He was already half-way back to the penstock and caught up his rod, but no fish had attacked it this time, and we stood side by side once more, leaning against the post, watching his float, as he tried first in one place, then in another, without success.
"We shall have to give it up and go," he said at last. "We must get back to tea. We'll give the carp to Polly Hopley, she likes fish, and the eel too."
"Look! a bite," I whispered, for I distinctly saw a slight quivering of the top of the float.
"No," he said despondently. "I did that, shaking the top of the rod. I'm not so lucky as you. Yes, it is. Hooray!"
For the faint quiver was repeated, then there were one or two little bobs, then others, and at last the float began to dance slowly away toward the shore.
"He has got it, and is going to take it to his hole," whispered Mercer. "But he don't go here to-night. He's going into the frying-pan, I think. Hah! Got him!"
For he now struck sharply, and the rod bent tremendously. There was no steady, motionless pull here, but a fierce shaking of the head and a hard, vibratory tugging at the line.
"Bigger than yours," he cried. "A thumper! My, how he pulls! Ah, would you? No, you don't, my fine fellow. He wants to get to the bank, I suppose, but he's coming out here into deep water, where there's nothing to twist about, and he's not going ashore till I go first."
Just then the eel made a rush first in one direction, then in another, but with a heavy pressure kept up, and the rod bending nearly double. Then it made a rush for the shore, and Mercer raised the point of his rod and stepped back, while I uttered a cry, for the rod had struck me sharply on the ear.
But it was not at the blow, but at the tremendous splash, for, forgetful in his excitement of where he stood, Mercer's step was off the narrow penstock right into the deep water, and as I clung to the post with one hand, I was looking down into the huge bubbling ring he had made, to see first the rod come up, then Mercer's hand, and then his face, close to his floating cap, but quite a dozen feet away from where I stood.
I was too much startled to move for a few moments, while Mercer beat the water with his hands frantically for a bit, and then went under again, but rose and called to me hoarsely,—
"Swim!" I shouted. "Swim!" But he only gazed at me wildly, and I saw him go down again.
For an instant or two I stood as if turned to stone, then a thought struck me, and I ran along the woodwork to where I had left my rod, and, without thinking of the danger and the narrowness of the path, I ran back again in time to see Mercer rise again, beating the water frantically.
"Here, quick!" I shouted. "Catch hold;" and I held out the thin bamboo pole to him, but it did not reach within a couple of yards of where he was beating the water.
But it had its effect upon him. It was a chance for life, and in a curious laboured way he struck out now to swim, but came on very slowly, being hampered in some way by his own rod.
"Oh, try, try, try!" I shouted, and I saw him set his teeth and swim on desperately till one hand closed upon the thin bamboo, and then the other caught hold.
"Tight! Hold tight," I shouted, and, dropping on my knees, I began to draw the rod through my hands slowly, as if it was a rope, my eyes feeling as if they were starting as I saw his wild pallid face and set teeth, for I was in momentary dread that he would let go.
It seemed long enough before I had drawn him within reach and snatched at one of his wrists, then at the other, drawing myself back so as to get him closer. Then I got tight hold of his jacket collar, and, as I did so, my knees glided away from me back over the other side of the penstock, and a curious sickening sensation came over me. The water and Mercer's white face were blurred and swimming before me, and I was fast losing consciousness, but the faintness was not much more than momentary, and the sickening sensation began to wear away as rapidly as it came, as I fully realised the fact that I was half off the little platform, with my legs in the water, but holding my companion all the time with a desperate clutch, while he clung as tightly to my wrists.
Then I tried to speak, but at first no words came, and it was all like some terrible dream.
At last, though, the power of utterance came, and I cried loudly, in a voice which did not seem like mine,—
"I've got you safe. Now climb out."
He did not move, only gazed wildly in my eyes till he seemed to irritate me.
"Do you hear, you coward?" I half screamed; "climb out on to here. Do you want me to fall right in?"
Still he did not reply, and I shouted at him again in my despairing rage, for a curious sensation of weakness crept through me, and the horrible thought came that sooner or later I must let him go.
"Do you hear? Don't play the fool. Climb out."
"Can't," he said in a husky whisper. "I tried—hard."
In obedience to my fierce order, he made an effort, splashing the water a little, but ceased directly, and gazed at me wildly still.
"Can't. Line—round my legs."
His words sent a flash of light through me, for they explained his miserable attempts to swim, and I realised that the stout silk line had been twisted about him by the eel in its efforts to escape.
"Try again," I said in a voice as husky as his own. "You must."
He struggled feebly, but gave up at once.
"I can't," he groaned. "No strength."
The poor fellow seemed paralysed, save that I could feel his hands grasping me with a clutch that did not relax for a moment, as I lay there on my chest, thinking what I must do. It was evident that I should get no help from him: for the shock of the accident, and his discovery that he was fast bound and helpless, had completely unnerved him, and it was plain to me that before long his desperate clutch would relax, and, when I could hold him no longer, he would sink back and drown before my eyes.
I looked despairingly round, but only to see deep water, and the bank so near and yet so far, for it was out of reach.
At last my mind was made up. I would get my knees on the penstock again, and then by main force drag him out, at all events into a sitting position, where I could hold him against the post while he recovered sufficiently to walk to the shore.
I waited a few moments, and then began, but to my horror found that my feet glided over the slimy, rotten woodwork of the piles beneath the water, and that I could get no hold anywhere. If I could have had my hands free for a few moments, it would have been easy enough, but I dared not let go of him, and, after a brief and weakening struggle, I gave up, and hung over panting, with for the only result the feeling that the water was now farther up my legs than before.
I soon got my breath again, and made a fresh effort, but with a worse result, and this was repeated till a chilly sensation of dread ran through me, and I felt half stunned at the horror of my position.
Then I recovered a little. "Mercer," I said, "do you feel rested now?"
He did not speak, only looked at me in a curious, half vacant way, and I shivered, for this was, I felt sure, the first step toward his losing consciousness and loosening his hold.
"I say," I cried, "don't give up like that. You've got to climb up on to these boards. I'm going to help you, but I can't unless you help me too."
There was no reply, only the same fixed stare in his dilated eyes, and in my horror I looked wildly round at the place I had thought so beautiful, but which was now all terrible to me, and felt how utterly we were away from help.
I began again, twining my legs now about the nearest post, and this enabled me to hold on, but I could get up no farther. I tried, though, to drag Mercer on to the woodwork, but my position crippled me, and I should have required double the muscular power I possessed.
I believe I made other trials, but a curious sensation of weakness and confusion was coming over me, as I uttered one after the other my loud cries for help.
It was horrible, and yet it seemed ridiculous that we two lads could not struggle up there into safety; but though I thought so then, I have often felt since that in my cramped position I was loaded down, as it were, with my companion's weight.
The end seemed to be coming fast. I had no dread for myself, since I felt that, once free of Mercer's tight clutch and the hold I had upon him, I could grasp the far edge of the woodwork, draw myself farther up, and sit and rest. But before I could do this I knew that he would have sunk away from me, and in a confused fashion I began to wonder whether I should hear him scream out as he was drowning, or whether he would sink down gently without a sound.
I shouted again, but my voice sounded weak, and as if it did not penetrate the trees which closed us in, and now it seemed to be all over, for the horrible sense of faintness was returning fast, and I made one more desperate effort before I felt that I too was going to sink back into the black water; and in that wild last fit of energy I uttered what was quite a shriek, and then felt half choked by the spasm of joy that seemed to rise into my throat.
For from quite close at hand there came quite a cheery,—
"Here—quick—help!" I gasped; and then I was silent, and hearing a loud ejaculation, as I felt the wood of the penstock tremble.
"All right. Hold tight, lad," said a familiar voice, and a hand grasped my collar. "I've got you, and I've got him too. Here, can you climb out?"
"If—if you can hold him," I said.
"I can hold him, and give you a help too. That's the way—get tight hold of the edge, draw yourself up. Well done. Now sit down, and put your arm round the post."
I had been conscious of a strong hand grasping my waistband and giving me a drag up, and now I was sitting trembling and holding tightly by the post.
"Now then, Master Mercer, don't stare like that, lad. I've got you safe. There, out you come. My word, you're wet! Stop a moment, though; you'd better try and get ashore before I pull him right out. There ain't room for three of us. Can you manage it now?"
"Yes," I said, standing up with my teeth chattering.
"Sure? Don't tumble in."
"I can do it," I said, and, trembling the while as if cold, I walked dripping along the woodwork to the shore, where I sank down on the grass as if my legs had suddenly given way, and crouched there watching, as I saw the man from the farm, Jem Roff, with his arm round Mercer, whom he had lifted right out, bring him streaming with water to the shore, and the fishing-rod behind, while, as he lowered him on to the grass, there was a horrible writhe from something wet close to me, which made me start away.
"What have you two chaps been at?" cried Roff wonderingly. "The line's all twissen round his legs,—and hold hard a minute till I get my knife. I must have that eel."
"He's a two and a half pounder, he is," said Jem Roff as, after a bit of a struggle, he got tight hold of the writhing monster. "My word," he continued, holding it down, "he's a strong un! Here, you just slip your hand into my jacket pocket and get out my knife. Open it, will you?"
I followed out his instructions, and handed him the opened knife, when with one clever cut he divided the eel's backbone, and its writhings almost ceased.
"There," continued Jem, taking hold of the line, "let's get you off. What a tangle! why, it's reg'lar twissen all about your ankles. I must break it. Why, it's tough as—look ye here," he continued, tugging at the plaited silk, "it's strong enough to hold a whale. I shall have to cut it. Bob Hopley won't mind."
Snick, and the line was divided, the eel thrown down, and Jem began to untwine the line from about Mercer's legs, as the poor fellow, looking terribly white and scared, now sat up on the grass, looking dolefully from one to the other.
"My heye! you do look like a drownded rat, master," said Jem, chuckling. "Lucky I come, warn't it?"
