"No," said Dick, "he hasn't though. What's he been up to now?"
"I had hoped he would have been more open, more straightforward, when confronted with the father who has proved himself so often indulgent and anxious for his improvement; it would have been a more favourable symptom, I think. Well, I must tell you myself. I know too well what a shock it will be to your scrupulously sensitive moral code, my dear Mr. Bultitude" (Dick showed a painful inclination to giggle here); "but I have to break to you the melancholy truth that I detected this unhappy boy in the act of conducting a secret and amorous correspondence with a young lady in a sacred edifice!"
Dick whistled sharply: "Oh, I say!" he cried, "that's bad" (and he wagged his head reprovingly at his disgusted father, who longed to denounce his hypocrisy, but dared not); "that's bad ... he shouldn't do that sort of thing you know, should he? At his age too ... the young dog!"
"This horror is what I should have expected from you," said the Doctor (though he was in truth more than scandalised by the composure with which his announcement was received). "Such boldness is indeed characteristic of the dog, an animal which, as you are aware, was with the ancients a synonym for shamelessness. No boy, however abandoned, should hear such words of unequivocal condemnation from a father's lips without a pang of shame!"
Paul was only just able to control his rage by a great effort.
"You're right there, sir," said Dick; "he ought to be well ragged for it ... he'll break my heart, if he goes on like this, the young beggar. But we mustn't be too hard on him, eh? After all, it's nature, you know, isn't it?"
"I beg your pardon?" said Dr. Grimstone very stiffly.
"I mean," explained Dick, with a perilous approach to digging the other in the ribs, "we did much the same sort of thing in our time, eh? I'm sure I did—lots of times!"
"I can't reproach myself on that head, Mr. Bultitude; and permit me to say, that such a tone of treating the affair is apt to destroy the effect, the excellent moral effect, of your most impressively conveyed indignation just now. I merely give you a hint, you understand!"
"Oh, ah," said Dick, feeling that he had made a mistake, "yes, I didn't mean that. But I say, you haven't given him a—a whopping yet, have you?"
"I had just stepped out to procure a cane for that purpose," said the Doctor, "when your name was announced."
"Well, look here, you won't want to start again when I'm gone, will you?"
"An ancient philosopher, my dear sir, was accustomed to postpone the correction of his slaves until the first glow of his indignation had passed away. He found that he could——"
"Lay it on with more science," suggested Dick, while Paul writhed where he stood. "Perhaps so, but you might forgive him now, don't you think? he won't do it again. If he goes writing any more love-letters, tell me, and I'll come and talk to him; but he's had a lesson, you know. Let him off this time."
"I have no right to resist such an entreaty," said the Doctor, "though I may be inclined myself to think that a few strokes would render the lesson more permanent. I must ask you to reconsider your plea for his pardon."
Paul heard this with indescribable anxiety; he had begun to feel tolerably sure that his evil hour was postponed sine die, but might not Dick be cruel and selfish enough to remain neutral, or even side with the enemy, in support of his assumed character?
Luckily he was not. "I'd rather let him off," he said awkwardly; "I don't approve of caning fellows myself. It never did me any good, I know, and I got enough of it to tell."
"Well, well, I yield. Richard, your father has interceded for you; and I cannot disregard his wishes, though I have my own view in the matter. You will hear no more of this disgraceful conduct, sir, unless you do something to recall it to my memory. Thank your father for his kindness, which you so little deserved, and take your leave of him."
"Oh, there, it's all right!" said Dick; "he'll behave himself after this, I know. And oh! I say, sir," he added hastily, "is—is Dulcie anywhere about?"
"My daughter?" asked the Doctor. "Would you like to see her?"
"I shouldn't mind," said Dick, blushing furiously.
"I'm sorry to say she has gone out for a walk with her mother," said the Doctor. "I'm afraid she cannot be back for some time. It's unfortunate."
Dick's face fell. "It doesn't matter," he muttered awkwardly. "She's all right, I hope?"
"She is very seldom ailing, I'm happy to say; just now she is particularly well, thank you."
"Oh, is she?" said Dick gloomily, probably disappointed to find that he was so little missed, and not suspecting that his father had been accepted as a substitute.
"Well, do you mind—could I see the fellows again for a minute or two—I mean I should rather like to inspect the school, you know."
"See my boys? Certainly, my dear sir, by all means; this way," and he took Dick out to the schoolroom—Paul following out of curiosity. "You'll find us at our studies, you see," said the Doctor, as he opened the first baize door. There was a suspicious hubbub and hum of voices from within; but as they entered every boy was bent over his books with the rapt absorption of the devoted student—an absorption that was the direct effect of the sound the door-handle made in turning.
"Our workshop," said the Doctor airily, looking round. "My first form, Mr. Bultitude. Some good workers here, and some idle ones."
Dick stood in the doorway, looking (if the truth must be told) uncommonly foolish. He had wanted, in coming there, to enjoy the contrast between the past and present—which accounts for a good many visits of "old boys" to the scene of their education. But, confronted with his former schoolfellows, he was seized at first with an utterly unreasonable fear of detection.
The class behaved as classes usually do on such occasions. The good boys smirked and the bad ones stared—the general expression being one of uneasy curiosity. Dick said never a word, feeling strangely bashful and nervous.
"This is Tipping, my head boy," touching that young gentleman on the shoulder, and making him several degrees more uncomfortable. "I expect solid results from Tipping some day."
"He looks as if his head was pretty solid," said Dick, who had once cut his knuckles against it.
"My second boy, Biddlecomb. If he applies himself, he too will do me credit in the world."
"How do, Biddlecomb?" said Dick. "I owe you ninepence—I mean—oh hang it, here's a shilling for you! Hallo, Chawner!" he went on, gradually overcoming his first nervousness, "how are you getting on, eh? Doing much in the sneaking way lately?"
"You know him!" exclaimed the Doctor with naive surprise.
"No, no; I don't know him. I've heard of him, you know—heard of him!" Chawner looked down his nose with a feeble attempt at a gratified simper, while his neighbours giggled with furtive relish.
"Well," said Dick at last, after a long look at all the old familiar objects, "I must be off, you know. Got some important business at home this evening to look after. The fellows look very jolly and contented, and all that sort of thing. Enough to make one want to be a boy again almost, eh? Good-bye, you chaps—ahem, young gentlemen, I wish you good morning!"
And he went out, leaving behind him the impression that "young Bultitude's governor wasn't half such a bad old buffer."
He paused at the open front door, to which Paul and the Doctor had accompanied him. "Good-bye," he said; "I wish I'd seen Dulcie. I should like to see your daughter, sir; but it can't be helped. Good-bye; and you," he added in a lower tone to his father, who was standing by, inexpressibly pained and disgusted by his utter want of dignity, "you mind what I told you. Don't try any games with me!"
And, as he skipped jauntily down the steps to the gateway, the Doctor followed his unwieldy, oddly-dressed form with his eyes, and, inclining his head gravely to Dick's sweeping wave of the hand, asked with a compassionate tone in his voice. "You don't happen to know, Richard, my boy, if your father has had any business troubles lately—anything to disturb him?"
And Mr. Bultitude's feelings prevented him from making any intelligible reply.
15. The Rubicon
"My three schoolfellows, Whom I will trust—as I will adders fanged; They bear the mandate."
Paul never quite knew how the remainder of that day passed at Crichton House. He was ordered to join a class which was more or less engaged with some kind of work: he had a hazy idea that it was Latin, though it may have been Greek; but he was spared the necessity of taking any active part in the proceedings, as Mr. Blinkhorn was not disposed to be too exacting with a boy who in one short morning had endured a sentence of expulsion, a lecture, the immediate prospect of a flogging, and a paternal visit, and, as before, mercifully left him alone.
His classmates, however, did not show the same chivalrous delicacy; and Paul had to suffer many unmannerly jests and gibes at his expense, frequent and anxious inquiries as to the exact nature of his treatment in the dining-room, with sundry highly imaginative versions of the same, while there was much candid and unbiassed comment on the appearance and conduct of himself and his son.
But he bore it unprotesting—or, rather, he scarcely noticed it; for all his thoughts were now entirely taken up by one important subject—the time and manner of his escape.
Thanks to Dick's thoughtless liberality, he had now ample funds to carry him safely home. It was hardly likely that any more unexpected claims could be brought against him now, particularly as he had no intention of publishing his return to solvency. He might reasonably consider himself in a position to make his escape at the very first favourable opportunity.
