TWO LITTLE TRAVELLERS
A Story for Girls
(FRANCES BROWNE ARTHUR)
Author of "For Gilbert's Sake," "John Carew's Daughter," &c., &c.
Thomas Nelson and Sons London, Edinburgh, and New York 1903
"Oh! there's nothing on earth half so holy As the innocent heart of a child."
TO MY CHILDREN
I. UNDER THE CEDAR TREE
II. LEFT BEHIND!
III. THE BABES IN THE WOOD
IV. FAR, FAR AWAY!
V. GONE AMISSING!
VI. THE CRUISE OF H.M.S. "DREADNOUGHT"
VII. HILL DIFFICULTY
VIII. BAMBO AND BRUNO
IX. THE NEXT MORNING
X. THE HAPPY LAND
XI. A SUDDEN FLIGHT
XII. FOLLOWED BY THE ENEMY
XIII. A TERRIBLE FRIGHT
XIV. AT EVENING TIME
XV. BAMBO'S FRIEND
XVI. COMING AND GOING
TWO LITTLE TRAVELLERS.
UNDER THE CEDAR TREE.
"There are twelve months throughout the year, From January to December, And the primest month of all the twelve Is the merry month of September! Then apples so red Hang overhead, And nuts, ripe-brown, Come showering down In the bountiful days of September!"
It was pleasant under the shade of the huge cedar tree on the lawn at Firgrove that golden Sunday afternoon. It was autumn, really and truly, going by the calendar at the back of the small cat-eared diary which Darby had coaxed from his father and always carried in his pocket. Yet the sunshine was so bright and warm, the birds were singing so joyously in the thickets, the rooks cawed so loudly as they wheeled and circled like a dense black battalion at drill up against the cloudless blue of the sky, that it was hard to believe the diary people had not made a mistake in their reckonings or stupidly mixed their dates.
Indeed, one would have been quite sure they had done something of the sort, and that it was still summer, only for the unmistakable signs and tokens of harvest that everywhere met the eye. In the fields on the hillside sloping up to meet the sky there were stooks of rich, ripe, yellow grain still standing, waiting to be carted home to Mr. Grey's stackyard, and there heaped into high domed castles round which children loved to play or linger silently, watching the sleek dun mice that darted so swiftly hither and thither, planning for themselves such glorious games in and out and round about their well-stocked store-houses amongst the crisp, rustling corn. Red-cheeked apples, dark-skinned winter pears ripened slowly on the orchard trees. Big bronze plums and late Victorias mellowed against the garden wall. And now and then when a breeze, gentle as the flutter of a fairy's wing, fanned the branches of the stately spreading lime tree that was comrade of the shining cedar on the lawn, there dropped on the grass border beside the tall hollyhocks a pale dry leaf, falling softly to the earth from which it grew, silently as a tired bird sinks to her nest amongst the clover blooms of summer.
On a wide wooden seat beneath the sheltering branches of the cedar tree Captain Dene sat with his little ones close beside him. They were very close to him indeed—as close as they could come: for Darby was bunched up on the bench, legs and all, with his head tucked under his father's elbow; while Joan was folded in his arms so tightly that the golden tangle of her shining curls mingled with the deeper hue of the dark cropped head which bent so lovingly over hers.
And no wonder that those three cuddled so close together this balmy September afternoon. No wonder they looked sad in spite of the sunbeams that boldly forced their way through the spikes on the cedar branches in long, slanting shafts of light that rested lovingly on Joan's burnished hair like the tender touch of caressing fingers. And no wonder, either, if they were all three silent—not because there was nothing to say, but because there were so many things they wanted to speak about, and yet the words would not come. For on the morrow, early in the morning, at day-dawn even, when the birds should be yet only half awake in their nests, while Darby and Joan should be still sleeping in their cribs disturbed by neither dream nor fear, their father was to leave them. He must be up and away to join the company of brave fellows who called him captain, and with them go aboard the big transport ship that even then was lying at anchor in Southampton Water, waiting to carry them, with many of their comrades, away, away—far, far away!—over the sweeping, separating sea, to fight for their beloved Queen and country amidst perils and privations on the wide, lonely veldts of South Africa.
How were they to live without him—the dear, darling daddy who had been to them father and mother for almost a year now? And that is a long time to little children, a large slice from the lives of such mites as Joan and Darby Dene. Darby was not quite seven, with thick, short brown hair and great gray eyes. Joan was five. Her hair was long and curly; it had a funny trick of falling over her face in golden tangles, from which her eyes, velvety as the heart of a pansy, blinked out solemnly like stars from the purple darkness of a summer night: while her cheeks were exactly the colour of the China roses that bloomed so freely, month in month out, about the porch at Grannie Dene's front door.
Their names were not really Darby and Joan. They had been baptized Guy and Doris; but their father had begun to call them Darby and Joan when they were tiny toddlers, just for fun, because they were such devoted chums; and after a time nearly every one called them by these names, even their mother. Only grannie, who was very much of an invalid, and whom in consequence they did not often visit, kept to Guy and Doris. But for that they should soon have forgotten that these charming names were actually theirs.
Their mother had died about nine months previously, just before Christmas, shortly after the birth of baby Eric, the wee, fragile brother whom Perry, the careful, kindly nurse, seemed always hushing to sleep and rarely permitted the others to touch. Already Joan had ceased to remember her mother, except at odd times, and in a hazy sort of fashion; and to Darby it appeared quite a great while since that day when he had heard the servants say to each other that their mistress was dead.
It was a bright, crisp winter day outside—Darby knew, because he had been sliding on the pond behind the barrack wall quite early after breakfast—but inside the house it was chill and gloomy; for all the blinds were down, and every room seemed strange and still.
At twilight their father came up to the nursery. He stood for a minute or two looking down upon Joan lying asleep in her crib. Then he took Darby in his arms, and drawing a low chair close to the window, together they sat there until from the fleckless blue of the frosty sky the little stars shone out one by one, twinkling soft bright eyes towards Darby as if to say, "Good-night, you poor little motherless lamb! Go to bed; sleep sound, and we shall watch your pillow the whole night through."
But these memories were nearly a year old now. Already they were becoming less vivid in Darby's mind, and being gradually pushed aside in order to leave room in the storehouse for more recent impressions. Many things had happened since then. Baby Eric had grown from a tiny pink morsel into quite an armful, Nurse Perry declared, and a heavy handful as well, whatever that meant. They had dwelt in different places, too, during that time; because when the regiment moved the officers also moved, and Captain Dene kept his motherless children as constantly with him as it was possible to do. Recently, however, it had become no longer possible—quite impossible, in fact—for Captain Dene's company was under orders for active service in South Africa. Darby and Joan would have been more than willing to accompany their father to the ends of the earth, riding at the tail of a baggage-wagon, seated on a gun-carriage, or perched on the hump of a camel. But Captain Dene only smiled and shook his head at the eager little ones. Then he made for them the best arrangement that circumstances permitted.
In consequence, just the previous Thursday he had brought his three children, with Perry their nurse, to Firgrove, where they were to remain during his absence, under the care and guardianship of his own two aunts, the Misses Turner.
Aunt Catharine and Auntie Alice, as Darby and Joan were told to call the maiden ladies (who in the children's eyes looked old enough to be the grandmothers of all the young folks in the neighbourhood around their country home), were sisters of Captain Dene's mother. They were not really old at all, although Aunt Catharine's thick black hair was shaded by a lace cap, and in Auntie Alice's nut-brown waves there were streaks of silver that lent a chastened charm to her faded face. Firgrove was their birthplace, and there in his boyhood Captain Dene had spent many a happy holiday.
Auntie Alice was a little, slender body, whose gentle voice and quiet ways just matched her meek brown eyes; while Aunt Catharine was a tall and stately lady, with a prim, severe manner, and a fixed belief in the natural naughtiness of all children, whom she kept down accordingly. And although he knew how truly good and kind she was at heart, Captain Dene wondered somewhat anxiously how Darby's unbroken spirit would bear the curb of such strict, stern rule. But there was Auntie Alice as well, and Captain Dene smiled as he remembered how she had petted and indulged him in his juvenile days. The aunts between them, like John Gilpin's bottles, would keep the balance true. The children would be all right. Besides, he did not expect to be very long away—six months or a year at most. The time would soon pass, and when he came home from Africa he would have his little ones to live with him again, until Darby should be old enough for school at any rate.
"If I could but wake and find it a dream! But I can't—oh, what shall I do? It's only the good things that change and seem, The bad ones are always true. And miracles never happen now, And the fairies all are fled; And mother's away, and the world somehow Is dark—and Flopsy's dead!"
M. A. WOODS.
The group on the lawn had been silent for a long time—far too long, thought Darby, who liked to use his tongue freely as well as his sturdy little legs.
At length Joan raised her head from its resting-place on her father's shoulder, and flinging her arms round his neck, she burst into a storm of sobs.
"Daddy, daddy!" she cried, "we can't do wifout you. Don't go away and leave me and Darby all alone!"
"I must go, my pet," replied Captain Dene gravely. "I am a soldier, dear, and soldiers must obey orders. Besides, I am not leaving you alone. You shall have the aunts to take care of you. They will know better how to look after a wee girlie than a great blundering fellow like father."
"You isn't a great blun'rin' fellow; you's my own dearest, sweetest daddy!" declared Joan warmly. "And I doesn't want no aunties. Auntie Alice is nice, but we doesn't love Aunt Catharine one teeny-weeny bit.—Sure we doesn't, Darby?"
"Joan!" exclaimed Darby in a shocked tone, although he smiled as he peeped in the direction of the front door, for already he had learned that Aunt Catharine had a trick of pouncing upon him when he least expected. It was embarrassing, to say the least of it, and Darby disliked it greatly.
Captain Dene pulled at his moustache as though puzzled how to act. He quite understood how little there was about his aunt's grim presence to attract a soft little creature like Joan—for a while at least. After a time he knew things would be on a freer footing between them; therefore he thought it better to take no notice of his small daughter's frankly-spoken sentiments, and after a pause he said,—
"You are forgetting Eric, surely. He will soon be old enough to play with you, and you must be very gentle with him, you know."
"Baby!" cried Joan in fine scorn. "Why, how could we play wif him? he doesn't know no games."
