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Title: Wheels of Fortune Author: Coutts Brisbane * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 2000311h.html Language: English Date first posted: March 2020 Most recent update: March 2020 This eBook was produced by: Colin Choat 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 Australia Licence which may be viewed online.
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Published by Thomas Nelson & Sons, Melbourne, 1948
I. DICK TREVALLION'S
II. A BREATH OF THE BRINE
III. TRIAL TRIP—AND TROUBLE
IV. PISTOLS FOR TWO
V. GIL MEETS JACK NOBODY
VI. FARO AND FRITZ
VII. THE ELOPEMENT
VIII. ON THE ROAD
IX. GONE AWAY!
X. VON KOEFFNER TAKES SOUNDINGS
XI. TROUBLE IN THE STABLES
XII. ARIEL RUNS THE GAUNTLET
XIII. COOMBE WESTER STANDS FIRE
Suddenly a couple of
men leaped out into the road ahead
The ship rose upon a swell
"Stand and deliver!" he roared
The thoroughly scared animals stampeded
"THERE'S nothing in the bay. It's safe enough, even if your popper could throw a mile," said Jim Vivian as he swung off his pony and took a powder flask from the saddle-bag. "How far d'you think it could carry?"
Gilbert, his elder brother, who carried a long-barrelled rifle, alighted and tethered the ponies before replying.
"I don't know, so far, but if it shoots straight at three hundred yards I'll be quite satisfied. I'll try the first shot out to sea, to settle the point."
The rifle was a new weapon which Gilbert had had made by Manton, the famous London gun-maker, to throw bullets of his own design. These were not round, but oval, and rather larger than the bore of the rifle. Gilbert hoped that by filling the grooves of the rifling, the bullets would fly farther and straighter than those shot in the ordinary way.
The pair crossed the road, which here ran for miles along the shore only a few feet above the narrow beach. Not a breath of wind stirred the placid sea. Gilbert raised the rifle and fired. Nearly five hundred yards out to sea a fountain of spray told where the bullet had fallen.
"First class!" yelled Jim. "Topping! If our soldiers only had weapons like this, a company could lick a regiment of any others on earth."
"I daresay—if they could only shoot fast enough!" chuckled Gilbert. "But the drawback is the time it takes to load." He poured a charge of powder from the flask down the barrel, rammed home a wad of felt with the steel ramrod, then, putting in the oddly shaped bullet, hammered it down the bore with the ramrod and a small but heavy mallet.
"This is the drawback," Gilbert went on. "A well-trained soldier can load and fire an ordinary musket three times in two minutes, while I need at least two minutes to get ready for one shot."
"But one bullet that reaches its mark is worth any number that don't," Jim said. "What'll you shoot at now?"
"That rock along by the turn of the road there. The piece like a nose striking out on the right. I'll call myself Robin Hood if I hit that, for it's all of two hundred and fifty yards."
Again Gilbert took aim, deliberately this time. Crack! Splinters flew from the rock, the bullet glanced off, whining across the road into the covert, and a man who came careering around the bend at that very moment, mounted on a queer contraption of three wheels, uttered a howl of dismay and crashed into a clump of bushes. The ricocheting bullet had passed within an inch or two of his head!
"Hey, mister, cease fire!" the man bawled as he dismounted. "You near crimped my hair for me! Look before you shoot, next time!"
Tugging and shoving he got his queer-looking machine out of the brush, and mounting it, came pedalling towards the brothers. They saw that he sat on a saddle above the largest of three wheels, his feet working the pedals that turned it.
"A miss is as good as a mile, Gil. But what's his mount?" asked Jim. "Like a white mouse on a treadmill, isn't he? In a way it's like that dandy-horse we saw in the park in London."
"Only this is worked by pedals and cranks," Gilbert pointed out. "That fellow on the dandy shoved along with his feet only. It was a clumsy thing at best. This is better. Did you make this yourself, my man?" he asked as the machine creaked up and stopped.
"Not your man, young sir, but my own master. And my name's Dick Trevallion, maybe at your service. I made this Rattling Willie myself, and could wish I had better roads to ride it on. I'm near shaken to bits coming from Penzance, so I reckon to be in small pieces before I get to London. But I couldn't afford to take coach, and a horse would eat up the money I need for myself. So I threw my leg over Willie—and here we are with many a long mile covered and still Richard is himself, and Willie sound in wind and wheels!"
And at that the big black-haired man with floating beard and shaggy eyebrows burst into a jolly laugh, so hearty that Gilbert and Jim had to join in.
"I'm glad you take being shot over so lightly, Trevallion," said Gilbert. "I should have been more careful, but few use this road by day and none by night except—"
"The Free Traders—the smuggling lads, eh?" Again Trevallion's jolly laughter rang out: "Were you practising to shoot some of 'em?"
"They can come and go as they like," said Gilbert indifferently. "I was trying a new rifle bullet in this rifle. I find that, as I had hoped, it's much more accurate than the ordinary bullet. If I could but hit on a way to speed up loading, weapons like it would make our fellows invincible in war."
"Let me see a bullet," said Trevallion, and examined the missile Gilbert gave him closely. Jim, watching them, thought how oddly alike their expressions were, almost as though they were brothers. Though Gilbert Vivian was a squire and owner of broad acres of rich farm land while Dick Trevallion was little more than a blacksmith, the one thing they had in common, a love of mechanics, united them. That bridged the difference in rank and made them almost akin, so that they really looked somewhat alike.
"Maybe I might think of some way, master, but it'd need a lot of studying out," said Trevallion at last. "And when all's said and done it is but a thing to help folks kill each other easier and quicker. Now, my particular notion is something that would help to bring people nearer together, and make travel easier and cheaper for all."
"Rattling Willie, I suppose?" asked Gilbert with a smile. "Roads would be livelier."
"Something better than Willie, sir, though he may be mightily improved in time. Something that will run on the roads—though it's to be hoped they're better than this—and all by the power of fire and water. Steam, sir, steam! The power of the future that will beat horseflesh, ay, and the winds, too, for driving ships. And I have my model there in that bag. I'll show it to you working if you'll bring me to some charcoal and a smooth stretch of floor or paving. Look, sir!"
And almost panting in his eagerness, Trevallion unstrapped the big carpet bag fastened to the rear frame of Rattling Willie, and hauled out something carefully wrapped in a clean linen shirt.
"My sister, who keeps house for me, would give me a flea in the ear if she knew I'd used my best shirt for packing!" chuckled Trevallion. "But my little beauty's worth it. Look 'ee now!"
Kneeling by a smooth patch of roadway, he set down the thing and whipped away the covering shirt. The Vivian brothers stooped to stare at a strange piece of machinery such as they had never seen before. It was a model, about eighteen inches long, of a queer road car, or coach, of a kind then undreamed of, except by a very few men like Dick Trevallion, and they were mostly laughed at as cranks.
But there was nothing very fantastic about the model. On a stout brass frame was set a copper boiler with furnace and chimney, and a pair of cylinders from which sprouted piston rods. These were connected with beams that worked cranks on the big driving wheels at the rear. The pair of front wheels were arranged on a swivel and pinion so that a bar turned them to right or left and steered the whole car. The model had been finished with loving care. Trevallion patted it proudly.
"Years of thought and many an hour's work went to the making of it," he said. "It was built in my spare time when I wasn't tending the pumps at Caffyn's Wheal, which is a tin mine. And I'm taking it to London in the hope o' finding someone who'll lend me the money to make it full size, big enough to carry two or three men besides the one that steers it. There's no-one in Cornwall has the pluck to take the risk, that I can find."
"Yonder is my house," said Gilbert, pointing to the chimneys of the old house of Coombe Wester which showed above the elms half a mile inland at the head of the little valley. "Come along there and run your machine along the terrace, or indoors, as you like. Maybe you won't have to go to London."
"In a trice I'll be with you!" cried Trevallion, and began to repack his treasure hastily.
"Aren't you going to shoot any more, Gil?" asked Jim.
"Oh, we can do that at any time, but it isn't every day one can see something really new like this machine," replied Gilbert. "But take the rifle and go on shooting, if you like."
Jim hesitated. Then, as Trevallion stowed the model and wheeled Rattling Willie into the roadway, he slung the rifle over his shoulder and mounted his pony. Though he pretended to be indifferent, he was just as eager as his brother to see wheels go round—by steam!
Old Capper, the fat old butler who had served the Vivian family all his days, came waddling into the big kitchen after answering the bell, spluttering with mingled amusement and annoyance.
"He's up to more cantrips!" he growled. "Here he's been and brought home a fella from Cornwall that rides on an outlandish contraption that he works with his feet. And our Gil wants spirits o' wine and a kettle o' boiling water! Stir up that fire and give me the bottle o' spirits you use for the tea-urn blazer."
"Is Master Gil after trying a new brew of punch on this Cornisher?" asked Mrs. Capper, the butler's wife and cook, as she poked up the fire to a blaze and the kettle began to sing cheerily.
"Nothing so human-like!" snorted Capper. "He's after playing with some sort o' toy coach the fella has took out of a bag. It looks to have windmills and whirligigs on it. More machinery!"
"I'm sure I don't know what his father would say if he was alive!" said Mrs. Capper mournfully. "It's not decent for him that's a gentleman born and bred to go messing around with blacksmith's work and taking up with Tom, Dick, and Harry instead of going out with the hounds as a gentleman should. And Master Jim's going the same way."
"Arrh! He's goin' into the army when he's old enough. That'll knock the nonsense out of him," grunted Capper. "Gimme that kettle. It's boiling. Playing with toys! A little wagon like a baby's!"
Snorting, he hastened back to the hall and watched curiously while Trevallion poured hot water into the little boiler, and spirits of wine into the cistern of the spirit-lamp furnace.
"Does it blow up, sir, like one of them grenades?" Capper couldn't help asking as he backed towards the door.
"No. It's not a weapon but a steam wagon," Gilbert explained. "Steam instead of horses, Capper. What d'you think of that?"
"Begging your pardon, sir, I don't think nothing of it because it just ain't possible."
"There's pressure enough," said Trevallion, and turned a little tap. "There she goes."
At the words the little locomotive began to move, jetting steam from the exhaust. Around the hall it ran in a circle, almost noiselessly. Gilbert and Jim stared at it silently. Trevallion laughed very softly. It was old Capper who spoke first.
"Like a thing o' life," he muttered. "I reckon I was wrong, sir. If it was big enough now, it would carry folks. But wouldn't it scare horses it met on the road?"
"I daresay, Capper, but they'd get used to it in time," replied Gilbert. "And I think the day may come when steam coaches and steam wagons will take the place of horses altogether on the roads."
Capper blinked as though this thought dazzled him.
"If they does, then what would become of all the folks round about here and up to Exmoor that makes a living breeding horses?" he said, as he reached the door. "They'd be ruinated, sir. Don't 'ee go for to help do it with this here steam thing."
"Our people are so mighty slow to take up any new thing, Capper, that no one will ever be ruined that way," Gilbert said, and laughed. "But you needn't talk about what you've seen. Wait till the full-sized coach rolls out with you aboard it. You shall be the guard, Capper, and carry a blunderbuss and blow the horn."
"Me on a steam kettle! No, sir! I'll die in one piece when my time comes," gasped Capper, and waddled out.
Trevallion stopped the model as it circled round to him once more.
"I take it you don't think my notion's folly, like most people did down at home?" he asked Gilbert.
"I think it's a wonderful invention,", Gilbert answered. "And if you care to stay here, there's a workshop down by the old mill where you could get power from the wheel if you need it. You can fit up a turning-lathe and a forge—all you want, with money enough to build your coach. You can lodge with the miller. Will you stay?"
"Will I? To be sure! Why should I take the road for London when I can have all I need here? Sir, I thank you. You'll always bless this day, for my little wagon will bring us both fame and fortune."
"AIN'T Mr. Gilbert comin'?" asked Faro Lee as he stowed the basket of provisions and the big stoneware bottle of water in the after locker of the boat.
"No. He's busy with the steam carriage that Cornish fellow's building. It's a queer thing, Faro, how he'll work all day and half the night on that and never grumble, yet if anybody was to make him do half as much, even for good wages, he'd start making a noise at once," said Jim Vivian.
"Arrh!" Faro murmured. "It's along of his heart being in it, that's what. What the heart likes the hand does easy. When's the thing to be ready, Mr. Jim? They've been at it these three months now."
"Don't know, but not long now. D'you want to go for a ride on it, Faro?"
"I'd rather have a hoss any day, or this boat wi' a good breeze. It was Miss Ann that was asking. Met her down along by Farthing Copse. Reckon Mr. Gil ain't been meeting her so often lately. Told her he was mighty busy, I did, and the thing was most important, and she gave me a shilling. I s'pose it is important, in a way."
"Oh, Gil and the Cornishman think so, anyhow," muttered Jim, and stepping aboard the boat, shoved off as the gipsy lad cast loose the mooring line, then hoisted the lug.
They ran out of the bay before a light, fitful breeze, and some three miles ofd shore brought up near the tail of a submerged reef. As the boat drifted slowly before the breeze the boys got their lines out and began to fish.
The pair were oddly contrasted, for Jim was fair haired and grey eyed, while Faro was a typical Romany lad with raven black hair and eyes like sloes. Faro's father had fallen out with his people when he committed the unpardonable offence of living in a house. Old Squire Vivian had employed him as a gamekeeper, but he hadn't lived very long, leaving Faro an orphan when he was ten years old.
Faro was the faithful servant of the brothers most of the year, but when his gipsy kin were in the West Country he would disappear for a week or two, returning as suddenly as he had gone, to carry on with odd jobs till the wandering fit took him again.
He was clever with his hands, and Gilbert Vivian had offered to apprentice him to any craft he fancied. But Faro couldn't settle down to anything for very long. He wanted variety, and so remained a jack-of-all-trades, able to turn his hand to mending harness or a bit of carpentry, hammering out a horse-shoe or replacing a broken window pane.
"I s'pose a clever fellow might make machines to do most of the things we do by hand now?" Faro said after a long silence, during which they had each hauled in several good fish. "D'you think that steam thing t' Squire's making could send a boat along? It'd be good to be able to shove along wi'out rowing. Hey, look, Mr. Jim! Fog! Us had best be getting back."
Intent on fishing, they hadn't noticed that the haze above the land had thickened. Now a wall of fog was rolling down Channel, and a few moments later, even before the lines could be hauled in, it had wrapped them in its clammy folds and blotted out the shore.
"Well, we've got to row now, anyway," said Jim, and got out the oars.
The boat was heavy, the breeze was freshening, rowing was hard work. After half an hour's steady tugging, Jim lay on his oar.
"D'you hear surf yet?" he asked. "We ought to be close in under the head by now."
"We ain't. I don't hear anything," replied Faro. "You ain't allowed for the tide."
"It should be slackening by now," growled Jim, and they began to row again.
Another half-hour passed and still no sound of breakers came to them.
"We ought to have brought a compass," said Jim. "Don't let me forget next time. I believe the wind must have shifted round, and instead of rowing for shore we've been going up or down Channel. Well, best wait till it clears a bit. Let's eat."
There was nothing to worry about. They had often been out in wild weather. The boat was sound and seaworthy, and they had enough food and water for twenty-four hours at least.
"We'll get our bearings if it clears a bit overhead," said Jim. "The sun ought to be over there, and—Look out, Faro! She'll get us! Jump!"
It had happened in a few seconds. Out of the fog surged the tall, shadowy bulk of a ship, heaving over the swells. At one moment it towered above them, at the next the forefoot crashed down on the boat amidships, cutting her in two, even as Jim and Faro leaped up and hauled themselves into the bowsprit rigging, hanging on to the dolphin striker.
Above them they saw the white face of a carved figurehead, and heard next moment the bellow of a look-out.
"Boat ahead!" he roared. Then: "Been and run her down, sir," he added. "Two o' the crew coming aboard!"
Ropes' ends snaked down, the pair were hauled aboard over the fo'c'sle head and dumped on a white, well-scrubbed deck. Half a dozen men crowded round them.
"A fine bright look-out you were keeping!" cried Jim angrily. "You shouldn't be carrying on in thick weather like this. What ship's this, anyhow? A Geordie brig cleaned up a bit?"
"You stow your gab, young 'un, and thank your stars you're not drownded!" growled a big fellow with a beard. "It ain't many as would come off as well as you has and not even a wet jacket. And, look 'ee, keep a civil tongue when you talks of his Majesty's sloop Swallow. Pipe down, now! Here comes the first loot!"
Out of the fog that shrouded the after part of the ship stalked an officer clad in oilskins. He fixed the boys with a steely glare.
"Any more in that boat?" he asked crisply.
"No, sir. Only we two. But if you'd have had a drum beating on the fo'c'sle we'd have heard it, and had time to go clear," said Jim.
"And if you'd had a bell going we'd have heard it and steered clear of you. Six of one, half a dozen of the other. What's your name? Where d'you come from?" barked the lieutenant.
"Jim Vivian, from Coombe Wester, sir."
"Brother of Gilbert Vivian? I've met him when I dined with the mess of the Westshires. I'm Lieutenant Doughty, second in command of this hooker." He changed in a flash from the chilly officer to a cheery good fellow. "Sorry about your boat, but accidents will happen. I'll put you ashore as soon as we can get our bearings. By dead reckoning we should be abreast of the Start in an hour or so, but—"
"Beg pardon, sir, but there's something over there on the weather bow," interrupted the man with the beard, who was the ship's bos'n. "Something big, by the loom of her."
"Aloft, there! Look out over the weather bow!" roared Doughty, cupping his hands for speaking trumpet. "It's clearing a little. It's lifting. It's—"
He said no more, for at that moment, as though it had been the curtain of a theatre, the fog thinned out and rose. The bright sunlight poured down upon a wide space of sparkling sea some three or four miles in diameter, an amphitheatre walled by fog all round. And less than a mile away to windward lay a heavy frigate under all plain sail. The colours at her peak fluttered out, and in a flash Jim Vivian recognized the tricolour, the ensign of France.
"My shinin' stars—a Frenchie!" exclaimed the bos'n. "And she've got us where she best likes havin' us, tucked neat and handy within range, and—"
"All hands! Beat to quarters!" roared Lieutenant Doughty. "Watch, stand by to go about. Man the starboard battery!"
He raced aft shouting orders. Jim and Faro followed and brought up at the foot of the mainmast while men ran to their stations; buckets were filled and set by the guns, round shot thumped on the deck as the guns were loaded, all in double quick time. A plump little man wearing the full uniform of a commander came out on the quarterdeck.
"Ready—about!" bawled Doughty, and the ship's head came round.
"Why, we're running away from the Frenchman!" exclaimed Jim.
"And seein' she's big enough to eat us, bones and all, we'll be lucky if we're let do it!" growled a hoarse voice at his elbow. It was the bos'n, who, one eye on the pennant high aloft, was giving the time to the men at the braces. "Now then, starboard haul!" he bellowed, and as the yards swung the sloop spun about as briskly as a small sailing boat.
