I. The Fifteenth Place
 

"Outside!"

"Don't be an idiot, man. I bagged it first."

"My dear chap, I've been waiting here a month."

"When you fellows have quite finished rotting about in front of that bath don't let me detain you."

"Anybody seen that sponge?"

"Well, look here"--this in a tone of compromise--"let's toss for it."

"All right. Odd man out."

All of which, being interpreted, meant that the first match of the Easter term had just come to an end, and that those of the team who, being day boys, changed over at the pavilion, instead of performing the operation at leisure and in comfort, as did the members of houses, were discussing the vital question--who was to have first bath?

The Field Sports Committee at Wrykyn--that is, at the school which stood some half-mile outside that town and took its name from it--were not lavish in their expenditure as regarded the changing accommodation in the pavilion. Letters appeared in every second number of the Wrykinian, some short, others long, some from members of the school, others from Old Boys, all protesting against the condition of the first, second, and third fifteen dressing-rooms. "Indignant" would inquire acidly, in half a page of small type, if the editor happened to be aware that there was no hair-brush in the second room, and only half a comb. "Disgusted O. W." would remark that when he came down with the Wandering Zephyrs to play against the third fifteen, the water supply had suddenly and mysteriously failed, and the W.Z.'s had been obliged to go home as they were, in a state of primeval grime, and he thought that this was "a very bad thing in a school of over six hundred boys", though what the number of boys had to do with the fact that there was no water he omitted to explain. The editor would express his regret in brackets, and things would go on as before.

There was only one bath in the first fifteen room, and there were on the present occasion six claimants to it. And each claimant was of the fixed opinion that, whatever happened subsequently, he was going to have it first. Finally, on the suggestion of Otway, who had reduced tossing to a fine art, a mystic game of Tommy Dodd was played. Otway having triumphantly obtained first innings, the conversation reverted to the subject of the match.

The Easter term always opened with a scratch game against a mixed team of masters and old boys, and the school usually won without any great exertion. On this occasion the match had been rather more even than the average, and the team had only just pulled the thing off by a couple of tries to a goal. Otway expressed an opinion that the school had played badly.

"Why on earth don't you forwards let the ball out occasionally?" he asked. Otway was one of the first fifteen halves.

"They were so jolly heavy in the scrum," said Maurice, one of the forwards. "And when we did let it out, the outsides nearly always mucked it."

"Well, it wasn't the halves' fault. We always got it out to the centres."

"It wasn't the centres," put in Robinson. "They played awfully well. Trevor was ripping."

"Trevor always is," said Otway; "I should think he's about the best captain we've had here for a long time. He's certainly one of the best centres."

"Best there's been since Rivers-Jones," said Clephane.

Rivers-Jones was one of those players who mark an epoch. He had been in the team fifteen years ago, and had left Wrykyn to captain Cambridge and play three years in succession for Wales. The school regarded the standard set by him as one that did not admit of comparison. However good a Wrykyn centre three-quarter might be, the most he could hope to be considered was "the best since Rivers-Jones". "Since" Rivers-Jones, however, covered fifteen years, and to be looked on as the best centre the school could boast of during that time, meant something. For Wrykyn knew how to play football.

Since it had been decided thus that the faults in the school attack did not lie with the halves, forwards, or centres, it was more or less evident that they must be attributable to the wings. And the search for the weak spot was even further narrowed down by the general verdict that Clowes, on the left wing, had played well. With a beautiful unanimity the six occupants of the first fifteen room came to the conclusion that the man who had let the team down that day had been the man on the right--Rand-Brown, to wit, of Seymour's.

"I'll bet he doesn't stay in the first long," said Clephane, who was now in the bath, vice Otway, retired. "I suppose they had to try him, as he was the senior wing three-quarter of the second, but he's no earthly good."

"He only got into the second because he's big," was Robinson's opinion. "A man who's big and strong can always get his second colours."

"Even if he's a funk, like Rand-Brown," said Clephane. "Did any of you chaps notice the way he let Paget through that time he scored for them? He simply didn't attempt to tackle him. He could have brought him down like a shot if he'd only gone for him. Paget was running straight along the touch-line, and hadn't any room to dodge. I know Trevor was jolly sick about it. And then he let him through once before in just the same way in the first half, only Trevor got round and stopped him. He was rank."

"Missed every other pass, too," said Otway.

Clephane summed up.

"He was rank," he said again. "Trevor won't keep him in the team long."

"I wish Paget hadn't left," said Otway, referring to the wing three-quarter who, by leaving unexpectedly at the end of the Christmas term, had let Rand-Brown into the team. His loss was likely to be felt. Up till Christmas Wrykyn had done well, and Paget had been their scoring man. Rand-Brown had occupied a similar position in the second fifteen. He was big and speedy, and in second fifteen matches these qualities make up for a great deal. If a man scores one or two tries in nearly every match, people are inclined to overlook in him such failings as timidity and clumsiness. It is only when he comes to be tried in football of a higher class that he is seen through. In the second fifteen the fact that Rand-Brown was afraid to tackle his man had almost escaped notice. But the habit would not do in first fifteen circles.

