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   Chapter 6 GUNPOWDER PLOT.

The Triple Alliance By Harold Avery Characters: 23121

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:04


The news caused a profound sensation, the like of which had probably never been witnessed at The Birches before-no, not even on that memorable occasion when the intelligence arrived that Scourer, one of the past seniors, had ridden his bicycle through the plate-glass window of Brown's big crockery-shop, and was being brought home on a shutter.

All the boys threw down their books, and started to their feet. Acton and Vance banished from their minds all thought of the disagreement which had lately estranged them from their unfortunate school-fellow, and joined heartily in the general outburst of wrath and consternation.

The thought that Diggory, their well-beloved, was at that very moment languishing, a prisoner of war, in the hands of the Philistines was almost unbearable.

"What will they do with him?"-"Where have they put him?"-"How can we rescue the fellow?" were questions which everybody was asking, but no one could answer. It seemed altogether beyond their power to do anything, and yet there was not a boy who would not have given his dearest possession, were it a white rat or a stamp collection, if by parting with it he could have rendered some assistance to his ill-fated comrade.

"There's only half an hour before tea," said Vance, looking up at the clock; "if anything can be done, we must do it at once."

The precious moments sped away, but in vain did the assembly rack their brains for some plan of action which might in any way be likely to serve the purpose they had in view. The first wild suggestion, that they should go in a body and carry Horace House by storm, was abandoned as impracticable; in hopeless inactivity they stood watching the long hand of the clock creep up from six till twelve.

The first tea-bell had just finished ringing, when there was a sound of footsteps hurrying along the passage, the door burst open, and in rushed no other person than Diggory himself!

"Hullo! how did you get away?"-"What have they been doing?"-"How did you escape?"

"Oh, such a lark!" cried the boy. "They'll wish they'd never caught me!

I'll tell you all about it after tea."

As soon as the meal was over, Diggory was seized, hurried up into the schoolroom, and there forced to relate his adventures.

"Well," he began, "they collared me, and dragged me through the gates and along into their playground. Noaks looked at me and said, 'Hullo, here's luck! This is the young beggar who tied that rope to the scrapers; I vote we give him a jolly good licking.' I told them that my father was a lawyer, and if any of them touched me he'd take a summons out against them for assault. That frightened Noaks, for you can see he's a regular coward, so he asked the others what they thought had better be done with me.

"'I know,' said Hogson. 'There's an old cow-shed in the field next to ours; let's shut him in and keep him there till after tea. He'll get a jolly row for being late when he gets back, and he won't dare to say where he's been; because I know it's against their rules to come anywhere near us, and Locker's Lane is out of bounds. If he does tell, we'll swear he was in the road chucking stones at the windows.'

"Some one said there was only a staple on the door of the shed, but

Noaks said he'd fetch the padlock off his play-box, and so he did.

"Well, they took me across their playing field, and over the hedge into the next, and shut me up in this beastly old hovel. 'It's no use your making a row,' said Hogson, 'because no one'll hear you; and if you do, summons or no summons we'll come down and give you a licking.' After that they left me, and went back to the house; and as soon as they'd gone, I began to try to find some way of escape, but it was so dark inside the shed I couldn't see anything. Presently I heard a knocking on the boards. There was a wide crack between them in one place, and looking through it I could just make out that there was some boy standing there with what looked like a dirty apron over his trousers. I said, 'Hullo!' and he said, 'Hullo! what's up? who are you? and what have they been a-sticking of you in there for?'

"I told him, and asked him who he was, and it turned out his name was Joe Crump, and he's the boy who cleans the knives at Philips's. He happened to be knocking about when they took me prisoner, and he couldn't see who it was in the dark, and thought it might be his younger brother who comes on errands from the grocer's; the Philistines are always playing tricks on him.

"I said, 'Look here, Joe Crump, you let me out, there's a good chap.' But he wouldn't; he was afraid of what young Noaks would do to him. At last I gave him a shilling through the crack of the boards, and vowed I wouldn't say who'd done it, and then he undid the door. I fastened the padlock again, and threw the key into the hedge, for Noaks had left it in the keyhole; so now he won't be able to get his lock again unless he either breaks it or the staple, and they're both pretty tough. After that I got round through two other fields into the lane, and here I am."

The conclusion of Diggory's story was hailed with shouts of triumph. To imagine the disappointment of the Philistines when they discovered that the bird had flown, and the chagrin of young Noaks when he found that his play-box padlock was fastened to the door of the shed, was simply delightful; and Acton was so carried away that he once more fell on Diggory's neck, and pretended to shed tears of joy upon the latter's broad turn-down collar.

