Forthwith the Terror filled a saucer with milk and applied the lapping test. Four of the kittens lapped the milk somewhat feebly, but they lapped. The fifth would not lap. It only mewed. Therefore the Terror took only four of the kittens, giving Polly a shilling for them. The fifth he returned to her, bidding her bring it back when it could lap.
They took the four kittens down to the cats' home; and since they were so small, they put them in one hutch for warmth, with a saucer of milk to satisfy their hunger during the night.
"Now we've got these kittens, we needn't bother about getting cats," said the Terror as they returned to the house. "And I'm glad it is kittens and not cats. Kittens eat less."
"Then you've had all the trouble of making that little door for nothing," said Erebus.
"It's an emergency exit—like the theaters have—only it's an entrance," said the Terror. "But thank goodness, we've begun at last; now we can have salaries for 'overseering'."
During the course of the next week they added seven more small kittens to their stock; and it seemed good to the Terror to inform Lady Ryehampton that the home was already constructed and in process of occupation. Accordingly Erebus wrote a letter, by no means devoid of enthusiasm, informing her that it already held eleven inmates, "saved from the awful death of drowning." Lady Ryehampton replied promptly in a spirit of warm gratification that they had been so quick starting it.
But with eleven inmates in the home the Twins presently found themselves grappling earnestly with the food problem and the account-book.
The Terror was not unfitted for financial operations. Till they were six years old the Twins had lived luxuriously at Dangerfield Hall, in Monmouth, with toys beyond the dreams of Alnaschar. Then their father had fallen into the hands of a firm of gambling stock-brokers, had along with them lost nearly all his money, and presently died, leaving Mrs. Dangerfield with a very small income indeed. All the while since his death it had been a hard struggle to make both ends meet; and the Twins had had many a lesson in learning to do without the desires of their hearts.
But their desires were strong; the wits of the Terror were not weak; and taking one month with another the Twins had as much pocket-money as the bulk of the children of the well-to-do. But it did not come in the way of a regular allowance; it had to be obtained by diplomacy or work; and the processes of getting it had given the Terror the liveliest interest in financial matters. He was resolved that the cats' home and the wages of "overseering" should last as long as possible.
But it soon grew clear to him that, with milk at threepence halfpenny a quart, the kittens would soon drink themselves out of house and home.
He discussed the matter with Erebus and Wiggins; and they agreed with him that milk spelled ruin. But they could see no way of reducing the price of milk; and they were sure that it was the necessary food for growing kittens.
Their faces were somewhat gloomy at the end of the discussion; and a heavy silence had fallen on them. Then of a sudden the face of the Terror brightened; and he said with a touch of triumph in his tone: "I've got it; we'll feed them on skim-milk."
"They feed pigs on skim-milk, not kittens," said Erebus scornfully.
That was indeed the practise at Little Deeping. Butter-making was its chief industry; and the skim-milk went to the pigs.
"If it fattens pigs, it will fatten kittens," said the Terror firmly.
"But how can we get it? They don't sell it about here," said Erebus. "And you know what they are: if Granfeytner didn't sell skim-milk, nobody's going to sell skim-milk to-day."
"Oh, yes: old Stubbs will sell it," said the Terror confidently.
"Old Stubbs! But he hates us worse than any one!" cried Erebus.
"Oh, yes; he doesn't like us. But he's awfully keen on money; every one says so. And he won't care whose money he gets so long as he gets it. Come on; we'll go and talk to him about it," said the Terror.
The Twins went firmly across the common to the house of farmer Stubbs and knocked resolutely. The maid, who was well aware that her master and the Twins were not on friendly terms, admitted them with some hesitation. The Twins had never entered the farmer's house before, though they had often entered his orchard; and they felt slightly uncomfortable. They found the parlor into which they were shown uncommonly musty.
Presently Mr. Stubbs came to them, pulling doubtfully at the Newgate fringe that ran bristling under his chin, with a look of deep suspicion in his small, ferrety, red-rimmed eyes. Even when he learned that they had come on business, his face did not brighten till the Terror incidentally dropped a sovereign on the floor and talked of cash payments. Then his face shone; he made the admission, cautiously, that he might be induced to sell skim-milk; and then they came to the discussion of prices. Mr. Stubbs wanted to see skim-milk in quarts; the Terror could only see it in pails; and this difference of point of view nearly brought the negotiations to an abrupt end twice. But the Terror's suavity prevented a complete break; and in the end they struck a bargain that he should have as much skim-milk as he required at threepence halfpenny the pailful.
In the course of the next fortnight they admitted twelve more kittens to the home; and the Terror had yet another idea. Milk alone seemed an insufficient diet for them; and he approached the village baker on the matter of stale bread. There were more negotiations; and in the end the Terror made a contract with the baker for a supply of it at nearly his own price. Now he fed the kittens on bread and milk; they throve on it; and it went further than plain milk.
The Twins enjoyed but little leisure. They had been busy filling certain shelves, which they had fixed up above the cat-hutches, with the best apples the more peaceful and sparsely populated parts of the countryside afforded. But what spare time he had the Terror devoted to a great feat of painting. He painted in white letters on a black board:—
LADY RYEHAMPTON'S CATS' HOME
The letters varied somewhat in size, and they were not everything that could be desired in the matter of shape; but both Erebus and Wiggins agreed that it was extraordinarily effective, and that if ever their aunt saw it she would be deeply gratified.
With this final open advertisement of their enterprise ready to be fixed up, they felt that the time had come to take their mother formally into their confidence. She had learned of the formation of the cats' home from old Sarah; and several of her neighbors had talked to her about it, and seemed surprised by her inability to give them details about its ultimate scope and purpose, for it had excited the interest of the neighborhood and was a frequent matter of discussion for fully a week. She had explained to them that she never interfered with the Twins when they were engaged in any harmless employment, and that she was only too pleased that they had found a harmless employment that filled as much of their time as did the cats' home. Moreover, the Terror had told her that they did not wish her to see it till it had been brought to its finished state and was in thorough working order. Therefore she had no idea of its size or of the cost of its construction. Like every one else she supposed it to be a ramshackle affair of makeshifts constructed from old planks and hen-coops.
Moreover she had not learned that the Twins possessed bicycles, for they were judicious in their use. They were careful to sally forth when she was taking her siesta after lunch; they went across the common and came back across the common and their neighbors saw them riding very little.
When at last she was invited to come to see their finished work, she accepted the invitation with becoming delight, and made her inspection of the home with a becoming seriousness and a growing surprise. She expressed her admiration of its convenience, its cleanliness, and the extensive scale on which it was being run. She agreed with the Terror that to have saved so many kittens from the awful death of drowning was a great work. But she asked no questions, not even how it was that the cats' home was fragrant with the scent of hidden apples. She knew that an explanation, probably of an admirable plausibility, was about to be given her.
Then at the end of her inspection, the Terror said carelessly: "The bicycles are for bringing kittens from a distance, of course."
"What? Are those your bicycles?" cried Mrs. Dangerfield. "But wherever did you get the money from to buy them?"
"Aunt Amelia found the money," said the Terror. "You know she's very keen—tremendously interested in cats' homes. She thinks we are doing a great work, as well as you."
Mrs. Dangerfield's beautiful eyes were very wide open; and she said rather breathlessly: "You got money out of your Aunt Amelia for a cats' home in Little Deeping?"
"Oh, yes," said the Terror carelessly.
Mrs. Dangerfield turned away hastily to hide her working face: she must not laugh at their great-aunt before the Twins. She bit her tongue with a firmness that filled her eyes with tears. It was painful; but it enabled her to complete her inspection with the required gravity.
The Terror fixed up the board above the door of the home; and it awoke a fresh interest among their neighbors in their enterprise. Several of them, including the squire and the vicar, made visits of inspection to it; and Wiggins brought his father. All of them expressed an admiration of the institution and of the methods on which it was conducted. To one another they expressed an unfavorable opinion of the intelligence of Lady Ryehampton.
The home was now working quite smoothly; and with a clear conscience the Twins drew their salary for "overseering." It provided them with many of the less expensive desires of their hearts. Now and again Erebus, mindful of the fact that they had still a little more than ten pounds left out of the original thirty, urged that it should be raised to a shilling a week. But the Terror would not consent: he said their salaries for "overseeing" would naturally be much higher, and that they would have charged for their work in constructing the home, if it had not been for the bicycles. As it was, they were bound to work off the price of the bicycles. Besides, he added with a philosophical air, six-pence a week for a year was much better than a shilling a week for six months.
