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Title: Under Honour's Flag

Author: Eric Lisle

Illustrator: G. H. Evison

Release Date: October 31, 2019 [EBook #60604]

Language: English

Character set encoding: ISO-8859-1

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cover

[Pg i]

NEW POPULAR BOOKS FOR BOYS

[Pg ii]

UNDER HONOUR'S FLAG


>Forgetful of all precaution

"Forgetful of all precaution Elgert struck a savage blow at him."

Frontispiece.   [see p. 257.


title page

[Pg iii]

Under Honour's
Flag

By the

REV. ERIC LISLE

WITH ORIGINAL ILLUSTRATIONS BY
G. H. EVISON.

logo

LONDON
FREDERICK WARNE & CO
AND NEW YORK

(All rights reserved)


[Pg iv]

Butler & Tanner
The Selwood Printing Works
Frome and London


[Pg v]

CONTENTS

CHAPTER PAGE
I   A Strange Affair 1
II   A Cruel Implication 15
III   Mr. St. Clive proves himself a True Friend 25
IV   Ralph's First Day at School 35
V   Making Things Straight 45
VI   An Early Morning Spin 55
VII   Horace Elgert Goes a little Too Far 65
VIII   A Mysterious Midnight Visitor 75
IX   Altogether Beyond Explanation 84
X   Counsels and Promises 94
XI   Going in for Grinding 103
XII   The Stolen Banknote 113
XIII   Divided Opinions 122
XIV   By the River Side 131
XV   The Lost Pocket-Book 140
XVI   Things look Black for Ralph 150
[Pg vi]XVII   The Plot that Failed 159
XVIII   Where the Banknote Went 168
XIX   The Lame Horse once more 177
XX   To Mr. St. Clive's 186
XXI   A House of Refuge 195
XXII   An Afternoon Ramble 204
XXIII   The Ruin and the Lonely House 213
XXIV   For the Sake of Revenge 222
XXV   Just in Time 231
XXVI   Tom Warren Speaks His Mind 240
XXVII   In the Dead of the Night 249
XXVIII   The Next Day 259
XXIX   What Tinkle and Green Caught 268
XXX   What Detained Ralph Rexworth 277
XXXI   The Tables are Turned 286
XXXII   Flogged and Expelled 294
XXXIII   Conclusion 303

[Pg 1]

UNDER HONOUR'S FLAG

CHAPTER I A STRANGE AFFAIR

The late autumn afternoon was rapidly drawing in, closing ominously and sullenly, as if rebelling against the approach of the winter, and the nearer coming of the night.

Great banks of purple vapour rose in the west; and sinking towards the earth, spread abroad in hazy wreaths, which seemed to possess, in a fainter degree, the hues of their parent clouds above.

The air was heavy with moisture, which condensed and dripped from the red leaves of the sycamore, the brown of the beech, and the yellow of lime and poplar. It glistened on the rich green of the crimson-berried hollies; it begemmed the festooning webs of the weaving spiders; and brought with it a chilling breath which seemed to strike through one.

In that gloaming hour a man and youth toiled wearily up the steep hill over which the main road runs before it descends into the quaint old town of Stow Ormond; yet as they reached the summit they hastened[Pg 2] their steps, with the air of those who were drawing near to a welcome resting-place.

The man was tall and refined-looking; and though a crisp, curling beard and full moustache hid the greater part of his face, the features visible revealed determination and strong will, and their bronzed hue showed plainly that their owner had lived beneath warmer skies than those of England. And yet, despite health and good looks and strength of will, an expression of anxiety was there; and as he walked along he appeared to be more occupied with his own thoughts than in attending to the remarks of the lad by his side, whose questions he frequently left unanswered.

The boy was so like the man that there could be little room for doubting that they were father and son; a well-built, handsome youth, with the same bronzed cheek, but with an expression on his face which indicated the utmost disgust with his surroundings. This was his first experience of a damp, chill autumn mist, and he did not like it in the least.

Both the travellers were comfortably clad, though their clothes seemed cut more for comfort than with a regard to fashion; indicating that they certainly were not from the workshop of any fashionable tailor.

Reaching the top of the hill, the two wayfarers paused; and the man, pointing down into the town which lay before them, said, with a sigh of relief:

"There you are, Ralph! That is our destination for to-night; it may be our haven for many days."

[Pg 3]

"Funny looking place," laughed the boy. "But all these English towns are funny, after the plains and the mountains. And it is funny," he added, "that I am an English boy, and yet am talking like that."

"Not funny, lad, seeing that you have never set foot in your native land before. Ah me, it is not funny to me! It comes back like the faces of old familiar friends. The scenes of childhood's happiness, and youth's hopes and follies. All changed, and yet nothing changed; and I myself unchanged, and yet most changed of all! Come," he went on, "you are tired, for we have walked a long way, and have had a long railway journey into the bargain. Unless things are altered down there, we shall find a comfortable old inn where we can put up, Ralph—a real old English inn. Quite different from the hotels where we have stopped. Come on, lad!"

Changing his handbag from one cramped hand to the other, the lad obeyed the call, and trudged forward briskly with the strong, elastic step of buoyant youth. At first he poured out a string of questions relative to life in English towns; but one or two being unanswered, he glanced towards his father, and perceiving him buried in thought again, he walked on in silence, yet keen-eyed, noting everything around.

A few scattered cottages and outlying buildings[Pg 4] passed, the pair were in the precincts of the town itself; and almost one of the first houses they came to was the one the father sought—a quaint, thatched, many-gabled old place, with commodious stabling and a great creaking sign-post near the horse trough, giving the information to all who cared to possess it that this was the Horse and Wheel Inn, wherein might be found accommodation for both man and beast.

"Just the same! Nothing changed!" murmured the man as the two arrived at the spot. "Twenty years have brought no revolution here. Come, lad!" And he entered the old hostelry.

A bonnie waiting-maid met them; and in response to the man's query if they could have a room she called the landlord, a portly old fellow, with bald head fringed with grey hair, a pair of twinkling merry eyes beneath overhanging brows, and a face wherein all the principal features seemed to be entered into a competition as to which could look the ruddiest.

"Have a room, sir?" said this individual, in a voice which seemed to proceed from his boots. "Ay, that you can, sir, and all else that you require. Here, Mary girl, show the gentleman to Number Ten! Have the bags carried up, and serve their dinner in the private room."

"Number Ten!" said the guest, as he heard the number given. "Come on, Ralph, I know the way!"[Pg 5] And he led his son upstairs with the air of one who did indeed know, much to the worthy landlord's astonishment, who murmured to himself as he waddled off to attend to some waggoners—

"He must ha' been here before; but I don't remember his face in the least."

"He does not recognize me," mused his guest, in his turn. "How should he, after all those years? Poor old Simon, he has not changed much! A little stouter, a little huskier, and more shaky; that is all. Time has dealt gently with him!"

The meal, which was ordered and duly served, proved that the Horse and Wheel, whatever it might do for beasts, claimed no more than its due when it came to accommodating the beast's master, man; and the appetites of the travellers enabled them to do ample justice to the food, served in a room rendered all the more cheerful by the roaring fire—a good, old-fashioned English fire—which blazed away in the capacious fireplace.

But the meal over, the gentleman rose and donned hat and coat, turning to his son when he had done so.

"Ralph," he said, "I am going out by myself. I have not brought you across the ocean and to this place for nothing. I have business to do here which may affect all your future life. What that business is, lad, I cannot tell you just now; but you shall know of it presently. I shall not be away long—not [Pg 6]more than an hour or two—and you can spend the time as you like. I do not suppose that you will find much in the shape of literature here, beyond a copy or two of some local paper or an agricultural magazine. They won't interest you much, so you must occupy the time as best you can. Prospect around a bit, but don't miss your way, or you will find it harder to pick up trails again here than you would out yonder where we have come from."

"I shall be all right, father," the boy answered, rather pleased than otherwise to be left alone for a little. Every lad of fourteen with any spirit in him rather likes that kind of thing.

"Of course you will be. You cannot very well get into harm, and you are not the boy to get into mischief. Well, good-bye, my lad, and to-morrow if all is well, I will show you what English rural scenery is like, and you will find it is more beautiful than it has seemed to you yet." And with that the gentleman went out, leaving the boy alone.

At first Ralph wandered round the rooms and examined all the funny, old-fashioned pictures, and frowned at some old-time Dresden ornaments of shepherds and shepherdesses in Court attire, as though he was not quite sure whether they were intended for pagan idols or not; and then, getting tired of this, he put on his hat and strolled down into the inn yard, where he found more to interest him in[Pg 7] an ostler who was busily grooming a couple of powerful waggon horses. Ralph had never seen a real cart-horse before, for the horses he had been accustomed to were little, thin, wiry creatures, all sinew and bone, and spirit—horses that could go, and would go, until they dropped, but pigmies compared to these mighty creatures—the largest of all the species.

Then he picked up a long coil of rope lying near and examined it with critical eye, which yet seemed to disapprove of its texture and quality; and then, idly fashioning a running noose at one end, he coiled that rope up, and sent it with a flying jerk over a post thirty feet away.

The man stared and paused in his work.

"Ay, but ye couldn't do that again, sir," he ventured; and Ralph, with a little flush of something like conceit, immediately repeated his performance.

"That be main clever," said the man, and he shambled off to get "Tom" and "Garge" and "Luke" to come and see the young gentleman's wonderful deed.

Ralph was delighted, and he varied his work by sending the noose over one of the men as he ran at full speed across the yard. It was nothing to him; he had handled a rope as soon as he had handled anything, and he wondered at the surprise the thing caused to these men.

Sending the noose over one of the men

"Sending the noose over one of the men as he ran at
full speed across the yard.
" p. 7

[Pg 8]

A drove of cattle passed, and Ralph paused and regarded them with interest. They were good beasts, but nothing like the troublesome wild cattle which he had known. They seemed perfectly contented with everything in this life.

"They are very quiet," he observed, and the man nodded.

"They be quiet enough, sir, but there be a bull in yonder paddock; ye will see him in a minute, for they will be coming to drive him back to his shed; and he be very savage. He ha' killed two poor chaps now, and it be a risky job dealing with him. He be quiet enough as a rule; but when his temper is bad, then he is bad, too—and very bad."

"I would like to see him," was the boy's answer; and almost before the words were out of his mouth he had his wish granted; for a fierce bellow of deep-voiced rage was heard, and rushing along, a broken halter streaming behind, there came a magnificent black bull, while in his rear, shouting and waving their arms in distress, ran two men, who had evidently been engaged in bringing the monster home when he had turned upon them, and sent them spinning this way and that ere he darted off.

Every one in the way rushed to the nearest cover without ceremony; and then a wild scream of terror broke on the air, and Ralph saw, directly in the fierce creature's path, a pretty girl, seemingly but a year younger than himself; a girl transfixed with fright,[Pg 9] standing there, directly in the pathway of horrible injury, if not death!

And what could he do? He who had been used to cattle was the only one who kept his courage. Had he been in the saddle and armed with a good stock whip the thing would have been touch and go; but he had nothing, and he could not tackle the bull empty-handed.

Stay, there was one thing—the rope! A chance, but a slender one. Quick as a flash he put a couple of turns round the post he had been aiming at and gathered the noose for a cast. The bull came thundering along the road, head down, tail out, snorting with rage and defiance. If it kept on like that it would pass quite close to him. He put another turn round the post. The shorter the rope the better the chance; and then, hand and eye acting in unison, he sent the noose round his head and made his cast. If he succeeded the bull would be over, if he failed the girl must go down.

And succeed he did. It was to him quite an easy throw. The noose settled fairly over those curving horns. There was a jerk, a roar of rage and fear, and the great struggling creature was hurled forward so violently, through the force of its flight, that it fell in a cloud of scattered mud and stones, and lay half stunned and wholly bewildered.

Ralph, with a cry of thankfulness, ran forward,[Pg 10] and pulled the girl from her dangerous proximity to its mighty legs, just as a gentleman, pale with terror, rushed from a shop near by, where he had been giving some orders.

"Irene!" he cried. "My little Irene! Thank Heaven that you are safe!" Then, as he saw the bull still noosed, and now in the hands of several men, he went on—

"But who did that? Who stopped the bull in that way?" and a dozen hands pointed to Ralph, who stood there feeling rather confused and awkward, and wishing that he could run away. Young ladies were more terrible things in his eyes than were angry bulls; and this young lady was thanking him so prettily, while her father, for so the gentleman was, kept shaking his hand, hardly able to voice his gratitude. He seemed overcome with a sense of the good hand of Providence in the matter.

"You are staying at the inn," he said. "I must return and express my thanks to your father. I will take my little daughter home first and then come back. Perhaps he will be in by then. What is your name, my dear young gentleman?"

"Ralph Rexworth," the lad answered. And the gentleman answered—

"And mine is Hubert St. Clive, and if ever I can be of service to you I shall think nothing too much to enable me to show some return for what you have done for me and mine this evening."

[Pg 11]

It was really a relief to Ralph when Mr. St. Clive had gone, and he was glad to get back to his room and escape the curious and admiring crowd, though even then he could not shut the landlord out, nor prevent the admiration of the maid, who would come in on all sorts of pretexts just to have a peep at him; and so the evening wore on, and the time for his father's return drew near.

But no father came, and at last Ralph began to grow anxious. He could not tell why, but he felt nervous. Had he been alone on the great Texan plains, where his boyhood had been passed, he would not have cared in the slightest; but here he was so lonely, everything was so different. His father had been gone nearly five hours, and Ralph did not know what to make of it.

And ten came and went, and eleven; and the landlord looked in restlessly, for the old fellow was beginning to have uneasy suspicions that his guest had gone off and did not mean to return again, and there was the dinner unpaid for.

Still, he could not turn this lonely boy out, so he suggested at last that Ralph should go to bed.

"Most like your father has been detained, sir, and he won't be back till the morning," he suggested. "Even if he does he can ring us up. We likes to get to bed as soon as we can after closing time, for the days are long enough, and we do not get too much rest."

So the landlord said, and Ralph took the hint and[Pg 12] went to his room. Throwing himself beside his bed, he prayed as he had never prayed before, asking his Heavenly Father to quickly send back to him his own dear parent.

To bed, but not to sleep. What could have happened to his father? Had he met with any accident? A thousand fears and questions presented themselves to the boy's mind, until at last he fell into a restless sleep, to dream that his father was calling to him for aid; and when he awoke it was to the alarming knowledge that he was still alone—his father had not come back.

His distress was now intensified, and old Simon, the landlord, was very perplexed; but he was a good-hearted old fellow, and he saw that the boy was provided with a good breakfast, reminding him that Mr. St. Clive would be certain to be round in the morning, as he had not come the evening before, and that then they could consult with him as to what was best to be done.

"You have your breakfast, anyhow," he said. "No one is worth much without their food. Mr. St. Clive is a very good gentleman, and he owes you a lot for having saved his little daughter. I am quite sure that he will be ready to advise you."

"But where can my father have got to?" asked Ralph, and the old man shook his head.

"It is more than I can say, sir. Perhaps he will be back soon."

[Pg 13]

But no father came; and when Mr. St. Clive arrived, which he did soon after breakfast was over, he was informed of Ralph's trouble, and he looked very grave indeed.

"Run away! Nonsense, Simon?" he said to the landlord, after he had been told. "That is absurd! If this gentleman had desired to do anything so base as desert his son, he would never have brought him all the way to England in order to do so. I will see the young gentleman."

"My dear lad," he greeted Ralph, when he was shown into the room where the boy was. "I was unable to return last evening, but I understand that it would have been no use had I done so. Your father has not come back, I hear."

"No, sir," replied Ralph; "and I feel very troubled, for I cannot imagine what has kept him away. He said he would only be a short time."

"You do not know where he was going, or whether he knew any one in the locality?"

But Ralph shook his head.

"I do not know, sir. Father did not tell me anything. We have lived all my life on the ranch in Texas, and when mother died last year father sold the ranch and brought me to England; but he did not tell me why."

"It is strange; but still, it is foolish to make trouble. He may have found his business take longer than he anticipated, and—well, Simon?"

[Pg 14]

"Beg pardon, Mr. St. Clive, but one of the men from Little Stow has just come in, and he has brought me this. He says that he found it in Stow Wood, just by the Black Mere."

And what was it that he had found? What was it that should wring a cry of grief from Ralph Rexworth? Only a hat—broken, as from a blow, and with an ominous red smear upon it. Only a hat; but that hat was never bought in England. It was the hat which his father was wearing when he left the inn the previous evening; and there it lay now upon the table, a grim, silent explanation of why that father had not returned.


[Pg 15]

CHAPTER II A CRUEL IMPLICATION

"My dear lad, it is foolish to give way to grief before you are sure that there is cause for it"—so said Mr. St. Clive to Ralph Rexworth, trying to comfort the boy and restore his confidence. "I admit that this, coupled with your father's absence, looks serious; but still, we do not know what explanation there may be to it. Come, try and be brave; trust in God, even though the very worst may have befallen; idle grief is useless. Let us go to Stow Wood and examine the place; perhaps we may discover something which this man may have overlooked. Pluck up your courage, and hope for the best; and Ralph, remember, that whatever happens you have a friend in myself, who counts it a privilege to be able to do anything to show how grateful he is to you for what you did yesterday."

Ralph, with an effort, subdued his feelings, and replied gratefully—

"You are very kind to me, sir. Let us do as you suggest. Will you take me to the place? I do not know anything of the country here, of course."

[Pg 16]

"I will go with you, and we will have this man accompany us, and show us exactly where he found this hat. Come, we will start at once."

Stow Wood was about a mile and a half from the inn, a rather dismal-looking place, where the grass grew long and dank, and where stoats and rats found a safe retreat from which to sally forth at night upon their marauding expeditions; and the grimmest, most lonely spot was around the deep pool, known locally as the Black Mere.

A dark, motionless pool it was; in some parts covered with green weed, surrounded by coarse grass.

Local superstition said that it was haunted, and though sensible people laughed at that, still the appearance of the spot was enough to give rise to such a legend.

"I found the hat just here, sir," said the man, bending down and pointing to a clump of blind-nettle. "You can see where it was lying, sir."

Mr. St. Clive and Ralph stopped and examined the place. It was clear that something resembling a struggle had taken place here, for the tall grass was trampled and beaten flat, and, in some places, the earth itself had been cut up, as though by the heels of boots. Mr. St. Clive felt very grave—if ever anything seemed to tell of a tragedy, this did—and he said to Ralph—

"My poor boy, I must own that there seems every appearance of foul play here. We shall have to see[Pg 17] the police. You are quite sure that your father told you nothing, however unimportant it may seem, which might give us an inkling of where he was going?"

"He said nothing, sir," answered Ralph sadly. "It is all a mystery to me. But now we are here we may as well learn all that we can."

"What more can we learn, Ralph?" asked Mr. St. Clive. "This silent spot will not speak and tell us what happened."

"Not to you perhaps, but it will speak to me, sir. I have been brought up on the plains, remember, and grass and trees may tell me more than they can tell to you. First, sir, is this a direct road to anywhere? I mean, is it a general thoroughfare?"

Mr. St. Clive shook his head.

"No, Ralph. It is a rarely frequented spot. The village people are half afraid of it. It is a short cut from Stow Ormond to Great Stow, and it would argue that your father must have been familiar with the place for him to have taken it."

"Where else besides Great Stow does it lead to, sir?"

"Why, my lad, to nowhere in particular. It takes you out the other side of Stow Common, and, of course, from there you can go where you will."

Ralph nodded.

"So that we may suppose that any one crossing here would be going to Great Stow?"

[Pg 18]

"Yes. It would save him going all round through Little Stow."

"Very well, sir. Now we will go to the side of the wood nearest to the inn."

"Why?" asked Mr. St. Clive in surprise.

"Because I want to know whether my father crossed this place in going from the inn; and if so, I want to try and see where he went to. There is a lot to learn here, sir; but I must start at the beginning."

Mr. St. Clive was impressed, though he could not understand what Ralph meant; and so together they went back to that part of the wood which bordered upon Stow Ormond, and here Ralph began to walk to and fro, carefully surveying the grass, until presently he stopped and said—

"My father did cross here. He got over that stile."

"How do you know, Ralph?" asked Mr. St. Clive. "I confess that I see nothing to indicate it."

"Why, it is quite clear, sir," answered the boy. "See, the ground here is soft and muddy, and this is the imprint of my father's foot here in this soft red clay. That has taken the mark like wax. That is his square-toed boot."

Mr. St. Clive had to admit that so far the boy was correct. Some one wearing a square-toed boot had stepped into a little heap of clay, and the footmark was quite clearly defined.

"Now," Ralph went on, pointing to the stile, "here is a mark of clay on the stile, so he must have crossed[Pg 19] here, and here the grass has been trodden down as he went on."

This latter sign was nothing like so clear, but the boy, used to reading tracks in the far-off West, showed the man how the blades of grass were turned from the weight that had trodden on them; and as they walked forward the traces became even plainer, leading past the pool, and on towards the common; and Ralph gave a cry as he studied the ground.

"Here are two people walking now," he said; "and one wears pointed boots!"

"The man who brought the hat to us," suggested Mr. St. Clive.

"No, sir. He wore big boots, with nails in them. You can see the marks of those quite plainly, and he came here last of all."

"How do you know that?" demanded Mr. St. Clive, very interested.

"Because the marks that he has made are over all the others," was the explanation. "Let us go on."

They followed the traces, faint though they seemed, until they reached the common; and here, though Ralph studied the ground for nearly an hour, he could discover nothing. Several roads crossed the common, and the men must have traversed one of these, but which one there was nothing to show.

Back to the pool they went, and here Ralph paused; and Mr. St. Clive, looking at him inquiringly, said—

[Pg 20]

"Well, what now, my boy? Have you learnt anything?"

"Yes—a lot, sir; but I do not understand it. Let me tell you what these signs tell me. My father crossed here alone, and went somewhere across the common, and I do not think that it could have been very far away. Then he came back alone——"

"But the second man?" queried Mr. St. Clive.

"One moment, sir. He came alone, and he stopped to light another cigar just here. Look, here is the match half-burnt, and the stump of the one he threw away."

"Yes; go on," said Mr. St. Clive, nodding his head. "You have reason for what you say."

"Now, some one followed my father back, and he wore rather small boots with pointed toes——"

"Plenty of gentlemen do that. I wear such boots myself, you see."

"I know, sir. This man was dodging my father, and when he stopped to light his cigar the man stopped too, just over there behind that hedge."

"My dear lad, what makes you say that?"

"The mark of his feet are there, and I think he fired at my father more than once. He fired once and missed, I know, because this tree has got a bullet in the bark, and I am going to have it out! Then he ran forward, and there must have been a fight, and father fell just here. Look, you can surely see where he lay? See the length where the grass is crushed;[Pg 21] and see these two marks—a heel and a toe; that means, that some one knelt beside him, and——. Look, look, sir!"

A glimmer of something bright in the long grass caught Ralph's eye, and, stooping, he picked up a watch and chain, and a purse, which had evidently been thrown hastily aside.

"Whoever killed my father searched him, and wanted something in particular. It was no robber, for then he would have taken these and not thrown them down."

Mr. St. Clive could only look on in silence. There was something very strange in the boy thus unfolding the incidents of a strange mystery, reading them from almost invisible signs upon the grass. And Ralph continued—

"Then the man ran away and came back with a cart—you can see the marks of the wheels. See, they come close up here! And here he drove off again. I suppose that father was in the cart—that is what he brought it for. The horse went a bit lame, too, in the off forefoot. That is all the place can tell me, sir."

All! Mr. St. Clive was amazed that the boy was able to see so much, and he followed his reasoning, noting how one footmark partly obliterated another, proving that it had been made after it. That a strange meeting had taken place in that lonely wood seemed indeed all too likely, but beyond that all was[Pg 22] mystery. Why had Mr. Rexworth entered this place, whither was he going, and who was the man who had come after him?

Ralph had his knife out, and was busily cutting away the bark of one of the trees which stood close by. His action proved that he had not been wrong in his conjecture—a flattened piece of lead was embedded there, and Frank put it into his pocket.

"Perhaps one day that may tell me some more," he said.

But there was nothing more to do there, though Mr. St. Clive said that he would see that the wood was searched through, and that the mere was dragged; and then, trying to speak comforting words to Ralph, he returned with him to Stow Ormond. And as they entered the inn, a tall, handsome gentleman, with one hand in a sling, came out, and seeing Mr. St. Clive, greeted him with: "Hallo, St. Clive, I hear that your little girl had a narrow escape last night!"

Mr. St. Clive frowned.

"Yes, from your bull, Lord Elgert. You ought to have the brute properly guarded. If it had not been for this young gentleman, Irene might have been killed."

Lord Elgert stared at Ralph, and his look was not pleasant.

"Oh, is this the young man who noosed him? Well, he has broken the bull's knees; but, however, it is fortunate that he was at hand. By the way, what is[Pg 23] this that Simon tells me. Something has happened in Stow Wood?"

"I fear so," replied Mr. St. Clive; and he narrated briefly what they had discovered.

Was it fancy, or did Ralph notice that handsome face turn a shade paler when mention was made of the bullet cut from the tree? Somehow the boy did not like this wealthy gentleman, though he knew not why he should regard him with enmity. When Mr. St. Clive had concluded, Lord Elgert said—

"Dear, dear! How strange! But still, you do not know that anything has happened. You will tell the police, of course. Can you give a description of your father, my boy?"

"I can show his likeness, sir," replied Ralph, taking out his pocket-book. "Here it is!"

Lord Elgert took the photograph, but as he looked at it he gave a whistle of surprise.

"So this is the missing man?" he said. "St. Clive, perhaps, I can tell you something of interest. Last night my place was broken into, and I woke up to hear a man in my study. I went down and switched on the electric light, so that I could see the rascal quite plainly. He turned and tried to bolt, but I closed with him, and in the rough-and-tumble he managed to cut my hand open and clear off. St. Clive, I am positive that the man was none other than the original of this likeness, and——"

He was interrupted by a passionate cry of pain and[Pg 24] anger, and Ralph, snatching the photograph from his hand, stood confronting him with blazing eyes.

"It is false!" he cried. "You know it is false! I believe that you are responsible for my father's disappearance!"


[Pg 25]

CHAPTER III MR. ST. CLIVE PROVES HIMSELF A TRUE FRIEND

"I believe that you are responsible for my father's disappearance."

So did Ralph Rexworth cry in his anger; and Lord Elgert started, and his face grew dark with rage.

"You impudent young dog!" he shouted, raising his stick; and the blow would have fallen, had not Mr. St. Clive stopped it with his arm.

"Lord Elgert," he said sternly; for he was shocked at the callous way in which the charge had been made, "I cannot stand by and allow that. You have made a very serious charge——"

"Nothing so serious as that young rascal has made. I am surprised that you stand by and listen to it, St. Clive; but you always were antagonistic to me! I assert what is fact. My place was broken into——"

"Did any one but yourself see this man?"

"An absurd question! Who was there to see him? By the time the alarm was given he was gone. I shall have to tell the police of that photograph; it will be wanted to help in tracing him. I expect this story is all nonsense; and upon inquiry it will[Pg 26] be found that the farthest these two have travelled is from London. Most probably this boy, who makes such unfounded charges, knew well the business which brought his father here. The story of what happened in the woods is really too romantic. If two people were there, the second was most likely an accomplice; and they have gone off, leaving the boy here to see what he can learn, or pick up. You are easily deceived, St. Clive." And Lord Elgert turned upon his heel with a mocking laugh.

But ere he could go, Ralph stood in his path, regarding him with a fixed stare.

"I do not know you," he said. "I never saw you before; but I can tell friend from enemy, and you are an enemy. I am only a boy; but one day I will bring your words back to you, and make you prove them."

"Out of my way, you young rascal!" came the answer, "or I will have you in prison before long. St. Clive, I wish you joy of your young friend. Take my advice, and keep a sharp eye on the silver, if you suffer him to enter your house."

Ralph would have surely been provoked into some foolish action had not Mr. St. Clive laid a gentle hand upon his shoulder, and led him back into the inn; and then the boy quite broke down.

"Oh, sir! Oh, sir!" he cried. "To say such things about my dear father—my dear, kind father! But he shall prove them," he added fiercely. "I[Pg 27] will make him prove them. I believe that he knows something."

"Ralph," answered Mr. St. Clive quietly, "because Lord Elgert has been both unkind and foolish, that is no reason why you should talk wildly. To say that Lord Elgert has had anything to do with your father's disappearance, seems to me to be the very height of folly. He is a rich man, and one of our justices——"

"Where does he live, sir?" queried Ralph suddenly.

"At Castle Court, near Great Stow. Ah," he added, as he saw Ralph's look, "I know what you are thinking—that it is in the direction whither your father was going! But remember, that will be equally applicable to Lord Elgert's story that your father was going there. It is most likely that some one in a measure resembling your father, did break into Castle Court—we have not the slightest reason for discrediting Lord Elgert's statement—and in the confusion of the struggle, he did not clearly distinguish his opponent, and so says that he resembles this photograph. Mistaken identity is a common occurrence, and——"

"You do not believe his story, sir? I could not bear to think that."

"I do not, Ralph. If I did so, I should still feel my debt of gratitude to you; but I do not believe it. I am not so foolish as to mistake between a gentleman and a thief; and though I have not seen your father, I think that I can see him in you and your[Pg 28] manner. Now be brave, and do not trouble about what his lordship said. He was angry because you spoke as you did; and though it was natural, your language was not very polite." And Mr. St. Clive smiled slightly. "Now let us talk sensibly. First, you cannot stay here by yourself; therefore, disregarding the warning I have received, I invite you to be my guest for the time, until we can see what is best to be done. What money have you of your own?"

"Only a few shillings, but there is the purse, sir." And Ralph opened the purse which they had picked up in Stow Wood. "Here are five sovereigns, and two five-pound notes, sir."

"Then we had better pay the innkeeper and make a start. Simon"—as the old fellow came in answer to the bell—"I am going to take this young gentleman home with me. If his father should return, or if letters arrive, you will let us know. Make out your bill. And, Simon, I suppose that you did not recognize Mr. Rexworth at all?"

"Why, no, sir; I cannot say that I did! But he knew the place, sir; and when I told the girl to show him up to No. 10, sir, he just went straight up to it. He knew the Horse and Wheel, sir."

"Well, get your bill ready."

The old man went out. It was something of a relief to know that he was going to be paid; for he had begun to have some doubts about the matter.

[Pg 29]

So it came about that Ralph Rexworth was taken home by Mr. St. Clive; and there he was received with kindness and warmth by that gentleman's wife, while little Irene smiled shyly, and put out one dainty little hand for him to take in his brown palm.

"I thank you very much," the little lass said. "I think that horrid bull would have killed me if it had not been for you." And Mrs. St. Clive shuddered as she listened; for her husband had told her how great was the peril from which Irene had been rescued.

Leaving the two young people to make friends, Mr. St. Clive took his wife aside and told her of the strange position in which their young guest was placed.

"The boy does not seem to have a friend in the world," he said. "And he is undoubtedly a gentleman, Kate. What is to be done? His father may return; but I confess that it looks as if a tragedy had taken place. It was wonderful how the lad pieced together traces which were invisible to me. I fear that something bad has occurred. As to Lord Elgert's idea, I do not put much faith in it. Elgert is too fond of thinking evil of people—he is one of the most merciless men on the bench. What shall we do, Kate?"

"Do?" replied his wife, with a fond smile. "Why, Hubert, you have already determined what to do!"

Her husband laughed pleasantly.

[Pg 30]

"I confess that I have. Still, I like to have your desire run with my own. You want this lad to stay here?"

"Yes, Hubert. If he is lonely and friendless, let us be his friends; for had he not rescued her, our dear little daughter would have been killed."

So husband and wife agreed; but when they went to Ralph they found that he was not quite willing to accept the invitation.

"I know how kind it is of you," the boy said. "And it is true that I have no friends, and nowhere to go; but I—I cannot live on your charity. I want to earn my living somehow."

"That is good, Ralph," was the hearty reply of Mr. St. Clive; "but you must be reasonable. There is such a thing as unreasonable pride. You cannot earn your living in any calling as a gentleman, without you are fitted for it. Your life on the plains, and life here, or in London, would be very vastly different. If you had friends in Texas we might send you back again——"

"No, no, sir!" cried Ralph, interrupting him. "I could not go back. Here I must stay for two reasons. I must live to find out what has become of my father, and I must clear his name from the accusation that man made."

"Your first reason is good; your second I do not think that you need worry over. Then you will stay? Well, then, you must certainly let the wish of my[Pg 31] wife and of Irene conquer your pride. I want to help you all I can; and if presently it is better for you to go, I promise you that I will not seek to detain you."

"Do stop, Ralph," added Irene, who, pet as she was, had stolen into her father's study, and heard what was said. "I want you to stay; and I want you to teach me how to throw a rope like that, though I should never dare to throw it at a bull. Please stay."

And somehow Ralph looked down into that upturned little face, and he could not say "no."

"It is very good of you, sir," he murmured, to Mr. St. Clive, "especially after what Lord Elgert said——"

"My lad, do not be so sensitive concerning that."

"But I cannot help it, sir. He first called my father a thief; and he—he—you know what he said about your silver?"

And Ralph turned very red.

Mr. St. Clive understood, and sympathized. He liked Ralph all the better for being keenly sensitive about it.

"There, let it go, my dear boy. Now, once more, business. Have you any luggage, save these two handbags?"

"In London, sir. Two great trunks. Father left them at the station. Here are the papers for them." And the boy took a railway luggage receipt from his pocket-book.

"This is important. We may find something to[Pg 32] help us in those trunks," cried Mr. St. Clive. "Of course, I am not legally justified in touching them, Ralph; but, under the circumstances, I think that I might do so. We must have them here, and examine their contents. We may then discover what brought your father to Stow Ormond; and that, in its turn, might give us some clue as to what may have happened."

"I do not think there is much doubt as to what has happened," sighed the boy. But Mr. St. Clive would not listen to that.

"Never look at the darkest side, lad. There is a kind Providence over all, and we must never despair. Now, our very first task must be to obtain your travelling trunks without delay."

Mr. St. Clive lost no time in putting this resolution into practice. The trunks were got down from London, and opened; but, to their disappointment, their contents revealed nothing which tended in any way to throw a light upon the mystery—clothing, a few mementoes of their Texan home, and—and in view of Ralph's future welfare this was most important—banknotes and gold to the amount of 3,000!

"No need to feel yourself dependent upon any one now, Ralph," was the remark of Mr. St. Clive, as they counted this money; "and no need to give another thought to Lord Elgert's suspicions. People possessed of so much money do not go breaking into houses,[Pg 33] risking their liberty for the sake of what they may be able to steal."

Now, though Irene St. Clive was delighted, and would have been quite content for Ralph to have stayed as her companion, her father did not look at matters in that way; and he had a serious talk with Ralph, having first quietly questioned him in order to ascertain his acquirements.

"You see, Ralph," he said, "what a man needs in England is quite different from what he may need abroad. You can ride, shoot, and round up cattle; but that is no good here. Your father has given you a general education, so that you are not a dunce; but it is nothing like what you will need as a gentleman here. Knowledge is power and your desire to clear up the matter of your father's disappearance demands that you should acquire all the power obtainable. My advice—I have no right to insist, remember—but my advice is that you should spend a couple of years at a first-class school—we have a splendid one here—and if you work honestly during that time, with your intellect you ought to have made a good headway. What do you say?"

The boy knit his brows. To one who had passed his days in a wild, free life, such a prospect did not hold out many charms; but then Ralph was fond of learning, and had sometimes sighed that he could not learn more. Besides, his one object in life was to solve the matter of his father's disappearance,[Pg 34] and clear his name from any foul charge. In his heart, Ralph had resolved ever to live under honour's flag. He looked up, and answered frankly—

"I will be guided entirely by you, sir, unless my father comes back; then, of course, I should do whatever he directed."

"My feeling is, that had your father elected to remain in England he would certainly have sent you to school. Now, Ralph, I am going to be frank with you. We have, as I have said, a splendid school near here; but amongst its pupils is Horace Elgert. I fear that he takes after his father somewhat; and if Lord Elgert has said anything, or does say anything to him when he knows you are there, young Horace may try to make it unpleasant for you. Do you understand?"

"Perfectly, sir," replied Ralph.

"And will you go there?"

Ralph looked Mr. St. Clive in the face, and he answered firmly:

"Yes, sir. The boy's being there is nothing to me. I will go."

"Good!" replied Mr. St. Clive, with a nod of appreciation. "We will go over and see the Headmaster to-morrow."


[Pg 35]

CHAPTER IV RALPH'S FIRST DAY AT SCHOOL

"He is a fine young fellow, but his past life has been spent amidst very different scenes, and he is far from having a fitting education. But he is very intellectual and will acquire knowledge quickly. His father must have been a gentleman, and he has taught his son to be one also."

It was Mr. St. Clive who spoke, and his words were addressed to Dr. Beverly, the principal of Marlthorpe College—the best school in all the county.

A fine-looking man was the doctor, tall, erect, dignified, with firm face and piercing eyes—eyes which could look terribly severe when their owner was angry, but which otherwise were gentle, and even mirthful.

Dr. Beverly was proud of his school, but prouder still of his work. He did not labour to make scholars only, but also to build up men—good, noble men—who should be a credit to the old school, and a blessing to their country. Work or play, the doctor believed in everything being done as well as it could be, for his watchword was "Whatever you do, do it to the[Pg 36] glory of God," and nothing can be done to God's glory that is not done as well as it possibly can be.

Mr. St. Clive had explained how Ralph came to be under his care, and had told the doctor how much he owed to him; and he finished by mentioning the cruel statement which Lord Elgert had made, and the angry way in which Ralph had answered it.

"I tell you this," he said, "that you may know everything. I attach no weight to Elgert's statement myself—it is too absurd, but you must exercise your own discretion," and the doctor smiled slightly.

"Lord Elgert is rather prone to make rash statements," he said. "I shall be quite willing to receive your young friend, and I will do my best to turn him into a good man."

"That I am sure of," was the hearty reply, "and I am also sure that you will have good material to work upon. Then I will bring Ralph over."

"And do you propose that he shall board here entirely, or return to you every Saturday, as most of the lads do?"

"Oh, come home. That is how I did in my day—you know I want to watch the boy. Good-day, doctor," and Mr. St. Clive came away.

Marlthorpe College was a splendid old building, with large playing fields at the back, and a great quadrangle in front, to which entrance was gained through a pair of great iron gates, against which the porter's lodge was built.

[Pg 37]

The school itself was at the other side of the quadrangle, directly facing the gates—a two storey building, with the hall, in which the whole school assembled upon special occasions, below, and with the classrooms above. It had two wings; the one to the right being the doctor's own residence, and that on the left the undermaster's quarters.

At the back there were again buildings on the right and left—on the left junior dormitories, the dining-hall, and matron's rooms; and on the right senior dormitories and studies.

Mr. St. Clive drove home and told Ralph the result of his visit.

"I am sure that you will like the doctor," he said, "and you will find your companions a nice lot of fellows. Of course there will be some unpleasant ones; and Ralph, if things are as they used to be, you will find that there are two sets of fellows—those who mean to work honestly, and those who never intend to take pains. I need not ask which set you will belong to," and Mr. St. Clive smiled. "But now," he added, "I want you to try and be brave. You have a very terrible sorrow, I know; and it is hard to put it from my mind——"

"It is never from my mind, sir," interrupted Ralph sadly. "I am always thinking of it."

"But you must not brood over it. To do that, will unfit you for all else. Leave it with God, Ralph, and do not let even so great a grief interfere with life's[Pg 38] duties. Will you promise me to try and remember this?"

"I will indeed, sir," answered Ralph. "If I have lost father, I mean to try and think that he knows, and just do that which would please him."

