IT had evidently occurred to the person or persons who had built Marleigh School that boys might take it into their heads to break out of their rooms at night, for the arrangements for preventing this were elaborate. The boys slept in large and small dormitories at the top of the house. The only way of approach to the dormitories was by means of a long corridor at the further end of which was a blank wall. Where the corridor joined the stairs was a sort of railing, consisting of iron bars set close together. This was always locked at night by the school porter, and opened by him first thing in the morning. He slept on the same floor, to be at hand in case of fire.
To all appearances the boys, once safely behind the railings, were there for the rest of the night. Tommy Armstrong, however, had set about discovering a way through at a very early date. Unknown even to Jimmy, he had frequently broken through the barrier after lights out, and roamed about the house in the small hours.
When, therefore, Jimmy, recollecting this iron railing, objected to the proposed raiding of Mr. Spinder’s study on the ground that they would not be able to get at it, Tommy was full of confidence.
“Leave it to me,” he said. “That’s all I ask. Simply leave it to your uncle. He’ll see you through. Now let’s just think this thing over. What shall we want? In the first place, light. There’s the gas, of course, but we daren’t light that. It would be too risky. What we really want, what Denman Cross and all these sleuth-hound Johnnies would have had, is a dark lantern. But, as we haven’t one, we must get the next best thing. By gad, I know. Bellamy’s got one of those electric flashlight things you buy at Gamage’s. I saw him with it the other day. It’ll be in his locker down in the common room. Our first move must be to get hold of that. Then we can start.”
“How are we going to get down to Bellamy’s locker at all?”
“You’ll see. By Jove, old Denman Cross would have sat on you, my lad. He’d have given you beans. Don’t you know by this time that we detectives simply can’t stand being questioned about our methods. All you’ve got to do is to stand around with your mouth open, and say, ‘My dear Armstrong, how——’ When I said that the first thing we’ve got to do is to bag Bellamy’s flash-jigger, I was wrong. The first thing we’ve got to do is to jolly well wait. It’s only half-past ten, and I’ll bet old Spinder is a late bird. He won’t turn in till one, probably. In fact, I think we’d better give him till two, to make certain.”
“What on earth are we to do till then?” asked Jimmy, rather blankly. It seemed such an age to wait. Jimmy was one of those impetuous persons who like to go at a thing without delay, and get it done at once.
“You can go to sleep,” said Tommy. “If you chuck off all your blankets, the cold will wake you at the proper time.”
“I shan’t be able to get to sleep.”
“Well, have a shot—I’m going to. Keep awake if you like; but don’t jaw. Sleep is what the detective wants before taking on a job like this. It clears the brain.”
Jimmy lay awake for about a quarter of an hour, listening to Tommy’s regular breathing, with a fixed conviction that sleep would never come to him. The next thing he remembered was being violently shaken. He sat up.
“Come on,” whispered Tommy, releasing his grip on his shoulder, “it’s past two. You’ve been snoring like blazes. I’ve got the whole business clearly mapped out in my mind. You’ve got some matches, haven’t you? Good. Here’s a stump of candle. Now, then.”
They went out softly into the passage. They crept along on tip-toe till they came to the railing. Then Jimmy saw that Tommy was carrying his sheet.
“What’s that for?” he asked.
“You’ll see. Hold the light, and stand to one side. Now, then. Life in the Wild West. Scene one: Cowboy using the lasso.”
As he spoke he whirled the sheet, which he had twisted into a sort of rope with a slip-knot at the end, up towards the ceiling. Two attempts failed, but at the third the knot caught the projecting top of one of the iron railings, and tightened.
“There you are,” said Tommy complacently. “Scene two: Siberian convicts escaping from prison.”
He swarmed up the sheet, and, when at the top, squeezed through between the railings and the ceiling, and slid down to the floor on the other side. Jimmy, raising the light, saw that the railings stopped about two feet from the ceiling.
“Quite simple,” said Tommy through the bars. “Only be careful when you get to the top, or you’ll go scalping yourself.”
Jimmy climbed up the sheet, and joined the detective on the other side, having previously handed the candle through the railings.
“What are we to do with the sheet?” he asked.
“Pull it through the bars—like this.” Tommy suited the action to the word. “Then leave it. Nobody’s likely to be coming round here at this time of night. Now let’s get going. ‘Once aboard the lugger, and the gyurl is mine.’ Don’t make a row on the stairs. Look out for the fifth step. It squeaks.”
With this warning, Tommy led the way down to the common-room.
The familiar haunts seemed strange, seen at dead of night by the light of a candle. The stillness overawed Jimmy. Usually the home and centre of noise, the room was now like a tomb. The candle flung great black shadows on the wall. Even Tommy was impressed. When he spoke, it was in a whisper.
“Bit creepy, isn’t it?”
Jimmy agreed. He was not nervous as a general rule, but the happenings of the last few days had shown him that life was not the quiet, uneventful thing he had always imagined it to be, but full of sinister possibilities. The knowledge that one is being watched and stalked is calculated to disturb the stoutest nerves; and Jimmy, though he had seen nothing more of the man in the train, felt convinced that he was still in the neighbourhood, waiting.
