"Isn't it awful, Grimmy?" said Rogers. "Where can the idiots be?"
Worcester and Acton had a consultation. "If they don't turn up in time we'll have to make a start without 'em."
"If we have to go in we may give 'em up. We can't bat substitutes."
"No fear!" said Dick. "Cotton isn't likely to hear of that, and, besides, it's just like the rotten thing you might expect from those niggers."
Acton smiled. "All right, old chap. Put in Grim and Rogers in their place. The little beggars will be as keen as mustard."
So Grim and Rogers had the honour of representing their house, since the dervishes did not turn up. Rogers, when he shut the door on Todd, did not guess that he had shut up Biffen's crack bats too. That Biffen's lost the match, and made no sort of show against Cotton's bowling, may also, perhaps, be attributed to the inadvertent imprisonment of Mehtah and "Lamb."
The imprisoned trio had not had a very lively time that afternoon in the punt-house. The door remained obstinately shut, and neither Todd nor his two companions relished a swim in the moat as the price of freedom. The dervishes took matters very calmly; the desire to play for Biffen's was not strong enough to counterbalance the natural shrinking from a header into the duckweed and a run home in wet clothes. Singh Ram had a final try at the door, and then murmured—so Gus said—"Kismet," and relit his half-smoked cigar. Todd, indeed, shouted lustily; but when he realized that by contributing to the escape of the dervishes he might contribute to the downfall of his own house, he stopped himself in the middle of an unearthly howl. For three hours Gus remained a half-voluntary prisoner; but, when he judged it safe, he created such a pandemonium that young Hill hurried out of the farm stable, thinking there must be some weird tragedy taking place at the punt-house. He had hurried across and let the trio out.
The dervishes got a mixed reception from Biffen's crowd. Worcester was almost eloquent in his language, and Acton was calmly indifferent.
"But I tell you, Worcester, some beast locked us in the punt-house."
"I wish they'd kept you there," said Dick, unmollified.
Whilst Worcester was swallowing his tea, Rogers and Wilson craved audience. Their faces were as long as fiddles.
"Oh, Worcester!" began Rogers, tremulously, "we've come to tell you that it was we who lost Biffen's the houser."
"Why, Wilson didn't play, and you caught Cotton," said Dick, astonished.
"But we locked the dervishes in the punt-house—we thought there was only Todd inside."
"Oh, you did, you little beggars, did you?" said Worcester, considering the doleful and grief-stricken Biffenites. "Well, here's a shilling for each of you if you keep it dark. I'm deucedly glad the dervishes didn't play. I'd rather lose a dozen housers than feel the niggers were indispensable. Now, cut; and next time you bottle 'em up, see they don't get out."
"Golly!" said Rogers, as the two left Worcester to his tea. "I suppose the sun's affected Worcester's brain."
Whilst the dervishes were explaining matters to Worcester the other prisoner was elbowing his way into the crowd around the Fifth Form notice-board, whereon were pinned the final lists. Jim Cotton was planted squarely before the board, eyeing the contents with huge delight, and when he caught sight of the struggling Gus he haled him vigorously forward.
"Here you are, Gus! By Jove, Toddy, you've done it this time, you old Perry fizzler!"
Gus eyed the list with delighted eyes.
This is what he saw: "First—Todd, A.V.R.—history medal, and chemistry prize."
Need I say anything more of either Todd or Cotton? Todd entered the Sixth when the summer holidays were over, and Phil Bourne writes me often and tells me what a big gun Todd is in the schools. Jim Cotton was entered upon the roll-call of some celebrated "crammer" near the Crystal Palace. If crammers' hearts could be broken, Jim, I should say, will accomplish the feat. But if ever James Cotton does get into the Army he will never disgrace his regiment.
THE END OF THE FEUD
Thoroughly satisfied with himself and all the world, Acton had on the last Saturday of the term—the election for the captaincy was to be held that night—left the cricket field to the enthusiasts, and turned his feet towards the old Lodestone Farm, the road he knew so well. He wanted to be alone with his happy thoughts. He was more than satisfied with himself, and, as he walked along, he mowed down with his ash-plant thistles and nettles in sheer joyfulness of heart. His long feud with Bourne would come to a joyful end that night. Mivart's election was certain, and Mivart's election would pay for all—for the loss of the "footer" cap, and for that terrible half-hour after Bourne had knocked him out, when he felt himself almost going mad from hatred, rage, disgust, and defeat. He had engineered his schemes beautifully; his revenge would be as perfect. The loss of the captaincy would be a bitter, bitter pill for Bourne to swallow.
Whilst he strode on, engrossed with these pleasant thoughts, he fancied he heard shouts and cries somewhere in the distance behind him. He turned round, and down the long stretch of white road he saw a cloud of dust rolling with terrific speed towards him. For one moment he wondered whatever was the matter, but out of the dust he could see the flashing of carriage-wheels, the glitter of harness, and the shining coats of a couple of horses. The carriage came rocking towards him at a terrible rate, sometimes the wheels on one side off the road altogether; the horses had their heads up, and Acton could hear their terrified snorting as they thundered towards him.
