Dick o' the Fens; A Tale of the Great Eastern Swamp, by George Manville Fenn.
A number of the actors in this tale speak in a broad Lincolnshire Fenland dialect, which may make it a little hard for some readers. Some of the more unusual words are annotated in square brackets.
The Squire sees the gradually encroaching bog and marsh in his land, and realises that with drainage he could reclaim this as good farm land. On the other hand some of the locals would rather see the fen remain, along with their various occupations, and the wonderful and fragile wet-land natural history. When digging begins there are a number of nasty incidents—torching of houses, malicious woundings of horses and cows, gunshot wounds to humans, and even murders.
A constable is called in, and takes a dislike to Dick, the Squire's son, and to his friend Tom. He tries to pin the blame on them. At times even Dick's father is inclined to think that way, too. But eventually the culprit is found. There are the tense moments typical of this author, and you will perhaps learn a lot about fenland natural history. A good read, and better still to listen to it. NH
DICK O' THE FENS; A TALE OF THE GREAT EASTERN SWAMP, BY GEORGE MANVILLE FENN.
IN THE FEN.
Dick Winthorpe—christened Richard by order of his father at the Hall— sat on the top of the big post by the wheelwright's door.
It was not a comfortable seat, and he could only keep his place by twisting his legs round and holding on; but as there was a spice of difficulty in the task, Dick chose it, and sat there opposite Tom Tallington—christened Thomas at the wish of his mother, Farmer Tallington's wife, of Grimsey, the fen island under the old dyke.
Tom Tallington was seated upon one side of a rough punt, turned up to keep the rain from filling it, and as he was not obliged to hold on with his legs he kept swinging them to and fro.
It was not a pleasant place for either of the lads, for in front of them was a ring of fire where, upon the ground, burned and crackled and fumed a quantity of short wood, which was replenished from time to time by Mark Hickathrift, the wheelwright, and his lad Jacob.
At the first glance it seemed as if the wheelwright was amusing himself by making a round bonfire of scraps, whose blue reek rose in the country air, and was driven every now and then by the wind over the boys, who coughed and sneezed and grumbled, but did not attempt to move, for there was, to them, an interesting feat about to be performed by the wheelwright—to wit, the fitting of the red-hot roughly-made iron tire in the wood fire upon the still more roughly-made wheel, which had been fitted with a few new spokes and a fresh felloe, while Farmer Tallington's heavy tumbril-cart stood close by, like a cripple supported on a crutch, waiting for its iron-shod circular limb.
"Come, I say, Mark, stick it on," cried Dick Winthorpe; "we want to go."
"'Tarn't hot enough, my lad," said the great burly wheelwright, rolling his shirt sleeves a little higher up his brown arms.
"Yes, it is," said Tom Tallington. "You can see it all red. Why don't you put it on cold, instead of burning the wood?"
"'Cause he can't make one fit, and has to burn it on," said Dick.
The wheelwright chuckled and put on some more wood, which crackled and roared as the wind came with a rush off the great fen, making the scattered patches of dry reeds bend and whisper and rustle, and rise and fall, looking in the distance of the grey, black, solemn expanse like the waves of the sea on a breezy day.
"Oh! I say, isn't it choky!" cried Tom.
"Thou shouldstna sit that side then," said the wheelwright.
"Hoy, Dave!" shouted Dick Winthorpe. "Hi, there: Chip, Chip, Chip!" he cried, trying to pat his leg with one hand, the consequence being that he overbalanced himself and dropped off the post, but only to stay down and caress a little black-and-white dog, which trotted up wagging its stump of a tail, and then beginning to growl and snarl, twitching its ears, as another dog appeared on the scene—a long, lank, rough-haired, steely-grey fellow, with a pointed nose, which, with his lean flanks, gave him the aspect of an animal of a vain disposition, who had tried to look like a greyhound, and failed.
This dog trotted out of the wheelwright's workshop, with his coat full of shavings and sawdust, and lay down a short distance from the fire, while the little black-and-white fellow rushed at him, leaped up, and laid hold of his ear.
"Ha, ha! look at old Grip!" cried Tom Tallington, kicking his heels together as the big dog gave his ears a shake, and lay down with his head between his paws, blinking at the fire, while his little assailant uttered a snarl, which seemed to mean "Oh you coward!" and trotted away to meet a tall rugged-looking man, who came slouching up, with long strides, his head bent, his shoulders up, a long heavy gun over his shoulder, and a bundle of wild-fowl in his left hand, the birds banging against his leather legging as he walked, and covering it with feathers.
He was a curious, furtive-looking man, with quick, small eyes, a smooth brown face, and crisp, grizzly hair, surmounted by a roughly-made cap of fox-skin.
He came straight up to the fire on the windy side, nodded and scowled at the wheelwright as the latter gave him a friendly smile, and then turned slowly to the two boys, when his visage relaxed a little, and there was the dawning of a smile for each.
"What have you got, Dave?" cried Dick, laying hold of the bunch of birds, and turning them over, so as to examine their heads and feet; and, without waiting for an answer, he went on—"Three curlews, two pie-wipes, and a—and a—I say, Tom, what's this?"
Tom Tallington looked eagerly at the straight-billed, long-legged, black-and-white bird, but shook his head, while Chip, the dog, who had seated himself with his nose close to the bunch, uttered one short sharp bark.
"I say, Dave, what's this bird?" said Dick.
The man did not turn his head, but stood staring at the fire, and said, in a husky voice, what sounded like "Scatcher!"
"Oh!" said Dick; and there was a pause, during which the fire roared, and the smoke flew over the wheelwright's long, low house at the edge of the fen. "I say," cried Dick, "you don't set oyster-catchers in the 'coy."
"Yow don't know what you're talking about," growled the man addressed.
"Why, of course he didn't," cried Tom Tallington, a stoutly-built lad of sixteen or seventeen, very much like his companion Dick, only a little fairer and plumper in the face. "They ain't swimmers."
"No, of course, not," said Dick. "Kill 'em all at one shot, Dave?"
The man made no answer, but his little dog uttered another short bark as if in assent.
"Wish I'd been there," said Dick, and the dog barked once more, after which the new-comer seemed to go off like a piece of machinery, for he made a sound like the word "kitch," threw the bunch of birds to the wheelwright, who caught them, and dropped them in through the open window of the workshop on to his bench, while Dave jerked his gun off his shoulder, and let the butt fall between his feet.
Just then the wheelwright roared out, with one hand to his cheek:
"Sair—rah! Ale. Here you, Jake, go and fetch it."
The short thickset lad of nineteen, who now came from behind the house with a fagot of wood, threw it down, and went in, to come back in a few moments with a large brown jug, at the top of which was some froth, which the wind blew off as the vessel was handed to the wheelwright.
"She's about ready now," said the latter. "You may as well lend a hand, Dave."
As he spoke, he held out the jug to the donor of the birds, who only nodded, and said, as if he had gone off again, "Drink;" and propping the gun up against the crippled cart, he took off his rough jacket and hung it over the muzzle.
In kindly obedience to the uttered command, the big wheelwright raised the brown vessel, and took a long draught, while Dave, after hanging up his jacket, stood and looked on, deeply interested apparently, watching the action of the drinker's throat as the ale went down.
Jacob, the wheelwright's 'prentice, looked at the ale-jug with one eye and went on placing a piece of wood here and another there to keep up the blaze, while Dick went and leaned up against the cart by the gun.
Then the jug was passed, after a deep sigh, to Dave, who also took a long draught, which made Jacob sigh as he turned to go for some more wood, when he was checked by a hollow growl from Dave, which came out of the pot.
But Jacob knew what it meant, and stopped, waiting patiently till Dave took the brown jug from his lips, and passed it to the apprentice, letting off the words now:
Jacob was a most obedient apprentice, so he proceeded to "finish it," while the wheelwright and Dave went to the workshop, and as he was raising the vessel high Tom Tallington stooped, picked up a chip of wood from a heap, gave Dick a sharp look, and pitched it with so good an aim that it hit the jug, and before the drinker could lower it, Tom had hopped back against the cart, striking against the gun, and nearly knocking it down.
"I see yow, Masr' Dick," said Jacob, grinning; "but yow don't get none. Ale arn't good for boys."
"Get out!" cried Dick; "why, you're only a boy yourself. 'Prentice, 'prentice!"
"Not good for boys," said Jacob again as he finished the last drop perseveringly, so that there should be none left; and then went indoors with the jug.
"Dick—I say," whispered Tom as, after slipping one band into the big open pocket of the hanging coat, he drew out a well scraped and polished cow-horn with a cork in the thin end.
Chip, the dog, who was watching, uttered a remonstrant bark, but the boys paid no heed, being too intent upon the plan that now occurred to one, and was flashed instantaneously to the other.
"Yes, do," whispered Dick. "How much is there in it?"
"Don't know; can't see."
"Never mind, pitch it in and let's go, only don't run."
"It would be too bad," said Tom, laughing.
"Never mind—we'll buy him some more powder. In with it."
"No," said Tom, hesitating, though the trick was his suggestion.
Dick snatched the powder-horn from his companion, gave a hasty glance at the workshop, from which came the clink of pincers, and pitched the horn right into the middle of the blaze.
Chip gave a sharp bark, and dashed after it, but stopped short, growling as he felt the heat, and then went on barking furiously, while the two boys walked off toward the rough road as fast as they could, soon to be beyond the reach of the wheelwright's explosion of anger, for they regretted not being able to stop and see the blow-up.
"What's your Chip barking at?" said the wheelwright, as the two men walked out, armed with great iron pincers, the wheelwright holding a pair in each hand. "What is it, Chip?"
The dog kept on barking furiously, and making little charges at the fire.
"There's summat there," said Dave in a low harsh voice. "Where's they boys?"
"Yonder they go," said the wheelwright.
"Then there's summat wrong," said Dave, taking off his fox-skin cap and scratching his head.
An idea occurred to him, and he ran to his coat.