When would that opportunity present itself? It must come soon. He could not wait long for it. Any hour might yet see him pounced upon and flogged heartily for some utterly unknown and unsuspected transgression; or the golden key which would unlock his prison bars might be lost in some unlucky moment; for his long series of reverses had made him loth to trust to Fortune, even when she seemed to look smilingly once more upon him.
Fortune's countenance is apt to be so alarmingly mobile with some unfortunates.
But in spite of the new facilities given him for escape, and his strong motives for taking advantage of them, he soon found to his utter dismay that he shrank from committing himself to so daring and dangerous a course, just as much as when he had tried to make a confidant of the Doctor.
For, after all, could he be sure of himself? Would his ill-luck suffer him to seize the one propitious moment, or would that fatal self-distrust and doubt that had paralysed him for the past week seize him again just at the crisis?
Suppose he did venture to take the first irrevocable step, could he rely on himself to go through the rest of his hazardous enterprise? Was he cool and wary enough? He dared not expect an uninterrupted run. Had he ruses and expedients at command on any sudden check?
If he could not answer all these doubts favourably, was it not sheer madness to take to flight at all?
He felt a dismal conviction that his success would have to depend, not on his own cunning, but on the forbearance or blindness of others. The slightest contretemps must infallibly upset him altogether.
The fact was, he had all his life been engaged in the less eventful and contentious branches of commerce. His will had seldom had to come in contact with others, and when it did so, he had found means, being of a prudent and cautious temperament, of avoiding disagreeable personal consequences by timely compromises or judicious employment of delegates. He had generally found his fellow-men ready to meet him reasonably as an equal or a superior.
But now he must be prepared to see in everyone he met a possible enemy, who would hand him over to the tyrant on the faintest suspicion. They were spies to be baffled or disarmed, pursuers to be eluded. The smallest slip in his account of himself would be enough to undo him.
No wonder that, as he thought over all this, his heart quailed within him.
They say—the paradox-mongers say—that it requires a far higher degree of moral courage for a soldier in action to leave the ranks under fire and seek a less distinguished position towards the rear, than would carry him on with the rest to charge a battery.
This may be true, though it might not prove a very valuable defence at a court-martial; but, at all events, Mr. Bultitude found, when it came to the point, that it was almost impossible for him to screw up his courage to run away.
It is not a pleasant state, this indecision whether to stay passively and risk the worst or avoid it by flight, and the worst of it is that, whatever course is eventually forced upon us, it finds us equally unprepared, and more liable from such indecision to bungle miserably in the sequel.
Paul might never have gained heart to venture, but for an unpleasant incident that took place during dinner and a discovery he made after it.
They happened to have a particularly unpopular pudding that day; a pallid preparation of suet, with an infrequent currant or two embalmed in it, and Paul was staring at his portion of this delicacy disconsolately enough, wondering how he should contrive to consume and, worse still, digest it, when his attention was caught by Jolland, who sat directly opposite him.
That young gentleman, who evidently shared the general prejudice against the currant pudding, was inviting Mr. Bultitude's attention to a little contrivance of his own for getting rid of it, which consisted in delicately shovelling the greater part of what was on his plate into a large envelope held below the table to receive it.
This struck Paul as a heaven-sent method of avoiding the difficulty, and he had just got the envelope which had held Barbara's letter out of his pocket, intending to follow Jolland's example, when the Doctor's voice made him start guiltily and replace the envelope in his pocket.
"Jolland," said the Doctor, "what have you got there?"
"An envelope, sir," explained Jolland, who had now got the remains of his pudding safely bestowed.
"What is in that envelope?" said the Doctor, who happened to have been watching him.
"In the envelope, sir? Pudding, sir," said Jolland, as if it were the most natural thing in the world to send bulky portions of pudding by post.
"And why did you place pudding in the envelope?" inquired the Doctor in his deepest tone.
Jolland felt a difficulty in explaining that he had done so because he wished to avoid eating it, and with a view to interring it later on in the playground: he preferred silence.
"Shall I tell you why you did it, sir?" thundered the Doctor. "You did it, because you were scheming to obtain a second portion—because you did not feel yourself able to eat both portions at your leisure here, and thought to put by a part to devour in secret at a future time. It's a most painful exhibition of pure piggishness. There shall be no pocketing at this table, sir. You will eat that pudding under my eye at once, and you will stay in and write out French verbs for two days. That will put an end to any more gorging in the garden for a time, at least."
Jolland seemed stupefied, though relieved, by the unexpected construction put upon his conduct, as he gulped down the intercepted fragments of pudding, while the rest diligently cleared their plates with as much show of appreciation as they could muster.
Mr. Bultitude shuddered at this one more narrow escape. If he had been detected—as he must have been in another instant—in smuggling pudding in an envelope he might have incautiously betrayed his real motives, and then, as the Doctor was morbidly sensitive concerning all complaints of the fare he provided, he would have got into worse trouble than the unfortunate Jolland, to say nothing of the humiliation of being detected in such an act.
It was a solemn warning to him of the dangers he was exposed to hourly, while he lingered within those walls; but his position was still more strongly brought home to him by the terrible discovery he made shortly afterwards.
He was alone in the schoolroom, for the others had all gone down into the playground, except Jolland, who was confined in one of the class-rooms below, when the thought came over him to test the truth of Dick's hint about a name cut on the Doctor's writing-table.
He stole up to it guiltily, and, lifting the slanting desk which stood there, examined the surface below. Dick had been perfectly correct. There it was, glaringly fresh and distinct, not large but very deeply cut and fearfully legible. "R. Bultitude." It might have been done that day. Dick had probably performed it out of bravado, or under the impression that he was not going to return after the holidays.
Paul dropped the desk over the fatal letters with a shudder. The slightest accidental shifting of it must disclose them—nothing but a miracle could have kept them concealed so long. When they did come to light, he knew from what he had seen of the Doctor, that the act would be considered as an outrage of the blackest and most desperate kind. He would most unquestionably get a flogging for it!
He fetched a large pewter ink-pot, and tried nervously to blacken the letters with the tip of a quill, to make them, if possible, rather less obtrusive than they were. All in vain; they only stood out with more startling vividness when picked out in black upon the brown-stained deal. He felt very like a conscience-stricken murderer trying to hide a corpse that wouldn't be buried. He gave it up at last, having only made a terrible mess with the ink.
That settled it. He must fly. The flogging must be avoided at all hazards. If an opportunity delayed its coming, why, he must do without the opportunity—he must make one. For good or ill, his mind was made up now for immediate flight.
All that afternoon, while he sat trying to keep his mind upon long sums in Bills of Parcels, which disgusted him as a business man, by the glaring improbability of their details, his eye wandered furtively down the long tables to where the Doctor sat at the head of the class. Every chance movement of the principal's elbow filled him with a sickening dread. A hundred times did those rudely carved letters seem about to start forth and denounce him.
It was a disquieting afternoon for Paul.
But the time dragged wearily on, and still the desk loyally kept its secret. The dusk drew on and the gas-burners were lit. The younger boys came up from the lower class-room and were sent out to play; the Doctor shortly afterwards dismissed his own class to follow them, and Paul and his companions had the room to themselves.
He sat there on the rough form with his slate before him, hearing half-unconsciously the shouts, laughter, and ring of feet coming up from the darkness outside, and the faint notes of a piano, which filtered through the double doors from one of the rooms, where a boy was practising Haydn's "Surprise," from Hamilton's exercise book, a surprise which he rendered as a mildly interjectional form of astonishment.
All the time Paul was racked with an intense burning desire to get up and run for it then, before it became too late; but cold fits of doubt and fear preserved him from such lunacy—he would wait, his chance might come before long.
His patience was rewarded; the Doctor came in, looking at his watch, and said, "I think these boys have had enough of it, Mr. Tinkler, eh? You can send them out now till tea-time."
Mr. Tinkler, who had been entangling himself frightfully in intricate calculations upon the blackboard, without making a single convert, was only too glad to take advantage of the suggestion, and Paul followed the rest into the playground with a sense of relief.
The usual "chevy" was going on there, with more spirit than usual, perhaps, because the darkness allowed of practical jokes and surprises, and offered great facilities for paying off old grudges with secrecy and despatch, and as the Doctor had come to the door of the greenhouse, and was looking on, the players exerted themselves still more, till the "prison" to which most of one side had been consigned by being run down and touched by their fleeter enemies was filled with a long line of captives holding hands and calling out to be released.
Paul, who had run out vaguely from his base, was promptly pursued and made prisoner by an unnecessarily vigorous thump in the back, after which he took his place at the bottom of the line of imprisoned ones.
