The annual inter-house football cup at St Austin's lay between Dacre's, who were the holders, and Merevale's, who had been runner-up in the previous year, and had won it altogether three times out of the last five. The cup was something of a tradition in Merevale's, but of late Dacre's had become serious rivals, and, as has been said before, were the present holders.
This year there was not much to choose between the two teams. Dacre's had three of the First Fifteen and two of the Second; Merevale's two of the First and four of the Second. St Austin's being not altogether a boarding-school, many of the brightest stars of the teams were day boys, and there was, of course, always the chance that one of these would suddenly see the folly of his ways, reform, and become a member of a House.
This frequently happened, and this year it was almost certain to happen again, for no less a celebrity than MacArthur, commonly known as the Babe, had been heard to state that he was negotiating with his parents to that end. Which House he would go to was at present uncertain. He did not know himself, but it would, he said, probably be one of the two favourites for the cup. This lent an added interest to the competition, for the presence of the Babe would almost certainly turn the scale. The Babe's nationality was Scots, and, like most Scotsmen, he could play football more than a little. He was the safest, coolest centre three-quarter the School had, or had had for some time. He shone in all branches of the game, but especially in tackling. To see the Babe spring apparently from nowhere, in the middle of an inter-school match, and bring down with violence a man who had passed the back, was an intellectual treat. Both Dacre's and Merevale's, therefore, yearned for his advent exceedingly. The reasons which finally decided his choice were rather curious. They arose in the following manner:
The Babe's sister was at Girton. A certain Miss Florence Beezley was also at Girton. When the Babe's sister revisited the ancestral home at the end of the term, she brought Miss Beezley with her to spend a week. What she saw in Miss Beezley was to the Babe a matter for wonder, but she must have liked her, or she would not have gone out of her way to seek her company. Be that as it may, the Babe would have gone a very long way out of his way to avoid her company. He led a fine, healthy, out-of-doors life during that week, and doubtless did himself a lot of good. But times will occur when it is imperative that a man shall be under the family roof. Meal-times, for instance. The Babe could not subsist without food, and he was obliged, Miss Beezley or no Miss Beezley, to present himself on these occasions. This, by the way, was in the Easter holidays, so that there was no school to give him an excuse for absence.
Breakfast was a nightmare, lunch was rather worse, and as for dinner, it was quite unspeakable. Miss Beezley seemed to gather force during the day. It was not the actual presence of the lady that revolted the Babe, for that was passable enough. It was her conversation that killed. She refused to let the Babe alone. She was intensely learned herself, and seemed to take a morbid delight in dissecting his ignorance, and showing everybody the pieces. Also, she persisted in calling him Mr MacArthur in a way that seemed somehow to point out and emphasize his youthfulness. She added it to her remarks as a sort of after-thought or echo.
'Do you read Browning, Mr MacArthur?' she would say suddenly, having apparently waited carefully until she saw that his mouth was full.
The Babe would swallow convulsively, choke, blush, and finally say--
'No, not much.'
'Ah!' This in a tone of pity not untinged with scorn.
'When you say "not much", Mr MacArthur, what exactly do you mean? Have you read any of his poems?'
'Oh, yes, one or two.'
'Ah! Have you read "Pippa Passes"?'
'No, I think not.'
'Surely you must know, Mr MacArthur, whether you have or not. Have you read "Fifine at the Fair"?'
'Have you read "Sordello"?'
'What have you read, Mr MacArthur?'
Brought to bay in this fashion, he would have to admit that he had read 'The Pied Piper of Hamelin', and not a syllable more, and Miss Beezley would look at him for a moment and sigh softly. The Babe's subsequent share in the conversation, provided the Dragon made no further onslaught, was not large.
One never-to-be-forgotten day, shortly before the end of her visit, a series of horrible accidents resulted in their being left to lunch together alone. The Babe had received no previous warning, and when he was suddenly confronted with this terrible state of affairs he almost swooned. The lady's steady and critical inspection of his style of carving a chicken completed his downfall. His previous experience of carving had been limited to those entertainments which went by the name of 'study-gorges', where, if you wanted to help a chicken, you took hold of one leg, invited an accomplice to attach himself to the other, and pulled.
But, though unskilful, he was plucky and energetic. He lofted the bird out of the dish on to the tablecloth twice in the first minute. Stifling a mad inclination to call out 'Fore!' or something to that effect, he laughed a hollow, mirthless laugh, and replaced the errant fowl. When a third attack ended in the same way, Miss Beezley asked permission to try what she could do. She tried, and in two minutes the chicken was neatly dismembered. The Babe re-seated himself in an over-wrought state.
'Tell me about St Austin's, Mr MacArthur,' said Miss Beezley, as the Babe was trying to think of something to say--not about the weather. 'Do you play football?'
A prolonged silence.
'Do you--' began the Babe at last.
'Tell me--' began Miss Beezley, simultaneously.
'I beg your pardon,' said the Babe; 'you were saying--?'
'Not at all, Mr MacArthur. You were saying--?'
