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Of Beetles, Bricks, and Bright Blue Butterflies

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“What do you think of butterflies?” M’Turk asked as he lolled on his back gazing up at the sky.

“Butterflies?” Beetle asked, sounding aghast. “You don’t mean to say you’re thinking of joining Hartopp’s lot!” He had unhappy memories of expeditions he had made in his first term in a desperate – and utterly unsuccessful – attempt to avoid hazing. Miserable afternoons traipsing over fields with a net and jar trying to collect specimens that always seemed to fly off or crawl into a crack in some rock just before he captured them, only to return hot and sweaty to face the jeers of the real enthusiasts who showed the rarities they had hunted down. (Come to think of it, there was something deeply worrying about a hulking boy of five-foot crowing over his capture of a tiny insect – wasn’t there? Not at all like two evenly matched teams meeting on a cricket field. Positively un-English.)

“No, you knucklehead,” Stalky intervened, “can’t you see he’s got some kind of artistic notion about decorating the study.”

“But we haven’t got a study,” protested Beetle.

“Not yet, but we will next term.” Stalky was nothing if not confident.

“But I told you: I overheard King and Heffy mulling over who would be allocated studies three days ago when they were blowing a cloud in the rose garden. They were very uncomplimentary. We haven’t got a wax cat’s chance in hell of being allocated a study next year.”

“They must have been pulling your leg,” opined M’Turk, “stands to reason: almost everyone gets a study when they move into upper school – unless they are total rotters and can’t be trusted.”

“I know I wasn’t spotted,” asserted Beetle. “Besides, what gives you the idea King thinks us anything but rotters?”

“Speak for yourself,” retorted M’Turk, “He considers me virtue personified as I always do my Latin prep on time; and manage to copy it right.” This latter was dig at Beetle who had muddled his temporal clauses two days before, and had had to endure King’s sarcastic remarks for several minutes.

“King doesn’t consider any of us virtuous,” returned Stalky, “but more to the point: it’s the House Master’s decision, and we are in Prout’s.”

“No difference,” said Beetle gloomily, “not when King’s filling his ears with an abundance of good advice.”

“Advice is judged by results, not by intentions,” quoted Stalky.

“I challenge you to say that in Latin!”

Stalky just grinned.

Sunday afternoon had provided a rare day of blue skies, sunshine, and – once morning service was done – blessed freedom. Monday morning, however, brought drizzle and blustery winds and the inevitable mathematics.

“Pythagorean geometry! How can anyone make any sense of it?” Beetle moaned as they made their way to the dining hall at the end of a trying afternoon. “Maths is bad enough – but then to add Latin to it–“

“Greek, not Latin, you putrid ass!” howled M’Turk in disgust.

“Well, I make sense of it by thinking of the range of field artillery and the distance to the enemy forces,” Stalky explained. “But quite what you make of it…,” he shook his head in mock sadness for once again Beetle had outdone himself in stupidity when Mason asked him for an answer. Unlike King, there had been no sarcasm from the mathematics master (who possessed a genuine passion for teaching) just deeply earnest and detailed explanations of the painfully obvious which had taken up the last half of the class. “Although,” Stalky added, “it probably did some of the slower members of the class some good; I’m sure I could see the penny finally drop for De Vitre, even if you were a lost cause. Consider it your good deed for the day, Beetle – very public spirited of you.”

Later that day Stalky said, “what it really all comes down to in the end, is space.”

“Space? Is that the answer to this problem?” asked Beetle who sat frowning over the extra geometry set for him by Mason.

Stalky laughed, “No, I meant the question of who gets a study next year, not your prep.”

Extra prep,” Beetle complained, “that only I’ve been saddled with.”

“Because only you were exceptionally obtuse in Mason’s class today.”

“You helped with the regular prep,” Beetle argued.

“But not with extra,” Stalky pronounced, “not this time. Come on Turkey,” he said getting up, “let’s go for a stroll and leave Gig-lamps here puzzling out the puppy – that’s a hint you fool!”

