It did not say much for their knowledge of boys, as the Spook himself told them in common-room next day. Apparently the house was behaving like a nonconformist chapel. Cave major was indeed stated to have tried his haughty and condescending airs on the great proconsul, but without success according to proconsular report.
“I introduced a pestiferous insect into the young fellow’s auricle,” boasted the Spook; “our good Heriot will find his stature reduced by a peg or two, if I mistake not. As for the rest of the house, I can only say I have been treated as a gentleman by gentlemen —quorum pars maxima my friend Sprawson. His is a much misjudged character. I begin to fear that I myself have done him less than justice in form. I have been harsh with him – too harsh – poor Sprawson! And now he heaps coals of fire on my head; it has touched me deeply – deeply touched me – I assure you. He has quite constituted himself my champion in the house; amusing, isn’t it? As if I needed one. But I haven’t the heart to say him nay. A new boy, with a misguided sense of postprandial humour, brings me an order to sign for a ton of candles; only a ton, to go on with, I suppose. I just say, 'Make it out for a truck!’ But what does Sprawson? I send the young gentleman about his business; back he comes, sobbing his little heart out in apologies for which I never stipulated. I had reckoned without my Sprawson! Sprawson, I fear, had spared neither rod nor child; the little man was in a pitiable state until I promised to tell Sprawson I had forgiven him. Sprawson, a thorn in my form, who must be sat upon, but the white rose of chivalry in his house!”
That was not the only instance. There had been some tittering at prayers. Sprawson had picked up the offenders like kittens, and gently hurled them into outer darkness; and now the house could not have been better behaved if it had accompanied poor Heriot on his sad errand. It was all quite true. Sprawson was ruling the house with a rod of iron. The order for the ton of candles was the instigation of some minor humorist, who caught it hotter than the tearful apologist. The giggling at prayers was a real annoyance to Sprawson. He meant the house to behave itself in Heriot’s absence; he was going to keep order, whatever Loder did. This to Loder’s face, after prayers, with half the house listening, and Charles Cave, standing by with his air of supercilious detachment, but without raising voice or finger in defence of his brother pr?postor.
The house went to bed like mice. Joyce in his partition used blood-curdling language about Sprawson, and Crabtree’s criticism was not the less damaging for being fit for publication in the Times. They were alike, however, in employing a subdued tone, while Bingley and Jan exchanged lasting impressions in a whisper. Chips was still in another dormitory, where he was not encouraged to air his highly-coloured views; but the conversion of Sprawson in the hour of need was to him more like a page out of Bret Harte than any incident within his brief experience.
The house had seldom been sooner asleep.
It took a tremendous shaking to wake him up. It was not morning; it was the middle of the night. Yet there were mutterings and splutterings in the other partitions, and an unceremonious hand had Jan by the shoulder.
“Get up, will you? It’s a case of burglars! All the chaps are getting up to go for them; but you can hide between the sheets if you like it better.”
And Crabtree retreated to his corner as Jan swung his feet to the ground. He was still quite dazed; he asked whether anybody had told Heriot.
“Heriot’s away, you fool!” Joyce reminded him in a stage whisper.
“That’s why they’ve come,” explained Bingley, in suppressed excitement. “They’ve seen his governor’s death in the papers. I’ll bet you it’s a London gang.”
Bingley was more than ever the precocious expert in matters criminal. He had seen a man condemned in the Easter holidays. But this was the night of Bingley’s life.
Sounds of breakage came from Joyce’s 'tish. “I’m not going down unarmed,” said he. “Who wants a rung of my towel rail?” Crabtree and Bingley were supplied in the darkness. “None left for you, Rutter; take a boot to heave at their heads.”
“I’ll take my jug,” said Jan, emptying it into his basin; “it’ll do more damage.”
“Come on, you chaps!” urged Crabtree. “He’ll have got the Spook by this time.”
Instinctively Jan guessed that the pronoun stood for old Mother Sprawson, and he was right. It was that born leader of boys and men who had alarmed the dormitories before going through into the private part to summon the Spook from his slumbers; but where the thieves were now, what damage they had done, or who had discovered their presence in the house, Jan had no idea as he accompanied the others down the leaden stairs. Here there was more light, or at any rate less darkness, for a fine moon streamed through skylight and staircase window, and spectre forms were drifting downward through its pallid rays. It was still the day of the obsolete nightshirt, and that ghostly garment was at its best or worst upon a moonlight night. Some boys had tucked theirs into their trousers; a few had totally eclipsed themselves in jackets or dressing-gowns as well; but the majority came as they had risen from their beds, white and whispering, tittering a little, but not too convincingly at first, and for the most part as ignorant of what had happened as Jan himself.
