The Lost Middy, being the Secret of the Smugglers' Gap, by George Manville Fenn.
This is yet another tension-packed teenagers' novel from the pen of G. Manville Fenn. The hero is a sixteen-year-old called Aleck, who is an orphan being brought up by his uncle, whose main interest in life is writing a book of history. They live by the sea, and Aleck's great pleasure is to take his little sailing boat along the coast, often in the company of a pensioned-off man-o'-war's man, called Tom Bodger. They get involved with a press-gang raid by one of HM sloops, which is accompanied by a revenue cutter. Some of the men of the neighbouring hamlets are taken by the press-gang, but a middy from the sloop is also taken by the local smugglers, and hidden in the very cave where they normally hide their spoils.
Unfortunately Aleck also stumbles on the track of the smugglers, and gets shut up in the same cave. Both entrances of the cave are blocked up. There is no possible escape. NH
THE LOST MIDDY, OR THE SECRET OF THE SMUGGLERS' GAP, BY GEORGE MANVILLE FENN.
There was a loud rattling noise, as if money was being shaken up in a box. A loud crashing bang, as if someone had banged the box down on a table. A rap, as if a knife had been dropped. Then somebody, in a petulant voice full of vexation and irritability, roared out:
And that's exactly how it was, leaving Aleck Donne, who looked about sixteen or seventeen, scratching vigorously at his crisp hair as he sat back, with his elbows resting upon those of the big wooden arm-chair, staring at the money-box before him.
"I call it foolishness," he said, aloud, talking, of course, to himself, for there was no one else in the comfortable room, the window of which opened out upon the most quaint garden ever seen. "It's all right to save up your money in a box and keep on dropping it through a slit; but how about getting it out? Here, I'll go and smash the stupid old thing up directly on the block in the wood-shed."
But instead of carrying out his threat, he leaned forward, picked up the curved round-ended table-knife he had dashed down, seized the money-box again, shook it with jingling effect, held it upside down above his eyes, and began to operate with the knife-blade through the narrow slit in the centre of the lid.
For a good quarter of an hour by the big old eight-day clock in the corner did the boy work away, shaking the box till some coin or another was over the slit, and then operating with the knife-blade, trying and trying to get the piece of money up on edge so that it would drop through; and again and again, as the reward of his indefatigable perseverance, nearly succeeding, but never quite. For so sure as he pushed it up or tilted it down, the coin made a dash and glided away, making the drops of perspiration start out on the boy's forehead, and forcing him into a struggle with his temper which resulted in his gaining the victory again, till that thin old half-crown was coaxed well into sight and forced flat against the knife-blade. The boy then began to manipulate the knife with extreme caution as he kept on making a soft purring noise, ah-h-h-h-ha! full of triumphant satisfaction, while a big curled-up tabby tom-cat, which had taken possession of the fellow chair to that occupied by Aleck, twitched one ear, opened one eye, and then seeing that the purring sound was only a feeble imitation, went off to sleep again.
"Got you at last!" muttered the lad. "Half a crown; just buy all I want, and—bother!" he yelled, and, raising the box on high with both hands, he dashed it down upon the slate hearth with all his might.
Temper had won this time. Aleck had suffered a disastrous defeat, and he sat there with his forehead puckered up, staring at the cat, which at the crash and its accompanying yell made one bound that carried it on to the sideboard, where with glowing eyes, flattened ears, arched back, and bottle-brush tail, it stood staring at the disturber of its rest.
"Well, I am a pretty fool," muttered Aleck, starting out of his chair and listening for a few moments before stealing across the room to open the door cautiously and thrust out his head.
There was no sound to be heard, and the boy re-closed the door and went back to the hearth.
"I wonder uncle didn't hear," he muttered, stooping down. "I've done it now, and no mistake."
As he spoke he picked the remains of the broken box from inside the fender.
"Smashed!" he continued. "Good job too. Shan't have any more of that bother. How much is there? Let's see!"
There was a small fire burning in the old-fashioned grate, and with a grim look the boy finished the destruction of the money-box by tearing it apart at the dovetailings and placing the pieces on the fire, where they caught at once, blazing up, while the lad hunted out and picked up the coins which lay scattered here and there.
"Three—four—five—and sixpence," muttered the boy. "I thought there was more than that. Hullo! Where's that thin old half-crown? Haven't thrown it on the fire, have I? Oh, there you are!" he cried, ferreting it out of the fleeces of the thick dark-dyed sheepskin hearth-rug at his feet. "Eight shillings," he continued, transferring his store to his pocket. "Well, I'm not obliged to spend it all. Money-box! Bother! I'm not a child now. Just as if I couldn't take care of my money in my pocket."
He gave the place a slap, turned to the window, looked out at the soft fleecy clouds gliding overhead, and once more made for the door, crossed the little hall paved with large black slates, and then bounded up the oak stairs two at a time, to pause on the landing and give a sharp knuckle rap on the door before him; then, without waiting for a "Come in," he entered, to stand, door in hand, gazing at the top of a big shaggy grey head, whose owner held it close to the sheets of foolscap paper which he was covering with writing in a bold, clear hand.
"Want me, uncle?"
The head was raised, and a pair of fierce-looking eyes glared at the interrupter of the studies from beneath enormously-produced, thick, white eyebrows, and through a great pair of round tortoise-shell spectacles.
"Want you, boy?" was the reply, as the speaker held up a large white swan-quill pen on a level with his sun-browned and reddened nose. "No, Lick. Be off!"
"I'm going to run over to Rockabie, uncle. Back to dinner. Want anything brought back?"
"No, boy; I've plenty of ink. No.—Yes. Bring me some more of this paper."
The voice sounded very gruff and ill-humoured, and the speaker glared angrily, more than looked, at the boy.
"Here," he continued, "don't drown yourself."
"Oh, no, uncle," said the boy, confidently, "I'll take care of that."
"By running into the first danger you come across."
"Nonsense, uncle. I can sail about now as well as any of the fisher lads."
"Fisher? Bah!" growled the old man, fiercely. "Scoundrels—rascals, who wear a fisher's frock to hide the fact that they are smugglers—were wreckers. Nice sink of iniquity this. Look here, Lick. Take care and don't play that idler's trick of making fast the sheet."
"I'll take care, uncle."
"How's the wind, boy?"
"Just a nice soft breeze, uncle. I can run round the point in about an hour—wind right abaft."
"And dead ahead coming back, eh?"
"Yes; but I can tack, uncle—make good long reaches."
"To take you out into the race and among the skerries. Do you think I want to have you carried out to sea and brought back days hence to be buried, sir?"
"Of course you don't, uncle; but I shan't hurt. Old Dumpus says I can manage a boat as well as he can."
"He's a wooden-legged, wooden-headed old fool for saying so. Look here, Aleck; you'd better stop at home to-day."
"Uncle!" cried the boy, in a voice full of protest.
"The weather's going to change. I can feel it in my old wound; and it will not be safe for a boy like you alone to try and run that boat home round the point."
"Oh, uncle, you treat me as if I were a little boy!"
"So you are; and too light-headed."
"It's such a beautiful morning for a sail, uncle."
"Do just as well to watch the sea from the cliffs, and the carrier can bring what you want from Rockabie next time he goes."
"Uncle! I shall be so disappointed," pleaded the boy.
"Well! What of that? Do you good, boy. Life's all disappointments. Prepare you for what you'll have to endure in the future."
"Very well, uncle, I won't go if you don't wish it."
"Of course you won't, sir. There, run round and get one of the Eilygugg lads to help you with the boat."
"Please, uncle, I'd rather not. I don't like them, and they don't like me."
"Of course you don't like the young scoundrels, sir; but they can manage a boat."
"I'd rather not go now, uncle," said the boy, sadly.
"And I'd rather you did. There, go at once, while the weather's fine, and make that old man-o'-war's man help you to come back?"
"Tom Bodger, uncle? But how's he to get back?"
"I'll give him some shillings, and he can pay one of the smugglers to give him a lift home."
"Thank you, uncle," cried the boy, in an eager way, which showed plainly enough how well satisfied he was with the arrangement.
"Don't worry me. Be off!" said the old man, bending over his writing again.
Aleck needed no further orders, and hurried out into the well-kept garden, where everything looked healthy and flourishing, sheltered as it was from the fierce winds of all quarters by the fact that it lay in a depression formed by the sinking of some two or three acres of land, possibly from the undermining of the sea in far distant ages, at the end of a narrow rift or chasm in the cliffs which guarded the shores, the result being that, save in one spot nearest the sea, the grounds possessed a natural cliff-like wall some fifty or sixty feet high, full of rift and shelf, the nesting-place of innumerable birds. Here all was wild and beautiful; great curtains of ivy draped the natural walls, oak and sycamore flourished gloriously in the shelter as far as the top of the cliff, and there the trees ceased to grow upward and branched horizontally instead, so that from the level land outside it seemed as if Nature had cut all the tops off level, as indeed she had, by means of the sharp cutting winds.
Aleck followed the garden path without looking back at the vine and creeper-clad house in its shelter, and made for one corner of the garden where the walls overlapped, and, passing round one angle, he was directly after in a zigzag rift, shut in by more lofty, natural walls, but with the path sloping downward, with the consequence that the walls grew higher, till at the end of about three hundred yards from the garden they were fully a couple of hundred feet from base to summit, the base being nearly level with the sea. This latter was hidden till the lad had passed round another angle of cliff, when he obtained a glimpse of the deep blue water, flecked here and there with silvery foam, but hidden again directly as he followed the zigzag rift over a flooring of rough stones which had fallen from the towering perpendicular sides, and which were here only some thirty or forty feet apart, and completely shut out the sunshine and a good deal of the light.
Another angle of the zigzag rift was passed, and then the rugged stony flooring gave place to dark, deep water, beautifully transparent—so clear that the many-tinted fronds of bladder-wrack and other weeds could be seen swaying to and fro under the influence of the tide which rose and fell.
