The house cricket cup at Wrykyn has found itself on some strange mantelpieces in its time. New talent has a way of cropping up in the house matches. Tail-end men hit up fifties, and bowlers who have never taken a wicket before except at the nets go on fifth change, and dismiss first eleven experts with deliveries that bounce twice and shoot. So that nobody is greatly surprised in the ordinary run of things if the cup does not go to the favourites, or even to the second or third favourites. But one likes to draw the line. And Wrykyn drew it at Shields'. And yet, as we shall proceed to show, Shields' once won the cup, and that, too, in a year when Donaldson's had four first eleven men and Dexter's three.

Shields' occupied a unique position at the School. It was an absolutely inconspicuous house. There were other houses that were slack or wild or both, but the worst of these did something. Shields' never did anything. It never seemed to want to do anything. This may have been due in some degree to Mr. Shields. As the housemaster is, so the house is. He was the most inconspicuous master on the staff. He taught a minute form in the junior school, where earnest infants wrestled with somebody's handy book of easy Latin sentences, and depraved infants threw cunningly compounded ink-balls at one another and the ceiling. After school he would range the countryside with a pickle-bottle in search of polly woggles and other big game, which he subsequently transferred to slides and examined through a microscope till an advanced hour of the night. The curious part of the matter was that his house was never riotous. Perhaps he was looked on as a non-combatant, one whom it would be unfair and unsporting to rag. At any rate, a weird calm reigned over the place; and this spirit seemed to permeate the public lives of the Shieldsites. They said nothing much and they did nothing much and they were very inoffensive. As a rule, one hardly knew they were there.

Into this abode of lotus-eaters came Clephane, a day boy, owing to the departure of his parents for India. Clephane wanted to go to Donaldson's. In fact, he said so. His expressions, indeed, when he found that the whole thing had been settled, and that he was to spend his last term at school at a house which had never turned out so much as a member of the Gym. Six, bordered on the unfilial. It appeared that his father had met Mr. Shields at dinner in the town--a fact to which he seemed to attach a mystic importance. Clephane's criticism of this attitude of mind was of such a nature as to lead his father to address him as Archibald instead of Archie.

However, the thing was done, and Clephane showed his good sense by realising this and turning his energetic mind to the discovery of the best way of making life at Shields' endurable. Fortune favoured him by sending to the house another day boy, one Mansfield. Clephane had not known him intimately before, though they were both members of the second eleven; but at Shields' they instantly formed an alliance. And in due season--or a little later--the house matches began. Henfrey, of Day's, the Wrykyn cricket captain, met Clephane at the nets when the drawing for opponents had been done.

"Just the man I wanted to see," said Henfrey. "I suppose you're captain of Shields' lot, Clephane? Well, you're going to scratch as usual, I suppose?"

For the last five seasons that lamentable house had failed to put a team into the field. "You'd better," said Henfrey, "we haven't overmuch time as it is. That match with Paget's team has thrown us out a lot. We ought to have started the house matches a week ago."

"Scratch!" said Clephane. "Don't you wish we would! My good chap, we're going to get the cup."

"You needn't be a funny ass," said Henfrey in his complaining voice, "we really are awfully pushed. As it is we shall have to settle the opening rounds on the first innings. That's to say, we can only give 'em a day each; if they don't finish, the winner of the first innings wins. You might as well scratch."

"I can't help your troubles. By rotten mismanagement you have got the house-matches crowded up into the last ten days of term, and you come and expect me to sell a fine side like Shields' to get you out of the consequences of your reckless act. My word, Henfrey, you've sunk pretty low. Nice young fellow Henfrey was at one time, but seems to have got among bad companions. Quite changed now. Avoid him as much as I can. Leave me, Henfrey, I would be alone."

"But you can't raise a team."

"Raise a team! Do you happen to know that half the house is biting itself with agony because we can't find room for all? Shields gives stump-cricket soirees in his study after prep. One every time you hit the ball, two into the bowl of goldfish, and out if you smash the microscope."

"Well," said Henfrey viciously, "if you want to go through the farce of playing one round and making idiots of yourselves, you'll have to wait a bit. You've got a bye in the first round."

Clephane told the news to Mansfield after tea. "I've been and let the house in for a rollicking time," he said, abstracting the copy of Latin verses which his friend was doing, and sitting on them to ensure undivided attention to his words. "Wanting to score off old Henfrey--I have few pleasures--I told him that Shields' was not going to scratch. So we are booked to play in the second round of the housers. We drew a bye for the first. It would be an awful rag if we could do something. We must raise a team of some sort. Henfrey would score so if we didn't. Who's there, d'you think, that can play?"

