"I cannot fight," he murmured.
With his coat on his arm he hastened from the pit. Then the silence was broken by the Bedes. They howled, and jeered and hooted. And above the hooting and the jeers there rose the cry:
"The noble champion of the Gargoyles!"
Heedless of the shouting and the jeers, Paul walked swiftly away, as one seized with sudden fear. His own Form still remained silent. They might have been struck dumb. It was all so strange—so unexpected.
Then they in turn shouted and jeered after the retreating figure.
Paul heard the shouts. Those from the Bedes made him shiver. These from his own Form cut into him like whips.
"They do not understand! How—how can I tell them?" he murmured as he pressed on, anxious to get away from the place as quickly as possible. He did not pause till he came in sight of the old flag waving above the school. Had he disgraced that flag—the legacy of a brave soldier? Had he dishonoured it? God would be his judge.
He passed three or four boys as he entered the grounds. They knew nothing of what had happened at the sand-pit. One boy spoke to him, but Paul took no heed of him. He had not heard him. He was as though deaf and blind to all around him. He did not pause till he reached one of the class-rooms; then his head fell on his arms.
The shouts and jeers followed him, and broke harshly in upon the stillness of the room. With startling distinctness he could hear them, and the cry went ringing through his brain:
"The noble champion of the Gargoyles!"
Then resting there, with his head bowed on his arms, he searched his conscience, and asked himself the question—"Have I done right?" Had he acted as his father would have wished him to act had he been living? Had he done right in the sight of God? Yes, he felt confident he had done right in refusing to fight Wyndham, though he could not explain to his class-mates why he had so acted. That night ride was known only to Stanley and him. It was impossible for him to divulge the secret to his Form. He must suffer their taunts in silence, trusting that the time would soon come when he might speak.
"There's one good thing, old Stan will understand me. I can make it clear enough to him. He ought to be here by this time. Why doesn't he come?" he asked himself.
He tried to shake off the gloom that oppressed him, but could not. His head went to the desk again, and again he heard the yells and hooting of the boys at the pit; but the cries seemed fainter.
"Why doesn't Stan come—why doesn't Stan come?" he kept asking himself.
He rested thus for some time—how long he knew not—when he was roused by a timid hand resting on his arm, while a gentle voice whispered: "Percival."
He looked up quickly. Hibbert was standing beside him, his face, usually so pale, was slightly flushed, as the brown eyes turned to Paul.
"I haven't disturbed you, have I?" he asked.
"What do you want with me, Hibbert?" Paul asked rather sharply; for he did not like the lad breaking in upon him so quietly.
"You looked so wretched and miserable I could not help coming in. You're not angry with me, are you?"
"Angry with you? No; why should I be?" answered Paul, forcing a smile to his face at the boy's eager question.
"Oh, I'm so used to people being angry with me, except you and—and Mr. Weevil."
"Mr. Weevil! Doesn't he ever get angry with you?"
"No; he's very good to me."
Paul was rather astonished at this piece of information, knowing that Weevil had a reputation for harshness.
"Glad to hear it. He makes it up on the other fellows." Paul's mind flitted back to the night when Stanley was sent to Dormitory X. "But why aren't you outside, enjoying yourself with your class-mates?"
"They never want me to play with them. I'm no good at their games," answered the boy sadly; "but I've been with some of them this afternoon. I was at the—sand-pit."
He volunteered the information with some hesitation. Paul flushed. What had happened would soon be known, then, to every boy in the school.
"We found out what was going to happen in our Form; and so I went with the rest to see you—to see you——"
Again the boy hesitated.
"To see me turn tail and run. Out with it. Don't be afraid of hurting my feelings," cried Paul bitterly. "The other fellows won't. You'll hear what they'll be calling me presently—quite a choice collection of names—cur, pariah, coward, and the rest of it."
"No, not coward. I know you couldn't be," said the boy confidently. "Any one can see that by looking in your face. I know you had some reason for going away. It's that made you so wretched. I knew you would be, and so—and so after waiting a little time to see what would happen, I followed after you."
Paul was touched at Hibbert's devotion. In that one moment the boy had repaid a hundredfold the little act of kindness he had shown him when he first entered the school. He had come to Paul in his loneliness, and had brought a ray of sunshine into the gloom that had suddenly sprung up around him.
"Do you know, Hibbert, you're a very good little chap to speak of me as you do, and to think of me as you do? I'm a long way off deserving it, I can tell you. You waited after I left the sand-pit, you say, to see what would happen? What did happen? They kept up the groans for me till they were tired, I suppose?"
"Don't speak of it," said the boy, shivering.
"You needn't be afraid of giving me pain, I tell you. I'm getting pretty tough. After they'd done hooting me——"
"While they were still hooting you, Moncrief threw off his jacket, and leapt into your place."
"What!" cried Paul, starting to his feet, and staring at the boy. "Leapt into my place?"
"Yes, stood up to the Beetle—the fellow they call Wyndham; then the hooting stopped, and our fellows cheered madly, specially when Newall came forward and backed up Moncrief major."
"Newall! backed up Moncrief!" repeated Paul, bewildered. "Do you mean to say Moncrief fought with Wyndham?"
Paul closed his eyes, shuddering. He could see the two confronting each other, and staggering about in the sand-pit. For some moments he could not speak, and when his hands came from his face, it was as white as the boy's before him.
"And who—who came off best, Hibbert?"
"I don't know. I—I could not stop. To see them fighting so made me—made me feel bad all over. I'm not like other boys. And—and all the time I was thinking of you; so I hastened here, and—and found you."
"They were still fighting as you left?"
"Yes, yes; but where are you going?"
Paul had seized his cap and turned to the door.
"To see what has happened."
"It will be all over by now; don't go," pleaded the boy.
But Paul was deaf to Hibbert's pleading.
"What have I done—what have I done?" he asked himself as he rushed into the grounds. "Fool—fool, not to have guessed what would happen!"
Somehow we do rarely guess what will happen. Things which seem so clear to us after they have happened are quite hidden from our sight beforehand. The best of us grope about in the dark, and stumble blindly along as Paul Percival had done.
Paul rushed on—back—back to the sand-pit. Suddenly he came to a dead stop. The hum of many voices reached his ears. A crowd of boys were coming towards him.
"HE MIGHT HAVE BEEN A LEPER"
In the midst of the boys coming along the road was Stanley. He was not so easy to recognize, for his face was bruised and swollen, and a thin streak of scarlet came from a cut near the right eye. He seemed to stagger along the road rather than walk, and, what was most strange, Newall had one arm through his, as though to support him.
Paul's heart fell. It was true enough what Hibbert had said. A fight had taken place, and, judging by appearances, Stanley had had the worst of it. For the moment Paul could not move; then, rousing himself, with an effort he ran towards Stanley.
Instantly he was greeted with a storm of hisses. Stanley turned from him with a look on his bruised and swollen face Paul had never seen there before. It was a look of repugnance, as though the affection between them had suddenly turned to loathing. Then the crowd of boys parted, and drawing away from Paul, left him standing there alone—he might have been a leper.
He began to feel indignant against Stanley. He at least ought to have known why he had refused to fight Wyndham; and then, as he recalled Stanley's bruised face, his indignation vanished. The old tenderness and affection for his friend came back in a wave.
"Why did I leave you, Stan—why did I leave you?"
He reproached himself, and still more bitterly Wyndham. It was Wyndham who had done this—who had bruised and battered Stanley, and raised this barrier between them.
"You'll have to reckon with me some day, Master Wyndham," he said to himself.
He looked in the direction of Garside. The boys had disappeared from sight. How could he get an explanation of what had happened? He would go and demand one; but somehow as he turned to the school his feet seemed as heavy as lead. For the first time he felt as though he had no right there. What was the use of going back when no one wanted him? He had made a horrible mess of everything.
Paul felt utterly miserable, as though he would like to flee from everything and every one. Then the pale face of little Hibbert rose before him, and he heard him speaking again as he had spoken to him in the class-room:
"Coward! I know you couldn't be. Any one can see that by looking in your face."
There was one at the school, at any rate, who had not lost faith in him. And Paul was strengthened by the memory.
Thus thinking, he turned away from the school again, scarcely heeding the direction in which he went. Happening to look up, he saw Waterman coming along the road towards him. He was strolling along with both hands thrust in his pockets in his usual leisurely manner. He was one of that class of boys who never seem to have anything to do, and plenty of time to do it in.
"I wonder if he will shun me like the rest?" thought Paul. And then he added with a smile: "At any rate he won't run away from me. It'll be too much trouble."
As Paul anticipated, Waterman made no attempt to avoid him, but he would have passed on without speaking, had not Paul stood directly in his pathway.
"You were at the sand-pit this afternoon, Waterman?"
"Of course I was."
"And saw what happened?"
"Yes," was the curt answer, and Waterman endeavoured to pass on, but Paul still stood in his pathway.
"You're not in a hurry, Watey."
"Hurry!" repeated the boy indignantly, with raised eyebrows, as though that were one of the most offensive words Paul could use. "I never fag over things, you know."
