Dunc assembled his corps inside the front porch, each boy supplied with two balls and with twenty youngsters behind bringing up more. McIntyre's balls were falling on the front wall and coming in through the porch. One of them struck Dunc on the side of the head, but he forbade any return fire.
"They're wastin' their balls," he said; "it'll be the better for us"; and then, looking round, "Are ye ready? Charge!" and shouting "Seminary! Seminary!" he led his division across the terrace and fell upon McIntyre's behind the guns. It was a short, sharp scrimmage, during which Dunc levelled the leader of McIntyre's, and then the enemy began to retreat slowly down the terrace, with many a hand-to-hand encounter and scuffle on the snow. As soon as Dunc's division had cleared the front, Jock Howieson collected his lads and started along the terrace in the opposite direction at a sharp run, carrying no balls, for they intended to make them on the scene of operation. When the other two divisions were off, Speug addressed his faithful band. "MacFarlane, take six birkies, climb up the waterspout, and clean the richt-hand shed, couping the Pennies into the street. Mackenzie, ye're no bad at the fightin'; tak' anither sax and empty the roof o' the left-hand shed, and 'gin ye can clout that Penny that's sittin' on the riggin' it'll teach him to keep in the street next day.
"Noo, that leaves eighteen, and me and Bauldie and Jamie Johnston 'ill lead ye down the passage. We'll need six balls each, as hard as ye mak' 'em, and the rest o' ye tak' two in yir arms and one in yir hand. Pit yir bonnits in yir pocket—they'll no be muckle use—button yir jackets, and when the three o' us gae down the passage for ony sake follow close in behind. Just ae thing more," said Speug, who was in his glory that day. "I'll need a laddie to keep me gaein' with balls, and I want a laddie that has some spunk, for he'll hae a rough time." Below thirty of the junior school were waiting and looking at Speug like dogs for a biscuit. He threw his eye over the group, any one of which would have given his best knife and all his marbles, and thrown in a cricket bat and his last kite, to have been chosen.
"Nestie," said Speug, "ye're little and ye're white and ye're terrible polite, but there's a sperit in ye. Ye'll carry ma balls this day, and noo, you juniors, aff to the ball-making, and see that Nestie's bonnet's well filled, and there's no any of us wanting for a ball when we drive the Pennies down the back road." Then Speug moved to the back corridor and arranged his division, with Nestie behind him, and Bauldie and Jamie Johnston on the right hand and on the left, Mackenzie's and MacFarlane's detachments close behind, who were to turn off to the right hand and the left as they emerged from the corridor; the rest were to follow Speug through the passage of danger. Speug took two balls and placed them in the hollow of his left arm, feeling them carefully to see that they would leave a mark when they struck a Penny. The third he took in his right hand, and Nestie had the reserve.
"Noo," he said, "gin anybody be feared he'd better gae in and sit doun beside the fire with the Dowbiggins," and since nobody responded to this genial invitation Speug gave one shout of "Seminary!" and in a minute was across the playground and at the mouth of the passage, while Mackenzie and MacFarlane were already scrambling up the walls of the sheds. Covering his face with his left arm and sending his first ball direct into the face of the foremost Penny, and following it up with a second and a third driven with unerring aim and the force of a catapolt, and receiving anything from twelve to twenty balls between him and Bauldie and Johnston, the three led the way down the passage, Nestie close behind Speug and handing him a new supply of balls. They met at the outer end of the passage—the Pennies and Speug's lot—and for about thirty seconds they swayed in one mass of struggling, fighting, shouting boy life, and then, so steady was the play of Speug's fists, so able the assistance of the other two, so strong the pressure from behind, and so rapid the shower of balls sent over Speug's head among the Pennies, the Pennies gave way and Speug and his band burst into the back street, the leader with his jacket torn off his back, and his face bearing the scars of conflict, but full of might, and Nestie with the balls behind him.
The Seminary lads and the Pennies were now face to face in the back street, with a space of about ten yards between, and both parties made arrangements for the final conflict. The scouts of the Pennies could be seen bringing balls from Breadalbane Street, and the Pennies themselves made such hasty readjustments of their negligent attire as were rendered necessary by the vigour of the last fighting. Their commander was a sturdy lad about fifteen years of age, with a great shock of red hair and fists like iron. His favourite method of charge was to lead his army in the form of an inverted V, he being himself at the apex, and to force his way through the other side on the principle of a wedge. Speug did not believe in this arrangement. He led himself in the centre and threw out his two lieutenants far out on the right hand and on the left, so that when the Pennies forced their way into the middle of his division, Bauldie and Johnson were on their right and left flanks—tactics which in Speug's experience always caused dismay in the attacking force. The younger boys of the Seminary had by this time ample resources of ammunition ready, working like tigers without jackets now or bonnets, and as they brought out the supplies of balls through the passage of victory they received nods of approval from Speug, each nod being something like a decoration. It was fine to see Speug examining the balls to see that they were properly made and of a hardness which would give satisfaction to the expectant Pennies.
Some pleasant incidents occurred during this interlude. When the Seminary lads fought their way through the passage they cut off the retreat of three Pennies who were still fighting with MacFarlane on the top of the right-hand shed.
"What are ye daein' up there?" said Speug, with ironic politeness; "that's no' the ordinar' road into the Seminary;" and then, as they hesitated on the edge of the water pipe, Speug conceived what was in these days a fine form of humour. "Come down," he said, "naebody 'ill touch ye"; and then he ordered an open passage to be made through the ranks of the Seminaries. Down between two lines the unfortunate Pennies walked, no one laying a hand upon them, but various humourists expressing their hopes that they had enjoyed the top of the shed, that it wasn't MacFarlane that had given one of them a black eye, that they hoped one of them hadn't lost his jacket on the roof of the shed, and that they were none the worse for their exertion, and that they expected to meet them later on—which gracious salutations the Pennies received in bitter silence as they ran the gauntlet; and when they had escaped clear of the Seminaries and stood halfway between the two armies they turned round with insulting gestures, and one of them cried, "Ye'll get yir paiks (thrashing) for this or the day be done!"
Their arrival among their friends and the slight commotion which it caused in the front ranks of the Pennies was a chance for Speug, who gave the signal for the charge and made himself directly for the leader of the Pennies. No pen at this distance of time can describe the conflict between the two leaders, who fired forth balls at each other at close distance, every one going to its mark, and one leaving an indelible impress upon Speug's ingenuous forehead. They then came to close grip, and there was a tussle, for which both had been waiting for many a day. From fists, which were not quite ineffectual, they fell upon wrestling, and here it seemed that Redhead must have the advantage, for he was taller in stature and more sinuous in body. During the wrestle there was something like a lull in the fighting, and both Pennies and Seminaries, now close together, held their hands till Speug, with a cunning turn of the leg that he had been taught by an English groom in his father's stable, got the advantage, and the two champions came down in the snow, Redhead below. The Seminaries set up a shout of triumph, and the scouts running to and fro with the balls behind joined in with, "Well done, Speug!"
Speug had all the instincts of a true general and was not the man to spend his time in unprofitable exultation. It was a great chance to take the Pennies when they were without their leader and discomfited by his fall, and in an instant Speug was up, driving his way through the midst of the enemy, who were now divided in the centre, whilst Johnston and Bauldie had crept up by the side of the houses on either side and were attacking them in parallel lines. MacFarlane and Mackenzie had come down from the shed with their detachment and were busy in the rear of the Seminaries. Redhead fought like a hero, but was almost helpless in the confusion, and thought it the best strategy to make a rush to the clear ground in the rear of his position, calling his followers after him; and now the Pennies gathered at the far end of the street, beaten in tactics and in fighting, but ever strong in heart, and full of insolence. "That," said Speug, wiping his face with his famous red handkerchief which he carried in his trousers pocket, and hastily attending to some of his wounds, "that wesna' bad"; and then turning to Nestie, "Ye keepit close, my mannie." Speug's officers, such mighties as Bauldie and Johnston, MacFarlane and Mackenzie, all bearing scars, clustered round their commander with expressions of admiration. "Yon was a bonny twirl, and you coupit him weel." "Sall, they've gotten their licks," while Speug modestly disclaimed all credit, and spoke generously of the Pennies, declaring that they had fought well, and that Redhead nearly got the mastery.
