"Are you right?" cried Fred from above.
"Is it easy?"
"Then I shall come down now."
"No, no," cried Scarlett; "the rope is not strong enough for two."
"Make haste, then. I want to see what there is. Found anything good?"
"No," said Scarlett, as he glided slowly down into the darkness, with his companion's words buzzing in his ears, just as if they were spoken close by, and listening as he descended to the peculiar, trickling, rushing noise of the scraps of disintegrating slate which he dislodged in passing, and which fell rapidly before him.
"Keep talking," said Fred from above.
"There's nothing to talk about," cried Scarlett. "I'm only sliding down a slope, and—yes, now I'm hanging clear, and turning round. Hold the rope: it's twisting so."
"I am holding it tight," came back; "but I can't help its turning round. What's it like now?"
"Just like day beginning to break, and I can see something shining down below."
"Is it the water?"
"Yes, I suppose so. Shall I go down any lower?"
"Yes, of course."
"It isn't water that's shining," said Scarlett, after turning slowly round two or three times, as he descended another twenty feet.
"What is it, then?—gold or silver?"
"It's only a reflection, I suppose; but I can't quite see."
"Aren't you at the bottom yet?" cried Fred, impatiently.
"Make haste, then."
"Yes, I am at the bottom," cried Scarlett, directly after, as his feet touched firm rock.
"Look out, then," cried Fred. "Down I come."
"No, no; wait a moment," was the reply. "I want to try and find out what it's like."
"What's the matter?" cried Fred, as he heard his companion utter a loud, "Oh!"
"Something rushed by me."
"What was it?"
"I couldn't see. Ah! there it is again."
"Hold tight; I'm coming," cried Fred. "I dare say it was an owl or a bat. Oh my! doesn't it scrape you?"
Scarlett's response was a sharp ejaculation and a jerk at the rope.
"Here, what are you doing?" cried Fred.
There was no answer, only a panting noise.
"Don't swing the rope about like that, Scar! Do you hear? I won't come down, if you don't leave off."
"Hah! that's it," came from below.
"What's the matter? What are you doing?" cried Fred, who had paused at the bottom of the first slope, holding tightly by the rope, which Scarlett seemed to be trying to jerk out of his hand.
"It's all right now," panted Scarlett. "You sent down a lot of slate and earth, and it came on my head."
"Well, I couldn't help it. Why didn't you stand on one side?"
"I did," cried Scarlett, "and stepped back off the edge. Fortunately, I had tight hold of the rope, but slipped down ever so far, and had to climb up again. Come along down, now."
There was a serious sound and a spice of danger in this little recital, which, added to the darkness into which Fred had plunged, made him descend for the rest of the way slowly and very cautiously down the second slope, and then, as he hung perpendicularly, and felt himself slowly turning round, he kept on asking how much farther it was, till his feet touched his companion's hands, and he stood directly by his side in the faint grey light, which seemed to strike up from below, both clutching the rope tightly in the excitement of the novel position, and trying to pierce the gloom.
"Ugh! What's that?" cried Fred, suddenly, as he kicked against something which made a rattling noise.
"I don't know. Sounds like pieces of wood."
"Ugh!" ejaculated Fred again, "bones! Come away, Scar; it's a skeleton."
The two boys shrank away in horror, and for some moments neither ventured to speak, while, as they clung together, each could feel his fellow suffering from no little nervous tremor.
"Some one must have slipped down the hole and died here of starvation," whispered Scarlett at last. "You know how dangerous it is."
"Yes," said Fred, thoughtfully, and with his shrinking feeling on the increase. "No," he exclaimed directly after, "I don't think it's that. I know—at least, I should know if I touched it."
"What do you mean?"
"It's some sheep slipped down when feeding, and never been missed."
"Do you think it's that?" said Scarlett, eagerly.
"I feel sure of it. If it had been a man, he would have found some way of getting out. I say, Scar, will you stoop down and touch it?"
"No," said Scarlett, with a shudder.
"Well, I will, then. Yes; I'm right. It is a sheep's bones."
"How do you know?"
"You can feel some wool down here. If it had been a man, it would have been clothes. Well, I am glad."
Scarlett showed his satisfaction by drawing a long breath full of relief, and the spirits of both seemed relieved by the knowledge that the grisly relics told no tale of a human being's terrible fate.
"I dare say there are more bones about, if we were to search," said Fred. "But what a great gloomy place it is! Who'd have thought that there was such a cave on our shore?"
"I can't see any good, now we have got down in it," said Scarlett, rather discontentedly. "I don't suppose we shall find anything."
"Why, we have found something."
"Yes; bones. I wish we had a light."
"Where was it you stepped over?" said Fred, speaking in a whisper now, for the silence and darkness were not without their effect upon him.
"Where's there? I can't see which way you mean."
"Exactly behind you," said Scarlett.
Fred made an involuntary movement in the opposite direction, one imitated by Scarlett, with the result that they edged along about a dozen feet before they were stopped by the wall of rock, which sloped away above their heads.
"I wish it wasn't dark," said Fred. "Now let's try how far we can get this way."
Still holding on tightly by the rope, they moved in a fresh direction, finding the rock upon which they stood made irregular by the heaps of slate and earth which had crumbled down from above; but over this they cautiously made their way for seven or eight yards, when they were again stopped by the sloping wall of rock.
The next investigation suggested itself as being the edge over which Scarlett had stepped, and for the moment they shrank from that, and made their way cautiously back, keeping close to the wall.
"Let's see how far it goes in that direction," whispered Scarlett. "I fancy that's where the light comes from."
Fred acquiesced, and the little mounds of slate were crossed, and the way followed till they had nearly reached the limit of the line, when, low down before them, they made out a dark, rough-looking edge, black upon the very pale light which struck into the cave.
"Why, that's the edge of the rough shelf we are standing on," said Scarlett. "Now, let's get close to the line there, and look over."
"Yes; why not? I don't feel half so frightened now I've got over that fall."
"I never felt frightened at all," said Fred.
"Well, not much. Come along."
They approached cautiously, finding that the shelf grew narrower, and evidently ended in a point.
"I've got to the end of the rope."
"Well, let's leave go, and creep to the edge without it."
"No," said Fred, who felt that the rope was like a hand connecting them with the upper surface. "Perhaps it has caught somewhere, and we haven't got it all loose. Wait till I give it a jerk. Here, leave go for a moment."
Scarlett loosened his hold, and Fred stepped back a foot or two before sending a wave along the cord, which was followed by a rattling noise, as if a quantity of the shale and earth had been set at liberty, and was falling in a shower upon the rocky floor.
"There, I told you so," cried Fred. "I can draw yards and yards in, and yards and—"
He was suiting the action to the word, hauling more and more of the rope towards him, when there was an end to the rattling sound, and one dull flap.
"What is it, Fred?"
"I—I'm not sure."
"I am," cried Scarlett, in agony. "Why, you've dragged at the rope till it has come untied."
"I'm afraid so," faltered Fred, in a husky voice.
"And nobody saw us come here," cried Scarlett. "Oh, Fred, Fred, we shall be buried alive!"
For a few minutes the two lads were so overcome by the horror of their position that they stood there in silence, afraid to move. Then Scarlett recovered himself a little, and said huskily—
"Pull the rope again, and make sure."
"I'm sure enough," said Fred, sulkily. "It's all down here. How could you have tied it so badly?"
"I don't know. I thought it was tight. Ah! there it is again."
There was a whizzing, whirring sound heard above the plash and whisper of the water down below, and for a few moments the boys remained perfectly still.
"Why, I know what that is," cried Fred. "Pigeons. I've often seen them fly into the holes of the rocks. They build in these places, and roost here of a night."
"Wish I was a pigeon," said Scarlett, sadly. "We shall never be able to climb up that hole."
"We shall have to try," said Fred, "unless we can find a way down. Here, let's creep to the edge and look."
Scarlett hesitated for the moment, but it was a work, of stern necessity; and together, using the greatest caution the while, they crept on hands and knees to the edge of the great shelf, and looked over to see that the light came in from some opening away to the right, to be reflected from the wall of rock opposite, and shed sufficiently strong a dawn to let them see fifty feet below them the creamy foaming water which flowed in and then ran back.
"Don't see any way down," said Fred, rather despondently. "This place sticks right out over everything."
"But we can get down by fixing the rope up here, and sliding down."
"I'd forgotten the rope," said Fred, with a deep sigh. "But suppose we do get down. What then?"
"Why, we can find our way to the mouth of the cave, and look out and shout at the first boat that comes by."
Fred brightened up.
"I say, Scar," he said cheerfully, "what a clever fellow you are! Let's try at once."
"Hadn't we better try first whether we can climb up the hole?"
The suggestion was so good that it was at once tried, but without effect; for a very few minutes' search proved that there was a perpendicular face of rock to scale, and, unless they cut steps with their knives, ascent in that way was impossible.
"It's of no use, Scar," said Fred, "unless we can get away by the mouth. I say, is it as dark as it was when we first came down?"
"Our eyes are getting used to it," said Scarlett, as they both stood gazing across the opening at the black-looking rock-face before them, and, gaining courage from familiarity, they once more approached the edge of the shelf, and felt their way about, seeking vainly for the means of descent.
"I'm afraid it's of no use, Fred. The only way is for one of us to let the other down with the rope, and the one who goes down to call for help."
"But why not both go down?"
