Part 1 out of 5
E-text prepared by Lionel G. Sear of Truro, Cornwall, England, and
dedicated to the memory of R. F. Mudie, who won the book used as the
source for this e-text as Form II First Prize for the Summer Term in
1901 at the Seafield House Preparatory School, Broughty Ferry, Scotland
THE TRIPLE ALLIANCE
ITS TRIALS AND TRIUMPHS
By HAROLD AVERY
I. A NEW BOY,
II. THE PHILISTINES,
III. DISCOMFITURE OF THE PHILISTINES,
IV. THE SUPPER CLUB,
V. CATCHING A TARTAR,
VI. GUNPOWDER PLOT,
VII. RONLEIGH COLLEGE,
VIII. THIRD FORM ORATORY,
IX. A HOLIDAY ADVENTURE,
X. A SCREW LOOSE IN THE SIXTH,
XI. SHADOWS OF COMING EVENTS,
XII. THE WRAXBY MATCH,
XIII. THE ELECTIONS,
XIV. A PASSAGE OF ARMS,
XV. THE READING-ROOM RIOT,
XVI. THE CIPHER LETTER,
XVII. DIGGORY READS THE CIPHER,
XVIII. A SECRET SOCIETY,
XIX. A CHAPTER OF ACCIDENTS,
XX. SOWING THE WIND,
XXI. REAPING THE WHIRLWIND,
XXII. WHEN SHALL WE THREE MEET AGAIN?
A NEW BOY.
"What's your name?"
The whole class exploded.
"Now, then," said Mr. Blake, looking up from his mark-book with a broad
grin on his own face--"now, then, there's nothing to laugh at.--Look
here," he added, turning to the new boy, "how d'you spell it?"
Instead of being at all annoyed or disconcerted at the mirth of his
class-mates, the youngster seemed rather to enjoy the joke, and
immediately rattled out a semi-humorous reply to the master's
"D I G, dig; G O R Y, gory--Diggory: T R E, tre; VAN, van; O C K,
ock--Trevanock." Then turning round, he smiled complacently at the
occupants of the desks behind, as much as to say: "There, I've done
all I can to amuse you, and I hope you're satisfied."
This incident, one of the little pleasantries occasionally permitted by
a class master, and which, like a judge's jokes in court, are always
welcomed as a momentary relief from the depressing monotony of the
serious business in hand--this little incident, I say, happened in the
second class of a small preparatory school, situated on the outskirts of
the market town of Chatford, and intended, according to the wording of a
standing advertisement in the _Denfordshire Chronicle_, "for the sons of
This establishment, which bore the somewhat suggestive name of "The
Birches," was owned and presided over by Mr. Welsby, who, with an
unmarried daughter, Miss Eleanor, acting as housekeeper, and his
nephew, Mr. Blake, performing the duties of assistant-master, undertook
the preliminary education of about a dozen juveniles whose ages ranged
between ten and fourteen.
On the previous evening, returning from the Christmas holidays, exactly
twelve had mustered round the big table in the dining-room; no new
faces had appeared, and Fred Acton, a big, strong youngster of fourteen
and a half, was undisputed cock of the walk.
The school was divided into two classes. The first, containing the five
elder scholars, went to sit at the feet of Mr. Welsby himself; while the
second remained behind in what was known as the schoolroom, and received
instruction from Mr. Blake.
It was while thus occupied on the first morning of the term that the
lower division were surprised by the sudden appearance of a new boy.
Miss Eleanor brought him into the room, and after a few moments'
whispered conversation with her cousin, smiled round the class and then
withdrew. Every one worshipped Miss Eleanor; but that's neither here
nor there. A moment later Mr. Blake put the question which stands
at the commencement of this chapter.
The new-comer's answer made a favourable impression on the minds of his
companions, and as soon as the morning's work was over, they set about
the task of mutual introduction in a far more friendly manner than was
customary on these occasions. He was a wiry little chap, with bright
eyes, for ever on the twinkle, and black hair pasted down upon his head,
so as not to show the slightest vestige of curl, while the sharp,
mischievous look on his face, and the quick, comical movements of his
body, suggested something between a terrier and a monkey.
There was never very much going on in the way of regular sports or
pastimes at The Birches; the smallness of numbers made it difficult to
attempt proper games of cricket or football, and the boys were forced to
content themselves with such substitutes as prisoner's base, cross tag,
etc., or in carrying out the projects of Fred Acton, who was constantly
making suggestions for the employment of their time, and compelling
everybody to conform to his wishes.
Mr. Welsby had been a widower for many years; he was a grave, scholarly
man, who spent most of his spare time in his own library. Mr. Blake was
supposed to take charge out of school hours; he was, as every one said,
"a jolly fellow," and the fact that his popularity extended far and wide
among a large circle of friends and acquaintances, caused him to have a
good many irons in the fire of one sort and another. During their hours
of leisure, therefore, the Birchites were left pretty much to their own
devices, or more often to those of Master Fred Acton, who liked, as has
already been stated, to assume the office of bellwether to the little
At the time when our story commences the ground was covered with snow;
but Acton was equal to the occasion, and as soon as dinner was over,
ordered all hands to come outside and make a slide.
The garden was on a steep slope, along the bottom of which ran the brick
wall bounding one side of the playground; a straight, steep path lay
between this and the house, and the youthful dux, with his usual
disregard of life and limb, insisted on choosing this as the scene of
"What!" he cried, in answer to a feeble protest on the part of Mugford,
"make it on level ground? Of course not, when we've got this jolly hill
to go down; not if I know it. We'll open the door at the bottom, and go
right on into the playground."
"But how if any one goes a bit crooked, and runs up against the bricks?"
"Well, they'll get pretty well smashed, or he will. You must go
straight; that's half the fun of the thing--it'll make it all the more
exciting. Come on and begin to tread down the snow."
Without daring to show any outward signs of reluctance, but with
feelings very much akin to those of men digging their own graves before
being shot, the company set about putting this fearful project into
execution. In about half an hour the slide was in good working order,
and then the fun began.
Mugford, and one or two others whose prudence exceeded their valour,
made a point of sitting down before they had gone many yards, preferring
to take the fall in a milder form than it would have assumed at a later
period in the journey. To the bolder spirits, however, every trip was
like leading a forlorn hope, none expecting to return from the
enterprise unscathed. The pace was terrific: on nearing the playground
wall, all the events of a lifetime might have flashed across the memory
as at the last gasp of a drowning man; and if fortunate enough to whiz
through the doorway, and pull up "all standing" on the level stretch
beyond, it was to draw a deep breath, and regard the successful
performance of the feat as an escape from catastrophe which was nothing
short of miraculous. The unevenness of the ground made it almost
impossible to steer a straight course. A boy might be half-way down the
path, when suddenly he felt himself beginning to turn round; an agonized
look spread over his face; he made one frantic attempt to keep, as it
were, "head to the sea;" there was an awful moment when house, garden,
sky, and playground wall spun round and round; and then the little group
of onlookers, their hearts hardened by their own sufferings, burst into
a roar of laughter; while Acton slapped his leg, crying, "He's over!
What a stunning lark! Who's next?"
At the end of an hour and a half most of the company were temporarily
disabled, and even their chief had not escaped scot free.
"Now then for a regular spanker!" he cried, rushing at the slide.
A "spanker" it certainly was: six yards from the commencement his legs
flew from under him, he soared into the air like a bird, and did not
touch the ground again until he sat down heavily within twenty paces of
the bottom of the slope.
One might have supposed that this catastrophe would have somewhat damped
the sufferer's ardour; but instead of that he only seemed fired with a
fresh desire to break his neck.
He hobbled up the hill, and pausing for a moment at the top to take
breath, suddenly exclaimed, "Look here, I'm going down it on skates."
Every one stood aghast at this rash determination; but Acton hurried off
into the house, and soon returned with the skates. He sat down on a
bank, and was proceeding to put them on, when he discovered that,
by some oversight, he had brought out the wrong pair. "Bother it! these
aren't mine, they're too short; whose are they?"
"I think they're mine," faltered Mugford.
"Well, put 'em on."
"But I don't want to."
"But I say you must!"
"Oh! please, Acton, I really can't, I--"
"Shut up! Look here, some one's got to go down that slide on skates, so
just put 'em on."
It was at this moment that Diggory Trevanock stepped forward, and
remarked in a casual manner that if Mugford didn't wish to do it, but
would lend him the skates, he himself would go down the slide.
His companions stared at him in astonishment, coupled with which was a
feeling of regret: he was a nice little chap, and they had already begun
to like him, and did not wish to see him dashed to pieces against the
playground wall before their very eyes. Acton, however, had decreed
that "some one had got to go down that slide on skates," and it seemed
only meet and right that if a victim had to be sacrificed it should be a
new boy rather than an old stager.
"Bravo!" cried the dux; "here's one chap at least who's no funk.
Put 'em on sharp; the bell 'll ring in a minute."
Several willing hands were stretched out to assist in arming Diggory for
the enterprise, and in a few moments he was assisted to the top of the
"All right," he said; "let go!"
The spectators held their breath, hardly daring to watch what would
happen. But fortune favours the brave. The adventurous juvenile rushed
down the path, shot like an arrow through the doorway, and the next
instant was seen ploughing up the snow in the playground, and eventually
disappearing head first into the middle of a big drift.
His companions all rushed down in a body to haul him out of the snow.
Acton smacked him on the back, and called him a trump; while Jack Vance
presented him on the spot with a mince-pie, which had been slightly
damaged in one of the donor's many tumbles, but was, as he remarked,
"just as good as new for eating."
From that moment until the day he left there was never a more popular
boy at The Birches than Diggory Trevanock.
"I say," remarked Mugford, as they met a short time later in the
cloak-room, "that was awfully good of you to go down the slide instead
of me; what ever made you do it?"
