"Of course we are. Why shouldn't we?" exclaimed Parfitt.
"You'll be bigger asses than I took you for—and that's saying a good deal, you know—if you do. I didn't hear all that took place after Moncrief struck Percival. The atmosphere was getting bad, you see, and I don't like breathing bad atmosphere, if I can help it; so I don't know what passed between you fellows. I've no doubt it was something choice, and that I lost a great deal; so perhaps you wouldn't mind telling me why Percival's to be expelled."
This demand on Waterman's part, made in the most innocent manner, was met with howls of derision. They could never quite tell from Waterman's manner whether he was serious or poking fun at them; but this time it seemed quite clear that he could only be poking fun.
"Yes, that's very musical," proceeded Waterman calmly, when the howling had subsided. "I couldn't do better myself, if I tried. You're going to expel Percival because you believe he engineered the flag. That's it, isn't it?" (Cries of assent.) "Good! I like to get at things," retorted Waterman, still keeping his languid position on the box. "Engineering the flag means—what? It means that Percival, by trickery, got it away from Garside. Is that it?"
"Yes, yes!" came the approving shout.
"Well, vote as you like. Here's one that's going to vote against you."
"Why? What's your reason?"
"Because I happen to remember what happened on the day the flag was lost. Seems to me most of you have forgotten."
Waterman had started up from his languid position on the box; his face had lost its wearied, languid expression, and had become quite animated.
"I haven't, and never shall, though I never pretend to remember things; they're so beastly uninteresting, as a rule. This wasn't. That's why I remember, I suppose. Well, on the afternoon the flag was lost I was going from the school, when I nearly ran full tilt against a fellow who was carrying a little chap, dripping wet, in his arms. The fellow was Percival; the little chap was Hibbert. You know what happened, though you seem to have forgotten it. Percival, at the risk of his own life, saved the little chap from the river."
Stanley's head fell to his breast. The scene came to him as Waterman was speaking. Had he not met Paul on that day staggering along with his burden? Had he not avoided him, when he might have given a helping hand?
"What's that to do with it?" demanded Newall. "Supposing Percival did pull the youngster out of the river, what's that to do with the flag?"
"What's that to do with the flag!" repeated Waterman. "It's this to do with it—how could Percival be playing tricks with the flag, and fishing at the same time a poor little chap out of the river? Besides, would a fellow who'd done a splendid thing like that stoop to such a mean thing as the other?"
"Yes," retorted Newall boldly. "A fellow who would turn tail like he did at the sand-pits, and again in the common room, would do anything. It's you who forget, Waterman. We've asked Percival for an explanation. If he's innocent, why doesn't he explain?"
"I don't know, and what's more, I don't care. What I've seen of Percival is quite good enough for me."
"Vote, Vote!" cried Parfitt. "We don't want any more twaddle."
Hasluck brought down his hammer as a signal that discussion was at an end. Then he put the motion moved by Stanley—"That the Form call upon the Head to expel Percival from the school."
Stanley would have voted against his own proposal had it been possible. But it was impossible; so his hand went up with the rest—all save one.
"Against!" cried Hasluck.
Up went the hand of Waterman, amid the derisive cheers of those around him.
"Phew! The atmosphere of this place is getting beastly, just like the common room on the day when the shindy was. Phew! I don't wish to be unpolite, but I'm sure you fellows won't mind if I get out of it."
And thrusting his hands into his pockets, Waterman sauntered out.
* * * * *
So the vote was carried that Paul Percival should be expelled from Garside.
WATERMAN DOES A STRANGE THING
For one who had professed himself as beastly hot and fagged, Waterman did a strange thing after he had left the Forum. He walked with a speed that was simply amazing for him in the direction of St. Bede's; and what was still more remarkable, he did not stop until he had reached it. None of the Beetles were about at the time, but he had not long to wait before he caught sight of one of the junior form.
"Will you tell Wyndham I wish to see him—as quickly as possible."
The boy stared at him, as Murrell had stared at Paul when he had visited St. Bede's. It was not till he had repeated his message that he seemed to comprehend.
"Quick, there isn't much time to lose!" exclaimed Waterman, as though it were a matter of life and death.
Then the boy hurried off, and a minute or two later Wyndham appeared. Waterman was unknown to him; so that he was just as much astonished at seeing him as the smaller boy had been.
"I'm a Gargoyle, you can see that. My name's Waterman, and I've come here about a fellow named Percival. Spare me the fag of explaining too much."
"Percival! What about him!" demanded Wyndham, at once interested.
"There's a strong movement on foot to get him expelled from Garside. It's chiefly over the flag. His best friend, or one who was, has turned against him; and things are looking as black for Percival as they can look. I'm afraid that he'll get the worst of it, unless something's done. I can do nothing; so I've come to you. There's some beastly mystery about the whole business. Percival won't explain because of somebody else, and that somebody else is you. I'm certain you won't see Percival kicked from Garside, if a few words from you will set things right."
"Kicked from Garside!" exclaimed Wyndham. "Tell me what happened?"
Waterman, feeling that the time for speaking frankly had come, told Wyndham all that had happened—from the day Wyndham had fought and conquered Stanley in the sand-pits.
They remained a long time in conversation, and when Waterman at length returned to Garside, Wyndham returned with him.
In the meantime an interview of a different nature was taking place at Garside. After the meeting in the Forum, Stanley, feeling very wretched, had retreated to his dormitory, where in a few minutes he was joined by his cousin Harry, who was looking just as miserable and uncomfortable.
"I say, Stan, is it right what I hear—that Percival is to be kicked out of Garside?"
"Well, what if he is? Doesn't he deserve it?"
"I don't know. It's a puzzle. I can't make things out. Look at this letter. I picked it up while the shindy was going on between you and Paul in the common room. All the fellows were crowding round you. No one saw the letter but me. Paul dropped it when he was mopping the blood from his face. I ought to have given it back, but I saw that it was father's handwriting; so I sneaked off with it, and read it; and then—then I knew that I'd done a mean thing and did not like to give it back to Paul."
He handed Stanley the letter—the letter in which Mr. Moncrief had answered Paul's inquiries about Zuker and Mr. Weevil, and concluded by inviting him and Stanley to Redmead at the next vacation.
"What does it all mean?" demanded Stanley, when he had read the letter.
"I can't make out. I thought, perhaps, you might be able to throw light on it."
"I'm afraid not; but you might leave it with me. I'll think it over."
"All right; but I say, Stan, you must do something to prevent Paul being chucked from the school. That's going it a bit too strong. I know whose working that beastly dodge—Newall and his jackal Parfitt."
How could Stanley tell his cousin that it was he—Stanley Moncrief—who had actually moved that Paul should be expelled from the school? If it were possible for Stanley to have felt more wretched than he had felt when Harry came to him, he certainly did so when he was once more alone. "I know the great friendship there is between you and my nephew Stanley." Those were the words which stared him in the face. Friendship? What mockery! How had he proved his friendship? By doing his best to get Paul expelled from the school. What would his uncle say to him when he next visited Redmead? It was to show him this letter Paul had doubtless come to him that day in the common room. And he had met him—with a blow. It was dastardly.
He must do his best to undo the mischief he had done. Stanley started up, and went to the door; then he paused, and his heart began to harden again.
After all, if mischief had been created, Paul was alone responsible. It was he, and not Stanley, who had acted in a dastardly manner. It was he who had run away at the sand-pits, and left him to fight his battle with the beastly Beetle; it was he——
His meditations were cut short by the door being opened, and the entrance of Waterman.
"Hallo, Moncrief. The very fellow I've been looking for. Horrid bore looking for fellows. Phew! Close in here, isn't it? You look a bit off. Come for a little stroll. I've got a fellow who's dying for an introduction to you."
Waterman slipped an arm through Stanley's, and before Stanley was aware of it, had led him through the door.
"A fellow—wants to be introduced to me! What fellow?" he demanded.
"Ah, that's it. What fellow? You'd never guess. It's a pleasant little surprise I've got in store for you. Think of all your rich uncles and aunts, and people of that sort. Ha, ha! A pleasant surprise, lovely, delightful. Mustn't spoil it by telling you. Come along."
