By Rupert Penny
Herbert Weekes banged the table smartly with his left hand, making half a dozen cups and saucers rattle.
“Less noise,” he said, in a distinct deep voice. “Otherwise I shall have to put you on silence.”
The chatter died immediately, there came a moment’s appropriate hush, and then a self-assured but modulated schoolboy treble broke the spell.
“Pass the bread,” it requested, and the headmaster’s eyebrows lifted irritably.
“Pass the bread, please,” he corrected. “Your table-manners are simply appalling, Dorland. Do you behave like that at home? Do you say ‘Pass the bread’ to your mother? Or ‘Pass the cake’, if you’re too refined for mere necessities?”
“No sir,” was the prompt reply.
“Very well, then kindly don’t do it here.”
“No sir,” agreed the culprit, unabashed, and the general hum resumed.
Carmichael, one of the bigger boys, thin-lipped and studious, turned to his neighbour.
“Jumbo’s got the rats,” he whispered. “Wonder why?”
But there was no answer, for every child in the room could have told him that the complaint might be due to any of a hundred reasons. The rats were no strangers to Herbert Weekes.
The dining-hall was long and narrow, and contained four tables. At either end of each sat a grown-up: the head and his sister, Miss Charlotte Weekes; Miss Wood the matron and Mr. Lloyd Gregory, the senior master; Miss Chew the housekeeper and Mr. Elkington the day-master; Miss Tilling the governess and Mr. Birkett the junior master. Separating the various pairs were boys, forty-one of them, and a stranger observing carelessly might have supposed them all variants of the same boy, because all were dressed alike in green jerseys and brown corduroy shorts. Some were larger than others, and some had conspicuously red or black or flaxen hair; a few wore spectacles, and one had a bandaged eye, the result of contact with a cricket ball; but the main effect was of similarity.
Collectively the boys and staff constituted Anstey Court Preparatory School, near Hindhead, Surrey, or that part of it which lived and breathed. For the rest the buildings were well-designed and spacious, standing in a dozen acres some distance back from the Portsmouth Road and a few miles from the Sussex border. ‘There are bigger preparatory schools, and more expensive ones,’ Herbert Weekes was fond of declaring, ‘but I think I may safely say there are few so well adapted to meet the requirements expected of them.’
He spoke like that, a good deal of the time: rather vaguely and windily, with a kind of verbose pomposity which impressed some of the parents and profoundly annoyed his assistant masters. Occasionally, though, he could be concise and direct, and also, when he chose, sarcastic. In this it was suspected that he took after his sister, who bit almost whenever she opened her mouth. Most of the boys respected him, but without affection, many feared him, and he was relied upon by none. What was right today might easily be wrong tomorrow: a way of setting out a quadratic equation, a closed window, a forward stroke to a short off ball. His charges knew this, accepted it as an inevitable part of his character, and grumbled only when he was more than usually trying; but the staff were less philosophical. Lloyd Gregory alone seemed genuinely not to mind a direct reprimand; but he had grown so cynical after nine years at Anstey Court that he could tolerate a complete volte-face with no more than a sneer to himself.
“I don’t know how you can stand it—I simply don’t!” Birkett was always protesting in the safety of the masters’-room. “The man’s an utter sweep—he positively makes my blood boil.”
Gregory, who was thirty-five and beginning to go bald, would curl his lips a little and contemptuously survey the younger man—twenty-four and only a year down from Cambridge.
“You’ll learn,” was his usual weary answer. “By the time you’re my age you won’t have any blood left—only school ink and school tea; and a leavening of beer if it takes you that way.”
And he would smile to himself even more contemptuously, for it was a poor week when he failed to drink his twenty pints.
Towards the end of the meal—high-tea for the boys, supper for the adults, and taking place between 5.45 and 6.15—the headmaster banged on the table again, as he did so rubbing his adam’s-apple against the rim of his stiff collar. It was a gesture so familiar to all that no one noticed it, himself least of all.
“Silence please,” he said, and glanced coldly round. “I shall be glad to see everyone in the schoolroom immediately after grace,” he announced. “Including the staff, if you please,” he added, without looking at any of them. “Thank you.”
