Burr Junior, by George Manville Fenn.
I thought that it was unusual for Manville Fenn to set a novel in a boys' boarding school, since I had become used to exotic settings in Malaysia, or South America, for his tension-filled novels. Here he certainly does not disappoint if it's tension and suspense you are expecting of him. The last few chapters, in particular, are extremely nail-biting, but the book is quite hard to put down at any point.
It is Burr who is telling the story, and from his first day at the school he is friendly with Mercer, who is not good at his school work, but who knows a great deal about natural history, and imparts it to Burr, and of course to the readers as well. There is a gang of other boys who are inclined to bully, and at first they make life misery for Burr and Mercer—but this is soon got over.
Other important figures are Hopley, the gamekeeper; his daughter Polly; the school Cook; Lomax, the school drill-sergeant; Magglin, a ne'er-do-well and poacher; Dr Browne, the headmaster, and Mrs Browne; Rebble and Hasnip, ushers at the school; Burr's mother, and his uncle, Colonel Seaborough; and the local big landowner, General Sir Hawkhurst Rye.
It was a very enjoyable book to transcribe, and I am sure you will enjoy it. NH
BURR JUNIOR, BY GEORGE MANVILLE FENN.
"There'll be such a game directly. Just listen to old Dicksee."
I was very low-spirited, but, as the bright, good-looking lad at my side nudged me with his elbow, I turned from casting my eyes round the great bare oak-panelled room, with its long desks, to the kind of pulpit at the lower end, facing a bigger and more important-looking erection at the upper end, standing upon a broad dais raised a foot above the rest of the room. For this had been the banqueting hall of Meade Place, in the good old times of James the First, when its owner little thought it would ever be the schoolroom of Dr Browne's "Boarding Establishment for Gentlemen's Sons." In fact, there was a broad opening now, with a sliding door, right through the thick wall into the kitchen, so my companion told me, and that I should see the shoulders of mutton slip through there at dinner-time.
So I looked at the lower pulpit, in which sat Mr Rebble, one of the ushers, a lank, pale-faced, haggard man, with a dotting of freckles, light eyebrows, and pale red hair which stood up straight like that upon a clothes-brush.
He was resting his elbows on the desk and wiping his hands one over the other, as if the air was water and he had a piece of soap between his palms. By him was a boy with a book, reading in a highly-pitched voice which did not seem to fit him, being, like his clothes, too small for such a big fellow, with his broad face and forehead all wrinkled up into puckers with the exertion of reading.
"Tchish! tchish! Silence!" said Mr Rebble, giving three stamps on the floor. "Now go on, Dicksee."
"I say, do listen," said the boy by my side. "He isn't well, and I gave him a dose this morning."
"You did?" I said. "You hit him?"
"No, no," said the boy, laughing. "I often do though—a miserable sneak. I gave him a dose of medicine. He had been eating too many of Polly Hopley's cakes. My father is a doctor!" he added importantly.
"Oh!" I said.
"I say, do listen. Did you ever hear such a whine?"
As he spoke, I heard the big, stoutly-built boy give a tremendous sniff, and then go on reading.
"I love Penny Lope—Penny Lope is loved by me."
"Pen-el-o-pe!" cried the usher angrily, as he snatched the book from the boy's hands, closed it, and boxed his ears with it, right and left, over and over again. "You dumkopf!" he shouted; "you muddy-brained ass! you'll never learn anything. You're more trouble than all the rest of the boys put together. There, be off to your seat, and write that piece out twenty-five times, and then learn it by heart."
"Ow, ow, ow! sniff, sniff, snork!"
"Silence, sir, or I'll make the imposition fifty times!"
The howl subsided into a series of subdued sniffs as the big fellow went back to his place, amidst the humming noise made by some fifty boys, who, under the pretence of studying their lessons, kept up conversations, played at odd or even for marbles, or flicked peas at each other across the school.
"Old Reb wouldn't dare to hit him like that if the Doctor was here."
"Your father?" I said.
"No, no—old Swish! Doctor Browne."
A pea struck my companion on the ear, and dropped on the floor.
"All right, Burr," said my neighbour; "did that with a pea-shooter. I owe you one."
"I didn't do it!" I whispered eagerly.
"Of course you didn't. It was that long, thin boy yonder. His name's Burr too. He'll be Burr major now, and you'll be Burr junior."
"Oh!" I said, feeling much relieved.
"You'll have to lick him. Regular old bully. Your name's Frank, isn't it?"
"His name's Eliezer. We call him Eely, because he's such a lanky, thin, snaky chap. I say, his father's a tailor in Cork Street, he's got such lots of clothes in his box. He has a bob-tail coat and black kersey sit-upon-'ems, and a vesky with glass buttons, and all covered with embroidery. Such a dandy!—What's your father?"
I did not answer for a few moments, and he looked at me sharply.
"Dead," I said in a low voice.
"Oh!" said my companion softly too. "I didn't know."
"He was shot—out in India—Chillianwallah," I said.—"Died of his wounds."
"Oh, I am sorry! I wish my father had been there."
"He'd have cured him. There's nobody like him for wounds. But, I say, Chillian what's its name?"
"Chillianwallah," I said.
"Why, what a game! That's where old Lomax was. I remember now."
"Is Lomax one of the boys," I asked wonderingly.
"Yah! no. You saw him last night, when you came in the fly. That big chap who lives at the lodge, and helped lift down your box. He had a shot through him, and nearly had his head cut off with a tully something. He'll tell you. He has a pension, and is our drill-master, and teaches boys riding."
This was interesting, and I felt a desire to know old Lomax.
"What's your mother?" said my companion, breaking in upon my musing.
"A lady," I said proudly.
"So's mine. She's the nicest and best and—" At that moment I heard a loud, deep-throated cough, which was followed by a shuffling and stamping, as I saw all the boys rise in their places.
"Get up—get up," whispered my neighbour. "The Doctor."
I rose in my place, and saw the tall, stout, clerical-looking gentleman I had seen when I reached Meade Place on the previous night, enter by the middle door, and look gravely and smilingly round.
"Good morning, gentlemen," he said. "Good morning, Mr Rebble;" and then he marched solemnly to the pulpit on the dais, took his place, waved his hand, there was a repetition of the rustling and shuffling as the boys reseated themselves, and then the humming murmur of the school recommenced.
"I say, how old are you?" whispered my companion.
"Sixteen—nearly," I replied.
"Well, that is rum. So am I. So's lots of fellows here. Where did you go to school before?"
"Nowhere. Had a private tutor at home."
"Well, you must be a muff."
"To give up a private tutor all to yourself to come to school here."
"Obliged to. Uncle said I should grow into a—"
I stopped short.
"Less talking there," said Mr Rebble.
"Mind your own business," muttered my neighbour. "What did he say you'd grow into?"
"A milksop; and that I must come and rough it among other boys."
"Ha! ha! what a game! You will have to rough it too, here. I say, who's uncle?"
"My uncle, Colonel Seaborough."
"What's he?—a soldier too?"
"Yes; and I'm going to be a soldier by and by."
"Well, you are a lucky one! Wish I had an uncle who said I should be a soldier. I shall have to be a doctor, I suppose."
Just then, the tall, thin boy pointed out to me a few minutes before as Burr major, came across in a bending, undulating way, with an open book in his hand, glanced up and down to see that the Doctor and his lieutenant were both occupied, and then slipped into the seat at our long desk on the other side of my neighbour, who did not give him time to speak, but began rapidly,—
"I say, this new chap says he'll give you such a leathering if you shoot peas at him."
"Eh? Like to see him begin," said the fresh comer, with a contemptuous look at me. "I say, Senna T, you're in for it."
"Old Dicksee says you gave him some stuff last night, and it's made him so bad he can't learn his lessons. He's going to tell the Doctor."
"Gammon! What do you want?"
"Less talking there," said Mr Rebble sharply.
"Hark at old Reb!" whispered the new-comer. "I say, we're going to have a holiday to-day, ain't we?"
"No such luck."
"Oh, but we must! I've written this out. You'll sign, won't you?"
My neighbour snatched a document consisting of about half a dozen lines, and pushed it back.
"He'll keep us in if we do."
"Not he. I know he wants to drive over to Hastings with the girls. Sign, there's a good chap."
"But you haven't signed."
"No. I shall put my name last."
"Yah! Can't catch old birds with chaff, Eely."
"If you call me Eely again, I'll punch your head."
"You sign first, and I'll put my name next."
"Shan't! and if you don't put your name at once, I'll tear up the paper. I don't want a holiday; it was all for you boys."
"Thank-ye," said my neighbour derisively.
"Just you wait till we're out in the field, Jalap, and I'll serve you out for this."
"Burr junior," said a rich, deep, unctuous voice, which seemed to roll through the school, and there was a dead silence.
"Here, you!—get up. Go on."
"Burr junior!" came in a louder, deeper voice.
"He means you," whispered my neighbour.
"Say Adsum," whispered the tall, thin boy, and, on the impulse given, I repeated the Latin word feebly.
"Go up to him," whispered my neighbour, and, pulling my legs out from between the form and the desk, I walked up through the centre opening between the two rows of desks, conscious of tittering and whispering, two or three words reaching my ears, such as "cane," "pickle," "catch it certain."
