But one winter, when things seemed at their worst, and it really appeared likely that Bilk would have to be given up as a bad job, his tormentors suddenly conceived an idea, and proceeded to put it into practice in the manner I am about to relate in this most veracious history.
The neighbourhood of Holmhurst had for some weeks past been honoured by the presence of a gang of gipsies, who during the period of their sojourn had rendered themselves conspicuous by their diligence in their triple business of chair-mending, fowl-house robbing, and fortune- telling. In the last of these three departments they perhaps succeeded best in winning the confidence of their temporary neighbours, and the private seances they held with housemaids, tradesmen's boys, and schoolgirls had been particularly gratifying both as to attendance and pecuniary result.
It had at length been deemed to be for the general welfare that these interesting itinerants should seek a change of air in "fresh fields and pastures new," and the police had accordingly hinted as much to the authorities of the camp, and given them two hours to pack up.
More than ever convinced that gratitude is hopeless to seek in human nature, the gipsies had shaken the dust of Holmhurst from the soles of their not very tidy feet, and had moved off, no one knew whither.
These proceedings had, among other persons, interested Alexander Magnus Bilk not a little, and no one mourned the rapid departure of the gipsies more than he. For Bilk had for some days past secretly hugged the idea of presenting himself to the oracle of these wise ones and having his fortune told. He had in fact gone so far as to make a secret observation of their quarters one afternoon, and had resolved to devote the next half-holiday to the particular pursuit of knowledge they offered, when, lo! cruel fate snatched the cup from his lips and swept the promised fruit from his reach. In other words, the gipsies had gone, and, like his great namesake, Alexander, Magnus mourned.
Among those who noticed his dejection and guessed the cause of it were two of his particular persecutors. Morgan and Dell had for some months been suffering affliction for lack of any notion how to get a rise out of their victim. But they now suddenly cheered up, as they felt the force of a mighty idea moving them once more to action.
"Old chap," said Morgan, "I've got it at last!"
"What have you got?" asked "the old chap"; "your back tooth, or measles, or what?"
"I've got a dodge for scoring off the Lamp-post."
"Have you, though? You are a clever chap, I say! What is it?"
What it was, Morgan disclosed in such a very low whisper to his ally that the reader will have to guess. Suffice it to say, the two dear lads put their heads together for some time, and were extremely busy in the privacy of their own study all that evening.
Bilk, little dreaming of the compassion and interest he was evoking in the hearts of his schoolfellows, retired early to his sorrowful couch, and mourned his departed gipsies till slumber gently stepped in and soothed his troubled mind. But returning day laid bare the old wound, and Alexander girded himself listlessly to the duties of the hour, with a heart far away.
He was wandering across the playground after dinner, disinclined alike for work and play, when Dell accosted him. Bilk might have known Dell by this time, but his memory was short and his mind preoccupied, and he smelt no rat, as the Irish would say, in his companion's salutation.
"Hullo! where are you off to, Lamp-post? How jolly blue you look!"
"I'm only taking a walk."
"Well, you don't seem to be enjoying it, by the looks of you. I've just been taking a trot over the common."
"I suppose the gipsies have all gone?" inquired Bilk, as unconcernedly as he could.
"Yes, I suppose so," answered Dell, offhand. "Anyhow, they've cleared off the common."
"But I was told," said Bilk rather nervously, "they'd gone quite away."
"Not all of them, anyhow," said Dell. "But of course they can't now show up the way they used to."
"Where are they, then?" asked Magnus, with a new hope breaking in upon him.
"How can I tell? All I know is there are some hanging about still, and I shouldn't wonder if they weren't far from here."
"Really, I say! I wonder where?"
"I'd as good as bet you'd come across one or two of them after dark in Deadman's Lane, or up at the cross roads, any evening for a week yet. They don't clear out as fast as fellows think. But I must be off now, as I've a lot of work to do. Ta, ta!"
Alexander stood where the other left him, in deep meditation. Those few casual observations of his schoolfellow had kindled anew the fire that burned within him. Little could Dell guess how interesting his news was! After dark! The afternoon was getting on already. The school clock had struck half-past four nearly a quarter of an hour ago, and by five it would be quite dark. Tea was at a quarter-past five, and for half an hour after tea boys could do as they liked. Yes, it would be foolish to throw away such a chance. At any rate, he would take the air after tea in Deadman's Lane, and if there he should meet—oh! how he wondered what his fortune would be! Tea was a feverish meal for Bilk that evening. He spoke to no one, and ate very little; and as the hand of the clock worked round to a quarter to six he began to feel distinctly that a crisis in his life was approaching. He was glad neither Dell nor Morgan, whose studies probably kept them in their study, were at tea. They were such fellows for worrying him, and just now he wanted to be in peace.
The meal was over at last, and the boys rushed off to enjoy their short liberty before the hour of preparation. Bilk, who had taken the precaution to put both a sixpence and a cricket-cap in his pocket, silently and unobserved slid out into the deserted playground, and in another minute stood beyond the precincts of Holmhurst.
Deadman's Lane was scarcely three minutes distant, and thither, with nervous steps, he wended his way, fumbling the sixpence in his pocket, and straining his eyes in the darkness for any sign of the gipsies. Alas! it seemed to be a vain quest. The lane was deserted, and the cross roads he knew were too far distant to get there and back in half an hour. He was just thinking of giving it up and turning back, when a sound behind one of the hedges close to him startled him and sent his heart to his mouth. He stood still to listen, and heard a gruff voice say—or rather intone—the following mysterious couplet:
Ramsdam pammydiddle larrybonnywigtail Wigtaillarrybonny keimo.
This could be no other than an incantation, and Bilk stood rooted to the spot, unable to advance or retreat. He heard a rustling in the hedge, and the incantation suddenly ceased. Then a figure like that of an old man bent with age and clad in a ragged coat which nearly touched the ground advanced slowly, saying in croaking accent as he did so—
"Ah, young gentleman, we've waited for ye. We couldn't go till we'd seen ye; for we've something to tell ye. Come quietly this way, and say not a word, or the spell's broken—come, young gentleman; come, young gentleman;" and the old man went on crooning the words to himself as he led the way with tottering steps round the hedge, and discovered a sort of tent in which sat, with her face half shrouded in a shawl, an old woman who wagged her head incessantly and chattered to herself in a language of her own. She took no notice of Bilk as he drew near tremblingly, and it was not until the old man had nudged her vehemently, and both had indulged in a long fit of coughing, that she at last growled, without even lifting her head—
"I see nothing unless for silver."
It said a great deal for Bilk's quickness of apprehension that he at once guessed this vague observation to refer to the sixpence he had not yet offered. He drew it out and handed it to the old woman, and was about to offer an apology at the same time, when the man put his hand to his mouth and snarled—
"Not a word."
The old woman took the coin in her trembling hand, and bent her head over it in silence. Bilk began to get uneasy. The time was passing, and he would have to start back in a very few moments. Could it be possible these gipsies, now they had his sixpence, were going to refuse to tell him the fortune for which he had longed and risked so much?
No! After a long pause the old woman lifted up her hand and said something in gibberish to her partner. It was a long time coming, for they both coughed and groaned violently during the recital. At length, however, the old man turned to Bilk and said gruffly—
The boy obeyed, and the old man proceeded.
"She says a great danger threatens you this night. If you escape it, you will live to be a baronet or member of parliament, and perhaps you will marry a duke's daughter; but she can't be certain of that. If you don't escape it, you will be in a lunatic asylum next week, and never come out. Not a word," added he, as Bilk once more showed signs of breaking silence. "Wait till she speaks again."
Another long pause, and then another long recital in gibberish by the old woman, broken by the same coughing and groaning as before. Then the man said—
"Stand up, and hold your hands above your head."
"You want to know how to escape the peril?" said the man.
Bilk, with his hands still up, nodded.
"To-night at nine o'clock you will hear a bell."
Again Bilk nodded. Fancy the gipsies knowing that!
"You will go up to a small room with a chair and a bed in it, and undress."
A pause, and another nod from the astonished Bilk.
"You will put on a long white robe coming down to your ankles. At half- past nine the place will be dark—as black as pitch."
Bilk shuddered a little at the prospect.
"Then will be the time to escape your peril, or else to fall a victim. To escape it you must go quietly down the stairs and out of the house. The being who rules your life will be away for this one evening, and you will escape through his room by the window, which is close to the ground."
Bilk started once more. He knew the doctor was to be out that evening, but what short of supernatural vision could tell the gipsies of it?
"You must escape in the long white robe, and run past here on to the cross roads. No one will see you. At the cross roads there is a post with four arms. You must climb it and sit on the arm pointing this way until the clock strikes twelve. The peril will then be past, and your fortune will be made. Not a word. Go, and beware, Alexander Magnus Bilk!"
The legs of the scared Alexander could scarcely uphold him as he obeyed this last order, and sped trembling towards the school. The gipsies sat motionless as his footsteps echoed down the lane and died slowly away into silence.
Then they rose to go also; but as they did so other footsteps suddenly sounded, approaching them. With an alacrity astonishing in persons of their advanced age they darted back to their place of retreat; but too late. The footsteps came on quickly, and followed them to their very hiding-place, and next moment the light of two bullseyes turned full upon them, and the aged couple were in the hands of the police.
CHAPTER THIRTY FOURCHAPTER TWO.
De Prudhom did not often allow himself the luxury of an evening out during term time. But on this particular evening he was pledged to fulfil a long-standing engagement with an old crony and fellow-bachelor, residing about two miles from the school. By some mysterious means the worthy dominie's intentions had oozed out, and Bilk was by no means the only boy who had heard of it. Mice seem to find out by instinct when the cat is away, and fix their own diversions accordingly.
