Mike (Wodehouse)/Chapter 47
MR. DOWNING ON THE SCENT
There was just one moment, the moment in which, on going down to the junior day-room of his house to quell an unseemly disturbance, he was boisterously greeted by a vermilion bull terrier, when Mr. Downing was seized with a hideous fear lest he had lost his senses. Glaring down at the crimson animal that was pawing at his knees, he clutched at his reason for one second as a drowning man clutches at a lifebelt
Then the happy laughter of the young onlookers reassured him.
"Who——" he shouted, "WHO has done this?"
"Please, sir, we don't know," shrilled the chorus.
"Please, sir, he came in like that."
"Please, sir, we were sitting here when he suddenly ran in, all red."
A voice from the crowd: "Look at old Sammy!"
The situation was impossible. There was nothing to be done. He could not find out by verbal inquiry who had painted the dog. The possibility of Sammy being painted red during the night had never occurred to Mr. Downing, and now that the thing had happened he had no scheme of action. As Psmith would have said, he had confused the unusual with the impossible, and the result was that he was taken by surprise.
While he was pondering on this the situation was rendered still more difficult by Sammy, who, taking advantage of the door being open, escaped and rushed into the road, thus publishing his condition to all and sundry. You can hush up a painted dog while it confines itself to your own premises, but once it has mixed with the great public this becomes out of the question. Sammy's state advanced from a private trouble into a row. Mr. Downing's next move was in the same direction that Sammy had taken, only, instead of running about the road, he went straight to the headmaster.
The Head, who had had to leave his house in the small hours in his pyjamas and a dressing-gown, was not in the best of tempers. He had a cold in the head, and also a rooted conviction that Mr. Downing, in spite of his strict orders, had rung the bell himself on the previous night in order to test the efficiency of the school in saving themselves in the event of fire. He received the housemaster frostily, but thawed as the latter related the events which had led up to the ringing of the bell.
"Dear me!" he said, deeply interested. "One of the boys at the school, you think?"
"I am certain of it," said Mr. Downing.
"Was he wearing a school cap?"
"He was bare-headed. A boy who breaks out of his house at night would hardly run the risk of wearing a distinguishing cap."
"No, no, I suppose not. A big boy, you say?"
"You did not see his face?"
"WHO——" HE SHOUTED, "WHO HAS DONE THIS?"
"There is another matter——"
"This boy, whoever he was, had done something before he rang the bell—he had painted my dog Sampson red."
The headmaster's eyes protruded from their sockets. "He—he—what, Mr. Downing?"
"He painted my dog red—bright red." Mr. Downing was too angry to see anything humorous in the incident. Since the previous night he had been wounded in his tenderest feelings. His Fire Brigade system had been most shamefully abused by being turned into a mere instrument in the hands of a malefactor for escaping justice, and his dog had been held up to ridicule to all the world. He did not want to smile, he wanted revenge.
The headmaster, on the other hand, did want to smile. It was not his dog, he could look on the affair with an unbiased eye, and to him there was something ludicrous in a white dog suddenly appearing as a red dog.
"It is a scandalous thing!" said Mr. Downing.
"Quite so! Quite so!" said the headmaster hastily. "I shall punish the boy who did it most severely. I will speak to the school in the Hall after chapel."
Which he did, but without result. A cordial invitation to the criminal to come forward and be executed was received in wooden silence by the school, with the exception of Johnson III., of Outwood's, who, suddenly reminded of Sammy's appearance by the headmaster's words, broke into a wild screech of laughter, and was instantly awarded two hundred lines.
The school filed out of the Hall to their various lunches, and Mr. Downing was left with the conviction that, if he wanted the criminal discovered, he would have to discover him for himself.
The great thing in affairs of this kind is to get a good start, and Fate, feeling perhaps that it had been a little hard upon Mr. Downing, gave him a most magnificent start. Instead of having to hunt for a needle in a haystack, he found himself in a moment in the position of being set to find it in a mere truss of straw.
It was Mr. Outwood who helped him. Sergeant Collard had waylaid the archæological expert on his way to chapel, and informed him that at close on twelve the night before he had observed a youth, unidentified, attempting to get into his house viâ the water-pipe. Mr. Outwood, whose thoughts were occupied with apses and plinths, not to mention cromlechs, at the time, thanked the sergeant with absent-minded politeness and passed on. Later he remembered the fact à propos of some reflections on the subject of burglars in mediæval England, and passed it on to Mr. Downing as they walked back to lunch.
