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   Chapter 20 SOWING THE WIND.

The Triple Alliance By Harold Avery Characters: 17772

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:04


The passage of arms between Mr. Grice and the two prefects was eagerly discussed by boys of all ages. Exaggerated reports spread from mouth to mouth, each teller of the story adding to it some details drawn from his own imagination, until, away down in the Second Form, it was confidently asserted that Oaks had called Mr. Grice a "little tin monkey," and that Allingford had boxed the master's ears; which enormities would most certainly result in the expulsion of the two offenders.

As a matter of fact, the expected storm never burst. The first thing the doctor did on receiving Mr. Grice's complaint was to compare that gentleman's watch with his own. "Hum'" he said shortly, "I suppose you're aware that you are ten minutes fast?"

A few moments later Mr. Grice withdrew, looking rather crestfallen. As may be imagined, the result of his interview with the head-master was never made public, and in the meantime Ronleians old and young were expressing their high approval of the conduct of their captain and his lieutenant. The gilt was beginning to wear off the Thurstonian gingerbread, and sensible fellows, who could tell the difference between jewel and paste, were less inclined than ever to be led by the nose by such fellows as Gull and Hawley. Here was an instance in which the prefects had taken a stand against palpable injustice, and the action had caused the whole body to rise several pegs in everybody's estimation.

The near approach of the Wraxby football match caused a revival of good, honest public spirit. If only Ronleigh could beat the Grammar School this year at footer as well as at cricket, every one felt that their cup of joy would run over, and the champions who were to strive for the wished-for victory were naturally regarded, for the time being, as standing on more exalted ground than their fellows. Ever since the exposure of Fletcher senior as the author of "College v. Town," the poem had become a weapon turned against the writer and his party. Boys had gone to the bottom of the matter, and discovering the real reason of Thurston's absence from the team, had declared that a fellow who out of spite would refuse to give his services to uphold the honour of the school had forfeited all claim on their consideration or sympathy. Such was the state of popular feeling when, with the clang of the getting-up bell on Thursday morning, the twelfth of December, a day commenced fraught with unexpected episodes and situations closely affecting the interests of the Triple Alliance.

One might have thought that their adventures on the previous afternoon had afforded them sufficient excitement for at least one week; but these were destined to prove but the prelude to an event of still greater importance. The three friends went into school at nine o'clock, looking forlorn and miserable. Something, indeed, had happened to mar their happiness, and the cause of their depression was as follows:-

Soon after breakfast, when the contents of the post-bag had been distributed as usual, Mugford accosted his two chums, who were strolling up and down the quadrangle. A look of abject misery was on his face, and in his hand he held an open letter.

"Hullo!" cried Jack Vance; "what's up? You look as if you had lost a sovereign and found sixpence!"

"Matter enough," murmured Mugford, whose heart was evidently in his mouth: "I'm going to leave."

"Going to leave!" exclaimed Diggory; "what ever d'you mean?"

"Well, I don't mind telling you fellows," answered the other. "You know my guv'nor isn't well off, and he says he's lost money, and can't afford to keep me at Ronleigh. I know I'm no good, and you fellows'll get on all right without me, and-"

The sentence not being completed, the two other boys glanced at the speaker's face, and from previous indications in the tone of his voice were not surprised to find that he was crying. Two years appear a long time when one is on the bright side of twenty, and the friendship seemed to have lasted for ages. At the near prospect of separation all Mugford's little failings were forgotten, and both Diggory and Jack Vance felt that life without him would be a blank.

"Oh, dash it all!" said the latter; "you mustn't go? Isn't there anything we can do? Shall I write to your guv'nor?"

The idea of Jack Vance addressing a remonstrance to his respected parent caused the ghost of a smile to appear on Mugford's doleful face.

"No, it's no good," he answered. "There's nothing for it; I shall have to leave."

During the interval which divided morning school and the free time before dinner the three friends mooned about together, trying in vain to regard the future in a more cheerful light, and to make plans for keeping touch of each other by an interchange of letters and a possible meeting in the holidays.

"It's all very well," said Jack Vance to Diggory, when late on in the afternoon he happened to come across the latter flattening his nose against the glass of the box-room window-"it's all very well talking about writing and all that; but this is the end of the Triple Alliance."

"Yes," answered Diggory, after a moment's thought, "I suppose it is.

I wish we could do something more before it's broken up."

As he spoke, he passed his hand mechanically along the lower surface of the window ledge; then with a sudden exclamation he went down on his knees, and picked something out of the wall.

It was another note written in cipher!

The missive was certainly very brief, consisting of only seven letters:-

"GLMRTSG."

"Hullo!" said Jack Vance; "they're at it again!"

His companion made no reply, but taking out a pencil, copied the cipher on the back of an envelope, and then replaced the mysterious document in the crack between the window-frame and the bricks.

"What are you doing that for?"

