From the Superintendent of the House of Transformation to the High Master of the Second Landstead:
Since the opening of this Institution, there have been brought under its influence two thousand five hundred and twenty-eight boys. They have been sent to us from every town and city in the Second Landstead, the majority of them reeking with filth and iniquity, with no conception of decency or order; often they come half fed, and without sufficient clothing to cover their nakedness; ignorant, save in crime, blasphemy and untruth; learned by their association in earliest childhood with the very lowest order of depraved humanity; some of them do not even know their own or their parents' names; a large number of them, before entering the Institution, knew nothing of the cycle of rebirth, or their responsibility to their neighbors; some had never entered a chapel; they have known no ambition in life, beyond the gratification of their unbridled passions, and to elude the vigilance of the police authorities. But this moral degradation is small cause for wonder, when we consider the homes and environment from whence they came – steeped in iniquity, becoming a menace to the peace of society, and ultimately inmates of our penal institutions.
Such is the material upon which we have to work, out of which we are to make useful men, through the great avenues of industry and a common-school education, aided by the teachings of the clerics of rebirth. To counteract the baneful influences with which they have been surrounded, to regenerate their entire nature, and step by step lead them into the path of truth and virtue, to endeavor to return them to society with a proper regard for the rights of others, with a reverence for the knowledge of the cycle of rebirth in their hearts, with a respect for honest industry – this is the great work which we have undertaken here, and which we hope, by sacred aid, to bring to full fruition.
Bat's heart felt as though it were about to burst. He forced his weary legs further, straining to reach his goal. Beside him, clinging to Bat's waist as Bat was clinging to his, Joe gave a despairing moan.
They both collapsed onto the grass next to the lane, beneath one of the shade trees. Several yards ahead of them, watchers cheered as the winners of the race crossed the line.
"Journeymen," Joe managed to gasp as he caught his breath. "I'd have sworn this was the one race I could win. I suppose that journeymen get all their strength from their nightly battles."
Still lying on his back, Joe waved his hand in the direction of the field north of the lane, where Family Cottage Obedient and Family Cottage Mannerly were engaged in a ferocious effort to better each other in a game of picket-ball. Raising himself onto his elbows, Bat was just in time to see the batter of Cottage Mannerly duck a throw that appeared aimed at his head. The spectators booed.
Joe, who hadn't noticed, groaned at the pain of their running. "That was worse than a day in the manufactory."
Sitting up, Bat looked at Joe, then beyond him to the nearby shed, newly constructed and opened. Somehow, despite the House's stringent budget, the Superintendent had managed to find the money to replace the broom manufactory.
"I'm sorry," Bat said softly. Nobody was within hearing; most of the other apprentices were in the field on the south side of the lane, waging various feats: wheelbarrow races, tugs of war, bulldog games, and – most popular of all – pie-eating contests.
Joe opened his eyes and smiled up at Bat. "Don't be," he said equally softly. "I'd forgotten that Super slept above the manufactory. You saved me from being a murderer." He sat up abruptly, as though shoving aside that months-old episode, and said, "Untie us, will you? My hands are all torn up from yesterday morning's brooms."
Bat leaned forward to untie the bandage that bound his left leg to Joe's footless right leg. Nearby, the winners of the three-legged race were accepting bags of saltwater taffy from the Superintendent. The spring sun beat down upon the fields and the lane between them. The afternoon was new enough that the Administration Building's shadow remained short.
"I'm parched," announced Joe. "Do you suppose there's anything left to drink?"
"I'll check," said Bat, drawing himself up from the field and dusting the loose grass off his uniform. There would be drill-inspection before dinner, he'd been given to understand.
There was no punch left, but a few slices of cake remained, as well as melted ice cream. Cook, who would ordinarily have slapped Bat's hands with a wooden spoon if he'd tried to eat a dessert, stood by silently as Bat collected second helpings of cake and ice cream for himself and Joe. Balancing the two bowls in his arms, he made his way back to Joe, who was still lying under the tree, shading his eyes with his arm.
Joe sat up quickly, though, when he sighted the bounty. Slowly swallowing a spoonful of chocolate ice cream, he emitted a sigh. "What a swell day. Do you suppose he thinks this is how we always live?"
