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Authors: Gerald Bullet

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While the books were being fetched Clifford and Elderbrook went on with the interminable desultory conversation which Mr Fletton delighted to interrupt. A question that lightly engaged them was whether or not they should start a homemade magazine in rivalry with the official one. They would call it, Clifford said, The Gadfly, or perhaps The Wasp. Or perhaps it would be more fun to call it something solemn: the question was which would give the most annoyance to that awful little swot Prynne who, nominally, under the nose of authority, edited the
St Swithins Magazine
. Clifford seemed more concerned about the title of his journal than about what he should put in it: given the title, the rest would see to itself. But he did give a glance to the contents. ‘What will
you
do
for our mag?' he asked Felix. ‘Tell you what, you do the serial.' Turning to a new page of the exercise book in front of him he declaimed as he wrote the words down: ‘The Cruise of the So-and-So. Magnificent serial by F. Elderbrook.' Felix was flattered by his sudden appointment, but hardly surprised. He thought it would be a good idea to have his serial illustrated by Pemrose, but he hesitated to make the suggestion because for one thing he didn't know whether Clifford liked Pemrose and for another he was afraid lest Pemrose, given a footing in it, should make the whole enterprise his own and end by writing the serial as well as illustrating it.

Pemrose was a day-boy and had got to St Swithins by winning a scholarship. His father, it was smirkingly whispered, was ‘only a carpenter': like Jesus Christ, some audacious person had remarked, whereat the smirks became nervous giggles followed by an embarrassed silence, for that was a name you never mentioned, unless you were the Head saying morning prayers or preaching the Sunday evening sermon in the school chapel. Felix did not ask whether he himself liked Pemrose: he knew him for a strange, clever, interesting, and sometimes disconcerting chap, full of odd opinions and out-of-the-way knowledge. He had a large egg-shaped head, an untidy mass of hair, and a loping walk. When making a new acquaintance or confronting an elder he had a trick of boldly staring, as if resolved to hold his ground, and his voice on such occasions would be harsh and rather loud. Once, he hardly knew how it happened, Felix found himself walking with Pemrose through the byways of Keyborough in the romantic dusk of a winter's late afternoon, and Pemrose had told him a frightening fascinating story of a woman being laid out for burial while in a cataleptic trance, and how her husband, remembering a certain prophecy, had lifted her hand to the candlelight and seen the pink translucency of the flesh round the finger-bones and by that token knew her to be still alive. ‘Don't be worried,' said Pemrose, suddenly noticing the quality of his listener's silence. ‘It was hundreds of years ago. They hadn't got
science then.' The two boys stood at the Pemroses' gate in a street of small shabby villas. In the gathering darkness Felix could no longer see the expression of his companion's face. Mortal life was desolate and lonely and filled with unspeakable dangers, and to break the silence seemed queer and rash. Felix had an instinct to whisper his goodbye, lest the sleeping malice of the universe should wake and become aware of him. But Pemrose, if he shared the sensation, paid no heed to it. He did not believe in such things, for his father was an adherent of Mr Bradlaugh the atheist. Ghosts and their like were nothing to him, except material for the stories he revelled in. ‘We don't believe in salt either,' he said, with a characteristic leap from philosophy to dietetics. ‘Once you get it in you it never leaves the system. Did you know that?'

Pemrose was a brilliant draughtsman, and if it came to a story about ships and pirates he was obviously the man to do the pictures.

‘I say, Clifford. You know Pemrose? Do you think he'd do some illustrations for us?'

While Clifford was communing with himself on this proposal Dilston returned to the classroom staggering affectedly under a load of drawing-books, of which Mr Plover at once relieved him. Mr Plover began distributing the books to their owners, with comments on their work. But he soon tired of the job.

‘Here, Dilston, you give them out. No, no,' he cried hastily, as a dozen boys leapt from their places to throw themselves on Dilston, ‘I don't want a stampede. Get back, you little brutes! Get back!'

He put on a fierce face, but the boys knew very well that he did not personally care a button what they did: that was the comforting thing about Mr Plover. What he did care about was that his class should not be discovered in an uproar by some prowling senior master. And today there was an additional and very special reason against romping, in class or out of it.

