The Ocean Cat's Paw, the Story of a Strange Cruise, By George Manville Fenn.
Here we have a full-length book by an excellent author at the very top of his powers. The time is set at the end of the Napoleonic War, and continues into the ensuing peace.
The young hero is first found fishing in a Dartmoor stream, when he is interrupted by the arrival of a young Frenchman, who, it turns out, has just escaped from Dartmoor, where the prisoners-of-war were being kept. Rodd helps him to hide from pursuit.
Rodd is living with his uncle, who is a doctor, but who also is a researcher in Natural History. He receives a Government grant to buy a ship and travel about in it collecting specimens. On the first trip the weather turns nasty and they have to take shelter in a French port.
Later in the voyage they meet up with a strange brig, which they realise they had seen while in France. But she is in difficulty, having been holed below the waterline in an engagement. At this point they discover that her officers include the boy we met in Chapter One, and his father, the Count. The hole is repaired by the skill of the British seamen.
There's lots more to the story, and we won't spoil it for you, but we do full-heartedly recommend it to you. The problem in transcribing the book was tearing oneself away from it, for meals, rest, and other duties.
THE OCEAN CAT'S PAW, THE STORY OF A STRANGE CRUISE, BY GEORGE MANVILLE FENN.
RODD THE PICKLE.
"Here's another, uncle."
This was shouted cheerily, and the reply thereto was a low muttering, ending with a grunt.
It was a glorious day on Dartmoor, high up in the wildest part amongst the rugged tors, where a bright little river came flashing and sparkling along, and sending the bright beams of the sun in every direction from the disturbed water, as an eager-looking boy busily played the trout he had hooked, one which darted here and there in its wild rush for freedom, but all in vain, for after its little mad career it was safely brought to bank, and landed. There was no need to use the light net which hung diagonally and unnecessarily across its owner's back, for the glittering little speckled trout was only about the size of a small dace, though it fought and kicked as hardily as if it had weighed a pound, and indulged in a series of active leaps as it was slipped through the hole in the lid of a creel, to drop into companionship with half-a-score of its fellows, which welcomed the new prisoner with a number of leaps almost as wild as its own.
The utterer of the grunt, a stoutly-built man who might have been of any age, though he could not have been very young, judging from his bristly greyish whiskers, was also busily occupied, but in a calmer, more deliberate way.
He had no creel slung from his shoulder, but a coarse clean wallet that was rather bulgy, its appearance suggesting that it was carried because it contained something to eat, while its owner held in one hand, slung by a stoutish lanyard, a big, wide-mouthed glass bottle half full of water, and in the other hand a little yellow canvas net attached to a brass ring at the end of a stick, the sort of implement that little boys use when bound upon the chase and capture of the mighty "tittlebat." And as his younger companion shouted and landed his little mountain trout, the net was being carefully passed under water, drawn out and emptied upon the fine lawn-like grass, and what looked like a little scrap of opalescent jelly was popped into the wide-mouthed bottle.
"You got one too, uncle?" shouted the boy, who was higher up the stream.
"Yes; some very nice specimens down here. Are you getting plenty of sport, Rodd?"
"Yes, uncle," replied the boy, who was carefully examining his tiny artificial gnat before beginning to whip the stream again. "They are rising famously; but they are awfully small. I shall get a dish, though, for supper."
"Uncle," as he was called, grunted again, and went on searching amongst the water-weeds with his net, his tendency being with the stream, while the boy, who did not scruple about stepping into the shallows from time to time, went on whipping away upward towards where one of the tors rose in a chaotic mass of broken, lichen-covered, fragmentary granite, apparently hiding in the distance the source of the little bubbling and sparkling stream.
Sometimes, as the boy struck in unison with the rise, he missed his fish, at others he hooked and held it till it broke away, and then again he transferred another to his creel, as intent upon his sport as his uncle was upon his pursuit, but still adding and adding to the contents of the creel for quite an hour. Then, in an interval when the fish had ceased to rise, the boy began to look downward, finding to his surprise that he was quite alone and close up to the towering mass of time-worn granite, many of whose blocks sparkled in the summer sun with crystals of quartz, and specks of hornblende, and were rendered creamy by the abundant felspar which held the grains together in a mass.
"I wonder what's become of Uncle Paul," muttered the boy. "Have I lost him, or has he lost me? What stuff! One's only got to go down the stream, and he's sure to be there somewhere, dipping for his what-do-you-call-'ems—hydras and germs and buds, and the rest of them. But oh, what a jolly morning it is, and what a jolly place Dartmoor is now the sun shines! Not very jolly yesterday, though, when the wind was sweeping the rain across in clouds and you couldn't see the tops of the tors for the mist. Oh, but it is beautiful to-day. I do feel jolly!"
The boy let his light tapering rod fall into the hollow of his arm, swung round his creel to the front, and, raising the lid, peered down at his speckled prizes lying upon a bed of newly-picked bracken fronds.
"Why, there must be fifty," he cried. "There, I won't stop to count. I'll catch a few more, and guess at fifty. That'll be enough for a nice lot for tea and some more for to-morrow morning's breakfast. Uncle Paul does enjoy a dish of trout. Humph! So do I. I suppose it's this beautiful fresh air up among the tors, and the tramping. It was a good long way up here from the cottage. I suppose it's that makes me feel so jolly hungry. Oh, look at that now! Uncle would carry the wallet, and he's got all the sandwiches. Never mind; I'll catch a few more of the little beauties, and then toddle back to meet him."
But the boy did not begin to fish directly, but stood gazing round at the glorious prospect of hill and dale and miniature mountain, here grey and sparkling, there flushed as if with the golden sheen of blossoming furze, while the lower slopes were of the magnificent purple of the abundant heath.
"Beautiful!" cried the boy ecstatically. "I am glad that we came up here to stay. So is dear old uncle. He's revelling in the specimens he gets, and we shall have another jolly night with the microscope. He'll give me a lecture upon all the little Latin beggars he pops into his bottle, and another for being so stupid in not recollecting all their cranky names. Never mind; it is jolly. Pity it isn't later, for then there'd be plenty of blackberries and whorts. I dare say there'd be lots of the little tiny button mushrooms, too, in the lower parts among the soft grass. But what's the use of grumbling? Uncle says that I am never satisfied, and that I am always restless, and I suppose it's because I am a boy. Well, I can't help being a boy," he mused thoughtfully. "I might have been a girl. Well, girls are restless too. I say, what's that?"
He shaded his eyes again and gazed at a speck of something that looked bright scarlet in the distance, and then not very far away he made out another, and again another speck or blotch of bright red. "Now, I wonder what's growing there," muttered the boy. "I don't remember anything scarlet growing and blowing. Poppies? No, I don't think they are poppies. They are at the edges of the cornfields, and there are no cornfields up here."
He fixed his eyes more intently upon the scarlet specks, and then burst out laughing.
"Well, they are not poppies," he said aloud. "Poppies don't move, and those are moving, sure enough. There, one of them has gone behind that block of stone. Pooh, how stupid! Why, of course!"
He jerked himself round to look in another direction, so sharply that his creel swung out for a moment from the strap, and came back against his hip with a bang, as he stood with his back to the sun, gazing at a distant grey, gloomy-looking pile of stone building, and then nodded his head with satisfaction.
"Poppies, indeed! My grandmother! That's what they are. Soldiers from over yonder. Part of the guard from the great prison, I suppose. Oh, poor beggars! How miserable, when you come to think of it—shut up yonder in that great gloomy place, for I don't suppose they let them come out much without soldiers to watch them—and all for doing nothing. Doing nothing! Mustn't say that, though, before Uncle Paul, or he'll go into a rage and begin preaching about Bony and the war, and going on about the French. Hullo!"
The boy started, for there was a dull thud, apparently from the prison, miles away, followed by a loud echo which seemed to come from close at hand, making him turn again as if to look for the spot from which it came, and seeing it too, for the report of the gun had as it were struck against the face of the tor above him, and then glanced off to strike elsewhere.
"How queer echoes are!" he muttered. "Yes, and how queer I feel—all hollow. That's made me think about it. I suppose that means twelve or one o'clock dinner-time. Oh, how stupid to go right away from uncle like this! I wish he'd come. But I won't go till I have made my fifty trout."
Turning his attention now to the stream, he began whipping away again, and finding that the little trout were rising as well as ever, with the result that Rodney Harding once more forgot everything else in his pursuit and went on up-stream nearer and nearer to the great tor, till at last he found himself in a little hollow amongst the rocks where the river had widened into a pool, hollowed out as it were at the base of a great cliff.
"Why, this is the end of it," he said, pausing to look round and upward at the towering pile of rocks. "No, it isn't. It must be the beginning—the source, I suppose they call it. Yes, the stream begins here, comes right from under that cliff. Why, it's like a little cave out of which the water streams."
He stopped short and threw his fly once or twice without effect, and then, moved by curiosity, waded into the shallow rippling water, which rose a little way above his boots, but as it began to invade his trousers he rolled them up to his knees, before wading onward till he was stopped by the piled-up cliff face where the water came gliding out and rippled about his legs.
"Why, it ought to be quite cold," he muttered, "instead of which it is warm."
Then, standing up his rod so that the top rested among the stones, he stooped down, bending nearly double before he could pass in beneath a rough stony natural arch and slowly force his way along a narrow passage for a few feet, before stopping short where the water nearly reached his knees.
"Oh, I say! I am not going to break my back short off at the hips by squeezing in here," he grumbled. "Besides, it's all dark; and what's the good? Here, I know! This isn't the source. This tor is only a piled-up heap of stones, and I dare say if I go round I shall find the little river coming in on the other side, and this is where it comes out. Well, let it. Here, I want my lunch."
He made his way back into the sunshine where all was bright and clear again, and, taking his rod, stepped out to the edge of the pool, where the dry sand felt pleasant and comfortable to his feet, and there he went on fishing again with more or less success, till he passed out of the little amphitheatre to where the rocks fell away on either side, half hidden by the heath and furze.
