The Ocean Cat's Paw: The Story of a Strange Cruise, Page 2George Manville Fenn
AFTER FRENCH PRISONERS.
There was some reason in Rodney Harding's words, for as he turned fromthe little river he had come suddenly face to face with a thingaunt-looking lad of about his own age, very shabbily dressed and almostragged, who was gazing at him fiercely, and stood with one hand as ifabout to strike. Recovering himself on the instant, Rodney, obeying hisfirst impulse, began to loosen the bottom joint of his rod ready to useit as a weapon--a defence against the expected attack--but in an instantthe strange new-comer dropped his hand to his side, turned quickly awayto look outward across the moor, and then cried wildly, his voicesounding strange of accent, and husky as if from exhaustion--
"No, no, don't hit! I am so weak and so helpless. Help me. Tell me,which way can I go? They are close after me, and I can run no farther.Help!"
The poor wild-looking creature ended by sinking upon his knees amongstthe heath, and raising his hands with a piteous gesture, while hisimploring looks were quite sufficient to move the young fisherman'sheart.
"Why, who are you?" he cried. "You are not a beggar."
"No, no! I confess. Oh, _mon ami_--I beg your pardon--sir! I forgot.I confess everything. It was for liberty; we were escaping, but theguard--the soldiers! They have been hunting us down like dogs."
"A French prisoner?" cried the boy.
"Ah, _oui_--yes, monsieur. It is my misfortune. But the soldiers. Wehave been separated."
"Who's `we'?" said Rodney sharply.
"My father and I. I don't know which way he has gone. They have takenhim perhaps, and now it is no use; I may as well give up, for I can gono farther."
He sank sideways amongst the heath and fern.
Rodd looked at him in horror, for the poor fellow seemed as if he wasabout to faint with weakness and misery, while he kept giving utteranceto hysterical gasps as he was plainly enough struggling hard to avoidbursting into a passion of weak girlish tears.
"Here, I say, don't do that!" cried Rodd, stooping and catching him bythe arm to shake him violently. "You don't know that the soldiers havecaught your father."
"No, but I feel sure that they must have done so," cried the poorfellow, rising a little and gazing wildly in the speaker's eyes, whileRodd's energy seemed to galvanise him into action.
"Well, suppose they have? They'd only take him back into the prisonagain, would they?"
"I--I don't know," faltered the lad. "I heard firing, and they may haveshot him down and taken him."
"Yes--may, may, may!" cried Rodd angrily. "But I don't believe oursoldiers would be such brutes. It's only Frenchmen that do such thingsas that."
"What!" cried the lad, struggling to his feet. "How dare you speak soof our brave fellows! I appealed to you for help, and you insult me.Do you think if you were in France and flying for your life with yourfather--"
"Haven't got one," said Rodd shortly. "Died before I was born."
"Do you think then that if you alone had appealed to me for help I wouldhave treated a poor escaping prisoner like this?"
"Oh, come, I say, don't go on like that. Any one would think you were agreat girl. How can I help you? I daren't. What would my uncle say ifhe knew I'd helped a French prisoner to escape from his guards? Youshouldn't, you know. It isn't right nor fair. Just because you havegot into trouble, that's no reason why you should drag another fellowdown too. Look here, what are you running away for?"
"Why?" cried the lad bitterly. "Because I am a prisoner, and I wantedto see my poor father free."
"Well, look here," said Rodd huskily; "I am very sorry, you know, andI'd help you if I could, but it's against the law, and--I say! Quick!Don't speak aloud. I can hear some one coming. Yes, it's the soldiers,I think."
"Oh!" cried the French lad wildly, and he gazed about him with everynerve quivering, his whole aspect being that of some hunted beast withthe dogs close upon his track.
"Don't get up," cried Rodd. "I tell you, I mustn't help you; it'sagainst the law; but if I were in your fix I know what I should do. Notafraid of the water, are you?"
"What, swim for my life? Nonsense! In a stream like this!"
"No, no. Wade into that hole opposite yonder, and hide there till thesoldiers are gone."
"But they'd be sure to look there."
"Not they! They'd be afraid of spoiling their breeches and gaiters andwashing out the pipe-clay."
