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Sports weather at St Austin's was as a rule a quaint but unpleasant solution of mud, hail, and iced rain. These were taken as a matter of course, and the School counted it as something gained when they were spared the usual cutting east wind.
This year, however, occurred that invaluable exception which is so useful in proving rules. There was no gale, only a gentle breeze. The sun was positively shining, and there was a general freshness in the air which would have made a cripple cast away his crutches, and, after backing himself heavily both ways, enter for the Strangers' Hundred Yards.
Jim had wandered off alone. He was feeling too nervous at the thought of the coming mile and all it meant to him to move in society for the present. Charteris, Welch, and Tony, going out shortly before lunch to inspect the track, found him already on the spot, and in a very low state of mind.
'Hullo, you chaps,' he said dejectedly, as they came up.
'Our James is preoccupied,' said Charteris. 'Why this jaundiced air, Jim? Look at our other Thompson over there.'
'Our other Thompson' was at that moment engaged in conversation with the Headmaster at the opposite side of the field.
'Look at him,' said Charteris, 'prattling away as merrily as a little che-ild to the Old Man. You should take a lesson from him.'
'Look here, I say,' said Jim, after a pause, 'I believe there's something jolly queer up between Thompson and the Old Man, and I believe it's about me.'
'What on earth makes you think that?' asked Welch.
'It's his evil conscience,' said Charteris. 'No one who hadn't committed the awful crime that Jim has, could pay the least attention to anything Thompson said. What does our friend Thucydides remark on the subject?--
'"Conscia mens recti, nec si sinit esse dolorem Sed revocare gradum."
Very well then.'
'But why should you think anything's up?' asked Tony.
'Perhaps nothing is, but it's jolly fishy. You see Thompson and the Old 'Un pacing along there? Well, they've been going like that for about twenty minutes. I've been watching them.'
'But you can't tell they're talking about you, you rotter,' said Tony. 'For all you know they may be discussing the exams.'
'Or why the sea is boiling hot, and whether pigs have wings,' put in Charteris.
'Or anything,' added Welch profoundly.
'Well, all I know is that Thompson's been doing all the talking, and the Old Man's been getting more and more riled.'
'Probably Thompson's been demanding a rise of screw or asking for a small loan or something,' said Charteris. 'How long have you been watching them?'
'About twenty minutes.'
'Why didn't you go and join them? There's nothing like tact. If you were to go and ask the Old Man why the whale wailed or something after that style it 'ud buck him up like a tonic. I wish you would. And then you could tell him to tell you all about it and see if you couldn't do something to smooth the wrinkles from his careworn brow and let the sunshine of happiness into his heart. He'd like it awfully.'
'Would he!' said Jim grimly. 'Well, I got the chance just now. Thompson said something to him, and he spun round, saw me, and shouted "Thomson". I went up and capped him, and he was starting to say something when he seemed to change his mind, and instead of confessing everything, he took me by the arm, and said, "No, no, Thomson. Go away. It's nothing. I will send for you later."'
'And did you knock him down?' asked Charteris.
'What happened?' said Welch.
'He gave me a shove as if he were putting the weight, and said again, "It's no matter. Go away, Thomson, now." So I went.'
'And you've kept an eye on him ever since?' said Charteris. 'Didn't he seem at all restive?'
'I don't think he noticed me. Thompson had the floor and he was pretty well full up listening to him.'
'I suppose you don't know what it's all about?' asked Tony.
'Must be this Pavilion business.'
'Now, my dear, sweet cherub,' said Charteris, 'don't you go and make an utter idiot of yourself and think you're found out and all that sort of thing. Even if they suspect you they've got to prove it. There's no sense in your giving them a helping hand in the business. What you've got to do is to look normal. Don't overdo it or you'll look like a swashbuckler, and that'll be worse than underdoing it. Can't you make yourself look less like a convicted forger? For my sake?'
'You really do look a bit off it,' said Welch critically. 'As if you were sickening for the flu., or something. Doesn't he, Tony?'
'Rather!' said that expert in symptoms. 'You simply must buck up, Jim, or Drake'll walk away from you.'
'It's disappointing,' said Charteris, 'to find a chap who can crack a crib as neatly as you can doubling up like this. Think how Charles Peace would have behaved under the circs. Don't disgrace him, poor man.'
'Besides,' said Jim, with an attempt at optimism, 'it isn't as if I'd actually done anything, is it?'
