"Yes, yes; you said so at the time—that's quite right. But I was wondering whether by any chance you might have given it to some other boy to post."
"No; I put it in the letter-box with my own hands." Hibbert again hesitated for a moment, then added; "Something did happen, but I did not think it worth while to worry you about it."
"What was it?" Paul asked eagerly.
"I was blockhead enough to run full tilt against Mr. Weevil when I got outside, and—and he caught sight of your letter."
"Caught sight of my letter! And what did he do?"
"Made me go to his room. He asked me who sent me with the letter, and I was obliged to tell him. It didn't matter, did it?"
"It didn't matter," repeated Paul, his throat suddenly becoming parched. "Well, well, what happened then?"
"He took the letter to his room, but came back with it in a minute or so and handed it back to me. He said that you had broken the rules of the school in sending off a letter without the knowledge of the masters, but he would overlook the offence, for—for my sake. That's the reason I didn't make a fuss about it to you."
"He said that—Mr. Weevil said that? And he gave you back my letter? You're quite certain it was the same?"
"Oh, quite certain! I thought perhaps he might have opened it, as he said he had a right to, so I looked at it to make sure it was the same. It was the same—in your handwriting. I could tell that anywhere. But what makes you ask? Has it miscarried?"
"I hope not. I haven't had an answer yet—that's all. I dare say I shall get one presently, so don't you worry about it."
To prevent him doing so, Paul turned the conversation again to other matters, and then went out. The information Paul had given him about the letter set him thinking. What had the master done with his letter in the few brief moments he had had it in his possession away from Hibbert? Had he opened it and read it? If so, was the letter he had handed back to Hibbert to post the same letter that he—Paul—had written? to Mr. Moncrief? Hibbert was sure that it was—sure that it was in his handwriting. In any case, a letter had been posted to Mr. Moncrief. What letter was it?
In this state of perplexity, Paul determined to write briefly to Mr. Moncrief again. That was the only way in which all doubt could be ended.
So he wrote a note stating that he had written a letter of some importance a few weeks since, and wishing to know as soon as possible whether or not it had been received. This letter he directed the same as before—"W. Moncrief, Esq., Redmead, Oakville, Kent." He determined that this time he would post the letter himself; so the next day, watching his opportunity, he slipped from the grounds, and posted it at the village post-office.
"It can't go wrong now," he said to himself, as he retraced his footsteps.
Meanwhile, Plunger and Moncrief minor were thrown into a state of great excitement by finding letters awaiting them at the adjacent tuck-shop. Plunger tore the envelope open.
Immediately he drew out the letter and glanced at it he groaned. His groan was echoed by Harry. On the top of Plunger's letter was a rudely-designed facsimile of a cockroach. On the top of Harry's letter was a similarly grotesque design.
Beneath it, in scarcely less grotesque handwriting, as though one of the legs of the cockroach had been dipped in ink and made to trace words upon the paper, was the following:
"Brother of the Mystic Order,—Greeting from the Brethren. Meeting to-morrow afternoon at headquarters. Time, half-past three sharp. Be not absent at thy peril."
Then followed the lines which Plunger so well remembered—the words which had formed part of the incantation of the "Mystic Circle:"
"Whene'er thou hear'st thy chieftain's call, Rest not, pause not, hither crawl, Or to the realms of Creepy-crawly, Shivery-shaky, we will haul thee."
Plunger groaned again. Harry again echoed it.
"What are you making that row for, you little ass?" cried Plunger testily.
"Thought I'd cheer you up a bit. You look just awful, Plunger!"
"You look worse than that! Ever seen a petrified mummy? No? Well, just look at yourself in the glass, then! What's your letter about?"
They exchanged letters, and found that they were in precisely the same terms—that both were summonses for them to appear before "the Mystic Order" at the same date and hour.
"FORGIVE, AND YE SHALL BE FORGIVEN"
The two boys looked at each other blankly. How were they to act? What was to be done? If they refused to obey the summons from the "Mystic Brethren," they knew not what would be the penalty. The more they looked at the letters, with their grotesque design, the more imposing they seemed.
"What's to be done, Freddy?" asked Harry, when they were outside the shop.
"We shall have to go, I suppose!" answered Plunger despondently. "We've given ourselves away, you see. We're one of them—one of the wretched Beetles. We've taken the vow of allegiance. They've got us in a tight corner."
"What's the 'realms of Creepy-crawly, Shivery-shaky' I wonder?" asked Harry, in an equally dejected tone.
"Some ditch with plenty of toads and slime about it, I expect. You needn't be anxious. We'll know soon enough!" groaned Plunger. "I wish to goodness you'd been anywhere before you let me in for this mess! Why did they ever let you loose from Gaffer Quelch's?"
"Oh, shut up, Plunger! You're tiring! After all, you wouldn't make such a bad Beetle. You can crawl a lot better than you can punt, and——Oh, oh!"
Plunger had caught him by the ear and given it a vigorous pull. Harry returned it by kicking Plunger on the shins. Having thus equalised matters, they became once more on friendly terms.
"Look here, Harry, we're both in the same boat. Supposing we don't go?"
"Then what'll happen?"
"I don't know. We shall have to chance that. They can't eat us."
"Oh, but I'm not afraid! It's not that; but—but I don't somehow like breaking my word."
"Neither do I. It's jolly awkward; yet, come to think of it, I don't see why we shouldn't."
"We promised to be true to the cause."
"Yes; but the promise was got from us by force, and that isn't binding. I've heard my pater say so."
"Oh, he's in the glue line, and ought to know what's binding! Stop it, Plunger!"—as Plunger seized him once more by the ear. "That's the worst of you. You don't know a compliment when you hear one. Don't I wish my pater was in the glue line! It's fine stuff. Made out of horses' hoofs, isn't it? Well, go on. Not binding, you said. How do you make that out?"
"Haven't I said, stupid—because it was got from us by force? But don't take my word for it. Let's ask your cousin. Will that satisfy you?"
Harry at once consented. He still had the highest admiration for his cousin, notwithstanding the fact that he had been defeated by a Beetle. They returned to the school, where they were not long in finding Stanley, who had just been joined by Newall.
"We want to talk with you alone, if—if you wouldn't mind, Stan," said Harry.
"You don't think that I'm going to clear out for any of you Lower Form cubs, do you?" sneered Newall.
"Oh, you can speak before Newall as you would before me, Harry! Come, fire away!"
Harry still hesitated. He could not forget how Newall had served him when he first came there, but while he was hesitating Plunger began:
"This is what we want to know. Supposing any fellows in this school—we won't mention names—happened to be captured by the enemy, and supposing the enemy forced them into a—a——"
"Secret society," put in Harry, as Plunger came to a standstill.
"Yes, secret society. A kind of brotherhood—vendetta, with masks and knives and forks—daggers, I mean—and that sort of thing——"
"Now, look here, Master Plunger, stop plunging! Drop it, and come to the point!" said Stanley firmly. "What do you want to know? Come, Harry; you're not so gassy. Perhaps we can get some sense out of you."
Harry explained as well as he was able what they wanted to know. Stanley at once decided that a promise given under such circumstances was not binding, and his opinion was, of course, backed up by Newall, who was eager to know what this mystery could mean. Thus assured, Plunger and Harry told them all that had happened on the afternoon they had been captured by the "Mystic Brethren." As may be imagined, Stanley and Newall were greatly excited by the story—especially that portion of it referring to Paul.
"Now are you satisfied?" cried Newall triumphantly. "Didn't I always say what Percival was? He's not only a cur, but a traitor!"
And Stanley, who in days gone by would have fiercely resented the slightest reflection on Paul, allowed the words to go unchallenged.
"You're quite certain that it was Percival you saw?" he at length asked.
"Am I certain that I see you?" answered Plunger. "Besides, Harry saw him, too. Both of us couldn't be mistaken."
"There wasn't much mistake, Stan. I wish there had been. That makes the second time I've seen them together."
"If you don't believe us, you'd better put to him the question straight. Send for him now, and put him face to face with us. See if he'll deny it then!"
"I think you're right, Plunger. We'll send for Percival, and see what he has to say. You go and fetch him, Harry. You'll find him somewhere about the grounds.
"One moment. Don't be in a hurry. We've got an artful young gentleman to deal with, and if we want to find things out, and pay back the Bedes in their own coin, we shall have to be artful as well. We mustn't show our hand too soon."
"I don't quite understand."
"No; but I'll make all clear in a word or two. If we call in Percival, we shall not get much from him. It isn't likely he'll give himself away. He'll say that Plunger was mistaken; that it wasn't him, but somebody else who was talking to the fellow up at Bedes. What we've got to do is to meet craft with craft, and go one better than Percival at his own game."
"Hear, hear!" cried Plunger. "But how are you going to do it? Strikes me you'll have to get up very early in the morning to score off Percival."
"We sha'n't score if you keep that noisy tongue of yours wagging, Mr. Plunger. All you've got to do is to keep quiet till to-morrow evening, and then you can let it wag again as much as you please. My scheme is this: We've first got to make good your word about the flag. If we can get it from that shed in which you say it is, we can prove that you haven't been dreaming. With the flag in our possession, we'll call a meeting of the principal fellows from each Form down to the Third. You and Moncrief minor can tell the story. Percival can then say what he pleases. We can produce the flag to prove our case—and—there you are! Percival will be kicked out of Garside!"
