"So you are a crop-ear and a rebel," said Nat, for his fall had hurt him, and made him disagreeable.
"Silence, sir!" cried Fred, as he made a gesture as if to strike the ex-gardener a blow with the flat of his sword.
"Shan't silence," said Nat. "You're not my master. Rebels can't be masters, and you daren't hit me now I'm tied up, much as you'd like to. Cowards, all of you!"
"Beg pardon, captain," said Samson, "but may I untie his arms, sir, and have him down under the trees with our buffs off? I could give him such a leathering in five minutes."
"Silence! Forward! Samson, rein back;" and they rode slowly on till the outskirts of the camping place were reached, sentries challenging and men cheering the little party as they came in with their captives right to where the regiment lounged about the camp-fires.
Here Colonel Forrester strode out from his tent, followed by half a dozen officers, all ready to cheer the boy who had so successfully carried out the reconnaissance.
"Any one hurt?" asked the colonel, looking very cold and stern, and hardly glancing at his son.
"Only a few scratches and bruises, sir. We took the whole party."
"That's well. Which is the leader? Here, you!"
Scarlett paid no heed to the command, but a couple of the troopers seized his arms, and hurried him before the colonel.
"Which way has the main body of your forces gone, sir?"
"You had better follow and find out for yourself, Colonel Forrester," said the prisoner, coldly. "You will get no information from me."
"Scar Markham!" exclaimed the colonel, in astonishment. "My poor boy, I am sorry that we should meet like this."
"And I am glad, sir," cried Scarlett, excitedly, "for it gives me an opportunity to say that I, too, am sorry to see you like this, a rebel and traitor to your king."
"Silence, sir! How dare you! Take the prisoners away, and see that they are well used."
"Yes, father," replied Fred; and he saw the five men disposed of, and then led Scarlett to his own little tent which he had placed at his disposal, and saw that he had an ample supply of food.
He then took his own, of which he was in sore need, and began to eat in silence, furtively watching the prisoner, who remained silent, and refused the food, though he was famishing.
Fred's anger had subsided now, and remembering the old days before these times of civil war and dissension, he said quietly—
"I am sorry I have nothing better to offer you."
Scarlett turned upon him sharply, with a flash of the eye, as if about to speak; but he turned away again, and sat looking straight before him.
There was a long silence then, during which Fred thought how hard it was for his old friend to be dragged there a prisoner, and he said softly—
"I was only doing my duty, Scar. I was sent out to take the party seen from our outposts."
"Have the goodness to keep your pity for those who need it, crop-ear," said Scarlett, scornfully; "and recollect that I am, though a prisoner, one of his Majesty's officers, one who holds no converse with rebels."
Fred's cheeks flushed again, and his brow wrinkled.
"Very well," he said angrily. "We are fighting on opposite sides, but I did not know that we need insult each other when we met."
As he spoke he left the tent, and Scarlett winced, and his eyes softened.
"Poor old Fred!" he said below his breath; "and I used to think he was like a brother."
It was a glorious evening as Fred Forrester strolled away from the tent, stopping to speak to one of the sentries about the prisoner in the little tent, though he felt that he need hardly take any precaution, for Scarlett was not likely to try to escape and leave his men behind.
"Wonder whether we shall ever be friends again," he thought, "and be back at the old places as before. This terrible fighting cannot always go on. What's that?"
A great deal of shouting and laughter in the centre of a little crowd of soldiers took his attention, and one of the voices sounding familiar, he walked slowly toward the group, hardly caring in which direction he went so that it was away from his tent.
"What are they doing?" he asked of one of the men.
"Don't quite know, sir. Teasing one of the prisoners, I think."
Feeling that his father would be angry if the prisoners were annoyed in any way, he walked sharply to the throng, and, as he reached it, he heard a familiar voice say—
"Now, that's what I call behaving like a brother should, gentlemen. He goes away into bad company and disgraces his name, lets his hair grow ragged and greasy and long, and comes here a prisoner with a nasty dirty face, so what have I done? I give him my supper because he was hungry, and he ate it all, and called me a crop-eared rebel for my pains. So after that I washed his face for him and cut his hair, and made him look decent, but I didn't crop his ears, though the shears went very near them two or three times. But look at him now."
There was a roar of laughter at this, and Fred could hardly keep from joining in, so comical was the aspect of Sir Godfrey Markham's old servant, as he stood there with his hands bound behind him.
For, as Samson said, his brother was now quite clean, and he had cut his hair, which had grown long, in a bad imitation of a Cavalier's. But this was not merely cut off now, but closely cropped, so that Nat's head was round and close as a great ball.
"All right, Sam," he said, as his brother came close to him. "Wait a bit till our side wins, and then perhaps I may take you prisoner, and if so—"
"Well, if you do—what then?"
"Wait, my lad, and see."
Fred Forrester could never after fully explain his feelings. He left the group feeling as if some spirit of mischief had taken possession of him, and kept suggesting that he too had fed his brother, had given up everything to him, and been reviled for his pains. Why should not he show Scarlett Markham that courtesy was due to those who had made him prisoner of war? As it was, his old companion seemed to have grown arrogant and overbearing. He had spoken to him as if he were a dog, and looked at him as if he were one of the most contemptible objects under the sun.
"No," he said, with a half-laugh, "I could not do it."
Then he recalled a long list of injuries he had received from Scarlett, things which had made his blood boil, and he felt tempted again.
But his better self prevailed the next minute, and, shaking his head, he returned to his tent, to find that after all Scarlett had partaken of the food, and had now thrown himself down on Fred's cloak and gone to sleep.
As he lay there in the dim light, Fred gazed at his old companion's handsome young face, flowing curls, and soiled but still handsome uniform, with something like envy. But this passed away; and soon after he lay down outside the tent, to fall into a fit of musing, which was mingled with the pace of sentries, hoarse orders, and the blare of trumpets. Then all was silent, and he fell fast asleep, out there on the bare ground, only to awaken at the morning calls.
A LESSON IN SELF-CONTROL.
"You will take twelve men as escort, and guard those prisoners to Newton Abbott; there you will give them up, and return as quickly as you can to me."
"Yes, sir. The men need not be bound?"
"Yes; every one."
"Scar Markham, father?"
"Yes; you must run no risks. You might meet a party of the enemy, and if your prisoners fought against you, what then? Let them be bound while on the road. They will have comparative freedom when you have given them up."
The stern school of war in which Fred Forrester was taking his early lessons of discipline and obedience had already taught him to hear and to obey.
This was after a halt of three days in their temporary camp, during which the careful general of the little army had thought it better to rest and recruit his men than to weary them in a vain pursuit at a time when they were pretty well exhausted with previous work.
Fred had seen a great deal of the prisoners during the time, but only for the estrangement between him and his old companion to grow greater. For Scarlett was suffering bitterly from the reverses which had befallen his party, and was in agony about his father's fate. He had tried to obtain some news of the division to which they had been attached, but all he could learn was that in the late engagement it had been cut to pieces, and its components who remained had fled in all directions, while he could not discover whether his father had been among the many slain.
Stung by his sufferings, and irritable to a degree, he was in no mood to meet Fred's advances, looking upon him, as he did, as one of his father's murderers, and when he did not give him a fierce look of resentment, he turned his back upon him, and treated him with the greatest scorn and contempt.
Their relations under these circumstances did not promise well, then, for their journey to Newton Abbott, and matters seemed to culminate for ill when the escort was ready, the prisoners' horses brought out, and Fred announced that the time of departure had come. Scarlett rose from where he had been lying upon his cloak in silence; but the sight of his old companion seemed to rouse him to speak; and in a bitterly contemptuous way he turned to his men, saying to Nat—
"They might have sent a man to take charge of us, my lads."
Fred winced, and felt small in his military uniform. He bit his lip, and told himself that he would not notice the petty remark, but the words leaped out—
"I dare say I shall be man enough to take you safely to your prison, sir;" but Scarlett turned angrily away.
The prisoners took their cue from their leader, and behaved in an exaggerated, swaggering manner, that was galling in the extreme.
"Seem to have starved our horses," said Nat, to one of his fellows; and, less fall of control than his leader, Samson spoke out.
"No, we haven't, for we've given the poor things a good fill out, such as they hadn't had for a month; and my word, Nat, you look quite respectable without those long greasy corkscrews hanging about your ears." Nat turned upon him fiercely. "Do I?" he cried. "Wait till our turn comes, and I'll crop you."
"Don't want it," cried Samson, gleeful at his brother's rage.
"Your hair don't, but your ears do, so look out."
"Silence!" cried Fred, sternly; and then he gave the order for all to mount.
As he was obeyed, and Scarlett swung himself into the saddle, his nostrils dilated, and as he felt the sturdy horse between his knees, he involuntarily glanced round at the surrounding country.
Fred saw it, and smiled. "No, sir, not this time," he said. "I think you will be too well guarded for that."
Scarlett showed that he was well dubbed; for his pale cheeks flushed the colour of his name as he turned away, feeling hot that his action should have been plain enough for his enemy to read his thoughts.
Then he set his teeth fast, and they grated together, as he heard Fred's next orders, and saw a couple of men close up on either side of the prisoners, thrust a stake beneath their arms and across their backs, to which stake their arms were firmly bound, and the ends of the cords which formed their bonds made fast to their horses' necks.
"No fear o' you cantering off, Master Nat," said Samson, as, with keen appreciation of his masterful position, he tied his brother as tightly as he could, while Nat resisted and struggled so that he had to be held by Samson's companion, his steel headpiece falling off in the encounter. "That's got him, I think," said Samson, tightening the last knot which held him to the horse. "Dropped your cap, have you? All right, you shall have it. There!"
A burst of laughter followed Samson's act of politeness, for he had stuck on the steel jockey-like cap with its peak towards the back, and the curve, which was meant to protect the back of the head, well down over his eyes.
"Only wait," grumbled Nat; "I'll save all this up for you."
"Thank ye, Nat. I say, you haven't got a feather in your cap. Anybody got a feather? No. I've a good mind to cut off his horse's tail for a plume; the root of the tail would just stick upon that spike. Hallo, what's the matter there?"
