This is another tale of our school life. It is not much in itself, you may say, but it was to lead to lasting events. Curious enough, it is, to sit down and trace out the beginning of things: when we can trace it; but it is often too remote for us.
Mrs. Frost died, and the summer holidays were prolonged in consequence. September was not far off when we met again, and gigs and carriages went bowling up with us and our boxes.
Sanker was in the large class-room when we got in. He looked up for a minute, and turned his head away. Tod and I went up to him. He did shake hands, and it was as much as you could say. I don’t think he was the sort of fellow to bear malice; but it took time to bring him round if once offended.
Sanker had gone home with us to Dyke Manor when the holidays began. He belonged to a family in Wales (very poor they were now), and was a distant cousin of Mrs. Todhetley’s. Before he had been with us long, a matter occurred that put him out, and he betook himself away from the Manor there and then. But I do not intend to go into that history now.
Things had been queer at school towards the close of the past term. Petty pilferings took place: articles and money alike disappeared. A thief was amongst us, and no mistake: but we did not know where to look for him. It was to be hoped that the same thing would not occur again.
“My father and Mrs. Todhetley are in the drawing-room,” said Tod. “They are asking to see you.”
Sanker hesitated; but he went at last. The interview softened things a little, for he was civil to us when he came back again.
“What’s that about the plants?” he asked me.
I told him what. They had been destroyed in some unaccountable manner. “Whether it was done intentionally, or whether moving them into the hall and back again did it, is not positively decided; I don’t suppose it ever will be. You ought to have come over to that ball, Sanker, after all of us writing to press it.”
“Well,” he said, coldly. “I don’t care for balls. Monk was suspected, was he not?”
“Yes. Some of us suspect him still. He was savage at being accused of — But never mind that”— and I pulled myself up in sudden recollection. “Monk has left, and we have engaged another gardener. Jenkins is not good for much.”
“Hallo! What has he come back?”
Ned Sanker was looking towards the door as he spoke. Two of them were coming in, who must have arrived at the same time — Vale and Lacketer. They were new ones, so to say, both having entered only last Easter. Vale was a tall, quiet fellow, with a fair, good-looking face and mild blue eyes; his friends lived at Vale Farm, about two miles off. Lacketer had sleek black hair, and a sharp nose; he had only an aunt, and was from Oxfordshire. I didn’t like him. He had a way of cringing to those of us who were born to position in the world; but any poor friendless chap, who had nothing but himself and his work to get on by, he put upon shamefully. As for him, we couldn’t find out that he’d ever had any relations at all, except the aunt.
I looked at Sanker, to see which he alluded to; his eyes were fixed on Vale with a stare. Vale had not been going to leave, that the school knew of.
“Why are you surprised that he has come back, Sanker?”
“Because I— didn’t suppose he would,” said Sanker, with a pause where I have put it, and an uncommonly strong emphasis on the “would.”
It was just as though he had known something about Vale. Flashing across my memory came the mysterious avowal Sanker had made at our house about the discovery of the thief at school; and I now connected the one with the other. They call me a muff, I know, but I cannot help my thoughts.
“Sanker! was he the thief?”
“Hold your tongue, Ludlow,” returned Sanker, in a fright. “I told you I’d give him a chance again, didn’t I? But I never thought he would come back to take it.”
“I would have believed it of any fellow rather than of Vale.”
Sanker turned his face sharp, and looked at me. “Oh, would you?” said he, after a pause. “Well, then, you’d better believe it of any other. Mind you do. It will be safer, Johnny Ludlow.”
He walked away into a group of them, as if afraid of my saying more. I turned out at the door leading to the playground, and came upon Tod in the porch.
“What was that you and Sanker were saying about Vale, Johnny?”
I was aware that I ought not to tell him; I knew I ought not: but I did. Tod read me always as one reads a book, and I had never attempted to keep from him any earthly thing.
“Sanker says it was Vale. About the things lost last half. He told me, you know, that he had discovered who it was that took them.”