Here, in a natural harbour, sheltered from all dangers, lay the boat the boy sought. It was moored in a nook by a rope attached to a great ring; the staple had been sunk in a crack and sealed fast with molten lead, and no matter what storms raged outside, the boat was safely sheltered, and swung in a natural basin at ordinary tides, while at the very lowest it grounded gently in a bed of white sand.
It was well afloat upon this occasion, and skirting round it along a laboriously chipped-out ledge about a foot wide, the boy entered a crack in the rock face, for it could hardly be called a cavern. But it was big enough for its purpose, which was to shelter from the rain and rock drippings a quantity of boat gear, mast, sails, ropes, and tackle generally, which leaned or hung snugly enough about the rock, in company with a small seine, a trammel-net, a spare grapnel or two, some lobster-pots, and buoys with corks and lines.
Aleck was not long about carrying mast, yard, and sail to the boat and shipping them. Then, in obedience to an idea, he placed a couple of fishing-lines, a gaff-hook, a landing-net, and some spare hooks aboard; then, taking a little bucket, he half filled it with the crystal water of the pool, and after placing it aboard took hold of a thin line, one end of which was secured to a ring-bolt in a block of wreck lumber, while the other ran down into the pool.
A pull at the line brought a large closely-worked, spindle-shaped basket to the surface, when a commotion inside announced that the six-inch-wide square of flat cork, which formed a lid, covered something alive.
So it proved; for upon unfastening the lid an opening was laid bare, and upon the "coorge"—as the fishing folk called the basket—being laid across the bucket and turned sidewise, some ten or a dozen silvery eel-shaped fish glided out into the bucket, and began swimming round and round in search of an outlet.
"More bait than I shall want," said Aleck, covering and letting the basket go back into the pool. Then, unfastening the mooring-rope, the boy picked up a boat-hook, and by hooking on to the side rocks here and there he piloted the boat along the devious watery lane, with the mighty walls towering high on either side and whispering or echoing back every sound he produced on his way out to the open sea.
It was beautiful—solemn—grand—all in one, that narrow, gloomy, zigzag way between the perpendicular walls; and a naturalist would have spent hours examining the many-tinted sea anemones that opened their rays and awl-shaped tentacles below the water, or lay adhering and quiescent upon the rocks where the tide had fallen, looking some green, some olive, and many more like bosses of gelatinous coagulated blood.
But these were too common objects of the seashore for Aleck Donne to heed; his eyes were for the most part upon the blue and opalescent picture some two hundred yards before him, where the chasm ended, its sharp edges looking black against the sea and sky as he hooked on here, gave a thrust there, and sent the boat along till the rift grew lighter and lighter, and then was left behind, for a final thrust had sent the boat right out into the sunshine, and in full view of three huge skittle-shaped rocks standing up out of the sea, high as the wall-like cliff of which at some time or another they must have been a portion. They were now many yards away and formed the almost secure nesting-places of hundreds upon hundreds of birds, whose necks stood up like so many pegs against the sky, giving the rocks a peculiar bristling appearance. But the sense of security for the young birds was upset by the long flapping wings of a couple of great black-backed gulls which kept on sailing round and round, waiting till the opportunity came to make a hawk-like swoop and carry off some well-fatted, half-feathered young auk. One met its fate, in the midst of a rippling purring cry, just as Aleck laid in his boat-hook and proceeded to step the mast, swaying easily the while with the boat, which was now well afloat on the rising and falling sea.
"My word! How she does go!" cried Aleck, a short time later. For he had stepped the mast, hooked on the little rudder, and hoisted the sail, the latter filling at once with the breeze which, coming from the sea, struck the bold perpendicular rock face and glanced off again, to catch the boat right astern. One minute it was racing along almost on an even keel; then, like a young horse, it seemed to take the bit in its teeth as it careened over more and more and made the water foam beneath the bows.
Away to Aleck's left was the dazzling stretch of ocean, to his right the cliffs with the stack rocks and a glimpse of the whitewashed group of cottages locally known as Eilygugg, from their overlooking the great isolated, skittle-like, inaccessible stack rocks chosen by those rather rare birds the little auks for their nesting-place year after year.
On and on sped the boat past the precipitous cliffs, which, with the promontory-like point ahead, were the destruction of many a brave vessel in the stormy times; and an inexperienced watcher from the shore would often have suffered from that peculiar sensation known as having the heart in the mouth on seeing the boat careen over before some extra strong puff of wind, till it seemed as if the next moment the sail would be flat on the water while the little vessel filled and went down.
But many years of teaching by the fishermen and Tom Bodger, the wooden-legged old man-o'-war's man of Rockabie, had made Aleck, young though he was, an expert manager of a fore and aft sailing boat, and the boy sat fast, rudder in one hand, sheet in the other, ready at the right moment to ease off the rope and by a dexterous touch at the rudder to lessen the pressure upon the canvas so that the boat rose again and raced onward till the great promontory ahead was passed. In due time the land sheltered the young navigator, and he glided swiftly into the little harbour of the fishing town, whose roughly-formed pier curved round like a crescent moon to protect the little fleet of fishing-boats, whose crews leaned over the cliff rail masticating tobacco and gazing out to sea, as they rested from the past night's labour, and talked in a low monotonous growl about the wind and the prospects of the night to come.
Rockabie was a prolific place, as far as boys were concerned. There were doubtless girls to balance them, but the girls were busy at home, while the boys swarmed upon the pier, where they led a charmed life; for though one of them was crowded, or scuffled, or pushed off every day into deep water, when quarrelling, playing, or getting into someone's way when the fish were landed, they seemed as if formed of cork or bladder and wind instead of flesh and blood, for they always came up again, to be pulled out by the rope thrown, or hooked out by a hitcher, if they did not swim round to the rough steps or to the shore. Not one was ever known to be drowned—that was the fate of the full-grown who went out in smack or lugger to sea.
The sight of Aleck Donne's boat coming round the point caused a rush on the part of the boys down to the pier and drew the attention of the fishermen up on the cliff as well. But these latter did not stir, only growled out something about the cap'n's boat from the Den. One man only made the comment that the sail wanted "tannin' agen," and that was all.
But the boys were interested and busy as they swarmed to the edge of the unprotected pier, along which they sat and stood as closely as the upright puffins in their white waistcoats standing in rows along the ledges that towered up above the point. For everybody knew everybody there for miles round, and every boat as well.
There was a good deal of grinning and chattering going on as the boat neared, especially from one old fisherman who lived inside a huge pair of very stiff trousers, these coming right up to his arm-pits, so that only a very short pair of braces, a scrap of blue shirt, and a woollen night-cap were required to complete his costume.
This gentleman smiled, grunted, placed a fresh bit of black tobacco in his cheek, and took notice of the fact that several of the boys had made a rush to the edge of the water by the harbour and come back loaded with decaying fish—scraps of skate, trimmings, especially the tails, heads, and offal—to take their places again, standing behind their sitting companions.
Someone else saw the action too, and began to descend from the cliff by the long slope whose water end was close to the shore end of the pier.
This personage would have been a tall, broad-shouldered man had he been all there; but he was not, for he had left his legs in the West Indies, off the coast of Martinique, when a big round shot from a French battery came skipping over the water and cut them off, as the ship's surgeon said, almost as cleanly as he could have done with the knife and saw he used on the poor fellow after the action was over, the fort taken, and the Frenchmen put to flight.
The result was that Thomas Bodger came back after some months to his native village, quite cured, in the best of health, and wearing a pair of the shortest wooden legs ever worn by crippled man—his pegs, as the boys of Rockabie called them, though he dignified them himself by the name of toes. As to his looks, he was a fine-looking man to just below his hips, and there he had been razed, as he called it to Aleck Donne, while the most peculiar thing about him as he toddled along was what at first sight looked like a prop, which extended from just beneath his head nearly to the ground, as if to enable him to stand, tripod-fashion, steadily on a windy day. But it was nothing of the sort, being only his pigtail carefully bound with ribbon, and the thickest and longest pigtail in the "Ryal Navee."
Tom Bodger, or—as he was generally known by the Rockabie boys—Dumpus, trotted down the slope in a wonderful way, for how he managed to keep his balance over the rough cobbles and on the storm-worn granite stones of the pier was a marvel of equilibrium. But keep upright he did, solely by being always in motion; and he was not long in elbowing his way through the crowd of boys, many of whom overtopped him, and planting himself at the top of the pier steps, where from old experience he knew that Aleck would land.
As soon as he was there he delivered himself of an observation.
"Look here," he growled, in a deep, angry voice, "I've been marking o' you youngsters with my hye, and I gives you doo warning, the fust one on yer as shies any o' that orfull at young Master Donne, or inter his little boat, I marks with what isn't my hye, but this here bit of well-tarred rope's-end as I've got hitched inside my jacket; so look out."
"Yah!" came in a derisive chorus, as the sailor showed the truthfulness of his assertion by drawing out about eighteen inches of stoutish brown rope, drawing it through his left hand and putting it back.
"Yah!" shouted one of the most daring. "Yer can't ketch us. Yah!"
"Not ketch ye, you young swab? Not in a starn chase, p'raps, but I've got a good mem'ry and I can heave-to till yer comes within reach, and then—well, I'm sorry for you, my lad. I know yer;—Davvy, Davvy."
The boy looked uncomfortable, and furtively dropped an unpleasant smelling quid which he had picked up as a weapon of offence, and very offensive it was; but another lad appropriated it instantly and sniffed at it, smiling widely afterwards as if approving hugely of the vile odour. Probably familiarity had begotten contempt, for none of his companions moved away.
Meanwhile Aleck had run his boat close in and lowered his sail. Then, as he rose up, boat-hook in hand, he was greeted with a jeering chorus of shouts, for no other reason than that he was a so-called stranger who did not live there and was well dressed, and belonged to a better class.