"Make fast!" cried the bos'n, and turned to stare over the quarter at the French ship.
She too was going about, but slowly and clumsily, as though she had an untrained crew. Jim and Faro followed the bos'n's gaze. They saw the frigate lengthen out as she swung, till her broadside bore on the flying sloop.
"Now we'll get it!" rumbled the bos'n, and as though the words had been an order, the frigate was suddenly wreathed in white smoke clouds. She had fired her broadside of some eighteen guns at the Swallow!
A moment later there was a crash forward, the crackle of splintering wood, several heavy thuds like the blows of a mighty hammer, a tremendous splashing alongside and astern. Splinters flew, a dismal shriek rang along the deck from forward, while a shower of spray fell upon the quarterdeck. Most of the missiles had fallen wide of the ship.
"Forward, there! How many hit?" roared the little commander. "Get them below at once! How much damage done?"
"Beg pardon, sir, but it's Purser, the gunroom pig, sir!" shouted someone. "He's done for. No one else hurt. Only the sty wrecked, sir."
"Pork chops for the gunroom a bit sooner than expected!" laughed the commander. "Ready, starboard battery?"
"Ready, sir," replied the gunnery lieutenant, glancing along the line of guns. At each the Number Three stood with rammer held erect in token that his piece was loaded.
The commander nodded and turned his telescope upon the enemy. Disappointed by the results of the broadside, which, if it had been better aimed, would have left the sloop a wreck, the French captain was crowding on sail. He wanted to get within close range before firing again, and so make certain of his prey. But he would have to be quick, for if the Swallow could reach the shelter of the fog bank she might yet get away.
"Aren't we going to fire at her?" Jim asked the bos'n. "Are we going to let them do it all?"
Lieutenant Doughty caught the words and grinned.
"Come here, my young fire-eater!" he said. "Now take a look at the Frenchie over yonder. I know that vessel. She's La Belle Bretagne, and carries thirty-six long thirty-two-pounders, and a crew of over three hundred men. This hooker carries eighteen six-pounder popguns and a hundred and twenty men. Not quite an even match, is it?"
"N-no, sir," replied Jim.
"Our duty is to fight the King's enemies, but not to lose the King's ship by running our heads against a stone wall. The odds are very much against us, for if that ship's crew were up to their work she should blow us out of the water. She probably will, at all events, if we don't have luck. Can you suggest anything?"
"N-no, sir—except we can wing her," replied Jim.
"Quite so-o," drawled Doughty. "She's closing up, but she's still at long range for our poppers. But we've got to keep her off if we can, so—have you ever fired a ship's gun?"
"Then go to Number One gun on the starboard quarter, and try your luck!"
"Eh? Fire the gun, sir?" gasped Jim.
"That's what I said. Try your beginner's luck, for only luck will get us out of this hobble," said Doughty, still with the same grim smile. "Come along!"
Almost Jim felt as though he were dreaming. He bent over the gun and peeped along the barrel at the frigate, which was bowling along at a fine rate and rapidly gaining on the little sloop. He could see the white feather of spray at the sharp forefoot, catch the glint of steel as a group of small arms men gathered on the fo'c'sle head.
He measured the distance with his eye. It seemed to him no more than eight or nine hundred yards at most, but it would do no good to plump a six-pound shot into the frigate's tough timbers. If he was going to score at all it must be in the rigging.
"Put her nose up a bit, please," he asked the captain of the gun. "To throw about a couple of hundred yards farther."
Doughty nodded. The gunner whacked one of the wedges under the breach of the gun, loosening it. The muzzle rose a little.
"That's enough," said Jim, and almost lying on the gun, squinted along the sights.
The ship rose upon a swell. For a moment Jim saw the foresight clear against the Bretagne's fore-royal.
"Good enough!" he grunted, grabbed the lanyard, and waited.
Ten seconds, twenty! Again the sloop rose on a following swell. Jim jerked the lanyard smartly, the gun crashed and came leaping back in recoil—and Jim was lugged aside, just in time, by the watchful gunner.
There was a moment's breathless suspense, then a cheer rang out fore and aft as the frigate's fore-top-gallant mast swayed forward and fell amidst the billowing folds of the top-gallant and royal sails. Jim had had amazing luck! Nor was this all, for as the frigate came up into the wind her jib and jib foresail came down with a run.
"Good lad!" Lieutenant Doughty nearly knocked Jim down with a thump on the back. "Shall we let her have the rest of them, sir?" he called to the commander.
"Yes. Follow the boy's example, men. Ready Fire!"
The guns crashed, but even as they were fired the Frenchman's broadside belched again, and this time with better aim. Three round shot smashed through the bulwarks amidships, putting two guns out of action, and bowling over half a dozen men and wrecking the galley.
From aloft came an ominous crackling and splintering, and down came the main royal, shot away in the slings. It fouled the topgallant sail, while a shower of splinters and a block or two fell to the deck.
Jim felt a sharp pain as a jagged fragment grazed his cheek.
"Come aft here, you boys!" called the commander. "Bos'n, clear away that royal. Carpenter, inspect damage below. Mr. Doughty, keep up fire on enemy's bows to hinder his working party. If we can hold our distance for another quarter hour we may get away. He can't bear up and follow us without his headsail. D'you see, my lads?" he added as Jim and Faro ran up the poop ladder and halted beside him. "Hallo! wounded?"
"Yes, sir," replied Jim, dabbing his cheek, which was bleeding freely. "It's nothing though, only a scratch."
"Go below to the cabin. Ask the surgeon to clap a bit of plaster on your cheek, and bring me word about those wounded who were taken down just now."
"Ay, ay, sir!" replied Jim and hastened to obey.
The big cabin aft, usually reserved by the captain for his own use, was doing duty as a hospital or sick bay now. One of the wounded men, his hurts bandaged, was being lifted off the table as Jim entered. Another took his place. Jim stood aside to wait his turn.
Hammocks had been rigged to receive the wounded till the action was over. Beyond them, seated in a corner, sat an odd figure, a man clad in blue clothes of a foreign cut, wearing high riding-boots with spurs, which looked very strange aboard ship, and a cocked hat with a lot of gold braid upon it. Quite regardless of what was going on in the cabin, he was reading a little book and sipping rum from a tall glass.
"There you are, m'lad! You'll be fit again in a fortnight," said the surgeon cheerily as he made fast a sling. "Report for dressing to-morrow morning. Now, m'boy, what's for you?"
"A strip of plaster, please, and the captain wants to know about the wounded," Jim said. "How many?"
"One serious, three slightly hurt—and yourself with a scratch," replied the doctor as he bathed the wound and plastered it. "We're up against a big 'un, eh?"
"Thirty-six-gun frigate—but we're getting away from her, I think," said Jim. "I say, who's that bird in the corner?"
"Show proper respect for the high and well-born, m' boy." The doctor spoke in a high, nasal voice. "That's His Gracious Nibs, the Baron Hermann von Koeffner, coming all the way from Hanover to England on a special mission. Something to do with raising cavalry, I believe, or remounts—or something very important. Anyone below the rank of our first loot is beneath his lordly notice. See? That didn't draw him, though he understands well enough." The doctor finished in a lower tone. "I wish he'd get a scratch like yours. Wouldn't I make the beggar dance."
"Seems to me you don't like him," chuckled Jim. "I've heard that the Germans haven't very good manners."
"This one has none at all," grunted the doctor. "Well, get back to the captain. Tell him I hope there will be no more casualties to report."
As he went out, Jim cast one last glance at the German baron. He was still reading, or pretending to read, his book, but the tumbler of rum was nearly empty, while the hand that held it trembled a little as the guns roared again.
"Golly, is he scared or has he drunk too much?" Jim asked himself as he scuttled back to the quarter-deck. A round shot plunging alongside sprayed the deck as Jim repeated what the surgeon had told him. But no more came on board, and presently the Frenchman ceased firing. More men swarmed in her fore rigging. The commander chuckled as he watched, then gave orders to cease fire.
"We're safe enough now, I reckon. He'll make and mend as quickly as he can for fear one of our heavy cruisers may come out and catch 'em With a broken wing. The sound of firing anywhere along here will bring our ships out like bees to a sugar pot—and the fog is lifting."
The fog was thinning. It rose higher and presently blew away. The Swallow was by then some five or six miles from La Belle Bretagne and no more than a mile and a half from the shore. Jim recognized the bay beyond the nearest headland.
"That's Wester Bay, sir, and the cove, and that house up there is Coombe Wester, my brother's place. Could you set us ashore in the bay, sir?" Jim asked.
"Why, seeing we ran you down, and your lucky shot got us out of trouble—why, it can be done. Especially as something big seems to be coming down Channel to speak with our French friend. Look yonder!"
Away to the eastward the sun lit the topsails of a big vessel still below the horizon, but rising fast, while to the south-west La Belle Bretagne was crowding on everything she could carry as she fled down the wind towards the shelter of a home port.
"Have your brother put in a claim for the value of the boat, and I will confirm it," said the commander as Jim and Faro stepped into the boat a few minutes later. "Thanks again for your lucky shot."
A head appeared at one of the cabin windows, blurred blue eyes blinked as they stared at the pair. Baron von Koeffner might have been gazing at horned cattle for all the interest his blank face showed. None the less, there was something in that glassy, ox-like stare that stirred Jim's bile.
"How I'd like to punch that ugly mug! he exclaimed.
"D'you feel that way, too?" said the midshipman in charge of the boat. "So do all of us on board. We're taking him to Dartmouth, and I believe he's going to work through the west country, so you may see him again. If you get a chance, drop a brickbat on his crumpet."
"No such luck will come my way. But come and see me if you happen along near Coombe Wester, and maybe we can give you some sport. Plenty of trout in the river and partridges in season."
They parted at the boat-landing in the cove. Jim and Faro drew a long breath as they turned towards the house. The gipsy boy glanced at the sun. It was not yet noon, so they had been away little more than four hours—but half that time had been packed full of sensations, they had experienced something of the thrill of battle and risked sudden death.
"And all the time old Vials was going on working quiet and peaceful," said Faro softly as the pair passed the end of the kitchen garden, where the old gardener was busy amongst the vegetables. "Are you going to tell Mr. Gilbert?"
"Of course; he'll wish he'd come out with us."
"Will he, now? I wonder?" muttered Faro, and fell a little behind as they neared the workshop beside the old water mill.
The wheel was not working, but from the shed came the squeaking of a file, then the voice of the Cornishman, Dick Trevallion:
"There we are. Reckon that fits snugly, squire. We've broke the back of the heavy work, and if so be the carrier brings the brass castings to-morrow, as was promised, we'll soon be taking the road."
"What pace could we make, Trevallion?" Gilbert Vivian asked. "Ten miles an hour, d'you think?"
"With good roads, double that, twenty-three or four," declared the Cornishman. "The turnpike is none so bad up past the turning into Kettley House. There's a level five miles that would serve us."
"But aren't you too hopeful, Trevallion? After all, a coach seldom makes more than twelve miles in an hour with fresh cattle, and—"
"Ours isn't depending on beasts that tire, so, by your leave, I'll stick to my notion. Mind you, though we're putting in good springs it'll be bumpy, so—But here's Master Jim. Why, whatever have you been doing to your face, young sir?"
"Faro and I went out in the boat," began Jim, and told the story.
Gilbert listened almost indifferently. It was plain that he was thinking more about the steam coach than the skirmish in the Channel. He leaned closer to look at Jim's cheek, then, satisfied that the wound was but slight, nodded cheerily. "So all's well that ends well, and you've come well through it, Jim, my lad," he said affectionately, and patted his brother's shoulder. "Remind me to write a claim for the boat."
"Please, Gil, I'd rather not. The boat was old anyhow, and the fog was thick, and the look-out might get into trouble," Jim pleaded.
"Then we'll forget about the boat and see about buying another. Oh, and ride over to Tanner's this afternoon and have him send down two or three hundredweight of charcoal."
"For the steam coach, eh?" Jim turned to inspect the famous wagon, already complete so far as frame, wheels, and boiler were concerned. "She's a dandy!" he pronounced. "Have you thought of a name for her yet, Trevallion?"
"There's Ariel, the fairy in the old play called The Tempest. He could go from one place to another in mighty quick time. So I think the name would fit."
"This isn't quite so dainty," said Jim with a chuckle. "But it'll do as well as any other. And now I remember seeing a coach called Ariel when we were in London. It ran to York. It did the trip in less than a couple of days in summer. That'll need beating."
"My Ariel'll beat it, Master Jim, you'll see," said Trevallion confidently, "and do the journey cheaper, too. The cost will be only a few shillings for coal and a pint or two of oil, against feed and shoes for a couple of score horses."
"Let's hope it comes soon then," Jim replied. "I'd like to see York. But the roads will scarce be hard enough so far north as yet. And if we wait till summer we'll be smothered with dust."
"We'll go easily. A few miles will show Ariel's paces well enough. And then..." Gilbert paused. He hadn't thought of what he would do if the steam carriage proved as successful as he hoped it would.
"Then you'll have every horse breeder in the country howling for your head and Trevallion's," said Jim. "You've got a tough time coming, Gil. But never fear. I'm with you—a tried shot with the six-pounder."
And Jim strutted out with mock heroic strides and made for the house. Midway he overtook Faro, who, having overheard most of what had been said, had started back before him.
"I be mortal hungry, Master Jim," he explained. "And that talk seemed to be nonsense, except the bit you said. That's true enough. There's plenty will want to be hanging squire if so be the steam wagon's only half as good as he thinks it'll be."
"Perhaps," agreed Jim. "But anyway he's a mighty good brother to me and a mighty good friend to you, Faro, so I'm backing him up whatever he wants to do."
"Me, too," said Faro. "But just now I want to meet up wi' a pasty."
A minute or two later the pair were busy in the big old kitchen. Between mouthfuls they told the story of the morning's adventures.
"Lor'!" exclaimed old Capper. "This German fella now, this Baron, will be the very man I heard tell about over t'Exeter. Something about settin' cavalry along the shore for to give warning if enemy ships was seen tryin' for to land. He's to have the job of fixing the spots for the posts. He has been sent over on purpose, they say."
"I heard a different tale aboard the Swallow. Most likely it's something else," said Jim comfortably, little thinking of the influence that morning's work would have upon his own and Gilbert's fortunes. "He was only a starchy high German anyhow. I don't suppose anything will come of it."
"THERE'S maybe no need to finish this off so well, but I do like to make a good job of anything," said Trevallion as he gave a final rub to the rods connecting the beams of the engine with the cranks on the driving-wheels. He stepped back and gazed at the machine admiringly. "Ain't she a beauty!" he breathed.
"Which of us, Trevallion?" said a laughing voice behind him, and the Cornishman wheeled about as a girl wearing a cloak and hood came into the workshop. "How goes the great work, Gil? It seems to have come on a lot since I last saw it."
"Barring a touch of paint, it's finished, my dear," replied Gilbert. "Look at it well. Trevallion's invention is going to make history. His name will be remembered when all those fellows who are making the trouble in France are forgotten."
"Mr. Vivian's name, too, miss," put in Trevallion loyally, "because I couldn't have built it if he hadn't found the money. And he's done some of the fine work on it, too."
He beamed on the girl, for he had a high opinion of Ann Fetherston. The only daughter of Sir Anthony Fetherston, living in Kettley House, barely a mile away, she had known the Vivians all her life. Gilbert and she were nearly of an age; they had played together as toddlers and together had learned to ride. Now they would soon marry and pass the rest of their lives together.
"And a mighty good wife she'll make for him," Trevallion thought, and went on aloud: "If he hadn't been born in the purple, so to speak, he'd ha' made a first-class mechanic."
"That's praise indeed!" cried Ann. "And when is the trial trip?"
"To-morrow, if nothing interferes. You'll let me take you for a short trip?" Gilbert replied.
"Not to-morrow, Gil. Hounds meet at our house for the last run of the season. You're coming, aren't you?"
Gilbert looked at her, then at the steam carriage. He grinned impishly.
"I thought your father knew I don't care about hunting," he said. "It has always seemed rather a silly sport, a pack of hounds and a score or two of hunters, all chasing one small beast that can't put up a fight. If it was a bear now—or even a big wolf—there might be something in it. And in India, a man told me, there's good sport in hunting wild boars with a spear. Piggy is a tough fighter with sharp tusks, not like a fox which can only give one snap or two at best."
"I know, Gil. But all the people I know go hunting and talk hunting—"
"So you want me to do the same?" Gil asked. "Sorry, Ann, but hunting talk wearies me. Still—what time is the meet?"
"Eleven o'clock, Gil. Won't you come? It would please father—and me."
"Eleven. I'll try to be there, or else I'll join you before you reach the covert."
"Very well—and I'll ride in your steam coach as soon as I can. I must go now, though. I only popped in to remind you about the meet. Eleven, remember."
Fluttering her fingers with a farewell gesture, she was gone, running to the light pony-cart which had brought her. Taking the reins from the boy-groom, she set the pony off at a smart trot. Gil stood in the workshop door watching till she was out of sight.
"So there's no trial trip tomorrow?" said Trevallion disappointedly.
"Why not? We can easily run out across the common road and be back again in plenty time for me to change for this foolish fox hunt. Isn't it absurd, Trevallion, that a man must put on a red coat and go riding after a little animal that isn't even good to eat if it is caught in one piece?"
"Since it's to please your little lady, squire, it's well done. And it's the last for this season. After all, a hunt's a fine sight, wi' good horses and hounds and aplenty o' bustle and noise. You'll enjoy it all the better for feeling you're wasting your precious time."
"Yes, don't be a prig, Gil," said Jim, coming from the farther end of the workshop, where he had been mending a fishing-rod. "What's better than a good run behind a strong fox and a well-trained pack?"
"A good run on Ariel!" growled Gilbert. "I may be a prig, but I'd rather help Trevallion to make a success of this machine than catch all the foxes in England. I like a good gallop well enough, but there are other things, Jim. And that reminds me—you'll have to make a start studying mathematics. I'll see about getting a tutor for you at once."
But Jim had bolted. Gilbert smiled and explained to Trevallion that he was going to buy Jim a commission in the army, in the autumn. Jim wanted to go into the Royal Artillery, and so he would have to brush up his arithmetic.
"It's lucky they're not very exacting, for Jim will never be a scholar. But he'll make a good gunner, for he has a sharp eye, and can tell the lie of the land at a glance," Gilbert said, and got out a paint-pot. "Now for the finishing touches!"
It was a still morning and warm for the time of year. Over at Kettley House old Tom Harker, the huntsman, sniffed the air at dawn and reckoned it would be a good day for the last run of the season, with scent lying well. Down at Coombe Wester the Vivian brothers gobbled a hasty breakfast and hurried to the workshop.
The doors stood open, steam hissed from the valve Trevallion had fitted to the boiler to give warning when the pressure was great enough to work the engine.
"All's ready, Squire; but seeing Ariel would never ha' been made but for you, at least not for a long time, I thought you'd like to start it off yourself."