“What, he the thief! Vale?”
“Hush, Tod. Give him another chance, as Sanker says.”
Tod rushed out of the porch with a bound. He had heard a movement on the other side the trellis-work, but was only in time to catch a glimpse of a tassel disappearing round the corner.
We went in for noise at Worcester House just as much as they do at other schools; but not this afternoon. Mrs. Frost had been a favourite, and Sanker told us about her funeral. Things seemed to wear a mournful look. The servants were in black, the Doctor was in jet black, even to his gaiters. He wore the old style of dress always, knee breeches and buckles: but I have mentioned this before. We used to call him old Frost; this afternoon we said “the Doctor.”
“You can’t think what it was like while the house was shut up,” said Sanker. “Coal-pits are jolly to it. I never saw the Doctor until the funeral. Being the only fellow at school, was, I suppose, the reason they asked me to go to it. He cried ever so much over the grave.”
“Fancy old Frost crying!” interrupted Lacketer.
“I cried too,” avowed Sanker, in a short sharp tone, as if disapproving of the remark; and it silenced Lacketer. “She had been ailing a long time, as we all knew, but she only grew very ill at the last, she told me.”
“When did you see her?”
“Two days before she died. Hall came to me, saying I was to go up. It was on Wednesday at sunset. The hot red sun was shining right into the room, and she sat back from it on the sofa in a white gown. It was very hot these holidays, and she felt at times fit to die of it: she never bore heat well.”
To hear Sanker tell this was nearly as good as a play. A solemn play I mean. None of us made the least noise as we stood round him: it seemed as if we could see Mrs. Frost’s room, and her nice placid face, drawn back from the rays of the red hot sun.
“She told me to reach a little Bible that was on the drawers, and sit close to her and read a chapter,” continued Sanker. “It was the seventh of St. John’s Revelation; where that verse is, that says there shall be no more hunger and thirst; neither shall the sun light on them nor any heat. She held my hand while I read it. I had complained of the light for her, saying what a pity it was the room had no shutters. ‘You see,’ she said, when the chapter was read, ‘how soon all discomforts here will pass away. Give my dear love to the boys when they come back,’ she went on. ‘Tell them I should like to have seen them all and said good-bye. Not good-bye for ever; be sure tell them that, Sanker: I leave them all a charge to come to me there in God’s good time. Not one of them must fail.’ And now I’ve told you, and it’s off my mind,” concluded Sanker, in a different voice.
“Did you see her again?”
“When she was in her coffin. She gave me the Bible.”
Sanker took it out of his pocket. His name was written in it, “Edward Brooke Sanker, with Mary Frost’s love.” She had made him promise to read in it daily, if he began only with one verse. He did not tell us that then.
While we were looking at the writing, Bill Whitney came in. Some of them thought he had left at Midsummer. Lacketer shook hands; he made much of Whitney, after the fashion of his mind and manners. Old Whitney was a baronet, and Bill would be Sir William sometime: for his elder brother, John, whom we had so much liked, was dead. Bill was good-natured, and divided hampers from home liberally.
“I don’t know why I am back again,” he said, in answer to questions; “you must ask Sir John. I shall be the better for another year or two of it, he says. Who likes grapes?”
He was beginning to undo a basket he had brought with him: it was filled with grapes, peaches, plums, and nectarines. Those of us who had plenty of fruit at home did not care to take much; but the others went in for it eagerly.
“Our peaches are finer than these, Whitney,” cried Vale.
Lacketer gave Vale a push. “You big lout, mind your manners!” cried he. “Don’t eat the peaches if you don’t like ’em.”
“So they were,” said Vale, who never answered offensively.
“There! that’s enough insolence from you.”
Old Vale was Sir John Whitney’s tenant. Of course, according to Lacketer’s creed, Vale deserved putting down for only speaking to Whitney.
“He is right,” said Whitney, who thought no more of being his father’s son than he would of being a shopkeeper’s. “Mr. Vale’s peaches this year were the finest in the county. He sent my mother some, and she said they ought to have gone up to a London fruit-show.”
