"Are you sure that other was an owl too!" said Dexter excitedly.
"Course I am. Think I've been out in the woods with father after the fezzans, and stopping out all night, without knowing a howl?"
Dexter felt quite warm now.
"I never heard one before, and it frightened me."
"Yes, you're easily frightened," said Bob contemptuously. "You haven't been to sleep, have you!"
"Yes, I have."
"Then you oughtn't to have been. If you've been to sleep and let that boat go, I'll never forgive you."
Bob had hardly uttered the words when Dexter, who had forgotten all about the boat, ran to the water's edge feeling sure that it was gone.
But it was quite safe, and he went back to Bob.
"What shall we do now!" he said.
"Do?" said Bob, yawning. "You sit and keep watch while I go to sleep for a quarter of an hour. Then you may call me, and I'll take my turn."
Bob curled himself up after the fashion of a dog, and went off to sleep directly, while, as Dexter, who felt chilly, began to walk up and down between the water's edge and the steep cliff-like bank, he could not help once more wishing that he was in his comfortable bed at the doctor's.
He waited for long over a quarter of an hour, keeping his lonely watch, but Bob slept on and snored.
At the end of about an hour and a half he thought it would only be fair to call his companion to take his turn, but he called in vain.
Then he tried shaking, but only to elicit growls, and when he persevered Bob hit out so savagely that Dexter was fain to desist.
"I'll let him sleep half an hour longer," he said to himself; and he walked to and fro to keep himself warm.
It must have been after an hour that he called Bob again.
"All right," said that worthy.
"But it isn't all right," cried Dexter. "It ain't fair. Come: get up."
"All right! I'll get up directly. Call me in about ten minutes."
Dexter waited a little while, and called his companion. But in vain.
And so it went on, with the sleeper sometimes apologetic, sometimes imploring, till it was broad daylight; and then Bob rose and shook himself.
"I say, 'tain't fair," said Dexter ill-humouredly.
"Well, why didn't you make me get up!"
"I did try, lots of times."
"But you didn't half try. You should have got me quite awake."
"It's too bad, and I'm as sleepy as can be," grumbled Dexter.
"Here! whatcher going to do?" cried Bob.
"Lie down and sleep till breakfast-time."
"Oh, are yer?" cried Bob. "We've got to go and catch our breakfasts."
"To be sure. I'm getting hungry. Come along. I'll find a good place, and it's your turn now to get some cray-fish."
"But I'm so cold and sleepy."
"Well, that'll warm yer. There, don't look sulky."
Bob got into the boat and unfastened the chain, so that there was nothing left for Dexter to do but follow; and they rowed away down the river, which was widening fast.
The exercise and the rising sun sent warmth and brighter thoughts into Dexter, so that he was better able to undertake the task of searching the holes for cray-fish when the boat was brought up under a suitable bank, and urged on by Bob he had to undress and take an unwilling bath, and a breakfast-hunt at the same time.
He was clumsy, and unaccustomed to the task, but driven by Bob's bullying tones, and helped by the fact that the little crustaceans were pretty plentiful, he managed to get a dozen and a half in about an hour.
"There, come out, and dress now," said Bob ill-humouredly. "It's more trouble to tell you than to have got 'em myself. I'd ha' found twice as many in the time."
Dexter shivered, and then began to enjoy the warmth of his garments after as good a wipe as he could manage with a pocket-handkerchief. But it was the row afterwards that gave the required warmth—a row which was continued till another farm-house was seen beside a great cider orchard.
Here Dexter had to land with sixpence and the empty bottle.
"I promised to take that there bottle back," said Bob, with a grin, "but I shan't now. Lookye here. You make 'em give you a good lot of bread and butter for the sixpence, and if they asks you any questions, you say we're two gentlemen out for a holiday."
Dexter landed, and went up to the farm-house, through whose open door he could see a warm fire, and inhale a most appetising odour of cooking bacon and hot coffee.
A pleasant-faced woman came to the door, and her ways and looks were the first cheery incidents of Dexter's trip.
"Sixpennyworth of bread and butter, and some milk?" she said. "Yes, of course."
She prepared a liberal exchange for Dexter's coin, and then after filling the bottle put the boy's chivalry to the test.
"Why, you look as if you wanted your breakfast," she said. "Have a cup of warm coffee?"
Dexter's eyes brightened, and he was about to say yes. But he said no, for it seemed unfair to live better than his comrade, and just then the vision of Bob Dimsted looking very jealous and ill-humoured rose before him.
"I'm in a hurry to get back," he said.
The woman nodded, and Dexter hastened back to the water-side.
"I was just a-going without yer," was his greeting. "What a while you've been!"
"I was as quick as I could be," said Dexter apologetically.
"No, you weren't, and don't give me none of your sarce," said Bob. "Kitch holt o' that scull and pull. D'yer hear!"
Dexter obeyed, and they rowed on for about a mile before a suitable place was found for landing and lighting a fire, when, after a good deal of ogreish grumbling, consequent upon Bob wanting his breakfast, a similar meal to that of the previous day was eaten, and they started once more on their journey down-stream to the sea, and the golden land which would recompense Dexter, as he told himself, for all this discomfort, the rough brutality of his companion, and the prickings of conscience which he felt whenever Coleby occurred to his mind, and the face of Helen looked reproach into the very depth of his inner consciousness.
All that morning, when they again started, he found the river widen and change. Instead of being clear, and the stones visible at the bottom, the banks were further away, so were the hills, and the water was muddy. What was more strange to Dexter was that instead of the stream carrying them along it came to meet them.
At last Bob decided that they would moor by the bank, and begin once more to fish.
They landed and got some worms, and for a time had very fair sport, taking it in turns to catch some small rounded silvery and creamy transparent fish, something like dace, but what they were even Bob did not know. He was never at a loss, however, and he christened them sea-gudgeon.
Dexter was just landing one when a sour-looking man in a shabby old paintless boat came by close to the shore, and looked at them searchingly. But he looked harder at the boat as he went by, turned in, as it seemed, and rowed right into the land.
"There must be a little river there," Bob said. "We'll look presently. I say, didn't he stare!"
Almost as he spoke the man came out again into the tidal river and rowed away, went up some distance, and they had almost forgotten him when they saw him come slowly along, close inshore.
"Bob," whispered Dexter, "he's after us."
To which Bob responded with a contemptuous—
"Much sport?" said the man, passing abreast of their boat about half a dozen yards away, and keeping that by dipping his oars from time to time.
"Pretty fair," said Bob, taking the rod. "'Bout a dozen."
"What fish are they!" said Dexter eagerly, and he held up one.
"Smelts," said the man, with a peculiar look. "Come fishing?"
"Yes," said Bob sharply. "We've come for a day or two's fishing."
"That's right," said the man, with a smile that was a little less pleasant than his scowl. "I'm a fisherman too."
"Oh, are yer?" said Bob.
"Yes, that's what I am."
"He ain't after us," whispered Bob. "It's all right."
Dexter did not feel as if it was. He had an innate dislike to the man, who looked furtive and underhanded.
"Got a tidy boat there," said the man at last.
"Yes, she's a good un to go along," said Bob.
"Wouldn't sell her, I s'pose!" said the man.
"What should we sell her for?" said Bob, hooking and landing a fish coolly enough.
"I d'know. Thought you might want to part with her," said the man. "I wouldn't mind giving fifteen shillings for a boat like that."
"Yah!" cried Bob mockingly. "Why, she's worth thirty at least."
"Bob!" whispered Dexter excitedly. "You mustn't sell her."
"You hold your tongue."
"I wouldn't give thirty shillings for her," said the man, coming close now and mooring his own crazy craft by holding on to the gunwale of the gig. "She's too old."
"That she ain't," cried Bob. "Why, she's nearly new."
"Not she. Only been varnished up, that's all. I'll give you a pound for her."
"No," said Bob, to Dexter's great relief.
"I'll give you a pound for her, and my old 'un chucked in," said the man. "It's more than she's worth, but I know a man who wants such a boat as that."
"You mustn't sell her, Bob," whispered Dexter, who was now in agony.
"You hold your row. I know what I'm a-doing of."
"Look here," said the man, "I'm going a little farder, and I'll fetch the money, and then if you like to take it we'll trade. It's more'n she's worth, though, and you'd get my little boat in, as is as good a boat as ever swum."
He pushed off and rowed away, while, as soon as he was out of sight, Dexter attacked his companion with vigour.
"We mustn't sell her, Bob," he said.
"Why not? She's our'n now."
"No, she isn't; and we've promised to take her back."
"Look here!" said Bob, "have you got any money?"
"No, but we shan't want any as soon as we get to the island."
"Yes, we shall, and a pound would be no end of good."
"But we would have to give up our voyage."
"No, we shouldn't. We'd make his boat do."
"But it's such a shabby one. We mustn't sell the boat, Bob."
"Look here! I'm captain, and I shall do as I like."
"Then I shall tell the man the boat isn't ours."
"If you do I'll knock your eye out. See if I don't," cried Bob fiercely.
Dexter felt hot, and his fists clenched involuntarily, but he sat very still.
"If I like to sell the boat I shall. We want the money, and the other boat will do."
"I say it won't," said Dexter sharply.
"Why, hullo!" cried Bob, laughing. "Here's cheek."
