Through the Fray by G. A. Henty
Chapter II: The Fight on the Moor
The lad threw himself into a position of defense as the two boys rushed at him.
"Oi doan't want vor to hurt ee," he said again, "but if ee will have it, why, it won't be moi vault;" and swinging his arm round, he brought it down with such force upon the nose of Tompkins that the latter was knocked down like a ninepin, and, once down, evinced no intention of continuing the conflict.
In Ned, however, the lad found an opponent of a different stamp. The latter saw at once that his opponent's far greater weight and strength rendered it hopeless for him to trust to close fighting, and he worked round and round him, every now and then rushing at him and delivering a telling blow, and getting off again before his heavy and comparatively unwieldy companion could reply.
Once or twice, indeed, the lad managed to strike him as he came in, each time knocking him fairly off his feet; but in the fair spirit which at that time animated English men and boys of all classes he allowed Ned each time to regain his feet without interference.
"Thou bee'st a plucky one," he said, as Ned after his third fall again faced him, "but thou bain't strong enough for oi."
Ned made no reply, but nerved himself for a fresh effort. The blows he had received had been heavy, and the blood was streaming from his face; but he had no idea of giving in, although Tompkins, in spite of his calls and reproaches, refused to raise himself beyond a sitting position.
"It's no good, Ned," he replied, "the brute is too big for us, and I'd rather try to walk home all the way round than get another like the last. My nose feels as big as my head."
Ned hardly heard what his companion said. He would have been killed rather than yield now, and gathering all his strength he sprang at his opponent like a tiger. Avoiding the blow which the boy aimed at him, he leaped upon him, and flung his arms round his neck. The sudden shock overthrew him, and with a crash both boys came to the ground together.
Ned at once loosened his hold, and springing to his feet again, awaited the rising of his opponent. The latter made a movement to get up, and then fell back with a cry.
"Thou hast beaten me," he said. "Oi think moi leg be broke."
Ned saw now that as the lad had fallen his leg had been twisted under him, and that he was unable to extricate it. In a moment he was kneeling before the prostrate lad.
"Oh! I am sorry," he exclaimed; "but you know I didn't mean to do it. Here, Tompkins, don't sit there like a fool, but come and help me move him and get his leg straight."
Although the boys did this as gently as they could, a groan showed how great was the agony.
"Where is it?" Ned asked.
"Aboove the knee somewhere," the lad said, and Ned put his hand gently to the spot, and to his horror could feel something like the end of a bone.
"Oh! dear, what is to be done? Here, Tompkins, either you or I must go on to the town for help."
"It's getting dark already," Tompkins said; "the sun has set some time. How on earth is one to find the way?"
"Well, if you like I will go," Ned said, "and you stop here with him,"
The lad, who had been lying with closed eyes and a face of ghastly pallor, now looked up.
"There be soom men not a quarter of a mile away; they be a-drilling, they be, and oi was sot here to stop any one from cooming upon em; but if so bee as thou wilt go and tell em oi has got hurt, oi don't suppose as they will meddle with ye."
Ned saw now why the lad had opposed his going any further. Some of the croppers were drilling on the moor, and the boy had been placed as sentry. It wasn't a pleasant business to go up to men so engaged, especially with the news that he had seriously injured the boy they had placed on watch. But Ned did not hesitate a moment.
"You stop here, Tompkins, with him," he said quietly, "I will go and fetch help. It is a risk, of course, but we can't let him lie here."
So saying, Ned mounted the rock to get a view over the moor. No sooner had he gained the position than he saw some thirty or forty men walking in groups across the moor at a distance of about half a mile. They had evidently finished their drill, and were making their way to their homes. This at least was satisfactory. He would no longer risk their anger by disturbing them at their illegal practices, and had now only to fear the wrath which would be excited when they heard what had happened to the boy.
He started at a brisk run after them, and speedily came up to the last of the party. They were for the most part men between twenty and thirty, rough and strongly built, and armed with billhooks and heavy bludgeons, two or three of them carrying guns.
One of them looked round on hearing footsteps approaching, and gave a sudden exclamation. The rest turned, and on seeing Ned, halted with a look of savage and menacing anger on their faces.
