blackmail

The facts

William tried the handle of the back door. It opened. “Good!” he said. “We can have a look inside now. Come on!”
“There’s laws…” said Douglas.
“Rubbish!” said William. “Ole Frenchie always says that if a thing’s worth doin’ it’s worth doin’ well, so we’re only doin’ what he tells us to.”

  • Number: 38.3
  • Published: 1970
  • Book: William the Lawless
  • Synopsis: The Outlaws try to find their teacher the best wedding present money can (not) buy.

Verdict

This is a really fun story, and it’s driven by William’s soft-hearted and well-concealed affection for his form master, Mr French. Following his engagement in William’s Adventure Society, 37.5, the time has now come for the boys to buy Mr French a wedding present. As Henry confesses, “After all, he’s had a lot to put up with from us.”

One of the boys remembers his parents’ tactic for choosing a wedding present: they waited until invited to dinner by the recipient, and took advantage of the opportunity to look around and see what items were missing. Of course, the Outlaws realise that they are unlikely to be invited to dinner by Mr French, so instead they wait until he goes out for the day “to readsomethin’ up in the British Museum for an article he’s writin’ on middle-aged gardens” before breaking in to his house.

“We’ve done a good -bit of damage,” said Douglas.
“He’ll forgive us,” said William, “when he finds out that we’ve rescued him from the clutches of a blackmailer.”
“Maybe,” said Douglas doubtfully.

While they’re in there – specifically, while William is looking for one of Ginger’s exercise books to compare one of the answers against one of his own – a letter comes through the front door, and the boys inevitably misread it and believe it to be a blackmail threat, signed “M”.

They split up and investigate four prominent Ms in the village. A series of misunderstandings with each suspect only strengthen’s their investigator’s suspicions: William hears Miss Milton lamenting her “killer” dog and assumes his teacher to be a murderer; Henry interprets General Moult’s concern about plagiarism of his biography as the teacher being a “spy”; Douglas gets nowhere at all with Archie Mannister; and Ginger gets particularly confused when Reverend Monks refers to a trendy church organist as “drug pushing his wretched wares among the young and innocent”.

Fortunately, the Outlaws are able to salvage the situation because the damage they caused to Mr French’s house uncovers something rather interesting…

 The facts

“This is the old barn, I presume?” asked Mr Marks.
“Yes, but it’s our place,” said William a little indignantly. “We always play here.”
“Doubtless, my boy. Doubtless. But when you in your turn are a prosperous city gentleman or an ornament to some learned profession…”
“I’m going to be a diver, sir.”
“Yes, yes… well, the particular sphere on which you shed lustre by your presence does not affect the situation. Other boys will still play here and regard it as their property.”
“Yes, I suppose so, sir,” said William, surprised and a little outraged by the idea.

Verdict

This is yet another occasion when William saves his school from a self-important and disruptive influence: see also William Holds the Stage, 14.2. Mr Marks is intensely frustrated by the enforced presence of James Aloysius Worfield, who is holding the prospect of a large donation for a cricket pavilion over the headmaster’s head as a token with which to interfere, generally, in the running of the school.

As such, hostilities between Mr Marks and William (which were always fairly good-natured) are temporarily suspended.

Mr Marks took the cheque from his pocket and contemplated it with satisfaction. “Well, we got it,” he said.
“We got it,” said Mr French, “in spite of young Brown.”
“In spite of young Brown,” agreed Mr Marks. Then a thoughtful look came over his face. “Or could it be – we shall never know, of course – could it possibly be because of young Brown?”

But old boys, apparently, come in twos. Because the Outlaws bump into a friendly hiker who turns out also to have attended their school – a contemporary of Worfield, in fact. He has some stories to tell. Stories that prove very useful to William and the headmaster in getting rid of the unwelcome presence in their midst.

 The facts

“Well, what’ll we do now?” said Ginger. “We’ve done about everything you can do in a garden.”
“An’ some of the things you can’t,” said William with a certain modest pride.

Verdict

Roxana has presented Robert with a hideous American tie “with men playing baseball all over it”, which he feels bound to wear in order to secure her affections, and yet horrified of wearing because of its garishness.

William thinks it is the most exciting item of clothing he’s ever seen, and takes the first opportunitiy to borrow it. At school, he uses the tie to cultivate for himself a reputation as an expert on all things American – only to see the tie confiscated by Mr Vastop, a supply teacher and adversary imaginatively nicknamed “Ole Fathead”.

William’s face was now so expressionless that his homely features might have been hacked out of wood. He stared glassily in front of him.
“I’ve got a very bad mem’ry,” he said. “It’s a funny thing but I’ve got a sort of feeling that if you gave me back that tie of Robert’s I wouldn’t be able to remember anything else. It’d drive everything else clean out of my head.”
Mr Vastop’s face darkened. “I told you…” he began severely, then stopped. “It’s in my bedroom,” he went on. “I’ll get it.”
He went from the room. William turned his expressionless face to Ginger and slowly lowered one eyelid.

Breaking into Mr Vastop’s house to recover it (of course), the boys find various interesting things – including “copies of Mr Vastop’s testimonials, which William read with incredulous surprise” – but no sign of the tie.

Fortunately, Mr Vastop slightly overreacts to William and Ginger’s presence in his home, and they are able to turn that overreaction to his advantage…