Chapter 31

The Attack of Neuralgia

 

ABOUT two hours before Mr. Spinder made the discovery which caused so great an upheaval of his mind, Herr Steingruber, stolidly patient as ever, had been endeavouring to drive into the heads of his class the mysteries of his native language. It was a thankless job, and one which a lesser man would have thrown up long before. But the Herr, in whose character dogged patience was a leading trait, had never lost heart. Not even the massive stupidity of Bellamy could discourage him.

Bellamy was translating at the present moment, in a slow, dreamy style, admirably designed to show up his mistakes. The German master plucked in a distracted way at his hair as the stout one ambled on.

“Ach, no, no!” he moaned.

Bellamy looked up, surprised, almost pained. He made another shot. The German master’s agony increased.

“Wrong; horrible id is,” he cried.

Bellamy, after staring goggle-eyed at him for a moment, apparently gave the thing up as a bad job. He produced a nib from his pocket, stuck it into the desk, and began flipping it meditatively with his forefinger. The musical twang roused the German master like a trumpet-blast.

“Vhat vos dat?” he cried.

“That sir? What sir?” answered half a dozen eager voices.

So far the lesson had been on the dull side, and the interruption was welcome.

“Dat zound. Dat like zome musigal instdrumend far away blaying zound. Vas it in der room?”

“I don’t think so, sir,” said Binns. “I rather fancy it’s a harpsichord, sir, playing out in the road. I’ll go and stop it, sir, shall I?”

“Do your seat, Pinns! Do your seat dis momend redurn,” cried Herr Steingruber wildly, as Binns began to move swiftly to the door.

“All right, sir,” said Binns agreeably. “I only wanted to help.”

“Dat vos kindt of you, Pinns,” said the Herr, mollified, “but not a harbzichord do I dthink dot it vos, but zomething in dis room.”

“Perhaps a mouse, sir,” suggested Sloper.

“Berhaps a mouze. Jah, but berhaps nod, I dthink. No, it vos like zome zo strange und faint musigal instdrumend, var, var away blaying. Ach, vell, dis vos nod der deaching of der Sherman language, zo? Dis vos der idle chadder und dime-wasding. Zo, Pellamy, vill you gontinue?”

Bellamy, who had broken the nib in extracting from it a fortissimo note, was at liberty to return to the lesson. He went on at the place where he had left off, but his performance did not improve. After a couple of lines Herr Steingruber stopped him and informed the class that he would relate a little story with a moral. The Herr’s stories were always extremely long, and consequently formed an admirable break in the actual work of the class. For that reason, if for no other, they were eagerly welcomed. The class settled itself comfortably to hear what he had to say.

“In der zity of London,” began the Herr impressively, “I vas do my pank der odder day broceeding do gash a liddle cheg——”

“How much for, sir?” inquired Morrison, who was a stickler for detail, especially when it made for a longer postponement of work.

“It does nod madder, der amound of der cheg.”

“Still, it makes it so much more interesting, knowing, sir,” argued Morrison.

“Yes, sir,” said Sloper. “It makes the whole thing so much more real.”

“Ach, zo! Bot der exagged amoundt I gannot ad dis momend glearly regollegt. Bot I dthink dot it vas doo bounds vour shillangs. Berhabs a liddle more.”

“Let’s call it two pound ten, shall we, sir?” said Binns.

“No, no, it vos nod krite zo moch as dat. Nod nearly krite zo moch.”

“Two pound five, then, sir,” suggested Sloper.

“And six,” said Morrison.

“Zo, zo, zo. Doo bound vive and zix. Bot, I dell you, id does nod madder, id does nod madder. Of der liddle cheg der amound vos immaderial. Zo. I vos going droo der zity of London——”

“What street, sir?” asked Morrison.

“I do nod der sdreet regollegt.”

“Was it Threadneedle Street, sir? My father has an office there.”

“Was it near the Mansion House?”

“Or St Paul’s, sir? I once went to a service at St Paul’s.”

The Herr waved his arms protestingly.