"I think you needn't count much on Eric, father," put in Darby wisely; "he's nearly always sleeping or crying, and nurse hardly ever lets us touch him. It's because he's delikid, she says. So when you're away there'll just be Joan and me," added the little lad sorrowfully.
Suddenly Joan spoke again, asking a question that awoke afresh the pain at her father's heart—a pain so sharp, so deep-seated as to be at times almost unbearable.
"When you have to go away in the big ship wif the solgers, why did mamsie not stay and take care of us? Other chil'ens has nice lovely muvers. Why have we none, daddy?"
Why, ah, why?
"Does she not love us any more, father?" whispered Darby, in broken, quivering tones—Darby, who remembered his fair young mother as one remembers a pleasing dream.
"Will she never come back no more? Shall we not see her again—never, never?" asked Joan shrilly.
"Listen to me, my darlings," said Captain Dene, in a solemn, earnest voice, after a pause, during which he wondered how he should answer his children's questions. "Mother has gone to live with God in heaven. Her body was tired and worn out, and in a way it had grown too small for the spirit within. And just as you leave off wearing your garments when they grow shabby or small, and father provides you with new things, so mother has left her weary, frail body behind and gone to God, the great and loving Father of all, where she shall be clothed anew."
"But wasn't she put in the ground, father?" asked Darby the doubting. "I 'member quite well seeing a big, long box with brass handles and flowers and wreaths and things, and nurse and Hughes said it was mother."
"You silly!" struck in Joan sharply. "That wasn't weally muver; it was only the bit of her that used to be tired and sick and have headiks. But the thinkin' place and the part of her that used to say 'Joan, darlin',' and 'Darby, my son,' in such a cuddlin' kind of voice, and—and—why, just all the lovin' bit of mamsie is up in heaven!—Isn't I correc', daddy?" she demanded confidently.
"Quite correct, dear," replied the father, fondly kissing the flower-like face upturned to his.
"And will we ever see her again?" asked Darby, who was feeling somewhat snubbed. "You are not telling us that, father, and that's what I want most partikler to know," he added, with a pathetic sigh, behind which there lay a whole world of longing.
"Yes, my boy," answered Captain Dene promptly; "but not here! You shall never see her again in the house or about the garden, at prayer-time or for good-night. Yet she has merely gone out of our sight; she is often with us, I believe, although we cannot see her. And by-and-by, I do not know when or how soon," he added, thinking of the cruel warfare in which he was about to take his share, "if you try to be brave and true, and kind and loving to every one, you also shall go to dwell with God in that happy, beautiful home where mother waits to clasp her dear ones again in an embrace from which they shall never be separated."
Darby's eyes were raised to the sky with an expression so rapt, so exalted, so pure, as if he were already beholding the glories of the heavenly land. But Joan had still some more questions to ask.
"Will God—or wouldn't it be politer to say Mr. God? No?" as her father shook his head. "Well, will He send an angel to fetch us to heaven when He wants us?"
"Yes, dear; and when His messenger comes for us we must make no delay," replied Captain Dene softly.
"And will He let me take Miss Carolina, my dolly, wif me, and the pussies?" queried Joan eagerly.
"Well, no, I hardly think so," said her father, with a sympathetic smile, for he understood perfectly how hard it is this leaving behind of friends and possessions. Did not the Master Himself foresee the trial when He enjoined His followers, "Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth"?
"But Jesus will give you something far better than toys or kittens, my darling," continued Captain Dene—"more beautiful than I can either imagine or describe. There will be pleasures of which you shall never weary."
Joan thought hard for a minute, with a pucker in her white brow. Then she slid from her father's knee and snatched up a shabby, battered doll that was lying on the grass beside the bench, and clasping it tightly to her breast, she delivered her decision,—
"I doesn't want no new fings. I wants my sweet Miss Carolina and the pussies. So please tell dear Lord Jesus that He needn't trouble to get anyfing ready, 'cause Joan isn't comin'."
The father gently stroked his little daughter's hair, but he said nothing. What if God's last message to him were to come through the muzzle of a Mauser rifle? Should it find him any more willing to leave his motherless babes behind than was Joan to forsake her favourites?
"Now, chicks," he resumed, trying hard to speak cheerfully, "there is Aunt Catharine at the door. It is your tea-time, I expect, and children's bedtime comes early at Firgrove, as I know," he added, smiling into Darby's wistful wee face. "But before you go in I want you to sing me something that I shall think of when I am far away."
And in their clear, piping treble, with now and again a deeper note from their father to carry them on, the little ones sang a favourite hymn, the key-note of which, so to speak, dwelt with Captain Dene during many a weary day and sleepless night,—
"Ever journeying onward, Guided by a star."
Early next morning Darby had a queer dream. He dreamt that his father came to his bedside, bent down, and kissed him repeatedly.
Was it a dream? Darby wondered, as he slowly awoke, sat up in bed, and rubbed his eyes. Then suddenly he remembered that this was the day the dear daddy was to leave them; or what if he were already gone!
Daylight had not yet come, but from a table in the far corner of the nursery the night-lamp still glimmered faintly. Darby sprang to the floor, calling loudly on Joan to come quick—quick. Together they trotted downstairs. The breakfast-room was empty. From the drawing-room, whither she had gone to have a good cry, came Auntie Alice, with tears running down her cheeks, while close behind her sailed Aunt Catharine. She was wrapped in a big, soft white shawl, and there was a curious redness round her eyes, as if she had a cold in her head. But father was not to be seen!
"You poor dears!" murmured Auntie Alice, throwing tender arms around their little white-gowned forms.
"Who allowed you to come downstairs at this time in the morning?" demanded Aunt Catharine, eyeing the pair severely over the rims of her spectacles; "and in your night-clothes, too! 'Pon my word!"
Then Darby knew that his dream had been no dream, but a sad reality, and father was, in very truth, gone! So drawing Joan along with him up-stairs, they both cuddled into Darby's bed, where, clasped in each other's arms, they sobbed themselves to sleep again.
* * * * *
Firgrove was a charming old place. It had belonged to the Turners for generations; but as Aunt Catharine and Auntie Alice were the last of the family, after them it would come to Captain Dene. The house had originally been a square eight-roomed cottage, built of plain gray stone; but one Turner after another had, either for convenience or display, added a wing here, a story there, until it had been turned into a handsome, roomy residence. From the outside it looked rather picturesque, with windows framed in ivy, clematis and wistaria peeping out of the most unexpected places, chimney-stalks shooting up from the least likely corners. Inside, the same surprises awaited one. No two rooms were similar in size, scarcely any exactly the same in shape. There were passages here, recesses there; steps leading down to this apartment, up to that; with curtained doors and draperies in such abundance that the children found within their shelter the most delightful hiding-places imaginable. And many a romp and game they had, in which once in a while Auntie Alice joined, when Aunt Catharine was not anywhere about to be disturbed by the noise or shocked at her sister's levity.
Out of doors there were other delights which Darby and Joan at first felt they could never exhaust. In the stable Billy, the fat pony, munched and snoozed every day and all day long, except when occasionally he was harnessed into the basket-carriage to take the aunties for a drive, or ambled into the meadow, where Strawberry and Daisy, the meek-eyed Alderney cows, browsed at will over the sweet, juicy after-grass. There were big, soft-breasted Aylesbury ducks on the pond, fowls in the yard, pigeons in the dovecot so tame that they would perch on Auntie Alice's shoulder and peck the grains of corn from between her lips; and up in the loft above the stable there lived a cat, called Impy, who was the proud and watchful mother of three dear little kittens, as black, as soft, as sleek as herself.
Behind the house was the garden, a peaceful old-world spot, with its prim gravelled paths, boxwood borders, holly hedges, and wealth of vegetables, fruit, and flowers. There Green, the deaf old gardener, reigned supreme, not always paying heed to Aunt Catharine herself. And there also, in a sheltered corner, stood Auntie Alice's beehives, around which the small, busy brown bees buzzed and droned from dawn till dark, laying up their stores of rich golden honey that was to supply the little ones with many a toothsome morsel. Then there was the lawn with its velvety sward, spreading shrubs, and stately cedar; and at the back of the buildings, beyond the garden to the right, sloped the fields of Copsley Farm; while to the left, lying in a gentle hollow, there uprose the dark massed pines of Copsley Wood.
Darby and Joan were not allowed to go beyond the boundaries of Firgrove alone or without special permission, but within their limits they wandered about free as air. It was their father's express wish that they should not be molly-coddled in any way, and, indeed, nurse had little leisure to look after them. Her time was chiefly occupied with baby Eric, who, although improving, was still delicate and fretful, and seemed to find the difficulty of cutting his teeth, and life in general, almost too much for him. Aunt Catharine's notion of the needs of children began and ended with giving them plenty of plain, wholesome food, seeing that they went early to bed, were properly clothed, and knew their Catechism thoroughly. She instructed Darby and Joan for an hour each morning in the mysteries of reading, writing, and counting. She drilled them most conscientiously in the commandments, and always with the "forbiddens" attached. She hedged them about with "don'ts", and believed she was teaching them obedience. And when the tasks were done, and the books put away for the day, it would have been hard to say whether the teacher or the taught uttered the heartier thanksgiving. Then, believing that she had done everything that duty demanded of her, Aunt Catharine felt herself free to attend to her prize poultry, her poor women, and parish meetings.
Auntie Alice loved the little ones dearly. She enjoyed their chatter and a romp with them now and again. But she had not been used to children; she was actually shy of them! She fancied they might be happier without her, so she kept mostly to the company of her piano, her books, and her bees, and the little people were left very much to their own devices.
As long as the weather was fine enough they almost lived out of doors, and were perfectly happy; but when it "broke," as country folks say—when the heavy autumn rain beat against the nursery window, and the wind shook and swayed the cedar tree on the lawn until it sighed and moaned as if in sorrow for the death of summer—then they longed for the dear, loving daddy with a longing that was almost pain! They had letters from him as often as was possible. Darby wrote in reply, and Joan covered a piece of paper with pot-hangers, with a whole string of odd-looking blots at the end, which she said were kisses and her message for daddy. Letter-writing, however, especially if one does not write easily, is but a poor substitute for speech. It did not seem to bring their father close to them as he came in conversation.
And so it happened, exactly as Darby had foreseen, that now since he was gone there were just the two of them left—Darby and Joan!
THE BABES IN THE WOOD.
"'What are you singing of, soft and mild, Green leaves, waving your gentle hands? Is it a song for a little child, Or a song God only understands?'
