Tommy on the Track
“PRAY continue, Armstrong,” said Mr. Spinder coldly.
“I—er—I think that’s about all, sir,” said the unfortunate Tommy.
“I should like to see you in my room, Armstrong.”
Mr. Spinder left the gymnasium, while Tommy, jumping down from the platform, prepared to follow. How much had the master heard? That was what he wanted to know. Of course, there was bound to be a row about this food business sooner or later when it came to a head; but he did not want it to come to a head prematurely. Nor was he particularly anxious to appear too prominently as the leader of the movement.
He made inquiries of the audience. Nobody seemed to know exactly how long Mr. Spinder had been standing at the door.
“Oh, well,” said Tommy, philosophically, “I suppose I shall soon know.”
Mr. Spinder was walking up and down his room when he arrived. He turned sharply on Tommy.
“I wish to know what all this nonsense is about, Armstrong,” he said brusquely.
“Sir?” said Tommy, to gain time.
“You know what I mean.”
“It’s about the food, sir.”
Mr. Spinder’s eyes glowed.
“Once and for all, Armstrong,” he said, “there must be an end of this.”
“An end!” thought Tommy. “Great Scott! It’s only just beginning!”
“I have had to speak to you about this before. You seem to be the chief mover in a kind of foolish agitation which is going on in my house. I tell you, Armstrong, I will not have it. There is a certain type of boy who delights in promoting strife of all kinds in a school. You are a boy of that sort. You will learn that it does not pay. If I have any more of this absurd conduct, I shall punish you very heavily. Very heavily indeed. What was all that nonsense you were saying tonight?”
“I was making one or two remarks, sir,” said Tommy, diffidently. One wanted supporters for a job of this kind. If he had been at the head of a deputation he would have been boldness itself; but somehow he could not help feeling very lonesome, all by himself in the study.
“Yes,” said Mr. Spinder, growing gradually more angry, “I heard you, I heard you. You were speaking in an extremely impertinent and disrespectful manner.”
“Whew!” murmured Tommy to himself, surreptitiously mopping his forehead. The pace was getting too warm for him.
“I—Who’s that? Come in.”
The handle turned. The form of Morrison appeared.
“Well, Morrison, what is it?” snapped Mr. Spinder. He hated being interrupted.
“Please, sir, may I have a plain-ruled exercise book?”
A hasty consultation among the members of Mr. Spinder’s house—Tommy’s immediate circle of friends, that is to say—had resulted in a decision to act for the latter’s good, as far as in them lay. There was Tommy in the hands of the enemy. It was their duty to see that he was not handled too roughly. So they proceeded to act on the lines adopted by Spanish bull-fighters, whose plan it is to distract the attention of the bull from their comrade by means of small side-attacks.
“Exercise book?” said Mr. Spinder, irritably. “What in the world do you want with an exercise book now?”
“Only in case I should happen to want it to-morrow morning, sir,” said Morrison, whose powers of impromptu invention were unequal to the tax so suddenly laid upon them.
“You come here and interrupt me when I am talking to Armstrong, and waste my time with foolish—Go away, Morrison; and do me a hundred lines,” thundered the master.
“Yes, sir,” said Morrison, meekly, as he withdrew.
Mr. Spinder turned to Tommy again.
“I have been watching you for some time, I may tell you, Armstrong. I have had my eye on you. You are a thoroughly undisciplined and disorderly boy. I shall take no notice of your absurd complaints about the food, which is perfectly good, except to punish you very severely if you are foolish enough to repeat them. I tell you I will not—Come in!” He broke off with increased irritation, and watched the door angrily through his spectacles.
The door opened, and the mildly beaming face of Ram loomed into view.
“Well? Well? Well?” Mr. Spinder’s voice was tense with suppressed annoyance.
Ram cleared his throat nervously. He was not liking this job, but he meant to go through with it courageously.
“Hon’ble Spinder,” he began.
“Don’t call me ‘Hon’ble Spinder.’ I have spoken to you of this before. You are at an English school, so be good enough to conform to our English school customs. Call me ‘sir’ when you speak to me, if you please. Well, what is it?”