"That is good; but still better is it to remember that we have to try and do that which shall please our Heavenly Father. Now, Ralph, I suppose that out where you made your home, blows often were the only way of settling troubles. I do not say that blows are never justifiable, for sometimes we are placed in such circumstances as warrant fighting, but do not be too ready to quarrel, or to avenge every fancied insult with your fist. But there, I am sure that I can leave that to you. Now come to lunch, and then we must see about starting."

"I am so glad that you are coming home every week, Ralph," so said Irene St. Clive, when she heard of the arrangements which her father had made. "My own lessons are finished on Friday, and we can have all Saturday to ourselves. I shall count all the days until each Saturday comes."

So with kindly words to cheer him on his way, Ralph started off with Mr. St. Clive, and was introduced to Dr. Beverly; and Ralph felt that he liked the doctor from the very first moment that he saw him; and he determined that he would do all that he could to get on and prove to Mr. St. Clive that he meant to keep his word.

[Pg 39]

Then when his friend had gone, the doctor questioned Ralph to see just what he knew; and at the conclusion of the examination he laid his hand on his shoulder.

"My boy," he said, "it is my desire always to have the fullest confidence in my scholars, and also to enjoy their confidence. I want you to remember that I desire to be your friend as well as your master, and that out of school hours I am always glad to see any of my boys who want to talk with me. I do not mean who want to come tale-bearing," he added, and Ralph smiled as he answered—

"Thank you, sir. I think I understand."

"You will have to be in the Fourth Form at first, that is the lowest Form in the Senior House," the doctor continued. "But if you work well, you will soon be in the Fifth. Now, if you will come with me I will introduce you to your master, Mr. Delermain, and I think you will find him ever ready to help you in any way he can."

Ralph thanked the Head again, and followed him, with more of curiosity than of nervousness, to make the acquaintance of the boys with whom he was to study; and twenty pairs of eyes glanced up as the Head opened the door, and then dropped as quickly when they saw who had entered.

But the master rose from his seat and came forward to meet the doctor, who said, patting Ralph on the shoulder—

[Pg 40]

"I have brought you a new scholar, Mr. Delermain. This is Ralph Rexworth, and he is the young gentleman of whom you have heard—the one who saved Mr. St. Clive's daughter." Hereat the eyes were stealthily raised, and glances of something like respectful awe followed. Of course every one there had heard of the incident about the bull, and of the disappearance of Mr. Rexworth.

"Rexworth is rather backward," the Head continued. "His life has been spent abroad, and he has not had the opportunities for study; but I believe that he will soon pick up." And with this Dr. Beverly went, and Mr. Delermain, having spoken a few words of welcome, beckoned to a boy to come forward.

"Warren, let Rexworth sit beside you this afternoon, and give him a set of the sums we are doing. If you find them too difficult," he added to Ralph, "do not hesitate to come to me."

But Ralph did not need to ask for aid, he could do the sums and the exercises that followed. Indeed, he did better than some who had been there longer, notably one big lad with a sickly flabby face, who was seated at the bottom of the class, and who received a reprimand from his master for his indolence.

"It is shameful, Dobson! Here, a new boy has done better than you have. Your idleness is disgraceful."

A writing exercise followed; and Ralph was bending over his book, when flop!—a wad of wet blotting-paper[Pg 41] hit him in the cheek. He looked up, but every one seemed busy with their work, so wiping his cheek he put the wet mass on one side, and went on with his task. Flop! A second wad came. Ralph noted the direction, and saw that at the end of the form Dobson was seated, and Ralph had his suspicions. Pretending to be absorbed in his work, he kept a covert watch; and presently he was rewarded by seeing Dobson extract a third wad from his mouth, where he had been chewing it into a convenient pellet, and under cover of the boy in front of him prepare to fire it by a flick of his thumb. Ralph raised his eyes and looked him full in the face, and, somehow, Dobson seemed confused. He turned red, and bent over his work hastily; and no more pellets were fired at Ralph that afternoon.

It seemed rather a wearisome afternoon to the boy, used as he was to his open-air life, but he worked away with all his might; and presently the bell rang and work was over; and then Warren, the boy beside whom he had sat, came to him and held out his hand.

"I am first monitor of our form," he said, "and I hope that we shall be friends. If you come with me I will take you round the school."

"Rexworth."

Ralph turned as his name was called; his master stood there.

"I want you a few minutes. Warren, you can take[Pg 42] him round afterwards. I want to arrange about his study."

"We have only got one vacant, sir," the monitor said. "Charlton has that."

"I know," was the quiet answer; and then, when Warren ran off, the master turned to Ralph.

"Rexworth," he said, "I must explain that in our form every two boys have one study between them, and as you heard Warren say, we have only one study that is not fully occupied. A lad named Charlton has it, and you must chum with him. It is about him I want to speak to you."

"Yes, sir," said Ralph, wondering why his master spoke so gravely.

"Rexworth, I am sorry to say that Charlton is not quite in favour with his schoolmates. His father got into some trouble and has disappeared—it is supposed that he is dead—and the boy managed to gain a scholarship at another and poorer school, and has come here. He is a real nice lad, but very weakly and timid, and the others put upon him, partly on that account, partly because of his father's disappearance, and partly because he is poor—a sad crime in the eyes of many. It would have been wiser, I think, if he had not come here, but Dr. Beverly wished him to do so. I wish, Rexworth, that you would try to be his friend, for he needs one; some of the lads are nice enough to him, but he seems so very much alone."

[Pg 43]

"I would like to help him, sir," was the ready answer. And the master smiled.

"I thought that I was not mistaken in you," he said. "Look, there the lad is. Charlton, come here."

The lad came up. He was a pale boy, very delicate in appearance, and with a sad, wistful face.

"Yes, sir," he said.

"Charlton, there is only one vacancy in our studies, and that is with you. Rexworth will have to chum with you." The boy cast a startled glance at Ralph. "Take him and show him where it is, and try to make him feel at home."

"Yes, sir." The boy beckoned to Ralph. "Please come with me," he said, in troubled tones, as if he doubted whether Ralph would care about sharing the study with him.

"Have we got to be chums?" asked Ralph; and the other boy nodded.

"Yes. That is what we call it. It means sharing studies; but you need not speak to me if you don't want to, and I will not be in the study much. I am not as it is, for they are always disturbing me and spoiling my things."

"They! Who?" demanded Ralph; and the lad answered—

"The other chaps and the Fifths. Dobson, in ours, and Elgert of the Fifth, are the worst. They go in and spoil my things."

"They have no business to, of course?"

[Pg 44]

"Go in? No, of course not—only the two who chum have any right in it. Here we are, and—there, they are in now!"—as a scuffling and burst of laughter came from the inside of the study before which the boy had halted. "Oh, what are they doing! Will you stop until they have gone?"

"Not I," answered Ralph grimly. "That study is mine as well as yours, and I mean to see that we have it to ourselves, Charlton. Come on, and we will see what is up." And saying this, Ralph threw open the door and walked into the little room, followed by his companion.


[Pg 45]

CHAPTER V MAKING THINGS STRAIGHT

A burst of laughter greeted Ralph's ears as he opened the study door, and some one said:

"Look sharp. Here he comes! Hurry up there, Elgert!"

But the laughter died away somewhat awkwardly when the boys saw that Charlton was not alone, and one or two of the boys came up to Ralph.

"Hallo, you new fellow! They surely haven't put you to chum with Charlton, have they? What a shame! I should kick against it. Some one else must make room for you."

Such were the remarks of those who had taken a fancy to Ralph, but he paid no heed to it all. He just calmly gazed round, as if counting the number of boys there and taking their measure; and then he quite as calmly shut the door, locked it, and put the key in his pocket. Those present looked in surprise for a moment—some laughed, and one, a tall, handsome boy, came haughtily up to him.

"What do you mean by that?" he demanded. "How dare you lock that door?"

[Pg 46]

Ralph regarded him with the utmost coolness. No one had told him who the boy was, and yet he seemed to know—he felt sure that this was none other than Horace Elgert himself.

"Wait a bit," he said calmly. "So far as I understand, this study belongs to Charlton and myself. We have a perfect right to lock the door."

"But not to lock us in," retorted Elgert. "Open it at once, and think yourself lucky that you don't get a licking for your impudence!"

"Steady!" was Ralph's answer. "It seems to me that if you had not been where you have no right to be, you would not have got locked in; and now that you are here, you must wait my pleasure as to going out."

This was beginning school life with a vengeance, but Ralph believed in settling things once and for all, and his indignation was hot as he saw what these half dozen lads had been doing.

But Horace Elgert was not a boy to be spoken to like that, and he came striding up to Ralph to take the key by force.

"I will soon settle you," he began, and he aimed a blow at this impertinent new boy's head, only somehow the blow did not get there. Ralph adroitly stepped aside, and the Honourable Horace Elgert stumbled to the ground violently.

"A fight! A fight!" cried the rest; but Ralph smiled and shook his head.

[Pg 47]

"Oh, no, my friends. I have something better to do, and this is not the place for fighting."

They were staggered. They could not understand this coolness and, moreover, they had all heard about Ralph having tackled the bull, and the story had grown somewhat. They stood considerably in awe of this boy from the Western plains, and they began to wish that they were anywhere else than in his study.

Horace Elgert got up, his face white with passion but he made no more attempts to take the key from Ralph.

"You are right," he said, in suppressed tones; "this is not the place to fight. Open the door, and we will soon settle things."

"Presently," was all the answer he got. "Now, then, let us see what you have been up to."

He glanced round at the books tumbled on the floor, at a desk upset, at an ink-bottle on its side, and then turned to his chum.

But Charlton was standing, looking very white, and staring at a picture on the wall—the picture of a lady, and beneath it some one had written—

"This is Charlton's mammy. But where is his daddy? Puzzle—Find daddy, and tell the police."

Ralph felt his nerves tingle. He felt sure that Elgert had done that, and he remembered the words of Lord Elgert respecting his own father.

"Who did that?" he said, and no one answered. He went up to Elgert. "Did you do it?"

[Pg 48]

"Well, if I did, what is it to do with you? Mind your own business!"

"Take that scrawl down. Quick, or I shall lose my temper, and then I fancy some one will get hurt! Down with it! That is right"—as the other, considerably startled, pulled the writing down. "Give it to me."

It was remarkable how the daring of the one lad held the half dozen in check. Elgert handed him the paper, and Ralph tore it up and threw the fragments into his face.

"Now then, you have upset this room. Just put it straight again, and look sharp about it!" he said. "And please to understand that Charlton and I are chums, and mean to stick together. Oh, and I want a word with you"—and he walked up to Dobson, who turned a trifle more pasty-looking than before. "Do you know what these are?"

Ralph produced two wads of chewed blotting-paper from his pocket as he spoke, and Dobson blustered—

"You keep to your chum, since you are so thick with him. I don't want anything to do with you. I say, you chaps, are you going to let him crow over you like this? Rush him!"

"Good advice; only, why don't you do the rushing first?" said Ralph. "I asked you if you recognized these. If you don't, I will tell you what they are—they are pieces of blotting-paper, which you chewed and then threw at me. They came out of your mouth,[Pg 49] and they are going back there again—when I have mopped up this ink which you have spilt." Ralph suited the action to the word, and presented the two unpalatable-looking objects to Dobson, who was at once a coward and a bully. "Now, then, open your mouth!"

"I won't! Who do you think that you are? I—— Oh!"

For Ralph did not argue. He grabbed hold of Dobson, and with a quick jerk sent him backwards across the little study table.

"Oh, oh! You are breaking my back!" howled the bully.

"Open your mouth!"

"I won't! Oh, help me, you fellows—he will break my back! Oh! Ugh! Ow! I am choking!" For, just as he opened his mouth to yell, Ralph had pushed both those pieces of blotting-paper in.

"Now, then, take them," he said. "Quick, or it will be the worse for you!"

Dobson, with many queer grimaces, had to comply—it was the most unsavoury morsel which he had tasted for many a day.

Dobson had to comply

"Dobson, with many queer grimaces, had to comply." p. 49

"Now! Ah, I see that you have straightened things!" Ralph went on. "Now you chaps can go, and the next time you want to come into our study take my advice and ask leave, or there will be more trouble. Clear out!"

And he unlocked the door and flung it open.

[Pg 50]

And out those half dozen boys went, looking considerably crestfallen and stupid, and knowing also that they were cowards—they were all frightened by Ralph, so greatly does one of dauntless bearing affect a number.

But one boy turned, and that one was Horace Elgert, and he came back and gave Ralph look for look.

"Look here, you new fellow!" he said, "you have been very clever, but you have done a bad day's work for yourself. You have made one enemy at least. As for that insult which you offered me, you will have to fight me for it; and as for you, you miserable cub"—and he turned towards Charlton, who cowered back before his raised fist—"as for you, I will——"

"Hold hard—you will do nothing!" answered Ralph, with the utmost good humour. "You are talking tall, that is all about it. Now, take my advice, and go; and when you are calmer, you will see things differently. And then, as to fighting—well, I shall not run away in the meantime. Clear!"

And with that he shut the door and locked it behind his discomfited foes. Then, seating himself, he looked at the bewildered Charlton, and laughed again as he saw the look of admiration in his face.

"There, I think that has taught them a lesson! We shall not have them upset our study again," he said. "One must maintain one's rights, and we may[Pg 51] as well begin as we mean to go on. So this is our study, is it?"

"Yes, if you will share it with me," the other boy said. And Ralph answered—

"Share it? Of course I shall share it with you! Did not you hear Mr. Delermain say that we were to share it?"

"But most fellows don't like me, because—because——"

"Never mind why," interrupted Ralph, anxious to spare the boy's feelings. "I heard something about your father being gone; well, my father is gone, you know"—and Ralph's voice shook a little—"and so we two ought to be chums, and help each other. Then, I suppose that you know more than I do; for, except at roping a steer or rounding up a herd of cattle, I am afraid that I am not of much use. You will be able to help me on no end."

"What! I help you?" gasped Charlton. "How can I do that?"

"You know Greek and Latin, and goodness knows how much more, that I am only just at the beginning of, and you will be able to give me a hand with it. I want to get on and pick up things as quickly as I can."

"I might help you that way, if you would let me," the boy said doubtfully. And Ralph laughed.

"What a chap you are! Have I not told you that I shall be downright thankful: and there you keep[Pg 52] on about if I will let you. Come, shake hands upon it! Charlton, we two are chums, and we are going to stick together and help each other. Is that so?"

"Yes, if you will. I shall be so glad to have a chum, because it has been rather lonely sometimes; and then, you see, I am not very strong, and I am not brave like you, and the fellows know it, and they try to play all sorts of tricks upon me. Do you really mean to be my chum, Rexworth?"

"Really and truly! Now, let us go down, and then you can show me what the place is like," was Ralph's answer. And the two, descending to the playground were met by Warren, who stopped and looked from Ralph to Charlton, and then asked—

"I say, Rexworth, what have you been up to so soon? There is Dobson declaring that he will do all manner of things to you. You seem to have been having some fun already."

So Ralph explained what had happened, and the monitor laughed until the tears ran down his cheeks.

"Well, all I can say is that you are a cool hand," was his comment, "and I am not sorry that you have taught Dobson a lesson. You have not much to fear from him, but you will find that Elgert, for all he is an Honourable, has precious little honour about him. He will pay you back if he gets the chance, be sure of that. However," he went on, "I am glad that you[Pg 53] two are chums, for I think you will like each other; but there is the bell for tea. Come on, or we shall be late."

The rest of that day passed without further incident and at last the boys—evening preparation and supper over—went trooping to their dormitories, there to laugh and chat as they undressed; and many glances were bestowed upon Ralph. His exploit of that afternoon had been spoken of, and there was no attempt to play any jokes upon one who was prepared to take his own part so vigorously.

But presently the laughing suddenly stopped, and something like a hush of surprise succeeded the noise. Warren seated on the edge of his bed, looked round to see what had happened—he thought that one of the masters had come in unexpectedly; but he saw his companions standing glancing across towards the spot where Ralph's bed was, and he, following their gaze, saw that the boy who was ready to face half a dozen of his companions, was down on his knees, his head bent upon his hands in prayer.

Warren felt a thrill of shame. He was a real good lad at heart, but somehow he did not do that—none of them did—they thought that public prayers were enough; and yet he had promised his mother that each night he would kneel alone in prayer.

Some of the boys were tittering, some looked grave. Warren suddenly found himself resolved. "If a thing should be done, do it at once," was his motto. He gave[Pg 54] one hasty glance round, half ashamed, half defiant, and then, in the sight of all his companions, the Fourth Form monitor also knelt down by his bed, following the brave example set by Ralph Rexworth.


[Pg 55]

CHAPTER VI AN EARLY MORNING SPIN

It was quite a common thing for new boys at Marlthorpe College to be made the victims of practical jokes during their first night in the school; but such was the impression which Ralph Rexworth had made, that no tricks were attempted with him. A boy who could take his own part so vigorously was not the sort that it was safe to take liberties with.

Nor was that the only reason. With Dobson and his friends it was quite sufficient, but with the better boys, that quiet kneeling down to pray had not been without effect. Some of them recognized that to do that might require more courage than to deal as he had done with those who had invaded his study—a moral courage, far greater and better than a physical; and they realized that a boy who possessed that courage was not a fit subject for stupid jokes.

So Ralph slept peacefully until the morning, when, used to early rising all his life, he opened his eyes before any of the other boys were awake.

At first he felt puzzled with his surroundings, but he soon remembered; and propping himself upon his[Pg 56] elbow he lay watching the faces of the others, wondering what sort of lads they would prove to be, and how he should get on with them, and whether he would be able to master the lessons which they were engaged upon.

Then he looked at Charlton, and thought how sad he looked, even in his sleep; and he noted how often he sighed. Perhaps he was dreaming of his father.

That sent him thinking of his own father, and the mystery of his fate; and he pondered whether it would ever be possible for him—a lonely boy in this strange land—to find out the truth concerning his parent's disappearance. But he was not altogether alone; it was wrong to think of himself in that light. God had given him a friend in Mr. St. Clive, and another in Mrs. St. Clive, and yet a third—a very nice, lovable third—in Irene! Ralph, who had never had anything to do with girls, thought Irene the sweetest, dearest little friend that it would be possible to find.

A bell rang, and his companions stretched and yawned and opened their eyes; and though some grunted and turned over again, determined to have every minute they could, several jumped up at once, and hastily pulling on their clothes began sluicing and splashing in good, honest, cold water.

"Hallo! Awake? Slept well?" queried Warren seeing that Ralph was preparing to follow the example of these last boys. "Any one try any games with you in the night?" And he came and sat down on Ralph's[Pg 57] bed, and grinned when the new boy answered that he had not been disturbed.

"I suppose they thought better of it. That is your basin!" he added, pointing to one washstand. "Mind that they don't take all the water, or you will either have to sneak another fellow's, or go and get some more for yourself. Look sharp, and then we will go and have a turn with the bells, and a spin afterwards, I like to get all I can before breakfast; it seems to set a fellow up for the day."

Ralph nodded, and began vigorously sluicing and polishing; and the boys, too busy about their own business, paid no attention to him. He was quite capable of looking after himself, in their opinion. At last, all ready to accompany the monitor, he quietly repeated his action of the previous night—he knelt down in prayer.

That staggered even Warren. As a whole, the boys were good lads, but even those who had been accustomed to evening prayers in their homes did not seem to think that morning prayers were quite as important. They wanted to scramble off to play as quickly as possible. The Head always read prayers in school, and that was enough; and here was this new fellow wasting precious time in this way!

A few sneered and giggled; some shrugged their shoulders, and ran off; some looked grave; and Warren sat nursing his foot, and pondering; while Charlton turned red.

[Pg 58]

But they made no remarks; and when Ralph rose from his knees, the three went out together. Warren was turning over a decidedly new leaf. If he had not annoyed Charlton before, he had left him pretty much alone, and now he was admitting him to his company. Well, Charlton was Rexworth's chum, and if he wanted Rexworth he must have the chum as well.

Charlton hardly expected the monitor to be friendly to him, but he waited for his chum, and Warren waited, too.

"Let us get down and have a try at the bells," suggested the monitor, leading the way. And Ralph inquired innocently—

"Ringing bells, do you mean?"

Whereat Warren stared, and felt just a little less respect for the new boy. What sort of a fellow could he be if he didn't know what dumb-bells were?

"Ringing bells?" he repeated. "No; dumb-bells—exercises, you know! Come on, I will show you."

"I never saw bells like those," was Ralph's comment, when a pair was produced. "How do you use them?"

Warren went through a set of exercises, and then handed them to Ralph, who laughed, and said—

"Why, they don't weigh anything! I don't see much exercise in this!"

"They are six-pounders," was the answer; "quite as heavy as you will want. Now try this exercise—do it a dozen times."

Warren showed Ralph the right way, and off he went;[Pg 59] Charlton, who had also got a pair of bells, doing the same. And, to Ralph Rexworth's surprise, he found that those weights at which he had laughed soon made him feel tired, and that Charlton could keep on longer than he could. He could not understand that.

"I don't see why it should be," he said.

And a voice replied—

"Because you are exercising muscles which you have not tried much before, my lad." And he turned, to see Mr. Delermain watching him.

"Try again," said the master. "Only once; this sort of thing must be done gradually. Go slow, and take time."

Ralph obeyed: but dumb-bells certainly made his arms ache. And then Warren suggested Indian clubs.

"Indian clubs," repeated Ralph, "and what are they? I never saw the Indians use clubs. They have knives and hatchets, and spears and bows, and some of them use guns, too, and shoot wonderfully well; but I never saw them use clubs."

Now that speech caused a smile, but it was a very respectful smile; for here was a boy who had actually seen real Indians. That was something, even if he did not know what Indian clubs were!

However, the clubs were produced, and Ralph was shown how to swing them. And, as a natural result of his first attempt, he hit his head a smart crack, evoking a burst of laughter thereby.

[Pg 60]

"Slow and steady," he answered; "I shall get it in time. I don't understand these things; but if you get me a coil of rope, I will show you one or two little things that I do not think any of you can do."

"A coil of rope—that is easily supplied," said Mr. Delermain; and when it was brought, he said: "Now, Rexworth, let us see what you can do." And all the boys stood round while Ralph took the rope and made a running noose at one end.

"Give me plenty of room," he said, and he commenced to whirl the noose round and round his head, letting the rope run out as he did so; until at last he held the very end in his hand, and the rest was twirling round and round him in a perfect circle.

"One of you try to do that," he said.

And try they did, in vain. They could not even get it to go in a circle, and it made their arms ache dreadfully.

Then he made the circle spin round him on its edge just as if that rope was a hoop; and afterwards he actually jumped through it as it was going, explaining that the cowboys on the ranches frequently indulged in such tricks as these, and were experts at it—far more so than the Indians themselves.

Then nothing would do but that he must show them how a lasso was thrown. And though several, including the master, essayed to try, not one of them was able to send the noose over Ralph's shoulders, though[Pg 61] he caught them, one after the other, without the slightest trouble.

"It is what one is used to," he said laughing. "I have not had much to do with bells and clubs—nothing to do with them, indeed—but I have played with a rope all my life."

Dobson had come in with his friends, and he stood and glared. Elgert came in, and looked angry. This new boy was evidently on the way to become a favourite in the school, and, unless something was done, he might rival them. Though just then they did not speak to each other about it, both Dobson and Elgert arrived at the same conclusion—namely, that something should be done, and that Ralph Rexworth should be humbled and disgraced.

Then Warren suggested a spin, and of course Charlton went, and two or three other boys—who found Ralph very good company—had to come too; and since they did come, they could not ignore the boy they had all neglected in the past. Poor Charlton, he could hardly understand it, it almost frightened him!

It was delightful out in the fields, in the fresh morning, with the dew still sparkling on the leaves, and with the air full of the songs of the wild birds. There is a charm and sweetness and delight about the early morning which they who are late risers have no idea of. It sets the nerves tingling and the blood dancing, and makes one feel as if he were walking on air, and not on solid earth.

[Pg 62]

Away they went across the playing field, and out on the common, on towards Great Stow; arms well back, shoulders square, bodies gently sloped, going with good, long, swinging strides.

Ralph was in his element now, for running, equally with rope work, was an accomplishment practised by all those amongst whom he had lived. A very necessary accomplishment, seeing that the ability to run swiftly, and to keep up without fagging, might mean all the difference between life and death in a land where the natives were quarrelsome and quite ready to go upon the warpath upon the least provocation.

Some of the boys outstripped him at the first go off, but he kept on running low, swinging well from the hips, and those who had gone with a spurt at first soon found that he could, to use Warren's expression, "run circles round them, and then beat them hollow."

But presently Ralph slackened his speed, for he had noticed that Charlton was fagged, and he—having pledged himself to be the boy's chum—was not going to desert him. The rest were by no means sorry to stop; for though their pride would not allow them to give in, they had all had nearly enough of it. And panting, laughing, happy in all their youthful strength and spirits, they pulled up and wiped the perspiration from their foreheads.

"Let us go over to Tibb's Farm, and get a drink of milk; and then we must be getting back, or we[Pg 63] shall get slated and be late for breakfast, and that won't do," directed Warren, and the others agreed.

The farm was but a short distance away, and it was evident that this visit was nothing out of the ordinary; for the farmer's wife smiled, and produced tumblers of milk and wedges of cake, and charged the boys a penny each—which certainly was not exorbitant.

And the way they got rid of that cake! And they were going home to breakfast!—ay, and would be able to eat it, too, cake notwithstanding! So much results from getting up early!

Perhaps it was because of his exhibition with the rope—perhaps it was the run; but as Ralph sat there his thoughts went back to his trouble.

How often had he been out in the early morning on the hot plains alone with his father! And how once when the grass caught fire, they had to run for dear life and take shelter in the creek until the fiery sea had swept by! And now, now, where—oh, where—was that father? It would come back, try to be as brave as he would. It would come back, and his heart would suddenly fill with pain, and cry out for that lost father.

"Time's up!" sang out Warren, stuffing the last of his cake into his mouth. "Now, you fellows, come on!"

Off they went with a whoop and hallo! Perhaps not quite so fast now, for cake and milk interfere somewhat with scudding. And Ralph, now with his[Pg 64] chum and Warren, suddenly stopped, staring hard on the ground.

His companions could see nothing, and looked at him in surprise. Their eyes had never been trained to read the surface of the earth. But Ralph had suddenly lighted upon a freshly made trail. A trap had gone along here—a light trap, like that which had left those other traces in Stow Wood; and this trap, like that again, had been drawn by a horse lame in its left forefoot!


[Pg 65]

CHAPTER VII HORACE ELGERT GOES A LITTLE TOO FAR

"What's the matter, Rexworth?"

So queried Warren. Ralph was standing anxiously looking around. He was perplexed, and did not know what he ought to do. These marks might afford him a clue to the mystery of his father's disappearance; and yet the chance seemed but slight, there were more horses than one going lame in one leg. If he stopped he would be late for school, and he did not want to get into disgrace.

He could not explain to his companions, for he saw that if he was ever to succeed he must keep his secrets to himself. A casual word, heedlessly dropped, that he was looking for a lame horse which drew a light trap might be enough to make the owner of horse and trap very careful that he should not be traced.

"It was nothing," he said slowly. "I was thinking."

"Then don't stop to think now," was the advice he received. "We have been a little too far. You scudded along so, and we tried to beat you. We cannot waste any more time. Come on."

He went on with his friends. He felt that it was[Pg 66] right to do so. Moreover, the man with the horse and trap must be in the locality still, and if he was not scared off, those tracks would be made again, perhaps even more clearly, and Ralph might then have better opportunity of following them. It was the right thing to go back to the school now.

"I say," suddenly queried Warren, as they hurried on. "Has Elgert said anything more to you?"

"No; I have not seen him, except just as we were coming out, when he came into the gymnasium."

"Well, he is bound to do so, after what happened yesterday. I do not see how he can help it, or how you can avoid it. You will have to fight him, Rexworth."

"I am sorry to hear you say that, for I don't want to be fighting if I can help it, and I would far rather be friends with——" He paused. He was going to say "friends with him." But that was not true. He felt that, apart from anything which had happened yesterday, he could not be friends with the son of a man who had said that his father was a thief.

"I don't want to fight him," he said slowly; and Warren nodded.

"I know; but if he challenges you, what then?"

Ralph looked grave. No boy likes to be thought a coward; but still he did not want to fight.

"If I can get out of it I shall," he said: and the monitor looked just a trifle disappointed, while one or two of the boys laughed.

[Pg 67]

"It is not that I am afraid of him," Ralph said hastily. "It is that I don't want to begin fighting, if I can avoid it."

"For goodness' sake, then, keep out of his way, and don't let him get to know that, for if Elgert thinks that he can do it without the chance of a row following, he is bound to challenge you. He is bound to, anyhow, so far as I can see, and it won't be nice for a fellow in the Fourth to refuse a challenge from the Fifth. If it was one of the youngsters in the Third, it would be different. No one would say that we were frightened to fight them; but in the Fifth they are bound to say that it was fear, and—— Hurry up, you chaps, there is the bell going!"

A scamper, fast as they could go, and they trooped in to breakfast, so hungry, spite of cake and milk, that not even the troubled question of the probable challenge could disturb their appetites. Only Warren looked across to where Horace Elgert sat, and he muttered to himself—

"I wish that we hadn't talked of it before the others. If one of them lets out that Rexworth will not fight, Elgert is sure to make no end of it. I understand why Rexworth don't like it, and it is all right, but still—oh, he will have to fight, like it or not, and that is all about it."

Morning lessons occupied their thoughts after breakfast, and Ralph found himself quite eager to[Pg 68] master the things which, while they were hard to him, seemed easy to his companions. He had already determined that he would excel with dumb-bells and Indian clubs, and now it was just the same with lessons. He hated to be beaten, and he was not going to be beaten.

And already he reaped the reward of having put in a couple of hours' study the evening before, with Charlton to lend him a hand. He was praised by Mr. Delermain, and rose rapidly from the bottom of the class towards the top, and, thanks to his firmness the day before, he had no more of the unpleasantness with Dobson, who remained persistently at the very bottom of the class.

Slow and steady, he found the best way, doing each thing thoroughly, and thinking only of one thing at a time; and that is always the best way, not only to learn, but to do everything in life.

He was quite surprised when the bell rang—the morning seemed to have slipped away, and he put his books away and went, Charlton with him, into the playground.

"I don't know how I should have got on if you had not helped me last night, and I am very much obliged to you," he said. And the other boy smiled. It was very nice to hear any one say that he had been of use to them.

The pair sauntered across the playground, and presently they saw that Horace Elgert and some of[Pg 69] his chums were coming towards them, and Ralph stopped, a strange, firm look on his face, and awaited his approach.

Up the others came, and Elgert, hands in pockets, addressed him—

"I want a word with you. You know what we have got to do. You cheeked me last night, and you have got either to thrash me or be thrashed."

Elgert spoke very confidently, for, as Warren had feared, he had heard that it was unlikely that Ralph would fight him.

"It is this, then," replied Ralph quietly. "You mean that we have got to fight?"

Elgert looked round and laughed. A whole lot of the boys had come up, seeing them standing there, and knowing what they would be talking about.

"Hear him!" he said. "How innocent! He cheeks me last night, and then asks if I mean we have got to fight! Yes, I do mean it! After afternoon school, the other side of the playing-field; and make up your mind for a thrashing!"

"I have not the slightest wish to fight you. I was going to say that I had not any intention of fighting you," said Ralph.

And some of the boys groaned, and muttered "Coward!"

"I don't care whether you have wish or intention," replied Elgert, in truculent tones. "I have both[Pg 70] wish and intention of thrashing you, and so you have got to put up with it, and afterwards beg my pardon. Do you hear that?"

"I hear," was the quiet reply.

And Ralph's eyes sparkled slightly.

"Very well. This afternoon, the other side of the playing-field; and you mind that you are there, for it will be worse for you if I have to come and find you! That is all."

And round swung Elgert on his heel and walked off, leaving Ralph standing unmoved by his angry, insulting tones.

But if Ralph was unmoved, his companions in the Fourth were not, and Warren said, almost entreatingly, as he caught hold of Ralph's arm—

"Look here, Rexworth, you must fight him after that! It is no good talking, you must fight him!"

A statement which was received with approval by all the others there.

"Well," said Ralph, "if I must, I must. I don't want to, though."

"But for the honour of the class you must, or we shall never hear the last of it from them. You will meet him where he said?"

"Not I!" laughed Ralph. "If I must fight, I must; but I am not going to be ordered about by him; and I am not going to do anything which makes it look as though I were a party to the fight. If he wants me, he must come and find me, as he[Pg 71] threatened to do. There, we will say no more about it now."

"He will do it all right," reflected Warren. "Elgert will find that he has gone a trifle too far."

The afternoon passed away in study, and whatever any of the others may have felt of anxiety or interest in the likelihood of the fight, certainly Ralph did not let it trouble him. He was engaged with some sums which worried him a trifle, and when once one of his neighbours whispered to him in reference to the combat, Ralph glared at him, and requested him to be quiet in a manner which there was no gainsaying. One thing at a time with Ralph.

But when the work of the day was finally over, he strolled calmly into the playground, calling to Charlton to accompany him. Charlton, who looked so terribly anxious, realized that Ralph must fight, and yet dreaded the issue, for Elgert was no mean foe. Charlton, who, in self-reproach, thought that it was all his fault—that it was only because Ralph had stood up for him concerning the study.

"I say, Charlton, I want you just to show me how to get on with cricket," Ralph said. "Every one seems to play; but I cannot make anything out of it, except that you have to hit the ball, and run if you can."

Charlton beamed; this was a delightful experience for him, and he at once led the way to the playroom, and secured one of the school sets.

"Come in!" he said. "I will soon explain the rules[Pg 72] to you, and you can try batting. I will bowl for you as long as you like."

Perhaps Ralph was conscious that he was being covertly observed by many anxious eyes; but he gave no sign, nor did he move a hairsbreadth when presently he saw Horace Elgert coming in his direction, a curious and somewhat eager crowd at his heels.

"Go on, Charlton, don't stop," he said very quietly, for his chum had stopped, and was fingering the ball nervously. "Fire away!"

The lad would have obeyed, but Elgert had arrived, and he gripped the weaker lad's arm and twisted the ball out of his hand.

"You clear off!" he said. "We don't want one of your sort here."

But Ralph remarked quietly—so very quietly: "Charlton, you stay where you are."

"Be off!" again said Elgert; and raised his hand, to find that not Charlton but Ralph was before him, and to hear that quiet voice say again—

"Charlton, if you budge an inch, I'll thrash you myself. Neither you nor I can be ordered about, unless the fellow who does the ordering is able to enforce his demands."

Elgert paused then. He was not a coward, but there was something very disconcerting in this quiet bearing, especially when he called to mind the fact that Ralph had not been frightened the evening before.[Pg 73] He had determined to fight, and then he had heard that Ralph was afraid, and he had acted upon that information; and now Ralph was not afraid, not in the least. And indeed, instead of being afraid, he was asking, still quietly—

"Now, Horace Elgert, I am tired of this rubbish. What do you mean by it?"

"Didn't I tell you to come and meet me the other side of the playground?"

"Yes. And I decline to do anything of the sort. When people want me, they generally come to me, not order me to go to them."

"Well, I have come: and now I am going to thrash you!"

"I see. Start right away; don't wait for me!"

Some of the Fourths laughed. This was quite unexpected. Elgert was manifestly disappointed, but he turned red.

"We don't generally fight here," he said. "Will you come over?"

"No, I will not. I will not budge an inch. I don't want to fight; but if you start it, it must be here. And if you don't stand aside and let us go on with our game there will be trouble!"

"You fellows can laugh!" suddenly blazed Elgert, turning towards the grinning Fourths. "A nice thing to laugh at! He has got the proper chum—that's one thing! We all know about Charlton,[Pg 74] and why no one will chum with him; and this chap is not much better. I saw my pater at dinner-time, and a fine way he was in when I told him of the new boy we had.

"You know the yarn he told about his father disappearing? Where has he gone to? People don't disappear in England, unless they want to! My pater says that a burglar broke into our house, and that he fired at him and hit him; and he says, from the description, that the burglar must have been the man that came to Stow Ormond with this chap, and passed as his father, and——"

"Stop!" said Ralph, very quietly still, but with an ominous expression of face.

But Elgert laughed contemptuously.

"Why, I don't know that I would soil my hands fighting with the son, or the associate, of a thief!" he said.

And then, suddenly forgetting everything in the feeling of hot indignation which overwhelmed him, Ralph Rexworth raised his hand, and in a moment his taunting enemy lay prostrate on the ground.


[Pg 75]

CHAPTER VIII A MYSTERIOUS MIDNIGHT VISITOR

"Hurrah!"

"Bravo, Rexworth!"

"Now, you Fifths, does your man want to fight?"

Such were the gleeful shouts of the Fourth when they beheld Horace Elgert on the ground. And the Fifths, alarmed for the honour of their class, rushed to pick up their fallen champion, saying—

"Don't make such a row! Of course he will fight. Get over to the other side, where we shall not be seen, and we will come!"

But Ralph would not listen to any such arguments. He stood there, looking down at his fallen foe, and he said shortly—

"You fellows will please to mind your own business! I am going nowhere to fight until this chap has apologized, then, if a fight is wanted, we will move!"

"But you cannot fight here! The Head will see us!" cried a score of voices.

"I cannot help that! This fellow has told a lie about my father, and he has got to unsay it, or take the consequences! I suppose that he thinks I was[Pg 76] afraid because I tried to avoid a fight the very first day of being at school. Well, I am not afraid! If he had only talked about me I might have taken no notice, but when he comes to speaking as he has done he is going too far, and he has got to take back his words now, or finish it here!"

Meanwhile, Elgert had struggled to his feet, and he looked dazed from the effects of the blow, while his face was already growing swollen and discoloured.

"Stand aside!" he said hoarsely. "I will fight him here! If the Head himself were looking on, I would fight him!"

"You are a pair of fools!" muttered a Fifth-Form monitor. "We shall be spotted, for a certainty, and all of us get carpeted for this! Go calmly, you silly fellow, or he will smash you!" and he broke off in his complaint to give this last advice to Elgert, who had rushed at his opponent, mad with pain and anger, and had gone down for the second time!

"Look out! I knew how it would be! Here comes the Head!" shouted one boy; and a hurried rush took place, leaving the two boys and Warren and Charlton alone when the master reached the spot.

"Elgert! Rexworth!" he exclaimed in tones of displeasure. "What does this mean? You, too, Warren! You, a monitor of the Fourth, and encouraging a new boy in fighting! I am displeased, indeed!"

"It is my fault, in one way, sir," replied Ralph,[Pg 77] without waiting for the others to speak. "Elgert said something concerning my father which angered me, and I struck him. He wanted me to come across the playground and fight where we would not be seen, but I was angry, and would not do so."

Something like a smile played across the grave face for a moment as the Head heard this speech.

"You boys seem to think that if I do not see you fight no offence is committed. You do not recognize the fact that fighting in itself is poor, and low, and degrading. I know that boys settle their quarrels in this manner, but I decry it. Now, the fact of fighting here is a double offence, for you are within sight of my study window. I am sorry that it has happened, but I will overlook it on condition that you and Elgert shake hands."

"I cannot do that, sir," was Ralph's respectful answer; and Elgert on his part, said:

"I will not do it!"

"Boys, boys! 'Cannot,' and 'will not!' Neither expression is seemly! You will go to your respective studies and remain there until you are in better minds!"

"It is not that I am angry, sir," Ralph said, very respectfully. "This boy has said that my father is a common thief!" Ralph's voice shook just a little as the words came. "He says that his disappearance is due to that! You must see, sir, that I cannot shake hands with him after that!"

