The hours went by, and the sun was declining fast as they neared at length a spot which had attracted them for some time past. It was either a little promontory or an isthmus, where the ground was strong enough for fir-trees to flourish, and this promised dry ground, wood, and a good site for a little hut if they set one up.
Dick brightened at the sight, for there was a cheering notion in his mind that he was going to find rest, peace, and happiness here in a little home of his own making, to which he could retire from the world to fish, shoot, and eat the fruits he would be able to gather in the season.
In short, Dick Winthorpe, being in a marsh, was suffering from a sharp fit of goose, such as attacks many boys who, because matters do not go exactly as they like at home, consider that they are ill-used, and long for what they call their freedom—a freedom which is really slavery, inasmuch as they make themselves the bond-servants of their silly fancies, and it takes some time to win them back.
The clump of firs here, which they had before seen at a distance, surpassed their expectations, for it was a good-sized island, far from the shore, and promised fishing, fowling, and security from interruption, for it was not likely that any one would venture there.
But the evening was rapidly coming on, and the punt's head was turned homewards, the distance they had come proving startling, as they began now to feel that they were very hungry, and that they had hours of work before them before they could reach the Toft.
"Not many fish to land," said Dick rather dismally.
"Why, you wouldn't fish!" replied Tom. "Never mind, we've found the island. Shall we build a place?"
Dick's reply was in the affirmative, and for the next two hours they debated on the subject of what they should take over, and how soon, and so passed the time away till after dark, when, being still quite a mile from home, there came the sharp report of a gun, and then they fancied that they heard a cry.
"Why, who can be shooting now?" said Dick in an awe-stricken whisper. "Is anything wrong?"
"I don't know. Look! look!"
Tom whispered these words, and pointed in the opposite direction, to a lambent light which seemed to be moving slowly over the marshy edge of the mere.
The light was in a portion of the shore where the mere narrowed; and the two lads let the boat drift as they sat and watched, each thinking of the place in the light of experience.
"Why, Tom, that can't be a boat," whispered Dick.
"Boat! No, it's land there."
"Land! It's soft bog that nobody could walk on!"
"Then it couldn't be a boat. Why, it's a will-o'-the-wisp."
"Yes," said Dick, after a sceptical pause, during which he watched the lambent light as it played about in a slow fantastic way, just as if it were a softly-glowing lantern carried by a short-winged moth, which used it to inspect the flowering plants as it sought for a meal. "Let's go over and look at it."
"No, no! no, no!" whispered Tom excitedly.
"Why not? Are you afraid?"
"No, not a bit; but I don't want to go. I'm tired and hungry. I don't believe you want to go either."
"Yes, I do," said Dick eagerly. "I feel as if I wanted to go, but my body didn't."
"Ha, ha, ha!" laughed Tom, but very softly, as he kept his eyes fixed on the distant light. "That's a nice way of backing out of it. Why, you're as much afraid as I am, only I'm honest and you're not."
"Yes, I am," whispered Dick. "I'm as honest as you are, and I'll show you that I am. There, I should feel afraid to go by myself."
"Will you go if I go with you?"
Before Dick could answer there was a long, low, piteous cry from the other direction, that from whence they had heard the shot.
"I say, what's that?" whispered Tom in an awe-stricken tone.
"I don't know. It sounds very queer. There it is again."
"Is it a bird?" whispered Tom.
"No. I never heard a bird cry like that."
"What is it then—a fox trapped?"
"Nobody would trap the foxes, and it can't be a rabbit, because that would be a squeal."
The cry came again over the dark water of the mere, and sounded so strange and weird that Dick shivered.
"It's something queer," said Tom huskily. "Take the pole and let's get away. Don't make a noise."
"No, no; don't stop. We don't know what it is. Perhaps it's one of those things Hicky talks about that he has heard sometimes."
"Father says it's all nonsense, and there are no such things in the fens."
"He'd better say there are no will-o'-the-wisps to lead people astray," whispered Tom.
"He doesn't say that. He says there are jack-o'-lanterns, but they don't lead people astray—people go astray to try and catch them."
"Hist! there it is again!" said Tom, gripping his companion's arm, as the long piteous cry came faintly over the water. "It is something horrible!"
"It isn't," said Dick. "It's someone in distress."
"People in distress never cry out like that."
"Why, Tom, it's that Thorpeley stuck in the mud somewhere; and it's our doing."
"It's his own if he is stuck there. But I don't believe it is. Why, it's two miles nearer home than where we left him."
"Then it's somebody else in trouble," said Dick excitedly.
"It isn't. Let's go home."
Tom was, as a rule, no coward; but he was faint and tired, and the very fact of being seated out on the dark waters with the gloom so thick that they could see but a short distance, and with an unnatural-looking light on one side and a strange marrow-thrilling cry coming on the other, was enough to startle stouter-hearted lads than he, and he held more tightly to his companion as Dick seized the pole.
"Let's get back home," he said again.
"You said I was afraid to go to the will o' the wisp," said Dick stoutly. "You're afraid to go now and see what it is makes that noise."
"Well, I can't help it," said Tom appealingly; "but if you go I shall go with you. There, listen! Isn't it horrible!"
He spoke as the cry came again faintly but piteous in the extreme.
Dick drove the pole down into the soft bottom of the mere and sent the punt surging through the water, determined now to go straight to the spot whence the cry seemed to come; and, guided by the sound, he toiled away for about ten minutes before giving way to Tom, who worked hard to reach the place.
For, once the two lads had taken action, they seemed to forget their nervous dread, while what was more encouraging to them to proceed was the fact that as they reduced the distance the cries gradually seemed to be more human, and were evidently those of some person in peril or great distress.
It was a weird strange journey over the water now, the excitement lent by their mission seeming to change the aspect of all around. The reeds whispered, the patches of growth looked black, and every now and then they disturbed some water-fowl, whose hurried flight seemed suddenly to have become mysterious and awe-inspiring, as if it were a creature of the darkness which had been watching their coming and had risen to hover round.
But there was the cry again and again, sometimes faint and distant, sometimes sounding as if close at hand, and, as is often the case, apparently varying in position to right or left as it was borne by the soft night wind.
"We cannot go any farther," cried Dick at last as he drove the boat in amongst the broad belt of reeds which fringed the edge of the mere.
"Yes, we can. There's a way here," cried Tom excitedly, pointing through the gloom to his left where there was an opening. "Coming!" he yelled as the cry rose once more.
Dick backed the boat out, with the reeds whistling and rustling strangely, and the next minute he had it right in the gloomy opening, which proved to be quite a little bay, where, at the end of a few good thrusts of the pole, the prow of the punt bumped up against the quivering moss.
The two boys got out cautiously; the pole was driven down into the peat, and the boat made fast; and then they paused and listened for the next cry.
Everything now was perfectly silent, not so much as the whisper of a reed or the whir of the wing of a nightbird fell upon their ears; and at last, in an awe-stricken whisper, Tom said:
"Hicky is right. It was something strange from out of the marsh. Let's get away."
Dick was stouter-hearted than his companion, and lifting his voice he shouted, and then stood silent.
"Help! help!" came faintly in reply.
"There!" cried Dick turning sharply. "It's a man."
"Why, of course! Come along! Here, I can see where we are now."
"Yes, I think I know where we are," whispered Tom. "But is it safe to go after it?"
"You mean after him," said Dick. "Yes, it's pretty firm here—yes, it's all right. We're amongst heath and bilberry as soon as we get by this bit of bog. Hoy! shout again," he cried as he plodded on cautiously, with his feet sometimes sinking in the bog, sometimes finding it pretty firm.
But there was no answer; and though as far as was possible Dick walked in the direction of the sound, the guidance was of the most unsatisfactory nature, and at the end of a minute or two they listened again.
"It must be that Thorpeley regularly bogged," said Dick at last, and a curious shiver ran through him. "I hope he hasn't sunk in."
"He couldn't," said Tom. "I know this part. It's all firm ground between the water and the track to the sea."
"I can't quite make out where we are," said Dick, staring about him.
"I can. There's the big alder clump, and beyond it there's the river wall." [Mud embankment.]
"So it is. Yes, I know now. Why, it is all firm about here, and nobody could be bogged unless he got into a hole. Ahoy!"
He shouted once more, but there was no answer; and when he raised his voice again it was only for the sound to seem to come back, just as if they were shut up in some large room.
"He must be hereabout," said Dick.
"Shall we find our way back to the boat?" said Tom in a doubting tone.
"I don't know, but if we don't we could walk home in half an hour. Come along. Ahoy!"
Still no answer; and in spite of his companion's suggestions and strange doubts Dick kept on hunting about in the darkness among the patches of alders and the heath that here grew freely. For, save in places, the ground was sandy and firm, and, dark as it was, they had no difficulty in making out the watery spots by their faint gleam or the different character of the growth.
They shouted in turns and together, listening, going in different directions, and all to no purpose. Not a sound could they get in reply; and at last, with a curious feeling of horror stealing over him, compounded of equal parts of superstition and dread lest the person whose cry they had heard had sunk in the mire of some hole, Dick reluctantly gave way to Tom's suggestion that they should go back to the boat.
