Jimmy Asks a Question
THAT the visitor did not imagine that there would be any danger of Jimmy recognising him was evident from his manner. And there was certainly some excuse for this confidence, for he was as cunningly “made up” as an actor on the stage. When Jimmy had seen him in the train, his hair had been jet-black, and he had been clean-shaven. The man who stood before Jimmy now was grey-haired, and his mouth was covered by a heavy grey moustache. He carried himself like a soldier, and looked exactly like any one of a score of retired officers you might meet at a service club.
But Jimmy had a wonderful memory for faces, inherited from his father. However the man in the train might have altered his appearance, one feature remained the same—the eyes. Jimmy had never forgotten the keen, sinister eyes which had looked at him through the window on the night Sam had been shot down. They had burned themselves into his memory. And this man had those eyes.
“Well, my boy,” said the man in a bluff, good-humoured way, holding out his hand, “so you’re young Jimmy, are you? Bless my soul, how you’ve grown. Why, when last I saw you, you were in your ayah’s arms, squealing like a steam engine. You don’t remember me, of course.”
“No,” said Jimmy. Which was strictly untrue.
“Of course not, of course not. How should you? We had very little conversation on that occasion, if I remember rightly. I showed you my watch, and you kicked me in the stomach, and then you were taken upstairs. And we never met again. But I saw a good deal of your father. We were in the same regiment, you know. Brother officers, and always the greatest of chums. You have probably heard him speak of me? Marshall. Major Marshall. Dear old Stewart! We used to call him Babe. I’m sure I don’t know why, for he was anything but one. Have you seen your father lately? Saw him in the holidays, I suppose, eh?”
Jimmy had an uncomfortable feeling that this man was beginning to pump him for information, and he wondered uneasily how far he would go. He was bristling with suspicion. However, there seemed no harm in answering his questions so far.
“No,” he said. “Father is away.”
“Away? Dear me, that’s a nuisance. I was hoping to see him, and have a chat about the old days. Where is he?”
“Africa! Well, I can hardly go over there, can I? I’d no idea. Are you expecting him back soon?”
Jimmy swiftly examined this question with a view to seeing how his answer would affect Major Marshall in his designs on the blue stone. If he said his father was returning to England soon, it would cause Marshall to redouble his efforts to obtain the stone before Colonel Stewart’s arrival. If, on the other hand, Marshall thought that he had plenty of time, he might go about his work in a more leisurely manner.
It seemed to Jimmy that, with the stone still in Mr. Spinder’s possession, the great thing was to gain time. The fact that Sam Burrows had broken into the house and searched the master’s room showed that the former was prepared to go to any length to recover the lost stone, and, if given time, would probably hit on some scheme for regaining possession of it. So Jimmy replied that he had not heard from his father for some time, and that he did not expect him back for another month—possibly more.
The answer seemed to satisfy Marshall. His voice, when he spoke, was more good-humoured than ever.
“He was always fond of sport,” he said. “When we were in India together, he was always getting leave, and plunging off into the jungle after tigers. First-rate shot, he was. I expect he’s enjoying himself far too much in Africa to dream of coming back. Well, well, all we can do, my boy, is to console ourselves in the meantime with each other’s company. Suppose you put on your hat, and come to the tuck-shop with me, eh?”
Jimmy, keenly on his guard, scented danger.
This man knew nothing of Mr. Spinder, and imagined that he, Jimmy, still held the stone in his keeping. Jimmy was not going to give him the opportunity of getting him alone. Here, on the school premises, he was safe. Nothing could touch him. But, if once he left his ground, anything might have happened. He excused himself, politely but resolutely.
“Thanks awfully,” he said, “but I’m afraid I shouldn’t be allowed to go out now. It isn’t a half-holiday. I shall have to be going into school again soon.”
“Oh, nonsense, my boy, nonsense. I’ll soon get permission for you. I’ll see your master. What’s his name? Spinder? I’ll see Mr. Spinder, and ask if you can’t come out for half an hour.”
“It’s no good. He wouldn’t let me.”
“Ah, well, discipline, discipline! A fine thing! We must all obey orders, mustn’t we. It would never do if we were allowed to go and come just as we pleased, would it?”
Jimmy said nothing. Major Marshall picked up his hat and stick.