[Pg 78]

"Elgert, what have you to say to this?" demanded the Head sternly; and Elgert stammered—

"I didn't exactly say that, sir."

"Yes, you did!" blurted Warren. "He did say it, sir, and he has been trying to get up this fight! It is no use denying it. It began because Rexworth turned him and some more out of the study he shares with Charlton. They say enough unkind things about him," he added. "There was a bit of a bother, and Elgert got knocked over, and he challenged Rexworth to fight him after school to-day. Rexworth, would not do it, and he said that if a fight was forced upon him it should be wherever he chanced to be at that moment. Elgert came here and began sneering and saying unkind things, and then Rexworth struck him, and that is all the truth. I know that I ought to have tried to stop it, but we and the Fifth don't get on well, and so—and so——"

"Because of class rivalry you allowed your companion to fight. It is not right, Warren! Monitors should try to enforce the rules, not to break them. Elgert, you will do me two hundred lines, and be good enough to remember that if I consider any boy fit to become a scholar here it is not for you to make such statements as you appear to have done."

"I only said what my father told me!" sulkily answered Elgert; and the Head frowned.

"What you and your father may say in private is no concern of mine, Elgert," he replied coldly;[Pg 79] "what you repeat in public here is another matter, with which I have to do! Do your imposition and bring it to me before class to-morrow, and mind that I have no more of this. You other lads, I will overlook this in your case this time, seeing that it appears that violent provocation was given; but, mind, there must be no more fighting in the playground boundaries! See that I am obeyed!" And the Head turned away.

"Don't think that we have finished yet!" said Horace Elgert, looking darkly at Ralph. "I will have my revenge for this, as sure as you are standing there!" and, with that he went.

And the three Fourth-Form boys went indoors; while the rest of the lads, who had scattered, came back eagerly discussing what punishment the offenders would receive.

And the general verdict was, "It served Elgert right, and that he had no business to have spoken as he had done!"

"But suppose it is right?" queried one lad. "You know, there is something queer about it!"

"Something very queer," said another; "but that story is all nonsense! My dad knows Mr. St. Clive very well, and he told him all the story and how there was plenty of money in Mr. Rexworth's possession. Besides, any one with eyes can see that Rexworth is a gentleman, even if he has some strange ways through living abroad. Elgert is too fond of thinking he is[Pg 80] all the world and every one else dirt beneath his feet. It serves him jolly well right!"

"Well, there is one thing," admitted a third boy, "that fellow Rexworth may be queer in some ways, but he is no fool when it comes to a scrimmage, and he knows how to defend himself! I don't think any of us are likely to try for a row with him after what we have seen!"

Meanwhile, Ralph, ignorant of the criticisms which were being made in his favour, had gone to his own study. He felt sorry for what had occurred, and the cruel words which had been spoken had gone like arrows to his heart and brought back all his trouble. He felt like running away to Mrs. St. Clive and getting her to comfort him.

And then Charlton came in, very gently, as if half afraid to intrude his presence upon his chum. He came and bent over Ralph's chair, putting one hand on his shoulder, and whispered—

"Ralph, I am so sorry! Don't you worry about it!"

Ralph looked up, and a brave smile came to his lips.

"Hallo! Is it you, Charlton?" he said. "No, I won't worry about it; but I am sorry that I have commenced my school life so badly. There, we won't think of it any more! If you are not busy, you might just lend me a hand with to-morrow's exercises. If it were speaking French or Spanish, I should be all[Pg 81] right, but I don't seem to understand Latin in the slightest."

"Let us go through it," replied Charlton eagerly. "I shall be glad to do it."

So troubles were forgotten, and the chums bent over the table and soon became absorbed in their task. Learning lessons is not anything like so bad when you put your heart into it.

So the evening passed, and bed-time came; and once more Ralph knelt down to offer up his evening prayers. And not only Warren and Charlton, but some other boys followed his example now, for his action had reproached them and made them think soberly of things which they had been careless about all too long.

But Ralph was not easy in his mind. Somehow, he felt that he had no kindly thought for Elgert—and he had been praying to be forgiven, as he forgave his enemies! That was a very troublesome thought, and it was still in his mind when he fell asleep.

*         *         *         *         *

What was that noise?

Ralph Rexworth sat up in bed, and listened. Accustomed to wake at the slightest noise that might betoken danger, and to wake with all his senses about him, he had been disturbed by a strange, scraping sound, the cause of which he could not think of.

Only one dim point of light burnt in the dormitory, and all was still there save for the breathing of the[Pg 82] sleepers. It was no sound of that sort which had awakened him.

There it was again—outside! He remembered having heard a sound like that once before—when the Indians had risen and come to attack the ranch. He had laid and listened to them as they crawled over the tops of the sheds, and the sound was like that! It was from outside! He rose, and creeping to the window, he lifted one corner of the blind, and peeped out.

Nothing there—stay, that was wrong! Surely that was a ladder propped against the wall? What was a ladder doing there, for there was none there the evening before! And the window there was open! Some one must have got in at that window!

Was it one of the boys who had been up to mischief, or, it seemed absurd, was some thief breaking in? Thieves did not, as a rule, break into schools!

He was half inclined to raise an alarm. But the thought came, that if this was some midnight escapade on the part of some of the boys, to do that might be to get them into disgrace—to make more enemies, and to interfere in what did not concern him.

That was a window just outside the Fifth-Form dormitory, too! Elgert might be in it, and he did not want to be the means of getting him into any more trouble.

But suppose that it was a thief? Ralph crept to the door and opened it noiselessly. He peered down the corridor, but nothing was to be seen or heard.

[Pg 83]

Stop! Surely he did hear a faint sound—a very faint sound! He felt that he must go and see; a strange, uneasy feeling had possessed him; a strange presentiment that all was not right.

He crept down the passage, and turned towards the Fifth-Form dormitory, and a breath of cold air met him. The window was open, and the top of a ladder could be seen—and the door of the dormitory was open also!

With cautious, stealthy steps he crept on, pausing once when the boards creaked beneath his weight. There was something eerie in being here alone at midnight; it was worse than being out alone on the plains.

He reached the door, and peered into the dormitory with its long row of sleeping boys there. There was nothing here in the shape of a lark going on. All was still and silent.

There was his enemy lying asleep, his handsome face just catching a glimmer of moonlight which found its way through the blind; and as Ralph looked he saw a strange apparition—a man slowly appeared, rising at the side of the bed! A man with pillow in his hands, which he was about to press down upon that sleeping boy! A man going to murder Horace Elgert!

Like a flash the truth burst upon the watching boy, and, with a loud cry, he threw the door wide open and rushed into the dormitory.


[Pg 84]

CHAPTER IX ALTOGETHER BEYOND EXPLANATION

"Thieves!"

"Fire!"

"Help! Help!"

The whole house was aroused. The cries of confusion and alarm coming from the Fifth Form dormitory were repeated by others who, entirely ignorant as to what was the matter, and aroused from slumber by the noise, tumbled from their beds and rushed out wildly, under the impression that nothing less than the house being ablaze could account for the cry.

The doctor and masters came hurrying to the spot; and while the Head ran to the Fifth Form room, the master got the other boys into something like order, ready to be marched quietly downstairs if the alarm of fire should prove to be well founded.

The first thing that the doctor noted was the open window and the ladder, and the next, that a confused babel of sound was going on in the Fifth's room; and as he strode to the door he was met, full tilt, by a boy with torn clothes, apparently seeking to free himself from the grasp of half a dozen Fifth Form boys.[Pg 85] To his bewilderment, the Head saw that this boy was his new scholar, Ralph Rexworth.

His strong hand gripped the boy's arm, and his voice thundered out a command for silence, which the boys obeyed all save Ralph, who cried—

"If you do not follow him at once, he will be off, sir! These fellows stopped me, and he has got a good start!"

"He! Who?" cried the Head. And the boy replied—

"The man who was in the Fifth, sir. He knocked me down, and bolted; and then the boys woke, and got me, and would not let me go!"

"You have been dreaming, boy. Silence, all! Kesterway, you are head monitor. Explain to me! All boys from other Forms back to their rooms; there is no cause for any alarm. At once, please! Now, Kesterway!"

"I can tell you nothing, sir. I heard a noise, and woke; and there was Elgert, and one or two others holding a boy who kicked and struggled; and just as I jumped out of bed and ran round, he broke away and rushed for the door."

"It was Rexworth, sir!" cried one boy. "He was in our room trying to play some trick upon Elgert. They have been having a row, sir."

"Will you have the goodness to hold your tongue, sir!" exclaimed the master, a trifle irritably; and the boy subsided at once.

[Pg 86]

"Elgert, what have you to say? Did this boy attempt to play any tricks on you?"

"Yes, sir! I was asleep and I was aroused by a violent cry and a blow, and some one was struggling on my bed, as if he had jumped on and was trying to hold me down; I gripped hold of him, and found it was Rexworth. The other fellows woke, and began crying out; and then, when they found who it was that had made the row, they got angry and went for him!"

"That will do. Now you, sir, what have you to say? Speak up, and tell the truth! Why have you disturbed the whole household in this disgraceful manner?"

So the doctor asked, and terribly angry did he look; but very different was his expression when he had heard Ralph's story. It sounded incredible that any one should attempt to enter the school for the deliberate purpose of injuring any boy; and he would have put the story down as a fabrication, but there was the plain evidence in the shape of the open window and the ladder.

If Ralph had invented it, he must have managed to leave the house, drag the ladder across the playground, raise it to the window, and then go back and open that window; and that also seemed absolutely impossible.

"I saw the man, sir!" the lad said; "he was creeping on his hands and knees, and when he got to Elgert's[Pg 87] bed he got up, and he had a pillow. He was going to smother Elgert. He dropped the pillow when I shouted and ran in. It is by the bed now. I tried to clutch him, sir, but he was too strong. He struck me, and knocked me over on top of Elgert, and then they held me and actually let him escape. He darted away like a flash, sir; and I expect that he is far enough away by now!"

Bewilderment, incredulity, wonder, all were depicted upon the faces of those who listened; but Elgert actually laughed in the Head's presence, and asked how any one could be expected to believe such a story.

"Who is there who would want to harm me, sir?" he said. "Why, it is really absurd to think of such a thing! I have had a row with this boy, as you know, and I suppose that he wanted to play a trick on me, and quite forgot the row that would be made."

"Be good enough to keep your remarks to yourself, until I ask for your opinion, Elgert!" said the Head sternly. "Now, all you boys, back to bed! In the morning I will go into the matter properly. To bed at once!"

It was all very well to say "to bed," but "to sleep" was quite another matter. Sleep seemed banished from most eyes; and in the Fourth, Ralph was plied with question after question, until at last he positively refused to talk any more.

Truth to tell, Ralph was somewhat disgusted. He[Pg 88] had done more than most boys would have risked; and had it not been for him, Elgert would have been murdered, and this was the best thanks he received!

And yet, as he thought of it, it seemed quite natural to him. After all, it was a very mysterious business; and if people did not believe it, it was not to be wondered at. He would wait patiently until the morning; and then, if the doctor did not believe him, it would not be his fault.

And when morning came, and breakfast was over, the Head sent for Ralph, and again listened to his story, and questioned him closely; and he felt convinced that the boy was indeed speaking the truth.

That only perplexed him the more; a foolish joke would be understandable, but a deliberate attempt to harm one of the boys under his charge was a thing which he could not by any means comprehend.

He went into the playground and surveyed the ladder; it had been left just where it was. He went to the boundary wall and examined that, and there was a stain of blood—some one, in hastily getting over, must have cut his hand upon the broken glass with which it was finished off. He felt, beyond question, that Ralph's tale was true. Some one had been there, but who that some one was, was a mystery indeed.

But the doctor was a just man, and as he had thrown some doubt upon Ralph's story, he summoned the entire school, and told them he was quite satisfied[Pg 89] that what Ralph had said happened was absolutely true.

"Mysterious as it is, I feel satisfied that one of our number has been in dreadful peril, while he was innocently sleeping; and it is to the goodness of God that he owes his preservation. God, Who made Ralph Rexworth wake up and look from the window and then go to the help of Elgert! And I trust," he added gently, "that this circumstance may make the two chief actors in this incident better friends! I am sorry to know that they are not very friendly, but I hope that they will be so in the future!"

So the affair ended—so far as public investigation went, though it was talked over again and again by the boys. The Head communicated with the police, and a detective came down; and however much he may have been bewildered and ready to put it down to the tricks of schoolboys, yet after he had seen the ladder and the bloodmark, and heard Ralph tell his story, he also had to admit that the boy was undoubtedly telling the truth, and that the school had been entered in the manner described.

But Ralph worried over it. The very mystery surrounding it brought back the mystery of his father's disappearance. He pondered all day over it, until he felt weary and angry with himself; and he hailed the close of school with delight, suggesting to his chum and Warren that they should go for a good long walk, a proposal with which they immediately agreed.

[Pg 90]

"Now, look here," said Ralph, when the trio had started, "there is only one thing; for mercy's sake don't talk about that business of last night! I am fairly tired of it, and I want to forget it if I can!"

"All right, old chap," answered Warren, with a laugh; "let us go into the woods and see if we can find anything worth taking in the way of specimens. I got two lovely orange-tips there the other day, and some silly fellow went and knocked over my setting-board, and spoilt them both!"

"The woods be it," answered Ralph readily.

And so they sought the green, cool, shady glades, where the wild birds were so tame, and where such splendid butterflies and dragon flies were to be captured.

They wandered hither and thither, enjoying the quiet sylvan beauty; and presently, stretched on the grass, they spoke of the difference of this scene to that which Ralph had known in his younger days; and Warren lay flat on his back, and asked question after question concerning the wild people of the great Texan plains.

"I didn't know that there were any Indians left," the monitor confessed; and Ralph laughed.

"Plenty of them; and then there are the Gauchos—they are of Spanish descent, and they are for ever fighting with the Indians. It is very different living out there; and, even in the towns, men seldom go about unarmed."

[Pg 91]

"Pleasant," was Warren's remark. "I think that I will stop where I am; even if we do get midnight visitors now and again."

"I say, that subject is forbidden," laughed Ralph.

And then he was silent so long that, presently, Warren asked him what he was thinking of, and Ralph sighed.

"Something that is hardly ever out of my thoughts," he answered gravely. "Speaking of my old home brought it back——"

"Your father?" queried Warren; and Ralph nodded.

"It must be precious hard for you," the monitor said. "I think that if I were in your place I should go silly."

"No, you would do what I do, old fellow; just pray to God to bring things right. I felt bad at first, and it was Mrs. St. Clive who taught me to be brave."

"I like her," remarked Warren, with a nod. "She is awfully nice, Ralph. I wonder if ever you will hear anything about your father?"

"Yes," came the confident answer. "I feel sure that I shall; and sometimes, Warren, it may seem strange, but it comes to me that he is not dead, and that he will come back!"

"But if he were not dead he would not have gone off and left you all alone like this," objected Warren. "I should not think that."

"He may not be able to help it. There, we won't[Pg 92] talk of it; only I cannot help thinking like that sometimes. Where is Charlton?"

The question brought the fact out that they were alone; their companion had gone off and left them there while they were talking.

"Now, where has that silly chap got to?" queried Warren, sitting up.

"Gone after a butterfly, perhaps. He will soon be back."

"But it is time that we began to move. He is such a silly fellow that he is as like as not to go and lose himself. Hallo! Charlton! Charlton! Coo-ee! Charlton!"

They paused and waited, but no reply came; and Warren got up, a trifle cross.

"Of all the silly kites!" he said. "What trouble has he got into now? Charlton, I say, where are you?"

"Better let us go and have a look for him," said Ralph; and the two started, Warren grumbling all the way, until in response to their shouts, they heard an answering call, and saw their companion appear.

"Well, you stupid!" began Warren; but Ralph checked him, for the other boy looked scared and pale.

"Why, what is the matter?" he asked. "You look as if you had been scared. Has any one frightened you?"

"I! Any one frightened me? Oh, no!" answered Charlton quickly. "How silly! Who could be with[Pg 93] me? I got lost—and lost my head! I felt a little afraid, until I heard you call."

"We have been shouting for the last half hour!" grumbled Warren. "Come along! We shall be late for tea!"

But Ralph said nothing. He was puzzled. The spot where they stood was damp and clayey; and on the soft ground were the imprints of two pairs of feet, going towards the bushes from which Charlton had emerged. Of those footprints, one set was a boy's, and evidently made by his chum; the other set was a man's.

Charlton said that he had been alone, but Ralph knew better. A man had been with his chum, but who was that man? Was he the one who had broken into the school the previous night?


[Pg 94]

CHAPTER X COUNSELS AND PROMISES

"My dear lad, it certainly is very strange. You seem, since your arrival in England, to be surrounded with mysteries."

Ralph was sitting alone with Mr. St. Clive; and the latter, having questioned him as to how he had got on during his first week at school, Ralph had told him of his various experiences—of his quarrel with Horace Elgert, and of the strange midnight episode which had taken place—Mr. St. Clive listening with interest, and making the remark that it was very mysterious, as the lad concluded his story.

"It is strange, sir," answered Ralph, "and at first Dr. Beverly seemed inclined to doubt my story; while Horace Elgert, instead of taking it seriously, actually said that it was not true, and that I had gone into the Fifth dormitory on purpose to play some trick with him. I think, though," he added, "that he only said that to anger me."

"It is very strange," Mr. St. Clive repeated. "And then this other boy——"

"Charlton, do you mean, sir?"

[Pg 95]

"Yes. You say that you are sure he was with some man, and that he denied it?"

"Yes, sir. I asked him if he had been with any one, and he looked quite frightened."

"That may easily be. I know something of his history, or rather, of the family's. His father was accused of some crime, and, strangely enough, Lord Elgert was the prosecutor. A cheque was forged, I believe. Mr. Charlton managed to escape, but he was never able to come back; and it was finally said that he was dead. It is quite possible that he has returned, and that he got into the school to see his son, and went into the wrong dormitory. That is possible, I say, though I do not think it likely. He would hardly run such a risk, in my opinion; and more so, as he could have gone to his wife, and then let her send for the lad."

"I did not think of it being his father," acknowledged Ralph. "I was thinking of something else."

"Yes?" inquired Mr. St. Clive.

"Cannot you guess, sir? My father is gone, and I know nothing of his fate. What if this man was the one who met him in Stow Wood. He might be able to solve the matter."

"He might," was the reply, "but it is not likely. Charlton, as I remember him, was a timid, shrinking man; that was proved by the way he took to flight. He would not be likely to do such a thing."

"But he might, sir. Some one must have done it,"[Pg 96] persisted Ralph. "I feel as if I ought to watch Charlton, and find out who it was that he met. I could do it, too! I may not be very clever with books, but I could do that kind of thing."

"And then?" came the grave question.

And Ralph cried, almost fiercely—

"Can you ask me that, sir? If my father has come to harm, the one who harmed him must be punished."

"Even though he is your chum's father. Ralph, this is quite natural; and even beyond that, I do not say that if you could discover the man who killed your father—supposing that he is killed—he should not be given up to justice. I only say, 'pause, and be careful.' Remember the man your chum saw may be his father, and yet may be entirely innocent of the crime which you naturally desire to have punished. You, in your eagerness, may deliver an unfortunate man up to justice, and then find out that he is not the man you seek. And if I can read anything of your nature, that would be a cause of bitter regret with you for many a long day."

"It would, sir," acknowledged Ralph readily. "But unless I can find the man, how can I know the truth?"

"Well, my lad, I feel that I can only advise you to be careful; and, above all, even in this desire to have your father's assailant punished, see to it that no motive of revenge actuates you. Remember that it is written: 'Vengeance is Mine. I will repay, saith[Pg 97] the Lord.' Remember also that it is 'As we forgive them that trespass against us.'"

"But you would not have me let the man go free, sir?" protested Ralph. "The only thing I seem to have before me is to find out what happened to my father."

"But not of necessity to help hunt any man down. Besides, Ralph, there is another thing. You mention that you have again seen the tracks of that horse. Now, does it not strike you that, if this man is the father of your chum, and a fugitive from justice, he would be the last person in the world to be riding about in a trap? That is a very important thing to remember."

"I never thought of that," the boy acknowledged. And Mr. St. Clive nodded.

"Precisely; and yet such things, in so important a business, must be taken into consideration. Now, Ralph, my advice—my earnest advice—is that you proceed very carefully, and be quite certain that you have reason for each step before you take it. And one thing more, my dear boy. It is not well to say that even unravelling the mystery surrounding your father's disappearance is the chief object of your life. The chief object should be to become a noble, true man, alike a blessing to your fellows and an honour to God. Do you remember how it says in the Bible: 'There is a banner given to thee, that it may be displayed because of righteousness'? Now, that is a verse I[Pg 98] like. God gives you His standard, and He says not only 'march under it, but bear it for Me.' Die for the colours of the King, if need be, and fight always under honour's flag. Ralph, that is my counsel, the best I can give you, as your true friend. Wait for God to bring the mystery to light. Do not let revenge be your life's object, for revenge is of the devil. Let love be your watchword, and honour your banner. Ralph, will you promise me this?"

"I will, sir," answered the boy, deeply moved. "I will try and be a good standard-bearer."

"I feel sure of it. Shake hands. I know that I shall have cause to be proud of your friendship. Now, I must not take up all your time. I know that Irene is waiting patiently for you, so run and join her, and make the most of your brief holiday."

And what a delightful holiday it was, in spite of the trouble over him! It was a splendid thought to think of himself as being a standard-bearer. And he told Irene all about it; and she, in return, told him of the young hero who, being wounded, and fearing that the colours he bore would be taken from him, placed them beneath him, and lay in silent suffering until the enemy found him and, in pity, sought to help him. And then she told how he begged so hard that he might not be moved that they wondered; and when, even against his wish, they raised his dying form, there they found the colours which he loved, and which he had guarded so well; and they wrapped them round him and bore[Pg 99] him away. And when he died they buried him with the flag which he had carried, and gave him all honour for being true man and hero.

It was a fine story, and set Ralph's heart beating more quickly. And then Irene said that he must be as true, and be her champion, and win in the battle of right against wrong. And Ralph—well, I do not mind owning that he kissed her; and seeing that he had been brought up all his life on the plains, and had never been used to girls' society, that really was a daring thing to do.

So the holiday was spent, and Sunday passed in quiet and worship. And then on Monday morning back he went to Marlthorpe College, and the fight of another week.

And the battle began almost at once, for very soon after his arrival he was called into the doctor's study, where he found two stern-faced men, whom he was told were detectives; and they questioned him closely as to the events of that night when he had seen the man, and even went so far as to hint that he must have been dreaming and walking in his sleep, and that made Ralph feel very like losing his temper. Dreaming! As if he did not know that he had been very wide awake indeed!

And they called Horace Elgert in also, and questioned him as to whether he had seen anything, or whether he could think of any one likely to harm him. And Elgert laughed in the most insulting manner.

[Pg 100]

"I don't believe a word of it!" he said, with seeming frankness. "It is a silly business, and it had best be forgotten. There is a great deal too much being made out of it. I suppose that Rexworth wants to pose as a hero. I told my father of it, and he laughed about it; but he said that he would ride over this morning and question Rexworth himself."

"I do not want him to question me!" cried Ralph, flushing angrily. And Elgert laughed again.

"Very likely not; but he will do it, all the same," he replied. And then Dr. Beverly interrupted them sternly.

"Silence, both of you! I did not tell you to come here to have this nonsense, but to answer any questions which these gentlemen might wish to ask you. Back to your classes, both of you, and mind that I have no trouble with either of you! If you cannot be friendly, keep apart!"

"I am sure that I want to," muttered Elgert, as he went; but he only spoke loud enough for the words to reach Ralph's ears.

It was very hard to keep cool and pay attention to his work; but Ralph remembered his promise to his good friends, and he set sternly to the tasks before him, only to be interrupted an hour afterwards by the doctor sending for him again; and this time—how hot and angry he came all in a moment!—it was to be questioned by Lord Elgert, who sat there as cold, as haughty, and overbearing as ever.

[Pg 101]

"Now, young man," he said, when Ralph entered, "I want to hear, for myself, this remarkable story."

Ralph paused a moment. With a strong effort he mastered himself. If he was a standard-bearer, he must remember to give soft and polite answers, so he said politely—

"I am afraid that I have little to tell, sir, that I have not told already; and, unfortunately, it does not seem to be believed."

"Never mind that. Begin at the beginning, and tell me all that occurred."

So Ralph complied, and Lord Elgert sat listening with frowning face and watchful eyes; and Ralph could see that he, like his son, really did believe the story, even though he pretended not to.

"Well, well, doctor," said his lordship, when the tale was told, "I am inclined to think that it is a case of sleepwalking——"

"But did I put the ladder against the window in my sleep, sir?" asked Ralph. "The detectives did not think that, nor do you. I have no interest in inventing such a story; and I have no wish to do anything to annoy your son, so long as he leaves me alone——"

"I do not think that the boy dreamed it," said the doctor. And Lord Elgert frowned.

"Hum! Hark, boy! I suppose that it was not your own father, come to see you, eh?"

Then up started Ralph indignantly, and cried—

[Pg 102]

"You have no right to insult me like that! Why should you? I know nothing of you, and yet, upon the only two occasions when we have met, you have spoken in that way. My father! Why should he come like a thief at night? He has never done anything to be ashamed of. Never, I say, in spite of the tale you told. That tale is not true!"

"Each to his own opinion, young man," retorted Lord Elgert drily. "You take my advice. Attend to your studies, learn all you can, and then go back to the land you came from; for you will get on best there!"

"Lord Elgert," answered Ralph fearlessly, "you may mean that kindly or you may not. I neither know nor care. It is your advice, but it is advice which I shall not take. I have something to do here. I have to find out what has become of my father, and I have to prove that your accusation that he is a thief is not true. I am only a boy, Lord Elgert, and you may laugh at me, but I know that I shall succeed presently, and when I do perhaps I may also learn the reason for your disliking me so much."

"What do you mean by that?" shouted Lord Elgert angrily. And Ralph replied—

"Just what I say!"

Then he turned and asked the doctor if he wanted him any more. And receiving permission to go, he went back to his class; while Lord Elgert rode homewards, with black looks and frowning brow.


[Pg 103]

CHAPTER XI GOING IN FOR GRINDING

"Boys, I have an announcement to make."

The whole school were gathered for the usual morning prayers, the masters each at the head of his class; and when the reading was over, the doctor, instead of dismissing them to their classes as usual, still stood at his desk, and the boys looked up eagerly. Was it a holiday, or a challenge from some neighbouring school to a football match?

Alas, for such hopes! It was neither the one nor the other. It was something which only interested a very few of the most industrious there.

"The Newlet gold medal examination for mathematics will be held in a month's time from now; and it will be needful for intending competitors to hand in their names to their masters at once. I trust that the school will be well represented at the examination. We lost the medal last year, though we had a very good average; but the year before that, Kesterway, who was then only in the Fourth, gained it. That debars him from again trying for it; but I hope that others will enter the field, and do as[Pg 104] well as he did. The second and third boys gain silver medals. That is all. Dismiss to your classes."

"I say, Dobby, there is a chance for you to distinguish yourself," whispered one boy in the lazy one's ear, as the Fourth trooped away. And Dobson glared, for of all things, mathematics was his weak point.

"Dobson cannot do it," laughed Warren, overhearing the words. "His system of mathematics is erratic. When it comes to eating tarts at some one else's expense, it is wonderful how many he can take without counting them up; but if he has to treat—well, one multiplies itself into twenty."

"You shut up," growled Dobson. "I never had tarts at your expense."

"No, my son, and you never will," laughed Warren. "Hurry up and take your place. You know where it is—top wrong end."

Mr. Delermain entered, and the class settled down to work; but Ralph found himself pondering over that prize which was offered. True, figures were not his strongest point; but then he had a great belief that any one who sets his mind to a thing can manage to do it in time, and, somehow, he felt that it would be very nice to take that medal home and show it to Irene.

So when recess was called, he managed to get hold of Warren and question him about it.

"The Newlet," explained the monitor. "Well, it[Pg 105] certainly is rather stiff. I suppose that I must go in for it, though I don't think I shall stand much chance. There will be Philmore and Standish of the Fifth; I don't know if Elgert will try for it. He thinks no end of his mathematics, but if you ask me, I think that a crib has a good deal to do with it."

"A crib?"

"Yes. You know. Don't know what a crib is!" as Ralph shook his head. "Oh, you sweet innocent, I thought I explained that to you before! It is a book with all the answers in it——"

"That is cheating," said Ralph. And Warren nodded.

"Of course it is; but it is frequently done, not only for exams, but for class work. Suppose a fellow is late in—been at cricket or anything—and he hasn't got time for prep., and don't want to lose his place, a crib comes in very handy; only some fellows always use 'em, because they are so lazy——"

"Dobson, for instance," suggested Ralph. But Warren laughed, and shook his head.

"Bless you, no. He is too lazy even to use a crib. He does not even pretend to do his lessons; and he is in pretty little danger of losing his place, seeing that it is always at the bottom of the class."

"Well, I think it mean and dishonourable to use cribs," Ralph declared. "If I could not manage without that I would not manage at all."

"It is pretty often done," Warren replied. He was[Pg 106] not quite guiltless himself; and he felt a trifle ashamed of Ralph's honest wrath. "I suppose it is wrong; only a fellow does not think so at the time. But you were asking about the Newlet. It is stiff, but it is worth winning——"

"I should like to try for it," murmured Ralph. And the monitor stared.

"You! Well, there is nothing to prevent you from doing so; only you will have to grind awfully, if you don't crib——"

"I shall not do that," interrupted Ralph firmly. "Once for all, let that be understood. If I cannot stand a chance without cheating, I will not go in for it."

"Well, then, it is just grinding, that is all."

"Grinding," repeated Ralph, raising his brows. And Warren laughed again.

"Bless your heart! It is refreshing to find any one as innocent as you are. Grinding, my dear fellow, is working, swatting, putting in full time, giving up games and larks and story books, and working on every moment you have got to spare. It is living on mathematics all the time."

"In plain words, it is working hard," laughed Ralph. "And if a thing is worth doing, it is worth working well for——"

"Right you are. Go ahead, and good luck. You are letting yourself in for a nice thing, though; but, I suppose, that if you enter you will stick it out. Best tell Mr. Delermain; it will please him to have[Pg 107] you enter. He likes his Form well represented, even though we cannot all win."

Warren was right in that; the master was very pleased when Ralph spoke to him about it.

"I should like to go in for it, sir," the boy said. "I suppose it seems rather absurd; but I could try at least, and the study will not do me any harm."

"Not if it is honest study, Rexworth," replied Mr. Delermain. And those truthful eyes were raised steadily to his own.

"It will not be anything else, sir," Ralph said. "If I cannot do it honestly, I shall not do it at all."

"That is the way, Rexworth." Mr. Delermain laid one hand on the boy's shoulder as he spoke. "And even if you do not win, the work itself is sure to prove of great use to you later on. By all means enter; and if you want any assistance or advice, do not hesitate to come to me. I shall always be very glad to do anything in my power to assist you."

So Ralph put his name down, and some of the boys stared when they heard it. A new boy, only a week there, putting his name down for the Newlet!

"Cheek!" said Elgert.

"Rubbish!" said Dobson.

"No use!" said a good many; but Ralph paid no heed to it all. One thing nerved him. Elgert was going in for it; and he felt that if he could not beat him, it would be strange.

"You will have to work very hard, Ralph," was the[Pg 108] verdict of Mr. St. Clive, when he heard of it. "It is an honour to gain the medal, but it is an honour that has to be earned by hard work."

"You will try your very best, won't you, Ralph?" pleaded Irene. "I should just love you to win it, the same as if you were my very own brother."

Brother! Well, well; Irene and Ralph were but young; perhaps, later on, it would not be brother, perhaps—who can say?

So Ralph began to undergo that process which Warren called swatting, or grinding, and it was not all easy. When the day's work was over, and the boys ran off to their games, or settled down to their story books—and Ralph loved story books—it was not easy to get out the dry figures and bend over them, studying tricky sums, or working out obscure equations; it was not easy, but it had to be done. Ralph was beginning to understand what work meant.

And Charlton proved himself a good chum in the hour of need, for he was farther on than Ralph, and could help him in many points. Indeed, Ralph wondered why he had not entered himself; but Charlton sighed and shook his head.

"He did not want the worry of it," he said.

Ralph had said nothing more to him concerning his suspicions, but they were frequently in his mind. He never lost sight of his father's disappearance. He was for ever keeping his eyes open for anything[Pg 109] that might put him on the right track. But Mr. St. Clive's remark that he might perhaps be the means of harming a man who had never harmed him or his, made him very careful about saying or doing anything. Something was worrying Charlton, that he could plainly see; but since the boy did not say anything to him, he hesitated to try and force his confidence in any way.

So he worked with Charlton; and sometimes Warren would pop in and ask him how he got on, or compare notes with him. And Warren confessed that he had been influenced by Ralph's words, and that he was working on what he called "the square," which meant that he was doing without cribs and keys.

And when particularly knotty points occurred, Ralph would carry his books away and consult Mr. Delermain; and the master helped, and advised, and praised him, and spoke very encouragingly of his progress and his chances.

"There is nothing to beat honest, hard work, Rexworth," he said one evening, as the lad sat in his room. "What you gain unfairly, you soon lose; but what you learn honestly, that you hold, and it serves as a foundation to build other knowledge upon."

"I do not know how to thank you enough, sir," the lad answered, and Mr. Delermain smiled.

"The fact that I see you working honestly, is[Pg 110] more than reward for me, Rexworth. Now if there is nothing more, run away, for I have some letters to write."

Ralph rose, and as he did so, in gathering up his books he knocked a piece of thin paper on to the ground from off the table. He stooped with an apology and picked it up. He could not help seeing what it was—a five-pound note—and he handed it to his master, who took it and placed it on his desk.

"Thank you, Rexworth. Do not forget to come to me at once, if you want any more help."

Charlton awaited him in their study, and the lad seemed but ill at ease. He looked at Ralph doubtfully for a while; and, at last, said timidly—

"Rexworth, I hope that you won't be angry, but could you—that is, I mean, will you——"

"Out with it, old fellow," laughed Ralph. "Will I what?"

"Lend me some money. I am without any, and I want some——"

"I can lend you ten shillings, if that is any good," answered Ralph readily. And Charlton beamed.

"Will you? Oh, I am obliged! I will pay you back soon. I shall have a little money in a few weeks."

"That is all right. Here you are," and Ralph handed him the money, and turned back to his task again.

That is all right. Here you are

"'That is all right. Here you are,' and Ralph handed him
the money.
" p. 110.

But now he could not work. He wondered what[Pg 111] Charlton wanted the money for, and where he was going to get any more to pay him again. Somehow the sums seemed to get muddled; and he jumped up at last, with an exclamation of annoyance—

"Bother it! It won't come right! I quite forget how Mr. Delermain said I was to do it. I will run and ask him again; he won't mind my bothering him."

He took his book and went out. The corridor leading to the masters' rooms was rather dark, for the gas had either not been lit, or had been turned out by some one. Just before the room was reached the corridor turned sharply to the right, and here it was quite dark. And, as Ralph turned this corner, he encountered some one, who ran against him with such force that he almost fell down; and before he could recover from his surprise, that unseen boy had disappeared round the corner, running swiftly and silently, as if anxious to escape notice.

Ralph muttered something about clumsy fellows, and picked up his papers, which had been scattered in all directions. Then he went on to Mr. Delermain's room, and saw that the door was open, but the room in darkness. His master had evidently finished his letters and gone.

"I shall have to let it wait until to-morrow," he said. "It's jolly vexing, just as I was getting on so nicely."

He turned from the door, when a step sounded[Pg 112] in the corridor, and a light glimmered round the corner. Some one was coming. And then a voice said—

"Why, Rexworth, what are you doing here? You have no business in this corridor." And Ralph found himself face to face with Dr. Beverly.


[Pg 113]

CHAPTER XII THE STOLEN BANKNOTE

Now, why Ralph should have felt in the slightest degree confused by the sudden appearance of Dr. Beverly, he could not have said; and yet he was conscious that he exhibited something of hesitation in his manner. It was perhaps due to the doctor finding him there in the dark, and looking rather suspicious and stern.

The fact was that the doctor was so used to his pupils playing tricks and getting into scrapes, that it was but natural that he should scan the boy's face closely, and he noted that Ralph looked confused.

He repeated his question sharply, and then the boy recovered himself and described how he had come to ask Mr. Delermain to again explain the point which had escaped his memory.

"Mr. Delermain has gone out, I believe," Dr. Beverly said, when Ralph concluded. "But perhaps I may be able to make the point clear. Come to my study and let me see what you are doing."

Ralph followed the doctor, not without some little nervousness; for, like all the boys, he stood somewhat in awe of the head master; but the doctor[Pg 114] smiled, and was so kind that he soon put the boy at ease; and, after scanning the neat rows of figures in the exercise-book, he nodded approval.

"I am glad to see that you work so neatly, Rexworth," the Head said. "Now, this point. Here is your error—it is very simple, though easily made."

And taking a pencil, he worked out the sum himself, making Ralph go over it with him, and explaining each detail as it was done, so that Ralph was able to understand it quite easily; and, with words of thanks, took his books and went off, the doctor saying, as he departed—

"But let me give you one word of advice, Rexworth. It is all very well to be industrious; but remember, the brain wants rest, and you cannot learn properly when you are jaded. Put the books away, and do something else until bedtime—draw, read, or whatever you like. It pays to have a little relaxation when one is working hard."

Now Ralph valued the master's experience too much to neglect that advice; and, though he had intended to work for another hour, he put his books away when he reached his little study, and, picking up his long-neglected story, he settled down with a sigh of relief for a quiet read.

But he could not read. He wondered who it was that had run up against him, and what he was doing in the master's quarters. He felt uneasy, he could not say why. Then he had behaved so foolishly[Pg 115] when the doctor first met him! As if any one had any need to be afraid of such a kind man as Dr. Beverly!

Then he fell to thinking of Lord Elgert; and he wondered why he should seem to be so bitter against him, and why he seemed to take a delight in saying that his father was a thief. Ralph could not understand Lord Elgert; he was as much a mystery as was his father's disappearance.

Then, from thinking of the father, his thoughts went to the son; and he wondered whether Horace Elgert would stand any chance of winning the gold medal, and whether he was working with one of those cribs; and he caught himself thinking how nice it would be to defeat his rival and carry off the prize.

But then he checked himself. He wanted to win, but that ought not to be the real motive for it. After all, to want to win only to make Elgert vexed, was a very poor sort of thing.

"I seem to be for ever catching myself up," he reflected. "It is harder work being a standard-bearer than I supposed at first."

The bell rang for supper, and there was no more time to think then. Boys were laughing, shouting, enjoying the freedom which was allowed at this last meal of the day; and after that was over, the classes went off to their dormitories, and silence soon reigned in the school. And Ralph slept calm and peaceful, little dreaming what trouble was coming for him in the morning.

[Pg 116]

But that trouble came, sharp and swift, before the classes assembled for morning school—the heaviest trouble that Ralph had been ever called to face, with the exception of that all-supreme one—the loss of his dear father.

Breakfast was over, and the boys crowding from the dining-hall to snatch a few minutes' play prior to entering classes, when Ralph felt a hand laid on his shoulder and, turning, saw Kesterway by his side.

"Rexworth, the Head wants you in his study at once!" the monitor said; and Ralph, wondering what could be the matter, turned and went to the doctor's room forthwith.

And when he entered, he found both Dr. Beverly and Mr. Delermain there; and both looked very grave he thought.

"You sent for me, sir?" he asked, looking towards the doctor, and the master nodded.

"I did, Rexworth. Come in and shut the door. Now sit down and listen to me. You know that neither I nor Mr. Delermain would willingly say anything to hurt your feelings—I am sure that you realize that?"