I merely mention this to explain that as far as Alexander Magnus was concerned no night could have been more favourable for carrying out the intricate series of instructions laid down by the gipsy for the making of his fortune. With this reflection he consoled himself somewhat as he ran back to the school.
The doctor had already started for his evening's dissipation, if dining with Professor Hammerhead could be thus described. This eccentric old gentleman combined in one the avocations of a bachelor, a man of science, and a justice of the peace. He rarely took his walks abroad, preferring the solitude of his library, and the occasional company of some old comrade with whom to talk over old times, and unburden his mind of the scientific problems which encumbered it. On the present occasion he had lit upon a congenial spirit in worthy Dr Prudhom, and the two spent a very snug evening together over the dessert, raking up memories of the good old days when they lived on the same staircase at Brasenose; and plunging deep into abstruse questions of natural and physical science which even the sherry could not prevent from being dry.
The professor's present craze was what is commonly termed ethnology. Anything connected with the history and vicissitudes of the primitive races of mankind excited his enthusiasm, and he was never tired of inquiring into the languages, the manners, the customs, the dress, the ceremonies, and the movements generally of various branches of the human family, of whom the most obscure were sure to be in his eyes the most interesting.
It was only natural, therefore, that when Dr Prudhom made some casual reference to the recent incursion of gipsies, his host should seize the occasion to expatiate on the history of that extraordinary race; tracing them from the Egyptians downwards, and waxing eloquent on their tribal instincts, which no civilisation or even persecution could eradicate or domesticate.
"Fact is," said he, with a chuckle, "they had me to thank that they were allowed here so long. Police came to me end of first week and said they were a nuisance. I told the police when I wanted their opinion I'd ask it. End of second week police came again and said all the farmyards round had been robbed. I said I must inquire into it. He! he! All the time I was making glorious observations, my boy; a note-book full, I declare. End of third week inspector of police came and said he should have to apply at head-quarters for instructions if I wouldn't give them. Not a place was secure as long as the vagabonds stayed. Had to cave in then, and issue a warrant or so and get rid of them. Sorry for it. Much to learn ye: about them, and the few specimens brought before me weren't good ones. Young gipsies, you know, Prudhom, aren't up to the mark. You only get the true aboriginal ring about the old people. Yes, I'm afraid they're breaking up, you know. Sorry for it."
Dr Prudhom concurred, and mentioned as a somewhat significant fact that very few old gipsies had accompanied the late visitation, which consisted almost altogether of the young and possibly degenerate members of the tribe.
The discussion had reached this stage, and the professor was about to adduce evidence from history of a similar period of depression in the race, when there came a ring at the front bell, followed by a shuffling of feet in the hall, which was presently explained by the appearance of the servant, who announced that there were two constables below who wished to see his worship.
Now his worship was anything but pleased to be interrupted in the midst of his interesting discussion by a matter of such secondary importance as an interview with the police.
"Can't see them now," said he to the servant; "tell them to call in the morning." The servant retired.
"Strange thing," observed the justice of the peace; "you can shut up your school at five o'clock every night, and every cheesemonger and tinker in the place can do the same; but we've got no time we can call our own. Pull your chair up to the fire, old fellow. Let's see, what were we saying?" The servant appeared again at this point, and said—"Please, sir, they've got a couple of the gipsies, and want—"
"Eh, what!" exclaimed the professor, jumping up. "Why didn't you say so before? Gipsies! Why, Prudhom, my boy, could anything be more opportune? Show them into the library, and set a chair for the doctor. Do you hear? How fortunate this is! Now while I'm examining them, watch closely, and see if you do not observe the peculiar curve of the nostril I was speaking to you about as characterising the septentrional species of the tribe. Come away, doctor!"
And off trotted the man of science to his library, closely followed by the scarcely less eager dominie.
At the far end of the dimly-lighted room stood the constables, on either side of an aged couple of vagabonds. The old man was arrayed in a long coat which nearly reached the ground, leaving only a glimpse of a stained and weather-beaten pair of pantaloons and striped parti-coloured stockings beneath. The old woman wore a shawl, gipsy fashion, over her head, and reaching to her feet, which were shod in unusually large and heavy hob-nailed boots. The faces and hands of both were black with dirt, and bronzed with heat, and as they stood there trembling in the grasp of the law, with chattering teeth and tottering knees, they looked a veritable picture of outcast humanity.
"Prudhom, my boy," whispered the magistrate to his guest, with a most unjudicial nudge, to emphasise his remarks, "they're old ones. Was ever such luck! Knowing ones, too, I guess: they'll try to trick us with their gammon, you see. He! he! Now, constable, what have you got here?"
For the first time the elderly couple lifted their heads and looked towards the Bench. As they did so they uttered an incoherent ejaculation, and attempted to spring forward. But the active and intelligent servants of the law checked them by a vigorous grip of their arms, and crying "Silence!" in their most majestic and menacing tones, reduced them at last to order.
"See that?" whispered the professor to the doctor; "most characteristic. Simulation is of the very essence of their race. Oh, this is beautiful! Did you catch what they said just then? It was an expression in the Maeso-Shemitic dialect, still to be found in the south of Spain and on the old Moorish coast of Africa. I know it well. Well, constable?"
"If you please, your honour, I was passing near the school about half- past five this afternoon along with my brother officer when I observe the defendants crawling along beside the wall. I keeps my eye on them, and observe them going in the direction of Deadman's Lane. I follows unobserved, and observes them crawl behind a hedge. I waits to observe what follows, and presently I observe a young gentleman walking down the lane. As I expects, the male defendant comes out and offers to tell him his fortune, and I observes the young gentleman give the parties money. I waits till he leaves, and then with my brother officer we arrest the parties. That's all, your worship. Stand still, you wagabone you; do you hear?"
This last observation was addressed, not to his worship, but to the female prisoner, who once more made an effort to step forward and speak. The grip of the constable kept her where she was, but, heedless of this threatening gesture, she cried out, in a shrill, trembling voice—
"Please, sir—please, doctor, we're two of your boys."
The doctor, who had been intently looking out for the curved nostril alluded to by his host, started as if he had been shot.
"Eh, what?" he gasped; "what was that I heard?"
"Why," said the professor, in ecstasy, "it's just as I told you. Dissimulation is second nature to the tribe. No he is too big for them. The old lady says she and the other rogue are your children. Doctor, there's a notion for you!—an old bachelor like you, too! He! he!"
"We are indeed!" cried the old man, echoing the shrill tones of his helpmeet. "I'm Morgan, Dr Prudhom, and he's Dell. Indeed, we're speaking the truth. We only did it—"
"There, you see," once more observed the delighted professor; "it's the very thing I knew would happen. They know you are a schoolmaster, and they want you to believe— Oh, this is really most interesting."
The doctor seemed to find it interesting. He changed colour several times, and looked hard at the two reprobates before him. But their weather-and-dust-beaten countenances conveyed no information to his mind. Their voices certainly did startle him with something like a familiar sound; but might not this be part of the deep dissimulation dwelt upon with so much emphasis by his learned friend?
"I wouldn't have missed this for twenty pounds," said the magistrate, beaming on his guest; "my theories are confirmed to the letter."
"We only did it for a lark, sir, and we're awfully sorry," cried the old man. "We really are, aren't we, Dell?"
"Yes, sir," cried the old lady; "please let us off this time."
"Upon my word," said the doctor, getting up and advancing towards the prisoners. "I don't know—"
"Don't be a fool, Prudhom; I know them of old. Sit down, man. Constable, I shall commit the prisoners. Where are my papers?"
"Oh, doctor, please save us!" cried the old lady again. "We are speaking the truth. Let us wash our faces and take off our cloaks, and you'll see we are. Oh, we'll never do it again!"
And before the doctor could reply, or the scandalised constables could prevent it, the two gipsies cast off their outer garments, and presented themselves to the bewildered spectators in the mud-stained jerseys and knickerbockers of the Holmhurst football club! I draw a veil over the explanations, the lectures, and the appeals which followed, as also I forbear to dwell upon the consternation of the man of science, and the cruel disorganisation of all his cherished theories. It is only fair to say that the professor bore no malice, when once he discovered how the matter stood, and used his magisterial influence with the doctor to procure at any rate a mitigated punishment for the culprits.
The delinquents were ordered off to the lavatory, and left there with a can of hot water and a cube of soap, to remove the wrinkles and sunburn from their crestfallen countenances. Which done, they humbly presented themselves in the library, where the doctor, looking very stern, stood already accoutred for the journey home. The leave-taking between the two old gentlemen was subdued and solemn, and then in grim silence Dr Prudhom stalked forth into the night, followed at a respectful distance by his trembling disciples.
Till that moment the thought of Bilk had never once crossed the minds of the agitated amateur gipsies, but it flashed across them now as the doctor strode straight for the cross roads. What if the miserable Alexander Magnus should have swallowed the absurd bait laid for him, and be in the act of making his fortune on the very spot they were to pass!
They held a hurried consultation in whisper on this terrible possibility. "We shall be expelled if it comes out!" groaned Dell. "Yes; we may as well tell him at once," said Morgan. "He may not be there, you know; perhaps we'd better wait and see, in case."
So they went on in the doctor's wake, nearer and nearer to the fatal cross roads at every step.
Suddenly, as they came within a hundred yards of the signpost, the doctor stood still and uttered an exclamation, the meaning of which they were able to guess only too readily. Straining their eyes in the direction indicated, they could discern a white shadowy form hovering in the road before them. "What's that?" exclaimed the doctor in a whisper. Dell was conscious of a secret nudge as Morgan gasped—"Oh, it looks like a ghost! Oh, doctor!" and the two boys clung wildly to the doctor's arm, trembling and gasping with well-feigned terror.
