a treasure-trove of literature
treasure found hidden with no evidence of ownership
Title: The White Drake and Other Tales
Author: Ann Scott Moncrieff
A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook
eBook No.: 1204131h.html
Project Gutenberg of Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do not keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition.
Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file.
This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg of Australia Licence which may be viewed online.
GO TO Project Gutenberg Australia HOME PAGE
|THE WHITE DRAKE
FIRKIN AND THE GREY GANGSTERS
FURTHER ADVENTURES OF FIRKIN
THE SHEEP WHO WASN'T A SHEEP
In a dark corner of a barn on a Perthshire farm, a stout broodie hen sat fidgeting on her nest. There were fifteen eggs to hatch out, three more than usual, and these three so much larger than the other twelve that she could in nowise settle herself comfortably.
'Cluck-cluck-cluck-CLUCK!' she complained. 'Not at all what I've been accustomed to. The mistress has been most inconsiderate.'
An old white hen, sunk in her feathers on the earthy floor, looked round crossly at the noise. But the broodie hen went on clucking aggrievedly, 'Duck eggs, indeed! What do we want with ducks on this farm? We've never had them before, and why I should be picked on to begin them, dear only knows. I should never lay anything so vulgar as these great green things, and I don't see why I should be called upon to sit on them. Drat them, how nobbly they are!'
The old white hen raised herself from her shallow bed and hirpled over to the broodie's nest.
'Is a poor body never to get a wink of sleep?' she grumbled. 'Many's the time I've had to sit on duck eggs, and not just twa-three but a whole nestful. Let me set them for you, and then maybe we'll get peace and quiet.'
She poked under the warm feathery breast until the three duck eggs lay neat and unobtrusive.
'That's better,' agreed the broodie hen, settling herself plumply. But she still wanted to air her wrongs. 'What am I to do with them when they do hatch out? I don't know the first thing about ducks, and I don't want to either.'
'If you don't haud your tongue, they'll come to nought,' said the old white hen crossly.
The broodie shrilled with indignation. 'Indeed, indeed, you moth-eaten hag, let me tell you I've never had a failure yet!' The old white hen spryly eluded the sharp peck aimed at her, and, cackling sarcastically, made off to her bed. All night long the broodie hen kept up such a clucking and clacking and complaining that none of the inmates of the barn got a wink of sleep. That is the way of broodie hens.
In due course, the family of chickens began to appear. By twos and by threes, the white and the brown and the speckled egg-shells broke, but there was never a sign of life from the large pale-green ones. Half mortified and half relieved, the broodie hen was just about to give them up when there was a chip and then a crack in one of them, and out staggered the baldest, scraggiest, most unattractive child she had ever seen. She nearly killed the little monster on the spot, but fear of the farmer's wife restrained her.
Later she wailed to the old white hen who came to inquire after her health, 'Oh, I am not at all well. I would as soon be harbouring a viper as the thing that came out of the duck egg. I was struck all of a heap when it broke—the thirteenth egg, mind you, and a nasty big green one it was too. Out stepped the thing as bold as brass, most forward and most unnatural. Goodness knows who the parents could have been, but if you ask me,'—the broodie hen lowered her voice—'the thing is not quite right in the head.'
'Let me have a look at it,' said the old white hen; and then when the duckling had been produced, 'Nonsense, a fine strong boy it is, a very fair specimen, if you care for that kind of bird.'
'I don't,' said the broodie hen firmly, pushing the duckling into a draughty corner.
And as the days passed, she found herself caring less and less.
When she paraded her brood in the yard for the first time, it was the duckling who spoilt the triumphant occasion. All the other hens were gathered to envy and congratulate: the little chickens bobbed about her like yellow puffballs, timid and joyous, squealing tinily, behaving in the most becoming manner: she herself was twice as stout, twice as red, and twice as fussy as she usually was. She had left the duckling in the barn, but he came to join them on his own—somewhat unsteadily, heeling first to one side, then to the other. His beak was cocked absurdly high to sniff the strange new spring air, and at every step he threatened to turn turtle. The farmyard began to giggle, then to roar. He seemed to mock the fat fussy hen with his independence. In a moment what should have been a royal procession became a circus turn with the duckling for clown.
The next day the duckling returned home plastered and smelling from his first paddle in a miry pool. He was excluded for ever from the nest, and after that the mother hen was concerned only with protecting her own little ones from his bad influence, snubbing and pecking him when she got the chance. 'Nasty dirty thing that you are!' she would shrill at mealtimes. 'You eat more than all the rest put together. No table manners to speak of! Stop your greedy gobbling at once!'
The duckling led a lonely, comfortless life. At night he slept on the hard cold floor of the barn: sometimes the old white hen would allow him to creep in beside her, but she did not do it often for fear of his foster-mother's anger. During the day, he spent most of his time on the shell-sand heap at the back of the barn, where there was a trickle of a burn to bathe in, comparative solitude, and a grey-white background against which he was almost indistinguishable. There he escaped from the scoldings and peckings, the laughter of the other hens, and the taunts of the young chickens. 'Sandy, sandy, dirty old shell-sandy,' they used to chorus when he came back to the barn. And so he got the name of Sandy.
Sandy acquired a puzzled, unhappy look. He could not understand why he was born different from the rest, nor why they laughed and were cruel to him because of this; why they spent so much time in merely gossiping, and never went outside the farmyard, and hated the sweet rain, and thought there was nothing so important as laying eggs. He wondered miserably if he must grow up like that too, and live always as they did. The answer to this question very soon came his way.
One day at dinner-time, the mother hen was in noticeable good humour. She preened herself often, chuckling into her ruff of feathers. The reason was that the farmer's wife had spared the life of her one male child; more than that—had decreed that he should be bred up to be the king cock of the farmyard. It was a great honour—very gratifying.
'Eat up, Sandy,' crowed the mother hen when she saw the duckling's eyes hungry upon a second helping. 'Eat as much as you can, my boy, and grow big and fat and strong.'
Sandy gobbled at the food eagerly, and then he was suddenly still, suspicious and surprised by her kindness. But before he could say anything, she had moved off, chuckling to herself.
One of his foster-sisters hopped close to him, and whispered maliciously, 'Haven't you heard? Brother Percy is to be king, and your neck is to be thrawn instead of his. Mother says we must let you eat and eat and eat until you can hardly waddle at all. Then snick, sneck and you'll swing till your dead!' The chicken tee-heed.
Sandy's eyes started from his head with horror: the fatal food stuck in his thrapple: without a word he turned and fled for the sand pit, there to rage and weep at the unfairness of his fate.
It was true that he seemed out of place among the hens and of not much use to anybody; he could never lay eggs in return for his keep; and he was not even ornamental. Yet he felt himself to be a kinder, worthier, more intelligent kind of bird than the chickens, and so he ought to live and die less senselessly than they did. Not just end in the pot when he was big and fat enough.
Well then, he would never get big and fat enough. That would show them! The idea came to him suddenly and brilliantly. His sobs subsided to sniffs as he considered it; and soon he was quite happy and absorbed in making plans. Carrying them out was not such a happy business.
In the warm June sunlight, Sandy raced round and round the steading—twice, six times, ten times—until the sweat poured off him and his young whitening feathers began to moult. By the end of the afternoon, he felt he had lost ounces of superfluous flesh. He bathed, resisting the temptation to fish, for fishing meant eating; and when the time for the evening meal came round, Sandy was not in the farmyard. He was lying on the shell-sand heap, exhausted and hungry, but hopeful for his life.
Sandy's plan was drastically successful. After a fortnight of over-exercising and under-eating, he was as lean as a rake, bald and scabbit, weak as water. He sometimes thought triumphantly yet mournfully that not even a chicken would deign to eat him if it got the chance; he was such a poor thing that they got no fun out of teasing him, and even his foster-mother let him alone. He had certainly managed to save his life, but now it seemed hardly worth saving.
His early miseries seemed petty by comparison. How well off he had been! Eating twice a day until he felt as round and solid as an indiarubber ball; then bouncing off in pursuit of other more delicate and exciting food—fat worms and slimy swimming things; in between times racing and diving and fighting the chickens. Now there was nothing but lying on the shell-sand heap, feeling always hungry and always weary.
One evening as he was making his way slowly across the yard to his bed in the barn, the farmer's wife and her daughter came to stand at the back door, knitting and chatting in the evening sunlight. They noticed Sandy.
'T'chk-t'chk,' said the farmer's wife. 'What's come over the bird? It was promising fine a few weeks ago; now it's hardly worth the plucking!'
Sandy smiled wanly to himself; the plan had worked all right. But the daughter replied, 'There must be something wrong with it, poor thing. It's likely got some ducks' disease. It's a shame to let it go on living like that.'
Sandy's heart stood still with horror. The farmer's wife said reflectively, 'Aye, it is that, and even yet the skin and bones of it might make a sup o' broth. It would be a pity to let it die on me.' She made a movement towards Sandy, but already he was up and away. Fear gave him strength and he scudded out of the yard, beating his ragged wings and squawking. It was a warm evening; the farmer's wife did not bother to give chase.
Back on the shell-sand heap, Sandy lay despairing. He was to die in spite of all that he had endured. His plan had been a silly one. He wished now that he had not run away but had let his neck be thrawn quickly and at once. He would be far better dead. To-morrow he would give himself up without a struggle.
When he had decided thus, Sandy realized that he was free to eat and to drink and to enjoy what little life there was left to him. So he grubbed about the burnside, appeasing the awful hollowness inside him with many worms and minnows and a puddock. Feeling much better, he stretched out on the sand and watched with a sort of melancholy pleasure the night—his last night on earth—creep down.
The wind died, the birds stopped singing, the trees grew still. Even the burn seemed to flow more sleepily and quietly. Sandy stared minutely at all the familiar things around his retreat—the willow tree and the stones in the dyke and the heathery field climbing up behind the farm. There was so much he hadn't noticed about them before. But gradually they became shadowy and indistinct in the darkness.
Sandy had never felt so wide awake. He contemplated the vast milky blue pond of the sky. The crescent moon, he thought, writhed in it like a little silver fish. How he would like to pin it down with his strong beak! Perhaps the sky was a heavenly pond for ducks; and the moon and all the stars celestial fish for their enjoyment; perhaps after to-morrow that was where he would swim for ever and ever.
Even as he thought of this there was a strange hard whistling of the air and three duck-like forms appeared in the sky, winging in pursuit of the moon. They flew like arrows, necks as straight as shafts and feet streaming. Free and lovely birds, exalted in death! Splendid ducks of a dream!
Thrilling, Sandy waited for the vision of the phantom birds pouncing upon the phantom fish moon. But they did not. Something had gone wrong. They were miles from the moon; they had cut right across it, paying no attention; they were coming nearer. Above the whiz of wings words floated down to him. It was a softer, more liquid speech than he had ever heard before.
'Farm down below.'
'Ach, and there's bad luck on us. I said we should have been bearing farther west.'
'No harm, all asleep, even our good little tame brothers.'
'Brothers indeed! I claim no kinship. Big eggs and small souls and a pickle o' dirt for the world. What have they to do with us?'
'On a night like this one feels sorry for them—space is so small, and places so many.'
'They feel sorry for you maybe in the hardness of winter. Ach, and they are well content...'
Sandy was bolt upright on the top of the shell-sand heap, straining and stretched to catch the words. But they floated away; the whine of wings became faint; and the flying ducks disappeared into space.
Tears of longing fell from Sandy's eyes. They had been so beautiful and free and swift, far too swift. He could not decide whether they had been real or a vision, but it did not matter. For a long time he stood in a dwaum remembering their grace and strength.
It was the recollection of their words that brought him to himself again. Why, they had been talking about him—almost to him. He was 'their good little tame brother'; they had been sorry for him having to stay in a farmyard; 'space was small and places many' for him even as for them. They perhaps had escaped even as he might escape. He had wings too. He flapped them tentatively. Before he had never thought about them much; now his whole life depended upon them. Sandy completely forgot how resigned he had been to dying at dawn.
The next morning he was among the rest of the poultry at feeding-time. He kept a cautious eye cocked on the farmer's wife, but, as he had hoped, she gave up the idea of thrawing his neck when she saw him once more eating heartily. She thought he might yet fatten enough to warrant a wreath of new potatoes and green peas. Sandy had other plans for his future. If the farmer's wife had watched carefully she would have seen that, though he did a great deal of loud gobbling and smacking of lips, the amount of food that he ate was comparatively small. Sandy did not intend to get fat, only well and strong once again. As soon as he had fed, he rushed off to practise flying.
He began modestly with wing-limbering exercises and easy runs from the top of the shell-sand heap. But when, after a few days of rest and regular food, he began to find himself in better trim with wing feathers grown and muscles flexible, he set to the business seriously. It was harder than he had imagined. He felt himself the very cut of the flying ducks, yet he could not even rise off the ground. Try as he might, running and running and beating his wings hard, he could never achieve more than the ungainly scutter of any old hen. A desperate jump in the air, a few wing flaps, and he was back to earth again. It seemed to be no use at all; yet he persevered, hoping that he might master the trick—if there was one—by accident.
Somehow the rest of the farmyard got to know how he spent his time, and Sandy had to endure a snickering or sarcastic audience of chickens and old hens. His foster-mother came to view the sport often, more to protect her young ones, she used to say, than out of any ill-feeling towards a poor idiot bird. 'If you ask me,' she would cluck loudly, 'this duck thing was addled afore ever he came out of the egg. I said so at the time and I've lived to see the proof of my words. He ought to be cooped up. This fleering and flighting is a menace to the community, the bird is not right witty!' And whenever she could, she made vicious pecks at his wing and tail feathers. Sometimes Sandy almost believed that she was right and that he was mad; but usually her persecution only made him all the more desperate to fly.
'If only I was in the air to start with,' thought Sandy, 'I'm sure I could do it.' So one morning he decided to take off from one of the dykes. There were stepping-stones in the side of it, but it was a laborious and difficult climb for a duckling: he had to start again a dozen times. At last he reached the top and was amazed at the view to be had from there. Never before had he seen beyond the immediate surroundings of the farm, a few fields tilting into the sky, a fringe of wood, the garden, and the burnside. Now the whole world seemed spread before him. Fields sloped away and down, lined with dykes and hawthorn hedges, dotted with trees. In the bottom of the valley a river ran like a silver thread, and on the other side a dark hill rose up, bristly with pine woods. Beyond it more hills banked against the sky.
When he had recovered from the vastness of this view, Sandy stuck out his chest, stretched his wings, fixed his eyes on the hilltops, and pushed off from the dyke. Flapping frantically and paddling with his feet, he sailed in a steadily downward curve for about ten yards; then crashed mightily among the stones of the field.
He was almost stunned, but staggered to his feet in exultation. 'I felt the feel of it,' he cried. 'I felt the feel of it! How glorious to fly!'
And after a little he tried the experiment again, this time landing on his beak and almost biting through his tongue. But he had flown a yard farther. He thought maybe he ought to have a higher jumping-off place, and spent the rest of the day looking for one. He picked on the byre roof; from there he thought he could land in the yard.
The next morning was wet and windy. Sandy almost decided that it was no weather for flying, and that he would go swimming instead. But when he saw all the hens retreating to the barn away from the rain, he thought it the very best time to try the byre roof. There would be nobody about to snigger at him if he did break his neck.
So off he went to the back of the byre where a midden was piled right up to the eaves. The thatched roof rose steeply after that, offering fairly easy footholds. The wind, blowing stronger as he mounted, flattened him against the roof and helped him to keep his balance. To the left, over the gable end, the valley he had seen yesterday began to appear. He was getting high, much higher than he had thought. Perhaps at the top he would be able to see right over these barrier hills. He hoped he would not be afraid to take off. But Sandy was not given time to be afraid.
Just as his beak reached the level of the ridge, a mighty gust of wind swept up the roof, lifted him by the tail, and tossed him to the sky as if he had been no bigger than a gnat. For a few seconds he somersaulted helplessly, feeling his lungs bursting, his brain upside down, his stomach inside out. He tried to remember how to fly, but when he remembered he was always the wrong way up. At last he succeeded in spreading his wings when the earth was below and the sky above. He felt himself steady and begin to plane down the wind. It was a lovely sensation. The farm buildings wheeled away below him—the yard, the stable, the neep-shed, the house. And before him spread the wide green valley. A quiver of triumph ran through him, which in a moment was turned to anguish as he began to rock, to keel over, to fall. He gave a feeble flap of his wings, and miraculously felt himself righting again. He flapped again, and the air seemed more solid. He began to flap steadily and cautiously. He was flying, yes, at last he was flying! Strong, swift, and powerful like the ducks across the moon! Looking down, he became giddy at the speed with which dykes and paths and fields flowed away. He had known all along how easy it would be once he discovered the knack. What a flier he was!
And just as he thought that, the wind dropped suddenly from beneath his tail. Sandy began to sink like a stone. Nearer and nearer he fell towards a belt of trees. He had not strength enough in his half-grown wings to check himself. In a sudden panic he struggled and flapped and fell faster. Then mercifully the wind blew strong again, seaming his tail feathers, and lifted him clear of the trees.
He was canny now and not so elated. He realized how much he depended on the power of the wind. His wings only served to steady him as yet. Where then was the wind bearing him? Straight into the hills it seemed; it would dash him flat against their great black sides. He decided that he must get down while he was still in the valley. So when the wind died away a second time, Sandy clapped shut his wings and his eyes, and fell, trusting to Providence.
Providence was kind. Sandy hit the river with such a smash that for a long time afterwards he did not know quite what had happened to him. He came to, to find himself swimming backwards and half-full of water. He got rid of the water, turned about, and realized that he was being borne away by the river almost as swiftly as he had flown. All he had to do was to sit still and steer clear of shoals.
How stupid of him not to have thought of the river before as a means of escape! He could easily have walked from the farm and got on to it. But then he would not have been at all the pains and bother of learning to fly. That had been worth everything. What was freedom without flying? How lovely it had been, how fearful, how exciting! Sandy closed his eyes in ecstasy of remembrance, and let his tired sore body be carried where the water willed.
All day he journeyed down the river. He satisfied his hunger—and amused himself too—by catching minnows and small eels. Sometimes he landed on the bank to rest and to nibble at grass and among the juicy roots of plants: but never for long. The wide world enticed him and the thought of the farmyard drove him on. As he progressed, the river grew broader and less rapid, and he decided that when night fell he would keep on floating. Ashore he might fall in with such wild beasts as foxes and weasels.
It grew dark and for a time Sandy kept on the alert for the sound of breaking water: but as the river remained deep and slow and smooth he dropped into a sort of waking doze. He never entirely lost the sense of the chill water at his breast and the blackly shadowing banks; but his mind grew swollen and heavy with nightmarish dreams.
Now he was back in the farmyard. He was surrounded by chickens; shooed on to him by the farmer's wife who danced in the background. Their stale smell smothered him; their multitudinous squealing deafened him; and all the time their little wiry legs prodded and tore at his body. The chickens receded. He found himself lying on the ground naked, plucked to the last shred of fluff. It was very cold. His foster-mother was standing over him, looking kind because she was so satisfied. 'Now try to fly, my boy,' she said. 'Let us see what you can do.' Sandy struggled obediently, sweating to get up. To his horror he found that he was trussed! The air became terrible with the noise of the chickens again, cheering at the sport, and with the cackling of his foster-mother, and with the farmer's wife banging a bunch of skewers against a roasting-pan.
But suddenly the bad dream had fallen from him like a skin, and Sandy was wide awake in a world that was blessedly empty and silent except for the lapping of water. What had startled him? All was as before except for the late-rising moon which now lay in the sky like a bit of orange-peel carelessly discarded. Sandy looked anxiously for bright hungry eyes pursuing him along the bank or for the feel of some monster pike beneath his legs. He was very wide awake, intensely aware of each silhouetted branch and moonlit ripple. Nothing was wrong. Yet he felt sure that something was going to happen to him. He turned and twisted in an agony of suspense.
