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"Is that all you want to say?" said Mansfield, turning to Pledge.
"I can only say this," said Pledge: "that I never saw three boys imitate guilt better. If they hadn't done it, I should like to ask them why they quaked in their shoes whenever they met me, and why they sent me a round robin, asking me not to tell about them?"
"I can tell you that!" shouted d.i.c.k, springing up.
"You needn't wait, Mr Webster," said Mansfield. "Thank you for coming up."
"Thank you, gentlemen," said the tradesman.
"I'm sorry to be mixed up in the matter. Mr Pledge can go somewhere else for his books. Good day, gentlemen."
"Good day," said several voices.
When order was restored, d.i.c.k was discovered, red in the face, mounted on a form, propped up on either side by his faithful allies.
"I can tell him that," he cried, "and all of you, too. We thought he knew about another row of ours--about Tom White's boat, you know. It was us let her go; at least I did, and Georgie was there, too, and Coote's been in it since he came up. Tom White robbed us coming back from Grandcourt, and we were awfully wild, and were cads enough to slip his boat on the beach. There's been a regular row, and we expected to be transported. We backed Tom White up all we could, and tried to get him off. I told the magistrate it was us did it, and he said I'd put him in a jolly fix. Pledge was always talking to us about the police, and the county gaol, and that sort of thing, and we made sure he'd found out all about it, and was going to do us over it. We never guessed he was running his head against that pencil business, or we could easily have put him right. We're awfully sorry about the boat, you know. My governor came down and squared most of the fellows, and it's all right now, and Tom's got let off. Pledge has got a spite against all our 'Firm,' because we're not going to let Georgie be made a cad of by him, and we told him so; didn't we, you chaps?"
"Yes, we did," shouted the "chaps."
"Yes, he thought," continued d.i.c.k, warming up, "he'd make Georgie go and f.a.g for him again, by threatening him about this row; but we backed Georgie up, and wouldn't let him; and then he promised to show us up at the 'Sociables,' and so he has."
d.i.c.k's oration was too much for the feelings of his audience. They laughed and cheered at every sentence; and when finally he subsided between his two supporters, quite short of breath, and wondering at the length of his own speech, they forgot the Captain's rebuke, and finished their howl against Pledge to the bitter end.
"Does Pledge want to ask any more questions?" asked Mansfield.
Pledge laughed bitterly.
"No, thank you; I'm not quite clever enough for them."
"Perhaps you are right," said the Captain, drily. "And if you have nothing more to say, perhaps you would like to go."
Pledge hesitated a moment, amid the howls which followed the Captain's words. Then he coolly rose, and ascended the platform. His face was flushed, and his eyes uneasy; but otherwise impudence befriended him, and he stood there to all appearances neither humiliated nor dismayed.
"Gentlemen," he began; but a fresh storm arose, and drowned his voice.
The uproar continued till Mansfield called for order, and said--
"I think in ordinary decency you ought to treat everybody fairly on a day like this. It will do you no harm, and it will be more worthy of Templeton."
"Gentlemen," said Pledge, "thank you for being ordinarily decent, although it wouldn't break my heart if you didn't hear me. It's not as easy as you may suppose to stand up single-handed against a school full of howling enemies. It's easy for you to howl when everybody howls on your side. Suppose you change places with me, and try to speak when everybody's howling against you. However, I don't complain. Somebody must be on the losing side, and as all of you take care to be on the winning. I'll do without you."
Pledge certainly knew his audience. He had hit them cleverly on a weak point--the point of chivalry; and had he been content to rest where he was, he might even yet have saved a following for himself in Templeton.
But he went on--
"Our three young friends have told you a pretty story, which has highly amused you. It amused me too. They told you I had a spite against them. I must say it's the first I've heard of it. As a rule Sixth-form fellows don't waste much time in plotting against boys in the Third; but Richardson evidently thinks he and his friends are considerably more important than other boys of their age and brains. Suppose I were to tell you that, instead of my having a spite against any one, somebody has, for the last year, had a spite against me, and that somebody is the holy Captain of Templeton? Suppose I told you that he dared not show it openly, but made use of my wretched f.a.g and his friends to tell tales, and trump up stories about me? Suppose I told you he and his fellow- monitors resorted to a mean dodge to get me to resign my monitorship, and then got up this precious Club in order to soft-soap their own toadies for helping them to do it? What has Mansfield done for Templeton, I should like to know? Hasn't he done more harm than good by his hectoring manner and his favouritism and fussiness? Isn't he one of the most unpopular fellows in Templeton? Didn't he all but get ignominiously left out of his own wonderful Club? And what do you think of him when he gets up here and tries to pa.s.s as a model of justice, when as likely as not, he has pre-arranged the whole affair, and told every one what part he is to play in the farce?"
He sat down amid a dead silence, conscious he had overdone it. A little less, and he might have convinced some that what he said was true; but when he talked such palpable nonsense as that of the Captain having arranged the whole scene which Pledge himself had got up, the meeting took his whole tirade for what it was worth, and received it in mocking silence.
