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In the British tradition, a white feather has long been a symbol of cowardice or pusillanimity in battle or when facing adversity. In The White Feather, Wodehouse applies this metaphor to the dog-eat-dog world of school. When an introverted and academically minded student displays a pronounced lack of courage when attacked by a gang of street toughs, he is ostracized by his peers and develops an outlandish scheme to restore his reputation.
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THE WHITE FEATHER
by P.G. Wodehouse
Published by Aeterna Classics 2018
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.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
SHEEN AT HOME
SHEEN RECEIVES VISITORS AND ADVICE
THE BETTER PART OF VALOUR
THE WHITE FEATHER
MR JOE BEVAN
A NAVAL BATTLE AND ITS CONSEQUENCES
SHEEN BEGINS HIS EDUCATION
A SMALL INCIDENT
DUNSTABLE AND LINTON GO UP THE RIVER
DEUS EX MACHINA
THE ROUT AT RIPTON
DRUMMOND GOES INTO RETIREMENT
SEYMOUR'S ONE SUCCESS
MR BEVAN MAKES A SUGGESTION
PAVING THE WAY
SHEEN GOES TO ALDERSHOT
A GOOD START
A GOOD FINISH
A SURPRISE FOR SEYMOUR'S
"With apologies to gent opposite," said Clowes, "I must say I don't think much of the team."
"Don't apologise to me," said Allardyce disgustedly, as he filled the teapot, "I think they're rotten."
"They ought to have got into form by now, too," said Trevor. "It's not as if this was the first game of the term."
"First game!" Allardyce laughed shortly. "Why, we've only got a couple of club matches and the return match with Ripton to end the season. It is about time they got into form, as you say."
Clowes stared pensively into the fire.
"They struck me," he said, "as the sort of team who'd get into form somewhere in the middle of the cricket season."
"That's about it," said Allardyce. "Try those biscuits, Trevor. They're about the only good thing left in the place."
"School isn't what it was?" inquired Trevor, plunging a hand into the tin that stood on the floor beside him.
"No," said Allardyce, "not only in footer but in everything. The place seems absolutely rotten. It's bad enough losing all our matches, or nearly all. Did you hear that Ripton took thirty-seven points off us last term? And we only just managed to beat Greenburgh by a try to nil."
"We got thirty points last year," he went on. "Thirty-three, and forty-two the year before. Why, we've always simply walked them. It's an understood thing that we smash them. And this year they held us all the time, and it was only a fluke that we scored at all. Their back miskicked, and let Barry in."
"Barry struck me as the best of the outsides today," said Clowes. "He's heavier than he was, and faster."
"He's all right," agreed Allardyce. "If only the centres would feed him, we might do something occasionally. But did you ever see such a pair of rotters?"
"The man who was marking me certainly didn't seem particularly brilliant. I don't even know his name. He didn't do anything at footer in my time," said Trevor.
"He's a chap called Attell. He wasn't here with you. He came after the summer holidays. I believe he was sacked from somewhere. He's no good, but there's nobody else. Colours have been simply a gift this year to anyone who can do a thing. Only Barry and myself left from last year's team. I never saw such a clearance as there was after the summer term."
"Where are the boys of the Old Brigade?" sighed Clowes.
"I don't know. I wish they were here," said Allardyce.
Trevor and Clowes had come down, after the Easter term had been in progress for a fortnight, to play for an Oxford A team against the school. The match had resulted in an absurdly easy victory for the visitors by over forty points. Clowes had scored five tries off his own bat, and Trevor, if he had not fed his wing so conscientiously, would probably have scored an equal number. As it was, he had got through twice, and also dropped a goal. The two were now having a late tea with Allardyce in his study. Allardyce had succeeded Trevor as Captain of Football at Wrykyn, and had found the post anything but a sinecure.
For Wrykyn had fallen for the time being on evil days. It was experiencing the reaction which so often takes place in a school in the year following a season of exceptional athletic prosperity. With Trevor as captain of football, both the Ripton matches had been won, and also three out of the four other school matches. In cricket the eleven had had an even finer record, winning all their school matches, and likewise beating the M.C.C. and Old Wrykinians. It was too early to prophesy concerning the fortunes of next term's cricket team, but, if they were going to resemble the fifteen, Wrykyn was doomed to the worst athletic year it had experienced for a decade.
