Part 4 out of 5
of the bell for preparation. The tumult suddenly subsided, and there
was a rush for the passage. Hardly had this stampede been accomplished
when some one struck a match and lit the gas-jet nearest the door: it
He stood for a moment looking round the room with a sardonic smile upon
his face, evidently very well pleased with the sight which met his gaze.
The place certainly presented the appearance of a town which had been
bombarded, carried by storm, and pillaged for a week by some foreign
foe. Most of the furniture was upset or pulled out of place, magazines
and papers lay strewn about in every direction, ink was trickling in
black rivulets about the floor, and draughts and chess men seemed to
have been scattered broadcast all over the place. In addition to our
two friends, three other boys, who had evidently taken no active part in
the proceedings, still remained at some seats next to the wall; while
Lucas, with hair dishevelled, waistcoat torn open, and collar flying
loose, stood flushed and panting amid the _debris_ of his overturned
"Well, I'm sure!" said Gull, with a short laugh; "you fellows seem to
have been having rather a bit of fun here this evening. I thought I
heard a row, and I was coming to see what it was; only just when I got
to the door, about fifty chaps bounced out and nearly knocked me down.--
What have they been up to, eh, Lucas?"
"Never you mind," answered the unfortunate official, choking with rage;
"the bell's gone, so all of you clear out."
"Well, you can't blame me this journey," retorted Gull, calmly striking
another match and lighting the next gas-jet. "It seems to me this is a
little too much of a good thing. You'll have to lick a few of them,
Lucas, my boy; and if you can't manage it yourself, you'd better get
some one else to do it for you--your friend Allingford, for instance."
The master on duty in the big schoolroom had to call several times for
silence before the subdued hum of muttered conversation entirely ceased.
Every one had heard of the reading-room riot, and was anxious to discuss
the matter with his companions.
"Who did it? who did it?" was the question asked on all sides.
"I don't know," would be the answer. "They say it wasn't the fellows
who were in the room--some of them put the gas out; but it was a lot of
other chaps, who rushed in after, who did all the damage and caused such
"It seems to me," remarked Diggory to his two chums, "that it was a
put-up job, all arranged beforehand."
"Then who d'you think planned it?" asked Mugford.
"I don't know, but I believe Gull had a hand in it."
"Oh, I don't think that," answered Jack Vance. "He came in and lit the
gas; if he'd been in it, he'd have skedaddled with the rest."
"Um--would he?" returned Diggory, nodding his head in a sagacious
manner; "I'm rather inclined to think he came in on purpose."
By the end of supper a fresh rumour spread which caused the affair to
assume a still graver and more important aspect. Lucas had reported the
whole thing to the head-master, and the latter had expressed his
intention of inquiring into it on the following day. The truth of these
tidings was proved beyond all possibility of doubt when, next morning at
breakfast, an announcement was made that the school would assemble
immediately after the boys left the hall, instead of gathering, as
usual, at nine o'clock.
Every one knew what this meant. The subject had been discussed for
hours in most of the dormitories on the previous evening, and when
Dr. Denson ascended his throne there was no necessity for him to strike
the small hand-bell--the usual signal for silence; an expectant hush
pervaded the whole of the big room, showing clearly the interest
which every one felt in the business on hand.
"I need hardly say," began the doctor, in his clear, decisive manner,
"that my object in calling you together is to inquire into a disgraceful
piece of disorder which took place in the reading-room last night.
I am astonished that such outrageous behaviour should be possible in
what, up to the present time, I have always been proud to regard as a
community of gentlemen. Such an offence against law and order cannot be
allowed to pass unpunished. I feel certain that the greater number of
those here present had no share in it, and I shall give the culprits a
chance of proving themselves at all events sufficiently honourable to
prevent their schoolfellows suffering the consequences which have arisen
from the folly of individuals. Let those boys who are responsible for
what occurred last evening stand up!"
With one exception nobody stirred; a solitary small boy rose to his
feet, and in spite of the gravity of the situation a subdued titter ran
through the assembly. Apparently the whole of the row and disturbance
of the previous evening was the handiwork of one single boy, and that
boy the youthful "Rats."
"Well, Rathson," said the head-master grimly, "am I to understand that
you single-handed overturned forms and tables, scattered books and
papers to the four winds, and nearly tore the clothes off another
"N--no, sir," answered "Rats" plaintively.
"Then will you explain exactly what you did do?"
"I was reading--and the gas went out--and some one emptied a box of
chess-men over my head--and I--I hit him--and then there was a lot of
pushing, and I pushed, and--" concluded "Rats" apologetically--
"and I think I shouted."
"H'm!" said the doctor; "so that's all you did. Sit down, sir.--Lucas!"
"Do you remember what boys were in the reading-room last night?"
"Yes, sir, but I don't think they were responsible for what happened; it
was done by others who came in from outside."
There was a silence.
"I ask once more," said the head-master, "what boys took part in this
disturbance? let them stand up!"
Once more young "Rats" alone pleaded guilty.
"Very well, then," continued the doctor sternly; "the whole school will
be punished: there will be no half-holiday on Wednesday afternoon, and
the reading-room will be closed for a fortnight.--Sit down, Rathson; you
are the only boy among the many who must have been connected with this
affair--the only one, I say, who has any sense of manliness or honour.
Write me a hundred lines, and bring them to me to-morrow morning."
The prospect of having to work on Wednesday afternoon caused, the boys
themselves to take up the doctor's inquiry, and the query, "Who did it?"
became the burning question of the hour.
The riot had evidently been carefully planned beforehand, and the plot
arranged in such a manner that those who took part in it might do so
without being recognized.
It was impossible to discover who really were the culprits, though the
majority of the boys put it down as having been done by "some of
'Thirsty's' lot," and as being a further proof of the latter's
well-known animosity towards Allingford, who had, of course, appointed
Lucas as keeper of the room.
"Look here!" said Diggory, accosting Fletcher Two in the playground:
"what made you tell us to come to the reading-room last night? How did
you know there was going to be a row?"
"I didn't," murmured the other warily. "All I knew was that they were
going to put 'Rats' in the 'stocks;' I hadn't the faintest idea there
was going to be such a fine old rumpus."
"Umph! hadn't you?" muttered Diggory, turning on his heel; "I know
THE CIPHER LETTER.
The reading-room row, as it was called, had pretty well blown over, when
one morning Diggory accosted Jack Vance and Mugford, who were both
seated at the latter's desk, sharpening their knives on an oil-stone.
"I say, you fellows, look what I've found." As he spoke, he laid on the
desk a slip of paper; it was evidently a scrap torn out of some
exercise-book, and inscribed upon it were several lines of capital
letters, all jumbled together without any apparent object in their
arrangement, and, to be more exact, placed as follows:--
"Well, what is there funny about that?" asked Jack; "it looks to me as
if some one had been practising making capitals."
"Is it a puzzle?" inquired Mugford.
"No, but I'll tell you what I think it is," answered Diggory, sitting
down, and speaking in a low, mysterious tone: "it's a letter written in
"A letter?" repeated Mugford, glancing at the paper. "Why, how could
any one read that rubbish--NVVG?"
"Of course they can, if they know the key. Didn't I say it was written
in cipher, you duffer? Every letter you see there stands for something
"Then why didn't they write the proper letters at once, and have done
with it?" grumbled Mugford.
"Because, you prize ass," retorted Diggory, with pardonable asperity,
"they didn't want it read."
"Then if they didn't want it read, why did they write it at all?"
exclaimed Mugford triumphantly.
"Oh, shut up! you're cracked, you--"
"Look here," interrupted Jack Vance, "where did you find the thing?"
"Why, you know the window in the box-room that looks out on the 'quad;'
well, there's a little crack under the ledge between the wooden frame
and the wall, and this note was stuck in there. I should never have
seen it, only I was watching a spider crawling up the wall, and it ran
into the hole close to the end of the paper. Some fellows must be using
the place as a sort of post-office; don't you remember Fred Acton made
one in the wainscotting at The Birches? only these fellows have invented
a cipher. Well, I'm going to find it out, and read this note, just for
"How are you going to do it, though? I don't see it's possible to read
a thing like this; you can't tell where one word ends and a fresh one
"There is a way of finding out a cipher," answered Diggory; "it tells
you how to do it in that book that we bought when Mug had his things
sold by auction at Chatford."
"What, in Poe's tales?" asked Mugford. "Yes; in one of the stories
called 'The Gold Bug.' Where is the book?"
"I lent it to Maxton, but I should think he's finished it by this time.
I'll go and see."
"All right," said Diggory, pocketing the slip of paper; "you get it, and
then I can show you what I mean. Come on, Jack; let's go out."
The two friends were just rising from the form on which they had been
sitting, when they were accosted by Browse, who, strolling up with a
pair of dilapidated slippers on his feet, which caused him to walk as
though he were skating, inquired in drawling tones, "I say, have either
of you kids got a watch-key?"
Jack Vance handed him the required article, which happened to be of the
kind which fit all watches.
The Sixth Form "sap" was very short-sighted, and proceeded to wind up
his timepiece, holding it close to his spectacles throughout the
"I can't think how it is," he continued, in his sing-song tone,
"I'm always losing my key. I've had two new ones already this term.
I always stick them in a place where I think they're sure not to get
lost, and then I forget where I put them. Thanks awfully."
"What a queer old codger Browse is!" remarked Diggory, as the big fellow
moved away; "no one would ever think he was so clever."
"No," answered Jack Vance. "By-the-bye, did you hear that he had
another row with 'Thirsty' last night?"
