"Bravo, young Bracebridge! You have had a lucky chance, but we'll lick you soundly next time, so look out."
"Chance! yes, it was only chance," repeated Blackall, glad to find a plausible excuse for his defeat. A third round was to be played, but the younger party were so cocky that they proposed having four rounds. To this, of course, the others were too glad to consent, under the belief that they could at all events make it a drawn battle; while Ernest's friends gloried in the hopes of beating their big opponents three to one.
Blackall having observed that Ernest placed his men according to a certain plan, thought he would do the same. He, therefore, with not a small amount of pretentious formality, ordered the boys on his side to look out in different directions, and to follow a certain course. Some went where they were told, but others proceeded to where they themselves considered that they should be better placed, and instead of obeying the orders of their leader, acted according to their own judgment, which, to do them justice, was fully as good as that of Blackall. Bracebridge watched the proceedings of his opponents, and smiled as he pointed them out to Buttar. He very soon made his own arrangements. Blackall thought that he was going to act precisely as he had done in the previous game. He had no such intentions. Handing the ball to Bouldon, he told him to strike it up, while he, Buttar, Ellis, Gregson, and several others went scattering up before him. The big fellows looked at him, and gathered thickly in his front. They took no notice of Ellis, who was away to the right. Bouldon looked towards Bracebridge; then, turning suddenly, struck the ball in the direction of Ellis, who followed it up ably as it came by him, and turned it towards Buttar. Buttar had in the meantime broken through the big fellows and though several of them, hurrying on, tried by reiterated blows to stop it, he carried it once more successfully up to the goal. Blackall and some of his party literally stamped with rage at the idea of being beaten three times running by the younger boys, "At all events, that puppy Bracebridge had nothing to do with the affair this time," he exclaimed, showing the feeling which animated him.
Ernest's party cheered again and again—they could not help it. Both sides agreed to play out the fourth game. Ernest managed his friends equally well as at first, but his opponents were more alive to his tactics. The battle was very hotly contested; several times he got the ball nearly to the goal, and it was again driven back. This game had already taken as long to play as the other three—defeat would be almost as honourable to the younger party as victory—they kept up the game by sheer activity and good play; not that the bigger boys played ill, but they wanted combination and a good leader. Blackall had now completely lost his head and his temper. Once or twice when Bracebridge came near he felt very much inclined to strike him, but Ernest watched his eye, and was very quickly out of his way. At last, Blackall found himself with the ball directly before him; he lifted up his stick, expecting to strike it right ahead up to the goal. He looked at the point before him to which he intended to send the ball, and he looked at his stick, and he looked at the ball, but he did not look on one side—had he done so, he would have perceived Bracebridge springing along with his stick ready to strike. Strike he did too, and away flew the ball out of Blackall's very clutches. Blackall's rage now burst forth—twice he struck Ernest across the shins, and though the latter managed to break the force of the blows, he was much hurt. Then the bully lifted up his stick and struck Ernest on the arm more than once. He was about to repeat the blow on his victim's head, and the effect would have been very serious, when he felt his own ears pulled lustily.
"Ah, you big coward—is dat de vay you play your games? I'm ashamed dat any boy at de school vare I teach should behave so," exclaimed the voice of Monsieur Malin. "If I do not take you instantly before de Doctor it is because it is too bad to tell him of, so I will pull your ears myself. Bah!"
Right heartily did the good-natured French master tug away at the bully's ears till they were red to the very roots. He knew that he himself was doing what in spirit was prohibited, for no master was allowed to strike or punish a boy. He might have argued that pulling the ears was not striking, and that punishing meant flogging or caning. Blackall on another occasion might have resisted, but now he felt that he had been guilty of so cowardly an action that no one would support him, so he submitted tamely to the infliction.
"Go, get out of de ground, you shall not play—you are not worthy of it," continued the French master, pulling him away by the before-spoken-of appendages of his head.
Meantime the games went on. Ernest, though much hurt, tried to exhibit no symptoms of his suffering. He and his friends strove hard, but the big fellows resolved not to lose this last game as they had done the others, and finally by strenuous exertions drove the ball up to the goal. Never was a game at hockey at our school more hotly contested. A great deal came out of it.
THE BULLY'S PUNISHMENT.
That game of hockey caused a great deal of ill-feeling among the less generous and most ill-disposed of the big fellows towards the younger ones who had so thoroughly beaten them. Blackall bullied more than ever, and several others imitated his example. They had also already begun to carry out their precious scheme of fagging. Some of the little fellows thought it very good fun at first to obey a bigger one, provided he did not order them to do anything very difficult, or likely to bring punishment down upon themselves. Grown bold by impunity, the faggers resolved to divide the boys of the classes below them among themselves as fags by lots. Of course it was the very worst plan that could have been devised; indeed, tyrants generally do form very clumsy and very bad schemes for keeping those weaker than themselves in subjection. The younger boys might willingly enough have served older friends who had been kind to them and had protected them, but it was preposterous to suppose that without force they would obey any big boy who might choose to order them. It was some time before this scheme became known to Ernest Bracebridge and his friends. As he never listened to the tales and tittle-tattle of the school—indeed, he found that the current stories were generally absurd exaggerations of the truth—he might have remained some time longer ignorant, had not Bouldon come to him one afternoon, after school, in a state of great indignation, saying that Blackall had called him up and ordered him to go to a shop two miles off, to buy him a tongue, some rolls, and other eatables.
"When I expostulated, he had the audacity to tell me that I should clean his shoes if he wished it," exclaimed Tom, with a savage laugh. "And what do you think? that I was his fag, that I was awarded to him, and that he intended to work me thoroughly? I asked him by whom I was awarded to him? He replied, by a vote of my seniors and betters; and that if I did not work willingly I should be compelled to serve him by force. I don't remember what I said at first—I know that he called me an impudent young scamp for my pains; I concluded by telling him that I should consult you and Buttar and other fellows, and that if you consented to be fags, I should not have a word to say."
"You were perfectly right—I am glad you said so," observed Ernest. "Find Buttar, and Ellis, and Gregson, and we'll talk the matter over. We'll mention the subject to Lemon; I know full well that he will not wish to fag any boy, yet perhaps for the sake of a quiet life he may not be inclined to interfere with the plans of the other big fellows. However, I do not want him to interfere; whatever we do, we should do ourselves; fortunately, we are well prepared for the emergency. We number fifty fellows staunch and true. Go round and tell them to be prepared—that something is going to happen. That will put them on the alert. When Blackall finds that you have not obeyed his orders, and that he will have to go supperless to bed, he will probably attack you. Tell Eden to watch you—never for a moment to lose sight of you, and directly he sees Blackall attack you, to come up and tell me—I'll have all our fellows ready, and we'll rush to the rescue."
"Oh, excellent," exclaimed Bouldon, rubbing his hands; "I wish that he'd just begin trying it on. Won't I aggravate him by what I say and do; I'll tell him my mind more than he ever before heard it in his life."
"No, no, don't enrage him; that's not right," observed Bracebridge; but Tom, as he went off, shook his head as if he intended to follow his own ideas on the subject.
While Bouldon, followed at a distance by Eden, strolled about the playground and fields as usual, hoping that Blackall would meet him, Ernest went round to a number of boys who had combined with him to resist any aggression which the big fellows might make upon their rights, and told them to keep together, some in the gymnastic court, and the rest in the fencing-room. Meantime he and Buttar, and a few others on whose judgment he most relied, met together and consulted as to the best course to pursue under the present emergency.
"I've an idea," said Buttar; "let us get some ropes and bind our tyrant. He dare not interfere with me now, but I am determined that he shall not treat others as he treated me."
Some ropes were easily found which had been used to lash up their play-boxes. Ernest and Buttar were to be the leaders. Ernest went to the fencing-room to take command of the boys there; Buttar to the gymnastic court. They did not remain there idle. One company began twisting and turning and leaping on the poles, while Ernest got his followers to practise with their basket-sticks and single-sticks. Then he proposed a drill, and they all fell in and went through their exercises with as much precision as if Sergeant Dibble himself had been present. They marched and wheeled, and formed in close order and extended order, and various other simple manoeuvres, in very good style. While they were thus engaged, Eden rushed into the room, exclaiming, "Blackall has caught Bouldon, and is half-killing him; he says that he will teach him to disobey his orders. Haste—haste, or I really believe he will do him an injury. I never saw a fellow in such a rage."
No one needed a second summons. Bracebridge put himself at the head of his companions, who kept their ranks, and, marching out in good order, they met the party in the gymnastic court, whom Eden had likewise summoned.
