On that Baldry was seized with a fit of laughter too.
"Good? The best joke we've had at Garside for a long time," answered Baldry, between gasps. "My, what will happen when they find out their mistake? What will they say when they see Percival stagger out instead of 'old Baldy?'"
"Plunger will stagger the most of the two, I reckon," laughed Harry.
"I just reckon he will."
"And I reckon also that he'd better keep out of the reach of Percival."
"Percival!" echoed Baldry contemptuously. "Percival may ramp a good deal, but he's not likely to do much, I'm thinking, after his exhibition at the sand-pits. Percival is——"
"I beg pardon, but did I hear some one mention my name?" came a quiet voice in the rear of Baldry.
Both boys turned promptly round at the voice. To their amazement Percival was standing before them.
"Per—Percival!" exclaimed Harry.
"Per—Percival!" echoed Baldry.
"I happened to be strolling this way, and thought I heard my name; but perhaps I was mistaken."
The boys could not speak. They could only stare with open mouths at Percival. It was a shadowy figure that stood before them in the darkness. Was it indeed Percival, or was it his ghost?
"Y—y—yes; we—we—were speaking about you," stammered Baldry, at length. "We—were—just wondering—how you were getting on."
"It's very kind of you to think of me," said Paul, with a quiet smile.
Paul, quite ignorant of what had transpired in the shed, thought for the moment whether he had better tackle Baldry and Moncrief minor then and there as to their motive in desiring him to go to the shed, but on second thoughts he decided to find out for himself; so he passed on.
"Pinch me—punch me—kick me", exclaimed Harry. "Am I awake or am I dreaming, Baldry?"
"It was Percival right enough."
"Then who—who's—in—the shed?" gasped Harry, a cold perspiration coming to his brow.
"What an idiotic question to ask me," retorted Baldry indignantly. "You ought to know best. Are you sure there's anybody in the shed at all?"
"I'm sure of that. And—and—I could have sworn it was Percival."
"You've made a nice mess of it."
"Well, if I have made a mess of it, I've kept you out of it," retorted Harry, beginning to feel sore at the tone taken by Baldry. "After all, Plunger and the others will be taken in a good deal more than we've been, remember. He still thinks it's you he's got a prisoner."
"Ah, yes, so he does," exclaimed Baldry, breaking into laughter again; "I'd forgotten that. When that door opens it'll be one of the best little surprise packets Plunger's ever had in his life. Hallo, here comes a lot of the Fifth fellows, and they seem making for the shed, too!"
The shadowy figures of Arbery, Parfitt, Hasluck, and a couple of others passed within a short distance of where the two boys were standing. They were conversing eagerly together.
There was silence between them for a moment; then an unearthly yell rose on the air.
"Goodness! What was that? Enough to lift your hair off, wasn't it, Moncrief?"
Harry did not answer. He was trying to pierce the darkness to see what was happening in the direction of the shed.
THE LAST BOND OF FRIENDSHIP
While Harry had been explaining to Baldry what had happened at the shed, Plunger and his two companions held fast to the door, under the impression that Baldry was within. Plunger was in a high state of glee at the capture he had made, and as soon as Harry had gone commenced crowing loudly, explaining as he did so that "as old Baldy seemed to be going in for dancing, he must give him a tune to dance to."
"Put the soft pedal on for a bit, Freddy," said Viner. "He's saying things to himself. Let's listen."
Plunger, who had nearly crowed himself hoarse, kept silent for a moment, as a smothered voice from within travelled through the door.
"Open the door—open the door!"
"Keep your wool on, Baldy!" retorted Plunger, in his most provoking tones. "Drop the clog-dancing, and give us a song; it's getting monotonous. What's the best rhyme for Baldy? How're the birds, beasts, and fishes getting on? What's the kingdom you've sprinted to—animal, vegetable, or mineral? Any more paragraphs for Jessell? We'll take them along."
"Open the door! I'll—I'll smash you when I get out of this!" came the voice from within.
"Smash us? Oh, oh, Baldy!" commenced Plunger, but Viner stopped him.
"Quiet, Freddy. Listen a moment. It doesn't sound to me like Baldy."
"Will you open that door? I'll pay you out for this! I'll—I'll——"
"Why—why, it's Newall!" whispered Plunger, aghast. "How's he got in there?"
"Don't ask me," said Viner, turning cold, for he had always been on particularly good terms with Newall.
"Can there be two of them in there, do you think?" suggested Bember.
"Ah, I see it all!" said Plunger, a light beginning to dawn upon him. "Moncrief minor's let us in for this. That's the reason he's bolted."
"Seems to me we'd better bolt too," exclaimed Bember. "There won't be much left of you, Freddy, if Newall gets hold of you."
"What price you? You're just as much in it as I am."
But Bember's advice commended itself to Plunger and Viner, neither of whom was desirous of meeting their captive when he was released, so, suddenly letting go their hold of the door, they bolted with all speed in the direction of the school.
Newall continued shouting his threats at the top of his voice for a few moments before he discovered that no one was on guard outside; then he flung open the door, and dashed through with a yell, just as Arbery, Parfitt, Hasluck, and others of the Fifth had started for the shed. They came to a sudden stop when they saw the extraordinary figure that rushed towards them in the darkness. And well they might, for Newall, smothered in feathers from head to foot, presented one of the most extraordinary sights it is possible to imagine.
"What is it?" asked Arbery, in an awestruck whisper.
"Ask me another. It—it looks like——"
But before Hasluck could explain what it looked like Newall had dashed up to them.
"Newall!" came the astonished cry.
"Who—who's been doing this?" he cried, glaring fiercely round on his companions.
"Doing what?" asked Hasluck.
"Can't you see? Nearly smothering me with feathers, and fastening me in the Forum."
"We know nothing of it. We were just coming to the meeting when we heard the shouting," answered Parfitt, in an injured tone. "Is it likely we'd play a trick on you, Newall?"
"It sounded like some of those imps of the Third. They were talking to me as if I were Baldry."
At this moment Paul joined the group, wondering what was the matter. Directly Newall caught sight of him, he turned towards him fiercely:
"Do you know anything of this? Had you a hand in it?"
"I don't know what you are talking about," answered Paul coldly.
"Of course not. You never do when it suits your purpose. Can we believe anything from the fellow who shakes hands with a Beetle—with the enemy of Garside?" came the sneering answer.
Paul staggered back as though he had been struck. Some one had seen him shake hands with Wyndham then, and, without knowing the facts, his enemies were already putting the worst possible construction on it. Stanley had joined the group as Newall was speaking.
"If you can't believe anything I say, what's the use of asking me questions? It seems to me a waste of breath."
"Did you or did you not set those fellows on to keep me in the shed?" demanded Newall hotly.
"I'm not going to answer you," said Paul firmly.
"Then perhaps you'll answer me," said Stanley, stepping forward to Newall's side, pale to the lips.
Paul had not noticed his arrival, and did not know that he was present till he heard his voice. It stirred the old feeling of love and friendship within him, though there was little that was friendly in its tone.
"Answer you what, Stan?" asked Paul, in softer tones.
Stanley knew little of the grounds of the present dispute, but he guessed that he could not be far wrong in repeating the question that Newall had just put. So he repeated it.
"Yes, I'll answer it," came Paul's response, "for whatever else you may think me guilty of, Stanley, I don't think you'll believe me guilty of telling a deliberate falsehood. I haven't set anybody on to keep Newall a prisoner in the shed, and, whatever has happened to him, I've had no hand in it."
He spoke with such earnestness and sincerity that there was scarcely any one present, with perhaps the exception of Newall himself, who doubted him.
"I think you can take Percival's word for it," said Stanley, turning to Newall.
"Thanks so much for one crumb of confidence." Paul, in spite of himself, could not prevent a slight accent of bitterness creeping into his voice. "It is really very good of you to think that my word may be taken, and I hope you won't think me ungrateful."
"If you say his word may be taken, Moncrief," said Newall, with a shrug of his shoulders, "that's enough. But as you have so much confidence in him, you'd better question him about the Beetle."
"I was going to," answered Stanley, as, once more turning to Paul, he asked: "One of the fellows saw you speaking to a Beetle yesterday. Is that true?"
"Shaking hands with him?"
Stanley groaned inwardly. He had hoped that it was a mistake—that his cousin's eyes had deceived him, but there was no mistake. It was only too true. He turned away, unable to hide the disappointment on his face. Paul caught a glimpse of it in spite of the darkness, and was about to speak, but Newall quickly interposed.
"There's another question which Moncrief's modesty prevents him from asking," he said, with a sneer. "We've been given to understand that the Beetle you shook hands with is the same Beetle who knocked Moncrief about in the sand-pit. Is that true, too?"
Paul was silent, as though he still stood to the resolution he had made not to answer Newall.
"Is it—is it?" demanded Stanley, turning swiftly round again, his tone almost as fierce as Newall's had been.
"Yes; it is true." Then he added in a lower voice: "There are things I can't explain. Will you meet me quietly, by yourself, just for a few minutes, Stanley?"
"There's nothing I'm ashamed of. I've no secrets," came the proud, cold answer. "If you've anything to explain, explain it now—in the presence of my friend Newall and the rest!"
"My friend Newall!" The words froze up all the warmer feelings in Paul's breast. It was as though Stanley had taken a knife from his pocket, and with one cruel stroke severed the last bond of friendship between them, and had then bound with firmer hand the bonds that bound him to Newall.
"Very well. If that is your last word, I've spoken my last word too."
And Paul turned on his heel, leaving them to draw what conclusions they liked from his answer.
Newall and his companions set to work removing the feathers which had descended on him in such a shower, and while they were actively engaged in it Waterman came leisurely along, late as usual, and drawled out:
"Hallo, Newall! What's wrong? Been moulting?"
Newall disdained to answer. It was some time before he got clear of the feathers, and then they left unmistakable marks.
