Crown and Sceptre, a West Country Story, by George Manville Fenn.
I groaned a bit when I saw that this story was about the Civil War in England, in the mid-seventeenth century. But I soon realised that it was a very good story, told in the tension-laden Fenn style.
We start off in the Devon coombes (valleys near the sea) with two families that are close friends. The Markhams live at The Hall, while the Forresters live at The Manor. There are two teenage boys: Scarlett Markham and Fred Forrester. The boys come upon secret passages and secret chambers in the Hall, and also some other long-forgotten shafts and wells leading to the outside.
Then came the Civil War, in which the Roundheads fought for a country subservient to Parliament, while the Cavaliers fought for the King. The Markhams and their household became Cavaliers, while the Forresters were Roundheads. Thus the two families became, at least in theory, deadly enemies. Needless to say, it didn't always work out exactly like that, and the boys at least, now young officers, and the family retainers, sometimes helped one another in ways the fathers would not approve of.
The manor is burnt down, and Sir Godfrey Markham very seriously wounded. It is only by Scarlett's knowledge of the secret passages that he is saved. We will not spoil the rest of the story for you by telling you the rest of it, but we assure you that it very well written, and did not at all merit my initial groans. Another very good read, or listen.
CROWN AND SCEPTRE, A WEST COUNTRY STORY, BY GEORGE MANVILLE FENN.
IN THE WEST COUNTREE.
"Derry down, derry down, derry down!"
A cheery voice rolling out the chorus of an old west-country ditty.
Then there was a run of a few yards, a sudden stoppage, and a round, red missile was thrown with considerable force after a blackcock, which rose on whirring wings from among the heather, his violet-black plumage glistening in the autumn sun, as he skimmed over the moor, and disappeared down the side of a hollow coombe.
"Missed him," said the thrower, thrusting his hand into his pocket, and bringing out a similar object to that which he had used as a missile, but putting it to a far different purpose; for he raised it to his mouth, drew back his red lips, and with one sharp crunch drove two rows of white teeth through the ruddy skin, cut out a great circular piece of apple, spat it out, and threw the rest away.
"What a sour one!" he cried, as he dived after another, which proved to be more satisfactory, for he went on munching, as he made his short cut over the moor towards where, in a sheltered hollow, a stone building peeped from a grove of huge oaks.
The sun shone brightly as, with elastic tread, the singer, a lad of about sixteen, walked swiftly over the elevated moorland, now descending into a hollow, now climbing a stiff slope, at whose top he could look over the sea, which spread away to north and west, one dazzling plain of damasked silver, dotted with red-sailed boats. Then down another slope facing the south, where for a moment the boy paused to deliver a sharp kick at something on the short fine grass.
"Ah, would you!" he exclaimed, following up the kick by a jump which landed him upon a little writhing object, which repeated its first attack, striking with lightning rapidity at the lad's boot, before lying crushed and helpless, never to bask in the bright sun again.
"Serve you right, you nasty poisonous little beast!" cried the boy, crushing his assailant's head beneath his heel. "You got the worst of it. Think the moor belonged to you? Lucky I had on my boots."
He dropped upon the ground, drew off a deer-skin boot, and, with his good-looking, fair boyish face all in wrinkles, proceeded to examine the toe, removing therefrom a couple of tiny points with his knife.
"What sharp teeth adders have!" he muttered. "Not long enough to go through."
The next minute he had drawn on his boot, and set off at a trot, which took him down to the bottom of the slope, and half up the other side of the coombe, at whose bottom he had had to leap a tiny stream. Then, walking slowly, he climbed the steeper slope; and there was a double astonishment for a moment, the boy staring hard at a noble-looking stag, the avant-guard of a little herd of red deer, which was grazing in the hollow below.
The boy came so suddenly upon the stag, that the great fellow stood at gaze, his branching antlers spreading wide. Then there was a rush, and the little herd was off at full speed, bucks, does, and fawns, seeming almost to fly, till they disappeared over a ridge.
"That's the way!" said the lad. "Now, if Scar and I had been out with our bows, we might have walked all day and never seen a horn."
As the lad trudged on, munching apples and breaking out from time to time into scraps of song, the surroundings of his walk changed, for he passed over a rough stone wall, provided with projections to act as a stile, and left the moorland behind, to enter upon a lovely park-like expanse, dotted with grand oaks and firs, among which he had not journeyed long before, surrounded on three sides by trees, he came in full sight of the fine-looking, ruddy stone hall, glimpses of which he had before seen, while its windows and a wide-spreading lake in front flashed in the bright sunshine.
"Whoa hoo! whoa hoo! Drop it! Hoi!" shouted the boy; but the object addressed, a great grey heron, paid no heed, but went flapping slowly away on its widespread wings, its long legs stretched straight out behind to act as balance, and a small eel writhing and twisting itself into knots as it strove in vain to escape from the scissor-like bill.
"That's where the eels go," muttered the boy, as he hurried on, descending till he reached the shores of the lake, and then skirting it, with eyes searching its sunlit depths, to see here some golden-bronze pike half-hidden among lily leaves, shoals of roach flashing their silver sides in the shallows, and among the denser growth of weeds broad-backed carp basking in the hot sunshine, and at times lazily rolling over to display their golden sides.
"Oh yes, you're big and old enough, but you don't half bite. I'd rather have a day at our moat any time than here, proud as old Scar is of his big pond."
As the lad reached the head of the lake, where the brown, clear waters of a rocky stream drained into it from the moor above, he caught sight of a few small trout, and, after crossing a little rough stone bridge, startled a couple of moor-hens, who in turn roused up some bald coots, the whole party fluttering away with drooping legs towards the other end of the lake. Here they swam about, twitching their tails, and dividing their time between watching the now distant intruder and keeping a sharp look-out for the great pike, which at times sought a change of diet from constant fish, and swallowed moor-hen or duckling, or even, preferring four-footed meat to fowl, seized upon some unfortunate rat.
"Hi, Nat!" shouted the boy, as he neared the grassy terrace in front of the hall, and caught sight of a sturdy-looking young man busy in the garden.
"Hullo, Master Fred!"
"Where's Master Scarlett?"
"Where's Master Scarlett, sir?" said the man, slowly and deliberately straightening his back, and resting upon the tool he handled.
"Yes. Don't you say he has gone with them, or I'll never give you a mug of cider again."
"Well, I wasn't going to say as Master Scar's gone with 'em," said the man, with a look of wonder in his eyes. "He was here a bit ago, though I didn't see him."
"Then, how do you know he was here?"
"Because nobody else wouldn't—"
"Well, you see, Master Fred, it was like this here. I was a-stooping over the bed, tidying up the edge o' the grass, when—whop!"
"What, did he hit you, Nat!" said the boy, grinning.
"Well, sir, he did and he didn't, if you can understand that."
"No, I can't. What do you mean?"
"This here fox-whelp come and hit me side o' the head, and it must ha' been him as throwed it; and that made me know as he was at home."
As the man spoke, he took a cider apple from his pocket, a hard, green, three-parts-grown specimen of the fruit, and involuntarily began to rub the place where he had been struck.
"Yes; that looks as if he was at home, Nat," said the boy, showing his white teeth.
"Yes, Master Fred, that looks as if he was at home; but you wouldn't have laughed if you'd had it."
"He did it to wake you up, Nat."
"Oh, I was waken enough, Master Fred; but how's Brother Samson?"
"Like you, Nat, half asleep," cried the boy, looking back as he hurried on toward the house, leaving the man staring after him thoughtfully.
"Yes," he muttered, "Samson is a deal like me. Wonder whether Master Fred ever chucks apples at he?"
Meanwhile the lad addressed as Master Fred made his way along the house front, peering in at first one and then another window, till he reached the great door opening on to the end of the shingled terrace.
Without the slightest hesitation, and behaving like one who was quite at home, he entered the great oak-floored hall, and looked round—not at the groups of weapons and suits of armour that were arranged as trophies about the place, nor yet at the pictures and various interesting objects hung between the stained-glass windows, on the oaken panels surrounded by carving and surmounted by the heads and antlers of deer killed on the adjacent moor.
Fred Forrester had eyes for none of these objects, as he looked here and there, now in the low-ceilinged and carved-oak dining-room, then in the drawing-room, and, lastly, in Sir Godfrey Markham's library—a gloomy, tree-shaded room, where he thought it possible that his friend and companion might be hiding. But all was still, and there was no one behind the heavy curtains, nor inside the huge black oak cabinet beside the great mullioned window.
"Wonder whether he's in the stables?" said Fred, half aloud, as he came slowly out of the gloomy room and stood beneath the broad gallery which crossed the end of the hall. "I know. He's with the dogs," said the lad, taking a step from out of the shelter of the gallery, and then staggering forward and nearly going down on hands and knees; for at that moment a wool mattress, which had been poised ready on the gallery balustrade, was dropped upon his head, and a peal of laughter echoed from the panelled ceiling as Fred recovered himself, and rushed up the broad staircase to attack his aggressor.