“Dot vos all immaderial, all immaderial. Id does nod madder, nod der amound of der cheg nor der name of der sdreed. Vhot I am delling you is dis. I vos droo der sdreed—let us zay, if you on a name inzist, Lompard Sdreed——”

Morrison thought for a moment of asking which side of Lombard Street, but decided not to push the point. Sloper, however, was less restrained.

“Anywhere near the England and Europe Bank, sir? My father banks there. I went there once with him.”

“Zo,” said the Herr patiently, “led us zay id vos near der Enkland and Eurobe Bangk, then. Id vos all immaderial. Vell, I vos along der bavemend broceeding, dthinging of dthings within myself, vhen a man in der road, in der cutter, you understandt, he say do me, ‘Puy a doy, sir? Puy a doy?’ He vos, you understandt, a—as you would zay—a hawker, a beddlar, und he had a dray pefore him of liddle doys full.”

“What sort of toys, sir,” inquired Morrison.

“All der ladest doys. Der wriggling znake, und der wrestling men, und der exbiring roosder, und gollar-sduds.”

“You can’t call a collar-stud a toy,” objected Binns.

“He is under der heading of doys in dis gase gombrised, because der man vos zelling him wit der odder doys, all on von dray.

“Vell, I do der man turned, und I zay, ‘No, dthangk you, my goot man; I have nod of a doy any need.’ Ad der zame time, as I looged ad him, dere zeemed zomething aboud his face dot of zomebody I had once med zomehow zeemed to remind me. Bot I vos dthinging no more aboud id, ven he say to me, ‘Von’t you puy a gollar-stud for the zake of old times?’”

“Why a collar-stud?” objected Morrison. “Why not a toy?”

Herr Steingruber waved the interruption aside. He saw the point of his story well in sight, and he was making for it with the earnest concentration of a horse which knows that it is heading for its stables.

“I looged ad der man glosely, und I say, ‘For old dimes, my goot man! Vhot vos dot you mean by zaying a zo gurious dthing?’ Und he durn his vace up do mine, and he say, ‘Ach, my old poyhood vriend und gollege gombanion Hans, is id dot I am zo by misfortune und brivations changed dot you do not recognize me?’ Und den I loog more garefully sdill, und I zee dot id is my old vriend Fritz Muller dot I have nod for many years, nod since we were vellow sdudents und inzebarable goot vriends at der university of Heidelberg, met. Und I zay to him, shogged und sdardled”—here the Herr, to add point to the narrative, assumed a look of intense agitation and threw his arms above his head——“I zay to him, ‘Fritz, vhat is id dot you do dis zo great distress und misfortune has brought?’ Und he shed a zad dear.”

This was too much for the class. Their feelings were outraged. Every nerve in their bodies resented Fritz’s degraded conduct.

“What, sir!” they cried. “Did he blub?”

Herr Steingruber gazed round impressively, mistaking the disgust of the class at Fritz’s disgraceful axhibition for horror at the reduced condition of that unfortunate.

“Zo,” he said. “Jah! He shed der zad dear, und he zay, ‘Vhat vos it dot me do dis zo great distress und misfortune has brought?’”

“But you said that, sir,” interrupted Binns.

“Jah, ah! Krite droo, my liddle vellow; krite droo. I did id zay, but he my vorts did eggo.”

“Why on earth did he do that, sir?” asked Binns.

Herr Steingruber was not equal to explaining. After all, it was Fritz’s affair, not his.

“He zay,” resumed the Herr “—und id is dis dot I ask you zo garefully do marg Pellamy—he zay, ‘I vos do dis zad ztate of boverty und zorrow reduced by der vact dot in my youth I my boog-worg und language-studies neglected!’ Zo!”

He stopped, and eyed his class inquiringly through his spectacles, as who should say, “What do you think of that for an awful warning?”

But the interest of the class was centred, not on the moral of the story, but on the subsequent adventures of Fritz. What happened to him? That was what they wanted to know. Did he go on selling collar-studs? Did Herr Steingruber take him off and give him a lunch? Did he do anything for him? Did he buy a toy? Or a stud? Questions rained from all parts of the room.

They were interrupted by Tommy standing up, with his hand pressed to his forehead and a look of pain on his face.

“Might I leave the room, sir?” he asked. “I am not feeling very well. Neuralgia, sir.”