Stanley did not speak. The chasm between him and Percival had gone on widening instead of narrowing, but it was no pleasure to him to hear those words. Percival kicked from Garside! Then Garside would no longer be Garside to him. Harry, too, was silent. He did not know why, but he began to think they were not doing the right thing by Percival. They were trying to trap him, and the one setting that trap was the one who hated him.
"A jolly good idea, Newall!" exclaimed Plunger enthusiastically. "Smart—real smart! But how are you going to work it? How are you going to get the flag?"
"To-morrow's Wednesday; so we've got the whole of the afternoon before us. You're supposed to meet the Beetles at half-past three, aren't you?"
"Yes; half-past three sharp."
"Well, we'll be beforehand—half an hour, say. That will give us plenty of time to get possession of the flag, and away with it before your brethren of the Mystic Circle put in an appearance."
"You—you won't want me?" asked Plunger anxiously. He had a keen recollection of what had happened at the shed the last time he was there.
"Of course we shall. You'll have to take us to the shed and show us what's inside it."
Plunger did not like this suggestion. Why couldn't Newall have selected Moncrief minor? But he could not very well raise any objection. So, making a virtue of necessity, he raised his eyebrows to their fullest extent, and said he should be "delighted."
Then came the question as to who should go with Plunger. It was not advisable to take too many, for fear of the risk of discovery. So Newall decided that only three should accompany Plunger—Stanley, Parfitt, and himself. Stanley would gladly have given way to anybody else, but Newall insisted that he should be one of the party. He seemed determined to leave no stone unturned to blacken Paul in the eyes of his one-time friend.
Stanley crept away as soon as he could to the solitude of his dormitory.
He was very wretched. He felt as though he were acting a mean part. It might be true that Paul was not the friend to him that he had at one time been—that he had gone over to the Bedes, and acted a mean part; but that was no reason why he should act a mean part, too. Two blacks did not make a white. "Percival will be kicked out of Garside!" Newall's words kept repeating themselves in his brain. He could not forget them. Percival would be kicked out of Garside, and he would be one of those who had helped to kick him out.
No, no; whatever wrong Paul had done him, he could not do that. But how could he prevent it? How could he put him on his guard? He thought for a long time; then he got a half-sheet of notepaper, and wrote on it in a disguised hand:
"Beware! Steer clear of Bedes. Plot on foot to turn you from Garside."
The next difficulty to get over was—how to get that note to Paul without rousing suspicion. It must be read by him, and him alone. He was a long time before he could think of any means of accomplishing this purpose; then he remembered that Paul was in the habit of reading a few verses every night before going to rest from a Bible given to him by his mother. He went to Paul's dormitory—the dormitory in which he had once slept, and to which he had often longed to get back.
Glancing cautiously in, he found that it was empty. He crept softly to Paul's locker, and drew out his Bible. There was a bookmark in it. He opened it at the bookmark. The first words that met his eyes were:
"Judge not, and ye shall not ye judged; condemn not, and ye shall not be condemned; forgive, and ye shall be forgiven.... With the same measure that ye mete, withal it shall be measured to you again."
Forgive, and ye shall be forgiven! The words seemed in a mist before Stanley's eyes. Pshaw! What had he to do with forgiveness?
His eyes went again to the Bible:
"With the same measure that ye mete, withal it shall be measured to you again."
He read the words thrice, then placed the note inside the Bible and closed it.
"He's sure to see it, I should think, and won't suspect who put it there," he told himself, as he stepped softly to the corridor.
Scarcely had he reached it when he heard a footstep coming along it.
Looking in the direction whence it came, he saw that it was he of whom he had been thinking—Paul Percival!
THE MISSING FLAG
Stanley did not wish to meet Paul. He might suspect his purpose in being there. There was no possibility of turning away, however, so he kept straight on, keeping as close to the wall as possible. Paul's head was bent to the ground. He seemed absorbed in thought, and passed by Stanley as though he had not seen him.
"I don't think he saw me," Stanley told himself. "He looked a bit worried, and I don't wonder at it. He can't have a very pleasant time of it."
For an instant Stanley felt inclined to turn back. "Forgive and ye shall be forgiven." Still the words he had just read were repeating themselves. Paul and he had not spoken for so long. A few words might clear up everything. Clear up everything? No. How was it possible to clear up that scene in the sand-pits? So Stanley's heart hardened again, and he went on.
Meanwhile Paul entered the dormitory, and drew from his pocket a note he had just found awaiting him at the porter's lodge. He had read it twice before, but he could not help reading it again.
"Meet me to-morrow (Wednesday), half-past two, at old elm, near sand-pits. Be sure and come. Very important."
This note was scribbled in pencil, and unsigned, but Paul knew the writing well enough. It was Wyndham's. What was it Wyndham wanted with him? What was it that was so important? Had he gained any information as to the missing flag? He was thinking over this note when he passed by Stanley, and it was this which had given to him that "worried" appearance that Stanley had noticed in his face.
He sat for some time musing over this letter, and then, to get away from it, drew from the locker his Bible. It opened, of course, at the place in which Stanley had placed his note. Paul unfolded and read it, with no small astonishment: "Beware! Steer clear of Bedes. Plot on foot to turn you from Garside."
Plot on foot to turn him from Garside! What could the plot be? This note was more puzzling than the other. Like that, too, it was unsigned; but this time Paul was beaten. The writing was unknown to him. He could not guess the writer, but he could see plainly enough that it was in a disguised hand.
Then he suddenly realized that the two notes clashed. The one was an invitation to meet a Bede; the other warned him to steer clear of Bedes. If he obeyed the one, he would have to disregard the other. What was he to do? He did not hesitate long. Wyndham he knew. His friendship had been proved. He knew nothing of this anonymous writer—the writer who professed to warn him of a hidden danger, but did so in a disguised hand, and had not the courage to put to it his name. He would keep the appointment with Wyndham, whatever happened.
So the next day, as soon as the clock had struck two, and he was free, Paul started off for the old elm, near the sand-pits. Punctual though he was, Wyndham was awaiting him.
"I'm so glad you've come, Percival," he said, as he came towards him and shook him warmly by the hand. "I've splendid news to tell you."
"The flag?" exclaimed Paul, speaking the thought that was uppermost in his mind.
"You've made a very good guess. Yes, the flag. I've got some very good news about it—very good news indeed. In fact, I rather fancy I know where it is."
"Where—where? Can we make for it?" exclaimed Paul, excited at the news.
"Wait a bit. Don't be in such a steaming hurry!" smiled Wyndham. "Before I say a word more, I must ask you not to make use of the information I'm going to give you against any of our fellows at Bede's."
Paul readily consented. To get possession of the flag was the chief thing he cared for. That accomplished, he could afford to be magnanimous.
"From the first I suspected that one of our fellows had a hand in it," went on Wyndham. "You remember that day when you were set upon by a dozen or so of the sweet cherubs from Bede's?"
"Only too well."
"Sorry to stir up painful memories. There was one amongst the number said to belong to the amphibia. Do you recollect that, too?"
"Of course I do!" laughed Paul. "Mellor, you mean—once a Gargoyle, now a distinguished Beetle? Recollect it? Who could forget it? It labelled him to a T. You don't mean to say——"
"Yes, I do," smiled Wyndham. "He and another Beetle, whose name I needn't mention, captured the flag between them. It was a plucky thing to do, and when I found out what had happened, I don't think I should have troubled any more about it, only I remembered that there was a fellow at Garside who was standing alone, fighting against the wall."
"Don't interrupt. This fellow was rather anxious to get hold of the missing flag; and so, out of respect for him, and not for any of the mean cads who hail from the same place, I persuaded Mellor & Co. to hand it over. It was not easy work, I can tell you. They felt that I was robbing them of their rightful prey. But at last they came round, and——"
"You got possession of the flag!" cried Paul. "How splendid of you, Wyndham! Instead of getting out of debt, I get deeper and deeper into it. But where is the flag?"
"Can't you guess?" smiled Wyndham.
"Guess?" repeated Paul, puzzled.
"Yes. I've done my part; that's your part," answered Wyndham, enjoying his mystification. "S'posing we go for the old game—'Hot boiled beans and very good butter'? Hallo!" The smile died from his face as his glance went to the roadway. "Here are some of your lot! They haven't got wind of our meeting, have they?"
Paul glanced in the direction of the roadway. Sure enough, there were four Garsiders coming along the road—Newall, Parfitt, Plunger, and Stanley. As his glance went to the road Parfitt caught sight of him; then all four stopped and glanced in the direction where Paul and Wyndham were standing. An animated conversation took place for a minute. It seemed as though they were undecided how to act. Then they came to a decision, and walked quickly on.
"I'm not sorry they didn't come, though I should have been pleased enough to meet them at any other time," said Wyndham contemptuously. "Let's get on with our game. Now, then, are you ready? 'Hot boiled beans, very good butter; ladies and gentlemen, come to supper.' At present you're frightfully cold, freezing, perfect icicle."
