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If Mr. Anderson, the junior English master, had not happened to meet some friends as he was on his way to the swimming-bath with the boys, this chapter would not have been written. But they were old friends, and very unexpected, who were only visiting Elmridge for an hour or two. So he acted as I suppose nine out of ten young men would have acted in the same circumstances.

“Look here, boys,” he said, running after the nearest group. “Can I trust you to go on quietly to the baths by yourselves? I shall follow you very shortly. You can all have your dip, and dress, and by that time I shall be with you. You won’t get into mischief, and play pranks, will you? Promise!”

The four boys he addressed promised readily.

“Right! Green, you’re one of the seniors; I put you in charge. See that all goes on just as if I were there. No one stay in the water more than twelve minutes.”

“Very well, sir!”

And Mr. Anderson departed with light heart and clear conscience.

It was only a couple of days since the term began, and the very chilling reception accorded to the day-scholars had made friendly advances between the two factions next to impossible. A distant toleration was just now the recognized attitude.

But there were two people who were “not playing the game”. One was Jack Brady, who persisted in walking first with one party and then the other, and refused point-blank to be distant towards anyone. The other was the youngest scholar of Brincliffe, one Hugill Trevelyan, commonly known as “Toppin”. He was only seven, and did not understand the meaning of a civil war. Toppin had been sent to school with his elder brother Escombe because his parents were abroad.

The March Hare (Massimiliano Graglia, to give him once for all his right name), who was two years Toppin’s senior, and therefore better able to quarrel to order without knowing the reason why, had a great affection for him, and, when possible, would take charge of him. Toppin being a very independent young man, however, this was not often possible. More frequently he would patronize the March Hare, and explain to him English words or ways that were puzzling.

It chanced that this afternoon three day-boys, Bacon, Armitage, and Simmons, were in advance of the rest of the school, who were sauntering behind in clusters of threes and fours. Hughes was not with Simmons, being forbidden by his doctor to indulge in swimming at present. Bacon looked back just as Mr. Anderson was turning in the opposite direction with his friends.

“Hullo, what sport!” he exclaimed. “Andy’s given us the slip!”

“Be joyful! Let’s race for the best boxes!” said Armitage. “We shall be in the water long before the other slow-coaches have reached the baths. One, two, three off!”

Now Toppin was one of the group behind, and being naturally fleet of foot, a race was a thing he could not resist. So he took to his heels and pursued them.

Jack Brady and the March Hare were walking with Toppin, and if it had been practicable, the Hare would have accompanied him in the race, but if there was one thing of which the March Hare was incapable, it was running. Jack, who had found this out, checked him from making the attempt.

“Let Toppin go, Harey, and you stay with me,” he said. There was a look of satisfaction on his face. It was fine to see even the smallest boarder chevying three day-boys!

Toppin ran his fastest, and panted into the baths only a yard behind Simmons.

“Why, if here isn’t the kid! What the dickens has brought you after us, young un?”

“I saw you racing,” panted Toppin, “and I wanted to see if I couldn’t catch you. And I did!”

His thick red hair was tumbled by the wind, and the odd little tuft which had won him his nickname stuck up very prominently. The small pink face was aglow with triumph, as he stood gasping for breath, and looking up at the three older boys, his hands planted in his pockets and his feet apart.

“You’re a boarder,” said Armitage, with a touch of contempt.

“I should think I am! Rather!” was Toppin’s proud reply.

“Well, you’d better trot back to your friends, and bathe with them. We’re not going to wait for anyone.”

“Nor aren’t I,” said Toppin carelessly.

“Come on!” shouted Simmons from a box. “Don’t waste time!”

Preparation for a bath is not a long process with a boy. Garments were dragged off and tossed about, and in a minute they were ready, and dancing round the edge of the clear green water.

Avoiding the steps as a matter of course, Toppin was swinging his arms preparatory to jumping into the shallow end, when, seeing Simmons skipping along the plank that led to the diving-board, in the part where the water was marked “5 ft.”, he paused to watch. Simmons raised his hands above his head, curved his body, and dived.

“Oo!” cried Toppin admiringly.

Presently a head appeared, rolling round and blowing. Simmons was swimming towards Toppin. Bacon was now preparing to take a header.

“I say, Lucy, you’re not a tall chap. No more aren’t I. Why can’t I swim and dive?”

“It isn’t size that’s needed, it’s talent,” observed Simmons, treading water, as he winked at the little fellow.

“Rot!” said Toppin decidedly. There was a loud splash. Bacon had vanished.

“Up he comes again!” cried Toppin, clapping his hands in an ecstasy. “Oh, I’m going to dive to-day. You can see how easy it is. Let me have a shot before the others come, case I fail.”

