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The Pothunters
by P. G. Wodehouse
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'A boy at the School. Curious. Unusual, I should have thought, for a boy to be mixed up in an affair like this. Though I have known cases.'

'I was very unwilling, I can assure you, to suspect him of such a thing, but really the evidence all seemed to point to it. I am afraid, Mr Roberts, that I have been poaching on your preserves without much success.'

'Curious thing evidence,' murmured Mr Roberts, fixing with his eye a bust of Socrates on the writing-desk, as if he wished it to pay particular attention to his words. 'Very curious. Very seldom able to trust it. Case the other day. Man charged with robbery from the person. With violence. They gave the case to me. Worked up beautiful case against the man. Not a hitch anywhere. Whole thing practically proved. Man brings forward alibi. Proves it. Turned out that at time of robbery he had been serving seven days without the option for knocking down two porters and a guard on the District Railway. Yet the evidence seemed conclusive. Yes, curious thing evidence.' He nodded solemnly at Socrates, and resumed an interested study of the carpet.

The Head, who had made several spirited attempts at speaking during this recital, at last succeeded in getting in a word.

'You have the cups?'

'No. No, cups still missing. Only flaw in the affair. Perhaps I had better begin from the beginning?'

'Exactly. Pray let me hear the whole story. I am more glad than I can say that Thomson is innocent. There is no doubt of that, I hope?'

'Not the least, sir. Not the very least. Stokes is the man.'

'I am very glad to hear it.'

The inspector paused for a moment, coughed, and drifted into his narrative.

'... Saw at once it was not the work of a practised burglar. First place, how could regular professional know that the cups were in the Pavilion at all? Quite so. Second place, work very clumsily done. No neatness. Not the professional touch at all. Tell it in a minute. No mistaking it. Very good. Must, therefore, have been amateur—this night only—and connected with School. Next question, who? Helped a little there by luck. Capital thing luck, when it's not bad luck. Was passing by the village inn—you know the village inn, I dare say, sir?'

The Head, slightly scandalized, explained that he was seldom in the village. The detective bowed and resumed his tale.

'As I passed the door, I ran into a man coming out. In a very elevated, not to say intoxicated, state. As a matter of fact, barely able to stand. Reeled against wall, and dropped handful of money. I lent helping hand, and picked up his money for him. Not my place to arrest drunken men. Constable's! No constable there, of course. Noticed, as I picked the money up, that there was a good deal of it. For ordinary rustic, a very good deal. Sovereign and plenty of silver.' He paused, mused for a while, and went on again.

'Yes. Sovereign, and quite ten shillings' worth of silver. Now the nature of my profession makes me a suspicious man. It struck me as curious, not to say remarkable, that such a man should have thirty shillings or more about him so late in the week. And then there was another thing. I thought I'd seen this particular man somewhere on the School grounds. Couldn't recall his face exactly, but just had a sort of general recollection of having seen him before. I happened to have a camera with me. As a matter of fact I had been taking a few photographs of the place. Pretty place, sir.'

'Very,' agreed the Head.

'You photograph yourself, perhaps?'

'No. I—ah—do not.'

'Ah. Pity. Excellent hobby. However—I took a snap-shot of this man to show to somebody who might know him better than I did. This is the photograph. Drunk as a lord, is he not?'

He exhibited a small piece of paper. The Head examined it gravely, and admitted that the subject of the picture did not appear to be ostentatiously sober. The sunlight beat full on his face, which wore the intensely solemn expression of the man who, knowing his own condition, hopes, by means of exemplary conduct, to conceal it from the world. The Head handed the photograph back without further comment.

'I gave the man back his money,' went on Mr Roberts, 'and saw him safely started again, and then I set to work to shadow him. Not a difficult job. He walked very slowly, and for all he seemed to care, the whole of Scotland Yard might have been shadowing him. Went up the street, and after a time turned in at one of the cottages. I marked the place, and went home to develop the photograph. Took it to show the man who looks after the cricket-field.'

'Biffen?'

'Just so, Biffen. Very intelligent man. Given me a good deal of help in one way and another all along. Well, I showed it to him and he said he thought he knew the face. Was almost certain it was one of the men at work on the grounds at the time of the robbery. Showed it to friend of his, the other ground-man. He thought same. That made it as certain as I had any need for. Went off at once to the man's cottage, found him sober, and got the whole thing out of him. But not the cups. He had been meaning to sell them, but had not known where to go. Wanted combination of good price and complete safety. Very hard to find, so had kept cups hidden till further notice.'

Here the Head interrupted.

'And the cups? Where are they?'

'We-e-ll,' said the detective, slowly. 'It is this way. We have only got his word to go on as regards the cups. This man, Stokes, it seems is a notorious poacher. The night after the robbery he took the cups out with him on an expedition in some woods that lie in the direction of Badgwick. I think Badgwick is the name.'

'Badgwick! Not Sir Alfred Venner's woods?'

