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   Chapter 9 A HOLIDAY ADVENTURE.

The Triple Alliance By Harold Avery Characters: 18902

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:04


The weeks slipped away, and the Triple Alliance soon got over their new-boy trials, and began to enjoy all the rights and privileges of Ronleigh College boys. They wrote letters to Miss Eleanor and to their former schoolfellows, and received in reply the latest news from The Birches.

"The Philistines are quite friendly now," wrote Acton. "We had a match against them last week on their ground, and they gave us tea after. It's awfully slow; I almost wish that chap Noaks was back."

"So do I," added Diggory, as he finished the sentence; "we could very well spare him."

"Oh, he's all right," answered Jack Vance; "that row's blown over now.

As long as we leave him alone he won't interfere with us."

"Won't he!" returned the other; "you take my word for it, he hasn't forgotten what you said about his father, and he's only waiting for a chance to pay us out. Whenever I go near him he looks as black as ink."

It was customary at Ronleigh to have what was called a half-term holiday. This was usually given on a Monday, to enable those boys who lived within a short distance of the school to spend the week end at home; while, in the winter or spring terms, the boarders who remained at the school usually devoted the greater portion of the day to a paper-chase.

"I shall go home," said Jack Vance to his two chums; "Todderton's only about half an hour's ride from here on the railway. And, I say, I've got a grand idea: I'm going to write and get my mater to invite you fellows to come too! It would be jolly to have a meeting there of the Triple Alliance, and I'm sure old Denson would let you go if we came back on Monday night."

Both Mugford and Diggory were charmed with the idea. "But d'you really think your mater would have us?" they asked.

"Of course she will, if I ask her," answered Jack, and straightway sat down to write the letter.

By Wednesday evening everything, including the formal invitation and the doctors permission to accept the same, had been obtained, and for the two following days the Triple Alliance could talk or think of little else besides their projected excursion. At length Saturday came, and as soon as morning school was over they rushed upstairs to change into their best clothes; and having crammed their night-shirts, brushes and combs, etc., into a hand-bag, hurried off to the railway station, in order that they might, as Jack put it, "be home in time for dinner."

Just as they were getting into the train, who should come out of the booking-office but young Noaks.

"Hullo!" said Jack. "He must be going home too; I hope he won't come in here."

The new-comer, however, had no intention of making another attempt to force his society on the Triple Alliance; he passed them with a surly nod, and entered a compartment at the other end of the train.

Jack Vance lived in the suburbs of Todderton, about twenty minutes' walk from the railway; but for all that he managed to carry out his intention of being home in time for dinner; and the three boys, after receiving a hearty welcome, were soon seated down to a repast which came very acceptable after seven weeks of school fare.

"Jack," said Mr. Vance, "you know that house that was to let just on the other side of The Hermitage? Who d'you think's taken it?"

"I don't know, father."

"Why, that man Simpson, the uncle of your friend what's-his-name."

"He isn't my friend," answered Jack. "You mean Noaks. Fancy his coming to live so near to us as that! We saw him in the train just now. He's here for the holiday."

"I ought to tell you," continued Mr. Vance, turning to Diggory, "that our next-door neighbour is called 'The Hermit.' He's a queer old fellow, who lives by himself, and never makes friends or speaks to any one. He's supposed to be very clever, and I've heard it said that he's got a very valuable collection of coins, and is quite an authority on the subject; it's one of his hobbies."

"I suppose," said Mugford thoughtfully, "that as he's a hermit that's why his place is called The Hermitage."

"Well done, Mug!" said Jack, speaking with his mouth pretty full; "you're getting quite sharp."

"Yes, that's it," continued Mr. Vance, laughing. "The old man's away from home just now; he was suffering from rheumatism very badly, and the doctor ordered him to a course of treatment at some baths."

The conversation turned on other topics, and when at length they rose from the table, Jack proposed a stroll round the garden.