'I was only going to ask you if you played croquet?'
'Yes; do you?'
'If this is going to continue,' thought the Babe, 'I shall be reluctantly compelled to commit suicide.'
There was another long pause.
'Tell me the names of some of the masters at St Austin's, Mr MacArthur,' said Miss Beezley. She habitually spoke as if she were an examination paper, and her manner might have seemed to some to verge upon the autocratic, but the Babe was too thankful that the question was not on Browning or the higher algebra to notice this. He reeled off a list of names.
'... Then there's Merevale--rather a decent sort--and Dacre.'
'What sort of a man is Mr Dacre?'
'Rather a rotter, I think.'
'What is a rotter, Mr MacArthur?'
'Well, I don't know how to describe it exactly. He doesn't play cricket or anything. He's generally considered rather a crock.'
'Really! This is very interesting, Mr MacArthur. And what is a crock? I suppose what it comes to,' she added, as the Babe did his best to find a definition, 'is this, that you yourself dislike him.' The Babe admitted the impeachment. Mr Dacre had a finished gift of sarcasm which had made him writhe on several occasions, and sarcastic masters are rarely very popular.
'Ah!' said Miss Beezley. She made frequent use of that monosyllable. It generally gave the Babe the same sort of feeling as he had been accustomed to experience in the happy days of his childhood when he had been caught stealing jam.
Miss Beezley went at last, and the Babe felt like a convict who has just received a free pardon.
One afternoon in the following term he was playing fives with Charteris, a prefect in Merevale's House. Charteris was remarkable from the fact that he edited and published at his own expense an unofficial and highly personal paper, called The Glow Worm, which was a great deal more in demand than the recognized School magazine, The Austinian, and always paid its expenses handsomely.
Charteris had the journalistic taint very badly. He was always the first to get wind of any piece of School news. On this occasion he was in possession of an exclusive item. The Babe was the first person to whom he communicated it.
'Have you heard the latest romance in high life, Babe?' he observed, as they were leaving the court. 'But of course you haven't. You never do hear anything.'
'Well?' asked the Babe, patiently.
'You know Dacre?'
'I seem to have heard the name somewhere.'
'He's going to be married.'
'Yes. Don't trouble to try and look interested. You're one of those offensive people who mind their own business and nobody else's. Only I thought I'd tell you. Then you'll have a remote chance of understanding my quips on the subject in next week's Glow Worm. You laddies frae the north have to be carefully prepared for the subtler flights of wit.'
'Thanks,' said the Babe, placidly. 'Good-night.'
The Headmaster intercepted the Babe a few days after he was going home after a scratch game of football. 'MacArthur,' said he, 'you pass Mr Dacre's House, do you not, on your way home? Then would you mind asking him from me to take preparation tonight? I find I shall be unable to be there.' It was the custom at St Austin's for the Head to preside at preparation once a week; but he performed this duty, like the celebrated Irishman, as often as he could avoid it.
The Babe accepted the commission. He was shown into the drawing-room. To his consternation, for he was not a society man, there appeared to be a species of tea-party going on. As the door opened, somebody was just finishing a remark.
'... faculty which he displayed in such poems as "Sordello",' said the voice.
The Babe knew that voice.
He would have fled if he had been able, but the servant was already announcing him. Mr Dacre began to do the honours.
'Mr MacArthur and I have met before,' said Miss Beezley, for it was she. 'Curiously enough, the subject which we have just been discussing is one in which he takes, I think, a great interest. I was saying, Mr MacArthur, when you came in, that few of Tennyson's works show the poetic faculty which Browning displays in "Sordello".'
The Babe looked helplessly at Mr Dacre.
'I think you are taking MacArthur out of his depth there,' said Mr Dacre. 'Was there something you wanted to see me about, MacArthur?'
The Babe delivered his message.
'Oh, yes, certainly,' said Mr Dacre. 'Shall you be passing the School House tonight? If so, you might give the Headmaster my compliments, and say I shall be delighted.'
The Babe had had no intention of going out of his way to that extent, but the chance of escape offered by the suggestion was too good to be missed. He went.
On his way he called at Merevale's, and asked to see Charteris.
'Look here, Charteris,' he said, 'you remember telling me that Dacre was going to be married?'
'Well, do you know her name by any chance?'
'I ken it weel, ma braw Hielander. She is a Miss Beezley.'
'Great Scott!' said the Babe.
'Hullo! Why, was your young heart set in that direction? You amaze and pain me, Babe. I think we'd better have a story on the subject in The Glow Worm, with you as hero and Dacre as villain. It shall end happily, of course. I'll write it myself.'
'You'd better,' said the Babe, grimly. 'Oh, I say, Charteris.'
'When I come as a boarder, I shall be a House-prefect, shan't I, as I'm in the Sixth?'
'And prefects have to go to breakfast and supper, and that sort of thing, pretty often with the House-beak, don't they?'
'Such are the facts of the case.'
'Thanks. That's all. Go away and do some work. Good-night.'
The cup went to Merevale's that year. The Babe played a singularly brilliant game for them.