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   Chapter 15 THE READING-ROOM RIOT.

The Triple Alliance By Harold Avery Characters: 19946

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:04


Thurston followed up his withdrawal from the football team by a number of other actions which clearly showed a determination to spend what was known to be his last term at Ronleigh in living at open enmity with those who had once been his friends and associates. He never played unless it was in one of the rough-and-ready practice games, composed chiefly of stragglers, who, from being kept in and various other causes, were too late for the regular pick-ups, and came drifting on to the field later in the afternoon. He severed his connection with the debating society, and shunning the society of his comrades in the Sixth, was seen more frequently than ever hobnobbing with Gull and Hawley, or lounging about in conversation with Noaks and Mouler.

Fletcher senior, a mean, double-faced fellow, continued, as the saying goes, "to run with the hare and hunt with the hounds."

"It's an awful pity about old 'Thirsty,'" he would say to his brother prefects. "I try to keep him a bit straight; but upon my word, if he will go on being so friendly with such cads as Gull and Noaks, I shall chuck him altogether."

The speaker's methods of endeavouring to keep his chum straight were, to say the least of it, not very effective, and, if anything, rather more calculated to encourage him still further in his descent along the downward road.

"Look here!" said Fletcher, as they sat one evening talking in Thurston's study: "don't you think you'd better make peace with Allingford and the rest, and be a nice white sheep again, instead of a giddy old black one? I can tell you at present they don't look upon you as being a particular credit to the Sixth."

"I don't care what they think; they're a beastly set of prigs, and I'll have nothing more to do with them-with Allingford especially."

"Well, of course," answered Fletcher, with an air of resignation, "the quarrel's yours and not mine. I must own that I think Allingford made a great deal of unnecessary fuss over that Black Swan business, and acted very shabbily in making you send in your resignation just before the holidays. There's something, too, that I can't understand about the doctor's not confirming your re-election; and I think there ought to have been some further attempt made to get you to remain in the team- you did a lot of good service last season. However, my advice is, Put your pride in your pocket, and return to the fold."

Young Carton had shown that he possessed a certain amount of insight into character when he told Diggory that Thurston was a dangerous fellow to cross. The ex-prefect's brow darkened as Fletcher enumerated this list of real or imaginary grievances, and at the conclusion of the latter's speech there was a short silence.

"Yes," said Thurston, suddenly making the fender jump and rattle with a vicious kick. "Allingford's got his knife in me; he's bent on spoiling my life here. But that's a game two can play at. I've got a plan or two in my head, and I'll take the change out of him and those other prigs before the term's finished."

Grundy still continued to brag and swagger in the Lower Fourth, but his attitude towards Jack Vance suddenly underwent a change. Towards the latter he assumed quite a friendly bearing, and though still remaining a stanch Thurstonian, refrained from making himself aggressively obnoxious to the Triple Alliance. The hatchet had been buried for nearly a fortnight when an event happened which caused Ronleigh College to be once more convulsed with excitement and party feeling-a certain air of mystery which pervaded the whole affair tending to considerably increase the interest which the occurrence itself awakened.

Allingford had not, perhaps, been altogether wise in his choice of Lucas as keeper of the reading-room. The latter was a studious, hard-working boy in the Fifth, whose parents were known to be in comparatively poor circumstances, and the captain had named him in preference to Ferris, thinking that the guinea which was given as remuneration to the holder of this post, as well as to the two librarians, would be specially acceptable to one who seldom had the means to purchase the books which he longed to possess.

The duties of the keeper of the reading-room were to receive and take charge of the papers and magazines, to keep the accounts, and to be nominally responsible for the order of the room. I say nominally, as the law relating to absolute silence was never actually enforced; and as long as the members amused themselves in a reasonably quiet manner, and without turning the place into a bear-garden, they were allowed to converse over their games of chess or draughts, and exchange their opinions on the news of the day.

Lucas was, if one may say it, a little too conscientious in the execution of his duties, and rather apt to be fussy and a trifle overbearing in his manner. He posted copies of the rules on each of the four walls of the room, and insisted on decorous behaviour and perfect silence. The consequence was that he soon became the butt of innumerable jokes: fellows said they weren't in school, and meant to enjoy themselves.

