HIS BIG OPPORTUNITY
BY AMY LE FEUVRE
Author of "Probable Sons," "The Odd One," "Teddy's Button," etc, etc.
I. On the Garden Wall
II. A Song
III. Making An Opportunity
IV. An Awkward Visit
V. A Lost Donkey
VII. A Walnut Story
VIII. The Bertrams' Leap
IX. Making His Leap
X. A Cripple
XI. A Gift to the Queen
XIII. Old Principle
XV. An Unwelcome Proposal
XVI. David and Jonathan
XVII. Boy's Big Opportunity
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS.
Quite a Little Party of Friends to See Him Off
Old Principle Laughed at Dudley's Notion
"Now Then, You Rascals, What Are You Doing to My Donkey?"
"He's Dead, Ben—He's Dead!"
ON THE GARDEN WALL
They were sitting astride on the top of the old garden wall. Below them on the one side stretched a sweet old-fashioned English garden lying in the blaze of an August sun. In the distance, peeping from behind a wealth of creepers and ivy was the old stone house. It was at an hour in the afternoon when everything seemed to be at a standstill: two or three dogs lay on the soft green lawn fast asleep, an old gardener smoking his pipe and sitting on the edge of a wheelbarrow seemed following their example; and birds and insects only kept up a monotonous and drowsy dirge.
But the two little figures clad in white cricketting flannels, were full of life and motion as they kept up an eager and animated conversation on their lofty seat.
"You see, Dudley, if nothing happens, we will make it happen!"
"Then it isn't an opportunity."
"Yes it is. Why if those old fellows in olden times hadn't ridden off to look for adventures they would never have found them at home."
"But an opportunity isn't an adventure."
"Yes, it is, you stupid! An adventure is something that happens, and so is an opportunity."
The little speaker who announced this logic so dogmatically, was a slim delicate boy with white face, and large brown eyes, and a crop of dark unruly curls that had a trick of defying the hair cutter's skill, and of growing so erratically that "Master Roy's head," was pronounced quite unmanageable.
He was not a pretty boy, and was in delicate health, constantly subject to attacks of bronchitis and asthma, yet his spirit was undaunted, and as his old nurse often said, "his soul was too strong for his body."
Dudley, his little cousin, who sat facing him, on the contrary, was a true specimen of a handsome English boy. Chestnut hair and bright blue eyes, rosy cheeks, and an upright sturdy carriage, did much to commend him to every one's favor: yet for force of character and intellect he came far behind Roy.
He sat now pondering Roy's words, and kicking his heels against the wall, whilst his eyes roved over the road on the outside of the garden and away to a dark pine wood opposite.
"Here's one coming then," he said, suddenly; "now you'll have to use it."
"Who? What? Where?"
"It's a man; a tramp, a traveller or a highwayman, and he may be all the lot together! It's an opportunity, isn't it?"
Roy looked down the narrow lane outside the wall, and saw the figure of a man approaching. His face lit up with eager resolve.
"He's a stranger, Dudley; he doesn't belong to the village; we'll ask him who he is."
"Hulloo, you fellow," shouted Dudley in his shrill boyish treble; "where do you come from? You don't belong to this part."
The man looked up at the boys curiously.
"And who may ye be, a-wall climbin' and a breakin' over in folks' gardens to steal their fruit?"
"Don't you cheek us," said Roy, throwing his head up, and putting on his most autocratic air; "this is our garden and our wall, and the road you're walking on is our private road!"
"Then don't you take to insulting passers-by, or it will be the worse for ye!" retorted the man.
The boys were silent.
"I'm sure he isn't an opportunity," whispered Dudley.
But Roy would not be disconcerted.
"Look here," he said, adopting a conciliatory tone; "we're looking out for an opportunity to do some one some good, and then you came along, that's why we spoke to you. Now just tell us if we can do it to you."
"Yes," Dudley struck in: "you seem rather down, do you want anything that we can give you?"
The man glanced up at them to see if this was boyish impudence, but the faces bending down were earnest and grave enough, and he said with a short laugh,—
"Oh, I reckon there be just a few things I'm in want of; but as to your givin' of them to me that be quite a different matter. Don't suppose ye carry about jobs ready to hand in yer pockets, nor yet my set of tools in pawn, nor yet a pint o' beer and a good hunk of bread and meat for a starvin' feller! May be ye could tell me the way to the nearest pub, and stand me a drink there!"
Roy thrust his hand immediately into his pocket, and pulled out amongst a confused mass of boys' treasures a sixpence.
"I'll give you this if it will do you good," he said, holding it up proudly. "I've kept it a whole two days without spending it. It will give you some beer and bread and cheese, I expect. Is there anything else we can do for you?"
"If you go to Mr. Selby, the rector, he'll put you in the way of work," shouted out Dudley, as the man catching the sixpence flung down to him slouched off with muttered thanks.
"No parsons for me," was the rejoinder.
The boys watched his figure disappear down the road, and then Roy said reflectively,—
"Too many opportunities like that would empty our pockets."
"And I wonder if it will really do him good," said Dudley; then glancing over into the garden, he added: "Here comes Aunt Judy, she's calling us."
Down the winding gravel path came their aunt; a strikingly handsome woman. She looked up at her little nephews and laughed when she came to the wall.
"Oh, you imps, do you know I've been hunting for you everywhere! You will have a fall like Humpty Dumpty if you choose such high perches. Now what comfort can you find, may I ask, in such a blazing breakneck seat? Do you find broken bottles a soft cushion?"
"We've cleared those rotten things away here," said Dudley, preparing to clamber down; "it's our watch tower, and we've a first-rate view, you just come up and see!"
"Thank you, I would rather not attempt the climb. What have you been talking about? Jonathan looks as grave as a judge."
Roy looked down at his aunt without moving.
"If you won't laugh or tell granny, we'll tell you, because you never split if you say you won't."
"All right, I promise."
"Well, you see, this morning Mr. Selby gave us this for our copy: 'As ye have opportunity do good unto all men,' and he told us of a King somebody—I forget who—who used to write down at the end of each day on a slate,—if he hadn't done any good to any one,—'I've lost a day.' We thought it would be a good plan to start this afternoon and see what we could do. We tried on old Hal first, but he didn't seem to like it. He was uncovering some of the frames, and so we went and uncovered all of them, and then he said we had spoilt some of his seedlings, and nearly went into a fit with rage. I turned the hose on him to cool him down. He is asleep in the wheelbarrow now; we can see him from here. We really came up here to get out of his way, his language was awful!"
"Come down, you monkey. I can't carry on a conversation with you so far above me. Softly now. Bless the boys, how they can stick their toes into such a wall is past my comprehension! Granny wants to see you before your tea, so come along. And who else has been benefited by your good deeds?"
They were walking toward the house by this time, each boy hanging on to one of her arms. It was easy to see the affection between them.
Dudley eagerly poured out the story of the tramp, and Miss Bertram listened sympathetically.
"Never send a man to a public house, boys—and never give him money for beer. Perhaps he may have come down in the world through love of it. You know I am always ready to give any one a relief ticket. That's the best way to help such cases."
"Yes, but that would be your doing not ours."
"Money is a difficult way of helping," said Miss Bertram; "don't get into the habit of thinking money is the only thing that will do people good. It too often does them harm."
"Oh, I say! that's hard lines on me, when my last sixpence has gone, and I was going to get a stunning ball old Principle has in his shop!"
Miss Bertram laughed at Roy's woe-begone little face.
"Never mind," she said, consolingly; "your intentions were good, and you must buy your experience by mistakes as you go through life. Now go into granny softly, both of you, and talk nicely to her. She will be one person you can do good to, by brightening her up a little."
Dudley made a grimace at Roy; but both boys entered the house, and crept into a cool half-darkened drawing-room on tiptoe, with hushed voices and sober demeanor. A stern looking old lady sat upright in her easy chair, knitting busily. She greeted the boys rather coldly.
"What have you been doing with yourselves? I sent for you some time ago. Do you not remember that I like you to come to me every afternoon about this hour?"
"Yes, granny," said Roy, climbing into an easy chair opposite her; "we were coming only we didn't know it was so late: we were busy talking."
"Boys' chatter ought not to come before a grandmother's wishes."
There was silence; then Dudley struck in boldly:
"We were talking about good things, granny. It wasn't chatter. Roy and I are going to look out for opportunities every day of our lives. Do you think an opportunity is the same as an adventure? I don't think you have adventures of doing good, do you?"
"Yes," asserted Roy, bobbing up and down in his chair excitedly; "King Arthur and his knights did always. They never rode through a wood without having an adventure, and it was always doing good, wasn't it, granny?"
Conversation never slackened when the boys were present, and Mrs. Bertram, though shrinking at all times from their high spirits and love of fun, yet looked forward every day to their short visit. She was a confirmed invalid, and rarely left the house, and her daughter Julia in consequence took her place as mistress over the household.