"That's very thoughtful of you, Trevallion. Up we get!" said Gilbert, and mounting the carriage, grasped the steering-wheel. For a moment there was silence.
If Gilbert had been a Frenchman or an Italian, he would probably have made a little speech about this being the moment for which mankind had been waiting since Admiral Noah came ashore, a moment which was the beginning of a new era, because now the horse was an "also ran."
He thought of all this, perhaps, but being an Englishman it didn't occur to him to say it. He only moved the wheel an inch or two to right and left to get the feel of it, then said: "Hang on, Jim! Let her go, Trevallion!"
And with that Trevallion opened the throttle, and Ariel moved slowly out along the beaten path Gilbert had had made to the road that ran around the rear of the house on to the drive in front.
"Us'll go slow and steady till you gets the trick of it," said Trevallion. "She's a daisy, ain't she?"
"And a buttercup and a rose!" cried Jim. "Yo-ho! my lads, the steam blows free, a jolly run we'll have, we three!" he chanted. "Hey, Capper! Mrs. Capper! Here's something better than the carrier's cart, eh?"
The old butler and his wife and the three maids, who made up the indoor staff, had come tumbling out to stare at the strange vehicle as it rolled past, grinding the gravel of the drive under its iron wheels, steam puffing from the cylinder exhausts on either side. They had all had a look at the thing on the sly as it stood in its shed, but now that it had come to life, as it were, and was moving by itself, it somehow seemed different and a little bit uncanny.
"Like—like a thing o' life!" gasped Capper. "Master Gil, do 'ee be careful now! Don't let un run away with 'ee!" he shouted. "And don't 'ee forget about t' meet neither!"
"All right!" returned Gilbert. "Keep away, Faro!"
The gipsy boy had trotted round from the stables mounted on an old pony, usually a staid, steady-going beast. But at sight of the strange contraption of steel and copper crunching down the drive, it went up in the air, swung round, and taking the bit between its teeth, bolted past the engine and on to the high road. In a moment it had disappeared, Faro hanging on grimly.
"He'll clear the way for us," Jim yelled. "But you'll have to get a bell, Gil, to warn people with horses to take to the woods or climb trees. Whoa! Here comes Mother Barlow and her donkey!"
"Stop!" shouted Gil, and Trevallion closed the throttle. Ariel rolled a little farther and stopped.
The donkey came steadily on, sniffed disdainfully, and passed with only a twitch of its long ears to show that it had seen the new-comer on the king's highway.
"He doesn't think much of your darling, Trevallion," chuckled Jim. "But it's great, all the same. Can't you go a bit faster?"
"All in good time—when we're through the village."
Ariel rolled on, took the gentle rise into the village without checking, and passed through, leaving the few folks who saw it gaping. Then on, past the gates of Kettley House and up a long incline to the common beyond.
Trevallion was beaming. Ariel was behaving wonderfully well, better indeed than he had hoped for. So far, he estimated the speed of the steam wagon at about seven or eight miles an hour, but the throttle hadn't been more than half opened. Surely Ariel would speed up to fifteen or twenty miles when working at full power? Gilbert seemed to read his thoughts.
"Why not? There is nothing on the road ahead," he said. "And it's fairly smooth."
"Then here goes. Hold her straight, squire! I'll do it gradual."
Slowly Trevallion opened the throttle. Ariel responded. Faster beat the piston rods, the beams hobbled swiftly up and down, the wheels spun, their broad iron rims throwing a shower of dust behind the flying machine.
Faster, faster! Trevallion had no means of measuring the pace, for none of the three had a watch, and there were no milestones on that bit of road, but he knew they were going at a rate few, if any, wheeled vehicles could equal. Something moved on the common a little way ahead. Faro had mastered the pony after a tussle and now halted him by the roadside.
"Want to race you!" he shouted, and as the steam carriage came nearer, shook up his mount, and was away with a flying start.
"Steer careful, Squire!" shouted Trevallion, and opened the throttle wide. Jim, hanging on beside his brother, saw the pony coming slowly back towards them as the machine gained upon muscles. Now they were level with the galloping beast, now they were drawing ahead, now half a length of daylight was between the pony's nose and the steam carriage's tail, and with that Trevallion slackened speed. Ahead the road dipped sharply. He shut off steam.
"We'll stop, Squire. Brake! Steady and easy! Oh, lor'!" he finished with a gasp of dismay, for, as Gilbert pulled over the lever that should have clamped the leather faces of the brakes upon the wheel rims, there was a loud crack, and the lever waggled like a mocking finger as the brakes flew back. Weakened by an invisible flaw, the brake bar had snapped.
As bad luck would have it, Ariel was on the beginning of the slope just dipping for the descent, still moving at a five-mile crawl. It was enough. As the brakes failed the pace quickened.
"I'll jam her!" yelled Trevallion, snatching up the bar he had brought to use as a poker and springing down.
He meant to shove the bar between the spokes of one of the rear wheels, and so bring the car to a standstill. But as he sprang he slipped, measured his length on the road, and the chance was gone. Gathering speed with every foot covered, Ariel was away, running free, on a mile-long hill that grew steeper towards the bottom.
"Steer straight and trust to luck, Squire," shouted Trevallion, as he picked himself up and started after the runaway.
"Right!" Gilbert called back, bracing himself on the narrow seat fitted behind the steering-wheel. "Quick, Jim! Jump into the hedge, man!"
"Hanged if I will!" snorted Jim. "I'm staying on!"
Faster and faster Ariel ran, bumping over ruts, bounding into the air as the rear wheels touched a stone, the beams bobbing in mad rhythm, air wheezing from the exhaust ports as the pistons shot up and down in the cylinders. Probably this saved Ariel, for the compression of the air slowed the machine a trifle, acting as a brake, though a weak one. Down and down! Ariel was mostly in the air during the last fifty yards of the hill, leaping along like an iron antelope.
Every moment Gilbert expected that something would give way under the terrific pounding, but Trevallion had made no idle boast when he claimed to be a good mechanic, and the well-forged iron withstood the strain, the steel of the springs and connecting rods held.
"Glory be, she's standing up to it!" thought Trevallion as he ran far in the rear. "Mebbe they'll come through with whole bones yet!"
Hooves clattered behind him, Faro drew alongside, steadying his old pony which was now tired by its unaccustomed burst of speed.
"It beat us all out on the flat, and it'd beat a thoroughbred easy now!" yelled the gipsy boy delightedly. He didn't realize that Ark! was running away, but thought this was all part of the display. "You've sure been and made a mighty fast goer! Oh, crikey! There comes a pack-. horse—and right in the way, o' course!"
A pack-horse, loaded with a couple of sacks of flour laid across its saddle, in charge of an old fellow who seemed to be half-witted, had come out of a side track. In the middle of the narrow road the pair halted, staring stupidly at the wheeled monster speeding towards them in a cloud of dust.
"Get over! Into the ditch, you fool!" bawled Jim. "Jump, you idiot! Jump!"
Fifty yards—twenty—and then with a howl of dismay the old fellow seemed to realize his peril. He leapt for the ditch, tugging the reins, the horse snorted and reared, there was a thud, and up flew a cloud of flour as Ariel's offside guard rail ripped a sack, missing the horse's flank by an inch or two.
"All right! We cleared 'em!" Jim sputtered, blinking flour from his eyelids. "Both in the ditch. It's like a snowstorm back there. We're slowing now, thank goodness."
Gilbert said nothing till, a couple of hundred yards farther along, Ariel came to a standstill. Then he got stiffly down—and burst into a roar of laughter.
"The luck of the Vivians!" he gasped. "You and I have a full measure of it, Jim. We should be lying scattered in bits back there, by all the rules, but here we are safe and sound—and it was a grand ride, wasn't it?"
"A bit bumpy that last part," Jim said. "But yes, it was glorious. What on earth are Trevallion and Faro doing? Trying to pick up the flour?"
The gipsy had dismounted and was helping the Cornishman to gather something from the road near the spot where the pack-horse and its leader had got out of the ditch and stood staring at the flour-strewn ground, as though wondering what to do next.
Gilbert turned to the fuel-box set beside the furnace door of the boiler and pointed to it with a laugh. The box was almost empty, though it had been piled high with chunks of charcoal at the beginning of the runaway.
"They're picking up the coal. We'll need it to get back. Go and help them while I try to turn Ariel. And give that pack-man this to pay for the flour and buy himself a new coat."
Giving Jim a couple of guineas, Gilbert stoked the dying furnace fire with the remainder of the charcoal, and as the safety valve began to jet steam again, started the engine and moved slowly on towards a crossroads where he circled around and came trundling back to meet Trevallion, Jim, and Faro, each carrying some fuel.
Trevallion examined the broken brake bar, and pointed to the flaw which had caused the fracture.
"There! This is one of the rods we got from Dan Robins in the village. It looked good enough, but it wasn't. That's a lesson, Squire, ain't it? I ought to ha' forged it myself to make sure. Well, the next one's going to be strong enough to pull her up on the edge of a precipice. Now I'm going all over her."
Carefully, and much too slowly for Gilbert's patience, he went all over the machine, tightening nuts that had been loosened by the merciless pounding, oiling bearings, and making sure that nothing had gone missing.
"There now! She's had a bit of a doing and come through mighty well. When that bar's mended I'd trust her to go to John o' Groats and back, though I have heard tell them roads across the border are bad enough. Now we'll try her paces uphill."
"There's one thing we didn't think of," said Gilbert, as he took his place at the wheel. "The steersman ought to be able to control the pace. You should rig a rod from the throttle to a lever beside the wheel here. It could be done easily enough, I think."
"And shall be, Squire, once we have her back in the shed. Now we'll start with a bit of a rush. I reckon she'll do it."
They charged the hill. Speed dropped to a walking pace at the stiffest part of the climb, but Ariel kept gallantly on and reached the level ground in very fair time.
"Better than any horse could have done it!" declared Jim exultantly. "The carrier always has to get his passengers to push up that steep bit. I guess she'd climb any hill if—What's the matter, Trevallion?"
The Cornishman had shut off steam, after a stroke or two on the force pump that supplied water to the boiler.
"Tank's getting empty. We use a lot o' water," he growled. "That's something that we'll have to study out, Squire." He got down, began refilling the little water tank that held but two gallons, using his hat to carry water from a roadside runnel. "Mebbe we might contrive something to use the steam again. Turn it into the tank, perhaps. Otherwise we'll have to be stopping every dozen miles—or have a bigger tank, and that means a lot more weight."
"And time lost!" growled Gilbert uneasily, feeling for his watch, only to remember that he had left it at home. "What time d'you make it, Faro?" he called.
The gipsy boy glanced at the sun, measuring its distance from the horizon, as his people had done from olden times.
"Just gone half after ten, sir, I reckon," he replied. "You'll be late for the meet, sir. I guess they'll be riding off, soon. Always starts on the very tick, does Sir Anthony!"
"Hurry, Trevallion!" urged Gilbert. "This is bad luck. I don't want to be late."
It was very unfortunate. Above everything, he wanted to remain on good terms with Sir Anthony, who, of late, had been in a very unfriendly mood whenever they met. Ann's father was touchy and hot tempered, with old-fashioned notions. He had not approved of Gilbert's doing what he called "blacksmith's work." No gentleman should work with his hands, he said, for that lowered him to the level of the working classes and made him unfit for good society.
So long as Gilbert had only worked at designing rifles and bullets, he had excused him, for that had to do with the very honourable profession of soldiering. But to labour at making a mere wagon, whether drawn by horses or propelled by steam, was a different matter. He had been very short with Gilbert when they last met.
"But he'll come round if I can only make him see how useful a lot of Ariels would be in warfare," thought Gilbert. "They could be used for pulling guns, and large ones could easily carry a score of men with all their baggage. I'll have to persuade him to come for a ride, and then he may change his mind. If I could only get him to see that Ariel can go on all day and night without tiring, he might admit that steam is better than horseflesh."
"Ready now," said Trevallion, stoking up. "We'll do it yet, Squire. Here goes!"
Ariel began to move again, gathered speed, rounded a curve of the road—and with a growl of impatience Trevallion closed the throttle, for there, and not a couple of hundred yards ahead, was a large flock of sheep filling the road from hedge to hedge, their shepherd and his dog away in the rear.
"Clear a way, Faro!" shouted Gilbert to the gipsy boy plodding behind, as Ariel came to a halt barely in time to save the lives of the foremost sheep.
Faro went ahead, clearing a way through the woolly barrier, Ariel following at a crawl; but Ale sheep were scared of the horseless monster, and nearly ten minutes were wasted before Trevallion could open the throttle and speed past the goggle-eyed shepherd.
Now they neared the village, and again they had to slow for toddlers were playing in the roadway. Mothers rushed out screaming in alarm, the youngsters were snatched away bawling, and Ariel rolled down the slope beyond.
Now they neared the gates of Kettley House. Nothing in the road, thank goodness! And then, with only the thin tooting of a hunting-horn for warning, out trotted a couple of whippers-in, Tom Harper the huntsman, eight couple of hounds, and Sir Anthony Fetherston and half a dozen other men, while behind them a bunch of riders drew rein in the gateway.
"Open out, Harper! Make way! Can't stop!" shouted Gilbert at the top of his voice. "Clear the way! Can't stop!"
Trevallion had shut off steam at sight of the first rider, but, lacking brakes, Ariel couldn't be stopped on the slope. On she went, fast as a horse might trot, while the huntsman and his assistants yelled and plied their whips. But the hounds needed little persuasion to clear the way. The foremost got a sight of the queer glittering thing with its bobbing beams, puffing steam, and grinding wheels, and like wise hounds decided to go somewhere else. In a brace of shakes, that well-disciplined pack had broken and bolted, howling in panic.
After them went the huntsman. Horses capered and reared. Sir Anthony's mount charged headlong past the steam carriage, nearly throwing its rider; a gentleman in green and gold, after ten seconds' struggle with a hard-mouthed steed, was slung clear over its head into the road, fair in Ariel's path—and, as he rolled, the front wheels touched his ribs and stopped. At the last moment Trevallion had sprung down and brought his machine to a standstill by shoving his poker bar between the spokes of a hind wheel!
Gil swung to the ground, grasped the greenand-gold man by an arm and hoisted him to his feet.
"I'm very sorry. I hope you're not hurt," he began—and ducked as the man made a clumsy round-arm blow at his face.
"Vile animal!" yelled the fellow. "Beast! Peeg! You throw me down for the purpose. You roll me in the dirt. Die!" And with that he made another swing which Gilbert stopped with upflung arm.
"Easy, man!" Gil snapped. "Don't fool! I'm sorry you were thrown, but—Keep off, you madman!"
With a guttural oath the infuriated man had snatched up his riding-crop and struck at Gil's head. He dodged aside, so that the blow merely grazed his shoulder, but his patience was at an end. His left fist shot out, and catching the aggressor on the chin, dropped him, knocked out for the moment.
"Golly!" exclaimed Jim. "That's the man I saw aboard the Swallow: the Baron Hermann von Koeffner!"
"What do you mean by this, confound you!" roared Sir Anthony. He had mastered his frightened horse and returned. Dismounting, he bent over the baron who, grunting and blinking, now sat up. "What's happened?"
"Von Koeffner took a toss, sir. He seemed to lose his head and struck Mr. Vivian, who helped him to rise. Mr. Vivian then knocked him out," explained a very staid-looking gentleman. "I think Mr. Vivian was justified in doing so, since he had already offered—er—his excuses for the—er—unfortunate mischance which brought his—er—fiery chariot upon the scene."
"Schweinhund!" shouted the baron, springing to his feet. "Of purpose he me dismounted—me who never for many years have been thrown! Und he struck me—on the flesh, yes! Ha! There is but one answer. We meet now, at once. I demand it!"
There was a moment's dead silence. The group of dismounted men stared at Gilbert. They sympathized with him, no doubt, for the German was plainly the aggressor, but the stern code of the time permitted only one reply to the challenge, and Gilbert Vivian seemed slow to make it. But when he spoke it was lightly, almost flippantly:
"This is tomfoolery!" he said. "The highborn baron must have cracked his skull, I think. I don't want to shoot him...." He paused, and Sir Anthony glared at him, open mouthed with astonishment. Was a Vivian going to show the white feather?
"But if he really wishes it, I suppose I'll have to oblige him," he continued. "Only, not immediately, for I don't want to spoil the last run of the season, Sir Anthony. This evening or tomorrow morning should suit the high-born baron better—and I have some work to do on this iron horse." He turned to the sedate gentleman beside him. "Perhaps you'll be good enough to act for me, Mr. Curtis?"
"Why, with all the pleasure in the world, Mr. Vivian. Pistols, I presume? But who will act with me?"
"I'm with you, Gil, though I'm not saying it don't serve you right, bringing that iron jigmaree t' meet!" cried a red-faced man, Squire Townley of Haven's End. "Curtis and I'll do our best for you. Who'll be lookin' after the baron, Sir Anthony?"
"As he's my guest, I will—and you'll be with me, Pollack?" said Sir Anthony, frowning. Pollack, a young-old man, who had stood aside smiling as though watching a stage play, nodded.
"Honoured, Sir Anthony. And now, as I see Harper has got the pack together up the road yonder, shall we be moving?"
"Ay, ay! Come ladies; gentlemen! We'll show you some sport, Von Koeffner," said Sir Anthony. He climbed into his saddle and led the way past Ariel with the baron, very stiff in his saddle, riding beside him.
"Oh, Gil, Gil, what have you done?" Ann Fetherston drew rein beside the steam car. "Why had this to happen? I know it wasn't your fault; but Gil, they say he's a dead shot and—and—must you meet him, Gil? Isn't there any way out?"
"I might ask his pardon on my knees, and let him strike me," suggested Gil. "But I don't think you'd like me to do that. No, my dear, I've got to go through with it, but if he doesn't shoot any better than he rides then there's nothing to fear. But—can you tell me why he made such a dead set at me? It was almost as though he had come out with the intention of quarrelling with me."
"I—don't—know," replied Ann slowly. "Perhaps he did. He saw you pass when you started out and asked father about you. Father told him—he doesn't like you working like a blacksmith—and perhaps the baron thought he would please father by picking a quarrel with you."
"Why should he wish to please Sir Anthony?" Gil demanded, then nodded as the girl blushed. "D'you mean to say the fellow has the insolence to make love to you?" he asked bluntly.
"Perhaps. Father thinks a lot of him for he belongs to a very great family, and besides father's angry with you. Oh, Gil, what a pity you ever started making this car."
"I'm going on with it," said Gil slowly and firmly. "And I'm going to teach Von Koeffner not to interfere with our affairs. Now, ride along, my dear, and don't worry about me. There's a lot of empty air all round a man, and that's what the baron's going to hit. There!"
Leaning over the guard-rail beside Ariel's steering wheel, Gil kissed Ann squarely on the cheek. She galloped off with flaming face; Gil shrugged as he turned to his brother and Trevallion.
