
As the entire school marched into the chapel, both remembered their charge, and managed to sit in view of the door, that they might be first out when chapel was over, to sound the warning.
At the end, they bolted out the door, hirpling and hallooing along the gravel walk toward the form-rooms. So assiduous were their efforts that Prout, who happened to be the first master out the door behind them, followed with his heavy treat, observing fretfully that they might as well show such energy in school games, and if they must resort to second-form behavior, they would oblige him with a hundred lines apiece.
The impot was not the only cause of their slowing to a cautious step. The rest of the school, catching up, halted, and there issued forth a vigorous, and singularly descriptive, chorus.
“What is that unholy stench?”
“It’s the science lab,” Rattray howled joyfully, instantly alive to a possible lark. “Hartopp is exploding the school!”
“Science lab be blowed,” Orrin rejoined, always ready to rake up ancient insult. “It’s a fag, up and died over King’s, unnoticed for the general reek!”
Younger boys ranged up for instant battle, or mimed gagging, retching, and falling dead from the unpleasant odor.
Masters strode among the boys, executing summary justice to restore order. Richards was dispatched inside. He soon reappeared, tears streaming down his cheeks, face purple as he cried out, “One of them rubber tubes is burnt all over the gas works in Mr. Hartopp’s form-room. The windows is closed, so the smoke is gone through the rooms, looking to get out.”
As the boys gave a great cheer, masters and prefects put in some smart work to once again restore order.
A little distance from the drive, the reek carried on the air. The Head trod up to the Padre, who never hurried, and said, “Are We responsible, do you think?”
The Padre gave his head a shake. “If I am not mistaken, there is trouble in Arcadia, though I do not pretend to know the cause. But the myrmidons appear to have broken from Achilles.”
The Head’s brows lifted. “Ah,” he said, certain peripheral observations now making sense. He thought he’d caught familiar voices from the garden, but he had assumed that the boys were on route or exiting from his library. And so they might have been, until they were caught in a certain ribboned snare, inevitable in the way of nature.
His sympathies lay with the young lady, whose history was known to him; it was as well, perhaps, that her father was in process of being sent to Scarborough to finish his recuperation. Elizabeth, of course, must accompany him.
But first, as there appeared to be little actual harm done, he might as well reward her for her efforts. He walked down toward the mass surging about on the gravel before the row of school buildings.
The presence of the Head settled the boys quicker than ground-ash, cane, gatings and impots combined. When all was quiet, the Head pitched his voice to carry. “While the form-rooms air out, as it is a fine day, we shall take morning school in the cricket field. You may run in and fetch your work. It will do you good to hold your breath—” And seeing the signs of protest in certain faces, he added: “Anyone too delicate in health to venture into his locker or study may attend me at the goal post, where I shall have pen and paper at the ready, and I will dictate from Thucydides. You have fifteen minutes, beginning now.”
He brandished his pocket watch. The entire school departed, masters perforce following, as they mentally reconsidered their lessons for this untoward start of the Head’s.
Turkey and Beetle, shunning the generality of the crowd (and not wishing to accrue another impot on top of Prout’s) had drifted expertly along the flank, then cut up toward the Head’s, using the sparse shrubbery for cover.
Halfway there, they stumbled on Elizabeth, watching the school from beside a juniper. She grinned at them both. “Slew ‘em,” she said. “Privatim et seriatim.”
“Pretty average fidissimus,” Beetle declared, ready to execute a full gloat as tribute, when her smile vanished.
Turkey and Beetle both stared. Her expression had altered in a heartbeat to an unsettlingly familiar narrow-eyed, wary gaze. It reached beyond them.
They whirled about-face, to discover Stalky on their heels.
“Bets,” he said to the girl.
“Artie,” she responded, and such was Beetle and Turkey’s surprise that that ‘Artie’ flew right past.
“What are you doing here?” Stalky asked.
“Papa was crocked in Kandahar. Mr. Bates arranged for a doctor here.”
“And you? Chucked out of that dames school in York?”
