Acton himself was not much of a cricketer; the game was not, as it were, second nature to him, as it was to Phil, but he was a very smart field—cover was his position—and he could slog heavily, and often with success. He threw himself heartily into the game, and crept rapidly up the ladder of improvement, until Biffen’s whispered that their shining light stood a good chance of getting into the Eleven. “That is,” said Biffen’s crowd, “if Bourne will run straight and give a good man his flannels. But after the ‘footer’ fraud, what can one expect?” I heard of this, and straightway told Phil.
“Oh, they need not fear. If Acton deserves his flannels, he will get them. I’ve nothing whatever against his cricket.”
Acton learned this, and instantly his new-found zeal for cricket slackened considerably.
“Oh!” said he to himself, “I can’t blister you there, Bourne, eh? I can’t pose as the deserving cricketer kept out of the Eleven by a jealous cad of a captain, eh? So I’ll try another tack to keep you in evil odour, Mr. Bourne.”
Acton did not turn up at the nets that night, and when Worcester noticed this, Acton calmly sailed on his new tack.
“What’s the good of sweating away at the nets, Dick? I’ll not get my flannels in any case.”
“Oh yes, you will. Bourne has said he’s got nothing against your cricket.”
“And you believe that, Dick?” said Acton, with a whistle of contemptuous incredulity.
“I do,” said Dick. “But you are not exactly quite the flier at cricket that you are at ‘footer,’ so you can’t afford to slack up now.”
“I’ve got private knowledge,” said Acton, with a filthy lie, “that I won’t get ’em in any case, so I shall not try.”
Dick was considerably upset by this, and Acton’s sudden stoppage of practice after an intense beginning made his lie seem a good imitation of truth, and gave Worcester food for bitter thoughts against Phil. Acton worked “the-no-good-to-try” dodge carefully and artistically; he never actually said his lie openly, or Phil would have nailed it to the counter, but, like a second Iago, he dropped little barbed insinuations here, little double-edged sayings there, until Biffenites to a man believed there would be a repetition of the “footer” cap over again, and the school generally drifted back to aloofness as far as Phil was concerned.
Acton laid himself out to be excessively friendly with the monitors, and just as he entered into their good graces, Phil drifted out of them—in fact, to be friendly with Acton was the same thing as being cool towards Bourne. Phil made splendid scores Saturday after Saturday, but the enthusiasm which his fine play should have called out was wanting.
“Why don’t you cheer your captain, Tom?” I overheard a father say to his young hopeful.
“No fear!” said the frenzied Biffenite. “Bourne is a beast!”