Oh, how lovely it all looked that sunny morning, with the rays flashing from the dewy grass and leaves, and how impossible it seemed that I could be so unhappy, shut up there like a prisoner, and looked upon by every one as a thief!
What should I do? Wait for the truth to come out, or behave like any high-spirited boy would,—high-spirited and gallant from my point of view,—set them all at defiance, wait for my opportunity, and escape—go right away and seek my fortune?
No, I did not want any fortune. My uncle wished me to be a soldier, as my father had been, and that meant study for years, then training perhaps at Woolwich, and at last a commission.
"I will not wait for that," I said to myself; "I'll be a soldier at once. I'll go and enlist, and rise from the ranks, and in years to come, when I am a captain or a major, I will go back home, and tell them that I was perfectly innocent, and they'll be sorry they believed that I was a thief."
These romantic thoughts put me in better spirits, and I began to plan what I would do, and how I could get away, for I could not see in my excitement what a young donkey I was to fill my head with such nonsense, and what a mean, cowardly thing it would be to go off, and make my supposed guilt a certainty with my uncle, break my mother's heart, and generally throw all my future to the winds—always supposing it possible that I could have found any recruiting sergeant who would have taken such a slip of a boy, as, of course, I could not; for to a certainty I should have been laughed at, and come away like a frightened cur, with my tail between my legs.
I was mentally blind then, puffed up with vanity, and as bitter and angry as it is possible for a boy to be, and all I can say in extenuation is that I had had good cause to be upset by the trouble I had gone through.
"I'll go," I said excitedly. "To-night as soon as it is dark, and—"
I stopped short, for I saw a familiar figure going along the road in front of the great house. It was Lomax, having his morning pipe and walk before going back to his garden, and the sight of the old sergeant made me feel sorry for my determination. He had been so friendly, and under his stiff military ways there had been so much kindliness. He had been so proud of the way in which I had acquired the things he taught; and as he went on, tall, upright, and manly-looking, I began to wonder what he would say, and I exclaimed eagerly,—
"He'll know that I have gone off to join the army, and say I have done well."
Down came a wet blanket.
"No," I said dolefully; "he will think I have run away because I was a thief."
"I can't go. It is impossible for me to go," I said passionately, as I began to pace the room, and sheets torn up and tied together with counterpane and blankets, to make out the rope down which I was to slide to liberty, fell away as if they were so much tinder; while the other plan I had of unscrewing the lock of the door, and taking it off with my pocket-knife, so as to steal down the stairs, tumbled to nothing, as soon as I thought that I must steal away.
Just then I started, for there was a tap at the door—a very soft, gentle tap, and then a hoarse whisper.
"Master Burr! Master Burr!"
"Yes," I said sourly. "Who is it? What do you want?"
"It's me, my dear. Cook. I'm just going down. Are you dressed yet?"
"I heard last night that you were shut up. Whatever is the matter?"
I was silent.
"Master Mercer came and told me, and asked me for something to eat for you, because he said he knew they'd only give you bread and water."
"Master Mercer!" I muttered to myself angrily; "and I'm to suffer for him!"
"There, I won't bother you, my dear, but I'm very sorry, and I don't suppose it's anything much. Have you broken a window?"
"Now don't say you've been stealing apples, because I'd have given you lots if you'd asked."
"No," I said softly, for the woman's voice sounded so pleasant and sympathetic that I wanted her to stay.
"Then I know: you've been breaking bounds. Oh dear, boys will be boys, and it's quite natural, my dear, for you to want to get away, and run where you like. I don't wonder, shut up as you all are, like being in a cage. There, don't you fret, and it'll all come right. I'll see that you have something beside bread and water. Bread and water, indeed! Such stuff as is only to cook with. Why, they might just as well feed you on flour."
"What time is it, Cook?" I asked.
"Just gone six, my dear; and there: I mustn't stop gossiping, for I've my fire to light, my kitchen to do; but I hate people to be miserable. I can't abide it. There's plenty of worries with one's work, as I told missus only yesterday. There, good-bye, and don't you fret."
I heard the rustling of her dress as she went along the passage, and I stood by the door till it died away, feeling sad but pleased, for it was satisfactory to know that there were people about the place who cared for me. But I felt more low-spirited directly as I thought of what she might say as soon as she knew the real cause of why I was a prisoner.
The bell rang for rising, and I heard some of the boys soon after out in their gardens; then, as I stood back from the window, I caught sight of one or two, and after a while heard the increasing hum and buzz of voices, and knew that some of them must be getting up lessons that had been neglected over-night. And as I listened, I thought of the times when I had murmured and felt dissatisfied at being obliged to give so much time to such work, whereas now I was envying the happy boys who were seated at study, with no greater care upon their minds.
Perhaps I was learning a great lesson then, one that I did not know.
The time went on very slowly, and it seemed many hours since I awoke, when the breakfast-bell rang, and I sat picturing the scene, and fancying I could hear the boys talking and the mugs and spoons clattering, as the great piles of bread and butter disappeared.
I was just thinking this when there were steps in the passage, and soon after the key was rattled in the lock, Mr Rebble appeared, and with him one of the maids, with a tray on which was a mug and a plate of bread and butter.
He did not look at me, only admitted the maid to set down the tray, saw her out, and I was locked in again.
It was very much like the old time, but Tom Mercer was not there to lighten my loneliness.
As the door closed, I noticed that the mug was steaming, and found that I was not to have prison fare though I was a prisoner, for my breakfast was precisely the same as that of the other boys.
"I can't touch it," I said, "It is impossible to eat."
But I was feverishly thirsty, and I took up the mug of milk, just made warm by the addition of some boiling water. It was pleasantly sweet, too, and I half fancied that Cook had put in an extra quantity of sugar.
More from habit than anything else, for I felt sick and full of distaste for food, I broke off a piece of bread and butter and began to eat it mechanically, and now knew that I was right, for, instead of the salt butter we generally had, this was fresh and sweet. Cook had certainly been favouring me, and that scrap led to the finishing of the slice, and finally to the disappearance of all that was on the plate, while the last drop of milk and water was drained from the big mug.
As soon as the breakfast was finished, a morbid feeling of vexation came over me. I was angry because I had touched it, and wished that I had sulked, and shown myself too much injured to go on as if nothing had happened. But it was too late then.
After a while, Mr Rebble came back, looking very severe. He watched the maid as she took the tray, but the girl gave me a sympathetic look, and then I was once more left alone.
Hard people think they do not,—they say, "Oh, he's only a boy; he'll soon forget,"—but boys suffer mentally as keenly, or more keenly, than grown people. Of course they do, for everything about them is young, tender, and easily wounded. I know that they soon recover from some mental injury. Naturally. They are young and elastic, and the sapling, if bent down, springs up again, but for the time they suffer cruelly.
I know I did, shut up there in disgrace, and, as I sat or walked about my prison, it made no difference to me that it was a plainly furnished, neat bedroom, for it was as prison-like to me in my vein as if the floor had been stone, the door of iron-clamped oak with rusty hinges. And as I moved about the place, I began to understand how prisoners gladly made friends with spiders, mice, and rats, or employed themselves cutting their names on the walls, carving pieces of wood, or writing long histories.
But I had no insects or animals to amuse me, no wood to carve, no stone walls upon which to chisel my name.
I had only been a prisoner for a few hours, you may say.
Quite true, but, oh, what hours they were, and what agony I suffered from my thoughts!
I spent most of my time at the window, forcing myself to think of how things were going on in school, and I pictured the boys at their lessons—at the Doctor's desk at Mr Rebble's, and Mr Hasnip's. It was German day, too, and I thought about our quaint foreign master, and about Lomax drilling the boys in the afternoon. He would be asking them where I was; and the question arose in my mind, would the boys tell him, or would they have had orders, as we did once before, about a year back, when a pupil disgraced himself, not to mention the affair outside the school walls.
My spirits rose a little at this, for it would be horrible for Lomax to know, and go and think it over. And I seemed to know that he would take it more to heart about me than if it were any other boy, for I was to be a soldier, and, as he would have expressed it, "One of ours."
Dinner-time at last—the bell ringing, and the shouts and cries of the boys, "All in! all in!" though we used to want very little calling for meals.
After a time, my dinner was brought up, as my breakfast had been, in silence, and I felt then that I should have liked Mr Rebble to speak, if it had only been to bully. But he did not so much as look at me, only stalked into the room and out again.
Who was going to eat and enjoy a dinner, brought like that?
"It's like an animal in a cage being fed," I said angrily; and I was quite angry because the roast beef, potatoes, and greens smelt so nice that I was obliged to sit down and eat and enjoy the meal, for I was very hungry.
After the tray had been fetched, I made up my mind that at any minute now the Doctor might send for me, to give me a severe examination, and I shivered at the idea of being forced to speak out, and say everything I knew. I wished now that it was dark, so that I might have attempted to escape, if only to avoid that meeting. But it was impossible. Even if I could get off the lock, I should be seen, for certain, and brought back in an ignominious fashion, that would be terrible.