Then, feeling hot and confused, I found myself on the dais in front of the desk, where the Doctor was looking searchingly at me through his gold-rimmed spectacles. Then, turning himself round, he slowly and ponderously crossed one leg over the other, and waved his hand.
"Come to the side," he said, and feeling more conscious up there on the dais, I moved round, and he took my hand.
"I am glad to welcome you among us, Frank, to join in our curriculum of study, and I hope you will do us all credit. Er—rum! Let me see. Burr—Frank Burr. We have another Burr here, who has stuck among us for some years."
The Doctor paused and looked round with a very fat smile, in the midst of a peculiar silence, till Mr Rebble at the other end said loudly,—
"Ha! ha! Excellent!" and there was now a loud burst of laughter.
I thought that I should not like Mr Rebble, but I saw that the Doctor liked his appreciation of his joke, for he smiled pleasantly, and continued,—
"Let me see. I think we have a pleasant little custom here, not more honoured in the breach than in the observance. Eh, Mr Rebble?"
"Certainly, sir, certainly," said that gentleman, and the Doctor frowned at his leg, as he smoothed it down. But his face cleared directly.
"Er—rum!" he continued, clearing his voice. "Of having a brief cessation from our studies upon the advent of a new boy. Young gentlemen, you may close your books for to-day."
There was a hearty cheer at this, and the Doctor rose, thrust his hand into his breast beside his white shirt-frill, then, waving the other majestically, he turned to me as the cheering ceased.
"Burr junior," he said, "you can return to your seat."
I stepped back, forgetting all about the dais, and fell rather heavily, but sprang up again, scarlet with mortification.
"Not hurt? No? That's right," said the Doctor; and amid a chorus of "Thank you, sir! thank you, sir!" he marched slowly out of the great room, closely followed by Mr Rebble, while I stood, shaken by my fall, and half dazed by the uproar.
How strange it all seemed! I had ridden down the previous day by the Hastings coach, which had left me with my big box at the old inn at Middlehurst. Here the fly had been ordered to take me the remaining ten miles on to the school, where I had arrived just at dusk, and, after a supper of bread and milk, I was shown my bed, one of six in a large room, and made the acquaintance of Mercer, who, after pretty well peppering me with questions, allowed me to go to sleep in peace, till the bell rang at six, when I sprang out of bed, confused and puzzled at finding myself there instead of at home. Then, as the reality forced itself upon me, and I was scowled at by five sleepy boys, all in the ill-humoured state caused by being obliged to get up before they pleased, I hurriedly dressed, thinking that I could never settle down to such a life as that, and wondering what my uncle and my mother would say if I started off, went straight back, and told them I did not mean to stop at school.
Everything looked cheerless and miserable, for there was a thick fog outside, one which had been wafted over from the sea, so that there was no temptation to go out, and, in spite of my low spirits, I was hungry enough to make me long for breakfast.
This was laid for us in the schoolroom, to which the boys flocked, as the big bell on the top of the building rang out again, and here I found that there were two long tables, as I supposed, till I was warned about being careful, when I found that they were not tables, but the double school-desks with the lids of the boys' lockers propped up horizontal.
"And if you don't mind, down they come, and your breakfast goes outside instead of in," said Mercer.
Milk and water and bread and butter, but they were good and plentiful, and though I was disappointed at first, and began thinking of the hot coffee at home, I made a better breakfast than I had expected; and in due course, after a walk round the big building, of which I could see nothing for the chilly fog, the bell rang again, and I had to hurry back into the schoolroom, taking a seat pointed out for me by Mercer, with the result related in the last chapter.
"Here, come along!" cried my new friend: "What a game! You are a good chap. I wish a new boy would come every day. Hooray! old Rebble's off. Bet sixpence he goes down to the river bottom-fishing. He never catches anything. Goes and sits in his spectacles, blinking at his float, and the roach come and give it a bob and are off again long before he strikes. Hi yi yi yi!" he shouted; "here we are again!" and, jumping on to the form and from there to the desk, he bent down, took lightly hold of the sides, threw up his heels, and stood on his head.
"Here, look at old Mercer!" cried a boy.
"Bravo, Senna T!" cried another.
A dictionary flew across the room, struck the amateur acrobat in the back, and fell on the floor, but not much more quickly than my new friend went over backwards, the blow having made him overbalance so that his feet came with a crash on the desk, the ink flew out of two little leaden wells, and the performer rolled off on to the form, and then to the floor, with a crash.
"Here!" he cried, springing up. "Who did that? Give me that book. Oh, I know!" he cried, snatching the little fat dictionary, and turning over the leaves quickly. "'Eely-hezer Burr.' Thanky, I wanted some paper. I'm all over ink. What a jolly mess!"
As he spoke, he tore out three or four leaves, and began to wipe the ink off his jacket.
"I say, Burr," cried the big boy who had read about Penelope, "Mercer's tearing up your dictionary."
"You mind your own business!" cried Mercer, tearing out some more leaves, and then throwing the book at the tale-teller just as the tall, thin boy, who bore the same name as I, came striding up with his face flushed and fists doubled, to plant three or four vigorous blows in Mercer's chest and back.
"How dare you tear my book?" he cried. "Here, you, fat Dicksee, bring it here."
"Thought you meant me to use it," cried Mercer, taking the blows good-humouredly enough. "Oh, I say, don't! you hurt!"
"Mischievous beggar!" said my senior taking the book and marching off.
"Go on! Ask your father to buy you a new one," cried Mercer derisively, as he applied a piece of blotting-paper to one leg of his trousers. "Hiss! Goose!"
"Do you wish me to come back and thrash you, Tom Mercer," said the tall boy, with a lordly manner.
"No, sir, thank-ye, sir; please don't, and I'll never do so no more, sir."
"Miserable beggar," said Burr major. "Here, Dicksee, come down the field and bowl for me. Bring five or six little uns to field."
"Yah! Tailor!" said Mercer, as his bully marched out.
"I'll tell him what you said," cried Dicksee.
"Hullo, Penny loaf! you there? Yes, you'd better tell him. Just you come to me for some physic, and you'll see how I'll serve you."
"Don't ketch me taking any of your stuff again," cried the big, fat, sneering-looking fellow. "I'll tell him, and you'll see."
"Go and tell him then," said Mercer contemptuously. "So he is a tailor, and his father's a tailor. Why, I saw his name on a brass plate in Cork Street."
"So's your father got his name on a brass plate," sneered Dicksee.
"Well, what of that? My father's a professional gentleman. Here, come on, Burr, and I'll show you round. Hooray! the sun's come through the mist. Where's your cap? All right. You'll have to get a square trencher by next Sunday. This way."
He led me out into the big playground, and turned.
"Ain't a bad house, is it? Some big lord used to live here, and Magglin says his father says it was empty for years, and it was sold cheap at last to the Doctor, who only used to have four boys at first."
"Ha, ha!" laughed Mercer; "he calls himself a gardener because he comes here to help dig, but I know: he's a poacher, that's what he is. You ask Hopley."
"But I don't know Hopley," I said, laughing.
"You soon will. He's General Rye's keeper. I buy birds off him to stuff."
"What, geese?" I said, as I recalled that my companion spoke about a goose just before.
"Geese? no. Magpies and jays and hawks. I stuff 'em with tow; I'll show you how. Old Hopley says Magglin's a rank poacher, and first time he catches him on their grounds he'll pull him up before his master, you know. General's a magistrate. But he won't catch him. Magg's too artful. I say, got any money?"
"Yes, I have some," I said.
"That's right. Don't you spend it. You save up same as I am. Magg's got a gun I want to buy of him. He says he won't sell it, but I know better. He will when we offer him enough. I did offer him ten shillings, but he laughed at me. I say!"
"It's such a beauty. Single barrel, with a flint lock, so that it never wants no caps, and it comes out of the stock quite easy, and the barrel unscrews in the middle, and the ramrod too, so that you can put it all in your pocket, and nobody knows that you're carrying a gun."
"But what's the good of a gun here at school?"
"What? Oh, you don't know because it's all new to you. Why, there are hares in the fields, and pheasants in the coppices, and partridges in the hop-gardens, and the rabbits swarm in the hill-sides down toward the sea."
"But you don't shoot!"
"Not much, because I have no gun, only a pistol, and it don't carry straight. I did nearly hit a rabbit, though, with it."
"But can you get away shooting?"
"Can I? Should think I can. We have all sorts of fun down here. Can you fish?"
"I went once," I said, "on the river."
"But you didn't catch anything," said Mercer, grinning.
"No," I said; "I don't think I had a bite."
"Not you. Just you wait a bit, I'll take you fishing. There's the river where old Rebble goes, and the mill-pond where old Martin gives me leave, and a big old hammer pond out in the middle of General Rye's woods where nobody gives me leave, but I go. It's full of great carp and tench and eels big as boa-constrictors."
"Oh, come!" I said.
"I didn't say big boa-constrictors, did I? there's little ones, I daresay. Here we are. That's Magglin—didn't know he was here to-day."
He pointed out a rough, shambling-looking young man down the great kitchen garden into which he had led me. This gentleman was in his coat, and he was apparently busy doing nothing with a hoe, upon which he rested himself, and took off a very ragged fur cap to wipe his brow as we came up, saluting us with a broad grin.
