Bradshaw's Little Story by P. G. Wodehouse

The qualities which in later years rendered Frederick Wackerbath Bradshaw so conspicuous a figure in connection with the now celebrated affair of the European, African, and Asiatic Pork Pie and Ham Sandwich Supply Company frauds, were sufficiently in evidence during his school career to make his masters prophesy gloomily concerning his future. The boy was in every detail the father of the man. There was the same genial unscrupulousness, upon which the judge commented so bitterly during the trial, the same readiness to seize an opportunity and make the most of it, the same brilliance of tactics. Only once during those years can I remember an occasion on which Justice scored a point against him. I can remember it, because I was in a sense responsible for his failure. And he can remember it, I should be inclined to think, for other reasons. Our then Headmaster was a man with a straight eye and a good deal of muscular energy, and it is probable that the talented Frederick, in spite of the passage of years, has a tender recollection of these facts.

It was the eve of the Euripides examination in the Upper Fourth. Euripides is not difficult compared to some other authors, but he does demand a certain amount of preparation. Bradshaw was a youth who did less preparation than anybody I have ever seen, heard of, or read of, partly because he preferred to peruse a novel under the table during prep., but chiefly, I think, because he had reduced cribbing in form to such an exact science that he loved it for its own sake, and would no sooner have come tamely into school with a prepared lesson than a sportsman would shoot a sitting bird. It was not the marks that he cared for. He despised them. What he enjoyed was the refined pleasure of swindling under a master's very eye. At the trial the judge, who had, so ran report, been himself rather badly bitten by the Ham Sandwich Company, put the case briefly and neatly in the words, 'You appear to revel in villainy for villainy's sake,' and I am almost certain that I saw the beginnings of a gratified smile on Frederick's expressive face as he heard the remark. The rest of our study—the juniors at St Austin's pigged in quartettes—were in a state of considerable mental activity on account of this Euripides examination. There had been House-matches during the preceding fortnight, and House-matches are not a help to study, especially if you are on the very fringe of the cock-house team, as I was. By dint of practising every minute of spare time, I had got the eleventh place for my fielding. And, better still, I had caught two catches in the second innings, one of them a regular gallery affair, and both off the captain's bowling. It was magnificent, but it was not Euripides, and I wished now that it had been. Mellish, our form-master, had an unpleasant habit of coming down with both feet, as it were, on members of his form who failed in the book-papers.

We were working, therefore, under forced draught, and it was distinctly annoying to see the wretched Bradshaw lounging in our only armchair with one of Rider Haggard's best, seemingly quite unmoved at the prospect of Euripides examinations. For all he appeared to care, Euripides might never have written a line in his life.

Kendal voiced the opinion of the meeting.

'Bradshaw, you worm,' he said. 'Aren't you going to do any work?'

'Think not. What's the good? Can't get up a whole play of Euripides in two hours.'

'Mellish'll give you beans.'

'Let him.'

'You'll get a jolly bad report.'

'Shan't get a report at all. I always intercept it before my guardian can get it. He never says anything.'

'Mellish'll probably run you in to the Old Man,' said White, the fourth occupant of the study.

Bradshaw turned on us with a wearied air.

'Oh, do give us a rest,' he said. 'Here you are just going to do a most important exam., and you sit jawing away as if you were paid for it. Oh, I say, by the way, who's setting the paper tomorrow?'

'Mellish, of course,' said White.

'No, he isn't,' I said. 'Shows what a lot you know about it. Mellish is setting the Livy paper.'

'Then, who's doing this one?' asked Bradshaw.

'Yorke.'

Yorke was the master of the Upper Fifth. He generally set one of the upper fourth book-papers.

'Certain?' said Bradshaw.

'Absolutely.'

'Thanks. That's all I wanted to know. By Jove, I advise you chaps to read this. It's grand. Shall I read out this bit about a fight?'

'No!' we shouted virtuously, all together, though we were dying to hear it, and we turned once more to the loathsome inanities of the second chorus. If we had been doing Homer, we should have felt more in touch with Bradshaw. There's a good deal of similarity, when you come to compare them, between Homer and Haggard. They both deal largely in bloodshed, for instance. As events proved, the Euripides paper, like many things which seem formidable at a distance, was not nearly so bad as I had expected. I did a fair-to-moderate paper, and Kendal and White both seemed satisfied with themselves. Bradshaw confessed without emotion that he had only attempted the last half of the last question, and on being pressed for further information, merely laughed mysteriously, and said vaguely that it would be all right.

It now became plain that he had something up his sleeve. We expressed a unanimous desire to know what it was.

'You might tell a chap,' I said.

'Out with it, Bradshaw, or we'll lynch you,' added Kendal.

Bradshaw, however, was not to be drawn. Much of his success in the paths of crime, both at school and afterwards, was due to his secretive habits. He never permitted accomplices.

On the following Wednesday the marks were read out. Out of a possible hundred I had obtained sixty—which pleased me very much indeed—White, fifty-five, Kendal, sixty-one. The unspeakable Bradshaw's net total was four.

Mellish always read out bad marks in a hushed voice, expressive of disgust and horror, but four per cent was too much for him. He shouted it, and the form yelled applause, until Ponsonby came in from the Upper Fifth next door with Mr Yorke's compliments, 'and would we recollect that his form were trying to do an examination'.