"Of course I do, sir," replied Ralph, wondering greatly. "You have both always been kind to me."

"Well, now, I am going to say something that may seem hurtful," the master went on. But then he stopped as he encountered those calm, brave eyes, and he motioned to Mr. Delermain. "Suppose you[Pg 117] speak?" he said, and Ralph's own master complied.

"Rexworth," he said quietly, "it is not pleasant to say anything that could be interpreted into the faintest suspicion of doubting your honesty——"

"I hope that you do not doubt it, sir," replied Ralph quickly. "It would be a very great trouble to me if you did! But I see that something is wrong; and if that is so, it is best to know it at once in plain language. If you have to say anything to hurt me, it must be something grave indeed!" he added.

"It is grave," acknowledged the master. "You remember, last evening, knocking a banknote from my desk, and picking it up for me?"

"Perfectly well, sir."

"I replaced that note on my desk, and, having some letters to write, I forgot to take it up again; and when I went to post my correspondence, I left it there on the desk. When I returned, the note was gone, and the only person who was near my room, so far as we know, was yourself. Dr. Beverly saw you there."

"And you think that I have stolen your banknote, sir?" cried Ralph, regretfully. But Mr. Delermain shook his head.

"No, no, Ralph! You must not go so far as that. I only tell you the facts, as far as we know them. The note was there, the note has gone, you are the only one who was seen near the spot!"

"There was some one else, sir!" cried Ralph; and[Pg 118] he narrated how some one had pushed against him and run down the dark corridor. Both masters listened gravely as he did so.

"And you have no idea who this was? Did not recognize either voice or figure?"

"No, sir. He did not speak, and it was so dark, and the thing so sudden, that I was taken quite by surprise!"

"You can think of no one? Know of no lad you saw in that part of the house?"

"No, sir," answered Ralph; but even as he spoke one thought flashed into his mind. "Charlton, his chum! Charlton was in need of money! Could it have been Charlton?"

"I can think of no one, sir," he replied. "I can quite see how it looks against me; but Mr. Delermain has proved so good a friend to me, that it seems hard that I should be thought capable of robbing him."

"Let me impress upon you, Rexworth," said the doctor, "that we do not look at the matter in that light. We sent for you because we knew that you were near the place—in the room, indeed. The matter must be made public, and questions must be asked; and it is natural that, since you are the only one who was near the place——"

"I was not the only one, sir," he answered quietly.

"No, there is that other boy whom you say ran past you in the dark; but, my lad, unless something can be found out concerning that boy, we have only[Pg 119] your bare word; and suspicion is bound to fall mostly upon yourself. That is why we both felt that you should be seen privately, before the circumstance was made known to the whole school. That is all. You can go!"

"It is impossible that such a boy can be a thief, sir!" cried Mr. Delermain to the Head, when Ralph had gone. "I would stake my life upon his honesty!"

"I feel somewhat the same, Delermain," answered the Head. "But the note is gone, and he is the only one known to have been near. The school will not view the thing in that light."

"I should rather that the school did not know, sir," suggested the master; but at this Dr. Beverly shook his head.

"No, no, Delermain, I will not have that. We will have no favouritism—no keeping things back. If it was my own son who was implicated, the thing should be gone on with. For the sake of every one concerned, it must be gone on with."

But what a sensation it caused when the doctor made the announcement to the school! He had classes stopped, and all the school assembled in the hall; and there, standing at his great desk, he spoke to the lads, telling them that the banknote was lost.

"It can hardly have been mislaid," he said, "for Mr. Delermain put it beneath a heavy paper-weight; and upon his return he found that weight had been moved. Now, there are two things I want to [Pg 120]impress upon you all, very solemnly. Some one must have done this—some one acting, perhaps, under a sudden temptation; some one, perhaps, who did not understand the full gravity and magnitude of his offence. Let that some one come and own his fault to me, like a man and a Christian should do. Remember, also, that the number of that note is known. It cannot be parted with, or converted into money, without eventually being traced, even through successive stages, back to the one who originally parted with it.

"Then, remember also, that there is one of your number who is particularly affected by this loss; there is one boy who knew this note was there, and who is known to have been near the study during Mr. Delermain's absence. A boy who frankly explains what took him there, and who declares that some one passed him hurriedly in the darkness of the corridor. That boy is Ralph Rexworth, and the boy who passed by him must undoubtedly be the thief!"

It was kindly put by the Head, for it seemed as if it exonerated Ralph from all suspicion; but there were those in the classes who, as the Head had foreseen, did not look at it from that standpoint; and Dobson muttered to his nearest neighbour—

"That is all very well, but why may not Rexworth have taken it himself? He is the only one who knew that it was there."

[Pg 121]

And the boy to whom this was addressed nodded.

"I again earnestly entreat the boy who has done this thing to confess his fault!" the Head went on. "Do not let us have the taint of a thief amongst us! Let the culprit act the better part, and remove the disgrace from the school! Now go to your classes, and think over what I have said, and I trust ere the morning has passed, the boy who is guilty will have taken the better course and have come to own his fault to me!"

Away to their rooms they went; and now tongues were loosened, and comments made; and oh, how hard it was for Ralph to keep his temper! for Elgert was not slow to take all the advantages which the circumstance offered to him.

"It is all right to talk about shame being on the school!" he said to his companions. "What else can you expect? There is Charlton—look at him! 'Like father, like son,' you know. Then there is his chum, Rexworth. 'Birds of a feather flock together.' It does not take very much to see who the thief is, Rexworth was caught almost in the act, by the Head himself; and it is very easy to make up a tale of some one running by him in the dark."

"Of course," was the answer; and Ralph heard it all so plainly, as Elgert had intended that he should do. Poor Ralph, it was a hard task for him to keep his temper—to remember his promise, and act the standard-bearer's part!


[Pg 122]

CHAPTER XIII DIVIDED OPINIONS

There was but one serious theme of conversation at Marlthorpe College during the remainder of that day, and it is not difficult to guess that the theft of the banknote formed its subject. From the highest class to the lowest—from the First Form youngsters right up to the Upper Fifth—the boys discussed the business eagerly, and, it must be owned, with divided opinions.

For there were some there who, being quick to perceive true nobility of character, felt that it was impossible for such a boy as Ralph Rexworth to be a thief. They were like Dr. Beverly and Mr. Delermain, and felt that, dark as the circumstances made it appear for Ralph, he could not be guilty of such a mean action. And there were others who, with all the thoughtlessness of youth, and influenced, perhaps, by the words of Elgert and Dobson, were quite ready to declare Ralph guilty off-hand, without the slightest hesitation.

And it was bitter for Ralph—far more bitter than any there could understand. He felt that they all looked with suspicion upon him. And he even did his[Pg 123] best friends some injustice, yet they, right down to their hearts, believed him to be guilty.

He wanted at first to throw aside his books and go back to Mr. St. Clive and to Irene, but he pulled himself up sternly. He would not run away like a coward. It would appear as if he were really guilty. He would stay and fight it out and prove his innocence. He felt sure that it would aid him in getting at the truth concerning his father, and so he settled sternly down to his work, and even, in his battle, seemed a little cold and standoffish to his best friends.

And Charlton—ah, Ralph could not help thinking that Charlton knew something about this. He seemed so strange, so different and hesitating. He felt like challenging him to tell the truth, but something, he was not quite clear what, made him hesitate. It was bad enough to be suspected himself, and he was a fairly strong boy, able to take his own part, but what would timid, weakly Charlton feel if the suspicion were thrown upon him?

"I won't do anything to let him think that I suspect him, until I can be sure that I have good grounds for suspicion," Ralph reflected.

And then he paused. And if he had those good grounds, what then? Suppose that he could even be certain that Charlton was the culprit, what then? The boy would have taken the money for his mother in all likelihood, and——

Ralph shrugged his shoulders and turned resolutely[Pg 124] to his work, and, though plenty there believed that he was guilty, there was such a look upon that strong young face that they forbore to speak their opinions directly to him, but only revealed them by cutting him contemptuously whenever he chanced to be in their company.

But he was not left without comforters. Mr. Delermain took the opportunity to speak with him quietly, and as he placed one hand gently upon the strong young shoulder, and looked gravely into the face, now somewhat clouded with its sorrow, the kindly master said—

"Rexworth, my dear boy, I could find it in my heart to wish that I had never mentioned this loss."

"I do not, sir," answered Ralph quickly. "If the thing has been done it ought to be mentioned, no matter upon whom the blame may fall. It is rather hard to feel that so many of the boys believe that I have done it, but then, you see, I was in your room, and things look black, and I have no means of proving that my story of some one having passed me is really true."

"I would that we had any clue to that," observed the master. "If we could only find out who that was! You have no suspicion, Ralph?"

And he glanced into the boy's eyes.

"No sir." Then Ralph hesitated. That was not quite true. He had a suspicion. "I would rather not talk of it, sir," he answered, after a pause. "Perhaps it is not quite right to say that I have no suspicion,[Pg 125] but it is only a suspicion, and I have no right to talk about it, seeing that I have no solid grounds to go upon. I am accused solely upon suspicion, and I know how hard it is."

"I applaud your sentiment," said Mr. Delermain. "Well, my dear lad, let me impress upon you that I do not believe you to be a thief. Let me give you my sympathy, and let me encourage you to bear this trial—I fully understand how hard it must be for one of your nature—bravely; and let me assure you that I shall look forward with just as much pleasure as formerly to your visits in the evening. Do not let this interfere with your studies for the Newlet medal, and rest sure that I should not again invite Ralph Rexworth into my study if I suspected him of being a thief."

"The boy has some sort of suspicion," reflected the master, after Ralph had gone. "He suspects some one. Now whom can that be? Is he shielding that boy Charlton? He is a weakly dispositioned lad—one likely to fall into temptation, and to yield to it too. I must watch him quietly. Charlton is the most likely boy to have done this. He is poor too. Perhaps he took it to help his mother. Poor lad! if that is the case, I would be the last one to bring him to punishment." He paused and shook his head. "I ought to take a lesson from Rexworth," he went on, with a smile. "He will not speak upon mere suspicion, and here I am weaving a theory without the slightest ground for so doing, and actually arriving at the conclusion that a[Pg 126] certain boy is guilty, when I have not the least right to even connect him with the theft."

Mr. Delermain went back to his duties, but still that thought was in his head—was it possible that Charlton had taken that five-pound note, and that Ralph Rexworth knew it, and was silent only for the sake of his chum? Ralph felt quite cheered by his master's words. He did not dream that Mr. Delermain thought anything about Charlton being the thief, and he soon found another comforter in the person of good-hearted Tom Warren; for the monitor came up to him with outstretched hand, crying heartily—

"Look here, Rexworth, you are asking for a fight with me, that's what!"

"Eh?" said Ralph, staring. "I don't understand."

"Well then, why are you cutting me like this? Oh, think I don't notice it? You are sitting moping, just like an old magpie that is moulting. Look here, don't be so jolly silly as to worry about what these kites say or do. It's only Elgert and his gang, and Dobby and Co. They are always glad to be able to chuck stones at another fellow's glasshouse; but they will get their own windows smashed in time. Now, don't hide your head as though you had done something to be ashamed about. Come into the playground with me."

"The other fellows don't want me, and I don't want to go where I am not wanted."

"Rubbish! Downright silly rubbish!" retorted[Pg 127] Warren. "I want you! I want you to show me how to throw one of those ropes like you do. I cannot manage it. I was trying the other day, and I caught Bert Standish an awful smack in the eye, and jolly nearly knocked it out for him; and if you had seen him scudding after me, one hand on his injured optic and the other shaking in very wrath! I didn't stop to argue until I got safe inside my study and had the bolt drawn; and then he stood outside kicking the panel, and calling me a chump, and a kite, and a cuckoo, and all manner of pretty and polite names, and inviting me to come out and let him wipe up the floor with me. I spoke soft words, and tried to pour oil on troubled waters, only the troubled waters were not taking any, and would not be assuaged until Kesterway came along and said that he would report him for damaging the paint if he didn't stop it. I have kept out of Bert's way since then, and he has got a lovely bruise under his eye. Come on, Ralph, and show me how you do it without knocking any one's head off."

So Ralph suffered himself to be taken into the playground, and though some looked at him suspiciously and edged away from him, others of Warren's disposition resolved that, at any rate, they would wait for proof before condemning him, gathered round Ralph, and made him feel that they were his friends.

So opinions were divided, and Marlthorpe College split into two parties, one for, and one against Ralph—one with Tom Warren at its head, and the other with[Pg 128] Horace Elgert, the Honourable Horace Elgert, the nobleman's son!

And Elgert was not quite satisfied, for he saw that Ralph was not sent to Coventry, as he had intended that he should be. He saw that some of the boys recognized that he was not the sort of lad to be a thief, and he determined that, if it could be done, their opinions should be changed.

"If I can only prove that he did it," he mused, "I may be able to manage that, if I have any luck."

So the days of the week slipped away, once more bringing the Saturday holiday near, and it had been one of the hardest weeks that Ralph Rexworth had ever known—a week that had called for all his strength of will and purpose to enable him to face and overcome its difficulties and temptations.

It was Friday afternoon, and Ralph was in his study putting his books straight prior to leaving—he was always neat in his habits—when Charlton came in, hesitating, troubled-looking, as ever.

"Glad the week is over, Ralph?" he asked, after he had stood in silence for a little while watching his chum.

And Ralph nodded.

"Yes. It has been a little hard. I shall be glad to have a rest from it," he answered.

"They are wicked to try and make out that you took that note. They ought to know that you did not. I know you did not."

[Pg 129]

"Do you? How?" was the quiet answer to this indignant outburst.

And Charlton seemed confused.

"Why, because—don't you see—because—you could not do it, of course."

"Thanks!" said Ralph. "It is nice to hear you say that."

But, alas! he wondered whether Charlton had any better grounds for his belief.

And then the boy went on, taking ten shillings from his pocket.

"Here are the ten shillings which I owe you. I am much obliged."

Ralph looked hard at him, and made no attempt to pick up the money.

"Charlton," he said quietly, "I thought you said that you would not be able to repay me for some time."

And Charlton looked more confused than ever.

"I know, but I—I can pay you now."

"How did you get the money?" asked Ralph.

And his chum grew more nervous.

"I had it given—I mean that I—— Why do you ask that?"

"I will tell you, Charlton," answered Ralph gravely. "I don't mean to tell any one else, though. You had no money at the beginning of this week, and now you can pay me ten shillings. Where did you get the money from? Did you take that five-pound note?"

[Pg 130]

For a moment the lad stood silently staring at Ralph. Then his pale face went crimson, and he burst out indignantly—

"What do you mean? Do you think that I stole it? Do you mean that I am a thief? You can't mean that, Rexworth! Did you ever catch me telling a lie?"

"Yes," said Ralph quietly. "I did once."

"When?" demanded Charlton.

And Ralph answered—

"Last week in the woods, when you said that you were alone. I know that there was a man with you."

"That is a lie!" answered Charlton wildly. "There was no one. You have no right to say there was any one with me." He seemed quite beside himself with terror. "I know what it is, Ralph Rexworth! You have taken that note after all, and now you are trying to put the blame upon me. We are not chums any longer. I hate you!"

And with that Charlton rushed off, choking with anger and bitter grief, and Ralph stood there looking after him, more in regret than in anger.

"Poor chap!" he muttered. "I ought not to have spoken like that. It only shows how easy it is to make a slip, if you are not for ever watching. Perhaps I am wronging him, after all."

He paused. His eyes fell upon the money which Charlton had placed upon the table. If he was wronging him, then where had Charlton managed to get that money from?


[Pg 131]

CHAPTER XIV BY THE RIVER SIDE

"I wish that I had not spoken like that to him."

So Ralph Rexworth mused as he left the study and went along the corridor—anger at the violent outburst and the accusation which Charlton had hurled at him, he felt none.

A muffled sound broke upon his ears—the sound of some one sobbing violently, and he stopped, peering along the corridor until he made out the form of his former chum. Charlton had flung himself down full length, and was crying as if his heart would break.

It was more than Ralph could stand—he went up to him and laid a hand upon the prostrate boy's shoulder.

"Charlton," he said kindly, "don't cry. I am awfully sorry that I have offended you, and that we have quarrelled. I did not mean to do it. Won't you get up and shake hands with me?"

"No!" came the broken answer. "Go away, I don't want you! You were the only chum that I had, and now you say that I am a thief! I never said a word against you. I told Dobson that he was telling lies when he said that you had stolen the note, and he[Pg 132] beat me. I did not mind that, because I was trying to stick up for you; and now you say I stole it!"

"Come, shake hands," pleaded Ralph, feeling somehow that he was on the wrong track. "I am sorry."

"You ought to have known how it feels to be called a thief," the other lad continued. "You are not my chum—I don't care about you being strong and me being weak—I don't want to be your chum. I know that my father was called a thief, but it was not true—he never did anything wrong—and I know that people sneer at me. But I am not a thief—I never stole anything, and you, seeing what Elgert has said about your father, and that you have been accused, might have been a little more kind to me."

"Well, I have said that I am sorry. Won't you shake hands?" said Ralph again. "And I had a note from Mr. St. Clive, and he told me to ask you and Warren to come over to-morrow. Won't you come?"

"No," answered Charlton. "You don't want boys there who have convict fathers, and who you believe to be thieves. You go away, Ralph Rexworth. We shall never be friends any more until you have been proved wrong. When I can prove to you that I had no hand in taking that note, then we will be chums again.

"And," he added, sitting up, "it is a wicked, wicked lie to say that I was with any man in those woods. It is not true, and you are making it up. There—go away, and make what chums you like. I suppose that we[Pg 133] must still share the same study! I won't worry you with my presence very much, I can promise you; but I won't make friends, and I won't forgive you, and I won't take back one word of what I have said that I believe about you—not even if you beat me—and you are strong enough to do that, I know."

"I am sorry. I don't want to beat you, Charlton," responded Ralph, "and I am very grieved that we are not to be chums. Perhaps after Sunday you will think differently."

"I will never think differently—never—never!" cried Charlton. And jumping up he rushed off, leaving Ralph to continue his way alone, and somewhat heavy-hearted, for he had a genuine liking for the lonely, sad-faced boy, and was indeed truly sorry that he had said anything to cause him such pain and grief.

"Hallo, Rexworth! What have you been doing with Charlton?" asked Warren, meeting him in the playground a little later. "He rushed across here a little while ago as though he were training for a race; and when I asked him if he had seen you, he said that he didn't know anything about you, and that he didn't want to know, either. Whatever have you done to upset him in that way?"

"We have had a bit of a quarrel," answered Ralph. "Don't ask me about it, old fellow, for I don't want to talk of it. I hope that he will be all right again next week. By the way, Mr. St. Clive has asked me whether[Pg 134] you would care to come over and spend the afternoon with me to-morrow."

"Will a duck like to swim when it gets enough water to paddle its little tootsies in?" laughed Warren. "My dear chap, I will come on the wings of greased lightning. I must go home and tell the mater first though, or she will wonder what has become of me—fancy that I have met with an accident, or something. Fellows ought not to be careless about such things as that. Then I will come on, if that will do, and—great guns! there goes the bell, and it is my turn to see the school ready for calling over. I am off"—and away Warren sped as fast as he could run.

The evening passed, the following morning came and went, and still Charlton gave Ralph no opportunity for renewing his offer of friendship. He looked pale, miserable, but determined—Ralph had wounded him to the very soul, and he would not—could not indeed—forget or forgive it.

The hour of departure came, and still Charlton avoided Ralph. They left without wishing each other good-bye, and Ralph set out for Mr. St. Clive's, feeling disappointed and heavy-hearted.

But disappointment and heavy-heartedness could not long find place in that bright home. The very first greeting, the warm handshake of Mr. St. Clive, the smile of his wife and the rush with which Irene came to greet him, altogether united to banish every melancholy thought, and to bring sunshine to his heart.

[Pg 135]

And what a circle of sympathetic listeners he had when he told them about the theft, and how he had chanced to be upon the scene. And both Irene and Mrs. Clive laughed, and were at the same time very indignant that any one should dare to suppose, even for one moment, that Ralph could possibly be a thief.

But Mr. St. Clive looked grave, for he could see how hard this was for the lad, and could understand what a big fight it must have been for Ralph.

"Never fear, my boy," he said when the story was told. "It is hard, but the truth must come out at last—it always does in this world of ours. But now," he continued, "about your friends—I hope they are to be my guests to-day."

"Warren will be here, sir," answered Ralph. And Mr. St. Clive asked, "And not Charlton?"

"No, sir, he could not promise." Ralph did not go into the matter of his quarrel with his chum then; he wanted to talk to Mr. St. Clive alone about that; and the gentleman, seeing that something must have gone amiss, did not press his questions further.

Then Ralph went off with Irene, and had to tell her everything over again, while she sat and listened with sparkling eyes, especially when he told her how Mr. Delermain had behaved.

"I would like to kiss him," she said. "He is a nice man." And Ralph suggested that, as she could not do that, the next best thing would be to kiss him[Pg 136] instead—a thing which proves very conclusively that Ralph was very quickly getting used to the ways of Western civilization.

And then, with a merry call, Tom Warren came upon the scene, for he had arrived, had been welcomed by his host, and sent out into the garden to meet his friend. Irene was introduced—she had known him before, by the way, but that doesn't matter—and Warren was nice, and didn't think girls a bit of a nuisance—which shows that he was a wise boy—and the three just got on as well as could be, until the bell rang for lunch, and—

Well, well, they did enjoy that lunch, that is all; and they demonstrated very clearly what exceedingly healthy appetites they all possessed; and then, that over, they set out for a stroll along the river's bank—for it was very pretty there, and Irene loved the spot. The trees were so stately, and, in some places, grew right to the water's edge, and the grass was so green and velvety, and the river ran so smoothly—perhaps too smoothly—for the current was strong and swift, and glided along, making the water look like a stream of glass as it turned the curve towards Becket Weir, and went roaring and foaming down twelve feet like a little Niagara.

But to-day, when they reached the spot they were somewhat disappointed to find that they were not the only occupants. A party of boys were there—boys from the college—and, of all boys in the world, Elgert,[Pg 137] Dobson, and some of their chums who had been to Mr. St. Clive's.

Some of the boys were fishing, for there were excellent perch and roach in the still pools; and Horace Elgert had his canoe, a pretty little boat—light, easy, and graceful, so long as it was kept away from the immediate neighbourhood of the weir.

"Oh," growled Warren, as he saw the others. "How jolly annoying!" And at that Irene burst out laughing, and inquired how anything could possibly be "jolly annoying."

"Well, very annoying, Miss St. Clive," was Warren's answer. "Just to think of that lot being here!"

"I don't see that they need annoy us," she answered.

"We will go a little farther along the bank, down by the weir."

Some of the other boys greeted Warren, and raised their hats as they saw Irene—whom most of them knew by sight; but of Ralph they took no notice, and Elgert, coming by in his canoe, called out loud enough for all to hear—

"Keep your eyes on your property, you fellows, you might lose something here."

"The cad!" muttered Warren, while Irene gave Ralph's arm a little squeeze, as if to tell him never to mind.

"The cad!" said Warren again. "He would not dare do that if you were in the playground; and just[Pg 138] look at him showing off in that canoe—as if no one but he could use a paddle."

"He cannot use one," laughed Ralph. "That is not the way to swing it. He takes it over and over like the sails of a windmill, describing circles with every stroke."

"Well," asked Warren, "how would you use it? I confess that is the way I should handle it."

"It is not the right way. It should be swung from side to side, and he will be over if he tries to play tricks like that"—as Elgert made a fancy stroke which brought the boat down on one side.—"There, he has dropped his paddle! Be careful"—and he raised his voice—"Be careful! He is over!"

Yes; the warning came too late. Elgert reached over to regain his paddle, the canoe took one sudden lurch, turned bottom up, and sent the boy struggling into the water. Elgert could not swim—Ralph saw that at a glance; and, without waiting, off went coat and waistcoat, and into the river Ralph Rexworth went after his foe—the river that ran so swiftly on to the boiling, roaring weir.

Into the river Ralph Rexworth went

"Into the river Ralph Rexworth went after his foe." p. 138

It was a hard fight, but Ralph had the advantage of being carried by the current right down to the struggling boy, and, ere long, he had reached him, was gripping his arm, and had commenced the struggle back to the bank, only to find that Warren was by his side ready to give his help.

And between them they managed to get Elgert[Pg 139] back to the shore. Not without a big battle, for the water pulled like giant hands, seeking to sweep them all away. They had to swim in a slanting course, and even then, ere the bank was reached, they were perilously near to the spot over which the water took its leap, and where the notice-board with the big "Danger" was so prominently fixed.

But they managed it; and Elgert was hurried off by his friends, while Warren and Ralph, soaked as they were, had to race back to Mr. St. Clive's, with Irene behind them urging them not to stop for her, but to get back as quickly as ever they could.

Only to think of it! Ralph Rexworth had actually rescued, with the help of Warren, his enemy Horace Elgert from almost certain death!


[Pg 140]

CHAPTER XV THE LOST POCKET-BOOK

Ralph Rexworth was inconsolable—he had lost his pocket-book. Now, a lost pocket-book may not seem a very big thing to grieve over, seeing that another one can be bought for a reasonable sum; and yet Ralph did grieve, and grieve greatly.

For this pocket-book was not like other pocket-books that might be bought. It was one which his father had given to him—the very last present which he had ever received from him—and it contained, amongst other things, and the greatest treasure of them all, a portrait of his darling mother, and the letter which his father had written to him on the day he made the present. What wonder, then, that a boy who loved his parents as Ralph Rexworth had done should grieve, and grieve greatly, over such a loss?

He found out the loss shortly after he reached Mr. St. Clive's, after rescuing Horace Elgert. He had been looking at some portraits of Irene, which had only just arrived from the photographers, and she had[Pg 141] given him one to keep for himself. What should he do with such a gift but put it into his pocket-book—and his pocket-book was not there!

Irene saw the change which came over his face when he had discovered the loss, and she asked him what was the matter. His face went quite white, so that Tom Warren, looking at him, wondered why such a manly, sensible chap should look so bad over such a little thing.

But then Tom Warren had father and mother living, and plenty of friends around; so that made all the difference. He did not understand what it was to be all alone in the world, or how people like that treasured every relic of friends and happy days that had been.

"Perhaps it tumbled from your pocket when you threw your coat off down by the river?" he suggested. "Let us go and have a look for it." And the two boys set off together.

"He does seem cut up," the monitor reflected, as they ran on; for Ralph hardly had a word to say now, so anxious was he.

But, no—no pocket-book was to be found. They searched every foot of the towing-path, and then went into the wood, to the very spot where they had rested that afternoon; but not a sign of the book could they see, and at last Warren declared that it was no use looking further.

"You cannot have dropped it anywhere about here,"[Pg 142] he said, "unless some one has seen it and picked it up. Had it got your name inside?"

"Yes," answered Ralph; "but then they won't know where to bring it. How will they know who Ralph Rexworth is, or where he lives? I am afraid I shall never see it again; and—and—" And Ralph broke off, unable to finish his sentence.

"Oh, come, don't be like that, Rexworth!" protested Warren. "At any rate, you can advertise for it and offer a reward; and any one who found it would be only too glad to bring it back and get the money. An old pocket-book is not so great a find that any one would want to keep it from you."

"No; it is only of value to me," admitted Ralph, giving one last vain look round. "Well, it is no use staying here now; and it is beginning to grow dark. I suppose that we had better go back."

The St. Clives were quite anxious to know whether the book had been recovered when the two boys once more reached the house, and they were full of sympathy when Ralph sadly shook his head.

"I suppose you are quite sure that you brought it away from school with you, Ralph?" said Mr. St. Clive; and that brought just one little ray of hope. Ralph could not be quite sure. He thought that he had done so—he always took it from the pocket of the coat he took off and transferred it to that of the one he was going to wear. He had taken off his school-jacket when he left that afternoon, and[Pg 143] though he felt nearly sure that he had done so, he could not be quite certain that he had taken his pocket-book from the pocket.

But he felt so anxious and worried that all the pleasure of the evening was gone; and when Warren finally said good-night and ran off to his own home, it was still with the reflection that Ralph Rexworth must indeed be a queer sort of chap, or else there must be some extra special reason for his worrying over that pocket-book in the way he did.

And when Warren had gone, Irene came and sat by her friend's side, being, indeed, a staunch little friend herself, and wanting to do something to comfort him; and she whispered again how she sympathized with him, and that perhaps the book was still at school, or, again, if it were really lost, it would be sure to be found by some one who would be likely to see the advertisement which Mr. St. Clive said should be printed, and then they would certainly bring it back to him.

And then she talked of the deed which Ralph had done that day, and how glad she was that he had been the means of saving Horace Elgert; and how, in returning good for evil, he would be sure to conquer; and just for the moment Ralph forgot his loss, and was interested.

"I could not do anything else, Irene," he said. "When it comes to saving a fellow's life, one cannot stop to consider whether they are friends or enemies.[Pg 144] It had to be done, though it has cost me enough," he added sadly.

"You think that you lost your pocket-book then?" she said; and he nodded.

"Yes. I must have jerked it out of my pocket when I threw my coat off."

"Well, then some of the other boys will most likely have found it, and they will bring it back to you on Monday."

"I hope, if they do find it, they will not open it and get playing about with its contents," he said anxiously; and she laughed.

"Why, how silly, Ralph! How can they possibly find out to whom it belongs unless they open it? Why should you mind that? You have nothing in it that you are afraid for people to see?"

"Oh, no, no; of course not!" he answered quickly. It was not that. He could not explain it to Irene—he could hardly understand it himself—but the idea of other hands touching that, and other eyes prying at its treasured contents, was very repugnant to Ralph's feelings.

The next morning Ralph was up early, almost as soon as it was light, and back in the neighbourhood of Becket Weir; and there, all alone in the freshness of the early day, he hunted this way and that, far more carefully than he had done the previous evening, but with as little success. There was not a trace of the pocket-book, but—he paused, his nerves tingling[Pg 145]—some one had driven along the towing-path. The tracks were perfectly plain upon the dew-damp earth; and the tracks were those of a light cart which was drawn by a horse lame in its left fore foot—the same tracks which he connected with his father's fate, and which he had not seen for some time now!

He stood looking round. It was Sunday—the day of peace and rest and gentle thoughts, and yet for the moment his heart filled with hard ones. He must follow these tracks! They might not lead to the recovery of his father—alas! he could not but believe now that father was dead—but they would lead to the man who had killed him; and then—then——

Sweet and low the bells came from the distant church, ringing for the first early morning service. They seemed to whisper messages to Ralph; but for once he turned a deaf ear to their voices. He must follow these tracks, Sunday or no Sunday.

Along the path he went, his eyes fixed on the ground—past the roaring, tumbling weir, and the marks grew clearer. Hope rose in his excited heart. This was more in accordance with his tastes and desires. It was like being back on the long, rolling prairies. He would find out the truth now—at least, he would find out who this man was who drove a lame horse!

Vain hopes, vain thoughts! Clear and unbroken, the marks ran until the towing-path turned out on the main road just by Becket Bridge, and there, on the hard, stony road, all tracks were lost. It was[Pg 146] failure again; and a sudden rush of sorrow came to Ralph, a sudden sense of disappointment and loneliness; and sitting down there on the stone coping of the wall that separated the road from the river, Ralph Rexworth burst into tears. He could not help it—he felt so very depressed and weary; and not even the thoughts of Mr. St. Clive and Irene could drive that depression away.

But still the bells rang, and their sweet voices thrust themselves upon him. I am not sure that a good cry is not a good thing sometimes, even for a boy. He felt all the better now, and he thrust back his weakness and squared his shoulders, turning once more for the house, lest his absence, being noticed, the family might wonder what had become of him.

But his adventures were not quite over for the morning; for, as he went back, he became aware that far off to the right, just where the spinney came creeping down to the common, there were two persons walking—a man and a boy. He could see them quite plainly; and though they were so far off, his eyes, accustomed in the past to be used on the sweeping plains, where safety, and even life, may depend upon keen sight, distinguished the boy as his former chum, Charlton—Charlton and a man—who but his father? And again came the thought, in spite of all the reasoning which Mr. St. Clive had used—was there any connexion between that man, the tracks of the lame horse, and his own dear father's disappearance?

[Pg 147]

Very slowly did Ralph return to his benefactor's house. He was restless, anxious; all the stormy feelings seemed to have returned. And all this had come through the loss of his pocket-book!

That Sunday was a hard one for Ralph. Even the quiet church, with its solemn service, its sweet music, and its glorious coloured windows, did not seem quite the same to-day. It was as though Satan was combating with him, whispering that it was no use striving to go Christ's way—that the road was too hard and the service too ill-paid—that it was far better to give up trying to be noble and good and just be as other boys were—as Dobson and Elgert, and that sort.

Indeed, the temptation came that it was just downright silly to go to school at all, when he could go back to his old life and live in all the wild freedom of the plains. So Ralph was tempted; and it seemed as if he could get no good from the day at all—as if all striving to do so were in vain—and as if he would have been just as well if he had stopped away from church altogether.

Even Irene did not seem able to cheer him up. Despairing thoughts, dark thoughts, doubting thoughts—one after another they came; for Ralph was like Christian in Pilgrim's Progress—he was in the dark valley, and all manner of evil things seemed to assail him as he journeyed.

Perhaps Mr. St. Clive understood—he seemed to[Pg 148] understand most things—for that night, when the family knelt at prayers together, he prayed especially for all who had special grief to bear and special temptations to endure; and somehow that prayer seemed to do Ralph more good than anything else had done. It seemed to pull him up, and to tell him that, let him be tempted as he might, conquest was possible if the temptation was met in the strength which comes through prayer.

Monday morning came at last—the first Monday morning when he had really felt anxious to get back to school; and off he set, promising to write to his friends and let them know whether the pocket-book was safe at the school in the pocket of his other coat.

He met Warren on the road, and the monitor asked him if the book was found; but Ralph shook his head in token that it was still missing.

The school was reached at last, and Ralph hurried across the playground and darted up to the dormitory. His coat was in his box. He felt in the pocket; the book was there—safe! There had been no need to worry! He had left it behind him, and it had been safe all the time!

Warren had followed him, and Charlton was there, and half-a-dozen of the others. Charlton had taken no notice of him when he ran in.

"There you are, you kite!" laughed Warren. "You left it here all the time, and you have been worrying yourself to fiddle-strings, as if it contained the most[Pg 149] important things in the world, and just trembling in your shoes for fear any one should find it and open it, and——"

Warren stopped short. A boy, running by, accidentally pushed against Ralph and sent the book flying from his hands. It fell at Warren's feet and burst open; and from it there fluttered on the floor, in plain view of every boy there—a five-pound note!


[Pg 150]

CHAPTER XVI THINGS LOOK BLACK FOR RALPH

A five-pound note!

There it lay, face upwards; and for a moment there was silence in the dormitory. Every eye was turned upon the boy, who stood staring at that accusing piece of paper, as if turned to stone. If ever any one looked guilty, Ralph Rexworth did at that moment. It was so unexpected, so inexplicable—and worst of all, though not a word was spoken, he seemed to feel what his companions thought, to know that they looked upon him as a liar and a thief.

As for Warren, he stood with open mouth and staring eyes, as if he could not believe his senses. So this was why Ralph had been so anxious about finding his pocket-book! But when Elgert, who had also come into the room, took in the scene and muttered scornfully something about "Like father like son," Warren turned on him savagely, with a contemptuous—

"Shut up, you cad! You, at any rate, should be the last one to speak, seeing that he saved your life on Saturday." And at that sharp reproof Elgert shrank away, abashed for once.

[Pg 151]

Then Warren stooped and picked up the note, for it still lay there, and every one seemed too bewildered to move—and he held it out to Ralph.

"Rexworth," he said, in low, grave tones, "this was in your pocket-book. It don't want much talking about, you can see what it looks like against you. But I want to say, and I feel that I must say it, I cannot believe that a chap like you can really be guilty of such a horribly mean thing. You and I have been good chums, and if any one had asked me my opinion, I should have said that there was no chap in the school I could more honour and trust. But this thing has got to be explained, and I must do my duty as a monitor, even if it gets my best chum into trouble. I must tell the Head of this. If I did not, some one else would, and it is my duty to do it."

"You don't think that I stole it," faltered Ralph. It seemed so horrible that it unnerved him, and made him lose his firm resolution for the moment. It would be only for a little while: presently the old grit would come back, and he would be firm enough. But the greatest may flinch for the moment—recoiling from the horror of the accusation or suspicion—and others may put down their agitation to a wrong cause, think it the evidence of a guilty conscience, and condemn them untried.

"You don't think that I stole it?" he faltered, as if pleading that Warren would not think so poorly as that of him. But the monitor replied gravely:

[Pg 152]

"I don't think anything about it, Rexworth. I don't want to think, for if I did, I should think wrong, perhaps. I can only act on the thing as I know it. You lost your pocket-book, you said. You were in a terrible mess over the loss. You, yourself, said to me that you hoped no one would look inside it if they picked it up; and I, with my own eyes, saw this note fall out of it just now, the note I suppose Mr. Delermain lost, and which you declared that you had not seen. I must tell the Head. I only wish that it were not part of my work to have to do so."

Then the old resolution came back. Ralph's self had not deserted him, and he spoke, quietly and calmly, so that all the dormitory could hear his troubled tones.

"Thank you, Warren. I value your friendship, which makes doing your duty so hard a thing for you, and I quite understand that you cannot give me that friendship now, while this thing is over me. I know it looks very bad against me. I have some enemy here, and that enemy has been just a little too clever for me."

Just as he spoke his eyes caught sight of Charlton, standing looking so white and scared, and the thought came: Had he done this? He seemed to avoid his gaze. Ralph paused only a moment, and then went on—

"There is one thing, however, that I can do to prove that I value your friendship, and that is take the task of speaking from you. If you choose to wait until after prayers, I will tell the Head myself, in open school, and you can all hear me do it."

[Pg 153]

Warren hesitated for a moment. He hated to have to do the task, and if Ralph would tell himself, it would do just as well.

"Very well," he said, "if you will do that, I have no objection; and, look here, you fellows," he added, turning to the others, "do, for mercy's sake, keep this to yourselves, all of you; or it will be all over the school, and it is not a nice thing to have connected with our Form. We may have been a bit wild, but we have never had a thing like this before, and I would have done anything rather than have had it now."

He turned away as he spoke, and the others followed slowly, leaving Ralph there alone—alone with his pocket-book, and the note which had come from it.

No, not quite alone, for Charlton still stood there regarding him with the same half-frightened, half sorrowful look; and at last Ralph, becoming aware of his presence, turned and looked at him.

"Well," he said, "what do you want? Why don't you clear off, like the rest have done?"

The boy backed away from him, as if almost frightened.

"And it was you, all the time," he said, in low tones. "You, whom I thought so noble and good! You took it, and then you dared to ask me if I had taken it, to hint that it was me. Oh, Ralph Rexworth, I did not think that there was any one as mean as you."

[Pg 154]

Ralph regarded him gravely for a little while, and then he said—

"And suppose that I still think that you took it, Charlton? Suppose that I ask you whether you put this note in my pocket-book?—for some one put it there, that is quite certain. Is this done in spite, because of what I said to you on Friday?"

Then Charlton started forward, as if beside himself with anger.

"How dare you, Ralph Rexworth—how dare you! Is that the way in which you are going to try and get out of it? Try and put it on to my shoulders! Ralph Rexworth, I stayed here when the others went because I was going to offer you something—going to offer to take the blame and seem to be the thing which you accuse me of being. The boys all look upon me as a thief's son, and it would not make much difference if I were turned out. I was going to offer to say that I had done this, and put it into your book. Going to do it because you were kind to me, and, even after what you said, you tried to make friends again. I would have done it, Rexworth, but I will not now. If you can be as mean as that, I will not do it."