Nat turned sharply from his brother to where Scarlett was hotly protesting.
"It is a mistake," he said, angrily, to the two men who had approached him on either side with stake and cord. "I am an officer and a gentleman, and refuse to be bound."
"It's the captain's orders, sir," said one of the men, surlily.
"Then go and tell him that you have mistaken his orders," cried Scarlett, ignoring the fact that Fred was seated within half a dozen yards.
The men turned to their officer, who pressed his horse's sides and closed up.
"What is the matter?" he said. "Of what do you complain, Master Markham?"
"Tell your officer I am Captain Markham, of Prince Rupert's cavalry," said Scarlett, haughtily.
"I beg your pardon, captain," said Fred, coldly. "Now, then, of what do you complain?"
"Of your scoundrelly rabble, sir," cried Scarlett, turning upon him fiercely. "You see, they are about to treat me as if I were a dog."
"They were going to bind you, sir, as your men are bound. In our army, the officers are not above suffering and sharing with their men."
Scarlett winced at this, and flushed more deeply, but he tried to turn it off by a fierce attack.
"Then this is some cowardly plot of yours to insult one who has fallen into your hands."
"I am obeying the orders of my superior officer, who placed you and the other prisoners in my charge, with instructions that they were to be conveyed bound to their destination."
"The men, not their officer, sir."
"Ah," replied Fred, coldly. And then, laconically, "Bind him."
"You insolent dog!" cried Scarlett, in his rage. "It is your malignant spite. You shall not bind me, if I die for it."
As he spoke, he struck his spurs into his horse's flanks, snatched the stout ash stall one of the men held from his hand, leaned forward, and then, as Fred seized his horse's bridle to stop him from galloping off, struck his captor with all his might.
The blow was intended for Fred's head, but the movement of the horses in the melee caused the staff to fall heavily across the young officer's thigh.
Unable to restrain a cry of rage and pain, Fred snatched his sword three-parts from its sheath, and then thrust it back, angry with himself for his loss of temper, while Scarlett sat struggling vainly, for the man who held the rope had skilfully used it just as a child would a skipping rope, throwing it over the prisoner's arms, crossing his hands, and passing one end to a soldier on the other side. In an instant, Scarlett's elbows were bound tightly to his ribs, and there held, while a couple more men thrust a fresh staff behind his back and under his arms, another rope was used, and with the rapidity which comes of practice upon hundreds of previous prisoners, the passionate young officer was literally bound and trussed, the ends of rope being made fast to the horse he rode.
The men who were looking on, murmured angrily at the blow which they saw fall on their young officer.
"Hang him to the nearest tree," shouted one of the party.
"Silence!" cried Fred, sternly; and speaking quite calmly now, though he was quivering with pain, he pressed his horse closely to that upon which his prisoner rode.
"That was a cowardly blow, Scar Markham," he said, in a whisper. "I was only doing my duty. You'll ask my pardon yet."
"Pardon?" raged the lad; "never! Oh, if I only were free and had my sword, I'd make you beg mine for this indignity. Miserable wretch! Rebel! I shall live yet to see you and your traitor of a father hung."
Fred started angrily at this, but he checked himself, reined back his horse, and looking very white now from anger and pain, he gave the word of command. Six of his men formed up in front of the prisoners, the other six took their places behind; swords were drawn, and the horses bearing the prisoners needed no guiding, but in accordance with their training as cavalry mounts, set off in rank as the word "March!" was given, the young leader waiting till all had passed, and then taking his place beside the last two men, one of whom was Samson.
A COWARDLY REVENGE.
No word was spoken as they crossed the fields that separated them from the road, which they reached by the leading men turning their horses into the rapid stream, and letting them wade for a few yards through the flashing water knee-deep, and sending the drops foaming and sparkling in the bright morning sun.
"Left," shouted Fred, as the road was reached, and the next minute the little detachment was trampling up the dust which rose behind them.
"Did it hurt you much, Master Fred?" whispered Samson.
"Hurt me? I felt as if my leg was cut off; and it is just now as if the bone was broken."
"Perhaps you'd better not go, sir."
"Not go? I'd go if it was ten times as bad."
"And what are you going to do to Master Scar?"
"Half kill him some day."
"Why not to-day, sir? Draw up somewhere in a wood, and we'll all see fair. You can whip him, Master Fred; I know you can. We'll set them free for a bit, and I'll stand by you, and Nat shall stand by his young master."
"Don't talk nonsense, Samson."
"'Tisn't nonsense, sir. You nearly always used to whip him when you two fell out, and you're bigger and stronger now."
"But we are in different positions now, Samson," said Fred, thoughtfully; "and it is impossible."
"Don't say that, sir. The men would like to see you whip him for what he did."
"No, Samson. It could not be done."
"You aren't afraid of him, are you, sir?"
"Afraid? How dare you?"
"Oh, I beg pardon, sir. I was only saying so because I thought the men would think you were, for putting up with a crack like that."
Samson's words stung more deeply than he expected, though he had meant then to rankle, for to his mind nothing would have been more fairer or more acceptable than for his young leader to face the Royalist prisoner with nature's weapons, and engage in a regular up and down fight, such as would, he felt sure, result in victory for their side.
They rode on in silence for some time before Samson hazarded another word.
"Beg pardon, sir," he then said, humbly. "I didn't mean to hurt your feelings."
"No, no; I know that, Samson."
"It was only because I thought that the men might think you afraid of Master Scarlett."
Fred turned upon him angrily.
"I beg your pardon again, sir," whispered Samson; "but it's just as I say. I know you aren't scared of him a bit, because I've knowed you ever since you was a little tot as I give pigabacks and rides a-top of the grass when I'd a barrow full. But the men don't know you as I do, sir. Call a halt, sir, and fight him."
"Samson, I am talking to you as my old friend now, not as your officer. It is impossible."
"Not it, sir. The men would like it. So would you; and as for me—let me fight brother Nat same time, and I'll give him such a beating as he won't know whether it's next We'n'sday or last We'n'sday, or the year before last."
"I tell you, man, it's impossible, so say no more."
"Very well, Master Fred. I only tell you the truth; and if you find the lads aren't so willing to follow you, mind, it's that."
"I have my duty to do, sir, so say no more."
"What a nuisance dooty is," said Samson to himself, as his young leader went slowly to the front, and rode for a time beside the leading file. "They'll set him down as a coward. 'Course I know he isn't, but they'll think so. Ha, ha, ha!"
"What are you laughing at?" said the man on his right.
"At him," cried Samson, pointing forward at his brother. "Looks just like a trussed turkey."
"Ah," said the man, quietly, "and who knows when it may be our turn to ride prisoners just the same? Knew him before, didn't you?"
"Eh? knew him? Well, just a little," said Samson, drily. "Come from the same part o' Coombeland. Me and him's had many a fight when we was boys."
"And the young captain and that long-haired popinjay met before, haven't they?"
"Often. I was gardener to our captain's father—the colonel, you know; and that fellow with his headpiece on wrong was gardener to his father as hit our officer."
"Took it pretty quiet, didn't he?" said the man.
"Well, just a little. That's his way."
"Wasn't afraid of him, was he?"
"Afraid? Why, he don't know what it means!"
"Humph! Looked as if he did," grumbled the man; and further conversation was stayed by Fred checking his horse, and letting the detachment pass on till he was in the rear.
They rode on hour after hour, till the horses began to show the need of water, and the men were eager for a halt to be called, so that they might dine and rest for a couple of hours under some shady tree; but for some time no suitable spot was found, and the advance and rear guards rode on, keeping a keen look-out for danger one minute, for a shady grove and water the next.
Once there was an alarm. One of the advance guard came galloping back after seeing a body of horsemen about half a mile away, their arms glittering in the sun; but the party, whatever it was, seemed to be crossing the road at right angles, and for safety's sake, Fred drew back his men and took refuge among some trees in a hollow a hundred yards from the road, where, to the great satisfaction of all, a spring was found rushing out of the rock.
Here in a regular military fashion the horses' girths were loosened, they were watered, and allowed to crop the grass. Outposts were planted, hidden by the trees; sentries were placed over the prisoners, whose bonds were not unloosed, and the men opened their wallets to partake of a hasty meal.
As soon as all the arrangements had been made, Fred saw that his prisoners were supplied with food, a man being deputed to attend to their wants, and this done, the young officer strolled off to the edge of the woodland, where the road could be seen east and west, and stood there watching for the first approach of danger.
His thoughts were divided between his charge and Scar's blow and insulting, contemptuous conduct, which rankled bitterly, for he could not help feeling that the men would judge him according to their lights; and, think of the matter how he would, he felt that he had placed himself at a disadvantage.
"If I had only struck him back I wouldn't have cared."
"Thought that over, sir?"
Fred started, and turned to find that Samson had followed him and approached over the soft moist ground beneath the trees unheard.
"Thought that over?" faltered the young officer.
"Yes, sir. Here's a splendid place for it just below among the big trees. Nice bit of open turf, quite soft for when you tumble down; and it would just please the men to see my young dandy cockerel's comb cut after what he did for you."
"Samson, you are talking nonsense. After serving so long in the army, you ought to know something of what an officer's duties are."
"No, sir; I shall never learn nothing about dooties. I can fight, because it comes nat'ral to a man, and I'm obliged to; but I shall never make a good soldier."
"You don't know, then, what you are saying."
"Oh yes, I do, sir; and I know what the men are saying; and if you won't fight, it must be me, for there's bound to be a rumpus if they go on saying you behaved as if you had a white feather in your cap."
"Who dared to say that?"
"Several of 'em, sir; and I wouldn't hit out, because I thought you would think better of it and fight."
Fred turned away angrily.
"Well, sir, I can't help speaking plainly; and I thought it better to tell you what the lads are saying about it."
"I cannot help what they say, sir; I am doing my duty. Now go back to yours."
"Yes, captain; but don't be angry with your old servant as followed you to the wars. Give me leave to fight Nat, and that will be something."