"I knew it was something queer," whispered Tom. "If we had gone on, we should have been led into some dangerous hole and lost."
"Don't believe it," said Dick, as they trudged slowly back, utterly worn-out and hoarse with shouting.
"You're such a doubting fellow!" grumbled Tom. "If it had been anybody in distress we should have found him."
"Perhaps," said Dick sadly. "It's so dark, though, that we might have passed him over."
"Nonsense!" cried Tom; "we were sure to find him. There wasn't anybody. It was a marsh cry, and—oh!"
Tom uttered a yell and went headlong down, with the effect of so startling his companion that he ran a few steps before he could recover his nerve, when he returned to extend his hand to Tom, who rose trembling, while Dick stood staring aghast at the dark figure lying extended among the heath, and over which his friend had stumbled.
"Why, Tom, it's Thorpeley!" cried Dick, as he went down on one knee and peered into the upturned face. "Mr Thorpeley, Mr Thorpeley!" he cried; "what's the matter?"
There was no reply.
"It must have been him," whispered Dick. "He had lost his way."
"Then let him find it again," grumbled Tom, "instead of watching us."
"But perhaps there is something the matter. Mr Thorpeley, Mr Thorpeley!"
Dick laid his hand upon the man's shoulder and shook him, but there was no response.
"Is he dead?" said Tom in an awe-stricken whisper.
"Dead!" cried Dick, leaping up and shrinking away at the suggestion. "No, he can't be. He's quite warm," he added, going down on his knee again to shake the recumbent man, who now uttered a low groan.
"What shall we do, Dick?" said Tom huskily. "I hate him, but we can't leave him here."
"Well," said Dick, "I'm not very fond of him, but it would be like leaving anybody to die to go away now. We must carry him down to the boat."
"Come on then, quick!"
Dick placed his hands beneath the constable's arms and locked his fingers across his breast, while Tom turned his back as he got between the man's legs, stooped in turn, and proceeded to lift them as if they were the handles of a wheel-barrow.
"Then both together."
The two lads lifted the constable, staggered along a few yards, and set him down again.
"Oh, I say!" groaned Tom. "Isn't he heavy?"
"Come and try this end," retorted Dick. "He's an awful weight. We must go a few yards at a time, and we shall do it yet. Now then."
"Stop a minute," said Tom, who had picked up a handful of moss, and was rubbing one hand. "I—it's warm and sticky, and—oh, Dick, he's bleeding."
Dick lowered the insensible man down again, and, shuddering with horror, stepped to his companion's side.
Then kneeling down he tried to examine the spot pointed out by Tom, to find out as well as was possible in the dim light that the constable was bleeding freely from one leg.
"Dick, what shall we do?" cried Tom piteously.
"Why, what would anybody do if he had cut his finger?" cried Dick manfully, as he undid his neckcloth and doubled it afresh.
"I don't know," cried Tom, who was sadly scared.
"You don't know! Suppose you had cut your finger, wouldn't you tie it up?"
"Yes, I suppose so," faltered Tom, whom the situation had completely unnerved.
"Take off his neckerchief while I tie this on," said Dick, whom the emergency had rendered more helpful. "How can he have hurt himself like this?"
As he spoke he busied himself in tightly bandaging the man's leg, and added to the bandage the cotton cloth that Tom handed to him.
"I think that has stopped it," said Dick. "Now then, we must carry him down."
"But we shall sink into the bog with him," faltered Tom.
"No, we sha'n't if we are careful. Now, then, are you ready?"
"I don't like to try and lift him now," said Tom. "It's so horrible. The man's bleeding to death."
"More shame for you to stand still and not try to help him," said Dick hotly. "Here, you come and carry this end."
Tom hastened to obey, heedless of the fact that the task would be the harder; and setting to with a will, the lads carried their load a few yards before setting it down again to rest.
This time, in spite of Tom's appeal not to be left alone, Dick went on for a bit so as to explore and make sure of the best way to get back to the boat, and not without avail, for he was able, in spite of the darkness, to pick out the firmest ground, his knowledge of the growth of the fen and its choice of soil helping him.
But it was a long and painful task. The lads were faint and terribly hungry. They had been working hard for several hours propelling the punt, and the load they were carrying would not have been an easy one for a couple of stout men. Still, by means of that wonderful aid to success, perseverance, they at last got past bog and water-pool, patch of sphagnum, bed of reed, and slimy hollow, where the cotton rushes nourished, and reached the belt of waving reeds which separated them from the water.
It was not done without tremendous effort and a constant succession of rests; but they stood there at last bathed in perspiration, and waiting for a few minutes before lifting the sufferer into the boat.
Up to this time they had been so busy and excited that they had not paused to ask the question: How was it that the man had been wounded? but as they lifted him carefully into the boat, Tom being in and Dick ashore, they both burst out with the query, as if moved by the same spring.
"I know," said Dick, as the truth seemed to flash upon him. "Some one must have shot him."
Tom had taken up the pole and was just about to force the boat along when this announcement seemed to paralyse him, and he stood there thinking of what had taken place before.
"Why, Dick," he whispered, "isn't it very horrible?"
"Don't talk," cried his companion, entering the boat; "let's get home."
The pole plashed in the water, which rippled against the bows, and once more they glided over the surface, just as the injured man uttered a low groan.
"We sha'n't be very long," said Dick, kneeling down and carefully feeling whether the kerchiefs he had bound round the leg were fulfilling their purpose. "Are you in much pain?"
"Pain!" groaned the man. "Hah! Give me some water."
There was no vessel of any kind in the punt, and Dick had to scoop up some water in the hollow of his hand, and pour it between the injured man's lips, with the result that he became sufficiently refreshed to sit up a little and begin muttering.
Dick now took the pole, and it was Tom's turn to try and administer a little comfort in the shape of words as to the time that would elapse before they could reach the Toft; but the only result was to produce an angry snarl from their patient.
"How does he seem?" Dick asked, as Tom went to his relief.
"Better not ask him."
"Perhaps he'll bite you. He nearly did me. I say, how much farther is it?"
"Take another quarter of an hour. Oh, I shall be glad, Tom! Work hard."
Tom looked in his companion's face, and uttered a low laugh, as he toiled away at the poling, and that laugh seemed to say more than a dozen long speeches. Then there was nothing heard for some time but the regular plash and ripple of the water, as it was disturbed by pole and punt, while the darkness seemed to increase. At the same time, though, the hopes of the two lads rose high, for, standing as it were alone in the midst of the black darkness, there was a soft yellow light. At first it was so dull and lambent that it suggested thoughts of the will-o'-the-wisp. But this was no dancing flame, being a steady glow in one fixed spot, and Tom expressed his companion's thoughts exactly as he exclaimed:
"There's Hicky's old horn lanthorn!"
A few minutes more and the big bluff voice of the wheelwright was heard in a loud hail.
This was answered, and the sounds roused the wounded man.
"Nearly there?" he said hoarsely.
"Very close now," replied Dick; and snatching the pole from Tom he drove it down vigorously, making a tremendous spurt to reach the patch of old pollard willows by the landing-place, on one of whose old posts the lanthorn had been hung, and beyond which could now be seen the light in the Hickathrifts' cot.
"Why, I was a-coming swimming after you, lads," shouted Hickathrift. "You scarred me. Squire's been down twiced to see if you'd got back, and the missus is in a fine way."
"Don't talk, Hicky," shouted back Dick. "Is Jacob there?"
"Ay, lad. Why?"
"You'll want help. Look here, send for the doctor."
"Yes; I know. Let Jacob go and tell my father, and he'll send down the old cob. Thorpeley's hurt badly."
They heard a low whistle, then the wheelwright's orders given sharply to his apprentice, followed by the dull thud, thud of his boots as he ran off; and directly after the punt glided in and its bow was seized by the big strong hand upon which the soft glowing light of the horn lanthorn shone.
"Hey, but what's the matter with the man?" cried Hickathrift. "We've been wondering why he didn't come back."
"I don't know, only we heard a shot," said Dick excitedly; "and then we heard someone calling for help, and found him lying ashore."
"Let me get a good howd on him," said the wheelwright; and with one foot in the boat he passed his great arm under the constable and lifted him out as tenderly as if he had been a child.
But, gentle as was the wheelwright's act, it roused the injured man, who seemed to be driven into a fit of fury by the pain he suffered, and he burst into a torrent of bad language against Hickathrift and the two boys, which he kept up till he had been carried into his lodging and laid upon his bed.
"Hey, lads," said the wheelwright with a low chuckle, as he walked down with the boys to where the lanthorn still hung upon the willow-stump, the care of the constable having been left to the women; "he don't seem to hev lost his tongue."
"But he's very bad, isn't he?" said Dick anxiously.
"I should say no," replied Hickathrift. "Man who's very badly don't call people."
"But his leg?"
"Ay, that's badly. I give the hankycher a good tighten up, and that hot him, so that he had to howd his tongue."
"That made him hold his tongue, Hicky?"
"Ay, lad. I med him feel that if he didn't shoot his neb, I'd pull tighter, and so he quieted down. Now, tell us all about it."
