"I don't wonder at Bob thrashing him," I said.
"No," replied Mercer, as we went on. "I shall never deal with him again. If I want a bird or anything, I shall ask Bob Hopley. He's a man, he is. If you give him anything, he says, 'Thank-ye,' and if you don't, he never seems to mind. He knows boys haven't always got any money. I wish Magglin would go right away."
The conversation turned then upon the coming cricket match; after which we dropped in upon Lomax, and talked to him about boxing, and I pleased him very much by telling him how satisfied my uncle had been at the way I had learned to ride a horse; when, with his eyes twinkling, the old soldier took a letter from his chimney-piece, and opened it to show me my uncle's words, thanking him for the way he, an old soldier, had trained the son of a soldier, and enclosing a five-pound note.
"For a rainy day, Master Burr," he said. "I've clapped that in the bank."
CHAPTER TWENTY TWO.
If there was any one thing I dearly loved, it was a good game—a regular well-fought struggle—at cricket. Oddly enough, I used to like to be on the losing side, with the eleven who were so far behind that their fight was becoming desperate, and every effort had to be made to steal a run here and another there, slowly building up the score, with the excitement gradually increasing, and the weaker side growing stronger and more hopeful hour by hour, till, perhaps, by the clever batting of one boy, who has got well to work, and who, full of confidence, sets at defiance the best efforts in every change of bowler, the score is lifted right up to the winning-point, and he comes back to the tent with the bat over his shoulder, amidst the cheers of all the lookers-on.
I suppose I got on well with my education at Doctor Browne's. I know I got on well at cricket, for whenever a match was made up for some holiday, I was in so much request that both sides were eager to have me.
The Doctor had promised us a holiday to play the boys of a school at Hastings. They were to come over on an omnibus, and a tent was to be set up in our field, where, after the game, a high tea was to be provided for the visitors before they returned to Hastings in the evening.
I need hardly say that the day was looked forward to with the greatest eagerness, and that plans were made to give our visitors a thorough good thrashing.
Burr major, as captain of the eleven, rather unwillingly, I'm afraid, but for the sake of the credit of the school, selected Mercer and me for the match. I was to be wicket-keeper, and Mercer, from his clever and enduring running, and power to cover so much ground, was made long field off.
Burr major and Stewart were to bowl, with Dicksee as a change when necessary, for he had a peculiar knack and twist in handling a ball, and could puzzle good players by sending in an innocent-looking, slowly-pitched ball, which looked as if it was going wide, and, when it had put the batsman off his guard, and induced him to change his position, so as to send the ball flying out of the field, it would suddenly curl round and go right into the wicket.
All went well. We practised every evening, and again for an hour before breakfast each morning, and, as I warmed up to my task, I easily stopped all Stewart's or Burr major's swiftest balls, and got to know how to deal with what Mercer called "old Dicksee's jerry sneaks." The tent came from Hastings the day before, and was set up ready, and the next day was to be the match.
But, as Burns says, "The best-laid schemes o' mice an' men gang aft a-gley." So it was here; our plans went very much "a-gley," for I awoke on the morning of the match with a headache, which I knew would completely upset me for the day.
I did not know then, but I know now, that it was Polly Hopley's fault, and that her turnovers and cake were far too rich to be eaten in quantity by two boys sitting up in bed, and going to sleep directly after, in spite of the crumbs and scales of crust. I just remember that I had a bad night, full of unpleasant dreams, all connected with the cricket match in some way. Now I was being horribly beaten; now I was running after the ball, which went on and on, far away into space, and would not be overtaken, and it was still bounding away when I awoke with a start. Then I fell asleep again, and lay bound and helpless, as it seemed to me, with Burr major taking advantage of my position to come and triumph over me, which he did at first by sitting on my chest, and then springing up to go through a kind of war-dance upon me, while I stared up at him helplessly.
Then Dicksee came with his face all swollen up, as it was after the fight, but he was grinning derisively at me, and while Burr major seemed to hold me down by keeping one foot pressed on my chest, Dicksee knelt by my side, and began to beat my head with a cricket bat.
Bang, bang! bang, bang! Blows that fell with the regularity of the beats of a pendulum, and it seemed to me that he beat me into a state of insensibility, for both Burr major and he faded from my eyesight, though the blows of the bat were still falling upon my head when I awoke in the morning; that is to say, they seemed to be falling, and it was some minutes before I fully understood that I was suffering from a bad bilious headache.
"Now then, why don't you jump up?" said Mercer, as I lay with my eyes shut, and at this I got up slowly, began to dress, and then, feeling too giddy to stand, sat down by my bed.
"What's the matter?" cried Mercer.
"So ill. Head's so bad."
"Oh, that will be all right when you've had your breakfast. Mine aches too. Look sharp. It's ever so late."
I tried to look sharp, but I'm afraid I looked very blunt, and it took me a long time to get dressed and down-stairs, and out in the fresh morning air, where I walked up and down a bit, and then suffered myself to be led into the play-field to see what a splendid tent had been raised, with its canvas back close up to the hedge which separated the Doctor's grounds from the farm, with the intervening dry ditch, which always seemed to be full of the biggest stinging nettles I ever saw.
It was a glorious morning, the turf was short and beautifully level, the boys having joined hands the previous night to drag the great roller well over it. But the sunshine, the blue sky, and the delicious green of the hedges and trees were all nothing to me then, and I let Mercer chatter on about the chances of the other side, which, as far as I was concerned, promised to be excellent.
The breakfast-bell rang, and we went in, but that morning meal did not fulfil Mercer's prophecy and carry off my ailment, for I could not touch a bit.
"Oh, you are a fellow!" cried my comrade. "Well; perhaps you are right. My father says it's best not to eat and drink when you have a bad headache. But look sharp and get well; the chaps will be over in good time."
By and by the news reached the captain of our eleven, and he came to me all smiles and civility, for all Burr major's ideas of revenge seemed to have died out, as I thought, because I never presumed upon my victory.
"Oh, I say, Burr junior," he cried, "this won't do! You must look sharp and get well."
"I want to," I replied dolefully; "but I'm afraid I shan't be able to play."
"But you must. If you don't, they'll be sure to beat us, and that would be horrid."
"You mustn't let them beat you," I said, wishing all the while that he would go, for my head throbbed more than ever, and varied it with a sensation as of hot molten lead running round inside my forehead in a way that was agonising.
"But what are we to do for a wicket-keeper?"
"You must take my place," I said feebly. "You are the best wicket-keeper we have."
"No," he cried frankly, "you are; but I think I'm the best bowler."
"Well, you will be obliged to keep wicket to-day," I said, with a groan. "I shall never be able to stir, I'm sure."
"Well, you do look precious mouldy," he cried. "It's a nuisance, and no mistake. I suppose we must make shift, then?"
"Yes; let Dicksee and Hodson bowl all the time."
"And I can put Senna on now and then for an over or two."
"I can't bowl well enough," said Mercer.
"Oh yes, you can when you like," said Burr major. "And, I say," he cried, taking out his watch, "it's getting close to the time."
Mercer's eyes glistened as the watch was examined, and it seemed to me that my companion sighed as the watch was replaced.
Just then Hodson came up.
"How is he?"
"Too bad to play, he says. Isn't it beastly?"
"Do you mean it, Burr junior?"
"Yes," I said. "I'm very, very queer. I couldn't play."
"You ain't shamming, are you?"
"Look at me and see," I replied faintly, and directly after I felt a cool hand laid on my burning forehead.
"There's no gammon about it," said Hodson. "We must do the best we can. Look sharp, Senna."
"Yes," said Burr major; "he'll have to take a turn at the bowling."
"I shan't play if Frank Burr don't," said Mercer stoutly.
"What?" cried the two boys together.
"You must put some one else on instead of me; I've got a headache too."
"Oh, I say," cried Hodson, and he and Burr both tried hard to shake Mercer's sudden resolution. I too tried, but it was of no use; he grew more stubborn every minute; and after Burr major had again referred to his watch, the two lads went off together, disappointed and vexed.
"You might have gone and played with them, Tom," I said.
"I know that," he replied; "but I wasn't going without you. I'm going to stop and talk."
"No, no, don't," I said. "I only want to be quiet till—Oh, my head, my head!"
"Why, Burr junior, what's this?" cried Mr Hasnip, coming up and speaking cheerily. "Bad headache? not going to play?"
"No, sir, I feel too ill."
"Oh, come, this is a bad job. Hi, Rebble!"
The latter gentleman came up.
"Here's Burr junior queer. Does he want a doctor, do you think?"
Mr Rebble looked at me attentively for a few moments, and then said quietly,—
"No; only a bilious headache, I should say. Go and lie down for an hour or two, my lad, and perhaps it will pass off."
I gladly crawled up to our dormitory, took off my jacket and boots, and lay down on the bed, when I seemed to drop at once into a doze, from which I started to find Mercer seated by the window looking out.
"Better?" he said, as I stirred.
"Better! No; I feel very ill. But what are you doing here?"
"Come to sit with you," he said stolidly.
Just then there was a burst of cheering, and the crunching noise made by wheels.
"Here they are," cried Mercer excitedly. "Oh, I say, I do wish you were better! I should like to lick those Hastings chaps."
"Then why don't you go?" I said pettishly. "Go and bowl."
"Shan't, without you," was the only reply I could get, and I lay turning my head from side to side, trying to find a cool spot on the pillow, to hear every now and then a shout from the field, and then a burst of plaudits, or cries of, "Well run!"
