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Robin Linnet written by E. F. Benson who was an English novelist, biographer, memoirist, archaeologist and short story writer. This book was published in 1919. And now republish in ebook format. We believe this work is culturally important in its original archival form. While we strive to adequately clean and digitally enhance the original work, there are occasionally instances where imperfections such as missing pages, poor pictures or errant marks may have been introduced due to either the quality of the original work. Despite these occasional imperfections, we have brought it back into print as part of our ongoing global book preservation commitment, providing customers with access to the best possible historical reprints. We appreciate your understanding of these occasional imperfections, and sincerely hope you enjoy reading this book.
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E. F. Benson
DAMON and Pythias, collegiately and colloquially known as Day and Pie, were seated in Damon’s room in the great quadrangle, on two chairs, side by side, with a candle on the table that guttered in the draught, and a copy of “Socrates’s Apology” (in the original Greek) between them. Between them also, propped up against the candle, was a firmly literal translation of what they were reading, to which they both constantly referred. Underneath the candlestick in a far less accessible position, since they desired to consult it much less frequently, was a Greek lexicon. First one of them translated a few lines, with an eye fixed on the English equivalent, and then the other. That was a more sociable way of working than to sit separate and borrow the crib from each other. Besides, there was only one candle, stolen from another fellow’s room, as the electric light had, half an hour ago, got tired and gone to sleep. The books, therefore, had to be centrally situated in this small field of imperfect illumination.
They had got to the point where Socrates, having been warned to prepare for the administration of the cup of hemlock at sundown, had sent for his wife, Xantippe, and his children. But she had made so unphilosophical a howling and feminine outcry that he had sent his family away, and proceeded to spend his last hour in the company of his friends.
Damon paused—he was translating at the moment—and lit a pipe, while Pythias relaxed his attitude of polite attention.
“I vote we stop,” he said. “Socrates was evidently jolly sick of it all and wanted to stop, too. It wouldn’t do to fly in the face of Socrates. Whisky?”
Pythias shut the translation up in the original text.
“I’m not by way of drinking whisky,” he said, “but if you’ve got some ice and soda-water——”
“Which you ordered for me, and put down to my account——” continued Damon.
“So I did. In that case I don’t mind for once: I think I should rather like it. It tastes beastly, but on the other hand, I drink it not for what it is, but for what it does. And I’m talking like Socrates. In other words, I drink it not for drinky but for drunky. It makes gay. Lord, what a candle! By the grace of God, or probably without it, I could light a better candle than that. I could light such a candle, as an Archbishop said just before they lit him. When do you suppose the electric light will cease being funny?”
Damon took the guttering candle away, in order to get Pythias the refreshment that apparently he didn’t want from his gyp-cupboard, and left him in the dark. Upon which it seemed good to Pythias to scream for his nurse and his mother in shrill falsetto. Damon couldn’t find the ice at once, for it had been put, wrapped up in a cloth, in his washing-basin, in order not to drip, and Pythias, with the exuberance of youth, continued screaming....
Damon was the elder of the two by the space of an entire year, which, when the one is twenty and the other only nineteen, is the equivalent of a decade or so later on. People of fifty and sixty, in the eyes of youth, are of about the same age, just as people of nineteen and twenty in the eyes of the more mature are contemporaries. But the view of youth is probably the more correct, for when a man has passed some fifty years in this puzzling world, he has solved any problem of interest that he is likely to solve, has seen all that he is really capable of observing, and has assimilated all that his mental and moral digestion is able to tackle. Consequently, it matters very little how much older than fifty he is....
But there are wonderful things dawning every day on those of the sunnier age; fresh horizons expand to their climbings, new stars swim into larger heavens, virgin and undiscovered slopes mount upwards for eager footsteps. Eventually the table-land is reached, and given that no national crisis or peril comes along to make everybody look upwards again to toppling precipices of ice, or menace of volcanic flame, the more elderly trot quietly thereafter, to the eyes of youth, along a mild and level road. They have married and begotten children, or they have remained single with Pekinese dogs and knitting or the club bow-window with the evening papers, to distract them gently as they move slowly on, and to the young it all seems very remote and staid and uninteresting. The exciting, the experimental age, when everything is worth trying, and almost everything worth doing, has been left behind; youth, with its causeless anticipations, and even more causeless disillusionments, its insatiable curiosity, its stainless “seeing what things are like,” has sunk gently below the horizon, and the desire even for experiment has failed.
Our happy heroes, however, one screaming in the dark, the other exploring a cupboard, had no idea what most things were like, except that, without discrimination, they found that most things were jolly. At present their best actual achievement was to have found each other, and on that point, despite the discrepancy of their ages, their discoveries were of pretty equal merit. They had been at Eton together, and the intense friendship formed there had, rather unusually, renewed itself and burned with a brighter flame when they came together again, not yet a year ago, at St. Stephen’s College, Cambridge. They shared the widening horizon, and yet kept their smaller horizon—the fresh excitements and licences of the University had not obliterated the old. To people like tutors and godfathers, Damon was known as Jim Lethbridge, Pythias as Robin Linnet. It was inevitable, therefore, that he should be more widely and intimately known as “Birds,” for how could there be an amalgamation in one set of human limbs of a Robin and Linnet without “Birds” being the natural formula for the owner?
It was a very hot night at the beginning of May, and, returning late from an idle afternoon of paddling and bathing on the upper river, they had neither of them gone into dinner in Hall, which would have implied changing from shirt and flannel trousers and nothing much besides into a more formal attire. So Birds had ordered in a loaf of bread, a cold duck and a pot of jam to his own account, and some ice and soda-water and a bottle of whisky to Jim’s, which seemed about fair. The remains of this meal, about enough for a small cat, lay on the table in the window. Then the electric light had ceased to be, and a single stolen candle had guttered over a half-hour’s Plato....
