"Now for old Stan. I'm sure he won't be asleep."
Paul crept close to the window, and tapped on it with his nail.
"Who's there?" said Stanley.
The window was cautiously opened, and Paul slipped into the room.
"Paul! You don't mean to say it's you!" exclaimed Stanley as their hands met in the darkness. "What's brought you here?"
"To see you, of course."
"Well, you can't see much of me, I'm thinking, by this precious light; so, if you won't mind me saying it, old chap, it was silly of you to come."
"No it wasn't. I couldn't bear the thought of your moping here by yourself, and it was a ghastly shame of Weevil to send you."
"Oh, come to think of it quietly, he was right enough! I dare say I could have got out of the pickle by speaking, but I was obstinate. Solitude isn't so bad," he added cheerfully. "It helps you to chew the cud of reflection."
"And a bitter cud it is sometimes. That's why I've come. It's better for two to try their teeth on it than one."
"It's very good of you, Paul, coming to me. Is Harry all right?"
"Oh, he's all right, though he was rather cut up at your having to come here for him. It's Newall you'll have to look out for. He won't be satisfied till he's paid back that blow you gave him. He told me as much."
"What did he say? Tell me the exact words."
"After you had gone away with Mr. Weevil, I told Newall what I thought—that he had acted meanly in not speaking up. 'Why should I have spoken?' he burst out. 'I didn't want to speak. All I wanted was to get that blow back that Moncrief gave me; and I'll have it back, if I die for it!'"
A sound of footsteps could be heard in the next room. In his desire to console Stanley in his solitude, Paul had said nothing about what he had seen in the master's room, though it had been uppermost in his mind all the time he had been speaking to Stanley.
"Hallo! What's that? Weevil's guest on the move. Who is he, I wonder?"
"Hush! Not so loud!" cautioned Paul, clutching Stanley by the arm. "You would never guess. You remember what happened to me on the night I took that packet to Oakville?"
Paul had confided to his chum all that happened on that night.
"Don't I? And I'm not likely to forget it in a hurry. I only wish that I'd been with you then, just as you're with me now. What about it?"
"What about it? Why, the man in the next room is Israel Zuker."
"Paul!" cried Stanley, rising to his feet in amazement.
"Hush—don't I tell you!"—again clutching him by the arm, and pressing him to his former position. "Israel Zuker! I'm sure of it."
"But what can he want with Mr. Weevil, and what can Weevil want with him?"
"Ask me another. That's what floors me. Listen! Weevil is letting him out."
They remained perfectly silent, as they listened to the footsteps in the passage; at first they were quite close, then they died away. Presently they heard Mr. Weevil returning alone. He paused as he was on the point of entering his own door, as though struck with an idea.
"What's he up to now?" whispered Paul.
They could hear the master enter the next room; then come out again. He stopped at Dormitory X.
In another moment the light of a candle could be seen through a crevice in the door, and a key was put in the lock.
"He's coming here!" exclaimed Stanley.
Instantly Paul crept under the bed, while Stanley as quickly crept in. Not an instant too soon, for the next moment the door opened and Mr. Weevil, candle in hand, entered. He held the light up, and glanced round the room; then came softly to the bed, and glanced down at Stanley.
Stanley feigned sleep, but directly the light fell on his face he started up as though suddenly wakened, and, staring at the master with bewildered eyes, cried:
"Where—where am I? What—what's the matter? Oh, it's Mr. Weevil. I beg your pardon, sir; but you so startled me. Is anything wrong?"
"No; nothing wrong." Then the master added with a grim smile: "I only wanted to see if you were quite—comfortable."
"As comfortable as one can be in a place like this, sir."
"It was your own fault you came here, remember, and it is an easy matter for you to come out. I hope you've decided to give me an explanation to-morrow of that disgraceful scene I witnessed in the grounds."
Stanley did not answer; and Mr. Weevil went out, locking the door once more behind him. It was not till he had gained his room that Paul crept from under the bed.
"I put him off the scent, didn't I?" whispered Stanley. "If I hadn't started up like I did, he would have looked under the bed. I'm certain he would."
"Very likely. The fat would have been in the fire then, with a vengeance. But how about the explanation he asks for? Why not? A few words will do it."
"It's not coming from me, if I stick here the term through," came the dogged answer. "Let Newall speak first; I'll follow."
Paul knew that it was extremely difficult to move Stanley from his purpose, when once he had decided on it. So he did not press the matter further just then, hoping that the morning would bring some change in the situation. His mind went back to the scene in the next room, and Stanley's went in the same direction, for the next moment he changed the subject by asking:
"How did Weevil get to know that man Zuker, I wonder?"
"That's what puzzles me. The only explanation I can see is that Weevil came across him in his travels, and is rubbing up his German by talking with him. Or perhaps they're interested in the same branch of science."
"It's rather a late hour to patter German or science, isn't it?"
The same thing occurred to Paul, but he could think of no other explanation of the mystery.
"I wonder if the light's out now?"
Paul climbed to the dormer, and, gently opening the window, looked along to that of the next room. It was now in darkness.
"Well, now you had better get back to your own bed," said Stanley, when Paul had communicated to him the news.
"I've come here for a night's lodging, and you're not going to be so hard-hearted as to turn me out."
Stanley did not speak—in fact, he would have found it difficult at that moment. The fidelity of his friend appealed to him as few things could have done. It made him feel awfully soft, like a big girl or one of the kids in the junior forms. A senior schoolboy has always a great aversion to the display of emotion. He has a notion that it's unmanly and weak; so that when Stanley did speak he assumed a gruffness he was far from feeling.
"Well, you're a muff—that's all I've got to say. I kick in my sleep sometimes—fearfully; so if you should find yourself on the floor in the night time, don't say that I haven't warned you."
Paul smiled as he coiled himself up by the side of his chum; and soon they were fast asleep. Paul woke up at daybreak, and having expressed a hope that he would see Stanley back in his place that day, returned without mishap to his dormitory. The light was only just stealing into the room as he entered. His three companions seemed to be sleeping as placidly as they had done when he left them.
"I wonder if I've been missed?" he asked himself, as he looked at the sleepers. "I don't think so."
Had he seen the figure in the end bed—the same that had watched him the night before—open his eyes cautiously, and watch him curiously when his back was turned, he would have come to a different conclusion. However, he was just as unconscious that Parfitt was watching him as he had been the night before. He lay down for another hour, then rose before first bell had sounded, washed, dressed, and went out into the grounds.
Early as it was he found Harry Moncrief there before him. He wore rather a dejected appearance.
"I've had a beastly night, Paul," he said, coming forward to greet him. "I couldn't sleep thinking of Stan. It's the longest night I've ever had, and all the other fellows were snoring like steam-engines, except that new chap, Hibbert. I rather fancy Plunger had been playing pranks with his bed, but he didn't shout out or take on; so he was pluckier than I was. Do you think the fellows here will look down on me for snivelling?"
"I cannot say. I hope so. Is young Hibbert out?"
"He's somewhere about the ground, I think."
Paul searched about the ground, but could see nothing of him. He turned into the field adjoining, and there he found him, sitting on the trunk of a tree, quite apart from the other boys, with his face resting on his hands.
"He's just as soft as young Moncrief, but he's too proud to show it. He's been crying, I know."
If the boy had been, he brushed away all sign of it when he heard Paul's footsteps, and started quickly to his feet. The frightened look in his eyes disappeared when he saw who it was. They grew quite bright in an instant.
"What are you doing here, youngster?" said Paul kindly, placing a hand upon the boy's shoulder. "You're not going to be a moper, are you? That will never do."
"A moper? No; but I'm different, I think, from most other boys. God has made me different, you see"—with a feeble attempt at a smile, as he glanced at his shoulder, "I don't care for the games most boys care for, and—and I like quiet places like this, away from the crowd."
Paul could not help a feeling of pity as he followed the boy's glance to his deformed shoulder. He was acutely sensitive to his deformity, and that, perhaps, was the main reason why he shrank from the society of other boys—why he preferred solitude.
"Have the youngsters in your dormitory been ill-treating you?" he asked, regarding Hibbert closely as he put the question.
"Oh, no!" came the quick answer. "They've had their fun, of course, which I enjoyed as much as any of them. I never mind a joke—indeed I don't; so don't think they put upon me."
Paul did not inquire what the jokes were. It was not well to inquire too curiously into the jokes of the juniors. He had been through that mill himself. Besides, though he pitied Hibbert, he didn't want to encourage him to tell tales out of school, especially as the boy seemed averse to the practice.
"You're a plucky little chap and as good as you're plucky, I'll warrant."
"Good—good? No, don't say that!" cried Hibbert, so earnestly that Paul could not help regarding him in wonder.
He stood with his thin hands pressed tightly into each other, so that the nails seemed piercing into his flesh; and the eyes that looked into Paul's were quite wild and restless. In that moment it flashed into Paul's mind that he had seen eyes like Hibbert's before, but where he could not for the life of him make out.
"Well, I won't say it if you don't like it," he laughed; "but you're the first one I've ever met with who objected to being thought good. I won't ruffle your feathers again. Come, let's get back to the ground!"