"But it would keep the men's tongues quiet, sir. Just about a quarter of an hour would do for me to thrash him, and it would be all right afterwards. The men wouldn't talk so much about you."
Fred marched up and down without a word.
"You see, sir, it's like this. Young Master Scar Markham's bouncing about and ordering and behaving as if he was everybody.—You won't fight him, sir?"
"Then why not do something just to show him he isn't everybody, and that you are not afraid of him?"
"You know I am not afraid of him, Samson," cried Fred, hotly.
"Of course I do, sir; but the men don't know. How could they? There isn't one there as took you in hand from a little one, when you was always tumbling down and knocking the skin off your knees."
Fred made an impatient gesture.
"You see, sir, if you'd only do something it wouldn't so much matter. Any one would think, to see the airs he puts on, that he was Prince Rupert himself."
Fred turned away, and stood with his back to his henchman, lest Samson should see from his face how he longed to forget his duty, and to cease being an officer for a few minutes, becoming once more the careless boy who could retaliate sharply for the blow received.
"He's sitting yonder, sir, in his scarlet and gold and feathers, and tossing his head so as to make his ringlets shake all over his shoulders. Proud as a peacock he is, and looking down on us all like my brother Nat did till I sheared off his long hair, and made him a crop-ear too. It's done him no end of good. I only wish some one would serve his lordship the same."
Samson little thought what effect his words would have on his young leader, who again turned away and walked up and down to master the emotion which troubled him. The blow he had received seemed to smart; he pictured the faces of his men looking at him with covert smiles on their lips, and he seemed to see Scarlett sneering at him as some one so cowardly as to be utterly beneath his notice; and he was suffering all this because he believed it to be his duty.
The blood rushed up into Fred's cheeks, and then to his brain, making him feel giddy as he strode away to avoid temptation, for his nerves were all a-tingle, and the desire kept on intensifying to seize some stout staff and thrash his prisoner till he begged his pardon before all the men.
But he could not do such a thing. He told himself he must suffer and be strong. He had certain duties to perform, and he would do them, boy as he was, like a man. And to this end he walked quietly back to the little camp, giving a long look round to see that all was safe.
The mossy ground beneath the trees deadened his footsteps as he approached his prisoners to see that all were right; and there, as Samson had described, sat Scarlett, looking proud and handsome in his uniform, while he fanned his face with his broad-leafed felt hat and feathers, each waft of air sending his curls back from, his face.
Fred had involuntarily stopped short among the bushes to gaze at the prisoner, heedless of the fact that Nat and the other men were just before him, hidden by a screen of hazels.
Then the blood seemed to rush back to his breast, for a familiar voice said—
"Don't tell me. He used to be a decent young fellow when he came over to our place in the old days; but since he turned rebel and associated with my bad brother, he's a regular coward—a cur—good for nothing but to be beaten. See how white he turned when the captain hit him with that staff. White-livered, that's what he is. Do you hear, sentries? White-livered!"
The men on guard uttered a low growl, but they did not say a word in their officer's defence; and a bitter sensation of misery crept through Fred, seeming for the moment to paralyse him, and as he felt himself touched, he turned slowly to look in a despondent way at Samson, who stood close behind him, pointing toward the group as another prisoner said—
"Why, if we had our hands free, and our swords and pistols, we'd soon send these wretched rebels to the right-about. Miserable rabble, with a miserable beggar of a boy to lead them, while we—just look at the young captain! That's the sort of man to be over a troop of soldiers."
It was doubtful whether Scarlett heard them, as he sat there still fanning his face, till at last, in a fit of half-maddening pique, Fred turned again on Samson, and signed to him to follow.
Then, striding forward, he made his way to the sentry nearest to where Scarlett was seated.
"Why are your prisoner's arms at liberty, sir?" he cried.
"Don't know, sir," said the man, surlily. "I didn't undo them."
Fred gazed at him fiercely, for he had never been spoken to before like this, and he grasped the fact that he was losing the confidence of those who ought to have looked up to him as one who had almost the power of life and death over them.
"How came your lianas at liberty, sir?" cried Fred, sternly, as he turned now on Scarlett.
The latter looked in his direction for a moment, raised his eyebrows, glanced away, then back, in the most supercilious manner, and went on fanning himself.
"I asked you, sir, how your hands came to be at liberty?"
"And, pray, how dare you ask me, insolent dog?" flashed out Scarlett.
The altercation brought three more of the guard up to where they stood, and just in time to see Fred's passion master him.
"Dog, yourself, you miserable popinjay!" cried Fred. "Here, Samson! Another of you—a fresh rope and stake. You must be taught, sir, the virtue of humility in a prisoner."
Without a moment's hesitation, he sprang at the young officer, and seized him by the wrists, but only to hold him for a moment before one hand was wrenched away, and a back-handed blow sent Fred staggering back.
He recovered himself directly, and was dashing at his assailant to take prompt revenge for this second blow; but Samson already had Scarlett by the shoulders, holding on tightly while the staff was thrust under his armpits, and he was rapidly bound as firmly as two strong men could fasten the bonds.
Fred woke to the fact that his followers were watching him curiously, as if to see what steps he would take now, after receiving this second blow; but, to their disgust, he was white as ashes, and visibly trembling.
"Be careful," he said. "Don't spoil his plumage. We don't have so fine a bird as this every day. Mind that feathered hat, Samson, my lad. He will want it again directly. Here, follow me."
Scarlett burst into an insulting laugh as Fred strode away—a laugh foreign to the young fellow's nature; but his position had half maddened him, and he was ready to do and say anything, almost, to one who, he felt, was, in a minor way, one of the betrayers of his father; while as Fred went on, gazing straight before him, he could not but note the peculiar looks of his men, who were glancing from one to the other.
Fred felt that he must do something, or his position with his men would be gone for ever. They could not judge him fairly; all they could measure him by was the fact that they had seen him struck twice without resenting the blows.
What should he do?
He could not challenge and meet his prisoner as men too often fought, and he could not fight him after the fashion of schoolboys, and as they had fought after a quarrel of old.
Fred was very pale as he stopped short suddenly and beckoned Samson to his side, the result being that the ex-gardener ran to his horse, was busy for a few moments with his haversack, and then returned to where his master was standing, looking a shy white now, and with the drops of agony standing upon his brow.
The next minute Fred had tossed off the heavy steel morion he wore, throwing it to his follower, who caught it dexterously, and then followed closely at his leader's heels.
"Master or Captain Scarlett Markham," he said, in a husky voice, "you have taken advantage of your position as a prisoner to strike me twice in the presence of my men. It was a cowardly act, for I could not retaliate."
Scarlett uttered a mocking laugh, which was insolently echoed by his men.
Fred winced slightly, but he went on—
"All this comes, sir, from the pride and haughtiness consequent upon your keeping the company of wild, roystering blades, who call themselves Cavaliers—men without the fear of God before their eyes, and certainly without love for their country. You must be taught humility, sir."
Scarlett laughed scornfully, and his men again echoed his forced mirth.
"Pride, sir," continued Fred, quietly, "goes with gay trappings, and silken scarves, and feathered hats. Here, Samson, give this prisoner a decent headpiece while he is with us."
He snatched off the plumed hat, and tossed it carelessly to his follower.
"And while you are with us, sir, you must be taught behaviour. You are too hot-headed, Master Scarlett. You will be better soon."
Scarlett was gazing fiercely and defiantly in his old companion's face, hot, angry, and flushed, as he felt himself seized by the collar. Then he sat there as if paralysed, unable to move, stunned, as it were mentally, in his surprise, and gradually turning as white as Fred as there were a few rapid snips given with a pair of sheep shears, and roughly but effectively his glossy ringlets were shorn away, to fall upon his shoulders.
Then he flung himself back with a cry of rage. But it was too late; the curls were gone, and he was closely cropped as one of the Parliamentarian soldiers, while his enemy-guard burst into a roar.
"There, Master Scarlett Markham," said Fred, quietly, "your head will be cooler now; and you will not be so ready to use your hands against one whose position makes him unarmed. Samson, the headpiece. Yes, that will do. Master Scarlett, shall I put it on, as your hands are bound?"
"You coward!" cried Scarlett, hoarsely, as he gazed full in Fred's eyes; and then again, with his face deadly pale, "You miserable coward! Bah!"
He turned away with a withering look of scorn, and, amid the cheering of his men, Fred tossed the shears to Samson, and strode away sick at heart and eager to walk right off into the wood, where, as soon as he was out of eye-shot, he threw himself down and buried his face in his hands.
"Miserable coward!" he said hoarsely. "Yes, he is right. How could I do such a despicable thing!"
A CLEVER SCHEMER.
Fred Forrester felt that he had had his revenge—that he had hit back in a way that humbled and wounded his enemy more deeply than any physical stroke could possibly have done; and, as has been the case with thousands before and since, he had found out that the trite old aphorism, "Revenge is sweet," is a contemptible fallacy. For even if there is a sweet taste in the mouth, it is followed by a twang of such intense bitterness that no sensible being ever feels disposed to taste again.
He had struck back fiercely, and bruised himself, so that he felt sore in a way which made him writhe; and at last, when, urged by the knowledge that he must attend to his duty, he rose, instead of walking back to where his men were waiting the orders to continue the route, proud and elate, he felt as if he were guilty and ashamed to look his prisoners in the face.
No sooner, however, was he seen by his men than there was a loud buzz of voices, and he learned what a change had taken place between them, for instead of being welcomed back with sidelong glances and a half meaning look, the soldiers saluted him with a loud cheer, in which sentries and the two outposts joined.
His action, then, was endorsed by his followers, who began laughing and talking merrily among themselves, looking from time to time at the prisoners, among whom sat Scarlett, with his arms upon his knees and his face lowered into his hands.
Fred's first inclination was to go straight to his captive, offer him his hand, and beg his pardon for what he had done; but two strong powers held him back—shame and dread. What would Scarlett say to him for the degradation? and what would his men say? They would think him ten times the coward they thought him before.