But the enemy's spirit began to slacken; one after another of the players still left to the opposite side succeeded in outrunning pursuit and touching the foremost prisoner for the time being, so as to set him free by the rules of the game. The Doctor went in again, and the enemy relapsed as usual into total indifference, so that Paul, without exactly knowing how, soon found himself the only one left in gaol, unnoticed and apparently forgotten.
He could not see anything through the darkness, but he heard the voices of the boys disputing at the other side of the playground; he looked round; at his right was the indistinct form of a large laurel bush, behind that he knew was the playground gate. Could it be that his chance had come at last?
He slipped behind the laurel and waited, holding his breath; the dispute still went on; no one seemed to have noticed him, probably the darkness prevented all chance of that; he went on tip-toe to the gate—it was not locked.
He opened it very carefully a little way; it was forbearing enough not to creak, and the next moment he was outside, free to go where he would!
Escape, after all, was simple enough when he came to try it; he could hardly believe at first that he really was free at last; free with money enough in his pocket to take him home, with the friendly darkness to cover his retreat; free to go back and confront Dick on his own ground, and, by force, or fraud, get the Garuda Stone into his own hands once more.
As yet he never doubted that it would be easy enough to convince his household, if necessary, of the truth of his story, and enlist them one and all on his side; all that he required, he thought, was caution; he must reach the house unobserved, and wait and watch, and the deuce would be in it if the stone were not safe in his pocket again before twelve hours had gone by.
All this time he was still within a hundred yards or so of the playground wall; he must decide upon some particular route, some definite method of ordering his flight; to stay where he was any longer would clearly be unwise, yet, where should he go first?
If he went to the station at once, how could he tell that he should be lucky enough to catch a train without having to wait long for it, and unless he did that, he would almost certainly be sought for first on the station platform, and might be caught before a train was due?
At last, with an astuteness he had not suspected himself of possessing, which was probably the result of the harrowing experiences he had lately undergone, he hit upon a plan of action. "I'll go to a shop," he thought, "and change this sovereign, and ask to look at a timetable—then, if I find I can catch a train at once, I'll run for it; if one is not due for some time, I can hang about near the station till it comes in."
With this intention he walked on towards the town till he came to a small terrace of shops, when he went into the first, which was a stationer's and toy-dealer's, with a stock in trade of cheap wooden toys and incomprehensible games, drawing slates, penny packets of stationery and cards of pen and pencil-holders, and a particularly stuffy atmosphere; the proprietor, a short man with a fat white face with a rich glaze all over it and a fringe of ragged brown whisker meeting under his chin, was sitting behind the counter posting up his ledger.
Paul looked round the shop in search of something to purchase, and at last said, more nervously than he expected to do, "I want a pencil-case, one which screws up and down." He thought a pencil-case would be an innocent, unsuspicious thing to ask for. The man set rows of cards containing pencil-cases of every imaginable shape on the counter before him, and when Mr. Bultitude had chosen and paid for one, the stationer asked if there would be anything else, and if he might send it for him. "You're one of Dr. Grimstone's young gentlemen up at Crichton House, aren't you, sir?" he added.
A guilty dread of discovery made Paul anxious to deny this at once. "No," he said; "oh no; no connection with the place. Ah, could you allow me to look at a time-table?"
"Certainly, sir; expectin' some one to-night or to-morrow p'raps. Let me see," he said, consulting a table which hung behind him. "There's a train from Pancras comes in in half an hour from now, 6.5 that is; there's another doo at 8.15, and one at 9.30. Then from Liverpool Street they run——"
"Thank you," said Mr. Bultitude, "but—but I want the up-trains."
"Ah," said the man, with a rather peculiar intonation, "I thought maybe your par or mar was comin' down. Ain't Dr. Grimstone got the times the trains go?"
"Yes," said Paul desperately, without very well knowing what he said, "yes, he has, but ah, not for this month; he—he sent me to inquire."
"Did he though?" said the stationer. "I thought you wasn't one of his young gentlemen?"
Mr. Bultitude saw what a fearful trap he had fallen into and stood speechless.
"Go along with you!" said the little stationer at last, with a not unkindly grin. "Lor bless you, I knew your face the minnit you come in. To go and tell me a brazen story like that! You're a young pickle, you are!"
Mr. Bultitude began to shuffle feebly towards the door. "Pickle, eh?" he protested in great discomposure. "No, no. Heaven knows I'm no pickle. It's of no consequence about those trains. Don't trouble. Good evening to you."
"Stop," said the man, "don't be in such a nurry now. You tell me what you want to know straightforward, and I don't mean to say as I won't help you so far as I can. Don't be afraid of my telling no tales. I've bin a schoolboy myself in my time, bless your 'art. I shouldn't wonder now if I couldn't make a pretty good guess without telling at what you're after. You've bin a catchin' of it hot, and you want to make a clean bolt of it. I ain't very far off, now, am I?"
"No," said Paul; for something in the man's manner inspired confidence. "I do want to make a bolt of it. I've been most abominably treated."
"Well, look here, I ain't got no right to interfere; and if you're caught, I look to you not to bring my name in. I don't want to get into trouble up at Crichton House and lose good customers, you see. But I like the looks of you, and you've always dealt 'ere pretty regular. I don't mind if I give you a lift. Just see here. You want to get off to London, don't you? What for is your business, not mine. Well, there's a train, express, stops at only one station on the way, in at 5.50. It's twenty minnits to six now. If you take that road just oppersite, it'll bring you out at the end of the Station Road; you can do it easy in ten minnits and have time to spare. So cut away, and good luck to you?"
"I'm vastly obliged to you," said Paul, and he meant it. It was a new experience to find anyone offering him assistance. He left the close little shop, crossed the road, and started off in the direction indicated to him at a brisk trot.
His steps rang out cheerfully on the path ironbound with frost. He was almost happy again under the exhilarating glow of unusual exercise and the excitement of escape and regained freedom.
He ran on, past a series of villa residences enclosed in varnished palings and adorned with that mediaeval abundance of turrets, balconies, and cheap stained-glass, which is accepted nowadays as a guarantee of the tenant's culture, and a satisfactory substitute for effective drainage. After the villas came a church, and a few yards farther on the road turned with a sharp curve into the main thoroughfare leading to the station.
He was so near it that he could hear the shrill engine whistles, and the banging of trucks on the railway sidings echoed sharply from the neighbouring houses. He was saved, in sight of haven at last!
Full of delight at the thought, he put on a still greater pace, and turning the corner without looking, ran into a little party of three, which was coming in the opposite direction.
Fate's vein of irony was by no means worked out yet. As he was recovering from the collision, and preparing to offer or accept an apology, as the case might be, he discovered to his horror that he had fallen amongst no strangers.
The three were his old acquaintances, Coker, Coggs, and the virtuous Chawner—of whom he had fondly hoped to have seen the last for ever!
The moral and physical shock of such an encounter took all Mr. Bultitude's remaining breath away. He stood panting under the sickly rays of a street-lamp, the very incarnation of helpless, hopeless dismay.
"Hallo!" said Coker, "it's young Bultitude!"
"What do you mean by cannoning into a fellow like this?" said Coggs. "What are you up to out here, eh?"
"If it comes to that," said Paul, casting about for some explanation of his appearance, "what are you up to here?"
"Why," said Chawner, "if you want to know, Dick, we've been to fetch the St. James' Gazette for the Doctor. He said I might go if I liked, and I asked for Coker and Coggs to come too; because there was something I wanted to tell them, very important, and I have told them, haven't I, Corny?"
Coggs growled sulkily; Coker gave a tragic groan, and said: "I don't care when you tell, Chawner. Do it to-night if you like. Let's talk about something else. Bultitude hasn't told us yet how he came out here after us."
His last words suggested a pretext to Paul, of which he hastened to make use. "Oh," he said, "I? I came out here, after you, to say that Dr. Grimstone will not require the St. James' Gazette. He wants the Globe and, ah, the Star instead."
It did not sound a very probable combination; but Paul used the first names that occurred to him, and, as it happened, aroused no suspicions, for the boys read no newspapers.
"Well, we've got the other now," said Coker. "We shall have to go back and get the fellow at the bookstall to change it, I suppose. Come on, you fellows!"
This was at least a move in the right direction; for the three began at once to retrace their steps. But, unfortunately, all these explanations had taken time, and before they had gone many yards, Mr. Bultitude was horrified to hear the station-bell ring loudly, and immediately after a cloud of white steam rose above the station roof as the London train clanked cumbrously in, and was brought to with a prolonged screeching of brakes.
The others were walking very slowly. At the present pace it would be almost impossible to reach the train in time. He looked round at them anxiously. "H-hadn't we better run, don't you think?" he asked.
"Run!" said Coker scornfully. "What for? I'm not going to run. You can, if you like."
