A Cunning Hiding-place
TOMMY rose politely as the door opened. Mr. Spinder closed the door behind him.
“Armstrong,” he said abruptly, “I intend to search this study.”
Tommy raised his eyebrows, but said nothing.
“I have reason to believe,” continued the master, “that a great deal of smoking is going on in this house. I have this very evening found”—here he gave Ram’s full name, which, owing to pressure of space, must be omitted; it was the sort of name that covered nearly the whole of one line on a sheet of foolscap when Ram wrote exercises——“in the act of smoking a large cigar.”
A faint smile appeared on Tommy’s face for a brief instant. The idea of Ram smoking a cigar, and the probable result of such a feat, amused him. The smile quickly vanished. He made no spoken comment on the news.
“I have determined,” said Mr. Spinder, “to institute a personal search through the boxes of every boy in the house. I will not have these breaches of important school rules. I don’t say that I suspect you or anyone else of having tobacco, but I am resolved to pay no attention to anyone’s word, but to make a thorough search on my own account. Ah! Stewart!”
Jimmy entered during the conclusion of this speech.
“Yes, sir,” said Jimmy.
“I was informing Armstrong that I was about to search this study thoroughly, to satisfy myself that there is no tobacco concealed here.”
“We haven’t any, sir,” said Jimmy.
“I do not wish to hear any statement from you. I intend to satisfy myself by searching. Kindly turn out your pockets, both of you.”
Jimmy and Tommy, the former furious, the latter apparently resigned, proceeded to empty their pockets on to the table. It was a miscellaneous collection that met Mr. Spinder’s eyes—knives, string, a bag of chocolates, another of jujubes, letters, a screw, two cold roast chestnuts. Everything under the sun, in fact, except the blue stone.
Mr. Spinder eyed the collection sourly, and, motioning to them to replace the things, proceeded to make a search round the study. There was not a great deal of cover for the stone to hide in, and he had soon exhausted all the possible places. He turned to the two boys.
“You have boxes?” he said.
“Downstairs, sir,” said Jimmy.
“Give me your keys. Thank you. I will return them to you after I have finished with the boxes.”
He left the room.
Jimmy turned to Tommy.
“What on earth’s the matter with him?” he asked. “Why should he suddenly take it into his head that we are keeping baccy up here?”
Tommy was rolling in a chair with silent laughter.
“You chump!” he said at length. “Couldn’t you spot his game? He was looking for the stone. The baccy was only a bluff to give him an excuse for routing round this place. He-he-ha-ha!—he caught old—old Ram smoking a whacking big cigar this evening.”
“No!” he said.
“Fact! By Jove, I wish I’d seen him. What an ass old Ram is! I expect he was as sick as a cat.”
“But what did you mean about the stone? Why should Spinder be looking for it?”
“It’s gone from his study.”
“Gone! How do you know?”
“Because,” said Tommy calmly, opening his mouth and taking something out, “here it is!”
He extended his hand with the stone in it. Jimmy stared at it as if it had been some new and hitherto undiscovered animal. The surprise of the thing deprived him of the power of speech.
“How did you get it?” he almost whispered at last.
“When I left the room during old Steingruber’s lesson. I shammed ill on purpose to get a chance of slipping out. I knew that during school hours was the only chance I should get of being in Spinder’s study without him coming and interrupting. I knew exactly where to look. I’d felt the thing when I looked before. So I nipped across and had it out and got back to the classroom in under five minutes.”
“Tommy, you’re a marvel!”
“I have a big brain,” admitted Tommy complacently. “A very big brain. Sometimes I wonder if it’s quite healthy. I suppose old Steingruber must have told him I was out of the room during the morning, and that sent him buzzing up here. Well, here it is. Now, what are we to do with it? It won’t be safe to keep it up here or down in either of our boxes. There’s no knowing when he may not take it into his head to have another search. What’s to be done?”
Jimmy produced a letter from his pocket.
“We shan’t have it on our hands long,” he said.
“That’s one comfort. This is a letter from my father. It arrived just now. He’s back.”
“Good business. Where is he?”
“That’s just what I don’t know,” said Jimmy ruefully.
“Don’t know? Why, where does he write from?”