"Double quick march," cried Bracebridge; and the two bands rushed on towards the extreme end of the grounds, where Eden told them the bully had encountered poor Tom. The spot towards which they were hurrying was separated from the rest of the grounds by a thick coppice. Several tall trees grew about it, and it was by far the most secluded place in the grounds. It was a favourite resort in the summer time of some of the more studious boys, who went there to read, and, at other seasons, Gregson and a few other boys, who were fond of the study of natural history, used to go there to search for specimens, as Tom Bouldon used to say, of bird's nests, beetles, bees, and wild flowers. Blackall, also, and two or three of his class, occasionally retired there, but neither to read nor to study natural history, but to smoke and to drink, when he could procure liquor. Bouldon ascertained that he had gone there on this occasion, and, anxious to bring matters to a crisis, went round that way, passing directly in front of him.
Blackall, who was sitting alone by himself, looking at the grass, saw his shadow slowly pass along before him. Lifting up his lack-lustre eyes, they fell on Tom. He immediately started up, and seized him by the collar. "Ah, my fine fellow, I've caught you at last, and all alone. I wanted to find you, and now I'll pay you off with a thrashing which you will remember to the end of your days."
Bouldon looked up and down to see if anybody was coming to his help. He had missed Eden, who had, however, seen him through the trees in the hands of Blackall, and then scampered off as fast as his legs would carry him, his imagination somewhat supplying the particulars of the thrashing which had not even yet begun. Bouldon struggled hard to release himself when he found that Blackall had got hold of his collar, for he had no wish to become a martyr unnecessarily, as he knew from experience that his persecutor hit very hard and cruelly whenever he had the power.
"I'll give you a chance yet," said Blackall. "Will you fag for me, or will you not?"
"Most certainly not," answered Tom, firmly. "I'll see you at Jericho, and ten thousand leagues further, rather than lift a finger to obey one of your commands. There, you've got my answer."
"Then take that," exclaimed the bully, bestowing a thundering lick on poor Tom's ear. "How do you like the taste of that? Will you obey me now?"
Blackall generally played with his victims as a cat does with a mouse before destroying it.
"Not I," answered Tom briefly, compressing his lips.
Another heavy box on the ears followed close upon this answer.
"Will you now?" again asked Blackall.
"No," bawled out Bouldon.
Several cuffs and blows now descended on his head and shoulders. Again Blackall asked him if he would fag. Bouldon did not deign to answer.
"Do you hear me? Are you deaf?" thundered out the bully.
Bouldon made not the slightest reply to this question either by word or look. The consequence was that the bully began striking away at him right and left, till Tom felt that he was getting very severely punished, and he could not help wishing that some relief was at hand. He struggled as much as his strength would allow, and at last, forgetting all the rules of prudence, he broke away, and instead of endeavouring to escape, he clenched his fists and struck at the bully in return. The consequence was, that he was soon knocked down on the grass. He was not very much hurt, so when he saw Blackall about to kick him, he sprang up in time to avoid the blow.
"Ah, you arrant coward, to think of kicking a fellow half your size when he is on the ground!" he exclaimed, standing at a distance, however, so that he might have time to leap out of Blackall's way. Under any circumstances he would not have deigned to run; that is not the fashion of any English boys I have ever met. On the contrary, he was anxious to keep near Blackall, and to spin out the time till his friends could arrive to his assistance. He would particularly have wished them to find him on the ground, and Blackall engaged in kicking him. Of course Tom's look, and attitude, and words very much increased the exasperation of the latter, who now, springing after him, caught him again by the collar, and began pummelling him with all his might about the ribs and head, till his face was one mass of bumps and bruises. Still Bouldon would not cry out for mercy, or give in. Whenever he had an opportunity he broke away from his persecutor, and once more stood on the defensive, returning, when he could, blow for blow. He was soon, however, again knocked down with a blow on the forehead, which almost stunned him. He saw the bully advancing with his foot to kick him.
"Oh, don't, don't; you'll kill me," sang out poor Tom, who really did dread the force of the big fellow's heavy shoe, given with the full swing of his leg.
Blackall heeded him not, and would have executed his barbarous purpose, had he not that instant felt a heavy load fall down on his back, and a pair of arms encircling his neck. He had once before been treated much in the same manner, but who or what his present assailant was he could not tell. The nails were long, and the hands not a little grimy, while the knees of his assailant kept pressing his ribs in a most unpleasant manner. Blackall's look of horror showed that he fully believed that he had been seized by a big baboon, or some monster who might strangle him.
"Now at him again, Tom, and don't let him go till he has promised never to attack you more," said a voice, which Blackall recognised as that of Gregson.
However, Tom was this time too much hurt to get up, and he lay moaning on the grass, anxiously wishing that some one would come to his rescue. Gregson had, it appears, been up in a tree hunting for young squirrels and various insects. He had remained a spectator of the fight for some time, thinking that he could not do much good by his interference. When, however, he saw how hard it was going with Tom, he resolved to go to his help. Descending a tree, he climbed along one of the lower branches, from the end of which he had easily dropped down on the bully's back. There he clung, like the old man of the sea who clung to the back of Sinbad the sailor. But, as I have said, Blackall was a very powerful fellow, and after he had got over his terror at this sudden assault, he used every means to get rid of his assailant. He could not shake him off; and Gregson did not flinch from all the pinches and blows behind his back which he received. At last, Blackall bethought him of backing against a tree. Unfortunately for the young naturalist, one with some stout branches grew near, and Blackall backed up to it, till he bumped it with such force that he very nearly broke both his back and his head, and he was very soon fain to let go. No sooner was he on the ground than the bully vented all his fury on him, and knocking him over with a blow of his ox-like fist, kicked and cuffed him till he was even in a worse condition than Bouldon.
"I'll teach you to play your pranks on me, you young scoundrel," he exclaimed. "However, you could not have chosen a better place, for there is no one likely to come here to interfere with us, and I intend to pay you both off in a way you will not fancy, let me tell you that. My fists are rather heavy, so I do not intend to use them, lest I should kill you outright, but I have a colt about me, of which you shall now have a taste." Saying this, the bully pulled out of his pocket a piece of hard rope, covered from one end to the other with hard knots. Seizing poor Gregson, who lay on the grass even more hurt than Bouldon, Blackall dragged him along, and placed him near his friend, and then flourishing his formidable colt, was about to make it descend first on the back of one and then on that of the other of his victims, when a loud shout arrested his arm, and, looking up, he saw from both ends of the glade a strong body of boys, in military order, advancing towards him.
"Hold your hand, you big coward. If you dare strike either of those fellows, well not leave a particle of skin on the flesh of your back, let me tell you," shouted a voice in a loud tone.
One of the parties was led by Buttar, the other by Bracebridge. The latter had spoken. Buttar uttered a similar caution; but Blackall, seeing that only younger boys composed the approaching bands, and fancying that they would not venture to interfere with him, resolved for very pride not to desist from his purpose, and down came his weapon on the backs of the two prostrate victims of his tyranny. It was equivalent to a declaration of war to the knife.
"On, on, on," shouted Bracebridge and Buttar.
Their followers required no second appeal.
"Remember what I told you," shouted Ernest—"Each man to his duty."
The bully turned round and gazed, first on one side and then on the other, at the approaching bands. He was observed to turn pale, even though he flourished his colt above his head, and uttered loud threats of vengeance against any who might dare to approach him. A scornful laugh was the only answer he received, as the two bands advancing in double quick time completely surrounded him, and then with a shout threw themselves upon him. Some seized his neck, others his arms, and others his legs, in spite of his kicks and blows, while others passing a rope round his body he was speedily tripped up and hauled down to the ground. He swore, and shouted, and threatened more loudly than ever.
"Gag him, gag him," suggested Buttar. "Don't let the fellow talk blasphemy."
"I'll half murder you some day for this, you Buttar, you," cried the bully, glaring fiercely at him.
"Pooh, pooh," was all Buttar deigned to reply. "Here, quick, a handkerchief, and that piece of wood."
The materials for the gag were handed to Buttar, and though the bully made several attempts to bite his fingers, he succeeded in most effectually fixing a gag in his mouth. Still Blackall struggled furiously; but though not one of his assailants was half his size, they succeeded in dragging him to a tree, to the trunk of which they secured him with the rope they had passed round his waist. Then they lashed his hands as if he was clasping the tree, with his face to the trunk, while his ankles were placed in a still more uncomfortable position.
"He cannot abuse us, or kick, or strike, but he can see," suggested some one.
The hint was forthwith taken, and he was quickly blindfolded.
"We will draw lots to settle who is to colt him," said Ernest. "You understand, my friends, that it will be better he should not know who have been his executioners."
Lots were forthwith drawn with some ceremony. Four boys were chosen, and they, nothing very loth, began to flourish the very weapon with which he had just been striking their friends.