"Ready for you to betray me to them," whispered the lad bitterly. "No;I'll surrender like a man."
"Oh!" growled Rodd, between his teeth. "If you weren't such a poor,weak, helpless-looking chap I'd hit you on the nose. How dare you speakto me like that?"
He raised his hand as if to strike, but there was a ring in his wordswhich had thrilled the fugitive, who to Rodd's astonishment caught thehand in his, and quick as thought pressed it to his lips, and thendashed into the water and splashed his way to the mouth of the hole.The next moment the disturbed stream was the only trace left, for thefugitive had disappeared.
The young fisher stood gazing blankly at the low dark mouth of the hole,listening with every nerve on the strain for some sound from thehiding-place to strike his ear; but there was none. From behind,though, there came a loud voice, shouting--
"Here, this way; up by the stream!"
In an instant Rodd was full of action. Turning his back to the holeacross the pool, he began to whip the surface with such effect that atthe third cast there was a quick rise and he was fast in by far thebiggest trout he had caught that day, though small enough all the same;and with knit brows he was playing it carefully just as a redcoat,followed by three or four more, came up at the double to the exit end ofthe pool and halted to stare at him wonderingly.
"Hi, young fellow!" shouted the leader, whose stripes betokened thesergeant. "What are you doing here?"
Rodd, whose heart was thumping against his ribs from excitement, did notso much as raise his eyes from the surface of the pool, but with teethset, lips pursed up, and brows heavily knit, kept on playing his fish,paying not the slightest heed to the speaker and his companions.
"Fishing, eh?" said the sergeant, who, in spite of his important errand,could not take his eyes from the darting trout. "I say, we are after anescaped prisoner, and he came somewhere up here. Which way has hegone?"
Rodd did not take his eyes from the frantic darting of the fish, butgave line in silence as it flashed through the water to the far side ofthe pool, while the soldiers grounded arms and looked on with thedeepest interest.
"Prisoners escaped," said the sergeant loudly, as he, too, still gazedat the rushings of the trout--"Frenchman--came up this way--Yes, a big'un, youngster--Mind! You'll lose him!--One was quite a lad, and--Welldone! You have got him yet!--We saw him run up this way, and--Welldone!--You have handled a fly-rod before--Did you see anything of him?"
"Eh? What?" said another voice sharply, and a fresh comer suddenlyappeared upon the scene in the shape of Uncle Paul, who stared inastonishment at the group as he stepped into the little amphitheatrefrom behind the rocks.
His appearance acted like magic upon the soldiers, who brought theirmuskets to the carry, while the sergeant sprang to attention andsaluted.
"After escaped prisoners, sir. Asking the young gentleman if he had gotone of them up here."
"Pooh! Nonsense! Absurd!" cried the gentleman addressed, just as Roddbrought his fish to land and went down on one knee to grip it in hisleft hand. "Prisoners, no!" literally barked the fresh comer, settingdown his bottle and net, and taking off his straw hat to wipe hisstreaming face with a big yellow and red bandanna handkerchief. "Here,Rodd, boy," he cried, with a chuckle, "empty your pockets and then openyour creel and show the sergeant how many prisoners you have caught.Hot up here, my lad!" he continued, and the sergeant and men grinned."Thirsty?"
"Yes, sir," said the sergeant, grinning; "pretty tidy. We have had aprecious good run."
"Well, there's plenty of beautiful water. Shall I lend y
"Thankye, sir," said the sergeant.
"Thankye, indeed!" said the bluff speaker, with a chuckle, and he thrusthis hand into his pocket. "There you are; there's a shilling for you toget some cider. I dare say you know where better than I can tell you.No, we have seen no prisoners."
"Thank you, sir! You are a gentleman," said the sergeant. "Didn't wantto interfere with the young gent's sport, but we had got our duty to do.Left face, my lads! Forward!" And the next minute the military partywere on the tramp, to pass through the entrance to the littleamphitheatre and disappear, just as Uncle Paul was lowering himselfgently down upon a huge boulder stone and dragging round the walletwhich hung from his right shoulder.
"Phew!" he gasped. "Pretty job I have had to find you, Pickle! I tooka short cut, as I thought, and it proved a long one. I have had around. Aren't you hungry, boy?"