"It won't be long before I find out who served me this trick," he said; "but I don't think we want to go to the shed now over the other matter."
"Newall's had more than enough of the shed already, seems to me," drawled Waterman.
"Dry up, Water. You're getting it on the brain," responded Newall gruffly.
"I think Newall's quite right," said Stanley. "There's no need for any meeting now. We've found out that it's all true enough about Percival—that he has met a Beetle, that he has spoken to him, that he has shaken hands with him that he is on friendly terms with him. He's admitted it, so it's no use going to the shed."
There was a murmur of assent.
"Well, but you can't leave it at that. Something more must be done, else Percival will be laughing at us in his sleeve," said Parfitt.
"Why not—why shouldn't we leave it at that?" said Waterman. "What's the use of worrying over trifles? Percival talks to a Beetle. Why on earth shouldn't he, if he likes it? Percival shakes hands with a Beetle. Again, I ask, where's the objection, so long as he doesn't want me to do it, or any other fellow in the Form. What's the use of making such an awful smoke?"
"I think we'd better truss him with Waterman," suggested Newall.
"That's better than being feathered anyhow," retorted Waterman coolly.
"Come, what's to be done? We can't stay here all night," said Hasluck. "Leveson will be up presently with his stop-watch."
"We oughtn't to have a fellow like Percival in the school," Parfitt commented. "The thing is how to get rid of him. We can't go up to Weevil and ask that he shall be turned out. And we can't do what we'd like to do—kick him out."
"No, we can't very well do that," struck in Newall. "There's only one way."
"What's that?" cried four or five in chorus.
"Make it too warm for the school to hold him."
"No, no; don't do that," came in quick, tense tones from Stanley. "I wouldn't like to be one to drive Percival from Garside."
"Nor I," added Waterman, with unusual emphasis for him.
"You!" retorted Newall contemptuously; "you don't count. Moncrief does. What's your objection, Moncrief?"
"Percival was once my friend," came the sad answer.
"Friend!" was the scornful reply.
THE RAFT ON THE RIVER
From this time every effort was made to make Paul's life at Garside unendurable. The dead set against him extended from the Fifth Form downwards. The views which Newall had expressed with so much force on the night he had been feathered reigned supreme throughout the school. It was felt that Paul had no place there, and that as he would not go of his own free will, it was the bounden duty of all of them to follow Newall's advice, and drive him from it. So the war against him was carried on—not so much openly as secretly—by every petty means that could be devised.
Stanley, to his credit, took no part in this secret warfare against Paul. He had still some affection for him; but though he took no part in it, he made no effort to check it. The fact was that he was getting more and more under the thumb of Newall and Parfitt every day.
Even Hibbert seemed to have deserted him. At any rate, Paul saw but little of him at this time, and when he did see him, the boy only greeted him with a wan, frightened smile, as though he were afraid to speak.
Waterman was about the only one who showed no change of manner towards him. He was still quite friendly in his lazy fashion. It was he who had first given the hint to Paul of the movement on foot against him.
"I may as well put you on your guard, Percival," he said, on the day following Newall's declaration against Paul. "You've put up the backs of all the Form, and a lot of fellows outside it. They're going for you. They mean driving you from Garside."
"I thought something was on foot. Thanks for telling me."
"Oh, you'd have soon found out, you know, without my telling you. But you needn't give me away. I only just mention it so that you may know what's in the wind. Don't worry. It's not worth it."
With this characteristic piece of advice Waterman left him.
"Trying to drive me from the school," Paul repeated to himself. "Well, they may try, and beat me in the long run, but they won't find it easy. 'Be ye stedfast, unmovable.' By God's help I'll try to be true to the school motto."
Having come to that determination, Paul set his teeth hard, and put his back to the wall. And so, though scarcely a day passed without bringing some fresh insult or tyranny, he still held firm to the position he had taken up—to the resolve he had made with himself and his God. It must be admitted, however, that the cup was sometimes very near to overflowing.
His lot might have been easier to bear had he received some answer to the letter he had written to Mr. Moncrief; but as day followed day without any response, it seemed to him that Mr. Moncrief disdained writing to him, or did not think his letter worth answering. He came to the conclusion that Stanley must have written to his uncle, telling him what had happened at the sand-pit, and the feeling against Paul at the school, and so had poisoned his mind against him.
Once or twice Paul thought of writing to the one friend who never failed him—his mother—and unburdening his breast to her; but the thought only came to him to be dismissed. It would only make her miserable. She had suffered enough in the past without being worried with his petty troubles at school. So he determined to stand alone—to fight out the battle by himself.
Things were at this pass when an event happened which caused some stir at Garside.
About a mile from the school ran the river. Its course lay in picturesque variety through peaceful pastoral country, cornfields, and orchards. One part of it was spanned by an old wooden bridge. This bridge had become so dilapidated by time and wear that the county justices had decided that it was dangerous for traffic. So to prevent the possibility of an accident, it was decided to pull it down, and replace it with a new one.
Accordingly, the bridge was pulled down, and a new one begun. To aid in this task, a raft was used by the workmen in crossing the river.
Now Plunger and his companions in the Third Form were deeply interested in the work that was going on at the river, but what interested Plunger most of all was the raft. It seemed to him that he would like to live upon that raft. What could be more delightful than gliding up and down the stream on it for ever. Then he thought of the many adventures that had happened on rafts—of the many shipwrecked passengers that had been saved on them.
"Wish I had one of my own," he remarked to Harry, as the two stood watching the men crossing the stream one half-holiday. "Wouldn't it be jolly fun?"
"Very," answered Harry, who, fired by Plunger's enthusiasm, began to share his longing.
It should be mentioned that Plunger's attitude towards Harry had changed since the night when Newall had been feathered in mistake for Baldry.
To use the phrase of the Third—"Moncrief minor had scored," and Plunger never respected anybody till they had succeeded in scoring over him—in other words, beaten him at his own game. Since then he had begun to tolerate Harry, and receive him on something like a footing of equality.
"Those fellows," went on Plunger, nodding his head in the direction of the workmen on the raft, "are so beastly selfish."
"Well, I tried to get on that raft when it was lying idle the other day; but they commenced shouting at me like mad. I wasn't doing any harm."
"Of course not."
"If they'd been using it, it'd have been a different thing; but they weren't. So why couldn't they have let me cross the river on it—eh?"
"I don't see why. They ought to have been glad to. They didn't know the honour they were losing. Now, if you'd only have told 'em who you were——"
"Shut up!" cried Plunger, pinching Harry's arm. "But, I say, couldn't we just have some lovely games, if we only had a raft like that?"
"Lovely," assented Harry.
Here was silence between them for some moments, as they watched the raft and the men upon it with envious eyes.
"Duffers!" exclaimed Plunger, at length giving expression to his feelings.
"Don't take on so, Freddy."
"Can't help it—duffers!" repeated Plunger, with still greater emphasis.
Silence again, broken by Harry.
"Would you really like to go on that raft, Freddy!"
"Stow poking fun."
"I'm not poking fun, I'm quite serious. Seems to me that if we really wanted to go on that raft, and really made up our minds to it, we ought to be able to manage it."
"How?" came the eager question.
"Easy enough if we go the right way, and don't make a mess of it, like Newall did that night when he walked into the Forum."
"We're not talking about the Forum," said Plunger quickly, giving Harry another pinch. "We're talking about rafts—that raft," pointing to the one on the river.
"And it's that raft I'm talking about. Have you ever noticed what happens on a Saturday?"
"Many things happen on a Saturday; but what is the one thing that happens in particular?"
"The workmen on the bridge leave off exactly as the clock strikes twelve—a little bit sooner if they can manage it. Never later."
"Oh, yes; they're very punctual at leaving off. But what's that to do with the raft?"
"A good deal. They always leave the raft tied up under the bridge. What would be easier than to untie it, and there you are."
"Harry, you're a genius—a reg'lar genius!" cried Plunger, bringing his hand down on Harry's back. "It never sprouted out like that when you were at Gaffer Quelch's. It's come on since you've been at Garside. I must have helped it."
Plunger had undoubtedly helped in the development of what he was pleased to term Harry's "genius," but whether altogether to the advantage of Harry time alone could show.
"You helped it, Freddy! The only help you give is helping Number One. You ought to have belonged to the help-myself society. You'd have been just the fellow for the president."
Plunger kicked Harry, and Harry returned the compliment; then their eyes went to the river again, and the raft, which was just getting under way again to cross to the other side.
"Those duffers don't know how to use a raft," said Harry contemptuously, after he had been watching the workmen for some moments.
"Of course they don't. That's the worst of being landlubbers. Wish we could only take them in hand and show them."
"One of 'em ought to be wearing a suit of goatskins and things of that sort, with a great cap on his head, with the hair on the outside to shoot off the rain if it came on," said Harry thoughtfully.
"Like Robinson Crusoe, you mean?"
"Like Robinson Crusoe. That slim fellow with the black hair would do for Friday, and the others could be Indians—if they only knew how to do things properly; but they don't."
"They don't," repeated Plunger emphatically. "My, if we only had the working of that raft, Harry, we'd make things hum!"
It was tantalizing to watch the men, so they turned away with visions of what it would be possible to accomplish if they only had possession of the raft. They could discover a desert island on the other side of the river, pitch their tent on it, and do "lots of things." Full of these splendid visions, they walked along in silence, each busy with his own thoughts.
"I think we can work it, Harry," Plunger at length remarked.
"That Crusoe idea. We can get the raft next Saturday, and easily peg out a desert island on the other side of the river. I shan't want to dress up much. I've got a ragged jacket which'll be near enough for skins, and a soft felt which I can cut round the brim with Mrs. Trounce's scissors. That'll do for the hat."
"Crusoe's hat, of course."
"And who's going to wear it?"
"Who's going to wear it?" Plunger's eyebrows disappeared into the roots of his hair in amazement at the question. "I am, of course!"
"You mean that you're going to be Crusoe?"