Waterman's reference to uncles at once reminded Stanley of the uncle whose letter he had been reading. Could it be that his uncle Moncrief was paying him a surprise visit? But Waterman did not take him to the visitors'-room. He took him out of the grounds to some elms which flourished not far from the school. Here a boy was leaning against one of the trees. Stanley glanced at him; then turned white. It was Wyndham.
"Told you I had a little surprise," said Waterman. "Wasn't I right? I like little surprises—don't you? Explanations are an awful bore. I never like explanations if I can get out of them. Wyndham's got something to tell you. You'll find him very decent for a Beetle."
And Waterman vanished with a speed which was really marvellous for him, leaving the two together. The last time they had met face to face they had met as antagonists, and had fought hard. The memory of that time was present to both of them, for neither seemed anxious to break the silence.
"Do I understand that you wish to see me?" Stanley presently asked.
"Yes; it was kind of you to come."
"You needn't compliment me, for I mightn't have come had I known whom I had to meet," answered Stanley coldly. "Waterman misled me."
"Anyhow, I'm glad you have come, and so will you be, I think, before you go back. I hope you don't look upon me as an enemy?"
"How else can I look upon you? Have you sent for me to mock me?"
"That's my last wish. I've sent for you to prevent you doing a great wrong to a friend of yours—Paul Percival."
"A friend of mine!" repeated Stanley, scornfully.
"Well, one who was your friend, and who, I hope, will soon be your friend again."
"You have more reason to be thankful to him than I have," laughed Stanley, bitterly. "He ran away from you, and left me with the work he hadn't the courage to go on with. I know that I didn't come very well out of it, but I didn't run away."
"No; you did well—much better than I did. I'm sorry, very sorry, I fought with you. More so, as by fighting you I separated two friends. Often and often I have prayed to be forgiven. It has all been a ghastly mistake."
"Mistake? Percival running away—there wasn't much mistake about that, I'm thinking."
"That is the greatest mistake of all. All of you put it down to fear of me; but it wasn't—far otherwise. I don't believe that Paul Percival knows what fear is; and you, who were his friend, ought to have known that as well as I do."
"So I thought—up till then. After, what could I think? What could any of us think?"
"Your best of him, instead of your worst. Haven't you ever suspected the reason why he would not stand up to me?"
"Blind—blind! Do you remember that Percival on one occasion—during last vacation—helped a gentleman in distress by acting as his messenger?"
"Quite well, seeing that that gentleman was my father."
"Your father? Yes, that was the gentleman, I believe, for whom Percival did this kindness. He was set upon by the way by two ruffians, but managed to escape. Did he ever tell you how he managed it?"
"By hiding down a well."
"Right! But there was a boy who helped him to this queer hiding-place. That boy was me!"
"Yes. On the day Percival came to the sand-pits to meet the champion of the Beetles, he little knew whom he was to meet. I knew as little whom I was to meet. He looked upon me as one who had saved his life. How could he fight me? So he turned away."
"Why didn't he explain?" asked Stanley.
"And give away his secret, or, rather, your father's secret, before that mob of boys? You—you ask that?"
"After? From what he has told me, he made more than one effort to explain to you, but you would never listen to him."
It was true enough. Stanley remembered it all—the effort Paul had made to speak to him immediately after the fight, and later. Everything was now clear. How noble Paul had been! How he had wronged him! He covered his face with his hands. He could not speak. Wyndham respected his silence.
At length he placed his hand upon the bowed shoulder. Stanley did not shrink from it.
"I'm sorry if I've caused you pain; but it was the only way. Mischief is being done. You must prevent it from going any further."
"I will—I will! You can trust me," cried Stanley, fervently. "Paul, Paul, how I've wronged you!"
"I'm glad you see that. You will make it up with him—you will be friends with him once more?"
"Yes, yes; if he will have my friendship. But I don't deserve it. I deserve kicking. It was kind of you to take so much trouble."
Wyndham turned on his heel, but as suddenly turned round again.
"Would you mind taking my hand, Moncrief?" he said.
Stanley took it in his, and shook it heartily.
"Thanks; I am very sorry it was raised against you. But we understand one another better now."
Stanley wiped away the mist that had somehow gathered in his eyes, and when he could see clear Wyndham had gone.
Then he went in search of Paul, anxious to ask his forgiveness, and undo, as best he could, the mischief that had been done. But he could not find him.
He searched everywhere with the same result. And, what was still more astonishing, his cousin was also missing.
Night came on, and still Paul and Harry were missing from the school.
Mr. Weevil began to get alarmed. It was past ten, and still no news of the missing boys. What had become of them?
IN THE FOX'S HOLE
What had become of Paul? What was the cause of his absence from the school? Had he heard of the decision come to by his Form, and instead of waiting to be expelled, had he left of his own accord? That was the view of Newall and others of the Fifth.
"About the best thing he could have done," said Parfitt. "It wasn't only the flag business, but there were other things in the background. The Black Book business has never been cleared up, you know."
Parfitt made this remark in his most significant manner, with uplifted eyebrows and a shrug of the shoulders.
"That's right. Kick a man when he's down," drawled Waterman. "Parfitt's better at a drop kick than any fellow I know."
The Third were just as much concerned over the disappearance of Moncrief, jun., as the Fifth were over the disappearance of Percival. Stanley was doubly anxious—anxious for Paul, anxious for his cousin.
Could they have gone away together? That was scarcely likely. They were hardly on speaking terms for one thing; and even if the idea of running away from Garside had suddenly come into Paul's head, it was not at all likely that he had induced Harry to run away with him. What, then, had happened?
While the school was thus anxiously awaiting news of the missing boys, we will try to explain what had really happened.
Paul knew that a meeting of his Form had been called, and that he and his doings were to be discussed, probably censured. When would the time arrive that he might take steps to defend himself? When would his lips be unsealed? How much longer would Mr. Moncrief keep him in suspense, and what had become of Zuker?
Unconsciously Paul had strayed from the school to the garden where Hibbert had, not so long since, fallen asleep—in the sleep that knows no waking. He sat for a long time under the tree, thinking of these things, with no one to disturb his thoughts, save the birds that fluttered around him as they used to flutter around Hibbert.
What had become of Hibbert's father? Again and again the question came to him, and he could not dismiss it from his thoughts. He thought of the strange circumstance under which he had last seen him—of that weird scene in the cave with the man Brockman. All that had happened at that interview was fixed indelibly on his memory. He could see Zuker tracing with his finger on the chart the passage of the Dutch to the Medway—could hear his voice as he described all that had happened as they broke the chain on the river and advanced on Upnor Castle. Then—then had followed the strange appearance of the master, and the still stranger interview between him and Zuker.
Was the cave still there? Often and often a strong desire had seized Paul to go there again, but he had resisted it. Now, however, as he thought of all that had happened on the evening he went there, the impulse grew so strong upon him that he could wrestle with it no longer. He must respond to its call.
So, as one under some mighty spell, Paul passed from the garden, and was soon on his way to Cranstead Common.
It was beginning to get dusk as he followed the trail along which he had once followed in the footsteps of Mr. Weevil. After travelling some time in the direction of the river, he came to the thickly-wooded part, where the master had disappeared.
Searching amongst the brambles, he found the curious division which marked the centre, and placing his hand beneath the bushes as before, he was not long in finding the ring that was attached to the circular opening. Raising it, he entered again the sloping tunnel cut in the sandstone.
Though he had only been in that tunnel once before, he had travelled along it so often in imagination since that it seemed to him he was on familiar ground. He had hesitated when he first entered it. He knew not whither it would lead him, what dangers might meet him on the way. He hesitated no longer. Still he walked cautiously, with his hands before him, like a blind man in the darkness, until it began to broaden. Once he thought he heard footsteps behind him, and he came to a sudden pause. Was some one really following him, or was it only the echo of his own footsteps?
He listened attentively, but could hear nothing. It was as silent as the tomb.
"My ears must have deceived me," he told himself, as he continued his way.
