This is a pastiche of P. G. Wodehouse's boys' school stories, featuring the characters of Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin series. Really.

For Derek, who likes bees, boys' own adventures, and Master and Commander.

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The Importance of Bees
by afrai

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Whatever his thoughts on the issue later, Jack Aubrey did not begin the term with the intention of quarrelling with Stephen Maturin. It was his first term as cricket captain of a cricket-mad school, with a first eleven demoralised by the loss of the finest batman Ashgrove had ever seen on his hands, and he had more than enough to occupy him without engaging in unproductive hostilities. Besides which, Jack was a boy of unusually sweet temperament. He was not shy of fighting when honour demanded he plunge into the fray, but he did not kick up rows just for the fun of the thing. As his friends were wont indulgently to say, there was no vice in Lucky Jack Aubrey.

There was another reason for Jack's uninterest in feuding with Maturin, and that was that he knew nothing of Maturin's existence. Stephen Maturin turned up fashionably late at Ashgrove, entering the highest form upon his arrival, but he failed to make a splash for all of that. He was an undersized, unprepossessing specimen of humanity to look at, and the boys in his house found that he did not particularly improve on acquaintance. He was an Irishman, but that they could have forgiven. The fact that he was neither a thing of beauty nor a joy forever was neither here nor there: Ashgrove boasted many visual excrescences who were beloved of their schoolfellows' hearts; you could not survive long at a public school without getting inured to the sight of the occasional monstrosity in school uniform, and the Ashgrovians had long learnt to look for beauty beneath the -- often sadly pock-marked -- skin.

Yet it was not precisely Maturin's personality that was the problem. He was soon seen to be kind to animals and the lower school, though admittedly critics were not inclined to give him any credit for kindness to the latter, since, they argued, many members of the lower forms could very easily pass off as animals of a degraded sort. He was no good at games, and he seemed to have no taste for ragging, but, though life at Ashgrove would undoubtedly have been happier for Maturin if he had been either keen or funny, he had some sense, which should have made school tolerable for him. He was not a silly ass, a bounder or a sneak. Even his obvious fondness for swotting might not have proved an obstacle to a peaceful life, if he had only attempted to conduct himself decently.

Therein lay the trouble. Maturin simply did not know how to behave. It was not so much that he repudiated the aspiration of every upstanding Englishman never to stand out in the crowd, as that he did not seem to realise that there was a crowd, or that there was any necessity for him to consider its opinion of his doings. He seemed to have no self-consciousness, that defining trait of the English schoolboy.

He was interested in birds. He did not do the thing decently, as his schoolmates had a right to expect. He flung himself into it, heart and soul. There were no limits to his passion. He trailed feathers with every ill-shod step. (His habits were uniformly slovenly, to an extent horrifying even to the boys, who were not, on the whole, a well-groomed herd.) He pursued birds with every free second, and his thoughts followed the chase when his body could not. He did not exactly buttonhole boys in the halls to explain the ins and outs of ornithology to them, but he was quite capable of turning a perfectly innocuous conversation about the weather into a discourse on the migration patterns of the Canadian goose.

To the tenderly brought-up souls of Ashgrove, this sort of thing was horrific. What made it even worse was that Maturin was not apologetic about it. He was touchy, proud, and reserved; he took offence easily, and was rather apt to hold a grudge. If he had a sense of humour, it was not one shared by his schoolmates. In short, he was eccentric.

If there is one society in which you cannot get away with eccentricity, it is that of the public school. Not even the most popular sportsman may carry off so much as the whiff of strangeness, and Maturin was far from popular. He was a nonentity, and one who did not understand his status. Ashgrove drew back and held its nose at Maturin as one boy.

All the same, it was not this that prejudiced Jack Aubrey against Maturin. As we have said, Jack had better things to think about than a newly-arrived nonentity, and at any rate he was of a liberal character. Live and let live, was Jack's view. It was a guideline that had served him excellently well for the past seventeen years, and one which, he thought, had enabled him to maintain his happy, relatively trouble-free position in the world.

