It is the unenviable rite of passage for all boys in their first term at school, to be on the receiving end of some hazing. Corky avoided ‘seeing’ the streaks of tears on the new boy’s face as he passed the door to the form room. No lad wanted another to know he had been blubbing. But he had heard the howls emanating from Fairburn’s study. The new lad had clearly been on the receiving end of more than was usual. Still, what else could be expected for one who joins in the second year? Not to mention that he was short and clumsy – utterly useless at games – and had quickly got a name for himself as a swat who was always scribbling in a notebook. Plus he wore spectacles. What he was doing at the Coll was a mystery to all; yet here he was, making the inevitable unhappy adjustment to school life.
Corkran followed unnoticed a few steps behind the dumpy younger lad as he turned into the lavatory. Clearly the other boy thought himself alone, for good reason. Most of the pupils were taking advantage of the mild Autumn weather and had gone to the beach to bathe. Corkran, however, had been taking advantage of the school’s relative peace and quiet to trap a couple of mice (which would, in due course, be put to proper use in one of tomorrow’s lessons).
He watched as the other boy rushed to the row of washbasins that lined one wall of the lavatory, spat, then bent his head to sip from the tap, swilling the water round his mouth before spitting again, repeating the sequence over and over. At one point he paused briefly to stare down into the basin, shuddering, before he moved down the row to a different set of taps and bent to drink again.
Curious, Corkran left his quiet corner to inspect the rejected washbasin. One large black beetle scuttled in circles. Lacking its left hind leg it clearly could not manoeuvre properly, but it continued its efforts at escape. Corky twisted the tap, using his hands to direct the stream of water at the crippled bug. Its feelers twitched as it looked up at the boy who dealt the coup de grace. The rest of the insects – pieces of insects, all decently dead – he washed down the plug hole as well, before turning in wordless sympathy to his classmate, who stood before him, dumbstruck with horror engendered this time, Corky rather thought, by being found like this, more than by the event itself.
“Let me guess,” he offered in a pleasant conversational tone, “you sought refuge with the bug-hunters but Maunsell found you anyway, and the cowardly custards gave you up to the enemy.”
“The beasts nearly drowned me last time I went bathing,” explained the new boy. “I don’t swim you see, so I had to find some way to avoid it.”
“Best learn how to swim then – or float at least,” Corky replied calmly. “It never does to run away, you know. Retreat and regroup tactically – yes; but run? Never. The thing to do now is turn this little sortie of theirs into a victory of ours, as it were.”
“Ours?” came the puzzled sounding reply.
“Oh, definitely ours,” Corky asserted confidently, “provided, of course, I get a little help with that beastly extra prep Monsieur Renault set us in thanks for the mouse I loosed in class.”
“That was you?”
“Does he know it was you?”
“’Course not,” said Corkran. “I always loose ‘em down the trouser legs so no one can tell who did it. Besides, if he did know, it wouldn’t have been set for the whole class. Fair’s fair, after all. The catch is, after the lines that King set me for upsetting the ink pot, not to mention what we get regardless, I’m a bit pushed for time right now to do the bloody French, so….”
He smiled as the new boy nodded his understanding. “That’s the ticket. You stick with me.”
Corkran led the way up to the dormitory where he transferred two rather bedraggled and unhappy mice from his trouser pocket to his sock drawer before rummaging in another boy’s trunk for towels.
“Come on, we’ll join the rest,” he said, pulling the new boy in his wake. Somehow it never occurred to the other lad to try to slip away. The cheeky confidence of Corkran as he sauntered toward the distant cliffs inspired and he grabbed his towel and hurried after.
“What do they call you, anyway?” asked Corkran.
“The name’s Kipling,” came the reply.
“They never call you that though do they?”
“Kippers,” mumbled the new boy, looking hangdog again, “when they call me anything. Sometimes they just sniff loudly.”
Kippers wasn't a bad nickname; Corky had heard far worse in his time. Kippers were actually much prized on those rare occasions when served for breakfast at the College, and to call the new lad by this denoted some affection, despite his clear limitations on the sports field. Nonetheless it was obvious young Kipling despised the name. Corkran’s only outward response was a raised eyebrow as he walked.
