"Look," I said eagerly. "I knew he couldn't do such a thing. There he is in that cart."
Sure enough, there was the sergeant; and then as the cart drew nearer, it was pulled up, and the old man leaped down, thanked the farmer for giving him a lift, and walked toward his cottage, carrying a big long carpet-bag.
"Ah, Mr Lomax!" I cried, as I hurried towards him, but he laid his finger to the side of his nose, nodded, frowned, unlocked his door and went in.
"There, that's how he always goes on now," said Mercer spitefully. "It was all gammon, and he never meant to teach us, and we shan't be able to serve those two out. Come on."
We were moving off disconsolately, I with quite a feeling of pain in my breast, when a voice said, "Hi!" and, looking round, there was the sergeant beckoning to us.
My heart seemed to leap again, and I hurried back.
"How are you both?" he said, putting his hand in his pocket and taking out a flat steel tobacco-box which opened with a spring. "I had to go up to town more than a week ago to an inspection and about my pension, and while I was up I thought I'd go and see my sisters, and then I thought I'd go and see about those—you know what."
"And did you?" I cried eagerly.
"Wait a moment," he said, taking out four shillings and handing them to us—two to each. "I did write about them, and they asked so much that I wrote to another place, and they were dear too; and then, as I had to go up, I went to a place I remembered, and saw the man, and told him what I wanted, and he brought out two pairs of his best, which had been in the shop three years, and got faded to look at, but he said they were better than ever, and he let me have 'em for thirteen shillings."
"Oh, Lom!" cried Mercer excitedly. "But when are they coming down?"
"They are down. Didn't you see?"
"No, I didn't see."
"They were in the carpet-bag," I cried. "Oh, do let's look!"
"No, not to-day, my lads. They're all right, and if you like to get up to-morrow morning and come to me at five o'clock, I'll give you your first lesson. Now I must go and report myself to the Doctor, or he'll be drumming me out of the regiment for not doing my work."
He saluted us and marched off, while we went round to the back and made our way to the stables and up into the loft, for Mercer to have a peep at the ferret, which tried hard to get out. Then, closing the slate down close, he spun round, cut a caper, struck an attitude, and began sparring and dancing round me in the most absurd manner.
"Oh, only wait!" he cried, pausing to take breath. "I do feel so glad! But, I say, we mustn't have that ferret there. I know. I'll put it in the bin, watering-pot and all, or it'll either get out, or some of the boys'll come and look, and let it go."
"But you haven't got the key."
"I forgot. I didn't get it from old Magg, again. Let's go and find him. No, it's all right. He has put it in the padlock."
The bin was thrown open; but the pot was not placed therein, for Mercer remembered a box with a lid, which, as he expressed it, lived in there, and it was emptied and brought forth.
"Just make him a splendid little hutch!" he cried, "Here, come along, Sandy."
He thrust his hand into the pot, took hold of the ferret, and was about to place it in the box; but it gave a wriggle and writhe, glided out of Mercer's hand, crept under the corn-bin, and, as he tried to reach it, I saw it run out at the back, and creep down a hole in the floor boards, one evidently made by a rat.
"Oh!" ejaculated Mercer dolefully. "There goes five shillings down that hole. What an unlucky beggar I am!"
"Oh, he'll soon come out again," I said.
"Not he; and that's the worst of you, Burr—you will make the best of things so. He won't come out—he'll live down there hunting the rats; and I'm sure now that we shall never get him again, for it is the one Magg used to have, and he has tricked me. I know it by that bit out of its ear. It is his ferret."
"Well, you haven't paid him for it," I said, laughing. "And if he has cheated you, I wouldn't pay."
"But I said I would," replied Mercer, shaking his head; "and one must keep one's promises, even with cheats. But never mind; old Lom's got the gloves, and if Magg gives me any of his nonsense, I'll thrash him, too, eh?"
"Tea!" I cried, for just then the bell began to ring.
That evening after tea, while Mercer and I were down by the gardens, where I found that somebody had been dancing a jig on my newly-raked beds, we heard a good deal of chattering and laughing over in the play-field, and Burr major's voice dominating all the others so queerly that I laughed.
"I say, isn't it rum!" said Mercer, joining in. "I hope we shan't be like that by and by. Hodson is sometimes. There, hark!"
I listened, and Burr major was speaking sharply in a highly-pitched voice, that was all squeak, and then it descended suddenly into a gruff bass like a man's.
"Do you know what old Reb said he was one day?" said Mercer, wiping his eyes, for a chance to laugh at his tyrant always afforded him the most profound satisfaction.
"No. A dandy?"
"A hobbledehoy! and he looks it, don't he? It did make him so savage when he heard, and he said he wasn't half such a hobbledehoy as old Reb was, and Dicksee said he'd go and tell."
"And did he?"
"Did he? You know how my nose was swelled up."
"Well, that was nothing to Dicksee's. His is a nose that a tap will swell up, and when old Eely regularly hammered till it was soft, it looked dreadful, and when he said he'd go straight to the Doctor, Eely hammered him again till he went down on his knees and begged Eely's pardon, and promised to say it was done by a cricket-ball. I say, hark! they've got something over there. Let's go and see."
We went down along the hedge to the gate, and as soon as we passed through we could see Burr major standing up tall and thin in the midst of a group of boys, to whom he was showing something, and, our curiosity being excited, we strolled up to the group, to find that a general inspection was going on of a little bright new silver watch which Burr major had received in a box along with some new clothes that day from his father in London.
The great tall, thin fellow was giving himself the most ridiculous airs, and talking in a haughty condescending way to the boys about him, just as if watches were the commonest things in the world to him.
"Then, you know," he was saying, as we drew nigh, "you press on that little round place very lightly with your nail, and the back flies open—see."
He pressed the spring, the back opened, showing the polished interior of the case, and then shut it with a snap two or three times, the case flashing in the evening light; and as I glanced at Mercer, I quite wondered to see the eager look of interest and longing he directed at that watch.
"I say, how do you wind it up?" cried a small boy.
"Why, you just push the key in that little hole, and turn it a few times so. Oh, I forgot—I did wind it up before."
"Why, you wound it up six times," said Dicksee, with a sneer.
"Well, it's my own watch, isn't it, stupid? I can wind it up a hundred times if I like," cried Burr major contemptuously.
"I say, how much did it cost?" said Hodson.
"How should I know? I'm not going to ask my father how much a thing costs when he gives me a present. Lot of money—ten or fifteen pounds, I daresay."
"Yah! Silver watches don't cost so much as that," sneered Dicksee.
"Look here, Dicky," cried Burr major, "you're getting too cheeky. I shall have to take you down a peg or two."
"Oh, never mind old Fatsides," cried another boy. "Here, Burr, old chap, show us the works."
"Oh, nonsense, boys! I'm going to put it away now," said Burr major, opening and shutting the back, so as to make a loud snapping noise.
"I say, I should have a gold chain if I were you, Burr," said another boy.
"No, I don't think I shall," said the big fellow nonchalantly; "not for school. Silver would be good enough when a fellow's playing cricket or football."
"Oh, I say, do show us the works!" said the boy who had spoken before.
"Oh, very well. What young noodles you are! Any one would think you had never seen a watch before. You see this is one of the best class of watches, and you open the glass by pressing your nail in there. That's it, you see; and then you stick your nail on that little steel thing, and then it comes open—so. Here, keep back, some of you. Breathing on the works spoils a watch."
"Oh, what a beauty!" rose in chorus, and I saw Mercer press forward with his eyes dilated, and an intense look of longing in his countenance, as he gazed at the bright yellow works, and the tiny wheel swinging to and fro upon its hair-spring.
"Yes, it's a good watch," said Burr major, in a voice full of careless indifference. "Not the same make as my father's. His is gold, of course, and when you open it, there's a cap fits right over the top— just over there. His is a repeater, and when you touch a spring, it strikes the quarters and the hours."
Mercer looked on as if fascinated.
"Like a clock," said Hodson.
"Of course it does like a clock," said Burr major contemptuously. "It's jewelled, too, in ever so many holes. It cost a hundred guineas, I think, without the chain."
"Oh!" rose in chorus.
"Is that jewelled in lots of holes?" said one of the boys.
"Of course it is. My father wouldn't send me a watch without it was."
"I can't see any holes," said one.
"And I don't see any jewels," said another.
"Where are they, then?" said Hodson.
"The other side, of course."
"Then what's the good of them?"
"Makes a watch more valuable," said Burr major haughtily. "There, don't crowd in so. I'm going to put it away now."
"What jewels are they?" said a boy. "Pearls?"
"Diamonds," said Mercer, with his eyes fixed on the watch, "to make hard points for the wheels to swing upon, because diamonds won't wear."
"Oh, hark at him!" cried Burr major. "Old Senna knows all about it. Hardly ever saw a watch before in his life."
"Haven't I?" cried Mercer. "Why, my father has a beauty, with second hands—a stop watch."
"Ha, ha, ha!" cried Burr major, closing his new present with a loud snap. "A stop watch! that's an old one that won't go, boys. Poor old Mercer!—poor old Senna Tea! Did your father buy it cheap?"
There was a roar of laughter at this, for the boys always laughed at Burr major's jokes.
"No; I know," said Hodson. "One of old Senna's patients that he killed, left it him in his will."
I saw Mercer turn scarlet.
"Did you ever take it to pieces, and stuff it again, Senna?" and there was another roar of laughter.
"He did, I know, and that's why it won't go."
"Come along," whispered Mercer to me, for, now that the watch had disappeared in its owner's pocket, the attraction which had held my companion there seemed to have gone, and we began to walk away.
"There they go," cried Burr major; "pair of 'em. Burr junior's getting on nicely with his stuffing. I say, young un, how many doses of physic has he made you take?"
"Come away," whispered Mercer; "let's go back to the gardens. If I stop here, I shall fly out at him, and get knocked about again."
"Ah! Oh! Go home!" was shouted, Burr major starting the cry, and his followers taking it up in chorus till we had passed through the gate, when Mercer clenched his fists, and gave both feet a stamp.
"And him to have a watch like that!" he cried; "and I've longed for one ever since I was ten. Oh, I do hate that chap! Shouldn't you have liked to hit him?"
"No," I said. "I felt all the time as if I should have liked to kick him."
"Oh, I felt that too. But, I say, shouldn't you like a watch the same as his?"
"Yes," I said, "of course. Perhaps we shall have watches some day."
"Let's save up and buy one between us, and you have it one week, and me the other."
"But you wanted to save up and buy the gun that takes to pieces, so that we could go shooting."
"Yes, so I did," said Mercer—"so I do. But I should like that watch."
"Perhaps he'll get tired of it soon," I said, "and want to sell it."
"No; he isn't that sort of fellow. He always sticks to his things, and you never know him give anything away. But, I say, it is a beautiful watch, isn't it?"