Three years before, Roy and Dudley arrived within a month of each other, to find a home with their grandmother. Roy, whose proper name was Fitzroy, came from Canada, both his parents having died out there. Dudley's father had died when he was a baby, but his mother had married again in India; and upon her death which occurred not long after, his stepfather had sent him home to his grandmother. From the first day that they met, the boys were sworn friends; and their aunt dubbed them "David" and "Jonathan" after having been an unseen witness of a very solemn vow transacted between them under the shadow of the pines, only a week after their meeting.
Roy's delicate health was a cause of great anxiety to his grandmother, and if it had not been for Miss Bertram's wise tact and judgment, he would have been imprisoned in one room and swathed in cotton wool most of the year round. He had the advantage of having an old nurse who had brought him up from his birth, and had come from Canada with him; and she was as vigilant and experienced in managing his ailments as could be desired. Poor little Roy, with his uncertain health, was heir to a very large property of his father's not far away; and the responsibilities awaiting him, and the knowledge that he would have so much power in his hands, perhaps had the effect of making him weigh life more seriously than would most boys of his age.
Later on after their visit to their grandmother was over, and tea had been finished in the nursery, he wandered into his own little room, and leaning out of his window, looked up into the clear sky above.
"I feel so small," was his wistful thought, "and heaven is so big; but I'll do something big enough to get, 'Well done good and faithful servant,' said to me when I die, I hope. And I'll try every day till I do it!"
"Come here, boys. I have had some new music from town, and here is a song that you will like to listen to, I expect."
It was Miss Bertram who spoke, and her appearance in the nursery just saved a free fight. Wet afternoons were always a sore trial to the boys: their mornings were generally spent at the Rectory under Mr. Selby's tuition, but their afternoons were their own, and it was hard to be kept within four walls, and expected to make no sound to disturb their grandmother's afternoon nap.
The old nurse was nodding in her chair, and her charges with jackets off and rolled up shirt sleeves were advancing toward each other on tiptoe, and muttering their threats in wrathful whispers.
"I'll show you I'm no coddle!"
"And I'll show you I'm no lazy lubber!"
At the sound of their aunt's voice they stopped; and each picked up his jacket with some confusion, Dudley saying contentedly, "All right, old fellow, pax now, and we'll finish it up to-morrow."
"Aunt Judy, do let us come into the drawing-room then, and hear you sing; we're sick of this old nursery, we're too big to be kept here."
Roy spoke scornfully, but his aunt shook her head at him:
"Do you know this is the room I love best in the house? Your father and I used it till we were double your age, and no place ever came up to it in our estimation. Don't be little prigs and think yourselves men before you're boys!"
"Why, Aunt Judy, we've been boys ever since we were born!"
"I look upon you as infants now," retorted Miss Bertram, laughing. "Come along—tiptoe past granny's room, please, and no racing downstairs."
"We'll slide down the rails instead, we always do when granny is asleep."
"Not when I am with you, thank you."
A few minutes afterward, and the boys were standing on either side of the piano listening with delight to the song that has stirred so many boyish hearts:
"'Tis a story, what a story, tho' it never made a noise Of cherub-headed Jake and Jim, two little drummer boys Of all the wildest scamps that e'er provoked a sergeant's eye, They were first in every wickedness, but one thing could not lie, And they longed to face the music, when the tidings from afar Brought the news of wild disaster in a wild and savage war. Said the Colonel, 'How can babies of battle bear the brunt?' Said the little orphan rascals, 'please Sir, take us to the front! And we'll play to the men in the far-off land, When their eyes for home are dim; If the Indians come, they shall hear our drum In the van where the fight is grim. Our lads we know, to the death will go, If they're led by Jake and Jim.'
"In the battle, 'mid the rattle, and the deadly hail of lead, The two were in their glory—What did they know of dread? And fierce the heathen cry arose across the Indian plain, And 'twas Home, for the bravest there would never be again, The raw recruits were restless, and they counted not the cost, And the Colonel shouted, 'Steady lads, stand fast, or else we're lost.' A rush! 'twas like an avalanche! a clash of steel and red! A shock like mountain thunder, then the reg'ment turned and fled. 'Give me the drum, take the fife,' said Jake, 'And with all your might and main, Play the old step now, for the reg'ment's sake As they scatter along the plain. We'll play them up to the front once more, Tho' we never come back again.'
"Then might the world have seen two little dots in red, Facing the foe, when the rest had turned and fled! So young, so brave and gay, while others held their breath, They played ev'ry inch of the way to meet their death; And then at last the reg'ment turned, for vengeance ev'ry man To save the lads they turned and fought as only demons can; They swept the foe before them across the mountain rim, But victory that day could never bring back Jake or Jim. And they silently stood where the children fell, Not a word of triumph said, For they knew who had led as they bowed each head, And looked at the quiet dead; That the fight was won, and the reg'ment saved, By those two little dots in red."
Miss Bertram stole a glance at the boys' faces as she finished singing.
With a wriggle and a twist Dudley turned his back upon her; but not before she had seen the blue eyes swimming with tears, and heard a choking sob being hastily swallowed. Roy stood erect, his little face quivering with emotion, and his usually pale cheek flushed a deep crimson, whilst his small determined mouth and chin looked more resolute and daring than ever. His hands thrust deep in the pockets of his knickerbockers he looked straight before him and repeated with emphasis,
"They played every inch of the way to meet their death!"
"Regular little heroes, weren't they?" said Miss Bertram.
"Rather," came from Roy's lips, and then without another word he ran out of the room.
"Do you like it, David?" Miss Bertram asked, touching Dudley lightly on the shoulder.
"No—I—don't—it makes a fellow in a blue funk." And two fists were hastily brushed across the eyes.
"Shall I sing you something more cheerful?"
"No, thanks, not to-night, I think I'll go to Roy."
And Dudley, too, made his exit, leaving his aunt touched and amused at the effect of the song.
An hour after the rain had ceased, and the sun was shining out. Down the village street walked the two boys enjoying their freedom more soberly than was their wont.
"We must, we must, we must be heroes, Dudley!"
"Yes, if we get a chance."
"But why shouldn't we have it as well as those two boys. I wonder sometimes what God meant us to do when He made us! And I'm not going to be in the dumps because I'm not very strong. For look at Nelson: old Selby told us he was always very seedy and shaky, always ill; and not being big in body doesn't matter, for Nelson was a little man and so was Napoleon, and lots of the great men have been short and stumpy and hideous! I mean to do something before I die, if only an opportunity will come! Do you remember the story of the little chap in Holland, who put his hand in the hole in the sand bank, and kept the whole ocean from coming in and washing away hundreds of towns and villages? If I could only do a thing like that, something that would do good to millions of people; something that would be worth living for! If I could save somebody's life from fire, or drowning, or some kind of danger! Don't you long for something of that sort, eh?"
"I don't know that I do," was the slow response; "but I should like you to get a chance of it if you want it so much."
"Oh, wasn't it splendid of those two little chaps—a whole regiment! And only those two who didn't run away! I think I could stand fire like that, couldn't you?"
"I would with you."
"But I don't expect I'll ever go into the army." This in sorrowful tones.
"Oh, they'd never have me. I'm too thin round the chest; nurse says I'm like a bag of bones, and I wouldn't make a smart soldier. Now you'd be a splendid one, no one could be ashamed of you."
"Well, I won't go without you."
"But I'll do something worth living for," repeated Roy, tossing up his head and giving a stamp as he spoke; "and I'll seize the first opportunity that comes."
Dudley was silent. They had now reached the low stone bridge over the river, a favorite resort amongst all the village boys for fishing; and quite a little group of them were collected there. Roy and Dudley were welcomed eagerly as though perhaps at times they were inclined to assume patronizing and masterful airs; yet their extreme generosity and love for all country sport made them general favorites with the villagers.
Roy was soon in the midst of an eager discussion about the best bait for trout; and was presently startled by a heavy splash over the bridge. Looking up, to his amazement, he saw Dudley struggling in the water.
"Help, Roy, I'm drowning!"
Both boys were capital swimmers, but Roy saw that Dudley seemed incapable of keeping himself up, and in one second he threw off his jacket, and dived head foremost off the bridge to the rescue. The current of the river was strong here, for a mill wheel was only a short distance off; and it was hard work to swim safely ashore. Roy accomplished it successfully amidst the cheers of the admiring group on the bridge; and when once on dry ground again, neither of the boys seemed the worse for the wetting. In the hubbub that ensued Dubley was not questioned as to the cause of the accident; but it appeared that his feet had got entangled in some string and netting that one of the boys had brought with him to the bridge, and it was this that had prevented him from swimming.
"It's awfully nice that I had the chance of helping you," said Roy, as the two boys were running home as fast as they could to change their wet clothes; "I didn't hurt you in the water, did I? I believe I gave a pretty good tug to your hair, I was awfully glad you hadn't had your hair cut lately."
"You've saved my life," said Dudley, staring at Roy with a peculiar gravity; "if you hadn't dashed over to me, I should have been sucked down by that old wheel, and should have been a dead man by this time. You've done to-day what you were longing to do."
