The Man in the Train.
THERE was nothing to be done. If he refused to produce the stone, it would do no good. Tommy’s remark had shown the man opposite the one thing which he had wanted to know, namely, that what he was seeking had left Sam Burrows’ possession, and was now with Jimmy. He was not likely to risk an actual attempt to take it by force in a carriage of a train which was due to stop at another station in a few minutes. He would be content to have got on the trail of the thing, and to wait for a favourable opportunity before attempting to recover it.
Jimmy saw him flash a covert glance at the stone, as he passed it to Tommy; but, after that one glance had satisfied him that what Jimmy had got was what he was seeking, he closed his eyes and apparently went to sleep.
Tommy turned the stone over in his hand for a few minutes, then gave it back with a repetition of his former verdict.
“I call it pretty rotten,” he said. “I’m blowed if I see what all the fuss is about. I wouldn’t give twopence for the thing. Hullo, here we are.”
Not many people, as a rule, got out at Marleigh Station. It was a small station, used mostly by the boys of the school.
Jimmy more than half expected to see the man in the corner get out, but to his surprise he did not. The train rolled on, with him inside it, to all appearances still wrapped in sleep. Jimmy heaved a sigh of relief, then turned on Tommy.
“You are an idiot, you know,” he said. “I particularly told you not to say a word about that stone to anybody.”
“Well, I didn’t.”
“You made me bring it out in front of that man.”
“Oh, he didn’t notice. He was asleep.”
“He pretended to be afterwards, but he was jolly wide awake when I was showing the stone. And I believe it was the man himself.”
“The man whose face I saw at the window, and who tried to break into the house.”
“What on earth are you talking about?”
“Why, didn’t I tell you? When I was looking at the stone for the first time—it was in my pater’s den, where Sam Burrows had been put on a sofa—I happened to glance up, and saw a man’s face glaring at me through the window. And I could almost swear it was this chap.”
“He dashed away. When I got to the window there was no one there.”
“You probably imagined the whole thing.”
“Did I? Well, I’ll tell you a thing I didn’t imagine, and that was going down to the larder in the middle of the night to get something to eat, and finding someone breaking into the house.”
“Great Scott, what did you do?”
“I picked up a loaf of bread, and shied it at him. It was pitch dark, but it got him all right. He dropped his lantern, and legged it. Did you notice that that man in the carriage had a black eye?”
“Yes. But he might have got that in a dozen different ways. It doesn’t prove anything.”
“No. But it makes it beastly suspicious.”
“Oh, rot. And I’ll tell you a thing which absolutely dishes your theory. If that man was your man, and he wanted to get the stone, and knew that you’d got it, why didn’t he get out at Marleigh instead of going on?”
“Yes, there’s something in that,” said Jimmy
“Something in it? Of course, there is. It absolutely knocks the bottom out of your idea. If he’d really been after that stone, do you think he wouldn’t have stuck to you like glue, and never let you out of his sight? You’re all right. All you’ve got to do is to sit tight and not worry, until your pater comes back again.”
Jimmy agreed, feeling easy in his mind for the first time since he had set eyes on the man in the corner.
“I’ll tell you what you can do, if you like,” Tommy went on. “If you think there’s any danger of your being suspected of having the stone, let me freeze on to it. They can’t possibly think that I’ve got it, so that if you get waylaid and sandbagged by assassins, and all that sort of rot, they’ll get jolly well left, because they won’t be able to find the stone. They’ll probably give it you jolly hot by way of getting a bit of their own back, but you’ll have to lump that. You’ll have the consolation of knowing your precious bit of blue sealing-wax is all right; and what’s a whack over the head with a bludgeon if your mind’s at rest? Sling the thing across.”