"Hah!" he ejaculated in a voice that sounded like a saw cutting wood and coming upon a nail; "keep back, Chip! Here, Chip, boy; Chip! They've throwed in my powder-horn."
"Eh!" cried the wheelwright.
Pop! went the horn with a feeble report, consequent upon there being only about a couple of charges of powder left; but it was enough to scatter the embers in all directions, and for a few moments all stood staring at the smoking wood in the midst of which lay the great iron tire, rapidly turning black.
Dave was the first to recover himself.
"Come on," he shouted, and, pincers in hand, he seized the heated ring, the wheelwright followed suit, the apprentice joined, and lifting the glowing iron it was soon being hammered into its place round the smoking wheel, the soft metal bending and yielding, and burning its way till, amidst the blinding smoke, it was well home and cooling and shrinking, this part of the business being rapidly concluded by means of buckets of water brought by Jacob, and passed along the edge of the wheel.
"I say, Tom, it wasn't half a bang," said Dick as the two lads ran towards home with the wind whistling by their ears.
"No," was the panted-out reply; "but I say, what will old Dave say?"
"I don't care what he says. I shall give him a shilling to buy some more powder, and he can soon make himself another horn."
THE GREAT FEN DRAIN.
"Yes, it's all right, Master Winthorpe," said Farmer Tallington; "but what will the folks say?"
"Say! What have they got to do with it?" cried Squire Winthorpe. "You boys don't make so much noise. I can't hear myself speak."
"Do you hear, Tom, howd thy row, or I'll send thee home," said the farmer; "recollect where you be."
"Yes, father," said, the lad.
"It wasn't Tom; it was me," said Dick quietly.
"Then hold your tongue, sir," cried the squire. "Now look here, Master Tallington. If a big drain is cut right through the low fen, it will carry off all the water; and where now there's nothing but peat, we can get acres and acres of good dry land that will graze beasts or grow corn."
"Yes, that's fine enough, squire," said Tom's father; "but what will the fen-men say?"
"I don't care what they say," cried the squire hotly. "There are about fifty of us, and we're going to do it. Will you join?"
"Hum!" said Tom Tallington's father, taking his long clay-pipe from his lips and scratching his head with the end. "What about the money?"
"You'll have to be answerable for a hundred pounds, and it means your own farm worth twice as much, and perhaps a score of acres of good land for yourself."
"But it can't be good land, squire. There be twenty foot right down o' black peat, and nowt under that but clay."
"I tell you that when the water's out of it, James Tallington, all that will be good valuable land. Now, then, will you join the adventurers?"
"Look here, squire, we've known each other twenty year, and I ask thee as a man, will it be all right?"
"And I tell you, man, that I'm putting all I've got into it. If it were not right, I wouldn't ask you to join."
"Nay, that you wouldn't, squire," said Farmer Tallington, taking a good draught from his ale. "I'm saaving a few pounds for that young dog, and I believe in you. I'll be two hundred, and that means—"
"Twice as much land," said the squire, holding out his hand. "Spoken like a man, Master Tallington; and if the draining fails, which it can't do, I'll pay you two hundred myself."
"Nay, thou weant," said Farmer Tallington stoutly. "Nay, squire, I'll tak' my risk of it, and if it turns out bad, Tom will have to tak' his chance like his father before him. I had no two hundred or five hundred pounds to start me."
"Nor I," said the squire.
"May we talk now, father?" said Dick.
"Yes, if you like."
"Then," cried Dick, "I wish you wouldn't do it. Why, it'll spoil all the fishing and the 'coy, and we shall get no ice for our pattens, and there'll be no water for the punt, and no wild swans or geese or duck, and no peat to cut or reeds to slash. Oh, I say, father, don't drain the fen."
"Why, you ignorant young cub," cried the squire, "do you suppose you are always to be running over the ice in pattens, and fishing and shooting?"
"Well, no, not always," said Dick, "but—"
"But—get out with your buts, sir. Won't it be better to have solid land about us instead of marsh, and beef and mutton instead of birds, and wheat instead of fish?"
"No, I don't think so, father."
"Well, then, sir, I do," said the squire. "I suppose you wouldn't like the ague driven away?"
"I don't mind, father," said Dick laughing. "I never get it."
"No, but others do, and pains in their joints, and rheumatics. I say, Tallington, when they get as old as we are, eh?"
"Yes, they'll find out the difference, squire; but do you know, that's how all the fen-men'll talk."
"Let 'em," said the squire; "we've got leave from the king's magistrates to do it; and as for the fen-men, because they want to live like frogs all their lives, is that any reason why honest men shouldn't live like honest men should. There, fill up your pipe again; and as for the fen-men, I'll talk to them."
There was a bonny fire in the great open fireplace, for winter was fast coming on, and the wind that had been rushing across the fen-land and making the reeds rustle, now howled round the great ivy-clad chimney of the Hall, and made the flame and smoke eddy in the wide opening, and threaten every now and then to rush out into the low-ceiled homely room, whose well-polished oak furniture reflected the light.
The two lads sat listening to the talk of their elders, and after a time took up the work that had been lying beside them—to wit, some netting; but before Dick had formed many meshes he stopped to replenish the fire, taking some awkward-looking pieces of split root which were as red as mahogany, and placing them upon the top, where they began to blaze with a brilliant light which told tales of how they were the roots of turpentine-filled pines, which had been growing in the ancient forest that existed before the fen; and then taking from a basket half a dozen dark thick squares of dried peat and placing them round the flaming embers to keep up the heat.
"I say, Tom," said Dick in a low voice, "I don't think I should care to live here if the fen was drained."
"No," replied Tom in the same tone, "it would be a miserable place."
"Now, Tom, lad, home!" said the farmer, getting up. "Good-night, squire!"
"Nay, I won't say good-night yet," cried the squire. "Hats and sticks, Dick, and we'll walk part of the way home with them."
As they left the glowing room with its cosy fire, and opened the hall door to gaze out upon the night, the wind swept over the house and plunged into the clump of pines, which nourished and waved upon the Toft, as if it would root them up. The house was built upon a rounded knoll by the side of the embanked winding river, which ran sluggishly along the edge of the fen; and as the party looked out over the garden and across the fen upon that November night, they seemed to be ashore in the midst of a sea of desolation, which spread beneath the night sky away and away into the gloom.
From the sea, four miles distant, came a low angry roar, which seemed to rouse the wind to shout and shriek back defiance, as it plunged into the pines again, and shook and worried them till it passed on with an angry hiss.
"High-tide, and a big sea yonder," said the squire. "River must be full up. Hope she won't come over and wash us away."
"Wesh me away, you mean," said Farmer Tallington. "You're all right up on the Toft. 'Member the big flood, squire?"
"Ay, fifteen years ago, Tallington, when I came down to you in Hickathrift's duck-punt, and we fetched you and Tom's mother out of the top window."
"Ay, but it weer a bad time, and it's a good job we don't hev such floods o' watter now."
"Ay 'tis," said the squire. "My word, but the sea must bite to-night. Dick here wanted to be a sailor. Better be a farmer a night like this, eh, Tallington?"
"Deal better at home," was the reply, as the door was closed behind them, shutting out the warmth and light; and the little party went down a path leading through the clump of firs which formed a landmark for miles in the great level fen, and then down the slope on the far side, and on to the rough road which ran past Farmer Tallington's little homestead.
The two elder friends went on first, and the lads, who had been together at Lincoln Grammar-School, hung behind.
To some people a walk of two miles through the fen in the stormy darkness of the wintry night would have seemed fraught with danger, the more so that it was along no high-road, but merely a rugged track made by the horses and tumbrils in use at the Toft and at Tallington's Fen farm, Grimsey, a track often quite impassable after heavy rains. There was neither hedge nor ditch to act as guide, no hard white or drab road; nothing but old usage and instinctive habit kept those who traversed the way from going off it to right or left into the oozy fen with its black soft peat, amber-coloured bog water, and patches of bog-moss, green in summer, creamy white and pink in winter; while here and there amongst the harder portions, where heath and broom and furze, whose roots were matted with green and grey coral moss, found congenial soil, were long holes full of deep clear water—some a few yards across, others long zigzag channels like water-filled cracks in the earth, and others forming lanes and ponds and lakes that were of sizes varying from a quarter of a mile to two or three in circumference.
Woe betide the stranger who attempted the journey in the dark, the track once missed there was death threatening him on every hand; while his cries for help would have been unheard as he struggled in the deep black mire, or swam for life in the clear water to find no hold at the side but the whispering reeds, from which, with splashings and whistling of wings, the wild-fowl would rise up, to speed quacking and shrieking away.
But no thoughts of danger troubled the lads as they trudged on slowly and moodily, the deep murmur of their elders' voices being heard from the darkness far ahead.
"Wonder what old Dave said about his powder-flask?" said Tom, suddenly breaking the silence.
"Don't know and don't care," said Dick gruffly.
There was a pause.
"I should like to have been there and heard Old Hicky," said Tom, again breaking the silence.
"Yah! He'd only laugh," said Dick. "He likes a bit of fun as well as we do."
"I should have liked to see the fire fly about."
"So should I, if he'd thought it was Jacob, and given him what he calls a blob," said Dick; "but it wasn't half a bang."
"Well, I wish now we hadn't done it," said Tom.
"Because Dave will be so savage. Next time we go over to his place he'll send us back, and then there'll be no more fun at the duck 'coy, and no netting and shooting."
"Oh, I say, Tom, what a fellow you are! Now is Dave Gittan the man to look sour at anybody who takes him half a pound of powder? Why, he'll smile till his mouth's open and his eyes shut, and take us anywhere."
"Well, half a pound of powder will make a difference," said Tom thoughtfully.
"I'll take him a pound," said Dick magnificently.
"How are you going to get it?"
"How am I going to get it!" said Dick. "Why, let Sam Farles bring it from Spalding; and I tell you what, I won't give him the pound. I'll give him half a pound, and you shall give him the other."