“I never saw such peaches as Mr. Vale’s,” put in Sanker, talking at Lacketer, and not kindly. “And the flavour was as good as the look. Mrs. Frost enjoyed those peaches to the last: it was almost the only thing she took.”
Vale’s face shone. “We shall always be glad at home that they were so good this year, for her sake.”
Altogether, Lacketer was shut up. He stood over Whitney, who was undoing a small desk he had brought. Amidst the things, that lay on the ledge inside, was a thin, yellow, old-fashioned-looking coin.
“It’s a guinea,” said Bill Whitney. “I mean to have a hole bored in it and wear it to my watch-chain.”
“I’d lock it up safely until then, Whitney,” burst forth Snepp, who came from Alcester. “Or it may go after the things that were lost last half-year.”
Turning to glance at Sanker, I found he had left the room. Whitney was balancing the guinea on his finger.
“Fore-warned, fore-armed, Snepp,” he said. “Who the thief was, I can’t think; but I advise him not to begin his game again.”
“Talking of warning, I should like to give one on my own score,” said Tod. “By-gones may be by-gones; I don’t wish to recur to them; but if I lose anything this half and can find the thief, I’ll put him into the river.”
“What, to drown him?”
“To duck him. I’ll do it as sure as my name’s Todhetley.”
Vale dropped his handkerchief and stooped to pick it up again. It might have been an accident; and the redness of his face might have come of stooping; but I saw Tod did not think so. Ducking is the favourite punishment in Worcestershire for a public offender, as all the county knows. When a man misbehaves himself on the race-course at Worcester, they duck him in the Severn underneath.
“The guinea would not be of much use to any one,” said Lacketer. “You couldn’t pass it.”
“Oh, couldn’t you, though!” answered Whitney. “You’d better try. It’s worth twenty-one shillings, and they might give a shilling or two in for the antiquity of the coin.”
We turned to see the Doctor, standing there in his deep mourning, with his subdued red face. He came in to introduce a new master.
The time went on. We missed Mrs. Frost; and Hall, the crabbed woman with the cross face, made a mean substitute. She had it all her own way now. The puddings had less jam in them, and the pies hardly any fruit. Little Landon fell ill; and one day, after hours, when some of us went up to see him, we found him crying for Mrs. Frost. He was only seven; the youngest in the school, and made a sort of plaything of; an orphan with no friends to see to him much. Illness had been Mrs. Frost’s great point. Any of us who were laid by she’d sit with half the day, reading nice stories, and talking to us of good things, just as our mothers might do. I know mine would if she had lived. However, we managed to get along in spite of Hall, hoping the Doctor would find her out and discharge her.
Matters went on quietly for some weeks. No one lost anything: and we had almost forgotten there had been a doubt that we might lose something, when it occurred. The loss was Tod’s — rather curious, at first sight, that it should be, after his threat of what he would do. And Tod, as they all knew, was not one to break his word. It was only half-a-crown; but there could be no certainty that sovereigns would not go next. Not to speak of the disagreeable sense of feeling the thief was amongst us still, and taking to his tricks again.
Tod was writing to Evesham for some articles he wanted. Bill Whitney, knowing this, got him to add an order for some stationery for himself: which came back in the parcel. The account, nine-and-tenpence, was made out to Tod (“Joseph Todhetley, Esquire!”), half-a-crown of it being Whitney’s portion. Bill handed him the half-crown at once; and Tod, who was busy with his own things and had his hands full, asked him to put it on the mantelpiece.
The tea-bell rang, and they went away and forgot it. Only they two had been in the room. But others might have gone in afterwards. We were getting up from tea when Tod called to me to go and fetch him the half-crown.
“It is on the mantelpiece, Johnny.”
I went through the passages and turned into the box-room; a place where knots of us gathered sometimes. But the mantelpiece had no half-crown on it, and I carried the news back to Tod.
“Did you take it up again, Bill?” he asked of Whitney.
