[Frontispiece: "Hold mun fast, brave lads!"]
The Drummer's Coat
Hon. J. W. Fortescue
Author of "The Story of a Red Deer"
With illustrations by
H. M. Brock
MacMillan and Co., Limited
New York: The MacMillan Company
All rights reserved
RICHARD CLAY AND SONS, LIMITED
LONDON AND BUNGAY.
First Edition, November 1899.
Reprinted, December 1899.
Lest a principal incident in this little tale should seem incredible, it may be mentioned that an instance of a child being deprived of speech for several days, at the bidding of a reputed witch, came under the author's immediate notice less than three years ago, in a village but three miles distant from his own home.
It may be added that the military details in Chapter XIII. are all drawn from authentic sources, mainly from the Recollections of Rifleman Harris and the History of the Fifty-Second Regiment.
28th August, 1899.
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS
"HOLD MUN FAST, BRAVE LADS!" . . . Frontispiece
BENT DOWN TO KISS ELSIE'S AS HE HAD KISSED HER MOTHER'S
"THE BIRD BEGAN TO PIPE A LITTLE TUNE"
"STILL THE WOMAN LED THEM ON"
THE DRUMMER'S COAT
In a deep wooded valley in the north of Devon stands the village of Ashacombe. It is but a little village, of some twenty or thirty cottages with white cob walls and low thatched roofs, running along the sunny side of the valley for a little way, and then curving downward across it to a little bridge of two tiny pointed arches, on the other side of which stands a mill with a water-wheel. For a little stream runs down this valley as down all Devonshire valleys; and as you look up the water from the bridge you can see it winding and sparkling through its margin of meadow, while the great oak woods hang still and solemn above it, till some bold green headland slopes down and shuts it from your sight; and you raise your eyes, and count fresh headlands crossing each other right and left beyond it, fainter and fainter, till at last they end in a little patch of purple heather, which seems to be the end of all things.
But when you look down the water, you find that the woods no longer cover the sunny side of the valley so thickly, but that there is open ground like a park. There is a gate by the bridge opening on to a narrow road, which presently ends in two great spreading yews; and through these you can see a lych-gate, and beyond it a little grey church with a low grey tower. Close to this gate is a lodge of grey stone, with a winding drive which guides your eye through the trees to the gables of a house of the same grey stone, which peer up over the trees on the ground above the church. Then beyond it the headlands of green wood begin to cross each other again, lower and lower, till you can follow them no more.
So Ashacombe, as may easily be guessed, is a sleepy little village, which sees little of the great world outside. But whatever it sees it can see well, for the hill on which it stands is so much broken by little clefts and hollows that some of the cottages stand level with the road and some high above it; wherefore if you are not satisfied with looking at anything on the road from the same level, you can go to some neighbour's garden and gaze down upon it from above, or again you can slip down from the road into the meadow (for the road is raised on a wall) and scrutinise it carefully from below. Still sleepy though the village may be, it is always beautifully neat and clean. The walls are always of spotless white, and the thatch trim and in good repair. The scrap of garden behind each cottage is well tended and full of vegetables, and the scrap of garden in front gay with flowers; for Ashacombe has never known the time when there was not a master or mistress in the Hall who made the village their first care. Such it is now, and such, if old pictures are to be trusted, it was with little difference eighty years ago, at which time we are about to examine its history.
But if visitors come to Ashacombe it is to see not the village but the Hall, for Bracefort Hall has some fame of its own. It is a beautiful little house, built in the time of King Henry the Sixth, and therefore in the shape of an H, with two gables marking the end of the downstrokes, and a short length of grey roof standing for the cross-bar. It faces to the south, so that the little court between the gables is a veritable sun-trap, wherein grow magnolia and jessamine; while roses, Dutch honeysuckle, clematis and wistaria cover the whole front of the house and almost hide the mullioned windows. But the Hall is even more attractive within than without, for from the moment when you enter the door you find yourself among oak panels, oak carving and old tapestry on every side and in every room. The house has but two storeys, so that the rooms are not very large not very high, with the exception of the hall, which fills both storeys of the cross-bar of the H, from the floor to the roof. The ceiling is of open work, beautifully carved; the walls are panelled high, and at the head of each panel is painted a coat of arms showing the marriages of many generations of Braceforts. Above the panels at one end of the hall are huge coats of arms carved in stone and gorgeously coloured; and at the other end is a gallery of carved oak with the gilded pipes of an organ shining above it. A great part of the outer wall is taken up by a very large mullioned window with quaint round panes, many of them filled with old stained glass; and on the wall opposite to it is a great fireplace of carved stone, the centre of it showing the crest of a mailed arm and the motto, Dieu et bras fort.
Above this fireplace hang some curious things—stags' horns, and weapons of bygone times, and among them a buff coat, an iron helmet, a cuirass, and two long straight swords, which evidently belonged to one of the gentlemen with flowing love-locks and broad collars turned down over their mail, whose portraits are hung on each side. But below these is a more modern helmet, such a helmet as was worn by Light Dragoons about a century ago, of lacquered leather with a huge comb of fur, a scarlet turban wound about it, and a short plume of red and white. Also there is a curved sword with a crimson sash draped round it; and below these again, neatly spread in a glass case, is a quaint little child's coat of yellow, with red collar, cuffs and lapels, two tiny red wings at the shoulders and two tiny red tails behind; which garment an inscription, now much faded, declares to be a drummer's coat of the time of the Peninsular War.
Now it is easy to guess to whom the Light Dragoon's helmet and sword and sash belonged, for immediately on one side of it is a portrait of a very handsome man with dark hair and eyes, dressed in a blue coat with silver braid, with the crimson sash round his waist, the curved sword at his side, and the identical helmet under his arm; and you may read underneath the picture that it represents Captain Richard Bracefort, who was killed at the battle of Salamanca. Close by, too, is a picture of his charger, Billy Pitt, which he rode in the battle, and which lived, as is written on the picture, for many years afterwards. Again, as a pendant to the Captain's picture hangs a portrait of a lady, showing a beautiful oval face with three chestnut curls on each side of it and a mass of chestnut hair above, and two blue eyes as clear and as pure as a child's; and underneath this portrait is written the name of Lady Eleanor Bracefort, wife and widow of Captain Richard the Light Dragoon.
But how the drummer's coat ever found its way into Bracefort Hall there is nothing to show. Nevertheless by that little coat there hangs a tale; and though that tale is now nearly eighty years old, both the Hall and the village are so little changed that it is perhaps worth the telling.
It was the 22nd of July 1820, and the shadows were beginning to lengthen over Ashacombe village on a burning summer's afternoon. The men were still at work, and most of the women also; for, early though it was, a farmer was cutting a field of wheat over the hill on the far side of the valley, a field which was always the first in the whole parish to ripen. So the men were cutting and the women were binding, for women did more work in the fields in those days than in these; and now and again, when the booming of the mill-wheel ceased for a moment, the sound of the hones on the sickles could be heard clinking musically in the still heavy air. Two or three old women alone stood in their porches, with their sun-bonnets over their neat white caps, gossiping as they knitted, and speaking an occasional word to an old, old man who sat in a high-backed chair basking in the sun. The children were all down in the meadow below, the little maids mostly sitting in the shade and making nosegays of forget-me-nots; while every boy that could walk, and some of the maids also, were paddling in the little stream or dancing about the bank in chase of such unhappy fish as had been too lazy to leave the shallows when the stream was turned into the mill-leat. Sometimes they were silent, and the next moment they broke into chorus like a pack of hounds, while occasionally there came a shrill rate from one of the old women who watched them from the cottages, calling back some too venturesome boy from the deep water of the mill-leat.
So the old women gossiped and the children played, for the daily coaches up and down had passed some hours before, and there was little excitement to be looked for in the road after they were gone. Presently the old women stopped and listened, for they heard the gate at the lodge clang as it opened and shut, and two children's voices crying merrily, "Oh, corporal, corporal, put on your watering-cap!" Then one of the old women hastened, though with infirm steps, across her little garden towards the road, and stood by the edge of it among tall stalks of red valerian and a great plant of periwinkle which hung down over the wall. And there came along the road a tall man with grizzled hair, dressed in drab breeches and gaiters just like any other man, but wearing on his head a flat blue cap, widening out from brim to crown, with a yellow band round the forehead—the watering cap of a Light Dragoon. He walked very erect, though he limped slightly with one leg; and over one shoulder he carried a clean white stable-rubber, neatly folded, with a stable-halter tied across it. Hanging on to his hand on one side was a little boy of about nine years old with great brown eyes and glossy black hair, dressed in a very short little brown jacket with brown breeches buttoning on to it, and a broad white collar. On the Corporal's other side and clinging tight to his other hand skipped a little girl with wide blue eyes and fair hair, dressed all in white, and with her face almost hidden under a little white sun-bonnet. Both children carried a little wreath of laurel in their hands and seemed to have some very important business before them, until they caught sight of the old woman looking down upon them, when they cried out "Sally! Sally!" and letting go the Corporal's hand ran up the steep little steps to her, while the Corporal limped more slowly after them.