"Well fielded!" and more hand-clapping, all borne faintly in at the window, where Mercer sat with his arms folded, gazing out, but unable to see the field from where he was.
After a time I once more dropped off into a doze and woke again with a start, under the impression that I had been asleep all day.
My head was not quite so bad, and, after lying still, thinking, and listening to the shouts from the cricket-field, I said weakly,—
"Have they nearly done, Tom?"
"Done! No, of course not."
"What time is it?"
"Don't know. Haven't got a watch."
"Well, what time do you think it is?"
"'Bout two. They've just gone to the wickets again after lunch."
"Why don't you go and join them now?"
"You know. How's your head?"
"A little better, I think."
"Well enough to come down and look on?"
"Oh no," I said, with a shudder; "I feel too sick and ill for that."
"Have another snooze, then, and you'll be better still."
"But it's too bad to keep you out of the fun," I said.
"I didn't grumble. Go to sleep."
I determined that I would not, but I did, and woke again, to repeat my question about the time, and receive the answer that my companion had not got a watch.
"How long have I been asleep, then?" I asked.
"'Bout an hour. Here! hi! what are you going to do?"
"Get up, and go down in the field," I said.
"Hooray! Then it's all right again?"
"No," I replied; "but it's a little better, and I should like to go and lie down under the big hedge, and see our fellows win."
"Come, I do like that," cried Mercer eagerly, as I went to the wash-stand, well bathed my temples, and then, feeling very sick and faint, but not in such pain, I put on my jacket and boots, and we went slowly down-stairs, and out into the field, where every one was too intent to take much notice of us, as Tom led me up to the big hedge, where I lay down on the grass about fifty yards from where the tent stood close up; and from time to time I saw the boys who were about to go in to bat, go to the tent to take off their jackets and vests, and come out ready for the fight.
Our boys were in, and I saw Dicksee change and go to the wicket to come back with a "duck's egg," as we called it. Then Hodson went in and made a stand, but a quarter of an hour later, the boy who faced him was caught, and Burr major walked up to the tent, disappeared, and came out again all in white, with a brand-new bat over his shoulder.
Just then Mercer, who had been round to the scorers, came back, and stood watching Burr major as he marched off.
"Oh, I say," he said, "don't you wish you were in it, Frank?"
"Yes," I said, with a sigh. Then—"How's the game now?"
"We're a hundred behind 'em, and our fellows can't stand their bowling. If Eely and Hodson don't make a big stand, we shall have a horrid licking. Better?"
"Yes, a little," I said faintly, and then I lay watching the game, while Mercer walked about—now going up to the empty tent where the boys' clothes were, now coming back to me to talk about the game. Once he went and lay down near the tent. Another time he went by it out of sight, but he was soon back to see how I was, and off in the other direction, this time to go right round the field and come back by the tent, and throw himself down by my side.
"What do you think of it now? Oh, look! Hooray! hooray! Run! run! run!" he roared, and then joined in the hand-clapping, for Hodson had made a splendid leg hit, which brought us in four, and two more from an overthrow.
This excited Tom Mercer to such an extent that he could not lie still, but went off again in the direction of the tent, while I began to know that I was better, from the interest I was able to take in the game.
Then, after seeing Burr major and Hodson make hit after hit, for they were now well in, and punishing the bowling to a tremendous extent, I began to think about how good-companion-like it had been of Mercer to spoil his own pleasure so as to stay with me, and I lay there resting on my elbow, watching him for a few minutes, as he stood close up to the tent.
"Well, Burr junior, how's the head?" cried Mr Hasnip, strolling up with Mr Rebble.
"A good deal better, sir," I replied, "but very far from well."
"You'll have to take a long night's rest before it will be quite right," said Mr Rebble. "By the way, Mrs Browne said I was to report how you were, so that she could send you something to take if you did not seem better."
"Oh, I'm ever so much better, sir!" I cried hastily, for I had a keen recollection of one of the good lady's doses which she had prescribed, and whose taste I seemed to distinguish then.
"Oh yes, you'll be all right in the morning," said Mr Hasnip. "Well, Mercer, how are we getting on?"
"I haven't been to the scorers' table, sir," said Mercer, who had just come back from a spot near the tent, where he could get a better view of the field than from where I lay under the big oak tree.
"Run and ask, my lad," said Mr Rebble, and he and Mr Hasnip sat down near me, and chatted so pleasantly that I forgot all about the way in which they tortured me sometimes with questions.
In due time Mercer came back to announce that Hodson and Burr major had put on sixty-one between them, and that there were hopes that the game might be pulled out of the fire even then.
Mercer sat down now beside me, and, the ground in front clearing a little, we had a good view of the game, which grew more and more interesting as the strangers fought their best to separate our two strongest men, and stop them from steadily piling up the score; the loud bursts of shouting stirring them on to new efforts, which resulted in the ball being sent here, there, and everywhere, for twos, threes, and fours, till the excitement seemed to have no bounds.
Then came a check, just as the servants had been busy carrying urns, teapots, and piled-up plates into the tent, for it was getting late in the afternoon.
The check was caused by a ball sent skying by Hodson and cleverly caught, with the result that one of our best cricketers shouldered his bat and marched off the ground, but proudly, for he had had a splendid innings, and quite a jubilation of clapping hands ran round the field.
Another took his place, and helped Burr major to make a little longer stand, but the spirit had gone out of his play, which became more and more cautious. He stole one here and sent the ball for one there, but made no more brilliant hits for threes and fours.
At last after a good innings the fresh man was clean bowled, and another took his place.
"Last of 'em," said Mercer. "Oh, if they can only do it! We only want five to win."
But during the next quarter of an hour these five were not made. The new-comer contented himself with playing on the defensive, and with the knowledge to trouble him of the game resting entirely on his shoulders, Burr major grew more and more nervous, missing excellent chances that he would have jumped at earlier in his innings.
"Four to win." Then the fresh boy got a chance, and made one which sent our lads nearly frantic.
"Three only to win," and there seemed to be not a doubt of our success now,—for it was "our" success, though I had had nothing to do with the result.
And now Burr major had a splendid chance, but he was too nervous to take it, and the over proved blank, as did the next. But in the one which followed, the fresh boy sent a ball just by mid-wicket, a run was stolen, and I, too, grew so excited that I forgot my headache and rose to my knees.
It was a fresh over, a change had been made in the bowling, and the first ball was delivered and stopped.
The second ball went rushing by the wicket, but it was not wide; and now the third ball was bowled. It seemed to be an easy one, and in the midst of the most profound excitement, Burr major gathered himself together for a big hit, struck out, and—the ball went flying out of the field?
No; Burr major just missed it, the off-bail was bowled clean and fell a dozen yards away.
We were beaten.
CHAPTER TWENTY THREE.
There was a tremendous burst of cheering and a rush for the tent by the boys who had left their jackets within, and among them Burr major, disappointed, but at the same time justly proud of the splendid score he had made, walked up to the door, disappeared amongst plenty of clapping, and soon after came out again in his jacket and vest.
We had all clustered up round about the players, and two masters shook hands with the champion, who directly after caught sight of me.
"Hallo! How's the head?" he cried.
"Getting better now."
"I saw you watching the match," he continued. "Nice time you had of it lying about under that tree, while we fellows did all the work."
"I should have liked to be in it," I said rather drearily; "but I really was very bad."
His attention was called off soon after, and then there was a summons to the tent for the festive high tea, which was to come off directly, as the Hastings boys had a long drive back.
I was much better, but the thought of food in that crowded tent was nauseating, and, watching my opportunity, I slipped away, seeing Tom Mercer looking about as if in search of me before going into the tent.
"I know what I'll do," I thought. "I'll walk gently down along the lane to Bob Hopley's place, and ask Polly to make me a cup of tea and cut me some bread and butter."
The plan was simple enough, and I strolled out and along the road, and then entered a gate, to make a short cut along the hedge side of the fields.
The evening was glorious, and after a broiling day the soft moist odours that came from the copses dotted here and there seemed delightfully refreshing, and so I strolled on and on till I was only a short distance from the cottage, which was separated from me by a couple of fields, when I turned slowly toward a corner of the enclosure I was in, where there was a pond and a patch of moist land where weeds never noticed towered up in abundance, and, to my surprise, I caught sight of Magglin seated on the bank of the pond, with his feet hanging close to the water, and apparently engaged in his evening toilet. It seemed to me that he must have been washing his face, and that he was now wiping it upon some great leaves which he plucked from time to time.
"No, he isn't," I said to myself the next moment. "He has been poaching, and saw me coming. It's all a pretence to throw me off the scent;" and I went on, my way being close by him, and there he was rubbing away at his face with the leaves, while I glanced here and there in search of a wire set for rabbit or hare, though I shrewdly suspected that the wire he had been setting would be over in the copse beyond the pond, in the expectation of getting a pheasant.
He was so quick of hearing that he could detect a footstep some distance off, but this time he turned round sharply when I exclaimed,—
"Eh—I—Oh, how de do, sir?"
"Better than you do," I said sharply. "What have you been doing to your face?"
"Face? Oh, rubbing it a bit, sir, that's all. Good as washing."
"Dock leaves," I said. "What, have you stung yourself?"
"Oh yes, I forgot that, sir. Just a little bit, sir. I was coming through the hedge down below there, and a 'ormous old nettle flew back and hit me acrost the cheek. But it aren't nothing."