"Hallo, Magg! you here? This is the new boy, Burr."
"Nay," said the man in a harsh, saw-sharpening voice, "think I don't know better than that? That aren't Master Burr."
"No, not that one. This is the new one. This is Burr junior."
"Oh, I see," said the man. "Mornin', Mr Burr juner. Hope I see you well, sir?"
"Oh, he's all right," said Mercer. "Give him a penny to buy a screw of tobacco, Frank."
I gave the required coin, and Mr Magglin spat on it, spun it in the air, caught it, and placed it in his pocket.
"Thank-ye," he said.
"Got any birds for me?"
"Nay, nary one; but I knows of a beauty you'd give your ears to get."
"What is it?" cried Mercer eagerly.
"All bootiful green, with a head as red as carrots."
"Get out! Gammon! Think I don't know better than that? He means a parrot he's seen in its cage."
"Nay, I don't," said the man. "I mean a big woodpecker down in Squire Hawkus Rye's woods."
"Oh, Magg: get it for me!"
"Nay, I dunno as I can. Old Hopley's on the look-out for me, and if I was to shoot that there bird, he'd swear it was a fezzan."
"Perhaps it is," said Mercer, laughing.
"Nay, not it, my lad," said the man, with a sly-looking smile. "If it was a fezzan I shouldn't bring it to you."
"Why not? I should like to stuff it."
"Daresay you would, my lad, but if I did that, somebody would stuff me."
"Ha, ha!" laughed Mercer. "You'd look well in a glass case, Magg."
"Shouldn't look well in prison," said the man, laughing. "Why, what'd become o' the Doctor's taters?"
"Oh, bother the taters. I say, what about that gun, Magg?"
"What about what gun?" said the man softly, as he gave a sharp glance round.
"Get out! You know."
"Whish!" said the man. "Don't you get thinking about no guns. I wouldn't ha' showed it to you if I'd known. Why, if folks knew I had a gun, there'd be no end of bother, so don't you say nothing about it again."
"Well, then, sell it to me. Burr here's going to join me."
The man gave me a quick glance, and shook his head. "I don't sell guns," he said.
"Then will you shoot that woodpecker for me?"
"Nay, I mustn't shoot, they'd say I was a poacher. I'll try and get it for you, though, only it'll be a shilling."
"Can't afford more than ninepence, Magg."
"Ninepence it is then; I don't want to be hard on a young gentleman."
"But if it's all knocked to pieces and covered with blood, I shall only give you sixpence."
"Oh, this'll be all right, sir."
"When shall you shoot it?"
"Ha'n't I told you I aren't going to shoot it?"
"How will you get it, then?"
"Put some salt on its tail," said the man grinning. "Get out! Here, I say, could we catch some tench in the mill-pond to-day?"
"Mebbe yes, mebbe no."
"Well, we're going to try. You have some worms ready for me—a penn'orth."
"A penny. Why, you've just had a penny for nothing."
"All right, master. Going?"
"Yes, I'm showing him round," said Mercer. "Come along, Burry, we'll go and see old Lomax now."
He led the way out of the kitchen garden, and round by a field where the Doctor's Alderney cows were grazing, then through a shrubbery to the back of the thatched cottage I had dimly seen as the fly drove by the previous night.
"Left, right! Three quarters half face. As you never were. Left counter-jumper march! Halt stare at pease!"
All this was shouted by Mercer as we approached the cottage door, and had the effect of bringing out a stiff-looking, sturdy, middle-aged man with a short pipe in his mouth, which he removed, carried one hand to his forehead in a salute, and then stood stiff and erect before us, looking sharply at me.
"Mornin', gentlemen," he said.
"Morning," cried Mercer. "'Tention! Parade for introductions. This is Field-Marshal Commander-in-Chief Drill-master and Riding-master Lomax. This is Burr junior, new boy, come to see you. I say, Lom, he's going to be a soldier. His father was a soldier in India. He was killed at what's-its-name?—Chilly winegar."
"Eh?" cried the old soldier. "Glad to see you, sir. Shake hands, and welcome to your new quarters. Come inside."
"No, not now, I'm showing him round. We'll come another time, and bring you some tobacco, and you shall tell us the story about the fight with the Indian rajahs."
"To be sure I will, lads. Where are you going now?"
"Going? Let's see. Oh, I know. We'll go to Polly Hopley's."
"Ah, I suppose so. You boys are always going to Polly Hopley's. Good-bye."
He shook hands with us, then drew himself up and saluted us ceremoniously, and, as I glanced back, I could see him still standing upright in his erect, military fashion.
"You'll like old As-you-were," said Mercer, as we went on, now along the road. "The Doctor got hold of him cheap, and he does all sorts of things. Cuts and nails the trees, and goes messages to the town. He's a splendid chap to get things for you."
"But may we go right away like this?" I said, as I saw we were now far from the grounds.
"Oh yes, to-day. He's very strict at other times, and we have to get leave when we want to go out, but this is free day, and I want to show you everything because you're new. Nobody showed me anything. I had to find it all out, and I was so jolly miserable at first that I made up my mind to run away and go back home."
"But you did not?" I said eagerly, for, though I felt better now in the interest of meeting fresh people and learning something about the place, I could fully appreciate his words.
"No, I didn't," he said thoughtfully. "You see, I knew I must come to school, and if I ran away from this one, if I hadn't been sent back, I should have been sent back to another one, and there would have been whackings at home, and they would have hurt my mother, who always hated to see me have it, though I always deserved it: father said so. Then there would have been whackings here, and they'd have hurt me, so I made up my mind to stay."
"That was wise," I said, laughing.
"Oh, I don't know," he replied, wrinkling up his face; "the cane only hurts you outside, and it soon goes off, but being miserable hurts you inside, and lasts ever so long. I say, don't you be miserable about coming away from home. You'll soon get over it, and there's lots of things to see. Look there," he cried, stopping at the edge of the road, "you can see the sea here. The doctor will give us leave to go some day, and we shall bathe. There it is. Don't look far off, does it? but it's six miles. But we've got a bathing pool, too. See those woods?"
"Yes," I said, as I gazed over the beautiful expanse of hill and dale, with a valley sweeping right away to the glittering sea.
"Those are the General's, where the pheasants are, and if you look between those fir-trees you can just get a peep of the hammer pond where the big eels are."
"Yes, I can see the water shining in the sun," I said eagerly.
"Yes, that's it; and those fields where you see the tall poles dotted over in threes and fours are—I say, did you ever see hops?"
"Yes, often," I said; "great, long, tight, round sacks piled-up on waggons."
"Yes, that's how they go to market. I mean growing?"
"Those are hops, then, climbing up the poles. That's where the partridges get. Oh, I say, I wish old Magg would sell us that gun. We'd go halves in buying it, and I'd play fair; you should shoot just as often as I did."
"But he will not sell it," I said.
"Oh, he will some day, when he wants some money."
"And what would Doctor Browne do if he knew?"
"Smug it!" said Mercer, with a comical look, "when he knew. Look! see that open ground there with the clump of fir-trees and the long slope of sand going down to that hollow place!"
"Rabbits, and blackberries. Such fine ones when they're ripe! And just beyond there, at the sandy patch at the edge of the wood, snakes!—big ones, too. I'm going to catch one and stuff it."
"But can you?"
"I should think so—badly, you know, but I'm getting better. I had to find all this out that I'm telling you, but perhaps you don't care about it, and want to go back to the cricket-field?"
"No, no," I cried; "I do like it."
"That's right. If we went back we should only have to bowl for old Eely. Everybody has to bowl for him, and he thinks he's such a dabster with the bat, but he's a regular muff. Never carried the bat out in his life. Like hedgehogs?"
"Well, I don't know," I said. "They're so prickly."
"Yes; but they can't help it, poor things. There's lots about here. Wish we could find one now, we'd take it back and hide it in old Eely's bed. I don't know though, it wouldn't be much fun now, because he'd know directly that I did it. I say, you never saw a dog with a hedgehog. Did you?"
"No," I said.
"It's the finest of fun. Piggy rolls himself up tight like a ball, and Nip,—that's Magg's dog, you know,—he tries to open him, and pricks his nose, and dances round him and barks, but it's no good, piggy knows better than to open out. I've had three. Magg gets them for me. He told me for sixpence how he got them."
"And how's that?" I said, eager to become a master in all this woodcraft.
"Why, you catch a hedgehog first."
"Yes," I said, "but how?"
Mercer looked at me, and rubbed his ear.
"Oh, that is only the first one," he said hurriedly.
"But you must know how to catch the first one first."
"Oh, I say, don't argue like that. It is like doing propositions in Euclid. You have to begin with one hedgehog, that's an axiom. Then you take him in your pocket."
"Doesn't it prick?" I said.
"Oh, I don't know. How you keep interrupting! And you go out at night when it's full moon, and then go and sit down on a felled tree right in the middle of an open place in the wood. You get a bit of stick, a rough bit, and take hold of piggy's foot and rub his hind leg with the stick."
"But suppose he curls up," I said.
"Oh, bother! Don't! How am I to tell you? You mustn't let him curl up. You rub his hind leg with the stick, and then he begins to sing."
"Oh, come!" I said, bursting out laughing.