I looked angrily at the man, for he seemed horribly unfeeling, and then, turning to Mercer,—
"How are you now?" I said.
"Very wet," he replied feebly.
"Raw, haw!" laughed Jem. "There, get up, you're clear now. Couldn't swim a bit like that."
"No," said Mercer, getting up shivering, and shaking the water from his hair.
"Worse disasters at sea, lads. Here, come on along o' me. Let's put the rods back again;" and, taking the one he had dragged ashore with Mercer, he whipped the line round the other and pulled it ashore, swung the lines round both, and trotted with them to the boat-house, where he laid them on the pegs, and then came back to where we stood, so utterly upset that neither of us had spoken a word.
"Now then," cried Jem, taking hold of the scrap of line to which the eel was attached and twisting it round his finger. "This all you caught?"
"No," I said helplessly; "there's an eel in that handkerchief hanging on the tree."
Jem dropped the big eel again and trotted to the tree.
"Big as t'other?" he said. "Raw, haw! Here's the hankerchy, but there's no eel. Look ye here, he's worked a hole through and gone. You didn't kill him first?"
"It must be down there," I said.
"Down here!" said Jem contemptuously; "he's found his way back to the water again. Eels goos through the grass like snakes. Ketch anything else?"
"Two carp," I said. "Here they are."
"Ah, that's better, and all alive, oh! I'll carry 'em. Come along."
He thrust a twig of willow through the gills of the fish, and led the way through the woods, and across some fields to a cottage, where a woman came to the door.
"Here, missus," he said, "pitch some more wood on the fire. Young squire here stepped into the pond."
"Oh, a mercy me!" cried the woman. "Pore dear, he do look bad."
"Not he. All right again direckly. You let him warm himself, and I'll run up to the schoolhouse and fetch him some dry clothes."
"No," cried Mercer, rousing himself now. "We'll both run up, and get in without any one seeing us, and go and change our things."
"Ay, that'll be best," said Jem; "and, if I was you, I'd start at once. Run all the way, and it'll warm you up."
"Yes. Thank you for coming and helping us," said Mercer, who had now quite found his tongue.
"Oh, that's all right," said the man jocularly. "That's a fine eel, but don't fish for 'em that way again. Going in after 'em ain't the best way; you see they're quicker, and more used to the water than you are."
"Come along, Burr," he said feebly.
"Wait a minute. Here's your eel and the carp. Where's that there rush basket, missus?"
"Oh, we don't want the fish," said Mercer, with a shiver. "Come along, Burr."
He hurried out of the cottage, and into a lane. "Keep listening," he said. "If you hear any one, we'll go across the fields."
"There's some one coming now," I said.
"Oh dear! it's old Rebble. He hasn't seen us. This way."
He stooped down, and ran to a gate, crept through, and then, leading the way, he walked fast along by the side of a hedge till we had crossed one field, and then began to trot, seeming to get stronger every minute, while I followed, with my wet trousers clinging to my legs, and the water going "suck suck" in my boots.
We crossed two or three fields, and then Mercer drew up, panting, and with the natural colour coming back into his face.
"We'll walk now," he said, "and go right round, and slip in through the garden. Perhaps we can get in and up to our room without being seen."
"Yes, do," I said, looking dolefully at my wet legs, and my jacket all covered with green from the penstock. "Feel better now?"
"Yes, I'm getting all right. I say, didn't I seem like a horrid coward?"
"I don't think so," I said. "It was enough to frighten anybody."
Mercer was silent for a few minutes. Then he began again.
"I never felt like that before. I was going to swim, but the eel had gone about my legs, and as soon as I felt the line round them, and that horrid great thing twining it all over me, I tried hard to kick it off; but you haven't got much strength in the water, and then, as I felt that I couldn't get my legs clear, I came over all queer, and so horribly frightened that I couldn't do anything. It was just like having a dream in the night, after eating too much cake."
"It was very horrible," I said, with a shiver at the recollection, though I was beginning to feel warm.
"Yes, wasn't it? I say, don't go and think me a coward, there's a good chap."
"I was not going to think you a coward," I said. "It isn't likely."
"But I must have seemed like one, because I can swim ever so far, but when I found myself like that, all the strength went out of me.—I say!"
"Yes?" I said, for he remained silent, and trudged on, looking hard at the ground.
"I did like you for paying at Polly Hopley's, and I said I'd do anything for you, but I can't tell you what I feel now, for your helping me."
"Don't wish you to tell me," I replied. "Come along. I want to get on some dry things."
"Hold your tongue," I said. "There's some one coming."
He looked sharply in the indicated direction, and a shout saluted us.
"It's some of the boys," he whispered. "Come on." He led the way to a hedge, forced his way through, and I followed, and once more he led me along at a trot, with the great house right before us among the trees, and then, striking off to the right, he went through field after field, and then through a gate, and along by the side of a deep ditch, to stop short all at once, as a man started out of the hollow, and tried to hide a small gun.
"Why, Magglin," cried Mercer, "you're after rabbits."
"Nay, nay; rats. They comes after the taters. Been fishing?"
"Come on," whispered Mercer, and he ran along by the hedge, turning once more to the left, and at last pulling up in a clump of fir-trees, on the north side of the big house.
"Now then," he said, "I daresay the Doctor hasn't come back, and the ladies are sure to be with him. We'll creep in by the front door and get up-stairs. Keep close to me."
He paused for a few minutes to get breath, and then started off, through the shrubbery, across the lawn, and in at the front door.
The hall was empty, and he sprang up the well-carpeted staircase, reached the first floor, ran lightly along a passage, and through a baize door, which separated the Doctor's part of the house from the boys' dormitories.
"All right!" he whispered, as he held the baize door for me to pass through; "nobody saw us, and the boys will not be up here."
He led the way down a long passage to another staircase, ran up, and I recognised the floor where our bed room was, when, just as we were making a rush for it, a door opened, and the big fat boy Dicksee came out, stared, and then burst into a roar of laughter.
"Oh, here's a game!" he shouted. "Old Senna's been diving after podnoddles, and giving the new chap lessons."
Mercer rushed at him so savagely that Dicksee stepped back, and the next minute we had reached our room, rushed in, and banged the door.
"Oh, isn't he a beast?" cried my companion, panting, and looking all aglow now. "He'll go and tell the boys, but we mustn't say where we've been."
Half an hour after, we went down, dressed in our other suits, feeling very little the worse for our adventure, and just as we reached the big schoolroom, the big clock up in the turret chimed.
"Why, we're in good time for tea after all," said Mercer. "They always have it late on holidays. Quarter of an hour to wait. Let's go and walk down to the boys' gardens."
He led the way out and across the playground to a gate in the hedge, through which we passed, to come plump on the Doctor, three ladies, and Mr Rebble, who carried a creel by the strap, and had a rod over his shoulder.
"So you've had no sport, Mr Rebble?" the Doctor was saying.
"No, sir, none. The wind was in the wrong quarter again."
"Aha!" said the Doctor, as he caught sight of us; "our new young friend, Burr junior. My dears, this is our new student. Burr junior, my wife and daughters."
We both took off our caps.
"Friends already, eh?" said the Doctor. "History repeats itself, the modern based upon the classic. Quite a young Pylades and Orestes. Well, Burr, have you made acquaintance with all your schoolfellows?"
I turned scarlet, and was at a loss as to what to say. But there was no occasion for me to feel troubled—the Doctor did not want an answer. He nodded pleasantly, the ladies bowed and passed on with him, while Mercer hurried me away.
"What a game!" he said; "and you've only made friends with one. I say, poor old Reb's been fishing all day again for roach, and never caught one. He never does. I wish he'd had the ducking instead of me."
"Nonsense!" I said. "You don't."
"Oh, but I just do," he said. "I say, let's go round and see cook."
"To ask her to dry our clothes for us. This way." He ran off, and I followed him, to pass through a gate into a paved yard, across which was a sloping-roofed building, at the side of the long schoolroom.
Mercer tapped at a door, and a sharp voice shouted,—
"Mustn't. Forbidden," said Mercer to me, and he knocked again.
"Don't want any!" shouted the same voice, and a big, sour-looking, dark-faced woman came to the door.
"Oh, it's you, is it, Master Mercer? What do you want?"
"I say, Cookie, this is the new boy."
"Nice pair of you, I'll be bound," she said roughly.
"We've been out, and had an accident, and tumbled into a pond."
"Serve you both right. Wonder you weren't both drowned," she said sharply.
"Don't tell anybody," continued Mercer, in no wise alarmed. "We nearly were, only Jem Roff at Dawson's farm came and pulled us out."
"Oh, my dear bairns," cried the woman, with her face and voice changing, "what would your poor mammas have said?"
"It's all right, though," said Mercer, "only our things are soaked. Do have 'em down and dried for us by the morning."
"Why, of course I will, my dears."
"And, Cookie, we haven't had any dinner, and it's only bread and butter and milk and water."
"Yes; coming," cried the woman, as a door was heard to open, and a voice to call.
"Go along," she said. "They're calling for the bread and butter. You look under your pillows when you go to bed."
"It's all right," said Mercer. "Come along. She came from our town, and knows our people. My father set her brother-in-law's leg once, after he'd tumbled off a hay stack. Isn't she a gruff one when she likes! This way. Let's get in our places now."
We went in to tea, which was only tea for Mr Rebble, who had a small black pot to himself, and a tiny jug of cream; but the bread and butter and milk and water were delicious, and I had made so good a meal that I had forgotten all about our visit to the cook till we had been in bed some time. I was just dozing off to sleep, when I was roused up by Mercer's hand laid across my mouth.
"Don't speak," he whispered; "the others are asleep. Boiled beef sandwiches in a paper bag, and two jam puffs."
"What?" I whispered. "Where?"
"Here—in my fist. They were tucked under my pillow. Now, then, pitch in."