"Ah!" cried Tom eagerly; "and I tell you what, Dick—you know that old lead?"
"What! that they dug up when they made the new cow-house?"
"Yes, give him a lump of that, and we'll help him melt it down some night, and cast bullets and slugs."
"Seems so nasty. Father said it was part of an old lead coffin that one of the monks was buried in."
"Well, what does that matter? It was hundreds of years ago. Dave wouldn't know."
"And if he did he wouldn't mind," said Dick. "All right! we'll take him the lead to-morrow."
"But you haven't got the powder."
"No, but Hicky goes to Ealand to-morrow, and he can take the money to the carrier, and we can tell Dave we've sent for it, and he knows he can believe us, and that'll be all right."
There was another pause, during which the wind shrieked, and far overhead there came a confused gabbling noise, accompanied by the whistling of wings, a strange eerie sound in the darkness that would have startled a stranger. But the boys only stood still and listened.
"There they go, a regular flight!" said Dick. "If Dave hears them won't he wish he'd got plenty of powder and lead!"
"Think the old monks'll mind?" said Tom.
"What! that flock of wild-geese going over?"
"No-o-o! Our taking the lead."
"Oh! I say, Tom, you are a chap," cried his companion. "I know you believe in ghosts."
"No, I don't," said Tom stoutly; "but I shouldn't like to live in your old place all the same."
"What! because it's part of the old monastery?"
"Yes. The old fellows were all killed when the Danes came up the river in their boats and burned the place."
"Well, father and I aren't Danes, and we didn't kill them. What stuff!"
"No, but it's not nice all the same to live in a place where lots of people were murdered."
"Tchah! who cares! I don't. It's a capital old place, and you never dig anywhere without finding something."
"Yes," said Tom solemnly, "something that isn't always nice."
"Well, you do sometimes," said Dick, "but not often. But I wouldn't leave the old place for thousands of pounds. Why, where would you get another like it with its old walls, and vaults, and cellars, and thick walls, and the monks' fish-ponds, and all right up on a high toft with the river on one side, and the fen for miles on the other. Look at the fish."
"Yes; it's all capital," said Tom. "I like it ever so; but it is precious monky."
"Well, so are you! Who cares about its being monky! The old monks were jolly old chaps, I know."
"How do you know? Sh! what's that?"
There was a rush, a splash, a loud cackling noise, and then silence save for the wind.
"He's got him," cried Tom. "I wish we had Hicky's Grip here; he'd make him scuffle and run."
"Think it was a fox?" said Tom.
"Sure of it; and it was one of those old mallards he has got. Come on. Why shouldn't the fox have duck for supper as well as other people?"
"Ah, why not?" said Tom. "But how do you know the monks were jolly old chaps?"
"How do I know! why, weren't they fond of fishing, and didn't they make my ponds? I say, let's have a try for the big pike to-morrow. I saw him fly right out of the water day before yesterday, when it rained. Oh, I say, it is a shame!"
"What's a shame?" said Tom.
"Why, to do all this draining. What's the good of it?"
"To make dry fields."
"But I don't want any more dry fields. Here have I been thinking for years how nice it would be, when we'd done school to have all the run of the fen, and do what we liked, netting, and fishing and shooting, and helping Dave at the 'coy, and John Warren among the rabbits."
"And getting a hare sometimes with Hicky's Grip," put in, Tom.
"Yes; and now all the place is going to be spoiled. I say, are we going right home with you?"
"I suppose so," said Tom. "There's the light. Old Boggy'll hear us directly. I thought so. Here he comes."
There was a deep angry bark at a distance, and this sounded nearer, and was followed by the rustling of feet, ending in a joyous whining and panting as a great sheep-dog raced up to the boys, and began to leap and fawn upon them, but only to stop suddenly, stand sniffing the air in the direction of the old priory, and utter an uneasy whine.
"Hey, boy! what's the matter?" said Tom.
"He smells that fox," said Dick triumphantly. "I say, I wish we'd had him with us. There! he's got wind of him. I wish it wasn't so dark, and we'd go back and have a run."
"Have a run! have a swim, you mean," said Tom. "Why, that was in one of the wettest places between here and your house. I say, how plainly you can hear the sea!"
"Of course you can, when the wind blows off it," said Dick, as he listened for a moment to the dull low rushing sound. "Your mother has put two candles in the window."
"She always does when father's out. She's afraid he might get lost in the bog."
"So did my mother once; but it made father cross, and he said, next time he went out she was to tie a bit of thread to his arm, and hold the end, and then he would be sure to get home all right. Why, there's a jack-o'-lantern on the road."
"That isn't a jacky-lantern," replied Tom, looking steadfastly first at the two lights shining out in the distance, and then at a dim kind of star which seemed to be jerking up and down.
"Tell you it is," said Dick shortly.
"Tell you it isn't," cried Tom. "Jacky-lanterns are never lame. They never hop up and down like that, but seem to glide here and there like a honey-bee. It's our Joe come to meet us with the horn lantern. It's his game leg makes it go up and down."
"Dick!" came from ahead.
"Yes, father," shouted the lad; and they ran on to where the squire and Farmer Tallington were awaiting them.
"We'll say 'good-night' now," said the squire. "Here, Dick, Farmer's Joe is coming on with the lantern. Shall we let him light us home?"
"Why, we should have to see him home afterwards, father," said Dick merrily.
"Right, my lad! Good-night, Tallington! You are in for your two hundred, mind."
"Yes, and may it bring good luck to us!" said the fanner. "Good-night to both of you!"
Dick supplemented his "good-night" with a pat on the head of the great sheep-dog, which stood staring along the track, and snuffing the wind; and then he and his father started homeward.
"I shall come over directly after breakfast, Dick," shouted Tom.
"All right!" replied Dick as he looked back, to see that the lantern had now become stationary, and then it once more began to dance up and down, while the two lights shone out like tiny stars a few hundred yards away.
"They've got the best of it, Dick," said the squire. "Why, we were nearly there. Let's make haste or your mother will be uneasy. Phew! the wind's getting high!"
A STORMY NIGHT.
It was a tremendous blast which came sweeping over the sea, and quite checked the progress of the travellers for the moment, but they pressed on, seeming to go right through the squall, and trudging along sturdily towards home.
"I begin to wish someone had put a light in the window for us, Dick," said the squire at the end of a few minutes' walking. "It's getting terribly dark."
Dick said, "Yes," and thought of the thread, but he made no allusion to it, only laughed to himself and tramped on.
"By the way, how uneasy that dog seemed!" said the squire as they trudged on with heads bent, for they were facing the blast now.
"Yes, father; we passed a fox."
"Passed a fox! Why, you couldn't see a fox a dark night like this."
"No, but I could smell him, father, and we heard him catch a duck."
"Ah! I see. And did the dog scent out the fox?"
"Yes, I think so, and that made him whine."
"Come along, my lad. Let's get on as fast as we can. It's growing blacker, and I'm afraid we shall have some rain."
No rain fell, but the sky was completely clouded over and the darkness seemed to grow more and more intense. The wind kept increasing in violence and then dying out, as if it came in huge waves which swept over them and had a great interval between, while as the rush and roar of the gusts passed there came the deep hoarse murmur of the distant sea.
"Dick," said the squire suddenly, "you are so young that you can hardly feel with me, but I want someone to talk to now, and I may as well tell you that I am going to risk a great deal of money over the draining of the fen."
"Are you, father?"
"Yes, my lad, and I have been feeling a natural shrinking from the risk. To-night sweeps all that away, for in spite of having lived here so many years as I have, I never before felt how needful it all was."
"Do you think so, father?"
"Indeed I do, my lad, for anything more risky than our walk to-night I hardly know. What's that?"
The squire stopped short and grasped his son's arm, as, after a furious gust of wind, the distant murmur of the sea seemed to have been overborne by something different—a confused lapping, trickling, and rushing noise that seemed to come from all parts at once.
"I don't know, father," said Dick, who was slightly startled by his father's manner. "Shall we go on?"
"Yes," said the squire hoarsely. "Let's get home quick."
They started on again, walking fast, but at the end of a minute Dick uttered a cry.
"We're off the road, father. Water!"
As he spoke he was ankle-deep, and in taking a step to catch his son's arm, Squire Winthorpe felt the water splash up around him.
"Can you see the lights at the Priory, Dick?" he said sharply.
"We can't be off the path," said the squire. "Is it boggy and soft under you?"
"No, father—hard; but I'm in the water."
"It's hard here too," said the squire, trying the ground with his feet; "and yet we must be off the road. Stand fast, my boy; don't move."
"Are you going away, father?" said Dick.
"No, only a few yards, boy. I want to see where we got off the track, whether it's to the right or left."
"It's so dark," said Dick, "I can hardly see my hand. Mind how you go, father; there are some deep bog-holes about here."
"Then you stand fast, my boy."
"Hadn't you better stand fast too, father?"
"And both perish in the wet and cold, my boy! No. I'll soon find the road. It must be close by."
Not a tree or post to guide him, nothing but the thick darkness on all sides, as Squire Winthorpe cautiously moved one foot before the other, keeping one upon solid ground while he searched about with the other, and as he moved splash—splish—splash, the water flew, striking cold to his legs, and sending a chill of dread to his very heart.
"It's very strange," he cried; "but don't be frightened, Dick. We shall be all right directly."
"I'm not frightened, father," replied the boy. "I'm puzzled."
"And so am I, my lad, for I did not know we could find such solid bottom off the road. Ah!"
"What's the matter, father?"
"I told you not to move, sir," roared the squire, for he had heard a slight splash on his right.
"I couldn't help it, father; my foot seemed to slip, and—why, here's the road!"
"There?" cried the squire eagerly.
"Yes, father, and my foot's slipped down into a big rut."
"Are you sure, boy?"
"Sure! Yes, father, it is the road. I say, what does it mean?"