"It's a bit of a come-down after last season, isn't it?" resumed Allardyce, returning to his sorrows. It was a relief to him to discuss his painful case without restraint.
"We were a fine team last year," agreed Clowes, "and especially strong on the left wing. By the way, I see you've moved Barry across."
"Yes. Attell can't pass much, but he passes better from right to left than from left to right; so, Barry being our scoring man, I shifted him across. The chap on the other wing, Stanning, isn't bad at times. Do you remember him? He's in Appleby's. Then Drummond's useful at half."
"Jolly useful," said Trevor. "I thought he would be. I recommended you last year to keep your eye on him."
"Decent chap, Drummond," said Clowes.
"About the only one there is left in the place," observed Allardyce gloomily.
"Our genial host," said Clowes, sawing at the cake, "appears to have that tired feeling. He seems to have lost that joie de vivre of his, what?"
"It must be pretty sickening," said Trevor sympathetically. "I'm glad I wasn't captain in a bad year."
"The rummy thing is that the worse they are, the more side they stick on. You see chaps who wouldn't have been in the third in a good year walking about in first fifteen blazers, and first fifteen scarves, and first fifteen stockings, and sweaters with first fifteen colours round the edges. I wonder they don't tattoo their faces with first fifteen colours."
"It would improve some of them," said Clowes.
Allardyce resumed his melancholy remarks. "But, as I was saying, it's not only that the footer's rotten. That you can't help, I suppose. It's the general beastliness of things that I bar. Rows with the town, for instance. We've been having them on and off ever since you left. And it'll be worse now, because there's an election coming off soon. Are you fellows stopping for the night in the town? If so, I should advise you to look out for yourselves."
"Thanks," said Clowes. "I shouldn't like to see Trevor sand-bagged. Nor indeed, should I—for choice—care to be sand-bagged myself. But, as it happens, the good Donaldson is putting us up, so we escape the perils of the town.
"Everybody seems so beastly slack now," continued Allardyce. "It's considered the thing. You're looked on as an awful blood if you say you haven't done a stroke of work for a week. I shouldn't mind that so much if they were some good at anything. But they can't do a thing. The footer's rotten, the gymnasium six is made up of kids an inch high—we shall probably be about ninetieth at the Public Schools' Competition—and there isn't any one who can play racquets for nuts. The only thing that Wrykyn'll do this year is to get the Light-Weights at Aldershot. Drummond ought to manage that. He won the Feathers last time. He's nearly a stone heavier now, and awfully good. But he's the only man we shall send up, I expect. Now that O'Hara and Moriarty are both gone, he's the only chap we have who's up to Aldershot form. And nobody else'll take the trouble to practice. They're all too slack."
"In fact," said Clowes, getting up, "as was only to be expected, the school started going to the dogs directly I left. We shall have to be pushing on now, Allardyce. We promised to look in on Seymour before we went to bed. Friend let us away."
"Good night," said Allardyce.
"What you want," said Clowes solemnly, "is a liver pill. You are looking on life too gloomily. Take a pill. Let there be no stint. Take two. Then we shall hear your merry laugh ringing through the old cloisters once more. Buck up and be a bright and happy lad, Allardyce."
"Take more than a pill to make me that," growled that soured footballer.
Mr Seymour's views on the school resembled those of Allardyce. Wrykyn, in his opinion, was suffering from a reaction.
"It's always the same," he said, "after a very good year. Boys leave, and it's hard to fill their places. I must say I did not expect quite such a clearing out after the summer. We have had bad luck in that way. Maurice, for instance, and Robinson both ought to have had another year at school. It was quite unexpected, their leaving. They would have made all the difference to the forwards. You must have somebody to lead the pack who has had a little experience of first fifteen matches."
"But even then," said Clowes, "they oughtn't to be so rank as they were this afternoon. They seemed such slackers."
"I'm afraid that's the failing of the school just now," agreed Mr Seymour. "They don't play themselves out. They don't put just that last ounce into their work which makes all the difference."
Clowes thought of saying that, to judge by appearances, they did not put in even the first ounce; but refrained. However low an opinion a games' master may have—and even express—of his team, he does not like people to agree too cordially with his criticisms.
"Allardyce seems rather sick about it," said Trevor.
"I am sorry for Allardyce. It is always unpleasant to be the only survivor of an exceptionally good team. He can't forget last year's matches, and suffers continual disappointments because the present team does not play up to the same form."