"I don't care, it would be stealing Sir James's boat, and I say it shan't be done."
"Oh, yer do—do yer!" said Bob, in a bullying tone.
"You won't be happy till I've given you such a licking as'll make yer teeth ache. Now, just you hold your row, and wait till I gets yer ashore, and you shall have it. I'd give it to yer now, only I should knock yer overboard and drown'd yer, and I don't want to do that the first time."
Bob went on fishing, and Dexter sat biting his lip, and feeling as he used to feel when he had had a caning for something he had not done.
"I shall do just as I please," said Bob, giving his head a waggle, as if to show his authority. "So you've got to sit still and look on. And if you says anything about where the boat came from, I shall tell the man you took it."
"And, if you do, I shall tell him it's a lie," cried Dexter, as fiercely as his companion; and just then he saw the man coming back.
CHAPTER THIRTY FIVE.
BOB ASKS A QUESTION.
"Caught any more?" said the man.
"Only one," replied Bob.
"Ah! I could show you a place where you could pull 'em up like anything. I say, though, the boat ain't worth a pound."
"Oh yes, she is," said Bob.
"Not a pound and the boat too."
"Yes, she is," said Bob, watching Dexter the while out of the corner of one eye.
"I wouldn't give a pound for her, only there's a man I know wants just such a boat."
Dexter sat up, looking very determined, and ready to speak when he thought that the proper time had come, and Bob kept on watching him.
"Look here!" said the man, "as you two's come out fishing, I'll give you fifteen shillings and my boat, and that's more than yours is worth."
"No, you won't," said Bob.
"Well, sixteen, then. Come, that's a shilling too much."
Bob shook his head, hooked, and took a good-sized smelt off his hook.
"It's more than I care to give," said the man, who grew warm as Bob seemed cold. "There, I'll go another shilling—seventeen."
Bob still shook his head, and Dexter sat ready to burst out into an explosion of anger and threat if his companion sold the boat.
"Nineteen, then," said the man. "Nineteen, and my old un as rides the water like a duck. You won't?"
"No," said Bob.
"Well, then," cried the man, "I'm off."
"All right," said Bob coolly.
"There, I'll give you the twenty shillings, but you'll have to give me sixpence back. Look here! I've got the money."
He showed and rattled the pound's worth of silver he had.
"Come on. You get into my boat, and I'll get into yours."
"No, yer won't," said Bob. "I won't sell it."
"What!" cried the man angrily, and he raised one of his oars from the water.
"I won't sell," cried Bob, seizing the oars as he dropped his rod into the boat.
"You mean to tell me that you're going to make a fool of me like that!"
He began to pull the little tub in which he sat toward the gig, but Bob was too quick for him. The gig glided through the water at double the rate possible to the old craft, and though it was boy against man, the former could easily hold his own.
Fortunately they were not moored to the bank or the event might have been different, for the man had raised his oar as if with the intention of striking the boat in which the boys were seated.
"Here, you, stop!" he shouted.
Bob replied in dumb show with his sculls, dipping them as fast as he could, and looking very pale the while, till they were well out of reach, when he rested for a moment, and yelled back in defiant tones the one word—
"All right, my lads," shouted the fellow. "I know yer. You stole that boat, that's what you've done!"
"Row hard, Bob!" whispered Dexter.
"It's all very fine to say row hard. You kitch hold and help."
Dexter readily seized the second scull, and began to pull with so much energy and effect that they had soon passed the muddy creek up which the man had gone and come, and before long he was out of sight.
"It was all your fun, Bob," said Dexter, as they went on. "I thought you meant to sell the boat."
"So I did," grumbled Bob; "only you were so disagreeable about it. How are we to get on for money when mine's all done!"
"I don't know," said Dexter dolefully. "Can't we work for some?"
"Yah! How can we work? I say, though, he knew you'd stolen the boat."
"I didn't steal it, and it isn't stolen," said Dexter indignantly. "I wrote and told Sir James that we had only borrowed it, and I sent some money, and I shall send some more if we cannot find a way to get it back."
"See if they don't call it stealing," said Bob grimly. "Look there at the her'ns."
He nodded toward where a couple of the tall birds were standing heel-deep in the shallow water, intent upon their fishing, and so well accustomed to being preserved that they did not attempt to rise from their places.
Dexter was so much interested in the birds that he forgot all about their late adventure.
Then they rowed on for about a couple of hours, and their next proceeding was to look out for a suitable spot for their meal.
There were no high cliff-like banks now, but here and there, alternating with meadows, patches of woodland came down to the water's edge, and at one of these they stopped, fastened the boat to a tree where it was quite out of sight; and now for the first time they began to see boats passing along.
So far the little tub in which the would-be purchaser of their gig was seated was the only one they had seen on the water, but they were approaching a village now, and in low places they had seen high posts a short distance from the water's edge, on which were festooned long nets such as were used for the salmon at the time they run.
As soon as they had landed, a fire was lit, the fish cleaned, and the remainder of the bread and butter left from the last meal brought ashore. After which, as an experiment, it was decided to roast the smelts before the blaze, a task they achieved with more or less success.
As each fish was deemed sufficiently cooked it was eaten at once—a piece of bread forming the plate—and, with the exception of wanting salt, declared to be delicious.
"Ever so much better than chub, Bob," said Dexter, to which for a wonder that young gentleman agreed.
Evening soon came on, and as it was considered doubtful whether they could find as satisfactory a place for their night's rest as that where they were, it was decided to stop, and go on at sunrise next morning.
"We shall get to the sea to-morrow," said Bob, as he began to yawn. "I'm jolly glad of it, for I'm tired of the river, and I want to catch cod-fish and soles, and something big. Whatcher yawning for?"
"I'm tired and sleepy," said Dexter, as he sat upon the roots of an old tree, three or four yards from the water's edge.
"Yah! you're always sleepy," said Bob.
"But I had to keep watch while you slept."
"So you will have to again."
"But that isn't fair," said Dexter, in ill-used tones. "It's your turn to watch now."
"Well, I'll watch half the night, if you watch the other," said Bob. "That's fair, isn't it?"
"Then I shall lie down now, and you can call me when it's twelve o'clock."
"But I shan't know when it is," protested Dexter.
"Well, I ain't particular," said Bob, stretching himself beneath the tree. "Guess what you think's fair half, and I'll get up then."
"But will you get up!" said Dexter.
"Of course I will, if you call loud enough. There, don't bother, I'm ever so tired with rowing, and I shall go to sleep at once."
Bob kept his word as soon as darkness had set in, and Dexter sat listening to the lapping of the water, and wondered whether, if they camped out like this in a foreign land, crocodiles would come out of the rivers and attack them.
He sat down, for he soon grew tired of standing and walking about, and listened to Bob's heavy breathing, for the boy had gone off at once.
It was very dark under the trees, and he could only see the glint of a star from time to time. It felt cold too, but as he drew himself close together with his chin down upon his knees he soon forgot that, and began thinking about the two owls he had heard the past night. Then he thought about the long-legged herons he had seen fishing in the water; then about their own fishing, and what capital fish the smelts were.
From that he began to think about hunting out the cray-fish from the banks, and how one of the little things had nipped his fingers quite sharply.
Next he began to wonder what Helen Grayson thought about him, and what the doctor had said, and whether he should ever see them again, and whether he should like Bob any better after a time, when camping out with him, and how long it would be before they reached one of the beautiful hot countries, where you could gather cocoa-nuts off the trees and watch the lovely birds as they flitted round.
And then he thought about how long it would be before he might venture to call Bob.
And then he began thinking about nothing at all.
When he opened his eyes next it was morning, with the sun shining brightly, and the birds singing, and Bob Dimsted had just kicked him in the side.
"Here, I say, wake up," he cried. "Why, you've been to sleep."
"Have I!" said Dexter sheepishly, as he stared helplessly at his companion.
"Have yer? Yes; of course yer have," cried Bob angrily. "Ain't to be trusted for a moment. You're always a-going to sleep. Whatcher been and done with that there boat!"
CHAPTER THIRTY SIX.
IN DIRE STRAITS.
"Done with the boat?"
"I haven't done anything with the boat."
"Then where is it?"
"Fastened up to that old tree."
"Oh, is it!" cried Bob derisively. "I should like to see it, then. Come and show me!"
Dexter ran to the water's edge, and found the place on the bark where the chain had rubbed the trunk, but there was no sign of the boat.
"Now then," cried Bob fiercely, "where is it?"
"I don't know," said Dexter dolefully. "Yes, I do," he cried. "The chain must have come undone, and it's floating away."
"Oh, is it?" said Bob derisively. "Then you'd better go and find it!"
"Go and find it?"
"Yes; we can't go to sea in our boots, can we, stoopid?"
"But which way shall I go, Bob? Sometimes the tide runs up, and sometimes it runs down."
"Yes, and I'll make you run up and down. You're a nice un, you are! I just shet my eyes for a few minutes, and trust you to look after the boat, and when I wake up again you're fass asleep, and the boat gone."
"I'm very sorry, Bob, but I was so tired."
"Tired! You tired! What on? Here, go and find that boat!"
Dexter started off, and ran along the bank in one direction, while Bob went in the other, and at the end of half an hour Dexter came back feeling miserable and despondent as he had never felt before.
