A Corner in Lines by P.G. Wodehouse
Of all the useless and irritating things in this world, lines are probably the most useless and the most irritating. In fact, I only know of two people who ever got any good out of them. Dunstable, of Day's, was one, Linton, of Seymour's, the other. For a portion of one winter term they flourished on lines. The more there were set, the better they liked it. They would have been disappointed if masters had given up the habit of doling them out.
Dunstable was a youth of ideas. He saw far more possibilities in the routine of life at Locksley than did the majority of his contemporaries, and every now and then he made use of these possibilities in a way that caused a considerable sensation in the school.
In the ordinary way of school work, however, he was not particularly brilliant, and suffered in consequence. His chief foe was his form-master, Mr. Langridge. The feud between them had begun on Dunstable's arrival in the form two terms before, and had continued ever since. The balance of points lay with the master. The staff has ways of scoring which the school has not. This story really begins with the last day but one of the summer term. It happened that Dunstable's people were going to make their annual migration to Scotland on that day, and the Headmaster, approached on the subject both by letter and in person, saw no reason why--the examinations being over--Dunstable should not leave Locksley a day before the end of term.
He called Dunstable to his study one night after preparation.
"Your father has written to me, Dunstable," he said, "to ask that you may be allowed to go home on Wednesday instead of Thursday. I think that, under the special circumstances, there will be no objection to this. You had better see that the matron packs your boxes."
"Yes, sir," said Dunstable. "Good business," he added to himself, as he left the room.
When he got back to his own den, he began to ponder over the matter, to see if something could not be made out of it. That was Dunstable's way. He never let anything drop until he had made certain that he had exhausted all its possibilities.
Just before he went to bed he had evolved a neat little scheme for scoring off Mr. Langridge. The knowledge of his plans was confined to himself and the Headmaster. His dorm-master would imagine that he was going to stay on till the last day of term. Therefore, if he misbehaved himself in form, Mr. Langridge would set him lines in blissful ignorance of the fact that he would not be there next day to show them up. At the beginning of the following term, moreover, he would not be in Mr. Langridge's form, for he was certain of his move up.
He acted accordingly.
He spent the earlier part of Wednesday morning in breaches of the peace. Mr. Langridge, instead of pulling him up, put him on to translate; Dunstable went on to translate. As he had not prepared the lesson and was not an adept at construing unseen, his performance was poor.
After a minute and a half, the form-master wearied.
"Have you looked at this, Dunstable?" he asked.
There was a time-honoured answer to this question.
"Yes, sir," he said.
Public-school ethics do not demand that you should reply truthfully to the spirit of a question. The letter of it is all that requires attention. Dunstable had looked at the lesson. He was looking at it then. Masters should practise exactness of speech. A certain form at Harrow were in the habit of walking across a copy of a Latin author before morning-school. They could then say with truth that they "had been over it." This is not an isolated case.
"Go on," said Mr. Langridge.
Dunstable smiled as he did so.
Mr. Langridge was annoyed.
"What are you laughing at? What do you mean by it? Stand up. You will write out the lesson in Latin and English, and show it up to me by four this afternoon. I know what you are thinking. You imagine that because this is the end of the term you can do as you please, but you will find yourself mistaken. Mind--by four o'clock."
At four o'clock Dunstable was enjoying an excellent tea in Green Street, Park Lane, and telling his mother that he had had a most enjoyable term, marred by no unpleasantness whatever. His holidays were sweetened by the thought of Mr. Langridge's baffled wrath on discovering the true inwardness of the recent episode.
* * * * *
When he returned to Locksley at the beginning of the winter term, he was at once made aware that that episode was not to be considered closed. On the first evening, Mr. Day, his housemaster, sent for him.
"Well, Dunstable," he said, "where is that imposition?"
Dunstable affected ignorance.
"Please, sir, you set me no imposition."
"No, Dunstable, no." Mr. Day peered at him gravely through his spectacles. "I set you no imposition; but Mr. Langridge did."
