"Yes, it's there, sure enough. Oh, Tom, suppose some one were to burn down the duck 'coy!"
"It wouldn't burn so as to do much harm. Look, there goes a flock of plovers."
They could just catch the gleam of the wings in the dark night, as the great flock, evidently startled by the strange glare, swept by.
"I say!" cried Dick, as they dashed on as rapidly as the birds themselves.
"What is it?"
"Suppose poor Dave—"
"Oh, don't think things like that!" cried Tom with a shudder. "He'd be clever enough to get out. Come along. Look at the sparks."
What Tom called sparks were glowing flakes of fire which floated on, glittering against the black sky, and so furiously was the fire burning that it seemed as if something far more than the hut and stacks of the decoy-man must be ablaze.
And now they had to curve off some distance to the right, for they came upon an embayment of the mere, so well sheltered from the icy blast that to have persevered in skating over the very thin ice must have meant serious accident to one, probably to both.
For a long time past the ice had been blushing, as it were, with the warm glow from the sky; but now, as they drew nearer and passed a little copse of willows, they glided full into the view of the burning hut and stacks, and found that a bed of dry reeds was burning too. At this point of their journey the cold black ice was lit up, and as they advanced it seemed as if they were about to skim over red-hot glowing steel.
"Now, then," cried Dick excitedly, "a rush—as fast as we can go!"
But they could get on at no greater speed, and rather slackened than increased as they drew near to the fire; while a feeling of thankfulness came over both as all at once they were aware of the fact that a tall thin figure was standing apparently with its back to them staring at the glowing fire, against which it stood out like a black silhouette.
"Dave, ho!" shouted Dick.
The figure turned slowly, and one hand was raised as if to shade the eyes.
"Dave, ho!" shouted Tom.
"Ay, ay!" shouted back the man; and the next minute the boys glided up to the firm earth and leaped ashore, as their old fishing and trapping friend came slowly to meet them.
"How was it, Dave?" cried Dick.
"Was it an accident?" cried Tom.
"Accident! Just such an accident as folks hev as shoves a burning candle in a corn stack. Just you two slither out yonder straight away, and see if you can see anyone."
"But there can't be anyone," said Dick, looking in the direction indicated.
"Ice wouldn't bear, and they couldn't come in a punt."
"Nay, they coom i' pattens," said Dave sharply. "I joost caught a blink of 'em as they went off, and I let 'em hev the whole charge o' my goon."
"A bullet?" said Tom huskily.
"Nay, lad; swan-shot. I'd been out after the wild-geese at the end of the bit o' reed-bed here, when I see a light wheer there couldn't be no light, and I roon back and see what they'd done, and let fly at 'em."
"And hit them, Dave?" said Dick.
"Nay, lad, I can't say. I fired and I heered a squeal. Ice wouldn't bear for me to go and see."
"Come along, Tom," cried Dick; and they skated away once more, to curve here and there in all directions, till a hail from the island took them back.
"Can't you find 'em?"
"Then they must have got away; but they've took some swan-shot wi' 'em, whoever they be."
"But, Dave, were there two?"
"Don't know, lad. I only see one, and fired sharp. Look ye here," he continued, pointing to the glowing remains of his hut, "I nivver made no dreerns. They might have left me alone. Now they'll come back some day and pay me back for that shot. All comes o' your father makkin dreerns, Mester Dick, just as if we weren't reight before."
"It's very, very sad, Dave."
"Ay, bairn, and I feel sadly. Theer's a whole pound o' powder gone, and if I'd happened to be happed up i' my bed instead of out after they geese, I should hev gone wi' it, or been bont to dead. Why did they want to go meddling wi' me?"
"They've been meddling with every one, Dave," said Tom.
"'Cept you two," grumbled Dave. "Theer was my sheepskin coat and a pair o' leggin's and my new boots."
"Were the nets there, Dave?" asked Dick.
"Course they weer. Look, dessay that's them burning now. All my shot too melted down, and my tatoes, and everything I have."
"Where was the dog?"
"Over at John Warren's. Wasn't well. Nice sort o' neighbour he is to stop away!"
"But he couldn't come, Dave," said Tom in remonstrant tones. "The ice wouldn't bear anyone but us boys."
"Why, I'd ha' swimmed to him," growled Dave, "if his place had been afire."
"No you wouldn't, Dave. You couldn't when it's frozen. I say, couldn't we put anything out?"
"Nay, lads. It must bon right away, and then there'll be a clear place to build again."
"But," cried Dick, "a bucket or two, and we could do a good deal."
"Boocket's bont," said Dave sadly, "and everything else. They might hev left me alone, for I hates the dreerns."
The trio stood watching the fire, which was rapidly going down now for want of something to burn; but as they stood near, their faces scorched, while the cold wind drawn by the rising heat cut by their ears and threatened to stiffen their backs. The reeds and young trees which had been burning were now smoking feebly, and the only place which made any show was the peat-stack, which glowed warmly and kept crumbling down in cream-coloured ash. But when a fire begins to sink it ceases to be exciting, and as the two lads stood there upon their skates, with their faces burning, the tightness of their straps stopped the circulation, and their feet grew cold.
"I say, Dave," said Dick just then, "what's to be done?"
"Build 'em up again. I builded this, and I can build another, lad."
"Yes, but I mean about you. What's to be done? The ice won't bear you, and you've got no shelter."
The rough fellow shook his head.
"Nay, but it wean't rain, and I can sit close to the fire and keep mysen warm."
"But you ought to have some cover."
"Ay, I ought to hev some cover, and I'll get my punt ashore, and turn her up, and sit under her."
"And no wraps! Look here, I shall be warm enough skating back. I'll lend you my coat."
"Nay, nay, lad," said Dave, with his eyes twinkling, and his face looking less grim. "Keep on thy coat, lad, I wean't hev it. Thankye, though, all the same, and thou shalt hev a good bit o' sport for that, Mester Dick. But, theer, you two had best go back."
"But we don't like leaving you," said Tom.
"Thankye, lads, thankye. Bud nivver yow mind about me. Look at the times I've wetched all night in my poont for the wild-geese, and wi'out a fire, eh? Yow both get back home. Wouldn't bear me to walk wi' ye to sleep in one of the barns at the Toft, would it?"
"I don't think it would, Dave."
"Nay, it wouldn't, lad; and I don't want to get wet, so off with you."
The boys hesitated; but Dave was determined.
"Here, give me a hand wi' my poont," he said; and going to where it was moored, he took hold of the boat, drew it close in, and then, he on one side, the two lads on the other, they ran it right up ashore, and close to the glowing peat-stack, where, with a good deal of laughter at their clumsiness in skates ashore, the punt was turned over, and Dave propped one side up with a couple of short pieces of wood.
"Theer," he said. "Looks like setting a trap to ketch a big bird. I'm the big bird, and I shall be warm enew faacing the fire. When it goes out I can tak' away the sticks and let the poont down and go to sleep. Come and see me again, lads, and bring me a moothful o' something. Mebbe the ice'll bear to-morrow."
"We'll come, Dave, never fear," said Dick, taking out his knife as he reached the ice, and cleaning the mud off his skates, for the ground was soft near the fire, though hard as iron everywhere else.
"I don't fear, lads," said Dave smiling, and letting off his watchman-rattle laugh. "It's a bad job, but not so bad as Farmer Tallington's stables burning, or squire's beasts heving theer legs cooten. I'll soon get oop another house when I've been and seen neighbour Hickathrift for some wood. Now, then, off you go, and see who's best man over the ice."
"One moment, Dave," cried Dick, checking himself in the act of starting. "It was easy enough to come here with the fire to guide us, but we must know which way to go back."
"Ay, to be sure, lad," cried Dave eagerly. "You mak' straight for yon star and yow'll be right. That star's reight over the Toft. Now, then—off!"
There was a momentary hesitation, and then the boys struck the ice almost at the same time. There was a ringing hissing sound, mingled with a peculiar splitting as if the ice were parting from where they started across the mere to the Toft, and then they were going at a rapidly increasing speed straight for home.
CHAPTER TWENTY THREE.
There are many pleasures in life, and plenty of people to sing the praises of the sport most to their taste; but it is doubtful whether there is any manly pursuit which gives so much satisfaction to an adept in the art as skating.
I don't mean skating upon the ornamental water of a park, elbowed here, run against there, crowded into a narrow limit, and abortively trying to cut figures upon a few square feet of dirty, trampled ice, full of holes, dotted with stones thrown on by mischievous urchins to try whether it will bear, and being so much unlike ice that it is hardly to be distinguished from the trampled banks; but skating over miles of clear black crystal, on open water, with the stars twinkling above like diamonds, the air perfectly still around, but roaring far on high, as Jack Frost and his satellites go hurrying on to mow down vegetation and fetter streams; when there is so much vitality in the air you breathe that fatigue is hardly felt, and when, though the glass registers so many degrees of frost, your pulses beat, your cheeks glow, and a faint dew upon your forehead beneath your cap tells you that you are thoroughly warm. How the blood dances through the veins! How the eyes sparkle! How tense is every nerve! How strong each muscle! The ice looks like steel. Your skates are steel, and your legs feel the same as stroke, whish! stroke, whish! stroke! stroke! stroke! stroke! away you go, gathering power, velocity, confidence, delight, at the unwonted exercise, till you feel as if you could go on for ever, and begin wishing that the whole world was ice, and human beings had been born with skates to their toes instead of nails.
Some such feelings as these pervaded the breasts of Dick Winthorpe and Tom Tallington as they glided along homeward on that night. Every now and then there was a sharp report, and a hissing splitting sound. Then another and another, for the ice was really too thin to bear them properly, and it undulated beneath their weight like the soft swell of the Atlantic in a calm.
"Sha'n't go through, shall we?" said Tom, as there was a crack as loud as a pistol-shot.
"We should if we stopped," said Dick. "Keep on and we shall be on fresh ice before it breaks."
And so it seemed. Crack! crack! crack! But at every report and its following splitting the lads redoubled their exertions, and skimmed at a tremendous rate over the treacherous surface.