"A runaway!" said Acton, backing into the hedge. "They'll come a cropper at the little bridge. What a smash there'll be!" As the runaway horses, galloping like the furies, came nearer, Acton saw something which made his blood run cold. "Jove!" he cried, darting out from the hedge, "there's a lady in the carriage!" Acton was almost frozen with the horror of the thing. "She'll be smashed to pieces at the bridge."
Acton glanced to the little bridge half a mile down the long white road, where the road narrowed to meet the low stone walls, and he knew as well as though he saw it that the carriage would catch the bridge and be shivered to match-wood. The horses must be stopped before they reached it, or the lady would be killed. Now Acton, with all his faults, was no coward. Without thinking of the terrible risk he ran, he sprang out into the middle of the road and waved his arms frantically at the horses moving like a thunderbolt towards him. But they were too maddened with terror to heed this waving apparition in their path, and Acton, in the very nick of time, just jumped aside and avoided the carriage-pole, pointed like a living lance at his breast.
As the horses whirled past, he clutched madly at the loose reins, see-sawing in the air. He held them, and the leather slid through his frenzied grasp, cutting his palms to the bone. When he reached the loop he was jerked off his feet with a terrible shock, and was whirled along the dusty road, the carriage-wheels grinding, crunching, and skidding within a foot of his head. Luckily the reins held, and when, after being dragged a hundred yards or so, and half choked by the thick dust, he managed to scramble to his feet, he pulled with frenzied, convulsive strength on the off-side rein. The horses swerved to the fearful saw on their jaws, and pulled nearly into the left-hand hedge. Acton's desperate idea was to overturn the carriage into the hedge before the horses could reach the bridge, for he felt he could no more pull them up than he dare let them go. There was just a chance for the lady if she were overturned into the bank or hedge, but none whatever if she were thrown at the bridge. In a minute or so the carriage lurched horribly sideways: there was a grinding crash, and the carriage overturned bodily into the bank. The lady was shot out, and the next minute the horses' hoofs were making tooth-picks of the wrecked carriage.
Acton darted up the bank and found the lady dazed and bruised, but was overjoyed to see she wasn't dead. "Are you much hurt?"
"No, I don't think so," she said, with a brave smile; "but I expected to be killed any moment. You are a brave man, sir, to risk your life for a stranger."
Acton said quietly, "Not at all; but I think I was very lucky to turn them in time."
In a minute or two there was a small crowd. Half a dozen stray cyclists had wheeled up, and with their help Acton got out the horses, dreadfully cut about the legs and shivering with terror, from the wreckage. Down the dusty road were men running for dear life, and ahead of all Acton caught sight of a well-known athletic figure running like a deer, and in another moment Phil Bourne was asking the lady in panting bursts if she were not really hurt.
"No, Phil; not in the least. I owe my life to this gentleman, who pulled the horses into the bank before they could reach the bridge."
Phil wheeled round, his face beaming with gratitude, but when he saw Acton, pale to the lips, the words of thankfulness froze on his lips. For one instant he stared at his old enemy with wonder and amazement, then, with a gesture of utter gratitude, he said—
"Acton, I can never tell you how much I owe you for saving my mother's life, but will you shake hands?"
Acton looked at Bourne, whose face beamed with admiration and gratitude, and then he put out his hand. In that moment, so honourable to them both, the feud was stamped out for ever. Fresh as he was from as glorious a deed as any Amorian had ever done, he realized that he had been a blackguard towards Bourne the moment Phil begged him to shake hands.
Phil murmured almost inarticulate words of gratitude; but Acton, more than a trifle disturbed at his own thoughts, interrupted hastily—
"Say no more about it, please, Bourne. You'd have done as much for any one."
"Your hands are bleeding," said Phil, with immense concern.
"Nothing at all. I think the reins cut them."
Mrs. Bourne would bind them. "Of course!" said she. "How blind of me not to see that this gentleman is one of your schoolfellows, Phil."
"Mother," said Phil, "this is John Acton."
"I've heard Phil talk about your wonderful win at Aldershot. I suppose you're great friends?"
The "great friends" looked on the ground rather guiltily, but Phil cut in with—
"I say, Acton, you must come and have tea with mother and me in my den. Can you?"
Acton said quietly, "All right, Bourne. Thanks, awfully." Then he added under his breath to Phil, "If I can come as a friend?"
"On that condition," said Phil, "I'd like you to come."
The trio walked back along the road—a happy trio they were, too—and a melancholy procession of injured horses and an angry coachman closed their rear. The tea in Bourne's room was very successful, and I should fancy that Hinton did more hard thinking and hard staring when he saw Acton amicably seated with his feet under Bourne's table than he ever did before. The minute he had permission, he flew down the corridor, and exploded bombshell after bombshell among wondering Amorians.
"Acton and Bourne teaing together like two birds on a bough!" he gasped.
"That would be a funny sight," said Cherry. "Birds don't take tea."
"Write an epilogue, Fruity. Teaing together as friendly as Grim and I might."
"Only that," said W.E. Grim, with a genial wink, "my opinion is, that Hinton's been on the drink, and seen double."
Incredulity and wonder were the dominant notes among Amorians for the next two hours.
Acton and Phil walked to the station with Mrs. Bourne, and when she had gone to town, and the pair were returning schoolwards, Acton said thoughtfully—
"Look here, Bourne. Don't know quite what it was that made me feel so cheap when you rushed to thank me for helping your mater. I felt very small."