"Hold on a bit, Charlton," answered Ralph. "If you had any idea of that sort, I thank you for your kindness. But you don't suppose that I would be a party to a thing of that kind, do you? Let you tell a lie and get the blame, that I might escape trouble![Pg 155] Not me! If you have done it, own up or hold your tongue, as you like. But if you have not done it, you shan't say that you have, and that is all about it." And he added, as Charlton turned away—

"If I have wronged you with my suspicions, I am sorry. I know how easy it is to be wrongly judged."

"And you will find how hard it is to bear," the other boy said, and then he, too, turned away, leaving Ralph considerably perplexed. Had Charlton taken the note and placed it in his pocket-book? After all, Ralph hardly thought so, it was not like him to do that, and yet—yet some one must have done this wicked thing, some one who wanted to get him into trouble!

But there was no more time to spare, the bell for prayers was ringing, and he went down to his place.

In spite of Warren's pleading, it was evident that the story had leaked out; for, as Ralph appeared, there was a considerable amount of subdued hissing and groaning, which made the masters look up in surprise, and the monitors to call silence in angry tones.

Then the Head appeared, and prayers were read. Poor Ralph! It was harder than ever to attend to worship now. He felt nervous at the ordeal before him, and yet he felt also that to seem nervous was to seem guilty—and he was innocent! That thought calmed him. The service was over, the Head was just going to dismiss the school when Ralph rose in his seat, and said in clear tones—

[Pg 156]

"Please, sir, may I say something in open school? It is something of importance, something connected with the banknote which Mr. Delermain lost."

The words created quite a sensation amongst those who were ignorant of what had transpired, and the doctor answered—

"Would it not be better to speak with myself first, Rexworth? Then I can decide whether what you have to communicate should be made public."

"I would rather speak here, sir. In fact, I have promised to do so. It only concerns myself, please, sir."

"Then you may speak. Be brief and plain, and let us hear what you have to say."

So Ralph spoke, turning half to the Head, half to the school; and describing how he had thought that he took his pocket-book with him and how he had found it in his other coat, when he got back that morning; and how, also, the five-pound note had been seen to tumble from it, when it fell on the floor.

"I know, sir," he said, in conclusion, "that the thing looks as bad as bad can be, and that if every one here believes me to be a thief, it is only natural; but I can only say, sir, what I have said from the beginning. I am quite innocent. I never saw that banknote from the time when Mr. Delermain laid it on his desk until this morning, when it fell from my pocket-book and Warren picked it up."

The doctor listened in silence, his keen eyes fixed[Pg 157] upon the face of the lad before him; and Dr. Beverly felt perfectly certain that Ralph Rexworth was speaking the truth.

And yet, if that were so, it meant not only that some other boy was a thief, but also that a boy must be deliberately trying to get Rexworth wrongly accused; and that seemed a very dreadful thing in the eyes of the noble, upright master of Marlthorpe.

"You say you were under the impression that you took your pocket-book home with you, Rexworth?" he said, when the boy had concluded; and Ralph replied—

"Yes, sir. I can say yes to that, though I suppose that I must be mistaken, seeing that I found it safely in my coat-pocket when I went to the dormitory the first thing this morning."

A low murmur went round the school. Some of the boys were evidently convinced that Ralph was guilty, and that he was only striving to screen himself, and their youthful hearts rebelled against such behaviour.

"Hiss, hiss!" "Thief, thief!" ran round, and Ralph started as though he had been struck by a whip.

The doctor struck his bell sharply, and silence followed. The offenders looked somewhat dismayed at their own audacity.

"Silence, there!" he cried. "Is it the custom to call a man guilty before even the whole evidence is heard? What Rexworth says is very true. The facts do seem[Pg 158] to unite to condemn him, and yet it is possible that those facts are unworthy of credence."

"Whatever does the Head favour that fellow for?" muttered Elgert, to one of his own friends. But he received a look of disgust and an impatient—

"Oh, shut up! Didn't he pull you out of the river?" That was the second time that morning Horace Elgert had been so rebuked.

"This," the Head continued, "demands the most careful, searching investigation. If Rexworth is guilty, I shall be the last to screen him; if he is innocent, it is but my duty to strive to establish that innocence. If any boy has been wicked enough to deliberately do this for the very purpose of getting this lad into trouble, I most earnestly entreat that boy to think of what he has done, and to confess his fault before this goes farther, and——"

The Head paused and looked round, the door was opened, and Lord Elgert had entered, just in time to overhear his last words.


[Pg 159]

CHAPTER XVII THE PLOT THAT FAILED

The entrance of Lord Elgert interrupted the serious business being carried on; and somewhat impatient, even if curious, glances were directed towards him as he walked up to Dr. Beverly.

"I evidently come at an inopportune moment," the nobleman said, as he surveyed the scene before him; "and yet, perhaps, it is a fortunate interruption, if this lad is in trouble, as he seems to be"—and he nodded towards Ralph, who met his gaze with some coldness. "If my interruption is untimely I will withdraw." And he looked round inquiringly.

"We certainly are in the midst of a painful inquiry," replied the headmaster gravely. "I do not suppose that your visit is connected with it in any way."

"My visit is wholly and solely to thank Ralph Rexworth and Tom Warren for their bravery in rescuing my son last Saturday," was the reply.

And these words also caused something of a sensation, for, to the school at large the adventure at the river side was still unknown.

The Head himself had evidently not heard of it,[Pg 160] for he looked surprised, and Lord Elgert continued—

"The two boys risked their lives to save that of my son, and I cannot be slow in coming to express my thanks and admiration. If Rexworth is in any trouble, I sincerely trust that any influence which I may have will be allowed to weigh in his favour."

"Perhaps we had better finish the business in hand first," suggested the Head. "It is connected with something of which I understand you have already been informed. A banknote which was missing some time ago has been recovered, and it was found in Ralph Rexworth's pocket-book."

"Dear, dear," said Lord Elgert, in grieved tones; "I am truly sorry—very sorry. But the temptations to which youth are exposed are great. It may be possible to overlook this unhappy matter for once——"

"Sir—sir," broke in Ralph, indignantly appealing to Dr. Beverly, "I know that you have always been kind to me, and I ask you to protect me from Lord Elgert's insults, lest I may forget myself and say words which I ought not to say. I want no friendship nor influence of his. I am not guilty, and I will not accept anything which will make it appear that I am. As to saving his son, Warren did as much as I did, and we could do no less for any one who was in danger, but I can honestly say that I wish that it had been any one else than Horace Elgert."

A very ugly look swept over the face of Lord Elgert, and he stepped back, remarking to Dr. Beverly—

[Pg 161]

"In that case, there is no need for me to interrupt you any longer—at any rate, so far as this boy is concerned."

"Now, attention!" said the Head; and the school straightened up again. "We have heard what Ralph Rexworth has to say, and some of you are evidently quite certain that he is guilty—that he is a thief, and, worse, a liar also—and that in face of what we have just heard. A boy who risks his life to save that of another is surely not so poor spirited as this. To believe that he is, is to believe that utter contradictions can be reconcilable."

"Please, sir," said one lad, rising in his place, "there is one thing which I should like to say."

"You may speak, sir," was the reply which he received; and the boy went on—

"Rexworth says that he thought he took his pocket-book away with him on Saturday. Please, sir, so he did, for I saw him take it from his other coat. He laid it on his bed for a minute, and then looked at a likeness in it, and afterwards put it into his pocket. So that if it was found here this morning, some one must have picked it up and brought it back."

"That is most important, if it is true," said the Head, while Ralph felt a rush of relief, and turned grateful eyes upon the speaker.

"Are you sure that he did put it into his pocket, and not either replace it in the coat from which he took it, or leave it lying on the bed?"

[Pg 162]

"Quite sure, sir," answered the lad confidently. "I saw him slip it into his pocket, and I wondered whose likeness it was that he carried about with him."

"It is my mother's, sir," said Ralph in a low voice.

And the Head nodded.

"Then, if this be true, a most wicked and evil plot has indeed been attempted—one so bad that, when I discover those who invented it, they shall surely be expelled. I am glad to have this testimony, although it was almost needless, for I am already quite certain that Ralph Rexworth is innocent—or, I had better say, that the evidence against him is valueless.

"In the first place, this pocket-book"—and he held it up—"has certainly been dropped, for its side is still stained with mud, and there is the mark of a boot, where some one has stepped upon it. In the next place—and this in itself is sufficient—a little mistake has been made. Is this note yours, Rexworth?"

And he turned, holding the banknote to the astonished Ralph.

"No, sir," the boy answered, not knowing what to make of this turn in affairs.

"Have you not such a thing as a five-pound note?" he was next asked.

And again he replied in the negative.

"Well," the Head went on, "it certainly is not the one lost by Mr. Delermain. Every banknote, as I suppose you know, has its own number, and this number is not that of the note lost, so that either[Pg 163] some one has been kind enough to make Rexworth a present of a five-pound note, or else they have, by oversight, or through ignorance, put a note into his pocket-book to make it appear that he is a thief, not considering that it is as easily distinguished from the one which is missing, as if it were for a different amount, and——"

The doctor paused once more, for Ralph broke down. He had kept stiff enough so far; but now, as he heard that by no means could he be accused, and that some one must certainly have done this out of spite, his courage gave way, and he cried out—

"Why should any one want to harm me so? I have done nothing to make any one wish me evil. I am almost a stranger in England, and yet people try to do such things as that! I cannot stay, sir. I must ask Mr. St. Clive to send me back. England is a wicked place, and strangers are treated wickedly."

"Perhaps all England is not as bad as you think it, my lad," replied the Head kindly, "though I confess that your experiences are enough to make you form such an opinion. But do not decide hastily. I think that out of all such trials you will emerge a conqueror, and I know that such wicked attempts as have been made against you must, sooner or later, recoil upon the heads of those who make them."

"I sympathize with the lad," said Lord Elgert, "and I take no offence at the way in which he spoke. You remember, Rexworth, that if ever you want a[Pg 164] friend you can come to me. I think your decision a wise one. This land is no place for you, and if you wish to return to your old home, I will myself provide all the money which is required. I want you to let me give you a gold watch—I have one for Warren, also."

"I will take nothing from you," cried the boy, so that all could hear. "I do not trust you. For some reason you seem to hate me, and I believe that you are at the bottom of all my troubles."

"Rexworth," said the Head, in grave remonstrance; and the boy checked himself.

"I am sorry, sir. I ought not to have spoken like that," he said penitently; "but Lord Elgert knows how impossible it is to take any favours from him, after what he has said about my father. All I desire of him is that he will leave me alone to fight my own battle."

Lord Elgert shrugged his shoulders.

"If that is so, I cannot help it," he said. "If you change your mind and need a friend, you can come to me. Now for Master Warren."

"Please, sir," said Warren rising, "I don't want anything for just doing my duty; and, anyhow, I could not take any present or reward without first asking my father's leave."

Lord Elgert bit his lip.

"It seems that I am to be deprived of the pleasure of giving any reward at all," he said. "In that case, I will intrude no longer, Dr. Beverly."

[Pg 165]

And with a sense of discomfiture Lord Elgert departed, and the Head again addressed the boys, enlarging upon the wickedness of what had been done, and once more pleading that the culprit, whoever he was, would act a man's part, own his wrong, and ask for mercy. Alas! there was no response to his pleading, and after a short pause the Head dismissed the school to its various classes.

But surely never before had Marlthorpe had so much to talk of; and never before did the masters allow more talking. For the thing was so bad, and the lessons to be learned so grave, that each master felt as if it were almost his duty to bring the subject before the boys, even to encourage them to talk of it, if in so doing those lads could be taught that honesty and truth must prevail in the end, and that deceit and wrong-doing must fail.

But oh, what a good thing it was for Ralph when Mr. Delermain shook hands with him.

"My dear boy," the master said, "none can rejoice more than I do that the clumsy attempt to fasten this theft on your shoulders has failed. Had it not been shown to be such an attempt, I should still have felt confident that it was so, being sure that you would not have done this thing. Still, it is well to have it proved to be but an attempt. Now, take my advice, and banish it from your mind. Do not even worry as to who did it, nor as to their motive. These things will manifest themselves in time, and until they do[Pg 166] they are not worth troubling about, nor allowing to interfere with your work, and particularly with your chances for the Newlet."

And Warren came to him also, as frank and good-hearted as could be.

"I suppose that you feel as if you wanted to punch my head," he said; "but I had to do my duty, old fellow, even if it were an unpleasant one."

And to him Ralph had answered—

"I should have thought precious little of you if you had not done it. Of course, you could not have done anything different from what you did."

Charlton said nothing—only he looked at Ralph wistfully, and it seemed as if there was something of relief in his eyes. Charlton was a puzzle to Ralph. He could not understand the boy anyhow.

Nor was Warren the only one who came and spoke to Ralph and expressed abhorrence for the attempt to brand him as a thief, and satisfaction that he was cleared from the accusation.

But that same day, in a quiet corner of the playground, Horace Elgert came across Dobson, and, seizing him by the collar, he shook him savagely.

"You great blundering donkey," he said. "How did you come to do it? You have made a pretty mess of things."

"Well," growled Dobson, shaking himself free, "it is no good to kick up a row about it. No harm is done, only he has managed to get clear."

[Pg 167]

"But how did you do it? I cannot think how it was."

"Easy enough. I had five pounds that my aunt sent me. I am a favourite with her"—and Dobson smiled complacently. "Well, I had that in my pocket, and when you handed me over the other note, after I picked up his pocket-book, I must have put the wrong note in, that is all."

"But what did you do with the one I gave you?" demanded Elgert quickly.

"Changed it up in the town."

"Changed it!" he gasped. "You idiot! Don't you know that it can be traced by its number? I suppose that you wrote your name on the back?"

"Of course I did," said Dobson, looking very scared.

"Yes, and that note will come back to you, perhaps brought by a constable. You have done a nice thing!"

"But I didn't steal it—you stole it!" cried Dobson, in alarm. And Elgert struck him a savage blow.

"So you would turn sneak, would you? Well, there is no proof that I stole it. There is plenty of proof that you had it, changed it, and put your note into the pocket-book. You will suffer, and not me."

"What—what can we d-d-do?" gasped Dobson, his knees knocking together. And Elgert answered—

"We must go up into town to the place where you changed it. We must get that note back if we can, even if we have to give double for it. There is no telling what will happen, unless we get hold of it."


[Pg 168]

CHAPTER XVIII WHERE THE BANKNOTE WENT

Brown's cake-shop was out of bounds for the younger boys at Marlthorpe College. The boys in the upper classes might go there if they chose; but as it was over a mile from the school, the Head had wisely determined that it was too far away for the little lads to be continually running there to spend their pocket-money; especially as there was a very clean and nice shop in the village close by—a shop kept by a kindly old dame, where Dr. Beverly was certain the boys could not come to harm.

It was quite as good a shop as Brown's; but, because it was within bounds, and because the lads were forbidden to go to the town, it was not patronized as it should have been; while Brown's received many a secret visit. It was a shame that the upper fellows might go there, when the juniors might not! It was the cause of heartburnings. There were no cakes in all the world like those which Brown's sold! The chief inducement to get promoted was that Brown's might be visited freely.

Of course, it was wrong and foolish; but then,[Pg 169] boys are apt to think wrongly and do foolishly; and, therefore, the reason of two small mortals scuttling along the road, and dodging into Great Stow, with eyes ever on the alert for monitors and masters, was not hard to seek—their destination was, of course, Brown's.

A nice pair of young rebels they were. One was small and freckled and sandy, with small eyes, and a decidedly pug nose; and the other was a remarkably fat youth—so fat that it really seemed wonderful that he could run as he did.

They darted along, avoiding the main street, until the noted establishment was reached; then, after a careful and cautious peering in, to make sure that the coast was clear, they dived in, and the door closed behind them.

Now, Brown knew about these unlawful visits. He was very glad that he was without bounds, for he was quite certain that being so would increase his trade. He encouraged his youthful customers. He called them noble-spirited boys, who refused to bow to harsh rules. He said they were young heroes; and he had a nice little room behind the shop, with the window screened by a thick curtain—rather holey and dirty, it is true—and there was a bell to ring for Brown; and little white-topped tables to sit at; and it seemed so grand and "grown-up" to call for the waiter—though it was Brown himself who came—and to order a penny bun, or a jam tart, and[Pg 170] for Brown to say "Yes, sir; at once, sir." Oh, it was very, very delightful, and it had a spice of adventure about it.

So into the private room dived the two youthful spendthrifts, and ordered tarts and ginger-beer and ices, and then seated themselves at their ease to enjoy this forbidden feast.

"Ain't they prime, Jimmy?" gloated the fat boy, as he put himself outside a three-cornered puff; and Jimmy, with his mouth full of tart, was understood to reply that they were "ripping."

The shop-bell tinkled, and Jimmy jumped up. He was not quite sure who might come in, and he squinted through one of those convenient holes in the blind, a fragment of tart still in his hand.

"I say, it is Elgert's man!" he said, looking round. "I wonder what he wants here?"

"Oh, he doesn't signify. Let us enjoy ourselves, for we cannot stay long, and we shall have to run all the way back."

That eating cakes was a good preparation for running a mile is open to question, but the two boys evidently had no doubts concerning the matter; and so they sat there, while the man who had entered talked to Brown over the counter, and, seeing that the door was not quite closed, the boys could not help hearing a little of what passed.

"I'll bide my time, Brown," Elgert's man said. "I will not be impatient, but I will humble that[Pg 171] young cub yet! I hate him even more than I do his father. He treats a man like the dirt beneath his feet!"

"So he does," muttered Jimmy Green to Tinkle; "that is quite right!"

And Tinkle nodded. He was busy with an ice just at the moment.

"I say," said Brown to the man, "if you are not in a hurry, I wish that you would run over to the inn and ask them to change me this five-pound note? It is one which I changed for one of the boys from the school the other day."

Two youthful pairs of ears pricked up, two hands were arrested as they conveyed two cakes towards two mouths. A five-pound note changed for a boy from the school! This was exciting!

"I can cash it for you myself," the man said; "I have just been paid my month's money."

"I shall be obliged," said Brown. And then followed the ringing sound of money being counted out; the man picked up the note, glanced at it and put it into his pocket.

"I will look in as I return," he said to Brown; and away he went.

"I say! Think we can get out of Brown who changed that note?" said Tinkle to Green. "It's jolly funny, after what took place to-day!"

"I don't know," answered Green thoughtfully. "Fact is, Tinkle, old man, I don't know that I am[Pg 172] anxious to do it. It is awkward to know too much sometimes. There is the chance of having to split on some chap you are friendly with. If you don't know you can't say."

"And if you don't say, some one may stay wrongly suspected," was the retort of Tinkle. And then, the shop-bell sounding again, necessitated another going to peep through the blind.

"Oh, I say!" gasped Tinkle, as he looked through a hole; "if it isn't Elgert himself this time, and his crony Dobson is with him!"

Oh, I say, gasped Tinkle

"'Oh, I say,' gasped Tinkle; 'if it isn't Elgert himself
this time.'
" p. 172

"Well, they won't split," was the philosophic reply. "They will only want to go shares. I know 'em both."

"Eat cakes while we pay; and Dobson is such a greedy beast!" And Tinkle groaned to himself.

"Perhaps they are not going to stop," whispered Green. "They may only be going to take something back with them."

It seemed like it; for the two boys outside made no attempt to enter the inner room. They both seemed rather flustered and out of breath, and as Brown came forward to attend to their wants Dobson panted out—

"Oh—er—I say, Brown. That—that note I changed the other day. I should like—that is—I mean——"

"We want it back!" put in Elgert impatiently,[Pg 173] pushing his companion aside. "We cannot explain why, but we are very anxious to get hold of it!"

"Fact is, we fancy that it is bad, and we don't want you to be the loser, you see," added Dobson. And Brown smiled slightly and nodded.

"That's very good of you young gentlemen—very good and honourable. But you have no occasion to worry; the note was good enough. I saw to that."

"Well, good or bad," Elgert said, "I want to get hold of it! And, as you know, I am always willing to pay for what I want. I will give you six pounds for that note, Brown!"

The man glanced at him shrewdly. What did this mean? Why had they invented that lie about the note being bad; and why were they willing to give a pound extra to get it into their hands again?

"I am very sorry, sir," he said slowly, "but the fact is, I have parted with that note. I changed it only a short time ago."

"Changed it!" Elgert went rather white, and Dobson groaned dismally. "Whom did you give it to?" was Elgert's quick inquiry. "Perhaps he has it still!"

"Well," responded Brown, "the fact is, I can hardly remember. You see, a lot of money passes through my hands, and I have passed on four or five notes to-day. I should have to inquire of the different people, and find who had the identical note that you require."

[Pg 174]

"And will you do it?" cried Elgert quickly. "I will not grumble about the price. I want to get the note back, and I am willing to pay well for it. When can you let me know about it?"

"If you came to-morrow, sir, about this time, I'd see what I could do meanwhiles. I may be able to get hold of it again, if it has not been paid into the bank."

There was nothing more to be done. Elgert and Dobson came away with a horrible feeling of nervous apprehension filling their hearts. If that note was gone, what might not the consequences be for both of them? They were quarrelsome—each blamed the other—each tried to screen himself. But recriminations were of no avail; nothing was of avail, unless it was getting hold of the note once more.

And when the two had gone, the feasters on unlawful pastries came forth from their hiding-place; and having settled their bill with lordly air, they also set out for the school, for there was no time to lose if they were to be back before calling over.

But they had something to think about indeed! Why did Elgert want that note? And how came it that Dobson had possessed one to change at all?

"What are we going to do about this, Jimmy?" inquired Tinkle, as they ran along, and Green answered without the slightest hesitation.

"Nothing! That is my advice, Tinkle. We can't do anything without owning up to having been out[Pg 175] of bounds; and I don't want my name down for punishment now. We don't know that the note is the one which Mr. Delermain lost. We only know that it is one Elgert and Dobson want to get hold of for some purpose of their own; they may be trying to trace something about it."

And then Brown went to stand at his shop-door, impatiently watching for the return of his companion, and hailing him as he saw him appear round the bend of the road.

"It's curious that they should be so anxious to get that note back" he said, when he told the other of Elgert's request. "Offered a pound, and said he was willing to go beyond that. Well, as you have changed the note, it is your property, and the profit will be yours. Of course, you will part with it?"

The man drew the note from his pocket-book, and examined it carefully ere he answered.

"It is quite genuine," he said, and Brown laughed.

"Of course, it is! I knew that all along. That part of their story was all nonsense. There is something up, but you may as well make your little bit out of it. Say I give you six pounds for it, and chance making any more myself?"

"Not to-day," was the quiet answer. "You shall have it in a day or two. You can say that you have been promised that it shall be returned."

"But what do you want to do with it for a day or two?" asked Brown, with something of curiosity.

[Pg 176]

And the man looked him in the face, and replied, with a quiet smile—

"Do? Oh, nothing! I only think that it may be as well if I have this banknote photographed. You can have it after that, and we will share the profits."

Then Brown laughed, and clapped him on the back.

"You are a smart fellow!" he cried.

And the man answered.

"There are some people living who will find that out to their cost one of these fine days!"


[Pg 177]

CHAPTER XIX THE LAME HORSE ONCE MORE

If Elgert and Dobson and the two juniors who had overheard that conversation in Brown's cake-shop were the four most excited concerning the five-pound note which had been stolen from Mr. Delermain, they were not the only ones in Marlthorpe College who were interested in the matter.

From first to last the whole school could do nothing but discuss the mysterious business; and, whatever else it did, the attempt to put the guilt upon Ralph's shoulders resulted in his being all the more firmly established in the favour of most of the boys.

Even those who had not liked him were more friendly now; for there was something so shameful and wicked in trying to get him accused of that which it had been proved he was innocent of, that they could not but feel sympathy for him. Then the story of his brave deed in rescuing Elgert was strongly in his favour. After all, boys at heart love bravery.

But of all there, Warren and Ralph himself pondered most. Their friendship was quite restored, and together they talked and discussed, and wondered[Pg 178] who it could possibly be who would want to harm Ralph.

And poor Charlton! Ah, how miserable he was now! He had his own weight of sorrow, and it was very, very heavy to bear; and after what Ralph had said he could never hope that they would be friends again.

"I suppose that I am to blame," he said. "Perhaps I took things too much to heart. I feel that I am never to have friends. I—I don't care! Rexworth might give me another chance; but if he won't—if he is so taken up with Warren—he can do as he likes. I don't care!"

Poor Charlton! He did care, for all his talk—care very much. He was lonely and sad; but he did not stop to think that Ralph had already given him chances, and that it was his own fault that he had not taken them. When we are miserable we are also apt to be unjust, and to put the blame for our own actions upon other people's shoulders.

And how interested and indignant, and yet withal delighted, were the St. Clives when they heard of what had happened.

"A clean reputation is a good thing, you see, Ralph," Mr. St. Clive said. "It is surely worth something to feel that people have such a high estimate of you as to realize that you are utterly incapable of doing a mean thing, even though appearances are so strong against you."

[Pg 179]

"It is just splendid to think how you have come out of it, Ralph!" was Irene's delighted comment when the two young people were alone. "It is like when wicked people tried to injure the brave knights of old, and when truth and valour and true chivalry triumphed over all opposition. There is something, even here and now, to be gained when people know that you are fighting under honour's flag!"

And Ralph had to acknowledge that she spoke the truth, and to own that he was now very glad that he had resisted the temptation to yield and to run away from his troubles.

That Saturday holiday—the one after the business of the note being found in his pocket-book—was one of the happiest that he had spent since coming to Stow Ormond—a day when the clouds seemed to have lifted, when the sun seemed brighter, and when faith grew more strong. It came from the feeling that he had fought a good fight, and that he had been helped to be more than conqueror.

And yet he had forgotten nothing of his father. He was as anxious as ever to solve the mystery surrounding his disappearance; only now, instead of being impatient, he felt that he was preparing in the best way for seeking the truth by staying with Mr. St. Clive, and by working as hard as ever he could.

And on that same afternoon he walked with Irene as far as the pretty old inn; and old Simon, the [Pg 180]landlord, greeted him with a cheery smile; for, indeed, Simon felt a great interest in the lad, seeing that the first scene in his strange story was enacted beneath his roof.

"And how are you, young gentleman?" he asked. "And you, too, missie?"—as the two entered the yard. "Come to pay a visit to old Simon—eh?"

"I have come to talk to you, Simon," answered Ralph. No one ever called the landlord of the Horse and Wheel anything but Simon. "I have come to ask you something."

"That's right, sir! Ask away—though I don't promise to answer if it is a poser. I haven't had the education which you young people enjoy."

"It is nothing to do with education, Simon," laughed Ralph. "I want to ask you whether, now that you have had plenty of time to think of it—as I feel sure you must have thought—do you think that you have any recollection of ever having seen my father before? I feel certain that he knew the place; and if he knew it, perhaps you may be able to think of some one whom he reminds you of."

But Simon shook his head at that question.

"I am afraid that I cannot answer that, sir. Your father certainly did know the place; for when I told him the number of his room he walked right up to it without waiting to be shown. And, in some way, I seem to have a faint recollection of having[Pg 181] seen him before; but it is all dim and hazy like, and it wouldn't do to go upon."

"Thank you, Simon. Now the other question—and I want you to keep this to yourself; I have a particular reason for that. Do you know any one in the neighbourhood who drives about in a light trap, and who has a horse lame in its left foreleg?"

"Well," said the old man thoughtfully, "come to that, there are plenty of folk with light traps hereabout; and I know of two lame horses. Old Saxer, the carter, has one, and Hopkin, the butcher, has one, and—why, yes, Lord Elgert himself has a pretty little mare lame in her left foreleg. She hurt herself in a hole, and, though she goes all right now, she has a bit of a limp. And, why, come to think of it, now I remember who your father put me in mind of."

"Who—oh, who?" cried Ralph eagerly; while Irene looked on not less interested.

"Who?" said the innkeeper. "Why, of old Lord Stephen! He was Lord Elgert's uncle, and he died without leaving child of his own. He had one son, who died long, long ago. That is it, for certain! But what ails you, young sir?"

For Ralph had gone quite white. He had never expected that answer. Lord Elgert had a lame horse! Lord Elgert was the nephew of some one whom his father had resembled! Lord Elgert had told that wicked story about his father; and Lord Elgert[Pg 182] was so very anxious for him to go back to the plains, and leave England behind him for ever! Surely it could not be! And yet, as Ralph pondered, he seemed to call to mind a hundred things to strengthen his suspicions. It could not be that Lord Elgert knew anything about his father!

A very grave Ralph walked home to lunch; and a very grave Mr. St. Clive listened to his story.

"I could wish that this had not been brought up, Ralph," he said. "I fear that it will only unsettle you again; and, in spite of all that you advance, I cannot bring myself to believe that you are anything but mistaken. Lord Elgert may not be a pleasant man to deal with, but this is a very, very grave thing to even so much as hint at."

But whatever Mr. St. Clive might say, Ralph could not get the thing out of his head. It is not to be wondered at that it should haunt him and make him feel excited. After waiting so long, this was like the first real tangible clue. And he had been thinking that it was poor Charlton's father who must be at the bottom of it! Poor Charlton!

Walking by himself, Ralph pondered upon the fact that, after all, if any one had hinted to him what he had hinted to his chum he would have been just as hurt and indignant. And now that he was cleared it would be manly and nice to go and ask him to be friends again.

"He can hardly do anything if I don't give him[Pg 183] the chance," he told himself. "I will do it as soon as I get back to school on Monday."

His head full of the tracks of lame horses and light traps, he had taken his way across towards Stow Wood, the scene of that tragedy—for tragedy he believed there had surely been—and as he walked over the common he reflected that those marks had led away in the direction of Great Stow; and in Great Stow or just beyond it, Lord Elgert lived.

And then, as he walked along, his eyes thoughtfully fixed upon the ground, he stopped suddenly. Surely things were going strangely to-day; for, coming on top of old Simon's words, here was the track of the lame horse again!

"I will follow it this time," said Ralph to himself.

And he set forward rapidly. There was plenty of both light and time this afternoon, and if the tracks led to hard roads he would go on and search beyond them.

But he did not have very far to go this time, though he gained but little for his trouble. The other side the common, and close to Stow Wood, he came upon the vehicle he had followed—a light trap, truly, and drawn by a pretty little mare; and with it were three men, one in the uniform of a constable and the others in ordinary dress.

"Who does this trap belong to?"

The question was absurd, perhaps, but he blurted it out without thinking; and the men turned and[Pg 184] regarded him with mingled surprise and amusement.

"And what has that to do with you, if you please?" said one—the one in uniform.

And what could he say? Whatever the other two were, one was a constable; and surely a constable was sufficient evidence that he had followed a wrong trail!

"You seem to have a liking for asking questions, young gentleman," said one of the other men. "Now, suppose that we ask you one? Have you seen any one out here—any one that seemed as if they were trying to hide? We are looking for a prisoner of ours, who escaped some time back, and who, we believe, is hiding in this locality. Have you seen any suspicious character about?"

Detectives! A prisoner! It must be Charlton's father! How glad he was that he could answer truly that he had seen no one! And the man who had put the question replied to him, when he had finished:

"Thank you. Now, as you have answered me, I will answer you; though I confess that I do not understand the reason for your question. The horse and trap belong to Lord Elgert. Doubtless you have heard of him. He kindly lent them to us that we might be saved a long walk."

It was Lord Elgert's! And these men, in Lord Elgert's trap, were looking for poor Charlton's father! Ralph thanked the constables, letting them remain in ignorance as to the real reason for his question, and with slow and thoughtful steps turned into Stow Wood.

[Pg 185]

He was bewildered, perplexed, stunned. It was Lord Elgert's trap! Could Lord Elgert be the one who had harmed his father?

Pondering deeply, he walked on, hardly noticing where he went, until suddenly a slight exclamation recalled his wandering senses. He looked up. He had penetrated into a little glade, and there before him stood two people—his chum Charlton and a man! He had found the one for whom the police were searching so close at hand!


[Pg 186]

CHAPTER XX TO MR. ST. CLIVE'S

The man started to his feet, with an exclamation of mingled rage and despair; while Charlton stood before his father, his arms outstretched, as if he feared that Ralph would rush forward and seize him.

His face was very white, as he looked at the boy who had been his friend and champion, and cried, in tones of misery and reproach—

"You! Oh, this is mean and cruel! I did not think that you would act the spy and hunt us down. Let him go—let him go quietly; and, if you want to harm any one, hurt me. I will not move, or cry out, no matter how much you beat me—only let my poor father go, and do not tell any one you have seen him."

Now, Ralph had been standing in silence, too surprised to say anything. Despite what Mr. St. Clive had said, he had some sort of idea that this man must, in some way, know of his father's disappearance, even if he himself had no hand in it, just as he still thought that Charlton knew more about the missing note than any one else, though that suspicion was beginning to weaken considerably now.

[Pg 187]

But as he looked from the boy to the man, and as he heard that pathetic appeal, every feeling, save that of pity, vanished. This man should not be captured, not if he could hinder it; and he said, advancing a step, and holding out one hand in friendship—

"Why, Charlton, you don't think as meanly of me as that, do you? I neither want to harm you nor your father, though it is quite true that I came here to find you."

"But—why? How did you know that we should be here?" questioned the boy, not yet reassured.

And Ralph hurriedly explained how he had followed the trap and come upon the policemen.

"I felt certain that it must be your father whom they were after," he said; "and so I determined to come through the wood to try to find you and give you warning. We must be quick, or there will be no chance of getting away."

"Oh, father," wailed Charlton, "I wish that I had not persuaded you to come here again! You will be taken! What shall we do?"

"My boy," answered the man calmly, "try and be brave. We owe our thanks to this young gentleman for the kindly warning he has brought. If I must be taken, I must; and I will try to bear it patiently, though it is very hard. It is strange that they should have Lord Elgert's trap," he added bitterly. "Elgert has been at the bottom of all my troubles."

"Look here!" expostulated Ralph bluntly. "It's[Pg 188] no good stopping here talking and wasting time when every minute is precious. Those fellows are on the farther side of the wood, and they are beginning to search, and they won't leave off until they have hunted right through the place."

"But where can we go?" asked Charlton, wringing his hands. "This place has nowhere to hide in; nowhere that could not be found if once people were really searching."

"They will search; there is no doubt of that," answered Ralph. "But we may manage to elude them. We cannot stay here dodging round, that is quite certain. We must manage to get out of it and find somewhere else to hide."

"Ah, my kind boy, but where shall that somewhere be?" said the man, shaking his head. "It might have been in my own home, but now that they think that I am here, and are on my track, they will keep their eyes on that spot, and I have not one single friend who will shelter me."

"Hush! Hush!" cried Ralph suddenly. "Listen! There is no time to lose. They are in the wood on that side. Creep after me. Stop! Cover those leaves over or they will see where you have been standing."

"You are thoughtful for one so young," murmured the man, as he obeyed Ralph's instructions. "Well, I will place myself under your guidance, and trust to you. Where shall we go? Through that undergrowth?"

[Pg 189]

"No, no! You cannot move through that without making a noise and leaving traces. Keep to this path. I feel sure that is wisest. Bend low, and step lightly. Come! Now, Charlton, buck up, and we will save your father yet."

His confidence inspired them with hope. Unhesitatingly they followed his lead. The path he chose led them into another clear little space, away to the right of that which they had left. They could hear the noise made by their pursuers in their rear, and they did not seem any better off here. It was only putting off the end for a little time, and so Charlton's father said, but Ralph would not listen to him. He had been in as tight a corner before, when he and his father, and two more, had been pursued by the Indians of the plains, and had dodged and doubled for three whole days ere they had thrown their foe off their track. Ralph was not going to give up yet.

"Stop!" he said. "You must climb up this tree. No, not that one!" as Charlton ran to a big, old decaying oak.

"But this is hollow. We can hide in it," objected the boy.

But Ralph shook his head.

"I can see it is hollow, and so can any one who has a pair of eyes. That is just why we must not go there, for they will be sure to look in it. Up this one!"

[Pg 190]

"But we shall be seen."

"Do as your friend bids you," said the man.

And Charlton obeyed, his father following him.

Then did Ralph show his cunning, for, directing them to stand with their backs against the trunk, he showed them how to draw the branches down until they made a thick canopy all around them. Ralph himself stood at the bottom, carefully examining their hiding-place.

"Now, if you stand quite still, as you are, no one will be able to see you," he said. "But remember there must be no noise and no movement; everything may depend upon that. Keep still. Here is some one coming!"

A man appeared at the end of the glade, and, catching a glimpse of the boy's form, gave a shout and ran forward; but he stopped, and looked very cross, as Ralph himself walked innocently to meet him, with the question—"Have not you found him yet?"

"No," grumbled the man. "He is a slippery fellow, and is giving us a lot of trouble; but we will have him yet. We are working right through the wood, and we must be driving him before us, and when he gets to the other side——"

"He will bolt," said Ralph.

But the man smiled grimly.

"Into our arms. We have four men stationed keeping watch there. No, we shall have him yet. You have not seen him?"

[Pg 191]

"There was a man in that little hollow, the other end of this path. I saw him there," said Ralph, with perfect truthfulness.

"Which hollow? The one to the right?" said the man quickly.

And Ralph nodded.

"Ah, we have looked there! He has bolted. Then we are right on his track. Stop a minute, though. That old tree looks a likely place. Here, give us a hand, boy! I will lift you, and you look in. Can you see anything?"

And he lifted Ralph, and helped him to scramble up, and peer down into the hollow depths of the old oak.

"Can't see much," said Ralph, his head in the hollow. "There is a gleam of light below, and something dark. Can't you clear away the leaves a bit, and then I can see whether it is a man or not?"

The constable sprawled on the ground, and thrust his arm into the hole at the bottom of the trunk, dragging out leaves and dust, till Ralph cried—

"It is all right; I can see now. There is no one there. What I was looking at was a lot of leaves. They have tumbled over now, and you are pulling them out."

"That's no good, then; only it looked a likely place. Down you come, boy!"

[Pg 192]

And, helping Ralph down, the man turned and ran off, satisfied that he had looked in the only place where the fugitive could have hidden himself.

"I see that you are a clever lad," said Mr. Charlton when the fugitives again stood beside Ralph. "But what now? You heard what he said? There is no getting away on that side."

"We are not going out that side, though," was Ralph's answer. "We are behind them now, and while they are hunting forward, we will go back."

"They will have left watchers behind them."

"I suppose so. They cannot have left many, though, for they had not enough men. Back is our only chance. We will try it. There is no time to stop talking now," he added, as he saw that the man was going to ask more questions. "Come, follow me!"

Going cautiously, pausing to listen again and again, he led the way; and soon they were getting close to that side of the wood from which the search had commenced. Then he bade the other two remain hidden, and he went forward by himself, until, at last, he was able to peer from the hedges.

He did not see a single man, though he looked carefully; but he did see—and the sight made his heart jump wildly—the horse and trap, the horse contentedly feeding on the rich grass. He would risk it! One chance, and one alone, offered, and he would take it!

[Pg 193]

He beckoned to his companions to join him, and whispered his plans.

"It is the only chance. No one is near the trap, and we can drive off before they will even know that it is gone. Will you dare it?"

"Yes," said the man desperately.

And Ralph, with a "Follow me, then!" was at the trap, had the rope, with which the horse had been tethered, cut; the other two were up after him, and, with a crack of the whip, away they went, clean across the open moor.

Lame or not, that pony had to go, for once. They were right across, close on two miles away, and getting near to Great Stow, before a distant shout, and figures running from the wood, told them that the theft had been discovered.