‘Well, you fellows,' said Mr Plover, when order had been restored, ‘you didn't do so badly and you didn't do so well.
There was only one of you had a real idea. What I asked for was a drawing suggesting the school holidays. Some of you did pictures of cricket, boating, cycling, horse-riding. That kind of thing. Quite good in its way. But this boy did better. His drawing shows us a desk or table on which there's an inkpot, a pen, a ruler, a pair of compasses, and a pile of three school-books, Pendlebury, Hall & Knight, and the Shorter Smith. And over all, joining books to inkpot, and inkpot to pen and ruler, so that there shall be no mistake, is a gigantic spider's web. Now there you have the whole theme, school holidays, summed up in a graphic epigram …'

A hand. ‘Please, sir. What's a graphic epigram?'

Mr Plover groaned. ‘I might have known!' Having dealt with the question he said—to Felix's delighted surprise— ‘Here's your book, Clifford.' The book came flying through the air. ‘Jolly good effort. You might pass it round for the others to see.'

Grinning his congratulations at Clifford, Felix was astonished by the change in him. The seasoned Clifford, who feared no Flettons and accepted impots with a light heart, sat sheepish and confused, abashed by praise.

‘Thank you,' said Clifford. As if to create a diversion he asked: ‘Is Mrs Williams any better today, sir, do you know?'

The Head's wife, whom everybody was inclined rather to like than not, had been ill, it was said, during most of the holidays.

‘No, Clifford. No better. She's … I'm afraid she's very ill indeed. Now let's get on with our work, shall we?'

From Mr Plover's constrained manner Felix guessed that Mrs Williams was dying, or was already dead. Or perhaps she was not dead. The sky grew dark. A cold wind moaned. He saw a marbled face rigid on the pillow; a wavering candle-flame; a limp hand on the coverlet.

§ 16

Carrying kid gloves, and wearing a suit of stiff dark serge, a shirt with detachable glazed dicky, a two-inch stick-up collar, and a bowler hat that sat uneasily on his sleekly brushed head, Guy Elderbrook presented himself at the counter of the Mercester County Bank, Byford Branch. He trod with reverence on the luxuriously tiled floor and glanced with apprehension at the large handsome clock. It was precisely one minute past nine. He had been instructed to report for duty at nine o'clock and had in fact been hanging about, outside the premises, for at least a quarter of an hour. During that time three several persons, without apparently noticing his existence, had effected an entry, shutting the street door inhospitably behind them; and not till the hour had finished striking was the threshold laid bare to the feet of the mere public. That ceremony was performed by a gaunt-faced grey-headed personage whose red piping and brass buttons put Guy's homespun to shame. He set the outer door open, gave Guy one sombre neutral uncommunicative glance, then turned his back and vanished from sight beyond the swing door that constituted the second line of defence. After a moment's hesitancy Guy summoned up his resolution and followed with a firm step. And here he was, at the counter, mutely demanding attention.

On the other side of the grille, scrutinizing a document through gold-rimmed pince-nez, was a neatly attired well-preserved gentleman of perhaps twice Guy's age, or even a little more. His nose was sharp and inquiring, his eyes were alert, his hair (still plentiful) was greying at the temples in a most distinguished manner, his linen was surpassingly glossy and his coat impeccably black. He was soon to be known to Guy as Mr Robbins the Chief Cashier, but a closer acquaintance did not for some while seriously diminish Guy's sense of his dignity and importance.

‘Yes?' said Mr Robbins.

‘I'm G. Elderbrook,' said G. Elderbrook, handing
in his letter of appointment. ‘The new clerk,' he explained.

‘The new apprentice,' Mr Robbins corrected him. ‘It takes three years to become a clerk, young man, in this establishment. However, good morning to you.'

