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Set at the fictional public school of Eckleton, the story centres upon the "house of Kay's", the riotous boys therein, its tactless, unpopular master Mr Kay, and Kennedy, the head boy.
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THE HEAD OF KAY’S
by P.G. Wodehouse
Published 2018 by Blackmore Dennett
All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the publisher except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.
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TABLE OF CONTENTS
"When we get licked tomorrow by half-a-dozen wickets," said Jimmy Silver, tilting his chair until the back touched the wall, "don't say I didn't warn you. If you fellows take down what I say from time to time in note-books, as you ought to do, you'll remember that I offered to give anyone odds that Kay's would out us in the final. I always said that a really hot man like Fenn was more good to a side than half-a-dozen ordinary men. He can do all the bowling and all the batting. All the fielding, too, in the slips."
Tea was just over at Blackburn's, and the bulk of the house had gone across to preparation in the school buildings. The prefects, as was their custom, lingered on to finish the meal at their leisure. These after-tea conversations were quite an institution at Blackburn's. The labours of the day were over, and the time for preparation for the morrow had not yet come. It would be time to be thinking of that in another hour. Meanwhile, a little relaxation might be enjoyed. Especially so as this was the last day but two of the summer term, and all necessity for working after tea had ceased with the arrival of the last lap of the examinations.
Silver was head of the house, and captain of its cricket team, which was nearing the end of its last match, the final for the inter-house cup, and—on paper—getting decidedly the worst of it. After riding in triumph over the School House, Bedell's, and Mulholland's, Blackburn's had met its next door neighbour, Kay's, in the final, and, to the surprise of the great majority of the school, was showing up badly. The match was affording one more example of how a team of average merit all through may sometimes fall before a one-man side. Blackburn's had the three last men on the list of the first eleven, Silver, Kennedy, and Challis, and at least nine of its representatives had the reputation of being able to knock up a useful twenty or thirty at any time. Kay's, on the other hand, had one man, Fenn. After him the tail started. But Fenn was such an exceptional all-round man that, as Silver had said, he was as good as half-a-dozen of the Blackburn's team, equally formidable whether batting or bowling—he headed the school averages at both. He was one of those batsmen who seem to know exactly what sort of ball you are going to bowl before it leaves your hand, and he could hit like another Jessop. As for his bowling, he bowled left hand—always a puzzling eccentricity to an undeveloped batsman—and could send them down very fast or very slow, as he thought best, and it was hard to see which particular brand he was going to serve up before it was actually in mid-air.
But it is not necessary to enlarge on his abilities. The figures against his name in Wisden prove a good deal. The fact that he had steered Kay's through into the last round of the house-matches proves still more. It was perfectly obvious to everyone that, if only you could get Fenn out for under ten, Kay's total for that innings would be nearer twenty than forty. They were an appalling side. But then no house bowler had as yet succeeded in getting Fenn out for under ten. In the six innings he had played in the competition up to date, he had made four centuries, an eighty, and a seventy.
Kennedy, the second prefect at Blackburn's, paused in the act of grappling with the remnant of a pot of jam belonging to some person unknown, to reply to Silver's remarks.
"We aren't beaten yet," he said, in his solid way. Kennedy's chief characteristics were solidity, and an infinite capacity for taking pains. Nothing seemed to tire or discourage him. He kept pegging away till he arrived. The ordinary person, for instance, would have considered the jam-pot, on which he was then engaged, an empty jam-pot. Kennedy saw that there was still a strawberry (or it may have been a section of a strawberry) at the extreme end, and he meant to have that coy vegetable if he had to squeeze the pot to get at it. To take another instance, all the afternoon of the previous day he had bowled patiently at Fenn while the latter lifted every other ball into space. He had been taken off three times, and at every fresh attack he had plodded on doggedly, until at last, as he had expected, the batsman had misjudged a straight one, and he had bowled him all over his wicket. Kennedy generally managed to get there sooner or later.
"It's no good chucking the game up simply because we're in a tight place," he said, bringing the spoon to the surface at last with the section of strawberry adhering to the end of it. "That sort of thing's awfully feeble."