On entering the ground one of the first they came across was Newall, along with his crony, Parfitt. Remembering the cruel jibe Newall had flung at Hibbert on the previous day, and what had afterwards happened between him and Stanley, Paul tried to avoid him. He felt as though he could hardly trust himself in his presence. But Newall would not be avoided. He came straight to them, and great was Paul's surprise when he said:
"I think the advice you gave me yesterday was right enough, Percival. I ought to have spoken when the master asked for an explanation of the shindy between Moncrief and me. It might have saved him a night in that solitary hole—Dormitory X. But I mean speaking up this morning."
"I'm very glad to hear it. I'm sure it's the right thing. Moncrief will be as pleased as I am."
"Do you think so? Well, I'm glad of that; and I'm glad you think it's the right thing. I've slept on it, and that's what it's come to. Do you know, Percival, I'm beginning to think you an authority on the right thing to do? Parfitt is of the same mind. We were talking it over as you came up, so your ears must have been burning."
Paul regarded him quickly. Was he in jest or earnest? His face was perfectly grave; so was the face of Parfitt.
"Thanks for your flattering opinion. I shall know exactly how much to take to myself after you've spoken to Mr. Weevil."
In spite of the apparent frankness of his manner and sincerity of tone, Paul could not help thinking that Newall was quietly mocking him—that he had no intention whatever of speaking to the master.
"That's the boy who called me a dromedary," said Hibbert, as they turned away. "I shan't forget him. He has a cruel face."
Hibbert spoke with more bitterness than Paul had yet heard from him, and there was a sparkle in his eyes, which sometimes had so much pain in them, that Paul had never seen in them before.
"Now, look here, youngster, if you're going to remember every rough word you hear at Garside, you'll have to have a very good memory. So take my advice, forget all the things that aren't worth remembering, and remember only those that are. The jibe that fell from Newall isn't worth remembering. It's one of the things to forget. Promise me that you'll forget it?"
"I'll try, as you ask me," said the boy sincerely, "though it'll be jolly hard. Things worth remembering! Yes, I know of one—your kindness. I shall always remember that."
And before Paul could answer him he was gone.
"A queer little beggar!" thought Paul. "He's got a good heart, though, in spite of the queer outside of him. Poor little chap, how lonely he seems!"
Paul was more anxious than he had been for a long time for school to begin that day. It seemed for the sole purpose of thwarting him that it commenced later instead of earlier. Instead of commencing at the usual hour only one of the masters out of the six entered as the clock struck nine. Ten minutes elapsed, and still no masters. The boys commenced talking in whispers. What had happened? Something was wrong. An accident must have happened. Or could it be that the illness of the Head had taken a turn for the worse?
Paul feared that the absence of the masters must be in some way due to Stanley. Perhaps they had discovered the visit he—Paul—had paid him in the night. Perhaps they were discussing what was to be done with him. These and a hundred other suspicions flashed through his mind as he waited the entrance of the masters.
The hubbub in the school had grown louder. The boys no longer talked in whispers; their tongues were wagging loudly. Mr. Travers, the master in charge, made no effort to restrain them. He was himself talking to one of the Sixth Form boys.
Suddenly, however, he broke off, and pressed the bell.
"Silence!" he cried.
In an instant the hubbub of voices ceased, as the door opened and the masters, headed by Mr. Weevil, entered the room.
TORN FROM THE BLACK BOOK
Mr. Weevil came to his desk. The other masters took up their positions at the head of the different forms. Mr. Weevil half closed his eyes for an instant; then, opening them, fixed them fully upon the eager boys before him as he said:
"I have a few words to say to you before work commences, boys, and I regret to say they are not of a very pleasant character. A most discreditable act—a criminal act—has been committed since we last met in this hall. This desk"—he turned from the boys to the desk, and brought his hand down upon it sharply—"has been forced open during the night, and five pages torn from the Black Book. That is not all. Admiral Talbot—one of the esteemed governors of this school—has offered a valuable prize, as you are all aware, for the best essay on 'The Invasion of Great Britain.' I have taken a great interest in the subject, and had prepared a few notes, together with a rough plan of the attempt made by the Dutch under Admiral Tromp to reach these shores. Those notes have gone."
The boys glanced from one to the other as Mr. Weevil paused. Who was guilty? They had no great love for the Black Book, for in the pages of that black-bound ledger were entered the names of every culprit who had been guilty of breaking the rules and had received punishment at the hands of the masters. It could be brought forward at any time in evidence against them. They would willingly have stood by and seen it burnt, but forcing open the master's desk, stealing from it important papers, and tearing leaves from the dreaded book was another matter. It was theft—theft, too, under its worst guise, for the desk had been opened at night-time, when the rest of the school were supposed to be sleeping.
"The last entry I made in this book," went on Mr. Weevil, holding up the Black Book, "was last evening, immediately after school was over. I had entered in it the reason of my sending Moncrief to Dormitory X. Before returning the book to its place, I glanced through my notes; then placed the book on top of them, and locked the desk. I entered the room about half-past eight this morning, and, on going to my desk, at once found that it had been opened—for what despicable purpose I have explained to you. In the absence of Dr. Colville, I consulted with my colleagues—your masters. That is the reason why the school has not commenced at the usual hour. We have looked at the matter in every way, and can only come to the conclusion that some one amongst you has been guilty of this petty felony. The culprit is pretty well sure to be found out in the long run, so that it will be much better for him to speak up now. The longer he keeps silent, the heavier will be his punishment. Now, then, I am waiting."
Deep silence fell upon the school. Still, the boys glanced from one to the other. Parfitt flashed a look along the form to where Paul was sitting. Baldry quietly pinched Plunger, and Plunger returned the compliment by kicking him under the form; but no word broke the silence.
Failing to get an answer to his appeal, Mr. Weevil tried another plan.
"Did any boy leave his dormitory after lights were out last night?"
A struggle went on in Paul's breast for a moment. Should he speak, or should he remain silent? If he spoke he would bring upon himself the terrible suspicion that he had broken open the master's desk, and had torn out the leaves in which were recorded the punishment of Stanley Moncrief. It was well known also that he was one of the competitors for the essay prize.
And then if he confessed the real reason of his absence from his dormitory, who would believe him? Certainly not Mr. Weevil. How could he convince him that he was in Dormitory X that night, for had he not crawled under the bed at the time he looked in? Should he speak—should he speak? Again and again Paul asked himself the question. Why should he? What had his absence from his dormitory to do with the theft from the master's desk? He had been nowhere near the master's desk, so what was the use of speaking? Looking up, he caught the glance of Parfitt.
"What the deuce is Parfitt glaring at me for?" he thought. "Is it possible that he could have seen me leave the dormitory?"
As he put to himself the question, the voice of Mr. Weevil once more broke the silence:
"Does any boy know whether any of his companions was absent from his dormitory last night? Don't let him keep silent under any false notion of honour. It is for the honour of the school that he should speak. If he speaks, I will take care that no punishment falls upon him."
Paul sat rigid as stone. If Parfitt saw him leave the dormitory, now was his time to speak; but no voice broke the silence.
"Very well; I had hoped that the culprit would own up to his fault, or that we should have had assistance from some of you to find him out. I am disappointed in my expectation. As I have been unable to find the culprit with your assistance, I must do so without it. And be sure I will," added Mr. Weevil firmly.
Prayers were said and a hymn sung, and the boys were on the point of filing out to the different class-rooms, when Newall stepped up to Mr. Weevil's desk.
"I hope Moncrief isn't to be kept in Dormitory X any longer, sir," he said.
"What's it to do with you—eh?"
"You forget, sir. I was in the row. I ought to have spoken at the time; it was I really started the row—not Moncrief."
"You, was it? Let me hear how it all happened."
"Well, I was chaffing a new boy, and the new boy happened to be Moncrief's cousin. It upset Moncrief, and I ought to have left off; but I didn't. I kept it up, and that's how it was Moncrief came to strike me."
"Well, it's very honourable of you to own up to it. If every boy in the school was as honest as you, Newall, we should soon find out who was the culprit who went to my desk. Moncrief was guilty of a Quixotic act of disobedience, as it turns out, and I think, in the circumstances he has been sufficiently punished. It is due to you that he is released."
Newall was quite the hero of the school that morning. He had done a manly thing in speaking up for Moncrief. That was the general opinion. Paul thought the same. He had scarcely expected Newall would act up to the promise that he had given him, but he had carried it out to the letter. He had, somehow, never liked him, but he couldn't be such a bad sort of fellow, after all.
"I must try to get over my prejudice against him," he thought.
So Stanley came back to his form, looking none the worse for the night he had spent in Dormitory X.
It was not, however, till he and Paul were in the grounds that they had the chance of speaking together.
"I thought Weevil meant keeping me in that wretched dormitory another day and night," Stanley said, as Paul cordially greeted him. "How did he come to let me out, I wonder?"
"Have you been speaking up for me?"
"No; Mr. Weevil wouldn't listen to me yesterday, and he wouldn't have listened this morning. Guess again."
"My young cousin, I suppose," answered Stanley, after a moment's reflection. "Has he been crying to Weevil?"
"Oh, bother! I give it up, then! Who was it?"