And Plunger's eyebrows remained so high up in the roots of his hair at the bare idea of anybody else playing the part that it seemed as though they would never come down again.
"Well, but where do I come in?"
"You can be Friday or an Indian."
"And make myself black, and go about without any shoes and socks on, and get thorns in my feet, and—and things like that. No, Freddy; no, I don't! We'll change parts. I'll be Crusoe; you be Friday. You look more like a savage than I do."
Plunger did not seem altogether pleased with the compliment, for he brought his knuckles down on Harry's head; but Harry was not quite the meek boy he was when he first came to Garside, so he returned the compliment, with interest. Then Plunger tried by cajolery to induce him to let him be Crusoe, and satisfy himself with the part of Friday, but Harry remained firm.
"I first thought of it," he argued, "and I ought to have first choice. If we're going on that raft, I'm going as Crusoe, Freddy."
Plunger preserved a gloomy silence for some moments; then he suddenly lifted his head, and his eyes sparkled.
"I've got it. Why shouldn't there be two Crusoes?"
"Two Crusoes! You and I, Freddy?"
Harry had never heard of two Crusoes existing on the desert island at one and the same time, but he didn't see why there shouldn't be. It would be more up to date. Besides it solved the difficulty, so he promptly consented.
"But, who'll be Man Friday?"
"Oh, we'll make the Camel Man Friday. He'll do splendidly."
"The Camel" was the cruel nickname it will be remembered that Newall had given to Hibbert. Unfortunately, a name like that sticks, and it had stuck to Hibbert.
ON A VOYAGE OF ADVENTURE
Moncrief minor and Plunger, having decided that they would improve upon Defoe's famous story and introduce two Crusoes into their forthcoming adventures instead of one, and having further decided that Hibbert should be Man Friday, it only remained to put their project into execution as soon as possible.
A little way down the river, on the opposite side to that on which the raft was usually moored, was a plantation. It had a thick growth of furze and bushes, and save for the rabbits and squirrels, was quite desolate during the winter. What better place could be selected for the desert island?
"Just the ticket," said Plunger, rubbing his hands, after he and Harry had explored the plantation with a view to their forthcoming enterprise. "Couldn't have been better if it had been built for us. We must be careful, though, and not let old Baldhead and the others know anything about it. They'll all want to cut in—Sedgefield, Bember, and the rest. I know them. Two Crusoes are quite enough at one time, don't you think?"
Harry quite agreed with Plunger. In fact, he was rather doubtful whether two weren't too many—too many by one. But he didn't hint it to Plunger, for fear of bringing up the old dispute.
"Have you sounded the Camel?" Plunger asked presently.
"Not yet; but I don't think he'll mind, except for one thing."
"Having his face blacked. He's sure to object to that."
"But he needn't know anything about it till we get him over in the plantation; then he can kick and squeal as much as he likes. It won't matter. Let's hunt him up now."
The two thereupon went in search of Hibbert. When they found him, Harry informed him in glowing language of their project for the coming Saturday.
"And just by way of a little treat we thought we'd take you with us," said Plunger, as Harry concluded his explanation. "It'll be fine fun. When we get on the desert island we can have splendid adventures!"
"Yes, yes; it'll be fine fun, as you say; but I'd rather not," answered Hibbert, for whom the river had little attraction. He somehow feared it. "I'll give way to some of the others."
"But you're not going to give way. You're too fond of taking a back seat. You never have any fun; the other fellows have plenty. It's a jolly shame!" exclaimed Plunger, waxing indignant. "It isn't right, is it, Harry?"
"No, it isn't," Harry promptly assented. "I don't see why the Camel shouldn't have as much fun as the rest of us."
"But—but I don't want it. I'm quite content."
"Ah, that's it. You're too content; but we're not. We mean making things better for you. It's nearly time some alteration was made. Baldry, Sedgefield, and the others would never think of giving you a bit of pleasure. They're too selfish—aren't they, Harry?"
"So we're leaving them out of it, and you're coming with us instead, Hibbert. We'll have a good time, I can tell you."
Plunger spoke with so much earnestness, and was backed up by Harry with no less earnestness, that Hibbert really thought that their sole object in taking him with them on the raft was to give him "a bit of pleasure." It was perfectly clear also that they would take no denial; so Hibbert, making a virtue of necessity, reluctantly consented.
"Whatever you do don't let out what we're going to do to the other fellows," was Plunger's parting injunction, "or they'll be eating their heads off with envy."
Nevertheless, in spite of Plunger's injunction, the secret leaked out. Indeed, it would have been an astonishing thing if it hadn't, for the proposed adventure on the raft had taken such complete possession of the mind of Plunger, that he could think of little else. He dreamt about it, and talked it over with Harry at every opportunity. In addition to this, they had been seen carrying parcels in the direction of the plantation.
The long-looked-for Saturday at length came. It had been agreed between the two confederates that, so as to avoid suspicion, Plunger should stroll up to the bridge just before the hour the men left off work, and that Harry should arrive on the scene a few minutes later with Hibbert, from another direction.
"If anybody's about they won't suspect anything," said Plunger. "We shall meet as if by accident, and keep out of the way till the road's clear."
Precisely as arranged, Plunger strolled up to the old bridge, which by this time was almost demolished. The workmen had made fast the raft to a stake at the side of the river, and, having received their wages, hastened off at the stroke of twelve. No one heeded Plunger. A few minutes later, Harry came up with Hibbert, who was trying to look as happy as possible under the circumstances, but was nevertheless far from comfortable. The river always seemed so cruel to him—so treacherous. And somehow it had seemed more cruel, more treacherous, since Paul had told him the story of his father's death.
"All serene, Harry," cried Plunger. "The road's clear. We've got it all to ourselves."
"That's good," said Harry. "We're in luck's way. Let's make hay while the sun shines. Wait for us on the towing-path, Hibbert. We'll soon be alongside."
Leaving Hibbert on the towing-path, the two boys got on the raft, and proceeded to untie it from the stake to which it was attached. This did not take them long, and, having secured a punting-pole, they soon brought the raft to where Hibbert was awaiting them.
"I'd—I'd rather not go," said the boy hesitating.
"Don't talk rubbish. Get on. You don't mean to say you funk it?"
To tell the truth, Hibbert did "funk it," though there seemed so little to fear; but he was, as we know, a nervous, timid boy. None the less, he always tried to disguise his feelings even to himself.
"Funk—not a bit; but—but I'm never much help, and—and I thought I might be in the way. It's a jolly raft, isn't he!" he said, as he stepped on.
Plunger pushed off and they went slowly down the river in the direction of the plantation.
"It's smooth enough here, but what must it be like on the sea, eh?" asked Plunger, after an interval of silence.
"Without any food or water and no sign of a sail."
"Yes, famishing with hunger and casting lots which shall die," added Plunger cheerfully, glaring at Hibbert, as though he contemplated him for a victim. Hibbert, pale before, turned to an ashen hue. "Why, what's the matter, Camel? Don't you feel well? Seasick?"
"I—I'm all right. Is—isn't it jolly?" answered Hibbert, with a feeble attempt at a smile.
Though Hibbert was far from enjoying himself, in spite of trying to impress upon himself that he was, his companions were in their element. As they floated along the river, they imagined themselves to be adventurers, bent on discovery and deeds of heroism. All the same Harry began to feel that Plunger, as usual, was trying to take up the position of command, and make him play second fiddle.
"I say, Freddy," he presently burst out, "isn't it time that I did a bit of punting?"
"I'd like you to have a try, I really would; but it's not so easy as it looks. You've never done any punting, and you don't know how hard it is."
"And what do you know about it? You've never done any of it till now. You're not going to gammon me, Freddy; so hand over the pole."
As Plunger did not seem inclined to give up the pole, Harry caught hold of it, with the intention of enforcing his demands. As he did so, the raft swayed, and Hibbert, crying out in alarm, clutched Harry in turn to steady himself.
"Don't be an ass, Harry," exclaimed Plunger hotly. "You'll have us over in a minute. We're not on dry land. We're not out for a picnic."
"Give up the pole, then. We were to go halves—share and share alike. I know as much about punting as you do; so let me have a turn."
"Put me on land," said Hibbert appealingly, fearing that a struggle would take place between the two boys.
"Don't be such an awful funk, Camel," exclaimed Plunger roughly. "Let go, Harry. Don't play about on this bit of wood or over we go. I'm not insured, if you are. I said we'd go halves, and so we will. Let me finish punting to the plantation and you shall do the punting back."
"You mean it?"
"Of course I do."
Satisfied with this promise, Harry let go the pole, much to the relief of Hibbert. The rest of the voyage was passed without further dispute, and in a little while they reached the plantation in safety. Having secured the raft, they made their way into the thicket. Hibbert timorously inquired where they were going.
"We told you we were out for adventures," explained Plunger. "Harry and me are Crusoes—twins, you see."
Hibbert nodded assent, but he could not help thinking that he had never seen twins who were so utterly unlike each other as the two before him.
"You're to be Friday, Camel."
"Friday—yes," Hibbert feebly assented. "Wha—what's he to do?"
"He's got to discover us—the twin Crusoes."
Hibbert thought that to balance things there ought to be a twin Friday, but he only repeated, "Twin Crusoes—yes." As he did so, he thought he heard a rustling among the bushes, as though some wild beast were crawling amongst them. He looked round with a shiver, but saw nothing. Plunger and Harry, too intent on their enterprise to hear anything, had been groping about in the thicket for something they had hidden there. Presently Plunger cried, "Got it!"
He drew out a brown-paper parcel from its hiding-place as he spoke, while Harry explained as he did so:
"This is to be a sort of dress rehearsal, you see. The next time we come we shall be able to do the thing properly."
"Yes, we've only got the hats and Friday's wig, and the stuff for his face," went on Plunger, as he pitched a brimless felt hat to Harry and clapped one of similar design on his own head. "We mean having the skin coats next time. Here's your wig, Camel—Friday, I mean. Let's see how it fits."
