XVII. The Watchers in the Vault.
 

For the next three seconds you could have heard a cannonball drop. And that was equivalent, in the senior day-room at Seymour's, to a dead silence. Barry stood in the middle of the room leaning on the stick on which he supported life, now that his ankle had been injured, and turned red and white in regular rotation, as the magnificence of the news came home to him.

Then the small voice of Linton was heard.

"That'll be six d. I'll trouble you for, young Sammy," said Linton. For he had betted an even sixpence with Master Samuel Menzies that Barry would get his first fifteen cap this term, and Barry had got it.

A great shout went up from every corner of the room. Barry was one of the most popular members of the house, and every one had been sorry for him when his sprained ankle had apparently put him out of the running for the last cap.

"Good old Barry," said Drummond, delightedly. Barry thanked him in a dazed way.

Every one crowded in to shake his hand. Barry thanked then all in a dazed way.

And then the senior day-room, in spite of the fact that Milton had returned, gave itself up to celebrating the occasion with one of the most deafening uproars that had ever been heard even in that factory of noise. A babel of voices discussed the match of the afternoon, each trying to outshout the other. In one corner Linton was beating wildly on a biscuit-tin with part of a broken chair. Shoeblossom was busy in the opposite corner executing an intricate step-dance on somebody else's box. M'Todd had got hold of the red-hot poker, and was burning his initials in huge letters on the seat of a chair. Every one, in short, was enjoying himself, and it was not until an advanced hour that comparative quiet was restored. It was a great evening for Barry, the best he had ever experienced.

Clowes did not learn the news till he saw it on the notice-board, on the following Monday. When he saw it he whistled softly.

"I see you've given Barry his first," he said to Trevor, when they met. "Rather sensational."

"Milton and Allardyce both thought he deserved it. If he'd been playing instead of Rand-Brown, they wouldn't have scored at all probably, and we should have got one more try."

"That's all right," said Clowes. "He deserves it right enough, and I'm jolly glad you've given it him. But things will begin to move now, don't you think? The League ought to have a word to say about the business. It'll be a facer for them."

"Do you remember," asked Trevor, "saying that you thought it must be Rand-Brown who wrote those letters?"

"Yes. Well?"

"Well, Milton had an idea that it was Rand-Brown who ragged his study."

"What made him think that?"

Trevor related the Shoeblossom incident.

Clowes became quite excited.

"Then Rand-Brown must be the man," he said. "Why don't you go and tackle him? Probably he's got the bat in his study."

"It's not in his study," said Trevor, "because I looked everywhere for it, and got him to turn out his pockets, too. And yet I'll swear he knows something about it. One thing struck me as a bit suspicious. I went straight into his study and showed him that last letter--about the bat, you know, and accused him of writing it. Now, if he hadn't been in the business somehow, he wouldn't have understood what was meant by their saying 'the bat you lost'. It might have been an ordinary cricket-bat for all he knew. But he offered to let me search the study. It didn't strike me as rum till afterwards. Then it seemed fishy. What do you think?"

Clowes thought so too, but admitted that he did not see of what use the suspicion was going to be. Whether Rand-Brown knew anything about the affair or not, it was quite certain that the bat was not with him.

O'Hara, meanwhile, had decided that the time had come for him to resume his detective duties. Moriarty agreed with him, and they resolved that that night they would patronise the vault instead of the gymnasium, and take a holiday as far as their boxing was concerned. There was plenty of time before the Aldershot competition.

Lock-up was still at six, so at a quarter to that hour they slipped down into the vault, and took up their position.

A quarter of an hour passed. The lock-up bell sounded faintly. Moriarty began to grow tired.

"Is it worth it?" he said, "an' wouldn't they have come before, if they meant to come?"

"We'll give them another quarter of an hour," said O'Hara. "After that--"

"Sh!" whispered Moriarty.

The door had opened. They could see a figure dimly outlined in the semi-darkness. Footsteps passed down into the vault, and there came a sound as if the unknown had cannoned into a chair, followed by a sharp intake of breath, expressive of pain. A scraping sound, and a flash of light, and part of the vault was lit by a candle. O'Hara caught a glimpse of the unknown's face as he rose from lighting the candle, but it was not enough to enable him to recognise him. The candle was standing on a chair, and the light it gave was too feeble to reach the face of any one not on a level with it.

The unknown began to drag chairs out into the neighbourhood of the light. O'Hara counted six.

The sixth chair had scarcely been placed in position when the door opened again. Six other figures appeared in the opening one after the other, and bolted into the vault like rabbits into a burrow. The last of them closed the door after them.

O'Hara nudged Moriarty, and Moriarty nudged O'Hara; but neither made a sound. They were not likely to be seen--the blackness of the vault was too Egyptian for that--but they were so near to the chairs that the least whisper must have been heard. Not a word had proceeded from the occupants of the chairs so far. If O'Hara's suspicion was correct, and this was really the League holding a meeting, their methods were more secret than those of any other secret society in existence. Even the Nihilists probably exchanged a few remarks from time to time, when they met together to plot. But these men of mystery never opened their lips. It puzzled O'Hara.

The light of the candle was obscured for a moment, and a sound of puffing came from the darkness.

O'Hara nudged Moriarty again.

"Smoking!" said the nudge.

Moriarty nudged O'Hara.

"Smoking it is!" was the meaning of the movement.