"We've certainly made quite a lot of trouble this morning," he chuckled. "Let's get back and fit a new brake bar. Then I think I'd better do a little pistol practice."
"You'll wing him, Gil?" asked Jim anxiously. He knew, of course, that his brother was a fine shot—but just how good was the baron?
"I suppose so—if he doesn't wing me first," laughed Gil.
"'Tisn't for me to interfere with you gentry's sport and pastime, but you take my advice and put a bullet through his head, Squire," growled Trevallion. "I was watching that German chap and I sized him up for a bitter bad 'un. He means to kill you if he can, and so be, if you only wound him, he'll lay it up to get you later on. Settle him, squire, or you'll be sorry for it one o' these days!"
"I never suspected that you were so blood-thirsty, Trevallion," Gil said. "Well, we'll see. Where's Faro?"
The gipsy boy had vanished. They saw no more of him till late in the afternoon, when he returned, and guided by the sound of shots, found Gilbert at pistol practice in a little yard behind the old coach house. He waited till the last shot had been fired, and Jim was comparing the targets.
"I been around the stables o' Kettley House talking wi' some o' my pals," he began. "Seems as how this Koeffy fella has been there two-three days. They do say he have been playing cards a lot with Sir Anthony, and winning, too. The old man ain't no match for him, they say. And he talks big about being able to ride anything, but ain't so awful good. They put him on Tiger yesterday, and he went off second buck. All the boys hopes you'll put him on his back, sir."
"And he will, Faro! Look here!" Jim held up a couple of board targets with a bull's eye the size of a crown dabbed in the middle of each. Each bull had been hit several times, while all the bullet holes might have been covered with a tea saucer. "That's good enough, isn't it?"
"Fine!" said Faro. "But the boys told me Koeffy was pretty good. They say he's been out before, three or four times and got t'other fella every time," he added softly as Gilbert made for the house. "See here, Mr. Jim, us gotta do something. How'd it be if I was to lie up near him and sling a stone at Koeffy just as the word was being given? That would put him off, I reckon."
"It would put you off, too—right off Coombe Wester for ever and a day," growled Jim. "Don't talk rubbish! We fight fair and no tricks. Don't need 'em!"
"Orright!" agreed Faro. But to himself he added: "But if that German does for Mr. Gil I'll sure stick a knife between his ribs and chance the hangman!"
GILBERT VIVIAN went to bed early, for he knew that his life might depend upon the swiftness and steadiness of his aim. But thoughts about the coming meeting with the German baron didn't worry him greatly; he was more concerned with Sir Anthony Fetherston's odd behaviour.
Ann's father had known Gil all his life, and had been a staunch friend until quite recently. Then a change seemed to have come over him. Exactly when had the change begun?
Gil searched his memory. Suddenly he recalled something he had said a few days after Trevallion had come to Coombe Wester, when they were busy with the drawings from which Ariel had been built. He had gone to dinner at Kettley House, and afterwards had talked, rather too boastfully perhaps, of the vast changes steam would bring about.
"In a few years horses won't be needed for heavy draught work," he had said. "Steam will draw coaches and carriers' wagons, and light carriages instead of post-chaises. Maybe special roads will be built for them, but, at least, speed will be doubled and no poor beast need break its heart up steep hills. Horses will be kept to ride for pleasure, steam will do the real work."
"And you'll make carriages to fly in the air, I suppose?" Sir Anthony had said sarcastically. "And steam will take the place of sails for ships? And pigs will grow wings! But I'm glad you'll leave us a cob or two when you've filled the roads with your contraptions."
Gil had thought no more about it at the time, but later he remembered that Sir Anthony was a great breeder of draught and carriage horses on a big farm in Sussex. His punches, great powerful beasts, had a high reputation among brewers and others who needed strong cattle. The success of steam, which Gil had so lightly predicted, would mean the ruin of his chief source of wealth.
"I've been a fool," thought Gil. "I shouldn't have talked so much. It's not likely to make much difference for a long time. Our people hate anything new, and I expect Trevallion and I will be mobbed if ever we roll into a town. But—no more rolling till we've tried the brakes thoroughly-no trying brakes till—I've met that—Von..."
And with that Gil fell asleep.
It was still dark when Jim entered his room with a candle and woke him—Jim had slept very badly. He had had a ghastly dream in which Gil bad fallen to the German's deadly aim. In vain he tried to comfort himself with the old saying that dreams go by contrary; he looked very glum in spite of his efforts to smile as he stood by while Gil dressed.
"Don't worry, lad!" said Gil cheerily. "Von Koeffner's a bigger target than those bits of board, and I'm not likely to miss him."
"No, of course not." Jim tried to laugh, but it was a miserable failure. "But—why should Sir Anthony be the fellow's second? I don't like that. He's known us all our lives, and father and mother before us. It's mighty unfriendly at the very least, without counting on you and Ann being—"
"He couldn't help it, I suppose," Gil broke in. "The man's his guest. Besides..." He hesitated for a moment. "Perhaps he thinks it a good way to part Ann and me. He saw that Ariel isn't the failure he thought it would be. That may have something to do with it. But—if Ann's staunch, as I know she is, nothing shall separate us. Come on! Let's have a bite. Curtis and Townley will be here presently."
Old Capper, all a-tremble, had set out food enough for half a dozen, but that was all to the good when the seconds arrived.
"Didn't stop to eat at home, Gilbert," explained Townley as he drained a tankard of ale and set to work on a plateful of ham. "I wanted to make sure you had a good meal inside you. Nothing like it for steadying your hand."
"And nerves," added Curtis in his thin precise voice, helping himself to claret.
"Nerves? Gil ain't got any," declared Townley. "No use for 'em. Nerves are for women. Hey, Capper, my mug's empty." Capper hastened to refill his tankard, and he went on. "We fixed on the little clearing in Holme Wood. It's about half-way to Kettley House, and the light's even all round. If you take my advice, you'll walk over. Won't take us ten minutes, and a tussle with a fresh mount might make your starboard paw shaky. Yes—one more, Capper, and then we'll be starting."
The sky was blazing crimson as they set out; there was no wind. As they passed the stables, Faro finished putting a keener edge on a long knife and slipped it into its sheath hanging from his belt under his coat. The gipsy lad's mind was made up. If this lout from overseas should by evil chance kill his beloved master, he wouldn't live very long to boast of his success. As he hurried along, keeping in the shadows at a discreet distance behind the four, Faro planned his campaign if the worst happened.
He would slip up behind the German and strike swiftly downwards between collar-bone and shoulder, then fly for his life to a hiding-place along the coast where he might lie for a long time safely enough. Then he would join his own people who would contrive to ship him to Spain, 'maybe. He had spent part of the night stocking the hide-out with food. He hoped there would be no need for it, but he didn't want to hang if he could avoid it.
He was close behind when the party reached Holme Wood. Gliding through the bushes he halted behind a tree, and, hand on knife, he waited, motionless, his black eyes gleaming.
"We're a little early," said Curtis, glancing at his watch. "Shall we save time by measuring the ground, Townley? We'll place 'em north and south, give 'em an even light, toss with Sir Anthony for choice if he likes."
Townley and he moved off, leaving the brothers a little apart.
"Rummy business this; eh, Curtis?" said Townley in a low voice.
"Shouldn't have believed Sir Anthony would have seconded a confounded foreigner against the lad—and him as good as betrothed to Ann! Or is he going to call that off? This Von Koeffner is a high-and-mighty in Hanover, I hear, and he's been spending money freely enough. D'you think Sir Anthony means taking him for son-in-law?"
"Don't know. The fellow's presentable enough, I suppose, but—have you any notion of his business? He talks about being commissioned to design coast defences, and arrange for communications by a chain of riders, in case of an attempted landing by the French. He seems to know something about it—but I'd like to see that commission."
"Ask for it. Here he comes. Ah, Sir Anthony has brought Dr. Webb! You go and talk to 'em, I'll stand by Vivian," said Townley and returned to Gil's side.
Quickly the twenty paces were measured, the men placed, the pistols loaded.
"Now, no nonsense about firing in the air, Gil," said Townley. "That fellow means mischief, so give it to him amidships. Pollack will give the word. That's all! You'll be all right."
With a pat of encouragement, he stepped back. Slim and straight, dressed in a dark suit of plum' coloured silk, Gil stood with his right side towards his opponent, his eyes fixed upon him.
Von Koeffner wore the green and gold in which he had taken his toss, and a knot of bullion on his shoulder caught the light and gleamed brightly. He seemed to be still wrathful, for he glared at Gil savagely. Yes, he certainly meant mischief.
"Are you ready, gentlemen?" came the clear cold voice of Pollack, standing midway between the two, a couple of yards out of the line of fire. "I will give the word 'Fire!' after again saying, 'Ready!' I will then count three. You must deliver your fire before I have finished the count. That is understood?"
"Yess, yess!" growled Von Koeffner.
"Right you are, sir!" responded Gil.
A moment's pause then: "Ready! Fire!"
Almost mechanically Gil's arm went up, his pistol sights fell in line with that gleaming knot of bullion, he pressed the trigger even as a jet of smoke from Von Koeffner's weapon blotted it out.
Something sharp and cold touched his left cheek, exactly as though a razor had nicked it—and then the smoke of the discharge had floated up and away, and he could see clearly.
Von Koeffner was standing in a queer, twisted pose, right leg bent, so that he almost knelt, right shoulder down, arm hanging limp, and yes, a dark stain spreading swiftly over sleeve and coat. His pistol lay on the ground by his feet.
"I've hit him! Hit a bull's eye! Hit him!" Gil said to himself, then dabbed at his cheek. The fingers were red. "And—he hit me—very nearly—not quite," he added. The German had meant mischief, meant to put a bullet through his head, but failed of his mark by a bare inch or two.
Dr. Webb was moving towards Von Koeffner, Sir Anthony and Pollack followed. Townley ran to them.
"Gil, Gil, your cheek's hurt! Has it touched the bone?" panted Jim, as though he had run a long way. "You pipped him, clean as a whistle. Does it pain much?"
"Nothing at all! Only a graze!" Gil replied, patting his handkerchief to the wound.
"My congratulations, my dear fellow!" Curtis had taken the pistol from him and was shaking his hand. "Very neat, very neat indeed—though I think you would have been better advised to settle the ugly dog. Still, very satisfactory! Ah, Townley, does he want another shot?"
"He's had enough for this time!" chuckled Townley. "Gad, Gil, you did a good job! He won't lift his arm for a couple of months. That'll teach him decent manners, if it's possible for a German to learn. I asked him if he'd shake hands, but he only swore. Hark, you can hear him now! Sir Anthony wants you and me for something, Curtis."
The pair walked across to Sir Anthony, who stood frowning while the doctor, having applied a temporary dressing to the German's wound, was assisting him towards the road where he had left his gig, Pollack steadying him as he reeled.
Gilbert and Jim gazed expectantly. Surely Sir Anthony would speak to them, now that the quarrel with his guest had been settled? But Sir Anthony didn't look towards them. He said a few words to Townley and Curtis, then turned away abruptly, strode to his horse, and trotted off.
"We—er—regret to inform you, Gilbert, that Sir Anthony has asked us to—er—tell you that you are not to visit Kettley House again without formal invitation," said Curtis, returning. "He gives no reason."
"Maybe that mad German has bitten him. But never mind, lad, he'll get over it presently," added Townley. "We'll go back with you. I could eat another slice of that excellent ham. Morning air gives me an appetite."
"Yes, yes! Of course! Come along. I wonder why he should have done that?" murmured Gil.
"Of course if you'd like to shoot him, we'll be willing to act for you," Curtis suggested. "Certainly he's given you reason."
"Stuff! Nonsense! Why, I'm going to marry Ann!" barked Gil furiously. "That German has turned his brain, but he'll recover."
"H'm! The marriage seems a trifle doubtful to me," said Curtis; but, being on the whole a peacefully minded man, he said it to himself.
"And that's orright!" Faro had said to himself as he saw that Gil was unhurt while Von Koeffner had taken a settler. "I shan't have to do for him after all!"
Shoving the half-drawn knife back in its sheath, he slipped away through the undergrowth and raced towards Kettley House. Clambering over the park wall, he dipped into a glade. Someone stirred in the rustic summer house set above a tiny pool. Ann Fetherston ran to meet Faro. She had been waiting news for the past half-hour in a fever of anxiety.
"It's orright, miss!" called Faro. "He ain't hurt, barrin' a touch on the cheek as you won't notice in a week. But he give the German a proper smasher in his shoulder, he did. Koeffy won't be bothering anyone but whoever nurses him, for a bit. A real good shot it was!"
"Oh, that's splendid, Faro!" Ann cried. "You're quite sure he isn't hurt? You're not saying that to—to prepare me for something serious?"
"Hope I die if I ain't tellin' truth, miss! The bullet just touched his cheek, didn't do no more than scrape the skin like it was a thorn. He's quite orright, I tell you."
"Here is something for you, Faro, because you're the bearer of good tidings," said Ann, and put a golden guinea into the brown palm. "And tell Mr. Vivian I'm glad and proud of him and I'll try to meet him here this evening, but he is not to mind if I can't come. I can't always do as I like now, Faro."
"Thankee, miss, which I shouldn't take it, but I'll keep it for luck. And I'll tell t' squire what you say. But, miss, I was talkin' with the boys around the stables last night, and there's a chap they call Fritz, that's Koeffy's man. You've got to be careful of him. I heard as he kind of spies round after you. Mebbe I can stop him. Don't you bother, only just be careful like."
"I'll be careful, Faro. Now I must get back. This evening here, remember!"
She flitted away. Faro watched her out of sight, then reclimbed the wall and hastened homewards. And then, from the heart of a clump of bushes crawled a rat-faced, undersized man with pale blue eyes in a pasty face. Faro would have recognized Von Koeffner's man, Fritz Hofer. He had heard all that had been said, but the news that his master was severely wounded didn't appear to grieve him. Indeed he was grinning as though well pleased as he cautiously followed Ann back to the house.
"THAT'S a great improvement, Trevallion," said Gilbert Vivian as he watched the Cornishman run Ariel at speed along the drive, then pull up as he shut the throttle and applied the brakes almost simultaneously. "The brakes are stronger."
"Yes, they won't let you run away a second time, Squire. And I've put this here throttle lever on a ratchet so that you can set it just as far open as you like, all from the driving seat. You try it."
Gilbert took his place and ran the steam carriage to and fro at varying speeds. Alighting, he stood staring thoughtfully at the machine.
"How far will she run with the water she has in boiler and tank?" he asked. "Twenty miles it most, I think? Or a trifle more. And there's enough charcoal to take one, perhaps, thirty miles?"
"A bit more than that. Say forty. Steaming at twenty to perhaps twenty-five miles an hour. Yes, I reckon she'll go that pace, now I've altered that steam pipe. Then I could try turning the waste steam into the water tank. That would warm the water so that it wouldn't need so much fuel to boil it up, which would be a saving too. But what are you thinking of, Squire; a run to London? Reckon we'd make a sensation."
"No—not London—farther, much farther," said Gil absently. "There'd be room for another seat here in front?"
"She'll not carry more than three, Squire, not to do herself justice, and two would be better for speed."
"We'll see. Perhaps we'll try a run to-night, eh? The moon's nearly full, and we'll have the roads to ourselves. What d'you say, Jim?"
"I'm game. Only..." Jim glanced at the wind vane on the clock-tower above the stables. "The wind's settled down very nicely for a run in or out of the bay. What sailors call a soldier's wind, because you can go either way with it."
"Well, what of it?" demanded Gil. "We're not going to sea."
"No, but some folks may be coming from it. It's just the sort of night when we might run into a gang of Free Traders. And they're tough birds!"
"I'm not changing my plans for any knaves like that!" Gil declared. "Besides, I want to run northwards along the road towards Taunton and Bristol. I want to satisfy myself that one can run in safety at night. We'll carry lights."
Jim blinked in astonishment but was wise enough to ask no questions, for Gilbert had been queer tempered during the fortnight that had passed since the duel with Von Koeffner. From Dr. Webb they had learnt that the German had spent an unhappy hour while Gil's bullet was being extracted from his shoulder, but that he would make a good recovery. But the doctor refused point blank to carry any message to Ann Fetherston. That, he pointed out, was dead against professional etiquette. Sir Anthony had forbidden Gil the house and he, Dr. Webb, couldn't lend a hand in the matter.
Gil had gone every evening to the old trysting places—a stile in the boundary fence, and the old summer house in the glade beyond the park wall—but found never a trace of Ann. He had sent notes by Faro's hand, but Sir Anthony had been thorough, and the gipsy boy had been warned that he'd get a horse-whipping if he was found near Kettley House.
It was as though a cordon had been drawn around the place. Even the women servants seemed to have been forbidden to gossip, for no news of any sort came to Coombe Wester.
Jim had expected Gil to do something violent, visit Sir Anthony perhaps, and make a scene; but, instead, he had contented himself with working furiously on repairs and improvements of the steam carriage.
He and Trevallion together had made a complete revised drawing of Ariel with all details, which he had sent to an attorney in London, with instructions to obtain a patent in Trevallion's name. Another copy would presently be sent to his great-uncle, Sir George Debenham, who had an official post in the War Office, giving suggestions for the use of steam carriages in warfare.
And then, just as Jim had hoped, he seemed to give over worrying about Ann for the time, finished a new adjustment of the brakes, and announced this excursion by moonlight.
It was dusk when, with a pair of carriage lamps shedding a glow ahead, Ariel rolled down the avenue of Coombe Wester, and took the coast road to the west. Gil meant to run a couple of miles that way, then join the high road running towards Taunton.
The road was narrow, and presently they saw they were not alone upon it, for a horseman appeared riding slowly ahead. He reached the high ground at the farther side of the bay, paused for a moment to stare seawards, then shaking up his mount to a fast trot, disappeared along a bridle track running inland. As he stood silhouetted against the radiant sky in which the moon was rising, the brothers recognized him.
"Renton, the Preventive officer!" said Gilbert. "Where's he off to? He should be riding the coast, not going that way."
"There's a light out there in the bay—and look! There's some one signalling back from Daws' Cliff!" replied Jim, pointing. "It's as I said. There's a lugger out yonder, and she's going to land her cargo. Renton has got wind of it and—" Jim laughed. "I suppose he's been paid to ride the other way. That would account for his hurry to be off."
"Perhaps—though by what I've seen of the man he isn't the sort to be bribed. Anyhow, it's none of our business," said Gilbert indifferently.
That was the point of view of most folks in the south and west country. Government laid a thundering heavy tax on many things imported from abroad, wines and spirits, silken goods, tea, coffee, fifty other articles that folks wanted. The Free Traders tried to smuggle them in, duty free; Government set revenue cutters, coastguards, and riders to catch them, confiscate the goods, and fine or imprison the smugglers. And the majority of people living on or near the coast looked on as they would have watched a game, not openly helping the smugglers, perhaps, but at least not hindering them.