Presently he came to that part of the tunnel where a faint film of light penetrated into it, and again the fantastic shadows he had before seen seemed to menace him at every footstep he took. The cave, then, was not deserted. It was still inhabited by some one. Who? Zuker and Brockman—the same tenants as before, or had some one else come into possession?
Yes, there was the curtain, partly concealing the main entrance to the cave. To reach it, he crawled on hands and knees as before, and peered through the space between the curtain and the wall.
There was no anthracite fire burning this time. It was dimly lighted by one of the lamps suspended from the roof. There was no sign of life. The place seemed deserted.
Paul waited for a long time listening. No sound came from the cave. It was as silent as the tomb. But as he listened, he thought that he could again hear the sound of a light step behind him, coming along the path he had travelled.
Was it possible that some one else had entered the tunnel? Surely the master had not again followed unconsciously in his footsteps? Paul turned his head and listened, but it was as silent in that direction as the other.
"I'm getting as nervous as a kitten," he laughed to himself. "My ears have again deceived me."
No one appeared to be in the cave. Mr. Moncrief had said in his letter that he knew about Zuker's movements. Could it have been that he had been arrested? It was just possible. Anyhow, he would like to have a nearer view of the cave. There could be no danger, and if there were, it was worth the risk.
So Paul rose from his hiding-place behind the curtain, and stepped cautiously into the cave. The guns and cutlasses were still hanging on the wall, but the models and designs had gone, and the photographic camera had gone from its niche.
There was a passage on the other side of the chamber similar to the one through which he had come.
"Where does that lead to, I wonder?" thought Paul.
There could be no harm in exploring it a little way. He might just as well know where it led to, if it were possible to find out. The information might be useful. Paul was animated with the adventurous spirit of the explorer, which knows no rest until it is satisfied. He crossed to the opening. At the moment he reached it, a figure emerged from the darkness, and confronted him. It was Zuker.
It was so sudden, so unexpected, that Paul could not move. He stood there as one rooted to the spot. Before he could move, the man had sprung upon him with the swiftness of a tiger, and seizing him by the throat, dragged him to the light.
"You!" he cried. "The boy from Garside. Your name is——"
"Paul Percival," gasped Paul, as the fierce grip relaxed.
"Paul Percival. Ach Himmel! It is Fate itself."
He had in turn shrunk back, as though Paul were no longer a being of flesh and blood, but a phantom. Then he murmured hoarsely to himself: "Weevil was right. The hand of a Higher than man is in it."
In the uncertain light he had not at first recognized Paul; but now he saw him, and knew that just as he had once been face to face with the father at a supreme crisis in his life, now he was face to face with the son. Had Paul seized that moment of stupefaction, he might have escaped, but he made no effort. And the moment passed.
"Who showed you this place? Who brought you here?" demanded Zuker, himself again.
"No one; I found it out myself."
"That is my secret."
Zuker's hand went to his breast, to a weapon concealed there.
"Be careful how you answer, boy. You're not now in school, and you haven't a school-master to deal with. Is this the first time you've been here?"
Zuker started in spite of himself.
"Not the first time! How many times have you been here before then, may I ask?"
"Ach! Now I understand. It is through you my plans have been defeated. It is through you my man—mein Brockman—has been arrested. It is through you that I have scarcely dared venture from this hole for two days past. You have been a mean, dirty spy."
"As you were to my father when I was a child." The words were upon Paul's lips, but he forced them back. Then aloud, "I've not been a spy. I've told no one."
Zuker looked searchingly into Paul's face.
"Who has told, then—who has given information to the police, to what is called your Secret Investigation Department—if it is not you?"
Paul was silent. He now understood Mr. Moncrief's letter. It must have been Mr. Weevil who had given information to Mr. Moncrief, it must have been he who had kept him informed of Zuker's doings. Mr. Weevil was not a traitor to his country, after all. Nay, it seemed as though he had striven, in his peculiar way, to defend it against traitors.
"Silent, eh? I can see what you've told me is false. You have worked against me from the first. It was you who outwitted me once before. It was you who got that packet through to the man who has always stood between me and my plans, the Admiralty man, Moncrief. All would have been over; I should have got all through had it not been for that. Ach Himmel, you will not have the chance of blabbing any more secrets! I have you now—tight in the Fox's Hole—and you will not leave it alive. Let me see what your school is good for. I will give you five minutes to get ready for sterblichkeit. Ach, it is a long word! Do you know what it means?"
Paul knew what it meant. It was the German word for mortality.
"Thank you," answered Paul simply. "That is longer than my father had when he was called upon to die, and it should be enough for me."
Zuker's hand trembled as it fingered the weapon concealed in his breast. Paul closed his eyes, and repeated in a low, yet clear voice:
"'Our Father, which art in Heaven, hallowed be Thy name. Thy Kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth, as it is in Heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive them that trespass against us——"
"Halt! Stop!" cried Zuker hoarsely. "You spoke of your father just now—how he died. Tell me quickly how it was."
"He was drowned, in saving the life of a man who had robbed him."
"Ach! And do you know who that man was?"
No answer came from Paul's lips for several seconds, seconds that seemed as hours. Deep silence reigned in the cave, then it was broken by the clear voice of the boy:
"Yes; I know who that man was. He called himself Israel Zuker."
Zuker could not repress a movement of astonishment as Paul pronounced his name.
"Knowing this—knowing that it was through me your father lost his life, you could yet say that prayer—'As we forgive them that trespass against us'? You are as brave as your father was," came hoarsely from his lips.
"I could wish no greater praise than that," answered Paul. "But I had not finished. Shall I go on?"
"You need not be in so great a hurry. Wait till I tell you. I have one or two more questions to ask you. How did you come to know that I was the man who spied upon your father—the man through whom he lost his life—the man——Ach!" He stopped himself suddenly. His brow darkened; the veins stood out in knots upon his forehead. "Fool! Why didn't I guess it? I see it all now. It is your master—it is Weevil who told you. It is Weevil who has betrayed me."
His hand went to the weapon in his breast again.
"No, you are mistaken; Mr. Weevil has told me nothing. He has not betrayed you."
"You are telling me false. You are trying to mislead me. Beware! No one else knew my secret. Who else could tell you?"
"I learned it from a little fellow whom I loved as a brother, and who loved me as a brother, too. Alas, he is now dead! We called him Hibbert."
"Hibbert—my son!" Zuker's voice softened wonderfully as the words passed his lips; then it hardened again, as he demanded: "How was it my son came to betray me?"
"It was after that accident on the river. Perhaps you have forgotten? It was I who helped him back to the school. And the dear little chap was always so grateful for it—always made such an awful fuss about it. That was his way—ever so much too sensitive and grateful. Poor little chap!"
Paul brushed the back of his hand quickly across his eyes; and somehow the man did the same.
"Well, I was often with him after that," he presently continued. "He felt that he would never get well, I think, and I could see that he suffered a good deal from something he had on his mind. I never guessed what it was; but one night, when I was sitting beside him, he told me that he could not sleep because of it, and he felt that if he didn't speak, God would never forgive him. That's how it was he came to tell me that you, Israel Zuker, were his father."
"I see—I see! Now I understand!"
Zuker strode across and across the chamber, as though uncertain how to act. At length he disappeared into one of the recesses of the cave, evidently used as a storehouse, and almost as instantly appeared again with a coil of rope in his hands.
"For all you did for my son, I spare your life; but I must keep you here for a few hours. My safety depends on it."
Paul knew that it was useless to protest. He knew well enough that Zuker had the power of shooting him as a dog, and he was not the man to stand any nonsense. So he allowed himself to be bound; and when he had bound him, Zuker brought out some cushions from the recess, and placed Paul on them.
"There! I am making you as comfortable as circumstances will permit," he said. "Gute nacht—good-night. Remember Israel Zuker again in your prayers. Ach! it was good of you to be kind to my boy when others so mocked and hated him. Adieu!"
With these words, he passed swiftly out by the way he had come. Paul rested for a few minutes, thinking quietly over the strange interview through which he had just passed. It was kind of Zuker to spare his life, but he did not much appreciate the prospect of lying there, bound hand and foot, for several hours—nay, it might so happen that Zuker would never return.