Mansfield considered the question thoughtfully. "They all play, I suppose," he said slowly, "if you can call it playing. What I mean to say is, cricket's compulsory here, so I suppose they've all had an innings or two at one time or another in the eightieth game or so. But if you want record-breakers, I shouldn't trust to Shields' too much."

"Not a bit. So long as we put a full team into the field, that's all I care about. I've often wondered what it's like to go in first and bowl unchanged the whole time."

"You'll do that all right," said Mansfield. "I should think Shields' bowling ran to slow grubs, to judge from the look of 'em. You'd better go and see Wilkins about raising the team. As head of the house, he probably considers himself captain of cricket."

Wilkins, however, took a far more modest view of his position. The notion of leading a happy band of cricketers from Shields' into the field had, it seemed, small attractions for him. But he went so far as to get a house list, and help choose a really representative team. And as details about historic teams are always welcome, we may say that the averages ranged from 3.005 to 8.14. This last was Wilkins' own and was, as he would have been the first to admit, substantially helped by a contribution of nineteen in a single innings in the fifth game.

So the team was selected, and Clephane turned out after school next day to give them a little fielding-practice. To his surprise the fielding was not so outrageous as might have been expected. All the simpler catches were held, and one or two of the harder as well. Given this form on the day of their appearance in public, and Henfrey might be disappointed when he came to watch and smile sarcastically. A batting fiasco is not one half so ridiculous as maniac fielding.

In the meantime the first round of the house matches had been played off, and it would be as well to describe at this point the positions of the rival houses and their prospects. In the first place, there were only four teams really in the running for the cup, Day's (headed by the redoubtable Henfrey), Spence's, who had Jackson, that season a head and shoulders above the other batsmen in the first eleven--he had just wound up the school season with an average of 51.3, Donaldson's, and Dexter's. All the other house teams were mainly tail.

Now, in the first round the powerful quartette had been diminished by the fact that Donaldson's had drawn Dexter's, and had lost to them by a couple of wickets.

For the second round Shields' drew Appleby's, a poor team. Space on the Wrykyn field being a consideration, with three house matches to be played off at the same time, Clephane's men fought their first battle on rugged ground in an obscure corner. As the captain of cricket ordered these matters, Henfrey had naturally selected the best bit of turf for Day's v. Dexter's. That section of the ground which was sacred to the school second-eleven matches was allotted to Spence's v. the School House. The idle public divided its attention between the two big games, and paid no attention to the death struggle in progress at the far end of the field. Whereby it missed a deal of quiet fun.

I say death struggle advisedly. Clephane had won his second-eleven cap as a fast bowler. He had failed to get into the first eleven because he was considered too erratic. Put these two facts together, and you will suspect that dark deeds were wrought on the men of Appleby in that lonely corner of the Wrykyn meadow.

The pitch was not a good one. As a sample of the groundman's art it was sketchy and amateurish; it lacked finish. Clephane won the toss, took a hasty glance at the corrugated turf, and decided to bat first. The wicket was hardly likely to improve with use.

He and Mansfield opened the batting. He stood three feet out of his ground, and smote. The first four balls he took full pitch. The last two, owing to a passion for variety on the part of the bowler, were long hops. At the end of the over Shields' score was twenty-four. Mansfield pursued the same tactics. When the first wicket fell, seventy was on the board. A spirit of martial enthusiasm pervaded the ranks of the house team. Mild youths with spectacles leaped out of their ground like tigers, and snicked fours through the slips. When the innings concluded, blood had been spilt--from an injured finger--but the total was a hundred and two.

Then Clephane walked across to the School shop for a vanilla ice. He said he could get more devil, as it were, into his bowling after a vanilla ice. He had a couple.

When he bowled his first ball it was easy to see that there was truth in the report of the causes of his inclusion in the second eleven and exclusion from the first. The batsman observed somewhat weakly, "Here, I say!" and backed towards square leg. The ball soared over the wicket-keep's head and went to the boundary. The bowler grinned pleasantly, and said he was just getting his arm in.

The second ball landed full-pitch on the batsman's right thigh. The third was another full pitch, this time on the top of the middle stump, which it smashed. With profound satisfaction the batsman hobbled to the trees, and sat down. "Let somebody else have a shot," he said kindly.

Appleby's made twenty-eight that innings.

Their defeat by an innings and fifty-three runs they attributed subsequently to the fact that only seven of the team could be induced to go to the wickets in the second venture.

"So you've managed to win a match," grunted Henfrey, "I should like to have been there."

"You might just as well have been," said Clephane, "from what they tell me."

At which Henfrey became abusive, for he had achieved an "egg" that afternoon, and missed a catch; which things soured him, though Day's had polished off Dexter's handsomely.

