"I still say he's on the look-out for someone," maintained M'Turk, "I'm just not sure who he's after. I caught him the other day coming back into Coll muttering something about obscenities."
"Whom," corrected Beetle, absently, only to have a cushion chucked at his head for his pains.
"You're both wrong. The issue isn't who – it's why." Stalky was decisive. "Mister's nose has been out of joint ever since he caught cold over the Tar Baby."
The three were enjoying a fine feast in their study late one Saturday evening. A letter from Beetle's uncle, arrived that morning, had showered unexpected largesse in the form of a whole sovereign, promptly confiscated by Stalky. Even after they'd enjoyed a cracking tea at Mother Yeo's, they'd still had plenty to buy potted ham, sardines and chocolate for later.
"When's Macrea back?" asked M'Turk.
"I heard half-term," said Beetle.
"Hmm, plenty of time for Mister to get up to mischief before then."
"Especially since it's his turn to monitor bounds for the fags over the next two weeks," Beetle explained.
"And just how, pray, did you come by that titbit?" asked Stalky.
"I was in the Head's study looking out a book when he was told."
"Were you now," Stalky commented. "I wonder what the Prooshian Bates is up to, letting you in on that news."
"I think he'd forgotten I was there."
"Not likely. Head's too much the downy bird for that. He wants us to know for some reason, mark my words. The question is, really, why? Turkey, what direction was Mister coming from when you saw him last?" Stalky was clearly now on the look-out himself.
"From the southwest."
"I think it might serve us to take a little wander in that direction tomorrow."
The next day dawned bright and clear and promised a beautiful morning at least, no matter the likelihood of rain by evenfall. After chapel, M'Turk was despatched to the kitchen to wheedle provisions from Cook, before they set out. Stalky led them at a sharpish pace along the cliffs and through the gorse. Creatures great and small scudded out of their way, recognising the hunter's purposeful tread, even if his quarry appeared something else on this occasion. Where the brambles grew thick, Stalky hushed them.
"Softly, softly, catchee monkey."
Stalky motioned M'Turk to the lead. A family heritage born from centuries of deerstalking made him their best tracker. Beetle followed, with Stalky acting rearguard. Not that there was any real need for one; it was just that, on principle, Stalky always organised pickets. The lessons of Chingangook had found fertile soil in Corkran years before and his skills had flourished since. They were nearing the site of their old triumph over Heffy and Foxy, could see the signs demarking Colonel Dabney's property a few feet away, when slight sounds to the right attracted their interest to a small natural cave sheltered behind brambles. It was hidden from all but the most inquisitive eye.
Stalky resumed the lead and crept forward, belly low to the ground. M'Turk and Beetle crawled a few seconds behind. Peering through a narrow gap between two bushes allowed them clear sight of the cave's entrance. Two pairs of large feet rubbed against one another. Four long bare legs – two of them rather hairy – stuck out the end of this lair, closely intertwined. They were close enough to hear the occupants' heavy breathing. A loud moan sounded like the matins bell.
The implications were unmistakable. Junior boys built huts in the furze-hill each summer to plan escapades outside the notice of the masters. Prefects did not, having attained the dignity of their studies, which provided a modicum of privacy (not to mention the additional trust by dint of their senior position in the school). Mullins, in particular, as Head of Games, was deemed trustworthy – at least as much as any boy. Only something completely outside the normal bounds of behaviour could lead him to found a covert at his age. For a few moments M'Turk, Beetle and Stalky stared at one another wide-eyed and silent from their hiding place in the shrubbery, before retreating hastily.
"What was that?" Mullins started at the sudden rustle of leaves, but his concerns were allayed as a fox dashed across the entrance to the cave and no further noise came. Number Five were already fled to their own old covert of bygone days.
"What a fool," opined Beetle, when he had caught his breath again from the mad dash of the last few minutes. "To come out this way and stop short of these woods.
"Ah, but that would have required him to break the bounds," replied Stalky, "and our Mullins is too virtuous for trespass."
