A futile iron railing, some three feet in height, shut in the Dingle. Barrett jumped this lightly, and entered forthwith into Paradise. The place was full of nests. As Barrett took a step forward there was a sudden whirring of wings, and a bird rose from a bush close beside him. He went to inspect, and found a nest with seven eggs in it. Only a thrush, of course. As no one ever wants thrushes' eggs the world is over-stocked with them. Still, it gave promise of good things to come. Barrett pushed on through the bushes and the promise was fulfilled. He came upon another nest. Five eggs this time, of a variety he was unable with his moderate knowledge to classify. At any rate, he had not got them in his collection. Nor, to the best of his belief, had Grey. He took one for each of them.
Now this was all very well, thought Barrett, but what he had come for was the ovular deposit of the water-wagtail. Through the trees he could see the silver gleam of the brook at the foot of the hill. The woods sloped down to the very edge. Then came the brook, widening out here into the size of a small river. Then woods again all up the side of the opposite hill. Barrett hurried down the slope.
He had put on flannels for this emergency. He was prepared to wade, to swim if necessary. He hoped that it would not be necessary, for in April water is generally inclined to be chilly. Of keepers he had up till now seen no sign. Once he had heard the distant bark of a dog. It seemed to come from far across the stream and he had not troubled about it.
In the midst of the bushes on the bank stood a tree. It was not tall compared to the other trees of the Dingle, but standing alone as it did amongst the undergrowth it attracted the eye at once. Barrett, looking at it, saw something which made him forget water-wagtails for the moment. In a fork in one of the upper branches was a nest, an enormous nest, roughly constructed of sticks. It was a very jerry-built residence, evidently run up for the season by some prudent bird who knew by experience that no nest could last through the winter, and so had declined to waste his time in useless decorative work. But what bird was it? No doubt there are experts to whom a wood-pigeon's nest is something apart and distinct from the nest of the magpie, but to your unsophisticated amateur a nest that is large may be anything—rook's, magpie's, pigeon's, or great auk's. To such an one the only true test lies in the eggs. Solvitur ambulando. Barrett laid the pill-boxes, containing the precious specimens he had found in the nest at the top of the hill, at the foot of the tree, and began to climb.
It was to be a day of surprises for him. When he had got half way up he found himself on a kind of ledge, which appeared to be a kind of junction at which the tree branched off into two parts. To the left was the nest, high up in its fork. To the right was another shoot. He realized at once, with keen disappointment, that it would be useless to go further. The branches were obviously not strong enough to bear his weight. He looked down, preparatory to commencing the descent, and to his astonishment found himself looking into a black cavern. In his eagerness to reach the nest he had not noticed before that the tree was hollow.
This made up for a great many things. His disappointment became less keen. Few things are more interesting than a hollow tree.
'Wonder how deep it goes down,' he said to himself. He broke off a piece of wood and dropped it down the hollow. It seemed to reach the ground uncommonly soon. He tried another piece. The sound of its fall came up to him almost simultaneously. Evidently the hole was not deep. He placed his hands on the edge, and let himself gently down into the darkness. His feet touched something solid almost immediately. As far as he could judge, the depth of the cavity was not more than five feet. Standing up at his full height he could just rest his chin on the edge.
He seemed to be standing on some sort of a floor, roughly made, but too regular to be the work of nature. Evidently someone had been here before. He bent down to make certain. There was more room to move about in than he suspected. A man sitting down would find it not uncomfortable.
He brushed his hand along the floor. Certainly it seemed to be constructed of boards. Then his hand hit something small and hard. He groped about until his fingers closed on it. It was—what was it? He could hardly make out for the moment. Suddenly, as he moved it, something inside it rattled. Now he knew what it was. It was the very thing he most needed, a box of matches.
The first match he struck promptly and naturally went out. No first match ever stays alight for more than three-fifths of a second. The second was more successful. The sudden light dazzled him for a moment. When his eyes had grown accustomed to it, the match went out. He lit a third, and this time he saw all round the little chamber. 'Great Scott,' he said, 'the place is a regular poultry shop.' All round the sides were hung pheasants and partridges in various stages of maturity. Here and there the fur of a rabbit or a hare showed up amongst the feathers. Barrett hit on the solution of the problem directly. He had been shown a similar collection once in a tree on his father's land. The place was the headquarters of some poacher. Barrett was full of admiration for the ingenuity of the man in finding so safe a hiding-place.
He continued his search. In one angle of the tree was a piece of sacking. Barrett lifted it. He caught a glimpse of something bright, but before he could confirm the vague suspicion that flashed upon him, his match burnt down and lay smouldering on the floor. His hand trembled with excitement as he started to light another. It broke off in his hand. At last he succeeded. The light flashed up, and there beside the piece of sacking which had covered them were two cups. He recognized them instantly.
'Jove,' he gasped. 'The Sports pots! Now, how on earth—'
At this moment something happened which took his attention away from his discovery with painful suddenness. From beneath him came the muffled whine of a dog. He listened, holding his breath. No, he was not mistaken. The dog whined again, and broke into an excited bark. Somebody at the foot of the tree began to speak.
BARRETT CEASES TO EXPLORE
'Fetchimout!' said the voice, all in one word.
'Nice cheery remark to make!' thought Barrett. 'He'll have to do a good bit of digging before he fetches me out. I'm a fixture for the present.'
There was a sound of scratching as if the dog, in his eagerness to oblige, were trying to uproot the tree. Barrett, realizing that unless the keeper took it into his head to climb, which was unlikely, he was as safe as if he had been in his study at Philpott's, chuckled within himself, and listened intently.
'What is it, then?' said the keeper. 'Good dog, at 'em! Fetch him out, Jack.'
Jack barked excitedly, and redoubled his efforts.
The sound of scratching proceeded.
'R-r-r-ats-s-s!' said the mendacious keeper. Jack had evidently paused for breath. Barrett began quite to sympathize with him. The thought that the animal was getting farther away from the object of his search with every ounce of earth he removed, tickled him hugely. He would have liked to have been able to see the operations, though. At present it was like listening to a conversation through a telephone. He could only guess at what was going on.
Then he heard somebody whistling 'The Lincolnshire Poacher', a strangely inappropriate air in the mouth of a keeper. The sound was too far away to be the work of Jack's owner, unless he had gone for a stroll since his last remark. No, it was another keeper. A new voice came up to him.
''Ullo, Ned, what's the dog after?'
'Thinks 'e's smelt a rabbit, seems to me.'
''Ain't a rabbit hole 'ere.'
'Thinks there is, anyhow. Look at the pore beast!'
They both laughed. Jack meanwhile, unaware that he was turning himself into an exhibition to make a keeper's holiday, dug assiduously. 'Come away, Jack,' said the first keeper at length. 'Ain't nothin' there. Ought to know that, clever dog like you.'
There was a sound as if he had pulled Jack bodily from his hole.
'Wait! 'Ere, Ned, what's that on the ground there?' Barrett gasped. His pill-boxes had been discovered. Surely they would put two and two together now, and climb the tree after him.
'Eggs. Two of 'em. 'Ow did they get 'ere, then?'
'It's one of them young devils from the School. Master says to me this morning, "Look out," 'e says, "Saunders, for them boys as come in 'ere after eggs, and frighten all the birds out of the dratted place. You keep your eyes open, Saunders," 'e says.'
'Well, if 'e's still in the woods, we'll 'ave 'im safe.'
'If he's still in the woods!' thought Barrett with a shiver.
After this there was silence. Barrett waited for what he thought was a quarter of an hour—it was really five minutes or less—then he peeped cautiously over the edge of his hiding-place. Yes, they had certainly gone, unless—horrible thought—they were waiting so close to the trunk of the tree as to be invisible from where he stood. He decided that the possibility must be risked. He was down on the ground in record time. Nothing happened. No hand shot out from its ambush to clutch him. He breathed more freely, and began to debate within himself which way to go. Up the hill it must be, of course, but should he go straight up, or to the left or to the right? He would have given much to know which way the keepers had gone, particularly he of the dog. They had separated, he knew. He began to reason the thing out. In the first place if they had separated, they must have gone different ways. It did not take him long to arrive at that conclusion. The odds, therefore, were that one had gone to the right up-stream, the other down-stream to the left. His knowledge of human nature told him that nobody would willingly walk up-hill if it was possible for him to walk on the flat. Therefore, assuming the two keepers to be human, they had gone along the valley. Therefore, his best plan would be to make straight for the top of the hill, as straight as he could steer, and risk it. Just as he was about to start, his eye caught the two pill-boxes, lying on the turf a few yards from where he had placed them.
'May as well take what I can get,' he thought. He placed them carefully in his pocket. As he did so a faint bark came to him on the breeze from down-stream. That must be friend Jack. He waited no longer, but dived into the bushes in the direction of the summit. He was congratulating himself on being out of danger—already he was more than half way up the hill—when suddenly he received a terrible shock. From the bushes to his left, not ten yards from where he stood, came the clear, sharp sound of a whistle. The sound was repeated, and this time an answer came from far out to his right. Before he could move another whistle joined in, again from the left, but farther off and higher up the hill than the first he had heard. He recalled what Grey had said about 'millions' of keepers. The expression, he thought, had understated the true facts, if anything. He remembered the case of Babington. It was a moment for action. No guile could save him now. It must be a stern chase for the rest of the distance. He drew a breath, and was off like an arrow. The noise he made was appalling. No one in the wood could help hearing it.
'Stop, there!' shouted someone. The voice came from behind, a fact which he noted almost automatically and rejoiced at. He had a start at any rate.
'Stop!' shouted the voice once again. The whistle blew like a steam siren, and once more the other two answered it. They were all behind him now. Surely a man of the public schools in flannels and gymnasium shoes, and trained to the last ounce for just such a sprint as this, could beat a handful of keepers in their leggings and heavy boots. Barrett raced on. Close behind him a crashing in the undergrowth and the sound of heavy breathing told him that keeper number one was doing his best. To left and right similar sounds were to be heard. But Barrett had placed these competitors out of the running at once. The race was between him and the man behind.