“Ah, by the way,” said the Major. “I knew there was something else. Of course, yes. Who should I come across the other day but Corporal Burrows, of your father’s and my old regiment. Hadn’t seen him for an age. A fine soldier, Burrows. I have had him at my side in some tight corners.”
This, thought Jimmy, thinking of the happenings of the previous night, was quite true.
“He was very glad to see me, was Burrows. It seems that he left India with a commission to hand over a certain stone either to your father or myself; and it upset the poor fellow when he found that your father was not in England.”
“Did Burrows tell you my father was not in England?”
“Yes. Poor fellow. I think he had been worrying himself about it.”
“Then why did you ask me where he was?” said Jimmy.
Major Marshall’s face changed; but he recovered himself quickly, and laughed.
“You’re a sharp youngster,” he said, smiling. “Uncommonly sharp. The fact is, I’d forgotten all about Burrows for the moment. He only came into my mind as I was leaving.”
“Then it isn’t very important about the stone?”
“Oh, no. Burrows upset himself quite unnecessarily.”
“I’m glad of that,” said Jimmy.
“It’s of very little importance, really. But those men like Burrows, when they are entrusted with any commission, magnify it till in their eyes it becomes quite an international business.”
“I see,” said Jimmy.
“Burrows tells me he handed the stone over to you, to keep till you saw your father. Fortunately, now that I’ve met him, it isn’t necessary to wait any longer. You can give it to me, and then poor Burrows’s mind will be set at rest.”
“Do you think that’s really what Sam Burrows would want me to do?”
“Of course, my boy, of course. What else? It would be the greatest relief to him.”
“Then what were you and he fighting about in the study last night?”
The words had left Jimmy’s lips before he had time to think. When the thing was done, he would have given much to be able to recall them. He blamed himself bitterly for being such a fool as to yield to the temptation to score off Marshall; but the other’s bluff, plausible manner had been too much for him. He could see now what a mistake he had made. Marshall, on his guard and knowing that Jimmy was on his guard, was a far more formidable foe than a Marshall who imagined that his motives were unsuspected.
There was a long silence. The pupils of Marshall’s eyes contracted like those of a snake. Jimmy backed slowly against the wall. Marshall was between him and the door, or he would have run for it.
At length Marshall spoke. His voice had lost all its bluff cheeriness. Instead, it had taken on a deadly coldness. Jimmy, plucky as he was, trembled when he heard it.
“Enough of this nonsense,” said Marshall. “I see you know more than I thought. Give me that stone.”
Jimmy said nothing. He was against the wall now.
He licked his lips, which were feeling curiously dry.
“Be quick,” said Marshall. “If you know as much as you seem to, you’ll know that I mean business. Where’s that stone?”
Jimmy, rigid against the wall, was aware of something hard pressing into the small of his back. His heart gave a bound as it flashed across him what this thing was. It was the electric-bell button, which stood out from the wall in its wooden case.
He slid a hand silently up the wall till he found it. Then he pressed with all the force he could muster.
Marshall had not seen the movement; or if he had, had not understood its meaning.
“I’ll give you ten seconds to produce that stone. If I’ve not got it by then——” He snarled out an oath.
Still Jimmy made no reply. His ear had caught the sound of footsteps in the passage. Marshall had heard them, too. He stopped as he was advancing, and looked over his shoulder.
The door opened, and a servant appeared. She seemed astonished, as well she might, for Jimmy’s ringing had been urgent enough to wake the Seven Sleepers.
“Did you ring, sir?” she asked.
Marshall resumed his bluff manner like a garment.
“My young friend here did,” he said genially. “No need to have rung the house down, Jimmy, my boy. I merely wished you to tell Mr. Spinder that I have had to hurry off to catch a train. Will you do this? Thank you. Well, Jimmy, my boy, I must say good-bye. Very glad to have been able to see you.”
Their eyes met as they shook hands. Jimmy could see that Marshall’s were still cold and furious. There was something particularly horrible in the combination of those vicious eyes and the genial, soldierly manner.
“I hope we shall meet again very soon,” said Marshall. “In fact,” he added, turning as he reached the door, “I am sure we shall. Quite sure.”
Jimmy waited till he had left the room. Then he tottered to a chair and sat down. He was feeling sick.
A Fight is Arranged
“I SAY,” said Tommy Armstrong, coming into the common-room on the following morning. “Heard the latest? Those college chaps want us to play them at football!”
“Play the college!”