Lady Ryehampton was duly informed that the home now contained twenty-three inmates; and the children of Great Deeping, Muttle (probably a corruption of Middle) Deeping, and Little Deeping were informed that for the time being the home was full. Erebus clamored to have its full complement of thirty kittens made up; but the Terror maintained very firmly his contention that twenty-three was quite enough. Everything was working smoothly. Then one evening just before dinner there came a loud ringing at the front-door bell.
It was so loud and so importunate that with one accord the Twins dashed for the door; and Erebus opened it. On the steps stood their Uncle Maurice; and he wore a harried air.
"Why, it's Uncle Maurice!" cried Erebus springing upon him and embracing him warmly.
"It's Uncle Maurice, mother!" cried the Terror.
"It may be your Uncle Maurice, but I can tell you he's by no means sure of it himself! Is it my head or my heels I'm standing on?" said Sir Maurice faintly, and he wiped his burning brow.
On his words there came up the steps the porter of Little Deeping station, laden with wicker baskets. From the baskets came the sound of mewing.
"Whatever is it?" cried Mrs. Dangerfield, kissing her brother.
"Cats for the cats' home!" said Sir Maurice Falconer.
He waved his startled kinsfolk aside while the baskets were ranged in a neat row on the floor of the hall, then he paid the porter, feebly, and shut the door after him with an air of exhaustion. He leaned back against it and said:
"I had a sudden message—Aunt Amelia is going to pay a surprise visit to this inf—this cats' home these little friends are pretending to run for her. I saw that there was no time to lose—there must be a cats' home with cats in it—or she'd cut them both out of her will. I bought cats—all over London—they've been with me ever since—yowling—they yowled in the taxi—all over London—they traveled down as far as Rowington with me and an old gentleman—a high-spirited old gentleman—yowling—not only the cats but the old gentleman, too—-and they traveled from Rowington to Little Deeping with me and two maiden ladies—timid maiden ladies!—yowling! But come on: we've got to make a cats' home at once!" And he picked up one of the plaintive baskets with the air of a man desperately resolved to act on the instant or perish.
"But we've got a cats' home—only it's full of kittens," said Erebus gently.
"Good heavens! Do you mean to say I've gone through this nightmare for nothing?" cried Sir Maurice, dropping the basket.
"Oh, no; it was awfully good of you!" said the Terror with swift politeness. "The cats will come in awfully useful."
"They'll make the home look so much more natural. All kittens isn't natural," said Erebus.
"And they'll be such a pleasant surprise for Aunt Amelia. She was only expecting kittens," said the Terror.
"What?" howled Sir Maurice. "Do you mean to say I've parleyed for hours with a high-spirited gentleman and two—two—timid maiden ladies, just to give your Aunt Amelia a pleasant surprise?"
He sank into a chair and wiped his beaded brow feebly. "I ought to have had more confidence in you," he said faintly. "I ought to know your powers by now. And I did. I know well that any people who have dealings with you are likely to get a surprise; but I thought your Aunt Amelia was going to get it; and I've got it myself."
"But you didn't think that we would humbug Aunt Amelia?" said the Terror in a pained tone and with the most virtuous air.
"Gracious, no!" cried Sir Maurice. "I only thought that you might possibly induce her to humbug herself."
The Twins looked at him doubtfully: there seemed to them more in his words than met the ear.
"You must be wanting your dinner dreadfully," said Mrs. Dangerfield. "And I'm afraid there's very little for you. But I'll make you an omelette."
"I can not dine amid this yowling," said Sir Maurice firmly, waving his hand over the vocal baskets. "These animals must be placed out of hearing, or I shan't be able to eat a morsel."
"We'll put them in the cats' home," said the Terror quickly. "I'll just put on a pair of thick gloves. Wiggins' father—he's a higher mathematician, you know, and understands all this kind of thing—says that hydrophobia is very rare among cats. But it's just as well to be careful with these London ones."
"Oh, lord, I never thought of that," said Sir Maurice with a shudder. "I've been risking my life as well!"
The Terror put on the gloves and lighted a lantern. He and Erebus helped carry the cats down to the home; and he put them into hutches. Their uncle was much impressed by the arrangement of the home.
The cats disposed of, Sir Maurice at last recovered his wonted self-possession—a self-possession as admirable as the serenity of the Terror, but not so durable. At dinner he reduced his appreciative kinsfolk to the last exhaustion by his entertaining account of his parleying with his excited fellow travelers. He could now view it with an impartial mind. After dinner he accompanied the Terror to the cats' home and helped him feed the newcomers with scraps. The rest of the evening passed peacefully and pleasantly.
If the Twins had a weakness, it was that their desire for thoroughness sometimes caused them to overdo things; and it was on the way to bed that the brilliant idea flashed into the mind of Erebus.
She stopped short on the stairs, and with an air of inspiration said: "We ought to have more cats."
The Terror stopped short too, pondering the suggestion; then he said: "By Jove, yes. This would be a good time to work that valerian dodge. And it would mean that we should have to use our bicycles again for the good of the home. The more we can say that we've used them for it, the less any one can grumble about them."
"Most cats are shut up now," said Erebus.
"Yes; we must catch the morning cats. They get out quite early—when people start out to work," said the Terror.
Among the possessions of the Twins was an American clock fitted with an alarm. The Terror set it for half past five. At that hour it awoke him with extreme difficulty. He awoke Erebus with extreme difficulty. Five minutes later they were munching bread and butter in the kitchen to stay themselves against the cold of the bitter November morning; then they sallied forth, equipped with rags, string and the bottle of valerian.
They bicycled to Muttle Deeping. There the Terror poured valerian on one of the rags and tied it to the bicycle of Erebus. Forthwith she started to trail it to the cats' home. He rode on to Great Deeping and trailed a rag from there through Little Deeping to the cats' home. When he reached it he found Erebus' bicycle in its corner; and when, after strengthening the trail through the little hanging door with a rag freshly wetted with the drug, he returned to the house, he found that she was already in bed again. He made haste back to bed himself.
It had been their intention to go down to the home before breakfast and put the cats they had attracted to it into hutches. But they slept on till breakfast was ready; and the fragrance of the coffee and bacon lured them straight into the dining-room. After all, as Erebus told the hesitating Terror, there was plenty of time to deal with the new cats, for Aunt Amelia could not reach Little Deeping before eleven o'clock. They could not escape from the home. The Twins therefore devoted their most careful attention to their breakfast with their minds quite at ease.
Then there came a ring at the front door; and still their minds were at ease, for they took it that it was a note or a message from a neighbor. Then Sarah threw open the dining-room door, said "Please, ma'am, it's Lady Ryehampton"; and their Aunt Amelia stood, large, round and formidable, on the threshold. Behind her stood Miss Hendersyde looking very anxious.
There was a heavy frown on Lady Ryehampton's stern face; and when they rose to welcome her, she greeted them with severe stiffness. To Erebus, the instructor of parrots, she gave only one finger.
Then in deep portentous tones she said: "I came down to pay a surprise visit to your cats' home. I always do. It's the only way I can make sure that the poor dear things are receiving proper treatment." The frown on her face grew rhadamanthine. "And last night I saw your Uncle Maurice at the station—he did not see me—with cats, London cats, in baskets. On the labels of two of the baskets I read the names of well-known London cat-dealers. I do not support a cats' home at Little Deeping for London cats bought at London dealers. Why have they been brought here?"
Sir Maurice opened his mouth to explain; but the Terror was before him:
"It was Uncle Maurice's idea," he said. "He didn't think that there ought only to be kittens in a cats' home. We didn't mind ourselves; and of course, if he puts cats in it, he'll have to subscribe to the home. What we have started it for was kittens—to save them from the awful death of drowning. We wrote and told you. And we've saved quite a lot."
His limpid blue eyes were wells of candor.
Lady Ryehampton uttered a short snort; and her eyes flashed.
"Do you mean to tell me that your Uncle Maurice is fond enough of cats to bring them all the way from London to a cats' home at Deeping? He hates cats, and always has!" she said fiercely.
"Of course, I hate cats," said Sir Maurice with cold severity. "But I hate children's being brought up to be careless a great deal more. A cats' home is not a cats' home unless it has cats in it; and you've been encouraging these children to grow up careless by calling a kittens' home a cats' home. If you will interfere in their up-bringing, you have no right to do your best to get them into careless ways."
Taken aback at suddenly finding herself on the defensive Lady Ryehampton blinked at him somewhat owlishly: "That's all very well," she said in a less severe tone. "But is there a kittens' home at all—a kittens' home with kittens in it? That's what I want to know."
"But we wrote and told you how many kittens we had in the cats' home. You don't think we'd deceive you, Aunt Amelia?" said the Terror in a deeply injured tone and with a deeply injured air.
"There! I told you that if he said he had kittens in it, there would be," said Miss Hendersyde with an air of relief.