"Then you can spare me a minute or two. I'll turn back with you, if you like."
Waterman neither assented nor dissented. So soon as Paul turned, he kept on his way, with both hands in his pockets, as though unconscious of Paul's presence.
"I want to know what happened at the pit after I left."
"Haven't you seen any of the other fellows? Why didn't you get them to explain? I'm never good at explanations."
"I meant speaking to them, but they booed and hissed at me, like geese."
"Really?" And Waterman's eyebrows went up, as though he marvelled at so much unnecessary exertion being expended on Paul. "I don't see the good of that, but it's the way some fellows have of showing their feeling. And come to think of it, I don't wonder. You cut up badly at the sand-pit. I really don't know whether I'm doing quite right in speaking to you—I really don't."
"You can settle that point after. Tell me first what happened at the sand-pit, Watey," urged Paul.
"Moncrief took your place when you turned tail——"
"Yes, yes; I've heard that. After—after——"
"Well, unfortunately for Garside, Moncrief got the worst of it. He made a very plucky stand, but he wasn't a match for the Beetle—what's the fellow's name?—Wyndham. Moncrief stood well up to him, but it was no good. He was knocked down once or twice, until Newall, who was backing him, you know, threw up the sponge. Moncrief would never have given in himself. I never saw a fellow look so wretched and miserable as he did when, after coming to, they told him it was all over and he had lost. But the fellows cheered him for his pluck, and some of the Beetles joined in after they had shouted themselves hoarse over their own champion, especially that little turncoat, Mellor. He shouted himself black in the face."
"Wretched and miserable, you say?" repeated Paul. Brief as Waterman's description was, he could picture all that had happened—he could see Stanley reeling under Wyndham's blows, and the climax of it all when he had swallowed the last bitter drop—the humiliation of defeat.
"Yes, wretched and miserable, and I don't wonder at it." They walked on in silence for some moments; then Waterman suddenly spoke again: "Look here, Percival, it's an awful fag trying to understand any one, but I once thought I understood you. I never dreamt you'd turn tail like you did. I'll never try to understand any one again. I'll give it up."
"Bear with me a little longer. I had my reasons for what I did."
"I suppose you had. You can't be quite an idiot. But reasons can be explained. Why didn't you explain yours?"
"Look here," said Paul; "you've acted decently towards me, Waterman, and I'll explain to you as far as I'm able. Supposing a Beetle had done you, a few weeks back, a splendid turn—got you out of a tight corner in which you might have lost your life? Are you following me?"
"Beetle—tight corner. Yes, I follow; but don't make it too hazy. I don't want to suffer from brain-fag. You're out of a tight corner, and your life's saved by—a Beetle. Trot along."
"Well, supposing on your return to school after that, a breeze springs up between the Beetles and the Fifth; and supposing the Fifth insist on you being its champion?"
"Oh, that's absurd. They'd never insist on my being its champion. I can't follow you there, Percival."
"I know it's hard," smiled Paul; "but, we're only supposing, you know."
"Ah, yes, I'd forgotten; but I can't see the use of supposing absurdities. Go on your own giddy way. Supposing——"
"The Fifth insist on you being its champion; and then supposing, when you get to the sand-pit to do battle for your form, you find that the champion of the Beetles—the one you're to do battle with—is the fellow who saved your life. Well, supposing all this, could you have fought him?"
"You don't mean to say that this is what happened to you?" demanded Waterman, rousing himself in a surprising way.
"You haven't answered me."
"Well, if I could fancy myself as a champion of any kind, I don't think I could go for one who'd saved my life—bother it, no! But is this really what happened to you, Percival?"
"Yes, it really happened to me."
"Then why didn't you explain?"
"Because I couldn't. My tongue's tied for the present. I'm only explaining to you in confidence, and I want you to promise me that you won't let it go any further."
"I hate mysteries, they're so worrying. Why should there be any mystery?"
"Why? I can't explain, except—except that there's something more important than the honour of the Fifth; than the honour of the school even. That's the reason why I'm obliged to keep silent."
"Oh, I say, this is getting more and more worrying. But if you don't want me to speak, of course, I'll keep quiet!"
Paul knew that he could trust Waterman. In spite of his slackness—in spite of his indolence—he could be relied on to keep his word. In fact, he had one or two good qualities in reserve. If he made no close friendships, he had no enemies. "It was too great a trouble," he would have told you. "Too great a fag." That was only half the truth; the whole truth was that Waterman had, at bottom, a very good heart, though it was not often seen. It was hidden under his indolence of manner.
He allowed a corner of it to be seen in a curious fashion on the way back to the school. He stuck to Paul's side—both hands in his pocket, of course—and made no attempt to "cut him," as the others had done. They passed several of the Gargoyles as they reached the school grounds, and directly Waterman's ears caught the suggestion of a jibe—and he had rather sharp ears considering how lazy he was—he would start whistling a popular tune, so that the jibe had a good deal of the sting taken from it by the time it reached its mark.
"I wish you could make it right with the fellows," he remarked, as he took leave of Paul.
"All in good time. I'm grateful that you haven't turned your back on me, Waterman."
"Oh, don't butter me for that. I can't turn my back on any one—it's too great a fag."
And Waterman strolled away with his hands in his pocket as though they had been glued there, whistling "Hail, smiling morn."
Paul's talk with him had put him in a more cheerful mood.
"I've only to find Stan and explain things. I don't care a snap of my fingers for the other fellows—they can go to Halifax," Paul told himself, as he went in search of Stanley. But though he searched for him in every direction, he could not find him.
"He don't like to show himself just yet, with so many beauty spots on his face. Perhaps he's lying down," thought Paul, as he made his way to the dormitory. But Stanley was not in the dormitory—it was empty. "Strange. Where can he have got to?"
Descending the stairs, the first boy he ran against was Plunger.
"Seen anything of Moncrief major?" he asked.
Plunger simply stared at him, while his eyebrows went up, in the way they had, till they disappeared into the stubborn thatch above.
"Did you hear what I said?"
Plunger did another movement with his eccentric eyebrows, then turned on his heel. Paul sprang after him, angry in spite of himself.
"Now look here, Master Plunger," he said, seizing him by the collar, and twisting him sharply round, "none of your nonsense. You needn't pretend that you didn't hear me, because you did. I asked you a civil question, and I want a civil answer."
"You ought to know more about him than I do, Percival. The last I saw of him he was being knocked about for you in the sand-pit."
And Plunger laughed impudently in Paul's face. Paul's hand fell from his collar. The jibe struck home, and Plunger went laughing on his way. He was always supremely happy when he could "score," as he termed it, "off those bounders of the Fifth." Paul felt that he had descended low, indeed, when he could be used as a target for the jibes of Master Freddy Plunger.
He glanced back to the flag that waved above Garside—from the flag to the school door. As he did so, the figure he was looking for appeared in the doorway—the figure of Stanley Moncrief.
THE "GARGOYLE RECORD"
Stanley was not alone, as Paul hoped he would be. Newall and Parfitt were with him. It was evident that his new-found friends had been "doctoring" him, for the blood had been carefully washed from his face, and it presented a less bruised and battered appearance.
As he came from the door he caught sight of Paul. Paul hoped that he had got over his bitterness towards him by this time, and that he would come forward and greet him on the old footing of friendship. But he was disappointed; for as soon almost as Stanley caught sight of him, he turned away his head and commenced talking rapidly to Newall, as though he were unaware of Paul's existence. It was perfectly evident that his feeling to Paul had not softened in any way, and it was quite as clear that he meant ignoring him.
Paul determined to speak to him, however, so, as he passed by him, he touched him on the shoulder.
At his touch, Stanley turned swiftly round and confronted him with blazing eyes.
"What do you want with me?"
"To speak with you for a few moments—alone."
"I've had as much speaking with you as I ever want to have. I never wish to speak with you again—never, never!" He was greatly agitated. His voice was trembling with passion; but it grew calmer and harder, as, turning to his new-found companions, he said:
"You hear what I say, Newall; and you, Parfitt. You are my witnesses."
"Yes, we hear. We are your witnesses," said Parfitt.
"Thanks!" And without waiting an answer from Paul, the three passed on. Not that Paul had an answer to give. He could not have spoken had his life depended on it. He was too staggered; too pained. Never speak to Stanley again! He with whom he had been on the closest terms of friendship ever since he had been at Garside!
"Had he listened to me for a few moments I could have explained all. He doesn't dream who Wyndham is. He can be as stubborn as a mule. And what a look he gave me!" thought Paul. "I never dreamt that Stan would ever look at me in that way. I know what it is—it isn't Stan himself. It's those fellows he's picked up. He's sore against me, and they keep rubbing it in to keep the sore open. If I could only get him away from them."
Paul thought for a moment or two how he should act. In spite of Stanley's hard words, he had no intention that the friendship which had existed between them should be severed without one more effort on his part to heal the breach. They were bound to meet in the dormitory that night. It would then be possible for him to whisper a word or two of explanation.
But when evening came he found to his dismay that Stanley had left the dormitory. He had got permission to exchange cubicles with Leveson; so that he was now in the same dormitory as Newall.