It was impossible; so giving his orders stoutly and sharply, the horses were bitted and the girths tightened. The prisoners were then helped into their saddles, and the ends of the ropes made fast after an examination to see that the bonds were secure, and once more they sought the road, the advance guard well to the front, and the relative positions of the early part of the march resumed.
There does not seem to be much in a few snips with a pair of big scissors; but the young leader's use of those cutting implements had completely changed the state of affairs in the little party. For while the guard were merry, and looked in the best of spirits, the common prisoners seemed as if they felt most bitterly the insult offered to their young captain, sitting heavily in their saddles, with their chins down upon their chests, and neither looking to right nor left, while Scarlett Markham gazed straight before him, his eyes flashing beneath the steel headpiece he now wore. His face was very pale, and his whole form was rigid as he sat there with his arms well secured to the cross staff at his back, and his lips tightened and slightly drawn back from his teeth as he drew his breath with a low hissing sound.
A few hours before, although a prisoner, he had looked the dashing young Cavalier in his scarlet, feathers, and gold, and, in spite of his uniform being stained and frayed with hard service, the lad's mien had hidden all that, and he seemed one to look up to and respect.
Now all was changed: the gay hat and feathers had been replaced by the battered steel morion; the long clustering effeminate curls were shorn away, and the poor fellow looked forlorn, degraded, and essentially an object for pity; his uniform showed every stain, and the places where the gold lace was frayed—and all through the working of a pair of shears among his locks. A short time before the smart young Cavalier, now only Fred Forrester's prisoner—nothing more.
As they rode onward the men commented upon the change aloud; but not half so intently as did Fred Forrester in silence.
The afternoon grew hotter; there was a glorious look of summer everywhere, for nature was in her brightest livery; but to the young leader everything seemed shrouded in gloom, and twice over he found himself wishing that a party of the enemy would come upon them suddenly and rescue those of whom he had charge.
As they rode on slowly with Fred in the rear, he noted that the two men who formed the advance guard were not in their proper places; and, seeking relief from his torturing thoughts in striving to give the strictest attention to his father's military lessons, he turned to Samson.
"Ride forward and tell those men to advance another hundred yards. They are far too near in case of surprise."
Samson spurred his horse, cantered forward, gave the order, and then halted as the advance guard trotted on for a hundred yards or so.
As the party came up, Samson exchanged looks with his brother, whose lips moved as if he were saying—
"Only just you wait, my fine fellow, and I'll serve you out for this."
But Samson laughed and rode to his old place in the rear beside his captain.
As Samson went by Fred, the latter caught sight of something scarlet, and the colour suggesting his prisoner, he turned sharply upon his follower.
"What's that?" he said.
"Only the young captain's hat, sir."
Fred frowned as he saw that Samson had fastened the grey felt hat with its gay feathers to his saddle, and then glanced forward at Scarlett, whose cropped head was sheltered by the heavy, uneasy steel cap.
"Ride forward," he said, "and give the prisoner back his hat."
Samson stared, but of course obeyed. Untying the hat from his saddle, he rode forward to where Scarlett sat, gazing straight before him.
"Captain sent your hat, sir. Shall I put it on?"
There was no reply.
"Your hat, sir. Shall I put it on?"
Scarlett took not the slightest notice, and after a momentary hesitation Samson uttered a grunt, pressed his horse a little closer, took the steel cap from the young prisoner's head, and placed the feathered felt there instead.
Then, backing his horse, he allowed the party to pass on, while he resumed his place, hanging the steel headpiece to his saddle-bow by the strap and chain.
"What's that? Look!" cried Fred, sharply.
He checked his horse as he spoke, and looked back, needing no answer, for there behind them in the dusty road, battered and disfigured, lay Scarlett's dashing head-gear; for so badly had it been replaced that, in his suppressed rage, the prisoner had given his head an angry toss, the felt hat had fallen, and it seemed as if, out of malice, every horse had passed over it, and trampled it down in the dust.
"Shall I pick it up, sir?" said Samson.
"No; let it be there," was the reply. "Take the prisoner the headpiece again."
Samson muttered to himself as he unhooked the steel cap and rode forward, while, in his resentment at having to go through the same duty twice, he took pains to treat the helmet as if it were an extinguisher, literally putting Scarlett out, so far as seeing was concerned.
And all the while, with his arms bound behind him, Scarlett Markham rode on with his head erect.
"Another insult," he said to himself. "The miserable coward! I could kill him as I would a wasp!"
The afternoon glided slowly by, and the detachment kept to a walk, for the heat was great, there was no special haste needed, and Fred wanted to spare his horses as much as possible. But after a short halt for refreshment at a roadside inn, where the landlord dispensed cider and bread-and-cheese liberally to either side, so long as he was well paid, but all the same with a strong leaning toward the Royalists, the little party rode on at a trot, very much to the disgust of the landlord, who stood watching them from his door.
"Poor lad!" he said. "Must be Sir Godfrey Markham's son from over yonder toward the sea. How glad he seemed of that draught of milk the lass gave him! Seems hard to be a prisoner, and to his old schoolfellow, for that's young Forrester, sure enough. I've a good mind to. No; it's interfering, and I might be found out, and have to hang on one of my own apple-trees as a traitor. But I've a good mind to. Yes, I will. Dick!"
"Yes, master," came from the stable, and a stout boy with some oat chaff in his rough hair made his appearance.
"How long would it take you to get to Brownsand?"
"On the pony?"
"Four hours by road. Two hours across the moor."
"Take the pony, then, and go across the moor. There's a regiment of horse there."
"Them as went by day afore yesterday?"
"Yes. Ride straight there and tell the officer. No, I can't do it."
"Oh, do, father, please—please!"
"You here, Polly?"
"Yes, father," said his rosy-cheeked daughter, who had fetched the mug of milk from the dairy. "You were going to send and ask them to save the prisoners."
"Was I, mistress? And pray how do you know?"
"I guessed it, father. That poor boy!"
"Perhaps I was," grumbled the landlord; "but I'm not going to do so now."
"Oh, don't say that, father!"
"But I have said it; and now, both of you go about your work."
"Oh, father, pray, pray send!"
"Do you want to see me hung, madam?"
"No, no, father; but nobody will know."
"I know—you know—he knows; and there's an end of it. Be off!"
The girl and boy both went out, and directly after the former made a sign which the latter interpreted to mean "Come round to the kitchen."
As soon as the landlord was left alone he drew himself a mug of cider, lit his pipe, and chuckled.
"Wonder how my apples are getting on?" he said. "I must have a good cider year this time; ought to be, anyhow." Then aloud at the door, "Keep an eye to the door, Polly," he cried. "I'm going down the orchard."
"Yes, father; I'll mind."
"That'll do it," said the landlord, laughing till his face grew as red as his own apples. "Nobody can't come and accuse me of sending the boy, and they'll never suspect her."
He walked right down the orchard, and then crept quickly to the hedge, stooped down, went nearer to the house, and then watched and listened.
"Ha! ha! ha!" he laughed softly. "I knew she would. Good-hearted girl! There he goes."
The landlord rubbed his hands as, turning to a hole in the hedge, he saw his boy Dick go off at a canter, lying flat down on the back of a little Exmoor pony, his arms on each side of the pony's neck, till he was over the nearest hill and descending into the valley, when he sat up and urged the pony on at as fast a gallop as the little beast could go.
"Nice promise of apples," said the landlord, contentedly smiling up at the green clusters. "Now, if I could have my wish, I should like a splendid crop of fox-whelps and gennet-moyles. Then I should like peace. Lastly, I should like to see all the gentry who are fighting and cutting one another's throats shake hands outside my door, and have a mug of my best cider. And all these wishes I wish I may get. There, now I'll go in."
He went slowly back to the house, puffing away at his pipe, and directly after encountered his red-faced daughter, who looked ruddier than ever as the old man looked at her searchingly, chuckling to himself the while. "I'll give her such a scare," he said.
"Want me, father?"
"Want you? Of course I do. Go and call Dick."
"Dick, father?" she faltered.
"Yes; didn't I speak plainly! Call Dick."
"Who sent him out?"
"I—I did, father."
"Oh, you did, did you—without my leave?"
"Oh, father—father," cried the girl, sobbing, "don't—don't be angry with me!"
"Not I, Polly," he cried, bending down and kissing her. "Only I don't know anything, and I don't want to know anything, mind."
"And you're not cross about it?"
"I'm not cross about anything; but I shall be if I don't have a mug of cider, for I've been thinking, and thinking's thirsty work."
"Then you had been thinking that—"
"Never you mind what I had been thinking, my lass. My thoughts are mine, and your thoughts are yours, so keep 'em to yourself. When I've had my drop o' cider, I think I shall go out for a ride."
"Oh father!" cried the girl.
The old man chuckled.
"Don't you tell me that the pony has gone out, too," he said. "There, it's all right, Polly, only I don't know anything, and I won't be told."
A SUDDEN REVERSE.
And all this time Fred Forrester rode on at the rear of his little detachment, longing to get to Newton Abbot and be rid of his painful charge. The evening grew more pleasant and cool, the moths came out, and with them the bats, to dart and flit, and capture the myriad gnats which danced here and there beneath the trees. Then, as they passed beneath some umbrageous oak, which stretched its ponderous and gnarled arms across the road, a night-hawk swooped from where it had been resting upon its parrot toes, its beak toward the bole of the tree, and skimmed round and round for a time to capture a great moth or two in its widespread, bristly-edged gape, before swiftly darting back to its perch, where it commenced its loud, continuous purring noise, which died softly away as the party rode on.
Sweet moist scents rose from the dewy ground, and as they neared a marshy pool, a low, musical whining and croaking told that the frogs which made the stagnant place their home had a full belief that before long it would rain.
Tired though the party were, it was pleasant travelling now, and as some horse, feeling freshened by the cool moist air, snorted and tossed its head, there followed a loud tinkling of accoutrements and an uncalled-for increase of pace.