"Yes; so new and bright. It was going, too."
"Wish he'd lose it when he was jumping or playing cricket, and I could find it."
"But you couldn't keep it, if you did find it. You'd know it was his."
"But perhaps I mightn't know he'd lost it, and it was his. Then I might keep it, mightn't I?"
I burst out laughing at him.
"Why, you've taken quite a fancy to that watch, Tom," I said, and he looked at me with his forehead all puckered up.
"Yes, I suppose so," he said dreamily. "I felt as if I'd give everything I have got to have it."
"Stuffed birds, and the frog, and the ferret, and the boxing-gloves?" I said merrily.
"No, no, no! that I wouldn't. There, I'm not going to think about it any more. I say, the gloves—to-morrow morning. Oh!"
"I say, isn't it time to get up?"
It was a low whisper in my ear, and I started into full wakefulness, to find it was dark, and that Mercer was sitting on the edge of my bed, while the other boys were snoring.
"What time is it?" was my first and natural question.
"I don't know. If I'd got old Eely's watch, I could have had it under my pillow, and seen directly."
"No, you couldn't," I said grumpily, for I was sleepy and cross; "it's too dark."
"Well, I could have run my finger over the hands, and told by the touch. You see, I should have held the watch perfectly upright, and then the twelve would have been by the handle, and I could have told directly."
"But you haven't got a watch, and so you don't know."
"No," he said, with a sigh, "I haven't got that watch. Old Eely's got it—a nasty, consequential, bully dandy."
"Do go and lie down again," I said. "I am so sleepy!"
"What for? It's time to get up."
"It can't be; see how dark it is."
"Oh, that's only because it's a dark morning. Get up and dress, and don't be so grumpy because I've woke you up."
"But I haven't had sleep enough," I grumbled, "and I don't believe it's twelve o'clock yet. Look at the stars shining."
"Well, they always do shine, don't they? What's that got to do with it?"
"But it isn't daylight, and we were not to go to Lomax till five."
"By the time we're washed and dressed, the sun will be up, and then there won't be any waiting."
"Hark!" I said, for the turret clock, below the big bell, chimed.
One, two—three, four—five, six—seven, eight.
Then a long pause.
"Five o'clock," whispered Mercer.
We waited as the stroke of the striking hammer rang out loudly, and we could hear the vibration of the bell quivering in the air.
"Well, go on, stupid," said Mercer at last.
"Go on indeed!" I said angrily. "What's the good of coming and disturbing a fellow like this? It's only one o'clock."
"Don't believe it. That clock's wrong. Now, if I had had a watch—"
"Bother the watch!—bother the clock!—bother you!" I cried. "If you don't be off, I'll give you bolster."
"Oh, very well," he said. "But I couldn't sleep. It must be four, though. I'll go and lie down for a bit longer."
He stole back to his bed, and, with a sigh of relief, I sank back into a delicious nap, from which my tormentor roused me twice more, to declare it must be time to get up; but there was not a faint gleam of light yet at the window, and I resolutely refused to rise, sending my companion back to bed, and going off again, to wake at last with the sun shining brilliantly in by the curtain. This time I jumped up, with the full impression upon me that I had overslept myself; while there lay Mercer on his back, with his mouth wide-open, and giving vent every now and then to a guttural snore.
And now we shall be too late, I thought, as I hurried on my trousers, slipped out of the dormitory door, to run down to the end of the passage, where I could look out and see the sun shining brightly on the gold letters of the clock face, where, to my great delight, the hands pointed to half-past four.
Plenty of time, and I went back and roused up Mercer, who started into wakefulness, looking quite guilty.
"All right!" he said. "I only just shut my eyes. What's o'clock?"
"Time you were dressed," I whispered. "Don't talk loud, or you'll wake the others."
We washed and dressed with wonderful celerity, and then crept out and down-stairs, to open one of the schoolroom windows, jump out, and close it after us. Then, in the delicious fresh morning, with the trees all dewy, we started off to go through the shrubbery, and were half-way to the lodge, when Mercer caught me by the arm.
"Look!" he said. "Magglin!" and there, going across one of the fields beyond the road, was that individual, with the pockets of his jacket seeming to be sticking out; and the same idea struck us both.
"He's been poaching!"
But he passed out of sight directly, and we hurried on down to the lodge, to find Lomax standing at the door smoking his morning pipe.
"Five minutes before your time," he said. "That's a good sign. You both want to learn, so you'll learn quickly. Wait a minute, I've just done my bad habit. I learned that years ago, and it's hard to break oneself of it. There, that'll do," he continued, lifting up one foot, and bending down, so as to knock the ashes out of his pipe by tapping the bowl on his heel. "Come along! I've cleared the decks for you."
In fact, as we entered the room, we found that the table and chairs had been taken out, and the little square of carpet and hearthrug rolled up together and stood in a corner, while on the window sill lay the two pairs of boxing-gloves, like four hugely swollen giants' hands, and they looked so ridiculous that we both laughed.
"'Tention!" cried Lomax, shutting and bolting the door. "Business! You can laugh after. Now then, put them on."
We readily obeyed, and as each glove was put on, Lomax tied them securely in their places by the stout strings at the wrists, and once more our comical aspect was too much for us, and we laughed more uproariously than before.
"'Tention, I say, boys. Silence! Now then, I don't do so in drilling you, but the best way to teach a man anything is by letting him go his own way, and then correcting his mistakes. Now, are you ready, both of you, and done with your nonsense?"
"Yes, we are quite serious now," I said.
"Then, to begin with, you, Master Burr, stand up before me, and hit me hard in the chest."
"But it will hurt you," I said.
"You do as I tell you. Hit me in the chest as hard as you can."
I stood up in front of him, and punched him with the soft glove just below his chin.
"Do you call that hard? Try again."
I struck him again.
"Better," he said; "but it wouldn't have killed a blue-bottle. Now you, Master Mercer."
"I'll hit you hard, then, if you will not mind."
"Tchah! just as if you could hurt me! Go on."
Mercer flew at him and struck with all his might.
"Better," said Lomax; "that might have killed a blue-bottle. But it is just as I thought; you're both wrong."
"Wrong?" we echoed.
"Of course you are. So those two gave you both a good thrashing, eh?"
"Yes," I said bitterly.
"Of course they would if you behaved like that. What are those hanging down by your sides?"
"Arms," I said wonderingly.
"Then why do you treat 'em as if they were wind-mill sails, and swing 'em round that fashion?"
"Then you ought to hit straight out," I said, "and not swing your arms round?"
"Of course," said our instructor; "but that isn't all. You both hit at me with your right glove."
"Of course. The right arm's the stronger."
"Exactly, my lad; so keep it to use as a shield."
"But you want to beat a boy when you fight him," I said.
"To be sure you do, and to beat him you must be strong and able to hold out, and to do this you must be ready to keep him first of all from injuring you. It's self-defence, so you keep your best arm to keep the enemy from making your nose swelled like yours was, Master Mercer, and from sticking his fist in your eye like Master Dicksee did in yours, Master Burr. And that isn't all. If you are keeping him from hurting you, he goes on getting tired and more tired, and then your turn comes, and you can thrash him."
"I see," cried Mercer.
"No, you don't; you're only getting a peep yet."
"But mustn't you ever hit with your right fist?"
"Oh yes, at proper times. Wait: I'll tell you when."
"But shall we begin fighting now?" I said eagerly.
"No, not till you know what you're going to do. Now look here, boys; I daresay some people would teach you very differently to what I do, but you've asked me, and I shall teach you my way. Some people let those they teach put the gloves on and begin knocking each other about, but that's all waste of time. I want everything you do with your right or your left to be for some reason. Those two boys can't fight, but they thrashed you two because I can see you swung your arms about anyhow, and while you were coming round with one of your wind-mill swings, they hit straight out and you had it. Do you see?"
"Not quite," I said.
"Then look here. See that round table turned up in the corner?"
"Suppose, then, two flies started from the edge to get to the opposite edge, and one went round and the other right across straight, which would get there first?"
"Oh, I know that," said Mercer, rubbing his nose with the back of his glove; "the one that went across the diameter ever so much sooner than the one that went half round the circumference."
"Yes," I said; "the chord is shorter than the arc."
"Never mind about your fine way of putting it," said Lomax. "I see you understand, and that's what I mean. The enemy would diameter you while you tried to circumference him."
The serjeant laughed at his ready adoption of our words, and we laughed too, but he cried "'Tention!" again, and now made us stand face to face on guard, manipulating us and walking round till he had us exactly to his taste, when he suddenly remembered something, and, taking a piece of chalk from his pocket, he drew a line between us, and then raised our hands with their huge gloves to the pitch he considered correct.
"There you are, boys," he said; "that couldn't be better. Now, bear in mind what I said; self-defence is the thing you've got to aim at, just as a general manages his regiments and fences with them till the proper time comes, and then he lets them go. Now, to begin with, you must be the enemy, Master Mercer, and Master Burr here's got to thrash you."
"Oh!" cried Mercer.
"Well, your turn will come next. Now then. Ready?"
"Yes," we cried.
"Then you, Mercer, hit him in the chest."
"And what shall I do?"
"Don't let him. You've got your right ready, haven't you? Now then, off!"
We were both terribly excited, and I was on my guard as Mercer hit at me with his soft glove, and I caught the blow on my right arm.
"Good!" cried Lomax; "bravo! well stopped. But that's all you did, because you didn't know any better. If you had known better, Master Mercer would be sitting on the floor."
"What ought I to have done, then?" I said.
"You wait and I'll show you. Now, Mercer, hit at him again. Hit this time. That's a boxing-glove you've got on."
"Well, I know it is."
"Oh, I thought you fancied it was a snowball that you were going to throw at him."
I burst out laughing.
"Silence! 'Tention! Now then, again. Wait a minute. Now, look here, Burr: as he hits at you, stop it with your right arm as you did before, and just at the same moment you push your left arm out full length, and lean forward straight at his face. Don't hit at him, only keep your left out straight and lean forward suddenly—like this."
He showed me what he meant, and I balanced myself on my legs, and imitated him as well as I could, to get the swing forward he wished, and we prepared for the next encounter.
"I'm going to hit straight out this time, Frank, so look out."
"Oh yes, he'll look out," cried Lomax. "Now, then, take it on your right arm, my lad. Off with you."
Mercer struck out at me awkwardly, and, as I received the blow at my chest full on my forearm, I bent forward sharply, not striking, but giving what seemed to me to be a push with my stiffened left arm straight at Mercer's face, when, to my great astonishment, he went down on the floor and sat there staring at me holding the soft glove up against his nose.
"What did you do that for?" he cried angrily. "He said I was to hit, not you."
"Because I told him," said Lomax, patting me on the shoulder. "Bravo, bravo! That was science against brute force, my lad; I thought it would astonish you."
"But he hit ever so hard," cried Mercer, "and it took me off my guard, because it was I who was to hit."