"You would never guess. Newall!"
"What?" Stanley stared at Paul incredulously.
"Fact—Newall. And he did it very well, too. He owned up frankly before the masters and all the school that it was he who commenced the quarrel."
"Why, I thought he told you that he wouldn't speak?"
"So he did; but he has altered his mind, you see. He told me he was going to speak, but I couldn't believe my ears till I actually heard him. A night's reflection has done him good, though he hadn't the benefit of a change of air in Dormitory X. It's really very decent of him, and I rather fancy if I were in your place——"
He paused, as though reflecting on what he should do if he were in Stanley's place.
"Well, if you were in my place—go on."
"I should go up to Newall and shake hands with him."
"Would you really?" said Stanley haltingly. "I—I—don't think I can do that, Paul. There's so much bad blood between us."
"All the more reason you should shake hands. It's wonderful what a shake of the hands does for bad blood. It's the finest leech in the world—takes all the bad blood out."
"Oh, you're a better fellow than I am, and can do that sort of thing. I can't!"
"Nonsense! It's like a plunge into cold water—quite nice when the plunge is once made. Come along! I'll go with you."
He tucked his arm in Stanley's, and together they went in search of Newall. They found him with Parfitt and another companion. Stanley walked up to him.
"I hear that it's through you, Newall, I've got out of that den I was in last night. You've done me a good turn, and, if—if—you don't mind, I'd like to shake hands with you."
He held out his hand as he spoke, but Newall took no notice of it. He looked straight at Stanley.
"I really didn't know that I'd done you a good turn. What was the good turn?"
"Speaking up for me this morning to Mr. Weevil, and getting me out of that wretched dormitory."
"Oh, that"—he broke into a mocking laugh—"that! You call that a good turn?"
A wave of scarlet came to Stanley's face. The extended hand fell to his side. He looked to Paul. Had his friend deceived him? Was this only a ruse on his part to make him shake hands with Newall, or had Newall taken leave of his senses? He could learn nothing from Paul's face, except that it looked just as mystified as he was.
"Certainly it was a good turn. I thoroughly upset Weevil yesterday, and goodness knows how much longer he would have kept me a prisoner if you hadn't spoken up for me, as Percival here tells me you did."
"Of course he did," put in Paul cheerfully. "He spoke up to Weevil like a brick. It's no use trying to hide your light under a bushel, Newall."
"Yes, it's true enough I spoke up to Weevil"—the mocking laughter had died out of Newall's eyes, and there was now a cruel, vindictive light in them, just as there had been when Paul had spoken to him the day before—"and it's true enough I wanted to get you out of that hole in the roof. But it wasn't to shake hands with you. Not at all. I got you out of that den so that I might meet you squarely face to face."
Stanley began to understand. It was not from any kindly motive Newall had spoken up for him that morning. The bitterness of his words now told him that, and the vindictiveness in his eyes spoke even plainer than speech. Paul had been deceived, and he had been deceived. Why had he demeaned himself by asking a fellow like Newall to shake hands with him? He ought to have known better from past experience.
"You understand?" went on Newall in the same bitter tone. "Oh, yes, I see you do. You struck me a blow. The marks of it are still here, you see"—pointing to his lip, which was discoloured and cut. "I'm glad of it. It kept me awake last night, thinking of you. And when I looked at myself in the glass this morning, I thought of you again. It's nice to have a memento of your friends, don't you think so?"
Stanley did not answer. What answer was possible to these mocking jibes? Paul was silent, too. All power of speech seemed taken from him.
"Well, I mean having that blow back—the cowardly blow you gave me over Percival's shoulder. I could give it to you now"—his fist was clenched as though he would have dearly liked to make good his words—"but that would only mean that one or the other would be sent to the den from which I've just rescued you. That would be idiotic and make matters worse."
"You mean to say that you don't wish to end the quarrel between us. You wish to fight it out to the bitter end?" demanded Stanley, at last finding voice.
"You've got it!" came the slow, firm answer—"to the bitter end!"
FOR THE HONOUR OF THE FORM
Paul was grieved at the turn things had taken. Just at the moment when he thought the quarrel ended it had burst out again in a deadlier form. Stanley was very pale. His hands were clenched, as were the hands of Newall, and the passion that distorted the one face was reflected in a lesser degree in the other. Hate never was, and never will be, a beautifier of the face. Like some subtle acid, it makes ugly lines. You will never see those lines in a beautiful or noble face, boys and girls. So, if you want to keep from getting ugly, never hate.
Stanley was not only angry at the jibes of Newall, but angry at being led into a false position.
"I really had no wish to shake hands with you. I'm just as keen on fighting it out as you are," he began.
"One minute," interrupted Paul, stepping between them. "Let me have a word."
"You get out of it, and speak when you're spoken to!" cried Newall roughly. "It was through you coming between us that I got this beauty-spot yesterday"—pointing to his swollen lip. "Hadn't you poked your nose in where it wasn't wanted this wouldn't have happened, and I would have given a good account of myself."
"Sorry, and yet, come to think of it, I'm rather glad," answered Paul calmly, and not receding an inch from the position he had taken up.
"Glad! How do you mean?"
"Why, if it was through me you got that blow, your quarrel's with me, and not Moncrief. What's the use of trying to pay back to him what you owe to me?"
This was a novel way of looking at the dispute which had not occurred to Newall. As he was not ready with an answer, Paul went on:
"Besides, it was you who got me to speak to Moncrief on—excuse me saying so—false pretences. I thought you wanted to end the quarrel, to shake hands with him, and have done with it. It wasn't shaking hands you wanted, it seems, but clenched fists. I brought him here on a fool's errand; so the quarrel's mine, not his."
Stanley wished to step in again, but Paul gently yet firmly held his ground.
"I don't understand quite what you're driving at," said Newall. "It's a bit of a riddle; but if you want a thrashing as well as your friend, I dare say you can be obliged, but he comes first. Let him speak for himself. You can speak for yourself after. Now, Moncrief, no more shirking."
"It's my quarrel, I say," Paul answered in the same firm tone, and still keeping Stanley back. "Of course, you think different, and Moncrief here thinks different, so let's appeal to the Form."
"What's that?" cried Newall.
"Appeal to the Form. The fellows will see things clearer than we can."
The suggestion took Newall's breath away.
"You really mean it?"
"I really mean it."
Newall thought a moment. An appeal to the Form was altogether a new thing, but as he had not the slightest doubt as to which way they would decide, why should he not fall in with it?
"Does Moncrief agree to that?" Stanley nodded.
"Very well; let it be as you say, Percival—an appeal to the Form."
Paul, gratified that the quarrel had received a momentary check, was turning away with Stanley, when Parfitt, who had scarcely spoken throughout the scene, touched him on the shoulder.
"One minute. Just a little word with you."
He used in effect the same words as Paul had used when he stood between Newall and Stanley.
"Didn't you find it rather cold in the corridor last night—eh?" he asked, with a meaning smile.
Before Paul could answer, Parfitt followed in the footsteps of Newall.
Cold in the corridor last night? What did Parfitt mean? The instant Paul put to himself the question the answer came to him—Parfitt must have seen him leave the dormitory in the night. Was there anything else in his question? Yes, he felt sure there was something behind it.
"What was it, Paul? What did he want with you?" asked Stanley, coming up to him.
"He wanted to know whether I was in the corridor last night. I thought all the fellows were asleep, but he must have been awake, playing the spy."
"What of it? You're not the first fellow who's been in the corridor after 'lights out' by long chalks."
"It was not that—it was not being in the corridor, and Parfitt knowing it—troubles me. But there's something else—much worse—a beastly insinuation. Phew!"
The air seemed to have suddenly grown oppressive to Paul. He was no longer the calm, cool, self-reliant fellow who had stood between Stanley and Newall.
"Beastly insinuation! What?"
"You do not know what has happened. While I was with you in Dormitory X some one entered the big hall, broke open Weevil's desk, took out the Black Book, and tore from it the last five pages. That wasn't all. The culprit, whoever he was, took away some rough notes and plans Weevil had made on the subject of the prize essay, 'The Invasion of Great Britain.' Well, do you see now what Parfitt means to insinuate? He means to insinuate that I am the culprit—that I was the one who broke open Mr. Weevil's desk, tore the leaves from the Black Book, and stole the master's notes."
"No, no; it can't be!" exclaimed Stanley, aghast.
"It can be, and is; I am sure of it. That is the reason why Parfitt called me aside in such a mysterious manner."
"The mean cad! But supposing he does wish to insinuate such a dastardly thing, you've an easy answer. Are you forgetting what you said just now—you were with me last night in Dormitory X?"
"I'm not forgetting, Stan. It's you. Supposing I confessed what actually happened—that I was with you, and did not go near the master's desk last night; and supposing you said exactly the same thing—what then? You forget what happened. Mr. Weevil looked in the dormitory, you remember; looked round the dormitory, you remember, and spoke to you. He saw nothing of me, because I was hiding. If I said that I was in Dormitory X last night, therefore, the master himself would accuse me of falsehood; and he would have the same answer for you if you backed me up."
