The whole thing may be said to have begun when Mr.
Oliver Ring of New York, changing cars, as he called it, at Wrykyn on his way to London, had to wait an hour for his train. He put in that hour by strolling about the town and seeing the sights, which were not numerous. Wrykyn, except on Market Day, was wont to be wrapped in a primaeval calm which very nearly brought tears to the strenuous eyes of the man from Manhattan. He had always been told that England was a slow country, and his visit, now in its third week, had confirmed this opinion: but even in England he had not looked to find such a lotus-eating place as Wrykyn. He looked at the shop windows. They resembled the shop windows of every other country town in England. There was no dash, no initiative about them. They did not leap to the eye and arrest the pedestrian's progress. They ordered these things, thought Mr. Ring, better in the States. And then something seemed to whisper to him that here was the place to set up a branch of Ring's Come-One Come-All Up-to-date Stores. During his stroll he had gathered certain pieces of information. To wit, that Wrykyn was where the county families for ten miles round did their shopping, that the population of the town was larger than would appear at first sight to a casual observer, and, finally, that there was a school of six hundred boys only a mile away. Nothing could be better. Within a month he would take to himself the entire trade of the neighbourhood.
"It's a cinch," murmured Mr. Ring with a glad smile, as he boarded his train, "a lead-pipe cinch."
Everybody who has moved about the world at all knows Ring's Come-one Come-all Up-to-date Stores. The main office is in New York. Broadway, to be exact, on the left as you go down, just before you get to Park Row, where the newspapers come from. There is another office in Chicago. Others in St. Louis, St. Paul, and across the seas in London, Paris, Berlin, and, in short, everywhere. The peculiar advantage about Ring's Stores is that you can get anything you happen to want there, from a motor to a macaroon, and rather cheaper than you could get it anywhere else. England had up to the present been ill-supplied with these handy paradises, the one in Piccadilly being the only extant specimen. But now Mr. Ring in person had crossed the Atlantic on a tour of inspection, and things were shortly to be so brisk that you would be able to hear them whizz.
So an army of workmen invaded Wrykyn. A trio of decrepit houses in the
High Street were pulled down with a run, and from the ruins there
began to rise like a Phoenix the striking building which was to be the
Wrykyn Branch of Ring's Come-one Come-all Up-to-date Stores.
The sensation among the tradesmen caused by the invasion was, as may be imagined, immense and painful. The thing was a public disaster. It resembled the advent of a fox in a fowl-run. For years the tradesmen of Wrykyn had jogged along in their comfortable way, each making his little profits, with no thought of competition or modern hustle. And now the enemy was at their doors. Many were the gloomy looks cast at the gaudy building as it grew like a mushroom. It was finished with incredible speed, and then advertisements began to flood the local papers. A special sheaf of bills was despatched to the school.
Dunstable got hold of one, and read it with interest. Then he went in search of his friend Linton to find out what he thought of it.
Linton was at work in the laboratory. He was an enthusiastic, but unskilful, chemist. The only thing he could do with any real certainty was to make oxygen. But he had ambitions beyond that feat, and was continually experimenting in a reckless way which made the chemistry master look wan and uneasy. He was bending over a complicated mixture of tubes, acids, and Bunsen burners when Dunstable found him. It was after school, so that the laboratory was empty, but for them.
"Don't mind me," said Dunstable, taking a seat on the table.
"Look out, man, don't jog. Sit tight, and I'll broaden your mind for you. I take this bit of litmus paper, and dip it into this bilge, and if I've done it right, it'll turn blue."
"Then I bet it doesn't," said Dunstable.
The paper turned red.
"Hades," said Linton calmly. "Well, I'm not going to sweat at it any more. Let's go down to Cook's."