More than I should like to have, I thought to myself, as I went on, for his face was spotted with white patches, and I knew how they must tingle.
Ten minutes after, I was in the lane, in time to meet Polly Hopley, in her best bonnet and with a key in her hand, going up to the cottage door.
She smiled as she saw me, hurried to the cottage, unlocked the door, and stood back for me to enter.
"Been out, Polly?" I said.
"Yes, sir, of course. Father took me to see the cricket match. Doctor Browne told father we might come into the field, and it were lovely. But why didn't you play?"
I told her, and she expressed her sympathy. Then, in a very decided way,—
"Sweets and puffs aren't good for you, sir, and I won't sell you one to-day."
"I don't want any, Polly," I replied. "I was going to ask you to sell me a cup of tea."
"And I won't do that neither, sir; but I'm going to make myself some directly, and if you'll condescend to sit down in father's big chair and have some, I should be glad."
To the girl's great delight, I accepted her offer. The kettle hanging over the smouldering fire of wood ashes was soon boiling, and I partook of a delicious tea, with fresh water-cresses from the spring, and cream in my tea from the General's dairy, while Polly cut bread and butter, and chatted about "father's" troubles with the poachers, and about the baits he had been getting ready for our next fishing visit to the ponds. Then again about the cricket match, and we were carrying on an animated conversation when the door was thrown quickly open, and Bob Hopley appeared.
"Oh, dad, how you startled me!" cried Polly, jumping up.
"Startled you, my lass? I heerd loud talking and I'd been told young Magglin had come down this way, and I thought it was him."
"I saw him just before I came in, over by the pond there by the copse," I said.
"He wasn't likely to be in here, father," said Polly primly. "I should like to catch him trying to come in."
"So should I," said the keeper grimly. "I'd try oak that time 'stead o' hazel."
"Hush, dad! do adone," whispered Polly. Then aloud—
"Master Burr's been poorly all day, and as they were all feasting and junketing at the school, he come down here to ask me to make him some tea, and he's very welcome, aren't he, father?"
"I should just think he is, my lass. But fill up his cup again, and he's got no fresh butter."
"I've done," I said; "and oh, I do feel so much better now! Do you know what a bad sick headache is?"
"No, my lad, no. I aren't had one since—"
"Come, Polly, don't be hard on a man. That was only the club feast."
"I haven't patience with such feasts," said Polly sharply. "I never go to feasts, and come back—"
"Poorly, my lass, poorly," said Bob hastily.
"Yes, very poorly," said Polly sarcastically, "and say, 'My head's fit to split,' next day. Seems to me that's all such heads are fit for then—to split and burn."
"Nay, nay, my lass, they burn quite enough, I can tell 'ee. Man does do stoopid things sometimes."
Bob was very apologetic about sitting down to tea, with me there. Then of course I apologised, and sat watching him drinking great draughts out of a basin and devouring huge slices of bread and butter.
"Rare stuff kettle broth, sir," he said. "Don't give you no headaches; do it, Polly?"
"She don't make it strong enough for that, Mr Burr, sir," he continued, giving me a wink.
"Quite as strong as is good for you, father."
"Right, my lass," said Bob, helping himself to some more cream, "and not so strong as is good for you."
I rose to go soon after, and the keeper joined with his daughter in absolutely refusing to let me pay for my meal.
"Glad to have seen you, sir; and now mind that as soon as ever your young friend Mas' Mercer—Mas' Bri'sh Museum, as I call him—is ready, and you can get a day, I'll take you to our stock pond, where the carps and tenches are so thick, they're asking to be caught. You shall have a day."
"Good-bye, Polly," I said, shaking hands. "You've quite cured my head."
"I am so glad, sir!" she cried; and I went back to the school, Bob seeing me part of the way, and saying to me confidentially as we walked,—
"You see me leathering that poaching vagabond Magglin, sir. It's like this. The reason for it was—No, sir. Good-night. You're too young to talk about that sort o' thing. Don't forget about the fish."
He hurried away without another word, while I went on, and found Tom Mercer looking for me, and eager to hear where I had been.
"What a shame!" he cried. "The high tea was very jolly, but I missed you. I wish I'd gone too. I say, we were licked, but it was a splendid match after all. Hallo! here's Hodson. The chaps all went off on their 'bus cheering and—Hooray, Hodson! what a day!"
"Yes; but I say," said the lad, "Burr major's lost his watch."
"His watch!" cried Mercer, giving quite a jump. "Oh!"
"Yes; he left it in his waistcoat in the tent when he stripped for his innings, and when he felt for it some time after, it was gone."
"Then he didn't miss it directly?" I said.
"No, not till a little while ago. A lot of the fellows are up in the field searching for it. Haven't either of you seen it, have you?"
"No," I said, and Mercer shook his head.
"Come on and help look for it," cried Hodson; and we went up to the field, where the tent was still standing, it being understood that the men were to come and take it down in the morning.
"Lucky they were not here," I said, "or some of them might have been suspected of taking it."
"Yes, it would be ugly for them," assented Hodson. "You see, nobody but our boys and the Hastings chaps went into the tent, except the servants to lay the tables, and of course they wouldn't have taken it."
"But they may have found it," I said. "He is sure to have dropped it somewhere in the grass."
"Of course," cried Mercer; "and some one has put his foot on it and smashed the glass."
"Get out, Senna! you always make the worst of every thing," cried Hodson merrily; and soon after, we reached the field, where the boys were spread about, looking in all kinds of possible and impossible places— impossible because Burr major had never been near them after he had put on his things.
"Are you sure that you brought your watch out in the field," said Mr Hasnip, who was one of the group standing by Burr major.
"Oh yes, sir, certain."
"But it does not do to be too certain, my lad. Have you been up in your bedroom, and looked there?"
"No, sir, because I was so sure I brought it out."
"Why were you so sure?"
"Because—because I thought I would wear it, as we had strangers coming."
"Never mind, you may have altered your mind. Go and look. You see we have thoroughly searched every place where you could have been."
"I'll go and look, sir," said Burr major, "but it's of no use."
He went off toward the schoolhouse, and Mr Rebble then coming up, the two masters began to talk about the missing watch.
"It is so awkward," said Mr Rebble. "We can't write and ask the party if either of them took a watch by mistake. Stop! I have it."
"The watch?" cried Mr Hasnip eagerly.
"No. Wait till he comes back, and I think I can explain it all."
We had not long to wait before Burr major came back to us.
"No, sir," he said. "I've looked everywhere; it isn't in my room."
"Then I think I can help you," said Mr Rebble. "What jacket and vest are those you have on?"
"My third best, sir."
"Are you sure?"
"Yes, sir," said Burr major wonderingly.
"Look at them," continued Mr Rebble. "Are they really your own things, and not the clothes of one of our visitors taken by mistake, and he has taken yours."
Burr major slipped off his jacket and held it up in the dusk to point out a label inside the collar, where, worked in blue silk upon white satin, was the name of the maker, his own father.
"Yes, that's yours," said Mr Rebble in a disappointed tone. "I thought that the mistake might have been made. But the vest—are you sure of that?"
"Oh yes," said Burr major, who then looked inside the collar and found the same maker's name.
"I thought that, sir," said Burr major; "but I could feel that they were my things as soon as I put them on. I say, has any fellow taken my watch for a game?"
There was silence at first, then a murmur of, "No, no, no;" and, as it was getting too dark now to resume the search, we all trooped back to the schoolroom to sit and talk over the one event which had spoiled what would otherwise have been a most enjoyable day, for, as Tom Mercer said when we went up to bed,—
"It's nicer for those Hastings chaps to have won. They've gone back jollier. By and by we shall be going over to play them, and then we shall be in the eleven, and must win."
"I said, 'And then we must win.'"
"Yes, I heard you."
"Then why didn't you speak?"
"Because I was thinking about Burr major's watch."
"Oh, bother his watch!" said Mercer hastily. "I'm beginning to be glad that he has lost it. Now he won't be always flourishing it in your face and seeming to say, 'Poor fellow, I'm sorry you haven't got a watch too.'"
"Well, you needn't be so cross about it," I said.
"Why needn't I? One gets sick of his watch. There's always been a fuss about it ever since he came back with it. It's lost now, and a jolly good job too. Now we've heard the end of it. Old Eely's watch is regularly wound up."
CHAPTER TWENTY FOUR.
But we had not heard the end of it, for the Doctor was so much annoyed that he sent Mr Hasnip on a private diplomatic visit to his brother schoolmaster at Hastings, to speak of the trouble we were in, and to ask if it were possible that the watch had been taken by mistake.
Mr Hasnip's mission was as useless as the search made by the boys, who all stood round while the men took down the tent, so as to make sure that no strangers should be more successful than we were.
But the tent was carted away, poles, flags, and all, and then we resumed our search over the space where the erection had stood, even up to the hedge, and boys were sent over it to peer about in the ditch beyond.
Every minute out of school hours was devoted to the search for Burr major's watch, but there was no result; and when Mr Hasnip returned, soon after the boys had again given up the hunt, and told the Doctor what he had done, he came away, and saw Mr Rebble, who told Burr major, and Burr major told Hodson who was the medium that conveyed to the boys generally the fact that the Doctor had shaken his head.
The next day came, and the next, and another day passed, with the memories of the cricket match growing more faint. Burr major's watch was not found, and, after the first two days, the boys had ceased to look suspiciously at one another, and charge a school-fellow with having hid the watch "for a game." Lessons went on as usual, and my riding was kept up, but the cob was only brought over once a week.