He rubbed his hands together, and flung them across his chest, and blew upon his fingers as though he were suffering from the same complaint; and then he laughed again at Paul's mystified expression as he gazed round. There was no sign of the flag. At length Paul's glance rested upon the decayed old elm-tree, near which they were standing.
"You're getting warmer," smiled Wyndham. Then, as Paul walked towards the tree: "In fact, quite hot."
Paul put his hand into the hollow of the tree, and drew out the missing flag, wrapped in a covering of American leather-cloth, just as it had been when Mellor and Crick had taken it to St. Bede's.
"What can I say, Wyndham?" he asked, in a thick voice as he stood there, with the prize in his hand. For the moment there seemed to be a mist before his eyes.
"Say? Nothing, of course! All you've got to do is to get back to Garside as soon as you can, for I shouldn't be surprised if those fellows we saw just now mean mischief."
The anonymous letter flashed into Paul's mind as Wyndham spoke—"Beware! Steer clear of Bedes. Plot on foot to turn you from Garside."
Could it be that the four he had seen were concerned in that plot? It was quite possible to believe it of Newall and Parfitt—they had always been his enemies—but Stanley—No, he could not believe it of him. However, he scarcely cared what happened to him now he had gained possession of the flag. He would be able to redeem his promise. The main thing was to get it back to its old place on the turret.
So he took Wyndham's advice, and started back to the college without further delay.
Meanwhile the three who had started from Garside, under the guidance of Plunger, for the purpose of capturing the flag on their own account, had passed Wyndham and Paul, as we have seen, on the way. They little suspected the purpose of that meeting. They never imagined that it had anything to do with the flag.
Parfitt, the first to catch sight of the two, gloated over the discovery. Stanley's heart fell. He now saw with his own eyes that Paul was really on friendly terms with Wyndham. He had taken no heed of his note of warning. He had treated it with scorn.
"He's playing a deep game," said Parfitt. "I believe he means turning over Garside for Bede's, like Mellor did."
"I believe so, too; but he can't do it before next term, and we must get our blow in before then. It all depends on getting hold of that flag. Now, then, Plunger, buck up!"
Plunger increased his pace, and it was not long before he reached the shed in which he and Moncrief minor had been initiated into the "Noble Order of Beetles." They reached it, as arranged, fully half an hour before the time appointed for Plunger to meet "the mystic brethren." So, as they hoped and expected, they found it empty.
"Now, Plunger, where do you say the flag is? Quick! We've got no time to lose!" said Newall.
Plunger did not answer. He stood dumfounded. There was the place where he had been initiated into the "mystic brotherhood." There was the place where he had stood and looked up at the "mystic emblem," and had discovered to his amazement that it was the missing school flag. He rubbed his eyes then; he rubbed them now. The flag had gone! Gone! Had it ever been there? Was that scene, after all, as it had more than once seemed, only a dream?
"Wake up, sleepy!" cried Newall, kicking him on the shins to rouse him. "Where's the flag?"
"It was there, just over my head," answered Plunger, pointing to the roof above him; "but it isn't there now."
They searched the shed, but could find no trace of the missing flag. There was a large box in which it might be hidden, but that was locked, and there was no time to force it.
"You're not making fun of us, Plunger, are you?" demanded Newall, clutching him fiercely by the arm.
"Really, I'm not."
"Well, look here, you'll have to meet these fellows again, just as though you'd turned up in answer to their note, and see if you can worm out anything about the flag. If we're seen here it'll spoil the game. But we won't be far off. If you want any help, yell out, and we'll see what we can do for you. Do you understand?"
Plunger understood perfectly, but, all the same, he did not like the prospect of meeting the brethren of the mystic order again. However, there was nothing for it but to give in, so he gave in with as good grace as possible.
HOW THE FLAG FOUND ITS WAY BACK TO THE TURRET
Paul got safely back to Garside with his prize. He mounted with it to his dormitory and undid the covering in which it was encased. Yes, there was the old flag, none the worse for its temporary absence from the school. Paul's heart beat the quicker. He was as proud of the flag as any boy at Garside, and as he looked at it he realized in some degree the feelings of a soldier when he has recaptured the colours from the enemy.
Folding it up again, he hid it under one of the cubicles, and went in search of the boys who had been with him in the dormitory when the loss of the flag was first discovered.
He was not long in finding Moncrief minor, who was wandering about the ground like a lost spirit. He was unhappy at the absence of his companion in mischief, the redoubtable Plunger. He began to think that he had been left out in the cold. What a hero Plunger would be if, through him, the flag were brought back again to the school!
As he was thus thinking he saw Paul coming towards him. He quickly turned his head and walked off as though he had not seen him, but Paul came up with him in a stride or two, and, clutching him by the arm, twisted him round till he was in front of him.
"You needn't run away, Harry. I want you to do me a favour."
"What is it?" asked Harry, reluctantly.
"You remember that afternoon when the flag was lost?"
Harry looked up quickly. What was coming out about the flag now? Ha, ha, he guessed what it was! Percival had begun to smell a rat. He meant trying to pump him, so he answered cautiously.
"Of course I do, and so do most of the fellows here, I'm thinking. I wonder if we shall ever get it back again?"
"I wonder. It was Viner who brought us the news, I remember, and besides yourself there were several other fellows in the dormitory at the time—Baldry, Plunger, Sedgefield, Bember. I want you to get together again the same fellows if you can, and bring them to my dorm. Would you mind doing that for me?"
"What for?" was the curious answer.
"Oh, I'll explain what for when you're there. Will you do it?"
Harry thought for a moment before answering. What was Percival's game? He was curious to know; but there couldn't be any harm in doing as he asked.
"I can't bring Plunger—he's got something special in hand, but I'll hunt up some of the others, and bring them along with me, if I can."
So he ran off, and Paul returned to the dormitory. Half an hour elapsed before he heard the welcome sound of footsteps on the stairs. Harry had succeeded in capturing three out of the five, Sedgefield, Baldry, Viner. They were just as curious as Harry was to know what Paul could want with them.
"I'm much obliged to you for coming along," said Paul, "it's really very good of you, considering the dead-set against me. But I wanted to get together the fellows who were here when Viner brought up the bad news about the flag. I wish all six were here, but I must be satisfied with four out of them. At any rate, there's enough of you to remember what I said. I said, you'll remember, that through me the school had eaten dirt."
"Oh, yes, we remember that well enough," said Viner bitterly, "because it was so true."
"So true; yes, Viner. As your memory's so good on that point, perhaps you can remember what else was said?"
"Of course I do. We all do, for one or two of us have laughed over it since. You talked some nonsense about the school suffering through you, and through you being lifted up again."
"And that you meant getting the flag back again, and putting it in its old place on the turret," added Sedgefield.
"You're right, Viner, and so are you, Sedgefield. I'm glad you remember things so well. I made that promise, uncertain whether or not I should be able to carry it out, but determined to do my best. Well, by God's help, I'm able to keep my word."
To the profound amazement of the boys, he drew out the flag.
"Where did you find it? Where did you get it from?" cried Viner.
Harry did not speak. He could only stare at the flag. Was it really the old flag? There could be little doubt about that. How, then, had Percival come by it? Had he stolen a march upon Plunger and the others?
"Where did I get it from? Well, that's my secret for the present. I've got the flag, and kept my promise. Now I want you to mount with me to the turret, so that we can put it back again in its old resting-place."
He waved the flag over his head, and Baldry and Sedgefield gave a cheer. Harry echoed the cheer in a dazed, bewildered fashion. He had not yet recovered from his surprise. Viner remained silent. They followed Paul to the turret, where once again the flag was placed on the summit with another cheer.
Meanwhile Plunger was inside the shed, awaiting with no small trepidation the arrival of the "Mystic Brethren." He had not long to wait before six of the masked brethren entered. The foremost of these was Mellor, followed by five of his companions. They had put on their masks outside the door, so that Plunger was just as much in the dark as to who they were as ever.
"Gargoyle with the eyebrows, greeting!" exclaimed Mellor.
"Greeting," repeated the other masks, bowing.
"Now, then, greet," came a peremptory cry, as Plunger received the point of two or three knees in different parts of his body, which sent him staggering round the circle. It revived painful memories of a similar performance on his part on a previous occasion, and he hastily stammered out, "Gr-gr-greeting," and jerked his head in imitation of the brethren.
"We are glad thou hast obeyed the call; but where is thy brother novice—Henry Moncrief?"
"He—he's otherwise—engaged," stammered Plunger, not knowing what to say.
"Otherwise engaged! Know this, Gargoyle with the wiry thatch, no engagement should keep him from answering the call of the Mystic Brethren. It shall be inquired into."
As he spoke, Plunger saw, with fear and trembling, that one of the number had drawn from the box the weapons he so well remembered—the sticks with bladders attached to the ends. He guessed what was coming, and it came.
"Describe the Mystic Circle!" cried Mellor.
It was useless resisting. Down flopped Plunger on his knees and hands, and crawled round the ring as quickly as possible three times, while the bladders showered upon his head with amazing rapidity. Then the brethren joined hands, and galloping wildly round him, repeated as before:
"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-crawly, Shivery-shaky we will haul thee."