"Give us some bread and butter first, Hicky; we're nearly starved."
"Hey, lads," cried the wheelwright. "Here, coom in to missus and—"
Hickathrift's speech was cut short by the coming of the squire, who hurried up.
"Here, boys," he cried; "what's all this?"
Dick told all he knew, and the squire drew a long breath and turned by the light of the lanthorn to gaze first in the lads' faces, and then to speak to the wheelwright.
"This is bad, Hickathrift," he said hoarsely.
As he spoke he gazed searchingly at the great workman.
"Ay, squire; it is a straange awkard thing."
Mr Winthorpe gazed in his great frank face again; and then, with his lips compressed, he went to the bed-side of the injured man.
"Bad business," said Hickathrift; "but lads mustn't starve because a constable's shot. Coom along. Here, missus, let's hev bit o'—Nay, she's gone to see the neighbours, and hev a bit o' ruckatongue." [A gossip.]
That did not much matter, for Hickathrift knew the ways of his own house; and in a very short time had placed a loaf and a piece of cold bacon before the hungry boys.
This they attacked furiously, for now that they were relieved of the responsibility of the injured man, their hunger had asserted itself. But they had not partaken of many mouthfuls before they heard the squire's voice outside, in hurried conversation with Hickathrift.
"Yes, I sent him off directly on the cob," the squire said; "but it must be some hours before the doctor can get here."
"Think he's very badly, squire?" came next, in Hickathrift's deep bass.
"No, not very bad as to his wound, my lad; but this is a terrible business."
"Ay, mester, it is trubble. Straange thing to hev first one man shot and then another. Say, squire, hope it wean't be our turn next."
"Go on eating, Tom," whispered Dick, setting the example, and cutting a slice for his companion, while Tom hacked the bread.
"I'm hard at work," said Tom thickly. "I shall eat as much as ever I can, and make mother give Hicky a piece o' chine."
"So will I," said Dick; "and a couple o' chickens."
The hungry lad had taken a piece of pink-fleshed bacon upon his fork, and was about to transfer it to his mouth, when he stopped short with his lips apart and eyes staring, while Tom let fall his knife and thrust his chair back over the stone floor.
They had been eating and listening to the conversation outside, till it reached its climax in the following words:
"What, man? You don't know what he says."
"What he says!" chuckled the wheelwright. "Ay, I heerd what he said; a whole heap o' bad words till I checked him, and let him feel he'd best howd his tongue."
"But you know what he says about who shot at him?"
"Nay, but if he says as it were me, I'll go and pitch him into the watter."
"You did not hear, then?" cried the squire, huskily. "Hickathrift, he says it was done by those boys!"
"What!" roared the wheelwright.
"It's a lie, father!" shouted Dick, recovering himself and running out. "Here, ask Tom."
"Why, of course it's a lie," cried Tom.
"But that man says—" cried the squire.
"Yah!" shouted Hickathrift angrily, "they never shot him; they heven't got no goon."
Thorpeley was not badly hurt, so the doctor said when he came; but, as usual, he added, "If it had been an inch or two more to the right an important vessel would have been divided, and he would have bled to death."
But if the constable was not badly wounded, though the injury caused by a bullet passing through his leg was an ugly one, the reputations of Dick Winthorpe and Tom Tallington had received such ugly wounds that their fathers found it difficult to get them cured.
For Thorpeley stuck to his first story, that he suspected the two boys to be engaged in some nefarious trick, and he had watched them from the time they borrowed the wheelwright's punt. He went on to describe how he had offended them by keeping his eye upon their movements, and told how they had tried to smother him by leading him into a dangerous morass, while just at dusk, as he was watching their boat, he saw them start towards him, and evidently believing that they were unseen from where they had tied their punt, they had deliberately taken aim at him and shot him.
The squire questioned him very sharply, but he adhered to everything. He swore that he saw them thrust the punt away, and go into the misty darkness; and then when they had heard his cries, they came back and landed, evidently repentant and frightened, and then helped him down to the boat.
"But," said the squire, "it might have been two other people in a punt who shot at you."
"Two others!" shouted the man; "it weer they, and I heered 'em laughing and bragging about it as I lay theer in the bottom o' the boat nearly in a swownd, bud I could hear what they said."
This charge was so serious that, as a matter of course, there was a magisterial inquiry, which was repeated as soon as the constable was sufficiently well to limp into the justice-room in the little town where he had been removed as soon as the doctor gave permission, the neighbourhood of the Toft and Hickathrift having grown uncomfortably warm.
At that last examination the magistrates shook their heads, and, after hearing a great deal of speaking, decided that Thorpeley must have been deceived in the darkness, and the charge was dismissed.
In those days the law had two qualities in an out-of-the-way place that have pretty well died out now. These qualities were laxity and severity—the disposition to go to extremes; and in this case some idea of the way in which the work of petty sessions was carried on will be grasped when it is told that after the examination the chairman of the bench of magistrates, an old landholder of the neighbourhood, shook hands with the squire, and then less freely with Farmer Tallington.
"Look here, you two," he said; "we've let off these two young scamps; but you had better send them to sea, or at all events away from here."
"I don't understand you, sir," said the squire hotly.
"I can't help that," was the gruff reply. "You take my advice. Send 'em away before there's more mischief done. I sha'n't let 'em off next time."
Hickathrift, who had watched all the proceedings, heard these words; and as the two lads trudged home beside him, with the squire and Farmer Tallington in front, he told them all that had been said.
Dick said nothing, but Tom fired up and exclaimed angrily, while the wheelwright kept on talking quietly to the former.
"Niver yow mind, lad; we don't think you shot at him. It's some o' they lads t'other side o' the fen. They comes acrost and waits their chance, and then goes back, and nobody's none the wiser. Niver you mind what owd magistrit said. Magistrit indeed! Why, I'd mak' a better magistrit out of owd Solomon any day o' the week."
It was kindly spoken; but if there is a difficult thing to do it is to "never mind" when the heart is sore through some accusation that rankles from its injustice.
"Yes, Tom," said Dick, when they were about half-way home; "they'd better send us away."
He looked longingly across the fen with its gleaming waters, waving reeds, and many-tinted flowers; and as he gazed in the bright afternoon sunshine it seemed as if it had never looked so beautiful before. To an agricultural-minded man it was a watery waste; but to a boy who had passed his life there, and found it the home of bird, insect, fish, and flower, and an ever-changing scene of pleasure, it was all that could be called attractive and bright.
"I'm ready to go," said Tom sturdily; "only I don't know which to do."
"Which to do!" cried Dick, with his face growing red, and his eyes flashing. "Why, what do you mean?"
"Whether to go for a soldier or a sailor."
Hickathrift's was a curious laugh. At a distance it might have been taken for a hail; but a fine heron standing heel-deep in the shallow water took it to be a cry to scare him, so spreading his great flap wings, and stooping so as to get a spring, he flew slowly off with outstretched legs, while the squire and Farmer Tallington looked back to see if they had been called.
"What are you laughing at?" said Tom angrily.
"Yow, lad, yow. Why, you arn't big enew to carry a goon; and as for sailing, do you think a ship's like a punt, and shoved along wi' a pole!"
"Never mind," grumbled Tom. "I'm not going to stop here and be suspected for nothing."
"Nay, nay, don't you lads talk nonsense."
"It's no nonsense, Hicky," said Dick bitterly. "I've made up my mind to go."
"Nay, nay, I tell thee. Thou wean't goo, lads."
"Indeed but we will," cried Dick energetically.
"Yes, right away."
"Then what's to become of me?" cried the wheelwright excitedly.
"Become of you! Why, what's it got to do with you?" cried Tom surlily.
"Do wi' me! Why, iverything. What's the good o' my punt? what's the good o' me laying up a couple o' good ash-poles for you, and putting a bit o' wood up chimney to season, so as to hev it ready for new soles for your pattens [skates] next winter. Good, indeed! What call hev you to talk that clat?"
"You're a good old chap, Hicky," said Dick, smiling up at the big fellow; "but you can't understand what I feel over this."
"Hey, bud I can," cried the wheelwright quickly; "you feel just the same as I did when Farmer Tallington—Tom's father here—said I'd sent him in his bill after he'd sattled it; and as I did when my missus said I'd took half a guinea outer money-box to spend i' town. I know, lads. Yes, I know."
"Well, I suppose it is something like that, Hicky," said Dick sadly.
"Ay, joost the same; bud I didn't tell Farmer Tallington as I should go for a soldier, and I didn't turn on my wife and tell her I should go to sea."
Dick was silent the rest of the way home, but he shook hands very solemnly with Tom, and Tom pressed his hand hard as they parted at the farm. Then Dick went on beside the wheelwright, while the squire walked swiftly ahead, evidently thinking deeply.
There was a meaning in that grip of the hand which Hickathrift did not understand; but he kept on talking cheerily to the lad till they were close up to the Toft, when, just as the squire turned in and stopped for Dick to join him, the wheelwright shook hands with the lad.
"Good day, Mester Dick!" he said aloud; and then in a whisper:
"Don't you go away, lad, for if you do they'll be sure to say it was yow as fired the shot."
PREPARATIONS FOR FLIGHT.
