Chapter XI.

Hal had got into a mood in which he was tired of fears and of waiting for tidings, and was glad to shake off the thought, and be carried along to something new, he and the Grevilles were rather fond of one another's company, in an idle sort of way. They "put him up to things," as he said; they made a variety; and he was always glad of listeners to his wonderful stories, which rather diverted the other boys, who, though they sometimes made game of them, were much less apt to pick them to pieces than was Sam.

Poor Captain Merrifield! what had not befallen him, according to his son? He had been stuck on to a rock of loadstone; he had been bitten by mosquitos as big as jackdaws--at least as jack-snipes; he had sat down to rest on the trunk of a fallen tree, and it whisked him over on his face, and turned out to he a rattle-snake--at least, a boa- constrictor! Nay, Henry discoursed on the ponies he had himself tamed, the rabbits he had shot, the trees he had climbed, the nests he had found, the rats he had killed, in terms he durst not use when his brother was by; or if he did, and Sam brought him to book, he always said "it was all fun." It often seemed as if he did not himself know whether he meant to be believed or otherwise; and as to his intentions for his sailor life, they were, as has been already seen, of the most splendid character! Sometimes he shot the French admiral dead from the mast-head; sometimes he sailed into Plymouth with the whole enemy's fleet behind him; sometimes he, the youngest midshipman, rescued the whole crew in a wreck where all the other officers were drowned; sometimes he shot a shark through the head, just as it was about to make a meal of Prince Alfred!

He certainly was thus an entertaining companion to those who did not pay heed to truth, and liked to hear or laugh at great swelling words; and the Grevilles, on their idle day, were glad to have him with them, and were rather curious to prove how much fact there was in his boast of being a most admirable shot.

Meddling with guns was absolutely forbidden to all the three, except by special permission and with an elder looking on; but the Grevilles were not in the habit of obeying, except when they were forced to do so; and Henry, having once begun to think no one would heed his present doings, was ready to go on rather than be accused of minding his governess.

So the gardener's gun was taken from the hiding-place, whither it had been conveyed from the tool-house; and the three boys ran off together, their first object being to get out of the Greville grounds, where they could be met by any of the men. They got quite out into the fields, before they ventured to stop that Osmond might load the gun. Each was to take a shot in turn; Osmond tried first, at a poor innocent young thrush, newly come out for his earliest flight. Happily he missed it; Martin claimed the next, and for want of anything better to shoot, took aim at the scare-crow in the middle of Farmer Grice's beans. He was sure that he had hit it, and showed triumphantly the great holes in its hat; but the other boys were strongly persuaded that they had been there before.

"Well, come away," said Osmond; "this is a great deal too near old Grice's farm-yard. If we go popping about here, we shall have him out upon us, for an old tiger as he is!"

"Come along, then," said Martin.

But Hal had just got the gun, and saw something so black and shiny through the hedge, that he was persuaded that a flock of rooks were feeding in the next field, and he fired!

Such a cackling and screeching as arose! and with it one dying gobble, and a very loud "Hollo! you rascal!"

"My eyes! you've been and gone and done it!" cried Osmond.

"Cut! cut!" screamed Martin; and Hal, not exactly knowing what he had done, but sure that it was something dreadful, and hearing voices in pursuit, threw down the gun, and took to his heels; but the others had the start of him, and were over the gap long before he could get to it. And even as he did reach it, a hand was on his throat, almost choking him, and a tremendous voice cried, "You young poacher, you sha'n't get off that way! I'll have you up to the Bench, that I will, for shooting the poor old turkey-cock before my very eyes."

"Oh! don't, don't! I didn't mean it," cried Hal, turning in the terrible grip; "I thought it was only a rook!"

"A rook, I dare say! And what business had you to think, coming trespassing here on my ground, and breaking the hedges! I'd have you up for that, if for nothing else, you young vagabond!"

"Oh, don't, don't! I'm Henry Merrifield!"

"I don't care if you're Henry Merry Andrew!" said Farmer Grice, who was a surly man, and had a grudge of long standing against the Captain, for withstanding him at the Board of Guardians. "I'll have the law out of you, whoever you are."

"But--but--Mamma is so very ill!" cried Hal, bursting into tears.

"The more shame for you to be rampaging about the country this fashion," said the farmer, giving him a shake that seemed to make all his bones rattle in his skin. "Serve you right if I flogged you within an inch of your life."

"Oh, please don't--I mean please do--anything but have me up to the magistrates! I'll never do it again, never!" sobbed Henry in his terror.

Mr. Grice had some pity, and also knew that his wife and all the neighbours would be shocked at his prosecuting so young a boy, whose parents were in such distress. So he said, "There, then, I'll overlook it this time, sir, so as I have the value of the bird."

"And what is the value--" asked Henry, trembling.

"Value! Why, the breed came from Norfolk; he was three years old; and my missus set great store on him, he was as good as a house-dog, to keep idle children out of the yard; and it was quite a picture to see him posturing about, and setting up his tail! Value! not less than five-and-twenty shillings, sir."

"But I have not five-and-twenty shillings. I can't get them," said Hal, falling back into misery.

"You should have thought of that before you shot poor old Tom Turkey!" quoth Farmer Grice.

"But what in the world shall I ever do?" said Henry.

"That's for you to settle, sir," said the farmer, taking up the unlucky gun. "I shall take this, and keep it out of further harm."