"Why, ah, really," said Paul briskly, very grateful for the permission; "do you know, I think I will!"
And run he did, with all his might, rushing headlong through the gates, threading his way between the omnibuses and under the Roman noses of the mild fly-horses in the enclosure, until at length he found himself inside the little booking-office.
He was not too late; the train was still at the platform, the engine getting up steam with a dull roar. But he dared not risk detection by travelling without a ticket. There was time for that, too. No one was at the pigeon-hole but one old lady.
But, unhappily, the old lady considered taking a ticket as a solemn rite to be performed with all due caution and deliberation. She had already catechised the clerk upon the number of stoppages during her proposed journey, and exacted earnest assurances from him that she would not be called upon to change anywhere in the course of it; and as Paul came up she was laying out the purchase-money for her ticket upon the ledge and counting it, which, the fare being high and the coins mostly halfpence, seemed likely to take some time.
"One moment, ma'am, if you please," cried Mr. Bultitude, panting and desperate. "I'm pressed for time."
"Now you've gone and put me out, little boy," said the old lady fussily. "I shall have to begin all over again. Young man, will you take and count the other end and see if it adds up right? There's a halfpenny wrong somewhere; I know there is."
"Now then," shouted the guard from the platform. "Any more going on?"
"I'm going on!" said Paul. "Wait for me. First single to St. Pancras, quick!"
"Drat the boy!" said the old lady angrily. "Do you think the world's to give way for you? Such impidence! Mind your manners, little boy, can't you? You've made me drop a threepenny bit with your scrouging!"
"First single, five shillings," said the clerk, jerking out the precious ticket.
"Right!" cried the guard at the same instant. "Stand back there, will you!"
Paul dashed towards the door of the booking-office which led to the platform; but just as he reached it a gate slammed in his face with a sharp click, through the bars of it he saw, with hot eyes, the tall, heavy carriages which had shelter and safety in them jolt heavily past, till even the red lamp on the last van was quenched in the darkness.
That miserable old woman had shattered his hopes at the very moment of their fulfilment. It was fate again!
As he stood, fiercely gripping the bars of the gate, he heard Coggs' hateful voice again.
"Hallo! so you haven't got the Globe and the other thing after all, then; they've shut you out?"
"Yes," said Mr. Bultitude in a hollow voice; "they've shut me out!"
16. Hard Pressed
"Mark the poor wretch, to overshoot his troubles, How he outruns the wind, and with what care He cranks and crosses with a thousand doubles: The many musets through the which he goes Are like a labyrinth to amaze his foes."
As soon as the gate was opened, Paul went through mechanically with the others on to the platform, and waited at the bookstall while they changed the paper. He knew well enough that what had seemed at the time a stroke of supreme cunning would now only land him in fresh difficulties, if indeed it did not lead to the detection of his scheme. But he dared not interfere and prevent them from making the unlucky exchange. Something seemed to tie his tongue, and in sullen leaden apathy he resigned himself to whatever might be in store for him.
They passed out again by the booking-office. There was the old lady still at the pigeon-hole, trying to persuade the much-enduring clerk to restore a lucky sixpence she had given him by mistake, and was quite unable to describe. Mr. Bultitude would have given much just then to go up and shake her into hysterics, or curse her bitterly for the mischief she had done; but he refrained, either from an innate chivalry, or from a feeling that such an outburst would be ill-judged.
So, silent and miserable, with slow step and hanging head, he set out with his gaolers to render himself up once more at his house of bondage—a sort of involuntary Regulus, without the oath.
"Dickie, you were very anxious to run just now," observed Chawner, after they had gone some distance on their homeward way.
"We were late for tea—late for tea," explained Paul hastily.
"If you think the tea worth racing like that for, I don't," said Coggs viciously; "it's muck."
"You don't catch me racing, except for something worth having," said Coker.
One more flash of distinct inspiration came to Paul's aid in the very depths of his gloom. It was, in fact, a hazy recollection from English history of the ruse by which Edward I., when a prince, contrived to escape from his captors at Hereford Castle.
"Why—why," he said excitedly, "would you race if you had something worth racing for, hey? would you now?"
"Try us!" said Coker emphatically.
"What do you call 'something'?" inquired Chawner suspiciously.
"Well," said Mr. Bultitude; "what do you say to a shilling?"
"You haven't got a shilling," objected Coggs.
"Here's a shilling, see," said Paul, producing one. "Now then, I'll give this to any boy I see get into tea first!"
"Bultitude thinks he can run," said Coker, with an amiable unbelief in any disinterestedness. "He means to get in first and keep the shilling himself, I know."
"I'll back myself to run him any day," put in Coggs.
"So will I," added Chawner.
"Well, is it agreed?" Paul asked anxiously. "Will you try?"
"All right," said Chawner. "You must give us a start to the next lamp-post, though. You stay here, and when we're ready we'll say 'off'!"
They drew a line on the path with their feet to mark Paul's starting point, and went on to the next lamp. After a moment or two of anxious waiting he heard Coggs shout, all in one breath, "One-two-three-off!" and the sound of scampering feet followed immediately.
It was a most exciting and hotly contested race. Paul saw them for one brief moment in the lamplight. He saw Chawner scudding down the path like some great camel, and Coker squaring his arms and working them as if they were wings. Coggs seemed to be last.
He ran a little way himself just to encourage them, but, as the sound of their feet grew fainter and fainter, he felt that his last desperate ruse had taken effect, and with a chuckle at his own cleverness, turned round and ran his fastest in the opposite direction. He felt little or no interest in the result of the race.
Once more he entered the booking-office and, kneeling on a chair, consulted the time-board that hung on the wall over the sheaf of texts and the missionary box.
The next train was not until 7.25. A whole hour and twenty-five minutes to wait! What was he to do? Where was he to pass the weary time till then? If he lingered on the platform he would assuredly be recaptured. His absence could not remain long undiscovered and the station would be the first place they would search for him.
And yet he dared not wander away from the neighbourhood of the station. If he kept to the shops and lighted thoroughfares he might be recognised or traced. If, on the other hand, he went out farther into the country (which was utterly unknown to him), he had no watch, and it would be only too easy to lose his way, or miscalculate time and distance in the darkness.
To miss the next train would be absolutely fatal.
He walked out upon the platform, and on past the refreshment and waiting rooms, past the weighing machine, the stacked trucks and the lamp-room, meeting and seen by none—even the boy at the bookstall was busy with bread and butter and a mug of tea in a dark corner, and never noticed him.
He went on to the end of the platform where the planks sloped gently down to a wilderness of sheds, coaling stages and sidings; he could just make out the bulky forms of some tarpaulined cattle-vans and open coal-trucks standing on the lines of metals which gleamed in the scanty gaslights.
It struck him that one of these vans or trucks would serve his purpose admirably, if he could only get into it, and very cautiously he picked his way over the clogging ballast and rails, till he came to a low narrow strip of platform between two sidings.
He mounted it and went on till he came to the line of trucks and vans drawn up alongside; the vans seemed all locked, but at the end he found an empty coal-waggon in which he thought he could manage to conceal himself and escape pursuit till the longed-for 7.25 train should arrive to relieve him.
He stepped in and lay down in one corner of it, listening anxiously for any sound of search, but hearing nothing more than the dismal dirge of the telegraph wires overhead; he soon grew cold and stiff, for his enforced attitude was far from comfortable, and there was more coal-dust in his chosen retreat than he could have wished. Still it was secluded enough; it was not likely that it would occur to anyone to look for him there. Ten days ago Mr. Paul Bultitude would have found it hard to conceive himself lying down in a hard and grimy coal-truck to escape his son's schoolmaster, but since then he had gone through too much that was unprecedented and abnormal to see much incongruity in his situation—it was all too hideously real to be a nightmare.
But even here he was not allowed to remain undisturbed; after about half an hour, when he was beginning to feel almost secure, there came a sharp twanging of wires beneath, and two short strokes of a bell in the signal-box hard by.
He heard some one from the platform, probably the station-master, shout, "Look alive, there, Ing, Pickstones, some of you. There's those three trucks on the A siding to go to Slopsbury by the 6.30 luggage—she'll be in in another five minutes."
There were steps as if some persons were coming out of a cabin opposite—they came nearer and nearer: "These three, ain't it, Tommy?" said a gruff voice, close to Paul's ear.
"That's it, mate," said another, evidently Tommy's—"get 'em along up to the points there. Can't have the 6.30 standing about on this 'ere line all night, 'cos of the Limited. Now then, all together, shove! they've got the old 'orse on at the other end."
