Read CHAPTER I of Jack of Both Sides The Story of a School War , free online book, by Florence Coombe, on ReadCentral.com.

THE JOKE THAT FAILED

“I say, you fellows, look here! What do you think of this? It’s our lunch!”

“This” was a large basket, lined with a white cloth, at the bottom of which lay nine bread-pills. Nine boys looked down at them in rueful disgust, and then across the school-room to where a larger group stood chuckling mischievously, their hands and mouths filled with tempting, crusty hunches, carved from the loaf according to fancy.

Those nine gray, unappetizing pellets represented all that was left of the loaf; and Mason, the boy who first spoke, realizing this, flung the big basket in a burst of indignation at the heads of the opposite clump, one or two of whom were hit. Revenge was prompt. Ere it touched the floor it was hurled back with vigour, but, being dodged successfully, fell harmless to the ground.

Mason and seven others were new-comers to Brincliffe School, and when the luncheon interval was heralded by the entrance of the loaf and the exit of the masters, it did not occur to them to join in the general rush that was made at the basket. And this was the sorry reward of good manners!

The fact of the matter is that they were not merely new boys, and therefore lawful game, but day-pupils. That was a grievance at Brincliffe a great grievance. It was only last term that the first day-boy was admitted into Mr. West’s establishment. More than one young wiseacre had gloomily prophesied that Jim Bacon was the thin end of the wedge. And now they gloated, “Didn’t we say so?”

It is not easy to see at once what objection there could be to certain boys attending the school and yet sleeping in their own homes. But a rooted objection there undoubtedly was all the stronger, perhaps, because no valid reason for it could be stated.

Now for a few moments words took the place of missiles.

“You you greedy, giggling gobblers you!” This was from Mason, and he was hungry. The “g’s” came out in slow, studied jerks.

“And what are you, pray? A pack of pretty poppets! Mammy’s darlings! Must go home to by-by, mustn’t you?” Sneering was Joe Green’s forte.

Words failed Mason, but a small black-eyed lad, called Lewis Simmons, took up the cudgels in his stead.

Id rather be a pretty poppet than an ugly chimpanzee like some people!”

“Hold your tongue, baby! Cheek me again, and you’ll get smacked. We must see that all you duckies go to bed at twelve for a little nap. You shall have a nice beauty-sleep, you shall!”

“Don’t answer! Swallow it down!” muttered Jack Brady, laying his hand on Simmons’s shoulder. “Let ’em have the last word if they’re stuck on it. We’re only wasting breath.”

“It’s all very well, Brady, but they have treated us abominably! We’d done nothing to them.” Ethelbert Hughes, who said this in a low voice, was Simmons’s special chum, though a great contrast, being tall and fair, with a gentle, quiet manner.

“Still, there’s nothing gained by bandying names,” returned Brady. “And it isn’t even amusing to listen to. A fellow’s seldom funny and furious at the same time.

“I don’t care about words,” said Mason, giving a fierce kick to the basket. “I’m quite ready to bandy thumps, if they prefer it. But they deserve trouncing in some way for a caddish trick like this.”

“It was a bit rough on us, but they only meant it as a joke,” persisted Brady. “We must pay them back in joke, and then it’ll be all right.”

“Will it?” growled Bacon. “I know better. Why, they hate day-boys like poison, and they’ll let you all feel it too. I had a nice dose of it last term, and I’m jolly glad there are some more of you to share it with me this time.”

“Oh, that’s it, is it?” said a boy called Armitage. “And are they all such donkeys as to care whether we sleep here or not?”

“They’re all such sheep as to follow the same track blindly, and not dare to act on their own hook,” replied Bacon. “It’s the fashion to run down day-boys, that’s all. But it’s a beastly shame, and I almost wish West hadn’t let me in.”

“Oh, rubbish!” said Brady. “Fashions change quickly. We’ll have a ripping time, in spite of everybody.”

Meanwhile the boarders were discussing matters from their point of view.

“It’s just what I expected,” said Norman Hallett, a tall, well-built boy, who was the eldest in the school. “Once open the door only a chink and in pours the whole town.” He waved a half-eaten crust to illustrate the pouring in.

“West had better drop the name of Brincliffe, and call us Elmridge Grammar School at once. That’s what we are now,” observed Green.

“I don’t mind so much about that,” said a grave-faced boy, whose name was Vickers; “but what I do hate is the way day-boys spoil everything. It can’t be helped, but nothing’s ever fair or equal when once day-boys get mixed up with a school. I’ll tell you exactly what happens. First” and here the speaker laid his forefinger on his thumb to mark the order “First, they’re always trying to make you green with envy by talking about the jolly things they’re going to. Second, they’re continually getting holidays for themselves on some pretence or other. Third, they love to pity you, and declare they’d shoot themselves rather than be regular boarders. Fourth, they buy cribs and keys, and keep them at home, and get help from their fathers, and work extra hours, and spoil your chance of a prize altogether. Fifth, they’re for ever sniggering over private jokes about people you neither know nor want to

“Hold, Vickers, my dear chap!” broke in Cadbury, the school jester. “It pains me to check the fluency of our golden-mouthed orator, but I’ve been waiting in vain for ‘Finally’. Let’s have an innings. What I object to is that they’re such a horrid lot. Cocky to a degree simply think no end of themselves and lose their hair altogether at the first little playful joke. I think the beastly way in which they took that bread game spoke for itself. I should like to have hammered them for that.”