There was a good-tempered wrestling bout on the landing, and then the two lads, Fred Forrester and Sir Godfrey Markham's son Scarlett, stood panting and recovering their breath.
"And you are quite alone?" said Fred at last.
"Yes, all but the women; but I knew you'd come over, and I lay wait for you, as soon as I saw you crossing the park."
"Well, what shall we do?"
"Come along, then. Got any bait?"
"No; but we'll make Nat dig us some worms. Let's go and get that mattress first. It belongs to the spare-room."
No sooner said than done. The two boys ran down the broad oaken stairs, leaping the last six, and, each seizing one corner of the mattress, they trailed it up the stairs, along the gallery, and into a sombre-looking room, after which Fred rushed to the top of the staircase, seated himself astride the broad balustrade, and began to glide down, but only to be overtaken by Scarlett, with the effect that the latter portion of the descent was achieved with additional velocity.
The ride was so satisfactory, that it was tried again and again, sometimes one first, sometimes the other.
"Wonder whether I could travel all along the gallery and down to the bottom, hanging on to the balusters," said Fred, looking up at the turned supports, which grew thin in one place, and offered a tempting grip for the hands.
"Try," said his companion.
"You'd play some trick!"
"No, I wouldn't."
"Here goes, then."
Fred bounded up the stairs, ran along the gallery, climbed over the balustrade, and lowered himself down till he hung by his hands, holding on to the thin part of the balusters, while Scarlett looked up and his grim-looking ancestors looked down.
For as Fred Forrester, son of Colonel Forrester, of the Manor, performed his feat, with no little display of agility, old Sir Gabriel Markham, who had built the hall in the days of Henry the Seventh, frowned from his canvas in one of the panels, and looked as cold and angry as an old knight clad in steel could look.
There, too, was Sir Henry, seeming equally stern in his court suit and hat, and Dame Markham, in stomacher and farthingale and ruff, with quite a look of alarm on their countenances, which was reflected from that of another of the old Markhams—all appearing either angry or startled at such a freak being played in their august presence.
There was one exception though, in the face of a sweet-looking lady of about twenty, whose eyes seemed to follow the boys, while a pleasant, mirthful smile was upon her lip.
But the boys did not even give a thought to the portraits, whose eyes seemed to watch them till the feat, which required the exercise of no little muscular effort, was dexterously performed, and Fred stood on the oaken floor.
"Well, I suppose you think I couldn't do that, do you?" cried Scarlett.
"Not I. Any one could do it if he tried."
"Yes, I should think he could, and in half the time you took. Look here; I'll show you."
"Try if you can do it with your face turned this way, Scar," cried Fred.
For answer, the boy, who had reached the gallery, ran along to the end, climbed over, and then lowered himself down till he hung at full length by both hands clasping the balusters. Then he hung by one, and cleverly swinging round, grasped another baluster, and hung facing his companion, who stood looking up and eagerly watching every movement.
"Go on, Scar."
"Oh yes, it's very easy to say go on; but see how awkward it is this way."
"Well, try the other."
"Going to," said Scarlett, laconically, as he swung himself back, and then hand over hand passed along the front of the gallery, reached the turn, grasped the second of the descending balusters, loosed his hold of the last one on the level of the landing, made a dash to catch the first baluster side by side with that he already held, missed it, and swung round, hanging by one hand only, when suddenly there was a loud crick-crack, and, under the impression that the slight wooden pillar had broken, Fred sprang up the stairs to his companion's assistance, but only to trip as he nearly reached the top and fall sprawling upon the landing upon a great deer-skin rug.
BEHIND THE STAIR.
Fred was up again in a moment, ready to pass his arms through and help his friend; but the latter had already recovered himself, and was holding on with both hands, now staring between the balusters like a wild beast through the bars of his cage.
"What's the matter?" he said.
"I thought you were falling. Which one broke?"
"I don't know; neither of them."
"But what was that clacking noise?"
"I don't know. The baluster seemed to turn half round, and then fly back as if it had a spring at the bottom."
"I know! Look here. It wrenched this stair loose. I trod on it, and that's what made me fall."
"Wait till I've gone down to the bottom," said Scarlett, "and we'll soon put that right."
As he spoke, the lad went on down, hand by hand, as Fred had made the descent before him, and then came running up the polished oaken stairs to where his companion stood by the top stair but one, upon which lay a broad stain of red and gold, cast by a ray of light passing through one of the painted windows.
"It must have come unnailed," said Scarlett, as he knelt down.
"I don't think it has," replied Fred, as he knelt beside him. "Look here, it's quite loose; and see here, you can push it right in."
He thrust at the oaken board as he spoke, and it glided horizontally from them under the top step which formed the landing, and left a long opening like a narrow box the length and width of the stair.
"Don't push too far," cried Scarlett, "or we shan't get it back. Pull."
The boys pulled together, and the oaken tread glided back toward them with the greatest ease, like a well-made drawer.
"Mind!" shouted Fred. And they snatched away their fingers just in time to save a nasty pinch, for the board came swiftly back into its position. There was a sharp crick-crack, and the stair was as solid as before, and the broad stain from the painted window lay in its old place on the dark brown wood.
Scarlett Markham turned and stared at Fred Forrester, and Fred Forrester turned and stared at him.
"I say, what do you think of that?" said Scarlett.
"I don't know. What do you?"
"I don't know either," said Scarlett, trying to move the board again. But it was firm as the rest of the stairs.
"Did you see that baluster?" said Fred.
"See it? No. What do you mean?"
"It seemed to me to move and make that noise."
"Nonsense! How could it?"
"I don't know, but it was just the same noise as it made when you missed your hold and swung round."
"So it was; and I had hold of it," said Scarlett, thoughtfully, as he laid his hand on the piece of turned and carved wood. "But it's quite firm." He gave it a shake, but with no effect. "You come and try," he said.
Fred took his place, and shook the baluster, then the other—its fellow—but there was no result.
"I don't know what to make of this," said Scarlett. "I wonder whether all the stairs are made the same. There, never mind; let's go and fish."
"Stop a moment!" cried Fred, excitedly. "Look here; you can turn this thing half round. See!"
"Well, that's only because it's loose. They're getting old and—"
Scarlett Markham started back, so quick and sudden was the sound, but only to resume his position on his knees before the oaken stair-tread, which again yielded to a thrust, and glided under the landing once more, leaving the opening the length and breadth of the great stair.
"Why, it's like the lid of a sliding box, Scar," cried Fred. "Now then, let's pull it over once more. But look here, it won't go any further."
This was the case, for about an inch of the carved front was left for them to take hold of and draw it back, which they did, the board gliding easily toward them, and closing with a loud snap.
"There! I did see it then," cried Scarlett.
"That baluster. It half twisted round. Why, Fred, it's a hiding-place. Here, let's open it again. Perhaps it's full of gold."
Fred was quite willing, for his curiosity was excited; so, seizing the baluster with both hands, he gave it a twist. There was the sharp sound as of a catch being set at liberty; the board moved, and was once more thrust back.
"Now let me try," cried Scarlett, "so as to make sure."
The opening was closed again, the baluster twisted, and it was again opened, the lads pausing before the dark cavity, across which the coloured rays played over a bar of dancing motes.
"Seems to me," said Fred, "that we've discovered a secret. Does your father know of it, do you think?"
"I feel sure he doesn't. I say, let's see if there's anything inside."
"Do you think we ought to?"
"I wouldn't, if I thought my father knew about it; but I don't believe he does, so I shall try. Of course I shall tell him."
"Yes, of course," said Fred, whose curiosity pricked him on to action, and who felt relieved by his companion's words. "But do you think it's a secret drawer?"
"Yes, I'm sure it is, or it wouldn't be made like that."
"But perhaps they are all made this way."
This was a damper; for if the stairs were all made in this fashion, there could be no secret.
"Let's try," said Scarlett; and together they turned and twisted with all their might at every baluster from top to bottom, but without result.
"Then it is a secret drawer," said Fred, in a low, husky voice.
"More like a coffin," said Scarlett.
"I hope no one's buried here."
"Oh, I say, don't talk like that," cried Fred. "It's too horrible."
"Well, it might be so. Some one been killed years ago, and put there."
"'Tisn't likely," said Fred. "But, if it is a secret place, we oughtn't to let any of the servants know."
"I didn't think of that," replied Scarlett; and, drawing the oaken board back, the spring was closed, and the boys went and looked out to see that Nat Dee was busy over the garden beds; and further investigation proved that the indoor servants were all in the other part of the house.
"They would go up the back-stairs if they wanted anything," said Scarlett, as they returned to the place where the coloured light shone; but it had already somewhat altered its position as Fred seized the baluster, turned it, and the board lay loose.
"Now, then, what are we going to find?" cried Scarlett, as he thrust back the board, and then recoiled a little and looked at his companion.
Fred looked at him, and both lads felt that their hearts were beating fast.
"Not scared, are you, Fred!"
"No, I don't think so."
"Then you may have first try if you like. What do you say?"
"Nothing," replied Fred. "I feel as if I should like to, but all the same I don't like. Let's try with a stick. There may be something nasty there; perhaps rats."
