Chapter II. Two Young Pickles.
 

An old-fashioned open carriage, drawn by a stiff, old-fashioned horse, and driven by a stiff, old-fashioned man, was in waiting at the inn at which the coach drew up at Marlborough. Into this the young Scudamores were soon transferred, and, after a hearty good-bye from their fellow-passengers, and an impressive one from the coachman, they started upon the concluding part of their journey.

"How far is it to aunt's?" Tom asked.

"About six miles, young sir," the driver said gravely.

The young Scudamores had great difficulty to restrain their laughter at Tom's new title; in fact, Peter nearly choked himself in his desperate efforts to do so, and no further questions were asked for some time.

The ride was a pleasant one, and Rhoda, who had never been out of Lincolnshire before, was delighted with the beautiful country through which they were passing. The journey, long as it was--for the road was a very bad one, and the horse had no idea of going beyond a slow trot--passed quickly to them all; but they were glad when the driver pointed to a quaint old-fashioned house standing back from the road, and said that they were home.

"There are the pigeons, Rhoda, and there is Minnie asleep on that open window-sill."

Very many times had the young Scudamores talked about their aunt, and had pictured to themselves what she would be like; and their ideas of her so nearly approached the truth, that she almost seemed to be an old acquaintance as she came to the door as the carriage stopped. She was a tall, upright, elderly lady, with a kind, but very decided face, and a certain prim look about her manner and dress.

"Well, niece Rhoda and nephews, I am glad to see that you have arrived safely," she said in a clear, distinct voice. "Welcome to the Yews. I hope that we shall get on very well together. Joseph, I hope that you have not driven Daisy too fast, and that you did not allow my nephews to use the whip. You know I gave you very distinct instructions not to let them do so."

"No, my lady, they never so much as asked."

"That is right," Miss Scudamore said, turning round and shaking hands with the boys, who had now got out of the carriage and had helped Rhoda down. "I am glad to hear what Joseph tells me, for I know that boys are generally fond of furious driving and like lashing horses until they put them into a gallop. And now, how are you, niece Rhoda! Give me a kiss. That is right. You look pale and tired, child; you must have something to eat, and then go to bed. Girls can't stand racketing about as boys can. You look quiet and nice, child, and I have no doubt we shall suit very well. It is very creditable to you that you have not been spoilt by your brothers. Boys generally make their sisters almost as noisy and rude as they are themselves."

"I don't think we are noisy and rude, aunt," Tom said, with a smile.

"Oh, you don't, nephew?" Miss Scudamore said, looking at him sharply, and then shaking her head decidedly two or three times. "If your looks do not belie you both sadly, you are about as hair-brained a couple of lads as my worst enemies could wish to see sent to plague me; but," she added to herself, as she turned to lead the way indoors, "I must do my duty, and must make allowances; boys will be boys, boys will be boys, so they say at least, though why they should be is more than I can make out. Now, Rhoda, I will take you up with me. Your bedroom leads out of mine, dear. Hester," she said to a prim-looking servant who had come out after her to the door; "will you show my nephews to their room? Dinner will be ready at two; it is just a quarter to the hour now. I see that you have got watches, so that you will be able to be punctual; and I must request you, when you have done washing, not to throw the water out of the window, because my flower-beds are underneath."

Tom had great difficulty in keeping his countenance, while he assured his aunt that his brother and himself never did empty their basins out of the window.

"That is right," Miss Scudamore said doubtfully; "but I have heard that boys do such things."

Once fairly in their room and the door shut, the boys had a great laugh over their aunt's ideas as to boys.

"There is one comfort," Tom said at last; "whatever we do we shall never surprise her."

"I think we shall get on very well with her," Peter said. "She means to be kind, I am sure. This is a jolly room, Tom."