"Of course there's a cats' home with kittens in it!" said Mrs. Dangerfield with some heat. "The Terror wouldn't lie to you!"
"Hyacinth is incapable of deceit!" cried Sir Maurice splendidly.
The Terror did his best to look incapable of deceit; and it was a very good best.
In some confusion Lady Ryehampton began to stammer: "Well, of c-c-c-course, if there's a c-c-cats' home—but Sir Maurice's senseless interference—"
"Senseless interference! Do you call saving children from careless habits senseless interference?" cried Sir Maurice indignantly.
"You had no business to interfere without consulting me," said Lady Ryehampton. Then, with a return of suspicion, she said: "But I want to see this cats' home—now!"
"I'll take you at once," said the Terror quickly, and politely he opened the door.
They all went, Mrs. Dangerfield snatching a hooded cloak, Sir Maurice his hat and coat from pegs in the hall as they went through it. When they came into the paddock their ears became aware of a distant high-pitched din; and the farther they went down it the louder and more horrible grew the din.
Over the broad round face of Lady Ryehampton spread an expression of suspicious bewilderment; Mrs. Dangerfield's beautiful eyes were wide open in an anxious wonder; the piquant face of Erebus was set in a defiant scowl; and Sir Maurice looked almost as anxious as Mrs. Dangerfield. Only the Terror was serene.
"Surely those brutes I brought haven't got out of their cages," said Sir Maurice.
"Oh, no; those must be visiting cats," said the Terror calmly.
"Visiting cats?" said Lady Ryehampton and Sir Maurice together.
"Yes: we encourage the cats about here to come to the home so that if ever they are left homeless they will know where to come," said the Terror, looking at Lady Ryehampton with eyes that were limpid wells of guilelessness.
"Now that's a very clever idea!" she exclaimed. "I must tell the managers of my other homes about it and see whether they can't do it, too. But what are these cats doing?"
"It sounds as if they were quarreling," said the Terror calmly.
It did sound as if they were quarreling; at the door of the home the din was ear-splitting, excruciating, fiendish. It was as if the voices of all the cats in the county were raised in one piercing battle-song.
The Terror bade his kinsfolk stand clear; then he threw open the door—wide. Cats did not come out. . . . A large ball of cats came out, gyrating swiftly in a haze of flying fur. Ten yards from the door it dissolved into its component parts, and some thirty cats tore, yelling, to the four quarters of the heavens.
After that stupendous battle-song the air seemed thick with silence.
The Terror broke it; he said in a tone of doubting sadness: "I sometimes think it sets a bad example to the kittens."
Sir Maurice turned livid in the grip of some powerful emotion. He walked hurriedly round to the back of the home to conceal it from human ken. There with his handkerchief stuffed into his mouth, he leaned against the wall, and shook and rocked and kicked the irresponsive bricks feebly.
But the serene Terror firmly ushered Lady Ryehampton into the home with an air of modest pride. A little dazed, she entered upon a scene of perfect, if highly-scented, peace. Twenty-three kittens and eight cats sat staring earnestly through bars of their hutches in a dead stillness. Their eyes were very bright. By a kindly provision of nature they had been able, in the darkness, to follow the fortunes of that vociferous fray.
In three minutes Lady Ryehampton had forgotten the battle-song. She was charmed, lost in admiration of the home, of the fatness and healthiness of the blinking kittens, the neatness and the cleanliness. She gushed enthusiastic approbation. "To think," she cried, "that you have done this yourself! A boy of thirteen!"
"Erebus did quite as much as I did," said the Terror quickly.
"And Wiggins helped a lot. He's a friend of ours," said Erebus no less quickly.
Lady Ryehampton's face softened to Erebus—to Erebus, the instructor of parrots.
Sir Maurice joined them. His eyes were red and moist, as if they had but now been full of tears.
"It's a very creditable piece of work," he said in a tone of warm approval.
Lady Ryehampton looked round the home once more; and her face fell. She said uneasily: "But you must be heavily in debt."
"In debt?" said the Terror. "Oh, no; we couldn't be. Mother would hate us to be in debt."
"I thought—a cats' home—oh, but I am glad I brought my check-book with me!" cried Lady Ryehampton.
She could not understand why Sir Maurice uttered a short sharp howl. She did not know that the Terror dug him sharply in the ribs as Erebus kicked him joyfully on the ankle-bone; that they had simultaneously realized that the future of the home, the wages of "overseering," were secure.
AND THE SACRED BIRD
Lady Ryehampton did not easily tear herself away from the home; and the Terror did all he could to foster her interest in it. The crowning effect was the feeding of the kittens, which was indeed a very pretty sight, since twenty-three kittens could not feed together without many pauses to gambol and play. The only thing about the home which was not quite to the liking of Lady Ryehampton was the board over the door. She liked it as an advertisement of her philanthropy; but she did not like its form; she preferred her name in straighter letters, all of them of the same size. At the same time she did not like to hurt the feelings of the Terror by showing lack of appreciation of his handiwork.
Then she had a happy thought, and said: "By the way, I think that the board over the door ought to be uniform—the same as the boards over the entrances of my other cats' homes. The lettering of them is always in gold."
"All right. I'll get some gold paint, and paint them over," said the Terror readily, anxious to humor in every way this dispenser of salaries.
"No, no, I can't give you the trouble of doing it all over again," said Lady Ryehampton quickly. "I'll have a board made, and painted in London—exactly like the board of my cats' home at Tysleworth—and sent down to you to fix up."
"Thanks very much," said the Terror. "It will save me a great deal of trouble. Painting isn't nearly so easy as it looks."
Lady Ryehampton breathed a sigh of satisfaction. She invited them all to lunch at The Plough, where she had stayed the night; and Mrs. Pittaway racked her brains and strained all the resources of her simple establishment to make the lunch worthy of its giver. As she told her neighbors later, nobody knew what it was to have a lady of title in the house. The Twins enjoyed the lunch very much indeed; and even Erebus was very quiet for two hours after it.
Lady Ryehampton came to tea at Colet House; she paid a last gloating visit to the cats' home, wrote a check for ten pounds payable to the Terror, and in a state of the liveliest satisfaction, took the train to London.
Sir Maurice stayed till a later train, for he had no great desire to travel with Lady Ryehampton. Besides, the question what was to be done with the eight cats he had brought with him, remained to be settled. He felt that he could not saddle the Twins with their care and up-keep, since only his unfounded distrust had brought them to the cats' home. At the same time he could not bring himself to travel with them any more.
They discussed the matter. Erebus was inclined to keep the cats, declaring that it would be so nice to grow their own kittens. The Terror, looking at the question from the cold monetary point of view, wished to be relieved of them. In the end it was decided that Sir Maurice should make terms with one of the dealers from whom he had bought them, and that the Twins should forward them to that dealer.
The next day the Twins discussed what should be done with this unexpected ten pounds which Lady Ryehampton had bestowed on the home. Erebus was for at once increasing their salaries to three shillings a week. The cautious Terror would only raise them to ninepence each. Then, keeping rather more than four pounds for current expenses, he put fifteen pounds in the Post-Office Savings Bank. He thought it a wise thing to do: it prevented any chance of their spending a large sum on some sudden overwhelming impulse.
Then for some time their lives moved in a smooth uneventful groove. The cats were despatched to the London dealer; the neatly painted board came from Lady Ryehampton and was fixed up in the place of the Terror's handiwork; they did their lessons in the morning; they rode out, along with Wiggins who now had his bicycle, in the afternoons.
Then came December; and early in the month they began to consider the important matter of their mother's Christmas present.
One morning they were down at the home, giving the kittens their breakfasts and discussing it gravely. The kittens were indulging in engaging gambols before falling into the sleep of repletion which always followed their meals; but the Twins saw them with unsmiling eyes, for the graver matter wholly filled their minds. They could see their way to saving up seven or eight shillings for that present; and so large a sum must be expended with judgment. It must procure something not only useful but also attractive.
They had discussed at some length the respective advantages and attractions of a hair-brush and a tortoise-shell comb to set in the hair, when Erebus, frowning thoughtfully, said: "I know what she really wants though."
"What's that?" said the Terror sharply.
"It's one of those fur stoles in the window of Barker's at Rowington," said Erebus. "I heard her sigh when she looked at it. She used to have beautiful furs once—when father was alive. But she sold them—to get things for us, I suppose. Uncle Maurice told me so—at least I got it out of him."
The Terror was frowning thoughtfully, too; and he said in a tone of decision: "How much is that stole?"
"Oh, it's no good thinking about it—it's three guineas," said Erebus quickly.
"That's a mort o' money, as old Stubbs says," said the Terror; and the frown deepened on his brow.