Tommy was looking on the whole business as an elaborate attempt on Jimmy’s part to enliven the monotony of school life with a little added excitement and romance. He treated the matter as an amusing game. He had a matter-of-fact mind, and he did not believe in the existence of mysterious assassins outside the pages of sensational fiction. Whether Jimmy himself believed all he said, he did not know. To him it seemed that everything that had happened could be explained away simply and easily on common-sense lines. The shot that had struck down Sam Burrows—an accident. A spent bullet, perhaps, from some gun fired at a great distance. That would account for the absence of a report. The face at the window—imagination. The nocturnal visitor—simply an ordinary, conventional burglar, on the hunt for silver spoons like any other member of his profession.
The game, however, was very exciting, and he was prepared to do anything that lay in his power to help it on. It would be something to think about in school, when lessons became a bore.
His offer startled Jimmy. It offered an ingenious escape from the difficulties of the position. Jimmy had all his father’s contempt for actual physical danger. All he desired was to fulfil the trust which had been placed in him by Sam Burrows, and keep the stone safe until his father’s return to England. It seemed to him that for Tommy to become temporary guardian of the stone was to ensure its safety in the event of any attempt on the part of its pursuers to take it. By giving it to Tommy he would confuse the trail. The only misgiving he had was lest Tommy, who appeared to be treating the business a great deal too much in the spirit of a whimsical man joining in a round game to amuse the children, might prove an unsafe custodian.
“Buck up,” said Tommy. “Let’s have it.”
Jimmy fingered the stone undecidedly.
“You’ll go showing it round to everybody.”
“I won’t show it to a soul.”
“And gassing about it all over the place.”
“I won’t say a word. Tombs shall be talkative compared with me. Deaf mutes shall be chatty.”
“I don’t believe you half understand how important it is.”
“Of course I do. What rot you talk. I’ll guard the bally thing with my life-blood. I’ll shed my last drop of gore for it. If people come looking at me through windows, I’ll heave sponge-cakes at them and give them black eyes. Bless you, I know all the things one’s supposed to do in a case like this. You’ve come to the right man. You’re jolly lucky, young Jimmy Stewart, to have a chap like me about. Lots of fellows in your place would be offering me big sums to do what I’m going to do for you for nothing. So are you going to pass over that dingy pebble, or aren’t you? Please yourself.”
“All right,” said Jimmy slowly. “Here you are. But, I say, do be careful, won’t you?”
“Rather. Now, observe. There’s no deception. I place the object in my left trousers pocket. It is now as safe as if it were in a bank. Ask me for it back any time you like, and I’ll produce it.”
“Well, mind you do,” said Jimmy.
Tommy Armstrong might have undertaken his charge less light-heartedly if he could have overheard a conversation which was going on at about the same time in a private room of a small hotel at Burlingford, a large town some twenty miles from Marleigh.
One of the speakers was the man who had sat opposite to Jimmy in the train.
The other was an Indian, a small, spare man, with dark, gleaming eyes. One of his legs was curiously twisted.
As he moved restlessly to and fro in the small room, he helped himself by means of a stick. The white man was tall and muscular, causing the other to look like a pigmy by his side; but it was noticeable that he seemed to stand in considerable awe of him.
His manner was deferential, even cringing.
“Bah!” the lame man was saying, speaking perfect English with the polished accent of the cultured Indian. “Bah! You have made a mess of it, Marshall.”
“I assure you, sir——”
“You had it within your grasp. One small effort, and it would have been ours. In Mahomet’s name, why, when this man Burrows was stricken down and helpless, did you not take it from him? You knew that a short search must have found it.”
“The alarm had been raised,” said the man who had been addressed as Marshall, with a touch of sullenness. “The boy had run for help. Several servants were coming from the house.”
“You should have risked it. Heavens, man, is this a business where we can calculate risks? If it gets into Colonel Stewart’s hands, we are lost. Have you any idea as to where Burrows has hidden it?”
“He has not hidden it.”
The brown man stopped short in his movements, and shot a keen glance at him.
“You know something?”
“I know a great deal.”
“You call me a bungler——”
The brown man stamped his sound foot impatiently.
“Speak!” he repeated.
Marshall was apparently well acquainted with the tone in which he spoke the word, for he discarded without delay the somewhat aggressive manner he had assumed, and continued with the deferential air he had worn at the beginning of the interview.