And once again, to the strains of this extraordinary incantation, Plunger was sent whirling about the ring from side to side, as though he were an indiarubber ball. The last time two of them—Harry and himself—divided honours; but this time Plunger had it all to himself. Owing to this fact the brethren were able to give him their sole and undivided attention, and they did it with such effect that Plunger began to wonder whether he was himself or someone else.
"Dost thou like the Mystic Circle?" inquired Mellor, when they paused.
"Oh, y-y-yes," stammered Plunger, with a painful attempt to laugh, "very much." And then he added quickly, as he saw the uplifted bladders ready to descend: "But—but if you've got any more of it, you might keep it for my brother novice."
"It shall be as thou askest, Gargoyle with the eyebrows," said Mellor. "And now to business."
"To business? Do they call what I've just gone through pleasure?" thought Plunger, as he waited in fear and trembling what was to come next.
"Thou belongest to the Third Form?"
"A wonderful scholar art thou, Gargoyle with the wiry thatch," was the cutting comment.
"Oh, I could be much higher in the school," exclaimed Plunger, blushing to the roots of the "wiry thatch"; "but I don't like the boys in the upper Forms, you know. They put too much side on for me."
"You look a modest, retiring kind of fellow. That's the reason the Mystic Brethren have taken such a fancy to thee."
Down came the bladders on Plunger's back as tokens of brotherly affection. Plunger felt flattered at this testimony of the brethren to his virtues, but he wished at the same time they had expressed it in some other way.
"It's very kind of you," he gasped.
"Though thou dost despise the bounders of the Upper Form, peradventure thou wouldst not mind taking a small present from the Mystic Brethren of the Fifth?"
"A present?" repeated Plunger, pricking up his ears. "Not at all. Shall be delighted to make myself useful."
"Let me see. The head boy of the Fifth is one named Hasluck, is he not, wearer of goggles?"
"Is there not also in that same Form one named Leveson, famous timekeeper, owner of a stop-watch?"
Plunger nodded, marvelling at the accuracy of the brethren's information. At a sign from Mellor, one of the masks, who was no other than Crick, left the circle, and brought from the corner of the shed a long parcel, wrapped in American leather-cloth—a facsimile, in fact, of the parcel which Paul had received from Wyndham a little earlier.
"Give this to Hasluck, in the presence of the timekeeper Leveson and as many other menials of the Fifth as thou canst find. It is a souvenir from thy brethren to celebrate thy initiation to the Mystic Order. Dost thou understand?"
Fluttering with excitement, Plunger clutched the parcel, and declared that he understood perfectly.
He had not got far on the homeward road before he was rejoined by his companions, who had been lying in wait for him behind the friendly shelter of a hedge.
"I've got it!" he gasped.
"Got what?" demanded Newall.
"The flag!" he cried, flourishing the precious parcel.
"Bravo, Plunger!" exclaimed Newall.
"Hurrah!" shouted Parfitt. "How did you get it?"
"Presented to me in honour of my initiation to the Mystic Order."
"Let's have a look at it."
"It mustn't be opened till we get to the school. Hasluck's got to open it, in the presence of Leveson."
As Plunger had faithfully followed out their instructions, they could not very well object to this condition, so they ran by his side, questioning him by the way as to what had happened to him in his absence. Plunger answered to the best of his ability, colouring considerably the part he had played in the ceremony, and the esteem in which he was held by the brethren.
"Why—why, what's that?" exclaimed Stanley, coming to a dead stop. The others did the same. Their eyes followed his to the turret. There was the old flag flying from the top!
Plunger turned pale; then a sickly hue went over his face as he looked from the flag to the parcel in his hand.
FRIENDS IN COUNCIL
Plunger's bewilderment was shared by his companions as they saw the old flag fluttering on the turret. What had happened? How on earth had it got there? Newall's hand went out to Plunger's ear.
"Thought you said you'd got the flag, ass?"
"Oh, oh, oh! Le' go my ear!" roared Plunger, as he gazed first on the turret, then on the mysterious parcel in his hand. He firmly believed that the Mystic Brethren had given the flag into his care, that it was inside the parcel when he had set out from the shed, but that by some magical influence it had managed to transfer itself from the parcel to the turret. Yet there was something still inside the parcel without a doubt. What was that something?
"Yes, bounder!" exclaimed Parfitt, helping himself to the other ear. "Got the flag—that's what you told us! Presented to you in honour of your initiation! What's your game, blockhead?"
"Oh, oh, oh! Le' go my ear! That flag up there must be a beastly fraud, or there must be two of 'em! Le' go my ear, will you!"
Plunger began to think that the sympathetic attention he had received at the hands of the enemy was only to be equalled by the polite attention of his friends.
"Didn't you say you'd got the flag in that parcel, Plunger?" asked Stanley, in a quieter tone, because he detested bullying himself, and did not like it practised on others.
"Yes, I did, Moncrief!" persisted Plunger. "That's a twin up there, or an imitation, or something of the sort. Get Hasluck and Leveson, and I'll prove it to you."
"We're not going to wait for Hasluck or Leveson! You've gammoned us enough! Give it up!"
Newall snatched the parcel from Plunger's hand. It was carefully bound round with cord. Too impatient to untie it, Newall severed the cord with his knife. As he did so a small bundle of "swishers"—long sticks, such as were used by the boys of St. Bede's for "beating the bounds"—fell from the cloth. They were bound round in turn with a sheet of white paper, and on this paper was written in a bold hand:
"Your dull ass will only go with beating. You've provided the ass. We've provided the swishers. We deliver both safely into your hands. Times to be called by the Gargoyle—Leveson—with the stop-watch."
Disappointed though they were, the boys standing around Plunger burst into laughter. Plunger had been skilfully hoaxed. Under the impression that he was carrying the flag, he had delivered into their hands the formidable-looking swishers, with precise directions as to the method in which they were to be employed. Plunger's self-assurance for once gave way. Where was he standing? He scarcely knew. The ground was crumbling under his feet.
"Well, Plunger, if you don't take the cake, and the bun, and the biscuit!" came the cutting voice of Newall. "My word, how the Beetles must be sniggering at you! The flag, didn't you say?"—holding up the swishers. "Oh, oh, it's too funny! Given in honour of your initiation to the Mystic Order! Oh, oh! Help yourself, Parfitt; help yourself, Moncrief!"
He tossed them a swisher each, and selected one for himself, the quality of which he tested by flipping it in the air, much too near the crestfallen Plunger to be pleasant.
"Thanks, Newall!" said Parfitt, putting the swisher he had received to a similar test on the other side of Plunger. "Wasn't to be opened till you got to the school, was it, Plunger, in the presence of Leveson—eh?"
"Yes, in the presence of Leveson!" repeated Newall grimly. "Cut and find him, Plunger, and tell him to be sure and bring his stop-watch."
Down came the swishers—twice, thrice. Plunger did not require any second bidding. He did "cut." His speed would have astonished himself had he had time to think about it, but he hadn't. His one great desire was to put as great a distance as possible between himself and Newall and Parfitt. Moncrief major had been more considerate of his feelings, and had not made use of his swisher.
"Where can I hide myself," panted Plunger—"where?"
He was not only sore and wounded in spirit, but in body as well.
And here perhaps it is necessary to add a brief word of explanation as to how it was Plunger came in possession of the extraordinary parcel which had drawn upon him so much ridicule. When, with much reluctance, Mellor and his friends had given up the flag to Wyndham, they decided, by way of compensation, to prepare a parcel that closely resembled it. If the flag had been taken from them, they did not wish to be defrauded of their due share of sport at the hands of the enemy. So the note had been sent from the "Mystic Brethren," which, by a roundabout method, had drawn Plunger to the shed. What followed has been seen.
To return to the scene outside Garside. So soon as Newall and Parfitt had ceased chasing Plunger they turned to Stanley.
"You don't seem to be enjoying the fun, Moncrief?" said Parfitt.
"No; can't quite see where the fun lies," answered Stanley gravely. "Seems to me that Plunger's not the only ass that wants beating. We might use those sticks very well on ourselves. We've been just as much sold as he has. We've been on a fool's errand. We were going to bring the flag back, and the flag's come back without us."
"Yes; the flag's come back, sure enough," answered Newall. "And how the dickens did it come back?—that's the puzzle. Hallo! There's your young cousin. He ought to know something about it. Moncrief—Moncrief minor!" he shouted.
Harry, who was crossing the grounds at the time, turned in answer to the shouts and came towards the three boys.
"Got the flag?" he asked innocently.
"No cheek, kid, else we'll trounce you like we've just trounced your friend Plunger!" retorted Newall sharply.
"Who brought the flag back? How did it get there?"—glancing to the turret.
"Oh, it got there by a friend of yours—Paul Percival," answered Harry, hitting back. "He's beaten you, just like you've beaten my friend Plunger."
Newall scowled, and would have treated him to a taste of the swisher, only he recollected that he was Stanley's cousin.
"Be serious, Harry," said Stanley. "Percival, did you say? Do you really mean that the flag was brought back by him?"
"I am serious, Stan—never more so in my life. The flag was brought back by Percival, and put in its old place on the turret by Percival."