“I didn’t touch it after I put it down,” said Whitney. “It was there when the tea-bell rang.”
They said I had overlooked it, and both went to the box-room. I followed slowly; thinking they should search for themselves. Which they did; and were standing with blank faces when I got in.
“It has gone after my guinea,” Whitney was saying.
“My guinea. The one you saw. That disappeared a week ago.”
Bill was not a fellow to make much row over anything; but Tod — and I, too — wondered at his having taken it so easily. Tod asked him why he had not spoken.
“Because Lacketer — who was with me when I discovered the loss — asked me to be silent for a short time,” said Whitney. “He has a suspicion; and is looking out for himself.”
“He says so. I am sure he has. He thinks he could put his finger any minute on the fellow; but it would not do to accuse him without proof; and he is waiting for it.”
Tod glanced at me, and I at him, both of us thinking of Vale.
“Yesterday Lacketer lost something himself,” continued Whitney. “A shilling, I think it was. He went into a fine way over it, and said now he’d watch in earnest.”
“Who is it he suspects?” asked Tod.
“He won’t tell me; says it would not be fair.”
“Well, I shall talk about my half-crown, if you and Lacketer choose to be silent over your losses,” said Tod, decisively. “And I’ll be as good as my word, and give the reptile a ducking if I can track him.”
He went straight to the playground. It was a fine October evening, the daylight nearly gone, and the hunter’s moon rising in the sky. Tod told about his half-crown, and the boys ceased their noise to listen to him. He talked himself into a passion, and said some stinging things. “He suspected who it was, and he heard that Lacketer suspected, and he fancied that another or two suspected, and one knew; and he thought, now that affairs had come to this pitch, when nothing, put for a minute out of hand, was safe, it might be better for them all to declare their suspicions, and hunt the animal as they’d hunt a hare.”
There was a pause when Tod finished. He was about the biggest and strongest in the school; his voice was one of power, his manner ready and decisive; so that it was just as though a master spoke. Lacketer came out from amongst them, looking white. I could see that in the twilight.
“Who says I suspect? Speak for yourself, Todhetley. Don’t bring up my name.”
“Do you scent the fox, or don’t you?” roared Tod back again, not at all in a humour to be crossed. “If you do, you must speak, and not shirk it. Is the whole school to lie under doubt because of one black sheep?”
Tod’s concluding words were drowned in noise; applause for him, murmurs for Lacketer. I looked round for Vale, and saw him behind the rest, as if preparing to make a run for it. That said nothing: he was one of those quiet-natured fellows who liked to keep aloof from rows. When I looked back again, Sanker was standing a little forward, not far from Lacketer.
“As good speak as not, Lacketer,” put in Whitney. “I don’t mind telling now that that guinea of mine has been taken; and you know you lost a shilling yourself. You say you could put your finger on the fellow.”
“Speak!” “Speak!” “Speak!” came the shouts from all quarters. And Lacketer turned whiter.
“There’s no proof,” he said. “I might have been mistaken in what I fancied. I won’t speak.”
“Then I shall say you are an accomplice,” roared Tod, in his passion. “I intend to hunt the fellow to earth to-night, and I’ll do it.”
“I don’t suspect any one in particular,” said Lacketer, looking as if he were run to earth himself. “There.”
Great commotion. Lacketer was hustled, but got away and disappeared. Sanker went after him. Tod had been turning on Sanker, saying why didn’t he speak.
“Half-a-crown is half-a-crown, and I mean to get mine back again,” avowed Tod. “If some of you are rich enough to lose your half-crowns, I’m not. But it isn’t that. Sovereigns may go next. It isn’t that. It is the knowing that we have a light-fingered, disreputable, sneaking rat amongst us, whose proper place would be a reformatory, not a school for honest men’s sons.”
“Name!” “Proofs!” “Proofs!” “Name!” It was as if a torrent had been let loose. In the midst of the lull that ensued a voice was heard, and a name.
“Vale. Harry Vale.”
