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It was much too fine a night to think of going to bed at once, and so, although the witching hour of nine P.M. had struck, Edward and I were still leaning out of the open window in our nightshirts, watching the play of the cedar-branch shadows on the moonlit lawn, and planning schemes of fresh devilry for the sunshiny morrow. From below, strains of the jocund piano declared that the Olympians were enjoying themselves in their listless, impotent way; for the new curate had been bidden to dinner that night, and was at the moment unclerically proclaiming to all the world that he feared no foe. His discordant vociferations doubtless started a train of thought in Edward's mind, for the youth presently remarked, a propos of nothing that had been said before, "I believe the new curate's rather gone on Aunt Maria."
I scouted the notion. "Why, she's quite old," I said. (She must have seen some five-and-twenty summers.)
"Of course she is," replied Edward, scornfully. "It's not her, it's her money he's after, you bet!"
"Didn't know she had any money," I observed timidly.
"Sure to have," said my brother, with confidence. "Heaps and heaps."
Silence ensued, both our minds being busy with the new situation thus presented, - mine, in wonderment at this flaw that so often declared itself in enviable natures of fullest endowment, - in a grown-up man and a good cricketer, for instance, even as this curate; Edward's (apparently), in the consideration of how such a state of things, supposing it existed, could be best turned to his own advantage.
"Bobby Ferris told me," began Edward in due course, "that there was a fellow spooning his sister once - "
"What's spooning?" I asked meekly.
"Oh, _I_ dunno," said Edward, indifferently. It's - it's - it's just a thing they do, you know. And he used to carry notes and messages and things between 'em, and he got a shilling almost every time."
"What, from each of 'em?" I innocently inquired.
Edward looked at me with scornful pity. "Girls never have any money," he briefly explained. "But she did his exercises and got him out of rows, and told stories for him when he needed it - and much better ones than he could have made up for himself. Girls are useful in some ways. So he was living in clover, when unfortunately they went and quarrelled about something."
"Don't see what that's got to do with it," I said.
"Nor don't I," rejoined Edward. "But anyhow the notes and things stopped, and so did the shillings. Bobby was fairly cornered, for he had bought two ferrets on tick, and promised to pay a shilling a week, thinking the shillings were going on for ever, the silly young ass. So when the week was up, and he was being dunned for the shilling, he went off to the fellow and said, `Your broken-hearted Bella implores you to meet her at sundown,-by the hollow oak, as of old, be it only for a moment. Do not fail!' He got all that out of some rotten book, of course. The fellow looked puzzled and said, -
"`What hollow oak? I don't know any hollow oak.'
"`Perhaps it was the Royal Oak?' said Bobby promptly, 'cos he saw he had made a slip, through trusting too much to the rotten book; but this didn't seem to make the fellow any happier."
"Should think not," I said, "the Royal Oak's an awful low sort of pub."
"I know," said Edward. "Well, at last the fellow said, `I think I know what she means: the hollow tree in your father's paddock. It happens to be an elm, but she wouldn't know the difference. All right: say I'll be there.' Bobby hung about a bit, for he hadn't got his money. `She was crying awfully,' he said. Then he got his shilling."
"And wasn't the fellow riled," I inquired, "when he got to the place and found nothing?"
"He found Bobby," said Edward, indignantly. "Young Ferris was a gentleman, every inch of him. He brought the fellow another message from Bella: `I dare not leave the house. My cruel parents immure me closely If you only knew what I suffer. Your broken-hearted Bella.' Out of the same rotten book. This made the fellow a little suspicious,'cos it was the old Ferrises who had been keen about the thing all through: the fellow, you see, had tin."
"But what's that got to - " I began again.
"Oh, _I_ dunno," said Edward, impatiently. `I'm telling you just what Bobby told me. He got suspicious, anyhow, but he couldn't exactly call Bella's brother a liar, so Bobby escaped for the time. But when he was in a hole next week, over a stiff French exercise, and tried the same sort of game on his sister, she was too sharp for him, and he got caught out. Somehow women seem more mistrustful than men. They're so beastly suspicious by nature, you know."
"_I_ know," said I. "But did the two - the fellow and the sister - make it up afterwards?"
"I don't remember about that," replied Edward, indifferently; "but Bobby got packed off to school a whole year earlier than his people meant to send him, - which was just what he wanted. So you see it all came right in the end!"
I was trying to puzzle out the moral of this story - it was evidently meant to contain one somewhere - when a flood of golden lamplight mingled with the moon rays on the lawn, and Aunt Maria and the new curate strolled out on the grass below us, and took the direction of a garden seat that was backed by a dense laurel shrubbery reaching round in a half-circle to the house. Edward mediated moodily. "If we only knew what they were talking about," said he, "you'd soon see whether I was right or not. Look here! Let's send the kid down by the porch to reconnoitre!"
"Harold's asleep," I said; "it seems rather a shame - "
"Oh, rot!" said my brother; "he's the youngest, and he's got to do as he's told!"
