Crawley Major was talking very impressively in the great class-room of Felton College. Even the few slow boys who were still mumbling over their Latin grammar for next day had one ear pricked up to hear what he was saying. “I’ll tell you what it is,” said Crawley Major, addressing them generally: “the Doctor is in a furious wax, and he will be pretty free with his canings and impositions to-morrow. I just happened to be taking a message to Barclay, when he comes fussing in, not seeing me, and just swells up to Barclay, purple with rage. ‘Somebody has had the boat out on the river again, Mr Barclay,’ he says, ‘notwithstanding my orders and all the fines and punishments I have imposed, and I’m determined to find out who it is.’ Then he saw me and turned purple again. ‘Now, Crawley, you have heard what I said, and you can just return to the class-room and tell your companions that I shall come down in half an hour, and I intend to have the truth about that boat if I have to keep every boy in the school under punishment for the next month;’ so here I am.”
“Oh, stop that, Crawley,” said a bright, handsome lad, who was standing on the table so as to get a better view of the proceedings. “The Doctor’s not often in a wax, and it’s no joke when he is. I didn’t think there was a fellow in the school would have touched the boat after what he said last time.”
All the boys hurled themselves at the table from which Haggart had been giving out his opinions, and there was a general shout of: “No!”
“It must be all right,” said Haggart again. He was looking carelessly round, and he suddenly caught sight of a frightened face a long way beneath him. “Don’t be in such a funk, Harry,” he said good-humouredly. “It will all come right in the end! The Doctor’s awfully hard sometimes, but he’s always just—eh, Crawley?”
“He canes you first, and he’s just afterwards,” said Crawley grimly.
The little boy shivered, and, when he tried to speak, his teeth chattered. “Does—does he cane very hard?”
“Oh, dear, yes,” said Crawley mischievously; “you don’t forget it for some days, I can tell you! Just look at little Parker,” he went on, pointing to the child’s terrified face: “wouldn’t any unprejudiced person think he had done it himself?”
“Oh, no, no,” cried the boy angrily, “how dare you say so? How could I? What would I want with a boat?”
“Reserve your defence for the Doctor, sir,” said Crawley impressively.
Something in the boy’s piteous eagerness had attracted Haggart’s attention, and he turned and looked at him sharply. His eyes were wide open and had a terrified look, and his thin lips were trembling, his small childish hand was fidgeting with the buttons of his coat.
First, a breath of suspicion came to Haggart, and a great rush of pity and contempt; then, as the child’s eyes seemed to rise unwillingly to his, the secret leaped from one heart to the other, and he knew. His lips curled disdainfully, and he jumped off the table, hustling his little band of followers out of the way.
“There’s the Doctor,” he said; “let me pass.”
All the boys stood up as the master majestically moved over to the fireplace and kicked the logs into a blaze. Then he faced round suddenly, and spoke in his peculiarly clear, decisive tones. “There has been an act of great disobedience perpetrated here during the last twenty-four hours,” he said. “Crawley overheard me speaking on the subject to Mr Barclay, and has probably told you what it is. I had, as you all know, given strict orders that the boat was not to be taken on the river by any of the boys, and this morning it was found outside the boathouse tied to a stake. There is no doubt that one of my boys did this, and the only reparation he can make is to own his fault at once, and take the punishment!”
There was dead silence.
One heart in the room was beating like a sledge-hammer against the Eton jacket that enclosed it, but no one spoke. Only Haggart turned his head, and looked again at the fourth-form boys, and as if they were under a spell, the grey eyes, full of terrified entreaty, were lifted to his. He tried to forget the look. He wished he could make that foolish chap understand that a caning was nothing, after all! All fellows worth their salt got caned at school. Well, after all, he had to take his chance with the others, but he wished he would not keep looking across at him in that beastly way, as if he had the keeping of his conscience!
“Well?” said the Doctor.
But no one spoke.
