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   Chapter 17 DIGGORY READS THE CIPHER.

The Triple Alliance By Harold Avery Characters: 18614

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:04


The gymnasium was filled with a dense crowd of boys; "Rats," Maxton, and some other members of the Lower Fourth were fighting for seats on the parallel bars, and throughout tho whole assembly there was a subdued murmur of interest and expectation. The last gathering of the kind had been a court-martial held some two years previously on a boy suspected of stealing. Old stagers, in a patronizing manner, related what had happened to their younger comrades, adding, "What, weren't you here then? Well, you are a kid!" and forgetting to mention that at the time they themselves were wearing knickerbockers, and doing simple arithmetic in the lowest form.

At one end of the room was a big chest containing dumb-bells and single-sticks, and Allingford, mounting on the top of this as the last stragglers from the dining-hall joined the assembly, called for silence.

There was no attempt at eloquence or self-assertion in Allingford's remarks; brief they were almost to bluntness, but well suited to the audience to whom they were addressed. It was the old, well-tried captain of Ronleigh who spoke, and the boys of Ronleigh who listened, and the manner in which the words were given and received might have reminded one of a speech of Sir Colin Campbell's in the Indian Mutiny, and the answer of the Highlanders he addressed:-

"Ninety-third, you are my own lads; I rely on you to do yourselves and me credit."

"Ay, ay, Sir Colin; ye ken us, and we ken you."

"I think you all know," began the captain, "the reason of this meeting being called together. Last night Browse was set on in this room-in the dark, mind you-knocked down, and drenched with cold water. Some fellows may think it a good joke. I don't; I think the fellows who did it were cads and cowards. I reported the matter to the doctor, and he consented to act in accordance with the wishes of the prefects, and leave the matter in the hands of the boys themselves rather than inquire into it himself, which would probably only have meant another punishment for the whole school." ("Hear, hear!")

"Now, what I want to say is this. I've been here a good many years- longer than any one, except Oaks and Rowlands and two or three more. I love the place, and I'm proud of it. I'd sooner be captain of Ronleigh than of any other public school you could mention" (cheers); "but I tell you plainly, the place is going down. There's been a good deal too much of this rowdy element showing lately, and it's high time it was put a stop to.

"Some of you, I know, have lately taken a dislike to me, and think I don't act rightly." ("No, no!") "If I'm to blame, I'm sorry for it, for I've always tried to do my best. I ask you not to look upon this matter as a personal affair, either of mine or of any of the other prefects, but to consider only the welfare of the school. I say again that if Ronleigh is to retain its reputation, and be kept from going to the dogs, it's high time these underhanded bits of foul play like the reading-room row and this attack on Browse were put a stop to; and I beg you all to join in taking measures to prevent anything of the kind occurring again in the future."

The speaker concluded his remarks amid a general outburst of applause.

"So we will," cried several voices; "three cheers for old Ally!"

"In my opinion," began Oaks, as soon as order was restored, "the first thing is to try to find out who did it; surely a fellow can't be set on by three or four others without somebody knowing something about it.- Haven't you yourself any idea who it was, Browse?"

"Well, I can't swear," answered Browse readily. "I couldn't see, because it was dark, and my spectacles were knocked off; but I'm pretty certain it was some of Thurston's lot-Gull, or Hawley, or some of those fellows. They did it because I complained when they kicked up a row and interfered with my work."

This reply created a great sensation, and the air was rent with a storm of groans, cheers, and hisses.

Oaks, who seemed to have taken upon himself the duties of counsel for the prosecution, held up his hand to procure silence.

"Shut up!" he exclaimed; "every one will be heard in time. Browse thinks it might have been Gull, Thurston, or Hawley.-Now, Gull, what have you got to say? Where were you last night?"

"In bed, asleep," answered Gull promptly.

There was a laugh.

"I don't mean that. What we want to know is, what were you doing after 'prep'?"