“Their second eleven. I’ve just heard from a cousin of mine who’s there. He’s captain of their second eleven this year, and a most awful ass. Sticks on side enough for a dozen, too. I can’t stand the man.”
“What does he say?”
“I’ll read it. ‘I wonder if your fellows could manage to scratch up an eleven——’”
“Scratch up an eleven!” cried the common-room indignantly.
“That’s what he says.”
“Dash it all, does he think we’ve never heard of footer?”
“Does he think we play marbles here, or what?”
“Doesn’t he know we beat Burlingford Wednesday Reserves last year by a goal to nil?”
“Your cousin wants kicking, Tommy.”
“So I always tell him when I see him,” said Tommy with composure. “This is how he goes on. Let me see, where was I? Ah, ‘Scratch up an eleven to play our second on the sixteenth. We were to have played the Emeriti on that day, but they have disappointed us. Can you get together eleven fellows from your place who know a football from a croquet ball——?’”
Here the audience interposed again.
“I never heard such cheek in my life.”
“These college fools seem to think that just because——”
“By the side of the Zuyder Zee, Zuy——”
“Oh, sit on that ass Binns, for goodness’ sake.”
“Don’t trouble,” said the songster. “I desist. I was merely rehearsing for the concert. Sloper, my lad.”
“What sort of voice are you in?”
“Poor, I fear. A trifle ropy. And you?”
“A little weak in the upper register. But we shall be all right on the night.”
“Rather. Buck along, Tommy. We’re all listening.”
“Oh, you’ve finished, have you?” said Tommy. “Struck one of your brilliant flashes of silence? That’s good. I’ll go on, then. ‘Football from a croquet ball? If so, bring them along. We shan’t expect anything great. The idea is simply to give our chaps a bit of practice, and prevent them getting out of form.’”
“Oh, is it?”
“Jolly good of them to play with beginners like us, I don’t think.”
“We shall pick up the rules as we go along.”
“‘Getting out of form,’” resumed Tommy. “‘You can play masters if you like.’”
“Can we? By Jove! That’s kind of them.”
“We’ll bring old Steingruber.”
“He’d be pretty hot in goal. Couldn’t get much past him. There’d be no room.”
Roars of laughter greeted this suggestion.
“‘Yours sincerely, J de V. Patterne,’” concluded Tommy. “‘PS. You might send one of your fellows over to-day to let us know. If I don’t hear from you today, I shall conclude that you can’t raise a team, and shall make other arrangements.’”
“So that’s your cousin, is it, Tommy?”
“It is,” replied Tommy sadly. “But we hush it up in our family as much as possible. It’s a very sad business. Well, there you are. What do you think about it? Are you on? Shall we play them?”
“What do you think?”
“If we don’t, they’ll think we funk them.”
“We’ll give them beans.”
“Right ho,” said Tommy. “I’ll put up the list of our team to-night.” Tommy captained the Marleigh School football eleven. He and Jimmy played back together, and formed a pair whose defence took a lot of breaking. “We shall have to go into strict training for it. We simply must win. Jimmy, will you bike over this afternoon, and see my cousin about it, and arrange things?”
“All right,” said Jimmy.
“Anybody else care to go?” asked Tommy.
Everybody wanted to go, and said so simultaneously.
“Take old Ram,” said Tommy. “He’ll astonish their weak intellects.”
Ram beamed with pleasure at the compliment.
“I shall be proud and puffed-up as a peacock,” he said, “to be your spokesman and amicus curiæ.”
Alderton College was a large public school which lay about five miles from Marleigh School. The boys of the two schools did not come into contact with one another very frequently, but when they did there was generally trouble. The Marleigh boys looked on the Alderton brigade, not without some reason, as giving themselves airs. Sometimes, when a Marleigh paper-chase met an Alderton cross-country run on neutral territory, there would be something in the nature of a free fight. It was on one of these occasions that Jimmy had engaged in a contest of words with a red-headed Aldertonian, and had scored off him with such completeness that the latter was proceeding to turn the thing from a verbal to a physical battle, when one of the college masters arrived, and separated them.
This, indeed, was the chief reason why Jimmy had consented to go to the college to arrange about the match. He did not wish it to be thought—not that it was likely to be thought, for nobody at Marleigh had ever questioned Jimmy’s courage—that he was avoiding Alderton for fear of meeting the red-headed one. But for this he might have backed out of going, for, plucky as he was, the scene with Major Marshall in the drawing-room had shaken him, and he would have preferred to have stayed within the safe bounds of the school. There was a strong likelihood that he would be watched; and if it came to a pinch, Ram would not be much of a help.
