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   Chapter 4 THE SUPPER CLUB.

The Triple Alliance By Harold Avery Characters: 21947

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:04


As this story is to be a history of the Triple Alliance, and not of The Birches, it will be necessary to pass over many things which happened at the preparatory school, in order that full justice may be done to the important parts played by our three friends in an epoch of strange and stirring events at Ronleigh College.

Diggory, by the daring exploit described in the previous chapter, won all hearts; and instead of being looked upon as a new boy, was regarded quite as an old and trusty comrade. Acton displayed marked favour towards the Triple Alliance, and was even more friendly with Diggory and Jack Vance than with his room and class mates, Shaw and Morris.

The Philistines seemed, for the time being, paralyzed by the humiliation of their mud bath, and for many months there was a complete cessation from hostilities.

It was perhaps only natural that in time of peace a brave knight like Acton should turn his thoughts from war to love-making, and therefore I shall make no excuse for relating a little experience of his which must be introduced as a prelude to the account of the formation of the famous supper club.

At the very commencement of the summer term it was plain to everybody that something was wrong with the dux; he seemed to take no interest in the doings of his companions in the playground, and only once roused himself sufficiently to bang Cross with a leg-guard for bowling awful wides at cricket.

At length, one afternoon, Diggory and Jack Vance on entering the shed found him sitting on the carpenter's bench, with his chin resting in his hand, and a most ferocious expression on his face.

"Hullo! what's up?"

Acton stared blankly at the new-comers until the question had been repeated; then he sat up and straightened his back with the air of one who has made a great resolve.

"I don't mind telling you two," he said. "You know I've said before that I meant some day to propose to Miss Eleanor. Well," he added, stabbing the bench with the gimlet, "I'm going to do it."

"I've saved five and ninepence," continued the speaker, "to buy a ring with, but I can't make up my mind whether I'd better speak or write to her. What do you think?"

"I should say," answered Diggory, after a moment's thought, "that the best thing would be to toss up for it."

"All right; have you got a coin?"

"No, but I think I've got a brass button. Yes, here it is. Now, then, front you speak, and back you write. There you are-it's a letter!"

"Well, now," said Acton, getting off the bench and sticking his hands deep in his trousers pockets, "what had I better say? I shall be fifteen in August; I thought I'd tell her my age, and say I didn't mind waiting."

"I believe it's the girl who always says that," answered Jack Vance, kicking a bit of wood into a corner.

"Then, again, I don't know how to begin. Would you say 'Dear Miss Eleanor,' or 'Dear Miss Welsby'? I think 'Dear Eleanor' sounds rather cheeky."

"I'll tell you what I should do," answered Diggory, who seemed to have a great idea of letting the fates decide these matters: "I should write 'em all three on slips of paper and then draw one."

"Well, I'm going to write the letter in 'prep' this evening, and let her have it to-morrow. Did you notice I gave her a flower this morning, and she stuck it in her dress?"

"Yes; but fellows are often doing that," answered Jack Vance, "and she always wears them, either in her dress or stuck up somehow under her brooch."

"Oh, but this was a white rose, and a white rose means something, though

I don't know what. At all events, she'll have the letter to-morrow, and

I'll tell you fellows when I give it her, only of course you mustn't

breathe a word to any one else."

"All right: we won't," answered Diggory, "except to old Mugford, because he's one of the Alliance, and we've sworn not to have any secrets from each other, and he won't split."

That evening the Triple Alliance lay awake until a late hour discussing the situation. Mugford's opening comment was certainly worth recording,-

"I hope she'll accept him."

"Why?"

"Why, because if she does, I should think old Welsby'll give us a half-holiday."

It was evident at breakfast, to those who were in the know, that Acton was prepared for the venture. He was wearing a clean collar and new necktie, and ate only four pieces of bread and butter, besides his bacon.

"He's shown me the letter," whispered Diggory to Jack Vance; "only I promised I wouldn't say what was in it, but it ends up with a piece of poetry as long as this table!"

After morning school was the time agreed upon for the dux to cast the die which was to decide his future; and as soon as the classes were dismissed, Jack Vance and Diggory met him by appointment in one corner of the garden.

"I've done it," he said, looking awfully solemn. "She was in the hall, and I gave it to her as I came out. I say, how many t's are there in 'attachment'?"

Jack Vance thought one, Diggory said two; and the company then relapsed into silence, and stood with gloomy looks upon their faces, as though they were waiting to take part in a funeral procession.

At length a voice from the house was heard calling, "Fred-Fred Acton!" The dux turned a trifle pale, but pulling himself together, marched off with a firm step to learn his fate.

