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   Chapter 5 CATCHING A TARTAR.

The Triple Alliance By Harold Avery Characters: 23342

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:04


It was impossible for two boys to keep such an important discovery to themselves, and the shed was soon filled with an eager crowd, all anxious to view the mysterious footprints. The Triple Alliance gained fresh renown as the originators of the scheme by which the disclosure had been made, and it was unanimously decided that the matter should be reported to Mr. Blake.

The master cross-questioned Acton and Diggory, but seemed rather inclined to doubt their story.

"I think," he said, "you must be mistaken. I expect the piece of cotton blew away, and the foot-marks must have been there before. I don't see what there is in the shed that should make it worth any one's while to break into it; besides, if the door was locked, the thief must have broken it open, and you'd have seen the marks."

Certainly nothing seemed to have been touched, and as no boy complained of any of his property having been stolen, the subject was allowed to drop, and the usual excitement connected with the end of term and the near approach of the holidays soon caused it to be driven from every one's thoughts and wellnigh forgotten.

With the commencement of the winter term a fresh matter filled the minds of the Triple Alliance, and gave them plenty of food for discussion and plan-making. On returning to Chatford after the summer holidays, they discovered that all three were destined to leave at Christmas and proceed to Ronleigh College, a large school in the neighbourhood, to which a good number of Mr. Welsby's former pupils had been transferred after undergoing a preliminary course of education at The Birches. Letters from these departed heroes, containing disjointed descriptions of their new surroundings, awakened a feeling of interest in the doings of the Ronleigh College boys. The records of their big scores at cricket, or their victories at football, which appeared in local papers, were always read with admiration; and the name of an old Birchite appearing in either of the teams was a thing of which every one felt justly proud.

"I wish I was going too," said Acton, addressing the three friends; "but my people are going to send me to a school in Germany. My brother John is there; he's one of the big chaps, and is captain of the football team this season. I'm going to get the Denfordshire Chronicle every week, to see how they get on in the matches."

Early in October the goal-posts were put up in the field, and the Birchites commenced their football practice. Mr. Blake was a leading member of the Chatford Town Club, and although six a side was comparatively a poor business, yet under his instruction they gained a good grounding in the rudiments of the "soccer" of the period. The old system of dribbling and headlong rushes was being abandoned in favour of the passing game, and forwards were learning to keep their places, and to play as a whole instead of as individuals.

"Come here, you fellows," said the master, walking into the playground one morning, with a piece of paper in his hand; "I've got something to speak about."

The boys crowded round, wondering what was up.

"I've got here a challenge from Horace House to play a match against them, either on our ground or on theirs. I think it's a pity that you shouldn't have an opportunity of playing against strangers. Of course they are bigger and heavier than we are, and we should probably get licked; but that isn't the question: any sportsman would sooner play a losing game than no game at all, and it'll be good practice. We always used to have a match with them every term; but some little time ago there seemed to be a lack-well, I'll say of good sportsmen among them, and the meetings had to be abandoned. I've talked the matter over with Mr. Welsby, and he seems willing to give the thing another trial."

An excited murmur ran through the crowd.

"Wait a minute," interrupted the speaker, holding up his hand. "Mr. Welsby has left it with me to make arrangements for the match, and I shall only do so on one condition. I know that since the event happened to which I referred a moment ago a decidedly unfriendly spirit has existed between you and the boys at Mr. Phillips's. Now an exhibition of this feeling on a football field would be a disgrace to the school. You must play like gentlemen, and there must be no wrangling or disputing. They are agreeable for a master to play on each side, so I shall act as captain. Anything that has to be said must be left to me, and I shall see you get fair play. Do you clearly understand?"

"Yes, sir."

"Very well, then, I'll write and say we shall be pleased to play them here on Saturday week."

The prospect of mooting the Philistines in the open field filled the mind of every boy with one thought, and the whole establishment went football mad. It was played in the schoolroom and passages with empty ink-pots and balls of paper, in the bedrooms with slippers and sponges, and even in their dreams fellows kicked the bed-clothes off, and woke up with cries of "Goal!" on their lips.

Mr. Blake arranged the order of the team, and remarking that they would need a good defence, put himself and Shaw as full backs. Acton took centre forward, with Jack Vance on his right, while Diggory was told off to keep goal.

At length the eventful morning arrived. Class 2 came utterly to grief in their work; but Mr. Blake understood the cause, and set the same lessons over again for Monday.