At that moment a shout of "Seminary!" was heard in the rear of the Pennies, and Speug knew that Duncan Robertson had driven McIntyre's the full length of the terrace and was now fighting them in Breadalbane Street. "Forward!" cried Speug. "Dunc's on the back of them," and Redhead at the same moment hurriedly withdrew his forces, covering his retreat with a shower of balls, and united with McIntyre's, who were retiring before Robertson and the second division of the Seminaries. Amid cries of "Seminary! Seminary!" Speug and Duncan met where the back street opens into Breadalbane Street, and their divisions amalgamated, exchanging notes on the battle and examining one another's personal appearance. There was not a bonnet to be seen, and not many jackets, which had either been left behind or thrown off or torn off in personal conflict with the Pennies; collars may have remained, but that no one could tell, and there were some whose waistcoats were now held by one button. Two or three also had been compelled to drop out of active battle and were hanging in the rear, rubbing their faces with snow and trusting to be able to see clear enough for the final charge; and still the juniors were making their balls and had established a new magazine at the end of the terrace. Several of these impenitent little wretches had themselves been in the thick of the fight, and could be seen pointing proudly to a clout on the forehead and a cut on the lip. What a time certain mothers would have that evening when their warriors came home, some of them without caps, which would never be recovered, most of them with buttonless waistcoats and torn jackets, half of them with disfigured faces, all of them drenched to the skin, and every one of them full of infinite satisfaction and gladness of heart! Their fathers, who had heard about the battle before they came home and had not failed to discover who had won, being all Seminary lads themselves, would also be much lifted, but would feign to be extremely angry at the savagery of their boys, would wonder where the police were, would threaten their sons with all manner of punishments if this ever happened again, and would declare their intention of laying a complaint before the chief constable. As, however, it was absolutely necessary in the interests of justice that the whole facts should be known before they took action, they would skilfully extract the whole Homeric narrative, with every personal conflict and ruse of war, from their sons, and only when the last incident had been related would announce their grave and final displeasure.
As for the police, who were not numerous in Muirtown, and who lived on excellent good terms with everybody, except tramps, they seemed to have a prophetic knowledge when a snow-fight was coming on, and were detained by important duty in distant streets. It was always, however, believed by the Seminary that two of the police could be seen, one at the distance of the bridge over the Tay, the other at the far extremity of Breadalbane Street, following the fight with rapt attention, and in the case of the Pennies winning, which had been their own school, smacking their lips and slapping their hands under pretence of warming themselves in the cold weather, and in the event of the Seminaries winning marching off in opposite directions, lest they should be tempted to interfere, which they would have considered contrary to the rules of fair play, and giving their own school a mean advantage. Perhaps some ingenuous modern person will ask, "What were the masters of the Seminary about during this hour?" The Rector was sitting by the fire in his retiring-room, reading a winter ode of Horace, and as faint sounds of war reached his ears he would stir the fire and lament, like the quiet old scholar that he was, that Providence had made him ruler of such a band of barbarians; but he would also cherish the hope that his barbarians would not come off second. As for Bulldog, his mind was torn between two delights—the anticipation of the exercise which he would have next day, and the pleasure which his lads were having to-day—and nothing more entirely endeared Bulldog to his savages than the fact that, instead of going home to dinner during this hour, which was his usual custom, he contented himself with a biscuit. He was obliged to buy it in a baker's shop in Breadalbane Street, from which he could command a perfect view of the whole battle, especially as he happened to stand in the doorway of the shop, and never returned to school till the crisis of war was over. He was careful to explain to the school that he had himself gone for the purpose of identifying the ringleaders in mischief, and it was on such an occasion that Speug, keeping his right cheek immovable towards Bulldog, would wink to the assembled school with irresistible effect.
Nor ought one to forget the janitor of Muirtown Seminary, who had been a sergeant in the Black Watch and had been wounded three times in the Crimean War. His orders, as given by the Rector and reinforced by all law-abiding parents, were to prevent any boy of the Seminary leaving the school for the purpose of a snowball fight, and should such an unfortunate affair take place he was directed to plunge into the midst and by force of arm to bring the Seminaries home to their own fireside, leaving rough and rude schools like the Pennies and McIntyre's to fight at their wicked will. For did not the Seminary lads move in polite society, except Speug, and were they not going to be, as they have become, clergymen and lawyers, and physicians, to say nothing of bailies on the bench and elders of the Kirk? These orders Sergeant Dougal McGlashan carried out, not so much in the bondage of the letter as in the fulness of the spirit. Many were the conversations which Speug and he had together in anticipation of the snow time, when you may believe if you please that that peaceable man was exhorting Speug to obedience and gentleness, or if you please that he was giving the commander of the Seminary certain useful hints which he himself had picked up from the "red line" at Balaclava. Certain it is that when the Seminaries went out that day in battle array the sergeant was engaged mending the fires with great diligence, so that he was not able to see them depart. Afterwards it was the merest duty for him to stand at the end of the passage of victory, lest the Pennies or any other person should venture on another outrage; and if he was late in calling his boys back from Breadalbane Street, that was only because the cold had made his wounds to smart again, and he could only follow them in the rear till the battle was over. When the evil was done there was no use of vain regret, and in the afternoon the sergeant stood beside the big fire and heard accounts of the battle from one and another, and then he would declare that there were lads in Muirtown Seminary who would have done well at Inkermann and the storming of the Redan.
Breadalbane Street, which was broad and straight, with the back road to the Seminary on the right hand, and the street to McIntyre's and the Pennies on the left, had been the battle-ground of generations, for it gave opportunity for deploying in divisions, for front attack and for flank, as well as for royal charges which extended across the street. McIntyres and Pennies had been recruited from their several schools and supplied afresh with ammunition. Redhead took command of the united force and arranged them across the street in his favourite wedge, with the base resting on the home street, and this time he gave the signal, and so impetuous was their charge that they drove their way almost through the ranks of the Seminaries, and Speug himself, through sheer weight of attack, was laid flat in the middle of the street. Robertson and his officers rallied their forces, but it was possible that the Seminaries might have lost the day had it not been for the masterly foresight of Speug and the opportune arrival of Jock Howieson. That worthy had taken his division by a circuitous route, in which they had been obstructed by a miserable Episcopal school which wanted a fight on its own account and had to receive some passing attention. A little late, Howieson reached the Cathedral, and then, judging it better not to come down Breadalbane Street, where his attack would have been exposed, he made his way on the right of the street by passages known only to himself, and having supplied his division with ammunition from a snow-drift in a back entry, he came into the home street, which was the only line of retreat for the enemy, and cut them off from their base. Leaving a handful of lads to prevent the scouts coming out from the Pennies or the McIntyres with information, and driving before him the ammunition train of the enemy, he came round into Breadalbane Street with twenty-five tough fighters raging and fuming for the battle and just in the nick of time. It was hard for any fighting man to have spent something like half an hour wandering round circuitous streets and holding ridiculous conflicts with unknown schools when the battle of Waterloo, with the fate of the Empire of Muirtown, was hanging in the balance.
Before Redhead had notice of the arrival of the new division they were upon his rear, and a play of snowballs fell upon the back of the Pennies. This was more than even veteran forces could endure, and in spite of the heroic efforts of Redhead, who fired his balls alternately back and forward, his forces fell into a panic. They broke and drove their way through Howieson's division, receiving severe punishment from balls fired at a distance of a few feet, and then, in spite of the efforts of their officers, who fought till they were black and blue, but chiefly red, the enemy rushed down the home street and, sweeping the rearguard of Howieson's before them like straws in a stream, made for their respective schools. The Seminaries in one united body, headed by the three commanders and attended by the whole junior school, visited the Pennies' school first, whose gates were promptly closed, and having challenged the Pennies with opprobrious words to come out and fight like men—Redhead being offered the chance of single combat with Dunc or Speug or Jock Howieson—the Seminaries then made their way to McIntyre's Academy. As this unfortunate place of learning had no gate, Speug led the Seminaries into the centre of their courtyard, McIntyre's boys having no spirit left in them and being now hidden in the class-rooms. As they would not come out, in spite of a shower of courteous invitations, Speug stood in the centre of their courtyard and called the gods to witness that it had been a fair fight and that the Seminaries had won. A marvellous figure was he, without bonnet, without collar, without tie, without jacket, without waistcoat, with nothing on him but a flannel shirt and those marvellous horsey trousers, but glorious in victory. Taking a snowball from Nestie, who was standing by his side, openly and in face of McIntyre's masters, gathered at a window, he sent it with unerring aim through the largest pane of glass in McIntyre's own room. "That," said Speug, "'ill tell ye the Seminaries have been here." Then he collected his forces and led them home down the cross street and into Breadalbane Street, down the middle of Breadalbane Street, and round the terrace, and in by the front door into the Seminary. As they came down they sang, "Scots wha hae," and the juniors, who had rushed on before, met them at the door and gave three cheers, first for Speug, then for Dunc, and then for Jock Howieson, which homage and tribute of victory Speug received with affected contempt but great pride of heart. In order to conceal his feelings he turned to his faithful henchman, little Nestie Molyneux, who, always a delicate-looking little laddie, was now an altogether abject spectacle, with torn clothes, dripping hair, and battered face. "Nestie," said Speug, in hearing of the whole school, "ye're a plucky little deevil," and although since then he has been in many places and has had various modest triumphs, that still remains the proudest moment in Nestie Molyneux's life.
