"I thought that I should catch you, Frank," cried Bouldon, shouting in triumph. "Now please go and turn into a bear, and take care that you don't get into a butter boat."
Frank had therefore to become the bear. He chose Ellis as his keeper. Never was a more extraordinary bear seen. He stood on his head; he jumped about with his feet in his hands, and rolled round and round as a ball; and when anybody came near to baste him, he jumped and kicked about in so wonderful a way that no one could hit him. Every one also saw that he was very likely to catch them if they ventured near.
At last Charles, the narrator of the German ghost story, got caught, and he chose his brother John as his keeper. They tried to catch one of their sisters, or some of the eldest of the family, but were very glad at length, so pestered were they by Bouldon, to catch him, when in a daring mood he ventured near them. Thus the game went on, and many other games succeeded, till bed-time at last arrived, and the boys exclaimed with one voice, "Well, we have had a jolly evening!"
Note 1. A wreath of rosemary is worn by the dead in many parts of Germany.
CHRISTMAS HOLIDAYS AND WINTER AMUSEMENTS.
"Hurra! it was a terrific frost last night! the ice bears, and the gardener says we might drive a coach and six over it," exclaimed Ernest, rushing into Buttar's and Bouldon's room. "Up! up! Let us breakfast, and go down and try it. Get up, do, and I'll go and tell the other fellows. John has been getting his sleigh ready, and harnessing young Hotspur; so I don't doubt he intends trying the ice to-day."
Soon all the merry party were assembled in the breakfast-room. Just before nine Mr Bracebridge made his appearance, followed immediately by the rest of the family, and read a chapter in the Bible, and Morning Prayers. Then, when everybody had selected their places, he advised them to apply themselves to the cold viands, under which the sideboard literally groaned. With wonderful rapidity, eggs and ham, and brawn, and veal pie, and tongues, disappeared down their throats, mingled with toast, and rolls, and muffins, and slices from huge loaves of home-made bread, and cups of coffee, and tea, and chocolate. Bouldon did great execution among the viands, and he did not allow his modesty to stand in his way. At last breakfast was over, and then gimlets, and bradawls, and spare straps were in great requisition, to enable them to fit on their skates before they went to the pond. Some had spring skates, which were very quickly put on, the spring, which was between the sole of the boot and the sole of the skate, keeping all the straps tight, at the same time without any undue pressure. John Bracebridge was celebrated as a first-rate skater. His skates were secured to a pair of ankle boots, which fitted him exactly, and laced up in front. He put them on at the pond. There are two objections to that sort of skate. One is, that the feet get chilled from putting on a cold pair of boots, and if a person is skating away from home, he may not be able to find anybody to take care of his shoes.
"Are all the skates ready?" cried Ernest.
"All! all!" was the answer.
"Then don't let us lose more time of this precious frost," he added. "Remember, it may very speedily be over; so let us make the best of it we can."
In a laughing, merry body, with skates in hand, they hurried down through the grounds to the pond. It might well have been called a lake, for it was an extensive and very picturesque sheet of water, almost entirely surrounded by trees, with now and then an opening bordered by a plot of grass, or a bend of the grand walk which ran round it. Here and there was an island with a few birch-trees or willows growing on it, and over the trees could be seen, rising in the distance, a downy hill, now sprinkled with some snow which had fallen the night before the frost regularly set in, and which had thus not affected the surface of the lake. At the lower end the ground fell, and a long stream-like serpentine channel could be seen winding away, in one place overhung by trees, and in others between green meadows, till lost in the distance. The lower part was, in the summer, the favourite resort of anglers, for it contained some of the finest tench to be found anywhere in the neighbourhood.
No time was lost by those accustomed to skating in putting on their skates. John and Charles Bracebridge and Lemon had soon theirs ready, and rising on their feet, off they struck like birds about to fly, and away they went at a rapid rate, skimming over the smooth mirror-like expanse. Ernest longed to follow, for he had his skates on, and skated almost as well as they did; but he saw Ellis sitting down, having just cleverly enough put on his skates, but unable to move on them.
"Come, Ellis! up on your feet, my dear fellow, and lean on me," he exclaimed, gliding up to him. "Take this stick in your right hand. Be sure that you can stand on your feet; your ankles are as strong as those of other people, and your skates are as well put on. Look at Buttar, and Bouldon, and me. You will be able to skate as easily as any of us with a little practice. There is no necessity why you should tumble down. You can balance yourself off the ice perfectly, on the gymnastic poles, and in other ways. Now, hurra!—off you go!"
Ernest knew that Ellis required all sorts of encouragement, so he said more to him than he would to any other boy. Ellis at last got up; his ankles slipped about a little, but he was anxious to follow his friend's advice. In a short time he felt that he could stand firmly on the ice; then he slipped about, pushing one skate before the other. First he helped himself on with his stick, and then he balanced himself with it, and in an incredibly short time could move about so as to feel little fear of falling.
"Now," exclaimed Ernest, "I have set you on your feet, I'll go and take a skim over the surface. Remember, the more you practise, and the faster you throw away fear, the sooner you will be able to do the same. Good-bye!"
Away went Ernest, fleet as the wind, holding his right hand up before him to balance himself, and disdaining any stick for the purpose. He did not stop to hear Ellis utter his thanks and regrets at having kept him so long from commencing the graceful exercise in which he so much delighted. Ernest certainly did not enjoy it the less from having first performed a good-natured action for his friend. He, and Bouldon, and Frank looked on with admiration as he went gliding away over the ice; so easily, so gracefully he moved, now inclining to one side, now to the other, moving on apparently without the slightest exertion.
"There is not another fellow like him in the universe," exclaimed Bouldon, enthusiastically. "It will be a happy day when he is the cock of our school; and that he soon will be, for he could, if he chose, thrash many fellows twice his size already."
"I'm glad to hear you say that," answered Frank, not less warmly. "Ernest was always a pet of mine; we never quarrelled when we were together. I wish that I could have him to go to sea with me. He's just the fellow to be a general favourite in the navy, and to get on in it, too. He must do that."
Ellis could scarcely trust himself to speak, but he was not the less pleased to hear his friend thus eulogised. He knew that he thought him superior to anybody else, but he was not aware that he was held in such high estimation by his own family. Buttar and Lemon, coming up before the subject had been changed, added their own meed of praise to that which the others had awarded. Meantime Ernest, unconscious of what was being said, after circling the pond with what is called the forward roll, changing it to the Dutch—so denominated because it is the movement employed by the Dutch peasants as they skate over their canals and lagoons on their way to market—then began making figures of eight, the spread-eagle, the back roll, not to mention many other figures and evolutions, which perfectly astonished Ellis as he looked at them. Frank had not skated for a long time; but, undaunted, he soon had on his skates, and away he went, furiously on, as if he had suddenly been converted into a battering-ram. So fast did he go that he could not stop himself, and overtaking a stout gentleman, who was going deliberately along, before he could beg him to get out of his way he ran right up against him, and the consequence was, that he and the stout gentlemen came to the ice together, making a very considerable star, and a noise which was still more terrific. First there was the sudden crash and rending asunder of the thick ice, and then the noise went rolling and mumbling away to the other end of the pond.
"Hallo! young gentleman, we shall be in! we shall be in!" cried the stout gentleman, in an agony of fear.
"I can swim, if we are," answered Frank, scarcely refraining his laughter. "But beg pardon, sir; my skates ran away with me—they did indeed; and if I hadn't fallen foul of you, they would have carried me right across the pond. I'll help you up, though. You are not hurt, I hope."
"Not much, I believe. I came down on you, and you formed a soft cushion," answered the stout gentleman, good-naturedly. "But as to helping me up, do not, I pray you, attempt it on any account; we shall both of us go in if you do. Let us both roll away in opposite directions from the crack before we attempt to get on our feet. See how I manage."
As the stout gentleman spoke, he began slowly to roll himself over and over away from the centre of the star, and Frank imitating him, they were both of them soon again on their legs. Frank was going off again at full speed, having once more repeated his apologies for his carelessness, when the stout gentleman stopped him.
"We must not leave others to fall into the danger from which we have escaped," he cried out. "I observed, just now, some triangles with labels on the top, marked cracked and dangerous. We will get one and place it over the spot."
"I'll go and get the sign-posts you speak of," said Frank. "Don't trouble yourself, sir."
"Then I will keep guard round the spot, to prevent any unwary person from approaching it," said the stout gentleman.
Frank, on his return, found him going round and round the star.
"By to-morrow, I daresay, the wound will have healed," he remarked. "By pressing it gradually down, as I have been doing, the water will have risen into the interstices and have frozen the broken pieces together."
"I hope, sir, that I shall not be so clumsy again. I may not always meet people ready to take a knock-down so good-naturedly as you have done," said the midshipman.
Frank and the stout gentleman became great friends after this, and Frank obtained from him many useful hints about skating. Meantime, several other people assembled on the lake, which now presented a very animated spectacle. Frank having come back to see how Ellis was getting on, found Ernest with him, giving him some further instruction, from which the pupil was much benefiting.
"Well, Ernest," said Frank, "we have not had a skate together for a long time. What do you say to a race round the pond? I have got the use of my legs, I find, pretty well, but I don't think I could come any of those twists and turns, and spread-eagle kind of things."