Dr Prudhom trembled too, but his agitation was unfeigned. The three stood still breathless, and watched the dim figure as it hovered across their path, and then vanished into the darkness.
"What can it be?" said the doctor, bracing himself up with an effort, and preparing to walk on.
"Oh, please, sir," cried the boys, "don't go on! do let us turn back! Oh dear! oh dear!"
"Foolish boys!" said the doctor; "haven't you sense enough to know that no such thing as—ah! there it is again!"
Yes, there it was again. A faint beam of the moon broke through the clouds, and lit up the white figure once more where it stood close to the sign-post. And as they watched it seemed to grow, rising higher and higher till its head nearly touched the cross-bars. Then suddenly, and with a groan, it seemed to drop into the earth, and all was darkness once more. The boys clung one on each side to the doctor, who trembled hardly less than themselves. No one dared move, or speak, or utter a sound.
Again the moon sent forth a beam, as the figure once more appeared and slowly rose higher and higher. For a moment it seemed as if it would soar into the air, but again with a dull crash it descended and vanished.
"Boys," said the doctor hoarsely, "I confess I—I am puzzled!"
"I—I wonder," said Dell, "if I ever dare go and see what it is. I say, M-m-organ, would you g-g-go with me—for the d-d-doctor's sake?"
"Oh, Dell! I'm afraid. But—yes, I'll try."
"Brave boys!" said the doctor, never taking his eyes off the spot where the ghost last vanished.
The two boys stole forward on tiptoe, holding one another's arms; then suddenly they broke into a rush straight for the sign-post.
There was a loud shriek as the white figure rose up to meet them.
"Bilk, you idiot, cut back for your life! here's the doctor! We were only having a lark with you. Do cut your sticks, and slip in quietly, and it'll be all right. Look alive, or we're all three done for!"
The ill-starred Bilk needed no further invitation. He started to run as fast as his long legs would carry him, his night-gown flapping in the evening breeze, and his two persecutors following him with cries of "Booh!"
"Shoo!" and other formulae for exorcising evil spirits.
After a hundred yards or so the two heroes gave up the chase, and returned to the slowly-reviving doctor.
"Come along, sir," said Dell; "there's nothing there; it vanished as soon as we got to it. Let us be quick, sir, in case it comes back."
The remainder of the walk home that evening, I need hardly observe, was brisk; but it was not so brisk as the same journey accomplished by Alexander Magnus Bilk, who had reached the school a full quarter of an hour before his pursuers, and was safe between his blankets by the time that they peeped into his room on their way to bed, and whispered consolingly, "It's all up with the duke's daughter now, old man!"
The doctor may have had some dim suspicion of the real state of affairs; but if so, he gave no sign, and the boys, happy in their escape from what might have proved a grave matter, were content to forego all further practical jokes of the kind for the rest of the session.
CHAPTER THIRTY FIVE.
A NIGHT IN THE DREADNOUGHT.
Chapter I. Stowaways.
We were spending the winter of 185—, my young brother Jack and I, with our grandfather at Kingstairs, a quiet little seaside village not a hundred miles from the Nore.
I am not quite clear to this day as to why we were there—whether we were sent for a treat, or for a punishment, or whether I was sent to take care of Jack, or Jack was sent to take care of me. I can't remember that we had committed any unusually heinous offence at home. Indeed, since our attempt a week or two previously to emulate history by smothering the twins, after the manner of the princes in the Tower, we had been particularly quiet, not to say dull, at home. For the little accident of the squib that went off in the night nursery in the middle of the night counted for nothing, nobody being hurt, and only the head nurse and our aunt having hysterics.
So that when, the day after we had broken up for the holidays, our father told us we were going to spend Christmas at grandfather's, there was nothing in our past conduct to suggest that the step was to be regarded in the light of a punishment.
All the same, it was no great treat. At least it would have been far more of a treat to spend Christmas at home, and carry out our long- cherished design of digging at the bottom of the garden till we reached the fire in the middle of the earth, an operation which we reckoned would occupy at least a week; to say nothing of the usual Christmas parties, which we did not see the fun of missing, and the visits to the Tower and the Monument, which always seemed to be part of every Christmas holiday.
However, as it was all settled for us, and everybody seemed to think it a great treat for us, and further, as Jack had a boat which wanted sailing, we yielded to the general wish, and reminding everybody that the presents could be sent down in a trunk a day or two before the 25th, we took our leave and repaired to Kingstairs.
Our father came with us, just to see us settled down, and then returned to town. And it was not till after he had gone that we began to think it rather slow to be left alone down there with only grandfather and Jack's boat for company.
Grandfather was very old. We always used to put him down at a round hundred years, but I believe he was only seventy-five really. However, he was not as young as we were, and being rather infirm and subject to rheumatism, he preferred staying indoors near the fire to coming with us over the rocks and sailing Jack's boat in mid-December.
He little knew the pleasure he missed, of course! Happily, he did not insist on our staying indoors with him, and the consequence was we managed to do pretty much as we liked, and indeed rather more so than he or any one else interested in our welfare supposed.
Kingstairs, as any one who has been there knows, is not a very exciting place at the best of times. In summer, however, it is a pleasant enough retreat, where family parties come down from town for a week or so, and spend their days boating in the pretty bay, or else basking on the sands under the chalk cliffs, where the children construct fearful and wonderful pits and castles, and arm-chairs for their mothers to sit in, or canals and ponds in which to sail their craft. In fine weather nothing is so enjoyable as a day on the rocks, hunting for crabs and groping for "pungars," or else strolling about on the jetty to watch the packet-boat go out to meet the steamer, or see the luggers coming in after a week's fishing cruise in the German Ocean.
All this is pleasant enough. But Kingstairs in July and Kingstairs in December are two different places.
The lodging-houses were all desolate and deserted. The boats were all drawn high and dry up on the jetty. The bathing-machines stood dismally in the field behind the town. Not a soul sat in an arm-chair on the sands from morning to night. No one walked along the cliffs except the coastguardsmen. The London steamer had given up running, and no one was to be seen on the jetty but an occasional sailor, pipe in mouth and hands in pockets, looking the picture of dismalness.
You may fancy Jack and I, under these depressing circumstances, soon got tired of sailing the boat. And when one day, after we had waited a week for the water to calm down, we started it, with all sail crowded, before half a gale of wind, from the jetty steps, and watched it heel over on to one side and next moment disappear under the foam of a great wave which nearly carried us off our feet where we stood, we decided there was not much fun to be had out of Kingstairs in December.
It was often so rough and stormy that it was impossible to get to the end of the jetty; and on these occasions we were well enough pleased to take shelter in the "look-out," a big room over the net-house, reached by a ladder, where there was generally a fire burning, and in which the sailors and boatmen of the place always congregated when they had nothing else to do.
We struck up acquaintance with one or two of these rough tars, who, seeing perhaps that we were in rather a dismal way, or else glad of anything in the way of a variety, used to invite us up to warm ourselves at the fire. We very soon got to feel at home in the "look-out," and found plenty of entertainment in the yarns and songs with which the men whiled away the time.
A great deal of what we heard, now I remember it, was not very improving; the songs, many of them, were coarse, and as for the yarns, though we swallowed them all at the time, I fancy they were spun mostly out of the fancy of the narrators. Wonderful stories they were, of shipwreck, and battle, and peril, over which we got so excited that we lay awake at night and shuddered, or else dreamed about them, which was even worse.
One man, I remember, told us how he fought with a shark under water in the South Seas, and stabbed it with the knife in his right hand, just as the monster's teeth were closing on his other arm. And to make his story more vivid he bared his great shaggy arm, and showed us an ugly white scar among the tattoo marks above the elbow. Another man told us how he had stood beside Nelson on the "Victory," just as the admiral received his death-wound; and it never occurred to us to wonder how a man of not more than thirty-five could have been present at that famous battle, which took place fifty years ago! But the yarn that pleased us most was the one about the wreck of the "Wolf King," when the Kingstairs lifeboat, the "Dreadnought," put out in a tremendous gale, and reached her just as she was going down, and rescued sixteen of her crew. This story we called for over and over again, till we knew it by heart. And many a time, as we lay awake at night, and heard the wind whistling round the house, we wondered if it was a storm like this when the "Wolf King" went down, or whether any ship would be getting on to the Sands to-night.
It was Christmas Eve—a wild, blustering night. It had been blowing up hard for several days now, and we were used to the howling of the wind and the roar of the waves on the beach. We had gone to bed tired and excited, for the promised hamper had arrived that afternoon, and we had been unpacking it. What a wonderful hamper it was! A turkey to begin with, and a Swiss Family Robinson, and a tool-box, and a telescope, and a pair of home-made socks for grandfather. We were fain to take possession of our treasures at once, but the old gentleman forbade it, and made us put them all back in the hamper and wait till the morning.
So we went to bed early, hoping thereby, I suppose, to hasten the morning. But instead of that, the hours dragged past as though the night would never go. We heard nine o'clock strike, and ten, and eleven. We weren't in the humour for sleeping, and told one another all the stories we knew—finishing up, of course, with the wreck of the "Wolf King." Then we lay for a long time listening to the storm outside, which seemed to get wilder and wilder as the night dragged on. The tide, which had been only just turned when we went to bed, sounded now close under the house, and the thunder of the great waves as they broke on the sand seemed to make the very earth vibrate.
Surely it must have been a night like this when the "Wolf King"—
"Are you awake?"
"It's a storm, isn't it?"
There was a silence for some time, and I supposed Jack had dozed off, but he began again presently. "Tom!"
"Hadn't we better go on the jetty?"
"There might be a wreck, you know."
"So there might."
Next moment we were out of bed and dressing quietly.