His last words had an odd sound. It was difficult to know what he meant by them. He might have an intention of returning, or he might not. Perhaps he was uncertain himself. He knew well enough that he might be arrested at any moment, just as his confederate had been. In that case he (Paul) might lie there, bound hand and foot, for days and nights, gradually getting weaker and weaker, and finally dying of starvation. The prospect was not a very agreeable one.
So Paul determined to do his best to free himself of the coils that bound him. He was a strong boy, and struggled might and main to loosen them; but Zuker seemed to have tied them with devilish cunning. Struggle as Paul would, he was unable to loosen them. And the more he struggled, the more the rope cut into his flesh.
"My! The tightest knots I've ever struck," said Paul, as he lay back gasping.
What was that? An echo, or some one calling him by name?
There it was again. Surely it was some one calling him. He tried to turn his quivering limbs in the direction whence the voice came. Was he awake or was he dreaming?
The figure of a boy was creeping towards him—creeping, as it seemed to him, from the shadows in the tunnel. Who—who was it? Was it really a being of flesh and blood? At first it seemed to him that it must be the wraith of the little fellow about whom he had been speaking—Hibbert—but even as the thought filtered through his mind the boy was kneeling beside him, looking anxiously into his face.
It was Moncrief minor.
"Harry!" cried Paul in amazement.
"Are you all right?" came in a whisper from the boy.
"Right enough, but not altogether comfortable. Where in the name of wonder did you spring from?"
"Is there any chance of that man you called Zuker coming back?"
"No; you may be sure of that."
"Then, first, let me get that rope off."
Paul, as may be imagined, was by no means opposed to that proceeding. So Harry drew out his pocket-knife and promptly severed his bonds.
"Ah, that's better," cried Paul, springing to his feet and stretching his limbs. "It's worth while being tied up, so as to feel how nice it is to be free again. Now perhaps you'll tell me how you got here?"
"There's really no fear of that man, Zuker, coming back?"
"No; I'm sure of it."
"Then I'll explain. First of all, I must tell you that I've done a mean thing. You lost a letter when that scrimmage took place between you and Stan in the Common Room. I found it, and seeing that it was from my father, read it; then I was too ashamed to give it back to you, so I kept it. Hearing that there'd been a meeting about you in the Forum, I took the letter to Stan and showed it to him. As I came away from interviewing Stan, I saw you hurrying through the gates. You looked round, and seemed anxious that no one should see you. That made me curious. I'd just been reading my father's letter to you—remember. I'd begun to see there was some mystery which wanted clearing up. Why shouldn't I have a hand in it? I asked myself. So forgive me, Paul, I followed you."
Paul was silent. How could he blame him? Was it not the same spirit of curiosity which had first led him to that place?
"It was fortunately dusk, and I took good care that you shouldn't see me," continued Harry. "Besides, you seemed to be so taken up with your own thoughts that you scarcely looked round once when you had gained the common. It was easy following you after that. I was never so puzzled in my life when I saw you creeping about amongst the bushes, then disappear through the ground.
"I was so close to you then, that I saw the exact place where you had disappeared, so that it did not take me long to find the opening to the tunnel. I must say that I funked following you farther; but my curiosity grew. I was on the verge of a big discovery. If I followed you, I should find out the secret which would explain the mystery about you, and set you right with the school. Believe me, Paul, that was what I longed for, and I don't think that anything short of that would have made me go farther, and so I felt my way along the tunnel until I could just see you stretched at full length beside the curtains at the entrance to this place."
Paul recalled the sounds he had heard as he made his way along the tunnel. His hearing had not deceived him after all.
"I was still more amazed when I saw that, I can tell you. I was struck all of a heap," went on Harry. "What were you up to? What were you doing there? You seemed to be watching for somebody. Who? I was burning. I got more and more curious. All thought of turning back had gone. I must find out what it all meant. So, when you rose to your feet, and stepped cautiously into this chamber, I just as cautiously crept to the place where you had been lying, and watched you moving about. Then I saw the man you called Zuker enter, and all that went on after.
"It was fearful, Paul. I saw you were in a fix, but I could do nothing to help you. Once I tried to cry out. It was when that man used the long foreign word. I did not understand what it meant at first, though you seemed to; but presently, when you began to say 'Our Father,' I knew what it meant. Then it was I tried to cry out, but no word came from my parched throat. I think it must have been God who prevented me from crying out, for had I done so, it might have been worse for both of us.
"A minute later I could see that a great change had come over the man when you began speaking about your father and Hibbert. Then I was knocked all of a heap again when I learned that poor little Hibbert was the man's son, and that you knew it. I think that the time I passed while I was watching and listening behind the curtain was the most awful I have ever been through—yes, worse than the time on the raft, and that's saying a great deal; but there was one good thing about it—I was beginning to see how we had all wronged you at Garside—what a noble fellow you really are, Paul."
"Humbug! Get on."
"There's little more to tell. I didn't so much mind when the man bound you, especially as I saw that he was going to leave you. I waited till he had gone—long enough to make sure that he didn't mean popping in his head again; then I crept from my hiding-place. The rest you know. I hope you're not sorry I followed you?"
Paul began to think that the hand of God was in this, as it had been in so many other things. It must have been Something Higher than mere chance which had prompted Harry to follow him to that place.
"Heaven only knows what might have happened to me, Harry, if you hadn't followed me. But come, we mustn't waste any more time. We don't want to spend the night in this place."
"Not quite, though I would not mind exploring it some other time," exclaimed Harry, gazing round the chamber curiously. "Plunger would give something to strike on a place like this. It's chalks better than desert islands. Where does that other passage-way lead to?"
Paul had more than once put the same question to him self. That place of mystery had often been in his thoughts since the day he had first visited it, and frequently had he asked himself—Where does it lead to on the other side? He had now seen clearly enough that there must be some way out on the other side, for Zuker had gone that way. If he could only find out, the information might be of some service to Harry's father.
"I don't know, Harry; but I'd very much like to find out. Would you mind waiting here for a few minutes? I won't be long."
"What are you going to do?"
"Going to explore—just a little way. The coast's clear."
"Going to explore? Well, then, I do mind waiting here. If you mean exploring, I mean going with you."
"Very well, Harry, we'll explore together."
So the two boys passed together through the passage on the other side of the chamber.
THE BURNING SHIP
The two boys had not gone very far before they came to a pause. It was impossible to see more than a few feet in front of them because of the darkness.
"Let's try to get a light," suggested Paul. "We can get one, I think, in the place we've just come from."
They returned to the chamber. Paul entered the recess from which Zuker had brought the rope and the cushions, and found that it was quite a storehouse; one part of it for provisions, tinned meats, fruits, fish; another for wood, tools, weapons, models; a third, for a curiously mixed wardrobe, which Paul guessed served the purpose of disguise. Here he found a lantern and matches, and thus provided with a light, they resumed their way.
The gallery or tunnel along which they now passed was about two hundred feet long. The width, as Paul roughly judged, was about thirteen feet, narrowing to some six or seven feet at the top. It had been cut through the chalk bed, at a depth of about six feet below the sand which covered it. At the end of this gallery were two passages, extending right and left. Passing down the former, they found it blocked by heaps of sand and chalk.
"It's quite certain we can't get out that way, Harry," said Paul; "we'd better try the other."
So, retracing their footsteps once more, they passed along the other passage. It was not so wide as the one they had already traversed, but the way was clear for a hundred yards or so; then the tunnel came abruptly to an end.
Paul regarded the wall in wonder. There was no way through it. Where, then, had Zuker gone? How had he managed to get out? Paul held the lantern up and examined the roof. It was clear to see that he was standing below what had once been the shaft to the tunnel. There were footholes in the sides.
"Ah, there's the way out! Hold the lantern, Harry, while I try to find the open sesame," said Paul.
Harry took the lantern, and Paul quickly made his way by means of the footholes to the top. He could then see that there was a square space which, though similar in appearance to the rest of the gallery, concealed the entrance to the shaft. He pushed it upward. It gave easily. It was a trap-door, leading into a square, ramshackle shed!
Paul made his way through into the shed, and a minute later Harry followed his example. They closed the trap-door, which then formed part of the floor, and completely concealed the opening into the shaft.