The squire was very quiet over the evening meal, but he looked across at Dick very sternly two or three times, and the lad did not meet his eye.
For certain plans which he had been concerting with Tom wore so strange an aspect in his eyes that he felt quite guilty, and the old frank light in his face seemed to have died out as he bent down over his supper, and listened to his father's answers to his mother about the proceedings of the past day.
Bed-time at last, and for the first time since he had returned Dick was alone with his mother, the squire having gone to take his customary look round the house.
"Good-night, mother!" said Dick in a low sombre manner, very different to his usual way.
Mrs Winthorpe did not answer for a moment or two, but gazed full at her son.
"And so the magistrate thought you guilty, Dick?" she said.
"Yes, mother," he flashed out, "and—"
"Ah!" exclaimed Mrs Winthorpe, flinging her arms about his neck. "That's my boy who spoke out then. Dick, if you had spoken out like that to your father and everyone they would not have suspected you for a moment. There, good-night! It will all come right at last."
Dick said "good-night" to his father, who gave him a short nod, and then the lad went slowly up to his room, to sit on the edge of the bed and think of the possibility of building a hut out there in the island they had found in the fen, and then of how it would be if he and Tom did so, and went there to live; and when he had debated it well, he asked himself what would be the use, and confessed that it would be all nonsense, and that he had been thinking like a child.
"No," he said; "I'm no baby now. All this has made a man of me, and Tom Tallington is right; we must go and begin life somewhere else—where the world will not be so hard."
"He will not be here for an hour yet," he thought; so he employed himself very busily in putting together the few things he meant to take on his journey into that little-known place beyond the fen, where there were big towns, and people different to themselves; and as Dick packed his bundle he tried to keep back a weak tear or two which would gather as if to drop on the lavender-scented linen, that reminded him of her who had that night called him her boy.
But there was a stubborn feeling upon him which made him viciously knot together the handkerchief ends of his bundle, and then go and stand at the window and watch and listen for the coming of Tom.
For he had made up his mind to go with Tom if he came, without him if he failed, for he told himself the world elsewhere would not be so hard.
One hour—two hours passed. He heard them strike on the old eight-day clock below. But no Tom.
Could he have repented and made up his mind not to keep faith, or was there some reason?
Never mind, he would go alone and fight the world, and some day people would be sorry for having suspected him as they did now.
He laughed bitterly, and stepped to the open window bundle in hand. He had but to swing himself out and drop to the ground, and trudge away into that romantic land—the unknown. Yes, he would go. "Good-bye, dear mother; father, good-bye!" he whispered softly; and the next moment one foot was over the window-sill, and he was about to drop, when a miserably absurd sound rose on the midnight air, a sound which made him dart back into his room like some guilty creature, as there rang out the strange cry:
"He—haw, he—haw!" as dismal a bray as Solomon had ever uttered in his life; and for no reason whatever, as it seemed, Dick Winthorpe went back and sat upon his bed thinking of the wheelwright's words:
That if he went away people would declare he fired the shot.
"I can't help it," cried Dick at last, after an hour's bitter struggle there in the darkness of the night; and once more he ran to the window, meaning to drop out, when, as if he saw what was about to take place, Solomon roused the echoes about the old buildings with another dismal bray.
"Who can run away with a donkey crying out at him like that!" said Dick to himself; and in spite of his misery, he once more seated himself upon the bed-side and laughed.
It was more a hysterical than a natural laugh; but it relieved Dick Winthorpe's feelings, and just then the clock struck two.
Dick sat on the bed-side and thought. He was not afraid to go—far from it. A reckless spirit of determination had come over him, and he was ready to do anything, dare anything; but all the same the wheelwright's words troubled him, and he could not master the feeling that it would be painful for the constant repetition to come to his mother's knowledge, till even she began to think that there must be some truth in the matter, and he would not be there to defend himself.
That was a painful thought, one which made Dick Winthorpe rise and go and seat himself on the window-sill and gaze out over the fen.
From where he was seated his eyes ranged over the portion where the drain was being cut; and as he looked, it seemed to him that all his troubles had dated from the commencement of the venture by his father, and those who had joined in the experiment.
Then he thought of the evening when Mr Marston had been brought in wounded, and the other cases which had evidently been the work of those opposed to the draining—the fire at Tallington's, the houghing of the horses, the shots fired, the blowing up of the sluice-gate.
"And they think I did it all," he said to himself with a bitter laugh; "a boy like me!"
Then he began considering as to who possibly could be the culprit, and thought and thought till his head ached, and he rose sadly and replaced the articles in his bundle in the drawer.
"I can't go," he said softly. "I'll face it out like a man, and they may say what they like."
He stood looking at his bed, with its white pillow just showing in the faint light which came through the open window, but it did not tempt him to undress.
"I can't sleep," he said; "and perhaps, if I lie down, I may not hear Tom coming, if he comes. Why is one so miserable? What have I done?"
There was no mental answer to his question, and he once more went softly across the room, and sat in the window-sill to gaze out across the fen.
How long he had been watching he could not tell, for his brain felt dazed, and he was in a half-dreamy state, when all of a sudden he grew wakeful and alert, for right away out over the mere he saw a faint gleam of light which flashed upon the water and then expired.
For a moment he thought that it might have been the reflection of a star, but it flashed out again, and then was gone.
The marsh lights always had a strange fascination for him, and this appearance completely changed the current of his thoughts. A few moments before and they were dull and sluggish, now they were all excitement; and he sat there longing for the next appearance when, as of old, he expected to see the faint light go dancing along, as a moth dances over the moist herbage, disappearing from time to time.
He strained his eyes, but there was no light, and he was beginning to think that it was fancy, when he heard a faint rustling apparently outside his door; and as he listened, he felt that someone must be going down stairs.
Then there was complete silence for a few minutes, and he was ready to think that both the light and the sound were fancy, when all doubts were set at rest, for the door below opened and someone passed out.
It was still very dark, in spite of a faint sign of dawn in the north-east; but the watcher had no difficulty in making out the figure which passed silently along in the shadow of the house, and close beneath him, to be that of his father.
What did it mean? Dick asked himself as he sat there holding his breath, while he watched intently, and saw his father steal from place to place in the most secretive manner, taking advantage of bush, wall, and outbuilding, and every now and then pausing as if gazing out across the fen.
"I know," thought Dick, as a flash of comprehension came across his brain. "He saw that light, and he is watching too."
The thought was quite exciting.
The reaction as depressing, for directly after he very naturally said to himself: "My father would not get out of bed to watch a will-o'-the-wisp."
But suppose it was not a will-o'-the-wisp, but a light!
He sat thinking and trying to trace which way his father had gone; and as far as he could make out, he had gone right down to the nearest spot to the water, where, about a hundred yards away, there was fair landing, by one of the many clumps of alder.
Dick had just come to the conclusion that he ought not to watch his father, who was angry enough with him as it was, and who would be more suspicious still if he again caught him at the window dressed, and he was about to close it, after wondering whether anyone would be on the water with a light—Dave, for instance—and if so, what form of fowling or netting it would be, when there was a low hiss—such a sound as is made by a snake—just beneath his window.
"Couldn't come before. Ready?"
"No," said Dick shortly, for the plan to run away seemed now to belong to some project of the past.
"I couldn't come before," whispered Tom. "I was all ready, but father did not go to bed for ever so long; and when at last I thought it was all right, and was ready to start, I heard him go down and open the back-door."
"And go out?" whispered Dick.
"Yes. How did you know?"
"I didn't know, but my father has done just the same."
"Did yours come back?"
"No," said Tom; "and I daren't start for ever so long. But I've come now, so let's start off quick."
"Which way did your father go?"
"I don't know, but we're wasting time."
"Did he take the boat?"
"How should I know? I didn't see him go. I only heard. Come, are you ready?"
"No," said Dick hoarsely, and not prepared to tell his companion that he had repented. "How can we go now with them both somewhere about? They would be sure to catch us and bring us back."
It was a subterfuge, and Dick's face turned scarlet, as he knew by the burning sensation. The next instant he had felt so ashamed of his paltry excuse that he blurted out:
"I sha'n't go. I'm sorry I said I would. It's cowardly, but I don't mean to go—there!"
The hot tears of vexation and misery stood in his eyes as he made this confession, and rose up prepared to resent his companion's reproaches with angry words; but he was disarmed, for Tom whispered hastily:
"Oh, Dick, I am so glad! I wouldn't show the white feather and play sneak, but I didn't want to go. It seemed too bad to mother and father. But you mean it?"
"Yes, I mean it!" said Dick, with a load off his breast. "I felt that it would be like running away because we were afraid to face a charge."
"Hooray!" cried Tom in a whisper. "I say, Dick, don't think me a coward, but I am so glad! I say, shall I go back now?"
"No; stop a bit," whispered Dick, with his heart beating, and a strange suspicion making its way into his breast. For in an incoherent vague manner he found himself thinking of Farmer Tallington stealing out of his house in the middle of the night. He had a boat, as most of the fen farmers had, for gunning, fishing, and cutting reeds. What was he doing on the water at night? For it must have been he with a light.
