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Duties of a Second-Hand Master

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1961 Barley, Autumn Dying week.

The trouble began in first form, when Davenham met both Trafford and Oates.

Trafford came first. Trafford was always going to come first, Davenham quickly gathered when he announced his intention to take a liegeman.

"You're too young," said Trafford. "You're only eleven."

Davenham managed to refrain from pointing out that Trafford was only thirteen, yet that hadn't stopped him from taking Davenham as his liegeman. Davenham tried again. "He has lost his liege-master, sir; his liege-master left school during his first term. Oates has to find another liege-master."

Trafford shrugged as he turned his attention back to the footer practice that was taking place nearby. "There are dozens of second-ranked lads at this school. He'll find a liege-master easily."

It was at times like this, when Trafford was being stubborn, that Davenham had to remind himself that, if he hit a first-ranked master, he would be sent down to third rank.

Or possibly sent to prison.

He took a deep breath and calmed himself. The school master who taught the Service & Protocol class had recommended breathing deeply if your liege-master seemed as though he was being unreasonable. The second thing to do was to figure out why your liege-master was acting that way.

Trafford didn't understand, Davenham realized. Trafford was first-ranked. He had been accepted as a student at Narrows School and would stay here till he graduated, unless he committed some terribly foul act.

Trafford didn't understand what it was like to be a third-ranked master and to have your entire career as a student dependent on having a liege-master.

But Davenham understood. He was second-ranked, but he had lost his liege-master during his first month at Narrows, when his liege-master cheated on a test and was sent down. There had been a panicky period when Davenham was certain that he would be thrown out of school. Even now, in the twentieth tri-century, Narrows School still held the old-fashioned notion that third- and second-ranked masters should only be present at the school if they had liege-masters there to guide them for at least three terms. Then Trafford had indicated his interest in receiving Davenham's liege-service, and all had been well.

Except at times like this, when Trafford was being utterly unreasonable.

Davenham considered whether to tell Trafford bluntly that it was none of his business. A second-ranked master did not require permission from his liege-master in order to take a liegeman of his own. Davenham had learned that in Service & Protocol class.

But Trafford had a temper, and Davenham didn't wish to test it. And there was always the danger – the danger lurking in the back of Davenham's mind and keeping him awake at night – that Trafford would decide he didn't want Davenham as his liegeman. That would mean the end of Davenham's schooling. No first-ranked student would take a chance on a second-ranked student who had twice lost his liege-master.

So Davenham handed Trafford the cup he was absentmindedly groping for – one of the many small services that Davenham was duty-bound to do as Trafford's liegeman. Speaking in his most patient voice, Davenham said, "Sir, I am here at Narrows in order to learn. In order to learn how to be a master, among other things. Some day I will have servants. Some day I will have to guide my liegeman in difficult matters in his life: what work he should do, what woman he should marry, how he should raise his children. Wouldn't it be better for me to start to learn the duties of liege-master now, when I am still young?"

Trafford gave him a long look. They were both standing on the line of the footer field, near the grunting players who were in a scrum. The players looked as though they would stay trapped in that scrum forever. Davenham glanced over at Meredith, the player most likely to break up the scrum. But Meredith was trapped himself, struggling with another player.

Finally, Trafford said, "I don't want you neglecting your duties to me."

"No, sir," said Davenham with relief. "You can be sure that I won't let my duties to Oates get in the way of my duties to you."

It had seemed an easy promise to keep, back in those days.

o—o—o

1962 Clover, Autumn Dying week.
 

The trouble arose in the fifth form. It was hardly the first time.

"Sir," said Oates in that quiet manner he had, "mid-term exams are soon. I was wondering whether you would mind checking my studies as I prepare for the exams."

Oates needed no one to check his studies. He was so skilled a scholar that he was considered a sure thing for the school prize in Constitutional Law. Only Meredith's presence at Narrows School was a possible barrier to Oates's rise to the highest place in the Lower Seventh form.

But Davenham understood what Oates was really requesting. Oates was forever plagued by self-doubts of his own worth. Oates needed his liege-master beside him as he studied, to offer periodic reminders that he was a good student and was sure to pass the exams.

Davenham smiled at him. "Certainly. We can meet during the evenings this week."

Of course it did not prove that simple. It never did.

"I want to meet with you every evening this week," Trafford declared as he met Davenham in the hallway between classes. "I want to make sure that you're preparing properly for the mid-terms."

At his worst moments, Davenham sometimes wondered whether he'd decided to leave Narrows School on his sixteenth birthday because he could not bear another term of Trafford's unreasonableness. "Sir," he said, knowing what the answer would be, "I've already promised Oates that I would oversee his studies."

"He doesn't need anyone overseeing him," responded Trafford. "Be at my rooms punctually. You have a watch."

That was a cut across the jaw, as it was meant to be. Trafford had given Davenham a wristwatch the previous term, as a gift to his liegeman when Davenham won the prize for best student in Service & Protocol class. A precious gift, for only one manufactory in the Dozen Landsteads produced wristwatches, designed for soldiers. Trafford was mightily miffed when Davenham said he would wear it only on special occasions.

How could Davenham tell Trafford that Oates had also given Davenham a wristwatch, as a gift to his liege-master for winning the prize? If Davenham wore Oates's gift, Trafford would be upset. If Davenham wore Trafford's gift, Oates would be upset. And so Davenham had worn neither, and both his liege-master and his liegeman were now upset with him.

Breaking his promise to supervise Oates's studies would only worsen matters. Frustrated, Davenham went to tell Oates that he wouldn't be able to help his liegeman that evening. Then Davenham tried to figure out what to do next.