"Must have got fifty by this time," muttered the boy. "Now just one more to make sure, and then I'll be off, and—Ugh! Who are you? How you made me jump!"
The Ocean Cat's Paw—by George Manville Fenn
AFTER FRENCH PRISONERS.
There was some reason in Rodney Harding's words, for as he turned from the little river he had come suddenly face to face with a thin gaunt-looking lad of about his own age, very shabbily dressed and almost ragged, who was gazing at him fiercely, and stood with one hand as if about to strike. Recovering himself on the instant, Rodney, obeying his first impulse, began to loosen the bottom joint of his rod ready to use it as a weapon—a defence against the expected attack—but in an instant the strange new-comer dropped his hand to his side, turned quickly away to look outward across the moor, and then cried wildly, his voice sounding strange of accent, and husky as if from exhaustion—
"No, no, don't hit! I am so weak and so helpless. Help me. Tell me, which way can I go? They are close after me, and I can run no farther. Help!"
The poor wild-looking creature ended by sinking upon his knees amongst the heath, and raising his hands with a piteous gesture, while his imploring looks were quite sufficient to move the young fisherman's heart.
"Why, who are you?" he cried. "You are not a beggar."
"No, no! I confess. Oh, mon ami—I beg your pardon—sir! I forgot. I confess everything. It was for liberty; we were escaping, but the guard—the soldiers! They have been hunting us down like dogs."
"A French prisoner?" cried the boy.
"Ah, oui—yes, monsieur. It is my misfortune. But the soldiers. We have been separated."
"Who's 'we'?" said Rodney sharply.
"My father and I. I don't know which way he has gone. They have taken him perhaps, and now it is no use; I may as well give up, for I can go no farther."
He sank sideways amongst the heath and fern.
Rodd looked at him in horror, for the poor fellow seemed as if he was about to faint with weakness and misery, while he kept giving utterance to hysterical gasps as he was plainly enough struggling hard to avoid bursting into a passion of weak girlish tears.
"Here, I say, don't do that!" cried Rodd, stooping and catching him by the arm to shake him violently. "You don't know that the soldiers have caught your father."
"No, but I feel sure that they must have done so," cried the poor fellow, rising a little and gazing wildly in the speaker's eyes, while Rodd's energy seemed to galvanise him into action.
"Well, suppose they have? They'd only take him back into the prison again, would they?"
"I—I don't know," faltered the lad. "I heard firing, and they may have shot him down and taken him."
"Yes—may, may, may!" cried Rodd angrily. "But I don't believe our soldiers would be such brutes. It's only Frenchmen that do such things as that."
"What!" cried the lad, struggling to his feet. "How dare you speak so of our brave fellows! I appealed to you for help, and you insult me. Do you think if you were in France and flying for your life with your father—"
"Haven't got one," said Rodd shortly. "Died before I was born."
"Do you think then that if you alone had appealed to me for help I would have treated a poor escaping prisoner like this?"
"Oh, come, I say, don't go on like that. Any one would think you were a great girl. How can I help you? I daren't. What would my uncle say if he knew I'd helped a French prisoner to escape from his guards? You shouldn't, you know. It isn't right nor fair. Just because you have got into trouble, that's no reason why you should drag another fellow down too. Look here, what are you running away for?"
"Why?" cried the lad bitterly. "Because I am a prisoner, and I wanted to see my poor father free."
"Well, look here," said Rodd huskily; "I am very sorry, you know, and I'd help you if I could, but it's against the law, and—I say! Quick! Don't speak aloud. I can hear some one coming. Yes, it's the soldiers, I think."
"Oh!" cried the French lad wildly, and he gazed about him with every nerve quivering, his whole aspect being that of some hunted beast with the dogs close upon his track.
"Don't get up," cried Rodd. "I tell you, I mustn't help you; it's against the law; but if I were in your fix I know what I should do. Not afraid of the water, are you?"
"What, swim for my life? Nonsense! In a stream like this!"
"No, no. Wade into that hole opposite yonder, and hide there till the soldiers are gone."
"But they'd be sure to look there."
"Not they! They'd be afraid of spoiling their breeches and gaiters and washing out the pipe-clay."
"Ready for you to betray me to them," whispered the lad bitterly. "No; I'll surrender like a man."
"Oh!" growled Rodd, between his teeth. "If you weren't such a poor, weak, helpless-looking chap I'd hit you on the nose. How dare you speak to me like that?"
He raised his hand as if to strike, but there was a ring in his words which had thrilled the fugitive, who to Rodd's astonishment caught the hand in his, and quick as thought pressed it to his lips, and then dashed into the water and splashed his way to the mouth of the hole. The next moment the disturbed stream was the only trace left, for the fugitive had disappeared.
The young fisher stood gazing blankly at the low dark mouth of the hole, listening with every nerve on the strain for some sound from the hiding-place to strike his ear; but there was none. From behind, though, there came a loud voice, shouting—
"Here, this way; up by the stream!"
In an instant Rodd was full of action. Turning his back to the hole across the pool, he began to whip the surface with such effect that at the third cast there was a quick rise and he was fast in by far the biggest trout he had caught that day, though small enough all the same; and with knit brows he was playing it carefully just as a redcoat, followed by three or four more, came up at the double to the exit end of the pool and halted to stare at him wonderingly.
"Hi, young fellow!" shouted the leader, whose stripes betokened the sergeant. "What are you doing here?"
Rodd, whose heart was thumping against his ribs from excitement, did not so much as raise his eyes from the surface of the pool, but with teeth set, lips pursed up, and brows heavily knit, kept on playing his fish, paying not the slightest heed to the speaker and his companions.
"Fishing, eh?" said the sergeant, who, in spite of his important errand, could not take his eyes from the darting trout. "I say, we are after an escaped prisoner, and he came somewhere up here. Which way has he gone?"
Rodd did not take his eyes from the frantic darting of the fish, but gave line in silence as it flashed through the water to the far side of the pool, while the soldiers grounded arms and looked on with the deepest interest.
"Prisoners escaped," said the sergeant loudly, as he, too, still gazed at the rushings of the trout—"Frenchman—came up this way—Yes, a big 'un, youngster—Mind! You'll lose him!—One was quite a lad, and—Well done! You have got him yet!—We saw him run up this way, and—Well done!—You have handled a fly-rod before—Did you see anything of him?"
"Eh? What?" said another voice sharply, and a fresh comer suddenly appeared upon the scene in the shape of Uncle Paul, who stared in astonishment at the group as he stepped into the little amphitheatre from behind the rocks.
His appearance acted like magic upon the soldiers, who brought their muskets to the carry, while the sergeant sprang to attention and saluted.
"After escaped prisoners, sir. Asking the young gentleman if he had got one of them up here."
"Pooh! Nonsense! Absurd!" cried the gentleman addressed, just as Rodd brought his fish to land and went down on one knee to grip it in his left hand. "Prisoners, no!" literally barked the fresh comer, setting down his bottle and net, and taking off his straw hat to wipe his streaming face with a big yellow and red bandanna handkerchief. "Here, Rodd, boy," he cried, with a chuckle, "empty your pockets and then open your creel and show the sergeant how many prisoners you have caught. Hot up here, my lad!" he continued, and the sergeant and men grinned. "Thirsty?"
"Yes, sir," said the sergeant, grinning; "pretty tidy. We have had a precious good run."
"Well, there's plenty of beautiful water. Shall I lend you my drinking-cup?"
"Thankye, sir," said the sergeant.
"Thankye, indeed!" said the bluff speaker, with a chuckle, and he thrust his hand into his pocket. "There you are; there's a shilling for you to get some cider. I dare say you know where better than I can tell you. No, we have seen no prisoners."
"Thank you, sir! You are a gentleman," said the sergeant. "Didn't want to interfere with the young gent's sport, but we had got our duty to do. Left face, my lads! Forward!" And the next minute the military party were on the tramp, to pass through the entrance to the little amphitheatre and disappear, just as Uncle Paul was lowering himself gently down upon a huge boulder stone and dragging round the wallet which hung from his right shoulder.
"Phew!" he gasped. "Pretty job I have had to find you, Pickle! I took a short cut, as I thought, and it proved a long one. I have had a round. Aren't you hungry, boy?"
"Starving, uncle," replied the lad, as he dropped the fish into the creel, hooked his fly on to one of the rings, and tightened the line. "But let's come out here on to the heath. It will be more soft and comfortable to sit down."
"Bah!" barked Uncle Paul. "I am not going to stir again till I have had something to eat and a rest. There, lay your rod down. Bother the soldiers! There was another party of them out yonder, shouted at me to stop, and because I didn't, made as if they were going to fire. Yes, they had better! But I had to stop; and then they began questioning me about their escaped French prisoners, and wanted to know who I was and where I was going, and I thought that they were going to make me a prisoner and march me off yonder, only I showed them my card and asked them if I sounded like a French prisoner. They were civil then, and I gave them a shilling. That's two shillings I have fooled away out here on this moor, where I should have said it wasn't possible for a man to spend a farthing. Come on; help yourself," and he held out the wallet for his companion to take one of the big sandwiches it contained.
"I think we had better go on outside, uncle," said the boy. "There's more breeze out there, and the rocks don't reflect the heat."
"Do you?" said Uncle Paul, with his mouth full. "There's quite wind enough in here to keep me alive, and I am so hot I don't want to go out to be blown on and catch cold.—My word, the old lady didn't forget the mustard! Come, eat away, Pickle. Let's start fair, or you will soon be a sandwich behind. My word, what an appetite this air does give one!"
"Yes, uncle," said the boy, who, in spite of an effort to control himself, could not help darting an anxious glance from time to time at the opening between the rocks.
"Capital sandwiches, Pickle," continued the uncle, eating away with the most intense enjoyment. "One doesn't want any other pickle with these. What does the old proverb say—Hunger's sweet sauce. Hullo! what are you getting up for?"
