A NEW BOY.
“What’s your name?”
The whole class exploded.
“Now, then,” said Mr. Blake, looking up from his mark-book with a broad grin on his own face—”now, then, there’s nothing to laugh at.—Look here,” he added, turning to the new boy, “how d’you spell it?”
Instead of being at all annoyed or disconcerted at the mirth of his class-mates, the youngster seemed rather to enjoy the joke, and immediately rattled out a semi-humorous reply to the master’s question,—
“D I G, dig; G O R Y, gory—Diggory: T R E, tre; VAN, van; O C K, ock—Trevanock.” Then turning round, he smiled complacently at the occupants of the desks behind, as much as to say: “There, I’ve done all I can to amuse you, and I hope you’re satisfied.”
This incident, one of the little pleasantries occasionally permitted by a class master, and which, like a judge’s jokes in court, are always welcomed as a momentary relief from the depressing monotony of the serious business in hand—this little incident, I say, happened in the second class of a small preparatory school, situated on the outskirts of the market town of Chatford, and intended, according to the wording of a standing advertisement in the Denfordshire Chronicle, “for the sons of gentlemen.”
This establishment, which bore the somewhat suggestive name of “The Birches,” was owned and presided over by Mr. Welsby, who, with an unmarried daughter, Miss Eleanor, acting as housekeeper, and his nephew, Mr. Blake, performing the duties of assistant-master, undertook the preliminary education of about a dozen juveniles whose ages ranged between ten and fourteen.
On the previous evening, returning from the Christmas holidays, exactly twelve had mustered round the big table in the dining-room; no new faces had appeared, and Fred Acton, a big, strong youngster of fourteen and a half, was undisputed cock of the walk.
The school was divided into two classes. The first, containing the five elder scholars, went to sit at the feet of Mr. Welsby himself; while the second remained behind in what was known as the schoolroom, and received instruction from Mr. Blake.
It was while thus occupied on the first morning of the term that the lower division were surprised by the sudden appearance of a new boy. Miss Eleanor brought him into the room, and after a few moments’ whispered conversation with her cousin, smiled round the class and then withdrew. Every one worshipped Miss Eleanor; but that’s neither here nor there. A moment later Mr. Blake put the question which stands at the commencement of this chapter.
The new-comer’s answer made a favourable impression on the minds of his companions, and as soon as the morning’s work was over, they set about the task of mutual introduction in a far more friendly manner than was customary on these occasions. He was a wiry little chap, with bright eyes, for ever on the twinkle, and black hair pasted down upon his head, so as not to show the slightest vestige of curl, while the sharp, mischievous look on his face, and the quick, comical movements of his body, suggested something between a terrier and a monkey.
There was never very much going on in the way of regular sports or pastimes at The Birches; the smallness of numbers made it difficult to attempt proper games of cricket or football, and the boys were forced to content themselves with such substitutes as prisoner’s base, cross tag, etc., or in carrying out the projects of Fred Acton, who was constantly making suggestions for the employment of their time, and compelling everybody to conform to his wishes.
Mr. Welsby had been a widower for many years; he was a grave, scholarly man, who spent most of his spare time in his own library. Mr. Blake was supposed to take charge out of school hours; he was, as every one said, “a jolly fellow,” and the fact that his popularity extended far and wide among a large circle of friends and acquaintances, caused him to have a good many irons in the fire of one sort and another. During their hours of leisure, therefore, the Birchites were left pretty much to their own devices, or more often to those of Master Fred Acton, who liked, as has already been stated, to assume the office of bellwether to the little flock.
At the time when our story commences the ground was covered with snow; but Acton was equal to the occasion, and as soon as dinner was over, ordered all hands to come outside and make a slide.
The garden was on a steep slope, along the bottom of which ran the brick wall bounding one side of the playground; a straight, steep path lay between this and the house, and the youthful dux, with his usual disregard of life and limb, insisted on choosing this as the scene of operations.
“What!” he cried, in answer to a feeble protest on the part of Mugford, “make it on level ground? Of course not, when we’ve got this jolly hill to go down; not if I know it. We’ll open the door at the bottom, and go right on into the playground.”
“But how if any one goes a bit crooked, and runs up against the bricks?”
“Well, they’ll get pretty well smashed, or he will. You must go straight; that’s half the fun of the thing—it’ll make it all the more exciting. Come on and begin to tread down the snow.”
Without daring to show any outward signs of reluctance, but with feelings very much akin to those of men digging their own graves before being shot, the company set about putting this fearful project into execution. In about half an hour the slide was in good working order, and then the fun began.
