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The Cricket Match, An Incident at A Private School by Maurice Baring

 

To Winston Churchill

It was a Saturday afternoon in June. St. James's School was playing a cricket match against Chippenfield's. The whole school, which consisted of forty boys, with the exception of the eleven who were playing in the match, were gathered together near the pavilion on the steep, grassy bank which faced the cricket ground. It was a swelteringly hot day. One of the masters was scoring in the pavilion; two of the boys sat under the post and board where the score was recorded in big white figures painted on the black squares. Most of the boys were sitting on the grass in front of the pavilion.

St. James's won the toss and went in first. After scoring 5 for the first wicket they collapsed; in an hour and five minutes their last wicket fell. They had only made 27 runs. Fortune was against St. James's that day. Hitchens, their captain, in whom the school confidently trusted, was caught out in his first over. And Wormald and Bell minor, their two best men, both failed to score.

Then Chippenfield's went in. St. James's fast bowlers, Blundell and Anderson minor, seemed unable to do anything against the Chippenfield's batsmen. The first wicket went down at 70.

The boys who were looking on grew listless: three of them, Gordon, Smith, and Hart minor, wandered off from the pavilion further up the slope of the hill, where there was a kind of wooden scaffolding raised for letting off fireworks on the 5th of November. The headmaster, who was a fanatical Conservative, used to burn on that anniversary effigies of Liberal politicians such as Mr. Gladstone and Mr. Chamberlain, who was at that time a Radical; while the boys whose politics were Conservative, and who formed the vast majority, cheered, and kicked the Liberals, of whom there were only eight.

Smith, Gordon, and Hart minor, three little boys aged about eleven, were in the third division of the school. They were not in the eleven, nor had they any hopes of ever attaining that glory, which conferred the privilege of wearing white flannel instead of grey flannel trousers, and a white flannel cap with a red Maltese cross on it. To tell the truth, the spectacle of this seemingly endless game, in which they did not have even the satisfaction of seeing their own side victorious, began to weigh on their spirits.

They climbed up on to the wooden scaffolding and organised a game of their own, an utterly childish game, which consisted of one boy throwing some dried horse chestnuts from the top of the scaffolding into the mouth of the boy at the bottom. They soon became engrossed in their occupation, and were thoroughly enjoying themselves, when one of the masters, Mr. Whitehead by name, came towards them with a face like thunder, biting his knuckles, a thing which he did when he was very angry.

"Go indoors at once," he said. "Go up to the third division school- room and do two hours' work. You can copy out the Greek irregular verbs."

The boys, taken completely by surprise, but accepting this decree as they accepted everything else, because it never occurred to them it could be otherwise, trotted off, not very disconsolate, to the school- room. It was very hot out of doors; it was cool in the third division school-room.

They got out their steel pens, their double-lined copy books, and began mechanically copying out the Greek irregular verbs, with which they were so superficially familiar, and from which they were so fundamentally divorced.

"Whitey," said Gordon, "was in an awful wax!"

"I don't care," said Smith. "I'd just as soon sit here as look on at that beastly match."

"But why," said Hart, "have we got to do two hours' work?"

"Oh," said Gordon, "he's just in a wax, that's all."

And the matter was not further discussed. At six o'clock the boys had tea. The cricket match had, of course, resulted in a crushing and overwhelming defeat for St. James's. The rival eleven had been asked to tea; there were cherries for tea in their honour.

When Gordon, Smith, and Hart minor entered the dining-room they at once perceived that an atmosphere of gloom and menacing storm was overhanging the school. Their spirits had hitherto been unflagging; they sat next to each other at the tea-table, but no sooner had they sat down than they were seized by that terrible, uncomfortable feeling so familiar to schoolboys, that something unpleasant was impending, some crime, some accusation; some doom, the nature of which they could not guess, was lying in ambush. This was written on the headmaster's face. The headmaster sat at a square table in the centre of the dining-room. The boys sat round on the further side of three tables which formed the three sides of the square room.

The meal passed in gloomy silence. Gordon, Smith and Hart began a fitful conversation, but a message was immediately passed up to them from Mr. Whitehead, who sat at the bottom of one of the tables, to stop talking. At the end of tea the guests filed out of the room.