"Well," answered the other calmly, "I thought it would save me a lot of
bother if I showed you fellows at once that I wasn't a muff. I don't
mind telling you I was in rather a funk when it came to the start; but
I'd said I'd do it, and of course I couldn't draw back."
The numerous stirring events which happened at The Birches during the
next three terms, and which it will be my pleasing duty to chronicle in
subsequent chapters, gave the boys plenty of opportunity of testing the
character of their new companion, or, in plainer English, of finding out
the stuff he was made of; and whatever his other faults may have been,
this at least is certain, that no one ever found occasion to charge
Diggory Trevanock with being either a muff or a coward.
One might have thought that the slide episode would have afforded
excitement enough for a new boy's first day at school; yet before it
closed he was destined to be mixed up in an adventure of a still
more thrilling character.
The Birches was an old house, and though its outward appearance was
modern enough, the interior impressed even youthful minds with a feeling
of reverence for its age. The heavy timbers, the queer shape of some of
the bedrooms and attics, the narrow, crooked passages, and the little
unexpected flights of stairs, were all things belonging to a bygone age,
of which the pupils were secretly proud, and which caused them to
remember the place, and think of it at the time, as being in some way
different from an ordinary school.
"I say, Diggy," exclaimed Jack Vance, addressing the new boy by the
friendly abbreviation, which seemed by mutual consent to have been
bestowed upon him in recognition of his daring exploit--"I say, Diggy,
you're in my bedroom: there's you, and me, and Mugford. Mug's an awful
chump, but he's a good-natured old duffer, and you and I'll do the
"What do you mean?"
"Why, sometimes when Blake is out spending the evening, and old Welsby
is shut up in his library, the different rooms make raids on one
another. It began the term before last. Blake had been teaching us all
about how the Crusaders used to go out every now and then and make war
in Palestine, and so the fellows on the west side of the house called
themselves the Crusaders, and we were Infidels, and they'd come over and
rag us, and we should drive them back. Miss Eleanor came up one night,
and caught us in the middle of a battle. O Diggy, she is a trump!
Blake asked her next day before us all which boys had been out on the
landing, because he meant to punish them; and she laughed, and said:
'I'm sure I can't tell you. Why, when I saw they were all in their
night-shirts, I shut my eyes at once!' Of course it was all an excuse
for not giving us away. She doesn't mind seeing chaps in their
night-shirts when they're ill, we all know that; and once or twice
when for some reason or other she told us on the quiet that there
mustn't be any disturbance that evening, no one ever went crusading--
Acton would have licked them if they had. Acton's going to propose to
Miss Eleanor some day, he told us so, and--"
"But what about the bedrooms?" interrupted Diggory; "have you given up
"Yes, but we have other things instead. We call our rooms by different
names, and it's all against all; one lot come and make a raid on you,
and then you go and pay them out. This term Kennedy and Jacobs sleep in
the room above ours, and next to the big attic. They're always reading
sea stories, and they call their room the 'Main-top,' because it's so
high up. Then at the end of the passage are Acton, Shaw, and Morris,
and they're the 'House of Lords;' and next to them is the 'Dogs' Home,'
where all the other fellows are put."
A few hours later Diggory and his two room-mates were standing at the
foot of their beds and discussing the formation of a few simple rules
for conducting a race in undressing, the last man to put the candle out.
"You needn't bother to race," said Mugford; "I'll do it--I'm sure to be
"No, you aren't," answered Vance. "We'll give you coat and waistcoat
start; it'll be good fun--"
At this moment the door was suddenly flung open, two half-dressed
figures sprang into the room, and discharged a couple of snowballs
point-blank at its occupants. One of the missiles struck Diggory on the
shoulder, and the other struck Mugford fair and square on the side of
the head, the fragments flying all over the floor. There was a subdued
yell of triumph, the door was slammed to with a bang, and the muffled
sound of stockinged feet thudding up the neighbouring staircase showed
that the enemy were in full retreat.
"It's those confounded Main-top men!" cried Jack Vance; "I will pay them
out. I wonder where the fellows got the snow from?"
"Oh, I expect they opened the window and took it off the ledge,"
answered Diggory. "Look here--let's sweep it up into this piece of
paper before it melts."
This having been done, the three friends hastily threw off their clothes
and scrambled into bed, forgetting all about the proposed race in their
eagerness to form some plan for an immediate retaliation on the
occupants of the "Main-top."
"I wonder if they'll hear anything of the ghost again this term?" said
"What ghost?" asked Diggory.
"Oh, it's nothing really," answered Vance; "only somebody said once
that the house is haunted, and Kennedy and Jacobs say the ghost must be
in the big attic next their room. They hear such queer noises sometimes
that they both go under the bed-clothes."
"Do they always do that?"
"Yes, so they say, whenever there is a row."
"Well, then," said Diggory, "I'll tell you what we'll do: we'll go very
quietly up into that attic, and groan and knock on the wall until you
think they've both got their heads well under the clothes, and then
we'll rush in and bag their pillows, or drag them out of bed, or
something of that sort. You aren't afraid to go into the attic, are
you?" he continued, seeing that the others hesitated. "Why, of course
there are no such things as ghosts. Or, look here, I'll go in, and
you can wait outside."
"N--no, I don't mind," answered Vance; "and it'll be an awful lark
catching them with their heads under the clothes."
"All right, then, let's do it; though I suppose we'd better wait till
every one's in bed."
The last suggestion was agreed upon, and the three friends lay talking
in an undertone until the sound of footsteps and the gleam of a candle
above the door announced the fact that Mr. Blake was retiring to rest.
"He's always last," said Vance; "we must give him time to undress, and
then we'll start."
A quarter of an hour later the three boys, in semi-undress, were
creeping in single file up the narrow staircase.
"Be careful," whispered Vance; "there are several loose boards, and they
crack like anything."
The small landing was reached in safety, and the moon, shining faintly
through a little skylight formed of a single pane of glass, enabled them
to distinguish the outline of two doors.
Now it was a very different matter, when lying warm and snug in bed, to
talk about acting the ghost, from what it was, when standing shivering
in the cold and darkness, to put the project into execution. During the
period of waiting the conversation had turned on haunted houses, and no
one seemed particularly anxious to claim as it were the post of honour,
and be the first to enter the big attic.
"Go on!" whispered Mugford, nudging Vance.
"Go on!" repeated the latter, giving Diggory's arm a gentle push.
The new boy had certainly undertaken to play the part of the ghost, and
there was no excuse for his backing out of it at the last moment.
"All right," he muttered, "I'll go."
Just then a terrible thing happened. Diggory clutched the door-knob as
though it were the handle of a galvanic battery, while Mugford and Vance
seized each other by the arm and literally gasped for breath.
The stillness had been broken by a slight sound, as of something falling
inside the attic, and this was followed a moment later by a shrill,
For five seconds the three companions stood petrified with horror, not
daring to move; then followed another scream, if anything more horrible
than the last, and accompanied this time by the clanking rattle of a
chain being dragged across the floor.
That was enough. Talk about a _sauve qui peut_! the wonder is that any
one survived the stampede which followed. The youngsters turned and
flew down the stairs at break-neck speed, and hardly had they started
when the door of the "Main-top" was flung open, and its two occupants
rushed down after them. As though to ensure the retreat being nothing
less than a regular rout, Mugford, who was leading, missed his footing
on the last step, causing every one to fall over him in turn, until all
five boys were sprawling together in a mixed heap upon the floor.
Freeing themselves with some little difficulty from the general
entanglement, they rose to their feet, and after surveying each other
for a moment in silence, gave vent to a simultaneous ejaculation of
"What were you fellows doing up there?" asked Kennedy.
"Why, we came up to have a joke with you," answered Vance; "but just
when we got up to the landing, it--it made that noise!"
There was the sound of the key turning in the lock of Mr. Blake's door.
"_Cave_!" whispered Mugford.
"Tell him about it," added Vance; and giving Diggory a push, they all
three darted into their room just as the master emerged from his,
arrayed in dressing-gown and slippers.
"Now, then," exclaimed the latter, holding his candle above his head,
and peering down the passage, "what's the meaning of this disturbance?
I thought the whole house was falling down.--Come here, you two, and
"Please, sir," answered Kennedy and Jacobs in one breath, "it's the
"The ghost! What ghost? What d'you mean?"
The two "Main-top" men began a hasty account of the cause of their
sudden fright, taking care, however, to make no mention of the three
hostile visitors who had shared in the surprise.
Mr. Blake listened to their story in silence, then all at once he burst
out laughing, and without a word turned on his heel and went quickly
upstairs. He entered the attic, and in about half a minute they heard
him coming back.
"Ha, ha! I've got your ghost; I've been trying to lay him for some time
The jingle of a chain was distinctly audible; Mr. Blake was evidently
bringing the spectre down in his arms! Diggory and Vance could no
longer restrain their curiosity; they hopped out of bed and glanced
round the corner of the door. The master held in his hand a rusty old
gin, the iron jaws of which were tightly closed upon the body of an
"There's a monster for you!" he said; "I think it's the biggest I ever
saw. He'd carried the trap, chain and all, right across the room, but
that finished him; he was as dead as a stone when I picked him up.
Now get back to bed; I should think you're both nearly frozen."
Diggory and Jack Vance followed the advice given to Kennedy and Jacobs,
and did so rather sheepishly. They felt they had been making tools of
themselves; yet it would never have done to own to such a thing.
"What a lark!" said the new boy, after a few moments' silence.
"Wasn't it!" returned Jack Vance; "it's the best joke I've had for a
long time. But we didn't pay those fellows out for throwing those
snowballs; we must do it some other night. And now we three must swear
to be friends, and stand by each other against all the world, and
whatever happens. What shall we call our room?"
"I know," answered Diggory: "we'll call it 'The Triple Alliance!'"
