Chapter 23

The Babu and the Bicycle


RAM meanwhile, full of triumph at the victory which had attended the Marleigh arms, as represented by Jimmy, the fighter, and, in a lesser but still glorious degree, by himself, the friend, looker-on, and sympathiser, had ridden on to tell the great news to the school. It was a proud moment for Ram. As he had frequently observed, he was not by nature a temerarious, and he glowed at the thought of the great victory with which he had been connected. It was true that he had not actually fought—it was Jimmy who had done that—but he had stood by, and represented Marleigh among the spectators.

“Huzza!” shouted Ram as he rode.

He would probably have gone on shouting “Huzza!” all the way back in a sort of chant, varied by excited exclamations in the language of his fathers—he was apt to drop into Hindustani when moved—but after he had gone about a mile on his way the storm broke.

Ram hated rain, and this was particularly rainy rain. It sluiced down from the grey sky like water from a shower-bath. His clothes were soaked before he had travelled a hundred yards. His gold spectacles were moist and clouded. He could barely see.

It was this that proved his undoing. Pedalling damply along, he did not notice a sharp bend in the road. For one moment he proceeded unsteadily along the damp grass at the roadside, then shot like an arrow into the ditch, his bicycle clattering behind him.

There was a good deal of water in the ditch, but on the whole mud was the leading feature of its contents. Ram literally wallowed in it. When he sat up and crawled painfully out, he was caked from head to foot, a very different person from the Ram who had shouted “Huzza!” five minutes before.

“This,” he said to himself as he picked up his machine, “is the pretty kettle of fish!”

The kettle of fish was even prettier, on a close examination, than he had suspected. As he picked up his bicycle and started to wheel it out into the road, he saw that something was wrong with it.

To Ram there were only two sorts of bicycles: the bicycle that was all right and the bicycle that had something wrong with it. He knew no degrees in the latter class. It was only with the greatest difficulty, and more pain than he had ever endured in any other way, that he had succeeded in actually learning to ride. He had never aspired to the understanding and repairing of bicycles. As a matter of fact, all that was wrong with his machine could have been put right with a spanner in five minutes; but, as far as Ram was concerned, the thing was a wreck.

In this crisis he thought of Jimmy. Hon’ble Stewart, as he knew well, had an almost uncanny familiarity with the workings of bicycles. He would retrace his steps, meet Hon’ble Stewart, and put the case in his hands.

So Ram proceeded to wheel his machine disconsolately back along the road. Soon after this the rain, as if satisfied with what it had done, stopped; and Ram, having wiped his spectacles, was now more in a position to see things.

He trudged on.


Jimmy stopped and faced Marshall with a sinking heart. The road was deserted. His cyclist friends were miles away by this time. If only he had stopped to mend his puncture before going on! Then he might have swerved past Marshall and ridden on to safety. But in his eagerness to get away from the cottage at the earliest possible moment he had postponed the repairs; and now he was trapped again, as surely as he had been in the cottage a quarter of an hour ago.

“Well, my young friend,” said Marshall, “so we resume our interrupted conversation. We can talk at our leisure now, which is so much pleasanter, is it not? You will think me a bore, I am afraid, to keep harping on the same subject, but I must ask you once more for that stone.”

“I haven’t got it,” said Jimmy. “I told you so before.”

“So you did, so you did. And yet, somehow, I can’t help feeling that you were mistaken. Out with it, if you please. At once.”

“I tell you——” began Jimmy.

“Very well,” said Marshall between his teeth, “if you stick to it.”

He made a step towards Jimmy. Jimmy backed. His bicycle was still between them, and that checked the other for the moment. But only for a moment. Springing forward, Marshall had seized him by the arm in a grip of steel, when a polite voice from behind his back made him drop Jimmy and spin round.

“Excuse the complete stranger, Hon’ble sir,” said the voice, “but are you by chance the skilled mechanic? I have here a bicycle——”

“Ram!” shouted Jimmy, with a sudden rush of relief.

“Hon’ble Stewart! I did not suspect that you, too, were among those present. This is the glad meeting.”