Again there was a hush, and again there grew into noticeable existence the confused hum of voices, a steady background for the sharper click of knives on plates and spoons in saucers.
“What’s up?” asked several of the boys at once, stealthily, and suggestions were put forward to explain this breach with custom.
“Something about tomorrow,” said Jacoby, who had the makings of a stylish batsman and lived only for the half-term match against the Fathers’ XI the following afternoon. “First time out don’t count,” he added, with a grin.
“He’s going to let us off prep,” hazarded Askew, a freckled slogger who was also an optimist.
“Bet you he don’t!” was the instant challenge from Maurice Weekes, the elder of the head’s nephews.
“All right—how much?”
“Bet you a lend of my batting-gloves he don’t, and you give me a packet of stamp-mounts if I win.”
“Coo, you old Shylock! No fear—I’ve only got one left.”
“There you are—you’re wrong!”
“No I’m not!”
“All right then, half a packet.”
“All right, if you lend me your bat as well for practice—just in case I bust mine.”
“All right, only you be careful.”
“All right. Slap in the middle every time—that’s me!”—and Askew laughed cheerfully.
The staff too were curious, Pat Tilling raising her pretty brows interrogatively at Lloyd Gregory when she managed to catch his eye. All she received in exchange was a shrug and an expressive twist of the mouth which indicated that she had better be prepared for anything from bankruptcy to a bomb explosion. She smiled, not disappointed because it was something to have got so friendly a reception for her glance. Lloyd had an uncomfortable way of not seeing her sometimes; of looking straight through her and then elsewhere, as if she were invisible. Unaccountably it made her feel thoroughly miserable when he did that, but now she was suddenly elated. Only for a second or two, however; then she became aware of Miss Charlotte’s calculating stare, and shivered inwardly.
The wretched woman always saw everything, trust her, and always gave the impression of a vulture waiting to pounce, with her beaked nose and her drooping eyelids, her black dress and her air of patient malevolence.
A few seconds later still she noticed that Mr. Birkett was gazing at her too from the opposite end of the table, and frowned. There he was again, she thought, trying to trap her into some intimate interchange of looks which would give him the excuse to seek her out afterwards and inflict himself upon her. It was ridiculous, really; he ought to know well enough by now that as far as she was concerned he scarcely existed, and that the less she had to do with him out of school hours the better she would be pleased. Not, of course, that he was bad-looking or a lout; simply that he seemed too utterly pink-faced and juvenile to be taken seriously. Twenty-four he said he was, the same age as herself, but she would have been readier to believe him nineteen and fresh from the Upper VI instead of from Cambridge. He had no poise about him; he wasn’t a man yet.
She was roused from her reverie by the voice of Edwin Weekes, the headmaster’s younger nephew.
“Please Miss Tilling, when will you have the half-term marks ready?”
“Tomorrow morning and not a minute sooner,” she answered shortly. “And I’m not going to tell you the placings now, so please don’t ask.”
“Oh, but I wasn’t going to!” he assured her, his round face smugly virtuous.
“Splendid—then you won’t be disappointed,” she said.
‘Beastly child!’ she thought. ‘Horrible slimy child—knows he’s top in practically everything and wants to see it written down. Wish I could cook the dam’ marks somehow so that he came out bottom, or in the middle even—anywhere but first. Still, better not after that other business, else I probably would get the sack. Darling Edwin, Uncle’s joy; in the winter he sniffs, in the summer he sweats, and still he comes out top, rot him! I must settle down to those cursed marks, though, or Jumbo’ll start trumpeting like he did last term. Oh lord, who’d be a governess? With tomorrow ahead, too; thousands of stuck-up parents grinning and jabbering and saying ‘Oh how are you, Miss Billing?’ Or Drilling or Milling. ‘And how’s dear Peter getting on? And who dear Peter is heaven only knows unless I remember her painted face. And I haven’t a dress fit to bury a beggar in except the blue, and he said he hated blue. Not that it’d make any difference, I dare say.’
For the third time Herbert Weekes banged on the table.
“Grace!” he called, and everyone rose with a scuffling of feet and scraping of chairs and forms on the wooden floor.