Harding was the one to say it: a clever, first-class boy. You might have heard a pin drop in the surprise: and Harding went on after a minute.
“I beg to state that I do not accuse Vale myself. I know nothing whatever about the case. But I have reason to think Vale’s name is the one that has been mentioned in connection with the losses last half.”
“I know it is,” cried Tod, who had only wanted the lead, not choosing to take it himself. “Now then, Vale, make your defence if you can.”
I dare say you recollect how hotly you used to take up a cause when you were at school yourselves, not waiting to know whether it might be right or wrong. Mrs. Frost said to us on one of these occasions she wondered whether we should ever be as eager to take up heaven. They pounced upon Vale with an awful row. He stood with his arm round one of the trees behind, looking scared to death. I glanced back for Sanker, expecting his confirming testimony, but could not see him, and at that moment Lacketer appeared again, peeping round the trees. Whitney called to him.
“Here, Lacketer. Was it Vale you suspected?”
“As much as I did anybody else,” doggedly answered Lacketer.
It was taken as an affirmative. The boys believed the thief was found, and were mad against him. Vale spoke something, shaking and trembling like the leaves in the wind, but his words were drowned. He was not brave, and they looked ready to tear him to pieces.
“My half-crown, Vale,” roared Tod. “Did you take it just now?”
Vale made no answer; I thought he could not. His face frightened me; the lips were blue and drawn, his teeth chattered.
“Search his pockets.”
It was a simultaneous thought, for a dozen said it. Vale was turned out, and half-a-crown found upon him; no other money. The boys yelled and groaned. Tod, with his great strength, pushed them aside, as the coin was flung to him.
“Shall I resume possession of this half-crown?” he asked of Vale, holding it before him in defiant mockery.
“If you like. I——”
Vale broke down with a gasp and a sob. His piteous aspect might have moved even Tod.
“Look here,” said he, “I don’t care in general to punish a coward; I regard him as an abject animal beneath me: but I cannot go from my word. Ducking is too good for you, Vale, but you shall have it. Be off to that tree yonder; we’ll give you so much grace. Let him start fair, boys, and then hound him on. It will be a fine chase.”
Vale, seeming to be too confused and terror-stricken to do anything but obey, went to the tree, and then darted away in the direction of the river. It takes time to read all this; but scarcely a minute appeared to have passed since Tod first came out with Whitney, and spoke of the half-crown. Giving Vale the fair start, the boys sprang after him, like a pack of hounds in full cry. Tod, the swiftest runner in the school, was following, when he found himself seized by Sanker. I had stayed behind.
“Have you been accusing Vale? Are you going to duck him?”
“Well?” cried Tod, angry at being stopped.
“It was not Vale who took the things. Vale! He is as innocent as you are. You’ll kill him, Todhetley; he cannot bear terror.”
“Who says he is innocent?”
“I do. I say it on my honour. It was another fellow, whose name I’ve been suppressing. This is your work, Johnny Ludlow.”
I felt a sudden rush of repentance. A conviction that Sanker spoke nothing but the truth.
“You said it was Vale, Sanker.”
“I never did. You said it. I told you you’d better believe it was any other rather than Vale. And I meant it.”
But that Sanker was not a fellow to tell a lie, I should have thought he told one then. The impression, resting on my memory, was that he acknowledged to its being Vale, if he had not exactly stated it.
“You know you told me to be quiet, Sanker: you said, give him a chance.”
“But I thought you were speaking of another then, not Vale. I swear it was not Vale. He is as honest as the day.”
Tod, looking ready to strike me, waiting for no more explanation, was already off, shouting to the crew to turn, far more anxious now to save Vale than he had been to duck him.
How he managed to arrest them, I never knew. He did do it. But for being the fleetest runner and strongest fellow, he could never have overtaken, passed, and flung himself back upon them, with his arms stretched out, words of explanation on his lips.