An idea flashed across Jimmy’s mind.

“This way, you chaps!” he shouted. “Here I am!”

Marshall, who had been standing as if undecided what to do, waited no longer. With a muttered oath he slipped back through the hedge, and began to run across the field into the gathering dusk. They could hear his footsteps squelching across the damp turf. The advent of Ram had unnerved him, and Jimmy’s words had completed the effect. He saw in Ram the advance-guard of a body of Jimmy’s schoolfellows, a notion which Jimmy’s shout had confirmed. To attempt to regain the stone from Jimmy forcibly before witnesses was more than even he dared.

“By Jove! Ram,” said Jimmy, “I’m glad you turned up.”

Ram was looking wonderingly in the direction in which Marshall had vanished.

“What,” he asked, “was the matter with the mister? Why did he run like hare and vanish like snow before rays of sun?”

“I expect he couldn’t stand your handsome face, Ram,” said Jimmy with a grin. “I find it jolly difficult sometimes myself.”

“What was it that you and he were having snip-snap and sotto-voce conversation about? Was he chum or chance acquaintance?”

“Bit of both, I should call him. Come on, Ram, we must run.”

“Run?” repeated Ram vaguely.

“Yes, run, you rotter. Run like hares and vanish like snow before rays of sun. See?”

“But my bicycle?”

“Dash your bike! What’s up with it? Never mind, I’ll mend it in half a jiffy. Only we must get away from here at once. He may be coming back. We’ll run on about a quarter of a mile. Then we can stop and do repairs. Come on; don’t stand there looking like a golliwog! Run, man, run!

And Ram ran, marvelling.


Chapter 24

The Great Concert


THE afternoon of the great concert had arrived. For days, Tommy Armstrong had been rushing round, beating up talent with all the persuasiveness at his command, which was considerable. Herr Steingruber’s amiability had been more pronounced every time he met his class, and it was rumoured that he sat up till unheard-of hours practising on his ’cello to the marked discomfort of his next-door neighbours, who were soulless people who wanted sleep. Bills had been written out by Tommy and his friends in a fair, round handwriting, setting forth the outlines of the treat that might be expected, and mentioning that the concert was “for a deserving object.” That was as far as the impresarios dared to go in the way of writing, but Tommy, questioned by interested members of the school on the subject, had spread the news that the deserving object was the Spinder’s House Food Fund; and the school, approving of the cause, had promised to roll up. Binns and Sloper practised duets daily, and the brothers Tooth had the comfortable feeling, when they embarked on their usual morning fight, that they were killing two birds with one stone, working off their grievances and also rehearsing for their boxing exhibition.

“It’ll be quite a pleasant change for them, sparring with the gloves on,” said Tommy reflectively, as he watched the great twin brethren joining battle. “Quite refreshing for ’em.”

Herr Steingruber drew Tommy aside one morning. “In der virst bart of der brogramme, my liddle Armsdrong,” he said beamingly, “I shall der Moonlight Zonada of Beethoven blay. In der zecond bart—zo—a liddle dthing of my own gombosition I vill for der virst dime on dis or any odder sdage berform. He is a—what you say?—a zort of vairy legend of Shermany which I have in my youth ad Heidelberg heard und jodded down; and now I him zet to musig and do you und do der odder liddle vellows now for der virst dime blay. Jah, zo.”

“That’ll be ripping, sir,” said Tommy doubtfully.

“Jah, zo. Ribbing. Dat vos him. You und der odders, you vill glap your hands und say, ‘Goot! Dot vos goot!’”

“Of course we shall, sir,” said Tommy. “But—er—I suppose you don’t know any cake-walks, do you, sir?”

“Gayg-walks, my liddle vellow?”

“Yes, sir. ‘Smoky Mokes’ or ‘Bill Simmons,’ or something like that.”

“Jah, I onderstand. I know der ‘Pill Zimmons’. But he is not der goot musig, my Armsdrong.”

“It’s a ripping tune, sir. I’m sure the chaps would like it.”

“Ah, no, no, Armsdrong. He vos der bad, light musig.”