Ernest said that he should be delighted to race his brother Frank, but advised him to curb his impetuosity.
"Oh, never fear! I've no other notion of going ahead but by putting on all the steam. My engines don't work at half-pressure," answered the midshipman. "Who'll start us? Buttar, will you?"
"With all my heart," answered Buttar. "Now get in line. Remember, the course is right round the pond, in and out into all the bays, and between all the islands. Now, once to make ready, twice to prepare. Once, twice, thrice, and—" Frank was so eager, that he was off almost before the word was out of Buttar's mouth—"away!"
Off went the racers, the rest of the party following, but making short cuts so as to observe their proceedings. The contrast between the two brothers' style was very amusing. Ernest's was all science or art, which enabled him to move gracefully along without any apparent exertion. All he did was to keep his hands waving slowly, to expedite his movements as he swept round an island or into a bay, and to preserve his balance. Frank, on the contrary, had very little skill or science. All he did was by sheer muscular power, with a determination to keep his legs, and to go on ahead. The skates went deeply into the ice as he struck out, and he seemed rather to be running than skating, with such rapidity did he put one foot before the other. All the time his arms were in violent motion, while he flourished a stout oak stick, thick enough to fell a buffalo, and at the top of his voice kept shouting and shrieking with laughter, calling on Ernest to heave-to for him, or to port or starboard his helm, or to keep along in shore, and not attempt to make short cuts.
Ernest was very much amused at his nautical brother's mode of proceeding, and he could not help suspecting that Frank was assuming a considerably greater amount of roughness than he really possessed. However, Ernest found that he had to skate his very best to keep ahead of him, when going in a direct line, though he beat him hollow whenever they had to make turns between the islands and the mainland, or to pass along the sinuosities of the bays. Still it seemed surprising, considering the little practice he had had, how perfectly at home Frank was on his feet. Ernest made a remark of that sort to him.
"Not a bit surprising, old fellow," he answered. "It is simply because I know the skates can do the work I put them to. A fellow who has learned to stand on the deck of a ship, rolling her guns in the water, and pitching bows under, and has had to furl top-gallant sails with a hurricane blowing in his teeth, can easily do anything of this sort, if he has the mind to do it. I am not like you, Ernest; you see I have been scorching under tropical suns, while you have had time to practise the art of skating."
They could not, however, talk very much as they went flying round the pond. Buttar and Bouldon, and Ellis and others sung out, "A race, a race, a race!" and attracted the attention of the rest of the people on the ice, who all stopped skating to look at them. It seemed still a doubtful point which would get in the first. Perhaps Ernest had not gone as rapidly as he might, that he might give Frank the pleasure of keeping up with him. There was a long clear run nearly from one end of the pond to the other. They were just about to do it. Ernest was a little ahead of Frank, so that he could turn his head over his shoulder to talk to him. Ernest came gliding smoothly on. "Skurry, skurry, skurry; clatter, clatter; ez-z-ez," came Frank. I cannot better describe the noise made by his skates. Utter fearlessness was evidently the secret of his power. On he came, as little fatigued, in spite of all his exertions, as when he started.
"Heave-to, old fellow, I say; heave-to! Give us a tow, then, for I see how it is; you intend to keep ahead, though how you do it I can't tell," he continued to cry out as he approached the end of the pond, where Buttar and the rest stood ready to receive them. Ernest, as might be supposed, came in first, and gracefully wheeled round after he had touched Buttar's hand. On came Frank, hurrahing and shouting, "Second in, at all events." Touching Buttar's hand, on he went. Was the bank to stop him? Not it. Up it he went, across the gravel walk, through the bushes, and down a bank into a meadow below, where was another piece of water, across which he shot, and then over another walk into the long canal pond, down which he went, shouting and laughing louder than ever.
"Our race is to the end of the ponds, Ernest, remember that. Ponds, old fellow! why don't you come on?"
Tom Bouldon, delighted, went after him, as did two or three other boys from the neighbourhood who were not skating; but Ernest was afraid of spoiling his skates, by giving them such rough usage, and left Frank to enjoy his fun, and to boast that he had beaten him in the long run. It was some time before Frank returned, his exploit causing a great deal of amusement to all present. Some time before this a fire, with a large screen of matting to keep off the wind, had been seen to blaze up, and now a horn sounding, the party on the ice assembled round it. They found servants roasting potatoes under the ashes, which were served out with plates of salt, and butter, and toast, to all who asked for them, while at the same time hot punch was handed about to the visitors.
"Capital stuff this!" cried Tom Bouldon, smacking his lips, after he had quaffed a glass of it, and, turning to Buttar, "I wish that the Doctor would provide us with something of the sort in an afternoon in cold weather. It's warm lemonade, with a little wine in it, I suspect. I'll take another glass of it, if you please."
Of course the servants handed Tom as many glasses as he asked for. Buttar took two or three. Away they skated. At first Tom got on very well, but in a few minutes he declared that the ice had become more slippery than ever, and that he had the greatest difficulty in keeping his legs; at the same time, that he felt a strong inclination to push on ahead.
"I say, Buttar, I believe that I could race the wind. Come, let us try; I don't mind what I do," he exclaimed, as he skated on furiously. "I don't mind what I do—do you?"
Buttar himself felt rather excited, but he suspected the cause, and recommended Tom to come and sit down with him on the bank till they became more composed. It was fortunate that they found out in time the strength of the punch, or they might have been, as some of the visitors to the pond were, by their own imprudence, completely overcome.
Tom was very glad that he had escaped committing himself, and much obliged to Buttar for warning him. He had bully Blackall's career before his eyes to warn him of the effects of drunkenness, and dreaded by any chance being led into it. He more than once went up to the fire for a hot potato, but each time the punch was offered him he wisely declined taking it. By the end of the day everybody declared that never was known so perfect a first day of skating. Most of the party, except the more practised skaters, were not a little stiff and sore from the exertions and tumbles. Ellis could scarcely move a limb, and Frank declared that he felt as if he had been fighting away the whole day. They had, indeed, been on their feet from half-past ten in the morning till nearly dark.
The next day much the same scenes were enacted.
After luncheon, a jingling of bells was heard, and young Hotspur appeared, drawing an elegant American sleigh. John Bracebridge, who was driving, dashed fearlessly on to the ice. The steed seemed delighted to have so slight a weight after him. The sleigh—so it is called in Canada and throughout America—had a seat in front for the driver, and an easy sloping one behind for two passengers. A handsome fur rug hung over it behind, almost reaching the ground, while there were two or three buffalo skins, in which those in the carriage might effectually wrap themselves up. Instead of having wheels, the carriage was placed on runners, two skates as it were, made of iron, with a frame-work lifting the body of the carriage about a foot, or a foot and a half, from the ground, and giving it a very light appearance. The harness was ornamented with little silvery sounding bells, and fringe, and tufts of red worsted, which made the whole turn-out look very gay. It gained universal admiration, and two ladies were easily persuaded by John Bracebridge to get into it, and to be driven round and round the pond.
"You may fancy yourselves transported suddenly to Canada, and whisking away over the Saint Lawrence," he observed, turning round as he drove on; "only I assure you that so smooth a piece of ice as this is rarely found to drive over. In Lower Canada especially, the sleighs are driven on the roads over the snow; but the old-fashioned French Canadian sleigh, used by all the country people, is so low that the front part sweeps the snow before it, and thus ridges are quickly formed all across the road. Another sleigh following has to surmount the ridges, and of necessity digs down on the opposite side, and scoops out more of the snow. Sometimes, also, they slide off either on one side or the other, and thus a succession of hills or waves, as it were, are made with slides, which send the sleighs nearly off the road on one side or the other, and make the driving away from the larger cities very far from pleasant. About Quebec, however, the roads are kept in good order, and sleighing is there a very agreeable amusement."
As young Hotspur could not go trotting round and round the pond all day, John at last drove him home, and then Frank proposed a game of hockey on the ice. He had provided a supply of sticks and a ball, and the proposal was welcomed with applause. The people present were not long in forming sides. Charles undertook to lead one side, Frank the other. Frank got his stout friend to be on his side, but he generally chose boys. He got Ernest and all his schoolfellows, except Lemon, who joined Charles, and there were several other boys who skated pretty well, and, as he said, looked plucky. A person must know how to balance himself well to play hockey on skates, otherwise, after having struck the ball, he is very likely to allow his stick to swing round, and to bring him over. There were twenty people on a side, big and little; but the shorter ones had decidedly the advantage, and ran away with the ball whenever they got up to it, driving it before them before any of the opposite party could overtake them. Ernest gave his brother some useful hints, from which he profited. The same tactics which Ernest had often employed at school Frank brought into play. The chief point in his plan was to keep three or four boys together, one to follow up another. If the leader missed, then number two ran in; if he failed to strike, then number three, and so on. The stout gentleman also turned out to be a capital player. He went on the "sure and steady wins the race" principle. Quietly yet rapidly he glided about after the ball, and when he got up to it, never failed to strike it, and to strike hard too. His exertions indeed mainly contributed to the success of Ernest's side, which triumphantly gained the day. Several games were played, and each time Ernest's side was victorious, though the defeated party took it very good-humouredly. Charles, however, observed that he had received several lessons from his opponents, and that he thought they would not find him so easily beaten again.