"They wouldn't have stopped; but you're right. Go down and fetch a stick."
"You will not try till I come back?" said Fred, doubtingly.
"No, I shall not try. Make haste."
Fred was not long running down to one corner of the hall, and obtaining a stout ashen cudgel, which he handed to his companion, who, after a moment's hesitation, thrust in the staff, and found that the opening was about half as deep again as the height of the step; but though he tapped the bottom, which seemed to be firm, and tried from side to side, there was nothing solid within, nothing but a fine, impalpable dust, which made its presence known, for both lads began to sneeze.
"I'm glad there are no bones in it," said Scarlett. "It was only meant to put something in; made on purpose, I suppose. Just a long box: nothing more, and—Halloa!"
"What have you found?"
"Nothing, only that it's all open at the back, and I can—yes, so I can!—reach right back; yes, as far as the stick will go."
"That place wouldn't be made for nothing, Scar," cried Fred. "I know. That's the way to somewhere."
"I don't care; I know it is, and you see if—"
"Some one coming," whispered Scarlett, stooping down and dragging the board toward him, when there was a sharp crack, and the stair was once more firm, just as steps were heard coming along the corridor, and one of the servant-maids passed along the gallery and entered a room at the end.
"Wait a bit," whispered Scarlett, as soon as the maid had passed out of hearing. "We'll get a bit of candle and lock the end door, and then we'll see what this means; for, as you say, it must have been made for something. But it can't be a way anywhere, or they would have made it upright like a door."
"If they could," said Fred, thoughtfully. "Perhaps it was meant for people to go through lying down."
"Well, wait a bit," said Scarlett, "and we'll see."
Unkind people say that girls have the bump of curiosity greatly developed, far more so than boys. This is a vulgar error, for the latter are quite as eager to know as their sisters, and from the moment that the heavy oak board was replaced, Fred Forrester and Scar Markham suffered from a fit of excitement which they could not allay. For, as is usually the case, the person they wanted to go seemed determined to stay. That person was the maid, who appeared to have found something very important to do in the room at the end of the corridor; and it was impossible to continue the examination till she had returned to the servants' quarters.
Scar fetched a candlestick with a short piece of candle burning therein, and shut it up in one of the great cupboards in the hall, so as to lose no time.
Then they fidgeted up and down, listening intently the while; examined some of the well-oiled, warlike weapons on the walls; crept upstairs and along the corridor to listen at the bedroom door; ran down again, and waited until the suspense seemed unbearable.
"I believe she has gone to bed and fallen asleep," whispered Fred.
"Nonsense! She dare not in that best room."
"Let's go out in the garden, then, and leave it till another day."
"And when will that be? Why, everybody will be about then. No; we must examine the place to-day."
"What's that?" cried Fred, suddenly. "What's what?"
"I can smell fire."
"Well, they're cooking in the kitchen, I suppose."
"No, no; it's wood burning. Oh, Scar, look there!"
As Fred pointed toward the great closet in one corner of the hall, the lads could see a thin blue film of vapour stealing out through the crack at the top; and their first inclination was to run away and shout "Fire!" But second thoughts are best.
"Come on," cried Scar; and he ran to the closet door, swung it open, and the reason for the smoke was plain enough to see. The candle which they had hidden there till the maid came down had been badly fastened in the socket; had fallen over sidewise, probably when the door was closed, and was now leaning up against the oak wainscot, guttering down rapidly, and burning a long, channel-like hole in the woodwork, which was pouring forth smoke, and would in a few minutes have become serious.
As it was, a little presence of mind was sufficient to avert the danger. The candle was removed, and a handkerchief pressed against the smouldering wainscot stifled the tiny fire, while the windows being open, the pale blue smoke soon evaporated, and the candle was left securely now as the lads re-entered the hall and carefully closed the door once more.
"We should have looked nice if the old hall had been burned down," said Fred.
"Oh, nonsense!" was the reply. "The place is too strong and full of oak and stone. The hall couldn't be burned. Here, it's of no use waiting any longer; she will not come down. Let's go out in the garden."
Fred glanced at the stairs, and followed his companion unwillingly; but no sooner were they outside than Scar called his companion's attention to the bedroom window, where the maid in question was leaning out, watching Nat Lee, as he slowly did his work.
The girl caught sight of the two lads, drew back, and as they waited in the great porch they had the satisfaction of hearing her go back, along the corridor, closing the door at the end.
"Now, Fred," said Scarlett, excitedly, "we're safe at last." He dashed up the stairs and slipped the bolt of the door through which the maid had just passed, and returned to the top of the stairs. "Come along," he whispered. "Don't stand there. Bring the light."
Fred ran to the great closet and obtained the burning candle. The baluster was twisted; there was the familiar crick-crack; the loose step was thrust back, and the boys stood looking into the long box-like opening.
"Wouldn't it be safer to fasten the front door too?" said Fred in a whisper.
"Yes, and be quick," replied his companion in the same low, excited manner.
Fred ran down, closed the great oaken door, ran a ponderous bolt into its receptacle, and again joined his companion.
"Now then," whispered Scarlett, "what shall we do?"
As he spoke he knelt down and thrust the candle in as far as he could reach, disclosing the fact that this was no rough back to the staircase, but a smooth, carefully finished piece of work.
"Shall we try if we can creep in?" suggested Fred.
"I hardly like to; but if you will, I will."
"I will," replied Fred, laconically.
"But how are we to get in? It isn't deep enough to crawl."
"Tell you what," cried Fred, "I think the way is to lie down in it and then roll along. There's plenty of room that way."
"Will you try?"
"If you'll come after me."
"Go on, then."
Fred hesitated a few moments, and then holding the candle as far forward as he could he lay down, but instead of rolling, shuffled himself along under the landing, finding plenty of room for his journey, and pushing the light onward as he crept sidewise.
"Coming, Scar?" he whispered rather hoarsely.
"Yes, I'm coming. Mind the candle doesn't set fire to anything. What's that?"
"Only a cobweb burning. The place is full of them; and—Oh, Scar!"
"What is it?"
"I can get my legs down here, and—yes, it's a narrow passage, and I can stand upright."
Wondering more and more, Scarlett shuffled along to his companion, and directly after they were standing together in a passage so strait that they could barely pass along it as they stood square, their shoulders nearly touching the sides.
"Yes, it's a passage, sure enough," said Scarlett, in an awe-stricken whisper, as by the light Fred held he could see that the sides and ceiling were of rough oak panelling, the floor being flagged with stone.
"Shall we go on?" whispered Fred.
"Yes. Why not? You're not afraid, are you?"
"Yes, a little. It's all so strange. Don't you feel a little—"
"Yes, just a little; but there can't be any thing to be afraid of. You must go first."
Fred hesitated a few moments, and then went on for quite forty feet, when the narrow passage turned off at a right angle for about another twenty, when it again bent sharply round in the same direction as at first.
"This cannot be a chimney?" whispered Scarlett, for the darkness and heavy dusty air seemed to oppress them.
"No; they wouldn't make a chimney of wainscotting. Oh!"
"What have you found?"
"Look here; a lot of stone steps."
The boys stood looking at the old stone stairway, which seemed to invite them to a higher region, but still as narrow as the passage.
The stones were dusty, and cobwebs hung in all directions; but everything seemed as if it had been unused ever since the architect put the finishing touches to the place.
The two boys looked at the stairway, Fred holding up the candle, and Scar peering over his shoulder for some moments before the former spoke.
"Think we'd better go back now."
"Yes," said Scarlett; "only doesn't it seem cowardly?"
Fred remained silent for a while, and then said with a sigh—
"I suppose it does. Come on."
"Are you going up?"
"Yes. I don't want to. It's all so dark and creepy; but we should laugh at each other for being frightened when we got out."
Scar nodded his head, and after a little more hesitation, Fred went slowly up the stairs, to find that from the top another narrow passage went off at right angles.
As they stood together on the narrow landing, Scar exclaimed—
"Here, I know. These are only openings through the thick walls to keep them dry."
"Look!" said Fred, pointing before them at a thin pencil of light which made a spot on the wall.
"That's sunshine," cried Scarlett, "and shows what I said. This is one of the walls we are in, and that must be the south."
"Why?" said Fred, trying to touch the slit through which the light came.
"Because the sun shines in. Let's go on to the end."
This was soon reached, for at the end of a dozen steps they came upon a narrow door studded with great nails, and after a little hesitation, Fred pushed this, and the boys started back at the hideous groan which greeted them.
HOW THE LIGHT WAS EXTINGUISHED.
There was something very strange and weird about that sound—one which sent a chill of horror through both the hearers, but they laughed the next moment at their fears, for the noise was only such as could be given out by a pair of rusty hinges from which an unused door had hung for a hundred years, the sound being rendered more startling from the hollow space beyond.
Fred felt more startled than ever, in spite of his forced laugh; but he held the candle before him, and gazed through the narrow opening into a little low-ceiled room, panelled throughout with oak, and festooned with cobwebs, while on one side there was quite a cluster of long, thin, white-looking strands and leaves hanging over and resting upon a heap of crumbling, fungus-covered sticks.
