“MERRY Christmas, Franky!”
“Oh, my hat! Bunter!” exclaimed Frank Nugent.
“Glad to see you, old chap!”
“You’ve got all the gladness on your side!”
“Oh, really Nugent—”
Frank Nugent had stepped from the train at the little station of Wimford, in Surrey. He was on his way to Wharton Lodge, where the Famous Five of the Greyfriars Remove were to gather for Christmas. He had rather expected Harry Wharton and Hurree Singh to meet him at the station. He had not expected Billy Bunter. But it was thp unexpected that happened—in the shape of William George Bunter!
Billy Bunter was on the platform, blinking at the train as it stopped, through his big spectacles. He spotted Nugent at once and rolled up to him. His fat face was irradiated by a friendly grin. Apparently he was glad to see Nugent. Frank Nugent did not seem to share that feeling to any great extent.
“I say, old fellow——”
“Is Wharton here?” asked Nugent.
“Oh, no! He couldn’t come. Inky couldn’t come. I came instead.” said Bunter. “They were coming in the car to pick you but I fancy something happened to the car . Not that I know anything about it, you know! I haven’t been anywhere near the garage. If anybody poured cinders into the petrol tank it must have been the chauffeur. I never thought much of that chap.”
Frank Nugent stared at the fat Owl of the Remove.
“Let’s take a taxi.” went on Bunter briskly. “There’s one outside. I’ll pay. Leave that to me. You can lend me ten bob. Rather unfortunately, I left my notecase at home with all my banknotes in it when I came over to see old Wharton.”
“Are you staying at Wharton Lodge?” demanded the puzzled Nugent.
To his surprise, Bunter grinned at that question as if he regarded it as a joke.
“Yes. No, not exactly,” said Bunter. “That is to say, sort of, if you know what I mean.”
“I haven’t the faintest idea what you mean. If the fellows aren’t coming to the station I’d better get off.”
Frank Nugent picked up his suitcase and started down the platform to the exit. Bunter rolled after him. Outside the station Frank glanced round him. There was no sign of Harry Wharton or Hurree Jamset Ram Singh, or of the car from Wharton Lodge; so he started to walk.
Bunter grabbed him by the arm.
“What about the taxi?” he asked.
“Nothing about the taxi!” answered Nugent. “I can walk a mile, I suppose.”
“I’ve said that I’ll pay!” said Bunter, with dignity. —
“Well, you take the taxi, and I’ll walk.”
“Beast! I mean, all right, old chap; if you’d rather walk, I’ll walk, too. There’s a lot of snow on the road, though. A lot more coming down, too, I fancy. Bettpr take the taxi.”
“Take it—and be blowed!” answered Frank Nugent, and he shook off the fat hand and swung on his way.
Billy Bunter rolled after him. Bunter had already walked from Wharton Lodge that afternoon, and he did not want to walk back. But, for reasons of his own—good reasons—he did not want to part company with Frank Nugent.
Leaving Wimford behind, they tramped through a carpet of snow down the road that led to Colonel Wharton’s house. Nugent walked rather quickly, making little of the weight of his bag, but Billy Bunter puffed and blew as hp kept pace with him.
“I say, old chap,” gasped Bunter, “not so jolly fast! After I’ve taken the trouble to walk to the station to meet you—”
“Oh, all right!” Nugent slowed down. “What the dickens did you come to the station for, Bunter?”
“I thought you’d like to see me!” said Bunter, with dignified reproach.
“What on earth put that idea into your head?”
“Beast! I mean, look here, old chap, let me carry your bag. I mean it! I want to save you trouble, old fellow.”
Nugent could only stare. It was surprising enough for Billy Bunter to take the trouble to walk to the station. It was simply amazing for him to offer to carry a fellow’s bag for him.
“Hand it over.” said Bunter. “Let’s be pally, old scout! I’ve been thinking about you ever since we broke up at Greyfriars. We were always pals, weren’t we—the best of pals?”