"But that's not all," cried the youngster, shaking himself free from his leader's embrace. "The best is this. I had a bit of a talk with Joe Crump before I came away, and he says that young Noaks is going to leave at the end of this term, and he's been telling the Philistines that before he goes he means to do something that'll pay us out for his being sent off the field in that football match. Crump doesn't know what he means to do, but I made him promise, if he finds out, to come and tell me, and I'll give him another shilling. Then we shall be prepared."

"I say, Diggy," exclaimed Jack Vance, "you are a corker!" and the bell now commencing to ring for evening preparation, the meeting terminated.

It was an annual custom at The Birches for the boys to subscribe towards getting a display of fireworks, which were let off in the playground under the superintendence of Mr. Blake. The head-master himself gave a donation towards the fund, and allowed the boys to prepare the next day's work in the afternoon instead of in the evening.

This year, however, when Acton went, as usual, to the library to formally ask permission that the celebration should take place, he met with a terrible rebuff.

"No, Acton," answered Mr. Welsby; "as long as the school continues to be disgraced by these repeated thefts-as, for example, this recent instance of Morris's watch and chain-I do not feel inclined to allow the same privileges as before. There will be no fireworks this term."

As may be imagined, when the dux reported the result of his visit to head-quarters, the news created great excitement. The unfortunate occupants of the "Main-top," who were still in the position of scapegoats, were hunted round the place by an indignant mob, and fled, vainly protesting their innocence, from one shelter to another, until they finally escaped from the playing field into the open country, where they hid behind hedges for the remainder of the afternoon.

"Look here," exclaimed Jack Vance, as the Triple Alliance were wending their way from the playground to the house, "there's only one thing to be done, and that is, we must set Miss Eleanor on old Welsby's track. She'll make him alter his mind. Some one must go and ask her.-Acton, you're the man; you must do it!"

"I'm shot if I do!" answered the dux, turning round to face the trio, and walking backwards up the path; "why should I go more than any other fellow?"

"Why, because you've got such a way with you," returned Diggory. "She'd be sure to do it for you; why, the last time you spoke to her she gave you a lump of cake."

Acton seized the speaker by the neck and shook him like a rat. "You're the cheekiest little imp I ever came across," he said. "I've a jolly good mind to give you a good licking, only I don't believe you'd care tu'pence if I did!"

"Well, anyhow you've got to go," answered Diggory, calmly picking up his cap, which had fallen to the ground; "and if you're afraid to go alone for fear she should think it's another proposal, I'll come with you."

After some further discussion it was agreed that the thing should be attempted. The two boys found Miss Eleanor making cake, and the conference began by Diggory's having his ears boxed for picking plums out of the dough. But no one ever appealed to Miss Eleanor without being sure, at all events, of a patient hearing, and the following morning Mr. Welsby informed the school that he had been led to reconsider his decision regarding the fifth of November, and that they might have their display as usual.

Accordingly, the fireworks were ordered, and arrived soon after breakfast on the morning of the fourth. Miss Eleanor had a dread of gunpowder, and Mr. Blake sent Jack Vance to tell Noaks to carry the box as usual down into the shed.

"Humph!" growled the man, as the boy gave him the message. "It's a nice thing that I should have to fetch and carry all your fooling playthings for you; it's a pity you young gen'lemen can't do something for yourselves, instead of bothering me."

"Well, it isn't my orders," answered Jack; "it's Mr. Blake's."

"Mr. Blake's, is it? All right, I'll do it when I can spare the time."

When the boys came out at interval, the box was still lying about in the yard, although there were heavy clouds overhead threatening rain. Mr. Blake sent for Noaks, and a rather sharp passage of arms took place between them, which ended in the man's being told to leave what he was doing and carry the fireworks down to the shed.

"I believe he left them on purpose, in the hope they'd get wet," said Shaw. "He hates us all like poison, and I believe it's all because his son's at the other school. D'you remember what a row he kicked up when he heard Acton say that the Philistines were cads for shooting at us with catapults?"

"Yes," answered Morris; "and if he hates us, he hates Blake a jolly sight worse. He's been like it ever since that football match; and he'll get sacked if he doesn't mind, for Blake won't stand his cheek much longer."

The purchase of fireworks had this year been more extensive than on any previous occasion, and every one was looking forward with great anticipation to the business of the following evening.

"I say, Diggy," cried Acton at the close of afternoon school, "I wish you'd run down into the playground and bring up that football flag that's got to be mended; I left it in the corner by the shed. I'd go myself, but I want to finish this letter before tea."

Diggory trotted off to fetch the flag, and Jack Vance, who was loitering about one of the passages, accompanied him down into the playground. It was very dark, the stars being hidden by heavy clouds.

"I say," exclaimed Diggory, "it'll be a splendid night for the fireworks if it's like this to-morrow. We must get-Hark! what's that?"

"I didn't hear anything."

"Yes, there was a sort of a rapping sound. Hush! there it is again."