There was a brisk breeze coming off the sea which made itself felt as they clambered down the cliff to the busy beach below. Prout sat on a large boulder overlooking the older boys at one end; while the Padre’s figure, distinctively clad in red and blue striped bathing costume, splashed amongst the younger boys at the other. Corkran, however, eschewed both groups and led the way around a rocky outcrop to a small sheltered cove, still in sight of the Padre if he chose to take notice of them, but far enough away to give the illusion of privacy. There he drilled the new boy mercilessly, half-drowning him in the process until he learned the basics of swimming. Partway through the lesson they were joined by M’Turk who, having been raised on an estate in County Mayo which backed onto the sea, seemed half seal playing in the waves, and amused himself by gliding underwater and pulling young Kipling’s legs out from under him, giving him a good ducking any time he tried to touch down.
However scary at first, Kipling shouted his glee when finally he was able to turn tables on Turkey and duck him, before he scrambled out and wrapped himself in his towel. What had been a warm breeze was now chill as the sun lowered on the horizon and grey clouds gathered in the distance. When they scrambled over the rocks they found the majority of the school had already headed for home; only a few diehards remained under the watchful gaze of the House Master, who stared a few moments at the three with a dubious eye, suspicious of their high spirits as they headed for the foothpath.
“I say – it’s that little insect who likes beetles!” jeered Fairburn loudly. He sat eating a cream bun on a ledge of rock beside the path three-quarters of the way up the cliff-face.
“Fascinating things,” remarked Corky. “Take the cochineal beetle, for example, which is used to colour icing pink.” He nodded at the brightly coloured sugared confection in the older boy’s hand, before marching on, head held high, while ushering Kipling past his tormenter.
“Or the dung beetle,” said M’Turk, bringing up the rear, “which deals with all the smelly messes others leave, after they've soiled themselves.” He sniffed loudly, and gave a dramatic shudder with unmistakable implications. ” Nimbly, he dodged Fairburn’s enraged lunge, putting his foot out to trip the older boy.
“I say, was that wise?” asked Beetle anxiously, as the three reached the cliff top. “Won’t they retaliate?”
“Let them try." Corkran exuded confidence.
Nonetheless, young Kipling looked worried. Back at the college, he became all too conscious of whispers in the dormitory as he changed. It seemed word of his travails at Maunsell’s and Fairburn's hands had spread. However, mercifully (for the new boy, that is) King was taking prep that afternoon, and insisted on absolute quiet in the form room; Kipling kept his head down, dispatching the French master's extra prep with ease – even interest.
'Tis the custom of pedagogues to be eternally thundering in their pupil's ears, as they were pouring into a funnel, whilst the business of the pupil is only to repeat what the others have said: now I would have a tutor to correct this error, and, that at the very first, he should according to the capacity he has to deal with, put it to the test, permitting his pupil himself to taste things, and of himself to discern and choose them, sometimes opening the way to him, and sometimes leaving him to open it for himself; that is, I would not have him alone to invent and speak, but that he should also hear his pupil speak in turn.
Translating Montaigne seemed an odd assignment for a teacher to set; this particular essay was not even part of the usual curriculum. However, Kipling absolved Monsieur Renault of subtlety; he was a master, after all, and had set this as punishment. Nonetheless, he resolved to listen more closely to the little Frenchman in future.
An extra copy of the translation was tucked into a workbook at the end of the hour and, through some skilful sleight of hand, acquired by Corky without King noticing, as they passed through the corridor to the great hall where supper was being served. They were amongst the last to arrive. Kipling found himself steered carefully to the left side of the room and pushed toward a seat to the right of M’Turk. Corky sat on his friend’s left, at the end of the long table. He bent his head for grace (delivered by the Padre, who was, as always, brief and to the point) before taking up his spoon to tackle the steaming lamb broth one of the serving maids ladled into the bowl before him. M’Turk attracted his attention with a long dramatic tale of exploits in the summer heather, worthy of Cúchulainn himself. When he turned back, a woeful looking beetle swam in the tepid dregs of his soup. Beside him Orrin giggled; and beyond, De Vitré smirked.