"Yes, but I tell you I felt awfully squeamish when I saw you in the water and thought I might be too late."
As they neared the house, Roy's pace slackened.
"Go on, Dudley, and leave me, I can't get on, I believe that horrid old asthma is coming on, I'll follow slowly."
"I'm not quite such a cad," was Dudley's retort, and then hoisting Roy up on his back, as if that mode of proceeding was quite a usual occurrence, he made his way into the house.
They crept up to their bedrooms and changed their wet clothes before they showed themselves to any one. Then Dudley waxed eloquent for the occasion, and the story was told in drawing-room and servants' hall, till every one was loud in their praises of the little rescuer.
"He looks too small to have done it," said Miss Bertram, smiling; for though Roy was Dudley's senior by two months, he was a good head shorter.
Roy got rather impatient under this adulation.
"Oh, shut up, Dudley, don't be such an ass, as if I could have done anything else!"
An hour after, and Roy was sitting up in bed speechless and panting, with the bronchitis kettle in full play, and nurse trying vainly to battle with one of his worst bronchial attacks.
"I say "—he gasped at last; "do you think—I'm going to die—this time?"
"Surely no, my pet. It's more asthma than bronchitis; I'll pull you round, please God."
Midnight came, and when nurse left the room for a minute she found a small figure crouched down outside the door.
It was Dudley.
"Oh, nurse, he's very bad, isn't he? Is he going to die? What shall I do! I shall be his murderer, I've killed him!"
Dudley's eyes were wild with terror, and nurse tried to soothe him.
"Don't talk nonsense, but go to bed; he'll be better in the morning, I hope. It's just the wet, and the strain of it that's done it. There's none to blame. You couldn't help it, and he's been as bad as this before and pulled through. Go to bed, laddie, and ask God to make him better."
Dudley crept back to bed, and flung himself down on his pillows with a fit of bitter weeping.
"She says I couldn't help it; oh, God, make him better, make him better, do forgive me! I never thought of this!"
MAKING AN OPPORTUNITY
It was two days before Dudley was allowed to see the little invalid. The doctor had been in constant attendance; but all danger was over now, and Roy as usual was rapidly picking up his strength again.
"His constitution has wonderful rallying powers," the old doctor said; "he is like a bit of india rubber!"
It seemed to Dudley that Roy's face had got wonderfully white and small; and there was a weary worn look in his eyes, as he turned round to greet him.
"Now sit down and talk to him, but don't let him do the talking," was nurse's advice as she left the boys together.
Dudley sat down by the bed, and squeezed hold of the little hand held out to him.
"I'm so sorry, old chap," he said, nervously; "do you feel really better? I've been so miserable."
"I'm first-rate now," was the cheerful response; "it's awfully nice getting your breath back again; it's only made me feel a little tired, that's all!"
"It was all me!"
"Why that has been my comfort," said Roy, with shining eyes; "I felt when I was very bad, that if I died, I might have lived for something. It would have been lovely to die for you, Dudley—at least you know to have got myself ill from that reason; it's so very tame when I get bad from nothing at all; but I'm well again now, so I know God is letting me live to do something else!"
"I was the one that ought to have been made ill to punish me," blurted out Dudley, and then he was silent.
Roy's eyes rested on his flushed face with some wonder.
"It wasn't wicked of you to fall into the river; you couldn't help it."
A crimson flush crept over Dudley's face up to the very roots of his hair; he picked the fringe of the counterpane restlessly between his fingers, and kicked his heels against the legs of his chair. Silence again: Roy looked steadily at him; and then an expression of astonishment and bewilderment flitted across his face, followed by one of strange, conviction.
"Dudley, look at me."
Roy's tone was peremptory, but Dudley never moved, until the command was given in a sharper tone. Then he raised his head, but his blue eyes had a guilty harassed look in them, and he dropped them quickly again.
"It's no good; I've found you out. Did you tie up your feet like that yourself?"
After a minute, in a sepulchral tone, came the words, "Yes, when you weren't looking!"
Roy lay back on his pillows with a sigh.
A little disappointment mingled with his feelings which were somewhat mixed. After a pause, he said, "You are a good fellow! To think of doing that for me! What would you have done if I hadn't jumped in to save you?"
Then Dudley raised his head:
"I knew you wouldn't fail me," he said, triumphantly; "I knew I could trust you!"
Roy put out his thin little arm and drew Dudley's bonny face down by the side of his on the pillow.
"I don't think," he whispered, "that even I could have been plucky enough to do that—not in sight of that old mill wheel!"
Neither spoke for a few minutes; then Dudley said,
"I should have been your murderer if you had died. That has been the worst of it. But you did like saving a drowning fellow, didn't you?"
"Ye-es, but it wasn't quite real—at least it isn't as if you really had tumbled in by accident."
"Well but I only did what you said we must do. I made an opportunity."
And after this remark Roy had nothing more to say; but neither he nor Dudley ever enlightened any one as to the true cause of the accident.
When Roy had quite recovered, the two boys set out one afternoon to visit their greatest friend in the village. This was the old man every one called "old Principle." He lived by himself in a curious three-cornered house at the extreme end of the village, and kept a little general shop where everything but eatables could be obtained.
"I keep every article that man, woman, or child can want for their use, for their homes, their work or their play; but food and drink I will not cater for. It's against my principles to sell perishable goods, and I will not be the one to minister to the very lowest animal wants of my fellow creatures."
This was his favorite speech, from which it may be judged he was somewhat of a character.
He had several hobbies, and was a well-read man and superior to those around him; and perhaps this was the cause of his holding himself aloof from most of the villagers. They termed him "cranky and cracked," but his goods were always acceptable, and he was thoroughly successful in his business. When his shop was closed he would go out on the hills, and there spend his time studying geology and botany. He knew the name of every plant and insect, and the strata of the earth for many miles round; and it was out of doors that the boys first made his acquaintance.
They found him on this afternoon seated behind his counter mending an eight-day clock.
"Well, old Principle, how are you?" said Roy, climbing up to the counter and sitting comfortably on it with his legs dangling in mid air; "we haven't seen you for ages."
"Are you going out this evening?" enquired Dudley, as he proceeded to follow Roy's example.
"To be sure, when my work is done," responded the old man pushing up his spectacles and regarding the boys with kindly eyes; "these light evenings are my delight, as you know. If you sit still till I have finished this clock, I will show you a treasure I found yesterday."
"Can you mend everything?" asked Roy, curiously; "I never knew you understood about clocks."
"I've learned to mend most things," was the answer; "it isn't given to every one to make, and I'm one of the menders in the world not the makers. There's one thing I can't mend—and that is broken hearts."
There was silence: Roy broke it at last by saying with knitted brow, "I'd rather be a maker than a mender, but lots of people aren't either."
"Quite right," nodded the old man; "most folk are breakers."
"I wish I was as clever as you," said Dudley; "you mend umbrellas, and kettles, and plates, and windows, and gates, and all sorts. How did you learn?"
"Well, I ain't ashamed of owning that my father was just a travelling tinker, and when I was a little fellow I used to go round with him and see him do most things. It was from travelling through the country I learned to love it so. And my father, he was a thoughtful man, and when I used to ask where the tin came from, and where the iron and where the lead, he took to learning of it up so that he could answer me; and then I came to find that most of our comforts come from underground, and so I fell to digging. Ah, youngsters, earth is a wonderful treasure house!"
The clock was done. Old Principle put it carefully by and then mounted on some wooden steps, and took down a tin saucepan. The boys knew the shelf well; as though apparently it was just a row of tinware for sale, many a pot and pan held treasures that geologists would have given a great deal to possess.
Now when old Principle held out a peculiar shaped stone with loving pride, Roy and Dudley pressed forward to look at it.
"I know, it's a Roman hammer," shouted out Dudley.
"It's a Saxon jug," suggested Roy.
"It's part of a jaw of a mammoth many thousands of years old, and there are two teeth in perfect preservation," old Principle said solemnly.
"Where did you find it?"
"Ah, you must come and see! In a cave that I have only just discovered, and which must originally have been by the side of a river. I'll take you there to-night if you can get permission to come."
Nothing delighted the boys more than an expedition with old Principle. They promised to be down at his shop punctually at half-past seven that evening, and then the conversation drifted into other channels.
"Old Principle, do you think we ought to make opportunities?" questioned Dudley, presently; "Roy thinks we ought, and I did make one the other day, but it didn't turn out well."
"Ay, Master Roy is always for making," said the old man with a smile; "he will try and cram his life with what will come fast enough naturally, if he only waits."
"But will it?" questioned Roy, flushing up with eagerness; "do you think it will? I'm longing to do something big and grand and good; I mayn't live to grow up you know, and I'm sure we're meant to do something when we're boys."
"We're trying to do good to all men as we have opportunity," said Dudley, gravely.
"Ay, stick to that, boys, and you'll succeed. There's none too small to be true philanthropists."
"What is a philanthropist?" asked Roy.
"A man who benefits his fellow creatures. 'Tis a good principle to keep in mind."