And to Paul's alarm he felt the truck in which he was begin to move ponderously on the greasy metals, and strike the next with its buffers with a jarring shock and a jangling of coupling chains.
He could not stand this; unless he revealed himself at once, or managed to get out of this delusive waggon, the six-whatever-it-was train would be up and carry him off to Slopsbury, a hundred miles or so farther from home; they would have time to warn Dick—he would be expected—ambushes laid for him, and his one chance would be gone for ever!
There was a whistle far away on the down line, and that humming vibration which announces an approaching train: not a moment to lose—he was afraid to attempt a leap from the moving waggons, and resolved to risk all and show himself.
With this intention he got upon his knees, and putting his head above the dirty bulwark, looked over and said softly, "Tommy, I say, Tommy!"
A porter, who had been laboriously employed below, looked up with a white and scared face, and staggered back several feet; Mr. Bultitude in a sudden panic ducked again.
"Bill!" Paul heard the porter say hoarsely, "I'll take my Bible oath I've never touched a drop this week, not to speak of—but I've got 'em again, Bill, I've got 'em again!"
"Got what agin?" growled Bill. "What's the matter now?"
"It's the jumps, Bill," gasped the other, "the 'orrors—they've got me and no mistake. As I'm a livin' man, as I was a shovin' of that there truck, I saw a imp—a gashly imp, Bill, stick its hugly 'ed over the side and say, 'Tommy,' it ses, jest like that—it ses, 'Tommy, I wants you!' I dursn't go near it, Bill. I'll get leave, and go 'ome and lay up—it glared at me so 'orrid, Bill, and grinned—ugh! I'll take the pledge after this 'ere, I will—I'll go to chapel Sundays reg'lar!"
"Let's see if there ain't something there first," said the practical Bill. "Easy with the 'oss up there. Now then," here he stepped on the box of the wheel and looked in. "Shin out of this, whatever y'are, we don't contrack to carry no imps on this line—Well, if ever I—Tommy, old man, it's all right, y'ain't got 'em this time—'ere's yer imp!"
And, reaching over, he hauled out the wretched Paul by the scruff of his neck in a state of utter collapse, and deposited him on the ground before him.
"That ain't your private kerridge, yer know, that ain't—there wasn't no bed made up there for you, that I know on. You ain't arter no good, now; you're a wagabone! that's about your size, I can see—what d'yer mean by it, eh?"
"Shet yer 'ed, Bill, will yer?" said Tommy, whose relief probably softened his temper, "this here's a young gent."
"Young gent, or no young gent," replied Bill sententiously, "he's no call to go 'idin' in our waggins and givin' 'ard-workin' men a turn. 'Old 'im tight, Tommy—here's the luggage down on us."
Tommy held him fast with a grip of iron, while the other porters coupled the trucks, and the luggage train lumbered away with its load.
After this the men slouched up and stood round their captive, staring at him curiously.
"Look here, my men," said Paul, "I've run away from school, I want to go on to town by the next train, and I took the liberty of hiding in the truck, because the schoolmaster will be up here very soon to look for me—you understand?"
"I understand," said Bill, "and a nice young party you are."
"I—I don't want to be caught," said Paul.
"Naterally," assented Tommy sympathetically.
"Well, can't you hide me somewhere where he won't see me? Come, you can do that?"
"What do you say, Bill?" asked Tommy.
"What'll the Guv'nor say?" said Bill dubiously.
"I've got a little money," urged Paul. "I'll make it worth your while."
"Why didn't you say that afore?" said Bill; "the Guv'nor needn't know."
"Here's half-a-sovereign between you," said Paul, holding it out.
"That's something like a imp," said Tommy warmly; "if all bogeys acted as 'andsome as this 'ere, I don't care how often they shows theirselves. We'll have a supper on this, mates, and drink young Delirium Trimminses' jolly good 'ealth. You come along o' me, young shaver, I'll stow you away right enough, and let you out when yer train comes in."
He led Paul on to the platform again and opened a sort of cupboard or closet. "That's where we keeps the brooms and lamp-rags, and them," he said; "it ain't what you may call tidy, but if I lock you in no one won't trouble you."
It was perfectly dark and the rags smelt unpleasantly, but Mr. Bultitude was very glad of this second ark of refuge, even though he did bruise his legs over the broom-handles; he was gladder still by-and-by, when he heard a rapid heavy footfall outside, and a voice he knew only too well, saying, "I want to see the station-master. Ha, there he is. Good evening, station-master, you know me—Dr. Grimstone, of Crichton House. I want you to assist me in a very unpleasant affair—the fact is, one of my pupils has had the folly and wickedness to run away."
"You don't say so!" said the station-master.
"It's only too true, I'm sorry to say; he seemed happy and contented enough, too; it's a black ungrateful business. But I must catch him, you know; he must be about here somewhere, I feel sure. You don't happen to have noticed a boy who looked as if he belonged to me? They can't tell me at the booking-office."
How glad Paul was now he had made no inquiries of the station-master!
"No," said the latter, "I can't say I have, sir, but some of my men may have come across him. I'll inquire—here, Ing, I want you; this gentleman here has lost one of his boys, have you seen him?"
"What sort of a young gentleman was he to look at?" Paul heard Tommy's voice ask.
"A bright intelligent-looking boy," said the Doctor, "medium height, about thirteen, with auburn hair."
"No, I ain't seen no intelligent boys with median 'eight," said Tommy slowly, "not leastways, to speak to positive. What might he 'ave on, now, besides his oburn 'air?"
"Black cloth jacket, with a wide collar," was the answer; "grey trousers, and a cloth cap with a leather peak."
"Oh," said Tommy, "then I see 'im."
"'Bout arf an 'our since."
"Do you know where he is now?"
"Well," said Tommy, to Paul's intense horror, for he was listening, quaking, to every word of this conversation, which was held just outside his cupboard door.
"I dessay I could give a guess if I give my mind to it."
"Out with it, Ing, now, if you know; no tricks," said the station-master, who had apparently just turned to go away. "Excuse me, sir, but I've some matters in there to see after."
When he had gone, the Doctor said rather heatedly, "Come, you're keeping something from me, I will have it out of you. If I find you have deceived me, I'll write to the manager and get you sent about your business—you'd better tell me the truth."
"You see," said Tommy, very slowly, and reluctantly, "that young gent o' yourn was a gent."
"I tried my very best to render him so," said the Doctor stiffly, "here is the result—how did you discover he was one, pray?"
"'Cos he acted like a gent," said Tommy; "he took and give me a 'arf-suffering."
"Well, I'll give you another," said the Doctor, "if you can tell me where he is."
"Thankee, sir, don't you be afraid—you're a gent right enough, too, though you do 'appen to be a schoolmaster."
"Where is the unhappy boy?" interrupted the Doctor.
"Seems as if I was a roundin' on 'im, like, don't it a'most, sir?" said Tommy, with too evident symptoms of yielding in his voice. Paul shook so in his terror that he knocked down a broom or two with a clatter which froze his blood.
"Not at all," said the Doctor, "not at all, my good fellow; you're—ahem—advancing the cause of moral order."
"Oh, ah," said Tommy, obviously open to conviction. "Well, if I'm a doin' all that, I can't go fur wrong, can I? And arter all, we mayn't like schools or schoolmasters, not over above, but we can't get on without 'em, I s'pose. But, look ye here, sir—if I goes and tells you where you can get hold of this here boy, you won't go and wallop him now, will ye?"
"I can make no bargains," said the Doctor; "I shall act on my own discretion."
"That's it," said Tommy, unaccountably relieved, "spoke like a merciful Christian gen'leman; if you don't go actin' on nothing more nor your discretion, you can't hurt him much, I take it. Well then, since you've spoke out fair, I don't mind putting you on his track like."
If the door of the cupboard had not been locked, Paul would undoubtedly have burst out and yielded himself up, to escape the humiliation of being sold like this by a mercenary and treacherous porter. As it was, he had to wait till the inevitable words should be spoken.
"Well, you see," went on Tommy, very slowly, as if struggling with the remnants of a conscience, "it was like this here—he comes up to me, and says—your young gen'leman, I mean—says he, 'Porter, I wants to 'ide, I've run away.' And I says to him, says I, 'It's no use your 'anging about 'ere,' I says, ''cause, if you do, your guv'nor (meanin' no offence to you, sir) 'll be comin' up and ketchin' of you on the 'op.' 'Right you are, porter,' says he to me, 'what do you advise?' he says. 'Well,' I says, 'I don't know as I'm right in givin' you no advice at all, havin' run away from them as has the care on you,' I says; 'but if I was a young gen'leman as didn't want to be ketched, I should just walk on to Dufferton; it ain't on'y three mile or so, and you'll 'ave time for to do it before the up-train comes along there.' 'Thankee, porter,' he says, 'I'll do that,' and away he bolts, and for anything I know, he's 'arf way there by this time."