I sat up in bed, and Mercer sat up in his. It was so dark that we could hardly see each other, but the darkness was no hindrance to our eating, and the next minute there was a sound which may be best expressed as ruminating, varied by the faint rustle made by a hand gliding into a paper bag, followed after a long interval by a faint sigh, and—
"Think we shall catch cold?"
"I hope not."
"If we do, I've got some capital stuff in a bottle to cure colds, and I'll give you some."
"Thank you," I said, and there was a pause.
"Are you asleep?" I said after a time, during which I had lain thinking about our experience of the day.
"What are you thinking about?"
"I was wondering whether Mr and Mrs Jem Roff ate all that eel."
Mercer did not say any more just then, and I seemed to glide back into the cottage, where Mrs Roff was frying eel in a pan over the fire, and just as they had asked me to supper, and I was taking my place, a big bell began to ring, and Mercer shouted,—
"Now, Burr junior, time to get up."
I started and looked round, to see that the sunshine was flooding the room, and that the occupants of the other beds were sitting up grinding their knuckles into their eyes, and yawning as if in chorus.
We were none the worse for our adventure at the pond, and I very soon settled down to my school life, finding it, as life is, a mixture of pleasure and pain, joy and sorrow, all just as intense to the boy fifty or sixty years ago as it is now that schools are conducted upon very different principles, and a much higher grade of education is taught.
Perhaps a great deal of the teaching at Meade Place would be looked upon now as lax; but in those days the Doctor's school bore a very high character for the boys it had turned out, many of whom had gone into the East India Company's Service, and the principal drawing-room was decorated with presents sent to him by old pupils, Indian jars and cabinets, brass lotahs and trays, specimens of weapons from Delhi, and ivory carvings; while from pupils who had gone to China and Japan, came bronzes, porcelain, screens, and lacquer of the most beautiful kind.
Neither were the ladies forgotten, Mrs Browne and her daughters being well furnished with Indian scarves, muslin, and Canton crape shawls.
It was, of course, on account of his connection with so many officers that my uncle had chosen this school as the one most likely to prepare me for my future career.
When I first went down, Mr Rebble was the only assistant the doctor had; but I soon learned that the French master came twice a week from Rye, that the other usher had left to go into partnership with a friend in a school at Lewes, and that another was coming in a few days.
The Doctor was one of my informants, for, after passing me through a general examination as to my capabilities, he told me that I was in a most hopeless state of ignorance, and that as soon as the assistant master, Mr Hasnip, arrived, I should have to go under his special charge.
"For we can't have boys like you, Burr junior," he said smiling. "I don't know what would become of my establishment if many were as backward as you."
"I'm very sorry, sir," I said humbly.
"I am glad you are," he said; "for that means repentance for neglected opportunities, and, of course, a stern determination to make up for lost time."
"Yes, sir, I'll try," I said.
"That's right, and try hard. Your English is very weak; your Latin terribly deficient; your writing execrable; and your mathematics absolutely hopeless. There, go back to your place and work hard, my boy—work hard."
I descended from the dais, with the eyes of the whole school upon me, and, as I walked between the two rows of forms, I could hear whispered remarks intended for me, and it was with a feeling of despair that I reseated myself, opened my desk and took out my Latin grammar, to begin turning over the leaves, looking hopelessly at the declensions and conjugations, with the exceptions and notes.
"What's the matter?" whispered Mercer, who just then returned from Mr Rebble's end, where he had made one of a class in Euclid.
"Doctor says I'm so terribly behindhand that he is ashamed of me."
"I said, gammon. You're right enough. Forwarder than I am, and I've been here two years."
"Oh no," I said.
"Yes, you are. Don't contradict; 'tisn't gentlemanly. He said your English was weak?"
"How did you know?"
"Your Latin terribly deficient?"
"I say!" I cried, staring.
"Your writing execrable?"
"And your mathematics absolutely hopeless?"
"But you were at the other end of the room when he said that," I cried aghast.
"Of course; I was being wigged by old Rebble because I couldn't go through the forty-seventh of Book One; and I can't, and I feel as if I never shall."
"I think I could," I said.
"Of course you could; nearly every chap in the school can but me. I can learn some things easily enough; but I can't remember all about those angles and squares, and all the rest of them."
"You soon will if you try," I whispered. "But how did you know the doctor said all that to me?"
"Because he says it to every new boy. He said it to me, and made me so miserable that I nearly ran away and if I hadn't had a very big cake in my box, that I brought with me, I believe I should have broken my heart."
"But I am very ignorant," I said, after a pause for thought, during which my companion's words had rather a comforting effect.
"So's everybody. I'm awfully ignorant. What would be the good of coming here if we weren't all behind? Oh, how I wish things could be turned round!"
"Turned round?" I said wonderingly.
"Yes, so that I could know all the books of Euclid by heart, and have old Rebble obliged to come and stand before me, and feel as if all he had learned had run out of his head like water out of a sponge."
"Never mind," I said; "let's work and learn."
"You'll have to, my lad."
"Less talking there," said Mr Rebble.
"Oh, very well," whispered Mercer, and then he went on half aloud, but indistinctly, repeating the problem in Euclid over which he had broken down.
I glanced at Mr Rebble, and saw that he was watching us both intently, and I bent over my Latin grammar, and began learning the feminine nouns which ended in "us," while Mercer half turned his head towards me.
"A little less noise at your end of the school, Mr Rebble, if you please," said the Doctor blandly.
"Yes, sir," said Mr Rebble, and then, in a low, severe voice, "Mercer, Burr junior, come up."
Mercer threw his leg over the form, and I followed his example, involuntarily glancing across at my namesake, who made a grimace, and gave himself a writhe, as if suggesting that I should have a cut from the cane after being reported to the Doctor, and I knew that he was watching us both as we went up to the usher's desk.
"Close up, both of you," said Mr Rebble sternly, but in a low voice, so that his words should not reach the Doctor.
We moved closer.
"Now, sir," he said sternly, "I called for silence twice, and you, Mercer, and you, Burr junior, both kept on speaking. I distinctly saw your lips moving—both of you. Now, sir, I insist upon your repeating the words you said as I caught your eye."
"Subtending the right angle, sir," said Mercer promptly.
"And you, sir?" continued Mr Rebble, turning to me.
"Idus, quercus, ficus, manus, sir," I replied innocently.
"That will do. Go back to your places, and if I do catch you talking again in school hours—"
"Please, sir, that wasn't talking," said Mercer in expostulation.
"Silence, sir. I say, if I do catch you talking, I shall report you to the Doctor. That will do."
We went demurely enough back to our places, and this summons had the effect upon me of making me feel more ill-used than before. As I once more went on with my Latin, I was conscious that Mercer was writing something on his slate, and when it was done, he wetted his hand, and gave me a nudge, for me to read what he had written.
"He don't like you, because we're friends. He don't like me. Yah! Who don't know how to fish?"
I had barely read this, when Mercer's hand rapidly obliterated the words, and only just in time, for Mr Rebble left his desk and came slowly by us, glancing over our shoulders as he passed, but Mercer was safe, for he had rapidly formed a right-angled triangle on his slate, and was carefully finishing a capital A, as the usher passed on up to the Doctor's end.
Those mornings glided away, and so slowly that it seemed as if the mid-day bell would never ring, but its sonorous tones rang through the place at last, and, hanging back, so as not to be called upon to form part of those who would have to go and field for Burr major and another of the bigger lads, Mercer and I waited our time, one day when I had been there about a fortnight, and then slipped off to the stable-yard, and then up into one of the lofts, which the boys were allowed to use as a kind of workshop.
"What do you want to come here for?" I said, as we ascended the rough ladder, and stood in the dimly lighted place.
"I'll show you directly," he said. "Don't you know what I've got up here?"
I looked around, but nothing was visible but some willow chips, and a half-formed cricket bat which Dicksee was making, by the help of a spokeshave he had borrowed at the wheelwright's, and which promised to be as clumsy a stump defender as ever was held in two hands.
"Well," I said, "where is it?"
"Here," said Mercer triumphantly, as he led the way to where an old corn-bin stood beneath one of the windows, the lid securely held down by a padlock whose key my companion brought out of his pocket.
"Never mind the old Latin and Euclid. I'll let you come and help me here sometimes, and if old Burr major or Dicksee interferes, you'll have to help me, for I wouldn't have my things spoiled for ever so much."
"Oh, I'll help you," I said, and I waited with some curiosity while he opened the lock, and, after hanging it on a nail, slowly raised the lid, and I looked in to see a strange assortment of odds and ends. What seemed to be dead birds were mixed up with tow, feathers, wire, a file, a pair of cutting pincers, and a flat pomatum pot, on which was printed the word "poison."
"What's that for?" I said wonderingly.
"Oh, that's soap," he said.
"No, no, that—the poison."
"Soap, I tell you. Take off the lid."
I hesitated for a moment, and then raised the lid, to see that the box was half full of a creamy-looking paste, which exhaled an aromatic odour.
"Is that soap?" I said.
"Yes, to brush over the skins of things I want to preserve. Don't touch it. You have to wash your hands ever so many times when you've been using it. Look, that's a starling I began to stuff, but it don't look much like a bird, does it?"
"Looks more like a pincushion," I said. "What's the cotton for?"
"Oh, that's to keep the wings in their places till they're dry. You wind cotton over them, and that holds their feathers down, but I didn't get this one right."
"He's too big and fat," I said.
"Yes, I stuffed him too much; but I'm going to try and do another."
The starling was laid down, and a jay picked up.
"That's another one I tried," he said sadly, "but it never would look like a bird. They're ever so much handsomer than that out in the woods."
"I suppose,"—I said, and then quickly—"Are they?"
"Yes, you know they are," said Mercer dolefully. "These are horrid. I know exactly how I want them to look, but they will not come so."
"They will in time," I said, to cheer him, for his failures seemed to make him despondent.
"No," he said, "I'm afraid not. Birds are beautiful things,—starlings are and jays,—and nobody can say that those are beautiful. Regular old Guy Fawkes's of birds, aren't they?"