"Rats" hit on the idea of carrying in an old newspaper under his coat. This he surreptitiously produced, and pretended to read as though it belonged to the room. At a favourable moment, with an exclamation of, "Well, this is a rotten paper!" he suddenly crunched the sheet up in his hands and tore it into fifty pieces. Lucas, naturally imagining that the property of the room was being destroyed, rushed up exploding with wrath. An explanation followed, and the whole assembly went off into fits of merriment, at the latter's expense.

By the time this trick was worn out, other waggish gentlemen had introduced the practice of dropping wax matches on the floor and treading on them, and of hunting an imaginary moth-an irresistibly humorous proceeding, in which the participators rushed about brandishing books and magazines, ever and anon crying, "There he is!" and smiting on the head some quiet, unoffending reader. Some evil-minded young miscreant went so far as to put bits of india-rubber on the top of the stove, the consequence being that in a short time a mysterious smell arose of such a fearful and distressing nature that every one was obliged to bolt out into the passage.

Those boys who at the time of the elections had formed the rank and file of the Thurstonian party, saw here an opportunity for showing their resentment of what they still chose to consider unfair conduct on Allingford's part. As a result, so they said, of the captain's favouritism, Lucas had been forced into a position for which he was entirely un-fitted; and with the expressed determination "not to stand him at any price," they proved themselves ever ready to assist in keeping up a constant repetition of the disturbances which have just been described.

These games, it need hardly be said, were not carried on when any of the prefects or members of the Sixth happened to be present; but during the half-hour between the end of tea and the commencement of preparation, when it rarely happened that any of the seniors put in an appearance, the conduct of the place went steadily from bad to worse. Lucas lost his head and lost his temper, and in doing so lost all control of his charge; and at last things were brought to a climax in the manner we are about to describe.

At the back of the room was one of those short desks which can be changed at will into a seat, the top part falling over and making a back-rest, while the form remains stationary. In connection with this article of furniture Gull one evening introduced a new pastime, which he called putting fellows in the stocks, and which consisted in decoying innocent small boys into taking a seat, then suddenly pushing them backwards on to the floor, and imprisoning their feet between the form and the reversible desk-a position from which they only extricated themselves with considerable difficulty.

Lucas made a couple of attempts to interfere and stop the proceedings, and when at length, for the third time, a thud and a shout of laughter announced that still another victim had fallen into the trap, he rose in wrath, and ordered Gull to leave the room.

"I shan't," returned the other. "Keep to yourself, and mind your own business."

"That's just what I'm doing; you know the rules as well as I do. It's my business to keep order in this room."

"Rubbish! Who do you think cares for your rules, you jack-in-office?"

"Will you leave the room?"

"No, of course I won't. If you want to act 'chucker-out,' you'd better try it on."

In desperation Lucas resolved to play his last card. "Look here, Gull," he said, rising from his seat. "You know I'm not your match in size or strength, or you wouldn't challenge me to fight; but this I will do: unless you leave the room, I shall go at once and report you to Dr. Denson."

The offender, seeing perhaps that this was no empty threat, evidently considered it the wiser plan not to risk an interview with the head-master.

"Oh, keep your wig on!" he answered, with a scornful laugh. "I shouldn't like to make you prove yourself a sneak as well as a coward. I'm going in a minute."

The assembly, who for the most part considered the stocks joke very good fun, and were possessed with all the traditional schoolboy hatred for anything in the shape of telling tales, showed their disapproval with a good deal of booing and hissing as Gull sauntered out of the room, and Lucas bent over his accounts with the despairing sense of having lost instead of gained by the encounter.

It soon became evident that the matter was not to be allowed to drop without some show of feeling, for on the following morning the unfortunate official was greeted with jeers and uncomplimentary remarks wherever he went.

Just before tea Diggory and Jack Vance were crossing the quadrangle on their way from the

gymnasium to the schoolroom, when they were accosted by Fletcher junior.