When Ernest and his party came up they found Bouldon and Gregson on the ground, both of them so much hurt as to be scarcely able to rise. Ernest with two or three other boys, having seen Blackall safely secured, went to attend to them. They got water from the pond and bathed their temples, and undid their shirt collars, and in a little time set them up on their legs. As may be supposed, the first use they made of their restored strength was to go and watch the proceedings taking place with regard to Blackall. Their feelings revolted at the thought of thrashing one who had been so lately ill-treating them. They felt that had they done so, they would naturally be accused of being influenced by vindictive feelings; whereas they wished that he should understand that; the thrashing he was receiving was a lawful punishment for the cruelty he had so long inflicted on others. The boys who had been selected as executioners set to work very much in the fashion of young boatswain's mates on board of a man-of-war. After one had given five or six strokes another came on, till at last some one declared that he had fainted. So he had, but it was chiefly through rage and indignation. However, they took the gag out of his mouth, but the first use he made of his restored power of speech was to abuse and threaten them so dreadfully, that they came behind him and again clapped the gag into his mouth. In vain he struggled. He was too securely bound to get free. Ernest had learned, as every boy should, how to knot and splice properly, and was unlikely to allow any slip knots to be made. When Blackall showed that he was completely recovered, the boys who had been appointed to flog him, once more made ready to go on with the operation, but Ernest stopped them. His feelings revolted at thus punishing a school-fellow, however richly he might have deserved punishment, who had been rendered so utterly helpless.
"Stay," he cried out. "He has had enough to show him what we have the power of doing, and the pain he has suffered may teach him in future not to inflict pain on others. Take the gag out of his mouth, and let us hear if he will promise to behave properly in future towards all the younger boys of the school, to beg pardon of Bouldon for his unwarrantable attack on him, and especially that he will promise to abandon his absurd attempt to fag any of the boys of the school. You hear what has been said, Blackall. Will you consent to these terms? Take the gag out of his mouth and let him answer."
Blackall had heard every word that was said, and had he been wise, he would have yielded to the force of circumstances; but instead of that, he began as before to abuse and threaten Ernest and Buttar, and all the boys whose voices he recognised, and to declare that he had a perfect right to fag one and all of them if he chose.
"The gag! the gag! Treason! treason!" was the reply, accompanied by loud laughter from all the party.
The gag was quickly produced; but as Blackall found it being adjusted, his courage, or rather his obstinacy, gave way.
"What is it, do you say, that you want of me, you fellow?" he asked, in a very much humbled tone.
Ernest repeated the terms he had before proposed.
"As to that, I do not mean to say that I am not ready to agree to your terms," he replied; "only just mark me, you fellows. I don't think that I am a greater bully than others, and if you fancy that I am going to agree not to lick a fellow who is impudent, you are mistaken. I'm not going to promise any such thing. Fagging is not in vogue, so I'll give that up for the present, but I don't know what other big fellows will do."
This speech of the once formidable bully was received with loud shouts by most of the younger boys, but Ernest, who knew something more than they did of human nature, did not put much confidence in what had been said, still he saw that it would be politic to release him while he remained in that humbled humour.
"Very well, Blackall," said Ernest; "we are all glad to hear what you say, and we intend to rely on your promise; but remember that we are all united to resist aggression, and that the moment you break your promise, we shall take steps to punish you. Now release him."
In obedience to the orders of their leader, some of the boys cast off the lashings which secured their prisoner to the tree, but they wisely took care to keep him blindfolded to the last, that he might be unable to injure them. His hands and legs being set free, they all hurried back to their ranks, where they stood in two compact bodies as before, bidding defiance to any attack he might venture to make on them.
"You may take your handkerchief off your eyes and go free," said Ernest.
Hearing this, the humbled bully began pulling away at the handkerchief round his eyes, much to the amusement of the lookers-on, for he had considerable difficulty in untying the knot, and getting it off his head. His first movement showed clearly that he was much inclined to break the articles of peace, but when he saw the formidable array of boys drawn up on either side of him, with Bracebridge at the head of one party, and Buttar at that of the other, discretion prevailed, and with a sulky, downcast look, he turned round and walked away across the fields in an opposite direction to that which he saw the hostile armies were taking. Ernest suppressed the commencement of a cheer in which his supporters very naturally showed an inclination to indulge.
"Let him go, and treat him with the silent contempt he deserves," he observed. "He has got a lesson which he will not easily forget; but at the same time we shall all do well not to trust him. He will not let the matter pass without trying to revenge himself on some of us."
Blackall heard the first part of Ernest's remarks. He turned round as if to give vent to his feelings; but not finding words to express himself, he stamped with his foot, and continued on in the direction he was going.
"I wonder whether he will go and complain to the Doctor of the thrashing we have given him," exclaimed Bouldon, as they were marching homeward. "I certainly did not expect to see him take it so tamely. I expected that he would have fought and struggled to the last, like the rover's crew the song talks about. Instead of that, he struck his colours in a wonderfully short space of time."
"Oh, those bullies are always white-livered rogues," observed Buttar, "so are nearly all the tyrants one reads about in history. Conscience makes cowards of them all. Depend on it that he will hold his tongue, and neither tell the Doctor nor any of his own special chums."
It was to be seen whether Buttar was right. The boys who had not united with Ernest were surprised to see so many of his friends marching about in order the whole afternoon; and even when tea was over, never less than five or six of them were together. They looked about for Blackall, but he did not make his appearance. The elder boys were excused from coming in to tea on half-holidays, so there was nothing remarkable in this, and none of his friends seemed to notice his absence. Of one thing all Ernest's companions felt certain, that no attempt to fag them would succeed while he remained at school.
BLACKALL'S REVENGE AND ITS RESULTS.
Everybody remarked the sullen angry expression which Blackall's countenance bore after the event I have just described. When any of his associates talked to him about fagging, he frowned, and, putting out his lips, declared that there was no use attempting to coerce the young scamps, for that the advantage to be gained was not worth the trouble it would cost. This was very true, but at the same time it was not an opinion anybody would have expected from him. Whenever he met Bracebridge, he always looked at him with an expression of intense dislike, which he was at no pains to conceal.
The Christmas holidays were now approaching, and a long course of bad weather kept the boys in more than usual. They consequently amused themselves with their indoor exercises. Their broadswords and foils were constantly in their hands during their play-hours.
One day Ernest and Buttar were fencing together. They had been at first equally matched, but Ernest was never content unless he was perfect in every exercise he took up, and so he had practised and practised, and thought the matter over, till he could beat his friend thoroughly. Buttar took his defeats very good-naturedly.
"I cannot manage as you do, old fellow," he used to observe. "You always contrive to send my foil flying out of my hand when I fancy that I am going to play you some wonderful trick at which I have been practising away for the whole of the last week."
A match was just over when Blackall entered the fencing-room. His eye fell on Ernest. Just then something called Buttar out of the room, and Ernest was left without an antagonist.
"Come, young gentleman, you are both good fencers. Try a pass of arms together," said Mr Strutt, the fencing-master. "Oh, you must not draw back; I shall fancy you are afraid of each other if you do. Come, take your foils and begin."
Blackall hesitated. He had not exchanged a word with Ernest since the day he had received his flogging, and he hoped never to have to speak to him again.
"Perhaps Blackall would rather not fence with me, sir," observed Ernest to the fencing-master.
"Oh, nonsense, nonsense. Take up your foil and begin," was the answer he received.
"I am ready to fence with you. Come here in this corner of the room, out of the way," said Blackall suddenly.
Ernest followed him. He remarked that there was a peculiarly evil look in his eye. He did not, however, unfortunately, observe what he was about with his foil in the corner.
"Now, young gentlemen, attention," cried Mr Strutt to some of his pupils, whose exercise he was superintending, and the words Quarte, Tierce, Seconde, Demi-circle, Contre de Quarte, Contre de Tierce, and so on, were heard resounding through the room.
"Come, let us begin, and have no child's play," exclaimed Blackall with vehemence, throwing himself into the attitude to engage. He made several rapid passes, which Ernest parried dexterously. As he did so, he observed that his adversary's foil had no button on it. Still he thought that it was the result of accident; and as he had very little fear of Blackall's hitting him, he did not deign at first to take notice of it. Something, however, he observed in the expression of his opponent's eye made him doubt the wisdom of this delicacy.
"Blackall," he cried out, parrying a desperate thrust at his breast, your foil has no button. "Were you to hit me, you might injure me very much."