But the afternoon wore away, as I sat listening to the shouts of the boys at play, thinking bitterly of how little they thought of me shut up there; and I began wondering where Mercer was, little thinking that he was watching me; but he was, sure enough, for, just close upon tea-time, I caught sight of him, lying down upon his chest, where he had crawled unseen among the shrubs, and there he was, with his elbows on the ground and his chin in his hands, watching me, just as a faithful dog might his master.
I shrank away from the window, as soon as I saw him, and then waited till the bell rang for tea, when I peeped out again, to see that he was gone, but I could trace him by the movement of the laurels, bays, and lilacs, whose branches were thrust aside as he crept through.
"He'll come back again after tea," I thought, and I was right. I had only just finished my own, brought up as before, when, glancing from the window, there I saw him, gazing up at me like a whipped dog, asking to be taken into favour once again.
"Why hasn't the Doctor sent for me?" I asked myself; but I could find only one reason,—he meant me to come to his study quite late in the evening.
But he did not, and that dreary time passed slowly away, as I watched the darkness come on, and the stars peer out one by one. Then I saw the moon rise far away over the sea, shining brightly, till the sky grew cloudy, as my life seemed now to be.
But no footstep—no summons to go down to the Doctor's room, and, though I kept on fancying that I heard steps on the stairs, I was always deceived, and it was not until I heard the bell ring for prayers and bed, that I knew I should not have to meet the Doctor that night.
There were steps enough now in the corridors and on the stairs, and I sat near the door, for the sake of the company, naming the boys to myself, as I recognised the voices. But I shrank away once, as two boys stopped by my door, and I heard them say,—
"Wonder how old Burr junior's getting on?"
"Ah! he's in for it now. Don't talk, or he'll hear us."
They passed on, and I heard their door close, after which there was a loud scuffling and bumping from the other sides accompanied by smothered laughter and dull blows.
I knew directly what was going on, and sighed, as I recalled how many times I had engaged in the forbidden joys of a bolstering match.
Their merriment only made me feel the pain the more bitterly, and I was glad when I heard a familiar cough at the end of the passage, and the tapping of a stick on the floor.
All was silent in an instant, and by degrees every murmur died away, and I lay down and slept heavily, for mine was weary trouble. There was no guilty conscience to keep me awake.
CHAPTER TWENTY NINE.
I was up in good time next morning, to find that Tom Mercer was beforehand with me, waiting in the shrubbery, and making signs now as soon as he saw me; but I turned away, and with a disconsolate look, he dropped down among the bushes, and crouched where he would be screened.
He disappeared at breakfast-time, but he was back there before dinner, and for a time after, but he suddenly rushed away, and I supposed that some of the boys were coming round to that side of the great house.
Then came another weary time of waiting, and I was beginning to think that I should escape again, when there were steps on the stairs—the decided, heavy steps of Mr Rebble, who always stamped when he came up by the boys' bedrooms—to give him importance, we used to say.
It was not a meal-time, so I felt that at last I was to be taken down to the Doctor's library. Then the door was unlocked, thrown open, and the master said loudly, "Burr junior, the Doctor wishes to see you in his room."
My heart began to beat heavily as I followed him down-stairs, and then through the door on to the front staircase with its thick carpet. The hall was reached, and Mr Rebble crossed to the library, waited till I was on the mat, threw the door wide-open and seemed to scoop me in.
A low murmur of voices fell on my ear as the door was opened, and I knew that I was not to see the Doctor alone, but I did not anticipate facing such a gathering as I gazed at wildly, with my heart throbbing, my cheeks hot, and a film coming over my eyes.
For there before me were the Doctor and his lady, Mr Hasnip, and Mercer, Burr major, and Dicksee. I saw them at a glance, my eyes hardly resting upon them, for there were three strangers in the room, and I divined now why it was that I had not been fetched before.
I was to meet those who had placed me at the school; while beside my mother and my uncle there stood the old General, gazing at me with a very severe scowl.
For a few moments no one spoke, and I felt giddy. A mist was before my eyes, and everything looked blurred and strange, but through it all I could see my mother's eyes gazing yearningly at me, and she half rose from her seat to take me to her heart, but my uncle laid his hand upon her arm and said firmly,—
"Wait, dear. Let us know the whole business first."
And then, as my mother sank back into her seat, I saw Mrs Doctor take a seat by her side, whisper something, and my mother took her hand.
"Now, Doctor Browne, if you please," said my uncle in his sharp, quick, military way, "we are all attention, and want to hear the truth of this miserable business before the boy himself."
"Certainly, Colonel Seaborough," said the Doctor rather nervously, but he spoke firmly directly after. "I thought it my duty first to ask you to come, as I naturally was most loth to proceed to extremities."
"Naturally, sir, naturally," said my uncle sharply. "A prisoner's allowed a fair court-martial, eh, Rye?"
"Yes, yes, of course," said the General, and he opened a gold box and took snuff loudly.
As soon as I could tear my eyes from my mother's, I looked across at the three boys defiantly: at Burr major, who turned his eyes away uneasily; at Dicksee, who was looking at me with a sneering grin upon his countenance, a grin which faded directly into a very uncomfortable look, and he too turned away, and whispered something to Burr major; but by this time my eyes were fixed fiercely upon Mercer, who met my gaze with a pitiful expression, which I read directly to mean, "Don't, pray don't say I did it. They'd never forgive me. They will you. Pray, pray, don't tell!"
I turned from him with a choking sensation of anger rising in my throat, and then stood listening, as all the old business was gone through, much as it had been up in the loft, but with this exception, that in the midst of Burr major's statement the General gazed at him so fiercely that my school-fellow faltered, and quite blundered through his answers.
"One moment, Doctor Browne," said the General. "Here, you, sir; you don't like Frank Burr, do you?"
"Well, sir, I—"
"Answer my question, sir. You don't like him, do you?"
"Thrashed you well, didn't he, for bullying?"
"I had an encounter with Burr junior, sir."
"Yes, and he thrashed you well, I know."
"I beg your pardon, Sir Hawkhurst," said the Doctor warmly. "My pupil here, Burr major, has, I am well aware, been exceedingly tyrannical to his schoolfellows, and when it reached my ears by a side wind that he had been soundly thrashed by his fellow pupil here, I must own to having been glad; but as his tutor it behoves me to say that he is a boy of strictly honourable feelings, and I do not believe he would speak as he has done if he did not believe the truth of all he has said."
"Humph!" said the General. "Quite right, Doctor, quite right. I'm afraid I was unjust."
Then Dicksee, who looked green, made his statement, and before he had done, the General thumped his stick down on the floor loudly.
"Here, Doctor: this fellow won't do at all. He's a sneak and a miserable, malicious scoundrel. You can see it all over his face. You're not going to take up the cudgels for him, are you?"
"I am sorry to say I cannot," replied the Doctor gravely; "and if this sad business rested upon his word alone, I should not have acted as I have; but, as you have heard and will hear, Sir Hawkhurst, we have terribly strong evidence. I wish it were otherwise."
And again the weary business went on, with my mental agony increasing as I saw my mother's eyes fixed upon me. At first imploringly, then they seemed to be full of pain, and later on it seemed to me as if she, were suffering from a sorrow that was too hard for her to bear.
Then she would flush up angrily, and turn a reproachful look upon my uncle, as he questioned the boys and the masters, entered into what seemed to be angry controversies with the Doctor, and generally went against me all through, until I began to look at him with horror, as the greatest enemy I had in the room.
That I was not alone in my opinion was soon evident, for I heard the Doctor sigh, and look reproachfully at him, while twice over Sir Hawkhurst uttered a gruff,—
"No, no, sir. Oh, come, come, Seaborough, be just."
"I am trying to be just," said my uncle sternly, after the General had said this last again. "Recollect, sir, I stand in the position of this boy's father. He is my dear sister's only child, and it has been my great desire to have him brought up as a worthy successor to his brave father,—as a soldier and a gentleman,—and because I speak firmly and feel warmly upon the subject, you say, 'Be just.'"
"Well, well," cried the General, "you have struck me several times as being hard."
"Yes, Sir Hawkhurst," assented the Doctor; "perhaps too hard."
"Absurd, gentlemen!" cried my uncle. "I'm not the boy's mother, to forgive him after a few tears, and tell him he must be a good boy, and never do so again."
"Colonel Seaborough," cried Mrs Doctor reproachfully, "and pray who is to forgive, if it is not a mother?"
"A beautiful sentiment, madam," cried my uncle; "but you forget that, after building up my hopes on this boy's success in life, I am suddenly summoned, not to come ready to defend him from the foul charge, but to have it literally forced upon me that my nephew—No, I'll discard him. If this really is true, and he is proved to be a pitiful, unmanly, contemptible thief, I have done with him for ever."
"No, no, sir," said the Doctor. "You shall not say that. You are a Christian, and you belie your own belief."
"Belie it or no, sir, I cannot bear this!" cried my uncle fiercely. "Now, Frank, speak out. Did you take that contemptible toy?"
"No, uncle," I said firmly.
"Come: that's something. That's the truth or a lie. That wretched fellow says he saw you with the watch in your hand: is that true?"
"That he saw you hide it in the box?"
"You locked it up there?"
