E-text prepared by Lionel G. Sear of Truro, Cornwall, England, and dedicated to the memory of R. F. Mudie, who won the book used as the source for this e-text as Form II First Prize for the Summer Term in 1901 at the Seafield House Preparatory School, Broughty Ferry, Scotland
THE TRIPLE ALLIANCE
ITS TRIALS AND TRIUMPHS
By HAROLD AVERY
I. A NEW BOY,
II. THE PHILISTINES,
III. DISCOMFITURE OF THE PHILISTINES,
IV. THE SUPPER CLUB,
V. CATCHING A TARTAR,
VI. GUNPOWDER PLOT,
VII. RONLEIGH COLLEGE,
VIII. THIRD FORM ORATORY,
IX. A HOLIDAY ADVENTURE,
X. A SCREW LOOSE IN THE SIXTH,
XI. SHADOWS OF COMING EVENTS,
XII. THE WRAXBY MATCH,
XIII. THE ELECTIONS,
XIV. A PASSAGE OF ARMS,
XV. THE READING-ROOM RIOT,
XVI. THE CIPHER LETTER,
XVII. DIGGORY READS THE CIPHER,
XVIII. A SECRET SOCIETY,
XIX. A CHAPTER OF ACCIDENTS,
XX. SOWING THE WIND,
XXI. REAPING THE WHIRLWIND,
XXII. WHEN SHALL WE THREE MEET AGAIN?
A NEW BOY.
"What's your name?"
The whole class exploded.
"Now, then," said Mr. Blake, looking up from his mark-book with a broad grin on his own face—"now, then, there's nothing to laugh at.—Look here," he added, turning to the new boy, "how d'you spell it?"
Instead of being at all annoyed or disconcerted at the mirth of his class-mates, the youngster seemed rather to enjoy the joke, and immediately rattled out a semi-humorous reply to the master's question,—
"D I G, dig; G O R Y, gory—Diggory: T R E, tre; VAN, van; O C K, ock—Trevanock." Then turning round, he smiled complacently at the occupants of the desks behind, as much as to say: "There, I've done all I can to amuse you, and I hope you're satisfied."
This incident, one of the little pleasantries occasionally permitted by a class master, and which, like a judge's jokes in court, are always welcomed as a momentary relief from the depressing monotony of the serious business in hand—this little incident, I say, happened in the second class of a small preparatory school, situated on the outskirts of the market town of Chatford, and intended, according to the wording of a standing advertisement in the Denfordshire Chronicle, "for the sons of gentlemen."
This establishment, which bore the somewhat suggestive name of "The Birches," was owned and presided over by Mr. Welsby, who, with an unmarried daughter, Miss Eleanor, acting as housekeeper, and his nephew, Mr. Blake, performing the duties of assistant-master, undertook the preliminary education of about a dozen juveniles whose ages ranged between ten and fourteen.
On the previous evening, returning from the Christmas holidays, exactly twelve had mustered round the big table in the dining-room; no new faces had appeared, and Fred Acton, a big, strong youngster of fourteen and a half, was undisputed cock of the walk.
The school was divided into two classes. The first, containing the five elder scholars, went to sit at the feet of Mr. Welsby himself; while the second remained behind in what was known as the schoolroom, and received instruction from Mr. Blake.
It was while thus occupied on the first morning of the term that the lower division were surprised by the sudden appearance of a new boy. Miss Eleanor brought him into the room, and after a few moments' whispered conversation with her cousin, smiled round the class and then withdrew. Every one worshipped Miss Eleanor; but that's neither here nor there. A moment later Mr. Blake put the question which stands at the commencement of this chapter.
The new-comer's answer made a favourable impression on the minds of his companions, and as soon as the morning's work was over, they set about the task of mutual introduction in a far more friendly manner than was customary on these occasions. He was a wiry little chap, with bright eyes, for ever on the twinkle, and black hair pasted down upon his head, so as not to show the slightest vestige of curl, while the sharp, mischievous look on his face, and the quick, comical movements of his body, suggested something between a terrier and a monkey.
There was never very much going on in the way of regular sports or pastimes at The Birches; the smallness of numbers made it difficult to attempt proper games of cricket or football, and the boys were forced to content themselves with such substitutes as prisoner's base, cross tag, etc., or in carrying out the projects of Fred Acton, who was constantly making suggestions for the employment of their time, and compelling everybody to conform to his wishes.
Mr. Welsby had been a widower for many years; he was a grave, scholarly man, who spent most of his spare time in his own library. Mr. Blake was supposed to take charge out of school hours; he was, as every one said, "a jolly fellow," and the fact that his popularity extended far and wide among a large circle of friends and acquaintances, caused him to have a good many irons in the fire of one sort and another. During their hours of leisure, therefore, the Birchites were left pretty much to their own devices, or more often to those of Master Fred Acton, who liked, as has already been stated, to assume the office of bellwether to the little flock.
At the time when our story commences the ground was covered with snow; but Acton was equal to the occasion, and as soon as dinner was over, ordered all hands to come outside and make a slide.
The garden was on a steep slope, along the bottom of which ran the brick wall bounding one side of the playground; a straight, steep path lay between this and the house, and the youthful dux, with his usual disregard of life and limb, insisted on choosing this as the scene of operations.
"What!" he cried, in answer to a feeble protest on the part of Mugford, "make it on level ground? Of course not, when we've got this jolly hill to go down; not if I know it. We'll open the door at the bottom, and go right on into the playground."
"But how if any one goes a bit crooked, and runs up against the bricks?"
"Well, they'll get pretty well smashed, or he will. You must go straight; that's half the fun of the thing—it'll make it all the more exciting. Come on and begin to tread down the snow."
Without daring to show any outward signs of reluctance, but with feelings very much akin to those of men digging their own graves before being shot, the company set about putting this fearful project into execution. In about half an hour the slide was in good working order, and then the fun began.
Mugford, and one or two others whose prudence exceeded their valour, made a point of sitting down before they had gone many yards, preferring to take the fall in a milder form than it would have assumed at a later period in the journey. To the bolder spirits, however, every trip was like leading a forlorn hope, none expecting to return from the enterprise unscathed. The pace was terrific: on nearing the playground wall, all the events of a lifetime might have flashed across the memory as at the last gasp of a drowning man; and if fortunate enough to whiz through the doorway, and pull up "all standing" on the level stretch beyond, it was to draw a deep breath, and regard the successful performance of the feat as an escape from catastrophe which was nothing short of miraculous. The unevenness of the ground made it almost impossible to steer a straight course. A boy might be half-way down the path, when suddenly he felt himself beginning to turn round; an agonized look spread over his face; he made one frantic attempt to keep, as it were, "head to the sea;" there was an awful moment when house, garden, sky, and playground wall spun round and round; and then the little group of onlookers, their hearts hardened by their own sufferings, burst into a roar of laughter; while Acton slapped his leg, crying, "He's over! What a stunning lark! Who's next?"
At the end of an hour and a half most of the company were temporarily disabled, and even their chief had not escaped scot free.
"Now then for a regular spanker!" he cried, rushing at the slide. A "spanker" it certainly was: six yards from the commencement his legs flew from under him, he soared into the air like a bird, and did not touch the ground again until he sat down heavily within twenty paces of the bottom of the slope.
One might have supposed that this catastrophe would have somewhat damped the sufferer's ardour; but instead of that he only seemed fired with a fresh desire to break his neck.
He hobbled up the hill, and pausing for a moment at the top to take breath, suddenly exclaimed, "Look here, I'm going down it on skates."
Every one stood aghast at this rash determination; but Acton hurried off into the house, and soon returned with the skates. He sat down on a bank, and was proceeding to put them on, when he discovered that, by some oversight, he had brought out the wrong pair. "Bother it! these aren't mine, they're too short; whose are they?"
"I think they're mine," faltered Mugford.
"Well, put 'em on."
"But I don't want to."
"But I say you must!"
"Oh! please, Acton, I really can't, I—"
"Shut up! Look here, some one's got to go down that slide on skates, so just put 'em on."
It was at this moment that Diggory Trevanock stepped forward, and remarked in a casual manner that if Mugford didn't wish to do it, but would lend him the skates, he himself would go down the slide.
His companions stared at him in astonishment, coupled with which was a feeling of regret: he was a nice little chap, and they had already begun to like him, and did not wish to see him dashed to pieces against the playground wall before their very eyes. Acton, however, had decreed that "some one had got to go down that slide on skates," and it seemed only meet and right that if a victim had to be sacrificed it should be a new boy rather than an old stager.
"Bravo!" cried the dux; "here's one chap at least who's no funk. Put 'em on sharp; the bell 'll ring in a minute."
Several willing hands were stretched out to assist in arming Diggory for the enterprise, and in a few moments he was assisted to the top of the slide.
"All right," he said; "let go!"
The spectators held their breath, hardly daring to watch what would happen. But fortune favours the brave. The adventurous juvenile rushed down the path, shot like an arrow through the doorway, and the next instant was seen ploughing up the snow in the playground, and eventually disappearing head first into the middle of a big drift.
His companions all rushed down in a body to haul him out of the snow. Acton smacked him on the back, and called him a trump; while Jack Vance presented him on the spot with a mince-pie, which had been slightly damaged in one of the donor's many tumbles, but was, as he remarked, "just as good as new for eating."
From that moment until the day he left there was never a more popular boy at The Birches than Diggory Trevanock.
"I say," remarked Mugford, as they met a short time later in the cloak-room, "that was awfully good of you to go down the slide instead of me; what ever made you do it?"
"Well," answered the other calmly, "I thought it would save me a lot of bother if I showed you fellows at once that I wasn't a muff. I don't mind telling you I was in rather a funk when it came to the start; but I'd said I'd do it, and of course I couldn't draw back."