It was a low wainscoted room, with a very wide window divided into three by mullions, and fitted with latticed panes. They were open, and a delicious scent of flowers came in from the garden. The furniture was all new and very strong, of dark stained wood, which harmonized well with the paneling. There were no window curtains, but a valance of white dimity hung above the window. There was a piece of carpet between the beds; the rest of the floor was bare, but the boards were of old oak, and looked as well without it. Several rows of pegs had been put upon the walls, and there was a small chest of drawers by each bed.

"This is very jolly, Peter; but it is a pity that there are bars to the window."

When they came down to dinner they found that Rhoda, quite done up with her journey, had gone to bed.

"You like your room, I hope, nephews," Miss Scudamore said, after they had taken their seats.

"Yes, aunt, very much. There is only one drawback to it."

"What is that, Thomas?"

"Oh, please, aunt, don't call me Thomas; it is a dreadful name; it is almost as bad as Tommy. Please call me Tom. I am always called Tom by every one."

"I am not fond of these nicknames," Miss Scudamore said. "There is a flippancy about them of which I do not approve."

"Yes, aunt, in nicknames; but Tom is not a nickname; it is only a short way of speaking. We never hear of a man being called Thomas, unless he is a footman or an archbishop, or something of that sort."

"What do you mean by archbishop?" Miss Scudamore asked severely.

"Well, aunt, I was going to say footman, and then I thought of Thomas a Becket; and there was Thomas the Rhymer. I have heard of him, but I never read any of his rhymes. I wonder why they did not call them poems. But I expect even Thomas a Becket was called Tom in his own family."

Miss Scudamore looked sharply at Tom, but he had a perfect command of his face, and could talk the greatest nonsense with the most serious face. He went on unmoved with her scrutiny.

"I have often wondered why I was not christened Tom, It would have been much more sensible. For instance, Rhoda is christened Rhoda and not Rhododendron."

"Rhododendron?" Miss Scudamore said, mystified.

"Yes, aunt, it is an American plant, I believe. We had one in the green-house at home; it was sent poor papa by some friend who went out there, I don't see anything else Rhoda could come from."

"You are speaking very ignorantly, nephew," Miss Scudamore said severely. "I don't know anything about the plant you speak of, but the name of Rhoda existed before America was ever heard of. It is a very old name."

"I expect," Peter said, "it must have meant originally a woman of Rhodes. You see Crusaders and Templars were always having to do with Rhodes, and they no doubt brought the name home, and so it got settled here."

"The name is mentioned in Scripture," Miss Scudamore said severely.

"Yes, aunt, and that makes it still more likely that it meant a woman of Rhodes; you see Rhodes was a great place then."

Miss Scudamore was silent for some time. Then she went back to the subject with which the conversation had commenced. "What is the objection you spoke of to the room?"

"Oh! it is the bars to the window, aunt."

"I have just had them put up," Miss Scudamore said calmly.

"Just put up, aunt!" Tom repeated in surprise, "what for?"

"To prevent you getting out at night."

The boys could not help laughing this time, and then Peter said, "But why should we want to get out at night, aunt?"

"Why should boys always want to do the things they ought not?" Miss Scudamore said. "I've heard of boys being let down by ropes to go and buy things. I dare say you have both done it yourselves."

"Well, aunt," Tom said, "perhaps we have; but then, you see, that was at school."

"I do not see any difference, nephew. If you will get out at one window, you will get out at another. There is mischief to be done in the country as well as in towns; and so long as there is mischief to do, so long will boys go out of their way to do it. And now I will tell you the rules of this house, to which you will be expected to adhere. It is well to understand things at once, as it prevents mistakes. We breakfast at eight, dine at two, have tea at half-past six, and you will go to bed at half-past eight. These hours will be strictly observed. I shall expect your hands and faces to be washed, and your hairs brushed previous to each meal. When you come indoors you will always take off your boots and put on your shoes in the little room behind this. And now, if you have done dinner I think that you had better go and lie down on your bed, and get two or three hours' sleep. Take your boots off before you get into the bed."

"She means well, Peter," the elder brother said, as they went upstairs, "but I am afraid she will fidget our lives out."