"Well, I was about some private business of my own."

"What was it?"

"I don't see why I should tell you all my private affairs."

"Well, in this instance we mean to know; so out with it. What were you doing directly after 'prep' last night?"

There was a hush of expectation. Every one thought an important disclosure was about to be made.

"All right," answered Gull calmly; "if you must know, I'll tell you. I was in the matron's room, getting her to sew two buttons on my waistcoat."

A roar of laughter interrupted the proceedings; the defence had scored heavily. Oaks was for the moment completely nonplussed, and Thurston seized the opportunity of making a counter-attack. He strode forward, and mounting the chest addressed the assembly as follows:-

"Gentlemen, however low Ronleigh may have sunk, there is still, I believe, left among us a certain amount of love of fair play, and therefore I ask you to give me a hearing. The saying goes, 'Give a dog a bad name and then hang him.' I'm a dog on which certain people have been good enough to bestow a bad name. I know I've got it, and to tell you the truth I don't much care. All the same, I don't see why I should be hung for a thing which is no fault of mine. You've just heard what Gull's had to say. I can prove that I was in Smeaton's study when this thing happened; and I daresay, if Hawley is to be cross-examined, he'll be able to show that he was somewhere else at the time. What I say, however, is this-that it's very unfair and unjust to practically accuse fellows of a thing without having some grounds for so doing. I don't want to brag, but there have been times, as, for instance, at the last Wraxby match" (cheers), "when the school thought well of me" (loud cheers). "Now I'm a black sheep; but there ought to be fair play for black sheep as well as for white ones." ("Hear, hear!") "Allingford said something about underhanded bits of foul play. Well, I, for one, am not afraid to be open and speak my mind. If the place is going to the dogs because of it's being continually in a state of disorder, then the fault lies with the prefects." (Sensation.) "They're the ones who ought to check it, and if they are incompetent, and can't do their duty, it's no excuse for their trying to shift the blame on to fellows who are innocent, but who happen to stand in their bad books."

The speech had just the effect which Thurston intended it should have. The English schoolboy has always been a zealous champion of "fair play," though sometimes misled in his ideas as to what the term really implies. A vague sense that the prefects were at fault, and that this inquiry was a blind to cover their shortcomings, spread through the meeting. Oaks was interrupted and prevented from questioning Hawley, and it seemed as though the good influence of Allingford's opening speech would be entirely lost, and that the meeting would bring about a still more hostile attitude on the part of the rank and file towards those in authority.

The Thurstonians, however, attempting to make the most of this temporary triumph, met with an unexpected disaster, which quickly turned the changing tide of public opinion.

During a momentary pause in the hubbub which followed Thurston's address, Fletcher senior, with the usual smile upon his face, began to speak.

"Thurston has just said that as regards these rows the fault lies with the prefects, and that they are culpable in trying to shift the blame on to other fellows without first getting sufficient evidence to warrant their so doing. As one of the prefects, I think it only fair to myself to mention that I was not in favour of this meeting being called. I suggested to my friend Allingford that this matter should be allowed to rest until some inquiries had been made-"

"Stop!" cried the captain sternly. The two lines were deepening between his eyebrows, and the corners of his mouth were drawn down. The boys had seen that look before, as he stood at the wicket when runs were few and the bowling dangerous. "Stop! Speak the truth: you're not my friend."

"Allingford says we are not friends," continued the speaker, with the same eternal smile upon his lips. "I'm sorry to hear it. I know I've always tried to be his friend, ever-"

"You're lying!" interrupted the other sharply. "Take care, or I'll prove it!"

There was a dead silence all over the room. Fletcher did not know what was coming, and though he felt uneasy, he had gone too far to go back.

"I can't understand," he began, "why you should have this unkind feeling towards me. I can only repeat, in spite of what you say, that I am your friend."