"You mustn't ask me," I replied evasively. "I'm no judge. But what's this horrid thing?"
"Frog. Better not touch it. I never could get on with that. It's more like a toad than a frog. It's too full of sand."
"Sand! Why, it's quite light."
"I mean, was too full of sand; it's emptied out now. I told you that's how you stuff reptiles, skin 'em, and fill 'em full of sand till they're dry, and then pour it out."
"Oh yes, I remember; but that one is too stout."
"Yes," said Mercer, "that's the worst of it; they will come so if you don't mind. The skins stretch so, and then they come humpy."
"And what's that?" I asked. "Looks like a fur sausage."
"You get out with your fur sausages. See if you could do it better. That's a stoat."
I burst out laughing now, and he looked at me in a disconsolate way, and then smiled sadly.
"Yes, it is a beast after all," he said. "My father has got a book about anatomy, but I never thought anything about that sort of thing till I tried to stuff little animals. You see they haven't got any feathers to hide their shape, and they've got so much shape. A bird's only like an egg, with a head, and two wings on the side, so that if you make up a ball of tow like an egg, and pull the skin over it, you can't be so very far wrong; but an animal wants curves here and hollows there, and nicely rounded hind legs, and his head lifted up gracefully, and that—Ugh! the wretch! I'll burn it first chance. I won't try any more animals."
"A squirrel looks nice stuffed," I observed, as I recalled one I had seen in a glass case, having a nut in its fore paws, and with its tail curved up over its back.
"Does it?" said Mercer dolefully; "mine don't."
"You have stuffed squirrels?" I said.
He nodded sadly.
"Two," he replied. "I didn't skin the first properly, and it smelt so horrid that I buried it."
"And the second one?"
"Oh, that didn't look anything like a squirrel. It was more like a short, fat puppy when I had finished, only you knew it was a squirrel by its tail.—What say?"
"I didn't speak," I said, as he looked up sharply from where he had been leaning down into the old corn-bin.
"I thought you said something. There, that's all I shall show you to-day," he went on disconsolately. "I never knew they were so bad till I brought you up to see them."
"Oh, they're not so very bad," I said, trying to console him by my interest in his works.
"Yes, they are. Horrible! I did mean to have a glass case for some of them, and ornament them with dried moss and grass, but I'm afraid that the more you tried to ornament these, the worse they'd look."
This sounded so perfectly true that I could not say a word in contradiction; and I stood staring at him, quite at a loss for words, and he was staring at me, when there was a shout and a rush along the loft floor, and I saw Burr major and Dicksee coming toward us fast, and half a dozen more boys crowding up through the trap-door into the place.
"Caught you then!" cried Burr major. "Come along, boys, old Senna's going to show us his museum and his doctor's shop."
Mercer banged down the lid of the corn-bin, and was struggling hard to get the hasp over the staple and the padlock on, when Burr major seized him and dragged him away.
"No, no," roared Mercer. "Here, Burr junior, catch hold." He threw the padlock to me, but the key dropped out, and one of the boys pounced upon it, while Dicksee threw his arms round me and held me tight.
"No, you don't," he cried.
"That's right," said Burr major. "Hold him, boys. The artful beggars had sneaked up here to have a tuck-in. We'll eat it all for them."
"There's nothing in the box—there's nothing there!" cried Mercer, struggling vainly, but only to be dragged down on the floor.
"Here, two of you, come and sit on him," said Burr major. "Hold that other beggar tight, Dicksee. Keep quiet, will you, or I will chuck you down the stairs."
By that time, under our tyrant's orders, two boys had come to Dicksee's help, and had seized me by a wrist each, so that I was helpless.
"Now then," continued Burr major, "we'll just see what my gentleman keeps locked up here. He's always sneaking up after something."
"You let that box alone," shouted Mercer, after an ineffective struggle to get free.
"Shan't. You're not going to do just as you like, Physic," said Burr major, and he threw up the lid, looked in, and then uttered a contemptuous "Pah!"
"What a mess!" he cried. "Look here, Dicksee."
The latter crossed to him eagerly, and I stood there a prisoner, but burning with indignation and an intense desire to hit some one.
"I'll tell the Doctor," cried Mercer. "It's a shame!"
"Oh, is it? You'd better tell tales—do. Oh, I say, boys, lookye here. This is a rumtummikos incomprehensibus. What a beast!"
He had taken hold of the unfortunate stoat by the tail and held it out amidst roars of laughter. "We'll have a fire and burn him. What's next?"
He dived down into the great chest, and brought out the starling.
"Here you are, boys," he cried again. "This is the speckled pecker, or measly short-tail."
Another roar of laughter.
"And here's the blue-winged cockatooral-looral-looral."
The boys shouted again, and I saw Mercer heave up in his rage, and nearly send the boys off who were sitting upon him, while I wished I had strength enough to send our tormentors flying.
"Hallo! here we are then," cried Burr major. "I knew it. They were going to have a tuck-out. Look, boys, they meant to have 'toad in the hole' for supper, and here's the toad."
This was as he held out the bloated skin of the unfortunate frog.
"Hooray!" shouted the boys, who were looking on with rapturous delight, and the more we struggled to get free, the greater their enjoyment seemed.
"You coward!—you brute!" panted Mercer. "How would you like your box turned out?"
"Ever so. Come and do it and you'll see.—Oh!"
This last was with quite a shout.
"What is it?" cried the boys who held us. "Let's look, Burr."
"You take it out if you dare," cried Mercer, who, however, as he told me afterwards, had not the least idea what was coming next.
"Oh yes, I'll take it out," said Burr major.
"You coward! you miserable old Eely tailor!"
"Hold your tongue, will you!" cried Burr major, turning sharply round and giving Mercer a savage kick as he lay on his back, with one boy sitting on his chest, another on his legs.
"Brute!" cried Mercer, setting his teeth and trying hard not to let the tears come.
"You great long coward!" I cried; "you wouldn't dare to do that if he were not down."
"You hold your row," he cried, and as I stood thus held, I received a sharp, back-handed blow on the mouth, which made my lip bleed.
"Bring it out, Dicksee."
The latter wanted no second telling, but dived down into poor Mercer's treasure-chest, and brought out the pot of preserving paste.
"There!" cried Burr major, taking up the pot with a face wrinkled up with disgust; "now we've found him out. See this, boys. Poison!"
"Oh!" chorused the little party of his parasites.
"That's the way he does it. He's worse than a witch. This is what he keeps to give to the fellows, and pretends it's physic, same as his nasty old father uses."
"I don't, boys—it isn't true; and my father's a gentleman, not an old snip."
"Do you want me to kick you again?" said Burr major savagely.
"Yes, if you dare," cried Mercer defiantly.
"Just you wait a bit, my lad, till I'm done. Yes, boys, that's it Dicksee, he gave you some of that, and it made you so ill the other day."
"Then we'll show it to the Doctor," cried Dicksee.
"I didn't!" cried Mercer. "That's to preserve with."
"Yes, that's it," cried Burr major—"to preserve with. Do you hear, boys? He keeps that to put in jam."
There was a shout at this, and I saw Mercer writhe in his impotence.
"Tell you what, we'll rout out the whole lot, and take them down in the stable-yard and burn them."
"You let them alone," cried Mercer frantically, as Burr major scraped out a double handful of the hoarded treasures and threw them on the floor.
"Hold him down tight, or I shall hurt him," said Burr major contemptuously.
But his words came too late, for Mercer made a sudden heave, which threw the boy on his chest off sidewise, sprang up into a sitting position, and hit out at the boy on his legs, who howled on receiving a crack on the ear; and this so roused me to action that I too wrested myself free and followed suit. I flew at Dicksee, and struck him full in the breast, sending him in his surprise down in a sitting position, just as Mercer struck our tyrant a sounding smack on the cheek.
Burr major staggered back and held his hand to his face.
"Oh, that's it, is it?" he said with a snarl. "All right, boys, Senna Tea wants me to boil him up again."
"You stand by me, Burr junior, won't you?" cried Mercer, who looked now as if he were a little startled at his daring.
"Yes," I said desperately, though I felt horribly afraid.
"Oh no, you don't," said Burr major, taking off his jacket; "I don't want to knock your silly head off. You wait till I've thrashed Master Physic, and then old Dicksee shall give you your dose."
I saw Dicksee look at him with rather a startled aspect, but Burr major took no notice beyond giving him a contemptuous glance, as he neatly folded up his jacket, and then removed his waistcoat.
"Here, Bill Ducie, go down and shut the stable door, and lock it inside," continued Burr major in a lofty tone; "we don't want to be interrupted before we've polished off these two beggars."
The boy ran down, and it sounded very formidable to hear the door bang and the rusty lock turned.
"Now then, off with that coat, sir," said Burr major, as he began rolling up his shirt over his thin white arms. "I'm not going to wait all day. The bell will ring for dinner directly. Hold my clothes, one of you; I don't want them dirty."
I saw Mercer set his teeth as he pulled off his jacket and vest, and he pitched them both into the big bin, looking very stubborn and determined the while.
"Here, Dicksee, you come and second me, I'll second you afterward. You new boy, you'd better second old Senna. Pah! how physicky he smells!"
I had the vaguest notions of what I had to do, but I imitated Dicksee as well as I could, as the boys stood on one side breathless with excitement, and Burr major and Mercer faced each other with their fists clenched.
Then there was a due amount of sparring, followed by a few blows given and taken, and Burr major drew back and sat down on Dicksee's knee, Mercer taking his place on mine.
"Did he hurt you much?" I whispered.
"Horrid," was whispered back, "and I can't half get to hit at him."
Then some one shouted, and they fought again, with the result that my blood seemed to boil as poor Mercer came staggering back.
"Had enough?" said Burr major in lofty tones.
For answer Mercer flew at him, and there was another long, fierce round, which seemed to consist in Mercer's adversary driving him about the place, knocking him about just as much as he liked, and ending by sending him staggering back, so that he would have fallen all in a heap had I not caught him in my arms.