“Better wait a year or two, Top,” said Simmons, deliberately turning a somersault.

“I’m bovvered if I do!” cried Toppin, scampering round to the diving-board. He was in a state of great excitement. “I’m going to dive, and turn head over heels, and stamp in the water, just like you.”

“Oh, let the nipper see what he can do!” said Armitage, laughing. He was standing on the diving-board. “There’s nothing like beginning early. Can you swim, kiddie?”

“Not not far,” said Toppin cautiously. “I can swim with my arms all right, only I sometimes put one foot on the ground.”

“If you don’t swim, you’ll sink, you know,” explained Armitage. “This is deep water.”

“Not so very; only five feet,” rejoined Toppin. “I’m not funky. Of course I know how to swim. I’ve watched frogs awfully closely.”

“Well, then, up with your hands same as you saw the other two.”

Toppin lifted them high, the tips of his fingers met in the approved style, and he took a long breath. Then, gradually, his hands fell back to his sides, and the breath ended in a sigh. Armitage pushed the child impatiently aside.

“Get away, you silly little coward! I’m not going to waste my time standing over you. Go back to the shallow end, and dance at the ropes. We’ll come over and duck you.”

Toppin was quivering, but his face flushed crimson, and, thrusting himself forward once more, he laid a hand pleadingly on Armitage’s wrist. At the same moment a clatter on the stone stairs told of the approach of section number two.

“Give us one more chance, Armie, please! I promise not to funk it again. Listen, they’re just coming!”

“You’ll not do it,” said Armitage.

“Won’t I, though! Look here! count three, and then give me a tiny push.”

As Jack and the March Hare entered the saloon they heard Armitage say, “Very well. One, two, three; now go!”

There was a faint, quickly-checked cry, and then a little splash. Toppin was under the water.

The same instant the March Hare hat, boots, and all had leapt in, and was fighting his way towards the deep end.

Jack’s first impulse was to tear off his coat and follow the Hare’s example; but when he saw a little red head appear and immediately be captured, and when he realized that Bacon, Simmons, and Armitage were all swimming to the rescue, he refrained.

Although the March Hare was the first to lay hold of Toppin’s crest, the next minute he was himself in need of rescue. The Hare had only advanced to the swimming stage when both hands and feet are absolutely necessary, and the pause to seize his friend had sufficed, when combined with the weight of his garments, to sink him; so Toppin dived for the second time, in company with the March Hare.

“Quick!” yelled Jack, “or there’ll be two drowned! Shall I come?”

But the pair had risen again, and were clutched and violently wrenched apart by Armitage and Bacon. For the March Hare’s grip of the red locks was very tight.

Bacon found Toppin fairly easy to land, but the Hare, in full walking costume, was quite another matter, and Simmons’s help was required. Besides, Toppin kept quiet when commanded to, while the March Hare fought and struggled, and had to have his head thumped severely. Fortunately the steps were not far off, and Jack awaited them there.

He was frightened when he saw that Toppin’s familiar little pink face had changed to an ivory-white, and that his eyes were shut. Was he senseless, or worse? Jack grasped the small, dripping body in his arms, and staggered to where the bell hung that summoned the attendant. He pealed it loudly, and sank down beneath it to wait. Other boys had arrived during the incident, and were now pressing round, questioning and jabbering. Jack had nothing to say to them. He was hard at work chafing the motionless form, and his brain was in a whirl. What if Toppin never moved or spoke again!

Suddenly the eyelids lifted: Toppin looked straight into Jack’s face.

“May I move now?” he asked innocently. Oh, what a relief it was to hear his voice!

“You young fraud!” exclaimed Jack; but his own voice shook, and he was glad to surrender his charge into the hands of the attendant, a man trained for his position. The March Hare, who was shivering beside him, sobbed with joy when he saw one small leg draw itself up, and an arm move a few inches, at their owner’s will.

“Top-peen! Top-peen!” he cried. “You are not died!”

Toppin stared at his friend over a tea-spoon. He was sipping hot spirits-and-water, and wondering what it was. But Jack turned upon the March Hare.

“We shall be standing you head downwards in a minute, Hare. You’re next door to drowning yourself. Get up, and come with me!”

The Hare protested feebly, with chattering teeth. But the attendant thrust a spoonful of Toppin’s drink between them, and counselled Jack to take him to his wife. That good woman stripped the Hare in a twinkling, wrapped him in a blanket, and set him before her kitchen fire to watch his garments dry. Jack meanwhile returned to the saloon, to find Toppin clothed once more, and curled up on the matting, near the heating apparatus, munching a biscuit.

“How do you feel now, Top?” he asked, stooping to see his face.

