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   Chapter 21 REAPING THE WHIRLWIND.

The Triple Alliance By Harold Avery Characters: 17465

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:04


Work at Ronleigh commenced with a sort of half-hour's preliminary practice in the various classrooms; the school then assembled for prayers, after which came breakfast. During the progress of this meal on the Friday morning, in the small hours of which had been enacted the scene described at the end of the previous chapter, it became evident that "something was up." The table, at which sat most of the boys of the Third Form, was in a state of great disorder, while the discussion of some topic of unusual interest seemed to be occupying the attention of the prefects. It was not, however, until after the boys had swarmed out of the dining-hall that the reason of this subdued commotion became generally known; and then, like the sudden report of an explosion, every one seemed to become acquainted with the news at the same moment. Mr. Grice had been screwed up in his bedroom! Oaks and Allingford had done it! The doctor had summoned them to meet him in his study!

It was from a member of the Third Form that the Triple Alliance heard the particulars of what had happened. "'Little Grice,'" said this young gentleman, whose own height was about four feet two inches-"'little Grice' never turned up until just before the bell rang for prayers, and then he was simply bursting with rage, and told us all about it. They'd put a note under his door telling him to be in time by the school clock; and besides that, when one of the men went to get him out, he found a screw-driver with Oaks's name on, so it's as clear as day who did it."

This conversation took place in the quadrangle. Travers, the Third Form boy, rushed off to impart his information to other hearers, and the three chums passed on through the archway, and came to a stand-still in a quiet corner of the paved playground.

"Well," asked Diggory, "who did it?"

"Who d'you think it was?" retorted Jack Vance.

"Why, some of Thurston's lot, I believe."

"So do I."

Mugford, who was always rather slow at grasping a new idea, opened his eyes in astonishment. "But," he exclaimed, "how about the paper and the screw-driver?"

"Pooh!" answered Diggory, "how about that cipher note that said,

'To-night'?"

"Of course," added Jack Vance, "they'd evidently arranged it beforehand, and that paper was to say when they were to do the trick."

It seems possible sometimes to come by wrong roads to a right conclusion; and though the boys were mistaken in changing from their first opinion as to the meaning of the note, yet in this instance their error caused them to hit the right nail on the head.

"It was one of Thurston's lot who did it," repeated Diggory decisively; "neither Oaks nor Allingford would ever dream of doing such a mad thing."

"I don't see exactly how you can prove it," said Jack Vance thoughtfully; "that one word 'To-night' might mean anything."

"Of course it's no proof in itself," answered the other; "but what I mean to say is, that if the doctor, or any other sensible chap, knew all we do about the cipher, and what they said at their last meeting, he wouldn't doubt for a moment but that it was one of them who screwed up Grice's door. Travers says the doctor has sent for Oaks and old Ally; it'll be an awful shame if they get into a row."

"I don't see how they are going to get out of it," sighed Mugford.

"Then I do," answered Diggory stoutly, with a sudden flash in his bright eyes: "the Triple Alliance can get them out!"

"How?"

"Why, we must tell all we know, and show Dr. Denson the note."

"When?"

"Now."

"Won't it be sneaking?"

"I should consider we were beastly sneaks if we didn't."

"So we should be!" exclaimed Jack Vance. "They've always been jolly decent to us, and it was on our account they had this row with Grice."

"If Noaks finds we've split, he'll send that knife to the police," said

Mugford.

"I don't care a straw what Noaks does," answered Diggory boldly.

"You fellows needn't have anything to do with it; I'll go and tell Dr.

Denson myself."

"No; I'll come too," said Jack.

"So'll I," added Mugford; and off they started. It was always a great ordeal to enter the doctor's study, even in what might be termed times of peace; and now, as Diggory turned the handle of the door, in answer to the muffled "Come in" which had followed his knock, the three friends experienced a sudden shortness of breath, and an unpleasant sinking sensation at the pit of the stomach.

The two prefects were standing at the front of the writing-table. Allingford's face was very white, and Oaks's very red, "for all the world like the Wars of the Roses," as Jack Vance afterwards remarked, though it would be difficult to clearly understand the simile.

The head-master glanced round for a moment to see who had entered the room, and, without taking any further notice of the three juveniles, continued the speech he was in the act of making when they entered the apartment.

"I am not going to defend the action of Mr. Grice," he was saying. "We are all apt to make mistakes, and I will tell you candidly that on this occasion I think Mr. Grice was unwise; but it is absolutely necessary that I should uphold the authority of my masters. If boys consider they are not justly dealt with, they have me to appeal to; but the idea that disputes between the two should be settled by practical joking is simply outrageous. This is the first instance of the kind that I ever remember to have happened at Ronleigh, and I tell you plainly that I am determined to make an example of the offenders."