Mugford, and one or two others whose prudence exceeded their valour, made a point of sitting down before they had gone many yards, preferring to take the fall in a milder form than it would have assumed at a later period in the journey. To the bolder spirits, however, every trip was like leading a forlorn hope, none expecting to return from the enterprise unscathed. The pace was terrific: on nearing the playground wall, all the events of a lifetime might have flashed across the memory as at the last gasp of a drowning man; and if fortunate enough to whiz through the doorway, and pull up “all standing” on the level stretch beyond, it was to draw a deep breath, and regard the successful performance of the feat as an escape from catastrophe which was nothing short of miraculous. The unevenness of the ground made it almost impossible to steer a straight course. A boy might be half-way down the path, when suddenly he felt himself beginning to turn round; an agonized look spread over his face; he made one frantic attempt to keep, as it were, “head to the sea;” there was an awful moment when house, garden, sky, and playground wall spun round and round; and then the little group of onlookers, their hearts hardened by their own sufferings, burst into a roar of laughter; while Acton slapped his leg, crying, “He’s over! What a stunning lark! Who’s next?”
At the end of an hour and a half most of the company were temporarily disabled, and even their chief had not escaped scot free.
“Now then for a regular spanker!” he cried, rushing at the slide. A “spanker” it certainly was: six yards from the commencement his legs flew from under him, he soared into the air like a bird, and did not touch the ground again until he sat down heavily within twenty paces of the bottom of the slope.
One might have supposed that this catastrophe would have somewhat damped the sufferer’s ardour; but instead of that he only seemed fired with a fresh desire to break his neck.
He hobbled up the hill, and pausing for a moment at the top to take breath, suddenly exclaimed, “Look here, I’m going down it on skates.”
Every one stood aghast at this rash determination; but Acton hurried off into the house, and soon returned with the skates. He sat down on a bank, and was proceeding to put them on, when he discovered that, by some oversight, he had brought out the wrong pair. “Bother it! these aren’t mine, they’re too short; whose are they?”
“I think they’re mine,” faltered Mugford.
“Well, put ’em on.”
“But I don’t want to.”
“But I say you must!”
“Oh! please, Acton, I really can’t, I—”
“Shut up! Look here, some one’s got to go down that slide on skates, so just put ’em on.”
It was at this moment that Diggory Trevanock stepped forward, and remarked in a casual manner that if Mugford didn’t wish to do it, but would lend him the skates, he himself would go down the slide.
His companions stared at him in astonishment, coupled with which was a feeling of regret: he was a nice little chap, and they had already begun to like him, and did not wish to see him dashed to pieces against the playground wall before their very eyes. Acton, however, had decreed that “some one had got to go down that slide on skates,” and it seemed only meet and right that if a victim had to be sacrificed it should be a new boy rather than an old stager.
“Bravo!” cried the dux; “here’s one chap at least who’s no funk.
Put ’em on sharp; the bell ‘ll ring in a minute.”
Several willing hands were stretched out to assist in arming Diggory for the enterprise, and in a few moments he was assisted to the top of the slide.
“All right,” he said; “let go!”
The spectators held their breath, hardly daring to watch what would happen. But fortune favours the brave. The adventurous juvenile rushed down the path, shot like an arrow through the doorway, and the next instant was seen ploughing up the snow in the playground, and eventually disappearing head first into the middle of a big drift.
His companions all rushed down in a body to haul him out of the snow. Acton smacked him on the back, and called him a trump; while Jack Vance presented him on the spot with a mince-pie, which had been slightly damaged in one of the donor’s many tumbles, but was, as he remarked, “just as good as new for eating.”
From that moment until the day he left there was never a more popular boy at The Birches than Diggory Trevanock.
“I say,” remarked Mugford, as they met a short time later in the cloak-room, “that was awfully good of you to go down the slide instead of me; what ever made you do it?”
“Well,” answered the other calmly, “I thought it would save me a lot of bother if I showed you fellows at once that I wasn’t a muff. I don’t mind telling you I was in rather a funk when it came to the start; but I’d said I’d do it, and of course I couldn’t draw back.”
The numerous stirring events which happened at The Birches during the next three terms, and which it will be my pleasing duty to chronicle in subsequent chapters, gave the boys plenty of opportunity of testing the character of their new companion, or, in plainer English, of finding out the stuff he was made of; and whatever his other faults may have been, this at least is certain, that no one ever found occasion to charge Diggory Trevanock with being either a muff or a coward.
One might have thought that the slide episode would have afforded excitement enough for a new boy’s first day at school; yet before it closed he was destined to be mixed up in an adventure of a still more thrilling character.
