Dick o' the Fens: A Tale of the Great East Swamp, Page 2George Manville Fenn
THE GREAT FEN DRAIN.
"Yes, it's all right, Master Winthorpe," said Farmer Tallington; "butwhat will the folks say?"
"Say! What have they got to do with it?" cried Squire Winthorpe. "Youboys don't make so much noise. I can't hear myself speak."
"Do you hear, Tom, howd thy row, or I'll send thee home," said thefarmer; "recollect where you be."
"Yes, father," said, the lad.
"It wasn't Tom; it was me," said Dick quietly.
"Then hold your tongue, sir," cried the squire. "Now look here, MasterTallington. If a big drain is cut right through the low fen, it willcarry off all the water; and where now there's nothing but peat, we canget acres and acres of good dry land that will graze beasts or growcorn."
"Yes, that's fine enough, squire," said Tom's father; "but what will thefen-men say?"
"I don't care what they say," cried the squire hotly. "There are aboutfifty of us, and we're going to do it. Will you join?"
"Hum!" said Tom Tallington's father, taking his long clay-pipe from hislips and scratching his head with the end. "What about the money?"
"You'll have to be answerable for a hundred pounds, and it means yourown farm worth twice as much, and perhaps a score of acres of good landfor yourself."
"But it can't be good land, squire. There be twenty foot right down o'black peat, and nowt under that but clay."
"I tell you that when the water's out of it, James Tallington, all thatwill be good valuable land. Now, then, will you join the adventurers?"
"Look here, squire, we've known each other twenty year, and I ask theeas a man, will it be all right?"
"And I tell you, man, that I'm putting all I've got into it. If it werenot right, I wouldn't ask you to join."
"Nay, that you wouldn't, squire," said Farmer Tallington, taking a gooddraught from his ale. "I'm saaving a few pounds for that young dog, andI believe in you. I'll be two hundred, and that means--"
"Twice as much land," said the squire, holding out his hand. "Spokenlike a man, Master Tallington; and if the draining fails, which it can'tdo, I'll pay you two hundred myself."
"Nay, thou weant," said Farmer Tallington stoutly. "Nay, squire, I'lltak' my risk of it, and if it turns out bad, Tom will have to tak' hischance like his father before him. I had no two hundred or five hundredpounds to start me."
"Nor I," said the squire.
"May we talk now, father?" said Dick.
"Yes, if you like."
"Then," cried Dick, "I wish you wouldn't do it. Why, it'll spoil allthe fishing and the 'coy, and we shall get no ice for our pattens, andthere'll be no water for the punt, and no wild swans or geese or duck,and no peat to cut or reeds to slash. Oh, I say, father, don't drainthe fen."
"Why, you ignorant young cub," cried the squire, "do you suppose you arealways to be running over the ice in pattens, and fishing and shooting?"
"Well, no, not always," said Dick, "but--"
"But--get out with your buts, sir. Won't it be better to have solidland about us instead of marsh, and beef and mutton instead of birds,and wheat instead of fish?"
"No, I don't think so, father."
"Well, then, sir, I do," said the squire. "I suppose you wouldn't likethe ague driven away?"
"I don't mind, father," said Dick laughing. "I never get it."
"No, but others do, and pains in their joints, and rheumatics. I say,Tallington, when they get as old as we are, eh?"
"Yes, they'll find out the difference, squire; but do you know, that'show all the fen-men'll talk."
"Let 'em," said the squire; "we've got leave from the king's magistratesto do it; and as for the fen-men, because they want to live like frogsall their lives, is that any reason why honest men shouldn't live likehonest men should. There, fill up your pipe again; and as for thefen-men, I'll talk to them."
There was a bonny fire in the great open fireplace, for winter was fastcoming on, and the wind that had been rushing across the fen-land andmaking the reeds rustle, now howled round the great ivy-clad chimney ofthe Hall, and made the flame and smoke eddy in the wide opening, andthreaten every now and then to rush out into the low-ceiled homely room,whose well-polished oak furniture reflected the light.
The two lads sat listening to the talk of their elders, and after a timetook up the work that had been lying beside them--to wit, some netting;but before Dick had formed many meshes he stopped to replenish the fire,taking some awkward-looking pieces of split root which were as red asmahogany, and placing them upon the top, where they began to blaze witha brilliant light which told tales of how they were the roots ofturpentine-filled pines, which had been growing in the ancient forestthat existed before the fen; and then taking from a basket half a dozendark thick squares of dried peat and placing them round the flamingembers to keep up the heat.
"I say, Tom," said Dick in a low voice, "I don't think I should care tolive here if the fen was drained."
"No," replied Tom in the same tone, "it would be a miserable place."
"Now, Tom, lad, home!" said the farmer, getting up. "Good-night,squire!"
"Nay, I won't say good-night yet," cried the squire. "Hats and sticks,Dick, and we'll walk part of the way home with them."
As they left the glowing room with its cosy fire, and opened the halldoor to gaze out upon the night, the wind swept over the house andplunged into the clump of pines, which nourished and waved upon theToft, as if it would root them up. The house was built upon a roundedknoll by the side of the embanked winding river, which ran sluggishlyalong the edge of the fen; and as the party looked out over the gardenand across the fen upon that November night, they seemed to be ashore inthe midst of a sea of desolation, which spread beneath the night skyaway and away into the gloom.