There were many things to see-some pet rabbits, a swing, and an old summer-house, which Jack, being, we should say, of a decidedly nautical turn of mind, had turned into a sort of miniature shipbuilding yard for the construction of model vessels; though at present the chief use to which the place seemed to have been put was the production of a great amount of chips and shavings.

"I say," exclaimed the owner, after he and his friends had amused themselves for some time boring holes in the door with a brace, "I know what we'll do: let's go over and explore The Hermitage!"

Anything with a spice of excitement in it was meat and drink to Diggory. He immediately seconded the proposition, and Mugford, after a moment's hesitation, agreed to join his companions in the enterprise.

They strolled off down the path, and soon reached a long stretch of brick wall, the top of which was thickly covered with fragments of broken bottles.

"There's a place down at the other end where we can get over," said Jack. "I smashed the glass with a hammer, because I lost a ball and had to climb over and get it, one day last holidays."

The Hermitage was surrounded on all sides by a thick mass of shrubs and trees, through which a moment later the Triple Alliance were cautiously threading their way. Emerging from the bushes, they found themselves standing on a gravel path, green with moss and weeds, which ran round the house-a queer, dilapidated-looking building, which seemed sadly in want of repair: the plaster was cracked and discoloured, while the doors and windows had long stood in need of a fresh coating of paint.

"I say," whispered Mugford, "hadn't we better go back? what if the old chap's at home!"

"Oh, it's all right; there's nobody about," answered Jack. "Let's go on and see what the place is really like."

They tip-toed round the building. It was evidently unoccupied, though the delightful sense of uncertainty that at any moment some one might pounce out upon them or walk down the drive made the questionable adventure very charming.

"Have you ever been inside?" asked Diggory.

"No, rather not; I don't think any one has except the doctor, and an old woman who comes in to do the house-work."

"Well, then, I'm going in," answered Diggory, with a twinkle in his eye.

"Go on! Why, you might be had up for house-breaking!"

"Rubbish! I'm not going to steal anything.-Here, Mug, lend me your knife a minute."

"I don't believe this one's fastened," he continued, walking up to one of the windows. "No, it isn't. Bother! I'm awfully sorry, Mugford."

Using the big blade of the clasp-knife as a lever, Diggory had just succeeded in raising the sash the fraction of an inch, when the steel suddenly snapped off short at the handle.

"Oh, never mind," said the owner; "let's go back now. What if we're seen!"

"Oh, there's no fear of that," answered Jack, who was always infected with the adventurous spirit of his chum.-"Go on, Diggy; I'll come too."

By inserting their fingers in the aperture, the boys soon raised the sash, and a few seconds later Diggory mounted the ledge and scrambled through the window "Come on," he said; "the coast's all clear."

Jack Vance joined him immediately, and Mugford, not wishing to be left alone outside, was not long in making up his mind to follow his companions.

The room in which the three boys found themselves was evidently a library or study. Book-shelves, and cupboards with glass doors, containing geological and other specimens, occupied much of the wall space; while in the centre of the floor stood a large writing-table, covered with a miscellaneous collection of pens, ink-pots, bundles of papers, and a polished mahogany box which could easily be recognized as a microscope-case.

The intruders stood for a few moments gazing round in silence. The place did not look very interesting, and smelt rather damp and mouldy.

"I say," exclaimed Jack Vance, "look there: he don't seem very careful how he leaves his things when he goes away."

As he spoke he pointed across to the opposite side of the room, where, between two bookcases, an iron safe had been let into the wall. The heavy door was standing half open, while the floor beneath was strewn with a quantity of shallow wooden trays lined with green baize.

"Old bachelors are always untidy," remarked Diggory. "Let's see where this door leads to." He turned the handle as he spoke, and walked out into a gloomy little hall paved with cold, bare flagstones, which caused their footsteps to waken mournful echoes in the empty house.

"I say, you fellows, don't let's go any further," murmured Mugford;" we've seen enough now. Suppose the old chap came back and-"

He never reached the end of the sentence, for Diggory suddenly raised his hand, exclaiming in a whisper, "Hark! what was that?"