At the foot of the stairs, on the moonlit threshold of the open door into the quad, two portentous figures dammed the descending stream of unpresentable attire: one was the Spook, his master’s gown (and little else that could be seen) covering his meagre anatomy, but in his hand a Kaffir battle-axe which usually hung over Heriot’s stairs. His companion was the redoubtable Sprawson, a pioneer in striped pyjamahs, armed for his part with a carving-knife of prodigious length which was daily used in hall.
“My good boys!” expostulated the Spook. “My good boys! I wish you’d go back to your beds and leave the intruder to me!”
“We couldn’t do that, sir,” said one or two. “We’ll stand by you, sir, never fear!”
“My brave lads! I wish you wouldn’t, I do really. He’ll have short shrift from me, I promise you. Short shrift – ”
“Silence!” hissed Sprawson, as a titter spread on the stairs. “I’ll murder the fellow who laughs again!” and his carving-knife filled with moonlight from haft to point. “It’s no laughing matter. They’ve been at Mr. Heriot’s silver; the dining-room’s ransacked. I heard them come through this way; that made me look out. One at least is hiding in the studies.”
“I’ll hide him!” said the Spook, readily.
“Silence!” commanded Sprawson, with another flourish of his dreadful blade. “If you will make jokes, sir, we shall never have a chance; are we to take the whole house with us, or are we not?”
“I don’t like leaving them behind, Sprawson, to the tender mercies of any miscreants whose ambush we may have overlooked. Are the whole house there?” inquired the Spook.
“Yes, sir! Yes, sir!” from a dozen tongues, and another terrifying “Silence!” from Sprawson.
“Shall I call over, sir?” suggested Loder, emerging from obscurity to raise a laugh from the rank and file. Sprawson was too quick for him with crushing snub; he was surprised at the captain of the house: what next? So the laugh that came was at Loder’s expense, but it again was promptly quelled by the inimitable Sprawson.
“If we waste any more time here, sir, they’ll have the bars off the back study-windows and get clean away. I believe all the house are here. I should let them come, sir, if I were you; there’s safety in numbers, after all.”
“Then I lead the way,” said the Spook, diving under the raised carving-knife. “No, Sprawson, not even to you, my gallant fellow; second to none, if you’ll permit me, Sprawson, on this occasion. Follow me, my lads, follow me!”
And follow him they did on bare tip-toe, over the cold flags of the alley alongside the hall, and so out into the untrammelled moonlight of the quad. Sure enough, the nearer door to the studies was seen to be ajar. But as the Spook approached it boldly, Sprawson plucked him by the gown.
“The fives-courts, sir! I thought I saw something moving behind the back-wall!”
All eyes flew to the fives-courts at the opposite end of the quad; the back-wall, their unorthodox peculiarity as Eton courts, would have sheltered a band of robbers until the last moment, when their pursuers peeping over might be shot down comfortably at arm’s length. No better bulwark against carving-knives and battle-axes, no finer mask for a whole battery of small-arms; and yet the valiant Spook was for advancing single-footed, under that treacherous moon, upon this impregnable position. Sprawson would not hear of it; together, said Sprawson, or not at all, even if he got expelled for lifting his hand against a master. The master shook it melodramatically instead, and with a somewhat painful gait the pair started off across the stretch of moonlit gravel. Jan was the next to follow, with his jug; but all the small dormitory, being more or less armed, were to the fore in an advance which became all but universal before the leaders reached the rampart. Cave major alone had the wit to stay behind, a majestic rearguard with his hands in his dressing-gown pockets, and something suspiciously like a cigarette between his lips.
The courts were discovered empty at a glance; yet Sprawson seized Jan’s jug, and dashed it to fragments against the buttress in the outer court while the Spook was busy peering into the inner.
“I thought I saw something move behind the pepper-box,” explained Sprawson. “Very sorry, sir! I’ll buy a new one. I’m ashamed of showing such bad nerve.”
“Bad nerve! You’re a hero, Sprawson. I’ll pay for it myself,” the Spook was saying, kindly enough, when a piercing “Yoicks!” rang out from the deserted end of the quad.
Charles Cave was holding his cigarette behind his back, and waving airily to the study windows with the other hand.
“It’s all right, sir; you needn’t hurry; only I thought you might like to know there was a light up there this minute!”
The stampede back across the gravel was in signal contrast to the stealthy and circumspect advance; and many a late laggard found himself swept off his feet in the van; but Sprawson outstripped all with a rush that spilt the small fry right and left, and he was first up the study stairs. But the Spook panted after him, and once more insisted on taking the actual lead.