The Triple Alliance, the formation of which has just been described, was
destined to be no mere form of speech or empty display of friendship.
The members had solemnly sworn to stand by one another whatever
happened, and the manner in which they carried out their resolve, and
the important consequences which resulted from their concerted actions,
will be made known to the reader as our story progresses.
Poor Mugford certainly seemed likely to be a heavy drag on the
association; he was constantly tumbling into trouble, and needing to be
pulled out again by those who had promised to be his friends.
An instance of this occurred on the day following Diggory's arrival at
The Birches. He and Vance had gone down after morning school into what
was called the playroom, to partake of two more of the latter's
mince-pies, and on their return to the schoolroom found a crowd
assembled round Acton, who, seated on the top of a small cupboard which
always served as a judicial bench, was hearing a case in which Mugford
was the defendant, while Jacobs and another boy named Cross appeared as
The charge was that the former was indebted to the latter for the sum of
half a crown, which he had borrowed towards the end of the previous
term, in separate amounts of one shilling and eighteen pence, promising
to repay them, with interest, immediately after the holidays. The money
had been expended in the purchase of a disreputable old canary bird, for
which Noaks, the manservant, had agreed to find board and lodging during
the Christmas vacation. Now, when the creditors reminded Mugford of his
obligations, they found him totally unable to meet their demands for
"Now, look here," said Acton, addressing the defendant with great
severity, "no humbug--how much money did you bring back with you?"
"Well, I had to pay my brother before I came away for my share in a
telescope we bought last summer, and then--"
"Bother your brother and the telescope! Why can't you answer my
question? How much money did you bring back with you?"
"Only five bob."
"Then why in the name of Fortune don't you pay up?"
"Because I had to pay all that to Noaks for bird-seed."
"D'you mean to say that that bird ate five shillings' worth of seed in
"Well, so Noaks says; he told me he'd kept scores of birds in his time,
but he'd 'never seen one so hearty at its grub before.' Those were the
very words he used, and he said it was eating nearly all the day, and
that's one reason why it looks such a dowdy colour, and never sings."
"Well, all I can say is, if you believe all Noaks tells you, you're a
fool. But that's no reason why these two chaps should be done out of
their money; so now, how are you going to pay them?"
"If they only wait till pocket-money's given out--" began Mugford.
"Oh no, we shan't!" interrupted Cross. "He only gets sixpence a week,
and he's always breaking windows and other things, and having it
There seemed only one way out of the difficulty, and that was to put as
it were an execution into Mugford's desk, and realize a certain amount
of his private property.
"Look here," said Acton, "he must sell something.--Now, then," he added,
turning to the defendant, "just shell out something and bring it here at
once, and we'll have an auction."
The boy walked off to his desk, and after rummaging about in it for some
little time, returned with a miscellaneous collection of small articles
in his arms, which he proceeded to hand up one by one for the judge's
"Oh, its a book that was given me on my birthday, called 'Lofty Thoughts
for Little Thinkers.'"
"Lofty grandmother!" said Acton impatiently.
"What else have you got ?"
"Well, here's a wire puzzle, only I think a bit of it's lost, and the
clasp of a cricket belt, and old Dick Rodman's chessboard and some of
the men, and some stuff for chilblains, and--"
"Oh, dry up!" interrupted Acton; "what bosh! Who d'you expect would buy
any of that rubbish? Look here, we'll give you till after dinner, and
unless you find something sensible by then, we shall come and hunt for
"That's just like Mug," said Jack Vance to Diggory, as the group of boys
slowly dispersed; "he's always doing something stupid. But I suppose as
we made that alliance, we ought to try to help the beggar somehow."
They followed their unfortunate comrade to his desk, which when opened
displayed a perfect chaos of ragged books, loose sheets of paper, broken
pen-holders, pieces of string, battered cardboard boxes, and other
"Look here, Mug, what have you got to sell? you'll have to fork out
"I don't know," returned the other mournfully, stirring up the contents
of the desk as though he were making a Christmas pudding. "I've got
nothing, except--well, there's this book of Poe's, 'Tales of Adventure,
Mystery, and Imagination,' and my clasp-knife; and perhaps some one
would buy these fret-saw patterns or this dog-chain."
He turned out two or three more small articles and laid them on the
"Are there any of these things you particularly wish to keep?" asked
Diggory; "because, if so, Vance and I'll bid for them, and then you can
buy them back from us again when you've got some more money."
"That's awfully kind of you," answered Mugford, brightening up. "I'll
tell you what I should like to keep, and that's my clasp-knife and the
book; they're such jolly stories. 'The Pit and the Pendulum' always
gives me bad dreams, and 'The Premature Burial' makes you feel certain
you'll be buried alive."
"All right; and did you bring a cake back with you?"
"Well, then, sell that first, and you can share our grub."
The auction was held directly after dinner. The cake fetched a
shilling, and Diggory and Vance bid ninepence each for the book and
pocket-knife; so Mugford came out of his difficulty without suffering
any further loss than what was afterwards made good again by the
generosity of his two comrades. They, for their part, made no fuss over
this little act of kindness, but handed the book and clasp-knife over
to Mugford without waiting for the money, and little thinking what an
important part these trifling possessions would play in the subsequent
history of the Triple Alliance.
The sale had not long been concluded, and the little community were
preparing to obey Acton's order to "Come outside," when the latter
rushed into the room finning with rage.
"I say," he exclaimed, "what do you think that beast of a Noaks has
done? Why, he's gone and put ashes all over our slide!"
In their heart of hearts every one felt decidedly relieved at this
announcement; still it was necessary, at all events, to simulate some of
their leader's wrath, and accordingly there was a general outcry against
"Oh, the cad!"--"What an awful shame!"--"Let's tell Blake!" etc., etc.
"Who is Noaks?" asked Diggory. "Is he that sour-looking man who brings
the boots in every morning?"
"Yes, that's so," answered Vance. "He hates us all--partly, I believe,
because his son's a Philistine. I wonder old Welsby doesn't get another
"His son's a _what?_" asked Diggory; but at that moment Acton came
marching round the room ordering every one out into the playground, and
Jack Vance hurried off to get his cap and muffler without replying to
Sliding was out of the question, and the "House of Lords" having amused
themselves for a time by capturing small boys and throwing them into the
snow-drift, some one remarked that it would be good fun to build a snow
man; which proposition was received with acclamation, and all hands were
soon hard at work rolling the big balls which were to form the base of
the statue. As the work progressed the interest in it increased, the
more so when Diggory suggested that the figure should be supposed to
represent the obnoxious Noaks, and that the company could then relieve
their feelings by pelting his effigy as soon as it was completed.
Every one was pleased with the project, and even Acton, who as a rule
would never follow up any plan which was not of his own making, took
special pains to cause the snow man to bear some likeness to the
original. He had just, by way of a finishing touch, expended nearly
half a penny bottle of red ink in a somewhat exaggerated reproduction of
the fiery hue of Noaks's nose, when the bell rang for afternoon school,
and the bombardment had to be postponed until the following day.
It was no small trial of patience being thus obliged to wait nearly
twenty-four hours before wreaking their vengeance on the effigy; still
there was no help for it. The boys bottled down their feelings, and
when at last the classes were dismissed, and the dux cried, "Come on,
you fellows!" every one obeyed the summons willingly enough. There had
been a slight thaw in the night, and the statue stood in need of some
trifling repairs. Acton suggested, therefore, that the half-hour
before dinner should be devoted to putting things to rights, and to
making some small additions in the shape of pebbles for waistcoat
buttons, and other trifling adornments.
Mr. Welsby kept the boys at the table for nearly a quarter of an hour
after the meal was finished, talking over his plans for the coming term,
and when at last he finished there was a regular stampede for the
playground. Acton was leading the rush; he dashed through the garden
doorway, and then stopped dead with an exclamation of dismay. All those
who followed, as they arrived on the spot, did the same. Every vestige
of the snow man, which had been left barely an hour ago standing such a
work of art, had disappeared. Certainly a portion of the pedestal still
remained, looking like the stump of an old, decayed tooth; but the
figure itself had been thrown down, trodden flat, and literally stamped
out of existence!
The little crowd stood for a moment speechless, gazing with woebegone
expressions on their faces at the wreck of their hopes and handiwork;
then the silence was broken by a subdued chuckle coming from the other
side of the wall on their left, and every one, with a start and a sudden
clinching of fists, cried simultaneously: "The Philistines!"
The words had hardly been uttered when above the brickwork appeared the
head and shoulders of a boy a size or so bigger than Acton;
a dirty-looking brown bowler hat was stuck on the very back of his head,
and rammed down until the brim rested on the top of his ears; and it
will be quite sufficient to remark that his face was in exact keeping
with the manner in which he wore his hat. Once more everybody gave vent
to their feelings by another involuntary ejaculation--"Young Noaks!"
The stranger laughed, pulled a face which, as far as ugliness went, was
hardly an improvement on the one Nature had already bestowed upon him,
and then pointed mockingly at the remains of the masterpiece.
His triumph, however, was short-lived. Jack Vance, as he left the
house, had caught up a double handful of snow, which he had been
pressing into a hard ball as he ran down the path, determining in his
own, mind to be the first to open fire on the snow man. Without a
moment's hesitation he flung the missile at the intruder's head, and, to
the intense delight of his companions, it struck the latter fairly on
the mouth, causing him to lose his precarious foothold on the wall and
fall back into the road.
It needed no further warning to inform the Birchites that the
Philistines were upon them, and every one set to work to lay in a stock
of snowballs as fast as hands could make them. "Look out!" cried
Kennedy. Young Noaks's face rose once more above the top of the wall,
and the next moment a big stone, the size of hen's egg, whizzed past
Diggory's head, and struck the garden door with a sounding bang.
"Oh, the cad!" cried Acton; "let's go for him."