HIS PRIVATE CAPACITY
It is well enough for popular rulers like presidents to live in public and shake hands with every person; but absolute monarchs, who govern with an iron hand and pay not the slightest attention to the public mind, ought to be veiled in mystery. If Bulldog had walked homeward with his boys in an affectionate manner, and inquired after their sisters, like his temporary assistant, Mr. Byles, or had played with interesting babies on the North Meadow, as did Topp, the drawing-master—Augustus de Lacy Topp—who wore a brown velvet jacket and represented sentiment in a form verging on lunacy; or if he had invited his classes to drink coffee in a very shabby little home, as poor Moossy did, and treated them to Beethoven's Symphonies, then even Jock Howieson, the stupidest lad in the Seminary, would have been shocked, and would have felt that the Creation was out of gear. The last thing we had expected of Bulldog was polite conversation, or private hospitality. His speech was confined to the class-room, and there was most practical; and his hospitality, which was generous and widespread, was invariably public. His role was to be austere, unapproachable, and lifted above feeling, and had it not been for Nestie he had sustained it to the day of his death.
Opinion varied about Bulldog's age, some insisting that he had approached his century, others being content with "Weel on to eighty." None hinted at less than seventy. No one could remember his coming to Muirtown, and none knew whence he came. His birthplace was commonly believed to be the West Highlands, and it was certain that in dealing with a case of aggravated truancy he dropped into Gaelic. Bailie McCallum used to refer in convivial moments to his schooldays under Bulldog, and always left it to be inferred that had it not been for that tender, fostering care, he had not risen to his high estate in Muirtown. Fathers of families who were elders in the kirk, and verging on grey hair, would hear no complaints of Bulldog, for they had passed under the yoke in their youth, and what they had endured with profit—they now said—was good enough for their children. He seemed to us in those days like Melchizedek, without father or mother, beginning or end of days; and now that Bulldog has lain for many a year in a quiet Perthshire kirkyard, it is hardly worth while visiting Muirtown Seminary.
Every morning, except in vacation, he crossed the bridge at 8.45, with such rigid punctuality that the clerks in the Post Office checked the clock by him, and he returned by the way he had gone, over the North Meadow, at 4.15, for it was his grateful custom to close the administration of discipline at the same hour as the teaching, considering with justice that any of the Muirtown varlets would rather take the cane than be kept in, where from the windows he could see the North Meadow in its greenness, and the river running rapidly on an afternoon. It would have been out of place for Bulldog to live in a Muirtown street, where he must have been overlooked and could not have maintained his necessary reserve. Years ago he had built himself a house upon the slope of the hill which commanded Muirtown from the other side of the river. It was a hill which began with wood and ended in a lofty crag; and even from his house, halfway up and among the trees, Bulldog could look down upon Muirtown, compactly built together on the plain beneath, and thinly veiled in the grey smoke which rose up lazily from its homes. It cannot be truthfully said that Bulldog gave himself to poetry, but having once varied his usual country holiday by a visit to Italy, he ever afterwards declared at dinner-table that Muirtown reminded him of Florence as you saw that city from Fiesole, with the ancient kirk of St. John rising instead of the Duomo, and the Tay instead of the Arno. He admitted that Florence had the advantage in her cathedral, but he stoutly insisted that the Arno was but a poor, shrunken river compared with his own; for wherever Bulldog may have been born, he boasted himself to be a citizen of Muirtown, and always believed that there was no river to be found anywhere like unto the Tay. His garden was surrounded with a high wall, and the entrance was by a wooden door, and how Bulldog lived within these walls no one knew, but many had imagined. Speug, with two daring companions, had once traced Bulldog home and seen him disappear through the archway, and then it was in their plan to form a ladder one above the other, and that Peter, from the top thereof, should behold the mysterious interior and observe Bulldog in private life; but even Speug's courage failed at the critical moment, and they returned without news to the disappointed school.
Pity was not the characteristic of Seminary life in those days, but the hardest heart was touched with compassion when Nestie Molyneux lost his father and went to stay with Bulldog. The Seminary rejoiced in their master; but it was with trembling, and the thought of spending the evening hours and all one's spare time in his genial company excited our darkest imagination. To write our copy-books and do our problems under Bulldog's eye was a bracing discipline which lent a kind of zest to life, but to eat and drink with Bulldog was a fate beyond words.
As it was an article of faith with us that Bulldog was never perfectly happy except when he was plying the cane, it was taken for granted that Nestie would be his solitary means of relaxation, from the afternoon of one day to the morning of the next, and when Nestie appeared, on the third morning after his change of residence, the school was waiting to receive him.
His walking across the meadow by Bulldog's side, with his hands in his pockets, talking at his ease and laughing lightly, amazed us on first sight, but did not count for much, because we considered this manner a policy of expediency and an act of hypocrisy. After all, he was only doing what every one of us would have done in the same circumstances—conciliating the tyrant and covering his own sufferings. We kept a respectful distance till Nestie parted with his guardian, and then we closed in round him and licked our lips, for the story that Nestie could tell would make any Indian tale hardly worth the reading.
Babel was let loose, and Nestie was pelted with questions which came in a fine confusion from many voices, and to which he was hardly expected to give an immediate answer.
"What like is the cane he keeps at home?" "Has Bulldog tawse in the house?" "Div ye catch it regular?" "Does he come after you to your bedroom?" "Have ye onything to eat?" "Is the garden door locked?" "Could ye climb over the wall if he was thrashing you too sore?" "Did he let ye bring yir rabbits?" "Have ye to work at yir lessons a' night?" "What does Bulldog eat for his dinner?" "Does he ever speak to you?" "Does he ever say onything about the school?" "Did ye ever see Bulldog sleeping?" "Are ye feared to be with him?" "Would the police take ye away if he was hurting ye?" "Is there ony other body in the house?" "Would he let ye make gundy (candy) by the kitchen fire?" "Have ye to work all night at yir books?" "Does he make ye brush his boots?" "What do ye call him in the house?" "Would ye call him Bulldog for a shilling's-worth of gundy if the garden gate was open?" "Has he ony apples in the garden?" "Would ye daur to lay a finger on them?" "How often have ye to wash yir hands?" "Would ye get yir licks if yir hair wasna brushed?" And then Speug interfered, and commanded silence that Nestie might satisfy the curiosity of the school.
"Haud yir blethering tongues!" was his polite form of address. "Noo, Nestie, come awa' wi' yir evidence. What like is't to live wi' Bulldog?"
"It's awfully g-good of you fellows to ask how I'm getting on with Bully," and Nestie's eyes lit up with fun, for he'd a nice little sense of humour, and never could resist the temptation of letting it play upon our slow-witted, matter-of-fact intellects. "And I declare you seem to know all about what h-happens. I'll j-just tell you something about it, but it'll make you creepy," and then all the circle gathered in round Nestie. "I have to rise at five in the morning, and if I'm not down at half-past, Bulldog comes for me with a c-cane" (Howieson at this point rubbed himself behind gently). "Before breakfast we have six 'p-props' from Euclid and two vulgar f-fractions" (a groan from the school): "for breakfast we've porridge and milk, and I have to keep time with Bulldog—one, two, three, four—with the spoonfuls. He's got the c-cane on the table." ("Gosh" from a boy at the back, and general sympathy.) "He has the t-tawse hung in the lobby so as to be handy." ("It cowes all.") "There are three regular c-canings every day, one in the morning, and one in the afternoon, and one before you go to bed." At this point Speug, who had been listening with much doubt to Nestie's account, and knew that he had a luxuriant imagination, interfered.
"Nestie," he said, "ye're an abandoned little scoundrel, and ye're telling lees straicht forward," and the school went into the class-room divided in opinion. Some were suspicious that Nestie had been feeding their curiosity with highly spiced meat, but others were inclined to believe anything of Bulldog's household arrangements. During the hour Speug studied Nestie's countenance with interest, and in the break he laid hold of that ingenious young gentleman by the ear and led him apart into a quiet corner, where he exhorted him to unbosom the truth. Nestie whispered something in Speug's ear which shook even that worthy's composure.
"Did ye say rabbits?"
"Lop-ears," said Nestie after a moment's silence, and Speug was more confounded than he had ever been in all his blameless life.
"Ernest Molyneux, div ye kin whar ye 'ill go to if ye tell lees."
"I'm telling the t-truth, Speug, and I never tell lies, but sometimes I compose t-tales. Lop-ear rabbits, and he feeds them himself."
"Will ye say 'as sure as death'?"—for this was with us the final test of truth.
"As sure as death," said Nestie, and that afternoon Speug had so much to think about that he gave almost no heed when Bulldog discovered him with nothing on the sheet before him except a remarkably correct drawing of two lop-eared rabbits.