"But it's difficult for boys to do grown-up people good. They always do boys good."
"Now look here, Master Roy. I've lived and learned where you haven't, and I try and pass my principles on to you. That's how I do you good. You come to me and take what I give you and seeing you act out the advice I offers you does me good. You do me good too, every time you comes to see me; it's cheery to hear and see you."
"But that's very tame for us," said Roy, a little scornfully.
"Oh, well, if your own likes must come into the question, it's a different story! I didn't know it mattered about our feelings as long as the good is done! 'Tis a bad principle to try to please others only when it pleases ourselves."
Roy looked a little ashamed of himself. He said no more on the subject, and shortly after he and Dudley ran home to tea.
They were very disappointed when their aunt refused to let them go out again that evening.
"It is too damp a night for Jonathan to be wandering through wet grass and bog. You can go, David, if you like, but he must wait for another opportunity."
"I shan't go without Roy," said Dudley, sturdily.
"We'll come and make a cave in the attic," suggested Roy, trying to be cheerful.
And for the rest of that evening they were absorbed in making a great dust and racket amongst lumber boxes far away from their grandmother's hearing.
AN AWKWARD VISIT
"And how do you know a river has been here?"
"By the soil and by the relics I have found. Look at this fossil. Do you see the outline of the fish? Fish don't live on dry ground."
"There might have been a fishman passing by who dropped one out of his cart."
Old Principle laughed at Dudley's sceptical notion, and went on shovelling out earth with great alacrity. It was Saturday afternoon: old Principle had shut up his shop and taken the boys up to the hills surrounding the little village, where in a ravine between two precipitous crags, in the midst of a green bower of ferns and moss, he was hard at work excavating an old cave that had been buried for many years out of sight.
Dudley and Roy were eagerly helping and chattering as only boys know how.
"This little ravine has been formed by a mountain stream rushing down," continued the old man, resting on his spade for a minute; "'tis a good principle, Master Dudley, to trust grown-up folks' knowledge better than your own."
"I wish," said Roy, reflectively, "that this cave was nearer home; it would be so lovely to come out whenever we wanted to, wouldn't it, Dudley? Perhaps some king has hidden away in it, or soldier when he was pursued by his enemies!"
"Hulloo," said Dudley, looking up the hill; "here is such a funny looking woman coming down with a donkey, her skirt is nearly up to her knees, and she has a man's boots on."
Old Principle paused in his work, and in a minute or two greeted the newcomer.
"Good-afternoon, Mrs. Cullen, how's your husband to-day?"
"Badly, very badly, but I's forced to leave he. I lock the door and put the key in me pocket, for I's bin up the hill yonner cuttin' peat sin seven o'clock this mornin'. He do get awfu' lonesome, he say, an' if me niece hadn't a married and gone to 'Merica, I should have kept she to tend him."
"Who is she?" asked Roy, as after a few more words the woman moved on.
"She lives at the bottom of the hill over there. Her husband has been ill of consumption these last two years, and she works to support them both. She's a hard-working woman, is Martha Cullen; she works in the fields harvesting just now; if I could feel I'd be welcome I would go to sit with her husband sometimes, but she's very queer, she won't let a neighbor come near him, I have tried more than once. It seems hard on him to be bedridden there day after day without a soul to speak to; or any one to give him a drink!"
Roy gazed thoughtfully after the retreating figure of the woman, and then turned his attention again to the cave.
When an hour later he and Dudley were walking home footsore, and rather dirty, but with little bundles of treasures from the cave in their grubby hands, he startled his cousin by saying—
"To-morrow we'll go and see Martha Cullen's husband. It's an opportunity for us."
"How shall we get in?" queried Dudley.
"Climb in at the window. She told old Principle she would be out all day at Farmer Stubbs. We'll go and do him good."
"We'll wash his face, and make him a cup of tea, and sweep his room, and give him his medicine," responded Roy, readily; "that's what nurse does when she goes to visit any of Aunt Judy's sick people."
Dudley did not look as if he relished the prospect before him.
"That's girls' and women's work," he said; "boys needn't do that kind of thing."
Roy flushed up angrily.
"All right, if you don't want to come, stay at home. It is a week since we started to do good when the opportunity came, and we haven't done any good to any one. I'm not going to waste any more time."
Then after a pause he added, "Besides I think it will be rather fun breaking into a strange cottage; we may have to get down the chimney."
At this Dudley's face cleared.
"I'll come," he said; "we'll go directly after dinner."
"And we'll stow away a little of our pudding to take him—sick people always have puddings."
They had no difficulty in carrying out this plan. They always dined in the nursery, and if nurse wondered at the amount of pudding that her charges managed to consume that day, her old eyes were not sharp enough to detect the transfer from plates to pockets. She sent them out into the garden to play, and they soon were scampering out of the back gate and along the road toward the little cottage at the bottom of the hill.
It was a warm afternoon, and when they at length came near it they threw themselves down on the grass to rest.
"We mustn't frighten the old man," said Dudley, gazing at the thatched cottage with a critical eye. "I see the windows are tight shut in front, but there's one open at the side; we must creep up very quietly and get in before he sees us, and then we can explain who we are."
"And if the window won't do, we'll try the chimney, it looks a jolly big one."
Then after a pause—
"I suppose he'll be glad to see us?"
"Of course he will. He must be dreadfully dull all alone."
A few minutes after, they were holding a whispered consultation outside a small pantry window through which Roy was going to squeeze himself.
"I'll go first. It will be a tight fit for you, Dudley, but I'll give you a good pull through, and you must hold your breath well in."
"It's a kind of housebreaking," Dudley said, ripples of fun passing over his face; "I don't mind visiting sick people if we go in at their windows like this!"
But Roy's little face was full of anxious gravity and purpose, and he checked Dudley's inclination to laugh at once.
He accomplished his part successfully, and then poor Dudley was hauled and pulled at till purple in the face, and breathless with exertion, he exclaimed, "I'm being squashed to a jelly; let go, I can't do it!"
"Just one more try—now then—there, we've done it!"
But Roy's exclamation of delight was drowned in an awful crash, as Dudley swept off some shelves a bowl of milk, two plates, and a cup of soup, and fell to the ground himself in the midst of it all.
Immediately a man's voice called out, "Who's there! Hi! Help! Thieves! Help!"
Roy darted into the kitchen, and confronted a tall, hollow-cheeked man who had scrambled out of his bed in the chimney corner, and stood trembling from head to foot clutching hold of the bed-post, and coughing violently.
He did not seem at all appeased at the sight of the boys, but shook his fist at them in a paroxysm of fright and rage.
"Go away, you young blackguards—a robbin' honest folk, and a darin' to show yer impudent faces, and disturbin' a dyin' man, knowin' as he's too bad to give yer the hidin' ye desarve!"
Roy was quite taken aback.
"You're quite mistaken—let us explain—we've come to see you and do you good. Don't you know who we are? We live at the Manor. Look—get back into bed again, you'll take cold. We've brought you some pudding."
Here a parcel of currant pudding was taken out of his jacket pocket and held out temptingly.
"A' don't believe a word! Ye've been in the pantry a smashin' the missus' things, and a eatin' and a drinkin' all ye can lay hands on—begone, I tell ye!"
"That was me," put in Dudley, edging up to the irate invalid; "you see the door was locked and we had to come in at the window, and I'm rather fat about the shoulders, and Roy jerked me through too quick and I fell amongst some plates. But we really haven't stolen anything, we aren't robbers!"
"Begone, ye rascals!" repeated the old man, and then such a violent fit of coughing took possession of him that he sank back on his bed perfectly exhausted and helpless, waving them away and shaking his head at them when they tried to approach him.
Dudley looked doubtfully at Roy.
"I'm afraid we aren't doing him any good," he said, slowly. "He won't let us."
"No," was Roy's response, "we must go, I suppose. He is a foolish, stupid old man, or he would listen to us and let us explain."
Then advancing again to the sick man Roy said slowly and solemnly, "You'll be very sorry one day when you know how you've treated us, and we shall never, never try to see you again, or bring you pudding or comfort you, never! If you had let us, we should have washed your face and hands, and made you some gruel, and given you your medicine, and then sat down by your bed and talked nicely to you, but you won't let us do you good, so we shall leave you, and if you're lonely locked in here all day with no one to speak to, it's your own fault!"
Then holding his head up bravely, Roy marched out of the kitchen, and Dudley followed him with some misgivings as to his exit again by the pantry window. But Roy solved this difficulty.
"Look here, the key is in the back door; we will unlock it and get out properly. I'm sorry we've smashed those plates."
They walked home in the deepest dejection; as they went through the village there met them on the bridge the same man that had passed them when on the garden wall. He was much the worse for drink, and seemed inclined to be quarrelsome.
"Look 'ee here now, I'll just trouble 'ee to give me another sixpence, young gent, or I'll help myself, and no nonsense, for I'm the feller for fightin'!"
He stood barring their way, lurching from side to side, and brandishing a stick in his hand.