"And so you did, my lad, as hard as you could unscientifically, while he only just threw himself forward scientifically, and there you are on the ground."
"But he hit so hard."
"Oh no. He just held his arm right, and threw the weight of his body behind it."
"Here, let's change sides," cried Mercer. "I want to try that."
"Right," said Lomax, and the proceedings were reversed, with the effect that, after I had struck at my adversary, I realised that I had thrown my head forward just as he had thrust out his rigid left arm, backed by the whole weight of his body, and I in my turn went down sitting, almost as much astounded as Mercer had been.
"Oh," he cried excitedly, "that's grand! I wish I had known that when old Eely was giving it to me t'other day. Why, I feel as if I could go and lick him now."
"I daresay you do," cried Lomax laughing. "Now, let's have that over again. I want you both to see that a swing round blow, or even a straight out blow, is nothing to one like that, for you see you've got the weight of the body and the speed at which you are both moving to give it force. Why, in a charge, when the men were at full gallop with swords or lances extended, we had—But never mind about that," he added quickly. "Now do you see what I mean?"
"Yes," we cried, and we went through the attack and defence over and over again, till the blows grew so vigorous that I began to feel as if I should like to hit harder.
"That will do," said Lomax suddenly. "You are both getting warm, and it's half-past six."
"Nonsense!" I cried.
"It is, my lad; there goes the bell. Now then, let me untie those gloves. That's your first lesson. What do you think of it?"
"Think of it?" cried Mercer. "I think old Eely Burr had better mind what he's up to, or he'll find he has made a mistake."
"Hah!" said Lomax, "don't you get too puffed up, my lad. You wait, for you don't know anything at all yet. That's just the thin end of the wedge, but still I think you've learned something. That's it," he continued, drawing off the gloves. "By and by you'll have to fight against me, and I shall show you a few things that will startle you. But are you satisfied?"
"Why, it's glorious!" I cried.
"What? to learn to fight with your fists?" said the old sergeant grimly.
"No, but to feel that you need not let everybody bully you."
"Why, you're getting as swollen up as Master Mercer here," said Lomax, laughing. "There; when is it to be—to-morrow morning?"
"Yes, every morning," said Mercer, and the door was unbolted, and we went out, feeling quite hot enough, with the sun shining brightly on the newly dew-washed leaves.
"You'll spoil everything," I said, "if you begin to show that you can fight before we are quite ready."
"Oh, but I'm not going to," he replied; "I'll be as quiet as can be, and let old Eely say and do what he likes for the present. I feel as if I can bear it now. Don't you? There, come along up into the loft, and let's see if we can find our ferret. It does seem hard to lose that directly. Just, too, as one finds one has been cheated by old Magglin. I wish he'd sell that gun. I say, I'll make him show it to you. It is such a handy little thing."
I felt that it would be very interesting to go out, as Mercer proposed, shooting specimens, which he would afterwards show me how to skin and preserve; but I could not help thinking that it would take a rather large supply of pocket-money to pay for all the things my companion wanted, especially if his wants included guns and watches.
We went right up to the loft, and a search was made, and the floor stamped upon, and the boards tapped. But there was no sign of the ferret, and we gave up the search at last in despair, as it was rapidly approaching the time when the bell would ring for breakfast, and we had our lessons to look up ready for Mr Hasnip, who now had us, as he called it, thoroughly in hand.
We both smiled and looked at one another as we crossed the yard, for Burr major and Dicksee had come past together, the latter listening attentively to his companion's words.
"Oh, I say, Burr, if they only knew!" whispered Mercer, with a chuckle. "They little think that we've been—Oh, I say, look; he's taking out his watch to see if it's right by the big clock. Frank, I say: I do wish I had a watch like that!"
I looked at him wonderingly once more, for that watch had completely fascinated him, and till breakfast-time he could talk of nothing else.
"Think your uncle would give you a watch if you asked him?" he said.
"I shouldn't like to ask him, because—well, I'm rather afraid of him."
"What, isn't he kind to you?"
"Yes, I think so," I said; "but he's a severe-looking sort of man, and very particular, and I don't think he'd consider it right for me to have a watch while I am at school."
"That's what my father said when I was home for last holidays. I wanted a watch then, but not half so bad as I feel to want one now. I say!"
"I wonder how much old Eely's father gave for that one. I don't think it could have cost a very great deal."
I shook my head, for I had not the least idea, and then I found myself watching Burr major, who was still comparing his watch with the great clock.
"I won't think about it any more," said Mercer suddenly.
"Think of what?" I said wonderingly.
"That watch. It worries me. I was dreaming about it all last night, and wishing that I'd got it somehow, and that it was mine. And it isn't, and never can be, can it?"
"No," I said, and we walked into the big room, for the breakfast-bell began to ring, and very welcome it sounded to us, after being up so early, and indulging in such violent exercise.
"Here comes Eely," whispered Mercer, "and old Dicksee too. I say: that punch with the left! Oh my!"
Those were busy times at Meade Place, for Mr Hasnip worked me hard; Mr Rebble harassed me a little whenever he had a chance; and every now and then the Doctor made a sudden unexpected attack upon me with questions uttered in the severest of tones.
All this meant long hours of what the masters called "private study" and the boys "private worry;" while in addition there were the lessons we inflicted upon ourselves, for we never once failed of being at the lodge by five o'clock on those summer mornings, to be scolded, punched, and generally knocked about by our instructor.
Join to these, other lessons in the art of skinning and preserving birds, given by Mercer up in the loft; compulsory games at cricket, as they were called, but which were really hours of toil, fielding for Burr major, Hodson, and Dicksee; sundry expeditions after specimens, visits to Bob Hopley, bathing, fishing, and excursions and incursions generally, and it will be seen that neither Mercer nor I had much spare time.
A busy life is after all the happiest, and, though my lessons often worried and puzzled me, I was perfectly content, and my friendly relations with Mercer rapidly grew more firm.
"I say," he cried one morning, after Lomax had grumbled at us a little less than usual respecting our execution of several of the bits of guarding and hitting he put us through—"I say, don't you think we are perfect yet?"
The serjeant opened his eyes wide, and then burst into a hearty laugh.
"Well," he said, "you will grow into a man some day, and when you do, I daresay you will be a bit modest, for of all the cocksparrowy chaps I ever did meet, you are about the most impudent."
"Thank-ye," said Mercer, and he went off in dudgeon, while Lomax gave me a comical look.
"That's the way to talk to him," he said. "If you don't, he'll grow up so conceited he'll want extra buttons on his jacket to keep him from swelling out too much."
"Now, Burr, are you coming?" shouted Mercer.
"Yes. Good morning," I said to Lomax, and I hurried out.
"I thought we should have learned long before this," said my companion, as we strolled leisurely back. "I don't seem to get on a bit further, and I certainly don't feel as if I could fight. Do you?"
"No," I said frankly.
"You see, it wants testing or proving, same as you do a sum. Shall we have a fall out with them and try?"
"No," I cried excitedly. "That wouldn't do. They might lick us. We ought to try with some one else first."
"But who is there? If we had a fight with some other boys, Eely and Dicksee would know, and we should have no chance to fight them then. I know. Let you and I fall out and have a set to."
I whistled, and put my hands in my pockets.
"Wouldn't that do?" he said.
"No, not at all. It wouldn't be real, and—"
"Hold your tongue. Here's Magglin."
"Morning, young gents," said the man coming up in his nasty, watchful, furtive way, looking first behind him, and then dodging to right and left to look behind us, to see if any one was coming.
"Morning.—Hi! look out! Keeper!" cried Mercer.
"Eh? Where? where?" whispered Magglin huskily.
"Down in the woods," cried Mercer laughingly. "Look at him, Burr; he has been up to some games, or he wouldn't be so frightened."
"Get out!" growled the gipsy-looking fellow sourly. "Doctor don't teach you to behave like that, I know."
"Nor the gardener don't teach you to try and cheat people with ferrets."
"Well, I like that," cried Magglin in an ill-used tone. "I sells you for a mate of mine—"
"No, you didn't, it was for yourself, Magg."
"As good a farret as ever run along a hole."
"As bad a one as ever stopped in and wouldn't come out again."
"And you turn like that on a fellow."
"You're a cheat, Magg, and you took us in. That was your old ferret you sold me, and I wish I'd never paid you a shilling."
"Nay, not you. It's a good farret, and you've only paid me four shillin' out of them five."
"And I don't think I shall pay you any more."
"Nay, you must. Gents can't break their words."
"But they can break blackguards' heads, Magg."
"I ain't a blackguard, and I sold you the ferret fair and square. It weren't my fault you let it run down a hole in the loft."
"When it proved directly that it was your old one, for there it stops."
"I shouldn't pay him the other shilling till he got it out, Tom," I said.
"I don't mean to. How many times have you been to look for it, Magg?"
"How many times? I didn't count. Every morn when I come to work have I gone down on my chestie in that there loft, watching o' them rat-holes."
"Yes, and you've never caught him. Four shillings did I pay you for that ferret—"
"And a shillin' more to pay," said Magglin, grinning. "And only once have I seen his nasty ugly little pink nose since, when he poked it out of a hole and slipped back again.
"But then see how he must have kept down the rats," said the man.
"Bother the rats. I want my ferret." Mercer turned sharply round to me.
"I say," he whispered, "he's a blackguard and a cheat. We wanted to practise. Let's both pitch into him."
I naturally enough laughed at the idea, and, looking round at the under gardener, I saw that he was watching us with his rat-like eyes.
"I say," he whispered, with an accompaniment of nods and winks, "I was lying wait for you two."
"We're not rabbits, Magg," I said.
"Who said you was?" he cried, with a sharp look round behind him.
"Nor yet hares, Magg," cried Mercer.
"Now look ye here," said the fellow appealingly, "it's too bad on you two chuckin' things in a man's face like that now. Ain't I always getting a honest living? You talk like that, and somebody'll be thinkin' I go porching."
"So you do," said Mercer.
"Yes. I know. Bob Hopley says so too."
"Only hark at him," cried Magglin, "talking like that! Why, Bob Hopley's a chap as must do something to show for his wage, and he'd take any man's character away. He hate me, he do."
"Yes, and you hate him, Magg," I said.
The fellow turned on me sharply, but a curiously ugly smile began to make curves like parentheses at the corners of his lips, and he showed his teeth directly after.
"Well, I ain't so very fond of him," he said. "But look here, there ain't no harm in a rabbid, and I was looking out for you two to ast if you'd like to meet me, just by accident like, somewheers down to this side o' High Pines, where the sandhills is. There's a wonderful lot o' rabbids there just now."
"Yes, but when?" cried Mercer. "I want a rabbit or two to skin and stuff."
"And you'd gie me the rabbids to eat."
"Of course. When do you mean?"