And Tommy had been able to draw no other opinion from him.


The gymnasium was crowded when the time arrived for the curtain to go up. Most of the audience had been there for a quarter of an hour or more, and there was a general demand that the thing should start. Everybody, in fact, was ready for the curtain to go up, except the curtain, which absolutely declined to oblige.

This curtain was a sheet which Tommy had draped with great skill in front of the improvised platform. It was supposed to roll up when Thomson, stationed there for the purpose, hauled on a rope. All that happened, however, when Thomson pulled, was that the rope broke.

A chorus of advice and abuse came from every part of the room. Tommy rose to the situation like a Napoleon. He caught hold of the sheet and put all his weight into one tug. The sheet came away with a rending sound, amidst roars of applause, leaving the platform open to the public view, with the piano in one corner and Stephens Tertius, in his shirt-sleeves, adjusting his braces, in the centre. It had occurred to Stephens Tertius that his trousers were braced a shade too high, and he hoped to be able to put the matter right before the curtain rose.

Tommy, in his rôle of announcer, flung away the sheet and stepped to the front.

“Order, please,” he yelled. “Jellicoe, I’ll come down and kick you in a second. Ladies and gentlemen, item one on the programme. Song, ‘Annie Laurie,’ Mr. Stephens Tertius.”

“Half a second,” growled the songster; “let a chap finish dressing first.”

“No, go on,” hissed Tommy. “There’ll be a row if you don’t start.”

He did start, and yet there was a row. Stephens Tertius’s voice was in that uncomfortable state when a voice is not quite certain whether it is a treble or a bass. It tries both at intervals, as if anxious to make up its mind.

Stephens Tertius started ‘Annie Laurie’ in about as high a key as a human being could achieve. He got through the first line without a hitch.

As he began line two a small, austere voice from the back of the room spoke.

“Your bags are coming down, Stephens,” said the voice dispassionately.

Stephens started as one who has had bad news from home, and his voice, seizing the opportunity now that his attention was off it, suddenly changed to the deepest bass. A thrill of excitement ran through the audience, a sort of startled gasp, and then a roar of applause rent the air. Stephens sang on to the end of the verse, quite inaudible, and then backed off the platform, crimson in the face, refusing to return in spite of a loud encore.

Tommy stepped to the front again.

“Order, please,” he shouted. “Item two on the programme. Penny whistle solo, ‘Poppies,’ by Mr. J. Cheetham.”

This, one is sorry to have to record, proved a complete frost. Certain frivolous spirits in the first row, who had come expecting some such turn as this, produced lemons from their pockets, and began to suck them in an ostentatious manner, which soon had its effect on the unfortunate performer on the penny whistle. Cheetham watched the operation with fearful scowls for some bars. Then the flow of music gradually dwindled away, ending in a sickly note like the chirp of some newly-born bird. Tommy hustled the indignant penny-whistler off the stage, listening unmoved to his complaints and threats of what he would do to the lemon-suckers when he met them outside.

The next item on the programme should by right have been Herr Steingruber’s ’cello solo, but the first two turns had caved in so badly that Tommy did not dare to risk another failure. He postponed the Herr’s performance, and put on what he knew was bound to be a success, the inter-Tooth boxing competition.

A lifetime devoted to fighting each other had given the Tooth twins a certain skill with their hands, which, added to their great natural energy, made their warfare highly popular in the school.

“Gentlemen,” said Tommy, “the next turn will be a three-round boxing exhibition, Queensberry rules, by the brothers Tooth. I must request kind friends in front to abstain from applause during the rounds, and if young Sickers at the end of the fifth row doesn’t stop chucking nutshells about I’ll come down and punch his ugly head till his teeth rattle. Are you ready? Time!”

The two pugilists wasted no time sparring. They charged in at each other with a willingness greatly to the taste of the audience, who, ignoring Tommy’s request for silence during the rounds, yelled and whistled all the time.

The round ended in one of the combatants making a furious rush at his opponent, who dodged, with the result that the former flew off the platform into the front seats, to the huge delight of everybody except the occupants of those seats. As these were the very scoundrels who had sucked lemons during his turn, Cheetham was especially pleased, and began to think that there was such a thing as poetic justice in the world after all.