"Another question: did you know whose watch it was?"
"And that it was stolen?"
"And you were not going to speak about it being in your possession?"
There was a terrible pause, and in the midst of the silence, my uncle went on.
"One word or two more, sir. On the day the watch was missed, you refused to play?"
"And you went and lay down near the tent?"
"Yes, uncle; I had been very ill."
There was another pause, followed by a low murmur among those present, and then, in a fierce voice full of contemptuous rage, my uncle thundered,—
"Now, sir, have you any more to say?" and my mother sank back in her seat with a low moan.
"Now, sir, have you any more to say?"
A simple enough question, but when spoken to me sternly before those present, in my uncle's fierce, military voice, and accompanied by looks that seemed crushing in their contempt, they were very hard to bear in that strange silence which followed.
There they all stood and sat about me, while I felt like a prisoner at the bar before my judge. It was terrible, and I wavered.
Should I speak, and accuse poor, weak, amiable Tom Mercer, and send him away in disgrace, or should I suffer now, and wait till the truth came out by and by?
I was deciding on the latter, when I heard a sob which seemed to echo in my throat, and I looked up quickly from where my eyes had rested on a particular spot in the pattern of the library carpet, to see my mother's convulsed face and yearning eyes fixed upon me, as Mrs Doctor stood by her side, holding her hand quite affectionately.
That look decided me.
"Poor Tom," I said to myself, "I must throw you over for her sake;" and my lips parted to speak, when my uncle checked me by his stern, harsh voice.
"Silent! The silence of guilt!" he cried bitterly. "I have—"
"Stop a moment, Seaborough," cried the General. "Let me have a word, for poor dead Burr's sake. Frank, boy, I've always liked you, and believed in you, as the bright, manly son of a dear dead friend. Don't let me go away feeling that I can never trust any one again. I won't believe it—I can't believe it—that the blood and breed in your young veins would let you stoop to be a miserable, contemptible thief, and for the sake of a paltry silver watch. Why, my dear boy, you must have known that, as soon as you were old enough to want a watch, you could have had a gold one of the very best. Why, hang it all, sir, for your father's and mother's sake, I'd have hung you all over watches. Come now, speak out before us all like a man, and tell us what all this mystery means. Tell us that you did not steal this watch."
"Why, of course he didn't!" cried a familiar voice, and as I started round at these hopeful words, which seemed to give me life, I saw Cook busily tying the strings of her best cap, the one my mother had sent her, before untying and snatching off her apron, as if she had come to the library in such a hurry that she had not had time to prepare.
"Cook!" exclaimed Mrs Doctor sternly.
"Oh, yes, ma'am, I know," cried Cook defiantly, as she reached back and caught somebody's arm just outside the door. "Here, you come in, Polly 'Opley; there's nothing to be ashamed of, my dear. You come in."
Polly Hopley, dressed in her best, suffered herself to be dragged in, and then, after whispering, "Do adone, do, Cook," began to make bobs and courtesies to everybody in turn.
"Er—rum!" coughed the Doctor. "My good woman," he cried severely, "what is the meaning of this intrusion?"
"You may call it what you like, sir," cried Cook sharply; "and you too, mum," she continued, turning to Mrs Doctor, "and give me my month, or distant ismissal if you like."
Cook meant to say, "instant dismissal," but she was excited, and, giving a defiant look round, she went on,—
"I don't care, and I says it's a shame, not alone to keep the poor boy locked up like a prisoner, and badly fed, as does a growing boy no end of harm; and I will say it, mum," she continued, turning to my mother, "as dear and good a boy as ever came into this school, but to go and say he was a thief, as he couldn't be, sir. You look in his eyes and see."
This to the Doctor, who coughed again.
"My good woman, I must insist upon you leaving the room."
"A moment, Doctor," cried my uncle eagerly; "this person seems to know something. Stop!"
"I wasn't a-going, sir," said Cook sharply, "not till I've spoke out what I've come to say."
"Then, for goodness' sake, speak, woman, and go," cried the Doctor angrily. "We are engaged."
"Which well I know it, sir, and I'm going to speak," said Cook, with dignity; "and if I'd known before Polly 'Opley—your keeper's wife's daughter, Sir Orkus," she continued, turning to the General.
"Oh yes, yes, yes, I knew Polly when she was a baby," said the old gentleman, nodding at the girl, who courtesied to him; "but if you know anything about this—this terrible affair, speak out."
"Which I will, sir, and if I lose my place, and you do happen to want a good plain—"
"Cook, Cook, pray speak out," cried Mrs Doctor.
"Which I'm trying to, ma'am, only you all flurry me so. You see I knowed as Master Burr was shut up, something about some trouble or scrape—as boys will be boys, and always was, but being busy in my kidgen, and plenty to do, and the young gentlemen all forbid to say what it was about, so as I never knowed till this morning, when Polly 'Opley comes and tells me all about it, as Mr Lomax goes and tells her father—your keeper, sir—and Polly only this morning, and she never knowed it before, and then came on and told me something as'll make you all ashamed of treating a poor boy like that."
"Yes, yes, yes," said my uncle impatiently; "but do you know anything about the watch?"
"Which I'm telling you, sir," cried Cook, "though not a word did I know till Polly 'Opley comes just now, when I see it all as plain as pie-crust, and I says to her, 'Polly,' I says, 'they're all in the libery now, and you shall come and tell 'em the whole truth.'"
"Then you know, Polly, my child?" said the General eagerly.
"Yes, Sir Orkus, please, Sir Orkus," said Polly, blushing.
"Then, then, tell us all at once, there's a good girl."
"Yes, Sir Orkus. Not as I ever encouraged him a bit to come to our cottage."
"Humph!" said the Doctor; "you always bait your trap with sweets to get the boys to come, girl."
"Please, sir, I didn't mean the young gentlemen, I meant Dick Magglin."
"Eh, what?" cried the General.
"Please, Sir Orkus, if I've ordered him away once, I've done it fifty times, and father's threatened him and beat him, but he would come."
"What! did he want to marry you?"
"Yes, Sir Orkus, but I wouldn't demean myself to listen to him."
"Of course not! a poaching vagabond. Go on, go on." Every eye was fixed on Polly, whose cheeks were scarlet, as she gave me a sharp look, full of encouragement.
"Yes, Sir Orkus, and he was always bringing me his rubbish, and wanting me to have it, hankychies, and ribbings, and a gilt brooch, as you could see wasn't gold."
"And you wouldn't take them?"
"No, Sir Orkus, never nothing, and then he said it was because I was too proud, and thought they wasn't good enough for me, and then he didn't come any more till one day when he brought me a silver watch."
A curious murmur ran through the room, and my mother ran to my side and threw her arms about my neck.
"Yes, go on, Polly," said the General, rubbing his hands. "What sort of a watch was it?"
"A little one, sir, with a fancy face and two letters cut in a round spot on the back."
"What letters were they?" said the General.
"A Hee and a B, sir."
"Eliezer Burr," said the Doctor loudly. "Hah!" and he took off his gold-rimmed spectacles, rubbed them, and began to beam.
"Should you—" began my uncle.
"No, no, no, Seaborough; allow me," said the General. "My turn. I was coming to that. Now, Polly, be careful, and don't say anything rash, because this is very serious."
"Oh yes, Sir Orkus."
"Dear me, Doctor," said the General apologetically, "I am sorry we have no h's here."
"Pray go on, Sir Hawkhurst," said the Doctor, smiling, and aspirating both in the name forcibly.
"Now, Polly, should you know that watch?"
"Oh yes, Sir Orkus; both the hands were together at twelve o'clock, and the glass was a bit scratched, and I told him I didn't believe he came by the watch honest, and that if ever he dared to come near the place again to want me to accept his rubbish, I'd take father's gun down out of the slings and give him a charge of shot in his legs."
"Then, Polly, you didn't take the watch?"
"Me, Sir Orkus!" cried Polly indignantly; "I should think not, indeed. I told him to be off, and he went away in a huff."
"In a what?"
"A huff, Sir Orkus, a huff—a passion."
"Oh, I see. And now tell me—be careful. Give me the—the—thank you. Now, Polly, is that anything like the watch?"
"Oh yes, Sir Orkus, that's the very one. If you open it, you'll hear it shuts with a very loud snap."
"So it does," said the General, putting it to the test. "And now, tell me, when was this? You don't recollect?"
"Oh yes, I do, Sir Orkus. It was nex' day after the cricket match, because I was cleaning my best shoes, as I wore at the match, when he come."
"Very good, Polly," said the General, rubbing his hands.
"Excellent!" said my uncle; "but that does not prove the man stole it."
"Why, he must have crept along the ditch behind the tent," I cried involuntarily, "and pushed his arm through. Yes, I know," I said, getting more excited, as my mother's arm tightened about me. "I saw him that evening with his face all stung by nettles."
"That ditch is full of nettles," cried Mr Hasnip.
"Good! good!" cried the General.
"But how came the watch hidden in that bin?" cried my uncle sternly.
"I know," said Cook. "Why, of course, he was afraid to keep it; and it's just like him."
"I do not follow you," said my uncle.