"Found it, Bob!" he said.
For answer his companion threw himself down upon his face, and began beating the ground with his fists, as if it were a drum.
"I've looked along there as far as I could go," said Dexter sadly. "What shall we do!"
"I wish this here was your stoopid head," snarled Bob, as he hammered away at the bare ground beneath the tree. "I never see such a chap!"
"But what shall we do?" said Dexter again.
"Do? I dunno, and I don't care. You lost the boat, and you've got to find it."
"Let's go on together and walk all along the bank till we find somebody who has seen it."
"And when we do find 'em d'yer think they'll be such softs as to give it to us back again!" This was a startling question.
"I know 'em," said Bob. "They'll want to know where we got it from, and how we come by it, and all sorts o' nonsense o' that kind. Say we ain't no right to it. I know what they'll say."
"But p'r'aps it's floating about?"
"P'r'aps you're floating about!" cried Bob, with a snarl. "Boat like that don't go floating about without some one in it, and if it does some one gets hold of it, and says it's his."
This was a terrible check to their adventurous voyage, as unexpected as it was sudden, and Dexter looked dolefully up in his companion's face.
"I know'd how it would be, and I was a stoopid to bring such a chap as you," continued Bob, who seemed happiest when he was scolding. "You've lost the boat, and we shall have to go back."
"Go back!" cried Dexter, with a look of horror, as he saw in imagination the stern countenance of the doctor, his tutor's searching eyes, Helen's look of reproach, and Sir James Danby waiting to ask him what had become of the boat, while Master Edgar seemed full of triumph at his downfall.
"Go back?" No he could not go back. He felt as if he would rather jump into the river.
"We shall both get a good leathering, and that won't hurt so very much."
A good leathering! If it had been only the thrashing, Dexter felt that he would have suffered that; but his stay at the doctor's had brought forth other feelings that had been lying dormant, and now the thrashing seemed to him the slightest part of the punishment that he would have to face. No: he could not go back.
"Well, whatcher going to do!" said Bob at last, with provoking coolness. "You lost the boat, and you've got to find it."
"I will try, Bob," said Dexter humbly. "But come and help me."
"Help yer? Why should I come and help yer? You lost it, I tell yer."
Bob jumped up and doubled his fists.
"Now then," he said; "get on, d'yer hear? get on—get on!"
At every word he struck out at Dexter, giving him heavy blows on the arms—in the chest—anywhere he could reach.
Dexter's face became like flame, but he contented himself with trying to avoid the blows.
"Look here!" he cried suddenly.
"No, it's you've got to look here," cried Bob. "You've got to find that there boat."
Dexter had had what he thought was a bright idea, but it was only a spark, and it died out, leaving his spirit dark once more, and he seemed now to be face to face with the greatest trouble of his life. All his cares at the Union, and then at the doctor's, sank into insignificance before this terrible check to their adventure. For without the boat how could they get out of England? They could not borrow another. There was a great blank before him just at this outset of his career, and try how he would to see something beyond he could find nothing: all was blank, hopeless, and full of despair.
Had his comrade been true to him, and taken his share of the troubles, it would have been bad enough; but it was gradually dawning upon Dexter that the boy he had half-idolised for his cleverness and general knowledge was a contemptible, ill-humoured bully—a despicable young tyrant, ready to seize every opportunity to oppress.
"Are you a-going?" cried Bob, growing more brutal as he found that his victim made no resistance, and giving him a blow on the jaw which sent him staggering against one of the trees.
This was too much; and recovering himself Dexter was about to dash at his assailant when he stopped short, for an idea that seemed incontrovertible struck him so sharply that it drove away all thought of the brutal blow he had received.
"I know, Bob," he cried.
"Know? What d'yer know?"
"Where the boat is."
"Yes: that man followed us and took it away."
Bob opened his mouth, and half-closed his eyes to stare at his companion, as he balanced this idea in his rather muddy brain.
"Don't you see?" cried Dexter excitedly.
"Come arter us and stole it!" said Bob slowly.
"Yes: he must have watched us, and waited till we were asleep."
"Go on with you!"
"He did. I feel as sure as sure," cried Dexter.
There was a pause during which Bob went on balancing the matter in his mind.
"He has taken it up the river, and he thinks we shall be afraid to go after it."
"Then he just thinks wrong," said Bob, nodding his head a good deal. "I thought something o' that kind a bit ago, but you made me so wild I forgot it again."
"But you see now, Bob."
"See? O' course I do. I'll just let him know—a thief. Here, come on, and we'll drop on to him with a policeman, and show him what stealing boats means."
"No, no, Bob, we can't go with a policeman. Let's go ourselves, and make him give it up."
"But s'pose he won't give it to us!"
"We should have to take it," said Dexter excitedly.
"Come on, then. He's got my fishing-tackle too, and—why just look at that! Did you put them there?"
He darted to where his bundle and rough fishing-rod lay among the trees.
"No; he must have thrown them out. Let's make haste. We know where the boat is now!"
The boys started at once, and began to tramp back along the side of the river in the hope of finding the place where the boat was moored; but before they had gone far it was to find that floating down with the stream, or even rowing against the tide, was much easier work than forcing their way through patches of alder-bushes, swampy meadows, leaping, and sometimes wading, little inlets and ditches and the like.
Their progress was very slow, the sun very hot, and at least a dozen times now they came upon spots which struck both as being the muddy bank off which they had captured the smelts.
It was quite afternoon before they were convinced, for their further passage was stopped by the muddy inlet up which they had seen the man row, and not a hundred yards away was the bank under which they had fished.
"Sure this is the place?" said Bob, as he crouched among some osiers and looked cautiously round.
"Yes," said Dexter; "I'm certain this is the place. I saw him row up here. But—"
"He'd be quite sure not to take the boat up here."
"For fear we should come after it."
"Get out! Where would he take it, then?"
"He'd hide it somewhere else; perhaps on the other side. Look!"
Dexter pointed up the river to where, about a couple of hundred yards further on, a boat could be seen just issuing from a bed of reeds.
Bob seized Dexter's arm to force him lower down among the osiers, but it was not necessary, for they were both well concealed; and as they continued there watching it was to see the boat come slowly toward them, and in a few minutes they were satisfied that it was the man they sought, propelling it slowly toward where they stooped.
The fellow came along in a furtive manner, looking sharply round from time to time, as if scanning the river to see if he was observed.
He came on and on till he reached the creek at whose mouth the boys were hidden, and as he came so close that they felt it impossible that they could remain unseen he suddenly ceased rowing, and stood up to shade his eyes from the sunshine, and gaze sharply down the river for some minutes.
Then giving a grunt as of satisfaction he reseated himself, and rowed slowly up the creek, till he disappeared among the osiers and reeds which fringed its muddy banks.
As he passed up he disturbed a shoal of large fish which came surging down, making quite a wave in the creek, till they reached the river, where all was still.
"The boat's up there, Bob," said Dexter, after a long silence, so as to give the man time to get well out of hearing.
"Yes, but how are we to get to it?"
"Wade," said Dexter laconically. "'Tain't deep, only muddy."
To cross the creek was necessary, and Bob softly let himself down from the bank till his feet were level with the water, then taking hold of a stout osier above his head he bent it down, and then dropped slowly into the water, which came nearly to his waist.
"Come on!" he said, and after getting to the end of the osier he used his rod as a guide to try the depth, and with some difficulty, and the water very nearly to his chest, he got over.
Dexter did not hesitate, but followed, and began to wade, feeling his feet sink at every step into the sticky mud, and very glad to seize hold of the end of the rod Bob was civil enough to hold to him from the further bank, up which they both crept, dripping like water-rats, and hid among the osiers on the other side.
"Come on," whispered Bob, and with the mud and water trickling from them they crept along through quite a thicket of reeds, osiers, and the red-flowered willow-herb, while great purple patches of loosestrife blossomed above their heads.
Every step took them further from the enemy, but they kept down in their stooping position, and a few yards from the bank of the river, feeling sure that they could not miss their way; and so it proved, for after what seemed to be an interminable journey they found themselves stopped by just such another creek as that which they had left, save and except that the mouth was completely hidden by a bed of reeds some of which showed where a boat had lately passed through.
Whether their boat was there or not they could not tell, but it seemed easy to follow up the creek from the side they were on, and they crept along through the water-growth, which was thicker here than ever, but keeping as close as they could to the side, the scarped bank being about eight feet above the water.
The creek was not above twenty feet wide, and, from the undisturbed state of the vegetation which flourished down its banks to where the tide seemed to rise, it seemed as if it was a rare thing for a boat to pass along.
They stopped at every few yards to make sure that they were not passing that of which they were in search, looking carefully up and down, while the creek twined so much that they could never see any extent of water at a time.
They must have wound in and out for quite three hundred yards, when, all at once, as they stooped there, panting and heated with the exercise, and with the hot sun beating down upon their heads, Dexter, who was in front, stopped short, for on his right the dense growth of reeds suddenly ceased, and on peering out it was to see a broad opening where they had been cut down, while within thirty yards stood a large stack of bundles, and beside it a rough-looking hut, toward which the man they had seen rowing up the other creek was walking.
They had come right upon his home, which seemed to be upon a reedy island formed by the two creeks and the river.
