Harrison's Slight Error by P. G. Wodehouse
The one o'clock down express was just on the point of starting. The
engine-driver, with his hand on the lever, whiled away the moments,
like the watchman in The Agamemnon, by whistling. The guard
endeavoured to talk to three people at once. Porters flitted to and
fro, cleaving a path for themselves with trucks of luggage. The Usual
Old Lady was asking if she was right for some place nobody had ever
heard of. Everybody was saying good-bye to everybody else, and last,
but not least, P. St H. Harrison, of St Austin's, was strolling at a
leisurely pace towards the rear of the train. There was no need for him
to hurry. For had not his friend, Mace, promised to keep a corner-seat
for him while he went to the refreshment-room to lay in supplies?
Undoubtedly he had, and Harrison, as he watched the struggling crowd,
congratulated himself that he was not as other men. A corner seat in a
carriage full of his own particular friends, with plenty of provisions,
and something to read in case he got tired of talking—it would be
So engrossed was he in these reflections, that he did not notice that
from the opposite end of the platform a youth of about his own age was
also making for the compartment in question. The first intimation he
had of his presence was when the latter, arriving first at the door by
a short head, hurled a bag on to the rack, and sank gracefully into the
identical corner seat which Harrison had long regarded as his own
personal property. And to make matters worse, there was no other vacant
seat in the compartment. Harrison was about to protest, when the guard
blew his whistle. There was nothing for it but to jump in and argue the
matter out en route. Harrison jumped in, to be greeted instantly
by a chorus of nine male voices. 'Outside there! No room! Turn him
out!' said the chorus. Then the chorus broke up into its component
parts, and began to address him one by one.
'You rotter, Harrison,' said Babington, of Dacre's, 'what do you come
barging in here for? Can't you see we're five aside already?'
'Hope you've brought a sardine-opener with you, old chap,' said
Barrett, the peerless pride of Philpott's, ''cos we shall jolly well
need one when we get to the good old Junct-i-on. Get up into the rack,
Harrison, you're stopping the ventilation.'
The youth who had commandeered Harrison's seat so neatly took another
unpardonable liberty at this point. He grinned. Not the timid,
deprecating smile of one who wishes to ingratiate himself with
strangers, but a good, six-inch grin right across his face. Harrison
turned on him savagely.
'Look here,' he said, 'just you get out of that. What do you mean by
bagging my seat?'
'Are you a director of this line?' enquired the youth politely. Roars
of applause from the interested audience. Harrison began to feel hot
'Or only the Emperor of Germany?' pursued his antagonist.
More applause, during which Harrison dropped his bag of provisions,
which were instantly seized and divided on the share and share alike
system, among the gratified Austinians.
'Look here, none of your cheek,' was the shockingly feeble retort which
alone occurred to him. The other said nothing. Harrison returned to the
'Look here,' he said, 'are you going to get out, or have I got to make
Not a word did his opponent utter. To quote the bard: 'The stripling
smiled.' To tell the truth, the stripling smiled inanely.
The other occupants of the carriage were far from imitating his
reserve. These treacherous friends, realizing that, for those who were
themselves comfortably seated, the spectacle of Harrison standing up
with aching limbs for a journey of some thirty miles would be both
grateful and comforting, espoused the cause of the unknown with all the
vigour of which they were capable.
'Beastly bully, Harrison,' said Barrett. 'Trying to turn the kid out of
his seat! Why can't you leave the chap alone? Don't you move, kid.'
'Thanks,' said the unknown, 'I wasn't going to.'
'Now you see what comes of slacking,' said Grey. 'If you'd bucked up
and got here in time you might have bagged this seat I've got. By Jove,
Harrison, you've no idea how comfortable it is in this corner.'
'Punctuality,' said Babington, 'is the politeness of princes.'
And again the unknown maddened Harrison with a 'best-on-record' grin.
'But, I say, you chaps,' said he, determined as a last resource to
appeal to their better feelings (if any), 'Mace was keeping this seat
for me, while I went to get some grub. Weren't you, Mace?' He turned to
Mace for corroboration. To his surprise, Mace was nowhere to be seen.