He took from the parcel a wig, which had been skilfully designed from a couple of fluffy woollen table mats, once the property of Mrs. Trounce. Pulling off Hibbert's cap, Plunger fixed this curiously fashioned wig on the boy's head.
"Fits to a T. Doesn't it, Harry?"
"Wish we only had a looking-glass here so that you could see yourself in it, Camel," went on Plunger. "You only want painting up a bit, and there you are. Hold your face down while Moncrief puts on the artistic touches."
Hibbert feebly protested. He didn't want his face painted.
"Now, look here, Camel," said Plunger, giving his arm a twist which made him wince, "we're not going to hurt you; so don't be silly. Friday was a savage, you know, and savages don't go about with white faces, and yours is awfully white. Don't be silly, I say."
Hibbert wriggled for a moment, but seeing that it was useless for him to struggle further, gave in with as good grace as possible. Harry at once went to work on his face. First of all greasing it, he next smeared it with burnt cork, until Hibbert was as black as a nigger. Thus blackened, and with the rudely fashioned wig as crown, Hibbert presented a curious appearance indeed. The two burst into laughter when they had finished. Their laughter seemed to echo through the plantation. Suddenly their laughter was checked.
"Did you hear it? Strange, wasn't it?" said Plunger.
Hibbert looked tremblingly round. Of a sudden an unearthly yell rent the air, and half a dozen dusky figures leapt from the bushes in the distance. Flourishing curiously-shaped weapons, very like tomahawks, they rushed, yelling and screaming, towards the bewildered boys.
WHAT HAPPENED ON THE RAFT
Hibbert, a picture of terror, turned and fled towards the river, and Plunger and Harry, imagining for the moment that they had been set upon by real savages, promptly followed his example. The dusky figures followed in pursuit, still yelling their outlandish cries.
"Ka-pei, ka-pei! Houp, houp! O-jib-e-way! Koo-oo, koo-oo!"
Hibbert ran as he had never run before in his life. Terror lent speed to his feet. He had got the start of his companions, so that they only drew up to him as he reached the river.
"Quick—the raft!" shouted Plunger. "They'll be on us in a minute."
It was the raft for which Hibbert was making.
"Ka-pei, ka-pei! Houp, Houp! O-jib-e-way! Koo-oo, koo-oo!"
The cries of the pursuers drew nearer and nearer. Hibbert reached the raft and leapt on it.
"Undo the rope! I'll push off!" panted Plunger.
Harry never thought of the promise Plunger had made—that he should punt the raft back. His only desire was that they should put the river between them and their pursuers as quickly as possible. In less than a moment he had undone the rope which bound the raft to the bank, and leapt to Plunger's side. Brief as the space of time, it had enabled the foremost of their pursuers to reach the bank.
"Push off, Freddy," cried Harry.
Plunger pushed off in desperation. Too late! The foremost of the pursuers had followed them on to the raft. Plunger could see the dusky face looking into his. The raft had floated a little way from the bank. With another unearthly cry three more of the savage-looking figures leapt on.
The raft swayed ominously. Plunger made a wild endeavour to push further out into the stream. The raft lurched forward. There was a cry of horror, a splash, and the next moment three of the boys—Plunger, Hibbert, and one of "the savages"—were struggling in the water.
The impetus given to the raft had taken it out into midstream, and when the three rose to the surface, it was at some distance from them. By the ducking in the water the paint of the "noble savage" was running down his face, and Plunger, in that terrible moment, recognized that it was Baldry.
Plunger knew little of swimming. Fortunately, Baldry knew more of it than he did, and was able to clutch him by the arm and hold him up. But those on the raft saw with horror that they had floated right away from Hibbert, and that was he drowning before their eyes.
Harry looked round for the punting-hole, in the hope that he might go to the aid of the drowning boy. Alas! Plunger had carried the pole with him when he had fallen into the river, and it was now floating down the stream at some distance from them.
"The Camel's drowning!" gasped Harry.
The boys on the raft saw that he was. They had caught sight of the white face as it rose for the second time to the surface. And they stood there, transfixed horrified, at the tragedy that was taking place before them. Unable to find the punting-pole, Harry would have leapt into the river, but Sedgefield, one of the "savages" who had jumped upon the raft, was just in time to clutch him by the arm and hold him back.
"Look, Moncrief! That's Percival, isn't it?"
Harry stood, trembling in every limb, on the edge of the raft, and followed the direction of Sedgefield's finger. Yes, Percival it was. Cut off from the games of his companions, left entirely to himself, he had brought out his rod and line to pass an hour or so angling. While thus occupied, he had heard the shouts and cries raised by the "savages" on the opposite bank.
"What's wrong?" he asked himself, as he stood quite still and listened.
The shouting grew louder; the yells more unearthly, and in a tongue, as it seemed to him, he had never heard before.
Dropping his rod, he raced along the bank, just in time to to see from a distance the raft push off with the boys upon it, and the disaster that followed, as it floated further into the stream. He paused for an instant as he breathlessly watched the scene; then raced forward at full speed, flung off his jacket, waistcoat, and boots, and struck out, hand over hand, to where Hibbert was struggling in the water.
Fortunately, Paul was a powerful swimmer. Even in his cradle his father had taken his little hand in his large one, and, while looking lovingly in his face, had said to the wife who sat beside him:
"The son of a sea-dog, the son of a sea-dog! He must never know the fear of water."
Alas! it was the cruel water which had carried off the father, but the son had grown up true to his wish—he had never known the fear of water. So he had become a bold and powerful swimmer. With a swift, sweeping side-stroke he reached Hibbert's side, just as he was sinking for the last time. Clutching the drowning boy by the hair, he held him up; then, turning on his back, he drew him to his chest, and, kicking out with his feet, soon reached the bank.
Placing the boy gently on the turf, Paul gazed anxiously into his face. The eyes were closed; the lips ghastly blue; the heart seemed still.
"Hibbert, Hibbert!" cried Paul, as he tried to restore animation.
No answer came to his pleading cry. The eyes still remained closed. A big fear took possession of Paul. Had the eyes closed never to open more? Had help come when it was too late? Was the little chap dead? Notwithstanding the fear that seized him, he did not relax his efforts, and presently, to his great joy, the lids fluttered, then opened, and the eyes went up to his face. They were dazed, bewildered. Slowly a look of recognition came into them.
"Per—Percival!" came in a feeble whisper from the lips; then the lids, as though exhausted by the effort they had made, closed again.
Danger was not yet past, but the boy lived, and Paul, breathing more freely, looked round to see what had happened to the others. It had been a near thing with Baldry and Plunger. Baldry had supported Plunger for some time, but neither had been able to reach the raft or the bank; while those on the raft were unable to move to their assistance. The strength of both was, therefore, giving out rapidly.
"Let go of me, Baldry. Take care of yourself!" gasped Plunger.
"Shan't Freddy," answered Baldry feebly. "Sit tight!"
Even in that terrible moment, with death looming grimly before him, Plunger smiled faintly. Baldry's advice seemed so ludicrous. Sit tight! What was he to sit tight on? They grew fainter every moment.
"God, help us!" was the prayer that came from the heart of Baldry.
Human help seemed to have failed them. So, at least, it seemed; but Paul, looking up from Hibbert at this moment, his heart gladdened at hearing his name, saw the dilemma in which they were placed—the peril in which they stood. Unless assistance soon reached them, they must go under.
What was to be done? He could not see them drown before his eyes. Yet—yet, if he were to leave Hibbert, what would happen to him? It was true that he had opened his eyes and spoken, but perhaps that was only the last feeble flicker of the candle. Paul's hand went quickly to the boy's heart. It was still beating, though feebly. Again his eyes went to where Baldry and Plunger were making a desperate fight for life. Three lives were trembling in the balance.
The prayer that had come from Baldry's lips a moment since came from Paul's.
"God, help me! What am I to do?"
He gave another swift glance into Hibbert's face. It seemed to smile at him, as though in answer to his prayer. "Go," it seemed to say. The next instant Paul plunged into the river, swimming towards the two boys, with the same swift stroke which had enabled him to reach Hibbert's side.
As he cut through the water, his right hand struck against something. His fingers closed round it. It was the punting-pole that Plunger had lost, and which had been partly responsible for the accident. God had answered his prayer. He had helped him. It would have been impossible for him to have saved the two fast-drowning boys by his own unaided efforts. Now it was possible.
"Catch hold!" he cried, as he directed one end of the pole to Baldry and Plunger.
They eagerly gripped it; then, grasping the other end, Paul swam to shore. It was a strange freight he was towing—two human lives. And his heart seemed beating like the valve of a steam-tug as he reached the bank and pulled his freight ashore.
"You're a brick—that's what you are, Percival!" were the first words that Plunger gasped, as he struggled, with the water dripping from him, up the bank.
Baldry's eyes had gone to the still figure lying on the grass.
"It's—it's the Camel! What—what's wrong with him?" he asked, as he stood gazing at the still form. "Is—is he dead?"
"I hope not—I think not," said Paul, as he raised the slight figure in his arms. "I must leave you fellows to look after yourselves."
So saying, holding Hibbert close to him, he hastened along the road that led to the school. Once or twice he paused to make sure that Hibbert's heart was beating. Yes; it was still beating, though feebly: having reassured himself, he hurried on again with his burden.
The road seemed longer to him than it had ever been before; but at length he drew near, and his eyes went up to the first thing that a Garside boy usually looked to—the old flag.
He could scarcely believe his eyes. Were they mocking him, or was he under a delusion? The flag did not seem to be flying there.
"My eyes are playing tricks with me," he thought as he hurried breathless into the grounds.
A few steps more and he met Stanley. He stopped and regarded Paul with surprise. He advanced a step, as though with the intention of speaking to him, but quickly changing his mind, went on his way. Paul clenched his teeth hard and staggered on with his burden. Luckily it was only a light one.