"Why, because they may miss it, and smell a rat. Come on; let's get the key and see what it means."

In this instance the translation of the cryptograph did not occupy much time; Diggory produced his double alphabet, and soon spelt out the word:-

"To-night."

The two chums gazed at each other for a few moments in silence.

"What does it mean?" queried Jack.

"I don't know, unless it is that they are going to have another meeting after tea under the pavilion."

"Let's find Mug, and hear what he thinks."

In discussing their new find and attempting to solve its meaning, the three friends forgot for the time being the melancholy tidings they had received that morning, and gave themselves up to a full enjoyment of the mystery.

"I can't see," said Mugford, "that it means anything else than that they are going to have another meeting."

"Yes, that's it. I shall go down to the pavilion again after tea, and see what's up. I shouldn't wonder if there is going to be another row. Fletcher said he meant to do something before he left, and there isn't much time now before the end of the term."

"Shan't Mug or I go this time?" asked Jack Vance; "it's rather a risky business."

"No, I'll go; I know now just where to hide."

During the half-hour between tea and evening preparation Jack Vance and Mugford lingered about in the dark and deserted quadrangle, anxiously awaiting their comrade's return. Once only was the silence broken, by Maxton chasing young "Rats" from the gymnasium into the big school, shouting, "I'll lick you, you little villain!" but with this exception, our two friends had the place to themselves.

It was a raw, cold night; every one seemed, very naturally, to be keeping indoors, and there were no signs of any members of the secret society being abroad. Jack Vance and his companion trotted softly up and down, endeavouring to keep themselves warm. At length, when their patience was wellnigh exhausted, there was a sound of footsteps, and Diggory was descried coming through the archway leading to the playing fields.

"Well," cried his two chums, in low, eager tones, "what have you heard?"

The answer was certainly one they had least expected,-

"Nothing."

"Nothing! what d'you mean?"

"Why, they didn't come; there wasn't any meeting. I waited and waited, until I saw it was no use staying any longer; so then I gave it up as a bad job."

"Did the note really say to-night?"

"Yes: I went down just before tea to see if it was still there, and I brought it away with me. Here, look for yourself."

As he spoke, Diggory produced the slip of paper from his waistcoat pocket. By the light of the archway lamp it was compared with a hastily-constructed key, and the former translation was found to be correct.

The Triple Alliance had certainly for once in a way "drawn blank," and the preparation bell putting an end to their further deliberations, they directed their steps toward the schoolroom, wondering more than ever what could be the meaning of t

hat significant word, "To-night."

Now, the real reason of the three friends being thus at fault in their investigations was simply this: they were exactly twenty-four hours behindhand in their attempt to unravel the mystery. The conclusion they had come to with regard to the meaning of the note was correct: a tacit understanding had existed for some time among the inner circle of the Thurstonian party that this should be the signal for a gathering of the clan; but the note, when Diggory had found it, had been lying in the impromptu post office for a day and a half, and the meeting to which it was a summons had already taken place on the previous evening.

For the reader, who is a privileged person, we intend to put back the clock, and leaving the Triple Alliance dividing their attention between attempts to discover the meaning, first of their Latin author, and secondly of the enigma formed by this perplexing single-worded epistle, we will give a short account of the gathering to which it referred.

It was while the greater number of their school-fellows were gathered in numerous little groups, whiling away the free time before preparation discussing the various rumours that were current respecting Mr. Grice's encounters with Oaks and Allingford, that the same five conspirators assembled for another secret "confab" in the den beneath the pavilion.

In one way it was a fortunate thing for Diggory that he did not discover the note sooner, for hardly had Thurston set the lighted candle in the empty bottle than Noaks picked it up, and peered carefully into each of the four corners, and behind the heaps of benches and other lumber.

"What are you doing that for?" asked Gull.

"Oh, only to see that no one's come who wasn't invited. D'you remember last time what a stink there was of a burnt fusee? Well, after you'd gone I found young Trevanock knocking about the field, and I wouldn't swear but what he knew something about our meeting. I searched the young beggar's pockets; but he hadn't got any more lights, so I let him go."

The party grouped themselves round the candle, as they had done on the previous occasion, when Diggory had watched their movements from behind the pile of forms, and Thurston, with an inquiring look at Fletcher, asked, "Well, what's the object of this pleasant little reunion?"

"I suppose you can pretty well guess," answered the other. "The last time we were here we all agreed that before the end of the term was up we'd get even chalks with Allingford and Co. Well, seeing there's only eight days left, I thought it was about time we had another meeting, and decided what we were going to do.-By-the-bye," added the speaker, turning with something like a sneer on his lips, and addressing his chum, "it's the Wraxby match on Saturday; I suppose they haven't asked you to play in the team?"

The shaft went home, and Thurston's face darkened with anger.

"No," he answered indignantly, "and I wouldn't play, not if they all went down on their knees and begged me to. What do I care about the Wraxby match? If I could, I'd put a stopper on it, and bring the whole thing to the ground."