The numerous stirring events which happened at The Birches during the next three terms, and which it will be my pleasing duty to chronicle in subsequent chapters, gave the boys plenty of opportunity of testing the character of their new companion, or, in plainer English, of finding out the stuff he was made of; and whatever his other faults may have been, this at least is certain, that no one ever found occasion to charge Diggory Trevanock with being either a muff or a coward.
One might have thought that the slide episode would have afforded excitement enough for a new boy's first day at school; yet before it closed he was destined to be mixed up in an adventure of a still more thrilling character.
The Birches was an old house, and though its outward appearance was modern enough, the interior impressed even youthful minds with a feeling of reverence for its age. The heavy timbers, the queer shape of some of the bedrooms and attics, the narrow, crooked passages, and the little unexpected flights of stairs, were all things belonging to a bygone age, of which the pupils were secretly proud, and which caused them to remember the place, and think of it at the time, as being in some way different from an ordinary school.
"I say, Diggy," exclaimed Jack Vance, addressing the new boy by the friendly abbreviation, which seemed by mutual consent to have been bestowed upon him in recognition of his daring exploit—"I say, Diggy, you're in my bedroom: there's you, and me, and Mugford. Mug's an awful chump, but he's a good-natured old duffer, and you and I'll do the fighting."
"What do you mean?"
"Why, sometimes when Blake is out spending the evening, and old Welsby is shut up in his library, the different rooms make raids on one another. It began the term before last. Blake had been teaching us all about how the Crusaders used to go out every now and then and make war in Palestine, and so the fellows on the west side of the house called themselves the Crusaders, and we were Infidels, and they'd come over and rag us, and we should drive them back. Miss Eleanor came up one night, and caught us in the middle of a battle. O Diggy, she is a trump! Blake asked her next day before us all which boys had been out on the landing, because he meant to punish them; and she laughed, and said: 'I'm sure I can't tell you. Why, when I saw they were all in their night-shirts, I shut my eyes at once!' Of course it was all an excuse for not giving us away. She doesn't mind seeing chaps in their night-shirts when they're ill, we all know that; and once or twice when for some reason or other she told us on the quiet that there mustn't be any disturbance that evening, no one ever went crusading— Acton would have licked them if they had. Acton's going to propose to Miss Eleanor some day, he told us so, and—"
"But what about the bedrooms?" interrupted Diggory; "have you given up having crusades?"
"Yes, but we have other things instead. We call our rooms by different names, and it's all against all; one lot come and make a raid on you, and then you go and pay them out. This term Kennedy and Jacobs sleep in the room above ours, and next to the big attic. They're always reading sea stories, and they call their room the 'Main-top,' because it's so high up. Then at the end of the passage are Acton, Shaw, and Morris, and they're the 'House of Lords;' and next to them is the 'Dogs' Home,' where all the other fellows are put."
A few hours later Diggory and his two room-mates were standing at the foot of their beds and discussing the formation of a few simple rules for conducting a race in undressing, the last man to put the candle out.
"You needn't bother to race," said Mugford; "I'll do it—I'm sure to be the last."
"No, you aren't," answered Vance. "We'll give you coat and waistcoat start; it'll be good fun—"
At this moment the door was suddenly flung open, two half-dressed figures sprang into the room, and discharged a couple of snowballs point-blank at its occupants. One of the missiles struck Diggory on the shoulder, and the other struck Mugford fair and square on the side of the head, the fragments flying all over the floor. There was a subdued yell of triumph, the door was slammed to with a bang, and the muffled sound of stockinged feet thudding up the neighbouring staircase showed that the enemy were in full retreat.
"It's those confounded Main-top men!" cried Jack Vance; "I will pay them out. I wonder where the fellows got the snow from?"
"Oh, I expect they opened the window and took it off the ledge," answered Diggory. "Look here—let's sweep it up into this piece of paper before it melts."
This having been done, the three friends hastily threw off their clothes and scrambled into bed, forgetting all about the proposed race in their eagerness to form some plan for an immediate retaliation on the occupants of the "Main-top."
"I wonder if they'll hear anything of the ghost again this term?" said Mugford,
"What ghost?" asked Diggory.
"Oh, it's nothing really," answered Vance; "only somebody said once that the house is haunted, and Kennedy and Jacobs say the ghost must be in the big attic next their room. They hear such queer noises sometimes that they both go under the bed-clothes."
"Do they always do that?"
"Yes, so they say, whenever there is a row."
"Well, then," said Diggory, "I'll tell you what we'll do: we'll go very quietly up into that attic, and groan and knock on the wall until you think they've both got their heads well under the clothes, and then we'll rush in and bag their pillows, or drag them out of bed, or something of that sort. You aren't afraid to go into the attic, are you?" he continued, seeing that the others hesitated. "Why, of course there are no such things as ghosts. Or, look here, I'll go in, and you can wait outside."
"N—no, I don't mind," answered Vance; "and it'll be an awful lark catching them with their heads under the clothes."
"All right, then, let's do it; though I suppose we'd better wait till every one's in bed."
The last suggestion was agreed upon, and the three friends lay talking in an undertone until the sound of footsteps and the gleam of a candle above the door announced the fact that Mr. Blake was retiring to rest.
"He's always last," said Vance; "we must give him time to undress, and then we'll start."
A quarter of an hour later the three boys, in semi-undress, were creeping in single file up the narrow staircase.
"Be careful," whispered Vance; "there are several loose boards, and they crack like anything."
The small landing was reached in safety, and the moon, shining faintly through a little skylight formed of a single pane of glass, enabled them to distinguish the outline of two doors.
Now it was a very different matter, when lying warm and snug in bed, to talk about acting the ghost, from what it was, when standing shivering in the cold and darkness, to put the project into execution. During the period of waiting the conversation had turned on haunted houses, and no one seemed particularly anxious to claim as it were the post of honour, and be the first to enter the big attic.
"Go on!" whispered Mugford, nudging Vance.
"Go on!" repeated the latter, giving Diggory's arm a gentle push.
The new boy had certainly undertaken to play the part of the ghost, and there was no excuse for his backing out of it at the last moment.
"All right," he muttered, "I'll go."
Just then a terrible thing happened. Diggory clutched the door-knob as though it were the handle of a galvanic battery, while Mugford and Vance seized each other by the arm and literally gasped for breath.
The stillness had been broken by a slight sound, as of something falling inside the attic, and this was followed a moment later by a shrill, unearthly scream.
For five seconds the three companions stood petrified with horror, not daring to move; then followed another scream, if anything more horrible than the last, and accompanied this time by the clanking rattle of a chain being dragged across the floor.
That was enough. Talk about a sauve qui peut! the wonder is that any one survived the stampede which followed. The youngsters turned and flew down the stairs at break-neck speed, and hardly had they started when the door of the "Main-top" was flung open, and its two occupants rushed down after them. As though to ensure the retreat being nothing less than a regular rout, Mugford, who was leading, missed his footing on the last step, causing every one to fall over him in turn, until all five boys were sprawling together in a mixed heap upon the floor.
Freeing themselves with some little difficulty from the general entanglement, they rose to their feet, and after surveying each other for a moment in silence, gave vent to a simultaneous ejaculation of "The ghost!"
"What were you fellows doing up there?" asked Kennedy.
"Why, we came up to have a joke with you," answered Vance; "but just when we got up to the landing, it—it made that noise!"
There was the sound of the key turning in the lock of Mr. Blake's door.
"Cave!" whispered Mugford.
"Tell him about it," added Vance; and giving Diggory a push, they all three darted into their room just as the master emerged from his, arrayed in dressing-gown and slippers.
"Now, then," exclaimed the latter, holding his candle above his head, and peering down the passage, "what's the meaning of this disturbance? I thought the whole house was falling down.—Come here, you two, and explain yourselves!"
"Please, sir," answered Kennedy and Jacobs in one breath, "it's the ghost!"
"The ghost! What ghost? What d'you mean?"
The two "Main-top" men began a hasty account of the cause of their sudden fright, taking care, however, to make no mention of the three hostile visitors who had shared in the surprise.
Mr. Blake listened to their story in silence, then all at once he burst out laughing, and without a word turned on his heel and went quickly upstairs. He entered the attic, and in about half a minute they heard him coming back.
"Ha, ha! I've got your ghost; I've been trying to lay him for some time past."
The jingle of a chain was distinctly audible; Mr. Blake was evidently bringing the spectre down in his arms! Diggory and Vance could no longer restrain their curiosity; they hopped out of bed and glanced round the corner of the door. The master held in his hand a rusty old gin, the iron jaws of which were tightly closed upon the body of an enormous rat.
"There's a monster for you!" he said; "I think it's the biggest I ever saw. He'd carried the trap, chain and all, right across the room, but that finished him; he was as dead as a stone when I picked him up. Now get back to bed; I should think you're both nearly frozen."
Diggory and Jack Vance followed the advice given to Kennedy and Jacobs, and did so rather sheepishly. They felt they had been making tools of themselves; yet it would never have done to own to such a thing.
"What a lark!" said the new boy, after a few moments' silence.
"Wasn't it!" returned Jack Vance; "it's the best joke I've had for a long time. But we didn't pay those fellows out for throwing those snowballs; we must do it some other night. And now we three must swear to be friends, and stand by each other against all the world, and whatever happens. What shall we call our room?"
"I know," answered Diggory: "we'll call it 'The Triple Alliance!'"
The Triple Alliance, the formation of which has just been described, was destined to be no mere form of speech or empty display of friendship. The members had solemnly sworn to stand by one another whatever happened, and the manner in which they carried out their resolve, and the important consequences which resulted from their concerted actions, will be made known to the reader as our story progresses.
Poor Mugford certainly seemed likely to be a heavy drag on the association; he was constantly tumbling into trouble, and needing to be pulled out again by those who had promised to be his friends.
An instance of this occurred on the day following Diggory's arrival at The Birches. He and Vance had gone down after morning school into what was called the playroom, to partake of two more of the latter's mince-pies, and on their return to the schoolroom found a crowd assembled round Acton, who, seated on the top of a small cupboard which always served as a judicial bench, was hearing a case in which Mugford was the defendant, while Jacobs and another boy named Cross appeared as plaintiffs.