The whole garrison combined in making a vigorous sortie into the road;
but it was only to find the enemy in full retreat, and a few dropping
shots at long range ended the skirmish.
"I say, Vance," exclaimed Diggory, "who are they? Who are these
Now, as the aforesaid Philistines play rather an Important part in the
opening chapters of our story, I propose to answer the question myself,
in such a way that the reader may be enabled to take a more intelligent
interest in the chain of events which commenced with the destruction of
the snow man; and in order that this may be done in a satisfactory
manner, I will in a few words map out the ground on which this memorable
campaign was afterwards conducted.
Take the well-known drawing of two right angles In Euclid's definition,
and imagine the horizontal line to be the main road to Chatford, while
the perpendicular one standing on it is a by-way called Locker's lane.
In the right angle stood The Birches; the house itself faced the
Chatford road, while behind it, in regular succession, came first the
sloping garden, then the walled-in playground, and then the small field
in which were attempted such games of cricket and football as the
limited number of pupils would permit. There were three doors in the
playground--one the entrance from the garden, another opening into the
lane, and a third into the field, the two latter being usually kept
Locker's Lane was a short cut to Chatford, yet Rule 21 in The Birches
Statute-Book ordained that no boy should either go or return by this
route when visiting the town; the whole road was practically put out of
bounds, and the reason for this regulation was as follows:
At the corner of the playing field the lane took a sharp turn, and about
a quarter of a mile beyond this stood a large red-brick house, shut in
on three sides by a high wall, whereon, close to the heavy double doors
which formed the entrance, appeared a board bearing in big letters the
Middle-Class School for Boys.
A. PHILLIPS, B.A., Head-master.
The pupils of Mr. Phillips had been formerly called by Mr. Welsby's boys
the Phillipians, which title had in time given place to the present
nickname of the Philistines.
I have no doubt that the average boy turned out by Horace House was as
good a fellow, taking him all round, as the average boy produced by The
Birches; and that, if they had been thrown together in one school, they
would, for the most part, have made very good friends and comrades.
However, in fairness both to them and to their rivals, it must be said
that at the period of our story Mr. Phillips seemed for some time past
to have been unusually unfortunate in his elder boys: they were
undoubtedly "cads," and the character of the whole establishment, as far
as the scholars were concerned, naturally yielded to the influence of
It had been customary every term for the Birchites to play a match
against them either at cricket or football; but their conduct during a
visit paid to the ground of the latter, back in the previous summer, had
been so very ungentlemanly and unsportsmanlike that, when the next
challenge arrived for an encounter at football, Mr. Welsby wrote back a
polite note expressing regret that he did not see his way clear to
permit a continuation of the matches. This was the signal for an
outbreak of open hostilities between the two schools: the Philistines
charged the Birchites in the open street with being afraid to meet them
in the field. These base insinuations led to frequent exchanges of
taunts and uncomplimentary remarks; and, last of all, matters were
brought to a climax by a stand-up fight between Tom Mason, Acton's
predecessor as dux, and young Noaks. The encounter took place just
outside the stronghold of the enemy, the Birchite so far getting the
best of it that at the end of a five minutes' engagement he proclaimed
his victory by dragging his adversary along by the collar and bumping
his head a number of times against the very gates of Horace House.
Unfortunately a rumour of what had happened got to the ears of
Mr. Welsby. Mason was severely reprimanded, and his companions were
forbidden, under pain of heavy punishment, to walk in Locker's Lane
further than the corner of their own playing field.
"But who is young Noaks?" asked Diggory, as Jack Vance finished a hasty
account of this warfare with the Philistines.
"Why, that's just the funny part of it," returned the other. "This Sam
Noaks is the son of our Noaks, but he's got an uncle, called Simpson,
who lives at Todderton, where I come from. This man Simpson made a lot
of money out in Australia, and when he came back to England he adopted
young Noaks, and sends him here to Phillips's school."
By this time the home forces had all struggled back into the playground.
In one corner stood a wooden shed containing a carpenter's bench, a
chest for bats and stumps, and various other things belonging to
different boys. Acton, as head of the school, kept the key, and having
unfastened the door, summoned his followers inside to hold an impromptu
council of war and discuss the situation. There was a grave expression
on each face, for every one felt that things were beginning to look
serious. Mason, the only one of their number who had been physically
equal to the leaders of their opponents, was no longer among them, and
the enemy, evidently aware of their helpless condition, had dared for
the first time to actually come and beard them in their own den.
"What I want to know first is this," began Acton. "You can see by the
footmarks that they came in through that door; of course it's always
kept locked, and here's the key hanging up inside the shed. Now who
opened it for them, and how was it done?"
"Perhaps it wasn't fastened," suggested Morris.
"Yes, it was," answered Kennedy excitedly. "I noticed that this
morning, when we were picking up stones for the snow man's buttons."
"Then I tell you what it is," continued Acton solemnly: "some one here's
playing us false, and my belief is it's old Noaks. D'you remember last
term when Mason and Jack Vance and I made a plot for going down and
throwing crackers into their yard? Well, they must have heard of it
from some one; for they were all lying in wait for us behind the wall,
and as soon as we got near to it they threw cans of water over us and
pelted us with stones."
There was a murmur of suppressed wrath at the memory of the fate of this
"Yes," added Shaw, "and I believe some one told them about this snow
"Well, one thing's certain," said Acton--"we must serve 'em out somehow
for knocking it down. They evidently think now Mason's gone they can do
what they like, and that we shall be afraid of them. Now what can we
There was a silence; every one felt that a serious crisis had arrived in
the history of the Birchites, and that unless some immediate steps were
taken to avenge this insult they would no longer be free men, but live
in constant terror of the Philistines;--every one, I say, felt that some
bold action must be taken, yet nobody had a suggestion to make.
"Well, look here," said Acton, "something's got to be done. We must all
think it over, and we'll have another meeting in a week's time; then if
any one's made a plan, we'll talk it over and decide what's to be done."
"Jack," said Diggory two evenings later, "you know what Acton said about
the Philistines; well, I've got part of a plan in my head, but I shan't
tell you what it is till Wednesday."
DISCOMFITURE OF THE PHILISTINES.
On Wednesday afternoon, as soon as dinner was over, Acton summoned his
followers to attend the council of war which was to decide what
reprisals should be taken on the Philistines for the destruction of the
snow man. Every one felt the importance of a counter-attack, for unless
something of the kind were attempted, as Acton remarked in his opening
speech, "they'll think we're funky of them, and they'll simply come down
here as often as they like, and worry us to death."
"Couldn't we tell Mr. Welsby?" suggested Butler, a timid small boy
belonging to the "Dogs' Home."
"Tell Mr. Welsby!" cried half a dozen voices in withering tones;
"of course not!"
It was well known by both parties that whenever the real state of
affairs became known to their respective head-masters, the war would
come to an abrupt termination; and the great reason why each side
forbore to make any open complaint against the other was undoubtedly
because every one secretly enjoyed the excitement of the campaign, and
felt that a peace would make life rather dull and uninteresting.
"The thing that licks us," said Acton, "is what I was speaking about
last week: somehow or other, they always seem to know just what we're up
to, and it's no use our doing anything, because they're always prepared.
Some one's acting the spy. I can't think it's any of you fellows, but I
believe it's old Noaks. You see his son's there, and for some reason or
other he seems to hate every one here like poison. Now, what are we to
There was a silence, broken at length by Diggory Trevanock.
"I don't know what you think," he began, "but it seems to me it's no use
making any plans until we find out who tells 'em to the Philistines.
I should say that Noaks is the fellow who does it, but we ought to
"Yes, but how are we to do it?" asked Acton, laughing; "that's just what
I want to know."
"Well, I've got a bit of a plan," returned the other, "only I should
like to tell it you in private."
"All right," answered the dux; "come on outside. Now, then, what is
"Why," said Diggory, "it's this (I didn't want the other chaps to hear,
because then it'll prove who's the spy). You say the last time you went
down to throw some crackers over the wall they were all lying in wait
for you. Well, let you and me go into the boot-room when Noaks is at
work there, and pretend to make a plan as though we were going to do it
again to-morrow night; then two of us might go down and see if they're
prepared. If so, it must have been Noaks who told them, because no one
else knows about it. I'll go for one, and Jack Vance'll go for another.
I'll tell him to keep it dark, and you can let us in and out of the
"Oh--ah!" said Acton, "that isn't a bad idea; at all events we'll try
The project was put into immediate execution. That same afternoon, just
before tea, Acton and Diggory discussed the bogus plan in Noaks's
hearing, while Jack Vance, having been admitted into their confidence
and sworn to secrecy, willingly agreed to go out with Diggory and form
the reconnoitering party which was to report on the movements of the
"I knew you'd come," said the latter; "and we'll show them what sort of
stuff the Triple Alliance is made of."
On the following evening, as soon as tea was over, the two friends
slipped off down into the playground, where they were joined a minute
later by Acton, who, unlocking the shed, took down from the peg on which
it hung the key of the door in the outer wall.
"You'll have plenty of time," he said, glancing at his watch, "and with
this moonlight you'll soon be able to see if they're about. I'll keep
the door, and let you in when you come back."
The next moment the two members of the Alliance were trotting down
Locker's Lane. It was a bright, frosty night, and the hard ground rang
beneath their feet like stone. They turned off on to the grass, lest
the noise should give the enemy warning of their approach; and when
within about a hundred yards of Horace House, pulled up to consider for
a moment what their plan of action should be, before proceeding any
"I don't see any one," said Jack Vance.
"Perhaps they are hiding," answered Diggory. "Look here! let's get into
this field and run down on the other side of the hedge until we get
opposite the gate."
The stronghold of the Philistines was silent as the grave. The two
chums crouched behind a thick bush, and peering through its leafless
branches could see nothing but the closed double doors, and a stretch of
blank wall on either side.
