This put an end to the fight, for the fall into the river and conquest of their leader made the two Stapleses take to their heels, so that Harry and Philip were at liberty to help Fred, which they did, by dragging Bill Jenkins half-drowned from the river, for Fred, in his anger, had kept him under water more than once; and then all three kicked him rather unmercifully to bring him well to again; and it must be said, in mitigation of this rather barbarous proceeding, that the blood of the conquerors was a little up, and they were in that state in which we hear of soldiers being when they sack and burn towns.
But Bill Jenkins was thoroughly thrashed—thoroughly—for he lay on the grass and blubbered like a great cowardly calf as he was. He did not say, "Yah-ah-ah-ha," now, but "boo-hoo-hoo-hooed" dreadfully; and at last came out—
"We shouldn't ha' touched you if that genelman hadn't given us a shilling each to pay you at out."
"What gentleman?" said Harry.
"Why, him as lives at the little house yonder, the little fat man, Muster Jones, hoo—hoo—ooh—ooh," said Bill, who with his swelled eyes and wet hair now looked a beauty, not that the conquerors had anything to boast of in that respect. "Now, then," said Fred, viciously; "you give me my shilling back, or I'll give you another ducking."
"Boo—hoo," said Bill, refunding the cash very reluctantly, and ducking his head as though to avoid a blow.
"Ah! you deserve it, you great coward," said Harry. "Now get up, and be off home; and don't you meddle with us again."
And so these young cocks crowed, for the day was regularly their own; while Bill Jenkins sneaked off, with his feathers draggling down about his sides, and with bitterness in his heart, for he knew that another thrashing was in waiting for him at home, for getting his clothes wet, and his face bruised.
And now that the victors had the field entirely to themselves, and the excitement was over, they began to find that they were all very stiff and sore; and upon looking at one another, they found that the victory had been dearly bought Fred had, after all, been the greatest hero, and, as a matter of course, he had come in for the greatest amount of damage: his clothes were soaked with water; his shirt stained with blood; his collar torn off; but; as to personal damage, he had escaped with a cut mouth and bleeding knuckles, for he had found that Bill Jenkins possessed a terribly thick head. Harry's clothes were terribly dragged about, and his knuckles were in nearly as bad a state as Fred's, while his face was in such a condition that Philip said he might pass for somebody else. Poor boy, he was sadly "punished," as sporting people call it, while more matter-of-fact folks would say, "knocked about:" the general appearance of his face was such that it might have been supposed that he had been the combatant who was immersed in the water, and that, having stayed in too long, his face had swelled and grown puffy. Philip had a nasty cut on the ear, and had had his nose flattened, but it had regained its proper position, though not without deluging him with blood. Altogether, the boys unmistakeably bore the appearances of having been in a sharp engagement; and, as the sailors say, they "hove to" for the purpose of repairing damages.
The first proceeding was to wring all the water out of Fred's clothes, and then, when he had put on his dry jacket and cap,—which he had flung off on commencing the conflict,—he did not look so very, very bad. Philip, too, was made pretty decent, when he had taken his stained collar off, and buttoned his waistcoat up with the collar reversed, so that it covered his shirt. But Harry was the worst, for he looked dreadful; and no amount of bathing would make him decent. To begin with, his cap would not go on so as to cover his bruised forehead; his eyes were reduced to narrow slits, so that he could scarcely see; while his mouth was drawn down all on one side.
"Only look what an old gutta-percha head," said Philip; "don't he seem as if some one had been squeezing him out of shape?" And then all three burst out laughing, till Harry begged of them not to make him laugh.
"Oh, don't, Phil; it does hurt so."
"I say," said Fred, "however are we to go in to tea?"
"I don't know," said Philip; "I don't know what they will say to us! But we had better go home at once. What a set of guys we look! Let's go along by the river side, and get over the palings into the fields, and then, perhaps, we can slip in without being seen."
"Come along then," said Harry, "for I do feel so stupid, and I can't see a bit."
"Oh! let's make haste," said Fred, "for wet clothes are not at all comfortable."
It was getting on fast for tea-time, so they hurried along, and having, by means of jumping a couple of ditches, reached the palings which skirted Mr Inglis's property, they helped Harry over, and crept along close to the trees. It had been no joke for Harry to leap the ditches, for he had to do it standing, but he managed to get pretty well over, and then blundered along behind his brother and cousin.
"Now, then, keep close, Harry," whispered Philip, when they were in the garden; "keep close, and we'll soon slip in."
Harry did keep close, and Philip dodged behind all the evergreens and clumps that he could till they had only one great Portugal laurel to pass round, and then they could reach the side-door. Half a minute more would have settled it, when one of the French windows opened, and out stepped Mr and Mrs Inglis just in front of the trio.
Mrs Inglis's face expressed the horror and compassion that she felt to see the boys in such a state, and, without stopping to ask questions, they were hurried in, and nursed and doctored into a state that made them a little more presentable at the tea-table, round which, when they were assembled, Mr Inglis listened to the recital of the conflict; and, much as he was annoyed at the not very creditable affair, still he could not see how the lads could have acted differently. It was a thing that he could not praise them for, and he did not wish to blame; so he contented himself that night with pointing out the folly of playing such practical jokes as had been schemed by Harry, saying that, however wrong others might behave, retaliation in any shape ought not to be thought of.
"But I say, Pa," said Harry, "you would not have had us stand still and let those fellows knock poor Dick about, would you?"
"Come, boys," said Mr Inglis, "it's quite time you went off to bed, particularly after such a day as you have had."
The boys said "good night," and went off to their bedrooms, and as soon as they were out of hearing, Mr Inglis turned to his wife, and said—
"That last question was unanswerable, my dear, for duty said 'Yes,' while my heart said 'No.' The young dogs! What a knocking about they've got; but I expect that their opponents are in a worse position still. I've been thinking of taking proceedings against this Jones, for really this is such a flagrant affair; but, after all, perhaps we had better treat the matter with the contempt it deserves."
What more Mr Inglis would have said I cannot tell, for he was interrupted by the stuffy-looking head of Harry being thrust into the room, and a voice that must have been his, though the lips were immovable, saying—
"I say, Pa, you ain't very cross, are you?"
Harry was started off to bed again, and Mr Inglis turned to his books, so that the question was not discussed any more.
CHAPTER TWENTY TWO.
FIRE! FIRE! FIRE!
The days slipped pleasantly by, and the boys had nearly lost all traces of their unpleasant encounter. They had been fishing again at the mill, and had a long talk with Dusty Bob, who had promised to make them some namesakes, namely "bobs" for eel-catching in the dam, and they were to be ready on the Wednesday evening following. This was Tuesday, and after a hot day, during which they had been having fine sport in the field—where the men were getting in a lateish crop of hay-making hay huts, and then when the abode was tenanted, knocking it down upon the unfortunate inhabitant, who by this means was half smothered, which Harry said constituted the best part of the fun—a kind of fun that Fred could not see, for the view he took of the matter was like that of the pelted frogs in the fable, and after being covered up with a mass of hay, and having had Harry and Philip sitting on the top of that, he had crawled out at last very hot, stuffy, bitty, and uncomfortable, and could not be persuaded to enter the hay hut again.
The boys had worked hard in the field; turning the hay, making it into cocks, tossing them out, and then helping to load the waggon, and taking the high-piled load to the stack-yard—the part the boys managed in taking the load being that of riding on the top amidst the sweet-scented new hay, and having to lie flat down as the mass passed beneath the tall gateway and under the granary into the yard. On the way back, Harry rode the leading horse, making stirrups of the traces, while his legs stuck out at a very obtuse angle one from the other, in consequence of the round back of the fat cart-horse.
Harry was the most venturesome of the three boys in all things, and yet, in spite of his daring, he met with fewer mishaps than the others; however, on this particular day, he did have the pleasure of being run away with, for, after taking a load to the stack, the front horse was always unhooked from the traces, and allowed to follow the waggon behind. Now upon this occasion, after re-entering the field, Ball, the big horse, must have been tickled by a fly, or else have had the idea that, now a gentleman was on his back, instead of being a cart-horse he was a hunter. However, let the horse's idea have been what it might, he whisked his tail, kicked up his heels, tossed his head, and snorted; and then went off in a regular elephant gallop down the field, with all the men shouting "Stop him—stop him," but nobody trying to do so in the least. As for Harry, he stuck his knees into the horse as well as he could, and dragged at the rein, but he might just as well have pulled at a post for all the impression he made. He felt rather frightened, but he stuck tightly to his great steed, steadying himself by taking fast hold of the horse's great collar with one hand, all the while dragging with the other at the rein.
Away went the great brute full gallop, scattering the hay in all directions, and charging right down at the hedge at the bottom of the field.
"He'll stop there," shouted the men in pursuit, to one another.
But not a bit of it, for the horse took the hedge in a flying leap, and then went galloping on through the corn-field on the other side, and then he came to a stand-still right in the middle of the waving grain, and began to nibble off the green sweet ears.