"Well, squeal, then, ever so loud, and the louder he squeals, the harder you must rub."
"But it hurts him."
"Oh, not much. What's a hedgehog that he isn't to be hurt a bit! Boys get hurt pretty tidy here when the Doctor's cross. Well, as soon as he squeals out, all the hedgehogs who hear him come running to see what's the matter, and you get as many as you like, and put 'em in a hutch, but you mustn't keep live things here, only on the sly. I had so many, the Doctor put a stop to all the boys keeping things, rabbits, and white mice, and all. That's why I stuff."
"Because you can keep frogs, and jays, and polecats, and snakes, and anything, and they don't want to be fed."
"What a nice cottage!" I said suddenly, as we came upon a red-brick, red-tiled place, nearly all over ivy.
"Yes, that's Polly Hopley's—and hi! there goes old Hopley."
A man in a closely fitting cap and brown velveteen jacket, who was going down the road, faced round, took a gun from off his shoulder and placed it under his arm.
He was a big, burly, black-whiskered man, with brown face and dark eyes, and he showed his white teeth as he came slowly to meet us.
"Well, Master Mercer?" he said. "Why ain't you joggryfing?"
"Whole holiday. New boy. This is him. Burr junior, this is Bob Hopley, General's keeper. Chuck your cap up in the air, and he'll make it full of shot-holes. He never misses."
"Oh yes, I do," said the keeper, shaking his head; "and don't you do as he says. Charge of powder and shot's too good to be wasted."
"Oh, all right. I say, got anything for me?"
"No, not yet. I did knock over a hawk, but I cut his head off."
"What for? With your knife?"
"No-o-o! Shot. You shall have the next. Don't want a howl, I s'pose?"
"Yes, yes, a white one. Do shoot one for me, there's a good chap."
"Well, p'raps I may. I know where there's a nest."
"Do you? Oh, where?" cried Mercer. "I want to see one, so does he— this chap here."
"Well, it's in the pigeon-cote up agen Dawson's oast-house, only he won't have 'em touched."
"What a shame!"
"Says they kills the young rats and mice. Like to go and see it?"
"Well, I'm going round by Rigg's Spinney, and I'll meet you at the farm gates. Jem Roff'll let you go up if I ask him."
"How long will you be?"
"Hour! Don't forget!"
"Just as if we should!" cried Mercer, as the keeper shouldered his gun again and marched off. "It's rather awkward, though."
"What is?" I said.
"Being friends with Magglin and Bob Hopley too, because they hate each other awfully. But then, you see, it means natural history, don't it?"
He looked at me as if he meant me to say it, so I said, "Yes."
"An hour. What shall we do for an hour? 'Tisn't long enough to go to the hammer pond, nor yet to hunt snakes, because we should get so interested that we should forget to come back. But, I say, would you rather go back to the school field, where the other chaps are, or come back and pick out your garden? We've all got gardens. Or have a game at rounders, or—"
"No, no no," I said. "I like all this. It's all new to me. I was never in the country like this before."
"Then you do like it?"
"That's right. Then you will not mind old Rebble's impositions, and the Doctor being disagreeable, and going at us, nor the boys pitching into you, as they all do—the big ones—when the Doctor's pitched into them. Why, you don't look so miserable now as you did."
"No. It's awful coming away from home, I know, and I do get so tired of learning so many things. You do have to try so much to get to know anything at all. Now, let's see what shall we do for an hour?"
"Go for a walk," I suggested.
"Oh, that's no good, without you're going to do something. I know; we'll go back and make Magg lend us his ferret, and then we'll try for a rabbit."
"Very well," I said eagerly.
"No, that wouldn't do, because his ferret's such a beggar."
"Is he?" I said.
"Yes; he goes into a hole in a bank and comes out somewhere else, far enough off, and you can't find him, or else he goes in and finds a rabbit, and eats him, and then curls up for a sleep, and you waiting all the time. That wouldn't do; there isn't time enough. You want all day for that, and we've only got an hour. Wish I hadn't said we'd go and see the owls."
"Shall we sit down and wait?" I suggested.
"No, no. I can't wait. I never could. It's horrid having to wait. Here, I know. It's lunch-time, and we're here. Let's go into Polly Hopley's and eat cakes and drink ginger-beer till it's time to go."
"Very well," I said, willingly enough, for walking had made me thirsty.
"I haven't got any money, but Polly will trust me."
"I've got some," I ventured to observe.
"Ah, but you mustn't spend that. You've got to help pay for the gun. Come on.—Here, Polly, two bottles of ginger-beer, and sixpenn'orth of bis—I say, got any fresh gingerbread?"
This was to a stoutish, dark-eyed woman of about one-and-twenty, as we entered the cottage, in one of whose windows there was a shelf with a row of bottles of sweets and a glass jar of biscuits.
"Yes, sir, quite new—fresh from Hastings," said the girl eagerly. And she produced a box full of brown, shiny-topped squares.
"Was it some of this old Dicksee had yesterday?" said Mercer.
"Yes, sir. I opened the fresh box for him, and he had four tuppenny bits."
"Then we will not," said my companion sharply. "Let's have biscuits instead."
The biscuits were placed before us, and the keeper's daughter then took a couple of tied-down stone bottles from a shelf.
"I say," cried Mercer, "I didn't introduce you. Burr junior, this is Polly Hopley. Polly, this is—"
"Yes, sir, I know. I heard you tell father," said the woman quickly, as she cut the string.
Out came the opal-looking, bubbling liquid into a grey mug covered with stripes, and then Pop! again, and a mug was filled for my companion, ready for us to nod at each other and take a deep draught of the delicious brewing—that carefully home-made ginger-beer of fifty years ago—so mildly effervescent that it could be preserved in a stone bottle, and its cork held with a string. A very different beverage to the steam-engine-made water fireworks, all wind, fizzle, cayenne pepper, and bang, that is sold now under the name.
"Polly makes this herself on purpose for us," said Mercer importantly. "We boys drink it all."
"And don't always pay for it," said Polly sharply.
I saw Mercer's face change, and I recalled what he had said about credit.
"Why—er—" he began.
"Oh, I don't mean you, sir, and I won't mention any names, but I think young gen'lemen as drinks our ginger-beer ought to pay, and father says so too."
I glanced at Mercer, whose face was now scarlet, and, seeing that he was thinking about what he had said respecting credit, I quietly slipped my hand into my pocket and got hold of a shilling.
"It is beautiful ginger-beer," I said, after another draught.
"Beautiful," said Mercer dismally, but he gave quite a start and then his eyes shone brightly as he glanced at me gratefully, for I had handed the shilling to the keeper's daughter, who took it to a jug on the chimney-piece, dropped it in, and then shook out some half-pence from a cracked glass and gave me my change.
"Here, put your biscuits in your pocket, Burr," cried Mercer, "and we'll go on now."
Saying which, he set the example, finished his ginger-beer, and made the keeper's daughter smile by declaring it was better than ever.
"Glad you like it, sir; and of course you know I didn't mean you, as I've trusted before, and will again, because you always pay."
"Thank-ye. I know whom you mean," he replied. "Come on."
As soon as we were out of sight of the cottage, Mercer laid an arm on my shoulder.
"I can't say what I want to," he said quickly, "but I liked that, and I won't ever forget it. If ever old Eely hits you, I'll go at him, see if I don't, and I don't care how hard he knocks me about, and if ever I can do anything for you, to save you from a caning, I will, or from any other trouble. You see if I don't. I like you, Burr junior, that I do, and—and do come along, or we shall be late."
"What a fuss about nothing!" I thought to myself, as we went on, down a beautiful lane, with tempting-looking woods on either side, and fox-gloves on the banks, and other wild-flowers full of attractions to me as a town boy. There was a delicious scent, too, in the air, which I had yet to learn was from the young shoots of the fir-trees, growing warm in the sunshine.
I had made no boy friendships up to then, and, as I glanced sideways at the pleasant, frank face of the lad walking quickly by me, just at a time when I had been oppressed by the loneliness of my position, fresh from home and among strangers, a strong feeling of liking for him began to spring up, and with it forgetfulness of the misery I had suffered.
"Hi! look! there he goes," cried Mercer just then, and he pointed up into an oak tree.
"What is it?" I said excitedly.
"He's gone now; wait a minute, and you'll soon see another. There he is—listen."
He held up his hand, and I stood all attention, but there was no sound for a few minutes. Then from out of the woods came plainly.
Chop chop, chop chop.
"I can't see him," I said. "Some one's cutting down a tree."
Mercer burst into a roar of laughter.
"Oh, I say, you are a Cockney!" he cried. "Cutting down a tree! Why, you don't seem to know anything about the country."
"Well," I rejoined rather warmly, "that isn't my fault. I've always lived in London."
"Among the fogs and blacks. Never mind, you'll soon learn it all. I did. Wish I could learn my Latin and mathicks half as fast. That isn't anybody cutting wood; it's a squirrel."
"Yes; there he goes. He's coming this way. You watch him. He's cross, because he sees us. There, what did I say?"
I looked in the direction he pointed out, and saw the leaves moving. Then there was a rustle, and the little brown and white animal leaped from bough to bough, till I saw it plainly on a great grey and green mossy bough of a beech tree, not thirty feet away, where it stood twisting and jerking its beautiful feathery tail from side to side, and then, as if scolding us, it began to make the sounds I had before heard—Chop, chop, chop, chop, wonderfully like the blows of an axe falling on wood.