"Who be'est, boy? dang ee, what brings ye here?"
Ned gulped down the emotion of fear excited by their threatening appearance, and replied as calmly as he could: "I am sorry to say that I have had a struggle with a boy over by that rock yonder. We fell together, and he has broken his leg. He told me if I came over in this direction I should find some one to help him."
"Broaken Bill's leg, did'st say, ye young varmint?" one of the men exclaimed. "Oi've a good moinde to wring yer neck."
"I am very sorry," Ned said; "but I did not mean it. I and another boy were walking back to Marsden from fishing, and he wouldn't let us pass; it was too far to go back again, so of course we had to try, and then there was a fight, but it was quite an accident his breaking his leg."
"Did'st see nowt afore ye had the voight?" one of the other men inquired.
"No," Ned replied; "we saw no one from the time we left the stream till we met the boy who would not let us pass, and I only caught sight of you walking this way from the top of the rock."
"If 'twere a vair voight, John, the boy bain't to be blamed, though oi be main grieved about thy brother Bill; but we'd best go back for him, voor on us. And moind, youngster, thee'd best keep a quiet tongue in thy head as to whaat thou'st seen here."
"I haven't seen anything," Ned said; "but of course if you wish it I will say nothing about it."
"It were best for ee, for if thou go'st aboot saying thou'st seen men with guns and clubs up here on the moor, it ull be the worsest day's work ee've ever done."
"I will say nothing about it," Ned replied, "but please come on at once, for I am afraid the boy is in terrible pain."
Four of the men accompanied Ned back to the rock.
"Hullo, Bill! what's happened ee?" his brother asked.
"Oi've had a fight and hurted myself, and broke my leg; but it wa'nt that chap's fault; it were a vair voight, and a right good 'un he be. Doan't do nowt to him."
"Well, that's roight enough then," the man said, "and you two young 'uns can go whoam. Marsden lies over that way; thou wilt see it below ye when ye gets to yon rock over there; and moind what I told ee."
"I will," Ned said earnestly; "but do let me come up to see how he is getting on, I shall be so anxious to know."
The man hesitated, but the lad said, "Let um coom, John, he bee a roight good un."
"Well, if thou would'st like it, Bill, he shall coom."
"If thou coom oop to Varley and ask vor Bill Swinton, anyone will show ee the place."
"Goodby," Ned said to the boy, "I am so sorry you have got hurt. I will come and see you as soon as I can."
Then he and Tompkins set off toward the rock the man had pointed out, which by this time, in the fast growing darkness, could scarce be made out. They would indeed probably have missed it, for the distance was fully a mile and a half; but before they had gone many yards one of the four men passed by them on a run on his way down to Marsden to summon the parish doctor, for a moment's examination had sufficed to show them that the boy's injury was far too serious to treat by themselves.
Tired as the boys were, they set off in his footsteps, and managed to keep him in sight until they reached the spot whence Marsden could be seen, and they could no longer mistake the way.
"Now, look here, Tompkins," Ned said as they made their way down the hill; "don't you say a word about this affair. You haven't got much to boast about in it, sitting there on the grass and doing nothing to help me. I shan't say anything more about that if you hold your tongue; but if you blab I will let all the fellows know how you behaved."
"But they will all notice my nose directly I get in," Tompkins said. "What am I to say?"
"Yes, there's no fear about their not noticing your nose," Ned replied. "I don't want you to tell a lie. You can say the exact truth. We were coming home across the moors; a boy interfered with us, and would not let us pass; we both pitched into him, and at last he got the worst of it, and we came home."
"But what's the harm of saying that you and he fell, and he broke his leg?"
"A great deal of harm," Ned replied. "If it was known that a boy's leg got broke in a fight with us it would be sure to come to Hathorn's ears; then there would be an inquiry and a row. Like enough he would go up to see the boy and inquire all about it. Then the men would suppose that we had broken our words, and the next time you and I go out on a fishing expedition there's no saying what mightn't happen to us. They are a rough lot those moor men, and don't stick at trifles."
"I will say nothing about it," Tompkins replied hastily; "you may rely on that. What a lucky fellow you are to be going home! Nothing will be said to you for being an hour late. I shall get a licking to a certainty. How I do hate that Hathorn, to be sure!"