"He's gone over bag and baggage to the enemy," said Paul sorrowfully. "If Parfitt had only walked his chalks, and taken up his quarters with his friend Newall, we could very well have spared him; but Stan——"
He glanced round. Parfitt was watching him from the side of his bed, enjoying his discomfiture. That did not serve to lessen Paul's sorrow.
"——forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive them that trespass against us."
Very earnestly he breathed the divine prayer that evening. The breach between him and Stanley seemed to be widening. What was to be done? There was one way left. He would write to him on the morrow.
"He has refused to listen to an explanation, but he can't refuse to read my letter."
So Paul rose early in the morning and wrote a letter. He explained as briefly as he could the reasons which had made him act as he had done at the sand-pit.
"Wyndham was the fellow who acted so nobly when I went with your father's letter to Redmead that night, Stan. I could not raise my hand against him, and I never dreamed that you would. I hurried away because it was impossible for me to explain to the fellows what happened on that night—you alone know why. It would have got all over the place, and would have soon reached Weevil's ears. Then the last chance of finding out what is between him and Zuker would have gone. I can quite understand your soreness against me, old fellow, and I'm sorry—very sorry—that things turned out as they did at the sand-pit; but I hope you now see that I'm not so much to blame as you thought me. It is our first fall-out. Let it be our last. We were never meant to be enemies, old fellow. It mustn't be—mustn't. If all are against me, and you are with me, I shan't so much mind; so let's shake hands."
Paul put the letter in an envelope and handed it to Waterman, who was still stretching and yawning, as though not quite awake.
"Do you mind giving this to Moncrief major. You're about the only fellow in the Form who wouldn't mind doing me a favour," he said.
"Moncrief major. Yes, yes; of course I will. It's an awfully lazy sort of morning, don't you think, Percival?" answered Waterman, stretching himself as he took the letter.
That was Waterman's opinion of mornings generally. Every morning was a "lazy sort of a morning."
"Yes, Watey," answered Paul, taking him by the arm and hurrying him towards the grounds where most of the scholars were. In a little while he espied Stanley, playing with Newall and Parfitt in the fives-court.
"How fellows can fag about at that stupid game I could never make out," remarked Waterman. "Am I to wait for an answer?"
"If you wouldn't mind."
"Mind? Not in the least. Waiting is so restful."
He strolled off leisurely with the letter. Paul watched him. He reached the fives-court, and, waiting his opportunity, handed the note to Stanley. He looked at it; then questioned Waterman. A laugh went up from Newall and Parfitt as he did so. Then Stanley, without opening the letter, tore it into fragments and threw them contemptuously into the air.
Waterman thrust his hands deep in his pockets, shrugged his shoulders, and returned to Paul.
"You saw what happened, Percival?" he said.
"Yes, I saw what happened," came the slow answer. "What was it he asked for?"
"He only asked who it was from. I told him."
"And then he deliberately tore my letter up and tossed the pieces in the air. Waterman, I'm sorry that you were so insulted."
"Don't think of me. I rather liked it—really. A snub does one good on a lazy sort of morning like this—it really does."
He was about to pass on, but, checking himself, said in a more serious tone:
"I wish I could have brought you a better answer, Percival."
That day was one of the longest days Paul ever remembered: it dragged so slowly along. There was Stanley in the same room, sitting at times within a few feet of him, and yet they did not look at each other. No word passed between them.
"I will never hold out my hand to him again," said Paul in the bitterness of his heart. He had done all that could be done to bring Stanley to reason, but every effort failed. "He must go his own way, and I must go mine. Some day, perhaps, he'll be sorry that he did not read my letter."
Belonging to the Fourth Form was a boy named Dick Jessel. He was a fair-haired, blue-eyed boy—quite a Saxon type—with a shrewd, sharp wit. His father was the editor of a provincial paper, and Jessel ran a journal of his own at the school, by the aid of a hectograph and Jowitt, of the same Form, who was sub-editor, reporter, and "printer's devil" rolled into one. They were called the "two J's."
A couple of days after the struggle at the sand-pit a number was issued of the Gargoyle Record—so the journal was named. Among other items of news appeared the following:
Motto for the Fifth.
He who fights and runs away Will live to fight another day.
"Lost, stolen, or strayed.—A few pages from the Black Book. Whoever will bring the same to the P. D., at the office of this paper, will be rewarded."
"Hints on Fashion.—A fresher of the Third is prepared to give hints on the correct style in trousers, spats, and white waistcoats. How they should be worn, and why. References exchanged and given—through the matron—preferably by carte-de-visite."
"Lost, stolen, or strayed.—Missing Link from the Third. Last seen in all his native beauty on a window in the Forum. Believed to have hidden himself in a box so as to escape the notice of his pursuers."
"Notice.—Our poet is stuck for a rhyme to 'hunger.' If any one can oblige the poet we'll give him a paragraph all to himself in the next number. N.B.—The rhyme must be a name of some kind—bird, beast, or fish."
"Dropped. Somewhere near the sand-pit on Cranstead Common. Honour of the Fifth. When last seen was covered by crawlers—believed to be Beetles."
Plunger was one of the earliest to obtain a copy of the Gargoyle Record. He read the first two paragraphs, and then raced into the common room bubbling over with excitement.
Several boys were standing round the fire—some of the Third Form, including Harry Moncrief, Baldry, and Sedgefield; one or two of the Fourth, and three or four of the Fifth, including Stanley Moncrief, Newall—the two were now almost inseparable—Arbery, and Leveson.
"Oh, I say, have you seen the last number of the Record? It's a slashing number, I can tell you," Plunger burst out.
Immediately everybody was eager to get possession of the Record. Baldry made a snatch at it.
"No, you don't, Baldhead," said Plunger, putting it behind him, with his back to the wall. "Manners! If you can't listen like a gentleman, you'd better git."
"Don't mind him, Plunger. He's only an outsider," said Arbery soothingly. "Read."
"Read—read!" came in a chorus.
"And keep your eyebrows out of your head while you're about it," said Leveson. "I never saw such eyebrows."
Plunger glared at Leveson.
"Never mind him, Plunger," came the soothing voice of Arbery. "It's only envy, you know. I wish I had eyebrows like 'em. Get on."
"I will get on—I will," said Plunger, with a last savage glance at Leveson. "Listen to this—here's a splendid hit against the Fifth." And he read: "'Motto for the Fifth. He who fights and runs away, Will live to fight another day.' Isn't it just splendid!"
Those of the Fifth who were present maintained a gloomy silence, while those of the lower forms giggled and chuckled softly to themselves. They dared not do it too openly, for fear of bringing down upon their heads the wrath of the senior Form.
When Plunger thought his first item of news had soaked itself thoroughly into the "bounders" of the Fifth, he read the second item. This fell rather flat and elicited no comment.
Then Plunger began to bubble over again. He could not get on for a minute or two.
"What's the ass giggling for?" "Get on, get on," and so forth, were some of the comments that greeted him.
"'Hints on Fashion,'" read Plunger. "'A fresher of the Third'—ho, ho!—'is prepared to give hints on the correct style in trousers, spats, and white waistcoats. How they should be worn, and why.'—Ho, ho! Hold me up.—'References exchanged and given—through the matron—preferably by carte-de-visite.' Ho, ho! Hold me up."
Plunger's eyebrows disappeared into his thatch of hair, and he laughed till he was black in the face, while all eyes went to poor Harry Moncrief, who devoutly wished that the ground might open and he might sink through.
"Is that all, Plunger?" inquired Arbery. "Get on to the next paragraph, or you'll choke."
"I couldn't get any farther for laughter," explained Plunger. "I thought you fellows would like that little tit-bit, so I rushed in here." He took up the paper again, and glanced at the next item. "This seems rather a good bit. 'Lost, stolen, or strayed. Missing Link from the Third. Last seen in all his native beauty on—on——"
Plunger came to an abrupt pause, hummed and hawed, and began to look exceedingly uncomfortable.
"'Last seen in all his native beauty——' Well, Plunger, what are you stopping for now?" cried Leveson. "If you can't read it yourself, hand over the Record to some one who can."
"Shan't; it's my paper, and I'm not going to hand it over to any one—see," answered Plunger defiantly, putting the paper behind his back.
"Well, read on," shouted Arbery. "We're dying to hear who the Missing Link can be."
"You'd better get a paper of your own, then; I'm not going to read any more of the trash."
"Thought it was a slashing number? What's come over you, Freddy?" asked Baldry.
The exclamation came from Plunger as he felt the paper snatched from behind him by Leveson; then, as he tried to regain possession of it, his arms were pinioned behind him by one of the Fifth Form boys.
"Oh, oh, just listen!" laughed Leveson, "and see if you can guess why Plunger put the brake on. 'Lost, stolen, or strayed. Missing Link from the Third. Last seen in all his native beauty in the Forum. Believed to have hidden himself in a box so as to escape the notice of his pursuers.'"
There was an outburst of laughter, as all eyes went to Plunger, who was making furious efforts to get away.