Answered the green leaves, soft and mild, Whispered the green leaves, soft and clear,— 'It is a song for every child, It is a song God loves to hear; It is the only song we know, We never question how or why. 'Tis not a song of fear or woe, A song of regret that we must die; Ever at morn and at eventide This is our song in the deep old wood,— "Earth is beautiful, heaven is wide; And we are happy, for God is good!"'"
F. E. WEATHERLY.
"Have you anything for us to do, Auntie Alice?" said Darby Dene one day, after he had watched Aunt Catharine safely into the fowl-house to have a look at her Brahmas.
It was a still, bright afternoon in October, when the ripe apples were dropping from the trees in the garden, and up at Copsley Farm Mrs. Grey's turkeys wandered at will over the stubble whence the grain had all been carted and built into stacks beside the farmyard.
"Do say that you can think of something, please," pleaded the boy—"a message or anything. We are so tired of the garden, and the lawn, and the swing, and—and—everything.—Aren't we, Joan?"
"Yes, werry, werry tired," agreed Joan with ready assent. She always did agree with everything that Darby said. He was her model, her hero, who, in Joan's eyes, could do no wrong.
"I'm afraid I cannot invent or suggest any fresh occupation for you just now," answered Auntie Alice, smiling down into the eager upturned faces beside her knee. "Would you not run away and have a romp with pussy? she is frolicking with her kittens in the garden, quite close to the tool-house."
"We were playing with pussy for ever so long, and look there!" said Darby, holding up for his aunt's inspection one small brown and not over-clean hand. Across the back of it ran a long, straight scratch from which the blood was slowly oozing. "That's what pussy did! That's why we left her, and why we don't want to go back to the garden."
Darby's tone was so rueful, his expression one of such patient forbearance towards base treachery, that his aunt laughed outright. Yet she kissed the wounded hand again and again, whispering gently the while,—
"Poor Darby! poor little hand! and poor pussy too!" she added below her breath. For she guessed correctly that pussy—who was in general a long-suffering animal—must have been sorely beset when she used her claws in defence of herself or the rights of her family.
"If you really haven't an errand, won't you just invent one, auntie?" persisted Darby. Then suddenly he cried, while his face beamed with the happiness of the thought that had struck him, "May we go up to the farm and see Mrs. Grey? Oh, do say 'yes,' Auntie Alice!"
"Well, I'm sure I don't know. Perhaps we should hear what Aunt Catharine thinks. Still, I suppose you might," decided Auntie Alice, her hesitation overcome by the pleading look in Darby's eyes.
"Oh, thank you, thank you, dear Auntie Alice!" said both children in a breath, flinging themselves in ecstasy upon their aunt. She, however, did not like to have her delicate ribbons crumpled by smudgy, sticky little hands; so she gently withdrew herself from their embrace, shaking a warning finger playfully at the pair as she gave them a caution,—
"You must not stay too long or tease Mrs. Grey, either of you."
"We shan't stay very long," promised Darby; "and Mrs. Grey says we never tease her."
"Mrs. Grey hasn't got no chil'ens of her own to play wif and 'muse her, and that's why she likes Darby and me to go and talk to her whiles," explained Joan sagely, looking up at her aunt through the mop of golden curls which shaded her big blue eyes.
"Is that the reason? Well, since you are going, you might just bring those Cochin eggs with you that Mrs. Grey promised us. Your aunt Catharine was speaking about them a little ago. Wait a minute, and I'll hear what she says," and Auntie Alice made as if she would follow her sister to the fowl-house.
"Oh, please don't!" cried Darby wildly, clutching with both hands at his aunt's gown in order to stay her steps. "She'll be sure not to let us. She'll ask if we've learned our Catechism, and send us to wash our hands or change our clothes, or—or something. You know how she does, Auntie Alice!"
Yes, Alice Turner knew her elder sister's little way very well indeed, and because of this she yielded to Darby's importunity.
"Dear, dear, what a droll boy you are!" and by the way she spoke the youngsters knew that they had won their way. "Off with you both, then, quick! Take my white basket out of the breakfast-room, and see that you carry the eggs carefully, or I'm afraid we shall all get into trouble."
"Which way shall we go?" asked Darby, gleefully swinging the basket about his head. "May we go through the fields, Auntie Alice? The ground is quite dry to-day, and the path is ever so much nicer than the road past Copsley Wood."
"You may go through the fields, dear; but come back by the road. You might break the eggs if you were to return the field way; there are so many stiles to climb. And listen to me, chickabiddies," continued Auntie Alice earnestly. "You must not on any account go into the wood; it is not a safe place for children."
"Why?" demanded Darby in astonishment, for he had little or no fear of any living thing—man or beast.
"I need not detain you now, dear, to explain further than to say that there are sometimes rough people about who might think it rather funny to behave rudely to unprotected little children."
"Don't you know there's bears in Copsley Wood, and lions and tigers and effelants, and—and—oh, heaps of drefful fings!" explained Joan, as glibly as if she had in person penetrated the many mysteries that—to her infant mind—were hidden in the cool, dark depths of the old pine wood.
"Nonsense!" and Darby smiled in scorn of his sister's ignorance.—"Do you hear her, Auntie Alice?—Why, you little goose, don't you know that there aren't any bears, or lions, or tigers, or elephants in this country? If we were in a lonely part of Africa, we might see some; but there's only rabbits and squirrels and perhaps wild cats in Copsley Wood.—Isn't she a silly, Auntie Alice?"
"I'm not a silly!" said Joan stoutly.—"Sure I isn't, Auntie Alice?"
"No, child; and you are quite right to be shy of the wood," answered her aunt gravely. "And now, if you want to go to the farm to-day, you had better be off. I think I hear Aunt Catharine coming!"
Her caution came too late, however, for in another instant Aunt Catharine was upon them.
"What is it now?" she demanded, glancing from one to another of the guilty-looking group.—"What are you doing with that basket, Darby?"
"I—we—Joan and me were going up to the farm to see Mrs. Grey," faltered Darby. "And please, please, Aunt Catharine, don't say we aren't to get!"
"We's goin' to bring your Cochin eggs," added Joan sweetly.
"I hope you won't mind, sister," struck in Auntie Alice, in her soft, timid voice, "but I gave them leave to go. And I thought they might as well fetch the eggs when they are coming back."
"Alice Turner! when do you mean to grow up?" exclaimed Aunt Catharine, in withering accents. "Is it that boy you expect to carry a basket of eggs? Those fidgets! Why, they'll leave the half of them on the road or sit on them by the way!"
"We willn't sit on them," said Joan stoutly. "Jetty shall sit on them, and they'll turn into dear, soft, fluffy chickens! Willn't they, Aunt Catharine?"
Aunt Catharine did not answer directly, but she looked as if she did not feel quite so sure of results as Joan.
"We'll be very, very careful, indeed!" promised Darby earnestly; and Joan echoed likewise, "Werry, werry careful!"
"Well, well; since your Auntie Alice has already given permission, I shall not prevent you, and I must admit I am in a hurry for the eggs. Jetty is making a terrible to-do over a solitary china one in her nest. But if they are broken or shaken—"
There Aunt Catharine paused; yet her listeners perfectly understood what she did not say.
"And remember, children, what has been so often said to you about Copsley Wood. You are not to go there on any pretext whatever! Do you understand?"
"Yes, Aunt Catharine; and we've promised Auntie Alice already," replied Darby meekly.
"Very well; see that you keep your promise, my boy. You always say that you forgot when you have been disobedient, but you are both old enough to do as you are told. And I should not be doing my duty if I did not try to teach you," added Aunt Catharine significantly, as she bent and kissed the little ones good-bye.
"And that just means that she'll punish us badly the next time we're naughty," explained Darby to Joan, as they clambered over the stile at the foot of Mr. Grey's turnip field. "Well, I shouldn't mind greatly if it wasn't putting to bed. I do hate going to bed; don't you, Joan?"
"Yes, werry much; for they're always sure to come for us when we'se not ready, nurse or Aunt Catharine! They seem to know 'zactly when we're in the middle of somefin' awful nice, and then they says, 'Bedtime, chil'ens!' Oh, it's just ho'wid!"
Joan puckered up her pretty face so comically in imitation of nurse's worried expression, and mimicked Aunt Catharine's lofty tones so cleverly, that Darby clapped his hands in delight and admiration. Then they raced each other along the breezy headland, across the sweet-smelling stubble field, through the stackyard and the orchard, until, flushed and breathless, they stood beside the mistress in the cool, red-tiled dairy of Copsley Farm.
Mrs. Grey was always well pleased to see the little folks from Firgrove, and made them warmly welcome; just as, in the long-ago days, she had welcomed their father when he too found it a relief sometimes to slip away from the prim precision of his aunts' establishment, and come rushing up the hill to count the calves, tease the turkey-cock, ride the donkey, plague the maids, and generally enjoy himself to his heart's content. She dearly loved children although, as Joan said, she had none of her own; and the day always seemed brighter to her when Darby and Joan came flying over the fields to pay her one of their frequent visits.
There was a new donkey at the farm in those days, and as neither of the children was particular about a saddle, they rode him in turn until Neddy rose in revolt—actually, with his heels in the air!—or lay down, which was more hopeless still; for once he did that they knew that he, for one, had frolicked enough, that day, at any rate. But there were other things. They played hide-and-seek round the stacks with Scott the huge collie, who was so gentle that he would allow Joan to put her fingers in his eyes or pull his big bushy tail. They gathered apples in the orchard, hazel nuts in the copse, late blackberries from the hedge at the back of the stackyard; and they watched the pigs at their afternoon meal until Joan turned away in disgust, declaring that "the dirty fings should be teached better manners, and made to sup their pow'idge wif a spoon!"
Then, when the sun was sinking low in the west, and they had feasted to their complete satisfaction on all the dainties that their hostess loved to set before them, it was time to return to Firgrove.
Mrs. Grey put into Darby's hand the shallow basket of round brown eggs, with two tiny white ones on the top for themselves that had been laid by Specky, the lovely black-and-buff bantam. Then, with many kisses and warnings to be careful, she set the happy pair upon their homeward way.
They took turns at carrying the basket, and paused now and again to peep at their bantam eggs, not much bigger than marbles, and the others which held the promise of such sweet baby Cochins within their smooth, silk-lined shells.
