The Babe and the Dragon by P. G. Wodehouse
The annual inter-house football cup at St Austin's lay between Dacre's,
who were the holders, and Merevale's, who had been runner-up in the
previous year, and had won it altogether three times out of the last
five. The cup was something of a tradition in Merevale's, but of late
Dacre's had become serious rivals, and, as has been said before, were
the present holders.
This year there was not much to choose between the two teams. Dacre's
had three of the First Fifteen and two of the Second; Merevale's two of
the First and four of the Second. St Austin's being not altogether a
boarding-school, many of the brightest stars of the teams were day
boys, and there was, of course, always the chance that one of these
would suddenly see the folly of his ways, reform, and become a member
of a House.
This frequently happened, and this year it was almost certain to happen
again, for no less a celebrity than MacArthur, commonly known as the
Babe, had been heard to state that he was negotiating with his parents
to that end. Which House he would go to was at present uncertain. He
did not know himself, but it would, he said, probably be one of the two
favourites for the cup. This lent an added interest to the competition,
for the presence of the Babe would almost certainly turn the scale. The
Babe's nationality was Scots, and, like most Scotsmen, he could play
football more than a little. He was the safest, coolest centre
three-quarter the School had, or had had for some time. He shone in all
branches of the game, but especially in tackling. To see the Babe
spring apparently from nowhere, in the middle of an inter-school match,
and bring down with violence a man who had passed the back, was an
intellectual treat. Both Dacre's and Merevale's, therefore, yearned for
his advent exceedingly. The reasons which finally decided his choice
were rather curious. They arose in the following manner:
The Babe's sister was at Girton. A certain Miss Florence Beezley was
also at Girton. When the Babe's sister revisited the ancestral home at
the end of the term, she brought Miss Beezley with her to spend a week.
What she saw in Miss Beezley was to the Babe a matter for wonder, but
she must have liked her, or she would not have gone out of her way to
seek her company. Be that as it may, the Babe would have gone a very
long way out of his way to avoid her company. He led a fine, healthy,
out-of-doors life during that week, and doubtless did himself a lot of
good. But times will occur when it is imperative that a man shall be
under the family roof. Meal-times, for instance. The Babe could not
subsist without food, and he was obliged, Miss Beezley or no Miss
Beezley, to present himself on these occasions. This, by the way, was
in the Easter holidays, so that there was no school to give him an
excuse for absence.
Breakfast was a nightmare, lunch was rather worse, and as for dinner,
it was quite unspeakable. Miss Beezley seemed to gather force during
the day. It was not the actual presence of the lady that revolted the
Babe, for that was passable enough. It was her conversation that
killed. She refused to let the Babe alone. She was intensely learned
herself, and seemed to take a morbid delight in dissecting his
ignorance, and showing everybody the pieces. Also, she persisted in
calling him Mr MacArthur in a way that seemed somehow to point out and
emphasize his youthfulness. She added it to her remarks as a sort of
after-thought or echo.
'Do you read Browning, Mr MacArthur?' she would say suddenly, having
apparently waited carefully until she saw that his mouth was full.
The Babe would swallow convulsively, choke, blush, and finally say—
'No, not much.'
'Ah!' This in a tone of pity not untinged with scorn.
'When you say "not much", Mr MacArthur, what exactly do you mean? Have
you read any of his poems?'
'Oh, yes, one or two.'
'Ah! Have you read "Pippa Passes"?'
'No, I think not.'
'Surely you must know, Mr MacArthur, whether you have or not. Have you
read "Fifine at the Fair"?'
'Have you read "Sordello"?'
'What have you read, Mr MacArthur?'
Brought to bay in this fashion, he would have to admit that he had read
'The Pied Piper of Hamelin', and not a syllable more, and Miss Beezley
would look at him for a moment and sigh softly. The Babe's subsequent
share in the conversation, provided the Dragon made no further
onslaught, was not large.
One never-to-be-forgotten day, shortly before the end of her visit, a
series of horrible accidents resulted in their being left to lunch
together alone. The Babe had received no previous warning, and when he
was suddenly confronted with this terrible state of affairs he almost
swooned. The lady's steady and critical inspection of his style of
carving a chicken completed his downfall. His previous experience of
carving had been limited to those entertainments which went by the name
of 'study-gorges', where, if you wanted to help a chicken, you took
hold of one leg, invited an accomplice to attach himself to the other,
But, though unskilful, he was plucky and energetic. He lofted the bird
out of the dish on to the tablecloth twice in the first minute.
Stifling a mad inclination to call out 'Fore!' or something to that
effect, he laughed a hollow, mirthless laugh, and replaced the errant
fowl. When a third attack ended in the same way, Miss Beezley asked
permission to try what she could do. She tried, and in two minutes the
chicken was neatly dismembered. The Babe re-seated himself in an
'Tell me about St Austin's, Mr MacArthur,' said Miss Beezley, as the
Babe was trying to think of something to say—not about the weather.
'Do you play football?'
A prolonged silence.
'Do you—' began the Babe at last.
'Tell me—' began Miss Beezley, simultaneously.
'I beg your pardon,' said the Babe; 'you were saying—?'
'Not at all, Mr MacArthur. You were saying—?'