"Don't be too sure of that, Charlie," sung out Frank. "We also intend to-morrow to play twice as well as we did yesterday. Our motto is, 'We'll fight and we'll conquer again and again.'"
The morrow came, and a great game of hockey was the absorbing amusement of the day; even young Hotspur and the sleigh failed to attract so much interest. The stout gentleman was in his glory. He appeared with a hockey-stick of his own manufacture, and in garments which, if not graceful, precluded any of the youngsters from catching hold of his tails. There were the same sides as on the previous day, with several additional players; but none of them were very good, nor did they add much to the relative strength of each party. Ernest was the first to place the ball on the ice to strike it. The instant his stick descended, and the ball went whirling away over the smooth glass-like surface of the ice, Frank, followed by Buttar, Bouldon, and Ellis, darted forth with tremendous speed in the hopes of reaching it before any of the opposite party, and of driving it home; but before they could strike, Charles and Lemon were up to it, and sent it flying back again. The stout gentleman, however, who had only moved slowly on, saw it coming, and gliding up as it slid on towards him, struck it a blow which sent it two-thirds of the way across the pond once more. Frank, Ernest, and Buttar were up to it, Bouldon and Ellis keeping a little way behind them: Frank struck the ball, and sent it flying on, but it was into the midst of their opponents, who quickly drove it back again, when Bouldon, skating up, prevented it getting between Charles and Lemon, who stood prepared to drive it up to the goal, if, as they hoped, they could elude the vigilance of the stout gentleman. He, however, was not asleep, and watching their movements, as Tom Bouldon observed, as keenly as a boa-constrictor, glided swiftly up to the spot where they had driven the ball, and sent it spinning back, till once more Frank and Ernest got it within their power. Thus the game continued fluctuating; but finally, after many a bandy here and there, and many a tussle between the opposing parties, not a few upsets and other catastrophes, it was sent up to Ernest, who struck it a blow which sent it flying along between everybody, nobody being able to stop it up to the goal.
The next game was, however, still more severely contested; and at last, by desperate struggles, was won by Charles' party. Ellis had made wonderful progress in skating, thanks to Ernest's lessons, and his own resolution to overcome all difficulties. Of course, he got several severe tumbles, but he always picked himself up and went away again as if nothing had been the matter. In a short time he overcame all fear, and obtained the complete mastery over his feet.
"I should like to have your friend Ellis with me at sea for a few months," said Frank to Ernest, as they watched him tumble down and get up again, and go several times in succession to practise on the outside edge, undeterred by failures. "I like the fellow's spirit, and I am sure that there is a great deal to be made out of him."
"I am sure there is," was the reply. "At the same time, he is really so talented, and so good-hearted and humble-minded. He is one of my greatest friends. He trusts me, and I trust him, and that is, I suspect, the true secret of friendship."
Another day, Frank, taking a hint from John's sleigh, rigged out one with ropes. It was little more than a wide plank on runners, with seats for two people. The boys harnessed themselves to it, and invited the visitors to the lake to come and be dragged along. They had many applications for the honour, and it was a source of great amusement. No one seemed weary of dragging the sleigh, or of being dragged in it. Round and round the pond they went, often at so tremendous a pace that those being dragged shrieked out with terror; but their alarm could not have been very great, for when they were asked if they would go on again they never refused, or if they did, it was to let some sister or friend take their places. The next day three similar sleighs appeared, but they were covered with cloaks or rugs, and each had a flag of a different colour flying in front of it. As each sleigh required several persons to drag it, nearly all the gentlemen skaters were in a short time turned into horses, while the ladies were all eager to be dragged along; so away they all went, skating round and round the lake, and those who looked on could distinguish where their friends were by the colour of the flags. Sometimes they raced, and then the excitement was tremendous. However, one of the sleighs was upset, and the passengers thrown out, and the skaters sent here and there, some on their backs, and some on all-fours, to the alarm of those at a distance, and to the great amusement of those near, and who knew that no one was hurt. Mr Bracebridge, after this, prohibited racing with sleighs, for fear of accidents of a more serious character.
It is impossible to describe minutely all the amusements of those memorable Christmas holidays. A fortnight passed away, and though the glass-like appearance of the ice had somewhat disappeared, owing to the innumerable cuts its surface had received from careless skaters, the skating was continued with unabated ardour. Then came down a heavy fall of snow, which completely covered the ponds with a thick coat. Passages, were, however, swept across the ice, but the interest of skating was somewhat diminished. More snow followed, and then, except on small patches and walks which, with some exertion, were kept clear by the gardeners, there was no room whatever for skating. Notwithstanding this there were abundant sources of amusement. The younger guests were fortunate in having so good a master of the revels as Frank, the midshipman.
"Hurra, boys, a bright idea!" he exclaimed, one morning at breakfast, when some of the party were lamenting the destruction of the ice. "We'll build a castle of snow; not a puny little affair, but a castle with high walls and parapets, and a deep ditch and outworks, such as cannot be captured without hard fighting. However, as we don't really wish to kill each other, instead of cutlasses and bayonets, and swords, and pistols, and all those sorts of deadly weapons, we will use good honest snowballs. We'll build the castle first, and choose sides afterwards, so that no one will know whether they are going to defend or attack it, and no one inclined to be treacherous will leave any weak places. There is a high mound in Beech-tree meadow, which will make a capital foundation, and save a great deal of labour. Who is for it?"
Of course, all the younger guests were delighted with Frank's proposal. Mr Bracebridge also entered into it. "You shall have the assistance of all the gardeners, who can do nothing during this weather," he observed; "I will tell them also to engage half-a-dozen men thrown out of work; they with their barrows will much expedite the operation."
"Thank you, papa; thank you, sir," exclaimed the boys; and as soon as breakfast was over most of them jumped up ready to go to the scene of action. Ernest, however, said that he had his holiday task to go through, and that he must give one hour to that while he was fresh, and before he allowed his thoughts to be occupied with the amusements of the day. This reminded Buttar and Ellis that they had their tasks, to which they had as yet paid very little attention. Bouldon was inclined to think this proposal to study a very slow proceeding, as he had been in the habit of not looking at his task till the last week of the holidays, and often he did not finish off learning it till he was on his way to school. Now, however, as Ernest and others set the example, he began to think that he ought to do something.
"Very well," observed Frank; "we will not start for an hour and a quarter; that will give you time to get out your books; and if you all read hard, you will do something. I'll go to school, too, and rub up my navigation."
Ernest, followed by his guests, accordingly repaired to the study. Tom Bouldon, on looking into his portmanteau, found that, by the most unaccountable negligence, as he said, the servant had not packed up any of his school-books, but had put in instead a copy of "Robinson Crusoe," "Tom Cringle's Log," and the "Boy's Own Book." However, Ernest and Ellis between them were able to supply him; so Master Tom, having no excuse for idleness, set to with a will, and was surprised with the progress he made, and the satisfaction it afforded him.
"Well, I really think I will do a bit of my task every day till it is finished," he exclaimed, as Frank, pulling out his watch, told the party that time was up, and that they might set off for the scene of action.
When they reached Beech-tree Meadow, they found a quantity of snow already collected from a distance in the neighbourhood of the mound. On one side, a little way off, was a miniature castle, which Frank said he had got up early in the morning to construct, so that everybody might see what they were about. The model was much admired, and Frank acting as architect, the work proceeded with wonderful rapidity. Some carried the snow; others acted as masons, and piled it up and smoothed it off, he, standing in the middle, aiding and directing. A circular tower of fully twenty feet in diameter was quickly raised, and fully fifteen feet high, and finished off at the summit in a castellated form, with a parapet; and then there was an outer wall with a deep ditch; between them and the tower was a gateway, and a bridge, constructed partly of snow and partly of planks, led to it. It really had, when finished, a very imposing appearance, and looked as capable of resisting a foe as one of the Martello towers which guard the coasts of Great Britain.
Frank had, in the morning, despatched an invitation to all the boys he knew of in the neighbourhood to come and join in the sport, and by the afternoon a large army was collected. Everybody was too eager in the work to go in to luncheon, so it was brought out to them. At last all was ready. Lemon undertook to be the leader of one party; of course, Frank acted as general of the other. Ernest, and Buttar, and Ellis were on Frank's side; Bouldon, with Charles, and some of the other Bracebridges, joined Lemon. There were besides some twenty or more boys on either side, so that there were fully fifty combatants. They tossed up as to which side was to defend and which to attack the castle. Lemon got the first choice, and undertook the defence of the place. A flag on a pole was hoisted in the centre, and till this was hauled down the castle was not to be considered as captured. As soon as these preliminaries were arranged, all hands set to work to manufacture snowballs. Several piles were made at short distances surrounding the castle. These might be captured by a sortie. There were also flags on staffs stuck about which might be taken. On the outworks of the castle and on the walls were several flags. Piles of snowballs were placed inside the castle walls, and there were also heaps of snow out of which others could be manufactured. Lemon had brought his horn, and the besieging army had a couple among them, which had a very fine effect.