"Oh, I am going on eating, uncle," replied the boy. "I was only going to walk to the end and see how far the soldiers had gone."
"Hang the soldiers, sir!" cried the elder irascibly. "I wish they'd keep in their barracks instead of coming hunting their prisoners all over this beautiful countryside. Sit down and go on eating."
The boy resumed his place, and began making half-moons in the edge of his sandwich and trying to munch hard; but somehow his appetite was gone, and before he was half through the second sandwich he watched his opportunity, slipped it into his pocket, and as his uncle turned round to look at him he leaned forward and helped himself to a third from the wallet.
"Ah, that's better! Eat away, boy. We have got a long walk back, and you will have plenty of appetite for a good high tea. Hang the prisoners as well as the soldiers. If I had known that this great cage full of Bony's French frogs was up here I don't believe I should have come—that is, unless I thought that Nap himself was a prisoner here too, when I might have been tempted to come and have a grin at the wild beast in his cage. Eh, what? What did you do that for?"
He looked curiously at his nephew, who, after a glance across the pool, had involuntarily stretched out one hand to grip his elder's arm.
"Do you hear me, sir?" he cried sharply. "Why did you pinch my arm like that?"
The boy, whose face had looked rather white the moment before, flushed scarlet, and stammered out something confused and strange.
"Why, hullo, boy!" cried his uncle sharply, and he leaned forward in turn and caught the lad by the wrist. "Why, what's the matter with you? Haven't been overdoing it in the sun, have you? Here, take my cup and have a glass of water."
"No, no, uncle; I am quite right. There's nothing the matter with me. It's—it's—it's—"
"It's what?" said Uncle Paul sharply, as he gazed full in the boy's eyes and held tightly by his wrist. "Well, it's what?"
"Perhaps I am a bit tired, uncle. I have been working very hard, and I turned faint and hungry a little while ago."
"Humph!" grunted Uncle Paul. "Then do as I tell you. Drink a cup of that clear cold water."
"That's better," he continued, a few minutes later. "Now eat another sandwich. No nonsense, sir! Do as I tell you!"
The boy sighed and helped himself to another of the double slices and their contents, and for the next few minutes no word was spoken, the pair sitting opposite to one another and munching or ruminating steadily away, the younger feeling as if every mouthful of which he partook would choke him.
"Hah!" said Uncle Paul, at last; "it is a drawback to this beautiful place. The colours of the heath are glorious, and the views from up here are grand. I got some good specimens too, ready for our microscopic work to-night; and that was a nice trout you caught. How many did you get, boy?"
"Only one, uncle," said the boy vacantly.
"I didn't see the other, uncle."
Uncle Paul drew a deep breath and fixed the boy with his eyes, as he said quietly—
"I asked you how many trout you got, Pickle."
"Oh, about fifty, uncle. Creel's half full."
"Ah! Then we will have some for high tea to-night, and some for breakfast in the morning, and give our landlady the rest. Nice woman that; full of stories about the prisoners, and Bony and his wretched scum. Ugh! The very name of the rascal raises my bile, and—There, I think I had better take you home and give you a dose."
"Yes, let's go on back now, uncle," said the boy eagerly, "but indeed, indeed I don't want a dose."
"Humph! Then pray why did you grip hold of my arm again like that, and stare across yonder over my shoulder as if you could see a raven hiding in one of the holes?"
"Oh no, uncle," cried the boy, with a forced laugh. "I couldn't see anything."
"Ha, ha!" ejaculated Uncle Paul. "Now, look here, Pickle; you and I have always had a sort of tacit agreement that we'd play fair together, and that there should be a mutual confidence."
"Yes, uncle, of course," cried the boy, whose face was burning.
"Very well, then, you are breaking truce. You are not playing the game, sir."
"Pickle! Now then, sir, out with it. You have seen those French prisoners."
"Yes, sir. Why did you pinch my arm—twice? Now then, honour!"
"I—I—You were talking about Bonaparte."
"Well, what of that?"
"I was afraid he'd hear you, uncle."
"What!" cried the other, and his mouth opened wide. "Bony! Here?"
"No, uncle, of course not, but one of the young prisoners. He was escaping."
"And you—you have turned traitor to your King, and been hiding a prisoner of war from his guard! Why, you young scoundrel! You lied to that sergeant, and said you hadn't seen them."
"I didn't, uncle!" cried the boy hotly. "It was you."
"Eh? What?" roared the elder. "You dare to! Eh?—Ah—so I did! But then I didn't know."
"No, uncle, and if you had seen and heard the poor lad as I did, I am sure you wouldn't have betrayed him."
"Betray! It isn't betraying, sir, to give up a prisoner of war."
"I felt as if it would be, uncle, under such circumstances," said Rodd, who began noting that his uncle had lowered his voice, and that his angriest words had been uttered in a whisper.
"Look here, my boy," he said now quite softly, "I knew that there was something up, or you would have been wolfing more than your share of those sandwiches. I saw you keep squinting at that hole over yonder. So you have hid him away there?"
"No, uncle," said Rodd; "I did nothing, but just as the soldiers were coming up, and he'd been begging and praying me to save him, I just said that that would be a good place to hide."
"Humph!" grunted Uncle Paul. "It was very wrong, my boy—very wrong; but look here, Pickle, is the poor fellow badly wounded?"
"No, uncle; only exhausted. He looked just like that hunted deer we saw the other day."
"Hah!" said Uncle Paul, nodding his head. "Humph! Well, you know, my boy, it isn't the thing, and we should be getting into no end of trouble if it were known. It's against the law, you know, and if you had caught him and held him you would have got a big reward."
Rodd got up and laid his hands upon his elder's shoulders as he looked him fixedly in the eyes.
"I say, uncle," he said, "you have been questioning me. It's my turn now."
"Yes, Pickle; I'll play fair. It's your turn," said Uncle Paul. "What is it you want to say?"
"Only this, uncle. Would you have liked me to earn that reward?"
"Hah! I say, Pickle, my lad, would you like any more sandwiches?"
"Then isn't it about time we began to make for home?"
Uncle Paul rose and led the way down-stream, gazing straight before him, and though he must have seen, he took no notice of the fact that Rodd did not throw the strap of his creel of fish over his shoulder, but left it by the side of the stone, along with the wallet, through whose gaping mouth a second packet of big sandwiches could still be seen.
MRS. CHAMPERNOWNE'S PAN.
Mr Robson, when he came up from Plymouth for a natural history expedition into Dartmoor, did not select a hotel for his quarters, for the simple reason that such a house of accommodation did not exist, but took what he could get—a couple of tiny bedrooms in the cottage of a widow whose husband had been a mining captain on the moor; and there after a long tramp they returned on the evening after the adventure, to find their landlady awaiting them at the pretty rose-covered porch, eager and expectant and ready to throw up her hands in dismay.
"Why, where are the fish?" she cried—"the trout?"
"Eh?" said Uncle Paul.
"The fish, sir—the fish. I've got a beautiful fire, and the lard ready in the pan. I want to go on cooking while you both have a good wash. You told me that you would be sure to bring home a lot of trout for your supper, and I haven't prepared anything else."
"Bless my heart! So I did," said Uncle Paul. "Here, Pickle, where are those trout?"
Rodd gave his uncle a comical look, and stood rubbing one ear.
"Ah, uncle," he cried, "where are those trout?"
Uncle Paul screwed up one eye, and he too in unconscious imitation began to rub one ear.
"Ah, well; ah, well," said the landlady, "I suppose you couldn't help it. I have had gentlemen staying here to fish before now, and it's been a basketful one day and a basket empty the next. Fish are what the Scotch call very kittle cattle. Never mind, my dear," she continued to Rodd. "Better luck next time. Fortunately I have got plenty of eggs, and there's the ham waiting for me to cut off some more rashers."
As she spoke the woman hurried into her kitchen, from which sharp crackling sounds announced that he was thrusting pieces of wood under the kettle, and as she busied herself she went on talking aloud so that they could hear—
"Did you hear the gun fire, sir, somewhere about one o'clock?"
"Yes," grunted Uncle Paul. "Dinner-time, and we ate your sandwiches, Mrs Champernowne. They were delicious."
"I am very glad, sir. But, oh dear no, that wasn't the dinner-bell. That meant that some of the prisoners had escaped. Poor fellows! I always feel sorry for them."
"Mrs Champernowne!" cried Uncle Paul, and Rodd, who was in his room with his face under water, raised it up, grinning, for he knew his uncle's peculiar ways by heart, and he went on listening to what was said.
"Oh, yes, sir," cried the landlady, with her voice half-drowned by a sudden flap and a sizzling noise which indicated, without the appetising odour which soon began to rise to Rodd's nostrils, that their landlady had vigorously slapped a thick rasher of pink-and-white ham into the hot frying-pan; "I know what you think, sir, and what you told me only last night about being a loyal subject of King George, and these being our natural enemies, whom we ought to hate."
Ciss! went the ham, and Rodd felt as if he should like to shout "Hear, hear!"
"But I can't help remembering what I hear at church about forgiving our enemies; and I am sure you would, sir, if you knew what I do about those poor fellows, torn away from their own people and shut up behind prison bars, and all for doing nothing."
Just then there was a little spluttering noise as if the pan were chuckling.
"For doing nothing!" shouted Uncle Paul, and a sound from his room suggested that he had set down the washhand jug with a bang. "The scoundrels who invaded our shores?"
Ciss! said the pan.
"That they didn't, sir!" cried the landlady. "They didn't even try; and even if they had there were all our brave fellows round the coasts who would soon have stopped them."
"Hear, hear!" cried Rodd, very softly, for he was speaking into his sweet-scented towel, whose scent was that of fresh air and wild thyme.
"Well, well, that's right," shouted Uncle Paul; "but they wanted to."
Whish-ish, went the pan, and there was a good deal more spluttering, and in his mind's eye Rodd saw the great rasher turned right over, to begin sizzling again.