Speug and Nestie crossed the North Meadow together after school, and before they parted at the bridge Nestie entreated the favour of a visit in his new home that evening from Speug; but, although modesty was not Speug's prevailing characteristic, he would on no account accept the flattering invitation. Maybe he was going to drive with his father, who was breaking-in a new horse, or maybe he was going out on the river in a boat, or maybe the stable gates were to be shut and the fox turned loose for a run, or maybe——
"Maybe you are going to learn your l-lessons, Speug, for once in your life," said Nestie, who, his head on one side, was studying Speug's embarrassment.
"A'm to do naething o' the kind," retorted Speug, turning a dark red at this insult. "Nane o' yir impidence."
"Maybe you're f-frightened to come," said Nestie, and dodged at the same time behind a lamp-post. "Why, Speug, I didn't know you were f-frightened of anything."
"Naither I am," said Speug stoutly; "an' if it had been Jock Howieson said that, I'd black his eyes. What sud I be frightened of, ye miserable little shrimp?"
"Really, I don't know, Speug," said Nestie; "but just let me g-guess. It might be climbing the hill; or did you think you might meet one of the 'Pennies,' and he would fight you; or, Speug—an idea occurs to me—do you feel as if you did not want to spend an hour—just a nice, quiet hour—all alone with Bulldog? You and he are such f-friends, Speug, in the Seminary. Afraid of Bulldog? Speug, I'm ashamed of you, when poor little me has to live with him now every day."
"When I get a grip o' you, Nestie Molyneux, I'll learn ye to give me chat. I never was afraid of Bulldog, and I dinna care if he chases me round the garden wi' a stick, but I'm no coming."
"You are afraid, Speug; you dare not come." And Nestie kept carefully out of Speug's reach.
"You are a liar," cried Speug. "I'll come up this very night at seven o'clock, but I'll no come in unless ye're at the garden door."
Speug had fought many pitched battles in his day, and was afraid neither of man nor beast, but his heart sank within him for the first time in his life when he crossed the bridge and climbed the hill to the residence of Mr. Dugald MacKinnon. Nothing but his pledged word, and a reputation for courage which must not be tarnished, since it rested on nothing else, brought him up the lane to Bulldog's door. He was before his time, and Nestie had not yet come to meet him, and he could allow his imagination to picture what was within the walls, and what might befall his unfortunate self before he went down that lane again. His one consolation and support was in the lop-eared rabbits; and if it were the case, as Nestie had sworn with an oath which never had been broken at the Seminary, that there were rabbits within that dreadful enclosure, there was hope for him; for if he knew about anything, he knew about rabbits, and if anyone had to do with rabbits—and although it was incredible, yet had not Nestie sworn it with an oath?—there must be some bowels of mercy even in Bulldog. Speug began to speculate whether he might not be able, with Nestie's loyal help, to reach the rabbits and examine thoroughly into their condition, and escape from the garden without a personal interview with its owner; and at the thought thereof Speug's heart was lifted. For of all his exploits which had delighted the Seminary, none, for its wonder and daring, its sheer amazingness, could be compared with a stolen visit to Bulldog's rabbits. "Nestie," he murmured to himself, as he remembered that little Englishman's prodigal imagination, "is a maist extraordinary leear, but he said 'as sure as death.'"
"Why, Speug, is that you? You ought to have opened the door. Come along and shake hands with the master; he's just l-longing to see you." And Speug was dragged along the walk between the gooseberry bushes, which in no other circumstances would he have passed unnoticed, and was taken up to be introduced with the air of a dog going to execution. He heard someone coming down the walk, and he lifted up his eyes to know the worst, and in that moment it appeared as if reason had deserted the unhappy Speug. It was the face of Bulldog, for the like of that countenance could not be found on any other man within the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. Yes, it was Bulldog, and that Speug would be prepared to swear in any court of justice. The nose and the chin, and the iron-grey whiskers and hair, and above all those revolving eyes. There could not be any mistake. But what had happened to Bulldog's face, for it was like unto that of another man? The sternness had gone out of it, and—there was no doubt about it—Bulldog was smiling, and it was an altogether comprehensive and irresistible smile. It had taken the iron lines out of his face and shaped his lips to the kindliest curve, and deprived his nose of its aggressive air, and robbed the judicial appearance of his whiskers, and it had given him—it was a positive fact—another pair of eyes. They still revolved, but not now like the guns in the turret of a monitor dealing destruction right and left. They were shining and twinkling like the kindly light from a harbour tower. There never was such a genial and humoursome face, so full of fun and humanity, as that which looked down on the speechless Speug. Nor was that all; it was a complete transformation. Where were the pepper-and-salt trousers and the formal black coat and vest, which seemed somehow to symbolise the inflexible severity of Bulldog's reign? and the hat, and the gloves, and the stick—what had become of his trappings? Was there ever such a pair of disreputable old slippers, down at the heel, out at the sides, broken at the seams, as those that covered the feet of Bulldog in that garden. The very sight of those slippers, with their suggestion of slackness and unpunctuality and ignorance of all useful knowledge and general Bohemianism, was the first thing which cheered the heart of Speug. Those slippers would tolerate no problems from Euclid and would laugh a cane to scorn. Where did he ever get those trousers, and from whose hands did they originally come, baggy at the knee and loose everywhere, stained with garden mould and torn with garden bushes?
Without question it was a warm night in that sheltered place on the side of the hill; but would any person believe that the master of mathematics, besides writing and arithmetic, in Muirtown Seminary, was going about in his garden, and before the eyes of two of his pupils, without the vestige of a waistcoat. Speug now was braced for wonders, but even he was startled with Bulldog's jacket, which seemed of earlier age than the trousers, with which it had no connexion in colour. It may once have had four buttons, but only two were left now; there was a tear in its side that must have been made by a nail in the garden wall, the handle of a hammer projected from one pocket, and a pruning-knife from the other. And if there was not a pipe in Bulldog's mouth, stuck in the side of his cheek, "as sure as death!" There was a knife in his hand, with six blades and a corkscrew and a gimlet and the thing for taking the stones out of a horse's hoof—oath again repeated—and Bulldog was trying the edge of the biggest blade upon his finger. Speug, now ascending from height to height, was not surprised to see no necktie, and would have been prepared to see no collar. He had now even a wild hope that when he reached Bulldog's head it might be crowned with a Highland bonnet, minus the tails; but instead thereof there was a hat, possibly once a wide-awake, so bashed, and shapeless, and discoloured, and worn so rakishly, partly on the back and partly on the side of his head, that Speug was inwardly satisfied, and knew that no evil could befall him in that garden.
"Speug, my mannie, how are ye?" said this amazing figure. "Ye've been long of coming. There's something like a knife, eh!" and Bulldog opened up the whole concern and challenged Speug to produce his knife, which was not so bad after all, for it had six departments, and one of them was a file, which was wanting in Bulldog's.
"Show the master your peerie, Speug," said Nestie. "It's split more tops than any one in the school; it's a r-ripper," and Nestie exhibited its deadly steel point with much pride, while Speug endeavoured to look unconscious as the owner of this instrument of war.
"Dod, I'll have a try myself," said Bulldog. "It's many a year since I've spun a top. Where's yir string?" and he strode up the walk winding the top, and the boys behind looked at one another, while Nestie triumphed openly.
"Are you frightened, Speug?" he whispered. "Ain't he great? And just you wait; you haven't begun to see things yet, not h-half."
Upon the doorstep Bulldog spun the top with a right hand that had not lost its cunning, but rather had been strengthened by much cane exercise. "It's sleeping," he cried in huge delight. "If you dare to touch it, pity you!" but no one wished to shorten its time, and the three hung over that top with fond interest, as Bulldog timed the performance with his watch, which he extricated from his trouser pocket.
"Ye're a judge of rabbits, Speug," said the master. "I would like to have yir advice," and as they went down through the garden they halted at a place, and the robins came and sat on Bulldog's shoulder and took crumbs out of his hand, and a little further on the thrushes bade him welcome, and he showed the boys where the swallows had built every year, and they also flew round his head.
"If ye dinna meddle with them, the birds 'ill no be afraid o' you, will they, Dandie?" and the old terrier which followed at his heels wagged his tail and indicated that he also was on good terms with every living thing in the garden.
No one in the Seminary ever could be brought to believe it, even although Speug tried to inculcate faith with his fists, that Bulldog had carried out a litter of young rabbits in his hat for inspection, and that, before the three of them laid themselves out for a supper of strawberries, Speug had given to his master the best knowledge at his command on the amount of green food which might be given with safety to a rabbit of adult years, and had laid it down with authority that a moderate amount of tea-leaves and oatmeal might be allowed as an occasional dainty.
After the attack on the strawberries, in which Speug greatly distinguished himself, and Bulldog urged him on with encouraging words, they had tarts and lemonade in the house, where not a sign of cane or tawse could be found. Bulldog drew the corks himself, and managed once to drench Speug gloriously, whereat that worthy wiped his face with his famous red handkerchief and was inordinately proud, while Nestie declared that the thing had been done on purpose, and Bulldog threatened him with the tawse for insulting his master.