“Not that I know of. ”
“Oh, really, Nugent! I used to be in Study No. 1 with you before that bpast Wharton came—I mean, dear old Harry! Don’t you remember how miserable you were when I changed out?”
“No; I remember that I was awfully bucked.”
Nugent grinned and tramped on. Bunter’s little fat legs had to trot to keep pace.
“Don’t race, you ass!” gasped Bunter. “I’ve got something to say to you before we get in, I don’t want you to get in first.”
“Well, it would be better for us to arrive together.” explained Bunter. “The fact is there’s been a bit of a misunderstanding. Rotten sort of thing to happen at Christmas-time, you know ! Chance for you to act as peacemaker, and all that.”
“What the thump are you driving at?”
“Well, you see, it was frightfully awkward, but when I phoned Harry that I was coming for Christmas his uncle took the call, and, not knowing that it was that stuffy old colonel on the phone, I happened to mention that I thought him an old donkey and an old fossil, and—”
“Oh, my hat!”
“He seems to have been offended.” said Bunter.
“You don’t say so?” said Nugent, with deep.
“I do, old chap. You know what these old codgers are like.” said Bunter, shaking his head. “It always gets their backs up to hear what a fellow really thinks of them. Well, Wharton makes out that, his uncle being stuffy about it, he can’t have me at the Lodge; and when I came along, you’d hardly believe it, Franky, but those beasts snowballed me, instead of giving me the glad hand---”
“Ha, ha, ha!”
“Blessed if I see anything to cackle at!” I’d have turned Wharton down at once, only, you see, Bunter Villa—I mean, Bunter Court—is shut up for the holidays, my people being away at Southend—I mean, in thp South of France—and there’s only Uncle George. And I’ve had a row with Uncle George, and had to get out. So it leaves a fellow rather stranded, doesn’t it, old chap?”
“Then you’re not staying with Wharton?” asked the perplexed Nugent.
“Well, I’m going to.” said Bunter. “It will be all right with a little tact. I walk in with you---”
“Oh!” ejaculated Nugent. “Do you?”
“You mention to Wharton that you’d like me to be there for Christmas. See?”
“And he can hardly cut up rusty, you being such a pal of his. As for his uncle, he’s bound to be civil, at least, if I come in as your pal. What do you think?”
Nugent gazed at the Owl of the Remove. He did not state what he thought. Bunter seemed lo have taken his breath away.
“I fancy it will be all right.” said Bunter. “That’s why I came to meet your train, old chap. I mean I came to meet your train because you’re my best pal. Lucky I heard the Fellows mention the time of your train, wasn’t it?”
“Oh, my hat!” gasped Nugent.
“You sec how the matter stands,” said Bunter. “You’re going to act as peacemaker and set it all right. You’ll manage it! If you don’t you may not have my company this Christmas!”
“What a fearful loss!”
“And Marjorie and Clara will be coming over on Boxing Day, and they’ll hardly care for it if I’m not there. Marjorie’s rather sweet on me, you know---”
“You fat idiot—”
“Oh, really, Nugent—”
“You blithering bandersnatch!”
“I don’t think you ought to be jealous of a fellow, like Wharton and Bob Cherry, Nugent! It’s not my fault that I’m a good-looking chap, and that girls run after me! Why, you remember that time I was staying with you, and your sisters were always trying to catch me under the mistletoe— Oh! Ow! Yaroooooop!”
Why Frank Nugent swung round his suitcase and plumped it on Bunter’s podgy chest the Owl of the Remove never knew.
But that was what Nugent did.
Bunter went spinning.
He landed on his back in a bank of snow, with a bump and a fearful yell.
Frank Nugent strode on at an accelerated pace—a pace that Billy Bunter could never have equalled if he had been in a state to try.
But Billy Bunter wasn’t!
He sat up in the snow, gurgling for breath, and blinking after Frank Nugent’s disappearing form over the spectacles that had slipped down his fat little nose.