'I was only going to ask you if you played croquet?'
'Yes; do you?'
'If this is going to continue,' thought the Babe, 'I shall be
reluctantly compelled to commit suicide.'
There was another long pause.
'Tell me the names of some of the masters at St Austin's, Mr
MacArthur,' said Miss Beezley. She habitually spoke as if she were an
examination paper, and her manner might have seemed to some to verge
upon the autocratic, but the Babe was too thankful that the question
was not on Browning or the higher algebra to notice this. He reeled off
a list of names.
'… Then there's Merevale—rather a decent sort—and Dacre.'
'What sort of a man is Mr Dacre?'
'Rather a rotter, I think.'
'What is a rotter, Mr MacArthur?'
'Well, I don't know how to describe it exactly. He doesn't play cricket
or anything. He's generally considered rather a crock.'
'Really! This is very interesting, Mr MacArthur. And what is a crock? I
suppose what it comes to,' she added, as the Babe did his best to find
a definition, 'is this, that you yourself dislike him.' The Babe
admitted the impeachment. Mr Dacre had a finished gift of sarcasm which
had made him writhe on several occasions, and sarcastic masters are
rarely very popular.
'Ah!' said Miss Beezley. She made frequent use of that monosyllable. It
generally gave the Babe the same sort of feeling as he had been
accustomed to experience in the happy days of his childhood when he had
been caught stealing jam.
Miss Beezley went at last, and the Babe felt like a convict who has
just received a free pardon.
One afternoon in the following term he was playing fives with
Charteris, a prefect in Merevale's House. Charteris was remarkable from
the fact that he edited and published at his own expense an unofficial
and highly personal paper, called The Glow Worm, which was a
great deal more in demand than the recognized School magazine, The
Austinian, and always paid its expenses handsomely.
Charteris had the journalistic taint very badly. He was always the
first to get wind of any piece of School news. On this occasion he was
in possession of an exclusive item. The Babe was the first person to
whom he communicated it.
'Have you heard the latest romance in high life, Babe?' he observed, as
they were leaving the court. 'But of course you haven't. You never do
'Well?' asked the Babe, patiently.
'You know Dacre?'
'I seem to have heard the name somewhere.'
'He's going to be married.'
'Yes. Don't trouble to try and look interested. You're one of those
offensive people who mind their own business and nobody else's. Only I
thought I'd tell you. Then you'll have a remote chance of understanding
my quips on the subject in next week's Glow Worm. You laddies
frae the north have to be carefully prepared for the subtler flights of
'Thanks,' said the Babe, placidly. 'Good-night.'
The Headmaster intercepted the Babe a few days after he was going home
after a scratch game of football. 'MacArthur,' said he, 'you pass Mr
Dacre's House, do you not, on your way home? Then would you mind asking
him from me to take preparation tonight? I find I shall be unable to be
there.' It was the custom at St Austin's for the Head to preside at
preparation once a week; but he performed this duty, like the
celebrated Irishman, as often as he could avoid it.
The Babe accepted the commission. He was shown into the drawing-room.
To his consternation, for he was not a society man, there appeared to
be a species of tea-party going on. As the door opened, somebody was
just finishing a remark.
'… faculty which he displayed in such poems as "Sordello",' said the
The Babe knew that voice.
He would have fled if he had been able, but the servant was already
announcing him. Mr Dacre began to do the honours.
'Mr MacArthur and I have met before,' said Miss Beezley, for it was
she. 'Curiously enough, the subject which we have just been discussing
is one in which he takes, I think, a great interest. I was saying, Mr
MacArthur, when you came in, that few of Tennyson's works show the
poetic faculty which Browning displays in "Sordello".'
The Babe looked helplessly at Mr Dacre.
'I think you are taking MacArthur out of his depth there,' said Mr
Dacre. 'Was there something you wanted to see me about, MacArthur?'
The Babe delivered his message.
'Oh, yes, certainly,' said Mr Dacre. 'Shall you be passing the School
House tonight? If so, you might give the Headmaster my compliments, and
say I shall be delighted.'
The Babe had had no intention of going out of his way to that extent,
but the chance of escape offered by the suggestion was too good to be
missed. He went.
On his way he called at Merevale's, and asked to see Charteris.
'Look here, Charteris,' he said, 'you remember telling me that Dacre
was going to be married?'
'Well, do you know her name by any chance?'
'I ken it weel, ma braw Hielander. She is a Miss Beezley.'
'Great Scott!' said the Babe.
'Hullo! Why, was your young heart set in that direction? You amaze and
pain me, Babe. I think we'd better have a story on the subject in
The Glow Worm, with you as hero and Dacre as villain. It shall
end happily, of course. I'll write it myself.'
'You'd better,' said the Babe, grimly. 'Oh, I say, Charteris.'
'When I come as a boarder, I shall be a House-prefect, shan't I, as I'm
in the Sixth?'
'And prefects have to go to breakfast and supper, and that sort of
thing, pretty often with the House-beak, don't they?'
'Such are the facts of the case.'
'Thanks. That's all. Go away and do some work. Good-night.'
The cup went to Merevale's that year. The Babe played a singularly
brilliant game for them.