His sympathetic school-fellows grasped the full humour of the situation
as one man, and gave tongue once more in chorus.
'You weed,' they yelled joyfully, 'you've got into the wrong carriage.
Mace is next door.'
And then, with the sound of unquenchable laughter ringing in his ears,
Harrison gave the thing up, and relapsed into a disgusted silence. No
single word did he speak until the journey was done, and the carriage
emptied itself of its occupants at the Junction. The local train was in
readiness to take them on to St Austin's, and this time Harrison
managed to find a seat without much difficulty. But it was a bitter
moment when Mace, meeting him on the platform, addressed him as a
rotter, for that he had not come to claim the corner seat which he had
been reserving for him. They had had, said Mace, a rattling good time
coming down. What sort of a time had Harrison had in his
carriage? Harrison's reply was not remarkable for its clearness.
The unknown had also entered the local train. It was plain, therefore,
that he was coming to the School as a new boy. Harrison began to wonder
if, under these circumstances, something might not be done in the
matter by way of levelling up things. He pondered. When St Austin's
station was reached, and the travellers began to stream up the road
towards the College, he discovered that the newcomer was a member of
his own House. He was standing close beside him, and heard Babington
explaining to him the way to Merevale's. Merevale was Harrison's
It was two minutes after he had found out this fact that the Grand Idea
came to Harrison. He saw his way now to a revenge so artistic, so
beautifully simple, that it was with some difficulty that he restrained
himself from bursting into song. For two pins, he felt, he could have
done a cake-walk.
He checked his emotion. He beat it steadily back, and quenched it. When
he arrived at Merevale's, he went first to the matron's room. 'Has
Venables come back yet?' he asked.
Venables was the head of Merevale's House, captain of the School
cricket, wing three-quarter of the School Fifteen, and a great man
'Yes,' said the matron, 'he came back early this afternoon.'
Harrison knew it. Venables always came back early on the last day of
'He was upstairs a short while ago,' continued the matron. 'He was
putting his study tidy.'
Harrison knew it. Venables always put his study tidy on the last day of
the holidays. He took a keen and perfectly justifiable pride in his
study, which was the most luxurious in the House.
'Is he there now?' asked Harrison.
'No. He has gone over to see the Headmaster.'
'Thanks,' said Harrison, 'it doesn't matter. It wasn't anything
He retired triumphant. Things were going excellently well for his
His next act was to go to the fags' room, where, as he had expected, he
found his friend of the train. Luck continued to be with him. The
unknown was alone.
'Hullo!' said Harrison.
'Hullo!' said the fellow-traveller. He had resolved to follow
Harrison's lead. If Harrison was bringing war, then war let it be. If,
however, his intentions were friendly, he would be friendly too.
'I didn't know you were coming to Merevale's. It's the best House in
'Yes, for one thing, everybody except the kids has a study.'
'What? Not really? Why, I thought we had to keep to this room. One of
the chaps told me so.'
'Trying to green you, probably. You must look out for that sort of
thing. I'll show you the way to your study, if you like. Come along
'Thanks, awfully. It's awfully good of you,' said the gratified
unknown, and they went upstairs together.
One of the doors which they passed on their way was open, disclosing to
view a room which, though bare at present, looked as if it might be
made exceedingly comfortable.
'That's my den,' said Harrison. It was perhaps lucky that Graham, to
whom the room belonged, in fact, as opposed to fiction, did not hear
the remark. Graham and Harrison were old and tried foes. 'This is
yours.' Harrison pushed open another door at the end of the passage.
His companion stared blankly at the Oriental luxury which met his eye.
'But, I say,' he said, 'are you sure? This seems to be occupied
'Oh, no, that's all right,' said Harrison, airily. 'The chap who used
to be here left last term. He didn't know he was going to leave till it
was too late to pack up all his things, so he left his study as it was.