Mr. Spinder stamped. Then, as if feeling that the sooner he heard what Ram had to say the sooner he would be able to resume his remarks to Tommy, he restrained himself and said, “Well?”
A look of pain and agitation passed over Ram’s face. With a sinking sensation in his interior he realised that he had forgotten the message which his friends had arranged for him to speak. In his agitation he could only remember the one which Morrison had selected.
“Distinguished sir,” he stammered, “do not look on me as the unwelcome visitor and beastly bore. May I be conceded a plain-ruled exercise book?”
Mr. Spinder’s restraint disappeared. He gesticulated silently for a while, then pointed to the door.
“Two hundred lines,” he cried furiously, “for gross impertinence. Two hundred lines. Go, go.”
The master took a turn up and down the room to recover himself. He was about to attack Tommy once more, when there was a third knock at the door.
This time Mr. Spinder did not wait for the visitor to turn the handle. He rushed to the door with a sort of choked cry and flung it open.
On the mat outside stood the headmaster’s butler regarding him with a stolid stare.
You cannot give a butler two hundred lines for knocking at your door. Nor can you shout at him to tell you why he has come.
Mr. Spinder controlled his voice sufficiently to ask more or less mildly what was the occasion of the visit. The butler handed him a note.
“From the headmaster, sir.”
Mr. Spinder read its contents.
“Wait here,” he said to Tommy. “I shall return in a moment.”
And he left the room, closing the door behind him.
When he was alone Tommy’s mind worked quickly. More than anything else, he wanted to see what it was that Mr. Spinder kept concealed behind the books on his bookshelf. It must be something of a value out of the common run to lead to two men breaking into the house and searching the room, as they had done on the night when he and Jimmy had hid behind the piano.
He had marked down the particular shelf that night from his hiding-place. It only remained to discover the exact book which Mr. Spinder had taken from the shelf. As he had looked from behind the piano, he had fancied that it was one of the first ten or so from the right. It had been hard to see clearly. Now there was a chance to find out for certain.
It was best to do the thing thoroughly. He removed the first book. There was nothing behind it but the mahogany of the shelf. He replaced it, and drew out the second. Again no result. The third and fourth yielded nothing.
“Never mind,” said Tommy; “I know I’m on the track.”
In the cavity left by the fifth volume he came on the first proof of this statement. Between the shelf and the back wall of wood there was a distinct crevice. It seemed to Tommy to widen as it ran along the shelf. With an eager exclamation he drew out the sixth book.
Yes! The crevice had widened considerably. It had now become large enough for him to insert the first joint of his finger.
What was there behind the seventh book, a ponderous volume on Oriental mythology? He tore it from its place, and plunged his hand into the opening. His fingers struck on something small and hard, something that felt like a small nut.
“Got him!” said Tommy, joyfully.
He was pulling it out when the tread of feet in the corridor came to him. The removal and replacing of the books had taken time. Each volume was large and awkward to handle. He had only just time to push the “Oriental Mythology” back into its place and leap away from the shelf when the door opened and Mr. Spinder re-entered.
The headmaster had been consulting Mr. Spinder on matters connected with the work of the school, and his mind was too full of this when he returned to allow him leisure for concentrating himself on Tommy. He dealt with him briefly, by giving him three hundred lines, and then dismissed him.
Tommy walked away from the study thoughtfully. “Seventh book from the end of the shelf,” he murmured to himself. “I must remember that. I wonder what that thing was? And I wonder when I shall get another chance of looking? Beastly bad luck being interrupted just as I had tracked the thing down.”
That is Always the Way Things Go!
IT was while Tommy was working off his three hundred lines in the day-room next morning before school that he was aware of a rising argument between the Teeth. As a rule he was quite glad to sit and watch the twins brawling, but just at present he had work to do, and their voices disturbed him. So, throwing a dictionary at the nearest twin by way of a protest, he inquired what the dickens the matter was. In a moment the Teeth were at his side, voluble and explanatory.
“Oh, give us a chance,” said Tommy, putting his hands to his ears. “One at a time, one at a time.”
Gradually the cause of strife made itself clear. It seemed that one of the brothers was accusing the other of bagging an ivory penholder from his play-box. The second brother stoutly denied this.