So Jim returned with preventives against thirst, and in putting down the guttering candle, spilt some hot wax over Robin’s brown hand. So he stopped screaming, and began obscenely swearing. The obscenity meant nothing whatever, nor did the amazing oaths: he talked like that just because he was a boy, and there was only a boy to listen to him. But peace returned with the long iced drink, and his mind went back to Socrates and Xantippe.
“Of course he sent her and the kids away,” he said. “Being a female, she didn’t understand him and his friends. He wanted to have a little sensible conversation before dying. I’m sure I should. Do come and see me when I’m dying, Jim. I’ll have you and my mother, because she’s frightfully decent.”
“She can’t have much in common with you then,” said Jim. “Better have the girl who sang about the oysters.”
“Oysters on the pier, I remember. That was at Easter, wasn’t it? You and I went together, and waited at the stage-door. And she was with another chap. Wonder who he was. Wonder....”
“What do you wonder?”
“Oh, nothing. It was only a rag. But I suppose girls cease to be a rag some time. People go and marry them and live with them happily ever afterwards. I should be awfully uncomfortable if I thought I was going to live with one girl for ever. Buxom: they get buxom. There’s that Jackson girl: she’s buxom already. Lord!”
“That Jackson girl,” said Jim, “told Badders you had the most beautiful mouth she ever saw. Didn’t I tell you?”
“No. She wants to kiss me, and I don’t want to kiss her: that’s where we are. She’s like a fat ferret, though most of them are lean. Marrying now! I don’t want to marry anybody. I shouldn’t sleep a wink with somebody snorting and breathing all night long. And if you have a separate room they divorce you, don’t they?”
“Well, the sooner I’m divorced the better,” said Robin.
“You’ve got to marry first.”
Robin took a long draught from his whisky and soda.
“I should like to be divorced first,” he said, “and marry afterwards. And yet some fellows think about nothing but girls the whole blessed day. Badders does. Pure waste of time. Give me a girl for ten minutes, and then let me come back to my own little room. There’s a time for everything under the sun, and, thank God, it’s not time to marry yet!”
Birds had lit a couple of cigarettes by mistake as he gave utterance to these misogynistic expressions, and put one in each corner of his beautiful mouth, and tried to drink his whisky and soda with the section of mouth that lay in between them. That was not a very great success, because one cigarette fell into his glass and the other got whisky-logged. So he had to have some more ice and whisky and soda-water. Jim, at the moment, was bending over the candle as he lit his pipe, and there was a convenient cavity between his neck and the collar of his shirt. And with the force and suddenness of conviction or conversion, it was borne in upon Birds that a small lump of his ice must be instantly inserted in that opening. This feat was accomplished with masterly precision.
Jim gave one gasp of surprise and shock as the ice slid down his spine, and turned the siphon full into Birds’ face. This half blinded him for a moment, then he seized Jim round the waist and closed with him. The siphon got wedged between their chests, and Jim’s iron finger never relaxed till it was empty, though he received his due share of the contents himself. A chair crashed to the ground, the table toppled and overturned, the candle went out, and from the darkness came squeaks and pants from the entangled wrestlers. Birds’ dripping shirt was split from shoulder to waist by the nozzle of the siphon, but eventually he wriggled from under the superincumbent Jim, sat firmly on his chest, and grasped the pit of his stomach.
“Well?” he said, very much out of breath.
“All right: that’ll do. Whatever we are, let’s be calm. And dignified.... Dignified.... And calm.... Besides, that lump of ice won’t melt, and it’s hurting me.”
“Are you sorry? Damned sorry?” asked Birds.
“Yes! Oh, get up, you foul pig!”
The door opened, and Badders, who was Badsley, looked in. At that precise moment the electric light was restored, and shone on the upheaval.
“I thought I heard a cuckoo singing,” he remarked, “or some other bird.”
Jim advanced stealthily on him.
“That is very interesting,” he said. “You thought you heard a cuckoo, did you? Birds, get between him and the door.”
The ill-starred Badders was a moment too late in his retreat. Birds tripped him up, and Jim laid him flat on the floor. “The only question is what to do with him,” he said. “Shall we bind the sacrifice with cords? Cuckoo, indeed! That’s an insult to you, Birds. You shall choose.”
So Badders was tied up, trussed like a fowl and set in the corner, and the others threw paper darts at his face. He was obliged under threat of torture to open his mouth wide, and the first who threw a paper dart into it won. It lasted some time, and then the usual evening rag was over, the room was restored to some semblance of order, and all three sat down for refreshments. Birds stripped off his torn and dripping shirt, and sat on the floor just as Nature had made him as far as the waist. She had made him very nicely indeed.
“Fifth of May,” announced Badsley, “and I would to God it were the fiftieth.”
“Because I’ve got my Tripos coming on. That’s the result of being so devilish clever and being told to take your Tripos in your second year. I almost wish I was a fool like Jim or you. What have you two been doing? Why weren’t you in Hall?”
“Went up to Granchester in a canoodle, which rhymes with caboodle.”
“There was a young lady of Exeter,” remarked Badders thoughtfully.
“No, there wasn’t. At least, we know all about her.”
“She was more amusing than going to Granchester. Why didn’t you play cricket this afternoon instead of slacking?”
“Because I’m playing for the University of Cambridge all to-morrow and the next day,” said Birds, “and three days’ consecutive cricket is more than I can bear.”