"Wonder whether I could hit him," cried Mercer, picking up a stone.
"No, no, don't! I want to look at him."
"There's lots about here, and they get no end of the nuts in the autumn. But come along."
We soon left the squirrel behind, and Mercer stopped again, in a shady part of the lane.
"Hear that," he said, as a loud chizz chizz chizz came from a dry sandy spot, where the sun shone strongly.
"Yes, and I know what it is," I cried triumphantly. "That's a cricket escaped from the kitchen fireplace."
"It's a cricket," he said, "but it's a field one. You don't know what that is, though," he continued, as a queer sound saluted my ears,—a low, dull whirring, rising and falling, sometimes nearer, sometimes distant, till it died right away.
"Now then, what is it?" he cried.
"Knife-grinder," I said; "you'll hear the blade screech on the stone directly."
"Wrong. That's Dame Durden with her spinning-wheel."
"Ah, well, I knew it was a wheel sound. Is there a cottage in there?"
"No," he said, laughing again; "it's a bird."
"It is. It is a night-jar. They make that noise in their throats, and you can see them of a night, flying round and round the trees, like great swallows, catching the moths."
I looked hard at him.
"Don't you begin cramming me, because, if you do, I shall try a few London tales on you."
"There's an old unbeliever for you. I'm not joking you; I never do that sort of thing. It is a bird really."
"Show it to me then."
"I can't. He's sitting somewhere on a big branch, long way up, and you can't find them because they look so like the bark of the tree, and you don't know where the sound comes from. They're just like the corn-crakes."
"I've read about corn-crakes," I said.
"Well, there's plenty here. You wait till night, and I'll open our bedroom window, and you can hear them craking away down in the meadows. You never can tell whereabouts they are, though, and you very seldom see them. They're light brown birds."
We were walking on now, and twice over he stopped, smiling at me, so that I could listen to the night-jars, making their whirring noise in the wood.
"Now, was I cramming you?" he said.
"No, and I will not doubt you again. Why, what a lot you know about country things!"
"Not I. That's nothing. You soon pick up all that. Ever hear a nightingale?"
"No, I don't think so."
"Then you haven't. You'll hear them to-night, if it's fine, singing away in the copses, and answering one another for miles round."
"Why, this must be a beautiful place, then?"
"I should think it is—it's lovely. I don't mean the school; I hate that, and the way they bore you over the lessons, and the more stupid you are, the harder they are upon you. I'm always catching it. 'Tain't my fault I'm so stupid."
I looked at him sharply, for he seemed to me to be crammed full of knowledge.
"The Doctor told me one day I was a miserable young idiot, and that I thought about nothing but birds and butterflies. Can't help it. I like to. I say, we'll go egging as soon as we've seen the owls. Wonder whether I can get an owl's egg for my collection. I've got two night-jars'."
"Out of the nest?"
"They don't make any nest; I found them just as they were laid on some chips, where they were cutting down and trimming young trees for hop-poles. Such beauties! But come along. Yes, he said I was a young idiot, but father don't mind my wanting to collect things. He likes natural history, and mamma collects plants, and names them. She can tell you the names of all the flowers you pass by, and—whisht—snake!"
"Only gone across here," said my companion, pointing to a winding track in the dusty road, showing where the reptile must have crossed from one side to the other.
"Which way did he go?" I said; "let's hunt him."
"No good," said my companion quietly. "He's off down some hole long enough ago. Never mind him; I can show you plenty of snakes in the woods, and adders too."
"They sting, don't they?" I said.
"They do. Adders or vipers are poisonous."
"Yes, but they don't sting; they bite. They've got poisoned fangs. You can see an adder along here sometimes. Perhaps we shall see one to-day, warming himself in the sun."
But we did not, for a few minutes later we approached a swing gate, just as the keeper came round a curve in the opposite direction.
"Here you are, then," he said, "just right. Farmer Dawson's gone off to market, and so we shan't have to ask leave. Come on, and let's see if we can find Jem Roff."
He pushed open the gate, and we went along a cart track for some distance, and then on through one of the hop-gardens, with its tall poles draped with the climbing rough-leaved vines, some of which had reached over and joined hands with their fellows, to make loops and festoons, all beautiful to my town-bred eyes, as was the glimpse I caught of a long, low old English farmhouse and garden, with a row of bee-hives, as we went round a great yard surrounded by buildings— stables, barns, sheds, and cow-houses, with at one corner four tall towers, looking like blunt steeples with the tops cut off to accommodate as many large wooden cowls.
"What are they?" I asked.
"Oast-houses, where they dry the hops over a fire on horse-hair sheets," said Mercer. "Look! that's the pigeon-cote," he continued, pointing to three rows of holes cut in the woodwork which connected the brick towers. "The owl's nest's in one of those."
Just then a middle-aged man, with a very broad smile upon his face, and a fork in his hand, came up.
"Here, Jem," said the keeper, "the young gentlemen want to see the owl's nest."
The smile departed from the man's face, which he wiped all over with one hand, as he frowned and shook his head.
"Nay, nay," he said. "The master's very 'tickler 'bout them howls. Why, if I was to kill one, he'd 'most kill me."
"The young gents won't hurt 'em, Jem."
"Nay, but they'd be wanting to take eggs, or young ones, or suthin'."
"Well, I should like one egg," said Mercer.
"Ah, I thowt so! Nay, you mustn't goo."
"Oh yes, let us go," said Mercer. "There, I won't touch an egg."
"An' you won't touch the birds?"
"Nor him neither."
"Oh, I won't touch them," I said eagerly.
"You see the master says they do no end of good, killing the mice and young rats."
"And I say they do no end of mischief, killing the young partridges and fezzans and hares," said the keeper. "Better not let me get a sight o' one down our woods."
The man wiped his face again with his hand, and looked at us both attentively.
"Young master here said he'd stooff a magpie for me if you shot one, Bob Hopley."
"So I will," said Mercer, "if Mr Hopley shoots one for you."
"That's a bargain then," said the man, rummaging in his pocket, after sticking the fork in the ground. "Here, this way," he continued, as he drew out a bright key. "Coming, Bob?"
"No, I don't want to see owls, 'less they're nailed on my shed door."
He seated himself on the edge of a great hay-rack, and we followed the farmer's man through a door into the dark interior of one of the oast-houses, where we looked up to see the light coming in through the opening at the side of the cowl, and then followed Jem up some steps into a broad loft, at one corner of which was a short ladder leading up to a trap-door in the floor overhead.
"Mind your heads, young gents, ceiling's pretty low."
We had already found that out by having our caps scraped by a rough beam under which we passed.
"Now then, go up the ladder and push the trap-door open gently, so as not to frighten 'em. Turn the door right over, and let it down by the staple so as it lies on the floor. 'Tain't dark; plenty o' light comes through the pigeon-holes."
"Haven't you got any pigeons now, Jem Roff?"
"No, nor don't want none. Up wi' ye, and let me get back to my work."
Mercer needed no further invitation, and, followed closely by me, he crossed to the corner where the ladder stood, climbed up, thrust the trap-door over, and disappeared—head—shoulders—body—legs.
Then I climbed too, and found myself in a dirty, garret-like place, lit by the rays falling through about a score of pigeon-holes.
For a few moments the place was dim, and I could hardly make out anything, but very soon after my eyes grew accustomed to the half light, and I was ready to join in Mercer's admiration as he cried,—"Isn't he a beauty!"
For we were looking where, in one corner, sitting bolt upright, with his eyes half closed, there was a fine young owl, just fully fledged and fit to fly, while nothing could be more beautiful than his snow-white, flossy breast, and the buff colour of his back, all dotted over with grey, and beautifully-formed dots.
"Oh, shouldn't I like him to stuff!" cried Mercer. "He'll never look so clean and beautiful again."
"But what's that?" I cried, pointing at a hideous-looking goblin-like creature, with a great head, whose bare skin was tufted with patches of white down. Its eyes were enormous, but nearly covered by a nasty-looking skin, which seemed to be stretched over them. Projecting beneath was an ugly great beak, and its nearly naked body, beneath the toppling head and weak neck, was swollen and bloated up as if it would crack at a touch. Altogether it was as disgusting a looking object as it was possible to imagine.
"That's his young brother," cried Mercer, laughing.
"Young nonsense! It must be a very, very old owl that has lost all its feathers."
"Not it. That chap's somewhere about a fortnight old; and look there, you can see an egg in the nest, too. Shouldn't I like it!"
"Then it's the nest belonging to three pairs of owls?" I said.
"No. That's the way they do—hatch one egg at a time. They all belong to the same pair."
I felt a little incredulous, but my attention was taken up then by a semicircle of little animals arranged about two feet from the nesting-place.
"Why, they're all big mice," I said.
"No; nearly all young rats," said Mercer, counting. "Twenty-two," he cried, "and all fresh. Why, they must have been caught last night. That's a fine mouse," he cried, taking one up by its tail.
"Why, that must be a young rat," I said. "That little one's a mouse."
"No; this is a field mouse. Look at his long tail and long ears. The rats have got shorter, thicker tails, and look thicker altogether."