Freckleton, to the relief of everybody, got up and said--
"I did think we might be spared quite such a ridiculous speech as that to which we have just listened. However, I have nothing to say about its comic side. What I want to say is this. It is perfectly true Mansfield had a spite against Pledge. So had I; _so_ had Cresswell. So had eleven out of twelve of all the other monitors. And I'll tell you why. When a fellow deliberately sets himself to corrupt juniors entrusted to his care, as he corrupted young Forbes (howls), when he sets himself to upset every vestige of order and good form in Templeton; when he tells lies of everybody, and never tells the same lie correctly twice running (laughter); when he cudgels his brains how he may make mischief between friends (cheers from the 'Firm'), and get the credit of being the only friend of the very fellows he tries to ruin; then, I say, it's no wonder if Mansfield, and you, and everybody has a spite against him. I don't say much for the Templetonian that hasn't. I don't mean the spite which would lead any one to kick him. Thank goodness, we can let him know what we think without wearing out our shoe-leather (laughter). He talks in n.o.ble strain about being single-handed, and on the losing side. Thank goodness he is single-handed, and on the losing side! Thank goodness, too, he is lonely, and finds no one ready to keep him company in his low ways! He talks about Mansfield," continued the speaker, waxing unexpectedly warm. "Gentlemen, if you knew Mansfield as well as I do, you would be as angry as I am to hear the lies this miserable cad tells. Mansfield, gentlemen, would, I know, risk his life for the good of Templeton. He may not be popular. He's told me, often and often, he knows he isn't. But, I say to him, and I think you will say too, 'Go on, old man,' (cheers). 'You've done more good to Templeton in a term than other Captains have done in a year; and if the only thing you had ever done had been to rid us of the cad, Pledge, you would have done the school a service that any one might be proud of,'
(loud cheers). There, I've used hard words, I know, and almost lost my temper, but it's best to speak out sometimes. Pledge has heard what I've said, and I shouldn't say anything different behind his back."
The Hermit sat down amidst a roar of applause, in which the Sixth joined as heartily as any. The effect of his simple, straightforward speech was immediately apparent when Mansfield rose to dismiss the a.s.sembly.
For a moment he stood there, unable to speak for the cheers which greeted him. The honest indignation of his friend had touched a keynote, which suddenly awakened Templeton to the conviction that its Captain was a hero after all; and the almost pathetic reference to his unpopularity roused them to an enthusiasm of repentance which was almost startling.
At length silence reigned, and the Captain said, with the faintest suspicion of a tremble in his voice--
"I think we've all had enough of this, you fellows. There's the Chapel bell. This meeting is over."
By a curious sort of instinct, the meeting, instead of immediately dispersing, remained seated, while Pledge rose, and moved to the door.
He had got half-way there before he noticed his isolation, and a sudden flush of scarlet in his cheeks betrayed his emotion at the discovery.
It was too late to retreat to his seat, and too late to pretend not to notice his position. With a pitiful attempt at a swagger, he completed his pa.s.sage to the door, and left the Hall.
As he reached the door, a low hiss rose from the middle of the a.s.sembly, but a sudden gesture of appeal from the Captain stifled it before it could spread, and the door closed behind the retreating figure amid a silence which spoke volumes.
The meeting waited a minute or two, and then quietly rose and dispersed, every one feeling that from that afternoon a new era in the history of Templeton had been inaugurated.
Our heroes, who in the midst of later excitements had half-forgotten their own share in the afternoon's proceedings, were among the first to get out into the Quadrangle; and once there, their manner changed from one of dignified solemnity to one of agitated expectancy.
In a quarter of an hour their guest was due in Cresswell's study, and between now and then, what had they not to do?
Who shall describe that wondrous spread, or the heroes that partook of it? How, when Mr Richardson arrived, punctual and hungry, he found a table groaning under every delicacy the ingenuity and pocket-money of three juniors could provide; how the kidneys were done to a turn and the tea-cake to a shade; how jam-pots stood like forts at each corner of the snowy cloth; how hot rolls and bath buns lorded it over white loaf and brown; how eggs, boiled three minutes and five seconds by Heathcote's watch, peeped out among watercress and lettuces; how rosy apples and luscious pears jostled one another in the centre dish; and how tea and coffee breathed forth threatenings at one another from rival pots on the same tray?
It was a spread to make the mouths in Olympus water, and drive Hebe and Ganymede to despair. Mr Richardson, who, in the guilelessness of his heart, had brought a small plum-cake as a contribution to the feast, positively blushed as he saw that table, and hid his poor mite back in his pocket for very shame.
The "Firm," when they did go in for a thing, did it well, and no mistake; and, if Mr Richardson had paid up royally for them during the day, he should find that more than one could play at that game, and that they would pay up royally at night.
Like a brave man, the good father expanded his appet.i.te, and, regardless of consequences, took a little of everything. The "Firm" took a great deal of everything, and never was a more jovial meal.
Coote's cup seemed to be always on the road to or from the pot, and Georgie was for ever mistaking the dish of tea-cake for his own private plate; while d.i.c.k, bolder than any of them, insisted on giving his parent ocular demonstration of the wholesomeness of each several dish, until that good gentleman began to think it was a good thing he was not a daily visitor at Templeton.
"Jolly brickish of old Cress, giving us his study, isn't it, you chaps?"
"Rather!" said Georgie. "I think we might almost leave him out something."
"I don't particularly want this _egg_," said Coote, who had already accomplished two and was gently tapping a third, "if you think he'd like that."
"How would it be to ask him in? Would you mind, father?"
"Not at all," said Mr Richardson, really relieved at the prospect of a fifth appet.i.te to help off the banquet.
So d.i.c.k went in search of his senior, and found him in Freckleton's study. He felt constrained to invite both seniors to join their party, and, somewhat to his alarm, they both accepted gladly.
d.i.c.k need not have been alarmed, though, for both the provisions and the company held out wonderfully.
Mr Richardson was delighted with his boy's seniors, and they were no less delighted with him. The whole story of Tom White's boat was rehea.r.s.ed again, as were also the other stories of the term, finishing up with the eventful a.s.sembly of the afternoon.