"Oh, I am tired!" sighed Darby at length, when they were still only half-way down the road, just passing by the entrance to the pine wood. "Are you tired, Joan?"
"Yes," assented Joan promptly; "this basket's so heavy. Can't we rest awhile after we pass the trees?"
"We shall rest here," said Darby decidedly; and suiting the action to the word, he took the basket from his sister's hand, placed it carefully on the roadside, and, with a deep breath of satisfaction, dropped on the soft grass beside it, just where the path branched off the highway into Copsley Wood.
"Darby!" cried Joan in remonstrance, "are you forgetting what you promised Auntie Alice, and that Aunt Catharine said we wasn't to go into the wood?"
"I'm not forgetting one bit," he replied loftily. "Sure, sitting here isn't going into the wood, is it, Miss Joan? Besides, I don't believe there's any bad people in it. They only want to frighten us," he continued, in a grown-up sort of tone; and when Darby spoke like that, Joan felt quite sure he knew what he was talking about—better even than Aunt Catharine herself!
They sat still for a little while, resting on the soft, mossy grass, listening to the song of the robins in the hedges, watching the snowy sea-gulls that hovered about the tail of Mr. Grey's plough as it turned the stubble into long, even furrows of dark, fresh-smelling soil.
Then a couple of rabbits darted by to their burrow in the wood; and at the foot of a big beech tree growing close beside the children a whole party of squirrels had gathered, nibbling hungrily at the nuts that were scattered round its base.
The little ones hushed their chatter, afraid to breathe almost, lest they should disturb the merry family meal.
By-and-by, however, Joan spoke, for she could not keep silent many minutes at a time.
"I wish I had one of those dear pretty fings, Darby," she whispered. "How sweet and soft it would be to love and stroke! far nicer than pussy, for I don't think it would scratch. Look at their great bushy tails!"
"Well, sit you still and mind the eggs, and I'll creep over ever so softly and catch one for you," replied her brother under his breath, only too willing, alas! to gratify her wish. "It'll be quite easy: just one grab at its tail and there you are!"
"But, Darby, Aunt Catharine. What ever will she say? Darby!" cried Joan in distress.
Darby was creeping on all-fours over the springy grass, and did not mind her. Slowly, stealthily he went—near, nearer, and yet nearer the root of the beech tree with every movement of his lithe, wriggling body. He is now only a few feet from the squirrels, who seem not to notice the intruder. He puts out his hand. He almost touches the smallest member of the group, a bright-eyed, furry little fellow. Joan starts to her feet in excitement. Darby does exactly as he had planned—makes a sudden clutch at the coveted prize. The object of her desire is really within her reach, Joan believes, and she shouts aloud in her delight. There is a flash of bead-like eyes, a waving of plumy tails, a scurry of flying feet, a chorus of queer, chattering cries, and, lo, the squirrels have disappeared, some up one tree, some up another—all except one, the very one which Darby desired to possess, and it scampered along the pathway, seeming too frightened to know where it was going; and, without giving a thought to the Cochin eggs, to Aunt Catharine, or to probable consequences, away rushed Darby in hot pursuit, with Joan treading closely on his heels.
Soon the squirrel found refuge in a lofty pine where, most probably, some of its friends had their home, and the children halted to take breath. Just at that instant, however, a frisky young rabbit started from its hiding-place in a hole at their feet. Off it went, scampering over the fallen fir needles that were spread so thickly like a soft brown carpet over the ground. And away, too, Darby and Joan raced after it, as quickly as they could thread their way through the trees, following where in front the rabbit led the way, its stumpy whitish tail turned up like a beckoning signal-flag. Still they struggled and stumbled on and on, in and out, until they stopped for want of breath in what seemed the very heart of the wood. Their prey had escaped into the shelter of a burrow, and the hunters gazed blankly at the spot where it had disappeared. Then they turned to each other in discomfiture and disappointment. Afterwards they looked about them, and were filled with confusion and affright, for the pathway was nowhere to be seen.
"The eggs, Darby!" cried Joan, suddenly conscious, now that the play was played out, of what had been, what was, and what might be. "Let us go back diwectly and get Aunt Catharine's basket of eggs."
"Yes, of course, that's what we shall do; but don't be in such a hurry. You only confuse a fellow," answered Darby, trying to speak lightly, although his lips were quivering. He had sought up and down, backwards, forwards, and roundabout, but still could see neither track nor footmark—just trees, tall trees everywhere, one seeming the exact counterpart of the other.
Joan, however, was quick to catch his expression of bewilderment, which so sadly belied his brave words, and she began to sob weakly. She always cried easily, and seemed sometimes to enjoy it; at least Darby thought so privately.
"Be quiet, can't you! There's nothing for you to cry about," he said, in a tone of easy assurance; "at least not yet—not until after we get home," he added comically. "I do hope Aunt Catharine will be in the drawing-room, or out to dinner, or—or—something when we arrive. If she sees us like this, she'll be certain sure to put us to bed at once," continued Darby, with sad conviction, glancing anxiously at his soiled sailor suit, which a few hours before was white, his straw hat with the brim dangling by a thread; and, worst of all, at Joan's torn pinafore, scratched legs, and shoeless foot—for in the flurry and fervour of the chase one small slipper had somehow been left behind.
Joan still sobbed.
"Hush, Joan! don't cry any more, like a good girl," said the little lad soothingly. "We shall be sure to find the way out very soon now. We left the basket at the edge of the wood; I don't think any one will have taken it away. And when we get it, we shan't be hardly any time going down the hill. We'll slip in softly, softly, and find Auntie Alice first. We'll ask her to coax Aunt Catharine not to be too angry; and perhaps, if we tell her we're sorry, she'll not punish us very badly. I think we had better not say anything about forgetting this time; we'll just be sorry right off."
Joan ceased crying. She dabbed her eyes with the corner of her soiled pinafore until they smiled like violets new washed with dew; she wiped the trickling tear-drops from her smudgy China rose cheeks until they bloomed afresh.
Thus the brave boy soothed his small sister's terror, although his own heart was heavy with fear; for the farther they walked the deeper they seemed to go into the depths of the dark pine wood. And night was coming on. In daytime, even, Copsley Wood was a shadowy place; but now, when above the trees and beyond their margin twilight had fallen, it was indeed a dark and lonesome spot. All around the pines rose straight and tall, like gaunt giant forms flinging out long, skeleton arms eager to infold them in a cruel clasp. Strange and stealthy sounds from bird and beast came to their ears at intervals, while the unfamiliar music of rustling branches and whispering leaves filled the souls of these two little travellers with a feeling of awe and vague alarm. Nevertheless they kept moving on, on; now stumbling over a fallen branch, again shrinking in terror as a great soft owl flitted slowly by, or hooted solemnly right above their heads.
At length Joan cried out that she could not walk another step. A sharp stone had cut her poor little shoeless foot, and she was limping painfully. She sank down on a smooth tree-stump, and Darby sat beside her, allowing her to lean her drooping head against his shoulder.
"Are we lost, Darby?" she asked piteously. "Are we goin' to die here like the babes in the wood? And will the robins come in the mornin' and cover us up wif leaves?"
"No, no," answered Darby, shivering at the mere thought of such a hurried burial, yet trying to speak cheerfully in spite of the tears in his eyes, the lump in his throat. "When you are rested a bit we will go on again. If you can't walk, perhaps I could carry you—a short distance, anyway. Surely we shall soon find the path, or some one will come to look for us," he added, feeling as if at that moment any one, even Aunt Catharine herself, would be welcome.
"It's gettin' awful dark," sobbed Joan, in a choked, weak voice. "Why, we can't see even a single star."
"We'd be all right if we could see anything," replied the boy ruefully. "Maybe the moon will shine soon; then we'll find our way," he added, still trying to cheer his little chum as best he could.
For a while they were silent. Joan was almost asleep, with her head still resting on Darby's breast. None but the creatures of the wild were near them; only the sounds of the night were in the air—those soft, mysterious voices that whisper to the listening soul of the spirit world which wraps so closely round the pure in heart.
But stay! Who dare disturb the sweetness of nature's symphony? Whose stealthy steps are those that steal so cautiously over the tell-tale twigs and withered bracken? What figures are they that crouch and slide from tree to tree, then pause within half a dozen yards of the wandered children, ready to pounce like cruel beasts upon their prey?
The shuffling noise attracted Darby's attention. He looked all about him, but observed nothing unusual. He peered into the gathering gloom, yet failed to see the ugly, red-haired man, the bold, black-browed woman who glared at them from behind a screen of hazel bushes. And again he settled himself comfortably on the moss-grown stump, and drew Joan's head into an easier position against his shoulder.
He thought she was asleep, and was nearly over himself, when suddenly she sat up and said eagerly,—
"Darby, I'se been finkin'. Don't you know in that nice hymn of ours—the one we singed to daddy the Sunday before he goed away—there's somefin' about bein' 'guided by a star'? P'raps if we was to sing it now God would un'erstand, and send a star to show us the way out of the wood."
"Well, I don't know; I'm not sure," he said at length. "Still, if you think singing would make you feel better we might try it," he yielded. "Yes, we'll do a verse, anyway. It'll be cheerier than praying—not so much like as if we were going to bed. And it doesn't really matter which we do; God will be sure to know 'zactly what we mean. Now, are you ready? Come on!"
And there, in the depths of the forest that to these two babes was as desolate, dark, and drear as any of which they had heard in fairy tale or nursery rhyme, they raised their clear, tremulous voices in pathetic appeal to that unseen Presence whom from their cradles they had been taught to look upon as "our Father:"—
"From the eastern mountains Pressing on they come, Wise men in their wisdom, To His humble home; Stirred by deep devotion, Hasting from afar, Ever journeying onward, Guided by a star."
FAR, FAR AWAY!
"The leaves were reddening to their fall, 'Coo!' said the gray doves, 'coo!' As they sunned themselves on the garden wall, And the swallows round them flew. 'Whither away, sweet swallows? Coo!' said the gray doves, 'coo!' 'Far from this land of ice and snow To a sunny southern clime we go, Where the sky is warm and bright and gay: Come with us, away, away!'"
F. E. WEATHERLY.
Just as they paused on the last note Joan uttered a scream of delight.
"Look, Darby, look!" she cried, clutching at her brother's arm. "The star! the star! God has sended it soon, hasn't He? He must have been listenin' close by when we sang. Auntie Alice says He is every place at once."
