“I say, old chap!”
“But I say——”
“Look here, Wibley—”
Billy Bunter glared at Wibley of the Remove through his big spectacles. Wib’s answers were not perhaps polite. But Wib had neither time nor inclination for conversation with Billy Bunter.
Harry Wharton & Co. had gone down to Margate and to bathe, that glorious August morning. Of the party of Greyfriars juniors, only two remained behind—Wibley and Bunter.
Wibley had brought out a deck chair, set it up in the shade of the
mighty oak on the edge of the lawn, and seated himself in it—with a stump of pencil in his hand, and an open writing- pad on his knee. Thus Billy Bunter found him when he rolled out of the house.
Wibley was scribbling.
He was at work on a play which the Greyfriars fellows were going to perform at Portercliffe Hall during the holidays. Naturally, he did not want to be interrupted.
Generally, when the amateur dramatist of Greyfriars was thus engaged, fellows did not interrupt him. Wibley might get cross, which was bad, or he might read out this play, which was worse!
Heedless of both dangers, Billy Bunter interrupted him.
Wibley snapped at him.
He was in a thrilling part of the play. Lord Percy de Vere was just rescuing the Lady Gloxiana from the cruel grip of the bad baronet! At such a moment Billy Bunter was superfluous.
The fat Owl of that Remove blinked angrily at William Wibley. Wibley waved him away and resumed scribbling. But Bunter was not to be waved away alike a fat bluebottle.
“Look here, you ass—” recommenced Bunter.
“Well, you hook it!” said Bunter. “What do you want to come and stick here for under this tree? Can’t you go somewhere else?”
“You can sit here, too, if you shut up, fathead! Room for both!”
“I don’t want to sit here! Look here, why don’t you go and bathe with the other fellows?” urged Bunter. “It’s a lovely morning for a bathe.”
“I’m writing my play, ass!”
“Well, it’s rather fatheaded to waste a lovely morning like this on rot like that!” argued Bunter. “The fact is, Wharton’s expecting you to join him. He said just before he started,” Tell Wib not to be late!” Those very words---”
“I told Wharton I wasn’t coming.”
“Oh! I---I mean, he said, “Tell Wib he’d better change his mind and come.” amended” Those very words---”
“You silly ass!” roared Wib.
“Oh, really, Wibley!”
Billy Bunter did not buzz off. He remained where he was, blinking at Wib so through his big spectacles, his fat face pink with annoyance.
For some mysterious reason, known only to himself, Billy Bunter was disconcerted to find Wibley staying behind, seated under the big oak-tree while the other fellows were gone down to the beach.
He wanted to get rid of Wibley! Why, was rather a mystery---a mystery which Wib was not interested to elucidate.
“I say, old chap, Chandos wants to speak to you!” said Bunter, after a pause. “He---he asked me if I knew where you were.”
“If the jolly old butler wants to know where I am, you can go and tell him!” answered Wibley.
“Hadn’t you better go in and see---”
“I---I mean, it’s Mr. Fish that wants to speak to you! You ought to go in and see what he wants, Wib, as we’re his guests here.”
Another long pause.
Wibley scribbled; Bunter cudgelled his fat brains for another reason why Wibley should depart from the spot!”
“I say, Wib—”
“Will you leave off jawing?” shrieked Wibley.
“You’re wanted on the phone—”
“That’s what I came out to tell you!” said Bunter. “Somebody’s rung you up on the telephone, old chap! You’d better go in and take the call.”
Wibley ceased to scribble, raised his eyes from his writing-pad, and stared at the fat Owl of Greyfriars. These interruptions irritated him; but he was really more surprised than irritated.
There was absolutely no reason, so far as he could see, why Billy Bunter should desire him to depart from that shady spot. But it was clear that Bunter did.
“You blithering bloater!” said Wibley. “What’s your game?”
“Oh really, Wibley---“
“What do you want me to shift for?” demanded Wibley. “You’ve told me half a dozen idiotic whoppers, one after another, to get me away from here! Why?”