The Birches was an old house, and though its outward appearance was modern enough, the interior impressed even youthful minds with a feeling of reverence for its age. The heavy timbers, the queer shape of some of the bedrooms and attics, the narrow, crooked passages, and the little unexpected flights of stairs, were all things belonging to a bygone age, of which the pupils were secretly proud, and which caused them to remember the place, and think of it at the time, as being in some way different from an ordinary school.
“I say, Diggy,” exclaimed Jack Vance, addressing the new boy by the friendly abbreviation, which seemed by mutual consent to have been bestowed upon him in recognition of his daring exploit—”I say, Diggy, you’re in my bedroom: there’s you, and me, and Mugford. Mug’s an awful chump, but he’s a good-natured old duffer, and you and I’ll do the fighting.”
“What do you mean?”
“Why, sometimes when Blake is out spending the evening, and old Welsby is shut up in his library, the different rooms make raids on one another. It began the term before last. Blake had been teaching us all about how the Crusaders used to go out every now and then and make war in Palestine, and so the fellows on the west side of the house called themselves the Crusaders, and we were Infidels, and they’d come over and rag us, and we should drive them back. Miss Eleanor came up one night, and caught us in the middle of a battle. O Diggy, she is a trump! Blake asked her next day before us all which boys had been out on the landing, because he meant to punish them; and she laughed, and said: ‘I’m sure I can’t tell you. Why, when I saw they were all in their night-shirts, I shut my eyes at once!’ Of course it was all an excuse for not giving us away. She doesn’t mind seeing chaps in their night-shirts when they’re ill, we all know that; and once or twice when for some reason or other she told us on the quiet that there mustn’t be any disturbance that evening, no one ever went crusading— Acton would have licked them if they had. Acton’s going to propose to Miss Eleanor some day, he told us so, and—”
“But what about the bedrooms?” interrupted Diggory; “have you given up having crusades?”
“Yes, but we have other things instead. We call our rooms by different names, and it’s all against all; one lot come and make a raid on you, and then you go and pay them out. This term Kennedy and Jacobs sleep in the room above ours, and next to the big attic. They’re always reading sea stories, and they call their room the ‘Main-top,’ because it’s so high up. Then at the end of the passage are Acton, Shaw, and Morris, and they’re the ‘House of Lords;’ and next to them is the ‘Dogs’ Home,’ where all the other fellows are put.”
A few hours later Diggory and his two room-mates were standing at the foot of their beds and discussing the formation of a few simple rules for conducting a race in undressing, the last man to put the candle out.
“You needn’t bother to race,” said Mugford; “I’ll do it—I’m sure to be the last.”
“No, you aren’t,” answered Vance. “We’ll give you coat and waistcoat start; it’ll be good fun—”
At this moment the door was suddenly flung open, two half-dressed figures sprang into the room, and discharged a couple of snowballs point-blank at its occupants. One of the missiles struck Diggory on the shoulder, and the other struck Mugford fair and square on the side of the head, the fragments flying all over the floor. There was a subdued yell of triumph, the door was slammed to with a bang, and the muffled sound of stockinged feet thudding up the neighbouring staircase showed that the enemy were in full retreat.
“It’s those confounded Main-top men!” cried Jack Vance; “I will pay them out. I wonder where the fellows got the snow from?”
“Oh, I expect they opened the window and took it off the ledge,” answered Diggory. “Look here—let’s sweep it up into this piece of paper before it melts.”
This having been done, the three friends hastily threw off their clothes and scrambled into bed, forgetting all about the proposed race in their eagerness to form some plan for an immediate retaliation on the occupants of the “Main-top.”
“I wonder if they’ll hear anything of the ghost again this term?” said
“What ghost?” asked Diggory.
“Oh, it’s nothing really,” answered Vance; “only somebody said once that the house is haunted, and Kennedy and Jacobs say the ghost must be in the big attic next their room. They hear such queer noises sometimes that they both go under the bed-clothes.”
“Do they always do that?”
“Yes, so they say, whenever there is a row.”
“Well, then,” said Diggory, “I’ll tell you what we’ll do: we’ll go very quietly up into that attic, and groan and knock on the wall until you think they’ve both got their heads well under the clothes, and then we’ll rush in and bag their pillows, or drag them out of bed, or something of that sort. You aren’t afraid to go into the attic, are you?” he continued, seeing that the others hesitated. “Why, of course there are no such things as ghosts. Or, look here, I’ll go in, and you can wait outside.”
“N—no, I don’t mind,” answered Vance; “and it’ll be an awful lark catching them with their heads under the clothes.”
“All right, then, let’s do it; though I suppose we’d better wait till every one’s in bed.”