But where was Harry? Why, sitting on the bank, with his legs swinging in the ditch by the side of the hedge over which the horse made such a splendid leap. But though the horse could make splendid leaps, Harry could not, for he was not used to hunting, and the first sensation he felt after flying through the air over the hedge, was that of a rude bump upon the earth, in the midst of a bed of stinging-nettles. He got up, shook himself, and felt his legs and arms to see if anything was broken, and then, finding that such was not the case, he began rubbing his back and then applying dock leaves to his stung hands.
There must have been a good deal of elasticity in Harry's bones, for, somehow or other, in cases where other persons would have had theirs broken, Harry's seemed only to have bent and returned to their normal position. So by the time the men came up to the hedge, Harry was sitting very unconcernedly with his legs swinging in the ditch, rubbing in the dock juice upon the stung places with all his might.
"Here he bes," said a voice, and the great brown face of one of the carters peered over the hedge. "Art t'e hurt, Maester Harry?"
"No: not I," said Harry, getting up, "Jump over and catch that old wretch. What made him run away with me?"
But the carter could not answer that question, so he tried to catch the horse; but the first step was to get over the hedge, which he could not manage so easily as the horse. He tried in two or three places, but it was of no use, for the live fence was of the thorniest and thickest, so he had to go round about a quarter of a mile to the gate, and then set to to catch the truant. But this too was easier said than done, for the horse found himself in very pleasant quarters, and refused to leave them; there was the sweetest of pasture all round him in the shape of juicy, milky, corn-ears; the long green stems would have made a pleasant resting-place, and then there were the larks carolling above him, and the white-throats and yellow-hammers twittering on all sides; while the sun shone warmly enough to make work tedious and repose delightful; so that altogether the horse did not feel disposed to return to his hard bondage of drawing the hay waggon, so heavily laden that he had to put out all his strength to draw it over the soil yielding surface of the field; and he showed this as plainly as he could by refusing to "come then." He wouldn't "come then" a bit, but turned his tail to all the blandishments offered to his notice. It was of no use to pretend that there was corn in your hand, for he would not believe it, and would not even smell to see. The carter might run as fast as he liked, but this did not answer, for it trampled the corn down, and besides, the horse had four legs to the carter's two, and easily beat him at running, even when he was dodged up into a corner of the field, for he dashed along in the ditch and so escaped again into the centre.
"Whoa, then, whoa-oa-oa," said the carter, quite out of breath with his efforts. But the horse wouldn't "whoa" any more than he would "come then," but trotted off for a short distance, and then very coolly commenced grazing upon the green corn-ears. At last the carter thought of what he should have thought of at first, namely, leaving the gate open, and trying to drive the horse through. This he accomplished by means of a little manoeuvring, and the truant returned to the farm-yard, where he was easily captured, and where he obtained a severe flogging for his vagaries.
That same night the boys lay in bed talking through the open doorway about what they would do in the morning, when a light flashed upon the window-blind.
"How it lightens!" said Fred. "There, again, did you see that?"
His cousins had seen what he alluded to, and said so; but the light appeared upon their blind again, and this time lasted so long, that they got out of bed to look, when, to their horror, they could see flames running up the side of a great wheat-stack in the farm-yard, and the blaze every moment growing larger. They ran to the stairs and shouted the alarm to Mr Inglis, who saw by the glare that shone through the hall window what was the matter, and hurried out.
The boys scrambled on their clothes as quickly as possible, and upon going out, found Mrs Inglis and all the maids upon the lawn, watching the progress of the flames, which spread with alarming rapidity.
Mr Inglis's farm-yard was situated fully a hundred yards from the house, so that there was no danger upon that side, and, besides, the wind was very still, which prevented the flames spreading so fast as they would have done. But, unfortunately, the stacks and farm-buildings were very close together, so that it seemed very probable that the whole of the contents of the yard would fall a prey to the flames.
When the boys reached the yard, they found everything in confusion— people running up from the villages; then shouting, and ordering, and contradicting, all in a breath, and everybody in a state of the greatest excitement. The only cool person about the place seemed to be Mr Inglis, who had already despatched a mounted messenger to the town for the engine, and was now forming a line of men from the pond to the stack nearest the fire, over which, by means of ladders, a great corn sheet was laid, and this they tried to keep wet. The pails were passed quickly along, and returned empty by another row of men; but the burning stack roared and crackled, and the sparks flew up in myriads, while in the glare of light the martins and swallows could be seen flitting backwards and forwards over the flames, till one by one the poor things were suffocated, and dropped into the burning mass. An old white owl, too, showed itself, flapping its wings round the burning stack and hooting dismally, but it soon after flew off and was lost in the dark night.
The men worked hard at keeping the sheet wet, but it was of no avail, for all at once a great portion of the burning stack tell down against the one they were trying to save, and in a few minutes the great sheet and the whole of the side of the stack beneath it were in a blaze.
Mr Inglis now directed his attention to the stables at the rear, towards which the flames were travelling with inconceivable velocity, the ground being nearly covered with loose straw, across which the flames ran like wildfire. Upon running to the stable-door he found it locked, and in the crowd and confusion the horse-keeper could not be found. There was not a moment to lose, for the roof was already on fire, so a fir pole was fetched, and used battering-ram fashion, so that the big door by a few strokes was sent off its hinges. Mr Inglis then rushed in and found the place full of smoke, and the poor horses trembling with fear. There were eight in the stable, and to cut their halters was but the work of a minute. Some of them dashed out of the place as soon as released, as though mad with fear; while others stood with dripping sides, snorting and shuddering, and had literally to be dragged out.
All this while the roof was blazing away rapidly, and the hay in the loft served to make it burn more fiercely. Seven horses had been saved, but the eighth stubbornly refused to move, in spite of every effort; and at last Mr Inglis and the men with him were compelled to retreat to avoid suffocation.
Upon being a little restored, one of the men would have made another attempt, but he was stopped by Mr Inglis, who said that it would be a risk of human life that he would not allow. Just then the roof fell in with a crash, and a fearful shriek burst from the poor animal that met with so horrible a death, while the men shuddered as they looked at one another, and thought of their narrow escape.
The farm-yard now presented a dreadful scene of confusion, for poultry, pigs, and calves were running about in all directions, adding their cries to the general clamour; the pigeons flew round the place and from building to building; and everything seemed disposed to fly or run in any but the direction required of it; the men, too, appeared nearly as bad, running hither and thither without aim or purpose, and getting into danger when there was not the slightest necessity.
And now the flames roared and crackled terribly, and seemed to have gained the entire mastery. The moon had not risen, so that the dark night was lit up by the red glare, and the tall elm and beech-trees turned of a golden green as they reflected the bright light. The flames leaped from stack to stack, and from shed to shed, licking everything up, and seeming to laugh at the efforts which were made to stay their progress. The great barn full of corn was in a blaze, and the fear seemed to be that the farm-house where Mr Inglis's bailiff lived would be the next prey of the flames. The pig-sties were all burnt down, and two unfortunate fat pigs had perished, squealing dismally; but the rest of the live stock had been saved, as also most of the farming implements: drills, ploughs, harrows, harness, carts, waggons, etc, etc, had been all dragged out of the way; but, for all that, the loss of valuable stock was terrible—unthreshed ricks of barley, oats, and wheat; hay and straw, a barn filled with sacks of grain newly threshed, and all being devoured by the flames in one short hour and a half.
The great barn was blazing furiously, and the tired men busily engaged wetting the thatch upon the gable end of the farm-house, upon which great flakes of fire kept falling; while others were hard at work dragging the furniture out of the doors and windows, and bearing it to a place of safety, when there was heard a distant "hurray," and then came the pattering sound of galloping horses, and the rattle of wheels. The cheering was taken up by those near at hand, and in the midst of the shouting, the dark red body of the engine from Marshford dashed up to the yard. In a twinkling, the horses were detached by the men in dark uniform who had leaped off the engine, the glare all the while reflected from their brass-bound helmets—for Marshford boasted a volunteer fire brigade—and then the wheels spun round again as the engine was run down to the pond, the suction pipe screwed on, and like magic, so quickly was it done, length after length of hose joined together, till a sufficiency was obtained to reach easily the burning barn; and then the captain with the burnished copper branch screwed it to the hose, men seized the handles on each side of the engine, and at the given word—"Thud—thud; thud—thud; thud—thud," went the powerful pumps. "Squish—squitter— squish—squish—ciss—ciss—hiss-s-s-s-s-s," went a stream of water swift as an arrow from a bow right on to the gable of the farm-house, and deluging the thatch in a moment, from the broad red chimney-stack down to the eaves, and extinguishing every spark and flake that hung to it. How necessary this had become could be seen from the steam which arose from the thatch, which must have been in flames in a few minutes, while the brickwork actually hissed, it had grown so heated.