"I thowt as to-night'd do, 'bout seven, when they're beginning to lope about."
"And you'd shoot some with that little gun of yours?"
"Whisht! Who's got a gun? Nonsense!"
"Ah, we know," cried Mercer.
"But I mean farreting."
"Wouldn't do," said Mercer decisively. "Bob Hopley would be sure to come."
"Nay, he's going to Hastings to-day, and won't be back till ten o'clock."
"How do you know?"
"Little birds out in the woods tells me."
"Magpies, eh?" I said. "Oh, I know."
"Then we'll come," cried Mercer. "But, I say, let us each have a shot with the little gun."
"Nay, I'm a gardener, and ain't got no guns. I meant farreting."
"But you know I've lost the ferret," cried Mercer. "You can't go ferreting without ferrets."
Magglin was standing before us with a curious, furtive smile on his face, and his hands deep down in his pockets, and as Mercer finished speaking, he slowly raised one hand, so that we saw peering out over the top of his jacket pocket the sharp buff hairy head of a ferret, and we both uttered a cry of joy.
"Why, you've got one!" said Mercer. "Why—yes—it is. It's my ferret."
"Yes," said Magglin. "I nipped him this morning. He was out running about the loft, and I got hold of him at once. He's eaten all the rats he could catch, and he was out smelling about, and trying to get into that old corn-bin, so as to have a feed on your stuffed things."
"Lucky he didn't," cried Mercer. "Oh, you are a good chap, and I'll give you the other shilling as soon as I can."
"Ay, do, master, for that chap I knows wants it badly."
"Come along, and let's shut it up safely," said Mercer.
"S'pose you let me take care of him in the tool-shed. I'll put him where he can't get out, and I shall have him ready when you come."
"Very well then," cried Mercer, "you keep him. At the High Pines, then, at seven o'clock."
"That's it, sir," said Magglin, securing the ferret in his pocket.
"Ah, good morning," said a voice; and we two turned sharply, to find that Mr Rebble and Mr Hasnip, who were out early for a constitutional, had come up behind us quietly.
"Good morning, sir.—Good morning, sir," we said, and Magglin touched his cap and went off down the garden.
"Very good, Mercer. Very good, Burr junior," said Mr Hasnip blandly, as he brought his dark spectacles to bear upon us. "I like to see this, and I wish the other boys would be as industrious, and get up these lovely mornings. Been making plans with the gardener about your little gardens, I see. That's right—that's right. But, as I was saying, Rebble," he continued, turning away, "Galileo's opinion, when combined with that of Kepler and Copernicus, is all buzz-buzz-buzz—"
So the latter part of his speech sounded to us, as they went on toward the bottom of the garden.
"All buzz buzz buzz," whispered Mercer; "and that's what lots of others of those old folks' opinions sound like to me—all buzz buzz buzz in my poor head. I say, wasn't it lucky they didn't see the ferret?"
"They think we were speaking to him about gardening."
"Yes. What a game! We must go down to our gardens now, and pretend we got up early to work."
"I shan't," I said shortly. "I hate being so deceptive, and I wish you wouldn't be, Tom."
"Well, it don't sound nice, does it?" he replied thoughtfully. "But it's so easy."
"Perhaps we had better not go after the rabbits."
"Oh, but we must now. Don't you sneak back. I shall go, and nobody will know."
I felt doubtful, but I ended by promising.
"I say," cried Mercer suddenly, "what time is it? Oh, I do wish I had a watch! You can't see the clock from here, but my clock inside says it's breakfast-time."
"Let's go and see, then," I said, and we went toward the schoolroom.
That was a most unfortunate day for me in school, for, as happens sometimes, I was wrong over one of my lessons, and was sent down, and it seemed to upset all the others, so that it was just like setting up a row of dominoes, then you touch one and it sends all the rest over.
Scold, find fault, grumble,—Mr Hasnip was just as if his breakfast had not agreed with him because he got up too early; and at last I was back in my seat, with my face burning, my head aching, and a general feeling of misery troubling me, which was made the worse by the keen enjoyment Burr major and his parasites found in triumphing over me, and coming by my place every now and then to whisper—"Poor fellow, then!—turned back—going to be caned," and the like, till I ground my teeth, clenched my fists, and sat there bent over the exercises before me, seeing nothing but the interior of Lomax's cottage, and listening to his instructions how to stop that blow and retort with another, till in imagination I could fancy myself thrashing my enemies, and making for myself a lasting peace.
"Never mind, old chap," whispered Mercer. "Rabbits to-night, and some day such a licking for old Eely and Dicksee."
The thoughts of the expedition that night were comforting, and I tried to think of the High Pines and the sandy slope with the holes where I had often seen the rabbits pop in and out, but my head ached all the same; and in spite of our half-hour in the play-field before dinner, I had no appetite. During the afternoon, when my time came to go up to Mr Hasnip's desk, I felt more stupid than ever, and on casting my eyes sideways in search of a flying thought, there was Mr Rebble watching me intently.
This made me more confused, and my next answer more blundering, so that I was at last sent back to my desk in greater disgrace than ever, to find Mercer, who was always constructing something, boring the edge of his desk with a penknife, so as to make powder holes for a slate pencil cannon.
"Catching it again?" he said.
"Yes," I replied dolefully.
"Didn't say you were to stop in and study, did he?"
"No, he didn't say that."
"Oh, that's all right, then."
"But it isn't all right. He scolded me horribly."
"Pooh! what of that? Every boy gets scolded. Never mind. I say, I daresay we shall get a whole lot of rabbits. How would it be to ask cook to make us a rabbit pie of two of them."
"Oh, would it be? We could keep it up in the bin, and go and have jolly feeds."
"Keep it up there, along with that poison stuff and nasty-smelling skins! Ugh!"
"Well, it would be queer perhaps. I didn't think of that."
"Mr Rebble's looking at you two," whispered the boy nearest, and we hurriedly went on with our work, but not for long. Mercer was too full of the coming expedition, and soon began whispering again.
"But how are we to get away?" I said. "Some one is sure to see us."
"Oh, that's easy enough," he whispered. "There's going to be a bit of a match to-night."
"But suppose they want us to field?"
"Then they'll want, for they will not be able to find us. You leave it to me."
That was a long, dreary afternoon, and tea-time seemed as if it would never arrive. When it did come round, though, with the cool air of evening my headache began to go off, and as I grew better, the excitement of the coming expedition, and the thoughts of how we were going to elude the notice of the other boys, completed the cure.
We had half an hour's walk before us, to reach the High Pines by seven, so that, as it grew near the time I began to be anxious.
We were in the schoolroom, deep in private study, and as Mercer studied, he kept on turning his eyes to gaze round the room, repeating his lessons all the while, so that he would not have looked particular if any one had been watching us, but no one was visible. Every now and then the voices of the boys in the play-field floated toward us, and we sat in momentary expectation of being seen by one of the bigger fellows, and ordered off into the field by our tyrants; but the moments still glided by, and at last Mercer thrust his book into his desk.
"Now, then," he said in a low voice, "we must make a run for it, or old Magg will think we are not coming."
"Which way are you going?" I asked.
"Right out through the garden, and by the back of the lodge. You follow me, and, whatever you do, don't look back, as if you were afraid of being seen."
It was risky work, I knew, but there was nothing to be gained by hesitating, and it seemed to me that the very boldness of our attempt helped us to a successful issue, for we went on, hearing voices from the field, and once that of the Doctor, as he was walking up and down the lawn with one of the ladies, whose light dress was seen for a few moments through the trees. Then we were out in the road, walking fast towards the General's woods, and soon after we passed into a field, reached a copse, and Mercer uttered a faint "Hurrah!"
"I was expecting to hear some one shout after us every minute," he cried, as we now hurried steadily along. "Oh dear, how you do fancy things at a time like this!"
The evening was now delightful, and the fresh, sweet scent of the grass we crushed beneath our feet was supplemented every now and then by that of the abundant field camomile.
"Look out!" said Mercer; "there he goes. Isn't he early? I say, I wonder whether that's one of old Dawson's owls."
For, as we passed along by the edge of the wood, a great white-breasted bird flew by, and went softly along by the side of the trees, till it disappeared far ahead.
"There's a rabbit," I said, as I caught sight of the white tuft of fur which so often betrays the presence of the little creatures, and directly after a sharp rap, rap—the warning given by them of danger— was heard ahead, and a dozen ran rushing out of the field into the shelter of the wood.
"Look at them, how they swarm!" cried Mercer. "Why we might catch a hundred, and no one would be a bit the worse for it. Here, make haste, or I shall be shouting at them, and we ought to be quiet now."
"Close there, aren't we?" I said.
"Yes; just through that next patch, and we shall be there."
"And suppose Magg hasn't come?"
"Why, we'll catch some without him."
"Without the ferret?"
"Oh, how stupid I am!" cried Mercer, and he went on, now in silence, through some stunted firs, in and out by patches of gorse, with the character of the ground quite changed, and then up a hilly slope crowned with spruce trees, round which we skirted, to stop at last, breathless, at the bottom of the slope facing south, with the dark green, straight-stemmed trees above us; and Mercer gave his foot an angry stamp as he looked round at the deserted place, where the pine branches glowed of a ruddy bronze in the sunset light, and cried,—
"Oh, what a jolly shame!"
"Not here?" I said.
"No; and it's a nasty, mean trick to drag us all this way. I wish I had kept the ferret instead of trusting him."
"What's to be done?"
"Oh, nothing," he replied despondently. "It's always the way, when I've made up my mind for a bit of fun, something happens to stop it."
"Let's wait," I said. "He may come yet."
"Wait? Why, it'll be too dark to see to do anything in less than an hour. Oh, won't I pay him out for—"
"There he is," I whispered, for I had just caught sight of a figure lying down by a patch of furze; and we started off at a dog-trot, and soon reached the spot.
"Why, I thought you hadn't come, Magg," cried Mercer excitedly.
"That's what I was thinking," said the man. "There, chuck yourselves down; if you stand up like that, somebody may see you."
I did not like this, for it was going in for more hiding and secretiveness, but all the same it was fascinating, and, dropping on our knees in the short, wiry grass, we waited for our instructor in the art of ferreting rabbits to begin.
"Well," I said, as we stared at him, and he stared back at us, "aren't you going to begin?"
"No," he said coolly.
"Then what's the good of our coming?"
"Oh, do begin, Magg! We shall soon have to run back. Where's old longbody?"
"Yonder," said Magglin coolly, nodding his head at the slope just above us.
"Yes, he's loose."
"Why, can't you see, lad? and do be quiet, or the rabbits won't bolt. I put him in one of the holes ten minutes ago."
A flush of excitement seemed to run through me now, as I noted that every here and there were places in the turfy bank where the sandy soil had been scraped out, and the next moment I saw what had escaped me before, that every hole I could see was covered with a fine net.