Then a terrible suspicion flashed across him, and the vague ideas began to shape themselves and grow solid. Suppose it was Farmer Tallington who had been guilty of—
Dick made a strong effort at this point to master his wandering imagination, and forced himself to think only of what he really knew to be the fact, namely, that Farmer Tallington was out somewhere, and that the squire was out too.
"My father must have come to meet yours, Dick," whispered Tom at that point. "I know they suspect there's something wrong, and they have gone down to watch the drain, or to meet Mr Marston."
"Yes," said Dick, in a tone which did not carry conviction with it. "That must be it."
"What shall we do? Go back to bed?"
"Ye-es, we had better," said Dick thoughtfully. "I say, Tom, we have done quite right. We couldn't have gone away."
"Hist! did you hear that?"
For answer Dick strained out of the window. He had heard that—a sudden splashing in the water, a shout—and the next moment there was a flash which cut the darkness apparently a couple of hundred yards away, and then came a dull report, and silence.
The boys remained listening for some moments, but they could not hear a sound. The signs of the coming morning were growing plainer; there was a faint twittering in some bushes at a distance, followed by the sharp metallic chink chink of a blackbird; and then all at once, loud and clear from the farm-yard, rang out the morning challenge of a cock.
Then once more all was still. There was no footstep, no splash of pole in the water.
For a few minutes neither spoke, but listened intently with every nerve upon the strain; and then with a catching of the breath as he realised what had gone before, and that he had seen his father steal carefully down in the direction of the mere, Dick sprang from the window and gripped his companion by the arm.
"Tom," he gasped, "quick! come on! Some one else has been—"
He would have said shot, but his voice failed, and with a cold chill of horror stealing over him he remained for a few moments as if paralysed.
Then, with Tom Tallington close behind, he ran swiftly down towards the mere.
THE NEW HORROR.
They did not know exactly where to go, for the guidance afforded by a sound is very deceptive, but there had been the splash of water, so that the shot must have been from somewhere at the foot of the Toft, down where the meadow land gave place to rough marsh, bog, and reedy water.
Dick listened as he ran; but there was no splash now—no sound of footstep.
As the lads advanced the dawning light increased, and a startled bird flew out from the bushes, another from a tuft of dry grass; and once more there was the chink—chink of a blackbird. The day was awakening, and Dick Winthorpe asked himself what the dawn was to show.
It was still dark enough to necessitate care, and over the mere as they neared it a low mist hung, completely screening its waters as they vainly attempted to pierce the gloom.
Plash, plash through the boggy parts of the mere fringe, for Dick had not paused to follow any track, stumbling among tufts of grass and marsh growth, they hurried on with eager eyes, longing to shout, but afraid, for there was a growing horror upon both the lads of having to be shortly in presence of some terrible scene.
They neither of them spoke, but mutually clung together for support, though all the time there was a strange repugnance in Dick's breast as he now began to realise the strength of the suspicion he entertained.
But if they dared not shout, there was some one near at hand ready to utter a lusty cry, which startled them as it rang out of the gloom from away down by the labourers' cottages and the wheelwright's.
"Ahoy! Hillo!" rang out.
"Hillo, Hicky!" yelled Tom. "Here!"
"Where away, lads?" came back; and then there was the dull low beat of feet, and they heard the wheelwright shout to his apprentice to follow him.
The two little parties joined directly, to stand in the mist all panting and excited, the wheelwright half-dressed, and his bare head rough from contact with the pillow.
"Hey, lads," he cried, "was that you two shouting?"
Dick tried to speak, but he could not frame a word.
"No; we heard it from somewhere down here," panted Tom.
"I heered it too," cried Jacob, "and wackened the mester."
"Ay, that's a true word," cried Hickathrift. "What does it mean?"
"Hicky," panted Dick in piteous tones, "I don't know—I'm afraid I—my father's out here somewhere."
"Hey! The squire?" cried Hickathrift with a curious stare at first one and then the other. "Yow don't think—"
He paused, and Dick replied in a whisper:
"Yes, Hicky, I do."
"Here, let's search about; it's getting light fast. Now, then," cried the wheelwright, "yow go that way, Jacob; I'll go this; and you two lads—"
"No, no," said Dick. "It must be somewhere close by here, near the water. Let's keep together, please."
"Aw reight!" muttered the wheelwright; and following Dick they went as close to the water's edge as they could go, and crept along, with the bushes and trees growing more plain to view, and the sky showing one dull orange fleck as the advance guard of the coming glory of the morn.
They went along for a couple of hundred yards in one direction, but there was nothing to be seen; then a couple of hundred yards in the other direction, but there was nothing visible there. And as the light grew stronger they sought about them, seeing clearly now that the ghastly figure Dick dreaded to find was nowhere as far as they could make out inshore.
"Hillo!" shouted Hickathrift again and again; "squire!"
There was no reply, and the chill of horror increased as the feeling that they were searching in vain out and in pressed itself upon all, and they knew that the man they sought must be in the water.
"Here, howd hard," cried Hickathrift. "What a moodle head I am! You, Jacob, run back and let loose owd Grip."
The apprentice ran back as hard as he could, and the group remained in silence till they saw him disappear behind the shed. Then there was a loud burst of barking.
Hickathrift whistled, and the great long-legged lurcher came bounding over the rough boggy land, to leap at his master and then stand panting, open-mouthed, eager, and ready to dart anywhere his owner bade.
"Here, Grip, lad, find him, then—find him, boy!"
The dog uttered one low, growling bark, and then bounded off, hurrying here and there in the wildest way, while the boys watched intently.
"Will he find him, Hicky?" said Dick huskily.
"Ay, or anyone else," said the wheelwright, who alternately watched the dog, and swept the surface of the mere wherever the mist allowed.
"There! Look at that!" he cried, as, after a minute, the dog settled down to a steady hunt, with his nose close to the ground, and rapidly followed the track lately taken by someone who had passed.
"But perhaps he is following our steps!" said Dick excitedly.
"Nay, not he. Theer, what did I tell you?" cried Hickathrift as the dog suddenly stopped by the water, opposite to a thick bed of reeds a dozen yards or so from the bank.
Dick turned pale; the wheelwright ran down to the edge of the mere; and as the dog stood by the water barking loudly, Hickathrift waded in without hesitation, the boys following, with Grip swimming and snorting at their side, and taking up the chase again as soon as he reached the reeds.
It was only a matter of minutes now before the dog had rushed on before them, disappeared in the long growth, and then they heard him barking furiously.
"Let me go first, Mester Dick," said Hickathrift hoarsely. "Nay, don't, lad."
There was a kindly tone of sympathy in the great fellow's voice, but Dick did not give way. He splashed on through the reeds, his position having placed him in advance of his companions, and parting the tall growth he uttered a cry of pain.
The others joined him directly, and stood for a moment gazing down at where, standing on the very edge of the mere, Dick was holding up his father's head from where he lay insensible among the reeds, his face white and drawn, his eyes nearly closed, and his hands clenched and stretched out before him.
Hickathrift said not a word, but, as in similar cases before, he raised the inanimate form, hung it over his shoulder, and waded back to firm ground.
"Hey, Mester Dick," he said huskily, as he hurried towards his cottage, "I nivver thowt to hev seen a sight like this."
"No, no," cried Dick; "not there."
"Yes, I'll tak' him home to my place," whispered Hickathrift. "You'd scare your mother to dead. Here, Jacob, lad, don't stop to knock or ask questions, but go and tak' squire's cob, and ride him hard to town for doctor."
"Tell my father as you go by, Jacob," cried Tom excitedly; and as the apprentice dashed off, Tom's eyes met those of Dick.
"Don't look so wild and strange, Dick, old chap," whispered the lad kindly; and he laid a hand upon Dick's shoulder, but the boy shrank from him with a shudder which the other could not comprehend.
Hickathrift shouted to his wife, who had risen and dressed in his absence, and in a short time the squire was lying upon a mattress with Hickathrift eagerly searching for the injury which had laid him low; but when he found it, the wound seemed so small and trifling that he looked wondering up at Dick.
"That couldn't have done it," he said in a whisper.
The wheelwright was wrong. That tiny blue wound in the strong man's chest had been sufficient to lay him there helpless, and so near death that a feeling of awe fell upon those who watched and waited, and tried to revive the victim of this last outrage.
It was a terrible feeling of helplessness that which pervaded the place. There was nothing to do save bathe the wounded man's brow and moisten his lips with a little of the smuggled spirit with which most of the coast cottages were provided in those distant days. There was no blood to staunch, nothing to excite, nothing to do but wait, wait for the doctor's coming.
Before very long Farmer Tallington arrived, and as he encountered Dick's eyes fixed upon him he turned very pale, and directly after, when he bent over the squire's couch and took his hand, the lad saw that he trembled violently.
"It's straange and horrible—it's straange and horrible," he said: "only yesterday he was like I am: as strong and well as a man can be; while now—Hickathrift, my lad, do you think he'll die?"
The wheelwright shook his head—he could not trust himself to speak; and Dick stood with a sensation of rage gathering in his breast, which made him feel ready to spring at Farmer Tallington's throat, and accuse him of being his father's murderer.