"Where?" eagerly asked Darby, peering anxiously into the darkness, but looking in the wrong direction.
"There—right behind you," replied Joan, pointing with her finger. "It's comin' nearer and nearer. Don't you see it?"
Yes, sure enough there was moving slowly towards them, out of the shadows, a small bright light not unlike the twinkle of a tiny star. It came steadily on, then stopped, wavered, and was gone.
"Holloa! who's there? Speak up!" called out a loud, hearty voice.
Heavy footsteps followed the voice—footsteps that halted and stumbled among the gnarled tree-roots and spreading branches, yet kept straight on—and in another instant the kind, ruddy face of Mr. Grey looked down upon the children.
"The babes in the wood, by George!" he ejaculated, at the same time stooping to peer into the small, eager faces which were so fearlessly upturned to meet his gaze. Then, when he made out who the forlorn-looking little objects really were, he gave expression to his astonishment in a long whistle, which frightened the birds in the trees, the rabbits within their burrows, and the wicked man and woman behind the hazel bushes, so that they cowered closer beneath the branches, wishing themselves well out of the way of Farmer Grey's stout blackthorn staff.
"Oh, it's you, Mr. Grey!" said Darby, with a curious catch in his voice of glad relief to find that the face bending over them with such kindly, quizzical scrutiny was not that of either gipsy, tramp, or poacher; for in spite of his lofty scorn of unknown dangers, he had grown terribly frightened for the possibilities which might lurk in the gloom of Copsley Wood.
"Ay, it's me, an' no mistake," replied Mr. Grey readily. "But I'm blessed if I knew ye at first in the dusk. 'They're tramps,' says I to myself, 'or gipsy weans.' But then, when I got a good look at ye, I saw that it was the little folks from Firgrove—Miss Turner's youngsters."
"We isn't Miss Turner's youngsters," struck in Joan stoutly; "we's daddy's chil'ens."
"Ho, ho! so that's the way the wind blows!" laughed Mr. Grey. "Ye're a pair o' pickles, anyway, an' no mistake! Who would think ye were the little angels whose pretty speeches my missis was divertin' me with all the time I was at my tea! An' what may the two o' ye be doin' here in the dark, I should like to know?" he demanded, in his big, gruff voice.
"We were lost—quite lost," cried Joan, "just like the babes in the wood. If God hadn't sended you to find us, I s'pose robin redbreast would have comed by-and-by to cover us up wif leaves and twigs and fings."
"Tush!" and Mr. Grey laughed into the little girl's earnest face, although he was moved at the thought of the anxiety and distress these small creatures must have endured. "Lost! why, you're not more'n half a dozen yards off the highroad."
"You must excuse Joan, please," put in Darby formally. "If she says silly things sometimes, it's because she's so little. At least, that's how I 'splains her to myself," he added.
Then he went on to give Mr. Grey a clear and full account of how and why they were wandering at what was for them such an unusual hour in the mazes of Copsley Wood—frankly owning up to more than his own share in the escapade, casting not a shadow of blame upon his little sister.
"So, so!" said Mr. Grey, much amused by the lad's quaint manner and grown-up air. "But I thought I heard some kind o' singin' as I came up the hill. It was that fetched me into the wood. I had been down at Firdale seein' about some seed-wheat for sowin' to-morrow, an' I was in a hurry home."
"It was us you heard," Joan told him gravely. "We were askin' God to send a star to show us the way out of the darkness."
"I'm afraid you'll certainly think my sister very childish," said Darby, in an apologetic tone. "But you see, just when we had finished the first verse of our hymn, a light really did shine. We didn't know at the time that it was only the matches you were striking for your pipe, and Joan thought (in fact, we both thought—for a moment, you know) that God had really sent a star to point us out the path, just as long ago He guided the wise men to the place where the dear little baby Jesus lay."
For a space there was silence. Joan was almost asleep on her seat on the tree-stump; not a quiver of the hazel bushes betrayed the presence of the couple lurking there. And into the big farmer's eyes a sudden moisture had sprung as he heard these little ones expressing in simple speech their perfect confidence in the ability and readiness of their heavenly Father to make good His own promise: "I will guide thee with mine eye."
"That's right, my boy," spoke Mr. Grey at length, in deep, earnest tones. "Always look out for God, an' you'll find Him close beside you, in the darkest forest as well as in the starry sky. An' now we must be movin', or the ladies'll be sendin' the police to look for the pair o' ye.—Eh! Anybody there?" he shouted, as the sudden snapping of a twig broke the stillness about them.
There was no answer, only the flutter of a belated bird as it failed to find its accustomed perch among the pines, and the sighing of the wind through the tree-tops overhead.
"Some beast, I expect, or a poacher, maybe," Mr. Grey muttered to himself. Then he turned towards the children. "I was never reckoned much o' a star," he said, with a chuckle of amusement, "but I guess I'll manage to steer ye straight to Firgrove."
"Do you think you could carry Joan, please, Mr. Grey? She's not very heavy; I sometimes carry her myself," added Darby, as if doing so were a mere trifle instead of a feat of which he was privately proud. "She's tired, I'm afraid.—Joan! Waken up! Aren't you tired?"
"Yes, werry, werry tired," assented Joan sleepily, as the farmer cradled her comfortably in his strong arms; and with Darby holding hard by his coat-tail they started.
"The eggs, Darby! Is you forgettin' Aunt Catharine's eggs, and the bantam's too?" Joan cried, when they neared the opening in the wood.
Outside the fringe of dark trees twilight still lingered, and there, just where Darby had set it down, was the basket, safe and sound.
With a whoop of delight at the welcome sight of the basket—for its possible loss had lain heavily on his tender conscience—Darby sprang forward to seize it. But in the dusk he did not notice a long, twisted tree-root that straggled between him and his desire. His toe caught in it; he suddenly tripped, swayed, and fell flat forward, crunching right smash down into the shallow basket of smooth brown Cochin eggs.
"Whoa, there! steady, my man!" called the farmer, vainly struggling to suppress his amusement at sight of Darby's deplorable and moist condition. "You forget that you've a heavier seat on the eggs than a hen, young sir, an' you must sit down easy."
A sharp sob, however, and the smothered cry of "The bantams! we're bantams!" that burst from the little creature in his arms, indicated that what was a joke to him was a catastrophe to the children, and that his mirth was ill-timed and unseemly.
"Never mind, sonny," he added, in a soothing tone; "just tell the ladies when you get home that it was all an accident. Here, rub down your clothes wi' this wisp o' grass, an' I'll see if my missis can't coax them Cochins to lay some more eggs between this an' Christmas."
Then, with Joan cuddled cosily against his broad shoulder, and Darby's small hand clinging closely to his, the party set off down the winding road towards Firgrove.
At the same time two figures raised themselves from their cramped position behind the hazel thicket. The man stretched himself, hitched up on his shoulder a bag, from which peeped the tail of a pheasant and the paw of a rabbit, while he muttered savagely and shook his fist in the direction of the retreating farmer.
"Spoiled yer little game, did he?" and the dark-eyed woman laughed wickedly as she rearranged the faded scarlet shawl more closely round her shoulders. "Well, better luck next time, Joe my dear," she added airily.
"Shut up!" said the gentleman called Joe, with a heavy scowl. "It's kids like they I've been lookin' out for this many a day, an' I'll have them yet," he growled, "as sure as yer name's Moll! See if I don't! Come on!" And in another moment they were not to be seen, they had plunged into the heart of Copsley Wood.
At the gate of Firgrove Mr. Grey set Joan down, and watched until she and Darby reached the front door. There a curious group had collected—Auntie Alice, who was softly sobbing; Aunt Catharine, wearing her garden-hat and strongest boots; Nurse Perry, Mary the cook; and Green the gardener, armed with a stout staff and the stable lantern. It was the search-party in the act of setting out to explore the recesses of Copsley Wood in quest of the missing children.
Mr. Grey thought it would be in better taste to retire. He knew Miss Turner, and he guessed that probably the next scene in the drama would be purely private. Well, the youngsters had unquestionably disobeyed orders, and on their own showing. They must be punished, if by no other means they could be taught obedience, which is the first if not the chief lesson of life. Still, it was a pity, thought the big, soft-hearted man; and the confiding eyes of the children followed him as he sauntered up the hill, forgetting that he was in a hurry home. The words that had floated from their pure lips through the gloom of the pines rang in his ears, and as he went along he hummed softly to himself, in his deep, bass voice,—
"Ever journeying onward, Guided by a star."
"Aunt Catharine's real angry this time, and no mistake," Darby thought, as in almost perfect silence she gave him and Joan their supper, then helped Perry to undress, bath, and put them to bed. "She's sure to punish us somehow to-morrow though she's saying nothing about it to-night. Oh dear! if she would not look so cold and cross, but just give me enough spanking for us both and get it over, I'd much rather."
But Aunt Catharine had decided not to administer any bodily chastisement to her nephew's children, although she considered that a smart whipping now and again was almost as necessary to the well-being of young people as cooling medicine in the spring. She had talked the matter over with Auntie Alice, who could not bear the idea of either Darby or Joan being put to any avoidable pain. They had been very disobedient certainly, she was obliged to admit, and must be taught somehow to do as they were told—Darby especially, who should have been so much wiser than Joan. She would herself have cheerfully borne the penalty of all their misdemeanours if she could. That was impossible, however; but she succeeded in impressing upon her sister that perhaps Captain Dene might not like his motherless children to be subjected to such old-fashioned discipline. Aunt Catharine, consequently, had laid her plans for a different course of action.
Next morning Darby slept quite late—for him—being tired out from the fatigue of the previous evening. He awoke refreshed and brisk, however, and was about to spring out of bed and dress himself in readiness for the fun, frolic, and mischief of a new day, when the nursery door was thrown wide open, and Aunt Catharine sailed into the room, arrayed in all the glory of a Paisley-pattern morning-gown and black crochet breakfast-cap. Now, Miss Turner was one of those people sometimes to be met with whose moods usually match their clothes. Darby understood this peculiarity of his aunt's in a vague sort of way, so that the moment he set eyes on the many-coloured wrapper and sombre headgear he knew that now they were in for it and no mistake.
"Well, what have you to say for yourselves?" she demanded in a loud voice, seating herself solemnly in a chair between the two cribs, and looking from one child to the other with her severest expression. "You can answer me, Guy; Doris is hardly awake yet."