The charge was that the former was indebted to the latter for the sum of half a crown, which he had borrowed towards the end of the previous term, in separate amounts of one shilling and eighteen pence, promising to repay them, with interest, immediately after the holidays. The money had been expended in the purchase of a disreputable old canary bird, for which Noaks, the manservant, had agreed to find board and lodging during the Christmas vacation. Now, when the creditors reminded Mugford of his obligations, they found him totally unable to meet their demands for payment.
"Now, look here," said Acton, addressing the defendant with great severity, "no humbug—how much money did you bring back with you?"
"Well, I had to pay my brother before I came away for my share in a telescope we bought last summer, and then—"
"Bother your brother and the telescope! Why can't you answer my question? How much money did you bring back with you?"
"Only five bob."
"Then why in the name of Fortune don't you pay up?"
"Because I had to pay all that to Noaks for bird-seed."
"D'you mean to say that that bird ate five shillings' worth of seed in four weeks?"
"Well, so Noaks says; he told me he'd kept scores of birds in his time, but he'd 'never seen one so hearty at its grub before.' Those were the very words he used, and he said it was eating nearly all the day, and that's one reason why it looks such a dowdy colour, and never sings."
"Well, all I can say is, if you believe all Noaks tells you, you're a fool. But that's no reason why these two chaps should be done out of their money; so now, how are you going to pay them?"
"If they only wait till pocket-money's given out—" began Mugford.
"Oh no, we shan't!" interrupted Cross. "He only gets sixpence a week, and he's always breaking windows and other things, and having it stopped."
There seemed only one way out of the difficulty, and that was to put as it were an execution into Mugford's desk, and realize a certain amount of his private property.
"Look here," said Acton, "he must sell something.—Now, then," he added, turning to the defendant, "just shell out something and bring it here at once, and we'll have an auction."
The boy walked off to his desk, and after rummaging about in it for some little time, returned with a miscellaneous collection of small articles in his arms, which he proceeded to hand up one by one for the judge's inspection.
"Oh, its a book that was given me on my birthday, called 'Lofty Thoughts for Little Thinkers.'"
"Lofty grandmother!" said Acton impatiently.
"What else have you got ?"
"Well, here's a wire puzzle, only I think a bit of it's lost, and the clasp of a cricket belt, and old Dick Rodman's chessboard and some of the men, and some stuff for chilblains, and—"
"Oh, dry up!" interrupted Acton; "what bosh! Who d'you expect would buy any of that rubbish? Look here, we'll give you till after dinner, and unless you find something sensible by then, we shall come and hunt for ourselves."
"That's just like Mug," said Jack Vance to Diggory, as the group of boys slowly dispersed; "he's always doing something stupid. But I suppose as we made that alliance, we ought to try to help the beggar somehow."
They followed their unfortunate comrade to his desk, which when opened displayed a perfect chaos of ragged books, loose sheets of paper, broken pen-holders, pieces of string, battered cardboard boxes, and other rubbish.
"Look here, Mug, what have you got to sell? you'll have to fork out something."
"I don't know," returned the other mournfully, stirring up the contents of the desk as though he were making a Christmas pudding. "I've got nothing, except—well, there's this book of Poe's, 'Tales of Adventure, Mystery, and Imagination,' and my clasp-knife; and perhaps some one would buy these fret-saw patterns or this dog-chain."
He turned out two or three more small articles and laid them on the form.
"Are there any of these things you particularly wish to keep?" asked Diggory; "because, if so, Vance and I'll bid for them, and then you can buy them back from us again when you've got some more money."
"That's awfully kind of you," answered Mugford, brightening up. "I'll tell you what I should like to keep, and that's my clasp-knife and the book; they're such jolly stories. 'The Pit and the Pendulum' always gives me bad dreams, and 'The Premature Burial' makes you feel certain you'll be buried alive."
"All right; and did you bring a cake back with you?"
"Well, then, sell that first, and you can share our grub."
The auction was held directly after dinner. The cake fetched a shilling, and Diggory and Vance bid ninepence each for the book and pocket-knife; so Mugford came out of his difficulty without suffering any further loss than what was afterwards made good again by the generosity of his two comrades. They, for their part, made no fuss over this little act of kindness, but handed the book and clasp-knife over to Mugford without waiting for the money, and little thinking what an important part these trifling possessions would play in the subsequent history of the Triple Alliance.
The sale had not long been concluded, and the little community were preparing to obey Acton's order to "Come outside," when the latter rushed into the room finning with rage.
"I say," he exclaimed, "what do you think that beast of a Noaks has done? Why, he's gone and put ashes all over our slide!"
In their heart of hearts every one felt decidedly relieved at this announcement; still it was necessary, at all events, to simulate some of their leader's wrath, and accordingly there was a general outcry against the offender.
"Oh, the cad!"—"What an awful shame!"—"Let's tell Blake!" etc., etc.
"Who is Noaks?" asked Diggory. "Is he that sour-looking man who brings the boots in every morning?"
"Yes, that's so," answered Vance. "He hates us all—partly, I believe, because his son's a Philistine. I wonder old Welsby doesn't get another man."
"His son's a what?" asked Diggory; but at that moment Acton came marching round the room ordering every one out into the playground, and Jack Vance hurried off to get his cap and muffler without replying to the question.
Sliding was out of the question, and the "House of Lords" having amused themselves for a time by capturing small boys and throwing them into the snow-drift, some one remarked that it would be good fun to build a snow man; which proposition was received with acclamation, and all hands were soon hard at work rolling the big balls which were to form the base of the statue. As the work progressed the interest in it increased, the more so when Diggory suggested that the figure should be supposed to represent the obnoxious Noaks, and that the company could then relieve their feelings by pelting his effigy as soon as it was completed. Every one was pleased with the project, and even Acton, who as a rule would never follow up any plan which was not of his own making, took special pains to cause the snow man to bear some likeness to the original. He had just, by way of a finishing touch, expended nearly half a penny bottle of red ink in a somewhat exaggerated reproduction of the fiery hue of Noaks's nose, when the bell rang for afternoon school, and the bombardment had to be postponed until the following day.
It was no small trial of patience being thus obliged to wait nearly twenty-four hours before wreaking their vengeance on the effigy; still there was no help for it. The boys bottled down their feelings, and when at last the classes were dismissed, and the dux cried, "Come on, you fellows!" every one obeyed the summons willingly enough. There had been a slight thaw in the night, and the statue stood in need of some trifling repairs. Acton suggested, therefore, that the half-hour before dinner should be devoted to putting things to rights, and to making some small additions in the shape of pebbles for waistcoat buttons, and other trifling adornments.
Mr. Welsby kept the boys at the table for nearly a quarter of an hour after the meal was finished, talking over his plans for the coming term, and when at last he finished there was a regular stampede for the playground. Acton was leading the rush; he dashed through the garden doorway, and then stopped dead with an exclamation of dismay. All those who followed, as they arrived on the spot, did the same. Every vestige of the snow man, which had been left barely an hour ago standing such a work of art, had disappeared. Certainly a portion of the pedestal still remained, looking like the stump of an old, decayed tooth; but the figure itself had been thrown down, trodden flat, and literally stamped out of existence!
The little crowd stood for a moment speechless, gazing with woebegone expressions on their faces at the wreck of their hopes and handiwork; then the silence was broken by a subdued chuckle coming from the other side of the wall on their left, and every one, with a start and a sudden clinching of fists, cried simultaneously: "The Philistines!"
The words had hardly been uttered when above the brickwork appeared the head and shoulders of a boy a size or so bigger than Acton; a dirty-looking brown bowler hat was stuck on the very back of his head, and rammed down until the brim rested on the top of his ears; and it will be quite sufficient to remark that his face was in exact keeping with the manner in which he wore his hat. Once more everybody gave vent to their feelings by another involuntary ejaculation—"Young Noaks!"
The stranger laughed, pulled a face which, as far as ugliness went, was hardly an improvement on the one Nature had already bestowed upon him, and then pointed mockingly at the remains of the masterpiece.
His triumph, however, was short-lived. Jack Vance, as he left the house, had caught up a double handful of snow, which he had been pressing into a hard ball as he ran down the path, determining in his own, mind to be the first to open fire on the snow man. Without a moment's hesitation he flung the missile at the intruder's head, and, to the intense delight of his companions, it struck the latter fairly on the mouth, causing him to lose his precarious foothold on the wall and fall back into the road.
It needed no further warning to inform the Birchites that the Philistines were upon them, and every one set to work to lay in a stock of snowballs as fast as hands could make them. "Look out!" cried Kennedy. Young Noaks's face rose once more above the top of the wall, and the next moment a big stone, the size of hen's egg, whizzed past Diggory's head, and struck the garden door with a sounding bang.
"Oh, the cad!" cried Acton; "let's go for him."
The whole garrison combined in making a vigorous sortie into the road; but it was only to find the enemy in full retreat, and a few dropping shots at long range ended the skirmish.
"I say, Vance," exclaimed Diggory, "who are they? Who are these fellows?"
Now, as the aforesaid Philistines play rather an Important part in the opening chapters of our story, I propose to answer the question myself, in such a way that the reader may be enabled to take a more intelligent interest in the chain of events which commenced with the destruction of the snow man; and in order that this may be done in a satisfactory manner, I will in a few words map out the ground on which this memorable campaign was afterwards conducted.
Take the well-known drawing of two right angles In Euclid's definition, and imagine the horizontal line to be the main road to Chatford, while the perpendicular one standing on it is a by-way called Locker's lane. In the right angle stood The Birches; the house itself faced the Chatford road, while behind it, in regular succession, came first the sloping garden, then the walled-in playground, and then the small field in which were attempted such games of cricket and football as the limited number of pupils would permit. There were three doors in the playground—one the entrance from the garden, another opening into the lane, and a third into the field, the two latter being usually kept locked.
