He sat in the railway carriage wearing the uniform of shame.
Well, thought Lanyon, his school uniform did not actually scream to the world that he’d been expelled. True, it was weeks before the end of term; but he might have been called home by an urgent, unexpected family tragedy. Which, come to think of it, was no more nor less than the literal truth. At least, his parents would presumably regard it so.
He looked out of the window at the fields, blurred in the foreground at the top of the bank but, beyond that, green with promise. His own promise was blighted; and he had no one to blame but himself. If only it had not been Hazell….
He could have borne it better, he thought, if it had been Odell. One could be perversely proud of a liaison with Odell, for all the difference in age. Odell was a lad of both looks and ability: a decent scholar, though no swot; and a decent sportsman, brilliant at swimming. Who could reasonably ask for more?
Well, one might ask for moral probity. (His parents certainly would say so.) As far as that went, Lanyon thought, their final meeting in the Head Boy’s study had shown him Odell’s character. Quixotic ideals, of course; but then they would be at that age. Life would knock some sense into him.
No, he decided firmly, it was better that he not be crimed for Odell. Unlike Hazell, who had twisted the truth and damned Lanyon, Odell would have told the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. He probably would also have been sent down, possibly with a public flogging to boot. (Only Lanyon’s age and seniority had spared him that ignominy.) It was far too early for Odell to experience that sort of knock from life. He was barely sixteen. He had a widowed mother, too, who would never understand.
Ralph was not at all sure that even he, at his age, a man who had basked in the giddiest height of school glory, could bear being thrown down this low.
The train slowed. They were coming to one of those small village stops. Every year the train halted here on the way home for hols; yet he could never remember the name of the place. He lowered the window and looked out. The station garden was full of geraniums, marigolds, and lobelia. They blazed the early joy of summer.
Just for an instant, Lanyon’s eyes brimmed. He pulled his head back quickly, and ran the back of his hand under his lids, hoping desperately that he would not have to pull out his handkerchief and mop them while they were still in the station and anyone might see. Even more strongly, he hoped no one got in his carriage. It was a horrifying thought that he might have to share the space for miles, still yet that he would have to make small talk or—worst of all—answer well-meant questions.
With relief, he heard the cry and then felt the lurch of the starting train. Reprieve, at least for now. There would, of course, be none once he arrived.
He still doubted his decision. Should he have gone instead straight to Southampton? His friend had promised to fit him up, if asked. On the other hand, he’d not heard from him for a while: he might have shipped out, in which case the port would be an uncertain destination. In any case, he surely owed his parents an explanation of sorts, face to face, or at least the chance to condemn him in person. His honour bound him not to disappear without a word; and he had never funked a duty.
He clung to that, for what pride it could give. He had never funked a duty.
As the headmaster had been away at the time of the offence, there had been a gap of days between accusation and execution. When, finally, Lanyon had stood before the great mahogany desk, his fate had already been sealed. Mr Jepson had made that quite clear on his own authority. In fact, as he was housemaster, it was probable that he had written himself to Lanyon’s parents; and that would definitely have landed through the letter box a few days ago. The headmaster’s version of events would likely have arrived with the first post today. Lanyon wondered how the men had addressed the envelopes; and then decided that it probably didn’t matter. He only hoped that they might have considered the probability that his mother would be one of the people who would read what they had written. All she needed was to know his disgrace. His father did not need the details, either; but, as a man, he was well able to read between the lines.
What was it Kipling had called it? Lanyon strove to remember his Stalky. “Beastliness”, that was it. “The Head only expels for beastliness.” He remembered the line. His school … his former school … sent boys down for other offences as well, of course; but “beastliness” certainly made the list. So did bullying, which was unfair in this case; but, given the details of Hazell’s accusation, which he had never denied, probably formed part of the charges against him and was doubtless in both men’s letters. Of the two, he was sure which would offend his father the more; and “beastliness” was probably not the word he would use.
He could expect no less than to be disowned. He might yet get a flogging: his father was a great believer in punishment, and still tended to treat him as the boy he had been.
He had never funked a duty.
Lanyon sighed, and got up to lower the window a fraction so that a breeze played through the carriage. Perhaps he should have gone straight to Southampton after all.
As he sat down, he thought for a moment to relieve his misery with the ideals of the Phaedrus. It would pass the time for him to read; and he could think of no better anodyne to his thoughts than the contemplation of an impossible ideal. Then he remembered that he had given the book to Odell.
What would the boy make of it, he wondered? Would he even crack the covers? Or would he take a Greek philosopher’s ethical discussion to heart as comfort in his own future, whatever he might make of it? Odell was hoping for Oxford, Lanyon recalled. He had himself been intended for Cambridge. Geography perhaps, and a future abroad in the Foreign Service. (Well, that was never going to happen.)
He wondered if he and Odell would ever meet again, sometime and somewhere in years to come. It was a tempting thought. His own future was blighted; but Odell’s was not. And if, after home, he went to Southampton, what future might he make for himself after that? Yes, they might meet again someday. He could comfort himself with a thought like that. Not now. Not with the imminent confrontation with his father ahead of him. But in the future … somewhere … sometime.
He looked out of the window at the fields, blurred in the foreground at the top of the bank but, beyond that, green with promise.