But, taking everything into consideration, he determined to risk it; and, directly after school was over, he and Ram, mounted on bicycles, made their way to the college.
A small boy in the cap of one of the houses of the college was lounging in the road outside the big gates when they arrived.
“I say,” said Jimmy, “can you tell me where to find Patterne?”
The small boy did not answer the question; but, having eyed Jimmy’s school cap in a lofty manner, proceeded to gaze spellbound at Ram, who stood beaming at him through his gold spectacles.
At this moment a second small boy in a similar cap came through the gates. The first small boy drew his attention to Ram, and the two of them fixed him with an unblinking stare.
“Misters,” said Ram, “I——”
The two small boys started violently.
“Golly! You made me jump!” said one.
“You might have told us it could talk,” said the other complainingly, to Jimmy.
“We don’t want any of your cheek,” said Jimmy crisply.
The two small boys transferred their attention to him.
“Who are you?” said one.
“When you’re at home,” added the other.
“Where can I find Patterne?” asked Jimmy again.
“Young sirs,” broke in Ram, “are you the ninnies or the beetle-headed chaps that you remain sotto-voce and hermetically sealed? Why do you fob us off with the disrespectful superciliousness of the cold shoulder? Hoity-toity, young chaps, is this your boasted British courtesy? Tell us where can we find Hon’ble Patterne?”
“How does it work?” asked the first small boy, turning to Jimmy. “Do you shove a penny in the slot?”
“Oh, come on, Ram,” said Jimmy. “We’re wasting time. They oughtn’t to allow these kids out without their nurses.”
They wheeled their bicycles in through the big gates and across the quadrangle. Groups of boys were strolling about, some in football clothes, on their way to the field, others in the blue coats and grey flannel trousers, which was the customary wear at the college.
At first Jimmy and his companion attracted no attention. Then somebody caught sight of Ram, and presently they were in the centre of a large group.
“Why are you two chaps strolling about in here as if you’d bought the place?”
“Where’s the rest of the circus?”
“It’s the Shah! Somebody ought to tell the Old Man; we may get a half on the strength of it. Royal visit to Alderton.”
“We’ve come from Marleigh,” began Jimmy.
“You look it.”
Jimmy was beginning to lose his temper, but he showed no sign of it. He went on patiently.
“Patterne wrote to our skipper, asking if we would play your second eleven. We’ve come over to arrange about the match. Can you tell me where I can find Patterne?”
“Here he is,” said one of the group. “Hi, Pat!”
A long, languid youth, dressed with rather more care than the average run of Aldertonians, strolled up, arm-in-arm with a sturdy, thickset boy in a blue and brown cap. Jimmy recognised him at once. It was his friend of the red hair.
The latter did not recognise him in turn for some little time. It was not till Patterne had been discussing with Jimmy details of the forthcoming match in a tired drawl for some moments that he made the great discovery. When he did he stepped forward.
“Well, look heah,” Patterne was saying, when the other interrupted him.
“One second, Pat. I say,” to Jimmy, “you’ve seen me before.”
“We all have our troubles,” said Jimmy.
“You’re the lout who cheeked me.”
“And you’re the silly ass who couldn’t think of anything to say back.”
The red-haired one drew a step nearer. He and Jimmy were quite close to each other now.
The rest of the group looked on, interested. The situation seemed to promise sport.
“I owe you a licking,” said the red-headed boy.
“I don’t suppose you ever pay your debts, do you?” said Jimmy.
“Sometimes. How’s that for a bit on account?”
Before Jimmy could get his guard up, the other’s left fist had shot out. It took Jimmy on the mouth. He was off his balance at the moment. Taken by surprise, he staggered and fell.
“Do you want any more?” said the red-haired youth, truculently.
Jimmy got up.
“If you don’t mind,” he said quietly, “I should like a little.”
“Look here,” said one of the group, “you can’t fight here. You’d be stopped in a second. Come behind the gym.”
“Yes, behind the gym. That’s the place.” They all started off in that direction.
(Next week’s continuation of this excellent yarn will contain an account of the tremendous fight between Jimmy and the red-haired boy. Tell your chums.)