At times it was quite startling; but they were growing so inured to the peril that they laughed loudly—a joyous hearty laugh—which rang out to the music made by their skates.
They were in the highest of glee, for though they did not revert to it in words, each boy kept thinking of the past quarrel, and rejoicing at its end, while he looked forward to days of enjoyment in companionship such as had gone before.
The star—one of those in the Great Bear—did them good stead, for it was easy to follow; and saving that they were always within an ace of going through, they skimmed on in safety.
From time to time they glanced back to see the glare of the fire dying out to such an extent that when they were well in sight of the light at the landing-place which they felt convinced Hickathrift was showing, the last sign had died out, and just then a loud crack made them forget it.
"Don't seem to be freezing so hard, does it?" said Tom.
"Oh, yes, I think so; only we must be going over ice we cracked before. Now, then, let's put on all the speed we can, and go right in to where the light is with a rush."
Tom answered to his companion's call by taking stroke for stroke, and away they went quicker than ever. The ice bent and swayed and cracked, and literally hissed as they sped on, with the white powder flying as it was struck off. The metallic ring sounded louder, and the splitting more intense; but still they passed on in safety till they were within one hundred yards of where the wheelwright was waiting, when there was a sharp report as loud as that of a gun, a crack, and there were no skaters on the surface, only a quantity of broken ice in so much black water, and directly after a loud yell rose from the shore.
"Now, Jacob, out with it!" came in stentorian tones; and then there was a cracking sound, a great deal of splashing, and the punt was partly slid along the ice, partly used to break it up, by the two men who waded by its side, and finally got it right upon the ice and thrust along till it was close to the place where the lads had broken in.
"Now, then, where are you?" shouted Hickathrift as he peered around.
"Here we are, all right, only so precious cold!" cried Dick. "It isn't very deep here; only up to your chest."
"It's up to my chin," cried Tom with a shiver, "and I'm holding on by the ice."
Hickathrift did not hesitate, but waded towards him, breaking opposing sheets of ice with a thump of his fist, and at last, with some little difficulty, all got ashore.
"Theer, both of you, run for it to the Toft and get to bed. The missus knows what to do better than I can tell her. Nivver mind your pattens."
If they had stopped to get them off it would have been a terribly long job with their rapidly-numbing hands, so they did not pause, but scuffled over the ground in the best way they could to the house, where hot beds and a peculiar decoction Mrs Winthorpe prepared had a double property, for it sent them into a perspiration and off to sleep, one of the labourers bearing the news to Grimsey that the heir to the house of Tallington would not return that night, consequent upon having become "straange and wet."
The next morning the boys came down to breakfast none the worse for their wetting, to find that Mr Marston was already there looking very serious.
He had been told of the burning-out of poor Dave, and he had other news of his own, that three of the cottages had been fired during the past night.
"And the peculiar part of the business is," said Mr Marston, "that big Bargle saw the person who fired the last of the houses."
The engineer looked at Dick as he spoke.
"Why didn't he catch him then?" said Dick sharply, for Mr Marston's look annoyed him; "he is big enough."
"Don't speak pertly, Dick!" said his father sternly.
"It was because he is so big that he did not catch him, Richard Winthorpe," said the engineer coldly. "The ice bore the person who fired the places, because he was skating."
"Skating!" cried Dick, flushing up.
"Yes, skating!" said Mr Marston. "Bargle says that the man hobbled over the ground in his skates, but as soon as he reached the ice he went off like a bird. The ice cracked and splintered, but it seemed to bear him, and in less than a minute he was out of sight, but Bargle could hear him for a long time."
"Well, it wasn't me, Mr Marston," said Tom, laughing. "I was skating along with Dick, but it was neither of us. We went to another fire."
"Breakfast is getting cold," said Mrs Winthorpe, who looked troubled, for the squire was frowning, and Dick turning pale and red by turns.
"Look here," said the squire suddenly; "I cannot, and I will not, have unpleasantness of this kind in my house. I must speak plainly, Marston. You suspect my boy of firing your men's huts last night?"
"I am very sorry, Mr Winthorpe, and I do it unwillingly, but appearances are very much against him."
"They are," said the squire gravely.
"I like Dick; I always did like Dick," said the engineer; "and it seems to me horrible to have to suspect such a lad as he is; but put yourself in my place, Mr Winthorpe. Can you be surprised?"
"I am not surprised, Mr Marston," said Mrs Winthorpe, rising and going to her son's side. "Dick was out last night skating with Tom here over the thin ice, and of course it must have been a very light person to cross last night in skates; but you are mistaken. My boy would not commit such a cowardly crime."
The moment before, Dick, who was half-stunned by the accusation, and ready to give up in despair, leaped to his feet and flung his arms about his mother's waist. His eyes flashed and the colour flushed right up into his brows as he kissed her passionately again and again.
"You are right," said the squire. "But speak out, Dick. You did not do this dastardly thing?"
"No, father," said Dick, meeting his eyes boldly. "I couldn't."
"There, Marston," said the squire; "and I will not insult Tom Tallington by accusing him."
"Oh, no, father! we were together all the time."
"But I say," cried Tom, "old Dave said it was a chap in skates who set fire to his place, and he couldn't follow him over the ice."
"Yes; I'd forgotten," cried Dick, "and he shot at him."
"Then I am wrong once more, Dick," said Mr Marston. "I beg your pardon. Will you forgive me?"
"Of course I will, Mr Marston," said Dick huskily, as he took the extended hand; "but I don't think you ought to be so ready to think ill of me."
"And I say the same, Mr Marston," said Mrs Winthorpe. "My boy is wilful, and he may have been a bit mischievous, but he could not be guilty of such cowardly tricks as these."
"No," said Tom, with his mouth full of pork-pie; "of course he could not. Dick isn't a coward!"
"I humbly apologise, Mrs Winthorpe," said Marston, smiling, "and you must forgive me. A man who has been shot at has his temper spoiled."
"Say no more, Marston, my lad," said the squire warmly; "we all forgive you, and—breakfast waits."
The subject was hurriedly changed, Dick being after all able to make a good meal, during which he thought of the past, and of how glad he was to be friends with Tom Tallington again; and then, as he had his second help of pie to Tom's third, it seemed to him that the same person must be guilty of all these outrages, and if so it could not by any possibility be Farmer Tallington, for he never skated, and even if he could, he weighed at least sixteen stone, and the ice had broken under the weight of Tom's seven or eight.
"We shall find him yet, Marston; never fear," said the squire; "and when we do—well, I shall be sorry for the man."
"Why?" said Mrs Winthorpe.
"Because," said the squire gravely, "I have been so near death myself that—there, this is not a pleasant subject to talk about. We will wait."
CHAPTER TWENTY FOUR.
PREPARING FOR ACTION.
Hickathrift shook his head; Mrs Hickathrift screwed up her lips, shut her eyes, and shuddered; and the former doubled up his hard fist and shook it in the air, as if he were going to hit nothing, as he gave out his opinion—this being also the opinion of all the labouring people near.
"Ay, yow may laugh, Mester Dick, but they'll nivver find out nowt. It's sperrits, that's what it is—sperrits of the owd fen, them as makes the ager, and sends will-o'-the-wisps to lead folkses into the bog. They don't like the drain being med, and they shutes and bons, and does all they can to stop it."
"You're a great goose, Hicky," said Dick sharply. "Who ever heard of a ghost—"
"I didn't say ghost, my lad. I said sperrits!"
"Well, they're all the same."
"Nay, nay, ghosts is ghosts, and sperrits is sperrits."
"Well, then, who ever heard of a spirit going out skating with a lantern, or poling about with a punt, or shooting people, or blowing up sluice-gates, or cutting beasts' legs, or setting fire to their houses? Did you?"
"I nivver did till now, Mester Dick."
"It's all nonsense about spirits; isn't it, Tom?"
"Of course it is," was the reply. "We're going to catch the spirit some day, and we'll bring him here."
"Ay, do," said Hickathrift, nodding his head softly. "Well, I'm glad you two hev made it up."
"Never mind about that. Has Dave been over?"
"Ay, lad. Soon as the ice went away and he could get his punt along he come to me and asked me to get him some wood sawn out; and we done it already. Ice is gone and to-morrow I'm going to pole across and help him knock up a frame, and he'll do the rest hissen."
The damage was far more severe at the drainage works; but even here the traces of the fire soon disappeared, and fresh huts were run up nearer to where the men were at work.
One thing, however, was noticeable, and that was the action of the squire, the engineer, and Farmer Tallington—the engineer, after hanging away for a time, becoming again more friendly, though Dick never seemed at ease in his presence now.
These three leaders on the north side of the fen held a meeting with dwellers on the west and south, and after long consultation the results were seen in a quiet way which must have been rather startling to wrong-doer? and those who were secretly fighting to maintain the fen undrained.
Tom was the first to begin talking about these precautions as he and Dick started to go down to the drain one morning early in spring, after a long spell of bitter miserable weather, succeeded by a continuance of fierce squalls off the sea.
"I say," he said, "father's got such a splendid new pair of pistols."
"Has he? So has my father," said Dick staring. "Are yours mounted with brass and with brass pans?"
"Yes, and got lions' heads on the handles just at the end."
"Ours are just the same," said Dick. "I say, Tom, it won't be very pleasant for the spirits if they come now. Hullo, what does Hicky want?"
The big wheelwright was signalling to them to come, and they turned in to his work-shed.
"Thowt you lads 'd like to see," he said. "What d'yer think o' them?"
He pointed to a couple of muskets lying on the bench.
"Are these yours?" said Tom.
"Yes and no, lads. They're for me and Jacob, and we've got orders to be ready at any time to join in and help run down them as does all the mischief; but it's a sorry business, lads. Powther and shot's no use. Yow can't get shut of sperrits that ways. Good goons, aren't they?"
The pieces were inspected and the boys soon afterwards started.
"I don't see much use in our going down here," said Tom, "for if there is anything stupid it's the cutting of a drain. It's all alike, just the same as the first bit they cut."