"Starving, uncle," replied the lad, as he dropped the fish into thecreel, hooked his fly on to one of the rings, and tightened the line."But let's come out here on to the heath. It will be more soft andcomfortable to sit down."
"Bah!" barked Uncle Paul. "I am not going to stir again till I have hadsomething to eat and a rest. There, lay your rod down. Bother thesoldiers! There was another party of them out yonder, shouted at me tostop, and because I didn't, made as if they were going to fire. Yes,they had better! But I had to stop; and then they began questioning meabout their escaped French prisoners, and wanted to know who I was andwhere I was going, and I thought that they were going to make me aprisoner and march me off yonder, only I showed them my card and askedthem if I sounded like a French prisoner. They were civil then, and Igave them a shilling. That's two shillings I have fooled away out hereon this moor, where I should have said it wasn't possible for a man tospend a farthing. Come on; help yourself," and he held out the walletfor his companion to take one of the big sandwiches it contained.
"I think we had better go on outside, uncle," said the boy. "There'smore breeze out there, and the rocks don't reflect the heat."
"Do you?" said Uncle Paul, with his mouth full. "There's quite windenough in here to keep me alive, and I am so hot I don't want to go outto be blown on and catch cold.--My word, the old lady didn't forget themustard! Come, eat away, Pickle. Let's start fair, or you will soon bea sandwich behind. My word, what an appetite this air does give one!"
"Yes, uncle," said the boy, who, in spite of an effort to controlhimself, could not help darting an anxious glance from time to time atthe opening between the rocks.
"Capital sandwiches, Pickle," continued the uncle, eating away with themost intense enjoyment. "One doesn't want any other pickle with these.What does the old proverb say--Hunger's sweet sauce. Hullo! what areyou getting up for?"
"Oh, I am going on eating, uncle," replied the boy. "I was only goingto walk to the end and see how far the soldiers had gone."
"Hang the soldiers, sir!" cried the elder irascibly. "I wish they'dkeep in their barracks instead of coming hunting their prisoners allover this beautiful countryside. Sit down and go on eating."
The boy resumed his place, and began making half-moons in the edge ofhis sandwich and trying to munch hard; but somehow his appetite wasgone, and before he was half through the second sandwich he watched hisopportunity, slipped it into his pocket, and as his uncle turned roundto look at him he leaned forward and helped himself to a third from thewallet.
"Ah, that's better! Eat away, boy. We have got a long walk back, andyou will have plenty of appetite for a good high tea. Hang theprisoners as well as the soldiers. If I had known that this great cagefull of Bony's French frogs was up here I don't believe I should havecome--that is, unless I thought that Nap himself was a prisoner heretoo, when I might have been tempted to come and have a grin at the wildbeast in his cage. Eh, what? What did you do that for?"
He looked curiously at his nephew, who, after a glance across the pool,had involuntarily stretched out one hand to grip his elder's arm.
"Do you hear me, sir?" he cried sharply. "Why did you pinch my arm likethat?"
The boy, whose face had looked rather white the moment before, flushedscarlet, and stammered out something confused and strange.
"Why, hullo, boy!" cried his uncle sharply, and he leaned forward inturn and caught the lad by the wrist. "Why, what's the matter with you?Haven't been overdoing it in the sun, have you? Here, take my cup andhave a glass of water."
"No, no, uncle; I am quite right. There's nothing the matter with me.It's--it's--it's--"
"It's what?" said Uncle Paul sharply, as he gazed full in the boy's eyesand held tightly by his wrist. "Well, it's what?"
"Perhaps I am a bit tired, uncle. I have been working very hard, and Iturned faint and hungry a little while ago."
"Humph!" grunted Uncle Paul. "Then do as I tell you. Drink a cup ofthat clear cold water."
"That's better," he continued, a few minutes later. "Now eat anothersandwich. No nonsense, sir! Do as I tell you!"
The boy sighed and helped himself to another of the double slices andtheir contents, and for the next few minutes no word was spoken, thepair sitting opposite to one another and munching or ruminating steadilyaway, the younger feeling as if every mouthful of which he partook wouldchoke him.