The boys crouched down, afraid to stir, and watching till they saw the man enter the rough reed-thatched hut, when, moving close to the edge of the bank, they crept on again after a few moments' hesitation, connected with an idea of making a retreat.
Their perseverance was rewarded, for not fifty yards further on they looked down upon what seemed to be a quantity of reeds floating at the side of the creek, but one bundle had slipped off, and there, plainly enough, was the gunwale of the boat, the reeds having been laid across it to act as a concealment in case any one should glance carelessly up the creek.
"Come on, Bob," whispered Dexter; and he let himself slide down into the muddy water as silently as he could, and began to tumble the bundles of reeds off into the creek.
Bob followed his example, and, to their great delight, they found that the sculls and boat-hook were still in their places, while the boat-chain was secured to a stake thrust down into the mud.
This was soon unloosed after they had climbed in, dripping, and covering the cushions with mud, but all that was forgotten in the delight of having found the boat.
"Now, Bob, you row softly down and I'll use the boat-hook," whispered Dexter, as he stood up in the stern, while Bob sat down, seized the oars, and laid them in the rowlocks, ready to make the first stroke, when high above them on the bank they heard a quick, rushing noise, and directly after, to their horror, there stood, apparently too much dumbfounded to speak, the man they had seen a few minutes before going into the reed hut.
CHAPTER THIRTY SEVEN.
"Here, you, sir! stop!" he roared.
"Pull away, Bob!" whispered Dexter, for Bob had paused, half-paralysed by the nearness of the danger. But he obeyed the second command, and tugged at the oars.
"D'yer hear!" roared the man, with a furious string of oaths. "Hold hard or I'll—"
He did not say what, but made a gesture as if striking with a great force.
"Don't speak, Bob: pull hard," whispered Dexter, bending forward in the boat so as to reach the rower, and encourage him to make fresh efforts, while, for his part, he kept his eyes upon the man.
"D'yer hear what I say?" he roared again. "What d'yer mean by coming here to steal my boat?"
"'Tain't yours," cried Dexter.
"What? Didn't I buy it of yer and pay for it?"
"You came and stole it while we were asleep, you thief!" cried Dexter again.
"Say I stole yer boat and I'll drown'd yer," cried the man, forcing his way through the reeds and osiers so as to keep up with them. "If you don't take that back it'll be the worse for yer. Stop! D'yer hear? Stop!"
Bob stopped again, for the man's aspect was alarming, and every moment he seemed as if he was about to leap from the high bank.
Fortunately for all parties he did not do this, as if he had reached the edge of the boat he must have capsized it, and if he had leaped into the bottom, he must have gone right through.
Bob did not realise all this; but he felt certain that the man would jump, and, with great drops of fear upon his forehead he kept on stopping as the man threatened, and, but for Dexter's urging, the boat would have been given up.
"I can hear yer," the man roared, with a fierce oath. "I hear yer telling him to row. Just wait till I get hold of you, my gentleman!"
"Row, Bob, row!" panted Dexter, "as soon as we're out in the river we shall be safe."
"But he'll be down upon us d'reckly," whispered Bob.
"Go on rowing, I tell you, he daren't jump."
"You won't stop, then, won't yer?" cried the man. "If yer don't stop I'll drive a hole through the bottom, and sink yer both."
"No, he won't," whispered Dexter. "Row, Bob, row! He can't reach us, and he has nothing to throw."
Bob groaned, but he went on rowing; and in his dread took the boat so near the further side that he kept striking one scull against the muddy bank, and then, in his efforts to get room to catch water, he thrust the head of the boat toward the bank where the man was stamping with fury, and raging at them to go back.
This went on for a hundred yards, and they were still far from the open river, when the man gave a shout at them and ran on, disappearing among the low growth on the bank.
"Now, Bob, he has gone," said Dexter excitedly, "pull steadily, and as hard as you can. Mind and don't run her head into the bank, or we shall be caught."
Bob looked up at him with a face full of abject fear and misery, but he was in that frame of weak-mindedness which made him ready to obey any one who spoke, and he rowed on pretty quickly.
Twice over he nearly went into the opposite bank, with the risk of getting the prow stuck fast in the clayey mud, but a drag at the left scull saved it, and they were getting rapidly on now, when all at once Dexter caught sight of their enemy at a part of the creek where it narrowed and the bank overhung a little.
The man had run on to that spot, and had lain down on his chest, so as to be as far over as he could be to preserve his balance, and he was reaching out with his hands, and a malicious look of satisfaction was in his face, as the boat was close upon him before Dexter caught sight of him, Bob of course having his back in the direction they were going.
"Look out, Bob," shouted Dexter. "Pull your right! pull your right!"
Bob was so startled that he looked up over his shoulder, saw the enemy, and tugged at the wrong oar so hard that he sent the boat right toward the overhanging bank.
"I've got yer now, have I, then?" roared the man fiercely; and as the boat drifted towards him he reached down and made a snatch with his hand at Dexter's collar.
As a matter of course the boy ducked down, and the man overbalanced himself.
For a moment it seemed as if he would come down into the boat, over which he hung, slanting down and clinging with both hands now, and glaring at them with his mouth open and his eyes starting, looking for all the world like some huge gargoyle on the top of a cathedral tower.
"Stop!" he roared; and then he literally turned over and came so nearly into the boat that he touched the stern as it passed, and the water he raised in a tremendous splash flew all over the boys.
"Now, Bob, pull, pull, pull!" cried Dexter, stamping his foot as he looked back and saw the man rise out of the water to come splashing after them for a few paces; but wading through mud and water was not the way to overtake a retreating boat, and to Dexter's horror he saw the fellow struggle to the side and begin to scramble up the bank.
Once he slipped back; but he began to clamber up again, and his head was above the edge when, in obedience to Bob's tugging at the sculls, the boat glided round one of the various curves of the little creek and shut him from their view.
"He'll drown'd us. He said he would," whimpered Bob. "Let's leave the boat and run."
"No, no!" cried Dexter; "pull hard, and we shall get out into the river, and he can't follow us."
"Yes, he can," cried Bob, blubbering now aloud. "He means it, and he'll half-kill us. Let's get out to this side and run."
"Pull! I tell you, pull!" cried Dexter furiously; and Bob pulled obediently, sending the boat along fast round the curves and bends, but not so fast but that they heard a furious rustling of the osiers and reeds, and saw the figure of the man above them on the bank.
"There, I told you so," whimpered Bob. "Let's get out t'other side."
"Row, I tell you!" roared Dexter; and to his surprise the man did not stop, but hurried on toward the mouth of the creek.
"There!" cried Bob. "He's gone for his boat, and he'll stop us, and he'll drown'd us both."
"He daren't," said Dexter stoutly, though he felt a peculiar sinking all the time.
"But he will, he will. It's no use to row."
Dexter felt desperate now, for theirs was an awkward position; and to his horror he saw that Bob was ceasing to row, and looking up at the bank on his left.
"You go on rowing," cried Dexter fiercely.
"I shan't," whimpered Bob; "it's of no use. I shan't row no more."
Bob yelled out, more in fear than in pain, for the sound was caused by Dexter swinging the boat-hook round and striking his companion a sharp rap on the side of the head.
"Go on rowing," cried Dexter, "and keep in the middle."
Bob howled softly; but, like a horse that has just received an admonition from the whip, he bent to his task, and rowed with all his might, blubbering the while.
"That's right," cried Dexter, who felt astonished at his hardihood. "We can't be far now. Pull—pull hard. There, I can see the river. Hurray, Bob, we're nearly there!"
Bob sobbed and snuffled, and bent down over his oars, rowing as if for life or death. The boat was speeding swiftly through the muddy water, the opening with its deep fringe of reeds was there, and Dexter was making up his mind to try and direct Bob to pull right or left so as to get to the thinnest place that the boat might glide right out, when he saw something.
"No, Bob, only a little way," he had said. "Pull with all your might."
Then he stopped short and stared aghast.
Fortunately Bob was bending down, sobbing, and straining every nerve, as if he expected another blow, otherwise he would have been chilled by Dexter's look of dread, for there, just as if he had dropped from the bank and begun wading, was their enemy, who, as the boat neared, took up his position right in the middle of the creek, where the water was nearly to his chest, and, with the reeds at his back, waited to seize the boat.
Dexter stood holding the boat-hook, half-paralysed for a few moments, and then, moved by despair, he stepped over the thwart toward Bob.
"No, no," cried the latter, ducking down his head. "I will pull—I will pull."
He did pull too, with all his might, and the boat was going swiftly through the water as Dexter stepped right over the left-hand scull, nearly toppled over, but recovered himself, and stood in the bows of the boat, as they were now within twenty yards of the man, who, wet and muddy, stood up out of the creek like some water monster about to seize the occupants of the boat for a meal.
"Pull, Bob, hard!" whispered Dexter, in a low, excited voice; and Bob pulled.
The boat sped on, and the man uttered a savage yell, when, with a cry of horror, Bob ceased rowing.
But the boat had plenty of impetus, and it shot forward so swiftly that, to avoid its impact, the man drew a little on one side as he caught at the gunwale.
Dexter struck at him with the light ash pole he held in his hand—struck at their enemy with all his might, and then turned and sat down in the boat, overcome with horror at what he had done, for he saw the man fall backward, and the water close over his head.