"Because there is nowhere to fasten the rope; and, after it slipped as it did just now, I should not like to venture."
"That was with your tying. You wait till I've found a place."
There did not seem much risk of a fall after Fred's securing of the rope, for the simple reason that he was not likely to tie it. Everywhere, as they searched, they found smooth rock without a projection, or shivering shaley slate, which crumbled down at a touch, and, at last, Fred gave up with a sigh of despair.
"It's of no use," he said. "One of us must go down and try the mouth of the cave. I don't want to, but I will go if you'll hold the rope."
"I feel so much afraid of not being strong enough, that I ought to go, and let you."
"Let's have a look, and see if we can make out what it's like first," said Fred; and, creeping cautiously to the edge, he lay down, and peered over, Scarlett following his example, and looking into the gloom beneath from close by his side.
"Looks very horrible," said Fred; "but I suppose it's because it's so dark. I don't believe it would be anything to mind, if it was so light we could see clearly."
"Perhaps not," replied Scarlett, gloomily; "but then, it is dark; and how dreadful the water sounds as it rushes into the mouth of the cave!"
"Oh, it always does; but there's nothing to mind."
"But suppose one of us did get down and found the mouth?"
"Well, we must find the mouth, because that's where the light and water come in."
"But if we did, the water's deep outside, and we should have to swim round to somewhere and land."
"Seems to me very stupid that we know so little about the shore under the rocks," said Fred, as he tried to pierce the pale grey light below. "Seems a stupid sort of shore, all steep cliff, and nowhere hardly to get down. Well, what shall we do? Will you go down, or shall I?"
"I'd rather trust to your holding the rope than mine."
"That's just how I feel," cried Fred. "But you went down first, and now it's my turn, so here goes. Now then, let's gather the rope into a coil, and throw one end down. Then you sit flat here on the ledge, with your legs stretched out, hold tight by the rope with both hands, and then let it hang between your legs and over the edge. It won't be hard to hold."
"I'll try," said Scarlett, nervously; "but I hardly like doing it."
"And I don't like going down, but it has got to be done, and the more fuss we make over it, the worse it will be. When you've got to take physic, down with it at once."
"Yes," said Scarlett, drily, "that's the best way, but the best way is often the hardest."
Fred had gathered the rope into rings, and was taking a final glance down at what seemed to be an uglier descent the more it was inspected, and but for very shame he would have given up. He set his teeth, though, and handed one end of the rope to his companion.
"Catch hold—tight," he said in a low voice. "If you let that go we're done. Now then—one, two—"
He did not say three, for at that moment a gruff, husky voice came rumbling and echoing down toward them with the cheery hail of—
"Anybody at home?"
"Now, I wonder what them boys are going to do," said Samson, over and over again, and each time that he said so he sighed and rubbed his back, and ended by resting upon the handle of his spade.
"No good, I'm sure," he muttered. "Yes," he added, after a thoughtful pause, "that's it—going to let one another down over the cliffs so as to break their necks; and if they do, a nice mess I shall be in, for the colonel 'll say it was all my fault for letting them have the rope."
Samson turned over a couple of spadefuls of earth, and then drove the tool in with a fierce stab, leaving it sticking up in the ground.
"Here, I can't go on digging and knowing all the time as them lads is breaking their necks over the cliff side. Never was in such a muddle as this before. Why didn't they say what they were going to do?"
"Here, this must be stopped—this must be stopped!" he cried, with a display of energy such as he had not before shown that day; and, snatching up his jacket, he started off in the direction taken by the lads, he having had no difficulty in seeing that their aim was the mass of slaty rock, rounded and covered with short green turf, known as the Rill Head, up which he climbed just in time to shout down the grassy crevice the words which sent joy into the boys' hearts.
"Hurrah! There's help!" cried Scarlett, starting up.
"Mind! you nearly knocked me over."
"I could not help it, Fred. Here, hi!"
"Anybody at home? Where are you?"
"Why, it's old Samson," cried Fred, groping his way to where he believed the bottom of the crack by which they had descended to be. "Hi! Samson!"
"Hullo!" came back. "Where are you? What are you doing?"
Fred hastily explained their plight.
"Serve you both right," cried Samson; and his voice, as it rumbled down the hole into the cavern, sounded, as Scarlett thought, like the voice of a giant. "Well, what are you going to do? Live there?"
"No; you must help us out."
"Help you out?"
"Yes. How did you know we were here?"
"How did I know you were there, indeed!" growled Samson, with aggravating repetition of the other's words. "Why, I knowed you'd be in some mischief as soon as I saw you both go by with that rope."
"But you didn't see us come down here."
"No; but I see your clothes lying aside the hole. What did you want here? Somebody's sheep tumbled down again?"
"Hear that?" whispered Fred. "No, Samson; but don't stand there talking. Did you bring a rope?"
"How could I bring the rope, when you'd got it?"
"Go and fetch another."
"There isn't one that'll bear you. Can't you throw up the end of that one?"
"Impossible! You must fetch another."
"And who's to do my gardening while I'm hunting all over Coombeland for ropes as nobody won't lend?"
"Look here, Samson," cried Scarlett. "Go up to the Hall, and ask Nat to lend you one of ours."
"Go up and ask my brother Nat to lend me a rope?"
"I'd sooner go and jump off the cliff. There!"
"Well, you must do something, and pray make haste."
"What am I to do?"
"I know," cried Fred. "Go and get your garden line."
"Why, that wouldn't bear a cat, let alone a boy like you."
"You do as I tell you, and bring a big round stone, too, one that you can tie to one end of the line. Be quick."
"Oh, I'll go," said Samson; "but mind you, I warn you it won't bear."
"You do as I tell you," cried Fred, again; "and don't tell my mother where we are."
"I may tell the colonel, I suppose?" said Samson, with a laugh to himself.
"No, no, no!" cried Fred; but the words were not heard, for Samson had set off down the hill at a trot.
"I say, what a pair of stupids we are," said Fred, after trying two or three times over to find out whether Samson was still there.
"Don't talk," replied Scarlett. "Let's listen for his coming back."
"But he must be half an hour, at least; and we know we are all right now. I say, Scar, I've a good mind to go down lower, and see if there's a way to the sea."
"No, you will not," said Scarlett, rather gruffly. "Let's sit down and think."
"It's too dark to think," cried Fred, petulantly. "I wonder how this place came. Think it was made by the hill cracking, or by the sea washing it out?"
"I don't know. But shall we come again, and bring a lanthorn?"
"Yes, and regularly examine the place. We will some day. I wonder whether we're the first people who ever came down into it? I mean," said Fred, "the first people who were not sheep. Here, hi! Scar! what are you thinking about?"
"I was thinking what a hiding-place it would make for anybody who did not want to be found."
"Do for smugglers. Wonder whether any smugglers ever knew of it?"
"No; if they had there would have been some way down to the mouth."
"And perhaps there is, only it's too dark for us to see where it is."
Then the conversation languished, and they sat on the rough shaley earth, trying to pierce the gloom, and listening with quite a start from time to time to the sharp whirr of the pigeons' wings as they darted in and out.
At last, just when they were beginning to think it a terribly long time, Samson's voice was heard.
"Here you are! I've brought my line."
"And a big stone?"
"Yes, Master Fred; eight or nine pounder. But I warn you once more that line won't bear you boys."
"You do as I tell you. Now tie the stone to the line."
There was a few moments' pause, during which they seemed to see the red-faced gardener as he busied himself over his task, and then down came the words—
"Lower it down."
Directly after, there was a rattling and falling of tiny bits of shale, which went on as Samson shouted—
"She won't come no farther."
"Draw the line and start it again."
Samson started the stone after hauling it up a bit, and this time it glided out of the angle in which it had rested, increased its speed, bringing down quite a shower of shale, and then there was a dull thud.
"That's it, Samson. I've got it."
"Good job, for there ain't much more."
"There's quite enough," cried Fred, as he rapidly set the stone loose, and tied the line to the rope's end. "Now, then, haul away."
"No, no, my lad; I tell you it won't bear you. You'd only have a nasty tumble."
"And I shall be blamed."
"Will you haul? Oh, only wait till I come up!"
Samson gave quite a snatch at the line, and drew it up rapidly, while the boys waited to hear what he would say when he found their meaning.
"Why couldn't you have said as you meanted that!" he grumbled. "I see now. Want me to make this here fast to the pole."
"Yes, of course; then we can climb up."
"To be sure you can. I see now."
"Make it quite fast, Samson."
"I will, sir. And try it, too," he added under his breath, as he knotted the rope fast, seized and drew it tight, and then lowering himself into the crevice, he began to glide down rapidly, sending a tremendous shower of shale on to Fred's head, and making him start away just as he had drawn the rope tight ready to ascend.
"Why, what are you doing?" he shouted.
"Coming down, sir," panted Samson; and the next minute he was on the broad shelf in company with nearly enough disintegrated rock to bury the skeleton of the sheep.
"Well, 'pon my word, young gentlemen," cried the gardener, "you've got rum sort of ideas. Wouldn't no other place please you for a game but this?"
"We wanted to explore it," exclaimed Fred; "to see if there's a way down to the shore."
"Well, you can hear there is, lads. But why didn't you bring a lanthorn?"
"I wish we had."
"Wish again," said Samson, with a chuckle.
"Because then you'll get one," said the gardener, laughing.
"Why, Samson, what do you mean?" cried Scarlett.