Neither of the boys were daunted. Dudley shouted out,
"Let us by at once, or we'll make you! You'd better look out how you cheek us!"
And Roy in a moment had his jacket off, and was rolling up his shirt sleeves.
"Come on, Dudley, we'll lick him into shape, if he dares to touch us!"
What might have befallen our two little heroes cannot be told, for at this critical juncture the rector came up, and in stern, commanding tones ordered the man on.
"That stamp of man is a pest in the place," he said; "he won't be influenced for good but hangs about the ale-houses and lives on the proceeds of his begging. If people only knew the harm they do in giving him money instead of a little honest work! Well, boys, run along home, it's a good thing I came up to stop a free fight. How do you think you two atoms could have got the better of a man like that? 'Discretion is the better part of valor' remember. Keep your fists for a good cause. And never entice a drunken man to fight. It is a degrading spectacle."
Saying which Mr. Selby passed on, and Roy and Dudley walked home without saying a word to each other.
By the time they had finished their tea, they recovered their spirits, and were in the midst of an exciting game of cricket in a field adjoining the house with the old coachman and the stable-boy, when a summons came to them from the house to come in at once to their aunt.
"What's up, I wonder!" exclaimed Dudley, as he raced Roy up to the front door; "Aunt Judy never sends for us at dinner time."
They found their aunt in the library. She was in her dinner dress and the dinner gong was sounding in the hall, but her face was puzzled as she turned from a woman talking to her, to the boys.
"My nephews are little gentlemen; you must be mistaken," she was saying.
Roy and Dudley recognized the woman immediately. It was Mrs. Cullen, and their hearts sank.
"Come here, boys," Miss Bertram said; "I have been hearing a strange story from Mrs. Cullen, of two boys breaking into her house while she was away this afternoon, frightening her dying husband so much that the doctor fears he won't outlive the night, and breaking, and stealing things from her pantry. She insists upon it that it was you; her husband told her so, but I cannot believe it. You would have no object in behaving so wickedly."
Dudley's cheeks were crimson, and he hung his head in shame. Roy, as usual, was not daunted.
"It's all a great mistake, Aunt Judy, we never stole a thing; we went to see him and take him some pudding and do him good. We had to get in at the pantry window because the doors were all locked, and we did spill some milk and some soup, and broke a few plates. We couldn't make him understand we weren't robbers, so we came away again—and we're very sorry."
Mrs. Cullen turned furiously upon them, and her language was so abusive, that Miss Bertram sent the boys away, and brought the poor woman to reason by quiet, persuasive words.
"I will enquire into the matter. I cannot quite understand their motive; boys are thoughtless, and perhaps their intentions were good. I know they will be extremely sorry at the result of their visit. If you come with me to the housekeeper she will give you some good, strong soup for your husband. I will come and see him myself the first thing to-morrow morning."
It was not till after she had dined with her mother, that Miss Bertram sent for her little nephews again, and then she gave them a severer scolding than they had received from her for a long time. They crept up to bed that night feeling very woe-begone.
"I'm sure we'd better give up these opportunities," said Dudley, disconsolately, as they paused at an old staircase window on their way to their rooms; "you see this is the third one, and they all turn out badly. There was that tramp who must have got drunk with your sixpence, and then there was saving me, and that made you so awfully ill, and now here's this old fellow that perhaps we shall make die. It all goes wrong, somehow."
Roy looked out of the window with knitted brow.
"I was thinking of that King—Bruce—who saw the spider try three times and then succeed. We must try again, that's all! I shan't give up yet. It is really a big opportunity I'm looking for!"
And Roy laid his head down on the pillow that night, steadfastly purposing to continue his role of benefiting the human race.
A LOST DONKEY
Fortunately for the boys, John Cullen got over his fright and took a turn for the better, but Miss Bertram began to exercise more control over their many spare hours. She took them out driving with her in the afternoon, or expeditions by foot; sometimes to some farmhouse to tea, sometimes to some neighboring squire who had young ones to entertain them. And Dudley in his happy, careless way soon put all thoughts of improved opportunities out of his head. He was ready enough to put into action any proposal of Roy's, but left alone he was perfectly content to enjoy himself in his own easy fashion; and Roy seemed to be willing to let the matter rest, as he never now alluded to it.
But one morning two or three weeks later, as the boys were returning from the Rectory with their satchels in their hands, they met an old man they knew in deep distress.
"What's the matter, Roger?" asked Roy; "why are you muttering away and shaking your head so?"
"Ay, young master, I be in a sorrowful plight. My donkey has strayed away and I cannot find she nowheres. I've been up over the hills, and not a sign of she! And it's to-morrow that's market day, and how I'm to get my veggetubbles to town is more'n I can tell 'ee!"
"She can't be lost; when did you have her last?"
"'Twas yest'day mornin'. Ay, she be just a kickin' up her heels miles away and a laughin' at her poor old master. She be a terrible beast for strayin', and I just let her out on the green for a bit thinkin' to give her a pleasure, and that's how she treats me, the ungrateful creature! I heerd she were seen on the hills, but I'm a weary of trampin' up and down 'em."
"We'll go out on the hills and look for her this afternoon," said Roy, eagerly.
"If Aunt Judy will let us," added Dudley.
But Miss Bertram having gone out to lunch with some friends could not be asked, so the two boys set out after their early dinner with light hearts.
"It's doing old Roger good, and ourselves too," said Roy; "I'm longing to have a good outing, and we needn't be back very early, for granny isn't well enough to see us to-day, nurse said."
It was a delicious afternoon for a ramble; a soft breeze was blowing, and the sun was not unpleasantly strong. The boys did a good deal of looking for the missing donkey, but also managed to combine with that a few other things, such as bird-nesting, picking wild strawberries, and enjoying themselves as only boys can, when roaming about in the open air. At last rather late in the afternoon they spied in the distance a donkey, and delighted to think their quest was at an end, they hastened up to it.
Dudley had brought some carrots in his pocket, but the donkey was utterly indifferent to such a dainty; she waited till the boys were nearly up to her, and then with a kick up of her heels away she galloped, evidently enjoying the chase.
"Won't I give her a licking when I catch her," shouted Dudley, wrathfully, as after a long and tiring race, they stopped a minute to rest; "let us leave her and go home, Roy. I'm sure it's tea time, for I feel dreadfully hungry, and we're miles and miles away. I've never been so far before."
"Oh, we mustn't give up," Roy replied, with his usual determination; "we won't be beaten by an old donkey, and when we do catch her, we will both get on her back and ride her home. Come on, let us have another try!"
"We haven't got a halter, that's the worst of it."
But Dudley plucked up courage, and in another half hour they were successful; Roy seated on the donkey's back, and Dudley holding firmly to her tail.
"Now then—away with you—hip—hip—hurray!"
Away they tore, both donkey and boys in best of spirits now: but before long they were brought to a standstill. A man brandishing a huge stick sprang out in front of them.
"Now then, you rascals, what are you doing to my donkey? Get off it this instant!"
"It isn't your donkey, it's old Roger's, and we're taking it home to him. Don't you cheek us! You're a rascal yourself!"
Dudley spoke angrily, but as he noticed the donkey stop instantly, and begin to sidle up toward the man an awful fear smote him, and Roy added quietly,
"You see you may be a thief or any one, for all we know, and it isn't likely we're going to let you have the chance of stealing old Roger's donkey. You go away and leave us alone. We're going home now—Gee-up. Come on, Dudley."
Not an inch would the donkey stir; and the man with a laugh, slipped a halter out of his pocket and in another minute Roy was rolling on the grass, and the donkey was being led off in the opposite direction.
"You may think yourselves lucky to escape the thrashing ye desarves!" shouted out the man; "ye've given me a nice chase after my beast for the last hour, and ye needn't add a pack of lies to your wicked pranks!"
The boys sat down on the grass to consider their position.
"Well, I call it beastly rot," grumbled Dudley, thoroughly cross; "if that's his donkey I don't believe old Roger's is on the hills at all. It must have been this one that somebody saw, and now I come to think of it Roger's has a black stripe down her back, and this one hadn't!"
"I'm so awfully tired," said Roy, disconsolately; "we've done no good as usual. I don't believe we ever shall do any one any good!"
When Roy's spirits sank it was a bad case, and for some minutes there was silence between them. Then feeling they must make the best of it they scrambled to their feet and plodded slowly on in the direction of home. A heavy mist was falling by this time, and dusk was setting in. Roy began to cough, and at last in despair Dudley cried out, "I do believe we're lost; I don't know where the path is, and I'm sure this isn't the way we came!"
"Well," said Roy, gasping as he spoke; "I'm afraid this old mist is getting into my chest, and I can't go very fast when my breath gets short. What shall we do? Can you shout—p'raps that man with the donkey might hear us."
Dudley shouted and shouted till he was hoarse, and then the little fellows trudged wearily on.
"You see," said Roy, bravely; "we must get somewhere if we go straight on."
"I believe," said Dudley, in doleful tones; "that you get right round the world and come back to where you started, if you only walk straight enough!"