"Only we don't have to go so far to see the men at work. I suppose one of these days we shall have Mr Marston setting up huts for the men about the Toft. Hist! look out! What's that?"
"Whittrick!" said Tom, running in pursuit of the little animal which crossed their path. "There must be rabbits about here."
"Yes. Do you know what they call whittricks down south?"
"How stupid!" said Tom after a vain chase after the snaky-looking little creature. "They must be very silly people down south. Do they call them stoats in London?"
"Haven't got any in London—only rats."
The engineer greeted the lads warmly and went up to the temporary hut he occupied to fetch his gun, when, in the corner of the room Dick saw something which made him glance at Tom.
"Yes," said the engineer, who saw the glance; "we're going to show your fen-men, Master Dick, that we do not mean to be trifled with. I've got muskets; and as the law does not help us, we shall help ourselves. So if anyone intends to come shooting us, blowing up our works, or setting fire to our huts, he had better look out for bullets."
"But you wouldn't shoot anyone, Mr Marston?" said Tom.
"Indeed but we would, or any two, sir. It's a case of self-defence. There, Dick, don't look at me as if I were a bloodthirsty savage. I have got all these muskets down and shown my men how to use them, and I am letting it be known that we are prepared."
"Seems rather horrible," said Dick.
"More horrible for your father to be shot, Dick, and for people to be burned in their beds, eh!"
"Ever so much," cried Tom. "You shoot 'em all, Mr Marston."
"Precaution is better than cure, Tom," said the engineer smiling. "Now that we are prepared, you will see that we shall not be interfered with, and my arming the men will save bloodshed instead of causing it."
"Think so, sir?"
"I am sure of it, my lad. Besides, if I had not done something, my men would not have stayed. Even Bargle said it was getting too warm. He said he was not afraid, but he would not stay. So here we are ready for the worst: self-defence, my lads. And now let's go and get a few ducks for dinner. They are pretty plentiful, and my men like them as well as I."
The result was a long walk round the edge of the fen and the bringing back of a fairly miscellaneous bag of wild-fowl, the engineer having become a skilful gunner during his stay in the wild coast land.
Mr Marston was right; the preparations made by him and all the farmers round who had an interest in the draining of the fen had the effect of putting a stop to the outrages. The work went on as the weeks glided by, and spring passed, and summer came to beautify the wild expanse of bog and water. There had been storm and flood, but people had slept in peace, and the troubles of the past were beginning to be forgotten.
There were plenty of fishing and fowling expeditions, visits to the decoy with good results, and journeys to John Warren's home for the hunting out of rabbits; but life was beginning seriously for the two lads, who found occupation with Mr Marston and began to acquire the rudiments of knowledge necessary for learning to be draining engineers. Sometimes they were making drawings, sometimes overlooking, and at others studying works under their teacher's guidance.
But it was a pleasant time, for Marston readily broke off work to join them in some expedition.
One day, as they were poling along, Tom gave Dick a queer look, and nodded in the direction of a fir-crowned gravelly island lying about a mile away.
"When's the Robinson Crusoe business going to begin, Dick?" he said.
Dick laughed, but it was not a merry laugh, for the memory was a painful one, and mingled with recollections of times when everyone was suspicious of him, or seemed to be; and he was fast relapsing into an unhappy morbid state.
"What was the Robinson Crusoe business?" said Marston; and on being told, he laughingly proposed going on.
"Let's have a look at the place, boys," he said. "Why shouldn't we have a summer-house out here to come and stay at sometimes, shooting, fishing, or collecting. We cannot always work."
The pole was vigorously plied, and at the end of half an hour they had landed, to find the place just as they remembered it to have been the year before. There were the bushes, the heath, and heather in the gravelly soil, and the fir-trees flourishing.
"A capital place!" said the engineer. "I tell you what, boys, we'll bring Big Bargle over, and a couple of men; the wheelwright shall cut us some posts, rafters, and a door, and we'll make a great hut, and—"
He stopped short at that point and stared, as they all stood in the depths of the little fir-wood, with the water and reed-beds hidden from sight. For there, just before them, as if raised by magic, was the very building Mr Marston had described, and upon examination they found it very dry and warm, with a bed of heath in one corner.
"Some sportsman has forestalled us," said the engineer. "One of the farmers, I suppose, from the other side of the fen."
They came away, with the lads sharing the same feeling of disappointment, for the little island was robbed of all its romance. It was no longer uninhabited, and the temptation to have a hut there was gone.
"Plenty more such places, boys," said Mr Marston, "so never mind. We'll hunt one out and make much of it before my drain turns all this waste into fertile fields. Now let's get back, for I have a lot to chat over with the wheelwright."
The next morning Hickathrift was beaming, and he came up to the Toft to catch Dick, who was feeding Solomon and avoiding his friendly kicks, while he waited for Tom to go over with him to the works.
"Say, Mester Dick, on'y think of it! Leave that owd ass alone, lad, and listen to me."
"What is it, Hicky?"
"Why, lad, I'm a man full o'—what do you call that when a chap wants to get on in the world?"
"That's it, Mester Dick. I'm full on it, bud I've nivver hed a chance. You see I've had to mend gates, and owd carts, and put up fences. I did nearly get the job to build a new barn, bud I lost it, and all my life's been jobs."
"And what now?" said Dick warmly.
"What now, lad! Why, Mester Marston's set me to mak three sets o' small watter gates for sides o' the dreern, and I'm to hev money in advance for the wood and iron work, and my fortune's about made."
"Hooray, Hicky! I am glad," cried Dick; and Tom, coming up, was initiated into the great new step in advance, and added his congratulations.
"Why, you're carpenter and joiner to the works now, Hicky!" said Dick, laughing.
"Ay, lad, that's it, and I don't fear for nowt."
It was less than a fortnight after, that Dick lay asleep one night and dreaming of being in a boat on the mere, or one of its many additional pools, when he started into wakefulness with the impression that the house was coming down.
"Eh? What is it?" he cried, as there was a heavy thumping on the wall close to his bed's head.
"Get up—fire!" came in muffled tones; and bounding out of bed he saw that there was a lurid light on the water, evidently reflected from something burning pretty near at hand, while there was the distant hum of voices, mingled with shrieks and the barking of a dog.
Dick began hurriedly dressing, and threw open the window, to find that the dog was Grip, who was out in the yard barking frantically, as if to alarm the house.
"What is it, father? Where?" cried Dick.
"Don't know; not here. Labourers' cottages, I think," replied the squire, who was still dressing. Then, as a burst of flame seemed to rush up skyward, and a cloud of brilliant sparks floated away, he added, "Dick, my lad, it is poor Hickathrift's turn now."
He was quite right, for as they ran the few hundred yards which separated them from the burning place, it was to find that the poor fellow's house, work-shed, stock of wood, peat-stack, and out-buildings were in a blaze; even his punt, which had been brought up for its annual repair and pitching, blazing furiously.
Hickathrift, Jacob, Mrs Hickathrift, and the farm people were all at work with buckets, which they handed along from the dipping place by the old willows; but at the first glance the squire saw that it was in vain, and that the fire had taken such hold that nothing could be saved. Both he and Dick, however, joined in the efforts, saying nothing but working with all their might, the squire taking Jacob's place and dipping the water, while the apprentice and Dick helped to pass the full buckets along and the empty back, for they were not enough to form a double line.
For about a quarter of an hour this was kept up, the wheelwright throwing the water where he thought it would do most good; but the flames only roared the louder, and, fanned by a pleasant breeze, fluttered and sent up sparks of orange and gold, till a cask of pitch got well alight, and then the smoke arose in one dense cloud.
It was a glorious sight in spite of its horror, for the wood in the shed and the pile without burned brilliantly, lighting up the mere, gilding the reeds, and spreading a glow around that was at times dazzling.
"Pass it along quick! pass it along!" Jacob kept saying, probably to incite people to work harder; but it was not necessary, for everyone was doing his or her best, when, just as they were toiling their hardest, the wheelwright took a bucket of water, hurled it as far as he could, and then dashed on the empty vessel and turned away.
"No good," he said bitterly, as he wiped his face. "Fire joost spits at me when I throw in the watter. It must bon down, squire, eh?"
"Yes, my man, nothing could save the place now."
"And all my same [lard] in a jar—ten pounds good," murmured Mrs Hickathrift.
"Ay, moother, and my Sunday clothes," said the wheelwright with a bitter laugh.
"And my best frock."
"Ay, and my tools, and a bit o' mooney I'd saved, and all my stoof. Eh, but I'm about ruined, moother, and just when I was going to get on and do the bit o' work for the dreern folk."
The fire seemed to leap up suddenly with a great flash as if to enlighten the great fellow's understanding, but he did not grasp the situation for a few moments, till his wife, as she bemoaned the loss of a paste-board and a flour-tub, suddenly exclaimed:
"It's them sperrits of the fen as has done it all."
"Ay, so it be!" roared Hickathrift. "Ay! Hey, bud if I could git one of 'em joost now by scruff of his neck and the seat of his breeches, I'd—I'd—I'd roast him."
"Then it was no accident, Hickathrift?"
"Yes, squire," said the man bitterly; "same sort o' axden as bont Farmer Tallington's stable and shed. Hah, here he is!" he added, as the farmer came panting up with Tom. "Come to waarm theesen, farmer? It's my turn now."
"My lad! My lad!" panted the farmer, "I am sorry."
"Thanky, farmer; but fine words butter no parsneps. Theer, bairn," he cried, putting his arm round his wife's waist; "don't cry that away. We aren't owd folks, and I'm going to begin again. Be a good dry plaace after fire's done, and theer'll be some niced bits left for yow to heat the oven when fire's out."
"And no oven, no roof, no fireside."
"Hush! hush! bairn!" said the big fellow thickly. "Don't I tell thee I'm going to begin again! What say, Mester Dick? Nay, nay, lad, nay."
"What did Dick say?" said the squire sharply.
"Hush, Hicky!" whispered Dick quickly.