Aleck was accustomed to the reception, and gave the little crowd a contemptuous look, before turning to the squat figure beginning to descend the steps, to where the boy stood ten feet below.
"What cheer, Tom!" he cried.
"What cheer-ho, Master Aleck!" returned the sailor. "Hearty, my lad, hearty." Then, turning to the boys, he growled out, "Now, then, you heered. So just mind; whether it's fish fresh or fish foul. The one as shies gets my mark."
The voices of the boys rose in a curious way, making a highly pitched jeering snarl, while a number of unpleasant missiles that were held ready were fingered and held behind backs, but from a disinclination to become the victim of the sailor's marking, no lad was venturesome enough to start the shower intended to greet the newcomer. It was held in abeyance for the moment, and then became impossible, for peg, peg, peg, peg, Tom Bodger descended the steps till he was level with the gunwale of Aleck's boat, upon which one extremity was carefully planted, and careful aim taken at the first thwart. The sailor was about to swing himself in, when Aleck held out his hand—
"Catch hold!" he cried.
"Tchah! I don't want to ketch hold o' nothing," grumbled the man. "Stand aside."
As he spoke he spun half round as upon a peg, the second wooden leg lightly touched the thwart, and the next moment, when it seemed as if the poor fellow's wooden appendages must go through the frail bottom of the boat, they came down with a light tip-tap, and he was standing up looking smilingly in the young navigator's face.
"Come along tidy quick, my lad?" he said.
"Yes, the wind was lovely. Look here, Tom; I'm going shopping—to get some hooks and things. Mind that young rabble does not throw anything aboard."
"All right, my lad; but I should just like to see one of 'em try."
"I shouldn't," cried Aleck. "But, look here; uncle says as there'll be a good deal of wind dead ahead, and I shall have to tack back again, you're to come with me."
"Course I should," said the sailor, gruffly. "Wants two a day like this."
"And he'll pay you; and you're to get one of the fishermen to pick you up and bring you back."
"Tchah! I don't want no picking up. It's on'y about six mile across from here to the Den, and I can do that easy enough if yer give me time."
"Do as you like, but uncle will pay for the ride."
"And I shall put the money in my pocket and toddle back," said the sailor, chuckling; "do me more good than riding. You look sharp and get back. I'll give her a swab out while you're gone, and we'll take a good reach out to where the bass are playing off the point, and get a few. I see you've brought some sand eels."
"So we will, Tom. I should like to take home a few bass."
"So you shall, my lad," said the sailor, who had stumped forward to the fore-locker to get out a big sponge; and he was rolling up his sleeves over a pair of big, brown, muscular arms ornamented with blue mermaids, initials, a ship in full sail, and a pair of crossed cutlasses surmounted by a crown, as Aleck stepped lightly upon the gunwale, sprang thence on to the steps, and went up, to run the gauntlet of the little crowd of boys, who greeted him with something like a tempest of hoots and jeers.
But the lads fell back as, with a smile full of the contempt he felt, Aleck pressed forward, marched through them with his hands in his pockets, and smiled more broadly as he heard from below a growling shout of warning from the sailor announcing what he would do if the boys didn't mind, the result being that they followed the well-grown lad at a little distance all along the pier, throwing after him not bad fish and fragments, which would, if well-aimed, have sullied the lad's clothes, but what an Irishman would have called dirty words, mingled with threats about what they would give him one of these fine days. The feud was high between the Rockabie boys and the bright active young lad from the Den, for no further reason than has already been stated, and the dislike had increased greatly during the past year, though it had never culminated in any encounter worse than the throwing of foul missiles after the boat when it was pushed off for home.
Perhaps it was something in the air which made the Rockabie boys more pugnacious and their threats more dire. Possibly they may have felt more deeply stung by the contempt of Aleck, who strode carelessly along the rough stone pier, whistling softly, with his hands in his pockets, till he reached the slope and began to ascend towards where the fishermen leaned in a row over the rail, just as if after a soaking night they had hung themselves out in the sun to dry.
And now it was that the boys hung back and Aleck felt that he could afford to pay no heed to the young scrubs who followed him, for there were plenty of hearty hails and friendly smiles to greet him from the rough seamen.
"Morn', Master Aleck."
"Morn', sir. How's the cap'n?" from another.
Then: "Like a flat fish to take back with you, master? I've got a nice brill. I'll put him in your boat."
And directly after a big broad fellow detached himself from the rail to sidle up with: "Say, Master Aleck, would you mind asking the cap'n to let me have another little bottle o' them iles he gives me for my showther? It's getting bad again."
"You shall have it, Joney," cried Aleck.
"Thankye, sir. No hurry, sir. Just put the bottle in yer pocket nex' time you come over, and that'll do."
Aleck went on up town, as it was called,—and the men hung themselves a little more over the rail and growled at the boys who were following the visitor, to "be off," and to "get out of that; now," with the result that they still followed the lad and watched him, flattening their noses against the panes of the fishing-tackle shop window, and following him again when he came out to visit one or two other places of business, till all the lad's self-set commissions were executed, and he turned to retrace his steps to the harbour.
So far every movement had been followed by cutting remarks expressive of the contempt in which the visitor was held. There had been threats, too, of how he would be served one of these times. Remarks were made, too, on his personal appearance and the cut of his clothes, but there was nothing more than petty annoyance till the quarry was on his way back to where he would be under the protection of the redoubtable Dumpus, who did not scruple about "letting 'em have it," to use his own words, it being very unpleasant whatever shape it took. But now the pack began to rouse up and show its rage under the calm, careless, defiant contempt with which it was being treated. Words, epithets, and allusions grew more malicious, caustic, and insulting, and, these producing no effect by the time the top of the slope was reached, bolder tactics were commenced, the boys closing round and starting a kind of horse-play in which one charged another, to give him a thrust so as to drive him—quite willing—against the retiring visitor.
This was delightful; the mirth it excited grew more boisterous, and the covert attacks more general.
But Aleck was on the alert and avoided several, till a more vigorous one was attempted by the biggest lad present, a great, hulking, stupid, hobbledehoy of a fellow, who drove a companion against Aleck's shoulder, making him stagger for a moment, while the aggressor burst out into a hoarse laugh which was chorussed by the little crowd, and then stopped.
The spring which set Aleck's machinery in motion had been touched, making him wheel round from the boy who had been driven against him, make a spring at the great, grinning, prime aggressor, and bring his coarse laugh to an end by delivering a stinging blow on the ear which drove him sidewise, and made him stand shaking his head and thrusting his finger inside his ear, as if to try and get rid of a peculiar buzzing sound which affected him strangely.
There was a roar, and the boy who had been thrust against Aleck sprang at him to inflict condign punishment upon the stranger who had dared to strike his companion.
The attack was vigorous enough, but the attacker was unlucky, for he met Aleck's bony fist on his way before he could use his own. Then he clapped his open hands to his nose and stood staring in wonder, and seemed to be trying to find out whether his nose had been flattened on his face.
There was an ominous silence then, during which Aleck turned and walked on down the slope in a quiet leisurely way, scorning to run, and even slackening his pace to be on his guard as he reached the bottom of the slope, for by that time the boys had recovered from their astonishment, and were in full pursuit.
In another minute Aleck was surrounded by a roughly-formed crowding-in ring, with the two lads who had tested the force of his blows eager to obtain revenge, incited thereto by a score or two of voices urging them to "give it him," "pay him," "let him have it," and the like.
The two biggest lads of the party then came on at Aleck at once; but, to be just, it was from no cowardly spirit, but from each being urged by a sheer vindictive desire to be first to obtain revenge for his blow. Hence they were mastered by passion and came on recklessly against one who was still perfectly cool and able to avoid the bigger fellow's assault while he gave the other a back-handed blow which sent him reeling away quite satisfied for the present and leaving the odds, so to speak, more even in the continuation of the encounter.
Aleck was well on the alert, and, feeling that he was utterly out-matched, he aimed at getting as far as the steps, where he would have Tom Bodger for an ally, and the attack would come to an end; but he was soon aware of the fact that to retire was impossible, hedged in as he was by an excited ring of boys, and there was nothing for him but to fight his way back slowly and cautiously. So he kept his head, coolly resisting the attack of the big fellow with whom he was engaged, guarding himself from blows to the best of his ability, and paying little heed to the torrent of abuse which accompanied the blows the big fisher lad tried to shower upon him, and always backing away a few yards, as he could, nearer to the way down to his boat.
By this time the word was passed along the top of the cliff that there was a fight on, and the fishermen began slowly to take themselves off the rail and descend the slope to see the fun, as they called it. They did not hurry themselves in the least, so that there was plenty of time for the encounter to progress, with Aleck still calm and cool, warding off the blows struck at him most skilfully, and mastering his desire to retaliate when he could have delivered others with masterly effect.
But a change was coming on.
Enraged by his inability to close with his skilful, active adversary, the big lad made more and more use of his tongue, the torrent of abuse grew more foul, and Aleck more cool and contemptuous, till all at once his adversary yelled out something which was received with acclamations by the excited ring who surrounded the pair, while it went through Aleck like some poisoned barb. He saw fire for the moment, and his teeth gritted together, as caution and the practice and skill he had displayed were no more, for, to use a schoolboy phrase, his monkey was up and he meant fighting—he meant to use his fists to the best effect in trying to knock the vile slanderous words, uttered against the man he loved and venerated, down the utterer's throat, while his rage against those who crowded around, yelling with delight, took the form of back strokes with his elbow and more than one sharp blow at some intruding head.
But it was against the lout who had spoken that the fire of his rage was principally directed, and the fellow realised at once that all that had gone before, on the part of the stranger from the Den, was mere sparring and self-defence. Aleck meant fighting now, and he fought, showering down such volleys of blows that, at the end of a couple of minutes, in spite of a brave defence and the planting of nasty cracks about his adversary's unguarded face, the big lad was being knocked here and there, up, down, and round about, till the shouts and cries about him lowered into a dull, dead hum. The pier stones reeled and rose and sank and seemed to imitate the waves that floated in, and when at last, in utter despair, he locked Aleck in his arms and tried to throw him, he received such a stunning blow between the eyes that he loosened his grasp to shake his head, which the next moment was knocked steady and inert, the big fellow going down all of a heap, and the back of his big bullet skull striking the pier stones with a heavy resounding bump.