“Oh, nothing of the kind!” said Bunter hastily. “I wasn’t thinking of climbing into that oak, Wibley. Besides, why should I care whether you saw me climbing it or not? There’s nothing to climb it for. I got into it this morning when that beast Smithy was after me, but it isn’t hollow, and I never fell into it, and I didn’t find anything there, either. I’m not going to look for anything in that tree, you know.”
Wibley stared at him blankly.
That Bunter was prevaricating, as usual, was, of course, quite plain. But why was far from plain.
“I saw Smithy after you when you bagged his hat.” said Wibley. “I know the oak’s hollow, and that you tumbled into it. If you want to tumble into it again I’m not stopping you. Get on with it.”
“Nothing of the kind. I got fearfully dirty and dusty, and had to go in and brush it off!” said Bunter. “Now I come out and find you here— and I really think you might go and sit somewhere else, Wibley. I say, that old lodge in the park’s a nice quiet spot if you want to scribble.”
“You howling ass!”
BilIy Bunter rolled away at last. Wibley stared after him, quite amazed, and almost wondering whether the fat Owl was wandering in his mind—such as it was!
However, he soon forgot Bunter, as he started scribbling again. Lord Percy de Vere, Lady Gloxiana, and the Bad Baronet were much more interesting
than the mysterious babblings of Bunter.
But the fat Owl was not gone for good!”
Five minutes later he came back at a run.
“I say, Wibley!” he gasped. “There’s been an accident—“
“Some of the fellows have been drowned, bathing—”
“What?” yelled Wibley.
“Wharton’s just telephoned that he’s drowned---”
“Wharton’s telephoned that he’s drowned!” gasped Wibley.
“I mean, he’s telephoned that Nugent’s drowned! And Bob Cherry, too! And Johnny Bull!” And—and Inky and—and Kipps! And Smithy! They’re all drowned—Wharton and all—I mean, all except Wharton! He—he wants you to go down to the beach at once!”
Wibley jumped up from the deck-chair.
Bunter eyed that proceeding with satisfaction. He fancied that Wib was going at last!
Certainly, Wib would have forgotten even his play and the thrilling scene between Lord Percy, Lady Gloxiana, and the Bad Baronet, had he believed in the wholesale slaughter of the Greyfriars bathing-party.
But he didn’t!
He was not going for a trip down to the beach! He was going for Billy Bunter! He went for him at once!
“Ow!” roared Bunter, as the incensed Wibley suddenly grasped him by the collar. “Leggo! I say--- Yaroooh!”
“You fat scoundrel!” roared Wibley. “I’ll give you drowned! I’ll give you beans! I’ll give you jip! Take that—and that—and that!”
Bang, bang, bang!
Thrice Billy Bunter’s bullet head smote the mighty trunk of the Portercliffe Oak. Three fearful yells awoke the echoes of the lawn, the terraces, the tennis courts, and the park. They rang and echoed in Portercliffe Hall.
Chandos, the butler, looked out at the door. Hiram K. Fish and his secretary, Bosanney, stared from the library window.
“What the John James Brown?” ejaculated Mr. Fish.
“There!” gasped Wibley, pitching the fat Owl into the grass. “Is that enough, or do you want some more?”
“Hook it, you fat spoofer!”
“I’m going to kick you till you hook it!”
“Ow! Beast! Wow!”
Billy Bunter squirmed away, picked himself up, and fled. Wibley glared after him.
“Come back when you want some more!” he roared.
Billy Bunter did not come back. Evidently he had had enough, and did not want any more.
Wibley sat down in his deck-chair again, and was left in peace to continue his dramatic masterpiece. He was still going strong when Harry Wharton & Co. came back from the beach.
THE SECOND CHAPTER.
“I SAY, you fellows!”
“Say on!” said Bob Cherry, cheerfully.
After lunch the Greyfriars juniors had gathered on the lawn under the shade of the mighty branches of the famous Portercliffe Oak.