"Well, if that doesn't beat all!" exclaimed Harry, as the trap-door fell. "Mr. Zuker and his confederates must have been very tricky. No one would imagine what's beneath this old shed. Hallo! What's that?"
As Harry spoke a lurid gleam of light lit up the semi-darkness of the shed; only for an instant; then it as quickly died out.
"Seems like a fire somewhere," said Paul, as he tried to open the door of the shed; but it would not open. It was locked on the outside.
"We shall have to get through the window, Harry."
There was a small window on the right of the shed, just wide enough to get through.
"All right. Follow my leader, Paul."
Paul soon mounted to the window and climbed through. Harry quickly followed him. As he reached the ground there came another lurid gleam of light; then it died out as quickly as before.
"There it goes again, Paul. What is it?"
Paul was asking himself the same question. What was it? Whence did the light come? It was a dark night—no moon and few stars. But in the distance they could see lights flitting about like will-o'-the-wisps from the mastheads of ships; so they knew they were not far from the Medway.
"Thought so. We're close to the river," said Paul. "Now that we've found out all that we can, we'd better make for Garside."
"Yes. Hallo! there it goes again! Why—why, it's a ship on fire!" exclaimed Harry.
It was now clear enough to see that Harry was right. A ship was on fire. The flames, at first spasmodic, uncertain, had now gained a complete hold of the ship, and were shooting upward, like fiery serpents, into the sky.
All thought of Garside vanished from the boys' minds as they raced towards the river. As they drew nearer, they could see that the unusual spectacle had already attracted a great throng of spectators to the banks.
Little wonder, for as the flames crept upward to the rigging, writhing inward and outward to the arms, it was a grand, if terrible sight. And there was pathos in it, too; for the ship on fire was one of the great wooden ships in the Navy of the past. Its day of action—of fighting—had long since passed. So, moored in midstream, it had been used as a storeship.
The signal-lights "Ship on Fire" flashed along the river, and a picket-boat from a flagship, with other boats, approached as near as they could to the burning ship. Was there anybody on board? It seemed not—so far, at least, as could be seen.
But suddenly a cry of horror went up from the crowd. A man had suddenly made his appearance on the deck. He rushed about like a hunted fox, trying to elude its pursuers; then, finding it impossible, flung himself, with a strange cry that long haunted Paul's ears, into the river.
Paul knew that the man was Zuker. The picket-boat tried to reach him, but could not. The fire had enveloped the sides of the old ship, and shot out tongues of flame from every porthole. For the space of a minute Zuker's figure was seen silhouetted in flame against the darkness. Then the waters closed over him, and he was seen no more.
"That—that was Zuker. I'm sure of it," Paul whispered to Harry, when he could speak.
"I thought it looked like him, too," said Harry, in an awestruck whisper. "What could he be doing on that ship?"
"Up to no good, I'm afraid; but good or ill, his work is ended now."
Zuker had at last come to his death by the element from which Paul's father had saved him so long ago.
"Yes; I don't think he'll trouble anybody again," answered Harry, as he slipped his arm, with a shudder, through Paul's.
The flames from the middle of the ship were now leaping fifty feet into the air. The river manuals played upon it, but made little or no impression. It seemed to hiss back contempt and defiance as the water fell.
The excitement of the spectators grew, for a new and terrible source of danger had revealed itself. The chains by which the old ship was moored were beginning to give way. If that happened, she might drift, a mass of flame, against any one of the warships lying in her path.
"I say, Paul, this business may get father into a mess," Harry whispered.
Paul had forgotten, for the time, Mr. Moncrief's connection with the Government dockyard. Harry's words reminded him. A dread fear took possession of him. Perhaps the fire had all been designed—perhaps it was the work of an incendiary, and that incendiary Mr. Moncrief's enemy—Zuker. So long as the fire was limited to the old wooden ship it would not much matter, but if it once got from its moorings, it was impossible to say where the mischief would end.
"Oh, you needn't worry about your father, Harry," Paul answered, putting on his most cheerful voice and manner. "No one could blame him for a ship catching fire."
"I don't know so much about that. Pater's held responsible for almost everything. It's a great shame, that's what it is."
Paul thought the same, but did not venture to express an opinion. A buzz of excitement from the crowd broke in upon his meditations.
Looking in the direction in which all eyes were turned, he saw that a gunboat was steaming along the river. It was making for the flaming hulk.
"What's it going to do?" cried Harry, clutching Paul's arm excitedly. "It'll be right into the burning ship."
Paul was too intent on watching the man[oe]uvres of the gunboat to answer.
Suddenly, when it had got to within one hundred yards of the burning ship, it stopped and opened fire, just as though it had entered into action. Its target was the old ship—a mass of flame from bow to stern. The first shell, missing its mark, went hissing into the river. Jets of water shot upward into the air and fell in a sparkling cascade.
Boom! A flash of light from the gunboat, a whiff of smoke. This time the shell finds its target. Myriads of sparks are whirled in a mad dance to the heavens, then drop again like golden rain into the river. Shell followed shell. The old warship, engaged in its last great battle, fought grimly on. Like the old Guard, it refused to surrender. Twelve shots had been fired. Raked from bow to stern, it was a pathetic spectacle, like some huge leviathan lying wounded to death on the water, with its undaunted heart throbbing a requiem.
Shell could not vanquish it, so a charge of guncotton was exploded immediately beneath it; then the old warship gave a lurch. There was a flash of light—its last dying effort. After, darkness. The great tongue of flame was engulfed in the waters.
The boys had been so absorbed in the terrible spectacle that they had taken no heed of time. But when the ship had gone down, they found that it was ten o'clock. Garside was a good three miles distant, so that it would be close upon eleven before they reached the school again.
Three or four search-parties had been formed under the masters, and they met one of these as they neared the gates. It had been decided between Paul and Harry that nothing should be said about their adventures in the cave until Paul had had an explanation with Mr. Weevil. There was, of course, no reason why they should not speak of the exciting spectacle they had witnessed on the river.
"It must have been a remarkable sight," admitted Mr. Travers, the head of the search-party, "but I don't think Mr. Weevil is likely to accept it as an excuse for your long absence from the school. Besides, you had no business to take with you a junior boy."
Harry was about to explain that he had followed of his own accord, but a glance from Paul kept him silent. When they reached the school, they found Mr. Weevil awaiting them in the hall. He seemed to know that something unusual had happened.
"Come to my room, Percival," he said.
Percival followed him to his room, just as he had done on that day when Hibbert died.
"Something has happened. What is it?" he demanded, as he closed the door.
There was no need for secrecy longer, so Paul told the master everything—how he had discovered Hibbert's parentage; how he had discovered the cave, and all the events that had happened in the train of these discoveries up to the moment of Zuker's death.
"Zuker dead!" exclaimed the master, when Paul came to this part of his story. "You are sure of it?"
"As certain as I can be of anything, sir."
Mr. Weevil paced up and down the room with his arms behind him. It was very clear to Paul to observe that he was very much agitated.
"Dead! dead!" he kept repeating; then suddenly stopped, and confronting Paul astonished him by abruptly demanding: "And what do you think of me—eh? What do you think of your master—eh? You think him a precious scoundrel—eh? You think that he ought to be with Zuker in the river—eh?"
THE PETITION—WHAT BEFELL IT
The master put the questions—the questions which formed so strong an indictment against himself—with grim solemnity. Paul scarcely knew how to answer him, so was silent.
"Well?" persisted Mr. Weevil.
"I must say that at one time I was suspicious of you, sir. I thought you were in league with traitors against your country—against England."
"When did your opinion alter?"
"When I heard you in the cave appealing to Zuker to give up his scheme; when I heard you telling him that the hand of a Higher than man was in it. Then I remembered that however stern you had been to others, you had been kind and tender to Hibbert, and it slowly dawned upon me that it was for poor Hibbert's sake you kept in with Zuker, that for his sake you were playing a part you did not care for."