We need not have minded about the noise, for the roar of the storm outside would have prevented any one from hearing sounds twenty times louder than those we made, as we crept into our clothes and pulled on our boots.
"All ready, Jack?"
"Yes; mind how you go down."
We crept downstairs, past grandfather's room, where a light was burning, down into the hall, and through the passage to the back door. We pulled the bolts and opened it carefully. Fortunately, it was on the sheltered side of the house. Had it been the front, the blast that would have rushed in would certainly have discovered our retreat.
We stepped cautiously out and closed the door behind us. We were surprised to find how still it seemed at first, compared with what we had imagined. But next moment, as we got past the back of the house and came suddenly into the full force of the wind, we knew that the storm was even fiercer than we supposed. At first we could barely stand, as with heads down and knees bent we struggled forward. But we got more used to it in a little while, and once in Harbour Street we were again in shelter.
Harbour Street was empty. No one saw us as we glided down it towards the jetty. We heard the church clock strike half-past eleven, the chimes being swept past us on the wind.
As we turned out of Harbour Street on to the jetty the force of the gale once more staggered us, and we had almost to crawl forward. There were lights and the cheery glow of a fire in the "look-out," and we knew there must be plenty of sailors there. But somehow at this time of night we did not care to be discovered even by our friends the sailors. So we kept on, holding on to the chains, towards where the red light burned at the jetty-head.
We were too excited to be afraid. One of those strange spirits of adventure had seized upon us which make boys ready for anything, and the thought of standing alone at midnight at the pier-head in a storm like that did not even dismay us.
But before we were half-way along we found that it was not the easy thing we imagined. A huge wave struck the jetty behind the wall under which we crept, and next moment a deluge of spray and foam shot up and fell, drenching us to the skin. And almost before we knew what had happened another and another followed.
We turned instinctively towards the "look-out," but as we did so a fourth wave, huger than all the rest, swept the jetty from end to end, and but for the chain, on to which we clung, we should have been washed off.
Our only chance was to run for the nearest shelter, and that was the lee of the tarpaulin-covered lifeboat, which lay up on its stocks, out of the reach of the spray, and seeming to us to offer as much protection ashore as it could do afloat.
Half a dozen staggering steps brought us to it. But even in this short space another wave had drenched us. We were thankful to creep under its friendly shelter, and once there we wondered for the first time how we were ever to get back. Our hearts were beginning to fail us at last. We were cold and shivering, and wet through, and now the rain came in gusts, to add to our misery.
"Couldn't we get inside?" said Jack, with chattering teeth.
As he spoke a shower of salt spray leapt over the boat and deluged us. Yes; why not get inside under the tarpaulin, where we could shelter at once from the cold, and the wet, and the wind? Nobody could see us, and if any one came we could jump out, and presently, perhaps, the storm might quiet down, and we could get back to bed.
Jack had already clambered up the side, and lifted a corner of the tarpaulin. I followed, and in a minute we were snugly stowed away, in almost as good shelter as if we had never left our bedroom.
Then we sat and listened drowsily to the wind raging all round, and heard the spray falling with heavy thuds on the tarpaulin above us.
"It must be past twelve, Jack," said I; "a Merry Christmas to you."
But Jack was fast asleep.
Chapter II. The Rescue.
How long Jack and I had lain there, curled up under the bows of the "Dreadnought" that stormy Christmas morning, I never knew. For I, like him, had succumbed to the drowsy influence of the cold and wet, and fallen asleep.
I remember, just before dropping off, thinking the storm must be increasing rather than otherwise, and vaguely wondering whether the wind could possibly capsize the boat up here in the top of its runners. However, my sleepiness was evidently greater than my fears on this point, and I dropped off, leaving the question to decide itself.
The next thing I was conscious of was a strange noise overhead, and a sudden dash of water on to the floor of the boat just beside me. Then, before I could rub my eyes, or recollect where I was, the "Dreadnought" seemed suddenly alive with people, some shouting, some cheering, while the loud bell at the pierhead close by mingled its harsh voice with the roar of the storm.
"Stand by—cut away there!" shouted a hoarse voice from the boat. Then it flashed across me! The "Dreadnought" was putting out in this fearful storm to some wreck, and—horrors!—Jack and I were in her!
"Wait, I say, wait! Jack and I are here. Let us out!" I cried.
In the noise, and darkness, and confusion, not even the nearest man noticed me as I sprang up with this terrified shout.
I shook Jack wildly and shouted again, trying at the same time to make my way to the stern of the boat.
But before I had crossed the first bench, before the two men seated there with oars up, ready for the launch, perceived us, there was a cheer from the jetty, the great boat gave a little jolt and then began to slide, slowly at first, but gaining speed as she went on, and I knew she was off.
That short, swift descent seemed to me like an eternity. The lights on the jetty went out, the cheers were drowned, and—
A rough hand caught me where I stood half across the bench and drove me back down beside Jack, who was yet too dazed to stir. Next instant with a rush and a roar we plunged into the tempest, and all was blackness!
It seemed to me as if that first plunge was to be the last for the gallant boat and all in her. The bows under which we crouched, clinging for dear life to a ring on the floor, were completely submerged. The water rushed over us and around us, nearly stunning us with its violence and deafening us with its noise.
But presently we rose suddenly, and the boat shot up till it seemed to stand on end, so that, where we sat, we could see every inch of it from stem to stern, and the dim outline of Kingstairs jetty behind. At the same moment the ten oars dropped into their rowlocks, the coxswain, with his sou'-wester pulled down tight on his head, and a hand raised to screen his eyes from the sleet, shouted something—the boat soared wildly up the wave, and once again all was darkness for us.
How the brave boat ever got through that first half-mile of surf is a mystery to me. Every wave seemed as though it would pitch it like a plaything across to the next. Now we shot up till we looked down on the coxswain below us as from the top of a mast, and next instant we looked up at him till it seemed a marvel how he held to his place, and did not drop on to us. All the while the men tugged doggedly at the oars, heeding neither the waves that broke over them and flooded the boat, nor the surf that often nearly knocked the oars from their hands.
And what of Jack and me? We crouched there, close together, clutching fast at the friendly ring, looking out in mute terror on to this fearful scene, too stupefied to speak, or move, or almost to think. Had any one seen us? or had the hand which drove me down at the launch saved me from my danger by accident? I began to think this must be so, when the man nearest us, whom even in his cork jacket and sou'-wester I recognised as the hero of the shark story in the "look-out," turned towards us.
He was not one of the rowers, but had been busily drawing in and coiling a line close beside us during those first terrific plunges of the boat after she had taken the water. But now he turned hurriedly to where we sat, and without a word seized me roughly by the arm and drew me to my feet. I made sure I was to be cast overboard like Jonah into that fearful sea. But no. All he did was to throw a cork jacket round me, and then thrust me down again to my old place, just as a great wave broke over the prows and seemed almost to fill the boat. As soon as this had passed and the water swirled out from the boat, he seized Jack and equipped him in the same way. Then throwing a tarpaulin coat over us, he left us to ourselves, while he mounted his watch in the bows and kept a look-out ahead.
The cork jackets, if of no other use, helped to warm us a bit, as also did the coat, and thankful for the comfort, however small, we settled down to see the end of our adventure and hope for the best.
Settled down, did I say? How could any one settle down in an open boat on a sea like that, with every wave breaking over our heads and half drowning us, and each moment finding the boat standing nearly perpendicular either on its stem or its stern? How the rowers kept their seats and, still more, held on to their oars and pulled through the waves, I can still scarcely imagine. But for the friendly ring on to which Jack and I held like grim death, I am certain we should have been pitched out of the boat at her first lurch.
The "Dreadnought" ploughed on. Not a word was spoken save an occasional shout between the coxswain and our friend in the bows as to our course. I could see by the receding lights of Kingstairs, which came into sight every time we mounted to the top of a wave, that we were not taking a straight course out, but bearing north, right in the teeth of the wind; and I knew enough of boats, I remember, to wonder with a shudder what would happen if we should chance to get broadside on to one of these waves. Presently the man by us shouted—"You're right now. Bill!"
The coxswain gave some word of command, and we seemed to come suddenly into less broken water. The men shipped their oars, and springing to their feet, as if by one motion, hoisted a mast and unfurled a triangular sail.
For a moment the flapping of the canvas half deafened us. Then suddenly it steadied, and next minute the boat heeled over, gunwale down on the water, and began to hiss through the waves at a tremendous speed.
"Pass them younkers down here!" shouted Bill, when this manoeuvre had been executed.
Jack and I were accordingly sent crawling down to the stern under the benches, and presented ourselves in a pitiable condition before the coxswain.
He was not a man of many words at the best of times, and just now, when everything depended on the steering, he had not one to waste.
"Stow 'em away, Ben," he said, not looking at us, but keeping his eyes straight ahead.
Ben, another of our acquaintance, dragged us up beside him on the weather bulwarks, and here we had to stand, holding on to a rail, while the boat, with her sail lying almost on the water, rushed through the waves.
We were no longer among the breaking surf through which we had had to straggle at starting, although the sea still rolled mountains high, and threatened to turn us over every moment as we sailed across it. But the gallant boat, thanks to the skilful eye and hand of the coxswain, kept her head up, and presently even we got used to the situation, and were able to do the same.
Where was the wreck? I summoned up courage to ask Ben, who, no longer having to row, was standing composedly against the bulwarks by our side.
"Not far now. Straight ahead."
We strained our eyes eagerly forward. For a long time nothing was visible in the darkness, but presently a bright flash of light shot upward, followed almost immediately by a blaze on the surface of the water and a dull report.
"They're firing again!" said Ben; "we'll be up to them in a jiffey!"
"What are we to do?" asked Jack dismally.
"Hold on where you are," said Ben; "and if we upset stay quiet in the water till you're picked up."