"Now then, are you young gents a-coming down?" shouted Jem.
"Yes. All right. Directly. Oh, isn't that fellow a beauty!" he continued, throwing down the mouse he had lifted back into its place in the owls' larder. "I say, don't the old ones keep up a good supply!"
A second summons from the man made us prepare to descend, the full-grown owl making no effort to escape, but blinking at us, and making a soft, hissing noise. The goblin-looking younger one, however, gaped widely, and seemed to tumble over backwards from the weight of its head. It was so deplorable and old-looking a creature that it seemed impossible that it could ever grow into a soft, thickly feathered bird like the other, and I said so.
"Oh, but it will," said Mercer; "all birds that I know of, except ducks and chickens and geese, are horridly ugly till they are fledged. Young thrushes and rooks are nasty-looking, big-eyed, naked things at first. There: you go on down."
I descended through the trap-door, and he followed, the man looking at us searchingly, as if he had not much faith in our honesty when face to face with such temptations as owls' eggs, but his look was only momentary, and he took it for granted that we had kept our word.
"Where are the old birds, Jem?" said my companion.
"Oh, right away somewhere in the woods, asleep. Want to see them?"
"Then you must come at night, and you'll see these young ones sitting at one of the holes giving a hiss now and then for the old birds to come and feed them, and every now and then one of them flies up."
"Yes, I know," said Mercer, "so still and softly that you can't hear the wings. But I should like that egg."
"Then you had better ask the master, and see what he says."
"Well, my lads," cried Hopley, in his bluff, deep voice, "seen the owls?"
"Yes; and now, I say, Bob Hopley, you'll let us go through the big beech-wood, and round by the hammer pond?"
"What for?" said the keeper.
"It's holiday to-day, and I want to show this chap, our new boy, round."
"What! to teach him mischief like you know?"
"Get out. I don't do any mischief. You might let us go."
"Not my wood, it's master's."
"Well, he wouldn't mind."
"And I've got young fezzans in coops all about the place."
"Well, we don't want the pheasants."
"I should think not, indeed; and just you look here: I see you've got that chap Magglin up at work in your garden again; you just tell him from me that if ever I see him in our woods, I'll give him a peppering with small shot."
"You carry your impudent messages yourself, or tell the Doctor," said Mercer sharply.
"What?" cried the keeper, scowling at us.
"I say, you take your impudent messages yourself. You know you daren't shoot at him."
"Oh, daren't I? I'll let him see."
"It's against the law, and your master's a magistrate. You know you daren't. What would he say?"
The keeper raised his gun with both hands, breathed on the mottled walnut-wood stock, and began to polish it with the sleeve of his velveteen jacket. Then he looked furtively at Jem Roff, then at me, and lastly at Mercer, before letting the gun fall in the hollow of his arm, and taking off his cap to give his head a scratch, while a grim smile began to play about his lips.
"You've got me there, youngster," he said slowly, and Jem began to chuckle.
"Of course I have," said Mercer confidently. "Besides, what's that got to do with me?"
"Why, he's a friend of yours."
"That I'm sure he's not. He's a nasty, mean beggar, who makes me pay ever so much for everything he does for me. You ask him," continued Mercer, giving his head a side wag at me, "if only this morning he didn't make me give him twopence for a pen'orth of worms."
"Yes, that he did," I said, coming to my companion's help.
"Humph!" grunted the keeper. "Well, youngsters, never you mind that, you pay him, and keep him at a distance. He's no good to nobody, and I wonder at Doctor Browne, as teaches young gents to be gents, should keep such a bad un about his place. He's a rank poacher, that's what he is, and there ain't nothing worse than a poacher, is there, Jem Roff?"
"Thief," said that gentleman.
"Thief? I don't know so much about that. Thieves don't go thieving with loaded guns to shoot keepers, do they?"
"Well, no," said Jem.
"Of course they don't, so that's what I say—there aren't nothing worse than a poacher, and don't you young gents have anything to do with him, or, as sure as you stand there, he'll get you into some scrape."
"Who's going to have anything to do with him?" cried Mercer pettishly.
"Why, you are, sir."
"I only buy a bird of him, sometimes, to stuff."
"Yes, birds he's shot on our grounds, I'll be bound, or else trapped ones."
"Well, they're no good, and you never shoot anything for me. P'r'aps he is a bad one, but if I pay him, he is civil. He wouldn't refuse to let two fellows go through the big woods."
"Thought you was going fishing."
"Not till this evening, after tea."
"Where are you going?"
"Down by the mill."
"Wouldn't like to try after a big carp, I s'pose, or one of our old perch?"
"Wouldn't like!" cried Mercer excitedly.
"No, I thought you wouldn't," said the keeper. "There, I must be off."
"Oh, I say, Bob Hopley, do give us leave."
"To have an hour or two in the hammer pond. There's a good chap, do!"
"The master mightn't like it. Not as he ever said I wasn't to let any one fish."
"Then let's go."
"No, my lads, I'm not going to give you leave," said the keeper, with a twinkle in his eyes; "but there's a couple o' rods and lines all right, under the thatch of the boat-house."
"Yes, Bob, but what about bait?"
"Oh, I don't know 'bout bait. P'r'aps there's some big worms in the moss in that old tin pot in the corner."
"Oh, Bob!" cried Mercer excitedly, while I felt my heart beat heavily.
"Yes, now I come to think of it, there is some worms in that tin pot, as I got to try for an eel or two."
"Then we may go?"
"Nay, nay, don't you be in a hurry. It won't do. Why, if I was to let you two go, you might catch some fish, a big carp, or a perch, or one of they big eels."
"Yes, of course we might."
"And if you did, you'd go right back to the school and tell young Magglin, and he'd be setting night lines by the score all over the pond."
"No; honour! We'll never say a word to him!" we cried.
"Then you'll tell all your schoolmates, and that big long hop-pole chap, what's his name?"
"Burr major," said Mercer eagerly.
"And that big fat-faced boy?"
"Yes, that's him, and I'll give him Dicksee if he chucks stones at my Polly's hens. We shall be having 'em lay eggs with the shells broke."
"Oh, nonsense, Bob! We won't tell."
"And them two, and all the others coming and wanting leave to go fishing too."
"No, no, I tell you," cried Mercer, but the keeper, with a malicious twinkle in his eyes, kept on without heeding him.
"And half of 'em'll be falling in, and t'other half tumble after 'em to pull 'em out, and the whole school getting drowned, and then, what would the Doctor say?"
"I say, Jem Roff, just hark at him!" cried Mercer impatiently.
"Oh, if you don't want to hear me talk, I can keep my mouth shut. Good morning."
He nodded shortly, and, shouldering his gun, marched off.
"Oh, I say, isn't he provoking? and he never gave us leave.—Bob!"
But the keeper strode on without turning his head, and Mercer stood wrinkling up his forehead, the picture of despair.
"And there are such lots of fish in that pond," he cried, "and I did want to show my friend here, Jem Roff."
"Well, why don't you go, then? He's only teasing you."
"Think so," cried my companion, brightening up.
"Why, didn't he tell you where the rods and lines were, and the worms? You go on and fish. I should."
"You would, Jem?"
"But there won't be time before dinner now," said Mercer thoughtfully. "I say, are you hungry?"
"Not very," I said, "and I've got some biscuits left."
"Then come on," cried Mercer. "Don't tell him weave gone, Jem, and I will stuff that mag for you splendidly, see if I don't."
"I shan't see him, my lad. There, off you go."
"Yes: come on!" cried Mercer excitedly; "and—I say, Jem, lend us a basket."
"To put the fish in?"
"You go and ketch 'em first, lad, and by and by I'll come round that way with one under my arm, and you might give a fellow an eel, if you get one."
"You shall have all the eels, Jem."
"Thank-ye. Then look here! you bait one line with the biggest worms you can find, and do you know the penstock?"
"What, down in the deep corner, under the trees?"
"Yes; it's ten foot deep there. You fish right on the bottom, in that corner, and you'll have some sport."
"Hallo!" cried Mercer, laughing. "I say, Burr, junior, hark at him. How does he know? I say, Jem, how many eels have you caught there, eh?"
"You go and begin," said the man, with a dry laugh. "I won't forget about the basket."
"Nor I about the eels. Come on," cried Mercer. "Here, look sharp; let's run!"
He caught hold of my hand, raced me through the hop-garden, and out into the lane.
"Now, down here," he said, as we reached a stile. "We can get across this field, and then into the woods, and—quick, do as I do!"
As he spoke, he dropped down on his knees, and began hunting about at the bottom of the hedge, while I made clumsy efforts to do the same.
"What is it?" I said eagerly.
"Pretend it's a snake. Can't you see?"
"There's Eely Burr and old Dicksee coming down the lane, and they'll want to come too. Hist! don't look. Lie down; p'r'aps they haven't seen us, and they'll go by."
"But it's all stinging nettles," I said.
"What of that? Here, this way; they won't sting if you go down hard."
And, throwing himself into a great bed of the venomous weeds, he lay perfectly still, and I was obliged to follow suit, but not without suffering two or three stings.
DOWN BY THE PENSTOCK.
It seemed a long time before we heard anything, but at last there were steps and voices which soon became plain, and, to my surprise, I found that they were talking about me.