"And I don't believe that, Dr Robson," cried the landlady sturdily. "Don't you know that the poor fellows over yonder never get good honest shillings given to them and are enlisted of their own free will like our lads at home, but they are dragged away and are obliged to fight; and it was all owing to the angry jealousy and covetousness of that dreadful man, Bony, who has been the cause of all the trouble."
"Hah!" roared Uncle Paul, in a voice that almost shook the diamond-paned casement. "Say no more, Mrs Champernowne. You are quite right, and I admire your sympathies. Madam, you are a lady!"
"Oh, really, Dr Robson—"
"I repeat it, madam, you are a lady, and I applaud everything you have said. But what about that gun?"
"Oh, dear me, yes, sir; I was just going to tell you, but you put it all out of my head. It was the alarm gun to tell everybody that prisoners had escaped, so that all the people on the moor could join the soldiers in scouring the place as they called it, and hunting the poor Frenchmen down for the sake of the reward. Yes, I'd reward them if I had my way! Hunting their poor fellow-creatures, who are only trying for their liberty!"
"H'm! Ha!" grunted Uncle Paul, and there was a huckabacky sound about his words.
There was another furious hissing from the pan, followed by a fresh slap, for a second great rasher had been thrust in vice number one nicely cooked and just placed in the hot dish that had been intended for trout.
"Did they catch them, Mrs Champernowne?" shouted Uncle Paul.
"I haven't heard, sir," was the reply; "but dear, dear, they are pretty well sure to, for there's not much chance for the poor fellows. Oh, it makes my heart bleed when I hear sometimes that one of them has been shot down by the soldiers."
Rodd went on tip-toe across the creaking floor to open his door a little farther, listening with strained ear, for his bright young imagination pictured the thin pale youth, wild-eyed and breathless, out of his hiding-place and running for liberty across the open moor, and hearing again the distant reports of the muskets.
"But that doesn't often happen, sir, for between you and me and the post, seeing that the prisoners are only soldiers, after all, I don't believe that though they have their orders, our men ever try to hit them; and very glad I am."
"Ah, ah, ah, Mrs Champernowne, that isn't loyal, you know, that isn't loyal to his Majesty the King and your country."
"I can't help that, Dr Robson, and I am not speaking, sir, as a subject, but as a woman and a mother who has a brave stout boy in our good King's Guards. Now suppose, sir, that you were a mother." Uncle Paul grunted audibly.
"And had a boy the same as I have, and Bony Napolyparty had taken him prisoner. How would you like him to be shot down?"
Rodd literally jumped in his alarm, for there was a tremendously wild cissing from the pan and a horrible suggestion therewith that Mrs Champernowne had been turning the rasher with so much energy that she had thrown the cooking slice on to the fire itself instead of into its native pan, while a sudden gush as of hot burning fat came up the little stairs.
But the pleasant sizzling sounds began again directly, and Rodd, who was ravenously hungry, consequent upon the bad part he had played over the sandwiches beneath the tor, sighed in relief as he realised that the widow's energetic treatment had only splashed a little of the fat over the side of the pan.
As Rodd listened for a continuation of the political discussion, in which it seemed to him that Uncle Paul had got the worst of it, for neither the widow nor he spoke for the next three or four minutes, and the pan had it all its own way, there was some creaking of the boards as the naturalist stumped about, and when he did speak it was evident that he thought it wise to change the subject. And it was the inner man who now spoke—
"Our tea-supper nearly ready, Mrs Champernowne?"
"Oh yes, sir. The second rasher's about done. How many eggs shall I cook?"
"Oh, one, or perhaps two, for me," shouted Uncle Paul.
"Oh, I say!" muttered Rodd.
"Better cook eight or ten for my nephew," cried the doctor dryly. "He'll eat like a young wolf."
"What a shame!" muttered Rodd. "I'll serve him out for this."
"Fried, of course, sir?" came from the kitchen.
"Murder, woman, no!" roared Uncle Paul. "Fry! That is wild west-country ignorance, madam! Are you not aware, madam, that the action of boiling fat upon albumen is to produce a coagulate leathery mass of tough indigestible matter inimical to the tender sensitive lining of the most important organ of the human frame, lying as it does without assimilation or absorption upon the epigastric region, and producing an irritation that may require medical treatment to allay?"
"Dear, dear, dear, dear me, no, sir! Really, you quite fluster me with all those long words. Who ever heard that fried ham and eggs were bad for anybody?"
"Then I tell you now, madam," shouted the doctor, "that—"
"Don't you take any notice, Mrs Champernowne," shouted Rodd. "It's only uncle's fun."
"Wuff!" went Uncle Paul, with a snap like that of an angry dog. "Wuff!"
"Fried, please, Mrs Champernowne; four for uncle and three for me."
"Umph!" grunted the doctor, and a few minutes later he and his nephew, hunger-sharpened and weary-legged, were seated facing one another in the widow's pleasant little parlour, hard at work, and risking all the direful symptoms upon which the elder had discoursed, and thoroughly enjoying hearty draughts of Mrs Champernowne's fragrant tea.
There was silence in the kitchen, following the final hissings and odours emitted by the hard-worked pan, but a great deal of business went on in the little parlour, the first words that were spoken being by Uncle Paul, who growled out—
"Here, I suppose you had better tell the old lady to put on another rasher of ham to fry."
"For you, uncle?" said Rodd archly.
"No, sir, for you. You traitorous young dog, leaving all those beautiful trout up on the moor to be devoured by the enemies of your country!"
"Well, they can't eat them raw, uncle."
"Why not, sir? They are only so many ravening savages, ready to breathe out battle and slaughter if they got free."
"That poor boy didn't seem much of a savage, uncle," said Rodd quietly; and after a sidelong glance to see whether he dared say it, the boy continued tentatively, "I wish the poor fellow had been here to have this ham."
"What!" roared his uncle fiercely. "Bah! You wouldn't have left him a mouthful. Wolf—raven!"
"Yes, I would, uncle. I'd have left him all."
"Umph!" grunted Uncle Paul, taking up a very thin, old, much-worn silver table-spoon and looking at it with the eye of a connoisseur. "H'm! Ha! Queen Anne."
"She's dead, uncle," said the boy.
"Well, I know that, don't I?" growled Uncle Paul, as he tilted the empty dish, and carefully scraped all the golden brown fat and gravy to one side, getting together sufficient to nearly fill the spoon, and then making as if to put it upon his own plate, but with a quick gesture dabbing it down upon Rodd's.
"Fair play, uncle!" shouted the boy.
"Bah!" grunted the doctor. "Cut me a thin slice of bread, all crumb, Pickle. Thunder and lightning! I have got the best share, after all;" and then, with his face puckered up into a pleasant smile, he inserted a fork into the newly-cut slice of home-made bread, and began passing it round and round the dish until it had imbibed the remains of the liquid ham and the golden new-laid eggs, when he deposited it upon his own plate with a triumphant smile which seemed to Rodd to make him look five-and-twenty years younger.
"Shall I fill another cup of tea for you, uncle?" cried Rodd; and by the way, they were breakfast cups.
"No, no, Pickle; I—I—er—well, say half."
At that moment the door was opened, and, looking hot and out of breath, their landlady entered.
"I hope you haven't been waiting for anything, gentlemen," she cried, giving the table a comprehensive glance. "I am so sorry. I will cook another rasher or two directly."
"Madam, no," said Uncle Paul didactically. "What does the great classic author say?"
"Really I don't know, sir," cried Mrs Champernowne, with a perplexed look wrinkling up her pleasant face. "But it won't take many minutes."
"Enough, madam, is as good as a feast. This has been a banquet, eh, Pickle? I never enjoyed anything half so much before in my life. The ham was tenderness itself, the eggs new-laid—the bread—the butter—the tea—eh, Pickle?"
"The fat of the land, Mrs Champernowne," continued the doctor; "the riches of these smiling pastures. Now if your friend Napoleon Bonaparte had come with his locusts to devastate the land, his hordes such as we have seen safely imprisoned yonder—"
"Yes, sir," interrupted Mrs Champernowne eagerly; "that's what I came to tell you. I thought I might just run over to my neighbour's, whose master has come back from the hunt, and I thought that you would like to hear. Those two French prisoners have got right away."
"Hooray!" shouted Rodd, springing from the chair, and to Mrs Champernowne's astonishment catching her round the waist and waltzing her about the room. "Three cheers for the poor prisoners! Hurrah! Hurrah! Hurrah!"
And Uncle Paul pushed back his chair, puckered up his forehead, stared hard at his nephew, and grunted out—
"Oh, my dear, don't! Pray don't!" panted Mrs Champernowne, whom Nature had made middle-aged, round and plump. "You are taking away all my breath. But my neighbour's master says that he thinks they have made for Salcombe, where they will perhaps get aboard one of the orange boats and be put back in their own country."
"Hah!" said Uncle Paul, leaning back in his chair to take hold of his bunch of seals and haul up by the broad watered silk ribbon the big double-cased gold watch that ticked away from where it reclined warm and comfortable at the bottom of his fob.
"Confound their politics, Frustrate their knavish tricks!"
"That was a very fine tea, Mrs Champernowne. Now, Pickle, my boy, I think it would be very nice to go and sit for half-an-hour in the arbour under the roses, while I kill the green fly—the aphides, Mrs Champernowne—which increase and multiply at a rate which is absolutely marvellous. Pickle, my boy, I hope you will never grow up as weak and self-indulgent as your uncle. Fill me my long clay pipe."
OH, SUMMER NIGHT!
Mrs Champernowne's arbour was a very homely affair, consisting of four fir poles to form as many corners, and a few more nailed and pegged together to form gables. Nature built all the rest with roses and honeysuckle and some vigorous ivy at the back, the roses spiring up, the honeysuckle creeping in and out among the long strands and holding them together, while the ivy ran rapidly up the back till it could grow no higher, and then began to droop down till it had formed itself into a thick curtain which kept out the wind.