"Div ye think, Speug, ye could manage a piece of rock before ye go," and Bulldog produced the only rock that a Muirtown man will ever think worth eating—Fenwick's own very best, thick, and pure, and rich, and well-flavoured; and when Speug knew not whether to choose the peppermint, that is black and white, or the honey rock, which is brown and creamy, or the cinnamon, which in those days was red outside and white within, his host insisted that he should take a piece of each, and they would last him till he reached his home.
"Speug," and Bulldog bade farewell to his pupil at the garden gate, "ye're the most aggravating little scoundrel in Muirtown Seminary, and the devilry that's in you I bear witness is bottomless; but ye're fine company, and ye 'ill, maybe, be a man yet, and Nestie and me will be glad to see ye when ye're no engaged with yir study. Ye 'ill no forget to come, Peter."
Peter's tongue, which had been wagging freely among the rabbits, again forsook him, but he was able to indicate that he would seize an early opportunity of again paying his respects to Mr. Dugald MacKinnon in his own home; and when Bulldog thrashed him next day for not having prepared an exercise the night before, the incident only seemed to complete Speug's pride and satisfaction.
THE DISGRACE OF MR. BYLES
Bulldog's southern assistant had tried the patience of the Seminary by various efforts to improve its mind and manners, but when he proposed at the beginning of the autumn term to occupy Saturdays with botanical excursions to Kilspindie Woods, which, as everybody knows, are three miles from Muirtown, and a paradise of pheasants, it was felt that if there was any moral order in the universe something must happen. From the middle of September, when the school opened, on to the beginning of October, when football started, our spare time was given to kites, which we flew from the North Meadow in the equinoctial gales gloriously. Speug had one of heroic size, with the figure of a dragon upon it painted in blue and yellow and red—the red for the fire coming out of his mouth—and a tail of eight joints, ending in a bunch of hay fastened with a ribbon. None but a sportsman like Speug could have launched the monster from the ground—bigger than Peter by a foot—and nursed it through the lower spaces till it caught the wind, and held it in the higher as it tore upwards and forwards till the dragon was but the size of a man's hand in the clear autumn sky. Then Peter would lie down upon his back, with his hands below his head, and the stick with the kite string beneath his feet, and gaze up at the speck above, with an expression so lifted above this present world that a circle of juniors could only look at him with silent admiration and speculate whether they would ever become so good and great.
It must not be thought, however, that kite-flying was chiefly done upon your back, for it gave endless opportunities for intricate manoeuvres and spectacular display. When Peter was in the vein he would collect twelve mighties—each with a kite worth seeing—and bringing the kites low enough for the glory of their size and tails to be visible they would turn and wheel and advance and retire, keeping line and distance with such accuracy that Sergeant McGlashan would watch the review with keen interest and afterwards give his weighty approval. Then the band would work their way up to the head of the Meadow in the teeth of a north-wester, and forming in line, with half a dozen yards between each boy, would let the kites go and follow them at the run as the kites tore through the air and almost pulled their owners' arms out of the sockets. It was so fine a demonstration that the women bleaching their clothes would pick up half a dozen of the goodman's shirts to let Speug keep his course—knowing very well that he would have kept it otherwise over the shirts—and golfers, who expect everyone to get out of their way on pain of sudden death, would stop upon the putting green to see the kites go down in the wind with the laddies red-faced and bareheaded at their heels. If the housewives shook their heads as they spread out the shirts on the grass again—weighing them down with clean stones that they might not follow the kites—it was with secret delight, for there is no wholesome woman who does not rejoice in a boy and regard his most vexatious mischief with charity. And old Major MacLeod, the keenest of golfers and the most touchy of Celts, declared that this condemned old Island was not dead yet when it could turn out such a gang of sturdy young ruffians. And it was instead of such a mighty ploy that Mr. Byles proposed to take the Seminary for a botanical excursion.
It was in the mathematical class-room that Mr. Byles announced the new departure, and, even if Bulldog had not been keeping watch with an inscrutable countenance, the school was too much amazed to interrupt. Having touched on the glories of the creation amid which we lived, Mr. Byles pointed out, in what the newspapers call "neat and well-chosen terms," that it was not enough to learn mathematics as they all did so diligently—Jock Howieson's eye turned instinctively to Bulldog's cane—but they must also know some natural science in order to become, as he hoped they would, cultured men—Speug was just able to cast a longing glance at Thomas John. That no pursuit was easier and more delightful than botany, especially among wild flowers. That on Saturday he proposed to go with as many as would join him to ransack the treasures of Kilspindie Woods. That these woods were very rich, he believed, in flowers, among which he mentioned wild geraniums—at which the school began to recover and rustle. That the boys might dry the geraniums and make books for Christmas presents with them, and that he hoped to see a herbarium in the Seminary containing all the wild flowers of the district. The school was now getting into good spirits, and Bulldog allowed his eye to fall on Speug. That any boy who desired to improve his mind was to put on his oldest suit and bring a bag to carry the plants in and be in front of the Seminary at nine to-morrow. Then Bulldog brought his cane down on the desk with energy and dismissed the school, and Nestie told Peter that his mouth had begun to twitch.
Outside the school gathered together on the terrace around the Russian guns, which was our Forum, and after five seconds' pause, during which we gathered inspiration from each others' faces, a great shout of laughter went up to the sky, full-toned, unanimous, prolonged. Any sense of humour in the Seminary was practical, and Mr. Byles's botany class, with expeditions, was irresistible.
"Geranniums!" cried Howieson, who was immensely tickled; "it cowes a'. An' what was the ither flooer—'herbarries'? It's michty; it'ill be poppies an' mustard seed next. Speug, ye'ill be making a book for a present to Bulldog."
"Tak care o' yirsel," Bauldie shouted to the Dowbiggins, who were making off, as mass meetings did not agree with them, "an' see ye dinna wet yir feet or dirty yir hands. Ye'ill get yir wheeps at home if ye do. Give us a bit o' Byles, Nestie," and then there was instant silence, for Nestie had a nice little trick of mimicry which greatly endeared him to a school where delicate gifts were rare.
"S-silence, if you please," and Nestie held up his hand with Mr. Byles's favourite polite deprecating gesture. "I hear a smile. Remember, d-dear boys, that this is a serious s-subject. Do p-please sit quiet, Peter McGuffie; your fidgetin' is very t-tryin' indeed, and I 'ope, I mean h-hope, you will make an effort to l-learn. This, my l-lads, is a common object of Nature which I 'old, that is hold, in my h-hands—Howieson, I must ask you not to annoy Thomas John Dowbiggin—the c-colour is a lovely gold, and yet—no talking, if you please, it is r-rude—we pass it every day without n-notice. Each boy may take a dandelion h-home to his sister. Now go hout ... or rather out, quietly."
"Gosh, it's just Byles to the ground!" cried Bauldie; and Johnston passed a half stick of gundy to Nestie to refresh him after his labours. "Are ony o' you chaps goin'? It wud be worth seein' Byles traking thro' the Kilspindie Woods, with thae bleatin' sheep o' Dowbiggins at his heels, carryin' an airmful o' roots and sic like."
"You'ill no catch me tramping oot at the tail o' Byles and a litter o' Dowbiggins!"—and Jock was very emphatic. "Dod, it'ill just be like a procession o' MacMuldrow's lassies, two and two, and maybe airm in airm!"
This fearful and malignant suggestion settled the matter for the Seminary, as a score of its worthies marching across the bridge in the interests of science, like a boarding-school, would be a scandal for ever. So it was agreed that a body of sympathisers should see the Byles expedition off next morning, and then hold a field day of kites in the meadow.
The deterioration of the best is the worst, and that means that when a prim, conventional, respectable man takes in his head to dress as a Bohemian, the effect will be remarkable. Byles had been anxious to show that he could be quite the gay rustic when he pleased, and he was got up in a cap, much crushed, and a grey flannel shirt, with a collar corresponding, and no tie, and a suit of brown tweeds, much stained with futile chemical experiments. He was also equipped with a large canvas bag, slung over his shoulder, and a hammock net, which he explained could be slung from a tree and serve as a resting-place if it were damp beneath. The Dowbiggins had entered into the spirit of the thing, and were in clothes reserved for their country holidays. They had each an umbrella, large and bulgy, and altogether were a pair of objects to whom no one would have lent a shilling. Cosh, whose attack on Nestie made him a social outcast, had declared himself a convert to natural science, and was sucking up to Byles, and two harmless little chaps, who thought that they would like to know something about flowers, made up the Botanical Society.
They were a lonely little group standing on the terrace, while Mr. Byles was securing a trowel and other instruments of war from his room, but a large and representative gathering of the Seminary did their best to cheer and instruct them.
