Remember the day! Paul was never likely to forget it. He remembered every incident in connection with it—Hibbert coming to him in the grounds, the insult put upon him by Newall, and the other incidents that followed.
"I remember," he said gravely.
The door opened as he spoke, and Mrs. Trounce entered.
"What, sitting up!" she cried, for Hibbert was still sitting, with the arm of Paul gently supporting him.
"Yes; I feel so much stronger and better," he answered brightly.
"I'm glad to hear it, but I think you'd better lie down now. If Mr. Weevil came in now he would have a fit."
Paul thought it highly probable such a catastrophe would happen if the master had any suspicion of what Hibbert had told him. So he gently laid the patient down again.
"You'll come again, Percival?" he pleaded.
And Paul promised.
A MYSTERIOUS DISAPPEARANCE
The revelation that Paul had heard in the sick-room overwhelmed him. It was not till he was in the open air that he realized what it all meant. The foreign spy, for whom his father had sacrificed his life—the man who, in turn, had tried to steal from him the packet which had been entrusted to him by Mr. Moncrief—Hibbert's father! Was he standing on his head or his heels?
Again he could feel the night wind on his face as he galloped along the road to Redmead; again he saw himself confronted by Zuker and his confederate; again he felt himself rising in the saddle and bringing down his whip on the man's face; again he felt the thrill of joy that leapt through his veins as he escaped from the clutches of his pursuers, and bounded once more along the road; and then—then that feeling of despair when Falcon suddenly sank to the ground, and he found that the noble horse was dying. This man, the man for whom his father had died, the man who had so relentlessly pursued him on the road to Redmead, the man who had caused the death of Falcon—this man of all men Hibbert's father, the father of the boy whom he had watched over and protected ever since he came to Garside, the father of the boy he had loved as a brother, and whom he had risked his own life to save, even as his father had risked his life to save the life of Zuker so long ago!
It was indeed staggering. No wonder he hastened into the fresh air. Spiders seemed spinning webs about his brain. He could neither see nor think clearly.
"Where am I standing?" he asked himself, and simple as the question was, it was not so simple to answer, for the world seemed suddenly topsy-turvy.
Gradually the night air swept away the cobwebs, and he began to see things in a clearer light. This man Zuker was a spy still; nothing had changed since the day he had been found in his father's cabin, except perhaps that he had grown more daring. A spy! What did that mean? It meant that he was a menace to honest people, a danger to England, a danger to the peace and weal of the country which had given Paul birth—the country for which so many of his relatives had given their lives, the country which he loved. There could be no quarter for such a man. The longer he was at large the greater the danger.
"He's in my power completely. A word from me will send him to prison," Paul said to himself. "To prison he shall go this very night."
Full of this determination, Paul turned to the gate. It was a couple of miles to the police-station, but what of that? He would soon cover the distance, and be back again at Garside. So he started on his journey with a run. He had not gone far, however, before a still, small voice began to whisper plaintively in his ear. It was the voice of Hibbert—the pleading, pathetic voice that had become so dear to him.
"Paul, Paul! Are you forgetting the promise you made to me so soon? Was it for this I told you my secret? Reveal my story to the police, and you will kill me—kill me, as surely as though you were to thrust a knife in my breast."
That was what the voice seemed saying to him. Paul pulled himself up with a jerk. What was he about to do? Betray Hibbert, the poor boy who had entrusted him with his secret! Betray Hibbert, who had clung to him and loved him through good report and evil, who had never shrunk from him when one by one the boys at Garside had shrunk from him as from a leper! God help him! What was he about to do?
He was about to turn back when that other voice whispered to him: "Your country first and foremost. You have a higher duty than the duty you owe to Hibbert—the duty to your country. Besides, this boy's father betrayed your father. Why should you shrink from betraying him? Eye for eye, tooth for tooth. Pay back the debt that has been owing so long."
Paul hastened on again, but again he paused as another voice—a voice that was full of wondrous and sublime melody—sounded in his ear: "Vengeance is mine, I will repay."
It seemed to him as he stood there in the moonlight, the stillness so great and solemn that he could hear his heart throb, that God had spoken. The danger to his country was not so great that it called upon him to give up the secret which had been entrusted in confidence to his keeping.
He could not be true to himself or his country by being false to Hibbert!
He would wait. Hibbert would get better. If the danger became real, he would lay bare his breast to Hibbert as Hibbert had laid bare his breast to him. He would tell him, fairly and honestly, why he could no longer keep his secret; then Hibbert would be able to warn his father, and he would be able to flee from the country he had sought to betray.
Paul felt easier when he had come to this decision. It seemed to him that he had divided his secret with God, and that he was now acting as He would have counselled him.
And surely His hand had been in it from the first—from the hour when he, Paul, had been shielded from his pursuers in his ride to Redmead to the hour which had brought the son of his pursuer to a sick bed, and induced him to pour his strange confession in his ear. Nay, could not the hand of God be seen in it still farther back, from the very hour when, at the risk of his own life, Paul's father had sacrificed his own life for the life of his enemy? Even at that time the hand of Providence must have been at work weaving the strange events which were still unfolding themselves.
Paul was on the point of turning back as these thoughts flitted through his mind when the sound of a footstep caused him to draw back hastily into the shadow of the hedge. Scarcely had he done so than a tall, lean figure, with head thrust forward, passed quickly by. It was Mr. Weevil.
"Where is he off to, I wonder?" thought Paul.
The master had been so concentrated in his thoughts that he had no suspicion as to who was in hiding by the roadside. Paul's memory at once went back to the last part of Hibbert's story—the part which he had almost lost sight of in the overwhelming interest of the first part. Mr. Weevil was Hibbert's uncle—Zuker's brother-in-law.
Were they in league together? Paul's glance followed Mr. Weevil along the road. An overmastering desire seized him, a desire that he could not resist. Instinctively, as one in a dream, he followed in the footsteps of the master. Presently they reached Cranstead Common. Instead of turning in the direction of the sand-pits, the battle-ground of the Bedes and the Garsiders, Mr. Weevil turned to the left—to that part of it which was more thickly wooded—where there were trees and furze-bushes and bramble in wild profusion.
"Where on earth can he be going?" Paul asked himself wonderingly.
Well might he ask, for it was scarcely possible to imagine a wilder or more solitary spot. It led to no habitation, none at least that Paul was aware of, and he was pretty familiar with the common.
"He can't be on a visit to any one, unless it be the pixies, or creatures of that sort," thought Paul. "P'raps he's thinking out some scientific problem, and finds this wild part the best place to do it in."
He paused for an instant. What was the use of going farther? He was on a wildgoose chase, but still the overmastering impulse which had led him to follow Mr. Weevil held him in its grip and would not let him turn back. So he went on in close pursuit of the shadowy figure in front of him.
"Why, he'll be getting to the river presently. Perhaps that is what he is making for?" thought Paul as the master plunged deeper into the thicket.
The river skirted the far side of the common, and it was precisely in that direction Mr. Weevil was travelling. He had never once looked to the right or left, so absorbed had he been in his thoughts, but now he suddenly paused and looked back.
Paul had just time to hide himself in the friendly shelter of a tree. He stood there for an instant, then peeped out from his hiding-place. He caught one glimpse of Mr. Weevil, and then, to his amazement, he disappeared from view as completely as though the earth had opened and swallowed him up.
Paul rubbed his eyes. What was the meaning of it! Where had the master disappeared to? Had he been following some phantom, or had Mr. Weevil really sunk through the ground? Paul advanced to the spot. There was apparently nothing there but bushes. Again and again he pondered on the strange disappearance of the master and was unable to account for it.
"Well, if that isn't one of the strangest things I've ever seen," said he to himself. "Mr. Weevil was there a minute since, as large as life and twice as natural. Now he's gone."
A feeling of awe stole over Paul. Mr. Weevil had always seemed a strange being, a man quite by himself, and different from ordinary beings. Had his dealings with science taught him some dark secret by which he could make himself invisible? But Paul quickly dismissed this wild idea from his mind. The days of miracles were past. Whatever Mr. Weevil's knowledge of science, it did not lend itself to feats of magic worthy of the genii in the enchanted realms of The Arabian Nights.
None the less, where was he? What had become of him? Paul examined the bushes as closely as the darkness would permit, but could find no trace of the master. He stood still and listened. Save for a light breeze that was moving gently among the trees, there was no sound. It was as quiet as the grave.
"My word! That's one of the greatest mysteries I've ever struck," thought Paul. He withdrew a pace or two, and took up his position beneath a decayed elm. Possibly Mr. Weevil might make his reappearance in the same mysterious way in which he had disappeared. He waited a few minutes, but his patience was not rewarded. Nothing happened.
Paul began to fear that he might be locked out unless he hastened back, so he reluctantly retraced his footsteps, determined to visit the spot at the earliest opportunity.