"Why, it's quite a little chamber," Scarlett exclaimed; "and look at the ivy. It has come in through that loop-hole."
"And look at that old jackdaw's nest. I say, Scar, can your father know of this place?"
"No, nor any one else. But it is queer. A regular secret chamber."
"Yes, but what's it for?"
"I don't know. Must have been made when the house was built to keep the plate in for fear of robbers."
"Look at the spiders! There's a big one!"
"Yes, but I'm trying to puzzle out where it is. I know. It must be somewhere at the west corner, because that's where there is most ivy."
"But is it upstairs or downstairs?"
"Up, of course; and look here."
Scarlett pointed to what had at first escaped their sight—to wit, a second door, ingeniously contrived in one angle of the little chamber, and in the dim light shed by the candle hardly distinguishable from the panelling.
"Where can that go?"
"Oh, it's only a cupboard. Stop a moment."
Scarlett went to the other side, crushing down the heap of rotten twigs brought in by the birds, and thrust his hand amongst the mass of sickly ivy strands, to find that the opening through which they came was completely choked up, but after a little feeling about he was able to announce that there was a narrow slit-like window, with an upright rusty iron bar.
"Why, it will be glorious, Scar," cried Fred. "Let's clear the place out, and cut away the ivy, and then we can keep it all a secret."
"Yes, and bring some furniture—chairs and table, and a carpet. Why, we might have a bed too."
"How are you going to get them here?"
Scarlett gave his dark curls a vicious rub. "I never thought of that."
"Never mind; but we could bring some cushions, and store up fruit, and make this our cave. You will not tell anybody?"
"I should think not."
"Not even Lil."
"No; she'd go and tell every one directly. Why, Fred, this will be splendid. What a discovery!"
"When we've cleaned it up it will be a little palace."
"And we can keep our stores in the closet there, and—Think there'll be any rats?"
"No signs of any. Can't smell 'em."
"They've never found their way here. Dare say there are some bats; but we'll soon clear them out. Wish there were a fireplace. We could cook the birds and fish we caught."
"Let's see what's in the cupboard."
Fred crossed the little chamber to the corner where the second door stood ajar, and it was so similar to the panelling that but for its being partly opened, it would not have been seen.
This, too, gave forth a dismal hollow groan as it was drawn inward upon its concealed rusty hinges, and then, as Fred raised the light to see what was inside, he exclaimed—
"Why, it isn't a cupboard. Here's another flight of steps!"
Scarlett pressed forward and stood beside him, peering beneath the candle, and looking down the dusty stone stairs into utter darkness beyond the faint light shed by the candle.
Then he turned to Fred as he grasped his arm and looked inquiringly into his face.
"I will if you will," said Fred, as if his companion had asked him a question.
"Come along, then," cried Scarlett, excitedly. "Only let's keep together."
"Of course. Shall I go first?"
"No, I'll go," said Scarlett, after a momentary hesitation.
He snatched the candle from his friend's hand, and took a step forward on to the little square landing.
"Mind the door doesn't blow to. Push it wide open."
Fred did as he was told, the rusty hinges giving forth another dismal groan, which seemed to echo hollowly and then to die away.
"Come along," said Scarlett, in a low voice; and, holding the candle well before him, he began to descend the narrow steps, the distance from side to side being precisely the same as before.
"Smells cold and damp," whispered Fred, when they had descended about twenty steps; "just like a wine cellar."
"Perhaps it is one when we get to the bottom, and full of old wine."
"Are there many more steps?"
"Can't see. Shall we go any farther?"
"Oh yes; we'll go to the bottom, as we are here."
"Stop a moment. What was that?"
"I didn't hear anything."
"Yes; there it is again."
"Sounded like a drip of water in a pool."
"Perhaps it's a well."
"They wouldn't make a well here. Let's go to the bottom, and then be satisfied for one day."
"Take hold of hands then, in case."
"In case of what?"
"There may be foul air at the bottom, same as there was in the Manor well."
"You are saying that to frighten me."
"Well, it sounded like it. Let's go on."
The two explorers of this hidden way went on down and down, with the sounds made by their feet echoing strangely; but still there were fresh steps, and the distance seemed in their excited state to be tremendous. Scarlett, however, persevered, though his movements were slower and slower; and more than once he turned back to hold the light as high as possible, so as to gaze up at the way they had come, looking over his shoulder, and still holding tightly by Fred's hand.
"We must be right down ever so much below the house," he said at last. "Shall we go any farther?"
"Oh yes, I'd go on," replied Fred, quietly; and once more the two lads gazed in each other's eyes as if looking for signs of fear.
"Come along then," cried Scarlett, manfully; and he went down and down more steps to stand at last on level stones, a narrow passage stretching out before him, while the stone walls and ceiling gleamed as if slightly damp.
"Hold the light up a little higher, Scar," whispered Fred.
Scarlett raised his left hand to the full length of his arm; there was a soft dab, and Fred uttered a subdued "Oh!" as his companion's right hand grasped his with spasmodic violence.
For Scarlett had pressed the candle up against the stone ceding, and the arched surface thoroughly performed the duty of extinguisher, leaving them in total darkness.
Half a minute must have passed, during which they were stunned by the horror of their position, before Scarlett exclaimed—
"Oh, Fred, what shall we do?"
There was no answer, Fred holding the other's hand tightly, and it was not until the question was repeated that he uttered a low gasping sigh.
"We can find our way back," he whispered, in an awe-stricken voice. "There's nothing to mind, for we can't go wrong."
"But we might take a wrong turning, and never find our way out."
"There are no turnings," replied Fred, stolidly. "Come along."
"Listen! Wasn't that something?"
"I don't hear anything, only the echo. Hoi!"
Fred half shouted the last word, and as they listened it seemed to run right away in an echoing, hollow way, to die at last in quite a whisper.
"What a horrible place!" faltered Scarlett. "Let's make haste back. I say, don't you feel scared?"
"I don't know," whispered back Fred. "I feel as if I do. I'd give anything to be out in the sunshine again, and I wish we had not come. Let's make haste."
Scarlett needed no further urging, but pressed on so closely behind his companion that they seemed to move as one, Fred passing his hand along the cold stone wall as they went on, up and up the apparently endless flight of steps, till the landing was reached, and the leader grasped the door.
"There!" he cried, as they passed into the little room, Scarlett closing the door behind them, the hinges creaking dismally. "Now for the other door. I don't seem to mind so much now."
"I don't think I do; but it seems very queer. What's that?"
"Only me. I touched you with my hand."
"It felt so cold on my cheek, it sent a shiver through me. Let's make haste."
"You go first this time, then. You remember where the door is?"
"Yes, I remember," replied Scarlett. "It was just a few steps over here and—I say, Fred, it's gone!"
"Nonsense! It can't have gone. Feel about with your hands."
Scarlett felt here and there, and then uttered a low sigh.
"I can't find it. Come over here."
Fred crept to him, and as he felt about in the utter darkness, he touched his companion, who uttered a cry and rushed away from him.
"Don't be a coward, Scar. It was only I."
"I'm not a coward," cried Scarlett, angrily; "only I fancied something was going to touch me, and you came so quietly. Where are you?"
"Here. And, I say, you made me turn about, and I don't know which nay the door is now. But we'll soon find it."
Nothing seems more simple to talk of, but nothing is more confusing than to be standing in profound darkness, not knowing which way to go, the slightest deviation beginning the confusion, which seems to augment.
Fred's attempt to regain touch of their position was simple enough. He went forward, and after a step or two touched the wall.
"Here we are, Scar," he said. "Come along. The door is just here. Yes; here it is."
He seized the edge, and it gave forth its dismal creak again.
"That's the wrong door," cried Scarlett, excitedly. "The one we just came through."
"Is it?" said Fred, confusedly. "Yes, I suppose it is. Then we must try again. How stupid!"
The second trial was more successful; and slowly and cautiously passing through, they began directly after to make their way along the first passages they had traversed, feeling their course round the angles at the sharp turns, and with their spirits rising fast as they felt that they were approaching the entrance; and as they at last reached it, with the daylight shining through, feeling ready to laugh at their fears.
"Here we are, Scar," cried Fred, as he lay down and rolled himself over and over till he was in the hollow stair, and directly after climbed out, bent down and took the candlestick from his companion's hand, leaving him free to follow, but Scarlett uttered a cry.
"What's the matter?"
"Something has got hold of my jerkin."
Fred burst out laughing.
"Why, it's only that knob. Meant to open the stair from inside, I suppose."
Crick-crack! The board was drawn back into its place, and the boys went slowly down into the hall.
"Why, Scar, you look quite white."
"Do I? So do you," was the reply. "Look, we're covered with dust. Come along, and let's go to my room and have a wash."
"And then we can sit down and talk about it."
Scarlett nodded; and once more ascending the stairs, they passed over the secret entry, unlocked the door in the corridor, and entered Scarlett's bedchamber, where it took some time to get rid of the marks of their journey. After which they sat down in the sunshine by the open window, to discuss their find, and settle two or three points in connection therewith.