Indeed, many a farmer left his stable door unlocked when word was passed that a cargo was to be run, and pretended not to notice that his horses were tired next morning, and his wagon had mud on its wheels that wasn't picked up within a dozen miles of home.
He would find a keg of brandy and some lace and silk kerchiefs packed away in his barn under the straw, by way of payment, and go on saying nothing.
So Gilbert Vivian was no different from his neighbours when he said that smuggling was none of his business. He barely troubled to glance seawards; but drove slowly and steadily along till suddenly a couple of men leaped out into the road ahead. They wore handkerchiefs tied across their faces for masks.
"Hey, stop!" bawled one, covering Gilbert and Jim with a pair of huge pistols. "Heave up and gi'e an account o' yourselves!"
Ariel stopped. A dark lantern's shutter opened and flashed light all over the machine.
"Arrh!" growled the man with the pistols. "You be Squire Vivian—and this here be the puffing wagon I been told about, eh? Goes by fire and steam, they do say."
"As you may see for yourself," Gilbert said quietly, for one doesn't quarrel with twelve-bore pistols trained on one's body. "Yes, I'm Squire Vivian and this is my brother, and my good friend Mr. Trevallion is behind. You are Jack Nobody, out gathering sea shells by moonlight to make diamond necklaces, I suppose?"
"You've hit it, Squire, clean on the head," chuckled Jack. "Now, this here's a real saucy box o' tricks! Goes wi' steam—like a kettle! Wonders'll never cease! I'd like fine to see un goin' by daylight sometime—but meanwhiles I'll not be keeping you here. You won't be comin' back this same way. T'other road home'll be your choice, won't it?"
"Oh, very well," agreed Gilbert, for this was a broad enough hint to keep away from the bay. "I suppose you saw a horseman ride off?"
"Aw, he don't matter!" grunted Jack, and stepped aside with a clumsy salute. "Good-night to 'ee, Squire!"
"Good-night!" replied Gil, and drove on.
Again lights flashed. Out from the shelter of a covert came a line of pack-horses and one heavy wagon with a team of three. Filing along the road they halted near the little boat harbour belonging to Coombe Wester. A dark shadow drew into the bay, and as the moonlight grew stronger showed up plainly as a large lugger. Boats began to pass to and fro, men laden with kegs and bales climbed to the waiting horses and wagon.
Ariel turned inland, ran for some miles along the main road, then at a crossroads swung due north on the Taunton road. It was a long stiff climb, but Ariel did it easily, running up the long hill at near ten miles an hour. Trevallion gave a cheer as they ran out on the level ridge.
"Like a bird she did it!" he crowed. "Sweet and easy! Now try how she'll go along this stretch. It's dead level for a couple of miles."
By now the moon was giving plenty of light. Oil opened the throttle and Ariel responded gallantly, spinning along at a breathtaking pace, near twenty-five miles an hour even though he kept a little in hand. Then the road slipped, and mindful of the runaway of the first ride, Gil slowed and stopped.
"The road forks a little way along here," he said. "Shall we go straight towards Taunton or bear round towards..." He paused, staring down into the valley running below the ridge.
Half a mile away a solitary horseman was galloping hard along the white road. The echo of his hoof beats came clearly up as the sound of the engine ceased. Farther away a compact group of horsemen was moving slowly towards the galloping man. Strange gleams flashed from them, a ringing, rattling, clinking noise rose above the clatter of hoofs.
"D'you see? D'you hear, Jim?" Gil pointed. "What d'you make of 'em?"
"As I live—I believe that rider's Renton!" exclaimed Jim. "Yes, I see the white patch on his horse's flank. And those fellows he's lathering to meet—are they cavalry, Gil?"
"Yes. A troop of light horsemen, thirty or forty of them. I believe some were quartered near Exmouth. They might have been brought over from there—and Renton is going to lead them back to catch Jack Nobody and his friends."
"And they'll do it easily too!" Jim said mournfully. "Gil, let's diddle them! Let's speed back and warn the Free Traders. Ariel can do it."
"Why should we? After all, they're breaking the law, and we're supposed to be good citizens."
"But it's not fair! Jack let Renton go when he could easily have stopped him, and now he's bringing all that lot to catch 'em. Warn them, Gil, or as like as not, Jack will think we set the soldiers on."
"I don't care a hang what they think!" began Gil, then thought of something that changed his mind. "All right! I'll try. Ready about!"
The road was wide enough to allow of turning, Gil got Ariel around and started off at speed, even as the cavalry troop quickened after meeting the revenue man. There was need for hurry. The smugglers had wasted no time, but even so they could not have got very far from the shore. If they were warned they might get away or hide their contraband goods, but the warning would hive to be given before the cavalry reached the crossroads over which they must pass.
So Gil drove furiously, pounding along the ridge and leaving the horsemen in the valley far behind. Down the long slope he ran, thankful for the newly tested brakes, and as he neared the botton saw a long line of pack-horses beginning the ascent. He was in time.
"Hurry! Soldiers coming!" he shouted warningly, slowing to a crawl, then stopping to allow the horses to file past. "Cavalry—a troop of them coming along the Exeter road. Hurry!"
"We're orright. Best hurry Jack along!" was the reply of the last man in the line. "He'm Navin' trouble along o' the wagon. We be a hoss short. There! You'm can hear him!"
Gil let Ariel run silently down the remainder of the slope. There, at the foot of the hill, was a wagon heavily laden with small casks and kegs. The big man whom Gilbert had dubbed Jack Nobody was at the head of the lead horse of its team of three. With voice and whip he was trying to get the team going up the steep ascent. But though the horses were game enough, the load was a little beyond their capacity.
"Hallo, Jack! You'll have to move faster than this if you want to let the cavalry have their ride for nothing," called Gil. "They'll be here in a quarter-hour at the most. I saw them riding from Exmouth way."
"Then it's half the cargo goes overboard," rumbled the big man. "Stand by to sling 'em out, Jerry."
"Hold hard!" called Gil. "Supposing I give you a tow uphill, you'd manage maybe?"
"You'd do it wi' that there?" Jack stared, then laughed. "I'll try anyways. I got a bit o' cable."
"Make fast to your wagon then, while I turn—and hold your leader," said Gil, and ran to the crossroads beyond and circled.
"Give an ear, Jim," he told his brother as they turned.
Jim jumped down, laid an ear to the road and listened. Very faintly he caught the thud of many galloping hooves. The cavalry were coming, though at no very great speed, for by now their mounts would be getting weary.
"Time enough if we hurry," he said as he rejoined Ariel.
Big Jack, making fast a stout rope to Ariel's rear framing, nodded.
"Get us to the top o' the ridge, and we're safe," he growled. "There y'are! Now, you show me! Giddup, horses!"
The three beasts strained, the two men encouraged them by shoving at wheel-spokes—and the tow-rope tightened as Ariel began to move. With creaking and snorts the wagon and horses responded; up it began to roll. Jim lent, a shoulder to the wagon, for every little helps. Upward, onward! It was a long pull, and a hard one, but Ariel had the strength of two or three horses at the least. Up and up till at last, with a final "youp, youp-ee!" from Big Jack the wagon rolled on to level ground, the bunches of furze trailing behind raising a dust cloud.
"There now! You done it, Squire! I'm your obligated, I am!" cried Jack as he loosed the towline. "Not another tug to be did before we rolls into a safe old barn. Now, how will I be thanking you? I got some fine old Cognac..."
"If you could visit me to-morrow night, I might tell you. Not now. Get on! Those soldiers will be starting uphill soon."
"Right! To-morrow—late, 'cos I'm a night-bird. Thank'ee again!" rumbled Big Jack and was gone, his team at the trot.
Backing and filling, as a seaman would have put it, Gil turned Ariel. Slowly and cautiously they started downhill again.
The horsemen were up with the crossroads as they neared the bottom, two men on foot examining the road surface by the light of a lantern. They were seeking tracks for guidance, and finding only a clean swept dust. Not in vain had big Jack used an old trick and trailed bunches of furze for brooms to sweep away hoof marks and tyre tracks.
"Don't stop if you can help it, Squire," said Trevallion. "Least said, soonest mended. Tell 'em you can't pull up. Yi-yi-yah!" he yodelled in warning. "Clear the way, good people."
But the warning wasn't needed. In the moonlight, bobbing beams, puffing steam, gleaming steel and brass-work, looked strange and terrible to the eyes of those horses, looked like some weird monster come out of the night to destroy them. Or perhaps it was that they were tired and wanted only an excuse to get to their stables. One sounded the broken nicker that means utter panic in the horse world, whirled around and bolted, its rider on its neck, while after it tore the others in mad stampede. The two men on foot were thrown down, picked themselves up as the monster dashed past covering them with dust. In a moment it was gone, leaving them to follow the retreat, cursing.
The bay was empty, the lugger gone, the shore road deserted as Ariel chugged homewards. In the shed Gil and Jim alighted while Trevallion damped down the furnace fire and blew off steam. "Well, Squire, ha' you satisfied yourself you can drive by night?" the Cornishman asked.
"Quite, thank you—so long as the moon shines full." Gil inspected the water tank. It was very low. "That's the weak point—the amount of water we use. We've been no more than twenty-five miles at the very outside, yet she couldn't have gone another five without a refill."
"I'll get that all altered before long," Trevallion assured him. "I'll make a bigger tank—but the extra weight will slow her, so it'll come to very much the same thing. I'll have it done in a week."
"No time, I'm afraid. But I think I can find a remedy for it. I'll tell you, after I've seen Jack Nobody to-morrow night."
And leaving the Cornishman to wonder how a buck smuggler could possibly solve an engineering puzzle, Gil returned to his house and bed.
"IT'S that fellow Renton, the Preventive man, sir," said Capper, coming into the room where Gilbert Vivian and Jim were finishing a late breakfast. "Very stiff he is, sir, trying to come the high-and-mighty over me."
"He's come to question me about the smugglers, but I don't think he'll get much information," staid Gil as he rose.
Riding Officer Renton saluted in military fashion.
"I've got a lot to do, sir, so I'll be brief with you. You must have seen some of those smuggler rascals while running around on that box o' tricks I got a sight of last night," he said.
"I met some pack-horses and a wagon. Would they be the smugglers you're talking about?" asked Gil innocently.
"The same, sir, as you very well know. Now, here's some might lay an information against you or aiding and abetting them, but I'm not going to do that—"
"As you haven't any sort of evidence, better not try it," snapped Gil. "Please come to the point."
"It's this, sir. You're young and don't know these people. Maybe you think there's no harm in running a cargo, but we'll let that pass. The point is, that was a French lugger in the bay last night; so by helping smugglers you help the enemy. Never thought of that, sir?"
"I didn't," admitted Gil. "But it's worth remembering. Will you have a glass of wine? I'll guarantee that it has paid duty."
"No, thanking you all the same, sir. There's another point. More besides me saw you in that steam chariot—and it's marked, so to speak. You can't go anywhere but you'll be spotted. So don't try helping smugglers, sir. That's all. Good-morning, sir."
He saluted and went smartly out. Gil glared at his broad back as he trotted down the avenue. Perhaps Renton hadn't actually seen him helping Jack Nobody with his wagon; but he suspected him, and this was a warning.
"Confound his impudence!" he thought. "Still, I suppose he meant well, and he's certainly right. Ariel would leave a trail that a blind man could follow if he only asked questions. But it's the best way."
He went to the workshop and talked for a while with Trevallion. Then Jim was called, and spent a busy hour or two learning the art and mystery of stoking Ariel's furnace and keeping water enough in the boiler.
In the afternoon they rode out and paid a call upon Mr. Townley at Haven's End. Townley, it chanced, was out for the day, but his lady, a plump, motherly soul, gave the brothers tea and a little gossip.
"There are queer doings over at Kettley House, they say, Gil," she said. "My maid was talking to one of the girls. She said that the German has completely bamboozled Sir Anthony with his talk of all his great ancestors and relations. Not one that isn't a high duke, according to him; and there's money enough, too, for he's liberal. But Ann can't abide him, and so she's treated like a naughty child, and kept in her room till she'll do as she's bid."
"I thought as much," said Gil quietly. "But I can't understand why Sir Anthony should be so taken by this German fellow. No doubt he's as high-born as he says, but by what I've heard he's a boor, with the breeding of a stable lad."
Mrs. Townley laughed.
"Why, maybe that's the reason," she exclaimed. "All Sir Anthony's folks have been horse-breeders for generations. Didn't you know his father got the title for giving horses enough for a regiment to Government back in the 'Forty-five, when Prince Charlie was trying to upset King George? Two things he loves—titles and horses. The German has the title, and knows a deal about horses. You have no title, which he might have passed over, for Vivian's an old name in the West country. But you must needs go and help your Cornishman make this steam coach, and then tell Sir Anthony that it's going to drive horses off the roads. And you expect him to welcome the news. Don't you see that he welcomed the chance of breaking with you, when you bumped that German out of his saddle?"
"Oh!" murmured Gil. "So that's the way of it? Why, ma'am, I must have been a blind fool not to see it for myself, but my eyes are open now. Ann's staunch, though." He rose. "She shan't suffer. Come along, Jim. Your servant, Mrs. Townley, and my best thanks for your news."
"What are you going to do, Gil?" asked the dame as the lads bowed.
"That would be telling, ma'am—but it's just possible that the German may be disappointed. But if you know nothing you can't be blamed for aiding and abetting, can you?"
It was near midnight when a horseman dismounted beside the windows of Gilbert Vivian's study, tethered his mount, and passed in as a long window was opened. As before, Jack Nobody wore a handkerchief across his face.
"Not that I ain't trusting you, Squire," he said as he hitched it closer. "But if you don't see my mug you couldn't swear to it. Just what d'you want of me?"
"Charcoal and water," replied Gil, and spread a map on the table. "Here's the road I want to follow towards Bristol, some sixty miles—a bit more allowing for twists and turns, so call it seventy. You know it pretty well, I suppose?"
"Every mile of it, Squire, and a lot o' the folks that lives by it. But what's this about the coal and water?"
"The steam coach burns charcoal to make steam from the water. We need a good deal when we travel fast. I want you to arrange for a big sack of coal and a tub full of water to be standing ready at three points along this road, where I can pick them up without losing time. Now, where would you say would be the best places? Mark them on the map."
"Easy!" rumbled the big man. "One about twenty miles out from here, and two more. Alshot for the first, in the lee of the tithe barn just past the village. Parson's a friend o' a friend o' mine and won't mind."
His big finger moved on over the map, stopped at a second point.
"Mersham, now. This here's the toll-gate, and I knows the keeper. You'll find what you want waiting t'other side o' the gate. Now, number three had best be Culverton. The Red Cow Inn will be the place. The coal and water tub will lie snug in the porch. Will that be all?"
"That will give me the flying start I need. You see, I may have to beat some of the best horses in the country, and I'll be travelling by night. I'm going right to Scotland—over the Border at least."
"Eh?" Jack stared at him, then laughed. "Well I'm blowed! Here's guessin' there's a lady init?"
"You may be right," agreed Gil.
"Then this here comes in proper and fitting!" chuckled Jack, and laid a small, neatly wrapped parcel on the table. "For the bride, wi' my best dooty—which it never paid any. Not a word, Squire! You done me a mighty good turn. When is the coal and water to be ready?"
"In a couple of days, though I may not be along for a day or two afterwards. But—this parcel—I can't accept it," began Gil.
"Between friends! Best o' luck! You'll find your coal and water at them places—and if so be you have trouble we any o' the toll-gates, just raise the call: 'Jack beats an ace!' Just that, and it'll help. Sir, my good wishes."
And with the words Jack Nobody was out of the window. A moment later his horse trotted off into the darkness.
"What's in the packet?" asked Jim, who had sat silent in his corner throughout, and began to unfasten the wrappings.
"Well, I'm hanged!" he exclaimed as he uncovered a bundle of filmy black lace. "It's very pretty—but what is it?"
"A Spanish mantilla—and here's a painted fan," Gil said. "Jack has done the job handsomely. It's a royal gift, and Ann will be pleased with 'em."
"Just when will she see them?" asked Jim doubtfully. "What d'you mean to do, Gil? Run off with her to—"
"Gretna Green," supplied Gil, smiling. "I should have thought you'd have guessed that by this time."
"You're going to do it on Ariel?"
"And you're going too, as stoker, my lad. You're four stone lighter than Trevallion, which will count on a long run, and besides, I don't want to land him in trouble, if there is any."
"Hooray!" cried Jim softly. Then his face grew grave. "But how are we going to get Ann away?" he asked.
"That I've planned, too. Never mind now, but get to bed. You'll have precious little sleep when we do start, so lay in a good stock now. Good-night!"
Ann Fetherston sat at the window of her room on the first floor of Kettley House. She might have gone downstairs, but there she would have been sure to meet Baron von Koeffner, and he was the last man on earth she wanted to encounter. The Baron might be all-conquering so far as horses were concerned, but Ann found him detestable. If she should try to go out-of-doors, Aunt Molly would be sure to come with her to make certain she didn't try to meet Gilbert Vivian; and somewhere close by, Fritz Hofer, Von Koeffner's man, would lurk.
Aunt Molly was a dried-up spinster who had never liked Gilbert, but worshipped the German's title, and was delighted to hear him tell of all his well-and-high-born relations. And though the servants disliked him, none would have ventured to help the girl openly, so she hadn't been able to send Gil any message.
Ann was getting very tired of being a prisoner, and would have jumped at a chance of escape; but how was it to be contrived?
"In all the romances I've read, some one always comes in disguise to help the poor prisoner," she thought, and started as a high-pitched voice shrilled along the terrace in front of the house.
"Buy-yee my pretties, my-ee pretties!" it cried in a queer falsetto Romany whine—and sure enough there was a gipsy girl, her face half hidden by tumbling black locks, a scarlet-green-yellow kerchief bound around her head, an outlandishly bright shawl flapping about her lithe lean body.
"Lady-ee, look at my pretties and you sure will buy!" she cried as she spied Ann. "Ribands and silk and lace I ha' here. Let me show you, lady."
Ann nodded, then rang and bade the maid who answered bring the gipsy girl up.
"Then you keep an eye on things, Miss Ann," said the girl. "Awful quick with their fingers, the gippos are. Lay down one thing, pick up two, that's their way."
"Fetch her up!" repeated Ann, and grumbling because she must conduct a gipsy, the girl obeyed. "It's good luck I bring wi' me, kind lady," whined the Romany girl as she entered. "Fancy work that's done in Spain, lady, which is where we comes from. Look 'ee now!" She cast a glance behind her, and as the door closed swept back the cloud of hair from her cheeks. "Don't 'ee know me, lady?"
"Faro!" exclaimed Ann. "Why, I should never have known you. Your face is darker—"
"Walnut juice, my lady," chuckled Faro. "And a mite of soot, too."
"And all those black ringlets," said Ann.