In his excitement it seemed to Aleck that the real fight was now about to begin, for the little mob of boys uttered an angry yell upon seeing their champion's downfall, and were crowding in. But he was wrong, for a gruff voice was heard from the fishermen, who had at last bestirred themselves to see more of what they called the fun, and another deep-toned voice, accompanying the pattering of two wooden legs, came from the direction of the steps.
"Here, that'll do, you dogs!" cried the first voice, and—
"Stand fast, Master Aleck, I'm a-coming," cried the other.
The effect on the boys was magical, and they gave way in all directions before the big fisherman who had asked for the "iles" for his shoulders, a medicament he did not seem to require, for his joints worked easily as he threw out his arms with a mowing action, right and left, and with a force that would have laid the inimical lads down in swathes if they had not got out of the way.
"Well done, young Aleck Donne," he cried. "Licked Big Jem, have yer? Hansum too. Do him good. Get up—d'yer hear—before I give yer my boot! I see yer leading the lot on arter the young gent, like a school o' dogfish. Hullo, Tom, you was nigher. Why didn't yer come up and help the young gen'leman afore?"
"'Cause I didn't know what was going on, matey," cried the sailor. "Why didn't yer hail me, Master Aleck?"
"Because I didn't want to be helped," cried the boy, huskily, his voice quivering with indignation. "A set of cowards!"
"So they are, Master Aleck," cried the sailor, joining in the lad's indignation. "On'y wish I'd knowed. I'd ha' come up with the boat-hook."
"Never mind; it arn't wanted," said the big fisherman. "Young Mr Donne's given him a pretty good dressing down, and if this here pack arn't off while their shoes are good we'll let him give it to a few more."
"I want to know what their fathers is about," growled the sailor. "I never see such a set. They're allus up to some mischief."
"Ay, ay, that's a true word," cried another fisherman.
"That's so," growled the sailor, who, as he spoke, kept on brushing Aleck down and using his forearm as a brush to remove the dust and debris from the champion's jacket.
"Pity he didn't leather another couple of 'em," cried the big fisherman.
"Ay," growled the sailor. "I don't want to say anything unneighbourly, but it seems a pity that some on 'em don't get swep' up by the next press-gang as lands. A few years aboard a man-o'-war'd be the best physic for some o' them. Look at all this here rubbidge about! I see 'em. Got it ready to fling at the young gent. I know their games."
"Nay, nay," said the big fisherman, as a low, angry murmur arose, and ignoring the allusion to the fish debris lying about, "we don't want no press-gangs meddling here."
"Yes, you do," said the sailor, angrily, as he applied a blue cotton neckerchief he had snatched off and shaken out, alternately to a cut on Aleck's forehead and to his swollen nose, which was bleeding freely. "Nice game this, arn't it? I know what I'm saying. I was pressed myself when I was twenty, and sarved seven year afore I come home with a pension. It made a man o' me, and never did me no harm."
There was a hoarse roar of laughter at this, several of the fishermen stamping about in their mirth, making the sailor cease his ministrations and stand staring, and beginning to mop his hot forehead with the neckerchief.
"What are yer grinning at?" he said, angrily, with the result that the laughter grew louder.
"Have I smudged my face with this here hankychy, Master Aleck?" said the sailor, turning to the boy, who could not now refrain from smiling in turn.
But Aleck was saved the necessity of replying to the question by the big fisherman, who spoke out in a grimly good-humoured way, as he cast his eyes up and down the dwarfed man-o'-war's man:
"Lookye here, Tom, mate," he said, good-humouredly, "I don't know so much about never doing you no harm, old chap."
"What d'yer mean?" growled the sailor.
"What about yer legs, mate?" cried another of the men.
The sailor stared round at the group, and then a change came over him, and he bent down and gave his hip a sounding slap.
"I'm blest!" he cried, with the angry looks giving place to a broad smile. "I'm blest! I never thought about my legs!"
There was another roar of laughter now, in which Tom Bodger joined.
"But lookye here, messmates, what's a leg or two? Gone in the sarvice o' the King and country, I says. Here am I, two-and-thirty, with ninepence a day as long as I live, as good a man as ever I was—good man and true. Who says I arn't?"
"Nobody here, Tom, old mate," cried the big fisherman, giving the sailor a hearty slap on the shoulder. "Good mate and true, and as good a neighbour as we've got in Rockabie. Eh, lads?"
"Ay, ay!" came in a hearty chorus.
"There, Tom, so say all of us; but none o' that about no press-gangs, mate," cried the big fisherman. "The King wants men for his ships, but all on us here has our wives and weans. What was all right for a lad o' twenty would be all wrong for such as we."
"Ay, that's true," said the sailor, "and I oughtn't to ha' said it; but look at Master Aleck here. Them boys—"
"Yes, yes, boys is boys, and allus was and allus will be, as long as there's land and sea. Some on 'em'll get a touch o' rope's-end after this game, I dessay. Lookye here, Master Aleck Donne, you come up to my place, and the missus'll find you a tin bowl o' water, a bit o' soap, and a clean towel. You won't hurt after a wash, but be able to go home as proud as a tom rooster. You licked your man, and the captain'll feel proud of you, for Big Jem was too much of a hard nut for such a chap as you. Come on, my lad."
"No, no, thank you," said Aleck, warmly; "I want to get back home now. I don't want to show Mrs Joney a face like this."
"Nay, my lad, she won't mind; and—"
"Tom Bodger's going to sail my boat home," put in the boy, hastily, "and I shall hang over the side and bathe my face as I go. I say, all of you, I'm sorry I got into this bit of trouble, but it wasn't my fault."
"Course it wasn't," said the fisherman. "We all know that, and you've give some on 'em a lesson, my lad. Well, if you won't come, my lad, you won't."
"It's only because I want to get back home," said Aleck, warmly. "It's very kind of you all the same."
A few minutes later the boy was seated in the stern of the boat, while Tom Bodger stood up, looking as if he, too, were sitting, as he thrust the little craft along by means of the boat-hook and the pier walls, while the fishermen walked along level with them to the end, where half a dozen of the boys had gathered.
"Give him a cheer, lads," said the big fisherman, and a hearty valediction was given and responded to by Aleck, who took off and waved his cap.
But just then a hot-blooded and indignant follower of defeated Big Jem let his zeal outrun his discretion. Waiting till the group of fishermen had turned their backs, he ran to the very end of the pier, uttered a savage "Yah!" and hurled the very-far-gone head of a pollock after the boat.
The next minute he was repenting bitterly, for the big fisherman made four giant strides, caught him by the waistband, and the next moment held him over the edge of the pier and would have dropped him, struggling and yelling for mercy, into the sea, but Aleck sprang up and shouted an appeal to his big friend to let the boy go.
"Very well," growled his captor; "but it's lucky for him, Master Aleck, as you spoke. Warmint!" he growled to the boy, lowering him to the rugged stones. "Get home with yer. I'm going on by and by to your father, my lad. Be off."
The boy yelled as he started and ran off, limping, and with good cause, for the boots the fisherman wore were very loose, and hung down gaping to his ankles, as if to show how beautifully they were silver-spangled with fish scales, but the soles were very thick and terribly hard, especially about the toe.
"I didn't get my brill after all, Tom," said Aleck, as the sail filled out and the boat sped along over the little dancing waves.
"Never mind the flat fish, Master Aleck; we'll pick up a few bass as we go along through the race, and they'll be fresher than his brill."
"No, Tom," said Aleck, frowning; "no fishing to-day. I want to get back and have a proper wash and change my shirt and collar."
"Well, you did get a bit knocked about, Master Aleck. You see, he's a hard sort o' boy; awfully thick-headed chap."
"He is, and no mistake," said Aleck. "Look at my knuckles!"
"Ay, you have got 'em a bit chipped; but it'll all grow up again. But what was it he said as made you bile over and get a-fighting that how?"
"Oh, never mind," said the boy, flushing. "It's all over now."
"Yes," said the sailor, knitting his brow, "it's all over now; but," he added, thoughtfully, as he let the sheet slip through his fingers and tightened it again, giving and taking as the sail tugged in answer to the puffs of wind, "but it don't seem like you to get into action like that, Master Aleck. You're generally such a quiet sort o' chap, and don't mind the boys yelping about yer heels any more than as if they was dogs."
"Of course, and I never for a moment thought that anything they could say would put me in such a passion. Oh, Tom, I felt once as if I could kill him!"
"Monkey must ha' been up very much indeed, Master Aleck. I've been a-wondering what he could ha' called you to make you clear the decks and go at him like that. You must have hit out and no mistake."
"Yes, I hit them as hard as ever I could—both of them."
"Both? Did you have two on 'em at yer at once?"
"Yes, part of the time."
"Then I am glad you licked 'em. It was just like a smart frigate licking a couple of two-deckers. What did he call yer?"
"Oh, never mind, Tom; nothing."
"But he must have called yer, as I said afore, something very, very bad indeed. Yer needn't mind telling me, my lad, for I seem to ha' been a sort of sea-father to yer. I've heered a deal o' bad language at sea in my time, and I should like to hear what it was that made you fly out like that. Tell us what it was."
"No, no; don't ask me, Tom."
"Not ast yer, my lad? Well, I won't if yer say as I arn't to. But it must ha' been something very bad indeed."
"It was, Tom, horribly bad; but—but he didn't call me anything. It was something he said made me so angry. I wouldn't have fought like that for anything he had called me."
"Ho!" said the sailor, thoughtfully. "Then it was about somebody else?"
"Yes, Tom," said the lad, frowning, and with his eyes flashing with the remains of his anger.