“Urrrrggh!” gurgled Bunter. “Beast! Urrrrggh !“
By the time the fat Owl crawled out of the snow, Frank Nugent had vanished in the distance. Billy Bunter was left on his Owl, in a cold and unfeeling world.
THE SECOND CHAPTER.
The Boot for Bunter!
“HERE’S Franky!” exclaimed Harry Wharton.
“As large as lifefulness!” agreed Hurree Jamset Ram Singh.
Harry Wharton and the Nabob of Bhanipur were trudging up the snowy road towards Wimford. Wharton was looking worried and perplexed, and his dusky chum sympathetically serious, having arranged to pick up Frank Nugent at the station, in the car, they had left it much too late to walk the distance. The colonel’s car, they discovered, was mysteriously, but totally, out of action. Instpad of having it ready for them, Brown, the chauffeur, was in his shirtsleeves in an oily, grubby, and infuriated state, wrestling with the engine.
Brown, usually a well-mannered chauffeur, had been surly, in fact, savage, plainly intimating his belief that somebody had been deliberately playing tricks with the car, and giving him endless work for nothing! So the two juniors started to walk, expecting to meet Nugent somewhere on the road.
They sighted him in the distance, coming along with his suitcase in his hand. And they quickened their pace to meet him.
By that time, having carried his suitcase about a mule, Nugent was finding it rather heavy. So he put it down and sat on it, and waited for his friends to come up. They came up at a trot, and Frank rose and shook hands, with a cheery grin.
“Sorry you had to walk it old man,” said Harry. “But at the last minute it turned out that the car was wonky—”
“The wonkyfulness was terrific, my esteemed Franky.” said the Nabob of Bhanipur, “and the execrable chauffeur was preposterously infuriated.”
“I imagine so!” said Nugent, grinning. “Cinders in the petrol must havp given him some trouble.”
Harry Wharton stared.
“How the thump did you know?” he stuttered. “That’s what Brown said, and I thought he was dreaming! Is this magic?”
Hurree Jamset Ram Singh gazed at Nugent in blank astonishment. Really, it seemed like magic! How Nugent, still half a mile from Wharton Lodge, knew what was the trouble with the car there, was a mystery.
“I’ve met Bunter!” Nugent explained.
“Bunter!” exclaimed Wharton and the nabob together.
“The one and only!” said Frank “He met me at thp station and offered to stand a taxi. But I can’t afford to let Bunter stand me taxis.”
“Bunter!” repeated Wharton. “Bunter’s not here! I mean, I never knew he was anywhere about! He came along a few days ago and was kicked out. I haven’t seen him since. Is he staying in the neighbourhood, then?”
“Must be! He heard you fellows mention the time of my train to-day, so he couldn’t have been far off.”
“My only hat!”
“The only-hatfulness is terrific.”
“But what the thump did he meet you at the station for, even if he had pried out the time of your train?”
Frank Nugent chuckled.
“To walk in with me! I left him a quarter of a mile back, sitting in the snow! His company palled on me slightly.”
“But—but has that fat foozler been hanging round the place and playing tricks in the garage ?” exclaimed Wharton in amazement. “Did he tell you he’d put cinders in the petrol-tank?”
“No—he told me he hadn’t! So I knew he had!”
“Well, I’m dashed!” exclaimed the captain of the Greyfriars Remove. “This beats it! I hadn’t the faintest idea he was around. He’s done a fearful lot of damage to the car—according to Brown. To keep us away while he met you at the station, I suppose!”
“And to walk in under my wing!” chuckled Nugent. “He seems to have got himself stranded for the hols; and it’s a case of any port in a storm. If you want him, I dare say he’s still sitting where I left him—he looked as if it would take some time to get his second wind.”
Wharton’s eyes gleamed.
“The fat villain! Blessed if I know how he could have got into the place without being seen. I’ve a jolly good mind to go along and kick him all the way to Wimford.”
Hurree Jamset Ram Singh gave a chuckle.
“The ridiculous Bunter is in the offing!” he remarked, pointing up the long white road towards Wimford.
