Chapter VI: The Thief Detected
 

Mr. Porson was in his place next morning, having returned only half an hour before school began; he looked fagged, and he was scarcely so attentive as usual to the lessons, his thoughts seeming to be elsewhere.

"He seems regularly done up with his journey," Ripon said as the boys came out of school.

"I think he is upset about something," Ned remarked. "Sometimes he hardly seemed paying attention to what was going on, and he did not speak as cheerfully as usual. I noticed a sort of change in his voice directly he began. I hope nothing wrong has occurred, we were getting on so jollily."

When afternoon school began Mr. Porson placed on the desk before him a packet done up in brown paper.

"Boys," he said, "I have got my book again."

An exclamation of surprise and pleasure burst from the boys. The mystery had weighed heavily on the school, and a look of eager curiosity came over every face to hear how the book had been recovered.

"It was found in a bookseller's shop in York," Mr. Porson went on. "I myself had inquired at Leighton's here, but with little hope of finding it, for no one who stole it would have disposed of it so near home. I then wrote to several friends in the large towns, and one of them, a clergyman at York, wrote to me two days ago to say that just such a book as I had described was on sale in the window of one of the booksellers there. It was a second hand copy, but in excellent preservation. The flyleaf was missing. On going over yesterday I found that it was my book, and was able to prove it by several marginal notes in my handwriting.

"The bookseller said at once that it was sent him by a general dealer at Marsden who was in the habit of picking up books at sales in the neighborhood and sending them to him; he had given eighteen shillings for it. This morning I have called upon the man, whose name is White, accompanied by a constable. He admitted at once that he had sent the book to York, and said that he bought it from some one about a month ago. His customer came late, and as White is short sighted, and there was only a tallow candle burning in the shop, he said that he should not know him again, and could say nothing about his age; however, I shall call him in; he is now outside with the constable. I am sure that for your own sakes you will not object to his taking a look at you."

Mr. Porson went to the door, and the constable and White entered. The chief constable, when Mr. Porson had called upon him to ask for one of his men to accompany him to the dealer's, had told him that White bore a very bad reputation. He was suspected of being the medium through whom stolen goods in that part of Yorkshire were sent up to London for disposal. A highwayman who had been caught and executed at York, had in his confession stated that this man had acted as his go between for the disposal of the watches and other articles he took from travelers, and White's premises had then been thoroughly searched by the constables; but as nothing suspicious was found, and there was only the unsupported confession of the highwayman against him, he had got off scot free.

"I don't think you will get anything out of him, Mr. Porson," the constable said. "The fact that he has been trusted by these fellows shows that he is not a man to peach upon those with whom he deals; and in the next place he would know well enough that if any one were convicted of stealing this book he would be liable to a prosecution as receiver; and though we could scarcely get a conviction against him, as we could not prove that he knew that it was stolen, it would do him no good."

The boys all stood up in a line. "I will look at 'em, sir," White said; "but, as I have told you, I should not know the man as I bought that book from, from Adam. Anyhow none of these little ones couldn't be he. If it weren't a man, he were as big as a man. You don't suppose an honest tradesman would buy an expensive book like that from a kid."

So saying he placed a pair of horn spectacles on his nose and walked round the line.

"I don't see any one here whose face I ever see before as far as I knows; but bless you, the man as I bought it of might have had hair all over his face, and I be none the wiser looking at him across that counter of mine in the dark."

"Thank you," Mr. Porson said; "then it is of no use troubling you further. I have got my book back; but I confess that this affords me but small gratification in comparison to that which I should feel if I could unravel this mystery."

The discovery of the book reopened the interest in the matter, and nothing else was talked of that evening in the playground.

"Ripon," Ned said, putting his arm in that of the head boy, "I want to tell you a thing that has been in my mind for the last three weeks; mind, I don't say that there's anything in it, and I hate to think harm of any one. There is another thing; he and I ain't good friends. If it hadn't been for that I should have spoken to you before; but I was afraid that it would look like a piece of dirty spite on my part; but I do think now that as head boy you ought to know, and I want your advice whether I ought to say anything about it or not."

"What a long winded chap you are, Sankey! What is it all about?"