This depressing view did not comfort his cousin.
"I've always thought it would be very exciting to be lost," Roy said with a sigh; "but it doesn't seem very nice, does it? And it is so cold. I wonder if we shall meet with any adventures, lost people generally do."
"If we could come into a gipsies' camp with a huge fire and a pot of stewed hares, it would be stunning! Or if we could find old Principle's cave, that would be better still!"
They were stumbling on, Roy gasping and panting for breath, and Dudley every minute or two giving a shout, when suddenly almost as if he had risen from the ground, a lad appeared in front of them.
"We're lost," shouted Dudley; "who are you? Can you tell us where Crockton village is?"
"Ay, can't I! You're only about four mile off!"
"Is it straight on?" questioned Roy, wistfully.
"No, you're goin' away from it."
The lad stood looking down at the two small boys and there was some pity in his tone.
"The little 'un is dead beat. Here—let me hoist you on my back, I'd as lief go to Crockton as anywhere else to-night, and I know every inch of these hills, I've been looking after cattle here since I were a babby! There now, ain't that better?"
Roy was too tired out to resist, though he made a faint protest, and Dudley seeing him comfortably settled on the broad shoulders of the lad, trotted along contentedly by his side.
"How did you find us? Did you hear us shouting?"
"I was trapping some moles close to yer, as ye came on."
"Where do you live? And what's your name?"
"I'm called Rob. I don't live nowheres now. Got chucked out last night!"
And Rob gave a short laugh as he spoke.
"Well, you see there's a lot of us, and the old woman—she's my stepmother—she told me she wouldn't keep me no longer. My father—he died last year, and work is hard to get. I'll tramp into some town and try my luck there."
"Then where were you going to sleep to-night?"
"Sleep? Oh, bless yer—there's plenty o' room and accommodation in the open. And I haven't been about these parts for so long without knowing many a snug corner. I could show yer plenty a one. My pet one has been found out by some old chap lately. He goes into it and digs up quantities o' stones and then sits and hugs them, all as if they was gold! I laugh to see him sometimes!"
"Why that must be old Principle, and that's the cave he thinks so much of! He looks for bones."
Rob gave another of his hearty laughs.
"Well, if he has a taste that way, why don't he go to a churchyard, he'll dig to more success there."
"No, it's only animals' bones he likes, very, very old ones."
They tramped on, and then Roy asked if he could be put down, and Dudley given a lift instead. Rob good-naturedly assented, but some minutes were spent in altercation between the two boys before Dudley would consent to this arrangement.
"You're as tired as I am," persisted Roy.
"Oh, no, I'm not—at least it's only my legs. You see I haven't a chest like you. I'll manage, it's always you that gets home ill, I never do."
"I can't help it," said Roy, in a shaky voice; "I know I shall never be good for anything, I don't think I'm much better than a girl, I suppose I ought to have been made one."
Roy was always in the depths of misery when he came to this climax, and Dudley hastened to reassure him.
"Rot! You're as good a walker as I any day. Yes, I'll have a ride on your back, Rob, if you like. I'm nearly done for, and Roy looks quite fresh again."
There was great commotion when the trio reached the Manor at last. Miss Bertram came out into the hall to greet them with an anxious face.
"Oh, you scamps! You'll turn my hair grey before long. Where have you been? Half the village has turned out to look for you! What mischief have you been up to?"
When the explanation was given Miss Bertram gave a little groan.
"If we are going to have these kind of expeditions, I really must insist upon your leaving off trying to do other people good. Old Roger told me he found his donkey quite early in the afternoon. Now come off to bed both of you. I believe nurse is already getting her poultice ready in anticipation of a bad night, Jonathan!"
"What is Rob going to do?" Roy asked, shortly after, when he was comfortably tucked up in bed, and was enjoying a hot basin of bread and milk. Miss Bertram had just come in to see how he was.
"Is that the lad that brought you back? He is having a good supper in the kitchen, and then will go home, I suppose."
"But he hasn't any home," said Roy, putting down his spoon and looking at his aunt with an anxious face; "he can't get work, so his mother turned him out of doors, and I want him to come and live with us, and when I grow up he shall be my servant!"
Miss Bertram laughed.
"My dear boy, not quite so fast. I shall not turn him out to-night, if he has no home to go to; but we cannot keep a lot of idle boys about the establishment."
Roy's brown eyes filled with tears. It was so rarely that he showed his feelings that his aunt began to wonder whether he was not too weak and exhausted from his walk to be talked to.
"Don't worry your little head over him," she said, kindly; "go to sleep, and I'll let you see him to-morrow morning."
"Have you ever been lost, Aunt Judy?"
Roy was struggling for self-command, and his voice was very quiet.
"No, I'm thankful to say I never have."
"I prayed to God," he went on solemnly; "that He would send some one to show us the way home, and Rob was the answer. And when he took me up on his shoulders and I knew he was taking me home, I thought of that picture over there!"
Roy pointed to a print of the Good Shepherd with the lost sheep across his shoulders, and Miss Bertram's face softened as she stooped and kissed her little nephew.
"Good-night dear. We will see what can be done."
She left the room and when nurse came bustling up to see if the bread and milk had disappeared she found her little charge gazing dreamily in front of him.
"Come, dearie, eat your supper. Don't you feel easier?"
"I was thinking," Roy said, slowly bringing back his gaze to the basin before him; "that if you're very strong you miss a lot of comfort; and however big and strong I grow up to be, I hope I shan't be too big and strong to be carried by Him!"
He pointed to the picture again, and good old nurse responded,
"If you outgrow the Lord, you'll outgrow heaven!"
Roy was not allowed to go to the Rectory the next morning as it was rather damp, and nurse was carefully trying to ward off a bronchial attack, but he was permitted to see Rob, and the latter came in looking rather sheepish and as if he did not know what to do with his hands and his feet.
"What are you going to do, Rob?" asked Roy, eagerly, after their first greetings had been exchanged; "you aren't going home again?"
"I'd sooner be shot," was the short reply.
"I've been talking to Aunt Judy about you again this morning, and she says if you would like to help our old gardener in the garden and could get a character from some one, she'd try you. I don't quite know what she means about the character. I thought that belonged to you and not to any one else. She says she doesn't know what you're like, but I told her I'd find out. I say, take a chair, won't you. Now then, you don't mind my asking you a few questions, do you? Are you a thief?"
Rob took the chair that was offered him, squared his shoulders, and looked up with a pleasant smile at this blunt question.
"No, I ain't that."
"Have you ever killed anybody?"
"Are you a drunkard?"
"I hate the stuff!"
"Are you a fighter?"
"Well, no, not a reg'lar one. I can't say I've never knocked a feller down, or squared up with him a bit, but I don't fight till I'm driven to it."
"Are you a liar?"
Roy drew a sigh of relief, then continued: "Well, if you aren't any of those, I'm sure Aunt Judy will have you, I told her I knew you weren't wicked."
"But I ain't no scholar," said Rob, doubtfully; "I can't write nor read, and that's against a feller!"
"Oh, well, you won't have to read and write much in the garden. Old Hal can't read either, and he makes a cross for his name when he has to write it. But I suppose you can learn, can't you?"
"You see I played truant mostly when I was sent to school, and then I began to mind the cattle soon after I were eight year old, but if any body would start me, I believe I could pick it up."
"I'll teach you myself when I've nothing else to do," said Roy, grandly; "for I want you to be clever. I want you to come with me, when I'm grown up, to my big house. You shall be my head servant, and live with me always. Would you like that?"
Rob grinned, and seemed to think it a great joke.
Roy continued: "Of course I shall want you more when Dudley goes away. He has got a stepfather, so when he grows up he will go out to India, I expect, to live with him, but we don't talk of it, and we pretend we're never going to leave each other. Did you find Dudley very much heavier to carry than me?"
"Well, yes, he were a bit heavier."
"I'm afraid I shall never catch him up, he is nearly a head taller, and he seems to grow quicker every month. I grow so slowly. I think it is because I lie in bed so much more than he does, I'm always having to go to bed in the daytime when I'm ill, and that must keep you from growing, don't you think so?"
The conversation was here interrupted by Miss Bertram's entrance. She had a long talk with Rob, and in the end took him for a month on trial, as she had known his father.
The boys were delighted, but Roy still persisted in regarding him as his special protege, and more than once this had occasioned a heated argument between the two cousins.
"He doesn't belong to you. You order him about as if he were your servant," said Dudley, impatiently, one afternoon after Roy had sent Rob on more than one errand to the house for him.
"Well, so he will be one day," returned Roy, flushing up.
They were seated again in their favorite corner on the wall, some ripe plums having just been handed up to them by the obliging Rob, and Dudley having put an extra big one in his mouth was speechless for a moment.
"I suppose you'll get so fond of Rob, that you won't want me any longer," he said, after some consideration.
"Rob is my servant, but you're a friend and relation," asserted Roy.
"He is an opportunity, and a pretty big one, isn't he?"
"Why, yes; I never thought of that! How splendid!"