Then came that wonderful sound that had roused him from dreaming once before, back on the shell-sand heap; a sound as of the rapid whipping of ice beneath a curling-stone. With whistling wings a brace of wild duck flew over the river. Mounting rapidly, they swished over the trees on the far side and were gone in an instant. Sandy thrilled and trembled and shook. He hardly knew what he was doing as he steered himself into an eddy which twirled towards the shore.
On the bank, stretched on a warm bed of moss, he gave himself up to remembering the incident. First how he had been awakened by some instinct that surely proved his kinship with these splendid beings. Then the mighty music, beaten out of the empty air by the power of their wings. Then the glimpse of their straight streaming bodies, rock-solid, shooting into the sky. He would never forget them, just as he had never forgotten the first three he had seen.
They had taken off not far from the river bank, Sandy supposed; what power they had to rise; no dyke stones or byre roofs for them. He wondered dismally when he would have a chance to fly again; a tree perhaps would serve him, but how would he be getting to the top of a tree? To-morrow he would try, anyway.
He got up and wandered inland with the idea of finding the spot from where the wild duck had risen. Before long he saw the gleam of water ahead; a long narrow pool, shallow and silted up with marshes, lay in the shade of some willow trees. It seemed a charming place to Sandy. He approached it as some people might approach a shrine.
Standing on the brink, he thought again for a little while of the two ducks who had lately rested there. Then, greatly daring, he slipped into the hallowed water. Twice and thrice he circled round and felt happier. He was just going to raise his voice in a humble song of praise, when—scitter, scatter, splash, splosh—the marshes and the water were alive with beating wings and noisy duck laughter. Spray blinded Sandy and a dozen wings slapped him heartily. He dived instinctively to escape, ploughing along the bottom of the pond. At last he was forced to the surface. All was quiet and as it had been before except for the muddied and agitated water. Sandy was frightened and prepared to retreat. Then a dark form appeared from behind a clump of reeds, followed by another and another and another. Sandy saw with beating, fearful heart that they were wild duck, six of them, and prepared for their displeasure.
But the first one addressed him quite timorously. 'We beg your pardon. It was a joke we were playing, thinking you were a friend of ours from over the river. We did not mean to startle you.'
'I was not expecting any one here,' Sandy excused himself. Unconsciously his voice softened in imitation of the wild duck's soft, singsong tones. 'I was just passing and stopped to—stopped to—' But he could not explain why he was there.
'How you gleam in the moonlight!' said another of the birds. She swam up and touched his white feathers with her beak. 'Like a ghost! We've never seen any one like you before. Father says it is very rare to meet a white duck.'
Sandy had never thought much of his pale colour before; now he was acutely conscious how wrong it was. He did not want to be different from them, nor that they should guess he was tame, but lately escaped from a farm, hardly able to fly at all. He did not know what to say or how to leave them without giving away his shameful origin. But they did not want him to go.
'Father and mother will be back soon. They will want to meet you. Father says a white visitor keeps away a white winter.'
'Please stay and play with us till they come.' 'Teach us to fly.'
'Yes, yes. How far have you flown to-day?'
Sandy realized now that these were young birds, probably about his own age. He did not feel shy or afraid of them any longer. He began to enjoy himself.
'Yes, I've flown quite a bit to-day,' he said importantly. 'Right from the far hills.'
'In this wind?' breathed the young ducks.
'Yes,' said Sandy. 'As a matter of fact I feel rather tired after it. I don't feel like doing any more flying just at the moment. But if you get up, I might be able to give you a few tips.'
'Well, you see,' said one of the ducks, 'we've only just begun. We're not very good. In fact to tell the truth we haven't learned to get up at all yet.'
Sandy nearly laughed with joy. So he himself wasn't so bad after all! So he was as near the glorious attainment as they! Nearer, for he had indeed been up. But he kept his secret.
It was decided that they should play instead. First it was tig, then ducks and drakes, then various diving games. Sandy excelled at these. But gradually he became so tired that even under water he could hardly keep his eyes open. The young ducks, knowing of his long journey, showed him where the nest was and saw that he was comfortable. He had barely touched the great bed of grasses and mud and feathers before he was asleep.
Sandy was awakened by a subdued chattering. It was barely dawn, a strange blue light cloaked the familiar world. He peeped through the fringe of rushes that surrounded the nest and saw the wild duck family clustered on the pond. At first he could do nothing but stare at the returned parents. They had been beautiful when he had seen them in flight; how much more so they were close at hand and at rest upon the water! The drake wore so bright and varied a plumage that Sandy could hardly believe in it. Magenta and white, green-gold, orange, deep brown and black—all these combined for his glory; his strong beak was satiny, straw-coloured, and his eyes fiery. Sandy was reminded of another splendid male, the cock of the farmyard; but how swashbuckling and gaudy he had been compared with this king of wild fowl! Each feather lay neat and oiled in its place, and he bore himself with an uncaring dignity. The mother bird was modest in comparison with pale-brown, beautifully marked feathers. She looked gentle and graceful, but there was about her also the same power and strength as her lord.
Round these two the young ducks circled. They were telling their parents about the visitor with great enthusiasm for his white appearance and his powers of flight. They exaggerated Sandy's own exaggerations.
In the nest Sandy grew hot and cold with embarrassment, and at last, being able to stand it no longer, he stood up and intimated that he was awake.
'Good morning,' said the drake, and, 'Good morning,' chorused his family.
'I hope you have rested well,' said the mother.
'Yes, thank you,' Sandy replied. 'Nobody could help resting in such a lovely nest.'
Everybody looked pleased, except the drake, who suddenly began to frown. He said, 'Run away to your breakfast, children. I want to have a talk with the white stranger.'
The young ducks stuttered off to the other end of the pond. Sandy felt slightly apprehensive. He tried to make himself look larger. He preened his feathers nervously, not caring to meet the drake's inquiring eye. It was not really a surprise to him when he heard the words, 'Well, my tame friend, I was not expecting to see the like of you here. Where do you come from?'
'From up the river,' replied Sandy. 'But how did you know I'd just come from a farm?'
'Our kind are not often white. But in any case'—the drake became coldly contemptuous—I would never be mistaken in your breed, a breed of miserable, kowtowing, belly-filling, midden-grubbing, lily-livered slaves! Understand, I don't like my tame, so-called relatives, and I won't have one within a mile of me, much less filing my nest, stuffing my children with lies, and setting us all an example of milksoppery and guttsiness. Get away back to your dung-heap before I peck your eyes out!'
Sandy was mute before this sudden storm.
'Hush, hush,' said the mother bird to her husband. 'It's only a bairn. It doesn't know any better.'
'I do, I do,' cried Sandy piteously. 'I want to be like you. I must be like you. I hate farms and hens' food and puddling about on the ground. So I flew away to be a wild duck. I really did fly, not all the way as I made out but a great part of the way. The wind helped me. And I will never be happy till I fly again.'
'You fly!' scoffed the drake. 'You haven't the wing-span of a good-sized grasshopper and you're fat as butter besides!'
'He's not so fat,' said the mother, looking Sandy over compassionately.
'I took off from a roof,' explained Sandy.
'Did you indeed?' commented the drake. 'You foolhardy young gowk, you might have been smashed to pieces. Where were your precious parents that they didn't stop you?'
Sandy said that he didn't have any parents; he had been hatched out by a hen.
'A hen!' roared the drake. 'A hen! Did you ever hear the beat of that? Hatched by a hen, and he wants to be a wild duck! What preposterous impudence! You must have been a trial to the hen-body, I'm sure.'
'Tell us about it,' said the mother wild duck.
So Sandy told them about the farm and how miserable he had been and how his neck was to have been thrawn and how he had been inspired by the sight of flying duck to escape.
The drake laughed often, not rudely, but out of sheer amusement. But Sandy was almost sure of the sympathy of the mother duck. He ended up, 'Please help me to be a real wild duck. I am sure you could teach me. Please let me stay with you.'
The drake laughed so immoderately at this absurd appeal that he had to disappear below water. When he came up again he was perfectly grave, even stern.
'Look here, you white young drake,' he said, 'I like you well enough. You're a cut above most of your breed. But the Good Lord made you tame, and tame you must ever be. It is sheer extravagant cheek for you to aspire to be like us. It is true you might flop tolerably in time from one dyke-top to another, but fly—. fight—migrate—starve—no! I wouldn't even have you for a nursemaid for a batch of babies. Pampered by a tame white drake! How would they turn out?'
Tears of rage and disappointment blinded Sandy. Headlong he rushed from the nest, tearing up water and mud, and drove with all his force into the breast of the wild drake. He barely grazed the skin, dislodging one handsome magenta feather; and with an easy sweep of his wing, the drake had tossed him high and dry on the bank.
'You beast, you beast!' sobbed Sandy. 'You talk just like my old hen!'
The expression on the drake's face was so comical that his wife burst out laughing. Be-.wilderment struggled with outraged dignity, and admiration with anger. 'Old hen, old hen?' he muttered. 'I never did see a tame duck with so much smeddum yet. Turning on me! Showing fight at his age!'
'I think it would be as well to let him bide,' suggested his wife softly. 'He will never go back to the farm.'
Sandy sat up on the bank hopefully, his angry tears gone. The drake drew a deep breath and picked up his lost magenta feather in his beak. He chewed it thoughtfully.
'It is my considered opinion,' he said at last, 'that the old hen didn't know what she was sitting on. It couldn't have been a tame duck egg. However, if I am proved wrong in this surmise, you, my dear wife, must take the responsibility.'
With that he turned, and scudding over the water, lifting himself clear of the willows, beating into the sky, he disappeared.
And that was how Sandy achieved his ambition and was received into the noble company of wild duck. In the weeks that followed he was educated along with the other young ones to their way of life. None were so ardent as he in learning to fly and to hunt and to build and to swim even against the strongest current. And none were wilder and shyer, none eschewed the haunts of men, the trodden path, and the cultivated field, so positively as he did. His adopted parents grew to love him like their own children.
It was in the second spring of his freedom that Sandy once more saw the old farmyard. He was on his way back from Norway, flying very high with three of his brothers. Something possessed him to drop away from them. He circled the buildings and saw the hens feeding. Then like a thunderbolt he shot down on them, scattering them. He heard a scream of recognition, 'Sandy!' before he winged away, gained on his fellows, and took his rightful place at their head.
Back in the farmyard, a dirty old diabetic hen scraiked from her place of refuge under a tin bath, 'Yes, yes, that was the little varmint. Sandy we used to call him. I always said he would come to a bad end, and there you are—thief, and pirate, and godless vagabond! Oh, if only I had run my beak through him while he was yet damp from his nasty great green egg!'
Once upon a time in a wood in the south of Scotland there lived a colony of red squirrels. It was a very good sort of wood for squirrels, containing all the best kind of trees for climbing on, living in, and eating off: oak and elm, hazel and beech, pine, ash, and chestnut. And naturally the squirrels who lived there were very well-off, contented, and inclined to fat.
Their houses were large and palatial, whole trees sometimes, with gardens and tennis courts laid out on the ground below. (The lower animals like rabbits and mice found it very hard to get their sort of accommodation in the wood.) The young male squirrels thought about nothing but sport; the young females were very vain and spent all day prinking and glossing themselves; while the father and mother squirrels were chiefly interested in their balance of nuts at the bank. Altogether then, in spite of their being squirrels and living in such a fine wood, they were really rather a dull lot. The reason for this was Too Many Nuts.
Now into one of these dull, rich families there was born a young squirrel named Firkin. His family were disappointed in him from the first—he was not nearly so fat and handsome as his brothers and sisters, and as he grew older he began to develop ways which made people think him both rude and queer in the head. He was very untidy too: his coat never shone and was often rubbed up the wrong way, which is strange to see on a squirrel. Instead of escorting his sisters to a dance or playing cricket with his brothers, Firkin would escape to the highest tree-tip, there to swing idly thinking his own great thoughts. 'He has no social sense!' his sisters wailed. 'A rabbit!' grumbled his brothers. 'He's a perfect rabbit, a disgrace to the best breed of red squirrels in the British Isles!'
At last Firkin was felt to be such a nuisance at home that his father decided to take him into the business. 'That'll smarten him up,' he said confidently, 'and keep him out of mischief.'
Firkin's father was a nutbroker, which unlike the word stockbroker means what it says; he actually broke nuts. When Firkin was told he had to enter the business, the first thing he asked was why.
'Why—why—why,' blustered his father, 'why, because you must earn your living!'
Firkin said he could get enough to eat off the trees without making a business of it.
His father was shocked and angry. 'You're a disgrace to your upbringing, Firkin. It is not enough to eat in this life. Look at this fine house, our position in society, all the pleasures and advantages you've enjoyed from the cradle! Where did they come from? Work, my boy. Business, my boy. You must carry on after I am gone. Be ready for the office in the morning. Get yourself a plain dark suit.'
Firkin tried to explain politely to his father that he did not want to carry on, nor to wear a plain dark suit when the one he was born with was quite nice and comfortable.
'You are impossible,' roared his father. 'A trifler and a nitwit! Do you intend to do anything with your worthless life?'
'Nothing,' said Firkin, because his ambitions were much too large and vague to be put into a few words.
'Well, do nothing,' shouted his father, 'but not under my roof. Consider yourself cut off with a bad beechnut! Out you go!'
Firkin had often thought of leaving home before but had always been stopped by the thought of causing pain to his mother and sisters. Now he was very sorry for them. He went up to his room, and stripping the patchwork quilt off his bed, he tied up in it seventeen books, an extra pair of shoes, three cherry pipes, and a photo of his mother. Then slinging this pack on his back and tucking his fiddle (of which he was very fond) under his arm, he went to take a tender leave of his family. They were in the drawing-room and greeted him with stares of disapproval.
'Well, I must say,' said one of his sisters pettishly, 'it's a good riddance, but you might leave the house decently.'
'I'll lend you a suitcase, I'll fetch it this minute,' cried a brother.
Firkin refused to give up his pack. 'When you're walking far,' he said, 'you have to have the weight on the shoulders.'
'Walking?' gasped his family. 'How can you be so common!'
His mother tucked some money into his pack, and wiped her glasses twice, but said exasperatingly, 'You'll be a wiser squirrel when you get back, my dear. Your father is always right. I'm sure that travel will broaden your mind.'
'I won't be back for a long time,' said Firkin, and took his leave firmly.
But as he closed the front door he felt much less firm and tremendously lonely. They had not been nearly so sorry to part with him as he had expected. For a moment he wished he had been more like his brothers and sisters so that they would all have loved him and kept him with them.
He crept down the avenue—it was a very noble avenue, the best residential district in the wood—and as he crept he tried to stop his nose twitching and the tears coming to his eyes. Just then Mrs. Booshibottom, their next-door neighbour, passed him on her way home: she stared briefly at his pack but did not acknowledge his polite salute. At this snub, up went Firkin's head and he began to feel much better. He hitched the pack higher, swung his fiddle by the hilt, and sang as he walked...
'I sold old Molly
And I hung up the saddle
And I said good-bye to the long-horned cattle...'
He was determined to get out of the wood that day, right away from all the squirrels whom he knew and who knew him. So he walked and walked and walked. It was a warm summer day. He would like to have skipped idly through the leaf-cool branches, but his burden kept him on the ground. Sometimes he wished he had not taken all his books. His feet got sore and the sweat trickled into his eyes. At midday he took out the bad beechnut with which his father had cut him off; it was very bad. Perhaps it would have been wiser to have provisioned himself more amply for this journey. At last when he knew he must be very near the edge of the wood—for the sun was setting and he had long ago left behind familiar paths—he allowed himself to rest. At the foot of a great oak he eased off his pack and flung himself on the moss with a sigh of relief.
'My, but I could do with a drink,' he gasped, and began to finger his hot tired feet.
'Come right up, buddy,' said a cool voice from above. 'I'll fix you up with a Kentucky Kream soda.'
It was a male voice, metallic and strange to Firkin, who had never heard any accent but the Scots of the lowlier animals and the prim English affected by the red squirrels. He looked up quickly, and saw a form stretched gracefully among the glossy untidy oak leaves: a young squirrel, her eyes mild and kind, her coat elegantly sleek, and her tail a burnished plume in the sunlight. It could not have been she who had spoken. No—her voice was quite ordinary.
'What have you got in your bed quilt?' she asked inquisitively.
'Books, mainly,' said Firkin stiffly, and got up to go because she reminded him of his sisters.
'Oh, don't go away,' she cried, 'my cousin has gone to make you a nice cool drink. Besides, I think your pack most exciting and I'd like to see the books.'
Firkin was mollified: he was very curious to see the cousin who had spoken so strangely, and most of all he wanted that nice cool drink. So at her invitation he leapt up on the branch beside her.
'My name is Firkin,' he introduced himself politely.
'Mine is Nutmeg,' said the young squirrel. 'Did you see my cousin. Isn't he wonderful?'
'I didn't see him, but he talked wonderful,' said Firkin obligingly.
'He's an American,' explained Nutmeg. 'His name is Hickory Slaw and he's awfully kind. Just think, he came all the way from America to find us because we are his cousins. And we'd never even heard of him. Isn't he kind? He's very handsome too—distinguished looking, I mean—and has more money than all the other squirrels in the world put together.'
Firkin began to feel rather bored with the suject of Hickory Slaw, and asked abruptly how far off he was from the edge of the wood. Just then Hickory Slaw came back.
Firkin gasped, gulped, and convulsively saved himself from falling off the branch. Never, never had he seen anything so queer as Hickory Slaw. To begin with he wasn't a squirrel at all—and yet there was something strangely squirrel-like about him! He had a sort of squirrel face and squirrel body and squirrel tail, but the most amazing thing was that he was grey! Firkin thought that it must be some disease, but when he looked more closely he saw that it wasn't that; the fur was quite sleek and healthy. But there were other differences too—two orange patches under the ears, the face long and narrow with protruding teeth, the tail scraggy and coarse but graceful. The grey squirrel was dressed in a spotless white linen suit and a straw basher.
'Glad to meet you, bo'. Get your skin outside this,' he drawled, handing Firkin a tall glass of coloured liquid. 'Guess you don't get a drink like that this side of the Pond. It's the mightiest thirst-quencher in the world.'
'You are kind!' breathed Nutmeg, as if it were she who had been thirsty.
Firkin murmured his thanks, and drank. With his nose pressed against the inside of the glass he had time to wonder what pond it was the stranger meant, and to hope that his surprised stares had not been noticed. It was a very nice drink, full of fruit juice and stinging bubbles and ice. Firkin felt much better.
Hickory Slaw drew out a cigar. 'Travelling far?' he asked.
'A bit,' said Firkin cautiously. He kept thinking he was talking to a rat and he didn't like rats at all.
Hickory Slaw lit up and puffed and drawled, 'You look all done up, stranger. Come from far?'
'A bit,' said Firkin again.
Then Nutmeg burst out enthusiastically, 'Oh I'm sure you've walked miles and miles to-day. Do tell us all about it. My cousin is so sympathetic and kind.'
Firkin thought that Hickory Slaw was not so much kind as inquisitive, but he felt that he could not be rude after the lovely drink. So he told Hickory Slaw and Nutmeg all about his father and the nutbroking and the bad beechnut, and how he had left home, and how he had walked and walked and walked all day. Then he asked again if he had nearly reached the edge of the wood. But Hickory Slaw began to show a remarkable interest in other things—what the district where Firkin lived was like, how rich the people were, where the principal business was centred, how many houses were there, and shops, and banks.
Firkin replied vaguely and at random, and very soon said he must be on his way. After thanking Hickory Slaw again for the drink, he took his leave civilly. Hickory Slaw seemed annoyed: he did not look nearly so kind as usual.
Nutmeg followed Firkin down the tree so that she might see some of his books.
'Perhaps you would like to borrow one,' said Firkin, much pleased. None of his sisters had ever wanted to look at his books.
But just as he had untied the knot of his patchwork quilt, a shrill voice called from above, 'Nutmeg! Nutmeg! I want you-u! Silly child, come here at once. You know we never buy at the door.'