The headmaster stood up and rapped on his table with a knife.

"The whole school," he said, "will come to the library in ten minutes' time."

The boys left the dining-room. They began to whisper to one another with bated breath. "What's the matter?" And the boys of the second division shook their heads ominously, and pointing to Gordon, Smith, and Hart, said: "You're in for it this time!" The boys of the first division were too important to take any notice of the rest of the school, and retired to the first division school-room in dignified silence.

Ten minutes later the whole school was assembled in the library, from which one flight of stairs led to the upper storeys. The staircase was shrouded from view by a dark curtain hanging from a Gothic arch; it was through this curtain that the headmaster used dramatically to appear on important occasions, and it was up this staircase that boys guilty of cardinal offences were led off to corporal punishment.

The boys waited in breathless silence. Acute suspense was felt by the whole school, but by none so keenly as by Gordon, Smith, and Hart minor. These three little boys felt perfectly sick with fear of the unknown and the terror of having in some unknown way made themselves responsible for the calamity which would perhaps vitally affect the whole school.

Presently a rustle was heard, and the headmaster swept down the staircase and through the curtain, robed in the black silk gown of an LL.D. He stood at a high desk which was placed opposite the staircase in front of the boys, who sat, in the order of their divisions, on rows of chairs. The three assistant masters walked in from a side door, also in their gowns, and took seats to the right and left of the headmaster's desk. There was a breathless silence.

The headmaster began to speak in grave and icily cold tones; his face was contracted by a permanent frown.

"I had thought," he said, "that there were in this school some boys who had a notion of gentlemanly behaviour, manly conduct, and common decency. I see that I was mistaken. The behaviour of certain of you to-day--I will not mention them because of their exceeding shame, but you will all know whom I mean. . . ." At this moment all the boys turned round and looked hard at Gordon, Smith, and Hart minor, who blushed scarlet, and whose eyes filled with tears. . . . "The less said about the matter the better," continued the headmaster, "but I confess that it is difficult for me to understand how any one, however young, can be so hardened and so wanton as to behave in the callous and indecent way in which certain of you--I need not mention who--have behaved to-day. You have disgraced the school in the eyes of strangers; you have violated the laws of hospitality and courtesy; you have shown that in St. James's there is not a gleam of patriotism, not a spark of interest in the school, not a touch of that ordinary common English manliness, that sense for the interests of the school and the community which makes Englishmen what they are. The boys who have been most guilty in this matter have already been punished, and I do not propose to punish them further; but I had intended to take the whole school for an expedition to the New Forest next week. That expedition will be put off: in fact it will never take place. Only the eleven shall go, and I trust that another time the miserable idlers and loafers who have brought this shame, this disgrace on the school, who have no self-respect and no self-control, who do not know how to behave like gentlemen, who are idle, vulgar and depraved, will learn by this lesson to mend their ways and to behave better in the future. But I am sorry to say that it is not only the chief offenders, who, as I have already said, have been punished, who are guilty in the matter. Many of the other boys, although they did not descend to the depths of vulgar behaviour reached by the culprits I have mentioned, showed a considerable lack of patriotism by their apathy and their lack of attention while the cricket match was proceeding this afternoon. I can only hope this may be a lesson to you all; but while I trust the chief offenders will feel specially uncomfortable, I wish to impress upon you that you are all, with the exception of the eleven, in a sense guilty."

With these words the headmaster swept out of the room.

The boys dispersed in whispering groups. Gordon, Smith, and Hart minor, when they attempted to speak, were met with stony silence; they were boycotted and cut by the remaining boys.

Gordon and Smith slept in two adjoining cubicles, and in a third adjoining cubicle was an upper division boy called Worthing. That night, after they had gone to bed, Gordon asked Worthing whether, among all the guilty, one just man had not been found.

"Surely," he said, "Campbell minor, who put up the score during the cricket match, was attentive right through the game, and wouldn't he be allowed to go to the New Forest with the eleven?"

"No," said Worthing, "he whistled twice."

"Oh!" said Gordon, "I didn't know that. Of course, he can't go!"