Dunstable imitated that eminent tactician, Br'er Rabbit. He "lay low and said nuffin."
"Surely," continued Mr. Day, in tones of mild reproach, "you did not think that you could take Mr. Langridge in?"
Dunstable rather thought he had taken Mr. Langridge in; but he made no reply.
"Well," said Mr. Day. "I must set you some punishment. I shall give the butler instructions to hand you a note from me at three o'clock to-morrow." (The next day was a half-holiday.) "In that note you will find indicated what I wish you to write out."
Why this comic-opera secret-society business, Dunstable wondered. Then it dawned upon him. Mr. Day wished to break up his half-holiday thoroughly.
That afternoon Dunstable retired in disgust to his study to brood over his wrongs; to him entered Charles, his friend, one C. J. Linton, to wit, of Seymour's, a very hearty sportsman.
"Good," said Linton. "Didn't think I should find you in. Thought you might have gone off somewhere as it's such a ripping day. Tell you what we'll do. Scull a mile or two up the river and have tea somewhere."
"I should like to awfully," said Dunstable, "but I'm afraid I can't."
And he explained Mr. Day's ingenious scheme for preventing him from straying that afternoon.
"Rot, isn't it," he said.
"Beastly. Wouldn't have thought old Day had it in him. But I'll tell you what," he said. "Do the impot now, and then you'll be able to start at three sharp, and we shall get in a good time on the river. Day always sets the same thing. I've known scores of chaps get impots from him, and they all had to do the Greek numerals. He's mad on the Greek numerals. Never does anything else. You'll be as safe as anything if you do them. Buck up, I'll help."
They accordingly sat down there and then. By three o'clock an imposing array of sheets of foolscap covered with badly-written Greek lay on the study table.
"That ought to be enough," said Linton, laying down his pen. "He can't set you more than we've done, I should think."
"Rummy how alike our writing looks," said Dunstable, collecting the sheets and examining them. "You can hardly tell which is which even when you know. Well, there goes three. My watch is slow, as it always is. I'll go and get that note."
Two minutes later he returned, full of abusive references to Mr. Day. The crafty pedagogue appeared to have foreseen Dunstable's attempt to circumvent him by doing the Greek numerals on the chance of his setting them. The imposition he had set in his note was ten pages of irregular verbs, and they were to be shown up in his study before five o'clock. Linton's programme for the afternoon was out of the question now. But he loyally gave up any other plans which he might have formed in order to help Dunstable with his irregular verbs. Dunstable was too disgusted with fate to be properly grateful.
"And the worst of it is," he said, as they adjourned for tea at half-past four, having deposited the verbs on Mr. Day's table, "that all those numerals will be wasted now."
"I should keep them, though," said Linton. "They may come in useful. You never know."
* * * * *
Towards the end of the second week of term Fate, by way of compensation, allowed Dunstable a distinct stroke of luck. Mr. Forman, the master of his new form, set him a hundred lines of Virgil, and told him to show them up next day. To Dunstable's delight, the next day passed without mention of them; and when the day after that went by, and still nothing was said, he came to the conclusion that Mr. Forman had forgotten all about them.
Which was indeed the case. Mr. Forman was engaged in editing a new edition of the "Bacchae," and was apt to be absent-minded in consequence. So Dunstable, with a glad smile, hove the lines into a cupboard in his study to keep company with the Greek numerals which he had done for Mr. Day, and went out to play fives with Linton.
Linton, curiously enough, had also had a stroke of luck in a rather similar way. He told Dunstable about it as they strolled back to the houses after their game.
"Bit of luck this afternoon," he said. "You remember Appleby setting me a hundred-and-fifty the day before yesterday? Well, I showed them up to-day, and he looked through them and chucked them into the waste-paper basket under his desk. I thought at the time I hadn't seen him muck them up at all with his pencil, which is his usual game, so after he had gone at the end of school I nipped to the basket and fished them out. They were as good as new, so I saved them up in case I get any more."
Dunstable hastened to tell of his own good fortune. Linton was impressed by the coincidence.