Fifty yards of difficult country, bushes which caught his clothes as if they were trying to stop him in the interests of law and order, branches which lashed him across the face, and rabbit-holes half hidden in the bracken, and still he kept his lead. He was increasing it. He must win now. The man behind was panting in deep gasps, for the pace had been warm and he was not in training. Barrett cast a glance over his shoulder, and as he looked the keeper's foot caught in a hole and he fell heavily. Barrett uttered a shout of triumph. Victory was his.
In front of him was a small hollow fringed with bushes. Collecting his strength he cleared these with a bound. Then another of the events of this eventful afternoon happened. Instead of the hard turf, his foot struck something soft, something which sat up suddenly with a yell. Barrett rolled down the slope and halfway up the other side like a shot rabbit. Dimly he recognized that he had jumped on to a human being. The figure did not wear the official velveteens. Therefore he had no business in the Dingle. And close behind thundered the keeper, now on his feet once more, dust on his clothes and wrath in his heart in equal proportions. 'Look out, man!' shouted Barrett, as the injured person rose to his feet. 'Run! Cut, quick! Keeper!' There was no time to say more. He ran. Another second and he was at the top, over the railing, and in the good, honest, public high-road again, safe. A hoarse shout of 'Got yer!' from below told a harrowing tale of capture. The stranger had fallen into the hands of the enemy. Very cautiously Barrett left the road and crept to the railing again. It was a rash thing to do, but curiosity overcame him. He had to see, or, if that was impossible, to hear what had happened.
For a moment the only sound to be heard was the gasping of the keeper. After a few seconds a rapidly nearing series of crashes announced the arrival of the man from the right flank of the pursuing forces, while almost simultaneously his colleague on the left came up.
Barrett could see nothing, but it was easy to understand what was going on. Keeper number one was exhibiting his prisoner. His narrative, punctuated with gasps, was told mostly in hoarse whispers, and Barrett missed most of it.
'Foot (gasp) rabbit-'ole.' More gasps. 'Up agen ... minute ... (indistinct mutterings) ... and (triumphantly) COTCHED IM!'
Exclamations of approval from the other two. 'I assure you,' said another voice. The prisoner was having his say. 'I assure you that I was doing no harm whatever in this wood. I....'
'Better tell that tale to Sir Alfred,' cut in one of his captors.
''E'll learn yer,' said the keeper previously referred to as number one, vindictively. He was feeling shaken up with his run and his heavy fall, and his temper was proportionately short.
'I swear I've heard that voice before somewhere,' thought Barrett. 'Wonder if it's a Coll. chap.'
Keeper number one added something here, which was inaudible to Barrett.
'I tell you I'm not a poacher,' said the prisoner, indignantly. 'And I object to your language. I tell you I was lying here doing nothing and some fool or other came and jumped on me. I....'
The rest was inaudible. But Barrett had heard enough.
'I knew I'd heard that voice before. Plunkett, by Jove! Golly, what is the world coming to, when heads of Houses and School-prefects go on the poach! Fancy! Plunkett of all people, too! This is a knock-out, I'm hanged if it isn't.'
From below came the sound of movement. The keepers were going down the hill again. To Barrett's guilty conscience it seemed that they were coming up. He turned and fled.
The hedge separating Sir Alfred Venner's land from the road was not a high one, though the drop the other side was considerable. Barrett had not reckoned on this. He leapt the hedge, and staggered across the road. At the same moment a grey-clad cyclist, who was pedalling in a leisurely manner in the direction of the School, arrived at the spot. A collision seemed imminent, but the stranger in a perfectly composed manner, as if he had suddenly made up his mind to take a sharp turning, rode his machine up the bank, whence he fell with easy grace to the road, just in time to act as a cushion for Barrett. The two lay there in a tangled heap. Barrett was the first to rise.
ENTER THE SLEUTH-HOUND
'I'm awfully sorry,' he said, disentangling himself carefully from the heap. 'I hope you're not hurt.'
The man did not reply for a moment. He appeared to be laying the question before himself as an impartial judge, as who should say: 'Now tell me candidly, are you hurt? Speak freely and without bias.'
'No,' he said at last, feeling his left leg as if he were not absolutely easy in his mind about that, 'no, not hurt, thank you. Not much, that is,' he added with the air of one who thinks it best to qualify too positive a statement. 'Left leg. Shin. Slight bruise. Nothing to signify.'
'It was a rotten thing to do, jumping over into the road like that,' said Barrett. 'Didn't remember there'd be such a big drop.'
'My fault in a way,' said the man. 'Riding wrong side of road. Out for a run?'
'More or less.'
It occurred to Barrett that it was only due to the man on whom he had been rolling to tell him the true facts of the case. Besides, it might do something towards removing the impression which must, he felt, be forming in the stranger's mind that he was mad.
'You see,' he said, in a burst of confidence, 'it was rather a close thing. There were some keepers after me.'
'Ah!' said the man. 'Thought so. Trespassing?'
'Ah. Keepers don't like trespassers. Curious thing—don't know if it ever occurred to you—if there were no trespassers, there would be no need for keepers. To their interest, then, to encourage trespassers. But do they?'
Barrett admitted that they did not very conspicuously.
'No. Same with all professions. Not poaching, I suppose?'
'Rather not. I was after eggs. By Jove, that reminds me.' He felt in his pocket for the pill-boxes. Could they have survived the stormy times through which they had been passing? He heaved a sigh of relief as he saw that the eggs were uninjured. He was so intent on examining them that he missed the stranger's next remark.
'Sorry. What? I didn't hear.'
'Asked if I was going right for St Austin's School.'
'College!' said Barrett with a convulsive shudder. The most deadly error mortal man can make, with the exception of calling a school a college, is to call a college a school.
'College!' said the man. 'Is this the road?'
'Yes. You can't miss it. I'm going there myself. It's only about a mile.'
'Ah,' said the man, with a touch of satisfaction in his voice. 'Going there yourself, are you? Perhaps you're one of the scholars?'
'Not much,' said Barrett, 'ask our form-beak if I'm a scholar. Oh. I see. Yes, I'm there all right.'
Barrett was a little puzzled as to how to class his companion. No old public school man would talk of scholars. And yet he was emphatically not a bargee. Barrett set him down as a sort of superior tourist, a Henry as opposed to an 'Arry.
'Been bit of a disturbance there, hasn't there? Cricket pavilion. Cups.'
'Rather. But how on earth—'
'How on earth did I get to hear of it, you were going to say. Well, no need to conceal anything. Fact is, down here to look into the matter. Detective. Name, Roberts, Scotland Yard. Now we know each other, and if you can tell me one or two things about this burglary, it would be a great help to me, and I should be very much obliged.'
Barrett had heard that a detective was coming down to look into the affair of the cups. His position was rather a difficult one. In a sense it was simple enough. He had found the cups. He could (keepers permitting) go and fetch them now, and there would—No. There would not be an end of the matter. It would be very pleasant, exceedingly pleasant, to go to the Headmaster and the detective, and present the cups to them with a 'Bless you, my children' air. The Headmaster would say, 'Barrett, you're a marvel. How can I thank you sufficiently?' while the detective would observe that he had been in the profession over twenty years, but never had he seen so remarkable an exhibition of sagacity and acumen as this. That, at least, was what ought to take place. But Barrett's experience of life, short as it was, had taught him the difference between the ideal and the real. The real, he suspected, would in this case be painful. Certain facts would come to light. When had he found the cups? About four in the afternoon? Oh. Roll-call took place at four in the afternoon. How came it that he was not at roll-call? Furthermore, how came it that he was marked on the list as having answered his name at that ceremony? Where had he found the cups? In a hollow tree? Just so. Where was the hollow tree? In Sir Alfred Venner's woods. Did he know that Sir Alfred Venner's woods were out of bounds? Did he know that, in consequence of complaints from Sir Alfred Venner, Sir Alfred Venner's woods were more out of bounds than any other out of bounds woods in the entire county that did not belong to Sir Alfred Venner? He did? Ah! No, the word for his guidance in this emergency, he felt instinctively, was 'mum'. Time might provide him with a solution. He might, for instance, abstract the cups secretly from their resting-place, place them in the middle of the football field, and find them there dramatically after morning school. Or he might reveal his secret from the carriage window as his train moved out of the station on the first day of the holidays. There was certain to be some way out of the difficulty. But for the present, silence.
He answered his companion's questions freely, however. Of the actual burglary he knew no more than any other member of the School, considerably less, indeed, than Jim Thomson, of Merevale's, at present staggering under the weight of a secret even more gigantic than Barrett's own. In return for his information he extracted sundry reminiscences. The scar on the detective's cheekbone, barely visible now, was the mark of a bullet, which a certain burglar, named, singularly enough, Roberts, had fired at him from a distance of five yards. The gentleman in question, who, the detective hastened to inform Barrett, was no relation of his, though owning the same name, happened to be a poor marksman and only scored a bad outer, assuming the detective's face to have been the bull. He also turned up his cuff to show a larger scar. This was another testimonial from the burglar world. A Kensington practitioner had had the bad taste to bite off a piece of that part of the detective. In short, Barrett enlarged his knowledge of the seamy side of things considerably in the mile of road which had to be traversed before St Austin's appeared in sight. The two parted at the big gates, Barrett going in the direction of Philpott's, the detective wheeling his machine towards the porter's lodge.
Barrett's condition when he turned in at Philpott's door was critical. He was so inflated with news that any attempt to keep it in might have serious results. Certainly he could not sleep that night in such a bomb-like state.