The last suggestion was agreed upon, and the three friends lay talking in an undertone until the sound of footsteps and the gleam of a candle above the door announced the fact that Mr. Blake was retiring to rest.
“He’s always last,” said Vance; “we must give him time to undress, and then we’ll start.”
A quarter of an hour later the three boys, in semi-undress, were creeping in single file up the narrow staircase.
“Be careful,” whispered Vance; “there are several loose boards, and they crack like anything.”
The small landing was reached in safety, and the moon, shining faintly through a little skylight formed of a single pane of glass, enabled them to distinguish the outline of two doors.
Now it was a very different matter, when lying warm and snug in bed, to talk about acting the ghost, from what it was, when standing shivering in the cold and darkness, to put the project into execution. During the period of waiting the conversation had turned on haunted houses, and no one seemed particularly anxious to claim as it were the post of honour, and be the first to enter the big attic.
“Go on!” whispered Mugford, nudging Vance.
“Go on!” repeated the latter, giving Diggory’s arm a gentle push.
The new boy had certainly undertaken to play the part of the ghost, and there was no excuse for his backing out of it at the last moment.
“All right,” he muttered, “I’ll go.”
Just then a terrible thing happened. Diggory clutched the door-knob as though it were the handle of a galvanic battery, while Mugford and Vance seized each other by the arm and literally gasped for breath.
The stillness had been broken by a slight sound, as of something falling inside the attic, and this was followed a moment later by a shrill, unearthly scream.
For five seconds the three companions stood petrified with horror, not daring to move; then followed another scream, if anything more horrible than the last, and accompanied this time by the clanking rattle of a chain being dragged across the floor.
That was enough. Talk about a sauve qui peut! the wonder is that any one survived the stampede which followed. The youngsters turned and flew down the stairs at break-neck speed, and hardly had they started when the door of the “Main-top” was flung open, and its two occupants rushed down after them. As though to ensure the retreat being nothing less than a regular rout, Mugford, who was leading, missed his footing on the last step, causing every one to fall over him in turn, until all five boys were sprawling together in a mixed heap upon the floor.
Freeing themselves with some little difficulty from the general entanglement, they rose to their feet, and after surveying each other for a moment in silence, gave vent to a simultaneous ejaculation of “The ghost!”
“What were you fellows doing up there?” asked Kennedy.
“Why, we came up to have a joke with you,” answered Vance; “but just when we got up to the landing, it—it made that noise!”
There was the sound of the key turning in the lock of Mr. Blake’s door.
“Cave!” whispered Mugford.
“Tell him about it,” added Vance; and giving Diggory a push, they all three darted into their room just as the master emerged from his, arrayed in dressing-gown and slippers.
“Now, then,” exclaimed the latter, holding his candle above his head, and peering down the passage, “what’s the meaning of this disturbance? I thought the whole house was falling down.—Come here, you two, and explain yourselves!”
“Please, sir,” answered Kennedy and Jacobs in one breath, “it’s the ghost!”
“The ghost! What ghost? What d’you mean?”
The two “Main-top” men began a hasty account of the cause of their sudden fright, taking care, however, to make no mention of the three hostile visitors who had shared in the surprise.
Mr. Blake listened to their story in silence, then all at once he burst out laughing, and without a word turned on his heel and went quickly upstairs. He entered the attic, and in about half a minute they heard him coming back.
“Ha, ha! I’ve got your ghost; I’ve been trying to lay him for some time past.”
The jingle of a chain was distinctly audible; Mr. Blake was evidently bringing the spectre down in his arms! Diggory and Vance could no longer restrain their curiosity; they hopped out of bed and glanced round the corner of the door. The master held in his hand a rusty old gin, the iron jaws of which were tightly closed upon the body of an enormous rat.
“There’s a monster for you!” he said; “I think it’s the biggest I ever saw. He’d carried the trap, chain and all, right across the room, but that finished him; he was as dead as a stone when I picked him up. Now get back to bed; I should think you’re both nearly frozen.”
Diggory and Jack Vance followed the advice given to Kennedy and Jacobs, and did so rather sheepishly. They felt they had been making tools of themselves; yet it would never have done to own to such a thing.
“What a lark!” said the new boy, after a few moments’ silence.
“Wasn’t it!” returned Jack Vance; “it’s the best joke I’ve had for a long time. But we didn’t pay those fellows out for throwing those snowballs; we must do it some other night. And now we three must swear to be friends, and stand by each other against all the world, and whatever happens. What shall we call our room?”
“I know,” answered Diggory: “we’ll call it ‘The Triple Alliance!'”
Categories: English Literature