Frank, having marshalled his troops, formed them into three divisions, which were to attack simultaneously on different sides. Ernest led one, Buttar another, and Frank commanded the third party in person. These arrangements were made out of sight of the castle; and, to give more effect to the attack, the army marched through the woods sounding their horns, which were answered by a note of defiance from the castle.
"It is getting somewhat cold," exclaimed Buttar, who was practical in his notions. "The fellows inside must be colder still, waiting for us. All our valour will be frozen up. Let us begin to warm up our blood."
"Certainly, Colonel Buttar," answered Frank, laughing. "A very sensible remark. On, brave army to the attack! Death or victory! Don't mind the snowballs. Turn your heads into battering-rams, and your pockets into arsenals, and the place will quickly be ours. Now, Colonels Bracebridge and Buttar, lead round your men to the positions allotted to you."
"Too-too-too!" sounded the horns louder than ever, and the three divisions burst at the same moment out of the woods, and advanced to take up their positions near where their ammunition had been piled up, of the existence of which the defenders of the castle were supposed, till that moment, not to be aware.
"Too-too-too!" again sounded the horns, and while a sentinel remained to guard each pile of snowballs and their respective flag-staffs, the rest of the army, having loaded themselves with ammunition, rushed bravely to the attack. Then began a regular snow-storm. The besiegers and besieged pelted away with tremendous energy, till the former were covered with snow from head to foot, while the latter could scarcely show their faces above the walls. Under cover of this heavy fire, or rather snow-storm, Ernest attempted to cross the bridge, which had been allowed to remain, and to force the door. He was followed closely by Ellis and two other boys: but they were almost overwhelmed with the heaps of snow showered down upon them. Still they battered away with their fists and shoulders, as they were unprovided with other weapons; but the door would not yield. In fact, it had been completely blocked up from within, so that no force could have opened it. Meantime, Buttar, by Frank's directions, was shelling the castle from a distance; but as this produced no effect, and only supplied the besieged with ammunition, he was ordered to draw near to assist in a general escalade. Frank's plan of dividing his forces had prevented the besieged from making a sortie. He now ordered a general escalade. Scaling ladders were not to be used, but the backs of the combatants were to serve for the purpose. No sooner was the order given than, rushing up together, with masses of snow they filled up the ditch; and then one sprang on the back of the other, and others mounted above them; then Ernest, seeing a good ladder formed, climbed up it to the top, though he was nearly knocked over by the shower of snowballs which assailed him; the top of the castle, also, was so slippery that he had the greatest difficulty in getting hold of it, and his position was anything but pleasant. Meantime, Tom Bouldon, one of the besieged, who was burning to distinguish himself, seeing all the rest of the party engaged, telling Lemon that he had a dodge, and to look out for him, slipped over the parapet amid a shower of snow, so that he was unseen, and then, climbing up the side of the ditch, scampered off to get hold of one of the standards of the enemy, the sentinel left to guard it having deserted his post that he might join in the attack. He seized it, and was hurrying back, scarcely restraining a shout of triumph, when Ernest saw him.
"Tom, you traitor, let go that!" he sung out; but as he was mounted on the backs of four other boys, and fighting away at the top of the wall, he could not enforce his commands.
Tom, hearing him, scuttled away to the other side, where Buttar was endeavouring to effect a breach. Two boys made chase after him, but he got up to the wall before them, and throwing the flag into it, he sprang up on the backs of some of the besiegers, who did not find out in time that he did not belong to their party; and Lemon being on the watch for him, lent him a helping hand, and got him safe into the castle. Then he seized the flag he had brought so gallantly off, and went round the castle walls, waving it in the faces of the besiegers, and crowing as lustily as any young cock. Frank, when he discovered what had been done, felt like a general who has unwarily allowed his camp to be attacked; and now, seeing that the other two standards were unprotected, sent back a guard to each.
It may appear strange that Bouldon should have so easily got into the castle; but in his case he had a friend to help him, while in the case of the besiegers everybody was opposed to them. So strong was the castle, and so manfully was it defended, that it appeared as if it would effectually hold out to the end of the day.
Time after time Frank returned to the assault, and as often he and his troops were tumbled over into the ditch. This, also, was Ernest's fate; indeed he at last gave up all hopes of taking the castle in the way proposed. Telling the rest of his followers to continue pelting away with all their might, he called Ellis to his councils. Ellis at once advised an attempt to undermine the walls. He had run his head into a soft place, and he thought he might get through. The idea was a bright one. Ernest immediately went round and got some men from Frank and Buttar, to assist by the warmth of their snowballing to cover their proceedings, and then he and Ellis set to work to bore their way through. The other two commanders were all the time to keep up a series of incessant assaults, which might fully occupy the attention of the enemy. No one within the walls suspected what was taking place. They went on firing away with their snowballs as furiously as ever. No one seemed wearied. There was something very inspiriting in the work. It was far pleasanter than real fighting, because all the combatants might hope to live to fight again, for whichever side fortune might declare itself.
Lemon seemed to think, at last, that things were growing rather tame, so he seized his horn and began "too-tooing" away with all his might. It was answered more loudly than before by the horns of the besiegers, followed by a hotter shower of snowballs than ever sent by them into the castle. While Lemon and his followers were busily engaged replying to it, they found their legs seized by Ernest and Ellis, and several other boys, while Frank, mounting on the backs of some of his troops, leaped over the parapet on the opposite side. Lemon was so astonished that he knew not what order to issue. Buttar—a messenger being sent to summon him—came round with some followers to the same side, and forced his way with them through the hole. An attempt was made to throw the daring besiegers over the walls; but they kicked and shoved against them so furiously that a large breach was effected, up which the rest of the assailants poured; while Ernest and Ellis, overcoming all opposition, forced their way up to the standard, and seizing the flag-staff, hauled it down at the moment that one side of the castle fell with a tremendous crash, leaving it utterly defenceless. Lemon's horn sent forth a long wail of despair, while the other horns sounded notes of triumph, and the castle was declared to be truly and gloriously won.
"It is not your first military triumph, and I hope will not be your last," said Ellis to Ernest, as they were marching homeward.
"Nor yours either, and I hope will not be your last. If I go into the army, my great delight will be to find that you are going also."
When the boys reached the house, all the visitors from the neighbourhood found that they were expected to dine and spend the evening. The combatants did ample justice to the fare set before them, and it was announced that a conjuror would make his appearance in the evening, to astonish them with his wonderful performances. Ernest and Bouldon disappeared directly after dinner. Ernest said he had to go and make preparations for the conjuror, and Tom, putting his hand to his heart, said that he felt it his duty to go and help him. When the boys came up from dinner they found one end of the large drawing-room, in which there was a deep recess, fitted up as a theatre, and in the centre a table, at which sat a man with a huge pair of spectacles, a long white beard and moustache, a high conical cap, covered over with all sorts of strange hieroglyphics, and many other curious devices. Round his head was a turban. He wore a tight green waistcoat, a red silk flowing robe over it, while a handsome sash bound his waist, in which was stuck an ink-horn, a wand, a huge knife or dagger, a pistol, and several other articles. Altogether, he was a somewhat formidable-looking character. By his side appeared, when the curtain drew up, a curious-looking clown, with a huge face, with all sorts of twists and curls in it, great big ears, a cock-up nose, and a short stumpy beard. This extraordinary physiognomy was covered with a high cap, which had a tassel and bells. He wore also a party-coloured waistcoat, huge full breeches of all the colours of the rainbow, hose of yellow, and long shoes with rosettes of vast size. He stood forth a veritable clown or jester of bygone days.
The magician rose. He seemed to be a very tall man, and contrasted strongly with his attendant, who was one of the roundest, shortest, most punchy-looking little men ever seen. A symphony was played on a piano behind the curtains, during which the magician waved his wand, and then in a deep voice he explained that he was about to perform a series of wonderful and unaccountable tricks, which no one had ever equalled, or was ever likely to equal while the world lasted; on which the clown clapped his hands and nodded his head in approval, exclaiming, in the oddest squeaking voice imaginable, "Certainly, certainly; my master speaks the truth; who can doubt him? If anybody does doubt him, let him take care of me."
The conjuror hemmed, and, waving his wand, took up a pile of halfpence. "Now, ladies and gentlemen, you see these halfpence, and you see this cap. The cap I will place on the table, and taking the halfpence in my left hand, as you see, I will pass them from under the table into the cap. Heigh, presto, fly!" Sure enough, he lifted up the cap, and there were the halfpence. "Now I will pass them back again into my hand— listen." One after the other they were heard dropping into his hand, and when the cap was lifted they were gone. Then he put a die on the table, and covering it with his cap, sent the halfpence back to take its place. There they were. He covered them up; they had disappeared, and the die took their place.
He next produced a round tea-caddy. He asked a lady for a cambric handkerchief. Several were tendered. He took one, and put it into the caddy. Drawing out one end, while examining it by a candle to observe its texture, it caught fire. It had burnt a good deal before he could find the cover to put it out. No sooner had he done so than, pronouncing a few magic words, he opened the canister, and presented the handkerchief uninjured. Loud applause followed. "Now, ladies and gentlemen," he said, holding up a large silk pocket-handkerchief, "examine this handkerchief. It has no double lining. It is a plain simple handkerchief. Watch me narrowly. I throw it over the table. I hold it up. See what comes forth." A whole stream of filberts fell from the handkerchief. "Here, Placolett, take them to the company," said the magician, and the round-faced dwarf, with many odd twists and bounds, handed them round. Again the magician spread the handkerchief, and this time produced a still larger quantity of sugar-plums, sufficient, it seemed, to fill a hat. They also were handed round. Once more the handkerchief was spread, and produced a number of bouquets of beautiful flowers, some real and some artificial. These in like manner were distributed among the young ladies present.