Reaching the schoolhouse door, he met Waterman coming from it.
"Percival! What are you fagging with there?" For once Waterman was genuinely roused. "An accident? Why, it's young Hibbert. What's happened?"
"He's had a ducking in the river. Run for Dr. Clack—as quickly as you can."
Waterman needed no second bidding. His natural indolence of manner, under which was hidden much more energy than people gave him credit for, vanished on the instant. He darted off at the top of his speed. Paul did not relinquish his burden till, under the direction of the matron, he had placed it on a bed in the sick dormitory.
"A doctor must be fetched," said the matron, as Hibbert's eyes remained closed, in spite of her efforts to bring him back to consciousness.
"Waterman's gone for Dr. Clack."
"That's right. The poor little fellow's in a bad way. Oh, you boys—you boys!" came in a sigh from the matron's lips. "Always in mischief. Who pushed him into the river?"
"Nobody pushed him. He fell in, so far as I could see."
Paul did not tell her that two more Gargoyles had fallen into the river at the same time, for fear of alarming her still more.
"Why didn't you stop him from playing about on the river? You're old enough to know better," said Mrs. Trounce wrathfully.
Paul stood silent under this rebuke. He had not explained all the circumstances of the accident—so far, at least, as he knew them—for fear of implicating the other boys. He had caught a glimpse of the savage "get-up" of Baldry and his companions, and the black stains on Hibbert's face, which had only been partially washed away by the water. He guessed, therefore, that there was more in the accident than at first met the eye.
"If he dies we shall have the police here a-makin' all sorts of inquiries," continued the angry matron. "And I shouldn't wonder if they took you off to the lock-up, and brought you up before a judge and jury. And serve you right, ses I. You elder boys want a lesson. Instead of stopping the little fellow from playing on the river, you encouraged him, I expect. I know the way you big boys have. You use the paws of the little ones to pull out the roast chestnuts. It's disgraceful, I call it."
Thus the matron poured out the vials of her wrath on Paul's head, while she busied herself at the same time in doing all she could to restore the patient to consciousness. Her words fell unheeded on Paul's ears. He was watching the face of Hibbert, and wondering whether the eyes would ever open again, and look up to him as they had looked up to him on that day when he had put his hand timidly on his shoulder and whispered:
"You look so wretched and miserable I could not help coming to you. You're not angry with me, are you?"
THE OLD FLAG
As the thought went through Paul's mind, the door opened, and Mr. Weevil entered. To Paul's wonder the master fell on his knees beside the bed, and, taking Hibbert's hand in his, murmured:
"Tim, Tim, what have they done to you? Speak, Tim."
The cold nature of the master seemed to have melted as he looked at the unconscious boy. Paul had never heard him call Hibbert by his Christian name before. The ashen lips were moving tremulously. The blinking eyes were fixed tenderly on the boy's face, and—was Paul dreaming?—he thought he saw a tear roll down the master's cheek.
"Why did I leave you to yourself? Speak, Tim, speak," came the pleading tones.
For once Mr. Weevil's self-control had given way. He was strangely moved. Paul was too moved himself at the time to take much notice, but he recalled every incident in that strange scene after. Then, as no answer came to his appeal, the master seemed to wander in his talk, and babbled words in an unknown tongue.
He was still kneeling by the bed, talking in this way, when Dr. Clack, the school doctor, entered. His face remained very grave as he examined his patient.
"It's been a very near thing with him," he said, when he had finished his examination; "but with careful nursing he may pull round."
Paul heard the news with a thankful heart, for he had begun to fear that the case was hopeless. Mr. Weevil had now quite recovered his self-possession, and, leaving the patient in the hands of the doctor and the matron, beckoned Paul to follow him to his room.
On entering it he closed the door, and questioned Paul minutely as to the cause of the accident. Paul explained to him what he had seen, the more readily because the little he had seen threw no particular blame on any one.
"And you don't know how it happened?"
"No, sir; I haven't the least idea."
"You weren't in any way concerned in it?" demanded Mr. Weevil, suddenly opening his half-closed eyes and fixing them on Paul.
Paul felt indignant. He had made as little as possible of his share in rescuing Hibbert; and as a result the master seemed to have a lurking suspicion that he was in league in some way with the boys who had caused the accident.
"No, sir, I was in no way concerned in it," he flashed back. "It was quite by chance that I was at the river-side this afternoon."
"Well, the matter must be further inquired into. It is quite certain that there is something that needs explanation."
"I know nothing about that, sir; but if you've no more questions to ask me, I'd like to change my things."
Paul's clothes had nearly dried on him. He had taken no heed of himself in thinking of Hibbert; but now that Hibbert was in bed, and in the hands of those who could take care of him, he began to think a little of his own condition, which was not altogether so comfortable as might have been desired.
"I'm sorry. I really had forgotten that you were in damp clothes. Why didn't you mention it before? You must change them at once."
Mr. Weevil seemed really sorry that he had not given a thought to Paul's condition before. Paul hastened off to change his damp cloth for dry ones. While he was thus engaged, Plunger and Baldry entered for the same purpose. Otherwise they seemed none the worse for the cold bath. Plunger, in fact had got on good terms with himself again, and was as perky as ever.
"I should have punted across the river all right if it hadn't been for Hibbert," he explained. "The scream he gave threw me off my stroke. It was jolly good of you all the same to come to us, Percival. We shan't forget it in a hurry—shall we, Baldry?"
"No," was Baldry's emphatic answer. "By the by, how is Hibbert going on?"
"I was just going to ask the same thing. I would rather have gone under myself than that he should. Has the doctor been to him?"
Plunger spoke with unusual earnestness.
"Yes, Dr. Clack's been to him. He's with him now."
"And what does he say?"
"He says that it's been a near thing, but with careful nursing he may pull round."
Plunger paused with one arm in the sleeve of the jacket he was putting on, and sat down on the side of the bed. He was beginning to realize how near the Crusoe expedition had been to a tragedy—nay, the danger was not yet over. Silence fell on the room for some moments. Each was busy with his own thoughts.
"I haven't yet heard how it all happened," Paul at length inquired.
Plunger told him the origin of the "Crusoe expedition," and all that had happened up to the moment of the accident.
"I don't know anything about the savages that boarded us on the raft. Baldry can tell you that part," he concluded.
"Oh, we found out all about the expedition, and didn't like being left out of it. We thought that we'd have a cut in on our own account. So Sedgefield, Bember, Viner, and myself got down to the plantation before Plunger, Moncrief minor, and Hibbert reached it on the raft. While they landed and got ready for their part, we got ready for ours. What was the use of Crusoe without the noble savages? So we got up as savages, and frightened the life out of Plunger and the other two by swooping down on 'em just like Indians would, you know."
"You didn't frighten me, I tell you," protested Plunger.
"Of course not; but Crusoe, when he first saw savages, never sprinted along half so quickly as you did, I'll warrant! Greased lightning wasn't in it with you, Plunger."
Plunger did not answer, but diligently set to work getting his other arm into the sleeve of his coat.
"Well, but what's become of the other fellows on the raft—Moncrief, Sedgefield, and the others?" inquired Paul.
"Oh, they were still on the raft, floating gaily along, when we left. Goodness knows when they would get ashore," says Baldry.
"It's a bit unfortunate, you see, for none of the fellows now left on the raft understand anything about punting," put in Plunger. "It's rather a pity I couldn't have got back to them."
"It's just that that makes me feel easy. There's a good chance of their pulling through, now you're not with them, Plunger," was Baldry's ungracious response. "Why, here they are!"
As he was speaking, in fact, three of the four entered—Bember, Sedgefield, and Harry Moncrief. After they had spent some time on the raft, drifting aimlessly on the river, a boatman had towed them ashore. Fixing the raft in its place by the bridge, they had returned in all haste to the school, anxious to know what had happened to their companions. When they had learned all particulars, Sedgefield exclaimed:
"I don't care what those Fifth Form fellows say or think, but will you take my hand, Percival?"
Paul willingly gripped the hand extended to him. Bember and the others, with the exception of Harry, followed suit. Harry struggled with himself for a moment. He could not help remembering, in spite of his effort to forget it, that Paul was responsible for the thrashing that his cousin had received at the hands of a Beetle, and that he had seen him shaking hands with the same obnoxious creature. Yet what could have been nobler, Harry told himself, than the way in which, at the risk of his own life, Paul had gone to the rescue of Hibbert, and had returned a few minutes later to save Plunger and Baldry? He had witnessed it all from the raft, with his heart in his mouth. Yes, it was a noble deed. He had never seen a nobler. What was the defeat of Stanley—the wound of his pride—compared with it? Instinctively his hand went out to Paul as the other hands had done, when Viner entered the room.
"Have you heard the news?" he questioned, greatly excited.
"The news! What news?" demanded Sedgefield.
"The school flag. It's gone!"
"Gone!" they echoed, as with one voice.
Paul's mind went back with a rush to when he had entered the grounds with Hibbert in his arms. His eyes had not deceived him, then. The flag had really gone.
"Nonsense!" cried Sedgefield.
"Not much nonsense about it. If you don't believe me, you'd better go and look for yourself."
The intelligence was so remarkable, that Plunger and Harry raced into the grounds. A minute later they returned.
"Viner's quite right. It's gone," they exclaimed in a breath.
"But how—where—when?" questioned Sedgefield. "Who has taken it?"
"No one knows. It must have happened while we were on the river, so we could know nothing about it. Somebody must have stolen up the turret stair and got on to the roof. That's the only possible way it could be done. The senior Forms are in a rare wax over it."
"I should think so," burst out Plunger. "What fellow can rest easy now that our flag's been hauled down? I only wish that I had hold of the one who did it."
"You'd give him a lesson in punting, wouldn't you, Freddy?" observed Baldry, with a wink at those around him.