I had a pretty good time at the drilling though, but that was only in company with the other boys.
Then the days grew to weeks, and we had our trip to Hastings; that is to say, our eleven; and, being free from headache this time, both Mercer and I played, all coming back in triumph, and nearly sending the private omnibus horses off at a wild gallop as we neared the school: for we came back to announce that we had beaten our adversaries in one innings, they having scored so badly that they had to follow on.
This trip revived the talk about Burr major's watch, but only for a day or two, and then once more the topic died out, though I heard incidentally from Mr Hasnip that the Doctor was bitterly grieved at such a loss taking place in his school.
I worked hard in those days, and made rapid progress, I afterwards found, though I did not grasp it at the time, and I had now grown to like my school life intensely.
Now and then a letter came from the General, asking leave for Mercer and me to go over to early dinner, the old gentleman welcoming us warmly, and making me give proofs of my progress in all parts of my education that had a military bearing. Then we were sent back in the dog-cart, generally with a crown a piece, and a big basket of fruit—a present, this latter, which made us very popular with the other boys, who envied our luck, as they called it, greatly, particularly our expeditions to the General's ponds, from which we brought creels full of trophies in triumph. But only to have our pride lowered by the cook, to whom we took our prizes, that lady declaring them all to be rubbish except the eels, and those, she said, were too muddy to be worth the trouble of taking off their skins.
Then, too, we had natural history excursions to make additions to the museum in the bin.
I thoroughly enjoyed these trips, and became the most enthusiastic of collectors, but I regret to say that with possession my interest ceased.
Mercer bullied me sharply, but it was of no good. If lizards were to be plunged in spirits and suspended by a silken thread or fine wire to the cork of the bottle, he had to do it; and though he showed me how, at least a dozen times, to skin a snake through its mouth, so as to strip off the covering whole and ready to fill up with sand, so as to preserve its shape, he never could get me to undertake the task.
Certainly I began to pin out a few butterflies on cork, but I never ended them, nor became an adept at skinning and mounting quadrupeds and birds.
"It's all sheer laziness," Mercer used to say pettishly.
"Not it," I said. "I like the birds and things best unstuffed. They look a hundred times better than when you've done them your way."
"But they won't keep, stupid," he cried.
"Good thing too. I'd rather look at them for two days as they are, than for two years at your guys of things."
"What!" he cried indignantly. "Guys!"
"Well, so they are," I said. "Look at that owl; look at the squirrel, with one hind leg fat and the other lean, and his body so full that he seems to have eaten too many nuts."
"But those were some of the first stuffings," he pleaded.
"But the last are worse," I cried, laughing. "Then look at the rabbit. Who'd ever know that was a rabbit, if it wasn't for his ears and the colour of his skin? He looks more like a bladder made of fur."
"But he isn't finished yet."
"Nor never will be," I cried merrily.
"Ah, you're getting tired of natural history," said Mercer, seating himself on the edge of the bin, and looking lovingly down at its contents, for this conversation took place up in the loft.
"Wrong!" I cried. "I get fonder of it every day; but I'm not going to skin and stuff things to please anybody, not even you."
"I'm sorry for you," said Mercer. "You're going to be a soldier. My father says I'm to be a doctor. You're going to destroy, and I'm going to preserve."
I burst out laughing.
"I say, Tom," I cried, as he looked up at me innocently, in surprise at my mirth, and I went and sat at the other end of the bin; "had one better kill poor people out of their misery than preserve them to look like that?" and I pointed down at the half-stuffed rabbit.
"Go on," he said quietly. "Scientific people always get laughed at. I don't mind."
"More do I."
"I've had lots of fun out of all these things, and it's better than racing all over a field, kicking a bag of wind about, and knocking one another down in a charge, and then playing more sacks on the mill, till a fellow's most squeezed flat. I hate football, and so do you."
"No, you don't," I said; "you love a game sometimes as much as I do. What I don't like in it is, that when I'm hurt, I always want to hit somebody."
"Yes, that is the worst of it," he said quietly; "and since I've found out that I can fight, I'm ever so much readier to punch anybody's head."
"But you don't."
"No; I don't, because it don't seem fair. I don't care, though, how you laugh. I shall go on with my natural history even when I grow a man, and have to drive round like father does, giving people stuff. It gives you something to think about."
"Yes, it gives you something to think about," I said merrily. "I always get thinking about these."
"I say: don't," cried Mercer; "you've upset my owl on to that blackbird. I wish you wouldn't be so fond of larking."
"All right, Tom; I won't tease you," I said. "It's all right, and I'll always go with you collecting. I never knew there were half so many things to see out of doors, till I went out with you. When shall we have a regular good walk through the General's woods?"
"Any time we can get away," he cried, brightening up. "I'm ready."
"All right," I said; "then we will go first chance."
"We must tell Bob Hopley we're going, or he may hear us in the wood, and pepper us, thinking it's old Magglin."
"He said he would, if ever he caught him there."
"Seen him lately?" I said.
"No; have you?"
"Not since the cricket match day, when I was going to Bob Hopley's."
"One of the boys said he saw him hanging about, twice over, and I suppose he was trying to see me, and get a shilling out of me. I'm sure he's had nearly a pound out of me, that I didn't owe him. I wish I wasn't so soft."
"So do I."
"Ah, now you're laughing at me. Never mind, I've done with him now. Never a penny does he ever get out of me again."
"Till next time, Tom," I said.
"No, nor next time neither. I don't suppose we shall see much more of him here, for Bob Hopley says that so sure as he catches him poaching, he shall speak out pretty plainly, so as to get him sent away. He says that many a time he has let him off with a good licking, sooner than get him sent to prison, for he don't think prison's good for young men like him."
"I suppose it isn't," I said thoughtfully, as I watched my companion, and saw how lovingly he arranged and rearranged his grotesque-looking creatures at the bottom and on the rough shelves of the bin that he had put up from time to time.
And as I watched him, an idea entered my brain which tickled me so, that I had hard work to keep from laughing aloud, and being noticed.
The idea came as he glanced at me, and moved the rabbit to the corner nearest to him—the absurd-looking object being carefully covered over, as if he was afraid I should begin joking him again about its unfinished state.
All at once, moved by the impulse which had set me laughing, I leaned over and stretched out my hand toward the corner where he had placed the rabbit.
"What are you going to do?" he cried excitedly, and he caught my wrist.
"Only going to take out bunny, and see how he's getting on."
"No, no, don't."
"Why not?" I cried merrily.
"Because—because I don't want it touched."
"But I can improve it so."
"No, no: be quiet. Oh, I say, Frank, pray don't touch it."
"Oh, all right," I said, after a good-humoured struggle with him, in which I did not use much force, and I let him shut the bin, and sit on the lid.
For the bell began to ring, and I dashed down, to run out of the stable and across the yard, expecting that he would follow me, and running so blindly that I came right upon Dicksee, just leaving the stable door, and sent him down upon his hands and knees.
"Hallo!" I shouted; "what were you doing there?—listening?"
"What's that to you?" grumbled the boy, as he rose slowly and carefully, examining his hands to see if the skin was off. "You did that on purpose."
"No, I didn't," I replied; "but I would have done it, if I had known you were sneaking and eavesdropping there."
"Who was sneaking and eavesdropping? What was there to listen to?" he retorted. "'Tain't your stable. I've as good a right there as you have. Tom Mercer and you ain't going to have it all to yourselves for your old slugs and snails and dead cats."
"You mind Tom Mercer doesn't catch you," I said. "You don't want him to lick you again, I know."
"Yah!" he shouted, and he ran off just as my companion came down.
"Who was that?" he said.
"Fatty Dicksee. I told him you'd give him another dressing down if he came sneaking about here."
"And so I will," cried Tom. "He has never forgiven me, though, for the last. I know he hates me. So does Eely hate you."
"Let 'em," I said, as we went on.
"But they'll serve us out some day if they can."
"Dinner—dinner!" I cried. "Come on!" and we set off at a trot, for the prospect of hot roast mutton and potatoes just then was of far more consequence to me than my school-fellow's prophecies of evil.
CHAPTER TWENTY FIVE.
I thought of my little plan that night when I went to bed, and I had it in my mind when I woke next morning, and laughed over it merrily as I dressed.
It was the merest trifle, but it amused me; and I have often thought since of what big things grow sometimes out of the merest trifles. School-days are often so monotonous that boys jump at little things for their entertainment, and as there was some good-humoured mischief in this which would do no one any harm, only create a laugh, in which Tom Mercer would no doubt join after he had got over the first feeling of vexation, I had no hesitation about putting it in force.
I had to wait for my opportunity, and it came that afternoon, when most of the boys were together cricketing and playing rounders. I glanced round the field, and then slipped away unobserved, made my way round by the back, and crossed the open space toward the yard.
It was absolutely necessary for me to meet no one, so as to avoid suspicion when Mercer found out what had been done, and I intended, as soon as I had executed my little plan, to slip back by the same way into the play-field, so as to be able to prove where I was on that afternoon.
But, as a matter of course, just because I did not wish to meet any one, I must meet the cook just returning from the kitchen garden with a bundle of thyme in her hand.
Everybody spoke of Cook as being disagreeable and ready to snap and snarl if she were asked for anything extra because a boy was sick; but they say, "Speak well of the bridge that carries you well over," and I always found her the most kindly of women; and she nodded and smiled.