The answer was a quick splashing sound, as Squire Winthorpe hurried to his son's side and gripped his arm, to stand there for a few moments listening and thinking as he realised the meaning of the strange rushing, plashing noise that came from all round.
"I know," cried Dick suddenly; "the sea-bank's broke, and we're going to have a flood."
"Yes," said the squire hoarsely; "the bank has gone, my boy."
"Hadn't we better push on, father, before it gets any deeper?"
"Stop a moment, Dick," said the squire, "and let me try to think. Home's safe, because the Priory's on the Toft; but there's Tallington and his wife and boy. We must try and help them."
"Come on, then, father!" cried Dick excitedly.
"No, Dick, that will not do; we shall only be shutting ourselves up too and frightening your mother to death. We must get home and then on to Hickathrift's. He has a big punt there."
"Yes, father, but it hasn't been mended. I saw it this afternoon."
"Then he has wood, and we must make a raft. Come on. Here: your hand."
For a few minutes there was nothing heard but the rushing of the wind and the splash, splash of the water, as they pressed on, the squire cautiously trying to keep one foot by the rut which had guided his son, and, when it became intangible, seeking for some other means to keep them from straying from the submerged road in the darkness, and going off to right or left into the bog.
It was a terrible walk, for they had a full mile to go; and to the squire's horror, he found that it was not only against the wind but also against the sharply running water, which was flowing in from the sea and growing deeper inch by inch.
As if to comfort each other father and son kept on making cheery remarks apropos of their rough journey. Now it was Dick, who declared that the water felt warmer than the air; now it was the squire, who laughingly said that he should believe now in blind men being able to find their way by the touch.
"For I'm feeling my way along here famously, Dick."
"Yes, father, only it seems such a long way—ugh!"
"What is it, boy?"
"One foot went down deep. Yes, I know where we are."
"Yes, close home, my boy," cried the squire.
"No, no; half a mile away by the sharp turn, father; and I nearly went right down. We must keep more this way."
The squire drew his breath hard, for he knew his son was right, as the road proved when they turned almost at right angles and plashed on through the water.
Half a mile farther to go and the current rushing on! It had been only over their ankles, now it was above their knees, and both knew that at this rate it would be waist-deep, if not deeper, before they could reach the high ground at home.
"It is very horrible, Dick, my lad," cried the squire at last as they kept on, with the water steadily and surely growing deeper.
"Oh, I don't mind, father! We shall get on so far before it's over our heads that we shall be able to swim the rest of the way. You can swim, father?"
"I used to, my lad; perhaps I have not forgotten how. But I am thinking of the people about. I wonder whether Hickathrift has found it out."
"I dare say he's in bed, father," said Dick.
"That's what I fear, my boy; and then there's John Warren."
"He'll get up the sand-hills, father."
"If he knows in time, my boy; but Dave Gittan has no place to flee to."
"He has his little boat, father; and Chip would warn him if he has gone to bed. I know what he'd do then."
"What, my lad?"
"Pole himself along to John Warren and fetch him off, and come on to the Toft."
"Mind, take care, we're going wrong," cried the squire excitedly, as he slipped and went in right up to his waist, but Dick clung to his hand, threw himself back, and with a heavy splash the squire managed to regain the hard road off whose edge he had slipped.
"We must go slower, father," said Dick coolly. "You pull me back if I go wrong this way and I'll pull you. I say, isn't it getting dark!"
The squire made no answer, but feeling that their case was growing desperate, and if they did not progress more rapidly they would be in such deep water before they could reach the Priory that it would be impossible to keep the track, and they would be swept away, he pushed on, with the result that in a few minutes Dick had a narrow escape, slipping right in and coming up panting, to be dragged back, and stand still quite confused by his total immersion.
"We must get on, Dick, my boy," said his father; "the water's growing terribly deep, and it presses against us like a torrent. Forward!"
They recommenced their journey, wading on slowly over what seemed to be an interminable distance; but no sign of the dark village or of the island-farm in the fen appeared, and at last the water deepened so that a chilly feeling of despair began slowly to unnerve the squire and set him thinking that theirs was a hopeless case.
"Be ready, Dick," he whispered, as, after a tremendous puff of wind which stopped them for the moment, he once more pressed on.
"Ready, father?" panted Dick. "What for?"
"We may have to swim directly. If it gets much deeper we cannot force our way."
"Oh, we shall do it!" cried the boy; "we must be close there now."
"I fear not," said the squire to himself. "Hold on, boy!" he cried aloud. "What is it?"
"Water's—up to my—chest," panted Dick; "and it comes so fast here— it's—it's too strong for me."
"Dick!" cried the squire in agony.
"I must swim, father," cried Dick.
"And be swept away!" cried the squire hoarsely. "Heaven help me! what shall I do?"
He had gripped his son tightly in his agony, and they stood together for a few moments, nearly swept off their feet by the swirling current, when a bright idea flashed across the squire's mind.
"Quick, Dick! don't speak. Climb on my back."
"Do as I bid you," roared the squire, stooping a little, and bending down he made of one hand a stirrup for his son's foot, who, the next moment, was well up on his back.
"That's better, boy," panted the squire. "You are safe, and your weight steadies me. I can get on now; it can't be far."
As he spoke a light suddenly flashed up a couple of hundred yards ahead, and gleamed strangely over the water like a blood-red stain.
Then it died out, but flashed up again and increased till there was a ruddy path of light before them, and behind the glow stood up the trees, the long, low Priory and the out-buildings, while figures could be seen moving here and there.
"I know," cried Dick. "I see, father. They've lit a bonfire to show us which way to go. Ahoy!"
"Ahoy!" came back in a stentorian shout, and something was thrown upon the fire which dulled it for the moment, but only for it to flash up in a tremendous blaze, with the sparks and flames of fire rushing towards them.
"Ahoy!" came the shout again.
"Ahoy!" answered Dick.
"That will do, my boy," panted the squire. "The water's getting horribly deep, but I can manage now, for I can tell which way to go."
"Little more to the left, father," cried Dick.
"No, no, father," shrieked Dick; "left!"
"I meant you are right, my lad," said the squire, moving on, with the water growing deeper still, while the stentorian voice kept uttering cheering shouts to them, which they answered till they were only about fifty yards away, when it became plain that someone was coming to meet them, splash, splash, through the water, with a pole in his hand.
The figure, though only head and half his body were visible above the plashing water, looked large, and for a few moments in his confusion Dick was puzzled; but he realised who it was at last, and cried:
"Why, it's old Hicky!"
He was right; and just in the veriest time of need the great blacksmith reached the fainting squire, and grasping his arm breasted the water with him; and in another minute they were ascending the slope, with the water shallowing, till they reached a blazing fire, where Mrs Winthorpe clasped husband and son to her breast!
"All right, wife!" cried the squire. "Glad you are here, Hickathrift! All your people too?"
"Yes, squire, all safe here; but we're uneasy like about Dave o' the 'Coy and John Warren."
"But they've got the boat," cried Dick.
"Yes; I hope they're safe," said the squire. "Hickathrift, my lad, that was a brave thought of yours to light that fire. It saved our lives."
"Nay, squire," said the big fellow; "it was no thowt o' mine—it was thy missus put it into my yead."
The squire gave his wife a look as she stood there in the midst of a group of shivering farm-servants, and then turned to the wheelwright.
"The boat," he said—"did you come in the boat?"
"Ay, squire. She leaks a deal, but I thrust an owd pillow in the hole. But I nigh upon lost her. My Grip woke me howling, for we were abed. I jumped out and ran down, thinking it was the foxes after the chickens, and walked right into the water. I knowed what it meant, and got over to the saw-pit, and just caught hold of the boat in the dark as it was floating away. Then I got my leaping-pole and run her under the window, and made my missus give me a pillow to stop the leak 'fore I could bale her out. Then Jacob come, and we got the missus down and poled her along here, but was nearly swept by."
"You're a good fellow, Hickathrift," cried the squire. "Wife, get out some hollands; we're perished. Have a glass, my man; and then we must go in the punt to Grimsey and get the Tallingtons out. We're all right here, but Grimsey Farm will soon be flooded to the bed-room windows. Light a lanthorn, some one, and put in a spare candle. You'll go with me, Hickathrift?"
"Ay, squire, to the end of the world, if thou bids me; but I tell ye—"
He stopped short.
"Well, what, man? Here, drink!"
"Efter yow, squire," said the big fellow sturdily. "I tell ye that no mortal man, nor no two men, couldn't take that punt across to Grimsey in the dark to-night. We should be swept no one knows wheer, and do no good to them as wants the help."
"But we can't leave them to drown, man!" cried the squire.
"No; we can't do that, and we wean't," cried Hickathrift. "They'll get right on the roof if the bed-rooms gets full; and while we're waiting for day we'll have the punt hauled up. Jacob'll howd the light, and I'll see if I can't mend the hole. You've got a hammer and some nails in the big barn?"
"Yes," said the squire; "yes, you are right, my man—you are right. Come, Dick: dry clothes."
There was nothing else to be done; and as the bonfire was kept blazing the punt was hauled up, and in the midst of the howling wind and the rush of the water Dick stood looking on, his heart full as he thought of Tom Tallington asking his help away there in the darkness; while tap, tap, tap went the wheelwright's hammer, after his saw had rasped off a thin piece of board.
"That'll do it," he cried at last; and the punt was placed ready for launching when the day showed.
Meanwhile the squire gave orders for the fire to be kept well alight; and fagots of wood and straw trusses were piled on, with the odds and ends of broken farming implements and worn-out wooden shedding that had been the accumulation of years.
The result was that the flames rose high over the wild weird scene, gilding the wind-tossed pines and staining the flood for far, while there was so much excitement in thus sitting up and keeping the fire blazing that it would have been real enjoyment to Dick had he not been in a constant state of fret and anxiety about his friends.