There was a rattling sound, a clicking noise of flint upon steel, and soon after a glowing spark appeared, then a blue flame, a splint burst into a blaze, and directly after Samson's red and shining features could be seen by the light of the candle he had lit inside a lanthorn.
"There, lads," he said, closing the door with a snap; "you didn't think to tell me to bring that, but I thought of it, and there we are. Now we can see what we're about," he continued, as he swung the lanthorn above his head; "and not much to see nayther. Only an 'ole. Yes, of course. There you are. Sheep's bones. Dessay many a one's tumbled down here. Hole don't go up very high," he added, once more raising the lanthorn above his head; "but it goes down to the sea for sartain."
"Oh, Samson, and you've left the line up above. If we had it here, we might have swung the lanthorn down and seen how deep it was."
"That's just like you, Master Fred," said Samson. "You always think other folk will do what you'd do. You'd ha' left the line up at the top, same as you did your clothes, but being only a gardener, and a very bad one, as my brother Nat says, I put that there line in my pocket, and here it is."
Fred's answer was a slap on Samson's hard broad back, as he tied one end of the line to the lanthorn-ring, swung it over the edge of the shelf, and they watched it go down sixty or seventy feet, feebly illumining the sides of the cave, and as it grew lower an additional radiance was displayed by the light striking on the bottom, which proved to be full of water kept slightly in motion by the influx of the waves outside.
"Not much to see, my lads," said Samson. "No gold, nor silver, nor nothing. Shouldn't wonder if there's pigeons' nesties, though, only you couldn't get at 'em without a ladder. There! seen enough?"
"No; I want to see whether there is any way down," said Fred.
"Any way down?" said Samson, swinging the lanthorn to and fro. "No, my lad—yes, there is. Easily get down at that corner. Slide down or slip down. See!"
"Yes," said the lads in a breath; and long afterwards they recalled their eagerness to know about a means of descent from that shelf.
"Yes," said Samson; "you might make a short cut down to the sea this way if you wanted to. But you don't want to, and it wouldn't be any good if you did, because you'd be obliged to have a boat outside; and if the boat wasn't well-minded, it would soon be banged to matchwood among the rocks. There, my bit o' ground's waiting to be dug, and I've got you two out of your hobble, so here goes back."
As he spoke, he rapidly hauled up the lanthorn, forming the line into rings, untying the end from the ring, and, after giving it a twist, thrusting it back into his pocket, while he undid the strap he wore about his waist, thrust an end through the lanthorn-ring, and buckled it on once more.
"Will you go first, Samson?" said Fred.
"No; I mean to go last. I don't leave here till I see you both safe. What should I have said to your mothers if you'd been lost and not found for a hundred years? Nice state of affairs that would ha' been."
"Go on first, Scar," said Fred; "we'll hold the rope tight, so that it will be easy."
Scarlett reached up, seized the rope, and began to climb, getting the thick cord well round his legs, as he struggled up for nearly twenty feet, and then he slipped down again.
"Can't we go down the other way, and climb the cliff?"
"No, you can't," said Samson, gruffly. "You've got to go up as you come down. Here, Master Fred, show him the way."
Fred seized the rope, and began to climb, but with no better success; and he, too, glided down again after a severe struggle.
"The rope's so slippery," he said angrily.
"And you call yourselves young gentlemen!" grunted Samson. "Why, you'd ha' been just as badly off if your rope hadn't slipped. Here, give us hold."
Samson seized the rope, and they heard him grunt and pant and cease his struggle, and then begin to grunt and pant again for quite ten minutes, when, just as they rather maliciously hoped that he would prove as awkward as themselves, they heard the lanthorn bang against the rock, a shower of shale fell as it was kicked off, and Samson's voice came down—
"Line is a bit slithery," he said; "but I'm all right now."
They could not see, but they in imagination felt that he had reached the first slope, up which he was climbing, and then felt when he passed up the second, showers of shale and earth following every moment, till, all at once, there was a cessation of noise, and of the shower, and Samson's bluff voice exclaimed—
"Up a top! Now, then, lay hold, and I'll have you up to where you can climb."
"Go on, Scar."
"Go on, Fred."
The boys spoke together, and, after a little argument, Scarlett seized the rope, felt himself hoisted up, and, once up at the slope, he soon reached daylight, Fred following in the same way, to stand in the sunshine, gazing at his companions, who, like himself, were covered with perspiration and dust.
"You look nice ones, you do," said Samson, grinning; "and all that there trouble for nothing."
But Samson was a very ignorant man, who knew a great deal about gardening, but knew nothing whatever about the future, though in that instance his want of knowledge was shared by Fred and Scarlett, who, after resuming their jerkins, took, one the pole, the other the coil of neatly ringed rope, and trudged back to the Manor with Samson, who delivered quite a discourse upon waste of time; but he did not return to his digging, contenting himself with extracting his spade from the ground, wiping it carefully, and hanging it up in his tool-house, close to the lanthorn.
"Going home, Master Scarlett?" said Samson.
"Won't have a mug o' cider, I suppose?"
"No, thank ye, Samson."
"Because I thought Master Fred was going to fetch some out, and you could have a drop too."
"Hark at him, Scar! There never was such a fellow for cider."
"Oh yes, there was; but I've yearned it anyhow to-day."
"So you have, and I'll fetch you a mug," said Fred, darting off.
"Ah, that's better," grunted Samson. "Never such a fellow for cider! Why, my brother's a deal worse than I am, and you wouldn't ketch him leaving his work to take all the trouble I did to-day, Master Scarlett. Hah! here he comes back. Thank ye, Master Fred, lad. Hah! what good cider. Puzzle your Nat to make such stuff as that."
"He says ours is better," said Scarlett.
"Let him, sir; but that don't make it better."
"Bother the old cider! Who cares?" cried Fred. "Look here, Samson, don't say a word to anybody about our having found that hole."
"No, sir; not I."
"Why did you tell him that!" said Scarlett, as they walked away.
"I don't know," said Fred, starting.
"Perhaps I thought we ought not to tell, in case we wanted to hide some day."
"Hide! What from whom from!"
"I don't know," said Fred again, as he looked in a puzzled way at his companion; and then they parted. Fred felt that he should have liked to have told his friend why he wished the discovery to be kept a secret, but the puzzled feeling grew more intense, and when at last he dismissed it, he was obliged to own that he did not know himself any more than when he spoke.
FRED TAKES A JUMP.
The adventure in the Rill cave was talked about for a few days, and several plans were made for its further exploration; but, in spite of the talking, no further visit was made in that direction.
"You see, we ought to get a boat," Fred said, "and row right to the mouth, and go in that way next time, and we haven't got a boat."
"And no likelihood of getting one," said Scarlett, thoughtfully. "Shall we go down again, and take your Samson with us this time?"
"I don't see that there's any good in it; and see what a mess we should be in again. I was full of little tiny bits of slate all in my hair, and down my back, and, after all, it wasn't worth the trouble."
"Made me feel a bit queer. I say, Scar, only fancy being shut up there, and starving to death."
Scarlett gave an involuntary shiver.
"Don't talk about it."
"I say, starving to death makes you think about eating. When are your people coming over again to supper?"
"I don't know," said Scarlett, with an uneasy sensation.
"What's the matter, Scar?"
"I don't know. I'm not sure. I think your father and mine have fallen out again."
"What makes you think that?"
"Something I heard my mother saying to him."
"Well, they'll soon be friends again, I dare say."
"I hope so. But, Fred, how everybody seems to be talking now about the troubles in the east."
"Well, let them," laughed Fred. "We don't want any of their troubles in the west. What do you say to an afternoon's nutting?"
"The nuts are not half ripe."
"Well, let's get your Nat's ferret, and try for a rabbit."
"He would not lend it to us."
"Let's go down on the shore, and collect shells for your Lil."
"She has more than she wants now."
"Well, let's do something. I vote we go down and hunt out the way into that passage. We can do that without getting our heads full of slate."
Scarlett acceded readily, the more so that ever since their adventure in the passage, the place had had a peculiar fascination for both lads. They often stopped in the middle of some pursuit to talk about the curious idea of making a door to be entered by lying down, and contriving it out of a stair. Then there were the ingenious peculiarities of the old passage, and the strange gloom of the oak chamber, and the dark vault, with its heap of old arms, which they regretted not to have brought out to try and restore to something like their former condition.
For, in spite of previous failure, the idea of discovering the second entrance to that passage was often suggesting itself to the lads; and, in consequence, they began to haunt the edge of the lake, feeling sure that some day or another accident would direct them to the very spot they had searched for so long.
Scarlett insisted that they would find the opening right down in the water, while, on the other hand, Fred maintained the opposite.
"Nobody would be such a noodle as to build his back-door right down in the water," he said, "unless he meant the place for a bath. No; we shall find that doorway out in the wood somewhere, you mark my words, Scar. I dare say, if we were to take billhooks and cut and hack away the branches, we should find it soon enough."
Scarlett shook his head, but joined in the search, one which, in spite of their peering about, proved to be in vain, and, after being well scratched by brambles and briars, Scarlett had his own way again, and they began to hunt the shore.
The broad sheet of water ran up in quite a bay toward the fine old English mansion, and round this bay were dense clumps of hazels, patches of alder, and old oak-trees grew right on the edge of the perpendicular bank, their roots deep down beneath the black leaf-mould, which here formed the bottom of the clear water.