"Well, you know, Ripon, when we got up that subscription for the cricket things, Mather didn't give anything. He said he had no money."

"No; and he hadn't any," Ripon said, "for I had only the day before lent him twopence to buy some string, and he paid me when he got his allowance on Saturday."

"Well, a day or two after that I came back after tea for a book that I had left behind me, and as I came in at the gate there Mather was standing at the corner talking to Mother Brown. He had his back to the door, and they didn't see me. She was talking loud and angry and I couldn't help hearing what she said."

"Well, what did she say?" Ripon said rather impatiently.

"She said, 'You have disappointed me over and over again, and if you don't pay me that ten shillings you borrowed of me last half, and the bill for the cakes, by Saturday, I will see the master and tell him all about it.' I didn't hear any more; but on the Saturday I saw him go up to her in the field and pay her something. Of course I don't know what it was; not all, I think, by the manner in which she took it; still, I suppose it was enough to content her. About ten days afterward we heard the book was missing. It didn't strike me at the time; but afterward, when I thought of it, I remembered that the last time Porson brought it out was on the Thursday, which was the day after Mather had been speaking to Mother Brown. Now, of course, Ripon, I don't actually suspect Mather of taking the book; still it is curious its being missing just at the time he wanted money so badly. He may have got the money from home, or he may have borrowed it from some other fellow."

"No," Ripon said positively, "I am sure Mather has had no letter, because I always distribute the letters, and Mather's people never write to him; and I am sure there was no fellow in the school had more than a shilling or two at the outside at that time. Why didn't you tell me before, Sankey?"

"I didn't like to, because every one knows Mather and I are not good friends; then I thought perhaps Mather might be able to explain it all right, and I should have cut a nice figure if he could; then at the time when I thought of it, and had got the dates right, the first excitement had died out and I thought we might hear no more of it and it would be forgotten; but now that the book has been found and the whole thing has come up fresh again I thought it better to tell you all about it and ask you what you would advise me to do."

Ripon did not answer for some time; then he said:

"I am sure I don't know, Ned; I will think it over till tomorrow. You have not said anything about it to any one else?"

"Not to a soul. I hesitated whether I should tell you or father, but he wouldn't understand how boys think of these things so well as you do; so I thought as you were head of the school it was best you should know."

"I wish you hadn't told me," Ripon grumbled. "I am sure I don't know what's best to do;" and he turned away and began to pace the yard moodily up and down.

"The only thing I have decided," he said to Ned the next day, "is to ask Mother Brown myself how much Mather paid her. We may as well settle that question first."

As this was Wednesday and the cake woman was coming that evening there was not long to wait. Ripon chose a time when most of the boys had made their purchases and the old woman was alone.

"Don't you give too much tick to any of the fellows, Mother Brown," he began. "You know it isn't always easy to get money that's owing."

"I should think not, Master Ripon; I wish they would always pay money down as you do. There's Master Mather, he been owing me money ever since last half. He borrowed ten shillings of me and promised solemn he would pay at the end of the week, and he has only paid five shillings yet, a month ago, and that was only 'cause I told him I would tell the master about him; there's that five shillings, and seven shillings and eightpence for cakes and things; but I have been giving him a piece of my mind this afternoon; and if I don't get that other five shillings by Saturday, sure enough I will speak to t' maister about it. No one can say as Mother Brown is hard on boys, and I am always ready to wait reasonable; but I can't abear lies, and when I lent that ten shillings I expected it was going to be paid punctual."

"Then he knows you are going to speak to Mr. Porson on Saturday if he doesn't pay up another five shillings?"

"He knows it," the old woman said, nodding. "When I says a thing I mean it. So he had best pay up."

When Ripon met Ned next day he said: "I talked to her last night. Mather paid her five shillings, and she has told him if he doesn't pay her the other five by Saturday she will speak to Porson; so I think the best plan is to wait till then and see what comes of it. She will tell the whole story and Porson will learn it without our interference, and can think what he likes about it."

Relieved in mind at finding that there was a prospect of his avoiding the decision whether or not to inform the master of his suspicions, Ned went to his desk. When afternoon school began Mr. Porson said gravely:

"Boys, when you came back from the field did you all go straight to the washing room to wash your hands before dinner?"