"Ah, my dear hearts," said old Sally, "I minded that it was Sallymanky day, and I said to myself that Master Dick and Miss Elsie would surely be coming in for the ribbins. Shall us go in to house and fetch mun? Then please to come in. Please to come right in, Mr. Brimacott," she added, addressing the Corporal. So they passed through the little low door into the cottage, and in two seconds the children were standing on chairs and examining all the treasures on the walls. For Sally had been a servant at Bracefort Hall, and was never so glad as when little Dick and Elsie Bracefort came to pay her a visit; first because she thought there was no family to equal the Braceforts in the whole wide world, and secondly, because these children had lost their father at Salamanca just eight years before to a day. And there were wonderful things on the walls, too. First and foremost there were two coloured pictures, one of France and Britannia joining hands, with a very woolly lamb and a very singular lion lying down together at their feet; and the other of Commerce and Plenty, represented as two very slender ladies with very short waists, loading Britannia with corn and fruit and flowers of the brightest colours. The children had heard Sally tell the story of them fifty times but were quite content to hear it again—how Sally had bought them of a hawker in the year 1802, for joy that peace was come at last, and how that wicked Boney had plunged all the world into war again. Then Dick jumped up and brought down a china figure of a man in a blue coat on a prancing horse with his hand pointing upwards, who was no other than Boney, the terrible Bonaparte himself, as he appeared when crossing the Alps.
"Ah, the roog," said Sally, as Dick flourished the figure. "Many's the time that I've wanted to throw he behind the fire. He tooked from me my boy, my Jan; ah, you knows the story of my Jan, don't 'ee, my dear?" she added turning to Elsie.
"Yes," said Elsie, who had heard the story so often as a mite of a child that she told it herself with something of a Devonshire accent, "poor Jan that 'listed for a soldier and went to Portingale to the wars, and never come back, not he, nor wild Lucy that ran away for the love of him, nor the boy that was born to them."
"Aye," said the old woman to the Corporal, but smiling sadly on the child. "Killed he was, so they said, but they couldn't tell how nor where; and missing they was, but I never could find out nought about mun, though I hope still to hear somewhat; but it must come soon for it's ten years agone now, and I reckon that my time's a getting short."
The Corporal nodded; but Dick had brought down another figure in china, the figure of a man in a red coat with a hooked nose and two curves of black whisker on his cheeks, underneath which was written WELLINGTON.
"Aye," said old Sally, triumphantly, "that was the boy to give Boney what vor. And now here's the wreaths, my dears, tied with the family colours, blue and white. I've a had they ribbins forty years, ever since the great election, when Bracefort was head of the poll, your grandfather that was. And now you'm going to catch the old Billy Pitt, I reckon; dear, dear, to think that the horse should still be here and the captain gone."
"But the Lieutenant's come back," said the Corporal. "Colonel Fitzdenys, I should say, whom I mind as the captain's lieutenant; come back only yesterday safe and sound from the Injies."
"That's well," said Sally, "for a fine brave gentleman he is, as never passes me without a kind word. But don't 'ee go yet for a minute, my dears," and she hobbled away to a large glass bottle, took out two sticks of toffee, such as she sold to the village boys for a halfpenny a piece, and gave them to Dick and Elsie.
The children took them gratefully, for it was little sweet stuff that children got in those days; and old Sally watched them as they went up the road, each of them breaking off a large piece for the Corporal.
They had not long been gone when a new and strange figure suddenly bounded into the road from the bank at the side. It was that of a young man who seemed to be about five and twenty, short in stature and slight in figure, and dressed in a long skirted coat, breeches and gaiters, which were all alike full of rents and patches. He wore no hat, but his head was so thickly covered by a shock of brown hair that he did not seem to want one. His face was brown and sunburnt and partly covered by a fair downy beard, which, though not thick, added to his wild and untidy appearance; and his eyes were very large, grey and vacant. He sprang down from the bank as though he had lived there all his life, like a rabbit, and then moved on towards the village at a strange shambling pace, straying from side to side of the road and waving his arms meaninglessly. Suddenly he stopped, and pulling a squirrel out of his pocket began to play with it, cooing and whistling to it as it ran over his arms, and chirping when it stopped and threw its tail over its back. The two seemed to be the very best of friends, and after playing for some time the man moved on with the squirrel on his shoulder, drawing closer to the village; when of a sudden the boys at play in the stream broke into such a storm of yells that he jumped up on the bank again to look at them, and stood there for a time gaping and grinning from ear to ear at what he saw.
For the boys had succeeded in driving a little eel into a corner and in throwing it ashore; and there they were, dancing about like mad creatures, unable to hold it, more than half afraid to touch it, but always contriving to twitch the wretched wriggling thing further from the water. One brave little maid managed for a moment to catch it in her pinafore but dropped it instantly, as all the boys screamed: "Put it down! he'll bite 'ee." And so they went on babbling their loudest, when the ragged man in the road suddenly put the squirrel into his pocket and ran down into the meadow, laughing louder than the loudest, to take part in the fun. In spite of his long-skirted coat he was as active as any of them, now clutching desperately at the eel with his hand, now running at full speed for a few yards and then plunging down on his knees, and all the while laughing and whinnying with a noise more like that of a horse than of a man. The boys, though at first a little startled at the appearance of such a figure in their midst, soon screamed louder than ever with laughter at his strange antics; until at last the ragged man got the eel fairly clamped between his fingers and ran away with it, the whole of the children following him in full cry. He had almost reached the road when his foot slipped and down he fell violently on his face. The squirrel, scared to death, ran out of his coat-pocket, and the eel slipped through his fingers into the long grass by the ditch and was seen no more.
The man got up looking dazed and foolish, with his hair full of forget-me-nots, into which he had plunged in his fall. The children gathered round him hooting and screaming; and he stared at them grinning vacantly without a word. From shouts the boys soon went on to taunts of "Shockhead! Shockhead!" but still the ragged man stood and grinned, until at last two of them caught sight of the squirrel and began to hunt it about the field. Then the man's whole demeanour changed in an instant; and charging down upon the boys he gave them a push which laid both of them flat on the ground, while the squirrel ran hastily up his leg and nestled in terror against his cheek. Then he began to look, with the air of a hunted beast, for some means of escape. The two boys got up whimpering, more frightened than hurt, and at the sight of their tears the merriment of the rest turned instantly to anger. The boys remembered suddenly that their eel was gone, and crowded round the man, yelling continuously, "Where's our ale? Where's our ale? You've stole our ale." And the ragged man with drooping shoulders and white scared face slunk along the fence under the road, looking for a weak place by which he might scramble out of the field. At last he found one and made a bound to climb up it; but the bank was too steep and he fell back. The boys seeing that he was afraid of them began to raise the cry of thief, or, as they called it, thafe. Half a dozen of them ran round to the gate of the meadow to cut him off, while the rest yelled round him like a pack of baying hounds, with cries of "Thafe! Thafe! Thafe!" The man made a second attempt to climb up the bank, and this time reached the top, where he lay for a few moments sprawling, amid the jeers of his tormentors; and Tommy Fry, who was the scapegrace of the village, picked up a clod of earth and threw it at him. The clod, which was full of little stones, struck him full on the cheek and drew blood. The man gave a little whine of pain, and struggled quickly to his feet; but the boys were in the road before him, and, worse than that, the women hearing the cry of thief were hastening to the spot; for they thought of clean clothes that might be drying on their garden hedges, and, if there be a creature which villagers dread and detest, it is a tramp. The man looked fearfully up and down the road, and saw that it was blocked on every side by hurrying women and children; and then sinking down by the roadside he buried his face in his hands and blubbered aloud, while the squirrel, fully as frightened as he was, nestled close to his bleeding cheek.