"It must be here somewhere," said Scarlett, one sunny afternoon, as they sat on the mossy roots of one of the great oaks, and idly picked off sheets of delicate green vegetable velvet and flakes of creamy and grey lichen to throw into the water.
"Yes, it must be here somewhere, of course; but I don't see any use in getting scratched by briars for nothing. We never seem to get any nearer to it. Perhaps we were wrong, and it's only a kind of well, after all."
"No," said Scarlett; "they would not make a well there."
"Then we got muddled over the way we went, and, perhaps, while we are looking for the entrance this side, it's over the other."
"No," said Scarlett again, "I don't think that."
"But if there had been a way in here from the lake, some one must have seen it before now. We should have noticed it when we were fishing or nesting. Or, if we had not seen it, your Nat or one of the other gardeners must have found it."
"No, they must not. I don't see any must about it. Perhaps it's too cleverly hidden away, or I shouldn't wonder if, since it was made, a tree had grown all over the entrance, and shut it right up."
"And we shall never find it."
"Not unless we cut the tree down."
"And, of course, we don't know which tree to cut."
"And if we did, my father would not have a tree touched on any account. Remember how angry he was with the wind?"
"What, when it blew down the big elm?"
There was a pause.
"I say," said Fred, yawning, "let's give it up. What do we care about where the passage comes out! We know where it goes in."
"Foxes always have two holes," said Scarlett, dreamily.
"So do rabbits. Lots of holes sometimes. But we're not foxes, and we're not rabbits."
"No; but you'll be like a water-rat directly, if you sit on that moss. It's as slippery as can be close to the edge. Come and get some nuts."
"Not ripe enough," said Fred, idly.
"Never mind; let's get some, whether or no."
"Where shall we go? We've got all there are about the edge of the lake."
"Let's go down there by the big oaks. There's a great clump of nuts just beyond, where we have not been yet."
"Oh yes, we have," said Fred, laughing; "leastwise, I have—one day when I came over and you weren't at home."
"That's always your way, Fred. I never come over to your place and take your things."
"Halloa!" laughed Fred, rising slowly from where he had lounged upon the mossy, buttress-like roots. "Who came and helped himself to my gilliflower apples?"
Scarlett laughed. "Well, they looked so tempting, and we were to have picked them that day. Come along."
They went crushing and rustling through the woody wilderness for about a hundred yards from the side of the lake. It was a part sacred to the birds and rabbits, a dense dark thicket where oaks and beeches shut out the light of day, and for generations past the woodman's axe had never struck a blow. Here and there the forest monarchs had fallen from old age, and where they had left a vacancy hazel stubs flourished, springing up gaily, and revelling on the rotten wood and dead leaves which covered the ground, and among which grew patches of nuts and briar, with the dark dewberry and swarthy dwale.
Here, as they walked, the lads' feet crushed in the moss-covered, rotten wood, and at every step a faint damp odour of mould, mingled with the strong scent of crushed ferns and fungi, rose to their nostrils.
"Never mind the nuts," said Fred; "let's get out in the sunshine again. Pst! there he goes."
He stopped short as he spoke, watching the scuttling away of a rabbit, whose white cottony tail was seen for a moment before it disappeared in a tunnel beneath a hazel clump.
"No; we'll have a few while we are here," said Scarlett, making a bound on to the trunk of a huge oak which had been blown down and lay horizontally; but while one portion of its roots stood up shaggy and weird-looking, the rest remained in the ground, and supported the life of the old tree, which along its mighty bole was covered with sturdy young shoots for about thirty feet from the roots. There it forked into two branches, each of which was far bigger than the trunk of an ordinary tree; but while one was fairly green, the other was perfectly dead, and such verdure as it displayed was that of moss and abundant patches of polypody, which flourished upon the decaying wood.
Opposite the spot where Scarlett leaped upon the tree-trunk—that is to say, on the other side—the thicket was too dense to invite descent, and the lad began to walk along toward the fork, pressing the young branches aside as he went, followed by Fred, who had leapt up and joined him.
"Here, I'm getting so hot," cried the latter. "What's the good of slaving along here! Let's go back."
"I don't like going back in anything," replied Scarlett, as he walked on till he reached the fork, and continued his way along the living branch of the old tree, with Fred still following, till they stood in the midst of a maze of jagged and gnarled branches rising high above their heads, and shutting them in.
These dead boughs were from the fellow limb to that on which they stood, the two huge trunks being about six feet apart.
"There, now we must go back," said Fred.
"No. It looks more open there," cried Scarlett. "If we could jump on to the other trunk, we could go on beyond."
"Well, anybody could jump that," said Fred.
"Except Fred Forrester," replied Scarlett, mockingly.
"What! not jump that? I'll soon show you."
"No, no; you can't do it, Fred, and you may hurt yourself."
"Well, that will not hurt you. Here goes."
"Mind that branch there."
"Oh yes, I'll mind the branches; and you have to do it when I've done. Way he!"
Fred stooped down, with his feet close together and his arms pressed to his sides, bent forward and jumped cleverly quite over the intervening space, and came down upon the great dead moss-covered trunk.
There was a crash, and it seemed to Scarlett for the moment that his companion's heels had slipped, and that he had gone down on the other side among the bushy growth that sprung up; but a second glance showed him that the apparently solid trunk was merely a shell, through which Fred had passed completely out of sight.
"Hoi! Fred! Hurt yourself!" cried Scarlett, laughing heartily.
There was no reply.
"Fred! Hoi! Where are you?"
Still no reply. And now, beginning to feel alarmed, Scarlett lowered himself down, and forced his way through the tangle of little shrubby boughs growing round him, to the dead trunk, and found himself within a breastwork of rotten bark as high as he could reach, and which crumbled away as he tried to get up, one great green mossy patch breaking down and covering him with damp, fungus-smelling touchwood.
"Fred! Where are you? Don't be stupid, and play with a fellow. Do you hear?"
Still there was no reply, and Scarlett gave an angry stamp on the soft ground.
"He's hiding away. I won't trouble about him," muttered the boy. Then aloud—"Very well, lad. I shan't come after you. I'm going back to the lake side."
Scarlett began to struggle back, making a great deal of rustling and crackling of dead wood; but he had not the slightest intention of leaving his companion behind, in case anything might have happened to him. So he clambered back through the brush of oak shoots on to the sound limb, and walked slowly back to the folk to try and walk along the dead portion of the tree; but before he had progressed six feet, he began to find that it was giving way, so he descended, and then slowly creeping in and out among the dead branches, sometimes crawling under and sometimes over, he began to make his way to the spot where Fred had disappeared.
It proved, however, a far more difficult task than he had imagined, for pieces of the jagged oak boughs caught in his jerkin; then he found that in stretching over one leg he had stepped into a perfect tangle of bramble, whose hooked thorns laid tight hold of his breeches, and scratched him outrageously as he tried to draw his limb back. Finding that to go forward was the easier, he pushed on, and took three more steps, vowing vengeance against his companion the while.
"It's horribly stupid of me," he muttered. "I don't see why I should take all this trouble to help a fellow who is only playing tricks, and will laugh when I find him. Oh, how sharp!"
Still there was the latent thought that Fred might have hurt himself, and Scarlett pressed on; but, all the same, seeing in imagination Fred's laughing face and mocking eyes. In fact, so sure, after all, did he feel that his companion was watching him from somewhere close by, that he kept thrusting the rough growth aside, and looking in all directions.
"I'll give him such a topper for this," he muttered; and then as he struggled on another foot, he suddenly stopped short, looked straight ahead, and exclaimed loudly, "There, I can see you. Don't be stupid, you old ostrich, hiding there. Now then, come out."
Scarlett's ruse was a failure. "He knows it isn't true," muttered the lad. "Serve me right for telling lies. It was only my fun, Fred," he cried hastily, to make honest confession of his fib. "But don't go on like that. Come out now, and let's get back. It makes me so hot."
He listened, and in the stillness of the wilderness he could have heard any one breathing, if he had been close at hand; but all was perfectly still, until, high up in a neighbouring tree, a greenfinch uttered its mournful little harsh note, which sounded like the utterance of the word wheeze.
"Surely he hasn't hurt himself," muttered Scarlett; and then aloud, as an uncomfortable sensation came over him—"Here, Fred! Fred! lad, where are you? Why don't you speak?"
"As if I don't know where he is," muttered Scarlett again, now growing thoroughly alarmed. "He must have slipped and hurt his back.—All right; I'm coming," he cried. "With you directly, as soon as I can get through this horrible tangle.—That's better. Now then, what's the matter? Fred, where are you? I say, do call out, or something. I don't like it. Fred, lad, are you hurt?"
And all this time he was forcing his way onward, the brambles tearing and the old oak wood crackling. The greenfinch uttered its mournful wheeze once more, and fled in alarm as Scarlett broke down a good-sized branch which barred his way, the rotten dry wood snapping with a sharp report; and then, panting and hot after his heavy labour to get through so short a space, he forced himself to the place where Fred had landed, and, to his utter astonishment, found that on his side the whole of the trunk was gone, merely leaving the shell-like portion which had impeded him before, while below the crumbled tree-trunk was a great gap.
For a few moments he stood there aghast. Then, recovering his presence of mind, he pushed aside more of the growth which impeded him, and looked down into a narrow pit which was choked with broken wood and ferns.