It was thus that he broke in upon Reade. Reade had passed an absurdly useless afternoon. He had not stirred from the study. For all that it would have mattered to him, it might have been raining hard the whole afternoon, instead of being, as it had been, the finest afternoon of the whole term. In a word, and not to put too fine a point on the matter, he had been frousting, and consequently was feeling dull and sleepy, and generally under-vitalized and futile. Barrett entered the study with a rush, and was carried away by excitement to such an extent that he addressed Reade as if the deadly feud between them not only did not exist, but never had existed.
'I say, Reade. Heave that beastly book away. My aunt, I have had an afternoon of it.'
'Oh?' said Reade, politely, 'where did you go?'
'After eggs in the Dingle.'
Reade was fairly startled out of his dignified reserve. For the first time since they had had their little difference, he addressed Barrett in a sensible manner.
'You idiot!' he said.
'Don't see it. The Dingle's just the place to spend a happy day. Like Rosherville. Jove, it's worth going there. You should see the birds. Place is black with 'em.'
'How about keepers? See any?'
'Did I not! Three of them chased me like good 'uns all over the place.'
'You got away all right, though.'
'Only just. I say, do you know what happened? You know that rotter Plunkett. Used to be a day boy. Head of Ward's now. Wears specs.'
'Well, just as I was almost out of the wood, I jumped a bush and landed right on top of him. The man was asleep or something. Fancy choosing the Dingle of all places to sleep in, where you can't go a couple of yards without running into a keeper! He hadn't even the sense to run. I yelled to him to look out, and then I hooked it myself. And then the nearest keeper, who'd just come down a buster over a rabbit-hole, sailed in and had him. I couldn't do anything, of course.'
'Jove, there'll be a fair-sized row about this. The Old Man's on to trespassing like tar. I say, think Plunkett'll say anything about you being there too?'
'Shouldn't think so. For one thing I don't think he recognized me. Probably doesn't know me by sight, and he was fast asleep, too. No, I fancy I'm all right.'
'Well, it was a jolly narrow shave. Anything else happen?'
'Anything else! Just a bit. That's to say, no, nothing much else. No.'
'Now then,' said Reade, briskly. 'None of your beastly mysteries. Out with it.'
'Look here, swear you'll keep it dark?'
'Of course I will.'
'On your word of honour?'
'If you think—' began Reade in an offended voice.
'No, it's all right. Don't get shirty. The thing is, though, it's so frightfully important to keep it dark.'
'Well? Buck up.'
'Well, you needn't believe me, of course, but I've found the pots.'
'What!' he cried. 'The pot for the quarter?'
'And the one for the hundred yards. Both of them. It's a fact.'
'But where? How? What have you done with them?'
Barrett unfolded his tale concisely.
'You see,' he concluded, 'what a hole I'm in. I can't tell the Old Man anything about it, or I get booked for cutting roll-call, and going out of bounds. And then, while I'm waiting and wondering what to do, and all that, the thief, whoever he is, will most likely go off with the pots. What do you think I ought to do?'
'Well,' he said, 'all you can do is to lie low and trust to luck, as far as I can see. Besides, there's one consolation. This Plunkett business'll make every keeper in the Dingle twice as keen after trespassers. So the pot man won't get a chance of getting the things away.'
'Yes, there's something in that,' admitted Barrett.
'It's all you can do,' said Reade.
'Yes. Unless I wrote an anonymous letter to the Old Man explaining things. How would that do?'
'Do for you, probably. Anonymous letters always get traced to the person who wrote them. Or pretty nearly always. No, you simply lie low.'
'Right,' said Barrett, 'I will.'
The process of concealing one's superior knowledge is very irritating. So irritating, indeed, that very few people do it. Barrett, however, was obliged to by necessity. He had a good chance of displaying his abilities in that direction when he met Grey the next morning.
'Hullo,' said Grey, 'have a good time yesterday?'
'Not bad. I've got an egg for you.'
'Good man. What sort?'
'Hanged if I know. I know you haven't got it, though.'
'Thanks awfully. See anything of the million keepers?'
'Heard them oftener than I saw them.'
'They didn't book you?'
'Rather fancy one of them saw me, but I got away all right.'
'Find the place pretty lively?'
'Stay there long?'
'No. Thought you wouldn't. What do you say to a small ice? There's time before school.'
'Thanks. Are you flush?'
'Flush isn't the word for it. I'm a plutocrat.'
'Uncle came out fairly strong then?'
'Rather. To the tune of one sovereign, cash. He's a jolly good sort, my uncle.'
'So it seems,' said Barrett.
The meeting then adjourned to the School shop, Barrett enjoying his ice all the more for the thought that his secret still was a secret. A thing which it would in all probability have ceased to be, had he been rash enough to confide it to K. St H. Grey, who, whatever his other merits, was very far from being the safest sort of confidant. His usual practice was to speak first, and to think, if at all, afterwards.
MR THOMPSON INVESTIGATES
The Pavilion burglary was discussed in other places besides Charteris' study. In the Masters' Common Room the matter came in for its full share of comment. The masters were, as at most schools, divided into the athletic and non-athletic, and it was for the former class that the matter possessed most interest. If it had been that apple of the College Library's eye, the original MS. of St Austin's private diary, or even that lesser treasure, the black-letter Eucalyptides, that had disappeared, the elder portion of the staff would have had a great deal to say upon the subject. But, apart from the excitement caused by the strangeness of such an occurrence, the theft of a couple of Sports prizes had little interest for them.
On the border-line between these two castes came Mr Thompson, the Master of the Sixth Form, spelt with a p and no relation to the genial James or the amiable Allen, with the former of whom, indeed, he was on very indifferent terms of friendship. Mr Thompson, though an excellent classic, had no knowledge of the inwardness of the Human Boy. He expected every member of his form not only to be earnest—which very few members of a Sixth Form are—but also to communicate his innermost thoughts to him. His aim was to be their confidant, the wise friend to whom they were to bring their troubles and come for advice. He was, in fact, poor man, the good young master. Now, it is generally the case at school that troubles are things to be worried through alone, and any attempt at interference is usually resented. Mr Thompson had asked Jim to tea, and, while in the very act of passing him the muffins, had embarked on a sort of unofficial sermon, winding up by inviting confidences. Jim had naturally been first flippant, and then rude, and relations had been strained ever since.
'It must have been a professional,' alleged Perkins, the master of the Upper Fourth. 'If it hadn't been for the fact of the money having been stolen as well as the cups, I should have put it down to one of our fellows.'
'My dear Perkins,' expostulated Merevale.
'My dear Merevale, my entire form is capable of any crime except the theft of money. A boy might have taken the cups for a joke, or just for the excitement of the thing, meaning to return them in time for the Sports. But the two pounds knocks that on the head. It must have been a professional.'
'I always said that the Pavilion was a very unsafe place in which to keep anything of value,' said Mr Thompson.
'You were profoundly right, Thompson,' replied Perkins. 'You deserve a diploma.'
'This business is rather in your line, Thompson,' said Merevale. 'You must bring your powers to bear on the subject, and scent out the criminal.'
Mr Thompson took a keen pride in his powers of observation. He would frequently observe, like the lamented Sherlock Holmes, the vital necessity of taking notice of trifles. The daily life of a Sixth Form master at a big public school does not afford much scope for the practice of the detective art, but Mr Thompson had once detected a piece of cribbing, when correcting some Latin proses for the master of the Lower Third, solely by the exercise of his powers of observation, and he had never forgotten it. He burned to add another scalp to his collection, and this Pavilion burglary seemed peculiarly suited to his talents. He had given the matter his attention, and, as far as he could see, everything pointed to the fact that skilled hands had been at work.
From eleven until half-past twelve that day, the Sixth were doing an unseen examination under the eye of the Headmaster, and Mr Thompson was consequently off duty. He took advantage of this to stroll down to the Pavilion and make a personal inspection of the first room, from which what were left of the prizes had long been removed to a place of safety.
He was making his way to the place where the ground-man was usually to be found, with a view to obtaining the keys, when he noticed that the door was already open, and on going thither he came upon Biffen, the ground-man, in earnest conversation with a stranger.
'Morning, sir,' said the ground-man. He was on speaking terms with most of the masters and all the boys. Then, to his companion, 'This is Mr Thompson, one of our masters.'
'Morning, sir,' said the latter. 'Weather keeps up. I am Inspector Roberts, Scotland Yard. But I think we're in for rain soon. Yes. 'Fraid so. Been asked to look into this business, Mr Thompson. Queer business.'
'Very. Might I ask—I am very interested in this kind of thing—whether you have arrived at any conclusions yet?'
The detective eyed him thoughtfully, as if he were hunting for the answer to a riddle.
'No. Not yet. Nothing definite.'
'I presume you take it for granted it was the work of a professional burglar.'
'No. No. Take nothing for granted. Great mistake. Prejudices one way or other great mistake. But, I think, yes, I think it was probably—almost certainly—not done by a professional.'
Mr Thompson looked rather blank at this. It shook his confidence in his powers of deduction.
'But,' he expostulated. 'Surely no one but a practised burglar would have taken a pane of glass out so—ah—neatly?'
Inspector Roberts rubbed a finger thoughtfully round the place where the glass had been. Then he withdrew it, and showed a small cut from which the blood was beginning to drip.
'Do you notice anything peculiar about that cut?' he enquired.
Mr Thompson did not. Nor did the ground-man.
'Look carefully. Now do you see? No? Well, it's not a clean cut. Ragged. Very ragged. Now if a professional had cut that pane out he wouldn't have left it jagged like that. No. He would have used a diamond. Done the job neatly.'
This destroyed another of Mr Thompson's premises. He had taken it for granted that a diamond had been used.
'Oh!' he said, 'was that pane not cut by a diamond; what did the burglar use, then?'
'No. No diamond. Diamond would have left smooth surface. Smooth as a razor edge. This is like a saw. Amateurish work. Can't say for certain, but probably done with a chisel.'
'With a chisel? Surely not.'
