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   Chapter 19 A CHAPTER OF ACCIDENTS.

The Triple Alliance By Harold Avery Characters: 20858

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:04


The firmest friendships, we are told, have been formed in mutual adversity; and among the many trials which served to strengthen and confirm the loyalty and unity of the Triple Alliance, a string of minor disasters which overtook them one unlucky day early in December must certainly not be overlooked.

The after results of this chapter of accidents cause it to assume an additional importance as being the "beginning of the end," alike of this narrative and of an eventful period in the history of Ronleigh College. The reader will understand, therefore, that in turning our attention for a short time to an account of the afore-mentioned misfortune of the three friends, we are not wandering from what might be called the main line of our story.

"It all came about," so said Jack Vance, "through Carton's having the cheek to go home some ten days before proper time." The latter certainly did, for one reason or another, leave Ronleigh on Wednesday, the eleventh of December; and by his own special request, our three friends came down to the station to see him off.

"Have you got anything to read going along?" asked Diggory, as they stood lingering round the carriage door.

"Yes," answered Carton. "Look here, you fellows, you might get in and sit round the window till the train starts; it'll keep other people from getting in, and I shall have the place to myself."

The Triple Alliance did as they were requested.

"Aha, my boys!" continued Carton, rubbing his hands together, "when you're stewing away in 'prep' this evening, think of me at home eating a rattling good tea, and no more work to prepare after it for old Greyling."

"Oh, rubbish!" cried Jack. "I wouldn't go now even if I had the chance.

Why, you'll miss all the fun of breaking up; and young 'Rats' is making

up a party to fill a carriage, and we're going to have a fine spree.

Then by the time we get home for Christmas it'll be all stale to you.

Pshaw! I wouldn't-hullo!-here, stop a minute!-why, she's off!"

Off she certainly was. There had been a sharp chirrup of the whistle, and at almost the same moment the train began to move. Diggory tried to let down the window to get at the handle of the door; but the sash worked stiffly, and before he succeeded in making it drop, the train had run the length of the platform, and the station was left behind.

The four boys gazed at one another for a moment in blank astonishment, and then burst into a simultaneous roar of laughter.

"You'll have to go as far as Chatton now," said Carton. "Never mind; you can get back by the next train."

"Yes; but the question is if we've got any money," answered Jack Vance ruefully. "It's fourpence the single journey, so the fare there and back for three of us'll be two bob. Here's threepence; that's all the tin I'm worth.-what have you got, Diggy?"

"Four halfpenny stamps, and half a frank on my watch-chain," was the reply. "But I don't think these railway Johnnies 'ud take either of those."

On examination, the only articles of value Mugford's pockets were found to contain were an aluminium pencil-case which wouldn't work, and a dirty scrap of indiarubber.

"Look here," cried Carton, "I'll give you two shillings. It's my fault; and I've got something over from my journey-money."

The offer was gladly accepted, and at length, when the train reached Chatton, the three chums wished their companion good-bye, laughing heartily over their unexpected journey.

"What time's the next train back to Ronleigh?" asked Jack, as he paid the money for their fare to the ticket-collector.

"Let's see," answered the official: "next train to Ronleigh-5.47."

Jack's face fell. "Isn't there any train before that?" he asked.

"We've got to be back at the school by half-past five."

"Can't help that," returned the man; "next train from here to Ronleigh's 5.47. And," he added, encouragingly, "she's nearly always a bit late."

The boys wandered disconsolately through the booking-office of the little country station, and halted outside to consider what was to be done.

"It's five-and-twenty past four," said Jack Vance, looking at his watch, "and it's a good six miles by road; we shall never walk it in the time."

"It's a good bit shorter by rail," mused Diggory, "if we could walk along the line. That tunnel under Arrow Hill cuts off a long round."

"We couldn't do that," said Mugford; "there are notice-boards all over the shop saying that trespassers on the railway will be prosecuted."

"Oh, bother that," cried Jack Vance, suddenly smitten with Diggory's idea. "Who cares for notice-boards? We'll go home along the line. If we trot every now and then, we shall get back in time."

"Well, we'd better walk along the road as far as that curve," said

Diggory, "and then they won't see us from the station."

The trio started off in the direction indicated, hurrying along the permanent way, hopping over the sleepers, and seeing how far they could run on one of the metals without falling off. At length they entered a cutting, the steep banks of which rose gradually until they towered high above their heads on either hand. Before long the mouth of the tunnel was reached, and, as if by mutual consent, the three friends came to a halt.