'So sorry,' whispered Nutmeg. 'It's my mother.' And she darted up the tree.
Firkin sat back on his heels, flushed with indignation at this rudeness. Hickory Slaw's drawl floated down to him—'Say, Cousin Nutmeg, no call to get familiar with a wall-eyed hobo like that!'
Firkin jumped to his feet. He did not know what wall-eyed hobo meant, except that it was something nasty and referred to himself.
'You dirty rat,' he shouted, brandishing his fiddle. 'You're not a squirrel at all, you're a dirty rat!' And he rushed at the tree. There was a loud report, and Firkin tumbled to the ground, shot through the arm.
He stared dazedly at his bleeding limp arm, not understanding what had happened, then he looked up into the face of Hickory Slaw whose teeth were bared above the smoking muzzle of a gun. He was exactly like a rat. Nutmeg and her mother were screaming.
'G-r-r-r-r!' snarled Hickory Slaw. 'I'll soon finish him off!'
Firkin gave a sob of pain and fright and set off as hard as he could. Bump-bump-bump went his heart, sob-sob-sob went his breath, and the pain from his arm streaked across his chest. He stumbled through brambles and over tree-trunks, hearing his enemy in his tracks. Then the trees began to thin. It was the edge of the wood! Hickory Slaw could shoot him down easily in the open!
He came out suddenly on top of a high bank, and looked down a scrubby slope of whins. Far below, deep and wide and shining, flowed a great river. Well, he would at least make a fight for it! He still had his fiddle, and he determined to bash it over Hickory Slaw's head before he died.
Firkin turned—at bay. There was nobody behind him. Hickory Slaw had given up the chase.
Firkin dropped down on the turf and lay sobbing for breath. He felt his whole body clammy and sleeked with sweat, and his heart pounding as if it would smash through his ribs. He was dead-beat and the pain of his wounded arm nagged him. He tried to bend it, which made it hurt more than ever. Fearfully he examined the place where the bullet had struck and the fur around, matted and dark with blood. It did not look such a dangerous wound as it felt, however. Somewhat reassured and panting less painfully, Firkin looked about him and tried to take stock of his situation.
It was already twilight. Behind him the wood bristled with blackness, and the river far below was now a mere noise of rushing water. He could not go back or forward. He knew also that none of his own kind to whom he could have appealed for help lived by the riverside: it was too poor a district for the luxury-loving red squirrels—nothing but pine and scrub and willow. It seemed that the only thing for him to do was to stay where he was till daylight, and snatch some sleep on the ground if he dared; or perhaps soon he would feel strong enough to get up the nearest of these stunted trees.
He picked up his fiddle; it had got badly tashed in his headlong career through the woods. There was one unbroken string. He plucked at it softly with the thumb of his good hand. It made a dismal sound.
He began to sing;
'O, I'm wat, wat
O I'm wat and wearie!
Yet fain wad I rise and rin
If I thought I wad meet my dearie.
Ay waukin' O!
Waukin' ay and wearie,
Sleep I can get nane...'
A shout broke the back of his song. 'Nor can I, ye blabbering cuddy!'
Firkin jumped, dropping his fiddle. A few feet in front of him a figure loomed out of the ground, white and ghoulish in the half-light.
Then he breathed again. It was only a rabbit, a rather portly old mother rabbit with a cooking apron round her middle.
'Wull it be a squirrel then?' cried the rabbit, and Firkin thought she sounded relieved. But she waved a great stick at him and continued roundly, 'I thowt they were nice, upstannin', weel-mannered beasticles till this very meenute, and here I find wan on me own roof tap at this time o' night, scraikin' and yowlin' fit tae deeve the heart oot o' a God-fearing body. And the poor bits o' bairns a-girning and a-greeting for fear o' the great bogie coming doon the chimney. Sich a stramash, I never heard the like in my born days! Ye're ower far frae home, I'm thinking. Off ye go noo, ye plaguey thing, or ye'll feel the heavy side o' this stick!'
The rabbit stopped for want of breath. Firkin knew she was in a rabbity bother and didn't mean half she said, so he replied politely, 'Indeed, I'm gey sorry ye didn't like the song. But I canna go home. Ye see, I don't rightly ken the road. If ye let me sit on here, ye'll no hear anither cheep oot o' me.'
'Och, boy,' replied the rabbit, completely softened, 'I aye mak' a muckle oot o' a mickle. Ye can bide here if ye like, but if ye've lost your road, ye'll be better in bye wi' us. I'm sure ye're welcome. Come awa' in.'
Firkin said he would be very glad to, and pulling himself up with the help of his fiddle, he followed the rabbit rather shakily over her doorstep.
In the passage the rabbit held up a candle and took a look at Firkin. 'My, but ye're a sight,' she said. 'Ye must have been in every brake and splash in Scotland. Ye'll need a bath.' She turned and led the way to her kitchen. Stumbling into the room after her, Firkin quickly flopped down on the nearest chair in case he should faint.
'No there, no there on my best cushions, ye clarty gowk!' squealed the rabbit, hauling him off. She beat and scraped the mud and dead leaves off her cushions, while Firkin, balancing against the wall, apologized miserably. Suddenly she stopped. 'There's blood here. Why did ye no tell me ye were hurt? I thowt ye looked gey poorly. Sit doon, sit doon here'—she pushed him back on to the chair—'never mind the cushions. Noo whaur is it?'
Firkin showed her his arm. She put on her glasses and pursed her lips over the wound. 'T-chk, t-chk, that's bad, poor soul—I could greet for ye.' But instead of greeting she bustled about to make him more comfortable.
While she cleaned him, and dressed and bandaged the wound, Firkin's eyes wandered round the room—a plain little room but the most comfortable that he had ever seen. There was a red rag rug in front of the fire, snug chairs with rounded straw backs, a big black dresser hung with flowery china, two box-beds in the wall and pictures from Bibby's Annual above the mantle-piece. The room was clean and deliciously warm, hollowed in the brown earth.
The rabbit brought him a bowl of bread and milk, and chatted as she made up a bed for him. She told him that her name was Mrs. Macadoo and that she was a widow with a small pension and three weans to bring up. Firkin was aware of eyes watching him, and saw the three little rabbits who had been lying low and frightened in their box-bed keeking round the curtains at him. He smiled and heard laughter muffled in blankets. Mrs. Macadoo heard it too, and, scolding roundly, bade the little rabbits sleep and Firkin to get to his bed. Shut into soft darkness by the curtains, and stretching himself in the comfort of being clean again and full of bread and milk, Firkin decided that he liked adventures after all. Already his arm felt better from Mrs. Macadoo's kindly care. He rolled over and slept soundly.
He awoke next morning with difficulty, being unused to the heavy underground atmosphere in which the rabbits lived. But he felt well and strong and rested. The kitchen was empty and it was ten by the clock on the mantelpiece. The young Macadoos must have gone off to school and their mother out to shop. Firkin got up and washed himself, and made his bed with one arm as best he could. Just as he finished, he heard the front door bang, then the flurry of Mrs. Macadoo's skirts in the passage accompanied by a dull tapping as of somebody limping behind her with a stick.
Mrs. Macadoo burst into the room. 'Lord love us, ye're a bonny invalid!' she cried to Firkin. 'I was just bringing the doctor to see ye, and here ye are as large as life! Come awa', Toddy.' The figure of a tall red squirrel filled the doorway. 'Firkin, this is Toddy Tappit, kith to yoursel'. He's no really a doctor, but he kens something aboot everything.'
'It's myself that's glad to meet ye,' cried Toddy Tappit heartily, gripping Firkin's hand. But Firkin could only grin with pleasure at meeting another red squirrel, and such an obviously nice one at that. Toddy was a big strapping fellow, bewhiskered and weather-beaten, and he had the mightiest tail Firkin had ever seen, and a wooden leg. That was why he was called Tappit. It was a very handsome wooden leg, shod with brass and highly polished. He wore an ancient blue bonnet cocked over one ear and a capacious motheaten plaid. Flinging these off, he roared in a voice that made the Bibby's Annual pictures flap on the walls, 'I'll hae a dish o' tea, Mrs. Macadoo, when I'm through. It's thirsty wark.' And he began to undo Firkin's bandages.
'It's no your like I'm seeing often doon this way,' he said to Firkin, 'and I'm gey curious to ken what brought ye.'
'It's a long story,' replied Firkin, 'but I'm gey curious aboot you too.'
'Och, I hae a wee bit place on the waater—and I like masell better than the general run o' ither folk. Och, it's rare country doon here—it's rare and paicible. But I'll tell ye again.' He bent over the wound and probed it delicately. 'Eh—hech?' he grunted.
'Is it bad, Toddy?' asked Mrs. Macadoo.
'No-o,' said Toddy slowly, and he hesitated. 'Jest a scrape, Mrs. Macadoo. Ye've treated it as weel as I could masell, and it'll be as right as rain in a day or two. I'll jest pit on anither dressing.'
Mrs. Macadoo was as pleased with the verdict as Firkin. When the bandages had been replaced, Firkin sat down to breakfast and Toddy to a large pot of tea, and they swapped their stories. Toddy too had run away from just such a dull and silly home as Firkin's—but twenty years before. Since then he had travelled up and down the world: mostly as a sailor, but he had also been mason, butler, cowboy, carpenter, miner, shop-keeper, explorer and jester to a maharajah. A few years ago he had come back to his native wood, and had found it even more proper, prosperous, and patronizing, than when he left it—especially towards him since he had returned without money, without fame, and without his leg. So he had once again escaped happily from it and settled on the riverside. 'It fair scunners me,' said Toddy, 'the way our folk pass a lifetime in expanding their bank balances and their bellies and their own importence. It's no dacent. You and me, Firkin, canna thole it—but then we don't rightly ken what to do instead.'
'A fine blether o' dirt,' laughed Mrs. Macadoo. 'Dinna ye listen to him, Firkin. He's aye havering. Noo if ye're feenished, I'll awa' doon for my messages and ye can tak' your pipes ootside.'
They came up into the open, selected a comfortable spot on the sun-warmed sand, and lit their pipes—Toddy lending one to Firkin who had lost his with the rest of his baggage. Smoking in silence, they watched Mrs. Macadoo scutter down the slope with her shopping basket.
'Noo we can talk,' said Toddy. Firkin looked surprised, he thought they had been doing quite a lot of talking. Toddy continued, 'Aboot that bullet!' Firkin was further surprised. 'Och, I ken a bullet wound when I see wan. But Mrs. Macadoo wad hae got in sich a gafuffle gin I'd mentioned it, I never said a word. I lost this leg in America six year ago. Jest a wee bit bullet like yours...'
Firkin interrupted excitedly, 'It was an American that did this to me.'
It was Toddy's turn to look surprised. 'Eh-hech!' he commented, and took his pipe out of his mouth.
'Yes, as nasty a critter as ever you saw,' continued Firkin warmly. 'Grey he was, and the very spit o' a rat!'
'I ken them fine. They are rats!' cried Toddy.
'But in the name o' goodness how and where and why did ye come upsides o' him?'
Eagerly Firkin related the whole of his encounter with Hickory Slaw. When he had finished, Toddy's pipe had gone out, and his face had become drawn and anxious. After a pause he said, 'This is a very bad business, much waur than you think, young Firkin. You will hardly like to believe what I am going to tell you about this grey breed o' squirrels, but mind on that I lived for many years among them and I hae often met wi' the critters in my travels forbye. Noo listen.
'Grey squirrels are na squirrels at all—they're rats, greedy, vicious, and predatory beasties! They first came from America about thirty years ago, and as gunmen and bandits, preyed on the peaceable red squirrels in the English woods. They jest seized their territory and possessions, and made war on them to the death. There's hunners o' fine English woods in the hands o' the grey squirrels to-day. But this is the first time I've heard tell o' them so far north as Scotland. Man, it's serious, Firkin. Once they get a footing in this country, there'll be no hadding them.'
'But what do they do? What way do they manage to seize a great wood like this for instance?'
'I teilt ye they were gunmen and bandits, didn't I? They mark doon a wood, ye see, the richer the better; and wan or two o' the leaders come and mak' freends wi' the folk so as to spy oot the lay o' the land. Often they manage to burgle, or to swindle somebody oot o' a mint o' money in order to pay for arms and ammunition and the like. For they don't make war unless they're pretty desperate poor themselves—and you have to get hold of money to make a war. Noo, I'm thinkin' that Hickory Slaw is the leader of jest sich a gang...'
Firkin broke in excitedly, 'That's why he's posing as a cousin o' Nutmeg and her mother. Why, they'd never even heard o' him afore. I kent he wasna their cousin at all!'
'And that's why he questioned ye aboot the wood too,' went on Toddy. 'It's my conseedered opeenion that the gang must be near and jest aboot ripe for action, or Slaw wad no have been so queeck to fire on ye. It was indiscreet: and his plans must be in sich good trim, going so weel forrard, that wan small piece of indiscretion is neither here nor there wi' him. But maybe he is a far bigger daftie than I think he is. Maybe there is no immediate danger.'
'Whatever way of it, we'll gie the alarm,' cried Firkin, jumping up. 'We'll get the wood folk ready for him, and whether the attack comes early or late, he'll get more o' his own medicine than he bargained for! I'll ram his gun doon his gullet myself with pleasure!'
'Sit doon, and dinna get so excited,' said Toddy calmly. 'I'm pleased ye have the gumption to believe what I tell ye. Ye'll tak' my advice on the subject as weel. Noo, wha wad listen to us among the bodies o' the wood and the toon? Ye ken their natures fine. Is there wan wha wad believe a wan-legged tramp like me or a weecked young rebel like you, against the word o' a great smart American like Hickory Slaw that's got the name o' money besides? No, there's no wan. But even supposing there was, supposing the wood folk were steered up to resist the gangs, d'ye think they'd have any chance ava? No! no against guns and gas and bombs. I wadna even like to see them try it. Sit ye still, Firkin.'
Firkin realized the truth of Toddy's remarks, but he wailed, 'But we maun do something!'
Toddy relighted his pipe slowly, and said with a smile, 'Och aye. No that the wood folk wull appreciate it and no that I think their skins worth the saving as a general rule. But they're oor ain folk and better neebors than the grey gangsters fortiver. Forbye I owe these Americans something for the loss o' my leg. Och aye, Firkin, I doot it's up to you and me to do something, but jest what I canna say. It'll jest hae to lie atween the two o' us.'
Despite the apparent hopelessness of their cause, Firkin felt immediately happy. He was proud at the trust that Toddy seemed to put in him, and elated to have as ally a squirrel of such experience and knowledge.
Toddy and Firkin broke off their conversation at the sight of Mrs. Macadoo tearing up the brae in a great hurry. She collapsed on the grass beside them, waved a newspaper feebly, gasping, 'Awful goings-on, Toddy...dacent folk murdered right and left...never heard the like in my born days...oh dear, oh dear, oh dear.'
Toddy took the paper and Firkin read over his shoulder,
'BANKER MURDERED IN MILLION ROBBERY
'Mr. Walter Gnut was this morning found murdered by a strange weapon in his private vault; the contents of which to the value of one million pounds had been stolen. The police are on the track of the murderer, who is thought to be a mad stoat...'
At this sentence Firkin looked at Toddy and Toddy at Firkin, the same suspicion striking them both. A bank robbery! A strange weapon! Ruthless murder! This might very well be the work of that dangerous gangster in need of funds—Hickory Slaw!
However, neither Toddy nor Firkin said a word in front of Mrs. Macadoo. They did not want to upset that good lady, and after reading the report, they did their best to make her forget the matter.
'If there's a muckle mad bluidthirsty stoat stravaiging aboot,' she wailed, 'I daurna show nose ower the doorstep nor yit send the bairns to the school.'
'Jest a newspaper blether,' said Toddy lightly. 'You should never believe the half you read in the papers. Forbye, whaever it was did it for money—and neither you nor your bairns hae much o' that.'
'That's right,' agreed Mrs. Macadoo, 'money's a curse. Ye were always telling me it was a curse tae the folk o' the wood—wi' their grand hooses in their grand toon. But faith I never believed ye till noo.'
'Dinna fash yoursel' any more, Mrs. Macadoo,' said Firkin. 'Ye're far enough fae it all oot here by the river.'
The rabbit got up and dusted her skirts, 'Och, I like a bit o' excitement,' she smiled.
Toddy and Firkin laughed at this easy dismissal of her fears. Then Toddy explained that he wanted Firkin to stay with him until his arm healed. Mrs. Macadoo thought it a fine plan: not that he was not welcome to bide with her, but, being a squirrel, he could not be very comfortable in a hole in the ground. She wouldn't like to live up a tree. Mrs. Macadoo fetched their things from the kitchen and they took their leave of her.
As soon as they were out of earshot, Firkin began excitedly, 'What d'ye make o' that, Toddy? I bet the mad stoat was Hickory Slaw—and it's a very good description o' him if they only kent it. "Strange weapon," the paper said: that wad be his automatic; they don't ken much aboot firearms in the wood.'
'Aye,' replied Toddy, 'I'm thinking the same as you. Mind, I said the gang wad be wanting money to fit themselves out for the attack. Wheech—he got off wi' a million: he could blow up the whole o' Scotland wi' that.'
'What are we going to do?' cried Firkin. 'Wull we tell the police that it's a grey squirrel they want for the murder?'
'I hardly think it. It's all surmise, ye see. Jest a queer notion o' twa queer folk like you and me. Forbye, the police are notoriously dunder-heided.'
Toddy became silent, deep in thought. They had come down the steep bank through the scrub, and were now on a mossy path by the river. It was a broad deep river and Firkin was fascinated by his first near view of it. Dark and peaty, the water moved with slow strength in streaks and swirls; it broke occasionally over shallows with noisy anger. It seeped at the beds of rushes in little bays, and swilled under banks. Flood marks—straw, weeds, and debris—decorated the limbs of the overhanging willows, and Firkin saw that many great trees had been uprooted and swept away.
By and by Toddy slowed up. 'Here we are,' and he waved his pipe towards a battered old oak tree on the lip of the river bank. It had been scarred by lightning, half its roots were exposed and washed clean of earth, and it leant out over a vasty deep pool at what seemed to Firkin an exceedingly dangerous angle.
'It's a poor sort of a tree,' said Toddy, 'but it'll last my time. It's no bad and shipshape either.'
Toddy had used the word on purpose—for he had shaped his house as nearly as possible like a ship. A rope ladder led up to the front door, and in the living-room there were bunks instead of beds, portholes instead of windows, and even runners round the table to keep the dishes on, for, as Toddy explained, his tree could roll in the wind like a top-heavy ship crossing the Bay of Biscay. On the walls and mantelpiece were a lot of fine things Toddy had brought back from his travels—weapons and fans and shells and ships in bottles. Beyond the living-room a rickety balcony built out over the deep pool served as the captain's bridge. It commanded a mile-long view of the river, and Toddy spent half his time there. Now he showed Firkin his telescope and his compass and his plumbline, and expounded on the landmarks and the life of the river—there was the house of Ollason the Otter, there the wreck of the water-rat's barge, there the foghorn, there the worst whirlpool, and there, far away on the bend, the great suspension bridge made by two great elms leaning from either side of the river, meeting, and propping each other up with branches interlaced.
Firkin was delighted, and, bouncing up and down on the unsteady planks of the balcony, questioned and exclaimed on all he saw. He had completely forgotten the problem of Hickory Slaw. Not so Toddy, who had been turning it over and over in his mind like a dog with a bare bone. Now he suddenly smashed one fist into the other. 'That's it!' he cried, his eyes fixed downstream on the distant bridge. 'That's our first bit o' work.'
'What?' said Firkin vacantly.
'Hat ye forgotten the business we hae on hand?' growled Toddy. 'Tak' a glaik at the brig.' He held up the telescope and Firkin looked through it. The dim mass of foliage spanning the river a quarter of a mile downstream sprang into detail. He could see the way worn along the boughs by foot passengers, the planking across a dangerous gap, and the handrail of rope.