Roy's large eyes were shining, and he gazed with tender pride at Rob who was now sweeping the lawn.
"We have done him good already, haven't we?" pursued Dudley, reflectively; "only he started by doing us good. I tell you what we might do for him. Teach him to read."
Roy looked very doubtful.
"It is so difficult, and he seems so stupid. I did try the other day, for he asked me to; but I never thought any body could be so stupid! I told him we would have to give it up, for it made me lose my temper so. I thought perhaps he could go to old Principle. You see he is too big for school, but old Principle is always saying he likes to teach people things."
"Well, that is awfully funny," said Dudley, pointing down to the pine woods opposite them. "Talk of him and there he is! Isn't that him walking along over there? Look—now he's stooping down to look at something. I'm sure it's old Principle; we'll call him!"
Two shrill boyish voices rang out, "Old Principle! Hi! We want you! Old Principle!"
Soon after old Principle was standing beneath the wall, having obeyed the summons.
He stood looking up at them with his straw hat pushed to the back of his head, and his keen, piercing eyes twinkling kindly under his thick, shaggy eyebrows.
"Well, laddies, you're above me now. 'Tisn't often you can look down at old Principle from such a superior height."
"We want to ask you if we may send Rob down to you for you to teach him to read," said Roy, eagerly.
"And why have not two idle boys more time than a busy shopkeeper to do such a thing?" demanded the old man.
"Oh, well, you see," explained Roy, confusedly; "grown-up people know how to teach, and boys don't. Besides, we aren't idle, we work hard at lessons all the morning, and we have half an hour's prep after tea."
Old Principle shook his head.
"And you're the lad for making people better, and doing good to all. 'Tis a bad principle, my boy, to wait for great opportunities, and let the small ones go!"
"Do you think we ought to teach him?" questioned Dudley.
"If he wants to learn, and you have the time, you will be letting the opportunity slip, that's all. And moreover old Principle isn't going to be the one to help you do it."
The old man turned his back upon them and walked into the pine wood again, leaving the two boys gazing after him with perturbed faces.
"He's rather cross this afternoon," observed Dudley.
"I s'pose he thinks it's for our good. Shall we try again? Could you teach him one day, and me the next? That wouldn't be quite so tiring."
Rob was called upon and consulted, and it was finally arranged that every afternoon from two to three he should have a reading lesson on the top of the garden wall.
"We shan't feel sleepy here, and it's the time everybody else is taking a nap," said Roy, trying to take a cheerful view of it. "I'm going to try and be very patient and not be cross once, for you're our opportunity, or one of them, isn't he, Dudley?"
Dudley nodded. "The biggest we've had yet," he said.
Rob grinned and went away delighted. He was a steady, honest lad, devoted to both boys; but especially to Roy, who, without Dudley's constant remonstrance, would have tyrannized over him to his heart's content. Miss Bertram left them alone; she exercised a certain supervision over Rob's work, but never objected to his joining her little nephews' amusements.
"They will not learn any harm from him," she told her mother; "and he may teach them many things that are good."
So it came to pass that reading lessons took place regularly every day on the top of the wall, and Rob's eagerness to master all hard words, and his humble diffidence, when his little teachers waxed wrath with him, was touching to witness. Sometimes conversation would bear a large part in the lessons, especially when Roy was the teacher. And Dudley would always insist on having a break for refreshments.
"You will be able to write letters for me, Rob, when I grow up," said Roy, one afternoon, pausing in the lesson. "I don't like writing letters, and I'm thinking of travelling round the world and discovering countries, so I shall have to write home sometimes. You will come with me, won't you?"
"For certain I will," was the emphatic reply.
"I've been thinking," pursued Roy, thoughtfully, as he let his gaze wander from the book between them to the top of the dark pines swaying gently in the summer breeze; "that I may be quite strong enough when I grow up to be a discoverer. You see I can't be a soldier or sailor, but I haven't anything the matter with me but a weak chest, and doctors say sea voyages and travelling do weak chests good sometimes. Do you think I'm a very poor body to look at, Rob? That's what some of the villagers say I am, but my head and legs and arms are all right. I'm not a cripple or a hunchback, or blind, or deaf, or dumb, so I must be very glad of that. What do you think?"
"You're just as straight and plucky as Master Dudley, and you'll grow up a big, strong man, I dare say," said Hob, sympathetically.
"Old Principle says you may be a maker, a mender, or a breaker in your life. I want to be a maker. And I should like to find a country and make it into a nice big town. I want to do something big. I ask God every day to let me find something to do."
"Do you believe in—in God?" asked Rob, rather sheepishly.
"Of course I do; what do you mean? Don't you?"
"I don't know. I don't know much about Him, only you often talk as if you're—well quite friends with Him, and I've wondered at it."
Roy brought down his gaze from the hilltops to his companion's face with grave interest.
"I've known God since I was a baby," he said. "I don't remember when I didn't know Him. Nurse used to talk to me when I was very small, and when my father was dying he called me to him, and said,—'Fitz Roy! Serve God first, then your Queen, and then your fellow men!' I've always remembered it, only you know we don't talk about these things, and I've only told Dudley. I'm trying to serve God—you don't want to be very strong to do that; but I'm longing to serve the Queen, and when Mr. Selby talked to us of opportunities for doing good to all men I've been longing to find them ever since. Don't you know much about God, Rob?"
Rob shook his head. "I used to larn He made the world and me, and I know He'll punish the wicked, but I've never tried to serve Him, and—and I don't think as how I care about it."
"P'raps you don't know about Jesus Christ?" asked Roy, solemnly.
"Well, yes, I used to larn about Him when I was a kid at the Sunday-school. I know He came into the world to save people, but I never rightly understood why, nor what difference it makes."
"I'll be able to tell you that. If He hadn't died, I suppose I shouldn't have cared about serving God because it would have been no use—nothing would have been any use, for we should all have had to go to hell when we died, to punish us for our sins. We could never have got to heaven at all."
"If we had been very good I reckon we could," put in Rob, knitting his brows with this aspect of the subject.
"But you see the Bible says we can't be good, not one of us—the devil won't let us."
"But there are good people in the world."
"You interrupt so," said Roy, a little impatiently. "I was going to tell you. Jesus died to let God be able to forgive us and take us to heaven. It's rather difficult to explain, but God punished Him instead of us, do you see? So now we can all go to heaven, and the reason we try to be good is to please Jesus because He has loved us, and the reason we are able to be good is because Jesus helps us to be, and He can fight the devil better than we can. There, I think I've told you it right. Now shall we go on with the reading?"
Rob said no more till after the lesson was over, then he said slowly, "It's rather strange, that what you were a tellin' me, but I don't see it quite. P'raps another day you'll tell me again."
"If you make haste and read, I'll give you a Bible, and then you'll be able to read about it yourself. Of course you ought to be serving God just as much as anybody else, and you'd better begin at once!"
Saying which Roy scrambled down from his high perch and raced across the garden to the stables where he had settled to meet Dudley; whilst Rob descended more slowly, muttering to himself, "'Tis a good thing not to be afraid of God like Master Roy, but I doubt if I should ever get to serve Him!"
A WALNUT STOKY
"I say, Dudley, do come out for a ride! Aunt Judy is with granny, and she says the house must be quiet, and I hate being in a quiet house. Come on! What are you doing?"
Roy finished his sentence by springing on Dudley's back, and as he was in a crouching attitude in a corner of the old nursery, he brought him flat to the ground by his unexpected attack. For a minute or two both boys rolled on the ground in each other's clutches, and feet and hands were having a busy time of it. Then Dudley sprang to his feet.
"I like you coming in to tell me to be quiet, and then beginning a fight at once! Do shut up! You've quite spoilt my last letter!"
"Well, what are you doing?"
"I'm carving my name in the corner here, just below my father's."
Roy looked with curiosity at Dudley's handiwork.
"Yes, your M is very crooked; but I wouldn't choose to write my name on the wainscoting. It's too low down. I like to be at the top of everything. Now if you carved it on the ceiling that would be something like!"
"You're always wanting to do impossibilities!"
"I should like to have a try at them," rejoined Roy, quickly. "I hate everything that is easy. Now come on, do! and we'll have a good gallop over the down!"
Half an hour later and the boys were tearing through the village on their ponies, and were soon out on an open expanse of heather and grass.
Roy was in the midst of an eloquent harangue on all he was going to do when he was grown up, when Dudley suddenly came to a standstill.
"Something is the matter with Hazel. I believe she's going lame. Oh, I see, one of her shoes is loose! Now what are we to do!"
He sprang off his pony as he spoke, and looked perplexed at this calamity.
"Lead her on gently," was Roy's ready advice. "We aren't far off from C——, and I know there's a blacksmith there."
Dudley grumbled a little at having his ride spoiled in this fashion; but it was not long before they reached the neighboring village, and the smith's forge was soon found.
Then, whilst Hazel was being attended to, Roy suggested that they should go and see an old lady, a great friend of their aunt's, who lived just outside the village.
