Lancelot Chetrof stood at the end of a long bare passage, restlessly consulting his watch and fervently wishing himself half an hour older with a certain painful experience already registered in the past; unfortunately it still belonged to the future, and what was still more horrible, to the immediate future. Like many boys new to a school he had cultivated an unhealthy passion for obeying rules and requirements, and his zeal in this direction had proved his undoing. In his hurry to be doing two or three estimable things at once he had omitted to study the notice-board in more than a perfunctory fashion and had thereby missed a football practice specially ordained for newly-joined boys. His fellow juniors of a term’s longer standing had graphically enlightened him as to the inevitable consequences of his lapse; the dread which attaches to the unknown was, at any rate, deleted from his approaching doom, though at the moment he felt scarcely grateful for the knowledge placed at his disposal with such lavish solicitude.
“You’ll get six of the very best, over the back of a chair,” said one.
“They’ll draw a chalk line across you, of course you know,” said another.
“A chalk line?”
“Rather. So that every cut can be aimed exactly at the same spot. It hurts much more that way.”
Lancelot tried to nourish a wan hope that there might be an element of exaggeration in this uncomfortably realistic description.
Meanwhile in the prefects’ room at the other end of the passage, Comus Bassington and a fellow prefect sat also waiting on time, but in a mood of far more pleasurable expectancy. Comus was one of the most junior of the prefect caste, but by no means the least well- known, and outside the masters’ common-room he enjoyed a certain fitful popularity, or at any rate admiration. At football he was too erratic to be a really brilliant player, but he tackled as if the act of bringing his man headlong to the ground was in itself a sensuous pleasure, and his weird swear-words whenever he got hurt were eagerly treasured by those who were fortunate enough to hear them. At athletics in general he was a showy performer, and although new to the functions of a prefect he had already established a reputation as an effective and artistic caner. In appearance he exactly fitted his fanciful Pagan name. His large green-grey eyes seemed for ever asparkle with goblin mischief and the joy of revelry, and the curved lips might have been those of some wickedly-laughing faun; one almost expected to see embryo horns fretting the smoothness of his sleek dark hair. The chin was firm, but one looked in vain for a redeeming touch of ill-temper in the handsome, half-mocking, half-petulant face. With a strain of sourness in him Comus might have been leavened into something creative and masterful; fate had fashioned him with a certain whimsical charm, and left him all unequipped for the greater purposes of life. Perhaps no one would have called him a lovable character, but in many respects he was adorable; in all respects he was certainly damned.
Rutley, his companion of the moment, sat watching him and wondering, from the depths of a very ordinary brain, whether he liked or hated him; it was easy to do either.
“It’s not really your turn to cane,” he said.
“I know it’s not,” said Comus, fingering a very serviceable-looking cane as lovingly as a pious violinist might handle his Strad. “I gave Greyson some mint-chocolate to let me toss whether I caned or him, and I won. He was rather decent over it and let me have half the chocolate back.”
The droll lightheartedness which won Comus Bassington such measure of popularity as he enjoyed among his fellows did not materially help to endear him to the succession of masters with whom he came in contact during the course of his schooldays. He amused and interested such of them as had the saving grace of humour at their disposal, but if they sighed when he passed from their immediate responsibility it was a sigh of relief rather than of regret. The more enlightened and experienced of them realised that he was something outside the scope of the things that they were called upon to deal with. A man who has been trained to cope with storms, to foresee their coming, and to minimise their consequences, may be pardoned if he feels a certain reluctance to measure himself against a tornado.
Men of more limited outlook and with a correspondingly larger belief in their own powers were ready to tackle the tornado had time permitted.
“I think I could tame young Bassington if I had your opportunities,” a form-master once remarked to a colleague whose House had the embarrassing distinction of numbering Comus among its inmates.
“Heaven forbid that I should try,” replied the housemaster.
“But why?” asked the reformer.
“Because Nature hates any interference with her own arrangements, and if you start in to tame the obviously untameable you are taking a fearful responsibility on yourself.”
“Nonsense; boys are Nature’s raw material.”
“Millions of boys are. There are just a few, and Bassington is one of them, who are Nature’s highly finished product when they are in the schoolboy stage, and we, who are supposed to be moulding raw material, are quite helpless when we come in contact with them.”
“But what happens to them when they grow up?”
“They never do grow up,” said the housemaster; “that is their tragedy. Bassington will certainly never grow out of his present stage.”
“Now you are talking in the language of Peter Pan,” said the form- master.