The river was more than a mile away, taking the straight course over the fields, as a bird flies, and leaping fences and ditches. Vale went panting on, for it. It was as if his senses were scared out of him. Tod flew after him, the rest following on more gently. The school-bell boomed out to call us in for evening study, but none heeded it.
“Stop, Vale! Stop!” shouted Tod. “It has been a mistake. Come back and hear about it. It was not you; it was another fellow. Come back, Harry; come back!”
The more Tod shouted, the faster Vale went on. You should have seen the chase in the moonlight. It put us in mind of the fairy tales of Germany, where the phantom huntsman and his pack are seen coursing at midnight. Vale made for a part where the banks of the river are overshadowed by trees. Tod was only about thirty yards behind when he gained it; he saw him leap in, and heard the plunge.
But when he got close, there was no sign of Vale in the water. Had he suddenly sunk? Tod’s heart stood still with fear. The boys were coming up by ones and twos, and a great silence ensued. Tod stript ready to plunge in when Vale should rise.
“Here’s his cap,” whispered one, picking it up from the bank.
“He was a good swimmer; he must have been seized with cramp.”
“Look here; they say there are holes in the river, just above this bend. What if he has sunk into one?”
“Hold your row, all of you,” cried Tod, in a hoarse whisper that betrayed his fear. “Who’s to listen with that noise?”
He was listening for a sound, watching for the faintest ripple, that might give indication of Vale’s rising. But none came. Tod stood there in his shirt till he shivered with cold. And the church clock struck seven, and then eight, and it was of no use waiting.
It was a horrible feeling. Somehow we seemed, I and Tod, to be responsible for Vale’s death, I for having mistaken Sanker; Tod for entering upon the threatened ducking, and hounding the boys on.
The worst was to come: going back to Dr. Frost and the masters with the tale; breaking it to Mr. and Mrs. Vale at Vale Farm. While Tod was dressing himself, the rest went on slowly, no one staying by him but me and Sanker.
“It’s your doing more than mine,” Tod said, turning to Sanker in his awful distress. “If you knew who the thief was last half, you should have disclosed it; not have given him the opportunity to resume his game. Had you done so this could not have happened.”
“I promised him then I should proclaim him if he did resume it; I have told him to-night I shall do it,” quietly answered Sanker. “It was Lacketer.”
“Lacketer. And since my eyes were opened, it has seemed to me that all yours must have been closed, not to find him out. His manner was enough to betray him: only, I suppose — you wanted the clue.”
“But, Sanker, why did you let me think it was Vale?” I asked.
“You made the first mistake; I let you lie under it for Lacketer’s sake; to give him the chance,” said Sanker. “Who was to foresee you would go and tell?”
It had never passed my lips, save those few words at the time when Tod questioned me. Harding was the one outside the porch who had overheard it; but he had kept it to himself until now, when he thought the time had come for speaking.
What was to be done? — what was to be done? It seemed as if a great darkness had suddenly fallen upon us, and could never again be lifted. We had death upon our hands.
“There’s just a chance,” said Tod, dragging his legs along like so much lead, and beginning with a sort of groan. “Vale may have made for the land again as soon as he got in, and come out lower down. In that case he would run home probably.”
Just a chance, as Tod said. But in the depth of despair chances are caught at. If we cut across to the left, Vale Farm was not more than a mile off: and we turned to it. Absenting ourselves from school seemed as nothing. Tod went on with a bound now there was an object, a ray of hope; I and Sanker after him.
“I can’t go in,” said Tod, when we came in front of the farm, a long, low house, with lights gleaming in some of the windows. “It’s not cowardice; at least, I don’t think it is. It’s —— Never mind; I’ll wait for you here.”
“I say,” said Sanker to me, “what excuse are we to make for going in at this time? We can’t tell the truth.”
I could not. Harry Vale stood alone; he had neither brother nor sister. I could not go in and tell his mother that he was dead. She was sitting in one of the front parlours, sewing by the lamp. We saw her through the window as we stole up to look in. But there was no time for plotting. Footsteps approached, and we only got back on the path when Mr. Vale came up. He was a tall, fine man, with a fair face and blue eyes like his son’s. What we said I hardly knew; something about being close by, and thought we’d call on our way home. Sanker had been there several times in the holidays.