Far in the distance, a blot on the white snow, was a fat figure, coming slowly on. A large pair of spectacles flashed back the rays of the wintry sun! Evidently Billy Bunter had on his second wind, and was following Nugent, though at a good distance behind. Perhaps he still hoped to induce Franky to make the attempt to see him through at Wharton Lodge. Hope springs eternal in the human breast.
“Here he comes!” grinned Nugent. “I can do with a rest, if you’d like to wait for him!” And he sat on his suitcase again.
“We’ll wait!” said Harry Wharton grimly. “The blithering fat Owl has got to learn that he can’t wreck my uncle’s car.”
And the juniors waited. It was rather a long wait, for the motions of the fat Owl of the Remove rather resembled those of a fatigued snail. Wharton and the nabob stepped out of sight among the leafless trees by the road, before they were within range of Bunter’s spectacles. It was probable that Bunter would have halted if he had sighted the captain of the Remove. As it was, he rolled on and arrived panting and puffing at the spot where Nugent sat on his suitcase.
“Waiting for me, old chap!” gasped Bunter. “I say, what did you bump me over for, you silly ass? But it’s all right—I can take a joke—he, he, he? I say old fpllow, you’re going to sep me through at Wharton Lodge, ain’t you? That’s why you’ve waited, isn’t it?”
“Not quite?” grinned Nugent, as Wharton and Hurree Singh stepped from the trees behind Bunter.
“Oh really, Nugent? I’m relying on you, you know.” urged Bunter. “The fact is, that stuffy old ass, Colonel Wharton, has his back up! You know those fossilised old codgers! Wharton has turned me down, like a rotten, ungrateful cad, after all I’ve done for him. And that rotten nigger, +Inky—— Ow! Who’s that? What—”
Bunter spun round as Harry Wharton took hold of his collar from behind. His little round eyes almost bulged through his big round spectacles at the unexpected sight of the captain of the Greyfriars Remove.
“Oh!” gasped Bunter. “You!”
“You fat villain!” roared Wharton. “You’ve been hanging round my uncle’s place and playing fool tricks in the garage.”
“Oh, really, Wharton! I haven’t been near the place! Leggo my collar! Not likely to come near your place after the rotten way you’ve treated me! As for going to the garage, I don’t even know where it is, and the door was open, and I never watched Brown filling up with juice—I wasn’t hiding behind the door— Ow! Stop shaking me, you beast---”
Shake! Shake! Shake!
“Ooooogh!” gurgled Bunter. “Stop shaking me, I tell you— Ooooh! If you make my specs fall off—ooogh! —and they get b-b-broken—gurrggh-you’ll have to pi-pip-pay for them— wurrrgh!”
Shake! Shake! Shakc
“Wurrrgggh!” gasped Bunter.
Billy Bunter sat in the snow and gurgled. Harry Wharton glared down at him.
“Now, you fat rascal---”
“I give you one second to get out of reach—”
“Then I’m going to kick you —”
Gurrrgh! Beast! Urrrggh!”
“The kickfuiness is the proper caper!” agreed Hurree Jamspt Ram Singh. “Let us all kick togetherfully”
“Hear, hear!” said Nugent. “Give a fellow room!”
Billy Bunter scrambled up. He made a wild leap to escape. Three boots landed on his podgy person as he leaped.
“Whoop!” roared Bunter.
The chums of the Remove turned and walked away towards Wharton Lodge, leaving him rolling, roaring. When Harry Wharton glanced back, from a distance, Bunter was sitting up in the snow, shaking a fat fist, his very spectacles glittering with wrath. Then he was lost to sight, and the Removites trudged on, nothing doubting that they had seen the last of Billy Bunter till next term at Greyfriars.
But they hadn’t!
THE THIRD CHAPTER.
The Unbidden Guest!
“Yes, Mr. Wells, sir !”