"Then it must have been something as he called me," said the sailor, naively. "Yes, I know he's got his knife into me. So you licked him well for saying what he did, Master Aleck?"
"Yes," said the lad, thoughtfully, and with the frown deepening upon his face.
"Then I says thankye, Master Aleck, and I won't forget it, for it was very hansum on yer."
"What was?" said the lad, starting.
"What was? Why, you licking that big ugly lout, my lad, for calling me names."
"No, no, no," cried Aleck, quickly; "it was not for that."
"Why, you said just now as you did, Master Aleck," said the sailor, blankly.
"Oh, no; you misunderstood me, Tom. It was not for that."
"Ho! Then what for was it, my lad?"
"I can't tell you, Tom," cried the boy, passionately. "Don't worry me. Can't you see I'm all in pain and trouble?"
"All right, sir; I don't want to worry yer. It don't matter. I couldn't help wanting to know why you larruped him; but, as I said afore, it don't matter. You did larrup him, and give it him well, and it strikes me as his father'll give him the rope's-end as well, as soon as he sees him for going back home with such a face as he's got on his front. My word, you did paint him up. His old man won't hardly know him."
"Tom!" cried Aleck, excitedly, as these last words impressed him deeply.
"Ay, ay, sir! Tom it is."
"Look at my face," said the lad, looking up sharply from where he had been leaning over the gunwale scooping up the water in his hand and bathing the injuries he had received in his encounter. "Look at me. Is my face much knocked about?"
The sailor shifted the hands which had held rudder and sheet, afterwards raising that which held the latter and rubbing his mahogany brown nose with the rope.
"Well, why don't you speak, Tom?" said the lad, pettishly.
"'Cause I was 'specting yer like, my lad—smelling yer over like, so as to think out what to say."
"Go on, then; only say something."
"So I will, sir, if yer really wants to hear."
"Why, of course I do. Does my face show much?"
"Well, yes, sir," said the sailor, gravely, as he went on rubbing one side of his nose with the rope. "You've got it pretty tidy."
"Tell me what you can see."
The sailor grunted and hesitated.
"Go on," cried Aleck. "Here, my bottom lip smarts a good deal. It's cut, isn't it?"
"That's right, sir. Cut it is, but I should say as it'll soon grow up together again."
Aleck pressed the kerchief to his lip, and winced with pain.
"Arn't loosened no teeth, have yer, sir?"
Aleck shook his head.
"Go on," he said. "What about my nose? It's swollen, isn't it?"
"Well, yes, sir, it is a bit swelled like. Puffy, as yer might say; but, bless yer 'art, it's nothing to what Big Jem's is. I shouldn't mind about that a bit now, for it have stopped bleeding. There's nothing like cold sea water for that, though it do make yer tingle a bit. I 'member what a lot o' good it used to do when we'd been in action and the lads had got chopped about in boarding the enemy. The Frenchies used to be pretty handy with their cutlasses and boarding-pikes. They used axes too."
"Oh, I don't want to know about that," cried Aleck, pettishly. "There's a scratch or something on my forehead, isn't there?"
"It's 'most too big and long to call it a scratch, sir. I should call that a cut."
"Tut, tut, tut!" ejaculated Aleck.
"That'll soon be all right, sir," continued the sailor, cheerfully. "Bit o' sticking plaster'll soon set that to rights. What I don't like is your eyes."
"My eyes?" cried Aleck. "Yes, they do feel stiff when I wink them. Do they look bad, then?"
The sailor chuckled softly.
"What do you mean by that?" cried the lad, angrily. "Are they swollen too? I'm sure there's nothing to laugh at in that."
The sailor tried to look very serious, but failed. The laughing crinkles were smoothed out of his face, but his eyes sparkled and danced with merriment as he said:
"I didn't mean no harm, Master Aleck, but you wouldn't say what you did if you could see your eyes. They do look so rum."
"Why? How?" cried Aleck, excitedly.
"Did yer see Benny Wiggs's eyes las' year after he took the bee swarm as got all of a lump in Huggins's damsel tree?"
"No, of course I didn't," cried Aleck, impatiently.
"Ah, that's a pity, sir, because yourn looks just like his'n did. You see, they don't look like eyes!"
"Then what do they look like?" cried Aleck.
"Well, sir, I'll tell yer: they looks just like the tops o' bread loaves going to the oven."
"I mean like the holes the missuses makes in the dough with their fingers. Finishes off by giving a poke in the top with a finger, and that closes up into a crinkly slit with a swelling around."
"Bah!" growled Aleck.
"Well, you would ask me, sir."
"Yes, of course. Something like Big Jem's?"
"Yes, sir; on'y more squeezed in like. Your eyes is allus handsome and bright like, but they arn't now. But, there, don't you mind that, sir. They turn nasty colours like for a bit, but, as I says, don't you mind. Big Jem's face was a reg'lar picter. I don't know what his father'll say when he sees him."
"And I don't know what uncle will say when he sees me," said Aleck, despondently.
"Eh? The captain?" cried the sailor, in a startled tone of voice. "Phe-ew!" he whistled. "I forgot all about him. I say, my lad, he won't like to see you this how."
"No," said Aleck, dismally.
"Arn't got no aunts or relations as you could go and see for a fortnit, have you?"
"No, Tom; I have no relatives but Uncle Donne."
"That's a pity, sir. Well, I dunno what you'd better do."
"Face uncle, and tell him the whole truth."
"To be sure, sir. Of course. That's the way you'd better lay your head—to the wind like. And, look here, sir!"
"I can't look, Tom; my eyes feel closed up, and I can hardly see a bit."
"I mean look here with understanding, sir. I used to be with a skipper who was a downright savage if we got beaten off, and threatened to flog us. But if we won, and boarded a ship and took her, he'd laugh at our hurts and come round and shake hands and call us his brave lads."
"But what has that to do with uncle seeing me in this horrible state?"
"Why, don't you see, sir?" cried the sailor, eagerly. "He's a captain, and a fighting man."
Aleck frowned, but the sailor did not notice it, and went on:
"You ups and tells him that Big Jem and the pack o' blackguard riff-raff come and 'sulted yer and said what you wouldn't tell me. The captain wouldn't want you to put up with that. I know the captain 'most as well as you do. 'Hullo!' he says; 'what ha' you been doing—how did you get in that condition?' he says—just like that. Then you ups and tells him you had it out with Big Jem and the rest. 'What for, sir?' he says— just like that. 'For saying,'—you know what, sir—you says, and tells him right out, though you wouldn't tell me. 'And you let that big, ugly, blackguardly warmint thrash you like that?' he says, in his fierce way—just like that. Then your turn comes, and you ups and says, 'most as chuff as he does: 'No, uncle,' you says, 'I give him the orflest leathering he ever had in his life.' 'Did you, Aleck?' he says, rubbing his hands together, joyful like. 'Well done, my boy,' he says; 'I like that. I wish I'd been there to see. Brayvo!—Now go and wash your face and brush your clothes and 'air.'"
"Think he would, Tom?"
"Sure on it, sir. I wouldn't ha' answered for him if you'd gone back with your tail between your legs, reg'larly whipped; but seeing how you can go back and cry cock-a-doodle-doo!—"
"Like a dog, Tom?" said Aleck, grimly, with a feeling of amusement at the way in which his companion was mixing up his metaphors.
"Like a dog, sir? Tchah! Dogs can't crow. You know what I mean. Seeing how you can go back with your colours flying, the captain'll feel proud on yer, and if he's the gentleman I take him for he'll cut yer a bit o' sticking plaster himself. What you've got to do is to go straight to his cabin and speak out like a man."
"Yes, Tom, I mean to—but, Tom—" continued the lad, in a hesitating way.
"Ay ay, sir; what is it?"
"Did you ever hear any of the fishermen say anything against my uncle?"
"Eh? Oh, I've heered them gawsip and talk together when they've been leaning theirselves over the rail in the sun, gawsiping like, as you may say; but I never took no notice. Fishermen when they're ashore chatter together like old women over the wash-tubs, but I never takes no heed to what they says. The captain's been a good friend to me, and so I shuts my ears when people say nasty things."
"Then you know that they do say nasty things about him?" said Aleck.
"Oh, yes, sir, and 'bout everyone else too. They lets out about me sometimes, I've heered, and about my losing my legs; but I don't mind. I say, though, Master Aleck, sir! Haw—haw—haw! Think o' me forgetting all about 'em and saying that being at sea never did me no harm! It was a rum 'un!"
Aleck was silent and thinking about his own troubles, making his companion glance at him uneasily, waiting for the lad to speak; but as he remained silent the sailor turned the state of affairs over in his own mind till he hit upon what he considered to be a very happy thought.
"I say, Master Aleck."
"Eh? Yes, Tom."
"I've been a-thinking that as a reg'lar thing I'm a bit skeart o' the captain. He's such a fierce, cut-you-off-short sort of a gentleman that I'm always glad to get away when I've been up to the Den to do anything for yer—pitching the boat's bottom or mending holes, or overhauling the tackle; but I tell you what—"
"Well, what, Tom?" said Aleck, for the sailor stopped short and crossed his two dwarf wooden legs in the bottom of the boat, and then, as if not satisfied, crossed them the other way on.
"I was thinking, Master Aleck, that you and me's been messmates like, ever since I come back from sea."
"I mean in a proper way, sir," cried the man, hurriedly. "I don't mean shoving myself forrard, because well I know you're a young gen'leman and I'm on'y a pensioned-off hulk as has never been anything more than a AB."
"I don't know what you're aiming at, Tom," said Aleck, querulously, as he went on bathing his bruised face again. "Of course we've been like messmates many a time out with the boat, but what has that to do with the trouble I'm in?"
"Well, just this here, sir. Messmates is messmates, and ought to help one another when there's rocks ahead."
"Of course, Tom."
"Well, then, as I've been thinking, suppose I come ashore with yer and follers yer right up to the captain, and lie close by when he begins to sort o' keelhaul yer?"
