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The Downy Bird

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Solomon Grundy was, so they say, born on a Monday.  At the Coll., though, that day was marked by the demise of the volunteer cadet-corps.  The Hon. Raymond Martin’s address on “Patriotism” irresistibly inspired the students who had joined the corps to lay down their plugged Snider rifles.  All drill was refused henceforth, at least until such time as they went up to Sandhurst for the real thing.

It did not take long for the news of mass defection to percolate through the rest of the school.  Stalky, of course, made a bee-line for Study Five; but it is fair to say that he was no faster than Foxy, the school sergeant, was in laying his bewilderment before the Head in his study.

“They was shapin’ up so well, too,” he lamented.

“Ah, well,” he was told, “it was only to be expected, really.  These enthusiasms run their course, Sergeant.  You know that as well as I.”

“And I reckon they was fit to march out in the open,” said Foxy, shaking his head, “instead o’ hidin’ be’ind locked doors.  I was quite looking forward to seeing ’em all kitted out in uniform.  And with that fine flag, too, that the gentleman was so good as to give to the corps.”

Later, in the Reverend Gillett’s study, the Head confided that it was perhaps just as well that he never had got round to ordering those uniforms.  “That’s a fair sum of money saved, at least,” he said.

“I always did say that it wasn’t in the temper of the school,” observed the Padre.

“Well, they had their reasons for signing up,” said the Head, “and their reasons for … resigning ‘down’, so to speak.”

“There’ll be trouble with the Board, though,” opined Gillett, filling his pipe.  “General Collinson rather talked the directors into supporting it, didn’t he?  Very enthusiastic they were, from what you said.”

“Damnably so.  It was strongly intimated that, to a man, they felt the school should have such a corps. So many other establishments do, of course.  In fact, I don’t doubt, voluntary though the directors described it in their letter, they’ll nevertheless intimate that I should have applied a measure of compulsion.  There’s voluntary, and then again there’s ‘voluntary’.”

“You could offer to lend them a dictionary,” Gillett suggested, with the hint of a wink, and tamped down his briar.

“Alas,” said the Head, and shook his head, “the English language is not as it was in Johnson’s day.”

“I doubt it was then,” said Gillett cynically.  He applied a match and drew deeply.

“Not that I have any intention of writing Collinson, or any of the other directors for that matter, with details of the—”  The Head paused thoughtfully.  “Would debacle be too strong?”

“I was at the lecture, too,” said Gillett dryly.  “I saw their faces.  I … overheard some of the things they called him later.  ‘Jelly-Bellied Flag-Flapper' was a nice turn of phrase I thought.”

The Head stroked his beard pensively.  “I had to thank the man,” he said.  “In front of the entire school, and again when I shook his hand and saw him off.  The things we do.”  He sighed and added, “He’ll try that peroration on his constituents, you know.”

“They will be deeply moved,” the Padre predicted.

Later, in the common-room, he was privy to the observations of the other masters.  The Head, however, was absent, as was often his wont, for he believed in the importance of a man—or, for that matter, a boy—being free to speak his mind behind the back of those set over him.  “Letting off steam,” he called it; but then he was one of the few who, on the rare occasions when he came in person to one of the studies, always knocked before entering.

On the whole, the Padre was not surprised by what he heard from his fellows.  The opinions of the common-room had been aired with a fair frequency over the period of the existence of the cadet-corps.  There were those, Macrea to the foremost, who strongly approved.  Not only did they deem it a mark of patriotism (in that most patriotic of countries at the height of Empire), it also taught discipline; and, far from least, it kept the lads busy, which is the most efficacious prophylaxis against deviltry.  Those who, on the other hand, disapproved with equal vigour felt that, in a school whose primary function was to prepare boys for Sandhurst and Woolwich, the privileges and status given members of such a corps shifted the focus of the College too far from the function peculiar to all establishments of learning, to wit, a focus on education.  Thus spake King, at length.

He was supported, to a degree, by little Hartopp.  Indeed, for a time, the hatchet of their mutual animosity in the matter of Classics and Moderns was buried, so to speak, in the corpus of the corps.  True, the cadets had not claimed the privilege of extended bounds, preferring to keep their activities so far under wraps as to be invisible to anyone not of their number.  Nevertheless, marching with rifles, even old cut-down Sniders plugged for safety, had an appeal to many that exceeded that of bug-hunting, bird-watching, and catching hapless small animals for the Museum.  With the creation of the corps, Hartopp had found the appeal of the Natural History Society somewhat diminished.

As for the remaining House-master, Justus Prout would probably have followed the lead of Macrea for, to such as he, the honour of the House was inextricable from loyalty to School, Country, and Empire.  However, he deplored the secrecy of the thing.  Even the masters had been denied access to the gymnasium during drill, though they could not, of course, be subject to those penalties of martial law imposed by the corps upon any boy who essayed to test the security of the bastion.  Prout had simply bypassed the sentry on the door and gone straight to the Head.  There, though, he had met defeat.  The Prooshian Bates had simply smiled enigmatically.  “Let it play out,” he had said, and sent the bewildered House-master away.