"Fred!" he shouted; but there was no reply. There, however, beneath him, he could see his companion's head and shoulders, with eyes closed, or seeming to be in the dim light, and only about five feet below where he stood.
Without a moment's hesitation, but trembling the while for fear that this might be some terribly deep pit into which his companion might fall if once the broken boughs which supported him gave way, Scarlett tried bough after bough of the old oak to find one upon which he could depend; but they all crackled in a way that threatened snapping if he trusted one; so, reaching back, he got hold of a stout hazel which seemed to be a dozen or fourteen feet high, dragged it down, and holding it by twisting his hand among the twigs at the top, he began to descend.
At every movement the earth crumbled, and the bed of rotten wood supporting Fred, as he lay back with his face to the light, shook so that at any moment Scarlett expected to see it descend into the profound abyss below. But in spite of this, as he climbed down the short distance, he realised the state of affairs—that in its fall the oak had crushed in the masonry arch over some old well-like place, leaving this terrible hole securely covered till the wood had rotted away; and that now it had been Fred's misfortune to leap upon the spot, go through, and be held up by the broken wood, which formed a kind of rough scaffold a short distance below.
Should he run back for help?
No; he could not leave Fred like that. And yet when he reached him he was afraid that the slightest touch would send him down; and now he realised how fortunate it was that Fred had been hurt, and had remained insensible, for if he had struggled, the possibility was that he must have gone through at once.
Short as the distance was, Scarlett had to take the greatest precautions, for, as he tried to get foothold, something gave way beneath him, and he hung by the hazel, feeling as if all the blood in his body had rushed to his heart, for there was a loud hollow splash, which went echoing horribly away, and he found himself with his eyes on a level with the old crumbling masonry forming an arch.
He recovered himself though directly, for he could stretch out a hand and touch Fred.
The touch had instant effect, for the lad opened his eyes, stared at him wildly, and then said quickly—
"What's the matter?"
"Nothing much, if you are careful. You have fallen, and are hanging here. Now—"
"Fallen? Oh yes, I remember; the tree," cried Fred. "Oh, my head, my head!"
"Never mind your head," whispered Scarlett. "Now listen."
"I say, what hole's this? Is it a well?" said Fred, eagerly.
"Don't, pray don't talk. Now, can you reach up and get hold of the hazel above my hands?"
"Dare say I can," said Fred, coolly. "Yes. There!"
"Then be careful. You are held up by that broken wood. Now try and draw yourself out."
"Can't," said Fred, after one effort. "I'm held tight; wedged in by this wood."
"Try again; but be careful, whatever you do."
"Wait a moment. Oh, my head, my head! I hit the back of it on something."
"Ah, mind!" cried Scarlett, in agony. "Don't think about what is beneath you, but try to climb up."
"Of course: only my head hurts so. I gave it such a knock."
"Yes, yes," cried Scarlett, impatiently; "but do mind."
"Well, I am minding; only don't be in such a fuss. I must get this piece of broken bough away."
"No," cried Scarlett, in agony; "don't leave go your hold."
"But can't you see," cried Fred, impatiently, "that this is just like a wire trap? I've gone through it, and the points are all round me, holding me from coming back."
"Yes, I see something of the sort; but if you leave go, you may fall."
"By passing through. Now, I'll pull you if I can. Make a struggle at once before you grow weaker."
"Wait a bit. I'm not going to grow weaker. I mean to get stronger. Don't you fidget. I'll be up there in no time."
Scarlett groaned in his nervous agony, and the great drops stood upon his brow. He had found hold for one foot by thrusting it in above a snake-like root which formed quite a loop in the broken-away soil, and now, reaching down, he thrust his hand within the collar of Fred's jerkin, and held with all his force.
In those moments of excitement, he could not help thinking how often it was that the looker-on suffered far more than the one in peril, and he found himself marvelling at his companion's coolness, suspended there as he was with the dreadful echoing abyss below him, that which had given forth so terrible a splash when the stones of the old arch gave way.
"Now then," cried Fred, as he gazed in his companion's ghastly face, "when I say 'Now,' you give a good tug, and I'll shake myself clear in no time."
"No, no; I dare not," faltered Scarlett.
"What a coward! Well, then, let go, and let me do it myself."
"No, no, Fred; pray take my advice. Don't attempt to stir like that. Only try making one steady draw upward. As soon as you get free of those broken branches, which hold you so tightly, they'll all fall with a splash below."
"Of course they will," said Fred, coolly.
"I don't seem to be able to make you understand your danger."
"Isn't any," said Fred.
"No; and, look here, it's getting precious cold to my legs, so here goes."
"Fred, listen! If you shake and move those branches which hold you down, you will go to the bottom."
"Can't," cried Fred.
"How can you be so foolish, when I am advising you for your good?"
"I'm not foolish. I want to get out, and you want me to stay."
"But you'll fall to the bottom of this horrible hole."
"Can't," cried Fred.
"No; I'm standing on the bottom now."
"Well, so I am, with the water just over my knees."
"Well, if you don't believe it, come down here and try."
THE SUBTERRANEAN WAY.
Scarlett hung there from the hazel bough staring, and for a few moments utterly unable to realise that which his companion had said, till Fred gave himself a shake, like a great dog coming out of the water, and by degrees got one leg free, then the other, trampling down the broken wood, and standing at last on a level with his companion.
"Did you think it was deep?" said the lad.
"Deep? Yes; I did not know how deep. Then it is not a well?"
"Why, of course not. Don't you see it's the passage we were looking for, and it does go down to the lake."
"Of course. Look, you can see a little both ways. Of course the top's broken in here. Isn't it droll that we should find it like this. But oh! my head. I gave it such a crack when I fell. It served me just as if I was a rabbit. I don't know how long I've been like that."
Scarlett could not answer him, so excited had he become at the strange turn things had taken.
"There, my head's better now," said Fred, as he sat at the edge of the hole after climbing lightly out: and as he spoke he amused himself by kicking down fragments of the side to listen to the echoing splash. "What do you say to going up to the house for a light? No; let's get Nat's stable lanthorn, and then go down here and see where the way out goes."
"I know," cried Scarlett, eagerly.
"Why, down there, right away by the old tree clump—right out yonder."
"There can't be a way out there, because we should have seen it."
"Perhaps it's covered up so as to keep it hidden till it was wanted."
"Let's go and see. But, stop a moment. We don't want another way in, now we've got this."
"No," said Scarlett. "I don't know, though. Let's go and see."
"All right; it will dry my legs," replied Fred. And, getting up, the two lads made their way down to the head of the little bay nearest to the house, and then worked along among the alders which hung over the lake till they came to the part of the old forest Scarlett had named—an evergreen patch of about an acre, on which stood a dozen or two of the finest trees in the park.
"Why," cried Scarlett, "I remember old Dee—"
"Yes—saying that there once used to be a boathouse down here."
"Then, why didn't we look there first?"
"Because it was not a likely place, all that distance away."
Neither did it seem a likely place now, as they climbed over a rough, moss grown fence, and entered the unfrequented spot, to find old masses of rock peering out of the soil, ancient trees coated with ivy, and an abundance of thick undergrowth such as they had been fighting with a short time before.
The task was less difficult, and they spent the next half-hour hunting along the edge of the lake, whose shore here was for the most part high and rocky, but broken here and there by shrubby patches of gorse and heather, in company with fine old birches, whose silvery trunks were reflected in the lake.
"I knew you were wrong," said Fred at last, as he sat down in a sunny spot to let his legs dry, "it couldn't be here."
"Because, if it were here, we should have found it."
Scarlett said nothing, but stood at the edge of the rocky bank, now looking down into the water, now toward the bushes which were overhanging the lake. There were plenty of rather likely places, but none quite likely enough, and reluctantly agreeing at last that he might have been mistaken, he turned slowly away from the ivy covered perpendicular bank, and sauntered slowly back with his companion in silence.
"My legs are getting drier now," said Fred, suddenly. "What do you say—shall we fetch a lanthorn, and go down into the passage?"
"I don't see what you want with dry legs, if you are going to wade," replied Scarlett, thoughtfully.
"You don't want to go."
"Yes, I do."
"Perhaps so," replied Scarlett; "but you are not, so let's go and get the lanthorn."
A quarter of an hour later, the lanthorn was secretly obtained, lighted, and a supply of pieces of candle included, and then the question arose, How were they to get it down to the little wilderness unseen?
"Somebody would be sure to come and look what we were doing."
"I know," cried Scarlett. "Let's get a big bucket, and a couple of rods, and they'll think we are going to fish."
The idea was accepted at once, and the lads marched off, rods over shoulder, and the bucket swinging between them, its light unseen in the broad sunshine. The place was soon reached, and, taught by experience, they found a better way to the prostrate oak, and after a little struggling and scratching, stood gazing down.
"Look hear, Scar," cried Fred, "if we find a better way in, we can easily cover this place over with some old branches and fern roots, because it must be a secret way, or it's of no use."
Scarlett quite agreed to this, and there they stood gazing up at the arrowy beams of sunshine which shot down through the leaves. Then they had a look down into the hole which, with its watery floor and darkness, was anything but tempting.
"Don't look very nice, Scar, does it?"
"Not at all. Shall we give it up?"
"If we do, as soon as we get home, we shall say what cowards we were."
"Yes, I shall," replied Scarlett, "but, all the same, I don't want to go down. Do you?"
"And you don't want me to go alone?"
"No, I don't think so. Here, Scar, don't let's give ourselves a chance to call ourselves cowards. I'll go, if you will."