"GOD SAVE THE KING!"
"Seems queer now," said Fred, as they gazed down into the garden, "that we could have felt so scared."
Scarlett was silent.
"What are you thinking about!"
"Whether I oughtn't to tell father about that place."
"I suppose you ought," said Fred, after a pause; "but if you do, we shall have no more fun."
"I didn't see any fun in it," said Scarlett, slowly.
"Not then; but see what we could do with a secret place of our own to retreat to whenever we liked, and no one knowing where we had gone. I say, don't tell anybody."
"But I feel as if I ought to tell my father, as it's his place."
"Yes, I suppose you ought; but let's wait a bit first."
"Well, we might wait a little while. I say, Fred, what cowards we were!"
"But it was so dark, and I couldn't help thinking that we might never find our way out."
"Yes; that's just how I felt, and as if something was coming after us out of the darkness."
"And, of course, there couldn't be anything. You could see by the dust on the steps that nobody had been there for years and years."
There was a long silence here, during which the two lads looked out at the garden flooded with sunshine, where Nat was working very deliberately close by the sun-dial. And beyond him, at the lake, from which the sunbeams flashed whenever a fish or water-fowl disturbed the surface.
"I say," said Fred at last, "don't let's sit here any longer. You're as dull as if you had no tongue. What are you thinking about now?"
"I was wondering whether I shall be such a coward when I grow up to be a man."
"I say, Scar, don't keep on talking like that; it's just as if you kept on calling me a coward too."
"So you were."
"No, I was not; but it was enough to frighten anybody. It was all so dark and strange."
"Should you be afraid to go again?"
"No," said Fred, stoutly.
"Will you go, then?"
"No; both together."
"I'll go, if you will. When shall we go?"
"Now," said Scarlett, firmly.
"Yes. I want to know where that place leads to; and I don't like to feel that we were frightened because it was dark. Come along."
"Yes; you're not afraid, are you?"
"No," cried Fred, starting up. "Get two candles this time, and we'll take one apiece."
The lights were obtained, the door at the end of the passage bolted, and once more the two boys stood at the top of the staircase.
"Think we had better go now?" said Fred.
"Yes; we may not have such a chance again for ever so long. Do you feel afraid?"
"Not exactly afraid; only as if I didn't want to go. I'm not so brave as you are, Scar."
This last was said with a bit of a sneer, which made the boy wince, and then draw himself up proudly.
"I'm not brave," he said, "for I feel as if I'd give anything not to go; but it seems to me as if it would be very cowardly to give up, and I mean to go."
He seized the balustrade as he spoke, gave it a wrench, the stair shot from its fastening, was pushed back, and without another word Scarlett thrust in his lighted candle, followed it, and Fred stood looking in as his companion gradually disappeared.
"Come along, Fred," came in muffled tones from beneath the landing; and, uttering a sigh, Fred thrust in his candlestick and followed, to rise, after a slow horizontal progress, to a perpendicular position, behind his leader.
The way seemed far easier now, and in a very few minutes they were standing again in the chamber, where they paused for a few moments before Scarlett drew open the panelled door in the corner, and once more held the light above his head as he gazed down the mysterious stairs.
"Shall I go first?" asked Fred, in a voice which invited a refusal of his services.
"No; it's our place, and I'll lead," was the reply.
"Don't put the candle out again," said Fred, with a sigh of relief, and speaking in warning tones. "I say, Scar, perhaps there's a place like this at the Manor."
"We'll see, when we've found out all about this," replied Scarlett, as he began to descend, while Fred followed closely, the two lights making their task easier, while their confidence began now to increase as they encountered no danger.
The foot of the steps was reached in safety, the candle being held low down, so as to guard against any pitfall or fresh flight of stairs in the way.
But all was perfectly level as the boys went on along the narrow, arched-over passage, their light footfalls sending on before them a curious series of reverberations, while their progress for quite a hundred yards was singularly monotonous and uneventful.
"Why, how far does it go?" said Fred at last, becoming bolder now, but feeling startled as he heard his words go whispering away.
"Very little farther. Look!"
The lights were held up, and they stopped short, for a few yards before them was a narrow, nail-studded door, very similar to the one leading into the chamber, but heavier looking, and with a great rusty bolt at top and bottom.
"That's the end of it, then," said Fred. "I say, I know what it is. That's the vault where they used to bury the old Markhams."
"That it can't be, for they were all buried at the church."
"Well, it looks like it," said Fred. "Shall we go any farther?"
"Yes, of course. I want to see what's behind the door."
Nerving himself to the effort, Scarlett stepped over the intervening space, and took hold of the top bolt, which, like its fellow, was shot into a socket in the stone wall.
But the bolt was rusted to the staples, and he could not move it with one hand.
"Hold the light, Fred," he exclaimed; and his companion stood behind him, bearing both candles, as Scarlett tugged and strained and wrenched vainly at the corroded iron.
"Wants a hammer to start it," said Fred, as the interest in these proceedings drove away the sensations of nervousness. "Shall we go back and fetch one?"
"I'm—afraid—we shall have to," panted Scarlett, as he toiled and strained at the stubborn bolt. "It's of no use to try and—"
There was a sharp creak, the bolt gave way a little, and the rest was only a work of time, for by wriggling it up and down the rust was ground out, and at last it yielded and was drawn back.
"Let me have a try at the other," cried Fred; and Scarlett squeezed by him and took the candles, to stand, hot and panting, watching intently while his companion attacked the lower bolt.
This was even more compactly fixed than the other; but the thumb-piece was projecting, and Fred began on this with his foot, kicking it upward with his toe, and stamping it down again, till it gradually loosened, and, after a little more working, shot back with ease.
Fred drew away from the door then, and looked at his companion.
"Shall we open it now?" he said, with his old hesitation returning.
Scarlett did not answer for a few moments.
"Think it is a tomb?" he said.
"You said it was not," replied Fred.
"It would be very horrible if it is; I shouldn't like to look in."
The door opened from them, and, as they stood there, they could see that it had given a little, so that the edge was nearly half an inch from the stonework, and a faint, damp odour reached their nostrils.
"Don't let's be cowards," cried Fred; and, raising one foot, he placed it against the door, gave a hard thrust, and started back so suddenly that he nearly overset Scarlett with the lights.
But the door did not fly open. It only yielded a few inches, the hinges giving forth a dismal, grating sound, and for a few moments the boys stood hesitating.
"I don't care," cried Fred, excitedly. "I mean to have it open now;" and he rushed at the door, and thrust and drove, each effort moving it a little more and a little more, the ironwork yielding with groan after groan, as if it were remonstrating for being roused from a long, long sleep, till the door struck against the wall with an echoing bang; and once more the boys hesitated.
But there was nothing to alarm them. The heavy, dank odour came more plainly, and, after a few minutes, Fred took one of the candles and advanced into a stone vault about a dozen feet square, with a very low, arched doorway opposite to them, and another flight of steps descending into darkness, while on one side lay a little heap of rusty iron in the last stages of decay.
"Why, the place is nothing but passages and cellars," cried Fred.
"This must be the end, though," replied Scarlett, eagerly. "We have come a good way, and there should be a door at the bottom of these stairs leading into the park."
"Let's come and see, then," cried Fred, advancing boldly enough now. "What fun if we've found another way into the—Here, Scar, look, look!"
The boy had stopped half a dozen steps down, and he was stooping and holding the candle as far as he could stretch as Scarlett reached his side.
"What is it—a well?"
"I don't know. We could soon tell, if we had a stick. Here! what are those at the side?"
They went back to the heap of old iron, and to their surprise found that it was a collection of old arms and armour, rusted almost beyond recognition.
From this heap they dragged a long sword, one which must have been heavy, but which was now little better than a thin collection of scales.
"This will do," said Fred, returning to the farther doorway, and descending till he was on the lowest step, where, reaching out, he tried to sound the depth.
This proved an easy task, for, as near as they could make out, the water was about a yard deep, and the steps went to the bottom, where all was level ground.
They stretched out the lights, and gazed before them to where the retreating passage grew lower and lower, till the top of the arch seemed to have dipped down and touched the black water; and having satisfied themselves that no farther progress could be made, Fred turned and said, as he rubbed one ear—
"Now, if we were fishes or water-rats, we might find out some more. But, I say, Scar, we've taken a deal of trouble to find out very little."
"I think we've found out a great deal," replied Scarlett. "This is no well. It's the edge of the lake, and this—"
"I feel sure it is, and this must be a secret way into the house, hidden under water. Fred, we must have a search outside, and see if we can't find the place."
"Then you will not stay here any longer?" said Fred, throwing down the sword upon the rusty heap.
"No; let's go back now. We have found out a very curious thing; and if we can discover the way in from outside, it will be splendid."
"Come along, then," replied Fred, crossing to the heap of old armour, and stooping over it, candle in hand. "But I wonder how old these things are. Do you think we could clean the armour, and make it look bright again?"
Scarlett shook his head as he picked up the remains of an old helmet.