An occasional dash from the branch soon stayed all alarm as to the farm-house being in danger, and the captain, directing his stream of water against the burning barn, ordered his men to attach another hose-pipe and branch to the engine, so as to double the stream of water thrown upon the flames; this was soon done, and it being evident that nothing would avail to stay the progress of the fire in the ricks and sheds, which were one mass of red glow, both branches were devoted to the attack upon the big barn.
How the men cheered and pumped; and how the sweat streamed down their faces as they sent the handles down on each side, "thud—thud; thud— thud;" and how the streams of water dashed into the burning building, battling with the forked tongues of the fire, inch by inch, and turning the glowing timbers into black, smoking, charred masses; while volumes of steam and smoke now ascended where all before was flame. "Hiss— hiss—hiss," went the raging flames as the cold streams interposed between these fiery dragons and their prey; and "ciss—ciss—ciss," rushed the water sputtering from the copper tubes the captain of the brigade and his lieutenant held in their hands. Famously was the engine kept going, for a barrel of beer was brought down, and the men relieved each other, and partook of the refreshing draughts handed to them from the cask.
All at once there was a warning cry, and a hurried rush of many feet, for ore of the great corn-ricks, which had burned to the very core, had toppled over, spreading its glowing ashes right across the yard, and a shower of sparks high up in the air, like a golden whirlwind, setting fire to the loose straw that lay about in all directions. But for the presence of the engine, the fire would now have spread in another direction; but the powerful streams of water that were dashed all over the place soon extinguished the many little fires that had sprung up, and Mr Inglis leading on a body of men with buckets to throw water where it would have good effect, the engine branches were directed again at the large barn, which was greatly in need of attention, for during the brief pause the flames had leaped up with renewed violence; but the steady streams of water soon began to tell upon them, and that too so well, that in the course of an hour, one branch was considered enough to finish the task of extinguishing the fire in that building, and the other poured an unintermitting stream upon each and every part of the yard where the flames were.
The danger of the ruin spreading was now entirely at an end; and every minute the glare became duller and fainter. The "clank-clank: thud-thud" of the engine still kept on hour after hour, for the smouldering heaps of ashes every now and then burst out into flame; but a shower from the branches soon reduced its brightness to a cloud of steam and smoke. The day had long dawned, and at last up rose the sun upon the scene of devastation, and a sad sight it was, and the more so from the whispers abroad that it was the work of some evil-minded person, who, for reasons of his own, had set fire to the stacks; but happily this afterwards proved not to have been the case, for the fire was the result of an accident: a tramp, who had lain down in the straw to sleep, having dropped the match with which he lit his pipe, when the dry straw caught fire, and the flames ran up the side of the stack by his side in a few seconds.
It was indeed a sad sight, for all around lay sodden and blackened straw, charred beams, and smoking rafters, half-burnt boards, scorched sacks; in short, it was a scene of ruin, and the smoke and steam ascended in clouds towards the bright morning sky. An occasional dash from the branch was now sufficient to keep the fire under, and the greater part of the worn and jaded working people, after partaking of refreshments at the Grange kitchen, went home to snatch a few hours' rest, and among those who went to seek rest were Mr Inglis and the boys. But on entering the house they found the blinds open, and the breakfast cloth spread, so that they all sat down to a refreshing meal; after which everybody declared that it would be a pity to go to bed on so bright a morning.
Fred seemed, however, to have something on his mind; and at last stammeringly asked his uncle if this disaster would not prove a serious loss. His fears, however, were set at rest by Mr Inglis, who smiled, and told him that it would have been, but for the exercise of prudence and forethought, for, said he—
"If I had not been insured, it would have been a much more terrible affair; but now the insurance company will either pay me the full value of everything that has been destroyed by way of compensation, or build up the whole of my barns and fill them again, so that you see I shall have new ones instead of old."
"But they can't build a new horse and pigs again," said Harry.
"No, poor creatures," said Mr Inglis; "that was a sad death for them. However, we have the satisfaction of knowing that we did our best to save them."
"But what is insurance?" inquired Fred.
"Why, to explain it simply," said Mr Inglis, "a body of men join together, and pay each of them a small sum of money yearly into a place of business, which they have in London; and then, when anybody who belongs to them has a misfortune, and his place is burnt, he has, from this money that has been paid up in littles, enough sent to him to pay for all the damage that has been done. Some people keep on paying in all their lifetime, and never have a misfortune, and so that money goes to help those who have. Thus in my time I have never had a mishap of this kind before, but have been paying year after year, for a very long time, and what I have paid has gone to help those who have been in trouble; now my turn has come, and I shall write to London to the people who manage, when they will send down a gentleman to see what is the amount of damage done, and then they will pay me the money at once, or, perhaps, repair the damages. So you see, my boy, there is nothing like prudence and foresight, not only in guarding against fire, but in all things."
CHAPTER TWENTY THREE.
A BROKEN DAY.
In spite of the resolution to sit up as it had grown so late, the boys did not seem at all the thing: there was a great disposition to yawn, and a general feeling of being uncomfortable. Things appeared strange and irregular, and the events of the past night to have taken place a long time back; and at last, by the advice of Mrs Inglis, they all three went off to bed—the dinner being put off till a later hour.
As for Mr Inglis, he was busy enough in the farm-yard till dinner-time, for, in the present state of confusion, it was impossible to tell what amount of damage was done, and what had been saved from the flames. Implements and tools were spread about in all directions, and the extent of the ruin almost put him in a state of despair; but he reflected that the misfortune might have been of a far more serious nature, and then set to work busier than ever.
By twelve o'clock the engine had gone back to the town, the fire being completely extinct; and then there were arrangements to make for the horses, pigs, cows, and poultry, all of which required immediate attention; for, although Mr Inglis kept a manager or bailiff to attend to his farm, yet, in such a case of emergency as the present, he found plenty to call for his own aid.
About three o'clock the boys made their appearance again, well refreshed with the five or six hours' sleep they had taken; but the whole place looked so desolate and miserable, that they very soon scampered off into the garden, to amuse themselves with a few strawberries and gooseberries. When they had had enough fruit, they took some into the green-house for the parrot, who made a noise like the smacking of lips upon being shown the strawberries, which she seemed to enjoy wonderfully; while as for the gooseberries, they were capital amusement, for she picked the seeds out of the pulp one at a time, and then danced up and down as though in ecstasy.
But they were soon tired of playing with Poll, and betook themselves to the yard to tease the old raven; but he was not in a mood to be teased, so showed fight, and pecked viciously at every one who came near him, till at last, feeling that might would eventually overcome right, and the boys prove too much for him, he took to his old place of refuge, the horse-chestnut tree, where he sat and barked and laughed at his late aggressors.
They next turned their attention to Dick, who had not had a run since the day when he had his eye cut by the stone thrown by Bill Jenkins's party. The cut was healed up; and very soon Dick was capering round the yard in fine style, but somehow or other his capers did not give satisfaction to his masters; they wanted something new, and they could find nothing fresh to amuse them, till all at once the yard gate opened, and a lad appeared with a letter in his hand.
"Wow—wow—wuff," said Dick, making at the intruder open-mouthed, but the new-comer was too quick for the dog, for he darted back, and shut the gate in his face.
Back darted Dick, and out at the door at the other end, and then round by the shrubbery.
Harry and Philip both tried to open the gate, but the new-comer—whom they had recognised as Fred's late adversary, Bill Jenkins, was holding on tightly, so that they could not move it in the least. But in the course of a few seconds there was the sound of rushing feet through the shrubbery; a loud yell; and then the gate was released, and upon being opened there stood, or rather reeled about, Bill Jenkins, and Dick, who owed him a grudge for the stone-throwing, tight hold of him by the trousers and shaking away at them as hard as he possibly could; and all the while snarling and growling as viciously as a dog could snarl and growl.
"Help! help!" roared Bill Jenkins.
"Worry—worry—worry," went Dick.
"Help! help! murder!" roared Bill Jenkins again; and then, tripping over a stone, he fell sprawling on the gravel-walk, when Dick, with all the importance of a conqueror, left his hold of the trousers and leaped upon the fallen enemy's breast, where he stood with his red tongue lolling out, and wagging his tail.
"Oh, please call him off; oh, do please," said Bill Jenkins; "I'll ne'er throw stones at him again. Oh, please call him off."
Harry laid hold of Dick's tail, and Philip took him by the ears, and they carried him off to the yard and chained him up again, when he set to barking as loudly as he could, until his enemy had left the premises, which he did directly, leaving the letter, which he had brought for Mr Inglis, in the charge of Fred, and then slipping off, after faring no worse than being in a most horrible fright, for Dick's teeth went no farther than through his trousers. As to Harry and Philip, they enjoyed the fun, as they called it, immensely, which can hardly be wondered at when the provocation they had received is taken into consideration; but I must do them the credit of saying that they would not have set the dog at poor Bill, and that they could not have stopped him if they had tried ever so hard, which, in the hurry-skurry of the affair, they had no chance of attempting. Dick had a good memory for those who were kind, and those who behaved ill to him, as Bill Jenkins found to his cost; and never afterwards could he be persuaded to take a message to Mr Inglis's house, so wholesome was the dread with which the dog had inspired him.