"I assure you, sir," said Oaks, in a low, agitated voice, "that we have had no hand in this matter."

"I am sorry even to seem to doubt your word, Oaks," answered the doctor, "but I think you must own that appearances are very much against you. A screw-driver bearing your name was found in the passage, and this piece of paper, which was pushed under the bedroom door, and which now lies before me, bears a direct reference to the dispute about the school time. As far as I can see at present, the only conclusion which can be arrived at is that this is an act of retaliation which has sprung from your contention with Mr. Grice."

The captain was about to speak, but Dr. Denson held up his hand.

"As I said before," he continued, "I am sorry, Allingford, even to appear to doubt your word; I have always had reason to rely with confidence upon the integrity and honour of my prefects, and believe me, this interview is to me an exceedingly painful one. The matter, however, is too serious to be passed over lightly, and you must hear me to the end. The conduct of the school during the present term has been far from satisfactory: two acts of gross misconduct have already been committed, and I cannot but blame those whom I hold mainly responsible for the order of the school that in both instances the offenders should have gone unpunished. It seems hardly possible to me that such things should happen without its coming to the ears of the prefects who were the perpetrators of the deeds in question. Here we have a third example of the same thing. If neither of you took any actual part in screwing up this door, I am still inclined to think that you must have been cognizant of the act, and I demand to know the names of the offenders. Take time to think before you answer. I warn you once more that I am determined to sift the matter to the bottom."

Once more the two prefects protested that they had not the remotest idea who had played the trick on Mr. Grice.

Dr. Denson frowned, and sat for some moments without speaking, rapping the blotting-pad in front of him with the butt end of a seal; then remembering the presence of the small boys, he turned towards them with an inquiring look.

"Well?"

Diggory's face wore something of the same expression which Jack and Mugford had seen upon it when long ago their friend first distinguished himself at The Birches by going down the slide on skates. He gave a nervous little cough, and advancing towards the head-master's table, laid thereon the cipher note, at the same time remarking, "If you please, sir, we know who screwed up little-hem! Mr. Grice's door, or, at all events, we think we do."

So sudden and unexpected was this announcement that it caused the doctor to half rise from his chair, while Oaks and Allingford turned and gazed at the speaker in open-mouthed astonishment. They none of them expected for a moment that the three youngsters had come for any more important purpose than to solicit orders for new caps or "journey-money," and this confession came like a thunderbolt from a clear sky.

"What!" exclaimed the head-master, taking the scrap of paper, and glan

cing alternately from the mystic word to the boy's face-"what on earth is this? Explain yourself."

It would be unnecessary to attempt a verbatim report of Diggory's evidence; in doing so we should but be repeating facts with which the reader is already acquainted. Let it suffice to say that, with many haltings and stumbles, he gave a full account of his finding the first cipher, translating the same, attending the secret meeting, and, lastly, discovering on the previous day the brief note which he had just produced.

The telling of the tale occupied some considerable time, for the doctor had many questions to ask; and when it came to the account of the conversation which had taken place under the pavilion, his face visibly darkened.

"My eye," remarked Diggory, an hour later, "I wouldn't go through that again for something! I swear that by the time I'd finished the perspiration was running down my back in a regular stream."

"Well," said the doctor, turning to Jack Vance and Mugford, when their companion had finished speaking, "and what have you two got to say?"

"Only the same as Trevanock, sir; we-we found it out together."

"Then, in the first place, why didn't you tell me all this before?"

"We were afraid to, sir," faltered Jack Vance; "and we thought it would be sneaking."

"Dear, dear," exclaimed the head-master impatiently, "when will you boys see things in a proper light? You think it wrong to tell tales, and yet quite right that innocent people should suffer for things done by these miserable cowards!"

"No, sir," answered Diggory: "we've come now to try to get Oaks out of a scrape; though we-were afraid-"

"Afraid of what?"

"Nothing, sir."

"Afraid of telling more tales, I suppose. Well, well; the question now is whether the same boys are guilty of having screwed up Mr. Grice's door. Why they should have done such a thing I don't understand, nor do I see how it is to be brought home to them simply by means of this exceedingly brief note."

There was a silence. Diggory glanced up, and received a look from the two prefects that amply repaid him for the trying ordeal through which he had just passed. Jack Vance leaned over to whisper something in his ear, when their attention was attracted by an exclamation of surprise from Dr. Denson.

"Aha! what does this mean?-Look here, Allingford."

Every member of the company edged forward, and looking down at what lay on the writing-table, saw in a moment that the mystery was solved.

The communication which had been slipped under the bedroom door was written on a half-sheet of small-sized note-paper; a similar piece of stationery had been used for the cipher note. The head-master had accidentally brought them together on his blotting-pad and the rough, torn edge of the one fitted exactly into the corresponding side of the other. They had both unmistakably come from the same source!