"He calls me feeble!" shouted Jimmy Silver. "By James, I've put a man to sleep for less."
It was one of his amusements to express himself from time to time in a melodramatic fashion, sometimes accompanying his words with suitable gestures. It was on one of these occasions—when he had assumed at a moment's notice the role of the "Baffled Despot", in an argument with Kennedy in his study on the subject of the house football team—that he broke what Mr Blackburn considered a valuable door with a poker. Since then he had moderated his transports.
"They've got to make seventy-nine," said Kennedy.
Challis, the other first eleven man, was reading a green scoring-book.
"I don't think Kay's ought to have the face to stick the cup up in their dining-room," he said, "considering the little they've done to win it. If they do win it, that is. Still, as they made two hundred first innings, they ought to be able to knock off seventy-nine. But I was saying that the pot ought to go to Fenn. Lot the rest of the team had to do with it. Blackburn's, first innings, hundred and fifty-one; Fenn, eight for forty-nine. Kay's, two hundred and one; Fenn, a hundred and sixty-four not out. Second innings, Blackburn's hundred and twenty-eight; Fenn ten for eighty. Bit thick, isn't it? I suppose that's what you'd call a one-man team."
Williams, one of the other prefects, who had just sat down at the piano for the purpose of playing his one tune—a cake-walk, of which, through constant practice, he had mastered the rudiments—spoke over his shoulder to Silver.
"I tell you what, Jimmy," he said, "you've probably lost us the pot by getting your people to send brother Billy to Kay's. If he hadn't kept up his wicket yesterday, Fenn wouldn't have made half as many."
When his young brother had been sent to Eckleton two terms before, Jimmy Silver had strongly urged upon his father the necessity of placing him in some house other than Blackburn's. He felt that a head of a house, even of so orderly and perfect a house as Blackburn's, has enough worries without being saddled with a small brother. And on the previous afternoon young Billy Silver, going in eighth wicket for Kay's, had put a solid bat in front of everything for the space of one hour, in the course of which he made ten runs and Fenn sixty. By scoring odd numbers off the last ball of each over, Fenn had managed to secure the majority of the bowling in the most masterly way.
"These things will happen," said Silver, resignedly. "We Silvers, you know, can't help making runs. Come on, Williams, let's have that tune, and get it over."
Williams obliged. It was a classic piece called "The Coon Band Contest", remarkable partly for a taking melody, partly for the vast possibilities of noise which it afforded. Williams made up for his failure to do justice to the former by a keen appreciation of the latter. He played the piece through again, in order to correct the mistakes he had made at his first rendering of it. Then he played it for the third time to correct a new batch of errors.
"I should like to hear Fenn play that," said Challis. "You're awfully good, you know, Williams, but he might do it better still."
"Get him to play it as an encore at the concert," said Williams, starting for the fourth time.
The talented Fenn was also a musician,—not a genius at the piano, as he was at cricket, but a sufficiently sound performer for his age, considering that he had not made a special study of it. He was to play at the school concert on the following day.
"I believe Fenn has an awful time at Kay's," said Jimmy Silver. "It must be a fair sort of hole, judging from the specimens you see crawling about in Kay caps. I wish I'd known my people were sending young Billy there. I'd have warned them. I only told them not to sling him in here. I had no idea they'd have picked Kay's."
"Fenn was telling me the other day," said Kennedy, "that being in Kay's had spoiled his whole time at the school. He always wanted to come to Blackburn's, only there wasn't room that particular term. Bad luck, wasn't it? I don't think he found it so bad before he became head of the house. He didn't come into contact with Kay so much. But now he finds that he can't do a thing without Kay buzzing round and interfering."
"I wonder," said Jimmy Silver, thoughtfully, "if that's why he bowls so fast. To work it off, you know."
In the course of a beautiful innings of fifty-three that afternoon, the captain of Blackburn's had received two of Fenn's speediest on the same spot just above the pad in rapid succession, and he now hobbled painfully when he moved about.