"What boys you and Master Mercer are!" she said. "Why, you are always going and moping up in that loft instead of being in the fields at play."
She went on toward the house, and I stood hesitating about carrying out my plan.
"She knows I've come," I said, "and if there is a row, and questions asked, she may say that she saw me."
"Nonsense! she'll never hear about it," I said, and, running into the dark stable, I stopped short, for I fancied there was a sound overhead; but I heard no more, and, thinking it was fancy, I ran to the steps, climbed up, and was crossing the floor when I heard a faint rustling in a heap of straw at the far end, in the darkest corner of the loft.
"Rats," I said to myself, as I went on to the place where the big bin stood under a little window, passed it, and reached up to take the key from the beam upon which it was always laid, the simplicity of the hiding-place making it all the more secure.
To my utter astonishment, the key was not there, but a second glance showed me that it was in the padlock.
"Been up here and forgot to lock it," I said to myself. "All the better for me. Some one else may have been up, and done it through his leaving the key there."
I laughed to myself as I took the padlock out and threw open the bin, with the intention of having what I called a game.
This was to consist in my arranging the various stuffed creatures in as comical a way as I could; and my first thought was to take the rabbit, alter its position a little, and lay it upon an extemporised bed, with the doctor—the owl—holding one paw to feel its pulse, while all the other creatures looked on.
"What shall be the matter with him?" I thought. Then directly—"I know: all his stuffing come out."
I seized the owl, and found that I could easily twist the wire down its leg, so that the claw would appear to be grasping the rabbit's wrist, while the sage-looking bird stood on one leg; and, satisfied in this, I was about to arrange the jay and other birds, but thought I would do the rabbit first, and, taking it up, I thrust my hand in the orifice made in the skin when taking it off, and pulled out a good piece of tow, meaning to leave it hanging down. Then I thrust my hand in again, and drew it out in astonishment, for I had taken hold of something hard and flat and round. What it was I could not see; it was too much surrounded by the tow. Then I laughed.
"Why, it's a big leaden nicker!" I said to myself. "Why did he put that in? I know. There are holes in it to fix wire to, and—" I turned cold and queer the next instant, as I divided the soft tow, and stood staring down, with the light from the little window falling full upon that which I held in my hand. Then I felt puzzled and confused; but the next minute I uttered quite a sob, for light flashed into my brain: memories of what I had so often heard my chosen companion say, the envy he had displayed, and the way in which all at once Burr major's watch had disappeared from his jacket in the cricket-field,—all came back with a force that seemed to cause a singing noise in my ears, for here before me was the end of it all,—the explanation of the disappearance of the watch, which was now lying in my hand, with the hands close together and pointing to twelve. At last uttering a sound that was almost a groan, I muttered,—
"Oh, Tom, Tom, how could you do such a thing as this?"
The feeling of confusion came back like a thick mist floating over me, and I turned the watch over in my hand two or three times, asking myself what I should do.
Should I take it to Burr major, and say I had picked it up? Should I go and confide in Mr Hasnip? Should I go straight to Tom Mercer and accuse him of taking it?
No, no, no: I felt that I could do none of these things, and in a dreary, slow, helpless way, I thrust the watch back in amongst the tow, rammed more in after it, and then stood, after laying the rabbit down, asking myself what I should do next, while a poignant sense of misery and wretchedness seemed to make my position unbearable.
It all came back now: how, ever since Burr major had that watch, Mercer had been envious, and longed for it. Scarcely a day had passed that he had not said something about his longings; and now here it was plainly enough before me: he had gone on coveting that wretched toy till the desire had been too strong for him, and it had ended in my manly, quaint, good-tempered school-fellow descending to become a contemptible pickpocket and thief.
The blood flushed up into my cheeks and made them burn, while my fists clenched hard, and I thought to myself that I had learned boxing for some purpose.
"I can't go and tell tales of him," I said. "I can't betray him, for it would disgrace him for ever. He would be expelled from the school, and, shamefaced and miserable, go home to his father and mother, who would be nearly broken-hearted. No. I can't tell."
Then I felt that, painful as it would be to confess all, and speak against the boy I had grown to care for as if he had been my brother, I ought to go straight to the Doctor and tell him. It was my duty, and it might act beneficially for Tom Mercer. The severe punishment might be such a lesson to him that it would check what otherwise might prove to be a downward course. If I were silent, he might do such a thing again, as this had been so easy; and get worse and worse. I must—I ought to tell, I said to myself; and then, as I dropped on my knees by the old bin, and rested my head on the edge, the hot tears came to my eyes, and my misery seemed greater than I could bear, for I felt it as bitterly as if I myself had been led into this disgraceful crime.
I rose again with a clearer view of what I should do under the circumstances, for I had been having a terrible fight with bewildering thoughts; now thinking I would lock up the bin and go away as if I had not found the watch, and do nothing but separate myself from my school-fellow, now going in the opposite direction, in which I felt quite determined.
"That's it," I said to myself. "I shall break with Tom Mercer for ever, but I'll tell him why. We've learned to box for something, and perhaps he'll be best man. No, he won't. I shall have right on my side, and as he is guilty he will feel cowardly. I will thrash him till he can hardly crawl, and then, when he is weak and miserable, I'll tell him all I have found out, and make him go and put the watch back where Eely can find it, and then it will never be known who took it, and Mercer will not be expelled in disgrace as a common thief. Why, it would break his mother's heart!"
"Yes, that will be the way," I thought, feeling clearer and more relieved now. "It shall be a secret, but I will punish him as severely as I can, and though we shall never be friends again, I'll try hard to check him from going downward like that, and though he will hate me for what I have done, he will thank me some day when he has grown up to be a man."
I closed the lid of the bin and thrust the top of the padlock through the staple and locked it; withdrew the key, and had raised my hand mechanically to put it in its old hiding-place on the beam, but I altered my mind.
"No," I thought; "I'll bring him up here, and give him the key then, and make him open the bin and take out the watch before I thrash him. It shall be a lesson for him from beginning to end. He must have some shame in him, and I want him to feel it, so that he can never forget it again."
I thrust the key into my pocket and went down into the yard. It was a glorious sunny afternoon when I went up into the loft, and the weather had not changed; but everything seemed to be overclouded and wretched now, as I started off for the play-field, determined to waste no time, but take the culprit to task at once.
I looked about, and could see Burr major, but Mercer was not there, and I crossed to where I could see little Wilson, and asked if he had seen him.
"Senna!" he cried; "yes, I saw him a little while ago. Perhaps he's by the gardens, digging up grubs and things to make physic."
I could not smile then, but went to the gardens. He was not there, and, thinking he might have gone up to our room, I went into the house, and up to the dormitories; but my journey was vain, and I went down again, and once more sought the field, to look all over at the little parties playing cricket, dotted here and there, but no Mercer. To my great surprise, though, I saw Dicksee talking earnestly to Burr major.
"They've made it up," I thought, and it seemed to me very contemptible and small of Burr major to take up again with a boy who had behaved so despicably to him.
I passed pretty near them as I went on across the field, and they both looked at me rather curiously—in a way, in fact, which made me think that they were plotting something against me. Perhaps a fresh fight.
"Well, I don't mind now," I said to myself. "Nothing seems of any consequence but Tom Mercer's act. Where can he be?"
I had another look round, and then saw that Burr major, Hodson, and Dicksee had gone up to the house together, and directly after they disappeared, while I went on again, asking after Mercer, to find that every one nearly had seen him only a little while before, but they could not tell me where he was gone.
I kept on looking about, though I half suspected that he must have gone off on some little expedition of his own, as it was half holiday; and, at the end of another half-hour, I was about to stand near the gate, to watch for his return, when I caught sight of him, apparently coming from the direction of the yard, as if he had been to the loft.
"Oh, here you are then!" he cried, as, after catching sight of me, he ran to meet me, and began vehemently. "I've been hunting everywhere for you."
"I have been hunting everywhere for you," I said coldly.
"Have you? Well, look here, Frank, I was up in the loft last night, and I forgot to lock up the bin."
It was just as I thought.
"I forgot it once or twice before, thinking about something else; and now some one has been and locked it up, and taken the key away."
"Indeed?" I said coldly.
"Yes. Don't look at a fellow that way. I didn't say you'd taken it, because, of course, if you had, you would have put it up on the beam. I say, who could it have been?"
"Ah! who could it have been?" I said.
"What's the matter with you? How queer you are! I tell you, I don't think it was you, but old fatty Dicksee; I've seen him sneaking about the yard a good deal lately, watching me, and he must have found out where we kept the key, and he has nailed it for some lark, or to tease me. Yes, that's it. You see if, next time we go, we don't find a dead dog, or a dead cat, or something nasty, tucked in the bin. Some of 'em served me that way before, when Bob Hopley's old donkey died, and they put in its head. What shall we do?"
"Nothing," I said. "I have the key."
"You have? Oh, I am glad!"
"I went up and found the key there, so I locked it and put it in my pocket."
"Why didn't you put it in the old place, and not give me all this fright?"
"You know," I said solemnly.
"I—er—er—know—er—er—" he drawled tragically. "Dear me, how grand we are!" he added, with a forced laugh. "No, I don't know."
"Then come up there with me, and I'll show you," I said fiercely.
"Oh, sir—no, sir—please, sir—don't, sir—I, sir—Oh, sir—I won't do so any more, sir. Don't take me up there, sir, and punch my head, sir."
"Don't play the fool, but come along with me."