“Benedicto benedicatur per Jesum Christum dominum nostrum,” mumbled Lillywhite, the captain of the XI, in response to a nod. Herbert frowned at him.
“Again, please,” he requested, “and endeavour not to make it sound like one word. Articulate, and remember you’re giving thanks to God for favours received.”
‘And paid for!’ thought Lloyd Gregory sourly. ‘Hell, the old fool’s on the scratch tonight.’
Lillywhite repeated the grace very slowly and clearly, and rather obstinately, and a minute later the dining-hall was deserted except for Miss Charlotte and the housekeeper. Miss Chew was small and bustling, the exact opposite of the head’s sister; perhaps that was why they disliked one another so much, the matron sometimes thought. They had scarcely passed a friendly word in twelve years.
“Pike has left his crusts again,” observed Miss Charlotte, somehow implying that it was the housekeeper’s fault.
“Why, so he has—and the times I’ve told him about it,” was the airy answer. “I wouldn’t be surprised if he didn’t want his teeth attending to.”
“Really? Then you’d better tell Miss Wood.”
“Ah!” murmured Miss Chew darkly, regarding a tea-stain on the cloth where Lloyd Gregory had been sitting. “Matron wouldn’t thank me to be teaching her her job, I don’t suppose. Has your parcel turned up yet, Miss Weekes?” she added.
“Not yet,” was the reply. “You questioned the servants?”
“Yes—they know nothing.”
“Oh, quite—that was always my impression.”
And, with one mocking look from under her drooping eyelids, Miss Charlotte was gone, moving slowly out of the door and up the stairs to the private part of the school. She was lame in her left leg, but refused to use a stick more than was absolutely necessary; yet she contrived to get about with surprising stealth at times.
Meanwhile, in the big schoolroom, the boys sat down at their desks while the staff leant awkwardly against the wall. It was characteristic of Herbert Weekes that he let them stand, men and women alike; and equally significant that neither the matron nor the governess expected a seat. Over the door a large clock ticked onwards from 6.13; above the mantelpiece was a tear-off calendar registering that the date was Friday June 16th; out of the windows could be seen the cricket-nets, where presently the XI would practise in the cool of the evening. For the present the headmaster held everyone’s attention as he stood at the masters’-desk rubbing his neck on the edge of his collar, and the gravity of his features troubled many of those who watched him. He was a tall ungainly man with grey hair, hazel eyes, and a cropped moustache; his tweed suit was well cut but ancient, and his fingers were stained with nicotine. Yet despite his surface shabbiness he had for the moment an air of authority which seemed to belong not only to his position but also to his person.
“I must ask you all to pay particular heed to what I have to say,” he began. “It’s a mysterious and possibly unpleasant matter, and I shall be thankful to dispose of it quickly. It concerns a parcel, an oblong parcel about the size of a dozen French grammars, belonging to my sister Miss Charlotte. As usual, I put the afternoon post on the hall table just after half past four, and inadvertently included this parcel. In fact, to make things quite plain, I was careless; yet that doesn’t explain why the thing has completely disappeared. Completely and utterly disappeared, let me repeat,”—and he stared hard at two or three random faces.
No one spoke. The boys stared back at him, dully expressionless. The staff lounged idly by the wall. A breeze from an open window at the far end of the room caused a canvas map of the world to swing first a few inches one way, and then a few inches the other.
“If any of you knows anything concerning the whereabouts of the missing object,” continued the headmaster deliberately—“remembers picking it up by mistake, let us say—perhaps he will hold up his hand.”
There was no response.
“At the moment no question of punishment arises,” he went on, his voice a trifle more informal. “At present I shall be prepared to accept a genuine mistake as the explanation. After all,”—with a not very successful smile, “it would hardly be fair to make an example when I have set a bad one myself.”
‘Which means what?’ Lloyd Gregory asked himself dreamily. ‘Something wrong with his syntax—syllepsis?’
There was still no sign of a hand upraised, and the five grown-ups standing under the honours-board seemed wholly mystified.
“Needless to say, none of the staff can help me?” queried the head perfunctorily.
“No sir,” said Gregory, knowing a verbal answer was expected, and the others murmured in agreement.