With which consoling piece of advice Jack and I subsided, and asked no more questions.
The sight of a column of lurid flame and smoke made us wonder for a moment whether the vessel in distress was not on fire as well as wrecked. But I recollected that the "Wolf King" had burned tar-barrels all night long as a signal of distress, and this we rightly concluded was what was taking place on board "our" wreck.
Ben's "jiffey" seemed a good while coming to an end, and long before it did we passed once more into broken water, and the perils of the start were repeated, with the aggravation that we were now across the wind instead of being head on. Wave after wave burst over us, and time after time, as we hung suspended on the crest of some great billow, it seemed as if we never could right ourselves. But we did.
"Stand by!" cried the coxswain, when at last a great dim black outline appeared on our starboard.
Instantly the men were in their seats; oars were put out; the mast and sail came down, and the clank of the anchor being got ready for use fell on our ears from the bows.
The wreck was now right between us and the shore, we being some distance to the windward of it. My knowledge of the story of the wreck of the "Wolf King" gave me a pretty good notion of what was going on, and even in the midst of our peril I found myself whispering to Jack—
"They're going to drop the anchor, you know, and blow down on to her—"
"Hope they've got rope enough," said Jack. For in the case of the "Wolf King" it took three attempts to get within the right distance. The coxswain of the "Dreadnought" was evidently determined not to fall into his old error this time, and, with her head to the wind and the oars holding the water, he allowed her to drift to within about eighty yards of the wreck. Then he shouted—
"Pay away, there!" and instantly we heard the cable grinding over the gunwale.
Would it hold? Even to inexperienced boys like Jack and me the suspense was dreadful as the cable ran out, and the rowers kept the boat's head carefully up.
The grinding ceased. There was a moment's pause, then came a welcome "Ay, ay!" from the bows, and we knew it was all right.
It didn't take the wind long to drive us back on our cable, stern foremost, on to the wreck, which now loomed out huge and ghostly on the wild water. As we drifted down under her stern we were conscious, amidst the smoke of the burning tar-barrels and the spray of the waves which broke over her, of a crowd of faces looking over her sides, and fancied we heard a faint cheer too. Our men still kept their oars out, and when, always holding on to our cable, we had drifted some twenty yards or so on to the lee side of the wreck, the order was given to pull alongside.
It was no easy task in the face of the wind; but the men who had taken the "Dreadnought" through the surf off Kingstairs jetty were not likely to fail now. A few powerful strokes brought us close under the lee of the wreck, ropes were thrown out fore and aft, and in a few minutes we lay tossing and kicking, but safely moored within a yard or two of the ill-starred vessel.
Half a dozen of our men were up her sides and on board in a moment, and we could hear the cheers with which they were greeted as they sprang on deck. No time was to be lost. The wreck was creaking in every timber, and each wave that burst over her, deluging us on the other side, threatened to break her in pieces. One mast already was broken short, and hung helplessly down, held only by her rigging to the deck. The other looked as though it might go any moment, and perhaps carry the wreck with it.
If she were to capsize now, what would become of us?
It seemed ages before our men reappeared.
One of them shouted down—
"There's twenty. Germans."
"Look sharp with them."
We could see a cloaked figure lifted on to the bulwarks of the wreck and held there. A wave had just passed. As the next came and lifted us up with a lurch towards her, some one cried "Jump!" and she obeyed wildly— almost too wildly, for she nearly overleaped us. Mercifully there were stout arms to catch her and place her in safety. The other woman followed; and then one after another the crew, until, with thankful hearts, we counted twenty on board.
Our work was done. No! There was a report like a crack of thunder over our heads, a shout, a shriek, as the mainmast of the wreck gave way with a crash, and swayed towards us.
"Jump!" shouted the coxswain to our men, who were waiting for the next wave to bring the boat to them. "Cut away for'ard, there!"
Another moment and the mast would be on us and overwhelm us! They jumped, although we were down in the trough of the wave, yards below them. At the same moment the rope in the stern was cut loose, and the boat swung round wildly, just in time to clear the mast as it fell with a terrific crash overboard. But our men? Four of them landed safely in our midst; but the others? Oh! how our hearts turned cold as we saw that two were missing, and knew that they mast be in that boiling, furious water! We sprang wildly to the side, in the mad hope of seeing them, or perhaps even reaching them a hand but a stern order from the coxswain sent us back to our places.
A minute of awful suspense followed. The oars were put up, and, still held by her stern cable, the boat was brought up again alongside. In a minute a shout from the prow proclaimed that one at least of the missing ones was discovered, and presently a dripping form clambered over the side of the boat close to us and coolly sat down to his oar, as if nothing had happened.
Another shout—this time not from the boat, but from the water. Our other man had been carried the wrong side of us by the wave, and could not reach us. But a rope dexterously pitched reached him where he floated, and we had the unspeakable joy of seeing him at last hauled safely on board, exhausted, but as unconcerned as if drowning were an ordinary occurrence with him.
How thankfully we saw the last cable which held us to the wreck cast loose, and found ourselves at length, with our twenty rescued souls on board, heading once more for Kingstairs! Little was said on that short voyage home. Sail and oar carried us rapidly through the storm. The waves that broke over us from behind were as nothing to those that had broken over us from in front. And as if in recognition of the gallant exploit of the tough old "Dreadnought," the very surf off Kingstairs beach had moderated when we reached it.
As we sighted the jetty we could see lights moving and hear a distant shout, which was answered by a ringing cheer from our men, in which Jack and I and the eighteen Germans and the two women joined. What a cheer it was! At the jetty-head we could see a large crowd waiting to receive us, and as we passed a stentorian voice shouted, "Ahoy! Have you got them two boys on board?"
"Ay, ay!" cried the coxswain; "safe and sound—the rascals!"
Rascals, indeed! As we clambered up the ladder, scarcely believing that we touched terra firma once more, and found our poor old grandfather almost beside himself with joy and excitement at the top, we considered we deserved the title.
"Thank God you're safe!" he cried, when at last he had us before a blazing fire and a hot breakfast in his dining-room. "Thank God, you rascals!"
We had done so long ago, and did it again and again, and thanked Him, not only for ourselves, but for the brave old "Dreadnought" too, so true to her name and the work she had done that night.
Before we went to bed Jack said, "Same to you, Tom." I knew what he meant. I had wished him a "Merry Christmas" at five minutes past twelve that morning, and this was his answer six hours after. What a lot may happen in six hours!
CHAPTER THIRTY SIX.
HANNIBAL TROTTER THE HERO—A CHAPTER OF AUTOBIOGRAPHY.
We know that it always is, or should be, embarrassing to a hero to recite the history of his own exploits. So if this simple narrative strikes the reader as defective, he must excuse it for that reason. For I am in this painful position, that as no one else will recount my adventures for me, I have nothing left but to do it myself. It has surprised me often that it should be so, for there have been times when I have even pictured myself reading the twentieth edition of my own memoirs, and the reviews of the Press on the same. I am not offended, however, but I am sorry, for it would have been good reading.
Without appearing immodest, may I say that the reader has really no idea what a hero the world has possessed in the person of me, Hannibal Trotter? It has been my misfortune never to be anything else. How often have I sighed for an unheroic half-hour!
I was born a hero. Glory marked me for her own from the first hour of my career. I wish she had let me alone. Had I captured a city, or rescued a ship's crew, I could not have been made more of than I was for the simple exploit of being a baby. Nobody else was thought of beside me; everybody conspired to do me honour. A fictitious glory settled upon me then, from which I have never escaped. They called me Hannibal. I was not consulted, or I should have opposed the name. It confirmed me in a false position. There was no chance of not being a hero with such a name, and I was in for it literally before I knew where I was.
The day I first walked, General Havelock was a fool to me. I must have been eighteen months at the time, but when the word went forth, "Hannibal walks!" I was simply deafened by the applause which greeted my feat. It wasn't much better when, at the very unprecocious age of two, I gave vent to an inarticulate utterance which, among those who ought to have known better, passed for speech. I assure you, reader, for the next few months I had the whole family hanging on my lips. How would you like your whole family hanging on your lips? But then you weren't born a hero.
Well, it went on. My infancy was one sickening round of glory. Did I build a house of bricks four courses high? Archimedes wasn't in it with me. Did I sing a nursery rhyme to a tune all one note? Apollo was a dabbler in music beside me. Did one of my first teeth drop out without my knowing it? Casabianca on the burning deck couldn't touch me for fortitude. Did I once and again chance to tell the truth? Latimer, Ridley, George Washington, and Euclid might retire into private life at once, and never be heard of again!
It was a terrific role to have to keep up, and as I gradually emerged from frocks into trousers, and from an easy-going infancy into an anxious boyhood, the true nature of my affliction began to dawn upon me. Hannibal Trotter, through no choice of his own, and yet by the undoubted ordering of Fate, was a hero, and he must act as such. He must, in fact, keep it up or give it up; and a fellow cannot lightly give up the only role he has.
In due time, after heroic efforts, I was, at about the age of ten, able to read to myself, and my attention was at once directed to a class of stories congenial to my reputation. It would hardly be fair to inflict upon the patient reader a digest of my studies, but the one impression they left upon my mind was that a young man, if he is to be worth the name, must on every possible occasion both be a hero and show it.
This conclusion rather distressed me; for while the first condition was easy and natural enough, the second was no joke. I knew I was a hero; I could not doubt it, for I had been brought up to the business, and to question it would be to question the veracity of every relative I had. But try all I would I couldn't manage to show it.