"I wonder if we could get it?" said Erebus, and a faint hopefulness dawned in her eyes as she looked at his pondering face. "I should like to. It must be hard on Mum not to have nice things—much harder than for us, because we've never had them—at least, we had them when we were small, but we never got used to them. So we've forgotten."
"No, we're all right as long as we have useful things," said the Terror, without relaxing his thoughtful frown. "But you're right about Mum—she must be different. I've got to think this out."
"Three guineas is such a lot to think out," said Erebus despondently.
"I thought out thirty pounds not so very long ago," said the Terror firmly. "And if you come to think of it, Mum's stole is really more important than bicycles and a cats' home, though not so useful."
"But it's different—we had to have bicycles—you said so," said Erebus eagerly.
"Well, we've got to have this stole," said the Terror in a tone of finality; and the matter settled, his brow smoothed to its wonted serenity.
"But how?" said Erebus eagerly.
"Things will occur to us. They always do," said the Terror with a careless confidence.
They began to put the kittens into their hutches. Half-way through the operation the Terror paused:
"I wonder if we could sell any of these kittens? Does any one ever buy kittens?"
"We did; we gave threepence each for these," said Erebus.
"Ah, but we had to buy something in the way of cats for the home. We should never have bought a kitten but for that. We shouldn't have dreamt of doing such a thing."
"I should buy kittens if I were rich and hadn't got any," said Erebus in a tone of decision.
"You would, would you? That's just what I wanted to know: girls will buy kittens," said the Terror in a tone of satisfaction. "Well, we'll sell these."
"But we can't empty the home," said Erebus.
"We wouldn't. We'd buy fresh ones, just able to lap, for threepence each, and sell these at a shilling. We might make nearly a sovereign that way."
"So we should—a whole sovereign!" cried Erebus; then she added in a somewhat envious tone: "You do think of things."
"I have to. Where should we be, if I didn't?" said the Terror.
"But who are we going to sell them to? Everybody round here has cats."
"Yes, they have," said the Terror, frowning again. "Well, we shall have to sell them somewhere else."
They put the sleepy kittens back in their hutches, and walked back to the house, pondering. The Terror collected the books for his morning's work slowly, still thoughtful.
As he was leaving the house he said: "Look here; the place for us to sell them is Rowington. The people round here sell most of their things at Rowington—butter and eggs and poultry and rabbits."
"And Ellen would sell them for us—in the market," said Erebus quickly.
"Of course she would! You see, you think of things, too!" cried the Terror; and he went off to his lessons with an almost cheerful air.
After lunch they rode to Great Deeping to discuss with Ellen the matter of selling their kittens. She had been their nurse for the first four years of their stay at Colet House; and she had left them to marry a small farmer. She had an affection for them, especially for the Terror; and she had not lost touch with them. She welcomed them warmly, ushered them into her little parlor, brought in a decanter of elderberry wine and a cake. When she had helped them to cake and poured out their wine, the Terror broached the matter that had brought them to her house.
Ellen's mind ran firmly and unswerving in the groove of butter and eggs and poultry, which she carried every market-day to Rowington in her pony-cart. She laughed consumedly at the Terror's belief that any one would want to buy kittens. But unmoved by her open incredulity, he was very patient with her and persuaded her to try, at any rate, to sell their kittens at her stall in Rowington market. Ellen consented to make the attempt, for she had always found it difficult to resist the Terror when he had set his mind on a thing, and she was eager to oblige him; but she held out no hopes of success.
The Terror came away content, since he had gained his end, and did not share her despondency. Erebus, on the other hand, infected by Ellen's pessimism, rode in a gloomy depression.
Presently her face brightened; and with an air of inspiration she said: "I tell you what: even if we don't sell those kittens, we can always buy the stole. There's all that cats' home money in the bank. We can take as much of it as we want, and pay it back by degrees."
"No, we can't," said the Terror firmly. "We're not going to use that money for anything but the cats' home. I promised Mum I wouldn't. Besides, she'd like the stole ever so much better if we'd really earned it ourselves."
"But we shan't," said Erebus gloomily. "If we sold all the kittens, it will only make twenty-three shillings."
"Then we must find something else to sell," said the Terror with decision.
His mind was running on this line, when a quarter of a mile from Little Deeping they came upon Tom Cobb leaning over a gate surveying a field of mangel-wurzel with vacant amiability.
Tom Cobb was the one villager they respected; and he and they were very good friends. Carping souls often said that Tom Cobb had never done an honest day's work in his life. Yet he was the smartest man in the village, the most neatly dressed, always with money in his pocket.
It was common knowledge that his fortunate state arose from his constitutional disability to observe those admirable laws which have been passed for the protection of the English pheasants from all dangers save the small shot of those who have them fed. Tom Cobb waged war, a war of varying fortunes against the sacred bird. Sometimes for a whole season he would sell the victims of the carnage of the war with never a check to his ardor. In another season some prying gamekeeper would surprise him glutting his thirst for blood and gold, and an infuriated bench of magistrates would fine him. The fine was always paid. Tom Cobb was one of those thrifty souls who lay up money against a rainy day.
He turned at the sound of their coming; and he and the Twins greeted one another with smiles of mutual respect. They rode on a few yards; and then the Terror said, "By Jove!" stopped, slipped off his bicycle, and wheeled it back to the gate. Erebus followed him more slowly.
"I've been wondering if you'd do me a favor, Tom," said the Terror. "I've always wanted to know how to make a snare. I'll give you half-a-crown if you'll teach me."
Tom Cobb's clear blue eyes sparkled at the thought of half-a-crown, but he hesitated. He knew the Twins; he knew that with them a little knowledge was a dangerous thing—for others. He foresaw trouble for the sacred bird; he foresaw trouble for his natural foes, the gamekeepers. He did not foresee trouble for the Twins; he knew them. And very distinctly he saw half-a-crown.
He grinned and said slowly, "Yes, Master Terror, I'll be very 'appy to teach you 'ow to make a snare."
"Thank you. I'll come around to-morrow afternoon, about two," said the Terror gratefully.
"It will be nice to know how to make snares!" cried Erebus happily as they rode on. "I wonder we never thought of it before."
"We didn't want a fur stole before," said the Terror.
The next afternoon Erebus in vain entreated him to take her with him to Tom Cobb's cottage to share the lesson in the art of making snares. But the Terror would not. Often he was indulgent; often he was firm. To-day he was firm.
He returned from his lesson with a serene face, but he said rather sadly: "I've still a lot to learn. But come on: I've got to buy something in Rowington."
They rode swiftly into Rowington, for the next day was market-day, and they had to get the kittens ready for Ellen to sell. At Rowington the Terror bought copper wire at an ironmonger's; and he was very careful to buy it of a certain thickness.
They rode home swiftly, and at once selected six kittens for the experiment. Much to the surprise and disgust of those kittens, they washed them thoroughly in the kitchen. They dried them, and decided to keep them in its warmth till the next morning.
After the washing of the kittens, they betook themselves to the making of snares. Erebus, ever sanguine, supposed that they would make snares at once. The Terror had no such expectation; and it was a long while before he got one at all to his liking.
Remembering Tom Cobb's instructions, he washed it, and then put on gloves before setting it in the hole in the hedge through which the rabbits from the common were wont to enter their garden to eat the cabbages. He was up betimes next morning, found a rabbit in the snare, and thrilled with joy. The fur stole had come within the range of possibility.
Before breakfast they made the toilet of the six chosen kittens, brushing them with the Terror's hair-brush till their fur was of a sleekness it had never known before. Then Erebus adorned the neck of each with a bow of blue ribbon. Knowing the ways of kittens, she sewed on the bows, and sewed them on firmly. It could not be doubted that they looked much finer than ordinary unwashed kittens. Directly after breakfast, the Twins put three in the basket of either of their bicycles, rode over to Rowington and handed them over to Ellen.
They would have liked to stay to see what luck she had with them but they had to return to their lessons. After lunch they made three more snares; and the Terror found that the fingers of Erebus were, if anything, more deft at snare-making than his own.
It was late in the afternoon when they reached Rowington again; and when they came to Ellen's stall, they found to their joy that the basket which had held the six kittens was empty.
Ellen greeted them with a smile of the liveliest satisfaction, and said: "Well, Master Terror, you were right, and I was wrong. I've sold them kitties—every one—and I've had two more ordered. It was when the ladies from the Hill came marketing that they went."
She opened her purse, took out six shillings, and held them out to the Terror.
"Five," said the Terror. "I must pay you a shilling for selling them. It's what they call commission."
"No, sir; I don't want any commission," said Ellen firmly. "As long as those kitties were there, I sold more butter and eggs and fowls than any one else in the market. I haven't had such a good day not ever before. And I'll be glad to sell as many kitties as you can bring me."