"Why, Frank, old chap, you aren't serious, are you? What's the matter?"
"Come up into the loft and see," I replied, as sternly as I could, but feeling so miserable that I could hardly keep my voice from quivering.
"Oh, all right! I'm ready," he said rather stiffly now. "I've done nothing to offend you that I know of. Come on."
We moved toward the yard, but before we reached the gateway, without speaking now, our names were shouted, and, stopping and looking round, I saw Mr Hasnip and Mr Rebble coming after us, the former beckoning.
We turned and walked toward him, with a cold sensation of dread running through me; for what I knew made me shiver with dread, lest the real cause of the disappearance of the watch should have been discovered; and I remembered now about my headache on the cricket match day, and how Mercer had hung about near me, going and coming between me and the tent.
The next moment we were facing the two masters, and Mr Rebble spoke, looking at me very severely.
"Burr junior," he said, "the Doctor wishes to see you in his room directly."
I felt as if I had turned white, and I saw Mr Hasnip looking at me in a horrified way, as Mr Rebble continued:
"And, Mercer, you are to come as well."
"Poor Tom!" I thought, as my hot anger against him died away. "It is all found out. What will we do? I shall have to tell the whole truth."
CHAPTER TWENTY SIX.
Everything seemed to me as if we were in a dream, and I grew more and more troubled as we were marched in separately to the Doctor's library, where to my astonishment I found Burr major and Dicksee standing, while the Doctor sat back in his big chair, with one hand over his eyes.
I glanced once at Mercer, but he did not meet my eyes, and we took our places as pointed out by Mr Rebble, who then stood waiting, and at last coughed softly.
"Yes, Mr Rebble," said the Doctor huskily, as he dropped his hand, and I saw that there was a look of pain on his plump face that I had not seen before. "Yes, Mr Rebble, I see. I was trying to arrange my thoughts, so as to meet this painful case calmly. Pray sit down, Mr Rebble—Mr Hasnip."
The two ushers took chairs, and we boys alone remained standing, while the Doctor cleared his throat, and spoke in a way which drew me toward him as I had never felt drawn before, since, boy-like, I had been rather too apt to look upon my instructor as one of the enemies of my life.
"Gentlemen," he said, "I look upon what I have learned as a catastrophe to my school, a trouble more painful than I can express, but, for all our sakes, I hope that the dark cloud will prove to be a mist of error, which by calm investigation we shall be able to disperse, for, be it understood, I make no accusation."
Mr Rebble and Mr Hasnip both coughed, the Doctor sighed, glanced at me, and then went on.
"Burr major, you have already told me that you had a presentation silver watch from your father."
I had been hoping that I was in error, and that we were called in for reproof about some trivial matter, but now my spirits sank.
"And that, on the day of the cricket match, you left that watch in your vest on the form at the back of the cricket tent?"
"That, when you returned to the tent, and resumed your garments, you afterwards found the watch gone?"
"That every search was made, and that, though, as you say, you had suspicions, about which we will talk by and by, that watch was never found?"
I glanced at Mercer, but he was staring hard at Burr major.
"Now, Dicksee," said the Doctor, "have the goodness to repeat what you told me a short time back."
"Yes, sir," said Dicksee eagerly. "I went up into the big loft over the stable this afternoon, to see if I could find some nice stout pieces of straw in one of the old trusses to make jackstraws with, when I heard somebody coming."
I started as I remembered fancying I heard some one in the loft.
"Yes; go on."
"I looked out of the window, and saw it was Burr junior, so I went and hid myself in the straw."
The rustling I thought was rats.
"Why?" said the Doctor sharply.
"Because Burr junior and Mercer are so jealous about any other boy going up there, and they would have knocked me about, as you know, sir, they did once before, for being up there."
"It isn't true!" I cried.
"Silence, sir," said the Doctor. "You shall be heard afterwards. Go on, Dicksee."
"Yes, sir, please, sir. So I hid under the straw, and then I saw Burr junior come up into the loft, and look round, and out of the window, and everywhere but in the straw."
"State what you saw simply, sir," said the Doctor sternly; "and recollect that you do not stand upon a very good pedestal, for you were playing one of the meanest parts a human being can take, that of a spy."
"Hear! hear!" said the two masters together.
"Please, sir, I was afraid," pleaded Dicksee.
"Go on," said the Doctor.
"And I saw Burr junior open the big bin where he and Mercer keep their rubbish."
"It may not be rubbish to them," said the Doctor, "Go on, sir."
"And after fiddling about a bit, and looking round to see if he was watched, Burr junior took up a stuffed rabbit, put his hand inside, and pulled out some tow, and then he opened that, and took out Burr major's silver watch."
"How do you know it was?" said the Doctor sharply.
"Because we saw it such lots of times, sir, and I knew it again directly."
"It might have been any watch," said the Doctor. "Go on."
"Yes, sir. And he looked at it, and played with it ever so long, and then wrapped it up in tow again, and stuffed it inside the rabbit, and then locked up the bin, put the key in his pocket, and went down."
"I waited till he had gone, sir, and then I ran and told Burr major, sir."
"That will do. Now, Burr major, add what you told me this afternoon; but bear in mind, sir, that it is your duty to be very careful, for this is a charge of theft—of a crime sufficient almost to ruin a school-fellow's career."
Burr major spoke out quickly and eagerly, while I stood with my head down, feeling as if I were being involved in a tangle, out of which it seemed impossible to extricate myself.
"On the day I lost my watch, sir, Burr junior and Mercer were a good deal about near the tent. Burr junior would not play, because he said he had a bad headache, and Tom Mercer wouldn't play either."
"I am very sorry to say it, sir," continued Burr major hesitatingly. "It's a very painful charge to make, and I never said anything before to-day, but I always suspected Burr junior of taking the watch."
"Oh!" I ejaculated indignantly, as I faced round, but he did not meet my eye.
"And, pray, why?" said the Doctor.
"Because, please, sir, he seemed to be hanging about so near the tent."
I began to feel more confused, especially as the Doctor said then,—
"Then now we will adjourn—to the loft." I made a gesture as if to speak, but the Doctor raised his hand.
"After a while, Burr," he said, "after a while. Your turn will come."
I felt in a whirl of emotion, for I was half stunned at the turn matters had taken, and I tried again to catch Mercer's eye, but he did not even glance at me, but stood opening and shutting his hands as he glared at Dicksee, who looked horribly alarmed, and as if he would like to run away.
The Doctor signed to us to go, and we were taken through the house and servants' offices, so as not to attract the attention of the boys, reaching the yard at last, and entering the stable.
My ears seemed to have bells ringing in them as we stood there, and I heard the Doctor say,—
"Rather an awkward place for me to get up, Mr Rebble; but I suppose I must try."
He made the effort after we had all gone before, and reached the top no worse off than by the addition of a little dust upon his glossy black coat. Then, clearing his voice, as we all stood near the bin, in much the same positions as in the library, he began,—
"Ah, that is the straw, I suppose. Burr junior and Mercer have used this place a good deal, I believe, as a kind of atelier or workshop?"
"Yes, sir," said Burr major promptly.
"Then that is the bin, is it, Dicksee?"
"And you say you saw Burr junior lock it up. Have you the key, Burr?"
I stood gazing at him wildly without answering, and then I glanced at Mercer, who met my eye with a look of terror and misery that was piteous to see. For now it was all to come out, and the theft would be brought home to him, for the poor lad to be expelled in disgrace and go home despairingly to those who loved him, and all because he could not restrain that horrible feeling of covetousness.
"I said, 'Have you the key, Burr junior?'" continued the Doctor more sternly, and I shuddered as the thought struck me now that I was becoming mixed up with the trouble, that they would not believe me if I told the truth—that truth which would be so difficult to tell for Mercer's sake.
"Burr junior," cried the Doctor very sharply now, "have you the key of that padlock?"
"Yes; sir," I faltered, giving quite a start now, as his words roused me as from a dream, and I felt horrified as I fully saw how guilty all this made me appear.
"Take the key, Mr Rebble, if you please," continued the Doctor, looking more and more pained, as I withdrew the rusty little instrument from my pocket. "Open the bin, please, and see if Dicksee's statement is made out."
Mr Hasnip was, I found, looking at me, and I felt a choking sensation as he shook his head at me sadly.
Then I glanced at Mercer, and found he was looking at me in a horrified way, and I let my eyes drop as I said to myself,—
"Poor fellow! I shall not have to speak; he'll confess it all. I wish I could save him."
And all the while the usher was unlocking the padlock, taking it from the staple, and throwing open the great lid back against the whitewashed wall, every click and grate of the iron and the creak of the old hinges sounding clear and loud amidst the painful silence.
"Will you come and look, sir?" said Mr Rebble.
"No," said the Doctor sternly. "Is there a rabbit-skin there, as this boy described?"
"Take it out."
Mr Rebble obeyed, and once more I met Mercer's eyes gazing at me wildly, and, as I interpreted the look, imploring me not to speak.
The miserable stuffed distortion was brought out, and I felt half disposed to laugh at it, as I thought of my school-fellow's queer ideas for a group in natural history. But that was only a flying thought, succeeded by a mental pang that was most keen, as the rabbit was laid on the floor, and, acting on the Doctor's instructions, Mr Rebble went down on one knee, held the stuffed animal with one hand, and began to draw out the tow with the other.
A great patch came out, and Mr Rebble pressed it together and then opened it out, and I fancied I heard the Doctor sigh with satisfaction at nothing being found.