He then told them precisely what had happened. The three boys listened in silence. Percival had stolen a march upon them, that was quite clear. Stanley wondered whether his note of warning had put him on his guard. The thought that it had been of some service might have pleased Stanley, but the memory of Percival talking to Wyndham hardened his heart against him once more. He smothered the old feeling of friendship that would keep trying to assert itself, in spite of himself.
"I told you that we should have to meet craft with craft!" cried Newall, breaking the silence. "But so far Percival has beaten us. Plunger's an ass, but he was quite right for once when he said that we'd have to get up very early in the morning to score off Percival. What's our next move?"
As neither Moncrief major nor Parfitt responded, Newall went on:
"We saw Percival talking to a particular friend of yours, Moncrief." Stanley winced at the cold, cutting words. "That was a couple of hours ago. At that time the flag was not on the turret. We can all answer as to that, I think?"
Stanley and Parfitt nodded assent.
"What happens? In the interval Percival returns to Garside with the flag. Where did the flag come from? I think the answer's simple enough—it must have come into Percival's possession by the help of your particular friend, the Beetle who was so kind to you at the sand-pits, Moncrief."
Every word had its venom, and distilled its poison in the breast of Stanley.
"Well, well, what of it?" he demanded hoarsely.
"What of it?" repeated Newall, raising his eyebrows and regarding him with feigned astonishment. "It's all clear enough, I should think. The whole business is an artfully-concocted plot between Percival and Wyndham. The flag disappears. How it disappears is a mystery. No one knows—least of all Percival. But he makes use of some high-sounding words in the presence of a few of the fellows—flag gone, by Heaven's help he'll bring it back again! The fellows cheer him to the echo. A short time elapses, during which the mystery deepens; then Percival turns up with the flag. He has kept his word. More cheers. Oh, yes, it's all clear—clear as day! Don't you think so, Moncrief?"
"One moment," answered Stanley, passing his hand over his forehead. "I'm a bit dazed somehow. Let me understand. You believe that—that——"
"That the hand which brought back the flag is the same hand that took it away."
"Of course!" assented Parfitt. "As you say, Newall, it's as clear as day. Nothing could be clearer."
"Nothing could be clearer," echoed Stanley, as his head fell to his breast.
Harry was silent. Like his cousin, there had always been deep down in his heart a real affection and sympathy for Paul. He had always hoped that he would be able to reinstate himself in the good opinion of the school; so it was he had cheered with the rest when Paul returned with the flag. It was all very mysterious, it was true; but Harry had shut his eyes on the mystery. The flag had come back to the school. Paul had brought it. He had made good his word. That was enough. He would be again the Paul he had once known—the Paul Stanley had known and loved.
"What's to be done?" demanded Stanley.
"Well, we can't do anything to-day. Let's wait developments to-morrow. Mr. Weevil's bound to take some sort of action."
"Oh, there you go again!" cried Stanley impatiently. "Putting things on. Yesterday it was the same."
"How do you mean?"
"I wanted to make straight for Percival. 'No,' said you; 'don't be in a hurry. We mustn't show our hands too soon.' And so on, and so on. Oh, I'm sick of it all—sick of everything—sick of waiting!"
Harry looked up at his cousin. There was a note of passionate revolt in his voice, a fierce light in his eyes; both hands were clenched, and he seemed to sway to and fro, as though no longer master of himself.
"For that matter, so am I," said Newall softly. "Perhaps I was wrong, Moncrief, in putting things off. I dare say I was. You gave in to me yesterday, I give in to you to-day; that's only fair. What do you want, old fellow?"
Newall placed a hand quite lovingly on Stanley's shoulder.
"Want? No more of this wretched waiting game! Let's go to Percival straight—straight! Do you hear?" came hoarsely from Stanley's lips.
"Yes, I hear; and I am with you."
And Newall exchanged a swift smile of triumph with Parfitt.
As soon as Paul had accomplished his purpose, and seen the flag waving in its old place on the turret, he went to the room of Mr. Weevil. He knew well enough that inquiries would be made respecting the return of the flag, and therefore he took the straightforward course of going at once to headquarters.
"Come in!" came the voice of the master in response to the knock on his door.
He was pacing to and fro the room—the same room in which Paul had seen him on that never-to-be-forgotten night with Zuker. He stopped as Paul entered, and regarded him in his usual manner—through half-closed eyes.
"You, Percival! What is it you want with me?" came the sharp answer.
"I only came to tell you that the flag is back in its old place, sir."
"I know—I know! And you brought it back, I understand? I meant inquiring into the matter. I'm glad you've forestalled me. You want to explain—eh? That's what you've come for—eh?"
"That's what I've come for, sir," answered Paul, astonished that he should have gained such speedy information as to what had happened. Sometimes, indeed, it seemed as though those half-closed eyes not only saw further than other eyes, but that they had the faculty of double sight as well.
"And yet I don't know whether I can call it an explanation, for there are things which cannot be explained."
"Not explained? How do you mean, sir?" came the sharp answer.
"I received the flag back from a friend of mine—a proved friend—on the solemn promise that I would not make use of the information he had given me to get any of the fellows who had taken it into a scrape."
"Why did you make that promise?"
"Because it was the only way of getting the flag back."
"And that is all the information you can give me?"
"That is all, sir."
"And you call it an explanation? Really, sir, it is one of the most extraordinary I have ever heard! And you expect me to accept it?" demanded the master, facing Paul, and looking him fully in the eyes.
"I trust so, sir, because I can give no other—have no other to give."
Mr. Weevil did not at once answer, but took two or three more turns across the room.
"I believe you to be a lad of honour, Percival," he said, stopping once more, "and a lad of sense. Let me put it to you, then, as a lad of honour and of sense. Supposing I am perfectly ready to accept your statement, do you really believe that the school will be as ready to accept it?"
"The school might be curious to know more, sir, but if you accept my explanation as sufficient, I don't see why anybody should question it."
"Yes, yes; that might be well enough. But there have been one or two rather mysterious things that have happened within the last month or two which have never been cleared up. There was the breaking open of my desk, for instance, and the torn pages in the Black Book."
"I could mention a still greater mystery that wants clearing up," thought Paul, as his mind went back to the afternoon when he had seen the master enter the strange hiding-place of Zuker.
"The culprit in that case has never been found out. It still remains a mystery," continued Mr. Weevil. "Then came the mysterious disappearance of the flag, and its equally mysterious return. The school will be getting suspicious—uneasy. If no better explanation is forthcoming than that you have given me, suspicion will grow—I am certain of it."
Paul saw that the master was right. Still, he had no intention of giving up his secret.
"I have given my word, sir," he answered firmly. "You would not have me break it?"
"You said that you have received the flag from a friend, if my memory serves me—a proved friend?"
"May I ask in what way his friendship has been proved?"
How could Paul answer him? How could he tell the man before him in what way Wyndham had proved his friendship to him? Suddenly, it flashed into Paul's mind that the bold course was the best.
"When I was home last vacation, sir, a gentleman had an accident with his horse. He asked me to take a packet for him to Mr. Moncrief, the father of Moncrief minor. I took the packet. On the way I was set on by two ruffians. I got away from them, but they followed me, and would have got the packet from me had it not been for the friend I speak of."
Mr. Weevil's eyes began closing as Paul was speaking. When he finished they opened again.
"What did this friend do?"
"Hid me till the ruffians had gone."
"Good! And that enabled you to get the packet to Mr. Moncrief?"
"Excellent! But, do you know, Percival, this really seems a stranger story than the other."
"Perhaps so, sir; but I can prove every word of it, if you like. By your permission, I will send for Mr. Moncrief——"
"No, no; that is altogether unnecessary!" said the master quickly. "Strange though the story is, I accept every word of it—every word. The friend you speak of was indeed a friend in need. You must keep your word to him—it would be an act of baseness to break it. I did not know the facts, you see. You may leave the rest to me."
Paul's heart bounded joyfully. The bold course had been the right one. It had succeeded where a weaker course might have utterly failed.
"Thank you, sir. It is very kind of you."
Paul was about to withdraw, when the master called him back.
"Let me see, there was a letter came for you while you were out. There it is in the rack."
Paul took the letter from the rack as Mr. Weevil turned to his books. Again his heart gave a great bound. One glance at it told him who it was from. It was the letter he had been so anxiously awaiting from Mr. Walter Moncrief.
"It is for you, isn't it?" Mr. Weevil asked, glancing into the boy's eager face.
"Yes, sir," answered Paul, wondering whether the master suspected who it was from or had any knowledge of its contents. He inspected the envelope as he hastened to his dormitory. No; it did not seem to have been tampered with. Mr. Weevil could not have seen its contents. On reaching his room, he tore open the envelope, and read:
"My dear Paul,—I received your first letter, but was away from home at the time, so was unable to answer it. Pardon my delay. You need not worry about the man Zuker. I am kept informed as to his movements.
"With regard to your master Mr. Weevil, I quite agree with you—I cannot think that he has anything to do with a traitor to his country, though appearances may be against him. At any rate, till anything is distinctly proved, give him the respect due to a scholar and a gentleman.
"To turn to other and more agreeable matters. I trust that Harry is getting on well. He seems too busy to write much. And when he does write, it's nothing but 'Plunger, Plunger, Plunger,' from start to finish. You would fancy there was nobody else but Plunger in existence. Tell him that when he can get away from Plunger we shall be very glad to hear from him again.