"Thank you. I'm glad you've done me justice in your own mind, Percival," answered the master, with more feeling than he was in the habit of displaying. "You have guessed my motive precisely. It was for Hibbert's sake—the son of the sister I loved—that I kept on friendly terms with Zuker. But my duty to Hibbert—my love for him—did not make me blind to the interests of my country. All along I have been in communication with the Moncriefs. It was I who first communicated with Mr. Henry Moncrief, in cipher, the information of Zuker's arrival in England. It was arranged, however, that Zuker was to be allowed to develop his plans, along with his confederates, before any action was taken to checkmate him. The Admiralty wished to obtain complete information of all the details of the scheme, and I alone was in the position of giving it them. First of all, however, I made my terms with the Admiralty. They were these: When Zuker's plans were developed, they were at liberty to take what action they pleased to counteract those plans, and arrest any accomplice who might be engaged in work with Zuker, but I made this proviso, that no step should be taken to arrest Zuker himself, without my knowledge and sanction. Furthermore, that in return for the information I was able to furnish as to every detail of the plot, I was to be permitted in the last resort to warn Zuker, so that he might escape to his native country, if he cared to.
"In that interview you overheard, I made my first strong appeal to him. Unfortunately it was not successful, and worse than that, he became suspicious of me. The death of dear little Hibbert took away the only link that bound me to Zuker. One or two of his confederates were arrested, and he himself became conscious that the net was closing round himself. Your appearance in his hiding-place must have brought that home to him. What happened after that I can only guess. I have two theories—the first, that, in escaping by the river, he might have taken refuge for a time on the old battleship, and was in hiding at the time when the fire broke out. The other theory is that, recognizing that his schemes had been a complete failure, he deliberately set fire to the ship, and perished in the flames. He who knows the motives as well as the actions of all men, will alone know which of these theories is the right one. God be merciful to him, as to me, miserable sinner."
Mr. Weevil stood with bowed head. And as he breathed, thus reverently, the response he had so often heard, Paul felt his mother's hand stealing into his, as it had so often stolen into it in the village church in days gone by, when the good vicar read the Litany, and prayed for deliverance from "lightning and tempest, from plague, pestilence, and famine; from battle and murder, and from sudden death." The man who had brought about "the sudden death" of his father, had ended his with tragic swiftness, and now stood before the Judge of all. The time for the last great trial had come for Israel Zuker.
"Before Him—before the Judge of all men," said Mr. Weevil, at length breaking the silence, "I hope to justify myself for what I have done, as well as for what I have left undone, but in the meantime I shall never forget the part that you have played, Percival. It is true, profoundly true, that no good deed is ever lost. Your kindness to Hibbert will ever be a sacred memory to me. Good-night, Percival, and God bless you."
And Paul, with his heart very full, turned from the room.
When Paul went out, Mr. Weevil did not retire to rest. He was one of those men who require very little sleep. He unlocked a drawer in his desk, and took from it several loose sheets of paper, with entries on them. These he regarded closely for a moment or two, then leaned reflectively back in his chair, with eyes closed. Then he looked at the pages again, together with some memoranda jotted on a separate sheet of paper. His scrutiny ended, he put them back into the drawer, and locked them up again.
Having done this, he took up a sheet of foolscap, on which was written, in the form of a petition, the resolution of the Fifth calling upon Mr. Weevil to expel Percival from Garside. To this petition were attached the names of the mover and seconder of the resolution—Stanley Moncrief and Parfitt—followed by the names of the other boys in the Form, with the exception of Waterman.
Mr. Weevil had not yet answered this unusual petition, so he took up a pen and paper and wrote:
"Mr. Weevil's compliments, and he will be pleased to meet the Fifth, and go into their petition to-morrow. As so delicate a matter cannot be discussed before the whole school, the form will return to the class-room, where the master will come to them at the end of the day's work. One last proviso, as it is the conduct of Percival which has been impugned, it will, of course, be necessary for him to be present at the inquiry, so that he may be heard in his own defence."
This note he folded up, placed in an envelope, and directed to Hasluck, the head of the Form. The following morning it was delivered to Hasluck by Bax, the porter. Having read it, Hasluck passed it round the Form. Waterman was next to Percival. Instead of passing it to him, he just glanced at it and passed it back to Parfitt with a yawn.
"Doesn't interest me. More in your line, Parfitt."
Waterman, in this dexterous manner, escaped the painful duty of passing on a note for which he was in no way responsible.
As he afterwards said, "he liked to see others troubling over their own underhand business."
Parfitt bit his lip, then, without a word, handed it to Paul. Paul read it. He had no difficulty in understanding its meaning. Harry had told him about the meeting that had been held about him. This letter was the result of it.
Adopting Parfitt's own tactics, he handed it back without a word, but he could not help stealing a glance at Stanley. His eyes were heavy, as though from want of sleep. He looked quite haggard and ill. He kept his eyes away from Paul, as though uncertain as to himself. He looked very miserable, and, indeed, he was even more miserable than he looked.
At the close of school that day, the Fifth passed back to their class-room. Soon after, Mr. Weevil entered. He looked cold, stern, implacable—a different man from the one Paul had seen the previous night speaking in tremulous tones about Hibbert. Those little human traits seemed to have vanished with the night. He was no longer the man, but the judge.
"Step forward, Percival," he said briefly.
Paul stepped forward.
"You know the charge against you?"
"No, sir; I've come to hear."
"The charge is in this petition," said the master, taking up the petition, which he unfolded and placed on the desk. "I needn't read it, but I can tell you briefly what the charge is. The charge is that you connived with the boys of a rival college—St. Bede's—to have the flag, which is held in so much honour and esteem here, stolen from the tower."
"Yes, sir. Anything more?" asked Paul, as the master paused and glanced down at the petition.
"The petition further alleges that having placed this dishonour on the school, you connived with the enemy to keep it by them till it suited your time and purpose, and that then you arranged for its return."
"Time and purpose?" repeated Paul. "What purpose?"
"What purpose?" repeated the master, glancing again at the petition. "It is clearly enough set forth. Listen. 'Percival had made enemies of his Form, and had looked for his friends at St. Bede's. His object in getting back the flag was to try to regain at one stroke some of his lost popularity.' Is that clear enough?"
"Quite clear, sir. What followed?"
"A resolution was moved and carried, with only one dissentient, that you should be expelled from the school."
"Who—who moved the resolution?" asked Percival, with an effort.
"Is it worth while my giving names?"
"I would like to know, sir, if you would be kind enough."
Mr. Weevil glanced at the names. He did not answer. The silence was broken by Stanley.
"I moved the resolution, Percival—Paul!" he cried, in a voice that seemed to be choking him. "I did you an injustice before all the Form. I now ask your pardon before all the Form. I'm ashamed of myself—ashamed that I so degraded myself as to move that resolution. My eyes were shut. Now they're open. I've been groping about in the dark. Now I'm in the light. I was a fool ever to doubt you, but appearances were so against you. It was your turning away from Wyndham at the gravel-pits that so rankled in my mind, and—and your friendly meetings with him after. I did not know——"
"Stop! Not quite so fast!" commanded Mr. Weevil. Stanley had poured out at a feverish rate the words that had been burning at his heart throughout the whole of the night and day. "Do I understand that you, Moncrief major, who proposed this resolution, now wish to withdraw it?"
"Yes, sir; every word of it. I have wronged Percival—deeply wronged him, and before all the Form I ask his pardon."
Paul's heart leapt with joy. He cared little what the others might think. Stanley had come round of his own accord. He had voluntarily asked his pardon. Paul grasped the hand stretched out to him.
"I see that it was you, Parfitt, who seconded this resolution, asking that Percival should be expelled from the school. Is it your wish to withdraw also?" asked the master.
"Certainly not," said Parfitt indignantly. "I'm not going to turn tail because Moncrief has. If Moncrief has sold me, I'm not going to sell all the other fellows who signed that petition."
A murmur of approval came from "the other fellows," except Waterman. He greeted it with the customary yawn.
"You still hold to your wish that Percival should be expelled from Garside?" asked Mr. Weevil.
"You understand that expelling a scholar from Garside is a very serious matter. It is a grave stigma placed on him at the commencement of his career—a stigma which clings to him when he goes from school into the sterner battle of life. I'm bound to impress this upon you, Parfitt, so that you may understand the gravity of the step you wish me to take."