Mercer had seen it too, and I saw him rub his hands softly as if delighted with the promise of sport, but another ten minutes passed, and the rabbits made no sign of being anxious to rush out and be caught, and I began to grow impatient.
"Hadn't you better try another place?" I whispered, but the man held up his hand, drew his knees under him, and crouched in an attitude that was almost doglike in its animal aspect.
Then there was a rushing noise just above us, and Magglin scrambled forward and dashed his hands down upon a rabbit which came bounding out of a hole and rolled down the slope, tangled in the net.
The next minute it had received a chop on the back of the neck, ceased struggling, been transferred to Magglin's pocket, and the net was spread over the hole again.
"That's a bad farret, ain't it, Master Mercer?" said Magglin, showing his teeth. "You'd best sell un back to me; I should be glad on it for five shillings."
"Hush! I thought I heard one, Magg," whispered Mercer, ignoring the remark. "I say, let me catch the next."
"Either of you may if you can," he replied; and we waited again for some time.
"Try some fresh place," whispered Mercer.
"Nay; they all run one into another; the ground under here's like the rat-holes up at the old house. There goes one."
For a rabbit bolted from a hole higher up, turned on seeing us, and darted up toward the pines.
"Farret's working beautifully," said Magglin.
"How many holes have you covered?" I asked.
"'Bout four-and-twenty, and all my nets. You young gents ought to pay me for the use of them."
"Here's one!" cried Mercer, making a leap in a similar fashion to that of the under gardener, and he too caught an unfortunate rabbit, whose rush had been right into one of the little loose nets, in which it was tangled directly.
"Here, let me kill un for you," said Magglin.
"No; I know now. I can do it," said Mercer. Then I sprang to my feet, and my first impulse was to run, my second to stand fast, for how he got up to us so close from behind without being seen was a mystery to me; but there, just in the midst of the confusion and excitement of capturing the second rabbit, was Bob Hopley, the keeper, his big, sturdy form seeming to tower above us, and, caught, as we were in this nefarious act, filling me with dread.
"Got you this time then," he said gruffly.
"There, what did I say?" cried Magglin, in a sharp, acid voice that sounded almost like a woman's. "I told you that you oughtn't to be catching them rabbids, and now you see what trouble you're in."
"Oh, you told 'em so, did you, my lad?" said the keeper in a deep, angry voice, and he seemed like a great mastiff growling at a common-looking cur. "Then I 'spose it's their ferret in yon burrows, eh? there it is!" he continued, as the buff-looking, snaky animal now came out of one of the holes close by us, and Mercer stooped and picked it up as it made for the dead rabbit.
"Oh yes, it's their farret, 'tarn't mine," said Magglin quickly.
"Yes, it's my ferret, Mr Hopley," Mercer said dolefully.
"And their nets, eh? Here, you stand still. You try to run away, and I'll send a charge o' small shot after you, and that can run faster than you can."
"More'n you dare do, big Bob Hopley," cried Magglin, backing away up the hill; and I thought how cowardly the man's nature must be, for him to propose this expedition and then sneak away from us like that. But almost at the same moment I saw a tall, stern gentleman appear from among the pine trees toward which Magglin was backing, for the keeper had presented his gun, evidently to take the labourer's attention, as I saw that, if matters went on in the way in which they were going, our companion would back right up into the new-comer's arms.
"You stop, will you!" cried the keeper.
"You stop yourself," cried Magglin. "You've got them as belongs to the ferret and was rabbiting. Good-night."
"Will you stop, or am I to shoot?" cried Hopley.
"Yah!" came back; and as the keeper dropped his gun into the hollow of his arm with a grim smile on his face, there was a loud thwack and a startled, "Oh!" for the tall gentleman had stood still, Magglin had reached him, and a stick fell heavily across the poacher's shoulders.
"You scoundrel!" he roared, making a snatch at Magglin's collar, but the man was too slippery. He dropped on his knees, rolled down the slope a few yards, sprang up, and dashed off.
"Don't matter, Sir Hawkus!" shouted the keeper. "I know my gentleman, and can send him a summons. Now, young gents, you've got in for it this time. Bad company's done for you."
"Oh, Bob," whispered Mercer, "let us go this time! let's run."
"Nay, here's Sir Hawkus coming; and here's some one else too," he continued, as I saw two figures come trotting up by the way we had reached the slope, to get to us nearly as soon as the tall, stern-looking gentleman.
"Who are these?" he cried. "Boys from the Doctor's school? You young dogs, you!" he shouted, shaking his cane. "Who are you?"
"Two of our pupils, Sir Hawkhurst," said Mr Rebble, panting and out of breath. "You wretched boys, has it come to this?"
Mercer looked at the speaker, then at Mr Hasnip's smoked spectacles, and then at me, as General Sir Hawkhurst Rye from the Hall, a gentleman of whom I had often heard, but whom I had never seen, exclaimed,—
"Well, they are caught red-handed. Rabbits, poaching engines—and what's that?"
"A ferret, sir," said Mercer humbly.
"Humph, yes. Now, Mr Schoolmaster, what's it to be? Do you take these boys now, to bring them up before me and another magistrate to-morrow, or shall I have them marched off by my keeper to the lock-up?"
Those were terrible moments, and I remember wishing that it would suddenly turn into darkest night, as we two lads stood there, shrinking from the eyes of those four men, at whom I glanced in turn, and they all impressed me differently. The general's mouth was pursed up, and his walking cane, which, I perfectly recollect was a thick malacca with an ivory head, shook in his hand as if he was eager to lay it across our backs. Bob Hopley stood with his arms crossed over his gun, looking, as I thought, hurt, pained, and as if we had committed a most terrible crime. But there was no pain or trouble, as it seemed to me, in either Mr Rebble's or Mr Hasnip's face. It struck me that they were on the whole pleased and satisfied in having found us out in a deed that would give them an opportunity to punish us with heavy impositions.
All these thoughts had passed rapidly through my mind as I stood waiting to hear Mr Rebble's response to the General's question.
"I will take charge of the boys, sir," he said importantly; "and I shall lay the matter at once before the notice of Doctor Browne."
"Hang Doctor Browne!" said the General fiercely. "I want to know what he meant by bringing his confounded school and setting it up close under my nose. What did he mean? Eh?"
"I am Doctor Browne's assistant master, Sir Hawkhurst," replied Mr Rebble, with dignity, "and I cannot answer for his reasons."
"Humph! You can't, eh? You there in the dark barnacles," cried the General, turning upon Mr Hasnip, "what have you to say?"
"That the boys must be severely punished, sir," said Mr Hasnip, who looked quite startled.
"Punished! I should think so indeed. If I were not a magistrate, I'd give the wretched young poachers a severe trouncing. How dare you, eh?—how dare you, I say, come trespassing on my grounds and poaching my rabbits?"
The only answer that I could find was, "I'm very sorry, sir. I did not think; and I'll never do so any more;" but it seemed so ridiculous as I thought it, that I held my tongue.
"Pretty scoundrels, 'pon my word!" cried the General. "Gentlemen's sons, eh? nice gentlemen's sons. They've both got poacher written in their face, and I can see what the end will be—transportation, or hung for killing a keeper. That's it, eh, Hopley?"
"Well, sir," said Bob, giving us each a pitying look, "I wouldn't go quite so far as that."
"No, because you are an easy-going fool. You let people rob me right and left, and you'd stand still and let the young scoundrels shoot you. There, take them away, the pair of them. You two, I mean—you pedagogues. I'll come and see the Doctor myself to-morrow morning, and I'll have those two fellows flogged—soundly flogged. Do you hear, you boys?—flogged. How many rabbits have you got?"
"Only this one, sir," I said.
"What? You dare to tell me only one?"
"There was another, only Magglin put it in his pocket."
"Got a dozen hid somewhere," cried the General. "Where have you hid them, you dog? Stuffed in some burrow, I suppose. Where are they, sir?"
"I told you," I said sharply, for his doubt of my word made me feel hot and angry. "We only caught those two. I shouldn't tell you a lie, sir."
"Humph! Oh!" cried the old gentleman, looking at me searchingly, "you wouldn't tell a lie about it, wouldn't you?"
"Of course not," I replied; "and we did not mean any harm, sir. We thought it would be good fun to come and catch some rabbits."
"Oh, you did? Then I suppose it would be good fun to bring guns and come and shoot my pheasants. Perhaps you'd like to do that, eh?"
"I should," said Mercer innocently.
"What!" roared the old gentleman. "Here, you two, take 'em both into scholastic custody, and tell Dr Browne I'm coming in the morning to put a stop to this sort of thing once and for all. Hopley, where's that ferret?"
"Pocket, Sir Hawkus," said the keeper bluntly.
"'In—my—pocket,' sir!" cried the old gentleman angrily. "I pay you wages, sir, as my servant, and I've a right to proper answers. Let's see the ferret."
The keeper took it out of the big pocket inside his velveteen jacket, and held it up, twisting and writhing to get free and down into one of the rabbit-holes.
"Throw it down and shoot it," said the General.
"No, sir, please don't do that!" cried Mercer excitedly, "It's such a good ferret—please don't kill the poor thing!"
The General looked at him sharply.
"Not kill it?"
"No, sir. Please let it go."
"To live on my rabbits, eh? There, put it in your pocket. And now, you be off with you, and if I don't have your skins well loosened to-morrow, I'll—You'll see."
He marched off in one direction, while our guard took us in the other, talking at us all the time.
"Disgraceful!" Mr Rebble said. "The Doctor will be nearly heart-broken about such a stigma upon his establishment. I don't know what he'll say."
"They will be expelled, I presume," said Mr Hasnip softly. "It is very sad to see such wickedness in those so young."
"I'm afraid so," replied Mr Rebble; and they kept up a cheerful conversation of this kind till we reached the school, where we were at once ordered up to our dormitory, and dropped down upon the sides of our beds to sit looking at each other.
"I say, you've done it now," said Mercer at last; "and I did think we were going to have such fun."
"Fun!" I said; "it's dreadful!"
"It was capital fun till they all came and spoiled it for us. I wouldn't care about being expelled—at least not so much, only my father will be so disappointed."
This made me think of my mother, and of what my uncle would say if I were dismissed from the school in disgrace; and I shivered, for this was the most terrible part of all.
"I tell you what," said Mercer, "we're in for it, and no mistake; and we didn't do it to steal. We only wanted a bit of sport and some rabbits to stuff. Let's tell the doctor we're very sorry, and ask him to flog us. It would be too bad to expel us in disgrace. What do you say?"
"They may flog me," I said sadly; "but I couldn't go home again in disgrace like that."
"Of course not; and it's too bad to call it poaching. I'm sorry we went, though, now."
"Yes," I said, "I'm sorry enough;" and we sat there, miserable enough, waiting till the other boys came up, and it was time to go to bed.