Then there was a babel of voices, scolding, complaining and accusing, but the man sat blubbering and took no heed. Two or three children were ready to start to fetch the men from the harvest-field, and one old crone was declaiming with great eloquence on the iniquity of tramps, when a strange woman suddenly forced her way through the crowd to the sobbing man and took him by the arm. Her sun-bonnet was so tied before her face that they could see little of it but two eyes, which gleamed black and keen like the eyes of a hawk. She raised the man gently to his feet, and then turned round fiercely upon the ring of women and children about her.
"Now," she said imperiously, "cease your bawling, and let mun go. The poor soul a'nt done no harm to you, I'll warrant mun. Let mun go, and shame upon 'ee."
The man rose to his feet still blubbering, and the squirrel moved back from his face. Then she saw the blood on his cheek, and her eyes glowed like fire as she said in a voice that trembled with rage:
"Who's been a drowing stones at my boy?"
"He stole our ale," shouted Tommy Fry boldly, and the rest of the children took up the chorus—"He stole our ale!" And Tommy Fry ended the cry with the word, "Thafe."
The strange woman turned upon him instantly. "You drowed the stone," she said, quivering with rage. "You dare to call mun thafe. You don't spake again till I tell 'ee—mind that. I'll tache 'ee to call my boy names." And Tommy Fry shrank back with staring eyes, appalled at her fury, while she put her arm again tighter round that of the ragged man and began to lead him away.
"No, no, no," broke in a village woman who came up breathless at this moment: "You'm too fast by half. 'Tis the like of he that we want to catch, taking our linen off the hedges. I lost some but two months agone, and I'll be bound 'twas he that did it. What was it was taked away, Mary?" she asked, turning to one of the little girls. "Two pair of stockings and a chimase or one pair of stockings and two chimases? No, no, no; run, my dear, and fetch father home quick. No, stop! Here comes Mr. Brimacott."
And as she spoke there was a sound of hoofs and the Corporal appeared leading a brown horse with a little wreath of laurel hung round his ears and the white rubber spread over his back, on which were seated Dick and Elsie, Dick riding in front brandishing his toffee, while Elsie with her arm round his waist sat quietly behind him.
"What's all this?" said the Corporal, as the horse pricked up his ears over the hubbub before him; and without waiting for a moment he lifted the two children to the ground. Then all the women came clamouring round him with their complaints; and the Corporal frowned, for he loved a tramp as little as any of them.
"'Tain't true," said the strange woman firmly, "'tain't true. He's but a poor harmless lad. Sarch mun, if you will, maister; ye won't find nought."
The Corporal eyed the ragged man keenly. "He looks to be a half-baked body," he said as if to himself.
"Aye, the poor thing's mazed," bleated out an old man who had hobbled down to the edge of his garden to look on.
"Has any one missed anything?" the Corporal went on after hearing the rest of the story. "Who's got any clothes drying to-day?"
There was a long silence and much shaking of heads, till some one said: "'Twas Mary Mugford was saying that she missed something or 'nother; stockings, was it, or chimases, two months agone. Where's Mary Mugford?" But Mary Mugford had discreetly retired, for she saw a new figure coming up the road, the figure of a lady, tall and slender, dressed all in black and with a huge black bonnet, from which there peeped out the oval face with the chestnut curls and the great blue eyes, which we saw in the picture at Bracefort Hall, with the name of Lady Eleanor underneath it. Dick and Elsie ran to her at once, and the Corporal shortening the horse's halter in one hand, drew himself up, saluted, and made his report.
"It's a poor half-witted lad, my Lady, and they thought he had stolen some clothes. He got playing with the boys over an eel which they caught, and let it get away, but I can't find that he meant no harm nor hasn't taken nothing, but the boys got worriting him and scared him a bit, I am afraid."
The strange woman looked at the Corporal with softened eyes and a sigh of relief; and then Lady Eleanor turned to her, with her hand resting on Dick, who had come round to her side, and said very gently:
"Is it true that he is not quite right in his head?"
The strange woman nodded.
"Have you ever known him steal?"
"Never," she answered hoarsely. "'Tis seldom I let mun out of my sight among strangers, but he slipped away from me to-day."
"You have no other children?"
"No," answered the woman, almost fiercely.
"I see that the boys have hurt him," Lady Eleanor went on. "Bring him down the road by the well, and let me wash the blood away;" and leading the way she dipped her handkerchief into the water and was about to wash the blood-stained face herself, but stopped and gave the handkerchief to the woman. The villagers had withdrawn respectfully apart, and the idiot, no longer frightened by their presence, had ceased blubbering. He blinked foolishly while his face was washed; but when it was clean he looked at Lady Eleanor's beautiful face and grinned, and then at Dick and grinned wider, and lastly at Elsie and grinned wider still. He looked so much like a great simple boy that little Elsie came forward to give him what was left of her toffee, whereupon Dick, not to be outdone, did the like, though there was not much of his remaining. Finally the Corporal produced his share of toffee also from his pockets and gave it to the children for the ragged man, who seemed so much pleased that they did not regret parting with it.
"There is no harm done, I think," said Lady Eleanor to the woman, "but it was a wicked thing to throw stones at him."
"It's nought, thank you. Good-evening," said the woman, taking the ragged man by the arm.
"Have you far to go?" asked Lady Eleanor.
"A middling ways," was the only reply; and the woman turned round to go.
"Stop!" said Lady Eleanor. "My name is Lady Eleanor Bracefort, and if ever you want anything for your poor son, I hope you will tell me."
"Thank you, my Lady, he wants for nothing," answered the woman rather gruffly, and turning the man round she led him away across the bridge. They watched her until she disappeared, a tall powerful woman, with her back somewhat bent, as if by carrying heavy burdens.
Then Lady Eleanor turned to the children.
"Now, my darlings! Give Master Dick a leg up, Corporal. Wo-ho, Billy; now, Elsie, up behind him. How young the old horse looks, Corporal! Are you ready? Walk, march." And away she walked fondling Billy Pitt as she led him, and with good reason, for, old though he was, his legs were as clean as a four-year-old's, his muzzle fine and taper, and his eye full and bright, while he walked with the swinging easy stride that surely tells of good blood. Indeed, but that his tail was docked rather short, as was once the rule in the Light Dragoons, and that he had a large scar on his neck, you could not have wished to see a handsomer horse. So on they went, through the lychgate to the church; and while the Corporal waited outside with the horse. Lady Eleanor and the children went in. There at the back of a square family pew, among strange old monuments, all showing heraldic shields coloured white and blue, was a tablet: "To the memory of Captain Richard Bracefort of the 116th Light Dragoons, who fell in the glorious action of Salamanca, on the 22nd of July, 1812, and was buried with his dead comrades on the field of battle." Just below it was a second but smaller and simpler tablet: "To the memory of Private John Dart, of the 128th Foot, and late of this parish, who fell in the retreat to Corunna under Sir John Moore, January 1809;" and in very small letters were added the words "Erected by Eleanor Bracefort." Around both were the words, "Death is swallowed up in Victory," and midway between the two, Dick placed the wreath of laurel. Then they went back to the Corporal and Billy Pitt, and returned, as they had come, to the Hall.
Though there was more than one snug little room at Bracefort which other people might have turned into a schoolroom, yet Lady Eleanor always preferred, in the summer at any rate, to take the children with her to the hall for their lessons. Her favourite seat was by the great mullioned window, which shed light on everything in the rooms, and her favourite teaching was to make every old picture or helmet or weapon on the walls tell its story to the children. So on the day after Salamanca Day she was sitting as usual in her corner by the window, on a very stiff high-backed chair; for people did not lounge in those days, and children were taught at meals to keep their thumbs on the table to make them sit upright. Little Elsie sat by her on a smaller but equally stiff chair, stitching diligently at her sampler, and Dick stood before her glancing furtively over his shoulder. The blue sky outside was so great a distraction to him that Lady Eleanor had turned his back to the window, and set before him an old steel morion of the time of Queen Elizabeth; and with this to inspire him, Dick was struggling with the ballad of the Brave Lord Willoughby.
"Come, Dick," Lady Eleanor was saying, "we can do better than that. Try again. 'For seven hours to all men's view—'"
But just at this moment the Corporal came in.
"If you please, my Lady, Betsy Fry's just come up. She's in a terrible taking about her boy, and she's brought him up to see you."
"Very well. I'll come out and see her directly," said Lady Eleanor. "Come, Dick,"—but Dick had turned half round and was smiling at the Corporal.
"Come, sir," said the Corporal returning, "heels together. Little fingers on the seams of the overalls. Eyes to the front," and he placed the boy's hands gently in position by his sides, and went out.
"Now, Dick," said Lady Eleanor. "'For seven hours—'" and the boy began, with much prompting,
"For seven hours to all men's view This fight endured sore, Until our men so feeble grew That they could fight no more."