“It is. You’d swank if you had been asked to play for the ‘Varsity. ‘Oh, Mr. Linnet,’ they said to me, they did, ‘will you come and play bat and ball with us? It would be nice of you, it would. Some boys from Middlesex are coming up to play against us, they are, and we will have such fun!’ So I said I would, I did, and I will. There’ll be three stumps one end and three stumps the other, and a lot of little popping creases. And I shall put my bat in front of my wicket, and hit the ball high, high up in the air, and they’ll all run to catch it together, and then dear little Birds will have made one run.”
“God!” said Jim. There really seemed very little else to say.
“After that——” began Birds again.
“Oh, shut it!”
“After that,” said Birds, not paying the slightest attention, “I shall pat the little popping creases with my little bat, and change hats with the umpire. And when they’re all ready again——”
“He’s drunk,” said Badders.
“I think it extremely unlikely: I am dead sober. Oh, I went to a lecture by Jackson to-day, and noticed for the first time that he had a green moustache. Why is that, I wonder?”
“Did he give you a billydux from Julia?”
“Yes. And told us a great deal about the Peloponnesian War that I really had no conception of before. No conception whatever, I assure you. The Peloponnese is shaped like a fig leaf, hence its name, and when Adam and Eve were turned out of the Paradise, and sent to the Vomitorio, as Jackson said——”
“Quite right, he didn’t. But I am delirious to-night, and attribute it to spending the afternoon on the Cam. Lord, it was jolly up there! Beechen green and shadows numberless, you know, and lots of peewits. And Jim sang of summer in full-throated ease. My throat was full, too, because we had tea.”
Jim had lain down on the floor, with his back propped up against Birds’ knees, who in turn was propped up by the sofa where Badders sat.
“Hail to thee, blithe peewit, Birds thou never wert,” he remarked fatuously.
“Never,” said Birds, suddenly opening his knees, so that Jim fell flat on the ground. He made no effort whatever to move, and continued lying there, while Birds got up and put a college cap on his head, and invested himself in a scholar’s gown, which, against his bare skin, looked somehow strangely indecent. He put his head on one side, in the manner of Jackson lecturing, and pulled the place where his moustache would have been, had he had one.
“I can’t think what Sphodrias was about,” he began, “and if you’ll turn to the third chapter of the fourth book you’ll see how perfectly inexplicable it was that he should have been kicking his heels at Sphacteria——”
He broke off.
“Lor! A very poor sort of fellow is Jackers,” he said.
“And if it hadn’t been for Jackers there’d have been no Julia,” remarked Jim, as he lay gazing at the ceiling from his prone position on the hearth-rug.
Julia’s victim considered this. He had found a small piece of duck left from the meal that he and Jim had made earlier in the evening, and decided it was worth eating.
“No, you’re wrong there,” he said. “There would have been Julia somehow, with or without Jackers. Julia’s the sort of girl who is bound to happen, like earwigs and Tripos. Julia Jackson! What a name! Did you ever hear such a name?”
Badsley had sat up on the sofa and was regarding Birds as he sat eating duck with bare chest and bare arms, clad in his preposterous college cap and gown and pair of flannel trousers.
“Do put something else on, Birds,” he said, “or take something off. You make me blush. Why is it that a man with no clothes on is quite proper, but a man with no clothes and a top hat is so wildly improper?”
“Dunno, and duncare. I’m quite comfortable, I am. I wish there was some more food.”
“Whereas in silks my Julia goes,” said Jim.
“Take her, then: she’s your Julia. You said so,” said Birds, with his mouth full. “That’s all right.”
“Birds, you talk about girls in a perfectly beastly way,” said Badsley.
“I don’t talk about them at all unless somebody else begins. Then I say what I think, like a little gentleman. I like girls, smart ones, like those in revues, just for a little while. Whereas Badders——”
“Badders the troubadour touched his guitar,” said Jim. “But I hope he won’t.”
“I won’t,” said Badders. “All the same, to pass through a single day without feeling keen about a girl seems to me an awful waste of time.”
“Gay Lothario,” said Jim. “Who is it now? Still the thing in the tobacconist’s shop?”
“No, you ass, of course not. That was only——”
“Practice, to keep the Troubadour’s hand in,” said Birds. “Poor little devil! Think what you make them suffer, Badders. All the little victims in a row, dying for love of the lusty troubadour. Thing in the tobacconist’s shop has expired, I suppose. Who is it now?”
“It’s your grandmother,” said the nettled Badders.
“Well, you have put your foot in it there,” said Birds serenely. “She died last Sunday.”
“Oh, I say, I’m sorry,” said Badders.
Jim, lying on the floor, gave one loud puff of suppressed laughter, and was silent again; Badsley thought it odiously unfeeling of him.
“I say, Birds, I really am sorry,” he repeated.
“Yes, I know. That’s all right,” said Birds quietly. “How could you have told? Dear old Grannie! She always lived with us, you know.”
Badsley knew nothing of the sort, but his face grew long with penitence.
“Well, I can’t say any more,” he remarked. “I think I’ll go to bed.”
Birds was leaning his elbows on the table, with his head in his hands. He spoke in a choked voice.
“Don’t think anything more about it, old chap,” he said. ’Twasn’t your fault.”
Badsley got up.
“Well, good-night, people,” he said.
“Stop a minute. As you have talked about Grannie, you might like to hear more about her. It wasn’t really such a blow, because she was eighty-five, and had cancer in the pit of her stomach. Also staggers.”
A faint conjecture dawned in Badsley’s mind.
“I say, are you ragging?” he asked.
“Of course I am. I haven’t had a grandmother for years, and I suppose I shall never get one now. I began too late. I can’t think what Sphodrias was about.”
Badsley stumbled over Jim, who was loudly cackling.