She addressed them as Guy and Doris; and knowing what that meant as well as what was indicated by her awful attire, Darby discreetly held his peace.
Joan sat up in bed, rubbed her eyes with her dimpled knuckles, nodded her tangled curls towards her aunt, and, sweetly smiling, murmured, "Mornin'!" to which cheery greeting her aunt did not respond.
There was a prophetic pause for a while; then Miss Turner spoke.
"I am pleased that at least you have the grace to be silent, to make no excuses; because there is nothing you could say that would make your sin appear any less heinous in my eyes—and in God's eyes," she added as an after-thought.
"Where's the 'henas,' Aunt Catharine?" cried Joan, peeping in the direction of the door. "I'd love to see a 'hena!' There's a picter of some in Darby's Nat'ral Hist'ry book. They's just like wolves."
"Hush, Joan!" said Darby, in a frightened undertone; "there's no hyenas here. Aunt Catharine means 'heenyus,' and that's a thing in the Catechism—far on! It's only me that has come to it yet."
"You have both been guilty of the gravest disobedience," continued Miss Turner, "and it is my duty to punish you. I have therefore decided to keep you in bed until you repent of your naughtiness."
Here Darby started up in anger. His gray eyes flashed, his cheeks were scarlet, his small fists clenched under the bedclothes.
"This is Saturday," went on his aunt, in her relentless voice. "You shall stay where you are until to-morrow, Sabbath morning. Then, if you are in a proper frame of mind, you may both get up as usual; but for one week you shall not go beyond the garden.—And you, Guy, because you are older than Doris, and should set your sister a good example instead of leading her at your heels into every mischief you can devise—you are to have an additional punishment. I desire that while you are in bed you shall occupy yourself with your Catechism. And to-morrow, before breakfast, I will hear you repeat the fifth commandment, with the three following questions and the proofs thereto. After that perhaps you shall have a clearer conception of your duty to your parents, which means, in your case, those who are in charge of you." And having delivered herself thus, Aunt Catharine sailed away as majestically as she had come.
Darby flung himself about in his wrath.
"Parents indeed!" he cried, in passionate scorn. "She's not our parents! she's nobody's parent. Why, I heard Postie telling Perry the other day that the Miss Turners were both old maids when he was a kid; and people can't be old maids and parents as well! Oh, if daddy hadn't gone away, or if mother was only here!" he wailed in his dire distress. Then he buried his head in the blankets, for his feelings were too deeply wounded to find relief in words.
For a while Joan howled lustily, but by-and-by, when she had eaten her breakfast of porridge and milk, she tumbled off to sleep again, being still weary after her recent wanderings.
Darby, however, lay wide awake, feeling, now that his burst of anger had passed away, very tired of things in general, and of himself in particular. It was too dreadful, he thought, to be kept in bed on a fine day when he was quite well, only stiff and aching all over. Outside the air was balmy and still. The garden was ablaze with late dahlias, hollyhocks, and asters; and down by the tool-shed Mistress Pussy and her family would be contentedly sunning themselves beside the boxwood border—the close-clipped boxwood border, which always gave out such a strong, queer, haunting smell.
Oh dear, how tiresome it all was, and what a pity a fellow could not sometimes do as he liked without being called naughty and then punished! Should life always be like that, Darby wondered. Surely not, he told himself, or else he felt that already he had had about enough of it. But he did not believe things were quite the same with other children. They were different for him and Joan, because daddy was abroad and mother dead. If they had only not been left at Firgrove with Aunt Catharine! There were plenty of pleasant places in the world besides Firgrove. Could not he and Joan go away somewhere, just themselves together, where they would want only to be good, because there should be no temptation to be naughty; where there should be no Catechism, no Aunt Catharine, and no more punishment, especially putting to bed, which was Darby's detestation? He really wished to be obedient, this little lad of seven years old, and tried very hard to remember everything he was told. But forgetting comes easy; consequently he was frequently in trouble. He was often good for days together—quite good, as Joan said. But the difficulty with Darby, as with older folk, was not the being good, but the keeping good.
For a long time the boy lay pondering some of the problems of life which from the beginning have puzzled many a wiser head than his. But Darby did not know that he was only going over a well-beaten track. He just knew that he was wishful of finding some pleasant spot where, without effort or trouble, he could be happy after his own fashion, untrammelled and untroubled by restrictions or consequences.
The morning had glided on to noonday. Joan, having had her sleep out, was playing with Miss Carolina in her crib. Outside a family of lingering swallows sat on the meadow fence discussing their plans for a hurried departure on the morrow; and from the dovecot in the yard came the soft, continuous cooing of Auntie Alice's pigeons as they strutted about the flags or preened their feathers in the sun. The distant barking of Mr. Grey's collie, Scott, as he followed the sheep to the pasture, floated in through the open window; while from the next room came the soothing murmur of nurse's low, droning voice, singing baby Eric over to his midday sleep.
What was it she sang? but, indeed, she seemed always singing it. Nothing much; only a snatch here and there from that old hymn she was so fond of, or perhaps sang almost unconsciously from habit:—
"Oh, we shall happy be, When from sin and sorrow free!
"Bright in that happy land Beams every eye; Kept by a Father's hand, Love cannot die.
"Come to this happy land, Come, come away; Why will ye doubting stand? Why still delay?"
Suddenly Darby sat up in bed in his excitement. A brilliant thought had struck him. Why had it not occurred to him sooner? The Happy Land! that's where they would go. It was far, far away, certainly; but they should take some food with them, and ask the road from time to time.
Joan was soon weary of nursing Miss Carolina. She had slipped out of her crib and trotted over to the window, where she was occupying herself happily in catching and shutting up in an empty pill-box the flies that buzzed drowsily in the warm, bright sunshine.
She paused for an instant in the act of conveying with her nimble little fingers another captive to its dungeon, when she noticed Darby's flushed cheeks and shining eyes.
"What's the matter, dear?" inquired the tiny, white-robed maiden, in quite a motherly manner. "Has you got a pain, Darby? or was you dreamin' about somefin' werry nice? You does look awful funny, I fink."
"I'm not sick, and I haven't been dreaming," answered her brother, in earnest assurance. "But I've been thinking, and I've made up my mind. We're not going to stay here any longer. I've 'cided where we'll go. We'll go to the Happy Land—that place nurse is often singing about, where we shall always be good, and never be naughty, or sick, or punished, or put to bed any more. It'll never be dark or raining either, but always fine, and bright, bright as day!"
"How lovely!" cried Joan, clapping her hands in ecstasy, at the same time dropping the pill-box, from which the autumn flies crawled lazily, as if too indolent or too stupid to enjoy their newly-regained liberty.
"Just wouldn't it!" said Darby, with quivering lips and sparkling eyes, for he was terribly excited over his scheme. "And you'll come, Joan, won't you, lovey?"
"Yes," assented Joan, without the slightest hesitation, giving a decisive nod of her golden head that set all her curls bobbing up and down like daffodils in a March breeze—"yes, I'm comin' wif you, Darby dear. When's we goin'?" she inquired anxiously, as if in haste to be off.
Darby drew her into bed beside him, tucked up her cold pink toes in the blankets, and in earnest, subdued tones the two discussed the how and the when of their projected pilgrimage.
They could not set off that day, for they were prisoners. The next day was Sunday. They would be sure to be out; but then Sunday was not a suitable day on which to start on a lengthy journey. Monday would be a more fitting time, and Darby remembered with a thrill of thankfulness that early on Monday morning the aunts were going away to spend a couple of nights at Denescroft, as grannie's charming, China-rose-trimmed cottage was called. That would be their chance! Nurse would be almost entirely occupied with Eric, and they two should be left to do pretty much as they pleased. By the time their aunts returned on Wednesday evening the little travellers would be far away, or perhaps they should be safe within the boundaries of the Happy Land.
Before breakfast the following morning Darby repeated his appointed task, proofs and all, without so much as a single blunder. The children went with their aunts to church as usual. In the evening Auntie Alice remarked to her sister how very quiet the little ones had been all day. Aunt Catharine also had noticed their subdued demeanour. She set it down to the chastening effect of penitence for their recent disobedience, and hoped that it might continue during the days of their absence at least.
"Good-bye, pets," said Auntie Alice to the children the next day, as they hung about the basket-carriage and Billy, waiting to take his mistresses to the station. "Cheer up, Darby," she whispered. "Be a good brother, and take care of Joan; and see and be happy until we come back."
"Yes, Auntie Alice, I'll take care of her, sure. And we're going to be very, very happy," he added, with a look of exultation in his eyes that haunted his aunt until she saw him again.—"Aren't we, Joan?"
"Yes, werry, werry happy!" murmured Joan out of a tousle of sunny hair. "Good-bye, Auntie Alice. Kiss Joan again."
"There, that will do. Stand clear of the wheel, both of you," said Aunt Catharine, settling her ample figure comfortably into the little basket-chaise. "Don't dirty that nice clean pinafore, Joan; and Darby, see that you wash your hands properly before dinner."
The aunts departed, and by the time they had reached the first stage on their journey, two little travellers stepped bravely out at the front door, down the gravelled drive, through the wide gate, and there they halted to hold a hurried council as to which way they should go.
Up the hill in one direction sloped the broad white road that led past Copsley Wood. No Happy Land lay in its vicinity! By another route, along which Billy and the basket-carriage had vanished, was the station; but who ever heard of any one arriving at the Happy Land by rail! Some other way still they must seek to bring them to their destination.
From the gable end of Firgrove the fields slid gradually down until they were merged in a long, level stretch of meadow ground, through which was cut a deep, straight canal, whose waters reached like a shining silver belt across the emerald sward of the surrounding pasture-lands. Many a time Darby and Joan had sat on the garden wall watching the dingy barge-boat come and go. They had listened curiously to the voices of the man and boy on board chatting to each other, or shouting to the patient, plodding horse that towed along the clumsy craft, laden with this and that for the villages and hamlets that dotted the landscape thickly between Firdale and the far-off range of hills, which rose so proudly up to meet the sunset and the sky.
The October day was mild, and bright as days not always are, even in midsummer. Great gold-tinged clouds floated slowly across the high, wide dome of the azure sky. The hilltops were bathed in a warm, soft glow; the placid waters of the canal sparkled, dimpled, and smiled beneath the caress of the passing breeze, until they broke into tiny ripples and wavelets against their sedge-grown banks.
