XVIII. O'Hara Excels Himself.
 

It was Renford's turn next morning to get up and feed the ferrets. Harvey had done it the day before.

Renford was not a youth who enjoyed early rising, but in the cause of the ferrets he would have endured anything, so at six punctually he slid out of bed, dressed quietly, so as not to disturb the rest of the dormitory, and ran over to the vault. To his utter amazement he found it locked. Such a thing had never been done before in the whole course of his experience. He tugged at the handle, but not an inch or a fraction of an inch would the door yield. The policy of the Open Door had ceased to find favour in the eyes of the authorities.

A feeling of blank despair seized upon him. He thought of the dismay of the ferrets when they woke up and realised that there was no chance of breakfast for them. And then they would gradually waste away, and some day somebody would go down to the vault to fetch chairs, and would come upon two mouldering skeletons, and wonder what they had once been. He almost wept at the vision so conjured up.

There was nobody about. Perhaps he might break in somehow. But then there was nothing to get to work with. He could not kick the door down. No, he must give it up, and the ferrets' breakfast-hour must be postponed. Possibly Harvey might be able to think of something.

"Fed 'em?" inquired Harvey, when they met at breakfast.

"No, I couldn't."

"Why on earth not? You didn't oversleep yourself?"

Renford poured his tale into his friend's shocked ears.

"My hat!" said Harvey, when he had finished, "what on earth are we to do? They'll starve."

Renford nodded mournfully.

"Whatever made them go and lock the door?" he said.

He seemed to think the authorities should have given him due notice of such an action.

"You're sure they have locked it? It isn't only stuck or something?"

"I lugged at the handle for hours. But you can go and see for yourself if you like."

Harvey went, and, waiting till the coast was clear, attached himself to the handle with a prehensile grasp, and put his back into one strenuous tug. It was even as Renford had said. The door was locked beyond possibility of doubt.

Renford and he went over to school that morning with long faces and a general air of acute depression. It was perhaps fortunate for their purpose that they did, for had their appearance been normal it might not have attracted O'Hara's attention. As it was, the Irishman, meeting them on the junior gravel, stopped and asked them what was wrong. Since the adventure in the vault, he had felt an interest in Renford and Harvey.

The two told their story in alternate sentences like the Strophe and Antistrophe of a Greek chorus. ("Steichomuthics," your Greek scholar calls it, I fancy. Ha, yes! Just so.)

"So ye can't get in because they've locked the door, an' ye don't know what to do about it?" said O'Hara, at the conclusion of the narrative.

Renford and Harvey informed him in chorus that that was the state of the game up to present date.

"An' ye want me to get them out for you?"

Neither had dared to hope that he would go so far as this. What they had looked for had been at the most a few thoughtful words of advice. That such a master-strategist as O'Hara should take up their cause was an unexampled piece of good luck.

"If you only would," said Harvey.

"We should be most awfully obliged," said Renford.

"Very well," said O'Hara.

They thanked him profusely.

O'Hara replied that it would be a privilege.

He should be sorry, he said, to have anything happen to the ferrets.

Renford and Harvey went on into school feeling more cheerful. If the ferrets could be extracted from their present tight corner, O'Hara was the man to do it.

O'Hara had not made his offer of assistance in any spirit of doubt. He was certain that he could do what he had promised. For it had not escaped his memory that this was a Tuesday--in other words, a mathematics morning up to the quarter to eleven interval. That meant, as has been explained previously, that, while the rest of the school were in the form-rooms, he would be out in the passage, if he cared to be. There would be no witnesses to what he was going to do.

But, by that curious perversity of fate which is so often noticeable, Mr Banks was in a peculiarly lamb-like and long-suffering mood this morning. Actions for which O'Hara would on other days have been expelled from the room without hope of return, today were greeted with a mild "Don't do that, please, O'Hara," or even the ridiculously inadequate "O'Hara!" It was perfectly disheartening. O'Hara began to ask himself bitterly what was the use of ragging at all if this was how it was received. And the moments were flying, and his promise to Renford and Harvey still remained unfulfilled.

He prepared for fresh efforts.

So desperate was he, that he even resorted to crude methods like the throwing of paper balls and the dropping of books. And when your really scientific ragger sinks to this, he is nearing the end of his tether. O'Hara hated to be rude, but there seemed no help for it.

The striking of a quarter past ten improved his chances. It had been privily agreed upon beforehand amongst the members of the class that at a quarter past ten every one was to sneeze simultaneously. The noise startled Mr Banks considerably. The angelic mood began to wear off. A man may be long-suffering, but he likes to draw the line somewhere.

"Another exhibition like that," he said, sharply, "and the class stays in after school, O'Hara!"

"Sir?"

"Silence."

"I said nothing, sir, really."

"Boy, you made a cat-like noise with your mouth."

"What sort of noise, sir?"

The form waited breathlessly. This peculiarly insidious question had been invented for mathematical use by one Sandys, who had left at the end of the previous summer. It was but rarely that the master increased the gaiety of nations by answering the question in the manner desired.

Mr Banks, off his guard, fell into the trap.

"A noise like this," he said curtly, and to the delighted audience came the melodious sound of a "Mi-aou", which put O'Hara's effort completely in the shade, and would have challenged comparison with the war-cry of the stoutest mouser that ever trod a tile.

A storm of imitations arose from all parts of the room. Mr Banks turned pink, and, going straight to the root of the disturbance, forthwith evicted O'Hara.

O'Hara left with the satisfying feeling that his duty had been done.

Mr Banks' room was at the top of the middle block. He ran softly down the stairs at his best pace. It was not likely that the master would come out into the passage to see if he was still there, but it might happen, and it would be best to run as few risks as possible.

He sprinted over to the junior block, raised the trap-door, and jumped down. He knew where the ferrets had been placed, and had no difficulty in finding them. In another minute he was in the passage again, with the trap-door bolted behind him.

He now asked himself--what should he do with them? He must find a safe place, or his labours would have been in vain.

Behind the fives-court, he thought, would be the spot. Nobody ever went there. It meant a run of three hundred yards there and the same distance back, and there was more than a chance that he might be seen by one of the Powers. In which case he might find it rather hard to explain what he was doing in the middle of the grounds with a couple of ferrets in his possession when the hands of the clock pointed to twenty minutes to eleven.

But the odds were against his being seen. He risked it.

When the bell rang for the quarter to eleven interval the ferrets were in their new home, happily discussing a piece of meat--Renford's contribution, held over from the morning's meal,--and O'Hara, looking as if he had never left the passage for an instant, was making his way through the departing mathematical class to apologise handsomely to Mr Banks--as was his invariable custom--for his disgraceful behaviour during the morning's lesson.