"Had enough, Doctor?" cried Burr major contemptuously, and as I supported Mercer he uttered a low sob of misery.
"Yes, he's done. Now, Dicksee, I'll second you.—Off with your togs and polish him off till his face shines. Now then, look sharp, Senna, you've got to back your chap."
I heard Mercer grind his teeth, and I felt giddy with excitement as he whispered to me,—
"Don't be afraid of him, he's a coward. Take off your things, and you try hard if you can't lick him."
"Must I fight?" I said.
"Now then, you sir, off with that jacket," cried Burr major, "or he'll give you the coward's blow."
This roused me, and I stripped for the battle, feeling very nervous and uncomfortable, while Mercer drew a long breath, mastered the pain he was in, and, after throwing my jacket and waistcoat in the bin with his own, began to whisper his instructions to me.
"Now then, off you go," said Burr major. "Be smart, Dicksee, the bell will go directly."
Dicksee made a savage run at me as I put up my arms, there were a few blows, all of which came to my share, and there was a roar of laughter as the round ended in a struggle, and I went down, with Dicksee on me, and my head giving a stunning rap on the boards.
"Don't let him wrestle with you," whispered Mercer excitedly, as he helped me up, and I sat upon his knee, feeling very dizzy and half blind with rage.
"There," shouted Burr major, "finish the beggar this time, Dicky!"
I have some recollection of our encountering again, and feeling blow after blow on my face, on my ear, chest, and shoulders; and our going down once more in another wrestling match.
"Never mind," whispered Mercer; "you're doing splendidly."
"Am I?" I gasped.
"Yes; only keep him off more, and hit straight out like he does."
"Now then," cried Burr major again, "I want to go and wash my hands. Come along, new boy, and lay your nose against old Dicksy's left, and your left eye against his right, and then he'll smooth your cheeks over and lay you on the boards, and by that time I think you'll be about cooked."
"Don't let him lick you," whispered Mercer imploringly. "Do give it him this time. Hit him on the nose always, he don't like that."
"There!" roared Burr major, as, giddy and confused, I was swinging my arms about, hitting nothing half the time, and never getting one blow home with any force to signify, and at last, after a few minutes of burning rage and confusion, during which I had received quite a shower of blows, I found myself, giddy and panting, seated upon the floor, listening to Burr major's voice.
"That's enough, Dicky; that'll do the beggars no end of good, and make 'em behave themselves when they meet gentlemen. Come on, boys. Here, you two, go and wash yourselves, and make yourselves right. The bell will ring directly, and if old Reb sees you've been fighting, he'll report you both to the Doctor, and you'll get no end of punishment."
This seemed the unkindest cut of all, and as soon as the boys had gone racing down into the yard, where Dicksee gave vent to a loud "Cock-a-doodle-doo," I slowly rose to my feet and faced Mercer, who was gazing straight before him.
"I say," I panted, for I was breathless still, "did I win?"
"You? No," he cried savagely. "You can't fight any more than I can, and the brutes have beaten us both. Here, let's look at you. Oh, you ain't much marked, only your nose bleeds a bit. That's where you ought to have hit him."
"I did try to," I said despondently; "but he wouldn't let me."
"Never mind, put on your things. I say, are my eyes swollen?"
"One of them's puffed up a bit, and your lip's cut like mine is."
"Never mind. Come and have a wash."
"Shan't you lock up your museum?"
"Not now. I don't care for it after what they've done. Yes, I do; I'll come up afterwards," he continued, rapidly replacing the pot of preserving paste. "Come along, and try and look as if nothing was the matter."
I followed him as soon as we had put on our clothes, and then we hurried to the row of basins and towels, barely completing our ablutions when the bell rang, and not looking so very much the worse.
"Never mind, old chap," whispered Mercer, as we went into the schoolroom to dinner, with the boys all watching us and making remarks; "wait a bit, and we'll have revenge."
"How?" I said, as with a horrifying rapidity the pot of poison came into my mind.
"Never you mind;" he whispered tragically. "Bitter revenge! Only you wait."
There was a tapping on the end table just then, and all the boys rose. Then the Doctor's deep, bland voice uttered the word,—
I ate that dinner very uneasily. For one thing, I had no appetite, having had enough before I took my place. For another, I was worried by the furtive grins and whispers of the boys near me, the news of the fight having run like lightning through the school. Then I was in a constant state of dread lest my appearance should be noticed by either Mr Rebble, the Doctor, or the new assistant master, who was dining on the principal's left, for the Doctor made our dinner his lunch and of course had his late. I had not had a chance to look in a glass, and, as my face ached and felt tight, I imagined terrible black eyes, a horribly swollen nose, and that my top lip was puffed out to a large size. In fact, I felt that I must be in that state; and as I glanced at Mercer, I was surprised to see that he hardly showed a mark. Lastly, I could not get on with my dinner, because my mouth would not open and shut properly, while every attempt to move my lower jaw sidewise gave me intense pain.
I was in hopes that this was not noticed, and to get over the difficulty of being seen with my plate of meat untouched, I furtively slipped two slices, a potato, and a piece of bread under the table, where I knew that the two cats would be foraging according to their custom.
I thought the act was not noticed, but the boy on my right had been keenly watching me.
"Can't you eat your dinner?" he whispered.
There was no other course open save making a paltry excuse, so I said gruffly,—
"Never mind, old chap," he said, to my surprise. "Lots of us laugh at you, but—. I say, don't tell 'em I said so."
"I don't sneak and tell tales," I said morosely.
"No, of course you wouldn't. I was going to say lots of us laugh at you, but lots of us wish you and Senna Tea had given those two bullies an awful licking."
"Thank-ye," I said, for these words were quite cheering, and I glanced at Mercer, who was fiddling his dinner about, and cutting the pink-looking cold boiled beef up in very small squares.
"Can't you get on?" I whispered.
"No. 'Tain't likely; but just you wait."
The dinner went on, with the clattering of knives and forks upon plates, and, the meat being ended, the pudding came along, round, stodgy slices, with glittering bits of yellow suet in it, and here and there a raisin, or plum, as we called it, playing at bo-peep with those on the other side,—"Spotted Dog," we used to call it,—and I got on a little better, for it was nice and warm and sweet, from the facts that the Doctor never stinted us boys in our food, and that, while the cook always said she hated all boys, she contrived to make our dinners tasty and good.
"Try the pudding," I whispered to Mercer.
"Shan't. I should like to shy it bang in old Burr major's face."
"Oh, never mind."
"But I do mind; but just you wait!"
"Well, I am waiting," I said. "Why don't you tell me what you mean?"
Mercer was silent.
"You're not going to give him anything nasty, are you?"
"You wait and see!"
"But you mustn't; it wouldn't do."
"Wouldn't it? Ah, just you wait. We'll make 'em sorry for this."
"I'm not going to do anything nasty," I said sturdily.
"Yes, you are; you're going to do as I do. We're mates, and you've got to help me as I helped you."
I thought of the pot marked "poison;" of Dicksee being bad through taking something Mercer had given him; and a curious sensation of sickness came over me, and I left half my pudding, just as Mercer took up his fork, chopped his disk up into eight pieces, and began to bolt them fiercely.
"Eat your pudding," he said, noticing that I had left off.
"Can't. I've had enough."
"You must. I want you to grow strong. I shall give you some tonic stuff my father prescribes for people."
I looked at him in horror, but he was glaring at the last piece of pudding on his fork.
"Just you wait!" he said gloomily.
"I will not help him in anything I think wrong," I said to myself; and a few minutes after, Mercer leaned towards me.
"Look!" he whispered; "there's Eely Burr and Fathead grinning at us. Wait a bit! They don't know what a horrible revenge we're going to have on them."
"But if it's we," I said, "you ought to tell me what the revenge is going to be."
"I'll tell you some time," he whispered. "Perhaps to-morrow, perhaps to-night.—You wait!"
"Oh, how I do hate being treated like that!" I thought to myself, and I was about to beg of him to tell me then, and to try to persuade him not to, do anything foolish, when the Doctor tapped the table with the handle of his cheese-knife, grace was said, and we all adjourned to the play-field for the half-hour at our disposal before we resumed our studies.
I had no further opportunity for speaking to Mercer that afternoon, for, when we returned to the schoolroom, the Doctor made us a speech, in which he said he, "regretted deeply to find."—Here he stopped to blow his nose, and I turned hot, cold, and then wet, as I felt that we two would be publicly reproved and perhaps punished for fighting.
"That," continued the Doctor, "many of the boys had been going back in minor subjects."
I breathed more freely at this.
Mr Hasnip, whom he now publicly presented to us, was an Oxford gentleman, who would take our weak points in hand, strengthen them, and help him, the Doctor, to maintain the high position his establishment had held for so many years.
Of course we all looked very hard at the new usher, who was a pale, yellowish-looking man, with eyes hidden by smoked glasses, which enabled him to see without being seen, and he now smiled at us as if he were going to bite, and was nicknamed Parsnip by Mercer on the instant.
"He'll be a teaser," whispered Mercer. "Going to strengthen our weak parts, is he? Wish he could strengthen mine in the way I want. I suppose we shall be turned over to him. Can't be worse than old Reb."
Mercer was right; we two were the first boys turned over to the new usher, and this was fortunate for us, for he knew nothing about our personal appearance; and the swellings that did come on, and which would have been noticed directly by Mr Rebble, passed unheeded by him.
I was very glad when tea-time came, for my head was so confused that Mr Hasnip was quite right in telling me I was a very stupid boy, for I was that afternoon—very.
But the meal-time did come, and as soon as tea was over, instead of going into the play-field with the others, I sat down alone, sore, aching, and disconsolate, to try and master some of the things Mr Hasnip had said I was behindhand in.
I had just taken up my book, with my head feeling more hazy than ever, and the shouts of the boys floating in at the open window, when Mercer came in hurriedly.
"Here, put that book away," he said quickly.