“I feel exactly as if I was in a lunatic asylum,” he said.
“You are: in the room where the violent cases are put. This is the padded room.”
Birds squinted horribly, and with his beautiful mouth open and his tongue hanging out, began to count the fingers of one hand with those of the other. With his yellow hair falling over his forehead and his college cap perched on the back of his head, and his insane attire, he looked madder than anything in Bedlam.
“Oh, stop it,” said Badders. “You’ll give me nightmare.”
“I’m one myself. But as we’ve disposed of my grandmother, who is she? Is she a shop-girl or a flower-girl or a barmaid?”
“None. She’s a lady.”
“I see. Tobacconist’s girl was a perfect lady: you often told me so,” said Jim. “Of the two, I think the imperfect kind is the best. They aren’t so damned refined.”
“You two fellows are absolutely idiotic,” said Badders. “There’s no point in anything unless a girl comes into it somehow. I shall go to bed.”
“Do,” said Birds cordially. “And mind you either slam the door or leave it open. Open or slammed: don’t shut it properly whatever happens.”
After this Badsley could hardly do less than slam the door first, and then throw it wide open. So Jim threw a cushion at it which shut it again.
“Badders is tedious,” he said, getting up from the floor. “He can only think of one subject in the whole world. Narrow, I call it. What’s the next thing to do?”
The two went to the window of these rooms on the ground floor and leaned out, sniffing the warm night air. The sky was moonless but very clear, and a host of stars made that amazing twilight which is like no other in the world for infinite suggestive softness. Instead of the blacks and whites of moonlight, the world was painted in myriad shades of browns from the darkest hues of sepia where shadow lay over black, to a colour nearly yellow, where the rim of white stone round the fountain in the middle of the court stood open to the full galaxy of starlight. To the right the openwork of the stone screen that separated the court from the street outside let in the white garishness of the incandescent lamps, but it did not penetrate far, and the great windows and pinnacles of the chapel opposite, and the long block of the Fellows’ Buildings to the left were all submerged in this dim brown sea of starlight. There was a flower-box along the window from which they leaned, and a faint smell of musk and mignonette wandered into the room thick with tobacco smoke.
“Breath of air before bed, don’t you think?” said Jim. “Come on!”
“Yes, just as far as the bridge. Lend me a coat, will you? I should be proctorized for only having a cap and gown, shouldn’t I?”
“Probably. There’s a blazer.”
The two boys strolled into the night arm-in-arm and walked silently out on to the huge square of grass behind Fellows’ Buildings. A heavy dew had fallen after this hot day, and the surface of the grass was covered with a shimmering grey mantle of moisture, in which their steps made dark rents. Birds, as became him, whistled gently under his breath, but for a time neither of them broke the secret sense of intimate companionship by speech. No breeze stirred in the towers of the elms to the left; even the willow by the side of the bridge had no movement in its slim pendulous fingers of leaf, and the reflecting surface of the slow stream was unbroken by any wandering ripple. Once or twice a feeding fish made a dim pattern of concentric circles on the water, and still in silence, Birds struck a match to light a final cigarette. Though the night was so windless, he shielded it in his hands, and the light showed through the flesh of his fingers as through the walls of some rosy cave. For the moment his face was vividly illuminated, then, as he dropped the match over the parapet, it was swallowed back into the darkness again. From below, after an interval, came the faint hiss of the extinguished match.
The light close to his face had dazzled Jim a little, and after it had gone out he still had before his eyes, faintly swimming in the darkness, the semblance of Birds’ head.
“I can see you still,” he said, “though it’s dark. Why’s that? Oh, now you’ve gone.”
Birds drew on his cigarette.
“No, I haven’t,” he said. “I’m here all right. Ah, listen!”
Early though it was in the summer, this hot spell of weather had set the birds mating, and suddenly from the elms across the field beyond the bridge, there sounded the bubbling song of some love-entranced nightingale. Liquid and clear it rose and fell, with all spring behind it and all the promise of summer to follow. Four long notes it gave, and broke into a torrent of jubilant melody. It rose to the height of its ecstasy and suddenly stopped.
“Good bird,” said Jim appreciatively. “I call that sense.”
“Yes. Glad we came down here. But I’m glad Badders didn’t come too. It would have reminded him of that wench in the tobacconist’s shop, and he’d have told us about her bosom or her ankles, or something. Poor Badders; I do hate sentimental stuff. Lord! Wasn’t it funny about my grandmother?”
“Yes; you see, Badders prides himself on always being in love. He isn’t an atom; he doesn’t know what it means. He doesn’t care for the girl; he only cares for her nose or her arms. If he was in love he couldn’t jaw about it.”
Birds spat neatly over the parapet.
“I wonder. Perhaps there are different ways of being in love. But what a gay dog! Do you remember him at the fair in Midsummer Common, two girls, one on each knee and another round his neck. Something female he wants, and he doesn’t care what it is.”
“I know; that’s what’s so puzzling. I could understand if it was one girl he wanted, but it isn’t. Any old thing will do, as long as it’s young.”
“‘Well, I suppose it’s natur’. She’s a rum ’un, is Natur’,’ said Mr. Squeers. Badders is asleep by this time, dreaming of them all. I’d sooner be awake, leaning over this bridge.”
“Same here,” said Jim. “But Badders is a sensual sentimentalist. That’s what he is.”
Jim’s arm was conveniently laid out along the parapet, so Birds rested his chin on it.
“What do we do to-morrow?” he asked.
“You play for the ‘Varsity.”