"What care I?" answered Blackall. "I'll pay my debts, depend on that. Take that—and that—and that!" As he spoke he lunged rapidly at Ernest, who as rapidly turned aside the point of his weapon. Still Blackall was no bad fencer, and Ernest had the greatest difficulty in defending himself. Now he had to guard against a straight thrust, now against a disengagement, now the beat and thrust, now the cut over the point, and now the double. He saw that it would be too dangerous to attack himself; indeed, his only wish was to disarm his adversary, and then to refuse to fence with him any longer. This Blackall seemed to suspect, and to be on his guard against, while his aim was too clearly to wound, if not to kill, his opponent. Ernest under these very trying circumstances kept perfectly cool. He had parried every thrust which Blackall had made, but the latter at length pressed him so hard that he had to retreat a few paces. Once more he stood his ground, and defended himself as before. As he did so, suddenly he felt his foot slip, and, while he was trying to recover himself, Blackall pressed in on him, and sent his foil completely through his shoulder. One of the boys had just before dropped a lump of grease, which had been the cause of the accident. Ernest felt himself borne backwards, and, before any one could catch him, he fell heavily to the ground. The blood flowed rapidly from the wound; a sickness came over him, and he fainted. Blackall pretended to be very much grieved at what had occurred; but the fencing-master, looking at him sternly, asked him how it was that he could use a foil without knowing that the button was off.
"And what is the meaning of this, let me ask?" he said, stooping down, and with his knife hooking out the end of a foil from a chink in the boards. "The point was broken off on purpose. You have tried to kill that young lad there. I know it; and I shall take you before the Doctor, and let him judge the case."
"What makes you say that?" asked Blackall, turning very pale. "Why should you suppose I should wish to hurt Bracebridge?"
"I know it—I know it," was the only answer he got, while Mr Strutt with several of the boys was engaged in lifting Ernest, and binding up his shoulder to stop the bleeding. Blackall knelt down to assist, but the fencing-master sternly ordered him to stand back.
"I will not trust you," he exclaimed. "You are a bad fellow! I believe it now. I see it all clearly. I ought not to have allowed such an one as you to fence with him. If he dies, you will be his murderer; remember that. You shall know the truth from me, at all events." Thus did the excitable but kind-hearted fencing-master run on.
As he and some of the boys were about to lift Ernest off the ground, to carry him upstairs, Monsieur Malin came in. When he had ascertained the state of affairs, he immediately sent off Buttar to summon the surgeon who attended the school, which it seemed no one else had thought of doing. The presence of a medical man would, he knew, save the Doctor a great deal of anxiety. Having done this he walked up to Blackall, and put his hand on his shoulder.
"Things do not take place in this school without my hearing of them," he remarked. "Mr Strutt thinks you wounded Bracebridge on purpose. I believe that you are capable of any crime: but come with me to the Doctor; we will hear what judgment he pronounces on the subject."
Blackall would gladly have got away or shrunk into himself; but when he found that he had no channel of escape, he seemed to screw up his courage to face out boldly the charges brought against him.
It is a very unpleasant subject. I would rather not have had to describe Blackall and his misdeeds; but as his character is so odious, I hold him up as a warning to some not to imitate him, and to others to avoid, and on no account to trust to or to form any friendship with such a person when they meet him.
There was in the house a strong-room, in which occasionally very refractory boys were locked up. Confinement in it was looked upon with peculiar dislike, and considered a great disgrace. It was furnished with books and slates, and pens, ink, and paper, and the boy who was put in was always awarded a task, which he had to perform before he was let out. Any of the masters might put a boy in there, and incarceration in this place was the only punishment they were allowed to inflict on their own responsibility.
"There, go in there; translate and write out for me these five pages of English into French, and learn these fifty lines of Racine," said Monsieur Malin, as he put Blackall in, and, locking the door, took away the key. "I will report your conduct to the Doctor, and hear what he has to say to it."
Blackall was left in a great fright. He did not know what part of his conduct might be reported, and he felt conscious that he was guilty of many things which, if known, would cause him to be expelled. He knew also that Monsieur Malin would not excuse him his task, so he tried to get through with it; but all his efforts were in vain. He could do nothing, and his thoughts would turn to the act of which he had just been guilty. "I did not want to hurt him—I did not want to kill him," he said to himself; but each time that he said so conscience replied, "You did; you know you did. Cowardly mean-spirited revenge induced you to commit the act, and it shall not go unpunished."
The Doctor was not told of what had occurred till the medical man had arrived and examined Ernest's wound. He had him at once put to bed, and washed and dressed the wound, and then he gave him some cooling medicine, but he said that he must see him again before he would pronounce on the matter. He might not materially suffer, but it might prove to be a very dangerous wound. This report got about the school. Buttar, Bouldon, and poor Ellis, and many other boys, were deeply grieved when they heard it. During the evening there was much anxiety and excitement in the school.
It was generally reported that Blackall had endeavoured to kill Ernest; then that the wound had assumed a very dangerous aspect, that the surgeon was very anxious about him, and that there was very little hope of his recovery.
When the Doctor appeared in school in the evening his countenance was very grave, and he seemed grieved and anxious. He spoke very little, and it was observed that while he was reading prayers his voice faltered.
There were many sorrowful young hearts in the school that night; for another sadder report than the first got about, and it was believed that Ernest Bracebridge—the clever, the brave, the spirited one, whom all then acknowledged to be without a rival in the school—was dead.
Naturally, the late attempt to introduce fagging was discussed, and the part Bracebridge had taken in suppressing it was openly spoken of. Thus, not only did all the boys in the school learn all about it, but it came to the ears of the masters, and, finally, to those of the Doctor himself. Monsieur Malin had heard of it before, but he had judged it best to let things take their course. The Doctor, having gathered all the information he thought necessary, collected several witnesses, among whom were Buttar, Bouldon, and Ellis, and summoned Blackall into his presence.
Blackall appeared, led in by two of the masters. He heard all that had to be said against him, and a full account of his barbarous treatment of Bouldon and Gregson, and the flogging which followed.
"I do not excuse Buttar, nor do I poor Bracebridge, for their conduct on that occasion. It was their duty to come and complain to me, and not to take the law into their own hands; but I am fully willing to believe that they acted under mistaken notions. However, I do not wish at present to say anything more against them; but there stands one whose whole conduct I so severely condemn, that I can allow him no longer to be an inmate of this school. To-morrow morning I shall publicly expel him. Retire till then to your respective rooms."
Although on ordinary occasions the Doctor had a great flow of language, he was very brief when any serious matter was under discussion, as if he was afraid to trust his feelings in words. No one in the school had an opportunity of again speaking to Blackall. He was supposed to have passed the night in the solitary room, as it was called. The next morning, after breakfast, he was brought into the school-room between two of the masters, and there in due form publicly expelled the school.
"Sir," said the Doctor, "from the numerous charges brought against you, and which you do not attempt to disprove, you will, if you do not alter your conduct, be a disgrace to any community in which you may be found. You have been constantly guilty of drunkenness and tyranny, blasphemy and swearing, idleness, and utter negligence of all religious and moral principle. I deeply regret that I was not sooner informed of your conduct; and I humbly acknowledge that I am much to blame in not having more minutely inquired into the character of every boy under my charge. I trust that you are an exception to the general rule, and that there are no others like you. Lead the unhappy lad away."
Soon after this a post-chaise came to the door; Blackall with one of the masters was seen to get into it, and from that day forward no one ever heard anything positively about him. His conduct was undoubtedly worse than that of any of his companions. The way he had been punished utterly put a stop to anything like fagging, and even brought bullying into very great discredit.
I have not mentioned Ernest Bracebridge since he had been wounded in so cowardly and treacherous a way by Blackall. The reports which flew about the school proved to have been somewhat exaggerated. The surgeon very naturally ordered that he should be kept quiet, but he had not said that there was any danger. He speedily stopped the bleeding, though, at the same time, he thought it safest to sit up with him, to watch that the wound did not break out afresh and allow him to bleed to death. In a few days even the slightest danger which might have existed was over; and in the course of a week he was able once more to resume his place in school. The Doctor had a good deal of conversation with him with respect to his conduct towards Blackall; and though he acknowledged that there were many extenuating circumstances, still, he pointed out, that he, as master of the school, would not allow the law to be taken out of his hands and exercised by another, however great the provocation.
"The same reasoning, remember, Bracebridge, holds good in society," he observed. "Private individuals must never take upon themselves the execution of the laws while a duly elected authority exists. Happily, in England, a man need only bring his complaint before a magistrate, and he is nearly certain to obtain ample justice. Remember that, my dear boy, whenever you are tempted to take the law into your own hands. If you yield to passion, or to your feelings, you will be acting against the laws both of God and man; and do not suppose that it is a light thing to do that."
Ernest thanked the Doctor for his advice, and promised to remember it. Only a couple of weeks remained now before the holidays were to begin— those jolly Christmas holidays which, to boys living in the country, generally afford so much amusement.
The conversation Ernest had had with the Doctor made him feel more inclined to confide in him than he had ever done, and he resolved to open his heart to him about Ellis, who, in spite of his excellent conduct, and his quiet amiable manners, was as much as ever mistrusted by the boys in general. Barber, especially, turned up his nose at him, and never failed, when talking with his own particular chums, to throw out hints that, when Blackall was expelled, it was a pity the Doctor did not clear the school of Ellis, and other canting hypocrites like him. More than once these ungenerous remarks had been repeated to Ernest. He talked the matter over with Buttar, who agreed that they ought not to be allowed to go on unnoticed.