As they rode on deep down in a hollow between mighty hedges, a loud hail seemed to come from the road on the hillside, "Hoi, hoi!" which was followed by another on the opposite slope, but no one stirred. The call of the hoot-owl was too familiar to the Coombeland men to deceive.
It was so dark at times down there amid the trees that the horses' heads were hardly visible, and when fire was struck by an impatient hoof from a loose stone, the flash given forth seemed by comparison to lighten up the lane.
Half an hour's increasing darkness was followed by a glow in the east, and then, slowly rolling up, came the moon, to silver the patches of firs, to lighten the pensile birches, and make the glossy-leaved beeches glisten as if wet with rain or frosted with silver. The little river which ran at the bottom of the valley, meandering on its way, shone out with flashes of light, as the moon rose higher; and once, in the midst of Fred's gloomiest thoughts, came, like a gleam of the moon on the water to lighten all around, the feeling that the world was, after all, a very beautiful place, and that it was man himself who made it miserable.
"I mean boy," said Fred, in his musings. "No, I do not; I mean man, for he is to blame for all this terrible war in which we are going against the king. But my father says it is just, so I have no right to think differently."
"How far are we from Newton, Samson?" he asked his follower.
"'Bout four miles now, sir. We've got to turn out of the main west road, and go through the wood next. Soon be there now."
The turning was reached at the end of another half mile, and the advance guard soon after came to the edge of the wood, through which a good road had been cut, the only drawback being that the overhanging trees made it dark.
Upon this occasion, though, the moon was rising higher and higher, pouring down a flood of silver light, which lit up the denser part with its soft diaphanous rays.
The solemn beauty of the scene, with its velvety shadows and silvery light, impressed every member of the party, so that they rode on in silence, the horses' hoofs sounding loudly, and the night being so still that the patter of the advance guard and of those in the rear was plainly audible.
"How much more is there of this woodland, Samson?" asked Fred, after a time.
"Not much more, sir, though I can't be sure—it's so many years since I rode through it with your father—when I was quite a boy."
"Nothing, sir. Fox, perhaps, or a deer. Everything sounds so plainly on a night like this. Hear the advance?"
"Yes. Keep close, my lads," cried Fred. "No straggling in the darkness."
The men closed up, and they were going steadily on, congratulating themselves on the fact that they would soon be out in the open. A keen eye was kept upon the prisoners, though there was very little chance for their escape. The bonds were secure, and their horses' bridles out of their reach, while, had there been a disposition to urge a horse away from the rest, and make a dash for it in the darkness, the chances were that the poor beast would have declined to stir from his companions. The horse is by nature an animal which, for mutual protection, goes with a drove of his fellows; and, allowing for the formality of cavalry movements, there is something in the formation of troops and squadrons so similar to the natural habits of the horse, that they keep together, to such an extent that in warfare the "trooper" that has lost his rider regains the regiment and keeps in his place.
They were so near the edge of the wood now that the advance guard had passed through into the clear moonlight, and were going calmly on in full security, as they believed, when all at once a clear sharp order rang out on the night air; there was a quick trampling of horses, and the road in front was occupied by a strong body of men, whose position was between Fred's little detachment and their advance guard.
To have gone on burdened with their prisoners would have meant failure, to have plunged to right or left into the dense black wood no better than madness. There was only one course open—retreat; and in the emergency, young as he was in military evolutions, Fred proved himself worthy of his charge.
Setting spurs to his horse, he dashed to the front, giving his orders promptly. The men faced round ready for action, and, in defiance of the loudly shouted commands to surrender, the prisoners' bridles were seized and a rapid retreat commenced; but only for the little party to realise that they were in a trap, for in the darkness ahead they heard fresh shouts to surrender, from a second body of horsemen, who had been hidden in the wood till they had passed, and now occupied the road—how strong it was impossible to tell.
However, here lay their route now. If he had known that he had an enemy in his rear, Fred would have made a dash forward to try and reach his advance guard. Under the circumstances, it would have been fresh waste of time to turn, so again rushing to the front, he cheered on his men, and, sword in hand, charged, hoping by a bold manoeuvre to reach his rear guard now, and gallop back with his prisoners.
It was a vain hope. He had time to get his men well in hand, and the compact little body charged along the dark road, captors and captives together, for about a hundred yards, when there was the shock of meeting an advancing troop of the Royalist cavalry. The clashing of swords and the sharp rattle of blows struck at helmet and breast-piece; the plunging of horses, yells, and shouts; the deep groans of wounded men; and then, in the midst of the wild turmoil and hopeless struggle, it seemed to Fred that there was a short sharp crash of thunder, accompanied by a mingling of tiny flashes of lightning, and then the noise and confusion of the skirmish died away—and that was all.
CHAPTER TWENTY ONE.
COMPANIONS IN MISFORTUNE.
It was quite in keeping with his life for Fred Forrester to be awakened by the blast of a trumpet, and, according to his habit, he made one turn and was about to spring from his rough pallet.
But he did nothing of the kind. He let his head fall back and his arm drop, as he uttered a groan of pain and weakness, which seemed to be echoed from close at hand.
Then there was a peculiar dizzy feeling of sickness; mists floated before his eyes, and, in a confused, feverish, dreamy fashion, he lay wondering what it all meant.
After a time he felt clearer, and found himself gazing at a small square window, unglazed, one through which a great beam of sunshine fell, making a widening bar of light which cast a distorted image of the opening upon a rough brick wall. That beam of light was full of tiny motes which rose and fell and danced into the brightest part, and away into the gloom till, as they skurried and floated here and there, it seemed as if he were gazing at a miniature snowstorm, of which all the flakes were gold.
There were sounds outside of trampling feet; of hoofs and the snorting of horses; but all seemed distant and confused, as if his ears were stopped or the sounds were coming from a distance; but directly after a very familiar note arose—the sharp, cheery chirping of a sparrow, followed by a low groan.
But it did not seem to matter, for he was tired and sleepy and in pain, and he seemed to drop off to sleep and wake again wondering what it all meant, and why it was, and how he came to be lying there.
After a time he stretched out one hand in a feeble way, to find that he was touching straw, and that beneath the straw there were boards. But there was straw everywhere; even the ceiling seemed to be straw, coarse straw, till he realised that it was reed thatch, and by degrees that he must be in the upper part of a stable—the loft, for he could smell hay; and as he satisfied himself that he was right so far, he discovered something more—that there were horses somewhere below, for there was a loud snorting and the rattle of a headstall.
But still it did not seem to matter, for everything connected with the war and his duties had passed entirely from his mind, till he heard once more a groan from somewhere close at hand, and then a familiar voice said—
"Don't go on like that, lad. I dare say you're very bad, but so am I; and you'll disturb the captain."
"Captain? what captain?" thought Fred, dreamily, and who was he that he should not be disturbed?
But he felt no inclination to speak, but lay listening to the chirping of the sparrows, and moved his head slightly to find that it was resting upon a piece of sacking laid over the straw.
That movement brought on the dizzy sensation again, and his head throbbed painfully for a time.
But the pain grew easier, and he lay perfectly still, watching the beautiful beam of sunshine which came through the open window, above which the roof went into a point, showing him that this was the gable end of the loft where he lay.
This did not surprise him, for he had been accustomed for months past to sleep in shed, stable, or loft, as well as in houses with decent rooms. At one time for a month a church had been the barracks where he had lain. Rough quarters had become a matter of course, and he lay quite still, for how long he did not know, to be roused once more by a deep groan.
"Do you hear, lad? What's the good of going on like that?" said the familiar voice again.
"My head—my head!" moaned some one.
"Well, and my head, and my ribs, if you come to that; but I don't howl and groan."
"Master Fred! Captain, I mean. Hey, but it does a man good to hear you speak, again. Don't die this time, dear lad."
"Die? I don't understand you."
"Then the Lord be praised, you are not going to die!"
Fred lay wondering, for there came something like a sob from close at hand, though when he tried to turn towards the sound the horrible dizziness came back.
"Yes, Master Fred."
"What are you doing there?"
"Blubbering, dear lad, like a great calf as has lost its mother; but it's only because I'm so glad."
"But, Samson, what does it all mean?"
"What, don't you know, my lad?"
"Not that you are badly wounded—cut down same as I was when we charged?"
"When we charged?"
"Yes, when they took us front and rear in the dark wood."
"Yes, lad. Some of us killed—I don't mean us—Smithers and Pelldike. The advance escaped, and so did the rear. All of us with the prisoners got hurt more or less."
The scene in the gloomy wood came back now clearly enough; and in an excited tone Fred exclaimed—
"And the prisoners, Samson?"
"Oh, they were taken again! They're right enough."
"Yes; he came up here yesterday to see how we were."
"What's the matter, my lad?"
"My father—my charge. Samson, I'm disgraced for ever."
"What, because about sixty men surprised us in that hollow road, and cut us all down? I don't see no disgrace in fighting like a man, and being beaten by five to one, or more than that."
"But how came we to be surprised so suddenly?"
"Dunno, Master Fred. Some one must have known we were going through that wood, and set a trap for us."
"And I allowed my poor fellows to walk right into it. Oh, Samson, I can never look my father in the face again!"
"Hark at him! Nonsense! It's all ups and downs—sometimes one side wins, sometimes t'other side. We had the best of it, and then they have the best of it, and we're prisoners. Wait till we get well, and it will be our side again. Long as we're not killed, what does it matter?"
"Then you are wounded, Samson?"
"Well, yes, lad; I got a tidy chop aside of the head, and a kick in the ribs from a horse in the scrummage. Leastwise, it wasn't a kick, 'cause it was done with a fore leg, when somebody's horse reared up after I'd cut his master down."
"And there is some one else wounded?"
"Tidy, sir; tidy chop. But we shall soon mend again. Bark 'll grow over, same as it does when we've chopped an apple tree. I was afraid, though, as you was badly, sir?"
"Was I wounded, Samson? I feel so weak."
"Wounded, sir! Well, it was a mercy you wasn't killed!"
"It seems all so confused. I cannot recollect much."