There was a chorus of surprised assent.

"I am sorry to tell you that another theft has been committed. A gold pencil case has disappeared from my study table. I was using it after school. I left it on the table when I went for a stroll before dinner. I remember most distinctly laying it down among the pens. I went into my study ten minutes ago; and wanting to make a note as to this afternoon's work looked for the pencil and it was gone. The window was open as usual, and it is possible that tramps passing along the road may have come into the garden and have got in at the window. As in the case of the book I suspect no one, but two such occurrences as these are very uncomfortable for us all. I shall not propose any search this time, for had any of you taken it, which I cannot for a moment believe, he would not have been careless enough to put it in his pocket, or conceal it in his desk or boxes, but would have stowed it away somewhere where there would be no chance whatever of its being found. Now let us dismiss the subject and go on with our lessons."

While the master was speaking Ripon and Sankey had glanced for a moment at each other; the same thought was in both their minds. After school was over they joined each other in the yard.

"Was Mather in the washing room with the others?" Sankey asked eagerly.

"He was, but he came up last," Ripon replied. "You know he generally saunters along in a lazy way and is the last to get in. So he was today, but I don't know that he was later than usual."

"I think, Ripon, we ought to speak to Porson."

"I think so too," Ripon rejoined gravely; "it is too serious to keep to ourselves. Any ordinary thing I would not peach about on any account, but a disgraceful theft like this, which throws a doubt over us all, is another thing; the honor of the whole school is at stake. I have been thinking it over. I don't want Mather to suspect anything, so I will go out at the back gate with you, as if I was going to walk part of the way home with you, and then we will go round to the front door and speak to Porson."

The master was sitting on a low seat in the window of his study. Hearing footsteps coming up from the front gate he looked round.

"Do you want to speak to me, boys?" he asked in some surprise through the open window. "What makes you come round the front way?"

"We want to see you privately, sir," Ripon said.

"Very well, boys, I will open the door for you.

"Now, what is it?" he asked as the boys followed him into the study.

"Well, sir, it may be nothing, I am sure I hope so," Ripon said, "but Sankey and I thought you ought to know and then it will be off our minds, and you can do as you like about it. Now, Sankey, tell what you knew first, then I will tell what Mother Brown said to me on Wednesday."

Ned told the story in the same words in which he had related it to Ripon; and Ripon then detailed his conversation with the cake woman, and her threats of reporting Mather on Saturday were the debt not paid. Ned had already given his reason for keeping silence in the matter hitherto, and Ripon now explained that they had determined to wait till Saturday to see what came of it, but that after that new theft they deemed it their duty to speak at once. Mr. Porson sat with his face half shaded with his hand and without speaking a single word until the boys had concluded.

"It is a sad business," he said in a low tone, "a very sad business. It is still possible that you may have come to false conclusions; but the circumstances you have related are terribly strong. I am grieved, indeed, over the business, and would rather have lost a hundred books and pencil cases than it should have happened. You have done quite right, boys; I am greatly obliged to you both, and you have acted very well. I know how painful it must be to you both to have been obliged to bring so grave a matter to my ears. Thank you; I will consider what is the best course to adopt. If it can be avoided, I shall so arrange that your names do not appear in the matter."

For some little time after the boys had left him Mr. Porson remained in deep thought; then he rose, put on his hat, and went out, first inquiring of the servant if she knew where the woman who sold cakes to the boys lived.

"Yes, sir; she lives in a little house in Mill Street; it's not a regular shop, but there are a few cakes in one of the windows; I have bought things there for the kitchen, knowing that she dealt with the young gentlemen."

Mr. Porson made his way to Mill Street and easily found the house he was in search of. On being questioned the old woman at first showed some reluctance in answering his questions, but Mr. Porson said sharply:

"Now, dame, I want no nonsense; I am acquainted with the whole affair, but wish to have it from your own lips. Unless you tell me the whole truth not a cake will you sell my boys in future."