Tommy, who had nothing on his mind, was busy rummaging in Bellamy’s locker, tossing about that stout youth’s property in a way which would have drawn excited protests from the stolid one, had he been present. At length he rose, holding the flashlight stick.
“We are getting on,” he said, as he pressed the button and sent a thin stream of bright light shooting out. “Now for the hidden treasure.”
He blew out the candle, and led the way to Mr. Spinder’s room.
“If he’s still there,” he said, “we are absolutely in the cart. I can think of an excuse for most things, but I’m blowed if I can fake up any reason why we should be wandering about the house with an electric torch at this time of night. This will mean the boot, if we are caught. So don’t let’s be.”
They were at the door by this time. Tommy sank noiselessly to the floor, and peered at the crack beneath the door.
“I can’t see any light,” he said, rising. “He must be in bed by now. Anyhow, here goes.”
He seized the handle, and opened the door. All was in darkness. They both breathed a sigh of relief.
“All well so far,” said Tommy. “Let’s have a bit of light on the scene once more.”
The torch came into action again. They crept silently into the room.
What Happened in the Study
MR. SPINDER’S sitting-room was large and comfortably furnished. The light of the torch showed up deep armchairs, and their stockinged feet made no sound on the thick carpet.
“Not a bad little place by any means,” said Tommy, holding up the torch. “Knows how to make himself comfortable, doesn’t he. In old Haviland’s time this room wasn’t half such a blooming palace. However, we didn’t come here to admire the scenery. Let’s see about this stone of yours. Now, where would he keep it? Let me think. As a start we might look in each drawer of the desk.”
“They’ll be locked.”
“So they will. I never thought of that. Just shows you how easy it is for a detective to get let in. You’ve got to think of everything.”
“That does us,” says Jimmy. “It’s no good going on, as far as I can see. The stone’s bound to be in some safe place, locked up. We’d better go back to bed.”
But Tommy was enjoying himself far too much to agree to such a tame proposition as this. He did not much care whether he found the stone or not. In fact, he did not believe that the stone was there at all. What he did care for was the opportunity of rummaging among Mr. Spinder’s belongings. He felt like an explorer, and did not intend to turn back now for such a thin reason as the impossibility of finding what they had set out to find.
He held the torch up, and began to prowl round the room. He stopped opposite the bookshelves.
“He’s got a decent lot of books,” he said. “Wonder if there’s anything I could borrow. What’s his taste in literature? What I want’s a good detective story. Let’s see. ‘Forty Years in India’. ‘Notes on the Vedas’. ‘Indian Mythology and Superstitions’. Dash it all, the man seems to be mad on India.”
“What!” said Jimmy. “By Jove, then that’s why he’s sticking to that stone. He knows all about India, and he understands what it is and why it’s so valuable.”
“Not a bad theory for an amateur,” said the detective, patronisingly. “Of course, I shall prove it absolutely wrong when once I get going on the case. Still, it’s not bad.”
He walked on, and knelt before a cupboard.
“It won’t be in there,” said Jimmy. “He wouldn’t keep it in a place like that.”
“I daresay he wouldn’t. But he might keep biscuits. And I could do with a biscuit or two now. There, what did I tell you? A tin of the best. This is something like. Keep trusting to the trained powers of the detective, and you can’t go wrong. Do you know, something seemed to tell me there were biscuits in that cupboard. What’s this? Whisky? I don’t take it. But the biscuits’ll do to go on with. Have one?”
“No, thanks. I wonder where he can have put that stone.”
“Never mind about the beastly stone. Sit down and—— Great Scott! Listen!”
Tommy sprang to his feet, and stood listening. They looked at one another in consternation. They had both heard the sound. Soft footsteps were coming down the corridor.
There was only a moment in which to act. Whoever was coming was making his way to the study. From the stealthy way in which he was treading, it was plain that he did not wish to be heard. The same thought flashed across Jimmy and Tommy simultaneously. Mr. Spinder, by some incredible bit of bad luck, had seen the sheet hanging to the railings, and was searching the house.
“There’s just a chance,” whispered Tommy. “Get behind the door. It opens inwards. Wait till he’s in, then make a bolt for it before he lights the gas.”
As luck would have it, there was a settee against the wall at the side of the door. There was no time to drag it out, even if such an action would not have made too much noise.
“The piano,” whispered Jimmy.
Tommy nodded. The piano—the favourite possession of Mr. Haviland, who had been an enthusiastic musician—stood in the corner of the room beyond the settee. It was so placed that each side of it touched one wall, thus leaving a small triangular space between the instrument and the corner. There would be just room for them to squeeze behind it. And, once there, they might be safe. It was a poor chance, if the man who was coming down the passage was Mr. Spinder searching the house. But still, it was a chance, and the only one they could take.
They dashed towards it. The next moment they were behind it, and Tommy had switched off the light.
Hardly had he done so when the footsteps paused at the door. Then, though there was no sound, they knew that the man, whoever he was, had entered the room.
There was a slight click, and a circle of light appeared on the ceiling, darting off again at once. At the same time the smell of hot tin came to them. Tommy gave Jimmy a nudge. They knew what had happened. The man had uncovered a dark lantern.