"Virtuous!" exclaimed Beetle, as memory replayed. Then, in the way boys normally do when faced with the embarrassment of something they'd rather not have known, he dissolved into slightly hysterical giggles. "Did you see his hands? Last time I saw him stroke anything like that, he was oiling a cricket bat!" All three collapsed briefly in mirth, at a flamboyant, if rather rude gesture from Beetle. Sobering finally, they pulled dinner from the rucksack and settled to eat.
"Who'd have thought it? Beastliness in our virtuous Head of Games!" wondered M'Turk in between bites of boiled egg.
"Yes, but is it?" offered Stalky.
"Pretty obvious, I should have thought," said Beetle. "There was the pair of them together, and I can't imagine any other reason they were without togs."
"No, I know that, but what I meant was: it's not as if there was a fag involved. It would be different if that was going on – no standing for that. But that was a prefect from Blundells."
"Hmm – don't know that that would make a difference to the rules, though. Besides, who's to say it won't be a fag another time. Can't stand for that." M'Turk was not convinced.
"Winton," said Beetle.
"What do you mean?" asked M'Turk.
"Pot shares a study with Winton."
"I know that, you ass. So what?"
"Pater wouldn't put up with anything havey cavey involving a fag, you know. Stands to reason that if he's happy to share with Mullins, there's nothing like that going on." Beetle was the very personification of confidence as he pronounced this judgment.
M'Turk's face cleared as he saw the truth of this.
"That's settled then," added Stalky. "Besides, we can't let a Jebusite like Mister bring the Coll into disrepute. You know what he'd make of this."
"Assuming he knows," said Beetle.
"Strong suspicions at the very least, given what I heard him say the other day. Poor old Mullins; it doesn't bear thinking of." Having been reassured about the prefect's honour where the junior school was concerned, M'Turk was clear whose side he was on.
"Come on," said Stalky, recapping his water bottle as he spoke. "I heard Mister was taking some fags down to the beach after service."
"What's the plan?" asked Beetle.
"Not sure yet," came the answer, "but it's always wise to have a reccy before joining battle."
The three followed a narrow trail through the woods and down over a rocky path that led to the beach. To a casual eye they appeared to saunter as they walked along the shore, occasionally stopping to skip pebbles out to sea, sometimes kicking a larger stone between them. Yet they covered the distance quickly, and soon sighted a group of younger boys in company of King and Brownell. They were taking advantage of the one dry day they'd had that week to get thoroughly wet. A few others from their own year formed a smaller clump of activity a few feet away from the main outing. Stalky, M'Turk and Beetle quietly joined them, stripping down to the buff and blending in without particular notice taken of their arrival. A lively impromptu game of water polo masked the careful attention they paid to both masters, who despite their joint assignment, nonetheless managed to supervise in splendid isolation from one another. No love lost there. Brownell swam strongly in quiet waters, maintaining a perimeter for the younger set while King maintained a dignified oversight from shore. A slender volume of Catullus was clearly the primary focus of his interest; King made only cursory glances toward the youths in his charge, never noticing the three additions.
Presently King rounded up the older boys and prepared to leave. Stalky, M'Turk and Beetle beat a hasty retreat to a rocky outcrop to watch. A few words were exchanged between the masters at water's edge, before King's group headed back, leaving Brownell supervising the lower-school boys who remained.
"Hark," Stalky spoke quietly but drew his companions' attention to the small pile of clothes left by a circle of boulders a little way from where the boys' clothes rested. A towel was spread on another rock, low and flat, closer to the water's edge. It was the work of moments to nip over quietly and confiscate the master's clothes. The towel demanded greater care, resting, as it was, more prominently in view of the group swimming. Still, a few moments later it too was in their possession. M'Turk found a convenient rabbit hole into which to stuff this booty, while Stalky and Beetle gathered the fags' clothes between them. These they took with them as they returned whence they came, climbing back up the path to the top of the cliff, which provided a perfect viewpoint over the scene below.