"If that's so, you'll feel cheaper and smaller when pater sees you. I'd have those hands cured first."
"Bourne," said Acton, very seriously, "I've been an arrant cad since I've come to St. Amory's, and if those horses hadn't bolted with your mater I should never have seen in you anything but a strait-laced prig, as I've all along thought you. I have, really. But that's all changed now, and I'm going to dry up. I suppose you know you aren't popular among the fellows generally?"
"Rather!" said Phil, gloomily.
"And you know that you owe all this to me?"
"Only too well, Acton."
"Well, I'm going to make what amends I can. Have you any objection to my proposing you as captain to-night?"
"Acton, you are a brick," said Phil, "but you're too late now. I don't stand a ghost of a chance against Mivart."
"And I'll get Mivart to second you. I can put all the fellows straight concerning you, and, by Jove, it's the least I can do! I'll make a clean breast of it to them all to-night before the election comes on."
"Oh no, you won't! I'd rather lose the captaincy than that. Besides, Aspinall asked me not to do anything bar refuse you your cap."
"I've been an insufferable cad," said Acton, with a hot blush, "but you shall be captain in any case."
Acton saw Mivart, and whether he told him the whole history of his quarrel with Bourne or not, I cannot say; anyhow, Acton prevailed on him to second Phil. Mivart was a very good fellow, as I said before, and he thoroughly believed that Bourne would make a better captain than he himself would, so he said he would be delighted to back Phil up to any extent, since Phil was not now the jealous bounder he had so long been considered.
I myself, as the retiring captain, took the chair in the Sixth Form room to see the election of my successor through with all due solemnity. Acton got up, and though he was very nervous, he said out straight what he had resolved to say.
"I propose Phil Bourne for captain in place of Carr, and I'll tell you why. I consider him the most suitable fellow to take our old captain's place. Many of you may be—will be—surprised to hear me propose Bourne, for between us two, as you all know, there has been no love lost. But in all the dreary business I have been the utter cad and Bourne the other thing. He brought upon himself any amount of bad feeling because he would not give me my 'footer' cap. I did not deserve it"—some one here said "rot!" emphatically—"not because I wasn't good enough a player, but for another reason, which, much as I should shy at telling you, I would tell, only Bourne begged me not to. It is his and Carr's and another fellow's secret as much as mine, so I feel I had better not say it. But, believe me, in the business I was an utter cad, and instead of bringing all that row about my cap upon Bourne's head, I ought to have burned my boots, and never kicked a football again. There's another matter, this time strictly between Bourne and self, in which I did him as big an injury as one fellow can do another. He gave me a sound thrashing for it on the morning that you fellows went away last term, and Carr and Vercoe here assisted us in our little mill. No one ever deserved a thrashing as I deserved that one, and now I'm glad I got it. It was Bourne's only score against me. Fact is," said Acton, with a grim smile, "I'd rather meet another Jarvis than Bourne."
The fellows opened their eyes, and wondered what next.
"This term I've worked the whole school, and especially you monitors, against Bourne, to make his chance of getting the captaincy a very rocky one. And I think I pretty well succeeded. You all liked Bourne before I appeared on the scene, with good reason, and I do hope you will all give him your votes, for, and I say it absolutely sure of its truth, the best fellow in St. Amory's is Bourne. That is all I can say."
Mivart got up before the fellows had time to recover from their astonishment, and said—
"I have great pleasure in seconding Acton's proposal. I, too, consider Bourne out and out the best fellow to take Carr's place. Whilst Phil was under a cloud I was willing to stand for captain, but since we all know now that he stands where he did, the only proper thing to do is to give him the unanimous vote, for I do not mean to stand at all."
The fellows blankly voted for Bourne, and, as Grim would be sure to say, "the proposition was carried nem. con."
That evening Corker confirmed Phil's appointment, and I spent as happy an evening as I can remember. Acton said he should not come back to St. Amory's again, as his record was too black to be used as a convenient reference, but Phil and I and all the fellows told him we should be only too glad to let bygones be bygones, and that he had really done the square thing at the last.
He did come back, and Phil's letters to me tell me that his old enemy is one of the most popular—deservedly—in the school, and his best friend. They are inseparable, play back together at "footer," and are variously called Gemini, Damon and Pythias, David and Jonathan, as the case may be.
Biffen's are still cock-house at "footer;" Acton is going in again for the "heavy"—this time without the Coon's help—and those "niggers," Singh Ram and Runjit Mehtah, to Worcester's intense disgust, are the representatives of St. Amory's in gymnastics; and, altogether, Biffen's House is, thanks to Acton's help, perhaps the most distinguished in the school.
A jollier going away for the Christmas holidays had not taken place for an age.
An old Amorian had done "something good" in India, which had obtained an extra week's holiday for his old school, and the Amorians, a day or so before, had beaten the Carthusians, whose forwards had been led to the slaughter by an International whose very initials spell unapproachable football.