“Well, you’re the only chap who’s got a key that fits my box. You know they were bought at the same shop, and the locks are just the same.”
“All the same, I didn’t bag your beastly pen. I wouldn’t touch it with a barge-pole.”
“Give it up.”
“All right, then, call me a liar.”
“All right, I will, then.”
“Do you think I bagged your beastly pen?”
“Yes, I do think you bagged my pen.”
“My dear young friends,” he said, “at any other time I should be delighted to listen to your bright and interesting conversation; but just at present I happen to be doing three hundred lines for that blighter Spinder against time, so I should be glad if you would finish your argument about half a mile away. Otherwise I shall be reluctantly compelled to knock your ugly little heads together.”
The twins departed, and Tommy, full of unkind thoughts about Mr. Spinder, resumed his imposition.
That was the first hint Tommy got that something was wrong in the house. When, later in the morning, Morrison came to him with the statement that a leather ink-pot had disappeared from his play-box, Tommy wondered a little at the coincidence, but nothing more. It was not till Bellamy, his customary calm laid aside, went about complaining in an agitated voice that two pounds of mixed chocolates had gone from his box that the thing really became sinister.
Tommy questioned the victims.
“Was your box locked, Morrison?” he asked.
“I couldn’t swear to it; but, dash it all, surely in a school like this it isn’t necessary always to make sure of your things by locking your box? I thought somebody must have borrowed the ink-pot and forgotten to put it back. It’s a beastly nuisance.”
“How about your box, Bellamy?”
“I locked it. I remember doing it. I always lock my box now in case some silly goat who wants to try and be funny should go and shove a beastly dead rat in it, all in among my fretwork.”
This had happened during the previous term, and it had rankled in Bellamy’s mind. He could still remember his feelings as his fingers, exploring the box in the dark, collided with the rat’s limp corpse. He more than suspected Tommy of having placed the deceased there, but he had never been able to bring it home to him.
“All right, all right,” said Tommy, hastily. “What a lot you do jaw, Bellamy! As if anybody would be likely to put a—However, we’re wasting time. If your box was locked, how on earth did the chap, whoever he was, get at the chocolates? That’s the rummy thing. I must think this over.”
By the end of the day it appeared that half the boys in the house had lost things. Clayton’s air-pistol, with which he was wont in his spare time to shoot rubber-tipped darts against the walls of the day-room (and occasionally against the backs of his friends’ heads), had vanished, as Ram would have said, like snow before rays of sun. Ram himself had lost a curiously carved piece of wood, supposed (for no apparent reason) to be valuable. Others had lost various small objects. The worst loss was that of Sloper, who was in the habit of keeping a sort of reserve fund of silver in his box, wrapped up in a piece of paper. The paper was there, but the cash had gone. Fortunately, in a way, the reserve fund was at a low figure, owing to its owner’s passion for Turkish delight, in which delicacy he had sunk most of his fortune; but still there was one-and-six, and in these hard times one-and-six is always one-and-six.
“It’s jolly mysterious,” said Tommy. “Because, you see, the rum thing is that most of the boxes from which things have gone were locked. Chaps remember locking them. Now, a fellow might have a key that happened to fit one box besides his own, or even two boxes, say. But when it comes to about a dozen, I don’t see how the dickens he managed it. Besides, the chaps at this school aren’t the sort of chaps who go about bagging things belonging to other people. I’m hanged if I know what to think about it.”
“Burglar,” suggested one of the Teeth.
“Silly ass,” said his brother, loftily.
“How do you mean, silly ass?”
“I mean silly ass, you silly ass. As if a burglar who broke into the house would be silly ass enough to bag penholders and things when he might be collaring plate.”
“Spinder’s plate, of course.”
“How do you know he’s got any plate?”
“Of course he has. Everybody with a house has got plate.”
“Fat lot you know about it.”
“More than you, anyway.”
“Oh, chuck it,” said the company, wearily. This was too serious an occasion for Teeth rows. The twin brethren subsided, muttering, and the tea-bell, ringing shortly afterwards, put an end to the discussion.