The loud ticking of Mugford's old turnip of a watch was distinctly audible in the si

lence which followed.

"What is it, Diggy? what-"

"Hark! there it is again; listen."

The suspense became awful. At length Diggory dropped his hand. "Didn't you hear footsteps?" he asked. "I'm certain there's some one walking about on the gravel path."

"We shall be caught," whimpered Mugford; "I knew we should. What can we do?"

"Bolt!" answered Diggory, and began tip-toeing back towards the library door. "Stay here half a 'jiffy,'" he added; "I'll go and reconnoitre."

Ages seemed to pass while Jack Vance and Mugford stood in the dark passage awaiting their companion's return. At length the door was pushed softly open.

"It's all right; there's no one there. I must have been mistaken.

Come along."

In a very short time the Triple Alliance were once more outside The Hermitage. Diggory lingered for a moment to close the window, and then followed his companions through the shrubs and over the wall.

"You are a great ass, Diggy, to go giving us a start like that," said Jack, as they paused for a moment to take breath before returning to the house.

"Well, I could have sworn I heard the gravel crunch as if some one was walking on it," returned the other. "I should think the place must be haunted."

A good tea, with all kinds of nice things on the table, soon revived the boys from the trifling shock which their nerves had sustained, and by the end of the evening their adventure was wellnigh forgotten. They were destined, however, to remember it for many a long day to come, and before many hours had passed they were heartily wishing that they had never set foot inside The Hermitage, but kept on their own side of the wall.

The party were seated at supper on Sunday evening, when a servant entered the room, and addressing her master said, "If you please, sir, there's a policeman called to see you."

Jack's father rose from his chair, remarking, in a jocular manner,

"I expect it's one of you young gentlemen he's come after."

The meal was nearly over when Mr. Vance returned and reseated himself at the table.

"Did either of you hear the dog bark last night?" he asked.

"No; why?"

"Why, because old Fossberry's house has been broken into, and they think the thieves must have come through our garden; there were some footmarks in the shrubbery just on the other side of the wall."

The hearts of the Triple Alliance seemed to jump into their throats, and their mouths grew dry and parched. Jack stared at Mugford, and Mugford stared at Diggory, but none of them spoke.

"It seems," continued Mr. Vance, not noticing the effect which his first announcement had produced on at least three of his hearers, "that the old woman who looks after the house went there this morning, and found that the iron safe in which the old chap keeps his coins had been opened and the whole collection removed. The only trace of the thieves that the police have been able to discover is the broken blade of a clasp-knife, which was on a flower-bed near the window."

"What will they get if they are caught?" asked Jack faintly.

"Oh, penal servitude, I suppose; it's a serious business housebreaking."

"How quiet you boys are!" said Mrs. Vance a short time later.

"I think you must be tired. Wouldn't you like to go to bed?"

The three friends were only too glad to avail themselves of this excuse for getting away into some place where they could indulge in a little private conversation. Diggory and Mugford slept together in the same room; Jack followed them in and closed the door.

"Well," he exclaimed, "we're in a nice mess."

"But we didn't steal the coins," said Mugford.

"Of course we didn't-the safe had been robbed before we went there-but it looks as if we'd done it; and if they find out we got into the house, I don't see how we're going to prove that we're innocent."

There was a short silence; then Diggory spoke.

"Look here, Jack: I was the one who proposed going inside the place; shall I tell your guv'nor?"

"Well, I was thinking of doing that myself, only I don't see what good it can do. If we tell him, he'll be bound to tell the police, to explain about those footmarks; and when it comes out that we got into the house, I should think we are pretty certain to be charged with having stolen the coins. I think the best thing will be to keep it dark: we didn't crib the things, and the thieves are sure to be caught in time."