The procession which he headed down the long study passage was no longer the somewhat faltering force which had deployed in the moonlit quad; it was as though confidence had come with protracted immunity, and high spirits had come of confidence; in any case, Sprawson had to lay about him more than once to stop a giggle or a merry scuffle in the dark. He appealed to Loder to keep better order (Cave major was finishing his cigarette quietly in the quad), and Loder promptly smacked the unoffending head of Chips. Merriment, moreover, was unpreventable under the Spook’s leadership in the study passage; for into each of the little dark dens would he peer after pounding on the door with the blunt end of the Kaffir battle-axe, and his cry was always, “Come out, fellow!” or “You’d better come out, my man!” or “It’s fourteen years for this, you know; only fourteen years’ hard labour!” and once – “You think I can see you, but I can’t!” – a signal instance of absence of mind in the presence of danger.
There were other diversions to which the Spook did not contribute, as when Sprawson screamed “Got him!” from the depths of some study, and emerged dragging young Petrie after him by the hair of his innocent head; but the dramatic effect of this interlude was immediately discounted by a clumsy imitation on the part of Shockley, of whom wonderfully little had been seen or heard during the earlier proceedings. Sprawson made short work of him now.
“You fool, do you want to spoil the whole thing?” whispered Sprawson, fiercely, in Jan’s hearing; and those few words spoilt the whole thing for Jan. He retired into his own study, and sat down in the dark, wiping his forehead on his sleeve, and chuckling and shaking his head by turns, as amusement mingled in his mind with a certain vexatious disappointment.
Meanwhile a climax was deducible in or about the big studies up the two or three steps at the inner end of the passage. General clamour drowned the individual voice; but the devil’s own tattoo with the battle-axe proclaimed a door fastened on the inside according to the best burgling traditions as expounded by Bingley in dormitory. Jan was not going to see the fun; he was not out of bed for fun; but he could not resist a grin when the belaboured door gave way audibly, and the crash was succeeded by a louder outcry than ever from the bloodthirsty pack. It was a chorus of disgust and discomfiture, shouted down eventually by Sprawson, and at length followed by some muffled remarks from the Spook and subdued cheers from his audience. Then master and boys trooped back along the passage, and all but Chips Carpenter passed Jan’s open door without looking in.
“Tiger! is that you?”
“It’s me, Chips. I’d had enough.”
“But you missed the best of all! The thief or thieves had got out through Sprawson’s study – locked the door – fixed a rope to his table leg, and heaved it back through the open window after they’d got down into the street!”
“Does anybody know what they took away with them?”
“Nothing, it’s hoped, because Sprawson disturbed them at their work.”
“Oh, he did, did he? And it was Sprawson’s study they got out by?”
“Yes. That was a bit of a coincidence, wasn’t it?”
“Just a bit! But I think all the more of Sprawson.”
“So does all the house,” said Chips, eagerly. “The old Spook’s let the lot of us off first school to-morrow, or rather to-day, and he and Sprawson are looking for the key of the beer-barrel to serve out some all round! So I advise you to look sharp.”
But Jan elected to enlighten his friend about something on the way; and the now lighted hall presented an animated scene when at length they passed the windows. Flushed faces emerging from the various degrees of dishabille were congregated by force of habit about the fireplace. Sprawson and Cave major (“bracketed supreme,” as Chips afterwards remarked) were the salient and central pair; Loder and others, such as Shockley, were plying them with questions, only to receive subtle smiles and pregnant shakes of the head; on the outer skirts were the nobodies, and the less than nobodies, whispering together in excited knots, or pressing forward for a crumb of first-hand information.
“And I never saw it!” muttered Chips outside the door. “But old Bob Heriot will, the very moment he hears. And what on earth do you think he’ll do?”
“Score off the whole house,” Jan suggested, “to make sure of one or two!”
“And make a laughing-stock of the wretched Spook into the bargain? No fear! Bob’s not another Haigh. He’ll do something cleverer than that, or he won’t do anything at all.”
Chips was right and Jan was wrong, but there was just one moment when it looked the other way about.