"Lie down, Charlton," he said, "and you sit directly behind me," he added to the man. "It will be far better if they can only see one person in the trap. We don't want them to know that I helped you if it can be avoided."

They reached the road; then turned to the right, so that the view was shut off from those behind. No one had seen them with the trap, and now Ralph reined in, and jumped down.

"Come on!" he said. "Lord Elgert's pony must look after itself now. Quick, we must hurry!"

"Where are you going to, Rexworth?" cried[Pg 194] Charlton in surprise. "There is nowhere about here where father can hide."

But Ralph answered with a smile, never slackening his pace as he spoke—

"Hurry up! There is one place—a safe place. I am going to Mr. St. Clive's."


[Pg 195]

CHAPTER XXI A HOUSE OF REFUGE

"To Mr. St. Clive's!"

What wonder that the words filled Charlton with surprise. Ralph was surely risking a great deal in taking such a step. But Ralph knew Mr. St. Clive, and Charlton did not—and that made a great deal of difference. Besides, the case was desperate. Somewhere must be found in which to hide; and no other place offered, so to Mr. St. Clive's they went; and Ralph, leaving his two companions in the garden, went indoors by himself.

But if the Charltons were surprised when Ralph announced his intention of going to Mr. St. Clive's, that gentleman was still more astonished when the lad told him of his adventures, and what he had done.

"You know that you said, sir," Ralph concluded by saying—"that you always had a great idea that Mr. Charlton was innocent; and that if I were instrumental in getting him taken I might regret it all the rest of my life, and so I thought that you would be sure to sympathize with the poor man, and be ready to help him."

[Pg 196]

"Well, Ralph," laughed Mr. St. Clive, "you have certainly taken me at my word. However, I do not know but what I am glad that you have done so; and Mr. Charlton being here, I may be able, after consultation with him, to devise some means of proving that he was innocent of the crime laid to his charge. Let us go and welcome him."

It was very affecting, that meeting between the two men—the one so weary and dispirited, the other such a true Christian gentleman; but Mr. St. Clive soon put the other at his ease, and they all entered the house. Irene was out with her mother at the moment; and after Mr. St. Clive had seen that his new guest was provided with food, he spoke, and the other three sat listening attentively.

"Now, Mr. Charlton," he said, "I have been thinking, and I can see one way for your remaining here in safety, and being able to communicate freely with your wife."

"That is a blessing too great to be possible," sighed Mr. Charlton; but Mr. St. Clive smiled kindly.

"I differ from you. It is not only possible, but easy. Listen to me. It is unlikely that any one will dream of looking for you here; but to make doubly sure, we can disguise you. Now, it so happens that I am in need of a gardener, and there is a cottage vacant. You must be gardener. If you know nothing of gardening, that does not much matter; I can post you up in it. Then, my wife can invite Mrs. Charlton[Pg 197] to visit here, and there will be nothing to prevent her coming frequently, and staying all day. There is only one thing to remember. Of course, I shall tell my wife everything, but I do not think that my little daughter ought to be made a party to this; so to her you will be, say, Thomas Brown—that is an easy name—and before her our manner towards each other must be that of master and servant. You will not mind that?"

"Mind!" cried Mr. Charlton, the tears rolling down his cheeks. "Mind! Can you think that I shall mind such a trifle as that, when you are so good, and ready to take the risk of helping me? But this morning I felt that, excepting wife and son, I had not a friend in the world. Now I find that God has not forsaken me utterly."

"He never does forsake those who put their trust in Him," was the gentle answer. "Well, come with me at once, and we will see about making a gardener of you, before any of the servants can see you as you are. And you, boys, remember how you behave to my gardener," he added, looking at them. "You, Ralph, have been very thoughtful in the way you have managed—mind you do not make a slip."

"I will try my best, sir," answered Ralph; and then he and Charlton were left alone. And then—then all of a sudden Charlton was kneeling at his feet, holding his hand and kissing it, and sobbing out his thanks; until Ralph cried out that if he didn't get[Pg 198] up he would punch his head for him, to give him something to cry about, and to show that he was his friend; and that made poor Charlton laugh feebly.

And, sitting there, Charlton explained what he was too proud to tell before—how he had wanted that ten shillings to help his father; and how his father, not using it, had given it back to him.

"Indeed, I knew nothing about the note, Ralph," he said. "I know that you thought I had stolen it, and it made me miserable, but I am sorry that I spoke to you as I did."

"All right, old fellow!" answered Ralph, wringing his hand. "Do not let us think of it any more. Besides, I have a pretty good idea of who took that note now—or, rather, who caused it to be taken. I don't know for certain, so I will accuse no one; but I don't think that it was you."

"You mean Horace Elgert!" cried Charlton; but Ralph smiled and shook his head.

"Won't do, old fellow. I said that I would not mention names. But look here, Charlton, I do want to ask your father one thing. Does he know anything about my father?"

"Your father! How can he, Ralph?"

"He might have been in Stow Wood that night, and have seen or heard something," the boy said.

"I will answer that question for myself!" Mr. Charlton entered as Ralph was speaking, and the boys started, for even Charlton would not have known[Pg 199] his father in the half-bald, grey-bearded old fellow who stood before him. "I will answer that question, Ralph Rexworth; and then, after that, I am only Brown, the gardener, remember. I can give you no information beyond this. On the night of your father's disappearance—my son has told me about that—I was in Stow Wood, and I heard a shot; and afterwards I saw a trap being driven rapidly away. There were two men in it, and one of those two leaned up against his companion as though he was helpless or badly hurt. Hiding myself, I could not follow them; but I thought at the time that it looked like foul play."

"The second man was not dead?" cried Ralph anxiously; and the answer was very positive—

"No, I am quite certain of that, for I heard him groan as they passed in the darkness. That is all I can tell you. It was natural that you should think that I knew something about it. I have also heard that I am supposed to be the one who entered the dormitory at the school one night; but I am innocent of that. A little thought ought to convince any one that to do such a thing would be the very last object of my wishes—the danger of being captured would be too great; and I do not quite see what any one can imagine that I should want to go there for."

"It is all a mystery to me," said Ralph. And then Irene's voice was heard in the hall, and she and her mother entered.

[Pg 200]

"Back again, Ladybird!" said her father, kissing her. Then, seeing her eyes fixed on the strangers, he went on: "Ah! you want an introduction? This is Fred Charlton, Ralph's friend; and this is a man who is to be our new gardener. His name is Thomas Brown. Run off with Ralph and Charlton for a little while; I want to talk to your mother."

When the young people were gone, Mr. St. Clive told his wife of Ralph's adventures, and introduced Mr. Charlton in his proper character. And Mrs. St. Clive spoke so nicely and kindly, and promised to go and see Mrs. Charlton the very next day; and when she met Ralph she squeezed his hand, and gave him such a kiss as made him know that she was glad he had acted as he had done.

And on the Sunday Mrs. St. Clive went for Mrs. Charlton, and brought her back with her. No one saw the meeting between the husband and wife save their own son; for Ralph had to take Irene right out of the way, lest she should wonder at their guest talking to the gardener, or going to his cottage.

But afterwards, when Mrs. Charlton met the boy to whom she owed so much—oh, the look of gratitude which she gave him, and the way in which she spoke! It made Ralph very happy, but it made him very uncomfortable at the same time.

And then, the day past and morning come, it was once more back to school; and some of the boys stared when they saw Ralph and Charlton appear[Pg 201] arm-in-arm, for their quarrel had been noticed and discussed.

But when Tom Warren saw them, he came running up, a real glad smile on his face.

"Hallo, you two!" he said, as he met them. "I am awfully glad to see this. It's the right thing; and I do hope that you won't quarrel again."

"I shall never quarrel with Rexworth any more," said Charlton, in low tones. "You have no need to fear that, Warren. I owe him more than I can ever repay, though I cannot tell you why!"

"Perhaps I can tell you why," replied Warren, with a laugh. "For it is all over the place. Elgert set it going."

"Set what going?" demanded the two chums, in one voice; and the monitor went on—

"Oh, he says that—I don't want to pain you, Charlton, but it is better to hear it from a friend than from an enemy"—and Warren turned, half apologetically to Charlton as he said this—"he says that your father was in Stow Wood, and that the police were looking for him——"

"And that Lord Elgert lent them his pony and trap to hunt him down," put in Charlton bitterly.

"No, he didn't say that. Did he, though? The mean sneak! Well, he says that your father was there, and that the police saw Ralph, here, go into the wood. Some one must have warned your father, for he managed to get out, and got off in the pony and[Pg 202] trap they had left. They didn't say it was Lord Elgert's, though. Elgert at once jumped at it that it was you, Ralph, did the warning, because you are Charlton's chum. He says it is additional proof that you two had that note, and he is making a jolly lot about it; though half the fellows, and more than half, are strong on your side, and say that if it is true, they would have done the same thing. Elgert says that the police inspector is ready to knock your head off for the way in which you cheated him."

"Is he, though!" laughed Ralph. "Well, Warren, as you know so much, we may as well tell you all about it, when we have time—with one exception, though. You must not ask us where we took Mr. Charlton, or where we hid him. That is our secret. The rest you may know. By the way, I wonder how Elgert will like it if he knows that it was I drove off in that trap?"

"You! What a prime joke! I say, Ralph, what a chap you are! Come along, and let us get in!"

That the story had got about was very clear, for curious glances were cast at the pair as they crossed the playground with the monitor; and then a group of juniors, led by Tinkle, suddenly piped up—

For he's a jolly good fellow,
For he's a jolly good fellow!

Elgert, standing near them, turned with a frown.

"Shut up that howling, you young cubs!" he[Pg 203] growled fiercely; but from the other side of the playground, and from the Fifths, the same words came.

Elgert turned and went into school. He was furious. He had come down thinking that he had a good chance of getting Ralph into disgrace, and here the fellows were actually praising him! It was gall to Horace Elgert; and, through the window, still came the sounds of the refrain being shouted below—

For he's a jolly good fellow,
And so say all of us!

[Pg 204]

CHAPTER XXII AN AFTERNOON RAMBLE

"I say, you two chaps, what are you going to do this afternoon?"

The question was asked by Tom Warren, as Ralph and Charlton stood at the entrance to the playground.

Another week had passed, and it had been a delightful one for both Ralph and his chum, now that they were friends again. For these two, so different in natures, liked each other very much; and now that the trouble was gone, they were drawn still closer together. Of course they were. Had not Ralph proved what a staunch good fellow he could be? and had not Charlton shown that he was not only innocent of stealing that note, but that he was a loyal, true son, doing what he could to help his unfortunate father?

It was good to see how the boys had come round and how they regarded Ralph as a comrade to be proud of; though Elgert and Dobson and the set whom they led, glowered and sneered, and said unkind things that hurt no one, and were treated with contempt.

And Saturday had come, and the boys were preparing to set out for their homes, and Ralph had a bundle[Pg 205] of books under his arm, for he meant to have another quiet read that evening. The Newlet would want a lot of working for, and, since he had entered, he meant to do all he could to win success.

"What are you going to do?" said Warren; and the pair confessed that they had made no particular plans.

"I cannot spare very much time, anyway," said Ralph. "I want to put in a few hours' work to-night."

"You will go and make yourself silly if you do too much," answered Tom Warren. "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, you know. Will you both meet me after you have had lunch—say about one o'clock—and we will go for a ramble?"

"Where?" asked Charlton. "Anywhere in particular?"

"I will tell you a nice walk. Let us go over the moor, and past Great Stow, out to Crab Tree Hill. It is jolly out there; and there are some lovely butterflies in the chalk there."

"Butterflies in chalk?" said Ralph, raising his brows in wonder; and Warren laughed.

"You kite! I mean that it is chalk country all round there, and the butterflies keep to it—fritillaries and skippers and browns; and we can find some grass snakes there."

"Don't like snakes," said Ralph decisively, thinking of the terrible species which he had known in his[Pg 206] younger days—snakes whose bite means certain death. "Well, I don't mind coming. Will you go, Fred?" And he turned to Charlton, who nodded his assent.

"That is all right, then," answered Warren. "I will be over for you just after one, and we can pick up Charlton on our way and—— Hallo! what is the row?"

The three lads turned. A scrimmage of some kind was evidently in progress at the other side of the playground, for there came some hoots and groans, and, mingling with the noise, a shrill cry of pain.

"You great coward, let go my arm!"

"Dobson and Co.," muttered Warren; and the three darted across to the scene of the trouble; and there they found Tinkle and Green, standing defiant and somewhat tearful, confronted by Dobson, Elgert and some of their cronies, while a scattered crowd of angry juniors kept in the safe background, hurling taunting jeers at the bigger boys.

"I will half kill you, you cheeky little beggar!" they heard Dobson say to Tinkle. He had got hold of his arm, and, according to his favourite fashion, was twisting it painfully. "I will teach you to cheek me! I suppose it is that beggar Rexworth who has taught you to do it."

But then Dobson stopped. He had thought that Ralph was gone; and even as he spoke, he caught sight of him. It certainly was very awkward for Dobson, and before he knew what to say next, Ralph[Pg 207] had quietly but firmly removed Tinkle from his grasp.

"You suppose wrong, Dobson," he said calmly. "I should not encourage any junior to cheek a senior; but I won't see a junior bullied, and you will please let that youngster go."

"I didn't cheek him!" cried Tinkle—"leastways, not until he kicked me. I was standing here talking to Jimmy Green, when he and Elgert came up; and Elgert shied a stone at Green's head, and Dobson kicked me—the great coward! Let him stand up fair, and I will fight him myself."

"Oh, no, you won't, sonny!" laughed Tom Warren. "You will clear off, and get home at once. No fight if you please."

"It seems to me," sneered Elgert, "that this school is to be run by Rexworth and Co. You look here, Warren. It is out of school hours; and if you think that we are all going to stand being ruled by you especially when you are under the thumb of such a fellow as that—well, all I have to say is that you are jolly well mistaken."

"I mean to say," was Warren's calm reply, "that there is not going to be any fighting here; and I mean to say that we have the Head's own orders to stop any more bullying of juniors. There has been a great deal too much of it in the past."

"And if we don't obey, you will run sneaking to the Head?"

"Oh, no, I won't," came the answer. "I will give[Pg 208] you a jolly good licking myself. If it has got to come, let us get it over. Here are I and Rexworth—Charlton don't count. If you want to see which side is the best, just you——"

"Just you all clear off; and you, Warren, don't make an ass of yourself," said a pleasant voice; and Kesterway, the head monitor of the school, appeared upon the scene. "Off you go, now! And you look here, Elgert. You may be an honourable, and a lord's son, but that is no reason why you should behave like a prig. You keep a civil tongue in your head, or you may get into trouble."

Elgert and his companions turned away, for it did not do to defy the authority of Kesterway; but he muttered as he went—

"Only wait a little while. I will get some of my own back. If I don't make Ralph Rexworth suffer for it, I will know the reason why."

But two youthful individuals, as they also walked away—Tinkle and Green to wit—discussed darkly the chances of getting equal with Dobson and Elgert.

"I vote we tell about that note," said Tinkle; but Green shook his head.

"What is the good? Suppose they denied it, how could we prove it? You bet, there would be no chance of old Brown owning up. And besides, wouldn't it be telling that we had broken bounds? No; we had best wait a while, Tinkle, and presently the chance will come."

[Pg 209]

"S'pose we sent 'em a what-you-call-it letter?"

"What is that?" demanded Green; and Tinkle answered lucidly—

"You know. One of them sort that don't come from nowhere, and is writ by nobody."

"Annie nonimus," was Green's suggestion; and Tinkle nodded.

"Yes, that's him. We might do that; and write on it, 'Who stole the five-pound note?' or 'What price Brown's cake shop?' or something."

"We'd best do nothing of the kind," was Green's crushing answer. "That wouldn't do no good, and it would make 'em think that something was known. No, Tinkle; you leave 'em alone; and presently they will make a slip, and then we can have 'em."

"I'd like to help Rexworth, though," murmured Tinkle.

"But he don't want no help now. He's cleared about the note. No one thinks that he took it, not for a moment. It wouldn't help Rexworth. The thing is dropped, and we'd best leave it alone for the time."

Meanwhile, Ralph and his friends took their way homeward, ignorant alike of the threats of their foes or the good wishes of the juniors; and after lunch was over, Warren in accordance with his promise, called for Ralph.

"Hallo! got a new gardener here?" he remarked, as he caught sight of an old man who was sweeping[Pg 210] the path; and Ralph thought how little Warren guessed who that man really was.

They set off in high spirits, and after calling for Charlton, they started upon their long ramble. They rattled on at a good pace, and got away to the hills, and then—it was most provoking—great dark clouds had been rolling up, and suddenly, with a roar of thunder and a blaze of lightning, the storm burst, and it rained—gracious, how it did rain!

It is not pleasant to be caught in a violent shower at the best of times, but to be caught when you are away from all shelter is decidedly unpleasant.

"Wherever can we shelter?" cried Charlton in dismay, as the three bolted along, with heads bent down and collars turned up. "This is cheerful!"

"I say," suddenly suggested Warren, "there is a thick preserve over by the road; I noticed it as we came along. Of course, it will be trespassing and we might get into trouble, but I suggest making for it. We can get some sort of shelter under the trees, and we may stumble upon a shooting hut or a keeper's cottage, and if we explain why we have come, they surely will not mind."

"Cannot help it if they do," said Ralph desperately. "We cannot go on in this, and it's five miles into Stow, if it's a yard. Show us the way Warren, and be quick about it."

With a whoop and a yell, off scudded Warren, the other two close in his rear, while the thunder growled[Pg 211] and grumbled and the lightning flickered, and the sky grew so black that things promised to get worse instead of better.

They struck the path for which Warren was making; and there, sure enough, a little farther along, divided from the road by a meadow and a stout gate, the tall trees of a dark covert waved to and fro. It might not mean much shelter, but it would mean some, and with a scramble they were over that gate.

"This is better," panted Warren. "It is some sort of a screen. I am jolly well drenched!"

"I wish that I could get a cup of warm cocoa or tea," shivered Charlton. "I got hot running, and now it strikes horribly cold."

"Let's push on a bit," suggested Ralph. "We are trespassing, and we may as well be hanged for a sheep as for a lamb. Perhaps we shall find shelter somewhere. Come on, you two, and keep to these open paths. If you get right into that undergrowth, you may do some damage—disturb some nests, or something."

"Right you are, Ralph. I don't think it is much good, though; there seems no sign of life here."

"I will soon see if there is." Ralph paused as he spoke. He put his hand to his mouth and gave a ringing call—one he had learnt from the Indians on the plains. "If any one is about, they will hear that; and, at any rate, they cannot say that we are trying to hide from——"

He stopped and started back, turning as white as[Pg 212] death; for from somewhere, ringing through the silences of that preserve, there came a sound, muffled, but clear. It was Ralph's call repeated!

What wonder that he trembled. What wonder that he looked so white. There was but one other person whom he knew who would answer that call in that way; and that one person was his own father!


[Pg 213]

CHAPTER XXIII THE RUIN AND THE LONELY HOUSE

Just that one cry, ringing wild and plaintive through the wood; and then silence, broken by a loud, angry rumble of thunder.

Ralph stood there trembling, too agitated to speak; and his two chums turned anxiously towards him, bewildered at the change which had come over him.

"Ralph, old fellow, why, whatever is it? What has come to you?" they asked; and he replied in hoarse, trembling tones—

"That call! Did you not hear it? There is only one person who would give that, and he is my own father."

For a moment they were staggered by his answer; then Warren said gently—

"But, Ralph, how can it be your father? It was only the echo, old fellow."

"It was not the echo. It was his voice. Listen—try and hear where it comes from!" And once again, through the dripping wood, he sent the Indian cry.

"Now, listen—listen!" he said; and they waited, but no sound came in answer—nothing but the shiver[Pg 214] of the trees, the patter of the rain, and the distant growling of the storm.

"There, you see. It must have been the echo!" said Warren; but Ralph shook his head.

"Do not be silly, Warren. If it was the echo it would be heard again; but we heard nothing."

Which direction did it come from? They forgot about the wet and the storm; they forgot everything in the excitement of the moment. Which direction had the cry come from?

Warren declared that it sounded as if it was under ground; Charlton said he fancied that it came from high up, as if some one was in the air; and Ralph fancied that it was straight ahead.

"What shall we do?" was the question of Warren and Ralph answered—

"I am going forward. I mean to search this plantation from end to end, if I am trespassing twenty times over."

So on the three went, and again and again did they pause while Ralph uttered his wild call, but no answer was heard.

They pushed on, their hearts full of excitement, until they emerged from the trees with almost startling suddenness. The plantation was nothing like so thick as they had thought—it was a mere belt of wood, surrounding a neglected lawn; and in the centre of this, encircled by a wall, stood the very last thing they would have expected to find there—a house.

[Pg 215]

A house; but so dreary, desolate looking. All the windows stared blank and empty, and were encrusted with dirt and grime. Not a trace of smoke curled up from the chimney-stack, not a sound of life was heard. It seemed empty, desolate, drear; and the masses of creeper, hanging down and swinging in the breath of the storm, only intensified the desolate picture it made.

The three lads, standing there with every nerve thrilled by a strange, inexplicable excitement, surveyed the place, and looked at each other in questioning silence, until Warren said softly—

"Well, I am blest! Who would have thought of finding a house here?"

"Where are you going, Ralph?" cried Charlton, for Ralph was moving forward; and he replied firmly—

"To that house. I mean to see if any one lives here."

Right up to the wall walked Ralph. It was a high wall, and only the upper part of the house could be seen above it. But they found a gate on the other side; and, without a moment's hesitation, Ralph pushed it open, entered the garden, and, walking up to the door, lifted the knocker.

With what a dull, hollow sound did it fall! A ghostly sound, that echoed through the house, with that peculiar vibration which is heard when a place is empty.

"There is no one here," whispered Warren, after a[Pg 216] pause—somehow they found themselves speaking in whispers. "The house is empty."

Ralph, for answer, knocked again, a louder and longer summons. "Listen!" he said; and from somewhere they heard a faint sound, as of a door being shut.

"It's only the wind, making a door slam," was Warren's comment. But, for the third time, Ralph sent his call resounding—there was no mistake about that knock—if any one was in the place they must hear it, for the door fairly creaked beneath the blows.

Another pause, a shuffling noise from within, the sound of some one coming from distant passages, then the unfastening of bolts and chains, and the door was opened a little space, while a man, big, burly, and brutal looking, filled the doorway, and barred their entrance—an altogether evil-looking, cruel-faced man, who, scowling upon the three lads, demanded in gruff tones what they wanted, and how it was they were here.

Just for the moment the three were taken aback; or, brave as they might be, still they were only lads, and that scowling presence was certainly very ominous. But Ralph plucked up his courage, and answered that they were three lads from the distant school, and that they had been overtaken by the storm and were seeking shelter.

The man had stood glaring from one to the other as[Pg 217] the explanation was given; and then he said, in the gruffest of accents—

"Well, and what is all this to me? That is no reason why you should trespass on my land, and come knocking at my door. I don't want to know that you are getting wet. It's no interest of mine, is it?"

"But we are seeking for shelter," persisted Ralph. "Surely you will not refuse to give that to us?" And he made a slight attempt to push his way in. The man gave him a shove that sent him almost off the step.

"Here, none of that sort of thing," he said, "or you will be sorry for it, my young bantam. You don't think that you can shove your way into my premises. You three just take yourselves off. You are trespassing on my ground; and it's lucky for you that the dog is tied up, or he would tear you limb from limb. Hear him!" And he paused, as a deep, distant baying was heard from somewhere within. "He is a beauty big enough to eat you. You just get off as fast as you can. Clear! If you are here in five minutes time I will set the dog on you!" And he slammed the door, and left them standing there.

"What a particularly unpleasant person!" said Warren. "His politeness is only exceeded by his good looks. Come on, Ralph, it won't do any good to stand here; and I don't fancy a meeting with that loud-voiced brute we heard. He had got a bark like a bloodhound."

[Pg 218]

"We had better do as Warren says," added Charlton, a trifle timidly, for he could understand how badly Ralph must feel. "I know what you are thinking of. You want to see inside that house, but it is impossible now. If it is done at all, it would have to be some other time, when that man did not suspect us. Only I don't think that you are right. I don't see how you can be."

"I shall never rest until I have contrived some way of doing as you say," was Ralph's reply, and his face looked very resolute again. "That cry was raised by my father. He may not be there—I do not say he is, but somehow I dislike that man and distrust him. Let us go right through the grounds. Don't you understand, Warren? I want to see if there are any other places hidden away here. Who would have said a house like that was here; and who can say what other house may be here? You go back if you like, you and Charlton; I am going on."

"Then on we all go," was Warren's reply; and he and Charlton accompanied Ralph.

They crossed the lawn and went out by the gate, and Ralph was conscious of the face of that man peering at them through one of the upper windows. He might be a recluse, a miser, a madman—that seemed the most probable thing; and yet, yet somehow Ralph must get inside that house.

They pushed their way on into the wood again, making for the opposite side to that on which they had[Pg 219] entered; and then Ralph's words that they did not know what else they might find were proved to be very true, for, upon its farther side, bordering upon a stretch of wild open land, they came upon a ruined building. It looked as if at one time it had been a chapel, or monastery, or something of that sort; the pillars, the pointed windows, and the arched doors gave them that impression. It was a fairly large building, larger than the house they had left, and its crumbling walls were thickly overgrown with ivy. A mournful, silent ruin it was, where only the shapes and shadows of those whose feet had once trodden its stone floors now seemed to lurk; but it was a shelter, and in Ralph went.

"I don't care for twenty men and dogs," he said resolutely. "I am not going on in this rain, and I am going to have a look in this ruin."

"But you do not think that you will find any trace of your father there, Ralph," protested Warren.

"I don't, old man; I only hope for shelter. Come on. If the worst comes we will get on the stairs and drive off the dog with stones. Come on."

It looked gloomy outside—it looked more gloomy within, as they passed in through the yawning space where once a stout oak door had been. How their footsteps echoed, and how great piles of damp, decaying leaves lay in the corners, and ugly lizards scuttled away as they went on. But, for all that, after the first disinclination was got over, there was something[Pg 220] very exciting in wandering about the ruin, exploring this way and that, going down into dark, oozy places underground, or clambering up into the old, deserted turret above, at the no small risk of breaking one's neck. They wandered here and there, until at last a single ray of sunlight, falling through a broken casement, awoke them to the fact that the storm was over, and that they could get on their way again.

"We had better go, Ralph," said Charlton. "I must, for think how mother will feel if I am not home when she expects me."

"Well, I don't think it is much good staying," Warren added. "It seems impossible that your father should be about here, Ralph. That sound was an echo."

"I suppose it must have been something of that sort," Ralph admitted reluctantly. "There seems to be no other explanation. You must forgive me for seeming stupid; but, you see, it—it is my father!" He stopped and Charlton pressed his hand sympathetically, while Warren said hastily—

"Oh, of course, old fellow, I understand; and I only wish that we could have found something out. What a stunning place this ruin would be for hiding in! You could play hide-and-seek about it for a week!"

They emerged from the place, and speedily were in the public road again and walking, with their faces in a homeward direction. But as they went Ralph turned, and once again he uttered that wild signal cry; and then, then—was it an echo, or was it indeed a human[Pg 221] voice?—after a pause, faint and low the sound came back once more—whether from earth, or from air, they knew not; but the cry was taken up and repeated note for note.


[Pg 222]

CHAPTER XXIV FOR THE SAKE OF REVENGE

Now, on that very afternoon when Ralph and his two friends, on their visit to Crab Tree Hill, were driven by the storm to seek shelter in that preserve, Horace Elgert and his companion Dobson, were standing in close consultation.

And a very discontented, savage, and disconcerted pair they were, for things did not seem to be going right with them.

In the first place, that miserable five-pound note was still missing, and though the man at the cake-shop had promised that he would get it for them if possible, he had not yet kept his word; and while it was still in other hands both boys trembled with apprehensive fears.

They quarrelled over it, too, Elgert still declaring that, as Dobson had changed it, he would alone be to blame, and Dobson retorting by saying that he would confess that he received it from Elgert.

Then, added to this source of annoyance, there was the fact that, in spite of all their efforts, Ralph Rexworth was rising in his schoolmates' esteem, and his[Pg 223] influence, coupled with that of Warren and Charlton, was making itself steadily felt, to the diminution of their own powers.

"It seems to me," grumbled Elgert moodily, "that the fellows look upon trying to give a criminal up to justice as a crime. Some of them actually hissed at me—and why? Just because my father lent the police his pony and trap! I can't make out what is coming to them."

"They are just as down on me in the Fourth," answered Dobson. "There is no fun in the place now. All the kids have got to be coddled like a lot of babies; and if you catch one of them a smack on the head for being cheeky, there are a dozen fellows ready to take his part. Look how that little beggar Green cheeked me."

"Well, why didn't you give him a hiding? You were afraid to, that is the fact."

"Afraid yourself!" retorted Dobson angrily. "As if I should be afraid of him! You know that if I had done anything I should have had Rexworth and all his set about me, and a fellow can't take the lot of them. You don't care to meet Rexworth yourself, and you know it."

A dark frown gathered upon Horace Elgert's handsome face. Ah, how that frown spoilt all his good looks!

"Perhaps I don't, Dobson," he said grimly. "But there are better ways of getting even with Rexworth[Pg 224] than fighting; and I mean to try them all. Have you seen Brown again?"

"Yes," said Dobson.

And Elgert went on—

"Well, what did he say?"

"Only just what he has said all along. He has not been able to get it yet, but he thinks that he will. I tell you, Elgert, that I believe he is playing with us——"

"What do you mean?" cried Elgert sharply. "How playing with us?"

"Well, he either knows more than he pretends to, or else he suspects something. I don't think that he means to let us have that note."

Horace Elgert was silent for a few moments. Evidently he found that statement very disquieting.

"It will be a nice mess if it is like that," he said at last. "But it is no good worrying over it unless it comes. I will go and see him myself. You are a bit of a messer when it comes to doing anything. You don't seem to use your wits——"

"Can't use my wits to make him give me a thing which he has either not got or don't mean to part with," grumbled Dobson.

"You might have used your wits to make sure that he never got it. I did all the dangerous part of the work, and only left you something which was safe and easy, and you went and bungled it!"

"Oh, don't begin that all over again. I am sick[Pg 225] and tired of hearing of it. Whenever you have nothing else to grumble about you bring that up. Just drop it, or don't talk at all!"

Elgert saw that his companion was getting really cross; and though he despised Dobson at heart, he could not afford to quarrel with him, for the boy knew too much of his evil ways; so he affected to laugh at the angry words.

"Don't lose your temper," he said. "I never came near such a surly chap! A fellow can't speak to you without your taking offence."

"Well, then, drop it. I don't like having things thrown in my face like you throw that. It is done, and it can't be undone, so what is the good of talking of it?"

"You will find there will be some talking about it if ever it comes to light," was the grim answer. And Dobson looked miserable. How he wished now that he had never had anything to do with the wretched business.

"I wonder," mused Elgert, "what became of that fellow Charlton?"

"We'd best let that alone," retorted Dobson. "We have got ourselves disliked quite enough over it."

"What do I care for that? If only I knew where he was, do you think that I would hesitate to tell? I would do it, if it was only to spite Rexworth."

"It would not hurt him," answered Dobson. "It is not his father."

[Pg 226]

"No, but it is his chum's, and he would be sure to feel it. I only wish I knew where he was."

"But you don't," remarked Dobson.

"But I might find out. I only wish that I could!"

"Talk of angels and see their wings," said Dobson; and at this apparently vague proverb Elgert turned excitedly.

"Where? What do you mean? Not the man?"

"No," answered Dobson, with a shake of the head.

"I don't see Rexworth or Charlton." And Elgert stared round. "Bother it! Don't stand grinning there like a monkey. Tell me what you mean."

"Only that there goes Charlton's mother," said Dobson, nodding in the direction of the common.

"Well, what of that? We don't want his mother, do we? It is his father we are talking about."

"I know that," came the calm answer. And Dobson looked very knowing. "I am a monkey and a silly, and I don't know what besides, but I may be able to think smarter than you can, Elgert. May not Charlton's mother lead us to Charlton's father? She is sure to know where he is, and do you know that since that affair she has been going to the St. Clives' a lot——"

"How do you know?" demanded Elgert.

"My sister told me that she has seen her go there frequently; and sometimes, instead of going right in[Pg 227] at the front gate she has gone in at the side one. That looks strange, don't it? And she was not visiting there before—I know that."

Elgert pondered a while in silence, then he suddenly turned, and Dobson inquired where he was going.

"To follow her. There may be something in what you say. I should hardly think that they would hide a convict away, but they might—some people do such strange things—and St. Clive don't like my father, I know. Let us follow her."

"Well, it will only be to St. Clive's place. And what are we to do then? We can't say that she goes to see her husband because she goes there."

"What did you tell me about it for, then? You looked knowing enough. It is not much good talking of a thing if we cannot follow it up. I am going after her, at any rate. You need not come if you don't want to."

"Oh, I will come, Disagreeable!" answered Dobson. And the two boys set out, following the lady, who was quite unconscious of their wicked desires.

And they could follow her openly and without fear, for if she had seen them close by her side she would have thought nothing of it. The boys from the school were common enough objects in the place.

And it chanced that Mrs. Charlton was indeed going to see her poor husband; to try and cheer him,[Pg 228] and urge him to be hopeful and patient, and to tell him that presently the clouds would all vanish, and the sun shine out again.

And after her the two boys went like spies, and neither Elgert nor Dobson thought what a wicked thing they were doing. There was with them the love of doing evil and causing sorrow—the delight of little, spiteful natures—but there was also the greater desire to cause Ralph Rexworth pain. That was before everything, and so on they went. And Mrs. Charlton, all unconscious of evil, entered the grounds of Mr. St. Clive's house, and as Dobson had said, she went in at the side gate.

Mr. St. Clive had arranged that with her, so that she could go directly to her husband's cottage without any of the servants in the house knowing that she was there.

And the boys stood at that gate undecided for a little while. The path was soon lost to view amidst the bushes. Elgert looked round, and then deliberately climbed over the gate.

"You can stay or come," he whispered to Dobson; "I mean to go on and see this through." And Dobson, not without some inward fears, followed his example. It was delightful, this tracking a man down; it was like the stories of adventure, and he wanted to see the end of it.

"Come quietly," directed Elgert in suppressed tones. "Don't make a noise with your feet, and[Pg 229] stoop down; they might see your head over the bushes. That is it. Now follow me."

Creeping along stealthily, Dobson in the rear, he followed the direction which Mrs. Charlton had taken, and presently the shrubberies ended, and there were flower beds and lawns. Clearly, it would be dangerous for them to go any farther if they wished to remain unseen.

"We will stop here and watch," said he to Dobson. And the latter, crouching there, whispered—

"Where has she gone? I don't see her anywhere."

"She must have gone into that cottage. I would creep across and try to peep through the window, but I am afraid that I should be discovered; and if we gave them the alarm, he might be off."

"You don't think that the man is hiding there, do you?" queried Dobson, trembling betwixt fear and excitement.

Truth to tell, when he had made his suggestion, it had been merely from the love of talking; he had not thought really that there was anything in it; and now there seemed to be a very great deal.

"I do think it," Elgert answered. "Hush! Let us watch. No one knows that we are here, and no one can see us. We can easily creep out the same way that we came. Keep still, she is coming out of the cottage!"

[Pg 230]

Yes, Mrs. Charlton was coming out, and with her a poor, bent decrepit old gardener. But—but she held his arm, and once she pressed a kiss on his cheek! Horace Elgert felt his heart thrill with evil triumph. He saw it all now. Mr. St. Clive was keeping the man here, in the position of a gardener, and Mrs. Charlton came to see him!

"We have got him now, Dobson," he whispered to his companion. "We have got him now, and he will not get away from the police a second time! It is the first step to paying Ralph Rexworth what we owe him!"

We have got him now, Dobson

"'We have got him now, Dobson,' he whispered to his
companion.
" p. 230.


[Pg 231]

CHAPTER XXV JUST IN TIME

"What shall we do next, Elgert?"

Dobson whispered that question in his ear, as the two crouched in the shrubbery watching Mrs. Charlton and her husband.

"Do! What a question! Get away from here, and then go straight to the police and give them information. They won't mention our names, and the fellows at the school need never know that we have had any part in it. We have seen enough, so come on, and mind you don't let them either see or hear you. I would not have them alarmed for anything."

The two stole silently off, treading on tiptoe, walking with the greatest care, until once more they climbed over the gate, and stood safely in the roadway.

"Thank goodness we are out of that without any trouble," said Dobson; and Elgert inquired, contemptuously, what danger he feared would come to them in the grounds.

"Dogs," retorted Dobson tersely. "We weren't to know that there were no dogs loose. I thought[Pg 232] that I heard a rustling in the bushes once, as though one was pushing his way towards us, and it made me turn cold. Well, now we are here, what next?"

"The police, at once. How dark it is getting, and was not that thunder?"

"Yes, I reckon they are getting a smart storm not far from here. The police-station, is it?"

"Of course. The man is here, we do not know how long he may remain, so we cannot waste time; and I am not going to let the possibility of getting caught in a shower prevent me from having my revenge on Rexworth, and making things unpleasant for these stuck-up St. Clives. I hate them! St. Clive himself, because he backs this Rexworth up; his wife, because she is so very goody-goody; and the girl, because she is a proud little minx, who turns up her nose at me, and——"

"Ha, ha!" laughed Dobson. "Jealous because Rexworth cut you out, that is it! Well, I don't mind. Come on, if you are coming. The police will be pleased enough to know; and if there is a reward, we may as well have it."

"You can take it, if you like," retorted Elgert. "I don't want their money. All I want is to see the man taken again, and taken there to prove that the St. Clives are in it."

They turned and hurried off; and then, very cautiously, from amidst the laurels, there arose a little scared and indignant face—a face surrounded[Pg 233] by golden hair. Irene St. Clive had seen them and heard all that they had said!

She had seen them go into the shrubbery, and had wondered what tricks they were about to play. Her first idea was that it was something to do with Ralph, something to vex him; for she knew both the boys, and was aware that they were his enemies. So she had followed them, that she might see, and then warn Ralph. And then it had flashed upon her! Mrs. Charlton was there with her husband; and the boys were spying upon her. Oh, what mean, miserable boys to call themselves gentlemen, and do such things!

She heard what they said when they stood in the roadway, and then she turned and raced indoors to tell her father; even in her dismay, she was thoughtful enough not to go to her mother first, lest she should be needlessly alarmed. Her father would know best what was to be done.

And her tidings filled Mr. St. Clive with concern. Where could poor Mr. Charlton go? Where else was there for him to hide?

He reproached himself now that he had not sent him away sooner. But Mr. Charlton had seemed to derive such comfort from being able to see his son and wife frequently, that Mr. St. Clive had allowed things to go on as they were, and now it might be too late!

Yes, even with Irene's warning, too late; for the man could not go out just as he was. Mr. St. Clive knew full well that every hiding-place would be[Pg 234] searched—that escape would be almost impossible—and he shrank from being the bearer of such bad tidings to the husband and wife.

But it had to be done, the warning must be given, and given at once, and he rose, Irene following him, and went into the grounds and towards the cottage. His own wife was there at the moment speaking with Mrs. Charlton.

And the dismay, the sorrow, that they exhibited when the tidings were told! The poor man must fly from here and be a wanderer again—hunted hither and thither, not knowing from hour to hour if he should be captured, not able even to get a message to his wife, or to hear how it fared with her and his son. It was very hard indeed.

"You have done all that one man could to help another, sir," he said to Mr. St. Clive, as he held his weeping wife in his arms. "I shall never, never forget your kindness, nor that of your good wife and dear little daughter. You will be a friend to my poor wife and my boy—I feel sure that you will be—and now I must change this disguise, and go. To go as the old gardener might be more dangerous than to go as the escaped prisoner."