"He was saying something about rows with the town," said Trevor, after a pause.
"Yes, there has certainly been some unpleasantness lately. It is the penalty we pay for being on the outskirts of a town. Four years out of five nothing happens. But in the fifth, when the school has got a little out of hand—"
"Oh, then it really has got out of hand?" asked Clowes.
"Between ourselves, yes," admitted Mr Seymour.
"What sort of rows?" asked Trevor.
Mr Seymour couldn't explain exactly. Nothing, as it were, definite—as yet. No actual complaints so far. But still—well, trouble—yes, trouble.
"For instance," he said, "a boy in my house, Linton—you remember him?—is moving in society at this moment with a swollen lip and minus a front tooth. Of course, I know nothing about it, but I fancy he got into trouble in the town. That is merely a straw which shows how the wind is blowing, but if you lived on the spot you would see more what I mean. There is trouble in the air. And now that this election is coming on, I should not wonder if things came to a head. I can't remember a single election in Wrykyn when there was not disorder in the town. And if the school is going to join in, as it probably will, I shall not be sorry when the holidays come. I know the headmaster is only waiting for an excuse to put the town out of bounds.'
"But the kids have always had a few rows on with that school in the High Street—what's it's name—St Something?" said Clowes.
"Jude's," supplied Trevor.
"St Jude's!" said Mr Seymour. "Have they? I didn't know that."
"Oh yes. I don't know how it started, but it's been going on for two or three years now. It's a School House feud really, but Dexter's are mixed up in it somehow. If a School House fag goes down town he runs like an antelope along the High Street, unless he's got one or two friends with him. I saved dozens of kids from destruction when I was at school. The St Jude's fellows lie in wait, and dash out on them. I used to find School House fags fighting for their lives in back alleys. The enemy fled on my approach. My air of majesty overawed them."
"But a junior school feud matters very little," said Mr Seymour. "You say it has been going on for three years; and I have never heard of it till now. It is when the bigger fellows get mixed up with the town that we have to interfere. I wish the headmaster would put the place out of bounds entirely until the election is over. Except at election time, the town seems to go to sleep."
"That's what we ought to be doing," said Clowes to Trevor. "I think we had better be off now, sir. We promised Mr Donaldson to be in some time tonight."
"It's later than I thought," said Mr Seymour. "Good night, Clowes. How many tries was it that you scored this afternoon? Five? I wish you were still here, to score them for instead of against us. Good night, Trevor. I was glad to see they tried you for Oxford, though you didn't get your blue. You'll be in next year all right. Good night."
The two Old Wrykinians walked along the road towards Donaldson's. It was a fine night, but misty.
"Jove, I'm quite tired," said Clowes. "Hullo!"
They were opposite Appleby's at the moment. Clowes drew him into the shadow of the fence.
"There's a chap breaking out. I saw him shinning down a rope. Let's wait, and see who it is."
A moment later somebody ran softly through the gateway and disappeared down the road that led to the town.
"Who was it?" said Trevor. "I couldn't see."
"I spotted him all right. It was that chap who was marking me today, Stanning. Wonder what he's after. Perhaps he's gone to tar the statue, like O'Hara. Rather a sportsman."
"Rather a silly idiot," said Trevor. "I hope he gets caught."
"You always were one of those kind sympathetic chaps," said Clowes. "Come on, or Donaldson'll be locking us out."
On the afternoon following the Oxford A match, Sheen, of Seymour's, was sitting over the gas-stove in his study with a Thucydides. He had been staying in that day with a cold. He was always staying in. Everyone has his hobby. That was Sheen's.
Nobody at Wrykyn, even at Seymour's, seemed to know Sheen very well, with the exception of Drummond; and those who troubled to think about the matter at all rather wondered what Drummond saw in him. To the superficial observer the two had nothing in common. Drummond was good at games—he was in the first fifteen and the second eleven, and had won the Feather Weights at Aldershot—and seemed to have no interests outside them. Sheen, on the other hand, played fives for the house, and that was all. He was bad at cricket, and had given up football by special arrangement with Allardyce, on the plea that he wanted all his time for work. He was in for an in-school scholarship, the Gotford. Allardyce, though professing small sympathy with such a degraded ambition, had given him a special dispensation, and since then Sheen had retired from public life even more than he had done hitherto. The examination for the Gotford was to come off towards the end of the term.