"I understand, sir. We all understand."
"And you decline to do what Moncrief has done—withdraw from the petition?"
"Yes, sir. We can't stand Percival any longer."
"Hear! hear!" from Newall.
Suddenly, to the astonishment of the Form, the master opened the desk before him, and drew from it a book.
"You know this book?" he demanded.
Know it? They knew it but too well. It was the dreaded Black Book.
Why had the master produced the Black Book?
What was it to do with the question whether Percival should or should not be expelled?
"You are wondering why I produce the Black Book," said the master slowly, as though reading their thoughts. "I will explain—we have never yet discovered who tore out the leaves from this book. It occurred to me that before taking the step of expelling Percival from the school, it would be as well to make one more effort to find out who is the culprit.
"A few weeks ago, I received an anonymous letter suggesting that Percival should be questioned as to what he was doing on the night that part of the Black Book, and other documents, disappeared from my desk. As a rule, I take no heed of anonymous communications. The testimony of any one who is ashamed to put his name to a letter is, as a rule, worthless. But I was keenly interested in trying to discover who the culprit was who opened my desk, and I thought it just possible that if I could only find out the writer of this anonymous letter, it might lead to other discoveries which would throw light upon the theft of my notes."
The boys listened intently. What did it mean? Was yet another and more serious charge to be made against Percival?
"The letter was in a disguised hand, like most anonymous letters," the master proceeded; "but a master becomes a bit of an expert in handwriting, so, with the help of Mr. Travers here, the master of your Form, I was not long in finding out who wrote the anonymous letter. It was written by Parfitt."
The accusation was made slowly, deliberately, as by one who makes sure of his facts before speaking. It fell as a bomb in the midst of the listening boys. Parfitt turned to an ashen hue, and muttered something between his teeth.
"Speak up, sir! Please not to mutter," commanded Mr. Weevil, turning to Parfitt. "Do you deny that this letter"—he held up the anonymous letter, with its cramped, disguised handwriting—"is the work of your hand?"
Parfitt held up his head, and put on a bold front.
"No, sir; I don't deny it. That letter was written by me. As there were other things coming out against Percival, I thought it only right that you should make some inquiry into what he was doing on the night when the pages were torn from the Black Book. I did not want to push myself forward. I thought the inquiry would be better made by you; but as no steps seem to have been taken to find out what Percival did, I don't see why I should keep back what I know any longer."
"Well, what is it? What do you know? I am here to learn all I can."
"Well, sir, on the night that the pages were torn from the Black Book, I saw Percival get out of bed, slip into some of his things, and out of the dormitory. I saw him steal along the corridor, for what purpose I couldn't guess. I made a pretty good guess the next day."
"Your guess was that Percival opened my desk, and stole the papers?"
"I believe he did, sir. For what else could he have stolen from the dormitory in the dead of night?"
"Well, but what could be his purpose? Can you explain that?"
"Oh, that's easy enough explained. There were entries against himself and his friend Moncrief in the book. A serious one had been made against Moncrief that very afternoon, for which, you will remember, sir, he was sent to Dormitory X."
"I remember—quite well," said the master. "Well, Percival, what have you to say against this last charge?"
"Only that it is as false as the other."
"Did you leave your dormitory that night?"
"Yes, sir; I don't deny that. I did leave my room, but not to steal. I left it to go to Moncrief in Dormitory X. I thought the punishment too severe, sir, if you'll pardon me for saying so, so I thought that I would keep him company. It was wrong of me, I know; but I did not give it much thought at the time."
"And I can confirm every word that Percival has said!" exclaimed Stanley. "He came to me that night—to Dormitory X."
"Pshaw!" cried Newall, taking up Parfitt's case. "How could he get to you through the locked door?"
"He didn't get through the door. He came along the parapet, and got through the dormer window."
Blank amazement fell on the group.
"It's all very well to say that. Any one could say that," cried Parfitt; "but we want something better than that. We want proof!"
"If you won't take Moncrief's word, I think I can prove it by Mr. Weevil," said Paul, turning to the master. "As I passed by the window of your room, sir, I took the liberty of peeping in. I saw you discussing some plans with a friend. Perhaps you can recall it, sir?"
Mr. Weevil's mind had gone back to that night. He knew well enough to whom Paul was referring thus delicately as his friend—Zuker.
"Percival is right in every particular, but"—he broke off, as though suddenly recalling something—"there is one thing I ought to say. Fancying I heard a noise in Dormitory X that night, I paid it a visit, but found nobody there, except Moncrief, and he seemed fast asleep."
Parfitt, who had been looking glum, brightened up at this again.
"Seemed, sir," repeated Stanley, with a smile; "but I was just about as wide awake as I am now, and Percival was—under the bed."
There was a titter of laughter at this piece of information. The ghost of a smile played across the stern face of Mr. Weevil.
"I think Percival has made it perfectly clear as to where he was that night. You see that he is perfectly innocent of the charge brought against him by Parfitt; so we are thrown back into precisely the position we were in before. We have still to find out who is the real culprit—who it was opened my desk that night. As Parfitt has failed in his purpose, let us put our heads together and see if we can get a little nearer the truth. I will try to reconstruct the case for you, as the French say. Who was the culprit? What was his motive? His motive was to get possession of certain pieces of paper in my desk which gave valuable information for a prize competition which was taking place amongst the seniors—the prize, that is to say, to be given by Admiral Talbot for the best essay on 'The Invasion of Great Britain.' He did not want the Black Book. That would give him no assistance in his essay; but what he wanted was to throw suspicion on a certain boy—also a competitor for the prize—who was absent from his dormitory that night. He did this by removing the leaf, amongst others, which referred to the boy himself and the detention of his friend in the Punishment Dormitory. Am I clear?"
The Form were following Mr. Weevil so closely that they could only murmur an assent.
"I have told you about the anonymous letter," continued Mr. Weevil, "and the conclusion I had arrived at by the help of Mr. Travers. You have seen that that conclusion is correct, for Parfitt has himself admitted it. So much is clear. Now follow me a little farther. Not long after receiving this anonymous letter, some of the competitors began to send in their essays for the Talbot prize. Among others was one from Parfitt."
A profound silence fell on the room as the master once more pronounced that name. Every eye was turned to Parfitt, who was still doing his best to put on a bold face.
"It was a remarkably clever piece of work and would assuredly have won the prize. It was too clever, in fact. It contained information which astonished me—information which could not be obtained from the school library. It was information, in fact, such as I myself had obtained after special research, and which had been embodied in the notes that had been stolen from my desk."
"You mean to say that I am the thief—that I stole your notes!" blustered Parfitt.
"Silence, sir!" came the stern voice of the master. "Have the courtesy to hear me to the end. I have but little more to add, and then I shall be only too pleased to hear anything you may have to say in your defence. The way in which the information was used was so ingenious that it would have been quite impossible to declare that the writer of this essay was the culprit. I was quite certain of it in my own mind, but it needed additional proof. How to get it was the next point. In consultation with Mr. Travers here, a speedy decision was come to. It was of the utmost importance that the innocent should be cleared; the guilty punished. A locksmith was called in on the next half-holiday. Parfitt's box was opened, its contents examined. At the bottom we discovered the missing notes. The pages from the Black Book, as being useless, had been destroyed. The same fate would doubtless have followed my notes, so soon as the result of the competition was known. I took the notes from the box. A facsimile was put in their place. Here are the originals."
He held up the notes. All heads were eagerly craned forward to look at them.
"These are the originals," repeated the master, when the sensation caused by their production had abated. "I doubt not the facsimiles to which I have referred will still be found in Parfitt's box. What I suggest, therefore, is that he hand over his key to Hasluck, the head of this Form, that the porter should then bring the box to this room, and that it be opened in the presence of all of you. We shall then see if the facsimiles are still there."
Not a word fell from Parfitt's lips in answer to this appeal. At that moment he was passing through one of the most terrible ordeals a boy can pass through. The silence in the room became painful.
"I hope it won't be needful to call in the locksmith again, Parfitt," said the master. Then in a burst of agony came from the wretched boy's lips:
"You needn't open the box. I—I did it."