Then his memory seemed to return, and he went on with great gusto:
"And then upon dead horses Full savourly they eat, And drank the puddle water— They could no better get."
Then there was a dead stop. "'When they—'" said Lady Eleanor. "Oh, Dick."
"I always remember the puddle water, mother," said Dick reproachfully.
"Elsie," said Lady Eleanor; and Elsie folded her hands over her work and began:
"When they had fed so freely, They kneeled upon the ground, And praised God devoutly For the favour they had found."
"Then," broke in Dick triumphantly—
"Then beating up their colours The fight they did renew, And turning on the Spaniards, A thousand more they slew."
"There, I know it now, mother, mayn't I go now and tell the Corporal to saddle Prince for me? And mayn't Elsie come too?"
So away the children ran, and there was the Corporal waiting outside the door, as anxious to be off as themselves; while Lady Eleanor made her way to see Betsy Fry, who was waiting by the old gate-house a few yards away from the front door.
"Well, Betsy, what is it?" she said kindly, coming up to a woman of rather hard features, who stood patiently in the shade with her sun-bonnet fluttering in the breeze.
"'Tis about my Tommy, my Lady," said the woman curtseying. "Here, Tommy, come 'vor, and take off your hat to her Ladyship," and she pulled forward a frightened shrinking boy in a suit of corduroy, who had hidden himself behind her. "Look to mun, my Lady, he that was the most rompageous boy in Ashacombe, so quiet as a snail. And he can't spake, my Lady, he can't spake."
"Can't speak?" said Lady Eleanor.
"I can't make mun spake, my Lady. I don't know if your Ladyship was to try—"
"Why, Tommy," said Lady Eleanor, bending down towards the boy, in her sweet winning tones, "what's the matter with you? Come along and tell me, like a good boy."
The lad came forward, for no one could resist Lady Eleanor's smile, and opened his mouth confidently to speak; but he made only a few inarticulate sounds, and then thrust his knuckles into his eyes and began to cry.
"Come, come, don't be frightened. Try again," said Lady Eleanor kindly; but the boy only continued sobbing and remained speechless. Nor could all her endeavours succeed in making him utter a word.
"He must recover his speech presently," she said, much puzzled. "He has not lost the power of uttering sound."
"No, no, my Lady," said Mrs. Fry very confidently. "He can scream and holly loud enough. I bate mun last night, poor soul, because he wouldn't spake, and he scritched so loud that Mrs. Mugford come in, and asked me what I was 'bout killing a pig at that time o' night; though she knows very well that it was my pig that was drownded in the mill-leat back along in the spring. So I says to her, 'Mrs. Mugford,' I says, 'if those that talks about pigs would look to their own boys, they wouldn't run off to sea and come home with the shakums,' I says; 'and if they would keep their fowls from scratting about in their neighbours' gardens,' I says, 'they wouldn't run about crying for lost chimases.' For there's hardly a day but I drive her fowls from my garden, my Lady. And you mind her son, my Lady, him that went for a marine, and what terrible shakums he had when he comed back from the Injies. And I consider that they stolen chimases is a jidgment, my Lady, a jidgment for the mischief her fowls have done in my garden—"
"Stop, stop," said Lady Eleanor, whose eye had wandered to a shady spot under the trees where the Corporal was lunging a steady old Exmoor pony round and round, while Dick, with a pair of long gaiters added to his attire, sat firmly on its back, though without saddle or stirrups. "Tell me; has anything happened to the boy to frighten him?"
"Well, my Lady," answered Mrs. Fry, "I consider myself that the boy's overlooked."
"Overlooked?" said Lady Eleanor.
"Yes, my Lady. For they do tell me that the woman that comed through the village yesterday with the mazed body told my Tommy, 'You don't spake again,' she says, 'till I tell 'ee.'"
"Oh! nonsense," said Lady Eleanor, "don't think of such stuff."
"But she did," persisted Mrs. Fry, "and sure enough the boy can't spake. She's overlooked mun! she's awitched mun, you may depend, my Lady. And I'm sure if you'd a known who they two was, you wouldn't never have let mun go. She's the old witch to Cossacombe, that's what she is, though she a'nt never been this way afore, and the man's as bad as she is, I'll be bound, though I never heard tell of he afore."
"Why, it was easy to see that he was but a poor half-witted creature," said Lady Eleanor, "as harmless as a child; his mother told me that she hardly let him out of her sight."
"Well, my Lady, 'tis all very well to say that the man's mazed," answered Mrs. Fry almost forgetting her manners in her excitement, "but what took mun down among the boys? Why, to take the ale from them! And what is ales but sarpints, my Lady?" said Mrs. Fry throwing out her hands, "and what makes the man so friendly with sarpints, that he must come to save mun? We know, do you and I, my Lady, who is the old sarpint and the father of sarpints. And then what was he doing with that strange baste on his shoulder, my Lady?"
"Why, it was only a tame squirrel," said Lady Eleanor.
"Squirrel, my lady," said Mrs. Fry mysteriously. "Aye, 'twas a squirrel; but who knows but what it mayn't be a dragin when it gets 'oom?"
"A squirrel turn into a dragon?" said Lady Eleanor. "I never heard such childish stuff in my life; and I wouldn't have believed that a sensible woman like you could have thought of such a thing."
"Well, I won't say as it was a dragin, my Lady," said Mrs. Fry, a little abashed, "but they do say that the witch has to do with dragins. She comes from out over the moor some place, she doth; and though she's a seen on times about Cossacombe, no man can tell where she liveth nor dare go sarch for mun. Jimmy Beer went out to look for mun two year agone in the dimmet after Cossacombe revel, but the fog came down so thick as a bag; and while he was a-wandering, a dragin (for so he saith it was, though I never seed a dragin myself) passed so close to mun as I be to you, my Lady, and when he looked to the ground he saw the mark of his cloven hoof so plain as could be. And he was pixy-led all that night, my Lady, was the old Jimmy, and when he come home all his money was gone; so I reckon that the pixies is in league with the witches."
"I suspect that Jimmy had drunk too much cider," said Lady Eleanor severely; "he should have kept sober or stuck to the road, and then he would not have brought back foolish stories about pixies and witches. I wonder that you can believe in such things."
"I know mun too well, my Lady," said Mrs. Fry mournfully. "There was my pig back in the spring, so rasonable a pig as ever ate mate, until the white witch to Gratton overlooked mun. And I never did the white witch no harm, nor the pig didn't neither; but as they was driving the pig along the road—and you know what pigs is, driving, my Lady,—the white witch comes riding on his one-eyed donkey; and the pig runned against the donkey, and the old man muttered something or 'nother—"
"But the old man is dead, I was told," said Lady Eleanor.
"'Eas fai! and so he is, my Lady, and a terrible job they had to bury mun—thunder, lightning and hailstones so big as sloes. Dead he is, and I won't jidge mun—but not afore he'd a doed the mischief, for but three weeks afterward my pig falls into the mill-leat. So there's my pig a drownded, and my Tommy so dumb as a haddock—can't go to school, can't do nought but ate his mate and sit in the corner for all the world like a moulting hen. Ah, they witches! I wish they was a-burned, I do." And she hid her face in her apron and sobbed.
"Hush, hush!" said Lady Eleanor gently; but just then she was startled by a little cry from Elsie; and there was Dick, who had just leaped his pony over a low bar, tilted right forward on the pony's neck. "Sit fast, sir, sit fast," cried the Corporal, as Dick floundered to regain his seat; and with a desperate effort the boy recovered himself and sat up, flushed and smiling. Elsie clapped her hands with delight, and a strange man's voice shouted "Bravo!" at the sound of which Lady Eleanor started and coloured for a moment.
"'Tis surely his lordship from Fitzdenys Court," said Mrs. Fry, who had lowered her apron a little. "'Eas, 'tis. Now, my Lady, do 'ee plase to spake to mun about my Tommy; for it's a poor job if his lordship can't do something for the boy, and he the lord-lieutenant as can call out the milishy any time."
And as she spoke two gentlemen came cantering up through the park; so Lady Eleanor bade Mrs. Fry take Tommy to the back-door and get something for him and herself to eat.
 It is a fallacy to suppose that a white witch, in Devon, at any rate, is necessarily a woman. The few that I have known were men.