“Except that I believe I saw the parcel in question, Mr. Weekes,” put in the matron in her flat tired voice. She was a tall anemic-looking woman of forty, and she rarely smiled.
“About a quarter to five, that would be,” she added. “It had some foreign stamps on, had it not?”
“Yes, Matron—I was coming to that. Then possibly you saw the address as well?”
Miss Wood frowned.
“Really, I don’t remember,” she said vaguely. “I don’t somehow think I noticed any writing.”
“I see—thank you. Yes, Burnaby?”—as a small spectacled boy in the front row of battered single desks lifted his hand.
“Oh sir, I saw it too!” exclaimed the child, getting to his feet. “When I went to be excused in Geography, sir. And it hadn’t any writing on the side the stamps were on, sir, ’cos I looked, ’cos they were French ones, sir—25-centimes.”
“Now take it quietly,” advised the head with manifest patience. Burnaby always gabbled. “You passed the hall table, and you glanced at the letters to see if there was one for you, I suppose?”
“And was there?”
“No sir. Then I saw the stamps—”
“Ah, of course—you collect, don’t you? They attracted your attention, and that makes you recall the parcel.”
‘Ass!’ thought Lloyd Gregory. ‘Why the devil doesn’t he let the brat say for himself what he did? Talk about shoving words into somebody’s mouth—no wonder they’re always failing their exams.’
“And was there any address visible?” pursued Herbert Weekes, regarding Burnaby so intently that the boy squirmed.
“No sir—yes sir.”
“Well, which is it?”
“Not the stamp side—only I turned it over.”
“Indeed? To see if it was yours?”
“Oh no sir—to see whose it was, ’cos if it was somebody’s who didn’t collect then I could do a swop—I mean I could ask him to let me have ’em, sir.”
“In return for a suitable consideration, presumably? I believe ‘swop’ carries that meaning.”
“Yes sir,”—amid faint and dutiful laughter from the others.
“Well, Burnaby, what was on the other side of the parcel?”
The reply came promptly. “Miss Charlotte, sir.”
Then, after a pause during which someone found time to stifle a spontaneous giggle, the boy corrected himself.
“I mean her name, sir. In a funny sort of writing, all up and down and thin.”
“In short, a typically continental hand,”—and the headmaster nodded and chuckled, with a glance at the staff to see if his superior knowledge were appreciated. Then in a moment his face became stern again. He put his hands on the desk and leant forward.
“And when you had finished your slightly irregular examination of the other side?” he suggested.
“Oh sir, I went to be excused.”
“I see. And when you returned, was the parcel still there?”
“And can you tell me what time that was? Within a few minutes?”
“Sir, it was just after you’d put the post there—I saw you going through the swing-door. I thought you saw me too,” he added amiably.
“No, Burnaby, I fear my mind must have been occupied with other and possibly more important subjects.”
His mouth began to smile again, and then stopped. “I hope our proximity was accidental?” he asked pointedly.
“I mean, you had not been listening for me to put the post in the hall instead of attending to your lessons?”
“Oh, no sir!”
“Mr. Weekes,” interrupted George Elkington timidly, “do you require me any longer? I’m afraid I may miss my bus.”
The head turned towards him impatiently, never dreaming what an effort it had cost the chinless little man to be so bold. Birkett had said once that the day-master reminded him of an orphaned dormouse stranded in a jungle.
“Very well, Mr. Elkington,” agreed Herbert Weekes distantly. “I regret delaying you—good-night, good-night.”
“Thank you sir—good-night. Good-night, everybody,”—and he trotted out, bound for a lonely bed-sitting-room where he would conscientiously prepare next week’s history lessons and perhaps treat himself to half an hour of Bach on the gramophone before retiring.
“All right, Burnaby, sit down,” said the head. “Now,”—to the room at large, “one boy has been good enough to speak up and say what he knows. Has anyone else any information to offer? Who else saw the parcel?”
But apparently nobody had. Further question and answer revealed that when the various classes were dismissed at 5.30, and the usual concerted rush to the hall table for letters took place, the parcel was no longer there. Beyond that, nothing was definite.
“I see,” growled Herbert Weekes, and pulled at his moustache.
“Mr. Gregory, may I have a word with you?” he requested presently, and the two of them walked to the corner of the room furthest from the boys.