"Why, when he was at work in our garden, my smelling-bottle o' salts was stolen, and when I made a fuss about it, some one found it hid away behind the scullery door, where he put it."
"Then you think this man hid it there?" said my uncle.
"I'm sure of it, sir. Why, didn't I catch him one morning early coming out of the stable, and, 'What are you doing there?' I says. 'Looking for the top of my hoe,' he says, 'as I left here when I was at work. Ain't seen it, have you?' he says. 'No,' I says, 'but I see the gardener just now coming to work, and I'll call him.' 'Never mind, mum,' he says, and he went off, and nobody's seen him about here since. Oh, look there! Poor dear!"
I just saved my mother from falling, and she was helped into a chair, clinging to my hand, though, all the time, as she burst into a hysterical fit of sobbing. But she calmed down after a few minutes, and the gentlemen, who had been talking in a low voice earnestly together, now resumed their places, the Doctor clearing his voice loudly.
"Burr junior," he said in his most magisterial tones, and then he stopped short, coughed again, blew his nose, and was silent.
"Forgive me, gentlemen," he said at last. "This has been a great trouble to me—I feel moved—I have painfully hurt the feelings of a dear, sweet lady, to whom I humbly apologise, and I—I make no favourites here, but I have wrongfully suspected—but on very strong evidence, gentlemen," he said, with an appealing look round; "and you agreed with me, Mr Rebble—Mr Hasnip?"
"Yes, sir. Yes, sir," they murmured.
"Wrongfully suspected a boy to whom my wife and I were warmly attached. Burr junior—I—er—Frank, my boy, come here!"
I went up to him, flushed now and trembling.
"Shake hands, my boy," said the old man, "and thank God with me that the truth has at last prevailed. But tell me, Burr, we do not know all yet. You have been very reticent. You denied the charge stoutly, but your manner always impressed us with the belief that you knew more. Now let us clear up this sad business once for all. You will speak out now, will you not?"
"Yes, sir," I said huskily, and my cheeks burned with shame as I glanced at Mercer, who was now making horrible grimaces at me to indicate his joy.
"Then there was something?"
"Yes, sir," I said, and I glanced at my mother, whose face was now pale with fresh alarm. "Dicksee did see me find the watch there and hide it again."
"Yes; go on."
"Ever since Burr major had that watch, Mercer longed for it, and he was always talking about it, and wishing he had one."
"Well, I couldn't help that, Frank," cried Mercer; "but of course I wouldn't have taken it."
"No, Tom," I said, with a gulp, and my voice changing in spite of my efforts to be firm, and, a thorough schoolboy and companion once more, I blundered out, "but I was such a beast, I thought you had stolen it, and I wouldn't speak to save myself for fear you should be expelled."
"Oh!" cried Mercer in the midst of the silence which now fell.
Then, drawing a long breath, he went on,—
"You thought I took it and hid it?"
"Oh, I say, Frank, when it was all at the worst, and you were locked up, I never thought a word against you; but—" He paused for a moment, and then, forgetting that we were not alone, he rushed at me and caught my hands.
"Then you forgive me?" I said.
"Why, of course," he cried. "Oh, Frank, I am glad!"
The Doctor coughed loudly, and our action seemed to have given the gentlemen present colds. Then the Doctor signed to his wife, whispered to her, and she left the room with Cook and Polly Hopley. Next he signed to Mr Rebble and Mr Hasnip, who both came and shook hands with me, bowed to the General and my uncle, and they too left the room, with Burr major and Dicksee.
"Mercer," said the Doctor then.
"No, no," cried the General; "let him stop. Come here, sir: over here."
The General spoke in so severe a voice, and frowned so much, that Mercer looked at him shrinkingly, and the harder as the old man brought his hand down heavily upon his shoulder—Tom's face seeming to say, "What have I done now?"
"So, sir, you have been longing for a watch all this time, have you, eh?"
"Yes, Sir Hawkhurst," said Tom slowly. Then, with animation, "But I did always try very hard not to want one."
"Then you shall have one, as good a one as money can buy."
Mercer's face was a picture of astonishment, changing to doubt and then to delight as he fully realised that the General meant it.
"Do you hear, Frank? Oh, I say!" Then, catching the old man's hand in both of his; he cried, "May I have a hunter?"
"You shall, my boy. And Frank Burr, you shall have one too."
"No," said my uncle, "that's my present. Frank, my lad, we've all been wrong; but I can't apologise, for you led us astray."
"Oh, that's enough, Seaborough," cried the General. "The boys don't want to hear another word. Eh?—you were going to speak, Doctor."
"Only a few words, sir. Colonel Seaborough, Mrs Burr, I cannot tell you how grieved I am for this painful episode—believe me."
My mother went to the Doctor and placed her hand in his.
"Pray say no more," she said gently.
"I will not, my dear madam, for your looks tell me that I am forgiven for my share of the mental agony I have caused you.—Of course, you will take your son away and place him in another school?"
"Eh? What for?" said the General sharply. "You don't want him to go, do you, stuffy boy?"
"Oh no, sir," cried Mercer.
"Do you want to go, Frank?"
"No, sir," I said eagerly; "I should like to stay."
"Of course," cried the General. "He's to stop, eh, Seaborough?"
"I should regret it, if he left," said my uncle.
"To be sure you would, and I should miss him. Don't expel him, Doctor."
"I? I should only be too glad if he stays."
"Then that's all right," said the General. "Ah, here is Mrs Brown."
He crossed to place a chair for her, and then stood looking from one to the other.
"Yes," he said, "that's it. Ladies, will you honour a solitary old man with your company to dinner at my place this evening? Doctor, will you bring your wife? Seaborough and Mrs Burr, pray come over with me now, and, if the Doctor does not mind, I should like to take these two boys back with us."
Consent was given directly, and the rest of that day was spent in a manner which made me pretty well forget the troubles which had gone before.
CHAPTER THIRTY ONE.
The General pressed so hard that my mother and my uncle remained at his place for a couple of days longer, driving over in the General's carriage on the third day to say good-bye to me before returning home, and, to Mercer's great delight, a packet was placed in his hand after he had been fetched, with strict orders not to look at it till the carriage had gone. I already had one in my pocket, and in addition a smaller one that I was charged to deliver elsewhere.
Then the farewell was said, and, as soon as the carriage was out of sight, I looked at Mercer, he at me, and with a unity of purpose that was not surprising, we rushed off to the yard and up the rough steps to the loft, where we laid our packets down, and hesitated to cut the strings.
Again we looked at each other, and Mercer at last said huskily,—
"Hadn't we better open 'em? I am hungry, but they're rather small and square for cakes."
"Get out!" I said. "Cakes indeed! Here, let's see."
"Whose shall we open first?" whispered Mercer.
"Both together then."
"Right. Draw knives—Open knives—Cut!"
The strings were divided to the moment, and then the sealing-wax which fastened the brown paper further was broken, and two white paper packets were revealed, also carefully sealed up. This wax was broken in turn, and with trembling hands we removed the white paper, to find within something hard and square wrapped in a quantity of tissue paper.
We paused again, feeling breathless with excitement, and looked at each other.
"Ready?" I said, and we tore off the tissue till a couple of little morocco cases were revealed, and again we paused before unhooking the fastenings, and opening little lids lined with white satin, while below, in crimson velvet, tightly-fitting beds, lay a couple of bright silver watches.
Oh, the delight of that first watch! It fixed itself so in my memory that I shall never forget it. The bright, dazzling look of the engine turning, showing different lights and seeming to be in motion as the position of the watch is changed; the round spot in the ring where the spring was pressed for the case to fly open and show the face with its Roman numerals; and then the ticking—that peculiar metallic sound like nothing else. Words will not describe the satisfaction we boys felt as we stood examining our presents.
"Why, they're both exactly alike," said Mercer at last. "I say, take care, or we shall get 'em mixed."
There was no fear of that after the first few minutes, for further examination showed that they were numbered, and those numbers were burned into our memories at once.
"Oh, I say," cried Mercer at last, "talk about watches! these are something like. Why, one of 'em's worth a dozen of old Eely's."
"Don't talk about it!" I said, with a shiver; and after carefully opening mine so as to gaze at the works, Mercer of course following suit, the watches were carefully returned to their cases and placed in our pockets.
"What shall we do now?" asked Mercer; "go and show them to the boys?"
"No; it will only make them disappointed. Let's go down at once to Bob Hopley's."
"To take this."
Mercer looked at the smaller packet I had for a few moments.
"What is it?" he said.
"A present from my mother for Polly."
"Oh! Why, it must be a watch."
"No," I said; "I think it's a brooch or a pair of earrings."
"Oh, won't she be pleased!"
We walked down to the lodge, where Polly met us at the door, eager to point to a tin of jam pigs which she had just drawn from the oven.
"I was wishing some of you young gentlemen would come," she said. "They're red currant and raspberry. You're just in time."
Polly's ideas of our visits to the cottage were always connected with tuck, and she looked at me wonderingly when I said we had not come for that.
"There aren't nothing more the matter, is there?" she cried, as she set down her tin.
I set her mind at rest by taking the packet from my breast.