From the sea, four miles distant, came a low angry roar, which seemed torouse the wind to shout and shriek back defiance, as it plunged into thepines again, and shook and worried them till it passed on with an angryhiss.
"High-tide, and a big sea yonder," said the squire. "River must be fullup. Hope she won't come over and wash us away."
"Wesh me away, you mean," said Farmer Tallington. "You're all right upon the Toft. 'Member the big flood, squire?"
"Ay, fifteen years ago, Tallington, when I came down to you inHickathrift's duck-punt, and we fetched you and Tom's mother out of thetop window."
"Ay, but it weer a bad time, and it's a good job we don't hev suchfloods o' watter now."
"Ay 'tis," said the squire. "My word, but the sea must bite to-night.Dick here wanted to be a sailor. Better be a farmer a night like this,eh, Tallington?"
"Deal better at home," was the reply, as the door was closed behindthem, shutting out the warmth and light; and the little party went downa path leading through the clump of firs which formed a landmark formiles in the great level fen, and then down the slope on the far side,and on to the rough road which ran past Farmer Tallington's littlehomestead.
The two elder friends went on first, and the lads, who had been togetherat Lincoln Grammar-School, hung behind.
To some people a walk of two miles through the fen in the stormydarkness of the wintry night would have seemed fraught with danger, themore so that it was along no high-road, but merely a rugged track madeby the horses and tumbrils in use at the Toft and at Tallington's Fenfarm, Grimsey, a track often quite impassable after heavy rains. Therewas neither hedge nor ditch to act as guide, no hard white or drab road;nothing but old usage and instinctive habit kept those who traversed theway from going off it to right or left into the oozy fen with its blacksoft peat, amber-coloured bog water, and patches of bog-moss, green insummer, creamy white and pink in winter; while here and there amongstthe harder portions, where heath and broom and furze, whose roots werematted with green and grey coral moss, found congenial soil, were longholes full of deep clear water--some a few yards across, others longzigzag channels like water-filled cracks in the earth, and othersforming lanes and ponds and l
akes that were of sizes varying from aquarter of a mile to two or three in circumference.
Woe betide the stranger who attempted the journey in the dark, the trackonce missed there was death threatening him on every hand; while hiscries for help would have been unheard as he struggled in the deep blackmire, or swam for life in the clear water to find no hold at the sidebut the whispering reeds, from which, with splashings and whistling ofwings, the wild-fowl would rise up, to speed quacking and shriekingaway.
But no thoughts of danger troubled the lads as they trudged on slowlyand moodily, the deep murmur of their elders' voices being heard fromthe darkness far ahead.
"Wonder what old Dave said about his powder-flask?" said Tom, suddenlybreaking the silence.
"Don't know and don't care," said Dick gruffly.
There was a pause.
"I should like to have been there and heard Old Hicky," said Tom, againbreaking the silence.
"Yah! He'd only laugh," said Dick. "He likes a bit of fun as well aswe do."
"I should have liked to see the fire fly about."
"So should I, if he'd thought it was Jacob, and given him what he callsa blob," said Dick; "but it wasn't half a bang."
"Well, I wish now we hadn't done it," said Tom.
"Because Dave will be so savage. Next time we go over to his placehe'll send us back, and then there'll be no more fun at the duck 'coy,and no netting and shooting."
"Oh, I say, Tom, what a fellow you are! Now is Dave Gittan the man tolook sour at anybody who takes him half a pound of powder? Why, he'llsmile till his mouth's open and his eyes shut, and take us anywhere."
"Well, half a pound of powder will make a difference," said Tomthoughtfully.
"I'll take him a pound," said Dick magnificently.
"How are you going to get it?"
"How am I going to get it!" said Dick. "Why, let Sam Farles bring itfrom Spalding; and I tell you what, I won't give him the pound. I'llgive him half a pound, and you shall give him the other."
"Ah!" cried Tom eagerly; "and I tell you what, Dick--you know that oldlead?"
"What! that they dug up when they made the new cow-house?"
"Yes, give him a lump of that, and we'll help him melt it down somenight, and cast bullets and slugs."
"Seems so nasty. Father said it was part of an old lead coffin that oneof the monks was buried in."
"Well, what does that matter? It was hundreds of years ago. Davewouldn't know."
"And if he did he wouldn't mind," said Dick. "All right! we'll take himthe lead to-morrow."
"But you haven't got the powder."
"No, but Hicky goes to Ealand to-morrow, and he can take the money tothe carrier, and we can tell Dave we've sent for it, and he knows he canbelieve us, and that'll be all right."
There was another pause, during which the wind shrieked, and faroverhead there came a confused gabbling noise, accompanied by thewhistling of wings, a strange eerie sound in the darkness that wouldhave startled a stranger. But the boys only stood still and listened.
"There they go, a regular flight!" said Dick. "If Dave hears them won'the wish he'd got plenty of powder and lead!"
"Think the old monks'll mind?" said Tom.