There was no need to ask who he was, but Bat looked in the appropriate direction. With nearly all the games finished, the head of the Committee for Servant Welfare – Comrade Carruthers – had wandered away from the chairs set out for the committee members and other distinguished guests. He had not brought his reputedly beautiful wife with him today, much to Slow's disappointment; nor had he brought his son, who would someday rule over them all as High Master. He had brought only the committee members, who were beginning to leave the chairs beside the ball-field as the game paused over a disputed play. Most of the committee members disappeared behind the Administration Building, evidently on their way to visit the rest of the campus, with the staff trailing anxiously behind them.
Comrade Carruthers, though, had fallen behind. Incongruously, he was down on one knee, talking to an inmate.
Looking that way, Joe nodded approvingly. "Clever. Lag behind the rest, so that no one notices when you ask the real questions. I'd heard that Comrade Carruthers was right smart."
Abandoning his cake, Bat rolled over onto his stomach to watch. The inmate was responding now, gently encouraged by the woman beside him, who had her arm around his shoulders.
Joe gave a snort. "Mastress Bennington has practically adopted Mordecai. She has him over to the farmhouse all the time now, even when he isn't working for her."
Bat nodded, continuing to prop up his chin to watch. "I heard her tell Super that she's quite sure Mordecai must have been given the wrong rank-mark tattoo – that he must be the son of a master and mastress. She and Farmer Bennington want Mordecai to come live with them as a son."
He'd switched, as seamlessly as Joe, to the master's tongue. All of them spoke it in private now: Bat, Joe, Slow, Emmanuel, and of course Mordecai. They were the only ones who knew about the secret lessons – except for Trusty, who must have guessed, because he'd interrupted them more than once while they were speaking their secret tongue. But as always, Trusty turned a blind eye to illicit activities that didn't threaten school order.
They hadn't told the Superintendent yet. They weren't sure how to tell him.
Now Joe hooted at the idea of Mordecai being a master. "Bet you the Superintendent will let Mordecai live there, though. Super doesn't like having an eight-year-old in this school."
"Probably." Bat's gaze darted away, distracted from the conversation by the sound of squealing. Just a few yards away, grinning with pleasure, Slow was winning the contest to keep hold of a greased pig.
Joe poked Bat with his elbow. "Did you hear about Slow? Super's found a home for him."
Bat stared at Joe, his cake entirely forgotten now. "Truth?"
"Truth. You know the veterinarian who gives candy to the inmates when he thinks the Super isn't watching? He needs an assistant, and Trusty told him that Slow is good with animals. It isn't even going to be a parole – Super is releasing Slow straight out. Said Slow's not likely to ever reach merit-grade one, what with his schooling marks being so low."
Bat felt the breath go out of him as tension inside him eased. With Emmanuel due to transfer to live with the journeymen in Family Cottage Obedient, Bat had been worried about Slow . . . Slow and Joe, but Slow was the bigger problem, being so much more defenseless. The veterinarian, whose kindness to boys was manifest, would give Slow a good home.
"So it's going to be just us now," concluded Joe, licking up the last of his ice cream. "Little Dorm's going to feel tiny, isn't it, with only us two there?"
Bat handed Joe the rest of his cake. "Finish this for me, will you? Trusty wants to talk to me."
Joe made his usual disdainful sounds at that announcement, then dug eagerly into the contents of the bowl.
Bat made his way over to Trusty, slower than usual. He could guess what this conversation would be about. Nearby, Mastress Bennington was leading Mordecai to the refreshments table while Comrade Carruthers disappeared around the corner of the Administration Building to join the rest of his committee. The journeymen, freed from the need to show absolute discipline, had broken into a fist-fight over the disputed play. The officers who had remained behind to watch over them waded into the fight, lashing liberally with their straps, beating offenders and innocents in an indiscriminate manner.
Trusty was standing in the shade of the broom manufactory. Not being one to dilly-dally with tidings, he said, "You're being moved to Cottage Mannerly."
Bat nodded. He'd been expecting this news, ever since his birthday of journeymanship arrived and left. He hadn't said anything to the other boys, not wanting to receive their pity.