He was only half-right. There was no doubt that his amiable philosophy of life had aided him in boosting his popularity amongst his chums, but this was only, as it were, the pink sugar rose on the birthday cake of his life. Jack had advantages. "Lucky Jack Aubrey" was not a mere meaningless title bestowed in unthinking juvenile humour. Jack had that something that is granted to few men, that something which is more than fortuity and less than grace. It did not proceed from Jack's abundant health or wealth of good spirits, though they added to it, but was a thing apart from these. Things went well for him, with little or no extraordinary virtue on his part. He was a generous boy, so his success had not jaded him or made him indifferent, but his habit of happiness did fill him so that he had very little attention for others' misery. He was not quick, except where his areas of expertise, such as cricket, were concerned, and it generally took something unusual for things -- and people -- that were not directly related to him to claim any portion of his attention.

Thus he did not accord his friend Dundas much notice when he began complaining about the new addition to Ashgrove society.

"Infernally fresh, that Maturin," was Dundas's judgement from on high.

"Eh?" said Jack. "Who?"

"Maturin. The new boy. He wants," said Dundas, with the deliberation of one who has thought long and hard on the matter, "a good kicking."

"Why, what's wrong with him?"

"What's wrong with him is that he sticks on a jolly sight too much side," said Dundas. "I nearly fell on my face stumbling over the chap outside Blaine's, and he cursed me for a rotter. If Blaine hadn't come up to see what the fuss was, I should have kicked him. The cheek of it!"

"Well, what did you have to go and stumble over him for, then?" said Jack reasonably.

"He was lying on the ground like a bally P. I. studying for footsteps, that's what for," said Dundas. "Said he was looking for grasshoppers. It's my opinion that the chap's cracked."

"Probably couldn't help it, with a housemaster like Blaine," Jack observed. He liked to be fair to his fellow man. "He's mad on pollywogs and the sort himself. Houses follow their housemasters, you know -- like goats. What did he say about the business?"

"Told us he didn't like to see this animosity amongst the boys, and got down on the path and started nosing around with Maturin," said Dundas, with disgust. "Nice sort of example to set, if you ask me. I'm jolly glad I'm not in Blaine's."

"Harte's not much better," Jack pointed out.

This Dundas was forced to admit. Harte was not a bad housemaster to live with if one had his favour. Neither Jack nor Dundas had it, however, and since Harte played favourites, there were times when they were made to feel that being in Harte's was not precisely the ideal situation. Harte was past master at the art of making things unpleasant for the boys in his house.

"Well, you watch," Dundas said finally. "If Maturin cheeks me again, I swear I'll scrag him. I've never had such beans from a new boy. I don't know how the chaps in his house put up with it."

"Hm," said Jack. He was not interested in Dundas's scraps, which were frequent and largely trivial. Dundas had a shrewishness of nature that invited battle. "What do you think of Mowett for the first eleven? I'm not altogether happy with Clonfert's bowling."

"Mowett's all right," said Dundas judiciously. "I say, Clonfert'll be frightfully put out, though. It's his last term here, and he told me himself he was depending on getting his colours before he left."

"He can't expect to, if he keeps on bowling as he has been," said Jack. "We've got to put up a good team if we aren't to disgrace ourselves against the Old Boys this weekend. I wish to goodness Keith hadn't left. It's simply destroyed our batting. Here, take a look at this list and tell me what you think."

The conversation grew technical, and Maturin was forgotten for the nonce. He was fated to force himself upon Jack's attention in a spectacular manner before long, however.

Jack as a captain believed in the personal touch. He liked to keep an eye on the progress of his cricketers, and he considered that the best way to do that was to practise with them. Since he was something of a blood at Ashgrove, he rarely lacked for willing victims for the sacrifice, youngsters who were quite happy to drag themselves out of bed at unholy hours and to forsake their tea to bat under their idol's eye. He was bowling obligingly for a promising member of the third eleven, therefore, when the incident occurred.

Now the member of the third eleven, whose name was Pullings, was no mean batsman, and though Jack was giving him some pretty rigorous bowling, he ought to have had the ball. On this one point all the witnesses were agreed, in later discussion of the day's events. Pullings had been hitting like a prodigy, and he would have gone right on prodigising if at the crucial moment his line of vision had not been obscured by a form appearing suddenly on the cricket-field like a mist on the hills.