"No; what about?"
"Oh, the same thing as before. Some fellows were making a beastly row
in Thurston's study, and Browse couldn't work, so he threatened if they
weren't quiet he'd report them to the doctor. 'Thirsty' came out
in an awful wax, and said for two pins he'd knock Browse down; and young
Collis, who was standing at the top of the stairs, says he believes he'd
have done it if some of the other fellows in the Sixth hadn't come out
In the course of the afternoon Diggory secured Mugford's copy of Poe's
tales, and (sad to relate) spent a good part of that evening's
preparation in trying to unravel the secret of the mysterious missive
which he had found in the box-room. So intent was he on solving the
problem that, instead of going down to supper with the majority of his
companions, he remained seated at his desk, poring over the experiments
which he was making according to directions given in the famous story of
"The Gold Bug."
"Well, how are you getting on ?" inquired Jack Vance, as the crowd came
straggling back from the dining-hall.
"Oh, pretty well," answered the other. "The first thing you have to do
is to find E; it's the letter which occurs most frequently. Well, in
this case V is the letter which comes oftenest--there are fourteen of
them--so V is E. Then, when you know what E is, you search for the word
'the.' There are certain to be several 'the's' in the piece; so you
look for instances in which the same two letters come before E, or, in
this case, before V. Well, here it is, G S V, five times; so you are
pretty certain that G S V is 'the,' or, in other words, that G is T, S
is H, and V is E. That's as far as I've got at present; but I mean to
worry out the rest of it to-morrow."
While Diggory was holding forth in the big schoolroom on his methods of
reading a cipher, a conversation of a very different character, and on a
matter of grave importance, was taking place in the study of the school
Allingford and John Acton were seated in front of the former's little
fireplace talking over matters connected with the football club.
Suddenly there was a sound of hurrying feet in the passage; the next
instant the door burst open, and in bounced Browse. The two prefects
gazed at him for a moment in open-mouthed astonishment; then Acton broke
the silence, exclaiming, "Why, Browse, what's the matter?"
The "sap" certainly presented an extraordinary appearance.
His spectacles were gone; his hair was pasted all over his face, as
though he had just come up from a long dive; his clothes were torn, and
in a state of the wildest disorder; while the strangest part of all was
that from head to foot he seemed soaking wet, drenched through and
through with water, which dripped from his garments as he stood.
"Why, man alive!" cried Allingford, "what have you been up to?"
"It's those blackguards!" gasped Browse, choking with rage, and shaken
for once in a way out of his usual drawl; "it's that Thurston and his
crew--I know it was!"
"But what was? what's the matter?"
With some little difficulty the two prefects at length succeeded in
extracting from their excited comrade an account of his wrongs; even
then such an amount of cross-questioning was necessary that it will be
best to make no attempt at a verbatim report, but rather to give the
reader a more concise version of the story.
From Browse's statement it appeared that just before supper some one had
come to his study, saying: "Smeaton wants you in the 'lab;' look sharp!"
The door had only been opened about a couple of inches, and then closed
again. From the few words thus spoken Browse did not recognize the
voice; but thinking that his particular friend Smeaton (another
tremendous worker) was engaged in some important experiments, and needed
his assistance, he hurried away, never dreaming but that the message he
had received was genuine.
In order to reach the laboratory, it was necessary to traverse the
box-room and the gymnasium, both of which were in darkness, the lights
being turned out by the prefect on duty when the boys assembled for
Across the first of these chambers Browse groped his way in safety.
Hardly, however, had he crossed the threshold of the second, when he was
suddenly seized and held fast by several strong pairs of hands.
His indignant expostulations were met with a titter of suppressed
laughter; he was roughly forced down upon his knees, and while in this
position what seemed like two buckets of cold water were emptied over
his devoted head. This having been done, he was dragged to his feet,
thrust back into the box-room, and the door leading into the gymnasium
was slammed to and locked on the inside. From first to last not a word
had been spoken, and at the very commencement of the struggle Browse's
spectacles had been knocked off. These two circumstances had entirely
prevented him from recognizing the shadowy figures of his assailants.
He made one attempt to force the door open, but finding it securely
fastened, had come straight away to the captain's study.
"It's that Thurston and some of his gang," he repeated in conclusion;
"they did it to pay me out for interfering with their noisy meetings."
Allingford and John Acton sprang to their feet. The idea that the rowdy
element should be so powerful in Ronleigh that a Sixth Form boy could
with impunity be seized and drenched with cold water, was not very
pleasing to one who was largely responsible for the order of the school,
and the captain's face was as black as thunder.
"All right!" he exclaimed; "leave this to me. Go and change your
The two prefects hurried down the passage.
"Wait a minute," said Allingford. "Which is Thurston's study?"
Acton knocked at the door; and receiving no answer, pushed it open and
looked in. The room was empty.
"Come on," cried Allingford; "the 'gym!' They may be there still."
They rushed down the stairs, scattering a group of small boys who were
roasting chestnuts at the gas-jet in the passage, and on through the
box-room, but only to find the door on the other side standing
wide open, and the gymnasium itself silent and deserted--two empty
water-cans, lying in a big pool of wet on the cement floor, being the
only remaining traces of the recent outrage.
"They're gone," said Acton. "What shall we do?"
"We'll find one of them, at all events," replied his companion; and
returning once more to the neighbourhood of the studies, he shouted,--
There was a faint "Hullo!" and a moment later a door opened half-way
down the passage.
"Well, what d'you want?"
Allingford walked quickly forward. "Look here," he demanded sternly,
"where have you been? What have you been doing?"
"Doing!" echoed Thurston; "why, I've been sitting here for the last two
hours with old Smeaton. I asked him to let me come and work in his
study to-night. There's some of this Ovid I can't get on with, and he
promised he'd help me out with it if I'd tell him what it was I didn't
The captain hesitated a moment, rather nonplussed by this unexpected
reply. "I believe you know something about this affair with Browse," he
continued. "Who did it?"
"Who did what?" demanded Thurston snappishly. "If you mean when he came
banging at my study door last night--"
"No, I don't mean that," interrupted Allingford. "I mean this
blackguard's trick that was played on him to-night."
"I don't know what you're talking about," retorted Thurston angrily.
"Look here, Allingford, I'll thank you not to call me a blackguard for
nothing, for I suppose that's what you're driving at. If you don't
think I'm speaking the truth, ask Smeaton. I suppose you'll take his
word, if you won't take mine."
Smeaton, whose veracity it was impossible to doubt, confirmed the last
speaker's assertions, and Allingford and Acton were forced to beat a
retreat, feeling that they had certainly been worsted in the
"What's to be done?" asked Acton, as they re-entered the captain's
"I don't know," answered the other, flinging himself into a chair.
"The only thing I can see is to report it to the doctor."
"Oh, I shouldn't do that; it's more a piece of personal spite than any
disorder and breach of rule, like that reading-room affair. I think
it's a thing which ought to be put down by the fellows themselves.
Who was in Thurston's study last night?"
"I don't know. It may have been those fellows Gull and Hawley, but you
can't accuse them without some evidence; you see what I got just now for
tackling Thurston. Ever since the elections there seem to be a lot of
fellows bent on bringing the place to the dogs. Thurston's hand and
glove with the whole lot of them, and it's hard to say who did this
thing to Browse."
A report of what had happened was rapidly spreading all over the school.
One by one the other prefects dropped in to the captain's study to talk
the matter over. Most of them were inclined to agree with Acton in
considering it a thing to be taken up by the boys themselves, and the
discussion was continued till bedtime.
"Well, I'll tell you what I think I'd better do," said Allingford,
preparing to wish his companions good-night. "I'll report it to the
doctor, and ask him not to take any steps in the matter until we've
had a chance of inquiring into it ourselves."
The story of Browse's mishap, as we have just said, soon passed from
mouth to mouth, until it was common property throughout the college.
The remarks which the news elicited were often of an entirely opposite
nature, according to the character of the boys who made them. Noaks and
Mouler laughed aloud, declaring it a rare good joke; but to the credit
of the Ronleians of that generation be it said, the majority shook their
heads, and muttered, "Beastly shame!" "What'll be done?" was the
question asked on all sides. "Will it be reported to the doctor?"
"If it is," said "Rats," "we shall lose another half-holiday. Confound
those fellows, whoever they are! I should like to see them all jolly
On the following day the first assembly for morning school passed
without anything happening, though every one looked rather anxiously
towards the head-master's throne as Dr. Denson took his seat.
The brazen voice of the bell had just proclaimed the eleven o'clock
interval, when the Triple Alliance, hurrying with their companions of
the Lower Fourth along the main corridor leading to the schoolroom,
found that the passage was nearly blocked by a large crowd of boys
standing round the notice-board.
"Hullo!" said Diggory, "another rhyme?"
This time, however, the placard was in good plain prose, and ran as
"A meeting of the whole school will take place
directly after dinner in the gymnasium. A full
attendance is urgently requested, as the matter for
consideration is of great importance.
"A. R. ALLINGFORD."
"Humph," muttered Fletcher senior to himself, as he turned on his heel
after reading the notice, "the fat's in the fire now, and no mistake."
DIGGORY READS THE CIPHER.
The gymnasium was filled with a dense crowd of boys; "Rats," Maxton,
and some other members of the Lower Fourth were fighting for seats on
the parallel bars, and throughout tho whole assembly there was a subdued
murmur of interest and expectation. The last gathering of the kind had
been a court-martial held some two years previously on a boy suspected
of stealing. Old stagers, in a patronizing manner, related what had
happened to their younger comrades, adding, "What, weren't you here
_then?_ Well, you are a kid!" and forgetting to mention that at the
time they themselves were wearing knickerbockers, and doing simple
arithmetic in the lowest form.