Billy Bunter, contrary to his usual custom, did not roll away to his room for a nap after lunch. Probably he needed a rest, as usual, after his gastronomic exertions; but, on this occasion he was exercising self-denial. He rolled out of the house and frowned—in fact, scowled—at the cheery party gathered in the shade of the great oak.
That spot seemed to exercise a fascination on the fat Owl, and for a reason known only to his own fat brain, he wanted that spot to himself. In the morning Wibley had been there in his deckchair, writing his play. Now all the fellows were there.
“I say, you’re not going to slack about all the afternoon, I suppose.” said Bunter. “I know its holiday-time, but, dash it all, there’s a limit! This slacking is pretty rotten.”
Whereat the Greyfriars party stared at Bunter. A lecture from the fat and lazy Owl on the subject of slacking was rather like Satan rebuking sin!
“You cheeky ass!” growled Johnny Bull. “Who’s slacking?”
“Well, you are, for one!” said Bunter.
“The slackfulness is not terrific, my esteemed idiotic Bunter.” remarked Hurree Jamset Ram Singh. “We had a long and preposterous swim this morning.”
“That’s no reason for frowsting about in the afternoon! Why not go and play tennis?” asked Bunter.
“Just what some of us are going to do!” said Kipps. “If you want a game, Bunter---”
“Oh, no!” said Bunter hastily. “I’ve got something on.”
“You’ve got my necktie on!” remarked Frank Nugent, looking at him.
“Ha, ha, ha!”
“Oh, really, Nugent---”
“And my socks!” remarked Harry Wharton.
“Oh, really, Wharton---”
“Whose waistcoat is that?” asked Vernon-Smith sarcastically.
“It’s not yours, Smithy, anyhow!” yapped Bunter. “I wouldn’t be found dead in one of your waistcoats!”
“You’d be found jolly nearly dead in it if you bagged it!” said the Bounder. “That’s a tip!”
“Beast! I say, how many of you are going to play tennis?” asked Bunter.
“You’re frightfully interested in what we’re going to do.” said Bob Cherry. “Why don’t you roll off and snore as usual?”
“I don’t snore, you beast! You fellows make out that I snore at Greyfriars, and I jolly well don’t! I stayed awake one night to listen, and I didn’t snore at all---”
“Oh, my hat!”
“Ha, ha, ha!”
“Blessed if I see anything to cackle at! Look, who’s going to play tennis?” asked Bunter. “It’s sickening to see a crowd of fellows slacking about. For goodness sake get a move on I”
“Come on, Wib!” said Kipps.
“Playing singles?” asked Bunter.
“Why don’t two of you fellows join up and make it doubles?” asked Bunter. “ It’s a good game—better than slacking about, anyhow.”
“What that fat idiot driving at?” asked the Bounder, in wonder.
“Oh, really, Smithy---”
“Loco, I guess!” said Fisher T. Fish, staring at the fat Owl of the Remove. “I’d sure say he was plumb loco, if he had any brains to go loco with.”
“Oh, really, Fishy---”
“Might as well make it doubles!” said Nugent, getting out of his deck-chair.
“Little me!” said Johnny Bull.
And Johnny and Nugent walked away with Kipps and Wibley to the tennis courts, Bunter blinking after them through his big spectacles. For of the party were gone now.
“I say, Alonzo---” said Bunter.
“Yes, my dear William?” said Alonzo Todd, in his gentle voice, looking up from the enticing pages of “The Story of the Potato—From the Seed to the Saucepan!”
“Aren’t you going botanising?” asked Bunter, “There’s some wonderful specimens of—of thingummies in the park, and I saw a lot of what-do-you-call-ems there this morning.”
“Better get a few thingummies for your collection, Alonzo,” said Bob Cherry gravely, “and a set of what-do-you-call-ems” would be rather interesting.”
“Ha, ha, ha!”
“Get a move on, Alonzo, old chap!” said Bunter.