The station of St. Amory's was crowded with the fellows, all sporting rugs of vivid patterns on their arms, and new and of-the-latest-shape "bowlers" on their heads, and new and fancy trouserings on their emancipated legs. No more Amorian cap—peak pointing well down the neck—no more trouserings of sober grey-and-black, no more beakish restraint for five weeks! Couples strolled up and down arm-in-arm; knots of the Sixth and Fifth discussed matters of high state interest, and the worthies of the lower forms made the lives of the perspiring porters a misery and a burden to them. Prominent Amorians were cheered, and when those old enemies, John Acton and Phil Bourne, tumbled out of their cab as the greatest of chums, the fags quavered out their shrill rejoicings, honouring the famous school backs who had stemmed the sweeping rush of the Carthusians a day or so before.
There was a rumour that Acton had been asked to play for the Corinthians, and the other athletes on the platform pressed round the pair for information.
Our old friends, Wilson and Jack Bourne, had shut up by stratagem B.A.M. Cherry in the lamp-room, and the piteous pleadings of that young Biffenite were listened to with ecstacy by a crowd of a dozen, who hailed the promises and threats of the prisoner with shouts of mocking laughter.
W.E. Grim, Esq., explained to a few of his particular chums, Rogers among them, the wonderful shooting he was going to have "up at Acton's place" in Yorkshire, and they listened with visible envy.
"Look here, Grimmy, if you tell us next term that you bagged two woodcock with one barrel, we'll boot you all round Biffen's yard—so there."
Acton had, as a matter of fact, invited Dick Worcester, Gus Todd, Jack Senior, of Merishall's house, and Grim, to spend Christmas with him at his mother's place, and they had all accepted with alacrity.
The northern express rolled into the station, and Grim was hurriedly informed by Rogers that he was to bag the end carriage for Acton under pain of death. Grim tore down the platform, and, encouraged by the cheerful Rogers, performed prodigies of valour, told crams to groups of disgusted Amorians, who went sighing to search elsewhere for room, engaged in single combat with one of Sharpe's juniors, and generally held the fort. And then, when Acton came running down, and wanted to know what the deuce he was keeping him waiting for, Grim realized that Rogers had "done" him to a turn. He shouted weird threats as he was hurried away, to the bubbling Rogers, and that young gentleman lifted his hat in ironical acknowledgment. There was the warning shriek from the engine, and then the train crawled out, taking toll of all the Amorians going north, and leaving the others to shout after them endearing epithets and clinching witticisms.
For two days before the Amorians were on the wing home there had been heavy falls of snow, culminating, on the going-away day, in a heavy snow-storm. All the way from St. Amory's the express had been held up by doubtful signals, and in the deeper cuttings the snow had piled up in huge drifts. The express had toiled on its northern journey, steadily losing time at every point. At Preston Acton had telegraphed home that probably they would arrive quite three hours late. Thus it was that, tired but jolly, the party of five Amorians got out of the main line express at Lowbay, and, each laden with rugs and magazines, stumbled light-heartedly across the snow-sodden platform into the local train, which had waited for the express nearly three hours. They found themselves sixteen miles from home, and with no prospect of reaching it before midnight.
"Raven Crag," the name of Acton's home, was situated just within the borders of Yorkshire. A single line of rails takes you from Lowbay Junction up the Westmoreland hills to the top of the heaviest gradient in the kingdom, and then hurtles you down into the little wayside station of Lansdale, the station for "Raven Crag."
The sturdy tank engine coupled to the short local train was steaming steadily and noisily, and when the express had rolled heavily out for Carlisle, the station-master hastily beat up intending passengers for the branch line. Besides Acton's party, there were only two passengers, a lady and a little girl.
"I'll give the old tank a good half-hour to crawl the eight miles to the top of the fells," said Acton, "and then we'll rattle into Lansdale in ten minutes. But she will cough as she crawls up. Look here, Dick, I'll have a whole rug, please. This carriage is as cold as a refrigerator."
The fellows made themselves as comfortable as an unlimited supply of rugs and a couple of foot-warmers would admit of. Dick Worcester, without a blush, propped his head against a window and said: "Grim, there's a lingering death for you if you fail to wake me five minutes from Lansdale." The others exchanged magazines and yawned hopefully, whilst Acton took out his Kipling, and straightway forgot snow, home, and friends.
The station master, and the driver, and the guard held an animated conversation round the engine. "Strikes me, Bill, the old engine'll never get t' top of t' bank to-night!" said the guard. "The snow must be terrible thick in Hudson's cutting."
"She'll do it," said the driver,—"wi' luck."
"Got another engine with steam up," inquired the guard, "to give us a lift behind?"
"No, they're all shut down, and we couldn't wait now. You'll have to run her through yourselves," said the station-master. "Nearly four hours late already! Off with you!"
"I'm doubting we can't do it," said the guard, thoughtfully. "To-night is the worst night I can remember for years. The expresses could just manage it."
"Oh, well," said the driver, "we're down to run it, and we're going to try."
"There'll be drifts twenty feet deep in the cutting, and it'll be like running into a house," said the guard, slowly, "but I suppose we've got to try, anyhow."
He walked away thoughtfully to his van, and a moment later there was a shrill whistle, and the Lansdale local ran out into the night.