"What good would that do, Tom?"
"Cheer yer up, my lad. I once went ashore with a messmate to help him like when he was going to have a tooth out as had been jigging horrid for two days. He said it did him no end o' good to have me there. So s'pose I come, sir. It strikes me as the captain won't say half so much to yer p'raps with me standing by."
"Oh, no, no, no, Tom," cried Aleck, quickly.
"It's very good of you, and I'm much obliged, but I'd rather go straight in and face my uncle quite alone. I'm sure he'd think I brought you because I was too cowardly to come alone."
"Would he, sir?"
"I feel sure he would, Tom."
"Well, Master Aleck, I dessay you knows best, but come I will if you'd like me to, sir."
"Yes, I know that, Tom," cried the boy, warmly, "but it would be better for me to go in alone."
"Think so, sir?"
"Yes, I'm sure of it."
"Well, p'raps you're right, sir. It seems more brave British seaman to face the enemy straightforward like. Not as I mean, sir, as the captain's a enemy, but on'y just standing for one till the row's over. D'yer see?"
"Yes, I see, Tom, and I've been thinking, too, that it will be enough for me to go in and face uncle at once, and for you not to wait to be paid for this journey."
"Oh, I don't want no paying, my lad, for a little job like this. Think of the times when you've give me pretty nigh all the fish you've caught!"
"But uncle said you were to be paid, Tom."
"Very well, sir. Let him pay me then nex' time he sees me. That'll be all right. You'll be sending a rock through the boat's planks afore long, and I shall have to come over and put a bit o' noo planking in. The captain will pay me then. I say, it's time we put her about. We can make a good bit this reach. Strikes me that the wind's more abeam than when we started."
"Is it?" said Aleck, drearily, and he felt that it would have been far more satisfactory for it to be dead ahead, or to be blowing so fiercely that they would be compelled to put back to Rockabie, and his return home deferred to another day.
As it was, it became more and more favourable, and an easy passage was made round the great promontory, while the current that rushed round the point and raced outward was so calmed down by the tide being just at the turn that the boat glided round and into smooth water, the stack rocks soon after coming into sight, and, with what seemed to the lad like horrible rapidity, they ran in under the rocks and passed the regular rookery of sea-birds, whose cries were deafening when they were close in.
"Say when," cried the sailor, who had given up the tiller to Aleck and stepped forward ready to lower the sail.
"Now!" cried the lad, dismally, a few minutes later; and down came the sail, while in obedience to the rudder the boat glided in between the two walls of perpendicular rock, running in for some little distance before it became necessary for the sailor to help her along by means of the boat-hook and guide her right into her little haven.
Here Tom Bodger was quite at home, and as active as the boat's owner, stumping about inside, and then hopping off one of the thwarts on to the rocks, ready to take mast, yard, oars, and boat-hook up into their places, securing the boat's painter to the big ring-bolt, and then taking one side while Aleck took the other and swinging her right up on to the rocks.
"There we are, then," said the sailor, a few minutes later; "all ship-shape and snug. Shall I put them baits back in the coorge?"
"No, no, Tom," said Aleck, dismally; "empty the bucket into the sea, and give them a chance for their lives."
"Ay, that's right, Master Aleck, for they begin to look as if they'd been too long in the bucket."
This latter was emptied, and then the couple began to ascend the gap towards the opening into the sunk garden. Tom stopped after getting over the stones like the rock-hopper penguin.
"I'll slip off now, Master Aleck, case the captain may be out in the garden," whispered the sailor.
"Yes, you'd better go now, Tom. Do I look so very bad?"
"Tidy, sir, tidy; but don't you mind that. Go right at him, and let him know as soon as you can that you beat. You'll be all right then. Maybe he'll let out at you at first, but all the time he'll be beginning to feel that you leathered a big hulking chap as is the worst warmint in Rockabie, and you'll come out all right. Day, Master Aleck!"
"Good day, Tom, and thank you. I'll remind uncle about your shillings if he forgets."
"He won't forget, sir; the captain's a gen'leman as never forgets nothing o' that sort. Now then, sir, ram your little head down and lay yourself aboard him. Nothing like getting it over. Head first and out of your misery, same as when I learned you to swim."
Tom Bodger shut one eye, gave the lad a frown and a knowing look, and then away he went up a rugged staircase-like pathway to the top of the cliff, looking every moment, while Aleck watched, as if he would slip off, but never slipping once, and finally turning at the top to take off and wave his hat, and then he was gone.
"Oh, dear!" groaned Aleck. "How am I to face him?" and he went on till only a few steps divided him from the cultivated garden, where he stopped again. "I wonder where he is. In the study, I suppose—write, write, write, at that great history. Can't I leave it and get into my room with a bad headache? It's only true. It aches horribly. I'll send word by Jane that I'm too poorly to come down. Bah!" muttered the boy. "What nonsense; he'd come up to me directly with something for me to take. I wonder whether he is in his room or out in the garden. He mustn't see me till I've been up into my room and done something to my hair. Perhaps he's in the summer-house and I can get in and upstairs without his seeing me. Oh, if I only—"
"Hullo! Aleck, lad, what are you doing there? Why are you so late? Dinner has been ready quite an hour."
The captain had suddenly appeared from behind a great clump of waving tamarisk, and stood looking down at the lad.
"I was coming to see if you were in sight, and—why, what in the name of wonder is the matter with you? Where have you been? Why, by all that's wonderful, you've been fighting!"
"Yes, uncle," said the lad, with a gasp of relief, for it seemed to him as if, instead of taking the bold plunge, swimming fashion, he had been suddenly dragged in.
"I thought so," cried the captain, angrily. "Here—no, stop; come up to the house, to my room. We can't talk here."
"I don't see why not," thought the lad, dismally. "There's plenty of room, and we could get it over more easily, even if he does get into a furious passion with me."
But the captain had wheeled round at once and began to stump back along over the shell and crunching spar-gravel path, his chin pressed down upon his chest, and not uttering a word, only coughing slightly now and then, as if to clear his voice for the fierce tirade of angry words that was to come.
He did not glance round nor speak, but strode on, evidently growing more and more out of temper, the lad thought, for as he walked he kept on kicking the loose shelly covering of the path over the flower beds, while the silence kept up seemed to Aleck ominous in the extreme.
"But, never mind," he thought; "it must soon be over now. What a sight I must look, though! He seemed to be astonished."
Culprit-like, the lad followed close at his uncle's heels till the side entrance was reached, where, with what seemed to be another sign of his angry perturbation, the old officer stopped short, rested one hand upon the door-post to steady himself, and began to very carefully do what was not the slightest degree necessary, to wit: he scraped his shoes most carefully over and over again—for there was not even a scrap of dust to remove.
"Stand back a moment, sir," cried the captain, suddenly. "Jane has heard us, and is carrying in the dinner. Don't let her see you in that state."
Aleck shrank to one side, and then as a door was heard to close, started forward again in obedience to his uncle's order.
"Now in, quick—into the study."
He led the way sharply, and Aleck sprang after him, but the ascent of so many steps gave the maid time to re-open the little dining-room door, from which point of vantage she was able to catch a glimpse of the lad's face, which looked so startling that she uttered an involuntary "Oh, my!" before letting her jaw drop and pausing, her mouth wide open and a pair of staring eyes.
"Come in!" roared the captain, angrily, as Aleck paused to turn for a moment at the door; and instead of entering, stood shaking his head deprecatingly at the maid, while his lips moved without a sound escaping them as he tried to telegraph to one who took much interest in his appearance: "Not hurt much. I couldn't help it!"
He started violently then at his uncle's stern command, uttered like an order to a company of men to step into some deadly breach, and the next moment the door was closed and the old man was scowling at him from the chair into which he had thrown himself, sending it back with the legs, giving forth a sound like a harsh snort as they scraped over the bare oaken floor.
Aleck drew a long deep breath and tried to tighten up his nerves, ready for what he felt was going to be a desperate encounter with the fierce-looking old man whom from long experience he knew to be harsh, stern, and troubled with a terrible temper, which made him morose and strange at times, his fits lasting for days, during which periods he would hardly speak a word to his nephew, leaving him to himself save when he came upon him suddenly to see that he was not wasting time, but going on with one or other of the studies which the old man supervised, or working in the garden.
"I want you, though you lead this lonely life with me, Aleck," he would say, frowning heavily the while, "to grow up fairly learned in what is necessary for a young man's education, so that some day, when I am dead and gone out of this weary world, you may take your place as a gentleman—not an ornamental gentleman, whose sole aim is to find out how he can best amuse himself, but a quiet, straightforward, honourable gentleman, one whom, if people do not admire because his ways are not the same as theirs, they will find themselves bound to respect."
These strange fits of what Aleck, perhaps instigated by Jane, their one servant, called "master's temper," would be followed by weeks of mental blue sky, when the black clouds rolled away and the sun of a genial disposition shone out, and the old man seemed as if he could not lavish enough affection upon his nephew. The result of all this was that the boy's feelings towards the old man, who had always occupied the position of father to him as well as preceptor, were a strange mingling of fear of his harshness, veneration of his learning and power of instructing him in everything he learned, and love. For there were times when Aleck would say, gloomily, to himself, "I'm sure uncle thoroughly hates me and wishes me away," while there were times when he was as happy as the days were long, and ready to feel certain that the old man loved him as much as if he were his own child.
"He must," thought the boy, "or he wouldn't have nursed and coddled me up so when I had that fever and the doctor told Jane that he had done all he could, and that I should die—go out with the tide next day. That's what I like in uncle," he mused, "when he isn't out of temper— he's so clever. Knew ever so much better than the doctor. What did he say then? 'Doctors are all very well, Aleck, but there are times when the nurse is the better man—that is, when it's a cock nurse and not a hen. You had a cock nurse, boy, and I pulled you through.'"
