Actions

Work Header

A Correspondence between Gentlemen

Work Text:

Dear Strickers,

           Read your engagement notice in the Times.  Congratulations!  I remember hearing that Adelaide had died.  I gather your fiancée is also widowed.  Very suitable—and no doubt the parish is delighted to see a wife in the vicarage again.
           I see you’ve set the date for late November.  Of course, I shan’t be able to make it.  Middle of term, for one thing, not to mention how hectic things are here.  We’ve another school billeted on us, decent place (no problem in that way), but it’s hard to fit everyone in.  The school is being run on shifts, if you can believe it.  Our lot have the classrooms mornings, theirs in the afternoon.  Double the number of boys and half the masters—well, a slight exaggeration, but quite a few of the younger ones have enlisted.  So have some of the sixth-formers, but hardly sufficient to compensate.
           Did you ever read Goodbye, Mr Chips?  That is what we have come to, old chap.  Ancient masters, long out to pasture, back under saddle.  Stuart—who had my house before he retired—has returned to teach Maths, and is in the Head’s guest bedroom, if you please.  What we shall do for a Games master is anyone’s guess, since Peters felt compelled to offer his services to King and Country, though he must be several years over conscription age.
           Still, enough about my woes.  No doubt, even in a village parish, the war has brought changes.  Rationing, certainly.  You may yourself have evacuees billeted upon the vicarage.  Your good wife will be much in demand by the Women’s Institute, I’m sure.

                                                                                                            Do keep in touch.
                                                                                                            Yours, 

                                                                                                            Mumps

Dear Mumps,

          Good to hear from you.  Yes, Adelaide died just over a year ago.  I fear that it is really rather too soon for me to consider remarrying, especially given my profession.  In the circumstances, I can only hope that my parishioners do not consider it undue haste.
           I do appreciate the exigencies of schoolmastering, and shall not expect you to attend the wedding.  Indeed, I fear that there will be few at the ceremony, given the many delays in travelling nowadays.  However, we must all remember that there is a war on.  One could wish for a curate; but, of course, the younger clergy are as much required to serve, in their own fashion, as the younger masters at your school.  We who are in our middle years are left behind to manage as we may.
           At the moment, there is no one billeted at the vicarage.  We were assigned a family from London last autumn; but, the war being quiet at the time, they decided to return home.  I do not doubt that, things being as they are now, this will change in due course.
           I shall be away briefly with my wife; but the duties of vicar will, of course, draw me back for the Christmas season.

                                                                                                            Yours sincerely,

                                                                                                            Straike

 

 

Dear Strickers,

           Let me assure you, old chap, I see no impropriety in your remarriage; nor, I’m sure, do your parishioners.  A wedded vicar is always preferable, if only because there are matters the women will bring to your wife that they would not feel comfortable talking about to you.
           Of course, with Christmas so near, your honeymoon must inevitably be curtailed.  Then again, with the war, it would needs be constrained anyway.
           Again, my best wishes for you and the future Mrs Straike.  Do keep in touch, if you can find the time.

                                                                                                             Yours,

                                                                                                             Mumps

Dear Strickers,

           Felicitations on your marriage.  May you and Mrs Straike enjoy many happy years together.
          We break for Christmas next week.  A number of boys are perforce staying at the school over the holidays; and I shall remain here, my mother being some years deceased and my brother and his wife emigrated to Canada.  May your own festivities be joyous, and you and all your parish preserved from harm at this blessed season.

                                                                                                            Yours,

                                                                                                            Mumps

Dear Mumps,

          Thank you for your letter.  We both appreciate your good wishes.  As you will have perceived from the address, we are back at the vicarage.  Indeed, I should be writing my Christmas sermon even now, but felt I should steal some few minutes from my duties to write this reply.
           I don’t believe I mentioned that my dear Lucy has a son from her previous marriage.  In the army at the moment; but he was wounded at Dunkirk and seems likely to be invalided out. For the moment, he plans to return to university, unless directed otherwise.
           Lucy did mention his school, which I recognised immediately as being the same as the one where you are currently employed.  However, it was not until the reception after the wedding that I happened to ask for more details.  By the most extraordinary coincidence, old chap, he was in your house.  I wonder whether you remember him?  His Christian name is Laurence.
           Whether there will be an Old Boys’ Dinner this year is, I suppose, impossible to predict.  If, however, times permit, I do hope to see you there.  We must keep in touch.