'Sir Alfred Venner it was, sir. That was the name he mentioned. Stokes appears to have been in the habit of visiting that gentleman's property pretty frequently. He had a regular hiding place, a sort of store where he used to keep all the game he killed. He described the place to me. It is a big tree on the bank of the stream nearest the high road. The tree is hollow. One has to climb to find the opening to it. Inside are the cups, and, I should say, a good deal of mixed poultry. That is what he told me, sir. I should advise you, if I may say so, to write a note to Sir Alfred Venner, explaining the case, and ask him to search the tree, and send the cups on here.'

This idea did not appeal to the Head at all. Why, he thought bitterly, was this wretched M.P. always mixed up with his affairs? Left to himself, he could have existed in perfect comfort without either seeing, writing to, or hearing from the great man again for the rest of his life. 'I will think it over,' he said, 'though it seems the only thing to be done. As for Stokes, I suppose I must prosecute—'

The detective raised a hand in protest.

'Pardon my interruption, sir, but I really should advise you not to prosecute.'

'Indeed! Why?'

'It is this way. If you prosecute, you get the man his term of imprisonment. A year, probably. Well and good. But then what happens? After his sentence has run out, he comes out of prison an ex-convict. Tries to get work. No good. Nobody will look at him. Asks for a job. People lock up their spoons and shout for the police. What happens then? Not being able to get work, tries another burglary. Being a clumsy hand at the game, gets caught again and sent back to prison, and so is ruined and becomes a danger to society. Now, if he is let off this time, he will go straight for the rest of his life. Run a mile to avoid a silver cup. He's badly scared, and I took the opportunity of scaring him more. Told him nothing would happen this time, if the cups came back safely, but that he'd be watched ever afterwards to see he did not get into mischief. Of course he won't really be watched, you understand, but he thinks he will. Which is better, for it saves trouble. Besides, we know where the cups are—I feel sure he was speaking the truth about them, he was too frightened to invent a story—and here is most of the money. So it all ends well, if I may put it so. My advice, sir, and I think you will find it good advice—is not to prosecute.'

'Very well,' said the Head, 'I will not.'

'Very good, sir. Good morning, sir.' And he left the room.

The Head rang the bell.

'Parker,' said he, 'go across to Mr Merevale's, and ask him to send Thomson to me.'

It was with mixed feelings that he awaited Jim's arrival. The detective's story had shown how unjust had been his former suspicions, and he felt distinctly uncomfortable at the prospect of the apology which he felt bound to make to him. On the other hand, this feeling was more than equalled by his relief at finding that his faith in the virtue of the genus School-prefect, though at fault in the matter of Plunkett, was not altogether misplaced. It made up for a good deal. Then his thoughts drifted to Sir Alfred Venner. Struggle with his feelings as he might, the Head could not endure that local potentate. The recent interview between them had had no parallel in their previous acquaintance, but the Head had always felt vaguely irritated by his manner and speech, and he had always feared that matters would come to a head sooner or later. The prospect of opening communication with him once more was not alluring. In the meantime there was his more immediate duty to be performed, the apology to Thomson. But that reminded him. The apology must only be of a certain kind. It must not be grovelling. And this for a very excellent reason. After the apology must come an official lecture on the subject of betting. He had rather lost sight of that offence in the excitement of the greater crime of which Thomson had been accused, and very nearly convicted. Now the full heinousness of it came back to him. Betting! Scandalous!

'Come in,' he cried, as a knock at the door roused him from his thoughts. He turned. But instead of Thomson, there appeared Parker. Parker carried a note. It was from Mr Merevale.

The Head opened it.

'What!' he cried, as he read it. 'Impossible.' Parker made no comment. He stood in the doorway, trying to look as like a piece of furniture as possible—which is the duty of a good butler.

'Impossible!' said the Head again.

What Mr Merevale had said in his note was this, that Thomson was not in the House, and had not been in the House since lunchtime. He ought to have returned at six o'clock. It was now half-past eight, and still there were no signs of him. Mr Merevale expressed a written opinion that this was a remarkable thing, and the Head agreed with him unreservedly.



[16]

THE DISAPPEARANCE OF J. THOMSON

Certainly the Head was surprised.

He read the note again. No. There was no mistake. 'Thomson is not in the House.' There could be no two meanings about that.

'Go across to Mr Merevale's,' he said at last, 'and ask him if he would mind seeing me here for a moment.'

The butler bowed his head gently, but with more than a touch of pained astonishment. He thought the Headmaster might show more respect for persons. A butler is not an errand-boy.

'Sir?' he said, giving the Head a last chance, as it were, of realizing the situation.

'Ask Mr Merevale to step over here for a moment.'

The poor man bowed once more. The phantom of a half-smoked cigar floated reproachfully before his eyes. He had lit it a quarter of an hour ago in fond anticipation of a quiet evening. Unless a miracle had occurred, it must be out by this time. And he knew as well as anybody else that a relighted cigar is never at its best. But he went, and in a few minutes Mr Merevale entered the room.