"But where can you go? Where can you hide for the time? If you could only find a place, the police might come to the conclusion that the boys had made a mistake, and abandon the search again, so giving you opportunity of getting out of England.[Pg 235] So far as money can aid, you can count upon me, but money will be of no avail, if you cannot elude your pursuers, and——"

A hurrying of feet! Oh, surely the police could not be there already! No; a well-known shrill whistle! Ralph and his chums were coming, and Ralph must be told.

Now, Warren knew nothing about Charlton's father being there, and the two boys had allowed their chum to come in because there was no danger; he would only think that it was an old gardener at work.

But when they saw Mr. St. Clive and all the others in that little cottage, they stopped, and Charlton faltered out—

"What is it? Oh, what is it, father?" And so he gave away his secret to the monitor.

And they told them, and Charlton stood very white, and clenched his fist.

"Elgert again," he said. "Oh, I hate him! I should like to kill him." But his father put his hand on his arm and said, almost sternly—

"My son, such words are not for the lips of a Christian boy."

"Well, sir, at any rate you can't blame Fred for using them," broke in Warren. "I know I should feel like it. They are a pair of cads, and deserve kicking."

"Be quiet, Tom," chimed in Ralph. "Never mind them. The thing is what can we do? Where can[Pg 236] Mr. Charlton go so that he can hide in safety for the time?"

"Nowhere," said the man sadly. "There is no spot about here where I can be safe. I am afraid that I am losing heart," he added, "but it seems hopeless."

"Never say, die, sir," cried Warren. "I know a place, a jolly place, where you could hide for a month; yes, even if they knew you were there they would not be able to get you. You could dodge them, and dodge them, for ever so long——"

"The ruin!" cried Ralph suddenly. "Warren, you're a brick! The ruin, of course——"

"What ruin? Where?" asked Mr. St. Clive, while the rest listened anxiously. "Speak quickly, lads, for time is precious." And Ralph explained their adventure of that afternoon, adding—

"Of course, there are the dogs, but even if they scented him down he could shut them out; they couldn't get at him, and the very fact that the dogs were loose would hinder people from imagining that any one was hiding there. Besides, I don't believe that any people know about it. I didn't until to-day, and I thought that I had pretty well explored the country round here."

"How am I to get to this place, boys?"

"By following us," said Ralph. "Yes, we will all three go, and skirmish out one ahead of the other, so that if danger is about we can give warning. Never you fear, we will get there safe enough, if we have a[Pg 237] little start. But you will want things, even at once; light—you must be careful to hide that from being seen—and food, and some rugs."

Away hurried Mrs. St. Clive and her husband and hastily procured what they thought would be immediate necessities, while Mr. Charlton took off the disguise. His rest there had done him good. He was strong and well, not a bit like the wearied man who had at first come there. The boys divided the burdens between them; and then, with last hand shakes, and with a parting embrace between husband and wife, Mr. Charlton followed the three boys from the place where he had been so kindly treated.

"Won't Elgert and Dobson be precious mad!" said Warren. "It was fortunate for you, sir, that little Irene heard them talking."

"It is fortunate for me that my boy has two such faithful friends as you and Ralph here," answered Mr. Charlton. "I feel that Heaven, knowing my innocence, has raised me up helpers all round."

"That is the way, sir," said Ralph heartily. "Go on thinking that and you won't lose heart, and presently the truth will come to light——"

"Now then, Ralph," cried Warren, interrupting him. "Send on ahead, and keep both your eyes open, get well on in front, and give the Fourth's whistle if you see any one about."

They were now getting away from the road and on towards Stow Wood. They would have to go[Pg 238] through that and then out across the common, leaving Great Stow on their right. It would have been shorter to have gone through Great Stow, but they did not dare that, there were too many people about.

Away raced Charlton, pushing into the wood, and then Warren dived away to the right, and Ralph led Mr. Charlton directly on.

But no warning whistle came. The storm was gathering up again, and no one who could avoid it was out of doors. They pushed through the wood and across the common, out to Crab Tree Hill; and then they circled the preserves, and came to the place they sought; and, as Ralph said, it looked as if they had been led to the spot that afternoon, in order that they might know where to bring Mr. Charlton.

And into the ruin they led the way with a lighted candle, and showed the man all the windings and secret ways that they had found out.

"I dare say that there are plenty more, for it is a strange old place," Ralph said, "and you will be able to find them out for yourself."

"The only thing that I see, is you cannot make a fire here. At least, if you did, the smoke might be seen," added Warren; and Mr. Charlton smiled.

"We can do without the fire, my kind young friend," he said. "I shall manage here very well. But now do you all go, for you are nearly wet through, and I fear that you may suffer some ill effects, and you all[Pg 239] look tired to death, too. Shake hands with me, and be off."

"We shall manage to let you know soon, sir, how things go," said Ralph, "and we will bring more food and things. Good-bye, sir, and keep up a good heart."

"Good-bye, and good-bye and God bless you, my own dear son." And the father and son embraced.

Then the three lads dashed away, making for home as fast as they could; and though Warren wondered what his people would think of him for being so late, nothing could persuade him to refrain from going back to Mr. St. Clive's, just to see how things had gone.


[Pg 240]

CHAPTER XXVI TOM WARREN SPEAKS HIS MIND

If ever three boys were tired and wet and cold, Ralph and his chums were when they once again arrived at Mr. St. Clive's; but for all that, they were three delighted boys, for they had succeeded in their mission, and Mr. Charlton was safe.

They found that the police had been and gone, and were none the wiser for their visit. Mr. St. Clive had received them readily, and told them that he certainly had employed an old gardener, but that the man had left his employ only a short time before they came, and that he could give them no information about him.

It was highly distasteful to an honourable gentleman like Mr. St. Clive even to say anything which, while strictly true, had yet the qualities of a lie, but in this case he was forced to do so. He could not give the poor man up to justice—a man whom he honestly believed to have been wrongly convicted—especially after having received him and sheltered him so long.

But when Elgert and Dobson heard that the search was unsuccessful, oh, how angry they were! They[Pg 241] had come back with the constables, and Mr. St. Clive turned to them and spoke very sternly.

"So it appears that I am indebted to you two young gentlemen for this visit," he said. "First of all you trespass upon my grounds; then you take upon yourselves to give this information to the police; and now you have come back uninvited. Kindly oblige me by taking yourselves off; and understand that if I find you on my grounds again, I shall not have the slightest hesitation in horsewhipping the pair of you!"

Oh, what a rage Elgert was in! To be spoken to like that! He, the Honourable Horace Elgert!

He went home and told his father, and Lord Elgert rode over in a terrible passion to demand an explanation from Mr. St. Clive.

But that gentleman took things very calmly, and his lordship got little satisfaction from him.

"It is my belief, sir, that my son is correct, and that you have been harbouring a fugitive from justice!" shouted his lordship. "It is like you to do that. You have taken that young rascal, Rexworth, in spite of the knowledge that his father is a man who attempted to rob me."

"Pardon me, Lord Elgert," answered Mr. St. Clive, "I have tried to repay a debt of gratitude I owe to a brave boy, who rescued my child from death, at the peril of his own life, because you would not take the trouble to have your bull properly secured. As to the[Pg 242] knowledge that his father tried to rob you, I know nothing of the kind."

"I have told you so. You have my word for it," replied Lord Elgert; and Mr. St. Clive answered drily—

"That is a very different thing from knowing it."

"You insult me, sir! You deliberately insult me! But be careful, or you shall answer for it. Make no mistake, you shall answer for it!" And with that, his lordship rode off in a towering rage.

Mr. St. Clive did not trouble to tell Ralph all the unkind things which Lord Elgert had said, for there was nothing to be gained by causing the boy pain; and so, after giving them all hot cocoa, Warren and Charlton were sent off to their homes, and Ralph was glad to get to bed, for he was quite tired out.

And then, after one of those quiet Sundays which he had got to value so much, he set off for school on the Monday morning, calling for Charlton, and meeting with Warren on the way.

"Well, Rexworth, and how do you feel to-day?"

Now, if Warren or Charlton had asked that question, there would have been nothing strange in it; but it was neither of the boys. It was Mr. Delermain, when the class was assembled; and Ralph, although he felt surprised, answered that he felt very well.

"Ah!" said the master, and he smiled. "Well, I am glad of that, for to-day you have to uphold the honour of the Fourth. You will not take your place[Pg 243] for lessons as usual. The examination for the Newlet is to-day. You are to go to the Head's class-room immediately after prayers."

"Good luck to you, Rexworth," whispered Charlton, looking quite nervous; and Tom Warren patted him on the shoulder and added imploringly—

"Now, mind you keep cool, Ralph—keep quite cool. Don't get flustered if you cannot answer every question, and don't spend too much time over the easy ones. Answer them first, as briefly as you can, and then go for the others. Keep cool, old fellow, for the honour of the Fourth."

Certainly Ralph did feel just a trifle anxious and nervous; but he had worked hard, and felt pretty well grounded in his subjects, and he meant to do his best honestly.

So when prayers were over, he rose and went out of the class-room, while the boys, thinking that the occasion admitted of it, cried out aloud: "Good luck to you, Rexworth! Hope that you will succeed!"

"Jolly lot of fuss they make about that chap," sneered Dobson to the boy next him. "It is just a disgrace to let such a fellow as that sit for the Newlet."

"Especially when a bright, intellectual fellow like Dobson does not go in for it!" was the answer he received; and Dobson glowered and muttered something about his "cheek."

Somehow, Charlton could not get on as he ought[Pg 244] to have done that morning. He was so anxious about Ralph, and he was so full of his father, and wondering whether he was all safe. Mr. Delermain had to rebuke him once or twice—he did not understand things like Warren did—and poor Charlton lost his place and got a bad mark; and somehow he could not help it, the tears would come into his eyes. Dobson saw it, and grinned. He sniffed, and drew his handkerchief out, pretending to wipe away tears and wring the water out on the floor. Mr. Delermain saw him, and Dobson got something to cry for. Six handers, and a bad mark. Dobson vowed to make Charlton suffer for it, as if it were his fault that he had been caned.

And he had his chance when recess came.

"Hallo, Elgert!" cried Dobson, as he saw his friend. "I say, I want to ask you a question. Who was the first gardener?"—and he winked towards Charlton, who was standing near.

"Adam," was Elgert's reply; and Dobson nodded.

"Quite right; and who was the very last one that we know anything about, eh?"

"A fellow named Charlton, some relation to one of your Form, I think. Quite a public personage, and eagerly sought after by the police."

Poor Charlton! His face went white, and his eyes sparkled with anger. Dobson saw it, and laughed mockingly. Charlton was a weakly boy, and the bully was by no means afraid of him.

[Pg 245]

"Funny how some people have queer tastes," he went on. "I should have thought that breaking stones was no harder work than digging. By the way, it is breaking stones that they put convicts to, is it not?"

"You say that to insult me?"

Charlton spoke in low tones, and his face was very white; and Dobson laughed again.

"Oh, I say, you chaps, is not this a rich joke? Here is Charlton asking if we mean to insult him! My dear fellow, your presence is such an insult——"

Dobson stopped and ducked, for the maddened boy had struck so fierce a blow that had the bully received it, it would surely have knocked him down.

"Go on, Dobson! Give him a hiding!" cried Elgert. But then Tom Warren pushed forward and cried out—

"Drop that! Charlton, don't be stupid; and you, Dobson, if you want to fight, fight me."

"I say, you fellows," said Elgert, "how much longer are we going to be dictated to by Tom Warren? Charlton struck the first blow. It is his fight, and he ought to go through with it. It is a condescension on Dobson's part to fight with such a fellow." And some of the boys murmured approval.

"Hold hard a minute," said Warren. "Since Elgert puts it that way, we will see if the boot is not on the other foot. Let me see, Dobson asked who was the last gardener, didn't he?"

[Pg 246]

"That is it, Warren!" cried some of the others. "And Charlton got mad."

"Very well; now I will tell you why. It seems that Elgert and Dobson, wanting a little employment, and liking to play the part of spies and informers——" Elgert started. He had no idea that Warren knew about that, and it was the very last thing he wished the school to hear of. He attempted to turn away, but Warren noticed it, and went on.

"You had better stop, Elgert, unless you are too ashamed to let gentlemen see your face." And Elgert stopped, white to the lips with passion.

"That is better," said the monitor. "Well, you chaps, I was saying that our gentlemanly friends, Messrs. Elgert and Dobson, finding it to their taste to play the part of spies, must needs dog the steps of a lady, and that lady Mrs. Charlton, under the impression that she would guide them to the spot where her husband was hidden.

"Now, having played this delightful part, these refined young gentlemen came upon an old gardener in Mr. St. Clive's grounds, and jumped to the conclusion that it was the lady's husband in disguise.

"Then they came away and quietly enough, for they had no wish to disturb the parties concerned. But once away, they set off as hard as they could go, running all the way, to the police-station, to tell the constables that the man they wanted was hiding at[Pg 247] Mr. St. Clive's. I would mention the fact that there is a reward offered for the apprehension of this man; perhaps that had something to do with their action. And this pair of spies and informers have the impudence to speak of it being a condescension for one of them to fight a boy in no way his equal."

"I say, Warren, it can't be true!" cried one boy in disgust. "No fellow at our school would be such an awful cad!"

"Look at Elgert's face. Does that look like innocence?" answered Warren. "You can ask Mr. St. Clive, if you like; but you ought not to want to after that!" And he pointed to Horace Elgert.

Ay, there was no mistake; he looked guilty, and he knew it was no good trying to deny the charge. He strove to look careless and dignified, and he turned away on his heel; but then a storm of hisses broke out. Hisses! They were hissing him! And he had once been their leader! And above the clamour came the shrill voices of the juniors—

"Sneak! Sneak! Sneak!"

He felt as if he must press his fingers in his ears and run, but he managed to maintain his slow walk, and got into the class-room, Dobson at his heels; and the latter asked in consternation—

"How ever did they find out?"

"I don't know—I don't care!" was the fierce answer. "But I will pay them all out! And to think of Rexworth going in for the Newlet!"

[Pg 248]

"Won't he crow if he manages to get through!" remarked Dobson; and Elgert jumped up.

"He must not get through, Dobson; somehow we must stop him."

"That is all very well. But how can we do it?" queried Dobson, with a shake of his head. And Elgert replied—

"Wait until morning school is over, and I will tell you."


[Pg 249]

CHAPTER XXVII IN THE DEAD OF THE NIGHT

"I tell you that it can be done. What danger is there, if we are only careful not to make a noise? What a miserable coward you are, Dobson!"

So said Horace Elgert. He and Dobson were together, and morning school was over. They had met that Elgert might unfold his plan for preventing Ralph Rexworth having any chance of gaining the Newlet medal, and also for getting him into disgrace by making it appear that he had been cribbing; and apparently Dobson did not much like the plan, and had been making objections which had called forth Elgert's angry remonstrance.

"What danger can there be?" The question came again, when Dobson did not reply. "Why, you have risked more than that when we have left the house at night! You have thought that a lark. And now we have only to go to the Head's desk, and then sit in the class-room for an hour or so."

"It will be awfully cold there," shivered Dobson.[Pg 250] "And just think—stopping for two hours, and the chance all the time that some one will come!"

"Rubbish! If it is cold, put on your overcoat. You don't call it cold when you stand for longer than that keeping goal, with an east wind blowing. It is no use trying to make objections. I am determined to try it, and you have just got to help me."

"I don't see how we can do it," grumbled Dobson. "I think we had better leave him alone. After all, it don't matter to us if he gets the medal."

"Everything matters that advances him. Now, look here. After the exam. is over, all the papers are taken to the Head, and he puts them in his desk, and sends them to the examiners in the morning. We know that much."

"Yes," assented Dobson.

"Very well. Now, the catch of the Head's roller desk is broken. I heard him say yesterday that he had forgotten to send for a man to repair it. There the papers will be, with nothing to prevent us from getting hold of Rexworth's. That is easy enough. We wait till the place is quiet, and then go to the Head's class-room and take what we want. Then we go to our own class-room, and have our bicycle lamps to give us light. You know that I can write like Rexworth; and even if I did not, no one will know. The Head does not examine the papers himself, and the chap he sends them to would not know the difference, even if you scrawled the answers."

[Pg 251]

"But what do you want me for?" objected Dobson. "We can't both write."

"You sneak! You want me to do it all. Why, to keep me company, and to be in it as well as me. Besides, I shall want you to read me some answers from Grimwade. I have a copy; and I don't mean only to write wrong answers to some questions, but to put in extracts, so that it will look as if he had been using a crib——"

"It will take an awful long time! He takes all day over the papers."

"Yes; but he has got to think of the answers, and we shall not have to do anything of the kind. We can copy a lot of what he has written—you reading and I writing. Then we just take our set of papers back and put them with the others, and we destroy his, and who is to know a thing about it?"

"I don't like it," protested Dobson. "I know that we shall get caught one of these days, and then we shall be expelled, and it will be all your fault."

"Then you have just got to like it!" retorted Elgert; and Dobson burst out furiously—

"Oh, have I? Think I am going to be ordered about by you, Horace Elgert! Why have I got to like it, pray?"

"Because you changed that five-pound note!"

"But you gave it to me," retorted Dobson, changing colour, and falling back upon his old plea; and Elgert laughed.

[Pg 252]

"You prove that, if you can. You are the only one implicated in it."

"You are a jolly mean sneak!" cried his companion; and again Elgert laughed, this time rather menacingly.

"I wouldn't talk in that way if I were you, Dobson," he said. "It is a bit foolish to quarrel with me. Now, don't be silly, but say that you agree."

"I suppose I must," was the sulky reply; "but I tell you I think it risky. Besides, all that we have yet done has not harmed Rexworth; but it has jolly well hurt us."

"We will be more successful this time. But let us clear off, for that little sneak Charlton is watching us, and he may get suspicious if he sees us talking together."

"Punch his head!" said Dobson. He was brave enough when it came to ill-treating boys weaker than himself. "He is alone; punch his head!"

"No. You forget we should have Warren and all his gang down on us, and perhaps Kesterway taking the matter to the Head. Let him go for the time. We will have him over his father yet, and that will be better than giving him a licking."

It was quite true that Charlton had seen the two together, and he was indeed wondering what mischief they were plotting. Ralph was still a prisoner over his examination papers, for until they were done he was not allowed to leave the class-room; and Warren[Pg 253] was at the moment away, so that Charlton was alone.

He was very anxious for Ralph's success, and perhaps that very anxiety made him suspicious of the two boys who were such bitter enemies of his chum. At any rate, Charlton determined to keep a very sharp eye upon the movements of Elgert and Dobson, though he was quite ignorant of any way in which they could harm Ralph.

But, in spite of his watching, nothing occurred. The dinner-hour passed and afternoon school began, and all went smoothly; and Charlton managed to retrieve the loss which his anxiety had brought to him in the morning. And then, when the bell rang, and the boys filed out, free to do as they liked, until teatime, there Ralph joined them, a trifle tired, it is true, but very hopeful, for he felt confident that he had answered every question that had been given to him without making a huge number of mistakes.

A general rush of Fourth Form boys occurred, and he was surrounded by a throng of eager questioners.

"How did you get on, Rexworth? Was it very stiff? Could you manage it? How many questions did you get through?"

These and a score of kindred questions were asked; and when Ralph answered that he thought he had managed all right, and that he had answered every question, a hearty cheer followed.

[Pg 254]

"Hurrah for Rexworth and the Fourth!"

Dobson and Elgert heard it, and the latter laughed quietly, and said, with a sneer upon his handsome face—

"Go on; cheer away. You will have something to cheer for presently."

The evening wore away—tea, and preparation, and recess, and finally bed; and after the usual chatter and skylarking when monitors' backs were turned, the boys of Marlthorpe College were all snugly in bed, the gas had been turned out in the dormitories, save for one faint glimmer at the end of each room, and silence reigned throughout the old school.

Perhaps it was because he was so anxious for Ralph's success, perhaps it was that he was thinking of Dobson and Elgert, or of his poor father away there in that dreary ruin, but somehow Charlton could not get to sleep. He lay there thinking, thinking, long after the regular breathing from Ralph, and the occasional gurgle and snore from Warren, announced that his two chums were fast asleep.

Would Ralph get the medal? Would his father ever get safely away? Or, better still, would he ever be proved to be innocent? Would——

A stealthy movement caused him to open his eyes. A boy, higher up the dormitory, had got out of bed; and that boy was Dobson!

Charlton held his breath and felt himself trembling with excitement. Elgert and the bully had plotted[Pg 255] something, after all, then; and—and—why, Dobson was dressing! And now he crept out of the dormitory with careful, noiseless steps!

Then Charlton, as soon as he was gone, slipped from his bed also. At first he thought of rousing Ralph and Warren; but he paused. A strange ambition filled his heart. How lovely it would be to do this all by himself—to follow and see what mischief they were doing, and, if it was anything to harm Ralph, to frustrate their plot, alone and unaided!

Rapidly he slipped on his clothes. At any other time he would have trembled at the audacity of such a deed after hours; but now he was filled only with the one thought of serving Ralph, and he neither considered the risk of being discovered, nor the seriousness of matching himself against two such boys as Elgert and Dobson—for he felt absolutely certain that Elgert would also be in this business.

Then, in his stockinged feet, he also slipped into the corridor and stood listening. Where had Dobson gone? How horribly dark it seemed—and how cold and desolate! He stood undecided for a moment; then he heard a stealthy sound—and from the entrance to the Fifth he saw Elgert come. Ah, he had not been mistaken, then! He stepped back and peeped round the dormitory door. Elgert was stealing down the stairs, and—yes, there Dobson was awaiting him. The two glided on, noiseless as mice; and Charlton, his heart thumping so that it seemed as if the two in[Pg 256] front must hear it, creeping cautiously in the rear, determined to ascertain what they were going to do.

Down, past the Fourth class-room, they groped their way, and then to the Head's room. The Head's room! The room in which the examination papers were kept!

Charlton, crouching at the door, watched them as they lit their bicycle lamps and stole to the big desk at the top of the room. Then came a slight click and the top was rolled back, and he could see the two bending over the interior, searching for something.

"Here we are!" whispered Elgert, as he took up a neat little roll of papers. "Mind your fingers, silly!"—and he let the top of the desk down with the greatest care. "You see how easy it is."

"Best blow out the lamps until we get to the class-room," suggested Dobson. "Some one might see them. You never know." And Elgert, willing enough to take every precaution, complied.

"We will precious soon spoil Rexworth's chances now!" he laughed softly; and Charlton understood—or thought that he did. They were going to destroy Ralph's answers, and they should not do it!

Regardless of secrecy or of self, he sprang from the darkness; and, before either of the startled boys could realize what had happened, he had snatched that roll of paper from Elgert's grasp.

"You sha'n't have them!" he said aloud. "You want to destroy them, and you shall not have them!"

[Pg 257]

"Charlton!" cried Elgert, in furious rage; and forgetful of all precaution, he struck a savage blow at him, which sent him spinning backwards over a form with a crash.

"Keep quiet! You will rouse the whole school!" cried Dobson in terror. "Hark! I hear some one coming. Run—run, I say, or we shall be found here!" And Elgert, awakening to the danger of the position, glided away with him, as voices were heard calling and asking what was the matter.

"What shall we do now?" groaned Dobson; but his companion answered in a fierce whisper—

"Quick—get back to your room and pull off your clothes, as if you had just slipped out of bed. Be quick! Then come out on to the landing, as if you were only half awake. They are certain to catch him, and we must declare that we know nothing of it. He has the papers in his hand, and it is our word against his, and appearances are upon our side."

Dobson nodded, and hastily dragging off his clothes, he sat on the edge of his bed, and called aloud: "Who is there?" That roused the others; and he asserted that he had been scared by a noise downstairs. Up tumbled Warren and Ralph and some more, and Charlton's bed was seen to be empty.

Then the Fifth Form boys, aroused by Elgert, came out on the landing, only to be met by one of the masters, who quietly said that nothing was wrong, and directed them all to go back to bed again.

[Pg 258]

Nothing wrong! Go back to bed! But why was Charlton's bed empty? And what did that glimpse of the boy, in the custody of Kesterway, the head monitor, mean? Ralph looked at Warren in dismay. Whatever mischief had Fred Charlton been up to?


[Pg 259]

CHAPTER XXVIII THE NEXT DAY

"Believe it! Of course we don't believe it. And I do not think that the Head does, either. You cheer up, old fellow! I know you were only trying to serve me; but you were silly to go without waking Warren, or myself."

The speaker was Ralph, and he addressed his chum Charlton, who was a prisoner. A prisoner, that is, inasmuch as the Head had forbidden him to go out into the playground until he had thoroughly gone into the incidents of the previous night.

It was all very well for Ralph to say "cheer up," but Charlton did not feel very cheerful. His sensitive nature shrank from the position in which he found himself, and his heart revolted at the wicked falsehoods which were told so calmly by both Dobson and Elgert. Besides, he was kept in, and that afternoon he had hoped to get across to see how his father was getting on.

And though we, who know the truth, may wonder how it was that the Head should do this, still, the doctor himself did not know the truth, and he could[Pg 260] hardly think that two lads would tell such wicked deliberate lies; and, moreover, everything pointed to Charlton being guilty.

Dr. Beverly had been sitting up late, deep in a learned work with which he was greatly interested, when he had heard the noise in his class-room, followed by the voice of the head monitor, calling from above, and asking what was the matter; and he had hurried out—to find Charlton lying half dazed on the floor, having apparently fallen over a form and struck his head; and in his hand was Ralph's examination paper.

Charlton being a nervous boy, his very manner seemed guilty when the Head had questioned him; and his story seemed to be false, for upon Dr. Beverly hurrying upstairs, Elgert was found with only his trousers on, as if he had just slipped out of bed, and Dobson was the same. Moreover, the boys in the Fifth declared that Elgert was sitting up in bed when they were aroused; and even Ralph and Warren had to own that Dobson appeared as if he had only just woke up.

And both Dobson and Elgert declared that they had never been downstairs, and that Charlton had invented the story.

So, still under the suspicion, he was kept in, and Ralph and Warren seized the first opportunity of going to comfort him.

"If the Head knew them as well as we do, he would not be in much doubt about things," was Warren's[Pg 261] verdict. "Don't you worry, old chap! We know you would not do anything to harm Ralph."

"I wanted to go and see my father this afternoon," sighed Charlton; and Ralph answered—

"Never mind. I will go. Tom will come with me."

"I am awfully sorry, but I cannot," the monitor put in. "I would in a minute, but I promised mother to go round for her to my aunt's, and I must not disappoint her."

"Of course not," said Ralph immediately. "Well, I will go alone, and explain to your father, old chap; so don't you worry about that any more. I wish, though, that I could see some way of bringing this home to those two, but I confess that I don't."

"Wait a bit. Give them a rope long enough and they will hang themselves!" growled Warren. "Now, buck up, Charlton, and don't let them think that you are beaten!" And with that the two had to leave their chum, and Charlton felt decidedly comforted.

And, after school, Tom Warren went off to obey his mother's desire; and Ralph, true to his promise, started on his journey to the man hiding in the old ruin away by Crab Tree Hill; and the rest of the boys prepared to spend their time according to their own inclinations.

Jimmy Green and his chum Tinkle had made their plans. They were going fishing. It is sometimes a matter for wonder why small boys will go fishing,[Pg 262] seeing that they seldom catch any fish, and don't know what to do with them if by chance they manage to secure a few. Still, that matters nothing. Jimmy and Tinkle were going fishing, and were busily preparing a wonderful and fearful assortment of tackle and bait. Bait! They had worms several inches long, and what they called paste—a fearsome concoction of bread and clay kneaded together into little balls. And they had a landing-net. We mention this for two reasons. First, because of its size—it would have held a small salmon—and then because it was destined to aid in landing some queer fish. We may not say of what kind yet—but the point to remember is that they had the landing-net.

And Jimmy Green and his chum were discussing the problem of Charlton's guilt, and their small minds appeared to be fully made up.

"I just believe every word he says!" declared Green; and Tinkle nodded his fat little head.

"So do I!" he said.

"Those two chaps are awful cads—dreadful cads!" continued Green, with much warmth; and again Tinkle nodded. He did not believe in the exertion of talking, unless it was absolutely necessary.

"I wonder," he said slowly, as he pushed back a particularly lively worm into the bait-tin—"I wonder, Jimmy, if we ought to tell what we know about that note? I often wonder that." But Jimmy was still firm upon that point.

[Pg 263]

"What's the good? If we had the note now we might do it. But suppose they treat us as they have treated Charlton, and say they did not go there? How are we to prove it? And we let out that we have been there ourselves. It ain't no good, Tinkle. I would tell if I thought it was; but it isn't, and there is no getting away from it."

"I suppose it ain't," was Tinkle's regretful answer. "Well, come on, Jimmy! I think we have got everything we want, and we may as well have all the time we can."

"Where shall we go?" inquired Jimmy Green.

"Oh, the pool below Becket Weir," answered Tinkle; "where Elgert nearly got drowned."

"Very well; come on, and let us see if we have any luck." And the two young anglers set out, little dreaming what a very queer fish they were going to catch that day.

And what of Elgert and Dobson? Mean lads that they were, they were delighted, and congratulated themselves upon their astuteness. True, they had not got possession of Ralph's papers, and had failed in so far as spoiling his chances for the medal went; but they had got Charlton into fine disgrace.

It was wonderfully smart upon their parts, they thought; and, as if to add to their good fortune, Dobson had a little scrap of paper brought to him by a town urchin—a message from Brown of the cake-shop, to the effect that the latter had been successful[Pg 264] in obtaining the "article" he had inquired about; but that the price would be seven pounds for it, cash down.

Seven pounds! Elgert growled at that, but the note must be got again at any cost; and so Dobson was given the sum required, and dispatched upon his errand.

He wanted Elgert to go with him, for company, but Elgert was too cunning for that. He had kept out of the business all along, and he did not mean to be seen in it now. To be sure, he had been with Dobson to inquire about it in the first place, but he had no fear that the man would betray him. Dobson had done the changing, and Dobson should do the buying, and bring the note back to him.

"I cannot come," he said, in answer to the boy's remonstrance. "I expect our man over with a letter from my father, and I want to stay here to get it. You must go alone. It won't take you long. Hurry back, for I shall not go out until you return."

"I always have to do the work," grumbled Dobson. "It is a horrid long way to go alone."

"Get out! Have not I found the money? And as to a long way, you don't make much fuss about that if you think that you are going to be treated to tarts. You clear off, and look sharp; and thank your lucky stars that we have got out of the mess so nicely, for I confess that I did not think that we were going to manage it!"

[Pg 265]

So Dobson set off, and Horace Elgert turned back to the playground, to await his return with what patience he could; and there the Head himself came upon him, and stopped, and placed one hand upon his shoulder, looking searchingly into his face.

"I am glad that I have met you alone, Elgert," the doctor said. "For I want to speak to you very seriously. I want to speak to you about Charlton."

"Yes, sir?" said the boy inquiringly. It was wonderful how calmly and innocently he spoke. "What about him, sir—has he owned that his story is false?"

"Not so, Elgert. Nor am I satisfied that it is false, Elgert. Are you satisfied that it is?"

"Why, sir, of course I am!" he answered, staring up as if unable to comprehend the Head's meaning, though he knew it well enough.

"Elgert, there is an old Book with an old law, which says: 'Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.' In face of such a solemn command, are you still sure that Charlton's story is false?"

"You don't mean to say that I and Dobson were there taking those papers, do you, sir?" he queried indignantly. "Ah, I see how it is! You believe his word. I don't think that quite fair, sir. Consider the difference between his surroundings and mine. Which will most likely speak the truth—the son of a man wanted by the police, or the son of a nobleman like my father?"

[Pg 266]

"You still adhere to your statement, Elgert?" said the Head, taking no notice of the latter part of his speech. And Elgert answered at once—

"Of course I do, sir!"

"Then," said the Head, "I have no option but to be guided by circumstances, and they all point to Charlton being guilty." And with that he turned away.

Elgert felt anxious and angry. What right had the Head to suspect him of telling lies, or to doubt his honour? It is wonderful how dishonourable people will talk of their honour. And suppose the Head got Dobson, and began to question him. He must warn the fellow to be on guard against that.

The man he expected did not come. Elgert was angry. He told himself that Dobson was taking double the time he need; and when at last his companion returned, he asked very shortly—

"Well, have you got it?"

"Yes; here it is, all safe. It is delightful to feel that danger is past!"

"A danger of your own making," retorted Elgert. "A danger that I have had to pay for, and that has cost you nothing. And you look here! The Head has been questioning me. He is suspicious, and preaches about false witnessing. Mind what you are at if he begins on you; for if you let anything out I will pay you out for it. You had better clear off now, to be out of his way."

[Pg 267]

Dobson complied readily enough. The last thing he wanted was for the Head to carpet him. And then Horace Elgert, the note safe in his pocket-book, put on his hat and went out. He was enraged that his man had not been, and was going home to give him a good rating; and he, to take a short cut, must go past Becket Weir, where Tinkle and Green had gone to fish.


[Pg 268]

CHAPTER XXIX WHAT TINKLE AND GREEN CAUGHT

"There don't seem to be much sport," said Tinkle to Green, as they sat side by side on the river bank, casting longing glances at their floats. Tinkle's bobbed under, and he pulled up sharply—he had hooked a fine piece of weed, the tenth catch of the kind he had made.

"Bother!" said Green, putting down the landing-net, which he had seized to be in readiness to help his friend. "I am jolly well sick of it. Let us drop it."

Tinkle agreed; the rod was taken to pieces and the lines put away, and then the pair stood up.

"Ugh—ah-r-r!" sighed Tinkle. "Don't it make you cramped, and—— I say, Green, there's a man coming, and by gum, I believe it's that Elgert's man—the chap we saw in the cake-shop!"

"So it is," was Green's answer. "And look how he is sauntering. Perhaps he is going to meet some one."

"Let us hide," suggested Tinkle eagerly, "in the old boathouse. We may hear some more secrets."

[Pg 269]

Green made no objection on the score of eavesdropping; the two boys, bending low, darted across the towing-path, and into an old, dilapidated, wooden building, now fast falling to decay, that had once done duty as a boathouse.

"Oh, I say, here comes Elgert himself!" said Green excitedly, peeping through a hole. "Don't make a sound. I believe——"

"Oh," interrupted Tinkle, in consternation, "they are coming in here! Oh, what ever shall we do?"

"Be quiet, you silly. Hide! Down you go flat under that old boat. Hold up the end while I creep under; and whatever you do, don't sneeze. Mind the net, and——"

His words were cut short by the boat slipping from Tinkle's hands and extinguishing them both. They lay side by side. They were quite safe, for it was most unlikely that Elgert or the man would look beneath it.

One of the planks had started, and they could hear plainly, and even see a good deal of the interior of the place. They did see—saw Elgert and the man enter; and Horace Elgert sat down on the top of that boat.

"If I only had a pin!" muttered Green. And Tinkle dug him in the ribs and breathed in his ear—

"Be quiet, or I will punch your head when I get you out!"

"You are an impertinent rascal!" was Elgert's[Pg 270] first polite remark. "But don't you forget the book I have, with the confession in it. It may get you into trouble yet."

"And don't you forget, Mr. Horace, that it was your own father who put me up to it. He wanted Charlton got out of the way, and he showed me how to make a hundred pounds for myself, and make an innocent man get the blame. I haven't had a single day's peace of mind since. My conscience has accused me."

"Your conscience! Where do you keep it?" laughed Elgert, while the ears of the two hidden boys were strained to their utmost. "A pretty sort of fellow you are. My father put you up to it! How can you prove that?"

"I cannot," was the sulky answer. "He was too clever for that. I wrote the truth in my pocket-book——"

"Like the ass you are! What good would that do to you, or to Charlton?"

"It did no good. But it made me feel better, even to confess it like that. You stole the book—you, a fine gentleman! You stole it from my coat!"

"Yes; it was safer in my keeping than in yours. Such things are dangerous if they are left lying about."

"And you have used it as a threat to me ever since; and have ordered me about as if I were a dog!" was the angry retort. And Elgert laughed.

[Pg 271]

"I have found it useful certainly. And, my man, do you see that scar on the back of your hand? It was a bad cut, I think. How did you manage it?"

The man, with a swift motion, put his hand in his pocket.

"I cut it," he said. And Elgert laughed again.

"Yes. Do you know what housebreaking is? I suppose you know nothing of some one who broke into the school, the beginning of this term; and who was found near my bed, with a pillow; it looked very much as if he were going to try and kill me by smothering me. I wonder what that man wanted. He was frightened away by one of our boys, and he cut his hand getting over the wall. I wonder who that man was?"

"You know it was me. I would have done it, too, if I had not been found. I was frightened then, but I am not now. I am not in your power any more."

"Oh, and what has happened to change things?" inquired Horace Elgert mockingly.

"This," said the man fiercely. "If I have done wrong, what about you? There was a five-pound note stolen at your school——"

"What do you know about that?" cried Elgert quickly.

"I know that it was changed in the town by your friend; and I know that you and he went to buy it back, and paid far more than it was worth for it, and——"

[Pg 272]

"And having got it back, there the thing ends," laughed Horace; but the man laughed also.

"Oh, yes, you got it back; but not before I had photographed it! I have the negative here, a beautiful negative that will enlarge."

Elgert regarded him in silent fury.

"Well," he said, altering his tone, "what do you want for it? I suppose you are trying to make money?"

"My book—the one you stole. If it is just as it was when I had it, you shall have this; if it is torn or damaged, then I take this to the police."

"You are smarter than I thought," answered Elgert blandly; but oh, in his heart, how he determined that in some way he would make this man suffer! "Well, here is the book. You can see it is not harmed."

The man snatched the book which the boy took from his pocket, and ran to the door to get all the light he could, as he eagerly glanced inside.

"It is all right," he said. "Here is the negative." And he handed it to Elgert. "And now you go!"—this to the book. "You have caused me trouble enough. Go where no one can get at you!" And, in a fit of rage, he threw it into the river; and then he turned back to the boy.

"Get it again, if you can!" he laughed. "My word is as good as yours, now; and while you have the negative, you have not got the prints I took from[Pg 273] it. You are in my power now, Mr. Horace, and you had best be civil, or there will be trouble." And with that he turned and hurried off, leaving Horace Elgert alone, white with passion and fear.

"I need not fear him," he muttered. "It only means paying enough, and I shall get them. This can go, the water will soon wash the film off."

He skimmed the negative away, but it slipped from his fingers and fell into shallow water. He did not trouble; in less than an hour it would be washed clean away. Then Horace Elgert produced a book from his pocket, and this he, having tied a stone to it, also threw into the river; then, finally, he took that dreadful banknote from his pocket, and, striking a match, he set it alight and watched it burn to ashes. Then, hands in pockets, he sauntered off, and Tinkle and Green crept from their refuge.

"We must get back," said Green. "We shall be late."

"Get back be bothered!" rejoined Tinkle eagerly. "We are going to fish again. Be careful. Here, hold open your book—I see one in your pocket!"

Tinkle carefully picked up all the grey, fluffy ash of that burnt banknote, and placed it between the leaves.

"My father says that banknotes have a queer ash, and we may want to show this. Now let us see if we can get those things out of the river. That negative seemed to fall close in."

"I see it!" cried Green, pointing into the water.

[Pg 274]

"Look, there it is, out on that patch of white sand—see, there!"

A clever stroke or two with the landing-net, and then the little square of glass was in their hands. It was scratched somewhat, but unbroken. Tinkle laid it on the grass carefully.

"That is one," he said. "Now let us try for the others."

He weighted his line heavily, and started. He fished and fished, and at last he was rewarded—up came the pocket-book; and soon after, up came another book with a stone tied to it.