Locker's Lane was a short cut to Chatford, yet Rule 21 in The Birches Statute-Book ordained that no boy should either go or return by this route when visiting the town; the whole road was practically put out of bounds, and the reason for this regulation was as follows:
At the corner of the playing field the lane took a sharp turn, and about a quarter of a mile beyond this stood a large red-brick house, shut in on three sides by a high wall, whereon, close to the heavy double doors which formed the entrance, appeared a board bearing in big letters the legend—
HORACE HOUSE, Middle-Class School for Boys. A. PHILLIPS, B.A., Head-master.
The pupils of Mr. Phillips had been formerly called by Mr. Welsby's boys the Phillipians, which title had in time given place to the present nickname of the Philistines.
I have no doubt that the average boy turned out by Horace House was as good a fellow, taking him all round, as the average boy produced by The Birches; and that, if they had been thrown together in one school, they would, for the most part, have made very good friends and comrades. However, in fairness both to them and to their rivals, it must be said that at the period of our story Mr. Phillips seemed for some time past to have been unusually unfortunate in his elder boys: they were undoubtedly "cads," and the character of the whole establishment, as far as the scholars were concerned, naturally yielded to the influence of its leaders.
It had been customary every term for the Birchites to play a match against them either at cricket or football; but their conduct during a visit paid to the ground of the latter, back in the previous summer, had been so very ungentlemanly and unsportsmanlike that, when the next challenge arrived for an encounter at football, Mr. Welsby wrote back a polite note expressing regret that he did not see his way clear to permit a continuation of the matches. This was the signal for an outbreak of open hostilities between the two schools: the Philistines charged the Birchites in the open street with being afraid to meet them in the field. These base insinuations led to frequent exchanges of taunts and uncomplimentary remarks; and, last of all, matters were brought to a climax by a stand-up fight between Tom Mason, Acton's predecessor as dux, and young Noaks. The encounter took place just outside the stronghold of the enemy, the Birchite so far getting the best of it that at the end of a five minutes' engagement he proclaimed his victory by dragging his adversary along by the collar and bumping his head a number of times against the very gates of Horace House. Unfortunately a rumour of what had happened got to the ears of Mr. Welsby. Mason was severely reprimanded, and his companions were forbidden, under pain of heavy punishment, to walk in Locker's Lane further than the corner of their own playing field.
"But who is young Noaks?" asked Diggory, as Jack Vance finished a hasty account of this warfare with the Philistines.
"Why, that's just the funny part of it," returned the other. "This Sam Noaks is the son of our Noaks, but he's got an uncle, called Simpson, who lives at Todderton, where I come from. This man Simpson made a lot of money out in Australia, and when he came back to England he adopted young Noaks, and sends him here to Phillips's school."
By this time the home forces had all struggled back into the playground. In one corner stood a wooden shed containing a carpenter's bench, a chest for bats and stumps, and various other things belonging to different boys. Acton, as head of the school, kept the key, and having unfastened the door, summoned his followers inside to hold an impromptu council of war and discuss the situation. There was a grave expression on each face, for every one felt that things were beginning to look serious. Mason, the only one of their number who had been physically equal to the leaders of their opponents, was no longer among them, and the enemy, evidently aware of their helpless condition, had dared for the first time to actually come and beard them in their own den.
"What I want to know first is this," began Acton. "You can see by the footmarks that they came in through that door; of course it's always kept locked, and here's the key hanging up inside the shed. Now who opened it for them, and how was it done?"
"Perhaps it wasn't fastened," suggested Morris.
"Yes, it was," answered Kennedy excitedly. "I noticed that this morning, when we were picking up stones for the snow man's buttons."
"Then I tell you what it is," continued Acton solemnly: "some one here's playing us false, and my belief is it's old Noaks. D'you remember last term when Mason and Jack Vance and I made a plot for going down and throwing crackers into their yard? Well, they must have heard of it from some one; for they were all lying in wait for us behind the wall, and as soon as we got near to it they threw cans of water over us and pelted us with stones."
There was a murmur of suppressed wrath at the memory of the fate of this gallant expedition.
"Yes," added Shaw, "and I believe some one told them about this snow man."
"Well, one thing's certain," said Acton—"we must serve 'em out somehow for knocking it down. They evidently think now Mason's gone they can do what they like, and that we shall be afraid of them. Now what can we do?"
There was a silence; every one felt that a serious crisis had arrived in the history of the Birchites, and that unless some immediate steps were taken to avenge this insult they would no longer be free men, but live in constant terror of the Philistines;—every one, I say, felt that some bold action must be taken, yet nobody had a suggestion to make.
"Well, look here," said Acton, "something's got to be done. We must all think it over, and we'll have another meeting in a week's time; then if any one's made a plan, we'll talk it over and decide what's to be done."
"Jack," said Diggory two evenings later, "you know what Acton said about the Philistines; well, I've got part of a plan in my head, but I shan't tell you what it is till Wednesday."
DISCOMFITURE OF THE PHILISTINES.
On Wednesday afternoon, as soon as dinner was over, Acton summoned his followers to attend the council of war which was to decide what reprisals should be taken on the Philistines for the destruction of the snow man. Every one felt the importance of a counter-attack, for unless something of the kind were attempted, as Acton remarked in his opening speech, "they'll think we're funky of them, and they'll simply come down here as often as they like, and worry us to death."
"Couldn't we tell Mr. Welsby?" suggested Butler, a timid small boy belonging to the "Dogs' Home."
"Tell Mr. Welsby!" cried half a dozen voices in withering tones; "of course not!"
It was well known by both parties that whenever the real state of affairs became known to their respective head-masters, the war would come to an abrupt termination; and the great reason why each side forbore to make any open complaint against the other was undoubtedly because every one secretly enjoyed the excitement of the campaign, and felt that a peace would make life rather dull and uninteresting.
"The thing that licks us," said Acton, "is what I was speaking about last week: somehow or other, they always seem to know just what we're up to, and it's no use our doing anything, because they're always prepared. Some one's acting the spy. I can't think it's any of you fellows, but I believe it's old Noaks. You see his son's there, and for some reason or other he seems to hate every one here like poison. Now, what are we to do?"
There was a silence, broken at length by Diggory Trevanock.
"I don't know what you think," he began, "but it seems to me it's no use making any plans until we find out who tells 'em to the Philistines. I should say that Noaks is the fellow who does it, but we ought to make certain."
"Yes, but how are we to do it?" asked Acton, laughing; "that's just what I want to know."
"Well, I've got a bit of a plan," returned the other, "only I should like to tell it you in private."
"All right," answered the dux; "come on outside. Now, then, what is it?"
"Why," said Diggory, "it's this (I didn't want the other chaps to hear, because then it'll prove who's the spy). You say the last time you went down to throw some crackers over the wall they were all lying in wait for you. Well, let you and me go into the boot-room when Noaks is at work there, and pretend to make a plan as though we were going to do it again to-morrow night; then two of us might go down and see if they're prepared. If so, it must have been Noaks who told them, because no one else knows about it. I'll go for one, and Jack Vance'll go for another. I'll tell him to keep it dark, and you can let us in and out of the door."
"Oh—ah!" said Acton, "that isn't a bad idea; at all events we'll try it."
The project was put into immediate execution. That same afternoon, just before tea, Acton and Diggory discussed the bogus plan in Noaks's hearing, while Jack Vance, having been admitted into their confidence and sworn to secrecy, willingly agreed to go out with Diggory and form the reconnoitering party which was to report on the movements of the enemy.
"I knew you'd come," said the latter; "and we'll show them what sort of stuff the Triple Alliance is made of."
On the following evening, as soon as tea was over, the two friends slipped off down into the playground, where they were joined a minute later by Acton, who, unlocking the shed, took down from the peg on which it hung the key of the door in the outer wall.
"You'll have plenty of time," he said, glancing at his watch, "and with this moonlight you'll soon be able to see if they're about. I'll keep the door, and let you in when you come back."
The next moment the two members of the Alliance were trotting down Locker's Lane. It was a bright, frosty night, and the hard ground rang beneath their feet like stone. They turned off on to the grass, lest the noise should give the enemy warning of their approach; and when within about a hundred yards of Horace House, pulled up to consider for a moment what their plan of action should be, before proceeding any further.
"I don't see any one," said Jack Vance.
"Perhaps they are hiding," answered Diggory. "Look here! let's get into this field and run down on the other side of the hedge until we get opposite the gate."
The stronghold of the Philistines was silent as the grave. The two chums crouched behind a thick bush, and peering through its leafless branches could see nothing but the closed double doors, and a stretch of blank wall on either side.
"There's no one about," whispered Vance; "I don't believe old Noaks has told them."
"Wait a minute," answered Diggory. "I'll see if I can stir any of them;" and so saying, he knelt up, and cried in an audible voice, "Now, then, are you all ready?"
Diggory and Jack Vance dropped flat on their stomachs, for the words had hardly been uttered when the doors were flung open, and at least ten of the Philistines rushed out into the road with a yell of defiance. Many of them were bigger than Acton, and what would have been the fate of the two Birchites had they kept to the road instead of acting on Diggory's suggestion of advancing under cover of the hedge, one hardly dares to imagine.
"Hullo!" cried young Noaks, who had headed the sortie. "There's nobody here, and yet I'll swear I heard them somewhere."
"So did I," answered another voice; "they must have cut and run."
"There's no place for them to run to," returned Noaks; "they must be behind that hedge.—Come out of it, you skunks!"
A big stone came crashing through the twigs within a yard of Diggory's head. The two boys crouched close to the low earth bank and held their breath.
"They must be about somewhere," cried Noaks. "I knew they were coming, and I'm sure I heard some one say, 'Are you ready?' They're behind that hedge. We can't get through, it's too thick; but you fellows stop here, and I and Hogson and Bernard'll run down to the gate and cut off their retreat."