'Sit down, Mr Merevale,' said the Head. 'Am I to understand from your note that Thomson is actually not in the House?'

Mr Merevale thought that if he had managed to understand anything else from the note he must possess a mind of no common order, but he did not say so.

'No,' he said. 'Thomson has not been in the House since lunchtime, as far as I know. It is a curious thing.'

'It is exceedingly serious. Exceedingly so. For many reasons. Have you any idea where he was seen last?'

'Harrison in my House says he saw him at about three o'clock.'

'Ah!'

'According to Harrison, he was walking in the direction of Stapleton.'

'Ah. Well, it is satisfactory to know even as little as that.'

'Just so. But Mace—he is in my House, too—declares that he saw Thomson at about the same time cycling in the direction of Badgwick. Both accounts can scarcely be correct.'

'But—dear me, are you certain, Mr Merevale?'

Merevale nodded to imply that he was. The Head drummed irritably with his fingers on the arm of his chair. This mystery, coming as it did after the series of worries through which he had been passing for the last few days, annoyed him as much as it is to be supposed the last straw annoyed the proverbial camel.

'As a matter of fact,' said Merevale, 'I know that Thomson started to run in the long race this afternoon. I met him going to the starting-place, and advised him to go and change again. He was not looking at all fit for such a long run. It seems to me that Welch might know where he is. Thomson and he got well ahead of the others after the start, so that if, as I expect, Thomson dropped out early in the race, Welch could probably tell us where it happened. That would give us some clue to his whereabouts, at any rate.'

'Have you questioned Welch?'

'Not yet. Welch came back very tired, quite tired out, in fact and went straight to bed. I hardly liked to wake him except as a last resource. Perhaps I had better do so now?'

'I think you should most certainly. Something serious must have happened to Thomson to keep him out of his House as late as this. Unless—'

He stopped. Merevale looked up enquiringly. The Head, after a moment's deliberation, proceeded to explain.

'I have made a very unfortunate mistake with regard to Thomson, Mr Merevale. A variety of reasons led me to think that he had had something to do with this theft of the Sports prizes.'

'Thomson!' broke in Merevale incredulously.

'There was a considerable weight of evidence against him, which I have since found to be perfectly untrustworthy, but which at the time seemed to me almost conclusive.'

'But surely,' put in Merevale again, 'surely Thomson would be the last boy to do such a thing. Why should he? What would he gain by it?'

'Precisely. I can understand that perfectly in the light of certain information which I have just received from the inspector. But at the time, as I say, I believed him guilty. I even went so far as to send for him and question him upon the subject. Now it has occurred to me, Mr Merevale—you understand that I put it forward merely as a conjecture—it occurs to me—'

'That Thomson has run away,' said Merevale bluntly.

The Head, slightly discomposed by this Sherlock-Holmes-like reading of his thoughts, pulled himself together, and said, 'Ah—just so. I think it very possible.'

'I do not agree with you,' said Merevale. 'I know Thomson well, and I think he is the last boy to do such a thing. He is neither a fool nor a coward, to put it shortly, and he would need to have a great deal of both in him to run away.'

The Head looked slightly relieved at this.

'You—ah—think so?' he said.

'I certainly do. In the first place, where, unless he went home, would he run to? And as he would be going home in a couple of days in the ordinary course of things, he would hardly be foolish enough to risk expulsion in such a way.'

Mr Merevale always rather enjoyed his straight talks with the Headmaster. Unlike most of his colleagues he stood in no awe of him whatever. He always found him ready to listen to sound argument, and, what was better, willing to be convinced. It was so in this case.

'Then I think we may dismiss that idea,' said the Head with visible relief. The idea of such a scandal occurring at St Austin's had filled him with unfeigned horror. 'And now I think it would be as well to go across to your House and hear what Welch has to say about the matter. Unless Thomson returns soon—and it is already past nine o'clock—we shall have to send out search-parties.'

Five minutes later Welch, enjoying a sound beauty-sleep, began to be possessed of a vague idea that somebody was trying to murder him. His subsequent struggles for life partially woke him, and enabled him to see dimly that two figures were standing by his bed.

'Yes?' he murmured sleepily, turning over on to his side again, and preparing to doze off. The shaking continued. This was too much. 'Look here,' said he fiercely, sitting up. Then he recognized his visitors. As his eye fell on Merevale, he wondered whether anything had occurred to bring down his wrath upon him. Perhaps he had gone to bed without leave, and was being routed out to read at prayers or do some work? No, he remembered distinctly getting permission to turn in. What then could be the matter?

At this point he recognized the Headmaster, and the last mists of sleep left him.

'Yes, sir?' he said, wide-awake now.

Merevale put the case briefly and clearly to him. 'Sorry to disturb you, Welch. I know you are tired.'

'Not at all, sir,' said Welch, politely.