Alonzo rose, and put his book under his arm and wandered away. He was deeply interested in the story of a potato from the seed to the saucepan; but, on the other hand, the call of botany was irresistible.
Billy Bunter grinned as another member of the party disappeared.
The remaining members were regarding Billy Bunter very curiously. For what reason he wanted to clear them all off from that spot was puzzling.
“I say, Fishy—” Bunter started again.
“Spill it!” grinned Fishy.
“I fancy your father wants you.” said Bunter. “I believe he’s going exploring the secret passages with Bosanney this afternoon. Aren’t you going with him?”
“I say, you fellows, did one of you drop a pound note in the breakfast room this morning? Chandos picked one up!” said Bunter.
Four fellows exchanged a grin, but Fisher T. Fish rose from his seat and went off to the house with his jerky steps.
Four remained on the spot now— Wharton, Bob Cherry Hurree Jamset Ram Singh and the Bounder. None of them showed any inclination to move.
“What about badminton?” asked Bunter.
“You play such a rotten game!” said Vernon-Smith.
“I don’t mean me; you four fellows could play.” said Bunter. “I’ll go and fetch the rackets and shuttles, if you like.”
This was so astounding that the juniors could only stare at Billy Bunter. It was a hundred yards at least from the old oak to the house. The sun was hot on the lawn. It was a blazing August day. Yet Billy Bunter, who made both a science and an art at laziness, offered to walk off and fetch rackets and shuttles for the other fellows to play badminton!
Obviously he had some very powerful motive for wanting to clear them off.
“Go it, then,” saido Wharton. “We’ll play if you’ll fetch the things.”
“Done!” said Bunter.
And he rolled off to the house, leaving the four fellows staring.
“Is he potty?” asked the Bounder.
“The pottifulness seems to be terrific!” remarked Hurree Jamset Ram Singh.
“What the dickens does he want to clear us all away from here for?” asked Harry Wharton, in sheer wonder. “What on earth is he up to?”
Bob Cherry chuckled.
“He’s up to something, goodness knows what! I’ll stick in the tree and see what his game is—see?”
“Ha, ha, ha!”
Bob Cherry moved round the massive trunk of the ancient Portercliffe Oak, and clambered up, out of sight from the house.
The other fellows remained where they were, with grinning faces.
Unless Billy Bunter had gone off his rocker, it was difficult to account for his mysterious antics, and they were quite curious by this time.
In a few minutes Bunter cane back with the rackets and a box of shuttles.
He was puffing and perspiring after his trip in the hot sunshine.
“There you are!” he gasped. “I say, where’s Cherry? Is he gone? Well, you fellow’s get after him!”
“Coming to watch the game?” asked Harry, with a smile.
“Oh! Yes! No—I mean, yes! I’ll come along in a few minutes! Don’t you fellows wait for me!” said Bunter anxiously.
“We won’t,” grinned the Bounder.
And Wharton, Hurree Singh, and the Bounder walked away to the badminton court, which was at some little distance. Bunter no doubt supposed that Bob had preceded them there and they did not undeceive him.
He blinked after them, as they went, through his big spectacles, and grinned. He was happily unaware that Bob was watching him, also grinning, from the thick foliage above.
“Oh, good!” gasped Bunter. “Thank goodness the beasts are gone! I’d better get going before that cad Fishy comes back!”
The fat junior started clambering up the ragged, gnarled trunk of the ancient oak.
Bob, in the foliage, watched him in utter astonishment.
That the fat Owl had some mysterious reason for trying to clear everybody away from that spot was as clear as noonday. But that his object was to climb the tree, when they were all gone, nobody would have guessed.
But that, it seemed, was his object. Why he wanted to perform that gymnastic performance in strict secrecy was an absolute mystery.
Bunter was not good at climbing. He loathed climbing. He panted and puffed and blew as he clambered. He gained inch by inch.