Howieson insisted that the bottle of milk which bulged from the bag of the younger Dowbiggin contained spirituous liquors, and warned the two juniors to keep clear of him and to resist every temptation to drinking. He also expressed an earnest hope that a rumour flying round the school about tobacco was not true. But the smell on Dowbiggin's clothes was horrid. Cosh was affectionately exhorted to have a tender care of his health and personal appearance, not to bully Lord Kilspindie's gamekeepers, nor to put his foot into a steel trap, nor to meddle with the rabbits, nor to fall into the Tay, but above all things not to tell lies.
Thomas John was beset with requests—that he would leave a lock of his hair in case he should not return, that he would mention the name of the pawn-broker from whom he got his clothes, that he would bring home a bouquet of wild flowers for Bulldog, that he would secure a supply of turnips to make lanterns for Halloween, that he would be kind to Mr. Byles and see that he took a rest in his net, that he would be careful to gather up any "h's" Mr. Byles might drop on the road, and that he should not use bad language under any circumstances.
"Never mind what those boys say, Thomas," said Mr. Byles, who had come out in time to catch the last exhortation: "it is far better to himprove, I mean cultivate, the mind than to fly kites like a set of children; but we all hope that you will have a nice fly, don't we, boys?" And sarcasm from so feeble a quarter might have provoked a demonstration had not Byles and his flock been blotted out by an amazing circumstance. As the botanists started, Speug, who had maintained an unusual silence all morning, joined the body along with Nestie, and gave Mr. Byles to understand that he also was hungering for scientific research. After their friends had recovered themselves they buzzed round the two, who were following the Dowbiggins with an admirable affectation of sedateness, but received no satisfaction. Speug contented himself with warning off a dozen henchmen who had fallen in by him with the idea of forming a mock procession, and then giving them a wink of extraordinary suggestiveness. But Nestie was more communicative, and explained the situation at length——
"Peter was a b-botanist all the time, but he did not know it; he fairly loves g-geranniums, and is sorry that he wasted his time on k-kites and snowballs. We are going to himprove our m-minds, and we don't want you to trouble us." But this was not knowledge.
It remained a mystery, and when Jock and Bauldie tailed off at the bridge, and Speug, halfway across, turned round and winked again, it was with regret that they betook themselves to their kites, and more than once they found themselves casting longing glances to the distant woods, where Speug was now pursuing the study of botany.
"Bauldie," said Jock suddenly, as the kites hung motionless in the sky, "this is weel enough, but tak' my word for't it's nothing to the game they're playin' in yon woods."
"Div ye mean howkin' geranniums? for I canna see muckle game in that: I would as soon dig potatoes." Bauldie, though a man of his hands, had a prosaic mind and had little imagination.
"Geranniums! ger—— havers, that's no' what Speug is after, you bet. He's got a big splore (exploit) on hand or he never crossed Muirtown Brig in such company. Man, Bauldie, I peety Byles, I do. Peter'ill lose the lot o' them in the woods or he'ill stick them in a bog, or"—and Jock could hardly hold his kite—"what div ye say to this, man? he'ill row them over to Woody Island and leave them there till Monday, with naething but bread and milk and the net to sleep in." And the joy of Jock and Bauldie at this cheerful prospect was rather a testimony to their faith in Peter's varied ability than a proof of sympathy with their fellow-creatures.
If Speug was playing the fox he gave no sign on the way to the woods, for he was a model of propriety and laid himself out to be agreeable. He showed an unwonted respect for the feelings of the Dowbiggins, so that these two young gentlemen relaxed the vigilant attention with which they usually regarded Speug, and he was quite affable with Cosh. As for the master, Peter simply placed himself at Mr. Byles's service, expatiating on the extent of the woods and their richness in flowers—"just fair scatted up wi' geranniums and the rest o' them:" offering to take the expedition by the nearest way to the treasures, and especially insisting on the number and beauty and tameness of the pheasants, till Mr. Byles was charmed and was himself surprised at the humanising influence of scientific pursuits.
Nor had Peter boasted vainly of his wood lore, for he led them by so direct a way that, before they came to the place of flowers, the expedition—except the two little chaps, whom Speug sent round in Nestie's charge, to a selected rendezvous as being next door to babies—had climbed five dykes, all with loose stones, fought through three thickets very prickly indeed, crawled underneath two hedges, crossed three burns, one coming up to the knees, and mired themselves times without number. Cosh had jostled against Speug in leaping from one dry spot to another and come down rolling in the mud, which made his appearance from behind wonderful; Speug, in helping Thomas John out of a very entangling place, had been so zealous that the seat had been almost entirely detached from Thomas John's trousers, and although Mr. Byles had done his best with pins, the result was not edifying; his brother's straw hat had fallen in the exact spot where Speug landed as he jumped from a wall, and was of no further service, and so the younger Dowbiggin—"who is so refined in his ways," as his mother used to say—wore as his headgear a handkerchief which had been used for cleaning the mud from his clothes. Upon Mr. Byles, whom fate might have spared, misfortunes had accumulated. His trousers had been sadly mangled from the knee downwards as he crawled through a hole, and had to be wound round his legs with string, and although Speug had pulled his cap out of a branch, he had done his work so hastily as to leave the peak behind, and he was so clumsy, with the best intentions, that he allowed another branch to slip, which caught Mr. Byles on the side of the head and left a mark above his eye, which distinctly suggested a prizefight to anyone not acquainted with that gentleman's blameless character. Peter himself had come unscathed from the perils of land and water, save a dash of mud here and there and a suspicion of wet about his feet, which shows how bad people fare better than good. The company was so bedraggled and discouraged that their minds did not seem set on wild flowers, and in these circumstances Peter, ever obliging and thoughtful, led the botanists to a pleasant glade, away from thickets and bogs, where the pheasants made their home and swarmed by hundreds. Mr. Byles was much cheered by this change of environment, and grew eloquent on the graceful shape and varied plumage of the birds. They were so friendly that they gathered round the party, which was not wonderful, as a keeper fed them every day, but which Mr. Byles explained was due to the instinct of the beautiful creatures, "who know, my dear boys, that we love them." He enlarged on the cruelty of sport, and made the Dowbiggins promise that they would never shoot pheasants or any other game, and there is no reason to doubt that they kept their word, as they did not know one end of a gun from another, and would no sooner have dared to fire one than they would have whistled on Sunday. A happy thought occurred to Mr. Byles, and he suggested that they should now have their lunch and feed the birds with the fragments. He was wondering also whether it would be wrong to snare one of the birds in the net, just to hold it in the hand and let it go again.
When things had come to this pass—and he never had expected anything so good—Speug withdrew unobtrusively behind a clump of trees, and then ran swiftly to a hollow where Nestie was waiting with the juniors.
"Noo, my wee men," said Peter to the innocents, "div ye see that path? Cut along it as hard as ye can leg, and it 'ill bring you to the Muirtown Road, and never rest till ye be in your own houses. For Byles and these Dowbiggins are carryin' on sic a game wi' Lord Kilspindie's pheasants that I'm expectin' to see them in Muirtown jail before nicht. Ye may be thankful," concluded Peter piously, "that I savit ye from sic company."
"Nestie," Peter continued, when the boys had disappeared, "I've never clypit (told tales) once since I cam to the Seminary, and it's no' a nice job, but div ye no' think that the head keeper should know that poachers are in the preserves?"
"It's a d-duty, Peter," as they ran to the keeper's house, "especially when there's a g-gang of them and such b-bad-looking fellows—v-vice just written on their faces. It's horried to see boys so young and so w-wicked."
"What young prodigals are yon comin' skelpin' along, as if the dogs were aifter them?" and the head keeper came out from the kennels. "Oh, it's you, Speug—and what are you doin' in the woods the day? there's no eggs now." For sporting people are a confederacy, and there was not a coachman or groom, or keeper or ratcatcher, within twelve miles of Muirtown, who did not know Mr. McGuffie senior, and not many who did not also have the acquaintance of his hopeful son.
"Nestie and me were just out for a run to keep our wind richt, an' we cam on a man and three boys among the pheasants in the low park."
"Among the what? Meddlin' with Lord Kilspindie's birds?"
"Well, I dinna ken if they were juist poachin', but they were feedin' them, and we saw a net."
"Sandie," shouted the head keeper, "and you, Tom, get up out of yir beds this meenut; the poachers are after the pheasants. My word, takin' them alive, as I'm a livin' man, to sell them for stock: and broad daylight; it beats everything. He 'ill be an old hand, frae Dundee maist likely. And the impidence o't, eleven o'clock in the forenoon an' the end o' September. Dod: it's a depairture in poachin'." And as the sight of Mr. Byles burst on his view, surrounded by trustful birds, and the two Dowbiggins trying very feebly to drop the net on a specially venturesome one, the head keeper almost lost the power of speech.
"Dinna let us interrupt you," and Mr. Byles looked up to see three armed keepers commanding their helpless party, and one of them purple with rage. "I hope we don't intrude; maybe we could give you a hand in catchin' the birds, and if a spring-cart would be of ony use ... confound your cheek!