Even after Jack had retired to his own room, Diggory and Mugford lay awake for hours discussing the situation; and when at length they did fall asleep, it was only to dream of being chased by "The Hermit" and a swarm of long-legged policemen, who forced their way into the Third Form classroom at Ronleigh, and handcuffed the unfortunate trio in the very bosom of "The Happy Family."

The following morning was spent in visiting such parts of the town of

Todderton as were worth seeing.

"Upon my word," said Jack, "I feel funky to show my nose outside our gate, just as if I really had prigged those wretched coins. I shan't be at all sorry this evening to get back to Ronleigh. It's all in the paper this morning; it mentions the footmarks and the knife-blade, and says that as yet the police have not been able to discover any further traces of the robbers."

The conditions on which the half-term holiday was granted required every boy to return to school on the Monday evening, and accordingly, about seven o'clock, the Triple Alliance found themselves once more on their way to the railway station. They took their seats, and had hardly done so when young Noaks entered the compartment.

"Hullo, you fellows!" he exclaimed; "didn't you hear me whistle?

I was standing over there by the book-stall."

Regarding this as an overture of friendship after their recent encounter, Jack Vance replied in an equally amicable manner, and after a few common-place remarks the party relapsed into silence. At Chatton, the station before Ronleigh, a man who had so far travelled with them got out, and the four boys were left alone. Hardly had the train started again when Noaks put down his paper, and turning to his companions said,-

"That's a rum business about that old chap's house being robbed, isn't it?"

Something in the speaker's look and in the tone of his voice caused the three listeners to experience an unpleasant quickening of their pulses.

"Yes," answered Diggory, with a well-assumed air of indifference.

"I suppose they'll catch the thieves in time."

"I suppose so," returned the other, "especially if they find the chap who owns that knife with the broken blade."

The malignant look with which these words was accompanied showed at once that the speaker meant mischief. The three friends looked at one another in horrified amazement. Could it be possible that their visit to The Hermitage had already been discovered?

Noaks watched their faces for a moment, evidently well pleased with the effect which his remark had produced; then he burst out laughing.

"Look here," he continued, producing from his pocket a buck-handled clasp-knife: "I wonder if that's anything like it; I see the big blade's broken."

The Triple Alliance recognized it in a moment as one of the articles that had been rescued from Mugford's sale at The Birches; in fact, the owner's name appeared plainly engraved on the small brass plate.

Diggory was the first to find his tongue.

"What d'you mean? We didn't steal the coins!"

"My dear fellow, I never said you did. I only know that on Saturday I was looking over our wall, through an opening there happens to be in the shrubs, and saw you fellows climbing out of the old chap's window; and after you'd gone I noticed something lying in the path, and I hopped over, and picked up this knife."

"Give it here; it's mine," said Mugford, holding out his hand.

"No fear," answered the other, calmly returning the piece of lost property to his own pocket. "In this case finding's keeping; besides, I'm not sure if I couldn't get a reward for this if I sent it to the right place."

The train began to slacken speed as it approached Ronleigh station.

"Look here, Noaks," cried Jack Vance, in a fit of desperation, "what are you going to do? You know very well we are not thieves."

"I don't know anything of the sort," returned the tormentor, standing up to take his bag off the rack; "all I know is just what I've told you. See here, Mr. Vance," he continued, rounding on Jack with a sudden snarl, "you were good enough some little time ago to make some very caddish remarks about my father; in the future you'd better keep your mouth shut. I owe all three of you a dressing down for things that happened at Chatford, and now you'd better mind your P's and Q's if you don't want to be hauled up for housebreaking."

With this parting threat the ex-Philistine left the carriage. Mugford, Jack, and Diggory gazed at one another for a moment with anything but a happy look on their faces. One after another they slowly gathered up their things and stepped out on to the platform. Hardly had they done so when they heard their names called, and turning round beheld the small figure of "Rats" rushing forward to meet them.

"Hullo!" he exclaimed. "Old Ally sent me down to get a paper, and I thought you'd come by this train. I say, there's a fine row on up at the school-such a lark; I'll tell you about it as we go along."

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