'Look ye, Firkin,' went on Toddy, 'that's the only brig in four miles; tither side of it lies wilderness, this side the wood. Nobody kens or bothers to ken what goes on over there, and is it no a likely hidiehole for a gang o' grey squirrels, being safest from and nearest to their prey? Hickory Slaw crossed that brig onceye'll notice Nutmeg's hoose is on the road fae it—and he'll cross it again. His spies will cross it, and in the end his whole black, dirty gang! D'ye see noo?'
Firkin nodded. 'You mean we should watch it?'
'Aye,' said Toddy, 'four hours on, four hours off. It's a fine douce job for you wi' that game arm o' yours.'
'It's a long chance,' said Firkin.
'Och, ye have to be chancey in a business like this. We'll hae some denner and then ye'll maybe tak' the first watch. I'm going into the wood this afternoon, but I'll be back to relieve ye.'
They had cold sea-pie, ship's biscuits and rum for dinner. Toddy was silent and Firkin wandered round the room with his food in his hands looking at the curios. Afterwards, when Toddy had gone out in his plaid and his bonnet and with the tall horny crook he always used when walking far, Firkin rinsed the dishes under the tap and then settled himself on the balcony to watch the bridge. At first he was extremely vigilant. He propped the telescope in a convenient branch and kept his eye glued to it. Finding this something of a strain, he relieved himself by marching up and down with a nautical roll, keeping a sharp lookout. Once a rabbit began to cross the bridge and Firkin got terribly excited. But the rabbit merely sat down in the middle, unwound a line, and began to fish very peacefully. After that his interest wandered to other things. He watched Mrs. Ollason hang out her washing, passed the time of day with a water-rat poling a punt, fiddled with the compass, and finally tried to gauge the depth of the river.
When Toddy returned late in the afternoon, he found Firkin peacefully dozing over a raffle of plumbline.
'Ye good-for-nothing landlubber,' roared Toddy, 'I'll clap ye in irons!' Firkin got up guiltily, but the old squirrel was just joking. 'I'll soon hae ye trained, m'lad,' he laughed. 'Weel, I don't expect you've seen anything on the brig? Better luck next time. I've had pretty good luck myself this afternoon. Come ben, there's a rare surprise for you.'
Wondering, Firkin followed him into the living-room, and there on the table was the pack he had brought from home and lost in his encounter with Hickory Slaw—a gaudy bundle of patchwork quilt bulging with books.
'How on earth...?' gasped Firkin. 'Ye don't mean to say ye've been at Nutmeg's?'
'I have that,' replied Toddy.
'I'm right glad to hae my pack,' went on Firkin, 'and the money's safe in it still. It wasna worth Hickory Slaw's while to lay his hands on that. Weel, did ye see him?'
'No,' said Toddy, 'but I've got news o' him. There was nobody in but the girl; her mother was away to the toon. She's a bonny lass, Nutmeg—nicely spoken too. She was asking after your arm, and she said that when ye called Hickory Slaw a rat and he drew his gun on ye, she suddenly saw him as he really was—a vicious, nesty, ugly rat. She got an awful skunner. So I teilt her what I knew of American grey squirrels, and the things we suspected aboot Slaw. "Yes, yes," says she, "I believe ye're right. He went out the night that Walter Gnut was murdered, and he's never been back. We had a note frae him to say he'd been called away on business, but he'll be back—oh yes—for he and my mother are dead set on my marrying him." I'll tell ye, Firkin, my bluid ran cold.'
But Firkin had started up out of his chair, quivering with anger at this piece of news.
'Wait ye, wait ye,' said Toddy. 'There's nae need tae look so black. I said to her, "Run along, m'dear, and pack a bag; I ken a place whaur ye can lie low till we've shown up Slaw and his gang. And in the long run your mother will be bonny grateful to you." So she did. We left a note for the mother, and I brought her along to Mrs. Macadoo's.'
'Oh, good, Toddy,' cried Firkin, 'that was real wise of you. We'll hae to guard her weel.'
'Och, she'll be safe enough. They'll no be looking for her down a rabbit-hole. And she's comfortable too. Mrs. Macadoo is putting in a new ventilator at my request.'
Firkin was completely satisfied and pleased that Nutmeg had deserted the enemy's camp. He had felt all the time that she was a nice person.
After tea, Toddy went out on the balcony to watch for grey squirrels and Firkin, whistling happily, unpacked his books and spread his patchwork quilt on his bunk. Then he sat down to read. He had not been sitting long before he was hailed from the balcony.
'Here, here, wull ye look at that,' cried Toddy, brandishing the telescope towards the bridge. 'Did I no tell ye they'd come?'
Firkin took the telescope from his trembling hand and focused the bridge. He could hardly believe his eyes when he saw three spruce figures, the very spit of Hickory Slaw, in white ducks and straw bashers, picking a dandyish and disdainful way over the rough bridge.
'Is Hickory Slaw wan o' them?' asked Toddy. 'I don't ken.'
'Weel, this is a job for you wi' twa sound legs. Off wi' you and see if ye can find out what they're after. For mercy's sake don't let them see you, and mind your game arm. Haste ye noo.'
Firkin dropped the telescope, bolted through the living-room, and fell down the rope ladder. He made good speed along the river bank, but when he reached the brig-end there was no sign of his quarry. He thought it most likely that they would have taken the rough little road that ran a little way into the wood to join the main road from town. He walked along it, but, seeing no one, turned back again. There was a little old mouse with white hair and a black shawl sitting knitting in her window as he passed. She called to him, 'It's a fine night that's in it. Were ye wanting any place?' She was an Irish mouse.
'Good evening,' said Firkin. 'Did ye notice three friends o' mine pass up the road? They were in white suits.'
'Sure and they went rapping by only a few minutes ago. Smairt as paint they were—like a regiment on the march. But faith they weren't after marching far for there was a great red motor—maybe it was as big as my housea-waiting on them at the bend. In they stepped like lords, and there was a roaring and a rattling and a fuming av blue smoke and sure they were off, my dear boy, in less time than I could drop a stitch aff my needle. Ye'll surely not be after following that great filthy engine?'
'No,' said Firkin, disappointed, 'I'm afraid no. Good night to ye and thank ye.'
As he walked back towards Toddy's, he thought with dismay that even now the three gangsters were bowling towards the town and to-night there might be another hold-up, another murder among his own people—the fat, rich and stupid red squirrels. Toddy thought so too when he heard Firkin's report.
'Look ye, how's that arm o' yours?' he said at last. 'Fit to ride a tricycle if we took off the sling?' Firkin thought it was, though he'd never ridden a tricycle in his life.
'Good,' said Toddy. 'The school teacher has a very nice tricycle which she'll maybe lend us. Ye'll get off to the toon the morn early, and see what's happened, and gie the alarm aboot the grey squirrels. The folk wull maybe no believe ye, but it's the best we can do for the time being.'
Firkin agreed, and on that they went to bed.
The school teacher was pleased to lend her tricycle, and the next day after breakfast, Firkin set off for the town. The tricycle was old but steady, easy to mount with a wounded arm. At first over a rutted stony track it was very uncomfortable; but once on the moss-smooth main road, he began to enjoy the ride. It was a fine morning, cool and sweet with the smell of opening flowers and wet earth. He passed Nutmeg's house but saw no sign of life about it. Now he was on the road over which he had toiled, sweating under the weight of his pack, on the day he had left home. It seemed a very long time ago. Perched on the high saddle Firkin felt grand as the tree-trunks ran swiftly by him and the road flowed away beneath his wheels, and forgot the grey squirrel troubles and the stupidity of the townsfolk. He dwelt instead on the superiorities of tricycling, the joys of living by a river, the sweetness of summer days, and the excellences of such friends as Nutmeg, Toddy, and Mrs. Macadoo.
By noon Firkin reached the residential district where his own family lived. He stopped his whistling and his singing there, and rode swiftly through its broad avenues and noble parks. The town itself was more friendly with trees gnarled and stunted into queer shapes, forming streets that had neither beginning nor end. No matter how pretentiously the red squirrels planned their buildings there, they never achieved smug impressiveness. Firkin birled down the main street on his tricycle, sounding his bell and ignoring people he knew with a fine nonchalance. In the paper he bought at a newsagent's there was no mention of a fresh murder or robbery on the previous night. For once he and Toddy had guessed wrong—or perhaps the plans of the three grey squirrels had miscarried.
Then he saw the car. It was drawn up outside the ugliest and most expensive hotel in the town. There was no mistaking it—huge and scarlet as the Irish mouse had described, and it was of American make. Firkin tethered his tricycle to the pillared porch, and strolled into the hotel. There was no sign of the gangsters in the lounge, though he peered into every deep fat chair and every palm-screened couch. Then the manager appeared, a portly over-suave old squirrel, rather moth-eaten about the tail, who always, even in the open, smelt of hotel. Firkin knew and disliked him.
'Good afternoon, Mr. Firkin,' he said, fat white paws outspread, 'we are always glad to see you. Are you looking for your father? I am afraid he cannot be disturbed. It is a very important business lunch, you see.'
'Business lunch?' repeated Firkin, puzzled.
'Yes, yes. We have three American gentlemen staying here who are now in conference with our most prominent townsmen. They propose to open up the wood, you know, develop it on the most up-to-date American lines.'
'They will that, if they get the chance,' said Firkin grimly. 'Where is this conference?' He caught sight of a door marked PRIVATE DINING-ROOM and bolted towards it, followed by the babbled protests of the manager. From behind the door came a hum of talk and the clinking of dishes. Without giving himself time to draw back, Firkin flung himself into the room. 'Look here...' he cried.
About a score of elderly fat red squirrels were ranged round a long dining-table, and at the top in places of honour sat the three Americans. The Provost sat on one side of them, and Firkin's father on the other. At the rude interruption talk chipped away in ragged edges to silence, and the score of faces—competent, complacent faces, furrowed with experience and age, bearing snow-white moustaches, curling great beards, monocles, and gold-rimmed glasses—were turned on Firkin in amazement. Firkin quailed before them and wished he hadn't come.
'I just dropped in to say,' said Firkin very quickly as he saw his father rising horrified from his chair, 'that these Americans are no good, and you had better not trust them. They've brought a ferocious armed gang up from England and they mean to murder you all as they murdered Walter Gnut, and seize your goods and your town and the whole wood. This is all a trick...' A rising grumble of protest swamped Firkin's words, but he went on talking at a great rate and finished gamely on a shout of, 'They're rats, I tell you, they're rats!'
The business lunch was on its feet, roaring and gesticulating. At the top of the table the faces of the three grey squirrels had gone hard and cold and scared, and they fingered the guns in their pockets.
It was Firkin's father who restored the conference to dignity.
'Gentlemen,' said he, sonorously, with upraised hand, 'let us be calm. We must not let ourselves be upset by such an obvious piece of malicious nonsense. I am bitterly grieved that any son of mine should be the cause of this unseemly disturbance, and I will carry the shame of it to my grave. Will our distinguished guests accept my apologies, and forget about the matter? There need be no unpleasantness between us and them. I have always regarded my son as unsound: I now regard him as positively insane. He shall be dealt with in a suitable manner. Let us continue our business in friendship as if nothing had happened.'
This diplomacy was awarded a discreet round of applause, and many patted the American squirrels on the back and shook them by the hand, declaring fervent friendship.
'Leave the room, Firkin,' thundered his father triumphantly.
But Firkin had already fled.
Meanwhile back on the riverside momentous things were happening to Toddy Tappit. After Firkin had gone off on the school-teacher's tricycle, Toddy had settled himself on his balcony to watch the bridge again. Several hours had passed pleasantly between his telescope and the performance of those nautical tasks that were his daily habit—sounding the river, taking the direction of the wind, noting the flow of the currents, and compiling a weather forecast. Then he had mended Firkin's fiddle. As he was tightening up the last string, he was hailed from below. Looking over the balcony, he saw Ollason the otter ferrying a passenger over from the other side—and the passenger was a grey squirrel! Toddy nearly fell into the river with excitement, but he managed to control himself and hailed them casually.
'What like is the weather, Toddy?' called Ollason.
'Smells like fog,' replied Toddy, 'whaur are ye bound for?'
'Got a visitor for ye. Wants advice. I teilt him ye kent something aboot everything.'
'All right,' said Toddy, and, wondering whether the gangsters had winded him on their trail, he stumped down to meet them.
Ollason rowed his boat neatly in amongst the roots of the tree and grounded her. The grey squirrel looked rather green about the gills after a choppy river crossing, but cocking his straw basher and straightening his bow tie, he stepped ashore with a jaunty air.
'Guess I'll walk back by the bridge,' he said, flipping a coin to Ollason. Ollason laughed and shoved off with a wave to Toddy.
'I've heard a whole lot about you,' announced the grey squirrel, turning to Toddy, who was regarding him with uplifted eyebrows. 'I guess you're the man who's gonna help me...and I ain't mean. Here's my card.'
Toddy took the piece of pasteboard. The name on it was Hickory Slaw!
'If it's business ye're after,' said Toddy, suppressing his excitement, 'yell maybe step up and talk it over.'
Hickory Slaw thanked him and followed him to his balcony. 'Gee, this is a great view,' he enthused. Toddy nodded and edged his visitor nearer the rails so that he could shove him into the river.
'We must be kinda cousins,' drawled Hickory Slaw. 'I'm from the States. We're all Scotch there.'
'Indeed,' said Toddy coldly. 'I don't mind of any of my folk going there—and none of them were grey.'
'Very distant connexion, of course, very distant,' Hickory Slaw hastened to say. The snub had got under his grey skin, but he was anxious to be friendly.
'There is no connexion,' insisted Toddy. 'A Scot who becomes American may still consider himself a Scot (though indeed I am very far frae agreeing with him), but ye'll mind the leopard and his spots? We red squirrels dinna change the colour of our hides.'
'To business if you don't mind, Mister Tappit. Right now I want to make you a first-rate proposition—opportoonity in a million.'
Toddy scarcely heard: one quick shove would finish off the chief of the gangsters.
'I guess I'm getting on—not old, y'know, but kinda in need of a rest cure. And I took a look around and fancied this part—nice and quiet, no neighbours; fishing; boating; mighty fine for a sick man. To cut it short, Mister Tappit, I figure this house of yours would just suit me dandy.'
Toddy's attention was arrested. He changed his mind about shoving Hickory Slaw into the river—at least not yet awhile—and cocked his ears attentively.
'Two hundred dollars a month furnished,' said the American briskly. 'Is it a deal?'
'Och, ye'll surely no be serious, Mister Slaw,' said Toddy casually. 'What set your mind on this place? It's gey ramshackle and no fit for a gentleman like yoursel', besides being a damp-like place for an invalid. I'm sure ye're fond o' your comforts. There are some bonny fine summer residences to let farther ben the wood.'
'Shall we close on three hundred dollars?' said Hickory Slaw. 'I want to be on this river, and there's no house but this one. You hold the four aces and I know it. That's straight. Name your price.'
But Toddy was puzzling what Hickory Slaw could be wanting with his house, and what lay behind his lies about a rest cure.
The ye no tried the tother side?' he asked. 'I mind some fine hooses there.'
'Nope,' snapped Hickory Slaw. 'I've an automobile, and I must be near the road to town.'
'Ech, hech,' Toddy nodded, 'but whaur wull I go? I'm set in my ways and I don't rightly ken I want to be flitting.'
Hickory Slaw was exasperated. 'Five hundred cold, Mister Tappit. That's my last bid. You can go and stay in the best hotel in town.'
'Aye,' said Toddy, 'I might.'
'Done,' said Hickory Slaw, fishing out his wallet. 'Say, though, what was that about damp? Are your cellars dry? The cellars must be dry.'
'Aye, they're fine and dry.' Toddy almost laughed. This was the clue to the whole business. He knew now what he had to do, and he took the five hundred dollar bills offered him.
'When wull ye be moving in?' he asked.
'To-morrow. I'm a hustler. Clear out yourself and leave the key in the lock for me. I'll be along.'
'Ech, heck,' was all Toddy said. He showed the grey squirrel out and watched him disappear along the river bank. The figure was strutting with satisfaction and puffing out a halo of cigar smoke. Toddy returned to his living-room and laughed until the tears coursed into his whiskers.
When Firkin returned an hour later, Toddy was still laughing a little, but he had been busy. A seaman's bag stood bulging with the most precious of his curios, some clothes, his telescope, and a spare wooden leg, while Firkin's books and fiddle were once more done up in the patchwork quilt.
'What's up?' asked Firkin, slumping into a chair.
Tricycling back from town had not been such fun. He had worked off most of the anger and the humiliation of his visit on the pedals, but it had been a wearisome ride.
'Great things. We're moving,' roared Toddy happily. 'But you looked gey tashed yoursel'. Hoo did ye get on in the toon?'
Firkin told him. Toddy nodded sympathetically. 'Jest as I feart. But we'll be turning the tables on them yit. Noo listen to this...' And to Firkin's amazement he related the events of the afternoon.
'Noo ye see, Firkin,' he finished, 'the seegneeficance of it all. Slaw wants heidquarters in a quiet place within easy reach of the town...he'll bring men, cars, guns and ammunition over the river and dump them here ready for use. It looks as if he means to attack any day noo. The mention o' dry cellars gied me the clue: he wants them for an ammunition dump.'
'But why did ye do it, Toddy?' asked Firkin, puzzled. 'Ye didna need the money and he would never hae got such a good place. Ye could hae clean upset his plans. In fact why did ye no shove him into the river when ye had the chance?'
'Och, boy, I'm fond o' a bit o' sport! And if I don't get it wi' that gang o' grey squirrels roosting on this wan rotten oak tree, I'm no the man I once was. We'll nab the whole jing-bang at a sitting. Bless my soul, it's the best joke I ever heard.' And Toddy rocked round the room on gale after gale of laughter.
When he heard some of Toddy's plans, Firkin was swept into mirth too. 'But we'll need a bit o' luck, Toddy,' he gasped. 'It's a chancey business.'
The next morning Toddy and Firkin were up betimes. Before they left the old oak tree for good they constructed a little hide further up the bank among the bracken so that they could spy on the grey squirrels whenever necessary. Then, shouldering the seaman's bag and the patchwork quilt bundle, they made their way along the river edge and up the hill to Mrs. Macadoo's.
'We've come to bide,' announced Toddy gaily when she opened the door.
'Indeed and what's up wi' your own hoose, but come awa' in.'
They groped after her down the dim passage and into the cheerful living-room where Nutmeg was helping to wash up the breakfast dishes. They greeted her and Firkin said how glad he was that she had run away.
'Noo what's all this aboot biding here?' asked Mrs. Macadoo. 'There's no an inch of room forbye the attic floors, and they're that cold I wouldna bed my worst enemy there—no even this murdering Hickory Slaw that I'm hearing so much aboot. Grey squirrel gangsters undeed! It's a fine blether o' dirt if ye ask me. Of course I can see hoo Nutmeg doesna want to marry a nesty foreign pushing grey cousin o' hers—though I married my cousin myself to be sure—but the whole thing aboot gangs and guns and holdups is jest a yarn o' Toddy's. He aye had imagination, and travelling foreign has gone to his heid. And such a yarn! Nutmeg and I were that feart we couldna sleep a wink last night.'
Toddy interrupted her, laughing, 'Wumman, ye've got a tongue like the clapper o' a bell. The attics will suit us fine, and since ye were that feart last night, ye'll maybe be glad o' two men in the hoose, for the grey squirrels are a bonny piece nearer ye noo. I've jest let my tree to them!'
Mrs. Macadoo's mouth dropped open, Nutmeg gave a little shriek, and Toddy roared with laughter. He liked teasing Mrs. Macadoo. But Firkin hastened to explain what had happened yesterday and their hopes of wiping the grey squirrels out at one fell swoop. At the end Nutmeg's eyes were shining with excitement. 'Oh, if only you can do it, if only you can do it...'
'Ye're a pair o' bloodthirsty critters yourselves,' was Mrs. Macadoo's verdict, 'no better than what they are. Still, I'd better see if I hae clean sheets for your beds.'