"Gathering flowers, are ye, and gave the pheasants a biscuit, did ye, and the boys thought they would like to stroke one, would they? How is that, lads? I've seen two or three poachers in my time, but for brazen-faced lyin' I've never seen your match. Maybe you're a Sabbath-school out for a trip, or an orphan asylum?
"Assistant mathematical master at the Seminary, that's what you are, is it, ye awfu' like blackguard, an' the laddies are the sons o' a respectable Free Kirk minister, the dirty dogs? Are ye sure ye're no' the principal o' Edinburgh University? Tak' yir time and try again. I'm enjoying it. Is't by the hundred ye sell them, and wud it be a leeberty to ask for whose preserves? Dash the soople tongue o' ye.
"If ye dare to put yir hand in a pocket, I'll lodge a charge o' shot in ye: we'ill hae nae pistol-work in Kilspindie Woods. Come along wi' ye, professor an' students, an' I'll give ye a ride into Muirtown, an' we'ill just be in time to catch the magistrate. He hasna tried a learned institution like this since he mounted the bench. March in front, but dinna try to run, or it will be the waur for ye. Ma certes, sic a band o' waufies!"
Then those two officers of justice, Peter and Nestie, having seen all without being seen, now started for Muirtown to gather the kite-players and as many of the Seminary as could be found to see the arrival of the botanists. They were brought in a large spring-cart—Mr. Byles seated between the head keeper and the driver, in front, and the other three huddled like calves in the space behind—a mass of mud, tatters, and misery, from which the solemn, owl-like face of Thomas John, whose cap was now gone also, looked out in hopeless amazement. As they were handed over to the police the Seminary, which had been at first struck dumb, recovered speech and expressed itself with much vivacity.
"Who would have thought Byles had as much spirit? Sall, he 'ill be rinnin' horses at Muirtown Races yet;" "For ony sake walk backwards, Thomas—yir breeks are barely decent;" "The pheasants have been hard on yir legs, Cosh;" "Where's the geranniums?" "Has his Lordship kept yir bonnet, Dowbiggin?" "It 'ill be a year's hard labour." For boys are only in the savage state, and the discomfiture of such immaculate propriety was very sweet to the Seminary.
So powerful was the evidence of the head keeper, who saw in Mr. Byles's effort a new and cunning form of poaching he was not prepared for, and so weird was the appearance of the prisoners, that the Bailie on duty was for sentencing them at once, and would hardly wait for the testimony of friends. It took the sworn testimony of the Rector of the Seminary and poor Dr. Dowbiggin, summoned from their studies in hot haste and confusion of face, to clear the accused, and even then the worthy magistrate thought it proper, as Scots magistrates do, to administer a rebuke and warning so solemn that it became one of the treasures of memory for all Seminary lads.
"After what I have heard I cannot convict you, and you may go this time; but let me never see you here again in such circumstances. It's fearsome to think that an educated man"—this to Byles—"instead of setting an example to the laddies under your charge, should be accused of a mean and cunning offence against the laws of the land, and I cannot look at your face without having grave doubts. And to think that the sons of a respected minister of the kirk should be found in such company, and with all the appearance of vagrants, must be a great trial to their father, and I am sure he has the sympathy of Muirtown. As for you, Cosh, I never expected to see the son of a brother bailie in such a position. All I can hope is that this will be a lesson to you to keep clear of evil companions and evil ways, and that you may live to be a respectable citizen. But do not presume on your escape to-day—that is all I have to say."
Outside the court-room the head keeper caught Speug and gave him his mind.
"Ye're a limb o' Satan, Peter McGuffie, and that English-speakin' imp is little better. My belief is that this has been a pliskie (trick) o' yours frae beginning to end, and I just give ye one word o' advice—don't let me catch you in Kilspindie Woods, or it will be the worse for you."
If you excluded two or three Englishmen who spoke with an accent suggestive of an effeminate character, and had a fearsome habit of walking on the Sabbath, and poor "Moossy," the French master at the Seminary, who was a quantity not worth considering, the foreign element in Muirtown during the classical days consisted of the Count. He never claimed to be a Count, and used at first to deprecate the title, but he declined the honour of our title with so much dignity that it seemed only to prove his right, and by and by he answered to the name with simply a slight wave of his hand which he meant for deprecation, but which came to be considered a polite acknowledgement. His real name was not known in Muirtown—not because he had not given it, but because it could not be pronounced, being largely composed of x's and k's, with an irritating parsimony of vowels. We had every opportunity of learning to spell it, if we could not pronounce it, for it was one of the Count's foreign ways to carry a card-case in his ticket-pocket, and on being introduced to an inhabitant of Muirtown to offer his card with the right hand while he took off his hat with the left, and bowed almost to a right angle. Upon those occasions a solid man like Bailie MacFarlane would take hold of the card cautiously, not knowing whether so unholy a name might not go off and shatter his hand; and during the Count's obeisance, which lasted for several seconds, the Bailie regarded him with grave disapproval. The mind of Muirtown, during this performance of the Count's, used to be divided between regret that any human being should condescend to such tricks, and profound thankfulness that Muirtown was not part of a foreign country where people were brought up with the manners of poodles. Our pity for foreigners was nourished by the manner of the Count's dress, which would have been a commonplace on a boulevard, but astounded Muirtown on its first appearance, and always lent an element of piquant interest to our streets. His perfectly brushed hat, broadish in the brim and curled at the sides, which he wore at the faintest possible angle, down to his patent leather boots, which it was supposed he obtained in Paris, and wore out at the rate of a pair a month—all was unique and wonderful, but it was his frock-coat which stimulated conversation. It was so tight and fitted so perfectly, revealing the outlines of his slender form, and there was such an indecent absence of waist—waist was a strong point with Muirtown men, and in the case of persons who had risen to office, like the Provost, used to run to fifty inches—that a report went round the town that the Count was a woman. This speculation was confirmed rather than refuted by the fact that the Count smoked cigarettes, which he made with Satanic ingenuity while you were looking at him, and that he gave a display of fencing with the best swordsman of a Dragoon regiment in the barracks, for it was shrewdly pointed out that those were just the very accomplishments of French "Cutties." This scandal might indeed have crystallised into an accepted fact, and the Provost been obliged to command the Count's departure, had it not been for the shrewdness and good nature of the "Fair Maid of Muirtown." There always was a fair maid in Muirtown—and in those days she was fairest of her succession: let this flower lie on her grave. She declared to her friends that she had watched the Count closely and had never once seen him examine a woman's dress when the woman wasn't looking; and after that no person of discernment in Muirtown had any doubt about the Count's sex. It was, however, freely said—and that story was never contradicted—that he wore stays, and every effort was made to obtain the evidence of his landlady. Her gossips tried Mistress Jamieson with every wile of conversation, and even lawyers' wives, pretending to inquire for rooms for a friend, used to lead the talk round to the Count's habits; but that worthy matron was loyal to her lodger, and was not quite insensible to the dignity of a mystery.
"Na, na, Mistress Lunan, I see what you're after; but beggin' your pardon, a landlady's a landlady, and my mouth's closed. The Count disna ken the difference atween Saturday and Sabbath, and the money he wastes on tobacco juist goes to ma heart; but he never had the blessin' of a Gospel ministry nor the privileges of Muirtown when he was young. As regards stays, whether he wears them or disna wear them I'm no' prepared to say, for I thank goodness that I've never yet opened a lodger's boxes nor entered a lodger's room when he was dressin'. The Count pays his rent in advance every Monday morning; he wanted to pay on Sabbath, but I told him it was not a lawful day. He gives no trouble in the house, and if his doctor ordered him to wear stays to support his spine, which I'm no' sayin' he did, Mistress Lunan, it's no concern o' mine, and the weather is inclining to snow."
His dress was a perfect fabric of art, however it may have been constructed; and it was a pleasant sight to see the Count go down our main street on a summer afternoon, approving himself with a side glance in the mirrors of the larger shops, striking an attitude at our bookseller's when a new print was exposed in the window, waving his cigarette and blowing the smoke through his nostrils, which was considered a "tempting of Providence," making his respectful salutations to every lady whom he knew, and responding with "Celestial, my friend!" to Bailie MacFarlane's greeting of "Fine growing weather." When he sailed past McGuffie's stable-yard, like Solomon in all his glory, that great man, who always persisted in regarding the Count as a sporting character, would touch the rim of his hat with his forefinger—an honour he paid to few—and, after the Count had disappeared, would say "Gosh!" with much relish. This astounding spectacle very early attracted the attention of the Seminary boys, and during his first summer in Muirtown it was agreed that he would make an excellent target for snowball practice during next winter. The temptation was not one which could have been resisted, and it is to be feared that the Count would have been confined to the house when the snow was on the ground had it not been for an incident which showed him in a new light, and established him, stays or no stays, in the respect of the Seminary for ever. There had been a glorious fight on the first day of the war with the "Pennies," and when they were beaten, a dozen of them, making a brave rearguard fight, took up their position with the Count's windows as their background. There were limits to license even in those brave old days, and it was understood that the windows of houses, especially private houses, and still more especially in the vicinity of the Seminary, should not be broken, and if they were broken the culprits were hunted down and interviewed by "Bulldog" at length. When the "Pennies" placed themselves under the protection of the Count's glass, which was really an unconscious act of meanness on their part, the Seminary distinctly hesitated; but Speug was in command, and he knew no scruples as he knew no fear.