We had not begun to undress, when the door was opened, and three heads were thrust in, and to our disgust, as we looked up, we saw that they belonged to our three principal tormentors, who began at us in a jeering way.
"Hallo, poachers!" said Burr major; "where are the rabbits?"
"I say," cried Hodson, "you fellows are going to be expelled. Leave us the stuffed guys, Senna."
"He won't," cried Dicksee; "he'll want the skins to make a jacket—a beggar!"
"You're a set of miserable cowards," I said indignantly, "or you wouldn't come and jump upon us now we are down."
"You give me any of your cheek, Burr junior, and I'll make you smell fist for your supper."
"Pst! Some one coming!" whispered Hodson, and the three scuffled away, for there were footsteps on the stairs, and directly after Mr Rebble appeared.
"Mercer, Burr junior," he said harshly, "Doctor Browne requests that you will not come down till he sends for you in the morning. As for you, young gentlemen, you will take no notice of the door being fastened; I shall be up here in time to let you out. Good-night."
He went out, and closed and locked the door, and we heard him take out the key and go down the stairs.
"Well, that's a rum one!" cried Mercer. "I say, Burr, old Rebble made an Irish bull, or something like it. How can we go down if the door's locked?"
"It's because they're afraid we shall run away," I said bitterly. "They needn't have thought that."
And somehow that first part of our punishment seemed to be the most bitter of all. It kept me awake for hours, growing more and more low-spirited; and, to make me worse, as I lay there listening to the loud breathing of the boys, Mercer having gone off like the rest, as if nothing was the matter, I could hear an owl come sailing about the place, now close at hand, and now right away in the distance, evidently in Sir Hawkhurst's old park, where, no doubt, it had a home in one of the great hollow beeches. Every now and then it uttered its mournful hoi, hoi, hoi, hoi! sounding exactly like some one calling for help, and at times so real that I was ready to awaken Mercer and ask him if he thought it was a bird; but just as I had determined to do so, he spoke half drowsily from his pillow.
"Hear the old owl," he said. "That's the one I told you about the other night. It isn't the same kind as we saw in old Dawson's oast-house. They screech. Get out, you old mouser! I want to sleep."
The owl kept on with its hooting; but Mercer had what he wanted, for he dropped asleep directly, and I must have followed his example immediately after, for the next thing I remember is feeling something warm on my face, which produced an intense desire to sneeze—so it seemed, till I opened my eyes, to find that the blind had been drawn, and Mercer was tickling my nose with the end of a piece of top string twisted up fine.
"Be quiet. Don't!" I cried angrily, as I sat up. "Hallo! where are the other fellows?"
"Dressed and gone down ever so long ago. Didn't you hear the bell?"
"No; I've been very sound asleep," I said, beginning to dress hurriedly. "Shall we be late? Oh!"
"What's the matter?"
"I'd forgotten," I said; for the whole trouble of the previous evening had now come back with a rush.
"Good job, too," said Mercer. "That's why I didn't wake you. Wish I was asleep now, and could forget all about it. I say, it ain't nice, is it?"
I shook my head mournfully.
"It's always the way," continued my companion, "one never does have a bit of fun without being upset after it somehow. We went fishing, and nearly got drowned; I bought the ferret, and we lost it; we went in for lessons in boxing, and I never grumbled much, but oh, how sore and stiff and bruised I've often been afterwards. And now, when we go for just an hour to try the ferret, we get caught like this. There's no real fun in life without trouble afterwards."
"One always feels so before breakfast," I said, as dolefully as Mercer now, and I hurriedly finished dressing. Then we went to the window, and stood looking out, and thinking how beautiful everything appeared in the morning sunshine.
"I say, Tom," I said at last, "don't you wish you were down-stairs finishing your lessons, ready for after breakfast?"
"Ah, that I do!" he cried; "and I never felt so before."
"That's through being locked up like in prison," I said philosophically.
"Yes, it's horrid. I say, the old Doctor won't expel us, will he?"
"I hope not," I said.
"But he will old Magglin. You see if he don't."
"Well, I'm not sorry for him," I said; "he has behaved like a sneak."
"Yes; trying to put it all on to us."
We relapsed into silence for some time. We had opened the window, and were looking out at the mists floating away over the woods, and the distant sea shining like frosted silver.
"Oh, I do wish it was a wet, cloudy morning!" I said at last.
"Because everything looks so beautiful, and makes you long to be out of doors."
We relapsed into silence again, with our punishment growing more painful every moment, till our thoughts were chased away by the ringing of the breakfast-bell.
"Ah, at last!" cried Mercer, and he turned to listen for footsteps.
"I say," he cried crossly, "ain't they going to let us go down to breakfast?"
"No; we're prisoners," I said bitterly.
"Yes; but they don't starve prisoners to death," cried Mercer; "and I want something to eat."
In spite of my misery, I too felt very hungry, for we had gone through a great deal since our evening meal on the previous day, and I was standing watching my companion as he marched up and down the bedroom like an animal in a cage, when we heard steps on the stairs.
"Here's breakfast," cried Mercer joyfully, but his face changed as the door was opened, and Mr Rebble appeared, followed by one of the maids bearing a tray, which she set down on a little table and went away, leaving Mr Rebble looking at us grimly, but with the suggestion of a sneering laugh at the corners of his cleanly-shaven lips.
We both glanced at the tray, which bore a jug and two mugs and a plate with a couple of big hunches of bread. Then Mercer looked up half reproachfully at Mr Rebble, who was moving toward the door.
"They've forgotten the butter, sir," he said.
"No, my boy, no," replied the usher; "butter is a luxury reserved for the good. The Doctor will send for you both by and by."
He went out and locked the door, while we stood listening till the steps had died away.
"It's a jolly shame!" cried Mercer. "I'm not going to stop here and eat dry bread."
"Never mind," I said; "I don't mind for once;" and, taking one of the pieces of bread, I lifted the jug to fill a mug, but set it down again without pouring any out.
"What's the matter?"
"Look," I said.
Mercer darted to the table, looked into the jug, poured out a little of its contents, and set the vessel down, speechless for the moment with rage.
"Water!" he cried at last, and dashing to the table again, he ran with it to the window, and threw both jug and contents flying out into the shrubbery below.
"Oh!" he ejaculated, directly after; "I didn't know you were there."
I ran to the window now, and looked down to see the cook's red face gazing up at us.
"Eh? what say?" said Mercer, leaning out.
"Hush! be quiet. All at breakfast. Got any string?"
"Yes. Oh, I know," cried Mercer joyfully, and he ran to his box and from the bottom dragged out a stick of kite string, whose end he rapidly lowered down to where cook stood, holding something under her apron.
This proved to be a little basket with a cross handle when she whisked her apron off, and, quickly tying the end of the string to it, she stood watching till the basket had reached our hands, and then hurried away round the end of the house.
"Oh, isn't she a good one!" cried Mercer, tearing open the lid, after snapping the string and pitching the ball quickly into the box. "Look here; four eggs, bread and butter—lots, and a bottle of milk—no," he continued, taking out the cork and smelling, "it's coffee. Hooray!"
"What's that in the bit of curl paper?" and I pointed to something twisted up.
"Salt," cried Mercer, "for the eggs. Come on, eat as fast as you can."
I took a piece of bread and butter, and he another, eating away as he poured out two mugfuls of what proved to be delicious coffee.
"Who says we haven't got any friends?" cried Mercer, with his mouth full. "What lots of butter. 'Tis good. I say, wonder what old Rebble would say if he knew! Have an egg."
"Bet a penny they're hard ones."
So it proved, and we cracked them well all over, peeled off the shells, which for secrecy we thrust into our pockets, and then, dipping the eggs into the salt, we soon finished one each, with the corresponding proportion of bread and butter. Then the other two followed, the last slice of bread and butter disappeared, and the wine-bottle was drained. It was an abundant supply, but at our age the time consumed over the meal was not lengthy, and we then busied ourselves in rinsing out the bottle, which was hidden in my box, after being carefully wiped on a towel, the basket was placed in Mercer's, and as soon as the last sign of our banquet had disappeared, we looked at the two hunches of bread, of which mine alone had been tasted, and burst into a laugh.
"I don't want any—do you?" said Mercer, and I shook my head. "Oh, I do feel so much better! I can take the Doctor's licking now, and hope it will come soon."
"I don't," I said.
"Why not? It's like nasty physic. Of course you don't like it, but the sooner you've swallowed it down, the sooner it's gone, and you haven't got to think any more about it. That's what I feel about my licking."
"Hist! here's some one coming."
Mercer turned sharply round and listened.
"Old Reb," he whispered, and we went and stood together near the window as the steps came nearer; the key was turned, and Mr Rebble appeared, glanced at the tray with its almost untouched bread, and then smiled maliciously.
"Ho, ho! Proud stomached, eh? Oh, very well, only I warn you both you get nothing more to eat until that bread is finished. Now, then, young gentlemen, this way please."
He held the door open, and then led us into a small room at the end of the passage used for spare boxes and lumber. Here we were locked in and left, and as soon as we were alone Mercer burst into a fit of laughter.
"Oh, what a game!" he panted, wiping the tears from his eyes. "I say, though, he never missed the water-jug. What's the matter?"
"Matter!" I cried; "it's a shame to lock us up here like two prisoners in this old lumber-room."
"Oh, never mind! it's only old Reb's nasty petty way. I don't believe the Doctor knows. He isn't petty; he scolds you and canes you if you've done anything he don't like, but as soon as you've had your punishment, it's all over, and he forgets what's past. I say!"
"He will not expel us; I'm not afraid of that."
In about half an hour, we heard Mr Rebble's steps again.
"Now then, the physic's ready," whispered Mercer. "Don't you cry out. It hurts a good deal, and the Doctor hits precious hard, but the pain soon goes off, and it will only please old Rebble if you seem to mind."
Just then the door was opened, and our gaoler appeared again.
"This way," he said shortly, and we went out into the passage once more, while my heart began to flutter, and I wondered whether I could bear a caning without showing that I suffered, and, to be frank, I very much doubted my power in what would be to me quite a new experience. I set my teeth though, and mentally vowed I would try and bear it manfully.
It was all waste energy, for Mr Rebble threw open the door of our dormitory again, drew back for us to enter, and said, with a nasty malicious laugh, as if he enjoyed punishing us,—
"Not a morsel of anything till that bread is eaten."
Then the door was closed, sharply locked, the key withdrawn, and his steps died away.
"What a take in!" grumbled Mercer, as we looked round the neat, clean bedroom, and realised that we had only been locked up in the other place while the maids came to make the beds. "I was all screwed up tight, and would have taken my caning without so much as a squeak. Couldn't you?"
"I don't know," I said, "but I felt ready to go on with it, and now I suppose we shall have to wait."
To our great disgust, we did have to wait hour after hour. We heard the fellows go out from school, and their voices came ringing through the clear summer air, and then we heard them come in to dinner; but we were not called down, nothing was sent up to us, and, though we kept watch at the window looking down into the shrubbery, there was no sign of the cook, and the kite string remained unused.