“From a hotel at Southampton. But he says he’s leaving there the same night and going to London. And he doesn’t say where he’ll be in London. Says he’ll write again when he gets there. So we shall have to wait till he does, I suppose.”
“I suppose so. Still, we’ve got the stone. That’s the great thing. Now where shall we hide it?”
“No good in our dormitory anywhere, I suppose?”
Tommy shook his head.
“Not a bit. He might easily look there. What we must do is to find some place that he can’t possibly think of. And it must be a place, of course, that we can get at in a jiffy whenever we want to. Dash it, I wish your father had given you his London address. Hasn’t he got a club?”
“Yes. But I’m blowed if I know which it is.”
“I wish we could find Sam. I wonder where the dickens he is.”
“It’s a rum business, isn’t it?” said Jimmy. “Here we are, with the stone, simply waiting to hand it over, and there’s nobody to give it to. It’s a bit sickening.”
Tommy looked curiously at the stone.
“I wonder,” he said, “what the thing really is. Why is everyone so keen on getting hold of it? How does your pater come to be mixed up with it? And why is it that Spinder knows all about it? He evidently thinks it’s worth having, doesn’t he?”
“I suppose we shall know soon, I wish we knew where Sam was.”
“It’s Indian, I should say. I wonder if Ram would know anything about it. By the way, I must go down and see Ram. He seems to have been having a stormy time.”
“Don’t say anything to him about the stone.”
“Oh, talking of Ram reminds me. I never mended that bicycle of his. I promised to. After he had that smash, you know. There’s nothing much wrong with it. It won’t take me a minute. I’ll go. and do it now, I think, and get it over.”
“I’ll come and help.”
They went downstairs to the back of the house, where the bicycles were kept. Ram’s injured machine was leaning forlornly against the wall. Jimmy took out the spanner and got to work. Tommy looked on, which was his notion of helping.
Suddenly Tommy uttered an exclamation.
“By Jove! I’ve got it!” he cried.
“What’s that?” asked Jimmy, looking up.
“Look. Which is your bike?”
“The one over there.”
“The one with the dented mudguards?”
“Observe,” said Tommy. “There’s no one about, is there?”
He went to the door and looked. The place was empty.
“Now,” he said.
He took the bicycle, and began twisting the tortoiseshell at the end of the handle-bar. It came away in his hand, leaving the bare steel.
“Hollow, you observe,” said Tommy. “Now we wrap him up neatly in a piece of paper”—he produced the stone, and suited the action to the word——“shove him in here”—he pushed the little parcel into the tortoiseshell cover——“and then put the whole thing back. How’s that? It doesn’t go on quite so far as it should, but nobody’s likely to notice that. After all, you won’t be lending your bike to Spinder, I suppose. There!”
Jimmy rose, and inspected the result.
“That’s good,” he said, with approval. “That’s a good idea.”
“My brain,” said Tommy, “is something colossal. I often think of charging a small fee for talking to people. Let’s be going upstairs, shall we? The stone’s as safe as houses now.”
On the stairs they met Mr. Spinder.
“Where have you been?” he inquired irritably. He had been searching vigorously ever since he had left them, with absolutely no result. He had not even found tobacco, which would have been better than nothing. Ram’s cigar seemed to be the sole specimen of the world’s tobacco industries at present within the walls of Marleigh.
“Where have you been?” he said. “I went to your study, but you were not there. I have left your keys on the table.”
“Thank you, sir,” said Tommy politely. “We have been downstairs mending Ram’s bicycle. He had a spill riding home after the football match, and injured it a little.”
“Well, well, either go up to your study again or to the dayroom. I cannot have you wandering about like this all over the house.”
“Yes, sir,” said Tommy.
They walked on.
“For choice,” said Tommy, “give me the dayroom. It is nice and quiet in our study, but I want to see Ram. I should think he must be worth seeing after that cigar. Poor old Spinder!”
If he could have seen Mr. Spinder at that moment he would have felt that his pity was no more than was needed. The housemaster was sitting at his study table, staring blankly before him, seeing nothing. The unexpected turn the game had taken had had its effect on Mr. Spinder.