'Yes. Probably with a chisel. Probably the man knocked the pane out with one blow, then removed all the glass so as to make it look like the work of an old hand. Very good idea, but amateurish. I am told that three cups have been taken. Could you tell me how long they had been in the Pavilion?'
Mr Thompson considered.
'Well,' he said. 'Of course it's difficult to remember exactly, but I think they were placed there soon after one o'clock the day before yesterday.'
'Ah! And the robbery took place yesterday in the early morning, or the night before?'
'Is the Pavilion the usual place to keep the prizes for the Sports?'
'No, it is not. They were only put there temporarily. The Board Room, where they are usually kept, and which is in the main buildings of the School, happened to be needed until the next day. Most of us were very much against leaving them in the Pavilion, but it was thought that no harm could come to them if they were removed next day.'
'But they were removed that night, which made a great difference,' said Mr Roberts, chuckling at his mild joke. 'I see. Then I suppose none outside the School knew that they were not in their proper place?'
'I imagine not.'
'Just so. Knocks the idea of professional work on the head. None of the regular trade can have known this room held so much silver for one night. No regular would look twice at a cricket pavilion under ordinary circumstances. Therefore, it must have been somebody who had something to do with the School. One of the boys, perhaps.'
'Really, I do not think that probable.'
'You can't tell. Never does to form hasty conclusions. Boy might have done it for many reasons. Some boys would have done it for the sake of the excitement. That, perhaps, is the least possible explanation. But you get boy kleptomaniacs just as much in proportion as grown-up kleptomaniacs. I knew a man. Had a son. Couldn't keep him away from anything valuable. Had to take him away in a hurry from three schools, good schools, too.'
'Really? What became of him? He did not come to us, I suppose?'
'No. Somebody advised the father to send him to one of those North-Country schools where they flog. Great success. Stole some money. Got flogged, instead of expelled. Did it again with same result. Gradually got tired of it. Reformed character now.... I don't say it is a boy, mind you. Most probably not. Only say it may be.'
All the while he was talking, his eyes were moving restlessly round the room. He came to the window through which Jim had effected his entrance, and paused before the broken pane.
'I suppose he tried that window first, before going round to the other?' hazarded Mr Thompson.
'Yes. Most probably. Broke it, and then remembered that anyone at the windows of the boarding Houses might see him, so left his job half done, and shifted his point of action. I think so. Yes.'
He moved on again till he came to the other window. Then he gave vent to an excited exclamation, and picked up a piece of caked mud from the sill as carefully as if it were some fragile treasure.
'Now, see this,' he said. 'This was wet when the robbery was done. The man brought it in with him. On his boot. Left it on the sill as he climbed in. Got out in a hurry, startled by something—you can see he was startled and left in a hurry from the different values of the cups he took—and as he was going, put his hand on this. Left a clear impression. Good as plaster of Paris very nearly.'
Mr Thompson looked at the piece of mud, and there, sure enough, was the distinct imprint of the palm of a hand. He could see the larger of the lines quite clearly, and under a magnifying-glass there was no doubt that more could be revealed.
He drew in a long breath of satisfaction and excitement.
'Yes,' said the detective. 'That piece of mud couldn't prove anything by itself, but bring it up at the end of a long string of evidence, and if it fits your man, it convicts him as much as a snap-shot photograph would. Morning, sir. I must be going.' And he retired, carrying the piece of mud in his hand, leaving Mr Thompson in the full grip of the detective-fever, hunting with might and main for more clues.
After some time, however, he was reluctantly compelled to give up the search, for the bell rang for dinner, and he always lunched, as did many of the masters, in the Great Hall. During the course of the meal he exercised his brains without pause in the effort to discover a fitting suspect. Did he know of any victim of kleptomania in the School? No, he was sorry to say he did not. Was anybody in urgent need of money? He could not say. Very probably yes, but he had no means of knowing.
After lunch he went back to the Common Room. There was a letter lying on the table. He picked it up. It was addressed to 'J. Thomson, St Austin's.' Now Mr Thompson's Christian name was John. He did not notice the omission of the p until he had opened the envelope and caught a glimpse of the contents. The letter was so short that only a glimpse was needed, and it was not till he had read the whole that he realized that it was somebody else's letter that he had opened.
This was the letter:
'Dear Jim—Frantic haste. Can you let me have that two pounds directly you come back? Beg, borrow, or steal it. I simply must have it.—Yours ever,
Sports weather at St Austin's was as a rule a quaint but unpleasant solution of mud, hail, and iced rain. These were taken as a matter of course, and the School counted it as something gained when they were spared the usual cutting east wind.
This year, however, occurred that invaluable exception which is so useful in proving rules. There was no gale, only a gentle breeze. The sun was positively shining, and there was a general freshness in the air which would have made a cripple cast away his crutches, and, after backing himself heavily both ways, enter for the Strangers' Hundred Yards.
Jim had wandered off alone. He was feeling too nervous at the thought of the coming mile and all it meant to him to move in society for the present. Charteris, Welch, and Tony, going out shortly before lunch to inspect the track, found him already on the spot, and in a very low state of mind.
'Hullo, you chaps,' he said dejectedly, as they came up.
'Our James is preoccupied,' said Charteris. 'Why this jaundiced air, Jim? Look at our other Thompson over there.'
'Our other Thompson' was at that moment engaged in conversation with the Headmaster at the opposite side of the field.
'Look at him,' said Charteris, 'prattling away as merrily as a little che-ild to the Old Man. You should take a lesson from him.'
'Look here, I say,' said Jim, after a pause, 'I believe there's something jolly queer up between Thompson and the Old Man, and I believe it's about me.'
'What on earth makes you think that?' asked Welch.
'It's his evil conscience,' said Charteris. 'No one who hadn't committed the awful crime that Jim has, could pay the least attention to anything Thompson said. What does our friend Thucydides remark on the subject?—
'"Conscia mens recti, nec si sinit esse dolorem Sed revocare gradum."
Very well then.'
'But why should you think anything's up?' asked Tony.
'Perhaps nothing is, but it's jolly fishy. You see Thompson and the Old 'Un pacing along there? Well, they've been going like that for about twenty minutes. I've been watching them.'
'But you can't tell they're talking about you, you rotter,' said Tony. 'For all you know they may be discussing the exams.'
'Or why the sea is boiling hot, and whether pigs have wings,' put in Charteris.
'Or anything,' added Welch profoundly.
'Well, all I know is that Thompson's been doing all the talking, and the Old Man's been getting more and more riled.'
'Probably Thompson's been demanding a rise of screw or asking for a small loan or something,' said Charteris. 'How long have you been watching them?'
'About twenty minutes.'
'Why didn't you go and join them? There's nothing like tact. If you were to go and ask the Old Man why the whale wailed or something after that style it 'ud buck him up like a tonic. I wish you would. And then you could tell him to tell you all about it and see if you couldn't do something to smooth the wrinkles from his careworn brow and let the sunshine of happiness into his heart. He'd like it awfully.'
'Would he!' said Jim grimly. 'Well, I got the chance just now. Thompson said something to him, and he spun round, saw me, and shouted "Thomson". I went up and capped him, and he was starting to say something when he seemed to change his mind, and instead of confessing everything, he took me by the arm, and said, "No, no, Thomson. Go away. It's nothing. I will send for you later."'
'And did you knock him down?' asked Charteris.
'What happened?' said Welch.
'He gave me a shove as if he were putting the weight, and said again, "It's no matter. Go away, Thomson, now." So I went.'
'And you've kept an eye on him ever since?' said Charteris. 'Didn't he seem at all restive?'
'I don't think he noticed me. Thompson had the floor and he was pretty well full up listening to him.'
'I suppose you don't know what it's all about?' asked Tony.
'Must be this Pavilion business.'
'Now, my dear, sweet cherub,' said Charteris, 'don't you go and make an utter idiot of yourself and think you're found out and all that sort of thing. Even if they suspect you they've got to prove it. There's no sense in your giving them a helping hand in the business. What you've got to do is to look normal. Don't overdo it or you'll look like a swashbuckler, and that'll be worse than underdoing it. Can't you make yourself look less like a convicted forger? For my sake?'
'You really do look a bit off it,' said Welch critically. 'As if you were sickening for the flu., or something. Doesn't he, Tony?'
'Rather!' said that expert in symptoms. 'You simply must buck up, Jim, or Drake'll walk away from you.'
'It's disappointing,' said Charteris, 'to find a chap who can crack a crib as neatly as you can doubling up like this. Think how Charles Peace would have behaved under the circs. Don't disgrace him, poor man.'
'Besides,' said Jim, with an attempt at optimism, 'it isn't as if I'd actually done anything, is it?'
'Just so,' said Charteris, 'that's what I've been trying to get you to see all along. Keep that fact steadily before you, and you'll be all right.'
'There goes the lunch-bell,' said Tony. 'You can always tell Merevale's bell in a crowd. William rings it as if he was doing it for his health.'
William, also known in criminal circles as the Moke, was the gentleman who served the House—in a perpetual grin and a suit of livery four sizes too large for him—as a sort of butler.
'He's an artist,' agreed Charteris, as he listened to the performance. 'Does it as if he enjoyed it, doesn't he? Well, if we don't want to spoil Merevale's appetite by coming in at half-time, we might be moving.' They moved accordingly.
The Sports were to begin at two o'clock with a series of hundred-yards races, which commenced with the 'under twelve' (Cameron of Prater's a warm man for this, said those who had means of knowing), and culminated at about a quarter past with the open event, for which Welch was a certainty. By a quarter to the hour the places round the ropes were filled, and more visitors were constantly streaming in at the two entrances to the School grounds, while in the centre of the ring the band of the local police force—the military being unavailable owing to exigencies of distance—were seating themselves with the grim determination of those who know that they are going to play the soldiers' chorus out of Faust. The band at the Sports had played the soldiers' chorus out of Faust every year for decades past, and will in all probability play it for decades to come.