"If Ellis has done anything really disgraceful, he should explain his conduct to us, who have so long supported him through thick and thin," observed Buttar. "For my part, I believe that he ever was what he now is, a highly honourable good fellow; and if so, he ought to be defended, and his character placed in a proper light before the whole school."
"I have been long thinking the same," said Ernest. "I would do anything to serve him; and the life he is now leading is enough to ruin him in health and mind. He looks thin and careworn—like an old man already."
That very evening Ernest went to the Doctor, and very briefly told him all about Ellis; how fast he was improving, and how happy he had become, till Barber came to the school and spread reports against his fair fame.
The Doctor asked Ernest what the reports were. Ernest told him.
"Poor fellow! how very unfortunate," he remarked. "When he came here, his father sent me a letter from his former master, saying that he had been accused of stealing some money from another boy; but that, though the evidence against him was very strong, and apparently conclusive, he fully believed him guiltless of the offence. His father, who came to me on purpose, assured me that his son was altogether incapable of committing the crime of which he was accused; at the same time, that he thought it right to mention the circumstance to me, to account for his low-spirited and retiring manner. I appreciated the father's motive, and accepted the charge of his son, not supposing that any boy from the lad's former school would come here to accuse him. I have watched him narrowly, and I feel sure, from what I have seen of him, that he is, at all events, now a most unlikely person to commit the crime of which he is accused."
"I am very glad indeed, sir, to hear you say this," replied Ernest. "I would myself stake much on Ellis's honour; but how are the other boys to be convinced of this, when one who professes to be a witness is among them, and constantly repeats the tale?"
"I must think about it," observed the Doctor. "I may show my disbelief of the truth of the accusations brought against him by honouring him on every fitting opportunity; but unless he can disprove the tales uttered against him, I fear the less generous boys will continue to believe him guilty. However, I have said I will consider the subject. And now, Bracebridge, believe me, I thank you for having introduced the matter to my notice."
After this conversation, Ernest became much happier about Ellis. For the Doctor, also, a much warmer regard and respect arose in his heart than he had ever before felt. He had from the first looked upon him as a kind, sensible, and just man; but he did not suppose that there was any sympathy between him and his pupils. He knew that they came to school to be taught, and that it was his duty to teach them; but he was not aware of the deep interest which he took in their eternal as well as in their temporal welfare; how he employed his best thoughts and energies for that purpose; how much toil and pains he had taken to bring the school into its present condition; and how much it grieved him to find that, with all the pains he had taken, there was so much to correct and arrange. The Doctor, however, knew the world, and that in no human institutions can perfection be attained—nor can it be expected that they should be without faults; but he knew also that by care and attention those faults may be decreased, if not altogether got rid of, and he did not despair.
Ernest, as I was saying, had never before this thoroughly understood the Doctor. Now he did, and he found him a kind, sympathising, affectionate friend. Indeed, in my opinion, unless a man is this to his pupils, he is not fit to be a schoolmaster. Neither can a parent, unless he is his children's friend, expect to command their love and obedience.
Ernest now discovered the Doctor to be very like his own father in many respects, and therefore placed unbounded confidence in him. He gladly opened his own heart to him, and with the frankness of a warm-hearted boy, told him all his thoughts, and hopes, and wishes.
The Doctor had always liked Ernest, and felt great satisfaction at watching his rapid progress; but now he discovered qualities and talents which he had not before surmised, and from that time he placed the most perfect confidence in him, and the interest Ernest excited was as great as if he had been his own son.
At the end of the year prizes were given, and, in spite of his accident, Ernest carried off several. One of the performances which invariably created the greatest interest was the speech-making. The speech given to Ernest's class was that part of Julius Caesar where Cassius endeavours to persuade Brutus to join the conspiracy against Caesar. Buttar also spoke very well, and took the part of Brutus. All the neighbourhood were collected on the occasion, and a sort of stage was erected at one end of the play-room, which was ornamented with boughs of holly and other evergreens, and flags and coloured lamps.
Altogether, it was a very pretty spectacle. Instead of painted scenes, a bower of evergreens and flags was erected on the stage, in which the boys performed their parts.
Some of the bigger boys gained a good deal of applause, for the Doctor taught his pupils not only Greek and Latin, but what he looked on as of not less consequence—to write and speak their own language correctly and fluently.
Many who could scarcely express themselves so as to be clearly understood when they came to the school, had by the time they reached the upper classes become quite eloquent, and were able to write their themes with correctness and precision. Not much was expected from the younger boys, but when Ernest began to speak, the attention of all the guests was arrested: not a whisper was heard; and when he concluded, a loud and continued applause burst forth, and even his school-fellows agreed that he had surpassed himself. Buttar also gained a fair share of the applause bestowed on his friend, and he was not jealous that he did not gain more. No one listened more attentively than did Ellis, for he had declined to speak, though urged by Ernest to do so, and tears rushed unbidden into his eyes at the success which Bracebridge had obtained.
"I tell you, you fellows, that there is not a fellow like him!" exclaimed Tom Bouldon, clapping his hands vehemently. "He is as good, and brave, and clever as any fellow in the world. I always thought so, and now I am certain of it, and don't mind saying so."
Happily these remarks did not reach Ernest's ears. Gratifying as they must have been, they would have proved somewhat dangerous, even to a mind so well balanced as his was. He knew that he had achieved a success, but he was well aware that, after all, it was not a very great one, and that he had many more far far greater to achieve before the victory would be won.
I must not forget one of the amusements which generally terminated the winter half of the year. It was a grand race on stilts. There was a wide extent of flat meadow land in the neighbourhood, intersected with narrow ditches full of water. This was the ground selected for the sport. It was something like the Landes in the south of France. Monsieur Malin had introduced the amusement.
Boys when they first came to the school, who had not been accustomed to walk on stilts, were surprised at the height of those used, and the rapidity with which the older fellows walked along on them. Many of them were ten feet high. The resting-place for the feet was a piece of wood flat on the upper surface, with a strap to it which could be fastened round the feet or not. The upper ends of the poles were held by the hands, with the shoulders pressing against them. By this mode a boy could leap off his stilts without risk. Some are used which do not reach above the knee, round which the end is secured by a strap, but a fall with these may prove a very serious matter, and the Doctor would not allow them to be used.
It was good fun on stilt day to see the greater part of the school mounted up high above the ground, and striding away at a rapid rate over the fields; to hear the shouts and shrieks of laughter, especially if any unfortunate wight put the end of his stilt into a ditch deeper than he expected, and, unable to draw it out again, dropped on his nose. Monsieur Malin generally led the party, and no one cheered and laughed more than he did. This year it was arranged that a steeple-chase should take place; so it was called; but in reality it was not a steeple which formed the goal, but a low object—a white gate, which could only be seen from an elevation; therefore the boys with the highest stilts were the best able to keep it in sight.
Fancy upwards of eighty boys collected on a fine clear frosty afternoon, mounted up five or six feet off the ground, some even more, stalking away as fast as they could go over the fields, shouting, and laughing, and hallooing to each other.
As usual, Ernest was one of the most active. He and Buttar took the lead, but they were closely followed by Tom Bouldon, who was very great upon stilts. The exercise suited his temperament. He had been at the school ever since Monsieur Malin introduced them, and so he was well-practised in their use. He thus had an advantage Ernest did not possess. He went steadily on across hedges and ditches, and across ploughed fields, and moist meadows and marshes, till he overtook Buttar, and then he came up with Ernest, who was beginning to fag, and then he went ahead, and finally got in at the winning-post half a field's length before anybody else.
Two days after that the school broke up, and the boys, in high spirits at the anticipation of the amusements they were to enjoy, started off in all directions to their respective homes.
THE CHRISTMAS HOLIDAYS. SKATING AND OTHER WINTER AMUSEMENTS.
Ernest liked his school very much, but he had good reason to love his home still more, for such a home as his—or rather its inhabitants, which constituted it his home—was well worthy of all the affection of his warm affectionate heart. His father and mother were so wise and sensible and kind, so just and so indulgent. The expression of their countenances and their general personal appearance at once showed that they were above the ordinary run of people; yet, noble as they looked, none but the base and evil-disposed were afraid of them. It was a pleasure to see the smiling faces and the affectionate looks with which they were received as they walked about the village, where they and their ancestors for several generations had lived before them. Often and often they might be seen simply, and, if the weather was bad, roughly, dressed; going from cottage to cottage, with a basket of medicines, or provisions and clothing, for those poor neighbours who were, they well knew, utterly unable to obtain them for themselves. Their daughters followed their example. No more sweet, amiable, and yet refined, girls were to be found in the country. Their brothers declared that no such girls existed in the world; and yet, though they could do all sorts of things, and ride, and fish, and even play cricket with them on a pinch, they were not in the slightest degree proud or conceited. They could sing and play, and when they went to balls, which was not very often, no young ladies appeared to greater advantage, or were more lively or graceful. They were admired, and yet fully respected, by all who knew them.