Stanley did not at once answer. He could now see clearly enough the false position in which his friend had been placed in coming to share with him in his punishment. But he could only see the chivalry of it. He did not see that the step, chivalrous though it might be, had been a wrong step, and was bringing in its train the consequences of wrong-doing.
"Mr. Weevil questioned the school this morning before you returned," Paul went on. "'Had any one left his dormitory during the night?' he asked. Perhaps I ought to have spoken then; but I let the chance go."
"And Parfitt did not speak?"
"No; but I can see plainly enough now that it wasn't out of any kindness to me. He kept quiet so that he should hold the secret over me like a whip. He gave me the first taste of the thong just now, and—and—it cuts into a fellow."
Stanley could see the pain in Paul's face, as though he could feel the thong descending upon his shoulders at that moment. He, too, could feel something of the same pain. His head fell to his breast. He blamed himself for having been the cause of all this misery. But suddenly he looked up again, and his face brightened.
"The game's ours!" he cried.
"What do you mean?"
"You twitted me just now about forgetting things, but we've both forgotten something—Weevil and Zuker. You've forgotten what you saw in the master's room when you came to me last night."
"Supposing I had; how does that help?"
"Cannot you see?" went on Stanley, quite excited. "Let's put our heads together for a moment and work it out. Supposing you go to Weevil and tell him straight out that you weren't in your dorm last night, but with me. He contradicts you point-blank. 'You could not have been with Moncrief, because I looked in at his dormitory at midnight and saw that no one else was there.' Then you bring forward your next piece, and cry, 'I think I can prove to you, sir, that I was in Dormitory X last night.' 'Your proof, quick!' 'My proof is that as I was passing by your room I happened to glance in at the window, and saw you with another gentleman—ahem!—looking over some papers.' Check! You have the master on toast, Paul. The case for the defence will be clear. Do you follow me?"
Paul did not answer. He saw that this was one solution of the problem; but he was not certain that it was the best.
"Well, what are you thinking about, old chap? Your face is as long as a fiddle."
"Your suggestion is a good one, Stan," answered Paul slowly, as though he were still following his thoughts; "but I don't think that I'll act upon it—just yet."
"Let's work my reasons out as you worked yours—shall we? Reason number one: We have cause to be suspicious of Mr. Weevil, the master in charge of this school during the absence of the Head. Heaven grant that our suspicions may be wrong, but we have reason to suppose that he is in league with a traitor. Am I clear, Stan?"
"Reason number two: If I told Mr. Weevil what I saw through his window on my way to you I might clear myself, but it would at once put him on his guard, and we should never have another chance of proving whether our suspicions are true or false. Is that clear, too?"
"Well, thirdly and lastly: Don't you think it will be better to keep what we know up our sleeves for the present, in view of what may come after?"
"You're right, Paul, as you always are!" exclaimed Stanley enthusiastically.
"No, old fellow, there is only One who is always right," answered Paul earnestly. "We're always patting ourselves on the back and fancying ourselves mighty clever; but we're not. We're asses—always slipping and tumbling about, and when not doing that, running down the wrong road and butting our stupid heads against posts or walls. Asses, all of us—some big, some little."
"Where do you come in, Paul?" laughed Stanley.
"Amongst the mediums," Paul laughed back; but as he turned towards the school his face grew grave again. He had tried to reason things out, but the way before him did not seem so clear as he could have wished. There were pitfalls before him, into one of which he might stumble at any moment. And as he thought there came to him the lines of a hymn he had often heard his mother sing:
"Lord, bring me to resign My doubting heart to Thee; And, whether cheerful or distressed, Thine, Thine alone to be. My only aim be this— Thy purpose to fulfil, In Thee rejoice with all my strength, And do Thy Holy will."
Entering the school, he sought out Hasluck, head of the Fifth. He was a quiet, studious boy, with glasses. He did not take a very prominent part in the sports, but none the less he was keen on the honour of his form, inside or outside the school.
"I want you to call a meeting of the Form, Hasluck—to-night."
"A little matter between Newall, Moncrief, and me. It touches the honour of the Form."
And Hasluck at once consented.
"Meeting of the Fifth in the Forum."
The whisper had travelled from form to form, and, as invariably happened, conjecture was busy as to what the meeting of the Fifth could be for.
"It's a breach-of-promise case they've got on!" said Freddy Plunger confidentially to half a dozen members of the Third who had been discussing the event.
"Breach of promise?" repeated Baldry. "None of your gammon, Freddy!"
"Fact! Haven't you heard? One of the freshers has been making desperate love to the matron—giving her his portrait, with his love, and that sort of thing. You wouldn't wonder at it from an old stager like you, Baldry, or Sedgeley; but from a fresher—well, it's awful, isn't it? What's the school coming to—that's what I should like to know?"
Harry Moncrief blushed to the roots of his hair as the boys standing round Plunger turned to him and tittered.
"What are the damages?"
"A broken topper, a pair of plaids, a white waistcoat, and spats over patents."
More titters, and more glances in the direction of Harry. He knew well enough that this reference on Plunger's part was meant for him to the costume with which he had adorned himself on his coming to Garside.
"Plunger's been crowing it over me ever since I came here. I shall have to take it out of him," he thought.
The outburst of laughter that followed did not mend matters. So he hastened away, in no pleasant mood, without any regard to whither he was going. He came to a stop when he reached the cricketing-shed, in the playing-fields adjoining the school. It was this shed which was known as "The Forum." Here it was that the meeting of the Fifth was to be held.
Harry stopped and regarded it with some interest.
"Stan will be at the meeting, I suppose, and Paul Percival. Wouldn't I like to know what it's all about!"
He had an uncomfortable feeling that things weren't going quite smoothly with his cousin and Paul Percival. Bit by bit the glamour with which he had viewed the school was wearing off. He no longer regarded it through rose-coloured glasses. Plunger had lorded it over him and made fun of him; his cousin and Paul, whom he had expected to find on the same footing as himself, might have been in a different world, so great was the difference between the upper and lower forms.
The dormitory, to which he had looked forward with still greater pleasure, had proved a delusion and a snare. Often, in the bitterness of his experience in the dormitory, had he wished himself back in his warm and comfortable bed at home. He did not see—did not understand that the trials upon which he was entering were just those which were moulding him for the future. They were to test and try him, as they had tested and tried many others before him.
Some of you who read this may be going through the same experience as Harry Moncrief. Remember, rough as the experience may be, it goes to make the man in you, and it depends upon you whether you come from these trials dross or pure gold.
By the side of the shed where Harry was standing there was a window, thick with dust. Harry tried to look through the window, but, failing in this, his forefinger went idly to work on the dust. Bit by bit he traced out a face and head, almost without knowing it, for he had been thinking of the meeting that was to take place in the shed rather than of his sketch.
"My, it isn't at all bad!" he cried, standing back a pace and admiring his handiwork when he had finished it. "If I'd really tried, I couldn't have done it so well. Perhaps the nose doesn't stick up enough, but it's got the right cut about it."
Harry was about to rub out the sketch, when he paused, as though reluctant to rub out such a masterpiece.
"'Pon my word, it's rather good! I wonder if anybody would know who it's meant for? I don't suppose anybody will. I've a jolly good mind to leave it!"
He pronounced the last words with emphasis, turned on his heels, and walked away.
Now it so happened that after Plunger and his companions had enjoyed their laugh at the expense of Harry, their attention went back again to the one absorbing topic of conversation—the meeting of the Fifth.
"Shouldn't I like to be there!" said Plunger, his curiosity growing as the time for the meeting advanced. "I would like to know what's in the wind! Is it about the Black Book, I wonder?"
"What's that to do with the Fifth any more than the rest of us?" remarked Sedgeley.
"Oh, the Fifth always put a lot of side on, and like to cock it over us!" retorted Plunger.
"You'll be just the same, Freddy, when you're sent up—if ever you are sent up," remarked Baldry. "Sour grapes!"
"Shut up, Baldhead!" retorted Plunger hotly. "I never want to get amongst the Fifth bounders. It's that keeps me back. I could have got up in the Fourth at last exam., only I said to myself: 'No; it takes me one form nearer the Fifth bounders.'" He paused for a moment, then added: "All the same, I would like to know what they're going to gas about in the Forum. P'r'aps it's about us—p'r'aps they mean sitting on us a lot more than they do now."
"P'r'aps!" repeated Sedgeley and Baldry reflectively.
"I—I've a good mind to try. Why should the Fifth have it all to themselves? If—if I could only steal a march on them!"
"If you only could, Freddy!" remarked Sedgeley encouragingly.
For the next few minutes there was some whispering together, and the end of it was that Plunger and his companions strolled in the same direction as that Harry Moncrief had strolled in a quarter of an hour or so before.
On arriving at the shed, they reconnoitred around it, uncertain as to whether or not anybody was within.
Sedgeley happened by chance to look through—or tried to look through—the window on which Harry had left a specimen of his handiwork.
His attention was at once arrested. He regarded the face seriously for a moment; then he broke into a shout of laughter.
"What are you playing the silly goat for?" demanded Plunger wrathfully from somewhere in the rear of the shed.
"Come here, Baldry, Bember, Viner!" exclaimed Sedgeley, vainly endeavouring to stifle his laughter.