"I don't want to go, but I will, if you will. Come along."
The hesitation was gone.
"I'll go first," said Scar, "because you have been down, but I suppose we must be careful so as not to loosen any stones."
"Very well," said Fred, rather unwillingly. "Give me the lanthorn to hold."
The light was drawn out of the bucket, and Scarlett prepared to descend; but this proved it longer task than was expected, for it was first necessary to drag out several pieces of broken branch.
This being done, Scarlett looked up at his companion, who let himself down without hesitation, and they stood together with the daylight above them, and the narrow lugged stone passage stretching away to right and left.
"Which way shall we go first?" asked Scarlett.
"This way," cried Fred, and his voice sounded so strange and hollow, that as he stood there up to his knees in water, which glimmered and shimmered on the black surface, he hesitated and wished that he had not agreed to go.
For there before them lay a narrow path of light, ending in quite a sharp point, and seeming to point to the end of their journey.
They both told themselves that they were not likely to meet anything that would do them harm, but, all the same, neither of them could help wondering whether there would be any unpleasant kind of fish in the depths as they neared the lake. That word depth, too, troubled them. It was easy enough to wade now, but suppose it should grow deeper suddenly, and they should step into some horrible hole. Suppose—
"Look here," cried Fred, suddenly, as they waded slowly on, listening to the whisper and splash of the water, "I wish you'd be quiet with your suppose this, and suppose that. You don't want to frighten me, do you?"
"Why, I never spoke," cried Scar.
"Then you must have been thinking aloud, for it seemed to me as if you were saying things on purpose to scare me."
"Well, it is enough to scare anybody, Fred; and I don't mind saying to you that I don't like it."
"But we will not go back?"
"Only you might hold the light a little higher."
Scarlett obeyed, and they cautiously went on, with the water still about the same depth, and for prospect above, before, and on either side, there was the arch of rugged stones, the dripping wall, and the gleaming water.
That was all, and after going about fifty yards, Fred exclaimed—
"I say, this can never be of any use to us. Who's going to wade through water for the sake of having a secret place?"
"Nobody," replied Scarlett; "but let's go on, as we've gone so far."
"What's the matter?" cried Scarlett, stopping short suddenly.
"I thought something laid hold of my leg. Mind!"
Scarlett nearly dropped the lanthorn. "Oh, I say, Scar, that would be too horrible. Do be careful. I don't want to be in the dark again."
"It was your fault, you pretending to be frightened."
"I didn't pretend. I was frightened. It did seem as if something touched my leg. I say, how much farther do you think it is?"
"What! to the end? I don't know. Come along."
"Well, if anyone had told me that I should do such a thing as this, I wouldn't have believed him," grumbled Fred. "How cold the water feels!"
"You wouldn't mind if it was one of the streams, and we were after trout."
"No; because it would be all light and warm there, and we could see what we were doing. Don't you think we might go back?"
"No. Let's go to the end now. I'm sure this is the way down to the lake, and we shall find the entrance. Perhaps we shall find the end blocked up, and then when we open it all the water will rush out, and we shall have a dry passage after all."
"Then you will not give it up?"
"No," said Scarlett, doggedly. "It's our place, and I want to be able to tell father all about it."
"No, no; don't do that," cried Fred, in dismay.
"I don't mean yet. I mean when we've done with it."
"I've done with it now," muttered Fred. "I don't see any fun in going sop, sop, squeeze, squatter, through all this cold, dark water. Eh! what's that—the end of it?"
"I think so," said Scarlett, holding the lanthorn up as high as he could. "Here are some steps and a door."
"Of course; then that must be the door that opens on the lake."
"No, it can't be, for the steps are dry, and—I say, Fred!"
"What is it?"
"Look here," cried Scarlett. "This is strange. Here's a chamber or cellar."
"Just like the other we found."
"Like it," cried Scarlett; "why, it is it!"
"What nonsense! That one was toward the house. This one is toward the lake."
"Nonsense or no, there's the old armour in the corner."
The two lads stood with the lanthorn held up, staring at the heap, and then at the rusty hinged door, and lastly at one another.
"Do you believe in enchantment, Fred?" said Scarlett, at last.
"No, not a bit. Enchantment, and witches, and goblins, and all those sort of things, are nothing but stuff, father says."
"But isn't it curious that we should have found ourselves here? It is the same, isn't it?"
"I think so. Yes, that's the way into the house," said Fred, staring along the dark passage. "But I don't care whether it is or whether it isn't. My legs are so wet that I mean to get out as soon as I can."
Scarlett held the lanthorn up again, and had one more good look round. Then, without a word, he turned, descended the steps into the water, and began to wade back.
"Oh, I say, it is wet!" grumbled Fred, as he followed the lanthorn, watching their grotesque shadows on the wall, the flashing of the light on the water, and the glimmering on the damp walls.
Neither of the lads spoke now as they waded on, for each was trying to puzzle out the problem of how it was that they should have journeyed backward; but no light came.
"I shall make it out," said Fred, "as soon as we get in the sunshine again. Go on a bit faster, Scar."
But there was no temptation to go faster, and the slow wading was continued, till a glimmering of light cheered them; and then quicker progress was made, for the opening seemed to send down more and more light as they approached, till they could see quite a fringe of roots, which had forced their way through the arch of rugged stones, and at last make out how the roof of the passage had been driven in by the fall of the tree.
"Oh! there is something now," cried Scarlett, starting.
"What is it?"
"Something did touch my leg."
"Kick it!" cried Fred, huskily. "Look out, Scar! it's swimming towards you. Mind, mind!"
The boy had raised up his foot to kick, but placed it down again, for the terror proved to be a piece of rotten wood floating on the surface.
"How easy it is to be frightened!" said Scarlett, drawing a long breath, as they stood once more at the opening.
"Yes, far too easy," grumbled Fred. "I wish it wasn't. Shall I go up first, or will you?"
"Isn't it a pity to go up without finding the way?" said Scarlett, hesitatingly.
"It does seem to be; but I've had enough of it. Let's go up now."
"Shall we? I know we shall want to come down again."
"Yes," said Fred, hesitating; "I suppose we shall. Do you feel to mind it so much now?"
"I don't think so."
"Let's go on, then."
"Shall we, Fred?"
"Yes; didn't I say so?" cried Fred, crossly. "Go on; you've got the light."
Without another word, Scarlett held the light above his head.
"It seems very rum though, Scar. That must be the way to the house."
"Well, let's see."
Scarlett started once more with the lanthorn along the tunnel in the other direction, apparently toward the house, while, with a maliciously merry laugh on his face, Fred hung back, and half hid himself among the fallen wood and stones.
Scarlett went on quite a couple of dozen yards, talking the while, every word he said coming back as in a loud whisper distinctly to the mouth of the hole.
"Don't seem to get any deeper, Fred. I'm glad we came, because we shall find it out this time."
Fred chuckled and watched, and, to his surprise, he saw his companion and the light gradually disappear, leaving the tunnel in obscurity.
"Why, I shall have to go in the dark," cried Fred to himself. "Oh!" And, startled more than he had startled his companion, he hurried after him, so eager to overtake the light that he nearly went headlong in the water, for his body went quicker than his legs.
"Hi! stop a minute, Scar!" he cried; and he noted, as he hurried on, that the passage made a great curve, though it was so gradual that he could not tell its extent.
"Why, I thought you were close behind me," said Scarlett, as he overtook him. "Lean a little forward, and you'll find it easier to go along through the water. It's getting just a little deeper now."
"Then this must be the way to the lake, after all."
They persevered, going steadily on for some time, and, with the water gradually creeping up and up till it was mid-thigh, and then higher and higher till it was almost to their hips, and then they stopped.
"I shan't go any farther, Scar," cried Fred. "I don't want to have to swim."
"Yes, it is getting deep," said Scarlett, thoughtfully.
"Couldn't get a boat down here, could we!"
"No; but we might get one of the big tubs," replied Scarlett. "It would hold us both. Shall we go back now?"
"Yes; we're so horribly wet; but hold the lanthorn up higher, and—Oh, I say!"
Scarlett had obeyed, and raised it so high that the lanthorn struck slightly against the rough roof, and, as the candle happened to be already burning away in the socket, this was sufficient to extinguish it, and for the moment they were in total darkness, or so it seemed to them in the sudden change.
Then Fred cried exultantly, "Look! look!" and pointed to a bright, rough-looking star of light.
"Sunshine," cried Scarlett. "Then that is the entrance. Shall we go on?"
Fred had already squeezed by him, and was wading on toward the light, which proved to be not more than fifty feet away.
"Come along!" he cried; "it isn't very much deeper, only up to my middle now. Here, I'm touching it. This is the end, and—it's—it's—no, I can't quite make out where it is," he continued, as he darkened the hole by placing his face to it; "but I can see the lake, and I could see where, only there's a whole lot of ivy hanging down."
"Can you get your head through?"
"No; too small. Come and look."
Fred made way for his companion, and, while he was peering through, the other amused himself by feeling the flat surface which stopped farther progress, and soon made out that there was a wall of rugged stone, built up evidently to stop the entrance; and this was matted together with ivy strands and roots which had forced their way in.
"Yes," said Scarlett, at last, as he drew away; "this is the entrance, and now we've got to find it from outside."
"Yes; but how?"