For two or three days the boys wandered about enjoying the beautiful walks, and surprising and pleasing their aunt by the punctuality with which they were in to their meals. Then she told them that she had arranged for them to go to a tutor, who lived at Warley, a large village a mile distant, and who had some eight or ten pupils. The very first day's experience at the school disgusted them. The boys were of an entirely different class to those with whom they had hitherto associated, and the master was violent and passionate.

"How do you like Mr. Jones, nephews?" Miss Scudamore asked upon their return after their first day at school.

"We do not like him at all, aunt. In the first place, he is a good deal too handy with that cane of his."

"'He who spares the rod--'"

"Yes, we know that, aunt, 'spoils the child,'" broke in Tom, "but we would not mind so much if the fellow were a gentleman."

"I don't know what you may call a gentleman," Miss Scudamore said severely. "He stands very high here a schoolmaster, while he visits the vicar, and is well looked up to everywhere."

"He's not a gentleman for all that," Tom muttered; "he wouldn't be if he visited the Queen. One does not mind being trashed by a gentleman; one is used to that at Eton; but to be knocked about by a fellow like that! Well, we shall see."

For a week the boys put up with the cruelty of their tutor, who at once took an immense dislike to them on finding that they did not, like the other boys, cringe before him, and that no trashing could extract a cry from them.

It must not be supposed that they did not meditate vengeance, but they could hit upon no plan which could be carried out without causing suspicion that it was the act of one of the boys; and in that case they knew that he would question them all round, and they would not tell a lie to screen themselves.

Twice they appealed to their aunt, but she would not listen to them, saying that the other boys did not complain, and that if their master was more severe with them than with others, it could only be because they behaved worse. It was too evident that they were boys of very violent dispositions, and although she was sorry that their master found it necessary to punish them, it was clearly her duty not to interfere.

The remark about violence arose from Miss Scudamore having read in the little paper which was published once a week at Marlborough an account of the incident of the stopping of the coach, about which the boys had agreed to say nothing to her. The paper had described the conduct of her nephews in the highest terms, but Miss Scudamore was terribly shocked. "The idea", she said, "that she should have to associate with boys who had take a fellow-creature's life was terrible to her, and their conduct in resisting, when grown-up men had given up the idea as hopeless, showed a violent spirit, which, in boys so young, was shocking."

A few days after this, as the boys were coming from school, they passed the carrier's cart, coming in from Marlborough.

"Be you the young gentlemen at Miss Scudamore's?" the man asked. "Because, if you be, I have got a parcel for you."

Tom answered him that they were, and he then handed them over a heavy square parcel. Opening it after the cart had gone on, the boys, to their great delight, found that it consisted of two cases, each containing a brace of very handsome pistols.

"This is luck, Peter," Tom said. "If the parcel had been sent to the house, aunt would never have let us have them; now we can take them in quietly, get some powder and balls, and practice shooting every day in some quiet place. That will be capital. Do you know I have thought of a plan which will enrage old Jones horribly, and he will never suspect us?"

"No; have you, Tom? What is that?"

"Look here, Peter. I can carry you easily standing on my shoulders. If you get a very long cloak, so as to fall well down on me, no one would suspect in the dark that there were two of us; we should look like one tremendously tall man. Well, you know, he goes every evening to Dunstable's to sing with Miss Dunstable. They say he's making love to her. We can waylay him in the narrow lane, and make him give up that new watch he has just bought, that he's so proud of. I heard him say he had given thirty guineas for it. Of course, we don't want to keep it, but we would smash it up between a couple of big stones, and send him all the pieces."

"Capital, Tom; but where should we get the cloak?"

"There is that long wadded silk cloak of aunt's that she uses when she goes out driving. It always hangs up in the closet in the hall."

"But how are we to get in again, Tom? I expect that he does not come back till half-past nine or ten. We can slip out easily enough after we are supposed to have gone to bed; but how are we to get back?"