This episode supplied the boys with what they had wanted—something to take up their attention till dinner-time, which Harry, by making a charge into the kitchen, found to be in the process of what Mrs Cook termed "dishing up;" so they entered the house, where they found Papa just going to relieve himself of a little of the black which clung to him; and soon afterwards, at dinner, they heard all that had been done to make the best of the existing state of affairs.
During tea the family party were again alarmed by the cry of "Fire!" of which they could see the glare through the window; but, on hastening to the farm-yard, it proved to be only one of the smouldering heaps which had burst out again, and a few pails of water soon extinguished the flames.
Watchmen were left in charge of the place, and soon after returning to the house, the whole of the inmates, thoroughly tired out with the excitement of the past twenty-four hours, retired to rest.
CHAPTER TWENTY FOUR.
BEWARE OF THE SNAKE.
"Now, boys," said Philip, "tumble up—tumble up—tumble up, it's such a beautiful morning. Come, get up, Harry," he continued, giving his brother a rough shake.
"Aw—yaw—aw—aw—aw—aw," said Harry, gaping fearfully.
"Get up-p-p-p-p-p," shouted Philip again, giving him another shake.
"Oh, don't, Philip," said Harry, "I'm so slee-aw-aw-aw-ah-aw-aw-py."
"What an old stupid!" said Philip again. "If you don't get up, I'll cold sponge you."
Harry did not wait for the cold sponge, but got up at once, and then the young dogs seemed to enter into a compact to disturb the rest of poor Fred, which they did by torturing him most ingeniously.
Fred was lying fast asleep, and, the night having been warm, he had kicked all the clothes off, so Harry and Philip collected the hair-brushes in the two bedrooms, which, old and new, amounted to five; after which, Harry slipped down into the hall, and brought up the two clothes-brushes, and these they carefully arranged upon the bed, all on one side of the sleeper. They next screwed up the corner of a handkerchief, and began to tickle him on the side farthest from the brushes. The first application of the tickler produced an impatient rub; the second, an irritable scratch; but the third made the sleeper turn right over on to the sharp brushes, and begin to curl and twist about with pain.
"Oh, dear! what's—ah—ah—er—oh, dear—don't. What's in the bed?" said Fred, muttering and groaning and twisting amongst the brushes, but still keeping his eyes obstinately closed.
His tormentors roared with laughter; and it was this mirth which thoroughly aroused Fred to the comprehension of his position, which he no sooner realised than he sat up in bed, but in so doing only increased his pain—penetrating hair-brushes, although meant expressly for going through the hair, having, for all that, the power to pierce the skin, as Fred found, and he soon made a sort of rabbit leap off the bed on to the floor, and confronted his tormentors, who directly took to ignoble flight; but they did not get off scot-free, for Fred managed to send a missile in the shape of one of the brushes flying after them, and it caught Harry a pretty good thump in the back with the hardest part.
"I say," said Philip, when they were nearly dressed, "we were to have gone to the mill last night to bob for eels; let's go to-night, or Dusty Bob will think we are not coming."
"Oh, he wouldn't expect us when he saw what a fire there was. He would know that we should not go directly afterwards. But we might go to-night, though. Let's ask Mamma to have tea early, so that we can start directly after."
"Well, but we have not had breakfast yet," said Fred.
"Well, I know that," said Harry; "but it's always best to be in good time about everything, and then you don't get all behind. I say, what shall we do this morning? I should like to go down to the seashore. Let's ask Papa to take us."
"Why, what's the use," said Philip, "when you know how busy he is about the fire? I shouldn't like to ask him. But he said he would take us again before Fred goes back, so let's wait and see."
Breakfast finished, the boys went out in the garden to amuse themselves, and plenty there always seemed to be in that garden to amuse any one of reasonable desires. There was fruit in abundance to begin with—no bad thing for a commencement either, as Harry appeared to think, for he began feasting first upon the gooseberries, and then turned his attention to the cherries on the big tree in the corner by the shrubbery—the tree which bore the great white Bigareau cherries; and it was quite time they were picked, for some were split right down the side from over-ripeness, while the sparrows had been attacking others, and had committed sad havoc amongst them—the little pert rascals having picked out all the finest and ripest for their operations, and then, after taking a few bites out of the richest and sweetest part, they commenced upon another. As for Harry, who was not at all a particular youth, he used to make a point of choosing the sparrow-picked cherries— saying that they were the ripest and sweetest.
Harry was up in the fork of the tree, reaching the fruit and throwing it down to his companions, when the attention of all three boys was taken up by the movements of a little bird in a tree close by; it was one of the little titmice, and the tiny fellow seemed to be in a wonderful state of excitement, darting from branch to branch, and emitting his sharp cry in a most querulous manner.
"I say," said Philip, "look at that tom-tit; it has a nest somewhere close by, I know."
This remark set six eyes searching about to discover the place of the little tom-tit's home. Fred began looking up in the tree and amidst the laurel bushes—parting the boughs, and peering amidst the great green leaves.
"What are you looking for?" said Harry at last.
"The tom-tit's nest," said Fred.
"Why, it's no use to look there; they always build in holes in the trees or wall. Last year there was one in that tall vase at the corner of the low wall; and we used to see the bird go down the neck ever so many times a day. It was such a snug place, nobody could touch it. I wonder where that little chap has been building. It must be close by, or he would not be so fidgety about our being here."
They all hunted about well, but no nest was to be found; so Harry came down from his elevated position, and proceeded to share the capful of cherries that he had picked in addition to those he had thrown down.
"Well, now, if that isn't droll," said Philip, laughing; "no wonder we could not find the nest: why, Harry was standing up with his foot over it. Why, there it is, in the trunk of the cherry-tree. I just saw the tom-tit fly in."
And there, sure enough, was the nest right at the bottom of a deep hole in the tree trunk, the entrance to which was by a hole so small that it seemed impossible for any bird to pass through it; for to look at the size of the tom-tit, his bulk appeared to be double the circumference of the hole; but his downy yielding little feathers gave him an easy passage through; and, as the boys went up to the tree, out he darted with a sharp cry, and flew away.
"There's a hen-bird in the hole, sitting," said Harry, "and he has been to feed her, I know. Let's try." Saying which, he took a piece of stick, and began to insert it gently into the hole.
"Don't hurt it," said Philip. "Don't poke the stick in."
"Oh! I shan't hurt anything," said Harry brusquely. "Do you think I don't know what I'm about? I'm only going to push it in a little way to see if there is a nest, and then I shall—"
"Ciss-s-s-s-s-s-s-s," said something very sharply from the bottom of the hole, and back darted Harry, stick and all, as though he had been shot.
"Why, it's a snake," said Philip.
"How could a snake get there?" said Harry, looking rather discomposed.
"There must have been an egg laid in the hole," said Fred; offering, as he thought, a very clever solution of the difficulty.
"Well, but how did the egg get there?" said Harry.
"Why, it was laid there, of course," said Fred.
"Well, but," said Philip, "if an egg could be laid there, a snake could have got there; and I don't believe the English snakes could climb up the bark of a tree; and, besides, if there was one egg there would be more, for snakes' eggs are all joined together like French rolls at the baker's shop; and then there would have been a whole lot of snakes in the hole."
"Perhaps there is a whole party of them there now," said Fred. "I wish we could split the tree open. I shan't eat any more cherries; they smell snaky."
"Get out!" said Harry; "I don't believe it was a snake at all. I wish the hole was big enough to get my hand in; I'd soon see what it was."
"But if it was a snake, it would bite," said Fred, "and poison you."
"No, it wouldn't," said Harry; "it's only adders that bite and poison; snakes are quite harmless; Papa says so, and he knows everything."
"Does he?" said a voice behind the laurels, and Mr Inglis came up to them, smiling. "And so, Master Hal, you consider that Papa knows everything, do you? Ah, my boy, when you grow older, I trust that you will prove studious enough to find out how very ignorant your father is, and to look upon all he knows in the same way that he does himself, and that is, as a mere nothing in comparison with what there is to learn around us. But," he continued, cheerfully, "what is it I am said to know so much about?"
"Why, about snakes, Papa. They won't bite, will they?"
"Oh, yes," said Mr Inglis, "and pretty sharply, too, after their fashion. I do not suppose that it would pierce your skin; but if you could occupy the position of poor froggy some day, when a snake has got hold of him by the hind legs, I think you would find that he could bite. But what made you talk about snakes?"
"Why, there's one in this tree, Papa," said Philip; "we put a stick into the hole, and it did hiss so. Now, you listen."
Philip placed a piece of wood in the hole again, and in a moment there came forth the same sharp hiss, and directly Philip darted back in the same way as his brother had a short time before.