He and Trusty stood silent a while, watching the Superintendent – who was clearly eager to get the games over with, so that he could catch up with the committee – present Slow with a watch for his bold deed. The Superintendent waited only long enough for Slow to take the watch with a look of wonder on his face; then the Super hurried away, leaving the apprentices – grass-stained and muddy and utterly contented – to rush toward the remaining feast on the refreshments table.
The battle at the ball-field had finally ended. Many of the journeymen were looking sullen. With a twist of the stomach, Bat imagined them taking out their anger on the newest arrival.
"What are you two talking about?" It was Joe, arriving at their side with the aid of his crutches.
"Business," replied Trusty. "You had enough to eat?" This was evidently meant as a joke, for Joe's face was covered in chocolate ice cream, from where he had licked the bowl.
"Say, did you hear?" Emmanuel skidded to a halt beside them, with Slow just behind. "Comrade Carruthers and his committee members have been asking questions – real questions, not just whether we like our Teachers. Comrade Carruthers asked Mordecai all sorts of questions about what really takes place here, when the committee isn't visiting. And Mordecai told the truth! Do you suppose anything will come of that?"
In his excitement, Emmanuel had forgotten to switch back to servants' dialect. Tactfully, Trusty took several steps away till he was beyond hearing distance; he stared at the sky, as though trying to sight a kite that had flown free.
Joe – who had earlier made a similar observation – chose this moment to scoff. "What are you expecting, that he'll give us a big gift of money, so that we can wear shoes when it snows? That's not going to save all the boys who have died."
On most days, Joe seemed as though he had entirely forgotten about those nights spent snuggled up with Frank. Then something like this would happen, and Bat would realize that the anger and aching were still searing within Joe.
Stung, Emmanuel said, "You know that's not what I meant! Why do you always take things the wrong way?"
Mordecai had crept up on their conversation as Mastress Bennington went forward to greet her husband; the young boy flinched at Emmanuel's words. He knew his dorm-mates well enough to guess what was coming. Slow looked uneasy.
Joe shoved Emmanuel hard. "You don't even care, do you? You don't care that he died!"
Emmanuel, who looked as though he was struggling to hold back tears, shouted, "You act as though you owned him! He wasn't just yours! He was dorm-mate to all of us! You can't keep his memory all locked up, like he's a prisoner—"
Joe swung at him before Bat had a chance to move forward and intervene. As Mordecai gasped, the two boys began to roll on the ground, hitting and kicking and biting.
Within seconds, Trusty had reached them and pulled them apart. "That's enough," he said sternly, shoving Emmanuel aside as he hauled Joe to his feet. "Emmanuel, you should know better than to fight a boy who can only stand on one foot. Joe, this is the third time this week you've picked a fight with another inmate. Any more of that, and I'll ask the Super to lower your merit-grade."
Bat scooped up the fallen crutches and offered them to Joe, who settled back onto them, looking abashed. Emmanuel opened his mouth – no doubt to point out that Joe remained the best fighter among them – and then abruptly closed his mouth again.
"What in the name of all that is sacred is going on here?"
The voice was unfamiliar; Bat had to turn round to see who the newcomer was. The new arrival – Bat realized with a sinking of the heart – was Comrade Carruthers. Behind him strode forward the Super and the other staff, as well as the remaining committee members. The rest of the inmates hung on the fringes, some of them clearly delighted to see a bit of extra drama.
In an automatic manner – it had been months since he hesitated on such occasions – Bat switched into formal service position, watching the others out of the corner of his eye. Trusty quickly released Joe. Slow was trying futilely to brush mud off his uniform. Mordecai hovered nearby, clearly uncertain whether to come forward and share in the upcoming punishment. Emmanuel simply looked grim.
"This is disgraceful!" cried Comrade Carruthers, his eyes narrowed with anger. "Simply disgraceful!"
"Sir, I'm sorry," said the Superintendent quickly. "I assure you, there will be punishment—"
"I should hope so! How old is that man?"
For a moment, everyone simply stared at the regent heir blankly. Then, in unison, everyone turned to look at Trusty.
He had switched into service position: eyes lowered, left arm behind his back. His cap shaded his expression, but his body was rigid.
"Ah . . ." The Superintendent was clearly taken aback. "No. 1611 is one of our older inmates."
"He is quite clearly beyond journeyman age," said Comrade Carruthers sharply. "And I saw him shove this apprentice and haul up this poor crippled boy. What is this man doing at your school, at his age?"