"I tell you what," he said, "we score either way. Because if we never get any more lines----"
"Yes, I know," Linton went on, "we're bound to. But even supposing we don't, what we've got in stock needn't be wasted."
"I don't see that," said Dunstable. "Going to have 'em bound in cloth and published? Or were you thinking of framing them?"
"Why, don't you see? Sell them, of course. There are dozens of chaps in the school who would be glad of a few hundred lines cheap."
"It wouldn't work. They'd be spotted."
"Rot. It's been done before, and nobody said anything. A chap in Seymour's who left last Easter sold all his stock lines by auction on the last day of term. They were Virgil mostly and Greek numerals. They sold like hot cakes. There were about five hundred of them altogether. And I happen to know that every word of them has been given up and passed all right."
"Well, I shall keep mine," said Dunstable. "I am sure to want all the lines in stock that I can get. I used to think Langridge was fairly bad in the way of impots, but Forman takes the biscuit easily. It seems to be a sort of hobby of his. You can't stop him."
But it was not until the middle of preparation that the great idea flashed upon Dunstable's mind.
It was the simplicity of the thing that took his breath away. That and its possibilities. This was the idea. Why not start a Lines Trust in the school? An agency for supplying lines at moderate rates to all who desired them? There did not seem to be a single flaw in the scheme. He and Linton between them could turn out enough material in a week to give the Trust a good working capital. And as for the risk of detection when customers came to show up the goods supplied to them, that was very slight. As has been pointed out before, there was practically one handwriting common to the whole school when it came to writing lines. It resembled the movements of a fly that had fallen into an ink-pot, and subsequently taken a little brisk exercise on a sheet of foolscap by way of restoring the circulation. Then, again, the attitude of the master to whom the lines were shown was not likely to be critical. So that everything seemed in favour of Dunstable's scheme.
Linton, to whom he confided it, was inclined to scoff at first, but when he had had the beauties of the idea explained to him at length, became an enthusiastic supporter of the scheme.
"But," he objected, "it'll take up all our time. Is it worth it? We can't spend every afternoon sweating away at impots for other people."
"It's all right," said Dunstable, "I've thought of that. We shall need to pitch in pretty hard for about a week or ten days. That will give us a good big stock, and after that if we turn out a hundred each every day it will be all right. A hundred's not much fag if you spread them over a day."
Linton admitted that this was sound, and the Locksley Lines Supplying Trust, Ltd., set to work in earnest.
It must not be supposed that the Agency left a great deal to chance. The writing of lines in advance may seem a very speculative business; but both Dunstable and Linton had had a wide experience of Locksley masters, and the methods of the same when roused, and they were thus enabled to reduce the element of chance to a minimum. They knew, for example, that Mr. Day's favourite imposition was the Greek numerals, and that in nine cases out of ten that would be what the youth who had dealings with him would need to ask for from the Lines Trust. Mr. Appleby, on the other hand, invariably set Virgil. The oldest inhabitant had never known him to depart from this custom. For the French masters extracts from the works of Victor Hugo would probably pass muster.
A week from the date of the above conversation, everyone in the school, with the exception of the prefects and the sixth form, found in his desk on arriving at his form-room a printed slip of paper. (Spiking, the stationer in the High Street, had printed it.) It was nothing less than the prospectus of the new Trust. It set forth in glowing terms the advantages offered by the agency. Dunstable had written it--he had a certain amount of skill with his pen--and Linton had suggested subtle and captivating additions. The whole presented rather a striking appearance.
The document was headed with the name of the Trust in large letters. Under this came a number of "scare headlines" such as:
SEE WHAT YOU SAVE!
NO MORE WORRY!
PEACE, PERFECT PEACE!
WHY DO LINES WHEN WE DO THEM
Then came the real prospectus:
Then a blank space, after which came a few "unsolicited testimonials":
* * * * *
There could be no doubt about the popularity of the Trust. It caught on instantly.