At one end of the room was a big chest containing dumb-bells and
single-sticks, and Allingford, mounting on the top of this as the last
stragglers from the dining-hall joined the assembly, called for silence.
There was no attempt at eloquence or self-assertion in Allingford's
remarks; brief they were almost to bluntness, but well suited to the
audience to whom they were addressed. It was the old, well-tried
captain of Ronleigh who spoke, and the boys of Ronleigh who listened,
and the manner in which the words were given and received might have
reminded one of a speech of Sir Colin Campbell's in the Indian Mutiny,
and the answer of the Highlanders he addressed:--
"Ninety-third, you are my own lads; I rely on you to do yourselves and
"Ay, ay, Sir Colin; ye ken us, and we ken you."
"I think you all know," began the captain, "the reason of this meeting
being called together. Last night Browse was set on in this room--in
the dark, mind you--knocked down, and drenched with cold water.
Some fellows may think it a good joke. I don't; I think the fellows who
did it were cads and cowards. I reported the matter to the doctor, and
he consented to act in accordance with the wishes of the prefects, and
leave the matter in the hands of the boys themselves rather than inquire
into it himself, which would probably only have meant another punishment
for the whole school." ("Hear, hear!")
"Now, what I want to say is this. I've been here a good many years--
longer than any one, except Oaks and Rowlands and two or three more.
I love the place, and I'm proud of it. I'd sooner be captain of
Ronleigh than of any other public school you could mention" (cheers);
"but I tell you plainly, the place is going down. There's been a good
deal too much of this rowdy element showing lately, and it's high time
it was put a stop to.
"Some of you, I know, have lately taken a dislike to me, and think I
don't act rightly." ("No, no!") "If I'm to blame, I'm sorry for it,
for I've always tried to do my best. I ask you not to look upon this
matter as a personal affair, either of mine or of any of the other
prefects, but to consider only the welfare of the school. I say again
that if Ronleigh is to retain its reputation, and be kept from going to
the dogs, it's high time these underhanded bits of foul play like the
reading-room row and this attack on Browse were put a stop to; and I beg
you all to join in taking measures to prevent anything of the kind
occurring again in the future."
The speaker concluded his remarks amid a general outburst of applause.
"So we will," cried several voices; "three cheers for old Ally!"
"In my opinion," began Oaks, as soon as order was restored, "the first
thing is to try to find out who did it; surely a fellow can't be set on
by three or four others without somebody knowing something about it.--
Haven't you yourself any idea who it was, Browse?"
"Well, I can't swear," answered Browse readily. "I couldn't see,
because it was dark, and my spectacles were knocked off; but I'm pretty
certain it was some of Thurston's lot--Gull, or Hawley, or some of those
fellows. They did it because I complained when they kicked up a row and
interfered with my work."
This reply created a great sensation, and the air was rent with a storm
of groans, cheers, and hisses.
Oaks, who seemed to have taken upon himself the duties of counsel for
the prosecution, held up his hand to procure silence.
"Shut up!" he exclaimed; "every one will be heard in time. Browse
thinks it might have been Gull, Thurston, or Hawley.--Now, Gull, what
have you got to say? Where were you last night?"
"In bed, asleep," answered Gull promptly.
There was a laugh.
"I don't mean that. What we want to know is, what were you doing after
"Well, I was about some private business of my own."
"What was it?"
"I don't see why I should tell you all my private affairs."
"Well, in this instance we mean to know; so out with it. What were you
doing directly after 'prep' last night?"
There was a hush of expectation. Every one thought an important
disclosure was about to be made.
"All right," answered Gull calmly; "if you must know, I'll tell you.
I was in the matron's room, getting her to sew two buttons on my
A roar of laughter interrupted the proceedings; the defence had scored
heavily. Oaks was for the moment completely nonplussed, and Thurston
seized the opportunity of making a counter-attack. He strode forward,
and mounting the chest addressed the assembly as follows:--
"Gentlemen, however low Ronleigh may have sunk, there is still, I
believe, left among us a certain amount of love of fair play, and
therefore I ask you to give me a hearing. The saying goes, 'Give a dog
a bad name and then hang him.' I'm a dog on which certain people have
been good enough to bestow a bad name. I know I've got it, and to tell
you the truth I don't much care. All the same, I don't see why I should
be hung for a thing which is no fault of mine. You've just heard what
Gull's had to say. I can prove that I was in Smeaton's study when this
thing happened; and I daresay, if Hawley is to be cross-examined, he'll
be able to show that he was somewhere else at the time. What I say,
however, is this--that it's very unfair and unjust to practically
accuse fellows of a thing without having some grounds for so doing.
I don't want to brag, but there have been times, as, for instance, at
the last Wraxby match" (cheers), "when the school thought well of me"
(loud cheers). "Now I'm a black sheep; but there ought to be fair play
for black sheep as well as for white ones." ("Hear, hear!")
"Allingford said something about underhanded bits of foul play. Well,
I, for one, am not afraid to be open and speak my mind. If the place is
going to the dogs because of it's being continually in a state of
disorder, then the fault lies with the prefects." (Sensation.)
"They're the ones who ought to check it, and if they are incompetent,
and can't do their duty, it's no excuse for their trying to shift the
blame on to fellows who are innocent, but who happen to stand in their
The speech had just the effect which Thurston intended it should have.
The English schoolboy has always been a zealous champion of "fair play,"
though sometimes misled in his ideas as to what the term really implies.
A vague sense that the prefects were at fault, and that this inquiry was
a blind to cover their shortcomings, spread through the meeting.
Oaks was interrupted and prevented from questioning Hawley, and it
seemed as though the good influence of Allingford's opening speech would
be entirely lost, and that the meeting would bring about a still more
hostile attitude on the part of the rank and file towards those in
The Thurstonians, however, attempting to make the most of this temporary
triumph, met with an unexpected disaster, which quickly turned the
changing tide of public opinion.
During a momentary pause in the hubbub which followed Thurston's
address, Fletcher senior, with the usual smile upon his face, began to
"Thurston has just said that as regards these rows the fault lies with
the prefects, and that they are culpable in trying to shift the blame on
to other fellows without first getting sufficient evidence to warrant
their so doing. As one of the prefects, I think it only fair to myself
to mention that I was not in favour of this meeting being called.
I suggested to my friend Allingford that this matter should be allowed
to rest until some inquiries had been made--"
"Stop!" cried the captain sternly. The two lines were deepening between
his eyebrows, and the corners of his mouth were drawn down. The boys
had seen that look before, as he stood at the wicket when runs were few
and the bowling dangerous. "Stop! Speak the truth: you're not my
"Allingford says we are not friends," continued the speaker, with the
same eternal smile upon his lips. "I'm sorry to hear it. I know I've
always tried to be his friend, ever--"
"You're lying!" interrupted the other sharply. "Take care, or I'll
There was a dead silence all over the room. Fletcher did not know what
was coming, and though he felt uneasy, he had gone too far to go back.
"I can't understand," he began, "why you should have this unkind feeling
towards me. I can only repeat, in spite of what you say, that I _am_
"Very well," returned the other, with an angry flash in his eyes, "as it
was partly an attack on myself, I had meant to have said nothing about
it; but since you persist in your miserable hypocrisy, I'll expose
you.--You remember," he continued, turning to the audience, and speaking
with a ring of bitter scorn in his voice, "that paltry rhyme that was
fastened on the notice-board after the Town match? Well, allow me to
introduce you to the author of it. He was too modest to sign his name
to it, but here he is, all the same--a fellow who tries to bring
ridicule and contempt on his own side; who stabs a man in the dark, and
in the daylight professes to be his friend."
A derisive groan rose from the crowd.
"You can't prove it!" retorted Fletcher, turning first white and then
"I can prove it up to the hilt. You had the confounded cheek to borrow
from me the very book of songs you used when you wrote the parody, and
you were fool enough to leave the rough copy in it when you brought it
back. It's there now, in your writing. Shall I send for it? it's on my
study table at this moment."
The culprit muttered something about it's being "only a joke," but his
reply was lost amid a storm of hoots and hisses.
"Sneak!" cried one voice; "Turn him out!" yelled another; while the
object of this outburst of animosity, recovering himself sufficiently to
glance round with a contemptuous sneer on his face, fell back, and
endeavoured to hide his confusion by entering into conversation with
Gull and Thurston.
Fletcher had come a nasty cropper, and reaped what, sooner or later, is
the inevitable reward of double-dealing.
Once more the sympathy of the meeting was enlisted on the side of
Allingford and the prefects, and the crowd dispersed, resolved to
discover, if possible, who had made the attack on Browse, and determined
that such acts of disorder were not to be tolerated in the future.
"Hullo, old chap!" said Thurston, entering his friend's study a few
moments later; "you made rather a mess of that speech of yours.
I'm inclined to think you've damaged your reputation."
"I don't care," returned the other; "we're both leaving at the end of
this term. As for Allingford, just let him look out: it'll be my turn
to move next, and there's plenty of time to finish the game between
now and Christmas."
It was a bright, crisp afternoon. Almost everybody hurried away to
change for football.
"Where's Diggy?" asked Jack Vance, as he and Mugford strolled out to the
junior playing field."
"Oh, he said he wasn't coming; he's stewing away at that stupid cipher.