"But she's sure to come some time," said Mercer. "She won't let old Reb starve us. Hi! look there. Old Lomax. There he goes."
Sure enough, the old sergeant marched down the road, and we watched till he was out of sight, but he did not see us.
"I wonder what he thought when we did not go for our lesson this morning," I said.
"Oh, he had heard of it, safe," cried Mercer. "Hark, there they go out from dinner. I say, I'm getting tired of this. They must have us down soon."
But quite an hour passed away, and we stood sadly looking out at the beautiful view, which never looked more attractive, and we were trying to make out where the hammer pond lay among the trees, when I suddenly nipped Mercer's arm, and we began to watch a light cart, driven by a grey-haired gentleman, with a groom in livery with a cockade in his hat seated by his side, and a big dark fellow in velveteen behind.
"Is he coming here?" whispered Mercer, as we drew back from the window.
We knew he must be, and, peering from behind the white window-curtains, we saw the great fiery-looking roan horse turn at a rapid trot through the open gates, then the wheels of the light, cart seemed to be pulled up at the front entrance, where we saw the groom spring down, and heard the jangle of the big front door bell.
Then we sat down on our chairs by the heads of our beds and waited, and not long, for we soon heard steps on the stairs.
"It's coming now," said Mercer, drawing a long breath.
"Yes, it's coming now," I echoed softly, as a curious sensation of dread ran through me, and directly after the door was unlocked, and Mr Rebble appeared.
"Now, young gentlemen," he said, with a perfectly satisfied air, "the Doctor will see you both in his room."
We followed him, and as we turned through the baize door so as to go down the front staircase, Mercer and I managed to exchange a grip of the hand.
Directly after, we caught sight of the great roan horse at the door champing its bit, and sending flakes of foam flying over its glossy coat, and I noticed even then that one white spot fell on the groom's dark brown coat.
Then, once more drawing a deep breath, we walked in together through the door Mr Rebble threw open, and closed behind us, when, as if through a mist, I saw the Doctor sitting at a writing-table, looking very stern and portly, the General, grey, fierce, and rather red-faced, seated a little way to the Doctor's right, with his malacca cane between his legs, and his hands, in their bright brown gloves, resting on the ivory handle, so that his arms and elbows stood out squarely; while again on his right, about a couple of yards away, stood big, dark, and burly-looking Bob Hopley, in his best brown velveteen jacket.
"Er-rum!" coughed the Doctor as the door was closed, and we looked sharply round at the stern faces before us, Bob Hopley favouring us with a solemn wink, which I interpreted to mean, "I forgive you, my lads." Then the Doctor spoke.
"Stand there, Thomas Mercer and Frank Burr. That will do. Now, Sir Hawkhurst, will you have the goodness to repeat the charge in their presence."
The old officer faced fiercely round on the Doctor.
"Hang it all, sir!" he cried; "am I the magistrate, or are you?"
"You are the magistrate, sir," said the Doctor gravely, "but I am the master. The distinction is slight, but I allow no one to stand between me and my boys. Unless you are going to proceed legally against them to punish I must request you to let me be their judge."
"Beg pardon, beg pardon," said the General sharply, "Old soldier, sir— been much in India, and the climate made me hot. Go on!"
I glanced at him quickly as I heard him mention India, and he caught my eye, and shook his fist at me fiercely.
"You young dog!" he roared; "how dare you come after my rabbits!"
"Excuse me," said the Doctor.
"Yes, yes, of course. Well, Doctor Browne, my keeper and I were out taking a look round at the young pheasants in their coops last evening, when we took these confounded young dogs red-handed, ferreting rabbits with that scoundrelly poaching vagabond you have taken into your service, when nobody else would give him a job."
"Ah, yes," said the Doctor blandly, "you complained of my employing that man, Sir Hawkhurst. The fact is, he came to me, saying that he had been cruelly misjudged, that he was half starved, and begged me to give him a job. I did so, to give him another chance. Of course, after this, and the fact that my gardener gives him a very bad character and seems much dissatisfied, I shall not employ him again."
"And very wisely," said the old officer. "Well, sir, that's all I've got to say. That is my evidence."
"Thank you," said the Doctor magisterially. "And you, my good man, were with your master, and saw the boys—my boys—engaged there?"
"Yes, sir," said Bob Hopley, touching the black curls over his forehead. "Rabbit and ferret produced."
As he spoke, he pulled out of one big pocket the dead rabbit, and out of the other the twining and writhing ferret, at which the Doctor gazed with interest through his gold spectacles.
"Singular animal!" said the Doctor, "specially designed by nature for threading its way through the narrow labyrinthine burrows of the rabbit and the rat."
"Confound it all, sir!" said the General—"I beg pardon, I beg pardon."
During the last few minutes the wheels of a carriage had been heard on the gravel drive, and the dog-cart had been driven aside. Then the big bell had clanged, and all had been silent again. For the moment, I had wondered whether it was a parish constable come for us, but the next I had forgotten all about it, till one of the maids entered, with a couple of cards on a tray, which she went round and handed to the Doctor.
"Bless me!" he exclaimed, flushing, as the General made an impatient gesture, and relieved his feelings by shaking his fist at us both, while Bob Hopley began to smooth the ferret with his great brown, hairy hand.
"Well, sir?" said the General.
"Excuse me," said the Doctor. "A most curious coincidence. Two visitors."
"No, sir, no visitors now; business, if you please. Those two boys—"
"Excuse me," said the Doctor blandly. "The two visitors are the relatives of one of these boys."
Mercer gave quite a start, and I pitied him.
Poor Tom's father and mother, I said mentally, and then I gave a start too, for the General said fiercely,—
"By George! then they couldn't have come better. Show them in, and I'll have a word or two with the boy's father."
The Doctor made a sign; the maid withdrew; and I pressed a little closer to Mercer, and pinched his arm.
"I'll take my share," I whispered quietly, as the door was opened. The Doctor and the General both rose, as there was the rustle of silk, and I uttered quite a sob as I was clasped in my mother's arms.
"My dearest boy," she cried, as she kissed me fondly, while I shrank away, for my stern-looking, military uncle came in with her.
"Why, Charley!" roared the General.
"What, Hawk!" cried my uncle boisterously, and the two old officers grasped each other's hands, and stood shaking them heartily.
"Why, my dear old man," cried the General, "this is a surprise!"
"Surprise! I should think it is," cried my uncle. "I am delighted. Like old times, eh?"
"Hah!" ejaculated the General, chuckling, and looking now transformed into a very genial old gentleman, while the Doctor stood softly stroking his shirt-frill and smiling benignantly.
"But one moment," cried my uncle. "My sister—poor old Frank Burr's wife."
"Dear, dear, bless me!" cried the General, advancing with courtly, chivalric respect to shake hands with my mother. "My dear madam," he said softly, "it is an honour. I knew your poor husband well."
As he dropped my mother's hand, she bent her head, and her veil sank down, while the General's eyes fell upon me, and the transformation was comic.
"Here," he whispered to my uncle, as I looked from one to the other, and saw the Doctor smiling blandly. "This—this boy—not—Frank Burr's—"
"Yes," said my uncle, nodding to me. "Pupil here. Send him into the service by and by."
"Bless my soul!—Oh dear me!—Here—I—that is—" stammered the General, looking from one to the other, till his eyes lit on Bob Hopley, when he flushed up angrily.
"How dare you, sir! How dare you stand there, with that rabbit and that wretched ferret! Don't you see that there are ladies present, sir. 'Tention! Put them away. Dress!"
"Here, stop," said my uncle sharply, as he looked round, "We have interrupted some business."
"No, no, no, no, my dear boy!—nothing, nothing!" cried the General. "Mere trifle."
"Trifle, eh?" said my uncle, drawing himself up, and looking the fierce colonel of dragoons. "Frank!"
"Yes, uncle," I said shrinkingly.
"You are in some scrape."
"What have you been doing?"
"Oh, Charles, pray—pray—" cried my mother.
"Hush," he said, holding up his hand. "Now, sir, speak out."
"Really, my dear Charley—" cried the General.
"Allow me, please, sir," said my uncle; and I caught sight of the Doctor raising his hand and making a sign to my mother, as he placed a chair for her, an act of politeness needed, for she was turning faint. "Now, sir, speak out—the simple facts, please. What have you been doing?"
"Rabbiting with a ferret, uncle, us two, and this gentleman and Bob Hopley came and caught us."
"Yes, yes, yes," cried the General. "A mere nothing, my dear madam. The boys were certainly on my grounds watching a poaching scoundrel, and I—yes, I thought I'd say a word to the Doctor. Bad company for him, a poacher—eh, my dear Charley?"
"Yes, rather," said my uncle dryly.
"And now," said the General, "Doctor Browne here—my neighbour—will tell them not to do so any more—eh, Doctor, eh?"
"Certainly," said the Doctor. "I'm sure it will not occur again."
"No, no, of course not," said the General. "Hopley, you can go. Stop! that ferret belongs to the boys, I think."
"To you, Frank?" said my uncle.
"No, uncle, it's his," I said. "But I was helping to use it."
"Hah! that's better," said my uncle sharply.
"I bought the ferret," said Mercer, speaking for the first time, "but I don't want it. I'll give it to you, Bob."
"Yes, yes, very wise of you, my lad. There, go now, Hopley," said the General.
The keeper touched his forehead, and gave a look all round, then winked solemnly at Mercer and me, and left the room.
"Hah!" said the General; "then that little bit of business is settled, Doctor, eh? Just a word or two."
"A few admonitions, my dear sir," said the Doctor blandly. "And now, if you will excuse me for a while, I will retire with Mercer here."
Tom gave me a look so full of appeal, that I ran across to the Doctor.
"Don't punish him, sir!" I said imploringly. "We were both alike."
"What's that, Frank?" said my uncle.
"I asked the Doctor not to punish Tom Mercer, uncle."
"No, no, no: of course not!" cried the General; "I endorse that appeal. Here, you sir, come to me. Gentlemen don't do such things as that; and now we all know better, I've got some capital fishing in my ponds and lakes, and I shall be happy to see you two at any time. There, shake hands."
Tom jumped at him, and it was pleasant to see how delighted he looked as he turned and shot a grateful glance at the General before the door closed on him and the Doctor.
Then the two old officers began chatting eagerly together about past times, while I sat by my mother as she held my hand, and I told her the history of my escapade, which was hardly finished when my uncle said,—
"I'm sorry to come down and find you in disgrace, Frank. Not the conduct of one who means to be an officer and a gentleman by and by."
"No, no: don't say any more," said the General. "The boy behaved very well. Liked a bit of sport; all boys do. He shall have a bit of rabbiting now and then."