The conversation that evening had dealt so largely with Fenn—the whole school, indeed, was talking of nothing but his great attempt to win the cricket cup single-handed—that Kennedy, going out into the road for a breather before the rest of the boarders returned from preparation, made his way to Kay's to see if Fenn was imitating his example, and taking the air too.
He found him at Kay's gate, and they strolled towards the school buildings together. Fenn was unusually silent.
"Well?" said Kennedy, after a minute had passed without a remark.
Fenn laughed what novelists are fond of calling a mirthless laugh.
"Oh, I don't know," he said; "I'm sick of this place."
Kennedy inspected his friend's face anxiously by the light of the lamp over the school gate. There was no mistake about it. Fenn certainly did look bad. His face always looked lean and craggy, but tonight there was a difference. He looked used up.
"Fagged?" asked Kennedy.
"Everything. I wish you could come into Kay's for a bit just to see what it's like. Then you'd understand. At present I don't suppose you've an idea of it. I'd like to write a book on 'Kay Day by Day'. I'd have plenty to put in it."
"What's he been doing?"
"Oh, nothing out of the ordinary run. It's the fact that he's always at it that does me. You get a houseful of—well, you know the sort of chap the average Kayite is. They'd keep me busy even if I were allowed a free hand. But I'm not. Whenever I try and keep order and stop things a bit, out springs the man Kay from nowhere, and takes the job out of my hands, makes a ghastly mess of everything, and retires purring. Once in every three times, or thereabouts, he slangs me in front of the kids for not keeping order. I'm glad this is the end of the term. I couldn't stand it much longer. Hullo, here come the chaps from prep. We'd better be getting back."
They turned, and began to walk towards the houses. Kennedy felt miserable. He never allowed himself to be put out, to any great extent, by his own worries, which, indeed, had not been very numerous up to the present, but the misfortunes of his friends always troubled him exceedingly. When anything happened to him personally, he found the discomfort of being in a tight place largely counterbalanced by the excitement of trying to find a way out. But the impossibility of helping Fenn in any way depressed him.
"It must be awful," he said, breaking the silence.
"It is," said Fenn, briefly.
"But haven't the house-matches made any difference? Blackburn's always frightfully bucked when the house does anything. You can do anything you like with him if you lift a cup. I should have thought Kay would have been all right when he saw you knocking up centuries, and getting into the final, and all that sort of thing."
"Kay!" he said. "My dear man, he doesn't know. I don't suppose he's got the remotest idea that we are in the final at all, or, if he has, he doesn't understand what being in the final means."
"But surely he'll be glad if you lick us tomorrow?" asked Kennedy. Such indifference on the part of a house-master respecting the fortunes of his house seemed to him, having before him the bright example of Mr Blackburn, almost incredible.
"I don't suppose so," said Fenn. "Or, if he is, I'll bet he doesn't show it. He's not like Blackburn. I wish he was. Here he comes, so perhaps we'd better talk about something else."
The vanguard of the boys returning from preparation had passed them, and they were now standing at the gate of the house. As Fenn spoke, a little, restless-looking man in cap and gown came up. His clean-shaven face wore an expression of extreme alertness—the sort of look a ferret wears as he slips in at the mouth of a rabbit-hole. A doctor, called upon to sum up Mr Kay at a glance, would probably have said that he suffered from nerves, which would have been a perfectly correct diagnosis, though none of the members of his house put his manners and customs down to that cause. They considered that the methods he pursued in the management of the house were the outcome of a naturally malignant disposition. This was, however, not the case. There is no reason to suppose that Mr Kay did not mean well. But there is no doubt that he was extremely fussy. And fussiness—with the possible exceptions of homicidal mania and a taste for arson—is quite the worst characteristic it is possible for a house-master to possess.
He caught sight of Fenn and Kennedy at the gate, and stopped in his stride.
"What are you doing here, Fenn?" he asked, with an abruptness which brought a flush to the latter's face. "Why are you outside the house?"