He can't find any word except 'the;' he'll never be able to read the
It being a half-holiday, the games lasted a little longer than usual.
At length, however, the signal was given to "cease fire," and a general
cry of "Hold the ball!" put an end to the several contests.
The crowd of players were tramping across the paved playground, and
surging through the archway into the quadrangle, when Jack Vance and
Mugford were suddenly confronted by Diggory. He held some scraps of
paper in his hand, and appeared to be greatly agitated.
"Come here," he cried, seizing each of them by the arm; "I've got
something to show you."
"Well, what is it?" asked the other two. Their friend, however, would
vouchsafe no further reply than, "Come here out of the way, and I'll
He dragged them along until they reached the deserted entrance to some
of the classrooms; then, stopping and turning to them with an
extraordinary look of mingled triumph, mystery, and excitement,
"I've read the cipher!"
"Pooh! what of that?" answered Jack, rather annoyed at being taken so
far out of his way for nothing. "I expect it isn't anything particular
"It is, though," returned the other confidently; "and you'll say so too
when you read it."
"Well, tell us first how you managed to find it out."
"That's just what I was going to do. You know I found that G was T, S
was H, and V was E; well, I tried and tried, and I couldn't get any
further. I wrote down the alphabet, and put V opposite E, and T
opposite G, and S opposite H. I stared at it and stared at it, and all
of a sudden--I don't know how I came to think of it--I noticed that E is
the fifth letter from the _beginning_ of the alphabet, and V is the
fifth letter from the _end_. The same thing held good with the next
letter: G was seventh from the beginning, and T was seventh from the
Diggory paused as though to see what effect this announcement would have
on the faces of his friends.
"Well!" they exclaimed; "go on!"
"Why, then, I saw in a moment what they'd done: _they'd simply
transposed the whole alphabet_--A. was Z, and Z was A!"
"Oh!" cried Jack Vance; "I see it now."
"Of course, it was as plain as print. I put the two alphabets side by
side, one the right way and the other upside down, and I read the cipher
in two minutes, and here's what you might call the translation."
As he spoke he held out a scrap of scribbling-paper. Jack Vance took
it, and read as follows:--
"Meet in the 'gym' when the fellows pass on to supper. The two cans of
water are standing inside the cupboard under the stairs."
Mugford stared at Jack Vance, and Jack stared at Diggory. "D'you see?"
cried the latter eagerly.
"Well, what then?"
"Why, it must have something to do with this row about Browse."
"Of course: the fellows who did it didn't want, I suppose, to be seen
talking together too much just before it happened, and so they invented
this way of making their plans."
"But who can it be?" asked Mugford. "It seems to me it's just like one
of those secret society things in Russia."
"So it is, and we must find out who they are," answered Diggory,
smacking his lips with great relish. "We'll see once more what can be
done by the Triple Alliance."
The more the three friends thought over the matter of the cipher letter,
the more their curiosity and interest were excited.
"I believe it's either Noaks or Mouler," said Mugford; "they were both
of them siding with Thurston, and trying to kick up a row at the
"Oh, they'd neither of them have the sense to invent a thing like this,"
answered Jack. "They may be in it, but there's some one else besides."
Diggory scouted the idea of letting any other boys share their secret.
The honour of having discovered and exposed the plot must belong to the
Triple Alliance alone, and it must be said that they had accomplished
their task unaided by any outsiders.
That evening and the following day the greater portion of their free
time was spent in discussing the great question as to what should be
done. The cipher note evidently had direct connection with the
attack on Browse, but the translation of the letter was in itself like
finding a key without knowing the whereabouts of the lock which it
fitted. The question was, by whom and for whom it had been written.
Afternoon school was just over, and the three friends were standing
warming their feet on a hot-water pipe, discussing the likelihood of
making any other discoveries which might tend to throw more light on the
subject, when suddenly a happy thought entered the head of Jack Vance.
"Look here, Diggory. You said you found this note in a crack in the
wall under one of the grub-room windows, and that you thought some
fellows were using it as a sort of post-office. Well, have you
been there to see if anything's been put there since?"
"No!" cried Diggory. "Good idea! I'll go now at once."
He walked quickly out of the room, and came back a few moments later at
"I've got one!" he exclaimed, in a low, eager tone. "Don't let any one
see; come to my desk."
The note this time was very brief:--
Diggory hastily fished out his double alphabet, wrote down the proper
letters as Jack read out those on the paper, and in a few seconds the
translation was complete, and read as follows:--
"_After tea under the pav._"
The three boys stared at it in silence.
"What does it mean?" asked Mugford.
"Why," cried Diggory excitedly, "I see. Something's going to happen
after tea this evening in that place under the pavilion--you know where
The other two nodded their heads. The pavilion at Ronleigh being raised
some distance above the level of the field, there was a space between
the floor and the ground used for storing whiting-buckets, goal-posts,
and a number of forms, which were brought out on match-days to afford
seats for visitors. The door of this den had no lock, and opened on the
piece of waste turf at the back of the building. Small boys used it as
a cave when playing brigands, and for so doing had their ears boxed by
irate members of the Sports Committee. It was too low to admit of any
one's moving about except in a stooping posture, and pitch dark unless
the door was left wide open.
"What do you think it is?" said Mugford.
"I don't know," answered Diggory; "but I mean to go and see."
"If they catch you prying about, and find out that you've been watching
them, you'll get an awful licking."
"I don't care if I do; I mean to go."
"Well, we'll go with you," said Jack Vance. "Remember it's the Triple
Alliance, and we vowed always to stand by each other whatever happened."
"Yes," answered Diggory, "and so we will; but there's less chance of one
being seen than three. No; I'll go alone."
A SECRET SOCIETY.
It was a clear, starlight night. Diggory was one of the first to leave
the dining-hall, and, passing swiftly out of the quadrangle, was soon
hurrying across the junior playing field. On reaching the pavilion, all
was quiet and deserted, and he stood for a moment considering what
should be his next step.
The thin hedge dividing the two playgrounds was by this time bare of
leaves, and afforded no hiding-place; the only chance of concealment was
to take shelter inside the den itself--a place which has already been
described. This, however, seemed rather like venturing into the lion's
mouth. What was going to happen? Would anything take place, or was it
only a wild-goose chase after all?
"Here goes!" muttered Diggory to himself. He opened the door, pulling
it to again after him as he crept inside; then taking a step forward in
the pitchy darkness, promptly fell over a bucket with an appalling
crash. Scrambling once more to his feet, he felt in his waistcoat
pocket, and finding there a fusee which he remembered to have taken from
a box owned by "Rats," he struck it, and by the aid of its feeble glare
crept behind the heap of benches which lay piled up close to the
Hardly had he done so when there were a sound of footsteps and a murmur
of conversation; the door was opened, and some one crept into the den.
No sooner had the new-comer crossed the threshold than he stopped,
sniffed audibly, and exclaimed,--
"Hullo! what a stink of fusees! Who's been here, I wonder?"
Diggory instantly recognized the voice as belonging to Noaks, and the
sound of it brought a momentary recollection of the time when he and
Jack Vance had lain concealed behind the hedge opposite to Horace
House. His heart beat fast, and he vainly wished that he had had
sufficient forethought to come provided with some ordinary matches.
Several more boys entered, and one of them struck a light. Diggory,
peering through an aperture in the pile of forms, saw at a glance who
they were--Fletcher senior, Thurston, Noaks, and Hawley.
"There don't seem to be any one about," continued Noaks, peering into
the corners; "yet it's rum there should be such a smell of fusees."
"I expect it was the man," said Thurston, producing a candle-end, and
sticking it in an empty ginger-beer bottle which lay on the ground.
"He was in here this afternoon after some of those old boxes, and I
expect he lit his pipe. The smell is sure to hang about when the door's
The four boys sat down on two upturned buckets and a couple of old
hampers, with the candle in their midst, and Diggory gave vent to an
inward sigh of relief.
"Well," began Thurston, "one reason we meet here to-night is because I
wanted to explain to you fellows that we can't have any more of those
pleasant little parties in my study--at all events, for the present.
Until this row about Browse has blown over, every one'll be watching us
like cats watching a mouse. We ought not to be seen speaking together,
and that's where that cipher business that old Fletcher invented will
come in jolly useful. We can say anything we want to without appearing
"By-the-bye," interrupted Noaks, "what became of that last note? Mouler
told me about it, or I shouldn't have come. Some one had taken it away
before I went to look."
"Perhaps it was Gull," answered Thurston. "Where is he?"
"He's got some turned work to do," answered Hawley.
"Mouler's outside keeping _cave_" added Noaks. "We thought it would be
well for some one to keep a look-out in case anybody came."
"Well, what I was going to say," continued Thurston, "is, that for the
present we'd better lie low, and not be seen going about together.
It was a good thing Gull and I managed to turn the tables on Oaks
at that inquiry; it would have been jolly awkward for the rest of you to
have proved an _alibi_. Of course it was agreed that I should keep out
of it, as it was a dead certainty they'd pounce down on me first; so I
went and sat all the evening with old Smeaton. Ha, ha! the fool quite
thought I meant it when I asked him to help me about my work. But I
say, how did it come off? I haven't heard the particulars."
"Oh, simply enough," answered Hawley. "Noaks and Mouler and Gull and I
did the trick; young Grundy's was the voice that told Browse to go down
to the 'lab.' Grundy hung about at the top of the stairs, and as soon
as he saw Browse come back and make for Allingford's study, he let us
know the coast was clear, so we unlocked the door and skedaddled.