"Which it took Mr. Jim and me a good hour to curl 'em after we'd clipped the old mare's tail, miss. But Mr. Gilbert sends a message, miss. He didn't write for fear I'd get copped. He wants you to meet him to-morrow night down along at the park gates. They ain't never locked. You must bring your thickest cloak and anything else you can carry easy."
"But what does he mean me to do then, Faro?" whispered Ann.
"Why, he'll be there ready wi' Ariel—the team carriage, y'know—and Mr. Jim to help, and you'll be off to Gretna Green, which it is in Scotland, miss, and you gets married there right away, and no banns called or no trouble."
"Oh!" gasped Ann. Scotland was a long way off by road—at the end of the world almost. Of course, Ann had heard of eloping couples who went to Gretna in post-chaises, but the stories had always seemed like fairy tales. For a moment the notion of going to Scotland on a steam carriage appeared as absurd as an invitation to go to America in a dinghy. "But could he possibly do it?" she whispered. "All that way?"
"Mr. Gilbert can do anything he sets his mind to, miss," declared Faro proudly. "Oh, I wants you to give me an old riding dress. And buy some o' these here things in my basket, and then I'll get back and tell him you'll be there. Along about eleven if you can manage it. I'll be on hand to help you. Now, best take the rope first."
"Rope, Faro?" Ann asked in astonishment.
"O' course! Wi' knots on it. You fasten it to your bed, see, then let it down and climb down. Mr. Gilbert reckoned you ain't forgotten how you and him used to climb trees together. And I'll be waiting down below, and we'll be off. That's all. Now, hide it!"
Faro took the light but strong rope from the bottom of his basket, and having repeated his instructions to Ann went off singing cheerily, but dodging an invitation to go to the kitchen, for there his disguise would soon have been discovered.
"Ain't got nuffin more to-day, my pretty dear," he said. "Sold all out to the kind lady. But I'll come back to-morrow, m'dear. I'll cross the park now."
He sauntered off, careful to take short steps while he was in sight of the house. But once in the wood he felt free to hurry, and was about to do so when a harsh voice behind him bade him halt. The baron's servant, Fritz Hofer, had come out of hiding beside the path, and stood grinning at him in very unpleasant fashion, while he showed a pistol.
"You stop!" he commanded. "You nod a Romany voss!"
"You nod a man voss!" mimicked Faro. "You voss a peeg!"
With the words he made a sudden leap aside, putting a couple of tree trunks between himself and the valet.
"Shtop!" roared Fritz. "You nod a vumman voss, bud a boy! Shtop, or be shootet!"
"Catch me if you can!" chuckled Faro and leapt away, ducking into a hollow and stooping as he ran, so that the German couldn't follow his line of flight by the shaking of leaves and branches.
But though he laughed, he was very much troubled, for he had made a mess of the job. This fellow would be sure to tell his master, and at once the fat would be in the fire.
"They'll twig that I've been doin' something to let Miss Ann get away, and they'll be on the look-out," he thought. "I got to stop him from telling—got to!"
He halted under cover and peeped out. Hofer had stopped in the middle of a ride. He was peering about, the cocked pistol at the ready.
"Why, I do believe he'd shoot," thought Faro. "But he ain't going to be let go back to get Miss Ann into trouble."
He felt for the haft of his long knife, hidden under the short jacket he wore. It might be needful to use that, but he would have to get within close range—and the pistol kept him at a distance.
But Faro belonged to a race used to handling whatever weapons could be got hold of. There were stones underfoot, pebbles as big as a man's fist, nicely rounded and good for his purpose. Faro picked two large ones, and a smaller. Careful not to touch a twig, he flung the small stone so that it fell a score yards away on his flank.
Hofer heard it fall and tiptoed towards the sound, looking for all the world like Puss in Boots in the pictures of a book Jim Vivian had, Faro thought; but a very savage, evil puss, ready to pounce.
But he had to pass close to where Faro crouched, and in a flash the gipsy boy was up; his arm swung and sent one heavy stone neatly to the back of Hofer's head.
Crump! The man reeled, half stunned, turned, and took the second stone full in the face. He stumbled, the pistol fell from limp fingers, and Faro was on him with a long leap. Over they went together, but Faro was uppermost, and his knee hit hard into the fat German's stomach, while his knife haft crashed on the point of the German's jaw. Fritz Hofer forgot about everything for a little while.
"Got you!" grunted Faro, and grabbed the pistol to begin with. He found another in the fellow's pocket, then sitting on his chest, considered what he should do next.
One thing was plain. Hofer mustn't be allowed to go back to Kettley House to tell his tale, for then Ann would be more closely guarded than before, and the simple plan of escape made impossible.
"If I tied him up and left him hidden in this here wood, he'd get loose or someone would find him. Besides, I ain't got anything to tie him up proper," said Faro to himself. "I've got to take him where I can make a good job of it. He mustn't get loose till Miss Ann's gone. Arrh! I got it! The boathouse! Plenty rope there, and no one goes near it except Jim and me. I'll fix him to rights!"
He unfastened Hofer's neckcloth, a long band of stout linen, turned him over, and tied his arms behind him securely. Then, as the German began to grunt and wheeze with returning consciousness, he rose and covered him with his own pistol. Presently the man's eyes opened and stared down the black muzzle in horrified surprise. His mouth opened for a yell—and Faro shoved the muzzle into it.
"If you makes any noise I'll blow your ugly head off!" he snarled. "Not a peep out o' you or you dies, see? You get on your legs and march down that path!"
"Mein master he will joost about kill me," whispered Hofer, and began to cry. "He will beat me to the death if I do not come to dress him for dinner."
"I'll kill you altogether if you don't get up and move," threatened Faro. "Quick, or I'll cut yours ears off for a start!"
He flashed out his knife. Hofer scrambled to his feet in a hurry.
"Nein, nein!" he groaned. "I do it—as you say. I march!"
"And if you try to run away I'll shoot you—in the spine," said Faro in a bloodcurdling whisper. "That's awful painful."
Hofer shivered and scuttled forward, Faro close behind. When he paused, a prod from the pistol muzzle urged him on again. They reached the boundary fence, crossed the stile, and took a path leading down to the narrow beach. Hofer began to whimper when they reached the sea, for he feared he was going to be drowned.
"Nein!" he wailed as Faro hurried him along. "Nod so! Nod a wet death! I do nod lofe der water."
"You're not going in—yet!" Faro promised. "Round the point!"
So they came to the boathouse. Ten minutes later Hofer lay in a corner trussed like a chicken for the oven, gagged and covered with a bit of canvas, for Faro wasn't taking risks if they could be avoided.
"I'll be keepin' watch, and if you tries to get loose or makes a row, I'll come in and kill you!" Faro growled. "I'll get you some grub later on if you're quiet."
Hofer was quiet. He didn't love Von Koeffner and wasn't ready to die for him. He lay quietly all day. Faro, again in his gipsy girl rig—for he didn't want Hofer to be able to swear to him later on—came at sundown with a good meal and something to drink. He loosed him for a little while.
"Your master thinks you have run off," Faro said, quite untruthfully, for he knew nothing of the kind. "So I wouldn't go back if I was you, when you are let loose. Mebbe I can fix it so's you can get out of this country, back home. Now I'll tie you up till to-morrow morning."
He left Fritz feeling a little happier. If he could only get back to Germany he would be safe, he thought, and thanked his stars that the gipsy hadn't searched him and found the belt in which he carried his savings of years, a good round sum, in English gold and bank-notes.
ANN FETHERSTON would not leave her room that day. She told Aunt Molly that she did not feel well enough to listen to Baron Von Koeffner eating soup, so she wouldn't go down to dinner. She had a tray brought up, and despite her supposed sickness made a very good meal. At bedtime Aunt Molly came in to see her. She was flurried.
"The dear baron is very much upset," she said. "Fritz, his man, hasn't come back yet, so your father sent Willie Smith to help him get dressed, and Willie hurt his poor wounded shoulder. The dear baron swore most dreadfully and threatened Willie with a sword, so Willie left him and wouldn't go back. I'm sure I don't know what we shall do if Fritz doesn't come back."
"The baron can go and stay at an inn and get the boots to help him. All of our people will be glad to see him go, I'm sure," replied Ann. "I know I shall." She yawned. "I'm going to bed, Aunt Molly. Goodnight!"
Aunt Molly went out, and locked the door behind her. Ann heard the key turn and smiled happily. How wise Gilbert had been to send that rope! He must have guessed she would be locked in. She looked at the clock on her dressing-table, a dainty little French timepiece which Gil had given her a year before. It was ten o'clock, and the early rising household was going to bed.
Presently she heard her father pass her door with Von Koeffner.
"I'll send my man to help you," he was saying. "If your fellow hasn't come back to-morrow, I'll try to get you another from Exeter."
"I will his neck break in four places, yess!" growled the baron thickly. "I will him teach very severely nod to run off thus!"
Ann smiled happily. He'd have something more to worry him to-morrow. Moving very softly she set a chair against the door, its back under the handle, to hold it firmly closed, then dressed herself in her warmest clothes, took a thick cloak, packed a few things in a bag, and made fast the end of the knotted rope to her bedstead. Then, all being ready, she put out her candle and opened the window.
The house was in darkness. The moon wasn't up as yet, but there was enough light in the sky to show a dark figure that moved from the shadow of the portico. A hand waved. It was Faro. A moment later Gil, cloaked to the ears, appeared and beckoned.
Ann hesitated, not an instant. Clutching her bag, she started the descent, which was really easy enough, for the rough stonework gave her footholds as she let herself down hand over hand. Gil clutched her as she came within reach, and eased her to the ground.
"Not a moment to waste, dear!" he whispered, taking the bag. "I've got Ariel waiting and—"
"Alert! Awake! Ahoy, Sir Anthony!" bawled a hoarse voice from a window above—the voice of Von Koeffner. Bang! He had fired a pistol over the heads of the three. "Your daughter! She flies!"
They heard the voice retreating from the window, but they were already running down the avenue, Faro ahead.
Not till this moment had Ann seen the gipsy clearly, but now as the first moon rays fell upon him capering ahead, she gasped with astonishment, scarcely recognizing him, for he was wearing the old riding habit and hat she had given him. The long skirt was tucked around his waist, giving him a very plump look, while the veil fastened to the hat floated behind him.
"What does he wear those for?" she asked.
"To lay a false scent, I hope," chuckled Gil. "We'll need it too. Hark to that racket!"
A rumour of screams and shouting floated down the avenue from the house; of a sudden the bell on the stable clock tower broke out in a wild alarum that would surely rouse the whole countryside. But now the three were near the gates. Faro sped ahead and disappeared, and the door of the lodge beside the gates opened, an old man peered out, then started towards the nearer gate.
"That's right, Lidgett!" cried Ann as they ran past him. "Lock them, Lidgett."
"Eh! Stop, Miss Ann! Sir Anthony he told me as you wasn't to go out," Lidgett called helplessly.
"You're to lock the gates! I order you to!" Ann said, and was out running towards a couple of horses dimly visible on the white dusty road.
"Come 'ee back!" howled Lidgett.
"Keep in the dark," said Gil, drawing Ann into the deep shadow by the roadside. "Never mind the horses. We don't need them."
Next moment she saw the reason for his words. Trevallion was standing by the animals. With more strength than skill he hoisted Faro into the saddle, mounted the second horse himself; then the pair wheeled and galloped past old Lidgett, crouching low.
"He's half blind. The pursuit will follow that pair and not catch them. We go t'other way," said Gil, "and so secure a start."
Rounding the bend of the road they saw the glow of a furnace, heard the hiss of escaping steam, and Jim Vivian's voice:
"All's well, Ann! Hop up and we're off," he called. "We're going to do a bumper run to-night."
"All downhill from here for more than a mile." Gil helped the girl to her seat and drew a blanket around her. "There! We're off."
Almost noiselessly Ariel glided away, gathering speed on the slope till she was running near as fast as a horse could gallop when she neared the level. Gil turned on steam; they sped forward into the night, faster and faster.
The road was none too good, and Ann was bumped about a good deal, but she stood it gamely, and at last they reached a better surface.
"I have to get a good start here," Gilbert explained. "For if your father pursues and finds which way we have gone, he will be able to cut across country and intercept us. We have to stay on the made road, you see. But if Trevallion and Faro only do their part, we'll be well out of reach before Sir Anthony finds he's chasing the wrong couple."
Trevallion and Faro hadn't a very long start. Only two or three minutes had passed when Sir Anthony and a couple of grooms came rattling down the avenue, and taking their direction from old Lidgett, galloped off in pursuit of the horses. They were mounted on the best horses in Kettley House stables and didn't spare them. Soon Sir Anthony spied the fugitives as they topped a rise and dipped into the valley beyond.
"We'll cut across, lads," he called, and turning aside, galloped across country, for here the road made a long curve; while Trevallion and Faro followed the line of the bent bow, Sir Anthony took the line of the string, as it were. When Faro drew rein at top of a long ascent and looked back along the white road, now lit by the moon, the pursuers were already ahead.
"Don't like it," said Faro. "There was two or three after us, and they weren't likely to turn back. Depend on it, they'll be waiting for us. Hold on a 'moment."
He dismounted, gave his reins to Trevallion, and diving into a thicket, returned minus the riding dress and hat that had served to deceive old Lidgett.
"There now! Reckon the squire's got well on his way by now, so there ain't no need to go farther. We'll get home, eh?"
"For which I shan't be sorry," Trevallion grunted. "Not having ridden horseback for years. But I think I hear hoofs. Yes, here comes Sir Anthony—and not in a good temper either."
The baronet pulled up with a snarl, one hand going to the pocket where lay a pistol, only to fall again as he glared at the Cornishman and failed to recognize him, for he had only seen him once before, on the morning of Ariel's first run. Then his eyes fell upon Faro, whom he knew well enough by sight.
"You—my daughter—have you seen her," he began rather lamely. "You are Vivian's fellows, I know. What crooked work have you been doing? Where is she?"
"If your daughter is out riding, sir, she has chosen a fine night for it," replied Trevallion evenly. "'How sweet the moonlight falls on yonder bank!' as the Bard say in one of his plays. 'Tis a night when all the pixies come out to dance and—"
"Hang the pixies!" roared Sir Anthony. "Where's your master? Where is Gilbert Vivian? Quick, or I'll lay my whip about you."
"He may be at Coombe Wester, he may be elsewhere, sir, for he is his own master. But keep your whip down. I'm a great deal stronger—and I have a whip too."
Sir Anthony glowered a moment longer. He realized that he had been done, though he didn't guess how. At all events Ann wasn't here. Perhaps it was all a false alarm. He'd better return and make certain. With another snarl he shook up his horse and galloped off with his followers; and far away along the road a solitary horseman appeared riding towards him. Despite the distance, Faro recognized the rider by his steed and the stiff way he sat it.
"That's Renton, the revenue riding officer, and he's coming from the last end o' his beat. He's almost certain to ha' met the guv'nor and Miss Ann, and he's certain to have known 'em. Let's get near enough to hear."
Faro was right, for as Renton closed with Sir Anthony he signalled to him to stop.
"Beg to report, sir, that I met Mr. Gilbert Vivian driving his steam coach along the road towards Alshot. He had with him his brother and a lady," he said, and drew back hurriedly at sight of Sir Anthony's rage-distorted face. "I think the lady was Miss Ann, sir," he added. "Were you looking for her?"
Sir Anthony nodded. He couldn't possibly hope to overtake the runaways unless the steam carriage broke down or they could be delayed.
"If I could stop 'em—but that's impossible," he muttered hoarsely, but Renton caught the words. "They're ahead of everything."
"You'll pardon me, sir, but it can be done," the riding officer said. "Say the word and I'll go to the telegraph up yonder and get a message sent. Being a clear night they'll have it through quickly, if you have but a notion whether they're going north or east or west."
"Eh!" Sir Anthony spun round and stared up at the hill towards which the Preventive man pointed. On the tip-top stood a squat tower with several long arms projecting from a central mast. Lanterns were fastened to these arms. The whole rather resembled a modern railway semaphore. Even as Sir Anthony glanced at the thing—which, of course, he had seen a thousand times before—the arms began to move. They were passing on a message, picked up from a similar tower eight or nine miles to the eastward, to another tower to the westward, for the telegraphs, as they were called, stretched in an unbroken line from Plymouth and Portsmouth to the Admiralty in London. In clear weather a message could be passed in little more than an hour. It was kept for official use only.
"They won't let you use it—and anyhow this steam wagon isn't going east or west, but north, according to you," growled the baronet.
"If I point out that I suspect Squire Vivian is breaking the law—as he is by carrying off your daughter, she not being twenty-one years old—the officer in charge will send a message to Salisbury, and Salisbury will send word along to Bristol—and points between."
"What then?" barked Sir Anthony. "What use will that be?"
"They won't be able to pass the line, so to speak, sir, without being noticed. And if I let it be thought that they're smuggling, then I may get one of my colleagues to have a troop of horse ready to stop the steam coach. The party will be detained, sir, for a while at least, so if you hasten you may overtake them."
"You're ten guineas richer for that notion, so do it at once. Where had I better ride for?"
"Bradford-on-Avon, I'd say, a dozen miles from Bristol. But it's all of sixty miles, Sir Anthony, so best think of remounts."
"See to your telegraph, and I'll see to the horseflesh," returned Sir Anthony. "Only stop them for a dozen hours and I'll catch 'em. Come and see me when I'm back again and you shall have the money." He shook up his horse and went back full speed to Kettley. There he had fresh horses brought out, and with his two men, each leading a couple of spare mounts and carrying refreshment for man and beast to save time, he set out on his journey. By changing to the spare horses he hoped to make nearly as good time as the iron horse he pursued.
Renton, the Preventive man, rode up to the telegraph tower and was admitted. In a few minutes a message—bidding several cavalry pickets at various points near Bristol be on the look-out for Vivian and his steam carriage—was on its way.
"Why d'you trouble about it, Tom?" asked the operator as he finished dispatching the order. "Young Squire Vivian don't concern himself with free trading that I'd ever heard of before."
"Whether he has now, doesn't matter. All that's required is that he should be hindered half a day on the road—and mebbe I've got a little private grudge I want to even out," growled Renton. "He did me out of a fine fat catch—and one good turn deserves another! Good-night!" He rode on to his lodgings whistling. He calculated that he had got even with Gilbert Vivian for that night's work which had lost him Jack Nobody's wagonload of smuggled goods.
ON rolled Ariel. After the first few miles Gilbert Vivian slackened speed, certain that now he was fairly safe from pursuit. Horses might keep pace with the steam carriage for a short distance, or even beat it in a sprint, but no living creature could equal Trevallion's invention on a long journey.
Ann Fetherston who, in spite of the cushioned seat Gilbert had contrived for her, had been bumped about unmercifully in the first dash, laughed a little shakily as the chariot moved more smoothly.
"You went very fast, Gil, but for comfort give me a well-sprung chaise," she said.
"This wasn't built for ladies, but only as a sort of experiment. Trevallion will improve upon it with experience," Gil replied. "The next one will have better springs and seats."