                                                                                                            Strickers

 

Dear Strickers,

          I’m sure you must be referring to L.P. Odell.  I remember him well.  He was in Middle School when I took over here, but crowned his career as Head of the House.  A popular lad, quite bright, reliable at games.  A good all-rounder, you might say.  I dare say his mother told you that he won an exhibition to Oxford; but I must say that, from our perspective, his ability at swimming was rather more appreciated—quite the white hope in the inter-school competition, and not without justification.
          It is obviously a great pity that he has suffered an injury that will take him out of the war.  I do not doubt that it is a disappointment to him.

                                                                                                            Yours,

                                                                                                            Mumps

Dear Mumps,

          I found your letter to be most informative, and thank you for the reassurance.  We have Laurence staying with us over the holiday; but, although he is still in uniform, it seems certain that he will receive his discharge.  I gather that his leg will always be stiff: he walks with a cane, and must wear an orthopedic boot.  Still, one can only consider him fortunate to have received the best of care from good British doctors, for he might easily have lost it altogether.  Indeed, a few months ago, my poor Lucy was quite distracted with worry.  She may at least rest her mind easy that, from now on, he shares only those dangers that we all do at this time.

                                                                                                            Yours truly,

                                                                                                            Strickers

 

Dear Strickers,

          If I was able to be of some help to you, old chap, I’m glad of it.  Sorry to hear of Odell’s injury; but it could be worse, after all.  His mother must be profoundly grateful that he is now safe—or, at least, as safe as any of us (for I write as one whose school was XXXXXXXXX XXXXXXXXXXXXXXX XXXXXXXXXXX XXXXXXXXXXXXXXX XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX  No doubt it happens everywhere, and worse in the towns and cities.  I should not like to be in London right now.
          Let me wish you a merry Christmas.

                                                                                                            Yours,

                                                                                                            Mumps.

 

P.S. Your letter did rather puzzle me in some regard.  I have no idea why you felt the need for ‘reassurance’.  Glad I could provide it, though.

                                                                                                             M.

Dear Mumps,

           As for ‘reassurance’, it’s a delicate matter in the circumstances, considering that his mother is my wife.  Perhaps I should put my initial impression down to some reservation on his part regarding her remarriage.  I dare say it came as something of a surprise, especially after so many years.  Nevertheless, even taking that into account, something about him disturbs me in ways reminiscent of those ‘monastic microbes’ (as Kipling called them) of our public schools.  You will recall the events of our Fifth Form days.
           Still, from what you say, my doubts were ill-founded.  Which is a relief, I must admit.

                                                                                                             Strickers

 

Dear Strickers,

           I assure you, there is nothing of that sort going on in my House.  It is a matter that I take most seriously.  (Like you, I remember Fifth Form all too well.)

                                                                                                             Yours,

                                                                                                             Mumps

Dear Mumps,

           Dear chap, I had no intention of casting aspersions!  I’m sure you keep a close eye on the lads in your charge.  Indeed, if Laurence was chosen head boy while under your aegis, then I have no doubt that his morals are beyond reproach—or, at least as much so as can be said of anyone at that age.
           As I mentioned earlier, he is here for the Christmas season; and I admit that I find he improves upon acquaintance.  He is naturally fond of his mother.  I feared, perhaps, that she might have spoiled him somewhat.  However, against his early upbringing in a feminine household must be set the influence of a good school.