"There, did you hear that?" said the boys.
"Oh, yes; I heard the hiss, but it was not a snake; only the noise made by the female titmouse when sitting upon her nest. It is to scare intruders away, and you see how effectually it answers the purpose, for you boys were completely startled, and thought that it was a snake. And this is very often the case in nature, that helpless birds, animals, and insects are provided with means of offence or concealment, that in a great measure balance the helplessness of their nature. But I should like you lads to read these natural history facts for yourselves, and then search, during your walks and excursions, for the objects you have read of in your studies."
CHAPTER TWENTY FIVE.
A STUPID ASS.
Mr Inglis then walked away, and the boys strolled about the garden in search of something to amuse them until dinner-time.
Now most people would have been content with taking a chair, and sitting, book in hand, beneath the shade of one of the trees upon the lawn. Fred might have done this had he been alone, or Philip would probably have been likely so to do; but when Harry was in company with them such a proceeding seemed to be quite out of the question, and so they wandered about in search of something to take their attention.
But there was some one watching them all this time, and mentally growling and worrying himself about the boys being at home. Now this somebody was none other than old Sam, who was up on a ladder against the house, nailing in some of the long pendant branches of the roses which had here and there broken loose, and were trailing down low enough to catch the dresses of those who passed by. Sam had been grunting and hammering, and hammering and grunting, and he was not in a very good temper; for, in looking round and watching the boys, he had missed the head of the nail he was aiming at, and had given a sufficiently hard rap to his finger to draw blood; and this was of course put down to the credit of "them boys;" in fact, they could not have met with more blame if one of them had taken up the hammer and struck the blow, while the others had aided and abetted.
At last Sam saw them all turn down into the flower-garden, and then, for fear that something or another by which he set store should be handled, he got off the ladder and began very cautiously to follow them, going slowly from tree to tree, and trying to steal quietly up; but all Sam's caution was unnecessary, as the boys were not in mischief, for they were only going to the field to try and catch Neddy, the donkey, who had been on the sick list nearly all the time of Fred's visit, and had been turned out in a field some distance from the house. But now Neddy had been reported quite well for some days past, so the boys were determined upon having a ride, so as to do something towards filling up the time until after tea, when they were to go to the mill-dam bobbing for eels.
They soon reached the cedar-field, where the cob pony was grazing as well as the donkey; and as soon as the visitors entered, down went the pony's head, and up went his heels and tail, and away he galloped as fast as he could lay his hoofs to the ground, and after him went the donkey, but only at the rate of about one hundred yards to the pony's two.
Now the pony was not wanted, but he must needs begin setting a bad example to the donkey, telling him as plainly as one animal could tell another that he did not mean to be caught, and, as "evil communications corrupt good manners," the donkey took the same whim into his great rough ash-grey head, and galloped after the pony as hard as he could. It was of no use to say, "come then," or "coop—coop—coop," for both of the four-footed beasts seemed to have an idea that they were to race and tear round the field just as long as they liked, and that they could go far better without saddle, bridle, or rider than they could with.
Seeing how much slower Neddy the donkey was than the pony, it was not very long before he was cut off from following his companion's capers; but even then he was as far off from being caught as ever, for he dodged about and spun round, and, at last, when driven into close quarters, he tucked his tail in between his legs and kept his heels to the party attacking him, which was his very Irish fashion of facing the enemy.
"Now, Fred," said Harry at last, "you stand quite still there; Philip, come in a little closer; and then when I give the word all walk forward together, and then we must have him. Phew! how hot it is!"
Harry, having posted his forces in the most suitable manner, then stood ready with a halter in his hand, knowing from fatigue-bought experience which way Master Neddy would rush, and meaning this time to try and lasso the rascal.
"Now, then," said Harry, "close in."
The three boys then slowly and cautiously walked towards the donkey, who was now hemmed up in a corner of the field; and, judging from appearances, he evidently meant to surrender at discretion. Harry held the halter all ready to slip over Neddy's head, and in another moment he would have been captured but for the pony, who, seeing the danger of his companion, gave a loud neigh and started off full gallop across the field.
"Pitty-pat; pitty-pat; pitty-pat," went the pony; and, as soon as Neddy heard it, down went his head, up went his heels, and away he rushed, and passed Harry like a shot. But Harry was ready for him, and cleverly threw his halter over the tiresome brute's head. In a moment it was drawn tight, and as Harry held on to the other end he was dragged along by the donkey, until his foot tripping in the long grass, he left go of the halter, and down he went on all-fours, and then rolled over and over upon the ground; while away went Neddy full gallop to where the pony stood, and then the two provoking beasts walked right into the middle of the little corner pond, and stood in the mud and water, whisking their tails about, and seeming to enjoy finely the mischief of which they had been guilty.
"There's a beast," said Harry, sitting up in the grass, and chewing bits of strand. "Won't he catch it next time I get on his back. He shall pay me for tiring me out in this way. I'll give it him."
"Well, what shall we do?" said Philip; "we can't get at them in the pond."
"Can't you drive them out with a long whip?" said Fred.
This last idea seemed to strike Harry as being feasible, and another plan popped into his head at the same moment; so, jumping up with a "won't-be-beaten" sort of an air about him, he appealed to Philip.
"I say, Phil, old chap, I'm so tired; do go and fetch the whip."
"What's the good?" said Philip; "that won't catch them."
"No, but we'll leave the gate open," said his brother, "and drive them up the field into the stable, and then we can catch them easily enough."
"Bravo!" said Fred, clapping his hands, but not making any noise from the fact of having his handkerchief in one, having been wiping his face.
Away trotted Philip, and soon returned with a long cart-whip; and then once more the boys went to the bottom of the field, and Harry advanced with the whip in his hand towards the pond.
As for Neddy, Harry might have stood at the edge of the water and cracked the whip until his donkeyship felt disposed to come out, for not a bit did he care, knowing full well that he was out of reach, and that even if the thong could have touched him he would not have felt it through his thick grey coat; and so stock-still he stood, flapping his great ears, whisking his tail, and lazily winking his eyes. But it was different with the pony: he was a thin-skinned gentleman, and not so much of a philosopher as the ass. He, too, had often felt the whip upon his flanks, and knew the flavour, and, not being so good a judge of distance as his companion, as soon as the whip gave the first crack he made a start, and spattered out of the pond, and away up the field towards the open gate.
Stock-still stood Neddy.
"Crack!" went the whip again.
"Come out," shouted Harry.
"Poor old fellow, then," said Philip, soothingly.
"No, don't coax him, Phil," said his brother; "he don't deserve it. Only let me get at him; that's all."
For a few moments, however, there did not seem to be a chance of getting "at him, that's all;" for the donkey stood as stolidly as ever, till the pony, as he scampered up the field, gave a triumphant neigh, which roused Neddy, for he gave a frisk and a splash in the water, and then rushed out; but he did not escape quite scot-free, for Harry managed to get one crack at him with the thick end of the whip just as he galloped up the field.
Harry's manoeuvre proved successful, for they had now only to follow the donkey up as he went straight into the stable, from whence he was soon dragged out in triumph, saddled and bridled, and with Philip mounted.
"Now, then," shouted Harry to his brother, as soon as they returned to the field, "down to the bottom and back, and then it's Fred's turn."
But Neddy would not trot; it was of no use to kick him with your heels, he would only walk, so Philip called out for a stick, and then when Neddy saw the stick coming he would not walk but would trot, so that Harry could hardly catch up to him; but when he did, and handed the weapon to his brother, the donkey no sooner felt the first touch than down went his head and up went his heels, and off went Philip on to his back in the grass.
Neddy would then have started off again, but Harry was too quick for him, and soon held the rein for his brother to remount.
"He's too fresh," said Harry. "Never mind; jump up, Phil, and we'll soon take a little of his nonsense out of him."
So away Philip trotted down to the bottom and back again, and then Fred had a turn and stuck on capitally, only when he wanted to turn to the left and come up the field again, Neddy would turn to the right and go the other way—an arrangement Fred was obliged to submit to from the fact of his whole attention being required to sit on tight, without guiding his steed.
At last Harry's turn came, and it was some time before he could manage to mount, for Neddy was very shy of the rough hawthorn stick the lad held; and so he kept backing and pirouetting until Philip went on the opposite side with his stick, when the fidgety little scamp suffered himself to be mounted.
"Crack," went the stick, and up went Neddy's heels. "Crack—crack— crack," went the stick again, and up went Neddy's heels four, five, six times over. But the donkey had this time met with his match, and, in spite of his kicking and shuffling, Harry sat him like a hero. 'Tis true that he was bumped all sorts of ways—right and left—on to the donkey's neck—on to his crupper, and was several times nearly off, but never quite; so that at last Neddy gave up in despair, submitted to his thrashing, and then cantered down the field and back, and afterwards allowed himself, with a very good grace, to be ridden about as long as his masters liked; for they had really proved themselves the masters that day in more senses than one.