There was a very rustic table in the middle, formed by nailing two pieces of plank on to a tree stump, and a couple of seats, one on each side, pierced with holes that had once upon a time been made by ship carpenters' augers, when the wood was built up over the ribs of some stout ship which long years after was bumped to pieces by the waves upon the rocks and then cast up upon the southern shore, to be bought up and carted all through the county.
Yes, it was a very rustic place, but it suited its surroundings, and Uncle Paul looked supremely happy as he sat there slowly smoking his pipe and gazing dreamily before him at the beautiful landscape stretching far, and the garden of the one cottage within reach only a short distance away from the plot of ground where by the help of the neighbour sufficient potatoes were grown for the widow's use. "What a silent, peaceful evening, Pickle," said Uncle Paul. "Look yonder in the east; the moon will be up soon, and then it will be night, and we have done no work. How do you feel, my boy?"
"Tired and stupid, uncle. My legs ache right down to the ankles."
"No wonder, hopping about amongst those granite boulders. My back's a bit stiff too. There, let's go into the parlour, light up, and then you shall fetch down the microscope."
"Oh, not yet, uncle!—I say, have another pipe."
"A vaunt, you young tempter! Trying to lead me astray into idleness! No, let's get in. We have been playing all day; now let's go and get a bit of work done before we lie down to sleep."
"But I say, uncle, do you think that Napoleon will ever start another war in France?"
"Who knows, boy? His goings-on have brought nearly everything to a standstill, and there has been war enough to last for a hundred years."
"Yes, uncle; but do you think that Napoleon and the war put a stop to your expedition that you were to make in a vessel of your own?"
"Of course I do, Pickle," said Uncle Paul, smoking very slowly now, with his eyes shut, so as to make the little incandescent mass at the bottom of his bowl last for a few minutes longer. "Government promised me and my friends to make a grant for the fitting out of a small vessel, and for the payment of a captain and crew, and it was voted that we should have it; but do what we might, my friends and I could never get the cash, and it has always been put off, put off, on account of the expenses of the war."
"But, uncle—" began Rodd.
"No, you don't, sir," said Uncle Paul, with a soft chuckle. "None of your artfulness! You are trying to lead me on to prattle about Bony, so as to avoid my lecture upon the fresh-water polypes I have taken to-day. Get out, you transparent young scrub! In with you, and fetch down the case, and light the two candles on the parlour table. Nice innocent way of doing it. Think I couldn't see through you, sir? Be off!"
A few minutes later Uncle Paul's pipe was cooling on the parlour chimney-piece, kept almost upright by the waxy end leaning against a glass tube which had been formed into a sort of ornamental rolling-pin to be suspended over the fire, and to be much treasured by its owner.
It was not a very aesthetic piece of art or ornamentation, being only composed of coloured flowers carefully cut out of a piece of chintz, before being gummed upon the inside of the glass tube. This was then filled up with salt, and the ornament was complete.
The candles were burning brightly after each application of the snuffers; the polished mahogany microscope case stood on a side-table, and the brass tube that had been taken out was ready to receive one of the many slips of glass, some of which had little cup-like hollows ground out of one side ready for receiving a tiny drop of water and one or other of the specimens, the result of the past day's search.
Uncle Paul was on one side of the table with his big glass bottle; Rodd sat on the other, with his chin resting in his hands, trying to listen to his uncle's discourse, and with his eyelids drooping down now and again.
"Bother the flies and moths!" said Uncle Paul testily. "Who's to work with them circling round and round the candles, trying to singe themselves to death? What's that white one, boy?"
"Ghost moth, uncle," replied Rodd sharply, his uncle's question seeming to rouse him up to attention.
"Good boy! Well named. Trying hard to make a ghost of itself too. Why, there's a great Daddy Longlegs now! Here, you'll have to shut the window."
"Oh, don't, uncle! It will make the room so hot."
"Umph! So it will. Very tiresome, though, when one's trying to work. Now then, let me see; let me see. I want to examine this hydra, but I must put on a lower power, and—Oh, dear, dear, dear! Gnats! Moths! Tipulae and—Really, really, Pickle, that lamp gives no light at all;" and Uncle Paul leaned forward, took a pin out of the edge of his waistcoat, and began to prick at and try to raise the wick of the reflecting microscope lamp.
Then there was a little catastrophe, for after a most vigorous application of the pin the wick seemed to resent it as if it were some kind of sea worm, and drew back out of reach into its little brass cell.
"There, now I've done it!" said Uncle Paul. "Did you ever see anything so tiresome in your life, Pickle?"
"Yahah!" sighed the boy slowly.
"Why, what are you doing? Yawning!" cried Uncle Paul. "You are about the sleepiest chap I ever knew. There, I am afraid I shall have to wait for to-morrow morning's sunshine. Clear away, or help me. Let's put everything on a side-table, and I'll tell Mrs Champernowne that she isn't to touch what she sees there."
"Yes, uncle," said the boy, with something like alacrity, as the table was cleared and the candles re-snuffed, the effect of opening and shutting the snuffers seeming to act upon Rodd and making him yawn widely, while quite involuntarily Uncle Paul did the same. "Now then," said Uncle Paul.
"Aren't we going to bed, uncle?" said Rodd eagerly. "Bed? Nonsense! Because we are in a country place where people like going to bed almost in the middle of the day and getting up in the middle of the night, do you think we need follow their example? Absurd! I want to talk to you about some of the wonderful things I captured to-day. The waters on the moor swarm with the most beautiful limpid specimens."
Rodd sighed softly, and put his hand before his mouth to stop a yawn.
"Oh, by the way," said Uncle Paul, "did you change your trousers when you went up to wash?"
"No, uncle; they didn't want it."
"Weren't they damp?"
"No, uncle; I only got my shoes wet, and they were pretty well dry when I got home. Besides, you had got my other trousers in the big portmanteau in your room."
"Well, you could have come and fetched them. Always be careful to change damp things.—Come in!"
There had been a soft tap at the door, and Mrs Champernowne appeared.
"I beg pardon, sir, but what would you like for breakfast in the morning?"
"Breakfast, Mrs Champernowne? Nothing."
"Oh, I say, uncle!" said Rodd sharply. "We seem to have eaten enough this evening to last us for twenty-four hours."
"Oh no, sir," said the landlady. "Excuse me, but our moorland air will make you think very differently to-morrow morning."
"Humph!" grunted Uncle Paul.
"You see, sir, I did think that you'd bring home enough trout this evening to do for your breakfast too, and I am afraid there's nothing but ham and eggs. Would you mind them?"
"I'll tell you to-morrow morning, madam," said Uncle Paul.
"Then if you wouldn't mind, sir—I don't want to hurry you and the young gentleman—but it's my time, and if you will excuse me I'll say good-night."
"Good-night, Mrs Champernowne; good-night, and pleasant rest to you," said Uncle Paul heartily, "and—Yes? You were going to say something?"
"If you wouldn't mind, sir, being sure that the candles are well out."
"Oh, of course; of course."
"And it's a very hot night, sir."
"Yes, madam; we have found that out."
"So if you'll be kind enough to shut and slip the bolt of the front door I'll leave it for you to do so when you go up to bed."
"Certainly, Mrs Champernowne, certainly. Once more, good-night."
Their landlady smiled benevolently on both, and the next minute they heard the little old staircase creaking beneath her tread, this being followed by the cracking of the boards in the little room over the kitchen, the visitors both listening till all was silent again.
Somehow as Rodd sat opposite to his uncle, his head seemed to be unusually heavy, and he rested more and more upon his two thumbs, which he had placed for support beneath his chin.
There was a faint pinging sound, the trumpeting of a gnat flitting about the room, and then the deep boom of a beetle somewhere outside the open window. There was a hot delicious odour, too, floating in over the flowers in the garden, a portion of whose scent the warm air seemed to be taking up to mingle with that which it had swept off the moor.
And then as Rodd listened and gazed across the table between the two candles, whose tops were growing tiny brown mushrooms as they silently asked to be snuffed, it seemed to the boy that his uncle's face looked dim and misty, and then that it swelled and swelled and began to float up like a faintly seen balloon, till it died right away. And all was still but the um-um-um of the great beetle or chafer which had passed in through the window, and began circling round just below the whitewashed ceiling, against which its wings brushed from time to time with a faint fizz, till all at once Rodd started up, for his uncle exclaimed—
"Why, Pickle, what are you about?"
"I—I—nothing, uncle," said the boy hastily. "Why, I believe, sir, you were going to sleep!"
"Oh, I am quite wide awake, uncle," cried the boy.
"Humph, yes—now. You see, my boy, these hydras are most extraordinary things, and to-morrow morning in the bright sunshine we will get the microscope to work, and I'll show you how they—"
Was that Uncle Paul talking in a low tone with his voice getting farther and farther away, or was it that big chafer spinning round and round the room? Now it nearly died out, and then it grew louder again and seemed to double into a duet, just as if the great stag beetle had whisked in at the casement and had joined in the nocturnal valse, the duet seeming to be intended to lull the naturalist and his nephew to sleep in the soft musky sweetness of that delightful summer's night.
How long it lasted, who could say, but all at once there was a sudden start, and Uncle Paul's hand came down with a thump upon the tablecloth after he had knocked over one of the candlesticks, making so much noise that, wide awake now, Rodd made a dash and stood the candlestick up again, before snatching the candle from where it lay singeing the lavender and red-check cotton table-cover and beginning to deposit a big spot of grease.
"Bless my heart, Pickle!" cried Uncle Paul. "I believe I was going to drop asleep."
"I am afraid I was asleep, uncle," replied the boy. "You were saying that hydras—that hydras—er—er—er—something about hydras."
"Yes, yes, yes, but never mind. Perhaps we had better go to bed, and I'll finish what I was saying in the morning. There, light the two flat candlesticks, and we will have a good long snooze. That's right; put out the others. No, no; use the extinguisher! Don't blow them out, or there will be such a smell."
"Shall I shut the window, uncle?"