"A fly!" shouted the Doctor excitedly, when Tommy had come to the end of his veracious account. "I'll catch the young rascal now—who has a good horse? Davis, I'll take you. Five shillings if you reach Dufferton before the up-train. Take the——"
The rest was lost in the banging of the fly door and the rumble of wheels; the terrible man had been got safely off on a wrong scent, and Paul fell back amongst the lumber in his closet, faint with the suspense and relief.
Presently he heard Tommy's chuckling whisper through the keyhole: "Are you all right in there, sir? he's safe enough now—orf on a pretty dance. You didn't think I was goin' to tell on ye, did ye now? I ain't quite sech a cur as that comes to, particular when a young gent saves me from the 'orrors, and gives me a 'arf-suffering. I'll see you through, you make yourself easy about that."
Half an hour went slowly by for Mr. Bultitude in his darkness and solitude. The platform gradually filled, as he could tell by the tread of feet, the voices, and the scent of cigars, and at last, welcome sound, he heard the station bell ringing for the up-train.
It ran in the next minute, shaking the cupboard in which Paul crouched, till the brushes rattled. There was the usual blind hurry and confusion outside as it stopped. Paul waited impatiently inside. The time passed, and still no one came to let him out. He began to grow alarmed. Could Tommy have forgotten him? Had he been sent away by some evil chance at the critical moment? Two or three times his excited fancy heard the fatal whistle sound for departure. Would he be left behind after all?
But the next instant the door was noiselessly unlocked. "Couldn't do it afore," said honest Tommy. "Our guv'nor would have seen me. Now's your time. Here's a empty first-class coach I've kept for ye. In with you now."
He hoisted Paul up the high footboard to an empty compartment, and shut the door, leaving him to sink down on the luxurious cushions in speechless and measureless content. But Tommy had hardly done so before he reappeared and looked in. "I say," he suggested, "if I was you, I'd get under the seat before you gets to Dufferton, otherways your guv'nor'll be spottin' you. I'll lock you in."
"I'll get under now; some one might see me here," said Paul; and, too anxious for safety to thank his preserver, he crawled under the low, blue-cushioned seat, which left just room enough for him to lie there in a very cramped and uncomfortable position. Still he need not stay there after the train had once started, except for five minutes or so at Dufferton.
Unfortunately he had not been long under the seat before he heard two loud imperious voices just outside the carriage door.
"Porter! guard! Hi, somebody! open this door, will you; it's locked."
"This way, sir," he heard Tommy's voice say outside. "Plenty of room higher up."
"I don't want to go higher up. I'll go here. Just open it at once, I tell you."
The door was opened reluctantly, and two middle-aged men came in. "Always take the middle carriage of a train," said the first. "Safest in any accident, y'know. Never heard of a middle carriage of a train getting smashed up, to speak of."
The other sat heavily down just over Paul, with a comfortable grunt, and the train started, Paul feeling naturally annoyed by this intrusion, as it compelled him to remain in seclusion for the whole of the journey. "Still," he thought, "it is lucky that I had time to get under here before they came in; it would have seemed odd if I had done it afterwards." And he resigned himself to listen to the conversation which followed.
"What was it we were talking about just now?" began the first. "Let me see. Ah! I remember. Yes; it was a very painful thing—very, indeed, I assure you."
There is a certain peculiar and uncomfortable suspicion that attacks most of us at times, which cannot fairly be set down wholly to self-consciousness or an exaggerated idea of our own importance. I mean the suspicion that a partly-heard conversation must have ourselves for its subject. More often than not, of course, it proves utterly unfounded, but once in a way, like most presentiments, it finds itself unpleasantly fulfilled.
Mr. Bultitude, though he failed to recognise either of the voices, was somehow persuaded that the conversation had something to do with himself, and listened with eager attention.
"Yes," the speaker continued; "he was never, according to what I hear, a man of any extraordinary capacity, but he was always spoken of as a man of standing in the City, doing a safe business, not a risky one, and so on, you know. So, of course, his manner, when I called, shocked me all the more."
"Ah!" said the other. "Was he violent or insulting, then?"
"No, no! I can only describe his conduct as eccentric—what one might call reprehensibly eccentric and extravagant. I didn't call exactly in the way of business, but about a poor young fellow in my house, who is, I fear, rather far gone in consumption, and, knowing he was a Life Governor, y'know, I thought he might give me a letter for the hospital. Well, when I got up to Mincing Lane——"
Paul started. It was as he had feared, then; they were speaking of him!
"When I got there, I sent in my card with a message that, if he was engaged or anything, I would take the liberty of calling at his private house, and so on. But they said he would see me. The clerk who showed me in said: 'You'll find him a good deal changed, if you knew him, sir. We're very uneasy about him here,' which prepared me for something out of the common. Well, I went into a sort of inner room, and there he was, in his shirt-sleeves, busy over some abomination he was cooking at the stove, with the office-boy helping him! I never was so taken aback in my life. I said something about calling another time, but Bultitude——"
Paul groaned. The blow had fallen. Well, it was better to be prepared and know the worst.
"Bultitude says, just like a great awkward schoolboy, y'know, 'What's your name? How d'ye do? Have some hardbake, it's just done?' Fancy finding a man in his position cooking toffee in the middle of the day, and offering it to a perfect stranger!"
"Softening of the brain—must be," said the other.
"I fear so. Well, he asked what I wanted, and I told him, and he actually said he never did any business now, except sign his name where his clerks told him. He'd worked hard all his life, he said, and he was tired of it. Business was, I understood him to say, 'all rot!'"
"Then he wouldn't promise me votes or give me a letter or anything, without consulting his head clerk; he seemed to know nothing whatever about it himself, and when that was over, he asked me a quantity of frivolous questions which appeared to have a sort of catch in them, as far as I could gather, and he was exceedingly angry when I wouldn't humour him."
"What kind of questions?"
"Well, really I hardly know. I believe he wanted to know whether I would rather be a bigger fool than I looked or look a bigger fool than I was, and he pressed me quite earnestly to repeat some foolishness after him, about 'being a gold key,' when he said 'he was a gold lock,' I was very glad to get away from him, it was so distressing."
"They tell me he has begun to speculate, too, lately," said the other. "You see his name about in some very queer things. It's a pitiful affair altogether."
Paul writhed under his seat with shame. How could he, even if he succeeded in ousting Dick and getting back his old self, how could he ever hold up his head again after this?
Why, Dick must be mad. Even a schoolboy would have had more caution when so much depended on it. But none would suspect the real cause of the change. These horrible tales were no doubt being circulated everywhere!
The conversation fell back into a less personal channel again after this; they talked of "risks," of some one who had only been "writing" a year and was doing seven thousand a week, of losses they had been "on," and of the uselessness of "writing five hundred on everything," and while at this point the train slackened and stopped—they had reached Dufferton.
There was an opening of doors all along the train, and sounds of some inquiry and answer at each. The voices became audible at length, and, as he had expected, Paul found that the Doctor, not having discovered him on the platform, was making a systematic search of the train, evidently believing that he had managed to slip in somewhere unobserved.
It was a horrible moment when the door of his compartment was flung open and a stream of ice-cold air rushed under the blue cloth which, fortunately for Paul, hung down almost to the floor.
Some one held a lantern up outside, and by its rays Paul saw from behind the hanging the upper half of Dr. Grimstone appear, very pale and polite, at the doorway. He remained there for some moments without speaking, carefully examining every corner of the compartment.
The two men on the seats drew their wraps about them and shivered, until at length one said rather testily—"Get in, sir; kindly get in if you're coming on, please. This draught is most unpleasant!"
"I do not propose to travel by this train, sir," said the Doctor; "but, as a person entrusted with the care of youth, permit me to inquire whether you have seen (or, it may be assisted to conceal) a small boy of intelligent appearance——"
"Why should we conceal small boys of intelligent appearance about us, pray?" demanded the man who had described his visit to Mincing Lane. "And may we ask you to shut that door, and make any communications you wish to make through the window, or else come in and sit down?"
"That's not an answer to my question, sir," retorted the Doctor. "I notice you carefully decline to say whether you have seen a boy. I consider your manner suspicious, sir; and I shall insist on searching this carriage through and through till I find that boy!"
Mr. Bultitude rolled himself up close against the partition at these awful words.
"Guard, guard!" shouted the first gentleman. "Come here. Here's a violent person who will search this carriage for something he has lost. I won't be inconvenienced in this way without any reason whatever! He says we're hiding a boy in here!"