"Hah!" said Uncle Paul, at last; "it is a drawback to this beautifulplace. The colours of the heath are glorious, and the views from uphere are grand. I got some good specimens too, ready for ourmicroscopic work to-night; and that was a nice trout you caught. Howmany did you get, boy?"
"Only one, uncle," said the boy vacantly.
"I didn't see the other, uncle."
Uncle Paul drew a deep breath and fixed the boy with his eyes, as hesaid quietly--
"I asked you how many trout you got, Pickle."
"Oh, about fifty, uncle. Creel's half full."
"Ah! Then we will have some for high tea to-night, and some forbreakfast in the morning, and give our landlady the rest. Nice womanthat; full of stories about the prisoners, and Bony and his wretchedscum. Ugh! The very name of the rascal raises my bile, and--There, Ithink I had better take you home and give you a dose."
"Yes, let's go on back now, uncle," said the boy eagerly, "but indeed,indeed I don't want a dose."
"Humph! Then pray why did you grip hold of my arm again like that, andstare across yonder over my shoulder as if you could see a raven hidingin one of the holes?"
"Oh no, uncle," cried the boy, with a forced laugh. "I couldn't seeanything."
"Ha, ha!" ejaculated Uncle Paul. "Now, look here, Pickle; you and Ihave always had a sort of tacit agreement that we'd play fair together,and that there should be a mutual confidence."
"Yes, uncle, of course," cried the boy, whose face was burning.
"Very well, then, you are breaking truce. You are not playing the game,sir."
"Pickle! Now then, sir, out with it. You have seen those Frenchprisoners."
"Yes, sir. Why did you pinch my arm--twice? Now then, honour!"
"I--I--You were talking about Bonaparte."
"Well, what of that?"
"I was afraid he'd hear you, uncle."
"What!" cried the other, and his mouth opened wide. "Bony! Here?"
"No, uncle, of course not, but one of the young prisoners. He wasescaping."
"And you--you have turned traitor to your King, and been hiding aprisoner of war from his guard! Why, you young scoundrel! You lied tothat sergeant, and said you hadn't seen them."
"I didn't, uncle!" cried the boy hotly. "It was you."
"Eh? What?" roared the elder. "You dare to! Eh?--Ah--so I did! Butthen I didn't know."
"No, uncle, and if you had seen and heard the poor lad as I did, I amsure you wouldn't have betrayed him."
"Betray! It isn't betraying, sir, to give up a prisoner of war."
"I felt as if it would be, uncle, under such ci
rcumstances," said Rodd,who began noting that his uncle had lowered his voice, and that hisangriest words had been uttered in a whisper.
"Look here, my boy," he said now quite softly, "I knew that there wassomething up, or you would have been wolfing more than your share ofthose sandwiches. I saw you keep squinting at that hole over yonder.So you have hid him away there?"
"No, uncle," said Rodd; "I did nothing, but just as the soldiers werecoming up, and he'd been begging and praying me to save him, I just saidthat that would be a good place to hide."
"Humph!" grunted Uncle Paul. "It was very wrong, my boy--very wrong;but look here, Pickle, is the poor fellow badly wounded?"
"No, uncle; only exhausted. He looked just like that hunted deer we sawthe other day."
"Hah!" said Uncle Paul, nodding his head. "Humph! Well, you know, myboy, it isn't the thing, and we should be getting into no end of troubleif it were known. It's against the law, you know, and if you had caughthim and held him you would have got a big reward."
Rodd got up and laid his hands upon his elder's shoulders as he lookedhim fixedly in the eyes.
"I say, uncle," he said, "you have been questioning me. It's my turnnow."
"Yes, Pickle; I'll play fair. It's your turn," said Uncle Paul. "Whatis it you want to say?"
"Only this, uncle. Would you have liked me to earn that reward?"
"Hah! I say, Pickle, my lad, would you like any more sandwiches?"
"Then isn't it about time we began to make for home?"
Uncle Paul rose and led the way down-stream, gazing straight before him,and though he must have seen, he took no notice of the fact that Rodddid not throw the strap of his creel of fish over his shoulder, but leftit by the side of the stone, along with the wallet, through whose gapingmouth a second packet of big sandwiches could still be seen.