"Oh pray, pray!" cried Henry. "It is not my gun; it is Mr. Greville's; please let me have it!"

"What! was it those young dogs, the Master Grevilles, that were with you!" growled Mr. Grice. "If I'd known that, I'd not have let you off so easy. Those boys are the plague of the place; I wish it had been one of them as I'd caught, I'd have had some satisfaction out of them!"

Henry entreated again for the gun, explaining that they had not leave to take it; but the farmer was unrelenting. He might go to them, he said, to make up the price of the poor turkey-cock; how they could have got the gun was no affair of his; have it they should not, till the money was brought to him; and if it did not come before night, he should carry the gun up to the Park, and complain to Mr. Greville.

With this answer the unhappy Hal was released, and ran after his friends to tell them of the terms. He found them sitting on a low wall, just within their own grounds, waiting to hear what had become of him. When he had told his story, they both set upon him for betraying them, and declared that they should send him to Coventry ever after, and never do anything with him again; but as it was plain that the gun must be redeemed, if they wished to avoid severe punishment, there was a consultation. Nobody had much money; but Osmond consolingly suspected that the farmer would take less; five- and-twenty shillings was an exorbitant price to set on a turkey- cock's head, and perhaps half would content him.

The half, however, seemed as impossible as the whole. Osmond had three shillings, Martin two, Hal fourpence! What was to be done? And the boys declared that if it should come to their father's knowledge, Hal, who had given up their names, should certainly not be shielded by them. In fact, he, who had done the deed, was the only one who ought to pay.

The sound of the servants' dinner-bell at the Park broke up the consultation; the boys must not be missed at luncheon; and they therefore separated, agreeing to meet at that same place at four o'clock, to hear the result of Hal's negotiation with the farmer; for neither of the Grevilles would hear of helping him to face the enemy.

Poor Hal plodded home disconsolately. Once he thought of telling Sam, and asking his help; but Sam would be so much shocked at such a scrape at such a time, as possibly to lick him for it before helping him. Indeed Hal did not see much chance of Sam being able to do anything for them; and he had too often boasted over his elder brother to like to abase himself by such a confession--when, too, it would almost be owning how much better it would have been to have followed Sam's advice and have gone safely to church.

Could he borrow of any one? Had he nothing of his own to sell or exchange? Ah! if it had not been for that stupid hoard of little David's, he might have had even so much! By-the-bye, some of that collection was his own. He might quite lawfully take that back again. How much could it be? How much did he put in last week? the week before? Oh, never mind; some of it was his at all events; there was no harm in taking that. Most likely he should be able to restore it four-fold when Colonel Carey made his present; or, if not, nobody knew exactly what was in Toby Fillpot; and after all very likely they would forget all about it; people could not think about pigs when Mamma was ill; or, maybe, he should go to join his ship, and hear no more of it. So he came home, and crossed the paddock just as the dinner-bell was ringing, opening the hall-door as the children were running across it to the dining-room.

Miss Fosbrook, who was walking behind them, turned as he came in.

"Henry," she said, "I have sent Johnnie to dine in the nursery, for his disobedience in climbing the gate. I certainly shall not give you a less punishment. You must have led him into it; and how could you be so cruel as to leave the poor little fellow alone in such a dangerous place?"

"Stupid little coward! it was not a bit of danger!" said Hal.

"So young a child--" began Miss Fosbrook.

"Oh, that's all your London notions," said Hal. "Why, I climbed up our gate at Stonehouse, which was twice as high, when I wasn't near as old as that!"

"I am not going to argue with you, Henry; but after such an act of disobedience, I cannot allow you to sit down to dinner with us. Go up to the school-room, and Mary shall bring you your dinner."

"I'm sure I don't want to dine with a lot of babies and governesses!" exclaimed Henry, and bounced up-stairs, leaving Miss Fosbrook quite confounded at such an outbreak of naughtiness.

She intended, as soon as dinner should be over, to go up to him, and try to lead him to be sorry for his conduct, and to think what a wretched moment this was for such audacity; and then she feared that she ought to punish him farther, by keeping him in all the afternoon. He was so soft and easily impressed, that she almost trusted to make him feel that it would be right that he should suffer for his misconduct.

When she went up-stairs, almost as soon as grace had been said, he was gone. Nobody could find him, and calling produced no answer. She became quite distressed and anxious, but could not go far from the house herself, nor send Sam, in case the message should arrive.

"Oh," said Sam, "no doubt he's after something with the Grevilles, and was afraid you would stop him in."

She tried to believe this, but still felt far from satisfied all the afternoon, and was glad to see the boy come back in time for tea.

He said he had been with the Grevilles; he did not see why anybody need ask him questions; he should do what he pleased without being called to account. Nobody told him not to run away after dinner; he was not going to stay to be ordered about for nothing.

This was so bad a temper, that Christabel could not bear to try to touch him with the thought of his sick mother. She knew that softening must come in time, and believed the best thing to do at the moment would be to put a stop to his disrespectful speeches to her, and his cross ones to his brothers and sisters, by sending him to bed as soon as tea was over, as the completion of his punishment. He did not struggle, for she had taught him to mind her; but he went up- stairs with a gloomy brow, and angry murmurs that it was very hard to be put under a stupid woman, who knew nothing about anything, and was always cross.