They now came to the point where the road separated and each hurried on at his best speed.
"You are late tonight, Ned," the boy's father said when he entered. "I don't like your being out after dark. I don't mind how far you go so that you are in by sunset; but, halloo!" he broke off, as he caught sight of the boy's face as he approached the table at which the rest of the party were sitting at tea; "what have you been doing to your face?"
Captain Sankey might well be surprised. One of the boy's eyes was completely closed by a swelling which covered the whole side of his face. His lip was badly cut, and the effect of that and the swelling was to give his mouth the appearance of being twisted completely on one side.
"Oh! there's nothing the matter," Ned replied cheerfully; "but I had a fight with a boy on the moor."
"It is dreadful!--quite dreadful!" Mrs. Sankey said; "your going on like this. It makes me feel quite faint and ill to look at you. I wonder you don't get killed with your violent ways."
Ned made no reply but took his seat at the table, and fell to work upon the hunches of thick brown bread and butter.
"I will tell you about it afterward, father," he said; "it really wasn't my fault."
"I am sure I don't wish to hear the story of your quarrels and fighting, Edward," Mrs. Sankey said; "the sight of you is quite enough to upset my nerves and make me wretched. Of course if your father chooses to support you in such goings on I can say nothing. Neither he nor you seem to remember how trying such things as these are to any one with a broken constitution like mine."
Captain Sankey, knowing from experience how useless it was to attempt to argue with his wife when she was in this mood, continued to eat his meal placidly. Ned seized his mug of milk and water, and took an impatient drink of it.
"Is there anything I had better do for my face?" he asked his father presently.
"I don't think anything you can do, Ned, will make you presentable for the next few days. I believe that a raw beefsteak is the best thing to put on your eye, but is not such a thing in the house, and if there was, I don't think that I should be justified in wasting it for such a purpose. I should say the next best thing would be to keep a cloth soaked in cold water on your face; that will probably take down the swelling to some extent."
After tea Ned repaired to the kitchen, where Abijah, with much scolding and some commiseration, applied a wet cloth to his face, and fastened a handkerchief over it to keep it in its place. Then the boy went into the little room which his father called his study, where he used to read the papers, to follow the doings of the British armies in the field, and above all to smoke his pipe in quiet. He laughed as Ned entered.
"You look like a wounded hero, indeed, Ned. Now sit down, my boy, and tell me about this business; not, you know, that I have any objection to your fighting when it's necessary. My experience is that it is the nature of boys to fight, and it is no use trying to alter boys' nature. As I have always told you, don't get into a fight if you can help it; but, if you once begin, fight it out like a man."
"Well, I couldn't help it this time, father, and I will tell you all about it. I promised not to tell; but what was meant by that was that I should not tell any one who would do anything about it; and as I know you won't, why, of course I can tell you."
"I don't know what you mean in the least, Ned; a promise, whatever it is about, is a promise."
"I know, father, but all that was meant in my case was that I would say nothing which would cause injury to those to whom I promised; and it will do them no injury whatever by telling you in confidence. Besides, it is probable you may learn about it in some other way; because, unfortunately, I broke the other fellow's leg very badly, and there is no saying what may come of it, so I think you ought to know all the circumstances."
"Very well, Ned," his father said quietly; "this seems to be a serious business. Go on, my boy."
Ned related the whole circumstances, his father saying no word until he had finished.
"You have been in no way to blame in the matter, nor could you have acted otherwise. The breaking of the boy's leg is unfortunate, but it was a pure accident, and even the boy's friends did not blame you in the matter. As to the illegal drilling, that is no new thing; it has been known to be going on for many months, and, indeed, in some places for years. The authorities take but little notice of it. An outbreak of these poor fellows would, indeed, constitute a considerable local danger. Mills might be burned down, and possibly some obnoxious masters killed, but a few troops of dragoons, or half a regiment of light infantry, would scatter them like chaff.