"Then I shall say no more," said my uncle. "Try and be like your name, my boy, and you will find me ready to forgive your scrapes; but you must always be a gentleman."
"Amen to that," said the General, rising. "And now, my dear Mrs Burr, I will not say good-bye, but au revoir. Seaborough here tells me you are both going to stay in Hastings for a few days. I shall drive over and see you. Good-bye."
He showed the same courtly respect to her again, and was rising to go when the Doctor re-entered, and they parted the best of friends.
"No, no, no," cried the General, as the Doctor was coming out with him, "stay with your visitors. Odd meeting, wasn't it? Here, you, Frank Burr, come and see me off. Good-day, Doctor, good-day. You and I must be better neighbours."
"I shall be proud," said the Doctor, and then I went to the cart with the General, who stood holding my hand at the step, and I could feel a coin therein.
"For you two boys," he said. "There, good-bye, Frank Burr. You must grow up into a brave gentleman like your father. A thorough soldier, sir. God bless you, my boy! Good-bye."
He took the reins and got in, the groom left the horse's head and mounted beside him, and as the cart was driven off, and I stood there with a sovereign in my hand, Bob Hopley, who was in his place behind, gave me another solemn wink, while, after noticing the hired carriage in which my mother and my uncle had driven over from Hastings, I went back into the room and stayed with them, and afterwards went to show them the building and grounds.
An hour after, they were gone, while I hurried off to find Mercer and show him the sovereign.
"Well," he said, "that's all right. But, I say, don't some things turn out rum! What are you going to do with all that money?"
"Half's yours," I said.
"Oh, is it? Well, let's make a bank. It'll do to pay old Lomax and lots of things."
My mother and my uncle came over to see me twice during their stay at Hastings, and during one of the visits my uncle spoke to the Doctor about the drill-master, and, after expressing a wish that I should pay attention to that part of my studies, with fencing, asked if this instructor had been in the foot or horse.
"Oh, he was in the cavalry, uncle," I said.
"Good; then, if Doctor Browne does not object, I should like him to give you a few preliminary lessons in riding, so as to get a military seat while you are young, boy."
The Doctor expressed his willingness, but he said with a slight cough,—
"Would not a horse be necessary, or a pony?"
"Well, yes," said my uncle dryly, "I think it would, sir; but that difficulty will be got over. Sir Hawkhurst Rye has offered the boy the use of a stout cob. One of the grooms will bring it over two or three times a week; and, if you would allow me, I should like to have a few words with the old sergeant."
The Doctor was perfectly agreeable; and when they were going, I had the pleasure—for it was a pleasure—of taking them down to Lomax's little, neatly-kept place, where the old sergeant stood ready to draw himself up and salute, with his eyes lighting up, and a proud look of satisfaction in his hard face.
My uncle took him aside, and they remained talking together, while my mother walked up and down with me, holding my hand through her arm, and eagerly whispering her hopes—that I would be very careful, that I would not run into any danger with the riding, and, above all, mind not to do anything my uncle would not like.
Of course I promised with the full intention of performing, and soon after my uncle marched back with Lomax—they did not seem to walk. Everything had apparently gone off satisfactorily, and after plenty of advice from my uncle, he handed my mother into the carriage, followed and they were driven off.
I stood watching the carriage till it was out of sight, and then turned to Lomax, who was standing as upright as if he were on parade, till he caught my eye, and then he gave himself a jerk, thrust one hand into his pocket, and gave the place a slap.
"You're a lucky one," he said, "to have an uncle like that, sir. Hah! there's nothing like a soldier."
"How am I lucky?" I said rather sourly, for I was low-spirited from the parting I had just gone through.
"Lucky to have a fine old officer like that to want me to make a man of you, and teach you everything you ought to know to become an officer and a gentleman."
"Oh, bother!" I said. "Look here, Lomax; you're to teach me riding. Can you?"
"Can I?" he said, with a little laugh; "wait till the horse comes round, and I'll show you, my boy."
"I can ride, you know," I said; "but not military fashion."
"You? you ride, sir?" said the old soldier scornfully. "Rubbish! Don't talk to me. I know how you ride—like a sack of wool with two legs. Knees up to your chin and your nose parting the horse's mane all down his neck."
"Oh, nonsense, Lom!"
"Fact, sir, fact. Think I don't know? A civilian rides, sir, like a monkey, bumping himself up and down, and waggling his elbows out like a young chicken learning to fly. There, you be easy, and I'll teach you how to ride same as I did how to fight."
"But I don't know that you have taught me how to fight. I haven't tried yet."
"Wait a bit," he said. "You don't want to fight. It's like being a soldier—a British soldier, sir. He don't want to fight, and he will not if he can help it. He always hangs back because he knows that he can fight. But when he does—well, I'm sorry for the other side."
"Then you think I could lick Eely if he knocked me about, or big Dicksee?"
"No, I don't think anything about it, my boy. You wait. Don't fight if you can help it, but if you're obliged to, recollect all I've shown you, and let him have it."
I did not feel in any hurry, and when I talked to Tom Mercer about what I had said to Lomax, he agreed with me that he felt a little nervous about his powers, and said that he should like to try a small boy or two first; but I said no, that would not do; it would be cowardly.
"So it would," said Mercer; "besides, it would let the cat out of the bag, wouldn't it? Look here, I know: we ought to have a quiet set to up in the loft some day."
"But that would only be boxing," I said.
"Why not make a fight of it?" suggested Mercer.
"But we couldn't fight without there was a genuine quarrel."
"Let's quarrel, then."
"Oh, I don't know. Anything. You call me a fool, and I'll hit you, and then you go at me again, and we should know then what we could do."
"Get out!" I said. "I shan't call you a fool; but if I did, you wouldn't be such a beast as to hit me, and if you did, I should be so sorry that I shouldn't hit you again. That wouldn't do."
Tom Mercer scratched his head.
"No," he said dryly, "that wouldn't do. It seems precious rum, though."
"That I shouldn't care to hit you. I feel as if I couldn't hit a fellow who saved my life."
"Look here," I said angrily, "you're always trying to bring up that stupid nonsense about the holding you up on the penstock. If you do it again, I will hit you."
"Boo! Not you. You're afraid," cried Mercer derisively. "Who pulled the chap out of the water when he was half drowned, and saved him? Who—"
I clapped my hand over his mouth.
"Won't do, Tom," I said. "It's all sham. We can't fight. I daresay old Lom's right, though."
"What do you mean?"
"That we shall be able to knock Eely and Dicksee into the middle of next week."
"But it seems to me as if they must feel that we have been learning, or else they would have been sure to have done something before now."
"Never mind," I said, "let's wait. We don't want to fight, as Lom says, but if we're obliged to, we've got to do it well."
The occasion for trying our ability did not come off, though it was very near it several times; but as I grew more confident, the less I felt disposed to try, and Mercer always confessed it was the same with him, though the cock of the school and his miserable toady, Dicksee often led us a sad life.
One morning, soon after the last visit of Uncle Seaborough, Lomax came to the schoolroom door, just as Mr Hasnip was giving me a terrible bullying about the results of a problem in algebra, on to which he had hurried me before I had more than the faintest idea of the meaning of the rules I had been struggling through.
I suppose I was very stupid, but it was terribly confusing to me for the most part. I grasped very well the fact that a plus quantity killed a minus quantity if they were of equal value, and that a little figure two by the side of a letter meant its square, and I somehow blundered through some simple equations, but when Mr Hasnip lit a scholastic fire under me, and began to force on bigger mathematical flowers from my unhappy soil in the Doctor's scholastic hothouse, I began to feel as if I were blighted, and as if quadratic equations were instruments of torture to destroy boys' brains.
On that particular morning, I was, what fat Dicksee called, "catching it," and I was listening gloomily to my teacher's attempts at being witty at my expense.
"How a boy can be so stupid," he said, "is more than I can grasp. It is perfect child's play, and yet you have gone on getting the problem into a hopeless tangle—a ridiculous tangle. You have made a surd perfectly absurd, and—"
"Mr Hasnip!" came from the other end of the great room. Mr Hasnip looked up.
"The drill-master is here. The horse has arrived for Burr junior's riding lesson. Can you excuse him?"
"Certainly, sir," and Mr Hasnip looked at me, showing his teeth in a hungry kind of smile, as if a nice morsel were being snatched from him, and I stood with my heart beating, and the warm blood tingling in my cheeks, conscious that all the boys were looking at me.
"Here, take your book, Burr junior," said my tutor. "Very glad to go, I daresay. Now aren't you?"
I looked up at him, but made no reply.
"Do you hear me, sir?"
"I said, 'Aren't you glad to go?'"
"Of course. There, be off. You'll never learn anything. You are the stupidest boy I ever taught."
My cheeks burned, and as I turned to go, there was fat Dicksee grinning at me in so provoking a way, that if we had been alone, I should in my vexation have tried one of Lomax's blows upon his round, smooth face. But as it was, I went back to my place, where Mercer was seated, with his hands clasped and thrust down between his knees, his back up, and his head down over his book, apparently grinding up his Euclid, upon which he kept his eyes fixed.
"Oh ho!" he whispered; "here you are. Without exception, sir, the stupidest boy I ever taught."
"I'll punch your head by and by, Tom, if you're not quiet," I said.
"Who made the surd absurd?"
"Did you hear what I said?"
"Yes. Oh, you lucky beggar! Who are you, I should like to know, to be having your riding lessons?"
"Less talking there, Burr junior."
This from Mr Rebble, and I went out, passing close to Burr major, who looked me up and down contemptuously, as he took out his watch, and said to the nearest boy,—
"Rank favouritism! if there's much more of it, I shall leave the school."
But I forgot all this directly, as I stepped out, where I found Lomax standing up as stiff as a ramrod, and with a walking cane thrust under his arms and behind his back, trussing him like a chicken, so as to throw out his chest.
He saluted me in military fashion.
"Mornin', sir. Your trooper's waiting. Looks a nice, clever little fellow."
"Trooper?" I faltered in a disappointed tone. "What do you mean? I thought it was the horse come."
"So it is."
"Of course. Well, charger, then. Officers' horses are chargers; men's horses, troopers."
"Oh!" I cried, brightening up, but with a feeling of nervousness and excitement making my heart beat more heavily still. "Where is it?"
"Paddock!" said Lomax shortly, and without the slightest disposition to be conversational. In fact, he became more military every moment, and marched along by me, delivering cuts at nothing with his cane, as if he were angry with the air.
Then all at once he glanced at me, looking me up and down.
"Humph! No straps to your overalls," he said snappishly.
"Well, trousers, sir. They'll be crawling all up your legs. Get some buttons put on by next time."
He turned into the field devoted to the Doctor's cows and to the junior boys' football, and there I saw the General's groom holding a fiery, untamed-looking steed, as it seemed to me, arching its neck and snorting, as it stood champing its bit till the white foam flew from its mouth.