The three came hurrying up, followed by Plunger, in a violent state of agitation.
"You'll spoil all, you braying ass, you laughing hyena, you giddy——"
Then he paused, as Baldry, Bember, and Viner, after a glance at the pane, burst into laughter also. "What is it, you laughing lunatics—what——"
Plunger said no more. His jaw dropped, as, following their gaze, he gazed in turn on the window-pane.
"Jolly good likeness, isn't it, Baldry?" Sedgeley at length managed to remark.
"My!" cried Baldry, with his hand on his side, as though he'd got a stitch in it. "Hold me up!"
"I—I don't see what there's to laugh at," Plunger at length remarked, with a face as red as a turkey-cock's.
"What, don't you see it, Freddy?"
"The likeness—oh, my side! Don't you know that nose—that hair. I should know 'em anywhere."
Now, Plunger had a very characteristic nose—it was a combative nose, and a decided pug. So was the nose on the window-pane. Plunger's hair, too, was peculiar to Plunger. It was wiry, stubborn hair, with a tuft in front which resembled the comb of a turkey-cock. The same peculiarity was seen in the head on the window. And Plunger's eyebrows had a way of mounting to his head, as though they were anxious to get on terms of friendship with the tuft above. The same eccentricity was noticeable in the eyebrows on the window-pane.
"No. I don't know 'em—not a bit. Who do you say they're meant for?" came in jerks from Plunger.
"Who—who? Oh, dear, oh, dear! Why, they're meant for you, Freddy! It's awfully funny, isn't it? I didn't know that your face was so comical!"
Plunger shrugged his shoulders, and affected indifference. He wasn't a bit like that caricature. It was only Sedgeley pretended to see the likeness, and made the other fellows see it with his eyes. At the same time he put out his hand to rub out the sketch. Sedgeley stopped him.
"If it isn't meant for you, Freddy, we may as well see who it is meant for."
"Just as you like," answered Plunger, in his most indifferent tone.
Having assured themselves that there was no one inside, three of the conspirators—Sedgeley, Baldry, and Plunger—entered the shed. A quarter of an hour elapsed, then the door opened; but, instead of the three figures that entered, only two came out—Sedgeley and Baldry. All was silent within. Plunger had disappeared as completely as though he had dropped through the earth.
"All serene?" queried Bember, as the two made their appearance.
"All serene!" came the answer.
* * * * *
At seven o'clock the Fifth Form began to put in an appearance at the shed. Arbery and Leveson were two of the first. They lit a candle, and stuck it in a tin candle-stick. Then they rolled out one of the boxes that were piled up at the back, placed it lengthwise, so as to form a rostrum, and covered it with a baize cloth. On the top of this they placed a wooden mallet, used for knocking in the stumps in the cricketing season.
"Sounds all right," said Leveson, giving the mallet a flourish over his head, and bringing it down sharply on top of the box. "Order—order for the chair!"
Down it came a second time.
"Friends, Romans, and Countrymen——"
"Drop the cackle, Levy," shouted Arbery, "and give me a hand."
He was pulling out some of the boxes, and Leveson lent him a hand to arrange them as seats. It so happened that in one of the most dilapidated of these boxes, which had rested for weeks in the darkest corner of the shed, Frederick Plunger, Esq. was reposing. It had been selected as the most suitable hiding-place by the conspirators. It was large and commodious, and there were so many cracks and crannies in the worm-eaten, dilapidated lid that there was ample breathing space within.
In this safe hiding-place Plunger had flattered himself that he would be able to know all that passed at the meeting of the Fifth. He had not calculated on the box being shifted from its dusty, cob-webbed corner. But more by chance than design Arbery laid profane hands on it, and dragging it out with the rest, turned it over and over, something after the style of a porter with the luggage at a railway terminus in the busy season.
Bumpety—bumpety! It seemed to Plunger, so far as he had any sensation at all, that he was performing the part of a human catherine-wheel.
"My!" he gasped. "What are the asses doing with the box? I shall be most frightfully sick if they don't stop it."
"Oh, oh! What an idiot I was to get inside this coffin; it'll be the death of me!"
Arbery and Leveson gave another jerk to the box even as Plunger was groaning within.
"It—it—it's worse than being on the Great Wheel, or on a pleasure boat when there's a sea on. Oh, my—oh dear! When are the silly fellows going to stop it?" he moaned.
At last they did stop it, almost beneath the identical window on which Moncrief minor had traced Plunger's noble features.
"That's about the ticket, isn't it, Arbery? My, it's hot work! Didn't think that old box was so heavy. You'd fancy it was stuffed with lead instead of broken bats and rubbish of that sort. Phew!"
Leveson wiped his forehead with his handkerchief.
"Yes; that's the thing. It'll give an extra seat or two, if they're wanted."
"My word! They're going to sit on me," groaned Plunger. His groans were cut short by a loud outburst of laughter from Arbery.
"What's the lunatic laughing at now?" thought Plunger.
"Hold me up, Levy!" Arbery in rising from the box had caught sight of the caricature of Plunger on the window, and burst into a fit of laughter. "Do you see it—do you see who it's meant for?"
Leveson, for answer, likewise broke into a peal of laughter.
"The other lunatic's going it now," Plunger muttered to himself. "Seems to me I've hopped into an asylum instead of a box. There's a screw loose in one of 'em. My! Aren't they going it. Wish I could get a peep out of this beastly timber yard. I'd like to see what they're grinning at. Hark at 'em. They're off again."
At last Leveson stopped.
"See it," he cried. "Who could help it? Jolly good, isn't it? Like the young bounder to a T—the same nose, the same coarse wiry thatch, the same eyebrows running away from the forehead into the middle of next week."
The perspiration began to ooze from Plunger. He had an uneasy feeling as to whom they were referring.
"Young bounder!" he repeated. "Coarse, wiry thatch, eyebrows running away from the forehead. Leveson thinks that awfully smart, I s'pose? Still it—it—must be a bit like."
Plunger had the additional pleasure of hearing more laughter at his expense as other scholars of the Fifth entered, and added their criticisms to Leveson's. Plunger's ears tingled as they had never tingled before, for never before had he heard himself so freely criticised. In addition to the not very flattering remarks "the bounders of the Fifth" had to pass on his features, Plunger had to listen to terse descriptions of himself as "that ass, Plunger," "a mixed pickle," "a queer egg," "conceited young biped," and so on.
Plunger made remarks of his own as these pleasant criticisms reached his ears. They were scarcely less vigorous than those descriptive of himself, and were fairly divided between "those bounders of the Fifth" and "the fellow who had scratched things" on the window. But unfortunately Plunger's eloquence was wasted, as neither the "bounders of the Fifth" nor "the fellow who scratched things on the window" had the advantage of hearing it. His attention was soon turned from himself, however, to the proceedings that were taking place in the shed.
There were about twenty in the Fifth. Nineteen put in an appearance. Hasluck, as head of the Form, took up his place at the rostrum, while most of the others sat on the boxes which had been arranged for their convenience by Arbery and Leveson, who were known as M.C.'s—masters of ceremonies—of the Form.
"All here?" asked Hasluck, after bringing down his mallet on the box before him.
"All—except Moncrief," answered Leveson.
The absence of Moncrief had been noticed with some surprise by the Form, by none more than Newall.
"Is he coming, does any one know? If so, we'll wait a little longer."
"No; he isn't coming," answered Paul. "He wanted to; but I persuaded him to stop away."
"You persuaded him to stop away," cried Newall. "Why, it's because of him we've come here."
"Excuse me," answered Paul politely. "It's because of me. At any rate, it's for the Form to decide."
"Percival called the Form together. It's for Percival to explain," said Hasluck.
"I'll explain as well as I can," said Paul, taking a step forward, and glancing round at the faces bent eagerly forward to hear him. "There was a slight shindy, as you all know, on the first day of term, between Newall and Stanley Moncrief."
"Shindy!" interrupted Newall with a scornful sniff. "Is that all you call it?"
"Call it by what name you please; I don't mind," proceeded Paul calmly. "Newall baited Moncrief's cousin unmercifully, and Moncrief did what any other fellow in the Form worth his salt would have done—interfered. I tried to get between him and Newall to stop the quarrel. You know what happened—Newall was struck."
"Yes, Newall was struck," repeated Newall grimly.
"Yes; but after all Moncrief had a good deal the worst of it. He passed the night in Dormitory X—ten times worse punishment than anything Newall got; so he more than wiped out the blow he gave in anger to Newall."
"Oh, stop this humbug," interrupted Newall angrily. "You can see what Percival's up to. He's trying to white-wash Moncrief, who's too big a funk to come here to defend himself."
There were murmurs of assent from some of those present, who resented Moncrief's absence, and who were not favourably inclined to a tame ending of the quarrel. The more thoughtful section remained silent.
"It would have been better, I think, for Moncrief to have been here," said Hasluck. And this view was received with applause.
"If there's any blame for that," said Paul quickly, "blame me. As I've said, I persuaded him to stay away. With Moncrief here and Newall here, it would have been like two barrels of gunpowder. Just a spark, and—phwitt! bang—where should we all have been? There'd have been nothing left of us."