There was something forbidding about the dark, gloomy entrance-the stale, smoky smell, and the damp dripping from the roof, all tending to give it a very uninviting aspect.

"It's awfully long," said Mugford; "don't you think we'd better turn back?"

In their secret hearts his two companions were more than half inclined to follow this suggestion; but there is a form of cowardice to which even the bravest are subject-namely, the fear of being thought afraid- and it was this, perhaps, which decided them to advance instead of retreat.

"Oh no, we won't go back," cried Diggory. "Come along; I'll go first."

And so saying, he plunged forward into the deep shadow of the archway.

The ground seemed to be plentifully strewn with ashes, which scrunched under their feet as they plodded along, and their voices sounded hollow and strange.

"My eye," said Jack, "it's precious dark. I can hardly see where I'm going."

"It'll be darker still before we see the end," answered Diggory. "Some one was telling me the other day that there's a curve in the middle."

"Hadn't we better go back?" faltered Mugford.

"No, you fathead; shut up."

The darkness seemed to increase, and the silence grew oppressive.

The boys were walking in single file, Diggory leading, and Jack Vance bringing up the rear.

"I say," exclaimed the latter, as he stumbled over a sleeper,

"I shouldn't like to be caught here by a train."

"That can't happen," retorted Diggory; "didn't you hear the man say there wasn't another till 5.47?"

"Yes," added Mugford; "but there might be a luggage, or one coming the other way."

"Well, all you'd have to do would be to cross over on to the other line."

Imperceptibly the boys quickened their pace until it became almost a trot.

"Hurrah!" cried Diggory, a few moments later, as a far-distant semicircle of daylight came into view. "There's the other end."

"Stop a minute," cried Jack, emboldened by the prospect of soon being once more in the fresh air; "let's see if we can make an echo."

The little party halted for a moment, but instead of hearing the shrill yell for the production of which Jack had just filled his lungs, their ears were greeted with a far more terrible sound, which caused their hearts to stop beating. There was, it seemed, a sudden boom, followed by a long, continuous roar. Diggory turned his head, to find the far-off patch of light replaced by a spark of fiery red, and the terrible truth flashed across his mind that in the excitement of the moment he could not remember for certain which was the down line.

It was well for the Triple Alliance that at least one of their number was blessed with the faculty of quick decision and prompt action, or the history of their friendship might have had a tragic ending.

Diggory wheeled round, and catching hold of Mugford, cried in a voice loud enough to be heard above the ever-increasing din, "Quick! get into the six-foot way, and lie down!"

What followed even those who underwent the experience could never clearly describe. They flung themselves upon the ground: there were the thundering roar of an earthquake, coupled with a deafening clatter, as though the whole place were falling about their ears, and a whirling hurricane of hot air and steam.

In ten seconds, which seemed like ten minutes, the whole thing had come and gone, and Diggory, scrambling to his feet in the dense darkness of the choking atmosphere, inquired in a shaky voice, "Are you all right, you chaps?"

There was a reply in the affirmative, and the three boys proceeded to grope their way along in silence, until the broad archway of the tunnel's mouth appeared through a fog of steam and smoke.

"I say, you fellows," cried Diggory, as they emerged into the fresh air,

"I wouldn't go through there again for something."

"It was a good thing you gave me that shove," said Mugford; "I felt as though I couldn't move. And we were standing on the very line it went over."

"Yes: I couldn't remember for the moment which was 'up' and which was 'down.' I thought, too, we should be safer lying flat on the ground when it passed; had we stood up in the six-foot way, we might have got giddy and fallen under the wheels."

The conversation was suddenly interrupted by a strange voice shouting,-

"Hullo, you young beggars! what are you a-doing there?"

The boys turned to see from whence this inquiry proceeded. Half-way up the cutting on their left was a little hut, and beside it stood the man who had spoken. The same glance showed them another thing-namely, that just beside this little shanty was one of the notice-boards Mugford had mentioned, warning the public that persons found trespassing on the railway would be prosecuted.

"Come along," cried Jack Vance; "let's bolt."

Unless they doubled back into the tunnel, their only way of escape lay in scaling the right side of the cutting, as a short distance down the line a gang of platelayers were at work, who would have intercepted them before they reached the open country.