"Is—is that for me?" she said, with her face flushing with excitement.
"Yes; open it."
I saw her little red, rough hands tremble as she untied the string, and after removing one or two papers, all of which she carefully smoothed out flat, she came upon a thin morocco case.
"Oh, it's earrings!" she cried; "and you two have bought 'em for me, because I—because I—because I—How do you open it? Oh my! It's a little watch."
"Yes," I said, "a watch."
"Yours, Master Burr junior?" she cried. "Oh, it was good of you to come and show it to me!"
"No, Polly," I cried, looking at it eagerly. "I told you. It's for you."
"But—but—it can't be."
"Yes," I said, pointing to a little three-cornered note. "Open that and see what it says."
Polly's trembling fingers hurriedly opened the paper, which she read, and then handed to me, Mercer looking over me as I held it out and read these simple words:—
"For Mary Hopley, with a mother's thanks."
I saw the tears start to the girl's eyes, and there was something very charming in her next act, which was to carefully fold the note and kiss it before placing it in her bosom.
"I shan't never part with that," she said softly; and then she stood gazing down at the watch, till a shadow darkened the door, and big Bob Hopley came striding in.
"Hullo, young gents!" he said; "how are you? Why Polly! What's—"
"A present, father, from Mr Burr junior's mar. Ought I to take it?"
"Yes," I cried eagerly, "of course. You don't know how happy you made me by what you said. She is to keep it, isn't she, Bob Hopley?"
"Well," said the big fellow, holding the little watch carefully and admiringly in his great brown hand,—"well, seeing, my lass, how it's give, and why it's give, and who give it, and so on, I almost think you might."
CHAPTER THIRTY TWO.
A man once said to me that our brains are very much like a bee's honeycomb, all neat little cells, in which all our old recollections are stored up ready for use when we want them. There lie all our adventures and the results of all our studies, everything we have acquired in our lives.
Perhaps he was right—I don't know—I never saw my brains; but, if he is, some of us have got the cells so tightly packed together, and in so disorderly a way, that when we want some special thing which we learned, we cannot find it; it is so covered up, so buried, that it is quite hopeless to try and get at it. This is generally the case with me, and, consequently, there are no end of school adventures during my long stay at "Old Browne's" that I cannot set down here, for the simple reason that I cannot get at them, or, if I do, I find that the cell is crushed and the memory mixed up all in a muddle with wax.
I suppose I did not pack them into the comb properly. Oddly enough, my recollections are clearest about the part of my days which preceded the trouble over the watch.
After that, life seemed to go on at such a rapid rate that there was not time to put all the events away so that they could be found when wanted for further use.
Still, I recall a few things which preceded my leaving the school for Woolwich.
There was that hot June day down by the river—little stream it really was—that ran through a copse about half a mile from the school. It was on Farmer Dawson's land, down in the hollow of the valley, up one side of which lay his big range of hop-gardens.
The Doctor paid him a certain rent for the right of the boys going down to this place, where a great dam had been built up of clay and clinkers. It was not all new, but done up afresh after lying a couple of hundred years or so untouched. All round it, Farmer Dawson used to send his men in the winter to cut down the coppice, trimming the ash and eating chestnut trees down to the stumps to make the young growth into hop-poles; but when the Doctor offered to take it and repair the dam, the hop-poles were left to grow and form a beautiful screen round this dell.
I remember what interest we boys took in it during one winter, when the Doctor had set a lot of men who were out of work to dig and wheel the clinkers and clay, a barrowful of one, and then a barrowful of the other, along the dam; and with old Lomax to give orders, we all marched and counter-marched in our thickest boots over the top of the dam, to trample it all down strong and firm.
You will think, perhaps, that it was easy enough to get clay, and so it was, for a thick bed lay only a few yards from the stream; but what about the clinkers?
I'll tell you. There was quite a mine of them, hard, shiny fragments, some of which had run just like so much black or brown glass.
How did they get there, looking like so much volcanic slag? Why, they were the refuse from a huge iron furnace that used to be in full blast in the days of Queen Elizabeth or King James, and the dam we were repairing, after it had been grown over with trees, and the water reduced to a little stream, belonged to one of the old hammer ponds whose waters were banked up to keep a sufficiency to turn the big wheel that worked the tilt-hammers and perhaps blew the iron furnace till it roared.
For that peaceful rural part of Sussex was in those days a big forest, whose wood was cut down and made into charcoal. The forest is gone, and only represented now by patches of copsewood saved for cutting down every ten years or so for poles; but the iron lies there still in great veins or beds, though it is no longer dug out, the iron of to-day being found and smelted north and west, where coal-pits are handy; and the ironmasters of Sussex, whose culverins and big guns were famous all the world round, have given place to farmers and hop-growers, where grimy men used to tend the glowing metal and send it running into form and mould.
I have mentioned before how there used to be a furnace by Sir Hawkhurst's penstock pond, where the embankment was still firm, but there had been a far more extensive one here, and the refuse went, as I have said, to repair the dam.
When this was done, the Doctor had a long low shed built and thatched and supplied with form-like seats, and a diving-board arranged, beside steps down in the shallow part for the younger boys, and the whole when finished made a glorious long pool of about an acre in extent, very deep by the dam, and sloping gradually up to a few inches only of water where the stream trickled in. And there, on the hot sunny afternoons, beautifully shut in by green waving trees, and with the water when we came to bathe so clear that you could see every stone on the gravelly bottom, we boys used to collect for a regular water frolic. But, as you may suppose, the water was not so clean when we had done, the paddling of the little fellows in the shallows discolouring it from end to end.
That special hot June afternoon cricket had been voted too tiring, and we had all gone down to the bathing-place, the non-swimmers having strict injunctions not to pass a couple of posts about half-way between the stream and the dam.
It was always Lomax's duty to come down with us at bathing times, and, with his walking cane under his arm, he used to stride to and fro along the bank, barking out orders to the lesser boys, who were constantly breaking the rules, and getting toward the deeper water.
By that time I was a pretty fair swimmer, and had got over my natural nervousness to the extent that I was ready to dive off the board into the deepest part, and go anywhere with ease. Mercer was better than I, and Hodson better still; Burr major, from being so long, bony, and thin, was anything, as Mercer used to say, but eely in the water,—puffing and working hard to keep himself afloat; while Dicksee, though naturally able to swim easily from his plumpness, was, I think, the greatest coward we had there.
The water was delightfully warm that afternoon, but it soon got to be very thick, though that did not trouble us in the least, and we were in the full tide of our enjoyment, swimming races, diving, and playing one another tricks, while all the time, sharp and short from the bank, Lomax's orders would be snapped out.
"You, young Jenkins, what did I tell you? Phibbs, you're the wrong side of the posts. Mullins, if I have to speak to you again, I shall report you. Wilson, if you don't go up into the shallows, I shall fetch you out."
"Can't," cried the impudent young dog.
"Then I'll send a big boy to fetch you, sah. How dare you, sah! What do you mean, sah?"
Then there would be the pad, pad, pad, pad of naked feet, as a boy ran along the diving-board, sprang out, and then splash he would be into the water.
And so it went on, with some tiring, and going and sitting in the sun, which played the part of warm towel, till they would come in again, for it was declared to be the most delightful day we had had.
Then Mr Rebble and Mr Hasnip came down to see how we were getting on, and stood cheering and encouraging the timid ones, who were loth to get duckings by learning to swim.
I had been trying for some time, right out in the middle, to float without moving, while Mercer and Hodson in turn had their tries. Burr major was swimming from side to side, blowing like a grampus, and other boys were about us unnoticed, for we were too much occupied over our own efforts to heed them, when all at once, as I lay back with the water nearly all over my face, and my hands right down paddling softly, a wave turned me a little on one side; I raised my head, and a horrible yell sent a cold chill through me.
"What is it? the matter?" cried Mercer.
"Help! help!" shrieked Burr major, who was only a few yards away, splashing the water heavily as he swam with all his might for the side.
But he only shrieked out, "Help! help!" in a horror-stricken voice, and we all swam toward him as he made for the shore, all the lesser boys splashing out as fast as they could, to congregate shivering on the bank.
"What is it? What's the matter?" cried Mr Rebble, hurrying along the path, while Lomax came running round from the other side, for he had crossed the dam to act the part of water shepherd over some of his wet lambs.
But Burr major only kept on shrieking, "Help! help!"
"What's the matter, boys?" cried Mr Hasnip, who was now standing on the bank just where Burr major would land.
"Don't know, sir."
"He's frightened, sir."
"Got the cramp."
This, and half a dozen other replies, came in a confused chorus, as we swam on in a half circle behind Burr major ready to help him if he ceased to swim.
But he was striking out strongly, though his voice grew hoarser and more weak as he neared the edge, where, ghastly-looking and shivering, he snatched at Mr Rebble's hand, and allowed himself to be helped out.
"Don't make that noise, Burr major," cried the master. "What's the matter with you? Speak."
"Gone down—drowning! Oh—oh!"
He said this last in a husky whisper, and with white rings showing round his wide-open eyes, he turned and pointed toward the middle of the great pool.