"What shall we do?" whispered Jack; "this field's so large they'll run us down before we get to the other hedge. Shall we make a bolt and chance it?"
Diggory was just about to reply in the affirmative, when help came from an unexpected quarter.
"What are you boys doing out here at this time?" cried a loud, stern voice.—"Noaks, what are you about down the road there?—Come in this moment, every one of you!"
"Saved!" whispered Jack Vance, in an ecstasy of delight as the Philistines trooped back through the double doors. "That was old Phillips. I hope he gives Noaks a jolly good 'impot.' That chap is a cad," continued the speaker, as they hurried back towards The Birches: "when he can't do anything else, he chucks stones like he did to-night. The wonder is he hasn't killed some one before now. I don't see how it's possible for the Philistines to show up well when they've got a chap like him bossing the show."
The bell for evening preparation was ringing as they reached The Birches, and only a very few hasty replies could be given to Acton's eager inquiries as they rushed together up the garden path. In the little interval before supper, however, the subject was resumed in a quiet corner of the passage.
"So it must have been old Noaks who told them," said Acton; "that's proved without a doubt. I vote we go and have a jolly row with him to-morrow morning."
"No, I shouldn't do that," answered Diggory; "don't let him know that we've found him out."
"Well, look here," answered Acton, thumping the wall with his fist and frowning heavily, "what are we going to do to get even with the Philistines? We can't go out and fight them in Locker's Lane; we're too small, and they know it. Young Noaks would never have dared to act as he did after they'd knocked our snow man down if Mason had been here. They think now they're going to ride rough-shod over us; but they aren't, and we must show them we aren't going to be trampled on."
"So we will," cried Jack Vance excitedly, "and that jolly quick!"
There was a moment's pause. "I'm sure I don't know," answered Jack sadly, and so the meeting terminated.
The fact of the insult, which had been put upon them by the destruction of their snow man, remaining unavenged, caused a sense of gloom to rest upon the Birchites, as though they already felt themselves suffering beneath the yoke of the conquering Philistines. Even the bedroom feuds were forgotten: night after night the "House of Lords" left the "Dogs' Home" in undisturbed tranquillity, and the occupants of the "Main-top" retired to rest without even putting a washstand against their door. One thought occupied the minds of all, and even Mugford, when asked on one occasion by Mr. Blake who were the conspirators in the Gunpowder Plot, answered absent-mindedly, "The Philistines!"
"Look here, you two," said Diggory one evening, as he scrambled into bed, "we three must think of some way of paying those fellows out for knocking down our snow man. It would be splendid if we could say that the Triple Alliance had done it, and without telling any one beforehand."
"So we will," answered Jack Vance; "that is if you'll think of the plan. I'm not able to make one, and I'm jolly sure Mugford can't."
The speaker turned over and went to sleep; but after what seemed half the night had passed, he was suddenly aroused by several violent tugs at his bed-clothes. Thinking it nothing less than a midnight raid, Jack sprang up and grasped his pillow.
"No, no, it's not that," said Diggory, "but I wanted to help you; I've got an idea."
"W—what about?" asked the other, in a sleepy voice.
"Why, how we can pay out the Philistines!"
"Oh, bother the Philistines!" grumbled Jack, and promptly returned to the land of dreams.
"I wonder where those fellows Vance and Trevanock are?" said Acton the following afternoon, as the boys were picking up for a game at prisoner's base. "And there's that dummy of a Mugford—where's he sneaked off to? he never will play games if he can possibly help it."
They set to work, and at the end of about twenty minutes were engaged in a most exciting rally. Acton had started out to rescue one of the prisoners, while Shaw had rushed forth to capture Acton. Morris left the base with similar designs on Shaw, and every one, with the exception of the den-keepers, seemed suddenly seized with an irresistible desire to do something. The playground was full of boys rushing and dodging all over the place, when suddenly everybody stood still and listened. Some one was pounding with his clinched fist at the door opening into Locker's Lane, and at the same time Jack Vance was heard shouting, "Let us in quick, or the Philistines'll have us!"
Acton ran to fetch the key, and the next moment the three members of the Triple Alliance dashed through the open door, which was hastily secured behind them, while a shout of baffled rage some little distance down the road showed that they had only narrowly escaped falling into the hands of the enemy. The pursuit, however, was evidently abandoned, and Morris, climbing on the roof of the shed, saw young Noaks and Hogson slowly retreating round the corner of the road.
The three friends certainly presented a striking appearance. Mugford's nose was bleeding, Jack Vance's collar seemed to have been nearly torn off his neck, while Diggory's cap was in his hand, and his hair in a state of wild disorder. Their faces, flushed with running, were radiant with a look of triumph, while all three, the unfortunate Mugford included, leaned up against the wall, and laughed until the tears ran down their cheeks.
"What have you fellows been up to?" cried Acton; "why don't you tell us?"
"Oh my!" gasped Diggory, "we've taken a fine rise out of the Philistines; they can't say we're not quits with them now!" and he went off into a fresh fit of merriment.
Shaw and Morris seized hold of Jack Vance, and at length succeeded in shaking him into a sufficient state of sobriety to be able to answer their questions.
"Oh dear," he said faintly, "I never laughed so much in my life before! Diggory ought to tell you, because he planned it all. We went very quietly down to Horace House, and found the double doors were shut. You know just what they're like, how the wall curves in a bit, and there's a scraper close to the gate-post, on either side, about a foot from the ground. We'd got an old play-box cord with us, and we tied it to each of the scrapers. The doors have a sort of iron ring for a handle, and through this we stuck a broken cricket-stump, and Mug and I held the two ends so that you couldn't possibly lift the latch on the inside. Then—but you go on, Diggy."
"Well, then," continued the other, "I scrambled oh to these two chaps' shoulders, and looked over the top of the door. We could hear some of the Philistines knocking about on the gravel, and I saw there were about half a dozen of them playing footer with a tennis-ball. I shouted out, 'Hullo! Good-afternoon!' They all stood still in a moment, and young Noaks cried, 'Why, it's a Birchite!—What do you want here, you young dog?' I couldn't think of anything else to say, so I said, 'I want to know if this is the bear-pit or the monkey-house.' My eye, you should have seen them! I dropped down in a trice, and they all rushed to the doors; but they couldn't lift the latch, because Mug and Jack were holding fast to the stump. We waited a moment, and then let go and ran for it. You may judge what happened next. It's a regular sea of mud outside those gates. They all came rushing out together, and I saw Noaks and Hogson go head first over the rope, and two or three others fall flat on the top of them. It was a sight, I can tell you!"
"Yes, but that wasn't all," interrupted Jack Vance. "Bernard, one of their big chaps, hopped over the rest and came after us. We ran for all we were worth, but he collared me. Mugford went for him, and hung on to his coat like a young bull-terrier, and got a smack on the nose; and just then Diggory turned, and came prancing back, and ran his head into the beggar's stomach, and that doubled him up, and so we all got away. But," concluded the speaker, turning towards his wounded comrade, "I never thought old Mug had so much grit in him before; he stuck to it like a Briton!"
A demonstration of the most genuine enthusiasm followed this warlike speech. Acton folded Diggory to his breast in a loving embrace, Shaw and Morris stuffed the door-key down Mugford's back, while the remainder of the company executed a war-dance round Jack Vance.
"My eye," cried the dux, "won't the Philistines be wild! Fancy upsetting them in the mud, and knocking Bernard's wind out! They won't be in a hurry to meddle with us again. Well done, Diggy!"
"It wasn't I alone," said the author of the enterprise; "we did it between us—the Triple Alliance."
"Then three cheers for the Triple Alliance!" cried Acton.
The company shouted themselves hoarse, for every one felt that the honour of The Birches had been retrieved, and that the day was still far distant when they would be crushed beneath the iron heel of young Noaks, or be exposed as an unresisting prey to the ravages of the wild hordes of Horace House.
THE SUPPER CLUB.
As this story is to be a history of the Triple Alliance, and not of The Birches, it will be necessary to pass over many things which happened at the preparatory school, in order that full justice may be done to the important parts played by our three friends in an epoch of strange and stirring events at Ronleigh College.
Diggory, by the daring exploit described in the previous chapter, won all hearts; and instead of being looked upon as a new boy, was regarded quite as an old and trusty comrade. Acton displayed marked favour towards the Triple Alliance, and was even more friendly with Diggory and Jack Vance than with his room and class mates, Shaw and Morris.
The Philistines seemed, for the time being, paralyzed by the humiliation of their mud bath, and for many months there was a complete cessation from hostilities.
It was perhaps only natural that in time of peace a brave knight like Acton should turn his thoughts from war to love-making, and therefore I shall make no excuse for relating a little experience of his which must be introduced as a prelude to the account of the formation of the famous supper club.
At the very commencement of the summer term it was plain to everybody that something was wrong with the dux; he seemed to take no interest in the doings of his companions in the playground, and only once roused himself sufficiently to bang Cross with a leg-guard for bowling awful wides at cricket.
At length, one afternoon, Diggory and Jack Vance on entering the shed found him sitting on the carpenter's bench, with his chin resting in his hand, and a most ferocious expression on his face.
"Hullo! what's up?"
Acton stared blankly at the new-comers until the question had been repeated; then he sat up and straightened his back with the air of one who has made a great resolve.
"I don't mind telling you two," he said. "You know I've said before that I meant some day to propose to Miss Eleanor. Well," he added, stabbing the bench with the gimlet, "I'm going to do it."
"I've saved five and ninepence," continued the speaker, "to buy a ring with, but I can't make up my mind whether I'd better speak or write to her. What do you think?"
"I should say," answered Diggory, after a moment's thought, "that the best thing would be to toss up for it."
"All right; have you got a coin?"
"No, but I think I've got a brass button. Yes, here it is. Now, then, front you speak, and back you write. There you are—it's a letter!"