"What for? I don't want to come out."
"But you must. I've been and put away my specimens, and that settled it. Come along."
"But why must I come out? I don't want to play, and the other fellows will only laugh at us."
"No, they will not. They're not going to see us. Come along. Revenge!"
I got up and took my cap unwillingly, but, as we got out in the soft evening air, I began to think that perhaps I could keep him back if he were going to do anything wrong, so I walked on by his side with more alacrity.
"Going for a walk?" I said, as I found that he avoided the play-field.
"No. You wait and you'll see."
"Well, you needn't be so disagreeable with me," I said gruffly.
"I'm not, only I ache and burn, and I'm full of it. Come on."
To my surprise, he led me down to the lodge cottage, where the big, soldierly-looking fellow was enjoying his evening pipe in his neatly-kept little garden.
"Evening, young gents," he said, saluting us. "When do you two begin your drill?"
"I don't know, Lomax. When the new master's done thumping Latin and Euclid into us."
"Humph! Well, gentlemen, I hear that the Romans were very fine soldiers, and Euclid's all about angles and squares, isn't it?"
"Well, they're right enough in infantry formation—squares are, and the angles in fortification, which is a thing I don't know much about, having been in the cavalry; but when you are ready, so am I, and I'll set you up and make men of you as your fa—" he glanced at me and pulled himself up short—"as your people shall be proud of."
"That's right, Lom, and I'll bring you some prime tobacco soon as I can. I say, you can fight, can't you?"
"Well," he said, smiling and drawing himself up, "they used to say I could once upon a time. There's my old sword hanging up over the chimney-piece, and if it could speak—"
"Yes, yes, I know, and you've been wounded," cried Mercer hastily; "but I don't mean with swords and pistols, I mean with your fists."
"Oh, I see. Boxing."
"Yes," cried Mercer eagerly.
And I was still so dull and confused by the knocking about I had received, that I had not a glimmer of what he was aiming at.
"Yes; boxing. I want you to teach us."
"Yes, I was a dabster at it when I was in the —-th. We had no end of it, and we lads used to have a regular subscription round to buy new gloves. Oh yes, I gave lessons to the officers regularly. Long time since I've had the gloves on, but I could handle my fists as well as ever, I daresay."
"Then you'll teach us?"
"Teach you? No, no, my lads. Infantry drill; clubs and dumb-bells; singlestick and foil; riding with a military seat; but—use of the gloves! Oh dear no! What do you think the Doctor would say?"
"But he won't know, Lom, and we'll pay you, honour bright."
"I know you would, Master Mercer; and if this young gent, whose father was in the cavalry—"
"Yes, at Chilly—" began Mercer.
"Wallah, sir," said Lomax severely. "If he says he'll pay me, of course he would. But no, sir, no. Besides, we've got no gloves, and boxing-gloves—two pairs—cost money."
"Of course. I know they would, but we'd buy them, or you should for us, and then we could come here now and then, and you could teach us in your room, and nobody would know."
"No, sir, no," said the sergeant, shaking his head.
"I say, Lom, look at us both," said Mercer. "See anything?"
"Well, yes, I do, plain, my lads. You two don't want any teaching. You've got swelled lips, and mousy eyes rising, and your noses are a bit puffy. You have both been fighting."
"Yes, Lom, and see how we've been knocked about."
"Well, boys who will fight must take what they get and not grumble."
"But we didn't want to fight. They made us."
"Why, I thought you two were such friends and mates already. Bah! lads, you shouldn't fight without there's good reason."
"But we didn't fight," cried Mercer angrily.
"Why, just look at you both! your faces say it as plain as your lips."
"But I mean not together. Eely Burr and big Dicksee came and thrashed us. They would not leave us alone."
"Oh, come: that's bullying," said Lomax, shaking his head, "and it isn't a fair match; they're a good two years older than you, and used to fighting, and you ain't."
"No," said Mercer excitedly; "and it's cruel and cowardly. I'm not a bit afraid of him, and Burr junior wasn't of his man, and we did the best we could, but they knocked us about just as they liked, and hit us where they pleased, and we couldn't hurt them a bit."
"No, you wouldn't be able of course," said the old sergeant thoughtfully, taking our arms and feeling our muscles. "Well, it was very plucky of you both to stand up and face 'em, that's all I can say. Is that why you want to learn to use your fists?"
"Yes, and as soon as we can both box well, we want to give them both such lickings!" cried Mercer eagerly.
The old sergeant began to laugh in a quiet way, and wiped the tears out of his eyes.
"Then you want to learn on the sly, and astonish 'em some day?"
"Yes, yes," I said eagerly, for I was as excited as my companion, whose idea of revenge, now it was explained, seemed to me to be glorious.
"Well, it is tempting," said the sergeant thoughtfully.
"And you'll teach us?"
"And his father fought at Chillianwallah! Yes, it is tempting. You ought to be able to take your own part if big cowards tackle you."
"Yes, Lom. Then do teach us."
"No. What would the Doctor say?"
"He never should know. We'd never tell, either of us, would we, Burr?"
"Never!" I cried.
"I believe you, boys, that I do," said the old man; "and it was never forbidden. Never even mentioned," he continued thoughtfully. "I should like to oblige an old soldier's son."
"And I mean to be an army surgeon," said Mercer.
"And you couldn't do better, my lad."
"Then you'll teach us?" cried Mercer, and I hung upon his answer, with the spirit of retaliation strong within me now.
"Do you know what it means, my lads? Deal of knocking about."
"We don't care how much, do we, Burr?"
"No," I cried excitedly. "You may knock me down hundreds of times, if you'll teach me how to knock you down."
"But the gloves will cost about a pound."
"A pound!" said Mercer in dismay. Then a happy thought struck him.
"We shall have to give up buying Magglin's gun for the present," he whispered to me. Then aloud—
"All right Lom. If we bring you the money, will you buy the gloves?"
"Yes, my lads, I will; and good ones."
"And you will teach us?"
"I'll teach you," said the sergeant, "for the sake of helping to make a strong man of the son of a brave officer, who died for his country. There!"
"Hooray!" cried Mercer; "and how much will you charge for the lessons, Lom? because you must make it a little more, as we shall have to go tick for a bit, because of paying so much for the gloves."
"How much?" said the sergeant thoughtfully. "Let me see. First and foremost, your words of honour that you'll never tell a soul I taught you how to fight, for it might lead to unpleasantness."
"On my honour, I'll never tell!" cried Mercer.
"And on my honour I never will!" I said excitedly.
"Right, then, so far," said Lomax. "Now about those gloves. If I recollect right, they're eight-and-six a pair, and two pairs are seventeen shillings."
"And the carriage," said Mercer.
"Stop a bit. I think, being an old soldier, and teaching, the makers'll take something off for me. I know they'll send 'em down carriage paid, and Jem Roff'll get 'em for me from the cross when the waggon goes in. Got your money?"
"I've got half a sovereign," said Mercer.
"I've got seven shillings," I said.
"Hand over then," said the sergeant, and we lightened our purses tremendously.
"That's right," said Lomax. "Now about the pay for the lessons. I want that in advance."
"Oh!" we both ejaculated in dismay.
"We can't pay now, Lom," said Mercer, "but we will."
"Yes, you can."
"Give me your fists, both of you, in a hearty soldier's grip, my lads. That's my pay in advance, and if in less than six months you two don't give those two bullies a big dressing down, why, I'm a Dutchman."
"Oh, thank you!" I cried.
"Thank you, my lads, and God bless you both. Fighting's generally bad, but it's good sometimes. There, be off, both of you, and I'll write a letter for those gloves to-night."
We left him with our hearts beating high.
"I don't mind my face swelling a bit now," said Mercer.
"I should like to begin learning to-morrow," I said, and then we were both silent for a few minutes, till Mercer turned round with a queer laugh on his swollen face.
"I say," he cried, with a chuckle, "I wonder whether old Dicksee will cry cock-a-doodle-doo next time when we've done."
"Let's wait and see," said I; and that night I dreamed that I was a wind-mill, and that every time my sails, which were just the same as arms, went round, they came down bang on Dicksee's head, and made him yell.
I woke up after that dream, to find it was broad daylight, and crept out of bed to look at my face in the glass, and shrank away aghast, for my lip was more swollen, and there was a nasty dark look under my eye.
I stood gazing into the little looking-glass with my spirits sinking down and down in that dreary way in which they will drop with a boy who wakes up in the morning with some trouble resting upon his shoulders like so much lead.
I was more stiff and sore, too, at first waking, and all this combined to make me feel so miserable, that I began to think about home and my mother, and what would be the consequences if I were to dress quickly, slip out, and go back.
She would be so glad to see me again, I thought, that she would not be cross; and when I told her how miserable I was at the school, she would pity me, and it would be all right again.
I was so elated by the prospect, and—young impostor that I was—so glad of the excuse which the marks upon my face would form to a doting mother, that I began to dress quickly, and had got as far as I could without beginning to splash in the water and rattle the little white jug and basin, when the great obstacle to my evasion came before me with crushing power, and I sat on my bed gazing blankly before me.
For a terrible question had come for an answer, and it was this:
"What will uncle say?"
And as I sat on the edge of my bed, his handsome, clearly-cut face, with the closely-cropped white hair and great grey moustache, was there before me, looking at me with a contemptuous sneer, which seemed to say, "You miserable, despicable young coward! Is this the way you fulfil your promise of trying to be a man, worthy of your poor father, who was a brave soldier and a gentleman? Out upon you for a miserable young sneak!"
That all came up wonderfully real before me, and I felt the skin of my forehead wrinkle up and tighten other parts of my face, while I groaned to myself, as if apologising to my uncle,—
"But I can't stop here, I am so miserable, and I shall be horribly punished for what I could not help. The boys say the Doctor is very severe, sometimes."
There was my uncle's stern face still, just as I had conjured it up, and he was frowning.