It was some time before it occurred to him to ask Meredith for advice.

o—o—o

Meredith was hardly the guide that Davenham would normally have thought to seek out. Although two sun-cycles older than Davenham, the same age as Trafford and Oates, Meredith was the most diffident student at Narrows School. This had nothing to do with the fact that Meredith was a third-ranked master. It had everything to do with the fact that Meredith's parents had been born as servants.

But however frustratingly servantlike Meredith might be, he was also the perfect person to consult on this dilemma. Everyone knew that – by ill chance, and quite against the normal rules – Meredith was serving both his liege-master and his liege-master's liege-master. Meredith must understand what it was like to feel duty-bound to help two people whose needs might come into conflict with each other.

Davenham found Meredith cleaning Rudd's chamber pot. For a moment, all that Davenham could do was gape. Davenham had gathered from rumor that matters did not lie well between Meredith and his liege-master's liege-master. But being assigned to clean a chamber pot was an entirely different order of "not well."

"I was late serving him, sir," Meredith explained when Davenham demanded an explanation of why he was doing servants' work. "Only by a minute, but Master Rudd requires prompt service. He assigned me this chore as punishment."

It was at times like this that Davenham remembered why he was lucky that Master Trafford was willing to be Davenham's liege-master. Trafford might be strict and not very good at listening, but at least he wasn't cruel. "You're finished, aren't you?" said Davenham. "Come walk with me."

Meredith came, of course. He always came when told to, whether the person issuing the instruction was a first-ranked master or a fellow third-ranked master. It was frustrating how oblivious Meredith remained to the fact that he was acting like a servant. It made Davenham sad for him, sometimes.

They went down to the shore of the Bay. Narrows School was located on a peninsula on Hoopers Island; from where they stood on the shore, they could watch fishing boats sail by – mainly log canoes and brogans, used by the watermen who tonged for oysters at this time of year. Further down the Bay, Hoopers Lamphouse began to send out its nightly warning signal.

Davenham glanced at Meredith, who was staring at the water with such intensity that it almost seemed he would jump onto one of those boats and sail away, free and happy. Davenham checked the watch from Oates, which he kept in his left pocket. Then he checked the watch from Trafford, which he kept in his right pocket. He had an hour left. An hour before he met with Trafford. An hour before he was supposed to meet with Oates.

Meredith listened silently as Davenham explained his dilemma. Meredith was very good at listening. Finally, the third-ranker said, "Sir, has Master Trafford ever talked with your liegeman?"

"Not really," Davenham said slowly. "There are times when we three are together, of course, but Oates usually stays silent then."

"And they don't take classes together, do they, sir?"

"No, of course not. Master Trafford is in the Upper Seventh—"

Davenham stopped. He would by no means characterize himself as brilliant. His academic studies had gone so poorly that it had been a relief when Trafford suggested that Davenham might be happier working as clerk to a local boat-building business, rather than spend his last two years at Narrows studying for university exams he was certain to fail.

So Davenham was not of the highest degree of intelligence . . . but somehow, whenever Meredith asked questions, Davenham ended up feeling like the most brilliant student in Narrows School.

Now Davenham said, "I'm not sure how to make the two of them talk together. Oates is rather shy, and Master Trafford has never shown any interest in him."

Meredith smiled. "If I may be of service to you, sir, I have an idea."

o—o—o

What that idea was, Meredith refused to disclose. They parted ways, but Davenham lingered at the shore, doing some hard thinking.

There ought to be a way for him to balance his twin duties as a second-ranked master to guide and be guided. But he would never accomplish that feat if he continued to allow himself to be bullied by Trafford into neglecting his own liegeman. Davenham had to make a stand, for once he left school, he would be taking on the duties of a man. He couldn't live with the thought of himself as a man who neglected his liegeman.

Determined now to confront Trafford's anger, Davenham stalked back to the study-bedrooms of the first-ranked masters and walked into Trafford's room without awaiting permission to do so. "Sir," he said firmly, "I cannot meet with you tonight. I am meeting with my liegeman, as I had previously promised."

Then Davenham held his breath, as a waterman holds his breath before a gale that will upturn his boat.

Trafford looked up from his desk, where he was jotting down some notes. "Good," he said.

Davenham waited. The gale was awfully long in coming this time.

Then the word spoken penetrated his mind. "'Good'?" he repeated incredulously.

Trafford nodded, closing his textbook. "I had an encounter with Meredith a little while ago. A rather close encounter; he bumped into me, and all my schoolbooks fell from my arms. As he was picking up the books, he happened to mention that Oates is in danger of failing his exams." And then the gale was there, in the form of Trafford's furrowed brows and growling voice. "Have you been neglecting your duties as liege-master, Davenham?"

He took a deep breath. It was hard to do so, feeling the blast of the gale upon him. But he was soon to be a man, and Oates needed him. "No, sir . . . not when my duties to you permit."

Unlike Davenham, Trafford had a first-rate mind. Trafford's gaze swung away, fastening upon the coal grate. After a time, he said, "Thank you for that explanation. I believe that the three of us should meet together, so that I can better judge how much time you need to fulfill your duties as liege-master – your highly important duties."

o—o—o

This time, Meredith was scraping ashes from under the grate. "Late again?" said Davenham sympathetically.

Meredith nodded as he leaned back, resting on his heels. "By half a minute. Master Rudd timed me with his pocket-watch."

"You won't be late next time," said Davenham, and held out the wristwatch that Trafford had given him.

A little while later, Davenham left Rudd's study-bedroom, empty-handed and whistling. It had not occurred to him before, amidst all his preoccupation at balancing his twin duties, that he had more than two duties in the world. He was a second-ranked master. He must be guided by his liege-master. He must learn to guide others.

Most of all, he must follow Meredith's lead and be of service to people in need.