At last Neddy was declared to have done his duty, and was set at liberty by the stable-door—a good feed of oats being awarded to him as a recompense for all he had gone through, and then the donkestrians went in to their mid-day meal, Fred feeling wonderfully improved in his ability as to riding.
CHAPTER TWENTY SIX.
In the afternoon, as they were sitting under a shady tree, eating a dessert of strawberries, Harry began to wish that it was tea-time, so as to get started for the mill-dam, about which place his whole conversation had been since Neddy had been returned to the stable.
"Oh! I do wish it was time to start," said Harry. "I wonder how many we shall catch."
"Oh! not many," said Philip. "We only caught twelve last time."
"Ah! but then see how it came on to rain, else we could have caught dozens more."
"Suppose Dusty Bob does not get the what-d'ye-call-'ems ready!" said Fred.
"What! the bobs? Oh! he's sure to have them ready," said Philip. "He knows that he will get a shilling for making them, so he is sure to be there, with them all in a flower pot. Isn't he, Harry?"
"Oh, yes!" said Harry; "he'll have the bobs ready; he dare not do otherwise, or we should duck him in the mill-pond; shouldn't we, Phil!"
"What a brag you are, Harry!" said Fred. "What's the good of telling such fibs as that! Why, you wouldn't touch him at all!"
"Well, you'll see," said Harry, "if the bobs are not ready."
They soon had an opportunity of testing whether the bobs were ready or not, for an early tea was hastily partaken of, and then they set off,— Mr and Mrs Inglis having promised to come and meet them, and to help them carry home the spoils.
The boys were in too great a hurry to get down to the mill, to take any notice of the attraction they met upon the road. Harry was compelled to have one shy at the squirrel that scampered up into the chestnut tree; but with that exception not a stoppage was made, and in a very short time they came to the plank over the great ditch—the plank which replaced the one that broke when it was danced on the day that the basket of fish was lost after the visit to the fish-traps. This time, however, it was quietly crossed, and in a few minutes the figure of Dusty Bob became visible as he leaned against a post outside the mill, and smoked his pipe.
"Sarvant, young gentlemen," said Bob, as the boys came up. "'Spected to ha' seen yow yesterday."
"Oh, but we have been so busy since the fire, Bob," said Harry, and he spoke as though he really believed that they had been busy; but, if asked what they had been busy about, I think it very doubtful whether Master Harry could have given a satisfactory answer. "Never mind about that though, now," said Harry; "where are the bobs?"
"Oh! I've got 'em all right," said Bob; "but I don't see why I couldn't have a drop o' beer up at t' fire, as well as other folks."
"Well, why didn't you?" said Harry; "Papa had a whole barrel brought out."
"Oh! I dunno," said Bob; "I knows I never got none, and other folks got lots; and I says to my mate as it warn't fair."
"Well, but why didn't you have some, Bob?" said Philip; "Papa meant it for everybody that had been helping."
"I knows that," said Bob; "but nobody asked me to have none." And then Bob filled his pipe again, and looked very sulky as he went on smoking, for it was very evident that his dignity had been much touched over the beer business. However, he soon seemed to come to the conclusion that the lads before him were not to blame for his coming short of the needful refreshment; and, turning the lighted tobacco out of his pipe into the mill-dam, where it fell with a "ciss," he led the way into the mill, from whence he produced three light poles and some string, and from out of a cool damp flower pot three hideous-looking looped up bunches of worms, each with a leaden weight in the centre.
"There," said Harry, "I knew he would have them. Hooray, boys! come on."
Bob soon tied the bunches, or bobs, of worms strung upon worsted to a string, fastened to the poles, and then posted each boy in what he considered an eligible spot on the banks of the deep mill-dam. He took Fred, as being the novice, under his own especial charge, and began to instruct him how to proceed.
"There, yow see," said Bob, "yow lets the bob sink gently down to the bottom, and, when yow feel it touches, just draw it up a little ways till the eels sticks their teeth into it, and then pull it gently up a-top, and then out wi' 'em in a minute."
All this time Dusty Bob was suiting the action to the word, and showing Fred how it should be done, waiting all the while till one of the eels did stick his teeth in, which was in the course of a very few minutes, when Bob softly raised his bob to the surface, lifted it out quickly, and a fine eel dropped off into the water again.
"Never mind," said Bob, "try again; that's the way."
So this time Fred tried, and let his great bait sink to the bottom, when, directly after, he felt something go "tug, tug" at it, and then again, quite sharply. At first he hardly knew what to do, but another tug made him draw the bait up to the surface, when he distinctly saw an eel leave it, giving a vicious snatch at the bait as it did so.
Just then Harry landed a fine fellow, which gave a serpentine sort of a wriggle, and regained the water in a moment.
"There, that's the way to do it," said Philip, who at that moment secured one. "Try again, Harry."
But Harry was already trying again; and, profiting by past experience, had succeeded in landing two or three decent-sized eels, one after another, and secured them all. There was no stopping to bait the hook, and no disengaging the fish from the bait, for they let go of the worstedy worm as soon as they were lifted out of the water, or as soon as they could drag their teeth out of the woolly delicacy; and as to biting, they seized the bob with the greatest eagerness, for it was evident that the mill-dam swarmed with the eel tribe, now seeking their prey upon the warm summer evening—evidently a time when they loved to leave their muddy abodes.
"How many have you caught, Fred?" said Philip.
"Six," said Fred, in a half whisper; for he had one just then at his bob.
"Why, where are they then?" said Harry.
"Oh! I caught them all," said Fred; "but they tumbled in again."
"There's a goose," said Harry; "why, you did not catch them then. Here's another, such a big one," he continued, as he landed one nearly as thick as his wrist. "How many have you got, Phil?"
"Only four," said Philip, "and such little ones, I shall change places with somebody. No, I shan't," he continued; "there's a beauty. Why, that's bigger than yours, Hal."
"No, it isn't," said Harry, "I'm sure; but look, Fred's got one."
But Fred had not, for, in spite of the many bites he obtained, not a fish could he draw out of the water; for without exception they all fell in again, he not having yet hit upon the knack of landing them, which should be done with a quick but gentle motion; for the slightest jerk makes the eel loose its hold.
"I say, how do you do it?" said Fred, at last, after missing eight or nine.
"Do what?" said Dusty Bob, coming out of the mill.
"Why, catch these nasty slippery things," said Fred. "Every time I try to get one on the bank, he always drops off too soon, and I lose him."
"Why, it's easy enew," said Bob, going up to him and taking hold of the pole. "Just drop the bait in quietly, so, and wait till yow feels 'em at it, when—there—he's tugging away a good un at it—now look; I jist draws him up a-top, and then out he comes. There yow see, I can do it straight."
And sure enough, Dusty Bob drew a fine silvery-looking eel to the top, and, with a turn of his wrist, landed it upon the bank.
Wriggle and twist went the eel—trying to get back into the water, and to all appearances he would soon have been there; and Dusty Bob, evidently thinking such would be the case, made an awkward jump at the wriggling fish, and jumped just upon the wet part of the bank where Fred's bob had been out before some twenty or thirty times. Up went Bob's heels, and the boys stared, quite aghast; for with a tremendous splash, in he went right into the deepest part of the mill-pond; when, after a few seconds, up he rose, and began to strike out for the shallow part where he could land; for the bank where he fell off was very steep, and, for about three feet, staved up with boards.
As soon as Harry saw that there was no danger, he burst out laughing, and shouted, "Now, boys, bob away, here's such a whopper," and began to drop his great bunch of worms just in front of Bob's head, to the intense disgust of that worthy, and the delight of Philip and Fred; who, of course, must follow suit, and begin to tease the unfortunate miller in the same way. But Bob soon scrambled out of the water, looking very pasty, and dripping all over the bank. He did not stop to speak, but hurried into his cottage to change his things, while the boys, laughing over his mishap, returned to their bobbing.
But the eels did not seem to have approved of the visitor who had been upon their domains, and, judging from appearances, they had all bade good-bye to the place, for not another bite could either of the boys get in the mill-pool; so they had to try in the deep part of the back-water, where they met with a little better success, and between them succeeded in capturing about two dozen more; when they found that the mist was rising heavily from off the water, and various other indications pointed out that it was time to think of returning homeward.
The poles were soon placed in a corner of the mill-yard, and the basket containing the eels being carefully tied down, they next went in search of Bob; but he was not visible, and his wife came to the door to say that the young gentlemen might say anything they liked to her.
The boys placed the right interpretation upon this message, and left a shilling for Bob, which was received with a curtsey, and then the fishermen started off with a heavy basket and light hearts; but had not gone far before they met Mr and Mrs Inglis, who had come in accordance with their promise.