The Terror pressed her to accept the shilling, but she remained firm. The Twins rode joyfully home with six shillings.
That night the Terror set his four snares in the hedge of the garden about the common. He caught three rabbits.
The next morning he was silent and very thoughtful as he helped feed the kittens and change the bay in the hutches.
At last he said rather sadly: "It's sometimes rather awkward being a Dangerfield."
"Why?" said Erebus surprised.
"Those rabbits," said the Terror. "I want to sell them. But it's no good going into Rowington and trying to sell them to a poulterer. Even if he wanted rabbits—which he mightn't—he'd only give me sixpence each for them. But if I were to sell them myself here, I could get eightpence, or perhaps ninepence each for them. But, you see, a Dangerfield can't go about selling things. Uncle Maurice said I had the makings of a millionaire in me, but a Dangerfield couldn't go into business. It's the family tradition not to. That's what he said."
"Perhaps he was only rotting," said Erebus hopefully.
"No, he wasn't. I asked Mum, and she said it was the family tradition, too. I expect that's why we're all so hard up."
"But the squire sells things," said Erebus quickly. "And you can't say he isn't a gentleman, though the Anstruthers aren't so old as the Dangerfields."
"Of course, he does. He sells some of his game," said the Terror, in a tone of great relief. "Game must be all right, and we can easily count rabbits as game."
Forthwith he proceeded to count rabbits as game; they put the four they had caught into the baskets of their bicycles and rode out on a tour of the neighborhood. The Terror went to the back doors of their well-to-do neighbors and offered his rabbits to their cooks with the gratifying result that in less than an hour he had sold all four of them at eightpence each.
They rode home in triumph: the fur stole was moving toward them. They had already eight shillings and eightpence out of the sixty-three shillings.
It was sometimes said of the Twins by the carping that they never knew when to stop; but in this case it was not their fault that they went on. It was the fault of the rabbit market. At the fifteenth rabbit, when they had but eighteen shillings and eightpence toward the stole, the bottom fell out of it. For the time the desire of Little Deeping to eat rabbits was sated.
It was also the fault of the insidious cook of Mrs. Blenkinsop, who, after refusing to buy the fifteenth rabbit, said: "Now, if you was to bring me a nice fat pheasant twice a week, it would be a very different thing, Master Dangerfield."
The Terror looked at her thoughtfully; then he said: "And how much would you pay for pheasants?"
The cook made a silent appeal to those processes of mental arithmetic she had learned in her village school, saw her way to a profit of threepence, perhaps ninepence, on each bird, and said: "Two and threepence each, sir."
The Terror looked at her again thoughtfully, considering her offer. He saw her profit of threepence, perhaps ninepence, and said: "All right, I'll bring you two or three a week. But you'll have to pay cash."
"Oh, yes, sir. Of course, sir," said the cook.
"Do you know any one else who'd buy pheasants?" he said.
"Well, there's Mr. Carrington's cook," said the cook slowly. "She has the management of the housekeeping money like I do. I think she might buy pheasants from you. Mr. Carrington's very partial to game."
"Right," said the Terror. "And thank you for telling me."
He rode straight to the house of Mr. Carrington, and broached the matter to his cook, to whom he had already sold rabbits. He made a direct offer to her of two pheasants a week at two and threepence each. After a vain attempt to beat him down to two shillings, she accepted it.
He rode home in a pleasant glow of triumph: the snares which caught rabbits would catch pheasants. At first he was for catching those pheasants by himself. Snaring rabbits was a harmless enterprise; snaring pheasants was poaching; and poaching was not a girl's work. Then he came to the conclusion that he would need the help of Erebus and must tell her.
When he revealed to her this vision of a new Eldorado, she said: "But where are you going to get pheasants from?"
"Woods," said the Terror, embracing the horizon in a sweeping gesture.
Erebus looked round the horizon with greedy eyes; they sparkled fiercely.
"The only thing is, we don't know nearly enough about snaring pheasants. And I don't like to ask Tom Cobb: he might talk about it; and that wouldn't do at all," said the Terror.
"But there's nobody else to ask."
"I don't know about that. There's Wiggins' father. He knows a lot of useful things besides higher mathematics. The only thing is, we must do it in such a way that he doesn't see we're trying to get anything out of him."
"Well, I should think we could do that. He's really quite simple," said Erebus.
"As long as you understand what I'm driving at," said the Terror.
That evening they prepared eight more kittens for sale at Rowington market, and carried them into Rowington directly after breakfast next morning. Ellen told them, with some indignation, that two rival poultry-sellers had both brought three kittens to sell. The Twins at once went to inspect them, and came back with the cheering assurance that those kittens were not a patch on those she was selling. They were right, for Ellen sold all the eight before a rival sold one; and the joyful Twins carried home eight more shillings toward the stole.
On the next three afternoons they rode forth with the intention of coming upon Mr. Carrington by seeming accident; but it was not till the third afternoon that they came upon him and Wiggins, walking briskly, about three miles from Little Deeping.
The Twins, as a rule, were wont to shun Mr. Carrington. They had a great respect for his attainments, but a much greater for his humor. In Erebus, this respect often took the form of wriggling in his presence. She did not know what he might say about her next. He was, therefore, somewhat surprised when they slipped off their bicycles and joined him. He wondered what they wanted.
Apparently, they were merely in a gregarious mood, yearning for the society of their fellow creatures; but in about three minutes the talk was running on pheasants. Mr. Carrington did not like pheasants, except from the point of view of eating; and he dwelt at length on the devastation the sacred bird was working in the English countryside: villages were being emptied and let fall to ruin that it might live undisturbed; the song-birds were being killed off to give it the woods to itself.
It seemed but a natural step from the pheasant to the poacher; he was not aware that he took it at the prompting of the Terror; and he bewailed the degeneracy of the British rustic, his slow reversion to the type of neolithic man, owing to the fact that the towns drained the villages of all the intelligent. The skilful poacher who harried the sacred bird was fast becoming extinct.
Then, at last, he came to the important matter of the wiles of the poacher; and the thirsty ears of the Terror drank in his golden words. He discussed the methods of the gang of poachers and the single poacher with intelligent relish and more sympathy than was perhaps wise to display in the presence of the young. The Terror came from that talk with a firm belief in the efficacy of raisins.
The next afternoon the Twins rode into Rowington and bought a pound of raisins at the leading grocer's. They might well have bought them at Little Deeping, encouraging local enterprise; but they thought Rowington safer. They always took every possible precaution at the beginning of an enterprise. They did not ride straight home. Three miles out of Rowington was a small clump of trees on a hill. At the foot of the hill, a hundred yards below the clump, lay Great Deeping wood, acre upon acre. It had lately passed, along with the rest of the Great Deeping estate, into the hands of Mr. D'Arcy Rosenheimer, a pudding-faced, but stanch young Briton of the old Pomeranian strain. He was not loved in the county, even by landed proprietors of less modern stocks, for, though he cherished the laudable ambition of having the finest pheasant shoot in England, and was on the way to realize it, he did not invite his neighbors to help shoot them. His friends came wholly from The Polite World which so adorns the illustrated weeklies.
It was in the deep December dusk that the Twins' came to the clump on the hill. The Terror lifted their bicycles over the gate and set them behind the hedge. He removed the pound of raisins from his bicycle basket to his pocket, and leaving Erebus to keep watch, he stole down the hedge to the clump, crawled through a gap into it, and walked through it. One pheasant scuttled out of it, down the hedgerow to the wood below. The occurrence pleased him. He crawled out of the clump on the farther side, and proceeded to lay a train of raisins down the ditch of the hedge to the wood. He did not lay it right down to the wood lest some inquisitive gamekeeper might espy it. Then he returned with fine, red Indian caution to Erebus. They rode home well content.
Next evening, with another bag of raisins, they sought the clump again. Again the Terror laid a trail of raisins along the ditch from the wood to the clump. But this evening he set a snare in the hedge of the clump. Just above the end of the ditch. Later he took from that snare a plump but sacred bird. Later still he sold it to the cook of Mrs. Blenkinsop for two and threepence.
AND THE LANDED PROPRIETOR
On reaching home the Terror displayed the two shillings and threepence to Erebus with an unusual air of triumph; as a rule he showed himself serenely unmoved alike in victory and defeat.
"That's all right," said Erebus cheerfully. "That makes—that makes twenty-eight and eleven-pence. We are getting on."
"Yes; it's twenty-eight and eleven-pence now," said the Terror quickly. "But you don't seem to see that when we've got the stole for Mum these pheasants will still be going on."
"Of course they will!" cried Erebus; and her eyes shone very brightly indeed at the joyful thought.