Even the dread atmosphere of the doctor's study could not restrain some show of excitement on the part of those interested in this disclosure, but it was quickly suppressed.

"Oaks," said the doctor, "go and give my compliments to Mr. Cowland, and ask him to open school for me; and at the same time inform the following boys that I wish to see them at once, here in my study: Fletcher One, Thurston, Gull, Hawley, and Noaks."

To the Triple Alliance hours seemed to pass before a shuffling of feet in the passage announced the arrival of the Thurstonians. One by one they filed into the room, the door was shut, and there was a moment of awful silence. Even Diggory trembled, and Allingford, noticing it, laid his big hand reassuringly on the small boy's shoulder.

"I wish to know," began the doctor, "which of you boys were concerned in what took place last night? I refer, of course, to the screwing up of Mr. Grice's bedroom door."

No one spoke, but Fletcher turned pale to the lips.

"Had you anything to do with it, Fletcher?"

"No, sir."

"Then will you tell me the meaning of this?" continued the head-master, holding up the cipher note.

"I-I don't know what it means," began the prefect.

"Don't lie to me, sir," interrupted the doctor sternly. "You know very well what it means; it's of your own invention."

Thurston saw clearly that the game was up, and with the recklessness of despair decided at once to accept the inevitable.

"I screwed up Mr. Grice's door," he said sullenly.

"And who assisted you?"

To this inquiry Thurston would give no reply, but maintained a dogged silence. Gull and Hawley, however, anxious at all costs to save their own skins, practically answered the question by saying, "We didn't," and casting significant glances at Noaks and Fletcher.

What followed it is hardly necessary to describe in detail. The five culprits were subjected to a merciless cross-examination, during which a confession, not only of their various transgressions, but also of the motives which had prompted them to adopt such a line of conduct, was dragged from their unwilling lips. The cloak was torn off, and the cowardice and meanness of their actions appeared plainly revealed, and were forced home even to their own hearts.

"Thurston and Fletcher," said the doctor, when at length, long after the bell had rung for "interval," the inquiry concluded, "go to your studies, and remain there till you hear from me-Noaks, go in like manner to the housekeeper's room.-Gull and Hawley, as you seem to have taken no active part in this last misdemeanour, you may go. As regards your previous misconduct, I shall speak to you on that subject when I have decided what is to be done with your companions."

For the Triple Alliance the remainder of the day passed in a whirl of conflicting emotions. In a very short time the whole school knew exactly what had taken place in the doctor's study, and every boy was incensed at the underhanded meanness of this attempted attack on Oaks and Allingford. It was a good thing for Thurston and Fletcher that they had their studies, and Noaks the housekeeper's room, in which to find shelter, or they would have been compelled to run the gauntlet. Hawley and Gull, though not found guilty on this particular count, were hustled and abused for their former misdeeds, which it was perfectly evident would be remembered against them during the remainder of their life at Ronleigh.

As for Diggory and his two chums, never were three small boys made so much of before. "What was the cipher?"-"How did they find it out?"- these and a hundred other questions were continually being dinned in their ears, coupled with slaps on the back, ejaculations of "Well done!"-"You're a precious sharp lot!" and many other expressions of approval.

At the close of this eventful day two things alone remained vividly impressed upon their minds.

The first was an interview with Allingford and Oaks in the former's study.

"Well," said the captain, "you kids have done us a good turn. We were in a precious awkward box, and I don't know how we should have got out of it if it hadn't been for you."

"Yes," added Oaks: "I was never more surprised at anything in my life than when Trevanock said he knew who'd done the business. It made old Denson open his eyes."

"So it did," continued Allingford; "and if it hadn't come out, the whole school would have got into another precious row, and there'd have been a stop put to the Wraxby match. I tell you what. You youngsters thought it sneaking to let out what you knew; in my opinion you'd have been jolly sneaks if you'd shielded those blackguards, and allowed everyone else to suffer. Well, as I said before, you've done is a good turn, and as long as we're at Ronleigh together we shan't forget you."

The second thing which lodged in the recollection of the three friends was a look which Noaks had bestowed upon them as he passed out of the doctor's study.

"Did you see his face?" said Diggory. "He looked as if he could have killed us. He's never forgiven us since that time he was turned off the football field for striking you at The Birches."

"No," added Jack Vance; "and then we were the means of old Noaks getting the sack over those fireworks; and that reminds me he's always had a grudge against me for letting out that time that his father was a servant man; and now there's this last row. Oh yes! he'll do his best now to get us into a bother over that knife of Mugford's."

"Of course he will," answered Diggory; "that's what he meant by glaring at us as he did."

"I don't care!" exclaimed Jack Vance, with forced bravado; "he can't prove we stole the coins."

"Of course he can't," sighed Mugford; "but if there's a row it'll rather spoil our Christmas."

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