Along that silvery waterway they shall go, the children decide. Up there, beyond the hills, they say, rise the walls of the Beautiful City. That radiance is assuredly reflected from its streets of gold. Those big, fleecy clouds certainly curtain the approach to the portals of pearl!
Just then, emerging from behind a screening clump of trees, the Smiling Jane, as the dingy old boat was called, slowly hove in sight. They would run fast and coax the man to take them on board when he stopped to get his vessel through the lock; or, better still, they would slip in unnoticed when he was otherwise engaged. Without a thought of wrong, with never a qualm of fear as to failure or consequences, hand in hand they raced along in the direction of the canal, casting not so much as a glance behind.
And thus it came about that Darby and Joan set out to seek the Happy Land.
"The old house by the lindens Stood silent in the shade, And on the gravelled pathway The light and shadow played.
"I saw the nursery windows Wide open to the air; But the faces of the children, They were no longer there."
When dinner-time came without bringing the children in, nurse became very cross indeed. Baby had been somewhat troublesome all the forenoon. Auntie Alice had lately got into the habit of taking him of a morning, walking him about in her arms, crooning sweet nothings over him in her soothing voice. He was old enough to miss her, and to-day was not satisfied at being put off with only nurse. He had, besides, a new tooth coming—a tiny pearly thing, peeping like a speck of ivory from a bed of coral. Very pretty to look at, certainly, but doubtless extremely painful; at least Master Baby felt it so, for he fretted and cried in a way which set poor Perry's nerves all on edge, and made her think that the responsibilities of her position were almost too heavy to be borne on one pair of shoulders.
Then Master Darby and Miss Joan—how tiresome they were! always up to some mischief or other, said nurse to herself, as she ran between the nursery window and the front door to watch if they were not coming before their dinner should be spoiled. And such a nice dinner as it was, too! Cook had arranged it as a surprise for them, because they were all by themselves, knowing how much they enjoyed roast fowl, stewed apples and cream. Now the fowl would be dried to a cinder, the potatoes moist and sodden, the apples cold as charity!
They must have again disobeyed orders and gone away to the farm, nurse concluded, when twelve o'clock, one o'clock, two o'clock passed, and still no sign of the little ones. They would be well stuffed up there, she was sure, and quite safe; only it was really too bad of Master Darby to steal off that way without leave, and drag his little sister along with him. He should have nothing but dry bread for his tea, Perry decided. Then with a glance at the bassinet, where baby was soundly sleeping away some of his fretfulness, and a careful adjustment of the fire-guard on the nursery grate, nurse stole downstairs to get her own dinner, which, like the children's, would be none the better for waiting so long past the usual time.
Eric awoke from his sound, sweet sleep refreshed and hungry. Nurse fed him; then, as the air was mild and the sun warm, she put on his coat and cap and carried him into the garden to watch the pussies at play.
The afternoon shadows began to lengthen, the sun slipped slowly to the west, baby grew weary of pulling at the pussies' tails and turned peevish again, and still the others were absent. By this time nurse had grown downright angry with them for staying away so long. It was a shame of Mrs. Grey to keep them. Master Darby deserved a sound smacking, nurse said to herself; and only that she was not permitted to punish her charges in such a manner, a sound smacking Master Darby should have had—when nurse could catch him, that is to say. Now, however, she must go for them. Mrs. Grey would be thinking they were neglected in the absence of their aunts, and perhaps telling tales. So, after wrapping Eric up warmly in a big woolly shawl, she tucked him into his perambulator and set off up the glen road, past the wood and the turnip-field, to Copsley Farm, expecting at every turn to meet Darby and Joan rushing towards her on their homeward way. But no such interruption to her progress occurred.
When she reached the farm an unpleasant surprise awaited her. Neither Darby nor Joan had been there that day—not since the Friday, said Mrs. Grey; and she was disappointed, because, having heard that the ladies were going from home without the children, she quite expected they would have lost no time in paying her a visit.
At that moment Mr. Grey came in from the barn, where he had been threshing corn all the afternoon. He was tired, heated, and hungry for his tea, and only laughed when his wife told him that the little folks from Firgrove had gone amissing.
"Well, an' what if they have?" he exclaimed, in his loud, hearty voice. "That needn't scare you. Aren't they always gettin' into trouble o' some kind or another, the pair o' them? Why, sure it's only the other day there that I found them wandered in Copsley Wood, like two motherless lambs! They were lost, the little 'un told me, quite lost! An' there they were sittin', the two o' them, on the stump o' an old tree, wrapped in one another's arms, for all the world like the babes in the wood—an' not more'n half a dozen yards from the highway!"
"An' that's where they are now, sure enough," said Mrs. Grey, in a tone of conviction. "They'll have gone back after them squirrels that led them such a dance on Friday! What do you think, Miss Perry?" she asked anxiously.
"I am certain of it too, now that you mention it," replied nurse, looking aghast at the thought. "Miss Joan was fair wild to get a squirrel; and Master Darby, he's that venturesome he would face anything. He doesn't know the meaning of fear for all he's so gentle and innocent-like. And Miss Joan follows him just like a dog. Dear, dear—to think of it!"
"You may well say that, for Copsley Wood's no place for them to be in by themselves," said Mrs. Grey, eyeing nurse with some disapproval in her glance.
"It's no place for decent people, let alone children," retorted Perry in her turn. "It was no further back than yesterday that the butcher's young man was telling me that a couple of gipsies or tramps have set up their tent there. He was pressing me to take a walk with him," she explained, hanging her head and playing with the fringe of baby's shawl; "and I said as how I'd never been in the wood. 'All the better,' says Jenkins, quite short, 'because that wood ain't no place for you, nor for any other nice young lady.' Oh, if they've gone and got kidnapped or murdered, what ever shall I do!" sobbed Perry, who was really a well-meaning woman, and good at heart in spite of a certain narrow-mindedness, not uncommon to her class, which hindered her from seeing at any time much further than her own nose.
Mrs. Grey had listened to nurse's speech with ill-concealed scorn.
"Young lady indeed!" she said afterwards to Mr. Grey, giving a contemptuous sniff. "Her a lady—and young too! Why, she's eight-and-twenty if she's a day! And a lad like Jim Jenkins! Sakes alive! the conceit o' some folks is sickenin'!"
Then when Perry began to weep and lament, the older woman watched her curiously in order to make sure how little of her feeling was real, how much assumed. But such distress was undoubtedly genuine, Mrs. Grey decided, and her eyes held a kindlier expression as she said soothingly,—
"Come now, cheer up! Takin' on that way won't do no manner o' good. You had better hurry home with the baby now. It's gettin' late for him to be out, pretty dear! Maybe you'll find the other two there before you, and famishin' for their tea."
"The missis is right," agreed Mr. Grey, rising from the table as he spoke, and wiping his mouth with a huge, red cotton pocket-handkerchief. "You get along as fast as ever you can, an' if the young shavers isn't at Firgrove afore you, send somebody up wi' a message. Then me an' Tom Brook 'll take a look round; an' if they're anywhere inside Copsley Wood, we'll bring them home to you afore bedtime yet, I'll be bound."
But when nurse got back to Firgrove, Darby and Joan were still absent; so, giving Eric in charge to Mary the cook, she sped up the hill again herself, flying as fast as fear and excitement could urge her, and reached the farm, panting and breathless, just when Mr. Grey and his head man, Tom Brook, were putting on their coats and preparing to leave the barn for the night.
Until almost midnight the two men tramped hither and thither through the labyrinths of Copsley Wood, carrying the stable lantern to give them light, armed with stout sticks with which to poke among the dense undergrowth of laurel, holly, and hazel that formed such a close cover for the game of various sorts with which the wood was so thickly populated. Now and then from her form amid the withered fern a frightened hare leaped among their very feet. Startled rabbits scurried here and there over the soft moss and rustling leaves. The cry of a night-bird from time to time broke the intense stillness of the lonesome place, while more than once they were alarmed by a soft something that brushed their face, as a big, downy white owl passed them by in search of its prey. In a dell hidden in the very heart of the wood they came upon what apparently had been the camping-ground of some wanderers—the gipsies probably, concerning whom the tales and rumours were so rife and so exaggerated of late. It must have been used quite recently, for where the fire had been built the wood ash was white and undisturbed; while the crusts, bones, and fragments of a rough-and-ready meal still littered the green turf that spread in such a fresh, delicious carpet all around the spot. But now the dell was deserted. The feeling of desolation always conveyed by the sight of a burned-out fire, a forsaken hearth, struck chilly on Mr. Grey's senses, and he turned away in disappointment from the tenantless place. Then the two men gazed blankly into each other's eyes. The children could not be found; not a trace of them was to be seen, except a small battered shoe—the shoe that Joan had left behind the preceding Friday.
By this time they were so tired out that they were reluctantly obliged to give over their search for the night; so, feeling footsore, and disheartened by their want of success, they went each his own way homewards.
Mr. Grey was now thoroughly alarmed for the safety of his wife's little favourites, not knowing what mishap might have overtaken them. As for nurse, her state of mind was pitiable. She alone had been left in charge of the children, and she only was responsible to the Misses Turner for their safety. And what would Captain Dene say—her master, whom she had solemnly promised to take good care of his motherless children? She had done her best, poor Perry; for although often impatient and unsympathetic with the little ones, she loved them devotedly, and would now willingly have imperilled her own safety to secure theirs. Oh, how earnestly she wished that Miss Turner and Miss Alice were home again, or rather that they had not gone away! It was, of course, too late to communicate with them that night, but it must be done first thing next morning—as soon as the telegraph office should be open.
"How shall I face them?" cried nurse wildly, pushing cook and baby away in her impatience.
Cook looked hurt. She had good-naturedly taken care of Eric all evening, and been much diverted by his funny ways. She had offered the little fellow to nurse with the best intentions in the world, thinking that attending to his wants might distract her attention from her trouble. But nurse was not to be consoled thus. She could think of nothing except the calamity which had befallen the household in general, herself in particular, and for the time being baby was of no importance in her eyes; even the adoring Jenkins was forgotten! Nothing remained but her own nervous terror and distress.
Next morning, as soon as it was daylight, Mr. Grey hastened down to Firgrove to inquire if Perry had heard anything of the missing children. She had not, and was in a most miserable frame of mind after an anxious, sleepless night.