"I say," remarked the latter, in rather a knowing manner, "if you want to see a lark, come to the reading-room before 'prep.'"

"Why, what's up?"

"Oh, never mind; don't tell any one I told you," and the speaker passed on.

"Shall we go?" said Diggory.

"We might as well," answered his companion, laughing. "I wonder what the joke is! Another moth-hunt, or some more of that 'stocks' business, I suppose."

When the two friends entered the reading-room, it presented an unusually quiet and orderly appearance. About twenty boys were seated at the various desks and tables, all occupied with games of chess or draughts, or in the perusal of magazines and papers. Even Grundy, who never read anything but an occasional novel, was poring over the advertisement columns of The Daily News, with apparently great interest, while young Fletcher was equally engrossed in the broad pages of The Times. An attempt to put "Rats" in the stocks utterly failed, from the fact that those who were usually foremost in acts of disorder refused to render any assistance, and even went so far as to nip the disturbance in the bud with angry ejaculations of "Here, dry up!"-"Stop it, can't you?"

"I say," murmured Diggory, after sitting for a quarter of an hour listlessly turning over the pages of a magazine, "Fletcher's sold us about that lark; I don't see the use of staying here any longer."

Hardly had the words been uttered when some one in the passage outside crowed like a cock. There was a rustling of newspapers, and the next instant all four gas-jets were turned out simultaneously, and the room was plunged in total darkness. What followed it would be difficult to describe. The door was flung open, there was an inrush of boys from the passage, and the place became a perfect pandemonium. Tables were overturned, books and magazines went whizzing about in the darkness, a grand "scrum" seemed in progress round Lucas's desk, while amid the chorus of whoops, whistles, and cat-calls the latter's voice was distinctly audible, crying in angry tones,-

"Leave me alone, you blackguards; let go, I say!"

Jack and Diggory listened in amazement to the uproar with which they suddenly found themselves surrounded, and not wishing to risk the chance of having a form or a table upset on their toes, remained seated in their corner, wondering how the affair would end.

At length, piercing the general uproar, came the distant clang, clang of the bell for preparation. The tumult suddenly subsided, and there was a rush for the passage. Hardly had this stampede been accomplished when some one struck a match and lit the gas-jet nearest the door: it was Gull.

He stood for a moment looking round the room with a sardonic smile upon his face, evidently very well pleased with the sight which met his gaze. The place certainly presented the appearance of a town which had been bombarded, carried by storm, and pillaged for a week by some foreign foe. Most of the furniture was upset or pulled out of place, magazines and papers lay strewn about in every direction, ink was trickling in black rivulets about the floor, and draughts and chess men seemed to have been scattered broadcast all over the place. In addition to our two friends, three other boys, who had evidently taken no active part in the proceedings, still remained at some seats next to the wall; while Lucas, with hair dishevelled, waistcoat torn open, and collar flying loose, stood flushed and panting amid the debris of his overturned desk.

"Well, I'm sure!" said Gull, with a short laugh; "you fellows seem to have been having rather a bit of fun here this evening. I thought I heard a row, and I was coming to see what it was; only just when I got to the door, about fifty chaps bounced out and nearly knocked me down.- What have they been up to, eh, Lucas?"

"Never you mind," answered the unfortunate official, choking with rage; "the bell's gone, so all of you clear out."

"Well, you can't blame me this journey," retorted Gull, calmly striking another match and lighting the next gas-jet. "It seems to me this is a little too much of a good thing. You'll have to lick a few of them, Lucas, my boy; and if you can't manage it yourself, you'd better get some one else to do it for you-your friend Allingford, for instance."

The master on duty in the big schoolroom had to call several times for silence before the subdued hum of muttered conversation entirely ceased. Every one had heard of the reading-room riot, and was anxious to discuss the matter with his companions.

"Who did it? who did it?" was the question asked on all sides.

"I don't know," would be the answer. "They say it wasn't the fellows who were in the room-some of them put the gas out; but it was a lot of other chaps, who rushed in after, who did all the damage and caused such 'ructions.'"

"It seems to me," remarked Diggory to his two chums, "that it was a put-up job, all arranged beforehand."