“The boy, the colonel’s son, has the stone,” he said. “I have seen it with my own eyes. I suspected that this might happen. I looked in through the window of the room where they had placed Burrows, and I saw the boy with the stone in his hand. He was returning to school to-day. I got into the train, and later into the same carriage. He was showing the stone to another boy. They got out at Marleigh, twenty miles down the line. They are at a school there. I saw them get out, then I came on to you.”
The brown man’s eyes flashed. His body quivered with excitement.
“The task grows easier.” He muttered a few words below his breath in some strange language. “This Burrows was a man. To deal with boys is boys’ play. Marshall, you go to this Marleigh tonight.”
Back at School.
The first quarter of an hour after getting back to school is always a curious experience. One’s friends seem strangers at first, strangers with remarkably familiar manners. The voice is the voice of Jones, and the smack on the back is the smack of Smith, but somehow we feel at first that they are not the Jones and Smith we knew last term. Then the unreal feeling passes off, and we find it hard to believe that we have not been back at school for a month instead of a quarter of an hour.
Jimmy felt particularly bewildered at first, for he plunged straight into the middle of what seemed to be a sort of indignation meeting. Everyone in the big common-room of the house—there were two houses at Marleigh, the headmaster’s and Haviland’s: Jimmy was in Haviland’s—was talking at the same time. Nobody seemed to be doing any listening at all.
So occupied was everyone in the business of the moment that Jimmy’s arrival passed unnoticed. He turned to Tommy in bewilderment.
“What’s it all about?”
Tommy, putting his mouth close to Jimmy’s ear, explained in a shout.
“Forgot to tell you—indignation meeting. About the food Spinder gives us.”
“What’s Spinder got to do with it?”
“New housemaster. Instead of Haviland, who’s ill. Don’t know what’s the matter with him. Scarlet fever or something. Won’t be back for a good time.”
He jumped on a table.
“Chuck it, you chaps,” he yelled. “Give us a chance. Here’s Jimmy Stewart come back.” After about five minutes, having become slightly purple in the face, he managed to make himself heard. Jimmy was observed, and effusively welcomed. The interruption served to divert the meeting’s attention. There was a gradual slackening of the noise, and finally comparative quiet reigned.
Then a curious-looking youth got on to the table to address the meeting. He was small, and round, and dark-skinned. He wore gold-rimmed spectacles, and a mild, benevolent expression. Cries of “Good old Ram!” greeted him. He was evidently a popular person.
“Who’s that?” asked Jimmy.
“New chap,” said Tommy. “Comes from Calcutta. He’s no end of a lark. Always trying to reform everything. He’s on to this food business like a ton of bricks. Jaws nineteen to the dozen. Nobody knows his full name. It’s about a mile long. It ends in Ram, so that’s what he’s always called. He’s going to be a lawyer some day, he says. Look out. He’s off!”
“Misters and fellow-sufferers,” said Ram, including all his audience in a bland wave of the hand, “permit me to offer a few obiter dicta on unhappy situation in re lamentable foodstuffs supplied to poor schoolboy by Hon’ble Spinder.”
(Cheers; and a voice, “Good old Ram!”)
“I have not long been inmate in your delightful Alma Mater, and perhaps you will say that I am a presumptuous for addressing this meeting (“No, no”). Permit me to say, misters, that we groan beneath iron-shod boots of Hon’ble Spinder. We are mere toads beneath deplorable harrow of his malignancy. (Groans). How long is this to last, misters? Are we the slaves that we should be so treated? Is Hon’ble Spinder autocratic despot that he should be allowed to oppress us? Is——”
Here he broke off on making the discovery that he had lost the attention of his audience. In default of answering the conundrums he had asked, the meeting had begun to talk again on other subjects. In one corner of the room the twins, Bob and Dick Tooth, “the Teeth,” as they were known in the school, had started their usual fight. It was seldom that a day passed without some sort of a scuffle between them. A ring had gathered round, shouting advice and encouragement. In another corner, Binns and Sloper, the inseparables, had begun to sing a duet. It was their firm conviction that they were designed by nature for operatic stars. They sang often and loudly, and the members of their dormitory had spent hours of their valuable time in endeavouring to kick them into silence. After lights-out, when conversation had stopped and the dormitory was trying to get to sleep, one would hear a hoarse murmur from Binns’s bed, “Oi’ll—er—sing thee saw-ongs of Arabee”; to which a hoarser murmur from Sloper’s bed at the other end of the room would reply, to be a bird answering its mate, “Ahnd ta-ales of far Cashmeerer.” Upon which the outraged occupants of the other beds would arise in their wrath, and the night would be made hideous by the thudding of pillows upon the songsters’ heads.