"I know the great friendship there is between you and my nephew Stanley. I only hope that Harry will find as good and worthy a friend. Tell Stanley that he has to come here during next vacation, and bring you with him. I think we shall be able to provide you with plenty of amusement, though I can't promise you it will be of so exciting a kind as you had last vacation.—Your sincere friend,
A great feeling of relief came over Paul when he read the first part of this letter. There was nothing to worry about Zuker. Mr. Moncrief was kept informed of his movements; and yet, and yet——If Mr. Moncrief knew of his movements, why, in the name of wonder, did he not arrest him? But perhaps there were reasons against it. In any case, the answer was satisfactory, and he felt relieved.
It was with far different feelings he read the last part of the letter.
"I know the great friendship existing between you and Stanley," Paul read again, with sorrow. "I only hope that Harry will find as good a friend."
And the message? What was he to do with the message Mr. Moncrief had asked him to deliver to Stanley? He turned the letter over and over in his hand. He must deliver it to him somehow.
"Stanley must answer it; not I. I will give it to his cousin."
As he passed along the corridor a deep groan came from one of the dormitories. It sounded like some one in pain. He stopped and listened. A few seconds more, and the groaning was repeated. He opened the door softly and looked in. The dormitory was to all appearances empty.
"Strange! My ears must have deceived me," thought Paul.
He was on the point of retreating when the sound came again to his ears.
"No; I wasn't mistaken," he said, stepping softly into the room and closing the door after him. "It was somebody, but who?"
He looked round, puzzled. There was no one visible. He stood perfectly still and waited. A few seconds more, and the groaning was repeated. But this time he detected whence it came. It came from under one of the cubicles. He crossed to it and looked underneath. A boy was huddled up on the floor. One glance was sufficient to tell him who it was—it was Master Plunger.
"Here. Plunger, come out of that!"
Plunger did not attempt to move.
"Come out of that, I tell you!"
As Plunger still refused to move, Paul took him by the leg and hauled him out.
Such a woebegone Plunger it was! His wiry thatch was more dishevelled than usual. The eyebrows seemed to have made a more desperate attempt than ever to invade the territory of the forehead. The self-assurance which had been the distinguishing mark of Plunger's manner had gone.
"Le' me go—le' me go!" he groaned. "I want to die!"
"Die!" Paul could scarcely refrain from laughing. "There's not much of that about you! You're not one of those whom 'the gods love,' so you'll never die young, Plunger. What have you been up to? I believe you've been smoking."
This accusation brought Plunger to a sitting posture on the bed.
"I haven't been smoking—I haven't been smoking! It's the flag!"
"What about the flag?"
"I angled for it, and thought I'd hooked it; but I hadn't. Some other fellow had; so instead of hooking the flag I got a beastly swishing. That's not all. I shall get roasted all round, and, of course, the Two J.'s will be poking fun at me in the 'Gargoyle Record.' I'd like to know who the fellow was who got the flag. Have you heard?"
"I have heard, but I haven't time to go into it just now. Your friend Moncrief minor can tell you all about it. Cheer up, Plunger, and don't talk any more about dying."
Paul hurried off, leaving Plunger to digest the scanty information he had given him as best he could.
"Now for Stan!" he said, as he made his way to the common room, but little dreaming what was there in store for him.
THE STORM BREAKS
As Paul approached the common-room, the sound of voices came through the open door, and clear above the hubbub rose the voice of some one making free use of his name. He knew the voice well enough. It was Stanley's. Why were they discussing him?
On entering the room, the voices ceased as by magic. Every eye was turned in his direction. Several boys were gathered round the fireplace. Foremost in the group were Newall, Parfitt, and Stanley.
"I thought I heard my name?" Paul exclaimed, as he stepped into the room.
"Quite right," said Stanley, coming from the group and confronting him. "I've been looking for you."
Paul was on the point of saying that he also had been looking for Stanley, but the silence that followed Stanley's words, the concentrated gaze of that group of boys, and, above all, the face of Stanley himself—white, yet with a burning, feverish light in the eyes—kept back the words.
"Looking for me?" he repeated.
"Yes; I did hope that I should never have to speak to you again, but one or two things that have just happened make me. All the fellows here know how much it's against the grain."
Paul's face fell. He had come in search of Stanley with the hope of bringing about a reconciliation. That hope receded in an instant to the far distance.
"If it's against the grain, I wonder you should trouble," he could not help answering.
"Oh, we have to swallow things we don't like sometimes." Then he broke off into a tone of banter. "So you've brought the flag back to Garside?"
Paul did not answer. He was only conscious that the group had drawn closer to him, and that Stanley's eyes were burning at a fiercer heat. It seemed some other than Stanley who was speaking. He had assumed the tone and manner of Newall; but he was forcing himself into a part which did not suit him, so that he acted it badly.
"The worst of Percival is that he's so modest. He doesn't know what a smart thing he's done," went on Stanley. "It isn't to be wondered at that the kids of the Third and Fourth have been cheering him like mad. Why should we be left out in the cold, eh?"
"Why?" echoed Parfitt. "Let's give him a rouser."
Parfitt led off the cheers—cheers which fell with a hollow sound on Paul's ears, for he knew well enough they were only mocking him.
"When we hear about a smart thing, we're naturally anxious to know how it was done," jeered Parfitt.
"Naturally," echoed Newall, followed by cries of assent from the rest.
"Order! Order for Percival!" exclaimed Stanley, holding up his hand for silence.
Silence instantly reigned. You might have heard a pin drop as they waited for Paul to speak; but they waited in vain. He neither spoke nor moved. He was not thinking of himself, nor of the boys that stood around him. He had ears and eyes for Stanley, and no other. It was a transformed Stanley—not the Stanley he had once known.
"Lost your tongue?" cried Stanley, breaking the silence. "Come, out with it. We can't wait here all day! How did you manage to get hold of the flag? Who had it, and how did you get it back to Garside? Don't be so awfully modest? You've hidden your light under a bushel too long."
"The flag is back at Garside," answered Paul firmly, ignoring the taunt. "For the rest you had better ask Mr. Weevil. I don't owe any explanation to you or any other fellow in the Form!"
He turned away, but Stanley sprang between him and the door.
"That won't do? You do owe us an explanation, and I mean having it!"
There was more of sorrow than anger in Paul's voice, but to the sensitive ears of Stanley, strung to the highest tension, it sounded strangely like contempt.
"I! What were you doing with the Beetle we saw you with near the sand-pits this afternoon?"
"The Beetle you ran away from, you know," added Newall. "The Beetle you left Moncrief to fight for you!"
This wholly unnecessary piece of information sent the scarlet back for a moment into the white face of Stanley. His hands opened spasmodically; then closed in a firmer grip than before.
The gibe acted differently on Paul. He recalled that Stanley had really suffered for him; he recalled too, the note of warning that had been left for him in his dormitory. Perhaps, after all, it had been written by Stanley? The Stanley he had once known as a friend. And there came over him the old longing to clasp him by the hand.
"I will try to explain to you if you will meet me somewhere alone," he said, drawing near to Stanley, and speaking in a little more than a whisper.
"Speak out! I want no secrets!" cried Stanley.
"All the fellows in the Form have as much right to hear as I have! What I can hear they can hear! I don't want to go about sneaking and whispering in corners!"
Murmurs of applause greeted this expression of opinion.
"If that's the way you look at it," answered Paul sorrowfully, "the thing's ended. I've nothing more to say."
"But I have, and you must hear—must!" repeated Stanley, with emphasis, as Paul tried to pass him. "It's your honour I'm thinking of, as much as the honour of the school. Do you know what they are saying?"
"I don't know or care," came the swift answer. "As for my honour, it can very well take care of itself."
"Like it did at the sand-pits," put in Parfitt, amid an outburst of laughter.
Paul bit his lip to keep back the angry words that sprang to his tongue. And the gibe went again as a poisoned shaft to the wound that was lying as a canker in the breast of Stanley.
"Well, we'll leave your honour out of it, if you don't care to stick up for it. But there's the honour of the school, and do you know what they're saying? They're saying that the flag business was all a dodge—that it's been engineered between you and the Beetle you would not stand up to in the sand-pits!"
"Engineered! How do you mean?" demanded Paul, staggered by this fresh accusation.
"That it was all arranged between you and the Beetle."
"I—I can't quite see. I don't understand. Do you mean——"
"Let him have it straight; so that he can't wriggle out of it!" exclaimed Newall, as Paul paused, unable to get out the words that came as a torrent to the lips.
"I mean that the theft of the flag was arranged between you and that fellow at St. Bede's; and that it's come back again by the same clever piece of trickery."
"Is that what they're saying?" demanded Paul.
"That's what they're saying."
"And—and—what do you say, Stan?" The name came out in a gulp.
Had Stanley only followed his better impulse, he would have answered:
"I don't believe it. Though appearances are against you, I cannot believe it. I still have faith in you, as I used to have. We have wandered apart, but Garside has never been what it was since we ceased to speak. I have been unhappy—miserable."
But the gibes of Newall and Parfitt were still rankling in his breast. He seemed to feel again the blows of Wyndham on his face. So instead of answering as his better nature dictated, he replied:
"I stand by the Form. I say the same."