"Oh, he can't fight, Dicksy," said one voice, which I recognised as the tall boy's—my namesake. "Those London chaps are all talk and no do. I shall give him a licking first chance, just to tame him down, and then you'd better have a go at him."
"You think he can't fight, then?"
"Tchah! not he. You can lick him with one hand."
"Then I will," said Dicksee. "I wonder where he went."
"Off with that old Senna T-pot," said Burr major scornfully. "He's taken him with him to pick snails and frogs—an idiot! I hate that chap, Dicksy, he's a beast."
"Yes, that he is."
"You can't shake hands with him, because you never know what he's touched last. I think the Doctor ought to be more particular about the sort of boys he—mumble—hum—hum hum hum!"
The buzzing of a humble-bee, and then silence.
"Ck!" ejaculated Mercer, uttering a stifled laugh. "Oh, I say, what a game, and us hearing every word. Thinks the Doctor ought to be more particular what sort of boys he has in the school. I suppose that's meant for me. Well, my father is a gentleman, and could set his to make him a pair of trousers if he liked. Can't shake hands with me, can't he? Well, who wants him to? I wish I could fight, I'd make him smell my hands—my fists. He'd know then what they'd touched. But he can fight, and licked me horrid. Lie still yet, or they'll see us get up; I thought they were in the cricket-field. Tired, I suppose. Such a fuss about making your hands a bit dirty. Daresay I keep 'em as clean as he does his. I say, got stung?"
"A little," I said.
"Never mind; dock's the thing to cure that. All right. Gone. Now then, over the stile, and do as I do."
He crept over the stile, and into the field, and began to run down beside the hedge in a stooping position, while I followed suit, and we did not rise up till we gained the shelter of the trees.
"There we are! This is the beginning of the woods. Oh, it's such a place!"
"You've been before, then?" I said, as we began to wind in and out among large beech-trees, whose smooth grey trunks were spotted with creamy and green moss.
"Lots of times. I go everywhere when I can get away. It's a famous place here for moths. There's old Dame Durden again. This way—now down here; we shall soon be there."
I followed him for about a quarter of an hour through the dim, mossy glades of the grand old wood, till all at once it grew lighter, and we stepped out beside a broad sheet of water dotted with lilies and patches of rush and reed, while about fifty yards farther along the bank of the broad pool there was a roughly-thatched boat-house, with a mossy old punt moored to one of the posts by a rusty chain.
"Now, then, what do you think of this, eh?" said Mercer.
I looked round at the smooth sheet of water glistening in the bright sunshine, completely shut in by giant old trees whose great branches hung down over the sides and even dipped their ends and seemed to be repeated in the mirror-like surface. Here I could see silvery lily-blossoms, and there others of gold floating like cups amongst the broad round leaves, and, turning from the beautiful picture to my companion, I could only say two words:
"I should think it is," he cried. "We two are going to have no end of fun together. You don't mind the other boys bullying you, and old Reb snarling and finding fault, and the Doctor boxing your ears with your books, when you've got places like this to come to. Hi! look at the old moorhen, there, with her young ones," and he pointed to a curious-looking bird swimming about and flicking its black and white tail, as it went in and out among the rushes growing in the water, with six little sooty-looking, downy young ones swimming after it. "Ever see one of them before?"
"No," I said. "There's another over there too."
"No, it isn't; that's a bald coot. It's got a white shield on the top of its head, and the moorhen's got a red one like sealing-wax. Hi! look at that!"
For all of a sudden there was a rush and splash close to the reeds, and the moorhen and five young ones went through the water with a dash to hide among the reeds.
"Know what that was?"
"They saw us, and were frightened. Or did some one throw a big stone?"
"There's no one to throw big stones here. That was Mr Jack."
"Well, did he throw stones?" I said wonderingly.
"No! What a fellow you are! A jack—a pike—a big fish—took one of the young moorhens for his dinner."
"Why, I thought pike lived on fish," I cried.
"They live on anything. I've seen them swallow young ducks and water-rats and frogs—anything they can get. We'll come and set a trimmer for that gentleman some day."
"I suppose I'm very stupid," I said; "but I've always lived in London, and have very seldom been in the country. I don't know anything about birds and fish."
"You soon will. There's always something to see here. Herons come sometimes, but they don't stop, because it's too deep for them to wade except in one place; and there's a hawk's nest over yonder in an old fir-tree, but Bob Hopley shot the old birds, and you can see 'em nailed up against his lodge. There was a magpie's nest, too, up in a big elm tree not far off; but never mind them now. Let's catch some—Hist! look there. See 'em?"
"No," I said, looking down into the water where he pointed.
"Come here. Lie down flat, and slowly peep over the bank through that grass. Go softly, or you'll frighten them off. Then look down."
I did as he told me, and as I looked down into the clear, deep water, that looked almost black from its depth, I could see quite a shoal of fish, with their sides barred with dark stripes, sailing slowly about between me and the dead leaves and rotten branches which strewed the bottom of the pool.
"Yes," I whispered; "perch, aren't they?"
"Why, I thought you knew nothing about fish."
"I've seen pictures of them in books," I said, "of course."
"Yes, perch, all but that black, soft-looking chap close to the bottom. He's a tench. But come on, and let's get the rods."
He led the way to the boat-house, a green strip of coarse grass about five feet wide leading to the rough building, and Mercer looked longingly at the boat, which was half full of water.
"We'll try her some day," he said; "but she seems very leaky. Here we are."
As he spoke, he took a couple of rough-looking, unjointed rods from where they were laid across some pegs driven into the side of the building just below the thatch eaves.
"All right," he said, examining the stout, strong silk lines twisted lightly about them, and the hooks stuck in pieces of cork which were bound on to the butts of the rods. "Now, then, come for the worms."
He leaned the rods up against the roof of the boat-house, and led me into the open-sided building, where, as described by the keeper, we found an old watering-pot half full of moss, and in this damp moss, and below it, an abundance of fresh, lively-looking worms.
"All right. Now for some fish. This way. Take your rod, I'll carry the pot. That's where we're going."
He pointed to where the pool narrowed, and ran up among the trees almost to a point, where I could see some woodwork, and a post standing up in the middle, with a series of holes pierced through it, and as we walked round by the grassy margin which led to the spot,—
"There, that's the place," cried Mercer. "That's the penstock."
"And what's a penstock."
"Don't you see. They pull up that post, and poke a peg in one of those holes, and that keeps it open, so as the water can run out down that gully behind there through the wood. It's to empty the pond. There used to be hundreds of years ago a great forge there, and the water turned a wheel to work the big hammers when they used to dig iron here, and melt it with charcoal. But never mind that, I want to catch some fish. Now, then, walk out along that woodwork. There's just room for us both on the top of the penstock, and we'll fish from there. Mind how you go, for it's precious deep."
It looked ugly, and the old oak beams and piles were moist, and nearly covered with moss; but I stepped out, and reached the little platform through which the upright post ran, and turned round to look for my companion, who was by my side directly after.
"There," he said; "there isn't too much room."
"Shall I go and fish from the bank?" I said.
"Oh no, we'll manage. Don't talk loud, only whisper, and don't move about. I don't believe that fishes can hear all the same. There," he added, as he baited my hook, "that's old Magglin's way. Let's see, are you deep enough. Yes, that will do. Throw in."
I dropped in my line, Mercer followed suit, and then, in the midst of the profound stillness of the lonely place, we stood on our little square platform, leaning against the post, watching the white tops of the cork floats, and waiting.
"As you've been fishing before, you know what to do," whispered Mercer; "only don't be in a hurry, give 'em plenty of time, and don't strike till they take your float right down."
Half an hour passed away, and my attention began to be drawn from my float to watch the birds that sailed over the pool, or the swallows that skimmed it in search of flies.
"Not deep enough," said Mercer suddenly, and, taking out his line, he adjusted the float higher up, and I followed his example.
Then we began to fish again; but with no better result, and I looked round at Mercer.
"Oh, it's no use to be in a hurry," he said. "Sometimes they won't bite, and then you have to wait till they will. But look, something's at mine."
I looked at his float, which had given a slight bob, and then another; but that was all.
"Off again. Didn't want worms," he said; "wants paste."
There was another long pause.
"Not deep enough," said Mercer again. "Ought to have plumbed the depth."
He altered his float, and I did the same, and we compared them to see that they were about alike, and the fishing went on, till my companion decided that we ought to have fresh worms, and selected a fine fresh one for my hook, and one for his own before throwing the old ones out into the water.
"Well, now," he cried, "look at that!"
I was already looking, for before the old baits had gone down many inches, we saw them both seized by largish fish, which seemed to dart out of some lilies a short distance to our left.
"What are you going to do?" I said.
"Wait a minute and I'll show you," he whispered, laughing, and after attaching the bait, he brought down the floats till they were only about a foot away from the hooks. "Now then, do as I do. Throw your line out as near as you can to those floating leaves."
He threw his own very cleverly, so that the bait dropped into the water with hardly a splash, and I followed his example.
"Too far," he said, as my bait dropped on to a lily leaf, but the weight of the shot drew it slowly off the dark green leaf, and it glided into the water.