"Well," he said at length, "you're in the semi-final now, of all weird places. You'd better play Spence's next. When can you play?"

"Henfrey," said Clephane, "I have a bright, open, boyish countenance, but I was not born yesterday. You want to get a dangerous rival out of the way without trouble, so you set Shields' to smash up Spence's. No, Henfrey. I do not intend to be your catspaw. We will draw lots who is to play which. Here comes Jackson. We'll toss odd man out."

And when the coins fell there were two tails and one head; and the head belonged to the coin of Clephane.

"So, you see," he said to Henfrey, "Shields' is in the final. No wonder you wanted us to scratch."

I should like this story to end with a vivid description of a tight finish. Considering that Day's beat Spence's, and consequently met Shields' in the final, that would certainly be the most artistic ending. Henfrey batting--Clephane bowling--one to tie, two to win, one wicket to fall. Up goes the ball! Will the lad catch it!! He fumbles it. It falls. All is over. But look! With a supreme effort--and so on.

The real conclusion was a little sensational in its way, but not nearly so exciting as that.

The match between Day's and Shields' opened in a conventional enough manner. Day's batted first, and made two hundred and fifty. Henfrey carried his bat for seventy-six, and there were some thirties. For Shields' Clephane and Mansfield made their usual first-wicket stand, and the rest brought the total up to ninety-eight. At this point Henfrey introduced a variation on custom. The match was a three days' match. In fact, owing to the speed with which the other games had been played, it could, if necessary, last four days. The follow-on was, therefore, a matter for the discretion of the side which led. Henfrey and his team saw no reason why they should not have another pleasant spell of batting before dismissing their opponents for the second time and acquiring the cup. So in they went again, and made another two hundred and fifty odd, Shields' being left with four hundred and twelve to make to win.

On the morning after Day's second innings, a fag from Day's brought Clephane a message from Henfrey. Henfrey was apparently in bed. He would be glad if Clephane would go and see him in the dinner-hour. The interview lasted fifteen minutes. Then Clephane burst out of the house, and dashed across to Shields' in search of Mansfield.

"I say, have you heard?" he shouted.

"What's up?"

"Why, every man in Day's team, bar two kids, is in bed. Ill. Do you mean to say you haven't heard? They thought they'd got that house cup safe, so all the team except the two kids, fags, you know, had a feed in honour of it in Henfrey's study. Some ass went and bought a bad rabbit pie, and now they're laid up. Not badly, but they won't be out for a day or two."

"But what about the match?"

"Oh, that'll go on. I made a point of that. They can play subs."

Mansfield looked thoughtful.

"But I say," he said, "it isn't very sporting, is it? Oughtn't we to wait or something?"

"Sporting! My dear chap, a case like this mustn't be judged by ordinary standards. We can't spoil the giant rag of the century because it isn't quite sporting. Think what it means--Shields' getting the cup! It'll keep the school laughing for terms. What do you want to spoil people's pleasure for?"

"Oh, all right," said Mansfield.

"Besides, think of the moral effect it'll have on the house. It may turn it into the blood house of Wrykyn. Shields himself may get quite sportive. We mustn't miss the chance."

The news having got about the school, Clephane and Mansfield opened their second innings to the somewhat embarrassed trundling of Masters Royce and Tibbit, of the Junior School, before a substantial and appreciative audience.

Both played carefully at first, but soon getting the measure of the bowling (which was not deep) began to hit out, and runs came quickly. At fifty, Tibbit, understudying Henfrey as captain of the side, summoned to his young friend Todby from short leg, and instructed him to "have a go" at the top end.

It was here that Clephane courteously interfered. Substitutes, he pointed out, were allowed, by the laws of cricket, only to field, not to bowl. He must, therefore, request friend Todby to return to his former sphere of utility, where, he added politely, he was a perfect demon.

"But, blow it," said Master Tibbit, who (alas!) was addicted to the use of strong language, "Royce and I can't bowl the whole blessed time."

"You'll have to, I'm afraid," said Clephane with the kindly air of a doctor soothing a refractory patient. "Of course, you can take a spell at grubs whenever you like."

"Oh, darn!" said Master Tibbit.

Shortly afterwards Clephane made his century.

       *       *       *       *       *

The match ended late on the following afternoon in a victory for Shields' by nine wickets, and the scene at the School Shop when Royce and Tibbit arrived to drown their sorrows and moisten their dry throats with ginger beer is said by eyewitnesses to have been something quite out of the common run.

The score sheet of the match is also a little unusual. Clephane's three hundred and one (not out) is described in the Wrykinian as a "masterly exhibition of sound yet aggressive batting." How Henfrey described it we have never heard.