It was the first real match most of the players had taken part in, and as they stood on the ground waiting for their opponents to arrive, every one was trembling with excitement. The only exception was the goal-keeper, who leaned with his back against the wall, cracking nuts, and remarking that he "wished they'd hurry up and not keep us waiting all day." At length there was a sound of voices in the lane, and the next moment the enemy entered the field, headed by their under-master, Mr. Fox. Young Noaks and Hogson pounced down at once upon the practice ball, and began kicking it about with great energy, shouting at the top of their voices, and evidently wishing to make an impression on the spectators before the game began.

"I say," muttered Jacobs, "they're awfully big."

"Well, what does that matter?" answered Diggory, cracking another nut and spitting out the shell. "They aren't going to eat us; and as for that chap Noaks, he's all noise-look how he muffed that kick."

Mr. Blake tossed up. "Now, you fellows," he said, coming up to his followers, "we play towards the road; get to your places, and remember what I told you."

With young Noaks as centre forward, Hogson and Bernard on his right and left, and other big fellows to complete the line of hostile forwards, the home team seemed to stand no chance against their opponents. The visitors bowled them over like ninepins, and rushed through their first line of defence as though it never existed. But Mr. Blake stood firm, and kept his ground like the English squares at Waterloo. Attack after attack swept down upon him only to break up like waves on a rock, and the ball came flying back with a shout of "Now, then! Get away, Birches!" Twice the Horace House wing men got round Shaw, and put in good shots; but Diggory saved them both, and was seen a moment later calmly rewarding himself with another nut. Gradually, as the time slipped away and no score was made, the Birchites began to realize that being able to charge wasn't everything, and that their opponents could do more with their shoulders than with their feet, and soon lost control of the ball when bothered by the "halves." The play of the home eleven became bolder-the forwards managed a run or two; and though the Philistines had certainly the upper hand, yet it soon became obvious to them that it was no mere "walk over," and that victory would have to be struggled for.

Noaks and the two inside forwards evidently did not relish this state of things; they had expected an easy win, and began to show their disappointment in the increased roughness of their play.

At length, just before half-time, a thing happened which very nearly caused Mr. Blake's followers to break their promise.

Cross was badly kicked while attempting to take the ball from Hogson, and had to retire from the game.

There were some black looks and a murmur of indignation among the home team, but Mr. Blake hushed it up in a moment.

"I think," he said pleasantly, "that the play is a trifle rough. Our men," he added, laughing, "are rather under size."

Noaks muttered something about not funking; but Mr. Fox said,-

"Yes, just so. Come, play the game, boys, and think less about charging."

The loss of their right half-back was distinctly felt by the Birchites during the commencement of the second half, and Diggory was called upon three times in quick succession to save his charge. He acquitted himself like a brick, and the last time did a thing which afforded his side an immense amount of secret satisfaction. He caught the ball in his hands, and at the same moment Noaks made a fierce rush, meaning to knock him through the goal. Diggory, with an engaging smile, hopped on one side, and the Philistine flung himself against the post, and bumped his head with a violence which might have cracked any ordinary skull. He came back scowling. A moment later Jack Vance ran into him, and took the ball from between his feet. Noaks charged viciously, and in a blind fit of temper deliberately raised his fist and struck the other player in the face.

"Stop!"

It was Mr. Blake's voice, and he came striding up the ground looking as black as thunder.

"I protest against that deliberate piece of foul play. I have played against all the chief clubs in the district, and in any of those matches, if such a thing had happened, this man would have been ordered off the ground."

There was a buzz of approval, in which several of the Philistines joined.

"You are quite right, Mr. Blake," answered Mr. Fox. "I deeply regret that the game should have been spoiled by a member of my team.-Noaks," he added, turning to the culprit, "put on your coat and go home; you have disgraced yourself and your Comrades. I shall see that you send a written apology to the boy you struck."

"Bravo!" whispered Acton; "old Fox is a good sort."

"Oh, they're most of them all right," answered Morris; "it's only two or three that are such beasts."

The game was continued. The loss of one man on each side made the teams equal in numbers, but the sudden calamity which had overtaken their centre forward seemed to have exerted a very demoralizing effect on the Philistines.

Their attacks were not nearly so spirited, and several times the

Birchite forwards appeared in front of their goal.

Neither side had scored, and it seemed as though the game would end in a draw-a result which the home team would have considered highly satisfactory.

The umpire looked at his watch, and in answer to a query from Mr. Fox said, "Five minutes more."

"Look here, Acton," said Mr. Blake: "let me take your place, and you go back. Do all you can to stop them if they come."

The ball was thrown out of touch; Mr. Blake got it, and in a few seconds the fight was raging in the very mouth of the enemy's goal. Morris put in a capital shot; but the ball glanced off one of the players, and went behind.

"Corner!" cried Mr. Blake. "I'll take it. Now you fellows get it through somehow or other!"