"When it's a question of beauty, there's only one person in it," went on Leveson calmly, "and that is——"
"Plunger!" came in a chorus.
"When we do agree, our unanimity is wonderful, as the Head used to tell us," went on Leveson. "Any other pretty bits? Oh—ah! Listen to this: 'Notice. Our poet is stuck for a rhyme to "hunger." If any one can oblige the poet, we'll give him a paragraph all to himself in the next number. N.B.—The rhyme must be a name of some kind—bird, beast, or fish.' Ho, ho! Don't squirm so, Plunger. What branch of the animal kingdom do you belong to?"
While they were shrieking with laughter at his discomfiture Plunger shouted above it all:
"Go on—go on! As you have gone so far, you'd better go on a bit farther. Ah, you're not quite so ready with your reading now, Mr. Leveson."
The laughter suddenly stopped.
"Read—read," came in a chorus.
And Leveson read: "'Dropped—somewhere near sand-pit on Cranstead Common—Honour of the Fifth. When last seen, was covered by crawlers—believed to be Beetles.'"
There was an ominous silence on the part of the senior boys. The juniors tittered. Leveson screwed up the paper in his hand.
"Mind what you're doing, Leveson. That's my paper," cried Plunger. Then there was silence again, as Paul Percival entered the room.
PAUL WRITES A LETTER
Stanley's head had fallen to his breast as Leveson read that bitter paragraph from the Record. He looked up quickly as Paul entered the room. For the moment it seemed as though he would speak; then he bit his lips fiercely to keep back the words that sprang to them, and went from the room. Newall followed him, then Arbery. One by one they followed his example—Third Form boys as well as Fifth—until one only remained—Waterman, who had been comfortably resting in a chair by the fire throughout the scene described in the last chapter. As the last boy went out, he glanced up.
"Hallo, Percival! Is that you?"
"Why don't you do the same as the rest of the fellows, and clear out?" asked Paul bitterly.
"I'm quite comfortable where I am, thank you."
And Waterman stretched out his legs, and settled himself more comfortably in his chair. Paul could see that it was not altogether a question of comfort with Waterman. His laziness was only a cloak to disguise a real feeling of friendship towards him.
"The fellows were discussing me as I came in?"
"I don't quite know what they were discussing. Oh, young Plunger had made himself an ass, as usual, over some paragraph in the Record. That was it."
Leveson had screwed up the paper, it will be remembered, when he had read the paragraph about the honour of the Fifth, and, as Paul entered, had flung it contemptuously from him into a corner of the room. Paul's eye went to it as Waterman was speaking.
"Paragraph in the Record," he repeated, as he smoothed it out. "What have they got to say about Plunger?"
He quickly read the paragraphs which had reference to Plunger, and then he read the one which he knew well enough had reference to himself. Waterman rose from his chair as the paper dropped from Paul's hand and placed a hand on his shoulder.
"You're cut up, Percival. I wouldn't let that paragraph worry me. It's really not worth it. There's nothing in the world worth worrying about—there really isn't."
"You don't mean what you say, Waterman—though it's kind of you to say it. Honour's worth troubling about—one's own honour; the honour of one's form; the honour of one's school; and I know that, disguise it as you may, you're just as keen on it as any in the school. And all the fellows believe that I've dragged it through the mud."
"Oh, well, things will clear up some day, Percival; then you'll come into your own," said Waterman cheerfully.
"Some day I suppose they will; but it may be a long time first, and there's no game so hard to play as the waiting game."
"That's where you're wrong, Percival. There's no game in the world like it—the waiting game, I mean. There's no fag about it, and that's what I like. Just wait your time, you know—take it easy—no flurry—go as you please. It's the game of all games for my ha'pence. It really is, Percival. So don't worry, old fellow—and don't flurry."
Paul could not help smiling to himself at Waterman's easy view of things, but the smile quickly disappeared when he was once more alone. Waterman had talked about "things clearing up," and "coming into his own"; but would things ever clear up? Would he ever win back the honour of the Form, and the confidence of those who belonged to it? Saddest of all was the memory that Stanley, who had been his greatest friend, now appeared to be his greatest enemy.
Suddenly it occurred to him—he would write to Mr. Walter Moncrief, and tell him what had happened that night when he went to Dormitory X. The idea had occurred to him before, but he had put it off in the hope that he might have surer evidence to go upon. No further evidence had been forthcoming, but delay might be dangerous; so he determined to write.
So he went into the writing-room, and wrote to Mr. Moncrief, telling him exactly what had happened on the night he went to Dormitory X.
"I am pretty well certain," he went on, "that the man I saw with Mr. Weevil is one of the men who came after me on the night I came to your house at Redmead—the chief of the two. It was night-time, but I had a fairly good view of his face. What he has to do with Mr. Weevil, I can't make out. I should be sorry to think that Mr. Weevil has anything to do with a traitor to his country; but there must be something at the bottom of it all. What that something is, you may be able to find out better than I can. Dr. Colville, our Head, is away, so I cannot go to him. What ought to be done? Will you let me know what you think?"
Having written this letter, Paul felt more comfortable. So soon as he heard from Mr. Moncrief, his lips would be unsealed, and he might take steps to clear his own honour. He would then be able to explain to his Form—to all the school if need be—what had prevented him from confronting Wyndham at the sand-pit.
But having finished his letter, there was one great difficulty in the way. All letters written in the school were supposed to pass, first of all, through the hands of the master. How could he let that letter pass through the hands of Mr. Weevil? As he was thinking over this dilemma, Hibbert entered the room, and told him that Mr. Travers wished to speak to him. Mr. Travers was master of the Fifth.
Paul rose to his feet, and thrust the letter in his pocket, wondering what Mr. Travers could want with him. Then it occurred to him that Hibbert was just the boy he wanted; he could trust Hibbert with anything. Hibbert would post the letter for him.
"Hibbert, I want you to do me a great favour," he said, drawing the letter from his pocket. "I want you to post this letter for me. There's nothing wrong in it, I give you my word of honour; but, I don't want Mr. Weevil to know. That's why I am not sending it through the school post."
Hibbert expressed his willingness to post it, and Paul handed him the letter, then went to Mr. Travers' room. Hibbert hastened off with the letter, but, as ill-luck would have it, he ran full tilt against Mr. Weevil, just as he reached the outer door. In doing so, he stumbled, and would have fallen to the ground had not the master caught him by the arm.
"Hallo! Where are you running to in such a hurry?" he asked, in that gentle voice he always used to Hibbert—softer than that used by him to any other boy in the school.
"Out—in—the grounds, sir."
In stumbling, Hibbert's hand had been jerked from his breast, and Mr. Weevil caught sight of the letter.
"What's that—a letter?"
Hibbert did not answer. It was useless denying it.
"Step this way."
Mr. Weevil's tone had now become quite stern. He led the way into one of the class-rooms; then closed the door.
"Now have the goodness to hand me that letter," he said, gazing at Hibbert through half-closed eyes.
Hibbert dared not refuse; so he handed him the letter.
Mr. Weevil's eyes opened to their fullest extent when he saw the address on it:
W. MONCRIEF, Esq., Redmead, Oakville (Kent).
"For whom were you posting this letter—Moncrief major, or Moncrief minor?"
"Neither," came the low answer.
"Who, then? Come; no harm shall befall you if you speak the truth."
"I don't mind myself, but—but—I don't want any harm to happen to—to——"
"The one who sent you—eh? Well, we'll see. Just tell me frankly who sent you with this letter? It is quite easy for me to find out by opening it, you know; but I would much rather hear it from you."
"Percival," answered the boy, hesitatingly, seeing there was no help for it.
"Percival!" echoed the master. "Wait here a moment."
He left the room with the letter. Hibbert wondered what he intended doing with it. Would he open it, or would he send for Percival? He was on thorns. Percival had particularly wished to keep the note from Mr. Weevil. The very first thing he had asked him to do—and that so simple—he had made a mess of.
"How stupid of me! How stupid of me! Percival will never trust me with anything again."
In a few minutes Mr. Weevil returned. His face had not lost its sternness.
"In sending you with that letter, Percival knew well enough he was acting against the rules of the school."
"I—I—dare say it slipped his memory, sir."
"Nothing of the sort. He knew well enough he was breaking the rules of the school, and, worse still, that he was making you an accomplice in the act. However, I do not intend to deal severely with the case, for your sake. You are quite new to the ways and rules of this place. Take the letter. Post it; but don't say a word to Percival that I stopped you. Do you understand?"
"Yes; I understand," said the boy, as he took the letter, and ran off with it to the post. He looked at the letter as he ran. Was it the same? Yes, the very same—the same address, in Paul's handwriting. It was very kind of Mr. Weevil, and he would always be grateful to him for his kindness.
Paul, meanwhile, had gone to Mr. Travers, wondering what he could want with him. The master of the Fifth was a man of about thirty, who led a studious, secluded life. He was a capable master, but had not succeeded in winning the sympathies of the scholars. One of the chief reasons was that, though he took an interest in their studies, he took little interest in their sports. He preferred instead long, solitary rambles. Paul was, therefore, the more surprised when he found that the object of Mr. Travers in sending for him was to question him as to the relations between him and his class-mates.