"You had better try to provide better roads, Gil, then the springs you have would do well enough," she said. "How long and how far do we go before resting?"
"I thought of running all night. By then we should be quite safe from pursuit, and could take things more easily."
"You must not trust to appearances too much. Father is very stubborn. He won't give over till he's utterly beaten."
"Then he might as well give over now," chuckled Gil. "For we shan't see him again till we're securely married—and then all he can say about it will be: 'Bless you, my children.'"
"I hope so," murmured Ann. "But I'm afraid he won't forgive us so easily. It may be years before he does that."
"Jolly good run, Gil, but don't forget we'll have to stop for two or three minutes presently to fill up with coal and water," Jim reminded his brother from the rear. "We mustn't loiter."
Talk stopped as Gil put on speed again. No one spoke till they slowed into a village and found by looking at the sign of the inn that it was called Alshot, the first stopping-place arranged for with the smuggler chief, Jack Nobody.
"There's the big barn," said Jim as they clattered over the last of the village cobbles. "Run in close—whoa! Get back, you brute!"
The last words weren't for Gilbert, but for a big sheep-dog with jaws like a crocodile, which dashed silently out of the shadow of the barn and made him skip back to his perch. The long jaws snapped viciously only an inch short of the boy's calves. Another leap and the dog was scrambling aboard, when a low whistle stopped him; a man appeared and sent him to the right-about with a cuff.
"Jack beats an ace!" he said with a laugh. It was the password Jack Nobody had given Gilbert for use at toll-gates, which had not so far been needed. With the word the man gave help, for he carried the sacks of charcoal and assisted to refill the water tank. But when Gilbert offered him half a crown he shook his head.
"Jack gave the word to help you, so I reckon you're a friend of his'n," he said. "So there's nothing to pay. Good luck, master! Good luck to ye, missy! Happy days!"
They left Alshot with nothing but a heap of hot cinders by the roadside to mark that they had passed through it. On they went, rousing crusty toll-keepers from their sleep only to have them become suddenly most civil and obliging when they heard the magic words: "Jack beats an ace!"
Once Gilbert stopped on top of a ridge from which they could see the road they had traversed like a whity-grey ribbon for miles behind, in the moonlight. Nothing stirred upon it, so the three walked about for a little while.
"To-morrow we'll speed as fast as we can. After that we can take things easy. Nobody can overtake us now if we travel on steadily. We'll stop at nine. You'll pass as our sister, Ann—till we reach Gretna Green. Let's get on again."
He made Ann as comfortable as he could, and in a little while the girl slept. She was awakened by the sound of a gruff voice some hours later. The sky was red with the dawn light, Ariel was halted before a closed toll-gate. A red-faced man wrapped in a huge greatcoat was standing by the gate.
"I tell 'ee, sir, I got my orders not to let 'ee through. Two soldiers come and told me as a wagon that went by steam was coming along, and it was to be stopped. They said word had come by the telegraft. They're in the village now, and they'll be here any minute."
The telegraph! Gilbert Vivian had forgotten all about that. He glanced over the toll-gate down the village street beyond. Light gleamed from the windows of the inn, two horses were tethered to the hitching-post by the door. The soldiers were inside passing the time over a pot of ale.
"If we but get past we can keep ahead of pursuit. There's no telegraph north of Bristol hereabouts," Gil said to Jim, then held out a hand with a couple of guineas gleaming in the palm.
"I've only got these—and four words for you—my man," he said to the toll-keeper. "Jack beats an ace!"
"Sakes alive!" The man grabbed the money and unlocked the gate almost with the same movement. "Why didn't you say that there right away? Now, bump the gate, same as you was bursting through it. I'll ha' to holler, but most like they won't hear till you're past. Thank'ee kindly! Good luck!"
He swung the gate partly open, Ariel's front wheels touched it and sent it swinging back to crash against the wall—and as the first puffs of steam jetted from the open exhausts, two men came out of the inn.
Instantly the toll-keeper bellowed hoarsely, for he wanted to play innocent:
"Hi! Hold on! Stop!" he shouted.
"Halt!" roared one of the soldiers leaping out into the road, while the other loosed his horse and began to mount. "Halt or—I'll fire!"
"Out of the way, you fool!" shouted Gilbert, and drove straight at him.
The man might have stood his ground and fired his weapon if he had only had a horseman to face. But this contraption of iron and fire, thundering and clanging over the cobbles as it gathered speed, was a very different sort of foe. He raised the pistol—only to blaze it off at the red sky as he sprang aside for his very life.
The second fellow did no better, for at sound of Ariel's passing his horse reared, threw him, and breaking away, galloped off through the open toll-gate. In a moment Ariel was through the village and turning the corner.
Bang! Whang! The dismounted man had fired a second shot. The bullet missed Jim by a handsbreadth and glanced off the boiler sheathing without doing any damage, then the steam coach was gone at speed, as though it had been a living animal hastened by the shot. The soldier ran to his horse, flung himself into the saddle and galloped after the fugitives, but it was useless. The steam coach had disappeared, leaving behind for trail an odour of hot oil and a wisp of steam that vanished in a moment.
"Won't that toll-keeper get into trouble with the soldiers because he let us get through?" asked Ann.
"Oh, he'll tell them I held a pistol to his head or something of the sort," Gil replied carelessly. "But it means we must run farther than I meant to before I stop. Now, hold on!"
Ariel rattled and bumped along at full speed. Part of the time it seemed to Ann that they were more in the air than on the earth, but at last Gil slowed and stopped at an inn called the Goat and Compasses, standing before a broad village green across which groups of village children were going to school.
But at sight of Ariel they forgot all about learning and the schoolmaster's cane and came running to see the strange, monstrous carriage. They crowded about it, asking many questions of Jim, while Gilbert took Ann into the inn and ordered breakfast.
Presently tile children ran off to school, and Jim left his place on Ariel to join the others. He had just sat down to a big plateful of eggs and bacon when there came a sudden howl of terror, the "hursh, hursh" of steam and the regular puff puff of the engine as Ariel rolled across the village street on to the common. Clinging to the steering-wheel, which he jerked to and fro in his terror, was a plump urchin who had, quite without meaning to do it, started the machine by turning the throttle lever.
Shouting, Jim bolted out, Gilbert on his heels. In a dozen strides they were alongside Ariel, but just as Jim was yelling to the child to turn the tap beside the wheel to the left, which would have shut off the steam, the driving-wheels swung over a hillock, and as the whole engine lurched to one side the youngster lost his grip and rolled overboard. Luckily he rolled clear of the wheels and was unhurt, but in a last frantic clutch to save himself he had opened the throttle full. Away went Ariel, dodging and tacking as though steered by some mischievous, invisible imp.
The author of the trouble fled howling; Jim dashed directly after the runaway; while Gilbert, guessing that it would swing around when the front wheels touched a sloping bank by a ditch, ran to head it off.
But their luck was out. Ariel touched the bank, slewed aside a little, then charged on into the ditch and—turned over with a resounding crash and the snapping of a connecting rod as the racing engine was brought to a sudden stop.
Gilbert sprang to open a tap which let out a gush of steam while Jim raked hot coals from the furnace. Then they looked at each other in dismay.
Ariel didn't appear to be very badly damaged. A horse with tackle would quickly get it out of the ditch and on its wheels again. But one connecting rod was broken, piston-rod guides were out of alignment, and there were other minor damages which must be repaired before the steam carriage could take the road again.
"We must let the boiler cool down before we move it," said Gilbert. "Come back for breakfast, meantime."
The landlord of the inn was talking to Ann in the porch.
"Too bad, gemmen," he said. "Hard luck, just when you were keepin' ahead of any that might be after you. But don't you and missy worry. I'll help 'ee out."
"What are you talking about?" demanded Gilbert. The landlord smiled.
"When I saw you and missy come in, I said to my wife: 'This here is a runaway match, I'll lay. They're for Gretna Green!' I said. Ain't I right?"
"What if you are? Yes—we're for the border!" replied Gilbert. "And till this accident we had the heels of anything that might be following us. But now I'm afraid we'll have to waste time on repairs."
"Don't you do it, sir," urged the innkeeper. "You and the lady go ahead. Leave your brother to see to the mending of the thing, but go on. Mebbe you haven't thought of it, but you've been laying a trail that's easy to follow, for everybody who's seen your carriage will remember it. So if you stop here and someone is following after, you'll be caught easy."
"Yes, Gil, what he says is right," whispered Ann. "Those soldiers may come, and you mustn't fight with the king's men. How can we travel?" she asked the innkeeper. "There's no coach hereabouts?"
"I've got as good a li'l po'chaise as you'd wish to see, And a trusty lad to take you on, if you like. Say the word and I'll have all ready in half an hour."
"I can get the repairs done with a blacksmith's aid. I'll get Ariel hidden up and come on after you—to-night perhaps," said Jim. "So that's that. I'll get going in a jiffy."
The landlord was as good as his word. When, little more than half an hour later, Ann and Gilbert rolled off in the chaise, they saw Jim directing a couple of men to fix a block to a branch of a nearby tree.
"I hope he won't get into trouble, Gil," said Ann doubtfully. "He's only a boy, after all."
"But a very well plucked un, my dear," replied Gil. "And—believe me, he's having a very enjoyable time. He's made that way, and loves trouble for its own sake. Now, try to sleep."
Jim Vivian had Ariel hauled into an empty coach-house in the inn yard, for a start.
"Because, I don't mind telling you, we had some trouble a few miles back with a couple of cavalrymen who tried to stop us. If they come here, d'you think it'll be possible to prevent them from hearing about this steam carriage?"
"We-ell, it's a bad business having trouble with soldiers," said the innkeeper doubtfully. "What was it about?"
"Maybe it was over Jack beating an ace," whispered Jim.
The landlord whistled softly when he heard the smuggler's password, for like many another along that road he was hand in glove with Jack Nobody.
"That makes all the difference!" he chuckled. "We're all friends o' Jack hereabouts. I'll pass the word round and nobody will blab. Get the smith and make your repairs. No stranger shall get near you in my yard."
The blacksmith was a skilled craftsman, but he had never seen any machine in the least like Ariel before. He had to examine it carefully, and have the use of every part explained to him before he would start work.
"There'd be no sense in me taking it to bits and not knowing how to put it together again," he said very reasonably. "And it bain't no manner o' use tryin' to hurry me, for I won't be hurried. I does a good job, but I has to take my time."
Ariel had sustained more damage than Gilbert and Jim had at first suspected, and the repairs were still unfinished at nightfall.
"But all will be done before noon to-morrow, master," said the smith, as he gathered his tools together. "There ain't no use flogging a willing hoss, so you be patient. I'll start again first thing in the morning."
Jim went to bed early. It was past midnight when he was aroused by shouts and knocking on the inn door. Belated travellers had arrived, and were clamouring for beds and stabling for their horses. Drowsily he listened. He heard the innkeeper growling as he went downstairs, heard the bolts drawn, then sat up suddenly as he recognized the voice of one of the travellers.
Sir Anthony Fetherston had arrived!
Jim hopped out of bed, opened his door, and listened shamelessly.
"I'll have a bottle of your best claret and whatever cold victuals you have handy. And get my fellows beer and food when they have finished bedding down our beasts," Sir Anthony was saying; and then: "You'll have seen a clattering, vile, oily smelling iron chariot, I take it, a thing that goes along belching steam and scaring honest horses? It stopped here?"
"Why, to be sure, sir! But it only stopped for a little, while the young folks refreshed their selves, then off they went again, at a rare rate, too," replied the landlord. "Yesterday morning, that was."
"Ah, yes!" murmured Sir Anthony. "Now for the wine!"
Jim stayed awake long enough to hear him go to a room close to his own.
"Here's a pretty kettle of fish," thought Jim. "A word may give me away, and if he finds out that Ann and Gil are in a chaise he'll hurry on and catch them. And even if I can start, how am I going to get off without his seeing me?"
He went to sleep with the question still unanswered, and awoke early with the innkeeper bending over him.
"The gal's dad, I unnerstan' from what the grooms say, is in the house," he began.
"I heard him. Make him think he's too far behind to catch them," said Jim. "Of course he mustn't hear about the steam coach or me."
"Why, I've been passing the word round this half-hour. The old boy's in two minds already, so most like he'll turn back. Now what d'you fancy for breakfast? I'll send it up to you here, where you'd best stay till the coast's clear."
Jim ate his breakfast by the open window above the inn door. Presently he glimpsed Sir Anthony Fetherston as he strolled out into the morning sunshine. Ann's father was scowling while he scanned a road map. Evidently he was calculating his chances of catching the runaways, and didn't think they were very good.
His two grooms with the spare horses stood waiting orders.
Sir Anthony glanced at his watch, turned to the horse block—and paused as two horses, one ridden by a young postilion, came clattering up the road. Jim recognized the postilion; he was the man who had driven Gilbert and Ann away in the post-chaise.
"If he talks he'll give us away," muttered Jim. "Oh, this settles it!"
For Sir Anthony had flung up an imperative hand, stopping the postilion as he wheeled his horses towards the stable yard.
"A moment, my man," said the baronet. "Have you seen anything of a steam carriage—and two young men with a young lady who were travelling on it?"
A broad grin spread over the lad's foolish face. He shook his head.
"There you be wrong, maister. They ain't in no steam carriage but in our chaise, for I took 'em along yesterday with these here horses and..." He stopped, clapped a hand to his mouth, and laughed foolishly. "There now! I hadn't oughter said that," he added. "He gimme a guinea not to talk—and I been and done it."
"Here's another for doing it!" cried Sir Anthony, tossing him the coin. "Mount, men!"
He swung into the saddle and trotted away, his little troop behind him; and Jim Vivian, with a long face, hurried down to the stable yard, to find the landlord rating the booby post-boy.
"The mischief's done," he said. "The fellow couldn't help it. Did my brother give you any message for me?" he asked the post-boy.
"There now! Blest if I weren't goin' to forget that too! There's a letter. Why, I've got it!" exclaimed the post-boy, apparently much surprised to find the letter where he had put it—in his hat. "There you are, maister."
The letter was but a line or two:
"Follow as quickly as you can. At crossroads, remember the gipsy patteran that Faro taught us. Good luck. Be swift, for horses are but slow compared with Ariel."
Yes, it would be well to be quick, Jim thought, as he ran to the smithy. Sir Anthony would quickly cut down the lead of a day. Unwarned, Gilbert would not be in any hurry. He would expect only Ariel, so Sir Anthony might surprise him, and then—Jim shivered—he would either be forced to shoot at Ann's father or be shot himself.
"Hurry, man! A life, maybe two, depends on your being quick," he told the smith, who responded as well as he could.
Thanks to this, Ariel was ready for the road a full hour and a half before noon. Jim filled boiler and tank, lit the furnace, and as the steam rose, prepared to go.
"Now what are you going to do, supposing you run into the old 'un?" asked the landlord as Jim paid his bill. "A bit awkward that would be, 'specially if he started to shoot."
"I'll have to keep away from him—and go ahead when he stops to rest."
"Or go round him? That's your lay, young sir. S'posin' you get up near him before he comes to Lavington that's nigh twenty mile from here, you'll see where the road forks just outside. No matter which he takes, you take t'other and press on and you'll come out ahead, seeing the distance is about the same each way."
"I'll remember," Jim said, and steered out of the stable yard.
The village children were at school or in the fields, but a few women and a couple of ancients raised a shrill cheer. A hoarse shouting echoed it, a clatter of hoofs rang out.
"Sojers! You best hurry!" shouted the innkeeper, and after one glance backwards Jim agreed with him. He had seen those blue-coats with the white-and-yellow facings before. The two cavalrymen upset two nights ago were coming down the road at speed, a dozen more at their heels—and they had just raised the view halloo!
Jim opened wide the throttle and sped away, giving all his attention to the road during the first few minutes. When he reached the top of a long rise he glanced back. Steam and steel had proved better than brawn and muscle, and he had doubled his lead, but his speed was slackening. He could not steer and stoke at the same time, so the furnace fire was dying down.
On top of the ridge Jim halted, stoked up, and got going again as the soldiers, thinking Ariel must have broken down, whooped their horses to a gallop. Vain hope! Ariel ran slowly along the hundred yards of level way, dipped to the descent, and was gone. When Jim looked back again, the cavalrymen, hopelessly outdistanced, were walking their horses.
Again he halted to stoke up, then sped on at the best speed he could make, for he dared not linger on the road. His eyes scanned the wayside banks at every fork and crossroads, but since Gilbert was following the main turnpike road there was no need for him to leave a guiding sign—the gipsy patteran—so far.
The sun was getting low when at last Jim saw Sir Anthony and his men ahead. They were moving at a steady trot, and the slow breeze brought back the rhythmical hammer-notes of their iron-shod hooves. Away in front Jim saw smoke and the roofs of the village of Lavington, beyond which lay the two roads the innkeeper had spoken of. From above Jim could follow them easily enough. One made a detour to another village, the other ran straight on, though it was less level.
"A post-boy would take the easy way, though it's longer," thought Jim. "And that's the way Sir Anthony will take too—so I'll take the other."
He waited till he saw the baronet and his men take the easier road, then hastened to follow the other. If he could get well ahead of Sir Anthony, Ann and Gilbert would be saved a lot of trouble. He sent Ariel along as fast as he dared, and presently ran out of the tree-bordered lane where birds were singing their spring songs upon a stretch of moorland. And so he came to a cross in the middle of the moor—and the first patteran.
A branch of heather had been tied to the signpost with a twist of grass rope. It pointed to the track running away to the eastwards, instead of to the north. Jim turned that way, got down, and in a moment found the patteran.
Faro had taught the brothers how to read these gipsy road signs. Jim saw a little conical heap of earth, no bigger than his two fists, set under the shelter of an overhanging furze bush. In the little hillock half a dozen twigs had been stuck. Round the base of the hillock ran a shallow groove with a few tiny bits of gravel strewn in it. Beside this was stuck a peg.
"Now, this means a hill, covered with trees," translated Jim. "With a stream running half-way around the foot of it. And Gil is waiting somewhere near the bank. I wonder why he left the main road?"
He started again, only to pull up a few yards farther on. For there, in the middle of the road, was a spatter of blood, and a few yards away, in a hollow amongst the heather, a dead horse with a broken leg and a bullet in its head.
Jim alighted and examined the animal. He judged it to be a post-horse, though its harness had been removed. The off fore-leg had been shattered by a bullet, on the road, he deduced, for a trail led to the hollow. Then he spied a second patteran. It was a duplicate of the first, and that cleared up the affair a little.
"Someone shot the horse in the leg. Gil must have taken it from the harness, brought it here, and put it out of pain. Who shot it? Highwayman, most likely. Anyhow, I must get on."
And putting aside any further deductions for the moment, he drove on as fast as he could.
GILBERT VIVIAN glanced at his watch, at the sun, and the stretch of rolling moorland over which they were travelling.