He got back to Garside without mishap or incident, but when he lay down to rest that night it was not to sleep. He could not help wondering what had become of Mr. Weevil, and whether he had spent a night on Cranstead Common. He was still thinking when the school clock chimed the hour of midnight. About five minutes later he heard a quiet footstep in the corridor.
"That's Mr. Weevil," he said to himself. "I am quite sure. I could swear to his footsteps anywhere."
He listened till they disappeared in the corridor, then he turned on his pillow, and tried to sleep. But he did not succeed for a long time. The events of that night had banished sleep.
The next day Mr. Weevil was at his post as usual, and closely as Paul watched him he could see nothing unusual in his demeanour. He was as grave as ever—the eyes opened and closed in the same manner, most wakeful when they seemed most sleepful; and he was as prompt and diligent as ever in the discharge of his duties in the school.
"Was it all a dream?" Paul asked himself, as his mind went back to what had happened on the previous night.
As that afternoon was a half-holiday, he had some idea of paying a second visit to the spot, and continuing his examination of it. But he remembered that there was a still more important duty before him. He had pledged himself in the presence of Sedgefield and his companions that he would get back the school flag, and that once again they would see it flying from its old place on the turret.
So far, he had done nothing to redeem his pledge. Those Third Form fellows who had cheered him so lustily would think there was no meaning in his words, that his boast was an empty one. The time had come for him to do something to make good his promise.
He would begin to carry out his plan that very afternoon.
HOW THE OLD FLAG WAS TAKEN FROM GARSIDE
At this, the commencement of another chapter, we may as well take the opportunity of explaining to the reader the secret which had caused so much excitement at Garside, namely, what had become of the school flag—who had had the audacity to capture it.
It will be remembered that one of the Bedes who always took an active part in opposition to the Garsiders was Mellor. The fact that he had been at one time a Garsider made him keener to "score off" his old companions, and he was ever to the fore in any enterprise for that purpose. But the great idea which possessed his mind, to the exclusion of most others, was the capture of the Garside flag. He knew that everybody in the school was proud of it. He himself had been proud of it when he was at Garside. The school flag at Bede's had no such history. It was just an ordinary flag, with a white shield in front, the initials of the school, and the school motto, precisely after the fashion of the school cap.
So it came about that ever since the day Mellor had been set upon by his old companions, and made to crawl on all fours as "a Beetle," the idea had come to him that he would like to inflict upon Garside the greatest blow that had yet been inflicted upon it by gaining possession of the old flag. He thought of it by day, and he thought of it by night; but day followed day, and night followed night, and there seemed little chance of carrying out his purpose.
There was only one boy at St. Bede's to whom he confided his secret, and that was his dormitory companion and chum—Edward Crick. Crick was about the same age as Mellor, with the same love of sport, the same wiliness, and the same indifference to consequences when once an idea had taken possession of him. And that's just what happened. When Mellor confided to him his secret, the idea possessed him, and he was just as keen on carrying it out as Mellor. If between them they could only get possession of the Garside flag, it would be one of the greatest achievements in the history of the school.
They knew well enough that it was impossible to obtain possession of the flag by open assault. There was only one way—by taking the enemy unawares—by stealing a march upon them when it was least expected.
Now, it was clear enough that in order to accomplish this purpose one of them would have to steal into the school at Garside and get to the west turret unobserved. Audacious as the scheme was, both were anxious for the honour; but after discussing the point for some time, Mellor gave way to Crick. Mellor was well known at Garside. He would be at once stopped were he found entering the school, and questioned as to what he had come for. Crick was unknown to the porter, and little known to most of the boys. The main thing was to provide him with one of the Garside caps. It so happened that Mellor had retained his old cap. There were at least twenty other boys of about the same size and age as Crick in the school. With the school cap on his head it would be easy enough for him to slip into the grounds during one of the half-holidays when most of the boys would be on the playing-fields. If any one did notice him, he might pass muster as a new boy.
For the rest, Mellor was acquainted with every detail of the school building, and gave Crick precise information as to the best and surest methods to reach the west turret; so that Crick, as the result of this information, knew almost as much about the building as Mellor.
Everything having been thus clearly planned, it only remained to put the plan into execution. To this end Garside had been carefully reconnoitred by the two boys at every opportunity that offered—that was to say, on every holiday. The opportunity they sought at length came—on that afternoon when Plunger and his companions were so busily engaged in playing the part of Crusoe. On cautiously approaching the school, the two confederates found that it was almost deserted. Crick thereupon boldly entered the grounds, with the Garside cap on his head and the collar of his sweater up, just for all the world as though he belonged to the school.
A door at the rear of the building led through a narrow passage to the stairs leading to the turret. Crick was not long in finding the door, just as it had been described by Mellor.
Entering it, he quickly mounted to the turret, and reached the trap-door leading to the roof. It had not been raised for some time, and Crick did not find it easy to open; but putting his head to it, and forcing it upward with the full strength of his body, it at length opened amid a shower of dust, and the next minute Crick was through it and on the roof.
His heart beat loudly as he saw only a few yards from him the old flag flying from its staff. He did not lose his head, however. He knew well enough that, though he had succeeded in reaching the turret, his presence there might be detected at any moment. Any one passing along the grounds might chance to glance up.
So, lying flat on the roof, he took a careful survey of the scene below. An exclamation of surprise escaped his lips; he could not help it. He felt like Cortez, the famous discoverer, when, with an eagle eye, he gazed for the first time on the Pacific from a peak in Darien. The Gargoyles in the playing-fields looked like so many pigmies darting between the goal-posts. Beyond them stretched the roadway leading to the common; to the left he could plainly see the glint of the sun on the river. He little dreamt what was happening there, even as he gazed.
Turning in another direction, there was an almost uninterrupted expanse of country till the distance was broken by the spire of St. Bede's rising from a background of hills. He never imagined that it would be possible to see St. Bede's from Garside. He had thought the distance too great, but now the two schools, seen from that vantage ground, seemed ridiculously near.
Crick remained for some time lost in the view; then a clock chiming the quarter recalled him to his purpose. He glanced again in the direction of the playing-fields. There was nothing to fear in that direction. The Gargoyles were too much occupied in their game to pay any attention to the roof. Crick drew himself nearer to the flagstaff.
Slightly raising himself from his position on the roof, he lifted it from its socket, and, possessed of the prize for which he had risked so much, drew it quickly beneath the trap-door.
"Got it!" he cried, with a thrill of joy, as he glanced at the old, discoloured flag which had seen so much service—"got it!"
Quickly rolling it round the staff, he next drew from under his sweater a cover of American cloth, which he wound in turn round the flag and staff, till nothing could be seen of them. No one could have told what the cloth concealed. It looked like a bundle of fishing-rods.
Descending the stairs as cautiously as he had ascended them, he once more reached the door leading from the turret stairs.
"Now for it," he thought, bracing himself up.
He had only to get outside the grounds and reach the place where Mellor was awaiting him. He crept round the side wall, and was just about to hasten through that part of the grounds which lay between him and the road, when he drew back suddenly. A boy was staggering along in the direction of the schoolhouse with a burden of some sort in his arms.
"My stars! Another moment and he would have seen me!" thought Crick, with a breath of relief. "What's he got in his arms, I wonder? Looks like another chap, as though they'd been in the wars together."
It was Paul, hastening to the school with Hibbert. In another minute he had passed by where Crick was hiding. Then Crick heard voices. It was Paul speaking to Waterman at the school door. The listener caught the word "accident." The next moment Waterman darted past him. The coast being again clear, Crick promptly followed in Waterman's footsteps. He was not long in reaching the hedge behind which Mellor was awaiting him.
"Got it?" was the eager question.
Mellor could have shouted with joy. Was it possible that the flag was actually in their possession?
"Bravo, Crick! It's the biggest thing we've ever scored over the Gargoyles. My! won't they be savage! There'll be no holding them in when they find their flag's gone. But what's up? There's been an accident of some sort."
"I know there has. I nearly ran into a fellow who was carrying a kid in his arms. Luckily I pulled up in time. Who were they—do you know?"
"One was Percival, the fellow who skedaddled from Wyndham at the sand-pit. I don't know the kid he had in his arms, he must be a fresher."
"A fresher! He wasn't much of a fresher to look at. He looked like a drowned rat."
The two returned to St. Bede's by the longest but less frequented way, and at length reached it without further adventure. They determined to hide the flag for the time being, and to confide the secret to their own Form only—the Fourth.
The Fourth was very jubilant, as may be imagined, at the feat performed by Crick and Mellor, who were at once looked upon as heroes. The flag, meanwhile, had been hidden in a barn, standing in a field near St. Bede's, belonging to a father of one of the day boys in Mellor's Form.
Frequently they met in the barn, and withdrawing the flag from its hiding-place, stuck it in the centre of the floor, and danced round it like a band of wild Indians celebrating a victory.