The kind-hearted Herr was all sympathy.

“Zo, zo,” he said. “Zertainly—py all means. A liddle vresh air berhaps, or a vew minutes’ rest by yourself guietly. Go, my liddle vellow, und redurn vhen you are petter.”

Tommy thanked him, and left the room in a subdued way. When he had shut the door, however, nobody would have taken him for an invalid. His face cleared, and he began to run. He galloped into the house. There seemed to be nobody about. He made his way noiselessly down the passage to Mr. Spinder’s study.

 

Chapter 32

Mr. Spinder Makes Inquiries

 

MR. SPINDER, having ascertained beyond any possibility of doubt that the stone was gone, left the bookshelf, and seated himself limply in a chair. The shock had completely unmanned him. He had braced himself up to face what he knew would be the extreme danger of his position now that the mysterious band which was working to get the stone knew that he had it; but this totally unexpected blow temporarily shattered him. For the moment he was a beaten man. All the iron determination which had carried him so successfully through his interview with Ferris had been shaken out of him. His face, as he sat, looked years older. It was drawn and haggard. His fingers plucked feebly at the arm of the chair.

Gradually his fine brain reasserted itself. The dull stupor left him. He could think coherently now.

Who could have stolen the stone?

It was a theft that could not possibly have been the result of an accidental discovery. Nobody could have found the stone unless he had known where to look. Even the removal of the book would have been insufficient to put a searcher on the track unless he had happened to know that what he sought was there, for the hiding-place was invisible. This narrowed the search down to those people who could possibly have known that the stone was in his room. And who did? That this was not the work of the gang, of which Ferris was the representative, he was certain. He knew that Ferris had been genuine in his offers. It must be some independent person, working in opposition both to himself and the Ferris party.

Instantly his mind turned to Jimmy Stewart. As far as he knew—for when he found them fighting in his study he had put Sam Burrows and Marshall down as members of the same gang who had fallen out—as far as he knew, Jimmy was the only person outside Ferris’s party who was aware that the stone was in his possession. Jimmy had actually seen him handling it, and it was to Jimmy that it had belonged in the first instance. He did not suppose that Jimmy knew the real value of the stone, but it had been plain that he had regarded it as a treasured possession, and would make all possible efforts to recover it. His suspicions centred on Jimmy.

But then there was the objection that Jimmy must have been in school at the time of the robbery. Roughly speaking, the stone must have been taken between eleven and half-past twelve that morning.

Still, he decided to question him.

He did so as he was going in to afternoon school.

“Stewart!”

“Yes, sir.”

“Where were you this morning between eleven and one?”

“I was in school, sir.”

“The whole time?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Who was teaching you?”

“Herr Steingruber, sir,” said Jimmy shortly. He objected to having his word doubted at any time, especially by a man whom he knew to be a thief.

“Very good, Stewart.”

Mr. Spinder walked off.

“What’s up now, I wonder?” thought Jimmy, as he went into school.

At the conclusion of the afternoon’s work Mr. Spinder approached Herr Steingruber.

“Ach, my Sbinder,” said the Herr jovially. He was always in a good temper, especially at the end of the day’s work.

“I wanted to ask you, Steingruber, if Stewart was in your classroom all the time between eleven and half-past twelve this morning.”

“Sdeward! Jah, zo. He vos.”

“The whole time? He did not leave the room even for a few minutes?”

“No. Der liddle vellow vas in his sead from peginning to end of der lesson. It vas der poy Armsdrong who did der room on aggount of a zo zudden addack of illness leave.”

Mr. Spinder started. Armstrong! Jimmy’s closest friend. Who was more likely than he to be chosen by Jimmy as a confidant in this affair? Probably they had talked it over together, and come to the conclusion that Tommy had better take the stone, seeing that Jimmy would occur to Mr. Spinder at once as the probable thief. And Armstrong had been out of the room during the morning’s lesson.

“How long was Armstrong away?”

“Aboud vive minutes. Berhaps less. He did ad der end of dot dime redurn, zaying dot he had bathed his vorehead und did moch bedder feel.”

“Bathed his forehead. Why?”

“Do relieve der keen neuralgia bangs which did bain him.”