"Will any lady lend me a plain gold ring?" asked the magician. One was handed to him by Placolett. He held it up between his finger and thumb. "Presto, fly!" he exclaimed, and threw it into the centre of the room. Everybody tried to catch it, but could not. It had vanished. Placolett hunted about, and at last found it under a cushion at the furthest corner of the room. Again he handed it to his master, who invited a little girl to take it; but before it reached her fingers it had disappeared, and Placolett, as before, hunting about, found it in the heel of a boy's shoe. Now Placolett collected a dozen pocket-handkerchiefs from the company, and the magician tied them up in a handkerchief, which he placed on the table. He ordered Placolett to bring him a basin and a jug, meaning, of course, that the jug should contain water, but there was none, so he sent Placolett again to fetch it, and ordered him to bring some soap. Meantime he threw some black balls up to the ceiling, which never came down again; and then he swallowed a mustard-pot, a salt-cellar, and a pepper-box; and then he took three cups and three balls, and made the balls pass under the cups, so that each cup had a ball under it, and then he brought them all together under one cup merely by waving his wand over them; and finally some twenty cups in succession appeared out of one of them. At last Placolett came back, bringing some water, but it was cold instead of hot, and there was no soap, and then an iron was wanted. Before he went for them, his master made him borrow two hats. One the magician placed above the other on the table. Then he took one of his magic cups, and showing that there was nothing in it, turned it upside down. He lifted it, and, lo and behold, there was a walnut inside! This he put into the hat, and as often as he lifted the cup there was a walnut, which, like the first, he transferred to the hat. At last Placolett came back. "Now," observed the magician, "the hat is half-full of walnuts. Heigh, presto! pass through the upper into the lower hat," he cried, and lifting the upper hat, that was found to be empty, while the lower one was half-full of indubitable walnuts, for the guests cracked several which were handed to them by Placolett.
"Now, ladies and gentlemen, you gave me some handkerchiefs," observed the magician. "I shall have much pleasure in washing them for you." Saying this, he took the bundle on the table, and emptied its contents into the basin, and then began washing in a very unartistic, rough way, evidently tearing them; and one, before wetting it, he held up to the candle, and carelessly set it on fire. Then he spread a blanket, and took them out, and began ironing them; but the iron was too hot, and he was evidently singeing them horribly. "Never mind," he exclaimed, "I have a magic ironing machine, which will do the work in a moment." He produced a box, with a handle like a churn, put the wet half-singed bundle in, and giving one turn of the handle, produced the handkerchiefs all washed, neatly folded and scented, and sent them round by Placolett to their owners.
It would be difficult to describe all the clever tricks he performed. He put a ring into a handkerchief, and it disappeared. He passed an awl through a piece of wood and Placolett's nose, and then put a piece of whipcord through the hole, working it backwards and forwards, to the dwarfs evident agony; and then he produced a funnel, which he held at a boy's elbow, and by pumping away with the other arm, at last a stream of wine flowed out. Then he put a large die on the table, and covered it with a box and then with a hat. He lifted up the hat and then the box, and the die was gone. He produced it, however, from under the table, through which it had evidently gone.
I will not speak of many other minor tricks which he performed with cards and other things, which elicited a fair share of applause. He next borrowed a sovereign, and produced an apple, which he sent round to the company. He begged some one to mark the sovereign, which was given back to him. He put it on the table, and covered it with a red cup. Then he took a knife, and holding up the apple, cut it in two, when the sovereign was found to be in the middle of it.
"Ah, I forgot; I have still a trick or two more," he remarked. "Here is a bottle. Will any lady like port, or sherry, or claret, or whisky, or brandy, or liqueur?" Some said one thing, some said another, and Placolett handing a tray of small glasses, he filled one after the other with whatever was asked for. Once he let the bottle drop, but it was not broken, as he was able to prove by handing it round to the company. Then, after considering a moment, he showed a large glass bowl full of ink. He took some of the ink out with a ladle, and put it into a plate, which he showed to the company. Then he covered up the bowl with his silk handkerchief, and on lifting it the ink had disappeared, and the bowl was seen to be full of clear water, with gold and silver fish swimming about in it.
"One exhibition more," he remarked; "and, ladies, wind up your nerves for a dreadful catastrophe. Here is a pistol, powder, and bullets. Examine them. Will any one load the pistol? See that the powder is genuine." It was done. The magician took the pistol, and put in some wadding. Then Placolett took it back, and some gentleman having marked three bullets, put them in one after the other. More wadding was then put in, and rammed down. "Who will fire?" asked the magician, holding up a plate at arm's length. Scarcely had the smoke cleared away when the magician handed the plate with the three marked bullets rolling about in it.
Everybody was expressing surprise at the interesting performance they had witnessed, and wondering where the magician had come from, when he and Placolett, with many bows, retired behind the curtain. Directly afterwards it was opened, and who should appear but Ernest and Tom Bouldon, while the magician and his attendant had disappeared.
Even Christmas holidays must have an end. The guests went back to their respective homes, all declaring that they had never enjoyed themselves so much as they had on this occasion since they first went to school.
RETURN TO SCHOOL—A GRAND GAME AT FOOTBALL.
"Here we all are again," exclaimed Tom Bouldon, as he shook Ernest, and Buttar, and Ellis, and his other friends by the hand, as they first met at school after those memorable Christmas holidays. Of course they had a great deal to talk about; the fun they had had at Oaklands, and what they had all done afterwards; then they had to discuss the changes in the school; the qualities of the new boys who had arrived, and what had become of the old ones who had gone away.
Barber had got back, and was as conceited as ever, and as supercilious towards his old school-fellow Ellis, who still seemed always strangely cowed in his presence. In many respects Barber, unhappily, bade fair to rival Blackall. He was not so great a bully, but then he had not the power of being so, as he was not so strong, and not so high up in the school. However, he seemed fully inclined to exercise his bullying propensities towards poor Ellis, and though he did not strike him, he never lost an opportunity of attacking him with the words which wound far more than sharp knives.
"This must never be," exclaimed Ernest, one day, when he had accidentally heard Barber abusing Ellis, and the latter had walked away without retorting or attempting a defence.
"Your friends, my dear Ellis, must for their own sakes, as well as for yours, insist on your taking notice of what that fellow says, both of you and to you. We must bring him to an explanation, and clear up the mystery. We are certain, as I have often assured you, that his treatment of you is undeserved; and why should he go on insinuating all sorts of things against you, and not dare to speak out?"
"Oh, do not push things to extremities," answered Ellis, and the tears almost came into his eyes. "That can do me no good. Barber does not act generously towards me, but I think that he believes that he has the right to abuse me; and if he really thought me guilty of the crime of which I am accused, he would certainly be right in not associating with me."
Ernest was not satisfied with this reply, and Ellis's behaviour afterwards was so strange, he thought, towards him, that when he and Buttar talked the matter over together, they could not help allowing a shade of suspicion to creep over their own minds that all was not right. They tried not to let Ellis discover it, but he was too keen-sighted and sensitive not at once to perceive that their feelings towards him were changed, and that made him, in spite of all they could do, retire more than ever away from them and into himself.
The weather continued so cold that the ordinary games could not be played with any satisfaction, and none but those requiring a good deal of bodily exercise were in vogue. Lemon, and some of the more actively disposed fellows, determined to get up a game of football, though it was generally played at our school late in the autumn. There were plenty of boys ready to join in it, but the chief question was to decide who should form the sides. A number of the older boys were thought of, but they were not popular, or not active enough, or did not care enough about the game. At last it was decided to offer the command of one side to Ernest Bracebridge. It was a high honour, considering the time he had been at school. He could not, nor did he wish to refuse it. He consulted Buttar, who of course agreed to be on his side, whom they should select. They asked Bouldon, and Gregson, and several others among their immediate friends, and then began to pick out others on whom they could depend, and who generally played with them. Neither of them mentioned Ellis. It was the first time they had neglected to ask him to join any game that was to be played since he had become what they called one of them. He happened to pass by, and heard them calling out the names of those invited to play. He stopped a moment, looked towards Ernest, and then turned away.
"I say, Buttar, do go and try and find him," said Ernest, in a low voice, relenting in a moment. "Ask him—press him to join us."
Buttar gladly set off on the mission; but though he looked in every direction, and inquired of everybody he met, Ellis was nowhere to be found.
"It cannot be helped; I wish that we had from the first asked him to join us," remarked Ernest, when Buttar returned to him with his report.
"Of whom do you speak?" asked Selby, a biggish and very gentlemanly boy.
"Of Ellis," said Buttar.
"Oh, we are much better without him," answered Selby. "There cannot be a doubt that he is not a satisfactory person, and you two fellows lose caste a good deal by associating with him. The idea is that he imposes on you; not that you believe he has been guilty of an act of dishonesty, and still consent to be intimate with him."