Things were at this pass when Paul came to the decision to visit St. Bede's, to see if he could obtain information as to the missing flag. Plunger and Moncrief minor happened to be out on an expedition of their own that afternoon on Cranstead Common. Plunger caught sight of Paul as he turned the bend of the road leading to St. Bede's.
"That was Percival, I'm pretty well sure of it," he cried. "Didn't you see him?"
"No. By himself?"
"Isn't he always by himself? But let's make certain."
The two boys ran to the roadway and glanced along it. There, sure enough, was Percival striding quickly along in the direction of St. Bede's.
"Where's he making for? For the seminary of the crawlers, seems to me," said Plunger. "Queer sort of chap! What can he want up there?"
Harry did not answer. He recalled the afternoon when he had seen Paul speaking to Wyndham. He had tried to forget that incident, and along with it the incident that had happened at the sand-pit. He had tried to think only of Paul's heroism on the river when he had saved the lives of three of his school-fellows. He had cheered him as heartily as the rest on that day when Baldry had called for "Three cheers for Percival!" After, as we have seen, he had tried to heal the differences between his cousin and Percival; but now all the old suspicions came back with a rush.
"Yes; what can he want up there? Supposing we find out. There can be no harm in watching him."
Plunger, as we know, had the bump of curiosity largely developed, and his curiosity to know what Paul was doing at St. Bede's caused him to forget, perhaps, that in playing the spy he was not altogether making the best return in his power to one who had risked so much to save him from a watery grave.
So he at once fell in with Harry's suggestion, and the two, keeping in the background, followed in the footsteps of Paul.
FRIEND AND FOE
Paul, unconscious that he was being followed, pressed forward to St. Bede's. As he drew near a boy came from the gates. Paul recognized him. It was Murrell, one of the seniors at St. Bede's, who had taken part with the others in hustling and jibing at him the last time he came in that direction.
Murrell caught sight of him almost simultaneously, so that it would have been impossible for Paul to avoid him had he wished.
"Hallo! Turned up again, have you?" cried the youth, coming to a dead stop in front of Paul. "I thought you'd had enough of these parts the last time you were here. But p'raps you enjoy ragging. There's no accounting for tastes—specially the taste of a Gargoyle. Look here, if I were you I would cut!"
"I don't think you would. If you were me you would stand your ground, and that's what I mean doing," smiled Paul.
"You're jolly cheeky, Gargoyle! Now, look here, take the advice of one who wants to do you a good turn—cut! There are a lot of the Bedes hanging about, and if they happen to get hold of you, there won't be much left of you, I can tell you! Are you insured?"
"My stars! I wouldn't like to be standing in your shoes—I really wouldn't! Tired of life—eh? That's why you're poking your head into the lion's den—eh?"
"Wrong again—quite wrong. I've come to see one of your fellows who's been very kind to me—Wyndham."
"Oh, Wyndham! The one you ran away from at the sand-pits?"
Paul winced under the jibe. He had not yet got over that weakness. Murrell was regarding him curiously. No answer coming from his victim, he spoke again:
"You want me to fetch Wyndham?"
"If you would be so kind."
"Well, if you don't take the cake—likewise the bun, and the biscuit! A Gargoyle has the superb cheek to ask a Bede to be his errand-boy! Stands Scotland where it did? Is the world going round, or is it standing still? Am I standing on my head or my heels? Now, then—your last chance! If you don't want to go back in pieces, take it! Going—going—gone!"
"I don't intend going till I've seen Wyndham," said Paul firmly. "If you won't do me the favour I ask, I must keep on till I find some one a little more courteous."
He was about to pass on, when Murrell stopped him with a friendly pat on the shoulder.
"All right! You needn't get into a wax! You're not such a bad sort of fellow, after all, for a Gargoyle! Wait here! Shan't be long!"
His tone had suddenly changed, and before Paul could say anything further he was gone. Paul was so astonished that he could scarcely believe the evidence of his eyes and ears. In an instant Murrell's attitude had changed from a threatening to a friendly attitude. Was it meant to mislead him? Had he no intention of going for Wyndham? Did he mean instead to acquaint some of the boys who had previously set on him of his arrival, so that they might carry out the purpose which they had been forced to relinquish? This view seemed certainly the more probable of the two, and therefore Paul was very agreeably surprised when, a couple of minutes later, he saw the well-known figure of Wyndham coming from the college gates towards him. His handsome face lit up with a smile as he caught sight of Paul.
"Percival," he said, as his hand went out to him, "I'm so glad to see you! So was Murrell."
"So was Murrell!" repeated Paul. "You wouldn't say so if you knew the reception he gave me just now. You're joking?"
"No; I was never more serious in my life. As a Bede, he was bound not to be over-polite to a Garsider; but he thinks a good deal more of you than he did, and so do most of us—all through Murrell. Why? Well, he happened to catch a glimpse of what happened on the river a week or so ago—came up at the tag-end, but heard all that had happened from some of the other fellows on the bank. Murrell and many more here are beginning to think that you are too good for a Gargoyle, though you didn't cut such a grand figure at the sand-pits. They're beginning to believe what they wouldn't swallow at the time—that you're one of the bravest fellows at Garside. To think that I'm the only fellow who knows how brave! Why don't you let me speak and set you right?"
"No, no, Wyndham! You're very good; but it mustn't be. There are reasons against it which you will know some day. But there is a way in which you can serve me."
"What way? If I can help you, be sure I will."
Paul thereupon told him the additional misfortune that had happened at Garside on the afternoon the boys fell into the river in the loss of the school flag. Wyndham listened to the story attentively. He did not speak till Paul had ended.
"You mean to suggest, I suppose, that some of the fellows here took the flag?"
"To speak frankly, I do; but I know well enough that you've not had a hand in it."
"Thanks for your good opinion; but I don't know that I deserve it. After all, why shouldn't I have had a hand in it? The fellows here look upon you as the enemy, and you look upon us in the same light. Haven't we a perfect right to get possession of the enemy's flag if we can?"
"Yes; in fair and open battle. But this wasn't in fair and open battle; it was a theft."
"That's rather a hard word, Percival. It's as good as saying some one here's a thief!"
Wyndham spoke with greater warmth than Paul had ever heard him speak. For the first time he saw an angry light in his eye.
"Forgive me, Wyndham! I've hurt your feelings; I can see that I have. And you are the last in the world I would do that to. I'll withdraw theft. Let's call it strategy."
The cloud vanished like magic from Wyndham's face.
"That's a very polite and nice way of putting it, Percival," he smiled. "You're a great deal more considerate of my feelings than I am of yours. I tell you what"—his face became serious again—"it's done me a lot of good since I knew you; since I was able to open my heart to you and tell you about the little brother who was taken from us years back. I've often wished that I was at Garside to stand by you. It must be very lonely for you over there."
"No, indeed; it's far from lonely, but sometimes it has been very, very hard to bear. If Moncrief had only stood by me, and all the rest of the school had been against me, I would not have minded; but——"
"Ah, do not speak of that! It makes me miserable. It gave me a savage delight at the time to fight that fellow. It made me a hero here; but since I've begun to think a little I feel very far from a hero myself. It would have been far better had I never fought. It has made bad blood between you and Moncrief; it took from you your best friend, and set your school against you. It did worse than that; it has widened the breach between St. Bede's and Garside, and deepened the old feud, which was beginning to die out. And now that it has been stirred into a flame again, it will take longer than ever to die out."
He paused for a moment, as though deep in thought. Paul, too, was busy with his own thoughts. He knew not how to answer him.
"Don't speak against yourself, Wyndham, for it pains me a great deal more than it pains you. I owe you a lot for the help you gave me on that night I went to Redmead; but there's one other debt, greater than that even, of which I have never spoken. Speaking just now of your little brother has brought it all back to me."
"Speaking of my brother?" repeated Wyndham, with that tremor in his voice which had fallen so pathetically on Paul's ear when he had first spoken of the dead boy.
"Your brother Archie. I haven't forgotten the name, you see, and I have never forgotten—never shall forget—the story. I had never tried to understand younger boys till then. We bigger boys rarely do, I'm afraid. We think them only good for cuffing and fagging; so there's never much sympathy between us. When we pass to the upper forms we only remember the cuffs and kicks we got in the lower forms, and think it our duty to pay them back with interest. But your story—the story of your dead brother—stuck in my memory. I carried it back with me when I returned to Garside after vac. The first little chap I came across was a fresher—a poor, weak, lonely little chap, who hadn't a chum in the school. I thought of your brother. My heart went out to the boy, and I said to myself: 'By God's help, I'll stand by you; and I'll be your friend!'"
"That was noble of you!" said Wyndham, clasping Paul's hand in his. "Who is the little chap? Is he still at Garside?"
"Still at Garside!" repeated Paul, in tones that had died away almost to a whisper. "He's the little chap I fished out of the river."