The next two rounds, though less sensational, were extremely brisk; and the audience were in a thoroughly good humour at the call of time. Tommy congratulated himself on his foresight in altering the order of the turns. The Tooth brethren had ensured the success of the entertainment.

When Herr Steingruber mounted the dais the cheering was inclined to be ironical. The German master looked round the room with a benevolent smile.

“My liddle vriendts,” he said, “I vill a gombosition dot do you familiar possibly may be endeavour to berform. My vriendt Dollervield will mit der aggombaniment on der biano assisd.”

Tollerfield was a tall boy with a grave face and spectacles. Nobody knew much about him except that he played the piano very well. Tommy, as he watched the solemnity with which the accompanist struck a few preliminary chords, feared the worst. He began to regret that he had asked Herr Steingruber to perform at all. How would the chaps take it? Would they put up with some long classical composition which they could not understand and did not want to? It was a pity that this should happen just when the concert was beginning to go with such a swing.

Tollerfield played a very slow, mournful prelude, and the ’cello moved into a soft, at first almost inaudible, melody. At first Tommy did not recognise it, but suddenly it quickened and swelled, and he gasped with relief. The Herr was playing ‘Bill Simmons’.

The audience uttered a suppressed yell of joy. Feet began to tap in time to the music. Herr Steingruber increased the pace. His bow flew over the strings. He finished with a deep, long-drawn note, rose, and bowed. The house rose at him. There was a universal demand for an encore. The Herr, beaming proudly, obliged. As he stepped down from the platform Tommy approached him, almost tearful with relief.

“That was ripping, sir,” he said warmly. “It was awfully good of you to play. It’ll be the best thing on the programme by miles.”

Herr Steingruber beamed.

“Ach, my liddle Armsdrong,” he said, “I did dthink id over do myself, und I do der gonglusion gom dot id would be better dan der grand of Beethoven musig. Id is best vor us der dastes of der audience do sdudy, zo! In der zegond bart of der brogramme I vill der ‘Smogy Moges’ blay. Zo!”

Tommy’s last anxiety was relieved. Now the entertainment was bound to go.

Binns and Sloper followed with a duet, after which Morrison gave what he called imitations of famous music-hall artistes. In each of these he was more like himself than ever, but the audience were not in the mood to be too critical now, and, as they knew the tunes of the songs Morrison sang and could join in the choruses, they asked no more. They simply sat tight and made the place rock.

In the second half of the programme the star turn was undoubtedly Ram’s recitation of Hamlet’s soliloquy. Even in its original form this is admitted by most people to be a pretty good piece of writing, and Ram improved on the original. He happened to forget the exact words half-way through, and, scorning to retire gracefully, as a lesser man might have done, he improvised. It was felt that Shakespeare would have been glad if he had known.

‘Smoky Mokes’ proved as great a success as ‘Bill Simmons’ had done, and Herr Steingruber, having played an encore, left the hall feeling quietly contented. It was the object of his life to get into closer touch with the boys of the school, and there was no doubt that tonight he had made a big step in that direction. The feeling in the school was one of vague surprise that they could have failed to appreciate the German master at his full value till now. Men who could play ‘Smoky Mokes’ on the ’cello were deserving of respect.

At the conclusion of the final turn Tommy stepped on to the platform to say a few words.

“I hope you fellows enjoyed the show,” he said when he could make himself heard. “It was jolly good of you to roll up. I can tell you we want the money badly. You’ve no notion of the muck Spinder makes us eat. We all felt it was about time something was done. I think all present who have had anything to do with it will agree with me that the meals at Spinder’s are about as near the limit as—as, well, as anything can——”

He broke off. Not because he had finished what he had to say. Indeed, he had only just begun, and could have spoken at some length on what was his favourite subject. The reason why he stopped was because he happened to see that the audience had increased by one since he opened his remarks, and that that one was Mr. Spinder himself.


(Another absorbing instalment of this excellent serial next week.)