He dropped to the form, and covered his ashen face with his hands. Then came the master's voice again, with the solemnity of a judge pronouncing sentence:
"I did not wish to go through this ignominy, Parfitt, before the whole school. That is the reason I confined the inquiry to your Form and this room. Everything has been done to spare your feelings, though I cannot help saying that you do not seem to have cared very much for the feelings of others. I am sorry to say that the sentence you wished passed on Percival must be passed on yourself. You can no longer remain a scholar at Garside."
Parfitt knew well enough what that meant—it was a sentence of expulsion. He staggered to his feet, and was about to pass out without a word, when the voice of Paul brought him to a standstill.
"I do not mind what has been said against me—indeed, I don't!" exclaimed Paul; "we've all made mistakes; so please don't go so far with Parfitt. Don't expel him. Give him another chance!"
Parfitt could scarcely believe his ears. The boy whom he had sought to expel was taking his part—pleading that he might remain.
"It is generous of you to plead for him, but after what has happened, how is it possible for him to remain?" said the master.
Paul scarcely knew how to answer; but as he stood nonplussed a mist rose in the room, and as the mist cleared he saw a garden, with a delicate-faced boy, lying in an invalid chair, as though asleep. A little wren had perched itself upon his shoulder.
"Let him stay for—for Hibbert's sake," came in a gulp.
The master turned his head for a moment. When he once more faced the boys, the hard light had vanished from the blinking eyes, and a softer light shone there.
"What has happened has not gone beyond this room. The facts, so far, have not been disclosed to the whole school," he said. "It may not, perhaps, be necessary. I will see what can be done in consultation with my colleagues. I trust it may be possible for us to respond to Percival's generous appeal. Attention! Half-turn! March!"
And the boys filed slowly from the class-room.
* * * * *
Vacation at last!
To Paul the term through which he had passed was the most memorable in his school life, as it was, perhaps, the most memorable in the history of the school. He spent a week with the good mother whom he loved, and who so loved him. He sat again in the old church with her, and heard again the vicar's fervent voice in the Litany:
"From lightning and tempest; from plague, pestilence, and famine; from battle and murder, and from sudden death."
In the days gone by he used to wonder how it was that his mother's hand used to tremble in his when those solemn words echoed in the church. Now he understood, as he knelt once more by her dear side—none better. The last term at Garside had taught him a lesson which would never be erased from his mind so long as life lasted.
At the end of the week he went to Redmead, in response to the invitation which Mr. Walter Moncrief had sent him in that letter to Garside which had caused him such heart-burning. Stanley was there to meet him. The old friendship between them was resumed. The clouds had passed away, leaving them the better, the stronger—they were once more in the sunshine.
Mr. Moncrief had learnt all that had happened at Garside. Harry entertained them at tea-time with his and Plunger's adventures as members of the Mystic Order of Beetles, and his sister nearly had a fit of apoplexy as he described Plunger crawling on hands and knees round the ring while the Mystic Brethren proceeded to initiate him as "a brother."
Stanley was the only one who was not infected with Connie's mirth. He remained so serious amid the general merriment that Harry suddenly brought down his hand upon his shoulder and in a tragic voice declaimed the incantation which had made so remarkable an impression upon Plunger:
"Beetles of the Mystic Band, Wind we round thee hand in hand,"
and so on.
"No, we're not going to send Stan to the Realms of Creepy-Crawley," smiled Connie, putting her arm through her cousin's with an air of possession as Harry ended:
"We don't mind Mr. Plunger going there. He'd be quite at home; but not Stan."
Stanley smiled, but soon relapsed into his former gravity.
"A penny for your thoughts, Stan!" said Mrs. Moncrief.
"Oh, I was only thinking of one of the Beetles—Wyndham. I was wondering whether we should see anything of him during the vac."
"Would you like to meet him?" asked Mr. Moncrief.
Paul said nothing; but he felt a keen sense of gratification at the words that fell from Stanley. It showed that all animosity towards Wyndham had completely vanished, and that he was anxious to meet him again, not as an enemy, but on a footing of friendship.
Mr. Moncrief was absent for a good part of the next day. On the day following he announced that he was going to take them for a drive in the wagonette. They were, of course, anxious to know where.
"Well, Harry has asked me once or twice whether we couldn't travel over some of the ground over which Paul travelled on the night when he broke in upon us here at the end of his last vacation. I think this is the most favourable opportunity we shall have to carry out his suggestion, if you're all agreeable."
Of course they were agreeable. So, early the next morning, the wagonette came to the door, and the little party, in the best of spirits, started on the drive.
No contrast could have been greater than the contrast between that morning of bright sunshine and the night when Paul started from Redmead with Mr. Moncrief. On that never-to-be-forgotten night danger seemed to be lurking in every hedgerow. The shadows lay thickly across their pathway, and the sight of home had never been so dear to Paul as when he at length came in sight of it that night. How different it all seemed in the bright sunshine!
By an indirect route they came to the common over which Paul had ridden on Falcon. They stopped at the spot where Zuker and his confederate had seized Falcon's bridle. Then they turned back, and paused once more where the brave horse had staggered and fallen. Paul had not seen the place since, and as they reached it, he lived once again through the incidents of those few terrible moments when the life-blood of Falcon was slowly oozing away. He could see it lying there; he could see the crimson stream running from its flank, the look of pathos in its eyes as it turned to him.
"I think we will drive on," said Mr. Moncrief gently. "We owe a good deal to Falcon, so I mean to have a little memorial to his memory some day—to the memory of a noble horse. There are some animals, it seems to me, who are as much entitled to it as human beings."
A great surprise was in store for them when they reached the well down which Paul had hidden from his pursuers. Wyndham was standing there, just as he had stood on the night when he had covered Paul's retreat!
Then it turned out that Mr. Moncrief had arranged this little surprise on the previous day; that he had visited Wyndham, and appointed to meet him at the well. To the delight of the boys, the arrangement went still further—Wyndham was to return with them, and spend a few days at Redmead.
Stanley was one of the first to give him a hearty greeting.
"You must be my friend as well as Paul's," he said earnestly, as he shook him by the hand.
"There's no one, I suppose, who would like to repeat Paul's experience in the well?" smiled Mr. Moncrief, when the excitement of the meeting had cooled down.
The invitation, it is unnecessary to say, was "declined with thanks."
The happy party returned to Redmead. When the evening came on, the blinds drawn, the lamps lit, and the friends were all together, Paul could not help thinking there was just one thing missing to complete the day's experience.
"When I came here that night and listened at the door, you were singing," he said.
"Singing what?" asked Mrs. Moncrief.
"'Now the day is over.'"
"Happy thought! Let us have it again!" exclaimed Mr. Moncrief.
Mrs. Moncrief went to the piano, and heartily they sang:
"Now the day is over, Night is drawing nigh, Shadows of the evening Steal across the sky.
Through the long night watches, May Thine angels spread Their white wings above me, Watching round my bed."
Of a surety that fervent appeal had been answered. God had indeed guarded the boys through the "long night watches" at school, and through much trial and temptation had brought them safely together under the same hospitable roof.
* * * * *
A SERIES OF EXCELLENT STORIES
Full of incident and adventure, which will be read with keen interest and enjoyment.
Each with a distinctive Coloured Jacket, Coloured Frontispiece and other Illustrations. In Large Crown 8vo, cloth gilt.
"HONOUR BRIGHT" (David Chester's Motto) By H. ESCOTT-INMAN
THE SECOND FORM MASTER OF ST. CYRIL'S By H. ESCOTT-INMAN
LOYAL AND TRUE By M. B. MANWELL
THE BOYS OF MONK'S HAROLD By J. HARWOOD PANTING
CLIVE OF CLAIR COLLEGE By HARRY HUNTINGDON
THE HERO OF GARSIDE SCHOOL By HARRY HUNTINGDON
THE TWO RUNAWAYS By HARRY HUNTINGDON
AN UPHILL GAME By HARRY HUNTINGDON
PUBLISHED BY FREDERICK WARNE & CO., LTD. LONDON AND NEW YORK