"Ah, then, you've nobly redeemed your promise. You saved his life."
"I cannot say. He is still in bed—still very weak; but the link between us kept me strong when all Garside was against me. Once or twice it seemed more than I could stand, and I had serious thoughts of throwing up the sponge and clearing out of Garside. What was there to keep me there? Then I thought of Hibbert, and the thought made me strong again. So I kept on, and weathered the storm—or, rather, am still weathering it. The thought of the little chap kept me to my duty."
Once more there was silence between them. Wyndham had tucked his arm in Paul's. The two were walking along the road to Cranstead Common. The bond of sympathy between them had grown stronger and stronger during those brief moments in which they had bared their hearts to each other.
"About this flag," broke in Wyndham. "Do you know for certain that it's been taken by some fellow here?"
"No; it's only a suspicion. I may be wrong, but I don't think I am."
"When was it missed?"
"On that afternoon when the accident took place on the river. It was a half-holiday at both schools. It was waving over the turret when I left the school; it had gone when I came back."
"That's over a week ago, isn't it?"
"The fellow who took it must have had plenty of pluck. Well, if I can do anything in fairness to get you your flag back again, I'll do it; but at present it's as great a mystery to me as to you."
The two shook hands and parted.
Plunger and Harry had crept through a hedge, and witnessed a good deal of the interview that had taken place between the two, without hearing anything. When the two passed down the road—Wyndham with his arm linked in Paul's—Plunger and Harry prepared to follow them; but before they could move a step they were seized by the legs and thrown to the ground.
"Those Gargoyles!" The words were enough. They were in the hands of the enemy.
THE MYSTIC ORDER OF BEETLES
To the bewilderment of Plunger and Moncrief minor they found themselves in the grip of four figures, with masks somewhat after the fashion of those worn by motorists. They had been taken so completely by surprise that they made no attempt at resistance. If they had it would have been useless, for their captors held them firmly by both arms, and rushed them breathlessly across the field as far as possible from the roadway.
"St—stop it, will you?" Plunger at length found breath enough to stammer. "Oh—oh!"
The last exclamation was caused by a sharp dig in the ribs, which brought his question to an abrupt conclusion. Inspired by Plunger's example, Harry thought that he might also venture on a question.
"Who—who are you? And—and—where are you taking us?"
An answer was conveyed to him in the same forcible manner in which it had been conveyed to Plunger; but, though the dig in the ribs made him gasp, it did not altogether silence him.
"Crawlers—wretched Beetles—that's what you are! Oh, oh, oh!"
A dig in the ribs from both sides effectually closed Harry's lips for the time being, while the pace at which his captors took him along was increased to such a rate that he could scarcely keep his feet. At length they stopped before a barn, and the foremost of the four captors knocked upon the door three times with his knuckles.
"Who's there?" came a voice from within.
"Four of the Brethren," answered the youth who had knocked.
"Are you alone?"
"No; we have brought two novices who are anxious to be introduced to the mystic order."
Plunger began to prick up his ears. The mystic order? What mystic order? And what were they going to do with them?
"Two novices who are anxious to be introduced to the mystic order?" came the voice from within. "They wish to become brethren?"
"N—n—no!" came in a gasp from Plunger's lips; but another sharp dig in his ribs reduced him once more to silence.
"Yes, most worthy K. O. P. They are dying to become brethren of the noble band."
"I say, you unkind Beetles," began Harry. "Oh, oh!"
He was silenced by the same unfailing method which had just been brought to bear upon his companion.
A short conversation took place between the masked figure who had acted as spokesman and the person within. At the end of it the former turned to his companions.
"Blindfold the novices. The Keeper of the Portal has commanded it."
Keeper of the Portal? That, then, was the meaning of the initials "K. O. P." thought Plunger.
It was getting more and more mysterious, but he did not like the idea of being blindfolded. What were they going to do with him—with Moncrief? At first he felt inclined to resist, but a sharp twist of the wrist soon convinced him that resistance was useless. Harry had come to the same conclusion, so they submitted with the best grace they could to bandages being placed round their eyes. Then they heard the door open and the voice of the "Keeper of the Portal" commanding them to enter.
They entered. As they did so, Plunger thought he heard some one sniggering, and again a wild idea crossed his mind that he would strike out and make a desperate effort to escape from his captors; but the instant he moved he was brought to a standstill by the energetic measures which were now becoming painfully familiar to him.
The sniggering, if sniggering it was, soon ceased, and then a strange silence reigned in the barn. The silence was a great deal worse to Plunger than any amount of ridicule. Who were in the barn? What was happening?
He strained his ears to the utmost. He could hear the sound of mysterious footsteps walking stealthily to and fro, but no one spoke. He stood there and shivered, though the perspiration was oozing from his forehead. Was some desperate plot on foot against them? The footsteps ceased. All was again so still that he began to think the barn had been deserted and that he had been left in it blindfolded, to make his way from it the best he could. He was about to call out to Harry when a voice he had not yet heard called out sharply:
"Gargoyle with the eyebrows, what is thy name?"
Gargoyle with the eyebrows!
"S'pose that's meant for me," thought Plunger, "but I'm not going to answer such impudent questions."
"The noble president speaketh. Answer, Gargoyle with the wiry thatch," came a voice in Plunger's ear, accompanied by a sharp kick on the shins.
Gargoyle with the eyebrows! Gargoyle with the wiry thatch! Was there ever such insolence? But that kick on the shins told Plunger that to raise any protest would only bring upon him worse punishment, so he stammered out:
"Plunger! Thy name is worse than thy face."
Plunger heard sniggers on every side at this reference to his name, of which he had always been very proud.
"It's such an uncommon one, you know," he had often said to his cronies at Garside. And now the wretched crew into whose hands he had fallen were trying to make fun of it. He bubbled over with indignation, but simmered down on hearing similar questions put to his companion in misfortune.
He was aroused from these reflections by hearing the chief of the band exclaim, in tones of command:
"Make fast the portal!"
He heard the sound as of a rusty bolt being thrust into its socket.
"I say, you chaps," he protested, beginning to feel alarmed again as he heard this ominous sound, "I wish you'd stop your larks and take this wretched thing from my eyes. If you'll just oblige me, I won't give you away—I really won't."
"We're going to take the bandage from thy eyes, but first thou must promise, on the banner of our Noble Order, to become a comrade and a brother."
"I—I promise," stammered Plunger, anxious only to get the use of his eyes again.
"Thou must promise also, by the same sacred emblem, never to reveal what thou dost see."
The same questions were put to Harry, who was just as anxious as his companion to see what was going on, and thought that no possible harm could be done in following Plunger's lead. So he gave the same promises.
The bandages, however, were not immediately removed. The two boys could hear the sound of footsteps moving round them, and voices chanting in some unknown tongue what seemed to be a mysterious incantation.
"Remove the bandages," commanded the chief, when this curious incantation, of which the two prisoners could make nothing, had ended.
At this command the bandages were removed. The scene that presented itself to the astonished eyes of Plunger and Harry was one of the most extraordinary they had ever witnessed. Their four captors seemed to have disappeared. Standing around them in a circle were what appeared to be eleven beetles standing erect on two legs, instead of crawling about on four. On the breast of each was a letter, which, being white, stood out prominently from the dark background, and gave to this singular circle a still more singular appearance. The letters made up the following:
M. O. OF BEETLES.
in other words—The Mystic Order of Beetles.
Plunger rubbed his eyes. Was he awake or sleeping? He was wide enough awake, but he could not at once grasp the situation. What did it all mean?
The reader has doubtless made a better guess at what had happened than Plunger. It was in this way. Mellor and Crick, the two boys who had gained possession of the Garside flag, had found a good deal of amusement at first in making surreptitious visits to the barn, and dancing round their capture, but they soon began to long for something more exciting. Truth to tell, the capture had not made the sensation in the ranks of the enemy they had anticipated—so at least it seemed to them. They had expected early reprisals, but none had come. So, after they had performed a war-dance round the flag with their companions five or six times, Mellor yearned for something more exciting. So did Crick. So did the others.
"The Gargoyles don't seem to worry much about the flag after all," said Mellor, thoughtfully wiping his brow, after the last of these spirited exercises round the Garside standard.
"Not a bit. Seems to me they're only too glad to get rid of the wretched thing," remarked Finch, one of the boys who had been envious of the daring capture.
"Are they? That's all you know, Finch," retorted Mellor, angry that his remark should be taken so literally. "If we could only see them, we should find them tearing their hair and gnashing their teeth."
"Then why don't they come after their property and try to get it back again?"
"Because they don't know for certain who's got it. They're lying low."
"Well, we'd better do the same. I can't see much fun in hopping round the wretched rag. Why the Gargoyles should make so much of it I can't make out."