"An act of dishonesty!" exclaimed Ernest, with astonishment. "I cannot believe that."
Buttar repeated almost the same words.
"There can be no doubt about it. I heard the story this winter from a fellow who had been at the same school with him, and whose veracity I cannot doubt. He told me that Ellis was always looked upon as a very quiet, rather sawny sort of a fellow, without any harm; that he kept much to himself, and had no intimate friends. He was also always poor, and spent no money in the way other boys were in the habit of doing.
"There was another boy at the school who had always a good deal of money, sometimes as much as three or four pounds in his purse at a time. He was a very good sort of fellow, so he was thought, but rather soft. Ellis and he became intimate, and were looked upon as great friends, till on one occasion Arden, on going to his desk, found that his purse was gone, and, as he declared, with five pounds in it. A hunt was instituted in every direction; the masters were told of the loss, and the boys began to suspect each other. Soon it was whispered about that one of the boys was the thief. It was very extraordinary that just at this time Ellis appeared to have a good deal of money in his possession. He spent more than he had ever before done. Certainly, in two or more instances it was by giving it in charity. He bought also a microscope and some books, which another boy said that he had heard him remark he wished to have, but had not the money to buy them. These of themselves were suspicious circumstances; and many said that they thought Ellis must have taken the money. Some days afterwards suspicion grew into certainty when, on the master ordering all the boys to get up from their seats, that the school desks might be examined, a purse was found in Ellis's, which on being held up was claimed by Arden as that which had held his money. Ellis appeared to be struck dumb when he heard this. He stammered out that he had that very morning picked up the purse in the road near a hedge, and that he had intended going round to discover whether it belonged to any of the boys at the school. As it was empty, he knew that it would not be of much consequence, and that he had forgotten to make the inquiries he proposed. Of course everybody believed this to be a very lame defence; but the master inquired into the matter, and to the surprise of the boys said that he was satisfied, and that Ellis had fully accounted to him for the way he had become possessed of the money and the purse. The boys seemed to think that the master was more easily satisfied than he ought to have been, because he did not want to lose a pupil; at all events, Ellis was looked upon as a thief, and sent to Coventry. This treatment affected his health, and he was soon afterwards removed by his friends from the school. That is all I know about the matter."
"I am glad we did not ask him to play football," exclaimed Buttar. "The story is a very ugly one. I do not like the look of things."
Ernest gave a look of reproach at Buttar. "I am far from convinced that poor Ellis was guilty of the theft imputed to him," he remarked; "knowing him as I do, and as you ought to know him, Buttar, he acted on the occasion just as I should have expected him to do. However, while such stories are going about, it is certainly better for his sake and ours that he should not play in any of our games."
"Certainly," said Selby. "If he cannot offer us a proper explanation, I for one should object to play with him. But never mind him at present. It is high time that we should get ready for our game. Have you prepared the football, Bracebridge? It was your business to do so, or to get it done."
"Oh, I can do it very well myself," said Ernest, "I have two first-rate new ones hanging up in the play-room; they only want refilling. Come with me, and we will douse them in the pond." Two large footballs, but very flaccid-looking, were brought out, and by tying a stone and a line to them they were both very soon thoroughly soaked. He then took them out, and brought them into the house. First he took one, and undoing the lacing which confined one side, he drew out a flaccid bladder. "This is the sort of football we use here," he said, holding it up to Selby. "It cannot be easily rendered unserviceable by thorn, nail, or spike of any sort. If the bladder is injured, its place can be supplied for a few pence, and the leather casing will last for years. This is my blow-pipe," he added, producing a piece of tobacco-pipe. Undoing the mouth of the bladder, round which a piece of string was tightly fastened, he inserted his pipe, and very soon filled it with air. Before this, however, he had put back the bladder into its case. Having completed the filling of the bladder, he tightly laced up the ball so as to completely enclose it. "You see," he observed, "should this get pricked, even while we are playing, I can easily stop up the hole by forming a neck, and tying a piece of thin string round it. Buttar, do you take charge of the other ball in case it is wanted. It is high time for us to be on the ground, to see that the goals are properly erected."
Ernest, Buttar, and Selby on this hurried off to the park field where the game was to be played. The Doctor allowed football to be played, on the understanding that it would immediately be prohibited should one boy intentionally kick another; and two of the masters were required to be present to see that the game was carried on properly. The goals were about a hundred and thirty yards apart. They were formed of two upright poles, eight feet from each other, with a cross-bar to secure them at the top. The aim of the players was to pass the ball through their opponents' goal, and, of course, to prevent it from being passed through their own.
Ernest could not help feeling proud when he found forty boys ranged under him, many older and bigger than himself. He forgot for the time all about poor Ellis as he ran with one of the big footballs in his hand to the ground where the game was to be played, followed by those who had placed themselves under his leadership. Lemon and his party were there before him. Some of them, it must be owned, rather looked down upon him as a young upstart, and expected an easy victory. Lemon, however, when he consented to have him as opponent, knew well that he was one not to be despised, and endeavoured to impress upon his followers the necessity of playing their best.
"Those youngsters are sharp, active little fellows," he observed. "You must keep your eyes about you, and your legs going, or they will get the better of us, depend on that."
Ernest, on his part, addressed the boys on his side, and pointed out to them that those with whom they were about to contend were big and strong, and practised players, and that they could only hope to beat them by activity, watchfulness, and the exercise of their utmost skill.
These principles of action Ernest had learned from his father; they were such as his own mind eagerly grasped, which he brought into practice in his subsequent career, and which were the main cause of his success.
Lemon and Ernest tossed up for the first kick. Ernest won. With the ball raised high in his two hands, he walked rapidly into the middle of the ground. The sky was blue, the air keen and cutting; a brilliant glow of exuberant health sat on the cheeks of nearly all the players. A few only, who had begun to fancy themselves men, and to smoke and to drink, and to imitate other vices of lawless and ignorant youths—no longer boys, and yet unworthy of the true manhood they are assuming,— looked pale. There was a strange mixture of heights and sizes assembled together; big fellows, like Lemon, Selby, Barber; and little ones, like Eden, Dawson, Jones, Tomlinson, and others whose names have not hitherto been mentioned. Ernest, Buttar, Bouldon, and Gregson came between the two sets as to size, but not far distant from the older ones as to intelligence and the respect in which they were held. Bouldon would by himself have been classed differently, but from associating so much with steady first-class boys—first-class as to estimation—by showing that he really wished to do right, he gained a good character among his superiors.
"All ready!" sung out Ernest; and letting the ball drop, he kicked it with all his might in the direction of Lemon's goal.
Now the opposite party rushed in, and sent it flying back over his head and the heads of several standing behind him; but Buttar and Gregson had fully expected this, and were prepared accordingly to defend their goal. They met the ball hopping along in full career, and sent it back so far that, before anybody could rush in, Ernest had been able to give it an expediting kick, and to send it very close up to his opponent's goal. Now there was a general and terrific rush up towards Lemon's goal, and his followers found that they had good reason to dread the impetuosity and courage of the smaller boys. Ernest had chiefly selected his side from among those who possessed most pluck and endurance. Fearless of kicks, overthrows, or crushes, on they dashed at the ball. Now and then a big fellow like Barber would try and get a kick at it; but immediately he was met by a dozen sharp-moving toes, which struck away so desperately that he could never get a fair kick. For a long time the ball kept moving backwards and forwards near Lemon's goal, the attention of all his side being required to prevent it from being kicked through it. Several times it rose into the air, but was speedily sent back again; yet no one on Ernest's side could manage to send it back over the heads of their opponents. Buttar and Tom Bouldon were always in the midst of the melee. More than once Bouldon was overthrown, but he always picked himself up, and however much damaged, postponed, as he said, an inspection of his wounds till the game was over. Ernest, as in duty bound, had to avoid a melee, that when the ball came out of it he might be in a position to direct the movements of his party. Gregson never got into one intentionally; but when he did, he showed that he was as steady and fearless as any one; but his tactics were to keep moving about, to be ready to assist his chief, or to take up the ball when it approached the goal. Some called him the sluggish player; but Lemon's party found it difficult enough to send the ball through the goal when he was to be found anywhere near it. Dawson and three or four other big fellows had got the ball between them, and were pushing it forward triumphantly, having completely overwhelmed Ernest and his immediate supporters by sheer strength, and were fully expecting to drive it without impediment through the goal, when Gregson, who had been standing a little on one side, saw them coming. Only little Eden and some other small boys were near, but they, one and all, if not for the honour of the game, were ready to risk anything for the sake of Bracebridge. Gregson called them. They all saw what was required of them. Gregson rushed in, fully meeting the ball; with a swinging leg, he gave it a lifting kick, and sent it right over the heads of his opponents. The little fellows rushed in behind them, and began to kick on the ball. This compelled the big fellows once more to separate, and again to retrograde so as to front it. Gregson, Eden, and their companions threw themselves impetuously on it. One after the other went over it, till the ball was hidden under a heap of boys. Barber, and some others, dared not kick, or they would have done so; and while they were lifting up their opponents to get once more at the ball, Ernest, Buttar, Bouldon, and others came up to the rescue, and once more the ball was banded backwards and forwards as furiously as ever. For long the fortune of the day appeared as doubtful as ever. I have observed that big boys never play so well, when opposed to others evidently smaller, than themselves, as they do when their antagonists are of the same age and strength as they are. This, perhaps, was one of the secrets of Ernest's success in all the matches he played. He chose his side for cleverness, and activity, and daring, and, what was more, they all trusted in him, and were ready to do anything he ordered. Every now and then there was a loud shout and a tremendous rush, and finally the ball would come out of the melee and, left in the power of a few trusted players, could be seen flying backwards and forwards between them, each side watching for a favourable opportunity to drive it at once home to the goal. Now, at length, Ernest has got it. It was sent to the extreme right of the players. This was done by a dodge of Gregson's. He was invaluable for any movement of the sort, and staunch as steel. Onward Ernest kicks the ball; his side rush in to prevent the approach of their opponents, who have mostly been led off to the ground. A few only are fully aware of what is about to occur. A few rush on desperately to stop the progress of the ball; but the young ones are too energetic and too quick for them. They urge it on; the rest stand for an instant aside, to let Ernest give a last kick. It is a grand effort of strength and skill, and the ball flies through the goal, amid the shouts of all his side, echoed by the applause of the spectators.