I have described what Ernest was. His brothers were his equals in most respects. His eldest brother was a very fine young man, and had taken high honours at Cambridge. He was an excellent specimen of an English gentleman of the nineteenth century. Free from all affectation and pedantry, still his whole nature seemed to revolt from anything slangish or low. No oaths, nor anything which would be considered one, nor any cant expressions, ever escaped his lips. Yet he was full of life and spirits, the soul of every society in which he moved. He had numerous friends, and so mild and quiet was his disposition that he seldom or never made enemies; or rather, I may say, if he made an enemy, he quickly got rid of his enmity. All his brothers looked up to him, and loved him heartily.
"My brother John says so and so," or "My brother John did so and so," was a constant phrase of theirs, and it was always something good he had said or done. He was at home, and so were indeed all Ernest's brothers. One was in the navy—Frank. What a light-hearted and merry fellow he was. He had seen some hard service, had been highly spoken of in a dispatch, and had a medal on his breast. He was a gallant, true-hearted sailor, and was as much liked by his companions afloat as his brothers were by theirs on shore.
Such were the inhabitants of Oaklands. The house itself was a fine old substantially-built edifice, with thick walls, standing on a gentle elevation, and overlooking a wide extent of country. The grounds which surrounded it were large, and contained woods, and shady walks, and fishponds, or rather lakes, and ornamental flower gardens, and rich velvety lawns, and kitchen gardens.
A short time before the holidays, Mr Bracebridge had written to his son, desiring to have the addresses of several of them. What was his reason for doing this, his father did not tell him.
The holidays began. What a happy Christmas-day the whole family spent together! It was spent as Christmas-day should be spent—in affectionate family intercourse, and not in a wild gaiety which is calculated to drive away all thought and recollection of the great and glorious event it is intended to celebrate on that day. How happy everybody was both upstairs and downstairs; what long yarns Frank spun of his adventures in many lands, and his hair-breadth escapes; how he made them laugh at some of his stories, and cry, if their hair did not stand on end, at others, so exciting or so full of horror did they appear. I should like to repeat some of them, but I have not time to do so now. Of course everybody was wishing for a frost, that they might have skating.
"Oh, how delightful it will be!" exclaimed the midshipman. "I have not put on a pair of skates for the last five years. I have seen ice enough and to spare in the shape of icebergs, and floes, and fields of ice, but that is not the sort of ice suitable for skating. A big, thundering iceberg is a wonderful thing; we nearly got run down by one, or rather we nearly ran into one, if the truth must be said, when I was in the 'Stag,' only, of course, we always lay the blame on anything but ourselves; so in this case we blamed the iceberg for getting in our way, as if it had not just as much right to be there as we had, and as if it had not been our business to get out of its way. We were going round Cape Horn, and the master thought fit to make a considerable offing, and to keep away to the southward. It was my watch on deck. We had a fair wind on our starboard quarter. Jim Holdfast, whom I took out with me, and who promises to turn out a prime sailor, was forward. It was a pitchy dark night. We could barely make out our hands held out before us, and as to seeing across the deck, that was impossible. We had three reefs in our topsails, and though it was not blowing very hard—that is to say, a man might open his mouth without fear of having his teeth blown down his throat—we were running at the rate of nearly eight knots an hour through the water. By the way the stern of the ship lifted, and then by the feeling that she was gliding away downward into the depths of some watery valley, we knew that huge mountainous seas were rolling up astern of us. I frequently looked astern to try and make them out, but I could only hear their loud surge or slush (I must coin a word), as they broke close to our taffrail. Now and then, by keeping my eye on the sky, a vast ominous darkness came up between me and it, and that I knew from experience was a giant billow, big enough, if it once broke over us, to swallow up us, or a ship ten times as large. My watch was nearly out. I was thinking that I should not be sorry to get below, and go fast asleep. Now, 'you gentlefolks of England, who stay at home at ease,' will, I dare say, fancy that no one could go to sleep under such circumstances; but for us sailors it would never do if we allowed a gale of wind or any such trifle to keep us awake when it was not our watch on deck. The officer of the watch had just ordered eight bells to be struck, that is to say, it was the end of the first watch, or twelve o'clock at night, when a voice from forward shrieked out—for it was not an ordinary hail, but a cry which showed that life or death depended on the words being heard.
"'Iceberg ahead! Port the helm!—port—port—luff—luff! Ease away the weather braces—haul taut the lee braces!'
"I recognised the voice as that of Jim Holdfast. I do not think the second-lieutenant, who had the watch, was aware who was speaking, but he was a sensible fellow, and instead of being angry, as some officers would have been at finding anybody venturing to give an order instead of themselves, he repeated it, and discovering that it was obeyed, hurried forward to ascertain more clearly if possible the state of things. I looked out to leeward. There rising, as it were, out of the ocean was an indistinct mass of luminous matter (I can call it by no other name), out of which proceeded a cold chilling air, piercing to our very marrow. High, high above us it seemed to tower. The seas roared against its base. Not a man on deck but held his breath, for no one knew what was next to happen. We were terribly near to it. The sea, as it dashed up the sides of the icy rock—for there was no doubt it was an iceberg— came toppling back in showers of foam, and deluging our decks. As the ship heeled over to the breeze, her mainyard, I verily believe, grazed the iceberg. Had she been a few feet nearer to it, perhaps, I may say, a few inches, I do not believe that the gallant little sloop or any one on board would ever again have been heard of. The watch below had been called, and they came tumbling up in a great hurry, not knowing what was the matter. I could tell by the exclamations of a few near me that they wished themselves anywhere but where they were. The dear little ship flew on, and in another minute the iceberg was left astern. Then a cheer from all hands arose, and I believe many returned sincere, though silent, thanks to Him who had so mercifully preserved us. We hauled our wind and stood to the northward, for we had no fancy to encounter another of those big ice mountains in that dark night, not but what we knew that even then we might still run against one. You see, our sailor philosophy is to do our very best, and then not to trouble our heads more than we can help as to what are to be the consequences. When the excitement had calmed down, inquiries were made as to who had seen the iceberg, and so promptly given the order to 'port the helm,' through which the ship had undoubtedly been saved. Jim Holdfast, when he heard the inquiries made, was in a great fright, thinking that he was going to be punished, or well rowed at all events; and he never would have confessed that he had ventured to give the order, had not I gone to him and insisted on his coming forward, and saying how he had seen the iceberg, and had known that, unless what he had ordered was done, the ship would be lost. The next day the sea went down, and we were able before night to haul up permanently on our course for Valparaiso, the capital of Chili. Well, after breakfast I got Jim to come aft with me to the captain, who, with most of the officers, was on the quarter-deck.
"'I've found the culprit, sir,' said I. 'Here's the man who first discovered the iceberg, though he had never seen one before, and—'
"'And gave the order which saved the ship, and all our lives,' said the captain, interrupting me, and smiling pleasantly. 'Holdfast, my man, you did a most seaman-like thing. I shall at once give you a higher rating, for you have shown yourself thoroughly deserving of it.'
"I never saw a fellow so thoroughly astonished. He pulled away a lock of his hair, till I thought he would haul it out by the roots, for he, of course, held his hat in his hand; and he scraped away with his foot, and said that he didn't think he had done anything out of the common way, and it was only his duty, and that sort of thing; but there was nothing like affectation in what he said. Still more astonished was he when the captain continued—
"'You shall come to my clerk every day, and perhaps he will give you some instruction which may be useful to you. If you go on as you have begun, I may hope some day to see you on the quarter-deck.'
"The captain said a good deal more to the same effect. As I was saying, Jim was astonished. He said very little in return, but only pulled away harder than ever at his hair. Though before that time I should not have supposed that he had a spark of ambition in his soul, I after this observed a marked change in his demeanour and character. I suspect his eye was never off the quarter-deck. When not on duty, he was always reading and writing, and talking on nautical subjects. He was neater, and cleaner, and more active than before; at the same time that he was just as respectful as ever to all above him. He came home with us, and as soon as the ship was paid off, he went of his own accord to a nautical school to learn navigation, to enable him to do which he had saved up every farthing of his pay. Now, I say that Jim has set an example which many young gentlemen would do well to follow. If our captain gets a ship soon, he will take him with him; and when he hears how he has been employing his time on shore, I am very certain that he will keep his eye on him, and advance him if he can."
Everybody present had listened with intense interest to Frank's account of his ship's narrow escape from destruction, and this of course encouraged him to continue his narrations on subsequent evenings; but as my readers are not his brothers and sisters, and father and mother, who might possibly be somewhat prejudiced in his favour, I will not repeat them.