After a considerable amount of patient study, my conceptions of a hero had resolved themselves into several leading ideas, which it may be of use to the reader if I repeat here:—
1. He must save one life or more from drowning.
2. He must stop runaway horses.
3. He must rescue people from burning houses.
4. He must pull some one from under the wheels of a train.
5. He must encounter and slay a mad dog in single combat.
6. He must capture a burglar; and 7. He must interpose his body between the pistol of the assassin and the person of some individual of consequence.
In my researches I had collected a mass of information under each of these heads, and was perfectly acquainted with what was becoming in a hero in each emergency.
But, as I have said, try all I would the chance never came.
I was full of hopes when we went to the seaside that emergency number one at least might make an opening for me. I spent hours every morning on the beach watching the bathers, and longing to hear the welcome shout of distress. I sat with my boots unlaced and my coat ready to fling off at a moment's notice. I tempted my sisters to go and bathe where the shore shelved rapidly and the ebb washed back strongly. They went, and to my chagrin were delighted with the place, and learned to swim better than I could.
There was a man who went out every morning to bathe from a boat. I was always at the pier-head watching him, but he went into the water and scrambled out of it again over the stern of the boat with ruthless regularity, and quite mistook my interest in him for admiration, which was the very last sentiment I harboured.
Once I made sure my chance had come. It was a warm day, and the shore was crowded. Most of the people had finished bathing, and were spread about the sands drying their back hair and reading their papers. One adventurous bather, however, remained in the water. I had anxiously watched him swim round the pier-head and back, ready—longing—to see him cast his hands above his head and hang out other signals of distress. But it seemed I was again to be disappointed. He came in swimming easily, and mightily pleased with himself and his performance. He was about twenty yards off his machine and I was beginning to give him up, when to my delight I saw his hands go up and his head go down, and heard what I fondly hoped was a yell of despair.
In a moment—two moments, I should say, for one of my boots was not quite enough unlaced—I was floundering in the water in my flannel shirt and trousers, striking out wildly for the spot where he had disappeared. I had gathered from the authorities I had consulted that heroes, under these circumstances, got over distances in a shorter time than it takes to record it. This was not my experience. It took me a long time to get half the way, and by that time my clothes were very heavy and I was very tired. Moreover, my man was still invisible.
Of course I could not turn back. Even if I did not succeed in fishing him out, it was a "gallant attempt," which would be almost as good. Partly to see how the crowd was taking it, and partly to rest myself, I turned over on my back and floated. This do doubt was a tactical error; for as a rule a hero does not float out to save any one's life. In my case it did not much matter, for the first thing I perceived as I turned was my drowning man's head bobbing up merrily between me and the shore, having enjoyed his long dive and wholly unaware of the "gallant attempt" which was being made to rescue him from a watery grave.
As he caught sight of me, however, floundering on my back, and scarcely able to keep my head up for the weight of my clothes, his face became alarmed. "Hold up a second!" he shouted. Half a dozen strong strokes brought him to my side, and before I could explain or decline, he had gripped me by the two shoulders and was punting me ignominiously towards the shore.
It was a painful situation for me; the more so that I was quite done up and scarcely able to stagger out of the water into the arms of my affrighted relatives.
"Lay him on his back and work his arms up and down till you get all the water out of him, and then put him between hot blankets," cried my preserver, "and he'll be all serene. They ought to make a shallow place somewhere for these kids to bathe, where they won't get out of their depths. Bless you, ma'am," added he, in reply to my mother's thanks, "it's not worth talking of. It all comes in a day's work, and you're very welcome."
I was rather glad to leave the seaside after that; and whenever in the course of my future readings I came upon any further reference to emergency number one, I discreetly passed it over.
But hope springs eternal in the human breast, and the resources of heroism were by no means exhausted.
The drowning business had missed fire. I would go into the runaway- horse line, and try how that would stand me for glory.
So after a careful study of the theory of the art from my books, I took to haunting Rotten Row in my leisure hours with a view to business. I must confess that it is far easier to stop a runaway horse on paper than on a gravel drive. I speculated, as one or two specially reckless riders dashed past me, on what the chance would be of making a spring at the bridle of a horse going half as fast again as theirs, and bringing him gracefully on to his knees. I didn't like the idea. And yet had not a fellow done it in one of Kingsley's novels, and another in one of Lever's?
At last I screwed myself up to it. I had worked the thing out carefully, and arranged my spring and everything. But I was unlucky again when the time came.
I remember the occasion well—painfully well. It was a bright May afternoon. I had given the carriages up as hopeless—they drove far too soberly—and was taking a forlorn glance up and down the ride at the equestrians, when I perceived a youth approach on a very dashing animal, which, if it was not bolting, was sailing remarkably close to the wind in that direction. The ride was pretty clear, and the few seconds I had in which to make up my mind were enough for me. I heard some one say close beside me, "He'll be chucked!"
Instantly I dived under the rail and dashed out into the road. There was a shout and a yell, and the young gentleman had to pull his mare up on her haunches to avoid riding me down. Before I could act under these circumstances a mounted policeman dashed up, and collaring me by the coat, swung me along beside him a yard or two, and then, with a box on the ears, pitched me back in among the crowd.
I should have liked to explain, but he did not give me time.
"Young fool!" said one of the crowd; "you might have killed him. Do you know who that was?"
"Who?" I gasped, for I was out of breath. "That young man who—"
"Yes—that young man's the Prince of Wales."
It's twenty-six years ago since it happened, and probably the King has forgotten the adventure. I haven't. I retired from the runaway-horse business that very afternoon.
Another door was shut against me. Still there were others left, and the house-on-fire line had a good deal to recommend it. It was a thing in which one could not well make a mistake. It had been possible, as I had found out by painful experience, to mistake the pranks of a lively swimmer for drowning, and the capers of a lively mare for bolting. But there was no mistaking a house on fire when you saw one. People in a burning house, moreover, would be likely to give every facility possible for their own rescue, and the chances were one would not find many competitors to deprive one of the glory. On the whole, I warmed up to this new opening considerably.
Of course one never has the good fortune to have a fire in one's own house when it is wanted. It would have been exceedingly convenient for me to have to rescue my own family from the flames. As it was, I had to spend a good many dreary nights in the street in the neighbourhood of the fire alarms before I so much as smelt fire.
It was a good one when it came. A great warehouse in the City was gutted, and those who saw the blaze are not likely to forget it in a hurry. I saw it. I had scampered with all my might after one of the engines, but only to find a dense crowd on the spot before me. There was a wide circle kept round the place, and never did circus-goers fight for a front row in the gallery as did that crowd fight for a front place at this grand show.
It was nearly an hour before, by dint of squeezing, sneaking, fighting, and beseeching, I could get to the front. By that time the fire had done its worst. Still I had noted with satisfaction that no fire- escapes had yet been brought up, so that any unfortunate inmates were sure to be still safe for me. The firemen were playing on the flames with their hoses, and every now and then an alarm of a tottering wall sent them flying back to a safe distance. It was a grand opportunity for me to brave these poltroons on their own ground, and show them how a hero behaves at a fire.
So I took advantage of a policeman turning another way, to break bounds and run into the open space.
"Come back!" shouted the policeman.
"Come back!" yelled the mob.
"Mind the wall!" cried a fireman.
I was delighted, and already glowed with glory.
Alas! how soon our brightest hopes may be damped!
The fireman, seeing that I still advanced on the burning ruin, wheeled round on me with his hose, and before I could count five had drenched me through and through, and half-stunned me with the force of the water into the bargain.
The crowd screamed with laughter; the police seized me by all fours; the fireman executed a final solo on my retreating person, and the next thing I was aware of was being delivered at my own door from a four- wheeled cab, with my interest in conflagrations completely extinguished.
My faith in the history of heroism began to be a trifle shaken after this adventure. However, I was committed to a course of gallant action; and it were cowardice to lose heart after a rebuff or two. I must at any rate try my hand at a railway rescue before giving in.
In my studies I had only met with one successful case of extracting individuals from between the wheels of locomotives in motion, and therefore entered upon this branch of my experiments with considerable doubt. Nor did anything occur to remove that doubt. I watched the trains carefully for a month; and whenever I saw any one place himself near the edge of the platform as a train came up, I made a point of placing myself hard by. But we never got beyond the platform; and, indeed, the whole course of my experiments in this department resulted in nothing beyond my one day being knocked down by the unexpected opening of a carriage door; and on another occasion being nearly placed under arrest for clutching a man's arm as the train came up, he said with intent "to chuck him on the line," but as I told him, and unsuccessfully tried to explain to him, because he seemed to me to be about to be swept over by the engine.
It was on the whole a relief to me, when, in order to extricate myself from the serious consequences of this last adventure, I was obliged to promise never to do such a thing again. That settled the locomotive business. As a man of honour I was forced to quit it, and cast about me for a new road to glory.
Now, I think it argues considerably for my heroism that after the unfortunate result of so many adventures I should still persist in keeping up my struggle after Fame. I might fairly have given her up after the honest endeavours I had made to win her. But, whatever others might do, as long as a chance remained everything combined to keep Hannibal Trotter at his post.
So, with not a little searching of heart, I turned my attention to mad dogs. I must confess that my heart did not go out towards them, and I could have wished that that mark of heroism had been omitted by the authorities. But, on the contrary, it was insisted upon vehemently, and there was no getting out of it. So, like another Perseus, I choked down my emotion and girded myself for the new fray.
I knew the authorities, as a rule, were silent as to any precautions which their heroes may have taken for this particular service. Still, as they said nothing against it, I did the best I could by means of my unaided genius.
I contrived a pair of secret zinc leggings to wear under my trousers. They hurt me, it is true, and impeded my movements; still, I felt pretty safe in them. I also adopted the habit of wearing stout leather driving-gloves on every occasion, besides concealing an effective life- preserver about my person. Nothing, in short, was wanted to complete my equipment but the mad dog; and he never turned up.