                                                                                                             Merry Christmas to you,

                                                                                                             Strickers

 

Dear Strickers,

          I cannot deny that these things do happen at far too many of our schools.  Indeed, even here—but no names, no pack drill.  Anyway, it was some years back, long before Odell became Head of the House, and he was in no way involved.  Had any suspicion attached to him, I should never have placed him in a position of trust.

                                                                                                             Yours,

                                                                                                             Mumps

Dear Mumps,

           I appreciate your candour.  One should never judge by first impressions.  Indeed, this is my dear Lucy’s boy:  it is invidious of me to question his soundness.
           The Christmas season is in full swing, for all that the Day itself is past.  We enjoyed a dinner that was the best to be expected in the circumstances, but gave thanks nonetheless.  I miss our bells, but do appreciate that, as they are the signal for an air raid, one must not create inadvertent panic.  Still, the choir sang out boldly, though they are somewhat thin in the low notes with so many of the men away.
           We have guests at the vicarage.  My niece Babs has two days’ leave; and my wife’s cousin has come for a fortnight.  Considering that a friend of Laurence’s is also here, it is just as well that the Victorians built for large families.  It does mean a sufficiency of bedrooms (though I do not doubt that, at some point, it will also mean providing billets once again for evacuees).  Shortly, the house will be almost empty again as the new year returns us to normal—our new normal, Lucy and I.
           Perhaps Laurence merely suffers a little from comparison with his friend.  Lt. Lanyon looks every inch the hero of those naval adventures of Henty’s.
           It will be a fortnight at least before term starts for you.  I hope, with the excitement of Christmas now over, things will not be too dull for the boys who have had to stay there over the hols.

                                                                                                            Yours truly,

                                                                                                            Strickers

 

Dear Strickers,

           Lanyon, did you say?  Would this be R.R. Lanyon?
           I hear that the Old Boys’ Dinner is cancelled for the duration.  It is a pity that the old tradition cannot be kept up, even during war.  It would have afforded us the opportunity to meet and talk, in private and at length.
           It is now I who am perturbed.

                                                                                                            Mumps

Dear Mumps,

          Yes, I believe it must be the same man—unless, of course, he has a brother or cousin with the same first initial.  At any rate, though I do not know his middle name, Laurence addresses him as Ralph, which suggests their friendship is a close one.  I gather they knew each other at school.
           It will be impossible for us to meet in person, obviously.  I appreciate your desire to be circumspect; but do please provide me with as much information as you feel you can.  We are talking about my wife’s son, which is to say my own stepson; but you need not fear offending me on those grounds.  It is not as though I raised him.  Indeed, as he was already up at Oxford when I came to this parish, I had barely met him before this current visit.

                                                                                                           Yours most sincerely,

                                                                                                           Strickers

 

Dear Strickers,

           I write reluctantly, since it reflects on the School.  Do please keep this confidential, old boy.  Not that these things don’t happen, of course.  (We all know they do.)  However, one does not want publicity.
           Well, to put it plainly, Lanyon was sacked from the School for the usual.  Ordinarily that’s easily hushed up.  In this case, though, he was quite extraordinarily popular.  A good scholar, expected to go up to Cambridge; an excellent sportsman; a leader among his fellows; and profoundly admired by all the younger boys.  His selection as Head of the House was a foregone conclusion, nor was anyone surprised when the Head decided to make him Head of the School as well.
           I fear that it is only natural that, upon initial acquaintance, you thought well of him.  Nevertheless, he was not only involved in immoral activities (which does, alas, happen at even the best of schools), but in perverse and corrupt practices involving a student younger than himself.
           A whited sepulchre, in short.

                                                                                                           Yours,

                                                                                                           Mumps

P.S. Obviously, this is not what you would like to hear, though I dare say at this point it won’t surprise you.  Let me assure you, that Odell was not involved in any way.  On that point, at least, you may rest easy.

                                                                                                           M.