The three had been sitting in one corner of the form room, separate from the rest of their class, but the rule was boys who finished their prep early had the freedom of the grounds before bedtime, except on bath night. The winds had chased the rain clouds off to the East; now the glory of an early summer evening beckoned; Turkey and Stalky did not resist, walking straight out to the southwest of the College, not quite as far as the cliffs but far enough to let the sea breeze blow the day’s cramming from their heads. From Stalky’s perspective, a clear sky provided perfect conditions for reconnaissance; Turkey said he rather fancied the pallet the heavens had chosen and wondered if he would be able to get that colour locally to paint the walls of their study. “They are only small rooms; but that sort of bright luminous blue will make the space look much bigger.”

“Hmmm… and that’s the key,” mused Stalky. “There are only so many little rooms, suitable for boys and eschewed by masters. Somehow we need Prout to find that one extra space, previously overlooked, which means there are enough studies for everyone.”

As they turned to come back, they came across Sergeant Fox wheeling a barrow of bricks down the rough lane.

“Hail and well met, Foxibus!” greeted Stalky. “Another wall to build?”

“Shed for the cricket equipment,” Foxy replied, “abutting your house.”

“In-de-ed,” drawled Stalky, falling into step beside the Sergeant. “And what is the plan for the old storeroom?”

“I was told to move the costumes and boxes and whatnot that are crammed underneath the hall stage into it.”

Stalky smiled sympathetically and signalled behind his back to M’Turk. “But you can never be expected to do all that on your own, surely.”

“Old Mr Roberts will be the one doing most of it,” Foxy replied. “I’m just laying the outline for him – see?”

He handed Stalky somewhat grubby and crumpled piece of impot paper with several straight lines and angles plus arithmetical calculations drawn on it. Stalky recognised Lidgett’s cramped hand in the technical plan.

“He’ll be coming up to the College tomorrow to lay the bricks,” explained Foxy, “while I’m off to Taunton to get the lock for the door.”

The Sergeant had unloaded his barrow in double-quick-time with the help of Stalky and M’Turk; now he pushed it back down the lane to refill it with another load.

“If Turkey helps, those loads will go faster,” Stalky offered, “and I could place the markers where the walls are to go - nice and clear for Rabbit's Eggs to follow.”

"That's Mr Roberts to you," Foxy corrected automatically, before pausing to give Stalky a searching look, “now why would you do that?”

“Practice for building a bivouac,” Stalky replied promptly.

Foxy rubbed the back of his neck, “Truth be told, it would be a kindness; I can’t make head nor tail of those instructions.”

“If you give me the string,” Stalky said, “I’ll see it all laid out just right.”

An hour later as the bell rang he positively bounced into the dormitory, followed by a somewhat more weary-looking Turkey.

“All right for you,” grumbled M’Turk, “who got to play about with bits of string while I did hard labour. Why ever did you offer our help anyway?”

“Because with your help there are double the number of bricks for Rabbit’s Eggs to lay; and with my help that shed is double the size, with space for both cricket and drama equipment, and now there’s another nice little empty room to use as a study.”

M’Turk stared, eyes wide. “It will never work.”

“It will! Didn’t you hear him: Foxy’s away all day tomorrow. By the time he gets back the shed will already be built and the cement set.” Stalky began his war-dance, “I gloat – I gloat!”

It was a triumphant march that greeted a disgruntled Beetle when he arrived. Even after he was given the explanation, he was not inclined to join in. “It took me bloody hours,” he complained, “trying to make those useless formulas work, when all the time you could have told me joining the points on the graph made a little dog and all I had to do was shift it a quarter turn each time.”

Stalky laughed, “I told you it was a puppy!”

Beetle pulled a face. “Just you wait; it’s French tomorrow; and just see if I help you after you made me sweat over graphs today.”

“Ah, but that’s the Padre, and he will rejoice over us with gladness.”

Replete with porridge, supplemented by bacon and eggs, the next morning, the three looked forward to the gentle teaching of the Reverend Gillett; only to be faced with King instead.