Plunger glared at Baldry. He would have brought his knuckles down on his head, only he remembered what Baldry had done for him.
"Seriously," said Sedgefield, "it can't have walked. There's not a fellow in Garside who would have pulled down the old flag, even for a joke; I'm certain of that."
"And I." "And I." "And I," came in a chorus.
"A Beetle must have sneaked in. It must be the work of a Beetle."
"That's what I've been thinking," said Bember. "It's only one of those cads could have done a sneakish trick like that."
"Supposing it is a Beetle, which of them could have done it? Which of them could have made his way into the school without being seen, and then got to the door in the turret?" asked Baldry.
"Mellor knows all about the building. He could easily describe the way to any of the Beetles," said Viner. "That champion of theirs—Wyndham—has made us eat enough dirt already. He made our picked man turn tail"—every eye went to Paul as Viner spoke with bitterness—"and Moncrief eat dirt. Now we've lost the flag. Really, we're getting on. We can't sink much lower."
The atmosphere in the dormitory was getting oppressive. Every one felt uncomfortable. That allusion to Paul was true enough. He had turned away, like a frightened cur, from Wyndham; but who could accuse him of being a coward after what had happened that day? It was altogether inexplicable.
Baldry was the first to speak.
"You know what has happened this afternoon, Viner. Percival saved my life, and you're not going to fling mud at him while I'm standing by."
"And I say ditto to Baldry," blustered Plunger.
"Oh, I deserve it," said Paul, for the first time breaking silence. "It's true—every word that Viner said. I did turn tail. It was the act of a coward. And Stanley Moncrief suffered through me, and through me all the school has eaten dirt. But if the school has suffered through me, through me it shall be lifted up again. If the Beetles have taken our flag, by God's help I will get it back again, and again it shall fly in its old place on the turret. If I fail——"
But Baldry cut him short, and shouted:
"Three cheers for Percival!"
The cheers were given very heartily, though Viner took little part in the cheering; but ere the last cheer had died away, a messenger came from the sick-room. Hibbert was still in a very critical condition, but he had recovered consciousness, and was asking for Paul.
HIBBERT ASKS STRANGE QUESTIONS
The message brought back the minds of the boys with painful abruptness to the struggle of a far different kind which was taking place in the sick-room. In the loss of the school flag they had forgotten, for the time being, the crisis through which Hibbert was passing. It was no time for cheering; it was a time of sadness—Paul, at least, felt so as he obeyed the message, and made his way to the sick-room.
"Percival," came in a low, faint voice, as he entered.
The face of the sick boy turned to him. Pale at all times, it now seemed bloodless, as white as the pillow upon which it rested. It seemed, too, to have shrunk, while the eyes had grown larger, and shone with a light which Paul had never seen in them before.
"You were the first one he asked for when he came to his senses," said Mrs. Trounce, as Paul stepped softly to the bedside. "I think he's a bit better now; aren't you?"
"Much better, thank you," said the boy, with a painful attempt to smile at her. Then the bright eyes went again to Paul's face and rested there.
"I'm glad to hear that, Hibbert," said Paul, taking the thin hand in his. "You must make up your mind to get off that bed as soon as possible, mustn't he, Mrs. Trounce?"
"Just what I tell him," said the matron, cheerfully, for she knew the value of cheerfulness on the spirits of a patient. "If he makes up his mind to it, he'll soon be about again."
"It's astonishing what we can do when we set our teeth hard, and go for a thing," continued Paul, adopting her cheerful tone and manner.
"That's what you did when you came to me and saved my life. Oh, Percival, it was terrible!"
And the thin hand went to the eyes with a gesture of pain.
"Terrible! Hooking you out of that river? That's what I call beastly ingratitude. I think it's one of the best things I ever did in my life."
"No, no," cried the boy quickly; "don't think me ungrateful. I couldn't bear that. You don't think me ungrateful?"
"Of course not. It's only my stupid way of putting things. All you've got to do now is to forget about the river, and everything connected with it. You're now on dry land—in a nice, warm, comfortable bed, where you needn't trouble about anything except getting well again."
"Are the other fellows all right—Plunger and Moncrief, I mean?"
"Right? Rather! Going stronger than ever, especially Plunger."
"I'm glad of that. And—and the savages. Who were they?" asked Hibbert, with a shudder.
"Can't you guess?" smiled Paul. "Nobody very dreadful. Three or four of the fellows of your Form—Bember, Baldry, Sedgefield, Viner."
"I might have guessed it; but then I'm not like other boys. I'm such a coward—coward. I've fought against it so hard, but I can't get over it. I've tried to be brave—as brave as you are——"
"Hush! Don't talk of bravery. You're forgetting the sand-pit. Don't put me on stilts, for I could never walk in them. We're just what God makes of us. There are plenty of thorns and thistles about, heaps of 'em; but not many sensitive plants. That's what you are Hibbert—a beautiful, sensitive plant."
"Ah, you don't know what I am. If only I could tell you—if only I could tell you. You would hate me—hate me. Yes, Percival—hate me. You can call me a beautiful, sensitive plant, while all the time I'm a beastly hypocrite. Oh, why didn't you let me die—why didn't you let me go down in the river? Why did you save me?"
He spoke with a sudden outburst of energy, raising himself, in his feverish excitement on his elbow.
"Come, come! Master Percival will have to leave you, if you take on that way," said the matron.
"Yes, I think I'd better go now and come again to-morrow," said Paul, alarmed at this sudden outburst, which he took to be a slight touch of delirium.
"Don't leave me, Percival—don't leave me just yet!" pleaded the boy. "I—I was forgetting myself. I'll be quieter if you'll stay with me a little longer."
The thin fingers slipped into Paul's hand again, and clung to it tightly.
"I'll stay with you a little longer, if you'll just do what I tell you."
"Yes, yes. What?"
"Just close your eyes and try to sleep."
Hibbert obeyed him implicitly. He closed his eyes, as though to sleep, but still held fast to Paul's hand. In a few moments the pressure relaxed, and he seemed to be really sleeping.
"I'll watch over him for a bit, if you like," whispered Paul to the matron.
Mrs. Trounce looked at her patient. He seemed tranquil enough now, and as she had other duties to attend to, she gladly availed herself of Paul's offer.
"I'll be back as soon as I can," she whispered as she went out.
She hadn't been gone more than ten minutes before Hibbert's eyes opened again.
"Still here, Percival? It's very kind of you." Then, looking round: "Where's matron?"
"Gone out for a bit. I've promised to look after you. Do you want anything?"
"No—except you. Matron's really gone?"—looking round again.
"What a suspicious chap you're getting!" smiled Paul. "Do you think she's hiding somewhere?"
"I'm glad she's gone, Percival, because I wanted to speak to you—alone."
"But you promised to sleep."
"Well, I've kept my promise. I've had quite a long doze."
"Very long—ten minutes."
"I can't sleep longer till I've said what I've got to say. Doesn't it say somewhere in the Bible that we ought to confess our sins?"
Paul could now see clearly enough that there was something troubling Hibbert, and that it would only increase the trouble if he were to refuse to answer him. So he answered:
"Of course it does. Let me see—you must know the words as well as I do—'If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.'"
"Yes, those are the words I was trying to think of. I remember them quite well now. The water from the river seems to have got into my brain, and things aren't quite so clear to me now as they used to be, you see."
"That will come all right presently, and things will be quite as clear to you as ever they were. But you mustn't worry, or else they won't."
"I can't help it; but I shan't worry so much when what is on my mind is off it."
"Shall I send for Mr. Weevil?"
"No, no," answered the boy quickly; "it's you I want to speak to. Don't leave me."
Paul did not move. He kept his place beside the bed, though he had no wish to hear any confession. He guessed what it was. Some boyish freak or escapade, magnified into undue proportion by the sensitive boy now that he was so weak.
"I won't leave you, but if you've got anything to say, I'm not the fellow to say it to. There's One can do you a great deal more good than I can, Hibbert. Just confess to Him when you say your prayers to-night. He'll help you a lot more than I can."
"Supposing I have done that, Percival. Supposing I did it when I closed my eyes a little while ago; and supposing even then a voice seemed whispering in my ear, 'If you want peace, if you want to meet your mother in heaven, act the hypocrite no longer. Speak to Percival.' What then?"
"Then I should say use your own judgment. Do what seems best."
Hibbert closed his eyes for a moment, as though he were trying to decide within himself what was best. At length he opened them again.
"Do you remember that afternoon when I came to you in the writing-room and told you Mr. Travers wished to speak to you?"
"Quite well. Nearly all the fellows had deserted me but you. I was wretched."
"You looked it. You gave me a letter to post. Do you remember that?"
"Yes," answered Paul shortly. He remembered it but too well. It was the letter he had written to Mr. Moncrief, to which that gentleman had not deigned to answer.
"When I came back to you in the writing-room you were tracing names on the blotting-pad. I caught sight of one—Zuker. You noticed that I was surprised at seeing it, and asked me if I knew anybody of that name. I told you that I did. That I once knew a boy of that name when I was at school in Germany. And then you told me something I'm never likely to forget—never likely to forget to my dying hour. You may think it strange, but the words came suddenly to my ears when I fell off the raft into the river."
"Indeed! What was it I told you?"
"You told me that it was through a man of the name of Zuker that your father lost his life."
"Yes, that's true enough. So it was—Israel Zuker. What about it?"
"What about it!" Hibbert made a painful effort to laugh. "Why, Percival——"
He stopped abruptly, as the door suddenly opened, and Mr. Weevil entered.
"What, Percival! You here?" exclaimed the master. "Where is Mrs. Trounce?"
"Hibbert wanted me to sit by him, and I'm taking her place for a short time. She'll be back presently, sir."
"Are you feeling better?" asked the master, as he turned from Paul to the patient.
"Oh, yes, much better. It's done me good to have Percival here."
"I'm glad to hear it."