Kennedy began to understand why it was that his friend felt so strongly on the subject of his house-master. If this was the sort of thing that happened every day, no wonder that there was dissension in the house of Kay. He tried to imagine Blackburn speaking in that way to Jimmy Silver or himself, but his imagination was unequal to the task. Between Mr Blackburn and his prefects there existed a perfect understanding. He relied on them to see that order was kept, and they acted accordingly. Fenn, by the exercise of considerable self-control, had always been scrupulously polite to Mr Kay.
"I came out to get some fresh air before lock-up, sir," he replied.
"Well, go in. Go in at once. I cannot allow you to be outside the house at this hour. Go indoors directly."
Kennedy expected a scene, but Fenn took it quite quietly.
"Good night, Kennedy," he said.
"So long," said Kennedy.
Fenn caught his eye, and smiled painfully. Then he turned and went into the house.
Mr Kay's zeal for reform was apparently still unsatisfied. He directed his batteries towards Kennedy.
"Go to your house at once, Kennedy. You have no business out here at this time."
This, thought Kennedy, was getting a bit too warm. Mr Kay might do as he pleased with his own house, but he was hanged if he was going to trample on him.
"Mr Blackburn is my house-master, sir," he said with great respect.
Mr Kay stared.
"My house-master," continued Kennedy with gusto, slightly emphasising the first word, "knows that I always go out just before lock-up, and he has no objection."
And, to emphasise this point, he walked towards the school buildings again. For a moment it seemed as if Mr Kay intended to call him back, but he thought better of it. Mr Blackburn, in normal circumstances a pacific man, had one touchy point—his house. He resented any interference with its management, and was in the habit of saying so. Mr Kay remembered one painful scene in the Masters' Common Room, when he had ventured to let fall a few well-meant hints as to how a house should be ruled. Really, he had thought Blackburn would have choked. Better, perhaps, to leave him to look after his own affairs.
So Mr Kay followed Fenn indoors, and Kennedy, having watched him vanish, made his way to Blackburn's.
Quietly as Fenn had taken the incident at the gate, it nevertheless rankled. He read prayers that night in a distinctly unprayerful mood. It seemed to him that it would be lucky if he could get through to the end of the term before Mr Kay applied that last straw which does not break the backs of camels only. Eight weeks' holiday, with plenty of cricket, would brace him up for another term. And he had been invited to play for the county against Middlesex four days after the holidays began. That should have been a soothing thought. But it really seemed to make matters worse. It was hard that a man who on Monday would be bowling against Warner and Beldam, or standing up to Trott and Hearne, should on the preceding Tuesday be sent indoors like a naughty child by a man who stood five-feet-one in his boots, and was devoid of any sort of merit whatever.
It seemed to him that it would help him to sleep peacefully that night if he worked off a little of his just indignation upon somebody. There was a noise going on in the fags' room. There always was at Kay's. It was not a particularly noisy noise—considering; but it had better be stopped. Badly as Kay had treated him, he remembered that he was head of the house, and as such it behoved him to keep order in the house.
He went downstairs, and, on arriving on the scene of action, found that the fags were engaged upon spirited festivities, partly in honour of the near approach of the summer holidays, partly because—miracles barred—the house was going on the morrow to lift the cricket-cup. There were a good many books flying about, and not a few slippers. There was a confused mass rolling in combat on the floor, and the table was occupied by a scarlet-faced individual, who passed the time by kicking violently at certain hands, which were endeavouring to drag him from his post, and shrieking frenzied abuse at the owners of the said hands. It was an animated scene, and to a deaf man might have been most enjoyable.
Fenn's appearance was the signal for a temporary suspension of hostilities.
"What the dickens is all this row about?" he inquired.
No one seemed ready at the moment with a concise explanation. There was an awkward silence. One or two of the weaker spirits even went so far as to sit down and begin to read. All would have been well but for a bright idea which struck some undiscovered youth at the back of the room.
"Three cheers for Fenn!" observed this genial spirit, in no uncertain voice.