"Come along," repeated Jack Vance, and the next moment he and his

two companions were clambering as fast as they could up the steep side of the embankment, clutching at bushes and tufts of grass, and causing miniature landslips of sand and gravel with every step they took.

The man shouted after them to stop, and seeing that they paid no attention to his commands, promptly gave chase, rushing down the narrow pathway from the hut, and scrambling after them up the opposite slope.

Jack Vance and Diggory, whose powers of wind and limb had benefited by constant exercise in the football field, were soon at the top; but Mugford, who was not inclined to be athletic, and who had already been pretty nearly pumped in hurrying out of the tunnel; was still slowly dragging himself up the ascent, panting and puffing like a steam-engine, when his comrades reached the summit.

His pursuer was gaining on him rapidly, and it was in vain that his two friends (too loyal to make good their escape alone) stood, and with frantic gestures urged him to quicker movement. Just, however, as the capture seemed certain, a great piece of loose earth giving way beneath the man's weight caused the latter to fall forward on his face. In this posture he tobogganed down the slope, with more force than elegance; and with a yell of triumph Jack and Diggory stretched out their hands, and dragged Mugford up to the level grassy plateau on which they stood.

Close behind them was a wood, and without a moment's hesitation they plunged through the hedge, and dashed on through the bushes. The dry twigs cracked, and the dead leaves rustled beneath their feet. Suddenly, not more than fifty yards away to their right, there was the loud explosion of a gun, and almost at the same instant a harsh-voice shouted: "Hi there-stop! Where are you going?"

"Oh," panted Jack, "it's one of the keepers! Run for all you're worth!"

The opposite edge of the wood was not far distant. The three youngsters rushed wildly on, and stumbling blindly over the boundary hedge, continued their mad gallop across a narrow field. Over another hedge, and they were in a sunken roadway. Then came the end. Mugford staggered over to the opposite bank, and falling down upon it with his hand pressed to his side, gasped out, "Awful stitch-can't go any further!"

Years afterwards, when the Triple Alliance met at an Old Boys' dinner, they laughed heartily in talking over this adventure; but there were no signs of mirth on any of their faces at the time it was happening. Then as Jack Vance and Diggory stood staring blankly at each other in the deepening winter twilight, they suddenly blossomed out into heroes- heroes, it is true, in flannel cricket-caps and turned-down collars, but heroes, at all events to my mind, as genuine in the spirit which prompted their action as those whose deeds are known in song and story. The barking of a dog in the field above showed that the keeper was following up their trail.

"Bun for it!" panted Mugford; "don't wait for me!"

"Shan't!" said Jack and Diggory in one voice; and the latter, sticking his hands in his trouser pockets, began to whistle.

"Go on!" cried Mugford.

"Shan't!" repeated his companions.

It was evident that the Triple Alliance would sink or swim together, and it so happened that by a piece of unexpected good fortune they were destined to realize the latter alternative. There was a clatter of wheels, the quick stamp of a fast-trotting horse, and a baker's cart came swinging round the corner. Diggory, whose wits never seemed to desert him at a critical moment, recognized it at once as belonging to the man who supplied the school, and springing forward he beckoned to the driver to stop, crying,-

"I say, give us a lift into Ronleigh, and we'll pay you a shilling.

We belong to the college."

The man peered round the canvas covering, and at once recognized the boys' cap and crest.

"All right," he said. "Hop up; I'll find room for you somewhere."

The danger was past; with an audible sigh of relief the three youngsters clambered into the vehicle, and the next moment were bowling rapidly along in the direction of the town.

"I say," cried Jack, "this is a stroke of good luck. Why, we shall be back in time after all."

The remainder of their conversation was lost to the ears of the driver, but seemed to consist mainly of a series of attempts on the part of Mugford to say something, which were always interrupted by a chorus of groans, and shouts of "Shut up!" from his two companions.

At length the cart arrived at Ronleigh, and set down the three passengers at the corner of Broad Street, the principal thoroughfare; and here their adventures seemed to have terminated.

I say seemed, because, as a matter of fact, something still remains to be told in the history of this eventful day; but before proceeding to the close of the chapter, it will be well to say a word or two with regard to a certain person connected with it who is as yet unknown to the reader.