Mr. Weevil's hand went gently, lovingly over the boy's brow, and he watched him anxiously through his half-closed eyes. Paul recalled the master's grief when he first saw the boy after the accident, and other little traits of kindness—traits which had shown him that Mr. Weevil was not altogether the stern, harsh man he had one time thought him. None the less, he was sorry that he had entered the room at that moment. Hibbert had awakened his curiosity. What was it that was weighing on his mind? What had he to tell him about the man Zuker? He wished Mr. Weevil had kept from the room a bit longer.
Paul waited, hoping that he would go out. But the master did not move from the position he had taken up at the bedside, and his hand continued to move caressingly over the boy's forehead. After a minute or two's silence he turned to Paul.
"You've had your fair spell of watching, Percival. I'll take your place till Mrs. Trounce returns. Hibbert looks very flushed and feverish. I'm afraid he's been speaking too much."
What could Paul say? He had no alternative but to obey. Hibbert's eyes followed him as he went out.
"What was it he had to tell me, I wonder?" Paul asked himself, as he passed along the corridor.
It was a long time before he slept that night. His mind kept travelling back over the many events of a singularly eventful day. And when he at last dozed off to sleep, he could hear the voice of Hibbert sounding a long way off.
"Oh, why didn't you let me die? Why didn't you let me go down in the river? Why did you save me? Don't leave me, Percival—don't leave me. I'll be quieter if you stay with me a little longer."
Then the voice died away and all was blank.
AN UNEXPECTED VISITOR ARRIVES AT GARSIDE
Two things, outside the ordinary school routine, occupied attention on the morrow. The first was the adventures which had so nearly cost Hibbert his life; the second the loss of the school flag. The report as to the condition of Hibbert was neither good nor bad. There was no improvement, but neither had he gone back. His condition, in fact, was just what it had been the night before.
The loss of the flag caused the greatest excitement. The masters held a meeting about it, but nothing was done. The Sixth Form held a meeting about it, but nothing was done—for the simple reason that nothing could be done. So far there was not the slightest clue as to what had become of it. It had disappeared just as mysteriously as the pages torn from the Black Book.
But in one thing there was a manifest change. A manifest improvement took place in the school's attitude towards Paul. Whereas previously nearly all the school was opposed to him, the greater proportion of the Garsiders now came over to his side with a swing; but his own Form, with the exception of Waterman, still held aloof. He received a communication from Stanley, however, through his cousin.
"Stanley's sorry that he did not lend you a helping hand when he met you with Hibbert yesterday," said Harry. "He did not dream that anything serious had happened."
Paul had felt it even more than he dared admit to himself that Stanley had not come forward on the previous day and given him a helping hand when he was struggling along with Hibbert.
"How could he dream that anything serious had happened unless he inquired?" he asked, with some bitterness. "Did he really send that message?"
"It's very kind of him. When you next see him say how obliged I am. It's nice to find people so thoughtful, though it may be a little late in the day."
Harry felt uncomfortable. He could detect the accent of bitterness underlying the words.
"Tell you what, Percival, I wish you and Stan were friends again, like you used to be. It's all through that beastly Beetle, Wyndham. I wish some one had stepped on him and squashed him first."
"I don't. I can admire a plucky fellow when I see one, even though he happens to be a Beetle."
Harry opened his eyes, and stared at Paul. Paul, annoyed at the second-hand message he had received from Stanley, and seeing the astonished expression on Harry's face, could not help adding: "Yes, I can admire pluck wherever I see it. I'm not quite sure whether Wyndham isn't worth half a dozen fellows here."
Harry stayed to hear no more. A Beetle worth half a dozen Gargoyles! It seemed rank treason to listen to it. Paul felt a savage thrill of delight in praising Wyndham and seeing the consternation it had caused in Harry.
"He will tell Stanley every word I have said. Getting his cousin to bring his mean, petty message. Didn't dream that anything so serious had happened, indeed! Pah!"
Alas! alas! The breach between the two former friends, instead of closing, was widening.
All the boys who had taken part in the raft incident were severely lectured by Mr. Weevil, and were debarred from the usual half-holidays during the next fortnight, as well as receiving a heavy number of lines to keep them busily occupied during the same period. Then the master went on to say:
"Percival has done a brave act. He went to the assistance of Hibbert in a moment of extreme peril. He placed his life in jeopardy to save him. God grant that his act of bravery may not have been in vain!"
Mr. Weevil paused for an instant, with closed eyes, as though he were praying; then, when he opened them again, it seemed as though the incident and all connected with it had passed from his mind, as, in a few cold words, he turned to the duties of the day.
Paul was more than gratified with this brief allusion to what he had done, but he could not help noticing that no reference was made by Mr. Weevil to the part he had played in the rescue of Baldry and Plunger. His whole thought seemed centred on Hibbert.
"Strange, his liking for the little chap," thought Paul.
It was as though the master were trying to make up to the frail, deformed boy for the neglect of others. And whenever Paul now thought of him, it was not as he remembered him on that night when he had peeped through the dormitory window, and had seen him talking to Israel Zuker, but as he had seen him kneeling by Hibbert's bed and babbling to him tenderly in an unknown tongue.
The next number of the Gargoyle Record made various indirect references to the "Crusoe incident" in the editor's usual vein.
"Missing Link has turned up in the neighbourhood of the river—latest mania—punting and desert islands.... Our poet is much obliged for the response given to his appeal in our last issue. He was stuck, it will be remembered, for a rhyme to 'hunger,' and the rhyme was to be a name of some kind—bird, beast, or fish. Curious to say, all our correspondents have hit upon the same rhyme and name.
"Honour of the Fifth looking up a bit. Tarnished near sand-pit on Cranstead Common, it has just had a washing in the river. Better for its bath, though not yet up to its former lustre.
"The Fresher of the Third who was prepared to give hints on the correct style in trousers, spats, and white waistcoats has thought better of it. Gave it up in order to get some experience of desert islands and punting in company with the aforesaid Missing Link. Experience disastrous and not likely to be repeated. Has since taken to stamp-collecting and ping-pong."
Then, among the usual notices of "Lost, stolen, or strayed," appeared the following:
"Pages from the Black Book still missing. Greatest loss of all—the old flag of the school. It waves over the school no longer. We have doffed the cap and bells, and gone into sackcloth and ashes. Our heart is heavy. We can smile no longer. We can only whistle one tune—the Dead March. Our heart will continue heavy. Our noble frontispiece will never beam again. Our lips will continue to warble the same melancholy tune until the old flag once more waves over Garside!"
Stripped of its note of bombast, this last paragraph echoed pretty accurately the feeling of the Garsiders at the loss of their flag. Their pride had been more sorely wounded even than it had been by the affair at the sand-pit. They had been flouted and dishonoured, and, though no proof was forthcoming, they felt sure that this insult had been placed upon them by their rivals—at St. Bede's.
Paul, meantime, had seen nothing of Hibbert since the day when his confession had been interrupted by Mr. Weevil. Frequently he recalled that strange scene—the boy's eerie-looking, pain-drawn face, the sad eyes fixed on his, the earnest voice, with its suppressed note of fear—as he began to unfold to him the secret that weighed upon his heart and conscience. It seemed so real, yet so unreal. The face looking up into his seemed real enough. It was the words he could not make sure of. Hibbert must have been wandering.
At any rate, he had not sent for him since the afternoon he had spoken such strange words, and that was nearly a week since.
"Of course, he was wandering, poor little chap, and has forgotten all about it by this time. I shall have a good laugh with him about it when he gets on his legs again," he told himself.
It was the sixth day after the accident on the river that Paul was informed by Bax that a visitor wished to see him in the visitors' room. A visitor! Who could it be? Paul had very few visitors to see him.
"Ah, it's Mr. Moncrief; come at last in answer to my letter!" he thought, as he made his way to the room.
He was doomed to disappointment, however, for he found, on entering the room, that the visitor was a perfect stranger to him—a slim, wiry-figured gentleman, with a frock-coat buttoned closely over his chest, reddish-brown full beard, and glasses, through which a sharp pair of eyes at once went to Paul. Mr. Weevil was standing beside the visitor on the hearthrug.
"This is the lad I spoke of, Mr. Hibbert—Paul Percival."
The master briefly introduced them. Paul was at once interested. This gentleman with the tawny beard, and erect, alert, military bearing, was Hibbert's father.
"I have only recently returned to England, and have but just heard of the accident that has befallen my son," said Mr. Hibbert. "You saved his life. I was anxious not to go before I had thanked you."
He took Paul's hand in his, and pressed it hard. A boy less strong than Paul would have winced under that grip of steel.
"I'm glad to know Hibbert's father."
"And I'm glad to know Paul Percival. It isn't often one meets with a brave lad like you."
Again he gripped Paul's hand, and seemed to be regarding him as keenly as ever through his glasses to see if he stood his grip without flinching.
"I think you would find many who would do as I did—even here at Garside. It was my luck to be a good swimmer. And that luck—if I may call it luck—I owe to my father."
"Your father taught you, you mean."
"No," said Paul, shaking his head sadly; "I wish he had. He died when I was very young—when I could scarcely more than walk; but he was in the Navy, and it was by his wish that I was taught swimming. The saddest part is that he was drowned—drowned in saving another man's life."
"Really? That is sad. I hope that the man whom your father saved from a watery grave was as grateful to him as I am to you."
Paul was silent. He was thinking that if Mr. Hibbert's gratitude were no greater than the gratitude of the spy whom his father had saved from drowning it would not count for much.
"I trust this will not be our last meeting. When my son gets well again, I hope to see more of you. Perhaps we may see a few of the sights of London together, if your mother has no objection."
Paul thanked him and went out. He was glad that he had met Hibbert's father, though he was not a bit like the man he had pictured. He had somehow pictured him with something of the deformity that marked Hibbert, with the same sad, pathetic eyes; but they were as unlike as could be, except the voice. Hibbert's voice had somehow struck a familiar note when he first heard it. So did the father's. But there the resemblance began and ended.