"The Irish rebellion thirteen years ago was a vastly more formidable affair. There it may be said that the whole country was in arms, and the element of religious fanaticism came into play; but in spite of that the resistance which they opposed to the troops was absolutely contemptible; however, it is just as well that you did not see them drill, because now, if by any chance this lad should die, and inquiry were made about it, there would be no occasion for you to allude to the subject at all. You would be able to say truthfully that finding that he was hurt, you went off, and happened to come upon four men on the moor and brought them to his assistance."
"I promised to go up to see the boy, father. I suppose that there is no harm?"
"None at all, Ned, it is only natural that you should entertain the wish; in fact you have injured him seriously, and we must do all in our power to alleviate his pain. I will go in the morning and see Dr. Green. I shall, of course, tell him that the boy was hurt in a tussle with you, and that you are very sorry about it. The fact that he is some two years older, as you say, and ever so much stronger and bigger, is in itself a proof that you were not likely to have wantonly provoked a fight with him. I shall ask the doctor if there is anything in the way of food and comforts I can send up for him."
Accordingly, the next morning, the first thing after breakfast, Captain Sankey went out and called upon the doctor. Ned awaited his return anxiously.
"The doctor says it's a bad fracture, Ned, a very bad fracture, and the boy must have had his leg curiously twisted under him for the bone to have snapped in such a way. He questions whether it will be possible to save the leg; indeed, he would have taken it off last night, but the boy said he would rather die, and the men were all against it. By the help of half a dozen men he got the bones into their places again, and has bandaged the leg up with splints; but he is very doubtful what will come of it."
Ned was crying now.
"I would give anything if it hadn't happened, father, and he really seemed a nice fellow. He said over and over again he didn't want to hurt us, and I am sure he didn't, only he thought he oughtn't to let us pass, and as we would go on he had to stop us."
"Well, it can't be helped, Ned," his father said kindly. "It is very natural that you should be grieved about it; but you see it really was an accident; there was nothing willful or intentional about it, and you must not take it to heart more than you can help."
But Ned did take it to heart, and for the next fortnight was very miserable. The doctor's reports during that time were not hopeful. Fever had set in, and for some days the boy was delirious, and there was no saying how it would turn out. At the end of that time the bulletins became somewhat more hopeful. The lad was quiet now from the complete exhaustion of his strength. He might rally or he might not; his leg was going on favorably. No bad symptom had set in, and it was now purely a question of strength and constitution whether he would pull through it.
Mrs. Sankey had been kept in entire ignorance of the whole matter. She had once or twice expressed a languid surprise at Ned's altered manner and extreme quietness; but her interest was not sufficient for her to inquire whether there were any reasons for this change. Abijah had been taken into Captain Sankey's counsels, and as soon as the fever had abated, and the doctor pronounced that the most nourishing food was now requisite, she set to work to prepare the strongest broths and jellies she could make, and these, with bottles of port wine, were taken by her every evening to the doctor, who carried them up in his gig on his visits to his patient in the morning. On the third Saturday the doctor told Ned that he considered that the boy had fairly turned the corner and was on the road to recovery, and that he might now go up and see him. His friends had expressed their warm gratitude for the supplies which had been sent up, and clearly cherished no animosity against Ned. The boy had been informed of the extreme anxiety of his young antagonist as to his condition, and had nodded feebly when asked if he would see Ned should he call upon him. It was therefore without any feeling of trepidation as to his reception that Ned on the Saturday afternoon entered Varley.
Varley was a scattered village lying at the very edge of the moor. The houses were built just where the valley began to dip down from the uplands, the depression being deep enough to shelter them from the winds which swept across the moor. Some of those which stood lowest were surrounded by a few stumpy fruit trees in the gardens, but the majority stood bleak and bare. From most of the houses the sound of the shuttle told that hand weaving was carried on within, and when the weather was warm women sat at the doors with their spinning wheels. The younger men for the most part worked as croppers in the factories in Marsden.
In good times Varley had been a flourishing village, that is to say its inhabitants had earned good wages; but no one passing through the bare and dreary village would have imagined that it had ever seen good days, for the greater proportion of the earnings had gone in drink, and the Varley men had a bad name even in a country and at a time when heavy drinking was the rule rather than the exception. But whatever good times it may have had they were gone now. Wages had fallen greatly and the prices of food risen enormously, and the wolf was at the door of every cottage. No wonder the men became desperate, and believing that all their sufferings arose from the introduction of the new machinery, had bound themselves to destroy it whatever happened.