The next day the Terror obtained some sandwiches from Sarah after breakfast; and as soon as his lessons were over he rode hard to the clump above Great Deeping wood. He reached it at the hour when gamekeepers are at their dinner, and was able to make a thorough examination of it. He found it full of pheasant runs, and chose the two likeliest places for his snares. He did not set them then and there; a keeper on his afternoon round might see them. He came again in the evening with Erebus, laid trails of raisins and set them then. Later he sold a pheasant to the cook of Mrs. Blenkinsop and one to the cook of Mr. Carrington.
During the next fortnight they sold eight more pheasants and eight more kittens. They found themselves in the happy position of needing only six shillings more to make up the price of the fur stole.
But it had been impossible for the Twins to remain content with the clump of trees above Great Deeping wood. They had laid a trail of raisins and set a snare in the wood itself, in the nearest corner of it on the valley road which divides the wood into two nearly equal parts.
On the next afternoon they had ridden into Rowington with Wiggins; and since the roads were heavy they did not go back the shortest way over Great Deeping hill, but took the longer level road along the valley. The afternoon was still young, and for December, uncommonly clear and bright. But as they rode through the wood, the Terror decided that instead of returning to it in the favoring dusk he might as well examine the snare in the corner now, and save himself another journey. It was a risk no experienced poacher would have taken; but old heads, alas! do not grow on young shoulders.
He dismounted about the middle of the wood, informed the other two of his purpose (to the surprise of Wiggins who had not been informed of his friends' latest exploits) and made his dispositions. When they came to the corner of the wood, Erebus rode on up the road to keep a lookout ahead. The Terror slipped off his bicycle, and so did Wiggins. Wiggins held the two bicycles. The Terror listened. The wood was very still in its winter silence. He slipped through the hedge into it, and presently came back bringing with him a very nice young pheasant indeed. He put it into the basket of his bicycle, and mounted.
They had barely started when a keeper sprang out of the hedge, thirty yards ahead, and came running toward them, shouting in a very daunting fashion as he came. There was neither time nor room to turn. They rode on; and the keeper made for the Terror. The Terror swerved; and the keeper swerved. Wiggins ran bang into the keeper; and they came to the ground together as the Terror shot ahead, pedaling as hard as he could.
He caught up Erebus, and his cry of "Keeper!" set her racing beside him; but both of them kept looking back for Wiggins; and presently, when no Wiggins appeared, with one accord they slowed down, stopped and dismounted.
"The keeper's got him. This is a mess!" said the Terror, who was panting a little from their spurt.
"If only it had been one of us!" cried Erebus. "Whatever are we to do?"
"If that beastly keeper hadn't seen me with the pheasant, I'd get Wiggins away, somehow," said the Terror. "But, as it is, it's me they really want; and I'd get fined to a dead certainty. Come on, let's go back and see what's happened to him. You scout on ahead. Nobody knows you're in it."
"All right," said Erebus; and she mounted briskly.
She rode back through the wood slowly, her keen eyes straining for a sign of an ambush. The Terror followed her at a distance of sixty yards, ready to jump off, turn his machine, and fly should she give the alarm. They got no sight of Wiggins till they came, just beyond the end of the wood, to the lodges of Great Deeping Park; then, half-way up the drive, they saw the keeper and his prey. The keeper held Wiggins with his left hand and wheeled the captured bicycle with his right. The Twins dismounted. Even at that distance they could see the deep dejection of their friend.
"There's not really any reason for him to be frightened. He was never in the wood at all; and he never touched the pheasant," said the Terror.
"What does that matter? He will be frightened out of his life; he's so young," cried Erebus in a tone of acute distress, gazing after their receding friend with very anxious eyes. "He's not like us; he won't cheek the keeper all the way like we should."
"Oh, Wiggins has plenty of pluck," said the Terror in a reassuring tone.
"But he won't understand he's all right. He's only ten. And there's no saying how that beastly foreigner who shoots nightingales will bully him," cried Erebus with unabated anxiety.
This was her womanly irrational conception of a Pomeranian Briton.
"Well, the sooner we go and fetch his father the sooner he'll be out of it," said the Terror, making as if to mount his bicycle.
"No, no! That won't do at all!" cried Erebus fiercely. "We've got to rescue him now—at once. We got him into the mess; and we've got to get him out of it. You've got to find a way."
"It's all very well," said the Terror, frowning deeply; and he took off his cap to wrestle more manfully with the problem.
Erebus faced him, frowning even more deeply.
Never had the Twins been so hopelessly at a loss.
Then the Terror said in his gloomiest tone: "I can't see what we can do."
"Oh, I'm going to get him out of it somehow!" cried Erebus in a furious desperation.
With that she mounted her bicycle and rode swiftly up the drive.
The Terror mounted, started after her, and stopped at the end of fifty yards. It had occurred to him that, after all, he was the only poacher of the three, the only one in real danger. As he leaned on his machine, watching his vanishing sister, he ground his teeth. For all his natural serenity, inaction was in the highest degree repugnant to him.
Erebus reached Great Deeping Court but a few minutes after Wiggins and the keeper. She was about to ride on round the house, thinking that the keeper would, as befitted his station, enter it by the back door, when she saw Wiggins' bicycle standing against one of the pillars of the great porch. In a natural elation at having captured a poacher, and eager to display his prize without delay, the keeper had gone straight into the great hall.
Erebus dismounted and stood considering for perhaps half a minute; then she moved Wiggins' bicycle so that it was right to his hand if he came out, set her own bicycle against another of the pillars, but out of sight lest he should take it by mistake, walked up the steps, hammered the knocker firmly, and rang the bell. The moment the door opened she stepped quickly past the footman into the hall. The keeper sat on a chair facing her, and on a chair beside him sat Wiggins looking white and woebegone.
Erebus gazed at them with angry sparkling eyes, then she said sharply: "What are you doing with my little brother?"
She adopted Wiggins with this suddenness in order to strengthen her position.
The keeper opened his eyes in some surprise at her uncompromising tone, but he said triumphantly:
"I caught 'im poachin'—"
"Stand up! What do you mean by speaking to me sitting down?" cried Erebus in her most imperative tone.
The keeper stood up with uncommon quickness and a sudden sheepish air: "'E was poachin'," he said sulkily.
"He was not! A little boy like that!" cried Erebus scornfully.
"Anyways, 'e was aidin' an' abettin', an' I've brought 'im to Mr. D'Arcy Rosynimer an' it's for 'im to say," said the keeper stubbornly.
There came a faint click from the beautiful lips of Erebus, the gentle click by which the Twins called each other to attention. At the sound Wiggins, his face faintly flushed with hope, braced himself. Erebus measured the distance with the eye of an expert, just as there came into the farther end of the hall that large, flabby, pudding-faced young Pomeranian Briton, Mr. D'Arcy Rosenheimer.
"Where's the boacher?" he roared in an eager, angry voice, reverting in his emotion to the ancestral "b."
As the keeper turned to him Erebus sprang to the door and threw it wide.
"Bolt, Wiggins!" she cried.
Wiggins bolted for the door; the keeper grabbed at him and missed; the footman grabbed, and grabbed the interposing Erebus. She slammed the door behind the vanished Wiggins.
Mr. D'Arcy Rosenheimer dashed heavily down the hall with a thick howl. Erebus set her back against the door. He caught her by the left arm to sling her out of the way. It was a silly arm to choose, for she caught him a slap on his truly Pomeranian expanse of cheek with the full swing of her right, a slap that rang through the great hall like the crack of a whip-lash. Mr. D'Arcy Rosenheimer was large but tender. He howled again, and thumped at Erebus with big flabby fists. She caught the first blow on an uncommonly acute elbow. The second never fell, for the footman caught him by the collar and swung him round.
"It's not for the likes of you to 'it Henglish young ladies!" he cried with patriotic indignation.
Mr. D'Arcy Rosenheimer gasped and gurgled; then he howled furiously, "Ged out of my house! Now—at once—ged out!"
"And pleased I shall be to go—when I've bin paid my wages. It's a month to-morrow since I gave notice, anyhow. I've had enough of furriners," said the footman with cold exultation.
"Go—go—ged oud!" roared Mr. D'Arcy Rosenheimer.
"When I've bin paid my wages," said the footman coldly.
Erebus waited to hear no more. She turned the latch, slipped through the door, and slammed it behind her. To her dismay she saw a big motorcar coming round the corner of the house. She mounted quickly and raced down the drive. Wiggins was already out of sight.
Just outside the lodge gates she found the Terror waiting for her.
"I've sent Wiggins on!" he shouted as she passed.
"Come on! Come on!" she shrieked back. "The beastly foreigner's got a motor-car!"