'But there is something we must ask you. You probably do not know that Thomson has not returned?'

'Not returned!'

'No. Nobody knows where he is. You were probably the last to see him. What happened when you and he started for the long run this afternoon? You lost sight of the rest, did you not?'

'Yes, sir.'

'Well?'

'And Thomson dropped out.'

'Ah.' This from the Headmaster.

'Yes, sir. He said he couldn't go any farther. He told me to go on. And, of course, I did, as it was a race. I advised him to go back to the House and change. He looked regularly done up. I think he ran too hard in the mile yesterday.'

The Head spoke.

'I thought that some such thing must have happened. Where was it that he dropped out, Welch?'

'It was just as we came to a long ploughed field, sir, by the side of a big wood.'

'Parker's Spinney, I expect,' put in Merevale.

'Yes, sir. About a mile from the College.'

'And you saw nothing more of him after that?' enquired the Headmaster.

'No, sir. He was lying on his back when I left him. I should think some of the others must have seen him after I did. He didn't look as if he was likely to get up for some time.'

'Well,' said the Head, as he and Merevale went out of the room, leaving Welch to his slumbers, 'we have gained little by seeing Welch. I had hoped for something more. I must send the prefects out to look for Thomson at once.'

'It will be a difficult business,' said Merevale, refraining—to his credit be it said—from a mention of needles and haystacks. 'We have nothing to go upon. He may be anywhere for all we know. I suppose it is hardly likely that he is still where Welch left him?'

The Head seemed to think this improbable. 'That would scarcely be the case unless he were very much exhausted. It is more than five hours since Welch saw him. I can hardly believe that the worst exhaustion would last so long. However, if you would kindly tell your House-prefects of this—'

'And send them out to search?'

'Yes. We must do all we can. Tell them to begin searching where Thomson was last seen. I will go round to the other Houses. Dear me, this is exceedingly annoying. Exceedingly so.'

Merevale admitted that it was, and, having seen his visitor out of the House, went to the studies to speak to his prefects. He found Charteris and Tony together in the former's sanctum.

'Has anything been heard about Thomson, sir?' said Tony, as he entered.

'That is just what I want to see you about. Graham, will you go and bring the rest of the prefects here?'

'Now,' he said, as Tony returned with Swift and Daintree, the two remaining House-prefects, 'you all know, of course, that Thomson is not in the House. The Headmaster wants you to go and look for him. Welch seems to have been the last to see him, and he left him lying in a ploughed field near Parker's Spinney. You all know Parker's Spinney, I suppose?'

'Yes, sir.'

'Then you had better begin searching from there. Go in twos if you like, or singly. Don't all go together. I want you all to be back by eleven. All got watches?'

'Yes, sir.'

'Good. You'd better take lanterns of some sort. I think I can raise a bicycle lamp each, and there is a good moon. Look everywhere, and shout as much as you like. I think he must have sprained an ankle or something. He is probably lying somewhere unable to move, and too far away from the road to make his voice heard to anyone. If you start now, you will have just an hour and a half. You should have found him by then. The prefects from the other Houses will help you.'

Daintree put in a pertinent question.

'How about trespassing, sir?'

'Oh, go where you like. In reason, you know. Don't go getting the School mixed up in any unpleasantness, of course, but remember that your main object is to find Thomson. You all understand?'

'Yes, sir.'

'Very good. Then start at once.'

'By Jove,' said Swift, when he had gone, 'what an unholy rag! This suits yours truly. Poor old Jim, though. I wonder what the deuce has happened to him?'

At that very moment the Headmaster, leaving Philpott's House to go to Prater's, was wondering the same thing. In spite of Mr Merevale's argument, he found himself drifting back to his former belief that Jim had run away. What else could keep him out of his House more than three hours after lock-up? And he had had some reason for running away, for the conscia mens recti, though an excellent institution in theory, is not nearly so useful an ally as it should be in practice. The Head knocked at Prater's door, pondering darkly within himself.



[17]

'WE'LL PROCEED TO SEARCH FOR THOMSON IF HE BE ABOVE THE GROUND'

'How sweet the moonlight sleeps on yonder haystack,' observed Charteris poetically, as he and Tony, accompanied by Swift and Daintree, made their way across the fields to Parker's Spinney. Each carried a bicycle lamp, and at irregular intervals each broke into piercing yells, to the marked discomfort of certain birds roosting in the neighbourhood, who burst noisily from the trees, and made their way with visible disgust to quieter spots.

'There's one thing,' said Swift, 'we ought to hear him if he yells on a night like this. A yell ought to travel about a mile.'

'Suppose we try one now,' said Charteris. 'Now. A concerted piece, andante in six-eight time. Ready?'

The next moment the stillness of the lovely spring night was shattered by a hideous uproar.

'R.S.V.P.,' said Charteris to space in general, as the echoes died away. But there was no answer, though they waited several minutes on the chance of hearing some sound that would indicate Jim's whereabouts.