"She called him Fred," murmured Diggory; "that sounds hopeful."

"Oh, that's nothing," answered Jack Vance; "Miss Eleanor always calls fellows by their Christian names. There's one thing," he added, after a few moments' thought-"if she'd cut up rough over the letter, she might have called him Mr. Acton. Hullo, here he comes!" As he spoke Acton emerged from the house, and came down the path towards them; his straw hat was tilted forward over his eyes, and his cheeks were glowing like the red glass of a dark-room lamp. He sauntered along, kicking up the gravel with the toe of his boot.

"Well, what happened?" inquired Jack Vance.

No answer.

"What's the matter ?" cried Diggory; "what did she say?"

"Why, this!" answered the other, in a voice trembling with suppressed emotion: "she said I was a silly boy, and-and-gave me a lump of cake!"

If any one else had done it, the probability is Acton would have slain them on the spot. Diggory opened his eyes and mouth wide, and then exploded with laughter. "Oh my!" he gasped, "I shall die, I know I shall! Ha, ha, ha!"

Acton eyed him for a moment with a look of indignant astonishment; then he began to smile, Jack Vance commenced to chuckle, and very soon all three were laughing in concert.

"Well, I think it's rather unfeeling of you fellows," said the rejected suitor; "I can tell you I'm jolly cut up about it."

"I'm awfully sorry," answered Diggory, "but I couldn't help laughing. Cheer up; why, think, you won't have to get the ring now, so you can do what you like with that five and ninepence you saved. Why, it's worth being refused to have five and ninepence to spend in grub!"

"Ah, Diggy !" said the other, shaking his head in a mournful manner, "wait till you're as old as I am: when you're close on fifteen you'll think differently about love and all that sort of thing."

As has already been hinted, it was the failure of this attempt on the part of the dux to win the heart and hand of Miss Eleanor that indirectly brought about the formation of the famous supper club. About a week after the events happened which have just been described, Acton invited the Triple Alliance to meet the "House of Lords" in the work-shed, to discuss an important scheme which he said had been in his mind for some days past; and the door having been locked to exclude outsiders, he commenced to unfold his project as follows:-

"I've been thinking that during the summer term, and while the weather's warm, our two rooms might form a supper club. We'd hold it, say, once a week, when pocket-money is given out, and have a feed together; one time in your room, and the next in ours, after every one's gone to bed. You know I saved some money at the beginning of the term to buy an engagement ring with; but I don't want it now, so I'm going to spend the tin in grub, and if you like I'll stand the first feed."

There was a murmur expressive of approbation at this generous offer, mingled with sympathy for the unhappy circumstance which gave rise to it, and which was now an open secret.

"Oh," said Shaw, "that's a grand idea! I know my brother Bob, who's at a big school at Lingmouth, told me that he and some other chaps formed a supper club and held it in his study. It's by the sea, and they used to go out and catch shrimps; and they only had one old coffee-pot, that they used to boil over the gas; so they cooked the shrimps in it first, and made the coffee after. One night they only had time to heat it up once, and so they boiled the shrimps in the coffee; and Bob says they didn't taste half bad, and that they always used to do it after, to save time."

"Well, I propose that we have one," cried Morris.

The resolution was carried unanimously. Acton was elected president, and by way of recognizing the mutual interest of the Triple Alliance, Jack Vance was appointed to act as secretary, and it was decided to hold the first banquet on the following night.

"We can buy the grub to-morrow," said Acton; "but there's one thing we ought to fetch to-day, and that is, I thought we might have, say, six bottles of ginger-beer. Then each man must take his own up to bed with him this evening, and hide it away in his box or in one of his drawers."

This was accordingly done, and, as it happened, was the cause of the only disaster which attended the formation of the club. For the first week in June the weather was unusually hot: a candle left all day in the "Main-top" was found drooping out of the perpendicular, and when the Triple Alliance retired to rest their bedroom felt like an oven. They were just dozing off to sleep, when all three were suddenly startled by a muffled bang somewhere close to them. In an instant they were sitting up in bed, rubbing their eyes with one hand and grasping their pillows with the other.

"Look out, they're coming!" whispered Jack Vance; "wasn't that something hit the door?"

"It sounded as if something fell on the floor," answered Diggory.

"I wonder if anything's rolled off either of the washstands."

Jack Vance reconnoitred the passage, while Diggory and Mugford examined the room; but nothing could be found to account for the disturbance.

"It must have been the fellows in the 'Main-top.' I expect they dropped a book or upset a chair. Don't let's bother about it any more."