The Sports at St Austin's were always looked forward to by everyone with the keenest interest, and when the day arrived, were as regularly voted slow. In all school sports there are too many foregone conclusions. In the present instance everybody knew, and none better than the competitors themselves, that Welch would win the quarter and hundred. The high jump was an equal certainty for a boy named Reece in Halliday's House. Jackson, unless he were quite out of form, would win the long jump, and the majority of the other events had already been decided. The gem of the afternoon would be the mile, for not even the shrewdest judge of form could say whether Jim would beat Drake, or Drake Jim. Both had done equally good times in practice, and both were known to be in the best of training. The adherents of Jim pointed to the fact that he had won the half off Drake—by a narrow margin, true, but still he had won it. The other side argued that a half-mile is no criterion for a mile, and that if Drake had timed his sprint better he would probably have won, for he had finished up far more strongly than his opponent. And so on the subject of the mile, public opinion was for once divided.
The field was nearly full by this time. The only clear space outside the ropes was where the Headmaster stood to greet and talk about the weather to such parents and guardians and other celebrities as might pass. This habit of his did not greatly affect the unattached members of the School, those whose parents lived in distant parts of the world and were not present on Sports Day, but to St Jones Brown (for instance) of the Lower Third, towing Mr Brown, senior, round the ring, it was a nervous ordeal to have to stand by while his father and the Head exchanged polite commonplaces. He could not help feeling that there was just a chance (horrible thought) that the Head, searching for something to say, might seize upon that little matter of broken bounds or shaky examination papers as a subject for discussion. He was generally obliged, when the interview was over, to conduct his parent to the shop by way of pulling his system together again, the latter, of course, paying.
At intervals round the ropes Old Austinian number one was meeting Old Austinian number two (whom he emphatically detested, and had hoped to avoid), and was conversing with him in a nervous manner, the clearness of his replies being greatly handicapped by a feeling, which grew with the minutes, that he would never be able to get rid of him and go in search of Old Austinian number three, his bosom friend.
At other intervals, present Austinians of tender years were manoeuvring half-companies of sisters, aunts, and mothers, and trying without much success to pretend that they did not belong to them. A pretence which came down heavily when one of the aunts addressed them as 'Willie' or 'Phil', and wanted to know audibly if 'that boy who had just passed' (the one person in the School whom they happened to hate and despise) was their best friend. It was a little trying, too, to have to explain in the middle of a crowd that the reason why you were not running in 'that race' (the 'under thirteen' hundred, by Jove, which ought to have been a gift to you, only, etc.) was because you had been ignominiously knocked out in the trial heats.
In short, the afternoon wore on. Welch won the hundred by two yards and the quarter by twenty, and the other events fell in nearly every case to the favourite. The hurdles created something of a surprise—Jackson, who ought to have won, coming down over the last hurdle but two, thereby enabling Dallas to pull off an unexpected victory by a couple of yards. Vaughan's enthusiastic watch made the time a little under sixteen seconds, but the official timekeeper had other views. There were no instances of the timid new boy, at whom previously the world had scoffed, walking away with the most important race of the day.
And then the spectators were roused from a state of coma by the sound of the bell ringing for the mile. Old Austinian number one gratefully seized the opportunity to escape from Old Austinian number two, and lose himself in the crowd. Young Pounceby-Green with equal gratitude left his father talking to the Head, and shot off without ceremony to get a good place at the ropes. In fact, there was a general stir of anticipation, and all round the ring paterfamilias was asking his son and heir which was Drake and which Thomson, and settling his glasses more firmly on the bridge of his nose.
The staff of The Glow Worm conducted Jim to the starting-place, and did their best to relieve his obvious nervousness with light conversation.
'Eh, old chap?' said Jim. He had been saying 'Eh?' to everything throughout the afternoon.
'I said, "Is my hat on straight, and does it suit the colour of my eyes?"' said Charteris.
'Oh, yes. Yes, rather. Ripping,' in a far-off voice.
'And have you a theory of the Universe?'
'Eh, old chap?'
'I said, "Did you want your legs rubbed before you start?" I believe it's an excellent specific for the gout.'
'Gout? What? No, I don't think so, thanks.'
'And you'll write to us sometimes, Jim, and give my love to little Henry, and always wear flannel next your skin, my dear boy?' said Charteris.
This seemed to strike even Jim as irrelevant.
'Do shut up for goodness sake, Alderman,' he said irritably. 'Why can't you go and rag somebody else?'
'My place is by your side. Go, my son, or else they'll be starting without you. Give us your blazer. And take my tip, the tip of an old runner, and don't pocket your opponent's ball in your own twenty-five. And come back victorious, or on the shields of your soldiers. All right, sir (to the starter), he's just making his will. Good-bye Jim. Buck up, or I'll lynch you after the race.'
Jim answered by muffling him in his blazer, and walking to the line. There were six competitors in all, each of whom owned a name ranking alphabetically higher than Thomson. Jim, therefore, had the outside berth. Drake had the one next to the inside, which fell to Adamson, the victim of the lost two pounds episode.
Both Drake and Jim got off well at the sound of the pistol, and the pace was warm from the start. Jim evidently had his eye on the inside berth, and, after half a lap had been completed, he got it, Drake falling back. Jim continued to make the running, and led at the end of the first lap by about five yards. Then came Adamson, followed by a batch of three, and finally Drake, taking things exceedingly coolly, a couple of yards behind them. The distance separating him from Jim was little over a dozen yards. A roar of applause greeted the runners as they started on the second lap, and it was significant that while Jim's supporters shouted, 'Well run', those of Drake were fain to substitute advice for approval, and cry 'Go it'. Drake, however, had not the least intention of 'going it' in the generally accepted meaning of the phrase. A yard or two to the rear meant nothing in the first lap, and he was running quite well enough to satisfy himself, with a nice, springy stride, which he hoped would begin to tell soon.
With the end of the second lap the real business of the race began, for the survival of the fittest had resulted in eliminations and changes of order. Jim still led, but now by only eight or nine yards. Drake had come up to second, and Adamson had dropped to a bad third. Two of the runners had given the race up, and retired, and the last man was a long way behind, and, to all practical purposes, out of the running. There were only three laps, and, as the last lap began, the pace quickened, fast as it had been before. Jim was exerting every particle of his strength. He was not a runner who depended overmuch on his final dash. He hoped to gain so much ground before Drake made his sprint as to neutralize it when it came. Adamson he did not fear.
And now they were in the last two hundred yards, Jim by this time some thirty yards ahead, but in great straits. Drake had quickened his pace, and gained slowly on him. As they rounded the corner and came into the straight, the cheers were redoubled. It was a great race. Then, fifty yards from the tape, Drake began his final sprint. If he had saved himself before, he made up for it now. The gap dwindled and dwindled. Neither could improve his pace. It was a question whether there was enough of the race left for Drake to catch his man, or whether he had once more left his sprint till too late. Jim could hear the roars of the spectators, and the frenzied appeals of Merevale's House to him to sprint, but he was already doing his utmost. Everything seemed black to him, a black, surging mist, and in its centre a thin white line, the tape. Could he reach it before Drake? Or would he collapse before he reached it? There were only five more yards to go now, and still he led. Four. Three. Two. Then something white swept past him on the right, the white line quivered, snapped, and vanished, and he pitched blindly forward on to the turf at the track-side. Drake had won by a foot.
AN INTERESTING INTERVIEW
For the rest of the afternoon Jim had a wretched time. To be beaten after such a race by a foot, and to be beaten by a foot when victory would have cut the Gordian knot of his difficulties once and for all, was enough to embitter anybody's existence. He found it hard to accept the well-meant condolences of casual acquaintances, and still harder to do the right thing and congratulate Drake on his victory, a refinement of self-torture which is by custom expected of the vanquished in every branch of work or sport. But he managed it somehow, and he also managed to appear reasonably gratified when he went up to take his prize for the half-mile. Tony and the others, who knew what his defeat meant to him, kept out of his way, for which he was grateful. After lock-up, however, it was a different matter, but by that time he was more ready for society. Even now there might be some way out of the difficulty. He asked Tony's advice on the subject. Tony was perplexed. The situation was beyond his grip.
'I don't see what you can do, Jim,' he said, 'unless the Rugby chap'll be satisfied with a pound on account. It's a beastly business. Do you think your pater will give you your money all the same as it was such a close finish?'
Jim thought not. In fact, he was certain that he would not, and Tony relapsed into silence as he tried to bring another idea to the surface. He had not succeeded when Charteris came in.
'Jim,' he said 'you have my sympathy. It was an awfully near thing. But I've got something more solid than sympathy. I will take a seat.'
'Don't rag, Charteris,' said Tony. 'It's much too serious.'
'Who's ragging, you rotter? I say I have something more solid than sympathy, and instead of giving me an opening, as a decent individual would, by saying, "What?" you accuse me of ragging. James, my son, if you will postpone your suicide for two minutes, I will a tale unfold. I have an idea.'
'That's more like it. Now you are talking. We will start at the beginning. First, you want a pound. So do I. Secondly, you want it before next Tuesday. Thirdly, you haven't it on you. How, therefore, are you to get it? As the song hath it, you don't know, they don't know, but—now we come to the point—I do know.'
'Yes?' said Jim and Tony together.
'It is a luminous idea. Why shouldn't we publish a special number of The Glow Worm before the end of term?'
Jim was silent at the brilliance of the scheme. Then doubts began to harass him.
'Is there time?'
'Time? Yards of it. This is Saturday. We start tonight, and keep at it all night, if necessary. We ought to manage it easily before tomorrow morning. On Sunday we jellygraph it—it'll have to be a jellygraphed number this time. On Monday and Tuesday we sell it, and there you are.'
'How are you going to sell it? In the ordinary way at the shop?'