"She might ask us to tea," suggested Roy, "and she has awfully nice cake always going. I'll leave my pony here, and we'll call again for them on our way back."
"I don't like paying visits," objected Dudley, a little crossly.
"But Mrs. Ford isn't half bad to talk to, she's full of stories."
And by dint of these two baits, "cake" and "stories," Dudley's shyness was overcome, and the two boys were soon walking up a sunny little garden and knocking at the rose-covered door of "Clematis Cottage."
It was a tiny house, but spotlessly clean and tidy, and the long, low, dainty drawing-room into which they were shown had a sense of rest and repose which insensibly affected even the boys' restless spirits.
"A nice room to be ill in," was Roy's comment; "there would be such a lot of jolly pictures and things to look at on the walls when you were in bed."
"I should like to sit here on Sunday," said Dudley. "I am sure I could be still for quite half an hour!"
The door opened and a little old lady in widow's cap and gown came forward. She was a fragile, delicate-looking little woman, with a very bright face and smile, and she beamed upon the boys delightedly.
"My dear boys, this is quite a treat! I don't often get a visit from young gentlemen. How is your grandmother? Have you brought me any message from your aunt?"
"Granny is not very well to-day," replied Roy, frankly, "and Aunt Judy didn't know we were coming here. We have been riding, and Dudley's pony has had to be shod, so we've left him at the blacksmith's and come on here. You see we thought it would pass the time."
"And so it will, and you shall have a nice cup of tea before you go back. Why, what big boys you are growing! Which is the elder? I always forget."
"I am," said Roy, a little shamefacedly; "but of course most people think Dudley is, because he is the biggest."
"It's only two months and five days, though, between us," put in Dudley, eagerly, knowing what a sore point his size was to Roy; "and you see, Mrs. Ford, Roy's brain is much bigger than mine—Mr. Selby says it is, so that makes us quits!"
"And I wonder which has the biggest soul?" said Mrs. Ford, quaintly.
The boys stared at her.
"Shall I tell you a little story while we are waiting for tea?" she asked, sitting down in her easy chair by the open window, and looking first at the boys with loving interest, and then away to the sweet country outside her garden.
Roy gave Dudley a delighted nudge with his elbow.
"Yes, please; we love a good rattling story; and make plenty of adventures in it, won't you?"
But Mrs. Ford shook her head with a little smile.
"I can't tell you of fights with red Indians, and shipwrecks, and lion hunts, and all such things as that; but you must take my story as it is, and think over it in your quiet moments.
"There was once an old garden. Flowers and fruit of every description grew in it, and when no human creature was about the air was full of flower laughter and fruit conversation. One day in autumn some saucy sparrows were teasing a young walnut-tree that stood between an apple and a pear-tree, opposite a wall which was covered with beautiful golden plums.
"'What are you here for?' they said, pecking at the round green balls that hung on the tree, and then wiping their beaks in disgust on the grass underneath. 'Ugh! you're sour and bitter and nasty enough to poison a person! You're a disgrace to your master. The red and yellow apples next door to you are delicious this warm day, and the pears make one's mouth fairly water, while as to the plums over there—well, every one is fighting for them, from the slugs and snails to every bird in the country, and the boys and girls and men and women—all of us have to be kept off by those horrible nets which the old gardener is continually spreading!'
"'I'm sure,' whispered the young walnuts, humbly, 'we don't mean any harm. We don't quite know why we are here ourselves. We have been hoping to see our green skins get red and yellow, and soft and ripe, like everything else round us, but they seem to get harder and uglier as time goes by. They feel very heavy, and our stems ache with holding them up; do you think it just possible there may be something inside?'
"'Inside!' laughed the sparrows; 'who ever heard of the inside being better than the outside? You're stuffed with conceit, but nothing else.'
"And away they flew, for they were not a year old themselves, and knew nothing about autumn nuts and berries.
"The walnuts sighed and appealed to an old crow flying by.
"'Do you think we have been planted in this beautiful garden by mistake?' they said. 'We have been waiting a long time to give pleasure and to do good to those around us. The bees give us a wide berth—they say they can get no honey from us; we have no sweet scent to please the passer-by, no lovely blossoms to delight their eyes. The apples have had blossoms and fruit, and all the other trees the same, yet here we hang and grow, and the days go by and we're only laughed at for our ugliness and want of sweetness.'
"'Wait a little longer,' said the old crow; 'wait, and take pains to grow!'
"And the walnuts waited, and the sun kissed their hard skins, and the rain refreshed them when dry and thirsty; and still the sparrows mocked them, and the apple and pear-tree talked to each other over their heads, for they too looked upon them as a failure. One day the biggest walnut broke from his stem and dropped in the long grass. No one heeded his fall except his brothers; the gardener came by and gathered the apples and pears, but did not look at the walnut-tree; and when he kicked the fallen walnut with his feet he took no more notice of it than if it had been a pebble.
"'Is that our fate?' sighed the walnuts. 'Now we know we are no good. What is the use of trying to grow? What is the good of living at all when we're so ugly and useless, and the end of us is to lie and rot in the grass and be kicked by every one who passes?'
"And they wept bitter tears of disappointment and mortification; and one by one they dropped from the tree and lay unheeded, uncared for on the ground below.
"Then one morning came up the old crow.
"'Why did you tell us to wait?' cried one walnut in petulant tones. 'We're rotting, dying here, and this is the end of us.'
"'Wait a little longer,' said the crow again; 'it is when we are very low that we are lifted very high. When we come to an end a new beginning is coming.'
"The walnuts sighed as he flew away; yet the biggest one turned with a spark of hope to his brothers.
"'I do believe we have been made for something. My skin is rotting and dying, but in spite of it all I feel as if I have something inside that is still alive. Let us wait and be patient a little longer.'
"And then at last one day, when the apple and pear-tree were fruitless and leafless, when the flowers and butterflies and bees had all disappeared, down the garden came the master himself and the gardener.
"He stopped when he came to the walnut-tree, and stooping down in the long grass he gently raised one of the fallen nuts.
"'You must gather these in,' he said to his gardener; 'we have a good many for the first year.'
"'Yes,' said the gardener, 'they are ready now. I've let them lie till you saw them.'
"And the walnuts whispered to themselves in surprised delight that it was not neglect and indifference had left them there, but that the gardener had watched each one fall, and knew where to find them when their time came at last.
"And when their green husks were removed, and their brown shells cracked at the master's table, they discovered that the most valuable part of them was what could not be seen by outsiders, and could only be brought to light by the master's hand."
"That's a kind of parable," said Roy when Mrs. Ford ceased speaking.
"Yes," she said, smiling; "most people are like the sparrows: they think it is only the outside you should go by. Now, when I see a person for the first time I always wonder what their soul is like. If that is beautiful it doesn't matter about their body. And a little body may contain a very big soul."
"Can we make our souls big?" asked Roy, with an anxious face.
"They should be growing, my boy, day by day. Put them into the Gardener's keeping and He will make them grow. It isn't the handsome and the strong who do all the good in the world; very often it is just the other way."
"Then there is hope I may do something," said Roy, brightening up; "I like that story about the walnuts, don't you, Dudley?"
"Yes, I'll think of it when I crack them next," said Dudley.
Tea was now brought in, and the boys did it full justice, and shortly after they were on their homeward way.
"She's a jolly old thing," remarked Dudley, presently, "and her cake was awfully good. I'm glad we went to see her."
Roy was unusually silent. Dudley continued—
"I expect you've got the biggest soul of us too, Roy; nurse is always saying your soul is too big for your body."
"I wish I had no body sometimes," said Roy, with a sigh; "it gets so tired and stupid."
"Well, we won't talk about souls and bodies any more," Dudley said, quickly, "they aren't interesting. I say, do you think we could teach Rob cricket?"
Rob was a topic which always interested Roy. He brightened up at once.
"We'll teach him everything," he said, eagerly. "I want him to be able to read and write and play, and do everything that we do, and more besides, for I shall have him for my friend as well as a servant when I grow up."
"A funny kind of chap for a friend," said Dudley, a little crossly; "he's twice as old as you are, to begin with, and he's an awfully stupid, thick-headed fellow."
"Don't you like Rob?"
Roy's tone was an astonished one.
"Oh, I like him well enough, but I'm getting rather sick of hearing you crack him up so."
Roy changed the subject. He wondered sometimes why Dudley seemed to lose his temper so over Rob; it never entered his head that Dudley might regard him as a possible rival; that Rob, the country lad, might spoil the covenant of friendship between them.
THE BERTRAMS' LEAP
It was Roy's birthday, and he was standing at his bedroom window before breakfast looking out into the old garden below, his busy brain full of thought and conjecture. His birthday was a very important day to him, and for some years now there had been a settled programme for the day. His guardian, an old Indian officer living in the neighborhood, and formerly a very old friend of his father's, always came over to see him and stayed to lunch, the two boys joining their elders at that meal. Directly after, they would drive or ride over to Norrington Court which was Roy's future home, and stay there for the rest of the day.