For, living as he did in that island of good elevated land in the great wild fen where inhabitants were scarce, everybody was looked upon as an intimate friend, and half the lad's time was spent at the bottom of the slope beyond the ruinous walls of the old Priory, watching the water to see how much higher it had risen, and to gaze out afar and watch for the coming of boat or punt.
In truth, though, there was only one vessel likely to come, and that was the flat-bottomed punt belonging to Dave, who worked the duck-decoy far out in the fen. The people on the sea-bank had a boat; but they were five miles away at least, and would not venture on such a night.
"What should I do?" thought Dick as he walked down to the edge of the water again and again. "If Tom is drowned, and Dave, and John Warren, they may drain the fen as soon as they like, for the place will not be the same."
The night wore on; and Mrs Winthorpe made the people in turn partake of a meal, half supper, half breakfast, and, beyond obeying his father's orders regarding dry clothes, Dick could go no further. He revolted against food, and, feeling heartsick and enraged against the wheelwright for eating a tremendous meal, he once more ran down to the water's edge, to find his father watching a stick or two he had thrust in.
"Tide has turned, Dick," he said quietly; "the water will not rise any higher."
"And will it all run off now, father?"
The squire shook his head.
"Some will," he replied; "but the fen will be a regular lake till the sea-bank has been mended. It must have been rough and the tide very high to beat that down."
"Will it come in again, then?" asked Dick.
"Perhaps: perhaps not. It's a lucky thing that I had no stock down at the corner field by the fish-stews. If they had not been up here in the home close, every head must have been drowned."
"Do you think the fish-ponds are covered, father?"
"Five or six feet deep, my boy."
"Then the fish will get out."
"Very likely Dick; but we've something more important to think about than fish. Hark! what's that?" and he listened.
"Ahoy!" roared Hickathrift from just behind them. "Hear that, squire?"
"Yes, my lad, I heard a cry from off the water."
Just then came another faint hail from a distance.
"That's Dave," said Hickathrift, smiling all over his broad face; "any one could tell his hail: it's something between a wild-goose cry and the squeak of a cart-wheel that wants some grease."
The hailing brought out everybody from the house, Mrs Winthorpe's first inquiry being whether it was the Tallingtons.
"Pitch on a bit more straw, Dick," cried the squire; and the lad seized a fork and tossed a quantity on the fire, while the wheelwright stirred up the embers with a pole, the result being that the flames roared up tremendously, sending out a golden shower of sparks which were swept away before the wind, fortunately in the opposite direction to the house, towards which the squire darted one uneasy glance.
"Ahoy!" shouted the wheelwright, and there was a fresh response which sounded weird and strange, coming as it did from out of the black wall of darkness seen beyond the ring of ruddy light which gleamed upon the water.
"They'll get here easily now," said the squire from the very edge of the flood, as he tossed out a piece of wood, and saw that it was floated steadily away. "The current is slack."
He could not avoid shuddering as he thought of the way in which it had pressed upon him as he waded toward the island with Dick upon his back; but the memory passed away directly as a fresh hail came from off the water; and as the group looked out anxiously and listened for the splash of the pole, they at last saw the fire-light shining upon a figure which gradually came gliding out of the darkness. At first it seemed strange, and almost ghastly; but in a few more moments those who watched could see that it was Dave o' the 'Coy in his fox-skin cap standing up in his little white punt and thrusting it along by means of a long pole, while a man sat in the stern.
"Yon's John Warren along wi' him," cried Hickathrift. "I thowt they'd be all right. Come on, lads, clost in here," he shouted; and without making any reply, the strange-looking man in the bows of the boat pulled her along till the prow struck upon the flooded grass, and he threw a rope to the wheelwright.
"Got your gun, Dave?" cried Dick eagerly.
The man turned his head slowly to the speaker, laid the pole across the boat, which was aground a dozen feet from the dry land, stooped, picked up his long gun, and uttered a harsh—
As he spoke he threw the gun to the wheelwright, who caught it and passed it to Dick, while the second man handed Dave another gun, which was sent ashore in the same way. Then, taking up the pole, Dave placed it a little way before him, and leaped ashore as actively as a boy, while the second man now advanced to the front, caught the pole as it was thrown back, and in turn cleared the water and landed upon the dry ground.
"Glad to see you safe, Dave," said the squire, holding out his hand. "Glad to see you, too, John Warren. You are heartily welcome."
The two men took the squire's hand in a limp, shrinking manner; and instead of giving it a hearty grip, lifted it up once, looking at it all the time as if it were something curious, and then let it fall, and shuffled aside, giving a furtive kind of nod to every one in turn who offered a congratulation.
They were the actions of men who led a solitary life among the birds and four-footed animals of the great wild fen, and to be made the heroes of an escape seemed to be irksome.
Just then there was a diversion which took off people's attention, and seemed to place them more at ease. A sharp quick yelp came from the boat, followed by a bark, and, plainly seen in the fire-light, a couple of dogs placed their paws on the edge of the little vessel, raised their heads to the full stretch of their necks, and with cocked-up ears seemed to ask, "What's to be done with us?"
"Hi! Chip, Chip! Snig, Snig! Come, boys," shouted Dick, patting his leg; and the dogs barked loudly, but did not stir.
"Come on, you cowards!" cried Dick. "You won't get any wetter than I did."
"Here!" said Dave; and Chip leaped over and swam ashore, gave himself a shake, and then performed a joy dance about Dick's legs.
This time there was a dismal howl from the punt, where the second dog was waiting for permission to land.
"Come on!" said the second man, a frowning, thoughtful-looking fellow of about fifty, the lower part of whose face was hidden by a thick beard—a great rarity a hundred years ago—and the other dog leaped into the water with a tremendous splash, swam ashore, rushed at Chip, and there was a general worry, half angry, half playful, for a few moments before the pair settled down close to the fire, as if enjoying its warmth.
"This is a terrible misfortune, Dave," said the squire.
"Ay; the water's out, mester," said the man in a low husky way.
"How did you escape?"
"Escape?" said Dave, taking off his fox-skin cap and rubbing his head.
"Seed the watter coming, and poonted ower to the Warren," said the second man, thrusting something in his mouth which he took out of a brass box, and then handing the latter to Dave, who helped himself to a piece of dark-brown clayey-looking stuff which seemed like a thick paste made of brown flour and treacle.
"I wish you men would break yourselves of this habit," said the squire. "You'll be worse for it some day."
"Keeps out the cold and ager, mester," said the second man, thrusting the box back in his pocket.
"Then you've been waiting at the Warren?"
"Ay, mester. Me an' him waited till we see the fire, and thowt the house hed kitched, and then we come."
"It was very good of you, my lads," said the squire warmly. "There, get in, and the mistress will give you some bread and cheese and ale."
"Arn't hungry," growled the second man. "Can'st ta yeat, Dave, man?"
"Ah!" growled Dave, and he slouched round, looking at the ground, and turned to go. "Gimme mai goon," he added.
"The guns are all right, Dave," cried Dick. "I've got 'em. I say, John Warren, will the rabbits be all drowned?"
"Drowned, young mester! Nay, not they. Plenty o' room for em up in the runs where the watter won't come."
"But the foxes, and hares, and things?" cried Dick.
"Them as has got wings is flied awayer," growled the second man; "them as has got paddles is swimmed; and them as can't find the dry patches is gone down."
After this oracular utterance John o' the Warren, who took his popular name from the rabbit homes, to the exclusion of his proper surname of Searby, tramped heavily after his companion to the Priory kitchen, where they both worried a certain amount of bread and cheese, and muttered to one another over some ale, save when Dick spoke to them and told them of his anxieties, when each man gave him a cheery smile.
"Don't yow fret, lad," said Dave. "Bahds is all reight. They wean't hoort. Wait till watter goos down a bit and you an' me'll have rare sport."
"Ay, and rabbuds is all reight too, young mester," added John Warren. "They knows the gainest way to get up stairs. They're all happed up warm in their roons, ready to come out as soon as the watter goos down."
"But how did it happen?"
"Happen, lad!" said the two men in a breath.
"Yes; what caused the flood?"
"Oh, I d'n'know," growled Dave slowly. "Happen sea-bank broke to show folk as fen warn't niver meant to be drained, eh, John Warren?"
"Ay, that's it, lad. Folk talks o' draaning fen, and such blather. Can't be done."
"I say, John, I don't want the fen drained," whispered Dick.
"Good lad!" growled John Warren; and then Dave shook his head at the ale-mug, sighed, and drank.
"But don't let father hear what you say, because he won't like it."
"Nay, I sha'n't say nowt," said Dave.
"Nay, nor me neither, only natur's natur, and floods is floods," added John Warren; and he too shook his head at the ale-mug, and drank.
"Now, then," cried the squire, coming quickly to the door, "Hickathrift and I are going in the big punt to see if we can help the Tallingtons; the stream isn't so strong now. Are you men going to try to help us?"
"Get Farmer Tallington out?" said Dave. "Ay, we are coming."
"Let me come too, father," cried Dick.
"No, my lad, I'm afraid I—"
"Don't say that, father; let me go."
"No no, Dick," cried Mrs Winthorpe, entering the kitchen, for she had been upon the alert. "You have run risks enough to-night."
"Yes; stay and take care of the women, Dick," said his father.
Dick gave an angry stamp on the floor.
"Mother wants me to grow up a coward," he cried. "Oh, mother, it's too bad!"
"But, Dick, my boy," faltered the poor woman.
"Let the boy come, wife," said the squire quietly; "I'll take care of him."
"Yes, and I'll take care of father," cried Dick, rushing at his mother to give her a sounding kiss, and with a sigh she gave way, and followed the party down to the water's edge.
A JOURNEY BY PUNT.
There was still a furious current running on the far side of the Toft, as, well provided with lanterns, the two punts pushed off. On the side where the two last comers landed it had seemed sluggish, for an eddy had helped them in; but as soon as they were all well out beyond the pines the stream caught them, the wind helped it, and their task was not to get towards Grimsey, but to retard their vessels, and mind that they were not capsized by running upon a pollard willow, whose thin bare boughs rose up out of the water now and then, like the horrent hair of some marine monster which had come in with the flood from the sea.