"I've noticed that you do not appear to be on very good terms with the Form, Percival," he said. "I should not have said anything about it, only I happened to be near the Common Room this afternoon when you entered, and found that that was a signal for the others to march out. I don't like a feeling of that kind in my Form. I know well enough that boys will have their quarrels, and that they can be usually trusted to settle them alone; but this seems to me deeper than an ordinary quarrel, otherwise I should not have spoken. I have no wish to press for your confidence, but if you will tell me what the cause of this ill-feeling is, I might do something to bring about a better understanding between you and the Form."
"Oh, it's only a bit of a dispute between me and Moncrief major."
"And for a dispute between you and Moncrief major all the Form are against you?"
"They take his side, sir. They think that he is right and I'm in the wrong—that is all."
"That is all!" echoed the master. "And that is all the explanation you can give? Remember, I'm not forcing an explanation from you. I'm not asking you as your master, but as your friend."
Paul was drawn to him as he had never been drawn before, such is the power of sympathy. He regretted more than ever that he had sent the letter to Mr. Moncrief; but it was impossible to recall it. Hibbert was on his way with it at that moment to the post.
"That is all the explanation I can give, sir."
"Very well, Percival"—the manner of Mr. Travers changed as the words fell from Paul's lips; he was again the master, and frigid as ice—"then there is nothing more to be said. I regret that I sent for you."
Thus curtly dismissed, Paul went out, feeling miserable. At the time when he so wanted a friend he had lost one. And yet how else could he have acted? There was no other way. He must wait and see what the letter to Mr. Moncrief would bring forth. And with this thought uppermost in his mind he went to the writing-room to await the return of Hibbert.
THE SCHOOL OF ADVERSITY
Paul took up a pen as he sat and waited, and idly traced words upon the blotting-paper. But his thoughts were far away. He was thinking of the interview he had just had with Mr. Travers. He was still thinking of it when the door opened and Hibbert entered.
"Have you posted the letter?" Paul asked.
"Yes; the postman was just clearing the box when I slipped it in."
Paul would almost as soon that he had not succeeded in posting it—that he had brought the letter back with him. Perhaps it was best as it was, however.
He did not notice that the boy was looking uncomfortable—as though he had something on his mind but dared not speak it.
"You have seen Mr. Travers?"
"Yes." Then noticing for the first time the nervous, apprehensive look in the boy's eyes, and thinking it was due to the fear that he had got into further trouble with the master, he added: "Nothing happened. He was quite nice with me."
"I'm glad of that."
By this time Hibbert was standing by Paul's side. Suddenly an exclamation came from his lips.
"Hallo! What's wrong?"
Paul, looking at the boy, saw that his eyes were fixed upon the blotting-paper.
"That—that! Do you know anybody of that name?" he asked, as he pointed to a name Paul had unconsciously traced on the blotting-paper—that of Zuker.
"Why? Do you?" Paul asked.
"Y-yes," answered the boy, with hesitation. "I—I once knew a boy of that name."
"Where?" asked Paul, at once interested.
"When I was at school in Germany; but there are a good many Zukers there, you know, and the boy I speak of is dead."
"Dead! Did you know his father?"
Hibbert shook his head. Paul tore up the blotting-paper. It was just possible that Mr. Weevil might catch sight of the name, just as Hibbert had done.
"You—you don't like the name?" the boy asked, as he watched Paul.
"Oh, it's as good as any other, I suppose."
"You must have known some one of that name—I'm certain of it," persisted the boy.
"Well, I don't mind telling you, Hibbert—you've been such a good little chap to me—it was through a man of that name my father lost his life."
"A man of the—of the name of Zuker?" stammered Hibbert.
"Tell me—do tell me—all about it?" pleaded the boy, clutching Paul suddenly by the arm.
"Oh, it's a sad tale, and it won't interest you."
"Indeed it will—very, very much. Anything that has to do with you interests me. Tell me."
Without intending to compliment Paul, the boy had paid him the most delicate compliment he could have done. Besides, Paul was now very much alone, and in his loneliness it was nice to have some one to speak to; so he told his eager listener the tragic circumstances that had cost his father his life. Hibbert scarcely spoke or moved all the time Paul was telling the story. He hung upon every word.
"How noble of your father to jump overboard and save the man—the man Zuker," said the lad, when Paul had finished. "There's not many who would have risked their life to save an enemy. I think you said Zuker was an enemy."
"Well, I don't know about an enemy. He seems to have been a wretched, contemptible spy; but what's wrong with you?" he suddenly exclaimed, as his eyes went to the boy's face. It was of an ashen pallor, and he was trembling in every limb.
"Nothing wrong, except—except that I can't help thinking what a lot you and your mother must have suffered after your father's death."
"I didn't suffer much, because I was too young to remember him. I was only a little more than a year old when it all happened. Still, I should so like to have known my father. They say he was very brave, and kind, and true, and one of the best captains in the Navy; and when sometimes I think of him, and what he might have been to me, I feel very bitter against the man for whom he gave his life. Then I battle against the feeling, and a better takes its place. I think to myself—What nobler death could a man die than in trying to save the life of one who had done him wrong."
"Yes, Percival," said the boy, looking away; "it was a noble death—very noble—and your father must have been a noble man. What was it the spy did?"
"Got into my father's cabin, and tried to get at his private despatches."
"And where were they taking this man—the spy—when he jumped overboard?"
"To Gibraltar, where he was to be tried by court-martial."
"And after they'd tried him by court-martial?"
"If the court-martial had found him guilty, they would have shot him."
"Yes, they showed no quarter at that time, I believe, to one who stole, or tried to steal, State secrets."
"Oh, how horrible!" cried the boy, covering his face with his hands.
"Don't you think that a man like that deserves to die, Hibbert? Remember, it isn't only one life he places in peril, but hundreds—thousands. He betrays a country."
"Yes, yes, I dare say you are right, Percival—I'm certain you are right; but none the less, it sounds very terrible. Is it the same now as it was then—that no quarter would be given to a spy, I mean?"
"I think so. But I'm sorry I told you the story," said Paul, looking at the boy apprehensively. His face was still deathly pale, while he trembled in every limb. "I didn't think it would cut you up so. Any one would think," he added, with a sad smile, "that it was your father's death I'd been talking about instead of mine."
"Yes, my father"—and the boy gave a little, stifled laugh. "I—I've been putting myself in your place, you see. How was it the spy got away?"
"He was tried by court-martial, but nothing could be proved against him, you see; for my father was the principal witness, and he was at the bottom of the sea."
"At the bottom of the sea," repeated the boy, as a tear stole slowly down his cheek. "And you don't know what became of the spy?"
"Oh, I suppose he returned to his own country after that," said Paul carelessly; for he did not want to tell Hibbert his suspicions that Zuker was still in England and not so far away. "But be off now, and have a good run in the open. You've had enough of my yarn, and will be dreaming about spies and drowning all night."
Hibbert brushed the tear from his eye. It seemed as though his heart were too full for speech; for he went out without a word.
"What a sensitive little chap he is!" thought Paul. "He was full to overflowing as I told him that story. I wonder what his people are like?"
He got up as he spoke and went out. A throng of boys were playing in the grounds. Too absorbed in their games, they took no notice of Paul, for which he was devoutly thankful. He walked out of the grounds, along the road leading to St. Bede's. Scarcely noticing the direction in which he was travelling, he was rudely awakened from his reverie by the shout of "A Gargoyle—a Gargoyle!" And before he could move a step farther he found himself surrounded by a dozen boys, who danced wildly round him, shouting the name of contempt again and again, as though they were a band of savages, and had suddenly discovered a victim for the sacrifice.
Paul saw at a glance that he had fallen into the hands of the enemy—in other words, into the hands of the rival school. There were senior boys and junior boys. Prominent amongst the latter he noticed Mellor, who was quite ecstatic with delight at having trapped a Gargoyle.
"Why, hanged if it isn't the fellow who turned tail and ran!" cried one of the seniors.
"Yes, Percival. Didn't you see that?" said Mellor.
"So it is," came in a chorus.
"The noble champion of the Gargoyles—ho, ho!" cried the senior.
"Ho, ho!" came in a chorus, and they commenced dancing round Paul, in a wilder, madder fashion than before. "Ho, ho, ho! The noble champion of the Gargoyles."
"'And he bared his big right arm,'" cried one, when this chorus had ceased.
"And cried aloud, 'Come on,'" shouted another.
"Come one, come all, this rock shall fly From its firm base sooner than I!"
shouted a third.
A scream of laughter greeted this sally, and then the dancing was resumed to the old chorus.
"Ho, ho! ho! The noble champion of the Gargoyles!"
Paul stood motionless as a statue and as white as one in the midst of the jeering, mocking throng. He made no answer to the jibes, but waited until they had exhausted themselves. It was some time before that happened. At length the cries grew feebler, the wild dancing slackened.
"Well, have you nearly finished?" Paul asked.