And it was a night! There was no moon, and not the least glimmer of a star overhead; an utter darkness shrouded the world. The wind was high and steady, and its mournful howling through the rocky cuttings of the railway sounded unspeakably melancholy. Driven by the gale, the snowflakes had in five minutes covered the windward side of the train with a winding-sheet, inches deep, and when Gus Todd, from curiosity, opened the window to peer out into the night, the flakes, heavy, large, and soft, whirled into the carriage a very cataract of snow.
"Don't, Gus, please," pleaded Acton, looking up from his book in astonishment at the snow glittering in the lamp-light; "I prefer that outside, thanks."
"It's an awful storm, Acton," said Gus, hastily drawing up the window. "Allah! how it snows!"
"Is this up to the usual sample here?" asked Senior, nestling nearer the dozing Dick.
"Well," said Acton, listening a moment to the stroke of the engine, and the roar of the wind, "I think we may say it is."
"Blizzard seems nearer the word, old man. The flakes come at you like snowballs."
"Shan't be sorry when we tread your ancestral halls. This weather is too-too for comfort. And don't we crawl!"
"We're rising," said Acton, "and it is uphill work. Hear the old tank groaning?"
In fact, the train, labouring up the heavy gradient, did barely more than crawl through the snow and wind, and the slow beat of the engine told how hard it was even to do that. Acton added thoughtfully, "We've quite four miles yet to the summit, and there's a chance we mayn't——"
"Mayn't what, Acton, please?" said Grim, putting down his magazine.
"Get there, Grimmy."
"To the top? Oh, rot!" said Senior.
"I can't quite remember such a crawl as this, Jack; listen how the engine coughs."
"If we can't get to the top of the incline—what then?" asked Grim.
"Go back, I should say."
"Yes. But while we do crawl there's no need to fret."
"That would mean goodbye for the present to your place, old man?"
"Yes. 'Twould be a horrid nuisance, wouldn't it?"
The Amorians listened anxiously to the engine toiling up the incline; but the howling of the wind almost drowned every other sound. The pace was still a crawl, but it was a steady one.
"Oh! she'll worry through after all," said Acton.
Hardly were the words out of his mouth when the train pulled up with a jerk that sent Senior and Grim flying forward into the unexpectant arms of the dozing Dick and Gus Todd. The luggage rattled out of the rack in instantaneous response, and whilst all the fellows were staring blankly at each other they heard the crunching of the brake, and felt that the train had come to a dead stop.
"What ever is the matter?" gasped Worcester, quite wide awake by now.
"We've landed into a drift, I fancy," said Acton, "and there's no home for us to-night. What beastly luck!"
There was now no sound but the roaring of the storm; the engine gave no sign that they could hear, and Acton impatiently let down the window, but was instantly almost blinded by the snow, which whirled through the open window. Crossing over, he tried the other with better success, and the first thing he saw was the guard, waist deep in snow, trying to make his way forward, and holding his lamp well before him. "What's happened, guard?" he asked.
"Matter!—why, we're off the line for one thing, and——"
Forward, they could hear the shouts of the driver above the hiss of escaping steam.
"Let me have your cap, Grim," said Acton, all energy in a moment. "I'm going forward to see what is up. Back in a minute."
He slipped out carefully, but seeing the predicament of the guard, he did not jump out into the snow, but advanced carefully along the footboards, feeling his way forward by the brass-work of the carriages. To the leeward the bulk of the train gave comparative shelter from the fury of the storm, and Acton was in a minute abreast of the guard, floundering heavily in the drifts.
"This is a better way, guard. Take my hand, and I'll pull you up."
"All right, sir. Here's the lamp."
Acton's hand closed on the guard's wrist, and in a moment the young athlete had the man beside him. Together they made their way forward, and by the light of the lamp they saw what had happened. The engine had taken a drift edge-way, had canted up, and then rolled over against the walls of the cutting. Luckily, the carriages had kept the rails. The driver was up to his neck in the snow, but the fireman was not visible.
Acton availed himself of the overturned engine, which was making unearthly noises, and reached out a hand for the driver. The latter clutched it, and scrambled out.
"Where's your mate?"
"Tom jumped the other way, sir."
Acton swung the lamp round, sending its broad sheet of light into the driving snow. For a moment he could see nothing but the dazzling white floor, but next instant perceived the fireman, whose head rested against the horizontal wheel of the overturned engine.
"This man is hurt," he said, when he saw a crimson stain on the snow. "Take the lamp, guard."
Acton clambered over the short tender, seized the man by the shoulder, and, with an immense effort of strength, pulled him partly up. The man gave no signs of life.
"Bear a hand, driver, will you? He's too much for me alone."
The driver hastily scrambled beside Acton, and in a minute or so they had the insensible man between them.
"He hurt himself as he jumped," said Acton, looking with concern at a gaping cut over the man's eye. "Anyhow, our first business is to bring him round."
It was a weary business lifting the unconscious fireman into an empty compartment, and still more weary work to bring him round, but at last this was done. Acton tore up his handkerchief, and with melted snow washed clean the ugly cut on his forehead, and then left the fireman in charge of his mate.
"We'll have to roost here, sir, all night. There's no getting out of this cutting, nohow. Thank you, sir; I'll see to Tom."
Acton and the guard made their way back to the rear of the train, where the Amorians were awaiting their schoolfellow with impatience and anxiety.