"Nay, lad, I wean't hoosh! Said, squire, as he's got thretty shillings saved up, and he'd give it to me to start wi'."
"And so he shall, my man, and other neighbours will help you too. I'll make Dick's thirty shillings a hundred guineas."
"Well, I can't do that, Hickathrift," said Farmer Tallington; "but if ever you want to borrow twenty guineas come to me; and there's my horse and sled to lead wood wheniver you like, and a willing hand or two to help."
Hickathrift turned sharply to say something; but he could only utter a great gulp, and, turning away, he went a few yards, and leaned his head upon his arm against a willow tree, and in the bright glow of the burning building, whose gilded smoke rose up like some vast plume, they could see his shoulders heave, while his wife turned to the squire, and in a simple, homely fashion, kissed his hand.
The squire turned to stop Dick, but it was too late, for the lad had reached the wheelwright and laid his hand upon his shoulder.
"Hicky," he said softly; "be a man!"
"Ay, lad, I will," said the great fellow, starting up with his eyes wet with tears. "It isn't the bont plaace made me soft like that, but what's been said."
He had hardly spoken before there was a peculiar noise heard in the distance, as if a drove of cattle had escaped and were coming along the hard road of the fen; but it soon explained itself, for there were shouts and cries, and five minutes later Mr Marston and his men, nearly a hundred strong, came running up, ready to assist, and then utter the fiercest of denunciations against those who had done this thing.
Then there was an ominous silence, as all stood and watched the burning building till there was nothing but a heap of smouldering wood, which was scattered and the last sparks quenched.
CHAPTER TWENTY FIVE.
THE TROUBLES CULMINATE.
The fire at the wheelwright's lasted people nearly a month for gossip, but Hickathrift would not believe it was the work of spirits now.
Then came the news of a fresh outrage. The horses employed in bringing stones for certain piers to water-gates were shot dead one night.
Next, a fresh attempt was made to blow up the sluice, but failed.
Last of all, the man who was put on to watch was shot dead, and his body found in the drain.
After this there was a pause, and the work was carried on with sullen watchfulness and bitter hate. The denunciations against the workers of the evil were fierce and long.
But in spite of all, the drain progressed slowly and steadily. The engineer was carrying his advances right into the stronghold of the fen-men, who bore it all in silence, but struck sharply again and again.
"I wonder who is to get the next taste!" said Tom Tallington one day as he and Dick were talking.
"No one," said Dick; "so don't talk about it. The people are getting used to the draining, and father thinks they'll all settle down quietly now."
"How long is it since that poor fellow was shot?"
"Don't talk about it, I tell you," said Dick angrily. "Three months."
Dick was right; nearly three months had gone by since the poor fellow set to keep watch by Mr Marston had been shot dead, and this culmination of the horrors of the opposition had apparently startled his murderers from making farther attempts.
"I tell you what it is," said Tom, "the man who fired that shot and did all the other mischief has left the country. He dare not stay any longer for fear of being caught."
"Then it was no one over our side of the fen," said Dick thoughtfully. "Perhaps you are right. Well, I'm going to have a good long day in the bog to-morrow. It's wonderfully dry now, and I mean to have a good wander. What time shall you be ready?"
"Can't go," said Tom. "I've promised to ride with father over to the town."
"What a pity! Well, never mind; we'll go again the next day and have a good long day then."
"Will Mr Marston go with us?"
"No. I asked him, and he said he should be too busy at present, but he would go in a fortnight's time. He said he should not want either of us for a week, so we can go twice if we like."
Tom smiled as if, in spite of his many wanderings, the idea of a ramble in the fen would be agreeable.
"Shall you fish?" he said.
"N-no, I don't think I shall. I mean to have a long wander through the flats away west of the fir island."
"You can't," said Tom; "it's too boggy."
"Not it. Only got to pick your way. Do you think I don't know what I'm about?"
"Better take old Solomon with you, and ride him till he sinks in, and then you can walk along his back into a safe place."
"Then I'd better take another donkey too, and get him to lie down when I come to another soft place."
"Ah, I would!" said Tom.
"I shall," said Dick. "Will you come?"
"Do you mean by that to say that I am a donkey?" cried Tom half angrily.
"Yes, when you talk such stupid nonsense. Just as if I couldn't get through any bog out here in the fen. Anyone would think I was a child."
"Well, don't get lost," said Tom; "but I must go now."
The boys parted, with the promise that Tom was to come over from Grimsey to breakfast the next morning but one, well provided with lunch; that in the interim Dick was to arrange with Hickathrift about his punt, and that then they were to have a thoroughly good long exploring day, right into some of the mysterious parts of the fen, Dick's first journey being so much scouting ready for the following day's advance.
As soon as Dick was left alone he strolled down to the wheelwright's, having certain plans of his own to exploit.
"Well, Hicky, nearly got all right?" he said.
"Nay, nay, lad, and sha'n't be for a twelvemonth," replied the great bluff fellow, staring at his newly-erected cottage. "Taks a deal o' doing to get that streight. How is it you're not over at the works?"
"Not wanted for a bit. I say, Hicky, may I have the punt to-morrow?"
"Sewerly, Mester Dick, sewerly. I'll set Jacob to clear her oot a bit for you. Going fishing?"
"Well—no," said Dick, hesitating. "I was—er—thinking of doing a little shooting."
"What at fend o' June! Nay, nay, theer's no shooting now."
"Not regular shooting, but I thought I might get something curious, perhaps, right away yonder."
"Ay, ay, perhaps so."
"Might see a big pike basking, and shoot that."
"Like enough, my lad, like enough. Squire going to lend you a goon?"
Dick shook his head, but the wheelwright was busy taking a shaving off a piece of wood, so did not see it, and repeated his question.
"No, Hicky, I want you to lend me one of those new ones."
"What, as squire and Mr Marston left for me and Jacob! Nay, nay, lad, that wean't do."
"Oh, yes, it will, Hicky. I'll take great care of it, and clean it when I've done. Lend me the gun, there's a good fellow."
"Nay, nay. That would never do, my lad. Couldn't do it."
"Why not, Hicky?"
"Not mine. What would squire say?"
"He wouldn't know, Hicky. I shouldn't tell him."
"Bud I should, lad. Suppose thou wast to shoot thee sen, or blow off a leg or a hand? Nay, nay. Yow can hev the boat, bud don't come to me for a gun."
Hickathrift was inexorable, and what was more, he watched his applicant narrowly, to make sure that Dick did not corrupt Jacob.
His visitor noticed it, and charged him with the fact.
"Ay," he said, laughing, "that's a true word. I know what Jacob is. He'd do anything for sixpence."
"I hope he wouldn't set fire to the house for that," said Dick angrily.
Hickathrift started as if stung, and stared at his visitor.
"Nay," he said, recovering himself, "our Jacob nivver did that. He were fast asleep that night, and his bed were afire when I wackened him. Don't say such a word as that."
"I didn't mean it, Hicky; but do lend me the gun."
"Nay, my, lad, I wean't. There's the poont and welcome, but no gun."
Dick knew the wheelwright too well to persevere; and in his heart he could not help admiring the man's stern sense of honesty; so making up his mind to be content with some fishing and a good wander in the untrodden parts of the fen, he asked Hickathrift to get him some baits with his cast-net.
"Ay, I'll soon get them for you, my lad," said Hickathrift. "Get a boocket, Jacob, lad."
The next minute he was getting the newly-made circular net with its pipe-leads from where it hung over the rafters of his shed, and striding down to a suitable shallow where a shoal of small fish could be seen, he ranged the net upon his arm, holding the cord tightly, and, giving himself a spin round, threw the net so that it spread out flat, with the pipe-leads flying out centrifugally, and covering a good deal of space, the leads driving the fish into the centre. When it was drawn a couple of dozen young roach and rudd were made captives, and transferred to the bucket of water Jacob brought.
"Fetch that little bit o' net and a piece o' band, lad," said the wheelwright; and as soon as Jacob reappeared, Hickathrift bound the fine net over the top of the pail, and lowered it by the cord into a deep cold pool close by the punt.
"Theer they'll be all ready and lively for you in the morning, and you'll hev better sport than you would wi' a gun."
Opinions are various, and Dick's were very different to the wheelwright's; but he accepted his rebuff with as good a grace as he could, and went home.
The next morning was delicious. One of those lovely summer-times when the sky is blue, and the earth is just in its most beautiful robe of green.
"Going on the mere, Dick?" said his father. "Well, don't get drowned or bogged."
"Dick will take care," said Mrs Winthorpe, who was busy cutting provender.
"Tom Tallington going with you?" said the squire.
"No, father; I'm going alone."
"I wish you could have come with me, Hicky!" said Dick, as, laden with his basket of fishing-tackle and provender, he took his place in the punt.
"Ay, and I wish so too," said the wheelwright, smiling, as he drew up and uncovered the pail of bait to set it in the boat. "Bud too busy. Theer you are! Now, go along, and don't stop tempting a man who ought to be at work. Be off!"
To secure himself against further temptation he gave the punt a push which sent it several yards away; so, picking up the pole, Dick thrust it down and soon left the Toft behind, while the water glistened, the marsh-marigolds glowed, and the reeds looked quite purple in places, so dark was their green.
Dick poled himself along, watching the water-fowl and the rising herons disturbed in their fishing, while here and there he could see plenty of small fish playing about the surface of the mere; but he was not in an angling humour, and though the tempting baits played about in the bucket he did not select any to hook and set trimmers for the pike that were lurking here and there.
At last, though, he began to grow tired of poling, for the sun was hot; and, thinking it would be better to wait for Tom before he tried to explore the wild part of the fen, he thrust the punt along, to select a place and try for a pike.
This drew his attention to the baits, where one of the little roach had turned up nearly dead, a sure sign that the water required changing, so, setting down the pole, he took up the bucket, and, lowering it slowly over the side, he held one edge level with the water, so that the fresh could pour in and the stale and warm be displaced.