"Listen. The noble champion of the Gargoyles is speaking. He's got a tongue," exclaimed the senior who had first spoken.
"And legs as well," said a second.
"And doesn't he know how to use them!" added a third—an observation which drew out another shriek of laughter. From white Paul turned scarlet.
To keep silent under provocation, more especially provocation that is undeserved, is one of the hardest lessons that can be learned, boys and girls. Paul was only a boy, with a boy's impulses, passions, and feelings. But some time was to pass before he was to learn the great lesson of how to keep these passions under perfect control—and many things were to happen in the interval—but he had begun the task. Rough and bitter though the schooling was, in no better way could the lesson have been taught than in that school of adversity through which he was now passing.
"When you've quite finished," said Paul, as they once more came to a pause, "I would like to go on my way."
"Where? To the sand-pit?" came a voice.
"No; he'd rather keep away from that. He'll always give that a pretty wide berth," some one answered.
"Why not take him there? He doesn't know what a nice place it is for a picnic."
The suggestion was hailed with delight.
"The sand-pit—the sand-pit!" was the cry.
Immediately a rush was made for Paul. It was more than flesh and blood could stand. Paul had kept wonderfully calm and cool up to the moment; but directly they tried to put hands upon him he struck out right and left. With so much vigour did he strike that he might have made his way through the howling, struggling pack, but just at the moment he had got himself free, Mellor, who was one of those who had been knocked to the ground, caught him by the legs and brought him with a crash to the ground.
"On him—on him!" was the cry.
"Back—back! Cowards all!"
At the instant they were about to seize Paul a figure dashed into their midst, scattering the struggling pack to right and left.
WYNDHAM AGAIN TO THE RESCUE
"Back, back! Twelve to one—cowards, cowards!"
The Bedes fell back as the youth fell among them, and cleared a passage to Paul. Paul, momentarily stunned by his fall, breathed freely again, and leapt to his feet.
"Why, it's Percival!" said the new-comer. "Are you hurt?"
Paul could scarcely believe his eyes, as he found himself again confronting Gilbert Wyndham.
"No, thanks," he answered stiffly.
He would rather have been indebted to any one than to Wyndham. He had wished to clear off the debt between them, but instead of that he found himself more indebted to him than ever. For a second time he had been placed under an obligation to him.
"You don't see who it is, Wyndham," came a voice from the ranks of the Bedes, disappointed of their prey. "It's a Gargoyle—the wretched Gargoyle who showed such a clean pair of heels at the sand-pit."
"Yes, I do see who it is; but, whoever he is, that's no reason why a dozen of you should set on him at once. That's not fair play, Murrell."
"Half a dozen of 'em set on me," came the voice of Mellor. "What's good enough for the Gargoyles ought to be good enough for us."
"That's just where you're wrong, Mellor," answered Wyndham coolly. "What's good enough for a Gargoyle isn't good enough for a Bede—is it, Bedes?"
A murmur of ready assent went up at this appeal—from all except Mellor.
"You see, you are half a Gargoyle yourself, Mellor, or you would have known that. You belong to the amphibia at present. When you've grown out of that you will know better, won't he, Bedes?"
A laugh went up—from all except Mellor. The storm which had looked threatening began to clear under the ready tact of Wyndham. Still, the boys did not like the idea of letting Paul go scot-free.
"Yes, you'll know better than that by-and-by, Mellor," said the youth addressed as Murrell. "Your education was neglected as a Gargoyle. You'll improve as you go along. But, I say, Wyndham, what are you going to do with the specimen you've got? You can't stick it in the museum, you know. So turn it over to us again. We won't hurt it. We'll only give it a run to the sand-pit, and a roll down. It will do it good. Eating sand is better than eating dirt."
"Yes, hand him over," came in a chorus.
"No," came the decided answer, as Wyndham twined his arm in Paul's. "The Gargoyle is my property."
"What are you going to do with him?" demanded Murrell.
"I want to have a little quiet talk with him, that's all."
What could Wyndham want with a little quiet talk with a Gargoyle? It could only be for one purpose—to gather information which might be of use to the Bedes in any future campaign against Garside. So the boys reluctantly turned away, and left Wyndham and Paul together.
"Why have you come a second time to my help?" came in a choking voice from Paul when they were alone.
"Really, I don't know," smiled Wyndham. "Does it matter much? Do you mind?"
"Mind! After what happened at the sand-pit the other day. Mind! I would rather have been under an obligation to any one than you."
"Do you mean it?" asked Wyndham, now quite grave.
"Of course I do. I was never more in earnest in my life. I had hoped to clear off the debt that was between us, and now you have placed me in your debt a second time."
"If you mean by debt that little service I was only too pleased to do for you at the well, I thought it was quite cleared off."
"By the service you did for me at the sand-pit the other day."
"You are mocking me?"
"I was never more serious in my life," answered Wyndham, using Paul's words. "When I saw you standing before me at the sand-pit—saw who your fellows had selected as their champion—I was staggered. You were the last in the world I dreamt of seeing. I could see that you were bewildered, but not more than I was. I knew not how to act. Fight you? Impossible! Go away—turn on my heel? That seemed impossible, too. I should be stamped as a coward. I could not explain, because that would have meant giving away your secret. Then, as the thoughts flashed through my mind, you solved the riddle. You had the courage to do what I couldn't—you walked away."
Paul regarded Wyndham in wonder. The thoughts which had passed through Wyndham's mind were almost the same thoughts that had passed through his. The same struggle had gone on in both. For the moment the hard, bitter feeling that had stirred within him softened, and he was on the point of holding out his hand, when he remembered that it meant clasping the one that had so severely punished Stanley.
"I walked away," he echoed; "and then?"
"Why, then," smiled Wyndham, "things couldn't have happened better. Some bounder amongst your mob was anxious to bound into your shoes. He jumped up in an awfully excited way, muttering something about 'the honour of the Form.' He insisted on fighting me, and I didn't mind in the least. You know how it ended."
"Too well—too well," repeated Paul sadly. "Better far had I stayed. That was my friend you punished so."
"The best friend I had at Garside. We are friends no longer. Instead of that, he looks upon me now as his worst enemy, while all the school look upon me as a cur. But it isn't that I mind so much, it's losing the friendship of Stanley Moncrief."
"I'm sorry. I did not dream things were as bad as that. Who is this Stanley Moncrief?"
"He is the son of that gentleman for whom I took the letter to Redmead on the night you met me, and did me so great a service."
"If it was a service, I've undone it now," answered Wyndham sorrowfully. "I could not have done a worse one than I did you at the sand-pit. Why couldn't you explain to your friend?"
"I've tried to, but he won't listen. He is smarting under his defeat, and I don't wonder at it."
There was silence between them for a minute or two, then Wyndham exclaimed:
"Are you going back to Garside?"
"Because I am going with you. Moncrief won't listen to you. He will listen to me."
"No, no!" said Paul firmly. "It is very kind of you, but I would rather not. If Stanley Moncrief and I are ever to be friends again, he will have to find out for himself that I'm not the cur he thinks me. I've tried to explain, but he would not hear. I shall never try again, unless he comes round and asks me."
"I think you are right," said Wyndham, after a pause. "None the less, I'm sorry—deeply sorry—that you should have lost your friend through me."
"Oh, things will work round presently," said Paul lightly. "I suppose, after that affair at the sand-pit, you were quite the hero of your school?"
"I don't know about hero. They made a lot of fuss over me, because, as you know well enough, there's no love lost between us and Garside. But if anybody deserves to be the hero of a school, it is you."
"It is easy enough to flow with the tide, but awfully hard to struggle against it. That's what you're doing just now, Percival."
He walked with Percival for some distance on the road to Garside, and when they separated they shook hands, unaware of the fact that they had been seen by one of the Third Form. After Wyndham's explanation, how was it possible for Paul to refuse the hand held out to him?
Now, Stanley Moncrief was at this time in his dormitory, very miserable. He had been so, in fact, ever since he had broken with Paul. He had a real affection for him. He had loved him as he might have loved a brother; then, after his defeat at the sand-pit, he felt that there was only one thing to be done, and that was to—hate him. So he had broken off the friendship, and rushed into the arms of the two whom he disliked—Newall and Parfitt.
But when Stanley began to reflect a little more deeply, he began to see that he could not altogether shake off the old link that bound him to Paul. He had always been comfortable and at ease with him—could sit with him, as it were, in his shirt-sleeves and slippers. He had felt at home with him from the first day they met. He could not feel the same with Newall or Parfitt, try as he might. He seemed to be ever acting a part when he was with them, and they seemed to be doing the same when they were with him. For instance, he would have liked to have read the letter Paul sent him by Waterman; but the eyes of Newall were upon him, so he tore it up in bravado, and scattered the fragments in the way already described. It was not Stanley's real self did that—he was acting a part.
Again, when Paul entered the common room, looking so sad and miserable, Stanley's heart prompted him to stay and speak to his old friend. Perhaps he might have done so had he been alone; but he felt that the eyes of the others were upon him, especially Newall's. Something was expected of him. He was to give the lead; so he gave the lead, by walking from the room, and the rest followed him, with the solitary exception of Waterman.