"Well," continued Fletcher calmly, "that's just what we're going to do. If you'd asked me this morning how we could put a spoke in Allingford's wheel, and pay out him and a lot of those other prigs like Oaks and Rowlands, I couldn't have told you; but now the thing's as easy as pat. They'll find out they haven't cold-shouldered me at every turn and corner for nothing. I'll give them tit for tat, and after Christmas, when I've left this beastly place, I'll write and tell them who did it."

"You seem to have got your back up, old chap," said Thurston, referring to the bitter tones in which the last few sentences had been spoken; "but out with it-what's your plan?"

"Why, this: I'd no idea what a chance we should have when I stuck that note in our pillar-box, but here it is all ready made. Allingford and Oaks have had a row with little Grice; he's reported them, and it's quite natural they should want to pay him out for doing it. As they're such good boys, I don't suppose they'll try anything of the kind; but we might undertake the job, and do it for them."

The speaker paused to see if he had been understood.

"What!" exclaimed Thurston bluntly, "you mean, play Grice a trick and make it appear they'd done it because of this rumpus about locking the door?"

"That's about it," returned the other, laughing. "What could we do better?"

Noaks murmured his approval of the scheme, but Gull and Hawley were silent. To tell the truth, since the big row following their attack on Browse had put a stop to any further chance of card-parties and other amusements in Thurston's study, their attachment to the ex-prefect had considerably lessened. Like many others of their kind, they were thoroughly selfish at heart, and saw no good in running any personal risk to settle the quarrels of a third person. The party feeling which had characterized the last school elections, and caused for the time being a spirit of ill-will and opposition towards the school leaders, had just about died a natural death; and if another public meeting had been called in the gymnasium, not half a dozen fellows would have shouted for Thurston, or allied themselves against the side of law and order. All this had tended to make Hawley and Gull lukewarm in their adherence to the cause. Noaks, however, who would have paid any price for the privilege of being able to hobnob with those who were in any higher position than himself, was ready to follow his two Sixth Form cronies to any extreme they might suggest.

"Well," he inquired, "and what's to be the trick?"

"I only just thought of one on the spur of the moment," answered Fletcher; "but if no one else has a better to suggest, I daresay it'll do. We might screw up little Grice's bedroom door so as to get him down late in the morning; his room's right away at the end of the passage. There is a screw-driver belonging to Oaks lying in one of the empty lockers-it has his name on the handle; and if we happened to drop it as we came away, I think that in the face of this row it would look uncommonly like his doing. D'you twig?"

There was something so mean and cowardly in this scheme, and in the manner in which the proposal was made, that even Thurston gave vent to an exclamation of contempt.

"So that's your little game, is it?" he inquired.

"Yes, that's it; that's my little project for putting a stop to the Wraxby match. There'll be an awful row, and the doctor'll keep the team from going. Now, then, who'll do the trick?-Will you, Hawley?"

"No fear," answered Hawley. "Gull and I did most of the last two blow-ups; it's some one else's turn now. Suppose you do it yourself, as it's your idea."

Fletcher frowned: in matters of this sort he liked to make the plans and get others to execute them. "Well, I was thinking one of you might," he began.

"Oh, bother!" interrupted Thurston, whose revengeful spirit had been once more aroused by the mention of the Wraxby match-"it's nothing; you and I'll do it."

"And I'll help if you like," added Noaks, who thought the present occasion a good opportunity to distinguish himself.

"All right," continued Thurston: "you go down town and get some screws,

Noaks-two or three good long ones."

"Well, we'll fix to-morrow night," said Fletcher. "Keep awake, and meet at the top of B staircase, say at one o'clock; then there's no fear but what every one'll be asleep."

The Triple Alliance had for some hours ceased to puzzle their brains over either Virgil or cipher notes, and the whole of Ronleigh College was apparently wrapped in slumber, when three shadowy figures assembled on the landing at the top of staircase B, and proceeded noiselessly along the corridor, and down the side passage at the end of which Mr. Grice's room was situated.

"Have you got the screws?"

"Yes," answered Noaks, producing a twist of paper from his pocket.

"Don't you think I'd better go and keep cave at the top of the stairs?" whispered Fletcher.

"No," returned Thurston; "Noaks can do that. I'll make the two holes, and you must put the screws in; you're the best carpenter of the lot."

Standing in the cold, dark passage, the work seemed to take ages to perform; but at length it was finished.

"Hist! what are you doing?"

Fletcher had produced a scrap of paper from his pocket, and was seemingly about to slip it under the door.

"I want to make certain that it shall be put down to Oaks," he whispered; "so in case the screw-driver should be overlooked, I'm going to slip this under the door for Grice to find in the morning."

Thurston glanced at the paper, and saw printed thereon in bold capitals the following inscription:-

"BE IN TIME BY THE SCHOOL CLOCK."

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