While she and Mr. Grey stood talking together, Tom Brook passed by on his way to work at the farm, and seeing the two in conversation, joined them. But he brought no comfort to their council with the tidings he had to tell—not much at most, yet important as furnishing a possible clue to the fate of the lost ones.
The previous forenoon some of his children at play beside the lock had noticed Master Darby and Miss Joan down along the tow-path; but as they were accustomed seeing the pair trotting about by themselves continually, here, there, and everywhere, they paid no particular attention to their movements.
"They didn't go to Copsley Wood after all, then," said Mr. Grey, looking very grave, for his fears had been directed into a fresh channel.
"They've gone playing about the canal and fallen in!" cried nurse, with a great outburst of tears. "Now they're drownded, dead drownded, both of them! O my poor lambs! why did I let you out of my sight for one minute? What will master say? O my dear, sweet mistress, this would never have happened if you hadn't been tooken away from us!"
Miss Turner and Miss Alice were seated at breakfast in Grannie Dene's pretty parlour, where the China roses, that were for all the world just the colour of Joan's cheeks, peeped and nodded round the window. They were chatting briskly with grannie, whom they had found much stronger, and able easily to move about and attend to the affairs of her small household, and making their plans for the day. Aunt Catharine was arranging everything in her usual capable way. Grannie nodded her head in approval, looking the very picture of a sweet, high-bred old lady; while Auntie Alice agreed to all her sister suggested, as was her placid wont. She appeared contented and at ease, yet from time to time an anxious, far-away look would unconsciously creep into her eyes and shadow her gentle face when she thought of the little ones at home, wondering how they were all getting on—whether Eric's new tooth had come properly through; if Darby was being an obedient boy and taking good care of Joan.
The click of the garden-gate attracted their attention, and immediately after a whistling telegraph-boy passed the window and the China roses on his way to the hall door. Auntie Alice rose from the breakfast-table with a queer, fluttering feeling about her heart, and hurried to meet the messenger. She took the rustling, brick-coloured envelope from his hand, and in another instant the message dictated with much anxiety by Mr. Grey lay open before the alarmed ladies,—
"Come home at once. Darby and Joan missing since yesterday."
"Oh, my dears, my dears! Sister, sister! why did we leave them?" was the cry that broke from Auntie Alice's trembling lips. It was but the expression of a nameless dread which had weighed upon her ever since she started from Firgrove, leaving Darby standing looking after them, with that expression in his eyes of such perfect purity and peace.
Grannie's thoughts flashed like lightning from the lost children to the absent father. She was not a woman of many words, and made little outward sign of the sorrow that had suddenly seized upon her. She just hid her patient face in her thin white hands, murmuring brokenly,—
"Oh, Guy, Guy! my son, my son!"
"Well, I declare! One would think those two had never got into a scrape before from the way you are going on," said Miss Turner sharply, addressing her sister, yet casting a glance of disapproval in the direction of Mrs. Dene. "It was only the other day that they went wandering into Copsley Wood; and here, when we were ready to set out in search of them, didn't they turn up as cool as you please, smiling as sweetly as a couple of cherubs! Mr. Grey is alarming us needlessly. He and his wife are perfectly silly about those children! It was exactly the same when Guy was a boy. He had nothing to do but run up to Mrs. Grey for petting and sympathy whenever he made things too hot for himself at Firgrove. Well, if Darby has disobeyed me this time, after all I said, and the Catechism and everything, I won't be so soft with him in future, that's certain!" declared Aunt Catharine, in her severest voice; yet her fresh-coloured face had grown pale, her eyes were troubled, her lips trembled. In her heart of hearts she wished she had not been quite so strict with her nephew's children, Darby especially—poor Dorothy Archdale's motherless little lad.
It was afternoon by the time the ladies arrived at Firdale, the small wayside station nearest to Firgrove. Mr. Grey had forsaken his farm and his threshing, and was waiting to receive them. But one glance at his honest face was sufficient to assure them that he was not the bearer of any good news. Nothing further had been heard of the missing children. Copsley Wood had been scoured by a band of beaters from end to end, with no better success than had attended the efforts of the two men the night before. Mr. Grey's thoughts had reverted again and again to the ill-favoured man and black-browed woman—gipsies they were said to be, but more likely they were only ordinary vagrants—who had been seen lately loitering about the neighbourhood, and whose appearance had given rise to the wildest and absurdest rumours. One cottager, it was said, had lost all her hens; another missed a young pig out of its sty, while the ailing infant of a third had died in convulsions soon after the dark-faced female was at the door demanding a draught of milk! Mrs. Grey had suggested that perhaps the evil pair had kidnapped the pretty children, meaning to make use of them in some way—for such things happened, if one was to believe all that appeared in the newspapers—or in order to draw a reward out of their friends. Her husband laughed at the idea; yet he caused the tramps to be traced and followed from their deserted quarters in the wood up to the time when they had forced their way, as the bargeman affirmed, on board the barge-boat close beside the village of Shendon. They had no youngsters with them then of any description, bargee was positive; just the man and woman by themselves. They were not gipsies at all, he added, but some sort of play-acting people journeying to join their party, who had preceded them to Barchester by a few days. Folks of that class were not likely to have had a hand in the disappearance of anybody's children; they usually had plenty of their own.
The ladies discussed the ins and outs of the odd affair with Mr. Grey in all its bearings. At length they were forced to the conclusion that it was in the region of the canal they must seek the little ones—whether about it or in it only time should tell. Miss Alice wept softly, while Miss Turner was wondering, with a terrible weight on her heart, what she should say in the cablegram to Africa; for if Darby and Joan did not turn up, and soon too, she knew that their father should have to be informed of the calamity which had befallen him.
Mr. Grey hurried home to snatch a hasty meal and tell his wife not to be anxious about his absence. Then he and Tom Brook, with two other men, set off to follow the clue furnished by Tom Brook's children. At Firgrove the household waited, eager for news, with what patience they could command, and they needed a good share; for waiting, as everybody knows, is wearier work than doing.
Step by step, two of them on one side and two on the other, they tramped along the course of the canal, poking with their sticks into the long, sedgy grass and reeds beside its banks, peering among the clumps of osiers that grew thick and tall in the damp, spongy ground below the tow-path. On, on they went, only pausing for a few minutes now and again, to take a rest or to hold a consultation. They questioned closely every pedestrian whom they met by the way, but nobody could give them any tidings to help them in their search. And still they pressed on, past locks, hamlets, villages—on, on, until, when night was closing in around them, they reached Barchester. There, perforce, they must pause; for beyond Barchester was the sea, so at Barchester the canal came to an abrupt conclusion.
It was a weary and dispirited little group that gathered on the wharf in the fast-falling darkness of the October evening. The other men, as well as Mr. Grey, had known Captain Dene from his infancy almost, and two of them had little ones of their own snug and safe by their cottage hearths at that dull evening hour. They consequently felt keenly the sorrow that threatened the absent father; also the distress and trouble of the aunts at Firgrove, who had so generously taken upon them the responsible duty, which not infrequently turns out a thankless task, of taking charge of somebody else's bairns.
The wharf, except for themselves, was deserted. It was almost dark, too, lighted only by one badly-trimmed paraffin lamp that swung above the door of the room or office which the keeper occupied during the day. Its flickering rays fell on the deep, sluggish waters of the canal as they lapped and gurgled round the wet, slimy beams on which the planks were supported. Mr. Grey stood somewhat apart from the others, and gazed idly at the shadows cast by the dimly-burning lamp, as they swayed backwards and forwards, up and down, with each slow movement of the water; yet he did not actually see anything. He was thinking of the winsome wee pair whom he had come upon a few days before sitting on a tree-stump in Copsley Wood—of their trusting eyes, their sweet voices, their artless prattle, their firm faith in the protecting power of their heavenly Father. Assuredly He had them in His careful keeping some place; but where?—on earth or in heaven? This was the question which so sorely perplexed the anxious searchers.
Suddenly something attracted Mr. Grey's attention—something that had got jammed in a space between two rotten beams which floated alongside the flooring of the crazy old wharf—and his heart leaped in his breast with a throb of sickening fear. He stooped over the water, reached forward his stout staff, and with its hooked head carefully hauled up that something which he instinctively shrank from seeing, without exactly knowing why.
Yet it was nothing much after all, neither more nor less than what may be seen any day drifting hither and thither amongst scraps and straws upon the surface of a stream—only a child's sailor-hat, which had once been white, but was now sadly discoloured, soaked with water, and hanging almost in pieces. A faded blue ribbon dangled from its battered brim, bearing on its surface in tarnished gold letters the title of the ship to which its wearer belonged—H.M.S. Dreadnought.
With a queer choking in his throat Mr. Grey carried his find close to what light there was beneath the dirty lamp, while with strained, eager faces the other men peered over his shoulder, and then, sure enough, they saw what they feared. For there, inside the hat, stitched to the lining of the crown by a careful mother's loving fingers, was a piece of tape on which a name was plainly written, the name of—Darby Dene!
THE CRUISE OF H.M.S. "DREADNOUGHT."
"Shall we call this a boat out at sea, We four sailors rowing? Can you fancy it? Well, as for me, I feel the salt wind blowing. Up, up and down, lazy boat! On the top of a wave we float; Down we go with a rush. Far off I see the strand Glimmer; our boat we'll push Ashore on fairyland."
And now it is time to return to the two little travellers.
The big red barge-boat came swinging slowly through the lock as the children came close to the canal. They were too late to get aboard there, and they hung back in disappointment and indecision. After clearing the lock and exchanging a word or two with the woman at the toll, the bargeman had laid himself down upon a heap of empty sacks, to take a nap most probably, leaving his boy in charge of the tiller. Soon bargee was wrapped in slumber, and the boy buried in a penny dreadful. Darby and Joan did not desire to disturb either of them. They were anxious above all things to get on board the boat unnoticed; so, after a hurried consultation carried on in whispers, they agreed that their best plan would be to walk on to the next stopping-place—a tiny clump of cottages and a shop or two, called by courtesy a village—and make sure of embarking there. This hamlet was only about half a mile off. They could reach it easily before the barge; and keeping well in the shelter of the fringe of alders, osiers, and reeds that grew thickly in the marshy ground below the tow-path, lest the man or the lad should look about and spy them, the children trotted straight along, with their eager eyes steadfastly fixed upon the far-off hills in front.