Then he joined in the laughter and the jeers of his new-found friends when they got outside, all at the expense of Paul. Again, Stanley was acting a part. At heart he felt miserable. The sadness of Paul's face haunted him, and as soon as he could he escaped from his companions to the solitude of the dormitory.
He had been puzzled all along how it was Paul had acted in such a cowardly way at the sand-pit. He knew that he had no love for fighting; but once having taken up the gage of battle, he was not one to shrink from it. What was it his father had said? That no braver youth could be found than Paul Percival. His uncle had the same opinion, and they were not the men to make mistakes. Had his nature suddenly altered, or what had happened? More and more he regretted that he had not opened Paul's letter. It might have given him the answer to the riddle.
So Stanley sat on the side of the bed for a long time, very miserable. Indeed, I very much question whether of the two he was not the more miserable. It is true that nearly all Paul's companions dropped away from him; but perhaps it was better to lose companions than to have those you did not really want.
"It is all a hideous mistake. I'll go and make it up with Paul," he thought.
As he was thus thinking, the door opened, and his cousin entered.
"Well, Harry, what do you want?" he asked gruffly, as though resenting the intrusion.
Harry eyed him for a moment without answering.
"Can't you speak? Have you lost your tongue, Harry?"
"I saw Percival a little while ago, Stan."
"Well—what of it? What's that to me?"
"Nothing much, I suppose."
"Where did you see him?"
"Not very far from here. He was with that fellow—that beastly Beetle—who fought with you."
"What were they doing?"
"Oh, they were walking and talking together—very chummy. When they left, they shook hands—almost kissed each other."
"Shook hands! You are sure?"
"Run off, youngster. Leave me," cried Stanley hoarsely.
Harry ran out, wondering at the effect his information had had upon his cousin.
"Shook hands with him!" echoed Stanley, as he sank with a groan upon the bed.
THE CHASM WIDENS
Unintentionally Harry Moncrief had made deeper the chasm between the one-time friends. It was quite evident to Stanley, from Harry's description of what he had witnessed, that there was an understanding between Paul and Wyndham, otherwise they would never have shaken hands with each other. The fact that Paul could take the hand of one who had thrashed him set the blood tingling in Stanley's veins. That showed plainly enough that Paul was on friendly terms with his enemy—with an enemy of the school. What was to be done?
Stanley got up and paced the room. The softer feelings that had been working in his breast vanished.
"I will never speak to Paul Percival again—never!" he said fiercely. "Perhaps the whole of that business at the sand-pit was a trap of his into which I was fool enough to fall. How else could they have shaken hands together?"
It seemed to him, thus blinded by suspicion against his friend, that it could only have one meaning—they were gloating over his defeat.
Meanwhile, Harry Moncrief had no sooner descended the stairs leading from the dormitories than he came sharply into contact with Plunger, who was hurrying along the corridor as though he were rushing full speed up a cricket pitch to prevent himself from being run out.
"Hallo, Harry, just the fellow I was looking for!" he exclaimed.
"Are you, Freddy? Then I wish you'd look for me with your eyes instead of your elbows," answered Harry, rubbing his ribs, which were aching from the blow they had just received from the boniest part of Plunger's elbows. "What is it?"
"You know that twaddle in the Gargoyle Record about the poet being stuck for a rhyme to 'hunger'?"
"Yes," laughed Harry, as he recalled Plunger's confusion when the paragraph was read aloud in the common room.
"What are you grinning at? You don't mean to say you saw anything funny in it?"
"Oh, no; but you're bound to laugh when the other fellows laugh, you know. It's like the measles—catching. I'm all right now. Go on. You were saying——"
"I believe that paragraph was sent in to the editor—Dick Jessel, you know—by Baldry."
"Oh! What makes you think that?"
"He's been worrying about rhymes ever since that paragraph was read out—that's why. You see, he sent in the paragraph so that he might have another shot at me with the answer. Baldry's a deep 'un."
"But why should he send in paragraphs to the Record against you?"
"Well, I make fun of his name, so he's trying to score off me in return. But he can't do it, for 'Plunger's' no sort of rhyme to 'hunger.' And there's another thing I've got to tell you in confidence, Harry. I believe that cartoon of me on the Forum window was Baldry's work."
"Oh!" answered Harry drily. "What makes you think that?"
"Baldry once said that if the glue business failed"—Plunger's father was a glue and size merchant in a large way of business—"I could always pick up my living as an artist's model."
"Well, he had the cheek to tell me I had a funny sort of face. And Baldry's smart with the pencil, you know; so, putting this and that together, I believe Master Baldry not only sent in that paragraph to the Record, but put my face on the Forum window."
"Very wrong of him, Freddy," said Harry sympathetically. "What are you going to do with him?"
"Well, I've got a lovely old basket, once the property of a dear and highly-respected friend of yours, Mrs. Trounce, and this basket is filled with a lovely collection of feathers. Along with these feathers will be mixed a little glutinous substance, as the chemistry master calls it, which I brought last term from the pater's works. This basket will be fixed directly over the Forum door, by means of a string, the end of which will be held by some one hidden in a tree at the back of the Forum. That some one in the tree will be you. Are you listening?"
"Ra-ther. That some one in the tree will be me. Go on."
"My dearly beloved and much respected chum, Sammy Baldry, will receive a message calling him to the Forum at half-past six. Someone will be at the side of the Forum, so as to know the exact moment Baldry appears on the scene. Directly he nears the door that some one will whistle. That will be a signal to you up in the tree. Baldhead will open the door. Then you'll pull the string. Over will go the basket, and down will come the pretty feathers over Baldhead. In the information Baldry was good enough to supply to the Gargoyle Record, affectionate inquiries were made, you remember, after the Missing Link, last seen in all his native beauty in the Forum. What price for Baldry, eh? When he gets these feathers on him he'll be a puzzle. No one will be able to tell which kingdom he belongs to—animal, vegetable, or mineral."
And Plunger chuckled so that it seemed as though he would never be able to stop himself. Just to keep him company, Harry chuckled too.
"Splendid little joke, isn't it, Harry?"
"I told you what fun you'd have when you got to Garside. Better than Gaffer Quelch's, eh? Things were awfully slow there, weren't they, Harry?"
But, so far as fun was concerned, Harry couldn't see that he had had very much of it, except at his own expense. Plunger had, in fact, made him his butt, and now he wished to score off Baldry through his instrumentality.
"I didn't quite understand you, Freddy," said Harry presently, as Plunger went on chuckling. "Who do you say was to be up in the tree at the back of the Forum and pull the string?"
"You, Harry. I'm giving you the post of honour, because you deserve it. Baldry has poked fun at you a lot. Now it's your turn, old fellow."
"It's very kind of you, Freddy—it really is. I don't know how to be grateful enough. I'm to be in the tree, you say: but where will you be?"
"Oh, I'll do the whistling."
"Yes, to let you know up in the tree when Baldry comes along. Then, directly Baldry opens the door, you pull the string, and—there you are. Baldry in full plumage. It's all clear enough, isn't it?"
"All clear enough;—but——"
"But what? You're not going to cry off, are you?"
"I'm not going to cry off; but suppose we change places."
"How do you mean?"
"You go up the tree and do the pulling, and let me do the whistling."
"Why, it'll be ever so much more fun to pull the string. I want to give you the best position, you see."
"I know you do, Freddy. I know your good nature; but I'm not going to let you make the sacrifice. I'll do the whistling."
"Very well, if you wish it. I don't mind which I do," said Plunger, in a lofty tone. "Only don't make a mess of it."
"Oh, my part's so simple, I can't make a mess of it. Mind you don't make a mess of yours, Freddy."
Now Harry decided, immediately on quitting Plunger, that he would acquaint Baldry with the joke that Plunger intended to play upon him. It was he who had drawn that cartoon in the Forum that had stirred Plunger to wrath, and Harry came to the conclusion that it was not right that Baldry should suffer for him. Besides, as Plunger had so often scored over him, he thought it only right that he should begin to equalize matters. So he hunted up Baldry, and informed him of Plunger's kind intentions towards him.
"Oh," said Baldry, when Harry had ended, "that's Plunger's little game, is it? I thought he was getting a bit cross, but I didn't think he meant showing his teeth. The beauty of it is, I hadn't anything to do with that portrait of him on the Forum window. I know no more about it than you do."
"Than I do!" echoed Harry, smiling to himself.
"He made a better guess when he told you that I inspired those paragraphs in the Record. I just gave a hint to Jowett. Jowett passed it on to Jessel, and Jessel put in the smart bits that touched Plunger on the raw. Plunger's all right when he's going for other people, but he doesn't like it when others go for him."
Harry quite sympathized with this view of things.
"There's my name," went on Baldry. "I can't help my name. I didn't christen myself, and was never asked whether I liked it or not. That's the worst of names. You never are consulted. It's all done for you by your ancestors, and your godfathers and godmothers—and people of that sort. I don't know why it should be, but it is; and there you are—fixed up for life with a name, unless you happen to be a girl, and get married, then you drop it for another, but it may be ever so much worse than the one you've got. Now, what I say is this—Baldry isn't such a bad name, as names go, is it, Moncrief?"