"Very well," returned the other, with an angry flash in his eyes, "as it was partly an attack on myself, I had meant to have said nothing about it; but since you persist in your miserab

le hypocrisy, I'll expose you.-You remember," he continued, turning to the audience, and speaking with a ring of bitter scorn in his voice, "that paltry rhyme that was fastened on the notice-board after the Town match? Well, allow me to introduce you to the author of it. He was too modest to sign his name to it, but here he is, all the same-a fellow who tries to bring ridicule and contempt on his own side; who stabs a man in the dark, and in the daylight professes to be his friend."

A derisive groan rose from the crowd.

"You can't prove it!" retorted Fletcher, turning first white and then red.

"I can prove it up to the hilt. You had the confounded cheek to borrow from me the very book of songs you used when you wrote the parody, and you were fool enough to leave the rough copy in it when you brought it back. It's there now, in your writing. Shall I send for it? it's on my study table at this moment."

The culprit muttered something about it's being "only a joke," but his reply was lost amid a storm of hoots and hisses.

"Sneak!" cried one voice; "Turn him out!" yelled another; while the object of this outburst of animosity, recovering himself sufficiently to glance round with a contemptuous sneer on his face, fell back, and endeavoured to hide his confusion by entering into conversation with Gull and Thurston.

Fletcher had come a nasty cropper, and reaped what, sooner or later, is the inevitable reward of double-dealing.

Once more the sympathy of the meeting was enlisted on the side of Allingford and the prefects, and the crowd dispersed, resolved to discover, if possible, who had made the attack on Browse, and determined that such acts of disorder were not to be tolerated in the future.

"Hullo, old chap!" said Thurston, entering his friend's study a few moments later; "you made rather a mess of that speech of yours. I'm inclined to think you've damaged your reputation."

"I don't care," returned the other; "we're both leaving at the end of this term. As for Allingford, just let him look out: it'll be my turn to move next, and there's plenty of time to finish the game between now and Christmas."

It was a bright, crisp afternoon. Almost everybody hurried away to change for football.

"Where's Diggy?" asked Jack Vance, as he and Mugford strolled out to the junior playing field.

"Oh, he said he wasn't coming; he's stewing away at that stupid cipher. He can't find any word except 'the;' he'll never be able to read the thing."

It being a half-holiday, the games lasted a little longer than usual. At length, however, the signal was given to "cease fire," and a general cry of "Hold the ball!" put an end to the several contests.

The crowd of players were tramping across the paved playground, and surging through the archway into the quadrangle, when Jack Vance and Mugford were suddenly confronted by Diggory. He held some scraps of paper in his hand, and appeared to be greatly agitated.

"Come here," he cried, seizing each of them by the arm; "I've got something to show you."

"Well, what is it?" asked the other two. Their friend, however, would vouchsafe no further reply than, "Come here out of the way, and I'll tell you."

He dragged them along until they reached the deserted entrance to some of the classrooms; then, stopping and turning to them with an extraordinary look of mingled triumph, mystery, and excitement, exclaimed,-

"I've read the cipher!"

"Pooh! what of that?" answered Jack, rather annoyed at being taken so far out of his way for nothing. "I expect it isn't anything particular after all."

"It is, though," returned the other confidently; "and you'll say so too when you read it."

"Well, tell us first how you managed to find it out."

"That's just what I was going to do. You know I found that G was T, S was H, and V was E; well, I tried and tried, and I couldn't get any further. I wrote down the alphabet, and put V opposite E, and T opposite G, and S opposite H. I stared at it and stared at it, and all of a sudden-I don't know how I came to think of it-I noticed that E is the fifth letter from the beginning of the alphabet, and V is the fifth letter from the end. The same thing held good with the next letter: G was seventh from the beginning, and T was seventh from the end."

Diggory paused as though to see what effect this announcement would have on the faces of his friends.

"Well!" they exclaimed; "go on!"

"Why, then, I saw in a moment what they'd done: they'd simply transposed the whole alphabet-A. was Z, and Z was A!"