Jack heard it this time. "It's some one knocking very gently against that door

leading into Locker's Lane," he whispered.

They groped their way across the playground until they reached the wall. There was no mistake about it-some one was gently tapping with his knuckles on the other side of the door.

"Who's there?" asked Jack Vance.

"I want to speak to the young gen'leman who was locked up t'other day in the cow-shed," was the answer, given in a low voice which Diggory instantly recognized.

"I know him," he said; "it's Joe Crump. Here, give me a leg up, and

I'll talk to him over the wall.-All right, Joe; I'm the chap."

"Well, if you are," answered the voice, "you'll remember you offered me a bob if I could find out and tell you when somebody was going to do something."

"Well, what's the news?"

"Give me the money first, and then I'll tell you."

Jack Vance fortunately had the required coin in his pocket, and Diggory dropped it into Joe Crump's cap.

"Well, the news is this," said the latter, speaking in the same low tone-"that there Noaks and Hogson are coming up here to-night just afore nine o'clock, and they're a-going to drown your fireworks."

"Drown our fireworks! why, what ever d'you mean? How do they know we've got any fireworks? and how can they get at them when they're all locked up?"

"I can't say," returned Crump, "so it's no use asking me. I only knows that Noaks is a-going to do it; 'drown 'em all in a bucket of water,' was what he said. Remember you promised to tell nothink about me, that's all. Good-night, mister!"

The stranger vanished in the darkness, and Diggory dropped down from the wall.

"Here's a pretty go!" he remarked. "What are we to do? there's no time to lose. Come on, Jack, let's go and tell Acton."

The latter was engaged on the closing sentence of his letter; but on hearing the intelligence which Diggory had to impart, he threw the unfinished epistle into his desk, and rose to his feet with an exclamation of astonishment.

"D'you think it's really true? or is this fellow, Lump or Bump or whatever you call him, trying to take a rise out of us, or telling lies to earn the shilling?"

"I don't think so," answered Diggory, "and I'll tell you why. For some reason or other, he's at daggers drawn with young Noaks and Hogson. I think they've knocked him about, and he's doing it to pay them out."

"But how did they get to know about our fireworks? and how do they reckon they're going to get them out of the shed? Look here, hadn't we better tell Blake?"

"We can't do that," answered Jack Vance, "or it'll get Diggy in a row. If he says anything about Joe Crump, it'll all come out about his having been in Locker's Lane when the Philistines caught him, and of course that's against rules."

"What time did he say they meant to come?"

"About a quarter to nine."

There was a silence which lasted for over a minute; then Diggory spoke.

"This is what I think we'd better do. If they come at all, they are certain to be here soon after half-past eight, because I heard Fox telling Blake on the day of the match that they go to bed at nine. We won't tell any one, but as soon as 'prep' is over we'll cut down into the playground, and when they come we'll kick up a row. They'll soon make tracks if they find they're discovered, and it'll be better than saying anything to Blake about it, and we shall have defeated them ourselves."

"All right," answered Acton. "But it'll look queer if we all three stop out from supper; two's enough. I'll go for one, and you and Vance toss up."

This suggestion was accepted with some reluctance, as both boys were anxious to take part in the adventure. Acton's word, however, was law, and eventually Diggory was chosen by fate to be his companion.

Directly after tea all the boys paid a visit to the shed; the door was securely locked, as also was the one leading into Locker's Lane, and it seemed impossible for the Philistines to carry out their evil designs upon the fireworks.

"I believe it's all bunkum," said Acton, as they strolled back towards the house. "However, we'll come down as we said, and just see if anything happens."

Three boys, at all events, did very little work that evening, for it was impossible to concentrate one's mind on Caesar or on French verbs with such an adventure looming in the near future. How would the Philistines get at the fireworks? Would they change their minds, and instead of drowning them apply a slow match and blow up the shed? or would it, after all, turn out to be only a false alarm, raised by the boy Crump for the sake of the promised shilling?

These and other thoughts filled the minds of the trio as they sat frowning at the books in front of them. The clock seemed to go slower and slower, until they really began to wonder whether it had stopped. At length the long hand reached the half-past. Mr. Blake yawned, put down his paper, and said, "Put away your work, and pass on to supper."

Acton and Diggory, both tingling with excitement, lingered behind until the rest had left the room; then, when the coast was clear, they slipped out into the garden, and hurried down the sloping path. It was considerably lighter than it had been before tea; the clouds had cleared away, and there were plenty of stars.

"Locked," muttered Acton, examining the shed. "Locked," he repeated, trying the door leading into Locker's Lane. "I don't believe there's anything in it. They might get over the wall if one gave the other a leg up, but then how's the last man to get back again?"

"Well, if there's nothing in it," answered Diggory, "how should Joe

Crump have got to know we had any fireworks in the place? There must-

Hush! what's that?"