"We've done wrong, Hickathrift," said the squire after they had been borne along by the current for some distance; "and I don't understand all this. I thought that when the tide had turned, the water would have flowed back again through the gap it must have broken, instead of still sweeping on."
"Ay," said the great wheelwright, who was standing in the bows with his long leaping-pole in his hand; "I do puzzle, squire. I've been looking out for a light to show where Grimsey lies, for here, in the dark, it's watter, watter, watter, and I can't see the big poplar by Tallington's. Hi! Dave, where's Grimsey, thinks ta?" he shouted.
"Nay, I don't know."
"Can you make it out, John Warren?"
"Nay, lad, I'm 'bout bet."
"Then, squire, if they can't say, I can't. What shall we do?"
"We must wait for daylight," said the squire, after peering into the darkness ahead for some time. "We shall be swept far past it if we go on. Can you hold the punt with your pole?"
"Nay, no more'n you could a bull with a bit o' tar band, mester. We mun keep a sharp look-out for the next tree, and lay hold of the branches and stop there. D'ye hear, lads?"
"Aye, what is it?" came from the other boat.
"Look out for the next tree, and hing on till daylight."
Dave uttered a grunt, and they floated on and on for nearly a quarter of an hour before Dick uttered a loud "Look out!"
"I see her, my lad," cried Hickathrift; and he tried to give the boat a good thrust by means of his pole; but though he touched bottom it was soft peat, and his pole went down, and the next moment they were crashing through the top of a willow, with the boat tilting up on one side and threatening to fill; but just as the water began to pour in, there was a whishing and crackling noise as it passed over the obstacle and swung clear, with Hickathrift holding on to a branch with all his might.
"Look out! Can you tek howd, lad?" came from the other boat, which came gliding out of the darkness, just clear of the tree.
As it came on, Dick caught the pole Dave held out to him and checked the progress of the little punt; but he had miscalculated his strength as opposed to the force of the current, and after a jerk, which seemed to be tearing his arms out of their sockets, he was being dragged out of the boat, and half over, when his father seized him round the hips.
"Can you hold on, Dick?" cried the squire.
"A—a little while," panted the lad.
"Get howd o' the pole, mester," shouted Warren from the other boat.
"I can't, man, without loosing the boy. We shall have to let you go."
"Let go, then," growled Dave; "we can find our way somehow."
"Nay," shouted Hickathrift. "Howd hard a minute till I've made fast here. I'm coming."
As he spoke he was busy holding on to the elastic willow branch with one hand, while with the other he drew the rope out of the boat's head, and, with a good deal of labour, managed to pass it round the bough and make it fast.
"There, she's all right," he cried, stepping aft carefully, the boat swaying beneath his huge weight. "Now, squire, I mun lean ower thee to get howd o' the pole. Eh! but it's a long way to reach, and—"
"Mind, man, mind!" cried the squire, "or we shall fill with water; we're within an inch now."
"Nay, we sha'n't go down," cried Hickathrift, straining right over the squire and Dick, and sinking the stern of the boat so far that his face kept touching the water, and he had to wrench his head round to speak. "There, I've got howd o' the pole, and one leg hooked under the thwart. Let go, Mester Dick; and you haul him aboard, squire, and get to the other end."
It needed cautious movement, for the boat was now so low that the water rushed over; but by exerting his strength the squire dragged Dick away, and together they relieved the stern of the pressure and crept forward.
"Now Dave, lad, haul alongside, and make your rope fast to the ring-bolt," cried Hickathrift; and this was done, the punt swung behind, and the great Saxon-like fellow sat up laughing.
"Is it all safe?" cried the squire.
"Ay, mester, so long as that bough don't part; but I've got my owd ear full o' watter, and it's a-roonning down my neck. But say, mester, it's a rum un."
"What is, my lad?"
"Why, it wur ony yesday I wur saying to my Jacob as we'd get the poont mended, and come out here with the handbills and brattle [lop] all the willows anywhere nigh, so as to hev a lot to throost down about our plaace to grow. Now, if we'd done that there'd ha' been no branch to lay hold on here, and we might ha' gone on to Spalding afore we'd stopped. Eh, but howding on theer made me keb."
[Keb: pant for breath.]
"Are you hurt, Dick?" said the squire.
"N-no, I don't think I'm hurt, father," replied Dick, hesitatingly; "only I feel—"
"Well, speak, my lad; don't keep anything back."
"Oh, no, I won't keep anything back, father!" said Dick, laughing; "but I felt as if I'd been one of those poor fellows in the Tower that they used to put on the rack—all stretchy like."
"Mak' you grow, Mester Dick," said Hickathrift, "mak' you grow into a great long chap like me—six foot four."
"I hope not," said the squire, laughing. "Draw the line this side of the six feet, Dick. There: the stiffness will soon pass off."
They sat talking for a time, but words soon grew few and far between. The two fen-men swinging in their boat behind had recourse to the brass box again, each partaking of a rolled-up quid of opium, and afterwards crouched there in a half drowsy state, careless of their peril, while the squire and his companions passed their time listening to the rush of the water and the creaking of the willow bough as it rubbed against the side of the boat, and wondered, as from time to time the wheelwright examined the rope and made it more secure, whether the branch would give way at its intersection with the trunk.
The darkness seemed as if it would never pass, whilst the cold now became painful; and as he heard Dick's teeth begin to chatter, the wheelwright exclaimed:
"Look here, young mester, I ain't hot, but there's a lot o' warmth comes out o' me. You come and sit close up, and you come t'other side, squire. It'll waarm him."
This was done, and with good effect, for the lad's teeth ceased their castanet-like action as he sat waiting for the daylight.
No word was spoken by the men in the little punt, and those uttered in the other grew fewer, as its occupants sat listening to the various sounds that came from a distance. For the flood had sent the non-swimming birds wheeling round in the darkness, and every now and then the whistling of wings was quite startling. The ducks of all kinds were in a high state of excitement, and passed over in nights or settled down in the water with a tremendous outcry, while ever and again a peculiar clanging from high overhead gave warning that the wild-geese were on the move, either fleeing or attracted by some strange instinct to the watery waste.
But morning seemed as if it would never come, and it was not until hours upon hours had passed that there was a cessation of the high wind, and a faint line of light just over the water, seaward, proclaimed that the dawn could not be far away.
"Can you see where we are?" said the squire, as it began to grow lighter.
"Ay, it's plain enough now, mester," was the reply; "and yonder's Grimsey."
"I can see Tom," said Dick just then; "and there's Farmer Tallington, and all the rest, right on the top of the roof."
In a few minutes more all was plain enough, and the reason apparent why the people at Tallington had not shown a light in the course of the night or done anything else to indicate their position, for it was evident that they had been driven from below stairs to the floor above, and from thence to the roof, where they must have sat out the evening hours, perhaps doubtful of how long the place would last before it was swept away.
So intent had the squire and Dick been in watching for the dawn, that the gradual cessation of the flowing water had passed unnoticed; but it was plain now that the surface of the wide expanse out of which the Toft rose, with the old Priory buildings a couple of miles away, was now unruffled by the wind, and that the current had ceased to flow.
But for this the party of rescue in the two punts would not have been able to reach the inundated farm, for it was only here and there that a firm place could be found for the poles, which generally sank deeply in the peat covered by the water to an average depth of about eight feet.
In the course of half an hour the boats were close up to the reed thatch of the great farm-house, a rope made fast to the chimney-stack, and Mrs Tallington, the farmer, Tom, a couple of maids and three men were transferred to the boats, all stiff and helpless with the cold.
"I don't mind now," said Tom, shivering as he spoke. "A boat isn't much of a thing, but it will float, and all last night it seemed as if the old house was going to be swept away."
"Are these your horses?" said Dick, pointing to a group of dejected-looking animals standing knee-deep in company with some cattle, about a quarter of a mile away.
"Yes, and our cows," replied Tom, shivering. "Oh, I say, don't talk; I'm so cold and hungry!"
All this time Hickathrift was diligently using the pole in the larger boat, and Dave leading the way in the other, both being well laden now, and progressing fairly fast toward the Toft, which stood up like an island of refuge in the midst of the vast lake, dotted here and there with the tops of trees. At times the poles touched a good firm tuft of heath or a patch of gravel, and the boat received a good thrust forward; at other times, when the bottom was soft, Hickathrift struck the water with it right and left as he stood up in the prow, using it as a kind of paddle.
Before they were half-way on their journey the sun came out from a cloud, just at the edge of the inundation; and with it and the prospect of warmth and food at the Priory, everybody's spirits began to rise.
"Might have been worse, neighbour," shouted the squire. "You sold all your sheep last week."
"Ay," said the farmer from Dave's punt; "and we might all have been drowned. It's a sore piece of business; but it shows a man what his neighbours are, and I won't murmur, only say as you do, it might have been worse."
"And thank God for sparing all our lives!" said the squire, taking off his hat.
"Amen!" said Farmer Tallington, and for a time there was nothing heard but a sob from Mrs Tallington and the splashing of the poles.
But two boys could not keep silence long with the sun shining and the place around wearing so novel a guise; and Dick soon burst out with:
"Look, Tom; look at the teal!"
He pointed to a flock forming quite a patch upon the water some hundreds of yards away.
"Ay," said the squire; "it's good for the wild-fowl, but bad for us. The sooner the place is drained now, neighbour, the better, eh?"
"Ay, squire, you're right; but how are we to get rid of all this watter?"
"Ah, we must see," said the squire; and Dave and John Warren exchanged glances and shook their heads. "The sooner the draining works are commenced the better."
"Toft Fen wean't niver be drained, mester," said Dave in a low voice, as he rested his pole in the punt and stood there looking as if he believed himself to be a prophet.