“I’m sorry to say the good Reverend has had to absent himself from the College this afternoon on an urgent errand of mercy involving one of the day pupils who just received sad news about his father, hence I shall be taking you for a little extra Latin practice instead,” King announced.

“But Sir, we have only our French books with us,” protested Orrin.

“Fear not,” King bent gimlet eyes on the boy, who shivered to see him smile, “for this is not a new text I am introducing, merely revision of something we completed last term.”

And with that he turned to the blackboard and without reference to any source began writing. Back turned to the class, who watched in stunned silence (King knew Caesar off by heart!) the Latin master commanded, “Orrin, you may start.”

Stumbling a bit as he read from the board, nonetheless Orrin made a creditable effort. “Postero die castra ex eo loco movent - On the following day they moved their camp from that place.”

“Now you M’Turk.”

M’Turk sounded clear and confident, “Idem facit Caesar equitatumque omnem, ad numerumquattuor milium, quem ex omni provincia et Haeduis atque eorum sociis coactum habebat, praemittit, qui videant quas in partes hostes iter faciant - Caesar does the same, and sends forward all his cavalry, to the number of four thousand (which he had drawn together from all parts of the Province and from the Aedui and their allies), to observe toward what parts the enemy are directing their march.”

“Very good,” commented King. And so, it continued until King turned around, and his searching gaze fell on the hapless Beetle, who stood hesitantly and wracked his memory for the phrases Turkey had given him to memorise before Easter.

“Quod, cum neque emi neque ex agris sumi possit – which since it cannot be bought or grown–”

“Grown?” queried King coldly.

“Taken,” Beetle repeated what Turkey whispered.

“Continue.”

“Tam necessario tempore, tam propinquis hostibus ab iis non sublevetur – necessary time to remain close to the enemy.”

“Necessary time!” King’s voice was whip-sharp. “Not to mention you still appear unable to grasp the use of the subjunctive!”

And with that he took over, the Latin rolling off his tongue with a cadence and rhythm no boy in his class had ever achieved, King’s translations positively lyrical, with asides and cogent explanations that placed Caesar’s account into the context of the internal politics of Rome, until finally inspiration waned and he swept out, master’s gown flapping like wings behind him as he strode down the corridor.

He left behind him a room full of boys stunned to silence by his eloquence.

Not that that lasted. News of King’s extraordinary performance made the rounds during Prep and beyond.

“Now had that been the Padre,” M’Turk offered, “I could understand. We’ve all seen him go into a sort of reverie over that Grecian Urn thing. But King?"

“He’s not one given to flights of fancy,” Stalky agreed. “I look to him for cutting remarks to practice on the fags, not poetry.”

In the end, it was Beetle who summed up the general view of those fortunate few who had heard King’s peroration that day, “If only he did that every lesson. I actually feel I learned something worthwhile in Latin class today.”

“Don’t sound so astonished,” Stalky said. “He’s probably the brightest of all the masters at the College. Just think of how confoundedly bored King must be most of the time, having to teach Latin conjugations over and over, year after year, to ignorant first years. Hammering just enough knowledge into them over the years until they finally pass their exams, only to see them move on while he stays here and is rewarded for his effort by doing it all again with the next set. Deadly dull I should think.”

It was the short free time between supper and bed and they were leaning against a wall in the kitchen garden blowing rings, carefully hidden between gooseberry and red currant bushes. Having not achieved senior school status yet, they were not supposed to smoke. In the still of the night the sound of their voices floated upwards to the open window of the Head’s study above.

“Non nobis solum nati sumus,” Beetle said, and with that they finished their pipes and sauntered back to the dormitory.

They left, above their heads, the Head, Padre and four House Masters looking at one another in shocked silence.

“Are they really the ones who do not deserve a study?” asked the Head quietly. “Especially when they have gone to such trouble to ensure we have an extra-large shed for all our equipment?”

“That Beetle of all people quoted Cicero….” King shrugged and turned his head to meet Prout’s eyes, “Suum Cuique.”