“What d’you think?” he asked in a low voice. “Could it have been taken for the stamps?”
The senior master shrugged, as if to imply that any of the forty-one boys might have stolen the thing for sheer devilry. Yet his answer contradicted his manner.
“I shouldn’t think so, sir—though it’ll have to be considered if all else fails. But it doesn’t strike me as likely.”
“Then what does?” demanded his superior bluntly. “The servants?”
“They assure the housekeeper they know nothing. Nor does she. Nor does my sister.”
“Of course not, sir,” agreed the other gently. No sense in getting on the wrong side of the man, especially with half-term so near. He might find himself being imposed upon in the matter of extra work.
The headmaster grunted, and was about to turn away, but Gregory stopped him.
“Have you any idea what was in the parcel, sir?” he asked.
“As it happens, yes. To the best of my knowledge it contained chocolate liqueurs—or perhaps one should say liqueur chocolates.”
The senior master repressed a smile; Miss Charlotte’s liking for such confections was notorious.
“And one more thing, sir; have you mentioned the matter to Lady Weekes?”
The head stared at him.
“Lady Weekes?” he echoed. “But she’s gone to Farnham for the evening.”
“Yes sir—but I saw her in the hall myself at about ten minutes to five.”
“Really? That’s strange. Did she speak to you?”
Lloyd Gregory shook his head.
“She was talking to Maurice—I don’t suppose she noticed me. I only just looked out to see who it was.”
Herbert Weekes rubbed his neck thoughtfully against his collar.
“Maurice!” he called, and his elder nephew came forward; a tall dark-haired boy with a pleasant smile. “Yes sir?”
“You spoke to your mother in the hall this afternoon?”
“Yes—she was saying good-night to me because she wouldn’t be back before I’d gone to bed.”
“Oh, of course—I’m sorry. I remember her asking me about it in the drawing-room now. You didn’t see the parcel?”
“Very well, that’s all. I shall have to mention it to her,” he added, as if he found the prospect distasteful. “Thank you, Mr. Gregory.”
Thus dismissed, the senior master rejoined the others by the wall, this time ignoring Patricia Tilling’s smile. For some seconds the headmaster stayed where he was, his back to everyone. Then he turned.
“It appears that I have overlooked a possible source of information,” he observed. “Not that I expect much from it, however. I will ask you all once again; can anyone tell me anything concerning the present whereabouts of Miss Charlotte’s parcel, or say what happened to it after I put it on the table with the letters?”
Nobody spoke, and he nodded a little grimly.
“Then for the time being I shall leave the matter where it is,” he informed the school. “Perhaps I need hardly point out that the sooner it’s cleared up the better? There’s probably some extremely simple explanation, and I only hope it will be forthcoming soon. Otherwise there may be cause for regret.”
He paused significantly, his aspect suddenly threatening.
“Otherwise I may be forced to think the worst,” he finished, “and that would be a pity, with half-term tomorrow.”
He glanced up at the clock, and saw that it was after 6.30.
“You ought to be settling down to prep now,” he said, “but in view of the circumstances I think it would be as well if you had ten minutes’ break, to talk things over among yourselves. There’s no objection, Mr. Gregory?”
“Of course not, sir,” was the polite reply, but to himself Gregory fumed. ‘As though it would matter if I screamed my head off!’ he thought. ‘You old hypocrite!’
“Thank you. I shall take the XI in the nets after prayers as usual.”
“He did let us off some of the prep,” asserted Askew.
“Ah, but you bet he wouldn’t let us off it all!” declared Maurice Weekes, his blue eyes twinkling. “No, I never!”
“Oh you did!”
“Well, let’s ask Taffy!”
Lloyd Gregory delivered his verdict with his most solemn expression.
“Askew received 25% damages, Weekes major 75%,” he said. “In other words, three-eighths of a packet of mounts in exchange for the loan of one batting-glove.”
“Coo, sir! What on earth’s the good of one glove?” demanded Askew.
“My dear boy, I haven’t the slightest idea. Judges seldom trouble themselves about what good then-decisions will be. Perhaps one glove might convey the impression that you’re at least partly civilized—who knows?”
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