Thus pressed Mrs. Brown at once related the story of Mather having borrowed some money of her; of her threats to report him unless he paid, and of his having given her five shillings on the following Saturday, saying that he would give her the rest in a few days, but could pay no more then; and how, after repeated disappointments, she had now given him till Saturday to settle the debt.

"If he didn't pay, sir, I meant to have come to ye and telled ye all about it, for I hate lies, and Master Mather has lied to me over and over again about it; but seeing that Saturday hasn't come I don't like telling ye the story, as he may have meant to keep his word to me this time."

"Here are the five shillings which he borrowed of you; as to the other money, you will never get it, and I hope it will be a lesson to you; and mind, if I find that you ever allow the boys to run an account with you further than the following Saturday after it is incurred, you will never come into my field or playground again."

Mr. Porson then went to the chief constable's, and after a short conversation with him a constable was told off to accompany him. He and the master took their station at a short distance from the shop of the man White and waited quietly. A little after nine a figure was seen coming down the street from the other end. He passed quickly into the shop.

"That is the boy," Mr. Porson said.

"Wouldn't it be better, sir," the constable asked, "to wait till the deed is completed, then we can lay our hands on White as a receiver?"

"No," Mr. Porson replied, "for in that case the boy would have to appear with him in the dock, and that I wish of all things to avoid."

So saying he walked quickly on and entered the shop.

Mather was leaning across the counter while the man was examining the pencil case by the light of the candle.

"Five shillings," the man said, "and no more. I was nearly getting into trouble over that last job of yours."

"But it's worth a great deal more than that," Mather said. "You might give me ten."

"Well, take it back then," the man said, pushing it across the counter.

"Thank you, I will take it myself," Mr. Porson said quietly, as he advanced and stretched out his hand.

Mather turned round with a sudden cry, and then stood the picture of silent terror.

"As for you," the master said indignantly to the dealer, "you scoundrel, if you had your deserts I would hand you over to the constable, who is outside the door, as a receiver of stolen goods, and for inciting this boy to theft. I heard you offer him a sum of money for it which shows that you knew it was stolen; but your time will come, sir, and you will hang over the gate of York prison as many a poor wretch far less guilty than yourself has done;" for in those days death was the punishment of receivers of stolen goods, as well as of these convicted of highway robbery and burglary.

"Have mercy, sir, oh, spare me!" Mather exclaimed, falling on his knees. "Don't give me in charge."

"I am not going to do so," the master said. "Get up and come with me."

Not a word was spoken on the way back to the school.

Mr. Porson then took Mather into his study, where they remained for half an hour. What passed between them was never known. In the morning the boys who slept in the room with Mather were surprised to find that his bed was empty and the window open. He had gone to bed at half past eight as usual, and saying he was sleepy had threatened to punch the head of any boy who spoke, so that all had gone off to sleep in a very short time. A stout ivy grew against the wall, and some fallen leaves on the ground showed them that he had climbed down with the assistance of its stem. But why he should have gone, and what on earth possessed him to run away, none could imagine. The news ran rapidly through the other bedrooms, and brimful of excitement all went down when the bell rang for prayers before breakfast. The list of names was called out by the master as usual, and the excitement grew breathless as the roll of the third class was called; but to the astonishment of all, Mather's name was omitted. When the list was concluded Mr. Porson said:

"Mather has left; I grieve to say that I have discovered that it was he who stole the book and pencil case. He has confessed the whole to me, and he is, I trust, sincerely penitent. He slept last night on the sofa in my study, and has gone off this morning by the coach. I have written to his parents stating the whole circumstances under which he was driven to commit the theft, and that although I could not permit him to remain here, I trusted and believed that his repentance was sincere, and that it would be a lesson to him through life, and I urged them to give him a further trial, and not to drive him to desperation by severity.

"There is a lesson which you may all learn from this. Mather committed these crimes because he had borrowed money which he could not repay. Most foolishly and mistakenly the woman who supplies you with cakes had lent him money and when he could not repay it according to his promise to her, threatened to report the case to me, and it was to prevent the matter coming to my ears that he took these things. Let this be a warning to you, boys, through life. Never borrow money, never spend more than your means afford. An extravagance may seem to you but a small fault, but you see crime and disgrace may follow upon it. Think this well over, and be lenient in your hearts to your late schoolfellow. He was tempted, you see, and none of us can tell what he may do when temptation comes, unless we have God's help to enable us to withstand it, and to do what is right. Now let us fall to at our breakfast."