Gull went straight away to the matron's room, and asked her to sew the
two buttons on his waistcoat; he'd pulled them off on purpose. He is a
cunning beggar, that Gull. Fancy his staying behind to light the
reading-room gas, and telling Lucas he'd only just come! Why, he did
more of the wrecking than any two of us put together."
"D'you think young Grundy's to be trusted?" asked Noaks.
"Oh yes," answered Hawley; "he's been on our side all along. He had a
fight with young what's-his-name not long ago, about that skit on the
Town match. Besides, I've told him that if it gets out that he had a
hand in that Browse business, he'll be expelled. So he'll keep his
mouth shut right enough."
"Oh, by-the-bye," cried Thurston, turning to his particular chum, "have
you heard anything more about that poem of yours?"
Fletcher senior, who had been sitting all this time scowling in silence
at the candle, answered shortly, "No."
"Hullo!" returned his friend, "what's the matter? You seem precious
glum to-night. What's up? Are you going to chuck this business and
"You asked me whether I'd heard anything more about that rhyme I wrote,"
answered the other, rousing himself, and speaking with a thrill of anger
in his voice. "I say no, but I've _seen_ a jolly lot."
"How d'you mean?"
"Why, there's not a fellow in the Sixth but gives me the cold shoulder.
Allingford sets the example, and there's hardly one of them will give me
a civil word. They'd like to oust me from the prefects like they did
you, but they shan't, and, what's more, I'll get even chalks with some
of them before I leave."
"Hear, hear!" exclaimed Thurston; "that's just what I say. And now the
question is, what shall we do?"
"Nothing at present," answered the other. "We must wait until this
affair's blown over. There's no need to run the risk of getting
expelled; and, besides, we want some time to think of a plan."
The faint _clang, ter-ang_ of a bell sounded across the playing field.
Noaks and Hawley rose to their feet.
"'Prep!'" exclaimed the latter. "We must be off." A new cause for
anxiety now presented itself to Diggory's mind in the thought that he
would be late in taking his place in the big schoolroom. He knew
that Noaks and Hawley would have to be in time for the assembly; but the
two Sixth Form boys were not amenable to the same rule, and might linger
Thurston, however, rose to his feet, blew out the candle, and the four
conspirators groped their way in a body out through the low doorway.
Diggory waited until he thought they must have reached the school
buildings, and then prepared to follow. The bell had stopped ringing
some minutes, and without looking very carefully where he was going, he
ran as fast as he could out of the match-ground, and across the junior
field. Suddenly, right in front of him, and within fifty yards of the
paved playground, a dark figure seemed all at once to rise out of the
ground. It was Noaks! The latter had dropped a pencil-case, and had
been left by his companions searching for it on his hands and knees.
"Hullo!" he exclaimed, catching the small boy by the arm. "Who are you?
and where have you been?"
"What's that to you?" answered Diggory boldly; "let me go."
The remembrance of that mysterious smell of a fusee flashed across
"Look here!" he cried sharply. "You tell me this moment where you've
"In the other field."
"What were you doing there?"
There was a moment's silence. Noaks had a strong suspicion that the
other knew something about the secret meeting; it was equally possible,
however, that he did not. Young madcaps were often known to let off
steam by careering wildly round the field after dark, and if this had
really been the case in the present instance, it would be folly to say
anything that should awaken suspicion. The big fellow hesitated; then a
happy thought occurred to him: he dragged his captive across the paved
playground, and stopping under the gas-lamp which lit up the archway
leading into the quadrangle, began a hasty examination of the contents
of the latter's pockets. There was no time to lose, and failing to find
what he sought, Noaks gave the youngster a final shake, saying as he
did so: "Look here, have you forgotten that coin robbery? Because, if
you have, I haven't. I've got that knife still. Don't you fall foul of
me, or you'll have reason to be sorry for it, d'you hear?"
The two boys ran quickly across to the big schoolroom, and entered just
in time to take their seats before the master on duty called, "Silence!"
As might have been expected, none of the Triple Alliance put in an
appearance at supper that evening; as a matter of fact, they were
congregated in a quiet corner of the box-room, listening to a graphic
account of Diggory's adventures. Noaks's threat about the pocket-knife
revived all their former feelings of dread and uneasiness respecting
their unfortunate expedition to The Hermitage, and there was a grave
look upon their faces as the narrative concluded.
"You see," said Diggory, as he brought his story to a close, "the thing
was this: he wasn't quite sure whether I knew anything or not, but he
said that to frighten me in case I did."
"I don't see that we can do anything," began Mugford uneasily. "You say
they aren't going to kick up any other row just yet, and it would be an
awful thing if Noaks found it out, and sent my knife to the police."
"No, I don't see very well what I can do," answered Diggory. "Somehow
it seems rather mean to hide away and then go and tell what you've
overheard. I think it's best to leave it, and keep a sharp look-out
and see what happens next."
"Fancy Fletcher inventing that cipher," said Jack Vance, "and being
mixed up with that lot. He is a double-faced beast; it was just like
him making that underhanded attack on the football team."
"Yes," added Mugford; "and fancy Gull being in both those rows, and
making every one believe he wasn't! They must be a deep lot."
"So they are," answered Diggory complacently; "but they aren't a match
for the Triple Alliance."
"I say, what made Noaks search your pockets?" asked Jack, as the three
friends prepared to break up their "confab."
"Oh, for a long time I couldn't imagine, and then all of a sudden I
thought why it was. Don't you see, he wanted to find if I had any more
fusees. My stars, I was glad 'Rats' had only given me one instead of
A CHAPTER OF ACCIDENTS.
The firmest friendships, we are told, have been formed in mutual
adversity; and among the many trials which served to strengthen and
confirm the loyalty and unity of the Triple Alliance, a string of minor
disasters which overtook them one unlucky day early in December must
certainly not be overlooked.
The after results of this chapter of accidents cause it to assume an
additional importance as being the "beginning of the end," alike of this
narrative and of an eventful period in the history of Ronleigh College.
The reader will understand, therefore, that in turning our attention for
a short time to an account of the afore-mentioned misfortune of the
three friends, we are not wandering from what might be called the main
line of our story.
"It all came about," so said Jack Vance, "through Carton's having the
cheek to go home some ten days before proper time." The latter
certainly did, for one reason or another, leave Ronleigh on Wednesday,
the eleventh of December; and by his own special request, our three
friends came down to the station to see him off.
"Have you got anything to read going along?" asked Diggory, as they
stood lingering round the carriage door.
"Yes," answered Carton. "Look here, you fellows, you might get in and
sit round the window till the train starts; it'll keep other people from
getting in, and I shall have the place to myself."
The Triple Alliance did as they were requested.
"Aha, my boys!" continued Carton, rubbing his hands together, "when
you're stewing away in 'prep' this evening, think of me at home eating a
rattling good tea, and no more work to prepare after it for old
"Oh, rubbish!" cried Jack. "I wouldn't go now even if I had the chance.
Why, you'll miss all the fun of breaking up; and young 'Rats' is making
up a party to fill a carriage, and we're going to have a fine spree.
Then by the time we get home for Christmas it'll be all stale to you.
Pshaw! I wouldn't--hullo!--here, stop a minute!--why, she's off!"
Off she certainly was. There had been a sharp chirrup of the whistle,
and at almost the same moment the train began to move. Diggory tried to
let down the window to get at the handle of the door; but the sash
worked stiffly, and before he succeeded in making it drop, the train had
run the length of the platform, and the station was left behind.
The four boys gazed at one another for a moment in blank astonishment,
and then burst into a simultaneous roar of laughter.
"You'll have to go as far as Chatton now," said Carton. "Never mind; you
can get back by the next train."
"Yes; but the question is if we've got any money," answered Jack Vance
ruefully. "It's fourpence the single journey, so the fare there and
back for three of us'll be two bob. Here's threepence; that's all the
tin I'm worth.--what have you got, Diggy?"
"Four halfpenny stamps, and half a frank on my watch-chain," was the
reply. "But I don't think these railway Johnnies 'ud take either of
On examination, the only articles of value Mugford's pockets were found
to contain were an aluminium pencil-case which wouldn't work, and a
dirty scrap of indiarubber.
"Look here," cried Carton, "I'll give you two shillings. It's my fault;
and I've got something over from my journey-money."
The offer was gladly accepted, and at length, when the train reached
Chatton, the three chums wished their companion good-bye, laughing
heartily over their unexpected journey.
"What time's the next train back to Ronleigh?" asked Jack, as he paid
the money for their fare to the ticket-collector.
"Let's see," answered the official: "next train to Ronleigh--5.47."
Jack's face fell. "Isn't there any train before that?" he asked.
"We've got to be back at the school by half-past five."
"Can't help that," returned the man; "next train from here to Ronleigh's
5.47. And," he added, encouragingly, "she's nearly always a bit late."
The boys wandered disconsolately through the booking-office of the
little country station, and halted outside to consider what was to be
"It's five-and-twenty past four," said Jack Vance, looking at his watch,
"and it's a good six miles by road; we shall never walk it in the time."
"It's a good bit shorter by rail," mused Diggory, "if we could walk
along the line. That tunnel under Arrow Hill cuts off a long round."
"We couldn't do that," said Mugford; "there are notice-boards all over
the shop saying that trespassers on the railway will be prosecuted."
"Oh, bother that," cried Jack Vance, suddenly smitten with Diggory's
idea. "Who cares for notice-boards? We'll go home along the line.
If we trot every now and then, we shall get back in time."
