Read CHAPTER VI of Jack of Both Sides The Story of a School War , free online book, by Florence Coombe, on ReadCentral.com.

THE MARCH HARE’S REVENGE

Cling, clang creak! Cling, clang creak! So the discordant bell sounded forth in the playground, the interval between the strokes being filled by a harsh, rusty squeak that set one’s teeth on edge. The message it bore to the boys was, “Come in quick! Come in quick!” For the time was ten minutes to nine, and the day that following the incident which was already known as the Chicken Row.

The monitors this week were Brady, Bacon, and Armitage, and they had already gone in to their duties. The old bell always went on ringing for two minutes, and the boys were in the habit of waiting until it was on the point of ceasing, when they obeyed it with a rush.

But on this particular morning the day-scholars seemed, for some reason best known to themselves, one and all consumed with zeal for their studies. At the first preparatory creak they made a simultaneous dash for the entrance, which caused much mirth amongst the boarders.

Cadbury waved his arm in their direction, and turned up his eyes with an air of mock tragedy, while he spouted with rolling “r’s”:

“How fair a sight it is to see
Youth lay aside its giddy glee,
Athirst for learning’s boundless sea!
How different from you and me!”

“My dear boys,” said Vickers, with pretended solemnity, “I require obedience in you, but I desire something more something which you can give, but I cannot command. That something is cheerful obedience ready obedience obedience that hurries gladly at the call of duty. And now that you see a pattern of such obedience, you might do worse than copy it.”

His imitation of Mr. West’s emphatic voice and rather studied manner was so true to life that it was greeted with a roar of laughter, and for once Vickers had the gratification of seeing his wit appreciated. The very phrase, “you might do worse”, was a favourite with the head-master, and one which the boys had long ago selected for mimicry.

But now there came the faint, irregular stroke that foretold the stopping of the bell, and the boys moved quickly towards the entrance, and began to jostle one another in their haste. On reaching the door, however, much fumbling and kicking began.

“Hi, you in front there! Look sharp and go in! We’re waiting!” cried Hallett in a voice of angry authority, and pushing commenced in the rear.

“It’s no good pushing; it’s stuck!” was holloaed back, and the kicking and banging increased in vigour.

“What nonsense! Let me come! It must be opened! Won’t Pepper wire into us in a minute!”

Green elbowed his way to the front, and turned the handle violently. Only once, and then he faced round with the exclamation, “You fools! It’s locked!”

At which news much breath and a little time were wasted in furious threats towards those by whom they had been tricked.

“Won’t they pay for this!”

“West shall hear if they don’t let us in sharp.”

“I’ll knock their heads together when I do get in!”

“The impudent beggars! We’ll give them such a lesson!”

But within all was glee and triumph. Simmons and Bacon fairly danced with malicious satisfaction, whilst Armitage and Mason chuckled grimly.

“What’ll they do? Go round to the front?”

“They’ll catch it if they do.”

“We shall too if the joke once reaches West,” said Jack. “Don’t you think you might wind up the trick now, and let them in?”

“All in good time,” said Mason coolly. The banging at the entrance grew terrific, and though separated from the first class-room by a long passage, he had to raise his voice to be heard above it. “Let’s be quite sure that we’re ready for them. You Bacon and Armitage have you done your job?”

“Yes, properly.”

“We ought to, for we’ve been at it nearly half an hour.”

“And you others Brady, Ethel, Lucy, et cetera you’ve all got your books ready?”

“Ay, ay, sir,” laughed Simmons.

“What was your job, Armie?” asked Jack. He had been engrossed in inking new slates.

Armitage smothered a laugh.

“Muddling, Jack, my boy, muddling! And a truly artistic muddle have we made. It’s been a game of ‘General Post’ with the books. The dictionaries have taken the atlases’ place, the Greek grammars have deposed the Latins, and

“Hist!” interrupted Jack. “I smell Pepper! We must whistle to Ethel.” And without waiting for permission he did so.

“Ethel” was posted down the long passage by the school entrance, with instructions to turn the key back when he heard the signal. The sound of unlocking was drowned in the hubbub without, and, turning, he fled noiselessly up the passage and into the school-room, at the identical moment in which two others made their appearance there namely Mr. Peace, through the opposite door, and Norman Hallett outside the window!