"Who—who has?" cried Mr Hasnip frantically, and we looked eagerly from one to the other, but no one seemed to be missing.
"Speak, sir. Who is? Where?" cried Mr Rebble, seizing Burr major by his wet shoulders and shaking him. "Don't go on like that. Speak."
But Burr major made one gesticulation, and then his limbs seemed to double up beneath him, as he dropped fainting on the grass.
"What is it? cramp?" cried Lomax, coming up, and taking off his coat. "I'll soon put that right."
"No; he says some one is drowning."
"What?" roared Lomax wildly. "One of my lads! Here, who's missing?"
There was no answer, and the boys all gazed in a frightened way at each other.
"Here, Burr major, rouse up," cried Mr Rebble, shaking the long, thin lad, as he knelt down on one knee. "Who was it? Any one with you?"
The boy's eyes opened a little, he looked up wildly, and, trying to rise, pointed again to the middle of the pool.
"Was—by me," he moaned—"went down."
"Never mind who it is," roared Lomax, literally tearing off his clothes. "Now, boys—divers. In with you!"
His loudly-spoken command acted like magic upon us, and Mercer, Hodson, and I dashed into the water abreast, and swam for the middle of the pool, where in turn we began to dive down and try if we could find our luckless school-fellow, whoever he might be, but without result.
"That's right," cried Lomax, as I came up, for he had joined us in an incredibly short space of time. "Keep trying. This way."
He stretched out his arms, joined his hands as high as he could above his head, so that their weight should help to sink him, and he slowly went down out of sight, while, as fast as our efforts would allow, we boys went down and tried to search about, gradually extending the distance from each other in obedience to the orders shouted to us from the bank.
I suppose it was in ten feet water, about thirty yards from the great embankment, where we dived down most, but our attempts became more feeble, and I found myself at last swimming heavily close to Lomax, whose fierce-looking head suddenly rose close to my hand.
"Does nobody know anything about where the boy went down?" he roared; but there was no answer, and he panted out,—
"Take care of yourselves, boys. Don't overdo it. We must keep on, but it's unkind work."
We dived again and again, till I felt that I could do no more, and once more I was close up to Lomax, who had been down till he was almost completely exhausted.
"Oh, my lad! my lad!" he groaned, as he began to tread water slowly, "I'd have given anything sooner than this should have happened. Here, you, Burr junior, you're spent, boy. Swim ashore."
"I'm not," I said. "I'm going down again."
"I'm done," groaned Lomax. "I seem to have no more strength."
Shouts and orders came from the bank.
"They're saying we don't dive," said Mercer piteously.
"Not diving?" cried Lomax. "Well!"
As he spoke, he sank again, and the water closed in a swirl over his head, while, after taking a long breath, I dived under into the depths, with the water thundering in my ears, as, during what seemed to be a long space of time, though less than a minute, of course, I groped and swam about till a curious sensation of confusion came over me, and, frightened now, I touched something and clung to it wildly, believing in my startled state that it was Lomax.
The next instant I was at the surface, surprised to see the old sergeant making a rush at me, as he uttered a shout. Then he seized something by me, and I knew that I had brought one of my schoolfellows to the surface.
We swam ashore, to reach it soon after Lomax, who had borne the white, limp figure we had rescued into the dressing shed.
"Boys who can run!" shouted Mr Rebble. "Blankets, quick!"
A dozen boys dashed off, and Lomax panted,—
"You two—work him like this—gently. I'll relieve you directly."
He left the two masters rubbing and moving the boy's arms to their full extent, and pressing them to his sides, while he hurried on some clothes, and, shivering with horror and exhaustion, we followed his example, while, with my ears ringing, I heard Mercer gasp out,—
"Poor old Dicksee! Oh, Frank, I hope he ain't drowned."
But as, after our hurried dressing, we saw him lying there rigid and cold, it seemed as if the boy would never say another unkind word to a soul.
By this time Lomax had relieved the two masters, and with all the vigour of his strong arms he was trying to produce artificial respiration somewhat after the fashion that has of late been laid down as a surgical law, but apparently without avail.
The blankets had been brought, the boys, all but we few elder ones, sent back to the school, and a messenger had gone for the nearest medical man, so that nothing more could be done than was in progress.
"I'm afraid it's a hopeless case," said Mr Rebble, with a groan.
"Never say die, sir," cried Lomax. "I remember a lad of ours in my regiment was swept with his horse down the torrent below where we were fording a river away yonder in India. He seemed to be quite gone when we got him ashore half a mile lower down, but we rubbed and worked him about for quite three hours, taking it in turns, before he gave a sign of life. But he opened his eyes at last, and next day he was 'most as well as ever. What time do you expect Doctor Browne back, sir?"
"Not till quite late to-night. And what news for him!—what a shock for them both!"
"Shock!" said Lomax. "Here, you take a turn now, Mr Hasnip; we mustn't stop for a moment."
Mr Hasnip, whose coat was off and sleeves turned up, sprang to his side and went on.
"I'll relieve you again soon, sir," said Lomax, wiping his dripping forehead. "But how was it, Mr Burr major?"
"I—I don't know," said my school-fellow, starting. "I think he suddenly remembered it was so deep, and he turned frightened, for he went under all at once and right down, and then I cried for help."
"Better have lent him a hand," said Lomax gruffly. "Well, Mr Hasnip, sir, feel him coming to?"
"No, no," said the second master dolefully. "He is dead! he is dead!"
"Not he, sir," cried Lomax roughly. "We're going to bring him round; all we've been doing has helped him, and it's a long way off three hours. Here, let's have him out in the sunshine, please. I believe in the sun."
The poor fellow was carried out, the two masters each taking a corner of the blanket on which he lay, Lomax and I the others.
It was quickly done, and then Lomax recommenced rubbing, working the boy's chest so as to make it contract and expand, and all the time with perspiration dropping from his brow. Mr Rebble and Mr Hasnip both relieved him, and we boys did our best to help; but the afternoon glided on, no doctor arrived, and we felt chilled and hopeless, till all at once, after a rest, Lomax had begun again apparently as fresh as ever, and to our horror he suddenly began to whistle a merry tune.
"Lomax!" cried Mr Hasnip.
"What's the matter, sir?"
"For goodness' sake—at a time like this—it is too—"
"Why, haven't I got cause to whistle, sir?" cried the sergeant merrily. "What did I tell you? Only wanted time and plenty o' muscle."
"What! is he reviving?"
"No, sir, he's revived," said Lomax. "Look at the colour coming, and his eyelids quivering. He'll be sitting up directly. Here, you can feel his heart beating now."
Mr Rebble went down on one knee and laid his hand upon Dicksee's breast; then, jumping up again, he caught Lomax by the wrist.
"Heaven bless you for this!" he cried, and Mr Hasnip forgot his dignity as a master, and, taking off his hat, joined us boys in a hearty, "Hip! hip! hip! hooray!" which seemed to give the finishing impetus to our treatment, for Dicksee opened his eyes wide, struggled up into a sitting position, stared about him for a few moments, and then cried, in a harsh, unpleasant tone,—
"Where's my clothes?"
As he spoke, there was the sound of footsteps, and the medical man and the messenger who had been sent to bring him hurried up.
"I'm very sorry," he said. "I was right at the other end of the parish, and had to be fetched. Is this the patient?"
Dicksee had now huddled the blanket round him, and began in a whining, queer way,—
"What's been the matter? What are you all doing? Here, somebody, I want my clothes."
"No occasion to have fetched me," said the surgeon, smiling. "You've brought him round, I see. They're often like this when they've been nearly drowned. Come, squire, can you dress yourself?"
"Yes, if you'll all go away," cried Dicksee in a snarling tone. "Who's a-going to dress with you all a-staring like that?"
"Go into the shed, Dicksee," said Mr Rebble. "Can you walk?"
"Of course, I can, sir;" and he scrambled up.
"Had a long job of course," said the surgeon; and then—"He don't seem very grateful for being brought back to life. Well, gentlemen, there's little to do. Let him go to bed soon, and have a good night's rest. I don't suppose he will be much worse in the morning when I come."
So little seemed to be the matter, that, when he was dressed, Dicksee walked slowly back to the school, Mercer and I following him with Lomax.
"Rum thing," he said, "how crusty the being nearly drowned makes a lad. Hardly worth all the trouble we took over him, eh?"
"Oh, don't talk like that, Lom!" I cried.
"But he was precious disagreeable," cried Mercer; "and after the way in which you saved his life too!"
"I didn't," I said; "it was Lom here."
"Nay, lad, you got hold of him diving, first. If it hadn't been for you, I shouldn't have had anything to rub. But I was thinking."
"What of, Lom?"
"Of how strange it is, lads, that we somehow have to help and do good to them who've always been our enemies. That chap's always hated you, Mr Burr."
"Yes, I'm afraid so, Lomax," I said, with a sigh.
"And so you go into the water, and save his life."
"Yes, 'tis rum," said Mercer. "A nasty, disagreeable beggar. I hate him. But I am glad he wasn't drowned."
CHAPTER THIRTY THREE.