So the luckless Harold was hauled out of bed and given his sailing-orders. He was naturally rather vexed at being stood up suddenly on the cold floor, and the job had no particular interest for him; but he was both staunch and well disciplined. The means of exit were simple enough. A porch of iron trellis came up to within easy reach of the window, and was habitually used by all three of us, when modestly anxious to avoid public notice. Harold climbed deftly down the porch like a white rat, and his night gown glimmered a moment on the gravel walk ere he was lost to sight in the darkness of the shrubbery. A brief interval of silence ensued, broken suddenly by a sound of scuffle, and then a shrill, long-drawn squeal, as of metallic surfaces in friction. Our scout had fallen into the hands of the enemy!
Indolence alone had made us devolve the task of investigation on our younger brother. Now that danger had declared itself, there was no hesitation. In a second we were down the side of the porch, and crawling Cherokee-wise through the laurels to the back of the garden-seat. Piteous was the sight that greeted us. Aunt Maria was on the seat, in a white evening frock, looking - for an aunt - really quite nice. On the lawn stood an incensed curate, grasping our small brother by a large ear, which - judging from the row he was making - seemed on the point of parting company with the head it adorned. The gruesome noise he was emitting did not really affect us otherwise than aesthetically. To one who has tried both, the wail of genuine physical anguish is easy distinguishable from the pumped-up ad misericordiam blubber. Harold's could clearly be recognised as belonging to the latter class. "Now, you young - " (whelp, _I_ think it was, but Edward stoutly maintains it was devil), said the curate, sternly; "tell us what you mean by it!"
"Well, leggo of my ear then!" shrilled Harold, "and I'll tell you the solemn truth!"
"Very well," agreed the curate, releasing him; "now go ahead, and don't lie more than you can help."
We abode the promised disclosure without the least misgiving; but even we had hardly given Harold due credit for his fertility of resource and powers of imagination.
"I had just finished saying my prayers," began that young gentleman, slowly, "when I happened to look out of the window, and on the lawn I saw a sight which froze the marrow in my veins!
A burglar was approaching the house with snake-like tread! He had a scowl and a dark lantern, and he was armed to the teeth!"
We listened with interest. The style, though unlike Harold's native notes, seemed strangely familiar.
"Go on," said the curate, grimly.
"Pausing in his stealthy career," continued Harold, "he gave a low whistle. Instantly the signal was responded to, and from the adjacent shadows two more figures glided forth. The miscreants were both armed to the teeth."
"Excellent," said the curate; "proceed."
"The robber chief," pursued Harold, warming to his work, "joined his nefarious comrades, and conversed with them in silent tones. His expression was truly ferocious, and I ought to have said that he was armed to the t - "
"There, never mind his teeth," interrupted the curate, rudely; "there's too much jaw about you altogether. Hurry up and have done."
"I was in a frightful funk," continued the narrator, warily guarding his ear with his hand, "but just then the drawing-room window opened, and you and Aunt Maria came out - I mean emerged. The burglars vanished silently into the laurels, with horrid implications!"
The curate looked slightly puzzled. The tale was well sustained, and certainly circumstantial. After all, the boy might have really seen something. How was the poor man to know - though the chaste and lofty diction might have supplied a hint - that the whole yarn was a free adaptation from the last Penny Dreadful lent us by the knife-and-boot boy?
"Why did you not alarm the house?" he asked.
"'Cos I was afraid," said Harold, sweetly, "that p'raps they mightn't believe me!"
"But how did you get down here, you naughty little boy?" put in Aunt Maria.
Harold was hard pressed - by his own flesh and blood, too!
At that moment Edward touched me on the shoulder and glided off through the laurels. When some ten yards away he gave a low whistle. I replied by another. The effect was magical. Aunt Maria started up with a shriek. Harold gave one startled glance around, and then fled like a hare, made straight for the back door, burst in upon the servants at supper, and buried himself in the broad bosom of the cook, his special ally. The curate faced the laurels - hesitatingly. But Aunt Maria flung herself on him. "O Mr. Hodgitts!" I heard her cry, "you are brave! for my sake do not be rash!" He was not rash. When I peeped out a second later, the coast was entirely clear.
By this time there were sounds of a household timidly emerging; and Edward remarked to me that perhaps we had better be off. Retreat was an easy matter. A stunted laurel gave a leg up on to the garden wall, which led in its turn to the roof of an outhouse, up which, at a dubious angle, we could crawl to the window of the box-room. This overland route had been revealed to us one day by the domestic cat, when hard pressed in the course of an otter-hunt, in which the cat - somewhat unwillingly - was filling the title role; and it had proved distinctly useful on occasions like the present. We were snug in bed - minus some cuticle from knees and elbows - and Harold, sleepily chewing something sticky, had been carried up in the arms of the friendly cook, ere the clamour of the burglar-hunters had died away.
The curate's undaunted demeanour, as reported by Aunt Maria, was generally supposed to have terrified the burglars into flight, and much kudos accrued to him thereby. Some days later, however, when he hid dropped in to afternoon tea, and was making a mild curatorial joke about the moral courage required for taking the last piece of bread-and-butter, I felt constrained to remark dreamily, and as it were to the universe at large, "Mr. Hodgitts! you are brave! for my sake, do not be rash!"
Fortunately for me, the vicar was also a caller on that day; and it was always a comparatively easy matter to dodge my long-coated friend in the open.
Turn to the next chapter: A HARVESTING