That same evening Paul went to the sick-room as usual, and inquired after Hibbert. This time Mrs. Trounce beckoned him in.
"He's always asking after you, and it's cruel to keep you out," she whispered.
"Who wants to keep me out?"
"Mr. Weevil thinks it makes the lad feverish, but I asked the doctor expressly to-day, and he says it will do him good rather than harm to see any friend he asks for. Poor little dear, he hasn't many friends. His father didn't seem to care over much for him, and his visit was a short one. He asked after you directly his father was gone. I've been obliged to deny him all this time, but I can't deny him any longer. He's dozing now. Step softly to the bed. Won't he be pleased when he wakes up and sees you! I've never had a boy on my hands who is half so good and patient as he is—I fear he is too patient, poor dear."
It was quite certain that during this time of trouble, Hibbert had found one more friend in Mrs. Trounce—the kind-hearted matron, who always tried to make the boys believe that she was a perfect virago with a heart of flint. Paul followed her on tiptoe to the bed and looked down on the sleeper. And as he looked, it seemed as though ice-cold fingers were clutching him by the heart-strings, so strangely still were the face and form of the little sleeper.
HIBBERT FINISHES HIS STORY
"Is he in pain?" whispered Paul, as he looked down upon the still figure, for Hibbert's face looked strangely old and worn for one so young, and it was as white as the pillow upon which it lay.
"I don't think so, but I've noticed, Master Percival, that he always has that troubled look when he's sleeping, just as though he had something on his mind," answered Mrs. Trounce.
Paul's mind went swiftly back to the last time he was in that room—to the confession Hibbert had begun and left unfinished. Was it that which was troubling him?
"Does he sleep well?"
"Not always like he's sleeping now. Often and often I've heard him calling you in his sleep, as I told you just now. I'm good enough for shaking up his pillow, giving him medicine, and that sort of thing, but I've found out that boys are strange critters to deal with. They want a lot of knowing, Master Percival, but I know 'em, and what Master Hibbert wants sometimes is one of his own school-fellows to talk to. That's better than medicine. Mr. Weevil's very kind to the boy, but he don't understand him."
"Doesn't Mr. Weevil like my seeing Hibbert?"
"Well, he hasn't exactly forbidden it, or I shouldn't have let you in; but he thinks you excited him when you were with him on the night of the accident. But, as I sez, Mr. Weevil don't understand boys when they're ill. When Mr. Colville was in charge it was different. He knew boys he did. I wish he was back again. Since he went away things have all gone wrong."
Paul heartily echoed her wish. Garside was quite different from what it had been when Mr. Colville was there. He had hoped day by day that intelligence would come of his return; but the Head still remained in the south of France, too ill to attend to his duties at the school.
Presently the eyes of Hibbert slowly opened. A glad cry came from his lips when they rested on Paul.
"Percival, is it really you? I thought they were never going to let me see you again. Thanks, Mrs. Trounce; it's very kind of you."
A faint tinge of colour came to the pale cheek; the look of pain had gone from the face. The sight of Paul seemed to have put new life and vigour into him. The matron promptly noted the change, and was very pleased that she had taken upon herself the responsibility of admitting Paul into the room.
"There, there; you mustn't get excited, or I shall be blamed for letting Master Percival in to see you, and he won't come again, will you?"
"Of course I won't," answered Paul promptly.
"I'm not the least excited, only glad—glad—so glad!"
He repeated the word three times, to make sure there might be no mistake about it, and his thin fingers closed round Paul's, as though he feared he might slip away.
"I hope the other fellows haven't got into trouble through me?" he asked. "Mr. Weevil would never tell me anything."
"Oh, no; they've got off very lightly, so don't worry about that. Plunger is going about as cheeky as ever."
A faint smile flickered over the boy's face.
"Plunger's rare fun. He was really just as much terrified as I was when Baldry and the other fellows turned up as Indians on the 'desert island.' I can laugh at it now, though I didn't laugh much then."
He lay placidly with his hand in Paul's, then turned pleadingly to the matron.
"Let Percival stay with me a bit. It'll do me good, and I'm sure you want a little change."
Mrs. Trounce could see that the presence of Paul had worked wonders, so she had no hesitation in leaving the two together, giving Paul strict injunctions before doing so that he was to ring the bell in case she was needed. Immediately she had gone from the room Hibbert turned eagerly to Paul.
"I've been waiting to go on with what I was telling you when you were last here, Percival. It has lain here—here!"—beating his breast. "It has kept me awake at night, and—and the time seemed so terribly long and dreary. I watched and waited for your coming, but though you came they would never let me see you. Mr. Weevil was the only one I could speak to, and I could not tell him what was on my mind."
"Why not? He is very kind to you."
"Why not—why not! When I've told you, you will understand."
"You must not excite yourself. You must not talk. If you do I will ring the bell and bring back Mrs. Trounce."
"You wouldn't be so cruel, Percival, when I've been waiting so long to see you and speak to you again. It's that kept me back, made me weary, and weak, and sick at heart. When I lay awake at night-time I kept saying to myself, 'If I should die without seeing Percival again, without telling him what is on my mind, God would never forgive me.'"
"If all of us were as good as you, we should be a good deal better than we are, and God wouldn't have to forgive much," said Paul tenderly. "But, there, don't get excited, and I will listen."
For Paul could now see clearly enough that Hibbert had really suffered a good deal of mental pain and torture through not being able to complete the confession he had begun to him.
"Thanks," came the eager answer. "It will not take long, for I haven't much more to say. Let me see, where did I leave off? Oh, I was speaking about the man who was a spy on your father on that day Mr. Weevil entered the room, wasn't I?"
"I haven't forgotten the name," said Hibbert, with a painful smile. "I'm not likely to forget it—never, never, never! For—for it happens to be my name."
"Hibbert!" cried Paul.
"My name. Israel Zuker, the man who spied upon your father, and whose life he saved at the risk of his own, was my father."
Paul staggered back, as though he had been smitten in the face. Hibbert the son of the German spy! Hibbert the son of Zuker! Impossible! He was wandering. The story he—Paul—had once told him about his own father, and the way he had lost him, had got on the boy's mind.
"Ah, you shrink from me! I don't wonder at it!" cried Hibbert. "Didn't I tell you what a hypocrite I was—how wicked?"
"No, no, Hibbert," answered Paul, taking again the hand he had let fall from him; "nothing you can say will ever make me shrink from you. But—but you have so surprised me. I cannot understand. Let me think for a moment—Israel Zuker your father. How can that be when your name is Hibbert?"
"That is a false name. I told you once that I knew of a boy of that name in Germany. I was speaking of myself, for I spent three years of my life at a school in Heidelberg before I came here."
"Then the man I saw this afternoon—the man who thanked me for saving the life of his son, was——"
"Israel Zuker, my father—the man whose life your father saved, as you, his son, have saved mine. Now can you understand what I have suffered, Percival, by having this terrible secret on my mind? When I heard your story that day you don't know what I felt—what a mean, contemptible cad. I felt that I was a spy on you, just as my father had been a spy on your father—a spy on you, who had been so good to me. Oh, it was terrible! And then you saved my life, just as your father had saved my father's years ago. And that was heaping coals of fire on my head. I couldn't endure it."
He covered his face with his hands. He was choking back the sobs that seemed of a sudden to convulse his frame.
"I shall really have to ring the bell and send for Mrs. Trounce," said Paul firmly.
The threat had its desired effect. Hibbert uncovered his face; the sobs died away in his throat. Then Paul put an arm round him, as he might have done round a brother, and said, in a softer key:
"Look here, Hibbert—what your father may have done is no fault of yours. God only judges us by what we do ourselves; and that's all I want to judge you by. You've looked upon me as your friend; I want you to look upon me as your friend still. Haven't I said that nothing you can say will make me shrink from you?"
"How good, how noble you are, Percival!"
"Humbug! But listen to me—we're getting a little off the track. The gentleman I was introduced to in the visitors' room this afternoon was your father, Israel Zuker, you say?"
"Wearing a false beard, then?"
"Yes. But how did you know that? Have you met him before?" asked the boy wonderingly.
Paul now understood what it was in the voice of the visitor that had seemed familiar to him.
"I met somebody of that name during last vacation, so I suppose it must have been the same," he answered, with pretended indifference; "but he wasn't wearing a beard. It's a good disguise. What's he afraid of?"
"Well, he's obliged to. I'm telling you this as a secret, and I know I can trust you not to repeat it. My father's an agent of one of the foreign Governments, and he's obliged to put on a disguise sometimes to get information."
"But what information does he want to get that makes him wear disguises?"
"I never could quite make out, but I know it's to do with secret service. He once told me that every Government has secret service. That's all I ever knew."
He seemed to have an uneasy suspicion that his father's profession was not a very honourable one, for his head sunk to his breast.
"Is your father a friend of the master's—Mr. Weevil, I mean?"
"Well, yes—more than a friend; but it's another secret I don't want to get about the school. Mr. Weevil would be very angry if it did, so you must promise me not to repeat it."
And Paul, scarcely knowing all his promise meant, promised him. Then the boy leant very close to him and whispered: "Mr. Weevil's my uncle."
This information was almost as startling and unexpected as the information that had preceded it. As it fell from Hibbert's lips, Paul almost feared that the door would open and Mr. Weevil would walk in, just as he had walked in before.
"Your uncle!" he repeated.
"Well, it's this way, you see. My mother was English. She was the only sister of Mr. Weevil. I know he was very fond of her, for I've heard mother say that he was a good brother, and that she was the only one for whom he had a greater love than he had for science. My father first met her when he used to give lessons in German and French—he knows three or four languages—at the school where Mr. Weevil was master before he came here. I think my father was then what they call a refugee. My mother died three years ago; then I went to Heidelberg again, and last of all I came here. You remember the day—at the opening of the term."