But the love was in abeyance on this particular morning at the Den, as the old man had named his out-of-the-way solitary dwelling, and Aleck felt that the place was rightly named as he stood ready to face the savage-looking denizen of the place, who, after staring him down with a pair of fiercely glowing eyes, suddenly opened upon him with:
"Now, then, sir! So you've been fighting?"
"Yes, uncle," said the boy, meekly.
"Some of the Rockabie boys, uncle."
"Hah! And in the face of all that I have said and taught you about your being different by your birth and education from the young ragamuffin rout of Rockabie harbour! Cannot you run over there in your boat and do what business you have to carry out without being mixed up in some broil?"
"Disgraceful, sir! A gentleman's education should teach him that his weapons are words properly applied, and not tooth and nail, blows and kicks."
"I never bit or kicked, uncle," said Aleck, sullenly.
"Of course not, sir; and don't retort upon me in that insolent way. You know perfectly well that I was speaking metaphorically. Did you for a moment imagine I thought you used your teeth and claws like a savage dog?"
"Then don't reply to me like that. Of course I would know you would use your fists. Look at your knuckles!" thundered the old man.
Aleck looked at those parts of his person dismally, and they looked bad. For the skin was damaged in three places, and the nail of his left thumb was split in a painful way.
"Disgusting," said the old man. "I trusted you to go over there, and you come back a disreputable wreck. All my teaching seems to be thrown away upon a pugnacious untrustworthy boy."
"I'm not pugnacious, uncle, if they'd let me alone."
"Bah! You ought to be above noticing the scum of the place."
"I am, uncle, and I don't notice them," pleaded the boy; "it's they who will notice me."
"I can't go into the place without their mobbing me and calling me names."
"Contemptible! And pray, sir," cried the old man, in harsh, sarcastic tones, "what do they call you?"
"All sorts of things," replied the boy, confusedly. "I can't recollect now. Yes, I know; sometimes they shout 'Fox' or 'Foxy' after me."
"And pray why?"
"Because they say I've just come out of the Den."
"At other times it's 'Spider.'"
"Yes, uncle; because I've got such long legs."
"Worse and worse," cried the old man. "To fight for that! It is childish."
"Oh, I didn't fight for that, uncle!"
"What for, then, pray, sir?"
"Sometimes they lay wait for me and hide behind a smack or the harbour wall, and pelt me with shells and the nasty offal left about by the fishermen."
"Disgusting! The insolent young dogs! They deserve to be flogged. So that is why you fought this morning?"
"Sometimes they throw pebbles and cobble stones, uncle," said the boy, evasively. "And they're so clever with them; they throw so well. I don't like to be hit and hurt, uncle. I suppose I've got a bad temper. I do keep it under so long as they call me names and throw nasty, soft things, but when a stone hits me and hurts, something inside my chest seems to get loose, and I feel hot and burning. I want to hurt whoever threw as much as he hurt me."
"What!" cried the old man. "Haven't I taught you, sir, that you must be above resenting the attacks of the vulgar herd?"
"Of course. I have always had to bear those assaults, boy. And so the young ruffians threw stones at you?"
"It was heads and bits of fish to-day, uncle."
"The scum! The insolent scum! And some of the offal hit you?"
"Well, no; nothing hit me, uncle. They followed me about all through the place, and shouted at me every time I came out of a shop."
"Bah! And because some young ragamuffins were insolent to you, my nephew must lower himself to their level. This is not the first time, sir. You have complained to me before, and you remember what I said to you one day when you came back after engaging in a most degrading scuffle."
"You promised me that should never occur again, after I had pointed out to you what your conduct ought to be, and how that the more you noticed these young rascals' proceedings the worse it would be."
"Yes, uncle, but I couldn't remember it to-day. You can't tell how bad it was, and how hard to bear."
"I? Not tell? Not know?" cried the old man, passionately. "I not know what it is to be the butt of a few boys? You talk in your ignorance, sir, like a fool talketh. Why, for long years past I have been the mark for the contumely and insult of civilised England. Don't make your paltry excuses to me. I say your conduct has been disgraceful. You were trusted to go. I made no objection, sir, save that for your sake and protection you should have an experienced boatman to help manage your boat on the way back, and you come home in this degraded state— hands and face bruised, your lips cut, and your eyes swollen up ready to turn black with horrible bruises. Aleck, it is blackguardly. You make me feel as if I ought to treat you as you deserve—take down that dusty old riding whip and flog you soundly."
Aleck started violently, and his eyes flashed through the narrow slits of lids.
"But I can't treat you, an educated, thoughtful lad, in such a degrading way. The lash is only for those whose nature is low and vile—whose education has never placed them upon a level with such as you. It would be the right punishment for the lads who continually annoy and assault you. But as for you—Aleck, I am hurt and disappointed. To come back like this because a few boys pelted you!"
"No, uncle, it was not because of that," cried the lad, warmly.
"Then, why was it, sir?"
Aleck was silent, and the sailor's advice suddenly came to mind: "Tell him you won and thrashed your man."
But the words would not come, and while he remained silent Captain Donne spoke again, very sternly now:
"Do you hear me, sir?"
"Yes, uncle," said the boy, desperately.
"Then answer my question. You say it was not because you were pelted and called names. Why, then, did you degrade yourself like this and fight?"
"It was because—no, no, uncle," cried the boy, through his teeth, which were compressed tightly as if he was afraid that the simple truth would escape; "I—I can't tell you."
"Then there is something more?"
"What is it, then?" cried the old man, whose own temper was rapidly getting the mastery. "Speak out, sir, and let me hear whether you have any decent excuse to offer for your conduct. Do you hear?"
"Yes, uncle," faltered the lad.
"Then speak, sir."
"I—I can't, uncle. Don't ask me, please."
"What! I will and do ask you, sir," cried the old man, furiously: "and what is more, I will be told. I am the proper judge of your conduct. How dare you refuse to speak—how dare you tell me almost to my face that you will not answer my question?"
"I don't tell you that, uncle," cried the boy, passionately. "I only say I can't tell you."
"You obstinate young scoundrel! How dare you!" roared the old man, now almost beside himself with rage. "Tell me this instant. Why, then, did you engage in this disgraceful encounter?"
Aleck darted an imploring look at the old man, which seemed to be begging him piteously not to press for the answer, but in his furious outbreak the old man could not read it aright—could only set it down to stubbornness—and, completely overcome by the passion bubbling up to his brain, he started to his feet and pointed to the door, but only to dash his hand down upon the table the next moment.
"No," he cried, "if you forget your duty to me, Aleck, I will not forget mine to you. I'll not be angry, but quite cool. Now, sir," he cried, with his face looking congested and his heavy grey brows drawn down over his glowing eyes, while his voice sounded hoarse and strange. "Aleck, tell me at once. I'll have an answer before you leave this room. Why did you engage in that disgraceful fight?"
"I can't tell you, uncle," said the boy, in a hoarse whisper.
"Ha! That means, sir, that you are obstinately determined not to speak?"
"It isn't obstinacy, uncle."
"Don't contradict me, sir. I say it is obstinacy. Now, once more, for the last time, will you answer my question?"
Aleck drew in a long, low, hissing breath and stood fast for a few moments, before saying, in a low tone, his voice quivering the while:
"I can't tell you, uncle."
There was a dead silence in the room for a few moments then; so dead was the silence, in fact, that if the proverbial pin had dropped it would have sounded loudly on the polished oaken boards.
Then the old man spoke, in a curiously suppressed tone of voice.
"Very well," he said, huskily; "it is what was bound to come sooner or later. I see I have made another of the mistakes which have blasted my existence. I must have time to think out what I shall do. One thing is very evident—you have rebelled against my rule, Aleck, and are struggling to get away to think and act, sir, for yourself. I have done my best for you, but in my isolation I have doubtless been blind and narrow. It is the natural result of our solitary life here—the young spirit seeking to soar."
"Oh, no, uncle—" began the boy.
"Silence, sir!" thundered the old man. "Hear me out. I say it is so, and I know. You resent my holding the tether longer, but you are too young yet to fly unheld. I have my duty to do for your mother's sake and for yours. I must have time to think out my plans, but in the meantime prepare yourself to go to some school or institution for a year or two before entering upon your profession."
"That will do, sir," said the old man, sternly. "You have struck your blow against my authority, and this painful episode in my life must end."
"If you'd only let me speak, uncle!" cried the boy, passionately.
"I begged of you to speak, sir," said the old man, coldly. "I ordered you to speak; but in each case you refused. Well, now then, tell me simply—I ask again on principle—why did you fight those boys?"
Aleck set his teeth and hung his head.
"That will do," said the old man, in deep, husky tones. "Go to your room and get rid of as much of the traces of your encounter as you can before going down to your dinner. You need not interrupt me here again till I send for you. There—go."
The old man once more raised his hand to point towards the door, and, unable to contain himself longer, Aleck rushed out, made for his room, and shut and bolted himself in.
It was some time before the boy could do anything but sit with elbows upon knees, chin upon hands, gazing straight before him into vacancy. His head throbbed so that he could not think consistently. In his struggle on the pier he had been a good deal shaken, and that alone was enough to produce a feverish kind of excitement. Then on the way back his brain had been much troubled, while, worst of all, there had been the scene with his uncle.
It was then no wonder that he could not arrange his thoughts so as to sit in judgment upon his acts, especially that last one, in which he had stubbornly, as it seemed, refused or declined to respond to his uncle's question.
He tried, and tried hard, with a curious seething desire working in his brain, to decide upon going straight to the old man and speaking out, giving him frankly his reason for refusing to speak. But this always came to the same conclusion: "I can't—I dare not—I can't."
At last, wearied out and confused more and more by his throbbing brain, the boy rose and walked slowly to the looking-glass, where he started in dismay at the image reflected there. For a few moments it seemed to be part and parcel of some confused dream, but its truth gradually forced itself upon him, and finally he burst out into a mocking, half hysterical laugh.