'If he didn't hear that,' observed Tony, 'he can't be within three miles, that's a cert. We'd better separate, I think.'

They were at the ploughed field by Parker's Spinney now.

'Anybody got a coin?' asked Daintree. 'Let's toss for directions.'

Charteris produced a shilling.

'My ewe lamb,' he said. 'Tails.'

Tails it was. Charteris expressed his intention of striking westward and drawing the Spinney. He and Tony made their way thither, Swift and Daintree moving off together in the opposite direction.

'This is jolly rum,' said Tony, as they entered the Spinney. 'I wonder where the deuce the man has got to?'

'Yes. It's beastly serious, really, but I'm hanged if I can help feeling as if I were out on a picnic. I suppose it's the night air.'

'I wonder if we shall find him?'

'Not the slightest chance in my opinion. There's not the least good in looking through this forsaken Spinney. Still, we'd better do it.'

'Yes. Don't make a row. We're trespassing.'

They moved on in silence. Half-way through the wood Charteris caught his foot in a hole and fell.

'Hurt?' said Tony.

'Only in spirit, thanks. The absolute dashed foolishness of this is being rapidly borne in upon me, Tony. What is the good of it? We shan't find him here.'

Tony put his foot down upon these opinions with exemplary promptitude.

'We must go on trying. Hang it all, if it comes to the worst, it's better than frousting indoors.'

'Tony, you're a philosopher. Lead on, Macduff.'

Tony was about to do so, when a form appeared in front of him, blocking the way. He flashed his lamp at the form, and the form, prefacing its remarks with a good, honest swearword—of a variety peculiar to that part of the country—requested him, without any affectation of ceremonious courtesy, to take his something-or-other lamp out of his (the form's) what's-its-named face, and state his business briefly.

'Surely I know that voice,' said Charteris. 'Archibald, my long-lost brother.'

The keeper failed to understand him, and said so tersely.

'Can you tell me,' went on Charteris, 'if you have seen such a thing as a boy in this Spinney lately? We happen to have lost one. An ordinary boy. No special markings. His name is Thomson, on the Grampian Hills—'

At this point the keeper felt that he had had enough. He made a dive for the speaker.

Charteris dodged behind Tony, and his assailant, not observing this, proceeded to lay violent hands upon the latter, who had been standing waiting during the conversation.

'Let go, you fool,' cried he. The keeper's hand had come smartly into contact with his left eye, and from there had taken up a position on his shoulder. In reply the keeper merely tightened his grip.

'I'll count three,' said Tony, 'and—'

The keeper's hand shifted to his collar.

'All right, then,' said Tony between his teeth. He hit up with his left at the keeper's wrist. The hand on his collar loosed its grip. Its owner rushed, and as he came, Tony hit him in the parts about the third waistcoat-button with his right. He staggered and fell. Tony hit very hard when the spirit moved him.

'Come on, man,' said Charteris quickly, 'before he gets his wind again. We mustn't be booked trespassing.'

Tony recognized the soundness of the advice. They were out of the Spinney in two minutes.

'Now,' said Charteris, 'let's do a steady double to the road. This is no place for us. Come on, you man of blood.'

When they reached the road they slowed down to a walk again. Charteris laughed.

'I feel just as if we'd done a murder, somehow. What an ass that fellow was to employ violence. He went down all right, didn't he?'

'Think there'll be a row?'

'No. Should think not. He didn't see us properly. Anyhow, he was interfering with an officer in the performance of his duty. So were we, I suppose. Well, let's hope for the best. Hullo!'

'What's up?'

'All right. It's only somebody coming down the road. Thought it might be the keeper at first. Why, it's Biffen.'

It was Biffen. He looked at them casually as he came up, but stopped short in surprise when he saw who they were.

'Mr Charteris!'

'The same,' said Charteris. 'Enjoying a moonlight stroll, Biffen?'

'But what are you doing out of the 'ouse at this time of night, Mr Charteris?'

'It's this way,' said Tony, 'all the House-prefects have been sent out to look for Thomson. He's not come back.'

'Not come back, sir!'

'No. Bit queer, isn't it? The last anybody saw of him was when he dropped out of the long race near Parker's Spinney.'

'I seen him later than that, Mr Graham. He come on to the grounds while I was mowing the cricket field.'

'Not really? When was that?'

'Four. 'Alf past four, nearly.'

'What became of him?'

''E went off with Mr MacArthur. Mr MacArthur took 'im off 'ome with 'im, I think, sir.'

'By Jove,' said Charteris with enthusiasm. 'Now we are on the track. Thanks awfully, Biffen, I'll remember you in my will. Come on, Tony.'

'Where are you going now?'

'Babe's place, of course. The Babe holds the clue to this business. We must get it out of him. 'Night, Biffen.'

'Good-night, sir.'

Arrived at the Babe's residence, they rang the bell, and, in the interval of waiting for the door to be opened, listened with envy to certain sounds of revelry which filtered through the windows of a room to the right of the porch.