"Of course you can't, sir. All the sense was knocked out of your head. But it'll soon come back again."
There was a pause, and Fred's henchman rose painfully on one arm to try and make out the reason of the silence, but he could only see that the young officer was staring at the window.
"Poor boy!" said Samson to himself. "Seems hard for him to be made into a soldier at his time o' life. Ought to be at school instead of wearing a sword."
"Yes, sir," he said aloud.
"You called me, sir."
"Did I?" said Fred, vacantly.
"Yes, sir; you said 'Samson.'"
"Oh yes, I remember. Did you see much of the fight, Samson?"
"As much as any one could for the dark."
"We were attacked front and rear, weren't we?"
"That's it, sir. Trapped."
"It was all my fault, I suppose," said Fred, with a sigh.
"Fault, sir; not it. Nobody's fault. People can't do impossibilities. Why, there was sixty-five of 'em in the troop, and of course they regularly rode us down!"
"But you did see something of the fighting?"
"To be sure I did, sir."
"Did—did I disgrace myself, Samson?"
"Did you what yourself, sir? Come, I like that! If digging your spurs into your horse, and shouting to us to come on, and then going to work with your sword as if it was a scythe, and the pleasaunce hadn't been cut for a month in June's disgracing yourself, why, I suppose you did!"
"Then I did fight?"
"Fight! I should think you aid."
"Like a man, Samson—like an officer should?"
"Why, of course you did, sir!"
"As my father would have liked to see me fight, if he had been there?"
"Well, sir, that question's a puzzler. You see, fathers is fathers, and, as far as ever I've been able to find out, they don't like their boys to fight. Why, my father was always giving me and Nat the strap for fighting, because we was always at it—strap as he wore round his waist, when he wasn't banging our heads together. You see, Nat was always at me, and knocking me about. We never did agree; but our old man wouldn't let us fight, and I don't believe your father would have liked to see you trying to cut people's heads off with that sword of yours."
"Well, then," said Fred, smiling faintly, "would my colonel have been satisfied with what I did to save the prisoners and my men?"
"Wouldn't be much of a colonel if he wasn't. There, dear lad, don't you fret yourself about that. I've heered the men here say you did wonders for such a boy, and a big sergeant who fetched you off your horse was up here yesterday—"
"Yesterday?" interrupted Fred. "Why, we were travelling yesterday!"
"That we were not, my lad, for we've been lying here two days."
"Oh!" ejaculated Fred.
"While you've been off your head."
"Well, sir, that's better than your head being off you."
"Then you are sure I did my duty?"
"Duty, sir? Yes; that's what I was going to tell you. The big six-foot sergeant who fetched you off your horse with a great cut of his heavy sword was up here yesterday to see you; and I heered him say to himself, 'Poor boy! I feel ashamed of myself for cutting him down. What would his poor mother say to me if she knew?'"
"I can lie patiently now till I get well," said Fred, after a pause. "I was frightened by my thoughts, Samson."
"Yes; them's what frightens most of us, sir."
"I mean by the thought that I had not done my duty by my charge."
"But you did, sir; and it's the fortune o' war. They was prisoners the other day; now we're prisoners this day."
"And Master Scarlett Markham, and your brother, and the other men?"
"All here, sir. There's about a thousand of the enemy about, waiting, I suppose, to drop upon our side, if our side doesn't drop upon them. Fortune o' wars sir—fortune o' war."
Samson waited for Fred to speak again; but as he remained silent, the ex-gardener went on—
"I've been expecting to hear some news of my beautiful brother, but I haven't heered a word, only that he's about somewhere. Oh, I am proud of him, Master Fred! I shouldn't wonder if we was to be sent off somewhere—Exeter or Bristol, maybe, and Master Scarlett and my brother had charge of us. Be rum, wouldn't it?"
Fred sighed as he recalled the past.
"Couldn't cut our hair short, sir, could they?"
Fred remained silent, and his follower went on.
"Nat said first chance he had, he'd crop my ears. That's like him all over. But he dursn't, sir. Not he. I should just like to catch him at it. Pst! some one coming."
Fred had already heard steps below, and then the creaking of a rickety ladder, as if some one were ascending.
Directly after a door on his left was thrown open, a flood of sunshine burst into the cobweb-hung loft, and an officer and a private of cavalry came rustling through the straw till they were within the scope of the wounded lad's gaze, and a chill of misery ran through him like a shudder as he saw Scarlett Markham, followed by Samson's brother Nat.
CHAPTER TWENTY TWO.
SAMSON AND HIS BROTHER.
In spite of the cropped appearance of his head, a cropping that was still closer now in consequence of his having had Fred Forrester's clumsy shearing regulated, Scarlett Markham had pretty well regained his old dashing cavalier aspect. He had somehow obtained a fresh hat and feathers, and, as he stood at the foot of Fred's straw bed, with one hand resting upon the hilt of his long sword, the other carelessly beating a pair of leather gauntlet gloves against his leg, he looked, in his smart scarlet and gold uniform, the beau ideal of a young officer.
Following the action of his leader, Nat passed on, and stopped at the spot where his brother lay, to stand gazing down at the wounded man.
Fred was too weak to do more than move his head slightly, so as to gaze back at his enemy; but he met Scarlett's stern look defiantly, and waited for him to speak.
And as he lay there the rough loft and its straw seemed to pass away, for the background of his mental picture to become the park and grounds about the old Hall, on one of the old sunny days when he and Scarlett had had a quarrel about some trivial matter, and were gazing threateningly at each other after uttering dire words, and were declaring that everything between them was quite at an end, and that they were never going to speak to each other again.
Then the present came back, and there stood Scarlett, looking stern and frowning, as he involuntarily passed his great gloves into his left hand, and began to let his finger and thumb play about his lips, where he tried to find—and failed—an imaginary moustache, which, all the same, he twisted up into airy points to add to his fierce aspect. A little bit of conceit which he had picked up during his soldier life.
"What a miserable peacock he has grown!" thought Fred. "And I am in the power now of such a court fop, whose only idea is dress and show. Well, I'm glad I belong to the haul, quiet Parliamentarians. Better than being like that."
But somehow, all the while, Fred could not help thinking of his own plain buff-leather uniform, with its heavy, clumsy, steel breast and back plates, which, like his hard, head-aching helmet, were more often rusty than bright, and, though he would not have owned it, he could not help admiring the figure before him, and looking at it with something like envy.
"Why don't he speak?" thought Fred, with a faint flush coming into his cheeks. "Does he think he is going to stare me down?"
The faint flush deepened a little, as he grew indignant at his enemy coming to triumph over him in his helplessness; and then he thought of how he had triumphed when it was his day, and how he had humbled his old companion to the dust.
"And what a mean, contemptible triumph it was, and how it stung me far more than it did him! But he shan't humble me. I can be as defiant as he is, and I'll die before I'll show him that he has gained the day."
But as Fred defiantly returned Scarlett's calm, stern look, a thick mist seemed to gather slowly between them, making the face of the young Cavalier grow faint and distant, a singing noise came in his ears, and slowly and painfully everything seemed to pass away till all was dark once more.
Meanwhile, Nat Dee had crept close to his brother's head, and, kneeling in the straw, allowed a grin to overspread his rustic countenance.
"You've got it, then, this time?" he whispered.
Samson had "got it this time," indeed, for his bandages wanted changing, and his wounds were hot and painful; but, in spite of his anguish, he echoed, so to speak—visibly echoed his brother's broad grin, and acknowledged the fact, fully resolved that, as Nat had come to triumph over him, he should be disappointed.
"Yes," he said in a cheerful whisper; "I've got it this time, Natty."
"Don't you feel ashamed of yourself?"
"Not a bit."
"Then you ought to. Suppose your poor mother saw you now, what do you think she would say?"
"Say? Say, 'Get your ugly great carcase out of the way, and let poor Samson have room to breathe.'"
"Nay, she would not; she'd say, 'Here's my wicked young black sheep as leaped out of the fold to go among the wolves, properly punished, and I'm very glad of it.'"
"Well, then, I'm very glad she isn't here to listen to her ugly son Nat telling such a pack of lies."
"Nay, it's the truth."
"Not it," said Samson, cheerily. "My poor old mother couldn't say such words as that. She'd more likely say, 'If I didn't know you two boys was my twins, I should say that Nat belonged to some one else, and was picked up by accident.'"
"Nay, she wouldn't; she'd be ashamed of you."
"Never was yet, Nat; and if I wasn't lying here too weak and worn-out to move, I'd get up and punch your ugly head, Nat, till you could see better, and make you feel sorry for saying such wicked things about my poor old mother."
"She's my mother as much as she is yours."
"Yes, poor old soul; and sick and sorry she is to have such a son as you."
"Nay, it's sick and sorry she is to have a son as deserts his king, and goes robbing and murdering all over the country with a pack of ruffians scraped from everywhere."
"No, I didn't; I never desarted no king. I wasn't the king's servant, lad."
"Yes, you was."
"Not I, Natty. I was master's servant, and he says, 'Will you come and fight for me, Samson,' he says, 'against oppression?' ''Course I will, master,' I says. 'And handle a sword instead of a spade,' he says. 'You give me hold of one, master,' I says, 'and I'll show you.' That's how it was, Natty."
"Your master's a bad man, and him and you will be hung or chopped as sure as you're alive."
"You always was a muddlehead, Natty. It's your master as is the bad man; Colonel Forrester's a thorough gentleman, and we always had better fruit and garden stuff at the Manor than you had at the Hall, and that's what makes you so wild against me."
"Yah! Why, you never grew anything but weeds at the Manor. Your garden was just as if pigs had got into it."
"Did you think so, Natty?" said Samson, good-temperedly.
"That shows what I say 's right. You always was such a muddlehead that you couldn't tell good from bad, and you don't know any better now. Poor old Nat, I don't bear you any malice or hatred in my heart. I'm sorry for you."
Nat ground his teeth gently, for his brother's easy-going way angered him.
"Sorry for me?" he said. "Why, you're a miserable rebel, that's what you are."