Nothing else was discussed in the form-rooms at the quarter to eleven interval, and in the houses after lunch it was the sole topic of conversation. Dunstable and Linton were bombarded with questions and witticisms of the near personal sort. To the latter they replied with directness, to the former evasively.
"What's it all about?" someone would ask, fluttering the leaflet before Dunstable's unmoved face.
"You should read it carefully," Dunstable would reply. "It's all there."
"But what are you playing at?"
"We tried to make it clear to the meanest intelligence. Sorry you can't understand it."
While at the same time Linton, in his form-room, would be explaining to excited inquirers that he was sorry, but it was impossible to reply to their query as to who was running the Trust. He was not at liberty to reveal business secrets. Suffice it that there the lines were, waiting to be bought, and he was there to sell them. So that if anybody cared to lay in a stock, large or small, according to taste, would he kindly walk up and deposit the necessary coin?
But here the public showed an unaccountable disinclination to deal. It was gratifying to have acquaintances coming up and saying admiringly: "You are an ass, you know," as if they were paying the highest of compliments--as, indeed, they probably imagined that they were. All this was magnificent, but it was not business. Dunstable and Linton felt that the whole attitude of the public towards the new enterprise was wrong. Locksley seemed to regard the Trust as a huge joke, and its prospectus as a literary jeu d'esprit.
In fact, it looked very much as if--from a purely commercial point of view--the great Lines Supplying Trust was going to be what is known in theatrical circles as a frost.
For two whole days the public refused to bite, and Dunstable and Linton, turning over the stacks of lines in their studies, thought gloomily that this world is no place for original enterprise.
Then things began to move.
It was quite an accident that started them. Jackson, of Dexter's, was teaing with Linton, and, as was his habit, was giving him a condensed history of his life since he last saw him. In the course of this he touched on a small encounter with M. Gaudinois which had occurred that afternoon.
"So I got two pages of 'Quatre-Vingt Treize' to write," he concluded, "for doing practically nothing."
All Jackson's impositions, according to him, were given him for doing practically nothing. Now and then he got them for doing literally nothing--when he ought to have been doing form-work.
"Done 'em?" asked Linton.
"Not yet; no," replied Jackson. "More tea, please."
"What you want to do, then," said Linton, "is to apply to the Locksley Lines Supplying Trust. That's what you must do."
"You needn't rot a chap on a painful subject," protested Jackson.
"I wasn't rotting," said Linton. "Why don't you apply to the Lines Trust?"
"Then do you mean to say that there really is such a thing?" Jackson said incredulously. "Why I thought it was all a rag."
"I know you did. It's the rotten sort of thing you would think. Rag, by Jove! Look at this. Now do you understand that this is a genuine concern?"
He got up and went to the cupboard which filled the space between the stove and the bookshelf. From this resting-place he extracted a great pile of manuscript and dumped it down on the table with a bang which caused a good deal of Jackson's tea to spring from its native cup on to its owner's trousers.
"When you've finished," protested Jackson, mopping himself with a handkerchief that had seen better days.
"Sorry. But look at these. What did you say your impot was? Oh, I remember. Here you are. Two pages of 'Quatre-Vingt Treize.' I don't know which two pages, but I suppose any will do."
Jackson was amazed.
"Great Scott! what a wad of stuff! When did you do it all?"
"Oh, at odd times. Dunstable's got just as much over at Day's. So you see the Trust is a jolly big show. Here are your two pages. That looks just like your scrawl, doesn't it? These would be fourpence in the ordinary way, but you can have 'em for nothing this time."
"Oh, I say," said Jackson gratefully, "that's awfully good of you."
After that the Locksley Lines Supplying Trust, Ltd. went ahead with a rush. The brilliant success which attended its first specimen--M. Gaudinois took Jackson's imposition without a murmur--promoted confidence in the public, and they rushed to buy. Orders poured in from all the houses, and by the middle of the term the organisers of the scheme were able to divide a substantial sum.
"How are you getting on round your way?" asked Linton of Dunstable at the end of the sixth week of term.
"Ripping. Selling like hot cakes."