'Just so,' said Charteris, 'that's what I've been trying to get you to see all along. Keep that fact steadily before you, and you'll be all right.'
'There goes the lunch-bell,' said Tony. 'You can always tell Merevale's bell in a crowd. William rings it as if he was doing it for his health.'
William, also known in criminal circles as the Moke, was the gentleman who served the House--in a perpetual grin and a suit of livery four sizes too large for him--as a sort of butler.
'He's an artist,' agreed Charteris, as he listened to the performance. 'Does it as if he enjoyed it, doesn't he? Well, if we don't want to spoil Merevale's appetite by coming in at half-time, we might be moving.' They moved accordingly.
The Sports were to begin at two o'clock with a series of hundred-yards races, which commenced with the 'under twelve' (Cameron of Prater's a warm man for this, said those who had means of knowing), and culminated at about a quarter past with the open event, for which Welch was a certainty. By a quarter to the hour the places round the ropes were filled, and more visitors were constantly streaming in at the two entrances to the School grounds, while in the centre of the ring the band of the local police force--the military being unavailable owing to exigencies of distance--were seating themselves with the grim determination of those who know that they are going to play the soldiers' chorus out of Faust. The band at the Sports had played the soldiers' chorus out of Faust every year for decades past, and will in all probability play it for decades to come.
The Sports at St Austin's were always looked forward to by everyone with the keenest interest, and when the day arrived, were as regularly voted slow. In all school sports there are too many foregone conclusions. In the present instance everybody knew, and none better than the competitors themselves, that Welch would win the quarter and hundred. The high jump was an equal certainty for a boy named Reece in Halliday's House. Jackson, unless he were quite out of form, would win the long jump, and the majority of the other events had already been decided. The gem of the afternoon would be the mile, for not even the shrewdest judge of form could say whether Jim would beat Drake, or Drake Jim. Both had done equally good times in practice, and both were known to be in the best of training. The adherents of Jim pointed to the fact that he had won the half off Drake--by a narrow margin, true, but still he had won it. The other side argued that a half-mile is no criterion for a mile, and that if Drake had timed his sprint better he would probably have won, for he had finished up far more strongly than his opponent. And so on the subject of the mile, public opinion was for once divided.
The field was nearly full by this time. The only clear space outside the ropes was where the Headmaster stood to greet and talk about the weather to such parents and guardians and other celebrities as might pass. This habit of his did not greatly affect the unattached members of the School, those whose parents lived in distant parts of the world and were not present on Sports Day, but to St Jones Brown (for instance) of the Lower Third, towing Mr Brown, senior, round the ring, it was a nervous ordeal to have to stand by while his father and the Head exchanged polite commonplaces. He could not help feeling that there was just a chance (horrible thought) that the Head, searching for something to say, might seize upon that little matter of broken bounds or shaky examination papers as a subject for discussion. He was generally obliged, when the interview was over, to conduct his parent to the shop by way of pulling his system together again, the latter, of course, paying.
At intervals round the ropes Old Austinian number one was meeting Old Austinian number two (whom he emphatically detested, and had hoped to avoid), and was conversing with him in a nervous manner, the clearness of his replies being greatly handicapped by a feeling, which grew with the minutes, that he would never be able to get rid of him and go in search of Old Austinian number three, his bosom friend.
At other intervals, present Austinians of tender years were manoeuvring half-companies of sisters, aunts, and mothers, and trying without much success to pretend that they did not belong to them. A pretence which came down heavily when one of the aunts addressed them as 'Willie' or 'Phil', and wanted to know audibly if 'that boy who had just passed' (the one person in the School whom they happened to hate and despise) was their best friend. It was a little trying, too, to have to explain in the middle of a crowd that the reason why you were not running in 'that race' (the 'under thirteen' hundred, by Jove, which ought to have been a gift to you, only, etc.) was because you had been ignominiously knocked out in the trial heats.
In short, the afternoon wore on. Welch won the hundred by two yards and the quarter by twenty, and the other events fell in nearly every case to the favourite. The hurdles created something of a surprise--Jackson, who ought to have won, coming down over the last hurdle but two, thereby enabling Dallas to pull off an unexpected victory by a couple of yards. Vaughan's enthusiastic watch made the time a little under sixteen seconds, but the official timekeeper had other views. There were no instances of the timid new boy, at whom previously the world had scoffed, walking away with the most important race of the day.