"Oh, we shall soon find it. Get the boat, and hunt all along till we find a place that has been built like a wall, and then search for this hole."
"And how about the ivy all over it?"
Scarlett was silent for a while.
"I had forgotten all about the ivy," he said.
"If we could tell about where it was, I dare say we could soon find it."
"Yes, but we can't tell yet."
"And we shan't find out by stopping here, Scar; and oh, I say—"
"What's the matter?"
"The water's right up in my pockets. Come along back."
"But we've got to go in the dark."
"Can't help it. I don't mind so much now, for we can't go wrong. Come along."
Fred took the lead now, and they went steadily back, feeling their way along by the damp wall, and casting back from time to time regretful looks at the bright star of light, which grew less and less, and then disappeared; but as it passed from sight, they saw to their great delight that there was a faint dawn, as it were, on ahead, and this grew brighter and brighter, till they seemed to turn a corner, and saw the bright rays shooting down through the hole, which they reached with a rather confused but correct notion that about here the passage took a double curve, somewhat in the shape of the letter S; but they were too eager to get out into the wood again to give much attention to the configuration of the place.
"Hah!" exclaimed Fred, taking a long breath, and then beginning to squeeze the water out of his nether garment, "that's better. I say, hadn't we better hide this hole?"
"I don't think we need; nobody ever comes here. Let's go and have a look down by the lake."
SOMETHING THE MATTER.
The two lads were so accustomed to rough country life and to making wading expeditions for trout in the little rivers, or rushing in after the waves down by the seashore, that, after giving their garments a thorough good wring, they soon forgot all about the dampness in the interest of searching for the entrance to the secret passage down by the lake.
"I know how it must all have been," said Scarlett. "When our house was built, there must have been wars. I dare say it was in the War of the Roses, and that place was contrived, so that in case of need any one could escape."
"Yes; and if the place was taken, the rightful owners could get in again."
"And now it's all peace," said Scarlett, thoughtfully, "and we can make it our cave, and do what we like there."
"But it isn't all peace," said Fred. "I heard father say that if the king went on much longer as he's going on now, there might be war."
"No; a civil war."
"What Englishmen against Englishmen! They couldn't."
"But they did in the Wars of the Roses."
"Ah, that was when people knew no better, and there were different kings wanted to reign! Such things never could occur again."
"I hope not."
"There! this is where the entrance must be."
The two lads had reached the edge of the lake now, and began once more to search along the most likely spots where the rocky banks were perpendicular and high, and covered with ivy and overhanging trees.
But it was labour in vain, and at last, as the afternoon grew late, they sat down on a piece of slaty rock in the hot sunshine, swinging their legs over the side, gazing out at the bright waters of the lake.
"I don't care," cried Fred, pettishly; "I'm tired of it. I don't mind now whether there's a way in or a way out. It's of no use, and I'm hungry. I shall go home now."
"No; stop and have supper with us."
"Very well. I don't mind; only let's go."
The two boys went straight up to the Hall, passing Nat on the way, ready to exchange a salute and a grin.
"What are you laughing at, Nat?" cried Fred.
"Only at you two, sir. You've been up to some mischief, I know."
The boys exchanged hasty glances, which, being interpreted, meant, "Has he been watching us?"
"I always knows," said Nat, with a chuckle.
"No, you don't," cried Fred. "You're just like our Samson."
"So would you be, Master Fred, if you was a twin."
"I did not mean that. I meant being so precious cunning and sure about everything when you don't know anything at all."
"Ah, don't I, sir! Ha, ha, ha! I could tell Sir Godfrey a deal more than you think for."
"Yes, you'd better," cried Fred. "You do, that's all, and I'll go home and lead Samson such a life."
"Wish you would, sir, for he deserves it. A nasty, stuck-up, obstint fellow as never was. I never meet him without he wants to quarrel with me and fight. Thinks he's the strongest man there is, and that he can do anything. And talk about a temper!"
"Shan't," cried Fred. "What do we want to talk about tempers for? Our Samson has got as good a temper as you have."
"Nay, nay, Master Fred; now that aren't a bit true. And I beg your pardon, sir: our Sampson's father was my father."
"Oh yes! and his mother was your mother. That's what you always say."
"Which it's a truth, Master Fred," said the gardener, reprovingly; "and Master Penrose say as a truth can't be told too often."
"Then I don't think the same as Master Penrose. Do you, Scar?"
"No, of course not. Well, Nat, what were you going to say?"
"Only, sir, that Sampson's my brother; but I'm mortal sorry as he's the gardener for any friends of yours, for a worse man there never was in a garden, and I never see it without feeling reg'lar ashamed of the Manor."
"Ha, ha, ha!" laughed Fred. "Why, that's just what our Samson says about your garden."
"What, sir? Our Samson said that about the Hall garden?"
"Yes, lots of times."
Nat had a hoe in his hand, and he let the shaft fall into the hollow of his arm as he moistened his hands, took a fresh hold of the ash pole as if it was a quarter-staff, and made half a dozen sharp blows at nothing before letting the tool resume its place on the earth.
"That's what's going to happen to Samson Dee next time we meets, Master Fred; so p'raps you'll be good enough to tell him what he has got to expeck."
"Tell him yourself, Nat," said Scarlett, shortly. "Come along, Fred."
The gardener stood looking after them till they disappeared through the great door of the Hall, and then went on hoeing up weeds very gently, as if he did not like to injure their tender fibres.
"Master Samson won't be happy till I've given him stick enough to make his bones sore. Hah! we shall have to get it over somehow. Samson won't be content till we've had it out."
The supper of those days was ready when the boys entered the great dining-room, Fred having declared himself ravenous while upstairs in Scarlett's bedroom, where, the lads being much of a size, he had been accommodated with a complete change, even to dry shoes.
Sir Godfrey and Lady Markham were waiting, the former looking very serious, and his countenance becoming more grave as he saw Fred enter.
"You bad boys," whispered Scarlett's sister, as she ran up to them, with her dark hair tossed about her shoulders. "Father was beginning to scold."
"How do, Lady Markham?" said Fred, and her ladyship looked troubled as she took the boy's hand. "How do, sir? It was so late, and I am so hungry, that I thought you would not mind my stopping to supper with Scar."
"Ahem! No, my boy," said Sir Godfrey, trying to be cordial, but speaking coldly. "Sit down. Been out with Scarlett?"
"Yes, sir. All the afternoon in the woods," replied Fred, looking at the baronet wonderingly, for he had never heard him speak in such a tone before.
Ever since he could remember he had been in and out of the Hall at meal-times, even sleeping there often, and Scarlett's visits to the Manor had been of the same character. To all intents and purposes the life of the boys had been that of brothers, while that of their fathers had been much the same.
It was a genuine old-fashioned Coombeshire repast to which the hungry boys sat down, eating away as boys of fifteen or sixteen can eat, and bread and butter, ham, cake, junket and cream, disappeared at a marvellous rate.
"Is your father poorly?" whispered Fred, after satisfying his hunger to some extent. "I don't know. Don't speak so loud."
"Wasn't speaking so loud," said Fred, kicking Scarlett under the table. "What's the matter with him?"
"I don't know. Heard some bad news, perhaps."
"Shall we tell him about the secret way? He'd like to hear, I dare say."
"No, no; let's keep it to ourselves for the present."
That something was troubling Sir Godfrey was evident, for his supper was hardly tasted, and twice over, when Lady Markham spoke to him, and pressed him to eat, he declined in an irritable way.
"I shall have to join them, if these things go on, Margaret."
"Yes; I feel it is a duty to one's self and country. If we country gentlemen are not staunch now, and do not rally round his majesty, what are we to come to?"
Lady Markham shook her head, and softly applied her handkerchief to her eyes, ending by rising and going to where Sir Godfrey sat and, laying her hand upon his shoulder, she bent down and whispered a few words to him, which seemed to have a calming effect, for he took her hand from where it lay, raised it to his lips, and looked up in his wife's eyes for a few moments before she returned to her place.
All this seemed very strange to the lads, who, feeling uncomfortable, began chatting to Lil, but a complete damp was thrown over what was generally a pleasant, sociable meal, and it was with quite a sense of relief that Fred rose at a hint from Scarlett, and they went out into the hall to walk up and down,—talking for a few minutes before Scarlett ran up the stairs and down once or twice to make sure that all was right by the topmost balusters.
"Glad I did not make up my mind to tell father," he said, as he stood once more by the open door.
"What's the matter?"
"I don't know. Father has had letters, I suppose, that have upset him."
"But he said something about the king—and rallying round him."
"Well, never mind that. Shall we get the boat out to-morrow morning, and have a hunt along the side of the lake? We must find that archway."
"Yes, of course."
"What time shall I come—directly after breakfast?"
"Yes, and I'll have the boat baled out. She's half full of water. Job for Nat."
"Then I'll run home now. Good night.—Good night."
The second good night came from half-way to the west end of the lake, as Fred ran on down to the narrow track which skirted the water-side.
"He will not go and hunt for it by himself," said Scarlett, thoughtfully, as he turned to go in, little thinking what a shadow was falling over his home. "No," he added laconically, "too dark;" and, after a glance toward the woodlands at the east end of the gate, he entered the house whistling merrily.
Fred's way across the fields to the Manor was among sweet autumn scents, and with moth and bird taking his attention at almost every step.
The white owl was out, with its peculiar grating cry; so was the tawny owl, breaking forth into its loud hail—hoi-hoi-hoi! Skimming about the oak-trees he saw the nightjars again, every swoop meaning death to some unfortunate moth or beetle.