"It's further in, sir," cried Dicksee eagerly.
"Ah! you seem to know a great deal about it, Dicksee," said the Doctor.
"Yes, sir; I saw him put it in."
Mr Rebble thrust in his hand again, and my spirits sank lower as he drew out another tuft of tow, compressed it, and then, frowning heavily, began to tear it open.
"There is nothing there, then, Mr Rebble?" cried the Doctor eagerly.
"I am sorry to say, sir, there is," said the usher, as he laid open the tow till it was like a nest, with the little silver watch lying glistening in the middle; and the Doctor drew a long breath, his forehead now full of deeply-cut lines.
"Burr major," said the Doctor huskily. "Have the goodness to look at that watch. Is it yours?"
My school-fellow stepped to the Doctor's side and looked.
"Yes, sir," he said eagerly. "That's the watch I lost."
"How do you know, sir?"
"My father had my initials cut in the little round spot on the case, sir. There they are."
The Doctor took the watch, glanced at the letters, and laid it down.
"Yes," he said sadly, "that is quite right.—Mercer!" Tom started as if he had received a blow, and looked wildly from one to the other.
"Oh, poor, poor Tom!" I sighed to myself, and I looked at him pityingly, while he glanced at me.
"Hah!" ejaculated the Doctor; "there seems to be some understanding between you. Now, sir, that bin has been used by you for some time, has it not, for your collection?"
"Yes, sir," faltered Mercer.
"You and Burr junior have, I noticed, always been companions."
"He joined you in collecting natural history objects?"
"Yes, sir; a little."
"Could he obtain access to that bin when he wished? Had he a key?"
"He could always get the key, sir, when he liked." The Doctor sighed, and there was silence once more, while I glanced at Mercer wildly, and if he could have read my eyes, he would have known that they said, "Speak out now. Confess, and ask the Doctor to forgive you for giving way to this terrible piece of covetousness."
"Now," said the Doctor, and we both started at the firm, sonorous tones, "speak out frankly, sir. This is no time for trying to conceal the truth so as to screen your friend, for I tell you that it would be an unkind act, and you would be injuring his future by such a mistaken policy. Tell me, did you know that the watch was hidden there?"
Mercer was silent.
"Speak, sir," cried the Doctor. "I insist!"
"No, sir," faltered Mercer, after another appealing look at me; and in my agony, as I heard his words, I started forward.
"Burr junior!" roared the Doctor; and I stopped as if fascinated.
"Now, Mercer," he continued, "tell me. Did you know that your school-fellow had that watch in his possession?"
"Oh no, sir!" cried Mercer eagerly. "I'm sure he hadn't."
"Humph!" ejaculated the Doctor. "That will do.—I wish, gentlemen," he continued, turning to the two masters, "to make this painful business as short as possible."
I turned to him quickly, and as I met his eyes, I thought at first that he was looking at me sadly and pityingly, but his face was very stern next moment.
"You are sure, Thomas Mercer," he said, "that you did not know the watch was in that bin—hidden away?"
Tom looked at me again wildly, and then, with his brow all wrinkled up, he said in a hopeless tone full of sadness,—
"No, sir—no, sir; I didn't know it was there."
My hands clenched, and a burst of rage made me turn giddy for the moment. For I felt as if I could have dashed at him, dragged him to his knees, and made him speak the truth.
But that passed off as quickly as it came, and a feeling of pity came for the boy who, in his horror of detection, had felt himself bound to save himself at another's expense, and I found myself wondering whether under the circumstances I should not have done the same.
These thoughts darted through my mind like lightning, and so did those which followed.
"I want to save him," I said to myself, in the midst of the painful silence during which the Doctor stood thinking and softly wiping his forehead and then the palms of his hands upon his white pocket handkerchief; "but I can't take the credit of it all. It is too horrible. But if I tell all I know, he will be expelled, and it will ruin him. Oh, why don't he confess?—why don't he confess?"
It was as if the Doctor had heard these last words as I thought them, for he said now in a deep, grave voice, as he turned to me, just as I was feeling that it would be too cruel to denounce my companion,—
"This is a sad—a painful affair, Burr junior. I wanted to disbelieve in your guilt, I wanted to feel that there was no young gentleman in my establishment who could stoop to such a piece of base pilfering; but the truth is so circumstantially brought home through the despicable meanness of a boy of whose actions I feel the utmost abhorrence, that I am bound to say to you that there is nothing left but for you to own frankly that you have been led into temptation—to say that you bitterly repent of what you have done, and throw yourself upon my mercy. Do this at once, boy, for the sake of those at home who love you."
I felt my face twitch at these words and the picture they evoked, and then, numbed as it were, I stood listening, slightly buoyed up by the feeling that Mercer would speak directly and clear me.
"You were entrusted to my care, Burr junior," continued the Doctor, "as a youth who was in future to enter upon one of the most honourable of careers, that of a soldier; but now that you have disgraced yourself like this—"
"No, no, sir!" I cried. "Don't—pray don't think I took the wretched watch!"
There was so much passionate agony in my voice that the Doctor paused for a few moments, before, in the midst of the solemn silence which ensued, he said coldly,—
"Do you deny that you took the watch?"
"Yes, yes. Indeed, indeed I did not take it, sir!" The Doctor sighed.
"Do you deny that you were seen by Dicksee this morning with the watch in your hands?"
"No, sir; that is true," I said, with a look at Mercer, who hung down his head.
"Then I am bound by the statements that have been made, painful as it is to me, to consider that in a moment of weak impulse you did this base thing. If I am wrong, Heaven forgive me, for humanum est errare. The truth, however, seems too clear."
"I—I found it there," I panted.
The Doctor shook his head.
"It is like charging your school-fellow with stealing the watch. Do you do this?"
I was silent.
"Mr Rebble," said the Doctor, "you came here as a gentleman to aid me in the training of these youths. Can you do anything to help me here?"
"I—I," said Mr Rebble huskily, "would gladly do so, sir, if I could. I wouldn't trust Dicksee's word in anything. He is as pitiful and contemptible a boy as ever came under my charge, but I am afraid he has spoken the truth here."
"I fear so," said the Doctor. "Mr Hasnip, you have—been but a short time among us, still you have learned the disposition of the pupils. Can you help me—help us?—for it is terrible to me to have to pass judgment in such a case."
"Doctor Browne," cried Mr Hasnip warmly, and I saw the tears start to his eyes, "I would give anything to be able to say it is all a mistake."
"But you feel that you can not?"
Mr Hasnip shook his head, and turned away to hide the working of his face, while I stood wondering at the feeling he displayed.
There was again a painful silence, and I stood there, shrinking, but with a hot feeling of anger swelling within me, waiting for Tom Mercer to speak out and save me from disgrace. And with this hot tide of bitterness and rage that I should be so doubted and suspected, came a feeling of obstinacy that was maddening, while something within me seemed to say, "They would not believe you if you spoke."
"No," said the Doctor at last, "I am afraid that you cannot; and I now address myself to you, Burr junior. Do you confess that you are guilty?"
"No, sir," I cried angrily, "I am not!" and again there was silence.
"I think I will give you time for reflection," said the Doctor. "Mr Rebble, I place Burr junior in your charge. Of course he must be secluded. I, too, want time for reflection before sending word to the unhappy lad's friends—a most painful task—a most painful task."
He walked slowly toward the steps, and a fresh feeling of excitement surged up within me. I wanted to speak now—to say something in my own defence, as I thought of the Doctor's letter going to my mother, and of her agony, then of my uncle learning this, and coming over. It seemed too terrible, and I tried to call the Doctor back, but no words would come. I saw him descend slowly, and Mr Hasnip sign to the boys to follow, after which, giving me a sad look, he too descended, leaving me alone with Mr Rebble, whose first words were so stern and harsh that I could not turn to him and confide and ask his sympathy and help.
"This way, sir," he said sharply, and without a word I followed him down and across the stable-yard, passing cook at the door ready to give me a pitying glance for being in disgrace.
Then, as if it was all a dream, I was led into the house, and up-stairs to a small room containing only one bed—a room whose window looked out away toward the General's estates.
The door was closed behind me without a word, and as I stood there I heard it locked and the key withdrawn, followed by Mr Rebble's footsteps along the passage, and then I threw myself down on the bed in a passion of rage against Mercer.
"You coward!" I cried, and as I ground my teeth I indulged in a wish that I could have him there.
"Oh!" I cried, "only for half an hour, and then—" I did not finish my sentence, but bounded off the bed to stand up there alone, unconsciously enough in the position Lomax had taught me, and with my left hand raised to strike.
CHAPTER TWENTY SEVEN.
It was very different to be a prisoner now alone. I longed for Mercer's companionship, but it was so that I might punish him for what I again and again called his miserable cowardice, which seemed to me to make his crime ten times worse. And so I walked up and down the little room restlessly, thinking over the times when my school-fellow had talked about the watch, and his intense longing to possess it, or such a one.
Nothing could be plainer. He had given way at last, and taken it on that unlucky day when he was hanging about talking to me as I lay on the grass with my head throbbing, and then walking away toward the tent or to where he could get a good look at the cricketers.
"Too much for him," I said,—"too much for him, and I am to take the credit of his theft. But I will not. If he is such a mean coward as to let me take his stealing on my shoulders, he is not worth sparing, and he shall take the credit for himself—upon his own shoulders and not mine."