“Third one in as many years,” Elizabeth said, with neither pride nor regret.
Like spectators at the fives court, Beetle and Turkey shifted gazes back and forth. The freckles, the sturdy build, the narrowed gazes: she was in nearly every respect a shorter, younger, female edition of Stalky, save the much lighter hair.
A distant shout reminded them that they still needed to get to their study and collect their books. They began to turn.
Elizabeth said quickly, “I’d just reached King’s study when I heard your shout, so all I was able to do was slap gum between Numida and Myrtle, before I had to bunk.”
Beetle executed his gloat in a quick circle, then bowed extravagantly to Elizabeth. With giddy expectation of fun, he caught up with the other two.
Nobody spoke for a time. They reached their building, dashed up to the study with their shirts pulled up over their noses, then clattered down again.
Turkey had sustained a shock. The divine fair was some sort of relative to Stalky? Turkey’s blooming love withered to winter seed in his heart. It was unmanly, or un-something, to be in love with any relation to a schoolmate. Feeling uneasily that some sort of explanation was due to Stalky, he said, “Met her at the Head’s. She swore us to secrecy.” And he gave a brief explanation of her desire to sit in on school, King’s response, and her wish for revenge.
Stalky listened, then said, “Of course she didn’t want me knowin’ she’d lugged you into it. How many times has she led us straight into muck? She’s always so dashed plausible.”
Beetle ran backwards, hand to his specs. “You mean— “
Stalky said, “Her pater, my Uncle Thomas, is a wily old Pathan. He tells her his ruses de guerre, and she passes ‘em on to us. I never did understand why she wants to go to school, but she does—a real school, not one where they sew samplers all day, and practice waltzing, and other putrid biznai. Science, Latin, even Greek. Loves ‘em all. I think the rot came from her mother, who used to make her own telescopes, before she up and died in Lahore, when Cousin Bets was small.”
At this point they reached the outer range of the stragglers heading toward the cricket field, and fell silent.
The Head had divided the school, placing King near the ramshackle shed and fencing that served as the cricket pav. Here at least was a modicum of shade, and Beetle established himself gratefully next to the fence, where he would be able to see King’s face when he attempted to open the book he carried tucked beneath his arm.
The school was still settling down as King eyed his class, who had organized themselves roughly in rows, as if they still sat upon forms. Then he said, “Peradventure, the recent exhibition in our modern side prompted the duller among you to assume your freedom from academic exercise. We shall prove, like Plato in his Akadamia Elaion, that learning depends not upon deal forms and plaster walls.”
With an air, he brought forth his Horace, and made to open it.
Beetle held his breath.
King slid his finger along the cover. His brows twitched together. He opened the book, turned over leaves—and long, smelly strings of thicking gum clumped the pages.
A couple of Hartopp’s boys writhed with inhuman effort not to howl with laughter.
King glanced up, taking in the entire class in one practiced sweep. In one face there was no hint of surprise. Beetle, aware of the magisterial eye upon him, hastily busied himself cleaning his spectacles with his handkerchief, but the smirk of expectation had been observed.
King knew that none of the infernal three could have been responsible for whatever had occurred in the science form-room, because they had sat near the door during chapel, not five paces from him.
But Beetle knew something. “Master Gigadibs. I invite you to enlighten us with the opening line of Book I: XXXVII.”
Beetle stared, then hastily opened his Horace, as King sonorously unrolled the Latin syllables from memory, “Nunc est bibendum, nunc pede libero pulsanda tellus, nunc Saliaribus. . .”
The infernal old owl knew the loathsome text by heart! Beetle wiped his sleeve across his face, and promptly knocked his spectacles off. In his haste, he dropped the book, the spectacles, and his handkerchief as King's favorites uttered sycophantly laughter. King merely waited, his creamy smile thinning. "When you have finished your asinine attempt at the common laborer's knockabout routine, you may commence at any time. We shall wait."