“West will be changing all our hours and classes soon to suit the convenience of the day-boarders. That’ll be the next move. I know it, because I heard him ask that gawky chap they call Mason if he could stay on Wednesday evenings for the dancing class. If he could, indeed! That’s the way they’re going to be treated.”

“If they are, it’ll be war to the knife between us and them,” observed Hallett, folding his arms with an air of conscious might.

“War wiz knife, Hallett? Ah!”

It was a black-browed foreign child of nine who whispered these words, creeping close to Hallett, and gazing up curiously into his face. Hallett burst out laughing.

“Listen to this bloodthirsty brigand of a March Hare! The instinct of his ancestors is strong within him. No, Harey,” he continued, “I won’t stickle for knives, or even pistols. Shall we call it war to the fist? Anything will do, so long as it’s war.”

“What do you all think of the weekly? Is he as bad as the rest?” asked Grey, one of the juniors. He was always careful to find out what he ought to think before he thought it.

“Which is the weakly one?” asked Cadbury. “That lily-flower bending on its stalk to address the cheeky, black-eyed imp? He looks weakly enough, all eyes and hair.”

“No, no; that’s Hughes, from the Bank. I mean the new weekly boarder, who’s to go home from Saturday to Monday.”

“I know the one,” said Hallett. “The apple-faced boy who does so much laughing. I heard someone call him Brady.”

“Oh, that fellow! He doesn’t look so bad,” pronounced Trevelyan, who ranked only second to Hallett.

“He seems to have a strong sense of humour,” remarked Vickers gravely, at which his comrades giggled. Vickers was commonly believed to have none. He never laughed when anyone else did.

“A weekly boarder is a very different thing from a day-boy,” Hallett went on. “If Brady was wise he wouldn’t go mixing himself up with that lot. I shall give him a wrinkle when he comes my way. He really looks rather decent, and he was the only one who grinned about the bread. Of course it may have been from sheer force of habit, and therefore no credit to him; but still, he did grin.”

At this moment the discussion in both camps was brought to a sudden finish by the return of the masters. The chief himself, Mr. West, was the first to enter, and his eye was immediately caught by the bread basket, which lay dejected on its side in a little pool of crumbs. He looked suspiciously at it.

“Who threw the basket on the floor?”

Dead silence.

“Come, speak out! Someone must have done it; baskets don’t jump off tables by themselves.”

After another short silence, one of the young day-pupils, who happened to be standing close beside it, picked up the basket and placed it on the table.

“Did you knock it down, Frere, my boy?” asked Mr. West.

“No, sir. It was one of the boarders; I don’t know his name. I think he aimed it at some of us, and it fell on the floor instead.”

Frere spoke innocently. He had never been to school before, and it did not occur to him that he was doing any harm by his frankness least of all, to himself! The eyes of his friends and enemies alike glared reproachfully at him, but he did not notice them. It was Jack Brady who broke in.

“We threw the basket at them first, sir, and it did hit them!”

“Well, never do it again, Brady. Look what a mess it’s made on the floor! And you others, you have been in the school longer; you ought to have known better than to throw it back. You might have broken something.”

That was all. But the bitterness between the two camps was not lessened by the incident, and Frere was liked none the better for it.

However, now work began again, and ill-feeling was shelved perforce for the time. The sarcastic Green, for instance, found himself required to read the part of “Nerissa” to Mason’s “Portia”; and Hughes was set to sketch Africa on the board in company with Vickers. The boys did not know that Mr. West had given a hint to the masters to mix the new and old element well together.

That opening day was a weary one to the nine town boys, and all but Jack Brady, the “weekly”, scampered off with boisterous delight when school was dismissed at four o’clock.

The two chums, Ethelbert Hughes and Lewis Simmons, had been quickly dubbed “Ethel” and “Lucy”, and they did not at once appreciate their new names. But Jack Brady, when he found himself hailed indiscriminately as “Apple” and “Grinner”, answered and laughed without a trace of resentment. Perhaps that was why neither title stuck to him, while Hughes and Simmons became Ethel and Lucy to everyone, and even at last to each other.

Jack was standing at the window, watching his friends disappear in the direction of the town, and whistling softly to keep up his spirits, when Hallett approached him.

“Hullo, Red-cheeks, they say you’re not a day-boy. I think myself that going home once a week is a mistake; however, of course that’s a matter of opinion. But why on earth do you stick by those wretched eight whom West has let in to spoil the school?”

“Fellow-feeling!” Jack’s smile atoned for the shortness of his reply.

“Nonsense! I can’t for the life of me see why you should connect yourself with that lot at all. We’ve no quarrel with you.”

“Nor with the others, for the matter of that,” returned Jack, looking straight into Hallett’s face.

Hallett moved away with a short grunt, for want of an answer. Then, remembering one, he turned back.

“What about young Frere? What did you think of that?”

“I’d have stopped him if I could. But he didn’t mean any harm. To a home-boy it sometimes comes natural to blurt out all you know when you’re asked a question.”

Hallett shrugged his shoulders.

“You’ll make a first-rate pleader one day, Brady. If ever I want defending, I’ll engage you.”

“Thanks!” said Jack. “You’re very kind.”