This time Paul carried his audience with him. They were well aware that Moncrief was hasty in temper, and that Newall was no less fiery. So they smiled at Paul's description of what might probably have happened if the two had been present.
"Besides, as I've already pointed out to Newall," continued Paul, "if there's a quarrel at all, it lies between me and him."
"Stuff—gammon—more humbug!" interrupted Newall angrily.
"That's what you think," said Paul, confronting him steadily for a moment. "After all, you only count as one. That's why I've called the Form, who count a good deal more, so that they could give their opinion. Whatever their opinion is, I'll stand to it."
"You will!" cried Newall. "That's all I want. I know well enough they won't let Moncrief wriggle out of it."
"How do you make out that the quarrel has shifted from Moncrief to you, Percival?" demanded Hasluck. "I can't quite see it."
More murmurs of assent.
"I think you will when I've finished," said Paul confidently. "Newall doesn't see it, naturally, but I think you will. This is how things stand. Newall made me believe that he was sorry for the quarrel that had taken place between him and Moncrief. On that I tried to do the right thing. I got Moncrief to go up to him and offer him his hand. I was never more disgusted in my life. Newall pretended not to see it, and said insulting things, which I need not repeat. What I say is, that when he refused to take Moncrief's hand, he insulted me more than he insulted Moncrief; for it was I who brought Moncrief to him, and it was through me Moncrief offered him his hand. That is the first point I wish the Form to decide."
Paul spoke so earnestly that he carried the Form with him. It appealed to their sense of chivalry. Percival had tried to make peace between Newall and Moncrief. Failing that, he had turned the quarrel from his friend's shoulders to his own.
First one, then the other, supported Paul, and though there was a small minority against him, there was no question as to the majority.
"We think Percival right," said Hasluck—an announcement which was received with cheers.
"That only means that the quarrel is between me and Percival," said Newall grimly. "I've no objection. I'm not going to kick against the decision of the Form." Then, turning to Paul: "You've got to pay me back the blow I had from Moncrief. P'raps the Form 'll decide when it's to be."
"You mean fighting?"
"What else should I mean?"
"I don't. We don't want to waste our energies that way when there's a much better way and better work to do."
"Trying to crawl out of it again," came in a sneering aside from Parfitt. "Was there ever such a wriggler?"
"Let's hear the better way," said Hasluck; and there were many others in the Form, in spite of the sneering remark of Parfitt, who were equally anxious to hear what "the better way" could be.
"There's a shadow resting upon the school—resting upon every one of us," said Paul solemnly.
"What shadow are you talking about?" asked Hasluck.
"The leaves from the Black Book—the stolen papers from Mr. Weevil's desk," said Paul. "Until the thief is found out, suspicion rests upon every boy in the Form—upon every boy in the school. What I suggest is, that we leave off fighting till we've found out who the thief is. I don't want to preach, but I think that will be a great deal more to our honour and the honour of our school."
Paul paused. "If Parfitt has anything to accuse me of, now will be his time," he thought.
He had not to wait long. Parfitt did speak, but scarcely in the way he had anticipated.
"Honour of the school!" he cried. "Anybody would think that Percival's the only one who cares for it. Let him take care of his own honour first, and the honour of the school will take care of itself."
Parfitt's pointed remark was loudly applauded. Paul saw that he was likely to be defeated unless he could make a stronger appeal to the sympathies of the Form.
"I don't know that my honour's questioned," he answered promptly. "Who questions it?"
"I do," retorted Parfitt.
"And I," added Newall.
Before Paul could answer, there was a knock on the door of the shed. It so startled Devey—a heavy, thick-set boy—that he over-balanced himself, and came with a crash on the box in which Plunger was hidden. Plunger had been so interested in the proceedings of the Fifth that he had lifted the lid in the slightest possible degree so that he might the better hear what was going on. When Devey came crashing on the box, Plunger thought for the moment that his head had gone from his shoulders. And then as Devey, not quite recovered from his fall, continued to sit upon the lid, he thought he would be suffocated.
Meanwhile Leveson went to the door, and demanded: "Who's there?"
"A Beetle," came the answer.
"A Beetle! What does he want?"
"He's got a challenge for the Fifth."
"A challenge for the Fifth! Oh, very kind of him!" Then, turning to Hasluck, "Shall I let him in?"
"Rather. Let's hear what the sport is."
Thereupon Leveson opened the door. Three boys were standing without—two of them belonging to the school, and the third, who stood between them, one of the much-despised Beetles—in other words, a pupil of the rival school at St. Bede's.
A CHALLENGE FROM ST. BEDE'S
The two boys who entered with the "Beetle" were Baldry and Sedgefield, the companions of Plunger. The Beetle was a sturdy, but rather heavy-featured, boy of fourteen. He wore the St. Bede's cap—dark cloth with a white shield in front, on which were worked in old English letters, "St. B.," while beneath these were three Roman capitals—"S. S. V.," the initials of the school motto, "Suis stet viribus"—"He stands on his merit."
"Why, it's Mellor," came the cry, so soon as the face of the boy from St. Bede's could be clearly seen.
Yes, it was Mellor, till recently a pupil at Garside, and formerly an occupant of the dormitory in which Harry Moncrief, Baldry and the others slept. He had left Garside last term, and, much to the disgust of his former associates, had entered as a pupil of St. Bede's. The fact was that it was not so much Mellor's work as his father's. Mellor was good at sport, but not quite as keen on learning, so that he had remained for two years in the same form along with boys who were much younger than himself. Mellor, of course, put it down to the school, and not to any lack of diligence on his part. His father fell in with the view of his son, believing him to be a "clever boy—unmistakably clever"—if the cleverness were only brought out. In the hope that this cleverness would be brought out, he had been taken from Garside and turned over to St. Bede's.
Now the conversion of a "Gargoyle" into a "Beetle" was not an easy process. He had to fit himself into new surroundings, new conditions, new methods, with new companions. And while these new companions had given him a cool reception, his old companions, thinking him fair game for ridicule and sport now that he had "gone over to the enemy," had determined on giving him a warm reception at the first opportunity.
It so happened that on the third day of Mellor's entrance at St. Bede's he chanced to meet Parfitt and a couple of companions of his in the Fifth. They had promptly seized on Mellor, and after congratulating him with mock gravity on rising to the "dignity of a Beetle," had ended by making him crawl on all fours "as a Beetle ought," and, using his back as a desk, had finally written this note on a slip of paper—"Beetle, otherwise cockroach—nocturnal insect, concealing itself in holes during the day, and crawling off at the approach of light."
This flattering description they had pinned to Mellor's back, with an intimation that he was to crawl back to his brother Beetles as quickly as possible or he would be "squashed before he could get to his hole again." Mellor, smarting under these indignities, had hastened back to St. Bede's and placed the note in the hands of one of the boys belonging to the corresponding form to that of his tormentors.
The Fifth had duly considered it, and a day later had despatched an answer with Mellor. And this was the answer: "Gargoyle, otherwise spout—receiving things that come from gutters. Meant to frighten people by making ugly faces. Good for little else. If the Fifth Form has one Gargoyle of any pluck amongst them, he will find a Fifth Form Beetle ready to meet him at the sand-pit, Cranstead Common, to-morrow afternoon, three sharp."
"It's a challenge," said Hasluck.
"Read it out," came in a chorus.
And Hasluck read it out.
"Don't you think you've got a lot of cheek to bring a note like that, Mellor," remarked Arbery when Hasluck had finished.
"Not half as much as Parfitt had in writing the one he sent by me," retorted Mellor indignantly.
"What does it feel like, being a Beetle?" asked Leveson politely. "Kitchen stuff's fattening, isn't it?"
"After going about on all fours, don't you find it a bit tricky to stand on your hind legs again?" remarked Arbery. "Want a balancing-pole, don't you?"
Before Mellor could reply, a mysterious gurgling sound came from the direction in which Devey was standing.
"Hallo, Devey, what's wrong?" demanded Hasluck, as every eye turned in his direction.
"Wrong? Nothing wrong! What do you mean?" retorted Devey, quite blushing at thus suddenly becoming the object of general attention.
"Thought you were trying to laugh. Never heard such a screech. Like a laughing hyena with the toothache. Don't do it again, there's a good chap. It'll get on our nerves."
"I haven't done anything, I tell you," exclaimed the indignant Devey. "I didn't laugh."
"It came from your corner. It must have been some of those youngsters of the Third eavesdropping outside. Chase 'em away a bit, Arbery."
Arbery, accompanied by Leveson, darted out with the object of giving the "youngsters of the Third" a bad time, but after searching around the shed, could find no sign of their presence.
"They must have scooted before we could get to them," reported Arbery on his return to the shed. "I can guess pretty well who it was—Plunger and his set."
Again that sound from Devey's corner which Hasluck had described as "a laughing hyena with the toothache"; and again all eyes went to Devey.
"Well, what the dickens are you staring at?" Devey indignantly demanded, when he thought that he had borne this scrutiny with enough patience.
"Beetles are bad enough, Devey, without paroquets," remarked Hasluck reproachfully. "If you feel bad, you'd better go out. We'll excuse you."