The moon was just rising over the trees as they came within sight of the Grange; while in the north-west, Mr Inglis pointed out a heavy bank of clouds which every now and then seemed to quiver with the flashes of sheet lightning that played about it, the evident precursors of a heavy storm. The night was sultry in the extreme, and almost oppressive in its stillness; but the boys could pay but little heed to the appearances of the weather, every thought being taken up with the eels they had captured, and the splash which Bob made when he went into the mill-dam.
The appearances of the coming weather that Mr Inglis had pointed out were, however, not deceitful; for before the boys went to bed that night, the flashes of lightning became more and more vivid; the thunder, from muttering at a distance, began to break, as it were, just over the house; and then down came the rain, almost in a sheet.
"What a pity!" said Harry, all at once, just as they were going up to bed.
"What is a pity?" said Mr Inglis.
"Why," said Harry, "what a pity all this rain did not come when the fire was burning."
When the boys reached their bedroom, the storm raged with such violence that sleep was out of the question; so they put the candles in one room, and all three stood at the window to watch the lightning. Every now and then the whole heavens seemed to be lit up with one vast blaze of light, which showed the outlines of all the clouds in the most dazzling manner; then came the deafening peals of thunder, while all around looked of the most intense darkness; and the rain came splashing down, beating against the windows, and rushing off the eaves in streams.
And thus it kept on for about an hour, when the storm seemed to abate, the lightning coming at longer intervals, and the thunder gradually becoming more and more distant, till at last it subsided into a low angry muttering; though the lightning still kept quivering and flashing—making everything in the bedroom appear with the greatest distinctness.
"Well," said Harry at last, "I've had enough storm, and I'm going to bed; so out you go, Mr Fred, into your own room."
Mr Fred was too tired and sleepy to enter into any fun that night, so he sleepily went into his own place; and before the thunder had ceased muttering in the distance, the boys were all soundly asleep, breathing heavily the soft cool air—rendered so fresh and pure by the late storm, and so plainly perceptible in its difference from the heavy oppressive atmosphere of the early evening.
CHAPTER TWENTY SEVEN.
LOUD SIGHS.—MORE SORROW.
Fred's visit was now drawing fast to a close, and the boys among themselves were comparing notes as to how wonderfully swift the days had glided away.
"Oh, dear; oh, dear," said Harry, with a sigh; "only think, next week we shall be back at school, and learning that beastly old Latin again; a nasty dirty old dead language. It isn't right: if a language is dead, it ought to be buried. They ought to make a cavibus in terribus, and bury the old blunderbuss. Shouldn't I like to have smothered old Valpy!"
"Ah," said Philip; "Latin isn't half so bad as that old Euclid, with all its straight lines, and angles, and bother. Heigho! wouldn't it be nice to be a bird, and not have any lessons to learn! I should like to be an eagle, to circle up and up towards the sun, and—"
"Ho—ho—ho!" laughed Harry, who was not at all a poetical young gentleman; "you wouldn't do for an eagle; if you turned into a bird, like that chap in 'Evenings at Home,' you'd be only an old cocksparrow, and cry 'chizzywick, chizzywick,' all day long."
Hereupon Philip thought it was his duty to resent this great insult, and gave chase to Harry, who dodged him about in the field where they were; and the tormentor, being the more nimble of the two, escaped his well-merited punishment.
"Come, I say," said Fred, shouting as loudly as he could, "it's time to start. The car has gone round to the door."
This announcement brought Fred's cousins tearing up to the spot where he stood, and then, going round to the front, they found Mr Inglis with what few things he required, just giving orders to Sam to go and look for the boys.
"Oh! here they are," said Mr Inglis. "Come, lads, jump up; you are just in time. What would you have said if I had gone without you?"
"We weren't afraid of that," said Harry; "were we, boys? I know Papa wouldn't say he'd take us, and then leave us behind."
They were off once more to the sea-side, but this time for the afternoon only. The day was a regular scorcher, and the poor horse began to show symptoms of the heat, in spite of the careful driving of Mr Inglis; and a regular cloud of flies about his head so teased it, keeping regularly on at the same pace as the horse, whether a walk or a trot, that Mr Inglis was at last compelled to stop and let Harry cut a couple of little elm branches, and fix them in the harness, so that, by their constant vibration and shaking, they might keep the tiresome insect pests at a distance. But the travellers soon began to find that they ought to have boughs secured to their own heads, for the flies, disappointed of their feast upon the horse, turned their attention to the party in the dog-cart, and, until they were quite clear of the wooded part of the country, bothered them terribly.
The day was so hot that the whole atmosphere seemed to tremble and quiver, while everything else was motionless. Not a breath of air was stirring to wave the grass or to ruffle the surface of the great land-drains, whose waters shone like molten silver; while the road was powdered into an almost impalpable dust, which rose in clouds as the horse's hoofs beat and the wheels spun over its arid surface.
At last, however, as they neared the sea-bank, a soft and cooling breeze began to fan the travellers' cheeks; the horse tossed his head and snuffed the air, as though delighted with the grateful sensation it imparted; and at the end of another quarter of an hour the car wheels were sinking deep in the dry sandy road which led up to the inn, where they were going on this occasion to leave the horse, as this afternoon's trip was only for a quiet ramble by the sea to collect a few stranded sea-weeds and shells.
When they reached the shore, they found the tide coming in, while the sands were as level and smooth on the elevated parts as a table, though, in the lower, beautifully and regularly traced all over with the little ripple-marks left by the sea when the tide is going out upon a calm day. There was no difficulty about gathering specimens, for the gentle waves landed plenty of beautiful weeds at their feet, while many shells and prettily-marked pebbles lay about the sands.
"Oh! how hot," said Harry; "shouldn't I like a dip! I say, Papa, mayn't we have a bathe?"
"Oh! yes, Papa, do let us," said Philip; "it would be beautiful. I should like to go in so much."
Fred was as anxious to have a dip as his cousins; and as the tide was coming in, and the water as smooth as possible, Mr Inglis gave his consent, and stopped upon the sands while the boys all jumped into the bathing-machine; and the old horse being fastened to it, they were dragged a short distance into the water, and there left. They soon had the door opened, and then one at a time made their appearance in the sea, where they swam about to their hearts' content; of course, Harry and Philip performing all the swimming, and Fred the splashing. And delightful was that bathe, for the sun shone so warmly that the water felt quite tepid, and there was no disposition to shiver or feel cold, but every little wave that rolled in seemed to be laden with freshness and vigour. The boys enjoyed their dip so much that Mr Inglis had to call them out, or they would have stopped in for an hour. But he had them out when they had been in about twenty minutes; and as soon as they were dressed, the collecting of specimens went on. At the mouth of one little inlet they found a dead puffin—a singular little bird that makes its home on the rocky shores further north, and remarkable for its curious wedge-shaped bill, looking like the point of an old Roman sword, and to all appearance a rather formidable weapon. There were plenty of gulls and kittywakes running about at the edge of the waves, picking up the little insects and small crustaceans that abounded upon the sands. Fred here made further acquaintance with the little hermit crab, and saw how it protected itself, and chose its habitation from amongst the empty shells upon the beach; and when it had found one that it considered a good fit, thrust in its little tail, and dwelt there until it grew too confined for it.
Numberless were the objects of interest to be seen all along the coast, and pleasant was the ramble the party enjoyed until it grew towards the hour for returning, when they walked back to the opening in the sand-bank, so as to reach the inn and get the horse and car ready for starting. The tide was now nearly at its height, and a brisk evening breeze had commenced blowing, so that, as the tide rolled in, the breakers began to be of a tolerable size. There were several people, old and young, enjoying an evening bath; and, after ordering the car to be got ready, Mr Inglis and the boys strolled back and watched the waves come tumbling in upon the beach or rush up the opening that led into the great land-drain—an opening that was staked on each side in the shape of a cage-work tunnel, and ran down for some distance into the sea on the one hand, and right under the great sea-bank on the other.
Just as the party were turning to leave the shore, a piercing cry rose from off the water, and then another, and another, evidently proceeding from some one in distress.
A moment's glance served to show Mr Inglis that the cry proceeded from one of the bathers, and, in company with many more people, he ran down to the water's edge, when he could see that a boy was battling with the waves, his head just above water, and crying for help in the most heartrending tones. People were running about wringing their hands, while those who had been bathing were huddling on their clothes, and others, again, had gone to seek for a boat; but it was very plain that, if assistance were not immediately rendered, the boy would be drowned.
"Is there no one here that can swim?" said Mr Inglis. "A sovereign to the man who fetches the poor fellow in."
But only one person came forward, and that was Harry, who began to strip off his jacket and shoes ready for the plunge.
"Back! you foolish boy; you have not strength," said Mr Inglis; and then, without waiting to make a further appeal for aid, he stripped off his coat, and dashing through the waves was soon swimming towards where the boy was still shrieking loudly, but in a fainter tone, for help; for every now and then the waves washed over his head, which seemed to get lower in the water every moment.