Cook's is the one school institution which nobody forgets who has been to Wrykyn. It is a little confectioner's shop in the High Street. Its exterior is somewhat forbidding, and the uninitiated would probably shudder and pass on, wondering how on earth such a place could find a public daring enough to support it by eating its wares. But the school went there in flocks. Tea at Cook's was the alternative to a study tea. There was a large room at the back of the shop, and here oceans of hot tea and tons of toast were consumed. The staff of Cook's consisted of Mr. Cook, late sergeant in a line regiment, six foot three, disposition amiable, left leg cut off above the knee by a spirited Fuzzy in the last Soudan war; Mrs. Cook, wife of the above, disposition similar, and possessing the useful gift of being able to listen to five people at one and the same time; and an invisible menial, or menials, who made toast in some nether region at a perfectly dizzy rate of speed. Such was Cook's.
"Talking of Cook's," said Dunstable, producing his pamphlet, "have you seen this? It'll be a bit of a knock-out for them, I should think."
Linton took the paper, and began to read. Dunstable roamed curiously about the laboratory, examining things.
"What are these little crystal sort of bits of stuff?" he asked, coming to a standstill before a large jar and opening it. "They look good to eat. Shall I try one?"
"Don't you be an idiot," said the expert, looking up. "What have you got hold of? Great Scott, no, don't eat that stuff."
"Why not? Is it poison?"
"No. But it would make you sick as a cat. It's Sal Ammoniac."
"Sal how much?"
"Ammoniac. You'd be awfully bad."
"All right, then, I won't. Well, what do you think of that thing? It'll be rough on Cook's, won't it? You see they advertise a special 'public-school' tea, as they call it. It sounds jolly good. I don't know what buckwheat cakes are, but they ought to be decent. I suppose now everybody'll chuck Cook's and go there. It's a beastly shame, considering that Cook's has been a sort of school shop so long. And they really depend on the school. At least, one never sees anybody else going there. Well, I shall stick to Cook's. I don't want any of your beastly Yankee invaders. Support home industries. Be a patriot. The band then played God Save the King, and the meeting dispersed. But, seriously, man, I am rather sick about this. The Cooks are such awfully good sorts, and this is bound to make them lose a tremendous lot. The school's simply crawling with chaps who'd do anything to get a good tea cheaper than they're getting now. They'll simply scrum in to this new place."
"Well, I don't see what we can do," said Linton, "except keep on going to Cook's ourselves. Let's be going now, by the way. We'll get as many chaps as we can to promise to stick to them. But we can't prevent the rest going where they like. Come on."
The atmosphere at Cook's that evening was heavily charged with gloom. ExSergeant Cook, usually a treasury of jest and anecdote, was silent and thoughtful. Mrs. Cook bustled about with her customary vigour, but she too was disinclined for conversation. The place was ominously empty. A quartette of school house juniors in one corner and a solitary prefect from Donaldson's completed the sum of the customers. Nobody seemed to want to talk a great deal. There was something in the air which
said as plain as whisper in the ear, "The place is haunted."
and so it was. Haunted by the spectre of that hideous, new, glaring red-brick building down the street, which had opened its doors to the public on the previous afternoon.
"Look there," said Dunstable, as they came out. He pointed along the street. The doors of the new establishment were congested. A crowd, made up of members of various houses, was pushing to get past another crowd which was trying to get out. The "public-school tea at one shilling" appeared to have proved attractive.
"Look at 'em," said Dunstable. "Sordid beasts! All they care about is filling themselves. There goes that man Merrett. Rand-Brown with him. Here come four more. Come on. It makes me sick."
"I wish it would make them sick," said Linton.
"Perhaps it will…. By George!"
"What's up?" said Linton.
"Oh, nothing. I was only thinking of something."
They walked on without further conversation. Dunstable's brain was working fast. He had an idea, and was busy developing it.
* * * * *
The manager of the Wrykyn Branch of Ring's Come-one Come-all Stores stood at the entrance to his shop on the following afternoon spitting with energy and precision on to the pavement—he was a free-born American citizen—and eyeing the High Street as a monarch might gaze at his kingdom. He had just completed a highly satisfactory report to headquarters, and was feeling contented with the universe, and the way in which it was managed. Even in the short time since the opening of the store he had managed to wake up the sluggish Britishers as if they had had an electric shock.