"There's no one about," whispered Vance; "I don't believe old Noaks has
"Wait a minute," answered Diggory. "I'll see if I can stir any of
them;" and so saying, he knelt up, and cried in an audible voice,
"Now, then, are you all ready?"
Diggory and Jack Vance dropped flat on their stomachs, for the words had
hardly been uttered when the doors were flung open, and at least ten of
the Philistines rushed out into the road with a yell of defiance.
Many of them were bigger than Acton, and what would have been the fate
of the two Birchites had they kept to the road instead of acting on
Diggory's suggestion of advancing under cover of the hedge, one hardly
dares to imagine.
"Hullo!" cried young Noaks, who had headed the sortie. "There's nobody
here, and yet I'll swear I heard them somewhere."
"So did I," answered another voice; "they must have cut and run."
"There's no place for them to run to," returned Noaks; "they must be
behind that hedge.--Come out of it, you skunks!"
A big stone came crashing through the twigs within a yard of Diggory's
head. The two boys crouched close to the low earth bank and held their
"They must be about somewhere," cried Noaks. "I knew they were coming,
and I'm sure I heard some one say, 'Are you ready?' They're behind that
hedge. We can't get through, it's too thick; but you fellows stop
here, and I and Hogson and Bernard'll run down to the gate and cut off
"What shall we do?" whispered Jack; "this field's so large they'll run
us down before we get to the other hedge. Shall we make a bolt and
Diggory was just about to reply in the affirmative, when help came from
an unexpected quarter.
"What are you boys doing out here at this time?" cried a loud, stern
voice.--"Noaks, what are you about down the road there?--Come in this
moment, every one of you!"
"Saved!" whispered Jack Vance, in an ecstasy of delight as the
Philistines trooped back through the double doors. "That was old
Phillips. I hope he gives Noaks a jolly good 'impot.' That chap is a
cad," continued the speaker, as they hurried back towards The Birches:
"when he can't do anything else, he chucks stones like he did to-night.
The wonder is he hasn't killed some one before now. I don't see how
it's possible for the Philistines to show up well when they've got a
chap like him bossing the show."
The bell for evening preparation was ringing as they reached The
Birches, and only a very few hasty replies could be given to Acton's
eager inquiries as they rushed together up the garden path. In the
little interval before supper, however, the subject was resumed in a
quiet corner of the passage.
"So it must have been old Noaks who told them," said Acton; "that's
proved without a doubt. I vote we go and have a jolly row with him
"No, I shouldn't do that," answered Diggory; "don't let him know that
we've found him out."
"Well, look here," answered Acton, thumping the wall with his fist and
frowning heavily, "what are we going to do to get even with the
Philistines? We can't go out and fight them in Locker's Lane; we're too
small, and they know it. Young Noaks would never have dared to act as
he did after they'd knocked our snow man down if Mason had been here.
They think now they're going to ride rough-shod over us; but they
aren't, and we must show them we aren't going to be trampled on."
"So we will," cried Jack Vance excitedly, "and that jolly quick!"
There was a moment's pause. "I'm sure I don't know," answered Jack
sadly, and so the meeting terminated.
The fact of the insult, which had been put upon them by the destruction
of their snow man, remaining unavenged, caused a sense of gloom to rest
upon the Birchites, as though they already felt themselves suffering
beneath the yoke of the conquering Philistines. Even the bedroom feuds
were forgotten: night after night the "House of Lords" left the
"Dogs' Home" in undisturbed tranquillity, and the occupants of the
"Main-top" retired to rest without even putting a washstand against
their door. One thought occupied the minds of all, and even Mugford,
when asked on one occasion by Mr. Blake who were the conspirators in the
Gunpowder Plot, answered absent-mindedly, "The Philistines!"
"Look here, you two," said Diggory one evening, as he scrambled into
bed, "we three must think of some way of paying those fellows out for
knocking down our snow man. It would be splendid if we could say that
the Triple Alliance had done it, and without telling any one
"So we will," answered Jack Vance; "that is if you'll think of the plan.
I'm not able to make one, and I'm jolly sure Mugford can't."
The speaker turned over and went to sleep; but after what seemed half
the night had passed, he was suddenly aroused by several violent tugs at
his bed-clothes. Thinking it nothing less than a midnight raid, Jack
sprang up and grasped his pillow.
"No, no, it's not that," said Diggory, "but I wanted to help you;
I've got an idea."
"W--what about?" asked the other, in a sleepy voice.
"Why, how we can pay out the Philistines!"
"Oh, bother the Philistines!" grumbled Jack, and promptly returned to
the land of dreams.
"I wonder where those fellows Vance and Trevanock are?" said Acton the
following afternoon, as the boys were picking up for a game at
prisoner's base. "And there's that dummy of a Mugford--where's he
sneaked off to? he never will play games if he can possibly help it."
They set to work, and at the end of about twenty minutes were engaged in
a most exciting rally. Acton had started out to rescue one of the
prisoners, while Shaw had rushed forth to capture Acton. Morris left
the base with similar designs on Shaw, and every one, with the exception
of the den-keepers, seemed suddenly seized with an irresistible desire
to do something. The playground was full of boys rushing and dodging
all over the place, when suddenly everybody stood still and listened.
Some one was pounding with his clinched fist at the door opening into
Locker's Lane, and at the same time Jack Vance was heard shouting,
"Let us in quick, or the Philistines'll have us!"
Acton ran to fetch the key, and the next moment the three members of the
Triple Alliance dashed through the open door, which was hastily secured
behind them, while a shout of baffled rage some little distance down the
road showed that they had only narrowly escaped falling into the hands
of the enemy. The pursuit, however, was evidently abandoned, and
Morris, climbing on the roof of the shed, saw young Noaks and Hogson
slowly retreating round the corner of the road.
The three friends certainly presented a striking appearance. Mugford's
nose was bleeding, Jack Vance's collar seemed to have been nearly torn
off his neck, while Diggory's cap was in his hand, and his hair in a
state of wild disorder. Their faces, flushed with running, were radiant
with a look of triumph, while all three, the unfortunate Mugford
included, leaned up against the wall, and laughed until the tears ran
down their cheeks.
"What have you fellows been up to?" cried Acton; "why don't you tell
"Oh my!" gasped Diggory, "we've taken a fine rise out of the
Philistines; they can't say we're not quits with them now!" and he went
off into a fresh fit of merriment.
Shaw and Morris seized hold of Jack Vance, and at length succeeded in
shaking him into a sufficient state of sobriety to be able to answer
"Oh dear," he said faintly, "I never laughed so much in my life before!
Diggory ought to tell you, because he planned it all. We went very
quietly down to Horace House, and found the double doors were shut.
You know just what they're like, how the wall curves in a bit, and
there's a scraper close to the gate-post, on either side, about a foot
from the ground. We'd got an old play-box cord with us, and we tied it
to each of the scrapers. The doors have a sort of iron ring for a
handle, and through this we stuck a broken cricket-stump, and Mug and I
held the two ends so that you couldn't possibly lift the latch on the
inside. Then--but you go on, Diggy."
"Well, then," continued the other, "I scrambled oh to these two chaps'
shoulders, and looked over the top of the door. We could hear some of
the Philistines knocking about on the gravel, and I saw there were
about half a dozen of them playing footer with a tennis-ball. I shouted
out, 'Hullo! Good-afternoon!' They all stood still in a moment, and
young Noaks cried, 'Why, it's a Birchite!--What do you want here, you
young dog?' I couldn't think of anything else to say, so I said,
'I want to know if this is the bear-pit or the monkey-house.' My eye,
you should have seen them! I dropped down in a trice, and they all
rushed to the doors; but they couldn't lift the latch, because Mug and
Jack were holding fast to the stump. We waited a moment, and then let
go and ran for it. You may judge what happened next. It's a regular
sea of mud outside those gates. They all came rushing out together, and
I saw Noaks and Hogson go head first over the rope, and two or three
others fall flat on the top of them. It was a sight, I can tell you!"
"Yes, but that wasn't all," interrupted Jack Vance. "Bernard, one of
their big chaps, hopped over the rest and came after us. We ran for all
we were worth, but he collared me. Mugford went for him, and hung
on to his coat like a young bull-terrier, and got a smack on the nose;
and just then Diggory turned, and came prancing back, and ran his head
into the beggar's stomach, and that doubled him up, and so we all got
away. But," concluded the speaker, turning towards his wounded comrade,
"I never thought old Mug had so much grit in him before; he stuck to it
like a Briton!"
A demonstration of the most genuine enthusiasm followed this warlike
speech. Acton folded Diggory to his breast in a loving embrace, Shaw
and Morris stuffed the door-key down Mugford's back, while the remainder
of the company executed a war-dance round Jack Vance.
"My eye," cried the dux, "won't the Philistines be wild!
Fancy upsetting them in the mud, and knocking Bernard's wind out!
They won't be in a hurry to meddle with us again. Well done, Diggy!"
"It wasn't I alone," said the author of the enterprise; "we did it
between us--the Triple Alliance."
"Then three cheers for the Triple Alliance!" cried Acton.
The company shouted themselves hoarse, for every one felt that the
honour of The Birches had been retrieved, and that the day was still far
distant when they would be crushed beneath the iron heel of young Noaks,
or be exposed as an unresisting prey to the ravages of the wild hordes
of Horace House.
THE SUPPER CLUB.
As this story is to be a history of the Triple Alliance, and not of The
Birches, it will be necessary to pass over many things which happened
at the preparatory school, in order that full justice may be done to the
important parts played by our three friends in an epoch of strange and
stirring events at Ronleigh College.
Diggory, by the daring exploit described in the previous chapter, won
all hearts; and instead of being looked upon as a new boy, was regarded
quite as an old and trusty comrade. Acton displayed marked favour
towards the Triple Alliance, and was even more friendly with Diggory and
Jack Vance than with his room and class mates, Shaw and Morris.