“I am not thinking in the manner of Peter Pan,” said the other. “With all reverence for the author of that masterpiece I should say he had a wonderful and tender insight into the child mind and knew nothing whatever about boys. To make only one criticism on that particular work, can you imagine a lot of British boys, or boys of any country that one knows of, who would stay contentedly playing children’s games in an underground cave when there were wolves and pirates and Red Indians to be had for the asking on the other side of the trap door?”
The form-master laughed. “You evidently think that the ‘Boy who would not grow up’ must have been written by a ‘grown-up who could never have been a boy.’ Perhaps that is the meaning of the ‘Never- never Land.’ I daresay you’re right in your criticism, but I don’t agree with you about Bassington. He’s a handful to deal with, as anyone knows who has come in contact with him, but if one’s hands weren’t full with a thousand and one other things I hold to my opinion that he could be tamed.”
And he went his way, having maintained a form-master’s inalienable privilege of being in the right.
* * * * *
In the prefects’ room, Comus busied himself with the exact position of a chair planted out in the middle of the floor.
“I think everything’s ready,” he said.
Rutley glanced at the clock with the air of a Roman elegant in the Circus, languidly awaiting the introduction of an expected Christian to an expectant tiger.
“The kid is due in two minutes,” he said.
“He’d jolly well better not be late,” said Comus.
Comus had gone through the mill of many scorching castigations in his earlier school days, and was able to appreciate to the last ounce the panic that must be now possessing his foredoomed victim, probably at this moment hovering miserably outside the door. After all, that was part of the fun of the thing, and most things have their amusing side if one knows where to look for it.
There was a knock at the door, and Lancelot entered in response to a hearty friendly summons to “come in.”
“I’ve come to be caned,” he said breathlessly; adding by way of identification, “my name’s Chetrof.”
“That’s quite bad enough in itself,” said Comus, “but there is probably worse to follow. You are evidently keeping something back from us.”
“I missed a footer practice,” said Lancelot
“Six,” said Comus briefly, picking up his cane.
“I didn’t see the notice on the board,” hazarded Lancelot as a forlorn hope.
“We are always pleased to listen to excuses, and our charge is two extra cuts. That will be eight. Get over.”
And Comus indicated the chair that stood in sinister isolation in the middle of the room. Never had an article of furniture seemed more hateful in Lancelot’s eyes. Comus could well remember the time when a chair stuck in the middle of a room had seemed to him the most horrible of manufactured things.
“Lend me a piece of chalk,” he said to his brother prefect.
Lancelot ruefully recognised the truth of the chalk-line story.
Comus drew the desired line with an anxious exactitude which he would have scorned to apply to a diagram of Euclid or a map of the Russo-Persian frontier.
“Bend a little more forward,” he said to the victim, “and much tighter. Don’t trouble to look pleasant, because I can’t see your face anyway. It may sound unorthodox to say so, but this is going to hurt you much more than it will hurt me.”
There was a carefully measured pause, and then Lancelot was made vividly aware of what a good cane can be made to do in really efficient hands. At the second cut he projected himself hurriedly off the chair.
“Now I’ve lost count,” said Comus; “we shall have to begin all over again. Kindly get back into the same position. If you get down again before I’ve finished Rutley will hold you over and you’ll get a dozen.”
Lancelot got back on to the chair, and was re-arranged to the taste of his executioner. He stayed there somehow or other while Comus made eight accurate and agonisingly effective shots at the chalk line.
“By the way,” he said to his gasping and gulping victim when the infliction was over, “you said Chetrof, didn’t you? I believe I’ve been asked to be kind to you. As a beginning you can clean out my study this afternoon. Be awfully careful how you dust the old china. If you break any don’t come and tell me but just go and drown yourself somewhere; it will save you from a worse fate.”
“I don’t know where your study is,” said Lancelot between his chokes.
“You’d better find it or I shall have to beat you, really hard this time. Here, you’d better keep this chalk in your pocket, it’s sure to come in handy later on. Don’t stop to thank me for all I’ve done, it only embarrasses me.”
As Comus hadn’t got a study Lancelot spent a feverish half-hour in looking for it, incidentally missing another footer practice.
“Everything is very jolly here,” wrote Lancelot to his sister Emmeline. “The prefects can give you an awful hot time if they like, but most of them are rather decent. Some are Beasts. Bassington is a prefect though only a junior one. He is the Limit as Beasts go. At least I think so.”
Schoolboy reticence went no further, but Emmeline filled in the gaps for herself with the lavish splendour of feminine imagination. Francesca’s bridge went crashing into the abyss.