“Place the table before the fire, Thomas”
Wells, the butler of Wharton Lodge, stood in Harry Wharton’s sitting-room, otherwise, his “den.” Thomas, the page, was laying the table for tea. Colonel Wharton and his sister. Miss Amy, were dining out that evening, and had already left the Lodge. On such occasions Wharton was accustomed to “tea” in his den, and Thomas was making the arrangements under the lofty supervision of the portly Wells. At the present moment Harry Wharton and Nugent and the nabob were downstairs, chatting by the fire in the hall. Outside, the December darkness was falling, and flakes of snow whirled on a keen wind.
Wharton’s room looked very cosy and comfortable, with a log fire blazing in the grate and the electric light gleaming on a well-spread tea-table, and on the red berries of the holly that decorated the walls in honour of the season. Wells thought so, and so did a third party, of whose presence neither Wells nor Thomas had the slightest suspicion. There were french windows to the room, opening on an old stone balcony with steps down to the garden— a way by which Harry frequently came and went. In the windy darkness of the balcony a fat figure crouched, blinking at the window through a pair of large spectacles, and shivering in the wind.
“Beasts!” murmured Billy Bunter, for about the twentieth time, wondering whether Wells and Thomas would ever go
That was Bunter’s way in!
Wharton had been astonished to learn that the fat Owl of the Remove was still in the neighbourhood. He would have been still more astonished had he known how very near Bunter’s quarters were.
Over Wharton’s den was an attic, reached by a steep stair in the passage outside. That attic was never used, and was kept locked.
Nobody at Wharton Lodge even dreamed that that disused attic was no longer disused but that an unknown and uninvited guest had taken up his quarters there!
With Billy Bunter it was, as Frank Nugent had remarked, a case of any port in a storm.
Having had a “row” with the uncle who had taken him in for Christmas, Billy Bunter really could not be very particular.
But this was, perhaps, rather the limit, even for Billy Bunter!
Still, what was a fellow to do?
Sooner or later, Bunter counted on a favourable and propitious moment for revealing his presence. That moment had not arrived .
He had hoped that the coming of Frank Nugent would see him through. It hadn’t! If he was staying on, he still had to stay in secret. Somehow or other, his fatuous scheming had made matters worse, instead of better.
A fellow could not, of course, remain imprisoned night and day in an attic. But the secret and unknown guest at Wharton Lodge had to be very, very careful how and when he emerged.
Discovery meant the boot for Bunter, and even the dismal attic was preferable to that.
So far, nobody knew.
The balcony to Wharton’s den, and the garden stair, was Bunter’s way of ingress and egress; but he had to watch and wait for opportunities.
Now he was on his way back to his lair.
He had cautiously left it till the fall of the winter dusk, when he had been able to creep into the grounds unperceived, and ascend the garden stair to the balcony.
At the usual teatime at Wharton Lodge he expected to find Wharton’s window dark and his room deserted.
Instead of which, the room was lighted, and Wells and Thomas were there, and the fat Owl had to stay where he was, waiting for them to go.
He only hoped that they would go before the three juniors came up; others wise, he was booked for a long, long wait on the snowy balcony.
Through the glass be could hear Wells’ fruity voice:
“You may go down now, Thomas!”
“Yes, Mr. Wells, sir!” Bunter, blinking in from the darkness outside, saw the lad turn a reproachful eye on tha butler. “I ‘ope, sir, that that don’t mean that you can’t trust me, sir.”
“I am afraid, Thomas, that I cannot trust you.” said Wells, with portly dignity. “I am sorry to say so—but there it is. Being a relation of mine— a distant relation—I got you your present place here, Thomas, speaking for you to the master---”
“And I was thankful to you, Mr. Wells, and I’ve always done my dooty.” said Thomas.
“Up to a few days ago,” said Wells coldly, “I had no cause for complaint. But there is some dishonest person in this house, Thomas.”
“It ain’t me, Mr. Wells!”
“1 ‘ope, Thomas, that it is not. When Master Hurree Singh’s bedclothes were taken away, a few nights ago, it turned out that a vagrant had been about the place, and you were exonerated. When the larder was broken into it was attributed to the same vagrant. Very well! But since then, Thomas, there have been pilferings.”