'The Babe seems to be making a night of it,' said Charteris. 'Oh'—as the servant opened the door—'can we see Mr MacArthur, please?'

The servant looked doubtful on the point.

'There's company tonight, sir.'

'I knew he was making a night of it,' said Charteris to Tony. 'It's not Mr MacArthur we want to see. It's—dash it, what's the Babe's name?'

'Robert, I believe. Wouldn't swear to it.'

'Mr Robert. Is he in?' It seemed to Charteris that the form of this question smacked of Ollendorf. He half expected the servant to say 'No, but he has the mackintosh of his brother's cousin'. It produced the desired effect, however, for after inviting them to step in, the servant disappeared, and the Babe came on the scene, wearing a singularly prosperous expression, as if he had dined well.

'Hullo, you chaps,' he said.

'Sir to you,' said Charteris. 'Look here, Babe, we want to know what you have done with Jim. He was seen by competent witnesses to go off with you, and he's not come back. If you've murdered him, you might let us have the body.'

'Not come back! Rot. Are you certain?'

'My dear chap, every House-prefect on the list has been sent out to look for him. When did he leave here?'

The Babe reflected.

'Six, I should think. Little after, perhaps. Why—oh Lord!'

He broke off suddenly.

'What's up?' asked Tony.

'Why I sent him by a short cut through some woods close by here, and I've only just remembered there's a sort of quarry in the middle of them. I'll bet he's in there.'

'Great Scott, man, what sort of a quarry? I like the calm way the Babe talks of sending unsuspecting friends into quarries. Deep?'

'Not very, thank goodness. Still, if he fell down he might not be able to get up again, especially if he'd hurt himself at all. Half a second. Let me get on some boots, and I'll come out and look. Shan't be long.

When he came back, the three of them set out for the quarry.

'There you are,' cried the Babe, with an entirely improper pride in his voice, considering the circumstances. 'What did I tell you?' Out of the darkness in front of them came a shout. They recognized the voice at once as Jim's.

Tony uttered a yell of encouragement, and was darting forward to the spot from which the cry had come, when the Babe stopped him. 'Don't do that, man,' he said. 'You'll be over yourself, if you don't look out. It's quite close here.'

He flashed one of the lamps in front of him. The light fell on a black opening in the ground, and Jim's voice sounded once more from the bowels of the earth, this time quite close to where they stood.

'Jim,' shouted Charteris, 'where are you?'

'Hullo,' said the voice, 'who's that? You might lug me out of here.'

'Are you hurt?'

'Twisted my ankle.'

'How far down are you?'

'Not far. Ten feet, about. Can't you get me out?'

'Half a second,' said the Babe, 'I'll go and get help. You chaps had better stay here and talk to him.' He ran off.

'How many of you are there up there?' asked Jim.

'Only Tony and myself,' said Charteris.

'Thought I heard somebody else.'

'Oh, that was the Babe. He's gone off to get help.'

'Oh. When he comes back, wring his neck, and heave him down here,' said Jim. 'I want a word with him on the subject of short cuts. I say, is there much excitement about this?'

'Rather. All the House-prefects are out after you. We've been looking in Parker's Spinney, and Tony was reluctantly compelled to knock out a keeper who tried to stop us. You should have been there. It was a rag.'

'Wish I had been. Hullo, is that the Babe come back?'

It was. The Babe, with his father and a party of friends arrayed in evening dress. They carried a ladder amongst them.

The pungent remarks Jim had intended to address to the Babe had no opportunity of active service. It was not the Babe who carried him up the ladder, but two of the dinner-party. Nor did the Babe have a hand in the carrying of the stretcher. That was done by as many of the evening-dress brigade as could get near enough. They seemed to enjoy it. One of them remarked that it reminded him of South Africa. To which another replied that it was far more like a party of policemen gathering in an 'early drunk' in the Marylebone Road. The procession moved on its stately way to the Babe's father's house, and the last Tony and Charteris saw of Jim, he was the centre of attraction, and appeared to be enjoying himself very much.

Charteris envied him, and did not mind saying so.

'Why can't I smash my ankle?' he demanded indignantly of Tony.

He was nearing section five, sub-section three, of his discourse, when they reached Merevale's gates. It was after eleven, but they felt that the news they were bringing entitled them to be a little late. Charteris brought his arguments to a premature end, and Tony rang the bell. Merevale himself opened the door to them.



[18]

IN WHICH THE AFFAIRS OF VARIOUS PERSONS ARE WOUND UP

'Well,' he said, 'you're rather late. Any luck?'

'We've found him, sir,' said Tony.

'Really? That's a good thing. Where was he?'

'He'd fallen down a sort of quarry place near where MacArthur lives. MacArthur took him home with him to tea, and sent him back by a short cut, forgetting all about the quarry, and Thomson fell in and couldn't get out again.'