The Philistines seemed, for the time being, paralyzed by the humiliation
of their mud bath, and for many months there was a complete cessation
It was perhaps only natural that in time of peace a brave knight like
Acton should turn his thoughts from war to love-making, and therefore I
shall make no excuse for relating a little experience of his which
must be introduced as a prelude to the account of the formation of the
famous supper club.
At the very commencement of the summer term it was plain to everybody
that something was wrong with the dux; he seemed to take no interest in
the doings of his companions in the playground, and only once roused
himself sufficiently to bang Cross with a leg-guard for bowling awful
wides at cricket.
At length, one afternoon, Diggory and Jack Vance on entering the shed
found him sitting on the carpenter's bench, with his chin resting in his
hand, and a most ferocious expression on his face.
"Hullo! what's up?"
Acton stared blankly at the new-comers until the question had been
repeated; then he sat up and straightened his back with the air of one
who has made a great resolve.
"I don't mind telling you two," he said. "You know I've said before that
I meant some day to propose to Miss Eleanor. Well," he added, stabbing
the bench with the gimlet, "I'm going to do it."
"I've saved five and ninepence," continued the speaker, "to buy a ring
with, but I can't make up my mind whether I'd better speak or write to
her. What do you think?"
"I should say," answered Diggory, after a moment's thought, "that the
best thing would be to toss up for it."
"All right; have you got a coin?"
"No, but I think I've got a brass button. Yes, here it is. Now, then,
front you speak, and back you write. There you are--it's a letter!"
"Well, now," said Acton, getting off the bench and sticking his hands
deep in his trousers pockets, "what had I better say? I shall be
fifteen in August; I thought I'd tell her my age, and say I didn't mind
"I believe it's the girl who always says that," answered Jack Vance,
kicking a bit of wood into a corner.
"Then, again, I don't know how to begin. Would you say 'Dear Miss
Eleanor,' or 'Dear Miss Welsby'? I think 'Dear Eleanor' sounds rather
"I'll tell you what I should do," answered Diggory, who seemed to have a
great idea of letting the fates decide these matters: "I should write
'em all three on slips of paper and then draw one."
"Well, I'm going to write the letter in 'prep' this evening, and let her
have it to-morrow. Did you notice I gave her a flower this morning, and
she stuck it in her dress?"
"Yes; but fellows are often doing that," answered Jack Vance, "and she
always wears them, either in her dress or stuck up somehow under her
"Oh, but this was a white rose, and a white rose means something, though
I don't know what. At all events, she'll have the letter to-morrow, and
I'll tell you fellows when I give it her, only of course you mustn't
breathe a word to any one else."
"All right: we won't," answered Diggory, "except to old Mugford, because
he's one of the Alliance, and we've sworn not to have any secrets from
each other, and he won't split."
That evening the Triple Alliance lay awake until a late hour discussing
the situation. Mugford's opening comment was certainly worth
"I hope she'll accept him."
"Why, because if she does, I should think old Welsby'll give us a
It was evident at breakfast, to those who were in the know, that Acton
was prepared for the venture. He was wearing a clean collar and new
necktie, and ate only four pieces of bread and butter, besides his
"He's shown me the letter," whispered Diggory to Jack Vance; "only I
promised I wouldn't say what was in it, but it ends up with a piece of
poetry as long as this table!"
After morning school was the time agreed upon for the dux to cast the
die which was to decide his future; and as soon as the classes were
dismissed, Jack Vance and Diggory met him by appointment in one corner
of the garden.
"I've done it," he said, looking awfully solemn. "She was in the hall,
and I gave it to her as I came out. I say, how many _t's_ are there in
Jack Vance thought one, Diggory said two; and the company then relapsed
into silence, and stood with gloomy looks upon their faces, as though
they were waiting to take part in a funeral procession.
At length a voice from the house was heard calling, "Fred--Fred Acton!"
The dux turned a trifle pale, but pulling himself together, marched off
with a firm step to learn his fate.
"She called him Fred," murmured Diggory; "that sounds hopeful."
"Oh, that's nothing," answered Jack Vance; "Miss Eleanor always calls
fellows by their Christian names. There's one thing," he added, after a
few moments' thought--"if she'd cut up rough over the letter, she might
have called him Mr. Acton. Hullo, here he comes!" As he spoke Acton
emerged from the house, and came down the path towards them; his straw
hat was tilted forward over his eyes, and his cheeks were glowing like
the red glass of a dark-room lamp. He sauntered along, kicking up the
gravel with the toe of his boot.
"Well, what happened?" inquired Jack Vance.
"What's the matter ?" cried Diggory; "what did she say?"
"Why, this!" answered the other, in a voice trembling with suppressed
emotion: "she said I was a silly boy, and--and--_gave me a lump of
If any one else had done it, the probability is Acton would have slain
them on the spot. Diggory opened his eyes and mouth wide, and then
exploded with laughter. "Oh my!" he gasped, "I shall die, I know I
shall! Ha, ha, ha!"
Acton eyed him for a moment with a look of indignant astonishment; then
he began to smile, Jack Vance commenced to chuckle, and very soon all
three were laughing in concert.
"Well, I think it's rather unfeeling of you fellows," said the rejected
suitor; "I can tell you I'm jolly cut up about it."
"I'm awfully sorry," answered Diggory, "but I couldn't help laughing.
Cheer up; why, think, you won't have to get the ring now, so you can do
what you like with that five and ninepence you saved. Why, it's worth
being refused to have five and ninepence to spend in grub!"
"Ah, Diggy !" said the other, shaking his head in a mournful manner,
"wait till you're as old as I am: when you're close on fifteen you'll
think differently about love and all that sort of thing."
As has already been hinted, it was the failure of this attempt on the
part of the dux to win the heart and hand of Miss Eleanor that
indirectly brought about the formation of the famous supper club.
About a week after the events happened which have just been described,
Acton invited the Triple Alliance to meet the "House of Lords" in the
work-shed, to discuss an important scheme which he said had been in his
mind for some days past; and the door having been locked to exclude
outsiders, he commenced to unfold his project as follows:--
"I've been thinking that during the summer term, and while the weather's
warm, our two rooms might form a supper club. We'd hold it, say, once a
week, when pocket-money is given out, and have a feed together; one time
in your room, and the next in ours, after every one's gone to bed.
You know I saved some money at the beginning of the term to buy an
engagement ring with; but I don't want it now, so I'm going to spend the
tin in grub, and if you like I'll stand the first feed."
There was a murmur expressive of approbation at this generous offer,
mingled with sympathy for the unhappy circumstance which gave rise to
it, and which was now an open secret.
"Oh," said Shaw, "that's a grand idea! I know my brother Bob, who's at
a big school at Lingmouth, told me that he and some other chaps formed a
supper club and held it in his study. It's by the sea, and they used to
go out and catch shrimps; and they only had one old coffee-pot, that
they used to boil over the gas; so they cooked the shrimps in it first,
and made the coffee after. One night they only had time to heat it up
once, and so they boiled the shrimps in the coffee; and Bob says they
didn't taste half bad, and that they always used to do it after, to save
"Well, I propose that we have one," cried Morris.
The resolution was carried unanimously. Acton was elected president,
and by way of recognizing the mutual interest of the Triple Alliance,
Jack Vance was appointed to act as secretary, and it was decided to hold
the first banquet on the following night.
"We can buy the grub to-morrow," said Acton; "but there's one thing we
ought to fetch to-day, and that is, I thought we might have, say, six
bottles of ginger-beer. Then each man must take his own up to bed with
him this evening, and hide it away in his box or in one of his drawers."
This was accordingly done, and, as it happened, was the cause of the
only disaster which attended the formation of the club. For the first
week in June the weather was unusually hot: a candle left all day
in the "Main-top" was found drooping out of the perpendicular, and when
the Triple Alliance retired to rest their bedroom felt like an oven.
They were just dozing off to sleep, when all three were suddenly
startled by a muffled bang somewhere close to them. In an instant they
were sitting up in bed, rubbing their eyes with one hand and grasping
their pillows with the other.
"Look out, they're coming!" whispered Jack Vance; "wasn't that something
hit the door?"
"It sounded as if something fell on the floor," answered Diggory.
"I wonder if anything's rolled off either of the washstands."
Jack Vance reconnoitred the passage, while Diggory and Mugford examined
the room; but nothing could be found to account for the disturbance.
"It must have been the fellows in the 'Main-top.' I expect they dropped
a book or upset a chair. Don't let's bother about it any more."
The following morning, however, the mystery was explained. The boys
were hastily putting on their clothes, when Mugford, who had just thrown
aside a dirty collar, gave vent to an exclamation of dismay, which
attracted the attention of his two companions.
"Hullo! what's up?"
"Why, look here! If this beastly bottle of ginger-beer hasn't gone and
burst in the middle of my box!"
The first meeting of the supper club was a great success. How ever
Acton and his noble friends had managed to smuggle upstairs, under their
jackets, a pork-pie, a plum-cake, a bag of tarts, and a pound of
biscuits, was a feat which, as Jack Vance remarked, "beat conjuring."