"The engine is off the rails and the stoker is damaged above a bit," said Acton, seriously, "and we're fixtures here until the company comes and digs us out. There's only one thing to do: we must make ourselves as comfy as possible for the night. I must see that lady, though, before we do anything for ourselves. Back in a moment."
Acton sallied out once more and devoted a good ten minutes to explaining matters to the very horrified and nervous lady and her tearful little twelve-year-old girl.
"I'll bring you some cushions, and I'll steal Dick Worcester's pillow for the little girl," he explained cheerfully. "You have one rug, I see. We can spare you a couple more. No danger at all, really, But isn't it really horrid? We have not a morsel of food to offer you, but I dare say you can, if you don't worry over it, put up with a makeshift bed—only for one night, I'm sure."
Acton relieved Dick Worcester—who plumed himself on his pillow—of that article, and one of Senior's rugs.
On his return he confronted the dubious looks of his chums with his invincible cheerfulness.
"Now, you fellows! we're to sleep here. Two on a seat is the order, and one on the floor, that's me. Dicky, darling, please don't roll off your perch. We've plenty of rugs and overcoats: enough to stock Nansen, Grim, so we shan't all wake up frozen to death."
Gus Todd smiled dutifully at this bull.
The guard came with a modest request.
"Can you roost with us? Oh! certainly. Bag another cushion for the floor, and then you're all right. More, the merrier; and let the ventilation go hang. If Mr. Worcester doesn't fall on you, guard, I dare say you'll live to tell the tale."
The Amorians, who trusted to Acton as they would have trusted to no one else on earth, entered into the fun of the thing, and the last joke of the night was a solemn warning to Grim from Dick Worcester to avoid snoring, as he valued his life.
"We can manage like this for one night, anyhow," whispered Acton to the guard, "for we really keep each other warm. We'll get out of this to-morrow."
The guard did not reply to this for fully a minute. He whispered back, "Listen to the wind, sir. The storm isn't half over yet. I've got my doubts about to-morrow. We're snowed up for more'n a day."
OVER THE FELLS
When day dawned, and the snowed-up travellers began to look around them, they found that, though the snow was not descending nearly as heavily as on the night before, the wind was still strong and the weather bitterly cold.
On the windward side of the train the snow had drifted almost up to the window panes, but on the leeward there was considerably less. Looking up and down the line, they could see their train surrounded by its dazzling environment, and the drifts were so high that they had filled the low cutting stretching towards Lowbay level to its top.
The train was an island in a sea of snow.
The Amorians, stiff and cramped with their narrow quarters of the night, dropped off into the snow on the sheltered side and explored as far as the overturned engine, now stark and cold, with wonder and awe.
"Why, we're like rats in a trap!" exclaimed Gus Todd.
"We'll have a council of war now," said Acton, as he saw the driver and his mate floundering towards them, "and then we can see what's to be done—if anything can be done."
It seemed the result of the council was to be the decision that there was nothing to be done. To go back to Lowbay, or forward to Lansdale, was plainly impossible, and neither guard nor driver thought they could be ploughed out under two days at the earliest. "And yet," concluded Acton, "we can't starve and freeze for two days. Look here, guard, isn't there a fell farm somewhere hereabouts? I begin to fancy——"
"There's one over the hills yonder, three or four miles away. Might as well be three hundred, for they'll never dream of our being snowed up here."
"Well, but can't we go to them, if you know the way?"
"That's just what I don't know, with all this snow about. The farm is behind that hill somewhere; but I could no more take you there than fly. Besides, who could wade up to their necks in snow for half a mile, let alone three?"
"But the snow won't be so deep on the fells as in these cuttings."
"That's true, I suppose. But get into a drift on the fell—and, Lord, that would be easy enough—you're done. And there's becks deep enough to drown a man, and you'll never see them till you're up to your chin in their icy waters. I wouldn't chance it for anything. We mun wait here till we're dug out, sir, and that's all about it."
"Where is that farm, guard? Behind which shoulder of the fell?"
"Look here, Acton," began Dick Worcester, apprehensively, "I'm hanged if we're going to let you go groping about for any blessed farm in this storm. We'll eat the coals in the tender first!"
"Thanks, Dick. Which shoulder, guard?"
The man explained as fully and elaborately as if he might as well talk as think. The shoulder of the fell was noted by Acton exactly and carefully, even to borrowing a compass pendant off Todd's historic watch—chain.
"It lies exactly N.N.E., and one could find one's way in the dark if that were all."
"But it isn't, Acton," said Grim, anxiously, "not by a long chalk. Oh, Acton, don't go!"
"I'm going to turn over the idea, Grim. But, anyhow, I don't stir out of this cutting until the snow's out of the sky."
Acton and the guard talked long and seriously, whilst the Amorians put into practical working Senior's idea of a fire beside the van. There were coals galore.
Half an hour afterwards the snow ceased. "Now," said Acton, quietly, "I know exactly where that farm is. I'm going to go now and have a try for it. I'll move the farm people, if I reach 'em, double quick back again with food, for they're used to these fells, and then we can all go back to the farm together. The fact is," said Acton, hurriedly, as he saw a chorus of dissent about to break out, "we must get out of this very soon. There's the lady and the child—and even more than that, there is the fireman, who is downright ill. We cannot wait till we're dug out; that is absolutely certain. I'm not going to run any danger, and if I find I'm likely to, I'm coming back. I fancy, really," he added, laughing, "that the most difficult part of the business will be to get out of this cutting."