In the next moment Pullings saw clear again, but it was too late. He swung wild, but it was over. He staggered with the force of the swing; his stump leaned drunkenly to the side; and Jack Aubrey, across the field, was bawling out the obscuring form.

The form turned out to belong to Stephen Maturin. He was inclined at first to be apologetic, but any remorse was soon burned away by Jack's heated remarks. Jack had no idea of the depth of Maturin's ignorance regarding cricket, which was arrant and all-encompassing, or he might have been more restrained. As it was, the thing appeared to him as pure, unadulterated cheek, the like of which he had never encountered in any boy, much less one that had been at Ashgrove for less than a month. He made it very clear what he thought of such behaviour, in words which echoed around the school, and swivelled the heads of boys and masters alike within a considerable radius of the field.

Yet all was not quite lost. Had Maturin only submitted to being abused for what he swiftly came to realise was a gross breach of etiquette in an attitude of proper humility, Jack would have worn out his anger cleanly in five minutes and been on good terms with him, and all mankind, once more. But Maturin, as we have observed before, was touchy. He was no kin to the worm that, trod upon, proceeds on its way in unimpaired spirits. When stepped on he would turn, and turn he did.

He informed Jack that cricket was an idiotic game, only marginally less idiotic than its players, who were undisputed champions of the 100m stupidity race for taking it seriously. He elaborated upon Jack's character (dastardly), his antecedents (low, and scurrilously English), his physique (bloated), his intelligence (non-existent), and his manners (ditto). He cast aspersions like royalty strewing largesse to the populace, sporadically diverting from his focus on Jack to scatter insults upon poor Pullings and, defiantly, upon the interested crowd that had gathered. He rounded up with a few pithy remarks on Jack's habits, origins, and person, and concluded thunderously that a school that would leap to cry down the conduct of a man intent on the course of a hoopoe because he had prevented a stick from encountering a ball, rather than sympathise with his quest, was a school of brutish minds and debased pursuits, and he jolly well washed his hands of it.

"Oh, I say!" cried Pullings, round-eyed, but he cried alone. The rest of the audience were too knocked of a heap yet to respond. In this silence, Maturin made his leave, bristling like a porcupine that has sat on its own quills.

He had thrown down the gauntlet.

When Dundas, who had heard of the row several times over from various excited sources, broached the subject to Jack in their study, Jack was uncharacteristically reticent.

"Go ask Pullings, or Babbington, or any of them who were about," he said. "I don't want to talk about it."

"It was frightful cheek of him, though," Dundas persisted. "You aren't going to let him get away with it? I should touch him up properly if I were you."

"Well, you're not," said Jack shortly. "Let me be. I'll deal with Maturin in my own time."

Seeing the rare glint in Jack's eye that heralded a storm, Dundas wisely changed the subject. But it was clearly weighing upon Jack, for after a half-hour's distrait conversation on unconnected topics, and another half-hour's brooding silence, he burst out without preamble,

"I have never met with the like in all my puff."

"He is a scug," said Dundas, with ready sympathy.

"It isn't just that. Even the worst cad wouldn't have said what he did about the school." Jack was no more enamoured of his school than any other boy, and he knew its faults as well as its most critical detractors could, but he had some sense of propriety. One did not run down the school in public, or indeed in private, and certainly not as Maturin had done, with obvious, trembling, passionate rage. "It wasn't just cheek. It wouldn't have made a jot's worth of difference to him if nobody had heard him. He wasn't simply being beastly, he jolly well meant every word."

"Well, he oughtn't to've," said Dundas. "Even if he does like birds better than cricket, he's no business blaming it on everyone else. His house will simply scrag him, Blaine or not, you'll see."