The two gentlemen dismounted at the gate giving their horses to their groom, and then walked towards Lady Eleanor together. Both were dressed in blue coats, buff waistcoats, and broad-brimmed white hats, and wore riding trousers strapped very tightly over their boots. They were evidently father and son, though the elder seemed almost as young and alert as the younger. The old gentleman took off his hat, bent his grey head over Lady Eleanor's out-stretched hand, and kissed it with the old-fashioned courtesy which has now vanished. Then beckoning the younger man forward, he said:
"I bring you back an old friend with a new title, Lady Eleanor. He has just returned from India with a new scar on the right shoulder to balance the old scar on the left, and with a letter from the Commander-in-Chief, which he is too modest to show to his friends and too proud to show to his enemies, if he has any—Colonel George Fitzdenys."
And the younger man came forward, tall, lean, wiry, and erect as the Corporal himself. He wore the moustache which showed him to be a Light Dragoon, and looked every inch a soldier; but though he could not have been more than three or four and thirty, he had the sad expression of a man who has found the years long. Still bronzed and brown though his face was, he blushed just a little as he caught his father's proud glance at him, and bent in his turn over Lady Eleanor's hand.
"Welcome back, Colonel Fitzdenys," she said very quietly; "we have not lost sight of you in the Gazettes through all these years; and you are quite recovered from your wound, I hope."
"Wound! it was nothing," he said, "an arrow in the shoulder which your boy would have laughed at."
And then Lady Eleanor beckoned to the children to come up; and old Lord Fitzdenys gave Dick two fingers and Elsie one, for he said that if her hand was like her mother's it could not hold more. But Colonel George gave Dick his whole hand, and bent down to kiss Elsie's as he had kissed her mother's, which won her little heart completely.
"Now, my dear lady," said the old gentleman, "I must ask you for the favour of a few minutes' private conversation."
"And I will stay with the children," said Colonel George, "for I want to make friends again."
Dick and Elsie were a little shy at being left alone with a stranger; but before he could say a word to them the Corporal appeared leading the pony towards the stable. He saluted Colonel Fitzdenys, and was going on, but the Colonel at once called to him by name and shook his hand warmly, while the Corporal beamed with pleasure, and said how glad he was to see his honour returned in good health.
"Oh! do you know the Corporal?" asked Dick timidly.
"Know the Corporal?" said Colonel George. "I should think I did know him, and a fine, brave fellow he is. Why, he saved my life once, he and your father. I was lieutenant in your father's troop, and at the very first skirmish in which we were engaged in the war, I was hit here, in the shoulder, so that I could not hold my reins. My horse ran away with me, right into the middle of the French, and there was not another horse in the regiment that could catch him, except your father's horse, Billy Pitt. But he came galloping after me as hard as he could ride, and caught him; and Brimacott, who was his servant, followed as fast as he could, and between them they brought me back from the middle of the enemy, or perhaps I shouldn't be here now. So I have good reason to remember Brimacott and Billy Pitt. Do you remember Billy Pitt?"
"He's here in the stable," said both the children in a breath.
"Then let us go and see Billy Pitt, for he's a very old friend of mine," said the Colonel, and away he walked to the stable with the children following him. The old horse seemed to know him, for he pricked his ears and kept nuzzling with his nose all over the Colonel's coat, until he put his hand into his pocket and pulled out an apple for him. "Look there," said the Colonel, passing his hand along the scar on the horse's neck. "The time came for Billy to get wounded and for me to look after him, as he had saved me. That was at Salamanca." He stopped for a minute and laid his hands on the children's shoulders. "Poor Billy had lost his master, you know, and came galloping up to me with his saddle empty, for he knew my horse well. And then he remained by my side, moving when I moved and stopping when I stopped, and charging with us when we charged. He came out of the fight with this cut on his neck. Poor Brimacott was badly wounded in the leg, and there was no one to look after the old horse, so I sewed up Billy's wound myself and kept him. He was well long before the Corporal—I made him corporal, you know—and, indeed, poor Brimacott was never fit for rough work again, so when he went home I sent Billy with him."
Then nothing would serve the children but that Colonel Fitzdenys must ride Billy again; so a snaffle was put into his mouth and the Colonel mounted him bare-backed, and took him for a little turn in the park and leaped him over the bar, to their great delight. Then all three went back to the garden again, and the children began plying him with questions. His own poor horse was dead, the Colonel told them; he had carried him all through the Peninsular War but had been killed at Waterloo. The Colonel himself had been in the wars in India since then, and the name of the battle was Maheidpore, but the Duke of Wellington was not there. He had seen the Duke, however, only a few days before in London, but he wasn't dressed in his red coat and cocked hat, and he believed that the Duke never slept in his red coat and cocked hat now.
"Is the Corporal like the Duke?" asked Dick anxiously. No! the Colonel could not truthfully say that he was, but the Corporal was the bigger man of the two, which was a consolation to the children.
Then the children asked him about Boney, for Polly Short, who had been their maid, had told them that he was a "riglar monster," and she had heard it from her first cousin's wife's brother-law, who was a sergeant of Marines. But the Colonel said that Polly was wrong, for he had seen Boney himself at St. Helena, and he was not in the least like a monster, but a little fat man with a pale face and auburn hair, not nearly as big as the Corporal. And Boney had made no attempt to eat him up, but had received him with the pleasantest smile that he had ever seen, and had told him that English horses were good. "And of course he was thinking of Billy," said Elsie, "when he said that."
And then the Colonel brought out pencil and paper and drew pictures of Boney and of the Duke, and of Bheels and Pindarrees and Mahrattas and other strange people against whom he had fought in India. He also assured Dick that he had drunk puddle-water, like Lord Willoughby's men, and had been very glad to get it. Finally he produced a little silver bangle hung with curious silver coins which he put on Elsie's wrist for her very own, and a knife in a sheath for Dick. The knife was not very sharp, but then the sheath was beautiful. So that by the time when Lord Fitzdenys and Lady Eleanor came out to look for them, they found the children hanging on to the Colonel's arms and calling him Colonel George as if they had known him all their lives.
Lord Fitzdenys called Colonel George to him; and he left the children to join Lady Eleanor, who told him the story of Tommy Fry, and asked him what he made of it.
"Witchcraft, of course, is nonsense," he said, "but there are people who can wield such influence as this over others, the power of a stronger will over a weaker, I suppose. One hears of it often in India. Probably the boy will recover in a day or two, when he gets over his fright."
"But if he does not?" said Lady Eleanor.
"Why, if the doctor can't deal with it, the best thing we can do will be to find the woman; and if she has bound the boy by force of her will to be silent, to make her release him again. Where does she live?"
"No one knows," said Lady Eleanor, and repeated what Mrs. Fry had told her.
"I never remember any one being pixy-led but that cider was at the bottom of it," said Colonel George. "As to the dragon, I expect that Jimmy Beer chanced upon an old stag which looked very big and terrible in the mist, and that the print of his cloven hoof was the mark of his slot in the ground. The moor is wide, but I cannot think it will be very difficult to find this woman."
"I should be greatly relieved if we could, if only to prevent her from playing such tricks in future," said Lady Eleanor.
"Then I will make it my business to find her," said Colonel George, "if my father approves; and you need trouble yourself no more about the matter, but leave it to me."
Old Lord Fitzdenys quite approved, and stumped off by himself to look at a shrub which he could never induce to grow at his own place. Then the children came running up to show their treasures, and Lady Eleanor looked into Colonel George's face with eyes full of gratitude, and said "How good of you! You never forget them, and you are rather inclined to spoil them. You did when you came back from the Peninsula, and again after Waterloo, and now after all these years you are just the same."
"Yes," he said quietly, "I am just the same. Why should I be changed?" He stopped rather abruptly; and Lady Eleanor began a new subject by saying that she wanted to hear all about India. So the two walked about the garden talking, and seemed to have plenty to say. Indeed they were still talking hard, and did not seem to want to be interrupted, when old Lord Fitzdenys came back to say that it was time for him to return. The old gentleman took his leave with the same stately courtesy; but both the children put up their cheeks to be kissed by Colonel George, who promised to come back to them soon. Then seeing Mrs. Fry waiting outside they spoke a few words to her and took a look at Tommy, whose mouth was smeared with brown sugar from Lady Eleanor's still-room. The Corporal held open the gate with his best salute, and they cantered down over the park, Colonel George turning in his saddle to look back and wave his hand before they finally disappeared from sight.
"It is pleasant to see Colonel Fitzdenys again," said Lady Eleanor to the Corporal, as he held the door for her.