Dicksee only stayed till the following Christmas, and there was a general feeling of satisfaction in the school when it was known that he was not coming back after the holidays, Mr Hasnip forgetting himself so far as to say,—
"And a good job too."
It was a great relief to be rid of him, for, as I told Mercer, he was always ten times more sneaky and aggravating during the last half, and you couldn't stoop to hitting a fellow like that, especially when you knew how easily you could lick him.
"Oh, couldn't you?" said Mercer. "I could, and I would too, if he spoke to me as he does to you."
"Not you," I said.
"I would. I believe he never forgave you for saving his life."
It was during the autumn of the following year that Mercer and I, who had grown pretty big lads by that time, and had come to be looked up to by the others as captains of the cricket eleven and of the football, were standing at the window looking out over the woods talking, and watching the flickering of the lightning in the far east. We had all come up to our dormitories, but, instead of going at once to bed, we two were talking in a low voice about what a dark, soft night it was, when all at once there was a flash that was not lightning, apparently a short distance away, followed by the report of a gun.
"Oh, Tom!" I cried; "poachers!"
"Hush! Listen!" he said; and hardly had the words left his lips before there was another report, this time without the flash being seen.
"It is poachers," I said excitedly, "and they're in Long Spinney. Why, where's Bob Hopley? They're clearing off the pheasants."
We listened, and there was another report, and another, and I was certain that it was in Sir Hawkhurst's best preserve, where I had seen Bob Hopley feeding the beautiful birds only a week before, and Mercer had come away with me feeling miserable because he could not have one to stuff.
There was another report, and I grew more and more excited.
"Tom," I whispered, "let's go down and slip out of the schoolroom window."
"And go and see. But suppose we're caught?"
"We shan't be," I whispered; "let's go. I can't bear to stand still here and listen to those birds being shot. Sir Hawkhurst is so proud of them."
"I should like to go."
"Come on, then. Bob Hopley must be asleep."
"One moment," said Tom, hesitating. "Let's ask the Doctor to let us go."
"He wouldn't," I cried impatiently.
"No, he wouldn't," said Tom. "Come on."
We opened our door softly, stole down, and reached the schoolroom unseen, after listening at the masters' sitting-room door, and hearing them chatting together. One of the windows was open to ventilate the place after its crowded state all the evening, for, in that out-of-the-way part of the country, there was no fear felt of housebreakers, and, stepping up on the desk, I thrust out my legs, and dropped lightly into the playground, to be followed by Mercer, who was breathing hard with excitement. Then, making for the grounds in front, we saw a light shining out before us on to the closely-cut lawn.
The Doctor's window was open, and, as we crept by, sheltered by the shrubs, there was another report, and the Doctor came and looked out.
"I'm afraid it's poachers, my dears," he said. "Well, I'm not a gamekeeper."
We hurried along the lawn, leaving him looking out, ran lightly along the grassy marge of the carriage drive, and passed through the swing gate, but stopped short.
"Caught," I said to myself, as a tall, dark figure stepped out before us.
"Hallo! where are you young gents going?"
"Oh, Lom, don't tell," I panted. "There are poachers down in Long Spinney."
"I know," he said; "I heard 'em."
"And we're going down to tell Bob Hopley."
"On the sly?"
"Yes; the Doctor don't know. You won't get us into a scrape?"
"Well, you know, I ought to; but—"
"You won't, Lom?"
"Well, not this time. I was just going to bed when I heard them, and thought I'd run down and ask Bob Hopley if he wanted any help. Look here!"
He held up a big oaken stick, and, thoroughly in accord, we all started off at a trot, and in a very short time were in the lane where Bob Hopley's lodge stood.
"He's off somewhere at the other side of the estate," whispered Lomax, "and they've watched him go. I say, don't you boys come near if there's a row."
"Hist! Who's that?" said a familiar voice out of the darkness. "Father?"
"No, my dear, it isn't your father."
"Oh, Mr Lomax, what shall I do? Father's been over to Hastings to-day, and hasn't come back. There's a gang of poachers clearing the Long Spinney, and it will break his heart. I thought it was him come back. There—there they go again."
For there were several reports of guns not very far away.
"I don't know what to do," said Lomax; "I've got plenty of fight in me, and I'm ready to charge down on them, but they'll be too much for one."
"I'll come with you, and bring father's gun."
"But you mustn't use it, my girl. If we could frighten them somehow. Come on, and let's try. I know—we'll all go close up and shout."
"They won't mind that," said Polly; but we went on in the darkness so quickly and quietly, that we were soon alongside a black plantation of Scotch fir-trees, in time to hear two more shots, and the heavy thuds of falling bodies.
"Now, are you ready?" whispered Lomax.
"Yes," we said, but at that moment a figure darted by us, and entered the black wood.
"One of them," said Lomax. "Let's holloa, all the same."
But, before we had drawn breath for the shout, there was a yell, a dull sound as of a stick striking a gun-barrel, then a crashing of the lower branches, cries, blows, and a loud voice calling to the poachers to give in.
"Why, it's father got back," cried Polly Hopley. "Oh, Mr Lomax, go and help, or they'll kill him!"
The old sergeant's mettle was roused, and he dashed into the wood, while, with every pulse throbbing with excitement, we boys followed the direction taken, finding that the poachers were evidently retreating, from the sounds growing farther away.
Then all at once there was the sharp report of a gun, followed by a wild shriek.
"It's father! They've shot him!" cried Polly, who, unknown to us, was close behind. "Run, run!"
We pressed on. It was impossible to run in the darkness, and as we hurried along, a voice cried just in front,—
"You've shot my mate. Take that!"
At almost the same time came a sharp rap, a loud report, and then a heavy, dull blow.
"Father, father!" shrieked Polly, as we heard the rustling and breaking of branches, evidently caused by men in full retreat.
"All right, my lass. Quick: go back to the lodge for a lantern. Man shot."
She turned and ran back, while we kept on, and reached an opening in the wood, where we made out, dimly, two tall figures, and my blood turned cold at a piteous moaning from somewhere on the ground.
"Who's there?" cried Bob Hopley's voice.
"Only us, Bob," I said. "Are you hurt?"
"Nay, lad, not a bit. I should ha' been, though, if Mr Lomax hadn't knocked up the barrel with his stick and then downed the man."
"You've murdered my mate," came from close by our feet. "You've shot him."
"First time I ever did shoot anything without a gun," said the keeper. "One of you hit him, or he did it himself."
"You shot him—you murdered him," cried the man who had spoken, struggling to his knees, and then crouching among the pine needles, holding his head with his hands as if it were broken, and rocking himself to and fro.
"Oh, if that's it," said Bob Hopley, "I must have witnesses. Mr Lomax, I've just come from Hastings. I heard the shooting o' my fezzans, and I come on with this stick. You see I've no gun, and you, too, young gents?"
"Yah! you shot him," groaned the man, who was evidently in great pain; "and then you knocked me down with the bar'l o' the gun."
"Oh, come, that won't do, lad," cried Lomax; "that was a cut from the left. I gave you that, my lad, to keep you from shooting me."
"Pair o' big cowards, that's what you are."
"Cowards, eh?" cried Lomax. "Not much o' that, Hopley. Two men with sticks against a gang of you fellows with guns. How many were you?"
"Nine on us," groaned the man. "Oh, my yed, my yed!"
"Nine of you to two honest men. Serve you right. Should have stopped at home and earned an honest living, not come stealing game."
"What!" cried the man fiercely; "'taren't stealing; they're wild birds, and as much our'n as his'n."
"You're a donkey," said Lomax. "Why, there'd be no pheasants if they weren't reared like chickens."
"That's so," said Hopley.—"Why don't that gal bring a light?"
"Here she comes," cried Mercer, for he caught sight of the dim glow of the horn lantern among the trees, and as it came nearer, Bob Hopley said,—
"Hadn't you young gents better get back to bed? this here aren't no place for you."
"No, no, don't send us away, Bob," I said; "we want to see."
"Well, you will be witnesses," he growled, and the next minute he took the lantern from Polly, who was panting with excitement.
"Oh, father dear," she cried, "are you hurt?"
"Not a bit, my lass," he cried, stooping quickly and kissing her. "Will you stay or go? It's ugly."
"Right, my lass. Now, Mr Lomax, what about this chap you downed," he continued, holding the lantern so that the light fell upon the kneeling man, whose forehead was bleeding freely. "You give it him and no mistake," he chuckled. "Here, tie this hankychy round your head, and don't bellow there like a great calf. Master Burr junior, pick up and take charge of that gun, will you? Stop! let's see if she's loaded. No. All right. I forgot. She went off herself, I suppose," he added grimly, "when he tried to shoot Mr Lomax or me."
"I didn't," whimpered the man.
"There, don't make wuss on it by telling lies, you skulking hound," cried Bob, who was as fierce now as could be. "Mr Lomax, will you see as he don't get away?"
"He'd better try to," said the old sergeant, making his stick whizz through the air.
"Now, where's t'other?" said Hopley. "Mind, keep back, you lads. He's got a gun too, and he's hurt, and may be savage."
"Oh, take care, father!" cried Polly. "Let me go first—he wouldn't shoot a woman."