"Well, we'd better walk along the road as far as that curve," said
Diggory, "and then they won't see us from the station."
The trio started off in the direction indicated, hurrying along the
permanent way, hopping over the sleepers, and seeing how far they could
run on one of the metals without falling off. At length they entered a
cutting, the steep banks of which rose gradually until they towered high
above their heads on either hand. Before long the mouth of the tunnel
was reached, and, as if by mutual consent, the three friends came to a
There was something forbidding about the dark, gloomy entrance--the
stale, smoky smell, and the damp dripping from the roof, all tending to
give it a very uninviting aspect.
"It's awfully long," said Mugford; "don't you think we'd better turn
In their secret hearts his two companions were more than half inclined
to follow this suggestion; but there is a form of cowardice to which
even the bravest are subject--namely, the fear of being thought afraid--
and it was this, perhaps, which decided them to advance instead of
"Oh no, we won't go back," cried Diggory. "Come along; I'll go first."
And so saying, he plunged forward into the deep shadow of the archway.
The ground seemed to be plentifully strewn with ashes, which scrunched
under their feet as they plodded along, and their voices sounded hollow
"My eye," said Jack, "it's precious dark. I can hardly see where I'm
"It'll be darker still before we see the end," answered Diggory. "Some
one was telling me the other day that there's a curve in the middle."
"Hadn't we better go back?" faltered Mugford.
"No, you fathead; shut up."
The darkness seemed to increase, and the silence grew oppressive.
The boys were walking in single file, Diggory leading, and Jack Vance
bringing up the rear.
"I say," exclaimed the latter, as he stumbled over a sleeper,
"I shouldn't like to be caught here by a train."
"That can't happen," retorted Diggory; "didn't you hear the man say
there wasn't another till 5.47?"
"Yes," added Mugford; "but there might be a luggage, or one coming the
"Well, all you'd have to do would be to cross over on to the other
Imperceptibly the boys quickened their pace until it became almost a
"Hurrah!" cried Diggory, a few moments later, as a far-distant
semicircle of daylight came into view. "There's the other end."
"Stop a minute," cried Jack, emboldened by the prospect of soon being
once more in the fresh air; "let's see if we can make an echo."
The little party halted for a moment, but instead of hearing the shrill
yell for the production of which Jack had just filled his lungs, their
ears were greeted with a far more terrible sound, which caused their
hearts to stop beating. There was, it seemed, a sudden boom, followed
by a long, continuous roar. Diggory turned his head, to find the
far-off patch of light replaced by a spark of fiery red, and the
terrible truth flashed across his mind that in the excitement of the
moment he could not remember for certain which was the down line.
It was well for the Triple Alliance that at least one of their number
was blessed with the faculty of quick decision and prompt action, or the
history of their friendship might have had a tragic ending.
Diggory wheeled round, and catching hold of Mugford, cried in a voice
loud enough to be heard above the ever-increasing din, "Quick! get into
the six-foot way, and lie down!"
What followed even those who underwent the experience could never
clearly describe. They flung themselves upon the ground: there were the
thundering roar of an earthquake, coupled with a deafening clatter, as
though the whole place were falling about their ears, and a whirling
hurricane of hot air and steam.
In ten seconds, which seemed like ten minutes, the whole thing had come
and gone, and Diggory, scrambling to his feet in the dense darkness of
the choking atmosphere, inquired in a shaky voice, "Are you all right,
There was a reply in the affirmative, and the three boys proceeded to
grope their way along in silence, until the broad archway of the
tunnel's mouth appeared through a fog of steam and smoke.
"I say, you fellows," cried Diggory, as they emerged into the fresh air,
"I wouldn't go through there again for something."
"It was a good thing you gave me that shove," said Mugford; "I felt as
though I couldn't move. And we were standing on the very line it went
"Yes: I couldn't remember for the moment which was 'up' and which was
'down.' I thought, too, we should be safer lying flat on the ground
when it passed; had we stood up in the six-foot way, we might have got
giddy and fallen under the wheels."
The conversation was suddenly interrupted by a strange voice shouting,--
"Hullo, you young beggars! what are you a-doing there?"
The boys turned to see from whence this inquiry proceeded. Half-way up
the cutting on their left was a little hut, and beside it stood the man
who had spoken. The same glance showed them another thing--namely, that
just beside this little shanty was one of the notice-boards Mugford had
mentioned, warning the public that persons found trespassing on the
railway would be prosecuted.
"Come along," cried Jack Vance; "let's bolt."
Unless they doubled back into the tunnel, their only way of escape lay
in scaling the right side of the cutting, as a short distance down the
line a gang of platelayers were at work, who would have intercepted them
before they reached the open country.
"Come along," repeated Jack Vance, and the next moment he and his two
companions were clambering as fast as they could up the steep side of
the embankment, clutching at bushes and tufts of grass, and causing
miniature landslips of sand and gravel with every step they took.
The man shouted after them to stop, and seeing that they paid no
attention to his commands, promptly gave chase, rushing down the narrow
pathway from the hut, and scrambling after them up the opposite
Jack Vance and Diggory, whose powers of wind and limb had benefited by
constant exercise in the football field, were soon at the top; but
Mugford, who was not inclined to be athletic, and who had already been
pretty nearly pumped in hurrying out of the tunnel; was still slowly
dragging himself up the ascent, panting and puffing like a steam-engine,
when his comrades reached the summit.
His pursuer was gaining on him rapidly, and it was in vain that his two
friends (too loyal to make good their escape alone) stood, and with
frantic gestures urged him to quicker movement. Just, however, as the
capture seemed certain, a great piece of loose earth giving way beneath
the man's weight caused the latter to fall forward on his face. In this
posture he tobogganed down the slope, with more force than elegance; and
with a yell of triumph Jack and Diggory stretched out their hands, and
dragged Mugford up to the level grassy plateau on which they stood.
Close behind them was a wood, and without a moment's hesitation they
plunged through the hedge, and dashed on through the bushes. The dry
twigs cracked, and the dead leaves rustled beneath their feet.
Suddenly, not more than fifty yards away to their right, there was the
loud explosion of a gun, and almost at the same instant a harsh-voice
shouted: "Hi there--stop! Where are you going?"
"Oh," panted Jack, "it's one of the keepers! Run for all you're worth!"
The opposite edge of the wood was not far distant. The three youngsters
rushed wildly on, and stumbling blindly over the boundary hedge,
continued their mad gallop across a narrow field. Over another hedge,
and they were in a sunken roadway. Then came the end. Mugford
staggered over to the opposite bank, and falling down upon it with his
hand pressed to his side, gasped out, "Awful stitch--can't go any
Years afterwards, when the Triple Alliance met at an Old Boys' dinner,
they laughed heartily in talking over this adventure; but there were no
signs of mirth on any of their faces at the time it was happening.
Then as Jack Vance and Diggory stood staring blankly at each other in
the deepening winter twilight, they suddenly blossomed out into heroes--
heroes, it is true, in flannel cricket-caps and turned-down collars,
but heroes, at all events to my mind, as genuine in the spirit which
prompted their action as those whose deeds are known in song and story.
The barking of a dog in the field above showed that the keeper was
following up their trail.
"Bun for it!" panted Mugford; "don't wait for me!"
"Shan't!" said Jack and Diggory in one voice; and the latter, sticking
his hands in his trouser pockets, began to whistle.
"Go on!" cried Mugford.
"Shan't!" repeated his companions.
It was evident that the Triple Alliance would sink or swim together, and
it so happened that by a piece of unexpected good fortune they were
destined to realize the latter alternative. There was a clatter of
wheels, the quick stamp of a fast-trotting horse, and a baker's cart
came swinging round the corner. Diggory, whose wits never seemed to
desert him at a critical moment, recognized it at once as belonging
to the man who supplied the school, and springing forward he beckoned to
the driver to stop, crying,--
"I say, give us a lift into Ronleigh, and we'll pay you a shilling.
We belong to the college."
The man peered round the canvas covering, and at once recognized the
boys' cap and crest.
"All right," he said. "Hop up; I'll find room for you somewhere."
The danger was past; with an audible sigh of relief the three youngsters
clambered into the vehicle, and the next moment were bowling rapidly
along in the direction of the town.
"I say," cried Jack, "this is a stroke of good luck. Why, we shall be
back in time after all."
The remainder of their conversation was lost to the ears of the driver,
but seemed to consist mainly of a series of attempts on the part of
Mugford to say something, which were always interrupted by a chorus of
groans, and shouts of "Shut up!" from his two companions.
At length the cart arrived at Ronleigh, and set down the three
passengers at the corner of Broad Street, the principal thoroughfare;
and here their adventures seemed to have terminated.
I say _seemed_, because, as a matter of fact, something still remains to
be told in the history of this eventful day; but before proceeding to
the close of the chapter, it will be well to say a word or two with
regard to a certain person connected with it who is as yet unknown to
Ronleigh was fortunate in having a staff of masters who won the respect
and confidence of the boys. Some poor-spirited fellows there are who
will always abuse those set in authority over them; but at Ronleigh
there was happily, on the whole, a mutual good understanding, such as
might exist in a well and wisely disciplined regiment between officers
Exceptions, however, prove the rule; and when at the commencement of the
present winter term a new junior master had come to take charge of the
Third Form, it was evident from the first that before long there would
be trouble. Mr. Grice was a very short man, with a pompous, hectoring
manner, which was, somehow, especially exasperating to fellows who stood
a good head and shoulders taller than the master. His rule was founded
on the fear of punishment, and the sceptre which he wielded was a small
black note-book, in which he entered the names of all offenders with an
accompanying "Hundred lines, Brown!" or "Write the lesson out after
school, Smith." Lastly, Mr. Grice was not a gentleman. Boys, I know,
pay little attention to the conventionalities, and are seldom found
consulting books on etiquette; but those who have been well brought up,
and accustomed at home to an air of refinement, are quick to detect
ill-breeding and bad manners in those older than themselves, and who
"ought to know better." So it came about that Mr. Grice was unpopular,
and the boys in his class bemoaned their fate, and called him
We left the three friends standing at the corner of Broad Street.