"It's a treat to look upon his face, my Lady," said the Corporal, "a noble gentleman like that who never forgets the humblest of his friends. I've always said that if I were not in your Ladyship's service there is no one that I would serve so willingly as he. 'Tis no wonder that his honour the Captain and he were friends, for there wasn't two such gentlemen in the army."
So when the children rejoined the Corporal they heard nothing but the praises of Colonel Fitzdenys, of his bravery, his gentleness, and his excellence as an officer; all of which they passed on in the evening to Lady Eleanor, who seemed quite content to hear it.
Notwithstanding Colonel George's hopes, Tommy Fry remained dumb during the next day, and the next, and the next; and Lady Eleanor became seriously alarmed. She sent for the apothecary from the little neighbouring town, by Colonel George's advice, and he duly arrived in his yellow gig; but he frankly confessed that he could do nothing. So he wisely went away, as Mrs. Fry indignantly put it, without leaving so much as a drench behind him, or taking so much as a drop of blood from the boy, whereas every one knew (or at any rate the villagers did) that the evil spirit, which no doubt possessed poor Tommy, might have left him if a convenient outlet had been made with a lancet, or if the boy had swallowed a few doses of the nastiest possible medicine such as evil spirits find it impossible to live with.
The doctor having failed, a local preacher was called in, who with the assistance of certain of his flock screamed and sang and raved over Tommy for several hours, making such a noise as set Lady Eleanor's peacocks screaming till they could scream no more. The boy was at first rather terrified, but as his helpers became more vehement and their antics more grotesque, he lost his fright and was intensely amused. Finally the whole congregation rose and, headed by the preacher, rushed out of the house with wild cries that the evil spirit had left Tommy and that they would hunt it out of the village. None the less the boy remained dumb; so that the evil spirit, if ever it had thought of going, had certainly changed its mind very quickly.
Both doctor and preacher having failed, Mrs. Fry was at her wits' end; but her neighbours pointed out that witchcraft could be met only by witchcraft; and a remark made by her nearest neighbour, Mrs. Mugford, soon brought her round to their mind. "'Tisn't witchcraft," said Mrs. Mugford very loudly in Mrs. Fry's hearing, "'tis a jidgment on evil tongues, and the sins of parents that's visited on the children. The mother goeth back and vor biting and slandering, and the mouth of the innocent child is stopped." Mrs. Fry wept with rage as she heard the words, for she had no answer ready. But she was more than ever convinced from that moment that it was witchcraft which had wrought the mischief in poor Tommy, and that only further witchcraft could undo it. Despite the sad end of her pig, owing to the malignant influence of the white witch of Gratton, she now lamented the death of the old man and wished that he were back, if only for one day, that she might consult him and show her contempt for Mrs. Mugford. As things were, she was fain to fall back on her neighbours to learn where some wizard or wise women of equal power could be discovered; and it was with dismay that she found that not one of any repute was to hand nearer than the borders of Dartmoor, fifty miles away. In vain she questioned hawkers, waggoners, and the guards of the coaches, any passing folks in fact that had seen the world; not one could enlighten her.
The neighbours, however, were ready enough with suggestions of their own, of which the commonest was that Tommy's tongue should be split with a silver sixpence. It is possible that some attempt might have been made to perform this operation, for abundance of sixpences were offered for the purpose; and there was a crooked one of the time of Queen Anne from which great things were expected, for it was said to have been given by the Queen herself when, touching children for the King's Evil. Unfortunately, however, not one of these designs escaped the keen ears of Mrs. Mugford, who at once communicated them to the Corporal.
"'Tis not that I hold with them as slanders their neighbours, Mr. Brimacott," she said, "nor that I bear no malice against them that can't let a poor boy go to sea to sarve the King without a-saying that his mother drave mun from home. I could tell of many in this parish as isn't no better than they should be, and yet takes her Ladyship's kindness and charity as if no one hadn't no right to it but themselves. I could tell of such, but I won't, not I. But I'm not going to stand by and see an innocent boy's tongue cut out of his mouth; though I wouldn't say, Mr. Brimacott, but what there's tongues in the parish that would be the better for cutting."
It was in this appalling form that the projected operation with the sixpence made its way through the Corporal to Lady Eleanor, who was horrified. She at once sent for both Mrs. Mugford and Mrs. Fry to get at the truth of the story, and gave them such a scolding for their folly and their quarrelsomeness that they departed weeping hand in hand, in deep sympathy with each other as two thoroughly ill-used women. They were a little frightened too, for though they had long known Lady Eleanor as the gentlest and kindest of creatures, they now found out that her beautiful face could be stern, and her voice sharp and severe in rebuke; but for all their crying they knew in their hearts that they liked her all the better for it.
So all attempts to heal Tommy by magic were stopped; and meanwhile Colonel George scoured the moor in all directions without the least success in finding out anything about the strange woman and her idiot son. He had ridden first to Cossacombe, which was twenty miles away on the other side of the moor, and had heard that the woman had been seen there occasionally, but the idiot never; in fact no one seemed to know anything about him. He learned also that she had brought down some honey for sale on the day following her appearance at Ashacombe, and had bought a sack of oatmeal at the mill, which she had taken away on a scarecrow of an Exmoor pony. There were of course sundry stories of her, but these were dark and uncertain, and of no value for tracing her to her dwelling place. Then Colonel George took long rides over the moor, crossing it this way and that from end to end, in the hope of finding what he sought; for he had made up his mind that this strange couple were lodged somewhere in the waste of bog and heather. But he failed to find the least trace of them; and indeed the moor is wide now and was far wider and wilder and more desolate in those days, before there was a fence or a ditch to be found in the whole of it. Then stag-hunting began, and Colonel George felt confident that with so many people galloping over the moorland in all directions he must certainly learn something; but here again he was disappointed. Still he went on trying day after day, and very often came home by Ashacombe, when he did not fail to call at Bracefort Hall, where everybody was glad to see him, whatever the failure of his efforts.
Thus a whole month passed away without any change in Tommy Fry or any sign that might give hope of discovering the strange woman. Lady Eleanor then became very unhappy indeed, and blamed herself for letting her go without further inquiry.
Colonel George still insisted that all would soon right itself, for he was pained to see how much Lady Eleanor took the matter to heart, but in truth he too was at his wits' end. And indeed those two distressed themselves over Tommy Fry far more than anybody else; for Mrs. Fry gained great importance from her boy's misfortune. Folks from neighbouring villages came to see for themselves if the story that they had heard was true; and from time to time some gentleman passing to or from the hunting-field would drop in, when Tommy was produced and proved to be speechless, while Mrs. Fry told the tale with every harrowing detail. The great Lord Fitzdenys himself came once, and the doctor regained favour in Mrs. Fry's eyes by bringing another doctor to see what he called "this interesting case;" and as none of the gentlemen ever went away without giving a few pence to the boy and a few shillings to his mother, the family of Fry gained both dignity and profit. Nor were the Frys at first the only gainers, for, Tommy being of a generous nature, there was an uncommon demand for Sally Dart's toffee, until Mrs. Fry, perceiving how quickly his money disappeared, thought it prudent to take care of it for him.
Then suddenly one day there came an event which revived all the hopes of Colonel George and Lady Eleanor. For one beautiful evening while Dick and Elsie were wandering with the Corporal round the fence of the park to pick blackberries, they heard a strange whistling in the wood beyond. At first they thought that it was a bird, but the Corporal said that he had never heard such a bird in his life, though the sound seemed to pass so swiftly from place to place that it was difficult to think what it might be. They followed the sound along the fence for a little way, and then suddenly the Corporal shaded his eyes with his hand for a moment, and telling the children to wait till he came back, ran away down the fence as fast as his lame leg would carry him, turned into the wood by a hunting-gate and disappeared. The children wondered for a time what could have happened, but discovering some very fine ripe blackberries soon turned to picking and tasting them again, when suddenly they heard the whistling close to them, and again still closer; and presently there was a little rustle through the bushes, and there stood the idiot before them, still whistling. They were at first a little frightened, but too much astonished to cry out; and the ragged creature (for he had just the same appearance as when they had first seen him) grinned at them so kindly that they could not help smiling back. He looked round him nervously for a moment and then holding up his finger as if to bid them keep silence, he scrambled down from the fence to them, and produced a rudely made cage of hazel-wands from under his coat. This he opened, and took from it a bullfinch, which perched on his finger without attempting to fly away. Then he whistled a few notes and the bird began to pipe a little tune, though the man was obliged to remind him of his note now and again. Then he whistled few more notes and the bird piped another tune or part of one, after which he lifted the bird to his face and the little creature laid its beak against his lips. He then listened nervously for a few seconds, shut he bird up in the cage again, put the cage into little Elsie's hand, nodding and smiling all the time, jumped over the fence into the wood and was gone.