And then the spectators were roused from a state of coma by the sound of the bell ringing for the mile. Old Austinian number one gratefully seized the opportunity to escape from Old Austinian number two, and lose himself in the crowd. Young Pounceby-Green with equal gratitude left his father talking to the Head, and shot off without ceremony to get a good place at the ropes. In fact, there was a general stir of anticipation, and all round the ring paterfamilias was asking his son and heir which was Drake and which Thomson, and settling his glasses more firmly on the bridge of his nose.
The staff of The Glow Worm conducted Jim to the starting-place, and did their best to relieve his obvious nervousness with light conversation.
'Eh, old chap?' said Jim. He had been saying 'Eh?' to everything throughout the afternoon.
'I said, "Is my hat on straight, and does it suit the colour of my eyes?"' said Charteris.
'Oh, yes. Yes, rather. Ripping,' in a far-off voice.
'And have you a theory of the Universe?'
'Eh, old chap?'
'I said, "Did you want your legs rubbed before you start?" I believe it's an excellent specific for the gout.'
'Gout? What? No, I don't think so, thanks.'
'And you'll write to us sometimes, Jim, and give my love to little Henry, and always wear flannel next your skin, my dear boy?' said Charteris.
This seemed to strike even Jim as irrelevant.
'Do shut up for goodness sake, Alderman,' he said irritably. 'Why can't you go and rag somebody else?'
'My place is by your side. Go, my son, or else they'll be starting without you. Give us your blazer. And take my tip, the tip of an old runner, and don't pocket your opponent's ball in your own twenty-five. And come back victorious, or on the shields of your soldiers. All right, sir (to the starter), he's just making his will. Good-bye Jim. Buck up, or I'll lynch you after the race.'
Jim answered by muffling him in his blazer, and walking to the line. There were six competitors in all, each of whom owned a name ranking alphabetically higher than Thomson. Jim, therefore, had the outside berth. Drake had the one next to the inside, which fell to Adamson, the victim of the lost two pounds episode.
Both Drake and Jim got off well at the sound of the pistol, and the pace was warm from the start. Jim evidently had his eye on the inside berth, and, after half a lap had been completed, he got it, Drake falling back. Jim continued to make the running, and led at the end of the first lap by about five yards. Then came Adamson, followed by a batch of three, and finally Drake, taking things exceedingly coolly, a couple of yards behind them. The distance separating him from Jim was little over a dozen yards. A roar of applause greeted the runners as they started on the second lap, and it was significant that while Jim's supporters shouted, 'Well run', those of Drake were fain to substitute advice for approval, and cry 'Go it'. Drake, however, had not the least intention of 'going it' in the generally accepted meaning of the phrase. A yard or two to the rear meant nothing in the first lap, and he was running quite well enough to satisfy himself, with a nice, springy stride, which he hoped would begin to tell soon.
With the end of the second lap the real business of the race began, for the survival of the fittest had resulted in eliminations and changes of order. Jim still led, but now by only eight or nine yards. Drake had come up to second, and Adamson had dropped to a bad third. Two of the runners had given the race up, and retired, and the last man was a long way behind, and, to all practical purposes, out of the running. There were only three laps, and, as the last lap began, the pace quickened, fast as it had been before. Jim was exerting every particle of his strength. He was not a runner who depended overmuch on his final dash. He hoped to gain so much ground before Drake made his sprint as to neutralize it when it came. Adamson he did not fear.
And now they were in the last two hundred yards, Jim by this time some thirty yards ahead, but in great straits. Drake had quickened his pace, and gained slowly on him. As they rounded the corner and came into the straight, the cheers were redoubled. It was a great race. Then, fifty yards from the tape, Drake began his final sprint. If he had saved himself before, he made up for it now. The gap dwindled and dwindled. Neither could improve his pace. It was a question whether there was enough of the race left for Drake to catch his man, or whether he had once more left his sprint till too late. Jim could hear the roars of the spectators, and the frenzied appeals of Merevale's House to him to sprint, but he was already doing his utmost. Everything seemed black to him, a black, surging mist, and in its centre a thin white line, the tape. Could he reach it before Drake? Or would he collapse before he reached it? There were only five more yards to go now, and still he led. Four. Three. Two. Then something white swept past him on the right, the white line quivered, snapped, and vanished, and he pitched blindly forward on to the turf at the track-side. Drake had won by a foot.
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