"Oh, you think so, do you, Dave?" said the squire quietly. "I daresay hundreds of years ago, before the sea-wall was made, some men said that no farming could be done in the fen, but the sea has been kept out for all these years."
"Ay, but it's come through at last in its natural way, mester," said John Warren.
"Yes, John," said the squire: "but we men who think how to live, make nature work for us, and don't work for nature. So we're going to turn the sea off the land again, and drain the fresh water off as well, so as to turn this wild waste into fertile land. Do you hear, Dick?"
"Yes, father, I hear," said the lad; and he looked at Dave and John Warren, in whose boat he was, and read incredulity there; and as he gazed over the inundated fen, and thought of fishing, and shooting, and boating there, he felt himself thoroughly on the fen-men's side, while, feeling ashamed of this, he bent over the boat side, scooped up some water in his hand and drank, but only to exclaim, "Ugh!"
"Ah! what does it taste like, Dick?" said the squire.
"Half salt, father."
"Then it is the sea broke in," said the squire. "Ahoy! all right!" he shouted, standing up and waving his cap. "Shout, Dick, and let your mother see you're here. Come, cheer up, Mrs Tallington; there's a warm welcome for you yonder from the wife; the water will soon go down, and we're going to try and protect ourselves from such mischief coming again."
The squire was right; there was a warm welcome waiting for the homeless neighbours, to whom, after a good, snug, and hearty breakfast, everything looked very different from what it had seemed during the long dark stormy watches of the night.
[Wall, in fen-lands, the artificial bank or ridge of clay raised to keep back river, drain, or sea.]
THE ROMAN BANK.
It was like standing on a very long low narrow island, with the peculiarity that one side was sea, the other inland lake. The sun shone brilliantly, and the punt in which the squire, Farmer Tallington, Dave, Warren, Hickathrift, and the two lads had come was lying on the inner side of the sandy ridge covered with thin, wiry, harsh grass.
This ridge formed the island upon which they stood, in company with some sheep and cattle which had instinctively made their way to the high ground as the water rose.
The tide was down now; a great deal of the water had drained away, and the party were standing by a great breach in the bank through which at high-tide during the storm the sea had made its way.
"I can't quite understand how it could have broken through here," said the squire; "but I suppose it was quite a small crack at first, and the water soon washed it bigger."
There was a great channel at their feet, cut clean through the embankment; and though the party were standing amongst the sand, they could see that the bank which protected the fen from the sea, and ran up alongside of the river, running inland, was formed of thick clay, matted with the long roots of the grass.
"Who was it made this great bank, father?" said Dick.
"Your old friends you read about at school, they say, the Romans, first; but of course it has been added to since. Well, neighbour, we can do no good by ourselves. We must call together the adventurers, and it can soon be mended and made stronger than it was at first. Let's go back. Unless we have a gale, no more water will come through this. It's years since I've been here. If one had taken a look round one would have seen the weak spot."
They re-entered the punt, and Hickathrift poled them back, being relieved in turn by Dave and Warren, by whose solitary cottage they paused—a mere hut upon a sandy patch, standing like an island out of the watery waste, and here he elected to stay with the rabbits which frisked about and showed their cottony tuft tails as they darted down into their holes.
"How about your cottage, Dave?" said the squire, shading his eyes as he looked across the flooded fen.
"Wet," said Dave laconically.
"Yes, there are four feet of water yonder, I should say. You will have to stop at the Toft for the present."
"Not I, mester," said the rough fellow. "I don't mind a drop o' watter."
"Not to wade through, perhaps, my man; but you can't sleep there."
"Sleep in my boat," said Dave laconically. "Won't be the first time."
"Do as you please," said the squire quietly; and he turned to talk to Farmer Tallington.
"I say, Dave," whispered Dick, "you're just like an old goose."
"Eh?" said the man with his eyes flashing.
"I mean being able to sleep on the water floating," said Dick, laughing, and the angry look died out.
It was plain enough that the water had sunk a good deal already, but the farmers had to face the fact that it would be weeks before the fen was in its old state, and that if the breach in the sea-wall were not soon repaired, they might at any time be afflicted with a similar peril.
But notice was sent to those interested, while the farmers here and there who held the patches of raised land round the borders of the fen obeyed the summons, and for about a month there was busy work going on at the sea-wall with spade and basket, clay being brought from pits beneath the sand upon the sea-shore, carried up to the breach, and trampled down, till at last, without further mishap, the gap in the embankment was filled up strongly, and the place declared to be safe.
Of those who toiled hard none showed so well in the front as Dave o' the 'Coy, and John Warren, and the squire was not stinted in his praise one day toward the end of the task.
"Wuck hard, mester!" said Dave. "Enough to mak' a man wuck. John Warren here don't want all his rabbits weshed away; and how am I to manage my 'coy if it's all under watter."
"Ah, how indeed!" said the squire, and he went away; but Dick stayed behind with Tom Tallington, and sat upon the top of the embankment, laughing, till the rough fen-man stood resting on his spade.
"Now then, what are yow gimbling [grinning] at, young mester?" he said.
"At yow, Dave," said Dick, imitating his broad speech.
"Then it arn't manners, lad. Thowt you'd been to school up to town yonder to larn manners both on you?"
"So we did, Dave, and a lot more things," cried Dick. "How to know when anyone's gammoning."
"Gammoning, lad?" said Dave uneasily.
"Yes, gammoning. You don't want the flood done away with."
"Not want the flood done away wi'!"
"No; and you don't want the fen drained and turned into fields."
"Do yow?" said Dave fiercely, and he took a step nearer to the lad.
"No, of course not," cried Dick. "It would spoil all the fun."
"Hah!" ejaculated Dave, as his yellow face puckered up with a dry smile, and in a furtive way which fitted with his fox-skin cap he turned and gave John Warren a peculiar look.
"When may we come over to the 'coy, Dave?"
"When you like, lads. Soon as the watter's down low enough for us to work it."
"It's sinking fast, Dave," said Tom. "It's all gone from our garden now, and the rooms are getting dry."
"Ay, but my pipes are covered still, and it'll be a good month, my lads, 'fore we can do any good. But I might ha' took you both out in the punt for a bit o' shooting if you hadn't played that game on me, and spoiled my horn and wasted all my powder."
"Ah, it was too bad, Dave; but there are a couple of fine large horns at home I've saved for you, and we've bought you a pound of powder."
"Nay, I sha'n't believe it till I see 'em," said Dave. "I did mean to hev asked you lads to come netting, but I can't ask them as plays tricks."
"Netting! What, the ruffs?"
"Ay, I weer thinking about heving a try for 'em. But I shall give it up."
"Dave, you promised me a year ago that you'd take us with you some time, and you never have," cried Dick.
"Nay, did I though?"
"Yes; didn't he, Tom?"
"Nay, yow needn't ask him; he'll be sewer to say yes," said Dave, grinning.
"Look here," cried Dick, "I'm not going to argue with you, Dave. Are you going to take us?"
"Some day, lad, when the watter's down, if my live birds aren't all drownded and my stales [stuffed decoys] spoiled."
"Oh, they won't be!" cried Dick. "When will you go?"
"When the watter's down, my lad."
"It's low enough now. There are plenty of places where you can spread your nets."
"Ay, but plenty of places don't suit me, my lad. You wait a bit and we'll see. Get John Warren to tek you ferreting."
"Yes, that will do," cried Tom. "When are you going, John?"
The man addressed shook his head.
"Rabbuds don't want no killing off. Plenty on 'em drownded."
"Why," cried Dick, "it was only the other day you said that none were hurt by the flood."
"Did I, Mester Dick? Ah, yow mustn't tek no notice o' what I say."
"But we shall take notice of what you say," cried Tom. "I don't believe he has any ferrets left."
"Ay, bud I hev. Theer I'll tek you, lads. Why don't thou tek 'em wi' you, Dave, man? Let un see the netting."
Dave smiled in a curious way, and then his eyes twinkled as he looked from one to the other.
"Well, you wait a week, lads, and then I'll fetch you."
"To see the netting?"
"Ay. In another week there'll be a deal more dry land, and the ruffs and reeves'll be ower in flocks, I dessay. If they aren't, we'll try for something else."
"Hooray!" cried Dick; and that evening there was nothing talked of but the projected trip.
THE DEPARTING FLOOD.
The water sank slowly and steadily, leaving dry patches here and there all over the fen; but the lake-like parts far exceeded the dry land, and two or three fields still contained so much water that the squire set men to work to cut a drain to carry it away.
"Kill two birds with one stone, Dick," he said. "It will be useful by and by."
At the time Dick did not understand what his father meant; but it was soon evident when all hands were hard at work cutting down through the peat to make the dyke. For, instead of digging in the ordinary way, the men carefully cut down through what was not earth, but thick well-compressed black peat, each piece, about ten inches square and three or four thick, to be carefully laid up like so much open brickwork to drain and dry.
Good store for the next winter's fuel, for it was peat of fine quality stored up by nature ages before, and not the soft brown mossy stuff found in many places, stuff that burns rapidly away and gives out hardly any heat. This peat about the Toft was coal's young relative, and burned slowly into a beautiful creamy ash, giving out a glow of warmth that was wanted there when the wind blew from the northern sea.
The two lads watched the process with interest—not that it was anything new, for they had seen it done a hundred times; but they had nothing else to do that morning, having tired themselves of gazing at the flocks of birds which passed over to the feeding grounds laid bare by the sinking water. It had been interesting to watch them, but Dave had not kept his word about the netting; the decoy had not been worked; and gunning was reserved for those of elder growth. So that morning, though the great lakes and canals among the reeds were dotted with birds, the lads were patiently watching the cutting of the little drain.
Six men were busy, and making steady progress, for the peat cut easily, the sharp-edged tools going through it like knives, while the leader of the gang busied himself from time to time by thrusting down a sharp-pointed iron rod, which always came in contact with sand and gravel a few feet down.
"No roots, my lad?" said the squire, coming up.