"Then it's a lie—a dirty lie. Let me pass."
Paul was choking. It would not so much have mattered what his Form said. He could trust to time to bring them round again; but that Stanley could have believed him guilty of such mean, despicable trickery—there was the sting. Stanley had felt the blows of Wyndham on his face, but that was as nothing to the torture endured at that moment by Paul. It was as a flail cutting deep down into his very flesh.
Stanley still barred the way to the door, and did not move.
"Let me pass!" came again the hoarse, choking cry.
Stanley did not budge. Neither did he answer. He was as dumb, as immovable, and as white as a block of marble. Paul could endure it no longer. He caught him by the arm to turn him aside. His touch started the statue before him into life. As though it were an insult to be wiped out, Stanley struck out blindly with his fist. Paul received the blow full on the face, and fell to the ground like a log.
It was a cruel blow. Stanley knew it the moment he had struck his one-time friend, and he would have given all he possessed to have recalled it. But it was too late.
"Well hit!" applauded Parfitt, as though Stanley had just made a brilliant drive in the cricket-field instead of striking his best friend.
"First knockdown and blood to Moncrief!" exclaimed Newall. "Oh, he's all right, Waterman. He doesn't want any help from you."
Waterman, who had been standing in the background, leaning in his usual indolent manner against the most comfortable corner of the fireplace, shook on his lethargy as Stanley struck the blow which felled Paul to the ground, and at once left his favourite spot by the fireplace and went to his assistance.
"Hurt, Percival?" he asked as, heedless of Newall's remarks, he wiped away the blood that was trickling down Paul's cheek.
Paul had been momentarily dazed by the unexpected blow; but he was strong, and soon shook the feeling off.
"Thanks, Waterman. No; I'm not hurt," he whispered, rising slowly to his feet.
The boys gathered round. The excitement had grown from the moment Paul had entered the room. From that instant the storm-clouds had begun to gather, and with the blow struck by Moncrief major they had burst.
What would happen?
"Steady yourself, Percival," whispered Waterman. "So—Are you sure you are all right?"
Waterman let go his arm. The blood still trickled down Paul's face, but he walked steadily up to Stanley, who had thrown up his arms in defence, as though expecting a return of the blow.
"You can put down your hands, Stanley. I'm not going to fight you," said Paul calmly.
"He's moulting again—more feathers!" cried Newall.
"And aren't they white ones?" added Parfitt.
"I'm not going to fight you," repeated Paul, looking Stanley squarely in the face; "but I'll pay you back again—some day."
Stanley did not attempt to stop him this time; so Paul made his way back to his room, and sank upon his bed thinking. He had done nothing of which he was ashamed, but the blow of Stanley was burning on his cheek, and he felt wretched, miserable. He had striven for the best, but somehow things had turned out for the worst. Once before when things were at their blackest, there was one who had come to him, and placed a little hand in his; but now there was no one, save the good God above.
He was thinking thus, when there was a tap on the door; the door was jerked open with a shoulder; and Waterman, with his hands thrust deep into his pockets, strode indolently in—just for all the world as though he were coming to a picnic.
IN THE GARDEN
"It's tiring work getting up stairs, especially these stairs—ugh!" said Waterman, as he entered. "If you don't mind, I'll take a seat."
And without waiting for Paul to answer, Waterman dropped down, with his hands still in his pockets, beside him on the bed.
"It was very good of you to give me a helping hand just now, Waterman."
"Oh, humbug! I've got a wretched sort of memory. Fact is, it's too great a fag trying to recollect half the things crammed into you at school, but I seem to have a better memory than most fellows for some things. And there's one thing I can't forget—I can't forget you coming across the ground with that little chap, so like a drowned rat, in your arms. I shall have to be blind, deaf, and silly before I forget it."
Waterman spoke in his usual drawling tone, but its underlying note of earnestness was quite unusual. Strange that Paul, too, had just been thinking of Hibbert, but in a scene far different from that to which Waterman had referred. God had been very good to him after all. He had been thinking how utterly lonely he was, and yet a friend—true, a somewhat indolent one—had come to him in his hour of adversity.
"And look here, Percival," went on Waterman, "there's something else I remember. I don't know why, you know, but I do."
"What's that? Seems to me your memory's improving," said Paul.
"Oh, my memory's fairly good when it's not grubbing about amongst Latin roots, or making a fellow bald-headed worrying over problems invented by a fiend calling himself Euclid ever so many years ago. Why the undertakers couldn't have buried them along with old Euclid, or stowed them away with his mummy, is one of those things I could never understand. Then if people wanted to dig them up again, they'd have been in their right place—in the mummy department of the British Museum. Where was I? Oh, on memory. Yes, there's one thing I remember, in spite of the Latin roots and weary old Euclid. I recollect what you told me on that day when you surprised every one by turning tail at the sand-pits. I've kept it to myself all this time. Is it necessary to keep it a secret any longer?"
"Yes, Waterman," answered Paul firmly.
"Why? Let me set you right with the Form? It'll be an awful fag, I know. Still, the vac's coming on, and one can have a good long rest after one's pulled through."
"No, Waterman," said Paul, shaking his head; "I'm not going to curry favour that way. You've been a friend to me—a friend where I least expected to find one. Bear with me a little longer."
"But you don't understand the dust that Newall, Parfitt & Co. are kicking up? Can't you see that they've got Moncrief major completely under their thumb? They'll make Garside too hot to hold you."
"We'll see. I'm not beaten yet."
"Better let me speak," persisted Waterman.
Paul shook his head.
"I give you up. You are worse than old Euclid!" exclaimed Waterman, plunging his hands deeper into his pockets.
With a yawn he strolled towards the door, edged his shoulder round it until he had opened it wide enough for his body to pass through, closed it by a like man[oe]uvre, and with the same measured step went on his way.
"After all, I've got one friend at Garside," thought Paul, with a smile, "though he does like to take his time over things."
He looked in the glass. His cheek was swollen and bruised. His appearance was very much what Stanley's had been when he had returned from the sand-pits after his encounter with Wyndham.
"I hope Stanley is satisfied," he said, smiling grimly at himself in the glass.
Then he remembered that he hadn't carried out the purpose for which he had gone to the common room. He had gone there for the purpose of speaking to him about Mr. Moncrief's letter. It was useless to think of doing so now. He would put the letter in his desk till a more convenient season. His hand went to his pocket. The letter had gone!
The old feeling came over him that had come over him on the day when he had lost that other letter on his way to Redmead. It had disappeared from his pocket just as mysteriously. He looked around. There was no trace of it in the room. Then he remembered that he had pulled out his handkerchief in the common room to staunch the blood from his cheek. He must have pulled out the letter with it.
It would not have mattered much had it been an ordinary letter. But it was not an ordinary one. Far from it. It contained references to Zuker and Mr. Weevil which might cause no end of mischief were it to get into the wrong hands.
He did not like the idea of returning to the common room; it was like swallowing a nauseous draught of medicine. Probably the boys were still there, laughing over his discomfiture. Yet, nauseous though the draught was, it had to be swallowed, and it was best to swallow it quickly.
So he again descended to the common room. He faintly hoped that it might be deserted, but that hope vanished as he reached the room. This time he heard the voice of Newall. He paused for a moment; then went boldly forward.
Stanley had gone—he saw that at a glance; so had most of the others; but Newall, Parfitt, and two or three more had remained, and were evidently discussing recent events.
They could not have been more startled had a ghost entered, instead of a being of flesh and blood. Paul searched round the room in the hope of finding some trace of the missing letter, but found none.
"Dotty!" came the voice of one of the boys, who had by this time recovered from their surprise at the unexpected return of Paul.
"Looking for the courage that oozed out at his heels," sneered Parfitt.
"I've lost a letter," said Paul, on whom these facetious remarks were quite lost. "You don't happen to have seen it?"
No one answered him. They stared blankly at him. They did not mind speaking at him. Speaking to him was quite a different thing.
It was perfectly useless to expect an answer from them; so Paul went out, feeling far from comfortable. He could only hope that no bad use would be made of the letter, supposing it had fallen into their hands.
The Gargoyle Record came out next day. Among other items of information were the following:
"Old flag back to tower. Brought back by 'two P's' of the Fifth. Great enthusiasm—little waddlers of the Third cheering like lunatics; big cacklers of the Fifth hissing like geese. Mystery in three volumes. Vol. I.—How the flag disappeared from Garside. Vol. II.—Where it went to. Vol. III.—How 'two P's' got it back again. Snorters of the Fifth getting excited. A commission of inquiry into the conduct of 'two P's.'
"Rumours of a scrum in common room. 'Two P's' again distinguishes himself. Still living up to his old motto:
"He who fights and runs away Will live to fight another day."
"What has become of that promising junior whose name rhymes with hunger? Nothing has been seen or heard of him for the last day or two. What has come over him? His native modesty seems to have left him. He has retreated to a back seat. Is he projecting further adventures in desert islands, or giving lessons in punting? Anxious inquiries are being made at the offices of the Record. Colonial papers in the neighbourhood of desert islands, please copy."
Paul, on reading these paragraphs, knew well enough who was meant by "two P's." They were the initials of his own name—Paul Percival.