All you've got to do is to cart the things out into the passage and
leave them there. The Moke'll take 'em away.'
The Moke was the official who combined in a single body the duties of
butler and bootboy at Merevale's House. 'Oh, right-ho!' said the
unknown, and Harrison left him.
Harrison's idea was that when Venables returned and found an absolute
stranger placidly engaged in wrecking his carefully-tidied study, he
would at once, and without making inquiries, fall upon that absolute
stranger and blot him off the face of the earth. Afterwards it might
possibly come out that he, Harrison, had been not altogether
unconnected with the business, and then, he was fain to admit, there
might be trouble. But he was a youth who never took overmuch heed for
the morrow. Sufficient unto the day was his motto. And, besides, it was
distinctly worth risking. The main point, and the one with which alone
the House would concern itself, was that he had completely taken in,
scored off, and overwhelmed the youth who had done as much by him in
the train, and his reputation as one not to be lightly trifled with
would be restored to its former brilliance. Anything that might happen
between himself and Venables subsequently would be regarded as a purely
private matter between man and man, affecting the main point not at
About an hour later a small Merevalian informed Harrison that Venables
wished to see him in his study. He went. Experience had taught him that
when the Head of the House sent for him, it was as a rule as well to
humour his whim and go. He was prepared for a good deal, for he had
come to the conclusion that it was impossible for him to preserve his
incognito in the matter, but he was certainly not prepared for what he
Venables and the stranger were seated in two armchairs, apparently on
the very best of terms with one another. And this, in spite of the fact
that these two armchairs were the only furniture left in the study. The
rest, as he had noted with a grin before he had knocked at the door,
was picturesquely scattered about the passage.
'Hullo, Harrison,' said Venables, 'I wanted to see you. There seems to
have been a slight mistake somewhere. Did you tell my brother to shift
all the furniture out of the study?'
Harrison turned a delicate shade of green.
'Your—er—brother?' he gurgled.
'Yes. I ought to have told you my brother was coming to the Coll. this
term. I told the Old Man and Merevale and the rest of the authorities.
Can't make out why I forgot you. Slipped my mind somehow. However, you
seem to have been doing the square thing by him, showing him round and
so on. Very good of you.'
Harrison smiled feebly. Venables junior grinned. What seemed to
Harrison a mystery was how the brothers had managed to arrive at the
School at different times. The explanation of which was in reality very
simple. The elder Venables had been spending the last week of the
holidays with MacArthur, the captain of the St Austin's Fifteen, the
same being a day boy, suspended within a mile of the School.
'But what I can't make out,' went on Venables, relentlessly, 'is this
furniture business. To the best of my knowledge I didn't leave suddenly
at the end of last term. I'll ask if you like, to make sure, but I
fancy you'll find you've been mistaken. Must have been thinking of
someone else. Anyhow, we thought you must know best, so we lugged all
the furniture out into the passage, and now it appears there's been a
mistake of sorts, and the stuff ought to be inside all the time. So
would you mind putting it back again? We'd help you, only we're going
out to the shop to get some tea. You might have it done by the time we
get back. Thanks, awfully.'
Harrison coughed nervously, and rose to a point of order.
'I was going out to tea, too,' he said.
'I'm sorry, but I think you'll have to scratch the engagement,' said
Harrison made a last effort.
'I'm fagging for Welch this term,' he protested.
It was the rule at St Austin's that every fag had the right to refuse
to serve two masters. Otherwise there would have been no peace for that
'That,' said Venables, 'ought to be awfully jolly for Welch, don't you
know, but as a matter of fact term hasn't begun yet. It doesn't start
till tomorrow. Weigh in.'
Various feelings began to wage war beneath Harrison's Eton waistcoat. A
profound disinclination to undertake the suggested task battled briskly
with a feeling that, if he refused the commission, things might—nay,
'Harrison,' said Venables gently, but with meaning, as he hesitated,
'do you know what it is to wish you had never been born?'
And Harrison, with a thoughtful expression on his face, picked up a
photograph from the floor, and hung it neatly in its place over the