Dear Mumps,

          As you say, not unexpected news at this point.  The question  Two questions come to mind.  As to my own future action, that I shall have to decide after due consideration.  Quite apart from rumour in the parish, I should not want Lucy to hear of any of this.  I doubt she would understand; and I certainly have no wish to try to explain.  In any case, there is every chance that Lanyon may never be in the potential position of guest here again, if only because of the war, which may see him posted anywhere.
           I am perturbed, though, by my stepson’s continued friendship with him.  Of course, all was hushed up outside the school; I do appreciate that.  (I am certain that my parents never heard so much of a whisper of the scandal when we were in Fifth Form.)  Nevertheless, the boys must have known of Lanyon’s expulsion; and there would certainly have been speculation about the reason.  We both know that, in such circumstances, rumour generally comes close to the truth, even when the precise details remain undisclosed.  How can Laurence remain on good terms—first name terms!—with such a man?

                                                                                                          Yours,

                                                                                                          Strickers

 

Dear Strickers,

           My dear chap, you are not taking into consideration Lanyon’s popularity with the other students.  He was enormously admired.  Odell is a few years younger; and I dare say he positively hero-worshiped him.
           Many of the boys believed some mistake had been made.  Of course, one might wish them to trust the judgment of their elders.  However, their general belief in Lanyon’s innocence had its basis in the same trust that we ourselves placed in him prior to the truth coming out.  Oh, there were certainly some boys who accepted Lanyon’s expulsion without question; but others refused to believe that any of the accusations against him were true.
           One must remember that the actual details of his perversions were stifled.  I dare say even those who accepted his guilt thought it was just the usual.  Certainly, they had only rumour to go on.  It can hardly be held to their discredit that some boys refused to listen to gossip (for such it must have seemed to them).
           Odell is a decent chap.  Salt of the earth.  I would stake my reputation on it.

                                                                                                         Yours,

                                                                                                         Mumps

Dear Mumps,

           I take your point.  A certain naïveté on his part, in other words.  Yes, I can see this.  We are, after all, speaking of a lad who was raised by a widowed mother, and thus lacked the influence of the male parent during his formative years.  There is much that he would not—indeed, could not—learn from my dear Lucy.
           Of course, there is your own guidance at his housemaster to take under consideration.  However, so often when a boy is faced with moral dilemma, he finds it difficult to open his heart to those set in authority over him.  I gather that, at the time of the incident, Laurence was no older than we were ourselves in Fifth Form.  One tries to put oneself in his shoes.  I find that this is not as easy as I should have thought.  Too many years have passed.  Memory is vivid as to incident; but recollecting one’s feelings at that age and extrapolating from that to gauge the response of another individual at a different school becomes embarrassingly difficult.
           Unfortunately, given the brevity of my acquaintance with Laurence, I can hardly expect him to withdraw himself from friendship with Lanyon simply because I have heard your account of events.  I take your word, of course; but I can quite see that Laurence might feel equally obligated to accept the word of a fellow Old Boy.  (At least, I assume Lanyon denies all.)
           Meanwhile, we have the man here as guest for another two days.  It is a most awkward situation.  The one saving grace is that he does at least act the part of a gentleman, and I need not fear any embarrassment to Lucy.

 

                                                                                                        Yours,

                                                                                                        Strickers

 

Dear Strickers,

           After receiving your last letter, I almost wish I had said nothing.  You have been put in an invidious position.  I blame Lanyon, of course:  he should never have accepted Odell’s invitation.
           I do apologize, to you and your dear wife.

                                                                                                        Yours, 

                                                                                                        Mumps

Dear Mumps,

           No need for you to apologize, old chap.  Better to know, after all—though I have no idea what I shall say if, the next time Laurence visits, he wants to invite Lanyon again.  Lucy finds the fellow all too charming.
           Given my experience with our last evacuees, I never should have thought that I should say this.  Still, with a modicum of luck, the authorities will by then have billeted a family of eight upon us, and I will be able to say with perfect truth that there is “no room at the inn”.

                                                                                                        Yours,

                                                                                                        Strickers