He caught her up in a quarter of a mile; and she told him that the car had been ready to start. They caught up Wiggins a mile and a half down the road; and all three of them sat down to ride all they knew. They were fully eight miles from home, and the car could go three miles to their one on that good road. The Twins alone would have made a longer race of it; but the pace was set by the weaker Wiggins. They had gone little more than three miles when they heard the honk of the car as it came rapidly round a corner perhaps half a mile behind them.
"Go on, Terror!" cried Erebus. "You're the one that matters! You did the poaching! I'll look after Wiggins! He'll be all right with me."
For perhaps fifty yards the Terror hesitated; then the wisdom of the advice sank in, and he shot ahead. Erebus kept behind Wiggins; and they rode on. The car was overhauling them rapidly, but not so rapidly as it would have done had not Mr. D'Arcy Rosenheimer, who lacked the courage of his famous grenadier ancestors, been in it. He was howling at his straining chauffeur to go slower.
Nevertheless at the end of a mile and a half the car was less than fifty yards behind them; and then a figure came into sight swinging briskly along.
"It's your father!" gasped Erebus.
It was, indeed, the higher mathematician.
As they reached him, they flung themselves off their bicycles; and Erebus cried: "Wiggins hasn't been poaching at all! It was the Terror!"
"Was it, indeed?" said Mr. Carrington calmly.
On his words the car was on them; and as it came to a dead stop Mr. D'Arcy Rosenheimer tumbled clumsily out of it.
"I've got you, you liddle devil!" he bellowed triumphantly, but quite incorrectly; and he rushed at Wiggins who stepped discreetly behind his father.
"What's the matter?" said Mr. Carrington.
The excited young Pomeranian Briton, taking in his age and size at a single glance, shoved him aside with splendid violence. Mr. Carrington seemed to step lightly backward and forward in one movement; his left arm shot out; and there befell Mr. D'Arcy Rosenheimer what, in the technical terms affected by the fancy, is described as "an uppercut on the point which put him to sleep." He fell as falls a sack of potatoes, and lay like a log.
The keeper had just disengaged himself from the car and hurried forward.
"Do you want some too, my good man?" said Mr. Carrington in his most agreeable tone, keeping his guard rather low.
The keeper stopped short and looked down, with a satisfaction he made no effort to hide, at the body of his stricken employer which lay between them.
"I can't say as I do, sir," he said civilly; and he backed away.
"Then perhaps you'll be good enough to tell me the name of this hulking young blackguard who assaults quiet elderly gentlemen, taking constitutionals, in this most unprovoked and wanton fashion," said the higher mathematician in the same agreeable tone.
"Assaults?—'Im assault?—Yes, sir; it's Mr. D'Arcy Rosenheimer, of Great Deeping Court, sir," said the keeper respectfully.
"Then tell Mr. D'Arcy Rosenheimer, when he recovers the few wits he looks to have, with my compliments, that he will some time this evening be summoned for assault. Good afternoon," said Mr. Carrington, and he turned on his heel.
The keeper and the chauffeur stooped over the body of their young employer. Mr. Carrington did not so much as turn his head. He put his walking-stick under his arm, and rubbed the knuckles of his left hand with rueful tenderness. None the less he looked pleased; it was gratifying to a slight man of his sedentary habit to have knocked down such a large, round Pomeranian Briton with such exquisite neatness. Wheeling their bicycles, Erebus and Wiggins walked beside him with a proud air. They felt that they shone with his reflected glory. It was a delightful sensation.
They had gone some forty yards, when Erebus said in a hushed, awed, yet gratified tone: "Have you killed him, Mr. Carrington?"
"No, my child. I am not a pork-butcher," said Mr. Carrington amiably.
"He looked as if he was dead," said Erebus; and there was a faint ring of disappointment in her tone.
"In a short time the young man will come to himself; and let us hope that it will be a better and wiser self," said Mr. Carrington. "But what was it all about? What did that truculent young ruffian want with Rupert?"
Erebus paused, looking earnestly round to the horizon for inspiration; then she dashed at the awkward subject with commendable glibness: "It was a pheasant in Great Deeping wood," she said. "The Terror found it, I suppose. I had gone on, and I didn't see that part. But it was Wiggins the keeper caught. Of course—"
"I beg your pardon; but I should like that point a little clearer," broke in Mr. Carrington. "Had you ridden on too, Rupert? Or did you see what happened?"
"Oh, yes; I was there," said Wiggins readily. "And the Terror found the pheasant in the wood and put it in his bicycle basket. And we had just got on our bicycles when the keeper came out of the wood, and I ran into him; and he collared me and took me up to the Court. I wasn't really frightened—at least, not much."
"The keeper had no right to touch him," Erebus broke in glibly. "Wiggins never touched the pheasant; he didn't even go into the wood; and when I went into the hall, the hall of the Court, I found him and the keeper sitting there, and I let Wiggins out, of course, and then that horrid Mr. D'Arcy Rosenheimer who shoots nightingales, caught hold of me by the arm ever so roughly, and I slapped him just once. I should think that the mark is still there "—her speed of speech slackened to a slower vengeful gratification and then quickened again—"and he began to thump me and the footman interfered, and I came away, and they came after us in the car, and you saw what happened—at least you did it."
She stopped somewhat breathless.
"Lucidity itself," said Mr. Carrington. "But let us have the matter of the pheasant clear. Was the Terror exploring the wood on the chance of finding a pheasant, or had he reason to expect that a pheasant would be there ready to be brought home?"
Erebus blushed faintly, looked round the horizon somewhat aimlessly, and said, "Well, there was a snare, you know."
Mr. Carrington chuckled and said: "I thought so. I thought we should come to that snare in time. Did you know there was a snare, Rupert?"
"Oh, no, he didn't know anything about it!" Erebus broke in quickly. "We should never have thought of letting him into anything so dangerous! He's so young!"
"I shall be eleven in a fortnight!" said Wiggins with some heat.
"You see, we wanted a fur stole at Barker's in Rowington for a Christmas present for mother; and pheasants were the only way we could think of getting it," said Erebus in a confidential tone.
"Light! Light at last!" cried Mr. Carrington; and he laughed gently. "Well, every one has been assaulted except the poacher; exquisitely Pomeranian! But it's just as well that they have, or that ingenious brother of yours would be in a fine mess. As it is, I think we can go on teaching our young Pomeranian not to be so high-spirited." He chuckled again.
He walked on briskly; and on the way to Little Deeping, he drew from Erebus the full story of their poaching. When they reached the village he did not go to his own house, but stopped at the garden gate of Mr. Tupping, the lawyer who had sold his practise at Rowington and had retired to Little Deeping. At his gate Mr. Carrington bade Erebus good afternoon and told her to tell the Terror not to thrust himself on the notice of any of Mr. D'Arcy Rosenheimer's keepers who might be sent out to hunt for the real culprit. He would better keep quiet.
Erebus mounted her bicycle and rode quickly home. She found the Terror in the cats' home, awaiting her impatiently.
"Well, did Wiggins get away all right?" he cried. "I passed Mr. Carrington; and I thought he'd see that they didn't carry him off again."
Erebus told him in terms of the warmest admiration how firmly Mr. Carrington had dealt with the Pomeranian foe.
"By Jove! That was ripping! I do wish I'd been there!" said the Terror. "He only hit him once, you say?"
"Only once. And he told me to tell you to lie low in case Mr. Rosenheimer's keepers are out hunting for you," said Erebus.
"I am lying low," said the Terror. "And I've got rid of that pheasant. I sold it to Mr. Carrington's cook as I came through the village. I thought it was better out of the way."
"Then that's all right. We only want about another half-crown," said Erebus.
Mr. Carrington found Mr. Tupping at home; and he could not have gone to a better man, for though the lawyer had given up active practise, he still retained the work of a few old clients in whom he took a friendly interest; and among them was Mrs. Dangerfield.
He was eager to prevent the Terror from being prosecuted for poaching not only because the scandal would annoy her deeply but also because she could so ill afford the expense of the case. He readily fell in with the view of Mr. Carrington that they had better take the offensive, and that the violent behavior of Mr. D'Arcy Rosenheimer had given them the weapons.
The result of their council was that not later than seven o'clock that evening Mr. D'Arcy Rosenheimer was served by the constable of Little Deeping with a summons for an assault on Violet Anastasia Dangerfield, and with another summons for an assault on Bertram Carrington, F. R. S.; and in the course of the next twenty minutes his keeper was served with a summons for an assault on Rupert Carrington.