Then there was a loud hissing, rustling sound as the boat glided through the reeds, which bent to right and left, and rose again as they passed, hiding everything which followed.
The next moment the force given to the boat was expended, and it stopped outside the reeds, but only to commence another movement, for the tide bore the bows round, and the light gig began to glide softly along.
"I've killed him," thought Dexter; and he turned cold with horror, wondering the while at his temerity and what would follow.
"Was that his head?" said Bob, in rather a piteous voice, as he sat there resting upon his oars.
"Yes," said Dexter, in a horror-stricken whisper. "I hit him right on the head."
"You've been and gone and done it now, then," whimpered Bob. "You've killed him. That's what you've done. Never did see such a chap as you!"
"I couldn't help it," said Dexter huskily.
"Yes, that's what you always says," cried Bob, in an ill-used tone. "I wish I hadn't come with yer, that I do. I say, ought we to go and pick him up? It don't matter, do it?"
"Yes, Bob; we must go back and pull him out," said Dexter, with a shudder. "Row back through the reeds. Quick, or he may be drowned!"
"He won't want any drowning after that whack you give him on the head. I don't think I shall go back. Look! look!"
Dexter was already looking at the frantic muddy figure upon the bank, up which it had climbed after emerging from the reeds. The man was half-mad with rage and disappointment, and he ran along shaking his fists, dancing about in his fury, and shouting to the boys what he would do.
His appearance worked a miraculous effect upon the two boys. Dexter felt quite light-hearted in his relief, and Bob forgot all his sufferings and dread now that he was safely beyond their enemy's reach. Laying the blades of the sculls flat, as the boat drifted swiftly on with the tide, he kept on splashing the water, and shouting derisively—
"Yah! yah! Who cares for you? Yah! Go home and hang yourself up to dry! Yah! Who stole the boat!"
Bob's derision seemed to be like oil poured upon a fire. The man grew half-wild with rage. He yelled, spat at them, shook his fists, and danced about in his impotent fury; and the more he raged, the more delighted Bob seemed to be.
"Yah! Who stole the boat!" he kept on crying; and then added mocking taunts. "Here! hi!" he shouted, his voice travelling easily over the water, so that the man heard each word. "Here! hi! Have her now? Fifteen shillings. Come on. Yah!"
"Quick, Bob, row!" cried Dexter, after several vain efforts to stop his companion's derisive cries.
"Eh?" said Bob, suddenly stopping short.
"Row, I tell you! Don't you see what he's going to do!"
The man had suddenly turned and disappeared.
"No," said Bob. "I've scared him away."
"You haven't," said Dexter, with his feeling of dread coming back. "He's running across to the other creek to get the boat."
Bob bent to his oars directly, and sent the gig rapidly along, and more and more into the swift current. He rowed so as to incline toward the further shore, and soon after they passed the mouth of the other creek.
"Get out with yer," said Bob. "He ain't coming. And just you look here, young un; you hit me offull on the head with that there boat-hook, and as soon as ever I gits you ashore I'll make you go down on your knees and cry chi—ike; you see if I don't, and—"
"There he is, Bob," said Dexter excitedly; and looking toward the other creek, there, sure enough, was the man in his wretched little tub of a boat, which he was forcing rapidly through the water, and looking over his shoulder from time to time at the objects of his pursuit.
Bob pulled with all his might, growing pallid and muddy of complexion as the gig glided on. Matters had been bad enough before. Now the map would be ten times worse, while, to make things as bad as they could be, it soon became evident that the tide was on the turn, and that, unless they could stem it in the unequal battle of strength, they would be either swept back into their enemy's arms or else right up the river in a different direction to that which they intended to go, and, with the task before them, should they escape, of passing their enemy's lair once again.
CHAPTER THIRTY EIGHT.
THE CROWNING POINT OF THE TRIP.
"Come and lay hold o' one scull," said Bob, whose eyes seemed to be fixed as he stared at the back of their enemy. "Oh, do be quick!"
Dexter slipped into his place, took the scull, and began to row.
"Getting closer, ain't he?" whispered Bob hoarsely. "Yes. I'm afraid so."
Dexter needed no telling, and he tugged away at the oar as the boat glided a little more swiftly on.
"Ain't leaving him behind, are we!" growled Bob, whose face now grew convulsed with horror. "No; I'm afraid he's coming nearer."
"Oh dear, oh dear!" groaned Bob. "He'll half-kill me, and it's all your fault. Let's stop rowing and give him the boat."
"That we won't," cried Dexter, setting his teeth. "I'll row till I die first."
"But it'll only make him more savage," growled Bob. "I wish I was safe at home."
"You're not half-pulling, Bob."
"It's of no use, matey. He's sure to ketch us, and the furder we rows, the more wild he'll be."
"I don't care," cried Dexter; "he shan't have it if I can help it. Row!"
In his most cowardly moments Bob was obedience itself, and breaking out into a low sobbing whimper, as if it were a song to encourage him in his task, he rowed on with all his might, while only too plainly it could be seen that the man was gaining steadily upon them in spite of the clumsiness of his boat; and consequently it was only a question of time before the boys were overtaken, for the muscles of the man were certain to endure longer than those of Dexter, untrained as they were to such work.
"He's closer, ain't he?" whined Bob.
"Yes, ever so much," replied Dexter, between his set teeth.
"Well, jest you recollect it was you hit him that whack on the head. I didn't do nothing."
"Yes, you did," said Dexter sharply. "You said, yah! at him, and called him names."
"No, I didn't. Don't you be a sneak," whined Bob. "You were ever so much worse than me. Is he coming closer?"
It was a fact, closer and closer, and the tide ran so strongly now that the boys had hard work to make much progress. They did progress, though, all the same, for their boat was narrow and sharp. Still the current was dead against them, and their want of movement added to their despair.
Bad as it was for them, however, it was worse for the man in his heavy little broadly-bowed tub; and so it happened that just as Bob began to row more slowly, and burst into a fit of howling, which made Dexter feel as if he would like to turn and hit him over the head with his oar—a contact of scull against skull—the man suddenly ceased rowing, turned in his seat, and sat shaking his fist at them, showing his teeth in his impotent rage.
"There!" cried Bob, who was transformed in an instant. "We've bet him. He can't pull no further. Yah! yah!"
Bob changed back to his state of cowardly prostration, and began to tug once more at his oar, for his derisive yell galvanised the man once more into action, and the pursuit was continued.
"Oh!" howled Bob. "Who'd ha' thought o' that?"
"Who's stupid now?" panted Dexter, as he too rowed with all his might.
Bob did nothing but groan, and the pursuit and flight were once more continued, each moment with despair getting a stronger hold of the fugitives. The oar felt hot in Dexter's blistered hands, a peculiar sensation of heaving was in his chest, his eyes began to swim, and he was just about to cease rowing, when he could hardly believe his starting eyes—their enemy had once more given up the pursuit, and was sitting wrenched round, and staring after them.
"Don't, pray, don't shout at him this time, Bob," panted Dexter.
"I won't if you're afraid," said the young scoundrel.
"Keep on rowing, or he'll come after us again."
Bob's scull was dipped again directly, and the motion of the boat was kept up sufficiently to counteract the drift of the tide, while the man in the little tub was swept rapidly away.
"Let's get over the other side to those trees," said Dexter, as he felt that he could row no further, and the boat's head was directed half-across the stream so as to reach the clump of willows indicated, where, after a much heavier pull than they had anticipated, the gig was made fast, and Bob's first act after laying down his scull was to lean over the side and drink heartily of the muddy water.
Dexter would gladly have lain down to rest, but there was a watch to keep up.
Bob mocked at the idea.
"Yah!" he said; "he won't some any more. I say, are you nearly dry?"
"Nearly," said Dexter, "all but my boots and socks."
These he took off, and put in the sun to dry, as he sat there with his elbows on his knees, and his chin on his hands, watching till Bob was asleep.
He was faint and hungry, and the idea was strong in his mind that the man would steal down upon them when he was not expected. This thought completely drove away all drowsiness, though it did not affect his companion in the slightest degree.
The next thing ought to have been to get some food, but there was no likely place within view, and though several boats and a barge or two passed, the fear of being questioned kept the watcher from hailing them, and asking where he could get some bread and milk.
The hours glided slowly by, but there was no sign of the shabby little boat. The tide ran up swiftly, and the gig swung easily from its chain; and as Dexter sat there, hungry and lonely, he could not keep his thoughts at times from the doctor's comfortable house.
Towards evening the socks and boots were so dry that Dexter replaced them, looking down the while rather ruefully at his mud-stained trousers. He rubbed them and scratched the patches with his nails; but the result was not satisfactory, and once more he sat gazing up the river in expectation of seeing their enemy come round the bend.
It was getting late, and the tide had turned, as Dexter knew at once by the way in which the boat had swung round with its bows now pointing up-stream. And now seemed the time when the man might appear once more in pursuit.
The thought impressed him so that he leaned over and shook Bob, who sat up and stared wonderingly about.
"Hallo!" he said. "What time is it!"
"I don't know, but the tide has turned, and that man may come after us again."
"Nay, he won't come any more," said Bob confidently. "Let's go and get something to eat."