"The hypocrite—the cowardly hypocrite!" he said to himself; "but we know now, and he shall be punished."
The boy's anger was fast growing so ungovernable that he was about to fly out and denounce his school-fellow's father, but just then a hasty step was heard outside, and a familiar voice exclaimed:
"Where is my husband?"
The next minute Mrs Winthorpe was in the room, wild-eyed and pale, but perfectly collected in her manner and acts.
"How long will it be before the doctor can get here?" she said hoarsely, as she passed her arm under the injured man's neck, and pressed her lips to his white brow.
"Hickathrift's lad went off at a hard gallop," said Farmer Tallington in a voice full of sympathy. "Please God, Mrs Winthorpe, we'll save him yet."
Dick uttered a hoarse cry and staggered out of the room, for the man's hypocrisy maddened him, and he knew that if he stayed he should speak out and say all he knew.
As he reached the little garden there was a step behind him, a hand was laid upon his shoulder, another grasped his arm.
"I can't talk and say things, Dicky," said Tom in a low half-choking voice; "but I want to comfort you. Don't break down, old fellow. The doctor will save his life."
This from the son of the man whom he believed to have shot his father! and the rage Dick felt against the one seemed to be ready to fall upon the other. But as his eyes met those of his old school-fellow and companion full of sorrowful sympathy, Dick could only grasp Tom's hands, feeling that he was a true friend, and in no wise answerable for his father's sins.
"Ay, that's right," said a low, rough voice. "Nowt like sticking together and helping each other in trouble. Bud don't you fret, Mester Dick. Squire's a fine stark man, and the missus has happed him up waarm, and you see the doctor will set him right."
"Thank you, Hicky," said Dick, calming down; and then he stood thinking and asking himself how he could denounce the father of his old friend and companion as the man who, for some hidden reason of his own, was the plotter and executor of all these outrages.
At one moment he felt that he could not do this. At another there was the blank suffering face of his father before his eyes, seeming to ask him to revenge his injuries and to bring a scoundrel to justice.
For a time Dick was quite determined; but directly after there came before him the face of poor, kind-hearted Mrs Tallington, who had always treated him with the greatest hospitality, while, as he seemed to look at her eyes pleading upon her husband's behalf, Tom took his hand and wrung it.
"I'm going to stick by you, Dick," he said; "and you and I are going to find out who did this, and when we do we'll show him what it is to shoot at people, and burn people's homesteads, and hough their beasts."
Dick gazed at him wildly. Tom going to help him run his own father down and condemn him by giving evidence when it was all found out! Impossible! Those words of his old companion completely disarmed him for the moment, and to finish his discomfiture, just then Farmer Tallington came out of the cottage looking whiter and more haggard than before.
He came to where the wheelwright was standing, and spoke huskily.
"I can't bear it," he said. "It is too horrible. Might hev been me, and what would my poor lass do? Hickathrift, mun, the villain who does all this must be found out."
"Ay, farmer, but how?"
"I don't know how," said the farmer, gazing from one to the other. "I on'y know it must be done. If I'd gone on this morning I might have found out something, but I went back."
Dick gazed at him searchingly, but the farmer did not meet his eyes.
"I've been straange and fidgety ever since my fire," continued the farmer; "and it's med me get out o' bed o' nights and look round for fear of another. I was out o' bed towards morning last night, and as I looked I could see yonder on the mere what seemed to be a lanthorn."
"You saw that?" said Dick involuntarily.
"Ay, lad, I saw that," said the farmer, rubbing his hands together softly; "and first of all I thowt it was a will-o'-the-wisp, but it didn't go about like one o' they, and as it went out directly and came again, I thought it was some one wi' a light."
"What, out on the watter?" said Hickathrift.
"Yes, my lad; out on the watter," said the farmer; "and that med me say to mysen: What's any one doing wi' a light out on the watter at this time? and I could on'y think as they wanted it to set fire to some one's plaace, and I couldn't stop abed and think that. So I got up, and went down to the shore, got into my owd punt, and loosed her, and went out torst wheer I'd seen the light."
"And did you see it, mester?" said Hickathrift.
"Nay, my lad. I went on and on as quietly as I could go, and round the reed-bed, but all was as quiet as could be."
"Didn't you see the poont?" said the wheelwright.
"What punt?" said Tom sharply.
Hickathrift looked confused.
"Poont o' him as hed the light, I meant," he said hurriedly.
"Nay, not a sign of it," said Farmer Tallington; "and at last I turned back and poled gently home, keeping a sharp look-out and listening all the way, but I niver see nowt nor heered nowt. But if I'd kept out on the waiter I should p'raps have seen and saved my poor owd neighbour."
"You might, mebbe," said the wheelwright thoughtfully; while, after gazing in the faces of the two men and trying to read the truth, Dick turned away with his suspicions somewhat blunted, to go to his mother's side, and watch with her till the sound of hoofs on the rough track told that the messenger had returned.
THE DOCTOR'S DICTUM.
Dick leaped up and came to the window as soon as he heard the beating of the horse's hoofs; and to his great joy, as the mounted man turned the corner he saw that it was the doctor, whom he ran down to meet.
"Hah, my lad! here is a bad business!" exclaimed the doctor as he dismounted. "Well, come, they cannot say this was your doing. You wouldn't shoot your own father, eh?"
"Oh, pray, come up, sir, and don't talk," cried Dick excitedly. "Poor father is dying!"
"Oh, no," said the doctor; "we must not let him die."
"But be quick, sir! You are so long!" cried Dick.
"Don't be impatient, my lad," said the doctor smiling. "We folks have to be calm and quiet in all we do. Now show me the way."
Dick led him to the room, the doctor beckoning Hickathrift to follow; and as soon as he reached the injured man's side he quietly sent Mrs Winthorpe and Dick to wait in the next room, retaining the great wheelwright to help him move his patient.
The time seemed interminable, and as mother and son sat waiting, every word spoken in the next room sounded like a moan from the injured man. Mrs Winthorpe's face appeared to be that of a woman ten years older, and her agony was supreme; but like a true wife and tender mother—ah, how little we think of what a mother's patience and self-denial are when we are young!—she devoted her whole energies to administering comfort to her sorely-tried son.
A dozen times over Dick felt that he could not keep the secret that troubled him—that he must tell his mother his suspicions and ask her advice; but so sure as he made up his mind to speak, the fear that he might be wrong troubled him, and he forebore.
Then began the whole struggle again, and at last he was nearer than ever to confiding his horrible belief in their neighbour's treachery, when the doctor suddenly appeared.
Dick rose from where he had been kneeling by his mother's side, and she started from her seat to grasp the doctor's hand.
She did not speak, but her eyes asked the one great question of her heart, and then, as the doctor's hard sour face softened and he smiled, Mrs Winthorpe uttered a piteous sigh and clasped her hands together in thankfulness to Heaven.
"Then he is not very bad, doctor?" cried Dick joyfully.
"Yes, my boy, he is very bad indeed, and dangerously wounded," replied the doctor; "but, please God, I think I can pull him through."
"Tell me—tell me!" faltered Mrs Winthorpe piteously.
"It is a painful thing to tell a lady," said the doctor kindly; "but I will explain. Mrs Winthorpe, he has a terrible wound. The bullet has passed obliquely through his chest; it was just within the skin at the back, and I have successfully extracted it. As far as I can tell there is no important organ injured, but at present I am not quite sure. Still I think I may say he is in no immediate danger."
Mrs Winthorpe could not trust herself to speak, but she looked her thanks and glided toward the other room.
"Do not speak to him and do not let him speak," whispered the doctor. "Everything depends upon keeping him perfectly still, so that nature may not be interrupted in doing her portion of the work."
Mrs Winthorpe bowed her head in acquiescence, and with a promise that he would return later in the day the doctor departed.
Dick found, a short time after, that the news had been carried to the works at the drain, where Mr Marston was busy; and no sooner did that gentleman hear of the state of affairs than he hurried over to offer his sympathy to Mrs Winthorpe and Dick.
"I little thought that your father was to be a victim," he said to the latter as soon as they were alone. "I have been trying my hand to fix the guilt upon somebody, but so far I have failed. Come, Dick, you and I have not been very good friends lately, and I must confess that I have been disposed to think you knew something about these outrages."
"Yes, I knew you suspected me, Mr Marston."
"Not suspected you, but that you knew something about them; but I beg your pardon: I am sorry I ever thought such things; and I am sure you will forgive me, for indeed I do not think you know anything of the kind now."
Dick quite started as he gazed in Mr Marston's face, so strangely that the engineer wondered, and then felt chilled once more and stood without speaking.
Mr Marston took a step up and down for a few moments and then turned to Dick again.
"Look here, my lad," he said. "I don't like for there to be anything between us. I want to be friends with you, for I like you, Richard Winthorpe; but you keep on making yourself appear so guilty that you repel me. Speak to me, Dick, and say out downright, like a man, that you know nothing about this last affair."
Dick looked at him wildly, but remained silent.
"Come!" said Mr Marston sternly, and he fixed the lad with his eye; "there has been a dastardly outrage committed and your father nearly murdered. Tell me plainly whether you know whose hand fired the shot."