Mr. Vale took us in with a beaming face to his wife. They were the kindest-hearted people, liberal and hospitable, as most well-to-do farmers are. Mrs. Vale, rolling up her work, said we must take something to help us on our way home, and rang the bell. We never said we could not stop; we never said Tod was waiting outside. But there were no signs that Vale had gone home half-drowned.
Two maids put the supper on the table, and Mrs. Vale helped them; for Sanker had summoned courage to say it was late for us to stop. About a dozen things. Cold ducks, and ham, collared-head, a big dish of custard, and fruit and cake. I couldn’t have swallowed a morsel; the lump rising in my throat would have hindered it. I don’t think Sanker could, for he said resolutely we must not sit down because of Dr. Frost.
“How is Harry?” asked Mrs. Vale.
“Oh, he is — very well,” said Sanker, after waiting to see if I’d answer. “Have you seen him lately?”
“Not since last Sunday week, when he and young Snepp spent the day here. He was looking well, and seemed in spirits. It was rather a hazard, sending him to school at all; Mr. Vale wanted to have him taught at home, as he has been until this year. But I think it is turning out for the best.”
“He gets frightened, does he not?” said Sanker, who knew what she meant.
“He did,” replied Mrs. Vale; “but he is growing out of it. Never was a braver little child born than he; but when he was four years old, he strolled away from his nurse into a field where a bull was grazing, a savage animal. What exactly happened, we never knew; that Harry was chased across the field by it was certain, and then tossed. The chief injury was to the nerves, strange though that may seem in so young a child. For a long time afterwards, the least alarm would put him into a state of terrible fear, almost a fit. But he is getting over it now.”
She told this for my benefit; just as if she had divined the night’s work; Sanker knew it before. I felt sick with remorse as I listened — and Tod had called him a coward! Let us get away.
“I wish you could stay, my lads,” cried Mr. Vale; “it vexes me to turn you out supperless. What’s this, Charlotte? Ah yes, to be sure! I wish you could put up the whole table for them.”
For Mrs. Vale had been putting up some tartlets, and gave us each a packet of them. “Eat them as you go along,” she said. “And give my love to Harry.”
“And tell him that he must bring you both on Sunday, to spend the day,” added Mr. Vale. “Perhaps young Mr. Todhetley will come also. You might have breakfast, and go with us to church. I’ll write to Dr. Frost.”
Outside at last; I and my shame. These good, simple-hearted people — oh, had we indeed, between us, made them childless? “Young Mr. Todhetley,” waiting amid the stubble in the outer field, came springing up to the fence, his face white in the light of the hunter’s moon.
“What a long while you have been! Well?”
“Nothing,” said Sanker, briefly. “No news! I don’t think we’ve been much above five minutes.”
What a walk home it was! Mr. Blair, the out-of-school master, came down upon us with his thunder, but Tod seemed never to hear him. The boys, hushed and quiet as nature is before an impending storm, had not dared to tell and provoke it. I could not see Lacketer.
“Where’s Vale?” roared Mr. Blair, supposing he had been with us. “But that prayers are waiting, I’d cane all four of you. Where are you going, Todhetley?”
“Don’t stop me, Mr. Blair,” said Tod, putting him aside with a quiet authority and a pain in his voice that made Blair stare. We called Blair, Baked Pie, because of his name, Pyefinch.
“Read the prayers without me, please Mr Blair,” went on Tod. “I must see Dr. Frost. If you don’t know what has happened to-night, sir, ask the rest to tell you.”
He went out to his interview with the Doctor. Tod was not one to shirk his duty. Seeing Vale’s father and mother he had shrunk from; but the confession to Dr. Frost he made himself. What passed between them we never knew: how much contrition Tod spoke, how much reproach the Doctor. Roger and Miles, the man-servant and boy, were called into the library, and sent abroad: we thought it might be to search the banks of the river, or give notice for it to be dragged. The next called in was Sanker. The next, Lacketer.