"That's because you've never been at Garside. I dare say if we'd been left a flag like that by an old school-fellow who had made a name for himself, we should have been as proud of it as they are. It was worth getting just to set those bounders back a bit. I should like to see you do what Crick did, Finch!"
There were murmurs of approval at this, and Finch subsided into silence. Nevertheless, when Mellor began to reflect, there seemed to be a good deal of force in Finch's observation. There wasn't much fun, after all, in hopping round "the wretched rag." So he thought of a way to improve matters. Once or twice the idea had occurred to him of establishing a society calling itself the "Mystic Order of Beetles," and using it for the benefit of the rivals who had bestowed upon them so contemptuous a title.
Directly he mentioned it to his companions it was hailed with enthusiasm.
What could be better than making some of those wretched Gargoyles eat humble pie under the very flag they were so proud of? So amongst them they designed an appropriate costume for the "Mystic Order of Beetles," and the meeting-place and dressing-room were arranged in the barn.
So the society was started. Having started it, the next thing was to capture some of the enemy. In order to accomplish this interesting purpose, a band of scouts was established for the purpose of reporting on the movements of the enemy at the first favourable opportunity. It so happened that this was on the very day that Paul went to Wyndham to make inquiries about the flag.
The scouts were rather disappointed when they found, from their post of observation on the other side of the hedge, that the boy making his way to St. Bede's was Percival. There had been already one trial of strength with him which had not been entirely successful. Besides which Wyndham had championed his cause, and they were bound to respect Wyndham's opinion. Furthermore, the fame of Paul's heroism had reached St. Bede's, as the reader has seen, and they had lost their former contempt for him. They were therefore on the point of turning disconsolately away when their eyes were gladdened by the sight of Plunger and Harry following Paul.
Here were the prizes they had longed for. The enemy was delivered into their hands.
So the scouts had carried off their prisoners to the barn, where their comrades were waiting them. What followed we have seen.
Plunger and Harry looked on the extraordinary circle which surrounded them in wonder. No word fell from the Beetles. They stood perfectly still, as though enjoying the surprise which their extraordinary appearance had created in the breast of their prisoners.
"I say, you are a rum lot!" Plunger at length burst out. "Mystic Order of Beetles! Ha, ha!"
He burst into a wild fit of laughter, but his laughter was suddenly checked by a resounding thud upon the shoulders. He then discovered that the Beetles standing around him were armed with sheepskin bladders attached to sticks. They did not hurt much, but the noise they made was considerable.
"Silence! Thy mirth is unseemly," came from the chief of the circle, who was no other than Mellor. "Remember, that thou hast been admitted to the Mystic Order of Beetles, and hast promised by the sacred emblem above thee to be true to the cause."
The sacred emblem above! The prisoners looked up. There was a flag hanging from the roof of the barn—a tattered flag. Plunger rubbed his eyes. Surely it was the old flag—the flag of Garside?
The bladders came down in a perfect shower on Plunger's head and shoulders. As for Harry, he could not speak. The sight of the flag had smitten him dumb.
"Thou hast promised to be true to the cause," repeated the chief solemnly. "Should'st thou ever dare to break the vow, thou wilt be haunted for the rest of thy life—haunted sleeping and waking by the Beetles thou hast betrayed! Describe the mystic circle."
Describe the mystic circle! What in the name of wonder was that? The bladders descended upon Plunger as he stood in the centre of the ring with his companion, wondering what was expected of him.
"I—I don't know any mystic circles," he stammered in despair.
"On hands and knees—quick!"
Plunger hastened to obey the command.
"Crawl round the mystic circle three times."
Plunger would have refused had he dared, but he dared not; so, amid a good deal of suppressed laughter from the Beetles standing round him, he crawled round the circle three times.
"Rise, brother!" commanded Mellor, when he had accomplished this feat.
Plunger gladly sprang to his feet.
"Give him the mystic tap."
Thwack—thwack came the bladders on Plunger's devoted head. And Plunger almost regretted that he had risen. Harry went bravely through the same ordeal. This accomplished, the Beetles joined hands, and galloping wildly around the two boys, chanted:
"Beetles of the mystic band, Wind we round thee, hand in hand; Whene'er thou hear'st thy chieftain's call Rest not, pause not, hither crawl; Or to the realms of creepy-crawley, Shivery-shaky, we will haul thee!"
As this incantation went on, Plunger and Harry had a lively time inside the mystic circle. By the dexterous application of a knee or a shoulder, Plunger would be sent with a run in one direction, while Harry would be sent flying in another. They were whirled about from this side to that like indiarubber balls. Then of a sudden they would find themselves closely embracing each other in the centre of the ring, only to be sundered again, and sent flying in another direction.
At length the "Brethren of the Mystic Order" stopped breathless, much to the relief of Plunger and Harry.
"Keeper of the Portal conduct our newly-made brothers to the door."
The Keeper of the Portal, Crick, conducted them to the door.
"The time has come to say farewell—for the present," said Mellor, as they all gathered round the door. "Don't forget that thou art pledged to us by the bonds of our noble order. In token whereof, give them the mystic wallop."
The bladders came down with a resounding thwack on the newly-made brethren, during which the Keeper of the Portal opened the door. Plunger and Harry darted through. Roars of laughter followed them, but they did not look back. They did not pause till they were well on the road to Garside.
"I say, Moncrief minor," said Plunger, drawing up breathless, "we've dropped in for a fine thing."
The same idea had occurred to Harry, but he was not so ready to admit it.
"How do you mean?"
"Why, we've joined hands with the enemy—the Beetles. There's no getting out of it."
"I suppose there isn't," answered Harry gloomily.
They walked on in silence for a few moments. Then Harry glanced round, as though half fearful that some one was following, and whispered:
"I say, Plunger."
"Well, what is it?"
"Did you notice the flag we were standing under?"
"The flag we were standing under?" repeated Plunger innocently. "Well, not particularly. What was it like?"
"Like! I believe it was the school flag!"
"You don't say so. Never!"
"I'm positive it was."
"The school flag? This is awful! Couldn't you have let me know? What a duffer you are! I would have sacrificed my life to get that flag! I wouldn't have stood their nonsense like I did had I thought that was our flag. I would have fought them till my last breath. Why—why didn't you let me know?"
"I thought you did know."
"And to think that I crawled to them—crawled, with the flag of the old school looking on. It's nothing to you—you're only a fresher from Gaffer Quelch's; but to me, Plunger, it's—it's——" Not being able to find a word strong enough to express his meaning, Plunger suddenly turned on Harry again. "You ought to be ashamed of yourself, Moncrief minor, letting me make such an ass of myself."
"How could I help it, Freddy. They made an ass of me too."
"There you go again, always poking your wretched self in. What does it matter to you? You don't count at Garside. I do—that's the difference. I wish you wouldn't look at these things from such a selfish point of view. You're always thinking of yourself—a miserable fresher, as I've said, from Gaffer Quelch's. If it ever gets about the school that I've been made a Beetle under the Garside flag, what will the fellows think of it? I shall never hear the last of it. I shall be roasted all round."
"And serve you right, too!" cried Harry, losing his temper. "A jolly good roasting will do you good. It'll take some of the bounce out of you. If it hadn't been for you, we shouldn't have got into this mess."
"What do you mean?" demanded Plunger hotly.
"It was all through playing the spy on Percival. If it hadn't been for following him, those Beetles wouldn't have got hold of us."
"Come, that's good. Your cheek's superb. That's the only thing you seem to have brought with you from Gaffer Quelch's. Who was it suggested we should follow Percival? Was it me, I should like to know, or one of the little prigs from Gaffer Quelch's?"
Harry could not immediately respond. He had forgotten for the moment that the suggestion to follow Percival had come from him. But after a moment's reflection he answered lamely:
"Yes; but it was you who caught sight of Percival as he was on the road to St. Bede's and put the suggestion in my head."
"Well, of all the bosh——Oh, shut up, or put on a strait-waistcoat. You're getting dangerous," said Plunger crushingly, seeing that he had "scored."
Harry, indignant with himself, Plunger, and all the world, went on ahead. But after a bit Plunger caught up to him.
"You needn't get into a wax because I set you right just now. I flatter myself there aren't many chaps can score over me when I choose to set about them. It's not your fault that you've got too much of Gaffer Quelch's seminary for boys and girls about you. I had it for the first term at Garside, but I soon grew out of it. And you'll grow out of it, too. Fact is, Harry, neither of us is to blame for falling into the hands of the Philistines—Beetles, I mean. Let's put the blame on the right shoulders."
"And the right shoulders are——"
"Percival. It was through following him we fell into that beastly trap, and it seems to me—though I don't like to say it—that Percival has a good deal to answer for. What was he doing at St. Bede's? What was he doing with that fellow, Wyndham, who knocked about your cousin so unmercifully at the sand-pits? Did you notice what good terms they were on—Wyndham with his arm tucked through Percival's."