An Accident and its Consequences
IT takes very little to upset the best-laid plans. In theory the stone was perfectly safe in the handle-bar of Jimmy’s bicycle. Nobody could possibly guess that it was there. In theory the handle-bar was an ideal retreat.
But all the theoretical value of the hiding-place was totally destroyed by the simple fact that Herr Steingruber was engaged to be married to a girl in his native town of Munich.
There does not seem much connection at first sight between the two things. Yet it undoubtedly existed.
Miss Gretchen Steidl of Munich, was a young lady with expectations. When an uncle died, she would be comfortably situated. Till that melancholy event she kept the wolf from the door by teaching the alphabet and elementary drawing to infants in a kindergarten. Herr Hans, meanwhile, separated from her by many miles of sea, taught German to English boys at Marleigh. The parted pair had to console themselves by writing each other long letters.
Now it happened, on the afternoon of this particular day, that Herr Steingruber had spent all the time between lunch and the gathering of darkness on the links. His play had not improved to any great extent since his first introduction to the game, but his enthusiasm had increased wonderfully. He spent the afternoon smiting furiously, sometimes at the air, sometimes at the turf, less frequently at the ball. The result of all this energy was that when he arrived home and had had his tea he felt thoroughly tired. Comfortably so, and extremely sleepy. After a pipe in an armchair before the fire he had fallen sound asleep, and only awoke in time for dinner. After dinner he still felt drowsy. He sat in his chair smoking, till he suddenly remembered with a start that he had not written to his Gretchen.
This was a duty that had to be attended to at once. Yawning hugely, he stretched himself and went to the table. His letters to Gretchen always took him a long time to write. It was not till half-past nine that he had finished. Reading the letter over and dreaming of the day when they should retire together to Munich on the money of the uncle, who still clung obstinately to life, and spend their time listening to Wagner, occupied time till twenty minutes to ten. Then he stamped the letter, and went to the door.
A housemaid was passing at the moment.
“Ach!” said Herr Steingruber, “vill you dis ledder do der post-poy give, vor do dake do der bost?”
“Lor, sir,” said the housemaid, “he’s been gone this half-hour.”
It was the boot-boy’s duty to collect the letters of the house and bicycle to the village post-office with them. The post-office was three miles from the school, and letters had to be in the box by ten o’clock. As a rule, he did not start on his journey till about half-past nine; but to-night, wishing to get back early in time to continue his acquaintance with a paper-covered book, which he had bought, entitled “Black Bill of the Mountains, or the Scourge of California,” he had left early.
“Himmel!” was Herr Steingruber’s reply to this bad news. “I haf der bost missed.”
Herr Steingruber was a favourite with the servants at the school, partly because he was exceedingly free with his money, and partly because he was unvaryingly good-tempered and always spoke pleasantly to them. This was the reason why the housemaid, instead of passing on and thinking no more about the matter, stopped sympathetically and tried to be helpful.
“It’s only a quarter to the hour, sir,” she said. “If you’ got a bicycle, sir——”
“Alas! I no bicygle haf,” sighed the Herr.
“Or if one of the young gentlemen could go——”
“Ach, no, dey are to der house by der log-ub rule gonfined. Do sdray and move out of der house ad der hour of ten o’glog, dot vas do der poys vorpidden. But—ach! I haf id got, I haf id got! I vill der picygle of der boy porrow, and myself on id do der bost wit der greatest sbeed hurry. Dthangk you, you haf do me der idea given.”
To rush to the basement where the bicycles were kept took Herr Steingruber under a minute. It was just a quarter to ten when he wheeled his machine out of a side gate into the road, mounted, and began to pedal.
Or, rather, not his machine, but Jimmy’s. For the Herr, faced with the task of choosing between a dozen bicycles, had selected Jimmy’s.
This he did principally because the seat was a good deal higher than the seats on the other machines. Jimmy always liked a high seat.
The road to the village was uphill for a quarter of a mile, downhill for two miles, and level for about three-quarters of a mile. The Herr was slightly behind the clock and very much out of breath when he arrived at the top of the first incline, but he made up for lost time on the downward slope. Free-wheeling he moved along at a capital pace, and, having recovered his breath during the two miles of coasting, he was able to finish up on the flat with a fine spurt, which landed him, moist but triumphant, at the post-office with a good two and a half minutes in hand.