"We," he observed epigrammatically to a passing cat, which had stopped on its way to look at him, "are it."
As he spoke he perceived a youth coming towards him down the street. He wore a cap of divers colours, from which the manager argued that he belonged to the school. Evidently a devotee of the advertised "public-school" shillingsworth, and one who, as urged by the small bills, had come early to avoid the rush. "Step right in, mister," he said, moving aside from the doorway. "And what can I do for you?"
"Are you the manager of this place?" asked Dunstable—for the youth was that strategist, and no other.
"On the bull's eye first time," replied the manager with easy courtesy. "Will you take a cigar or a cocoa-nut?"
"Can I have a bit of a talk with you, if you aren't busy?"
"Sure. Step right in."
"Now, sir," said the manager, "what's your little trouble?"
"It's about this public school tea business," said Dunstable. "It's rather a shame, you see. Before you came bargeing in, everybody used to go to Cook's."
"And now," interrupted the manager, "they come to us. Correct, sir. We are the main stem. And why not?"
"Cook's such a good sort."
"I should like to know him," said the manager politely.
"You see," said Dunstable, "it doesn't so much matter about the other things you sell; but Cook's simply relies on giving fellows tea in the afternoon——"
"One moment, sir," said the man from the States. "Let me remind you of a little rule which will be useful to you when you butt into the big, cold world. That is, never let sentiment interfere with business. See? Either Ring's Stores or your friend has got to be on top, and, if I know anything, it's going to be We. We! And I'm afraid that's all I can do for you, unless you've that hungry feeling, and want to sample our public-school tea at twenty-five cents."
"No, thanks," said Dunstable. "Here come some chaps, though, who look as if they might."
He stepped aside as half a dozen School House juniors raced up.
"For one day only," said the manager to Dunstable, "you may partake free, if you care to. You have man's most priceless possession, Cool Cheek. And Cool Cheek, when recognised, should not go unrewarded. Step in."
"No thanks," said Dunstable. "You'll find me at Cook's if you want me."
"Kindness," said he to himself, as Mrs. Cook served him in the depressed way which had now become habitual with her, "kindness having failed, we must try severity."
Those who knew and liked Dunstable were both pained and disgusted at his behaviour during the ensuing three days. He suddenly exhibited a weird fondness for some of Wrykyn's least deserving inmates. He walked over to school with Merrett, of Seymour's, and Ruthven, of Donaldson's, both notorious outsiders. When Linton wanted him to come and play fives after school, he declined on the ground that he was teaing with Chadwick, of Appleby's. Now in the matter of absolute outsiderishness Chadwick, of Appleby's, was to Merrett, of Seymour's, as captain is to subaltern. Linton was horrified, and said so.
"What do you want to do it for?" he asked. "What's the point of it?
You can't like those chaps."
"Awfully good sorts when you get to know them," said Dunstable.
"You've been some time finding it out."
"I know. Chadwick's an acquired taste. By the way, I'm giving a tea on
Thursday. Will you come?"
"Who's going to be there?" inquired Linton warily.
"Well, Chadwick for one; and Merrett and Ruthven and three other chaps."
"Then," said Linton with some warmth, "I think you'll have to do without me. I believe you're mad."
And he went off in disgust to the fives-courts.
When on the following Thursday Dunstable walked into Ring's Stores with his five guests, and demanded six public-school teas, the manager was perhaps justified in allowing a triumphant smile to wander across his face. It was a signal victory for him. "No free list to-day, sir," he said. "Entirely suspended."
"Never mind," said Dunstable, "I'm good for six shillings."
"Free list?" said Merrett, as the manager retired, "I didn't know there was one."
"There isn't. Only he and I palled up so much the other day that he offered me a tea for nothing."
"Didn't you take it?"
"No. I went to Cook's."
"Rotten hole, Cook's. I'm never going there again," said Chadwick.
"You take my tip, Dun, old chap, and come here."
"Dun, old chap," smiled amiably.
"I don't know," he said, looking up from the tea-pot, into which he had been pouring water; "you can be certain of the food at Cook's."