"What! that flock of wild-geese going over?"
"No-o-o! Our taking the lead."
"Oh! I say, Tom, you are a chap," cried his companion. "I know youbelieve in ghosts."
"No, I don't," said Tom stoutly; "but I shouldn't like to live in yourold place all the same."
"What! because it's part of the old monastery?"
"Yes. The old fellows were all killed when the Danes came up the riverin their boats and burned the place."
"Well, father and I aren't Danes, and we didn't kill them. What stuff!"
"No, but it's not nice all the same to live in a place where lots ofpeople were murdered."
"Tchah! who cares! I don't. It's a capital old place, and you neverdig anywhere without finding something."
"Yes," said Tom solemnly, "something that isn't always nice."
"Well, you do sometimes," said Dick, "but not often. But I wouldn'tleave the old place for thousands of pounds. Why, where would you getanother like it with its old walls, and vaults, and cellars, and thickwalls, and the monks' fish-ponds, and all right up on a high toft withthe river on one side, and the fen for miles on the other. Look at thefish."
"Yes; it's all capital," said Tom. "I like it ever so; but it isprecious monky."
"Well, so are you! Who cares about its being monky! The old monks werejolly old chaps, I know."
"How do you know? Sh! what's that?"
There was a rush, a splash, a loud cackling noise, and then silence savefor the wind.
"He's got him," cried Tom. "I wish we had Hicky's Grip here; he'd makehim scuffle and run."
"Think it was a fox?" said Tom.
"Sure of it; and it was one of those old mallards he has got. Come on.Why shouldn't the fox have duck for supper as well as other people?"
"Ah, why not?" said Tom. "But how do you know the monks were jolly oldchaps?"
"How do I know! why, weren't they fond of fishing, and didn't they makemy ponds? I say, let's have a try for the big pike to-morrow. I sawhim fly right out of the water day before yesterday, when it rained.Oh, I say, it is a shame!"
"What's a shame?" said Tom.
"Why, to do all this draining. What's the good of it?"
"To make dry fields."
"But I don't want any more dry fields. Here have I been thinking foryears how nice it would be, when we'd done school to have all the run ofthe fen, and do what we liked, netting, and fishing and shooting, andhelping Dave at the 'coy, and John Warren among the rabbits."
"And getting a hare sometimes with Hicky's Grip," put in, Tom.
"Yes; and now all the place is going to be spoiled. I say, are we goingright home with you?"
"I suppose so," said Tom. "There's the light. Old Boggy'll hear usdirectly. I thought so. Here he comes."
There was a deep angry bark at a distance, and this sounded nearer, andwas followed by the rustling of feet, ending in a joyous whining andpanting as a great sheep-dog raced up to the boys, and began to leap andfawn upon them, but only to stop suddenly, stand sniffing the air in thedirection of the old priory, and utter an uneasy whine.
"Hey, boy! what's the matter?" said Tom.
"He smells that fox," said Dick triumphantly. "I say, I wish we'd hadhim with us. There! he's got wind of him. I wish it wasn't so dark,and we'd go back and have a run."
"Have a run! have a swim, you mean," said Tom. "Why, that was in one ofthe wettest places between here and your house. I say, how plainly youcan hear the sea!"
"Of course you can, when the wind blows off it," said Dick, as helistened for a moment to the dull low rushing sound. "Your mother hasput two candles in the window."
"She always does when father's out. She's afraid he might get lost inthe bog."
"So did my mother once; but it made father cross, and he said, next timehe went out she was to tie a bit of thread to his arm, and hold the end,and then he would be sure to get home all right. Why, there's ajack-o'-lantern on the road."
"That isn't a jacky-lantern," replied Tom, looking steadfastly first atthe two lights shining out in the distance, and then at a dim kind ofstar which seemed to be jerking up and down.
"Tell you it is," said Dick shortly.
"Tell you it isn't," cried Tom. "Jacky-lanterns are never lame. Theynever hop up and down like that, but seem to glide here and there like ahoney-bee. It's our Joe come to meet us with the horn lantern. It'shis game leg makes it go up and down."
"Dick!" came from ahead.
"Yes, father," shouted the lad; and they ran on to where the squire andFarmer Tallington were awaiting them.
"We'll say `good-night' now," said the squire. "Here, Dick, Farmer'sJoe is coming on with the lantern. Shall we l
et him light us home?"
"Why, we should have to see him home afterwards, father," said Dickmerrily.
"Right, my lad! Good-night, Tallington! You are in for your twohundred, mind."
"Yes, and may it bring good luck to us!" said the fanner. "Good-nightto both of you!"
Dick supplemented his "good-night" with a pat on the head of the greatsheep-dog, which stood staring along the track, and snuffing the wind;and then he and his father started homeward.
"I shall come over directly after breakfast, Dick," shouted Tom.
"All right!" replied Dick as he looked back, to see that the lantern hadnow become stationary, and then it once more began to dance up and down,while the two lights shone out like tiny stars a few hundred yards away.
"They've got the best of it, Dick," said the squire. "Why, we werenearly there. Let's make haste or your mother will be uneasy. Phew!the wind's getting high!"