"The only plan, Peter, is to get in through Rhoda's window. She is very angry at that brute Jones treating us so badly, and if I take her into the secret I feel sure she will agree."

Rhoda was appealed to, and although at first she said it was quite, quite impossible, she finally agreed, although with much fear and trembling, to assist them. First, the boys were to buy some rope and make a rope ladder, which Rhoda was to take up to her room; she was to open the window wide when she went to bed, but to pull the blind down as usual, so that if her aunt came in she would not notice it. Then, when she heard her aunt come tip to bed at half-past nine, she was to get up very quietly, drop the rope ladder out, fastening it as they instructed her, and then get into bed again, and go to sleep if she could, as the boys would not try to come in until after Miss Scudamore was asleep.

Two nights after this the schoolmaster was returning from his usual visit to Mr. Dunstable, when, to his horror, he saw a gigantic figure advance from under a tree which overshadowed the lawn, and heard a deep voice say, "Your money or your life!"

Like all bullies, the schoolmaster was a coward, and no sooner did he see this terrible figure, and his ears caught the ominous click of a pistol which accompanied the words, than his teeth chattered, his whole figure trembled with fear, and he fell on his knees, crying, "Spare my life!--take all that I have, but spare my life!"

"You miserable coward!" the giant said, "I do not want to take your wretched life. What money have you?"

"I have only two shillings," he exclaimed; "I swear to you that I have only two shillings."

"What is the use of two shillings to me?--give them to the first beggar you see."

"Yes, sir," the schoolmaster said; "I swear to you that I will."

"Give me your watch."

The schoolmaster took out his watch, and, getting upon his feet, handed it to the giant.

"There now, you can go; but see," he added, as the schoolmaster turned with great alacrity to leave--"look here."

"Yes, sir."

"Look here, and mark my words well. Don't you go to that house where you have been to-night, or it will be the worse for you. You are a wretch, and I won't see that poor little girl marry you and be made miserable. Swear to me you will give her up."

The schoolmaster hesitated, but there was again the ominous click of the pistol.

"Yes, yes, I swear it," he said hastily. "I will give her up altogether."

"You had better keep your oath," the giant said, "for if you break it, if I hear you go there any more--I shall be sure to hear of it--I will put an ounce of lead in you, if I have to do it in the middle of your school. Do you hear me? Now you may go."

Only too glad to escape, the schoolmaster walked quickly off, and in a moment his steps could be heard as he ran at the top of his speed down the lane.

In a moment the giant appeared to break in two, and two small figures stood where the large one had been.

"Capital, Peter. Now, I'll take the cloak, and you keep the pistol, and now for a run home--not that I'm afraid of that coward getting up a pursuit. He'll be only too glad to get his head under the bedclothes."

Rhoda had carried out her brother's instructions with great exactness, and was in a great fright when her aunt came in to see her in bed, lest she should notice that the window was open. However, the night was a quiet one, and the curtains fell partly across the blind, so that Miss Scudamore suspected nothing, but Rhoda felt great relief when she said good-night, took the candle, and left the room. She had had hard work to keep herself awake until she heard her aunt come up to bed; and then, finding that she did not again come into the room, she got up, fastened one end of the rope ladder to a thick stick long enough to cross two of the mullions, let the other end down very quietly, and then slipped into bed again. She did not awake until Hester knocked at her door and told her it was time to get up. She awoke with a great start, and in a, fright at once ran to the window. Everything looked as usual. The rope ladder was gone, the window was closed, and Rhoda knew that her brothers must have come in safely.

Great was the excitement in Warley next day, when it became known that the schoolmaster had been robbed of his watch by a giant fully eight feet high. This height of the robber was, indeed, received with much doubt, as people thought that he might have been a tall man, but that the eight feet must have been exaggerated by the fear of the schoolmaster.

Two or three days afterwards the surprise rose even higher, when a party of friends who had assembled at Mr. Jones' to condole with him upon his misfortune, were startled by the smashing of one of the windows by a small packet, which fell upon the floor in their midst.