Ronleigh was fortunate in having a staff of masters who won the respect and confidence of the boys. Some poor-spirited fellows there are who will always abuse those set in authority over them; but at Ronleigh there was happily, on the whole, a mutual good understanding, such as might exist in a well and wisely disciplined regiment between officers and men.

Exceptions, however, prove the rule; and when at the commencement of the present winter term a new junior master had come to take charge of the Third Form, it was evident from the first that before long there would be trouble. Mr. Grice was a very short man, with a pompous, hectoring manner, which was, somehow, especially exasperating to fellows who stood a good head and shoulders taller than the master. His rule was founded on the fear of punishment, and the sceptre which he wielded was a small black note-book, in which he entered the names of all offenders with an accompanying "Hundred lines, Brown!" or "Write the lesson out after school, Smith." Lastly, Mr. Grice was not a gentleman. Boys, I know, pay little attention to the conventionalities, and are seldom found consulting books on etiquette; but those who have been well brought up, and accustomed at home to an air of refinement, are quick to detect ill-breeding and bad manners in those older than themselves, and who "ought to know better." So it came about that Mr. Grice was unpopular, and the boys in his class bemoaned their fate, and called him uncomplimentary nicknames.

We left the three friends standing at the corner of Broad Street. The church clock had just struck the quarter-past five, and by this time it was dark, though the street was lit up by the gas-lamps and the long rows of shop windows.

"I hope no one sees us," said Jack Vance. "I'm mud all over. We must look sharp, or we shall be late."

"Hullo!" exclaimed Diggory, "look out! Here's that wretched little

Grice coming; there, he's stopped to look into the ironmonger's shop.

We must dodge past him somehow, or he'll want to know where we've

been."

The trio crossed quickly over to the opposite side of the street, and hurried off at full speed in the direction of the school.

All boys were supposed to be on the school premises by half-past five, and at that time the door leading to the outer world was locked by the prefect for the day.

Oaks, who happened to be on duty, was standing in the passage talking to Allingford when the three juveniles arrived, out of breath and flushed with running.

"Hullo, you kids! where have you been?" inquired the captain.

Diggory launched out into a brief description of their many adventures; Oaks laughed heartily. "Well," he said, pulling out his watch, "you've just got back in time; half a minute more, and you'd have been outside, my boys."

The prefect locked the door, and continuing his conversation with Allingford, started off down the passage. On reaching what was the main corridor on the ground floor, they paused for a moment, and stood warming their hands at the hot-water pipe, and it was while thus engaged that they were suddenly accosted by Mr. Grice, who bustled up to them in a great state of excitement.

"Are you on duty, Oaks?"

"Yes, sir."

"Have any boys come in late?"

"No, sir."

"Well, three boys passed me in the town; I think one of them was young Trevanock. I called to them to stop, but they took no notice. When they come in, you send than to me."

"They weren't late, sir," answered Oaks; "they came in about a minute ago."

"Oh, nonsense. I looked at my watch when I saw them in the town, and then it was five-and-twenty past; they couldn't have come up in five minutes. You must either have let them in, or not closed the door at the proper time."

Prefects at Ronleigh were not in the habit of being lectured as though they were lower-school boys. Oaks bit his lip.

"I closed the door on the stroke of half-past," he answered.

"Well, you say those boys came in about two minutes ago. By me it's now twenty to six, so they must have been late."

"They were in before half-past, sir; your watch must be wrong."

"Don't keep contradicting me, sir," said the master.

"We are supposed to work by the school clock, sir," interposed the captain.

"I'm not aware that I addressed any remark to you, Allingford," retorted Mr. Grice, rapidly losing all control of his temper. "You need make no further attempt to teach me the rules of the school; I flatter myself that I am sufficiently well versed in them already."

A crowd of idlers, attracted by the angry tones of the master's voice, had begun to collect in the passage, and the captain flushed to the roots of his hair at being thus taken to task in public.

"I merely said, sir, that we work by the school clock."

"And I say, hold your tongue, sir.-Oaks, remember you report those three boys for being late."

"I can't do that, sir," answered Oaks stolidly, "for they were in time."

Mr. Grice boiled over. "You are a very impertinent fellow," he cried. "I shall report you both to the doctor." And so saying, he turned on his heel and walked away.

There was a buzz of astonishment among the bystanders. The idea of a captain of Ronleigh being reported to the doctor was something novel indeed, and by the time the first bell rang for tea, a report of the collision between Mr. Grice and the prefects had spread all over the school.

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