"Want to make me ashamed of myself and get hiding behind a gal's petticutt!" cried Bob. "G'long with you."
He strode forward with the lantern for a few yards, and then held it down over the spot from which a low groaning had come, but which had ceased for some minutes now.
It was very horrible, but the weird scene beneath those heavy boughs, with the keeper's burly form thrown up by the yellow glow of the lantern and the shadowy aspect of the trees around, with the light faintly gleaming on their trunks, fascinated us so that we followed Hopley with his daughter to where he stood.
"Now, squire," he said, "where are you hurt?"
The man, who seemed to be lying all of a heap, uttered a groan, and Hopley held the light nearer.
"I'm fear'd he's got it badly, Polly," growled the keeper. "Hah!"
"None o' my doing, my lass. Here, all on you. This is a madgistrit's business, and I don't want to get credit for what I never did. So just look."
He held the lantern down for us to see.
"He's got one o' them poaching guns, you see, with a short barrel as unscrews in the middle, and he must ha' been taking it to pieces when it was loaded, and shot hisself when running among the bushes."
"Why, it's Magglin!" I shouted excitedly.
"What!" cried the keeper, holding the lantern lower, and Polly uttered a cry. "Magglin it is!" he said, as the man opened his eyes, and gazed wildly up at the lantern.
"Where are you hurt, my lad?" said the keeper quietly.
"My arm! my arm!" groaned the man piteously.
The keeper took out his knife, and, giving Mercer the lantern to hold, deliberately slit up the sleeves of the injured man's jacket and shirt.
"Hah!" he ejaculated. "He's put the whole charge o' shot through his arm, above the elbow;" and, hurriedly taking a piece of cord from his jacket pocket, Hopley made a rough tourniquet, and stopped the bleeding as much as he could.
"You, Polly," he said as he worked, "go down to the house and see Sir Orkus. Tell him all about it, and ask him to send help, and some one off for the surgeon. One of the young gents'll go with you, I dessay."
"I'll go with her," said Mercer, and they hurried away.
"There," said Hopley, as he finished his rough dressing of the wound, "I can't do no more, and we can't carry him to my place. We must wait."
"Oh, Master 'Opley, sir," groaned the unfortunate man, "is it very bad?"
"Wait and hear what the doctor says, when he comes. I didn't do it, did I?"
"No, sir; I was taking the gun to pieces, and she—Oh!"
"Bear up, man, bear up."
"I'll—I'll never go poaching any more," groaned Magglin, and his head fell back.
"Never with two arms, my lad," said the keeper. "Poor fellow! my fezzans do tempt 'em. He's fainted. Could you take the lantern, sir, and find your way to my cottage?"
"Yes," I said eagerly; "what shall I do?"
"Open the corner cupboard, sir, and you'll find a small flask on the top shelf—flask with a cup on it. Bring it, please. It's brandy: drop'll bring him round."
I went off directly, saying a word to Lomax as I went, and returning pretty quickly with the spirit, which had the effect of reviving the sufferer.
Then we waited, till at the end of half an hour we heard voices, then saw lights, and the General, with Polly, the butler, two gardeners, and the groom, came up, the coachman having driven off to fetch the doctor; and the wounded man was carefully raised, placed on a rug, and carried off by four men, Hopley and the General following with the other prisoner, who could walk, while Lomax and we two boys went slowly back toward the school, talking about the exciting scene.
"I say, young gents," said Lomax suddenly, "it'll all come out about your breaking barracks."
"Yes, Lom," I said; "we shall be found out."
"Of course. You'll have to go with me as witnesses."
"Yes. What had we better do?"
"Go and make a clean breast of it to the colonel in the morning."
"To my uncle?"
"No, no; the Doctor. Good-night."
We slipped in as we had come out, reaching our room unheard, but it was a long time before excitement would let us sleep.
CHAPTER THIRTY FOUR.
It required some strength of mind to go straight to the Doctor's study next morning, tell him the whole truth, and ask for his forgiveness. But we did it, and though he looked very serious, and pointed out our wrong-doing strongly, he forgave us, and became deeply interested in the affair, making us relate all we had seen.
"I heard of the encounter as soon as I came down," he said. "Lomax ought to have sent you both back to your room. So it was that labourer. Poor fellow! I gave him a fresh chance twice over, but I'm afraid he is a ne'er-do-weel. However, he is severely punished now."
The man Lomax knocked down went before the magistrates, and was packed off to prison, but Magglin had to go up to London, to one of the great hospitals, and some months after, the chief magistrate in our district, that is to say, General Sir Hawkhurst Rye, had him up before him in his library, and punished him.
Bob Hopley told me all about it, just after he had announced, with a good many grins and winks, that Polly was—"Going to be married to master's favourite groom, and they're to live at Number 2 lodge."
"And how did he punish him, Bob?" Mercer said eagerly.
"Punished him, sir? why, he's took him on as a watcher under me. Says poachers make the best keepers; but, o' course, he can't never be a keeper, with only one arm."
"Ah," I said thoughtfully, "you said he would lose his arm."
"Yes, sir, and they took it off pretty close. But there, I think he'll mend now."
My story, (or rather my random notes), of my old school-days is pretty well ended now, though I could rake out a good deal more from the dark corners of my memory. For, after that adventure in the wood, the time soon seemed to come when Tom Mercer had to leave, to begin his course of training for a surgeon, while I was bound for Woolwich, to become a cadet.
It was a sad day for me when I first went to "Old Browne's," but it was a sadder day when I left, for I felt very sore at heart, and it required all my strength of mind to keep up a brave show.
For every one was very kind, and it was like parting from old friends whom I might never see again. The boys were all out in the front drive, where the General's carriage stood waiting to take me and my mother to meet the London mail coach, and the two gentlemen were with us. For my mother and my uncle had come down to fetch me, and say a few kind words to the Doctor and Mrs Doctor, as well as to visit Sir Hawkhurst. I saw Lomax too, and Mr Rebble and Mr Hasnip, at the door, and it seemed as if there was always some one fresh to shake hands with, the old sergeant shaking mine with both his, and his voice sounded very husky as he said,—
"You won't forget your drill, sir, nor your balance in the saddle; heels well down, and ride your horse on the curb, mind—don't forget, and— and—"
The old fellow could get no further. The tears started to his eyes, and to hide his emotion, and to save me from breaking down, he drew himself up stiffly and saluted me.
Lastly, I found that the servants were all outside too, waiting to say good-bye, and I couldn't go without stepping aside to shake hands with Cook, who uttered a loud sob, snatched me to her, and gave me a sounding kiss.
Then I was back on the steps saying my farewells to the Doctor and his wife, and I felt that I had bade every one now good-bye but Tom Mercer, who was to leave the following day, but, to my intense disappointment, he was missing; and, time pressing, I was at last obliged to climb into the britzska, where my mother, my uncle, and the General were already seated, the word was given, the coachman touched his horses as soon as the groom had climbed to his side, and the boys nearly frightened them into a headlong gallop, as they burst out into a volley of cheers, mingled with, "Good-bye, Burr junior! Good luck to you, soldier!" and amidst the waving of caps from the lads, and handkerchiefs from the door, I stood up in the carriage and roared excitedly,—
"Where's old Senna?"
I faintly heard the words, "Don't know," and I stood looking about wildly, full of bitter disappointment at leaving without seeing him.
I was standing up at the back, where my mother had the other seat, the two old officers being before us, but there was no Tom Mercer, and I was about to sit down, feeling that the poor fellow could not face the farewell, when, at the turn of the road, there on the bank stood Polly Hopley, with a parcel in one hand and a bunch of flowers in the other, and beside her, Bob Hopley in his brown velveteens, his gun under his left arm and his hat in his hand.
As we trotted by, the parcel and bouquet fell into the carriage, and I waved my hand back to them till we were out of sight, when I found that my mother was holding the flowers, which had her name on a label like that used with a doctor's bottle, while the parcel was directed to me.
I couldn't help my face working as I looked from one to the other.
"Cheer up, my lad," cried the General, as my mother pressed my hand, for I had sunk down beside her on the seat.
"Of course he will," cried my uncle; "soldiers cheer up directly. I say, Frank, the Doctor gave you a splendid character, but it wasn't wanted. Your popularity staggers me."
"But I haven't seen poor old Senna," I cried.
"Seen whom?" said my uncle, laughing.
"Poor old Tom Mercer," I cried, when a hand from the back knocked my cap over my eyes, and a familiar voice shouted,—
"'Bye, Frankie. Hooray! 'ray! 'ray! 'ray!"
There was Tom Mercer's face looking at us over the hood at the back, for he had darted out from the hedge as the carriage passed the corner half a mile from the school, climbed up behind, and was holding on with one hand as he clutched at me with the other.
Then quickly—nay, more quickly than it has taken me to tell it—he let go and dropped down into the road, where I could see him standing waving his cap till a curve hid him from sight; and I once more sank into my place too low-spirited to think, for my happy school-days were at an end, and there before me in the dim distance, toward which I was being hurried fast as two good mares could trot, was the great gateway of a fresh life, through which lay the road to be followed in my progress to become a soldier and a man.