One day I saw by the paper that there was one at large in Hackney, and thither I repaired, in greaves and gauntlets, with my life-preserver in my bosom. But though I met many dogs, they were all of them sane. Not one of them foamed at the mouth or looked out of the corner of his eyes.
There was one collie certainly who appeared to me more excited than the rest, and who by his proceedings seemed to menace the safety of a small group of children who were taking their walks abroad with their nurse. Not to be precipitate, I watched him for some time, to make quite sure I was right. Then, when one of the children uttered a scream, I felt my hour was come. So I drew my life-preserver and advanced boldly to the rescue. At the sight of me in this threatening attitude the children and nurse all set up a scream together, and the dog, showing his teeth and uttering a low growl, caught me by the fleshy part of my leg above the zinc and held me there until his little masters and mistresses, having recovered their wits and heard my scarcely articulate explanations, called him off, and allowed me to go in peace—I might almost say in pieces.
I was a good deal discouraged after this unfortunate affair, and might have postponed indefinitely my further experiments, had not fortune unexpectedly placed in my way what appeared to be an opportunity of dealing with a burglar after the most approved fashion of heroism. I was on a visit to an uncle who lived in rather a grand house at Bayswater, and kept up what people are wont to call a good deal of style. This "style" always rather depressed me, for it left me no opening for distinguishing myself on the heroic side of my character, and after a week I was beginning to get home-sick, when a curious incident occurred to break the monotony of my visit.
I was put to sleep in a sort of dressing-room immediately over the drawing-room, and here one night—or rather one dark winter morning—I was suddenly awakened by the sound of voices in the room below. I lay, as people are apt to lie under such circumstances, stiff and still for five minutes, listening with all my ears. There came into my mind while thus occupied all that the authorities had said in reference to burglars; and when, after a lapse of five minutes, the voices again became audible, I knew exactly what was expected of me.
I looked at my watch. Five o'clock. I was certain it could not be the servants; besides, even through the floor I could tell the voices were male. I glided from my couch, and pulled on my nether garments, and then warily set my door ajar. I could see a light through the chink of the door in the landing below, and heard a stealthy footstep. So far, so good. I returned to my room, seized the poker and the water-bottle, and then cautiously descended to the drawing-room door.
Here I once more listened carefully. The keyhole was not eligible for observation, but my sense of hearing was acute. I heard—and this rather surprised me—some one in the room whistle softly to himself, then a gruff, typical burglar's voice said, "Now, then, with that there sack! Fetch 'im 'ere, or I'll warm yer!"
I heard the whistling cease, as something was dragged across the floor. "Now, then," said the first voice, "wake up, Jemmy." That was enough for me. I recognised in this last name a term inseparably connected with burglary; and, not waiting longer, I flung open the door, and with a shout, as much to keep up my own courage as to alarm the enemy, I hurled first my poker, then my water-bottle, then myself in the direction of the voices, and felt that at last I was a hero indeed.
I retain but a dim idea of what followed. I recollect a sooty sack being drawn over my head, just as a general rush of servants and male members of the family, alarmed by the hideous noise of the water-bottle and fire-irons, rushed into the room. Then there was a pause, then a babel of voice, and then, with a cuff on the outside of the sack next to where my head was, the first burglar made a speech:—"I'm bust if I sweeps yer chimbleys any more! This 'ere lunertick was handy the death of Jemmy with his missals. Bust me! I'll summons the lot of yer, see if I don't."
I will not pursue this melancholy episode, and as a veil was drawn over me at the time, I will also draw a veil over what immediately ensued. My visit to my uncle's terminated that day, and a few weeks later I saw in the paper that he had been fined L5—for an assault committed by one of his household on two sweeps.
After this I had not the heart to proceed to the last desperate expedient for acquiring immortal fame. As long as my endeavours had hurt only myself, it was not so bad, but when they recoiled on the heads of my most important relatives I felt it time to draw the line. The bullet may not yet be cast which my heroic bosom is to receive in the stead of royalty, but I shall be ready for it when it is.
Meanwhile I have been cultivating the quieter graces of life, where, if I may not be a hero, I may at least do my duty without making a noise. I am not sure, when all is said and done, whether the two things are not sometimes pretty much the same after all.
CHAPTER THIRTY SEVEN.
THE HEROES OF NEW SWISHFORD. A SCHOOL EPISODE IN FOUR CHAPTERS.
Chapter I. Consultation.
The autumn term at Swishford School was more than half over, and boys were waking up to the hope that after all the Christmas holidays, which seemed such a way off six weeks ago, might yet arrive during their lifetime. It was already rumoured that Blunt, the captain, had been invited to spend Christmas at Walkenshaw's, the mathematical Dux's, and every one knew how well Miss Walkenshaw and Blunt had "hit it" the last prize day, and prophecies were rife accordingly. More than that, Shanks, of the Fifth, had whispered in the ear of one or two bosom friends, and thus into the ear of all Swishford, that he was going into "swallows" this winter, and he had got down a book from town with instructions for self-measurement, and was mysteriously closeted in his own study every other evening with a tape. Other boys were beginning to "sit up" a little in the prospect of the coming examination, and generally there was an air of expectation about the place which was prophetic of the coming event.
On the afternoon, however, on which my story opens, two boys as they walked arm-in-arm along the cliffs towards Raveling, appeared to be engrossed in consultation, which, to judge by their serious faces, had nothing to do with Christmas. Let me introduce them to the reader. The taller of the two is a fine, sturdy, square-shouldered youth of fifteen or thereabouts, whose name in a certain section of Swishford is a household word. He is Bowler, the cock of the Fourth, who in the football match against Raveling a fortnight ago picked up the ball at half-back and ran clean through the enemy's ranks and got a touch-down, which Blunt himself acknowledged was as pretty a piece of running as he had seen in his time. Ever since then Bowler has been the idol of the lower school.
His companion is a more delicate-looking boy, of about the same age, with a cheery face, and by no means unpleasant to look at. He is Gayford, as great a favourite in his way as Bowler, a boy whom nobody dislikes, and whom not a few, especially Bowler, like very much.
These are the two who walked that afternoon towards Raveling.
"Are you sure the fellow in the book doesn't make it all up?" said Bowler dubiously.
"Not a bit of it," replied his companion. "My uncle's a captain, you know, and he says there are hundreds of islands like it, the jolliest places you ever saw, any amount of food, no wild animals, splendid weather all the year round, magnificent mountains and valleys and woods and bays, gorgeous fishing and hunting, oceans of fruit trees, everything a fellow could wish for, and not a soul on one of them."
"Rum," said Bowler reflectively; "seems rather a waste of jolly islands that."
"Yes; but the thing is they're hundreds of miles away from inhabited islands, so no one ever sees them."
"Except your uncle. I wonder he wasn't tempted to get out and take possession of one."
"That's just exactly what he said he was tempted to do," replied Gayford, stopping short excitedly. "He said very little would have tempted him to do it, Bowler."
"Oh!" was Bowler's only reply.
"And I tell you another thing," continued Gayford, "he gave me an old chart with the identical island he saw marked on it, and I've got it in my box, my boy."
"Have you, though?" said Bowler. "I'd like to have a look at it."
That evening the two boys held a solemn consultation in their study over Captain Gayford's chart, and Gayford triumphantly pointed out the little island to his friend.
"There he is," said he; "he doesn't look a big one there, but he's eight or ten miles across, my uncle says."
"That seems a fair size—but, I say," said Bowler, "how about getting there? How could any one find it out?"
"You're coming round, then," said he; "why, you old noodle, you couldn't possibly miss it. Do you see that town called Sinnamary (what a name, eh?) on the coast of South Africa? Well, don't you see the island's dead north from there as straight as ever you can go? All you want is a compass and a southerly breeze—and there you are, my boy."
"But what about currents and all that?" queried Bowler, who knew a little physical geography. "Doesn't the Gulf Stream hang about somewhere there?"
"Very likely," said Gayford; "all the better for us too; for I fancy the island is on it, so if we once get into it we're bound to turn up right."
"Anyhow," said Bowler, who was not quite convinced, "I suppose one could easily get all that sort of thing up."
"Oh, of course. But, I say, old man, what do you say?"
"Well," said Bowler, digging his hands into his pockets and taking another survey of the chart, "I'm rather game, do you know!"
"Hurrah!" said Gayford. "I know we shall be all right if we get you."
"Who do you mean by we?" asked Bowler.
"Ah, that's another point. I haven't mentioned it to any one yet; but we should want about half a dozen fellows, you know."
"Don't have Burton," said Bowler.
"Rather not; nor Wragg—but what do you say to Wallas?"
"He's muffed quarter-back rather this term, but I daresay he might do for one."
"Well then, what about Braintree?"
"Too big a swell," said Bowler.
"But he's got a rifle at home."
"Oh, ah! all serene. Stick him down."
"What do you say to having them in, and talking it over before we ask any one else?"
This prudent proposition was agreed to, an extra spoonful of tea was put in the pot, and Gayford went out and conducted his guests in personally.
"The fact is," said Gayford, after having delicately disclosed the scheme on hand, and roused his hearers to a pitch of uncomfortable curiosity, "the fact is, Bowler and I thought you two fellows might like to join us."
"You'll have to wait till the spring," said Wallas, a somewhat dismal- looking specimen of humanity. "I've got my Oxford local in January."
"Oh, of course, we shouldn't start till after that," said Gayford, ready to smooth away all obstacles.
"Warthah hot, won't it be?" said Braintree, looking at the map.
"No, I believe not," said Gayford; "there's something about the Gulf Stream, you know, keeps it fresh."
"Wum idea calling an island fwesh," said Braintree, giggling. "It'll be a fresh start for it when we take possession of it, anyhow," said Bowler. "Of course you'll bring your rifle, Braintree?"