Lemon and many of his supporters took their defeat very good-naturedly, and with sincerity congratulated Ernest and his side on their success. A few of the less amiably disposed were somewhat sulky, especially among those of his own size; so was Barber, who was afraid that he should lose the influence he wished to obtain from being beaten by the younger boys. This was only one of several games. Ernest was not always successful; twice his side were beat thoroughly, but they made up for it afterwards, and in the end won more games than the bigger boys, much to the surprise of the latter, who could not tell how it had occurred. Some, like Barber, said that there must have been some underhand play, and abused Lemon as the cause of their defeat. Lemon at last heard some of their remarks.
"If big fellows will smoke, and booze, and over-eat themselves, how can they expect to be as active and wide-awake as little fellows, who have not begun such follies?" he remarked quietly. "It matters little, let me assure them, what such fellows say of me."
Both Ernest and Buttar had thought a good deal about the matter of Ellis. After a lengthened consultation, when their hearts relented towards him, they resolved to press him once more to join their games; but he resolutely refused.
"No," he replied. "You have believed me guilty, or you would not have treated me coldly. I do not blame you—far from it. If you heard the story about me, as I know it has been repeated, you could not have done otherwise, unless you had thought right to believe my word before that of others. Should the time ever come when I can, to your satisfaction, prove my innocence, we will then be on the same terms as before."
"Oh, but we do believe you innocent, Ellis," said Ernest. "Not a shadow of doubt remains on my mind that you are so, and I am sure Buttar thinks as I do."
"Very well," answered Ellis, with unusual coldness; "I rejoice to hear it. I have taken my resolution. I cannot bear fluctuations of friendship. If I am ever able to prove my innocence, as I ought to have endeavoured to prove it long ago, I trust that we shall stand on the same footing that we did before."
Nothing any of his friends could say after this altered the resolution Ellis had formed of not playing in any of the games with the other boys, or of associating on intimate terms with any of them. Still he himself was far from idle in his play-hours. He was a constant exerciser on the gymnastic poles, and never failed to practise, when he could, both with the foils and broadsword. He also took lessons regularly in dancing and drilling, and seemed anxious to perfect himself in all athletic exercises.
However coldly others had treated Ellis, there was one person who ever turned a deaf ear to the stories told of him, and never for a moment altered his conduct towards him. That was Monsieur Malin. From the time Ellis had begun to learn French of him he had become his firm friend. Some believed that Ellis had confided to him the circumstances of his past history; but the less generous could not understand how he had managed to secure the regard of the French master, and fancied that he had invented some tale to gain his sympathy.
Thus the half-year drew on; the cold weather at last passed away. Spring commenced, the flowers bloomed, the leaves came out on the trees, the birds began to sing, the fish to dart and leap out of the water. Ernest and Buttar were reminded of a visit they promised, long, long before, to pay to John Hodge. They agreed to make it a fishing expedition, and to try their luck in the wide stream they had crossed on that day memorable for their hare hunt. They invited Gregson to accompany them. They wished to ask Ellis, but the moment school was over he had disappeared, and had not even waited for dinner. To absent himself he must have obtained leave from the Doctor; so they set off without him. They were very merry. Gregson was excessively amusing, with his quaint anecdotes about animal life and the adventures which had happened to him.
"I would rather go elephant and lion hunting for a year than become prime minister of England," he observed, laughing. "Nothing could compensate me for not being allowed to live in the country,—the largest fortune would not, had I to spend it in London; and I should prefer Australia or New Zealand, or the wilds of the Cape Colony, or Natal, or the backwoods of Canada. Still I am a Briton, and wherever I might go I should like to live under the flag of old England."
Ernest and Buttar echoed the last sentiment.
"But," said Ernest, "for my part I should not wish to live without the society of my equals in knowledge and intelligence. In my opinion, the interchange of ideas and information is one of the charms of existence. In that way we get, in the most agreeable manner, at the pith and marrow of books, at the opinions of other people, and at what is going forward in the world: don't you think so, Buttar?"
Buttar, though a clever fellow, had not as yet thought much about the matter. He remarked, however, that if he could get information by talking, or rather by hearing others talk, that it would be much pleasanter often than having to pore over books. But that was not what Ernest meant. "Ah, but there must be a fair exchange of ideas and information, to make social intercourse as pleasant as it is capable of being. You must give as much as you take."
"Well, I never before thought of that," remarked Gregson. "I have never yet fallen in with people willing to talk of my favourite subjects. Perhaps if I was to meet them I should enjoy their conversation as much as you suppose you would those of literary characters or other well-informed persons."
"Oh, I am not alluding to literary characters, as you call them," said Ernest. "I mean well-informed, intelligent, unprejudiced persons; or, what would be still more agreeable, would be to collect people who have devoted themselves to different branches of science, and who are yet fully capable of understanding each other's peculiar subjects."
So the schoolboys talked on as they walked briskly towards the scene they proposed for their sport.
"But do not let us forget Hodge," said Ernest. "Hereabouts he dwells, I believe. Let us inquire at this cottage." An old woman came forth from the door where they knocked, and told them that John Hodge lived better nor a quarter of a mile down the road, and he, poor man, was sure to be at home, for he had met with an accident, and, she had heard say, was very ill, and had been out of work for many a long day. They thanked her and hurried on.
"Ought we to go and trouble him?" asked Buttar.
"Certainly, he may want assistance," was Ernest's thoughtful reply.
A little child pointed to a neat cottage door. That was where John Hodge lived. They knocked, and were told to come in. They started back with surprise on seeing Ellis seated on a chair, reading earnestly to the man they had come to see, while a woman stood by, with her apron to her eyes, and five small children were playing about the humble brick-floored room. How changed was poor Hodge! Thin and pale in the extreme, with an expression of care on his countenance, he sat propped up in an old oak chair. It was evident that he could not move, or indeed breathe, without pain. Ellis was so absorbed in his occupation that he did not perceive at first the entrance of his schoolfellows. They stopped at the threshold, unwilling to interrupt him. He was reading the Bible, and having read some verses he began to explain their meaning. At last he finished.
"Sit down, young gentlemen, sit down, pray," said Mrs Hodge, offering them some three-legged stools, which she wiped mechanically with her apron.
Her words made Ellis look up. The colour came into his cheeks when he saw the new-comers. They nodded kindly to him, and then explained that they had come in consequence of an invitation they had received long ago, and that they were sorry to find their host in so bad a state. John Hodge said that he recollected them, that he was glad to see them, but he made no complaint, or spoke even of the cause of his illness. After they had sat and talked a short time, Ellis got up to go away; Buttar and Gregson accompanied him, but Ernest lingered behind, and taking out the contents of his purse, offered it to the dame.
"Thank ye kindly, sir," she replied, motioning him to keep it; "but that young gentleman has given us all we want for some time. He says he gets it from his friends; that we are not robbing him; and we couldn't be taking it from you or from any one, unless we wanted it very badly. Ah, sir, if ever there was an angel on earth he is one; of that I'm certain."
"Well, well, when you do want you mustn't mind taking it from me. I owe your husband some money as it is," answered Ernest, putting out his hand to the poor woman, and then to Hodge. He took up the children, and gave a kiss to a little rosy boy, who smiled in his face, and then saying he would come back soon, turned after his companions. He felt much gratified at hearing such an account of Ellis. At once an idea struck him. In the story Selby had told him about Ellis, it appeared that one of the causes of suspicion against him was his being possessed of a considerable sum of money. Might not that have been given to him for the purpose of being bestowed in charity, as he undoubtedly had lately been furnished with funds for the same object? Ernest, though not over precipitate usually, at once jumped at this conclusion. It was very delightful to be able to think so, and the conviction that he had wronged Ellis in his thoughts caused him to be doubly anxious to make ample amends without delay, and this added considerably to the warmth of his manner when he overtook him. He pressed him, as Buttar and Gregson had been doing, to accompany them on their fishing excursion. At length he said that he should like to go, but pleaded want of rod and fishing-tackle.