He will be horribly angry with me, I thought, and it would make poor mamma so unhappy, and—
"I can't go, and I won't go," I said, half aloud. "I don't care if the Doctor cuts me to pieces; and I won't tell how I got the marks, for, if I do, all the boys will think I am a sneak."
"Fill the tea-cup—fill the tea-cup—fill the tea-cup! High up—high up—high up! Fine morning—fine morning—fine morning!"
The notes of a thrush, sounding exactly like that, with the help of a little imagination; and I rose, went to the window, gazed out, and there was the sun, looking like a great globe of orange, lighting up the mists in the hollows, and making everything look so glorious, that I began to feel a little better.
Turning round to look at my schoolfellows asleep in their little narrow beds, all in exceedingly ungraceful attitudes, and looking towzley and queer, I saw that, as I held the blind on one side, the sunlight shone full on Mercer, and I hurt myself directly by bursting out into a silent fit of laughter, which drew my bruised face into pain-producing puckers. But it was impossible to help it, all the same, for Mercer's phiz looked so comic.
The swelling about his eyes had gone down, and there were only very faint marks beneath them, but his mouth was twisted all on one side, and his nose looked nearly twice as big as usual.
He's worse than I am, I thought, as I stood gazing at him, and this brought up our visit to the lodge the previous evening, and a grim feeling of satisfaction began to make me glow, as I dwelt upon Mercer's plans, and in imagination I saw myself about to be possessed of a powerful talisman, which would enable me to retaliate on my enemies, and be always one who could protect the weak from the oppressor. And as I stood thinking all this, I turned again to look out of the window, where the lovely landscape of the Sussex weald lay stretched out before me, and listened to the birds bursting forth into their full morning song, as the sun literally cut up the mists, which rose and dispersed just as the last of the mental mists were rising fast from about me. There was the glorious country, with all its attractions for a town boy, and close by me lay Mercer, who seemed to me quite a profound sage in his knowledge of all around, and I felt that, after all, I had got too much budding manliness in me to give up like a coward, who would run away at the first trouble he had to meet.
I was a natural boy once again, and, going back to Mercer's bedside, I began to think that there was no fun in seeing him sleeping away there while I was wide awake; so, stealing softly to his little wash-stand, I took the towel, dipped one corner carefully in the jug, and then, with a big drop ready to fall, I held it close to his nose, squeezed it a little, and the drop fell.
The effect was instantaneous.
Mercer gave a spring which made his bed creak, and sat up staring at me.
"What are you doing?" he said. "Why can't you be quiet? Has the bell rung?"
"I don't know," I said. "I haven't heard it."
"Why—why, it's ever so early yet, and you're half dressed. Oh, how my nose burns! I say, is it swelled?"
"Horribly!" I said.
He leaped out of bed, ran to the glass, stared in, and looked round again at me.
"Oh my!" he ejaculated, as he gazed at me wildly; "there's no getting out of this. Bathing won't take a nose like that down. It ought to have on a big linseed meal poultice."
"But you couldn't breathe with a thing like that on."
"Oh yes, you could," he said, with the voice of authority. "You get two big swan quills, and cut them, and put one up each nostril, and then put on your plaster. That's how my father does."
"But you couldn't go about like that."
"No, you lie in bed on your back, and whistle every time you breathe."
"Ah, it's all very fine to laugh, but we shall be had up to the Doctor's desk this morning, and he'll want to know about the fighting."
"Well, we must tell him, I suppose," I said. "They began on us."
"No," said Mercer, shaking his head, and looking as depressed as I did when I woke; "that wouldn't do here. The fellows never tell on each other, and we should be sent to Coventry. It's precious hard to be licked, and then punished after, when you couldn't help it, isn't it?"
"Yes," I said. "Then you won't tell about Burr major and Dicksee."
"Oh no. Never do. We shall have to take it and grin and bear it, whether it's the cane or impositions. Worst of it is, it'll mean ever so much keeping in. I wouldn't care if it had been a month or two ago."
"What difference would that have made?"
"Why, it was all wet weather then. Now it's so fine, I want for us to go and collect things, and I'm not going to be beaten over that stuffing. Next time I shall look at a live bird ever so long before I try to stuff one, and then you'll see. We'll be on the watch next time, so that old Eely shan't catch us, and—ha, ha, ha! Oh my! oh my! oh my!" he cried, sitting down on the edge of his bed, rocking himself to and fro, and kicking up his bare feet and working his toes about in the air.
"What are you laughing about?" I said, feeling glad to see that he too was getting rid of the depression.
"Wait a bit," he whispered. "Won't we astonish them! Oh, my nose, how it does hurt!" he added, covering the swollen organ with his hand, and speaking in a snuffling tone. "I shall aim straight at old Eely's snub all the time, so as to make it twice as big as mine is. He will be so mad, for he's as proud of himself as a peacock, and thinks he's handsome. What do you think he does?"
"I don't know," I said.
"Puts scent on his handkerchief every morning—musk. Oh, he is a dandy! But wait a bit! Seventeen shillings! Isn't it a lot for two pairs of gloves? And, I say!"
"He's an awful dandy about his gloves too. By and by, when he's had his licking,—two lickings, for you shall give him one too,—I'll tell you what we'll always say to him."
"We'll say, 'What sized gloves do you take?'"
"But he will not know anything about the gloves," I said, interrupting a laugh. "We shan't have gloves on then."
"No more we shall. What a pity! That spoils my joke. Never mind. Let's dress, and go and look at the gardens—perhaps there may be some good butterflies out in the sunshine; and as soon as cook's down, I'll beg some hot water to bathe my nose."
But Mercer did not put in a petition for the hot water. "It's no good," he said, when we were down by the gardens, soon after we were dressed. "It's like physic; we've got to take it, so we may as well face it all out and get it over."
Very good philosophy, of course, but I did not feel hopeful about what was to come.
It all began at breakfast, where we were no sooner seated, than Mr Rebble came by with the new assistant master.
"Bless me! Good gracious! Look, Mr Hasnip. Did you ever see such a nose? No, no, Mercer: sit up, sir."
Poor Mercer had ducked down to hide his bulbous organ, but he had to sit up while Mr Hasnip brought his smoke-tinted spectacles to bear upon it.
"Terrible!" he said. "The boy must have been fighting."
"Yes; and here's the other culprit," cried Mr Rebble. "Look at this boy's eye and mouth. Have you two boys been fighting?"
"Yes, sir," I said in a low voice.
"Disgraceful! Well, the Doctor must know of it, and he will punish you both severely."
The two masters moved off to their table, and a buzz of excitement ran through the nearest boys, while, as I looked up, I could see Burr major standing up in his place and looking over toward us.
"I say," whispered Mercer, "here's a game; they think we two have been fighting together like old Lom did. Let 'em think so. Don't you say a word."
"But it will be so dishonest," I expostulated.
"No, it won't. If they ask you who you fought with, you must say nothing."
"Not tell them?"
"No. The Doctor will say you are stubborn and obstinate, and threaten to expel you; but he don't mean it, and you've got to hold your tongue, as I told you before. We never split on each other here."
"Will the Doctor know, do you think?" I asked, as we went on with our breakfast.
"Sure to. Old Reb's safe to go and tell him directly he comes."
I soon heard that this opinion was shared, for one of the bigger boys came over from his seat near Burr major.
"I say," he said, "Reb's sure to tell the Doctor about you two. Shall you say that you had a round with big Burr and old Fatsee?"
"Did Eely tell you to come and ask?" said Mercer, glancing toward where Burr major was anxiously watching in our direction.
"Never you mind. Are you going to tell?"
"What is it to you?"
"A good deal. You tell, and half a dozen of us mean to wallop you two, and you won't like that."
"Oh, I shouldn't mind, and Burr junior wouldn't. I know old Squirmy sent you to ask because—there, look at him—he's all in a fiddle for fear the Doctor should punish him—a great coward!—for knocking smaller boys about."
"Look here," whispered the ambassador, "don't you be quite so saucy."
"Shall if I like. You go and tell old Eely, old slimy Snip, that I'm not like his chosen friend Dicksee, a miserable, tale-telling sneak. I shan't let out about Burr major being such a coward, and Burr here won't tell about fat-headed Dicksee, so now you can go."
"And you'd better keep to it," said the boy, looking at me fiercely; but I did not feel afraid, for Mercer's project about the gloves had sent a glow through me, and, as he said, our time would come.
But I felt anything but comfortable an hour later, when I was back in school, after the breakfast had been cleared, for I could see that the boys had their eyes upon us, and were whispering, and I knew it related to the punishment to come.
The worst moments were when the Doctor entered and took his place in his pulpit amidst a suppressed rustle, and I set my teeth as I stood up, and shrank down again at the earliest opportunity, feeling as if the Doctor's eye was fixed upon me, and, as it happened, just as I was wishing he would speak, and, as I felt it, put me out of my misery, he uttered one of his tremendous coughs, which had far more effect in producing silence than Mr Rebble's words.
"Thomas Mercer, Burr junior," he said loudly, "come up here."
"I wish I had run away this morning," was my first thought, but it was gone directly, and I was glad I had not, as I walked as firmly as I could, side by side with my brother offender, right up to the front of the Doctor's desk, where he sat frowning upon us like a judge without his wig and gown.
"Hah!" he ejaculated in his most awe-inspiring tones, as he looked at us searchingly. "No doubt about it. Disgraceful marks, like a pair of rough street boys instead of young gentlemen. So you two have been fighting?"
"I am glad that you have frankness enough to own to it. You, Mercer, knew better; but you, sir, had to learn that you have broken one of the most rigid rules of my establishment. I object to fighting, as savage, brutal, and cruel, and I will not allow it here. Mr Rebble, give these boys heavy impositions, and you will both of you stop in and study every day for a fortnight under Mr Hasnip's directions. Some principals would have administered the cane or the birch, but I object to those instruments as being, like fighting, savage, brutal, and cruel, only to be used as a last resource, when ordinary punishments suitable for gentlemen fail. I presume that you make no defence?" He continued rolling out his words in a broad volume of sound. "You own that you have both been fighting? Silence is a full answer. Return to your places."