"Mark your men, Horace House!" cried Mr. Fox. The next moment every one was shoving and elbowing with their eyes fixed on the ball as it flew through the air. It dropped i

n exactly the right place, and Jack Vance, by some happy fluke, kicked it just as it touched the ground. Like a big round shot it whizzed through the posts, and there was a rapturous yell of "Goal!"

The delight of the Birchites at having beaten their opponents was unbounded, and when, a short time later, the latter retired with a score against them of one to nil. Jack Vance was seized by a band of applauding comrades, who, with his head about a couple of feet lower than his heels, carried him in triumph across the playground, and staggered half-way up the steep garden path, when Acton happening to tread on a loose pebble brought the whole procession to grief, and caused the noble band of conquering heroes to be seen all grovelling in a mixed heap upon the gravel.

But it is not for the simple purpose of recording the victory over Horace House that a description of the match has been introduced into our story; and although the important part played by Diggory in goal and Jack Vance in the "fighting line" caused it to be an occasion when the Triple Alliance was decidedly in evidence and won fresh laurels, yet there are other reasons which make an account of it necessary, as the reader will discover in following the course of subsequent events. If Jack Vance had kicked the ball a yard over the bar instead of under it, the probability is that the following chapter would never have been written; while the public disgrace of young Noaks was destined to cause our three comrades more trouble than they ever expected to encounter, at all events on this side of their leaving school.

If the result of the match made such a great impression on the minds of the victors, it is only natural that it should have had a similar effect on the hearts of their opponents. Most of the Philistines would have been content to take their defeat as a sportsman should, but neither Noaks nor his two cronies, Hogson and Bernard, had any of this manly spirit about them; and smarting under the disappointment of not having won, and the knowledge that at least one of them had reaped shame and contempt instead of glory, they determined to seek a speedy revenge. As the three biggest boys in the school, they had little difficulty in inducing their companions to join in the crusade which they preached against The Birches, and the consequence was that the two schools were soon exchanging open hostilities with greater vigour than ever.

Now, although the Birchites had proved themselves equal to their opponents at football, they would have stood no chance against them in anything like a personal encounter. The other party were, of course, perfectly well aware of this fact, and waxed bold in consequence. Again and again, when Mr. Welsby's pupils were at football practice, and Mr. Blake happened not to be present, the enemy's sharp-shooter crept into ambush behind the hedge and discharged stones from their catapults at the legs of the players, while the latter replied by inquiring when they meant to "come over and take another licking." At other times these Horace House Cossacks swooped down on single members of the rival establishment, harrying them in the very streets of Chatford, and on one occasion had the audacity to lay violent hands on Jacobs, beat his bowler hat down over his eyes, and push him through the folding doors of a drapery establishment, where he upset an umbrella-stand and three chairs, had his ears boxed by the shop-walker, and was threatened with the police court if ever he did such a thing again! At length it became positively perilous for the weaker party to go beyond the precincts of their own citadel except in bodies of three or four together. All kinds of plans for retaliation were suggested, but still the Philistines continued to score heavily. At length, about the last week in October, a thing happened which raised the wrath of the Birchites to boiling-point.

Cross having received five shillings from home on the morning of his birthday, determined to celebrate the occasion by the purchase of a pork-pie, of which he had previously invited all his companions to partake. The latter were standing in the playground waiting for his return from Chatford, when they became conscious of certain "alarms without;" whoops and war-cries sounded somewhere down Locker's Lane, and ceased as suddenly as they had begun. The boys stood for some moments wondering what this could mean, and were just thinking of starting a fresh game of "catch smugglers," when there came a banging at the door. It was flung open, and Cross rushed into their midst, flushed, dishevelled, and empty-handed!

What words of mine can tell that tale of woe or describe the burst of indignation which followed its recital? Cross had unwisely decided to shorten his return journey by risking the dangers of Locker's Lane. He had been captured by a party of Philistines, who, under the leadership of Hogson, had not only robbed him of his pie, but had held him prisoner while they devoured it before his very eyes!

What this terrible outrage would have excited those who had suffered this cruel wrong to do in return-whether they would have started off there and then, burnt Horace House to the ground, and hung its inhabitants on the surrounding trees-it would be hard to say; as it was, at this very moment a counter-attraction was forced upon their attention by Morris, who came shouldering his way into their midst, saying,-

"Look here, you fellows, some one's stolen my watch and chain!"

It seemed as if a perfect shower of thunderbolts had commenced to descend from a clear sky upon the devoted heads of Mr. Welsby's pupils. Every one stared at his neighbour in mute amazement, and only Fred Acton remained in sufficient possession of his faculties to gasp out,-

"What?"