"It is a crib," pronounced Tinkle. "Come on, Green; we are in an awful mess, and we are in for a caning, I suppose; but we have caught our fish, and I don't care a bit."

The two boys raced back to the school, and they were accosted in the playground by Warren.

"Hallo, you two kids! Where have you been, and how did you get into that state?" the monitor asked. "You are over an hour late. Have you seen anything of Rexworth?"

"No, Warren. Isn't he in? We wanted him. Oh, we have got something to tell him!"

"You will have something to tell the doctor," answered Warren grimly. "He is bound to want to know what you have been up to."

"Don't go, Warren. Do listen to us. It concerns Rexworth and Charlton. We know about Elgert."

[Pg 275]

"What is that?" cried Warren, turning. "What do you mean?" And the boys, with many "you sees" and "you knows," told their story, and exhibited their treasures.

"Here, you come with me!" said Warren. "You are a pair of little bricks. Come with me!"

"Where to, Warren?" they asked, as he hurried on—not in the direction of their room, but towards the Head's house. "Where are we going?"

"To the Head himself. He must deal with this. Don't you be frightened. I don't think he will punish you for being late, after he knows what kept you. Come on and speak up like men!"

"Why, Warren!" exclaimed Dr. Beverly, in mild surprise, when the monitor of the Fourth entered his presence, accompanied by the two little draggled objects. "What is this? Have these boys been in the river? Take them to the housekeeper at once. They are soaking wet!"

"They won't hurt for a minute or two more. They have something to tell you, sir—something I thought that you ought to hear before any one else."

"Indeed!" said the Head. "And what is it? Speak quickly, and let them go; they will catch bad colds."

So Warren told the story for them, and placed their catch before the Head. And Dr. Beverly, great man as he was, shook these two happy juniors by the hand, and called them clever boys, and dismissed them to[Pg 276] revel in special tea in the matron's room after he had strictly enjoined both them and the monitor not to say a word of this, even to Charlton or Ralph Rexworth.

But Ralph had not come home, and it was getting late now. He had been long enough to get to Crab Tree Hill and back twice over. What could have happened to Ralph Rexworth?


[Pg 277]

CHAPTER XXX WHAT DETAINED RALPH REXWORTH

Ralph Rexworth stood in the old ruin, looking very perplexed. He could not find Mr. Charlton anywhere. He had whistled, and called, and searched, but not a trace of the hiding man could he discover.

He felt anxious. What could it mean? Had the hiding-place been discovered, and his chum's unfortunate parent again been taken prisoner? Unless that was the case, he was at a loss to account for the man's absence.

"It is no use waiting any longer," he mused, after he had searched the ruin through for the third time. "He has not hurt himself and fallen anywhere in here. He must have been alarmed, and have fled, unless he is taken. Poor old Fred will be horribly worried when I go back and tell him; but there is nothing else for me to do, and I shall be late back, as it is."

He sighed. His friend's anxiety for his parent would be something like what he felt for his missing father. It made Ralph think of that again, and of the strange cry which he had heard in that place.[Pg 278] He could not understand that. As he stood there he felt an uncontrollable impulse to penetrate to that lonely house again, to risk meeting the dogs, and to try the effects of his call once more.

"I am bound to be late, anyhow," he muttered, "so here goes." And he set off. Perhaps he might meet Charlton's father in the wood.

But—he stopped suddenly—what did this mean? There, on the soft ground, were those tracks once more! Lord Elgert's lame mare had been here! Did that mean that Lord Elgert himself had been; or had he lent his trap to the police again, and had they managed to run their victim down?

The tracks did not touch the ruin; they began some way from it, and swept round the spinny towards that lonely house. For Ralph to follow them was but child's play. He had hardly to slacken his pace a bit, so plainly the marks were to be seen on the soft, little-trodden earth. They guided him to the spinny—to a little path cut through it, of which he had been ignorant before—right up to the house itself; and there, standing before the open door, was Lord Elgert's trap and the lame mare. It was not to the ruin, but to that mysterious house that the trap had been driven. But why? Ah, how Ralph asked himself that question, and how impossible it was to find an answer to it!

Lord Elgert seemed to have hated his father. Lord Elgert was here, and he had heard his father's signal[Pg 279] in this place. Ralph, crouching behind the trees, uttered his old call, and then listened with almost breathless attention.

Yes. There—there, muffled but indistinct, the answer came! It came from the house. His father was there, and his father was in Lord Elgert's power!

Ralph's first impulse was to dash forward; but he paused. He must be cautious here. He remained hiding, waiting to see if any one had noticed his call, and his prudence was rewarded by seeing Lord Elgert himself come to the door, accompanied by the brutal-looking man whom he had seen before, and glance anxiously round.

Then the two seemed to consult; and presently the man went away, to return with a couple of great tawny hounds, both of which he let loose. Ralph's heart stood still. What could he do against those fierce brutes? The man and Lord Elgert went in, and the dogs roamed round. They had not struck his scent yet; but presently they would do so, and then it would be a hard business for him.

Ralph was preparing to cautiously creep away, when he heard a shout from the house—a cry for help, and in his father's voice! That put all else out of his head, and he dashed like a deer across the grass and into the open door of that house. His father was there; his father was crying for help, and he would stand by his side!

The dogs saw, and raised a deep-voiced bay. He[Pg 280] slammed the door and shut them out, then darted along in the direction of the sounds he had heard.

They came from a room on the first floor and he rushed in, and there—there his father struggled in the grasp of Lord Elgert and his fierce companion. Mr. Rexworth had evidently been kept a captive by being bound to the wall by a stout chain; and one of his arms was swathed in dirty bandages, as though he was hurt.

Whether his captors wished to bind him still more securely, or whether it was that they sought to convey him somewhere else, Ralph did not know. He saw his father with his back to the wall, brandishing a stool in one hand. He saw the man rush in, dodge the blow, and strike his father down; and then, with a cry of rage, he sprang forward, seizing a heavy stick that lay on the table, and struck wildly at the aggressor. Alas! what could one stripling like he do against two such men? They both turned, and Ralph received a heavy blow upon the temple; and then all was darkness, and he knew nothing more.

But when he opened his eyes, where was he? What had happened? Why could he not move?

He strove to rise. He felt giddy and sick, and his head ached and throbbed dreadfully. Why he was bound—bound hand and foot, and he was stretched upon the floor!

He rolled on his side. His father lay back against[Pg 281] the wall, but his chain was gone. He was only secured with a rope, in the same manner that Ralph was fastened. But his eyes were closed, and his face was very white. A dreadful fear filled the lad's mind—that he had come too late, that his father was really dead now.

For a few minutes he lay still, quietly trying the strength of his bonds. He knew that knots hastily tied could frequently be worked loose; but, alas, it was a vain hope in his case! Those who had secured him had done their work well.

And then suddenly he became aware of a hot, choky feeling in the air, and a sound of crackling. He struggled into a sitting posture, and—oh, horrible, horrible!—the room was full of smoke. The place was on fire, and he and his dear father were there, helpless and bound, left to perish in the flames!

What wonder that terror claimed him for the moment? Who would not flinch then in such an awful position?

"Father! Father!" he cried; but the prostrate man returned no answer. He lay silent, motionless. Ralph rolled over and over to his side. Alas, what good would that do? He managed to struggle to his feet by supporting himself in an angle of the room, and he gazed around. The smoke was growing worse—he could hardly breathe when he stood up—and hot puffs of air were forcing themselves through the flooring and whirling along the passage and through[Pg 282] the door of the room—the door which was cracking and glowing red now, ready to burst into flame.

Oh, was there no help, no succour? If only his faithful Warren or dear old Charlton knew of his peril, how they would come to his aid! Alas, they were far away, and they did not know.

But what was that? A sound outside! A shout, and the dogs barking and raging more than ever, in a perfect fury of anger. Then a smashing of glass. Had the fire broken the windows? No. A form rising above the sill, a man who staggered as the hot smoke met him, and who bent down on all fours to creep across the room—a man who cried aloud—

"Ralph Rexworth, are you here? Are you here?"

It was Mr. Charlton; it was Mr. Charlton come to his aid. Oh, what a swift rush of thanksgiving filled Ralph's heart then!

"Here, here!" he answered. "I am tied up; I cannot move. And father is here, too; he is senseless." And Mr. Charlton was by his side in a few moments.

"Thank God you are unharmed," he said, as he drew his knife across the ropes that held Ralph prisoner. "I saw you enter, and I feared mischief; and when those two came out and drove off, I knew not what to think. There are two brutes of dogs there, and they prevented my trying to get in. Then I saw the smoke and flame, and I knew what they had done. I grew desperate, and made a dash for it.[Pg 283] The dogs almost got me, but I managed to get into a tree that grew close to the house; and I passed along one branch to the top of the verandah, and so worked my way round. It was risky, for if I had slipped those two brutes would have been on me in a moment."

Mr. Charlton was not idle while he was talking. He had set Ralph free, and had cut the ropes that held Mr. Rexworth, who now opened his eyes and stared around in bewilderment.

"Oh father, father!" cried Ralph. "Thank God that you are alive! Try and rouse yourself, father dear. We are in great danger. The house is on fire, and if we do not get away quickly we must all perish."

"Ralph, what is it! How did you come?" the father asked vacantly. And Mr. Charlton shook him.

"Never mind that now, friend!" he cried. "The fire is upon us. Ah, see there!"—as the door fell with a crash and a burst of flame swept in upon them. "We have not a moment to lose. Out you go, Ralph, and hold on like a limpet! Be ready to aid your father, that is all"—as Ralph scrambled through the window and managed to find footing on a narrow ledge that ran round the house. "Now, Mr. Rexworth, prove yourself a man. If you fall, the dogs won't give you a chance. Now, sir, for Heaven's sake, try!"

"I will manage it all right, my good friend," answered Mr. Rexworth. The flame and smoke had[Pg 284] recalled him to the immediate peril. "Just a hand through, that is all." And, summoning all his reserve of strength and resolution, he managed to get from the window, aided by Mr. Charlton in the room, and somewhat supported by Ralph behind him.

Cautiously holding on with grim energy, the three managed to creep back to that point from which the rescuer had first started—the top of the verandah. But this was a position of great peril now; for the flames were breaking through it, and darting from the windows above it, and the melted lead of roof and gutter hissed and spluttered. It seemed death to go on; it was death to go back. And the two hounds below had followed them round, and now stood barking up at them.

"We must risk it," panted Mr. Charlton. "Let me go first, and show you how to do it. If you step on the wall you can reach the branch of the tree in three strides. It seems very dreadful, but the peril is more apparent than real. Look!"

He boldly jumped to the brickwork around which the fire darted. He took three quick firm steps, and was able to swing himself into the limb of the tree, safe from the fire's reach.

Mr. Rexworth followed by the same dangerous path. "Now, Ralph!" he cried. But almost as the words came the whole of the verandah, and the brickwork supporting it, fell in; and there Ralph was left clinging to that narrow protection of the wall.

[Pg 285]

And the wall itself was cracking with the heat. He could not maintain his position for long. At any moment it might fall and cover him in its heated ruins.

Mr. Rexworth groaned in horror; Mr. Charlton looked on in dismay; and Ralph clung there, with death behind, and death above, and death—the worst death of all, red-eyed and lolling-tongued death—beneath awaiting him!


[Pg 286]

CHAPTER XXXI THE TABLES ARE TURNED

"Ralph! Oh, my son!" cried Mr. Rexworth, as he saw the peril in which the brave lad stood. And the boy turned and looked at his father.

"I cannot hold on here much longer, father," he said. "I shall have to drop, and take my chance with the dogs."

"Wait—wait a moment, Ralph!" answered the agonized man. "Let me get down and attract their attention, and then you will have a chance."

"Don't, don't father," implored Ralph. "What chance will you have with them with your arm hurt? I may manage it."

"I will do it," volunteered Mr. Charlton; "I am uninjured. You stay here, sir."

"Don't either of you do it!" cried Ralph, shifting his position a little so as to avoid the smoke if he could. "I am going to try and creep back a bit. I may find a better place."

"It is useless, Ralph," was his father's answer. "The wall is cracking behind you. I can see the smoke coming through. Oh, if we only had a rope!"

[Pg 287]

"A rope!" cried Mr. Charlton. "If a rope can aid in such an extremity, I can supply that; for I have kept a long one on my person in case I might be in need of it to escape from my own enemies."

As he spoke he threw off his coat and waistcoat, and there, wound round his body, was a long but fine line, one quite long enough to serve the purpose of reaching to where Ralph clung, though he could not see of what avail it would be.

But Mr. Rexworth saw. And, shouting to Ralph to keep up his courage and to look out, he threw one end of the rope—not to the boy—but up over another branch of the tree that was some height above them. Then he caught this end as it fell, and gave the other to Mr. Charlton, bidding him give one turn round the trunk and hold on with all his might. The other end he whirled round his head, and, with practised aim, he sent it to Ralph, who gripped at it with one hand, having to risk falling to earth as he did so.

With practised aim, he sent the rope to Ralph

"With practised aim, he sent the rope to Ralph, who gripped it
with one hand.
" p. 287

But, having got it, the rest was easy. He was able to swing across that fiery gulf which separated him from safety, and the next moment was safely beside his father, while the dogs ran to the tree and leaped against its trunk in vain rage. And almost at that moment the wall to which he had been clinging collapsed and fell in fiery ruin. A few moments sooner, and it would have carried the brave boy with it to his death.

Safe so far, but still held prisoners by those dogs;[Pg 288] and still with the flame and smoke blowing upon them. If the walls fell in their direction death might claim them after all.

"If we only had some weapon to beat these brutes off with," said Mr. Charlton, as he looked down. But Mr. Rexworth replied—

"We had better remain here. The fire is sure to be seen, and help will arrive soon."

Help! Yes, help for Ralph and his father. But what would that help mean to poor Mr. Charlton—what but being taken prisoner again? He sighed, but said nothing. He had done his best to help the boy who had helped him, and if that must be the price paid he would pay it.

But Ralph had little idea of remaining perched in a tree. He saw that there was a weapon, and one which, in skilful hands, would prove very effective—one which he excelled in the use of.

The rope was coiled in his hands, and a running noose was formed at one end. He crawled far out on the branch, and got a firm hold with his legs; then he gave his rope a whirl, and sent it flying downwards. And soon one of those great dogs was jerked into mid-air, and when it touched earth again it was dead—its neck was broken.

They hauled it up and loosened the noose, letting the body fall heavily to the earth. And ere long the second animal had shared its fate, and there was nothing to hinder them from descending.

[Pg 289]

Nothing! No, that was not quite right. There was a desperate man, who had remained hidden, to see the result of his wicked work—a man whose face was dark with wrath, and whose heart was maddened with fear. For if these escaped unscathed, it meant the ruin of everything for him.

Mr. Charlton and Ralph had helped Mr. Rexworth to the ground, and either from weakness, or from the reaction of feeling, Mr. Rexworth staggered and sunk half swooning at the foot of the tree; while the other two bent over him anxiously.

That was the chance. Lord Elgert and his brutal follower suddenly dashed from the shelter of the trees and rushed upon them. The man was armed with a rugged stick, and Lord Elgert had a heavily-loaded whip. It seemed as if the others were at their mercy; but Ralph's quick ear caught the sound of their approach, and with a cry of warning he started up. The others were almost upon them, and they were unarmed. The lad glanced around; at his feet one of the dead dogs lay; he seized it, he put out all his strength, and sent the heavy body direct at the pair, who, quite unprepared for such an unexpected assault, received it full in their faces.

The man fell heavily, Lord Elgert turned and fled. And Ralph, with an eager cry, darted after him, rope in hand. The man who had treated his father thus should not escape him now.

But now through the growth there came the crashing[Pg 290] of heavy bodies, and loud shouts were raised. The fire had attracted attention, and people were rushing from Crab Tree village to see what was the cause.

And not only villagers, but policemen—policemen who had patiently waited and watched, feeling sure that the man they wanted was still hiding in the locality. It was a constable who grabbed hold of Ralph's arm, and, pulling him up with a sudden jerk, demanded what he was doing and what had occasioned the fire.

Ralph struggled. It was maddening to think that he was stopped while Lord Elgert was escaping. He did not stop to think that escape was next to impossible. He was accustomed to the ways of the wild plains, and there, if a man once got away, it was almost certain that no one would catch him again.

"It was Lord Elgert who did it, and he is running away!" he cried. "My father is there. You know how he was missing, and we thought he had been murdered. Lord Elgert had him. He is here."

"Whatever are you talking about, young man?" the constable demanded, perplexed at such a dramatic statement. But the sergeant, who had come up with a horse-constable interposed—

"Don't stand there talking, man, see what is amiss!" The constable had let go of Ralph, and the mounted man had jumped from his horse. Ralph caught sight of a trap being driven at full speed over the moor. He had no need to ask who was in that. Lord Elgert[Pg 291] was making good his escape. With a shout of anger and defiance, Ralph had sprung into the empty saddle and was off before a single man there could get over his surprise and hinder him.

"There he goes, there he goes!" he shouted, pointing after the trap. "That is Lord Elgert, but I will ride him down!" And away he went, leaving the men open-mouthed.

They found the two dead dogs, they found Mr. Rexworth, and alas! they found poor, patient Mr. Charlton. He might have attempted to escape, but he would not leave the injured man. Besides, it was no use now; there was nowhere else to hide, and he must be taken sooner or later.

And after the galloping mare went Ralph, riding hard. It was like the old life once more—this wild gallop. He had ridden the half-wild broncho steeds of Texas, and he had no difficulty with this well-trained horse.

On he went; on, on, near and nearer to the flying man in front. He saw Lord Elgert look back at him. A man against a boy! Surely the man need have no fear in such a contest! And yet Lord Elgert did fear. He had feared this boy from the very first time he had seen him in Stow Wood. He had feared him from the moment Ralph had cut that bullet from the tree, and from the time when he had heard him declare that he would never rest until he had solved the mystery of his father's disappearance. That mystery[Pg 292] was solved, all his wicked devices were brought to naught, and now he was fleeing for life and for liberty, being hunted just as he had made the police hunt Mr. Charlton. The tables were being turned indeed!

Nearer and nearer Ralph drew, and fiercer and more cruelly did the man lash the sides of his faithful little mare. Ralph stood up in his stirrups, and Lord Elgert looked at him over his shoulder. The boy had the rope in his hands. Ah, the very first thing he did when he had come to the place was to rope his black bull! Now he was going to serve him in the same way—to serve him as he had served the two dogs!

Lord Elgert saw the arm of the boy sweep round his head, and he ducked.

But Ralph had not aimed at him, he had a better plan than that. The noose settled over the little mare. Ralph pulled up, and braced himself for the shock which he knew would follow—a shock which nearly pulled him from his saddle. The mare went down, the trap was shattered, and Lord Elgert, totally unprepared—not even looking where he was going—was sent flying through the air to fall heavily, striking his temple against a rugged stump.

Ralph was at the spot in a moment. The man was stunned and at his mercy. The rope had done its duty as a lasso, and was now used to bind Lord Elgert. Ralph felt no remorse or compunction about that. He must take this man to his father, and his father must declare what should next be done.

[Pg 293]

"He isn't much hurt," he muttered; "nor are you, you poor thing," he added, turning to the plunging mare. "There you are"—as he cut her free from the ruin of the trap. "Now I reckon that you can find your own way home, and, in the meantime, I will wait here."

He placed his hands to his mouth, and gave his old wild call, and from the distance it was answered by his father. They would soon be here now. Ralph tethered the horse, and seated himself on the grass. Lord Elgert opened his eyes, and looked at him with an expression of the deepest hate; but Ralph little heeded that. His father was safe, and that was all he thought of then. Ralph Rexworth felt happier at that moment than he had done for many a day, and, paying no attention to his fallen foe, save to take care that he did not get free, he waited until the police, people, and Mr. Rexworth arrived upon the scene. Yes, the tables were turned now; and had he but known it, they were turned at school also.


[Pg 294]

CHAPTER XXXII FLOGGED AND EXPELLED

"The whole school to assemble in the hall!"

The order was received in every class-room, and masters and boys looked surprised. It was generally known that Ralph Rexworth had been absent all night, and that a message had been sent over to Mr. St. Clive's asking whether the boy had been detained there. It was also known that Charlton was in disgrace—that he had been accused of stealing Ralph's examination papers, for the purpose of correcting them from a crib.

The idea was that it must be on one of these accounts that the school was summoned—either Ralph had got into trouble, or Charlton was to be punished.

But there was no time for speculation. Into the hall the boys trooped, class by class—juniors, middle division, and seniors—their masters following, and their monitors leading the way; and there upon the doctor's desk an ominous object was to be seen—the school birch, rarely taken from its resting-place in the cupboard, rarely used, and, if the truth must be told, rarely needing to be used. Woe betide the unlucky boy who[Pg 295] so far disgraced the honour of Marlthorpe as to render its presence needful, for what he got from the Head was as nothing to what he would receive from the angry scholars later on.

"Silence!"

Kesterway's voice rang out as Dr. Beverly entered and an expectant hush fell upon the whole school.

"Frederick Charlton, stand out!"

Charlton obeyed. Boys who knew how nervous he was were surprised to see him quite calm now. He moved forward towards the Head's desk and saluted; and then the Headmaster of Marlthorpe spoke.

"Charlton, you were found in my class-room the other night, with Rexworth's examination papers in your hand. Tell the school your reason for being there!"

The Head spoke shortly, but kindly, as if inviting the boy to be at ease; and Charlton told his story, and explained how he had seen Dobson and Elgert break open the desk.

"The desk was unlocked. There was no need to break it open," the Head said; and then he turned to the other two boys, and asked them what they had to say.

What they had to say indeed! Such indignant denials, and such plain statements that it was all up between Rexworth and Charlton.

"Rexworth is detained, and cannot be here yet," said the Head quietly. "But we can proceed with this inquiry in his absence. Elgert and Dobson, stand out!"

[Pg 296]

And the two obeyed, ill at ease, wondering what was coming next, and casting suspicious looks at each other, as if each thought the other had turned informer.

"Horace Elgert, did you ever see this before?" asked the Head.

And Elgert turned white, for the doctor held out that wretched crib which he had thrown into the river.

"No, sir," he answered, averting his eyes.

And the same answer was asked of Dobson, who gave the same answer.

"James Green! Henry Tinkle!" cried Kesterway.

And the two small chums jumped up eagerly.

"Explain how you became possessed of this crib," said the Head.

Green spoke first, and Tinkle backed him up, and then a low angry hiss rang through the school, and Horace Elgert turned a pair of anxious, frightened eyes towards his companions.

"Do you deny this story, Elgert?" asked the Head sternly.

And the boy was silent. If those two juniors had picked up his book, had they picked up anything else?

"There was a banknote missing some time ago," the Head went on. "You may remember that a note was found in Rexworth's pocket-book, and I showed how he had been the victim of a plot. The banknote that was stolen was never discovered; but I now know that it was changed by you, Dobson, at a[Pg 297] low cake shop in the town, and that afterwards it was bought back by you and Elgert from that man for far more than it was worth. That note, Elgert, you destroyed yesterday by burning it, and here are the ashes." And the Head produced the filmy ash still lying in Tom Brown's Schooldays. "But that note had been photographed, and you purchased the negative by giving to the person who held it a pocket-book which you had previously taken from him. The negative you also threw into the river, and the person you were with threw in the book which you had just restored to him. Do you deny these statements?"

Still Elgert did not answer. He felt hot and cold by turns. He did not know where to turn his eyes. It was no use denying in the face of such proof.

"You cannot answer!" the Head went on. "You, Dobson, what do you know of this?"

"Oh—oh—oh!" yelled Dobson, clasping his hands, and falling upon his knees. "Oh, forgive me, sir! Oh, I will own up, sir! It was all Elgert's fault. He made me do it, sir! I never wanted to do it, sir! It is all true, every bit of it, sir! Oh——"

"Silence!" cried the Head, in ill-disguised contempt. "No one can force another to do evil. You two boys have conspired together to injure the good name of a companion, whose only offence has been that he has tried to act a noble manly part amidst very difficult and adverse circumstances. You would have branded him a thief; and to do it you did not hesitate to [Pg 298]become thieves yourselves. You have told the vilest lies—and you, Elgert, have done worse. It will be for other authorities to deal with this; but I will mention it here. You have allowed one of these boys—Charlton I mean—to suffer much torture because of his father's unhappy position. You knew that his father was innocent, and you held the proof of that, and——"

Then the Head stopped, for Charlton had turned very white. He had not known of the business of the pocket-book.

"Oh, sir," he said, "my father innocent! And he knew it, and—and——"

He put his hand to his head, and Kesterway sprang forward and caught him, or he would have fallen, for he fainted away; and the Head, with tears in his eyes, murmured—

"Poor boy! Poor boy! Take him to the matron."

They carried him out, and not one of those who had jeered at him but now felt sorry and ashamed, and full of anger against the two culprits, to whom the Head now turned again.

"It is possible that others outside our school may have something to say to you about this business," he said. "That has nothing to do with me. I have only to deal with your offence as it touches the honour of the school and for that offence only the severest punishment can be inflicted——"

Whereat Dobson uttered a howl, and Elgert clenched[Pg 299] his hands and looked desperate. The severest punishment! That was why the birch was there.

"You will both be publicly flogged," continued the Head, "and then you will be expelled!"

And at this a shout of approval went up. Marlthorpe was going to be avenged for the slight put upon its honour.

"Oh, mercy—mercy!" cried Dobson. "Oh, don't flog me, sir! I won't do it any more, and it was all Elgert's fault."

Elgert looked at him in scorn. If he must be flogged, he would crave no mercy. He would show them that he did not care. But flogged! A gasp went round as the school porter and the man who kept the lodge came in. It was useless to resist, though Dobson kicked and struggled, and shouted in his anger and fear. The Head laid aside his gown, and took the rod; and then the sound of the hissing cuts came. Dobson was the first victim, and with the strokes came the yells—awful yells, for the Head did not spare him in the least, and Dobson plainly found himself in a very uncomfortable position.

He was released at last, and then Elgert—the Honourable Horace Elgert—took his place. He bit his lips until the blood came, but he would not cry out. But oh, how he hated Ralph Rexworth then! If he could have hurt him—if he could have killed him, he would not have cared what they did to him afterwards.

[Pg 300]

It was over at last. And he stood breathless, smarting, a mist before his eyes, until he caught sight of Tinkle's fat face; and he thought that Tinkle was grinning.

Then, rage overcoming him, not thinking what he was doing, he rushed at the little fellow, and, had not Warren been near to prevent it, he would have knocked him down.

And then, Head or no Head, Marlthorpe lost its calmness, and the boys sprang up, and surged forward at the two offenders—angry boys, with menacing eyes. Elgert's courage failed him then. He turned and ran, and Dobson went after him. In vain masters shouted, and the Head rang his bell. In vain Kesterway rushed after them. Not another monitor paid any attention. Out into the playground they streamed, and around it they chased the two boys.

Around they went. They drove them to the small pond, and threw them in. They dragged them out, and hustled them, dripping and breathless, to the gates. The Head had no need to expel the pair.

As Elgert and Dobson were thrown out a little party approached the gates; and from its number, one boy darted forward to throw himself between the two miserable victims and their pursuers, and that boy was Ralph Rexworth himself.

"Here, I say, drop that! It is not fair!" giving Warren a shove backwards. "It isn't the right thing! Drop it, you fellows! And look out, here comes the Head!"

[Pg 301]

Yes, the Head with his cane, and the masters with their canes, coming to insist upon order, and to show Marlthorpe that it could not be permitted to do just as it chose even with boys like Dobson and Elgert. It certainly looked as though some one was going to get caned just then.

But Warren uttered a whoop.

"Hallo, Ralph! Fellows, here is Rexworth turned up. Just too late to see the fun! You ought to have heard Dobby yell, my boy! It was lovely!"

"Here is Rexworth!" echoed the boys.

They pounced upon him. They grabbed arm or leg, whichever they could get hold of, and dragged him somehow upon their shoulders, and marched back triumphantly; while the Head and the masters did not know what to do.

And behind Ralph came Mr. Rexworth, and Mr. St. Clive and Irene—a very radiant Irene—who whispered to Tom Warren that the gentleman with the injured arm was Ralph's father, and that he was Lord Rexworth, because he was the son of the old Lord Stephen, and his right name was Rexworth Stephen, and Ralph would be the Honourable Ralph Rexworth Stephen. She told it very excitedly, and Tom Warren whistled, and then yelled—

"Three cheers for Ralph's father—Lord Rexworth Stephen! And three more cheers for the Honourable Ralph Rexworth Stephen! Come on, you fellows, out with it!"

[Pg 302]

What shouting and cheering there was then! And how, while Mr. Rexworth, as we will still call him, was talking to the Doctor, Ralph got nearly pulled to pieces. Why, they even forgot the birching in the excitement of Ralph's return. They had to hear his story, and how he had found his father; and then Warren explained how they had found out that Mr. Charlton was innocent.

That was good news for Ralph—the best news that could possibly be—and escaping with Warren and Irene, he hurried across to the matron's house, and begged that he might see his chum.

Charlton was all right, only he was so excited, and just a little inclined to cry. And he wanted to know where his father was; and when Ralph explained how Mr. Charlton had given himself up, he exclaimed—

"Oh, Ralph, let us go and explain! Let us go now!"

"Come and tell my father. He will understand," said Ralph; but there was little need for telling.

Already Mr. St. Clive had been informed, and he had hurried off at once. It would not be long before Mr. Charlton was a free man.

And then Mr. Rexworth, seeing that there would be much to talk about, went back with Ralph and Irene and Charlton to Mr. St. Clive's house, there to tell his story, and explain how it was that he had become the prisoner of the man who had treated him so very cruelly.


[Pg 303]

CHAPTER XXXIII CONCLUSION

Seated in the drawing-room at Mr. St. Clive's house, an interested party gathered around Mr. Rexworth to hear his story. And not only an interested party, but a happy one, for the trouble was gone, and the sun was shining for all there. It was no wonder that, even before stories were told, Mr. Rexworth should have said, "Let us all kneel and thank our Heavenly Father for His great mercy and goodness," nor that every heart should have been filled with devout gratitude as, with bent heads, they listened to the words of thanksgiving, for, like the psalmist of old, they could say, "God hath done great things for us, whereof we are glad."

And so they sat, while Mr. Rexworth told his story, a story that had its moral, too, for it revealed how disobedience to a father might bring sore punishment afterwards.

For, as we now know, Mr. Rexworth was the son of old Lord Stephen, and in his early days he had been wild and headstrong, and had frequently disobeyed his father's commands. And in that he had been aided[Pg 304] by his cousin Elgert. For Elgert envied the young heir his position, and hoped to make a bad quarrel between the father and son.

And he was successful. The quarrel came, and Mr. Rexworth had run away from home, dropping his name of Stephen, and going away to the wild plains of Texas, to indulge in the roving life for which he longed. But he soon found that it was not all pleasure—that hardship and disappointment followed, and that whether in England or away in wild lands, the best thing for a man was to be a follower of the Lord Jesus Christ.

But he did not write to his father, for he believed that he would never be forgiven. And he met his wife, and married, and Ralph was born; and then he was content, and put all thoughts of the old home away, striving to bring his son up as a true Christian, even amidst their wild surroundings.

But his wife, when she was dying, spoke seriously to her husband, for she knew the truth, and she said that their boy ought to come to his own; and so, because she wished it, for the first time Mr. Rexworth wrote home to his father.

But Lord Stephen was dead, and his nephew reigned in his place; and Lord Elgert had sent a cold letter back, saying that he did not wish to have anything to do with a man who had broken a good father's heart, and that everything had been left to him.

But with that letter there came another, one written[Pg 305] by a faithful old servant, enclosing a will. Lord Stephen had made that will just before he died, and had entrusted it to his old retainer; so that if ever his son, whom he had forgiven, should come back, he should have his own again.

Then Mr. Rexworth had started for England with Ralph, but he had not told his son anything of the business which took him there; and when at last they had reached Stow Ormond he had left the boy at the Horse and Wheel with old Simon, and had started off for Castle Court.

And an angry, disappointed man was Lord Elgert when he found that his cousin was to take from him everything which he had schemed to gain.

"He had nothing to say," said Mr. Rexworth, "but he looked very strange as I left—as if he would have liked to kill me. I had told him that no one knew who I really was, and that my own son was ignorant of the truth. It was a foolish thing to have done, for it meant that if I were out of the way, no one would know anything about the business which had brought me home.

"It was dark and cheerless, and I was anxious to get back to you, Ralph, so I took the short cut through Stow Wood past the black mere; and just as I reached the pond I was startled by some one firing at me from behind a tree. The first shot missed, but the second struck my arm and broke the bone. It has never been properly set, and has caused me much pain.

[Pg 306]

"I must have fainted, for when I recovered my senses I was a prisoner in a strange place—the very house in which you found me. My cousin's first intention had been to kill me; but when he found that he had failed, his courage wavered, and he had me taken to that place and put that man to guard me. He promised to set me free if I would give him the will, but that I would not do. I had taken the precaution to leave that in London with a lawyer I had known in my younger days, and there it is now.

"Lord Elgert's next offer was to set me free if I would sign away half the property to him; but that I also refused to do. The man used to urge him to kill me, but he seemed possessed with the fear that you, Ralph, would find it out if he did so.

"Then one day when I felt very depressed and ill and on the point of yielding, I heard your old call, and I answered it, and I knew that you had in some way got on my track. And Lord Elgert found that out also, for yesterday he came to take me away to another hiding-place, and I refused to go. We struggled, and again your call came, and that made him desperate. The rest of the story you know, my dear boy. And now you must tell me how you managed to get on my track."

So Ralph told his story, and then Mr. Charlton explained how he had, whilst hiding in the old ruin, become convinced that Lord Elgert held some one prisoner in that strange house, and on the very day[Pg 307] when Ralph had gone to take his chum's message, he had stolen out to watch. Mr. Charlton had seen Ralph go in, and had watched until both Lord Elgert and his man came out; then, perplexed and fearing foul play, he had stood there until the flames burst out, and that sight had dispelled his fear of the dogs and sent him to the rescue.

And then, when the police had arrived and had taken their prisoner again, Mr. St. Clive had come after him, not only with that diary, but with the man who had written it, and who confessed that he had committed the offence at the instigation of Lord Elgert, who had a spite against Mr. Charlton.

The innocent man was soon set free after that, and was able to rejoin his wife and his son openly and without any fear.

But Lord Elgert? Ah, that was the one thing that made Mr. Rexworth sad. He would have forgiven his cousin if he could, much as he had suffered at his hands, but the law would not allow that. Lord Elgert had been arrested, and the miserable Horace, together with his partner in disgrace, Dobson, had run away, and no one knew where they were.

But they were found, for Mr. Dobson set a detective on their track, and they were brought back, a pair of sorry-looking objects, dirty and ragged.

Mr. Dobson immediately apprenticed his son to a firm of shipowners, and sent him off to sea; and Mr. Rexworth, seeing that Horace had no friend, did the[Pg 308] same for his nephew, hoping that in his new life he would become a true and good man. Ralph would have been friendly to Horace at their parting, but the proud boy would not accept his friendship. Later on they heard that he had deserted his ship when it got to Australia, and after that they heard no more of him.

And so punishment overtook those who had done evil, and patience and truth reaped their reward at last, as they ever must in the end; and Ralph Rexworth was the Hon. Ralph Rexworth Stephen amongst his schoolfellows, for Mr. Rexworth thought that it would do him no harm to stay at the good doctor's school for a little while before he went to college.

Yes, he was "the Honourable." Indeed, he had been the Honourable all the time in the true sense of the word. He did not put on any airs—our Ralph could not have done that if he had tried—and he and Charlton and honest old Tom Warren were three of the staunchest chums that ever you met with—always together, and all three working for the good of the Fourth; so that when they were promoted to the Fifth, Mr. Delermain said that it was one of the greatest losses he had received, and that the best influences in his class had all been taken away together.

"But," some of my readers may ask, "did Ralph Rexworth win the Newlet?" I declare that I had nearly forgotten that. He did win it; and it will not be a bad idea to finish the story by having a peep at him when he received it.

[Pg 309]

Of course, that was on breaking-up day. What a lovely day that always is, especially when you know that you have a good report to take home, and some prizes to carry away with you.

The great hall at Marlthorpe was decorated with flags, and crowded with visitors; while on the platform, which had been constructed at one end, all the boys were gathered, class by class, and in the middle of them was the Head's chair, and the masters' seats, and a place for the speakers—and there was Mr. Rexworth among the speakers!

Well, there they all were; and the Head read his report; and they all clapped and shouted at the part where it said that for the second year in succession, Marlthorpe had the honour of carrying off the Newlet.

"Good old Rexworth!" shouted one boy. And the Head had to cry order sharply; whereat Jimmy Green nudged Tinkle and said "Shut up, you silly!" so it must have been Tinkle who shouted.

And then there were the speeches, and then the recitations; and Tinkle and Green were most wonderfully impressive in the quarrel between Brutus and Cassius—only just at the part where Brutus had to say "Take this dagger," he found he had no dagger with him; and Cassius said very rudely, and quite out loud, so that every one could hear it—

"You silly owl! I knew you would forget it; and I made such a lovely one, with silver foil for a blade."

"Imagine the dagger," whispered Mr. Rexworth,[Pg 310] his face red with laughter. And the dagger being imagined, the quarrel went on, and was made up in the most approved fashion.

And then, recitations over, there came a short pause—an impressive pause, during which small juniors pushed back their hair, and arranged collars and ties, and tried to look irreproachable, for prizes were coming—prizes!

They began with the juniors first. That is a wise plan, because, having got their share, they are more likely to sit still while the upper classes are being dealt with. The juniors! And every one laughed and clapped as the little fellows walked up to the Head, so stiff and awkward, and saluted for all the world like penny dolls worked by a string, and having clutched their prizes and bobbed to the audience, scuttled back to their seats to have their immediate neighbours bend enviously over that lovely book, and take hurried glances at the pictures.

The middle classes—that is the Upper Third and Lower Fourth—next. With them we have nothing to do, beyond saying that both Tinkle and Green were amongst the prize-winners and that almost before they had got back to their seats, they had challenged each other to mortal combat, because each said his book was better than the other's.

Then the seniors—the Upper Fourth—Warren and Charlton. And each of them got clapped and cheered, as they richly deserved to be.

[Pg 311]

And then Ralph Rexworth Stephen—how strange it sounded to hear him called that!—and such a burst of cheering and "Brave old Ralph!" and "Buck up, Ralph!" Well, the Head smiled; and for once Ralph looked quite foolish and nervous, and as if he would have liked to cry—it was so good to feel that all his schoolmates respected him!

But his prize given, the Head took up a little case by his side and took from it a gold medal with blue ribbon attached to it. The Newlet Gold Medal, won for Marlthorpe College by Ralph!

Talk of cheering then! It almost deafened one. And—those boys had been plotting together—Warren nodded and winked; and Charlton dived down and got something from beneath the form; and Irene suddenly appeared at Ralph's side with a tiny little laurel wreath, such as they crowned the heroes with in the olden days, when men worked for honour and not for gold; and while the people laughed and clapped she put it on Ralph's head, and at that moment Tom Warren and Charlton held up a great flag—Old England's Union Jack. They had thought all this out, mind you—the sly fellows they were; and Kesterway, the senior monitor of the school, shouted at the top of his voice—

"Now then, fellows! Three times three for the Honourable Ralph, while he stands under Honour's Flag!"

"Hurrah! Hurrah! Hurrah!"

[Pg 312]

"And a whole holiday to-morrow!"

"Hurrah! Hurrah! Hurrah!"

And when no one was looking—a kiss from Irene for her hero!

THE END





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