There was a rush to the door, but the night was a dark one, and no one was to be seen; then they returned to the sitting-room, and the little packet was opened, and found to contain some watchworks bent and broken, some pulverized glass, and a battered piece of metal, which, after some trouble, the schoolmaster recognized as the case of his watch. The head-constable was sent for, and after examining the relics of the case, he came to the same conclusion at which the rest had already arrived, namely, that the watch could not have been stolen by an ordinary footpad, but by some personal enemy of the schoolmaster's, whose object was not plunder, but annoyance and injury.

To the population of Warley this solution was a very agreeable one. The fact of a gigantic footpad being in the neighborhood was alarming for all, and nervous people were already having great bolts and bars placed upon their shutters and doors. The discovery, therefore, that the object of this giant was not plunder, but only to gratify a spite against the master, was a relief to the whole place. Every one was, of course, anxious to know who this secret foe could be, and what crime Mr. Jones could have committed to bring such a tremendous enemy upon him. The boys at the school assumed a fresh importance in the eyes of the whole place, and being encouraged now to tell all they knew of him, they gave such a picture of the life that they had led at school, that a general feeling of disgust was aroused against him.

The parents of one or two of the boys gave notice to take their sons away, but the rest of the boys were boarders, and were no better off than before.

Miss Scudamore was unshaken in her faith in Mr. Jones and considered the rumor current about him to be due simply to the vindictive nature of boys.

"Well, aunt," Tom said one day, after a lecture of this sort from her, "I know you mean to be kind to us, but Peter and I have stood it on that account, but we can't stand it much longer, and we shall run away before long."

"And where would you run to, nephew?" Miss Scudamore said calmly.

"That is our affair," Tom said quite as coolly, "only I don't like to do it without giving you warning. You mean kindly, I know, aunt, but the way you are always going on at us from morning to night whenever we are at home, and the way in which you allow us to be treated by that tyrannical brute, is too much altogether."

Miss Scudamore looked steadily at them.

"I am doing, nephew, what I consider to be for your good. You are willful, and violent, and headstrong. It is my duty to cure you, and although it is all very painful to me, at my time of life, to have such a charge thrust upon me, still, whatever it costs, it must be done."

For the next month Mr. Jones' life was rendered a burden to him. The chimney-pots were shut up with sods placed on them, and the fireplaces poured volumes of smoke into the rooms and nearly choked him. Night after night the windows of his bedroom were smashed; cats were let down the chimney; his water-butts were found filled with mud, and the cord of the bucket of his well was cut time after time; the flowers in his garden were dug up and put in topsy-turvy. He himself could not stir out after dark without being tripped up by strings fastened a few inches above the path; and once, coming out of his door, a string fastened from scraper to scraper brought him down the steps with such violence that the bridge of his nose, which came on the edge of a step, was broken, and he was confined to his bed for three or four days. In vain he tried every means to discover and punish the authors of these provocations. A savage dog, the terror of the neighborhood, was borrowed and chained up in the garden, but was found poisoned next morning.

Watchmen were hired, but refused to stay for more than one night, for they were so harassed and wearied out that they came to the conclusion that they were haunted. If they were on one side of the house a voice would be heard on the other. After the first few attempts, they no longer dared venture to run, for between each round strings were tied in every direction, and they had several heavy falls, while as they were carefully picking their way with their lanterns, stones struck them from all quarters. If one ventured for a moment from the other's side his lantern was knocked out, and his feet were struck from under him with a sharp and unexpected blow from a heavy cudgel; and they were once appalled by seeing a gigantic figure stalk across the grass, and vanish in a little bush.

At the commencement of these trials the schoolmaster had questioned the boys, one by one, if they had any hand in the proceeding.

All denied it. When it came to Tom Scudamore's turn, he said. "You never do believe me, Mr. Jones, so it is of no use my saying that I didn't do it; but if you ask Miss Scudamore, she will bear witness that we were in bed hours before, and that there are bars on our windows through which a cat could hardly get."