The Corporal came back a few minutes later, very hot, out of breath, and very nearly out of temper. He had caught sight of some one in the wood, he said, a poacher or some one who had no business there, and made sure to have caught him or at any rate to have found out who he was. But when he heard the children's story he opened his eyes wide and said that they had better go home at once; and that very same evening he rode over to Fitzdenys Court with a letter from Lady Eleanor to Colonel George. But the children were far too much taken up by the bullfinch to think of anything else, for the bird took courage to pipe a little to Dick's whistling, and then they discovered that one of his tunes was "The British Grenadiers."
Colonel George duly came over next morning and was not a little astonished to hear what had happened, but could not explain it in the least. "The children will solve this mystery before I shall, you will see," he said to Lady Eleanor, laughing, "and I may as well give up the attempt."
"But do you not think that this proves these two people to be harmless and innocent?" asked Lady Eleanor.
"You judged them to be so from the first," he answered, "and that is sufficient for me."
Lady Eleanor hesitated for a moment, and then said that he must come and see the bullfinch. So Elsie produced the bird with great pride, and Colonel George recognised one tune as "The British Grenadiers" and the other as part of "Lillibulero," the famous marching song which was so popular with King William's soldiers. "Strange," he said, "that both tunes should be marching tunes. What can it mean?"
But before they had done with the bullfinch, a frightened woman came hurrying up with the news that old Sally Dart was taken bad. She had got up as usual and begun to lay the fire, but the neighbours seeing no more of her had entered the cottage and found her lying on the floor, speechless, with one side of her face pulled down. Lady Eleanor at once sent for the doctor, and walked down with Colonel George to see what she could do; but as they came back they found that there was fresh excitement in another quarter. The village preacher's cow had also been taken bad; her calf was dead already, and it was doubtful if the cow could be saved. Finally, Mrs. Mugford was seen weeping over the ghastly heads of six or eight fowls which lay in a heap before her door. The said fowls, so Colonel George ascertained from her, had strayed away in the previous night, which she had never known them do before, and the keeper had found the heads scattered about the wood not far from an earth where an old vixen was known to have brought up a litter of cubs. What could have possessed the fowls Mrs. Mugford couldn't say, for her old stag (and she selected the head of a venerable cock from the heap as she spoke, to give point to her remark) was so sensible as a Christian almost.
"What a day of misfortunes!" said Lady Eleanor, as they left the disconsolate woman.
"Yes, indeed," said Colonel George, "I only hope that they may end here. Listen!" And as he spoke the voice of Mrs. Fry rose high from the garden above.
"Yes," she said, "the mazed man was up to the park yesterday. The young gentleman and the little lady seed mun; and the witch wasn't far away, you may depend. She's a-witched mun all; that's what it is; and now maybe," she added with a triumphant glance at the weeping Mrs. Mugford, "there's some as won't be so sartain as they was as to the doings of witches."
Lady Eleanor gave a little laugh, but turned suddenly grave, and asked Colonel George anxiously, "Do you think that they really believe it?"
"There is no doubt that they believe it," he said quietly. "It is best to face facts."
"But if it should lead to trouble?" said Lady Eleanor.
"Wait till the trouble comes," he said, "and then send for me. You may be sure that I shall come."
The day of misfortunes brought about very much such results as Colonel George had foreseen. Old Sally Dart, it is true, recovered, though she was sadly shaken; and she declared, as soon as she could speak, that she was not going yet awhile, not at any rate till she had heard the full story of her Jan's death. But on the other hand the preacher's cow did die, and as the preacher himself was but a small farmer of eight or ten acres of land, the loss to him was very serious. Mrs. Mugford, too, was thoroughly converted to belief in witchcraft by the loss of her fowls; though since Tommy Fry's noise no longer disturbed her, and her fowls were no longer numerous enough to make havoc of Mrs. Fry's garden, she and Mrs. Fry lived for the present in comparative peace. Hoping therefore to do something to destroy the belief in witches and to soften the harsh feeling against them, Lady Eleanor wrote to the parson to speak on the subject in next Sunday's sermon.
Her hopes, however, were not very great. There was no parson living in the village, the parish being so small that it was joined to another and served by an old, old man, who wore his hair in powder and droned through one service only on Sundays in the little dark church at Ashacombe. The congregation was always small, and perhaps the three most enthusiastic members were Dick, Elsie, and the Corporal. For the Corporal had inherited a violoncello, or as it was always called in the village, a bass viol, from his father, and played it in the little gallery along with the two violins, flageolet and bassoon that formed the rest of the band. The notes that he could play were few, though sufficient for the humble needs of the church, but the children had no doubt that he was the finest performer in the world, and watched anxiously for the minute when he should begin sawing away at the strings, and the choir should break (very much through their noses) into the anthem, "I will arise, I will arise and goo tu my va-ther," with which the service always began.
The old parson, though he did attempt to fulfil Lady Eleanor's wishes in his sermon, only succeeded in being duller and longer than usual, and neither Dick nor Elsie could understand what he was talking about. Moreover they had been much distracted by a printed handbill which they had seen on the church door, headed in large letters by the word "Deserted," with the description of a deserter named Henry Bale from the Royal Marines, set forth in the usual terms—"Height five feet four inches, fair hair, grey eyes; when last seen was dressed in his regimentals," and so on. This had set Dick thinking very seriously, for the Corporal had always told him that no man was so bad as he that deserted his colours and ran away from the King's service; and he had hardly believed that such people could exist. And the bill had set other people thinking too, for a reward of two guineas was offered for this deserter, which made sundry poor mouths water; so that altogether the parson's long sermon was not much listened to, many heads being occupied with an attempt to remember some strange man five feet four inches in height, with fair hair and grey eyes, and dressed in regimentals.
When service was over, the Corporal solemnly packed up his bass viol in a bag of green baize, and was about to carry it off, when he was stopped by the village preacher, who begged the loan of it for the evening. But the Corporal, who as a soldier and Lady Eleanor's servant was a staunch supporter of Church and King, did not like the preacher, who was always railing against all authority and driving silly maids into hysterics with his ravings; so he answered him very civilly (for he never quarrelled with any one) that he was afraid he could not. The preacher, however, would not take no for an answer, and tried to wheedle the Corporal, who at last told him very decidedly that his father had played that viol in the church at Fitzdenys for forty years, and he himself at Ashacombe for near seven years more, and that he would be hanged if it should ever enter a chapel so long as he was alive. With which words he drew himself up to his full height and stalked away.
The preacher was not a little annoyed, for he wanted the viol for his own service at the chapel, where he was going to preach directly contrary to the old parson. Moreover at the close of his service there was to be a collection to make good to him the loss of his cow, so that it was important to him that all should go off as well as possible. However, notwithstanding the absence of the viol, his discourse was enough to gain for him a good collection, to strengthen the general belief in witches, and to influence the minds of the villagers against them; for he singled out those who dealt leniently with witches for punishment, either in the near or distant future, which was just what his congregation was glad to hear. Not that the preacher was a bad man, certainly not worse than his neighbours, but he was as ignorant and superstitious as any of them.
Great cackling there was among the women when the discourse was ended. It was Lady Eleanor who had delivered the witch and the idiot out of their hands; but the villagers could not suspect her of harm who was always so thoughtful and kind, and who had given more than any one towards replacing the preacher's cow. "But her ladyship's that tender-hearted, you see," they said, "and the best of folks is sometimes mistook;" and they shook their heads solemnly, each thinking in her heart that she knew of at least one excellent person who was never mistaken. But who was it that had excused the mazed man to her ladyship? The Corporal. Who had contrived to be out of the way, though in charge of the children, when the mazed man came to them? The Corporal again.
So the whisper went round that the Corporal was in league with the witch; and the preacher, who had not forgotten about the bass viol, though he said only a few mysterious words, seemed rather to agree. Then Mrs. Fry revealed the fact that she had suspected the Corporal from the first; for to begin with he was a soldier.
"And what drove he to 'list?" she asked indignantly. "No good, I'll warrant mun. 'Tisn't good that drives men to 'list. There was Jan Dart that 'listed twenty year agone, and 'ticed away Lucy Clatworthy to follow mun, her that was only child of Jeremiah Clatworthy up to Loudacott; and the old Jeremiah got drinking and died after she left mun. And there's Jan's old mother, poor soul, that loved mun as the apple of her eye, waiting here alone, and I reckon her time's short. No! I knows what it is when men go for sojers."