"Then the boy was in your house!" exclaimed Mr. Downing.
"Not actually in, as far as I understand. I gather from the sergeant that he interrupted him before——"
"I mean he must have been one of the boys in your house."
"But what was he doing out at that hour?"
"He had broken out."
"Impossible, I think. Oh yes, quite impossible! I went round the dormitories as usual at eleven o'clock last night, and all the boys were asleep all of them."
Mr. Downing was not listening. He was in a state of suppressed excitement and exultation which made it hard for him to attend to his colleague's slow utterances. He had a clue! Now that the search had narrowed itself down to Outwood's house, the rest was comparatively easy. Perhaps Sergeant Collard had actually recognised the boy. On reflection he dismissed this as unlikely, for the sergeant would scarcely have kept a thing like that to himself; but he might very well have seen more of him than he, Downing, had seen. It was only with an effort that he could keep himself from rushing to the sergeant then and there, and leaving the house lunch to look after itself. He resolved to go the moment that meal was at an end.
Sunday lunch at a public-school house is probably one of the longest functions in existence. It drags its slow length along like a languid snake, but it finishes in time. In due course Mr. Downing, after sitting still and eyeing with acute dislike everybody who asked for a second helping, found himself at liberty.
Regardless of the claims of digestion, he rushed forth on the trail.
Sergeant Collard lived with his wife and a family of unknown dimensions in the lodge at the school front gate. Dinner was just over when Mr. Downing arrived, as a blind man could have told.
The sergeant received his visitor with dignity, ejecting the family, who were torpid after roast beef and resented having to move, in order to ensure privacy.
Having requested his host to smoke, which the latter was about to do unasked, Mr. Downing stated his case.
"Mr. Outwood," he said, "tells me that last night, sergeant, you saw a boy endeavouring to enter his house."
The sergeant blew a cloud of smoke. "Oo-oo-oo, yer," he said; "I did, sir—spotted 'im, I did. Feeflee good at spottin’ I am, sir. Dock of Connaught, he used to say, ''Ere comes Sergeant Collard,' he used to say, ''e's feeflee good at spottin'.'"
"What did you do?"
"Do? Oo-oo-oo! I shouts 'Oo-oo-oo yer, yer young monkey, what yer doin' there?'"
"But 'e was off in a flash, and I doubles after 'im prompt."
"But you didn't catch him?"
"No, sir," admitted the sergeant reluctantly.
"Did you catch sight of his face, sergeant?"
"No, sir, 'e was doublin' away in the opposite direction."
"Did you notice anything at all about his appearance?"
"'E was a long young chap, sir, with a pair of legs on him—feeflee fast 'e run, sir. Oo-oo-oo, feeflee!"
"You noticed nothing else?"
"'E wasn't wearing no cap of any sort, sir."
"Bare-'eaded, sir," added the sergeant, rubbing the point in.
"It was undoubtedly the same boy, undoubtedly! I wish you could have caught a glimpse of his face, sergeant."
"So do I, sir."
"You would not be able to recognise him again if you saw him, you think?"
"Oo-oo-oo! Wouldn't go so far as to say that, sir, 'cos yer see, I'm feeflee good at spottin', but it was a dark night."
Mr. Downing rose to go.
"Well," he said, "the search is now considerably narrowed down, considerably! It is certain that the boy was one of the boys in Mr. Outwood's house."
"Young monkeys!" interjected the sergeant helpfully.
"Good-afternoon to you, sir."
"Pray do not move, sergeant."
The sergeant had not shown the slightest inclination of doing anything of the kind.
"I will find my way out. Very hot to-day, is it not?"
"Feeflee warm, sir; weather's goin' to break—workin' up for thunder."
"I hope not. The school plays the M.C.C. on Wednesday, and it would be a pity if rain were to spoil our first fixture with them. Good afternoon."
And Mr. Downing went out into the baking sunlight, while Sergeant Collard, having requested Mrs. Collard to take the children out for a walk at once, and furthermore to give young Ernie a clip side of the 'ead, if he persisted in making so much noise, put a handkerchief over his face, rested his feet on the table, and slept the sleep of the just.