"It's not me, I tell you. I didn't laugh. It came from outside, or the roof, or—or somewhere," protested Devey.
Arbery and Leveson darted out again, with the same result as before. But they saw shadows in the distance which they believed to be some of their tormentors, and it was decided that they should take up a position close to the door, and at once dart out if the sound were repeated.
Devey was, of course, perfectly truthful when he had denied making the curious sound which had so startled his companions. Nor had it come from the "youngsters of the Third" outside. It came, as the reader has guessed, from the box in which Mr. Freddy Plunger was reposing. At first, when the heavy weight of Devey had rested on the box, he thought that he would have been suffocated. But when, in the excitement caused by the unexpected entrance of Mellor with his challenge from St. Bede's, Devey had risen with the other fellows, and remained standing, Plunger breathed more freely, and began to feel quite light-hearted again.
He felt just as excited as any of those outside at what was happening and entered just as thoroughly into the scene, so that when Leveson and Arbery began to question Mellor about the peculiarities of "a Beetle," he felt that he must laugh or choke. The result was the curious noise which had been put down first to Devey, then to the boys outside. No one guessed for a moment that it came from the box before which Devey was standing. When the stir caused by this incident had subsided, attention was once more turned to Mellor.
"Well, Mellor, you haven't answered our questions yet," said Parfitt, taking up the fire. "What does it feel like to be a Beetle?"
Mellor flamed up the instant Parfitt spoke. It was Parfitt who had set upon him and badgered him, and written the note which had stirred up so much feeling at St. Bede's against Garside.
"You're a cad and a coward!" he cried hotly. "I don't want to answer you or speak to you either."
Parfitt, stung by the boy's words, moved towards him to clutch him by the ear. But Paul was quicker, and stood between them.
"Hands off, Parfitt! Mellor's here as a messenger from the Fifth of St. Bede's to us, the Fifth of Garside. Don't drag us in the mud! Let's be fair! They've sent us a challenge. Let's be polite enough to answer it."
"Interfering again," sneered Parfitt. "Always poking your nose where it isn't wanted!"
"Don't get waxy, Parfitt," remonstrated Hasluck. "Percival's quite right. It isn't nice perhaps to know that one of our fellows has gone over to the Beetles, but there it is. It can't be helped. What's done can't very well be undone. Let's be fair, and let's be polite. There, I'm with Percival, and so, I think, are the rest of you." ("Hear, hear, hear," from the rest, with the exception of Parfitt, who felt rather small.) "Shall we send an answer?"
"I knew well enough you'd say 'Yes.' Well, the next point is, what's the answer to be?"
"I think there can be only one answer," exclaimed Newall, speaking for the first time. "The Fifth Form Gargoyle is quite ready to meet the Fifth Form Beetle at the sand-pit, Cranstead Common, to-morrow afternoon, three sharp."
At once a cheer broke out in favour of Newall's suggestion.
"As Parfitt wrote the elegant little note which has brought this storm upon us, he'd better write the answer," said Hasluck.
This suggestion also met with general approval. Parfitt hesitated, but at length wrote the note as dictated by Newall. Hasluck read it out.
"Will it do?" he questioned when he had finished.
"Agreed, agreed!" was the answering shout. Paul alone remained silent. His face was unusually grave. He had come there on a peaceful mission, and the peaceful mission had ended in a declaration of war.
"There you are, Mellor; take that and give it to your brother Beetles, with the compliments and best wishes of the Fifth," he said, as he folded up the note and handed it to Mellor. "Now cut!"
"Cut isn't the word," said Arbery, as he opened the door. "Crawl!"
Mellor darted out of the shed with the note, without waiting for any further references to the new title conferred upon him.
"Won't you eat your words in the sand-pit to-morrow!" he cried as a parting shot.
"The cheeky beggar got the last word in anyhow," quoth Arbery as he closed the door.
Dead silence followed for a minute or two, then it was broken by Hasluck.
"You called us here, Percival," he said, turning to Paul, "to talk over the triangular squabble between you and Moncrief and Newall. You don't mind us putting that off for a bit? This is the thing we've got to settle, this cheeky challenge from the Beetles."
Paul, seeing there was no help for it, nodded assent.
"And you, Newall?"
Newall nodded in turn.
"Good! Well, then, having decided to take up the challenge from St. Bede's, the next thing to settle is, who's to be our champion at the sand-pit to-morrow?"
No one seemed in a great hurry to answer that question, but at length Newall, a curious smile hovering about his lips, said:
"We're all of us anxious for the job, that's the reason we're so silent. But I'd like to propose one as our champion who'd do us credit—Percival."
Had a thunderbolt fallen in the shed, the boys of the Fifth could not have been more startled than when they heard Paul's name. Was Newall in earnest, or was he poking fun? It was hard to tell, for the curious smile that had hovered about his lips was there no longer. It had quite vanished, and his face was the gravest amongst them.
"Percival!" he repeated with emphasis. "He's done me a lot of honour. He's done me the honour of calling you fellows together to settle a quarrel between Moncrief and me. He's done me honour in the nice things he has said of me. Well, I'd like to do him a little in turn. There can't be a greater honour than representing the Fifth as champion of the Form. It's one that I'd jump at myself, but after what has taken place, after all that Percival has said about the honour of the Form, I can only take a back seat. He comes first. So I again say, let Percival be our champion."
Notwithstanding that Paul had rarely been seen in a school fight, it was well known amongst his companions that he was a fine athlete and perfectly able to take care of himself, so with ready shouts they hailed the suggestion.
"Percival, Percival, Percival!" resounded on all sides.
THE CHAMPION OF HIS FORM
Paul, as may be imagined, was as much startled by Newall's proposal that he should be the champion of the Form as at the readiness with which it was taken up by his class-mates.
"Well, Percival"—the voice of Hasluck broke the silence which had followed as they waited eagerly Paul's answer—"you've heard what Newall has said, and what the Form thinks of it. What's your answer?"
A keen struggle went on in Paul's mind as the question came to him. He had come there to settle a dispute—to ward off a meeting between Moncrief and Newall. And now, by an adroit move on the latter's part, he had been forced to accept or decline a challenge from outside. If he refused, he would have to eat his own words about the honour of the school; he would be regarded as a contemptible coward; and the quarrel between Newall and Moncrief would still remain unsettled. If he accepted, he would be held in honour by his Form, and, in fighting its battle, he might be able to settle the quarrel between Moncrief and Newall. So, coming to a swift decision, he turned to the latter:
"If I fight for the Form, will that settle the quarrel between you and Moncrief? Will you shake hands with him?"
"Yes," came the prompt answer.
"Very well; then I'll do my best to keep up the honour of the Form at the sand-pit to-morrow."
"Bravo—bravo; hip, hip, hurrah!" cried Devey, jumping on the box in which Plunger was concealed, and waving his cap wildly.
The cheers were taken up by most of the Form, but Parfitt, who took no part in the cheering, remarked, loud enough for all to hear:
"Seems to me we'd better save our shouting till to-morrow afternoon."
"For once I agree with Parfitt," answered Paul calmly. "Keep your shouting till to-morrow afternoon."
"And even then it may all be on the other side," added Parfitt, with a sneer.
"Trust Parfitt for throwing cold water on anything," said Devey, jumping down from the box. "He must have been born in a refrigerator."
He gave the box an indignant kick. Plunger shivered. He was glad that Devey's foot came on the box instead of on him.
The meeting was over, and the boys went in twos and threes from the shed discussing the forthcoming battle in the sand-pit. Plunger, greatly excited at all he had heard, was waiting eagerly the moment he could emerge from his hiding-place, when he heard Arbery shout:
"Don't all run off without lending a hand. We shall have to get the boxes back, and the shed ship-shape. Devey and I can't do all the work."
Plunger groaned. He knew what Arbery's appeal meant. One by one the boxes were shifted back to their places; then it came to the turn of the box in which Plunger was concealed, and once again he was bumped about from side to side till he got painfully mixed ideas as to where he began and where he ended—as to which was his head and which were his feet, and whether he would ever be able to stand straight again.
At last the box was rolled back to the corner in which it had previously reposed, and Arbery and his assistants followed in the footsteps of their companions. When Plunger could gather together his scattered senses, he raised the lid of the box and scrambled out.
"My!" he groaned, as he leaned against the side of the shed and felt his limbs. "Seems to me I'm all bruises. It's a wonder I've come out alive. I'd just like to put the fellow who's been putting my frontispiece on that pane inside the box I've come from for half an hour!"
Gradually, however, the worried look on Plunger's face gave place to one of satisfaction as he remembered that he was the only one outside the Fifth who knew what had taken place at the meeting, and that he alone knew what was to take place on the morrow. He had no chance of relating to his companions the secret which was burning within him till he reached the dormitory that night.
"Well," asked Baldry breathlessly, as soon as lights were out, "how did you get on, Freddy? What happened?"
"You'd never guess. There's to be a fight to-morrow between one of the Fifth fellows and a Beetle."
Every ear in the dormitory pricked up at this unexpected piece of information.
"Who's our fellow?" demanded Sedgefield, breaking the silence which followed this announcement.
Baldry gave a prolonged whistle of surprise.