It was a welcome proposal, and the boat being unmoored, Dexter took one of the sculls, and as they rowed slowly down with the tide he kept his eyes busy watching for the coming danger, but it did not appear.
Bob went ashore at a place that looked like a ferry, where there was a little public-house, and this time returned with a small loaf, a piece of boiled bacon, and a bottle of cider.
"I'd ha' brought the bacon raw, and we'd ha' cooked it over a fire," said Bob, "only there don't seem to be no wood down here, and there's such lots of houses."
Dexter did not feel troubled about the way in which the bacon was prepared, but sat in the boat, as it drifted with the tide, and ate his portion ravenously, but did not find the sour cider to his taste.
By the time they had finished, it was growing dark, and lights were twinkling here and there on either bank, showing that they were now in a well-populated part.
"Where are we to sleep to-night, Bob?" said Dexter at last.
"Dunno yet. Can't see no places."
"We must be near the sea now, mustn't we?"
"Yes, pretty handy to it," said Bob, with the confidence of one in utter ignorance. "We shall be there to-morrow, and then we can catch heaps of cod-fish, and soles, and mack'rel, and find oysters. It'll be all right then."
This was encouraging, but somehow Dexter did not feel so much confidence in his companion as of old.
But Bob's rest, and the disappearance of danger had brought him back to his former state, and he was constantly making references to the departed enemy.
"I should just liked to have ketched him touching me!" he said. "I'd ha' give his shins such a kicking as would soon have made him cry 'Leave off.'"
Dexter sat and stared through the gloom at the young Gascon.
"I'd ha' soon let him know what he'd get if he touched me."
"Hi, Bob! look out!"
Bob uttered a cry of dread, and nearly jumped overboard as something still and dark suddenly loomed up above him. Then there was a bump, which nearly finished what the boy had felt disposed to do; and then they were gliding along by the side of a vessel anchored in midstream.
As they swept past the stern the boat bumped again against something black and round, which proved to be a floating tub. With this they seemed to have become entangled, for there was a rasping grating noise, then the boat's chain began to run rapidly over the bows, the boat swung round, and their further progress was checked. A piece of the chain with the hook had been left hanging over, and when they had touched the tub buoy the hook had caught, and they were anchored some little distance astern the large vessel.
"Here's a game!" cried Bob, as soon as he had recovered from his astonishment. "Well, we can't go on in the dark. Let's stop here."
"But we've got to find a place to sleep, Bob," protested Dexter.
"Yah! you're always wanting to go to sleep. There ain't no place to sleep ashore, so let's sleep in the boat. Why, we shall always have to bunk down there when we get out to sea."
"But suppose the boat should sink?"
"Yah! suppose it did. We'd swim ashore. Only mind you don't get outer bed in the night and walk into the water. I don't want to go to sleep at all."
Dexter did not feel drowsy, but again he could not help thinking of his room with the white hangings, and of how pleasant it would be to take off his clothes once more and lie between sheets.
"Some chaps is always thinking about going to bed," said Bob jauntily. "Long as I gets a nap now and then, that's all I want."
Dexter did not know it, but Bob Dimsted was a thorough-paced second-hand boy. Every expression of this kind was an old one, such as he had heard from his father, or the rough men who consorted with him, from the bullying down to the most playful remark. But, as aforesaid, Dexter did not realise all this. He had only got as far as the fact that Bob was not half so nice as he used to be, and that, in spite of his boasting and bullying, he was not very brave when put to the test.
"There, I shan't go to sleep yet. You can have one o' them cushins forward," said Bob at last; and, suffering now from a sudden feeling of weariness, Dexter took one of the cushions forward, placed it so as to be as comfortable as possible, realising as he did this that, in spite of his words, Bob was doing the same with two cushions to his one, and before he had been lying there long, listening to the rippling of the water, and gazing up at the stars, a hoarse, wheezing noise proclaimed the fact that Bob Dimsted was once more fast asleep.
Dexter was weary now in the extreme, the exertion and excitement he had gone through had produced, in connection with the irregular feeding, a state of fatigue that under other circumstances might have resulted in his dropping off at once, but now he could only lie and listen, and keep his eyes dilated and wide open, staring for some danger which seemed as if it must be near.
He did not know what the danger might be, unless it was that man with the boat, but something seemed to threaten, and he could not sleep.
Then, too, he felt obliged to think about Bob and about their journey. Where they were going, what sort of a place it would be, and whether they would be any more happy when they got to some beautiful island; for he was fain to confess that matters were very miserable now, and that the more he saw of Bob Dimsted the less he liked him.
He was in the midst of one of his thoughtful moods, with Bob for his theme, and asking himself what he should do if Bob did begin to thrash him first time they were on shore; and he had just come to the conclusion that he would not let Bob thrash him if he could help it, when Bob suddenly leaped forward and hit him a round-handed sort of blow, right in the back of the neck.
This so enraged him that he forgot directly all about companionship, and the sort of tacit brotherly compact into which they had entered, and springing at his assailant he struck him a blow in the chest, which sent him staggering back.
For a moment or two Bob seemed to be beaten; then he came at him furiously, the turf was trampled and slippery, and they both went down; then they got up again, and fought away, giving and taking blows, every one of which sounded with a loud slap.
That fight seemed as if it would never end, and Dexter felt as if he were getting the worst of it, consequent upon an inherent dislike to inflict pain, and his having passed over again and again opportunities for administering effective blows. At last they joined in what became little more than a wrestle, and Dexter felt the ground giving way beneath his feet; the back of his neck hurt him terribly, and he was about to give in, when the boys began to cheer, Mr Sibery ran up with the cane, and the doctor came looking stern and frowning, while he saw Helen Grayson put her hand to her eyes and turn away.
"It's all Bob Dimsted's fault," he cried passionately; and he woke up with the words upon his lips, and a crick in the back of his neck, consequent upon the awkward cramped-up position in which he had lain.
It was broad daylight, and for a few moments he was too much confused to understand where he was; but as he realised it all, and cast a quick look round in search of danger, he saw that they were hooked on to the slimy buoy, that twenty yards further there was the hull of an old schooner, against which they had been nearly capsized the previous evening, and four or five hundred yards beyond that, slowly paddling along, was their enemy, looking over his shoulder as if he had seen them, and meant to make sure of them now.
Dexter hesitated between wakening Bob and setting the boat adrift.
He decided on doing the latter, and hauling on the chain, he drew the boat right up to the buoy, followed the chain with his hands till he could touch the hook, and after some difficulty, his efforts reminding him of the night when he unfastened the chain in the boat-house—he dragged the hook from where it clung to a great rusty link, and all the time his eyes were as much fixed upon the man in the boat as upon the task he had in hand.
Clear at last, and drifting away again. That was something towards safety, and he now stepped over the thwarts and shook Bob.
Bob was too comfortable to open his eyes, and no matter what his companion did he could get no reply till he bent lower, and, inspired by the coming danger, shouted in his ear—
"I've got yer at last."
Bob sprang up as if electrified, saw who spoke, and was about to burst into a torrent of angry abuse, when he followed the direction of Dexter's pointing hand, caught the approaching danger, and seized an oar.
It was none too soon, for as Dexter seized the other, the man evidently realised that his prey was about to make another effort to escape, and, bending to his work, he sent the little tub-like boat surging through the water.
"Pull, Bob!" said Dexter excitedly, an unnecessary order, for Bob had set his teeth, and, with his face working, was tugging so hard that it needed all Dexter's efforts to keep the boat from being pulled into the right-hand shore.
The chase had begun in full earnest, and for the next hour, with very little alteration in their positions, it kept on. Then the pace began to tell on the boys. They had for some time been growing slower in their strokes, and they were not pulled so well home. Bob engaged every now and then in a dismal, despairing howl, usually just at the moment when Dexter thrust his oar too deeply in the water, and had hard work to get it out.
But their natural exhaustion was not of such grave consequence as might have been imagined, for their pursuer was growing weary too, and his efforts were greatly wanting in the spirit he displayed at first. On the other hand, though the man came on slowly, he rowed with a steady, stubborn determination, which looked likely to last all the morning, and boded ill for those of whom he was in chase.
Bob's face was a study, but Dexter's back was toward him, and he could not study it. The enemy was about two hundred yards behind, and whenever he seemed to flag a little Bob's face brightened; but so sure as the man glanced over his shoulder, and began to pull harder, the aspect of misery, dread, and pitiable helplessness Bob displayed was ludicrous; and at such times he glanced to right and left to see which was the nearest way to the shore.
As Bob rowed he softly pushed off his boots. Soon after he made three or four hard tugs at his oar, and then, by a quick movement, drew one arm out of his jacket. Then rowing with one hand he shook himself quite clear of the garment, so as to be unencumbered when he began to swim, for that was his intention as soon as the man overtook them, and his peril became great.
"He wants most of all to get the boat," he thought to himself; and soon after he opened his heart to Dexter.
"Lookye here!" he said, "he wants to get the boat; and if he can get that he won't come after us. Let's row pretty close to the bank, and get ashore and run."
"What! and leave the boat?" cried Dexter. "That I'm sure I will not."
Dexter pulled all the harder after hearing this proposal, and Bob uttered a moan.
All that morning the flight and pursuit were kept up, till on both sides it became merely a light dipping of the oars, so as to keep the boats' heads straight, the tide carrying them along.