"All the same," said Clephane, pursuing his subject, "if they don't play him, I don't see who they're going to get. He's the best of the second three-quarters, as far as I can see."

It was this very problem that was puzzling Trevor, as he walked off the field with Paget and Clowes, when they had got into their blazers after the match. Clowes was in the same house as Trevor--Donaldson's--and Paget was staying there, too. He had been head of Donaldson's up to Christmas.

"It strikes me," said Paget, "the school haven't got over the holidays yet. I never saw such a lot of slackers. You ought to have taken thirty points off the sort of team you had against you today."

"Have you ever known the school play well on the second day of term?" asked Clowes. "The forwards always play as if the whole thing bored them to death."

"It wasn't the forwards that mattered so much," said Trevor. "They'll shake down all right after a few matches. A little running and passing will put them right."

"Let's hope so," Paget observed, "or we might as well scratch to Ripton at once. There's a jolly sight too much of the mince-pie and Christmas pudding about their play at present." There was a pause. Then Paget brought out the question towards which he had been moving all the time.

"What do you think of Rand-Brown?" he asked.

It was pretty clear by the way he spoke what he thought of that player himself, but in discussing with a football captain the capabilities of the various members of his team, it is best to avoid a too positive statement one way or the other before one has heard his views on the subject. And Paget was one of those people who like to know the opinions of others before committing themselves.

Clowes, on the other hand, was in the habit of forming his views on his own account, and expressing them. If people agreed with them, well and good: it afforded strong presumptive evidence of their sanity. If they disagreed, it was unfortunate, but he was not going to alter his opinions for that, unless convinced at great length that they were unsound. He summed things up, and gave you the result. You could take it or leave it, as you preferred.

"I thought he was bad," said Clowes.

"Bad!" exclaimed Trevor, "he was a disgrace. One can understand a chap having his off-days at any game, but one doesn't expect a man in the Wrykyn first to funk. He mucked five out of every six passes I gave him, too, and the ball wasn't a bit slippery. Still, I shouldn't mind that so much if he had only gone for his man properly. It isn't being out of practice that makes you funk. And even when he did have a try at you, Paget, he always went high."

"That," said Clowes thoughtfully, "would seem to show that he was game."

Nobody so much as smiled. Nobody ever did smile at Clowes' essays in wit, perhaps because of the solemn, almost sad, tone of voice in which he delivered them. He was tall and dark and thin, and had a pensive eye, which encouraged the more soulful of his female relatives to entertain hopes that he would some day take orders.

"Well," said Paget, relieved at finding that he did not stand alone in his views on Rand-Brown's performance, "I must say I thought he was awfully bad myself."

"I shall try somebody else next match," said Trevor. "It'll be rather hard, though. The man one would naturally put in, Bryce, left at Christmas, worse luck."

Bryce was the other wing three-quarter of the second fifteen.

"Isn't there anybody in the third?" asked Paget.

"Barry," said Clowes briefly.

"Clowes thinks Barry's good," explained Trevor.

"He is good," said Clowes. "I admit he's small, but he can tackle."

"The question is, would he be any good in the first? A chap might do jolly well for the third, and still not be worth trying for the first."

"I don't remember much about Barry," said Paget, "except being collared by him when we played Seymour's last year in the final. I certainly came away with a sort of impression that he could tackle. I thought he marked me jolly well."

"There you are, then," said Clowes. "A year ago Barry could tackle Paget. There's no reason for supposing that he's fallen off since then. We've seen that Rand-Brown can't tackle Paget. Ergo, Barry is better worth playing for the team than Rand-Brown. Q.E.D."

"All right, then," replied Trevor. "There can't be any harm in trying him. We'll have another scratch game on Thursday. Will you be here then, Paget?"

"Oh, yes. I'm stopping till Saturday."

"Good man. Then we shall be able to see how he does against you. I wish you hadn't left, though, by Jove. We should have had Ripton on toast, the same as last term."

Wrykyn played five schools, but six school matches. The school that they played twice in the season was Ripton. To win one Ripton match meant that, however many losses it might have sustained in the other matches, the school had had, at any rate, a passable season. To win two Ripton matches in the same year was almost unheard of. This year there had seemed every likelihood of it. The match before Christmas on the Ripton ground had resulted in a win for Wrykyn by two goals and a try to a try. But the calculations of the school had been upset by the sudden departure of Paget at the end of term, and also of Bryce, who had hitherto been regarded as his understudy. And in the first Ripton match the two goals had both been scored by Paget, and both had been brilliant bits of individual play, which a lesser man could not have carried through.

The conclusion, therefore, at which the school reluctantly arrived, was that their chances of winning the second match could not be judged by their previous success. They would have to approach the Easter term fixture from another--a non-Paget--standpoint. In these circumstances it became a serious problem: who was to get the fifteenth place? Whoever played in Paget's stead against Ripton would be certain, if the match were won, to receive his colours. Who, then, would fill the vacancy?

"Rand-Brown, of course," said the crowd.

But the experts, as we have shown, were of a different opinion.