Mr Inglis was a powerful swimmer, and clove swiftly through the water in spite of his clothes, which clung to him and bore him down. In a very short space he was by the side of the drowning boy, who clutched at him, and would have no doubt put him in great peril but for an effort which he made to get behind. He then grasped the boy by the hair, and turned to swim ashore; but to his horror he found that the poor fellow was caught in some way in the piles of the outlet, and, in spite of every effort, Mr Inglis could not set him free: he essayed to dive, but the tide ran so strongly that he was unable to effect his object; he dragged the poor fellow backwards and forwards, and tried to reach beneath the waves at the obstruction, but without success; and, as a last resource, tried to keep the poor boy's head above water until assistance arrived; but this even he found impossible, for the tide had so risen that it now covered him completely with every wave that washed in. Mr Inglis made one more desperate effort to free the poor fellow, but without success; and then, feeling his power failing, he turned to reach the shore, just as Harry swam up to beg of him to come back, for he was fearful lest his father should be too fatigued to return. And it was time he did return, for it required all his strength to reach the shore, where he arrived just as a boat was launched, and four men put off to try and save the poor boy.
Mr Inglis and Harry hurried into the inn, where they borrowed dry clothes, and when dressed they heard the mournful news that the body had not been recovered, for the men could not even find the place from the fact of the rapid rise of the tide. But Mr Inglis felt now how hopeless was the case, even if the poor lad's remains were found; and heart-sick, he hurried down to the car, and drove rapidly off homewards, the sad incident they had witnessed having deeply impressed them all, and brought strongly to their recollection the misfortune that so nearly fell upon their own home but a short time back.
The journey was soon performed, and in almost perfect silence; for, in addition to the natural fatigue felt by the party, the past adventure hung like a cloud over their spirits till they reached the rose-hung porch just in the dusk of evening.
CHAPTER TWENTY EIGHT.
At last the morning dawned that was to be Fred's last at Hollowdell Grange, and sadly and gloomily he had proceeded overnight to pack up his things in the box he had brought down with him, merely leaving out such articles as were required for immediate use. A month had slipped away so swiftly, that it seemed almost impossible that such a space could have elapsed since that hot, breathless day, when, so new and strange, he had met his cousins upon the platform, after asking Jem Barnes, the porter, to direct him to his uncle's house. So strange, and so rough and countryfied everything had appeared; and so low, dejected, and tired had he felt when he first left the train; how he had wished himself back in town! And now, how different he felt; he was as low-spirited as when he first came down, but it was with the idea of going away. All those upon whom he had at first looked with distant eyes, now seemed so dear to him. There were his uncle and aunt; his cousins; there was Old Sam; Dusty Bob, the maids; Dick, the dog; and even the raven and parrot: he was mournful at parting with all of them, and would have given anything to have stayed, if only for another day. And now he stood in his little bedroom, looking around it, almost with tears in his eyes, as he slowly dressed himself, and placed the remainder of his things in his box.
He had just finished, and was sitting moodily upon the box-lid, when Harry and Philip entered the room, both looking as dull and miserable as himself.
"Oh! dear," said Harry, "what a thing it is that holidays will go so jolly fast, and work-days so horribly slow! It ain't fair. Don't I wish that they were all to come over again; there's lots of things we have not done yet, and lots of places where we ought to have gone."
"When are you coming down again, Fred?" said Philip.
"I don't know," said Fred; "I don't want to go away. I should like to see Papa and Mamma, but I'd rather they came down here. I shall never never like old bricks-and-mortary London again. It will be so smoky, and noisy, and nasty, and miserable. Oh! I do wish I could stop."
"But you used to say that you could not think how people could live in the country, and would not believe that we could find plenty of fun down here," said Harry.
Fred would not hear this last remark, but sat moodily upon his box till breakfast time; and his cousins stayed with him—Harry all the time cutting viciously at a bit of stick with his keen-edged knife, and strewing the bedroom carpet with chips. The sun shone brighter, the sky looked more blue, and the trees greener than ever; but the boys could not enjoy that glorious morning; there was no elasticity of spirit, no bounding out into the garden; no teasing of poor old Sam; no race round the cedar-field before breakfast, for Fred sat on his box, gloomy and out of heart, Philip sat with his legs stretched out and his hands in his pockets, and Harry sat and carved away at his stick, until he was obliged to get up,—which he did with a sigh,—and go down stairs to get a fresh piece of wood.
Just then the breakfast bell rang, and Mary walked along the passage with the hot cake and eggs; but no one ran against her, for the boys tidied slowly into the room, and took their places at the table in the most dejected way imaginable. Fred could not eat; Philip could not eat; Harry could; but he ate viciously, and in a tigerish manner, and smashed in the top of his egg as though it had been the head of the engine-driver who was to take Fred up to London; while as for coffee, he kept asking for cups until Mrs Inglis refused to give him any more, when the wretched boy consoled himself with another wedge of cake.
"Come, boys; come, boys," said Mr Inglis at last; "this will never do; partings must follow meetings, and all holidays must have an end. I am sorry that your cousin must leave you; but I feel glad to see that he leaves us with regret, for that seems to say that he has enjoyed his trip. Is it not so, Fred? You have enjoyed your visit, I hope?"
"Oh! so much, Uncle," said Fred; "only it has been such a short one, and it makes me so cross to think that I didn't want to come."
Mr Inglis smiled, and said, "But you will want to come another time, I hope?"
"Oh! may I? may I come again?" burst out Fred, with eyes sparkling, and half rising from his chair.
"I shall be only too happy to see you again, my boy; but what say Harry and Philip. Have they asked you to come again?"
"We did not ask him," said Philip; "but Fred knows we want him to come again."
"I don't want him to go now," said Harry, with his mouth full of cake. "Do, Papa, write and ask for another week's holiday for him!"
"But you go back to school yourselves the day after to-morrow," said Mr Inglis; "and what would you do then? No, my boys, depend upon it the real secret of enjoyment is to leave off when you have had enough; and nothing is more surfeiting, more cloying, than too much pleasure. Fred must come down again; and I hope the next time he visits us we shall not nearly have him drowned. I fear that he will take a sad report of us all back with him to town."
Fred was very anxious to go away good friends with everybody, and would have liked very much to have shaken hands with Mr Jones, Bill Jenkins, and the Stapleses; but this could not very well be managed, for Mr Jones had left for the sea-side, and Bill Jenkins had gone to a situation. However, Fred bade farewell to everybody he could think of, and left messages for those he could not see; and at last the time of starting arrived, and Old Sam brought the pony and chaise round to the door.
The box was lifted in; and the little hamper filled with fruit, and the large bandbox full of curiosities that Fred had collected, all found a place by the departing visitor. The morning was brighter than ever, and everything around him looked so fresh and lovely, that a great sob would keep trying to get up into poor Fred's throat to make a noise, and the efforts he made to keep it down quite upset him. He gave such a longing farewell look up at the front of the house, and round at the garden, then kissed Mrs Inglis, and shook hands with Sam, who returned the grasp warmly, and said in a whisper about the greatest thing he could say, and that was that he wished he "warn't a-going."
Harry and Philip were in the dickey of the four-wheel chaise, both sitting in very uncomfortable positions on account of Fred's luggage; but I very much doubt whether they ever thought of their position, so engrossed were they with the one sole idea—that Fred was going, and the holidays were over. But Mr Inglis had now taken the reins from Sam, and had mounted to his seat; so that nothing remained but for Fred to follow his example, for the train would soon be due at the station— though the boys were rather in hopes that they would be too late, and so secure another day; but Mr Inglis knew what uneasiness this would cause to friends in town, so he prepared to start at once.
Fred put one foot on the step, and was just going to wave his adieu, when a sudden thought seemed to strike him, and leaping down, he rushed round by the shrubbery in the direction of the stable-yard and was out of sight in a moment. But before any one could surmise where he had gone, he reappeared, and a loud rattling of chain, and the barking of Dick, told that he had been to say good-bye to the dog. Fred was in his place in a moment; Sam let go of the pony's head; Mrs Inglis waved her hand from the porch; and Cook and Mary shook their aprons from one of the upstairs windows; the pony darted forward, the wheels spun round, and Fred felt that indeed his holiday was ended. But the bright day and the quick motion through the air served in some degree to raise the spirits of all three boys, so that, by the time they reached the railway, the excitement and bustle of hurrying Fred off gave them no time to think of sorrow; for the train came shrieking and grinding into the station; Jem Barnes was running about shouting "'ll'dell," "'ll'dell", "'ll'dell," as loudly as he could, but not a passenger responded; though a stranger would have been sadly puzzled to know what he meant. Then there was the banging of a door; the ringing of a bell; a shrill chirruping whistle; and then "puff-puff", "pant-pant," the train glided slowly past the faces of Mr Inglis, Harry, and Philip; then faster and faster past the various objects familiar to the young traveller; and then again faster and faster still, till at last all grew stranger and stranger, and Fred Morris sank back in his seat, thought over the events of the past month, and began to thoroughly realise the truth that he had finished his visit to Hollowdell Grange.