This disposed of the idea that the man was Mr. Spinder. A master who is searching his house with the object of finding boys who may be wandering in it during the night does not do it with the aid of a dark lantern. Nor does he walk on tiptoe. The fact that the visitor was doing both these things put an entirely new complexion on the affair. It showed that he had as little business to be in Mr. Spinder’s study at that hour as had the two boys crouching behind the piano.
Tommy, squeezing Jimmy’s shoulder as a sign to him to keep still, rose cautiously to his feet till he could see above the top of the piano. The light had disappeared from their limited range of vision.
Very warily Tommy looked out from his hiding-place. Then he saw that there was no need for excessive caution. The man had his back towards him. He was kneeling in front of Mr. Spinder’s desk. The lantern was on the floor beside him.
The position of the lantern made it hard for Tommy to see exactly what was happening. The man seemed to be doing something to the desk, and he seemed to be doing it under difficulties. Then another click told him what was going on. The man was breaking open the drawers with a skeleton key.
As Tommy watched, he pulled the top drawer from its place, and, laying it on the floor beside the lantern, began to rummage among its contents. He used one hand only for this, and, as the light fell on him, Tommy saw the reason. His left arm was in a sling.
Tommy gazed, spellbound. Here was an adventure of the type he had always longed for. Standing there, peering over the piano, was like watching a very exciting play on the stage.
Whatever the man was looking for, it was evidently not in the top drawer. After an exhaustive examination of its contents, he put it carefully back in its place, and re-locked it. Then he took out the second drawer, and began his search once more. All the while he made no sound that could be heard outside the room. An occasional deep breath escaped him, and the papers in the drawer rustled faintly; but beyond that the silence was unbroken. His patience seemed inexhaustible. He was plainly bent on finding the object of his search, for, when the second drawer yielded nothing, he replaced it and turned to the next in order without a sign of discouragement.
For nearly half an hour Tommy reckoned that he stood there watching, with a hand always on Jimmy’s shoulder to check any attempt the latter might think of making to rise and join him in his vigil. There was no room behind the piano for two people to move about.
Still with the same patience, the man went through each of the drawers in turn, till he came to the last. That, too, was searched from end to end. He replaced it, locked it, and rose to his feet. As he did so Tommy dropped silently back on to the floor.
The light moved about the room. It was still moving, when the two boys, listening intently, heard another sound, faint but distinct. This time it came from the direction of the window.
The man with the lantern had evidently heard it, too. There was a click, and the light disappeared.
Tommy and Jimmy hardly breathed as they listened. The sound continued. It was a very faint scratching noise, as if somebody were cutting at the window-pane. Then the sound ceased, to be followed almost at once by the rasp of the catch as it was forced back.
They understood now what had happened. Somebody had cut out a pane of glass with a diamond, and having thrust a hand through the opening, had pushed back the catch. That this surmise was correct was proved by the noise of the window being pushed very slowly up. A cold breath of air came into the room. They could hear sounds which suggested that someone was climbing cautiously in over the sill.
Then suddenly there was a slither of feet on the carpet, the thud of a blow, a cry of mingled pain and surprise, and then the bumping of two heavy bodies on the floor.
“I’ve got you now,” gasped a voice. “I’ll pay you for those bullets of yours.”
“It’s Sam!” cried Jimmy, unable to check himself in his excitement.
Tommy pinched his arm hard; but neither of the two men fighting out in the room beyond the piano appeared to have heard the words. They were struggling silently now, as far as speaking was concerned; but as they rolled on the floor they crashed now into a chair, now into a table, till the air seemed full of the noise of their struggles.
“Great Scott,” whispered Tommy, as a small bookstand fell with a crash into the fender, waking the echoes, “somebody’s bound to hear this row pretty soon.”
Jimmy half rose.
“We must go and help,” he said excitedly. “Let me go. It’s Sam. He won’t stand a chance with that shoulder of his.”
But Tommy continued to hold him down.
“Don’t be an idiot,” he whispered. “Don’t you stir, or we’re done for. Spinder or someone will be down in a second. They’re making row enough to wake the dead. Listen to that! That must have been the chair with the biscuit tin on it! They’ll have the roof off in a minute.”
“But Sam will be killed.”
“No, he won’t. Not much sign of it yet, at any rate,” he added, as a deep curse from the other man showed that Sam’s strength had by no means failed as yet. “We mustn’t risk being caught here. There would be a frightful row. We should get the boot to-morrow. We must simply sit tight here till it’s all over. Hullo! Do you hear that?”
From down the corridor came the sound of voices.
“This way, Bartlett, this way.”
The voice was Mr. Spinder’s. Bartlett was the school porter, a muscular ex-soldier, who, as stated above, slept in a room at the top of the house close to the iron railings.
“Right, sir,” came Bartlett’s gruff voice.
“This way,” cried Mr. Spinder again. “In my study.”
The sound of running footsteps came nearer and nearer.
“Sit tight,” whispered Tommy, clutching Jimmy by the arm. “Don’t breathe. We’re in a tight place.”
(Another instalment next week.)