'Yes, I've arranged all that. All we've got to do is to write the thing. As the penalty for your sins you shall take on most of it. I'll do the editorial, Welch is pegging away at the Sports account now, and I waylaid Jackson just before lock-up, and induced him by awful threats to knock off some verses. So we're practically published already.'
'It's grand,' said Jim. 'And it's awfully decent of you chaps to fag yourselves like this for me. I'll start on something now.'
'But can you raise a sovereign on one number?' asked Tony.
'Either that, or I've arranged with the shop to give us a quid down, and take all profits on this and the next number. They're as keen as anything on the taking-all-profits idea, but I've kept that back to be used only in case of necessity. But the point is that Jim gets his sovereign in any case. I must be off to my editorial. So long,' and he went.
'Grand man, Charteris,' said Tony, as he leant back in his chair in search of a subject. 'You'd better weigh in with an account of the burglary. It's a pity you can't give the realistic description you gave us. It would sell like anything.'
'Wouldn't do to risk it.'
At that moment the door swung violently open, with Merevale holding on to the handle, and following it in its course. Merevale very rarely knocked at a study door, a peculiarity of his which went far towards shattering the nervous systems of the various inmates, who never knew when it was safe to stop work and read fiction. 'Ah, Thomson,' he said, 'I was looking for you. The Headmaster wants to see you over at his House, if you are feeling well enough after your exertions. Very close thing, that mile. I don't know when I have seen a better-run race on the College grounds. I suppose you are feeling pretty tired, eh?'
'I am rather, sir, but I had better see the Head. Will he be in his study, sir?'
'Yes, I think so.'
Jim took his cap and went off, while Merevale settled down to spend the evening in Tony's study, as he often did when the term's work was over, and it was no longer necessary to keep up the pretence of preparation.
Parker, the Head's butler, conducted Jim into the presence.
'Sit down, Thomson,' said the Head.
Jim took a seat, and he had just time to notice that his namesake, Mr Thompson, was also present, and that, in spite of the fact that his tie had crept up to the top of his collar, he was looking quite unnecessarily satisfied with himself, when he became aware that the Head was speaking to him.
'I hope you are not feeling any bad effects from your race, Thomson?'
Jim was half inclined to say that his effects were nil, but he felt that the quip was too subtle, and would be lost on his present audience, so he merely said that he was not. There was a rather awkward silence for a minute. Then the Head coughed, and said:
'I think it would be fairest to you to come to the point at once, and to tell you the reason why I wished to see you.'
Jim ran over the sins which shot up in his mind like rockets as he heard these ominous words, and he knew that this must be the matter of the Pavilion. He was, therefore, in a measure prepared for the Head's next words.
'A very serious charge has been brought against you. You are accused of nothing less than this unfortunate burglary of the prizes for the Sports.'
'Yes, sir. Is my accuser Mr Thompson?'
The Headmaster hesitated for a moment, and Mr Thompson spoke. 'That is so,' he said.
'Yes,' said the Head, 'the accusation is brought by Mr Thompson.'
'Yes, sir,' said Jim again, and this time the observation was intended to convey the meaning, 'My dear, good sir, when you've known him as long as I have, you won't mind what Mr Thompson says or does. It's a kind of way he's got, and if he's not under treatment for it, he ought to be.'
'I should like to hear from your own lips that the charge is groundless.'
'Anything to oblige,' thought Jim. Then aloud, 'Yes, sir.'
'You say it is groundless?' This from Mr Thompson.
'I must warn you, Thomson, that the evidence against you is very strong indeed,' said the Head. 'Without suggesting that you are guilty of this thing, I think I ought to tell you that if you have any confession to make, it will be greatly, very greatly, to your own advantage to make it at once.'
'And give myself away, free, gratis and for nothing,' thought Jim. 'Not for me, thank you.'
'Might I hear Mr Thompson's evidence, sir?' he asked.
'Certainly, Thomson.' He effected a movement in Mr Thompson's direction, midway between a bow and a nod.
Mr Thompson coughed. Jim coughed, too, in the same key. This put Mr Thompson out, and he had to cough again.
'In the first place,' he began, 'it has been conclusively proved that the burglary was the work of an unskilful hand.'
'That certainly seems to point to me as the author,' said Jim flippantly.
'Silence, Thomson,' said the Head, and counsel for the prosecution resumed.
'In the second place, it has been proved that you were at the time of the burglary in great need of money.'
This woke Jim up. It destroyed that feeling of coolness with which he had started the interview. Awful thoughts flashed across his mind. Had he been seen at the time of his burglarious entry? At any rate, how did Mr Thompson come to know of his pecuniary troubles?
'Did you say it had been proved, sir?'
He felt the question was a mistake as he was uttering it. Your really injured innocent would have called all the elements to witness that he was a millionaire. But it was too late to try that now. And, besides, he really did want to know how Mr Thompson had got to hear of this skeleton in his cupboard.
The Headmaster interrupted hurriedly. 'It is a very unfortunate affair altogether, and this is quite the most unfortunate part. A letter came to the College addressed to J. Thomson, and Mr Thompson opened and read it inadvertently. Quite inadvertently.'
'Yes, sir,' said Jim, in a tone which implied, 'I am no George Washington myself, but when you say he read it inadvertently, well—'
'This letter was signed "Allen"—'
'My brother, sir.'
'Exactly. And it asked for two pounds. Evidently in payment of a debt, and the tone of the letter certainly seemed to show that you were not then in possession of the money.'
'Could I have the letter, sir?' Then with respectful venom to Mr Thompson: 'If you have finished with it.' The letter was handed over, and pocketed, and Jim braced his moral pecker up for the next round of the contest.
'I take it, then, Thomson,' resumed the Head, 'that you owe your brother this money?'
'Two pounds is a great deal of money for one boy to lend another.'
'It was not lent, sir. It was a bet.'
'A bet!' in a nasty tone from the Head.
'A bet!' in a sepulchral echo from Mr Thompson.
There was a long pause.
'At any other time,' said the Head, 'I should feel it my duty to take serious notice of this, but beside this other matter with which you are charged, it becomes trivial. I can only repeat that the circumstances are exceedingly suspicious, and I think it would be in your interests to tell us all you know without further delay.'
'You take it for granted I am guilty, sir,' began Jim hotly.
'I say that the circumstances seems to point to it. In the first place, you were in need of money. You admit that?'
'In the second place,' said the Head slowly, 'in the second place, I am told that you were nowhere to be found in the House at half-past eight on the night of the burglary, when you ought certainly to have been in your study at your work.'
Bombshell number two, and a worse one than the first. For the moment Jim's head swam. If he had been asked just then in so many words where he had been at that time, it is likely that he would have admitted everything. By some miracle the Head did not press his point.
'You may go now, Thomson,' he said. 'I should like to see you after morning school on Monday. Good-night.'
'Good-night, sir,' said Jim, and went without another word. Coming so soon after the exertion and strain of the mile, this shock made him feel sick and dizzy.
When he had gone, the Head turned to Mr Thompson with a worried look on his face. 'I feel as certain as I do of anything,' he said thoughtfully, 'that that boy is telling the truth. If he had been guilty, he would not have behaved like that. I feel sure of it.'
Mr Thompson looked equally thoughtful. 'The circumstances are certainly very suspicious,' he said, echoing the Head's own words. 'I wish I could think he was innocent, but I am bound to say I do not. I regard the evidence as conclusive.'
'Circumstantial evidence is proverbially uncertain, Mr Thompson. That is principally the reason why I was so bent on making him confess if he had anything to confess. I can't expel a boy and ruin his whole career on mere suspicion. The matter must be proved, doubly proved, and even then I should feel uneasy until he owned himself guilty. It is a most unpleasant affair, a terrible affair.'
'Most,' agreed Mr Thompson.
And exactly the same thing was occurring at that moment to Jim, as he sat on his bed in his dormitory, and pondered hopelessly on this new complication that had presented itself so unexpectedly. He was getting very near to the end of his tether, was J. Thomson of Merevale's. It seemed to him, indeed, that he had reached it already. Possibly if he had had a clearer conscience and a larger experience, he might have recognized that the evidence which Mr Thompson had described as conclusive, was in reality not strong enough to hang a cat on. Unfortunately, he did not enjoy those advantages.
SIR ALFRED SCORES
Soon after Jim had taken his departure, Mr Thompson, after waiting a few minutes in case the Headmaster had anything more to say, drifted silently out of the room. The Head, like the gentleman in the ballad, continued to wear a worried look. The more he examined the matter, the less did he know what to make of it. He believed, as he had said to Mr Thompson, that Jim was entirely innocent. It was an incredible thing, he thought, that a public school boy, a School-prefect, too, into the bargain, should break out of his House and into a cricket pavilion, however great a crisis his finances might be undergoing. And then to steal two of the prizes for the Sports. Impossible. Against this, however, must be placed the theft of the two pounds. It might occur to a boy, as indeed Mr Thompson had suggested, to steal the cups in order to give the impression that a practised burglar had been at work. There was certainly something to be said in favour of this view. But he would never believe such a thing. He was a good judge of character—a headmaster generally is—and he thought he could tell when a boy was speaking the truth and when he was not.
His reflections were interrupted by a knock at the door. The butler entered with a card on a tray. 'Sir Alfred Venner, M.P., Badgwick Hall,' said—almost shouted—the card. He read the words without any apparent pleasure.
'Is Sir Alfred here himself, Parker?' he said.
'He is, sir.'
The Headmaster sighed inaudibly but very wearily. He was feeling worried already, and he knew from experience that a tete-a-tete with Sir Alfred Venner, M.P., of Badgwick Hall, would worry him still more.