“Blow it, so I do. I don’t blow it at all, really. I’m frightfully pleased that they’re playing me. But one can’t say that out loud, so one has to say one doesn’t care. The pity of it is that I shall get out first ball, and spend the rest of the day in missing catches. I wonder why I’m such a dam’ bad field?”
“Ask another. But do make a lot of runs. I so much prefer that you should.”
“And to think that it was you who put me into the eleven at school.”
“It was kind of me,” said Jim. “If I’d known you’d have gone ahead of me like this, I shouldn’t have done it.”
“I suppose not. You’re a jealous devil,” said Birds, speaking muffled against Jim’s arm.
“I am. Are we going to bed to-night?”
“I suppose we might. It’s about two in the morning, isn’t it?”
“There or thereabouts. Come on, you lazy hog.”
Birds threw an arm round Jim’s neck.
“Lazy I am; hog I am not,” he observed. “Jim, what’s to happen to us? What’s it all going to be about? Shall we always go on like this?”
“I hope so. Don’t you? I don’t see what else I want.”
“No, but Cambridge will come to an end, and we shall go our ways, I suppose. Some day we shall meet each other, and find that we’ve drifted away. You’ll be father of one family, and I shall be father of another, and we shall look at each other and wonder if it really could have been we who sat on the bridge at midnight or a good deal after, and didn’t want anything else.”
“Rot,” said Jim.
“I wish I thought it was.”
“But it is. Can’t explain it properly, but I know it is. Perhaps——”
Jim thought a moment, as they drifted on to the grass again.
“It’s like this,” he said. “Whatever happens to us afterwards, this, the fact of you and me being friends, will be part of us. It’s built into us; we couldn’t get rid of it if we wanted to. We should have been other sorts of fellows if we hadn’t tumbled into each other, but now we’re just the sort we are.”
They had come back on to the tracks they had made in the dew on their way down to the bridge, and Jim pointed at them.
“It’s like that,” he said. “We’ve walked right away off the grass and yet we come back to where we were when we went out. It’ll always be like that; there’ll always be the old tracks waiting for us. When you’re seventy-nine and I’m eighty and we’re both deaf and blind and rheumatic, there’ll be the tracks there just the same. ’Fraid I’ve been jawing.”
“Well, what’s the harm?” said Birds.
“Bad habit to get into.”
They rambled back without further speech into Jim’s room, where Birds discarded his friend’s blazer and collected his own torn shirt.
“I shall have a good eye to-morrow,” he said, “because I’ve sat up so late, and smoked so much. The way to be thoroughly off colour is to go to bed early and have a long night. That makes you drowsy all next day.”
He nodded at Jim by way of good-night and went across the passage to his room just opposite.
With Birds playing for Cambridge, it was obvious that Jim would have to spend the whole of the next two days in the pavilion at the University ground, and deny himself the pleasure of attending any lectures which might have been provided for him by the College authorities. It was therefore a little unfortunate that he met his tutor proceeding in cap and gown to the lecture-room next morning, exactly at the moment when he himself came out into the court with a straw-hat and a pleasant holiday aspect.
Mr. Butler had the appearance of a butler, which was a very happy coincidence, an air of impenetrable respectability and mutton-chop whiskers. He prided himself on the possession of a sarcastic tongue, the effect of which on his victims he believed to be as withering as a sirocco wind. For the present, however, he contented himself with an awful glance at Jim, for his sarcasm had to be carefully prepared. But since Birds had just telephoned down from the cricket ground that the University had won the toss and that he himself was going in third wicket, it was no use to dream of attending Mr. Butler’s discourse on Cicero’s essay on friendship, for the real thing called him.
The University had made a disastrous start when he arrived at the ground, and had lost two wickets for eleven runs. Jim made his way to the pavilion and there found Birds in a very clammy condition of nerves.
“Oh, hell, I wish you hadn’t come up,” he said. “I hate your being there when I make a fool of myself.”
“Remedy lies with you,” said Jim. “Don’t do it.”
“Can’t help it; my eye’s all wobbly. Why the deuce didn’t you let me go to bed in decent time last night?”
“Go on, say anything you like if it makes you feel better,” said Jim.
“It doesn’t, it makes me feel worse. Hell, there’s Tobin out.”
“Buck up, Birds,” said his friend.
Birds waited till the dejected batsman had entered the pavilion, put his cap on the seat, and took up his bat.
“Soon be back,” he observed morosely.
“No you won’t. I shan’t see you again till lunch.”
“Oh,” said Birds, with a wealth of incredulity in his voice.
He had a word with the outcoming batsman, who was captain of the Cambridge team, and was told to keep steady at all costs. But when your knees are trembling and the inside of your hands is damp with the dews of anxiety, such advice does not seem to be within the spheres of practical usefulness. And with a sinking heart that for the moment was far out of the range of any encouraging influence, he went forth on that awful pilgrimage to the scene of execution.
There ensued two or three extremely trying minutes. The wicket-keep appealed for a catch at the wickets off the first ball he received, in accents of supreme confidence. But the umpire happened to disagree with him. The next was a long-hop which Birds slashed at and completely missed, the third beat him as completely, and must have grazed his leg-stump. And if there was a thoroughly unhappy Pythias out there, there was an even more miserable Damon in the pavilion. Jim wished he was anywhere but here, watching this deplorable performance; had it been possible, he would have been back in the lecture-room, listening to Butler’s droning interpretation of Cicero’s remarks on friendship; anything was better than seeing his friend behave as if he had never had a bat in his hands before.