The following morning, however, the mystery was explained. The boys were hastily putting on their clothes, when Mugford, who had just thrown aside a dirty collar, gave vent to an exclamation of dismay, which attracted the attention of his two companions.

"Hullo!

what's up?"

"Why, look here! If this beastly bottle of ginger-beer hasn't gone and burst in the middle of my box!"

The first meeting of the supper club was a great success. How ever Acton and his noble friends had managed to smuggle upstairs, under their jackets, a pork-pie, a plum-cake, a bag of tarts, and a pound of biscuits, was a feat which, as Jack Vance remarked, "beat conjuring."

Shortly after midnight the Triple Alliance wended their way to the "House of Lords," where they found the three other members quite ready to commence operations. The good things were spread out on the top of a chest of drawers, and the company ranged themselves round on the available chairs and two adjacent beds, and commenced to enjoy the repast.

"Ah, well," sighed Acton, with his mouth full of pork-pie, "I'm rather glad for some things that I didn't get engaged. It must be rather a bore having to spend all your money in rings and that sort of thing, instead of in grub; though I really think I'd have given up grub for Miss Eleanor."

"I wonder," said Morris, who was of a more prosaic disposition, "how it is that it's always much jollier having a feed when you ought not to than at the proper time. For instance, eating this pork-pie at a table, with knife and fork and a plate, wouldn't be a quarter the fun it is having it like we're doing now-cutting it with a razor out of Acton's dressing-case, and knowing that if we were cobbed we should get into a jolly row."

"Talking about rows over feeds," said Acton, "my brother John is at Ronleigh College, and I remember, soon after he went there, he said they had a great spree in his dormitory. One of the chaps had had a hamper sent him, and they smuggled the grub upstairs; and when they thought the coast was clear, they spread a sheet on the floor, and laid out the grub as if it were on a table-cloth. The fellow who was standing treat was rather a swell in his way, and among other things he'd got his jam put out in a flat glass dish. It was a fine feed, and they'd just begun, when they heard some one coming. They'd only just got time to turn out the gas and jump into bed before the door opened, and in came one of the masters called Weston. Well, of course, they all pretended to be asleep. But the master had heard them scrambling about, and he walked in the dark up the aisle between the beds, saying, 'Who's been out of bed here?' Then all of a sudden he stuck his foot into the glass jam-dish, and it slid along the floor, and down he came bang in the middle of all the spread. John said that when the gas was lit they couldn't help laughing at old Weston: he'd rammed one elbow into a box of sardines, and there was a cheese-cake stuck in the middle of his back. But oh, there was a row, I can tell you!"

This yarn produced others, and the time passed pleasantly enough, until full justice had been done to the provisions, and hardly a crumb remained.

"Phew! isn't it hot?" said Diggory; "let's open the window a bit. The moon must be full," he continued, as he raised the sash; "it's nearly as light as day. I can see all down the garden, and-hullo! quick, put the candle out!"

Every one started to his feet, and the light was extinguished in a moment.

"What is it-what's the matter?" they all asked. "There's some one in the playground," whispered Diggory, as the others crowded round him. "You see the door at the bottom of the garden; well, just when I spoke some one opened it and looked up at the house, and then shut it again. It must have been Blake, and he's seen our light."

"It can't be Blake," answered Acton; "he's gone to Fenley to play in a cricket match, and isn't coming back till to-morrow morning. Old Welsby went to bed hours ago; and, besides, what should either of them want to be doing down there at this time of night? You must have been dreaming, Diggy."

"No, I wasn't; I saw it distinctly. It must be old Blake. He's come home sooner than he expected, and I shouldn't wonder if he's going round by the road to take us by surprise."

"He can't do that," answered Acton, "because I've got the key of the shed, and the door-key's hung up inside."

Acton remained watching at the window while the others hastily cleared away all traces of the feast; the Triple Alliance retired to their own room, and nothing further was heard or seen of the mysterious visitor.

The next morning it was discovered that Mr. Blake had not returned from Fenley, and the five other members of the supper club were inclined to regard Diggory's vision of the midnight intruder as a sort of waking nightmare, resulting from an overdose of cake and pork-pie. Two days later Cross came into the schoolroom in a great state of excitement.

"Look here, you fellows," he exclaimed: "some one keeps taking away my things out of the shed, and not putting them back. Last week I missed a saw and two chisels, and now that brace and nearly all the bits are gone. It's a jolly shame!"

Carpentering was Cross's great hobby, and his collection of tools was an exceptionally good one, both as regards quantity and quality. Every one, however, denied having touched the things mentioned. A general search was made; but the missing articles could not be found, and at length the matter was reported to Mr. Welsby.