Heriot did nothing at all – until the next Saint’s Day. That, however, was almost immediately after his return, while he still looked sadder than when he went away, and years older than his age. The chief event of the day was the annual match between the Sixth Form and the School. Heriot had not been near the ground, though he had no dearer haunt, and yet by dinner-time he seemed suddenly himself again. Stratten and Jellicoe, whose places in hall that term were on either side of him at the long table, afterwards declared that they had never known the old boy in better form. Stratten and Jellicoe were cricketers of high promise, and Heriot chatted with them as usual about their cricket and the game in general. When Miss Heriot had left the hall, however, her brother did not resume his seat preparatory to signing orders for his house, as his practice was, but remained standing at the head of the long table, and ordered the door to be shut. There was a certain dry twinkle behind his glasses; but his beard and moustache were one, and the beard jutted out abnormally.
“If I’ve been slow to allude to your strange adventures of two or three nights ago,” said Heriot, “I need hardly tell you it has only been because my mind has been full of other things. I’m very sorry not to have been with you in what certainly appears to have been the most exciting hour the house has known since I took it over. I have evidently missed a great deal; but I congratulate you all on the conspicuous gallantry said to have been displayed by every one of you, at a moment’s notice, in the middle of the night. I’ve heard of two-o’clock-in-the-morning courage, but I never heard of such a wholesale example of it. I’m sure I should be very proud of a whole house whom I can trust to play the man like this behind my back!”
There was even some little feeling in the tone employed by Heriot. Jan could not understand it; he had never looked upon the man as a fool; but this deep appreciation of an utter hoax was worthy of the Spook himself. Fellows moved uneasily in their places, where they stood uncomfortably enough between table and form; one or two played with what they had left of their bread. Sprawson, to be sure, looked hotly indifferent, but his truculent eye might have been seen running down the lines of faces, as if in search of some smiling head to smack afterwards as a relief. Both Sprawson and Charles Cave were in flannels, the popular Champion having found a place in the match which had begun that morning. But even the great cricketer looked less pleased with himself than usual. And the only smile to be seen by Sprawson had lightened the countenance of old Bob Heriot himself.
“Where all seem to have distinguished themselves,” he continued, “it may seem invidious to single out individuals. But I am advised to couple with my congratulations the honoured names of Cave major and Sprawson. I was afraid you were going to cheer” – the honoured names had been received in dead silence – “but I like these things to be taken as a matter of course, and I’m sure neither Cave nor yet Sprawson would wish to pose as popular heroes. I have an important message for them both, however, from a very important quarter. My friend Major Mangles, the Chief Constable of the county, wishes to have an interview with Cave and Sprawson, with a view to the early apprehension of the would-be thieves.”
Living people are not often quite so silent as the boys at that moment in Heriot’s hall. Major the Hon. Henry Mangles was known to the whole school by sight and reputation as the most dashing figure of a military man in all those parts. Sometimes he played in a match against the Eleven, and seldom survived many balls without lifting at least one out of the ground. Sometimes he was to be seen and heard in Heriot’s inner court, and then the entire house would congregate to catch his picturesque remarks. He inhabited a moated grange some four miles from the school, broke a fresh bone in his body every hunting season, and often gave Bob Heriot a mount.
“When does he wish to see us, sir?” inquired Cave major, with becoming coolness.
“Here in the town?”
“No – at his place.”
“I’m sorry, sir,” said Cave, firmly – “but that’s impossible.”
“Any other time, sir,” suggested Sprawson, civilly. “To-day we’re both playing in the Sixth Form match.”
“Et tu, Sprawson?” cried Heriot, merrily.
“I’m the tip of the School tail, sir.”
The house relieved itself in laughter led by Heriot.
“Have either of you been in yet?”
“I had one ball, sir. It was the last of the innings,” said the brazen Sprawson. “The Sixth are just going in, and we expect to have Cave there all the afternoon.”
“I’m afraid he can’t go in first,” said Heriot; “and you’ll have to find a substitute to field for you, Sprawson. Or rather I’ll see the two captains myself, and explain about you both. That’ll save time and you can start at once. You can’t do these doughty deeds behind my back and not expect to find them fame, you know.”
“But, surely, sir, this is a most high-handed demand of the Major’s?”
Charles Cave had never been known to display such heat.
“He’s the Chief Constable, and Chief Constables are high-handed people,” said Heriot, preparing to sign the orders. “I shouldn’t advise either of you to disappoint Major Mangles, much less when he’s paying you a compliment as the pair who specially distinguished themselves in the night of battle. He wants you to tell him all about it. There’s no reason why that should take long, and if you drive both ways you might be back before any wickets have fallen. But you must see that when a house is entered by common burglars it’s a matter for the police and not for us, and as police witnesses you’re in their hands and out of ours. To make matters easy for you, however, the Major has very kindly sent his carriage, which I think you’ll find waiting for you now outside the quad. If I were you I should go just as you are, and make no more bones about it.”