“Pretty bobbish, thanks, Brady,” was the answer, and it told that Toppin was himself again.

“You’ll have to look sharp if you want a dip, Brady,” called Green. “Andy’ll be round in a minute, I expect.”

“Thanks! I’m not bathing to-day,” was the response.

Just then Escombe Trevelyan, who was swimming lazily about, landed at the steps close by, and beckoned Jack to come nearer.

“I want to hear the truth of this affair, Brady,” he began in a confidential undertone. “Did you see it happen?”

“Which part? I saw the March Hare leap in with his hat on his head and his towel on his arm. He did look properly mad, I can tell you!”

“I mean before that, when Toppin went under.”

“They say he actually took a dive from the board, don’t they?”

“Yes, but I want to get hold of someone who saw it. I can’t understand his being such an absolute little fool, and I can’t worry the kid himself about it just at present.”

So saying, Escombe swam off once more.

Armitage was the next to approach Jack. He looked rather pale, but began by talking rapidly about a paper-chase that was being planned. Jack knew well enough that this was not what he wanted to talk about, but he walked away from the bath with him, still pleasantly discussing starts and times, till they found themselves alone on the stone stairs. Then Armitage came to a stand-still, and his tone changed.

“Brady, I want to speak to you; I want to explain, you know, about Toppin.”

“Oh, I saw you push!” remarked Jack bluntly.

“I’m not going to deny it, but do you know that he begged me to? You came in too late to hear that.”

“If I hand you a pistol and ask you to shoot me, will you do it?”

“Don’t be a fool, Brady. There was no danger. I shouldn’t have let him drown.”

“He precious nearly did.”

“That was the March Hare’s fault. I shouldn’t have let him sink again.”

“Then you think you were right to push him in, Armitage? I don’t. Shall we ask Anderson’s opinion?”

“No, Jack, I beg and implore you to keep it dark. Of course I should never do it again. But Simmons and Bacon have sworn not to bring me into the affair. Toppin knows it was his own fault, and is a bit ashamed of it. There’s only the March Hare besides yourself. I thought perhaps you might persuade him

A shadow darkened the open entrance. There was a stamping on the door-mat, and then Mr. Anderson appeared on the stairs. Jack advanced to meet him.

“Finished your bath, Brady?”

“Yes, sir. I mean, I haven’t had one. All the rest have. I wanted to tell you there’s been a little a little commotion, sir.”

“What on earth do you mean? Not an accident?”

“No, sir; only it might have been. Toppin little Trevelyan, that is got into the deep end, and the March Hare you know the boy I mean, sir he thought he was drowning, and jumped in after him with his things on, and so they had to haul them both out. Toppin’s as right as a trivet again, and as warm as a toast. And the Hare isn’t hurt either, but he has to sit in a blanket and wait for his clothes to dry.”

Mr. Anderson looked very agitated, and his voice betrayed his feelings.

“Why couldn’t you behave as if I was with you? Really, it is absurd to think that all you elder lads can’t manage to keep an eye on the juniors for twenty minutes. Where are these two boys? Take me to them directly! What do you suppose Mr. West will say? He’ll certainly be extremely angry with you all. I shouldn’t be surprised if he stops your coming here.”

“We wondered whether you would feel obliged to tell him, sir,” said Jack thoughtfully. “Of course, if you must, you must; but it doesn’t seem as if there was much to be gained by it, does there? The March Hare and Toppin have learnt their lesson pretty thoroughly.”

Mr. Anderson frowned and bit his finger, and the toe of his boot tap-tapped on the ground. It was evident he was undecided. Presently he looked at Jack.

“You mean that, provided I find these two lads absolutely none the worse for their ducking, you beg me, as a great favour, not to carry a report to Mr. West?”

“Yes, sir,” Jack responded briskly.

“Well, I won’t promise, but I’ll think it over.”

Mr. Anderson’s thought ended in a decision which he announced to the boys when they were gathered together.

“For once, and once only, I have consented to spare you all from certain punishment by not reporting to Mr. West this accident, which you ought to have prevented. But you must never ask or expect to be shielded by me again. Now we will go for a brisk walk as usual, and call for Graglia and Trevelyan minor on the way back. I dare say they will be ready for us by that time.”

Now, none of the boys, except those immediately concerned in the accident, had realized that they were in any danger of punishment; but when the matter was set before them in this light, their gratitude to Mr. Anderson was profound.

“Oh, thank you!”

“Thank you, sir, very much!”

“It sha’n’t happen again, sir!”

“Thank you awfully, sir!”

Pleasure and surprise were equally mingled in the boys’ expressions. But
Jack caught a murmur from Cadbury, very soft and low,

“It’s six for us, and half a dozen for yourself, eh, Andy?”