"Dick, my good lad, I tell you once more that I do not suspect you—only that you know who was the guilty party."
Still no answer.
"It is your duty to speak, boy," cried Mr Marston angrily. "You are not afraid to speak out?"
"I—I don't know," said Dick.
"Then you confess that you do know who fired at your father?"
"I did not confess," said Dick slowly. "I cannot say. I only think I know."
"Then who was it?"
"Dick, I command you to speak," cried Mr Marston, catching his arm and holding him tightly.
"I don't know," said Dick.
"You do know, cried Mr Marston angrily, and I will have an answer. No man's life is safe, and these proceedings must be stopped."
For answer Dick wrested himself free.
"I don't know for certain," he said determinedly, "and I'm not going to say who it is I suspect, when I may be wrong."
"But if the person suspected is innocent, he can very well prove it. Ah, here is Tom Tallington! Come, Tom, my lad, you can help me here with your old companion."
"No," cried Dick angrily, "don't ask him."
"I shall ask him," said Mr Marston firmly. "Look here, Tom; our friend Dick here either knows or suspects who it was that fired that shot; and if he knows that, he can tell who fired the other shots, and perhaps did all the other mischief."
"Do you know, Dick?" cried Tom excitedly.
"I don't know for certain, I only suspect," said Dick sadly.
"And I want him to speak out, my lad, while he persists in trying to hide it."
"He won't," said Tom. "He thinks it is being a bit of a coward to tell tales; but he knows it is right to tell, don't you, Dick?"
"No," said the latter sternly.
"You do, now," said Tom. "Come, I say, let's know who it was. Here, shall I call father?"
"No, no," cried Dick excitedly, "and I won't say a word. I cannot. It is impossible."
"You are a strange lad, Dick Winthorpe," said the engineer, looking at them curiously.
"Oh, but he will speak, Mr Marston! I can get him to," cried Tom. "Come, Dick, say who it was."
Dick stared at him wildly, for there was something so horrible to him in this boy trying now to make him state what would result in his father's imprisonment and death, that Tom seemed for the moment in his eyes quite an unnatural young monster at whose presence he was ready to shudder.
"How can you be so obstinate!" cried Tom. "You shall tell. Who was it?"
Dick turned from him in horror, and would have hurried away, but Mr Marston caught his arm.
"Stop a moment, Dick Winthorpe," he said. "I must have a few words with you before we part. It is plain enough that all these outrages are directed against the persons who are connected with the drainage scheme, and that their lives are in danger. Now I am one of these persons, and to gratify the petty revenge of a set of ignorant prejudiced people who cannot see the good of the work upon which we are engaged, I decline to have myself made a target. I ask you, then, who this was. Will you speak?"
Dick shook his head.
"Well, then, I am afraid you will be forced to speak. I consider it to be my duty to have these outrages investigated, and to do this I shall write up to town. The man or men who will be sent down will be of a different class to the unfortunate constable who was watching here. Now, come, why not speak?"
"Mr Marston!" cried Dick hoarsely.
"Yes! Ah, that is better! Now, come, Dick; we began by being friends. Let us be greater friends than ever, as we shall be, I am sure."
"No, no," cried Dick passionately. "I want to be good friends, but I cannot speak to you. I don't know anything for certain, I only suspect."
"Then whom do you suspect?"
"Yes; who is it?" cried Tom angrily.
"Hold your tongue!" said Dick so fiercely that Tom shrank away.
"I say you shall speak out," retorted the lad, recovering himself.
"For your father's sake speak out, my lad," said Mr Marston.
Dick shook his head and turned away, to go back into the wheelwright's cottage, where, suffering from a pain and anguish of mind to which he had before been a stranger, he sought refuge at his mother's side, and shared her toil of watching his father as he lay there between life and death.
CHAPTER TWENTY ONE.
The next fortnight was passed in a state of misery, which made Dick Winthorpe feel as if he had ceased to be a boy, and had suddenly become a grown-up man.
He wanted to do what was right. He wished for the man who had shot his father in this cowardly way to be brought to justice; but he was not sure that Farmer Tallington was the guilty man, and he shrank from denouncing the parent of his companion from childhood, and his father's old friend.
Mr Marston came over again and tried him sorely. But the more Dick Winthorpe thought, the more he grew determined that he would not speak unless he felt quite sure.
It was one day at the end of the fortnight that Mr Marston tried him again, and Dick told him that his father would soon be able to speak for himself, and till then he would not say a word.
Mr Marston left him angrily, feeling bitterly annoyed with the lad, but, in spite of himself, admiring his firmness.
Dick stood in the road gazing after him sadly, and was about to retrace his steps to the old house, to which his father had been carefully borne, when, happening to glance in the direction of the track leading to the town, he caught sight of Tom coming along slowly.
Dick turned sullenly away, but Tom ran before him.
"Stop a minute," he cried; "let you and me have a talk. I don't want to be bad friends, Dick."
"Neither do I," said the latter sadly.
"But you keep trying to be."
"No, I do not. You try to make me angry with you every time we meet."
"That's not true. I want to have you do your duty and tell all you know. Father says you ought, as you know who it was."
"Have you told your father, then?"
"Yes, I told him to-day, and he said you ought to do your duty and speak."
"Your father said that?"
"Yes: and why don't you—like a man."
Dick's brow grew all corrugated as if Black Care were sitting upon the roof of his head and squeezing the skin down into wrinkles.
"Come, speak out, and don't be such a miserable coward. Father says you don't speak because you are afraid that whoever did it may shoot you."
Dick's brow grew more puckered than ever.
"Now, then, let you and me go over and see Mr Marston and tell him everything at once."
Dick looked at the speaker with a feeling of anger against him for his obstinate perseverance that was almost vicious.
"Now, are you coming?"
"No, I am not."
"Then I've done with you," cried Tom angrily. "Father says that a lad who knows who attacked his parent in that way, and will not speak out, is a coward and a cur, and that's what you are, Dick Winthorpe."
"Tom Tallington," cried Dick, with his eyes flashing, "you are a fool."
"Say that again," said Tom menacingly.
"You are a fool and an idiot, and not worth speaking to again."
That is the nearest way of spelling the back-handed blow which Tom Tallington delivered in his old school-fellow's face, while the straightforward blow which was the result of Dick Winthorpe's fist darting out to the full stretch of his arm sounded like an echo; and the next moment Tom was lying upon the ground.
There was no cowardice in Tom Tallington's nature. Springing up he made at Dick, and the former friends were directly after engaged in delivering furious blows, whose result must have been rather serious for both; but before they had had time to do much mischief, each of the lads was gripped on the shoulder by a giant hand, and they were forced apart, and held beyond striking distance quivering with rage, and each seeing nothing but the adversary at whom he longed to get.
"Hey, lads, and I thowt you two was such friends!" cried the herald of peace, who had sung truce in so forcible and convincing a way.
"Let go, Hicky! He struck me."
"Yes; let me get at him," cried Tom. "He knocked me down."
"And I'll do it again a dozen times," panted Dick. "Let go, Hicky, I tell you!"
"Nay, nay, nay, lads, I wean't let go, and you sha'n't neither of you fight any more. I'm ashamed of you, Mester Dick, with your poor father lying theer 'most dead, and the missus a-nigh wherritted to death wi' trouble."
"But he struck me," panted Dick.
"And I'll do it again," cried Tom.
"If you do, young Tom Tallington, I'll just pick you up by the scruff and the breeches and pitch you into the mere, to get out as you may; so now then."
Tom uttered a low growl which was more like that of a dog than a human being; and after an ineffectual attempt to get at Dick, he dragged himself away to kneel down at the first clear pool to bathe his bleeding nose.
"Theer, now, I'll let you go," said Hickathrift, "and I'm straange and glad I was i' time to stop you. Think o' you two mates falling out and fighting like a couple o' dogs! Why, I should as soon hev expected to see me and my missus fight. Mester Dick, I'm 'bout 'shamed o' yow."
"I'm ashamed of myself, Hicky, and I feel as if I was never going to be happy again," cried Dick.
"Nay, nay, lad, don't talk like that," said the big wheelwright. "Why, doctor says he's sewer that he can bring squire reight again, and what more do you want?"
"To see the man punished who shot him, Hicky," cried Dick passionately.
"Ay, I'd like to see that, or hev the punishing of him," said Hickathrift, stretching out a great fist. "It's one o' they big shacks [idle scoundrels, from Irish shaughraun] yonder up at the dree-ern. I'm going to find him out yet, and when I do—Theer, go and wesh thy faace."
Dick was going sadly away when a word from Hickathrift arrested him; and turning, it was to see that the big fellow was looking at him reproachfully, and holding out a hand for him to grasp.
"Ay, that's better, lad," said the wheelwright smiling. "Good-bye, lad, and don't feight again!"
The result of this encounter was that Dick found himself without a companion, and he went day by day bitterly about thinking how hard it was that he should be suspected and ill-treated for trying to spare Tom the agony of having his father denounced and dragged off to jail.
