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A wholly foreign reverence

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No, Turkey.’ Stalky did not look up from the greasy wad of chits and tickets which, in addition to an intricate and obscure mental reckoning, represented the combined accounts of Number Five. ‘Go and work it off on the sands, declaimin’. The one about the chap who wants his girl to lick him with her―’ he flared his nostrils in search of something suitably Wardour Street, ‘tresses should do it. I would find grievous ways to have thee slain/Intense device and superflux of pain.’

‘It’s a woman, you Gadarene Swine.’ M’Turk could not be astonished that he and Beetle had been overheard in their literary perorations; that a fragment of ‘Anactoria’ should have lodged between Pigg in the melon frame and Pomponius Ego was more extraordinary. ‘Meant to be Sappho.’

‘Better again,’ Stalky said blandly, giving no indication of acquaintance with that dame or her reputation. ‘Cut along and bathe or something, do, and when you get back I’ll have a treat in store for us. It’s been a doocid sickly term so far.’

M’Turk, who had been obliged to take matters into his own hands since the week before the Easter holiday, and considered his improved understanding of the twenty-ninth chapter of Genesis but scant compensation, persevered. ‘We could rot 'em a bit with it,’ he wheedled, knowing his generalissimo’s weaknesses as well as his own. ‘Heffy might take an impression.’

‘Don’t be transparent, Biddy de-ah. You ain’t going up and I don’t want to be expelled.’

‘We wouldn’t be. We could play it like you and Beetle did the trunk biznai with Mason.’ Pouting slightly, M’Turk touched the watch-pocket that was likely to remain empty for the rest of his sojourn at the Coll. ‘It’d be―symmetrical.’

Stalky was seen momently to picture himself as the apex of expellable depravity. ‘No. We haven’t the right mark for it. It would have answered for Mister, but Dick Four got in first there with the Remus racket, which,’ he added with a conscious air of bestowing due credit, ‘was fairly average inspired, but too much evidence, you know.’

‘Then we’ll leave no evidence. Bounds are pretty broad these days.’ It was summer, the wuzzy had grown dense, and the conviction of the Common-room that monastic microbes could flourish only behind locked doors and in a broth of tradition was as profound as it was mistaken.

‘No, O Turk. It takes my edge off. I become fat, slack and content with life. Which'll fling you back upon your resources and Beetle’s, and you two can’t manoeuvre without mucking it.’

The point of contention having placed a physical riposte beyond the pale, M’Turk threw a towel over his shoulder and strode out of the study, his seventy-one rangy inches abundantly reminiscent, did he but know it (and perhaps, given his nation's propensity to genealogy, he did) of both the ancestor who had joined the Earl of Tyrone at the Yellow Ford and the one who had faced him.

Elaborately sharkish, Stalky shuffled, spread and collected the chits, then replaced them in his coat pocket. The satisfaction that usually attended his scrupulous avoidance of material falsehood proved elusive, and he contemplated instead the reason for his mental reservation and corporeal reserve, which was ‘Toffee’ Crandall, Lieutenant R. Crandall of an ordinary Indian regiment, Crandall minor as was. It was finding himself alone with Crandall in the three-bed attic recess while the hastily-promoted Second Fifteen changed promiscuously and noisily in the ten-bedder with which it communicated. It was the wonderful array of sheen and corrugation, snowdrop white to imperial purple and every hue in between, that decorated Crandall’s arms and chest. It was Crandall’s small but evident difficulty in raising his left arm above his head and his easy acceptance of Stalky’s largely redundant aid.

‘Thanks. Unspeakable mess, ain’t I? Most of it’s just that, though, except―’ He indicated his left shoulder, which bore beneath the black sweater a puckered and livid crater, ‘that one damaged some nerve or whatnot. No feelin’ in my little finger. I was rootlin’ about in a trunk the other week and the lid came down on it. My orderly said it didn't half look queer, because of course I didn’t yelp or swear, just gave it a stupid look and tugged. If he hadn’t stopped me I’d’ve had it off at the second joint.’

Stalky, lacing the paragon’s boots, blurted on train of his laughter, ‘Will you tell us tonight? About bringing back Duncan’s body, and all that?’

‘Not much to tell. But if you like.’

‘Please, Crandall.’ He straightened up. Crandall did not step back, so for a moment there was no more than an inch and a half of air between their bodies. He rested his hand on Stalky’s hip. Their breath came heavily and in unison.

‘I like your eyes. They’ve mice in 'em, that have just belled the cat. What’s your name?’

‘C-corkran.’

‘I believe I know your Guv’nor. Lieutenant-General Lionel Corkran, Bombay Staff Corps? He’s a Great Man. You’ll follow him out, eh?’ Crandall released him, softly cuffing the back of his head and ruffling his hair. Uncharacteristically robbed of speech, Stalky nodded.

It was seeing one of the other Old Boys help Crandall out of his jersey after the match, knowing that by the time he, lowly substitute, had attained a bathtub, Crandall would have ascended to the dormitory, dressed and descended again to the Common-room, and feeling an unaccommodated nursery injustice at being unable, this time, to render bodyservice. It was trying to forget Crandall in a plan for the mortification of the Prooshian, it was seeking Crandall’s unwitting imprimatur for it. It was listening to Crandall’s stilted narrative in the dark, it was determining to wring Turkey’s neck for him if he breathed a word about the raconteurial deficiencies of Englishmen. It was lying awake sensing that Crandall, on his right, was also awake, and that the snuffling oblivious hump of Beetle, to the other side, was asleep. The inky Beetle was a giddy clean-minded pure young soul, anyway: Stalky had registered with interest the Padré’s astonishment at Beetle's ignorance of the purpose of the masters’ short-cutting across the dormitories, of which one could be pretty sure there’d be none this night, precisely because of the presence of Crandall as object-lesson for moral effect. It was the knowledge, certain, intuitive and howling berserker-mad, that he would receive a welcome in Crandall’s bed, a welcome surpassing his most cherished and private fantasies, but with him resided the initiative: an Object-Lesson couldn’t go interfering with the persons of the generation he’d been deputed to inspire. It was that he, Stalky, had lain rigidly staring at the ceiling-beams, then lain hands upon himself, desisting in frustration before he got anywhere near relief. He had, as that rummy old Shakespeare play had it, run away upon instinct, he was a coward on instinct.

Stalky leapt up, shoved his hands into his pockets, and stared out of the window of Number Five. He blew his cheeks and whistled tunelessly through his teeth, hunched a shoulder and tapped the opposite foot, wheeled and executed a short, quick double-shuffle towards the study door, so that Beetle, coming in at it with a sheaf of copy for the Swillingford Patriot and recognising the gyrations symptomatic of the ruminative Stalky, enquired instantly what was astir.

He grinned and gently knuckled Beetle’s head. ‘Patience, Beetle de-ah. Have you known your Uncle Stalky fail you yet?’

But his voice sounded hollow, and Stalky knew his own skull for once as empty of strategy and policy as any buried between Bideford churchyard and the lethal road to Fort Pearson.