"I've got a bite," said Mercer, in an excited whisper. "Hi, look out! Strike! strike!" he cried, for at that moment the white top of my float descended suddenly, rose again and then began to glide in a sloping direction along the edge of the lily bed.
I gave the rod a sharp, upward motion, and a thrill ran up my arm, as I felt the line tighten, and a curious tugging commence.
"Hurrah! you've got him. Don't let him go into the weeds, or you'll lose it. Keep your rod up, and you'll have the gentleman."
I heard all his instructions, but in the flurry of holding my first fish I did nothing but what, as the rod and line were both strong, was for the best. That is to say, I held my rod with both hands, and kept it nearly upright, while the fish I had hooked darted here and there, and tried vainly to make a dive down for the bottom.
"It's all right," said Mercer breathlessly. "It's a big one, and you must have him. Don't hurry."
"Is it very big?" I whispered excitedly.
"I think it is—over a pound, I should say. Let him get tired, or he'll break away. Ah, it's of no use, you're caught fast, old gentleman, whatever you are. It's a big carp or a tench. I think it's a carp, it's so strong."
The struggle went on for fully five minutes before the fish gave in.
"Now we've got to land it," said Mercer. "Can't do it here, or he'll break away. I know. Give me your rod to hold. That's it. Now you go back, and I'll pass it to you."
He laid his own tackle down, and I walked carefully along the narrow woodwork, back to the shore, while he drew the fish round, and then reached toward me, till I could catch hold of the rod and feel the fish still feebly struggling.
The next minute Mercer was by my side, the fish was drawn in close up amongst the sedge growing on the bank. My companion went down flat, reached a hand into the water, and scooped out my capture, which lay now flapping feebly in all the glory of its golden scale armour, a short, thick, broad-backed carp.
"There," cried Mercer, "didn't I tell you this was a grand place? Why, it must be a two-pounder;" and I stood gloating over the vividly-bright colour of my capture, while Mercer knelt down, took out the hook, and finally deposited the fish in a hollow, and covered it with fern fronds.
"Look! look!" I cried just then.
"Oh, bother! Why, there's one on," said Mercer. "Here, give me your rod;" and he stepped quickly out on to the penstock, and made a cast with my line, trying to throw it over the top part of his own rod, which was slowly sailing away, floating on the water with a curious motion going on at the end, which kept diving down, as if something was trying to draw it under water.
It was all plain enough: a fish had hooked itself, and at the first tug, the light bamboo rod had glided off the penstock, to act as a big, long float, for the cork was deep down somewhere out of sight.
I followed on to the penstock, and stood by as cast after cast was made, always cleverly over the rod, but the hook glided back on being drawn without taking hold.
It was plain enough that in a few minutes the rod would be drawn out of reach, when Mercer made a more lucky cast, for in drawing back, the hook had caught a part of the other line, and directly after there was a steady tightening.
"Hah!" ejaculated Mercer, and he drew in steadily till his own rod was within reach, and I lay down, leaned out as far as I could, and strained to reach it.
"Take care. Hold tight. It's horrid deep here. Mind, or you'll be in."
But I was holding tightly by part of the woodwork, and, after a few more efforts, I touched the butt of the rod with the tips of my fingers, pushing it away, for it to rise again right into my hand, and I rose with it, safe.
"Give it to me. Take yours," cried Mercer, when the exchange was made, and I saw his face light up as he began to play a good-sized fish, but with my hook still attached to his line.
"It's a big one," he panted, as the struggle went on, with, the fish fighting now to reach the water-lilies, but without success. "That wouldn't do," he cried. "If he once got in there, he'd wind the weeds about the line, and break away."
So, by steady force, the fish was led back, and again I went ashore first, took Mercer's rod, and held it while he scooped out, and threw high our second capture, which proved to be another carp, nearly, but not quite so big as mine.
We were soon fishing again from our old place, but without the slightest success now, the struggles with our golden prisoners having apparently scared away all the other fish.
"This won't do," said Mercer at last; "we shall have to try somewhere else. Here, I forgot all about Jem Roff; and look at 'em."
"Look at what?"
"Why, the eels. Can't you see them?"
"Why, look at those bubbles coming up. That's eels at work stirring up the mud at the bottom, or coming out of their holes. We'll soon talk to them."
His way of talking to the eels was to raise the floats so high, that, after trying several times, it became evident that he had adjusted the depth so that the bait touched the ground, and the floats lay half over on their sides.
"Now then," he said, after examining the worms, "we ought to catch old Jem's supper pretty soon. Throw in there, near me."
I did as I was told, and the patient waiting began again, with changes of baits and moves in fresh positions, but without result, and I was beginning to get rather tired and hungry, when my companion said dolefully,—
"Don't seem to bite. They won't begin till it's nearly dusk, and we shall have to go back before very long, for we must have some tea. Wonder whether cook'll give us some meat? I know: we'll get some eggs of Polly Hopley; she'll boil 'em for us, and we'll take 'em back."
We fished for another hour.
"It's no good," said Mercer; "I'm very sorry. I wanted you to catch a big eel, and then you'd want to come again, and now you won't care about it."
"Oh yes, I shall," I said. "It was worth coming too, even if we didn't catch any more fish."
"You think so? Look! you've got him!"
For my float was bobbing gently, and moving slowly away.
"No, no, don't strike. Yes—let him have it. That's an eel biting, and he will not leave it. You'll see."
The gentle bob, bob, bob of the float went on as it glided slowly away foot after foot, till I could bear the excitement no longer, and I turned my eyes to my companion as if to say, "Do let me strike now— strike gently."
"Yes," he cried, "he must have got it;" and I struck gently, and felt directly as if the hook was in a stump or a dead branch at the bottom of the pool.
"It isn't a fish," I said, looking at Mercer.
"What is it then?" he replied, laughing. "It's an eel."
"But it don't move or run about."
"You wait a minute. It's an eel, and a big one."
My acquaintance with eels so far had been upon the slabs at the fishmonger's shops, or in pieces browned and garnished with fried parsley, and my line remained so tight and still that I still doubted my companion's words.
"He has got his tail in a hole, or twined about a stump."
"But don't you think the hook's in a stump?"
"I never knew a stump bite at a worm, and run away with your float. There, he's loose now. Keep him up, and don't let him go down low again."
I heard his words, but felt that all I could do was to let the eel go where it liked. For it started the fight by swinging its head rapidly from side to side in a succession of sharp jerks, and then began to make the line and the top of the rod quiver, as it worked its way backward, trying to descend to the bottom, while my efforts were, of course, directed towards pulling it to the top.
"That's right; you've got him fast," said Mercer. "It's of no use to try and play him, he'll keep on like that for long enough. Give me the rod while you get back to the bank. Then you must pull him out quickly, right up on to the grass, and put your foot upon him. Not afraid of eels, are you?"
"I don't know," I said.
"Because the big ones will bite—hard."
I handed the rod, and walked back along the woodwork that was like the isthmus of our tiny wooden peninsula, and as soon as I was ashore, Mercer left his rod again, and handed me mine, following directly after, as I felt the snaky-looking creature writhing and undulating at the end of the line, sending quite a galvanic thrill up my arms the while.
"Now then," said Mercer, "pull steady; and when it is near the top, run it right out on to the grass."
I tried to obey his orders; but when I saw the creature keeping up its rapid serpentine motion, I felt disposed to let it go down again into its watery depths. I did not, however, but gradually swept the point of my rod round, drawing my prisoner nearly to the bank, and then with one good swing drew it right out on to the grass, where, in an instant, it tied itself right up in a knot, with the line twisted about it.
"Oh my, what a mess!" cried Mercer, coming to my help. "Ugh! you nasty, slimy wretch! Mind, or he'll be off back into the—Ah, would you?"
He seized the line, and drew the eel farther from the water's edge, waiting his opportunity, which came directly, for the fish rapidly untwined itself, plunged its head amongst the grass, and began to make its way like a snake when its course was checked by Mercer's foot planted firmly behind its head.
"Ugh! how cruel!" I said.
"Serve him right. He's grown to be as big as this by catching and eating all the poor little fish that went near him. He's good to eat too, and what a big one! Why, he must be over a pound. Oh my, what a mess!" he continued. "He has swallowed the hook right down, and there's no getting it out till he's dead. Here, give me your handkerchief, I'll use mine when I catch one."
I took out my handkerchief, and by his directions spread it upon the grass, when he raised his foot, lifted up the line, and the fish again twisted itself into a knot.
"That's the way," he said. "Now then, I'll drop him gently on to the handkerchief, and you take the cross corners and tie them over him tight, and then the other two. Ready?"
"Yes," I said, feeling no little repugnance to the slimy creature, but getting first one knot and then the other fast over the big round writhing fish, and this done to my companion's satisfaction, he whipped out his knife and cut the line.
"There," he said, "we mustn't lose sight of him, or he'll eat his way out if he don't find another way through the folds. No; I think he's safe. I'll hang him here."
"Here" was the rugged stump of a small branch of one of the nearest trees.
"Now," he said, "I'll try and catch one too before we go, and we shan't have done so very badly."
"But you've cut my hook off," I said. "How am I to fish?"
"You'll have to watch me, for I haven't another hook. Come along. We mustn't stop much longer, or we shan't be back to tea. Stand your rod up against that tree."