But all these objects were too familiar to call for more than a passing glance as the boy hurried on. Down in the hollows the mists were gathering and floating a little way above the ground, as if there were a fire near, while far away in the east a bright planet burned like silver opposite to the warm glow left in the west.
"Hurrah! there we are," cried Fred, as he topped the last hill, and looked down at the lights which showed where home lay; and he was not long in getting over the ground, almost quicker than he was satisfied with, for he was making his plans for the next morning respecting the discovery of the entrance to the passage.
For the whole of the incidents in connection with the secret chamber had thoroughly excited him, and he felt as if he could not rest till he had found out everything about the place.
To his great surprise, as he entered the house, he found that supper was not begun.
"Been waiting for me, mother?" he cried to the calm, sweet-faced lady seated working by the light of rather a dim candle.
"No, Fred," she said, smiling gravely, as she drew him down and kissed his brow.
"Because I had mine with Scar. Where's father?"
"In the library. He has a gentleman with him."
"Yes; he has come from Bristol to see your father on business."
"Oh!" said Fred, carelessly; and he sat down and rested his head upon his hand.
"Does your head ache, my boy?" asked his mother.
"Head? No, mother. I was only thinking," said the boy, as his mother's words brought him back from wandering in the water-floored passage.
"Thinking of your studies?"
Fred started a little, for his studies had been rather neglected of late.
"No, mother, only of a hunt Scar and I had in the Hall woods to-day."
It was in the boy's heart to tell his mother all that had passed, and their discovery from beginning to end, but he argued, "If I do, it will not be a secret any longer."
There was a pause.
"Father said that a well-intentioned boy would have no secrets from his father and mother, and that they should be always looked upon as his best friends. But it isn't mine altogether," argued Fred, after another very long pause; "and I've no business to tell Scar's secret to any one till he has told it to his own father and mother; and, besides, as it's a private place, they would not like any one to know about it, and—"
"Yes, Forrester, we may throw away all compunction now," said a loud, firm voice; and Fred rose from his seat as his father entered in company with a tall, broad-shouldered man, whose grizzled, slightly curly hair was cut very close to his head, and whose eyes seemed to pierce the boy, as he gave him a sternly searching look. He had a stiff, military bearing, and he did not walk down the long low room, but seemed to march rather awkwardly, as if he had been riding a great deal.
He nodded familiarly to Mistress Forrester, who looked at him in rather a troubled way, as he marched straight to Fred, slapped him sharply on the shoulder, and gripped it so hard as to give him acute pain. But the boy did not flinch, only set his teeth hard, knit his brow, and gazed resentfully in the visitor's dark eyes, which seemed full of malice and enjoyment in the pain he was giving.
"So this is Fred, is it?" he said in a harsh voice, which sounded as if he was ordering Colonel Forrester to answer.
"Yes, sir," said Mistress Forrester, with dignity, "this is our son;" and she looked wonderfully like her boy in the resentful glance she darted at her guest, for she could read Fred's suffering.
"Hah! made of the right stuff, like his father, Mistress Forrester. Did that hurt you, my boy?"
"Of course it did," said Fred, sharply.
"Then why didn't you cry out or flinch, eh?"
This was accompanied by a tighter grip, which seemed as if the stranger's fingers were made of iron.
The grip was but momentary, and the boy stood like a rock.
"Well," said the stranger again, "why didn't you cry out?"
"Because I would not," replied the boy, frowning.
Fred tried to hold back, but the command was so imperious, and the firm, sinewy hand before his face seemed to draw him, and he laid his own within it, to feel the fingers close in a warm but gentle grasp, the pressure being firm and kindly; and in place of the fierce look a pleasant, winning expression came into the visitor's countenance, while the left hand was now clapped upon the boy's shoulder, and closed in a pressure as agreeable as the other was harsh.
"Glad to know you, my lad. That's frank and manly of you. The right stuff in him, Mistress Forrester. He'll make a good man, colonel. Well?"
"I didn't speak, sir," said Fred, in answer to the question and look.
"That's right, too. Don't be in too great a hurry to speak," said the visitor; and somehow, to his own astonishment, Fred felt himself drawn toward this imperious personage, who seemed to take command of every one in the place. "Well, Forrester, you'll make a soldier of him."
The hesitatingly spoken pronoun came from Mistress Forrester, who seemed checked by the guest's quick look of reproof.
"I had not decided yet," said Colonel Forrester, gravely; and Fred noticed that his father seemed to have suddenly grown rigid and stern in manner and tone of voice. "What do you say, Fred? should you like to be a soldier?"
"Yes, father; like you have been."
"No, no, Fred, my boy!" cried his mother.
"Madam," said their guest, "ladies do not always understand Latin, but a certain Roman poet called Horace once said, 'Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori'. Let me modify it by saying, 'to offer in time of need to die for your country.' It does not follow that a man who fights for his home and liberty dies. Good lad. Be a soldier."
"I will, sir," said Fred, firmly. "Father didn't die, mother."
"No, nor you shall not, my boy. There, now, we know one another, and I hope we shall become well-tried friends."
"But I don't know you yet, sir. You have not told me your name."
The visitor clapped Fred on the shoulder again, and there was a merry, kindly light in his eyes as he cried—
"Come, I like this, Forrester. Your Coombeland boys are the genuine, frank English stuff. Fred, my lad, I like your out-spoken ways. From some lads it would have been insolence, but from you it seems sturdy, honest independence. You may know me for the present, my boy, as Captain Miles."
"Miles, a soldier," said Fred to himself but the visitor heard him.
"Right," he cried. "Miles, a soldier. Mistress Forrester, I congratulate you on your home and surroundings. And now, pardon my frankness, I have travelled far to-day and I journey far to-morrow, I am a-hungered and a-thirst, madam; and afterwards, as your good husband and tried soldier and I have done our business, I shall be glad to press a pleasant west-country bed."
With winning courtesy, but at the same time with a half-shrinking, troubled look in her eyes, Mistress Forrester led the way to the table, and as soon as he was seated the guest seemed to cast off his imperious military manner, and become the courtly scholarly gentleman who had read much, travelled far, and thought deeply. So pleasant and interesting was his conversation that Fred grew more and more attracted by him, and listened with wide-open eyes to all he said.
Only once did the business-like, firm and decisive officer appear after supper, when he suddenly apologised and rose.
"I have an old-fashioned way of looking after my best friends, Mistress Forrester," he said. "At the present moment, on this journey, my horse is one of my best friends. You will excuse my visiting him?"
"If you will trust me, Captain Miles," said Colonel Forrester, placing some emphasis on the name, "I can promise you that your good horse has everything that will help him to make a long journey to-morrow."
"I do trust you, Forrester," said the visitor, smiling. "I would I had ten men like you, and as worthy of trust."
As he spoke, he subsided into his chair, but Fred was already on his legs.
"I'll go and see after the horse," he said.
The visitor gave him a kindly approving nod, and the boy left the room.
"How old is he, Mistress Forrester?" he said.
"Sixteen," replied the hostess, sadly.
"Just on the dawn of manhood, madam. Hah, Forrester, old friend, it is a grand thing to be sixteen, and with life before you. God bless all boys! How little they know how grand a thing it is to be young!"
There was silence after this speech—a silence which lasted till Fred entered eagerly.
"The horse is quite right, sir," he cried.
"How do you know, boy?"
"How do I know, sir? Because he is eating his corn so well, and feels so comfortable and cool. I say—"
"He's a fine horse."
"Yes. So he is. A splendid fellow. There, my kind hosts, I'll say good night. I would I had come on another mission, but it is only duty, and you must forgive me. I shall be off at dawn. Good night, madam. Good night, Forrester. I knew I could depend on you. Good night, my boy. You'll forgive me for pinching your shoulder so hard. It was to try your mettle."
"Oh, I didn't mind," cried Fred. "Good night, sir; and when I do become a soldier, will you have me in your regiment?"
"I will," thundered out the guest. "Forrester, that's a bargain. Good night."
There was silence in the room as the two men went out together; and as soon as the door was closed, Mistress Forrester dropped into the nearest chair, and covered her face with her hands.
"Mother, dear mother," cried Fred, going on his knees before her, and throwing his arms about her neck, "you are crying because I said I would be a soldier!"
"No, my boy," she said, looking up, "I was weeping for the evil days in store for us all. Heaven be with us, and guide us all aright. Good night, my boy, good night."
Fred kissed her tenderly, and suffered her to lead him to the door on his way to his room.
He passed his father on the stairs, and there was a troubled look in the colonel's eyes, as he bade his son good night.
A quarter of an hour after, Fred was in bed dreaming of secret passages, and the captain helping him to fight men in rusty armour after they had won their way to the inner chamber where the old arms lay; and then it seemed to him that he heard the trampling of horses, and he woke to find it was morning, and the sun shining into his room.
NAT IS VERY MUCH IN THE WAY.
Fred lay for some few moments thinking over his vivid dream and unable for a time to realise that he had been fast asleep. That was the morning sunshine sure enough, and this was his room; but his head felt in a whirl, and as if it was mixed up with some puzzle.
But that was not the coinage of his brain that distant pit-pat of a horse's hoofs upon the hard road; and springing out of bed, he ran to the window, threw it open, and looked out, straining his neck to get a glimpse of the distant way.