But Lacketer did not answer the call. He had vanished. Mr. Blair went searching for him high and low, and could not find him. Lacketer had run away. He knew his time at Worcester House was over, and thought he’d save himself from dismissal. It was he who had been the thief, and whom Sanker suspected. As good mention here that Dr. Frost got a letter from his aunt the next Saturday, saying the school did not agree with her nephew, and she had withdrawn him from it.
Whether the others slept that night, I can’t tell; I did not. Harry Vale’s drowned form was in my mind all through it; and the sorrow of Mr. and Mrs. Vale. In the morning Tod got up, looking more like one dead than alive: he had one of his frightful headaches. I felt ready to die myself; it seemed that never another happy morning could dawn on the world.
“Shall I ask if I may bring you some breakfast up here, Tod? And it’s just possible, you know, that Vale ——”
“Hold your peace, Johnny!” he snapped. “If ever you tell me a false thing of a fellow again, I’ll thrash your life out of you.”
He came downstairs when he was dressed, and went out, waiting neither for breakfast nor prayers. I went out to watch him away, knowing he must be going to Vale Farm.
Oh, I never shall forget it. As Tod passed round the corner by the railings, he ran up against him. Him, Harry Vale.
My sight grew dim; I couldn’t see; the field and railings were reeling. But it only lasted for a moment or two. Tod’s breath was coming in great gasps then, and he had Vale’s two hands grasped in his. I thought he was going to hug him; a loud sob broke from him.
“We have been thinking you were drowned!”
Vale smiled. “I am too good a swimmer for that.”
“But you disappeared at once.”
“I struck back out of the river the instant I got into it; I was afraid you’d come in after me; and crept round the alder trees lower down. When you were all gone I swam across in my clothes; see how they’ve shrunk!”
“Swam across! Have you not been home?”
“No, I went to my uncle’s: it’s nearer than home: and they made me go to bed, and dried my things, and sent to tell Dr. Frost. I did not say why I went into the water,” added Vale, lifting his kind face. “But the Doctor came round the ferry late, and he knew all about it. They talked to me well, he and my uncle, about being frightened at nothing, and I’ve promised not to be so stupid again.”
“God bless you, Vale!” cried Tod. “You know it was a mistake.”
“Yes, Dr. Frost said so. The half-crown was my own. My uncle met us boys when we were out walking yesterday morning, and gave it me. I thought you might have seen him give it.”
Tod linked his arm within Vale’s and walked off to the breakfast-room. The wonder to me was how, with Vale’s good honest face and open manners, we could have thought him capable of theft. But when you once go in for a mistake it carries you on in spite of improbabilities. The boys were silent for an instant when Vale went in, and then you’d have thought the roof was coming off with cheers. Tod stood looking from the window, and I vow I saw him rub his handkerchief across his eyes.
We went to Vale Farm on Sunday morning early: the four of us invited, and Harding. Mr. Vale shook hands twice with us all round so heartily, that we might see, I thought, they bore no malice; and Mrs. Vale’s breakfast was a sight to do you good, with its jugs of cream and home-made sausages.
After that, came church: it looked like a procession turning out for it. Mr. and Mrs. Vale and the grandmother, an upright old lady with a China-crape shawl and white hair, us five and a man and maid-servant behind. The river lay on the right, the church was in front of us; people dotted the fields on their way to it, and the bells were ringing as they do at a wedding.
“This is a different sort of Sunday from what we thought last Thursday it would be,” I said in Tod’s ear when we were together for a minute at the gate.
“Johnny, if I were older, and went in for that kind of thing, as perhaps I shall do sometime, I should like to put up a public thanksgiving in church today.”
“A public thanksgiving?”
“For mercies received.”
I stared at Tod. He did not seem to heed it, but took his hat off and walked with it in his hand all across the churchyard.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:55