"So are mine," said Linton. "I've almost come to the end of my stock. I ought to have written some more, but I've been a bit slack lately."
"Yes, buck up. We must keep a lot in hand."
"I say, did you hear that about Merrett in our house?" asked Linton.
"What about him?"
"Why, he tried to start a rival show. Wrote a prospectus and everything. But it didn't catch on a bit. The only chap who bought any of his lines was young Shoeblossom. He wanted a couple of hundred for Appleby. Appleby was on to them like bricks. Spotted Shoeblossom hadn't written them, and asked who had. He wouldn't say, so he got them doubled. Everyone in the house is jolly sick with Merrett. They think he ought to have owned up."
"Did that smash up Merrett's show? Is he going to turn out any more?"
"Rather not. Who'd buy 'em?"
It would have been better for the Lines Supplying Trust if Merrett had not received this crushing blow and had been allowed to carry on a rival business on legitimate lines. Locksley was conservative in its habits, and would probably have continued to support the old firm.
As it was, the baffled Merrett, a youth of vindictive nature, brooded over his defeat, and presently hit upon a scheme whereby things might be levelled up.
One afternoon, shortly before lock-up, Dunstable was surprised by the advent of Linton to his study in a bruised and dishevelled condition. One of his expressive eyes was closed and blackened. He also wore what is known in ring circles as a thick ear.
"What on earth's up?" inquired Dunstable, amazed at these phenomena. "Have you been scrapping?"
"Yes--Merrett--I won. What are you up to--writing lines? You may as well save yourself the trouble. They won't be any good." Dunstable stared.
"The Trust's bust," said Linton.
He never wasted words in moments of emotion.
"'Bust' was what I said. That beast Merrett gave the show away."
"What did he do? Surely he didn't tell a master?"
"Well, he did the next thing to it. He hauled out that prospectus, and started reading it in form. I watched him do it. He kept it under the desk and made a foul row, laughing over it. Appleby couldn't help spotting him. Of course, he told him to bring him what he was reading. Up went Merrett with the prospectus."
"Was Appleby sick?"
"I don't believe he was, really. At least, he laughed when he read the thing. But he hauled me up after school and gave me a long jaw, and made me take all the lines I'd got to his house. He burnt them. I had it out with Merrett just now. He swears he didn't mean to get the thing spotted, but I knew he did."
"Where did you scrag him!"
"In the dormitory. He chucked it after the third round."
There was a knock at the door.
"Come in," shouted Dunstable.
Buxton appeared, a member of Appleby's house.
"Oh, Dunstable, Appleby wants to see you."
"All right," said Dunstable wearily.
Mr. Appleby was in facetious mood. He chaffed Dunstable genially about his prospectus, and admitted that it had amused him. Dunstable smiled without enjoyment. It was a good thing, perhaps, that Mr. Appleby saw the humorous rather than the lawless side of the Trust; but all the quips in the world could not save that institution from ruin.
Presently Mr. Appleby's manner changed. "I am a funny dog, I know," he seemed to say; "but duty is duty, and must be done."
"How many lines have you at your house, Dunstable?" he asked.
"About eight hundred, sir."
"Then you had better write me eight hundred lines, and show them up to me in this room at--shall we say at ten minutes to five? It is now a quarter to, so that you will have plenty of time."
Dunstable went, and returned five minutes later, bearing an armful of manuscript.
"I don't think I shall need to count them," said Mr. Appleby. "Kindly take them in batches of ten sheets, and tear them in half, Dunstable."
The last sheet fluttered in two sections into the surfeited waste-paper basket.
"It's an awful waste, sir," said Dunstable regretfully.
Mr. Appleby beamed.
"We must, however," he said, "always endeavour to look on the bright side, Dunstable. The writing of these eight hundred lines will have given you a fine grip of the rhythm of Virgil, the splendid prose of Victor Hugo, and the unstudied majesty of the Greek Numerals. Good-night, Dunstable."
"Good-night, sir," said the President of the Locksley Lines Supplying Trust, Ltd.