Constables came and made investigations in the loose way of the time; but they discovered nothing, and after a while they departed to do duty elsewhere; but only to come back at the end of a week to re-investigate the state of affairs, for a large low building occupied by about twenty of the drainers was, one windy night, set on fire, and its drowsy occupants had a narrow escape from death.
But there was no discovery made, the constables setting it down to accident, saying that the men must have been smoking; and once more the fen was left to its own resources.
Mr Winthorpe grew rapidly better after the first fortnight, and Dick watched his convalescence with no little anxiety, for he expected to hear him accuse Farmer Tallington of being his attempted murderer. But Dick had no cause for fear. The squire told Mr Marston that he had seen a light on the mere, and dreading that it might mean an attempt to burn down some barn, he had gone out to watch, and he had just made out the shape of a punt on the water when he saw a flash, felt the shock, and fell helpless and insensible among the reeds.
This was as near an account as he could give of the affair, for the injury seemed to have confused him, and he knew little of what had taken place before, nothing of what had since occurred.
"But your life has been spared, Mr Winthorpe," said Marston; "and some day I hope we shall know that your assailant and mine has received his due."
"Ay," said the squire; "we must find him out, for fear he should spoil our plans, for we are not beaten yet."
"Beaten! no, squire," said the engineer; "we are getting on faster than ever, and the success of the project is assured."
CHAPTER TWENTY TWO.
AFTER A SPACE.
The time rolled on. The drain-making progressed, and for a while there was no further trouble. Mr Winthorpe improved in health, but always seemed to avoid any allusion to the outrage; and after the constables had been a few times and found out nothing, and the magistrates of the neighbourhood had held consultation, the trouble once more dropped.
Dick Winthorpe always lived in apprehension of being examined, and pressed to tell all he knew, but his father never said a word, to his great relief, and the matter died out.
"I can't take any steps about it," Dick said to himself, "if my father doesn't;" and there were times when he longed to speak, others when he wished that he could forget everything about the past.
"Yow two med it up yet?" Hickathrift used to ask every time he saw Dick; but the answer was always the same—"No."
"Ah, well, you will some day, my lad. It arn't good for boys to make quarrels last."
There was no more warm friendship with Mr Marston, who, whenever he came over to the Toft, was studiously polite to Dick, treating him as if he were not one whose friendship was worth cultivating, to the lad's great disgust, though he was too proud to show it; and the result was that Dick's life at the Toft grew very lonely, and he was driven to seek the companionship of John Warren and his rabbits, and of Dave with his boat, gun, and fishing-tackle.
Then all at once there was a change. The outrages, which had ceased for a time, broke out again furiously; and all through the winter there were fires here and there, the very fact of a person, whether farmer or labourer, seeming to favour the making of the drain, being enough to make him receive an unwelcome visit from the party or parties who opposed the scheme.
So bad did matters grow that at last people armed and prepared themselves for the struggle which was daily growing more desperate; and at the same time a feeling of suspicion increased so strongly that throughout the fen every man looked upon his neighbour as an enemy.
But still the drain grew steadily in spite of the fact that Mr Marston had been shot at twice again, and never went anywhere now without a brace of pistols in his pocket.
One bright wintry morning John Warren came in with a long tale of woe, and his arm in a sling.
It was the old story. He had been out with his gun to try and get a wild-goose which he had marked down, when, just in the dusk, about half-past four, he was suddenly startled by a shot, and received the contents of a gun in his arm.
"But you'd got a gun," said Hickathrift, who was listening with Dick, while Tom Tallington, who had business at the wheelwright's that morning, stood hearing all. "Why didst na let him hev it again?"
"What's the use o' shuting at a sperrit?" grumbled John Warren. "'Sides, I couldn't see him."
"Tchah! it warn't a sperrit," said Hickathrift contemptuously.
"Well, I don't know so much about that," grumbled John Warren. "If it weern't a sperrit what was to mak my little dog, Snig, creep down in the bottom of the boat and howl? Yow mark my words: it's sperrits, that's what it is; and it's because o' that theer dreern; but they needn't shute at me, for I don't want dreern made."
"Going over to town to see the doctor, John?" said Dick.
"Nay, lad, not I. It's only a hole in my arm. There arn't nowt the matter wi' me. I've tied it oop wi' some wet 'bacco, and it'll all grow oop again, same as a cooten finger do."
"But someone ought to see it."
"Well, someun has sin it. I showed it to owd Dave, and he said it weer all right. Tchah! what's the good o' doctors? Did they cure my ager?"
"Well, go up and ask mother to give you some clean linen rag for it."
"Ay," said the rabbit-trapper with a grim smile, "I'll do that."
So John Warren went to the Toft, obtained the clean linen rag, but refused to have his wound dressed, and went off again; while the squire knit his brow when he returned soon after, and, taking Dick with him, poled across in the punt to see Dave and make him promise to keep a sharp look-out.
A week passed away, and the frost had come in so keenly that the ice promised to bear, and consequent upon this Dick was at the wheelwright's one evening superintending the finishing up of his pattens, as they called their skates. Hickathrift had ground the blades until they were perfectly sharp at the edges, and had made a new pair of ashen soles for them, into which he had just finished fitting the steel.
"There, Mester Dick," said the bluff fellow with a grin; "that's a pair o' pattens as you ought 'most to fly in. Going out in the morning?"
"Yes, Hicky, I shall go directly after breakfast."
"Ay, she'll bear splendid to-morrow, and the ice is as hard and black as it can be. Hello, who's this? Haw-haw! I thowt you'd want yours done," he added, as he heard steps coming over the frozen ground, and the jingle of skates knocking together. "It's young Tom Tallington, Mester Dick. Come, you two ought to mak friends now, and go and hev a good skate to-morrow."
"I'm never going to be friends with Tom Tallington again," said Dick sternly; but he sighed as he said it.
Just then Tom rushed into the workshop. "Here," he cried, "Dick Winthorpe, come along. I've been to the house."
"What do you want?" said Dick coldly.
"What do I want! Why, they don't know!" cried Tom. "Look here!"
He caught Dick by the collar, dragged him to the door, and pointed.
"Fire!" he cried.
"Hey!" cried the wheelwright. "Fire! So it is. But there's no house or stack out theer."
"Only old Dave's. Father said he thought it must be his place. Come on, Dick."
"But how are we to get there?" cried Dick, forgetting the feud in the excitement.
"How are we to get there! Why, skate."
"Will it be strong enough, Hicky?"
"Mebbe for you, lads; but it wouldn't bear me, and I couldn't get along the boat nor yet a sled."
Tom had already seated himself, and was putting on his skates, while Dick immediately began to follow suit, with the result that in five minutes both were ready and all past troubles forgotten. The memory of the terrible night when his father was shot did come for a moment to Dick, but the trouble had grown dull, and the excitement of Dave's place being on fire carried everything before it.
"Poor owd Dave!" said Hickathrift, as he gazed over the mere at the glow in the black frosty night. "He's got off so far. Mebbe it'll be my turn next. Come back and tell me, lads."
"Yes, yes," they shouted, as they walked clumsily to the ice edge, Dick first, and as he glided on there was an ominous ringing crack which seemed to run right out with a continuous splitting noise.
"Will it bear, Hicky?"
"Ay, she'll bear you, lad, only keep well out, and away from the reeds."
Tom dashed on, and as the wheelwright stood with the group of labourers, who were just beginning to comprehend the new alarm, the two lads went off stroke for stroke over the ringing ice, which cracked now and again but did not yield, save to undulate beneath them, as they kept gathering speed and glided away.
Far ahead there was the ruddy glow, showing like a golden patch upon the dark sky, which overhead was almost black, and glittering with the brilliant stars. The ice gleamed, little puffs of white powder rose at every stroke of the skates, and on and on they went, gathering speed till they were gliding over the ringing metallic surface like arrows from a bow, while as soon as the first timidity had passed away they began to feel their feet, and in a few minutes were skating nearly as well as when the ice broke up last.
The feud was forgotten, and it had lasted long enough. With a buoyant feeling of excitement, and a sensation of joy increased by the brisk beat of the freezing wind upon their cheeks, the two lads joined hands in a firm grip, kept time together, and sped on as Lincoln and Cambridge boys alone can speed over the ice.
Not that they are more clever with their legs than the boys of other counties; but from the fact that skating has always been a favourite pastime with them, and that when others were longing for a bit of bearing ice, and getting it sometimes in a crowded place, the marsh and fen lads had miles of clear bright surface, over which they could career as a swallow flies.
Away and away over the open ice, unmarked before by skate-iron and looking black as hardened unpolished steel, stroke for stroke, stroke for stroke, the wind whistling by them, and the ominous cracking forgotten as they dashed on past reed-bed and bog-clump, keeping to the open water where they had so often been by punt.
"His reed-stack must be on fire," panted Dick as they dashed on.
"Ay, and his peat-stack and cottage too," shouted Tom so as to be heard above the ringing of their skates. "Oh, Dick, if I only knew who it was did these things I think I could kill him!"
Dick was silent for a minute, for his companion's words jarred upon him.
"How much farther is it?" he said at last.
"Good mile and a half," said Tom; "but it's fine going. I say, look at the golden smoke. It must be at Dave's, eh?"