The only other Wrykinians with whom Sheen was known to be friendly were Stanning and Attell, of Appleby's. And here those who troubled to think about it wondered still more, for Sheen, whatever his other demerits, was not of the type of Stanning and Attell. There are certain members of every public school, just as there are certain members of every college at the universities, who are "marked men". They have never been detected in any glaring breach of the rules, and their manner towards the powers that be is, as a rule, suave, even deferential. Yet it is one of the things which everybody knows, that they are in the black books of the authorities, and that sooner or later, in the picturesque phrase of the New Yorker, they will "get it in the neck". To this class Stanning and Attell belonged. It was plain to all that the former was the leading member of the firm. A glance at the latter was enough to show that, whatever ambitions he may have had in the direction of villainy, he had not the brains necessary for really satisfactory evildoing. As for Stanning, he pursued an even course of life, always rigidly obeying the eleventh commandment, "thou shalt not be found out". This kept him from collisions with the authorities; while a ready tongue and an excellent knowledge of the art of boxing—he was, after Drummond, the best Light-Weight in the place—secured him at least tolerance at the hand of the school: and, as a matter of fact, though most of those who knew him disliked him, and particularly those who, like Drummond, were what Clowes had called the Old Brigade, he had, nevertheless, a tolerably large following. A first fifteen man, even in a bad year, can generally find boys anxious to be seen about with him.
That Sheen should have been amongst these surprised one or two people, notably Mr Seymour, who, being games' master had come a good deal into contact with Stanning, and had not been favourably impressed. The fact was that the keynote of Sheen's character was a fear of giving offence. Within limits this is not a reprehensible trait in a person's character, but Sheen overdid it, and it frequently complicated his affairs. There come times when one has to choose which of two people one shall offend. By acting in one way, we offend A. By acting in the opposite way, we annoy B. Sheen had found himself faced by this problem when he began to be friendly with Drummond. Their acquaintance, begun over a game of fives, had progressed. Sheen admired Drummond, as the type of what he would have liked to have been, if he could have managed it. And Drummond felt interested in Sheen because nobody knew much about him. He was, in a way, mysterious. Also, he played the piano really well; and Drummond at that time would have courted anybody who could play for his benefit "Mumblin' Mose", and didn't mind obliging with unlimited encores.
So the two struck up an alliance, and as Drummond hated Stanning only a shade less than Stanning hated him, Sheen was under the painful necessity of choosing between them. He chose Drummond. Whereby he undoubtedly did wisely.
Sheen sat with his Thucydides over the gas-stove, and tried to interest himself in the doings of the Athenian expedition at Syracuse. His brain felt heavy and flabby. He realised dimly that this was because he took too little exercise, and he made a resolution to diminish his hours of work per diem by one, and to devote that one to fives. He would mention it to Drummond when he came in. He would probably come in to tea. The board was spread in anticipation of a visit from him. Herbert, the boot-boy, had been despatched to the town earlier in the afternoon, and had returned with certain food-stuffs which were now stacked in an appetising heap on the table.
Sheen was just making something more or less like sense out of an involved passage of Nikias' speech, in which that eminent general himself seemed to have only a hazy idea of what he was talking about, when the door opened.
He looked up, expecting to see Drummond, but it was Stanning. He felt instantly that "warm shooting" sensation from which David Copperfield suffered in moments of embarrassment. Since the advent of Drummond he had avoided Stanning, and he could not see him without feeling uncomfortable. As they were both in the sixth form, and sat within a couple of yards of one another every day, it will be realised that he was frequently uncomfortable.
"Great Scott!" said Stanning, "swotting?"
Sheen glanced almost guiltily at his Thucydides. Still, it was something of a relief that the other had not opened the conversation with an indictment of Drummond.
"You see," he said apologetically, "I'm in for the Gotford."
"So am I. What's the good of swotting, though? I'm not going to do a stroke."
As Stanning was the only one of his rivals of whom he had any real fear, Sheen might have replied with justice that, if that was the case, the more he swotted the better. But he said nothing. He looked at the stove, and dog's-eared the Thucydides.
"What a worm you are, always staying in!" said Stanning.
"I caught a cold watching the match yesterday."
"You're as flabby as—" Stanning looked round for a simile, "as a dough-nut. Why don't you take some exercise?"
"I'm going to play fives, I think. I do need some exercise."
"Fives? Why don't you play footer?"