The Superintendent hesitated. Bat could guess that he was uncertain whether to reveal that he had kept Trusty around to be a handy man-of-all-work. Finally, opting for the safe answer, the Super said, "He has had some difficulty in rising to eligibility for parole."
"Then send him to the Men's Penitentiary!" snapped Comrade Carruthers. "I won't have hardened criminal men at this school, corrupting young, impressionable lads."
Trusty remained utterly still, his eyes down. Bat, who was having to exert all his effort to keep from hitting Comrade Carruthers, felt like shouting, "You're here to inspect the school, not get rid of inmates you don't like!" But he realized, with growing sickness, that Comrade Carruthers must possess the right to transfer inmates to the penitentiary. He was regent heir; his brother-in-law was High Master, and his son would one day be High Master. If Comrade Carruthers said, "Throw him into a punishment cell for a year," no doubt the Super would have no choice but to do so.
"Ah . . ." The Super himself seemed to be struggling for control. "Sir, I'm not sure the Men's Penitentiary is the best place for him—"
"Penitentiary, parole, as you wish. He mustn't remain an inmate here." Abruptly, as though he were an actor walking offstage, Comrade Carruthers turned his attention to the other participants in the drama. Smiling, he said, "And who are these young men? Introduce me, please."
Fumbling, the Superintendent said, "Sir, this is No. 2450—"
"Names, please, Master Duncan. These are not farm animals."
Completely nonplussed now, the Super looked helplessly toward Trusty. Trusty immediately swung into action. In a monotone, he introduced each of the dorm-mates, carefully exempting Mordecai from the dangerous introduction. Then he provided the numbers of each inmate, for the Supervisor's sake.
"I'm so glad to meet all of you," said Comrade Carruthers, smiling at them. Slow stared at him open-mouthed; the rest of them, still taking in the announcement about Trusty, endured the friendliness in a stoic manner. Undaunted, Comrade Carruthers said, "You were domestic servants before your arrival here?"
All of them sucked in their breaths, including Trusty. Mordecai looked as though he wasn't sure whether to run or to fall on his knees. The officers and employees and the other inmates exchanged mystified looks.
"Sir, these boys were all in training to be watermen before their arrival here." The Superintendent was red-faced, apparently embarrassed on behalf of the higher-ranked master who had made so great a mistake.
"Certainly not," said Comrade Carruthers, who did not appear to be the sort of man to ever admit to a mistake. "I heard them speaking in a refined tongue as we came forward. If they were watermen, who taught them to speak that way?"
There was a small, awful silence. Mordecai looked as though he were about to faint. Bat thought with hopelessness, Super only has to look in that direction, and he'll realize. . . .
Then he knew what had to be done. Still stiff with fury and fear, he stepped forward in the direction of the Super. "Sir, it was me," he said, his gaze fixed to the ground. "I'm a good mimic, and I taught the other boys how to speak like masters."
"Goodness gracious!" exploded the Superintendent. Whispers were spreading like fire amidst the inmates. Several of the officers and employees looked horrified, as though they had walked in on a group of servant-boys dressed like masters, mocking the masters' ways. The Super added, "Sir, I assure you, I had no idea—"
"Yes, yes." Comrade Carruthers batted away the Super's words, as though they were mosquitoes. Stepping in front of Bat, he asked, "Why did you do it?"
If Bat had been Trusty, he would have gone down on his knees. But that wasn't Bat's way. Meeting the regent heir's gaze squarely, he said, "I wanted to better myself, sir."
Some of the inmates gasped. Mordecai had broken down into tears, fortunately unnoticed by the officers, who were beginning to exchange angry mutters that suggested they were tallying punishments in their minds.
"Sir, there will be consequences for this—" began the Superintendent, who appeared more distressed than angered by this turn of events.
"I should hope so," said Comrade Carruthers firmly. "I should certainly hope so. What is your name again? Bat? Well, Bat, my son is entering into his journeyman years. I've been seeking another journeyman to serve as a footman in our household, in training to be my son's valet in the future. Do you think this is the sort of work you could do?"
The gathering fell abruptly silent. Bat stared at the regent heir, convinced he was being bitterly mocked before his punishment.