The boys had never used Rhoda's room after the first night's expedition, making their escape now by waiting until the house was quiet, and then slipping along the passage to the spare room, and thence by the window, returning in the same way.

Under this continued worry, annoyance, and alarm, the schoolmaster grew thin and worn, his school fell off more and more; for many of the boys, whose rest was disturbed by all this racket, encouraged by the example of the boys of the place who had already been taken away, wrote privately to their friends.

The result was that the parents of two or three more wrote to say that their boys would not return after the holidays, and no one was surprised when it became known that Mr. Jones was about to close his school and leave the neighborhood.

The excitement of the pranks that they had been playing had enabled the boys to support the almost perpetual scoldings and complaints of their aunt; but school once over, and their enemy driven from the place, they made up their minds that they could no longer stand it.

One day, therefore, when Rhoda had, as an extraordinary concession, been allowed to go for a walk with them, they told her that they intended to run away.

Poor Rhoda was greatly distressed.

"You see, Rhoda dear," Tom said, "although we don't like leaving you, you will really be happier when we are gone. It is a perpetual worry to you to hear aunt going on, on, on--nagging, nagging, nagging for ever and ever at us. She is fond of you and kind to you, and you would get on quietly enough without us, while now she is in a fidget whenever you are with us, and is constantly at you not to learn mischief and bad ways from us. Besides you are always in a fright now, lest we should get into some awful scrape, as I expect we should if we stopped here. If it weren't for you, we should not let her off as easily as we do. No, no, Rhoda, it is better for us all that we should go."

Poor Rhoda, though she cried bitterly at the thought of losing her brothers, yet could not but allow to herself that in many respects she should be more happy when she was freed from anxiety, lest they should get into some scrape, and when her aunt would not be kept in a state of continued irritation and scolding. She felt too that, although she herself could get on well enough in her changed life, that it was very hard indeed for the boys, accustomed as they had been to the jolly and independent life of a public school, and to be their own master during the holidays, with their ponies, amusements, and their freedom to come and go when they chose. Rhoda was a thoughtful child, and felt that nothing that they could go through could do them more harm or make them more unhappy than they now were. She had thought it all over day after day, for she was sure that the boys would, sooner or later come to it, and she had convinced herself that it was better for them. Still it was with a very sad heart that she found that the time had come.

For some time she cried in silence, and then, drying her eyes, she said, trying to speak bravely, though her lips quivered.

"I shall miss you dreadfully, boys; but I will not say a word to keep you here, for I am sure it is very, very bad for you. What do you mean to do? Do you mean to go to sea?"

"No, Rhoda; you see uncle was in the army, and used to talk to us about that; and, as we have never seen the sea, we don't care for it as some boys do. No, we shall try and go as soldiers."

"But my dear Tom, they will never take you as soldiers; you are too little."

"Yes, we are not old enough to enlist at present," Tom said; "but we might go in as buglers. We have thought it all over, and have been paying old Wetherley, who was once in the band of a regiment, to teach us the bugle, and he says we can sound all the calls now as well as any bugler going. We did not like to tell you till we had made up our minds to go; but we have gone regularly to him every day since the first week we came here."

"Then you won't have to fight, Tom," Rhoda said joyfully.

"No," Tom said, in a rather dejected tone; "I am afraid they won't let us fight; still we shall see fighting, which is the next best thing."

"I heard in Warley yesterday that there will be a movement of the army in Spain soon, and that some more troops will be sent out, and we shall try and get into a regiment that is going."

They talked very long and earnestly on their plans, and were so engrossed that they quite forgot how time went, and got in late for tea, and were terribly scolded in consequence. For once none of them cared for the storm; the boys exulted over the thought that it would be the last scolding they would have to suffer; and Rhoda had difficulty in gasping down her tears at the thought that it was the last meal that she would take with them, for they had settled that they would start that very night.