The excitement about the situation in the North had found a distinct echo among the schoolboys who, hearing what their elders thought of things, reflected these opinions vicariously when they discussed the matter in the playground. There were three distinct sections among the boys, just as there were three distinct sections among the village community.
One, a distinct minority, affected to stand outside the debate, too apathetic or aloof to argue either way, adopting a strictly Laodicean attitude that was distinctly unpopular. Of these the leader was the gaoler’s boy, John Tomory, who had imbibed from his father far-fetched socialistic ideas and who hinted that nothing mattered very much and that the whole thing was a put-up job in which the interests of the Boers, on the one side, and those of the Transvaal Uitlanders, on the other, were merely pawns in a damnable comedy played out by the capitalists.
The second section was fiercely pro-Boer, and wildly aggressive towards those who had anything to say in favour of the Raiders.
The third section joined forces with old Mrs Quakerley, protesting their loyalty to British interests and equally vehemently championing the interests of the Uitlanders.
Mr Mance-Bisley was too good a schoolmaster to be unaware of these undercurrents among his scholars, and far too sensible to try to turn them into other channels.
‘You would do me a kindness, Mr Quakerley,’ the rector said as he sat on Andrew’s tree-shaded stoep drinking tea, ‘if you would explain just what the position is. It’s most embarrassing, sometimes – I mean, one finds it so difficult to understand what these people really want. And as you know, it’s distressing to ... to ...’
‘You shouldn’t take any notice of what the boys say, Rector,’ said the old man smilingly. ‘They just repeat what they hear their elders remark. It’s so much hot air, Rector, nothing else. Of course I regret just as much as you do that these things are talked about. It must engender bad feeling in the long run.’
‘It does, it does,’ exclaimed the rector plaintively. ‘There was a most unseemly squabble in the playground this morning. I had to cane three of them and I don’t know whether I did the right thing, but one must have discipline. I’ve spoken to young Storam, but to tell you the truth, Mr Quakerley, I’m disappointed in the boy.’
‘You surprise me, Rector. I would’ve thought that Martin was the best head-boy you’ve had so far.’
‘So he is, so he is, in a sense. But since ... since all this excitement, Mr Quakerley, I don’t quite know what to make of him. Take this morning, for instance. It’s his duty to keep order in the playground. You know I don’t in the least object to a good stand-up fight if there’s something to be fought for, and the lads know it. Officially, of course, I’m not supposed to know when such affairs take place, and I take no cognisance of it officially when they do. But this morning’s squabble could hardly be overlooked.’
‘What actually did take place, Rector? Charlie told me his version.’
‘Ah yes, your grandson was implicated, but I let him off with a warning. It seems the whole matter started from one of these silly arguments about Jameson and the Uitlanders, and a free fight developed before the debate had lasted many minutes. When I taxed Storam, his excuse was that he could not prevent the lads from discussing the matter and that young Tomory and some of the others had “asked for it”, to use his own expression. Crest, I must tell you frankly, contributed not a little to the disturbance. At the height of it I found him perched on the fence singingGod save the Queen at the top of his voice.’
‘That’s his granny,’ said the old man with an indulgent smile. ‘Alice is fiercely militant, Rector, and Charlie is young. You must make some allowance.’
‘So I do, so I do,’ the rector’s voice became plaintive again, ‘but the whole thing is so thoroughly upsetting. There’s no rhyme or reason for it, and I simply can’t have it in my school.’
‘I quite agree, Rector, I quite agree. But it’s difficult to stop it. Your school population is, after all, merely a reflection of what lies outside, and I can tell you what you probably know quite as well as I do – that much the same thing goes on outside.’
‘This Raid has made a cleft between us here, Rector. You may not realise it, but I do. I’ve lived here all my life; I know what its influence is; and I think I can foretell what it’s going to be in the future.’