"Guard!" said the Doctor, quite as angrily, "I insist upon looking under these seats before you start the train. I've looked through every other carriage and he must be in here. Gentlemen, let me pass, I'll get him if I have to travel in this compartment to town with you!"
"For peace and quietness sake, gentlemen," said the guard, "let him look round, just to ease his mind. Lend me your stick a minute, sir, please. I'll turn him out if he's anywhere about this here compartment!"
And with this he pulled Dr. Grimstone down from the footboard and mounted it himself; after which he began to rummage about under the seats with the Doctor's heavy stick.
Every lunge found out some tender part in Mr. Bultitude's person and caused him exquisite torture; but he clenched his teeth hard to prevent a sound, while he thought each fresh dig must betray his whereabouts.
"There," said the guard at last; "there really ain't no one there, sir, you see. I've felt everywhere and—— Hello, I certainly did feel something just then, gentlemen!" he added, in an undertone, after a lunge which took all the breath out of Paul's body. All was lost now!
"You touch that again with that confounded stick if you dare!" said one of the passengers. "That's a parcel of mine. I won't have you poking holes through it in that way. Don't tell that lunatic behind you, he'll be wanting it opened to see if his boy's inside! Now perhaps you'll let us alone!"
"Well, sir," said the guard at last to the Doctor, as he withdrew, "he ain't in there. There's nothing under any of the seats. Your boy'll be comin' on by the next train, most likely—the 8.40. We're all behind. Right!"
"Good night, sir," said the first passenger as he leant out of the window, to the baffled schoolmaster on the platform. "You've put us to all this inconvenience for nothing, and in the most offensive way too. I hope you won't find your boy till you're in a better temper, for his sake."
"If I had you out on this platform, sir," shouted the angry Doctor, "I'd horsewhip you for that insult. I believe the boy's there and you know it. I——"
But the train swept off and, to Paul's joy and thankfulness, soon left the Doctor, gesticulating and threatening, miles behind it.
"What a violent fellow for a schoolmaster, eh?" said one of Paul's companions, when they were fairly off again. "I wasn't going to have him turning the cushions inside out here; we shouldn't have settled down again before we got in!"
"No; and if the guard hasn't, as it is, injured that Indian shawl in my parcel, I shall be—— Why, bless my soul, that parcel's not under the seat after all! It's up in the rack. I remember putting it there now."
"The guard must have fancied he felt something; and yet—— Look here, Goldicutt; just feel under here with your feet. It certainly does seem as if something soft was—eh?"
Mr. Goldicutt accordingly explored Paul's ribs with his boot for some moments, which was very painful.
"Upon my word," he said at last, "it really does seem very like it. It's not hard enough for a bag or a hat-box. It yields distinctly when you kick it. Can you fetch it out with your umbrella, do you think? Shall we tell the guard at the next——? Lord, it's coming out of its own accord. It's a dog! No, my stars—it's the boy, after all!"
For Paul, alarmed at the suggestion about the guard, once more felt inclined to risk the worst and reveal himself. Begrimed with coal, smeared with whitewash, and covered with dust and flue, he crawled slowly out and gazed imploringly up at his fellow-passengers.
After the first shock of surprise they lay back in their seats and laughed till they cried.
"Why, you young rascal!" they said, when they recovered breath, "you don't mean to say you've been under there the whole time?"
"I have indeed," said Paul. "I—I didn't like to come out before."
"And are you the boy all this fuss was about? Yes? And we kept the schoolmaster off without knowing it! Why, this is splendid, capital! You're something like a boy, you little dog, you! This is the best joke I've heard for many a day!"
"I hope," said Paul, "I haven't inconvenienced you. I could not help it, really."
"Inconvenienced us? Gad, your schoolmaster came very near inconveniencing us and you too. But there, he won't trouble any of us now. To think of our swearing by all our gods there was no boy in here, and vowing he shouldn't come in, while you were lying down there under the seat all the time! Why, it's lovely! The boy's got pluck and manners too. Shake hands, young gentleman, you owe us no apologies. I haven't had such a laugh for many a day!"
"Then you—you won't give me up?" faltered poor Paul.
"Well," said the one who was called Goldicutt, and who was a jovial old gentleman with a pink face and white whiskers, "we're not exactly going to take the trouble of getting out at the next station, and bringing you back to Dufferton, just to oblige that hot-tempered master of yours, you know; he hasn't been so particularly civil as to deserve that."
"But if he were to telegraph and get some one to stop me at St. Pancras?" said Paul nervously.
"Ah, he might do that, to be sure—sharp boy this—well, as we've gone so far, I suppose we must go through with the business now and smuggle the young scamp past the detectives, eh, Travers?"
The younger man addressed assented readily enough, for the Doctor had been so unfortunate as to prejudice them both from the first by his unjustifiable suspicions, and it is to be feared they had no scruples in helping to outwit him.
Then they noticed the pitiable state Mr. Bultitude was in, and he had to give them a fair account of his escape and subsequent adventures, at which even their sympathy could not restrain delighted shouts of laughter—though Paul himself saw little enough in it all to laugh at; they asked his name, which he thought more prudent, for various reasons, to give as "Jones," and other details, which I am afraid he invented as he went on, and altogether they reached Kentish Town in a state of high satisfaction with themselves and their protege.
At Kentish Town there was one more danger to be encountered, for with the ticket collector there appeared one of the station inspectors. "Beg pardon, gentlemen," said the latter, peering curiously in, "but does that young gent in the corner happen to belong to either of you?"
The white-whiskered gentleman seemed a little flustered at this downright inquiry, but the other was more equal to the occasion. "Do you hear that, Johnny, my boy," he said, to Paul (whom they had managed during the journey to brush and scrape into something approaching respectability), "they want to know if you belong to me. I suppose you'll allow a son to belong to his father to a certain extent, eh?" he asked the inspector.
The man apologised for what he conceived to be a mistake. "We've orders to look out for a young gent about the size of yours, sir," he explained; "no offence meant, I'm sure," and he went away satisfied.
A very few minutes more and the train rolled in to the terminus, under the same wide arch beneath which Paul had stood, helpless and bewildered, a week ago.
"Now my advice to you, young man," said Mr. Goldicutt, as he put Paul into a cab, and pressed half-a-sovereign into his unwilling hand, "is to go straight home to Papa and tell him all about it. I daresay he won't be very hard on you—here's my card, refer him to me if you like. Good-night, my boy, good-night, and good luck to you. Gad, the best joke I've had for years!"
And the cab rolled away, leaving them standing chuckling on the platform, and, as Paul found himself plunging once more into the welcome roar and rattle of London streets, he forgot the difficulties and dangers that might yet lie before him in the thought that at last he was beyond the frontier, and, for the first time since he had slipped through the playground gate, he breathed freely.
17. A Perfidious Ally
"But homeward—home—what home? had he a home? His home—he walk'd; Then down the long street having slowly stolen, His heart foreshadowing all calamity, His eyes upon the stones, he reached his home."
Paul had been careful, whilst in the hearing of his friends, to give the cabman a fictitious address, but as soon as he reached the Euston Road, he stopped the man and ordered him to put him down at the church near the south end of Westbourne Terrace, for he dared not drive up openly to his own door.
At last he found himself standing safely on the pavement, looking down the long line of yellow lamps of his own terrace, only a few hundred yards from home.
But though his purpose was now within easy reach, his spirits were far from high; his anxiety had returned with tenfold power; he felt no eagerness or exultation; on the contrary, the task he had set himself had never before seemed so hopeless, so insurmountable.
He stood for some time by the railing of the church, which was lighted up for evening service, listening blankly to the solemn drone of the organ within, unable to summon up resolution to move from the spot and present himself to his unsuspecting family.
It was a cold night, with a howling wind, and high in the blue black sky fleecy clouds were coursing swiftly along; he obliged himself to set out at last, and walked down the flags towards his house, shivering as much from nervousness as cold.
There was a dance somewhere in the terrace that evening, a large one; as far as he could see there were close ranks of carriages with blazing lamps, and he even fancied he could hear the shouts of the link-boys and the whistles summoning cabs.
As he came nearer, he had a hideous suspicion, which soon became a certainty, that the entertainment was at his own house; worse still, it was of a kind and on a scale calculated to shock and horrify any prudent householder and father of a family.
The balcony above the portico was positively hung with gaudy Chinese lanterns, and there were even some strange sticks and shapes up in one corner that looked suspiciously like fireworks. Fireworks in Westbourne Terrace! What would the neighbours think or do?