It was plain enough now that they were getting toward the mouth of the river, which was now quite broad. Houses were growing plentiful, barges lay at wharves or moored with other boats in the stream, and care had to be exercised to avoid coming in collision with the many obstacles in their way.
But they kept on; and though at Bob's piteous suggestion they wound in and out among the many crafts in the hope of shaking off their pursuer, it was all in vain, for he kept doggedly on after them, with the matter-of-fact determination of a weasel after a rabbit, sure of its scent, and certain that before long the object of the pursuit would resign itself to its fate.
On still in a dreary mechanical way. Dexter could hardly move his arms, and Bob was, in spite of his long experience, almost as helpless.
"It's of no use," the latter said at last; and he ceased rowing.
"No, no, Bob; don't give in!" cried Dexter excitedly. "We shall soon tire him out now. Row! Row!"
"Can't," said Bob drearily. "I haven't another pull in me."
"Then give me the other scull, and let me try."
"Yah! you couldn't pull both," cried Bob. "There, I'm going to try a hundred more strokes, and then I shall swim ashore. I ain't going to let him catch me."
"Pull, then, a hundred more," cried Dexter excitedly. "Oh, do make it two, Bob! He'll be tired out by then."
"I'm a-going to pull a hundred," grumbled Bob, "and then give it up. Now then!"
The sculls splashed the water almost together, and for a few strokes the boys pulled vigorously and well; but it was like the last bright flashes of an expiring candle, and long before the half-hundred was reached the dippings of the blades grew slower and slower. Then they became irregular, while, to add to the horror of the position, the man in pursuit seemed to have been keeping a reserve of strength ready for such an emergency, and he now came on rapidly.
Bob would have proposed putting ashore once more, but, in avoiding the various crafts, they had now contrived to be about midstream, and in his horror and dread of the coming enemy all thought of scheming seemed to have been driven out of his head.
He uttered a despairing yell, and began to tug at his oar once more; Dexter followed his example, and the distance again increased.
But only for a few minutes, then they seemed to be growing weaker, their arms became like lead; their eyes grew dim, and the end was very near.
"Ah, I've got yer at last, have I?" shouted the man, who was not forty yards away now.
"Not yet," muttered Dexter. "Pull, Bob, pull!"
Bob responded by going through the motion of rowing, but his scull did not dip into the water, and, meeting with no resistance, he went backwards off the seat, with his heels in the air.
Dexter jumped up, seized his companion's scull, and, weary as he was, with all the stubborn English pluck which never knows when it is beaten, he reseated himself, shipped his scull, and bent forward to try, inexperienced as he was, to make another effort for escape.
As he seated himself, breathless and panting hard, he gave one glance at his enemy, then another over his shoulder at a boat on ahead, which it would be his duty to avoid, for it seemed to be going right across his track.
Then he began to row, putting the little strength he had left into his last strokes.
"Ah, it's no good," cried the man triumphantly. "I've got yer at last."
"How—ow!" yelled Bob, with a cry like a Newfoundland dog shut out on a cold night.
"Drop that there rowing, or I'll—"
Dexter heard no more. He was pulling frantically, but making hardly any way. Then he heard voices ahead, glanced round with his sculls raised, and found that he was running right toward the craft just ahead.
Another moment and there was a bump.
The man had driven his little tub right into the stern of the gig, and as he laid hold he snarled out—
"I knew I should ketch yer."
"How—ow!" yelled Bob again, from where he lay on his back in the bottom of the boat, his legs still over the seat.
There was another shock, and Dexter started up, saw that he had run into the boat ahead, and that one of the two sailors, who had been rowing, had taken hold of the bows.
He saw that at a glance, but he also saw something else which seemed to freeze the blood in his breast.
For there, seated in the stern of that large boat into which he had run, were the Doctor, Sir James Danby, old Dan'l, and Peter.
CHAPTER THIRTY NINE.
BROUGHT TO BOOK.
Dexter did not pause a moment. It did not occur to him that he was utterly exhausted, and could hardly move his arms. All he realised was the fact that on the one side was the man whom he had half-killed with the boat-hook, just about to stretch out his hand to seize him, on the other, those whom he dreaded far more, and with one quick movement he stepped on to the thwart of the gig, joined his hands, dived in, and disappeared from sight, in the muddy water.
For a few moments there was the silence of utter astonishment, and then the man who had pursued the boys down the river began to take advantage of the general excitement by keeping hold of the side of the gig and beginning to draw it away; but Bob set up such a howl of dismay that it drew Peter's attention, and he too seized the boat from the other end, caught out the chain, and hooked it on to a ring-bolt of the big boat in which he sat.
"You drop that there, will yer!" cried the man. "It's my boat."
"How—ow!" cried Bob, in the most canine of yelps; and at the same moment the gig was literally jerked from the man's hold, for the two sailors had given a tremendous tug at their oars to force the boat in the direction that Dexter was likely to take after his rise, and the next minute a dozen yards were between the tub and the gig.
"For heaven's sake, mind! stop!" cried the doctor excitedly. "Don't row, men, or you may strike him down."
The men ceased rowing, and every eye began to search the surface of the water, but no sign of Dexter could be seen.
"He could not sink like that," cried Sir James. "He must rise somewhere."
But must or no, Dexter did not rise, and the men began to paddle softly down-stream, while the doctor stood up in the boat gazing wildly round.
"It was all my doing," he said to himself. "Poor boy! poor boy!"
A feeling of horror that was unbearable seemed to be creeping over the occupants of the great boat. Even Dan'l, who looked upon Dexter as his mortal enemy, and who had suggested, in the hope of seeing him sent to prison, that the surest way of capturing the boys was to go down to the mouth of the river—even Dan'l felt the chill of horror as he mentally said—
"'Tain't true. Them as is born to be hanged is sometimes drowned."
But just then there was a tremendous splash, and the big boat rocked to and fro, the captive gig danced, and Bob uttered another of his canine yelps, for Peter had suddenly stepped on to the gunwale, dived in after something he had seen touch the surface of the water twenty yards lower down, where it had been rolled over and over by the rapid tide, and a minute later, as he swam vigorously, he shouted—"I've got him!"
And he was seen holding the boy's head above the water, as he turned to try and stem the current, and swim back to the boat.
The task was not long, for the two sailors sent her down with a few vigorous sweeps of their oars, and Dexter and his rescuer were dragged over the side, as the man with the tub slowly backed away.
No time was lost in reaching the shore, and the insensible boy was carried up to the principal hotel in the port, where quite an hour elapsed before the surgeon whose services were sought was able to pause from his arduous task, and announce that his patient would live.
For it was a very narrow escape, and the surgeon said, as he shook hands with Dr Grayson—
"Some men would have given it up in despair, sir. But there he is, safe and sound, and, I dare say, boy-like, it will not be very long before he gets into some mischief again."
Sir James Danby coughed, and Doctor Grayson frowned as he met his friend's peculiar look. But nothing was said then till the surgeon had been up to see his patient once more, after which he returned, reported that Dexter had sunk into a sound slumber, and then took his leave.
"I suppose we shall not go back to Coleby to-night?" said Sir James.
"I shall not," said the doctor; "but, my dear Danby, pray don't let me keep you."
"Oh! you will not keep me," said Sir James quietly. "I've got to make arrangements about my boat being taken up the river."
"Why not let my men row it back!" said the doctor.
"Because I did not like to impose on your kindness."
"Then they may take it?"
"I shall only be too grateful," said Sir James.
Nothing more was said till they had ordered and sat down to a snug dinner in the hotel, when Sir James opened the ball.
"Now, Grayson," he said, "I happen to be a magistrate."
"Yes, of course," said the doctor uneasily.
"Well, then, I want to have a few words with you about those two boys."
The doctor nodded.
"Your groom is with your protege, and your old gardener has that other young scoundrel in charge."
"In charge?" said the doctor.
"Yes; you may call it so. I told him not to lose sight of the young rascal, and I also told your groom to exercise the same supervision over the other."
"But surely, my dear Danby, you do not mean to—"
"Deal with them as I would with any other offender? Why not?"
The doctor had no answer ready, so Sir James went on—
"I valued that boat very highly, and certainly I've got it back—with the exception of the stains upon the cushions—very little the worse. But this was a serious theft, almost as bad as horse-stealing, and I shall have to make an example of them."
"But one of them has been terribly punished," said the doctor eagerly.
"Pooh! not half enough, sir. Come, Grayson, of course this has completely cured you of your mad folly!"
"My mad folly!" cried the doctor excitedly. "May I ask you what you mean?"
"Now, my dear Grayson, pray don't be angry. I only say, as an old friend and neighbour, surely you must be ready to agree that your wild idea of making a gentleman out of this boy—one of the dregs of our civilisation—is an impossibility?"
"Nothing of the sort, sir," cried the doctor angrily. "I never felt more certain of the correctness of my ideas."
"Tut—tut—tut—tut!" ejaculated Sir James. "Really, Grayson, this is too much."
"Too much, sir? Nothing of the kind. A boyish escapade. Nothing more."
"Well!" said Sir James drily, "when such cases as this are brought before us at the bench, we are in the habit of calling them thefts."
"Theft: pooh! No, no!" cried the doctor stubbornly. "A boyish prank. He would have sent the boat back."