Then quite suddenly, while Birds was waiting for the return of the ball, that had so nearly dismissed him, Jim’s aspect of the situation struck him. Up till this moment he had only been conscious of his own nervousness; now as by a flash he realized how Jim must be hating it, and that would never do. And he ceased to wriggle his toes inside his cricket boots, and awaited the last ball of the over. It was a half-volley, just outside the leg-stump. About four seconds afterwards Jim picked it up from the seat on which it had fallen in the pavilion, and threw it out to square-leg. He gave two or three wild yells, and a long sigh of relief. Never was there a more confident shot than that; nobody in a state of twittering nerves could possibly have played it. He made the sound deduction that Birds had suddenly pulled himself together.
As the morning wore on, the pavilion began to fill up; Tobin came and talked for a little, in a state of the highest disgust at himself, and soon Badsley also appeared. All the time the total on the telegraph board mounted with rapidity, for Birds was playing with that swift, effortless precision that made him the prettiest bat in the world to watch, if only he happened to be making runs. He had a trick of making difficult bowling appear perfectly easy, and put it away to all corners of the field. By one flick of his slim wrist he cut the ball late between point and slip, by another almost more imperceptible he sent it racing behind square-leg to the pavilion boundary. And as Jim had prophesied, he did not have word with him again till he came across the field at lunch-time with eighty-two to his credit. But his innings were worth more than that to his side, for going in at a critical moment he had stopped the rot which had begun to set in.
There was the added excitement for Jim after lunch of seeing Birds make the necessary eighteen runs to complete his century, and it is certain that this engrossed him much more than any consideration of what the ‘Varsity total might be. Birds began by hitting three fours off the first over he received, and then a three and a two brought his total up to ninety-nine. He then skied a ball so high that it looked as if it really might be going to soar beyond the power of the earth’s attraction, and become a new and sporting planet. But it failed quite to reach the required altitude, and after a pause that seemed to last many minutes he was caught at long on, and retired amid rounds of applause and sympathetic yellings.
“Bloody ass,” said Jim to him, as he came into the pavilion.
“Rather. Did you ever see a ball go so high? Hullo, there’s Badders. Why not amorously engaged, Badders? Lord, I have been enjoying myself, and I want an enormous drink, and why should not the young Cantab have one? One or two, several, in fact, as the Red King said——”
’Twasn’t, it was the White Knight.”
“I daresay. As long as it got said, what’s the odds? Ninety-nine; that’s what they tell you to say when they think you’ve got consumption. Shall I have tea first and three bottles of ginger-beer afterwards, or the other way round? Good-bye.”
MR. JACKSON, a tall, short-sighted clergyman with the green moustache, and classical tutor at St. Stephen’s College, was accustomed to dine en garçon every Saturday night in Hall, instead of en famille at home, and after two or three glasses of port, play a rubber of whist in the room of one of his colleagues. To-night the gathering was planned to take place at Mr. Butler’s rooms in the Fellows’ Buildings, and it was with great pleasure that he had heard his host ask Waters and Alison to complete the four. They were all Classical dons, tutors and lecturers, and it was completely characteristic of them that they continued to play whist rather than bridge, which they considered a debased and easy variety of dummy whist. All four had minds of the same academic calibre, and they constituted in this very Conservative college the stronghold and inner defences of Conservatism. Chief among its tenets was the doctrine that Latin and Greek were the sole and essential instruments of education that should be used on the mind of the young, just as cricket and football and rowing were a young man’s proper physical exercises. In later life you could play golf and lawn-tennis and croquet, even as in later life you could learn French and Italian, in which, no doubt, there were many light and agreeable pieces of literature to be enjoyed. But until you had attained to maturity all these minor diversions had best be eschewed. “A fellow,” as Mr. Jackson was fond of saying, “who can write a decent set of Greek Iambics, or translate a piece of Gibbon into Thucydidean Greek, has a trained mind, which can without difficulty acquire any other subject of human knowledge with which his profession makes it desirable that he should be acquainted.”
This creed Mr. Jackson put into practice every day of the term. Greek was the special subject that he taught, and week by week his pupils, besides attending his lectures, which just now were concerned with the Peloponnesian war, made renderings of English verse into Iambics and English prose into its possible equivalent in Thucydidean or Platonic Greek. The point of these exercises really was to cram into the rendering as many tags from classical authors as could be dragged in. When a set of Iambics were plentifully besprinkled with phrases and unusual usages from Æschylus or Sophocles, Mr. Jackson considered them a good effort of scholarship, and never paused to reflect whether it might not be merely a specimen of the most comical Baboo Greek.
Everything connected with classical Greek was an unrivalled instrument of education in his regard, and thus his pupils were also thoroughly instructed in Greek history. They might be as ignorant as a sucking child on the subject of French, Italian or English history; their claims, as regards history, to be educated rested solely on their knowledge of Greek history. Similarly it was nice to know dates; he had no objection to anyone being aware of the year in which Constantinople fell into the hands of Osman, or England into those of William the Conqueror. But it was necessary to salvation to have on the tip of your tongue the date of the death of Pericles. Subsequently, in Greek history, the classical age ceased, and that nation and language had not the good luck to interest Mr. Jackson any further at all.
His loyal conspirator and coadjutor in keeping the Greek flag flying was Waters, who was to make one of the four to-night, and since his host Butler held the same views with regard to Latin as he to Greek, and had asked Alison, his Latin fellow-conspirator, to complete the table, Jackson felt justified in expecting a pleasant evening. It was not that he intended or expected that anybody would talk “shop” with regard to education; simply he felt happier and more at ease in the presence of classical scholars than in that of mathematicians or natural scientists. With natural scientists he had, however, a bond in common (when they did not bring into prominence their doleful heresy that natural science or natural history could possibly be considered an instrument of education), for he himself had for years been an enthusiastic collector of fresh-water shells. But that was his hobby, over which he unbent his mind, laying no claim to be an educated man because he had a very considerable knowledge of this branch of conchology, any more than Butler considered it a title to culture that he had a completer knowledge of Handel’s music than any living man, or probably any dead one, including Handel himself.