Harry had seen it all, and as Plunger was speaking he recalled that other scene he had striven so hard to forget—when he had seen Percival and Wyndham together near the school. He had tried to put that from him, especially since the heroism Percival had shown on the river. But now it all came back with a rush. There was not the slightest doubt that Percival and Wyndham were on terms of friendship. No one who had witnessed the scene that he and Plunger had witnessed could question it. What did it mean? There was something behind it all.
"Yes, I noticed it, Freddy," he slowly answered. "It puzzles me, and I don't know what to make of it." Then looking up quickly, as though a sudden suspicion had come to him, he blurted out: "I say, is it possible that—that——No, I can't say it—it's too horrid."
"Out with it. There's no one to hear you but me. Remember, we're both in the same boat."
"No one to hear me but you," said Harry, looking quickly round. "And I shouldn't like anybody to hear but you; it's a horrid suspicion that came into my mind just now. There must be something between Percival and Wyndham, that's certain. I've tried not to believe it; but it's no use trying to shut our eyes to facts. Can it be that Percival's plotting against his own school, can it be that he is betraying us to the enemy—those beastly Beetles?"
"Funny! Just the same thing's been running through my mind. Can it be that he's betraying us to the enemy, and can it be"—here Plunger's voice dropped to a whisper, as though he feared the very hedges might overhear him—"that it was he who hauled down the school flag and handed it over to the Beetles?"
"No, no; I can't believe that," cried Harry, clasping his hands over his face, as though to blot out the suspicion.
"And I've been trying not to believe it, but what else are you to make of it? A Beetle couldn't have got to the turret and taken the flag off his own bat. There must have been some one helping him who knew all about the school. If it wasn't Percival, who was it? What are we to think after what we've seen?"
So it came about that while Percival had been doing his best to trace out where the school flag had gone, so as to return it to its old place of honour on the turret, the suspicion came into the minds of these two boys that he was betraying the school.
Even at the moment that this suspicion was born, Paul was sitting by the bedside of Hibbert, with the boy's hand in his. Hibbert had been talking, but the tired eyes, which shone out so brightly from the wan face, had begun to close. Yet the hand still held fast to Paul's. And as Paul looked down lovingly on the face, he murmured to himself the words he had spoken to Wyndham that afternoon—"The link between us kept me strong when all Garside was against me."
And Paul had need of strength, for the battle had not yet ended.
A REMARKABLE DISCOVERY
The improvement in the school's attitude to Paul did not last long. The Garsiders who had come over to him with a swing, for some reason swung back with the same alacrity. The juniors who had cheered him to the echo in the dormitory now passed him without a word.
Fortunately, Paul's mind was too much occupied just then with other matters to take much notice of this change. First and foremost in his thoughts was Hibbert. Would he pull through? The progress he made was very slow—if, indeed, it could be called progress. One day he seemed stronger, the next found him as weak as before. A curious thing had happened on the afternoon Paul returned to the school after his interview with Wyndham. Mr. Weevil had sent for him to his room. Paul thought that it was to reprimand him for something or other. He was agreeably surprised, therefore, when the master motioned him to a chair, and in a kindly voice, altogether unlike his "school voice," bade him sit down.
"I understand that you've visited Hibbert once or twice," he began, regarding Paul through his half-closed eyes.
"Now it's coming," thought Paul. "He's going to forbid me visiting Hibbert." Then, aloud: "Yes, sir. I hope you've no objection."
"I did object at first to visitors of any kind, because I thought it would do the lad more harm than good. But I think the objection may be withdrawn as far as you're concerned."
Paul could scarcely believe his ears. Had he heard Mr. Weevil aright?
"He seems to look forward eagerly to your visits, more than to the visits of anybody"—a sigh, so slight as to be almost imperceptible, escaped the master's lips. "It would be cruel to debar the poor little fellow from any pleasure we can give him. Therefore, Percival, I hope you will understand that you are quite at liberty to visit him when you feel inclined."
"It is very kind of you, sir, and I am deeply grateful."
"You will be careful, of course, not to make your visits too long, or not to unduly excite him."
"Oh, yes, sir; I'll be careful of that."
Paul rose to go, thinking the interview at an end. As he did so, the master placed a hand upon his shoulder.
"You have been very good to the boy—God will reward you! The fear sometimes oppresses me that he will not get over this illness."
The half closed eyes were blinking in a curious fashion. Indeed, Paul saw what was suspiciously like a tear slowly making its way down the cheek of the master. His emotion was no longer a mystery to Paul. Hibbert's revelation had thrown a light upon it. He now knew that the man whom he had regarded as without emotion—as one wrapped up completely in his equations and scientific formulae—had yet a deeply human side. Hibbert was the son of his dead sister, and he loved him—loved him with a love that was a hundred times greater than that which the boy's own father had ever bestowed on him. And Paul learnt a lesson in that brief interview which he never forgot—that lying deep down in the hearts of most men, sometimes overladen by rust, sometimes in the midst of decay, may frequently be found a vein of purest gold.
"Don't say that, sir. He was looking better the last time I saw him. He will pull round as soon as he can get out a bit."
"I hope your words will come true, Percival; but he's so frail. If he were only strong like you—but there, it's useless talking. It must be as God wills." Then his voice changed to its old frigid tone.
"You can go, sir."
Thus abruptly dismissed, Paul went out.
"Weevil's a puzzle," he said to himself. "I'm as far off knowing him as ever I was; but there seems to be some warm blood in him, and that's something. I thought he was all pothooks and hangers at one time; but he can't be as bad as that. That shows you shouldn't go by appearances. He's not half as black as I painted him."
Paul was very pleased that he could now visit Hibbert without restriction, and that same night he visited him, much to the boy's joy, and sat by his bed, as we have seen, till he slept.
Thus it was Paul took little heed of the school's attitude towards him for the next few days. Then an incident happened which was to absorb his attention still more. Thinking of Mr. Weevil, and his recent interview, his mind went naturally back to that evening when, devoured with curiosity, he had followed him to Cranstead Common. The more he thought of it, the more he wondered what could have become of him on that night he had so strangely disappeared from view before his very eyes. The ground had not swallowed him up, for he had returned to school that same night. What, then, was the meaning of it?
Paul had promised himself that he would make an effort to find out; so, as he had heard nothing from Wyndham, he seized the first opportunity that occurred to visit that part of the common where the master had disappeared. He followed the trail which the master had pursued in the direction of the river until he came to the thickly-wooded part where the trees, furze-bushes, brake, and bramble grew in wild profusion.
This was the spot where he had lost sight of him. At first Paul could see nothing but the brambles. Examining the place more minutely, he found the bushes curiously divided in the centre. Feeling beneath them, his hand came in contact with cold iron. It was a ring, attached to a circular piece of wood, rusty and moss-grown, so that in appearance there was little to distinguish it from the undergrowth. He found little difficulty in moving it.
He thought at first that it would prove to be the entrance to a well, similar to the well in the ruins where he had hidden on the night he had fled from Zuker; but to his amazement he discovered that it was no well, but led to a sloping tunnel cut in the sandstone. That then was the place where the master had so suddenly disappeared. For what purpose? And where did it lead? It was impossible to tell without exploring it. Should he make the venture? Should he enter it?
Paul hesitated for a moment, but only for a moment. The next he entered the tunnel, cautiously drawing over the lid which concealed it. The passage in which he found himself sloped downward, and was at first scarcely large enough to allow him to walk upright. Little of light penetrated into it, and he had, therefore, to walk cautiously along, like a blind man, making sure of every step he took.
Presently the path seemed to broaden. Extending his arms to their full extent Paul could just feel the walls on either side. He proceeded still more slowly, straining his ears to catch the sound of footsteps. All was silent. It was the silence of the tomb.
"My stars, what a queer place! I wish I could only strike a light, so as to have a peep at it," thought Paul. "What can Mr. Weevil do down here? It isn't a cheerful place, even for a man who happens to be very much in love with his own society."
He came to a sudden pause. What was the use of exploring the tunnel further? He could see nothing, hear nothing. So where was the use of groping along in the darkness? It was folly, especially when he might be precipitated at any moment into some hidden chasm. But folly though it might be, Paul could not turn back. A mysterious voice within him seemed to be urging him on. If Mr. Weevil had passed along that tunnel in safety, why shouldn't he? It must have an outlet somewhere, and Paul grew more and more curious to find out what that outlet could be.
"I feel very much like an explorer in darkest Africa," he smiled to himself. "Shall I be coming across an unknown lake presently, or a race of pigmies? Hallo! What's that? Light at last."
Light it was but of the faintest. It came with a faint streak into the tunnel. The darkness was only darkness before, but now fantastic shadows seemed to menace Paul at every footstep he took. Feeble though the light was, it was enough to show him that the tunnel had broadened considerably. Stepping warily along, the light grew stronger at every step, until he at length discovered that the path along which he was so cautiously travelling led into a cave lit with oil-lamps.