The Head was a man who tried his very hardest to like each and all of his fellow-creatures, but he felt bound to admit that he liked most people a great, a very great, deal better than he liked the gentleman who had just sent in his card. Sir Alfred's manner always jarred upon him. It was so exactly the antithesis of his own. He was quiet and dignified, and addressed everybody alike, courteously. Sir Alfred was restless and fussy. His manner was always dictatorial and generally rude. When he had risen in the House to make his maiden speech, calling the attention of the Speaker to what he described as 'a thorough draught', he had addressed himself with such severity to that official, that a party of Siamese noblemen, who, though not knowing a word of English, had come to listen to the debate, had gone away with the impression that he was the prime minister. No wonder the Headmaster sighed.
'Show him in, Parker,' said he resignedly.
Parker retired, leaving the Head to wonder what his visitor's grievance might be this time. Sir Alfred rarely called without a grievance, generally connected with the trespassing of the School on his land.
'Good evening, Sir Alfred,' he said, as his visitor whirled into the room.
'O-o-o, this sort of thing won't do, you know, Mr Perceval,' said Sir Alfred fussily, adjusting a pair of gold pince-nez on his nose. The Head's name, which has not before been mentioned, was the Reverend Herbert Perceval, M.A. He had shivered at the sound of the 'O-o-o' which had preceded Sir Alfred's remark. He knew, as did other unfortunate people, that the great man was at his worst when he said 'O-o-o'. In moments of comparative calm he said 'Er'.
'I can't put up with it, you know, Mr Perceval. It's too much. A great deal too much.'
'You refer to—?' suggested the Head, with a patience that did him credit.
'This eternal trespassing and tramping in and out of my grounds all day.'
'You have been misinformed, I fear, Sir Alfred. I have not trespassed in your grounds for—ah—a considerable time.' The Head could not resist this thrust. In his unregenerate 'Varsity days he had been a power at the Union, where many a foeman had exposed himself to a verbal counter from him with disastrous results. Now the fencing must be done with buttons on the foils.
'You—what—I don't follow you, Mr Perceval.'
'I understand you to reproach me for trespassing and—ah—tramping in and out of your grounds all day. Was that not your meaning?'
Sir Alfred almost danced with impatience.
'No, no, no. You misunderstand me. You don't follow my drift.'
'In that case, I beg your pardon. I gathered from the extreme severity of your attitude towards me that I was the person to whom you referred.'
'No, no, no. I've come here to complain of your boys.'
It occurred to the Head to ask if the complaint embraced the entire six hundred of them, or merely referred to one of them. But he reflected that the longer he fenced, the longer his visitor would stay. And he decided, in spite of the illicit pleasure to be derived from the exercise, that it was not worth while.
'Ah,' he said.
'Yes,' continued Sir Alfred, 'my keepers tell me the woods were full of them, sir.'
The Head suggested that possibly the keepers had exaggerated.
'Possibly. Possibly they may have exaggerated. But that is not the point. The nuisance is becoming intolerable, Mr Perceval, perfectly intolerable. It is time to take steps.'
'I have already done all that can be done. I have placed your land out of bounds, considerably out of bounds indeed. And I inflict the severest penalties when a breach of the rule is reported to me.'
'It's not enough. It's not nearly enough.'
'I can scarcely do more, I fear, Sir Alfred. There are more than six hundred boys at St Austin's, and it is not within my power to place them all under my personal supervision.'
Here the Head, who had an eye to the humorous, conjured up a picture of six hundred Austinians going for walks, two and two, the staff posted at intervals down the procession, and himself bringing up the rear. He made a mental mem. to laugh when his visitor had retired.
'H'm,' said the baffled M.P. thoughtfully, adjusting his pince-nez once more. ''M no. No, perhaps not. But'—here he brightened up—'you can punish them when they do trespass.'
'That is so, Sir Alfred. I can and invariably do.'
'Then punish that what's-his-name, Plinkett, Plunkett—I've got the name down somewhere. Yes, Plunkett. I thought so. Punish Plunkett.'
'Plunkett!' said the Head, taken completely by surprise. He, in common with the rest of the world, had imagined Plunkett to be a perfect pattern of what should be. A headmaster, like other judges of character, has his failures.
'Plunkett. Yes, that is the name. Boy with spectacles. Good gracious, Mr Perceval, don't tell me the boy gave me a false name.'
'No. His name is Plunkett. Am I to understand that he was trespassing on your land? Surely there is some mistake? The boy's a School-prefect.'
Here it suddenly flashed upon his mind that he had used that expression before in the course of the day, on the occasion when Mr Thompson first told him of his suspicions in connection with Jim. 'Why, Mr Thompson, the boy's a School-prefect,' had been his exact words. School-prefects had been in his eyes above suspicion. It is a bad day for a school when they are not so. Had that day arrived for St Austin's? he asked himself.
'He may be a School-prefect, Mr Perceval, but the fact remains that he is a trespasser, and ought from your point of view to be punished for breaking bounds.'
The Head suddenly looked almost cheerful again.
'Of course,' he said, 'of course. I thought that there must be an explanation. The rules respecting bounds, Sir Alfred, do not apply to School-prefects, only to the rest of the School.'
'Indeed?' said Sir Alfred. His tone should have warned the Head that something more was coming, but it did not. He continued.
'Of course it was very wrong of him to trespass on your land, but I have no doubt that he did it quite unintentionally. I will speak to him, and I think I can guarantee that he will not do it again.'
'Oh,' said his visitor. 'That is very gratifying, I am sure. Might I ask, Mr Perceval, if School-prefects at St Austin's have any other privileges?'
The Head began to look puzzled. There was something in his visitor's manner which suggested unpleasant possibilities.
'A few,' he replied. 'They have a few technical privileges, which it would be a matter of some little time to explain.'
'It must be very pleasant to be a prefect at St Austin's,' said Sir Alfred nastily. 'Very pleasant indeed. Might I ask, Mr Perceval, if the technical privileges to which you refer include—smoking?'
The Head started as if, supposing such a thing possible, someone had pinched him. He did not know what to make of the question. From the expression on his face his visitor did not appear to be perpetrating a joke.
'No,' he said sharply, 'they do not include smoking.'
'I merely asked because this was found by my keeper on the boy when he caught him.'
He produced a small silver match-box. The Head breathed again. The reputation of the School-prefect, though shaky, was still able to come up to the scratch.
'A match-box is scarcely a proof that a boy has been smoking, I think,' said he. 'Many boys carry matches for various purposes, I believe. I myself, though a non-smoker, frequently place a box in my pocket.'
For answer Sir Alfred laid a bloated and exceedingly vulgar-looking plush tobacco-pouch on the table beside the match-box.
'That also,' he observed, 'was found in his pocket by my keeper.'
He dived his hand once more into his coat. 'And also this,' he said.
And, with the air of a card-player who trumps his opponent's ace, he placed on the pouch a pipe. And, to make the matter, if possible, worse, the pipe was not a new pipe. It was caked within and coloured without, a pipe that had seen long service. The only mitigating circumstance that could possibly have been urged in favour of the accused, namely that of 'first offence', had vanished.
'It is pleasant,' said Sir Alfred with laborious sarcasm, 'to find a trespasser doing a thing which has caused the dismissal of several keepers. Smoking in my woods I—will—not—permit. I will not have my property burnt down while I can prevent it. Good evening, Mr Perceval.' With these words he made a dramatic exit.
For some minutes after he had gone the Head remained where he stood, thinking. Then he went across the room and touched the bell.
'Parker,' he said, when that invaluable officer appeared, 'go across to Mr Ward's House, and tell him I wish to see Plunkett. Say I wish to see him at once.'
After ten minutes had elapsed, Plunkett entered the room, looking nervous.
'Sit down, Plunkett.'
Plunkett collapsed into a seat. His eye had caught sight of the smoking apparatus on the table.
The Head paced the room, something after the fashion of the tiger at the Zoo, whose clock strikes lunch.
'Plunkett,' he said, suddenly, 'you are a School-prefect.'
'Yes, sir,' murmured Plunkett. The fact was undeniable.
'You know the duties of a School-prefect?'
'And yet you deliberately break one of the most important rules of the School. How long have you been in the habit of smoking?'
Plunkett evaded the question.
'My father lets me smoke, sir, when I'm at home.'
(A hasty word in the reader's ear. If ever you are accused of smoking, please—for my sake, if not for your own—try to refrain from saying that your father lets you do it at home. It is a fatal mistake.)
At this, to employ a metaphor, the champagne of the Head's wrath, which had been fermenting steadily during his late interview, got the better of the cork of self-control, and he exploded. If the Mutual Friend ever has grandchildren he will probably tell them with bated breath the story of how the Head paced the room, and the legend of the things he said. But it will be some time before he will be able to speak about it with any freedom. At last there was a lull in the storm.
'I am not going to expel you, Plunkett. But you cannot come back after the holidays. I will write to your father to withdraw you.' He pointed to the door. Plunkett departed in level time.
'What did the Old 'Un want you for?' asked Dallas, curiously, when he returned to the study.
Plunkett had recovered himself by this time sufficiently to be able to tell a lie.
'He wanted to tell me he'd heard from my father about my leaving.'
'About your leaving!' Dallas tried to keep his voice as free as possible from triumphant ecstasy.
'Are you leaving? When?'
'Oh!' said Dallas. It was an uncomfortable moment. He felt that at least some conventional expression of regret ought to proceed from him.
'Don't trouble to lie about being sorry,' said Plunkett with a sneer.
'Thanks,' said Dallas, gratefully, 'since you mention it, I rather think I won't.'
THE LONG RUN
Vaughan came up soon afterwards, and Dallas told him the great news. They were neither of them naturally vindictive, but the Mutual Friend had been a heavy burden to them during his stay in the House, and they did not attempt to conceal from themselves their unfeigned pleasure at the news of his impending departure.
'I'll never say another word against Mr Plunkett, senior, in my life,' said Vaughan. 'He's a philanthropist. I wonder what the Mutual's going to do? Gentleman of leisure, possibly. Unless he's going to the 'Varsity.'