"I haven't time. I want to work."
"What rot. I'm not doing a stroke."
Stanning seemed to derive a spiritual pride from this admission.
"Tell you what, then," said Stanning, "I'll play you tomorrow after school."
Sheen looked a shade more uncomfortable, but he made an effort, and declined the invitation.
"I shall probably be playing Drummond," he said.
"Oh, all right," said Stanning. "I don't care. Play whom you like."
There was a pause.
"As a matter of fact," resumed Stanning, "what I came here for was to tell you about last night. I got out, and went to Mitchell's. Why didn't you come? Didn't you get my note? I sent a kid with it."
Mitchell was a young gentleman of rich but honest parents, who had left the school at Christmas. He was in his father's office, and lived in his father's house on the outskirts of the town. From time to time his father went up to London on matters connected with business, leaving him alone in the house. On these occasions Mitchell the younger would write to Stanning, with whom when at school he had been on friendly terms; and Stanning, breaking out of his house after everybody had gone to bed, would make his way to the Mitchell residence, and spend a pleasant hour or so there. Mitchell senior owned Turkish cigarettes and a billiard table. Stanning appreciated both. There was also a piano, and Stanning had brought Sheen with him one night to play it. The getting-out and the subsequent getting-in had nearly whitened Sheen's hair, and it was only by a series of miracles that he had escaped detection. Once, he felt, was more than enough; and when a fag from Appleby's had brought him Stanning's note, containing an invitation to a second jaunt of the kind, he had refused to be lured into the business again.
"Yes, I got the note," he said.
"Then why didn't you come? Mitchell was asking where you were."
"It's so beastly risky."
"We should get sacked if we were caught."
"Well, don't get caught, then."
Sheen registered an internal vow that he would not.
"He wanted us to go again on Monday. Will you come?"
"I—don't think I will, Stanning," said Sheen. "It isn't worth it."
"You mean you funk it. That's what's the matter with you."
"Yes, I do," admitted Sheen.
As a rule—in stories—the person who owns that he is afraid gets unlimited applause and adulation, and feels a glow of conscious merit. But with Sheen it was otherwise. The admission made him if possible, more uncomfortable than he had been before.
"Mitchell will be sick," said Stanning.
Sheen said nothing.
Stanning changed the subject.
"Well, at anyrate," he said, "give us some tea. You seem to have been victualling for a siege."
"I'm awfully sorry," said Sheen, turning a deeper shade of red and experiencing a redoubled attack of the warm shooting, "but the fact is, I'm waiting for Drummond."
Stanning got up, and expressed his candid opinion of Drummond in a few words.
He said more. He described Sheen, too in unflattering terms.
"Look here," he said, "you may think it jolly fine to drop me just because you've got to know Drummond a bit, but you'll be sick enough that you've done it before you've finished."
"It isn't that—" began Sheen.
"I don't care what it is. You slink about trying to avoid me all day, and you won't do a thing I ask you to do."
"But you see—"
"Oh, shut up," said Stanning.
While Sheen had been interviewing Stanning, in study twelve, farther down the passage, Linton and his friend Dunstable, who was in Day's house, were discussing ways and means. Like Stanning, Dunstable had demanded tea, and had been informed that there was none for him.
"Well, you are a bright specimen, aren't you?" said Dunstable, seating himself on the table which should have been groaning under the weight of cake and biscuits. "I should like to know where you expect to go to. You lure me in here, and then have the cheek to tell me you haven't got anything to eat. What have you done with it all?"
"There was half a cake—"
"Bring it on."
"Young Menzies bagged it after the match yesterday. His brother came down with the Oxford A team, and he had to give him tea in his study. Then there were some biscuits—"
"What's the matter with biscuits? They're all right. Bring them on. Biscuits forward. Show biscuits."
"Menzies took them as well."
Dunstable eyed him sorrowfully.
"You always were a bit of a maniac," he said, "but I never thought you were quite such a complete gibberer as to let Menzies get away with all your grub. Well, the only thing to do is to touch him for tea. He owes us one. Come on."
They proceeded down the passage and stopped at the door of study three.
"Hullo!" said Menzies, as they entered.
"We've come to tea," said Dunstable. "Cut the satisfying sandwich. Let's see a little more of that hissing urn of yours, Menzies. Bustle about, and be the dashing host."
"I wasn't expecting you."
"I can't help your troubles," said Dunstable.
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