Early that morning Bunter had climbed that old oak quite rapidly; but then the Bounder had been after him, wrathy on the subject of a borrowed hat. Now the fat Owl took his time.
His feet were about a yard from the ground when he suddenly became aware of a ruddy, cheery face grinning at him from the foliage of the oak above.
“Hallo, hallo, hallo!” roared Bob Cherry.
“Oh lor’!” gasped Bunter.
He blinked up, startled, lost his hold, and slithered down. He landed on the grass under the branches of the oak with a bump that seemed to shake the extensive estate of Portercliffe Hall.
“Ow!” gasped Bunter. “Beast! Wow! Oh! Ow! Beast!”
THE THIRD CHAPTER.
“HA, ha, ha!” roared Bob.
“Oooogh! Beast!” gasped Bunter.
The fat junior staggered to his feet. He glared up at the grinning face in the foliage of the oak with a glare that almost cracked his spectacles. He shook a fat fist at Bob Cherry.
“Come down, you beast!” he roared.
Bob, sitting astride of a branch close by the great trunk, a dozen feet over Bunter’s head, chuckled.
“Try again, old fat man” he said. “I’ll reach you and lend you a hand, if you like, if you want in get into the tree. You need a steam derrick, really, but I’ll do my best!”
“Beast!” roared Bunter. “Come down, you rotter! I don’t want your help, you beast! Come down!”
Bob stared down at him, more and more surprised. It was clear that Bunter intended to climb that old oak tree. An offer of help ought to have been welcome to him, considering the amount of weight he had to lift.
“I mean it, fathead!” said Bob. “Get within reach and give me your paw, and I’ll pull you up!”
“Is that how you thank a fellow for offering to help?” inquired Bob.
“Yah! Beast! Come down!” howled Bunter. “ I’ll jolly well shy something at you if you don’t come down!”
“Well, my hat!” said Bob blankly.
ReaIly, it was mystifying. Bunter, it seemed, wanted the Portercliffe Oak all to himself.
Evidently he was in earnest. He blinked round through his spectacles, and picked up a cushion from one of the chairs on the lawn.
Cushion in hand, he took aim at the junior in the tree.
“Now, are you coming down?’ hooted Bunter.
The cushion flew. It missed Bob
Cherry by about a yard, and crashed among the oak-leaves. Then, having no visible means of support, it naturally obeyed the well known law of gravitation and fell back towards the earth.
No doubt it would have landed on the earth had not Billy Bunter been in the way. As it was it landed on Bunter’s head.
“Yaroooh!” roared Bunter, as it crashed; and he sat down suddenly in the grass, the cushion falling by his side.
“Ha, ha, ha!” yelled Bob.
“Ow!” gasped Bunter.
“Try again!” chuckled Bob Cherry.
Bunter scrambled up, and tried again, his little round eyes glittering through his big, round spectacles.
This time he had better luck. The cushion crashed on Bob Cherry’s chest and he gave a roar as he was knocked backwards.
Behind Bob was the summit of the thick oak-trunk, where half a dozen huge branches jutted in various directions.
In the thick dusk of the foliage he had not observed that there was a hollow in that central spot.
He made that discovery as he sprawled backwards into it.
In great surprise, Bob felt himself falling into space in the interior of the ancient oak.
He landed, in deep darkness, inside the hollow tree with a bump that shook every bone in his body, and raised a cloud of mouldy dust that almost suffocated hin.
“Oh!” gasped Bob. “Ow!”
He lay, for a few moments, quite dazed and dizzy from the unexpected fall. Then he scrambled up.
The fall was not deep; the hollow extended only about six feet down into the great trunk. He was not damaged save for a severe shaking. But that shaking was rather painful, and he had a large number of aches distributed ever his person. And he was half- choked by the thick dust of mouldy wood stirred up by his fall. He breathed dust and wrath.
“Will you come down, you beast?” came Bunter’s howl.
“You just wait a tick, you fat villain!” gasped Bob. “I’ll come down fast enough, and you’ll be sorry when I do!”