"How's that? Why, Percival has always set his back against fighting, and all the fellows are saying that it was to keep Moncrief major from fighting Newall that he called a meeting of his form."
"I dare say. He seemed to be steering that way till that little turncoat, Mellor, came on the scene with a challenge from the Beetles."
"A challenge from the Beetles!" cried Baldry. "Tell us all about it."
Plunger told them all about it. And never had any one more attentive listeners than Plunger had as he related to them all that had happened at the meeting in the shed. Not the least interested were Harry Moncrief and Hibbert.
"Paul going to fight," Harry repeated to himself. "I do so hope he'll win!" Then, remembering the words in which his father had once spoken of Paul, he added: "Win or lose, I'm certain Paul will bear himself bravely."
Hibbert closed his eyes in the darkness, and prayed: "Watch over Percival—keep him from harm. For Christ's sake. Amen."
The boy had not forgotten Paul's kindness to him. It stood out as the one bright spot in his memory since he had come to Garside. For once he was allowed to sleep without pillows being thrown at him, the clothes pulled from him by means of a carefully-arranged cord, and playful tricks of that sort, of which both he and Harry had been the victims as the latest recruits to the dormitory. The great event of the morrow caused everything else to be forgotten.
Paul, meantime, had not had a very pleasant time of it. It had been with the greatest difficulty he had induced Stanley to stay away from the meeting of his form. After the meeting, one or two pointed allusions were made to his absence by his class-mates, and to make these cut the deeper, he overheard Parfitt say to Devey:
"You were quite right in shouting for Percival. He came out better than I thought. It's the other fellow who's so contemptible—getting his friend to call a meeting to white-wash him, and do all the dirty work. He'd be hounded out of any decent school."
These remarks were made loud enough for Stanley to hear, and for his special benefit. Though he knew well enough that he was "the other fellow" referred to, he could not speak. Nevertheless, he felt angry with himself for allowing Paul to persuade him to stay away from the meeting. Then, from feeling angry with himself, he felt angry with Paul, and the reception he gave him on his return was not a very cordial one.
"What have you been saying about me?" he demanded.
"Nothing that could harm you," smiled Paul. "It's all right between you and Newall. The quarrel's settled."
"But how is it settled? You haven't made me swallow dirt, have you?"
"I think not," answered Paul, wounded at the suggestion. "You ought to know me better than that."
For the first time there was a rift between the two friends. Paul did not tell Stanley what had happened at the meeting, but left him to find out. He heard all about it from Waterman—the easy-going, indolent Waterman.
"Going to fight a Beetle, is he?" said Stanley, when Waterman had ended. "It was good of him to take my part, but I wish he hadn't let me down so."
But when he met Paul in the dormitory that night, he only remembered that he was his friend, and that he was going to fight for the honour of the Form on the morrow.
"I'm sorry I spoke so hastily, Paul," he whispered. "Forgive me."
The next afternoon was a holiday for both Garside and St. Bede's. It was for this reason that the challenge had been fixed for that date. Cranstead Common was midway between the two schools, and the sand-pit was in an open part of the common, where the ground for some little distance round was destitute of grass or furze.
The Fifth Form had kept to themselves the fact that an encounter was to take place in the sand-pit, for fear it might reach the ear of some of the masters, and be stopped. They were not aware that Plunger knew all that had transpired at the meeting. Plunger was as loyal to his Form as the Fifth were to theirs, and the secret of what was to happen at the sand-pit was communicated in confidence to them on the distinct understanding that it wasn't to travel farther.
When, therefore, the afternoon came, and the boys of the Fifth set out in little parties of three or four to make for the sand-pit, they could not understand how it was that little parties of the Third were found to be travelling in the same direction. Still more curious were the various articles borne by these little bands of stragglers. One group bore a football; another shouldered a butterfly net, without regard to the fact that butterflies had not been seen for many weeks; a third group fishing-rods, and so on.
Freddy Plunger was amongst the anglers. He was talking loudly about his achievements at different times with rod and line, when Devey, Arbery, and Leveson came up with him.
"What are you fishing for, Plunger?" asked Devey, catching him gently by the ear. "Whales?"
"No—eels!" retorted Plunger snappily, having good cause to remember Devey the night before. "Slippery things, eels, aren't they?"
"Not half so slippery as you are, Mr. Plunger. But don't be cheeky."
"Never am, Mr. Devey. That's my fault—always too polite. Born like it, so can't help myself. Where are you going to, Mr. Devey?"
"That's my business, Mr. Plunger. Little boys shouldn't ask questions—they should be seen and not heard. If you have a good catch, ask us to supper, won't you? Ta-ta, Plunger!"
And Devey and his companions went on, leaving Plunger and his companions chuckling in their sleeves.
"Mr. Devey thinks himself mighty clever now, but he looked an awful ass in the shed last night when all the fellows turned on him for laughing like a paroquet," grinned Plunger. "I nearly killed myself trying to keep my feelings under. It was enough to make a cat scream. Oh, dear; oh, my!"
And Plunger went off at the recollection, till he received a dig in the ribs from Baldry which made him gasp.
"Shut up, Freddy; here comes the noble champion of the Fifth! He doesn't look over-pleased with himself."
As he spoke, Paul and Stanley passed them. Baldry was not far wrong. Paul was far from pleased with himself. He was going to fight in cold blood a boy with whom he personally had no quarrel, and he had not the slightest notion who his opponent was. He might be a noble-hearted fellow, as much averse to quarrelling and fighting as he was, but compelled to fight—as he had been—for "the honour of the Form." He—Paul—had faced danger, and had not shrunk from it; but somehow, he shrunk from the encounter before him.
"Look! There's quite a crowd at the sand-pit already," exclaimed Stanley, who was a great deal more excited at the coming encounter than Paul was.
By this time they had come within sight of the sand-pit. Paul, looking up, saw that on one side had gathered most of the boys of the Fifth, while on the other side were the boys from St. Bede's.
WHAT HAPPENED AT THE SAND-PIT
Though the boys of St. Bede's and those of Garside regarded themselves as adversaries, to their credit be it said no outbreak of temper had resulted from their meeting at the sand-pit. There had been some amount of good-humoured chaff bandied to and fro across the pit, but nothing more. All were eager for the coming struggle.
A cheer went up from the Garsides directly they caught sight of Paul. The Bedes eyed him critically.
"Looks grim enough—as though he meant business," said one, as Paul advanced to the pit.
The cheer of his comrades put fresh life into Paul. His blood, which had seemed stagnant, began to race through his veins.
"For the honour of the Form," he said to himself, between his clenched teeth, "I must—I will win!"
As though his comrades wished to give him all the encouragement in their power, another cheer went up as he entered the pit, and took up his position on the floor of hard-pressed sand below.
"Where's the other fellow?" he asked.
"Doesn't seem to have turned up yet," said Arbery; "but I don't think it's quite time. How goes it, Levy?"
Leveson had a stop-watch and was very proud of it. He usually acted as timekeeper at the school sports, when the stop-watch was very much to the fore. He prided himself on one thing—always knowing the right time. His was the only watch that kept the right time at Garside—so, at least, Leveson said. To ask Leveson the "correct time" was one of the greatest compliments you could pay him. It was a tacit acknowledgment that the time kept by Leveson's stop-watch was superior to any other.
"Three minutes eighteen seconds to three," answered Leveson, after examining the watch.
"Oh, we'll make you a present of the seconds," said Arbery. Then he shouted across to the Bedes: "I say, Beetles, is that champion of yours coming on an ambulance?"
"No; that's coming after," cried a bright-eyed lad named Sterry, from the other side, "to take your champion home!"
A loud laugh from the Bedes greeted this retort.
"He scored over you there, Arbery," said indolent Waterman.
Scarcely had the laughter died away than it was followed by a loud cheer.
"Their man's coming at last. What's the time, Levy?"
"One minute thirty secs. to the hour. He's cut it rather fine—must be a cool sort of bounder," answered Leveson. "Hallo, look there! Hang me if there isn't Master Plunger and a lot of the howlers from his form."
Arbery looked in the direction indicated. Plunger and his companions were lying at full length on the banks of the pit, peering over its sides and taking the deepest possible interest in the proceedings below.
"So it is. How did the little beggar get to know what was going on, I wonder?"
"Said he was going eel-fishing. Thought it was a blind," said Devey. "Hallo, they're peeling!"
Paul had taken off his coat, and rolled back his sleeves. The champion of the other Form could not at first be seen because of the throng which had gathered round him, but presently he came from the group that surrounded him with his coat off, and his arms bared, just as Paul stepped into the ring.
Their eyes met. Paul staggered back, as though he had been struck. The youth who stood before him was Gilbert Wyndham, he who had helped him on the night he was fleeing from Zuker. Fight him? Impossible! Not though his life depended on it!
The excited murmur of voices that followed the two into the ring ceased. A strange silence rested on the place, as the two boys confronted each other. Then as the two schools were waiting eagerly for the first blow to be struck, they saw Paul's hands fall helpless to his side; saw the colour go from his face; saw the white lips move. What did it mean? They stared in wonder, and the wonder grew as Paul turned away and took his coat from Moncrief.