While Nutmeg and Mrs. Macadoo made up beds in the attic, Toddy and Firkin discussed the problem of spying on the grey squirrels. 'I'm too old and ye're too impatient,' said Toddy, 'to sit on our hookers all day in that hidiehole. Besides, it's no likely there will be much doing while it's broad daylight. Slaw will be fly enough to pretend to be what he said he was...a rich old gent on a rest cure...so that the river folk will suspect nothing. No, Firkin, it's early and late we'll hae to be looking for the fishy business. A couple of hours afore the sun's up, and a couple of hours after it's set.'
Then they carried their packs up to the attic and began to lay out their possessions about the bare little room which held nothing but two beds on the floor and the smell of ripening apples. Nutmeg helped them, handling Firkin's books with care and respect, and admiring Toddy's curios extravagantly. The little ships built inside bottles pleased her very much: she could not understand at all how they got in.
The more Firkin saw of Nutmeg, the nicer a person she seemed to be—and not at all like his sisters. He was sure his sisters would have married Hickory Slaw without a qualm when they heard he was a millionaire; and his sisters would not have been interested in how ships got into bottles, nor have been friendly with a dowdy old rabbit like Mrs. Macadoo or with Toddy, be-whiskered, coarse and salty. In the afternoon when Mrs. Macadoo had insisted on Toddy going with her to the shop as a bodyguard, Firkin played snap with Nutmeg and discovered many more exceptional qualities in her. These consisted principally in liking and disliking the same things as he did. For instance, they both liked walnuts best to eat, and books about travel, and sad poetry like the Border ballads, and swimming, and sliding down grassy banks, and the river, and ramshackle houses, and collecting birds' feathers, and snow fights, and being at the highest tip of a tree. And they didn't like red squirrel dowagers, bridge, saxophones, watch-chains across fat stomachs, smart parties, permanently waved tails, Americans and afternoon tea. It was really remarkable how much they had in common.
When Mrs. Macadoo and Toddy returned with the three young Macadoos from school, they had tea, and afterwards Toddy taught the bairns to play gangsters in the garden. Mrs. Macadoo was horrified. Toddy said it was good for them and if they did meet any real gangsters on the road to school they would know what to do—run like the wind!
It was already dusk when Toddy and Firkin set off for their hidiehole to watch the oak tree. To approach it they wriggled a hundred yards over rough ground on their stomachs, and once in the damp little green cave of fern, they hardly dared to move. For up on the balcony that had once been Toddy's, Hickory Slaw was pacing with his after-dinner cigar. He paced and he paced and then he called for a drink, and his valet—a grey squirrel in a white linen jacket—came out with one on a tray. Then he paced some more. Little insects began to crawl over Toddy and Firkin, the damp seeped through the moss on which they sat, and their legs fell painfully asleep. While dusk trailed away into darkness and even after Hickory Slaw had gone in, apparently to bed, they stuck to the look-out post. But nothing happened at all. The gangsters were not on the move that night.
The next morning also they drew a blank.
They hirpled back home, cross and disappointed, for breakfast, having been out in the hide since before dawn. Toddy was grouchy from a short night and incipient rheumatism, and snapped at them all. Only Nutmeg remained serene; she teased Toddy, laughed at him, tweaked his ears, and finally, when she had charmed him into good humour again, sent him to bed with a glass of spiced rum and a hot-water bottle.
'Blessings on ye, Nutmeg,' breathed Mrs. Macadoo. 'We'll get peace for a while noo. He's an awful case when the rheumatics are on him. Noo awa' wi' the two o' ye. Nutmeg needs some fresh air, and I want to get my floor washed. Tak' her up by the wood, Firkin. There's no fear o' grey squirrels that way.'
Firkin was delighted to take Nutmeg out, and they had a good brisk walk along a little-trodden mossy track through the wood. But Nutmeg was silent and did not respond to Firkin's chatter as she had done yesterday. At last he noticed her worried expression and asked what the matter was.
'It's this grey squirrel business,' she said. 'It isn't going the way you and Toddy hoped, is it?'
'Well, give it time. We've only watched twice. Besides, we always kent it was chancey.'
'That's just it—it's far too chancey. Maybe their plans are different from what you think, maybe they know about you and intend to kill you right away—and I can't see that you and Toddy have any chance at all against that armed ferocious gang. They'll win, they'll grab the town, they'll kill you, and I know fine I'll have to marry Hickory Slaw in the end.'
'Rubbish,' said Firkin rudely. 'You don't know anything about it. Hickory Slaw has never even smelt us on his trail, and we're so far on it that it's almost impossible for him to win. We have heaps of ways of finishing him off.' Then he had a grand idea. 'But if you're really feart that he'll come off best and you'll have to marry him, we'll soon fix that. I'll marry you myself and you can come away to another country with Toddy and me.'
'Oh would you?' cried Nutmeg. 'I'd be most awfully grateful.'
'It's a good plan,' Firkin said, and they rushed back to tell Toddy and Mrs. Macadoo of it.
The old rabbit flung her apron over her head and cried because they were so young and weddings reminded her of funerals: but Toddy made up for this damping reception with the heartiest of blessings and roars of delight. He promised to perform the ceremony himself because he'd been a ship's captain. Then he thought of something else. No less a person than Hickory Slaw should provide the wedding feast. 'I was wondering what to do wi' his dirty dollar bills. It's a fitting use for them.' Toddy thumped the blankets. 'O-ho, o-ho! it's the best joke I ever heard. There's nothing like a laugh for the rheumatics. Hand me my leg.'
And such was the tonic effect of the news that Toddy shortly joined them downstairs in great spirits and, apparently, the best of health. When the time came to keep a look out for the grey squirrels, though Mrs. Macadoo scolded and Nutmeg pleaded, he insisted on going down to the hide with Firkin. 'Ye're havering,' he cried. 'Never felt better in my life. It wasna the rheumatics: jest a warping in my wooden leg. And wha's to ken better than me? Noo when we get back, Mrs. Macadoo, ye'll hae something special for the supper—we maun celebrate this most auspeecious betrothal.'
Firkin and Toddy approached the hide with their usual caution, and settled themselves as comfortably as they could on Toddy's plaid. It was a dirty night, Toddy remarked, most suitable for dirty work.
Firkin nodded hopefully. Under a lowering sky the dusk was deeper than usual, and a chill wind had hounded most folk home to their fire-sides. The river churned past with more than common din. They lay still and the cold began to eat into their bones. Then a small young frog, loitering on its way home, discovered them and set up a furious barking. Toddy hissed at it through his teeth and gave it a pandrop to go away. It went.
There had been no sign of Hickory Slaw or his valet in the oak tree, but now the latter came out on the balcony for a minute. He lit a red lantern and hung it on a branch that leaned far out over the water.
'They're surely coming,' whispered Firkin in great excitement.
'Aye, it'll be a guiding light. That could be seen plain frae the brig.'
'Ouch, ouch,' came a sharp bark at their very ears. The young frog was back again. The pandrop, having lain long in Toddy's pocket, had not been satisfactory.
'I'll gie ye a penny,' said Toddy in a hoarse, desperate whisper, 'if ye'll gang and droon yersel'. Mind if ye come back I'll ken ye're no drooned and I'll gie ye the hiding o' your life.'
'Right ye are,' said the cheeky young frog, seizing the penny. He took a running dive from the river bank and swiftly swam off home where his mother was waiting for him with a flexible slipper.
Toddy mopped his brow. Firkin strained his eyes through the dusk towards the vague outline of the bridge. He said he thought he could see something gleaming on it—and the gleam moved.
Another half-hour passed slowly and it was almost dark. Then at last came the reward of their watching.
'S-s-ssh,' warned Toddy superfluously, 'here they come.' A band of grey squirrels rounded the bend of the river bank. They bore a machine-gun in their midst, and were bowed under heavy packs. More and more followed them, sometimes in single file, sometimes in groups round a gun. Even in the darkening, the watchers could see their sweat-sleeked fur, and their teeth bared in effort. They moved slowly like humpy-backed ghouls in a bad dream.
Now Hickory Slaw appeared at the top of the rope ladder. He snapped directions and the gangsters one by one filed through the door that led to Toddy's cellars, and reappeared without their machine-guns, and without their packs of bombs and bullets.
'Say, youse guys, here's how you've gotta act,' announced Hickory Slaw in a low clear voice when they were all assembled at the foot of the rope ladder. 'Get to your rooms in this dump and no racketing or this little old tree will just collapse. To-morrow we give the town the goods—surrender within twenty-four hours, or sudden death!'
The gangsters muttered approvingly.
'Guess you'll have to feed first, but after you've done we'll have shifts of three on guard down here. We don't want any nosey guy round that cellar door. Good work, boys. Come on up.'
When the last of the gangsters had disappeared into the oak tree, Toddy and Firkin jumped from their hide and scudded up the hill for home as fast as cramped limbs and Toddy's wooden leg would allow.
'Lucky we got away in time,' gasped Firkin, stopping for breath at the top.
'Aye, aye, we hae the deil's own luck,' wheezed Toddy. 'Man, Firkin, we hae them on toast. Ye mind my plan? I never hardly thowt it wad get the chance to work so weel.'
'But the guards?' queried Firkin. 'We canna manage it wi' them there, and three's too many to tackle.'
'Three o' that scum!' Toddy was scornful. 'They're no fit meat for jest wan ordinary squirrel, let alone twa heroes like you and me. I've a thing or two to fix up yet. We'll gie them time to pit the fear o' daith in the folk o' the wood, then when they're back here straining at the leash for the ultimatum to expire, oot'—Toddy snapped his fingers—'they go like a caunle.'
'Weel, I hope so,' said Firkin dubiously. But when they got back to the warmth of Mrs. Macadoo's kitchen, to Nutmeg's smiles, the cheers of the young Macadoos, and the extra-special supper, he began to feel more optimistic. The health of Nutmeg and Firkin was drunk in frothing homebrew, and the next toast was the Downfall of the Grey Gangsters. After that the three small Macadoos began to get very sleepy, and as a treat, Firkin played them to bed with a tune on his fiddle.
The night was dark, blustery with wind and rain, and the old oak tree thrashed and swayed above the river to the great discomfort of the grey squirrels lodged in it. Staggering up and down the unsteady living-room that had once been Toddy's, Hickory Slaw cursed the weather and wished the night would pass: he couldn't sleep in these bunks that the old one-legged fool had built in—he liked a soft bed, and by gum he was going to have one, a swell one too, before another night came. That morning the red squirrels had received his ultimatum: he had delivered it, surrounded by his bodyguard, from an armoured car: he gave them twenty-four hours to hand over their goods, their town, and their wealth, and to surrender themselves peaceably—otherwise he would not answer for his men. Those who attached themselves to his new régime would be suitably rewarded. The chief of the gangsters almost laughed as he recalled the vast surprise and ludicrous panic with which the townsfolk had received his announcement: and he had seen the same thing in so many other towns that he could guess what had happened after he had left. Some would have wanted to abandon the town, some to set fire to it, some to fight—and none would have had the gumption to carry out any of these projects. To-morrow they would crawl to him—or die: he rather thought they would crawl, which would waste much of his previous labour but save his ammunition. He was thankful as he thought of the ammunition now; it lay as ballast, a solid half-ton, at the base of this infernally shaky tree.
Outside the precious cellars, three gangsters stumped up and down on guard. They too cursed the weather, with more cause than their chief in the tree above, and longed for the morrow when they would be let loose on the red squirrels' town.
'Doggone climate anyhow,' grumbled one. 'It's Scotch, so I guess it just can't help being this bad,' added the second.
The third was more cheerful. 'I've heard things up this way are kinda inferior, but the Chief says the burg's a cinch for easy-living. And if that's so, the climate don't worry me.'
There was the sound of a stone rolling off the river path, and the three were immediately on the alert. With gun cocked and eyes straining into the darkness, the first guard advanced. The second guard switched on a torch and it showed up two rain-soaked figures huddled, frightened, in the glare.
'Wa-al, a couple of dames,' drawled the first guard in complete astonishment. 'Red squirrels too. What d'ya want?'
Nutmeg stepped forward bravely. 'I am Mr. Hickory Slaw's cousin. I've brought a very important message from the town. Will you tell him that I'm here, please. My name is Miss Nutmeg.'
'Expecting you, was he?'
'Better see if it's O.K. with the boss. Up you go, Hank.'
One of the guards disappeared up the rope ladder. The guard with the torch switched it curiously on to Nutmeg's companion.
'Who's this?' he asked.
'Why, that's my...that's my maid,' replied Nutmeg.
No wonder she keeps her face swaddled up,' said the guard bluntly. 'Tough on a girl to look like that.'
'Gey tough,' growled the girl, and her fist shot out and knocked the grey squirrel flat. Firkin—for it was he, amply disguised in clothes of Mrs. Macadoo's—leapt on his victim and finished him off by beating his head on a stone. The grey squirrel had only time for a slight groan of surprise and pain.
Meanwhile Toddy had accounted for the remaining guard. He had approached silently from the opposite direction while the guards were occupied with Nutmeg and Firkin, and at the very instant Firkin's fist shot out, Toddy's crook shot out too. Even as the third grey squirrel cried out, the handle of horn tightened round his neck, and half-strangled, he was hooked off his feet and deposited neatly in the river. He gurgled once and sank like a stone.
'That's that,' whispered Toddy. 'Haste ye noo, Firkin. Get on wi' the good wark afore the ither wan comes back.'
And while Toddy seized Nutmeg's hand and hirpled off at his best speed along the river bank, Firkin ran to the cellar door. In its shelter, he fumbled among his petticoats and produced the thing upon which their whole plan depended, the thing at which he and Toddy had sweated and laboured all that day. It was a home-made bomb, a bullybeef tin stuffed with nails and stones and dynamite. Thank goodness the fuse was dry. Firkin opened the cellar door, and got out his match-box. The first one he struck went out in the draught, the second seemed to be damp. Firkin's hand trembled as he heard the front door open above him. But he managed to set the fuse alight with the third match. He placed the bullybeef tin on the nearest case of ammunition, and tearing off his skirts, fled into the darkness after Toddy and Nutmeg. Halfway down the rope ladder the guard Hank yelled an alarm. Firkin was aware of a torch beam swinging in search of him, a bullet spurting the mud at his heels, and the house in uproar behind him. He stumbled and floundered along the slithery river bank. Would the bomb never go off? Had the fuse gone out? Was it damp or had they not made it properly? Then came a flash and the thunder of the explosion, the earth rocked, and Firkin was flung headlong in the mud.
Crouching in the shelter of a whin bush beyond the danger zone, Nutmeg and Toddy had witnessed the whole thing—the shouting of the guard, Firkin fleeing clumsily in the beam of torchlight, bullets spitting from the guard's gun, then at last the explosion. In a sheet of white light and a thunderous roar, the oak tree blew up—flinging earth and rubble, bits of grey squirrels and furniture, branches and the smithereens of Toddy's house, to the heavens. The detonations rumbled away and it was quiet again but for the wind and the rain and the river. Toddy wiped his brow, and patted Nutmeg's trembling hands.
'All over now,' he said. 'We'd best give Firkin a shout. He'll be hard put to find us in this mirk.'
Toddy bellowed and Nutmeg shrieked, and at last came a faint cry from not so far away on the river path. They hurried towards it, and discovered Firkin just sitting up and spitting mud out of his mouth.
'Did they hit ye, boy?' and, 'Are you hurt?' cried Toddy and Nutmeg anxiously.
But Firkin was feeling fine, hazy with elation and excitement. 'What a plan, Toddy, what a plan!' he babbled. 'And the bullybeef bomb went off like a bird. We fair did for them all right, didn't we? Noo we can be marrit in peace, Nutmeg. D'ye think any o' them got off, Toddy?'
Toddy shook his head, and they all began to feel sorry for the grey squirrels. But by the time they reached home, nervously exhausted, cold and weary, they were past feeling either sorry or glad.
Next morning Toddy and Firkin made all haste to let the townsfolk know that there was nothing more to fear from the grey squirrel gangsters. But since the only vehicle at their disposal was the school-teacher's tricycle, it was noon before they could do so. They trundled down the main street, Firkin sweating at the pedals, and Toddy on the back axle kicking off occasionally with his wooden leg. At the town hall they dismounted and marched up to the council chambers where, as Toddy had predicted, Hickory Slaw's ultimatum was still being windily discussed by the Provost, his baillies, and his councillors.
When the two burst into the room, the drone of voices ceased as if it had been cut by a knife. Hands were raised all round the table, and 'We surrender peacefully,' intoned the Provost in great haste.
Toddy gave a snort of laughter and explained who he was and why he had come. The grey squirrels were dead. Through the bravery of Firkin and the sagacity of himself, they had all been blown up by their own ammunition. There was nothing more to fear. Would the Provost proclaim the news to the rest of the red squirrels without delay?
It was a moment or two before the council could take the news in, but when it did, it rose to a man and crowded round Firkin and Toddy, clamorous with thanks and questions and fulsome praise. In the first wild rush of relief, they were embraced and kissed and thumped on the back. Two or three councillors assured Firkin fervently, 'Your father will be very proud of you now,' but they did not think to apologize for the time when they and his father had attacked him.
It was the Provost who put an end to the undignified demonstration with a call for order. When the members had resumed their seats, the Provost cleared his throat, twiddled with his gold chain, and the words rolled thick and slow off his tongue in a typical speech.
'This is a gr-r-reat occasion, gentlemen, a gr-r-reat and noble occasion that will be remembered in the annals of our town for all time. But for the timely action of our esteemed friends here—who, if I may say so, matched cunning with cunning, ruthlessness with ruthlessness—to what straits of violence and slavery, nay, even death, might we not now have been reduced at the hands of that barbarous and brutal body, received with such kindly trust within our gates. I refer to the American Grey Squirrel Gangsters. Let us commemorate this glorious day of delivery by a general holiday and great rejoicing, and by a fitting reward to these two valiant heroes. Have you any suggestions what that reward should be, gentlemen?'
The council applauded heartily. Throughout the speech, Toddy had stood with cocked head and a slight smile, apparently enjoying himself immensely. But Firkin had been acutely embarrassed, shifting from one foot to the other and growing red behind the ears. Now he whispered to Toddy, 'Can we no go?'
'Wait a bit,' said Toddy persuasively, and pulled out his pipe.
'Excuse me, Mister Tappit, no smoking in the council chamber if you please,' smiled the Provost. 'Now, gentlemen, your suggestions.'
The suggestions came thick and fast—gold medal...illuminated address...civil banquet...memorial to the fallen gangsters...fat cheque...brass band...big ball...
When the council began to argue hotly over these various proposals, Firkin could stand it no longer. He gave Toddy an urgent dig in the ribs, and they stepped forward and excused themselves from hearing any more of the meeting.
'Yell let the folk ken soon that they're safe?' asked Toddy at the door.
'Yes, yes, certainly,' said the Provost, 'as soon as the resolution has been passed.'
Out in the street, Toddy doubled up with laughter. 'Better than I thought it would be!' he hixed. 'Oh a piece better!' But Firkin had already leapt on the tricycle and was pushing off.
'Had on, had on,' wheezed Toddy and grabbed handle-bars. 'Mercy on us, what's bitten the boy?'
'Ye ken fine what's bitten me,' stuttered Firkin. 'I never want to see this toon again as long as I live. Come on noo, lep up ahint!'
'Bless my soul,' laughed Toddy, 'did ye no enjoy the Provost's speech? I kent fine what to expect—nothing but bla' and trumpery, bla' and trumpery, and did I no tell ye so afore we ever set oot?'
'Aye,' said Firkin sadly, 'but let's get off queeckly noo.'
'No so fast,' said Toddy. 'There's a sight too much money lying like lead in my pocket this very meenute. I maun spend my ill-gotten gains frae Hickory Slaw afore we gang home. And I'm no going back on that jouking old bonebraker o' a tricycle. We'll hire wan o' these cars.'