When order had been restored, Mellish settled his glasses and glared through them at Bradshaw, who, it may be remarked, had not turned a hair.

'Bradshaw,' he said, 'how do you explain this?'

It was merely a sighting shot, so to speak. Nobody was ever expected to answer the question. Bradshaw, however, proved himself the exception to the rule.

'I can explain, sir,' he said, 'if I may speak to you privately afterwards.'

I have seldom seen anyone so astonished as Mellish was at these words. In the whole course of his professional experience, he had never met with a parallel case. It was hard on the poor man not to be allowed to speak his mind about a matter of four per cent in a book-paper, but what could he do? He could not proceed with his denunciation, for if Bradshaw's explanation turned out a sufficient excuse, he would have to withdraw it all again, and vast stores of golden eloquence would be wasted. But, then, if he bottled up what he wished to say altogether, it might do him a serious internal injury. At last he hit on a compromise. He said, 'Very well, Bradshaw, I will hear what you have to say,' and then sprang, like the cat in the poem, 'all claws', upon an unfortunate individual who had scored twenty-nine, and who had been congratulating himself that Bradshaw's failings would act as a sort of lightning-conductor to him. Bradshaw worked off his explanation in under five minutes. I tried to stay behind to listen, on the pretext of wanting to tidy up my desk, but was ejected by request. Bradshaw explained that his statement was private.

After a time they came out together like long-lost brothers, Mellish with his hand on Bradshaw's shoulder. It was some small comfort to me to remember that Bradshaw had the greatest dislike to this sort of thing.

It was evident that Bradshaw, able exponent of the art of fiction that he was, must have excelled himself on this occasion. I tried to get the story out of him in the study that evening. White and Kendal assisted. We tried persuasion first. That having failed, we tried taunts. Then we tried kindness. Kendal sat on his legs, and I sat on his head, and White twisted his arm. I think that we should have extracted something soon, either his arm from its socket or a full confession, but we were interrupted. The door flew open, and Prater (the same being our House-master, and rather a good sort) appeared.

'Now then, now then,' he said. Prater's manner is always abrupt.

'What's this? I can't have this. I can't have this. Get up at once.
Where's Bradshaw?'

I rose gracefully to my feet, thereby disclosing the classic features of the lost one.

'The Headmaster wants to see you at once, Bradshaw, at the School House. You others had better find something to do, or you will be getting into trouble.'

He and Bradshaw left together, while we speculated on the cause of the summons.

We were not left very long in suspense. In a quarter of an hour Bradshaw returned, walking painfully, and bearing what, to the expert's eye, are the unmistakable signs of a 'touching up', which, being interpreted, is corporal punishment.

'Hullo,' said White, as he appeared, 'what's all this?'

'How many?' enquired the statistically-minded Kendal. 'You'll be thankful for this when you're a man, Bradshaw.'

'That's what I always say to myself when I'm touched up,' added Kendal.

I said nothing, but it was to me that the wounded one addressed himself.

'You utter ass,' he said, in tones of concentrated venom.

'Look here, Bradshaw—' I began, protestingly.

'It's all through you—you idiot,' he snarled. 'I got twelve.'

'Twelve isn't so dusty,' said White, critically. 'Most I ever got was six.'

'But why was it?' asked Kendal. 'That's what we want to know. What have you been and gone and done?'

'It's about that Euripides paper,' said Bradshaw.

'Ah!' said Kendal.

'Yes, I don't mind telling you about it now. When Mellish had me up after school today, I'd got my yarn all ready. There wasn't a flaw in it anywhere as far as I could see. My idea was this. I told him I'd been to Yorke's room the day before the exam, to ask him if he had any marks for us. That was all right. Yorke was doing the two Unseen papers, and it was just the sort of thing a fellow would do to go and ask him about the marks.'

'Well?'

'Then when I got there he was out, and I looked about for the marks, and on the table I saw the Euripides paper.'

'By Jove!' said Kendal. We began to understand, and to realize that here was a master-mind.

'Well, of course, I read it, not knowing what it was, and then, as the only way of not taking an unfair advantage, I did as badly as I could in the exam. That was what I told Mellish. Any beak would have swallowed it.'

'Well, didn't he?'

'Mellish did all right, but the rotter couldn't keep it to himself. Went and told the Old Man. The Old Man sent for me. He was as decent as anything at first. That was just his guile. He made me describe exactly where I had seen the paper, and so on. That was rather risky, of course, but I put it as vaguely as I could. When I had finished, he suddenly whipped round, and said, "Bradshaw, why are you telling me all these lies?" That's the sort of thing that makes you feel rather a wreck. I was too surprised to say anything.'

'I can guess the rest,' said Kendal. 'But how on earth did he know it was all lies? Why didn't you stick to your yarn?'

'And, besides,' I put in, 'where do I come in? I don't see what I've got to do with it.'

Bradshaw eyed me fiercely. 'Why, the whole thing was your fault,' he said. 'You told me Yorke was setting the paper.'

'Well, so he did, didn't he?'

'No, he didn't. The Old Man set it himself,' said Bradshaw, gloomily.