The young men and boys were all looking out eagerly for a frost; and every night they went out, one after the other, to ascertain whether the smell of the air gave indications of one having set in. Who does not know that peculiar clear, fresh feeling, so invigorating and exhilarating, which the air has when a frost has begun? Night after night, however, passed, and still the frost did not commence; but as the atmosphere grew colder and colder, everybody believed that their hopes would not long be delayed. Skates, which had long lain dormant in tool-chests and cupboards, were got out and polished. Skating shoes or boots were greased, and straps were repaired. At last Ernest, in high glee, rushed in among the family circle assembled around the drawing-room fire one evening, and declared that a right honest frost had, without the slightest doubt, set in, and that in two days he felt sure the ice would bear. The anticipation of the pleasure they all so much enjoyed put them into great spirits; and if either of the younger ones had been asked what he considered the greatest misfortune that could happen to the world, he would very likely have replied, a thaw. When, however, they had exhausted the subject, or at all events the patience of their hearers, their eldest sister proposed that those who were not engaged in any manual employment should read or tell a tale. The proposal was cordially welcomed. Frank gave for his share of the evening's amusements a further account of his adventures; then a tale was read; and at last Charles, Ernest's second brother, who had lately returned from Germany, undertook to give a terrible ghost story which he had heard in that country, and which, as he said, had the advantage of being entirely true, though he was not disposed to quarrel with those who would not believe it.
"Is it an ancient or modern story, Charles?" asked Ernest; "I have no fancy for modern ghost stories. They all end in so ridiculous a way that one feels vexed at having taken the trouble of reading them."
"Oh, this is a true antique tale," said Charles; "but you shall hear it. Is everybody ready to attend? Well, then. Once upon a time—"
"No! no! no! Don't begin a story in that old-fashioned, obsolete way," exclaimed Ernest. "I never can fancy that a story is worth hearing when it begins with 'Once upon a time.'"
"Heave ahead! and let us hear what it is about," cried Frank. "Leave out the 'Once upon a time.' We are all ready. Just plunge at once into the story—don't give us a long-winded prelude, that is all."
"Very well, then; I will leave out the objectionable expression, and will begin at once by telling you all about the hero and his exploits up to the time my story commences. So once more. Listen—listen now! Here goes:—
"Kurd von Stein was a gallant and adventurous knight; he cared not how far he wandered, nor what danger lay in his path. He had travelled to all lands, and in all climates, defending ladies from insult, and the defenceless from oppression. His love of adventure led him through wood and wild, over mountains and across seas; but it was in the night that he loved best to ride forth, when the soft moon shone on the silvery lake and quiet forest; when the stars gazed calmly on the earth, as if seeking to penetrate its future, and mourning over its past; when the hoot of the owl and the cry of the beast of prey were the only sounds to be heard, besides the tread of his own charger, when he left the forest glade for the more beaten track.
"The Castle of Jauf, whose grey ruins may still be seen on a wooded height in the high country of the Rhine, was at that time a stately pile, with battlements, towers, and walls of massive strength; but it was uninhabited even then, and in the country round strange tales were told of sights and sounds which issued from it, not only at night, but even during the day. Spirits were said to hold their meetings there, and the place was shunned by all mankind.
"Sir Kurd, however, knew nothing of these tales; he had come from a great distance, and beyond inquiring his way, and ordering his necessary food, had held no communication with the peasantry, whose dialect was with difficulty understood either by his servant or himself. As he came within some hours of Jauf, he desired his servant to proceed to the castle of a baron whom he had met in the wars in Belgium, and who lived at no great distance, while he himself turned into the forest in hopes of meeting with some adventure. On he rode, through the pleasant oak woods, and by many a wild crag; but he at last found that he had wandered out of the direction he meant to have taken, and had no idea where he was, or which way he ought to turn to find his friend's castle; but he comforted himself with the old proverb, 'that every road leads to Rome, and even out of the labyrinth you will reach your destination.'
"The last ray of sunset had disappeared as Sir Kurd entered a wide valley, and faintly through the deepening gloom descried a large building, standing on a height at its further end—it was the Castle of Jauf. His horse was tired, and he himself both weary and hungry; he therefore determined on going to the castle, and asking for food and shelter for the night. He rode slowly up the hill on which the castle stood; but as he came near the walls, the darkness increased so suddenly that it was with difficulty he found the entrance to the court. He called loudly, but no servant appeared at his summons. His shout was given back by a dull echo from the walls, within which night and solitude alone seemed to reign. The court was full with long grass; he led his horse across it to a tall silver pine, whose outline he could faintly trace through the darkness, bound him to it, and then sat down to rest. After a little time he looked up,—and see! A light shone from one of the windows! He rose quickly, found a door, and felt his way up the narrow spiral staircase. At the top of the staircase was a door, which he opened, and found himself in a large baronial hall; but he hesitated to advance when he saw that the only person in it was a girl, who sat by the long table. She wore a black dress, and a string of large pearls confined her soft brown hair; and her attention was so absorbed in a large book which was open before her, and which she read by the light of a lamp, that she did not seem to be aware of the knight's entrance. She was very lovely, and her expression told of a gentle heart; but she was pale as a cloud, and some deep sorrow seemed to have robbed her cheek of its roses.
"'Noble lady, I greet you well,' said the knight, at length.
"She looked up, and thanked him silently by a gentle inclination of her head. He continued:—
"'In my journey through this wood I have lost my way; may I ask for some food and a night's lodging?'
"She rose, and with noiseless step left the hall, returning presently with two dishes, one of venison, another of wild fowl; these she placed on the table, and again retiring, brought a goblet of sparkling red wine. Having arranged everything, she signed to Sir Kurd to eat, accompanying the sign with a sad smile. He very willingly accepted her invitation; and though he found that both bread and salt had been forgotten, his modesty prevented his asking for them. It seemed strange, too, that not a single word had escaped the maiden's lips, and he dared not speak to her. But the spirit of the generous wine, which came from the sunny hills of Burgundy, began to assert its power over him, and prompted him to speak as follows:—
"Much-honoured lady, may I be allowed one question?"
"She bent her head.
"I suppose you are the daughter of the house?"
"Again she bowed.
"'And who are your parents?'
"She turned to the wall of the apartment, on which hung many portraits of knights and ladies; and pointing to the two last, she said, in a voice so soft, so melodious, that it seemed like the sighing of an Aeolian harp—
"'I am the last of my race.'
"'Here,' thought Sir Kurd, 'this may turn out as good an adventure as ever knight met with in an out-of-the-way part of the world. To be sure, they sometimes won a princess, sometimes a wicked fairy; but this maiden pleases me, and it is a splendid castle. Ah, poor thing! no doubt it is grief at the loss of her parents which has paled her cheek. Perhaps I may find means of comforting her.'
"He advanced, took her hand, and said—
"'Believe me, lady, I grieve to hear that death has so early robbed you of your parents; but ladies require the protection of knights. Have you—pardon the liberty I take—have you chosen one to make you happy?'
"She shook her head. He continued, modestly—
"'In that case, may Kurd von Stein—whose name may have been heard even here as that of a trusty Knight of the Empire, and as having distinguished himself in many wars—may Kurd von Stein offer you his heart and hand?'
"A gleam of pleasure lighted up the pale face of the girl; such a one as you may have seen pass over a meadow when the moon shone suddenly from behind a cloud. She rose, and from a cupboard brought two gold-rings, set in black, and a wreath of sweet rosemary, [See Note 1.] which she twisted amongst the pearls in her hair. She signed to the knight to follow, and went towards the door. As he passed down the hall, he wondered that neither male nor female attendants were to be seen; but at that moment the door was thrown open by two old men in full holiday suit. Their robes were white, and richly embroidered with gold; their black barettes had large silver ornaments. They placed themselves on either side of the knight and lady, and with them descended the long flight of stairs, on which Sir Kurd's step alone was heard; the others seemed rather to glide than walk.
"Sir Kurd began to feel very uncomfortable; he did not like the style of thing at all, and half repented of having pledged himself; but it was now too late to retract, and an irresistible power seemed to draw him onwards. The old men led them to the castle chapel. Lights already burned on the high altar; monuments of gleaming white marble, ornamented with weapons and golden inscriptions, rose on all sides. It was before one of these that the lady stopped; the iron figure of a bishop rested on it; the eyes were closed, the hands folded. She touched the figure; it instantly rose, and the eyes sparkled, as you may have seen the northern lights sparkle through the keen air of a winter night. He went to the altar, and standing before the bridal pair, said, in a deep and solemn voice—
"'Say, Sir Kurd von Stein, will you wed with the noble and honourable Lady Bertha von Windeck?'