The latter was evidently greatly displeased on hearing the facts of the case. As soon as dinner was over he called the school together, and after standing for some moments in silence, frowning at the book he carried in his hand, said briefly,-

"With regard to these tools, there is a word which has never been used before in connection with any pupil at The Birches, and which I hope I may never have occasion to use again. I can hardly think it possible that we have a thief in the house. I am rather inclined to imagine that some one has removed the things and hidden them away in joke; if so, let me tell him that the joke has been allowed to go too far, and that, unless they are returned at once, a shadow of doubt will be cast upon the honour and integrity of all here present. It is impossible for such large articles as a saw and a brace to be mislaid or lost on such small premises as these, and I trust that before this evening you will report to me that the things have been found. I have purposely allowed the key of the shed to remain in your own possession, feeling certain that your behaviour as regards each other's property would be in accordance with the treatment which one gentleman expects to receive from another. You may go."

There was little in the nature of a scolding in this address, and yet something in it caused every one to leave the room in a state of great excitement. Acton and Jack Vance especially fairly boiled with wrath.

"What old Welsby says is quite right," remarked the latter; "and until those things are found, we may all be looked upon as thieves."

The search, however, proved fruitless; and, what was worse, in turning over the contents of the shed, Acton discovered that a bull's-eye lantern belonging to himself had disappeared from the shelf on which it usually stood; while Mugford declared that a box of compasses, which he had brought down a few days before to draw a pattern on a piece of board, was also missing.

Directly after tea Acton button-holed Diggory, and taking him aside said, "Look here, I'm in an awful rage about these thing's being prigged, because, of course, I've got the key of the shed; and didn't you hear what old Welsby said about it? It looks uncommonly as if I were the thief. You remember what you said the other night when we had that feed, about seeing that man? D'you think there is any one who comes here at night and steals things?"

"Well, I'm certain I saw some one in the playground when I told you. It was a man; but whether he comes regularly and goes into the shed I don't know, but I think we ought to be able to find out."

"How?"

"Oh, some way or other; I'll tell you to-morrow." That night, long after the rest of the house were asleep, the Triple Alliance lay awake engaged in earnest conversation; and in the morning, as the boys were assembling for breakfast, Diggory touched Acton on the shoulder and whispered,-

"I say, we've thought of a plan to find out if any one goes into the shed at night."

"Who's 'we'?"

"Why, the Triple Alliance; we thought it out between us. Sneak out of the house directly after evening 'prep,' and meet me in the playground, and I'll show you what it is."

At the time appointed Acton ran down the path, and found Diggory waiting for him by the shed.

"Look," said the latter, "I've cut a little tiny slit with my knife in each door-post, about three feet from the ground, and I'm going to stretch this piece of black cotton between them. No one will see it, and if they go through the door, the thread will simply draw out of one of the slits without their noticing it, and we shall see that it's been disturbed. Jack Vance says that when he's been out shooting with his guv'nor he's seen the keeper put them across the paths in a wood to find out if poachers have been up them. Now unlock the door, and let's go inside."

In front of the bench, where the ground had been much trodden, there was a great deal of loose dust. Diggory went down on his hands and knees, and producing an old clothes-brush from his pocket, swept about a square yard of the ground until the dust lay in a perfectly smooth surface.

"There," he said, rising to his feet again; "we'll do this the last thing every night, and any morning if we find the cotton gone we must look here for footprints, and then we ought to be able to tell if it's a man or a boy."

"Don't you think we ought to tell Blake about that man you saw?" asked

Acton, as they walked back to the schoolroom.

"Well, I don't see how we can," answered Diggory. "The first thing he'll ask will be,' Who saw him?' I shall say, 'I did;' and then he'll want to know how I saw the playground door from my bedroom window, which looks out on the road; and then the fat'll be in the fire, and it'll all come out about that supper."

Regularly every evening, as soon as supper was over, the two boys stole down into the playground to set their trap; but when morning came there was no sign of the shed having been entered. This went on for nearly a month, but still no result.

"I don't think it's any good bothering about it any more," said Acton; "the thief doesn't mean to come again."

"Well, we'll set it to-night," answered Diggory, "and that shall be the last time."

The following morning Acton was sauntering towards the playground, when

Diggory came running up the path in a state of great excitement.

"I say, the cotton's gone!"

Acton rushed down, unlocked the door of the shed, and went inside.

"Hullo!" he exclaimed, as Diggory followed; "it is some man. Look at these footprints, and hobnailed boots into the bargain!"

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