Jack set his mouth. He was angry, as anyone who had had to endure such remarks upon his weight as he had would have been, but more, he was confused. He did not quite see why he should be confused, when the thing seemed so clear-cut to Dundas and the rest, but the memory of Maturin's white, stretched face, with its furious pale eyes, kept returning to him and jumbling his thoughts. There was no sense in it, but Jack felt as if he had no right to be angry in the face of such vehemence. His own response seemed trivial, even insensitive, in comparison.

He did not understand it, so he decided his anger must be directed at Maturin -- after all, it could belong to no-one else. He tried to ignore his unease, but it made him uncommunicative. He would not have known how to explain it even if he had wanted to. At any rate he could not make the attempt with Dundas, who was a decent enough companion if you wished to discuss cricket or other like matters, but not particularly sensitive when it came to more delicate subjects.

"Serves him right," Jack said, despite the stir of discomfort beneath his diaphragm at the sentiment. "I don't know what's wrong with him -- "

"Everything," said Dundas.

"But having it knocked out of him would do him a sight of good," said Jack. The discomfort increased. Jack bent his head to his Latin. "Now I must get this done, or Harte'll rake me over the coals tomorrow. He sent my father a perfectly foul report last term."

Dundas was not far wrong when he said that everything was wrong with Maturin. The fact of the matter was, Maturin was miserable. He did not have Jack's easy temperament or his talent for happiness; on the contrary, he had always been rather disposed to be unhappy than not, and he was in uncongenial surroundings. He was used to a certain measure of autonomy, and the strict authority and routine of public school burdened him, but worse than the written rules were those silent and unspoken, by which the boys ordered their society. He did not understand them, their creators or their followers, and in Maturin's case ignorance was very far from being bliss.

He knew himself to have no friends, and a sole sympathiser with his ruling passion in the person of Mr. Blaine. He was acutely conscious of being unsuited to his environment, wholly ignorant as to how his situation might be corrected, and far too proud to ask for help, even if he had known where or how to find it. He felt himself to be treading water in an alien sea, struggling to keep his head above the surface, and it seemed to him that every day brought the final, inevitable failure closer.

It was this deep-seated unhappiness that Jack had dimly understood from Maturin's exhibition on the cricket-field, and that made him loath to seek him out to exact revenge. Yet honour demanded satisfaction, and it did seem a bit thick to allow Maturin to go around unkicked after those comments on Jack's size. Jack wavered, wracked by indecision.

As it turned out, the matter was decided for him. Jack knew he could not avoid issuing a challenge without being seen to have funked if he were to encounter Maturin, yet he was strangely unwilling to engage this particular battle. He did not think he was in a funk because of the prospect of a fight; physical violence had no terrors for Jack, and even if it did, the projected match was decidedly unequal -- Jack had at least two stone on Maturin, and he was in prime condition besides; Maturin, as well as being small, had a sickly look about him, and likely took little exercise except in running after birds. Jack supposed he could cry off on the grounds that it would be unsportsmanlike to enter a fight in which the odds were so much in his favour, but Maturin's crime had been grave, and besides, Jack was not sure if he wanted to cry off. He resorted to avoidance, in the hope that a few days' puzzling the matter out would enable him to know his own mind.

Fortunately avoidance was not difficult, since he and Maturin moved in distinct circles. The society kept by a cricket captain, and that kept by an acknowledged worm and bottom-feeder, differ greatly; for one thing, the worm is unlikely to have any society to keep. The task of maintaining an aloof distance was made easier by their being in different houses. In fact Jack could have easily gone the whole year without seeing Maturin, if he had not forgotten Maturin's proclivities, and gone for the Naturalists' Society's next ramble.

The Naturalists were headed by that naturalist par excellence and housemaster Blaine, who was its founder and life-spirit. Blaine's speciality was beetles, and he could be counted on to be so absorbed in the doings of these interesting creatures as not to notice the quiet slipping away of certain less than enthusiastic members. Naturalists were given an unusual latitude in the matter of breaking bounds, and their regular tours around the countryside proffered excellent opportunities for a boy with a gun to detach himself from the group and enjoy some peaceful targeting practice with the local rabbit population.