"Well, now," said Acton, getting off the bench and sticking his hands deep in his trousers pockets, "what had I better say? I shall be fifteen in August; I thought I'd tell her my age, and say I didn't mind waiting."
"I believe it's the girl who always says that," answered Jack Vance, kicking a bit of wood into a corner.
"Then, again, I don't know how to begin. Would you say 'Dear Miss Eleanor,' or 'Dear Miss Welsby'? I think 'Dear Eleanor' sounds rather cheeky."
"I'll tell you what I should do," answered Diggory, who seemed to have a great idea of letting the fates decide these matters: "I should write 'em all three on slips of paper and then draw one."
"Well, I'm going to write the letter in 'prep' this evening, and let her have it to-morrow. Did you notice I gave her a flower this morning, and she stuck it in her dress?"
"Yes; but fellows are often doing that," answered Jack Vance, "and she always wears them, either in her dress or stuck up somehow under her brooch."
"Oh, but this was a white rose, and a white rose means something, though I don't know what. At all events, she'll have the letter to-morrow, and I'll tell you fellows when I give it her, only of course you mustn't breathe a word to any one else."
"All right: we won't," answered Diggory, "except to old Mugford, because he's one of the Alliance, and we've sworn not to have any secrets from each other, and he won't split."
That evening the Triple Alliance lay awake until a late hour discussing the situation. Mugford's opening comment was certainly worth recording,—
"I hope she'll accept him."
"Why, because if she does, I should think old Welsby'll give us a half-holiday."
It was evident at breakfast, to those who were in the know, that Acton was prepared for the venture. He was wearing a clean collar and new necktie, and ate only four pieces of bread and butter, besides his bacon.
"He's shown me the letter," whispered Diggory to Jack Vance; "only I promised I wouldn't say what was in it, but it ends up with a piece of poetry as long as this table!"
After morning school was the time agreed upon for the dux to cast the die which was to decide his future; and as soon as the classes were dismissed, Jack Vance and Diggory met him by appointment in one corner of the garden.
"I've done it," he said, looking awfully solemn. "She was in the hall, and I gave it to her as I came out. I say, how many t's are there in 'attachment'?"
Jack Vance thought one, Diggory said two; and the company then relapsed into silence, and stood with gloomy looks upon their faces, as though they were waiting to take part in a funeral procession.
At length a voice from the house was heard calling, "Fred—Fred Acton!" The dux turned a trifle pale, but pulling himself together, marched off with a firm step to learn his fate.
"She called him Fred," murmured Diggory; "that sounds hopeful."
"Oh, that's nothing," answered Jack Vance; "Miss Eleanor always calls fellows by their Christian names. There's one thing," he added, after a few moments' thought—"if she'd cut up rough over the letter, she might have called him Mr. Acton. Hullo, here he comes!" As he spoke Acton emerged from the house, and came down the path towards them; his straw hat was tilted forward over his eyes, and his cheeks were glowing like the red glass of a dark-room lamp. He sauntered along, kicking up the gravel with the toe of his boot.
"Well, what happened?" inquired Jack Vance.
"What's the matter ?" cried Diggory; "what did she say?"
"Why, this!" answered the other, in a voice trembling with suppressed emotion: "she said I was a silly boy, and—and—gave me a lump of cake!"
If any one else had done it, the probability is Acton would have slain them on the spot. Diggory opened his eyes and mouth wide, and then exploded with laughter. "Oh my!" he gasped, "I shall die, I know I shall! Ha, ha, ha!"
Acton eyed him for a moment with a look of indignant astonishment; then he began to smile, Jack Vance commenced to chuckle, and very soon all three were laughing in concert.
"Well, I think it's rather unfeeling of you fellows," said the rejected suitor; "I can tell you I'm jolly cut up about it."
"I'm awfully sorry," answered Diggory, "but I couldn't help laughing. Cheer up; why, think, you won't have to get the ring now, so you can do what you like with that five and ninepence you saved. Why, it's worth being refused to have five and ninepence to spend in grub!"
"Ah, Diggy !" said the other, shaking his head in a mournful manner, "wait till you're as old as I am: when you're close on fifteen you'll think differently about love and all that sort of thing."
As has already been hinted, it was the failure of this attempt on the part of the dux to win the heart and hand of Miss Eleanor that indirectly brought about the formation of the famous supper club. About a week after the events happened which have just been described, Acton invited the Triple Alliance to meet the "House of Lords" in the work-shed, to discuss an important scheme which he said had been in his mind for some days past; and the door having been locked to exclude outsiders, he commenced to unfold his project as follows:—
"I've been thinking that during the summer term, and while the weather's warm, our two rooms might form a supper club. We'd hold it, say, once a week, when pocket-money is given out, and have a feed together; one time in your room, and the next in ours, after every one's gone to bed. You know I saved some money at the beginning of the term to buy an engagement ring with; but I don't want it now, so I'm going to spend the tin in grub, and if you like I'll stand the first feed."
There was a murmur expressive of approbation at this generous offer, mingled with sympathy for the unhappy circumstance which gave rise to it, and which was now an open secret.
"Oh," said Shaw, "that's a grand idea! I know my brother Bob, who's at a big school at Lingmouth, told me that he and some other chaps formed a supper club and held it in his study. It's by the sea, and they used to go out and catch shrimps; and they only had one old coffee-pot, that they used to boil over the gas; so they cooked the shrimps in it first, and made the coffee after. One night they only had time to heat it up once, and so they boiled the shrimps in the coffee; and Bob says they didn't taste half bad, and that they always used to do it after, to save time."
"Well, I propose that we have one," cried Morris.
The resolution was carried unanimously. Acton was elected president, and by way of recognizing the mutual interest of the Triple Alliance, Jack Vance was appointed to act as secretary, and it was decided to hold the first banquet on the following night.
"We can buy the grub to-morrow," said Acton; "but there's one thing we ought to fetch to-day, and that is, I thought we might have, say, six bottles of ginger-beer. Then each man must take his own up to bed with him this evening, and hide it away in his box or in one of his drawers."
This was accordingly done, and, as it happened, was the cause of the only disaster which attended the formation of the club. For the first week in June the weather was unusually hot: a candle left all day in the "Main-top" was found drooping out of the perpendicular, and when the Triple Alliance retired to rest their bedroom felt like an oven. They were just dozing off to sleep, when all three were suddenly startled by a muffled bang somewhere close to them. In an instant they were sitting up in bed, rubbing their eyes with one hand and grasping their pillows with the other.
"Look out, they're coming!" whispered Jack Vance; "wasn't that something hit the door?"
"It sounded as if something fell on the floor," answered Diggory. "I wonder if anything's rolled off either of the washstands."
Jack Vance reconnoitred the passage, while Diggory and Mugford examined the room; but nothing could be found to account for the disturbance.
"It must have been the fellows in the 'Main-top.' I expect they dropped a book or upset a chair. Don't let's bother about it any more."
The following morning, however, the mystery was explained. The boys were hastily putting on their clothes, when Mugford, who had just thrown aside a dirty collar, gave vent to an exclamation of dismay, which attracted the attention of his two companions.
"Hullo! what's up?"
"Why, look here! If this beastly bottle of ginger-beer hasn't gone and burst in the middle of my box!"
The first meeting of the supper club was a great success. How ever Acton and his noble friends had managed to smuggle upstairs, under their jackets, a pork-pie, a plum-cake, a bag of tarts, and a pound of biscuits, was a feat which, as Jack Vance remarked, "beat conjuring."
Shortly after midnight the Triple Alliance wended their way to the "House of Lords," where they found the three other members quite ready to commence operations. The good things were spread out on the top of a chest of drawers, and the company ranged themselves round on the available chairs and two adjacent beds, and commenced to enjoy the repast.
"Ah, well," sighed Acton, with his mouth full of pork-pie, "I'm rather glad for some things that I didn't get engaged. It must be rather a bore having to spend all your money in rings and that sort of thing, instead of in grub; though I really think I'd have given up grub for Miss Eleanor."
"I wonder," said Morris, who was of a more prosaic disposition, "how it is that it's always much jollier having a feed when you ought not to than at the proper time. For instance, eating this pork-pie at a table, with knife and fork and a plate, wouldn't be a quarter the fun it is having it like we're doing now—cutting it with a razor out of Acton's dressing-case, and knowing that if we were cobbed we should get into a jolly row."
"Talking about rows over feeds," said Acton, "my brother John is at Ronleigh College, and I remember, soon after he went there, he said they had a great spree in his dormitory. One of the chaps had had a hamper sent him, and they smuggled the grub upstairs; and when they thought the coast was clear, they spread a sheet on the floor, and laid out the grub as if it were on a table-cloth. The fellow who was standing treat was rather a swell in his way, and among other things he'd got his jam put out in a flat glass dish. It was a fine feed, and they'd just begun, when they heard some one coming. They'd only just got time to turn out the gas and jump into bed before the door opened, and in came one of the masters called Weston. Well, of course, they all pretended to be asleep. But the master had heard them scrambling about, and he walked in the dark up the aisle between the beds, saying, 'Who's been out of bed here?' Then all of a sudden he stuck his foot into the glass jam-dish, and it slid along the floor, and down he came bang in the middle of all the spread. John said that when the gas was lit they couldn't help laughing at old Weston: he'd rammed one elbow into a box of sardines, and there was a cheese-cake stuck in the middle of his back. But oh, there was a row, I can tell you!"
This yarn produced others, and the time passed pleasantly enough, until full justice had been done to the provisions, and hardly a crumb remained.
"Phew! isn't it hot?" said Diggory; "let's open the window a bit. The moon must be full," he continued, as he raised the sash; "it's nearly as light as day. I can see all down the garden, and—hullo! quick, put the candle out!"
Every one started to his feet, and the light was extinguished in a moment.
"What is it—what's the matter?" they all asked. "There's some one in the playground," whispered Diggory, as the others crowded round him. "You see the door at the bottom of the garden; well, just when I spoke some one opened it and looked up at the house, and then shut it again. It must have been Blake, and he's seen our light."