"Oh, no, I don't think you need. The place is like an oven. Heigho— ha—hum! Yes, I am sleepy. Come along. Good-night, my boy. I am going to sleep with my chamber window wide open, and you'd better do the same."
"But I say, uncle, we shall hardly want our candles. Look at the moon. It is almost as light as day."
All the same they took the candles up with them, the stairs creaking again beneath their tread as if uttering a protest against them for their forgetfulness in not attending to their hostess's request to close and bolt the door; but they were too sleepy to do anything more than slip off their things on reaching their rooms, while almost directly after, the moon was shining in right across Rodd's snowy white bed, the pillow being in the darkness, which also formed a black bar across the foot, so that only the boy's hands and breast lay in the light.
One moment after laying his head down in that black velvety darkness Rodd Harding was wide awake and thinking that all outside the window was silver, a broad streak of which came straight over him to die away in the wall on his left; the next, he was far away in the land of dreams, wandering over the moor, his confused visions taking the form of escaping prisoners flying before soldiers in scarlet coats.
And then after a blank pause which seemed to have lasted only a few minutes, Rodd opened his eyes upon the bright silvery light once more, to find that it struck across from the window in the opposite direction, for he was wide awake, listening to a soft tap, tap, tap, evidently administered by a knuckle upon his door.
THE MILK IN THE COCOA-NUT.
"Yes, all right, Mrs Champernowne; get up directly. I say, what's o'clock?"
"Oh, I don't know, my dear," came in agitated tones, "but would you come to the door and speak to me a minute?"
There was a bump on the floor as Rodd sprang out of bed, and then—
"What is it?" whispered the boy, who was moved by his caller's evident distress. "Don't say uncle's ill!"
"No, no, my dear, but I am in great trouble. You—you didn't shut the front door."
"Oh!" ejaculated Rodd.
"And—and, my dear, there have been thieves and robbers in the night. They have stripped my little larder, and I don't know what they haven't taken besides. Do, pray, make haste and dress, and come down and help me! I am in such trouble, I don't know what I shall do."
"All right; I'll make haste and come down," cried Rodd, feeling guilty all over, and then trying to excuse himself by shuffling the blame on to the right shoulders. "It was uncle she asked," he muttered, as he ran round to the other side of the bed for the chair upon which he had hang his clothes when he undressed. "Why, hallo!"
He stood staring at the chair for a moment or two, and then ran round the foot of the bed, opened the door two or three inches, and called in a subdued tone so as not to awaken his uncle, though if he had been asked why, he could not have told, beyond saying that he felt then that it was the right thing to do—
"Mrs Champernowne! Mrs Champernowne!"
"Yes, my dear," came from the foot of the stairs. "Oh, you have been quick!"
"No, no, I haven't," cried Rodd pettishly. "Here, I say, have you taken away my trousers?"
"Gracious me, no, my dear! What should I want with your trousers?"
"Take them down to brush perhaps," muttered the boy to himself, as he ran back to the other side of the bed and raised the counterpane. "Haven't slipped off and gone under," he muttered, and then as a fresh thought struck him he clapped his hands to his forehead and stood staring before him. "The thieves!" he exclaimed. "They haven't been in here and taken all my clothes?"
He was silent for a few minutes, as he stared vacantly about the room.
"They have, though!" he cried. "Here, Mrs Champernowne!—Boots and all. Oh, I can't tell her. Here, I must get my other suit out of the portmanteau. I won't wake uncle, because it's so early. Why, it can be only just sunrise; and he'd sit up and laugh at me. Oh, bother!"
Rodd ran round to the door again, opened it about an inch, and listened.
"She's in the kitchen," he muttered to himself, and slipping out on to the little landing he raised the latch of his uncle's door, glided in, and made for the big portmanteau that lay unstrapped beneath the window.
Raising the one half quickly, he twisted the whole round so that the two halves might lie open upon the whitely-scrubbed boards as silently as he could; but one corner caught against the leg of the dressing-table, jarring it so violently that a hair-brush fell on to the floor with a bang, and Uncle Paul sprang up in bed.
"Hullo, you sir! What are you doing there?" he cried.
"Getting out my other suit, uncle," said the boy quickly.
"What for? Don't do that! We are going over the moor again to-day."
"But I must, uncle," cried Rodd.
"Yes. Oh, I shall be obliged to tell you. It was all your fault, uncle; you didn't fasten the door as Mrs Champernowne told you, and there have been thieves in the night."
"Been grandmothers in the night!" cried Uncle Paul contemptuously.
"It's true, uncle, and they came up into my room while I was asleep and took away all my clothes—boots and all."
"You don't mean that, Pickle! Here, I say, where are mine?"
Rodd sprang to his feet from where he was kneeling by the portmanteau, and ran round to the side of the bed, just as his uncle turned and faced him.
"Every blessed thing gone, boy. Why, Rodney, my lad, we have fallen into a den of thieves—robbed, and we may thank our stars we haven't been murdered!"
"Why, it's horrid, uncle! Didn't you hear them, then?"
"Hear them, no! I heard nothing till you knocked something off on to the floor. Here, stop a moment, boy! My purse! It was in my trousers pocket."
"Then it's gone, uncle," cried Rodd.
"Ah! Horror! My gold watch and seals!"
"Well, they weren't in your trousers, uncle."
"No, boy; I remember winding it up and laying it on the chimney-piece."
"It isn't there, uncle."
"My gold presentation watch, that I wouldn't have lost for five hundred pounds! Call up that wretched woman."
"Uncle, I can't!"
"Do as I tell you, sir! She's in league with the thieves."
"Oh yes, I forgot. There, don't stand staring there like a bull calf that has lost its mother. Turn that portmanteau upside down. Put on some things yourself, and throw me some more. You can dress quicker than I can, for you haven't got to shave. Look sharp, and then run for the village constable."
"Why, there isn't one, uncle," grumbled Rodd, as he began to scramble into his other clothes.
"No, of course there isn't, sir. A miserable one-eyed place with only two cottages in it, and I dare say that old woman's in the other, sharing the plunder? What a fool I was to come!"
"No, you weren't, uncle, and Mrs Champernowne isn't sharing the plunder, for she came and woke me up to say that the thieves had been and carried off everything there was down-stairs. I say, uncle, it was all your fault."
"Don't you dare to say that to me again, sir!" roared Uncle Paul. "It is insolent and disrespectful. Oh, hang the woman's door! Why didn't she bolt it herself? Why, I'd got twenty guineas in that purse, besides a lot of silver. There, there's somebody knocking at the door! Who's there?"
"Please, sir, it's me. They've taken the bread and the butter, and a piece of freshly-boiled ham that I meant for you to have cold."
"And pray who's they, madam?" shouted Uncle Paul, who was in difficulties with buttons.
"Well, sir, I was thinking it must be the smugglers. They've been here several times before, when they have been crossing the moor with cargo; but it couldn't be them, for they always leave a little box of tea or a bit of silk, to pay for what they take. It must have been thieves, sir—thieves."
"Yes, madam; and they have taken my purse and gold watch too, besides two suits of clothes. There, go on down. We'll join you soon. I want to think what's to be done."
The stairs creaked as Mrs Champernowne descended, and just then something caught Rodd's eye—something bright and shiny, against the leaves of a big old gazetteer lying upon the side-table.
Rodd uttered an ejaculation.
"Oh!" he exclaimed.
"Something more gone?" cried the Doctor.
"No, uncle; there's your watch. And here's your gold pencil-case too," continued the boy, as he raised the corner of the book. "Why, they have been turning the watch-ribbon into a marker, and somebody has been writing here on the fly-leaf."
"Thank goodness!" grunted Uncle Paul. "That's something saved out of the fire. Never mind the writing. But they have taken our clothes."
"It's in French, I think, uncle, but I can't quite make it out."
"French!" cried Uncle Paul fiercely. "Why, of course! How stupid! I might have known. We have been attacked in the night by a gang of old Napoleon's scum. That man's bound to be the curse of my life. Don't stand staring there, boy. Can't you see?"
"No, uncle," said the boy sturdily. "What nonsense! Napoleon couldn't have invaded England in the night to come and steal our clothes."
"Bah! Idiot! Can't you see it's some of those scoundrelly French prisoners who escaped yesterday? That vagabond of a boy perhaps that you pampered off and were feeding with our good English provisions. Now you see the consequences. The ungrateful rapparee—Oh no, but that's Irish, and he'd be French."
"Yes, uncle," said the boy thoughtfully, for his uncle's fulminations fell blankly upon his ears as he stood trying to puzzle out some of the pencilled words upon the fly-leaf of the book.
"Here's pardon, uncle, and something else I can't make out, and changer. Why, that means exchange! Yes, and lower down here's sous something, only it's written over 'John Champernowne' and 'his book'; but that's in ink. What does oreiller mean, uncle?"
"Bolster," said Uncle Paul. "No: pillow," and he turned involuntarily towards the bed, where, unperceived before, a scrap of something red peered from beneath the clean white pillow-case. "Under the pillow," said Uncle Paul, and stepping to the side of the bed he snatched up the soft down cushion deeply marked by the pressure of his head.
Catching up what lay beneath, he uttered a loud ejaculation and tapped it sharply against the bed-post.
"What have you got there, uncle?"
"Pickle, my boy, it's my twenty guineas that we thought they'd stolen. What in the name of forceps and lancets did they tie them up in this old silk rag for? It's a bit of a pocket-handkerchief."
"Why, uncle," cried Rodd, laughing, "it isn't going to be so bad, after all. Somebody's been having a game with us."
"Game, eh? Queer sort of a game, Pickle," cried Uncle Paul; and with very little effort he tore open the silk envelope and poured out a little heap of bright gold coins upon the bed. "Napoleons, by all that's wonderful!" he cried. "Exchange! I begin to see now, boy. He's taken my good gold money, whoever he is, and left this French trash. Here, give me that book. Mind—don't drop my watch."
"I have got it safe, uncle," replied the boy, handing the big book to his uncle.