"Not I, Natty; not a bit miserable. If you was not here, I should lie back and sing."
"Shall you sing when they take you out and hang you?"
"Not going to hang me, Natty; not ugly enough. Now, if it had been you—I say, Nat, I should like to have you hung up in the Manor garden to keep away the birds."
"To scare 'em. You do look such an old Guy Fawkes. I say, who cut your hair?"
Nat's hand went involuntarily to his freshly shorn head, and a dull red glow came into his cheeks.
"You wait till I get better, and I'll crop it for you neatly. Why, you don't look one thing nor the other now. Cavaliers wouldn't own you, and I should be ashamed to set aside you in our ranks."
"Go on," said Nat, grinning viciously. "That's your nastiness; but it don't tease me. I'm sorry for you, Samson. What a pass for a respectable Dee to come to, only you never was respectable. But there's an end to all things. Made your will?"
"Nay, Natty, not yet."
"Thought you might like to leave any clothes you've got to your brother."
"Well, I did think about it, Natty; but, you see, my brother's grown to be such a high and mighty sort of chap as wouldn't care for anything that wasn't scarlet and gold. I say, Natty, I have got something though as you may as well have—hidden away in the roof of my tool-shed."
"Eh? What is it?" said Nat, who was betrayed into eagerness by the idea that perhaps his brother had a pot of money hidden away in the thatch.
"Perhaps I'd better not let you have it. You're proud enough as it is."
"You can do as you like with it, of course," said Nat, with assumed indifference.
"Ah, well, it will be useful to you, if what you say's true about me. It would be a pity for any one else to get it, wouldn't it?"
"Well, I am your brother, after all," said Nat, quietly.
"Yes, so you are, Natty; and you're just the chap to be proud of it, and wear it stuck in your steel pot. Look here, you go into the tool-shed at the Manor, first time you're that way, and as soon as you're inside the door, reach up your hand, and in the dark corner you'll find a bundle of our old peacock's moultings when he dropped his tail. You shall have 'em, Nat, and I hope I shall live to see you with 'em in your iron cap. My! you will look fine!"
"If you wasn't such a miserable scrunched-up garden-worm of a man, I'd baste you with my sword-belt, Samson," whispered Nat, angrily.
"Thank ye, Nat, lad. Thank ye. It's very kind of you to say so. Save it up, lad, till I'm better. It will be pleasanter then for us both."
"Nat," said Scarlett just then.
CHAPTER TWENTY THREE.
AN EXCITING WATCH.
Fred lay insensible for a few minutes, and when he did struggle back into consciousness, it seemed to him that he must be still dreaming, or else that the bewildering excitement of the civil war, with the misery, despair, and wretchedness, was all the result of his fevered imagination.
What did it all mean? he asked himself. Were they back at home, and had he fallen from the pony and struck his head against a rock? or was he over at the Hall, and was this the time when he climbed the great elm to get the magpie's nest, and had that horrible fall?
No; it was all true—this was the war time—he was badly wounded, and his enemy, Scarlett Markham, the young Cavalier, was bending over him in mocking triumph at his downfall, and revenging himself for the insult he had received in the loss of his flowing curls.
It was a cruel revenge—one which, in spite of his efforts, brought the weak tears to his eyes, and, as he closed them tightly to hide his emotion three or four great drops were shut out by the lids, and rolled slowly down on either side, tickling him for the time before they were washed away.
Then, as the time glided on, Fred opened his eyes, and looked up in Scarlett's, as he again asked himself whether it was all a dream, the consequence of his fevered state.
For there, kneeling in the straw, was Scarlett Markham, his buff gauntlet gloves thrust in his sword-belt, his cavalier hat cast aside, and his brow knit and glistening with perspiration, as he kept on dipping a white kerchief in a bowl of cold water held by some one at the back, and carefully bathed Fred's forehead.
How cool and delightful that water felt as the kerchief was opened out, and spread right across the brow from temple to temple! Then how hot it grew, till it was softly removed, to be resoaked and applied once more with all the tender solicitude that would have been shown by a woman.
Fred wanted to speak, but no words would come; he could only lie there, with his breast heaving, as he watched the calmly stern, handsome face bending over him, and thought of the past—their old boyish friendship, the delightful days when they frolicked in the park; and fished, and sought for plovers' eggs on the moor. How short a time ago it seemed, and now they were acting the parts of men fighting on either side in the terrible civil war which was devastating old England; enemies—deadly enemies, and Scarlett Markham was pouring coals of fire upon his head.
"Shall I fetch some more water, sir? This is getting quite warm," said a pleasant voice.
"Yes, I was going to ask you to get some more," said Scarlett. "Be quick, my lass; we shall be called away directly."
Then Fred had a glimpse of a bonny, little, round-faced lass, with red cheeks and hands, as the bowl was borne away. The straw rustled, and steps were heard upon the rough loft ladder, to be followed by the rattle of a chain, and the creaking of a windlass, Fred seeming to see all as plainly as if he were there, and watching the girl's actions at the draw-well in the yard below.
And all this time the two boys gazed at each other in silence—a silence that was broken by the splash of water; then there were footsteps on the ladder again, and the red-faced lass came back, knelt down behind the injured lad's head, the kerchief was soaked, and the cool refreshing water did its work.
"And we are enemies," thought Fred, with his eyes now closed, and a calm restful feeling coming over him like the beginning of sleep, from which he started, for there was the loud trampling of horses, the jingling of accoutrements, and the brazen bray of a trumpet.
Scarlett started up, shook the water from his hands, snatched up his broad-leafed hat, and took his gloves from his belt.
"Bathe his forehead for a few minutes longer, and then let him sleep. We shall be back before many hours, but the surgeon will be here before then."
"And tell your father that General Markham will see that he is paid for all his trouble."
"Oh, sir," said the girl, "you need not think of that. We'll do our best."
By this time Scarlett was at the door, and Fred had turned his eyes toward him, but he did not look back.
"Come, Nat," he cried loudly; and his follower stumped over the rough straw; the steps creaked, and voices were heard below. Loud orders followed. Then the trumpet brayed out again, the trampling of horses followed, and the girl set down the bowl, and went to the end of the loft, where she climbed up and looked through the little window, staying there till the trampling of the horses had died away.
"Gone," she said, as she returned to Fred's side, and prepared to bathe his brow once more.
"No," he said gently; "let me sleep now. But haven't I seen you before?"
"Yes, sir; you came here and brought Captain Markham and the prisoners," said the girl, turning a deeper red, as she recalled her own action upon that occasion, and gazed suspiciously in his face for signs that he knew of all that she had done.
"Yes, I remember now."
"And I suppose you were wounded when they were rescued by a party of the king's horse?"
"Yes," sighed Fred. "I thought I remembered you. The little inn near the moor."
"Yes, sir. Father's inn."
"And you are Royalists, I suppose?"
"I don't know what we are, sir. We only wish the war was over, and we want to do all we can for the poor wounded folk."
"For rebels, too?" said Fred, bitterly.
"For any one who is in trouble, sir; and if you don't want me to bathe your head again, I'll go and attend to your servant. Father says there's nothing like clean cold water for a cut."
"Yes, go and help the two poor fellows; but, one moment—there was quite a regiment there, was there not?"
"Yes, sir; the greater part of one. Came from the town."
"Do you know where they have gone?"
"No, sir, only along the Exeter road. News came, I think, of the enemy being there, and I'm afraid we shall be having more wounded to-night."
The girl went on to where Samson and the other man lay, and soon afterward the landlord's red face appeared at the head of the stairs, to cry hastily—
"Here, Polly! Dick has just come in from the top of the hill, and he could see soldiers riding this way to meet the regiment going along the road. There'll be a fight not far from here, I'll wager, and—Hark at that!"
"I don't hear anything, father."
"But I do. Horses galloping. Now can you hear?"
There was a faint distant sound, gradually increasing—a sound which soon developed into the rapid beat of horses' hoofs, and the girl climbed to the window to look out again.
"Yes, father, I can see them," she cried.
"Well, well, what is it? the king's regiment?"
"Yes, father, coming galloping back along the road, and—yes, I can see them too, a great regiment of the other side galloping after them, and you can see more soldiers off on the moor."
"Coming this way?"
"No; going right off behind the wood."
"To cut them off," cried the landlord. "It's some one who knows the country, and if the king's regiment keeps to the road those last will get before them; they'll be between two parties of the rebels, and they'll be cut to pieces."
"Hooray!" came from the straw where Samson lay, and the landlord turned upon him angrily, but there was too much that was exciting outside to let him find words of reproof.
The clatter of hoofs and jingle of sword against stirrup increased, and Fred lay with his eyes glittering, panting heavily as, full of excitement, he listened to the sounds of hurried flight.
Then came another trumpet blast, sounding distant, and a rushing sound as of a coming storm, ever increasing in power.
Then another blast, and another, both sounding farther away, and as the wounded lad lay there, he pictured to himself the advance of two more regiments of the Parliamentary cavalry rapidly coming on in pursuit, his mental pictures being endorsed by the words of the landlord's daughter, as she forced her head out of the little opening to watch the retreat and pursuit, turning from time to time to speak to her father in answer to some eager question.
"Are they keeping to the road, Polly? Quick, my girl? Why don't you speak?"
"Yes, father; they are keeping to the road."
"Can't you tell 'em to turn off across the moor?"
"No, father; they are too far away."
"Shout to them."
"It's of no use, father. One, two, three rebel regiments are coming along at full gallop."
"All on the road?"
"No; one on the road, the others across the moor."
"The poor fellows will be cut all to pieces. Can nothing be done? Here, Polly, come down, and let me look."
"There is plenty of room beside me, father. How they are galloping now!"
In spite of his weakness, Fred had turned himself a little on one side, so as to watch the backs of the pair who were now blocking out the little light which came from the window; and as the exciting events went on, and he listened to the galloping of the horses, the shouts of the horsemen—his own party—and the trumpet calls, the perspiration due to excitement stood upon his brow, and he at last groaned out—
"Oh, if I could only see!"