"Oh!" cried Jack Vance; "I see it now."

"Of course, it was as plain as print. I put the two alphabets side by side, one the right way and the other upside down, and I read the cipher in two minutes, and here's what you might call the translation."

As he spoke he held out a scrap of scribbling-paper. Jack Vance took it, and read as follows:-

"Meet in the 'gym' when the fellows pass on to supper. The two cans of water are standing inside the cupboard under the stairs."

Mugford stared at Jack Vance, and Jack stared at Diggory. "D'you see?" cried the latter eagerly.

"Yes."

"Well, what then?"

"Why, it must have something to do with this row about Browse."

"Of course: the fellows who did it didn't want, I suppose, to be seen talking together too much just before it happened, and so they invented this way of making their plans."

"But who can it be?" asked Mugford. "It seems to me it's just like one of those secret society things in Russia."

"So it is, and we must find out who they are," answered Diggory, smacking his lips with great relish. "We'll see once more what can be done by the Triple Alliance."

The more the three friends thought over the matter of the cipher letter, the more their curiosity and interest were excited.

"I believe it's either Noaks or Mouler," said Mugford; "they were both of them siding with Thurston, and trying to kick up a row at the meeting."

"Oh, they'd neither of them have the sense to invent a thing like this," answered Jack. "They may be in it, but there's some one else besides."

Diggory scouted the idea of letting any other boys share their secret.

The honour of having discovered and exposed the plot must belong to the

Triple Alliance alone, and it must be said that they had accomplished

their task unaided by any outsiders.

That evening and the following day the greater portion of their free time was spent in discussing the great question as to what should be done. The cipher note evidently had direct connection with the attack on Browse, but the translation of the letter was in itself like finding a key without knowing the whereabouts of the lock which it fitted. The question was, by whom and for whom it had been written.

Afternoon school was just over, and the three friends were standing warming their feet on a hot-water pipe, discussing the likelihood of making any other discoveries which might tend to throw more light on the subject, when suddenly a happy thought entered the head of Jack Vance.

"Look here, Diggory. You said you found this note in a crack in the wall under one of the grub-room windows, and that you thought some fellows were using it as a sort of post-office. Well, have you been there to see if anything's been put there since?"

"No!" cried Diggory. "Good idea! I'll go now at once."

He walked quickly out of the room, and came back a few moments later at a run.

"I've got one!" he exclaimed, in a low, eager tone. "Don't let any one see; come to my desk."

The note this time was very brief:-

ZUGVIGVZFMWVIGSVKZE.

Diggory hastily fished out his double alphabet, wrote down the proper letters as Jack read out those on the paper, and in a few seconds the translation was complete, and read as follows:-

"After tea under the pav."

The three boys stared at it in silence.

"What does it mean?" asked Mugford.

"Why," cried Diggory excitedly, "I see. Something's going to happen after tea this evening in that place under the pavilion-you know where I mean?"

The other two nodded their heads. The pavilion at Ronleigh being raised some distance above the level of the field, there was a space between the floor and the ground used for storing whiting-buckets, goal-posts, and a number of forms, which were brought out on match-days to afford seats for visitors. The door of this den had no lock, and opened on the piece of waste turf at the back of the building. Small boys used it as a cave when playing brigands, and for so doing had their ears boxed by irate members of the Sports Committee. It was too low to admit of any one's moving about except in a stooping posture, and pitch dark unless the door was left wide open.

"What do you think it is?" said Mugford.

"I don't know," answered Diggory; "but I mean to go and see."

"If they catch you prying about, and find out that you've been watching them, you'll get an awful licking."

"I don't care if I do; I mean to go."

"Well, we'll go with you," said Jack Vance. "Remember it's the Triple

Alliance, and we vowed always to stand by each other whatever happened."

"Yes," answered Diggory, "and so we will; but there's less chance of one being seen than three. No; I'll go alone."

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