A woman of whom he inquired for John Swinton's cottage told him that it was the last on the left. Although he told himself that he had nothing to be afraid of, it needed all Ned's determination to nerve himself to tap at the door of the low thatched cottage. A young woman opened it.
"If you please," Ned said, "I have come to see Bill; the doctor said he would see me. It was I who hurt him, but indeed I didn't mean to do it."
"A noice bizness yoi've made of it atween ee," the woman said, but in a not unkind voice. "Who'd ha' thought as Bill would ha' got hurted by such a little un as thou be'st; but coom in, he will be main glad to see ee, and thy feyther ha' been very good in sending up all sorts o' things for him. He's been very nigh agooing whoam, but I believe them things kept un from it."
The cottage contained but two rooms. In a corner of the living room, into which Ned followed the woman, Bill Swinton lay upon a bed which Captain Sankey had sent up. Ned would not have known him again, and could scarce believe that the thin, feeble figure was the sturdy, strong built boy with whom he had struggled on the moor. His eyes filled with tears as he went up to the bedside.
"I am so sorry!" he said; "I have grieved so all the time you have been ill."
"It's all roight, young un," the boy said in a low voice, "thar's no call vor to fret. It warn't thy fault; thou couldn't not tell why oi would not let ee pass, and ye were roight enough to foight rather than to toorn back. I doan't blame ee nohow, and thou stoodst up well agin me. Oi doan't bear no malice vor a fair foight, not loikely. Thy feyther has been roight good to oi, and the things he sends oi up has done oi a power o' good. Oi hoap as how they will let oi eat afore long; oi feels as if oi could hearty, but the doctor he woin't let oi."
"I hope in a few days he will let you," Ned said, "and then I am sure father will send you up some nice things. I have brought you up some of my books for you to look at the pictures."
The boy looked pleased.
"Oi shall like that," Bill said; "but oi shan't know what they be about."
"But I will come up every Saturday if you will let me, and tell you the stories all about them."
"Willee now? That will be main koinde o' ye."
"I don't think you are strong enough to listen today," Ned said, seeing how feebly the boy spoke; "but I hope by next Saturday you will be much stronger. And now I will say goodby, for the doctor said that I must not talk too long."
So saying Ned left the cottage and made his way back to Marsden in better spirits than he had been for the last three weeks.
From that time Ned went up regularly for some weeks every Saturday to see Bill Swinton, to the great disgust of his schoolfellows, who could not imagine why he refused to join in their walks or games on those days; but he was well repaid by the pleasure which his visits afforded. The days passed very drearily to the sick boy, accustomed as he was to a life spent entirely in the open air, and he looked forward with eager longing to Ned's visits.
On the occasion of the second visit he was strong enough to sit up in bed, and Ned was pleased to hear that his voice was heartier and stronger. He listened with delight as Ned read through the books he had brought him from end to end, often stopping him to ask questions as to the many matters beyond his understanding, and the conversations on these points were often so long that the continuance of the reading had to be postponed until the next visit. To Bill everything he heard was wonderful. Hitherto his world had ended at Marsden, and the accounts of voyages and travels in strange lands were full of surprise and interest to him. Especially he loved to talk to Ned of India, where the boy had lived up to the time when his father had received his wound, and Ned's account of the appearance and manners of the people there were even more interesting to him than books.
At the end of two months after Ned's first visit Bill was able to walk about with a stick, and Ned now discontinued his regular visits; but whenever he had a Saturday on which there was no particular engagement he would go for a chat with Bill, for a strong friendship had now sprung up between the lads.
On Ned's side the feeling consisted partly of regret for the pain and injury he had inflicted upon his companion, partly in real liking for the honesty and fearlessness which marked the boy's character. On Bill's side the feeling was one of intense gratitude for the kindness and attention which Ned had paid him, for his giving up his play hours to his amusement, and the pains which he had taken to lighten the dreary time of his confinement. Added to this there was a deep admiration for the superior knowledge of his friend.
"There was nothing," he often said to himself, "as oi wouldn't do for that young un."