Though on recovering consciousness he had sent the keeper to scour the neighborhood for Wiggins and the Terror, Mr. D'Arcy Rosenheimer was in a chastened shaken mood, owing to the fact that he had been "put to sleep by an uppercut on the point." He made haste to despatch a car into Rowington to bring the lawyer who managed his local business.
The lawyer knew his client's unpopularity in the county, and advised him earnestly to try to hush these matters up. He declared that however Pomeranian one might be by extraction and in spirit, no bench of English magistrates would take a favorable view of an assault by a big young man on a middle-aged higher mathematician of European reputation, or on Miss Violet Anastasia Dangerfield, aged thirteen, gallantly rescuing that higher mathematician's little boy from wrongful arrest and detention.
Mr. D'Arcy Rosenheimer held his aching head with both hands, protested that they had done all the effective assaulting, and protested his devotion to the sacred bird beloved of the English magistracy. But he perceived clearly enough that he had let that devotion carry him too far, and that a Bench which never profited by it, so far as to shoot the particular sacred birds on which it was lavished, would not be deeply touched by it. Therefore he instructed the lawyer to use every effort to settle the matter out of court.
The lawyer dined with him lavishly, and then had, himself driven over to Little Deeping in the car, to Mr. Carrington's house. He found Mr. Carrington uncommonly bitter against his client; and he did his best to placate him by urging that the assault had been met with a promptitude which had robbed it of its violence, and that he could well afford to be generous to a man whom he had so neatly put to sleep with an uppercut on the point.
Mr. Carrington held out for a while; but in the background, behind the more prominent figures in the affair, lurked the Terror with a veritable poached pheasant; and at last he made terms. The summonses should be withdrawn on condition that nothing more was heard about that poached pheasant and that Mr. D'Arcy Rosenheimer contributed fifty guineas to the funds of the Deeping Cottage Hospital. The lawyer accepted the terms readily; and his client made no objection to complying with them.
The matter was at an end by noon of the next day; and Mr. Carrington sent for the Terror and talked to him very seriously about this poaching. He did not profess to consider it an enormity; he dwelt at length on the extreme annoyance his mother would feel if he were caught and prosecuted. In the end he gave him the choice of giving his word to snare no more pheasants, or of having his mother informed that he was poaching. The Terror gave his word to snare no more pheasants the more readily since if Mrs. Dangerfield were informed of his poaching, she would forbid him to set another snare for anything. Besides, he had been somewhat shaken by his narrow escape the day before. Only he pointed out that he could not be quite sure of never snaring a pheasant, for pheasants went everywhere. Mr. Carrington admitted this fact and said that it would be enough if he refrained from setting his snares on ground sacred to the sacred bird. If pheasants wandered into them on unpreserved ground, it was their own fault. Thanks therefore to the firmness of her friends Mrs. Dangerfield never learned of the Terror's narrow escape.
The Twins bore the loss of income from the sacred bird with even minds, since the sum needed for the fur stole was so nearly complete. They turned their attention to the habits of the hare, and snared one in the hedge of the farthest meadow of farmer Stubbs. Mrs. Blenkinsop's cook paid them half-a-crown for it; and the three guineas were complete.
Though it wanted a full week to Christmas, the Terror lost no time making the purchase. As he told Erebus, they would get the choice of more stoles if they bought it before the Christmas rush. Accordingly on the afternoon after the sale of the hare they rode into Rowington to buy it.
It was an uncommonly cold afternoon, for a bitter east wind was blowing hard; and when they dismounted at the door of Barker's shop, Erebus gazed wistfully across the road at the appetizing window of Springer, the confectioner, and said sadly:
"It's a pity it isn't Saturday and we had our 'overseering' salary. We might have gone to Springer's and had a jolly good blow-out for once."
The Terror gazed at Springer's window thoughtfully, and said: "Yes, it is a pity. We ought to have remembered it was Christmas-time and paid ourselves in advance."
He followed Erebus into the shop with a thoughtful air, and seemed somewhat absent-minded during her examination of the stoles. She was very thorough in it; and both of them were nearly sure that she had chosen the very best of them. The girl who was serving them made out the bill; and the Terror drew the little bag which held the three guineas (since it was all in silver they had been able to find no purse of a capacity to hold it), emptied its contents on the counter, and counted them slowly.
He had nearly finished, and the girl had nearly wrapped up the stole when a flash of inspiration brightened his face; and he said firmly: "I shall want five per cent. discount for cash."
"Oh, we don't do that sort of thing here," said the girl quickly. "This is such an old-established establishment."
"I can't help that. I must have discount for cash," said the Terror yet more firmly.
The girl hesitated; then she called Mr. Barker who, acting as his own shop-walker, was strolling up and down with great dignity. Mr. Barker came and she put the matter to him.
"Oh, no, sir; I'm afraid we couldn't think of it. Barker's is too old established a house to connive at these sharp modern ways of doing business," said Mr. Barker with a very impressive air.
The Terror looked at him with a cold thoughtful eye: "All right," he said. "You can put the stole down to me—Master Hyacinth Dangerfield, Colet House, Little Deeping."
He began to shovel the money back into the bag.
An expression of deep pain spread over the mobile face of Mr. Barker as the coins began to disappear; and he said quickly: "I'm afraid we can't do that, sir. Our terms are cash—strictly cash."
"Oh, no, they're not. My mother has had an account here for the last six years," said the Terror icily; and the last of the coins went into the bag.
Mr. Barker held out a quivering hand, and with an air and in a tone of warm geniality he cried: "Oh, that alters the case altogether! In the case of the son of an old customer like Mrs. Dangerfield we're delighted to deduct five per cent. discount for cash—delighted. Make out the bill for three pounds, Miss Perkins."
Miss Perkins made out the bill for three pounds; and Erebus bore away the stole tenderly.
As the triumphant Terror came out of the shop, he jingled the brave three shillings discount in his pocket and said: "Now for Springer's!"
AND PRINGLE'S POND
Mrs. Dangerfield was indeed delighted with the stole, for she had an almost extravagant fondness for furs; and it was long since she had had any. She wondered how the Twins had saved and collected the money it had cost; she knew that it had not been drawn from the cats' home fund, since the Terror had promised her that none of that money should be diverted from its proper purpose; and she was the more grateful to them for the thought and labor they must have devoted to acquiring it. On the whole she thought it wiser not to inquire how the money had been raised.
The Twins, as always, enjoyed an exceedingly pleasant Christmas. It was the one week in the year when Little Deeping flung off its quietude and gently rollicked. There was a dearth of children, young men and maidens among their Little Deeping friends; and the Twins and Wiggins were in request as the lighter element in the Christmas gatherings. Thanks to the Terror, the three of them took this brightening function with considerable seriousness: each of them learned by heart a humorous piece of literature, generally verse, for reciting; and they performed two charades in a very painstaking fashion. They had but little dramatic talent; but they derived a certain grave satisfaction from the discharge of this enlivening social duty; and their efforts were always well received.
It was, as usual, a green and muggy Christmas. The weather broke about the middle of January; and there came hard frosts and a heavy snow-storm. The Twins made a glorious forty-foot slide on the common in front of Colet House; and they constructed also an excellent toboggan on which they rushed down the hill into the village street. These were but light pleasures. They watched the ponds with the most careful interest; eager, should they bear, not to miss an hour's skating. Wiggins shared their pleasures and their interest; and Mr. Carrington, meeting the Terror on his way to his lessons at the vicarage, drew from him a promise that he would not let his ardent son take any risk whatever.
The ice thickened slowly on the ponds; then came another hard frost; and the Twins made up their minds that it must surely bear. They ate their breakfast in a great excitement; and as the Terror gathered together his books for his morning's work they made their plans.
He had strapped his books together; and as he caught up one of the two pairs of brightly polished skates that lay on the table, he said: "Then that's settled. I'll meet you at Pringle's pond as soon after half past twelve as I can get there; but you'd better not go on it before I come."
"Oh, it'll bear all right; it nearly bore yesterday," said Erebus impatiently.
"Well, Wiggins isn't to go on it before I come. You'll do as you like of course—as usual—and if you fall in, it'll be your own lookout. But he's to wait till I come. If the ice does bear, it won't bear any too well; and I'm responsible for Wiggins. I promised Mr. Carrington to look after him," said the Terror in tones of stern gravity.
Erebus tossed her head and said in a somewhat rebellious tone: "As if I couldn't take care of him just as well as you. I'm as old as you."
"Perhaps," said the Terror doubtfully. "But you are a girl; there's no getting over it; and it does make a difference."
Erebus turned and scowled at him as he moved toward the door; and she scowled at the door after he had gone through it and shut it firmly behind him. She hated to be reminded that she was a girl. The reminder rankled at intervals during her lessons; and twice Mrs. Dangerfield asked her what was distressing her that she scowled so fiercely.