Jackson strolled along the broad gravel path towards Butler’s rooms, passing groups of undergraduates on the way, to some of whom, his own pupils, he nodded; practically he knew none others, even by sight. Jim and Birds were among those he knew, who, since smoking in the court was forbidden, discreetly held their cigarettes behind their backs as Mr. Jackson passed them. But though short-sighted, he had a keen sense of smell, and pleasantly enough made a rather neat Latin quotation about incense.
From Butler’s room came the loud resonance of a piano, which quite drowned the noise of his knocking, and entering, he found that sardonic colleague deeply engaged at his piano on the last movement of Handel’s Occasional Overture. Butler’s method of playing was to put his face very near the music, plant a firm foot on the loud pedal, and add the soft pedal for passages marked piano. He preserved an iron and unshakable tempo, counting the requisite number of beats to each bar in an audible voice, and not stopping till he got to the end of his piece unless the book fell off the music-rest, when he turned the page. When that occurred, he continued counting while he picked it up.
To-night no such interruption occurred, and it was not till he had reached the last loud chord that he observed Jackson’s appearance.
“That’s a glorious thing you were playing,” observed he pleasantly, as he put his cap and gown in the window-seat. “Glorious. They can’t write such music now.”
Butler gave a short sarcastic laugh.
“They can’t indeed,” he said. “Modern music is just trash: there’s no other word for it. The other day when I was up in town I went—good evening, Waters—I went to a concert in order to hear Handel’s violin sonata, and had to sit through a piece of Debussy. If it hadn’t been for the question of manners, I should have put back my head and howled like a dog.”
“And had to grin like a dog instead,” suggested Waters, stroking his short black beard, which was streaked with grey. The applicability of the classical English epithet “silver-sabled” to his beard consoled him for those signs of the middle years.
“No, I assure you, grinning was beyond me,” said this musical sufferer, “though I admit the neatness of your quotation. It was a mere confused noise like nothing so much as the protracted tuning of the orchestra. But, it’s no use getting angry with stuff that doesn’t merit the faintest attention.”
Jackson put his head on one side, his favourite attitude when pronouncing critical judgments.
“I’m not altogether so sure that I agree with you,” he said, “I’m not speaking about Debussy because I’ve never heard of him before, but I think some modern music is uncommonly fine. But you’re such a confounded purist, my dear fellow.”
“Certainly I can’t find time for the second best,” said Butler. “There’s nothing been written in the last fifty years that has a chance of living.”
“A sweeping statement, rather,” said Waters. “I was considerably impressed by the festival at Bayreuth two years ago: in fact I’m going again in August. There are certain parts of Tristan and Isolde that are very moving. Can’t I persuade you to come with me?”
“Not if you were Peitho herself would you persuade him,” he said. “What was that phrase of yours, Butler, when you heard Tristan in London. ‘Three hours of neurasthenic cacophany,’ I think you called it.”
“I believe I did,” said Butler, gratified that his dictum should be remembered. “But if I did, I understated it. Ah, here is our coffee: I wonder why Alison doesn’t come.”
“He went to see the Master about something connected with the May-week concert,” said Waters. “He told us he might be a little late. I can’t quite agree with our host about Wagner, but I do cordially agree with him that there’s a cult of the incompetent sprung up, who make up for their want of artistic ability by sheer bizarre impertinence. Debussy I make no doubt is one of them (though like Jackson I never heard a note of him), and the modern impressionists and post-impressionists and cubists are others. If I may adapt Butler’s phrase I should have no hesitation in describing their canvasses as ‘Three feet of neurasthenic daubings.’ But of course their scribblings are merely pour rire.”
Jackson put his head on one side again.
“I don’t know that there’s much more to be said for any modern art,” he answered. “I myself am unable to give even the most admired modern painters a place in the pictorial tripos. Sargent, for instance: I don’t consider his portraits more than mere posters, pieces of scenic painting if you will, dabbed on, without any finish, like a copy of Greek prose without any accents. Ha, here’s Alison: now we’ll get to work.”
It was curious to note now, immediately on the advent of the players to make up their table at whist, all these lesser problems and pronouncements with regard to the position of Wagner, Sargent and Debussy in the realms of art were immediately dismissed for the greater preoccupation. For those middle-aged men, in spite of their gently-fossilized existence, their indulgent contempt for anything that was not immediately “Cambridge,” their general pessimism about modern effort, retained a certain streak of boyishness and gusto, in that they were genuinely fond of games, both the milder and more sedentary ones that they themselves played, and those better suited to the robust vigour of their pupils, accepting the importance of them as a clause in the creed that made Cambridge just precisely what it was. Their theories about them, just as about education, might be all cut and dried, and the sap as completely be gone out of them as out of the pressed flowers in some botancial collection (which they would unanimously have alluded to as a Hortus Siccus), but they did believe in them.
There was no elasticity or any possible growth or development that could come to those fibrous stems and crackling petals, but they believed in their creed and would have opposed with tooth and nail of conviction any suggested reform or innovation. For Cambridge, so long as the forts of classics and cricket stood secure, was to them an institution as abiding as the moon, and no criticism concerning it could be taken seriously, any more than you could take seriously a person who said that he would have preferred the colour of the moon to be pea-green or magenta. But Cambridge could only remain a permanent and perfect phenomenon, if it remained exactly as it was. Whatever in the world of flux and change might alter and crumble, Cambridge must present an unalterable front to the corroding centuries. Whatever change came there, must, in the very nature of things, be a change for the worse.