I heard Mercer utter a low sigh, and my breast felt overcharged as we went back to our desks, where we were no sooner seated than Mercer whispered,—
"Never mind, old chap! we'll help one another; and he never asked who we had been fighting with, so we didn't get extra punishment for being stubborn. Oh dear me, what a rum place school is!"
Poor Mercer, he had yet to learn, as I had, that the school was only the world in miniature, and that we should find our life there almost exactly the same when we grew up to be men.
"I wonder what Mr Hasnip will set us to do," I thought, as the clock at last told that the morning's studies were nearly at an end, and I was still wondering when the boys rose, and Eely Burr, Dicksee, and the other big fellow, Hodson, came round behind us, and the first whispered,—
"Lucky for you two that you didn't tell. My! I shouldn't have liked to be you, if you had."
"Go and scent your handkerchief," said Mercer angrily. "I'd tell if I liked."
"If they weren't here, I'd punch your ugly head," whispered Eely, and they all three went out, leaving us two alone in the great schoolroom, with the ushers at one end, and the Doctor, contrary to his usual custom, still in his desk at the other.
"Stand, Thomas Mercer and Burr junior," he said. "Or no—Mercer can keep his seat."
I rose with Mercer, who resumed his place.
"Burr junior," said the Doctor, rolling out his words slowly, as if they were so precious that they ought to make a proper impression, "I sentenced you to a certain series of punishments, to endure for fourteen days; but you are new, untrained, and have been so unfortunate as to receive such education as you possess by private tuition. Under these circumstances, you are wanting in social knowledge, especially of the kind bearing upon your conduct to your fellow-workers in a school like this. In consequence, I shall make a point of looking over this your first offence, and exonerating you. That will do."
I murmured my thanks, and remained in my place.
"Well," said the Doctor, as Mr Hasnip coughed to take my attention, "why are you waiting?"
"For Mercer, sir."
"But I have not excused him. He is not a new boy; and besides, I am sure you would like him to be punished."
"No, no!" I said eagerly; "and I don't want to be let off if he is not."
"Hum! Hah!" ejaculated the Doctor, looking at me benevolently through his spectacles. "Well—er—er—yes—I like that. Mercer, you are excused too. That will do."
"Thank you, sir; thank you, sir," cried Mercer joyfully; and we both bowed and hurried away to the loft, Mr Rebble shaking his head at us as we passed his desk, and Mr Hasnip, as I thought, looking sadly disappointed as far as I could judge, though I could not see his eyes.
On reaching the loft, Mercer was in such a state of exultation that he relieved his feelings by standing upon his head on the corn-bin; but I did not feel so glad, for I had not spoken out, and the Doctor had been acting under a misconception, and I said so.
"Oh, never mind," cried Mercer, speaking with his heels in the air. "We couldn't explain, and it don't matter. Oh, I say, won't old Eely be pleased that we've got off!"
I did not answer, for I still felt that I should like to go and tell the Doctor frankly everything that had passed.
Mercer was terribly exercised in mind about Magglin's gun, and his having to give that up for the sake of his revenge, but a letter from home containing five shillings revived his hopes, and it was put aside as a nest-egg, so that the amount might be raised at last, though what the amount was we had no idea.
Our injuries soon became better, and were forgotten, as the days went rapidly by, while I grew so much at home that the arrival of a new pupil made me feel quite one of the old boys. I had my patch of garden given me, and took great pride in digging and planting it, and as soon as my interest was noticed by my namesake, he coolly walked across it twice, laughing at me contemptuously the while, as if he knew that I dared not retaliate.
And all this time I worked hard with my lessons, with more or less success, I suppose, for Mr Hasnip, who was a kind of encyclopaedia, and seemed to know everything, did not scold me and box my ears with the book he held every day.
We did not have another fishing trip, for the keeper met us one day and informed us that we owed him two shillings for damage done to his lines, and this debt I undertook to repay as soon as I obtained some more money from home. But we had several afternoons in the woods, and brought back treasures which were safely deposited in Mercer's box, ready for examination at some future time.
Some people would not have called them treasures, though they were looked upon as such by Mercer, who was exceedingly proud of a snake-skin which he found in a patch of dwarf furze, and of a great snail shell that was nearly white, and had belonged to one of the molluscs used by the Romans for their soup.
Among other things was an enormous frog, which was kept alive in some fresh damp moss stuffed into a fig drum, into which a certain number of unfortunate flies were thrust every day through a hole, filled directly after by a peg. Whether those flies were eaten by the frog, or whether they got out again, I never knew, but Mercer had perfect faith in their being consumed.
Just about this time, too, my chosen companion got in debt.
It was in this wise. We went down the garden one day, talking very earnestly about how long it was before the gloves needed for our lessons came down, wondering, too, that we had never been able to catch sight of the old sergeant, when Mercer suddenly became aware of the fact that Magglin, who was hoeing weeds, was also making mysterious signs to us to go round to his side of the garden; and when we reached him he whispered to my companion, after looking cautiously round to see that we were not observed,—
"You don't want to buy a ferret, do you, Master Mercer?"
"Yes," cried the latter eagerly; "I do want a ferret to hunt the rats in the stable. No, I don't," he said sadly; "I haven't got any money."
"You not got no money!" said the gipsy-looking fellow. "Oh, I like that, and you a gentleman."
"How much is it?" said Mercer.
"Oh, only five shillin'. It's like giving it away, only a chap I know wants some money, and he ast me to see if any of the young gents would like to buy it."
"'Tisn't your old ferret, then?"
"Oh no, sir; I got rid o' that long enough ago, because I thought people would say I kep' it to catch rabbids. They are so disagreeable. But this is an out and outer to catch rabbids," he whispered.
"But five shillings is such a lot of money for a ferret, Magg."
"Lot! Well, there! It's giving of it away. Why, if I wanted such a thing, and had the chance to get such a good one as this, I'd give ten shillin' for it."
"But is it a good one, Magg?"
"Splendid. You come and look at it. I've got it in the tool-house in a watering-pot."
"Let's go and see it, Frank," cried Mercer, and we followed the slouching-looking fellow into the tool-shed, where a watering-pot stood, with a piece of slate over the half open top and a piece of brick laid on that.
"There!" cried Magglin, removing the cover and taking out a sandy-coloured snaky-looking animal, with sharp nose and pink eyes, one which writhed about almost like an eel.
"Why, it's your old one, Magg, that you had in the hedge that day."
"Nay, not it. It's something like it, but this is an ever so much better one. Why, don't you recollect? That one used to get in the holes and wouldn't come out again for hours and hours."
"Oh yes, I recollect, and how cold it was. This is it."
"Why, don't I keep telling of you it ain't. This is a hever so much better one as I've got to sell for a chap for five shillin': but if you don't want to buy it, you needn't keep finding fault with it. I dessay Mr Big Burr will buy it. It's a beauty—ain't yer?"
"But I do want to buy it," said Mercer, watching the man as he stroked and caressed the thin creature, "but I haven't got any money to spare."
"That don't matter. If you like to buy the ferret, I dessay the chap'll wait and take a shillin' one time and a shillin' another, till it's all paid off."
"Oh," cried Mercer, "if he'll sell it like that I'll have it; but you're sure it's not your old one?"
"Sartain as sartain. That's a ferret as'll do anybody credit."
"But will it hunt rabbits up into holes, and stop sucking their blood?"
"Oh, I don't know nothing about rabbids," said Magglin. "It won't do so with me; 'tis yours then."
"Will it bite?" I asked.
"Rats, sir. You try him, he's as tame as a kitten. But I must get back to my work. Where'll you have it?"
"I want it up in my box—the old corn-bin up in the loft, Magg. Will you take it and put it in if I give you the key?"
"Course I will, sir."
"And bring me back the key?"
"Course I will, sir."
"I don't like to take it myself, because one of the fellows might see me, and they'd want to know what I'd got."
"All right, sir, I'll take it; and am I to put it in the box?"
"No. I forgot. It would eat the skins and things."
"That he would and no mistake," said Magglin, grinning hugely. "Shall I leave him in the can? There is a stone in the spout so as he can't squeeze his way out, for he'll go through any hole a'most."
"Yes; put it right up in the dark corner at the far end."
"Right, sir. And you owe me five shillin'."
"No, it's to your friend."
"All the same, sir. Thank-ye."
"I'm afraid he has cheated me," said Mercer thoughtfully, as we walked away. "Now I come to recollect, his old ferret had a bit nipped out of the top of its little ear like that has, and Magg said a rat bit it out one day."
"If he has cheated you, I wouldn't pay for it," I said.
"I don't know how it is," continued Mercer thoughtfully, "but it seems to me as if people like to cheat schoolboys. We never did two shillings worth of damage to those fishing lines—and I've got a horrible thought, Burr!"
"What is it?" I said.
"Why, it's all that time since we gave old Lom the money, and for the first week he was always winking and laying his finger up against the side of his nose every time he saw us, and now we can't ever see him at all."
"Oh!" I ejaculated. "No. Impossible! He's an old soldier, and he couldn't cheat us like that."
"Well, if he has, I'll tell the Doctor, and have him punished."
"You couldn't tell," I said dolefully.
"No, I forgot that. Well, let's go and see if he's at home now. Why, he hasn't done any drilling this week! Why's that?"
I shook my head, feeling horrified at the idea of such a fine-looking, frank old soldier being guilty of a piece of trickery, and I said so, but declared that I would not believe it.
"I don't want to, but people do cheat us. Even Polly Hopley charges us double for lots of the things we have."
By this time we had reached the lodge, but the door was shut, and Mercer looked at me very gloomily.
"There's all our money gone," he said; "and I'll never trust anybody again. I wish I hadn't bought that ferret. You see if it don't cheat us too, and run away. This makes eight times we've come to look for old Lom, and he must be—What?"