Between the wall which separates the main road from the terrace and the street front there were no less than four piano-organs, playing, it is to be feared, by express invitation; and there was the usual crowd of idlers and loungers standing about by the awning stretched over the portico, listening to the music and loud laughter which came from the brilliantly lighted upper rooms.
Paul remembered then, too late, that Barbara in that memorable letter of hers had mentioned a grand children's party as being in contemplation. Dick had held his tongue about it that morning; and he himself had not thought it was to be so soon.
For an instant he felt almost inclined to turn away and give the whole thing up in sick despair—even to return to Market Rodwell and brave the Doctor's anger; for how could he hope to explain matters to his family and servants, or get the Garuda Stone safely into his hands again before all these guests, in the whirl and tumult of an evening party?
And yet he dared not, after all, go back to Crichton House—that was too terrible an alternative, and he obviously could not roam the world to any extent, a runaway schoolboy to all appearance, and with less than a sovereign in his pocket!
After a short struggle, he felt he must make his way in, watch and wait, and leave the rest to chance. It was his evil fate, after all, that had led him on to make his escape on this night of all others, and had allowed him to come through so much, only to be met with these unforeseen complications just when he might have imagined the worst was over.
He forced his way through the staring crowd, and went down the steps into the area; for he naturally shrank from braving the front door, with its crowd of footmen and hired waiters.
He found the door in the basement open, which was fortunate, and slipped quietly through the pantry, intending to reach the hall by the kitchen stairs. But here another check met him. The glass door which led to the stairs happened to be shut, and he heard voices in the kitchen, which convinced him that if he wished to escape notice he must wait quietly in the darkness until the door was opened for him, whenever that might be.
The door from the pantry to the kitchen was partly open, however, and Mr. Bultitude could not avoid hearing everything that passed there, although every fresh word added to his uneasiness, until at last he would have given worlds to escape from his involuntary position of eavesdropper.
There were only two persons just then in the kitchen: his cook, who, still in her working dress, was refreshing herself after her labours over the supper with a journal of some sort, and the housemaid, who, in neat gala costume, was engaged in fastening a pin more securely in her white cap.
"They haven't give me a answer yet, Eliza," said the cook, looking up from her paper.
"Lor, cook!" said Eliza, "you couldn't hardly expect it, seeing you only wrote on Friday."
"No more I did, Eliza. You see it on'y began to come into my mind sudden like this last week. I'm sure I no more dreamt——. But they've answered a lady who's bin in much the same situation as me aperiently. You just 'ark to this a minute." And she proceeded to read from her paper: "'Lady Bird.—You ask us (1) what are the signs by which you may recognise the first dawnings of your lover's affection. On so delicate a matter we are naturally averse from advising you; your own heart must be your best guide. But perhaps we may mention a few of the most usual and infallible symptoms'—What sort of a thing is a symptim, Eliza?"
"A symptim, cook," explained Eliza, "is somethink wrong with the inside. Her at my last place in Cadogan Square had them uncommon bad. She was what they call aesthetical, pore young thing. Them infallible ones are always the worst."
"It don't seem to make sense though, Eliza," objected cook doubtfully. "Hear how it goes on: 'Infallible symptoms. If you have truly inspired him with a genuine and lasting passion' (don't he write beautiful?) 'passion, he will continually haunt those places in which you are most likely to be found' (I couldn't tell you the times master's bin down in my kitching this last week); 'he will appear awkward and constrained in your presence' (anything more awkward than master I never set eyes on. He's knocked down one of the best porcelain vegetables this very afternoon!); 'he will beg for any little favours, some trifle, it may be, made by your own hand' (master's always a-asking if I've got any of those doughnuts to give away); 'and, if granted, he will treasure them in secret with pride and rapture' (I don't think master kep' any of them doughnuts though, Eliza. I saw him swaller five; but you couldn't treasure a doughnut, not to mention—— I'll make him a pincushion when I've time, and see what he does with it). 'If you detect all these indications of liking in the person you suspect of paying his addresses to you, you may safely reckon upon bringing him to your feet in a very short space of time. (2) Yes, fuller's earth will make them exquisitely white.'"
"There, Eliza!" said cook, with some pride, when she had finished; "if it had been meant for me it couldn't have been clearer. Ain't it written nice? And on'y to think of my bringing master to my feet! It seems almost too much for a cook to expect!"
"I wouldn't say so, cook; I wouldn't. Have some proper pride. Don't let him think he's only to ask and have! Why, in the London Journal last week there was a dook as married a governess; and I should 'ope as a cook ranked above a governess. Nor yet master ain't a dook; he's only in the City! But are you sure he's not only a-trifling with your affections, cook? He's bin very affable and pleasant with all of us lately."
"It ain't for me to speak too positive, Eliza," said cook almost bashfully, "nor to lay bare the feelings of a bosom, beyond what's right and proper. You're young yet, Eliza, and don't understand these things—leastways, it's to be hoped not" (Eliza having apparently tossed her head); "but do you remember that afternoon last week as master stayed at home a-playin' games with the children? I was a-goin' upstairs to fetch my thimble, and there, on the bedroom landin', was master all alone, with one of Master Dick's toy-guns in his 'and, and a old slouch 'at on his head.
"'Have you got a pass, cook?' he says, and my 'art came right up into my mouth, he looked that severe and lofty at me. I thought he was put out about something."
"I said I didn't know as it was required, but I could get one, I says, not knowing what he was alludin' to all the same."
"But he says, quite soft and tender-like," (here Paul shivered with shame), "'No, you needn't do that, cook, there ain't any occasion for it; only,' he says, 'if you haven't got no pass, you'll have to give me a kiss, you know, cook!' I thought I should have sunk through the stairs, I was that overcome. I saw through his rouge with half an eye."
"Why, he said the same to me," said Eliza, "only I had a pass, as luck had it, which Miss Barbara give me. I'd ha' boxed his ears if he'd tried it, too, master or no master!"
"You talk light, Eliza," said the cook sentimentally, "but you weren't there to see. It wasn't only the words, it was the way he said it, and the 'ug he gave me at the time. It was as good as a proposial. And, I tell you, whatever you may say—and mark my words—I 'ave 'opes!"
"Then, if I was you, cook," said Eliza, "I'd try if I could get him to speak out plain in writing; then, whatever came of it, there'd be as good as five hundred pounds in your pockets."
"Love-letters!" cried the cook, "why, Lord love you, Eliza—— Why, William, how you made me jump! I thought you was up seein' to the supper-table."
"The pastrycook's man is looking after all that, Jane," said Boaler's voice. "I've been up outside the droring-room all this time, lookin' at the games goin' on in there. It's as good as a play to see the way as master is a unbendin' of himself, and such a out and out stiff-un as he used to be, too! But it ain't what I like to see in a respectable house. I'm glad I give warning. It doesn't do for a man in my position to compromise his character by such goings on. I never see anything like it in any families I lived with before. Just come up and see for yourself. You needn't mind about cleanin' of yourself—they won't see you."
So the cook allowed herself to be persuaded by Boaler, and the two went up to the hall, and, to Mr. Bultitude's intense relief, forgot to close the glazed door which cut him off from the staircase.
As he followed them upstairs at a cautious interval, and thought over what he had just so unwillingly overheard, he felt as one who had just been subjected to a moral showerbath. "That dreadful woman!" he groaned. "Who would have dreamed that she would get such horrible ideas into her head? I shall never be able to look either of those women in the face again: they will both have to go—and she made such excellent soup, too. I do hope that miserable Dick has not been fool enough to write to her—but no, that's too absurd."
But more than ever he began to wish that he had stayed in the playground.
When he reached the hall he stood there for some moments in anxious deliberation over his best course of proceeding. His main idea was to lie in wait somewhere for Dick, and try the result of an appeal to his better feelings to acknowledge his outcast parent and abdicate gracefully.
If that failed, and there was every reason to expect that it would fail, he must threaten to denounce him before the whole party. It would cause a considerable scandal no doubt, and be extremely repugnant to his own feelings, but still he must do it, or frighten Dick by threatening to do it, and at all hazards he must contrive during the interview to snatch or purloin the magic stone; without that he was practically helpless.
He looked round him: the study was piled up with small boys' hats and coats, and in one corner was a kind of refined bar, where till lately a trim housemaid had been dispensing coffee and weak lemonade; she might return at any moment, he would not be safe there.
Nor would the dining-room be more secluded, for in it there was an elaborate supper being laid out by the waiters which, as far as he could see through the crack in the door, consisted chiefly of lobsters, trifle, and pink champagne. He felt a grim joy at the sight, more than he would suffer for this night's festivities.