An hour later the best hired car in the town, bearing a full freight of driver, Toddy, Firkin, their tricycle, and a mountain of parcels, set off on the road towards the river. Already the town was being decked with flags and its people preparing to fête the heroes who had delivered them from the grey gangsters. But Toddy and Firkin had other ideas on how the occasion should be celebrated. They brought a wedding feast away with them.
And a proper fine wedding it was too, held in Mrs. Macadoo's kitchen and barn that night. Most of the folk of the river were invited, including Ollason the Otter and his wife, the little old Irish mouse, the school teacher, the cheeky young barking frog and his mother, and many others whom you have not heard of at all in this story. Toddy gave Nutmeg away, and then married her to Firkin. Mrs. Macadoo mixed the bride's cog with a master hand—although she could not help crying a little into it, Firkin and Nutmeg being so young and weddings so like funerals. But she cheered up as the evening wore on and the guests had to be plied at intervals with baked meats and fowls and bannocks and sweet cakes and ale. The dancing went on in the barn until morning to the music of an accordion, some bagpipes, a mouth-organ, and Firkin's fiddle. Altogether, it was a proper fine wedding.
Living in a rabbit burrow had disadvantages: they had to be very careful not to knock over Mrs. Macadoo's furniture and knick-knacks with their tails, and some nights they couldn't sleep it was so stuffy. Toddy lectured Mrs. Macadoo on the virtues of fresh air, and she put in new ventilators until she could not sit in her own kitchen without being happed in a couple of shawls against the draughts. But in spite of the ventilators, Nutmeg grew peeky in the underground atmosphere, Firkin restless, and Toddy bad-tempered. 'We maun flit,' they said often to each other, but no one could think where.
It was Ollason the Otter, a great fisher and ferryman, who solved the problem for them. One night Toddy returned from visiting him, grinning and full of an idea. As soon as he got into the kitchen, he cried, 'Get ready for the flitting. Ollason has found us an oak tree!'
'Where?' asked Nutmeg. 'I thought we'd looked everywhere.'
'We did,' chuckled Toddy, 'and this one's at our very 'door. We didna rightly conseeder its possibeelities for it was blown down.'
Firkin was disappointed. 'Oh, that one! And are we going to plant it again?'
'No, we're going to mak' a boat with it—or at least Ollason is. We've been drawing out the plan o' her the night. By the end o' the month we three wull be off after new waters—new lands—new trees!'
Nutmeg and Firkin were enchanted: they had never travelled before. But before they could say anything, Mrs. Macadoo burst out, 'Yell do no sich thing. Ye're an auld gowk, Toddy, if ye think that oak wull big a ship. It's jist a rotten log o' wid, it's that saft the very bairns would think shame to try theur teeth on it! I'd sooner gang to sea on a davit of shugglybug!'
Firkin and Toddy exploded at the idea of Mrs. Macadoo braving the perils of the deep on a lump of peat moss. Mrs. Macadoo could not see how it was funny, so Toddy stopped laughing and explained to her how Ollason had tested the soundness of the wood, and that their boat when it was made would be as safe as a house.
'Ye might as weel have a hoose then,' cried Mrs. Macadoo. 'Ye'll need wan for sure when the winter sets in.'
Toddy agreed. 'We'll be keeping a sharp eye shorewards for wan as we go along.'
But Mrs. Macadoo was not satisfied. The daftness and danger of the plan made her feel quite ill. Turning to Firkin, she began earnestly, 'I've nought agin Toddy and Ollason in the main, but when it comes to sailin' they're clean gyte. Drooning means nothing to them—for Toddy's gey auld and watter's jist second nature to Ollason: but they might think black burning shame o' themselves to lead you and Nutmeg to your daiths. And certain daith it wad be wi' Toddy for your skipper. He's no the man he once was. He's past sailin'—and him wi' only wan leg! He'd have ye tapsalteerie in the river afore ye kent whaur ye were!'
This was too much for Toddy. 'Wheest, wull ye, wumman!' he thundered. 'Anither word and I'll ship ye as cabin boy. In any case, ye're going to stitch the sail.'
Mrs. Macadoo sniffed and subsided into her shawls. She did not offer any more objections as the others discussed their plans. And when the time came, she did indeed stitch the sail.
During the next few weeks, Ollason the Otter's yard was a hive of industry. Saws rasped, hammers banged, planes buzzed, drills shrieked, paint slapped—and the ship grew under the hands of a score of workers. By the end of the month, she lay moored below Mrs. Macadoo's burrow, ready to set sail.
On her trial trip she had revealed all the virtues that had been planned and hoped in her. Stolid yet handsome, there was something of the barge about her and something of the yawl. She sat low and squat in the water, yet responded agilely to sail and tiller. The mast was a young larch, peeled and ruddy as the canvas sail that hung from it. She was painted glistening black with a smart blue ring round the gunwale, and her name painted neatly in white. Her name was a joke. In spite of her evident stolidity and worth, Mrs. Macadoo's first scathing reference to her had stuck. She was called the SHUGGLYBUG. Mrs. Macadoo took the christening as a compliment to herself but a direct temptation to Providence.
It did not take long to load up for the voyage. The SHUGGLYBUG was decked over fore and aft, and in these two neat shelters, there was room for provisions, a spirit stove, new ropes, sleeping-bags, and the worldly possessions of the crew. These were not great. There was the curios Toddy had collected in foreign lands, the books Firkin had brought away from home in a patchwork quilt, and Nutmeg's wedding presents—five crystal butter dishes and a silver teapot. When all was safely stowed and the weeping Mrs. Macadoo assured and reassured that they would come back safely to her sooner or later, the three red squirrels pushed off their boat and were borne swiftly away on the strong-flowing river.
It would take too long to tell you all the details of that first week afloat. Only in the more placid reaches of the river did the SHUGGLYBUG need a sail; but the crew were never idle for a moment For Firkin and Nutmeg had to learn how to behave in a boat, how to tie knots and weigh anchor and steer and take soundings and a host of other things. They fished, they swam, they made expeditions ashore in search of houses, and each night they camped round a fire on the river bank. By the end of the week Firkin and Nutmeg felt as if they had been born on the water, and they leapt as smartly to Toddy's commands as even that old salt could wish. It was as well, for the end of the week brought the end of the river.
Wooded banks gave place to mud-fiats, the river widened, and the current slackened.
'Noo ye'll ken what sailing is,' shouted Toddy gleefully.
Firkin and Nutmeg hauled on the ropes as they had been taught. The red canvas filled with the freshening wind, the SHUGGLYBUG leaned into the water, and they fairly raced down the estuary to meet the inrushing, lumpy waters—the real sea at last! As the smell of it became stronger and the water clear and heavy as Nutmeg's crystal butter-dishes, the crew became more and more exultant. How had they existed so long on the insipidity of inland air! How tame and domestic the river was compared to this! Here they harnessed the charger of the wind: there they had been carried on the back of a stupid old ox! The old skipper Toddy expressed his excitement less floridly; his mouth creased about his pipe and his whiskers waggled suggestively: he said that the weather smelt good and now that they were here they might as well take a run up the coast.
And run up the coast they did. That night they put in at a fishing village, and fresh stores were bought in a surprising quantity. They loaded up with water too. 'More ballast for the salt water,' explained Toddy non-commitally, and Nutmeg and Firkin exchanged delighted glances. The sea had gone completely to Toddy's head. He had got the tiller between his teeth, so to speak, and no such mundane, land-lubberly business as looking for a house was going to make him let it go. All day they sailed, and sometimes all night if Toddy was sure of his waters. Nutmeg and Firkin got quite used to being out of sight of land.
But at last Toddy had to call a halt. The weather looked like breaking, and, being a good sailor, he was a cautious one. He ran for the shelter of a loch, a long arm of the sea enfolded in craggy wooded hills.
On the map it was called Loch-nam-Bochdan. Toddy, who knew something about everything, said that the name meant the loch of the ghosts: and indeed on that afternoon the scene was sombre enough to warrant the name. The light was failing as quickly and as soon as if it had been winter, and the darkening turmoiled sea became still darker in the shade of the hills. Great caves showed black in the face of crags, and the pines and firs bent as if below an army of ghostly forms.
With a half-gale licking her stern, the SHUGGLYBUG drove swiftly up the loch under shortened sail. They soon rounded a bend and saw where the black hills closed in on the loch and swallowed it up. The wind came in gusts now and they had to tack trickily. Toddy took the SHUGGLYBUG right up to the end where the water smoothed itself in marshy shadows, and when they were close inshore ordered the sail to be lowered and the anchor dropped. Nutmeg got out the spirit stove, and after black coffee and sardines they felt much better.
Toddy was very uneasy. 'It's going to be bad,' he said, 'real bad. I smell all sorts of things on this wind. We ought to beach her, but it can't be done withoot help.' He looked carefully round the empty forsaken hills; there was not even a gull in sight. No other sound broke across the monotony of the wind's sighs and the inrushing waves.
'It's a creepy place, Loch-nam-Bochdan,' said Firkin. 'Let's get the ghosts to help us!'
'Please be quiet,' begged Nutmeg, glancing fearfully over her shoulder.
Firkin continued to tease her, chanting, 'Frae ghoulies and ghaisties, frae long-legged beasties, and things that go BUMP in the night—Good Lord deliver us!'
And then his own heart gave a terrific BUMP, and Nutmeg squealed in fright. On a jutting bit of land, not ten yards from the bows, a great black figure suddenly rose out of the ground and stood glowering at them. There was a clatter on the deck as Toddy's pipe fell from his open mouth: but he was not the man to be taken aback for long, and, ghoul or no ghoul, he meant to get the figure to lend him a hand.
'Can ye help to beach a boat?' he cried.
A nod and a signal to move in was the reply. There was something familiar about the figure, something reassuring. All the time they were moving in Firkin wondered what it was. Then, as they got nearer, he saw, and whispered to Nutmeg, 'It's all right. Don't you see? He's got a tail the same as ours under that black cloak. That's what makes him look so huge. He's a squirrel!'
It was indeed a squirrel. An old, but still strong and active squirrel, wrapped in a big black cloak. With his round red face and his round black ministerial hat, he reminded one of a figure out of a Noah's Ark. As the SHUGGLYBUG grounded on the sandy headland, he addressed them in a deep, sing-song voice. 'Good afternoon to you. I have brought rollers with me in case you would not be having enough. It's the great storm that is coming, but the boat will be safe here on the grass and you yourselves will be the wise ones to come home with me.'
'Very kind of ye, sir,' said Toddy, though he did not quite like the tone of the stranger's invitation. 'It's lucky for us you happened by to give us a hand.'
'I did not happen,' said the stranger, producing a bundle of young fir-trunks from under his vast cloak. 'I was expecting you.'
His hearers were astounded. It was Nutmeg who quavered. 'But we did not know we were coming ourselves.'
The stranger did not reply, but having laid the rollers, waved Toddy and Firkin into the water to haul on the stern of the boat while he and Nutmeg grasped the bows. It was a stiff job to beach the SHUGGLYBUG, but under the stranger's able directions and the might and main of all four, at last it was done.
'She will be safe here, safe through many months and the long winter,' announced the deep voice.
Toddy was exasperated; a wave had filled his seaboots and he had been ordered about the beaching of his own boat. 'We'll be off jest as soon as it blaws ower,' he said stiffly. 'But if it's all wan to you, what's all this blether aboot?'
'No blether,' replied the stranger with dignity, 'but the true prophecies of Macindeoir, the Seer of Loch-nam-Bochdan!' The seer bowed, and Toddy, Nutmeg and Firkin hastily bowed back. The stranger continued, 'In the dream the boat with the red sail came riding up the loch before the great storm, and it was manned by a poor thing of a woman, a halfling, and an old cripple. Hard-pressed they were for help, and I came myself. And they would not put to sea again, no, not for many months and the long winter. Och and it was a strange dream but terribly true.'
'I don't know about that,' said Firkin sturdily, but they could not help being impressed. Even Toddy felt a slight chill of fear in the midst of his annoyance at having been called—if only in a dream—'an old cripple'.
'You shall know in good time,' said the seer. 'Come.'
Macindeoir the seer set off up the hill from the loch at a great pace, and his three guests followed him with some difficulty. The path was rough, slippery with sodden grass and steep as a tree-trunk; but Nutmeg and Firkin and Toddy, having heard themselves described in the prophecy as 'a poor thing of a woman, a halfling, and an old cripple', were on their mettle, determined not to drop out of this race up a Highland hill. However, Toddy's wooden leg stuck fast in a bog at one point, and the other two had to stop to help him. The seer went scampering on with his ears laid back and his black cloak spread like a sail.
'How much farther, do you think?' panted Nutmeg when they were once more pushing after him.
'Miles for sure,' groaned Toddy. 'There doesna seem to be a grain o' cover for a ceevilized hoose on this whole hill—or any o' them for that matter.'
Firkin suggested that perhaps they weren't going to a civilized house. 'A seer is just a kind of wizard. I bet he lives in a cave with slimy runnels of water down the walls and gigantic spiders and heaps of skelingtons!'
'Havers,' grunted Toddy, but Nutmeg shivered to the end of her long beautiful tail.
Both Toddy and Firkin were wrong in their surmises. It was not long before their path led into a concealed gully which gradually widened into the most charming glen you can imagine. The change from the barren rugged hill they had just crossed was so great that for a moment Nutmeg feared they had indeed met with a wizard and become enchanted. Here, even in the dark and storm-laden atmosphere, the grass shone a bright unearthly green; and the trees—such fine trees as they had not seen since leaving their own fertile South—had still the glory and freshness of early summer. A peat-coloured burn charged down the middle of the glen, making all sorts of pleasant, friendly noises.
Suddenly it became so dark that they could hardly follow the darting figure of Macindeoir among the trees. He disappeared up a beech and they tumbled after him as the first lightning flash split the sky. The seer slammed his front door and immediately the storm seemed remote. For they found themselves in a hall with walls so thick that the windows sunk in them formed little rooms, and the merest mumble of thunder penetrated. The roof rafters were lost in darkness, and what little furniture there was got in no one's way—in fact it was hardly noticeable in this vast room. Two peat fires burned at either end, but their warmth never quite met in the middle. The seer said his house was an old keep and not to mind the draughts because it was better to be safe than comfortable.
'Safe from what?' piped Nutmeg nervously. But the seer had already put them in charge of his housekeeper, and he crouched down by the one fire while they were led to the other.
The housekeeper was a little old squirrel with whitening hair. She wore a great many red flannel petticoats girded about her stout middle, and her name was Minnie Ann. Because there was something of Mrs. Macadoo about her, Nutmeg liked her very much. Minnie Ann talked slowly for she did not know English well. She was so pleased to see them; she had not seen another squirrel besides her master since last Easter. Her visitors were very surprised to hear that no one else lived in such a beautifully wooded valley.
'It was different in the long-ago days,' explained Minnie Ann. 'I remember two hundred of the clan Macindeoir in this strath alone. Now they are all gone, and it is the same the length and breadth of the Highlands. I would be going myself, but indeed Macindeoir will not let me: it is in the prophecy that he and I should remain here.'
'But why do you want to go?' asked Firkin. 'This seems a very fine place. I wouldn't mind staying here myself.'
Toddy laughed. 'Mind? mind? Ye're gey pernickety, lad. I've never seen a better. It's the braw place for us to be flitting to, and I'm awa' oot first thing the morn to pick a tree!'
Before any reply could be made to this startling announcement, a dreadful groan burst from the seer at the other end of the hall. Nutmeg and Toddy and Firkin jumped up, thinking that their host had taken ill; but when Minnie Ann neither moved nor commented, they sat down again, feeling uncomfortable.
'Yes, why do you want to leave here?' repeated Firkin after a pause.
Minnie Ann said evasively, 'The South is a very fine place, they tell me.' But they were not long in knowing the real reason: again a wail came from the other end of the hall—rising and falling, growing louder and louder, and at last taking form in an impressive intonation of words. 'Ochone, ochone, ochone...whence comes this curse of the great hills and the barren places where there are no trees? Who has brought the wrath of the unholy dead and their monstrous bodyguard upon us? The hearts of our fathers have gone out of us, and we are driven forth. On the hill they come, and to our doors after dark: their forms are legion, and a man may not look without the breath going from his body. If we flee when the horrors are upon us, who will blame us? Ochone, ochone...'
'I wull,' cried Toddy loudly and flatly even as the walls gave back the old man's whine. Minnie Ann looked askance at him, and Nutmeg who had clapped her paws over her ears to shut out the sounds, grew even paler. Toddy got up. He had not minded the rudeness and indifference of their host, but all this mumble jumble got on his nerves. It recalled to him the time he had been taken prisoner by natives in the Congo. Bursting with irritation, he swept down on the seer, yanked him to his feet, and, shaking him violently, shouted, 'Haud your tongue, ye chuckenlivered spae-wife! I dinna believe in your curses, nor your creeshie prophecies nither. If ye want to ken, it must hae been you that drove awa the poor bit beasticles wi' your mewing and spewing aboot the haunting deid! I dinna believe a word o' a' yon bruck!'
Although he was near to strangling, the seer was still game. 'When the fear is upon you, you will believe,' he brought out.
'Hoch!' snorted Toddy. 'So ye think I'll be feart, d'ye? There's naething the length or breadth o' Scotland, in this warld or the next, that wad mak' me the creeshie, bluidless skunk that you are. Sha' me your ghaists! I'll go and squidge the stuffing oot o' them this very meenute.'
With a final shake, Toddy dumped the seer and strode towards the door.
'Hey, wait for me!' cried Firkin.
And the seer, dishevelled and blue in the face, gasped too, 'Wait, wait!'
Toddy paused and suddenly his anger began to ebb; he felt ashamed at having treated the seer so roughly—it was not like himself at all.
'Wait till daylight, Mister Toddy,' went on the seer. 'You have doubted my words. I do not doubt your courage. Only it is prudent that you should start on such a hunt strong after sleep and food. Will you wait?'
Toddy, now that his anger had cooled, was surprised that his challenge was taken so seriously.
However he replied, 'Surely I wull. I was up early the day, and I'm gey fleggit. I'm sorry I gied ye sich a shakking, but ye fair got my dander up.'
'It is nothing at all,' replied the seer politely, 'nothing at all. It comes of my being the seventh child of a seventh child: ordinary people find it very provoking: but I do not feel obliged to apologize. However, it is a brave man that you are, and glad will I be if you return safely to us after meeting the terrors of our country. And Mister Firkin too, of course. You will do well to take a friend with you.'
'As a witness to my courage,' said Toddy quickly. 'Aye, it may be as weel. And the lassie will bide wi' you, if ye please. It doesna look a likely ploy for her.'
Nutmeg looked distinctly relieved; she had no wish to venture on a bogle-hunt.
When these arrangements had been made, Macindeoir was in high good-humour. 'Make haste with the supper, Minnie Ann. We are all hungry. Perhaps afterward my guests will join me in a game of ludo. I am extraordinarily fond of the ludo, but Minnie Ann will not play it with me. Meanwhile let us drink to the great courage that is in Mister Toddy and downfall to the deadly fears!'
And Macindeoir mixed the brose with his own magic hand. The supper was excellent—trout and baked potatoes and a beautiful seaweed pudding that looked like snow and tasted of chocolate with a dash of iodine.
But the game of ludo which followed proved most disappointing because the seer always seemed to see six moves ahead.
The next morning the seer accompanied Toddy and Firkin out of the glen to point the direction across the moors in which they might be most likely to meet his ghostly terrors. Almost in tears he took leave of them. Firkin and Toddy were inclined to look upon their expedition almost as a joke. All the same as Toddy viewed the ground they had to traverse—a vast tract of hillocky moor, bare of any landmark but the rim of far-distant misty mountains—he felt glad that he happened to have a pocket compass with him. Otherwise their task seemed simple enough; they had only to walk half the day out into the moor, and half the day back again, to disprove the old seer's assertions.
