IX. Mainly About Ferrets.
 

"Ow!" exclaimed the captive, with no uncertain voice. "Let go, you ass, you're hurting."

The voice was a treble voice. This surprised O'Hara. It looked very much as if he had put up the wrong bird. From the dimensions of the arm which he was holding, his prisoner seemed to be of tender years.

"Let go, Harvey, you idiot. I shall kick."

Before the threat could be put into execution, O'Hara, who had been fumbling all this while in his pocket for a match, found one loose, and struck a light. The features of the owner of the arm--he was still holding it--were lit up for a moment.

"Why, it's young Renford!" he exclaimed. "What are you doing down here?"

Renford, however, continued to pursue the topic of his arm, and the effect that the vice-like grip of the Irishman had had upon it.

"You've nearly broken it," he said, complainingly.

"I'm sorry. I mistook you for somebody else. Who's that with you?"

"It's me," said an ungrammatical voice.

"Who's me?"

"Harvey."

At this point a soft yellow light lit up the more immediate neighbourhood. Harvey had brought a bicycle lamp into action.

"That's more like it," said Renford. "Look here, O'Hara, you won't split, will you?"

"I'm not an informer by profession, thanks," said O'Hara.

"Oh, I know it's all right, really, but you can't be too careful, because one isn't allowed down here, and there'd be a beastly row if it got out about our being down here."

"And they would be cobbed," put in Harvey.

"Who are they?" asked O'Hara.

"Ferrets. Like to have a look at them?"

"Ferrets!"

"Yes. Harvey brought back a couple at the beginning of term. Ripping little beasts. We couldn't keep them in the house, as they'd have got dropped on in a second, so we had to think of somewhere else, and thought why not keep them down here?"

"Why, indeed?" said O'Hara. "Do ye find they like it?"

"Oh, they don't mind," said Harvey. "We feed 'em twice a day. Once before breakfast--we take it in turns to get up early--and once directly after school. And on half-holidays and Sundays we take them out on to the downs."

"What for?"

"Why, rabbits, of course. Renford brought back a saloon-pistol with him. We keep it locked up in a box--don't tell any one."

"And what do ye do with the rabbits?"

"We pot at them as they come out of the holes."

"Yes, but when ye hit 'em?"

"Oh," said Renford, with some reluctance, "we haven't exactly hit any yet."

"We've got jolly near, though, lots of times," said Harvey. "Last Saturday I swear I wasn't more than a quarter of an inch off one of them. If it had been a decent-sized rabbit, I should have plugged it middle stump; only it was a small one, so I missed. But come and see them. We keep 'em right at the other end of the place, in case anybody comes in."

"Have you ever seen anybody down here?" asked O'Hara.

"Once," said Renford. "Half-a-dozen chaps came down here once while we were feeding the ferrets. We waited till they'd got well in, then we nipped out quietly. They didn't see us."

"Did you see who they were?"

"No. It was too dark. Here they are. Rummy old crib this, isn't it? Look out for your shins on the chairs. Switch on the light, Harvey. There, aren't they rippers? Quite tame, too. They know us quite well. They know they're going to be fed, too. Hullo, Sir Nigel! This is Sir Nigel. Out of the 'White Company', you know. Don't let him nip your fingers. This other one's Sherlock Holmes."

"Cats-s-s--s!!" said O'Hara. He had a sort of idea that that was the right thing to say to any animal that could chase and bite.

Renford was delighted to be able to show his ferrets off to so distinguished a visitor.

"What were you down here about?" inquired Harvey, when the little animals had had their meal, and had retired once more into private life.

O'Hara had expected this question, but he did not quite know what answer to give. Perhaps, on the whole, he thought, it would be best to tell them the real reason. If he refused to explain, their curiosity would be roused, which would be fatal. And to give any reason except the true one called for a display of impromptu invention of which he was not capable. Besides, they would not be likely to give away his secret while he held this one of theirs connected with the ferrets. He explained the situation briefly, and swore them to silence on the subject.

Renford's comment was brief.

"By Jove!" he observed.

Harvey went more deeply into the question.

"What makes you think they meet down here?" he asked.