Shortly after midnight the Triple Alliance wended their way to the
"House of Lords," where they found the three other members quite ready
to commence operations. The good things were spread out on the top of a
chest of drawers, and the company ranged themselves round on the
available chairs and two adjacent beds, and commenced to enjoy the
"Ah, well," sighed Acton, with his mouth full of pork-pie, "I'm rather
glad for some things that I didn't get engaged. It must be rather a
bore having to spend all your money in rings and that sort of thing,
instead of in grub; though I really think I'd have given up grub for
"I wonder," said Morris, who was of a more prosaic disposition, "how it
is that it's always much jollier having a feed when you ought not to
than at the proper time. For instance, eating this pork-pie at a table,
with knife and fork and a plate, wouldn't be a quarter the fun it is
having it like we're doing now--cutting it with a razor out of Acton's
dressing-case, and knowing that if we were cobbed we should get into a
"Talking about rows over feeds," said Acton, "my brother John is at
Ronleigh College, and I remember, soon after he went there, he said they
had a great spree in his dormitory. One of the chaps had had a hamper
sent him, and they smuggled the grub upstairs; and when they thought the
coast was clear, they spread a sheet on the floor, and laid out the grub
as if it were on a table-cloth. The fellow who was standing treat was
rather a swell in his way, and among other things he'd got his jam put
out in a flat glass dish. It was a fine feed, and they'd just begun,
when they heard some one coming. They'd only just got time to turn out
the gas and jump into bed before the door opened, and in came one of the
masters called Weston. Well, of course, they all pretended to be
asleep. But the master had heard them scrambling about, and he walked
in the dark up the aisle between the beds, saying, 'Who's been out of
bed here?' Then all of a sudden he stuck his foot into the glass
jam-dish, and it slid along the floor, and down he came bang in the
middle of all the spread. John said that when the gas was lit they
couldn't help laughing at old Weston: he'd rammed one elbow into a box
of sardines, and there was a cheese-cake stuck in the middle of his
back. But oh, there was a row, I can tell you!"
This yarn produced others, and the time passed pleasantly enough, until
full justice had been done to the provisions, and hardly a crumb
"Phew! isn't it hot?" said Diggory; "let's open the window a bit.
The moon must be full," he continued, as he raised the sash; "it's
nearly as light as day. I can see all down the garden, and--hullo!
quick, put the candle out!"
Every one started to his feet, and the light was extinguished in a
"What is it--what's the matter?" they all asked. "There's some one in
the playground," whispered Diggory, as the others crowded round him.
"You see the door at the bottom of the garden; well, just when I spoke
some one opened it and looked up at the house, and then shut it again.
It must have been Blake, and he's seen our light."
"It can't be Blake," answered Acton; "he's gone to Fenley to play in a
cricket match, and isn't coming back till to-morrow morning. Old Welsby
went to bed hours ago; and, besides, what should either of them want to
be doing down there at this time of night? You must have been dreaming,
"No, I wasn't; I saw it distinctly. It must be old Blake. He's come
home sooner than he expected, and I shouldn't wonder if he's going
round by the road to take us by surprise."
"He can't do that," answered Acton, "because I've got the key of the
shed, and the door-key's hung up inside."
Acton remained watching at the window while the others hastily cleared
away all traces of the feast; the Triple Alliance retired to their own
room, and nothing further was heard or seen of the mysterious visitor.
The next morning it was discovered that Mr. Blake had not returned from
Fenley, and the five other members of the supper club were inclined to
regard Diggory's vision of the midnight intruder as a sort of waking
nightmare, resulting from an overdose of cake and pork-pie. Two days
later Cross came into the schoolroom in a great state of excitement.
"Look here, you fellows," he exclaimed: "some one keeps taking away my
things out of the shed, and not putting them back. Last week I missed a
saw and two chisels, and now that brace and nearly all the bits are
gone. It's a jolly shame!"
Carpentering was Cross's great hobby, and his collection of tools was an
exceptionally good one, both as regards quantity and quality. Every
one, however, denied having touched the things mentioned. A general
search was made; but the missing articles could not be found, and at
length the matter was reported to Mr. Welsby.
The latter was evidently greatly displeased on hearing the facts of the
case. As soon as dinner was over he called the school together, and
after standing for some moments in silence, frowning at the book he
carried in his hand, said briefly,--
"With regard to these tools, there is a word which has never been used
before in connection with any pupil at The Birches, and which I hope I
may never have occasion to use again. I can hardly think it possible
that we have a _thief_ in the house. I am rather inclined to imagine
that some one has removed the things and hidden them away in joke; if
so, let me tell him that the joke has been allowed to go too far, and
that, unless they are returned at once, a shadow of doubt will be cast
upon the honour and integrity of all here present. It is impossible for
such large articles as a saw and a brace to be mislaid or lost on such
small premises as these, and I trust that before this evening you will
report to me that the things have been found. I have purposely allowed
the key of the shed to remain in your own possession, feeling certain
that your behaviour as regards each other's property would be in
accordance with the treatment which one gentleman expects to receive
from another. You may go."
There was little in the nature of a scolding in this address, and yet
something in it caused every one to leave the room in a state of great
excitement. Acton and Jack Vance especially fairly boiled with wrath.
"What old Welsby says is quite right," remarked the latter; "and until
those things are found, we may all be looked upon as thieves."
The search, however, proved fruitless; and, what was worse, in turning
over the contents of the shed, Acton discovered that a bull's-eye
lantern belonging to himself had disappeared from the shelf on which it
usually stood; while Mugford declared that a box of compasses, which he
had brought down a few days before to draw a pattern on a piece of
board, was also missing.
Directly after tea Acton button-holed Diggory, and taking him aside
said, "Look here, I'm in an awful rage about these thing's being
prigged, because, of course, I've got the key of the shed; and didn't
you hear what old Welsby said about it? It looks uncommonly as if I
were the thief. You remember what you said the other night when we had
that feed, about seeing that man? D'you think there _is_ any one who
comes here at night and steals things?"
"Well, I'm certain I saw some one in the playground when I told you.
It was a man; but whether he comes regularly and goes into the shed I
don't know, but I think we ought to be able to find out."
"Oh, some way or other; I'll tell you to-morrow." That night, long
after the rest of the house were asleep, the Triple Alliance lay awake
engaged in earnest conversation; and in the morning, as the boys were
assembling for breakfast, Diggory touched Acton on the shoulder and
"I say, we've thought of a plan to find out if any one goes into the
shed at night."
"Why, the Triple Alliance; we thought it out between us. Sneak out of
the house directly after evening 'prep,' and meet me in the playground,
and I'll show you what it is."
At the time appointed Acton ran down the path, and found Diggory waiting
for him by the shed.
"Look," said the latter, "I've cut a little tiny slit with my knife in
each door-post, about three feet from the ground, and I'm going to
stretch this piece of black cotton between them. No one will see it,
and if they go through the door, the thread will simply draw out of one
of the slits without their noticing it, and we shall see that it's been
disturbed. Jack Vance says that when he's been out shooting with his
guv'nor he's seen the keeper put them across the paths in a wood to find
out if poachers have been up them. Now unlock the door, and let's go
In front of the bench, where the ground had been much trodden, there was
a great deal of loose dust. Diggory went down on his hands and knees,
and producing an old clothes-brush from his pocket, swept about a square
yard of the ground until the dust lay in a perfectly smooth surface.
"There," he said, rising to his feet again; "we'll do this the last
thing every night, and any morning if we find the cotton gone we must
look here for footprints, and then we ought to be able to tell if it's
a man or a boy."
"Don't you think we ought to tell Blake about that man you saw?" asked
Acton, as they walked back to the schoolroom.
"Well, I don't see how we can," answered Diggory. "The first thing
he'll ask will be,' Who saw him?' I shall say, 'I did;' and then he'll
want to know how I saw the playground door from my bedroom window, which
looks out on the road; and then the fat'll be in the fire, and it'll all
come out about that supper."
Regularly every evening, as soon as supper was over, the two boys stole
down into the playground to set their trap; but when morning came there
was no sign of the shed having been entered. This went on for nearly a
month, but still no result.
"I don't think it's any good bothering about it any more," said Acton;
"the thief doesn't mean to come again."
"Well, we'll set it to-night," answered Diggory, "and that shall be the
The following morning Acton was sauntering towards the playground, when
Diggory came running up the path in a state of great excitement.
"I say, the cotton's gone!"
Acton rushed down, unlocked the door of the shed, and went inside.
"Hullo!" he exclaimed, as Diggory followed; "_it is_ some man. Look at
these footprints, and hobnailed boots into the bargain!"
CATCHING A TARTAR.
It was impossible for two boys to keep such an important discovery to
themselves, and the shed was soon filled with an eager crowd, all
anxious to view the mysterious footprints. The Triple Alliance
gained fresh renown as the originators of the scheme by which the
disclosure had been made, and it was unanimously decided that the matter
should be reported to Mr. Blake.
The master cross-questioned Acton and Diggory, but seemed rather
inclined to doubt their story.
"I think," he said, "you must be mistaken. I expect the piece of
cotton blew away, and the foot-marks must have been there before.
I don't see what there is in the shed that should make it worth any
one's while to break into it; besides, if the door was locked, the thief
must have broken it open, and you'd have seen the marks."
Certainly nothing seemed to have been touched, and as no boy complained
of any of his property having been stolen, the subject was allowed to
drop, and the usual excitement connected with the end of term and the
near approach of the holidays soon caused it to be driven from every
one's thoughts and wellnigh forgotten.
With the commencement of the winter term a fresh matter filled the minds
of the Triple Alliance, and gave them plenty of food for discussion and
plan-making. On returning to Chatford after the summer holidays, they
discovered that all three were destined to leave at Christmas and
proceed to Ronleigh College, a large school in the neighbourhood, to
which a good number of Mr. Welsby's former pupils had been transferred
after undergoing a preliminary course of education at The Birches.
Letters from these departed heroes, containing disjointed descriptions
of their new surroundings, awakened a feeling of interest in the doings
of the Ronleigh College boys. The records of their big scores at
cricket, or their victories at football, which appeared in local papers,
were always read with admiration; and the name of an old Birchite
appearing in either of the teams was a thing of which every one felt
"I wish I was going too," said Acton, addressing the three friends;
"but my people are going to send me to a school in Germany. My brother
John is there; he's one of the big chaps, and is captain of the football
team this season. I'm going to get the _Denfordshire Chronicle_ every
week, to see how they get on in the matches."