Jack had no particular interest in natural history, but he had a healthy appreciation of fresh air and the chance to pot the local wildlife, so he had joined the society early in his career at Ashgrove. It had thus far afforded him a good deal of quiet pleasure, and he went on its next outing feeling that more of the same would be just what the doctor ordered after the turmoil of the past few days.

Unluckily it had slipped his mind that the source of that turmoil could not but be a fervent member of the society. He recollected this just as the expedition was starting out, and was about to turn back hastily on some fabricated excuse, when he saw Maturin.

Maturin had clearly also detected him, and was scowling in a way that did not improve his looks. His face, never the sort of thing a proud houseowner would frame in the drawing-room, was now something even a man who would put up stags' heads on his walls without shame would have bunged into the fireplace directly. Dundas had approached clairvoyance when he had said that Maturin's house would scrag him. Blaine's had risen as one boy and scragged him as a disgrace to the house, following which he had been bundled to Conventry with dizzying speed. It was not such treatment as was likely to soften Maturin's nature, or make his memory of his falling out with Jack a happy one. He glared at Jack with all the force of accumulated resentment.

Jack, annoyed by this hostility in one he had been considering showing mercy to, felt his martial spirit rise. It was jolly cheek of Maturin to eye him as if the sight gave him indigestion. He was a beastly scug, after all. Jack had been feeling rather sick about having to kick him, and here he was glowering at Jack as if Jack had just stepped on his rotten hoopoe. It was a sight too fresh by half. Well, he would learn that this sort of behaviour wouldn't do at Ashgrove.

The rest of the society had formed an interested circle around the two contenders. The most exciting sensations that had ever been experienced by the majority of the members having been inspired by such incidents as the capture of a lizard or the pursuit of a butterfly, they flocked to the spectacle like carrion birds settling down to dinner on a smoking battlefield. This, they felt, was something like.

Jack therefore had nothing to do but to step forward in the cleared space, knock Maturin down with a well-judged blow, and be carried away upon the shoulders of the cheering throng. Yet even now, worked up as he was, he paused.

"Look here," he said awkwardly. "It's rotten to start off one's first term with a row. If you'll take back those things you said before, I won't mind calling it quits."

Maturin went a dull red, and Jack saw that it would not do. Maturin had no way of knowing the complicated mix of feelings that had prompted Jack to offer his concession; it appeared to him as pure condescension, which would save Jack a possibly inconvenient scuffle and allow him to appear noble, while Maturin's acceptance would immediately be put down to his being wary of grappling with a boy of Jack's stature. Maturin was as burdened with various faults as the next boy, but cowardice was not one of them. He had been itching for an outlet to relieve his monstrous unhappiness for weeks, and this perceived insult was all the encouragement he needed.

"I can't take back what's true," he said. "And I'll say it again if I have to. And if you think you're going to stop me, you can jolly well try, that's all."

A sigh rose from the attentive audience. Jack nodded, then with the air of a man who has done all he could decently do and has nothing on his conscience to reproach him, drew back his fist. Maturin danced towards him, apparently with the idea of socking Jack one in the jaw. There was no way of telling who would have thrown the first punch, if the proceedings had not been interrupted at that exciting point by Blaine.

"What," said a voice full of cold dignity, "is this?"

There is nothing like the voice of a master to quench the martial spirit. The pugilists' went out like a light. They fell back, looking foolish, while the audience dispersed hastily. Blaine regarded Jack and Maturin with chilly disapproval.

"What have you two boys been about?" he said.

There is no real way of answering questions of this type. The interrogator does not expect a detailed answer including dates and places. He knows perfectly well what is up. He asks merely to watch the asked squirm. Jack and Maturin squirmed accordingly.

But Blaine was not heartless. Years of trying to train boys not to act like boys had left their mark on him, causing him to retreat more and more into the world of bugs, as a much safer and more pleasant place, but they had not hardened his heart. In his case, the man was not superseded by the schoolmaster. He liked Maturin, who showed an intelligent interest in beetles though his passion lay elsewhere, and he had some idea of the extent of the misery he was being put through. In any other case he would have excluded the troublemakers from the expedition and been on his way, but he did not at all credit Maturin's explanation that he had "walked into a door", and he suspected the boy could do with a break from the company of his fellow men. It was a sentiment with which Blaine could sympathise.