Trifles act as large levers sometimes. In this case for one, a few drops of water from the dripping pole made the bottom of the punt slippery; and as Dick leaned over the side his foot gave way, the weight of the bucket overbalanced him, and he had to seize the side of the punt to save himself. This he did, but as he leaned over, nearly touching the water, it was to gaze at the bucket descending rapidly, and the fish escaping, for he had let go.
"What a nuisance!" he cried, as he saw the great vessel seem to turn of a deeper golden hue as it descended and then disappeared, becoming invisible in the dark water, while the punt drifted away before he could take up the pole to thrust it back.
There was nothing to guide him, and the poling was difficult, for the water was here very deep, and though he tried several times to find the spot where the bucket had gone down, it was without success.
"Why, if I did find it," he muttered, "I shouldn't be able to get it up without a hook."
This ended the prospect of fishing, and as he stood there idly dipping down the pole he hesitated as to what he should do, ending by beginning to go vigorously in the direction of Dave Gittan's newly-built-up hut.
"I'll make him take me out shooting," he said; "and we'll go all over that rough part of the fen."
There were very few traces of the past winter's fire visible at Dave's home as Dick approached, ran his punt on to the soft bog-moss, and landed, securing his rope to a tree, and there were no signs of Dave.
He shouted, but there was no reply, and it seemed evident that the dog was away as well.
A walk across to Dave's own special landing-place put it beyond doubt, for the boat was absent.
"What a bother!" muttered Dick, walking back toward the hut, a stronger and better place than the one which had been burned. "Perhaps he has gone to see John Warren!"
Dick hesitated as to whether he should follow, and as he hesitated he reached the door of the hut and peeped in, to make sure that the dog was not there asleep.
The place was vacant, and as untidy already as the old hut. In one corner there was a heap of feathers plucked from the wild-geese he had shot; in another a few skins, two being those of foxes, the cunning animals making the fen, where hunters never came, their sanctuary. There were traces, too, of Dave's last meal.
But it was at none of these that Dick looked so earnestly, but at the 'coy-man's old well-rubbed gun hanging in a pair of slings cut from some old boot, and tempting the lad as, under the circumstances, a gun would tempt.
Hickathrift had refused to lend him one, badly as he wanted it; and here by accident was the very thing he wanted staring at him almost as if asking him to take it.
And Dave! where was he?
Dave might be anywhere, and not return perhaps for days. His comings and goings were very erratic, and Dick tried to think that if the man were there he would have lent him the gun.
But it was a failure.
"He wouldn't have lent it to me," said Dick sadly; and he turned to go. But as he glanced round, there was the old powder-horn upon a roughly-made shelf, and beside it, the leathern bag in which Dave kept his shot, with a little shell loose therein which he used for a measure.
It was tempting. There was the gun; there lay the ammunition. He could take the gun, use it, and bring it back, and give Dave twice as much powder and shot as he had fired away. He could even clean the gun if he liked; but he would not do that, but bring it back boldly, and own to having taken it Dave would not be very cross, and if he were it did not matter.
He would take the gun.
No, he would not. It was like stealing the man's piece.
No, it was not—only borrowing, and Dave would be the gainer.
Still he hesitated, thinking of his father, of Hickathrift's refusal, of its being a mean action to come and take a man's property in his absence; and in this spirit Dick flung out of the hut and walked straight down to the boat, seeing nothing but that gun tempting him as it were, and asking him to seize the opportunity and enjoy a day's shooting untrammelled by anyone.
"It wouldn't do," he said with a sigh as he got slowly into the boat and stooped to untie the rope, when, perhaps, the position sent the blood rushing to his head. At any rate his wilful thoughts mastered him, and in a spirit of reckless indifference to the consequences he leaped ashore, ran up to the hut, dashed in, caught up the powder-horn and shot-bag, thrust them into his pockets, and seizing the gun, he took it from its leather slings, his hands trembling, and a sensation upon him that Dave was looking in at the door.
"What an idiot I was!" he cried, with a feeling of bravado now upon the increase. "Dave won't mind, and I want to shoot all by myself."
He glanced round uneasily enough as he made for the punt, where he laid the gun carefully down, and, seizing his pole, soon sent the vessel to some distance from the hut, every stroke seeming to make him breathe more freely, while a keen sensation of joy pervaded him as he glanced from time to time at the old flint-lock piece, and longed to be where there would be a chance to shoot.
The day was hot as ever, but the heat was forgotten as the punt was sent rapidly along in the direction of the fir-clump island, for it was out there that the wilder part of the fen commenced, and the hope that he would there find the birds more tame consequent upon the absence of molestation made the laborious toil of poling seem light.
But all the same a couple of hours' hard work had been given to the task, and Dick was still far from his goal, when it occurred to him that a little of the bread and butter cut in slices, and with a good thick piece of ham between each pair, would not be amiss.
He laid the pole across the boat, then, and for a quarter of an hour devoted himself to the task of food conversion for bodily support.
This done, there was the gun lying there. It was not likely that he would have a chance at anything; but he thought it would be as well to be prepared, and in this spirit, with hands trembling from eagerness, he raised the piece and began the task of loading, so much powder, and so much paper to ram down upon it.
But he had no paper. It was forgotten, and Dick paused.
Necessity is the mother of invention. Dick took out his pocket-handkerchief and his knife, and in a few minutes the cotton square was cut up, a piece rammed in as a wad, and a measure of shot poured on the top.
Another piece of handkerchief succeeded, going down the barrel with that peculiar whish whash sound, to be thumped hard with the ramrod at the bottom till the rod was ready to leap out of the barrel again.
Then there was the pan to open and prove full of powder, and all ready for the first great wild bird he should see, or perhaps a hare or a fox, as soon as he should land.
For it was thought no sin to shoot the foxes there in that wild corner of England, where hounds had never been laid on, and the only chance of hunting would have been in boats. Foxes lived and bred there year after year, and died without ever hearing the music of the huntsman's horn.
Dick laid the gun down with a sigh, and took up the pole, which he used for nearly an hour before, with the fir island well to his left, he ran the punt into a narrow cove among the reeds which spread before him, and, taking the piece, stepped out upon what was a new land.
It must have been with something of the feelings of the old navigators who touched at some far western isle, that Dick Winthorpe landed from his boat, and secured it by knotting together some long rushes and tying the punt rope to them. For here he was in a place where the foot of man could have rarely if ever trod, and, revelling in his freedom and the beauty of the scene around, he shouldered the piece.
He would have acted more wisely if he had filled his pockets with provender from the basket; but he wanted those pockets for the powder and shot, and without intending to go very far from the punt he started, meaning to go in a straight line for some trees he could see at a great distance off, hoping to find something in the shape of game before he had gone far.
It is very easy to make a straight line on a map, but a difficult feat to go direct from one spot to another in a bog.
Dick did not find it out, for he knew it of old, and so troubled himself very little as he plodded on under the hot afternoon sun, now on firm ground, now making some wide deviation so as to avoid a pool of black water. Then there were treacherous morass-like pieces of dark mire thinly covered with a scum-like growth, here green, there bleached in the June sunshine.
It was always hot walking, and made the worse by the way in which, in spite of all his care, his feet sank in the soft soil. At times he plashed along, having to leap from place to place, and then when the way seemed so bad that he felt that he must return, it suddenly became better and lured him on.
He panted and perspired, and struggled on, with the gun always ready; but saving a moor-hen or two upon one or other of the pools, and a coot sailing proudly along at the edge of a reed-bed with her little dingy family, he saw nothing worthy of a shot.
Once there was a rustle among the reeds, but whatever made it was gone before he could see what it was. Once a great heron rose from a shallow place, offering himself as a mark; but it took Dick some time to get a good view of the grey bird, and when at last he brought the sight of the gun to bear upon it, the heron refused to remain still, and the muzzle of the piece described two or three peculiar circles. When at last it was brought steadily to bear upon the mark it was about a hundred yards away, and the trigger was not pulled.
How long Dick had tramped and struggled on through mire and water and over treacherous ground he did not know, but he did not get one chance; and at last, when he stopped short with a horrible sinking sensation in his inner boy, the only things which presented themselves as being ready to be shot were some beautiful swallow-tailed butterflies, while, save that the sun was right before him and going down, the lad had not the slightest idea of where he was.
But he could not stand still, for he was on a soft spot, so he struggled on to where the ground looked more dry, and fortunately for him it proved to be so, and he stood looking round and thinking of going back.
"I wish I had brought something to eat," he said, gazing wistfully in the direction in which he believed the punt lay.
But it was in vain to wish, so he determined to retrace his steps, fighting against the thought that it would be a difficult task, for to all intents and purposes he had lost all idea of the direction in which he had come. It was very hot, though, and the gun was very heavy. He was weary too with poling the boat and walking, and but for the romance of the expedition he would have declared himself fagged out.
As it was, he thought he would have ten minutes' rest before starting back, so picking out a good dry firm place, he laid the gun down, and then, seeing how comfortable the gun seemed, he lay at full length upon his back on the soft heather and gazed straight up at the blue sky.
Then his eyes wandered to a cloud of flies, long gnat-like creatures, which were beginning to dance over the reeds, and he lay watching them till he thought he would get up and be on the move.
Then he thought, as it was so refreshing to be still, he would wait another five minutes.
So he waited another five minutes, and then he did not get up, but lay, not looking at the cloud of gnats which were dancing now just over his face as if the tip of his nose were the point from which they streamed upward in the shape of a plume, for Dick Winthorpe was fast asleep.
How long it was Dick did not know, only that it was a great nuisance that that bull would keep on making such a tremendous noise, bellowing and roaring round and round his bed till it annoyed him so much that he started up wide awake and stared.
It was very dark, not a star to be seen; but the bull was bellowing away in the most peculiar manner, seeming as if he were now high up in the air, and now with his muzzle close to the ground practising ventriloquism.
"Where am I?" said Dick aloud; and then, as the peculiar bellowing noise came apparently nearer, "Why, it's the butterbump!"