"Warthah," replied Braintree, "in case of niggers or wobbers."
"Hope we shan't quarrel when we get out," said Wallas. "That's the way these things generally end."
"Bosh!" said Bowler; "there's no chance of that—just like you, throwing cold water on everything. Wallas."
"If you call what I say bosh," said Wallas warmly, "it's a pity you asked me to join you."
It took some time to get over this little breeze and restore the party to good humour. This was, however, accomplished in time, and the consultation continued.
"We ought to have three more fellows, at least," said Bowler. "I tell you what, each of you pick one. Who do you say, Gav?"
"Well, I fancy young Wester might do," said Gayford.
"Warthah a pwig, isn't he?" suggested Braintree.
"He is a little," replied Gayford; "but he's very obliging, and fags rather well."
"All serene. Now then, Wallas, who's your man?" asked Bowler.
"Tubbs," said Wallas. Tubbs was one of the most hopeless louts at Swishford.
Gayford gave a low whistle; but he was too anxious to preserve the harmony of the party to offer any objection.
"Now you, Braintree?"
"I say, Cwashford. Jolly fellow, and knows French, too."
"Ah, but he is such a cad," said Bowler imploringly.
"Couldn't you think of somebody else, Braintree?" asked Gayford.
"Oh, have Cwashford. He's a wewy decent fellah. I like Cwashford, you know."
"Well, there's this to be said," remarked Bowler, finding there was no getting out of it, "it may be rather a good thing to have some one to keep in order; it will give us something to do."
"Yes, I expect you'll want it," said Wallas. "My opinion is it will be jolly slow out there."
"Not a bit of it. We shall have to go out every day and shoot our game—"
"With my wifle," put in Braintree.
"And then there'll be a log hut to build and the whole place to explore, and lots of bathing and boating."
"And no lessons to do at night."
"And we can get up concerts and penny readings, you know, for the winter evenings."
"And needn't get up till half-past nine in the morning."
And so they went on, till gradually the prospect became so delightful that even Wallas warmed up to it and expressed a wish that they could start at once.
It was, however, decided that they could not manage it this term, as they would have to spend Christmas at home and provide themselves with necessaries for their journey. As to the means of getting out as far as Sinnamary, at any rate, they had no anxiety on that score, for Captain Gayford, when he once heard the object of their expedition, would be sure to take them on one of his ships, and possibly afford them much valuable information as to their further route into the bargain.
Before the council broke up one solemn and momentous step was taken.
"What shall we call our island?" asked Bowler dramatically, placing his finger on the map and looking round on his fellow-adventurers.
There was a pause, and for a moment the founders of the new empire were wrapped in silent thought. At last Gayford said—
"I know—just the thing."
"What? What? What?" inquired three voices.
It is hardly needful to add that the name was there and then duly appended to the island on the chart in red ink, which done, the company separated to sleep, and heard all night long in their dreams the crack of Braintree's "wifle" echoing among the waving woods and fertile valleys of New Swishford.
Chapter II. Preparation.
The week following the important consultation described in the last chapter was one of serious excitement to at least seven boys at Swishford.
Other fellows could not make out what was the matter, and as long as Bowler did not shirk the football match, and Gayford stuck up as usual for his house, they did not particularly care. It was certainly a novelty to see Braintree diligently reading a book in his odd moments, but when it transpired that the book was Wobinson Cwusoe, that wonder ceased. And even the surprise of seeing Crashford the lion lying down, so to speak, with Tubbs the lamb, wore away in time, and the conspirators were, on the whole, left undisturbed by Swishford to develop their plans for the eventful emigration of the coming spring.
The three last elected members of the band had fallen in promptly with the scheme, and were not a little elated at the honour conferred upon them. Crashford became quite mellow towards his old enemy Gayford, and actually paid back Bowler a half-crown which he had borrowed three terms ago. Tubbs, though less demonstrative, was equally delighted, and upset the inkpot over the chart, in his eagerness to exhibit to Wester their new home. [It was hardly worth noticing that Tubbs put his finger not on New Swishford at all, but into the centre of Peru, which he said he believed was one of the healthiest countries in all Asia.] Wester, who always made a point of agreeing with the majority, found no difficulty in rejoicing, wherever the place might be, and only wished they had not to wait so long as next spring.
"Why should we wait till then?" asked Crashford.
"Oh, it's better weather," said Gayford; "besides, Wallas is in for his Oxford local."
"Oh, that doesn't matter tremendously," said Wallas, who was beginning to think the world might after all go on if he did not pass.
"We can give him an exam, on the ship going out," said Bowler, "a Swishford local exam., you know, and offer a slice of the island if he passes."
"It strikes me," said Braintree, "a square mile of tewwitowy is warthah a wum pwize for a chap."
"But, I say," said Wester, "isn't our winter the same as their summer? so if we start now, we shall just get out in the warm weather."
"Never thought about that," said Bowler; "what do you say, Gay?"
"I know my uncle generally likes those parts not in the warm weather," said Gayford. "But then, he's been at sea all his life."
"By the way, when does his ship start?" inquired Wallas; "something depends on that, doesn't it?"
"So it does," said Gayford. "I forgot that. He got home a fortnight ago, and he gets six weeks at home. That'll bring it to the end of November."
"Just the very ticket; we must start then, I say."
"But how about my wifle if we don't go home at Cwistmas?" asked Braintree.
"Oh, bother! Couldn't you get it sent up somehow, or couldn't you fetch it next Monday?—that's the term holiday, you know."
"Hold hard," said Bowler, "I've got another plan for Monday. You know we ought to get our hands in a bit before we start, and try and find out what we really want and all that sort of thing. Now, my idea is for us to get the coastguard's boat for the day at Sound Bay (you know there's never any one there to look after it), and sail across to Long Stork Island, and knock about there for the day, just to see how we get on. Of course, we shall have to come back before six; but we must make believe we've landed there for good, and see how we manage. And, of course, if we get on there, we're bound to get on at New Swishford, for it's a far jollier place than the Long Stork."
Bowler's proposition was hailed with acclamation. His hearers were just in the humour to put their enthusiasm to the test, and the notion of a picnic on the Long Stork as a sort of full-dress rehearsal of the capture of New Swishford suited them exactly.
They proceeded immediately to discuss ways and means, and found that by putting their pocket-moneys together they could raise the very respectable sum of forty-one shillings. Reserving the odd shilling for the possible contingency of having to "square" a coastguard for the use of the boat, they had two pounds to devote to the purchase of stores, weapons, and other necessaries; and, as Gayford pointed out, of course anything they got that wasn't eatable would come in for New Swishford.
A sub-committee, consisting of Bowler, Braintree and Wester, was appointed to expend the funds of the adventurers to the best advantage, and meanwhile each member was asked to report what else he could contribute in the way of stores to the general need. Before the end of the week the list was handed in, and as the documents might some day be of immense value to the future historian of New Swishford, I quote them here.
Bowler.—A waterproof, a hat-box, a pair of cricket bails, and a fold- up chair.
Gayford.—The chart, a compass, jam-pots for baling out boats, an eight-blade knife, a hammer and tacks, and a chessboard.
Braintree.—The wifle (pwaps), Wobinson Cwusoe, gloves, and umbwellah.
Tubbs.—A crib to Sallust (sorry that's all I've got).
Crashford.—Clay pipe, pack of cards, a corkscrew, a strap, and Hal Hiccup the Boy Demon.
Wester.—Three tumblers, bottle of ginger-beer, and a bat.
Wallas.—A saucepan and two eggs, a rope, and Young's Night Thoughts.
At the same time the sub-committee reported the purchase of the following stores:—
Fourteen tins of potted shrimps, 14 shillings; Ditto ditto peaches, 14 shillings; Ditto bottles of lemonade, 3 shillings 6 pence; (1 penny each allowed on returned bottles.) Four of Stodge's spice-cakes, 4 shillings; A fishing-rod, 2 shillings 6 pence; Flies for ditto, 1 shilling; One kettle, 6 pence; One crumb-brush, 6 pence; Total, 2 pounds.
This admirable selection of stores met with universal approval. Indeed, as regards the first four items, every one so highly approved that they wanted to take every man his share for safe custody to his own study. It was, however, thought undesirable to put them to this trouble, and the sub-committee were directed to continue in charge of these and the other voluntary contributions until the eventful day.
That was not long in coming round, though to the anxious voyagers it seemed long enough. The interval was spent in deep deliberation and solemn preparation. Braintree had his boots most carefully blacked, and Crashford practised boxing all Saturday afternoon with Rubble of the Fifth; Bowler and Gayford strolled casually round to Sound Bay, to see that the boat was safe in its usual place, and prospected the distant dim outline of the Long Stork from the cliffs. Tubbs, feeling he must do something to contribute to the success of the undertaking, wrote a long letter home, which he forgot to post, asking the forgiveness of his second sister, and adding, "Address for Monday, Long Stork Island." Wallas amused himself by reading over the directions for restoring life to the apparently drowned, and Wester tidied up Bowler's study and helped him make up the stores into seven equal brown-paper packages, writing the name of the owner of each on the outside.
This done, the preparations were pronounced as complete as they could be till Monday dawned.
The town holiday was an absolutely free day for the Swishford boys. There was no call-over in the morning, and, indeed, until the evening at eight o'clock they were their own masters.
Most of the boys availed themselves of their liberty by lying in bed an hour later than usual on the November morning, a practice which greatly favoured our heroes in their design of escaping a little before dawn.
Bowler was the first up, and went round to wake the rest.
"Howwid gwind," said Braintree, sitting up for a moment in bed and rubbing his eyes, and then subsiding again under the clothes. "Needn't get up yet, Bowler, it's long before cockcrow."