'Same thing, rather. I don't know a bit what he's going to do, and I can't say I care much. He's going, that's the main point.'
'I say,' said Vaughan. 'I believe the Old Man was holding a sort of reception tonight. I know he had Thomson over to his House. Do you think there's a row on?'
'Oh, I don't know. Probably only wanted to see if he was all right after the mile. By Jove, it was a bit of a race, wasn't it?' And the conversation drifted off into matters athletic.
There were two persons that night who slept badly. Jim lay awake until the College clock had struck three, going over in his mind the various points of his difficulties, on the chance of finding a solution of them. He fell asleep at a quarter past, without having made any progress. The Head, also, passed a bad night. He was annoyed for many reasons, principally, perhaps, because he had allowed Sir Alfred Venner to score so signal a victory over him. Besides that, he was not easy in his mind about Jim. He could not come to a decision. The evidence was all against him, but evidence is noted for its untrustworthiness. The Head would have preferred to judge the matter from his knowledge of Jim's character. But after the Plunkett episode he mistrusted his powers in that direction. He thought the matter over for a time, and then, finding himself unable to sleep, got up and wrote an article for a leading review on the subject of the Doxology. The article was subsequently rejected—which proves that Providence is not altogether incapable of a kindly action—but it served its purpose by sending its author to sleep.
Barrett, too, though he did not allow it to interfere with his slumbers, was considerably puzzled as to what he ought to do about the cups which he had stumbled upon in the wood. He scarcely felt equal to going to the Dingle again to fetch them, and yet every minute he delayed made the chances of their remaining there more remote. He rather hoped that Reade would think of some way out of it. He had a great respect for Reade's intellect, though he did not always show it. The next day was the day of the Inter-House cross-country race. It was always fixed for the afternoon after Sports Day, a most inconvenient time for it, as everybody who had exerted or over-exerted himself the afternoon before was unable to do himself justice. Today, contrary to general expectation, both Drake and Thomson had turned out. The knowing ones, however, were prepared to bet anything you liked (except cash), that both would drop out before the first mile was over. Merevale's pinned their hopes on Welch. At that time Welch had not done much long-distance running. He confined himself to the hundred yards and the quarter. But he had it in him to do great things, as he proved in the following year, when he won the half, and would have beaten the great Mitchell-Jones record for the mile, but for an accident, or rather an event, which prevented his running. The tale of which is told elsewhere.
The course for the race was a difficult one. There were hedges and brooks to be negotiated, and, worst of all, ploughed fields. The first ploughed field usually thinned the ranks of the competitors considerably. The distance was about ten miles.
The race started at three o'clock. Jim and Welch, Merevale's first string, set the pace from the beginning, and gradually drew away from the rest. Drake came third, and following him the rest of the Houses in a crowd.
Welch ran easily and springily; Jim with more effort. He felt from the start that he could not last. He resolved to do his best for the honour of the House, but just as the second mile was beginning, the first of the ploughed fields appeared in view, stretching, so it appeared to Jim, right up to the horizon. He groaned.
'Go on, Welch,' he gasped. 'I'm done.'
Welch stopped short in his stride, and eyed him critically.
'Yes,' he said, 'better get back to the House. You overdid it yesterday. Lie down somewhere. G'bye.' And he got into his stride again. Jim watched his figure diminish, until at last it was a shapeless dot of white against the brown surface. Then he lay down on his back and panted.
It was in this attitude that Drake found him. For a moment an almost irresistible wish seized him to act in the same way. There was an unstudied comfort about Jim's pose which appealed to him strongly. His wind still held out, but his legs were beginning to feel as if they did not belong to him at all. He pulled up for an instant.
'Hullo,' he said, 'done up?'
For reply Jim merely grunted.
'Slacker,' said Drake. 'Where's Welch?'
'Oh Lord!' groaned Drake and, pulling himself together, set out painfully once more across the heavy surface of the field.
Jim lay where he was a little longer. The recollection of the other runners, who might be expected to arrive shortly, stirred him to action. He did not wish to interview everyone on the subject of his dropping out. He struck off at right angles towards the hedge on the left. As he did so, the first of the crowd entered the field. Simpson major, wearing the colours of Perkins's House on his manly bosom, was leading. Behind him came a group of four, two School House, Dallas of Ward's, and a representative of Prater's. A minute later they were followed by a larger group, consisting this time of twenty or more runners—all that was left of the fifty who had started. The rest had dropped out at the sight of the ploughed field.
Jim watched the procession vanish over the brow of the hill, and, as it passed out of sight, began to walk slowly back to the School again.
He reached it at last, only to find it almost entirely deserted. In Merevale's House there was nobody. He had hoped that Charteris and Tony might have been somewhere about. When he had changed into his ordinary clothes, he made a tour of the School grounds. The only sign of life, as far as he could see, was Biffen, who was superintending the cutting of the grass on the cricket-field. During the winter Biffen always disappeared, nobody knew where, returning at the beginning of Sports Week to begin preparations for the following cricket season. It had been stated that during the winter he shut himself up and lived on himself after the fashion of a bear. Others believed that he went and worked in some Welsh mine until he was needed again at the School. Biffen himself was not communicative on the subject, a fact which led a third party to put forward the awful theory that he was a professional association player and feared to mention his crime in a school which worshipped Rugby.
'Why, Mr Thomson,' he said, as Jim came up, 'I thought you was running. Whoa!' The last remark was addressed to a bored-looking horse attached to the mowing-machine. From the expression on its face, the animal evidently voted the whole process pure foolishness. He pulled up without hesitation, and Biffen turned to Jim again.
'Surely they ain't come back yet?' he said.
'I have,' said Jim. 'I did myself up rather in the mile yesterday, and couldn't keep up the pace. I dropped out at that awfully long ploughed field by Parker's Spinney.'
'And 'oo was winning, sir?'
'Well, Welch was leading, the last I saw of it. Shouldn't wonder if he won either. He was going all right. I say, the place seems absolutely deserted. Isn't anybody about?'
'Just what Mr MacArthur was saying to me just this minute, sir. 'E went into the Pavilion.'
'Good. I'll go and hunt for him.'
Biffen 'clicked' the blase horse into movement again. Jim went to the Pavilion and met the Babe coming down the steps.
'Hullo, Babe! I was looking for you.'
'Hullo! Why aren't you running?'
'Dropped out. Come and have tea in my study.'
'No, I'll tell you what. You come back with me. I've got rather a decent dog I want to show you. Only got him yesterday.'
Jim revelled in dogs, so he agreed instantly. The Babe lived with his parents in a big house about a mile from the College, and in so doing was the object of much envy amongst those who had to put up with life at the Houses. Jim had been to his home once or twice before, and had always had a very good time indeed there. The two strolled off. In another hour the place began to show signs of life again. The School began to return by ones and twos, most of them taking up a position near the big gates. This was where the race was to finish. There was a straight piece of road about two hundred yards in length before the high road was reached. It was a sight worth seeing when the runners, paced by their respective Houses on each side of the road, swept round the corner, and did their best to sprint with all that was left in them after ten miles of difficult country. Suddenly a distant shouting began to be heard. The leaders had been sighted. The noise increased, growing nearer and nearer, until at last it swelled into a roar, and a black mass of runners turned the corner. In the midst of the black was one white figure—Welch, as calm and unruffled as if he had been returning from a short trot to improve his wind. Merevale's surged round him in a cheering mob. Welch simply disregarded them. He knew where he wished to begin his sprint, and he would begin it at that spot and no other. The spot he had chosen was well within a hundred yards from the gates. When he reached it, he let himself go, and from the uproar, the crowd appeared to be satisfied. A long pause, and still none of the other runners appeared. Five minutes went by before they began to appear. First Jones, of the School House, and Simpson, who raced every yard of the way, and finished in the order named, and then three of Philpott's House in a body. The rest dropped in at intervals for the next quarter of an hour.
The Headmaster always made a point of watching the finish of the cross-country run. Indeed, he was generally one of the last to leave. With the majority of the spectators it was enough to see the first five safely in.
The last man and lock-up arrived almost simultaneously, and the Head went off to a well-earned dinner.
He had just finished this meal, and was congratulating himself on not being obliged to spend the evening in a series of painful interviews, as had happened the night before, when Parker, the butler, entered the room.
'Well, Parker, what is it?' asked he.
'Mr Roberts, sir, wishes to see you.'
For a moment the Head was at a loss. He could not recall any friend or acquaintance of that name. Then he remembered that Roberts was the name of the detective who had come down from London to look into the matter of the prizes.
'Very well,' he said, resignedly, 'show him into the study.'
Parker bowed, and retired. The Head, after an interval, followed him, and made his way to the study.
MR ROBERTS EXPLAINS
Inspector Roberts was standing with his back to the door, examining a photograph of the College, when the Head entered. He spun round briskly. 'Good evening, Mr Roberts. Pray be seated. You wish to see me?'
The detective took a seat.
'This business of the cups, sir.'
'Ah!' said the Head, 'have you made any progress?'
'Considerable. Yes, very considerable progress. I've found out who stole them.'
'You have?' cried the Head. 'Excellent. I suppose it was Thomson, then? I was afraid so.'
'Thomson, sir? That was certainly not the name he gave me. Stokes he called himself.'
'Stokes? Stokes? This is curious. Perhaps if you were to describe his appearance? Was he a tall boy, of a rather slight build—'
The detective interrupted.
'Excuse me, sir, but I rather fancy we have different persons in our mind. Stokes is not a boy. Not at all. Well over thirty. Red moustache. Height, five foot seven, I should say. Not more. Works as a farmhand when required, and does odd jobs at times. That's the man.'
The Head's face expressed relief, as he heard this description. 'Then Thomson did not do it after all,' he said.
'Thomson?' queried Mr Roberts.
'Thomson,' explained the Head, 'is the name of one of the boys at the School. I am sorry to say that I strongly suspected him of this robbery.'