“Now, then, where is everybody?” cried the fussy little master, seeing less than a dozen boys assembled for work. Then his eye fell on Hallett’s pale, angry face peering through the glass. “Why, Hallett outside? What’s the meaning of this? What’s the meaning of this?”

“Do you think perhaps they didn’t hear the bell, sir?” suggested Simmons. “They’ve been making rather a noise outside.”

Mr. Peace was not deceived by the boy’s demureness.

“You want your ears boxed, you rogue!” he began; but at that moment in surged a torrent of rather frightened, very wrathful boys, who had been unprofitably spending the last half-minute in striving with penknives to force the lock of the already unfastened door.

However, the rudiments of school honour forbade their furnishing the master with an account of the occurrence, and they had to content themselves with breathing dark threats to those day-boys who crossed their path in the frantic rush to the book-room.

At sight of that rush a few of the milder spirits, such as Hughes and Frere, held their breath in dreadful foreboding, while the unconscious Mr. Peace roared:

“Now, then, how long do you mean to stay in there? The clock’s on the strike. I mark every boy who isn’t in his place when it stops! Do you hear me? Do you hear me, I say?”

“No,” responded Cadbury, without thinking. Then, poking his head out, “What are we to do, sir, please? We can’t find our books. Everything is changed. It’s worse than a spring cleaning. Won’t you look and see, sir?”

Before the invitation could be answered, there was an impatient knock of authority in the school-room a rap of knuckles upon a desk and everyone knew what that meant. Mr. West had entered, and was being kept waiting.

With what books they had managed to grab some the right ones, many the wrong the boarders slunk red-faced to their places, there to realize their luck, and perchance to discover their mistakes. Cadbury had no book at all. Green found himself hugging Toppin’s Little Reader instead of Elementary Physics; and Hallett might make what use he could of the March Hare’s English Conversation when he came to open it.

The pages of the masters’ registers fairly bristled with black marks that unhappy morning. Grey was for bringing the enemy to book, and reporting his evil devices, but his elders quashed the proposal.

“You silly duffer! As if we couldn’t deal with them ourselves. Wait till lunch. There’s a rod in pickle for them, and they know it.”

Yes, the day-boys had a suspicion that there was a lively time approaching, but so set-up were they by their recent victory that they quite looked forward to it.

Jack was less happy. He read the resolve in the boarders’ faces, and knew that they saw no joke in that morning’s events. And he wondered where the war would end. It seemed the final upset of all those little efforts towards harmony and good-temper to which he had given himself from the hour of his arrival at Brincliffe.

Among the junior scholars sat a dark-complexioned boy with very white teeth. It was the March Hare. To-day there was a queer gleam in his eyes, and a flush of carmine in his sallow cheeks. His English Conversation was not to be found when wanted, and the fact called down upon him a sharp rebuke from a master, but his face expressed no regret.

“There must have been a ringleader in this,” remarked another boarder in his hearing during a momentary absence of the master. “I wish to goodness we knew who it was!”

“A reng-lidder?” repeated the March Hare. “I don’ know zat word. But if you mean ze boy who done ze much most ze baddest of all ze bads ah, I know him! Yes, I mark him long, long time. An’ I wait.”

“What d’ye mean, Harey? Who is it?”

“Nev-er mat-ter,” said the March Hare mysteriously; and at that point Mr. Anderson re-entered the room.

On went the hands of the clock. At one minute to eleven all was peaceful and orderly. At eleven the masters departed for the usual brief interval. At one minute past eleven all was war and tumult!

How, where, with whom the conflict commenced it is impossible to say. There was no warning, no formal outbreak only in a moment the quiet room became a battle-field, filled with a seething crowd of furious, struggling lads.

An odd feature of the battle was its comparative silence. It was to everyone’s interest to avoid attracting attention, and the sound of blows was louder than the sound of voices.

Here, Bacon was felled by Trevelyan; there, Vickers by Mason. The result was the same in either case. The fallen arose undaunted and without a word; only a look of keener determination settled on each face.