"No, mester," said the labourer. "I don't think—well, now, only think of that!"
He was thrusting down the iron rod as he spoke, and the point stuck into something that was not sand or gravel, while upon its being thrust down again with more force it stuck fast, and required a heavy jerk to drag it out.
"That seems to be a good one," said the squire, as the lads watched the process with interest.
"Shall we hev it out, mester?"
"Have it out! Oh, yes!" said the squire; and a couple of hours were spent widening the drain at that part, so as to give the men room to work round what was the root of an old tree, just as it had been growing in the far-distant ages, before the peat began to rise over it to nine or ten feet in thickness.
It was a long job, and after the great stump had been laid bare, axes had to be used to divide some of the outlying roots before it was finally dragged out by the whole force that could be collected by the hole, and finally lay upon the side.
"Just like the others, Dick. There must have been a tremendous fire here at one time."
"And burned the whole forest down?"
"Burned the whole of the trees down to the stumps, my lad, and then the peat gradually formed over the roots, and they've lain there till we come and dig them out for firewood."
"And they haven't rotted, father, although they have been under the peat and water all this time."
"No, my boy; the peat is a preservative. Nothing seems to decay under the peat. Why, you ought to have known that by now."
"I suppose I ought," said Dick rather dolefully, for he was beginning to wake up to the fact of what an enormous deal there was in the world that he did not know.
As he spoke, he picked up some of the red chips of the pine-root which had been sent flying by the strokes of the axe, to find that they were full of resin, smelling strongly of turpentine.
"Yes, it's full of it," said the squire; "that's one reason why the wood has kept without rotting. Here you two boys may as well do something for your bread and butter."
Dick said something to himself answering to nineteenth-century Bother! and awaited his father's orders.
"You can drag that root up to the yard. Get a rope round it and haul. Humph, no! it will be too heavy for you alone. Leave it."
"Yes, father," said Dick with a sigh of relief, for it was more pleasant to stand watching the men cutting the peat and the birds flying over, or to idle about the place, than to be dragging along a great sodden mass of pine-root.
"Stop!" cried the squire. "I don't want the men to leave their work. Go and fetch the ass, and harness him to it. You three donkeys can drag it up between you."
The boys laughed.
"I'm going up the river bank. Get it done before I get back."
"Yes, father," cried Dick. "Come along, Tom."
The task was now undertaken with alacrity, for there was somehow a suggestion to both of the lads of something in the nature of fun, in connection with getting the ass to drag that great root.
The companions ran along by the boggy field toward the farm buildings on the Toft, to seek out the old grey donkey, who was at that moment contemplatively munching some hay in a corner of the big yard, in whose stone walls, were traces of carving and pillar with groin and arch.
Now some people once started the idea that a donkey is a very stupid animal; and, like many more such theories, that one has been handed down to posterity, and believed in as a natural history fact, while donkey or ass has become a term of reproach for those not blessed with too much brain.
Winthorpe's donkey was by no means a stupid beast, and being thoroughly imbued with the idea that it was a slave's duty to do as little work as he possibly could for those who held him in bonds, he made a point of getting out of the way whenever he scented work upon the wind.
He was a grey old gentleman, whose years were looked upon as tremendous; and as he stood in the corner of the yard munching hay, he now and then scratched his head against an elaborately carved stone bracket in the wall which took the form of a grotesque face.
Then his jaws stopped, and it was evident that he scented something, for he raised his head slightly. Then he swung one great ear round, and then brought up the other with a sharp swing till they were both cocked forward and he listened attentively.
A minute before, and he was a very statue of a donkey, but after a few moments' attentive listening he suddenly became full of action, and setting up his tail he trotted round the yard over the rotten peat and ling that had been cut and tossed in, to be well trampled before mixing with straw and ploughing into the ground. He changed his pace to a gallop, and then, still growing more excited, he made straight for the rough gate so as to escape.
But the gate was fastened, though not so securely but that it entered into a donkey's brain that he might undo that fastening, as he had often undone it before, and then deliberately walked off into the fen, where succulent thistles grew.
This time, however, in spite of the earnest way in which he applied his teeth, he could not get that fastening undone; and, after striking at it viciously with his unshod hoof, he reared up, as if to leap over, but contented himself with resting his fore-legs on the rough top rail, and looking over at the free land he could not reach; and he was in this attitude when the two lads came up.
"Hullo, Solomon!" cried Dick. "Poor old fellow, then! Did you know we'd come for you?"
The donkey uttered a discordant bray which sounded like the blowing badly of a trumpet of defiance, and backing away, he trotted to the far end of the yard, and thrust his head into a corner.
"Where's the harness?" said Tom.
"In the stone barn," was the reply; and together the lads fetched the rough harness of old leather and rope, with an extra piece for fastening about the root.
"I say, Dick, he won't kick that root to pieces like he did the little tumbril," said Tom, who for convenience had placed the collar over his own head.
"Nor yet knock one side off like he did with the sled," replied Dick with a very vivid recollection of one of Solomon's feats. "Now, then, open the gate and let's pop the harness on. Stop a minute till I get a stick."
"Get a thick one," said Tom.
"Pooh! he don't mind a thick stick; he rather likes it. Hicky says it loosens his skin and makes him feel comfortable. Here, this will do. Must have a long one because of his heels."
"Oh, I say, Dick, look at the old rascal; he's laughing at us!"
It really seemed as if this were the case, for as the lads entered the yard Solomon lowered his head still more in its corner, and looked at them between his legs, baring his gums the while and showing his white teeth.
"Ah, I'll make him laugh—gimble, as old Dave calls it—if he gives us any of his nonsense! Now, you, sir, come out of that corner. Give me the collar, Tom."
As Dick relieved his friend of the collar, and held it ready to put over the donkey's head, though they were at least a dozen yards away, Solomon began to kick, throwing out his heels with tremendous force and then stamping with his fore-feet.
"Isn't he a pretty creature, Tom? He grows worse. Father won't sell him, because, he says, he's an old friend. He has always been my enemy."
"You always whacked him so," cried Tom.
"No, I didn't; I never touched him till he began it. Of course I wanted to ride him and make him pull the sled, and you know how he ran after me and bit me on the back."
"Yes, I know that somebody must have ill-used him first."
"I tell you they didn't. He's always been petted and spoiled. Why, that day when he kicked me and sent me flying into the straw I'd gone to give him some carrots."
"But didn't you tickle him or something?"
"No, I tell you. A nasty ungrateful brute! I've given him apples and turnips and bread; one Christmas I gave him a lump of cake; but no matter what you do, the worse he is. He's a natural savage, father says; and it isn't safe to go near him without a stick."
"Well, you've told me all that a dozen times," said Tom maliciously. "It's only an excuse for ill-using the poor thing."
"Say that again and I'll hit you," cried Dick.
"No, you won't. Here, give me the harness again and I'll put it on, only keep back with that stick. That's what makes him vicious."
"How clever we are!" cried Dick, handing back the collar. "There: go and try."
"Ah, I'll show you!" said Tom, taking the collar with its hames and traces attached, and going up toward the donkey, while Dick stood back, laughing.
"Take care, Tom; mind he don't bite!"
"He can't bite with his hind-legs, can he?" replied Tom. "I'll mind. Now, then, old fellow, turn round; I won't hurt you."
Solomon raised his tail to a horizontal position and held it out stiffly.
"Don't be a stupid," cried Tom; "I want your head, not your tail."
Dick burst into a roar of laughter, but Tom was not going to be beaten.
"You leave off laughing," he said, "and go farther back with that stick. That's right. Now, then, old boy, come on; turn round then."
Poor Tom went backwards and came down a couple of yards away in a sitting position, with the collar in his lap and an astonished look in his countenance.
"Oh, I am sorry, Tom!" cried Dick, running up. "You, Solomon, I'll half kill you. Are you hurt, Tom?"
"I don't know yet," said the lad, struggling up.
"Where did he kick you?" cried Dick, full of sympathy now for his friend.
"He didn't kick me at all," said Tom dolefully. "I was holding the collar right out and he kicked that, but it hit me bang in the front and hurt ever so."
"Let me take the harness; I'll get it on him."
"No, I won't," cried Tom viciously. "I will do it now. Here, give me that stick."
"Why, I thought you said I ill-used him!"
"And I'll ill-use him too," said Tom savagely, "if he doesn't come and have on his collar. Now, then, you, sir, come here," cried Tom sharply.
By this time the donkey had trotted to another corner of the yard, where he stood with his heels presented to his pursuers, and as first one and then the other made a dash at his head he slewed himself round and kicked out fiercely.
"This is a nice game," cried Dick at last, when they were both getting hot with the exercise of hunting the animal from corner to corner, and then leaping backward or sidewise to avoid his heels, "Now, just you tell me this, who could help walloping such a brute? Hold still will you!"
But Solomon—a name, by the way, which was given him originally from its resemblance to "Solemn-un," the latter having been applied to him by Hickathrift—refused to hold still. In fact he grew more energetic and playful every minute, cantering round the yard and dodging his pursuers in a way which would have done credit to a well-bred pony, and the chances of getting the collar on or bit into his mouth grew more and more remote.
"I tell you what let's do," cried Dick at last; "I'm not going to run myself off my legs to please him. I've got it!"
"I wish you'd got the donkey," grumbled Tom. "I don't see any fun in hunting him and nearly getting kicked over the wall."
"Well, don't be in a hurry," said Dick; "I know how to manage him. Here, catch hold of this harness. I know."
"You know!" grumbled Tom, whose side was sore from the donkey's kick upon the collar. "What are you going to do?"
"You shall see," cried Dick, busying himself with the wagon rope he had brought, and making a loop at one end, and then putting the other through it, so as to produce an easily running noose.
"What are you going to do with that?" asked Tom.
"Hold your noise," whispered Dick; "he's such an artful old wretch I don't know that he wouldn't understand us. I'm going to make you drive him round by me, and then I'm going to throw this over his head and catch him."