More or less restored to order, Beetle swallowed in a paper-dry throat, and began. “Now is drinking—that is, now is the time for drinking,” Beetle corrected himself hastily, measuring by the acidity in King’s smile how far afield was his guess at the verb. “And now’s the time . . .”
He paused to wipe his finger-smudged lenses again, and slid them back on his nose. King waited. Beetle brought the book closer, then held it away, and King intoned in a voice of portent, “ . . . pulsanda tellus . . .”
“Beating,” Beetle said, finding no way to avoid the word.
King's smile widened again, and Beetle began to sweat.
“Beat the Earth with unfettered feet,” came a whisper.
Beetle glanced desperately to the right and left, but the boys had drawn away, as if they wanted no contamination by proximity. “Listen, you ass,” the whisper strengthened. Coming from behind the fence! “Now’s the time to beat the earth with unfettered feet . . .”
In desperation, Beetle repeated the line.
“‘Unfettered?’” King repeated. “Is this yet another attempt at poetic afflatus? Well, we can let it go, er, unrestrained, as it were. But if you venture into the blatant indecencies of ‘forsooth,’ know that there will be consequences. Resume! ‘Nunc Saliarbus ornare puluinar deorum tempus erat dapibus, sodales . . .”
Line by line, the angelic voice behind the fence took Beetle through a translation of the text, King weighing each word before acceptance or rejection, always with a more precise replacement. At length the master impatient with the excruciating drip of each word, took over, declaiming the lines until the schoolboys, baking in the same hot sun that had once shone on Caesar chasing Cleopatra through the streets of Rome, painted word pictures of the burning ships, the intensity of the hunt, the single-minded courage of the desperate queen.
Vernon and other lights of King’s House, well-prepared, played antiphon to King, rolling the fierce and desperate, portentous words back and forth between English and Latin until that certain end. Well pleased with their efforts, King took them alone through the last verses, until they felt as if they had drunk the dark wine.
“Oh, that was ripping,” sighed the voice behind the fence.
Unaware of his reluctantly appreciative audience, King ended the class with, “As for our poetaster, Beetle, you shall furnish a proper translation by tomorrow. In addition to your Latin exercises.”
The impot was lighter than Beetle had expected. Far more compelling was the notion that this girl, the age of the fourth formers, had not only comprehended the morass of Latin genitives and declensions, but she had been eager to hear King unloose the meaning of the images therein.
He dropped his book, and in picking it up, leaned against the weather-worn fence so he could peer between the slats. He felt he must say something—but she was gone.
At the other end of the fence, Turkey watched the Head and Elizabeth walking side by side toward the garden. Something in the girl’s straight back and bent head communicated emotions he could not quite define, but of this one thing he was certain: this was his last view of her. He turned away, veering between profound regret and a scarcely perceived relief.
The rest of the day passed situ normali. The strange occurrence was for a time on everyone’s lips, but as no one appeared to be responsible, it was attributed to accident in the science form-room, and as such the grand jest was rendered ephemeral as a rainbow, grand only for a moment, then gone without leaving trace.
The only outward sign in Number Five was a subtle one: the blue bottle that had so suddenly appeared in Turkey’s trunk vanished again as suddenly.
In after years, Beetle—accustomed to creative, expressive females among the complicated relatives and friends of his elders—added the incident to his experience with the effects of language outside of predicted norms.
Stalky forgot it completely, until one day while stationed on the border of India and China, when his fellow officers were readying for a regimental ball, he had occasion to catch a familiar whiff, and was flung back in memory to study Number Five. Suddenly all was made clear, and his shout of laughter startled the fellow at the next mirror into snipping one of his carefully gardened side-whiskers.
Turkey never mentioned the incident to anyone, but some years after, Beetle had occasion to pass on in a letter news of Stalky and his family. As a result, a few days later, when Elizabeth at low ebb was about to succumb to combined pressure of relatives and societal expectations and accept a governess' s place, she chanced to encounter on the steps of the employment office a tall, lean young man in elegant dress. He lifted his topper politely and said in a charmingly familiar voice, "Miss Elizabeth?"