“Ach!” he grunted with placid triumph. “Vigtory! I haf id on mein head done.”
He was very pleased indeed with himself. He felt that he had carried through a difficult business with skill and precision. Gretchen would be pleased to get that letter. She would have been bitterly disappointed if none had arrived.
The Herr leaped on to Jimmy’s bicycle, and began to pedal slowly homewards, thinking of Miss Steidl and Munich, and everything except the fact that he was on a bicycle. His afternoon’s golf and the brisk ride to the post had left him in that curiously dreamy state, which is often the result of physical fatigue. He had to tramp up the last mile of the hill before reaching the incline that led to the school gates; and by the time the hill ceased, and he was able to mount his machine again, all he wanted was to free-wheel dreamily, thinking of her.
This he did. In fact he lost himself to such an extent in his thoughts that the first intimation he had that he was still a dweller in the practical, everyday world, bicycling in the dark down a steepish incline, was the colliding of his front wheel with something hard and unyielding. The fact was, that the Herr, who never used the main entrance to the school ground except in daylight when the gate was wide open, had completely forgotten that there was a gate there at all. The consequence was that, wrapped in thought, he charged into it without the slightest slackening of speed, and only escaped an uncommonly nasty accident by mere good luck. He shot off, but fortunately to one side, not straight over the handle-bars; so that, instead of dashing against the iron bars, he only staggered and sat down rather hard in the road, getting off with a severe shaking instead of broken bones.
The bicycle, having rammed the gate, fell over with a great clatter and a noisy ring of the bell.
“Who in the world’s that?” asked a voice from the other side of the gate.
Herr Steingruber did not reply for a moment. He was not at all satisfied at first that it was anybody in the world. He had a strong disposition that he was dead. Then his head began to clear, and he rose with a groan.
“Who’s that?” said the voice again, sharply.
“Ach! my Spinder,” said the Herr, recognising the accents, “I am moch shagen.”
“Is that you, Steingruber? What has happened?”
“I haf a bicygle aggident had.”
“Are you hurt?”
“I am shagen, moch shagen.”
“Can you walk?”
“Jah! I can walg. But der bicygle, he is all do bieces smashed. And he vos not mine, but do one of der liddle vellows did belong.”
“Come round to the small gate. Carry the bicycle if you can’t wheel it. I can’t let you in here. The porter has the keys.”
With many groans the Herr made his way to the little gate, carrying the bicycle. It was impossible to wheel it. The front spokes were twisted and broken, and he could feel that the handle-bar was injured, too.
Mr. Spinder met him at the gate, and helped to convey the machine to where there was light enough to examine it.
“H’m!” said Mr. Spinder. “You’ve certainly done the machine no good.”
“Der damage I vill vrom my own burse devray.”
“Whose bicycle is it?”
“Dot I do nod know. I vos in a hurry to gatch der bost, and I him ad random dook.”
Mr. Spinder was looking at the machine.
“I think it must be Stewart’s,” he said. “I have noticed that he rides with his saddle particularly high. What on earth is this?”
He was looking at the handle-bar. The tortoiseshell at the end was split and gaping, and through the rents protruded paper.
“What do they want to put paper in there for, I wonder,” said Mr. Spinder.
Herr Steingruber merely groaned. An injudicious movement had caused a twinge to pass through his aching bones.
Mr. Spinder was twisting the tortoiseshell. It came off in his hand. All at once, as he looked at it, he became rigid. The hand which held it shook.
“If I were you,” he said to Herr Steingruber, in a curiously strained voice, “I should go and change your clothes and lie down. You want a rest. Better take a stiff brandy and soda. You’re shaken.”
“Jah, zo! I am shagen, moch shagen.”
“Go along, then. You’ll find brandy and soda in my room. If not, ring and ask for it.”
“Dthangks, dthangks,” murmured the Herr, and dragged himself from the room.
When he had gone, Mr. Spinder removed from the handle-bar the paper and what it contained. Then he replaced the paper very carefully, and screwed on the tortoiseshell once more.
There was a smile on his thin lips as he went to the bell and pressed it.
“Send Master Stewart here,” he said, when the servant appeared.
(Another instalment next week.)