The day was soft and grey with unshed rain, and the ground heavy underfoot after the storm: nevertheless they enjoyed their walk until, at the very moment of turning homewards, Firkin had the misfortune to fall into a peat bog. Stepping on to a quite solid-looking piece of moss, he gave a wild shriek and sank to his neck. If Toddy had not swiftly seized his young friend's gravit and pulled with all his might, it would have been the end of poor Firkin. When at last he was landed and the strangle-hold of the gravit released, he was in a bad way; mud and slime draped his fur, the breath was almost choked from him, and he was chittering with cold and fright.
'Things gripped me, Toddy,' he stuttered. 'Sucked at my legs and tail. Swimming would have been no use!'
'None whativer,' agreed Toddy. 'That was a regular hopply-swally. We'll have to keep our eyes skinned for more on the road home. They're that difficult to see till ye're in them. Noo, shak' yoursel' and we'll be aff at the double.'
They hurried off, their eyes intent on the ground to avoid further hopply-swallys and to pick out the easiest way among the tufted heather. The consequence was that when Toddy did look up for the first time in half an hour he found the mountains and half the moor blotted out by mist—a mist that before his eyes seemed to thicken and creep nearer.
'Plague on it!' breathed Toddy, and fished in his pocket for his compass. It wasn't there! Then he realized that it must have dropped out while he was hauling Firkin from the peat bog. 'We maun jest beat on. Maybe it'll lift.'
But in a very short time the fog was all around them. Firkin stopped short. 'What about walking in circles?' he asked.
'What aboot catching your daith o' cold?' replied Toddy, flinging his plaid over Firkin's shoulders and pushing him on.
They walked and walked, but whether in circles or not they had no means of knowing. When the light began to fail, they could go no farther. Firkin was worn out and Toddy could scarcely swing his wooden leg. They lay down on the heather, close together to keep warm, and the darkening mist closed about them like a cage. Toddy related some of the adventures and narrow shaves and hardships he had endured in other parts of the world, in order to show what a small thing their present plight was.
Just as Firkin was cheering up and making light of having to spend a night on the moors, the earth began to tremble strangely beneath them. There was a thunder as if of a landslide, and all around the mist was shadowed by flying gigantic forms. Toddy and Firkin leapt up. Round and round the unknown terrors whirled like horses on a merry-go-round; and at first from the beat of hoofs, Toddy thought they were horses. But this wild baying, this curious rumbling as if from a thousand tongues, he had never heard before. As the circle began to close in on them, the shapes of the beasts became apparent to the horrified squirrels. They had surely met the bogies they had come in search of so lightly! Great monstrous beasts they were, coarse and hairy: foam flew from them, and their glaring eyes burned red. Most fiendish touch of all—and this was what convinced Firkin and Toddy—they bore thorny naked trees as weapons on their heads. As the ground became torn up by the pounding hoofs in an ever-narrowing circle, Toddy and Firkin prepared to meet death as bravely as they could. There seemed no escape for them. Then the beasts came suddenly to a standstill, and somehow they sensed that they were not the objective of these giants' anger. Two of the animals advanced into the circle, bashing their trees on the ground, rearing on hind legs. They were going to fight.
'Queeck!' gasped Toddy. 'Get oot o' their road.'
But it was too late. Firkin felt the hot breath seaming his fur, and the two little squirrels suddenly found themselves shovelled into the air and flying with terrific force through the mist.
Firkin was flung much lower than Toddy and he barely skimmed the backs of the beasts in the circle. He was a long time somersaulting through the air before he hit something so hard that he fell like a stone to the ground and sank into unconsciousness.
When he came to himself again, he felt as if he wanted to be sick and as if his body was bruised to a jelly. He thought of Toddy and began to cry, because of course Toddy must be dead. And he himself, alone on this haunted moor, hungry, sick and cold, would soon be dead too. Firkin flung himself on his face, fairly howling with misery. And his head hit against something which turned out to be the trunk of a tree. When Firkin realized this, his spirits rose a little. A tree in this wilderness! Food and shelter! A stronghold! Cautiously he felt the trunk, it was a queer spindly one but nevertheless a tree; with a grunt of satisfaction he leapt up into the branches. He was feeling his way about when suddenly he was paralysed by an eerie groan that floated down from the topmost branches. The groan was repeated. Then what was his joy when it was followed by the voice of Toddy—surly and weakened, but still the voice of his dear friend not dead at all!
'Stop your girning, Firkin. Come queeck and get me oot o' this. I'm jammed something cruel!'
Firkin bounded to the tree-top and there found Toddy in a sad plight; battered and bruised and wedged so securely in a forked branch that it took half an hour and their united struggles to free him.
'I'm sorely tashed,' growled Toddy, 'but it's nothing to the hash I'll mak' o' that caterwauling seer when I get a had o' him! I suppose we'd better bide here till the morning.'
Toddy was so angry that he would not say a word more about their misadventures and their encounter with the bogies. There seemed to be an uncomfortable grain of truth in Macindeoir's prophecies, but Toddy was determined not to admit it. Huffily he curled himself up on a broad branch, and composed himself for sleep. Firkin crept up beside him as close as he dared and was soon fast asleep, utterly exhausted.
He was awakened by a light blazing on him. It wasn't the sun; he knew that even before he opened his eyes. He took a peep through his lashes, and what he saw froze the very marrow of his bones. The light came from two vast yellow eyes—infinite, diabolical eyes, each as bright as a little sun. And as the sun draws up moisture from the earth, so these eyes strove to draw up the two squirrels into their depths. Firkin lay will-less and fascinated. He felt Toddy stiffen by his side and knew that he too had wakened. A long time they lay in that bright spell, and sometimes Firkin thought that he was already dead. Then the eyes swivelled and were gone, leaving them dazzled and trembling.
After a minute, Toddy said in a tired voice, 'This branch is no jest to my taste. I think I wull be awa' doon to grund level. There's more space.'
Firkin followed him down. They propped themselves against the bole of the tree.
Toddy was soon breathing peacefully but Firkin was too unnerved to sleep again. He kept staring into the darkness until it danced before his eyes, and began to shape little skeleton faces for him. At first Firkin was annoyed with himself for having such weak eyes and such an uncontrolled imagination. But when the faces began to come closer and closer, clearer and clearer, more and more horrible, he became frightened. He shut his eyes tight, but when he looked again the faces were still there. They were half pig-like and half fiend-like, and seemed to have no bodies attached to them at all. As they floated and hovered, advanced and receded about him, Firkin caught whiffs of a strange disgusting smell. At last one of these faces sailed right into his own, and the touch was so cold and clammy and loathsome that he shrieked in terror and grabbed hold of Toddy. As Toddy woke up with a growl, the faces faded swiftly into the darkness. When Firkin told him about them Toddy refused to believe that it was not all imagination.
'Ye're as jumpy as Macindeoir himsel',' he scolded. Nevertheless he got up uneasily; and suddenly he toppled right down again. Toddy roared like an angry bull. Then his roar dwindled to a shaky whisper. 'Firkin! Firkin! They've bitten aff my wooden leg!'
The fear was upon them both now, the fear that Macindeoir had foreboded for them. Toddy shook like a leaf, and Firkin's breath came in gasps. And they believed—oh, all too fervently—in these terrible bogies they had come to find. Abjectly they clung to the tree-trunk; Toddy couldn't move away from it without his leg, and Firkin didn't dare. Sometimes the little skeleton faces came back, but whenever Toddy and Firkin screamed in terror as they brushed close, they faded away again.
The night passed slowly as a dozen years, but at last there was a glimmer in the east. Imperceptibly the darkness grew grey, to disclose the wide expanse of the moor, and the lonely rowan tree which had given them such scant refuge. Firkin began to hope, and breathed, 'If we ever get back alive, Toddy—' but the end of his sentence died in his throat, and with it his newborn hope. Glassy-eyed he gaped at the apparition that had risen behind Toddy, and now stood licking its lips at them.
As he stared at the latest bogle Firkin's very skin seemed to shrink. It was a great stout beast, half black and half white, and in its paw was a long spear from which fresh blood dripped. Gazing down on the two little squirrels, it licked its lips slowly and reflectively. This sinister action was too much for Firkin after all the terrors he had been through. He shut his eyes with a little moan and sank back against the tree. As he was praying desperately that the stroke of the spear might be swift and soon, Toddy's voice came to him: 'Why and if it's no a badger! Good day to ye, sir.'
Firkin opened his eyes, and beheld as if in a dream Toddy and the strange beast pumping each other's paws. Toddy rounded on him with a sly chuckle. 'Up wi' ye, ye gomeril, and gie him your hand. Ye look as creeshie as a half-bakit floory scone. It's only a badger, I'm telling ye—his kith have aye been my good freends.'
Dazedly Firkin obeyed. The badger said in a rumbling great voice, 'Indeed and I was not expecting such a kindly welcome.'
'A kent face is aye welcome, but it's parteecularly blithesome this morning,' said Toddy heartily.
The badger seemed puzzled: after ruminating a moment or two, he felt in his great-coat pocket and said diffidently, 'I was under the impression, sir, that you were the gentleman who had lost this...' and very politely he proffered Toddy a piece of bitten and chewed wood. It was the lost wooden leg!
Toddy nodded his head in a dumbfounded way. The badger went on: 'In that case I must offer you my most sincere apologies. I have the misfortune to possess in the person of my youngest son a hooligan of the most thoughtless and outrageous stamp. Last night, for instance, it amused him to deprive you of your leg while you slept. However, he boasted of the crime this morning, and after having chastised him severely with this very same leg as implement, I now have great pleasure in restoring it to you.'
Toddy grew painfully red as he remembered his shameful panic of last night. And all the time the cause of it had been this simple joke by a young badger! He was roused by a nudge from Firkin who took some satisfaction in saying, 'Go on, Toddy, take it. It won't bite you.'
Toddy took the leg, and to hide his humiliation, busied himself about splicing it on again with a bit of wood and a length of string.
The badger asked, 'But how do you come to spend the night in this wild and exposed situation, my friends?'
'We were lost,' replied Firkin. 'Excuse me, but do you mind putting down that spear? I cannot stand the sight of blood this early in the morning.
The badger, with an apology, hid his spear behind the tree. Unable to contain his fearful curiosity, Firkin added, 'By the way, whose blood is that on it?'
'Bats' surely,' replied the badger. 'You will have heard of the bat-hunting. It is a favourite sport with us badgers in the Highlands. I have had a very good night of it...fifteen head. They were as thick as midges. If you were hereabouts all night, you must have seen a covey or two. You would have noticed how swift they are. Suddenly their faces glimmer at one out of the darkness, and the hunter has to be very swift with his spear to pin them neatly between the eyes. They are cowardly, pestiferous creatures, but good sport.'
The badger had been so engrossed in describing his favourite pastime, chuckling and flinging out his arms in clumsy gestures, that he had not noticed the effect on his listeners. Now when he saw their long pale faces, their gaping mouths and popping eyes, he asked in consternation what was the matter with them. After a few minutes, Toddy sighed and saw there was nothing for it but the truth. Whereupon he told the badger all about their night on the moors and the deathly terrors they had encountered, the last of which were these very bats.
Instead of laughing, the badger was full of sympathy. 'My poor friends! My poor friends!
What you have endured! But perhaps not in vain. Let me show you how. First let me give you some sustenance for I see you are very weak.' Fishing in his capacious trousers pockets, he produced a loaf of bread, a flask, some sausages and a hard-boiled egg. He explained that the hunting had been so good he had had no time for his snack. Then while Toddy and Firkin fell gratefully on the food, he began to talk.
'I have lived by and on this moor,' said the badger, 'these sixty years past; and many are the strange changes I have seen and sought to understand. I am not a sociable being, and sometimes I wondered whether the knowledge gained was worth the effort entailed. However, I am proud to be able to say at this moment that I am familiar—nay, even friendly—with all these creatures you came up with last night! The first lot you mentioned were the stags. They were fighting as usual. What a rough, coarse, noisy crowd they are! Complete parvenus—they were imported on to this moor only ten years ago. They are a little too exuberant for my taste, but very kind and generous to a fault. You must get to know them; but never refer to those wonderful antlers of theirs as "trees" again, for they are very vain of them.
'Then...let me see...the stags tossed you into this rowan here, and you woke up to find old Hupfuff glaring at you. Old Hupfuff is a hard case, really a most disgraceful character I am afraid. He is a wildcat. You did well to lie still in the light of those great eyes of his, for if you had run about he might have hurt you very much. Not that he would have meant any harm; but the poor creature is not quite right in the head, and loves to tease little moving creatures. Of course he does get fits of wicked passion in which he does a lot of harm. I really would not like to answer for the deeds of Hupfuff when the moon is full and his bad temper upon him. But there is only one wildcat hereabouts, and a more reasonable example of the breed than Hupfuff no one could wish for.
'Then you were scared of the bats I hunt: little wonder if you are new to the Highlands. And of course the loss of the wooden leg in such circumstances must have been most upsetting. I can only repeat my apologies for having such a son.'
Toddy shook his head. 'No need to apologize to a doited auld tawpy like masel'. I ken when my day is done. When Toddy turns cuif, it's the black earth that should be over him to hide his shame.'
The badger begged earnestly that he should put such thoughts out of his mind. 'You are a brave man,' he said, 'and you will be all the braver for having known fear. Never before has one of your fellows ventured here in search of the truth. I know these Highland squirrels well: they are excitable and imaginative to an absurd degree. It is not in their nature to search out the truth but to let the truth come to them. When I heard they were frightening themselves out of their fathers' country with their silly talk, I might have gone and given them some advice. But it would have been a tiresome and probably a thankless visit. Only now do I find two squirrels worthy to receive my advice and to bear it back. Here it is. The squirrels must be more friendly, yet less concerned in the business of other folks.'
'Thank ye,' said Toddy, 'I dare say ye're right. Noo, we'll no tak up more of your time. My leg is fixed and we'll get awa' while the day daws bonny and clear, and your words are as fresh in oor memories. Wull ye show us the road?'
'It is not far if you keep straight. I'll post my son with a white cloth in this tree and he will serve as a landmark.'
Toddy and Firkin thanked the learned badger again and for all his kindness to them, and set off across the moor in the direction he indicated.
All that long weary walk back, Toddy did not open his mouth. He had some difficulty in walking with his faulty wooden leg, but he curtly refused the help of Firkin's shoulder. Firkin was rather glad of this: it showed that Toddy was getting back some of his old spirit.
When they came in sight of the glen, they saw Macindeoir's black figure waiting for them. 'He's been having some more dreams and second sights of us,' said Toddy, but without his old resentment at the seer. 'Deid on time he is to gie us the laughing we deserve. Weel, I was feart all right—feart till me bones ran into watter, and my hert leppit like a rabbit in a snare.'
'Nonsense, the laugh's on him,' cried Firkin. 'Where are all his bogie beasts and unholy ghouls now? He was the fool to believe and not to find out: we found out, so it doesn't matter how much we believed.'
'Ye're gey bigsey,' was all Toddy said, and cried out to the seer as he approached, 'Here we are, middling tashed and hummled in the dust!'
'Ah, but you bring good news,' replied the seer, shaking them by the hand. 'Indeed and it can wait, for you are very weary. Come home and sleep till to-morrow and we will be hearing it then.'
In their weak, tired state, Firkin and Toddy almost wept at such consideration from their old enemy, the seer. He helped them to his house, and there Nutmeg and Minnie Ann, overjoyed at their safe return, bustled about preparing hot bottles and warm blankets and nourishing drinks. Within the hour Toddy and Firkin were happed about and put to bed where they immediately fell into a sound sleep which lasted the round of the clock.
The next day Toddy gave a long and true account of their adventures to Macindeoir. Great was that gentleman's excitement. 'It was all in my prophecy,' he exclaimed. 'That you should come; that you should scorn, and yet in your scorn be driven forth; that you should fear even as we feared, yet in your fear be the saving of us. And indeed your experiences and the explanations won from the badger have made the curse a thing of dust. We are free! We are saved!'
'I am no so sure,' said Toddy. 'I ken fine noo what the curse was...oh, black burning shame on oor race that it should be so! The curse was fear.'
'Yess, yess,' replied Macindeoir airily, 'but now we shall be afraid no more, and we shall live here at peace. The Macindeoirs will come back, and all the glens will be filled once more with happy people.'
And so it happened as the seer said. He was always concerned in making his predictions come true, and that very week he set out for the south to summon his kinsmen back to the Highlands.
While he was away Toddy took the opportunity of marrying Minnie Ann, and they sailed off to Ireland in the SHUGGLYBUG for a honeymoon. When they came back, Nutmeg and Firkin had flitted into a house of their own in the glen, and were already bringing up a large family: more than a hundred other red squirrels had returned from the south: and the seer himself had set up a fortune-telling business which was patronized by such people as the badger, the stags, and even old Hupfuff the wildcat. He did very well at half a crown a time. The seer was not at all inclined to welcome Toddy: for he had not only been deprived of a housekeeper by the wedding, but had lost some prestige as a prophet. However, to make up for not foreseeing the wedding, he foresaw a dire calamity befalling the couple if they did not make their home in his keep: so they did. And by this master stroke the seer regained both his housekeeper and his prestige.
Once upon a time there was a sheep who was by-ordinar wise in the head. She was born on an island off the west coast of Scotland. Even when very young she was different from her brothers and sisters and cousins and playmates. They were all delightful lamby little beasts, given to pranking and frolicking and doosing each other from dawn to dark. You had only to look at them to fall in love with them. The white ones were so white, and shy, and innocent. The black ones were so black, and bold, and knowing.
No such lamb-like charms were bestowed on our sheep. From the day of her birth she bore a marked resemblance to her Great-Aunt Agatha; rather short in the leg, with greying wool, and a long sad face. She looked very staid and dull.
Visitor sheep would say of her sister, 'Ah, what a sweet creature Mary is! Just like a holy picture!' or of her black-faced cousin, 'Now Harry's a one, isn't he? What a one Harry is!' But when they came to our sheep they could think of nothing nice to say except, 'What a truly remarkable resemblance to her Great-Aunt Agatha!'
So of course she had to be called after that venerable sheep lady.
While the other lambs raced light-heartedly about the field, Agatha would stand for hours still like a statue or a sick horse in a stall, just thinking. It was a most freakish and unnatural habit, a great trial to her mother. She thought about a great many things. About the smells of flowers and the tastes of grasses; about the noises of the burn and the birds; about the work of the shepherd and his dogs. She thought about day becoming night, and the tenuous clouds that were for ever shaping and re-shaping in the sky, and the changing lights of the sunset. She thought about the moon and the stars and the seasons, And in this way she began to be by-ordinar wise in the head.
As she grew up, her resemblance to her Great-Aunt Agatha increased, but it was not so much remarked now for the other lambs, in growing up, had become like their great-aunts or uncles or grandmothers too. Their bodies were top heavy on spindly legs, their wool was matted and grey, and their faces expressed various types of inanity. Agatha could not help being glad that they had grown to look more like herself. She had always admired humbly their excessive good looks and charm in youth, and had thought it quite natural that they should snub and cold-shoulder her. But now that they were miraculously become as unattractive as herself, she hoped that they would have more time for her. She looked forward to making friends with whom she could discuss the nature of the world and the purpose of life within it.
But alas, she soon found that it was only outwardly that they had grown like herself. They were not interested in things, they knew nothing, they did not think. And they cared even less for Agatha and her ruminations than when they had been blithe young lambs.
They could not tell one side of a dyke from another, nor clover from kail, nor barbed wire from plain, nor the farmer from his wife. It was all one to them whether they roamed free on the hill or were penned in the muddy yard. They did not care whether the sun shone or the wind blew or the rain fell. They were partially blind, partially deaf, partially palateless and altogether stupid. The duller they were the more they esteemed themselves—that was the worst of it.
In vain Agatha tried to wake them up, to point things out to them, to teach them. But the more she tried the more exasperatingly slow in the uptake they became. Some would hunch their wool over their ears; some didn't need to do that—they just blinked slowly and sheepily, as oblivious to the words as to a few humming flies. There were others again who would stare in a startled outraged manner, but Agatha soon got to know that it was not on account of anything she might have said but merely the natural cast of their features.