It was Trusty who broke the silence. "He's been trained to wait tables, at his own request. And he's risen twice in merit since he arrived here a sun-circuit ago."
"That's true." Grasping now the pathway to salvation – or perhaps simply returning to his usual pride in the transformatory and its inmates – the Superintendent eagerly plunged in. "This boy saved my life during the fire earlier this year, at risk to his own. He's one of the good boys, worthy of our trust."
Comrade Carruthers seemed to be waiting. Bat managed to nod.
"Good!" The regent heir stepped back. "There's no room to take you back to the capital in our cars today, but I'll leave train fare for you. Take the first train down on— Oh, the morning after week's break. I'll be busy before then, preparing the committee's report on this school. I'll have my valet Variel meet you at the station with my motorcar. As for the rest of you—" He swung round to look at the other offenders, who were now gaping at him. "Lads, when the Superintendent judges you're ready to leave here, any of you who are in need of a job can come to my Bureau and ask to speak with me. I'll see that you get good jobs on Solomons Island."
Joe and Emmanuel exchanged looks. Bat knew what they were thinking: jobs on Solomons Island meant they'd be able to see their families again. "Even me?" asked Joe breathlessly.
"Even you." Comrade Carruthers gave him a swift smile. "That is, if your skills in arithmetic are as good as your Superintendent has been telling me." Bat held his breath, knowing who must have kept Super informed of Joe's school-marks. "The Bureau of Employment on Solomons Island has need of bookkeepers. And you . . ." He looked at Emmanuel, clearly trying to slot a place for him.
"He's a waterman's son, sir," murmured Trusty.
"Ah, yes, of course. There are many watermen working on the island; I'm sure I can find a position for you there. —Well!" Comrade Carruthers swung round to address the transformatory's officers and employees, who were all goggle-eyed now. "This has been a most delightful and enlightening trip. And to think I was able to locate an appropriate journeymanship present for my son while I was here! I think that we'll just take a quick look at your new broom manufactory now; there's time before dinner, isn't there?"
"Company, form!" It was Trusty's voice, sharp. The other members of Family Cottage Trustworthy were nowhere within eyesight, but the five of them took the hint, immediately forming into drill position and marching their way out of the crowd, in the direction of the cottages. Joe kept time with the rest of them, swinging his crutches energetically. The committee members lightly applauded.
They managed to make their way safely back to the schoolroom in their cottage. Released from the march, Joe tossed his crutches away, and then he and Emmanuel flung their arms around each other. Mordecai jumped up and down eagerly, while Slow said, "This is good, right? Means jobs for you?"
"Fuck!" Bat picked up the Teacher's chair and threw it at the nearest window.
The chair crashed against the metal bars in front of the window, shattering and falling onto the benches below. The other boys, who had gone still, stared for a moment. Then Joe said, "What the bloody blades is wrong with you?"
"Comrade Carruthers called Bat a present," Trusty said quietly. "All right, the rest of you. Upstairs, and wash yourselves well. Slow, give yourself a sponge bath to get all that mud off you. Emmanuel, help Joe up the stairs. Dinner bell's close at hand."
They all departed, leaving Bat alone with Trusty. Gripping the back of a school-desk in an attempt to keep himself from throwing the potted plants at the window too, Bat said, "He called me a present. A present! Like I was some pet in a shop window, ready to be wrapped in brown paper and given to his son."
"He said that," Trusty acknowledged. "You going to punch him?"
The words shocked him out of his rage. As Bat stared, Trusty came forward, took him by the shoulders, and gave him a rough shake.
"Listen to me," said the older inmate. "You got a chance few journeymen get, to leave here and never come back to prison. And not just that – you got a chance to be the highest-ranked servant in all this landstead. Someday, Comrade Carruthers's son will be High Master, and you could be his manservant. Don't you dare give all that up, just to have the fun of letting loose that hot temper of yours!"
He gave Bat a harder shake. Sobered now, Bat found himself tracing back the events and realizing from whence Trusty's unexpected anger had arisen. He swallowed. "What about you?"
Trusty let him go at once. Pulling down his cap to shadow his eyes, he stared through the door at the open sky, as though for the last time. Finally he said, "I'll survive, like I always do. But you . . ." He looked back at Bat. "You got a chance, honey boy. One last chance. Don't throw it away."