"Better than Plunger, any day," remarked Harry, in his most sympathetic manner.
"Better than Plunger, as you say, Moncrief. Where Plunger's ancestors picked up a name like that, goodness only knows. It must have come out of the Ark. And yet he's always calling me 'Baldhead,' 'Bladder of Lard,' 'The Lost Hair,' and telling me to go in for hair-restorer, Tatcho, and making feeble jokes of that sort. But I think I went one better when I got that paragraph in the Record, eh?"
"Yes, Baldry you scored there; but what we've got to think about is, how to prevent Plunger from scoring back. Some one will have to go to the Forum in answer to his invitation, when it comes. It won't matter who, because Plunger won't be able to see; he'll be up in the tree, waiting for my whistle. So who's to be the victim?"
Baldry became thoughtful. He ran through the list of his acquaintances whom he thought most deserving of the honour that Plunger proposed to bestow on him. He thought of one or two in his form who might have been available for his purpose, but it was just possible that they were in the confidence of Plunger. So he turned from his own form to the Fifth—"the bounders of the Fifth."
"I've got it," he suddenly exclaimed. "Percival!"
"Percival!" echoed Harry.
"Yes; that's the ticket; the very thing—Percival. If it comes off all right, it'll be a big hit. We shall be covered with glory, and he'll be covered with feathers—ha, ha! It couldn't be better. Do you see how it fits in? A nice little present of feathers for the fellow who showed the white feather at the sand-pit. Isn't it splendid, Moncrief?"
Harry was silent. Percival had been far from his thoughts. He never imagined that Baldry would suggest Percival. For the moment his mind went back to that night when Paul came to Redmead. Once again he could hear the low, earnest tones of his father—"Many thanks for the great service you have done, Paul. You have not only done a great service for me and my brother, but for your country."
"Well, Moncrief; why don't you answer?" came the voice of Baldry. "It's the finest idea that has come to me for a long time. Feathers for the fellow who showed the white feather."
At the words, the image of his father faded from Harry's mind. He could no longer hear the echo of his words. He only saw his cousin's bleeding face as he rose vanquished from the sand-pit; and, side by side with that picture, he saw Percival walking and talking, and shaking hands with "the wretched Beetle—Wyndham," as he had seen him walking and talking and shaking hands with him that afternoon.
"A fine idea—splendid!" he cried. "Nothing could be better. Let Percival be the victim."
HATCHING A PLOT, AND WHAT CAME OF IT
"Nothing could be better. Let Percival be the victim!"
Scarcely were the words out of Harry's lips than Viner come up to Baldry with the notice he was expecting. It was a hectograph copy, announcing that a meeting of the more important members of the Third Form would be held in the Forum at half-past six prompt to consider a matter of pressing importance.
Baldry thanked Viner. Viner smirked and retreated.
"Viner's in the know, that's certain," said Baldry, when he was out of earshot. "Viner's a crawler."
Harry had no great reason to like Viner. It was he who had gone behind him on the day that he had entered Garside, so that Newall might push him over his back. From that incident the quarrel had arisen between Stanley and Newall, and other troubles had followed in its train.
"You're right there; but now what's to be done?"
"Oh, that's easy enough. We've only got to rub out 'Third Form' and put in 'Fifth,' and then send it on to Percival; and there you are."
With the aid of a knife and some hectograph ink this alteration was soon made. The next question was how to get it to Percival without arousing suspicion. As they were considering this point Baldry caught sight of Hibbert crossing the ground.
"There's our messenger," he exclaimed. Then he shouted, "Hibbert, Hibbert!"
Hibbert looked round. Baldry beckoned him, and he came to where they were standing.
"I want you to give this note to Percival. If he asks you where it came from, tell him he will see inside. Then come away. Do you understand?"
"Yes," said Hibbert, looking suspiciously at the note.
"Well, run along. It won't bite you."
Hibbert went off reluctantly with the note. It seemed now as though he were as anxious as the rest to avoid Paul. At any rate, he kept out of his way, but he could not very well refuse Baldry's request.
He found Paul by himself, as usual, in the writing-room. He had commenced work in downright earnest on the prize essay.
"Hallo, Hibbert, is that you?" he asked, looking up as the boy entered. "What have you got there?"
Hibbert handed him the notice without a word, but did not beat a retreat according to the instructions he had received.
"Another meeting of the Fifth," Paul said, as much to himself as to Hibbert, when he had glanced at the note. "I wonder they trouble to send to me. It is too great an honour!"
No suspicion as to the genuineness of the note crossed his mind. It was quite usual for Sedgefield, who acted as hon. sec. for the Fifth, to send out his notices with a messenger from the junior forms.
"What's too great an honour, may I ask?" said Hibbert timidly.
Paul explained to him the contents of the notice.
"It's to call me over the coals again, I expect. Shall I go or shan't I?" he asked himself. Then, turning smilingly to the boy: "What would you do if you were in my place, Hibbert?"
"Stay away," said the boy promptly.
"And improve my reputation for courage—eh? Why would you stay away?"
Having so far exceeded his instructions, Hibbert thought he might as well go a little further.
"Because I don't believe that the Fifth had anything to do with that notice. It came from Baldry and Moncrief minor. I believe it's a trick."
Paul, beginning to smell a rat, examined the notice with closer attention, and soon detected the erasion where "Fifth" had been substituted for "Third Form."
"Thanks, Hibbert. I don't know why you should, but you're always doing me a good turn."
"Not half the good turns you've done me," said the boy earnestly, as he went out.
"What's in the wind?" Paul asked himself, when he was alone. "Bitter as Stanley is against me, he can't have set on his cousin to hoax and poke fun at me. Surely not?"
What was it, then? He could not guess; but it seemed to him that he must have sunk very low indeed in the eyes of the school when he had become a target for the junior forms.
"I must put my foot down on that nonsense," he said to himself, as he paced to and fro the room.
At first he thought of making straight for Baldry and Moncrief minor, and demanding what it meant; but on second thoughts he decided against that course, because it would mean mischief to Hibbert. His life at the school would be made more miserable than it was.
"The best thing after all will be to face it—to accept the invitation of Masters Moncrief and Baldry to the Forum to-night. I run the risk of being laughed at, I know, but I'm getting fairly used to that. And it's just possible I may be able to turn the tables."
Having come to this decision, Paul did the wisest thing possible under the circumstances—dismissed the matter from his mind, and went on with his work.
Now it so happened that a meeting of the Fifth had really been called for that evening in the Forum, and still stranger to relate, for the express purpose of discussing Paul. The information that he had been seen in the company of Wyndham, and had actually shaken hands with him, had quickly spread, and the meeting of the Fifth had been called for the express purpose of considering this further development in the feud between the Beetles and the Gargoyles. No notice of this meeting had, however, been sent to Paul.
So it was that about the time Paul was getting ready to go to the Forum, little suspecting the proposed meeting, Newall had already started for it, just as ignorant of the little plot that had been hatched by certain members of the Third. Leveson had had some lines which had kept him late in the class-room, and Newall had taken his place in getting the shed ready for the meeting. Thus it happened he was in advance of the rest.
It was quite dark as Newall made his way to the shed. Harry Moncrief was hiding at the side, with his whistle between his teeth. The figure coming towards the shed in the darkness he took to be the figure of Paul.
"He's up to time," he chuckled to himself. "He's fallen into the trap beautifully."
Newall reached the door of the shed, opened it, and passed in. Simultaneously Harry blew the whistle. At the signal, Plunger pulled the string which communicated with the basket immediately over the doorway, sending its contents showering down on the head of Newall.
Newall gasped and staggered in the darkness, striking out wildly with his arms. He had a confused idea that some enormous bird of prey had suddenly swooped down from the roof, and was flapping its wings over his head.
"Ooshter—ooshter! Get out of it!" he gasped, as he reeled about and struck out wildly at his imaginary foe.
Meantime Plunger had slid down quickly from the tree, and, accompanied by Viner and Bember, who had been awaiting the signal in the rear, rushed round to the front. The three held on to the door, so as to keep their victim floundering about in the darkness till they saw fit to release him.
"Splendid; couldn't be better," chuckled Plunger. "My, isn't old Baldy carrying on?"
His companions could not answer. They were doing their best to smother their laughter.
"My, he's carrying on awful!" went on Plunger. "Breaking up the happy home. Didn't think Baldy had so much spring in him. Seems to be all over the shop. Do you hear him, Moncrief? Where is Moncrief?"
Moncrief had made himself scarce. He had retreated to a safe distance, where Baldry was awaiting him. By the time he reached him, he, too, was exploding with laughter.
"Well, what's happened?" asked Baldry.
"Oh, don't ask me. It's too funny for words."
"Percival's inside, ramping about like mad, and Plunger, Viner, and Bember are holding the door outside like grim death, and laughing like hyenas over 'old Baldy.' Good, isn't it?"