"It can't be Blake," answered Acton; "he's gone to Fenley to play in a cricket match, and isn't coming back till to-morrow morning. Old Welsby went to bed hours ago; and, besides, what should either of them want to be doing down there at this time of night? You must have been dreaming, Diggy."
"No, I wasn't; I saw it distinctly. It must be old Blake. He's come home sooner than he expected, and I shouldn't wonder if he's going round by the road to take us by surprise."
"He can't do that," answered Acton, "because I've got the key of the shed, and the door-key's hung up inside."
Acton remained watching at the window while the others hastily cleared away all traces of the feast; the Triple Alliance retired to their own room, and nothing further was heard or seen of the mysterious visitor.
The next morning it was discovered that Mr. Blake had not returned from Fenley, and the five other members of the supper club were inclined to regard Diggory's vision of the midnight intruder as a sort of waking nightmare, resulting from an overdose of cake and pork-pie. Two days later Cross came into the schoolroom in a great state of excitement.
"Look here, you fellows," he exclaimed: "some one keeps taking away my things out of the shed, and not putting them back. Last week I missed a saw and two chisels, and now that brace and nearly all the bits are gone. It's a jolly shame!"
Carpentering was Cross's great hobby, and his collection of tools was an exceptionally good one, both as regards quantity and quality. Every one, however, denied having touched the things mentioned. A general search was made; but the missing articles could not be found, and at length the matter was reported to Mr. Welsby.
The latter was evidently greatly displeased on hearing the facts of the case. As soon as dinner was over he called the school together, and after standing for some moments in silence, frowning at the book he carried in his hand, said briefly,—
"With regard to these tools, there is a word which has never been used before in connection with any pupil at The Birches, and which I hope I may never have occasion to use again. I can hardly think it possible that we have a thief in the house. I am rather inclined to imagine that some one has removed the things and hidden them away in joke; if so, let me tell him that the joke has been allowed to go too far, and that, unless they are returned at once, a shadow of doubt will be cast upon the honour and integrity of all here present. It is impossible for such large articles as a saw and a brace to be mislaid or lost on such small premises as these, and I trust that before this evening you will report to me that the things have been found. I have purposely allowed the key of the shed to remain in your own possession, feeling certain that your behaviour as regards each other's property would be in accordance with the treatment which one gentleman expects to receive from another. You may go."
There was little in the nature of a scolding in this address, and yet something in it caused every one to leave the room in a state of great excitement. Acton and Jack Vance especially fairly boiled with wrath.
"What old Welsby says is quite right," remarked the latter; "and until those things are found, we may all be looked upon as thieves."
The search, however, proved fruitless; and, what was worse, in turning over the contents of the shed, Acton discovered that a bull's-eye lantern belonging to himself had disappeared from the shelf on which it usually stood; while Mugford declared that a box of compasses, which he had brought down a few days before to draw a pattern on a piece of board, was also missing.
Directly after tea Acton button-holed Diggory, and taking him aside said, "Look here, I'm in an awful rage about these thing's being prigged, because, of course, I've got the key of the shed; and didn't you hear what old Welsby said about it? It looks uncommonly as if I were the thief. You remember what you said the other night when we had that feed, about seeing that man? D'you think there is any one who comes here at night and steals things?"
"Well, I'm certain I saw some one in the playground when I told you. It was a man; but whether he comes regularly and goes into the shed I don't know, but I think we ought to be able to find out."
"Oh, some way or other; I'll tell you to-morrow." That night, long after the rest of the house were asleep, the Triple Alliance lay awake engaged in earnest conversation; and in the morning, as the boys were assembling for breakfast, Diggory touched Acton on the shoulder and whispered,—
"I say, we've thought of a plan to find out if any one goes into the shed at night."
"Why, the Triple Alliance; we thought it out between us. Sneak out of the house directly after evening 'prep,' and meet me in the playground, and I'll show you what it is."
At the time appointed Acton ran down the path, and found Diggory waiting for him by the shed.
"Look," said the latter, "I've cut a little tiny slit with my knife in each door-post, about three feet from the ground, and I'm going to stretch this piece of black cotton between them. No one will see it, and if they go through the door, the thread will simply draw out of one of the slits without their noticing it, and we shall see that it's been disturbed. Jack Vance says that when he's been out shooting with his guv'nor he's seen the keeper put them across the paths in a wood to find out if poachers have been up them. Now unlock the door, and let's go inside."
In front of the bench, where the ground had been much trodden, there was a great deal of loose dust. Diggory went down on his hands and knees, and producing an old clothes-brush from his pocket, swept about a square yard of the ground until the dust lay in a perfectly smooth surface.
"There," he said, rising to his feet again; "we'll do this the last thing every night, and any morning if we find the cotton gone we must look here for footprints, and then we ought to be able to tell if it's a man or a boy."
"Don't you think we ought to tell Blake about that man you saw?" asked Acton, as they walked back to the schoolroom.
"Well, I don't see how we can," answered Diggory. "The first thing he'll ask will be,' Who saw him?' I shall say, 'I did;' and then he'll want to know how I saw the playground door from my bedroom window, which looks out on the road; and then the fat'll be in the fire, and it'll all come out about that supper."
Regularly every evening, as soon as supper was over, the two boys stole down into the playground to set their trap; but when morning came there was no sign of the shed having been entered. This went on for nearly a month, but still no result.
"I don't think it's any good bothering about it any more," said Acton; "the thief doesn't mean to come again."
"Well, we'll set it to-night," answered Diggory, "and that shall be the last time."
The following morning Acton was sauntering towards the playground, when Diggory came running up the path in a state of great excitement. "I say, the cotton's gone!"
Acton rushed down, unlocked the door of the shed, and went inside.
"Hullo!" he exclaimed, as Diggory followed; "it is some man. Look at these footprints, and hobnailed boots into the bargain!"
CATCHING A TARTAR.
It was impossible for two boys to keep such an important discovery to themselves, and the shed was soon filled with an eager crowd, all anxious to view the mysterious footprints. The Triple Alliance gained fresh renown as the originators of the scheme by which the disclosure had been made, and it was unanimously decided that the matter should be reported to Mr. Blake.
The master cross-questioned Acton and Diggory, but seemed rather inclined to doubt their story.
"I think," he said, "you must be mistaken. I expect the piece of cotton blew away, and the foot-marks must have been there before. I don't see what there is in the shed that should make it worth any one's while to break into it; besides, if the door was locked, the thief must have broken it open, and you'd have seen the marks."
Certainly nothing seemed to have been touched, and as no boy complained of any of his property having been stolen, the subject was allowed to drop, and the usual excitement connected with the end of term and the near approach of the holidays soon caused it to be driven from every one's thoughts and wellnigh forgotten.
With the commencement of the winter term a fresh matter filled the minds of the Triple Alliance, and gave them plenty of food for discussion and plan-making. On returning to Chatford after the summer holidays, they discovered that all three were destined to leave at Christmas and proceed to Ronleigh College, a large school in the neighbourhood, to which a good number of Mr. Welsby's former pupils had been transferred after undergoing a preliminary course of education at The Birches. Letters from these departed heroes, containing disjointed descriptions of their new surroundings, awakened a feeling of interest in the doings of the Ronleigh College boys. The records of their big scores at cricket, or their victories at football, which appeared in local papers, were always read with admiration; and the name of an old Birchite appearing in either of the teams was a thing of which every one felt justly proud.
"I wish I was going too," said Acton, addressing the three friends; "but my people are going to send me to a school in Germany. My brother John is there; he's one of the big chaps, and is captain of the football team this season. I'm going to get the Denfordshire Chronicle every week, to see how they get on in the matches."
Early in October the goal-posts were put up in the field, and the Birchites commenced their football practice. Mr. Blake was a leading member of the Chatford Town Club, and although six a side was comparatively a poor business, yet under his instruction they gained a good grounding in the rudiments of the "soccer" of the period. The old system of dribbling and headlong rushes was being abandoned in favour of the passing game, and forwards were learning to keep their places, and to play as a whole instead of as individuals.
"Come here, you fellows," said the master, walking into the playground one morning, with a piece of paper in his hand; "I've got something to speak about."
The boys crowded round, wondering what was up.
"I've got hero a challenge from Horace House to play a match against them, either on our ground or on theirs. I think it's a pity that you shouldn't have an opportunity of playing against strangers. Of course they are bigger and heavier than we are, and we should probably get licked; but that isn't the question: any sportsman would sooner play a losing game than no game at all, and it'll be good practice. We always used to have a match with them every term; but some little time ago there seemed to be a lack—well, I'll say of good sportsmen among them, and the meetings had to be abandoned. I've talked the matter over with Mr. Welsby, and he seems willing to give the thing another trial."
An excited murmur ran through the crowd.
"Wait a minute," interrupted the speaker, holding up his hand. "Mr. Welsby has left it with me to make arrangements for the match, and I shall only do so on one condition. I know that since the event happened to which I referred a moment ago a decidedly unfriendly spirit has existed between you and the boys at Mr. Phillips's. Now an exhibition of this feeling on a football field would be a disgrace to the school. You must play like gentlemen, and there must be no wrangling or disputing. They are agreeable for a master to play on each side, so I shall act as captain. Anything that has to be said must be left to me, and I shall see you get fair play. Do you clearly understand?"
"Very well, then, I'll write and say we shall be pleased to play them here on Saturday week."
The prospect of mooting the Philistines in the open field filled the mind of every boy with one thought, and the whole establishment went football mad. It was played in the schoolroom and passages with empty ink-pots and balls of paper, in the bedrooms with slippers and sponges, and even in their dreams fellows kicked the bed-clothes off, and woke up with cries of "Goal!" on their lips.
Mr. Blake arranged the order of the team, and remarking that they would need a good defence, put himself and Shaw as full backs. Acton took centre forward, with Jack Vance on his right, while Diggory was told off to keep goal.