“It wasn’t me, Mr. Wells!”
“I hope not. But who was it?” said Wells “Several times food has been taken from the larder after the whole house was asleep. Candles have been taken—why, I cannot imagine, the value being so small. An electric torch has been missed by Master Harry A travelling-rug belonging to the master has been missed. Only yesterday the colonel found that there were no biscuits in the box in the dining-room side-board; yet 1 had filled that box the day before with my own ‘ands. Many comestibles laid in by Miss Wharton for the young people on Boxing Day have been purloined—boxes of chocolate, sweets, candied fruits, and so forth! I hope that it was not you, Thomas. But---”
Billy Bunter, with his fat ear to the door, drinking all this in, grinned. The hidden and unbidden guest at Wharton Lodge could have told where the missing eatables had gone!
“So you may go down, Thomas, and tell Master Harry that all is ready,” said Wells, with stately dignity.
“Very well, Mr. Wells, but---”
“You may go, Thomas!”
The butler looked after him and shook his head seriously. He had once had a very good opinion of Thomas. But he was very doubtful now. There was somebody at Wharton Lodge who persistently snaffled trifling things— especially eatable things! Who was it? Suspicion rested on the unlucky Thomas.
Thomas being gone, Wells took a last glance round, to ascertain that all was in order, and then quitted the room himself. He was blissfully unaware that a fat schoolboy on the balcony gasped with relief when the door closed behind him.
Hardly had the door closed when Billy Bunter opened the glass door from the balcony and rolled in. He closed the french window and wiped his feet very carefully on the mat. That was not Bunter’s usual custom, but he was very particular now to leave no traces of his entrance and his exits. Then he stood listening.
Any minute the beasts might come up to tea! It behoved the secret guest to get into his hiding-place without the loss of a moment. Out Bunter was hungry—his usual state! His latest snafflings had long ago been devoured. The good things on the table were irresitab1e.
Listening with both his fat ears, Billy Bunter stood by the table, cramming cake into his capacious mouth with one hand and various articles into his pockets with the other. Seconds were precious; and Bunter did not waste one!
Tea had been laid for three---an ample tea! In a few moments the supplies were much less ample. A few minutes would have sufficed for Billy Bunter to clear the festive board from end to end. But he had only moments, not minutes. There was a sound of footsteps and cheery voices in the corridor outside, from the direction of the stairs. Bunter jumped, and nearly choked! Even then he stayed to grab up a cake before he scudded across to the communicating door of Wharton’s bed-room and bolted into the latter apartment.
That door had hardly closed behind him when the door from the corridor opened, and Harry Wharton and his friends came into the “den.”
Bunter gasped for breath.
His escape had been narrow.
Indeed, his extraordinary visit to Wharton Lodge had been a series of narrow escapes.
“Here we are, Franky!” He heard Harry Wharton’s cheery voice in the adjoining room. “Just like tea in the study—what?”
“The likefulness is terrific!” remarked Hurree Jamset Ram Singh.
“Yes, rather!” said Nugent. “Topping, old bean!”
Bunter did not stay to hear more..
The bed-room had a door on the corridor, and Bunter headed for that door. He opened it a few inches and peered out.
There was a light burning, and the passage was clear. Bunter tiptoed out, and reached the little stair that led up to the disused attic.
Up that stair he went on tiptoe to the little landing, and, taking a key from his pocket, he opened the attic door.
Once inside, he locked the door on the inner side.
Now he was safe!
He lighted a candle—one of the candles that Wells had missed—and sat down on the bedclothes—that had been missed from Hurree Jamset Ram Singh’s room, There was little furniture in the attic, and Bunter had had to do some furnishing himself.
“Beasts!” murmured Bunter.
By the glimmering candlelight he turned his plunder out of his pockets, and proceeded to park it in his capacious interior. After which Billy Bunter felt better.