"Would he?" said Sir James drily. "I suppose you think his companion would have done the same?"
"I have nothing to do with the other boy," said the doctor shortly. "It was a most unfortunate thing that Dexter should have made his acquaintance."
"Birds of a feather flock together, my dear Grayson," said Sir James.
"Nothing of the kind, sir. It was my fault," cried the doctor. "I neglected to let the boy have suitable companions of his own age; and the consequence was that he listened to this young scoundrel, and allowed himself to be led away."
"Do I understand aright, from your defence of the boy, that you mean to forgive him and take him back!"
"Certainly!" said the doctor.
"Grayson, you amaze me! But if I prove to you that you are utterly wrong, and that the young dog is an arrant thief, what then?"
"Then," said the doctor, "I'm afraid I should have to—No, I wouldn't. I would try and reform him."
"Well," said Sir James, "if you choose to be so ultra lenient, Grayson, you must; but I feel that I have a duty to do, and as soon as we have had our wine I propose that we have the prisoners here, and listen to what they have to say."
"Yes. What else would you call them?"
Before the doctor could stand up afresh in Dexter's defence a waiter entered the room.
"Beg pardon, sir, but your groom says would you be good enough to step upstairs?"
"Bless my heart!" cried the doctor. "Is it a relapse?"
He hurried up to the room where Dexter had been sleeping, to find that, instead of being in bed, he was fully dressed, and lying on the floor, with Peter the groom holding him down.
"Why, what's the matter!" cried the doctor, as he entered the room hastily, followed by Sir James.
"Matter, sir?" said Peter, "matter enough. If I hadn't held him down like this here I believe he'd 'a' been out o' that window."
"Why, Dexter!" cried the doctor.
The boy struggled feebly, and then, seeing the futility of his efforts, he lay still and closed his eyes.
"Went off fast asleep, sir, as any one would ha' thought," said Peter. "And seeing him like that I thought I'd just go down and fetch myself a cup o' tea; but no sooner was I out o' the room than he must have slipped out and dressed hisself—shamming, you know—and if I hadn't come back in the nick o' time he'd have been gone."
The doctor frowned, and Sir James looked satisfied, as he gave him a nod.
"Going to run away, eh!"
"Yes, Sir James," said the groom; "and it was as much as I could do to hold him."
"Get up, Peter," said the doctor.
The groom rose, and Dexter leapt up like a bit of spring, and darted toward the door.
But Sir James was close to it, and catching the boy by the arm he held him.
"Take hold, of him, my man," he said; "and don't let him go."
Peter obeyed, getting a tight grip of Dexter's wrist.
"Now, you give in," he whispered. "It's no good, for I shan't let go."
"Bring him down," said Sir James sternly.
Peter shook his head warningly at Dexter, and then, as Sir James and the doctor went down to their room, Peter followed with his prisoner, who looked over the balustrade as if measuring the distance and his chance if he made a jump.
"Now," said Sir James, as the boy was led into the room; "stand there, sir, and I warn you that if you attempt to run away I shall have in the police, and be more stern. You, my man, go and tell the gardener to bring up the other boy."
Peter left the room after giving Dexter a glance, and the doctor began to walk up and down angrily. He wanted to take the business into his own hands, but Sir James was a magistrate, and it seemed as if he had a right to take the lead.
There was a painful silence, during which Dexter stood hanging his head, and feeling as if he wished he had been drowned, instead of being brought round to undergo such a painful ordeal as this.
Ten minutes must have elapsed before a scuffling was heard upon the stairs, and Bob Dimsted's voice whimpering—
"You let me alone, will yer? I never done nothing to you. Pair o' great cowards, y'are. Don't knock me about, or it'll be the worse for yer. Hit one o' your own size. I never said nothing to you."
This was continued and repeated right into the room, Dan'l looking very severe and earnest, and holding on by the boy's collar, half-dragging him, while Peter pushed behind, and then closed the door, and stood before it like a sentry.
"You have not been striking the boy, I hope!" said the doctor.
"Strike him, sir? no, not I," said Dan'l; "but I should like to. Been a-biting and kicking like a neel to get away."
Sir James had never seen an eel kick, but he accepted the simile, and turning to Bob, who was whimpering and howling—"knocking me about"—"never said nothing to him"—"if my father was here," etc.
"Silence!" roared Sir James, in his severest tones; and Bob gave quite a start and stared.
"Now, sir," said Sir James. "Here, both of you; stand together, and mind this: it will be better for both of you if you are frank and straightforward."
"I want to go home," whimpered Bob. "Y'ain't no business to stop me here."
"Silence!" roared Sir James; and Bob jumped.
Dexter did not move, but stood with his eyes fixed to the floor.
"Now!" said Sir James, gazing fiercely at Bob; "you know, I suppose, why you are here."
"No! I don't," whimpered Bob. "And y'ain't no business to stop me. I want to go home."
"Silence, sir!" roared Sir James again. "You do not know? Well, then, I will tell you. You are before me, sir, charged with stealing a boat."
"Oh!" ejaculated Bob, in a tone of wondering innocence.
"And I perhaps ought to explain," said Sir James, looking hard at Dr Grayson, and speaking apologetically, "that in an ordinary way, as the boat was my property, I should feel called upon to leave the bench; but as this is only a preliminary examination, I shall carry it on myself. Now, sir," he continued, fixing Bob's shifty eyes, "what have you to say, sir, for stealing my boat?"
"Stealing your boat!" cried Bob volubly; "me steal your boat, sir? I wouldn't do such a thing."
"Why, you lying young dog!"
"No, sir, I ain't, sir," protested Bob, as Dexter slowly raised his head and gazed at him. "It wasn't me, sir. It was him, sir. That boy, sir. I begged him not to, sir; but he would do it."
"Oh, it was Dexter Grayson, was it?" said Sir James, glancing at the doctor, who was gnawing his lip and beating the carpet with his toe.
"Yes, sir; it was him, sir. I was t'other side o' the river one day, sir," rattled off Bob, "and he shouts to me, sir, 'Hi!' he says, just like that, sir, and when I went to him, sir, he says, 'Let's steal the old cock's boat and go down the river for a game.'"
"Well?" said Sir James.
"Well, sir, I wouldn't, sir," continued Bob glibly. "I said it would be like stealing the boat; and I wouldn't do that."
"Oh!" said Sir James.
"Is this true, Dexter!" said the doctor sternly.
"No, sir. He wanted me to take the boat."
"Oh, my!" cried Bob. "Hark at that now! Why, I wouldn't ha' done such a thing."
"No, you look a nice innocent boy," said Sir James.
"Yes, sir; and he was allus at me about that boat, and said he wanted to go to foreign abroad, he did, and the best way, he said, was to steal that there boat and go."
"Oh," said Sir James. "And what more have you to say, sir?"
"It isn't true, sir," said Dexter, making an effort to speak, and he gazed angrily at his companion. "Bob here wanted me to go with him, and he persuaded me to take the boat."
"Oh! only hark at him!" cried Bob, looking from one to the other.
"And I thought it would be like stealing the boat to take it like that."
"Well, rather like it," said Sir James sarcastically.
"And so I sent that letter and that money to pay for it, sir, and I meant to send the rest if it wasn't quite enough."
"Ah!" ejaculated the doctor eagerly.
"What letter? What money?" said Sir James.
"That money I sent by Bob Dimsted, sir, to put in your letter-box."
"I never received any money," cried Sir James. "You sent some money!"
"Yes, sir; before we took the boat, sir."
"Ah!" ejaculated the doctor again.
"And you sent it by this boy?"
"Then where is the money?" cried Sir James, turning upon Bob.
"I dunno, sir. I never had no money."
"You did, Bob, in a letter I gave you," cried Dexter excitedly.
"Oh!" ejaculated Bob, with an astonished look. "Well, if ever!"
"This is getting interesting," said Sir James. "Now, sir, where's that money?"
"He never give me none, sir," cried Bob indignantly. "I never see no letter."
"You did. The one I threw across the river to you!" said Dexter.
"Oh, what a cracker!" cried Bob. "I never had no letter, gen'lemen, and I never see no money. Why don't you tell the truth, and the kind gentlemen won't be so hard on you?"
"I am telling the truth," cried Dexter, "It was you asked me to take the boat."
"Only hark at him!" cried Bob. "Why yer'd better say yer didn't take all yer clothes off and swim acrost and get it."
"I did," said Dexter; "but you made me. You said you'd go."
"Oh, you can tell 'em!" cried Bob.
"And I did give you the money to take."
"Oh, well, I've done," said Bob. "I never did hear a chap tell lies like you can!"
"I think that will do," said Sir James, with a side glance at the doctor, who sat with his brows knit, listening. "Now, you will both go back to the room where you are to sleep, and I warn you that if you attempt to escape, so surely will you be taken by the police, and then this matter will assume a far more serious aspect. You, my men, will have charge of these two boys till the morning. They are not to speak to each other, and I look to you to take them safely back to Coleby by the early train. That will do."
Dexter darted one glance at the doctor, but his face was averted.
"Please, sir," he began.
"Silence!" cried Sir James. "I think Dr Grayson understands your character now, and I must say I never heard a more cowardly attempt to fasten a fault upon another. No: not a word. Go!"