When they reached their study, Tommy resumed the discussion with Jimmy. Jimmy’s mind, full of his own anxieties, was not equal to taking much interest in petty thefts from play-boxes. He had lost a photograph frame from his own box, but he was not excited about it. The thought of the blue stone weighed on his mind. How was he to get it from Mr. Spinder’s possession? Where had the master hidden it? It must be somewhere in the study. Sam had thought so, for he had been searching it that night. It was the most likely place. But he could not think of any way of narrowing the search down. To be successful such a search must be long and careful. It was next to impossible to get into the study for the necessary length of time. Now that the master had been put on the alert by finding Sam and Marshall there, the risk of attempting a night visit was too great. It was a curious situation. Marshall, Ferris, and the lame man thought that he—Jimmy—still had the stone. Whereas, in reality, it was farther from his grasp than even from their own. They had methods of obtaining it, once they knew that Mr. Spinder had it, which Jimmy lacked. School rules and regulations hampered Jimmy. The only times when it was certain that Mr. Spinder would be out of his study—that is to say, during the hours of school work—Jimmy, by reason of this same school work, was unable to go into it. There seemed to be no solution to the problem.
Tommy, meanwhile, continued to discuss the mysterious play-box affair. To Tommy that was the important event of life at present. It took his mind for the time being even off the fascinating problem of what it was that Mr. Spinder was keeping so carefully concealed behind the seventh book on his bookshelf.
He examined the matter from every point of view.
“It’s the queerest thing I’ve ever known since I’ve been at the school,” he said. “It’s a regular Sherlock Holmes job. Isn’t it curious about school; some terms nothing happens, and you feel as if you were going on for ever just the same day after day, and then next term you are in the middle of all sorts of rows and excitements. I never dreamed this term was going to be half such fun. That fight between those two chaps in Spinder’s study would have been enough by itself to make the term a success, and now this play-box business has come right on top of it.”
“I wonder what Spinder has done with that stone?” said Jimmy, meditatively.
“Great Scott! Are you still worrying about that rotten blue thing? I expect he’s chucked it away by this time. I’ll tell you something about Spinder that really is—no, I won’t though. Not yet, at any rate.”
Tommy wanted to keep his investigations into Mr. Spinder’s bookshelf a secret until they were complete. Half the fun of the thing would be gone if the secret was shared with anybody, even with Jimmy.
Jimmy said nothing. He had given up hope of trying to convince Tommy of the real value of the blue stone. Tommy still treated the whole matter as a very successful flight of imagination on the part of his friend. And Jimmy was content to leave it at that. Tommy, he thought, could be of no real assistance. He would be just as helpless in the circumstance as he was himself.
“I tell you what,” said Tommy, “there’s one thing I’ve thought of. Those things can’t disappear from the play-boxes during the day. The thief, whoever he is, must go round at night after we’re in bed. I tell you what. Tonight you and I will nip down into the day-room and watch. Are you on?”
Jimmy only hesitated for a moment. Then his natural love of adventure asserted itself.
“All right,” he said.
On this occasion they had not the electric torch which they had used on their previous night ramble. They would not have used it in any case, as they wanted all the darkness they could get to conceal them; but they could not have had it, even if they had wished, for it was among the articles which had been stolen, greatly to its owner’s grief.
It was pitch-dark in the room, and their shins suffered at first. Then they came to a standstill beside the further wall, where a cupboard, jutting out, would conceal them, provided the marauder did not carry with him too strong a light. And, for his own sake, he was not likely to do that.
Waiting in the dark was weary work, and several times Jimmy was minded to give it up and go back to bed; but Tommy’s heart was so evidently in the business that he could not bring himself to leave him. They waited on for what seemed hours, till their ears, straining to catch the slightest sound, detected the soft pad-pad of stockinged feet. Tommy gripped Jimmy by the arm.
The unseen visitor was evidently one who knew his way about the room. He collided with nothing.
The footsteps ceased. There was a click. A sudden light shone out. They knew that light. It was the missing electric torch.
They could see a shadowy figure kneeling in front of a box, fumbling at the lock.
“Now!” whispered Tommy.
They darted forward, and flung themselves on him.
(Next week’s instalment will keep up the excellent reputation of this serial for fun and adventure.)