"Five hundred lines of Virgil, I think," he said thoughtfully. "On my desk tomorrow morning before breakfast, please. I dislike seeing this spirit of animosity among the boys. If anything of this kind should happen again today I shall not be lenient. Do I make myself clear?"

"Yes, sir," mumbled the accused.

"See to it," said Blaine. "Then we can be off, I think."

It was square conduct on Blaine's part, Jack reflected later, as he trudged along keeping an eye out for rabbits. He had resigned himself to an afternoon's foraging for insects following the incident with Maturin, since he could not very well expect Blaine's watchful eye to wander after he had made such an exhibition of himself, but in thinking so Jack had not accounted for Blaine's passion for natural history. He had discovered a particularly interesting butterfly, which had so taken up his attention that Jack had felt himself practically required to slip away and investigate the native fauna off his own bat. Blaine would not notice him any more than he would notice any part of the world that did not consist of insects for the next few hours, and Jack felt he owed it to himself to calm his spirits with a bit of shooting.

He thought he had wandered pretty far from the group, which mostly comprised sincere enthusiasts in the birds and beetles line, so it gave him an unpleasant shock to see an Ashgrove uniform as he rounded a tree. It was not the last shock he was fated to suffer that afternoon, and by no means the worst: it was almost immediately topped by the one that hit him when the person inhabiting the uniform turned its head. It was Maturin.

He was lying in the prone position which was, according to Dundas, his favourite, and this made it somewhat difficult for him to glare properly at Jack. Nevertheless he gave it his best shot. He dug his elbow into the turf, twisted himself into a shape more appropriate for a pretzel than someone with pretensions to being human, and directed Jack a look like a drill. Gimlets weren't in it. Jack, justly feeling abused by the world, glared back.

"I suppose we had better get it over with now," said Jack grimly, when he felt there had been enough trading back and forth of wordless unpleasantries.

Maturin's glare grew colder, if possible. He had a curiously pale, wicked glare, the sort of thing you generally only saw coming from something with scales. Suffering under it, Jack felt as if he had knocked something green and unpleasant off its favourite rock.

"You can do what you like, but I'm not going to row when Blaine's been so square about it," Maturin said. "He'd have been in his rights if he'd made us both stop at school after he saw what we were doing. I don't mind kicking you on my own time, but not now."

"I say -- " said Jack, bridling, but Maturin's gaze had passed from Jack's face to the pistol he carried. The gun did not seem to please him anymore than Jack's face had.

"That's just what I might have expected of you," he said bitterly, before Jack could protest. "I wondered why a brute like you had joined the Naturalists' Society. I didn't think you would know a booby from a Dartford warbler. And I was right. Blaine thinks you're such a decent chap, too. I suppose you gave him a badger once to show how keen you are, or something like that. And here you are taking potshots at anything you can find. It isn't as if you did it for food, or as a savage rite of passage, or to defend yourself. It is just your idea of a rag. You couldn't care less what your targets think of it.

"And I think," Maturin concluded, in a rush of passion, "it is perfectly beastly. You had better put away that gun."

"I'll do nothing of the kind," said Jack indignantly. "It's none of your business what I do."

"Oh, isn't it? That shows you," said Maturin. "There's a colossal beehive right up there. I've been watching it this past half-hour. If that gun goes off it'll disturb the bees. They're docility itself, European honeybees," he added, anxious lest his words be construed as criticism, "but they bar being disturbed like anything."

"Of course I'm not such a fool as to go popping off around beehives," said Jack, with splendid scorn, though as a matter of fact he had not seen the hive until Maturin had pointed it out to him. It was, as Maturin had said, an unusually large specimen of its kind. Now that Jack saw it, he noticed the buzz of its inmates -- a soporific drone that filled the air. "I know how to use the thing, thank you."

Either because Maturin did not believe him, or -- which was Jack's own opinion -- because he was determined to make an ass of himself, he stood up and said,

"Well, you're still putting it away, if I have anything to say about."

He made a grab at the pistol. Startled, Jack jerked it away.