Dick was right, it was the butterbump, as the fen people called the great brown bittern, which passed its days in the thickest parts of the bog, and during the darkness rose on high, to circle round and over the unfortunate frogs that were to form its supper, and utter its peculiar bellowing roar.
Dick had never heard it so closely before, and he was half startled by the weird cry. The fen, that had been so silent in the hot June sun, now seemed to be alive with peculiar whisperings and pipings. The frogs were whistling here, a low soft plaintive whistle, and croaking there, while from all around came splashings and quackings and strange cries that were startling in the extreme to one just awakened from the depths of sleep to find himself alone in the darkness, and puzzled by the question: How am I to get back?
No; return was impossible—quite impossible, and the knowledge was forced upon him more and more that he had to make up his mind to pass the night where he was, for to stir meant to go plunge into some bog, perhaps one so deep that his escape with life might be doubtful.
"How stupid I was!" mused Dick. "How hungry I am!" he said aloud. "What a tiresome job!"
He looked around, to see darkness closing him in, not a star visible; but the fen all alive with the sounds, which seemed to increase, for a bittern was answering the one overhead, and another at a greater distance forming himself into a second echo.
"I wonder how long it is since I lay down!" thought Dick.
It might have been four hours—it might have been six or eight. He could not tell, only that he was there, and that his mother would be in a horrible state of dread.
This impressed him so strongly that he was about to start off in a vain effort to find the boat, but his better sense prevailed, and he remained where he was, wondering whether it would be possible to pass the night like that, and, in spite of himself, feeling no little dread of the weird sounds which seemed to come nearer and nearer.
Then the feeling of dread increased, for, though he could see nothing, certain noises he heard suggested themselves as being caused by strange creatures—dwellers in the fen—coming nearer to watch him, and among them he fancied that there were huge eels fresh from the black slime, crawling out of the water, and winding themselves like serpents in and out among the rough grass and heath to get at him and fix their strong jaws upon his legs.
Then little four-footed, sharp-teethed creatures appeared to be creeping about in companies, rushing here and there, while whittricks and rats were waiting till he dropped asleep to leap upon him and bite him, tearing out little pieces of his flesh.
His imagination was so active that his face grew wet with horror, till, making an effort over himself, he started right up and angrily stamped his foot.
"I didn't think I was such a coward," he said half aloud; and then, "I hope poor mother will not be very much alarmed, and I wish Tom Tallington was here!"
The wish was so selfishly comic that he laughed and felt better, for now a new idea came to him.
It was very dark, but the nights were at their shortest now, and it would be daybreak before three—at least so light that he might venture to try and regain the boat.
He stood for a while listening to the noises in the fen; the whispering and chattering, piping and croaking, with the loud splashings and rustlings among the reeds, mingled with the quacking of ducks and the scuttering of the drakes, while every now and then the bittern uttered his hoarse wild roar.
Then, growing weary, he sat down again, and after a time he must have dropped asleep, for he rose feeling quite startled, and stood staring as a peculiarly soft lambent light shone here and there before him.
It was apparently about fifty yards away, and looked like nothing which he had ever seen, for when he had noticed this light before it had always been much farther away.
He knew it was the marsh light, but somehow it seemed more weird and strange now than ever, and as if all the tales he had heard of it were true.
For there it was coming and going and gliding up and down, as if inviting him to follow it, while, as he seemed to feel that this was an invitation, he shuddered and his brow grew cold and dank, for he believed that to follow such a light would be to go direct to his death.
All the old legendary stories crowded into his mind as that light came and went, and seemed to play here and there for what must have been half an hour, when it disappeared. But as it passed away he saw another away to his left, and he was watching this intently when he noticed that far beyond there was a faint light visible; and feeling that this was the first sign of the dawn, he turned to gaze at the will-o'-the-wisp again, and watched it, shuddering as it seemed to approach, growing bolder as it glided away.
"But that was not dawn—that," he said, "that faint light!" It was growing stronger and it was nearer, and more like the rising of the sun, or like—yes, it must be fire again.
Dick's heart leaped, and the chilly feeling of nervous dread and the coldness of the temperature passed away, to give place to a sense of excitement which made his blood dance in his veins and his cheeks flush.
He was not mistaken—he had had too much experience of late. It was fire, and he asked himself whose turn it was now, and why, after the long lapse from outrage, there should be another such a scene as that.
It was impossible to tell where the fire was, but it was a big conflagration evidently, for it was lighting up the sky far more than when he first observed it, but whether it was in the direction of his home or toward the far end of the fen he could not tell.
He thought once that he might be mistaken, and that it was the forerunner of the rising moon; but he was convinced directly that it was fire he saw from the way in which it rose and fell and flickered softly in the sky.
He must have been watching the glow for quite a couple of hours, and it was evidently paling, and he was hopefully looking for another light— that of day, when it seemed to him that he could hear the splashing of water and the rustling of reeds.
The sounds ceased and began again more loudly, and at last they seemed to be coming nearer, but passing him by—somewhere about a hundred yards away.
The sounds ceased—began again—ceased—then sounded more loudly; and at last, with palpitating heart, Dick began to move in the direction of the noise, for he realised that either there was open water or a canal-like passage across the bog, which someone was passing through in a boat.
Dick paused again to listen, but there could be no mistake, the sounds were too familiar, and with voice husky with excitement he put his hand to his mouth and uttered a loud hail.
CHAPTER TWENTY SIX.
A STARTLING SCENE.
To Dick Winthorpe's great surprise there was no answer to his cry, and raising his voice again he shouted: "Who's that? Help!"
His voice sounded wild and strange to him out there in that waste, closed in as he was by the darkness, and as he listened he could not repress a shudder, for everything now had become so silent that it was terrible. Away to his left there was the faint glow of light—very faint now—but everywhere else darkness, and all around him now a dead silence. His cry had seemed to alarm every moving creature in the fen, and it had crouched down, or dived, or in some way hidden itself, so that there was neither rustle of body passing through the reeds, splash of foot in the mire, nor beat of pinion in the air. He looked around him half in awe for the strange lights which he had seen gliding here and there like moths of lambent fire, but they too had disappeared, and startling as had been the noise he had heard, the silence seemed now so terrible that he turned cold.
"What a coward I am!" he said to himself at last. "What is there to be afraid about?"
He shouted again, and felt more uneasy, for as his voice died away all seemed more silent than ever, and he drew in a long hissing breath as he gazed vainly in the direction from which the splashing had seemed to come.
For quite half an hour all was perfectly still, but he did not move, partly from an intense desire to be certain, partly, it must be confessed, from a feeling of dread which oppressed him.
Then there was a rustle and a splash from somewhere behind him, such a noise as a bird might make. Directly after there came from a distance the scuttering noise made by a duck dabbling its bill in the ooze, and this was followed by a low quawk uttered by some nocturnal bird, perhaps by one of the butterbumps whose hoarse booming cry had come so strangely in the earlier part of the night.
As if these were signals to indicate to the animal life of the fen that all was right, sound after sound arose such as he had heard before; but there was one so different that it filled Dick Winthorpe's ears, and as he listened he seemed to see a man in a punt, who had been crouching down among the reeds, rising up softly, and silently lowering a pole into the water to thrust the boat onward from where it had lain.
Even if it had been light the reeds and undergrowth would have hindered him from seeing anything, and in that darkness the impossibility was emphasised the more strongly; but all the same the faint splash, the light rubbing of wood against wood as the pole seemed to touch the side of the boat, the soft dripping of water, and the silky brushing rustle of the boat among the reeds and withes, joined in painting a mental picture upon the listener's brain till it seemed to Dick that he was seeing with his ears this man in his boat escaping furtively so as not to be heard.
Dick was about to shout again, but he felt that if he did there would be no answer, and his heart began to beat strangely.
It was not fear now, but from a sudden excitement consequent upon a line of thought which suggested itself.
"Why did not this man answer to his cry—this man who was so furtively stealing away? Was it from fear of him?"
Undoubtedly fear of being seen and known.
Dick absolutely panted now with excitement. All feeling of dread passed away, taking with it the chilly sensation of cold and damp.
Should he shout again and order him to stop? No; he knew that would be of no use, for, as if to make all more sure, there, as Dick listened, each and every nerve on the strain, was the increasing rapidity of the thrusts made with the pole, as the man evidently thought he was getting more and more out of hearing.
"Who is it?" thought Dick, as he realised that by his accident he had discovered what had been hidden from all who had patiently watched.
It was all plain enough to him now; and as he listened to the sounds dying away and growing lost among the splashings and rustlings made by the birds, which were recovering their confidence, the excitement quite took away the lad's breath.
For there it all was. This wretch—some fen-man from the other side— miles away—had stolen across in the darkness, wending his way along the mere channels and over the pools, to commit another dastardly outrage, firing another cottage or stack, and then stolen back, his evil work done.
Whose house had been burned?
It must be the huts of the drain-makers. Dick felt sure of that. He did not know why, but there was the proof lately painted in the sky. And this base wretch, who could it be? he asked himself. Oh, if he could but have seen!
Would this be the same man who had been guilty of all these crimes? thought Dick, as he listened and found that the sounds had died out; and now far away there was a soft faint opalescent light telling him of the coming morn, and sending a thrill of joy through his breast. For there would be light and warmth, and the power to find the boat once more, and with it food. Better still, if he could get to his boat he might follow the wretch who was escaping, and know who it was.
Dick felt directly that it was impossible, for the man would be beyond pursuit long before he could find his boat; and after listening again he began to creep cautiously back to where he had lain down and slept and left Dave Gittan's gun.
The dawn was spreading, and it showed the watcher which was the east, and hence taught him that the fire must have been somewhere in the direction of the Toft, for the glare in the sky was certainly north of where he now stood.
The dawn spread faster, and the reeds and alders about him began to be visible; and—yes, there was the gun, all cold to the touch and wet with dew.
"Not much shooting," thought Dick as he mentally planned getting back to the boat, and hurrying across to Dave's hut to replace the piece and suffer a good scolding.
"Never mind; I'll give him a pound of powder. What's that?"