A strong smell of tobacco showed that the diagnosis had been a true one. Each of the figures in turn lit his pipe at the candle, and sat back, still in silence. It could not have been very pleasant, smoking in almost pitch darkness, but it was breaking rules, which was probably the main consideration that swayed the smokers. They puffed away steadily, till the two Irishmen were wrapped about in invisible clouds.

Then a strange thing happened. I know that I am infringing copyright in making that statement, but it so exactly suits the occurrence, that perhaps Mr Rider Haggard will not object. It was a strange thing that happened.

A rasping voice shattered the silence.

"You boys down there," said the voice, "come here immediately. Come here, I say."

It was the well-known voice of Mr Robert Dexter, O'Hara and Moriarty's beloved house-master.

The two Irishmen simultaneously clutched one another, each afraid that the other would think--from force of long habit--that the house-master was speaking to him. Both stood where they were. It was the men of mystery and tobacco that Dexter was after, they thought.

But they were wrong. What had brought Dexter to the vault was the fact that he had seen two boys, who looked uncommonly like O'Hara and Moriarty, go down the steps of the vault at a quarter to six. He had been doing his usual after-lock-up prowl on the junior gravel, to intercept stragglers, and he had been a witness--from a distance of fifty yards, in a very bad light--of the descent into the vault. He had remained on the gravel ever since, in the hope of catching them as they came up; but as they had not come up, he had determined to make the first move himself. He had not seen the six unknowns go down, for, the evening being chilly, he had paced up and down, and they had by a lucky accident chosen a moment when his back was turned.

"Come up immediately," he repeated.

Here a blast of tobacco-smoke rushed at him from the darkness. The candle had been extinguished at the first alarm, and he had not realised--though he had suspected it--that smoking had been going on.

A hurried whispering was in progress among the unknowns. Apparently they saw that the game was up, for they picked their way towards the door.

As each came up the steps and passed him, Mr Dexter observed "Ha!" and appeared to make a note of his name. The last of the six was just leaving him after this process had been completed, when Mr Dexter called him back.

"That is not all," he said, suspiciously.

"Yes, sir," said the last of the unknowns.

Neither of the Irishmen recognised the voice. Its owner was a stranger to them.

"I tell you it is not," snapped Mr Dexter. "You are concealing the truth from me. O'Hara and Moriarty are down there--two boys in my own house. I saw them go down there."

"They had nothing to do with us, sir. We saw nothing of them."

"I have no doubt," said the house-master, "that you imagine that you are doing a very chivalrous thing by trying to hide them, but you will gain nothing by it. You may go."

He came to the top of the steps, and it seemed as if he intended to plunge into the darkness in search of the suspects. But, probably realising the futility of such a course, he changed his mind, and delivered an ultimatum from the top step.

"O'Hara and Moriarty."

No reply.

"O'Hara and Moriarty, I know perfectly well that you are down there. Come up immediately."

Dignified silence from the vault.

"Well, I shall wait here till you do choose to come up. You would be well advised to do so immediately. I warn you you will not tire me out."

He turned, and the door slammed behind him.

"What'll we do?" whispered Moriarty. It was at last safe to whisper.

"Wait," said O'Hara, "I'm thinking."

O'Hara thought. For many minutes he thought in vain. At last there came flooding back into his mind a memory of the days of his faghood. It was after that that he had been groping all the time. He remembered now. Once in those days there had been an unexpected function in the middle of term. There were needed for that function certain chairs. He could recall even now his furious disgust when he and a select body of fellow fags had been pounced upon by their form-master, and coerced into forming a line from the junior block to the cloisters, for the purpose of handing chairs. True, his form-master had stood ginger-beer after the event, with princely liberality, but the labour was of the sort that gallons of ginger-beer will not make pleasant. But he ceased to regret the episode now. He had been at the extreme end of the chair-handling chain. He had stood in a passage in the junior block, just by the door that led to the masters' garden, and which--he remembered--was never locked till late at night. And while he stood there, a pair of hands--apparently without a body--had heaved up chair after chair through a black opening in the floor. In other words, a trap-door connected with the vault in which he now was.

He imparted these reminiscences of childhood to Moriarty. They set off to search for the missing door, and, after wanderings and barkings of shins too painful to relate, they found it. Moriarty lit a match. The light fell on the trap-door, and their last doubts were at an end. The thing opened inwards. The bolt was on their side, not in the passage above them. To shoot the bolt took them one second, to climb into the passage one minute. They stood at the side of the opening, and dusted their clothes.

"Bedad!" said Moriarty, suddenly.

"What?"

"Why, how are we to shut it?"

This was a problem that wanted some solving. Eventually they managed it, O'Hara leaning over and fishing for it, while Moriarty held his legs.

As luck would have it--and luck had stood by them well all through--there was a bolt on top of the trap-door, as well as beneath it.

"Supposing that had been shot!" said O'Hara, as they fastened the door in its place.

Moriarty did not care to suppose anything so unpleasant.

Mr Dexter was still prowling about on the junior gravel, when the two Irishmen ran round and across the senior gravel to the gymnasium. Here they put in a few minutes' gentle sparring, and then marched boldly up to Mr Day (who happened to have looked in five minutes after their arrival) and got their paper.

"What time did O'Hara and Moriarty arrive at the gymnasium?" asked Mr Dexter of Mr Day next morning.

"O'Hara and Moriarty? Really, I can't remember. I know they left at about a quarter to seven."

That profound thinker, Mr Tony Weller, was never so correct as in his views respecting the value of an alibi. There are few better things in an emergency.