"Ay, Master Fred, if we could only see!" came from close at hand. "Hark at 'em! hark at 'em!"
There was no need for Samson's adjuration, for Fred's sense of hearing was strained to the utmost, and he was picturing mentally the effects of the scattered shots which were now being fired.
"All waste, Samson; all waste," he said hoarsely. "No man can take aim when he's galloping full stretch."
"No, Master Fred; but it'll scare t'other side a bit, p'raps make some of 'em surrender."
Fred shook his head slowly, and then listened again as the girl exclaimed excitedly—
"Look, father; there's one down!"
"Ay, how could he expect to leap the wall on a horse blown like that?"
"Those two have galloped up to him. Ah, cowards! two to one. Father, they're killing him. Oh!"
"They're not," cried Fred, hotly. "They're taking him prisoner."
"Right!" cried the landlord, turning sharply; "but how did you know?"
"Because I know our side would not act like butchers with a defenceless man," said Fred, proudly, "They take prisoners, sir, and always give quarter."
The landlord uttered a grunt, and turned sharply to watch the progress of the fight and pursuit.
"Look, Polly!" he cried; "they have got to the top of the hill, and see their danger."
"Yes, father; look, look—they have halted and turned. Yes; they are coming back."
"Can the two regiments trying to cut them off see them?"
"No, I think not; they are down in the hollows. Look, father; they're coming back."
"No; the king's men. Can't you see!"
"See? yes," cried the landlord, with increased excitement. "Why, they're mad. They're coming right into danger. Whatever do they mean?"
"I don't know, father. Why, they'll all be taken."
"They must have a fool for leader."
"Ah!" sighed Fred, as he strained his ears to catch every word and sound from outside.
But the landlord was wrong. The king's regiment of horse had no fool for colonel. On the contrary, he had suddenly woke to the fact that a regiment of Ironsides on his left, and another on his right, were trying to get round him by short cuts, so as to head him back to the regiment in pursuit; and, what was more, he saw that there could be no doubt of the success of the manoeuvre.
With a gallantry that almost approached recklessness he faced round his regiment, and in the full intent of attacking his enemies, corps by corps, he gave the order to charge, and dashed right at the pursuing regiment.
This movement resulted in bringing the engagement well within view of the spectators in the loft, or rather, it should be said, of the spectator; for, as soon as the landlord's daughter saw that a deadly shock was inevitable, she covered her face with her hands, stepped down from beside her father, and fell upon her knees in the straw close to where Fred lay.
"God help them, poor men!" she murmured. "How horrible it is!"
Then there was a painful silence within that straw-spread loft, while without there was a rushing sound, as of two great torrents hurrying to meet, and above this came the jingling of sword and spur, the hoarse shouting of words of command; then the brazen blare of trumpets, followed by a distant cheer; then one more near; and then one horrible, crashing, hurtling noise, as man and beast dashed at man and beast, and came into collision. There was the clash of sword upon sword, of sword upon helmet, and again of sword upon breastplate. Yells of pain, wild shrieks, shouts of defiance, and then one confused din, broken by a loud "Hah!" from the landlord.
"Polly," he cried, "it's awful! Ah, here comes another regiment, and— yes, here comes the other!"
Almost as he spoke, came the sound of another shock, and then of another, followed by desperate clashing of steel, which grew less and less and less, and then gradually died out, to be followed by a dull, low murmur, and then silence, which lasted only a few moments, to be succeeded by a series of deafening cheers.
"Is it all over, father?" whispered Polly, with hands over her face.
"Yes, my girl," said the landlord, in a sad voice; "it is all over for the poor fellows."
"Who have won, father?"
"What's the use of asking that? What could you expect, when it was three to one? Plenty of killed and wounded, and not a man escaped. Yes; there they are, two or three hundred of them, and all prisoners."
"Will they bring the wounded here, father?"
"I don't know, Polly. Where are we to put them, if they do?"
"Ah!" sighed the girl, rising and wiping her eyes, "it is very dreadful, and I nearly swooned away when they brought the first wounded men here; but I must be about and ready to help when they come. They'll want all we can do."
She smoothed down her apron in a calm, matter-of-fact way, and then moved over the rustling straw, as if ready for any duty; but she seemed to recollect something, and came back to where Fred lay.
"It's your side that has won, sir," she said. "You will not be a prisoner any longer, and—"
"Yes?" said Fred, for she stopped short.
"You heard what my father said, sir? You know he likes the Royalists, and if he fought would fight for the king?"
"Yes, I could see all that from his manner. I had no need to hear his words."
"But he is so good and kind, sir. He would not hurt a hair of any man's head. You will not betray him to the soldiers, sir, and let him be treated as a spy."
Fred was conscious that the girl was talking to him, but her words seemed to be coming through a thick mist, and she looked far away somewhere down a long vista of light, which stretched right away into space, beginning upon the straw where he was lying, and passing right out through the end of the loft. And there, within this vista of light, surrounded by dancing motes, was the landlord's daughter. Then, as if a thin filmy cloud had passed over the sun, a cloud which grew thicker and thicker, so that the broad beam of light gradually died away, the pleasant young homely face grew less and less distinct, and, lastly, all was confused and mingled with singing noises and murmurs in his head, and then—a complete blank.
CHAPTER TWENTY FOUR.
DISCOVERING THE TRAITOR.
When Fred came to himself, he was no longer lying upon straw, but upon a comfortable bed, in a clean, white-washed room. It was evening, for the sun seemed to be low, and sending a ruddy glow through the open window.
For a time he felt puzzled, and wondered why he was there; and as he tried to collect his thoughts, and the memory of the fight which he had heard came back, it seemed as if it was all a dream.
But no; that was no dream. Tramp—tramp! tramp—tramp!—the heavy march of an armed man. It was a sentinel going to and fro beneath the window sure enough; for the footsteps sounded faint, grew gradually louder, as if passing close to the window, became gradually fainter, and then grew louder once more, and this over and over again.
At the same time that he was listening to this, he became aware of a peculiar scratching noise close by, but until in his heavy drowsy state he had settled in his own mind that it was a sentinel, he could not pay any heed to the scratching.
By degrees he recognised the sound as being that of a pen, and knew that some one was writing, and just as he had arrived at this conclusion, there was the faint scrape of a chair, a clinking noise such as might be made by the hilt of a sword against a breastplate, and directly after a sun-browned, anxious face was gazing earnestly into his.
"Father!" whispered Fred, feebly.
"My dear boy! Thank Heaven!"
The first sentence was uttered aloud—the second breathed softly.
"How is it with you, Fred?"
"Bad, father, bad," he murmured. "I seem to have no strength left, and—and—and—oh, father," he gasped, as he clung to the hand which took his, "I did—indeed, I did my best."
"Why, Fred, my boy, Fred. Don't—don't take it so seriously as that. You were overpowered and wounded."
"Yes, father, but you trusted me with the prisoners, and I allowed myself to be out-manoeuvred, and I have disgraced myself."
"And I did try so hard to do my duty. I wish now I had been killed."
"Fred! My son!"
"Don't be angry with me now I am so weak."
"Yes, too weak, my dear boy," said Colonel Forrester, as he knelt down by the bedside, and passed his arm beneath the lad's neck as he kissed his forehead, "too weak to talk about all this. Be silent and listen to me."
Fred answered by a look.
"You think you have disgraced yourself by letting your enemies out-manoeuvre you, and with the prisoners turn the table on your little escort?"
Fred gave another pitiful look.
"That you have disgraced yourself for ever as a young officer?"
"Yes," whispered the wounded lad.
"And that I, your father and your colonel, am angry for what you look upon as a lapse?"
Fred tried to bow his head, but failed.
"Well, then, my dear boy, let me set your poor weak head at rest. I know everything you did from your start until you were trapped in the wood, the enemy letting you pass one troop, and having another waiting for you at the end of the wood."
"Yes, that is how it was, and I did not take sufficient care."
"Yes, you did, my boy; your precautions were all that an officer on such a duty could take, and all that I should have taken."
"You seem to be giving me fresh life, father," whispered Fred. "But how did you know?"
"Partly from the advance guard, partly from Samson; and both join in saying that my son behaved as a gallant officer should. I am quite satisfied, my boy. I sent you upon a dangerous expedition, and in spite of the perils of your journey, you have escaped with life, and you are no longer a prisoner. In fact, we have turned the tables on the enemy again, and read them a lesson they will not forget."
"Yes; I heard the fighting, father."
"And do you know whose men they were?"
"Sir Godfrey Markham's."
"Yes; and his son, lately your prisoner, was with them."
"And they are prisoners now?"
"No, my boy; they cut their way out with about a hundred mere, and escaped. This war is one of constant change."
"Then you are not angry with me, father?"
"On the contrary, Fred, I am proud. You acted better than many older officers would have done."
"You say that to comfort me over my disgrace."
"I say it because it is true, and because you are not in disgrace. A far more experienced man would easily have been led into such an ambush, betrayed as you were."
"Betrayed?" said Fred.
"Yes; some one must have carried information to the enemy."
"You think that?"
"But who could have done so? We had no traitors with us."
"Perhaps not, but the enemy may have had friends near."
"Quite possible, my boy. Where did you stay to refresh your men?"
"Here, father—at this very place. At least," added Fred, as he glanced round, "if this is the little inn where I was a prisoner in the loft."
"The very place, my boy; and now the secret is out. Lie still now, and don't speak."
Fred gazed at his father eagerly as he rose from his knees and crossed to the door, which he opened, passed out on to the landing, called for the host, and returned.
Instead of the florid landlord, there was a heavy step on the stairs, and the shock-headed boy of the place entered the room to look from Fred to Colonel Forrester and back.
"Where does the nearest doctor live?" said the colonel, quietly.
"At Brownsand," replied the lad, with another sympathetic glance at the wounded officer.
"Rather a long ride?"
"Only twelve miles, sir."
"But that's where a body of the king's men lie, is it not?"
"Well, no, sir, I don't think so now. Those is them that you had to fight with. They were at Brownsand t'other day."