"It must have been a time of war when this house was built," he said thoughtfully; "and the secret passage was forgotten when it became a time of peace."
"But it is not a time of peace now, is it? I heard that there would very likely be war."
"Who told you that?"
"I heard your father and my father talking about it; and they both grew cross, and your father soon got up and went home."
"Then your father must have said something he did not like against the king."
"My father does not like the king," said Fred, sharply.
"And my father does," cried Scarlett, with a flash of the eye.
"Oh, never mind about that now," said Fred, looking at his old companion in a troubled manner. "What has it got to do with us? What shall we do now?"
"Go back," replied Scarlett; "for we cannot get any farther along here. I say, Fred, it does not seem such a terrible place now you are used to it, does it?"
"Terrible!" cried Fred, stoutly. "Why, I like it. Don't, pray don't, tell anybody about it, and we can have fine games here. It's ever so much better than a cave, and we can smuggle all sorts of things up here. I mean up there in that room."
"Yes, if I don't tell my father about it."
"Oh, don't tell him yet! not till we're tired of it. Then I don't mind."
Scarlett made no reply, but holding his candle above his head, went out of the vault, stopping afterwards while Fred drew to the door. Then, with the ease begotten of use, they went along the tunnel, up the steps to the chamber, and then along the passages to the great staircase, lying down and rolling themselves over, and emerging to listen intently before closing the opening, and hurrying to Scarlett's room for another wash and clearance of the cobwebs and dust.
This done, they hurried out, full of eagerness to run down to the side of the great lake, where they fully expected to find the opening at once.
Failing in this, they stopped by a sandy bank, and, taking a piece of stick, Fred set to work to sketch on the sand a plan of their wanderings.
"You see, we started from here, Scar; then we went off so far to the left, then to the right, then to the left again, and then up into the chamber. Then we went out of the right-hand corner, and down that long flight of stairs to the passage, which led straight away to the vault, and down into the water."
"Well?" said Scarlett, coolly.
"Yes, of course, I see it now. Then, according to my plan, the way into the lake must be just under where we are sitting."
"Where is it, then?"
Fred looked up at his companion, rubbed his ear again, and then looked down at the water's edge.
"It must be here somewhere," he said. "Let's have another look round."
Scarlett rose to his feet from where he had been lying, and they once more searched the side of the lake, which toward the house was deep and dark below its high bank.
There were places where it might be possible for a tunnel to run down into the water, shady spots where willows and alders overhung the lake; places where birch and hazels grew close up to the patches of rushes and reed-mace, with its tall broken pokers standing high above the waving leaves.
In one indentation—a spot where the flat-bottomed boat lay moored— Scarlett felt certain that they had found the entrance; but when they lay flat on the overhanging bank and peered down below, there was nothing to be seen but black leaves and dead branches far below, while in mid-water, bar-sided perch in golden green armour, floated slowly to and fro, seeming to watch the movements of sundry carp close to the surface, gliding in and out among the stems of the lilies and nestling beneath the leaves.
"It's of no use, Fred. I'm afraid we have made a mistake. That must be a kind of well made to supply the house with water, and it is all fancy about the passage coming down here."
At that moment there was a loud burst of barking, and the lads started up to run towards the house, for two mounted men were on their way along the winding road which crossed the park, evidently making for the great entrance-door of the Hall.
"They've come back together," cried Fred as he ran; but before they could reach the door, one of the horsemen had swung himself down, thrown the reins to Nat, who was waiting, and walked up to the top of the steps. Here he turned, and stood frowning for a few moments, while his companion sat beating his boot with his whip so vigorously that the horse kept starting and fidgeting about, making a plunge sufficient to unseat a bad rider.
"Will you come in, Forrester?" said the dismounted man.
"What for?" was the stern reply. "To renew the argument, and have harsh words said to me?"
"Nonsense, my dear Forrester," said the other. "I only spoke out as a loyal man should, and I am sorry you took it so ill."
"And I only spoke out as a loyal man should."
"Yes, to his country, sir."
"Why, my dear Forrester—" began the dismounted man, angrily. "There, I beg your pardon. I was a little heated. Come in, Forrester. Stay and dine with me, and we can chat matters over coolly."
"Better not," said the mounted man, coldly. "Fred!"
"You were coming home with me?"
"No, father; I was going to stop with Scar for a bit."
"Humph! Better come home now, my boy. I think Sir Godfrey wishes to talk to his son."
"I was not going to do anything of the kind, Forrester; but if you are bent upon a division between us, I am not the man to baulk you."
"Very good, sir, very good. Then be it so."
"But it seems to me a great pity that two old friends should be divided, and our boys, who have been like brothers, should be separated upon a question about which you must feel, upon calm consideration, that you are wrong."
"If I felt that I was wrong, Sir Godfrey Markham, I should at once apologise; but I am not wrong."
"And our boys?"
"It is impossible for our boys to be friends, Sir Godfrey, until you have apologised for what you have said."
"Apologised, Colonel Forrester! Why, sir, I commend myself for my restraint. If it had been any other man than my oldest friend who had dared to utter such disloyal thoughts against the king, I should have struck him from his horse. Good day, sir, and I pray Heaven to place better thoughts in your mind! Scarlett, my boy."
"Mayn't I shake hands with Fred Forrester first?"
"No. Yes. You boys have no quarrel. But it will be better that you should keep at home for the present."
"Oh, Fred, what's the matter?" whispered Scarlett.
"Don't you know?"
"Ye-es, I'm afraid I do."
"That's it. I didn't know we were going to have trouble about it down here in Coombeland. But, I say, Scar, we're good friends, aren't we?"
"Yes, of course."
"That's right. They're both cross to-day; they'll make it up to-morrow."
"Fred!" said Colonel Forrester over his shoulder as he rode off.
"Coming, father. Good-bye, Scar; and, I say, don't tell anybody about the secret place just yet."
"It will be all right again directly. Father soon gets good-tempered again after he has been cross; but it always makes him angry if anybody praises up the king."
The boy darted off after the departing horseman, and Scarlett sat watching them till they disappeared among the trees, when he went slowly into the house, catching sight of his father striding up and down in the dining-room, and with a more serious look in his face than he remembered to have seen before.
"I hope there is not going to be trouble and fighting, the same as there has been elsewhere," thought the boy; and he involuntarily glanced through the open hall-door at the beautiful landscape, across which seemed to float visions of soldiers and burning homesteads, and destruction such as had been brought to them in the shape of news from far distant parts.
The coming of his father roused him from his reverie.
"Why, Scar, lad, don't look so serious," cried Sir Godfrey, clapping the boy on the shoulder. "I spoke angrily, didn't I, my boy? Well, I was obliged in these rebellious times. Remember this, Scar, no matter what comes, 'God save the king!'"
"Yes, father," cried the boy, flushing as he took off his cap and tossed it in the air, "'God save the king!'"
Fred was right; the two elders did soon make it up, and the political ebullition seemed to be forgotten. The boys were soon together again, enjoying their simple country ways as of yore, while the clouds gathering around only looked golden in their sunshiny life.
The search for the outlet to the secret passage was renewed without success, and then given up for a time. There was so much to see and do that glorious autumn time when the apples were ripening fast, and hanging in great ropes from the heavily laden trees, beneath whose tangled boughs all was grey and green leaves and gloom, every orchard being an improvised wilderness, which was allowed to bear or be barren according to its will.
There was always so much to do. Trout to hunt up the little moorland streams; loaches to impale among the stones of the swift torrents; rides over the long undulating stretches of the moor, from far inland to where it ended abruptly in steep cliffs by the sea.
And so life glided on at Manor and Hall. The king and country were not mentioned; Colonel and Mistress Forrester supped at the Hall, and little Lil listened to the sweet old-fashioned ballads the visitor sang. Then the Scarletts spent pleasant evenings at the Manor, and the two fathers discussed the future of their sons, while Dame Markham and Mistress Forrester seemed to be like sisters.
But all the while the storm-clouds were gathering, and a distant muttering of thunder told that the tempest threatened to break over the pleasant west-country land.
"There's going to be a big change o' some kind, Master Scarlett," said Nat, the gardener; "and if there is, it won't be any too soon, for it will put my brother Samson in his proper place, and keep him there."
"Yes, Master Fred, I went and had a mug o' cider down in the village last night, poor winegar wee sort o' stuff—three apples to a bucket o' water—such as my brother Nat makes up at the Hall; and there they all were talking about it. People all taking sides all over England. Some's Cavaliers and some's Roundheads, so they say, and one party's for the king, and the other isn't. Precious awful, aren't it?"
"Perhaps it's only talk, Samson?"
"No, Master Fred, sir, I don't think it's all talk; but there is a deal o' talk."
"Ah, well, it's nothing to do with us, Samson. Let them quarrel. We're too busy out here to bother about their quarrels."
"Well, I dunno, sir. I'm not a quarrelsome chap, but I heard things as my brother Nat has said quite bad enough to make me want to go again him, for we two never did agree; and when it comes to your own brother telling downright out-and-out lies about the Manor vegetables and fruit, I think it's time to speak, don't you?"
