“No fear! You bet we’ll find it round the corner. He wouldn’t have the spunk to go right off with it. But look here—what I mean is”—hesitant, yet resolute, he harked back to the main point—“if any of that lot came to know—about India and—your mother, well—they’re proper skunks, some of them. They might say things that would make you feel like a kettle on the boil.”
“If they did—I would kill them.”
Roy stated the fact with quiet deliberation, and without noticing that he had repeated the very words of the vanished victim.
This time Desmond did not treat it as a joke.
“’Course you would,” he agreed gravely. “And that sort of shindy’s no good for the school. So I thought—better give you the tip——”
“I—see,” Roy said in a low voice, without looking up. He did not see; but he began dimly to guess at a so far unknown and unsuspected state of mind.
Desmond sat silent while he shook the sand out of his boots. Then he remarked in an easier tone: “Quite sure there’s no damage?”
Roy, now on his feet, found his left leg uncomfortably stiff—and said so.
“Bad luck! We must walk it off. I’ll knead it first, if you like. I’ve seen them do it on the Border.”
His unskilled manipulation hurt a good deal; but Roy, overcome with gratitude, gave no sign.
When it was over they set out for their homeward tramp, and found the bicycle, as Desmond had prophesied. He refused to ride on; and Roy limped beside him, feeling absurdly elated. The godlike one had come to earth indeed! Only the remark about his mother still rankled; but he felt shy of returning to the subject. The change in Desmond’s manner had puzzled him. Roy glanced admiringly at his profile—the straight nose, the long mouth that smiled so readily, the resolute chin, a little in the air. A clear case of love at sight, schoolboy love; a passing phase of human efflorescence; yet, in passing, it will sometimes leave a mark for life. Roy, instinctively a hero-worshipper, registered a new ambition—to become Desmond’s friend.
Presently, as if aware of his thought, Desmond spoke.
“I say, Sinclair, how old are you? You seem less of a kid than most of the new lot.”
“I’m ten and a half,” said Roy, wishing it was eleven.
“Bit late for starting. I’m twelve. Going on to Marlborough next year.”
Roy felt crushed. In a year he would be gone! Still—there were three more terms: and he would go on to Marlborough too. He would insist.
“Does Scab Ma. bother you much?” Desmond asked with a friendly twinkle.
“Now and then—nothing to fuss about.”
Roy’s nonchalance, though plucky, was not quite convincing.
“Righto! I’ll head him off. He isn’t keen to knock up against me.” A pause. “How about sitting down my way at meals? You don’t look awfully gay at your end.”