"Well, you jolly well don't," he said. "Hi, keep your grubby paws to yourself!"

What happened next neither Jack nor Maturin were ever able to describe precisely. That there was a struggle both were agreed on. They could never come to a consensus over who was gaining the upper hand, however -- Jack fancied it was Maturin, and Maturin, with more justice, rather thought it was Jack. Suffice it to say, neither participant had achieved complete control of the gun when a shot rang out, with a crack that resounded in both pairs of ears -- that is to say, the four ears in total belonging to the concerned parties.

Jack and Maturin stared at each other.

The hum in the background swelled. It no longer sounded quite so soothing.

"Great Scott," said Jack. Maturin had turned away, and seemed wholly absorbed in the cloud of bees rising inexorably from the hive.

Jack judged the situation from what aspects of it that were apparent to him, and decided it was time he did some grabbing himself. He seized Maturin's warm, bony hand and fled, dragging the other boy after him in a shambling run.

"Most docile creatures in the world, if you leave 'em alone," said Maturin breathlessly. Apart from panting, he remained quite undisturbed by all the excitement. His chief emotion seemed to be regret on the bees' account. "I hope we didn't get the nest. What bullies humans are. I say, you aren't swatting at them?"

"Well, what d'you propose I should do? The brutes are stinging me!"

"Don't be an ass, swiping at 'em only puts them out all the more. Pull your blazer up over your head; they go for your face the most. Let go of my hand, I can run perfectly well by myself."

Jack released the hand, though not without some reluctance -- from his impression of the boy, he could hardly credit that Maturin could do anything by himself -- and followed Maturin's instructions.

"Can't be running all afternoon," he said.

"We shan't have to. There's a shed up ahead. I passed it before I got here," said Maturin. "We can shelter there until they lose interest. Shouldn't be long; best-natured beasts you could think of, honeybees. Ow! Oh, let 'em alone, Aubrey. There's no call to go hitting out at them like that. For shame."

Relief overtook Jack when he glimpsed the promised shed: he himself could run pretty nearly all afternoon over good country, but Maturin's appearance inspired in him no confidence in his not collapsing sooner or later -- sooner rather than later, probably. By the time they were stumbling into the shed they had already begun to giggle. Safe from avenging bees, they were at leisure to appreciate the humor of the situation, and in the mood to do so. Jack leaned against a handy wall and roared, and Maturin, bent over with mirth, delivered something that sounded like the creak of a well that had mouldered in disuse for years.

You cannot laugh like that with a person, no matter how despised, and still hate him. Bad blood knuckles under without complaint in the face of true, self-immolating laughter. When they had got to merely hiccoughing weakly and refusing to look at each other for fear that it would start another fit, their quarrel was quite forgotten: a thing of the misty past, as utterly discarded as all the other follies of childhood. Jack was inclined to think that Maturin wasn't such a bad chap after all, and Maturin seemed to have forgotten even his irritation at Jack for his discourtesy to the bees.

They slid down onto floor and sat side-by-side, by silent mutual agreement.

"I do hope we didn't pot the hive," Maturin remarked pensively, when they were able to speak again. "I was going to show it to Blaine, but I got distracted watching the workers, and I forgot."

Jack croaked faintly at the recollection of Blaine. "Blaine! By Jove, we're in the soup now. There'll be no end of a row. He'll drop on us like anything."

"I shouldn't blame him," said Maturin.

Jack assented.

"I'm rather sorry, that's all," he said. "He was frightfully decent over my wanting to haul off and have at you before we started off. He didn't even jaw us at any length."

"Blaine's not half bad, for a master," Maturin agreed. "I'm jolly glad I'm in his house." This admission would have astonished the Maturin of even an hour ago, who would have maintained that there were no redeeming features to being in Ashgrove, at all. Yet Maturin was entirely sincere. He felt he had been unjust to Blaine, whose merits he had neglected to appreciate in his discontent with Ashgrove as a whole. He hastened to remedy the lack.

"What he doesn't know about moths isn't worth knowing," he said. "I don't suppose I've ever seen a better collection than he has got."