"It's true," continued Morris excitedly. "I didn't change for football yesterday afternoon, but before going into the field I hung my watch up on a nail in the shed, and stupidly forgot all about it until I came to wind it up last night. Then it was too late to fetch it, and now it's gone!"

"Look here !" cried Acton, glaring round the group with an unusually ferocious look, "who knows anything about this? speak up, can't you! We've had enough of this prigging business, and I'm sick of it!"

No one attempted to reply.

"Well," continued the dux, "I'm going straight off to old Welsby to tell him, and I won't keep the key of that place. Of course it makes me look as if I were the thief, and I won't stand it any longer."

The speaker turned on his heel and strode off in the direction of the house.

"Oh, I say," muttered Jack Vance, "now there'll be a row!"

Jack's prophecy was soon fulfilled. The watch and chain could not be found, and there was but little doubt that they had been stolen. Mr. Welsby called the boys together, and though he spoke in a calm and collected manner, with no trace of passion in his voice, yet his words made them all tremble. Miss Eleanor sat silent at the tea-table, with a shocked expression on her face; and Mr. Blake, when told of the occurrence, said sharply, "Well, we'd better have locks put on everything, and the sooner the better."

Acton produced his bunch of keys, and insisted that all his possessions should be searched, and every one else followed his example. The whole of the next afternoon was spent in a careful examination of desks and boxes, but with no result beyond the discovery that Mugford owned a cord waistcoat which he had 'never had the moral courage to wear.

There is one feature in the administration of justice by an English court which is unhappily too often overlooked in the lynch law of schoolboys, and that is the principle that a man shall be considered innocent until he has been clearly proved guilty. Smarting under a sense of shame which was entirely unmerited, every boy sought eagerly for some object on which to vent his indignation; it became necessary, to use the words of the comic opera, that "a victim should be found," and suspicion fell on Kennedy and Jacobs. The result of Diggory's trap seemed to show that the various thefts had been committed at night. It was agreed that the two occupants of the "Main-top" had special opportunity for getting out of the house if so minded; every other room had one or more fellows in it who had suffered the loss of some property; and lastly, Kennedy was known to possess a pair of hob-nailed fishing-boots, which he usually kept under his bed. The two boys indignantly denied the accusation when it was first brought against them, but the very vehemence with which they protested their innocence was regarded as "put on," and accepted as an additional proof of their guilt. The evidence, however, was not thought sufficient to warrant bringing a charge against them before the head-master, and accordingly it was decided to send them both to Coventry until some fresh light should be brought to bear upon the case.

To do full justice to the memory of Diggory Trevanock, he alone stood out against this decision, and incurred the wrath both of Acton and Jack Vance in so doing. He continued to affirm that it must be the man he had seen in the playground on the occasion of the first meeting of the supper club; and that the footprint in the dust had been a man's, and much larger than Kennedy's boot could have produced.

This outlawing of the "Main-top" and difference of opinion with Diggory spoiled all chance of games and good fellowship. Even the association of the Triple Alliance seemed likely to end in an open rupture, and very possibly might have done so if it had not been for an event which caused the members to reunite against the common enemy.

One half-holiday afternoon Mugford and Diggory had gone down to Chatford. It was nearly dark when they started to come back, and the latter proposed the short cut by Locker's Lane.

"I'm not afraid of the Philistines; besides, they won't see us now."

As they drew near to Horace House, a solitary figure was discovered standing in the shadow of the brick wall.

"It's young Noaks," whispered Diggory. "It's too late to turn back, but most likely he won't notice us in this light if we walk straight on."

They passed him successfully, and were just opposite the entrance, when three more boys sauntered through the doorway. A gleam of light from the house happened to fall on Diggory's cap and broad white collar, and immediately the shout was raised, "Birchites!"

There was a rush of feet, a wild moment of grabbing and dodging, and Mugford, who had managed somehow to shake himself free from the grasp of his assailants, dashed off at full speed down the road. After running for about two hundred yards, and finding he was not followed, he pulled up, waited and listened, and then began cautiously to retrace his steps. There was no sign either of his companion or the enemy; and though he ventured back as far as the double doors, which were now closed, not a soul was to be seen. He knew in a moment that his class-mate had been captured, but all hope of attempting anything in the shape of a rescue was out of the question. It was impossible for him single-handed to storm the fortress, and so, after lingering about for some minutes in the hope that his friend would reappear, he ran home as fast as he could, and bursting into the schoolroom, where most of his schoolfellows sat reading round the fire, threw them into a great state of consternation and dismay by proclaiming in a loud voice the alarming intelligence that Diggory had been taken prisoner, and was at that moment in the hands of the Philistines!

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