"As the leaves of the aspen and tremulous poplar shiver when a chilly breeze touches them, so trembled the knight as the lady passed her arm round him. He tried to say—he did not quite know what; but he could not utter a sound, his very blood seemed curdled in his veins. Hark!— the crowing of a cock. A storm swept through the chapel, and the castle trembled to its very foundations. In an instant all had vanished, and Sir Kurd sank down in a swoon. On coming to himself, he lay—where? Amongst the long grass in the castle court, under the spreading branches of the silver pine, and by his side stood his faithful charger, while the cold grey light of morning began to appear in the east.
"'Was it a dream? Did I really see these awful sights?' said the knight to himself; and still the cock crew on.
"Sir Kurd mounted his horse, quickly left the castle, and, without looking behind him, rode towards the spot where the cock was yet crowing. He soon reached a hospitable farm-house, standing amongst the meadows in the valley, by the side of a clear stream. Here he dismounted, just as the sun rose, and while partaking of a hearty breakfast, of which he stood in great need, he related to the farmer all his adventures of the past night, who, in his turn, told many others of the same sort. Sir Kurd found that his servant had been unable to reach the castle to which he had sent him, and had spent the night at the farm; so they soon after started together, the knight feeling most thankful to be rid of his ghostly bride."
Charles's story met with perhaps more applause even than it deserved. He confessed that it was a very free translation of a German tale he had read somewhere, but it was not admired the less for all that.
Two days after this a carriage drove up to the door, and out of it stepped Buttar and Ellis. Ernest knew nothing of their coming. It was a surprise his father wished to give him. The boys were delighted to meet each other, and kept shaking hands till they nearly dislocated each other's wrists. Buttar, who had come from a distance, had picked up Ellis on the way. The parents of the latter were glad to have him with a companion like Ernest, from whom, from his account, they believed he could reap so much benefit.
Not long after another carriage arrived, and great was the delight of all parties when Lemon and Tom Bouldon's faces were seen looking out of the window.
"This is jolly!—how delightful!—how capital!—what fun!" were some of the exclamations which escaped the boys' lips as they shook hands with each other.
"And the frost has begun here, as I suppose it had with you," added Ernest. "And the gardener says he is certain that the ponds will bear to-morrow, and if they do, we shall have some magnificent skating. There is not a particle of snow on the ice, and when it set there was a perfect calm, so that it is as smooth—as smooth—what shall I say?—as ice can be. Oh, we shall have some first-rate skating, and hockey, perhaps, and sleighing also, such as people have in Canada. John has had a sleigh built, such as he saw when he went over there in the last long vacation. He proposes to drive young Hotspur in it. We shall fly over the ground at a tremendous rate if he does. There isn't a horse in the country like young Hotspur for going. My pony, whom we call Larkspur, is first-rate of his sort; but when I am riding out with any one mounted on young Hotspur I feel just as if I was on board a small yacht with the 'Alarm' or one of those large fast racing cutters in company. You have all brought your skates I hope. If you have not, I dare say we have some spare ones which will fit you. We have had them given to us at different times, and most of my brothers have outgrown theirs, so that I have no doubt we shall find enough. Oh, Ellis, do you say that you cannot skate? Never mind, you will soon learn. You have learned many things more difficult. I'll undertake that you will be quite at home on your skates in the course of a week."
So Ernest ran on, as he conducted his friends round the house, to exhibit to them its numberless attractions, and to show them their rooms. They could not fail to be pleased, for the house, although not fitted up with anything like luxury, contained within itself abundance of objects to afford amusement and instruction to the inmates when confined by bad weather.
There was a first-rate library, in the first place, and a very interesting museum, illustrating all parts of the world. The articles in it were well arranged, and every one had a clearly written and full description attached to it. The articles from each country were placed together, and the countries were arranged according to their respective quarters of the globe. There were good maps, and many pictures illustrating the scenery or habits and customs of the inhabitants. Many hours might be passed profitably in it, which is not often the case with museums. At all events, I have never found that I could carry away much information from one. At the same time, I own that I think very likely I may have a more correct notion of the forms of animals, and of the shape of boats and buildings of foreign countries, than I should possess had I not visited the British Museum, and others of less note. The most advantageous way of visiting a general museum is to go with a definite object each time, and to attend exclusively to that object. I have never seen a museum better arranged than that which had been formed by Mr Bracebridge, aided by his sons, who were great collectors for it, and accordingly took a warm interest in its success. However, not only studiously disposed people found amusement in the house. There was a billiard table, and foils, and boxing-gloves, and single-sticks, and basket-sticks, and implements for all sorts of less athletic games at which ladies can play.
"Why, Ernest, you live in a perfect paradise of a home," exclaimed Buttar, as at last they reached the sleeping-rooms which Mrs Bracebridge had appropriated to her young guests.
"My father and mother make it so," said Ernest, enthusiastically. "They regulate everything so well, and yet we have such perfect liberty. Our father trusts us entirely. He tells us that there are certain things which he does not wish us to do—sometimes he gives us his reasons, and very good ones they are; at other times he gives no reason, but simply says we are not to do certain other things, and we know that his reasons are good, so we do not think of doing them. Frequently he leaves us to act according to our discretion, and gives us only general rules for our guidance."
Buttar could thoroughly appreciate the advantages his friend possessed, for they were advantages of no ordinary kind, and were the cause of the superiority he possessed over the greater number of his companions.
What a merry evening that was on which the boys arrived! Lemon had met Charles Bracebridge in Germany, though it was only just before the holidays he discovered that Ernest was his brother. He now came more especially to visit him. He was of a more suitable age than Ernest for a companion.
There was a Christmas-tree loaded with really useful prizes, so that all the boys were glad enough to obtain some of them, and their distribution caused great fun; then they had a most uproarious game of blindman's buff. Some of them dressed up in all sorts of costumes, so that when they were caught, the blind man could not tell who they were.
Bouldon made a capital blind man. He rushed furiously here and there, over everybody and everything, never minding where he went, shrieking with laughter all the time, but keeping his hands well out before his head, so that he ran no chance of knocking it against the wall. More than once Tom came head over heels down on the ground; but amid the shouts of laughter, in which he himself heartily joined, having stood on his head for a minute, he leaped up, and made a desperate dash at some of the players. At last he caught Buttar, who also made a very amusing blind man, and though he suffered several mishaps, never for a moment lost his temper.
Among Buttar's very many good qualities, a fine temper was one. Nothing ever put him out, though he was often much tried. He was good-tempered by nature, but he was also good-tempered from principle. He knew how wrong it is to lose temper, and he despised the frivolous excuses often made by people for doing so. The game of blindman's buff lasted a wonderfully long time. At last the ladies began to think that it had become almost too boisterous, and Lemon, who was a capital hand at starting games, proposed the game of "baste the bear."
"What's that?" asked Buttar. "In all my experience I never heard of that game."
"I'll show you, then. Who knows it? Do any of you?"
Tom Bouldon acknowledged that he did.
"Very well, Tom; you must be the first bear. I'll be your keeper," said Lemon. "Properly speaking, everybody ought to draw lots as to who should be bear, and the bear selects his keeper. However, we will suppose that preliminary got over. All the rest of the company are to tie their handkerchiefs into knots, with which to baste the bear. Now, I, as keeper, will fasten a rope round the waist of the bear, leaving a scope of about five feet. We take our position within a circle of about five feet in diameter, in the centre of the room. Here the circle is easily formed by tacking a little red tape down to the carpet. If I, as keeper, touch anybody without dragging the bear out of the ring, that person must become bear, and may select his keeper; or if the bear catches anybody by the legs, and holds him fast in the same way, he must take the bear's place. Now we are all ready. Very well, then, hit away with all your might."
Tom looked very lugubrious as, taking up his position, he saw the preparations making for his basting.
"Oh, oh, oh! Don't, kind gentlemen, hit hard," he cried out in piteous accents; and then in a deep tone he added, "if you do, to a certainty I'll catch hold of some of you, and make you rue the day."
Nothing daunted by Tom's threats, the party began to attack him vigorously; but they ran no little risk of being caught by Lemon, who sprang out on them to the full length of the rope, now and then almost pulling Tom out of his line; Bouldon also was very active, especially when any of his schoolfellows came near him. He growled and roared in a very wild-beast-like way, sometimes springing at Ernest, sometimes at Buttar or Ellis. Frank, the midshipman, also came in for an equal share of his attentions, and he seemed to consider that he was much on a par with him. The moment Frank understood the game, he played as vehemently as anybody. He said that it was a capital game, and that he should introduce it on board the next ship he joined. In spite of all his activity, Tom got many a hard lick, and still he remained a bear. At last he pretended to be so weary of his exertions, that he could not attempt to capture one of his tormentors. Those who were acquainted with Tom best, and saw his eye, knew that he was not to be trusted. The midshipman, however, was not up to him, and rushing in, found himself grasped tightly round the knee by the seeming half-sleeping bear.