The fellows all knew Acton; they knew that when he said things in a certain tone there was no good arguing. That was why Grim, with a white face, hurriedly left stoking the blazing fire and retired in dismay to the guard's van, and why Gus Todd, in an access of angry impatience, shied the magazine he had been turning over into the middle of the flames.
Jack Senior said, "This is just like you, Acton. You will fight more than your share of bargees, but this time I'm going to go one and one with you. If you like to risk being drowned in those beastly moorland streams, or to fall into some thirty-feet drift, I'm going to go too. That is final. Kismet, etc.!"
Acton looked narrowly at Senior. "All right, Jack. Get your coat on; but, honour bright, I'd rather go alone."
"Couldn't do it, old man," said Senior, whilst Worcester nodded approvingly. "What would Phil Bourne say, if he heard we'd let you melt away into—— I'm going too."
The passage out of the cutting was not so difficult as Acton had bargained for; but Worcester and Todd did wonders with the fireman's shovels and made a lane through the drifts. On the firm ground of the fell the two found that, though the snow was deep enough in all conscience, it was not to be compared with the drifts on the line. The wind now, as they started off, was whipping away the loose top layers of snow in cold white clouds, which stung the face and ears with their icy sharpness; but, with caps well down and coats buttoned up to the ears, the two trudged on. The snow had ceased, but it was plain, by the dark and lowering sky, that this might only be temporary, and Acton kept up as smart a pace as he could, heading right for the shoulder of the fell, a couple of miles away, behind which he might, if he were lucky, see that moorland farm. The hill ran down into a valley, towards which the two Amorians hurried, Acton keeping his ears well open for the faintest murmur of water.
"There's a beck somewhere down here, Jack, but we'll not see it until we're almost into it. So look out!"
"All serene! I'm on the qui vive!" Hardly were the words out of Senior's mouth than he stumbled headlong forward, the ground opening at his feet, and a narrow ribbon of cold grey water, silently sliding under its shrunken banks, caught Acton's eye. Senior had plumped cleanly into this. Luckily, it was not very deep, and he scrambled out to the other side drenched to the skin, and showing clearly enough, where he had broken through the snow on both sides, that all the care in the world would not prevent them repeating the experience. The snow overhung a yard. Acton had stopped dead when he saw Senior disappear, but in a moment he had sprung clear, and was helping his friend up the bank. The snow slipped silently into the stream as he jumped.
"That's number one," said Senior, "and only half an hour from the train! Any more hereabouts?"
"I fancy so, but we may have better luck next time."
"Hope so. Set the pace, old man, please. It's b-b-beastly c-c-cold."
Acton was thoroughly upset by this mishap, and he headed up the opposite slope of the hill with a face that showed how the incident had shaken him. Senior's teeth chattered, and he looked blue with cold. The two plodded on, Acton insisting on Senior keeping behind. Acton again had the unenviable pleasure of seeing some more of those icy waters, and their slow and deadly stealing under the snow seemed to him sinister and fatal as he pulled himself up on the brink. The care necessary, the cold, cutting wind, and the knee-deep snow, made their progress terribly slow, and Acton began to notice that Senior, despite his anxiety for a sharp pace, was already terribly fagged.
The distance widened between the two, and once, when Acton turned round and found his friend nearly thirty yards behind, his heart almost stopped beating.
"This will never do! Heaven help us if he cracks up!" He waited for the weary Senior, and then said gently, "Pace too hot, old fellow?"
"Rather. So sorry, but you seem to run almost."
"Run!" smiled Acton, bitterly. "Why, we're not doing a mile an hour. Put your heart into it, Jack, and for Heaven's sake don't let me get too much in front!"
"All serene!" said Senior, gamely.
To Acton's intense alarm, the snow had recommenced, and the wind swept it down the fells full into their faces. Acton was afraid that he might make a mistake if the snow became so heavy as to blot out the landscape, and, knowing that to do so might have terrible consequences, he nervously forced the pace.
Senior responded gamely.
"Keep well behind, old man. You'll dodge the snow better. Can you do a wee sprint? We're not far from the top of the ridge, and then we've only to work down the hill and bear to the left, and there we are."
"Only!" said Senior, wearily. "How far?"
"A bare mile. Step it out for all you're worth."
By this time it was obvious that the storm had recommenced in all its fury, and Acton, in an ecstasy of horror and anxiety lest he should turn the shoulder of the hill too late to see anything of the farm, almost ran forward. He had thrust out his head, and his eyes anxiously peered forward. They were now almost on the top of the shoulder of the fell. Acton turned round with eagerness.
"Five minutes more and we're—— He's gone!"
Senior, indeed, was not in sight. With a groan of despair, Acton ran back down the slope.
"Jack! Jack! Jack!" he howled above the wind, "Where are you?"