"Dash the windows!" cried the Seminary captain; and when the "Pennies" were driven along the street, the windows had been so effectually dashed that there was not a sound pane of glass in the Count's sitting-room. As the victorious army returned to their capital, and the heat of battle died down, some anxiety about to-morrow arose even in minds not given to care, for Mistress Jamieson was not the woman to have her glass broken for nothing, and it was shrewdly suspected that the Count, with all his dandyism, would not take this affront lightly. As a matter of fact, Mistress Jamieson made a personal call upon the Rector that evening, and explained with much eloquence to that timid, harassed scholar that, unless his boys were kept in better order, Muirtown would not be a place for human habitation; and before she left she demanded the blood of the offenders; she also compared Muirtown in its present condition to Sodom and Gomorrah. As the Rector was always willing to leave discipline in the capable hands of Bulldog, and as the chief sinners would almost certainly be in his class in the forenoon, the Count, who had witnessed the whole battle from a secure corner in his sitting-room, and had afterwards helped Mistress Jamieson to clear away the debris, went to give his evidence and identify the culprit. He felt it to be a dramatic occasion, and he rose to its height; and the school retained a grateful recollection of Bulldog and the Count side by side—the Count carrying himself with all the grace and dignity of a foreign ambassador come to settle an international dispute, and Bulldog more austere than ever, because he hated a "tellpyet," and yet knew that discipline must be maintained.
The Count explained with many flourishes that he was desolated to come for the first time to this so distinguished a Gymnasium upon an errand so distasteful, but that a lady had laid her commands on him ("Dis the body mean Lucky Jamieson?" whispered Speug to a neighbour), and he had ever been a slave of the sex (Bulldog at this point regarded him with a disdain beyond words.) The Rector of this place of learning had also done him, an obscure person, the honour of an invitation to come and assist at this function of justice; and although, as the Count explained, he was no longer a soldier, obedience was still the breath of his nostrils. Behold him, therefore, the servant of justice, ready to be questioned or to lay down his life for law; and the Count bowed again to Bulldog, placing his hand upon his heart, and then leant in a becoming attitude against the desk, tapping his shining boots with his cane, and feeling that he had acquitted himself with credit.
"We're sorry to bring ye out on such a day, sir," and Bulldog's glance conveyed that such a figure as the Count's ought not to be exposed in snowtime; "but we'll not keep ye long, and Ill juist state the circumstances with convenient brevity. The boys of the Seminary are allowed to exercise themselves in the snowtime within limits. If they fight wi' neighbouring schools, it's a maitter of regret; but if they break windows, they're liable to the maist extreme penalty. Now, I'm informed that some of the young scoundrels—and I believe the very laddies are in this class-room at this meenut" (Speug made no effort to catch Bulldog's eye, and Howieson's attention was entirely occupied with mathematical figures)—"have committed a breach of the peace at Mistress Jamieson's house. What I ask you, sir, to do"—and Bulldog regarded the Count with increasing disfavour, as he thought of such a popinjay giving evidence against his laddies—"is, to look round this class-room and point out, so far as ye may be able, any boy or boys who drove a snowball or snowballs through the windows of your residence."
During this judicial utterance the eyes of the Count wandered over the school with the most provoking intelligence, and conveyed even to the dullest, with a vivacity of countenance of which Muirtown was not capable, that Bulldog was a tiresome old gentleman, that the boys were a set of sad dogs, capable of any mischief, that some of them were bound to get a first-class thrashing, and worst of all that he, the Count, knew who would get it, and that he was about to give evidence in an instant with the utmost candour and elegance of manner. When his glance lighted on Speug it was with such a cheerful and unhesitating recognition that Speug was almost abashed, and knew for certain that for him at least, there could be no escape; while Howieson, plunging into arithmetic of his own accord for once, calculated rapidly what would be his share of the broken glass. Neither of them would have denied what he did to save himself twenty thrashings; but they shared Bulldog's disgust that a free-born Scot should be convicted on the evidence of a foreigner, whom they always associated in his intellectual gifts and tricks of speech with the monkey, which used to go round seated on the top of our solitary barrel-organ.
"When it is your pleasure, sir," said Bulldog sternly; and there was a silence that could be felt, whilst Speug already saw himself pointed out with the Count's cane.
The shutters went suddenly down on the Count's face; he became grave and anxious, and changed from a man of the world, who had been exchanging a jest with a few gay Bohemians, into a witness in the Court of Justice.
"Assuredly, monsieur, I will testify upon what you call my soul and conscience," and the Count indicated with his hand where both those faculties were contained. "I will select the boy who had audacity, I will say profanity, to break the windows of my good friend and hostess, Madame Jamieson."
The Count gave himself to the work of selection, but there was no longer a ray of intelligence in his face. He was confused and perplexed, he looked here and he looked there, he made little impatient gestures, he said a bad French word, he flung up a hand in despair, he turned to Bulldog with a frantic gesture, as of a man who thought he could have done something at once, and found he could not do it at all. Once more he faced the school, and then Speug, with that instinct of acute observation which belongs to a savage, began to understand, and gave Howieson a suggestive kick.
"As a man of honour," said the Count with much solemnity, "I give my testimony, and I declare that I do not see one of the boys who did forget themselves yesterday and did offer the insult of an assault to Madame's domicile."
And it would have been curious if he had seen the boys, for the Count was looking over their heads, and studying the distant view of the meadow and the River Tay with evident interest and appreciation.
The mind of Speug was now clear upon the Count, and Bulldog also understood, and in two seconds, so quick is the flash of sympathy through a mass of boy life, the youngest laddie in the mathematical class-room knew that, although the Count might have had the misfortune to be born in foreign parts, and did allow himself to dress like a dancing-master, inside that coat, and the stays too, if he had them on, there was the heart of a man who would not tell tales on any fellow, and who also liked his bit of fun.
"It's a peety, Count," said Bulldog, with poorly concealed satisfaction, "that ye're no' in a poseetion to recognise the culprits, for if they're no' here my conviction is they're no' to be found in Muirtown. We can ask no more of ye, sir, and we're much obleeged for yir attendance."
"It is a felicitous affair," said the Count, "which has the fortune to introduce me to this charming company," and the Count bowed first to Bulldog and then to the school with such a marked indication in one direction that Speug almost blushed. "My sorrow is to be so stupid a witness; but, monsieur, you will allow me to pay the penalty of my poor eyesight. It will be my pleasure," and again the Count bowed in all directions, "to replace the glass in Madame's house, and the incident, pouf! it is forgotten."
There was a swift glance from all parts of the class-room, and permission was read in Bulldog's face. Next instant the mathematical class-room was rent with applause, such as could only be given when fifty such lads wanted to express their feelings, and Speug led the circus.
"Ye will allow me to say, sir," and now Bulldog came as near as possible to a bow, "that ye have acted this day as a gentleman, and so far as the boys of Muirtown Seminary are concerned ye're free to come and go among us as ye please."
The departure of the Count, still bowing, with Bulldog attending him to the door and offering him overshoes to cover the polished leather boots, was a sight to behold, and the work done for the rest of the morning was not worth mentioning.
During the lunch hour the school was harangued in short, pithy terms by Speug, and in obedience to his invitation Muirtown Seminary proceeded in a solid mass to the Count's residence, where they gave a volley of cheers. The Count was more gratified than by anything that had happened to him since he came to Muirtown; and throwing up one of the newly repaired windows he made an eloquent speech, in which he referred to Sir Walter Scott and Queen Mary and the Fair Maid of Perth, among other romantic trifles; declared that the fight between the "Pennies" and the Seminary was worthy of the great Napoleon; pronounced Speug to be un brave garcon; expressed his regret that he could not receive the school in his limited apartments, but invited them to cross with him to the Seminary tuck-shop, where he entertained the whole set to Mistress MacWhae's best home-made ginger-beer. He also desired that Mistress Jamieson should come forward to the window with him and bow to the school, while he held her hand—which the Count felt would have been a really interesting tableau. It certainly would have been, but Mistress Jamieson refused to assist in the most decided terms.
"Me stand wi' the Count at an open window, hand in hand wi' him, and bowin', if ye please, to thae blackguard laddies? Na, na; I'm a widow o' good character, and a member o' the Free Kirk, and it would ill set me to play such tricks. But I'll say this for the Count—he behaved handsome; and I'm judgin' the'll no' be another pane o' glass broken in my house so long as the Count is in it." And there never was.