"I saw some fellows cutting out of here last night. And you say ye've seen them here, too. I don't see what object they could have down here if they weren't the League holding a meeting. I don't see what else a chap would be after."

"He might be keeping ferrets," hazarded Renford.

"The whole school doesn't keep ferrets," said O'Hara. "You're unique in that way. No, it must be the League, an' I mean to wait here till they come."

"Not all night?" asked Harvey. He had a great respect for O'Hara, whose reputation in the school for out-of-the-way doings was considerable. In the bright lexicon of O'Hara he believed there to be no such word as "impossible."

"No," said O'Hara, "but till lock-up. You two had better cut now."

"Yes, I think we'd better," said Harvey.

"And don't ye breathe a word about this to a soul"--a warning which extracted fervent promises of silence from both youths.

"This," said Harvey, as they emerged on to the gravel, "is something like. I'm jolly glad we're in it."

"Rather. Do you think O'Hara will catch them?"

"He must if he waits down there long enough. They're certain to come again. Don't you wish you'd been here when the League was on before?"

"I should think I did. Race you over to the shop. I want to get something before it shuts."

"Right ho!" And they disappeared.

O'Hara waited where he was till six struck from the clock-tower, followed by the sound of the bell as it rang for lock-up. Then he picked his way carefully through the groves of chairs, barking his shins now and then on their out-turned legs, and, pushing open the door, went out into the open air. It felt very fresh and pleasant after the brand of atmosphere supplied in the vault. He then ran over to the gymnasium to meet Moriarty, feeling a little disgusted at the lack of success that had attended his detective efforts up to the present. So far he had nothing to show for his trouble except a good deal of dust on his clothes, and a dirty collar, but he was full of determination. He could play a waiting game.

It was a pity, as it happened, that O'Hara left the vault when he did. Five minutes after he had gone, six shadowy forms made their way silently and in single file through the doorway of the vault, which they closed carefully behind them. The fact that it was after lock-up was of small consequence. A good deal of latitude in that way was allowed at Wrykyn. It was the custom to go out, after the bell had sounded, to visit the gymnasium. In the winter and Easter terms, the gymnasium became a sort of social club. People went there with a very small intention of doing gymnastics. They went to lounge about, talking to cronies, in front of the two huge stoves which warmed the place. Occasionally, as a concession to the look of the thing, they would do an easy exercise or two on the horse or parallels, but, for the most part, they preferred the role of spectator. There was plenty to see. In one corner O'Hara and Moriarty would be sparring their nightly six rounds (in two batches of three rounds each). In another, Drummond, who was going up to Aldershot as a feather-weight, would be putting in a little practice with the instructor. On the apparatus, the members of the gymnastic six, including the two experts who were to carry the school colours to Aldershot in the spring, would be performing their usual marvels. It was worth dropping into the gymnasium of an evening. In no other place in the school were so many sights to be seen.

When you were surfeited with sightseeing, you went off to your house. And this was where the peculiar beauty of the gymnasium system came in. You went up to any master who happened to be there--there was always one at least--and observed in suave accents, "Please, sir, can I have a paper?" Whereupon, he, taking a scrap of paper, would write upon it, "J. O. Jones (or A. B. Smith or C. D. Robinson) left gymnasium at such-and-such a time". And, by presenting this to the menial who opened the door to you at your house, you went in rejoicing, and all was peace.

Now, there was no mention on the paper of the hour at which you came to the gymnasium--only of the hour at which you left. Consequently, certain lawless spirits would range the neighbourhood after lock-up, and, by putting in a quarter of an hour at the gymnasium before returning to their houses, escape comment. To this class belonged the shadowy forms previously mentioned.

O'Hara had forgotten this custom, with the result that he was not at the vault when they arrived. Moriarty, to whom he confided between the rounds the substance of his evening's discoveries, reminded him of it. "It's no good watching before lock-up," he said. "After six is the time they'll come, if they come at all."

"Bedad, ye're right," said O'Hara. "One of these nights we'll take a night off from boxing, and go and watch."

"Right," said Moriarty. "Are ye ready to go on?"

"Yes. I'm going to practise that left swing at the body this round. The one Fitzsimmons does." And they "put 'em up" once more.