There was a sound of footsteps coming down the path from the house. "Cave!" cried Acton. "It's Blake; let's hide!"

Several shrubs growing in the garden and overhanging the boarded partition threw one corner of the playground into deep shadow. The boys rushed into the angle, and, crouching down in the inky darkness, were at once hidden from the view of any one who might advance even to within a few feet of their hiding-place.

They had hardly time to conceal themselves, when a man, the outline of whose figure they could just make out in the gloom, came through the garden door, and, advancing a few yards, stood still, turning his head from side to side as though looking to make sure that the quadrangle was empty.

"He heard us talking," whispered Acton.

The new-comer having apparently come to the conclusion that he was alone, walked slowly across to the shed, halted in front of the door, and the next moment there was the sound of a key being fitted into the lock. At that instant Diggory, who had been craning his neck forward to get a better view of the intruder, suddenly gripped Acton's arm, and, putting his mouth close to the latter's ear, whispered,-

"It isn't Blake; it's old Noaks! Now keep quiet," he added, as his companion made a movement as though he meant to rush out of their hiding-place; "let's see what he does."

"He's the thief who stole all those things!" answered Acton excitedly.

"He must have another key, and he's going to bag something now."

Noaks (for certainly it was he) disappeared inside the shed; but in a few seconds he was out again, and once more stood waiting as though undecided what to do next.

Before the boys could have counted ten, there was a low whistle in the lane.

"They've come," whispered Diggory. "He's got the key of the door, and is going to let them in."

His words were speedily verified, and the next moment two more figures entered the playground, the object of their visit being at once made evident by the fact that one of them was carrying a bucket. It was too dark to distinguish their faces, but the short conversation which took place on their entry soon made them known to the two watchers.

"Now, then," said old Noaks, "if you're going to do it, just look sharp."

"Awful joke, isn't it, dad?" answered one of the new-comers. "Lend us a hand, and we'll dip 'em all in this bucket and put 'em back again."

"No, I shan't," returned the man. "I don't know nothink about it.

It's your game, and all I promised was I'd open the door."

"Well, show us where the box is.-Come on, Hogson; don't make more row than you can help."

After a moment's hesitation and some muttered remarks about "that there Blake" and "them uppish young dogs," Noaks senior led the way across the gravel, and followed by the two Philistines entered the shed. Hardly had they crossed the threshold when Diggory started up, kicked off his slippers, crept swiftly and noiselessly as a shadow across the ground, and before his companion had time to realize what was happening, the door of the shed was slammed to and locked on the outside.

To describe exactly what followed would be well-nigh impossible, as even the principal actors themselves seemed to have but a confused recollection of the part they played. Those concerned, however, will probably never forget Diggory's bursting into the room as they sat finishing supper, and striking every one dumb with amazement by saying to Mr. Blake, "Please, sir, some fellows are stealing our fireworks, and I've locked them up in the shed." And there will still remain in their minds memories of a wild rush to the playground; of old Noaks being peremptorily ordered to "clear out," and on attempting to bandy words with Mr. Blake, being taken by the scruff of the neck and "chucked out;" of the two Philistines being conducted, under a strong escort, to Mr. Welsby's study; of a polite note being dispatched by the latter to Mr. Philips; and of the unmitigated delight of the Birchites when Hogson and Noaks junior were delivered over into the hands of Mr. Fox, and marched off by that gentleman to take their trial at Horace House. Every one was in high spirits. Acton and Diggory were made to tell their story over twenty times. Kennedy and Jacobs were at once declared innocent, and instead of being looked upon as outcasts, came to be regarded as martyrs who had suffered in a good cause. Old Noaks was clearly the culprit. He volunteered no explanation as regarded his possession of a duplicate key to the shed door, and though no attempt was made to bring the charge home against him, there was little doubt as to his guilt, and he was dismissed the next morning.

The firework display came off the following evening, and was a great success. Every rocket or Roman candle that shot into the air seemed to attest the final triumph of the Birchites over the Philistines, and was cheered accordingly. I say final triumph, for the removal of young Noaks and Hogson from the rival school caused a great change for the better among the ranks of Horace House. The old feud died out, giving place to a far better spirit, which was manifested each term in the friendly manner in which the teams met for matches at cricket and football.

This sounds very much like the end of a story; but it is not, and for a connecting-link to join this chapter to those that follow, we will go forward for one moment into the future.

Nearly a year later Diggory and Jack Vance were sauntering arm in arm across one of the fives-courts at Ronleigh College.

"D'you remember," remarked the former, "how, that night we caught the Philistines bagging our fireworks, you said, 'Well, I should think now we've just about finished with young Noaks'?"

"Did I?" answered Jack, shrugging his shoulders. "My eye, I ought to have said we'd just begun!"

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