Splashing—the rustling of reeds—voices.
There was no concealment here, and besides the sounds came in a contrary direction to that taken by the fleeing man.
"Hoi!" shouted Dick loudly.
"Hoi! hallo!" came back; and then a well-known voice cried: "Is that you, Dick?"
"Yes, father. Here! Ahoy!"
There was more splashing, more talking, and Dick's heart leaped as he felt that his father had come in search of him, and that he would have an easier task than he had expected in finding his boat.
As the sounds approached the light increased, and Dick had no difficulty in going to meet them, picking his way carefully through the bog till he found himself close to a broad channel of reedy water, and here he had to pause.
"Where are you?" came from about a hundred yards away. And as he shouted to guide the search party he soon saw through the dim light a crowded punt propelled by two polers, and that there was another behind.
The next minute the foremost punt was within reach, and Dick stepped from a clump of rushes on board.
"Got anything to eat?" cried Dick, obeying his dominant instinct, and his voice sounded wolfish and strange.
"To eat!—no, sir," cried his father sternly. "What are you doing here?"
"I lost myself, father, and went to sleep—woke up in the darkness, and couldn't stir. Morning, Hicky!"
"Wheer's my poont?" said the wheelwright.
"Close round here somewhere," said Dick. "Go on and we shall find it. But where was the fire?"
The squire drew a hissing breath between his teeth as if in pain, and yet as if in relief; for it seemed to him that once more he was suspecting wrongfully, and that if his son had been mixed up with the past night's outrage he would never have spoken so frankly.
"The fire, boy!" he said hoarsely; "at the Toft. The place is nearly burned down."
"Oh!" ejaculated Dick; and there was so much genuine pain and agony in his voice that the squire grasped his son's hand.
"Never mind, Dick; we'll build it up again."
"Ay, squire, we will," cried Hickathrift; "and afore long."
"And what is better, my boy, we saw the wretch who stole off the mere last night and fired the big reed-stack."
"Yes, father," cried Dick excitedly. "And I heard him come stealing by here."
"You did, Dick?"
"Yes, father—not an hour ago."
"Marston!" cried the squire, hailing the other boat.
"We're right. He came by here an hour ago. Dick heard him."
"You did, Dick?" cried Mr Marston.
"Yes, but it was all in the dark, and I couldn't see who it was."
"That does not matter, my lad," said the squire. "We know him now, and we only want to run him down."
"Know him, father?"
"Yes, boy. It was Dave Gittan."
Dick burst into a laugh.
"Why, father, his place was burned too!"
"Yes, boy, to throw us off the scent—the scoundrel! but we shall have him now."
Dick sat down in the punt like one astounded, while Hickathrift poled along the channel till he came to open water, where, just as the sun rose above the horizon, they caught sight of the tied-up boat.
"We're too many in this," said Hickathrift, making for the other punt. "You pole this here, and I'll tak' mine. Will you come, squire?"
"Yes," said Dick's father; and the change being made, the three boats were now propelled over the sunlit water, where, as the lad gladly applied himself to the food he had left behind, he learned something of what had taken place during the night.
Hickathrift was his informant, for the squire was very stern and silent, and Mr Marston was in one of the other boats, which were manned by drain-men and farm-labourers, and had for leaders Farmer Tallington and the engineer, while many were armed with muskets.
"Is Tom there?" said Dick in a whisper.
"Ay, lad, he's theer," said the big wheelwright, "along o' Mr Marston."
And then in answer to questions he related that Mr Marston had been over at the Toft, and stopped up watching with the squire for Dick's return, dropping asleep at last, and then awakening suddenly to hear a strange noise among the fowls.
The squire went out, followed by Mr Marston, and the truth was before them.
"The big stack was afire!" whispered Hickathrift, "and burning so as they knew it would be impossible to put it out, and just as they realised the terrible state of affairs there was the sound of a shot, and then of another and another from somewhere down among the cottages, and directly after the beating of feet, and a party of the labourers hurried up, startled from their beds.
"'Your turn now, squire,' I says to him," whispered the wheelwright.
"'Ay,' he says, 'my turn now. Who fired that shot?'
"'Oh! some un here,' I says. 'We thought we seed him as did it going off in the poont, but it was so dark we couldn't be sure.'
"Squire didn't ask no more, for there was too much to do getting out your moother, lad, and trying to save the furnitur, 'sides throwing watter on the fire.
"Bud, theer, it warn't no use. Plaace burned like a bit o' paaper, and we could do nowt bud save the best o' the things."
"Did you save the clock?" asked Dick.
"Ay, lad, I carried it out mysen, just as Mr Marston come oop wi' a lot of his lads, and Farmer Tallington come from t'other way; and we saved all we could, and got out the beasts and horses, but t'owd plaace is bont out."
"And where is mother?"
"All reight along o' my missus, bless her; and when we see we could do no more, squire began about who done it."
"Yes: go on."
"Well, theer's nowt much to say, lad, only that soon as squire knowd who it weer he—"
"But how did he know who it was?" cried Dick.
"Some un towd him."
"Yes, but who told?"
"Him as fired his goon at him when he see'd him by the light o' the fire poling along in his poont."
"And who was that?"
"Nay, lad, I'm not going to tell thee. Some un as thowt he desarved a shot for setting fire to folks's houses and shooting honest men. Some folk don't stop to think. If they've got goons in their hands, and sees varmen running away, they oops wi' the goon and shutes, and that's what some un did. Thou'lt know who it weer one day."
"And he told my father?"
"It weer our Jacob towd squire. He sin his faace quite plain, and that it weer Dave."
"Now, Marston, where for next?" shouted the squire, after taking a long look round over the open water, now illumined by the sun.
"Try that island yonder," was the reply. "There's a hut among the low fir-trees, and I fancy it is his making."
The boats were turned in the suggested direction, and Dick felt a curious sensation of nervous dread stealing over him as he thought of seeing that hut not long before, and of how likely it was that Mr Marston was right.
A strange sense of shock and horror came over Dick as he now seemed to realise, for the first time, that he was one of a party engaged in hunting down Dave Gittan, the man who had always been to him as a friend, the companion of endless excursions over the mere; and his heart sank within him as he glanced round in search of an opportunity to land and get away from the horrible pursuit.
But there was no escape, for he knew that the pursuers would not turn backward, and he glanced helplessly at where he could see Tom Tallington's face in the farther of the other boats, and responded to his wave of the hand.
There was a stern relentless look in every face he saw, and he thought of how his father and Mr Marston had been shot, how first one and then another had been nearly burned in his bed, while their property was destroyed, and he felt the justice of the severe looks. But all the same there was a lingering liking for Dave, and he felt disposed to stand up in his defence and say it was impossible that he could have done these things, though all the time, as he ran over the matters in his mind, he began to recall various suspicious incidents, and to think that, perhaps, they were right.
One thing buoyed him up though, and that was the thought that they were not going straight to the decoy-man's hut, and perhaps through this delay he might escape.
It was a vain hope, one which was swept away directly after, for Hickathrift whispered:
"We went straight to his plaace to try and ketch him, but he slipped away in his poont, and dodged us about in the dark, till Mester Marston held out that he was makking for the far part of the fen, and we followed him theer, but lost all sound on him, and then you know, Mester Dick, we fun you."
With a stern effort to be firm Dick watched the progress of the punt toward the island that was to have been his abode when he felt huffed at home, and wondered whether Dave were there now.
"He isn't there," thought Dick; and he turned to telegraph a look at Tom Tallington, who he felt sure would be as anxious as himself about Dave's escape.
"Do you want Tom Tallington?" said his father, who, though apparently paying no attention, had noted every exchange of glances.
"Yes, father; there is more room here," said Dick boldly.
The squire made a sign to Hickathrift, who ceased poling, and the other two boats came up on either side.
"Come in here, Tom," said Dick eagerly.
Tom obeyed with alacrity and stepped on board, while in short decisive tones the squire spoke:
"We will divide now, and approach on three sides. You, Marston, and you, Tallington, get well over so as to command a view all round, for this man must not escape."
"Escape! No!" said Farmer Tallington fiercely.
"If he is there, I don't think he will escape," said Mr Marston sternly.
"Hah!" ejaculated the squire; "that is one reason why I waited for you both to come up. Now, gentlemen, and you, my good fellows, listen. There must be no violence."
"No violence, eh!" said Farmer Tallington. "Didn't he bon my place?"
"And shoot me?" said Mr Marston sternly.
"Yes, and his is evidently the hand which has committed a score of outrages, but all the same we must act as if we were the officers of the law: seize, bind, and hand him over to justice unhurt."
There was a low murmur from the drain-men in Mr Marston's boat.
"Yes, and that is why I speak," said the squire firmly. "I am leader here, and I insist upon this man being taken uninjured. Let the law deal with him. It is not our duty to punish him for the crimes."
There was another low murmur here, but the squire paid no heed and went on:
"In the first place, not a shot is to be fired."
"Not if he shutes at us?" cried Farmer Tallington.
"No: not even if he fires at any of us. If he should draw trigger, rush in and seize him before he has time to reload, and then, with no more violence than is necessary, let him be bound."
"Well," said Farmer Tallington, "perhaps you're reight neighbour; and as long as he is punished I don't know as I mind much how it's done."
"Then we all understand each other, and you, my men, I shall hold you answerable for any injury this man receives."
"What! Mayn't us knock him down, squire?" grumbled the big wheelwright.
"Of course you may, Hickathrift. Stun him if you like; he will be the easier to bind."
"Hey, that's better, lads," cried the wheelwright, brightening up. "Squire's talking sense now."
"But he'll shoot his sen oop in yon hut, squire, and fire at us and bring us down."
"There will only be time for one shot, Mr Tallington," said Marston quietly, "and we can fetch him out before he has a chance to reload. Mr Winthorpe is right."
"Oh well, I wean't stick out," said the farmer rather sulkily; "but Dave's a rare good shot and one of us will hev to go home flat on his back before we get up to yon wood."
"He will not dare to fire," said the squire firmly.