He reached up, grabbed hold, and clambered out of the hollow trunk into the branches again. Billy Bunter, blinking np, sighted a red and wrathful face, and he decided not to wait till Bob came down.
He realised that something would happen to him, if he was within reach when Bob did.
Bunter turned and scudded away like a fat rabbit.
“Hold on!” roared Bob.
Bob scrambled on a branch, swung by his hands, and dropped. Billy Bunter, already at a distance, was streaking across the lawns. Bob Cherry, dusty and wrathy, streaked after him.
Bunter was heading for the badminton court. Wharton and the Bounder had started a single game while they waited for Bob. Hurree Singh, looking on, stood by the side of the court.
“I say, you fellows!” gasped Bunter.
“Stop him!” roared Bob.
“Keep off the court, you mad porpoise!” howled Vernon-Smith, who was sending the shuttle back to Wharton over the net.
Bunter gave a blink over a fat shoulder. Bob Cherry was close behind, gaining fast. Bunter rushed on.
He did not even see the net till he barged into it. There was a rending and a tearing as Bunter’s weight tore the net away from the posts
“Oh, my hat!” gasped Wharton “You mad ass—”
“You terrible fathead!” gasped the Nabob of Bhanipur.
“Ow! Leggo! Ow!” roared Bunter , as he rolled over, tangled in the badminton net. It wrapped itself round him as he rolled, tangled up his fat arms and legs, and Bunter struggled in its midst like a netted fish.
“Ha, ha, ha!” hooted Bob Cherry, as he came to a halt.
“Yarooh! Leggo! Gemme out of this!” howled Bunter, rolling over in the net. “I say, you fellows— Yurroogh!”
Billy Bunter rolled and struggled frantically. But the more he struggled the more he tied himself up in the net.
“You fat dummy!” yelled the Bounder.
He rushed at the rolling owl wriggling fat Owl, and started operations with the racket in his hand.
Whack! Whack! Whack!
“Ow! Oh! Ow!”
“Ha, ha, ha!”
Whack! Crack! Whack! Bang!
Fortunately for Bunter, it was only a badminton racket. A tennis racket would have done more damage. Still, the badminton racket seemed to do enough, to judge by Bunter’s frantic yells.
“Ow! Beast! Leave off!” I say, you fellows—yarooh! Help! Oh, crikey!”
“Chuck it, Smithy!” gasped Bob, and he grabbed hold of Herbert Vernon-Smith and dragged him back.
“Let go, you fool!” howled Smithy.
“Easy does it!” said Bob soothingly. “Bunter’s had enough, haven’t you, Bunter?”
“Ow! Beast! Lend me a hand” yelled Bunter.
“I’ll lend you a foot!” said Harry Wharton.
“Ha, ha, ha!”
With the help of Wharton’s foot, applied with vigour, Billy Bunter somehow scrambled out of the net. He left it torn and rent behind him as he fled off the badminton court. There was little more than thc white tape, with fragments of struggling mesh hanging to it, when the juniors put it up again.
“I’ve damaged my racket!” growled smithy.
“Not so much as you’ve damaged Bunter!” grinned Bob.
“Yaroooh!” floated back from the distance.
Bunter was gone!
The four juniors dismissed him from mind and played badminton. Billy Bunter, at a safe distance, sat down in the shrubberies to recover his breath.
It was a quarter of an hour before he stirred again. He would not have stirred then, but for his mysterious designs on the Portercliffe Oak. But all the Greyfriars party had been got off the scene now, and Bunter, at last, rolled back across the lawns towards the great oak-tree.
“Oh lor’!” he gasped, as he drew near the hollow trees.
Under the oak-tree, in the deck chairs, sat Mr. Hiram K. Fish and his secretary, Jonas Bosanney. Chandos, the butler, was bringing them a tray of cool drinks.
Billy Bunter blinked at them with feelings too deep for words. Then he gave it up and rolled away.