Jack politely expected Maturin was right.

"I wouldn't mind being in Blaine's myself," he said. "Harte's is all right -- sporting house, and all that -- but Harte himself's an awful rotter."

"Right," said Maturin, looking relieved. "I thought you might mind my saying so, being as you're in his house, but if you bar him too that's all right. I can't bear him. He plays favourites, that's his problem."

"Hit the needle right through the head," Jack approved. "Harte can't stick me or Dundas to any extent, so he harries us like -- like a confounded -- what are those things that nag and nag at you, and won't let up though the sky is falling?

"Aunts," Maturin suggested, after a moment's thought.

"Cormorants," said Jack. Maturin frowned.

"Surely not," he objected. "Cormorants are excellent birds. They wouldn't so much as look at an aunt if you paid them to do it."

"Well, it's something like that, anyway," said Jack. "Harte's like that. Bears ain't in it. Why, last term when I brought my violin to school, he got so dashed wrathy that -- " Here he broke off his narrative, realising he was veering rather too close to complaint. Fortunately, Maturin chose to pursue another thread of discussion.

"Your violin! D'you play, then?"

Jack looked embarrassed.

"Well, yes," he admitted, in the tones of one who knows the gravity of his sin, and is very sorry for it. "Not at school anymore, though."

"Oh, pity," said Maturin, with what appeared to be genuine regret. "I play the 'cello myself.

"Not well," he disclaimed hastily, "but I like it." Only then did he seem to realise that the admission might not go down well with his audience. His face took on an expression of defiance, which, however, dissolved at Jack's response.

"I know, it's topping," said Jack candidly. He was experiencing the joy that attends the discovery of a kindred spirit in an unexpected form, and hardly noticed the change in Maturin's expression. "But the other fellows didn't enjoy it, besides Harte, so I left my violin at home this time around. I wasn't half sick about it," he added, in the manner of a man making a confession. "I shall be frightfully rusty when I next have a chance to practise again."

"I bet you could scrounge a violin from someone in the village," said Maturin. "I know a chap who has magpies in his yard, his daughter gives lessons to the village kids. She could probably rent you an instrument. I say, we could play together. I haven't had a proper go at playing since term began. I'd murder for a duet."

Jack brightened, but a pang of misgiving shook him.

"I'm afraid Ashgrove must have been fairly rotten for you," he said tentatively. "I say -- I'm awfully sorry -- "

Maturin waved the apology away.

"It was, rather. Nothing against the school, you know, only I wasn't used to it," he said. "It's just a question of getting into the habit, I think."

He gave Jack a cautious sidelong look. Jack met it calmly, though he was nearly jumping out of his skin with nervousness. At any rate, Maturin seemed to see whatever he had been looking for, for he averted his gaze and nodded to himself.

"I think I've got the idea now," he said, as if there had been no break. "I expect it shall be better now."

Jack smiled with relief.

"Good," he said. But it seemed inadequate somehow. He cast about for something to say that would express his true feelings.

"I say," he said, "likely there'll be too much of a row to even think about tea today, but would you like to come to tea with me and Dundas tomorrow? We'll have sausages, I expect. We generally do."

"Sausages," said Maturin, "are It. Thanks."

Jack beamed.

"That's all right, then," he said.

The End.

A footnote

I would tell you of the things that didn't make it into this story: of Pullings, who has a schoolboy crush on Jack (but this is practically canon); of Mowett and Rowan, who write poetry secretly and apart, and show it to no-one for fear of being ragged; of Diana and Sophie, who are living it up at a girls' school. (Diana is the dashing, exotic new girl from India, who gets up to all sorts of madcap hijinks; Sophie is the dear girl everyone is fond of, even if she is a bit soppy, and no good at games.) But the most important thing is Barrett Bonden, who is the school sergeant, and watches the boys like a hawk so they don't go out of bounds. He has a soft spot for Stephen, whom he views as a well-intentioned lunatic; he lets him go out of bounds to look for birds, and sometimes Jack shamelessly exploits this to go a-roving himself.

Oh, and: the word Jack's looking for is "termagant".

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