It was a strangely silent meal. Scarce a word was spoken, even in a whisper. It came as a shock to everybody there, that after all the dictionary should have been taken by one of their number, and that the master's kindness on that occasion should have been requited by another robbery seemed a disgrace to the whole school. That Mather, too, always loud, noisy, and overbearing, should have been the thief was surprising indeed. Had it been some quiet little boy, the sort of boy others are given to regard as a sneak, there would have been less surprise, but that Mather should do such a thing was astounding. These were probably the first reflections which occurred to every boy as he sat down to breakfast.

The next impression was how good Mr. Porson had been about it. He might have given Mother in charge, and had him punished by law. He might have given him a terrific flogging and a public expulsion before all the school. Instead of that he had sent him quietly away, and seemed sorry for rather than angry with him. By the time the meal was finished there was probably not a boy but had taken an inward resolution that there was nothing he would not do for his master, and although such resolutions are generally but transient, Mr. Porson found that the good effect of his treatment of Mather was considerable and permanent. Lessons were more carefully learned, obedience was not perhaps more prompt, but it was more willing, and the boys lost no opportunity of showing how anxious they were to please in every respect.

Ned and his brother were not present when Mr. Porson explained the cause of Mather's absence to the others, but they were surrounded by their schoolfellows, all eager to tell the news upon their arrival in the playground a few minutes before the school began.

Before breaking up in June, Porson's played their first cricket match with a strong village team, and beat them handsomely, although, as the boys said, it was to their master's bowling that their success was due. Still the eleven all batted fairly, and made so long a score that they won in one innings; and Mr. Porson promised them that before the season ended they should have a whole holiday, and play the Marsden eleven.

Ned enjoyed his holiday rambles, taking several long walks across the moors accompanied by Bill Swinton, who had now perfectly recovered. The discontent among the croppers, and indeed among the workers in the mills generally through the country was as great as ever; but the season was a good one; bread had fallen somewhat in price, and the pinch was a little less severe than it had been. The majority of the masters had been intimidated by the action of their hands from introducing the new machinery, and so far the relations between master and men, in that part of Yorkshire at any rate, remained unchanged. But although Ned enjoyed his rambles he was glad when the holidays were over. He had no friends of his own age in Marsden; his brother was too young to accompany him in his long walks, and Bill obtained a berth in one of the mills shortly after the holidays began, and was no longer available. Therefore Ned looked forward to meeting his schoolfellows again, to the fun of the cricket field and playground, and even to lessons, for these were no longer terrible.

The school reopened with largely increased numbers. The reports which the boys had taken home of the changed conditions of things and of their master's kindness excited among all their friends an intense longing to go to a school where the state of things was so different to that which prevailed elsewhere; and the parents were equally satisfied with the results of the new master's teaching. Such as took the trouble to ask their boys questions found that they had acquired a real grasp of the subjects, and that they were able to answer clearly and intelligently. The consequence was, the house was filled with its full complement of fifty boarders, and indeed Mr. Porson was obliged to refuse several applications for want of room. As he had not the same objection as his predecessor to receive home boarders, the numbers were swelled by eighteen boys whose parents resided in Marsden.

To meet the increased demands upon his teaching powers Mr. Porson engaged two ushers, both of them young men who had just left Durham. They were both pleasant and gentlemanly young fellows; and as Mr. Porson insisted that his own mode of teaching should be adopted, the change did not alter the pleasant state of things which had prevailed during the past half year. Both the ushers were fond of cricket, and one turned out to be at least equal to Mr. Porson as a bowler. Therefore the boys looked forward to their match with Marsden with some confidence.

Captain Sankey saw with great pleasure the steady improvement which was taking place in Ned's temper. It was not to be expected that the boy would at once overcome a fault of such long standing, but the outbursts were far less frequent, and it was evident that he was putting a steady check upon himself; so that his father looked forward to the time when he would entirely overcome the evil consequences engendered by his unchecked and undisciplined childhood.