"I don't wonder at uncle," he cried; "I don't wonder at his being in a rage."
With a weary sigh he went to the washstand and half filled the basin.
"I'd no idea I looked such a sight," he muttered, as he began to bathe his stiff and swollen features. "The brute!" he said, after a few moments. "I wish I'd told uncle, though, that I beat him well. But, oh, dear! what a muddle it all seems! I wish I'd hit him twice as hard," he said, with angry vehemence, half aloud. "Yes?"
For there was a gentle tapping at the door.
"Aren't you coming down to dinner, Master Aleck?"
"No, Jane; not to-day."
"But it's all over-done, my dear—been ready more than an hour. Do, do come, or it'll be spoiled."
"Go and tell uncle then. I'm not coming down."
"But I have been, my dear, and he said I was to come and tell you. He isn't coming down. Do make haste and finish and come down."
"No, not to-day, Jane. I can't come."
"But what is the matter, dear? Is master in a temper because you fell off the cliff and cut your face?"
"I didn't fall off the cliff and cut my face," said Aleck.
"Then, whatever is the matter, my dear?"
"Well, if you must know, Jane, I've been fighting—like a blackguard, I suppose," cried the boy, pettishly.
"And is that what made master so cross?"
"Did it hurt you very much?" came through the door crack in a whisper.
"Yes—no," replied Aleck.
"I don't know what you mean, my dear," sighed Jane.
"Never mind. Go away, please, now. I'm bathing my face."
"But my dinner's all being spoiled, my dear. You won't come, and master won't come. What am I to do?"
"Go and sit down and eat it," cried Aleck, in a passion now; "only don't bother me."
"Well, I'm sure!" cried the captain's maid, tartly. "Master's temper's bad enough to drive anyone away, and now you're beginning too. I don't know what we're coming to in—" um—um—murmur—murmur—murmur—bang!
At least that is how it sounded to Aleck as he went on with his bathing, the sharp closing of the passage door bringing all to an end and leaving the boy to continue the bathing and drying of his injuries by degrees, after which he sat down by the open window, to rest his aching head upon his hand and let the soft sea air play upon his temples.
He was very miserable, and in a good deal of bodily pain, but the trouble seemed to be the worse part, and it was just occurring to him that he felt very sick and faint and that a draught of water would do him good, when there was a sharp tap at the door after the handle had been tried.
"Uncle!" thought the lad, and the blood flushed painfully to his face.
Then the tap was repeated.
"Master Aleck, Master Aleck!"
"I've brought you up some dinner on a tray."
"I don't want any—I couldn't eat it," said the boy, bitterly.
"Don't tell me, my dear. You do want something—you must; and you can eat it if you try. Now, do come and open the door, please, or you'll be ill."
Aleck rose with a sigh and crossed the room, and the maid came in with a covered plate of something hot which emitted an appetising odour.
"It's very good of you, Jane," began Aleck; "but—"
"My! You are a sight, Master Aleck! Whatever have you been a-doing to yourself?"
"Fighting, I tell you," said the boy, smiling in the middle-aged maid's homely face.
"Who with, my dear?"
"Oh, some of the fishermen's boys over at the town."
"Then it didn't ought to be allowed. You are in a state!"
"Yes; I know without your telling me. What's under that cover?"
"Roast chicken and bacon, my dear."
"Oh, I couldn't touch it, Jane!"
"Now, don't say that, my dear. People must eat and drink even if they are in trouble; because if they don't they're ill. I know what I've brought you isn't as nice as it should be, because it's all dried up, and now it's half cold. So be a good boy, same as you used to be years ago when I first knew you. There was no quarrelling with your bread and butter then, and you were always hungry. But, there, I must go. I wouldn't have master catch me here now for all the millions in the Bank of England. Oh, what a temper he is in, to be sure!"
"Have—have you seen him lately?" asked Aleck, excitedly.
"Seen him? No, my dear. He's shut himself up, like he does sometimes; but I could hear him in the kitchen, walking all over my head, just like a wild beast in a cage, and now and then he began talking to himself quite out loud. It's all your fault, Master Aleck, for he was as good-tempered as could be this morning when I went in to ask him what I was to get ready for dinner, and what time."
Jane closed the door after her with these words and left Aleck with the tray.
"Yes," he said, bitterly, in his pain; "it's all my fault, I suppose, and I'm to go away from everything I like here."
He raised the cover over the plate as he spoke, and a pleasant, appetising odour greeted his nostrils; but he lowered the cover again with a gesture of disgust.
"I couldn't touch it," he said, with a shudder, "even to do me good. Nothing would do me good now. My face feels so stiff, and my eyes are just as if they'd got something dark over them."
He went near the window again to look out in the direction of the sea, with some idea of watching the birds, of which so many floated up into sight above the cliffs that shut in the Den. But it was an effort to look skyward, and he sat down by the window to think, in a dull, heavy, dreamy way, about his uncle's words.
And it seemed to him, knowing how stern and uncompromising the old man was, that it would be a word and a blow. For aught he knew to the contrary letters might have been written by then, making arrangements for him to go to some institution where he would be trained to enter into some pursuit that he might detest. Time back there had been talk about his future, the old man having pleasantly asked him what he would like to be. He had replied. "An officer in the Army," and then stood startled by the change which came over the old man's face.
"No," he had said, scowling, "I could never consent to that, Aleck. I might agree to your going into the Navy, but as a soldier, emphatically no."
"Why doesn't he want me to be a soldier?" mused the boy. "He was a soldier himself. I should like to know the whole truth. It can't be what he said."
Aleck sat wrinkling up his brow and thinking for some little time. Not for long; it made his head ache too much, and he changed from soldiering to sailoring.
"I don't see why I shouldn't," he said, half drowsily, for a strange sensation of weariness came over him. "I should like to be a sailor. Why not go? Tom Bodger would help me to get a ship; and as uncle is going to send me away, talking as if he had quite done with me, I don't see why I shouldn't go."
The drowsy feeling increased, so that the boy to keep it off began to look over his clothes, thinking deeply the while, but in a way that was rather unnatural, for his hurts had not been without the effect of making him a little feverish. And as he thought he began to mutter about what had taken place that afternoon.
"Uncle can't like me," he said. "He has been kind, but he never talked to me like this before. He wants to get rid of me, to send me away somewhere to some place where I shouldn't like to go. I've no father, no mother, to mind my going, so why shouldn't I? He'll be glad I'm gone, or he wouldn't have talked to me like that."
Aleck rested his throbbing head upon his crossed arms and sank into a feverish kind of sleep, during which, in a short half-hour, he went through what seemed like an age of trouble, before he started up, and in an excited, spasmodic way, hardly realising what he was doing in his half-waking, half-sleeping state, but under the influence of his troubled thoughts, he roughly selected a few of his under-things for a change and made them up into a bundle, after which he counted over the money he had left after the morning's disbursement, and told himself it would be enough, and that the sooner he was away from the dear old Den the better.
At last all his preparations were made, even to placing his hat and a favourite old stick given him by his uncle ready upon the chair which held his bundle; and then, with his head throbbing worse than ever, producing a feeling of confusion and unreality that was more than painful, he went once more to the glass to look at his strangely-altered features.
"I can't go like that," he said, shrinking back in horror. But like an answer to his words came from far back in his brain, and as if in a faint whisper: "You must now. You've gone too far. You must go now, unless you're too great a coward."
"Yes," he muttered, confusedly; "I must go now—as soon as it's dark. Not wanted here—Tom Bodger—he'll help me—to a ship."
He had sunk heavily into a chair, right back, with his head nodding forward till his chin rested upon his breast, and the next moment he had sunk into a feverish stupor, in which his head was swimming, and in some unaccountable way he seemed to be once more heavily engaged with Big Jem, whose fists kept up a regular pendulum-like beat upon his head, while in spite of all his efforts he could never get one blow back in return at the malicious, jeering, taunting face, whose lips moved as they kept on saying words which nearly drove him wild with indignation.
And what were the words, repeated quite clearly now?
"Master Aleck, don't be so silly! Wake up, you're pretending to be asleep. Oh, my! what a state your face is in! And your head's as hot as fire."
"That you, Jane?"
"Why, of course it is. Were you really asleep?"
"Asleep? No—yes. I don't know, Jane. My head's all gone queer, I think."
"And no wonder, fighting like that, and never touching a bit of the dinner I brought you up. Yes, your head's all in a fever, and your poor swelled-up eyes too. That's better. Now, then, you must take this."
"What is it?" said the lad, drowsily.
"What is it? Why, can't you see?"
"No; my head's all swimming round and round, and my eyes won't open."
"Never mind, poor boy, this'll do you good. I've brought you up a big breakfast-cup of nice, fresh, hot tea, and two rounds of buttered toast. They'll do your head good."
"I say, Jane, where's uncle?"
"In his room. He's had some too. I didn't wait to be asked, but took the tea in."
"What was he doing?" said Aleck.
"No, letters; and as busy as could be. Come, try and drink your tea."
"But isn't it very early for tea—directly after dinner like this?"
"Directly after dinner? Why, bless the boy, it's past seven!"
"Then I must have been asleep," said the boy, speaking more collectedly now.
"I should just think you must, and the best thing for you. Hark! There's master's study bell; he wants more tea. I must go; but promise me you'll take yours?"
"Yes, I'm dreadfully thirsty," said the lad, and as the woman left the room he began to sip the tea and eat pieces of the toast till all was gone, and then, after a weary sigh, he glanced at his bundle and hat upon the chair, reeled towards the bed, held on by the painted post, while he thrust off his boots and then literally rolled upon it, with his face looking scarlet upon the white pillow. The next moment he was breathing heavily in deep, dreamless sleep.
That dreamless sleep lasted till the old eight-day clock on the landing had struck eleven, during which time Jane, who was growing anxious about him, came in three times—the first to take away the tea and dinner things, the other twice to make sure that he was not going into a high fever, as she termed it, and feeling better satisfied each time.