The church clock had just struck the quarter-past five, and by this time
it was dark, though the street was lit up by the gas-lamps and the long
rows of shop windows.
"I hope no one sees us," said Jack Vance. "I'm mud all over. We must
look sharp, or we shall be late."
"Hullo!" exclaimed Diggory, "look out! Here's that wretched little
Grice coming; there, he's stopped to look into the ironmonger's shop.
We must dodge past him somehow, or he'll want to know where we've
The trio crossed quickly over to the opposite side of the street, and
hurried off at full speed in the direction of the school.
All boys were supposed to be on the school premises by half-past five,
and at that time the door leading to the outer world was locked by the
prefect for the day.
Oaks, who happened to be on duty, was standing in the passage talking to
Allingford when the three juveniles arrived, out of breath and flushed
"Hullo, you kids! where have you been?" inquired the captain.
Diggory launched out into a brief description of their many adventures;
Oaks laughed heartily. "Well," he said, pulling out his watch, "you've
just got back in time; half a minute more, and you'd have been outside,
The prefect locked the door, and continuing his conversation with
Allingford, started off down the passage. On reaching what was the main
corridor on the ground floor, they paused for a moment, and stood
warming their hands at the hot-water pipe, and it was while thus engaged
that they were suddenly accosted by Mr. Grice, who bustled up to them in
a great state of excitement.
"Are you on duty, Oaks?"
"Have any boys come in late?"
"Well, three boys passed me in the town; I think one of them was young
Trevanock. I called to them to stop, but they took no notice. When
they come in, you send than to me."
"They weren't late, sir," answered Oaks; "they came in about a minute
"Oh, nonsense. I looked at my watch when I saw them in the town, and
then it was five-and-twenty past; they couldn't have come up in five
minutes. You must either have let them in, or not closed the door at
the proper time."
Prefects at Ronleigh were not in the habit of being lectured as though
they were lower-school boys. Oaks bit his lip.
"I closed the door on the stroke of half-past," he answered.
"Well, you say those boys came in about two minutes ago. By me it's now
twenty to six, so they must have been late."
"They were in before half-past, sir; your watch must be wrong."
"Don't keep contradicting me, sir," said the master.
"We are supposed to work by the school clock, sir," interposed the
"I'm not aware that I addressed any remark to you, Allingford," retorted
Mr. Grice, rapidly losing all control of his temper. "You need make no
further attempt to teach me the rules of the school; I flatter myself
that I am sufficiently well versed in them already."
A crowd of idlers, attracted by the angry tones of the master's voice,
had begun to collect in the passage, and the captain flushed to the
roots of his hair at being thus taken to task in public.
"I merely said, sir, that we work by the school clock."
"And I say, hold your tongue, sir.--Oaks, remember you report those
three boys for being late."
"I can't do that, sir," answered Oaks stolidly, "for they were in time."
Mr. Grice boiled over. "You are a very impertinent fellow," he cried.
"I shall report you both to the doctor." And so saying, he turned on
his heel and walked away.
There was a buzz of astonishment among the bystanders. The idea of a
captain of Ronleigh being reported to the doctor was something novel
indeed, and by the time the first bell rang for tea, a report of the
collision between Mr. Grice and the prefects had spread all over the
SOWING THE WIND.
The passage of arms between Mr. Grice and the two prefects was eagerly
discussed by boys of all ages. Exaggerated reports spread from mouth to
mouth, each teller of the story adding to it some details drawn from his
own imagination, until, away down in the Second Form, it was confidently
asserted that Oaks had called Mr. Grice a "little tin monkey," and that
Allingford had boxed the master's ears; which enormities would most
certainly result in the expulsion of the two offenders.
As a matter of fact, the expected storm never burst. The first thing
the doctor did on receiving Mr. Grice's complaint was to compare that
gentleman's watch with his own. "Hum'" he said shortly, "I suppose
you're aware that you _are_ ten minutes fast?"
A few moments later Mr. Grice withdrew, looking rather crestfallen.
As may be imagined, the result of his interview with the head-master was
never made public, and in the meantime Ronleians old and young were
expressing their high approval of the conduct of their captain and his
lieutenant. The gilt was beginning to wear off the Thurstonian
gingerbread, and sensible fellows, who could tell the difference
between jewel and paste, were less inclined than ever to be led by the
nose by such fellows as Gull and Hawley. Here was an instance in which
the prefects had taken a stand against palpable injustice, and the
action had caused the whole body to rise several pegs in everybody's
The near approach of the Wraxby football match caused a revival of good,
honest public spirit. If only Ronleigh could beat the Grammar School
this year at footer as well as at cricket, every one felt that their cup
of joy would run over, and the champions who were to strive for the
wished-for victory were naturally regarded, for the time being, as
standing on more exalted ground than their fellows. Ever since the
exposure of Fletcher senior as the author of "College _v._ Town," the
poem had become a weapon turned against the writer and his party.
Boys had gone to the bottom of the matter, and discovering the real
reason of Thurston's absence from the team, had declared that a fellow
who out of spite would refuse to give his services to uphold the honour
of the school had forfeited all claim on their consideration or
sympathy. Such was the state of popular feeling when, with the clang of
the getting-up bell on Thursday morning, the twelfth of December, a day
commenced fraught with unexpected episodes and situations closely
affecting the interests of the Triple Alliance.
One might have thought that their adventures on the previous afternoon
had afforded them sufficient excitement for at least one week; but these
were destined to prove but the prelude to an event of still greater
importance. The three friends went into school at nine o'clock, looking
forlorn and miserable. Something, indeed, had happened to mar their
happiness, and the cause of their depression was as follows:--
Soon after breakfast, when the contents of the post-bag had been
distributed as usual, Mugford accosted his two chums, who were strolling
up and down the quadrangle. A look of abject misery was on his face,
and in his hand he held an open letter.
"Hullo!" cried Jack Vance; "what's up? You look as if you had lost a
sovereign and found sixpence!"
"Matter enough," murmured Mugford, whose heart was evidently in his
mouth: "I'm going to leave."
"Going to leave!" exclaimed Diggory; "what ever d'you mean?"
"Well, I don't mind telling you fellows," answered the other. "You know
my guv'nor isn't well off, and he says he's lost money, and can't afford
to keep me at Ronleigh. I know I'm no good, and you fellows'll get on
all right without me, and--"
The sentence not being completed, the two other boys glanced at the
speaker's face, and from previous indications in the tone of his voice
were not surprised to find that he was crying. Two years appear a long
time when one is on the bright side of twenty, and the friendship seemed
to have lasted for ages. At the near prospect of separation all
Mugford's little failings were forgotten, and both Diggory and Jack
Vance felt that life without him would be a blank.
"Oh, dash it all!" said the latter; "you mustn't go? Isn't there
anything we can do? Shall I write to your guv'nor?"
The idea of Jack Vance addressing a remonstrance to his respected parent
caused the ghost of a smile to appear on Mugford's doleful face.
"No, it's no good," he answered. "There's nothing for it; I shall have
During the interval which divided morning school and the free time
before dinner the three friends mooned about together, trying in vain to
regard the future in a more cheerful light, and to make plans for
keeping touch of each other by an interchange of letters and a possible
meeting in the holidays.
"It's all very well," said Jack Vance to Diggory, when late on in the
afternoon he happened to come across the latter flattening his nose
against the glass of the box-room window--"it's all very well talking
about writing and all that; but this is the end of the Triple Alliance."
"Yes," answered Diggory, after a moment's thought, "I suppose it is.
I wish we could do something more before it's broken up."
As he spoke, he passed his hand mechanically along the lower surface of
the window ledge; then with a sudden exclamation he went down on his
knees, and picked something out of the wall.
It was another note written in cipher!
The missive was certainly very brief, consisting of only seven
"Hullo!" said Jack Vance; "they're at it again!"
His companion made no reply, but taking out a pencil, copied the cipher
on the back of an envelope, and then replaced the mysterious document in
the crack between the window-frame and the bricks.
"What are you doing that for?"
"Why, because they may miss it, and smell a rat. Come on; let's get the
key and see what it means."
In this instance the translation of the cryptograph did not occupy much
time; Diggory produced his double alphabet, and soon spelt out the
The two chums gazed at each other for a few moments in silence.
"What does it mean?" queried Jack.
"I don't know, unless it is that they are going to have another meeting
after tea under the pavilion."
"Let's find Mug, and hear what he thinks."
In discussing their new find and attempting to solve its meaning, the
three friends forgot for the time being the melancholy tidings they had
received that morning, and gave themselves up to a full enjoyment of the
"I can't see," said Mugford, "that it means anything else than that they
are going to have another meeting."
"Yes, that's it. I shall go down to the pavilion again after tea, and
see what's up. I shouldn't wonder if there is going to be another row.
Fletcher said he meant to do something before he left, and there isn't
much time now before the end of the term."
"Shan't Mug or I go this time?" asked Jack Vance; "it's rather a risky
"No, I'll go; I know now just where to hide."