"Humph!" grunted Uncle Paul. "Not quite such a scoundrel as he might have been, whoever it is that wrote it. Exchange, eh? But there's been no exchange about our clothes. Humph! All in French, of course. If he had been a gentleman, and he couldn't understand plain English, he would have written it in Latin. Bah! How I do hate that pernicketty French! Let's see—let's see. Oh yes, here it all is. Ask pardon for two poor prisoners trying to escape—um, um, um—years of misery. Generous Englishman—some day—remerciments. Ah, it's all scribbled horribly— in the dark, I suppose. Oh, he's signed it, though, Pickle. 'Des Saix, Comte.' Oh, there are two of them, then. The other's signed his name too—quite a different hand. 'Morny des Saix, Vicomte.' H'm! Well, I suppose they are gentlemen."
"Bah! Noblemen wouldn't do a thing like that!"
"What are those other words, uncle, under the last name?"
"Um—um—um! 'May God bless you for what you did to-day. Your friend till death.' Why, Pickle, you ought to have been able to read that yourself."
"I did, uncle, but I wanted to be sure that I was right. Why, that must have been the boy I helped to escape."
"Yes, and he dodged us home, and as good as robbed us."
"Oh, uncle! Shame!"
"How dare you, sir! What do you mean by it, Rodney? Do you forget who I am, sir?"
"And pray who am I then, sir?"
"Dear old Uncle Paul, who has got out of bed the wrong way this morning!"
"H'm—ha! Well, I suppose you are right, Pickle. I did feel in an awful temper; but I don't feel quite so bad now that I have found my watch."
"And pencil-case, uncle."
"Ah, yes, my boy. That was the gift of a very grateful old patient."
"And then there are all those gold napoleons, uncle."
"Bah! Trash! Base counters, good for nothing, like the ugly head that's upon them," cried Uncle Paul irascibly.
"But I say, uncle; it might have been worse."
"But the clothes, my boy! The scoundrels! They'll go masquerading about in our things, and escaping, I'll be bound. But stop a minute. What did he say about exchange?"
"Oh, that meant about the money."
"Hullo! There's that wicked old woman again!—Well, Mrs Champernowne, what is it now?"
"The wood-shed, sir."
"Well, I don't want the wood-shed. Light the fire yourself."
"You don't understand me, sir. I went round there to get some kindling, and there's quite a heap of old clothes there that these wicked people have left behind."
Uncle Paul chuckled, for he was beginning to beam again.
"I say, Pickle, that accounts for the milk in the cocoa-nut. They must have taken our things down into the old lady's wood-shed, and turned it into a dressing-room."
"Yes," cried Rodd; "and that young Viscount is quite welcome to mine."
"Most generous, I am sure, sir," cried Uncle Paul sarcastically, "but would you be kind enough to tell me who pays the bills for your clothes?"
"Why, you do, uncle, of course. But I say, uncle, I do hope they'll escape; don't you?"
"You do, uncle, only you pretend that you don't."
"Yes. Poor fellows! How horrible! To have to stoop to such a scheme as that to get away! But after all, uncle, it's glorious and brave. What an escape! Oh, how I should like to meet that poor fellow again!"
"What, to give him up to the soldiers?" said Uncle Paul sarcastically.
"Give him up to the soldiers!" cried the boy indignantly. "Why, I'd sooner put on his old clothes, and tell them a lie!"
"What!" cried Uncle Paul.
"Well, I'd pretend to be him so as to cheat them, and make them take me instead."
WHAT DOES THAT SERGEANT WANT?
"Humph!" grunted Uncle Paul, as they descended at last, to hear the fire crackling in the kitchen, and the bright old copper kettle singing its morning song.
It was a lovely morning, with the sweet scents of the garden and moor floating in at the little parlour window, and as Uncle Paul took what his irreverent nephew called a good long sniff, he slowly and ostentatiously, moved thereto by the sight of the clean white cloth and the breakfast things, hauled up his great gold watch and examined its face.
"Twenty-five minutes, thirty-seven seconds, past six, Pickle. Rather early for breakfast. Well, I suppose we must take things as they are; but I am very, very sorry that they took away my old coat; it was a great favourite. And those things of yours, sir, are much too good to go climbing about tors and wading in streams. I wish that Count had knocked at my door like a gentleman and asked me, as he should. He should have had this suit instead. I'd a deal rather he had it than my old shooting jacket."
"What are you laughing at, sir?"
"Uncle Paul eating his words."
"You mean, uncle, that if Count de Saix had come and knocked at the door and asked you to help him, you'd have called me up and sent me to the prison for the soldiers."
"Now look here, Rodney, that's impudence, sir, and—Ah! There's the microscope, and the slides and the glasses. Have they been disturbed?"
"No, uncle. Just as we left them. I almost wonder they didn't carry off all those hydras."
"Hydrae. Be careful about your Latin plurals. But look here, do you want me to box your ears?"
"Then don't give me any more of your impertinent allusions. Hum—hum— hum! Half-past six. Very early for breakfast. But I begin to feel a little appetitlich, as the Germans call it; don't you?"
"Oh no, uncle," said Rodd, very mildly. "You said last night that we had eaten enough to last twenty-four hours."
"Now, look here, Rodney, you had the impudence to tell me a short time ago that I'd got out of bed the wrong way. I am afraid it's you, sir, that have done that, and if you don't take care we shall be having a very serious quarrel.—There! Run, quick! That kettle's boiling over."
But Rodd was half-way to the kitchen, and had snatched the kettle off before his uncle had finished speaking, warned of what was happening as he had been by the first angry hiss.
"It's all right, uncle," he cried. "No harm done!"
"But what's become of that old woman? She ought to be here now, seeing about our breakfast."
"Here she comes, uncle," and through the window they could see their hostess hurrying back with a big basket from the direction of the neighbour's cottage, and the next minute they heard her setting her load upon her white kitchen-table.
"Oh, I didn't know you were down, gentlemen," she cried, as she hurried into the parlour. "I have been over to my neighbour's to see if she could help me now that I am in such a fix."
"Well, could she?" said Uncle Paul.
"Oh yes, sir. As luck had it, she was baking yesterday, and she had plenty of butter and eggs, besides a small ham which had just been smoked."
"Oh, come," said Uncle Paul, "we shall be able to keep you alive for a few days longer, Pickle; and I suppose you will soon be able to let us have breakfast, Mrs Champernowne?"
"Oh yes, sir, very quickly. I shall only want time to fry the ham."
Uncle Paul gave an involuntary sniff, as if the aroma of the fragrant brown had floated to his nostrils.
"But you can't tell, sir, how sorry I am that such a thing should have happened to gentlemen staying in my house;" and the poor woman looked appealingly to uncle and nephew, and back.
"Don't you say another word about it, madam," replied Uncle Paul. "You make us a nice clear cup of coffee to take away the taste of the night's adventures."
"I will indeed, sir, and I won't say another word, only thank you for taking it so patiently and, if I might make the observation, in such a lamb-like way."
Rodd turned round very quickly, walked to the window, and began to whistle softly.
"I went over this morning to my neighbour's, sir, as you may see by the basket."
"Yes, madam," said Uncle Paul, who was staring hard at his nephew's back and scratching one ear vigorously.
"I told her all about it, of course, sir, and her master was there having his breakfast before he went out peat-cutting, and if you'll believe me, sir, he did nothing but laugh, and said he knew it was the prisoners, sure enough, and he had the impudence to say that it was a great blessing that they came to my cottage instead of to his, and lucky for the prisoners too, for they'd got a better fit."
"Ah, yes, Mrs Champernowne," said Uncle Paul, pulling out his watch and frowning very hard in its face; "but do you think your neighbour's ham will be as good as yours?"
"Oh yes, sir—better, I expect, for it was a lovely little pig when it was fatted up and killed last Christmas; one of those little fat, short-legged, dunkey ones with turn-up snouts. My husband used to say they were the Chinese breed, and that was why the ham and bacon always went so well with China tea. You may depend upon that ham, sir, being beautiful."
"Very singular fact, Mrs Champernowne," said Uncle Paul blandly. "Then perhaps you wouldn't mind cutting the rashers a little thicker. I am rather ashamed of my nephew's appetite; but then you see he's only a hungry, growing boy."
Uncle Paul took out his watch again, and this time their landlady took the hint, and hurried into the kitchen, from which delicious odours soon began to escape, and in the midst of the examination upon the window-sill, where the bright sun lit up the lenses of the microscope, the magnified hydrae, with their buds and wondrous developments, were set aside, to be superseded by the morning meal.
"Ah, yes," said Uncle Paul, thoroughly mollified now by Mrs Champernowne's preparations, "there are worse disasters at sea, Pickle, and I'd worn that old coat off and on for a good many years."
"You couldn't have worn it off and on, uncle," said Rodd dryly.
"Look here, sir; if your mother, my dear sister, had had the slightest idea that you would have grown up into such an impertinent, two-edged-tongued young scrub, I don't believe she'd have died and left you in my charge. I suppose you meant that to be very witty, sir. Please understand that I was only speaking figuratively. Now we will just spend about an hour over those specimens, and then, as it is so beautiful and fine, we will be off on to the moor again. You will take your fishing-rod, of course?"
"Oh yes, uncle."
"Then turn up the bottoms of those trousers before we start."
"No, uncle; I shall put my leggings on over these," said Rodd coolly, "and I should advise you to do the same." Both Uncle Paul's ears seemed to twitch, and he scratched one as if it itched; but he said nothing, for just then Mrs Champernowne tapped at the door, to enter smiling, with a packet of letters.
"Postman, sir," she said, placing the letters upon the table. "You won't mind me speaking another word, sir?" she said.
"Oh no, Mrs Champernowne," said her visitor, rather gruffly. "What is it?"
"I think you told me, sir, that the prisoners did not take any of your valuables, your money, or anything of that sort?"
"No, Mrs Champernowne," cried Rodd eagerly. "They took uncle's money, but they left a lot of French napoleons instead."