'Is he hurt?'

'Only twisted his ankle, sir.'

'Then where is he now?'

'They carried him back to the house.'

'MacArthur's house?'

'Yes, sir.'

'Oh, well, I suppose he will be all right then. Graham, just go across and report to the Headmaster, will you? You'll find him in his study.'

The Head was immensely relieved to hear Tony's narrative. After much internal debate he had at last come to the conclusion that Jim must have run away, and he had been wondering how he should inform his father of the fact.

'You are certain that he is not badly hurt, Graham?' he said, when Tony had finished his story.

'Yes, sir. It's only his ankle.'

'Very good. Good-night, Graham.'

The Head retired to bed that night filled with a virtuous resolve to seek Jim out on the following day, and speak a word in season to him on the subject of crime in general and betting in particular. This plan he proceeded to carry out as soon as afternoon school was over. When, however, he had arrived at the Babe's house, he found that there was one small thing which he had left out of his calculations. He had counted on seeing the invalid alone. On entering the sick-room he found there Mrs MacArthur, looking as if she intended to remain where she sat for several hours—which, indeed, actually was her intention—and Miss MacArthur, whose face and attitude expressed the same, only, if anything, more so. The fact was that the Babe, a very monument of resource on occasions, had, as he told Jim, 'given them the tip not to let the Old Man get at him, unless he absolutely chucked them out, you know'. When he had seen the Headmaster approaching, he had gone hurriedly to Jim's room to mention the fact, with excellent results.

The Head took a seat by the bed, and asked, with a touch of nervousness, after the injured ankle. This induced Mrs MacArthur to embark on a disquisition concerning the ease with which ankles are twisted, from which she drifted easily into a discussion of Rugby football, its merits and demerits. The Head, after several vain attempts to jerk the conversation into other grooves, gave it up, and listened for some ten minutes to a series of anecdotes about various friends and acquaintances of Mrs MacArthur's who had either twisted their own ankles or known people who had twisted theirs. The Head began to forget what exactly he had come to say that afternoon. Jim lay and grinned covertly through it all. When the Head did speak, his first words roused him effectually.

'I suppose, Mrs MacArthur, your son has told you that we have had a burglary at the School?'

'Hang it,' thought Jim, 'this isn't playing the game at all. Why talk shop, especially that particular brand of shop, here?' He wondered if the Head intended to describe the burglary, and then spring to his feet with a dramatic wave of the hand towards him, and say, 'There, Mrs MacArthur, is the criminal! There lies the viper on whom you have lavished your hospitality, the snaky and systematic serpent you have been induced by underhand means to pity. Look upon him, and loathe him. He stole the cups!'

'Yes, indeed,' replied Mrs MacArthur, 'I have heard a great deal about it. I suppose you have never found out who it was that did it?'

Jim lay back resignedly. After all, he had not done it, and if the Head liked to say he had, well, let him. He didn't care.

'Yes, Mrs MacArthur, we have managed to discover him.'

'And who was it?' asked Mrs MacArthur, much interested.

'Now for it,' said Jim to himself.

'We found that it was a man living in the village, who had been doing some work on the School grounds. He had evidently noticed the value of the cups, and determined to try his hand at appropriating them. He is well known as a poacher in the village, it seems. I think that for the future he will confine himself to that—ah—industry, for he is hardly likely ever to—ah—shine as a professional house-breaker. No.'

'Oh, well, that must be a relief to you, I am sure, Mr Perceval. These poachers are a terrible nuisance. They do frighten the birds so.'

She spoke as if it were an unamiable eccentricity on the part of the poachers, which they might be argued out of, if the matter were put before them in a reasonable manner. The Head agreed with her and rose to go. Jim watched him out of the room and then breathed a deep, satisfying breath of relief. His troubles were at an end.

In the meantime Barrett, who, having no inkling as to the rate at which affairs had been progressing since his visit to the Dingle, still imagined that the secret of the hollow tree belonged exclusively to Reade, himself, and one other, was much exercised in his mind about it. Reade candidly confessed himself baffled by the problem. Give him something moderately straightforward, and he was all right. This secret society and dark lantern style of affair was, he acknowledged, beyond him. And so it came about that Barrett resolved to do the only thing he could think of, and go to the Head about it. But before he had come to this decision, the Head had received another visit from Mr Roberts, as a result of which the table where Sir Alfred Venner had placed Plunkett's pipe and other accessories so dramatically during a previous interview, now bore another burden—the missing cups.

Mr Roberts had gone to the Dingle in person, and, by adroit use of the divinity which hedges a detective, had persuaded a keeper to lead him to the tree where, as Mr Stokes had said, the cups had been deposited.

The Head's first act, on getting the cups, was to send for Welch, to whom by right of conquest they belonged. Welch arrived shortly before Barrett. The Head was just handing him his prizes when the latter came into the room. It speaks well for Barrett's presence of mind that he had grasped the situation and decided on his line of action before Welch went, and the Head turned his attention to him.