“Not a real beetle,” Corky’s voice displayed all the contempt a sergeant major might show to a dim-witted private as he inspected him on parade. “I said our Beetle here,” he gestured to Kipling, and continued loud enough for half the table to hear, “deserved a golden beetle like the one in that mouldy old painting that hangs in the Head’s study. But, I suppose the last time you visited there, De Vitré, you were too busy howling to notice the brooch Good Queen Bess pinned on Drake’s shoulder. How many strokes was it, you fat-headed putrid ass?” That last was spoken in tones of scathing rebuke which quashed all giggles.
“Yes, but is there a beetle in that picture?” whispered M’Turk to Corky as they exited the hall a half-hour later.
“There will be after you’ve painted it in,” returned Corkran. “Consider it an opportunity to practice that artistic design you’re always going on about. At lights-out, we’ll get you out the dormitory window and along to the Head’s study with your paint brush, while the Prooshian Bates has his daily confab in the Padre’s rooms.
“But, what about the bed checks? You know how Prout prowls the long corridor between the dormitories,” M’Turk protested weakly.
“A bolster in the bed will take of them,” Corkran dismissed, “and I’ll set young Parsons and Howlett as pickets, just in case Hoofer changes routine.”
“But, then they’ll know it was all just a lie,” gasped the newly christened Beetle, horrified. “Parsons is De Vitré’s protégée."
“Call it a ruse de guerre, rather,” came Corkran’s bland reply, “perfectly acceptable - even laudatory in some circumstances. Besides, never forget the real enemy is Maunsell, not that lot; they’re just our loyal opposition, who will keep patriotic silence about campaign secrets, so to speak, once they receive a clear briefing from the colonel of the regiment about whose side they are on.”
Beetle blinked his surprise. De Vitré and Orrin had been relentless in their teasing since he arrived, though even he, the butt of so many jokes, could see the difference between the names they had called him (not to mention their periodic high-jinks with his spectacles) and the kind of systematic cruelty Maunsell and Fairburn had been subjecting all the lower form to, not merely himself.
"They’ll respect us all the more for having pulled it off. You’ll see,” Corkran asserted confidently, “pretty soon they’ll be shouting your name with pride, your fiercest supporters, bar us, of course.” He gesticulated with his right thumb at M’Turk and himself.
“My name,” said Kipling, gloomily, “Beetle....”
"Maunsell will get no satisfaction as long as you stand tall and own it,” explained Corky. “Never let the Philistines think they’ve got something on you, you see. They called you a beetle – be Beetle and be proud of it!”
“Beetle...,” repeated young Kipling, sounding resigned.
“My uncle says the Japanese bet on fighting beetles,” offered M’Turk.
Kipling took a deep breath, straightened his shoulders and raised his head, “Beetle.”
It was the custom of the Head and the Padre to sit together each evening after school retired, partake of some brandy (and the occasional cigar), and discuss the progress of the young lives whose duty it was theirs to guide. They took it in turns. Normally, Monday, Wednesday and Friday the Head hosted; while on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday the Padre provided the refreshments. Sunday, being traditionally a day of rest, they tended to keep to themselves. However this Sunday a gentle knock on the Head’s door heralded the Reverend John’s arrival.
He put his head round the side of the door and nodded, “I hear you have a new painting, worthy of note.”
“Say rather, a new and noteworthy addition to a very unremarkable old one,” responded the Head, beckoning his old friend to enter. “Do come and inspect: the paint is dry now.”
The two men stood silent for a few minutes contemplating the picture that hung over the fireplace, before they turned as one to the sideboard. Decanter and crystal glasses accompanied them to the wingchairs by the oriel window. They took an equal time savouring the brandy before either spoke.
“Not a bad addition, this little beetle, all things considered; in fact, I might say its golden style complements the cloak Sir Francis Drake is wearing quite suitably,” offered the Padre.
“Just as the Beetle, now that he has settled in, complements the more...military style... of the regular College enlistment,” commented the Head.
“Indeed,” agreed Reverend John, and the two men raised their glasses to one another.