Although he felt suitably snubbed, Guy contrived to smile. That smile was a triumph of resolution, and it served a number of diverse purposes. It was modest and propitiatory, it covered a moment of real confusion, and it was designed to appease the pride of this exalted being. But there was also a pinch of satire and self-satisfaction in it, a pinch of resentment, a scarcely articulate persuasion that the more you were sat on the higher you must ultimately rise, since only so could you be revenged on your past. He was fortified by the knowledge that a beginning had been made: he had escaped from the farm, he had set foot in a new world, and the letter now in the hands of Mr Robbins addressed him as
Dear Sir
. Clerk or no clerk, it was an auspicious day. He had the Linnets to thank for it, and Aunt Dolly too. Eva had dropped a hint to her father, and her father had whispered discreetly into the ears of the august remote authorities. He had done more than that: he had broached the matter, with infinite delicacy, to Joe himself on the bowling-green, saying no more than that there was always room in the bank for a smart boy who meant to get on. Aunt Dolly's contribution to victory had been to manœuvre Joe, when the project was first mooted, into believing that it had originated with him. All this Guy knew. What he did not know was that his mother, with the memory of the battle of Felix still in her mind, had played an even more subtle part in his emancipation, fostering the plan with a carefully applied wet blanket, and in the end seeming only to give way to Father's wishes. For her, as for Guy himself, the day was charged with meaning; but to send him out into the world this morning had not been so difficult, for Byford was only twenty-five minutes up the line from Lutterthorpe, and he would continue to live at home, riding to and from Lutterthorpe every day on Matthew's bicycle.

The bleakness of Mr Robbins's ‘good morning' was softened by a brief smile. Mr Robbins made a half-turn towards the back of the office, into which, at that moment, apparently emerging from underground, came a large red-headed youth staggering under a load of two enormous ledgers, which he proceeded to decant on to the high desk that backed the cashier's sanctuary.

‘Mr Groves,' said Mr Robbins.

Mr Groves was out of breath. Mr Robbins stood very still, looking at distance, patiently awaiting a reply.

‘Yes, Mr Robbins?'

‘Good morning,' said Mr Robbins.

‘Good morning,' answered Mr Groves, breathing heavily.

‘This,' said Mr Robbins, with a slight gesture of his right hand in the direction of Guy, ‘this young gentleman is Mr Elderbrook, the new … apprentice.' The word carried a most delicate emphasis. ‘If the Manager is disengaged he will probably wish to receive Mr Elderbrook.'

‘All right,' said Mr Groves. ‘I'll see to him.' He gave Guy a long considering look, followed by a nod. ‘Good morning. The way in's round there. That's the idea. Want to wash or anything? Better come downstairs. I'll show you where to put your hat.' He led the way, leaping down two steps at a time, with the tails of his coat billowing out. Guy was abashed by the consciousness of that tail coat, his own being of a humbler pattern. Tail coat and grey-striped trousers: that was the approved style. Why, he asked bitterly, had they sent him here got up like a country bumpkin? In the half light of the basement corridor they encountered the greyheaded messenger, who had flung wide the Bank's outer door. ‘Morning, William,' said Mr Groves. ‘This is Mr Elderbrook, who's joining the staff.'

‘Indeed, sir? Well, he couldn't do better. You couldn't do better, Mr …'

‘Elderbrook,' said Guy.

‘Well, you ought to know, William,' said Mr Groves, ‘after a hundred years of it.'

‘Not a hundred, Mr Groves,' said William, with unsmiling gravity. ‘Thirty-nine it'll be, come May the seventeenth. Man and boy,' he added, passing on his way.

‘Now here's what they call the geography of the house,' said Mr Groves, indicating the lavatories. ‘And there's a peg for you. It's got a number, see? Better stick to your own. Elcott ought to be doing all this, by the way, but he's late as usual. Where do you live, far?'

‘Upmarden,' said Guy. And at this moment it seemed very far indeed.

‘Never heard of it,' said Mr Groves. And Upmarden almost ceased to exist. ‘When you're ready, come upstairs, and I'll run you in to see the Manager.'

Guy wanted to ask what the Manager was like, but forbore. Time enough for that. And when a few minutes later he was conducted into that sacred presence he saw for himself, and with a curious sense of detachment, that the aged grey-bearded Mr Deverell, though a potentate and evidently an irascible one, was not a person one need be afraid of.

‘Ah,' said Mr Deverell. ‘How do you do? You are very young.'

‘Sixteen, sir,' said Guy.

‘All members of the staff,' said Mr Deverill, ‘are required to sign an undertaking that they will behave with discretion and maintain the strictest secrecy about the affairs of the Bank. In the course of your duties, Mr Elderbrook, you will in time have access, for example, to the ledgers, in which customers' accounts are kept. It must be a point of honour and common sense that no information so acquired shall be mentioned or even remembered—or even remembered, Mr Elderbrook— outside the office. Mr Groves!'

BOOK: The Elderbrook Brothers
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