The wind had picked up now, and in late afternoon the sun was losing its heat as the bathing expedition reached its natural conclusion. Loud cries of dismay and exclamations of disgust mingled with the call of seagulls as wet youth, emerging from the sea, discovered its loss. In the heedless way of boys, not one had thought to bring a towel. Appealed to for help, Mr Brownell rose from the waves like Aphrodite, to the revelation of his own loss.
"Who'd have thought it?" M'Turk spoke the amazement of all. Not all the masters swam, but those who did normally swam in the buff, like the boys – since they were all men together and the beach belonged to the school. Reverend John, however, always wore a bathing costume, for decency's sake, which he said he felt keenly as school chaplain. Had they been asked beforehand, Beetle and M'Turk would have bet Brownell too would opt for a costume, po-faced as he was and proselytiser of the proprieties. Not so, however: this master was revealed in all his glory.
"You knew!" Beetle's voice was both amazed and awestruck as he turned to Stalky.
"Yes," Stalky accepted due admiration, before pointing a few yards along the cliff to the approaching school Sergeant. "And I overheard Mister laying plans with Foxy earlier, to go on patrol after the swim. Intelligence is, after all, essential to any successful campaign. Quick! Hide those clothes." Dutifully his lieutenants stuffed the fags' clothes behind a large clump of gorse. Foxy sniffed suspiciously at their nonchalant greeting when he passed them, but since he could see nothing untoward, he proceeded down the cliff path without pause.
They watched in giddy glee at Foxy's shock when he came across the scene. The breeze, picking up speed as a fresh storm approached, was now quite brisk. Foxy was sent off sharpish to find coverings and marched up the cliff path quick-time. This time his nostrils flared as he looked round for Stalky, but that wily animal had shifted ground. The boys were now further along the cliff and out of sight. In due course the Sergeant returned, accompanied by King and Prout, carrying blankets and towels in which to wrap naked shivering flesh. Boys and master were found huddled together for warmth in the lee of some boulders – undoubtedly necessary in the circumstances, but presenting a picture that could not be considered entirely desirable, especially by a master so concerned about moral fibre. The relief party was sorely welcome. Nonetheless there could be no doubt Mr Brownell felt keenly the embarrassment of his position. High on the hill, Beetle stuffed his handkerchief in his mouth to muffle his laughter. He was not the only observer struggling to contain himself.
"Come on," said Stalky, "we're not done yet." He led the way swiftly back toward the College, but stopped a few yards short to look in satisfaction at a sweet chestnut tree, much beloved by many small boys for its low spreading branches that made it an easy climb. "This'll do." He swarmed up. "Pass me up the clothes." It was but the work of moments to rid themselves of the fags' belongings, left strewn about the branches, caught on the tree's growing prickly crop, as if the strong wind had blown them there. No one would really believe it, but it was an explanation everyone would accept. The three then retired to their study to toast crumpets, sip cocoa, and relive their triumph.
"So," asked Reverend John that evening after supper as he puffed on his briar in the quiet of the Head's study, "what do you think of events this afternoon?"
"Is there anything to think about?" The Head turned the question back.
"Mr Brownell comes to the College, full of ideas about smoking and Animal Boy, runs into Pot smoking his first day and waxes lyrical about moral decay, only to be found with a several boys in flagrante delicto by Sergeant Fox, of all people, a few weeks later."
"You don't really believe that was anything other than an unfortunate happenstance, do you?" The Head sounded supremely unconcerned – his voice even had a lazy quality to it.
"Unfortunate, yes; but happenstance...? I smell the hand of Study Number Five in this. My only question, really, is what this was payback for."
There was a long pause while the Head poured a finger of whiskey into a cut crystal tumbler and offered it to the school chaplain, before pouring a measure for himself. "Does it need to be? Brownell didn't endear himself to them from the start. Besides, there is no proof they had anything to do with it."
"Fortunately, or you would have had to intervene."
"No need for that," said the Head. "Let them gloat."