“Neuralgia!”

“Jah, zo. It vos of der neuralgia dot der liddle vellow did gomblain.”

That settled the matter as far as Mr. Spinder was concerned. He knew that convenient neuralgia, which was so much better at the end of five minutes. Five minutes! It was all that Tommy would need to enable him to go to the study, take the stone, and return.

He was satisfied now that it was Tommy who had taken it. The only question now was, how to recover it from him. In a way, the problem which faced Mr. Spinder was almost as hard as that which had faced Jimmy before. A master could not go to a boy’s room and search it whenever he pleased without due reason. He would have to find some excuse.

But what? That was the difficulty. There seemed to be no reason under the sun why he should demand the keys of Tommy’s box and ransack it from top to bottom. Boys had their rights, and he knew enough of Tommy to know that he would exercise his to the utmost. If he went to Tommy now, and demanded his keys, Tommy would refuse to give them up. And if he carried the matter to the headmaster, the latter, unless Mr. Spinder could produce some adequate reason why he asked to search, would certainly decide in favour of Tommy, and probably read the housemaster a lecture on the limitations of his authority.

Mr. Spinder was undeniably baffled. He could see no way out of the tangle.

He wandered out into the playground to think the thing out in the open air. It was dusk by this time, for the evenings were beginning to draw in rapidly.

It was at this point that his luck turned. Wandering slowly in the direction of the gymnasium, he turned the corner of that building, intending to skirt round it and come back the way he had gone. Hardly, however, had he turned the corner when a familiar smell came to his nostrils. The smell of tobacco. At the same moment a faint groan reached his ears. Somebody was smoking under the sheltering wall of the gymnasium, and, to judge from the sounds, it was evidently doing him no good.

Mr. Spinder crept stealthily forward. The smoker, however, showed no signs of retreating. When Mr. Spinder’s grasp fell on a limp arm, the captive scarcely stirred. Mr. Spinder shook the arm. Another groan was the only answer.

“Who are you?” demanded the master. “What are you doing here?”

“Hon’ble sir,” moaned a feeble voice, “Peccavi. I am in articulo mortis and the utter wreck. Distinguished and benevolent mister, bring the doctor. My last moments are arriving with rapidity of greased lighting-flash.”

Mr. Spinder struck a match. It blazed up in the damp air. Against the gymnasium wall was seated Ram, his forehead beaded with perspiration and his face a sickly green. In one hand the stump of a cigar was tightly clutched.

“What does all this mean?” thundered Mr. Spinder.

“Benevolent sir,” said Ram feebly, “do not continue to shake me, or—hoity, toity!—who knows what may not happen? I——”

The warning was too late! Without entering into painful details, one may say that the warning justified itself almost immediately by fact. Mr. Spinder waited grimly till all was over.

“Go into the house at once,” he said. “You will hear more of this.”

“Spare me, benevolent sir,” moaned the sufferer. “I am the worm.”

“Go in,” said Mr. Spinder.

Ram moved painfully off towards the house.

Mr. Spinder stood where he was, thinking. Then he started. In a flash he saw that luck had played into his hands. He had caught one of the boys in his house smoking. Nothing could be more natural or praiseworthy than that he should at once institute a general search through all the boxes in the house. It would be like fishing with a drag-net. He was bound to find the stone. He hurried back to the house, overtaking Ram on the way. Ram, to quote the poem, was “remote, unfriended, melancholy, slow”. He was dragging himself along, wishing in a sort of general way that he had never been born, and particularly that he had never been seized with the idea of smoking a cigar.

 

In the study which he shared with Jimmy, meanwhile, Tommy was seated in the only comfortable chair, gazing at something small and blue that lay in the palm of his hand. He was feeling like a successful detective. Alone and unaided, he had tracked down the stone and recovered it. He was now waiting for Jimmy to come in, to show it to him.

He heard a footstep on the stairs, and got up. No, that could not be Jimmy. The step was not his. It was somebody else’s, somebody who—

“Spinder, by Jove!” thought Tommy, with a start.

The next moment the door burst open. He was quite right. His visitor was Mr. Spinder!

 

(Another instalment of this splendid serial next week.)