"Then who d'you think planned it?" asked Mugford.

"I don't know, but I believe Gull had a hand in it."

"Oh, I don't think that," answered Jack Vance. "He came in and lit the gas; if he'd been in it, he'd have skedaddled with the rest."

"Um-would he?" returned Diggory, nodding his head in a sagacious manner; "I'm rather inclined to think he came in on purpose."

By the end of supper a fresh rumour spread which caused the affair to assume a still graver and more important aspect. Lucas had reported the whole thing to the head-master, and the latter had expressed his intention of inquiring into it on the following day. The truth of these tidings was proved beyond all possibility of doubt when, next morning at breakfast, an announcement was made that the school would assemble immediately after the boys left the hall, instead of gathering, as usual, at nine o'clock.

Every one knew what this meant. The subject had been discussed for hours in most of the dormitories on the previous evening, and when Dr. Denson ascended his throne there was no necessity for him to strike the small hand-bell-the usual signal for silence; an expectant hush pervaded the whole of the big room, showing clearly the interest which every one felt in the business on hand.

"I need hardly say," began the doctor, in his clear, decisive manner, "that my object in calling you together is to inquire into a disgraceful piece of disorder which took place in the reading-room last night. I am astonished that such outrageous behaviour should be possible in what, up to the present time, I have always been proud to regard as a community of gentlemen. Such an offence against law and order cannot be allowed to pass unpunished. I feel certain that the greater number of those here present had no share in it, and I shall give the culprits a chance of proving themselves at all events sufficiently honourable to prevent their schoolfellows suffering the consequences which have arisen from the folly of individuals. Let those boys who are responsible for what occurred last evening stand up!"

With one exception nobody stirred; a solitary small boy rose to his feet, and in spite of the gravity of the situation a subdued titter ran through the assembly. Apparently the whole of the row and disturbance of the previous evening was the handiwork of one single boy, and that boy the youthful "Rats."

"Well, Rathson," said the head-master grimly, "am I to understand that you single-handed overturned forms and tables, scattered books and papers to the four winds, and nearly tore the clothes off another boy's back?"

"N-no, sir," answered "Rats" plaintively.

"Then will you explain exactly what you did do?"

"I was reading-and the gas went out-and some one emptied a box of chess-men over my head-and I-I hit him-and then there was a lot of pushing, and I pushed, and-" concluded "Rats" apologetically- "and I think I shouted."

"H'm!" said the doctor; "so that's all you did. Sit down, sir.-Lucas!"

"Yes, sir."

"Do you remember what boys were in the reading-room last night?"

"Yes, sir, but I don't think they were responsible for what happened; it was done by others who came in from outside."

There was a silence.

"I ask once more," said the head-master, "what boys took part in this disturbance? let them stand up!"

Once more young "Rats" alone pleaded guilty.

"Very well, then," continued the doctor sternly; "the whole school will be punished: there will be no half-holiday on Wednesday afternoon, and the reading-room will be closed for a fortnight.-Sit down, Rathson; you are the only boy among the many who must have been connected with this affair-the only one, I say, who has any sense of manliness or honour. Write me a hundred lines, and bring them to me to-morrow morning."

The prospect of having to work on Wednesday afternoon caused, the boys themselves to take up the doctor's inquiry, and the query, "Who did it?" became the burning question of the hour.

The riot had evidently been carefully planned beforehand, and the plot arranged in such a manner that those who took part in it might do so without being recognized.

It was impossible to discover who really were the culprits, though the majority of the boys put it down as having been done by "some of 'Thirsty's' lot," and as being a further proof of the latter's well-known animosity towards Allingford, who had, of course, appointed Lucas as keeper of the room.

"Look here!" said Diggory, accosting Fletcher Two in the playground: "what made you tell us to come to the reading-room last night? How did you know there was going to be a row?"

"I didn't," murmured the other warily. "All I knew was that they were going to put 'Rats' in the 'stocks;' I hadn't the faintest idea there was going to be such a fine old rumpus."

"Umph! hadn't you?" muttered Diggory, turning on his heel; "I know better."

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