Then he came to a sudden pause again, and his heart beat wildly against his ribs, as he caught the sound of voices. The cave was not empty. There was some one inside. Who?
As he approached nearer he saw that a curtain was partly drawn over the entrance. Paul knew that a false step might betray him.
To lessen the risk of detection, therefore, he crawled on hands and knees to the curtain, and eagerly peered through the space nearest the wall.
The cave looked quite warm and comfortable. A fire of anthracite, which sent out plenty of heat but no smoke, burnt on a hearth cut out of the sandstone. Two or three lamps suspended from the roof diffused an Oriental glow, while several warm bear-skin rugs were scattered over the ground.
A couple of guns and two or three cutlasses were hanging on the wall; and what was more astonishing to Paul, several maps and designs. The nature of these it was impossible for him to ascertain. He further noticed that in one niche of the wall was a photographic camera. In another were ship models, in the third the models of torpedoes, engines, and machinery of various kind.
Paul had taken all this in at a glance. He had not yet seen the occupants of the cave, but there appeared from what he could hear, to be only two. They were conversing in low tones at the far end, where the lights from the lamps dimly penetrated. After a while the conversation became more animated, and the two moved to a table at the centre.
"I think we've succeeded in quieting suspicion," said the foremost of the two. As he spoke the light from the lamp fell full upon his face.
It was Zuker, the German Jew!
Paul's glance turned from him to the other man. It was Brockman, the burly ruffian who had seized the bridle of Falcon on the night of his flight to Redmead—the ruffian who struck the blow which caused the gallant horse's death.
"We've succeeded in calming suspicion for the time being," Zuker was saying, "and that is a great point in our favour; but still we must move cautiously. A false step, and down would fall all my plans like a house of cards. We've been very near discovery once or twice, the nearest was when that youngster got ahead of us with the packet. You remember?"
"Remember! I'm never likely to forget it," said Brockman. "I could never understand how it was the youngster slipped through my fingers."
"Well, it doesn't matter so much as it has turned out, for those Admiralty men—the Hansons—have gone to sleep again. They think that danger is passed, that Zuker, the man they so fear and dread, is out of England."
He chuckled softly to himself. Paul grew colder. He knew well enough the youngster they were referring to, no one better, for it was himself. It was quite clear that the letter he had sent from the school to Mr. Moncrief had never reached him. A staggering suspicion flashed into his mind. He recalled that he had entrusted the posting of that letter to Hibbert. Could it have been that Hibbert had failed him, or worse, could it have been that Hibbert had deceived him? Was he not the son of Zuker? But the suspicion only dwelt in his mind for one brief moment, and he felt indignant with himself that it had rested there so long.
How could he doubt Hibbert, the one boy at Garside who had so clung to him and who was at that moment lying on a bed of sickness?
"Heaven forgive me!" he said to himself; then he caught the voices of the men as they again spoke, and listened eagerly.
"They really believe you're out of England. You're quite sure of that?" questioned Brockman, in his thick, guttural voice.
"As sure of it as you're standing there," answered Zuker. "The search for me went on actively for a fortnight, and then dropped. How should they suspect a hiding-place like this? How should they suspect that when the hounds were in full chase of the fox, he had a hole to retreat to where they could never follow?"
"Ha! ha!" chuckled Brockman; "we ought to call it the Fox-Hole. I only wish we had the youngster in it who slipped through my fingers that night on the road to Redmead."
"Do you really?" said Paul to himself. "Well, the youngster's obliged you, and yet you don't seem to be grateful to him."
"Zut! zut! Don't worry about him. He's only a cipher—a pawn in the great game we have in hand. If we win, it'll be for a prize worth winning—fame and fortune," went on Zuker, as he strode to and fro with rapid strides. "Yes, fame and fortune, and we shall have dealt a staggering blow at a country that we hate. The risk is great, but the stakes are greater still, and each day makes our position surer."
"Surer? Do you think so? Sometimes it seems to me, master, that we're standing on the very edge of a deep precipice, and that one day we shall make a false step, and then——"
Brockman did not finish the sentence, but gave a significant shrug of the shoulders which was much more eloquent than words.
"Das ist recht—that is right; I have never hidden from you the danger. It is true that one false step might spoil all my plans, but that only makes the game more worth the winning. And listen, Brockman, we must not make that false step. We made one on that night we let the boy get through with the cipher to Redmead. We must not make another."
Paul's ears tingled as he listened. Notwithstanding the peril in which he stood, his heart beat with joy. The words of Mr. Moncrief came back to him: "You have not only done a great service for me and my brother, Paul, but for your country." He had almost forgotten those words in the whirl of events that had since happened at Garside, but now they came flashing back, shining out vividly as a beacon in the darkness around him.
"No; we must not make another," answered Brockman, sending his fist vigorously into the palm of his hand to emphasize his words. There was silence between the two for a moment, then it was again broken by Zuker.
"Those ancestors of yours were dull dogs, Brockman, but there must have been some grit in them to have got up to Chatham. See, they got to this point." Paul could see that a chart was spread out upon the table, and that Zuker was pointing with his finger to a place on it. "Here is the River Medway, which, as you know, can be reached through this tunnel."
The river through that tunnel! Was he awake or dreaming? Paul could scarcely believe the evidence of his ears. His heart thumped so loudly against his ribs that he feared the conspirators might hear him.
"A chain had been drawn across the river, for all England was in a state of alarm at the approach of the Dutchmen," went on Zuker. "Fortifications had been added to Sheerness and Upnor Castle just here."
Brockman bent over the chart and followed the finger of Zuker.
"Just there. And the chain—what happened to the chain?"
"Sheerness was first taken, and then, taking advantage of a spring tide and an easterly wind, the Dutch broke the chain."
"Broke it? But wasn't it fortified?"
"It was guarded by three ships, but the Dutch took them. They played havoc with several other vessels, and advanced with six men-o'-war and five fireships as far as Upnor Castle, where they burned three more. That was good, wasn't it?"
"Splendid! Real pluck! Dull dogs and slow, as you say, but real grit. I'm proud of my Dutch fore-fathers."
It was clear that Brockman, if not himself a Dutchman, was of Dutch descent.
"The Dutch," continued Zuker, "then fell down the Medway—see, in this direction." His finger again went to work over the chart. "They sailed next to Portsmouth; they assaulted Harwich, and then sailed again up the Thames as far as Tilbury—this point here—where they were repulsed. What has been done once can be done again. Why not?"
Zuker, in his excitement, strode over in the direction of the curtain. Paul drew back and waited. Had he seen the curtain move? Did he suspect there was a listener behind? For a moment Paul scarcely breathed. Then he heard Zuker pacing back to the table, and breathed freely again.
"You forget the difference in the times," answered Brockman. "Then there were no ironclads."
"I'm forgetting nothing. Ironclads are useless without the brains behind them. Battles nowadays are won not so much on the battlefield as by the Intelligence Department—the Secret Service"—his voice went almost to a whisper—"the service to which you and I belong."
A cold feeling of horror and repulsion stole over Paul as he listened. He felt as he might have felt in listening to the rattle of a deadly snake. These men were in the Secret Service of another country—spies, collecting material for the enemy—material which might be used at any time with deadly effect against England, dear old England! And as he looked, a mist seemed to rise before him, and suddenly out of the mist he saw a strange picture—the cabin of a ship, a man bending over a dispatch-box, and rapidly turning over the papers within. Then the door of the cabin opened. An officer, with a bronzed, noble face swiftly entered, and seized the spy at the dispatch-box. The spy threw himself at the officer's feet and pleaded for mercy. Paul saw it all as clearly as though it were on a screen before him. Looking at the spy's face, he knew it for Zuker. Looking at the officer's face, he knew it for his father's.
As the scene faded, he felt that he, too, must spring out on Zuker and denounce him. "Spy—traitor! You're the man who tried to betray my father! You are the man who would betray Britain!" By some impulse over which he had no control he tried to shriek out the words. His lips moved, but fortunately no sound came from them.
The next instant he was brought to his senses by the sound of footsteps—footsteps in the tunnel by which he had entered. Instantly he realized the position in which he stood. The new-comer, whoever he was, was probably a confederate of the two spies inside, and would be bound to pass into the cave through the curtain behind which he was hidden. Quick as thought he retreated a pace or two, well out of the light of the lamps, and drew himself close up to the wall.
Nearer and nearer came the footsteps. Presently Paul could just see the shadowy outline of a man's figure. Then he passed him, coming so close that his coat brushed against him. The figure paused. Paul held his breath, and for one brief instant thought that he had been discovered. The next, the curtain was lifted aside, and the new-comer passed inside the cave.
"Ah, Weevil! What news?" came the voice of Zuker.
Weevil! Paul crept again to the curtain, and peered through the side. It was the master, sure enough. He wore a cape, with the collar turned up and buttoned tight round the chin.