Uncle Paul made a snatch at a very big blue letter, and darted a furious look at his nephew.
"I am very, very, very glad, sir," cried Mrs Champernowne, "and, poor things, they are to be pitied, after all."
She backed smilingly out of the room, and Uncle Paul held the big blue letter, which was doubly sealed with red wax, edgewise at his nephew, as if he were going to make a sword-cut at him.
"Now, look here, Rodney," he said; "it has been dawning upon me for a long time past that I have indulged and spoiled you, with the result that you are growing into a most impertinent young rascal. Have the goodness for the future, sir, to allow me to speak for myself. When I require your conversational assistance, I will ask you for it."
"Yes, uncle, and—"
"Well, sir, what?"
"Aren't you going to open that big letter, uncle? I want to know what's the news."
"What is it to you, sir?" cried Uncle Paul, who had been opening a very keen-looking, peculiarly-shaped, ivory-handled knife. "Have the goodness to let my business be my business. I have a very great mind to put this letter,"—and as he spoke he carefully cut round the seals—"and the other missives away in my writing-case until I am alone—" Here Uncle Paul unfolded a letter upon the top of which was stamped the Royal Arms, and smoothed it out upon the tablecloth—"and read it in peace, without being pestered by an impertinent boy. Bless my heart! Why, Pickle, my boy! Hark here! It's a letter from the Government. Jump up and shout, you young dog! Hang Bony and all his works! It's all right at last."
"Why, what is it?" cried the boy excitedly, as his uncle went on eagerly reading the bold round hand that formed the formal contents.
"Hark here! 'His Majesty's advisers see their way to recommend that the long-deferred grant for the sea-going natural history expedition to the West Coast of Africa to be carried out by Dr Robson at his earliest convenience be made, and that the grant to the full amount will be paid in to Dr Robson's bank as soon as formal application has been received.' There, sir, what do you think of that? At last! At last! Pickle, my boy, they say that everything comes at last to the man who waits, and here it is."
"Oh, Uncle Paul!" cried the boy, with sparkling eyes. "I am so glad—so glad!" And as he spoke he dashed at the reader, to catch him tightly by the two sides of the collar of his coat.
"Mind my clean cravat, Pickle."
"Bother your clean cravat, uncle!" shouted the boy. "Look here, sir; you always promised me that if ever that money came and you went on that expedition, you'd play fair."
"What do you mean, sir, by your playing fair?"
"You said, uncle," cried the boy, sawing the collar he held to and fro, "that I should be very useful to you, and could help you no end over the netting and dredging and bottling specimens, and that you'd take me with you."
"Ah," cried Uncle Paul, "that was when you were a nice, good, obedient boy, and hadn't learnt to say sharp impertinent things, and didn't go about setting free escaped prisoners and getting your uncle robbed."
"Gammon, uncle! I see through you, and—I say, what does that sergeant want?" For there was the tramp of heavy feet, and the non-commissioned officer who had been at the head of the squad of men they had met, marched past the cottage window.
"Eh? What?" exclaimed Uncle Paul excitedly.
"You don't mean that he is coming here?"
"He is, uncle," replied the boy nervously, and his colour began to go and come.
"Tut, tut, tut, tut!" ejaculated Uncle Paul. "This looks serious, my boy. Well, I don't know. Perhaps he's only heard of the visit that has been paid here."
"I beg pardon, sir; here is Mr Windell, one of the sergeants of the prison guard. Could he see you for a few minutes?"
"Well, I'm rather—Yes, yes, show him in, Mrs Champernowne. Rodney, my boy, you sit still and hold your tongue. I don't know what this man wants; but you leave it to me."
Rodd nodded his head, and fancied that he felt relieved, but he did not, for his heart was beating faster than usual, and he was suffering from a strange kind of emotion.
"Good-morning, gentlemen," said the sergeant, saluting stiffly as he was shown in.
"Good-morning," said Uncle Paul stiffly. "Do you wish to see me?"
"Yes, sir; only about a little matter upon the moor yesterday. After we left you I did not feel satisfied about those prisoners."
"Indeed?" said Uncle Paul coldly.
"No, sir. The governor yonder likes to have things thoroughly done, so about three hours afterwards I went over the ground again."
"Yes," said Uncle Paul, without taking his eyes from the sergeant's face.
"And there I found out something else."
Uncle Paul was silent, and Rodd's heart went on now in a steady thump—thump—thump—thump.
"Thought I'd come on, sir," said the sergeant, turning back to the door, going outside, and returning with Rodd's creel, which he slowly opened and took from within, neatly folded up, the canvas wallet. "Belong to you gentlemen, don't they?"
"Yes," said Uncle Paul slowly; "those are ours. Well?"
Rodd's heart now seemed to stand quite still till the sergeant replied to his uncle's query.
"That's all, sir; that's all," said the sergeant, and Rodd's heart went on again. "You had left them behind, and I thought I'd bring them on."
"Thank you," said Uncle Paul quietly. "Very good of you, and I am much obliged."
"Don't name it, sir. Going to have another fine day, and hope the young gentleman here will have plenty more sport. There's a lot of trout up there, only they are terrible small. Good-morning, gentlemen."
"Good-morning, sergeant," said Uncle Paul quietly, and Rodd's mouth opened a little and then shut, but no sound came. "Wait a moment, sergeant," continued Uncle Paul, thrusting his hand into his pocket and feeling about amongst some five-and-twenty or thirty coins, all of which felt too small, for he wanted a larger one; but feeling that, he took hold of three together, when something made him stop short with his hand half out of his pocket, and he thrust it back again. "Dear me," he said, quickly now, "I really have no change."
"Oh, there's no need for that, sir," said the sergeant.
"Yes, yes," said Uncle Paul. "Rodd, my boy, have you half-a-crown in your pocket?"
"I think so, uncle," said the boy quickly; and then his face looked blank. "No, uncle; I haven't anything at all," he cried in dismay.
"Oh, pray don't mind, sir," said the sergeant, moving to the door. "Good-morning, sir; good-morning. I don't want paying for a little thing like that."
"Stop, please," said Uncle Paul hurriedly. "Rodd, my boy, go and ask Mrs Champernowne if she'll be kind enough to lend me half-a-crown."
Rodd hurried out, feeling exceedingly hot, and with a peculiar moisture in the palms of his hands, returning directly afterwards with the required coin, though the unexpected demand had made their landlady open her eyes rather widely.
"There, that's right, sergeant," said Uncle Paul, "and I am sure my nephew is much obliged. He wouldn't have liked to lose that creel."
"Thank you, sir. Very glad I found it. Good-morning once more."
The man saluted both, giving Rodd a very peculiar look which seemed to go through him, and then turning upon his heels, he marched out of the room and shut the door, while Uncle Paul sank back in his chair, took out a clean red and yellow silk handkerchief, and wiped his forehead.
"Rodney, my boy," he said, "I felt as if we had been doing something underhanded, and nearly brought out three of those napoleons to pay that man."
"Oh, uncle," said the boy huskily; "it would have been like telling him that the poor fellows had been here."
"Yes, my boy, and that you had been helping them to escape."
"Oh!" ejaculated Rodd, and he darted to the window. "No," he gasped, with a sigh of relief. "He's gone."
"Well, we knew he'd gone, boy."
"Yes, uncle, but I was afraid that he'd stop talking to Mrs Champernowne, and she would tell him about their coming here. But he didn't stop, and he has gone right away."
"Hah!" ejaculated Uncle Paul. "Well, you see how near we have been to getting into trouble with the authorities; for of course they are very strict over such things as these. There, now I must write an important letter to send off in acknowledgment of that despatch; so you be off now for about half-an-hour, and go and play like a good boy."
"Yes, uncle," said Rodd, rather grumpily; and he went slowly out, with the intention of getting somewhere on to the high ground where he could watch the sergeant's red coat till he was out of sight. "I wish Uncle Paul wouldn't talk to me like that," he muttered, as he went out of the garden gate. "Go out and play like a good boy! It does make me feel so wild! He'll be saying good little boy next, and I am past sixteen; and he wasn't doing it to tease me either, for he was quite serious, what with the prisoners, and the sergeant coming like that. Bother him! He looked at me as he went away just as if he suspected that I'd left the sandwiches and the fish where that poor fellow could get them. Here, I mustn't let him see that I am following him. I'll go round by that other track and get up behind those stones. Then I can see the whole way to the prison. Oh, he didn't know anything, or else he'd have spoken out. But that's the worst of doing what you oughtn't to. You always feel as if everybody suspects you. Well, I didn't want to do any harm, and Uncle Paul didn't think it was very wrong, in spite of his grumbling about the French. If he had he wouldn't have called me Pickle. It would have been Rodney, and his voice would have sounded very severe, for he can be when he likes. Spoiled and indulged me! That he hasn't!"
The ascent was so steep by the track he had chosen that the boy was soon high above the cottages, hurrying along by a ridge of stones which led up to what looked like a young tor, so situated that it sheltered the two cottage gardens, and the enclosed field or two where the neighbour's cow was pastured, from the north and east wind, and also acted as a lew for Mrs Champernowne's bees, which could reach their straw hive homes comfortably without being blown out by the wanton breezes which travelled across the moors.
Rodd was pretty well out of breath when he reached the little tor, and so he drew in a fresh supply as he dropped upon his knees and crawled round the last stone to his proposed look-out, feeling certain he would be able to see the sergeant's bright scarlet coat with its white belts, as he marched straight away for the prison.
He did see him, but not so far off as he had anticipated, and the sight took his breath completely away again, for as he crept round he became conscious of a peculiar scent that was not wild thyme but tobacco, and before he realised what it was, he came plump face to face with their late visitor, who was seated upon the soft close turf with his back against a stone, basking in the sunshine, and evidently enjoying a rest.
"Here we are again, then, sir!" he cried, in his sharp military way. "I thought I'd just sit down here for a bit on the chance that you might come up and like to have a word or two to say to me."