"Oh, I wish you and Nat would meet some day, and shake hands, or else fight it out and have done with it; brothers oughtn't to quarrel."
"I dunno, Master Fred, I dunno."
"Ah, well, I think all quarrels are a bother, whether they're big ones or whether they're little ones. They say the king and Parliament have fallen out; well, if I had my way, I'd make the king and Parliament shake hands, just as Scar Markham and I will make you and Nat shake yours."
"Nay, Master Fred, never!"
"I'm going to meet him this afternoon, and we'll talk it over."
Samson shook his head.
Home studies were over for the day, and by a natural attraction, Fred started by a short cut to the high point of the moor, just at the same time as Scar Markham left the Hall for the same spot.
"He'll be in some mischief or another before he gets back," said Samson Dee, as he ceased digging, and rested one foot upon the top of his spade, watching his young master contemplatively as he went along the road for a short distance before leaping up the bank, and beginning to tramp among heath, brake, and furze, over the springy turf.
Samson shook his head sadly, and sighed as he watched Fred's progress, the figure growing smaller and smaller, sometimes disappearing altogether in a hollow, and then bounding into sight again like one of the moorland sheep.
"Yes; some mischief!" sighed Samson again, and he watched the lad with the sorrowful expression on the increase, till the object of his consideration was out of sight, when he once more sighed, and recommenced digging. "You don't catch me, though, making it up."
Oddly enough—perhaps it would be more correct to say naturally enough— Nat Dee ceased digging up in the Hall garden to watch Scarlett Markham, who, after sending his sister Lil back into the house in tears, because he refused to take her with him, started off at a rapid pace.
"Wonder what mischief he's going to be at," said Nat, half aloud; and he, too, rested a foot on the top of his spade, and contemplated the retiring form.
Perhaps, after all, digging is exceedingly hard work, and a break is very welcome; but whether it be so or no, the fact is always evident that a gardener is ready to cease lifting the fat mellow earth of a garden, and stand and think upon the slightest excuse.
Nat Dee waited till Scar had disappeared, and then he slowly and sorrowfully resumed his task, and sighed with a feeling of regret for the time when he too was a boy, and indulged in unlimited idleness and endless quarrels with his brother Samson.
Fred Forrester whistled as he slowly climbed the hill, which was shaped like a level surfaced mound, and stood right up above the ordinary undulations of the moor, and Scarlett Markham whistled as he slowly climbed the other side, while high overhead, to turn the duet into a trio, there was another whistler in the shape of a speckled lark, soaring round and round as if he were describing the figure of a gigantic corkscrew, whose point was intended to pierce the clouds.
There had been a shower earlier in the day, and the earth sent forth a sweet fragrance, which mingled with the soft salt breeze, and sent a thrill of pleasure through the frames of the two lads hastening to their trysting-place. They did not know that their feet crushed the wild thyme, or caused fresh odours to float upon the air, or whether the breeze came from north, south, or west; all that they knew was that they felt very happy, and that they were out on the moor, ready to enjoy themselves by doing something, they knew not what. They did not even know that they were each performing a part in a trio, the little lark being so common an object as to be unnoticed, while the top of the hill divided the two terrestrial whistlers from each other.
Fred was at the highest point first, and throwing himself down on the turf, he lay watching the coming figure toiling up, while the grasshoppers chizzed and leaped from strand of grass to harebell, and thence to heather, and even on to the figure lying there.
The view was grand. Away to right were the undulations of the moor; to the left the high hills which seemed as if cut off short, and descended almost perpendicularly to the sea, and in front of them the sea itself, glistening in the sunshine beyond the cliff, which from the point where Fred lay looked like a lion couchant, end on to him, and passing out to sea. Here and there some boat's sail seemed like a speck upon the sea, while going in different directions—seaward and toward Bristol were a couple of what Fred mentally dubbed "king's ships." Away as far as eye could reach to right and left lay the softly blue Welsh coast; but Fred's attention was divided between the lion's head-like outline of the Rill, and the slowly advancing figure of Scarlett Markham, who finished his ascent by breaking into a trot, and zigzagging up the last steep piece to throw himself down beside his friend.
They lay for some few minutes enjoying themselves, their ideas of enjoyment consisting in lying face downward resting upon their crossed arms, which formed a pillow for their chins, and kicking the turf with their toes. Then, as if moved by the same spirit, they leaped to their feet with all a boy's energy and vital force.
"Let's do something," exclaimed Scar. "Shall we go to the lake?"
"That's just what I was going to say," cried Fred; but they did not go far in an aimless way—they began to descend the hill slowly at first, then at a trot, then at headlong speed, till they stopped a part of the way up the next slope, after crossing the bottom of the little coombe between the hills.
This second hill looked wearisome after their rapid descent, so they contented themselves with walking along its side parallel with the bottom of the little valley, talking of indifferent matters till they came upon a little flock of grey and white gulls feeding amongst the short herbage, where the rain had brought out various soft-bodied creatures good in a gull's eyes for food.
The beautiful white-breasted creatures rose on their long narrow wings, and flapped and floated away.
From force of habit, Fred took up a stone and threw it after the birds, not with any prospect of hitting them, for they were a couple of hundred yards away.
"Wish I could fly like that," said Scarlett. "Look at them; they're going right over the Rill Head."
The two boys stopped and watched until the birds glided out of sight, beyond the lion-like headland, an object, however, which grew less lion-like the nearer they drew.
"What would be the good?" replied Fred. "It would soon be very stupid to go gliding here and there."
"But see how easy it would be to float like that."
"How do you know?" said practical Fred. "I dare say a bird's wings ache sometimes as much as our legs do with running. I say, Scar."
"Let's go and have a look at the caves."
"Down below the Rill. Now, only think of it; we were born here, and never went and had a look at them. Samson says that one of them is quite big and runs in ever so far, with a place like a chimney at one end, so that you can get down from the land side."
"And Nat said one day that it was all nonsense; that they were just like so many rabbit-holes—and that's what he thought they were."
"But our Samson said he had been in them; and if they were no bigger than rabbit-holes, he couldn't have done that. Let's go and see."
"Bother! I had enough of poking about in that damp old passage, and all for nothing. I thought we were going to find the way in there."
"Well, so we did."
"But I mean the other end."
"Bother, bother! what's the good!"
"How do I know? It's very curious. There's something seems to draw you on when you are underground," said Scarlett, dreamily.
"Hark at the old worm! Why, Scar, I believe you'd like to live underground."
Scarlett shook his head.
"I mean to find that way in to our place some day, whether you help me or whether you do not. Never mind what your Samson said about the Rill caves. He don't know. Let's go and see."
"What's the good?"
"I don't know that it will be any good, but let's see. There may be all kinds of strange things in a cave. I've read about wonderful places that went into the earth for a long way."
"Yes; but our Rill cave would not. My father told me one day about two caves he went into in Derbyshire. One had a little river running out of it, and he went in and walked by the side of the water for a long way till he came to a black arch, and there the gentlemen who were with him lit candles and they waded into the water and crept under the dark arch, and then went on and on for a long way through cave after cave, all wet and dripping from the top. Sometimes they were obliged to wade in the stream, and sometimes they walked along the edge."
"And what did they find?"
"Mud," said Fred, laconically.
"No; only mud, sticky mud, no matter how far they went; and at last they got tired of it, and turned back to find that the water had risen, and was close up to the top of the arch under which they had crept, so that they had to wait half a day before it went down."
"What made the water rise?" asked Scarlett; "the tide?"
"No; there were no tides there right in among the hills."
"Then how was it?"
"There had been a storm, and the water had run down and filled the little river."
As they chatted, the lads walked steadily on, and began to ascend the long, low eminence, which formed, as it were, the large body of the couchant lion, but which from where they were, seemed like the most ordinary of hills.
"There was another cave, too, that my father went into, but that was very different. It was high up in among the hills, and you went down quite a hole to get to it, and then it was just as if the inside of the hill had come full of cracks and splits along which he kept climbing and walking with the two sides just alike, just as if the stone had been broken in two."
"Then this was stone, not mud," said Scarlett, who was deeply interested.
"Yes, solid stone—rock; and every here and there you could see curious shapes, just as if water had been running down, and it had all been turned into stone."
"I should like to go and see a place like that," said Scarlett.
"Yes; I shouldn't mind seeing a cave like that. Father says it went in for miles, and nobody had ever got to the end of it, for it branched off into narrow slits, and sometimes you were walking on shelves, and you could hold the candle over and look down horrible holes that were nobody knows how deep, and there you could hear the water gurgling at the bottom, and hissing and splashing, and—Oh!"
"Scar!" yelled Fred, making a dash at his companion just in time to catch him by the arm as he suddenly dropped down through a narrow opening in the midst of the short green turf over which they were walking.
So narrow was the opening, and so nearly hidden by grass and heath, that Scarlett had no difficulty in supporting himself by spreading out his arms, as soon as he had recovered from the first startling effect of his slip.