At length the eventful morning arrived. Class 2 came utterly to grief in their work; but Mr. Blake understood the cause, and set the same lessons over again for Monday.
It was the first real match most of the players had taken part in, and as they stood on the ground waiting for their opponents to arrive, every one was trembling with excitement. The only exception was the goal-keeper, who leaned with his back against the wall, cracking nuts, and remarking that he "wished they'd hurry up and not keep us waiting all day." At length there was a sound of voices in the lane, and the next moment the enemy entered the field, headed by their under-master, Mr. Fox. Young Noaks and Hogson pounced down at once upon the practice ball, and began kicking it about with great energy, shouting at the top of their voices, and evidently wishing to make an impression on the spectators before the game began.
"I say," muttered Jacobs, "they're awfully big."
"Well, what does that matter?" answered Diggory, cracking another nut and spitting out the shell. "They aren't going to eat us; and as for that chap Noaks, he's all noise—look how he muffed that kick."
Mr. Blake tossed up. "Now, you fellows," he said, coming up to his followers, "we play towards the road; get to your places, and remember what I told you."
With young Noaks as centre forward, Hogson and Bernard on his right and left, and other big fellows to complete the line of hostile forwards, the home team seemed to stand no chance against their opponents. The visitors bowled them over like ninepins, and rushed through their first line of defence as though it never existed. But Mr. Blake stood firm, and kept his ground like the English squares at Waterloo. Attack after attack swept down upon him only to break up like waves on a rock, and the ball came flying back with a shout of "Now, then! Get away, Birches!" Twice the Horace House wing men got round Shaw, and put in good shots; but Diggory saved them both, and was seen a moment later calmly rewarding himself with another nut. Gradually, as the time slipped away and no score was made, the Birchites began to realize that being able to charge wasn't everything, and that their opponents could do more with their shoulders than with their feet, and soon lost control of the ball when bothered by the "halves." The play of the home eleven became bolder—the forwards managed a run or two; and though the Philistines had certainly the upper hand, yet it soon became obvious to them that it was no mere "walk over," and that victory would have to be struggled for.
Noaks and the two inside forwards evidently did not relish this state of things; they had expected an easy win, and began to show their disappointment in the increased roughness of their play.
At length, just before half-time, a thing happened which very nearly caused Mr. Blake's followers to break their promise.
Cross was badly kicked while attempting to take the ball from Hogson, and had to retire from the game.
There were some black looks and a murmur of indignation among the home team, but Mr. Blake hushed it up in a moment.
"I think," he said pleasantly, "that the play is a trifle rough. Our men," he added, laughing, "are rather under size."
Noaks muttered something about not funking; but Mr. Fox said,—
"Yes, just so. Come, play the game, boys, and think less about charging."
The loss of their right half-back was distinctly felt by the Birchites during the commencement of the second half, and Diggory was called upon three times in quick succession to save his charge. He acquitted himself like a brick, and the last time did a thing which afforded his side an immense amount of secret satisfaction. He caught the ball in his hands, and at the same moment Noaks made a fierce rush, meaning to knock him through the goal. Diggory, with an engaging smile, hopped on one side, and the Philistine flung himself against the post, and bumped his head with a violence which might have cracked any ordinary skull. He came back scowling. A moment later Jack Vance ran into him, and took the ball from between his feet. Noaks charged viciously, and in a blind fit of temper deliberately raised his fist and struck the other player in the face.
It was Mr. Blake's voice, and he came striding up the ground looking as black as thunder.
"I protest against that deliberate piece of foul play. I have played against all the chief clubs in the district, and in any of those matches, if such a thing had happened, this man would have been ordered off the ground."
There was a buzz of approval, in which several of the Philistines joined.
"You are quite right, Mr. Blake," answered Mr. Fox. "I deeply regret that the game should have been spoiled by a member of my team.—Noaks," he added, turning to the culprit, "put on your coat and go home; you have disgraced yourself and your Comrades. I shall see that you send a written apology to the boy you struck."
"Bravo!" whispered Acton; "old Fox is a good sort."
"Oh, they're most of them all right," answered Morris; "it's only two or three that are such beasts."
The game was continued. The loss of one man on each side made the teams equal in numbers, but the sudden calamity which had overtaken their centre forward seemed to have exerted a very demoralizing effect on the Philistines.
Their attacks were not nearly so spirited, and several times the Birchite forwards appeared in front of their goal.
Neither side had scored, and it seemed as though the game would end in a draw—a result which the home team would have considered highly satisfactory.
The umpire looked at his watch, and in answer to a query from Mr. Fox said, "Five minutes more."
"Look here, Acton," said Mr. Blake: "let me take your place, and you go back. Do all you can to stop them if they come."
The ball was thrown out of touch; Mr. Blake got it, and in a few seconds the fight was raging in the very mouth of the enemy's goal. Morris put in a capital shot; but the ball glanced off one of the players, and went behind.
"Corner!" cried Mr. Blake. "I'll take it. Now you fellows get it through somehow or other!"
"Mark your men, Horace House!" cried Mr. Fox. The next moment every one was shoving and elbowing with their eyes fixed on the ball as it flew through the air. It dropped in exactly the right place, and Jack Vance, by some happy fluke, kicked it just as it touched the ground. Like a big round shot it whizzed through the posts, and there was a rapturous yell of "Goal!"
The delight of the Birchites at having beaten their opponents was unbounded, and when, a short time later, the latter retired with a score against them of one to nil. Jack Vance was seized by a band of applauding comrades, who, with his head about a couple of feet lower than his heels, carried him in triumph across the playground, and staggered half-way up the steep garden path, when Acton happening to tread on a loose pebble brought the whole procession to grief, and caused the noble band of conquering heroes to be seen all grovelling in a mixed heap upon the gravel.
But it is not for the simple purpose of recording the victory over Horace House that a description of the match has been introduced into our story; and although the important part played by Diggory in goal and Jack Vance in the "fighting line" caused it to be an occasion when the Triple Alliance was decidedly in evidence and won fresh laurels, yet there are other reasons which make an account of it necessary, as the reader will discover in following the course of subsequent events. If Jack Vance had kicked the ball a yard over the bar instead of under it, the probability is that the following chapter would never have been written; while the public disgrace of young Noaks was destined to cause our three comrades more trouble than they ever expected to encounter, at all events on this side of their leaving school.
If the result of the match made such a great impression on the minds of the victors, it is only natural that it should have had a similar effect on the hearts of their opponents. Most of the Philistines would have been content to take their defeat as a sportsman should, but neither Noaks nor his two cronies, Hogson and Bernard, had any of this manly spirit about them; and smarting under the disappointment of not having won, and the knowledge that at least one of them had reaped shame and contempt instead of glory, they determined to seek a speedy revenge. As the three biggest boys in the school, they had little difficulty in inducing their companions to join in the crusade which they preached against The Birches, and the consequence was that the two schools were soon exchanging open hostilities with greater vigour than ever.
Now, although the Birchites had proved themselves equal to their opponents at football, they would have stood no chance against them in anything like a personal encounter. The other party were, of course, perfectly well aware of this fact, and waxed bold in consequence. Again and again, when Mr. Welsby's pupils were at football practice, and Mr. Blake happened not to be present, the enemy's sharp-shooter crept into ambush behind the hedge and discharged stones from their catapults at the legs of the players, while the latter replied by inquiring when they meant to "come over and take another licking." At other times these Horace House Cossacks swooped down on single members of the rival establishment, harrying them in the very streets of Chatford, and on one occasion had the audacity to lay violent hands on Jacobs, beat his bowler hat down over his eyes, and push him through the folding doors of a drapery establishment, where he upset an umbrella-stand and three chairs, had his ears boxed by the shop-walker, and was threatened with the police court if ever he did such a thing again! At length it became positively perilous for the weaker party to go beyond the precincts of their own citadel except in bodies of three or four together. All kinds of plans for retaliation were suggested, but still the Philistines continued to score heavily. At length, about the last week in October, a thing happened which raised the wrath of the Birchites to boiling-point.
Cross having received five shillings from home on the morning of his birthday, determined to celebrate the occasion by the purchase of a pork-pie, of which he had previously invited all his companions to partake. The latter were standing in the playground waiting for his return from Chatford, when they became conscious of certain "alarms without;" whoops and war-cries sounded somewhere down Locker's Lane, and ceased as suddenly as they had begun. The boys stood for some moments wondering what this could mean, and were just thinking of starting a fresh game of "catch smugglers," when there came a banging at the door. It was flung open, and Cross rushed into their midst, flushed, dishevelled, and empty-handed!
What words of mine can tell that tale of woe or describe the burst of indignation which followed its recital? Cross had unwisely decided to shorten his return journey by risking the dangers of Locker's Lane. He had been captured by a party of Philistines, who, under the leadership of Hogson, had not only robbed him of his pie, but had held him prisoner while they devoured it before his very eyes!
What this terrible outrage would have excited those who had suffered this cruel wrong to do in return—whether they would have started off there and then, burnt Horace House to the ground, and hung its inhabitants on the surrounding trees—it would be hard to say; as it was, at this very moment a counter-attraction was forced upon their attention by Morris, who came shouldering his way into their midst, saying,—
"Look here, you fellows, some one's stolen my watch and chain!"
It seemed as if a perfect shower of thunderbolts had commenced to descend from a clear sky upon the devoted heads of Mr. Welsby's pupils. Every one stared at his neighbour in mute amazement, and only Fred Acton remained in sufficient possession of his faculties to gasp out,—
"It's true," continued Morris excitedly. "I didn't change for football yesterday afternoon, but before going into the field I hung my watch up on a nail in the shed, and stupidly forgot all about it until I came to wind it up last night. Then it was too late to fetch it, and now it's gone!"
"Look here !" cried Acton, glaring round the group with an unusually ferocious look, "who knows anything about this? speak up, can't you! We've had enough of this prigging business, and I'm sick of it!"