The one clear advantage Prout had seen in those months of secret drill had been the wedge driven between the unholy trio in Study Five.  It had not struck deep enough to split their alliance asunder; but Corkran’s leadership in the cadet-corps, in which the others took no part and about which he kept as strictly mum to his study-mates as he did to the rest of the House, had taken its toll.  Prout could not but rejoice; and, in this matter, the other masters had shared his sentiment.

“Without the distraction of the cadet-corps, they’ll be back to their old tricks,” said Macrea gloomily.  “And unpredictable as ever.  You will need to keep a close eye on them, Prout.  As you so often say, you stand in loco parentis.  Whatever they plan, nip it in the bud, if I may be colloquial.”

Acta non verba,” muttered King under his breath.

“Sadly,” said Gillett, “their propensity for exacting proportionate—or disproportionate—revenge is thwarted in this instance.  Yes, yes!”  He waved away Prout’s incipient protests.  “I know you don’t agree in that matter, despite the evidence.  My point, though, stands:  the Hon. Raymond Martin, M.P., is beyond their reach.”

King nodded.  “Whatever they plan next,” he said, “and I think one may safely say that, at some point in the future, there will be a ‘next’—”  This prognostication was met by rueful agreement.  “—it can hardly be aimed at that most regrettable representative of democracy.  What was it I heard one of them call him?  The Raymondiferous Martin?  Precisely how one ‘bears Raymond’ is unfamiliar to me; but I suspect their Latin to be as imprecise in the matter of sobriquets as I have found it to be in form.  Far be it from me to interfere in another man’s House—”

“Yes, quite,” interrupted Macrea, who had heard this phrase too often before.  “I entirely agree.”  And, gesturing towards Prout with his pipe, he said simply, “Over to you then, old chap.”

Which instruction was met only with a lop-sided smile.  Prout was sadly familiar with Study Five.

Late that night, Hartopp cut through the dormitories in one of those peregrinations that the masters called a “short-cut”.  It began in the attics of his own House, and took him in turn through King’s and Macrea’s.  The gas-lights had been turned off; but it was rising towards summer and nights were short.  He had no difficulty unlocking the doors between the Houses, strolling—pipe in mouth—through the open doorways between the ten-man dormitories, and debouching finally in the attic of Prout’s house from which he made his way downstairs to the study of his fellow House-master.  They discoursed for a while on the habits of boys. On his way back, he overheard voices in the small three-bed attic room which he knew to be shared by the inhabitants of Study Five.  They were clearly not sleeping the sleep of the just, which surprised him not at all.  It is a matter of some regret to have to admit that he did not pass on his way, but stopped at the head of the uncreaking stair to overhear what he might.  This he found sadly enlightening.

As Corkran et al. were in the Upper Fifth and adherents of the Classics side, he no longer had them as students.  He therefore took counsel.

The following afternoon, when all right-minded lads were at a House-match, the Head came out of his inner study to find Beetle frowsting (as Prout would have it) indoors, on his knees in bibliophilic prayer before the lower shelves of his library.  He had the opportunity to stand for a long moment in observation before Beetle looked round.  “Don’t mind me,” he said to the boy.  “What have you found down there?”  He saw the proffered copy of The Scarlet Letter, and humphed.  “There’s a fair amount of truth in that,” he observed, “though I suspect nothing that will come as a surprise.”  He crossed to the fireplace and knocked his pipe out.  “By the way,” he added, “you might pass on to your friend Corkran that I’ve taken under consideration the appropriate disposition of the rifles that General Collinson was good enough to supply for the cadet-corps.  One could, of course, simply return them with thanks; but that might seem ungrateful.  One could keep them—presumably under lock and key—but they might even so ‘go walkabout’, as they say in the Antipodes; and who knows what might become of them then?  I can imagine (as no doubt can you) that some enterprising lad might consider the possibility of removing the lead so inconveniently stoppering the barrel in order that the rifle might be turned to a different purpose.  You might ask the Sergeant the effect of firing a gun in that condition, if you are curious.  You take Latin and Greek which, pace Mr. King, are languages no longer living in the usual sense of the phrase.  In the matter of plugged guns, it is not only a language that can become extinct.”  He looked consideringly down at his pipe and frowned.  “I think the Bideford Volunteers will find the rifles useful,” he said thoughtfully.  He turned towards the inner study, but paused in the doorway.  “Enjoy the book,” said that remarkable man, and went inside.

Later, in Study Five, Beetle passed along the message.  “Shan’t bother Foxibus,” said Stalky briefly.  “No point in the circs.”  They had their sallies, anyway; and a saloon pistol is good for most things.

“The Head’s a downy bird,” observed M’Turk.  And it was true.