Early in October the goal-posts were put up in the field, and the
Birchites commenced their football practice. Mr. Blake was a leading
member of the Chatford Town Club, and although six a side was
comparatively a poor business, yet under his instruction they gained a
good grounding in the rudiments of the "soccer" of the period. The old
system of dribbling and headlong rushes was being abandoned in favour of
the passing game, and forwards were learning to keep their places, and
to play as a whole instead of as individuals.
"Come here, you fellows," said the master, walking into the playground
one morning, with a piece of paper in his hand; "I've got something to
The boys crowded round, wondering what was up.
"I've got hero a challenge from Horace House to play a match against
them, either on our ground or on theirs. I think it's a pity that you
shouldn't have an opportunity of playing against strangers. Of course
they are bigger and heavier than we are, and we should probably get
licked; but that isn't the question: any sportsman would sooner play a
losing game than no game at all, and it'll be good practice. We always
used to have a match with them every term; but some little time ago
there seemed to be a lack--well, I'll say of good sportsmen among them,
and the meetings had to be abandoned. I've talked the matter over with
Mr. Welsby, and he seems willing to give the thing another trial."
An excited murmur ran through the crowd.
"Wait a minute," interrupted the speaker, holding up his hand.
"Mr. Welsby has left it with me to make arrangements for the match, and
I shall only do so on one condition. I know that since the event
happened to which I referred a moment ago a decidedly unfriendly spirit
has existed between you and the boys at Mr. Phillips's. Now an
exhibition of this feeling on a football field would be a disgrace to
the school. You must play like gentlemen, and there must be no
wrangling or disputing. They are agreeable for a master to play on each
side, so I shall act as captain. Anything that has to be said must be
left to me, and I shall see you get fair play. Do you clearly
"Very well, then, I'll write and say we shall be pleased to play them
here on Saturday week."
The prospect of mooting the Philistines in the open field filled the
mind of every boy with one thought, and the whole establishment went
football mad. It was played in the schoolroom and passages with empty
ink-pots and balls of paper, in the bedrooms with slippers and sponges,
and even in their dreams fellows kicked the bed-clothes off, and woke up
with cries of "Goal!" on their lips.
Mr. Blake arranged the order of the team, and remarking that they would
need a good defence, put himself and Shaw as full backs. Acton took
centre forward, with Jack Vance on his right, while Diggory was told off
to keep goal.
At length the eventful morning arrived. Class 2 came utterly to grief
in their work; but Mr. Blake understood the cause, and set the same
lessons over again for Monday.
It was the first real match most of the players had taken part in, and
as they stood on the ground waiting for their opponents to arrive, every
one was trembling with excitement. The only exception was the
goal-keeper, who leaned with his back against the wall, cracking nuts,
and remarking that he "wished they'd hurry up and not keep us waiting
all day." At length there was a sound of voices in the lane, and
the next moment the enemy entered the field, headed by their
under-master, Mr. Fox. Young Noaks and Hogson pounced down at once upon
the practice ball, and began kicking it about with great energy,
shouting at the top of their voices, and evidently wishing to make an
impression on the spectators before the game began.
"I say," muttered Jacobs, "they're awfully big."
"Well, what does that matter?" answered Diggory, cracking another nut
and spitting out the shell. "They aren't going to eat us; and as for
that chap Noaks, he's all noise--look how he muffed that kick."
Mr. Blake tossed up. "Now, you fellows," he said, coming up to his
followers, "we play towards the road; get to your places, and remember
what I told you."
With young Noaks as centre forward, Hogson and Bernard on his right and
left, and other big fellows to complete the line of hostile forwards,
the home team seemed to stand no chance against their opponents.
The visitors bowled them over like ninepins, and rushed through their
first line of defence as though it never existed. But Mr. Blake stood
firm, and kept his ground like the English squares at Waterloo.
Attack after attack swept down upon him only to break up like waves on a
rock, and the ball came flying back with a shout of "Now, then! Get
away, Birches!" Twice the Horace House wing men got round Shaw, and put
in good shots; but Diggory saved them both, and was seen a moment later
calmly rewarding himself with another nut. Gradually, as the time
slipped away and no score was made, the Birchites began to realize that
being able to charge wasn't everything, and that their opponents could
do more with their shoulders than with their feet, and soon lost control
of the ball when bothered by the "halves." The play of the home eleven
became bolder--the forwards managed a run or two; and though the
Philistines had certainly the upper hand, yet it soon became obvious to
them that it was no mere "walk over," and that victory would have to be
Noaks and the two inside forwards evidently did not relish this state of
things; they had expected an easy win, and began to show their
disappointment in the increased roughness of their play.
At length, just before half-time, a thing happened which very nearly
caused Mr. Blake's followers to break their promise.
Cross was badly kicked while attempting to take the ball from Hogson,
and had to retire from the game.
There were some black looks and a murmur of indignation among the home
team, but Mr. Blake hushed it up in a moment.
"I think," he said pleasantly, "that the play is a trifle rough. Our
men," he added, laughing, "are rather under size."
Noaks muttered something about not funking; but Mr. Fox said,--
"Yes, just so. Come, play the game, boys, and think less about
The loss of their right half-back was distinctly felt by the Birchites
during the commencement of the second half, and Diggory was called upon
three times in quick succession to save his charge. He acquitted
himself like a brick, and the last time did a thing which afforded his
side an immense amount of secret satisfaction. He caught the ball in
his hands, and at the same moment Noaks made a fierce rush, meaning
to knock him through the goal. Diggory, with an engaging smile, hopped
on one side, and the Philistine flung himself against the post, and
bumped his head with a violence which might have cracked any ordinary
skull. He came back scowling. A moment later Jack Vance ran into him,
and took the ball from between his feet. Noaks charged viciously, and
in a blind fit of temper deliberately raised his fist and struck the
other player in the face.
It was Mr. Blake's voice, and he came striding up the ground looking as
black as thunder.
"I protest against that deliberate piece of foul play. I have played
against all the chief clubs in the district, and in any of those
matches, if such a thing had happened, this man would have been ordered
off the ground."
There was a buzz of approval, in which several of the Philistines
"You are quite right, Mr. Blake," answered Mr. Fox. "I deeply regret
that the game should have been spoiled by a member of my team.--Noaks,"
he added, turning to the culprit, "put on your coat and go home; you
have disgraced yourself and your Comrades. I shall see that you send a
written apology to the boy you struck."
"Bravo!" whispered Acton; "old Fox is a good sort."
"Oh, they're most of them all right," answered Morris; "it's only two or
three that are such beasts."
The game was continued. The loss of one man on each side made the teams
equal in numbers, but the sudden calamity which had overtaken their
centre forward seemed to have exerted a very demoralizing effect on the
Their attacks were not nearly so spirited, and several times the
Birchite forwards appeared in front of their goal.
Neither side had scored, and it seemed as though the game would end in a
draw--a result which the home team would have considered highly
The umpire looked at his watch, and in answer to a query from Mr. Fox
said, "Five minutes more."
"Look here, Acton," said Mr. Blake: "let me take your place, and you go
back. Do all you can to stop them if they come."
The ball was thrown out of touch; Mr. Blake got it, and in a few seconds
the fight was raging in the very mouth of the enemy's goal. Morris put
in a capital shot; but the ball glanced off one of the players, and went
"Corner!" cried Mr. Blake. "I'll take it. Now you fellows get it
through somehow or other!"
"Mark your men, Horace House!" cried Mr. Fox. The next moment every one
was shoving and elbowing with their eyes fixed on the ball as it flew
through the air. It dropped in exactly the right place, and Jack Vance,
by some happy fluke, kicked it just as it touched the ground. Like a
big round shot it whizzed through the posts, and there was a rapturous
yell of "_Goal!_"
The delight of the Birchites at having beaten their opponents was
unbounded, and when, a short time later, the latter retired with a score
against them of one to nil. Jack Vance was seized by a band of
applauding comrades, who, with his head about a couple of feet lower
than his heels, carried him in triumph across the playground, and
staggered half-way up the steep garden path, when Acton happening to
tread on a loose pebble brought the whole procession to grief, and
caused the noble band of conquering heroes to be seen all grovelling in
a mixed heap upon the gravel.
But it is not for the simple purpose of recording the victory over
Horace House that a description of the match has been introduced into
our story; and although the important part played by Diggory in
goal and Jack Vance in the "fighting line" caused it to be an occasion
when the Triple Alliance was decidedly in evidence and won fresh
laurels, yet there are other reasons which make an account of it
necessary, as the reader will discover in following the course of
subsequent events. If Jack Vance had kicked the ball a yard over the
bar instead of under it, the probability is that the following chapter
would never have been written; while the public disgrace of young Noaks
was destined to cause our three comrades more trouble than they ever
expected to encounter, at all events on this side of their leaving
If the result of the match made such a great impression on the minds of
the victors, it is only natural that it should have had a similar effect
on the hearts of their opponents. Most of the Philistines would have
been content to take their defeat as a sportsman should, but neither
Noaks nor his two cronies, Hogson and Bernard, had any of this manly
spirit about them; and smarting under the disappointment of not having
won, and the knowledge that at least one of them had reaped shame and
contempt instead of glory, they determined to seek a speedy revenge.
As the three biggest boys in the school, they had little difficulty in
inducing their companions to join in the crusade which they preached
against The Birches, and the consequence was that the two schools were
soon exchanging open hostilities with greater vigour than ever.
Now, although the Birchites had proved themselves equal to their
opponents at football, they would have stood no chance against them in
anything like a personal encounter. The other party were, of course,
perfectly well aware of this fact, and waxed bold in consequence.
Again and again, when Mr. Welsby's pupils were at football practice, and
Mr. Blake happened not to be present, the enemy's sharp-shooter crept
into ambush behind the hedge and discharged stones from their catapults
at the legs of the players, while the latter replied by inquiring when