During the half-hour between tea and evening preparation Jack Vance and
Mugford lingered about in the dark and deserted quadrangle, anxiously
awaiting their comrade's return. Once only was the silence broken, by
Maxton chasing young "Rats" from the gymnasium into the big school,
shouting, "I'll lick you, you little villain!" but with this exception,
our two friends had the place to themselves.
It was a raw, cold night; every one seemed, very naturally, to be
keeping indoors, and there were no signs of any members of the secret
society being abroad. Jack Vance and his companion trotted softly up
and down, endeavouring to keep themselves warm. At length, when their
patience was wellnigh exhausted, there was a sound of footsteps, and
Diggory was descried coming through the archway leading to the playing
"Well," cried his two chums, in low, eager tones, "what have you heard?"
The answer was certainly one they had least expected,--
"Nothing! what d'you mean?"
"Why, they didn't come; there wasn't any meeting. I waited and waited,
until I saw it was no use staying any longer; so then I gave it up as a
"Did the note really say to-night?"
"Yes: I went down just before tea to see if it was still there, and I
brought it away with me. Here, look for yourself."
As he spoke, Diggory produced the slip of paper from his waistcoat
pocket. By the light of the archway lamp it was compared with a
hastily-constructed key, and the former translation was found to be
The Triple Alliance had certainly for once in a way "drawn blank," and
the preparation bell putting an end to their further deliberations, they
directed their steps toward the schoolroom, wondering more than ever
what could be the meaning of that significant word, "To-night."
Now, the real reason of the three friends being thus at fault in their
investigations was simply this: they were exactly twenty-four hours
behindhand in their attempt to unravel the mystery. The conclusion
they had come to with regard to the meaning of the note was correct: a
tacit understanding had existed for some time among the inner circle of
the Thurstonian party that this should be the signal for a gathering of
the clan; but the note, when Diggory had found it, had been lying in the
impromptu post office for a day and a half, and the meeting to which
it was a summons had already taken place on the previous evening.
For the reader, who is a privileged person, we intend to put back the
clock, and leaving the Triple Alliance dividing their attention between
attempts to discover the meaning, first of their Latin author, and
secondly of the enigma formed by this perplexing single-worded epistle,
we will give a short account of the gathering to which it referred.
It was while the greater number of their school-fellows were gathered in
numerous little groups, whiling away the free time before preparation
discussing the various rumours that were current respecting Mr. Grice's
encounters with Oaks and Allingford, that the same five conspirators
assembled for another secret "confab" in the den beneath the pavilion.
In one way it was a fortunate thing for Diggory that he did not discover
the note sooner, for hardly had Thurston set the lighted candle in the
empty bottle than Noaks picked it up, and peered carefully into each of
the four corners, and behind the heaps of benches and other lumber.
"What are you doing that for?" asked Gull.
"Oh, only to see that no one's come who wasn't invited. D'you remember
last time what a stink there was of a burnt fusee? Well, after you'd
gone I found young Trevanock knocking about the field, and I wouldn't
swear but what he knew something about our meeting. I searched the
young beggar's pockets; but he hadn't got any more lights, so I let him
The party grouped themselves round the candle, as they had done on the
previous occasion, when Diggory had watched their movements from behind
the pile of forms, and Thurston, with an inquiring look at Fletcher,
asked, "Well, what's the object of this pleasant little reunion?"
"I suppose you can pretty well guess," answered the other. "The last
time we were here we all agreed that before the end of the term was up
we'd get even chalks with Allingford and Co. Well, seeing there's only
eight days left, I thought it was about time we had another meeting, and
decided what we were going to do.--By-the-bye," added the speaker,
turning with something like a sneer on his lips, and addressing his
chum, "it's the Wraxby match on Saturday; I suppose they haven't asked
you to play in the team?"
The shaft went home, and Thurston's face darkened with anger.
"No," he answered indignantly, "and I wouldn't play, not if they all
went down on their knees and begged me to. What do I care about the
Wraxby match? If I could, I'd put a stopper on it, and bring the whole
thing to the ground."
"Well," continued Fletcher calmly, "that's just what we're going to do.
If you'd asked me this morning how we could put a spoke in Allingford's
wheel, and pay out him and a lot of those other prigs like Oaks and
Rowlands, I couldn't have told you; but now the thing's as easy as pat.
They'll find out they haven't cold-shouldered me at every turn and
corner for nothing. I'll give them tit for tat, and after Christmas,
when I've left this beastly place, I'll write and tell them who did it."
"You seem to have got your back up, old chap," said Thurston, referring
to the bitter tones in which the last few sentences had been spoken;
"but out with it--what's your plan?"
"Why, this: I'd no idea what a chance we should have when I stuck that
note in our pillar-box, but here it is all ready made. Allingford and
Oaks have had a row with little Grice; he's reported them, and it's
quite natural they should want to pay him out for doing it. As they're
such good boys, I don't suppose they'll try anything of the kind; but we
might undertake the job, and do it for them."
The speaker paused to see if he had been understood.
"What!" exclaimed Thurston bluntly, "you mean, play Grice a trick and
make it appear they'd done it because of this rumpus about locking the
"That's about it," returned the other, laughing. "What could we do
Noaks murmured his approval of the scheme, but Gull and Hawley were
silent. To tell the truth, since the big row following their attack on
Browse had put a stop to any further chance of card-parties and other
amusements in Thurston's study, their attachment to the ex-prefect had
considerably lessened. Like many others of their kind, they were
thoroughly selfish at heart, and saw no good in running any personal
risk to settle the quarrels of a third person. The party feeling which
had characterized the last school elections, and caused for the time
being a spirit of ill-will and opposition towards the school leaders,
had just about died a natural death; and if another public meeting had
been called in the gymnasium, not half a dozen fellows would have
shouted for Thurston, or allied themselves against the side of law and
order. All this had tended to make Hawley and Gull lukewarm in their
adherence to the cause. Noaks, however, who would have paid any price
for the privilege of being able to hobnob with those who were in any
higher position than himself, was ready to follow his two Sixth Form
cronies to any extreme they might suggest.
"Well," he inquired, "and what's to be the trick?"
"I only just thought of one on the spur of the moment," answered
Fletcher; "but if no one else has a better to suggest, I daresay it'll
do. We might screw up little Grice's bedroom door so as to get him
down late in the morning; his room's right away at the end of the
passage. There is a screw-driver belonging to Oaks lying in one of the
empty lockers--it has his name on the handle; and if we happened to
drop it as we came away, I think that in the face of this row it would
look uncommonly like his doing. D'you twig?"
There was something so mean and cowardly in this scheme, and in the
manner in which the proposal was made, that even Thurston gave vent to
an exclamation of contempt.
"So that's your little game, is it?" he inquired.
"Yes, that's it; that's my little project for putting a stop to the
Wraxby match. There'll be an awful row, and the doctor'll keep the team
from going. Now, then, who'll do the trick?--Will you, Hawley?"
"No fear," answered Hawley. "Gull and I did most of the last two
blow-ups; it's some one else's turn now. Suppose you do it yourself, as
it's your idea."
Fletcher frowned: in matters of this sort he liked to make the plans and
get others to execute them. "Well, I was thinking one of you might," he
"Oh, bother!" interrupted Thurston, whose revengeful spirit had been
once more aroused by the mention of the Wraxby match--"it's nothing;
you and I'll do it."
"And I'll help if you like," added Noaks, who thought the present
occasion a good opportunity to distinguish himself.
"All right," continued Thurston: "you go down town and get some screws,
Noaks--two or three good long ones."
"Well, we'll fix to-morrow night," said Fletcher. "Keep awake, and meet
at the top of B staircase, say at one o'clock; then there's no fear but
what every one'll be asleep."
The Triple Alliance had for some hours ceased to puzzle their brains
over either Virgil or cipher notes, and the whole of Ronleigh College
was apparently wrapped in slumber, when three shadowy figures
assembled on the landing at the top of staircase B, and proceeded
noiselessly along the corridor, and down the side passage at the end of
which Mr. Grice's room was situated.
"Have you got the screws?"
"Yes," answered Noaks, producing a twist of paper from his pocket.
"Don't you think I'd better go and keep _cave_ at the top of the
stairs?" whispered Fletcher.
"No," returned Thurston; "Noaks can do that. I'll make the two holes,
and you must put the screws in; you're the best carpenter of the lot."
Standing in the cold, dark passage, the work seemed to take ages to
perform; but at length it was finished.
"Hist! what are you doing?"
Fletcher had produced a scrap of paper from his pocket, and was
seemingly about to slip it under the door.
"I want to make certain that it shall be put down to Oaks," he
whispered; "so in case the screw-driver should be overlooked, I'm going
to slip this under the door for Grice to find in the morning."
Thurston glanced at the paper, and saw printed thereon in bold capitals
the following inscription:--
"BE IN TIME BY THE SCHOOL CLOCK."
REAPING THE WHIRLWIND.
Work at Ronleigh commenced with a sort of half-hour's preliminary
practice in the various classrooms; the school then assembled for
prayers, after which came breakfast. During the progress of this meal
on the Friday morning, in the small hours of which had been enacted the
scene described at the end of the previous chapter, it became evident
that "something was up." The table, at which sat most of the boys of
the Third Form, was in a state of great disorder, while the discussion
of some topic of unusual interest seemed to be occupying the attention
of the prefects. It was not, however, until after the boys had swarmed
out of the dining-hall that the reason of this subdued commotion became
generally known; and then, like the sudden report of an explosion, every