But his mind was taken from these happenings by a message from the sick-room. Hibbert had been up for a few hours each day, and had pleaded hard with the doctor to be allowed to go out; so the doctor at last gave the nurse permission. On two days the invalid went out with the nurse.
On the third day he asked Paul, as a special favour, to take him out. Paul willingly consented, only too pleased to feel that he could be of some help to him again. There was one favourite spot to which the solitary boy used to go when he was well. It was in the garden attached to the schoolhouse, apart altogether from the playing-fields. It was marked "Private," and the boys, as a rule, were not allowed there. It was chiefly used by the masters.
It was because it was so tranquil, so different from the playing-fields, and because the sun seemed to linger around this old garden longer than anywhere else, that the dreamy boy loved it, and used to steal there when he was well.
"I'm so glad to feel you on my arm again, Hibbert!" said Paul, as he led him to a basket-seat, with cushions, beneath a wide-spreading elm.
"I feel better now than I've felt for a long time, Paul. How I must have wearied people lying up there!"
He glanced in the direction of the school.
"Don't say that, Hibbert. It sounds as though there was no one in the world who cared for you."
"I know it sounds ungrateful; but even when we care for people, we must get weary of them when they're ill a long time. I don't mean you, but the nurse, and doctor, and—other people."
Paul knew that Hibbert was thinking chiefly of his father, who, absorbed in his own schemes, had only been to see him once since his illness—on that afternoon when Mr. Weevil had introduced him to Zuker.
To turn the boy's mind from these sad thoughts, Paul told him some of the latest exploits of Plunger, winding up with his recent discovery of him under the bed in his dormitory. Hibbert was amused and interested.
"Plunger's a funny lot. He makes me smile to think of him. I hope he's never worried himself much about that raft accident?"
"Plunger's not the sort of fellow to worry himself much about anything for long; but he's often asked me about you."
"I was thinking a good deal about what happened on the raft last night. I could not sleep for thinking of it; and then, when I went to sleep, I dreamed—dreamed that my mother was standing by me all in white. She was smiling down at me, and held out her arms to me. I tried to get to her, and in trying to get to her I awoke. Do you know, I was so disappointed! The dream was better than the awaking. I so wished my mother had lived, for then you would have known her, Paul. I'm sure you would have liked her, and that she would have liked you. But perhaps it is best as it is."
"I'm sure it's for the best, though it seems hard to say so. Everything is for the best, Hibbert. We don't see it, because we're only blind people leading the blind. But God sees, and God knows. That's what my mother has told me so often that I've never forgotten it. It has helped me a lot—more than I can tell you. You've talked about your mother, let me tell you a little about my own."
And Paul talked to Hibbert about his own mother. The boy listened eagerly, with one hand resting in Paul's, a smile upon his lips. Suddenly he drew a deep sigh of content; the fragile head fell back upon the chair; the hand in Paul's grew suddenly cold.
Paul looked into the boy's face. The smile still hovered about his lips, but he saw something in the face he had never seen there before.
"Hibbert!" he cried. But there was no response.
Paul gently withdrew his hand and ran to the house. He met Sedgefield, and sent him for the nurse, while he hurried back to Hibbert.
The little fellow was still lying back in the chair. A wren had perched itself lovingly upon his shoulder, but Hibbert knew nothing of its presence. He was fast asleep—in the long, last sleep that knows no waking.
HOW THE VOTE WAS CARRIED
Hibbert's death caused a lull in the storm that recent events had raised at Garside. Notwithstanding his illness, it was thought that he was getting better. It came, therefore, with a shock to the school when he was found sleeping that afternoon in the garden. The little fellow was laid to rest in a country churchyard, at some distance from the school, by the side of the mother whom he had so loved.
No one in the school, with the exception, perhaps, of Mr. Weevil, missed him so much as Paul did. He had a great pity for Hibbert, and that pity had grown to love. He never forgot that last scene in the garden—in the warm sunshine, with the shadows creeping over it, and the Great Shadow of all drawing nearer and nearer, until it at last rested on the boy's head.
Nor did he forget the interview he afterwards had with Mr. Weevil, when, with tones that were strangely uneven for Mr. Weevil, he had questioned him about all that Hibbert had said in those last moments before he had fallen asleep. When Paul told him what the boy had said about his mother—of his dream, and the awakening—the master's eyes blinked as he had never seen them blink before.
"Ah! He has his wish; he is with her—with his mother," said the master, as one speaking to himself rather than to Paul. "He is at rest and—happy."
Then he remained silent for so long, as one buried in deep thought, that he seemed to have quite forgotten the presence of Paul. Paul knew of whom he was thinking; that he, too, was thinking of the boy's mother—the sister whom he had loved and reverenced; so he stole quietly from the room.
During this time Paul saw nothing of Hibbert's father. He wondered whether he was still carrying on his schemes in the cave, or whether the death of his son had altered his plans in any way. In any case, Paul felt no cause for alarm. The letter of Mr. Moncrief had removed all cause for anxiety. None the less he could not help feeling anxious as to what had become of the letter itself. Where had it gone to on that day it had fallen from his pocket? Into whose hands had it fallen? Had it fallen into the hands of the enemy, Newall and his lot? If so, what use were they making of it?
He was still left pretty much to himself, so he was able to put the finishing touches to his essay on "The Invasion of Great Britain," a subject, as the reader knows, which had occupied some share of his time and attention. Then the essay was sent in with others for the competition.
The breach between him and Stanley, as may be imagined, had not been lessened by what had happened between them in the common room. Stanley avoided him as much as possible, and they never spoke.
After the momentary lull in the storm caused by the death of Hibbert, it broke out again more violently than ever. This was due to the fact that Mr. Weevil had made no inquiry, or seemed to have made no inquiry, into the circumstances which had brought about the return of the flag. Newall and his parasite Parfitt said it was a disgrace to the school.
Thus the storm, which had momentarily lulled, broke out with fresh vigour. While it was at its height, the Fifth once more assembled in the Forum. Hasluck presided, as usual, and the rest of the Form, with one exception—Paul—were present. Arbery and Leveson guarded the door against invasion from "the little beggars of the Third and Fourth."
Hasluck mounted the rostrum, and brought his mallet down with a bang as a signal that the meeting had commenced.
"Now then, you fellows, order! I'm not going to spout a lot——"
"Couldn't if you tried!" put in Devey.
"Look here, Devey, are you in the chair, or am I? If you don't keep quiet, I'll chuck the mallet at you," said Hasluck, raising it threateningly. "As I said before, till I was interrupted by an ass braying, I'm not going to spout a lot. What we've got to do is to get to business, and most of you know what that business is."
"Hear, hear, hear!"
"Most of you were present in the common room when certain charges were made against Percival by Moncrief major. He told Percival to his face that the flag business was all a dodge; that it was engineered between him and the champion of the Beetles. Percival denied it; but you know what happened after that. Moncrief struck him, and Percival went away with his tail between his legs just as he did at the sand-pits. We were all disgusted——"
"All!" echoed the others, with the exception of Waterman, who was reclining languidly on a box, apparently quite unconcerned in what was going on.
"We were all disgusted, and decided to take some action which would bring matters to a point. Unfortunately, Hibbert died just then, and we could do nothing. We were obliged to wait a decent interval. The time for waiting's past." (Cheers.) "We've got to get to business. Moncrief major will explain."
Stanley, with white, set face, was standing between Newall and Parfitt. After the charge he had made against Paul at Newall's instigation, and the blow that had followed it, he had been forced into a position from which it was impossible for him to retreat. First he had been adroitly forced into the position of being Paul's accuser; and now, with no less adroitness, he had been compelled to take a step which struck more cruelly at his friend.
"Oh, I haven't much to explain," he said, in a thick, unnatural voice. "As Hasluck has said, we all decided to take action after what happened in the common room. Hibbert's death prevented us. I think you know what that action is. We're going to call upon the Head to expel Percival from the school."
A loud cheer greeted this announcement. There could be no doubt as to the feeling of the Form, and that Stanley had voiced it.
"Move, move!" came from several of the boys, when the cheers had subsided.
"Yes, we must have everything in order," said Hasluck. "It's about the first time that we've ever called upon the masters to expel a fellow."
Stanley hesitated. How was it possible for him to strike at Paul again—this time behind his back!
"Get on—move! What are you stopping for?" demanded Parfitt, nudging him with his elbow. "I'll back you up."
"Get on," repeated Newall, nudging him from the other side.
"I—I move," said Stanley, in faltering tones, "that we call upon the Head to expel Percival from the school."
"And I second!" cried Parfitt.
"And I support!" exclaimed Newall.
"Hands up for!" demanded Hasluck.
"One minute before you vote," came the languid voice of Waterman, as the hands shot up. "You don't want to be in such a hurry. It's bad for the nerves. People in a hurry have fits. They get themselves into knots and tangles which take no end of time to get out of, and leave them with a lovely headache into the bargain. That's what you're going in for—fits, tangles, headaches. I gave Moncrief major credit for sense. You're not going to follow his lead, are you?"
The arms that were held up fell. The boys stared at Waterman in astonishment. It was not often that he took the trouble to speak at these meetings, but when he did it was usually to the point.