A babel of other noises blended with these. Bellamy, the most silent boy in the school, who was reputed to be able to eat his weight, which was considerable, in any kind of food you liked to name, had retired to his locker, bored by the discussion, in which he took no interest, for food was food to Bellamy, simply that and nothing more, whatever its quality. He could have eaten cake with relish, and consequently saw nothing to complain of in the meals served to the house by Mr. Spinder. He was now engaged on a particularly nerve-breaking piece of fret-sawing, which set everyone’s teeth on edge. Catford and Browning were arguing hotly about a pot of jam, which Catford was alleged to have borrowed during the previous term. Catford maintained that the jam had been full and just payment for a French exercise which he had written for Browning, and that anyhow he had lent Browning a bag of biscuits during the last term but one, Browning denying both statements, and giving it as his opinion that Catford was a bloodsucker. Messrs. Barr, Roberts, Halliday, and Chutwell had enlisted themselves on Browning’s side, and were all talking at the same time; while Messrs. Jameson, Ricketts, Coates, Harrison, and Pridbury had espoused the cause of Catford. They too, were giving their opinion of the affair all together.
Ram looked round the room pathetically, plaintively clapping his hands every now and then for silence. He might just as well have saved himself the trouble. The noise continued, unabated.
“Go it, Bob!”
“Use your left, Dick!”
“Buck up, Bob! Why don’t you guard, you silly ass?”
“Com in-to the gar-den, Maud!”
“For the black bat-ter nah-ett hath-er-florn!”
“Com in-to the gar-den, Maud!”
“I am he-ar at ther gate alorn!”
“Well, look here, I’ll take a bob for the beastly jam, if you like.”
“I’ve told you a dozen times——”
“Give the man his jam, Catford, you cad.”
“Don’t you do it, Catford.”
Jimmy looked about him, with his head buzzing. After a week of life at Marleigh he would have considered this merely ordinary, and so looked on anybody who complained of there being a good deal of noise as affected. But after the peace of holidays the strain of Marleigh conversation was a little overwhelming. He grabbed Tommy by the arm, and steered him to the door.
“What’s up?” asked Tommy, in surprise, when they were outside.
“I couldn’t stand that beastly row any longer.”
“Row? I didn’t notice anything special. A sort of gentle murmur, perhaps.”
“Anyhow, let’s go for a stroll for a bit. I say, is the food so bad?”
“It’s muck,” said Tommy emphatically.
“It was all right last term.”
“I know. But then Haviland was a decent sort. Spinder’s a rotter. He’s sacked old Jane, and got another cook. Said Jane was not economical enough. It’s a bit thick. This new woman is a perfect idiot. Can’t cook for nuts. Sends everything in half raw.”
“Spinder seems to be a beast.”
“What sort of a looking chap is he?”
Tommy picked up a small flint from the road.
“You’d better see yourself. That,” he said, pointing to a lighted window on the ground floor, “is his room.”
He flung the stone at the window. There was a crash of glass.
“Great Scott, man,” gasped Jimmy. “Look out! What on earth are you playing at?”
“And that,” added Tommy calmly, as the broken window was flung up, and a head popped out, “is Mr. Spinder.”
(Another instalment next week, in which both fun and adventure are combined.)