Of the great ancient fortress of Cambridge, St. Stephen’s College was beyond doubt the most impregnable bastion. Founded by Henry VII., it had had a glorious record of opposition to every reform and innovation that had assaulted its grey walls. When first railways began to knit England together, St. Stephen’s had headed every defensive manœuvre to keep their baleful facilities away from the sanctuary. St. Stephen’s collective spirit did not wish to “run up” to London in two or three hours: it preferred the sequestering methods of the stage-coach. Till some forty years ago it had consisted entirely of fellows and undergraduates who had been scholars of St. Stephen’s School, and at the conclusion of their enjoyment of Henry VII.’s endowment there, proceeded for the rest of their lives, if so disposed, to be supported by Henry VII. at St. Stephen’s College. They entered it as scholars, became fellows in due course, and taught to the succeeding generation precisely what they had learned.
Then had come that overwhelming assault on the tradition of centuries, which our four whist-players thought bitterly of even till to-day, when the college was thrown open to boys from other schools who, instead of necessarily taking up classics, went in for all sorts of debased subjects such as natural science and medicine. But there was no help for it: that particular gate of the bastion had to be opened, and scientists moral and physical, even students of modern languages, mingled with the white-robed classical choir. But the spirit of the more loyal-hearted portion of the garrison remained unbroken, and sturdily, long after the rest of Cambridge blazed with electric light, St. Stephen’s, owing chiefly to the determined stand made by Jackson and Butler, moved in its accustomed dusk of candles and oil lamps.
The introduction of bath-rooms provoked a not less gallant opposition: in the time of Henry VII. hot baths were unheard of, and if nowadays you wanted one, you could get a can of hot water from the kitchen. And it was only under the severest pressure that those debasing paraphernalia squeezed their way in. Not for a moment is it implied that Jackson and his friendswere like bats who preferred the dark, or like cats who disliked water, but only that they disliked any change, and preferred things precisely as they were....
The game proceeded in the utmost harmony and with academic calm, and was interspersed with neat quotations. For instance, when at the conclusion of a hand, Waters said approvingly to his partner, “You saw my call all right,” Jackson without a moment’s thought replied, “Yes, Waters, one clear call for me.” Or when hearts were trumps, and Butler proved only to have one of that suit, he paused, without applying his lit match to his pipe, to say, “Eructavit cor meum.” As that one happened to be the ace, it was quickly and sharply that Alison said, “But your heart is inditing of a good matter.” Even when apt quotation failed, something academic was fragrant in their most ordinary remarks, as when, spades being turned up as trumps for the third time running, Butler referred to “the prevalence of those agricultural implements,” or when his partner found that his hand contained seven diamonds, he called it “a jewel song.” There was not one atom of pose or desire for effect in those little mots, their minds thought like that, and their tongues faithfully expressed their impressions.
The third of these pleasant rubbers came to an end about a quarter to eleven, and, a “senatus consultum” being taken, it was resolved not to begin a new one, but to relax into conversation.
“Non semper arcum,” said Butler, rising. “Ho, everyone that thirsteth, you will help yourselves, please. I think you said, Alison, that when we had finished Sarah Battling, you wanted to tell us what the Master spoke to you about.”
Alison was busy making a curious drink that he found refreshing, which was a mixture of port and soda water (called Alison’s own) in exactly equal proportions. There must be just as much port as there was water, neither more nor less, else some recondite flavour was missed. He was a man of about forty-five, clean-shaven and alert: his great acquirement was an inward knowledge of Cicero’s letters so amazing, that when once he set a piece of Latin translation in a college examination, composed not at all by Cicero, but by himself, even the Master had been deceived, and asked him out of which of Cicero’s letters he had taken that piece. In other respects he played lawn-tennis, and was responsible, as precentor, for the music of the College services in chapel.
“Yes, it is a matter of some importance,” he said. “The Choral Society, of course, are giving their annual sacred concert in chapel during May-week, and they have most unfortunately selected Elgar’s ‘Dream of Gerontius’ for performance. The Master tells me that he is inclined absolutely to refuse to give permission for it, but asked me first to consult some of you. I told him I should meet you three to-night, and he said that he desired no better subcommittee.”
“Is his objection to it on the score of Elgar, Elgar’s score one might say,” asked Butler, “or on that of Gerontius? If on that of the composer, I am disposed to agree with him. I know nothing about Gerontius, as a literary production, except that a hymn which we occasionally sing in chapel with a vulgar tune, is excerpted from it, I believe.”
“On the score of Elgar, Elgar’s score,” he repeated. “Very neat, Butler. I know the hymn you mean, ‘Praise to the Holiest in the Height.’ It goes admirably into Greek iambics.”
“Equally well into Latin elegiacs,” said Alison. “No, the Master has no feeling against Elgar’s music: that wasn’t his point. But he could not see himself permitting the performance in chapel of a libretto so markedly, so pugnaciously Roman Catholic. I am bound to confess that there’s something to be said for his view. What do you say, Jackson? You are our spiritual pastor.”
Jackson took his stand by the fire-place, and put his head on one side.
“Well, if I’m bound to speak as from a rostrum,” he said, “I shall be disposed to ask for notice of that question. It’s an uncommonly nice point, and the question, of course, on which it all hinges is how far the purpose of a libretto is extinguished by being treated musically. I remember going to see Gounod’s Faust, of which the libretto contains some frankly intolerable situations. But somehow when treated musically they did not strike me as actually indecent.”
“The indecency of the music would be enough for me,” said Butler incisively. “Nothing else but that would strike me.”
“Ah, there’s our purist again. But just now the question is not so much of Purism as Puritanism.”
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