"Oh, what an ass I have been ever to make friends with such a fellow!" I cried, after a pause. "I ought to have known better. Never mind, I do know better now, and to-morrow morning I'll ask to see the Doctor, and I'll tell him everything, and—get him expelled!"
That set me thinking once more about his people at home, and as I did, I began to waver, and call to mind how terrible it would be, and that I liked him too well in spite of all.
For I did like him. I had never had a brother, and he had seemed to fill his place, so that now, for the first time, I fully understood how we two lads had become knit together, and how terribly hard it would be to speak out.
I sat down by the window at last, to let the cool breeze play upon my aching temples, and as I leaned my head against the side, the cheery voices of the boys in the field floated up to me, to make me more wretched still.
"It's nothing to them," I said to myself. "Nobody there cares, and Eely and Dicksee were only too glad to have their revenge upon me. I don't know, though," I said; "they both thought I took the watch, and believed all they said. But it was a triumph for them."
I sat thinking.
"I wonder what Lomax will say? Will he believe that I am a common thief?
"What is Tom doing now? Out at play, I suppose, and glorying in his escape. He knows I would not be such a sneak as to tell, and thinks I shall bear it all patiently—too ready to spare him, or too cowardly to say a word."
I was interrupted by steps, and in my misery I hoped that they would pass the door, but a key was thrust in, and I caught a glimpse of Mr Rebble, who waited outside while one of the maids brought in my tea on a tray,—a plain mug, and a plate of bread and butter; then she gave me a look of commiseration, making my cheeks burn, as I wondered whether she knew that I was shut up because people thought I was a thief, and unfit to associate with the other boys. But no word was spoken; she passed out, the door was shut and locked, and I rested my aching head once more against the side of the window, the very sight of food making me feel disgust; and there I stayed for how long I cannot say, but at last I started up, puzzled and wondering, to find that I must have dropped asleep, regularly wearied out, and that it was growing dusk, and the moon, like a thin curved streak, was sailing down in the faint glow of the heavens, not far from where the sun had gone.
I shivered a little, for I was cold, but my head was better, and I began to go over the events of the afternoon again, wondering whether the Doctor would send for me in the morning, to say that Mercer had confessed, and that he was glad to be able once more to take me by the hand.
Just then I heard a faint sigh, apparently coming up from the garden, and I involuntarily looked down, but could see nothing.
The sigh rose again, and now I was able to locate it in a clump of evergreens at the edge of the lawn. But I could see nothing save green leaves; and started again and drew back a little a few minutes later, as the sigh was again repeated, this time followed by a faint whisper, and I heard my name.
"Frank—Frank Burr. Hist!"
"Yes; who called?" I said.
"Me. Can't you hear? Tom—Tom Mercer."
I was silent, and stood, feeling hot and angry, gazing down into the grounds.
"Frank!" came up again. "I say!"
I remained silent.
"Have you got any string? Let a piece down."
I knew what that meant. He had been to the kitchens and was going to send me up some supper. In other words, he was going to try and smooth over his despicable behaviour.
"A coward! A sneak! I hate him!" I muttered, as I stood there close to the window, as if unable to drag myself away, but listening greedily all the while, as Mercer went on in an excited whisper, insulting me, as I called it.
"Oh, I say, do speak, Frank," he said. "I can't stop long, and there'd be a row if any one knew I came to you. I am so sorry, Frank. I've been down to Polly Hopley's, and bought a lot of her turnovers and some sweet tuck. I want to send it up to you. Haven't you any string?"
I made no reply.
"Frank! I say: I know: tear up your handkerchiefs. I'll give you some of mine to make up. Tie the bits together so as to make a long string, and let it down. Frank!"
"Go away, you miserable, cowardly sneak!" I cried passionately; "and never dare to speak to me again."
He was silent for a few minutes, as if stunned by my fierce words. Then he began again.
"Oh, I say," he whispered, "don't turn on a chap like that when he was going to stick to you. I couldn't help it."
I knew that the temptation had been too strong for him, but I was none the less bitter against him, and my wrath reached its climax soon after, when he said eagerly,—
"I say, Frank, I am indeed so sorry! and I'd have said it was I did it, if it would have got you off; but they wouldn't have believed me."
That was the window, which, in my passion at his coolness, I shut down with all my might, and then went and threw myself on the bed, with my head aching violently, and the sensation of misery increasing, so that at times I felt as if I must try and break open the door, creep down in the night, and run away somewhere—anywhere, so as to end the trouble I was in.
I never knew when, but I suppose the throbbing in my head must have lulled a little, and I once more dropped off to sleep, to wake up with a start in the darkness, wondering where I was, and whether I had been having a confused dream about a watch being stolen, and some one getting into trouble. Who it was I could not quite tell, for my head ached, I felt sick, and everything was confused and strange.
While I was trying hard to collect myself, I suppose I must have dropped to sleep again, for when I next opened my eyes, the sun was shining brightly, and, light-hearted and eager, I jumped off the bed to run and open the window, but, as my feet touched the floor, memory began to come back with its heavy load of misery.
Why was I dressed even to my boots? Why was I in a fresh room? Where was Tom Mercer?
The answers to my questions came, and I stood there with a sinking sensation of misery, increasing moment by moment, till with a sigh I roused myself a little and went toward the window.
"Where is Tom Mercer?" I said to myself again, with a bitter laugh. "Safe, and I am to take the blame for his miserable acts. Where's Tom Mercer?"
I was opening the window as I spoke, and there he was hiding behind a clump of Portugal laurel, where he had been watching, quite ready to spring up eagerly now, and begin to make signs, as he showed me a school bag with something heavy inside.
I knew what it meant, of course, but the bitter feeling against him was too intense for me to accept aid in any form, and I drew back without noticing him further; and, as I did so, my head felt clearer for my night's rest, and I began to see the course that was open to me.
I could not turn upon Tom and become his accuser, for, if the crime was brought home to him, it would be terrible, and I knew I should never forgive myself for saving my own credit by denouncing my companion. No; I had fully made up my mind, in those few minutes since rising, to deny firmly and defiantly the charge of taking the watch. Even if they expelled me, and I was sent away, they might call it in disgrace, but it would not be. And even if Doctor Browne and the masters believed me guilty, I knew there was some one at home who would take my word at once, indignant at such a charge being brought against me.
Yes, that was my course, plain enough: to maintain my innocence firmly, but to say no more. They might find out about Tom Mercer. I would not betray him.
A stubborn feeling of determination came over me now, and all seemed to be as plain as could be. I was actually beginning to wonder that I should have taken it all so much to heart. "She will believe me," I said; "and they will have to at last."
I had just arrived at this point in reasoning out my position, when I was brought to a sudden check by a fresh thought—one which made me turn cold. It was, "What will uncle say?"
I was thrown back into a state of the greatest misery again directly by this. For my uncle was so stern a disciplinarian that in advance I saw with horror the impression such a charge hanging over me would make upon one who had so often impressed upon me the duties of him who would grow up to be a gentleman, and who was to occupy the position of an officer in a gallant service.
"Shall I dare to hold out?" I asked myself; "shall I be able to clear myself without accusing Tom?"
I started, for there was a thud at my window, as if something moderately soft had struck the frame.
But I could see nothing, and I was sinking back into my musing fit again, when something struck me on the back, and then fell with a dull sound upon the floor and rolled under the wash-stand.
I stooped and picked it up, to find that it was one of the solid indiarubber balls we used for our games at rounders, and tightly fastened around it was a piece of thin twine, the strong, light string we used for kites. The twine hung out of the window, and I knew that Mercer had thrown it up, and the second time sent it right in at the open sash,—no difficult task for him, as he was one of the most skilful throwers we had in the school, and he could generally hit a boy running fast when we were engaged in a game, while at cricket, the way in which he could field a ball, and send it up to the wicket-keeper, made him a special acquisition in a game.
"I'm not going to be bribed into silence!" I cried; "I'd sooner starve;" and, going quickly to the window, I hurled the ball down, before drawing back, and then approaching the opening again to peer down from behind one of the white dimity curtains, where, unseen myself, I could watch Mercer slowly winding up the string till the indiarubber ball reached his hands, when, after a doleful look up, he ducked down behind the bushes with the school bag and walked cautiously away.
CHAPTER TWENTY EIGHT.
Human nature is a curious thing, and the older one grows the more strange and wonderful it seems. There was I watching Tom Mercer from the window, and the minute before I felt as if I would have given anything to have him there alone with our jackets off, to put in force the old sergeant's teaching, knowing that I could in my passion nearly knock his head off. The next minute, as I saw him walk dejectedly away with his head down, evidently bitterly hurt and disappointed, I found myself sorry for him, and wanting to call him back.
And this was from no desire to partake of the good things he had, I was perfectly sure, in the bag, for in my misery I had no appetite or desire to eat anything, but from honest liking for the boy who had been my companion from the first.
But I was too proud to call him back, and in my anger I mentally called him a contemptible, cowardly thief, and vowed that I would never speak to him again.
Boys always keep those vows, of course—for an hour or two, and then break them, and a good thing too. They would be horrible young misanthropes if they did not.
So Tom Mercer was gone, with his bagful, string, and indiarubber ball, and I plumped myself down on a chair by the window, rested my crossed arms on the inner ledge, and, placing my chin upon them, sat staring out over the beautiful Sussex landscape, thinking about what was to come.
But, mingled with those thoughts, there came plenty of memories of the past; as my eyes lit on the woods and fields, with a glint of one of the General's ponds where we boys had fished.