There was scarcely time for rallying, but, as far as was possible, the day-boys closed in together to resist the attack of their more numerous foes. Hughes and poor Frere both found themselves forced into battle, willy-nilly. Jack, whose natural instinct was to side with the weaker party, found neutrality impossible, and the part he had chosen very hard. The day-boys were prepared for his vagaries, but the boarders were perplexed and bewildered by his conduct. Was he partisan or traitor? One moment they saw him pressing his handkerchief to Green’s bleeding nose; the next he was forcing a way for plucky Simmons to reach his friends: now he must needs shut Toppin up in the book-room for safety against his will, of course; then he was heard imparting to the tearful Frere a few hints on self-defence.

Very soon there was no doubt in which direction the tide of victory was flowing. Numbers began to tell, and the day-boys were being forced steadily backwards towards the wall, away from the class-rooms, where they had hoped, if necessary, to be able to entrench themselves.

A foolish idea of making use of the long table suggested itself to Mason. A tug and a shove, and they had pulled it round to shield them.

“You lunatics! You’re giving them twenty fresh chances at once!” cried Jack desperately. “They can squeeze you into surrendering directly!”

“I believe he’s right!” muttered Bacon, and they strove to get free again.

But it was not easy to rid themselves of the table when once they were ranked behind it. The boarders saw their opportunity, and a last fierce combat began.

Something Jack never knew what it was suddenly impelled him to dive under the table.

“Oh, Jack, we don’t fight underground!” exclaimed Cadbury mockingly; but Jack paid no heed.

Cadbury was wrong; there was a very definite attack being made beneath cover of the table, where it was least suspected. An attack, too, of a kind that would have been thought impossible.

It was very dark under there, but Jack was at once certain that he was not the only hider from the light. A small, lithe figure was wriggling along the floor in front of him, passing one pair of legs after another, but scanning each in turn.

Jack’s hand was almost upon it. The words “This isn’t fair play!” were bursting from his lips, when the figure ceased to crawl. It was opposite a pair of ribbed brown stockings clothing two sturdy legs, when it stopped, and drew something forth from somewhere about its person.

At sight of this, a chill of horror seemed to freeze Jack, and for the moment he was struck dumb. Stiffly he put forward a hand which seized, as in a grip of iron, the thin right arm of the figure before him. It was the arm of the March Hare, and in its hand was an open penknife.

The sudden clutch was wholly unexpected, and the knife dropped. With his other hand Jack picked it up. As he did so, the March Hare uttered a cry. It was neither loud nor long, but there was something so startling in it that the commotion of the fight ceased suddenly, and in the midst of a strange stillness Jack emerged, dragging his captive by one hand, and holding the open penknife in the other.

If a white flag had been raised, the battle could not have ended more abruptly. For a few seconds nothing was heard but quick, short breaths on all sides. Presently Hallett’s voice, hoarse and low, asked:

“What does it mean, Brady?”

Jack, white to the lips, pointed from the Hare to Armitage, then to the spot where he had found him. The Hare was shivering and sobbing.

“Hallett I hear you say knifes war wiz knifes! I on’y go to ze Toppeen-drowner. I not wasn’ going to hurt on’y to preeck! I never hol’ knife no more! I promise! I swear!” here he crossed himself rapidly “I promise ’gain! I

But at this point the English language failed the Hare, who sank upon his knees, wringing his hands and gesticulating wildly, as he gabbled, nobody knew what, in Italian.

Hallett, meanwhile, was looking grave and stern as the boys had never seen him. There was not a trace of the fiery tyrant they knew so well. He was face to face with a hard duty, and it awed him.

“I’m sorry,” he said quietly, “but this is too serious to be covered up. I have no choice. I must take you straight to the head. Brady, hand me over the penknife! Or bring it along, and come too!”

Jack shook his head as he passed the knife, and Norman Hallett and Massimiliano Graglia left the room in company. Two masters returning met the pair, but Hallett’s face wore an expression which forbade questions.

When presently he re-entered the school-room, it was alone.

And for the space of a week the March Hare was unseen by his school-fellows.