"I do not agree with you, Mr Winthorpe," said Marston. "The man is desperate, and he will do anything now to escape."
"And if he can't," cried Farmer Tallington, "he'll die like a rat in a corner, biting, so look out. He's got that long gun of his loaded and ready for the first man who goes up to yon hut, and that man arn't me."
"I will go up first," said the squire quietly; "and he will not dare to fire."
"Bud he hev dared to fire, mester," said the wheelwright.
"Yes, at those who did not see him lurking in some hiding-place, but he will not dare to fire now."
"He can't fire, father," cried Dick excitedly.
"Because I have his gun here in the boat."
"What?" cried the squire; and the matter was explained.
There was no further hesitation. The boats divided as if going to the attack upon some fort, and after giving the others time to get well on either side of the island, the squire gave Hickathrift orders to go on, and the punt glided swiftly toward the shore.
"You two boys lie down in the bottom of the boat," said the squire.
"Oh, father!" exclaimed Dick, as Tom slowly obeyed.
"What is it, Dick?"
"It seems so cowardly."
"It is more cowardly to risk life unnecessarily for the sake of bravado," said his father; and then, reading the look upon his son's face, the squire continued with a sad smile:
"I am captain of this little expedition, Dick, and the captain must lead."
Dick never felt half so much inclined to disobey his father before, as he slowly took his place in the bottom of the punt, while Hickathrift sent it forward so quickly that it was the first to touch the gravelly shore. When the squire sprang out Hickathrift followed him, after driving down the pole and securing the boat.
"I say, Tom," said Dick.
"I say, Dick," replied Tom.
"Do you think he would be very cross if we went after them? I do want to see."
Tom shook his head, and, landing, sat down on the edge of the boat, Dick following and seating himself beside his companion, to watch his father steadily approach the hut, of which not so much as a glimpse could be obtained, so closely was it hidden among the trees.
By this time the squire was half-way to the fir-wood, and Dick could bear it no longer.
"How could I meet mother," he cried angrily, "if I let him go alone like that?"
"But he can't be shot," said Tom.
"No, but he may be hurt," retorted Dick; and he ran eagerly after his father.
"And so may my father be hurt," said Tom as soon as he was left alone; and he looked in the direction by which Farmer Tallington must approach the wood, but no one was visible there, and he ran rapidly after his companion and rejoined him just as he was following his father into the wood.
The morning sun shone brilliantly without, but as soon as they were in the wood they seemed to have entered upon a dusky twilight, cut here and there by brilliant shafts and bands which struck the ground in places and made broad patches of golden hue.
No word was spoken, and in the dim wood with the rustling increasing, the scene in some way suggested to Dick the fen during the night when he was listening to the passing of the punt—evidently Dave's—and he fell a-wondering whether the decoy-man was now far away on the other side of the mere.
"That you, squire?" shouted Farmer Tallington from the trees beyond the hut, which now appeared before them, sombre and gloomy, half hidden by the growth.
"Yes, we are here," was the reply.
"He's in here some'ere's, for his poont's ashore."
"Where are you?" came from the other side, and, guided by the voices, Marston soon came up, with his men.
The squire gave a short sharp order, and the two parties separated, so as to surround the little hut. Tom whispered to Dick what he was already thinking.
"Why, Dick, old Dave's as cunning as a rat, and could slip through there easy."
The moment the place was surrounded the squire gave a sharp glance back at his son, stepped forward, stooped down, and entered the low hut.
Hickathrift was close behind him, and the next moment he, too, had disappeared.
"Is he there, Mr Winthorpe?" cried Marston excitedly; and he, too, stepped forward and entered the hut.
"Why, what's it all mean?" said Farmer Tallington impatiently; and he, too, stepped up to the low doorway and entered.
"They're tying his hands and feet, Tom," whispered Dick excitedly; and unable to control himself he ran up to the door, followed by his schoolmate, but as he did so it was to encounter the squire coming out with a peculiarly solemn look upon his countenance.
"Isn't he there, father?" cried Dick wonderingly.
"Yes, boy—no," said the squire solemnly, as the others came slowly out. "He managed to crawl here to die."
CHAPTER TWENTY SEVEN.
It was a solemn party that returned to the Toft that day: three boats, with the last propelled by Hickathrift, towing another behind. That last punt was Dave Gittan's, and in it, later on, the man was taken to his last resting-place.
At the inquiry it was found that Dave had been mortally wounded by a bullet; and in this state he had managed to force his boat to his hut, and when pursued, to his lurking-place in the farther part of the fen, to lie down and die.
Who fired the shot which took his life? No one could say. Five bullets were sent winging to stop his career on the night of his last insane act, when pretty well everything which would burn upon the Toft was destroyed; but whose was the hand which pulled the trigger, and whose the eye which took the aim, was not divulged.
Dave had well kept his secret, and struggled hard to stay the advance of progress, but fought in vain, and with his fall almost the last opposition to the making of the great drain died out.
There were old fen-men who murmured and declared that the place was being destroyed, but for the most part they lived to see that great drain and others made, and the wild morass become dry land upon which the plough turned up the black soil and the harrow smoothed, and great waving crops of corn took the place of those of reed. Meadows, too, spread out around the Toft, and Farmer Tallington's home at Grimsey— meads upon which pastured fine cattle; while in that part of the wide fen-land ague nearly died away.
It was one evening twenty years later that a couple of stalwart well-dressed men, engineers engaged upon the cutting of another lode or drain many miles to the north, strolled down from the Toft farm to have a chat with the great grey-haired wheelwright, who carried on a large business now that a village had sprung up in the fen.
His delight was extreme to see the visitors, and they had hard work to extricate their ringers from his grip.
"Think of you two coming to see me now! It caps owt."
"Why, of course we've come to see you, Hicky," said the taller of the two. "How well you look!"
"Well! Hearty, Mester Dick, bless you! and the missus too. Hearty as the squire and his lady, bless 'em. But your father looks sadly, Mester Tom, sir. He don't wear as I should like to see un. He's wankle." [Sickly.]
"Rheumatism, Hicky; that's all. He'll be better soon. I say, what's that—a summer-house?" said Tom, pointing.
"That, Mester Tom! Why, you know?"
"Why, it's the old punt!" cried Dick.
"Ay, it's the owd poont, Mester Dick. What games yow did hev in her too, eh?"
"Yes, Hicky," said Dick with a sigh. "Ah! those were happy days."
"They weer, lad; they weer. Owd poont got dry and cracked, and of no use bud to go on the dreern, and who wanted to go on a dreern as had been used to the mere?"
"No one, of course," said Dick, gazing across the fields and meadows where he had once propelled the punt.
"Ay, no one, o' course, so Jacob sawed her i' two one day, and we set her oop theer i' the garden for a summer-hoose, and Jacob painted her green. I say, Mester Dick, ony think," added Hickathrift, laughing violently.
"Think what? Don't laugh like that, Hicky, or you'll shake your head off."
"Nay, not I, my lad; but it do mak' me laugh."
"He is, Mester Dick, and theer's a babby."
"Never!" said Dick, laughing, to humour the great fellow, who wiped his eyes and became quite solemn now.
"Yes, that he hes, Mester Dick, and you'd nivver guess what he's ca'd him."
"Jacob, of course."
"Nay, Mester Dick; he's ca'd him Dave."
Dick and Tom went down to the wheelwright's again next day to chat over old times—fishing, shooting, the netting at the decoy, and the like; and heard how John Warren had lately died, a venerable old man, who confessed at last how he had helped Dave Gittan in some of the outrages when the drain was made, because he hated it, and said it would ruin honest men.
But it was not to see John Warren's nor Dave Gittan's grave that Hickathrift led the young men to the one bit of waste land left, and there pointed to a wooden tablet nailed against a willow tree.
"The squire give me leave, Mester Dick, and Jacob and me buried him theer when he died. Jacob painted his name on it, rather rough, but the best he could, and we'd hev put his age on it, as well as the date, if we'd ha' known."
"How old was he, do you think, Hicky?" said Dick.
"Don't know, sir, but straange and old."
"But why did you take so much interest in him? You never liked the donkey."
"Nay, bud you did, lad, and that was enough for me."
"Poor old Solomon!" said Dick, smiling at the recollections the rough tablet evoked; "how he could kick!"
"And so you and young Tom—I beg pardon, sir," said Hicky, "Mester Tallington—are going to help Mester Marston wi the big dreerning out in Cambridgeshire, eh?"
"Yes, Hicky, ours is a busy life now; but we're beginning to find people more sensible about such matters. Mr Marston was laughing over it the other day, and saying that all the romance had gone out of our profession now there was no chance of getting shot."
"Weer he, now?" said Hickathrift wonderingly. "Think of a man liking to be shot at!"
"Oh, he does not like to be shot at, Hicky! By the way, though, who was it shot Dave Gittan? Come, now, you know."
"Owd Dave Gittan's been buried twenty year, Mester Dick, so let him rest."
"Rest! Of course; but come—you do know?"
"Yes, Mester Dick," said the wheelwright stolidly. "I do know, but I sweered as I'd nivver tell, and I'll keep my word."
"Ah, well, I will not press you, Hicky! It was a sad time."
"Ay, my lads, a sad time when a man maks war like that again his brothers wi' fire and sword, leastwise wi' goon. That theer fen was like a battlefield in them days, while now it's as pleasant a place to look upon as a man need wish to see."
"A lovely landscape, Hicky," said Dick, gazing across the verdant plain.
"Ay, lad, and once all bog and watter, and hardly a tree from end to end."
"A great change, Hicky, showing what man can do."
"Ay, a great change, Mester Dick, but somehow theer are times when I get longing for the black watter and the wild birds, and all as it used to be."
"Yes, Hicky," said Dick almost sadly as he saw in memory's mirror the days of his boyhood; "but this is a world of change, man; we must look forward and not back."
"Ay, Mester, Dick, 'cause all's for the best."
"Yes, Hicky, keep to that—all's for the best! Come, Tom; it's time we said good-bye to the old fen!"