But he did not stop many minutes in this position. Fred hung on to his arm. He threw himself sidewise, grasped tightly hold of a stout branch of heath, and scrambled out.
"Who'd have thought of there being a hole like that?" said Scarlett, as soon as he was safe. "But I don't suppose it's very deep, after all. Got a stone?"
Fred had thrown himself upon his breast, and craned his neck over the place, trying to peer down, but only into darkness, the hole evidently not going down straight; it being, in fact, a narrow crack, such as he had described in telling of the Derbyshire cavern.
Scarlett, who looked rather white from the shock he had received, joined his companion, and bent down to listen.
"Hear that?" said Fred in a whisper.
"Water! Yes, of course; but listen again."
They kept silence, and there ascended from below, through the almost hidden crevice, a low whisper of an echoing roar, which died away in a peculiar hissing sound that was thrilling in its strange suggestiveness.
"There must be a waterfall somewhere below there," said Scarlett at last.
"Why, don't you know what it is?"
"The sea. Didn't think it was the end of your passage, did you?"
"What there? Nonsense!"
"Yes, it's the cave; and the sea runs right up here."
"It couldn't; it's too far away."
"I don't care; that's the sea. Now listen again, how regularly it comes. Every wave must be rushing in, and you can hear it go whishing out."
Scarlett and his companion listened for a few minutes.
"Yes; it's the sea, sure enough," said Scarlett. "Why, Fred, I didn't think we had such a place here."
"No," said Fred. "But, then, nobody ever comes up here. Why, it's quite a discovery, Scar. Let's get down to the shore, and go in."
"Yes, I'm ready;" and together the two lads made their way to the edge of the slaty cliffs, and then a long way by the edge, before they could find a rift of a sufficient slope to warrant their attempting a descent.
Even this selected path looked far more easy than it proved; but by the exercise of a little care they got about half-way down, and then stopped; for it was plain enough to see, from the point of vantage they had gained, that even if they climbed to the narrow line of black slaty shingle between them and the perpendicular rock, they could not reach the face of the Rill Head, which projected, promontory-like, into the sea, and low down in which for certain the cave must be.
"What a bother!" exclaimed Fred. "I thought we were going to have a fine bit of adventure, and discover seals, and lobsters, and crabs, and all kinds of things. What shall we do?"
"Wait till low water."
"But it's nearly low water now. Can't you see?"
The marks of the last tide were plainly visible high up on the rugged rock-face, the last tide having left every ledge covered with washed-up fucus and bladder-wrack, speckled with white shells and sandy patches.
"Then it must always be deep in water?" said Scarlett.
"Well, I tell you what, then, let's borrow somebody's boat and try and get right in that way."
"I don't know who somebody is," said Scarlett, drily; "and if I did, I don't suppose he has got a boat."
"Don't talk like that," cried Fred. "I say, couldn't we get a boat?"
"There isn't one for miles. Old Porlett bought one—don't you recollect?—and the sea knocked it all to pieces in the first storm."
"Yes, I recollect," said Fred, thoughtfully, "though it was twenty feet up on a broad shelf of rock. Shall we swim to the cave?"
Scarlett shook his head. "No," he said. "It would be too risky."
"What shall we do, then?"
"Give it up."
"And I just won't," cried Fred, emphatically. "I say, Scar, look here."
"If we can't get in one way, let's get in the other."
Scarlett stared at him wonderingly, "Let's go down the same way that you were going, only not in such a hurry," he added with a gun.
"What, climb down the hole?" said Scarlett, thoughtfully, and ignoring the smile. "Yes. Why not?"
"Oh yes, we could, with a rope. Drive an iron bar down into the earth, and tie one end of the rope to it, and then go down."
"You would not dare to go down that way."
"Yes, I would," said Fred, stoutly; "and so would you," he added.
"I don't know," said Scarlett, dreamily. "But I do. Shall we do it? I'm ready if you are. Come along, then, back to our place, and let's make old Samson lend as couple of good ropes."
Scarlett nodded acquiescence, and the two lads, little thinking how their act would be importance in the future, re-climbed the cliff and started toward the Manor at a run.
It proved very easy to propose getting a rope, but much harder to get one, for everything in the shape of hempen cord was under the care of Samson Dee, who had to be found, not at all a difficult task, for he was digging—at least, handling a spade—down the garden.
Samson greeted the coming of the lads with a smile, for it was another excuse for taking a foot from the ground, and resting it upon the spade. But as soon as he heard the want, the smile faded from his face. "You want a what?" he said. "You know what I said, Samson, so no nonsense. Let us have one directly."
"You want a rope, Master Fred?"
"There, I told you that you did hear me. Yes; I want the longest rope about the place directly."
"What yer want it for?"
"Never you mind. I tell you I want the rope."
"To make a swing with, of course. Well, then, you can't have it."
"Can't I?" said Fred, sharply. "We'll soon see about that. Come along, Scar. Any one would think the ropes were his."
"Look here, Master Fred, if you—"
Samson ceased speaking, for he was wise enough to see that he was wasting words in shouting after the two lads. But he began muttering directly about a "passell o' boys" coming and bothering him when he hadn't a moment to spare.
"And look here," he shouted, as he saw his visitors trotting off with a coil of strong new rope belonging to the waggon, "mind you bring that rope back again. Now, I wonder what them two are going to do?" he ended by muttering, and then set to work digging once more, but in so slow and methodical a fashion that the worms had plenty of time to get away from the sharp edge of the spade before it was driven home and cut them in half.
"Poor old Samson!" said Fred; "he seems to think that everything belongs to him."
"So does our Nat," replied Scarlett. "I often fancy he thinks I belong to him as well, from the way he shouts and orders me about."
"But you never do what he tells you."
"Of course not; and—Oh, Fred!"
"What's the matter?"
"We've got the rope; but what are we going to fasten the end to when we go down?" Fred stopped short, and rubbed one ear.
"You hold it while I go down, and I'll hold it while you go down."
"I shouldn't like to try that," said Scarlett. "We're not strong enough."
"Nonsense! Not if we let the rope bite on the edge of the hole?"
"That would not do," said Scarlett, decisively.
"I know, then," cried Fred. "Come along."
"No. Let's go back and get an iron bar to drive down in the earth."
"I've got a better way than that," said Fred. "There's a pole across the opening in that stone wall half-way up the hill. We'll lay that across, and tie the rope to it."
Scarlett nodded acquiescence, and they trotted on to the rough stone wall, built up of loose fragments piled one on the other, the gateway left for the passage of cattle being closed by a couple of poles laid across like bars, their ends being slipped in holes left for the purpose.
The straighter of these two was slipped out by Scarlett and shouldered, and they hastened on, attracted by the discovery they had made, but recalling, as they went on, that they had been told before about the existence of this opening by more than one person, though it had slipped from their memory for the time.
"Who's going down first?" said Fred, as they slowly climbed the last hundred yards of the slope.
"No; I think I ought to go first."
"Long bent, short bent," said Scarlett, picking a couple of strands of grass, breaking them off so that one was nearly double the length of the other, and then, after placing two ends level and hiding the others, offering them to his companion to draw one out.
Fred drew the shorter, and Scarlett had the right to go down first—a right which but for the look of the thing he would willingly have surrendered. For as they reached the long, narrow, grass-grown crack, the strange whispering and plashing sounds which came from below suggested unknown dangers, which were more repellent than the attractions of the mysterious hole.
Fred looked curiously at Scarlett, who noted the look, and tightened himself up, assuming a carelessness he did not feel.
"Doesn't go down quite straight, seemingly," he said.
"All the better. I say, shall I go down first?"
"What for? I won the choice, and I'm going," said Scarlett, sharply, as he took one end of the rope and tied it to the middle of the pole, which proved to be of ample length to go well across the opening.
"Tie it tightly, Scar," cried Fred.
"Never fear. Mind the rope is so that it will uncoil easily. There, run it down, and let's see if it is long enough to get to the bottom."
Fred raised the rings of stiff twisted hemp, and dropped them down out of sight; but it was evident that the rope did not descend very far, the main portion lodging only a little way down; but Fred raised it a yard or two and shook it, with the effect that more fell down and lodged, but only to be shaken loose again and again, showing plainly enough that the hole went down in a sharp slope for a long way, and then that the rope had dropped over a perpendicular part, for as it was drawn up and down it fell heavily now.
"There," said Fred, "that's it. I dare say that reaches the bottom. If it doesn't, you must come up again. Ready?"
And with all the recklessness of boys who never see the reality of danger until it is there, Scarlett stripped off his jerkin and lowered himself down into the crack, hanging with one arm over the pole for a few moments before seizing the rope, twisting his legs round it, and letting himself slide down.
"Keep on calling out what it's like; and as soon as you get down, sing 'Bottom!' and then I'll come too."
Scarlett nodded, and let himself slide slowly, to find, and call up to his companion, that the hole went down at a slope into the darkness, so that he was not swinging by the rope, but supporting himself thereby, as he glided down over the shaley earth of which the hill was composed, but only to come to a sudden stop as he found that the hole zigzagged back in the opposite direction at a similar angle to that by which he had descended.