There was no reply
Further down the slope ran Acton, shouting into the storm. He heard nothing; not a sound. Then, and his heart almost burst with joy, his eye caught sight of a moving, staggering figure, drifting aimlessly across his path. Senior, half his senses beaten out of him by cold, wet, the wind, and lack of food, looked at the screaming Acton with uncomprehending eyes, and was aimlessly shaking off his grasp to lounge easily to death.
"He has cracked up," said Acton, in despair, and he gripped the half-senseless youth with frenzied strength.
"This is the way you're to go—with me!" he yelled.
Half-dragging, half-coaxing, uttering strange promises, to which Senior smiled stupidly, Acton regained those few but terrible yards to the top of the ridge. Then his heart almost died within him: there was nothing to be seen, as, half-blinded by the snow, he tried to peer down the valley.
Senior, bereft of his companion's arm, had sunk down happily upon the snow and looked at Acton, stupidly trying to make head or tail out of the situation. His face was darkly flushed; his lips were swollen; and his eyes were heavy with sleep.
Roused from his momentary despair by these terrible signs, Acton seized his friend by the throat of his overcoat, and jerked him to his feet. He shook him savagely until some sign of intelligence glimmered in the sleepy eyes.
"Jack! Jack! Keep awake! We'll win out yet if you do."
"All right, old man: my head buzzes awf'ly, Where are we? What are you doing?"
"We're going down the hill. Don't leave go of me whatever you do, and oh, keep awake."
"Serene," said Senior, closing his eyes again peacefully.
With a sob of horror and despair, Acton lurched down the hill, dragging his companion with him. He kept repeating, as though it were a formula: "Down the slope and bear to the left" again and again.
What the next half-hour held of misery, horror, and utter despair, Acton cannot, even now, recall without a shudder. They stumbled and staggered downwards like drunken men. The snow blinded him, and the dragging weight of Senior on his arm was an aching agony, from which, above all things, he must not free himself.
Then, as the very climax to hopeless despair, Senior rolled heavily forward and lay prone, as helpless as a log, his face buried in the snow! His cap had fallen off, and Acton watched the black curls whitening in the storm.
How long he remained there, crouched before the motionless body, he does not know; only that he tried many times to shake the dying youth from the terrible torpor in vain. Senior breathed heavily, and that was all.
All hope had died in Acton's breast. He threw himself forward beside his friend, and sobbed, with his face in the snow.
A sound reached Acton's ears which brought him to his feet with a bound. He placed his hand to his ear, and sent his very soul to the effort to fix the sound again, above the roar of the wind. It was the deep, but not distant, low of cattle.
A third time did the low boom through the storm.
Almost frantic with a living hope, Acton turned to Senior. He raised the unconscious youth, and, by a mighty effort, got him upon his shoulders, and then staggered off in the direction of the sound. He has a faint recollection that he rolled over into the snow twice, that he waded across a river, with the water up to his arm-pits, and always that there was a weight on his neck that almost throttled him.... He felt that he was going mad. Then at last—it seemed many hours—a building, wreathed in white, seemed to spring up out of the storm. Delirious with joy, Acton staggered towards it with his burden. Some figures moved towards him, and Acton shouted for help as he pitched forward for the last time into the snow. He dimly remembers strong hands raising him up and helping him through a farmyard, which seemed somehow to tremble with the low of cattle, and then he was in a chair, and a fire in front of him.
* * * * *
An hour or two afterwards, Acton was seated before a table, and, in the intervals of gulping down hot coffee and swallowing food, told his tale. The peasant farmer and his wife listened open-eyed with astonishment. The farmer, from sheer amazement, dropped into the broadest Westmoreland dialect.
"How far did thoo carry t'other yan?"
"Don't know, really. Seemed an awful way. I went through a river, I know. The water guggled under my arms."
"River!" said the farmer, rising up and running his hand over Acton's clothes. "He has, wife; he's waded through t' beck! Man, give us thee hand! Thoo's a—thoo's a good 'un. Noa! thoo shan't stir. I'll bring t'folk over t'fell mysel'!"
And he did—the farmhouse, a few hours afterwards, giving the snowed-up passengers a hospitality which none of them ever forgot.
There was the jolliest Christmas at "Raven Crag" that had ever been known. Mrs. Acton had whipped up a cohort of cousins et cousines—as they say in the French books—and even Grim found a partner, who didn't dance half bad—for a girl. Did I say a jolly Christmas? Well, even jolly doesn't quite do it justice.
Letters dropped in upon Acton in the course of the week. There was one from Senior's father, which made Acton blush like a school-girl. There was another, a very stately one, from the board-room of St. Eustis, wherein the secretary of the Great North and West Railway, on behalf of the directors, tendered him hearty thanks for his great services to themselves and their employees. There was another from a lady, which simply gushed. There also arrived a small lock of child's hair, which Mr. Acton was begged to accept from a little girl, who slept "on Mr. Acton's pillow." Dick Worcester claimed this, but Acton was adamant.
"I say, Todd," said Grim, earnestly, "don't you think we fellows might give Acton some memorial or other, just to show what we think of him?"
"Good, Grimmy! Trot out suggestions."
"Well, I had thought of a stained-glass window in——"
Todd couldn't look at W.E.G.'s face for days after without a quiver.
* * * * *
PRINTED BY WILLIAM CLOWES AND SONS, LIMITED,
LONDON AND BECCLES.