"What do you mean? So you can here."
"Oh," said Dunstable, "I didn't know. I've never had tea here before.
But I've often heard that American food upsets one sometimes."
By this time, the tea having stood long enough, he poured out, and the meal began.
Merrett and his friends were hearty feeders, and conversation languished for some time. Then Chadwick leaned back in his chair, and breathed heavily.
"You couldn't get stuff like that at Cook's," he said.
"I suppose it is a bit different," said Dunstable. "Have any of you … noticed something queer…?"
Merrett stared at Ruthven. Ruthven stared at Merrett.
"I…." said Merrett.
"D'you know…." said Ruthven.
Chadwick's face was a delicate green.
"I believe," said Dunstable, "the stuff … was … poisoned. I…."
* * * * *
"Drink this," said the school doctor, briskly, bending over Dunstable's bed with a medicine-glass in his hand, "and be ashamed of yourself. The fact is you've over-eaten yourself. Nothing more and nothing less. Why can't you boys be content to feed moderately?"
"I don't think I ate much, sir," protested Dunstable. "It must have been what I ate. I went to that new American place."
"So you went there, too? Why, I've just come from attending a bilious boy in Mr. Seymour's house. He said he had been at the American place, too."
"Was that Merrett, sir? He was one of the party. We were all bad. We can't all have eaten too much."
The doctor looked thoughtful.
"H'm. Curious. Very curious. Do you remember what you had?"
"I had some things the man called buckwheat cakes, with some stuff he said was maple syrup."
"Bah. American trash." The doctor was a staunch Briton, conservative in his views both on politics and on food. "Why can't you boys eat good English food? I must tell the headmaster of this. I haven't time to look after the school if all the boys are going to poison themselves. You lie still and try to go to sleep, and you'll be right enough in no time."
But Dunstable did not go to sleep. He stayed awake to interview
Linton, who came to pay him a visit.
"Well," said Linton, looking down at the sufferer with an expression that was a delicate blend of pity and contempt, "you've made a nice sort of ass of yourself, haven't you! I don't know if it's any consolation to you, but Merrett's just as bad as you are. And I hear the others are, too. So now you see what comes of going to Ring's instead of Cook's."
"And now," said Dunstable, "if you've quite finished, you can listen to me for a bit…."
"So now you know," he concluded.
Linton's face beamed with astonishment and admiration.
"Well, I'm hanged," he said. "You're a marvel. But how did you know it wouldn't poison you?"
"I relied on you. You said it wasn't poison when I asked you in the lab. My faith in you is touching."
"But why did you take any yourself?"
"Sort of idea of diverting suspicion. But the thing isn't finished yet. Listen."
Linton left the dormitory five minutes later with a look of a young disciple engaged on some holy mission.
"You think the food is unwholesome, then?" said the headmaster after dinner that night.
"Unwholesome!" said the school doctor. "It must be deadly. It must be positively lethal. Here we have six ordinary, strong, healthy boys struck down at one fell swoop as if there were a pestilence raging. Why——"
"One moment," said the headmaster. "Come in."
A small figure appeared in the doorway.
"Please, sir," said the figure in the strained voice of one speaking a "piece" which he has committed to memory. "Mr. Seymour says please would you mind letting the doctor come to his house at once because Linton is ill."
"What!" exclaimed the doctor. "What's the matter with him?"
"Please, sir, I believe it's buckwheat cakes."
"What! And here's another of them!"
A second small figure had appeared in the doorway.
"Sir, please, sir," said the newcomer, "Mr. Bradfield says may the doctor——"
"And what boy is it this time?"
"Please, sir, it's Brown. He went to Ring's Stores——"
The headmaster rose.
"Perhaps you had better go at once, Oakes," he said. "This is becoming serious. That place is a positive menace to the community. I shall put it out of bounds tomorrow morning."
And when Dunstable and Linton, pale but cheerful, made their way—slowly, as befitted convalescents—to Cook's two days afterwards, they had to sit on the counter. All the other seats were occupied.