“I am sorry,” said the Doctor more quietly, “that the boy who did it has not had the courage to own up, but I will give him another chance. I will take every boy’s separate answer, and, after that, the whole school will be kept in the playground until the end of the term, unless the guilty boy will take the punishment on himself.”
Haggart’s face was very anxious as he, too, leant forth to see the fourth-form fellows, but all he could catch a sight of was a smooth, fair head that had drooped very low.
The Doctor, with a disappointed face, turned to the senior class. “It seems hardly necessary to go through the form,” he said. “I think I can count on my senior boys. You, Crawley? You, Brown? You, Haggart?”
“I did it,” said Haggart, in a clear, loud voice, and the Doctor’s outstretched finger fell.
“You, Haggart—you?” he said, in an incredulous voice. “Impossible! You?” said the Doctor again.
“Then there is nothing more to be said—now. Only, I am surprised, and—disappointed. You can go now; you will sleep to-night in the small spare room, and I will see you to-morrow. Go!”
Haggart moved slowly to the door, and as he turned the handle, he heard a noise, and then the Doctor’s voice, speaking sharply: “What is that? What are they doing on the fourth form?”
“Harry Parker has a fit, or he’s dead, or something,” said a scared voice.
“No, he has only fainted,” said Mr Barclay. “Take him to Miss Simpson, Barclay,” said the Doctor. “He is a delicate little fellow.”
“Wasn’t there a fellow called something Curtius, who saved a city once?” said a first-form boy, in a whisper.
“Yes; he leaped into a gulf.”
“Well, that’s what Haggart’s done,” said the boy.
“Rot!” said the other boy, still whispering.
Nothing seemed very clear to Haggart’s mind as he slowly undressed in the cold, unused room. His brain was worried and confused. He wished he could have had the light of the Doctor’s clear mind upon it, but, of course, that was impossible.
“If he is waxy, he’s always just,” he found himself saying out loud; and then, just before he went to sleep, “but, at any rate, I can bear it better.”
There is no need to dwell upon the weeks that followed. Haggart took his punishment bravely enough, but that time was always, in after-life, a hideous memory to him. To be unloved, untrusted, solitary, and despised, to be coldly disbelieved or contemptuously contradicted, was so very hard to bear! But, with a strange and sickening sense of dread, he found himself longing, most of all, to hear of Harry—to know if he were sorry, or remorseful, or only thankful to be spared! Then, at last, in some roundabout way the news came to him.
Harry had been taken ill with brain fever the very day after the tragedy, and had been sent home; and it gave Haggart his first moment of conscious happiness to realise that he had perhaps saved the poor, weak, little, trembling creature from one night of fear and anguish.
The boys were always kind to him in their peculiar way. There seemed to be a bewildered feeling in their minds of cruelty and injustice, and they were glad that he had not stuck out to the last and included the whole school in the punishment; so sticks of liquorice, and jam-tarts, and even white mice, were secretly conveyed to his desk as tokens of friendship; but, although Haggart was grateful for the attentions, he could never quite shake off the longing to make a clean breast of it to the Doctor, and get his troubled mind set straight.
But one morning before the holidays a thrill went through the whole school when the Doctor stood silently for a minute after prayers and then in his peculiarly quiet voice called to Haggart to come forward.
“Boys,” he said, “I have had a letter this morning from Harry Parker’s Mother, and she says that he has told her the truth about the boat. He has been very ill, poor child, and, in his delirium, it haunted him that Haggart had suffered for his sake. Let him be cleared before you all from the unjust suspicion. But, Haggart,” and he laid his hand very kindly on the boy’s shoulder, “you must remember that the injustice came from you—no one would have doubted you if you had not first accused yourself! I had my doubts always, but I did not know enough to understand. You told a lie; nothing can palliate or do away with that! No motives can make a lie anything but a lie, and a lie is always a cowardly thing, whether we try to shield ourselves with it or others.
“But the kindness which prompted it, the courage that bore the punishment so bravely, the silence that has made a false heroism out of it—these are fine qualities, Haggart, and I hope you will carry them with you through life.”