"Still the same," answered the master.
"No change to speak of. Sometimes he's a little better; then he goes back again, and is worse. Poor little chap! it makes my heart bleed to see him."
Then Paul knew they were speaking of Hibbert.
"Your heart! What of mine?" exclaimed the man fiercely. "You always speak as though you were the only one who cared for the boy. And a lot of good you've done for him. It was through you I had him trained as an English boy. His mother was English, said you. It was through you he went to Garside, because you could take greater care of him, said you. What care? Himmel, himmel! You let those imps of Satan torture him; through you he has been brought to the door of death."
"Cease, man—cease to torture me!" cried the master.
Paul listened in wonder, not unmixed with awe. He had heard that note of anguish in the master's voice before—on that night when he had seen him by Hibbert's bed; but the face, with the light of the lamp flickering on it, might have been hewn from the limestone. It was as stern and rigid as Fate itself.
"I have no wish to torture you; but it sickens me to hear you speak about that boy as though it were no concern of mine—as though you were the only one who cared for him. I tell you again, I was a fool to let him go to Garside."
No answer came for a few moments. It seemed as though Mr. Weevil were struggling with his feelings. When he at length spoke, his voice was calm again. It had resumed that calm, deliberate tone with which Paul was so familiar.
"I would like to speak to you for a few minutes alone, Israel."
Brockman took the hint, and retreating at the other entrance of the cave, left the two together.
"I wished to speak with you alone, because I have discovered one or two matters which will interest you. You were struck, you may remember, with the name of the boy who saved Tim's life?"
"Yes; what of it?"
"You thought that he might be the son of that Captain Percival who years ago saved your life at the risk of his own. I knew that the boy's father was dead, and on examination of the school-books, I found that he was a naval officer. I was not aware of the circumstances under which he met his death, however. I have since discovered that he was drowned at sea 'whilst trying to save the life of a spy'—pardon me the word, but so the record runs."
"Ach! Is it possible?" came hoarsely from Zuker's lips. "I had my suspicions when I first questioned him."
Paul pressed his ear closer to the side of the curtain. He was anxious not to lose a word of what was spoken, for he knew that he was "the boy" to whom the master was referring; that "Tim" was, of course, Hibbert.
"I have discovered, further, that it was this same boy—Paul Percival—who got through with that letter to Redmead."
"The same? Ach Himmel! I caught but a glimpse of him in the darkness that night."
"The hand of a Higher than man is in it. You cannot escape it. Be warned in time. Give up this scheme of yours; if not for your own sake, for the sake of your son."
"Give up the scheme—the scheme for which I have worked so long. The scheme which, day by day, brings me nearer to fame and fortune. You talk like a madman. It is more to me than life itself—more to me than the life of fifty sons!"
A cry of pain came from Mr. Weevil's lips.
"I know you well enough—you have no love for my scheme. Your heart is in what you call science, and in the boy. You wish to frighten me—frighten me from the work which every day draws nearer to success. Shall I tell you what for? So as to drive me back to the Fatherland that you may keep all to yourself, my boy—the boy of your dead sister. Ach! I see through your scheming!"
"Hush, man—hush! Is it to hear reproaches from your lips that I have risked so much—that I have involved myself in these schemes of yours which may mean my ruin?" Mr. Weevil's voice was stern, fearless; but as quickly turned to a softer key. "Let us not quarrel, Israel. Heaven forbid that we should quarrel over the boy whom we both love in our own peculiar way. Remember that his life is still in jeopardy."
They shook hands, and then Mr. Weevil turned towards the curtain behind which Paul was hidden.
THE LETTERS AT THE TUCK-SHOP
This time Paul did not move—he could not. He was as one rooted to the spot. Fortunately, Mr. Weevil did not come to that side of the curtain where he was crouching, but passed through on the other side. It was not till he had hastened past Paul that the power of movement returned to his limbs. To remain there longer was useless. He had heard enough—more than enough. But he was unable to think clearly in that tunnel. The air seemed to stifle him; he must get outside.
So he followed in the master's footsteps, taking care, however, to keep a good distance between them. At length he reached the entrance. He waited a minute or two, then cautiously lifted the circular piece of wood that covered the entrance, and made his way through the undergrowth to the open.
By that time Mr. Weevil had disappeared from view.
"Am I awake or dreaming?" Paul asked himself, as he drew a deep breath of relief.
It seemed, indeed, like a dream—or, rather, a nightmare—that cave, the two conspirators, the conversation he had overheard about the taking of Sheerness by the Dutch, the advance on Upnor Castle, and, lastly, the appearance on the scene of Mr. Weevil.
What was he to do? How was he to act? He was face to face with the same dilemma that had confronted him when Hibbert had confessed to him his relationship to Zuker. The more he thought of it, the more difficult it seemed to move. He was bound hand and foot by the promise he had made to Hibbert. How could he be false to that promise—how could he give information which might cause his death?
Strange to say, his confidence in Mr. Weevil had grown by what he had overheard at that interview. It was true enough that the master seemed involved in some way in the schemes of Zuker, but it seemed equally certain that he was against them. The words he had overheard were still ringing in his ears: "You wish to drive me back to the Fatherland, and keep all to yourself, my boy—the boy of your dead sister!" Things seemed clearer to Paul. The master's purpose seemed clearer. It was his love for his nephew—for Hibbert—which had involved him in the schemes of Zuker. Paul had disliked and suspected Mr. Weevil, but, curiously enough, he now seemed to understand better than ever he had understood before, and that understanding was to the advantage rather than the disadvantage of the master.
"The hand of a Higher than man is in it." Those were the master's words. They had been spoken from his heart; there was no doubt of that. Though they had failed to move Zuker, they had moved Paul strangely. Yes; the hand of a Higher than man was in it, and the designs of Zuker would certainly be overturned.
"I wish Mr. Moncrief had answered my letter, though," he said to himself, as he returned to the school. It must have miscarried. He determined to question Hibbert about it again that very evening.
So when the evening came he went to the sick-room, and the nurse, who was now in attendance, gladly vacated her place at the bedside to him. As usual, Hibbert had been looking forward to Paul's visit, and the thin white face was at once all sunshine.
"I'm feeling ever so much better," he said, in answer to Paul's inquiries. "I'm feeling quite strong. I shall soon be out again if I go on like this. Do you think the fellows will be pleased to see me?"
"Of course they will!"
"I was never very popular, you see," Hibbert went on thoughtfully. "It was all my fault. I never took any interest in the sports. I mean to be different when I get off this wretched bed—turn over a new leaf; go in for footer, cricket, and that sort of thing. I don't see why I shouldn't do as well as the rest of them, do you, Percival?"
"I don't see why," answered Paul cheerfully.
"And there's a lot of other things I mean to do. Do you know, I've been thinking over so much to-day about our being at the same school—how wonderful it all is that you and I should be at Garside. And when I get out again, do you know what I mean to do?"
Paul shook his head. He was looking at the face, which seemed to grow smaller and smaller, and wondering whether Hibbert would get out again.
"I mean to do my best to pay on that debt my father owed your father—the debt that never has been paid. That'll be something to live for and work for, and God helping me, I'll do it—do it! Don't say that you don't wish it—that you don't want it."
"Certainly not," answered Paul, very softly, falling in with his mood. "You shall do as you think best when you get out again."
There was silence between them for a few moments. Hibbert lay with his hands crossed on his breast and his eyes upturned to the ceiling.
"What have you been doing this afternoon, Percival?" he suddenly asked, as his eyes went back again to Paul's face.
The question took Paul by surprise. How could he tell Hibbert what he had been doing that afternoon—the discovery he had made, what he had seen and what he had heard in the cave?
"Yes. Half-holiday, wasn't it? I still keep count of holidays, you see."
"Oh, I went for a walk!"
"By myself." Paul could see that the boy's eyes were scanning his face curiously, so he added quickly: "I'm rather fond of walking by myself."
"Have you heard anything about the flag?"
"How did you come to know that it was gone?" Paul asked, astonished, for he had thought it better not to trouble him with the information.
"Oh, Mrs. Trounce told me. I get her to tell me any special news. I like to know what's going on in the school. Matron's a good sort. It was a beastly shame to take the flag, whoever did it. Have they got any clue?"
"I expect the Beetles had a hand in it. What do you think?"
"I scarcely know what to think. It's a mystery. You haven't been climbing to the turret in your sleep, and hauling the flag down just for the fun of the thing, have you?"
The idea quite tickled Hibbert, for he laughed outright.
"By the by," said Paul, turning the conversation to the purpose for which he had come to that room, "you recollect that letter I gave you to post a few weeks back?"
"You're quite certain you posted it?"
"Quite certain. I think that I said so at the time."
Paul noticed that though Hibbert was quite certain that he had posted the letter he spoke with some hesitation.