The idea caught on. It was just what was wanted to give a finish to the evening's festivities. Fenn had done well by the house. He had scored four centuries and an eighty, and was going to knock off the runs against Blackburn's tomorrow off his own bat. Also, he had taken eighteen wickets in the final house-match. Obviously Fenn was a person deserving of all encouragement. It would be a pity to let him think that his effort had passed unnoticed by the fags' room. Happy thought! Three cheers and one more, and then "He's a jolly good fellow", to wind up with.
It was while those familiar words, "It's a way we have in the public scho-o-o-o-l-s", were echoing through the room in various keys, that a small and energetic form brushed past Fenn as he stood in the doorway, vainly trying to stop the fags' choral efforts.
It was Mr Kay.
The singing ceased gradually, very gradually. It was some time before Mr Kay could make himself heard. But after a couple of minutes there was a lull, and the house-master's address began to be audible.
"… unendurable noise. What is the meaning of it? I will not have it. Do you hear? It is disgraceful. Every boy in this room will write me two hundred lines by tomorrow evening. It is abominable, Fenn." He wheeled round towards the head of the house. "Fenn, I am surprised at you standing here and allowing such a disgraceful disturbance to go on. Really, if you cannot keep order better—It is disgraceful, disgraceful."
Mr Kay shot out of the room. Fenn followed in his wake, and the procession made its way to the house-masters' study. It had been a near thing, but the last straw had arrived before the holidays.
Mr Kay wheeled round as he reached his study door.
Fenn said nothing.
"Have you anything you wish to say, Fenn?"
"I thought you might have something to say to me, sir."
"I do not understand you, Fenn."
"I thought you might wish to apologise for slanging me in front of the fags."
It is wonderful what a difference the last straw will make in one's demeanour to a person.
"Apologise! I think you forget whom it is you are speaking to."
When a master makes this well-worn remark, the wise youth realises that the time has come to close the conversation. All Fenn's prudence, however, had gone to the four winds.
"If you wanted to tell me I was not fit to be head of the house, you needn't have done it before a roomful of fags. How do you think I can keep order in the house if you do that sort of thing?"
Mr Kay overcame his impulse to end the interview abruptly in order to put in a thrust.
"You do not keep order in the house, Fenn," he said, acidly.
"I do when I am not interfered with."
"You will be good enough to say 'sir' when you speak to me, Fenn," said Mr Kay, thereby scoring another point. In the stress of the moment, Fenn had not noticed the omission.
He was silenced. And before he could recover himself, Mr Kay was in his study, and there was a closed, forbidding door between them.
And as he stared at it, it began slowly to dawn upon Fenn that he had not shown up to advantage in the recent interview. In a word, he had made a fool of himself.
Blackburn's took the field at three punctually on the following afternoon, to play out the last act of the final house-match. They were not without some small hope of victory, for curious things happen at cricket, especially in the fourth innings of a match. And runs are admitted to be easier saved than made. Yet seventy-nine seemed an absurdly small score to try and dismiss a team for, and in view of the fact that that team contained a batsman like Fenn, it seemed smaller still. But Jimmy Silver, resolutely as he had declared victory impossible to his intimate friends, was not the man to depress his team by letting it become generally known that he considered Blackburn's chances small.
"You must work like niggers in the field," he said; "don't give away a run. Seventy-nine isn't much to make, but if we get Fenn out for a few, they won't come near it."
He did not add that in his opinion Fenn would take very good care that he did not get out for a few. It was far more likely that he would make that seventy-nine off his own bat in a dozen overs.
"You'd better begin, Kennedy," he continued, "from the top end. Place your men where you want 'em. I should have an extra man in the deep, if I were you. That's where Fenn kept putting them last innings. And you'll want a short leg, only for goodness sake keep them off the leg-side if you can. It's a safe four to Fenn every time if you don't. Look out, you chaps. Man in."
Kay's first pair were coming down the pavilion steps.
Challis, going to his place at short slip, called Silver's attention to a remarkable fact.
"Hullo," he said, "why isn't Fenn coming in first?"
"What! By Jove, nor he is. That's queer. All the better for us. You might get a bit finer, Challis, in case they snick 'em."
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