Gregson laughed. "Oh, I can supply you with all you require," he observed. "My rod you can have, and I can replace it with one to suit my purpose in ten minutes. I have two spare tops, and tackle enough to fit out a dozen fishermen. Come along, you have no excuse."
Ellis agreed, and with light steps the party proceeded towards the broad stream they had fixed on. The day was warm and slightly overcast, and the water was not too clear, so that they had a fair prospect of success. They were not disappointed. Never before had they caught so many fish. They kept pulling them up one after the other. Many were very fine trout. Ellis had never caught such in his life before. They all agreed that fishing was one of the most delightful of occupations. Their hearts as they walked homewards opened more than ever towards each other. Ernest at last spoke out:—
"Ellis, my dear fellow, we have been doing you great wrong,—that is, Buttar and I,—I don't think Gregson has. We were certain that you were very sorry, and were quite changed, but we thought you might have been guilty of the thing they talked about; now we are certain you were not. The money you were known to possess was given you for a good object—to bestow in charity. One proof of your guilt falls to the ground."
"Oh, Bracebridge, I am glad to hear you say so," answered Ellis. "You are right. I promised not to say from whom I received it, and so I could not. No one accused me to my face. The Master knew that I was innocent. What could I do? I now feel sure that all will turn up right in the end. I am so happy."
THE SUMMER HOLIDAYS—A PIC-NIC AND ITS CONSEQUENCES.
An event which made us all very sad took place at the end of that half-year. I remember it as well as if it were yesterday. It was the departure from the school of Monsieur Malin; yet for his sake we ought not to have been sorry. He was going to quit a position which was undoubtedly very irksome to a gentleman, and to return to La Belle France to take possession of a property which had unexpectedly been left him. He announced the fact to each of the classes as they came up to him during the morning, and all heard the information with signs of evident sorrow. Ellis burst into tears.
"Going away, Monsieur Malin; you, my kindest friend, going!" he exclaimed, and his whole look and manner showed that he had an affectionate and grateful heart.
The feeling was infectious. A number of the little fellows, who did not even learn French, and had very little to do with Monsieur Malin, cried. Some, however, had reason to be sorry at his going away, for often had his watchful eye saved them from being bullied by the big boys; they, too, felt that they were about to lose a friend and protector. Why, it may well be asked, should the French master have gained so much more influence among the boys, and be so much more generally liked than any of the English masters? It was simply because he exhibited so much more sympathy for others. He made himself one of them. It was not that he now and then played a grand game of cricket with them, but that he entered into all their minor sports and amusements. He could show them how to make models of all sorts; he manufactured carriages with cardboard, or cut out boats, or carved animals in wood, or made little grottoes with shells; indeed it is impossible to describe all the ingenious things he could do, and how kindly and patiently he taught the boys how to do them. It made some of the English masters quite jealous when they observed the sorrow which Monsieur Malin's departure caused among the boys. The Doctor remarked upon it, and said that it was the best compliment any master could desire to have paid him, and he trusted that whoever succeeded him might as richly deserve it.
"Bracebridge, I wonder that you are not more sorry than you appear to be at Monsieur Malin's going," observed Buttar, the day that the event was announced; "I thought that you were always one of his greatest favourites."
"I believe that there are no fellows like him better than I do," answered Ernest; "I am very, very sorry, for my own sake, that he is going; but really, when we come to consider that he is going away from the bother, and trouble, and noise of a school, to go and live on a beautiful property of his own, in a delightful climate like that of France, I cannot but be truly glad to hear of his good fortune. He has been telling me all about the place, and how happy his mother and sister will be to go and live with him; and he has invited me, during some holidays, or when I leave school, to go and pay him a visit; and when I told him that I was afraid he would forget me, he assured me that he would not. Really he is a kind-hearted, good-natured fellow, and I do feel excessively happy at his good fortune."
Buttar agreed that Ernest saw the matter in its true light, and so did Ellis, and then they bethought them how they could show him their regard. Unfortunately, as it was the end of the half, none of them had any store of pocket-money remaining; so one proposed offering him a penknife, and another a pocket-comb, and a third an inkstand; indeed, there was no end of the number of small gifts which Monsieur Malin had pressed upon him. He was in a dilemma about the matter.
"You see, my dear young friends, that I do not like to refuse, and I do not like to deprive you of these things; yet I am truly grateful to you for this mark of your regard. What I will do is this; I will make a list of your names, and of all the things you desire to give me. You shall keep the articles, all of which you can use, but I could not; and I will keep the list, and when I look at it, I shall be fully reminded of you all, of your generosity, and of your kindly regard towards me."
Monsieur Malin had to go away a week or so before the school broke up. Just about that time Ernest wrote home, giving an account of the story he had heard about Ellis, of the injustice that he felt that he himself had done him, of the strong evidence he had discovered in his favour, and consequently of his wish to make him all the amends in his power. By return of post he received a letter from his father, enclosing one to Ellis, warmly inviting him to spend a portion of his holidays at Oakland Ellis could not fail to be gratified, as were his parents, who gave him leave to accept the invitation. Buttar's family were spending the summer in the neighbourhood; and curiously enough, Tom Bouldon and Gregson had been invited to visit some friends living not far off. The schoolfellows thus found themselves near together during the early part of the summer holidays. No long time passed before they all met. How they did talk of fishing expeditions, of cricket-matches, of boating, of pic-nics, of riding, of archery meetings, of bathing, of sports of all sorts, in the water and out of the water, on sea and on land! Ellis talked a great deal of yachting also, but they were too far from the sea to have any hopes of indulging in the amusement. He was much more at home in a boat than on horseback, for riding was not an accomplishment which he had enjoyed any opportunity of practising. One of the first amusements which Mrs Bracebridge had arranged for her young guest, and the other friends of her son, was a pic-nic to Barton Forest, a large and picturesque wood in the neighbourhood. There were long open glades, and green shady walks, through which the deer alone were in general wont to pass, except on such an occasion as that at present in contemplation, or when an adventurous couple strayed into its retired precincts. I ought to have spoken of the cordial way in which Ellis was received, not only by Mr Bracebridge, but by Mrs Bracebridge and all the family, and the wish they exhibited of placing him at his ease, and making him quite at home. He showed how much he valued their kindness by looking far more lively and happy than he had done for a long time. The day of the proposed pic-nic broke bright and fair, with every prospect of the continuance of fine weather. Several families joined in it from far and near, and all sorts of vehicles were put in requisition: barouches, and pony carriages, and gigs, and even carts and waggons. The merriest, and certainly the most noisy party, went in a long spring waggon, and to their charge were entrusted several hampers, containing part of the provender for the rural feast. Ellis, Bouldon, Buttar, and others were of this party. Ernest, with his brother Charles, rode, and frequently came up alongside to have a talk with their friends. The boys gave way heartily to the excitement of the scene; they laughed they sang, they shouted to their heart's content—no one hindering them. Never, perhaps, have a merrier party ever collected in a waggon. Tom Bouldon, and one or two others, only regretted that they had not pea-shooters with them, as he said, to pepper the passengers in their progress, but Ellis cried out against this.
"No, no!" he exclaimed; "it may, or may not, be all very well on a high road, where people expect such things when they see a parcel of schoolboys together, and if they don't like it, will not stand on ceremony about heaving stones in return; but in a country district they take us for young gentlemen, and would never dream of throwing anything at us in return. The cottagers would only wonder what had come over us—perhaps would think us gone mad; at all events it would be very cowardly to attack them."
Buttar agreed with Ellis, and they soon won over the rest to their view of the case. They, however, found plenty to amuse them as they drove along. The early days of the holidays are generally very jolly days— all the fun is to come; the amusements in store are almost uncountable; and though they may have been disappointed during a former summer, they are sure, so they think, not to be this. If they are, they will make amends for it next year. At last the pic-nickers reached the ground. Carriages drove up, and ladies and gentlemen, the fathers and mothers, and elder brothers and sisters of the schoolboys. Some ladies and gentlemen came on horseback and ponyback, and several even, besides the boys, in waggons, while the provisions and servants arrived in spring-carts and dog-carts, and altogether there was a very vast assemblage. It was arranged that, having walked about a little, and seen some of the views which the wood afforded, and some old ruins within its borders, the party should dine, and then that various sports should take place, pony races, archery, quoits, nine-pins, skittles, throw-sticks or batons, single-stick; indeed, more than I can well remember; while swings were hung up between the trees, and two or three long planks had been placed on some felled trees, to serve as see-saws, so that all ranks and ages could find amusement. Never were better arrangements made. People may wander the world around and not find more pleasing, heart-enlivening scenery than England affords—scenery more rich or full of fertile spots, or which should make its inhabitants grateful to Heaven for having placed them in such a land. There were fields already waving with corn, and bright green meadows full of fine cattle, some grazing, others standing under trees chewing the cud, or in shallow bends of the river, or in reedy ponds; there were sheep scattered thickly over sunny hills, and still further off downs; and there were copses of hazel, and alder, and willow, and woods of beech, and oak, and birch, and tall elms dividing fields and orchards innumerable, among which peeped many a white-washed cottage; and here and there were pretty hamlets, with their village green or common; there was a bright sparkling stream, swelling as it advanced into the dimensions of a river, and high hills, and valleys, and glens branching off in all directions.