It was a long time before Agatha gave up the attempt to educate the flock. But at last it struck her that the attempt, besides being hopeless, was foolish and presumptuous on her part. Perhaps this shows best how truly by-ordinar wise in the head she was.
'There is nothing wrong with these cousins and half-sisters of mine,' mused Agatha. 'Nothing at all. They are what they were born to be—sheep. In fact they go one better, they are sheep of sheep. It is I who am in the wrong and out of place. I am the freak. I am a sheep who thinks and does instead of just being. I am the sheep who isn't a sheep. How dreadfully wrong I have been! I really must make amends!'
So, since the other sheep had refused to become like her, Agatha set out to do the only thing possible for a peaceful and harmonious life—to become like them.
She was grateful now for her resemblance to her Great-Aunt Agatha; when you looked a proper sheep anyway, it was easier to behave like one. She took to following her ancient relative about and to studying her mannerisms. She picked up the cough quite easily: it was a dry staccato kind of cough which, once properly started, continued almost automatically for a long time. It was a most irritating and sheepy cough. Then she began to practise Great-Aunt Agatha's superbly vacuous stare; but with little success. You had to be born with that; you had to have a mind that for years had clicked off thought only as knitting needles click off loops—purl, plain, purl, plain, food and sleep, food and sleep. Agatha gave up the stare, but she picked up a trick from another sheep which stood her in as good stead. It was a very simple trick. You looked in one direction, and ran away in another. It made you seem an awful sheep. When she first performed it, her mother was affectionate to her for the first time in months.
In the weeks that followed, Agatha did little but eat and sleep in order to catch up with the rest of the flock in fatness and woolliness. Other habits of theirs she acquired too. For instance, formerly she had suffered the indignity of being driven by the shepherd and his dog with meekness and patience; she had understood what they were about and why; and had done all she could to make their task easier. But now that she was determined to become a proper sheep, she had to behave differently. If the dog had got them all rounded up at last after half an hour's hard work, it was Agatha who would dart out at him, upsetting him and stampeding the flock. It became a matter of principle with her. It was she too who invariably—rather than go through a certain gate—would allow herself to be chased all over the countryside to the point of heart-failure. It was she who now louped dykes and impaled herself on barbed wire and got stuck on her back more often than any other sheep.
Sometimes this business of being more sheepish than the sheep bored and tired Agatha. She longed for her past peaceful life of cud-chewing and contemplation. But on the whole she got a great deal of fun out of it, and the other sheep were very much kinder to her. Never having realized or perhaps having forgotten how wise and knowing she had once been, they loved her because she seemed even more foolish than themselves. They even tried to protect her against her own folly.
'Agatha, darling,' her mother would bleat, 'do keep near me when next we move. Just keep right with me in the middle. It's quite easy, dear, if you remember that, and then you won't get any more nasty great bites on the leg!'
'Yes, mama,' Agatha would reply vacantly, and perform her trick of staring in one direction and running away in another.
Her mother would sigh fondly, 'Dear child, so simple. Not a thought in her head. A perfect sheep!'
And at the next moving of the flock, Agatha would behave twice as idiotically as usual.
One day at the end of the summer about a score of sheep including Agatha, her mother, and her great-aunt were selected from the rest, rounded up, and driven down the farm road. Agatha suspected that there was something unusual about this journey for the shepherd was spruced up and carried a knapsack on his back and he set a much easier pace than usual. Conscientiously acting her part of the most stupid and panicky member of the flock, Agatha did her best to liven this pace, at least for herself and the dog. She galloped along in the ditches, louped a dyke, harried the dog, and led all the rest at a smart pace down the wrong road. Before long the shepherd met a man he knew, and a halt was called while he passed the time of day. For once Agatha did what was expected of her, she stood stock-still in the bosom of the flock and did not even wince when the dog gave her a sly nip on the leg. She wanted to hear where they were bound for and listened attentively to the shepherd's talk. She heard that they were to march a good way, then they were to cross the sea in a small boat, then in a larger one, and finally they would arrive at a town called Oban, where they would be sold and most probably slaughtered.
When they continued on the road, Agatha was in chastened mood. She could not help feeling depressed at the thought of the journey's end. She felt too young to die, and in any case the word 'slaughter' suggested something much more unpleasant than just 'death'. Why hadn't they let her live on on the farm till she was as old as her mother, or even her great-aunt? But at this thought Agatha could not help smiling. It was such a truly sheepish thought. 'A sheep's life,' argued Agatha to herself, 'is a very dull and stupid one; being a sheep I have had to live it, but surely I am not such a sheep as to want to go on living it. No, I shall really be glad when it is all done with. Besides, I can expect no other end to my life; it's the natural and proper conclusion to being a sheep. And a very useful one too, I dare say!'
Comforted by these wise reflections, Agatha thought no more on her coming end, but gave herself up to enjoying the new scenes through which they passed and to playing her outstrapolous pranks when the road got dull. She teased the shepherd and worried the dog and led her senseless companions astray more than a dozen times. It was late in the afternoon before they reached the sea and the place where a rowing-boat was waiting to carry them to the next island, the port at which the Oban steamer called.
Between the two islands the sea ran deeply and swiftly. Clean-cut red cliffs rose on either side of the channel, and the beaches were no more than short shelves of rock. It was always a hard job shipping sheep from one island to the other. On this side, a rough track led down a dip between the cliffs, but there was no proper slip at the end of it; only a natural platform of rock, rough with barnacles and treacherous with weed. Alongside of it, scraping and swinging on the tide, lay the vast deep boat that was to carry the flock. There were half a dozen men to help ship the sheep and to ply the great oars across the current.
Agatha caused no trouble in descending the cliff track. She had covered about twice the distance of any other sheep and was naturally tired. Besides, she was off-duty for the moment, uplifted and forgetful of being a sheep in the heady sea air; the near view of the blue-running water, the tall cliffs blazoned with the evening sun, and the booming waves held her attention. When they reached the shore she strayed a little to look into the little pools and to experiment with the tastes of seaweed, and she was so absentminded that she allowed herself to be rounded up quite docilely and put with the rest into a crude pen of boulders.
But once there, jostled by her closely packed companions, deafened by their bewildered complaints and fussy lamentations, Agatha took up her part again. She began to complain in a futile bleat too, and to jostle, but much harder than any one else, so that she soon found herself near the front of the pen with a good view of what was going on. Four men were placed at intervals along the length of the platform. One stood above the boat, and one in it. The shepherd was at the entrance of the pen from which he extracted the sheep one by one, and chased them down the road between the men until they were seized at last and flung into the boat.
Already three or four sheep had been shipped in this manner, the dog was barking and snapping and doing its bit, and the men shouted and joked as the work went forward.
Agatha took it all in and laid her plans for a fine display of sheepishness. An unexpected dash here, a spectacular leap there, a turn, a bolt, a retreat—it would not be hard to make these carefully placed men look as silly as herself! It would take them a good fifteen minutes to get her aboard!
Fortune favoured her. Just in front stood Great-Aunt Agatha, jostling and coughing dryly and staring with her superbly vacuous stare; she was feeling very upset, but she was much too stupid to appreciate what was happening. Suddenly the shepherd gave a shout, 'There she is!' and leaning into the pen he gripped deep into Great-Aunt Agatha's wool. He dragged her forth on to the platform.
'Look out for this one, Sam. She's as slippery as an eel, worries the life out of the very dogs! I never knew such a wilfully stupid beast in my life!'
In the pen Agatha smiled to herself at the mistake, for of course the shepherd had mistaken her great-aunt for herself. 'A truly remarkable resemblance!' mocked Agatha under her breath, and watched her great-aunt with amusement. That venerable sheep, in panic and pain, was imitating the usual antics of her niece very thoroughly. Writhing and squealing, rearing and falling on her haunches, she gave the shepherd a deal of trouble as he almost rode her down the rock platform. He wasn't going to let this one out of his hands, and tumbled her himself into the boat. 'Phew! The Lord be thanked!' he muttered as he saw what he thought was his most troublesome sheep over the hardest part of the journey. He strode back to the pen, spitting on his hands, and seized the next sheep somewhat carelessly. It happened to be the real Agatha. With a shove and a clump he sent her on the destined way down the platform. But Agatha, as we know, had her own plans about the way to the boat. She carried them out brilliantly. In the first place, she shot off at right angles among the looser rocks, and at once disorganized the carefully placed guard. The men and the dog rushed pell-mell after her, fearful that she would break a leg. Agatha was agile and sure-footed as she was cunning. What a dance she led them over the slippery, crevassed rocks! At last she returned to safer ground by way of the cliff path, her pursuers following as fast as their barked shins and twisted ankles would allow. Even the dog was weary, for he had had a whole disheartening day of chasing Agatha.
Back on the rock platform that led down to the sea and the boat, Agatha was as hard to catch as ever. She shot at the men like a rocket, slipped through their fingers like an eel, dodged round them like a rugby international.
The man who was looking after the boat shouted that they were all a lot of fools if they couldn't get hold of one fat old ewe, and that he would come and show them how.
Catching sight of him as he climbed up on the rock, Agatha bolted down the platform.
'Catch her now! Hold her, Hector!' yelled the men. He looked up startled, not expecting to join so soon in the chase. Agatha did not diminish her pace.
Hector jumped to his feet, spread his arms, and shouted in an agonized way. Agatha was not to be turned aside. She galloped straight on. As Hector made a wild grab at her, his feet slipped from under him on the seaweed. Agatha shot past, over the face of the rock, and into the sea with a great splash before he had even begun to cry out with pain and surprise!
'The idiot!' thought Agatha even as she fell.
'He ought to have stopped me! I never meant to do this!'
For the next few minutes she was too uncomfortable to think. The sea smothered her, harsh and heavy as if it had been solid. She went down and down until there was nothing in the world but this icy weight of wetness, and her lungs pumping painfully against it till she felt she would burst. Then she felt a check and the trend become an upward one, but so slow that it seemed no use at all. At last she burst through the surface. Then she had to get the sea out of her eyes and nose and ears and mouth. She coughed up the sickening stuff, blinking and snuffling. She soon realized that she had nothing much to fear for, the moment, for she was so fat and woolly that she bobbed along on the tide like a piece of cork. And that oily mop of wool would keep her head above water till the men and the boat could reach her. Really this unrehearsed escapade had turned out very well. She was beginning to enjoy herself again.
She turned her head cautiously to see how her rescuers were getting on, and could not restrain a hiccup of amazement. For the rock from which she had fallen was left far behind; the tide had swirled her away, as she struggled, at a tremendous rate, and was growing ever swifter and stronger towards the centre of the channel. The men on the rock were now tiny; she could hardly make out what they were doing, but it was plain they were doing nothing about her. A few scattered white dobs on the cliff-face suggested that the rest of the flock had got loose—probably they had rushed from the rough rocky pen when all attention was focussed on Agatha. Before they could be rounded up, she would probably be drowned or carried out to sea. Agatha sighed, and gave herself up for lost.
'This is much pleasanter than the slaughterhouse at any rate,' she comforted herself. 'I have always wanted to go to sea.'
She was now in mid-channel, bobbing along at an alarming rate. The sun had slipped from the sky, and the cliffs of the islands on either side had become purply-blue and very distant in the evening light. Agatha at one moment hoped that she might be washed ashore again, but one glance at these jagged ramparts, towering higher as they stood against the full sweep of the Atlantic, showed her how foolish and fatal her hope was. Another time she looked for some steamer or fishing boat to pick her up, but in vain. Try as she might she could not really resign herself to the death ahead of her; she had had a taste of that watery suffocation already. Nor could she divert her mind from it by admiration of the seascape, nor by contemplation of the world to come, nor by inventing anagrams, nor by counting imaginary sheep as they jumped over an imaginary gate.
As night began to fall, she felt herself settle more heavily in the water. The cold had numbed her legs and her sodden wool was dragging her down by the stern. Sometimes a wave dashed saltily and rudely against her face, forcing her head back and dispelling for a moment the awful sleepiness that was overcoming her. She saw that she had left one of the islands behind, and of the other only one great headland remained. The tide in the channel began to meet the incoming tide of the open sea, and already the water had become swollen and choppy. A slight queasiness and a tendency to hiccup increased Agatha's misery. She wondered if she would be dead or sick first.
Just then she was swept past the last headland and into the maelstrom of the meeting tides. Tumbled and dooshed, tossed from wave-crest to trough, somersaulted, beaten and driven under—Agatha could think no further. The breath was expelled from her, she was filling with water, the sea pushed and her own weight dragged her down. Twice she struggled to the surface again. But just as she was about to sink for the third time, she felt her feet touching bottom. It wasn't a very solid bottom; it waved and receded from her toes in a torturing manner; but at last all four feet had achieved it. Getting her head up, she pushed blindly against the water. It got shallower and the bottom more solid. Sometimes the waves sought to swirl her seawards again, sometimes they overwhelmed her from behind so that she sank on to her knees. When she had at last rid her stomach and her nose and her ears of salt water, she managed to look ahead and take stock of her situation.
Against the darkening sky, a darker shape stood out. It seemed to be a little island, horseshoe-shaped. And the shallow water in which she struggled filled the bay between two out-lying prongs of rock. This much Agatha made out. With more determination, she strained towards the dark shore, dragging the mass of her wool after her. Now the waves became kinder, seeming to aid her, urging her up the long, shallow incline.
Agatha made a poor-like Venus emerging from the sea. Her grey wool hung in bedraggled clumps, blood oozed from a gash on her brow, tangle was wrapped about her tail, and her spindly legs shook so that she could hardly walk. They bore her a very few yards up the shingly beach, and, shivering and exhausted, she slept where she fell.
When Agatha awoke in the early light of the sun, her first thought was of gratitude for her deliverance. It was very nice to find herself still alive; and especially nice to find herself alone and no longer called upon to behave like other sheep. Thinking of her past foolish behaviour, she blushed a little—but smiled too, for if it had not been for that she would never have been free.
Getting up, she cleaned herself of sand and seaweed, and shook out her still-damp fleece. The sea was very blue, calm but tremulous in the first light. To the east lay the island upon which Agatha had been born and reared. All she could see of it was a terrific rocky blue headland, smoky with the spray that broke across its feet. It was this headland she had seen last night before being overwhelmed by the rough water. She must have been swept round it in her stormy passage, and so across a broad channel to safety on the horseshoe-shaped islet. It had been a very lucky escape.
Above the water there was a strip of sand; then the shingle upon which she had slept; then a short cliff crowned with grass and sea-pinks. Finding herself stiff about the legs, Agatha did not attempt to climb it, but set off along the beach to explore. The seaweed she tasted once or twice was good, but she was thirsty after the great quantities of salt water she had swallowed and it only made her more thirsty. However, she had not gone far before she came upon a little burn that trickled down the cliffside.
'This is good,' said Agatha, almost dancing up to it on her stiff legs. 'I am going to be very comfortable.'
After a long drink of the water, which was clear and sweet, having like all good water an actual taste, she mounted the cliff by the easy way of the burn. At the top she stopped to survey her kingdom. It was the largest of an archipelago of islets, a group of rocky knobs sticking out of the sea, some of which were capped with grass and heather. But still it was not very large. It showed itself all in one glance. To the west it sloped steeply into the sky; there was a hollow in the middle; and round the little bay where she had landed in the east it reached out two gaunt rocky arms of land. It was covered with uniformly green grass except in the bottom of the hollow, where massive lichened boulders were piled.
Agatha tasted the grass. It was a trifle coarse and salt, but she felt she would easily get used to that and even prefer it to a sweeter grass. She made a hearty breakfast of it. Then she made her way towards the boulders in the hollow which she realized would serve her as a good shelter from the cold night winds and the sea spray that must beat over the island in storms. As she sauntered along, she sang a little, planning her future care-free life. Enough to eat and drink, a place to sleep, the space and solitude of this islet in the Atlantic—what better fortune could the world give to a contemplative soul in sheep's clothing?
But when she was still a little way from the boulders, she suddenly pulled up short. Something was moving among them. The next moment an animal leapt gracefully on to the highest one and gazed out to sea. Agatha stood still with beating, leaden heart. Her paradise was ruined. She would have been better never to have achieved it but to have drowned on the way.
It was a very handsome animal, shining black, chequered with white. It had graceful legs, a slender body, and a stub of a tail. Two long horns curving back from its forehead gave it height and nobility. As Agatha examined it thus minutely, curious even in her disappointment, it turned and saw her.
With a high call of alarm, it leapt from its perch and made for Agatha with lowered head and pounding hoofs. Agatha was not afraid, only a little vexed at its quick pugnacity. Her many encounters with dogs stood her in good stead. As her attacker shot towards her, she sidestepped neatly and watched with an amused smile as he buried his horns in a tussock of grass and fell heavily. She meant to repeat these tactics until she had tired him out enough to come to grips with him. But a slight sound behind her put an end to this plan. Wheeling round, she saw six more of the animals advancing from the rocks. Her heart sank. She backed to do battle, keeping an uneasy eye on her first assailant, who was beginning to pick himself up.
The animals came in a neat regular row. Some of them were black and white, some brown. Their coats were sleek and shining, and they were all provided with long, sharp horns. They stepped daintily with their chins held high. It occurred to Agatha that they were not going to attack her like the first one; they had a look of well-bred inquiry rather than hostility; but she held her stance.
One of the animals, old and thin and rather uncertain on his legs, stepped forward from the rest. His neat pointed grey beard waggled as he spoke. 'Good day to you, Madam. We beg your pardon for this chary welcome—youthful ignorance, you know, and romantic high spirits.'
Agatha did not know what to say. The animal turned towards her attacker, who was feeling his horns tenderly, saying, 'Let me introduce you to a sheep, MacFlecknoe. You've heard of them, haven't you? Beasts of the most gentle, timid and stupid—oh, I beg your pardon—of the most gentle and timid disposition.'
MacFlecknoe said that this couldn't be a sheep then, because, although she might be stupid enough, she was certainly neither timid nor gentle.
'Come, come,' said the elderly animal rather testily, 'don't be a goat, my boy. Haven't you made any attempt to educate yourself at all? Of course this is a sheep.'
'Sir,' replied MacFlecknoe, 'this may have the look of a sheep, it may even have the form of a sheep, but it is not a sheep. Are we to believe merely the evidence of our senses? And if so, which sense? Your eyes tell you that a sheep stands before you, my aching horns tell that it is not a sheep.'
'Well, well, ask her what she is,' said the old animal.
MacFlecknoe did so. Agatha, who had been following the discussion with wonder (for it was very like the discussions she carried on with herself sometimes), replied at once, 'I am a sheep who is not a sheep.'
'There you are!' they both shouted in triumphant chorus.
After that everybody was much more friendly. Agatha learned that the animals were goats. They had been put on the lonely island three years ago, and they looked like staying there to the end of their days.
'Nobody has any more use for us,' said the elderly goat, 'which is a great blessing. We are free to meditate on the wonders of the world, and to refrain from all foolishness but frivolity.'
'Why, that is my reason for being here too,' cried Agatha, and she related her life among the flock and her escape from them on the tide. All the goats were delighted with the story.
'Upon my word,' laughed the old goat, 'I begin to believe MacFlecknoe is right. How can I believe my eyes, or even my mind that a sheep of such sagacity exists? According to the ancient maxim, "A goat is a fool with a fine mind, a sheep is a wiseacre with not a thought in his head." But now I shall never be able to make out the sheep from the goats.' And he went away by himself to the top of the cliff, where he sat for a day and a night thinking out a new rule which would definitely separate the sheep from the goats; this gave him great pleasure.
Meanwhile Agatha was settling down to a new life among the goats. They were delightful creatures, very fond of dancing and glee-singing and odd things to eat and sea-bathing and fighting. Agatha always remained a bit of a sheep in these things although she liked doing them; but she could talk and discuss and argue the beard off any one of the goats. Thus they all lived in great cheerfulness and contentment on the island for many long years.
This site is full of FREE ebooks - Project Gutenberg Australia