It was perhaps fortunate that Mrs. Mugford was not at chapel that evening or there might have been angry words; but the rest of the women, having no interest in soldiers, with perfect honesty agreed with Mrs. Fry, and lamented that her ladyship should be so misguided as to employ a man like the Corporal, for it would surely end in no good,—sojers never did. Look at Mrs. Mugford's boy that went for a marine, and came back with the shakums so bad that you could hear his teeth chattering a mile away when the fit was on him. The conversation would have lingered long on the symptoms of "shakums," or in other words of ague, had not some one called to mind the bill on the church-door about the deserter. Then the tongues were set wagging afresh. Two guineas were a lot of money, they said, but soldiers was often badly served, and 'twas no wonder they runned away. But it wasn't well to have strange men about the place, least of all sojers, for they never learned no good.
The mention of strange men about the place of course brought back the subject of the idiot, and then the thought occurred to one of the women that he might be the deserter in question. The idea was at once taken up by her companions, and the more they talked, the more likely it seemed to them. The man had been driven from his regiment probably because of his evil doings, and was come to Ashacombe to plague them; and all agreed that it would be very pleasant to earn two guineas by the catching of him. Mrs. Fry went home brimful of this new notion and poured it out to Mrs. Mugford, who listened with unusual interest, and without either contradiction or interruption, which was a most unusual thing. But at last she broke out with much earnestness:
"You'm right, you may depend, Mrs. Fry; you'm right. That mazed man is the man that they'm a-sarching for; and it's my belief that he isn't mazed at all but so well in his head as you and I be,—just pretending like. And you'm right about that Brimacott too, and I do hope that every one will let mun know that he's not welcome in Ashacombe. He's a prying man and a tale-bearing man, that's what I believe he is, and all to deceive her ladyship and keep friends with the witch. But we'll catch that mazed man for all his pretending, and there there will be two guineas for you and me."
Any one else but Mrs. Fry might have thought it strange for the Corporal to be called a tale-bearer by the very woman who had told tales against her; but Mrs. Fry was not a clever woman, and after all she had suffered under Lady Eleanor's tongue through the Corporal's report. Lady Eleanor knew that if the Corporal told her anything that went on in the village, which he very rarely did, it was right that she should know it; but that was not Mrs. Fry's opinion. So the two agreed that the Corporal was an enemy to the village, though, as is usually the way, they never thought of complaining to Lady Eleanor of him.
But had Mrs. Fry stayed at home instead of going to chapel, she would have understood better the meaning of Mrs. Mugford's words. For having packed off her husband, who was a feeble creature, to take the children out for a walk, Mrs. Mugford stationed herself at a window from which she could see any one that came down from the woods at the back of the house; and after a time she saw a shortish man, fair-haired and blue-eyed, walk stealthily down to her. He was a miserable-looking fellow, with a pinched white face, matted hair and new-grown beard, and dressed only in a shirt and a pair of light-blue soldier's trousers. She smuggled him quickly into the house and locked the door; and when after a quarter of an hour the door opened again, and after due looking round the man was let out, he was dressed like an ordinary labourer. He carried bread and bacon tied up in a handkerchief in his hand, and disappeared into the wood as quickly as he could; and as soon as he was gone Mrs. Mugford very solemnly put the trousers and shirt, that he had worn when he came in, upon the fire and burned them.
So another fortnight passed away, and nothing happened to disturb the usual peace of Ashacombe. Nothing was seen or heard of the idiot or his mother nor of any one who corresponded to the description of the deserter. The Corporal indeed realised that the tone of the village towards him was not so friendly as before, but he set that down to the preacher's influence and took little notice of it; for indeed he cared little so long as he was with Lady Eleanor and the children, and could count Colonel Fitzdenys among his friends.
But up at the Hall there were heavy hearts; for Lady Eleanor had spoken, not for the first time, to Colonel George about sending Dick to school, and he had answered that it was high time for him to go, as it was a bad thing for boys to stay too long at home with their mothers; and he said that he himself had been sent to school at six, whereas Dick was already nine. He added that by chance he had heard of a good school while passing through London, and would arrange matters for her if she wished it. It was rather strange, by the way, that Colonel George always happened by chance to know everything that could save Lady Eleanor trouble. So with a sigh Lady Eleanor had assented that Dick should go; and it had been settled that he should leave in a few weeks. Dick was rather triumphant, Elsie rather jealous, the Corporal in secret rather sad, and Lady Eleanor very melancholy.
So one day early in September Lady Eleanor promised the children that for an unusual treat they should have a ride with the Corporal rather further than usual on to the moor. She would not ride herself, for her favourite horse was lame, but settled that she would drive them some way up the valley in the afternoon, and there meet the Corporal, who would go on before them leading the ponies, and ride with them on to the moor. Accordingly on the appointed day the Corporal rode through the village on old Billy, leading a pony on each side. Not a soul wished him good-day, and the Corporal felt that all were making unpleasant remarks—indeed he caught the words, "Dear! to think that they sweet children should be trusted to such as he."
But he trotted on without taking any notice, up the valley to the appointed meeting-place.
Lady Eleanor drove up rather late, for the horse-flies had been very troublesome; and the children seeing the grey pony which drew them covered all over with little flecks of blood, had constantly entreated her to stop while they jumped down and knocked the flies off him. At last, however, she came. The children mounted their ponies, Dick very proud of a new saddle and stirrups to which he had been promoted after leaping the bar bare-backed, and they rode away up a grass path to the covert, kissing their hands as they went.
And then Lady Eleanor turned round and drove down the valley, feeling very lonely and unhappy over the prospect of losing Dick. Her thoughts wandered back to her first meeting with Richard Bracefort, the handsome captain of Light Dragoons, her engagement, her wedding in a London drawing-room, and her first visit to Bracefort Hall. Then had come some two years of happy life in country-quarters. Those were pleasant days to look back on, when her husband would come in from parade and say that he believed he had in his troop as good officers and men as were to be found in the service; while George Fitzdenys, the lieutenant, would tell her that there were few such officers as her husband to be found in the Army, and the little cornet, who was little more than a boy, would be lavish in praise of both. Her maid again was always repeating to her what Brimacott, then her husband's soldier-servant, said of the devotion of the men to the captain. Finally there came the crowning happiness of the birth of the children; and she still remembered seeing a little knot of troopers gathered round the diminutive creatures called Dick and Elsie.
But, very soon after, came the miserable day when the regiment was ordered on active service, and she rode with her husband at the head of his troop to the rendezvous. She could see him still as he appeared mounted on Billy Pitt that day. Then followed the embarkation of men and horses, and a desperate struggle with Billy, who objected to be slung on board; and finally the last glimpse of sails disappearing over the horizon and the long drive westward to Bracefort Hall. There old Mr. Bracefort's delight over her arrival and over the children had almost brought happiness back to her again; and cheerful letters from Spain kept hope alive. But when the regiment reached the front, the tragedy of war soon made itself felt. George Fitzdenys was badly wounded in the first skirmish, two of the best troopers were killed and others wounded; and, after that, twelve months of service seemed to cut off member after member of what Fitzdenys had called the happiest troop in the Army. The little cornet was shot dead, the troop-sergeant-major drowned while crossing a treacherous ford, this trooper maimed for life, that trooper—but she could not bear to think of it. And then came the morning in August when old Mr. Bracefort had come in white and trembling to break to her the news of Salamanca. It was well that in those dreary days she had been obliged to look after him and give him the comfort which he tried, but in vain, to give to her. She remembered how, for all his courage, the old gentleman had drooped and died after the death of his son, and how all ties with the old life seemed to be severed, but for George Fitzdenys' letters of sympathy. Then she recalled the arrival of Brimacott and Billy Pitt, which seemed to mark the end of one stage of her life and the beginning of a new, and yet to carry the last relics of the past continuously into the present. All had been peaceful since then; the war had done its worst for her, and her only link with Spain now lay in the messages, always punctually delivered by old Lord Fitzdenys in person, that Captain Fitzdenys sent his respectful service to her and hoped that she and the children were well. She remembered how she had dreaded her first meeting with Captain Fitzdenys after the peace, and how he seemed to have realised that her whole life now lay in the children, and had made friends with them at once. He had helped her through some difficulties of business and had then rushed off to the campaign of Waterloo; and he had come back safe and sound only to run away again after a few months to India. And now he was back once more, in time to be of help to her; but Dick must go to school and the happy home must be broken up again. She sighed sadly, wondering where it all would end.