'Well, Barrett?' said the Head.

'If you please, sir,' said Barrett, blandly, 'may I have leave to go to Stapleton?'

'Certainly, Barrett. Why do you wish to go?'

This was something of a poser, but Barrett's brain worked quickly.

'I wanted to send a telegram, sir.'

'Very well. But'—with suspicion—'why did you not ask Mr Philpott? Your House-master can give you leave to go to Stapleton.'

'I couldn't find him, sir.' This was true, for he had not looked.

'Ah. Very well.'

'Thank you, sir.'

And Barrett went off to tell Reade that in some mysterious manner the cups had come back on their own account.

When Jim had congratulated himself that everything had ended happily, at any rate as far as he himself was concerned, he had forgotten for the moment that at present he had only one pound to his credit instead of the two which he needed. Charteris, however, had not. The special number of The Glow Worm was due on the following day, and Jim's accident left a considerable amount of 'copy' to be accounted for. He questioned Tony on the subject.

'Look here, Tony, have you time to do any more stuff for The Glow Worm?

'My dear chap,' said Tony, 'I've not half done my own bits. Ask Welch.'

'I asked him just now. He can't. Besides, he only writes at about the rate of one word a minute, and we must get it all in by tonight at bed-time. I'm going to sit up as it is to jellygraph it. What's up?'

Tony's face had assumed an expression of dismay.

'Why,' he said, 'Great Scott, I never thought of it before. If we jellygraph it, our handwriting'll be recognized, and that will give the whole show away.'

Charteris took a seat, and faced this difficulty in all its aspects. The idea had never occurred to him before. And yet it should have been obvious.

'I'll have to copy the whole thing out in copper-plate,' he said desperately at last. 'My aunt, what a job.'

'I'll help,' said Tony. 'Welch will, too, I should think, if you ask him. How many jelly machine things can you raise?'

'I've got three. One for each of us. Wait a bit, I'll go and ask Welch.'

Welch, having first ascertained that the matter really was a pressing one, agreed without hesitation. He had objections to spoiling his sleep without reason, but in moments of emergency he put comfort behind him.

'Good,' said Charteris, when this had been settled, 'be here as soon as you can after eleven. I tell you what, we'll do the thing in style, and brew. It oughtn't to take more than an hour or so. It'll be rather a rag than otherwise.'

'And how about Jim's stuff?' asked Welch.

'I shall have to do that, as you can't. I've done my own bits. I think I'd better start now.' He did, and with success. When he went to bed at half-past ten, The Glow Worm was ready in manuscript. Only the copying and printing remained to be done.

Charteris was out of bed and in the study just as eleven struck. Tony and Welch, arriving half-an-hour later, found him hard at work copying out an article of topical interest in a fair, round hand, quite unrecognizable as his own.

It was an impressive scene. The gas had been cut off, as it always was when the House went to bed, and they worked by the light of candles. Occasionally Welch, breathing heavily in his efforts to make his handwriting look like that of a member of a board-school (second standard), blew one or more of the candles out, and the others grunted fiercely. That was all they could do, for, for evident reasons, a vow of silence had been imposed. Charteris was the first to finish. He leant back in his chair, and the chair, which at a reasonable hour of the day would have endured any treatment, collapsed now with a noise like a pistol-shot.

'Now you've done it,' said Tony, breaking all rules by speaking considerably above a whisper.

Welch went to the door, and listened. The House was still. They settled down once more to work. Charteris lit the spirit-lamp, and began to prepare the meal. The others toiled painfully on at their round-hand. They finished almost simultaneously.

'Not another stroke do I do,' said Tony, 'till I've had something to drink. Is that water boiling yet?'

It was at exactly a quarter past two that the work was finished.

'Never again,' said Charteris, looking with pride at the piles of Glow Worms stacked on the table; 'this jelly business makes one beastly sticky. I think we'll keep to print in future.'

And they did. Out of the twenty or more numbers of The Glow Worm published during Charteris' stay at School, that was the only one that did not come from the press. Readers who have themselves tried jellygraphing will sympathize. It is a curious operation, but most people will find one trial quite sufficient. That special number, however, reached a record circulation. The School had got its journey-money by the time it appeared, and wanted something to read in the train. Jim's pound was raised with ease.

Charteris took it round to him at the Babe's house, together with a copy of the special number.

'By Jove,' said Jim. 'Thanks awfully. Do you know, I'd absolutely forgotten all about The Glow Worm. I was to have written something for this number, wasn't I?'

And, considering the circumstances, that remark, as Charteris was at some pains to explain to him at the time, contained—when you came to analyse it—more cynical immorality to the cubic foot than any other half-dozen remarks he (Charteris) had ever heard in his life.

'It passes out of the realm of the merely impudent,' he said, with a happy recollection of a certain favourite author of his, 'and soars into the boundless empyrean of pure cheek.'

THE END

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