Ann yawned and stretched herself. The chaise was more comfortable than Ariel had been, she was not bumped and jolted so much, but—the chaise was terribly slow compared with the steam carriage.
"What's the matter, Gil?" she asked. "You look worried. I thought we were safe now."
"We should have been if we had gone on at the rate we started at, but now, at the best, we can only be a few hours ahead. If Sir Anthony is chasing us he will be well mounted and may easily catch us, if Jim doesn't appear with Ariel soon. Or he may catch Jim and put Ariel in custody. Or—"
Gilbert paused, leaning forward to peer at a horseman who had appeared from nowhere—or a hollow of the moor—in a very suspicious fashion. He was a big, raw-boned fellow with red hair, and as he neared the crossroads which the chaise was approaching he quickened his pace.
Gil opened the case that lay beside him and took out a pair of long-barrelled pistols. His cloak fell to the floor.
"Crouch down on it, Ann. Make yourself as small as you can," he said softly. "I don't like the look of him. Down! Get on, boy!" he called to the post-boy. The lad turned a scared face towards him, though he quickened his pace.
"This here—I reckon it's Red Dick!" he quavered. "He's a bad 'un. They say he allus shoots to kill!"
"Why, so shall I!" replied Gilbert cheerily. "Get over the crossing and drive for all you're worth. I'll stop him if he comes too close."
The postillion's whip cracked, the horses trotted over the crossing, and Red Dick, throwing off all pretence of being an honest traveller, left the road and cantered across the heath to head off the chaise. Halting by the roadside, he flung up a pistol.
"Stand and deliver!" he roared, and fired.
The saddle horse checked, reared, flinging the post-boy over its head, hobbled a yard or two and halted—on three legs! The chaise swayed, stopped; a door slammed. Gil was out!
Crack! The highwayman had fired again, aiming at the moving figure seen through the chaise windows. Glass splintered, but the bullet flew a trifle wide, nipped Gil's shoulder painfully, but not seriously, and before Red Dick could snatch a third pistol from a holster, Gil had fired.
The bullet thudded home. Red Dick's hand fell limp and useless, a broad red stain started out upon his ruffled shirt front, he drooped forward upon his horse's neck. Swinging it round mechanically, he drove home spurs. With a bound it was away, dipping into a hollow and hidden in a few seconds.
Gil had raised his second pistol, but lowered it again. The man had his quietus, it would have been hard to give him a second bullet without risk to the horse, and, despite his fondness for machinery, Gilbert loved animals too much to inflict pain upon them if it could be avoided.
"Gil!" Ann had sprung to his side. "You're hurt! There's blood on your arm. Let me see."
"It's only a scratch. I couldn't lift it if the wound was serious. Look to the post-boy. What's the matter with you, my lad?"
"My leg be broken, I reckon," moaned the youth, and showed a knee swollen to football size. "I can't stand on it!"
"Wrenched, when you took your toss. You'll be lame for a month. But "—Gill turned to the unlucky horse which stood mutely enduring pain—"I'll attend to you in a minute," he growled, unharnessed the poor beast, and led it off the road.
His pistol cracked. Returning, he nodded to Ann.
"Out of its misery, poor beast. Now, my lad, lean on me, and hop. You'll have to sit in the chaise while I drive. The question is, where do I drive to? One horse drawing three won't travel very fast, and this was to be a long stage."
"Over yonder away—you'll see the hill from the next rise—that's where my father lives. It be a cottage, sir, but I reckon un could take 'ee in. And not five mile off, sir. 'Tis near ten t'other way—and my leg be mortal sore."
"Let's go there, Gil. But let me see your hurt first," said Ann.
"It's nothing, I tell you, my dear. I've got other things to do. I must leave word which way we've gone, for Jim. Now, my lad!"
Moaning and grunting, the post-boy was helped into the chaise. Then Gilbert made his patterans, explaining their meaning to Ann. And finally, astride the remaining horse, he drove the chaise slowly along the road the post-boy had indicated.
Darkness had fallen when they came to the cottage, but the post-boy's parents and elder brother quickly had him to bed, and the travellers made comfortable.
"'Tis a mercy you're alive, sir," said the cottager as he dressed the graze the highwayman's bullet had made. "That Red Dick is wanted for two murders at least, and a-many robberies done on the heath. But maybe you've settled the villain."
"I hope so!" said Gilbert. "He looked to be hard hit."
"And serve him right. There's my poor Phil that won't be able to ride for weeks and most like will lose his good place—"
"Don't worry about that. I'll find him a guinea or two. He stood fire well," said Gilbert, and went to a hard bed with worries enough of his own.
If Jim should arrive on the morrow all might still be well. If he didn't, that might mean that he had been intercepted by Sir Anthony, or possibly the soldiers set upon the trail of the runaways had overtaken him.
If Ariel had been captured, Gil felt certain that Sir Anthony would destroy the steam carriage. Then, instead of the swift journey to the border that the pair had so confidently relied upon making, they would have to travel by slow post-chaises or slower coaches, never knowing whether Sir Anthony would overtake them. Too probably he would.
No wonder that Gilbert slept badly and woke easily. The people of the house were already astir.
"I'll be sending my eldest over to t' village to get another horse, sir. He'll take you on, I reckon," said Phil's father.
But Gilbert said there was no hurry. His brother might arrive soon and would take them away. They'd stay another day. A piece of gold convinced the cottager that he was right. Slowly the day passed. It was afternoon when Gilbert suggested to Ann that they should walk a little way up the hill behind the cottage. From that height they would be able to see across the moor. If they spied Jim coming they would have ample time to descend and meet him.
A plank bridged the little stream that ran around the hill foot, so they were soon climbing the steep slope. They did not stop till they had reached an open space, the end of a tunnel or ride cut through the close-growing trees and brushwood, which opened upon a hill-top glade. In the middle of the open space stood a stone column surrounded by low palings.
Ann Fetherston stared at it as though she had seen a ghost, glanced over her shoulder at the moor spread out below, then ran to the column and halted by the paling with eyes closed. Gil stared at her bewildered.
"I'm not looking, Gil! Now tell me if these words, or something like them, are cut in the stone base: 'To the memory of Mahommed, a purebred Arab horse, winner of many races. Brought to England by Humphrey Fetherston, A.D. 1733, died 1754.' And above the inscription is the feather—father's crest," Ann said breathlessly.
"Why—yes, Ann! But—you must have been here before!" exclaimed Gil.
"Yes, and didn't know it. I was here ten years ago, when I was very little, but we came from the other side, from the London road, That's why I didn't know. That's Foxley Heath behind us, and down on the other side of this hill is Foxley Manor house. A bailiff looks after it for father and a lot of horses are bred here. And Gil, if he is hunting us he'll be certain to come this way to get fresh horses. Hurry back, Gil. We must go at once. Every moment we stay increases the danger."
She began to run. Gilbert caught her up as they came out upon the hillside.
"Look before we run," he said coolly, halting the girl. "I have a telescope. Wait! Now! Can you see it too? Yonder, coming from the cross-roads—Jim, with Ariel. You see him?"
"Yes. Oh, Gil, I'll be glad to be on Ariel again, though it shakes me frightfully on rough roads. We'll speed on and on, and—"
"And needs must," said Gil grimly, handing her the glass again. "Look away beyond to where you see the road start across the heath, by that group of pines. Three riders, six horses. D'you know any of them?"
"Pluto!" she gasped. "Father's favourite. I know him by the white blaze and socks—even if I didn't recognize Father. Hurry, Gil! If we meet Jim we may get away yet—by that road over there. Quick! Better tell the Cobleys the truth. They'll hear it anyhow soon."
They raced down the hillside, burst into the cottage; then they were out again, leaving Phil the post-boy richer than he had ever been in his life, and his parents bewildered by the broken story of the elopement.
Through the still air of the early evening came the steady "chuff chuff chuff" of Ariel's exhaust. Perhaps Jim was aware of the danger, for he was running as fast as possible over the rough moorland road. And then he came in sight, Ariel heaving into view above a tumbled mass of furze, rather like some queer vessel of the Orient in a sea of vegetation as it might have been in an Arabian Nights' tale.
Jim hailed the pair with a yell of delight.
"To the wheel, Gil!" he cried. "I've had a mortal hard time feeding the furnace and steering too. It's been dash and stop all the while, and never a moment to spare, for Sir Anthony isn't far behind. Up with you, Ann! Now, which way, Gil? There's a soft bit back there where I nearly stuck and I doubt if we'd get over with three up."
"There's a track we saw from above. Stoke up!" Gil growled, and started.
Ariel lurched forward, bumped over a rut and rolled on.
"A life on the sea is the life for me!" carolled Jim. "Lucky we're all good sailors. Like a dinghy in a cross-tide rip, ain't it?"
"Quiet!" commanded Gil, and with a twist of the wheel turned Ariel into a narrower road running away to the northwards.
"Sir Anthony's over yonder, and if he hears us he'll try to head us off. Phew! What's that smoke?"
A whirl of blue smoke blew from the short funnel and floated aloft. Jim looked in the furnace, then at the fuel bin.
"Bits of sea-coal, mixed in with the charcoal I bought when I started," snapped Jim. "I didn't look at it—but, Gil, we've got to use it, and we're leaving a trail of smoke. They'll see it and follow. If they do, we can't go fast enough to leave them. It's too rough."
Steadying herself by holding Gil's shoulder, for now Ariel was rolling and pitching like a ship in a gale, Ann looked out over the moor on their flank, and ducked suddenly.
"Father—on a hillock—about a mile away," she said jerkily. "I think he was looking this way."
"Hold on! It's neck or nothing," Gil growled. "We're going faster. Keep up the fire, Jim."
The pace quickened. Arield began to bound over bumps. The three were shaken unmercifully as the iron wheels pounded loose stones to powder and cut furrows in soft patches. Ahead, the ground rose. Ariel ran up the slope and on to a smoother and more level bit of road. Now the three could see clearly over a mile or two of the nearest part of the moor—and, all too clearly, Sir Anthony Fetherston and one of his men, riding hard to cut them off from the turnpike road ahead.
Sir Anthony was not half a mile away. He was riding recklessly and it was certain that, if he didn't come a cropper, he would be up with the fugitives before they could reach the road where Ariel might be pressed to highest speed.
"Keep an eye on him, Ann," directed Gil, and gave all his attention to the road before him.
"We're holding our own, but no more. He's closing in; he'll be alongside when we come to the road," reported Ann. "Pluto is tired, but he can do it. Father has a pistol. Oh, Gil, what if he shoots at you?"
"Don't be afraid that I'll shoot back," replied Gil. "But—look again!"
He had ventured a glance at the baronet, and in that moment when it seemed that tragedy was near, laughed. "Look! He won't go very much farther. D'you see the pretty green moss ahead of him?"
"Bog!" exclaimed Ann. "But he can't see it. Yes—oh, he's into it!"
Sir Anthony, galloping full pelt, bursting a way through or over a tangle of bushes and furze, had not seen the stretch of bright emerald green that marked the straggling bit of bogland till he plunged right into it, up to the horse's girth.
In a flash he had cleared his feet of the stirrups, shouted a warning to his servant who had been close behind him, then, gathering himself for the effort, sprang from the saddle to a tuft of grass that stood firm amidst the slime. He reached it and began the job of getting his horse clear. His chance of catching Gil and his daughter was gone, but he was obstinate.
"After 'em!" he roared to his servant. "Stop 'em! Make a hole in that tea-kettle—make a hole in that confounded young ape. Go!"
The man galloped on, but he had to make a long detour around the edge of the bog, longer than it need have been, for he had no desire to catch his young mistress. So, long before he reached the main road, Ariel had rolled out upon it and sped northwards faster than before. After a pretence at pursuit that left him far in the rear, the man turned back.
Ariel rolled on. The way to the border was open. If they could but maintain a fair speed, nothing could overtake the runaways.
"If we only have luck we'll be there in less than a week. You'll be Mrs. Gilbert Vivian, Ann, and your father will have to accept what's done."
"Or lump it!" put in Jim, and shot a chunk of sea coal into the furnace. "Bless you, my children!"
WHEN Sir Anthony Fetherston parted company with Renton, the Preventive officer, he galloped home for fresh horses, with never a thought that what he and Renton had been saying in loud tones might have been overheard.
But he had. Faro, who with Dick Trevallion, had tried to lay a false trail away from Gilbert and Ann's real line of flight, had ridden close up on turf that drowned the noise of his horse's hoofs, and dismounting, had crept near enough to hear most of what was said and to guess fairly accurately at the rest.
"That Renton fella went and put him up to sending word by the telegraft, so that the guv'nor'll be stopped," Faro told Trevallion when he rejoined him. "And I don't see that we can do anything about it. If there was any way we could give him warning we'd do it, but I'm afraid I've got to trust to his luck—'the luck o' the Vivians,' as they say in this country."
"I suppose so," agreed Trevallion. "But I read a book about warfare once, all about strategy and tactics. It was mostly commonsense. For instance, it said that your best plan was to find out your enemy's weak point, then hit him there as hard as you could. Now, was Sir Anthony Fetherston on good terms with Gilbert till this Baron von Koeffner came on the scene?"
"Sometimes I've heard him chaff Mr. Gilbert about being fond of machines, but—yes, they were quite good friends before that there fella come. What you driving at?"
"Seems to me that this German is the enemy. We want to find his weak point, and hit him on it. What is he doing here anyway? And is he doing what he was sent to do or only marking time? We might start by finding that out."
"There now!" chuckled Faro. "Here I've been keeping the very fella that can help in pickle as it were—and I've forgotten about him. Have you got any money you can spare till Mr. Gil comes home? Not much; a guinea or two will do."
"But what will you do?" asked Trevallion. "A guinea or two won't bribe Von Koeffner, though I daresay a hundred or two might."
"Not him, but his man. But I ain't telling you that bit, for the less you knows the fewer lies you'll have to tell. Give me the money now and take my boss home. I'll be back when you see me."
Pocketing the money, Faro threw Trevallion his horse's reins, and diving into the covert beside the road, was out of sight in an instant, nor did the Cornishman hear him as he slid through the underbrush. Like most of his people, Faro was a first-class woodsman.
Fritz Hofer, Baron von Koeffner's servant, had passed an unpleasant day. The meal he had received in the morning had left him hungry by midday. Midday had passed, night had fallen, and still his captor did not return. Fritz began to get dithery. Did the young fiend who had caught him mean to return, or did he intend to starve his prisoner to death?
It grew dark and still no welcome step broke the stillness. Fritz was in a regular panic when at long last the door opened, and he heard the boy who had been dressed as a girl whispering softly to him.
"Here you are, Fritz. I been kept. You eat. I'll tell you something," he said.
Fritz was too hungry to be cautious. The moment he was loosed he fell to work on the food Faro had brought, replying shortly, between mouthfuls, to Faro's questions.
He had been with the Herr Baron but two months before he came to England. He had been engaged chiefly because he could speak English. Before he had been a schoolmaster, then a courier. The Herr Baron had tempted him with the promise of high wages, but he was not a good master. He was unkind. When he had been drinking he often flung his boots at Fritz's head after the valet had pulled them off. Yes, the Herr Baron knew a lot about horses. He could doctor them. He had cured one of Sir Anthony's horses which was sick. He had gone to see the horses of nearly all the people for many miles along the coast.
"But why has he come over from Hanover? Is it only to look at horses?" Faro asked. "We've got a plenty good hoss doctors here. I reckon my old Dad knew more about hosses than any baron that ever come out of Germany. What else is he going to do?"
Fritz said he didn't know exactly. The Herr Baron had a map of that bit of coast and the country behind it. He had said that he was going to arrange for a chain of horsemen to be ready to ride at any time; if the French should try to land soldiers, the men nearest the landing-place would ride to the next post in either direction and give an alarm. They would bring cavalry and horse artillery and drive the invaders back to their ships.
"That's a good enough notion," said Faro. "But I jus' don't see why this fella had to come here to do it. One of our own folks could have done it as well or a heap better. We got some coastguards a'ready—though we don't see much of 'em. Anything else? Your baron hates Mr. Vivian, don't he?"
"He hate him bad! He kill him if he can! He swear that!"
"Jus' what I was thinkin'!" muttered Faro, and showed three golden guineas in his open hand. Fritz's eyes gleamed covetously in the moonlight as he stared at the coins. "These here are for you. I'm going to let you go; you're going back to your master. Tell him a yarn about bein' copped by smugglers, see? Anything'll do. And you're to come here and lemme know if he means to do anything ag'in Mr. Vivian, see? You'll get more money, see?"
"You let me go? Goot!" Fritz took the money eagerly. "I tell you, yess. I tell you everythings about the Herr Baron, yess!"
"You'd better! 'Cos if any harm was to come to Mr. Vivian you'd be the next. You'd get a hole in you not even a horse doctor could cure. I'll come past here every night, and when you've got anything to tell, you come and tell it. Now, get off with you!"
Fritz got to his feet. He stretched arms and legs, and then before Faro could dodge, flung his arms around the gipsy boy, drew him close in a regular bear's hug, and kissed him on both cheeks.
"You are mos' kind! I will nod forget!" he said hoarsely, and loosing Faro, went off at a shambling run.
"Golly!" exclaimed Faro. For once he was too astonished to move for a minute. Then he rubbed his cheeks with his sleeves, and diving into the shadow of the brushwood bordering the beach, followed Fritz.
"Furriners are rummy!" he thought to himself. "Here I've been and knocked him on the head and kept him tied up—and then because I give him three guineas he goes and kisses me, same as if I'd been his long-lost brother! Uncommon rummy! Wonder if he's goin' to keep his word, or whether he'll go and tell master all about it?"
He closed up behind Fritz, and when the man climbed the boundary stile and trotted through the woods towards Kettley House, he kept pace with him, moving shadowlike only a few yards in his rear.
Fritz was mumbling something over and over again, and though Faro didn't know a word of German he guessed that he was rehearsing the tale he should tell his master.
Presently they were out of the wood. Fritz burst through the line of laurels bordering the drive close to the house, and pulled up with a gurgle of astonishment and fear as a man swung round abruptly and bawled in a harsh voice, "Wer da? Who goes there?"
It was the high- and well-born Baron von Koeffner himself!
"Fritz Hofer, Herr Baron!" replied Fritz, and stumbled forward, gabbling out his tale, while Faro glided closer under cover of the shrubs.
"Is he telling what I told him to say—or the truth?" Faro wondered uneasily. "Will the big slab o' wood believe him?"
The baron stood stiffly, his right arm and shoulder swathed in bandages, a cane in his left hand twitching ominously, but he spoke no word till Fritz had gabbled his yarn to an end. Then he barked a couple of words, and Faro blinked as Fritz Hofer sank on his knees before his master.
Next moment Von Koeffner had swung the cane and brought it down heavily across Fritz's face. Thrice he struck, then growling something turned and strode stiffly towards the house.
Fritz remained kneeling for a few moments, tears streaming down his fast swelling cheeks, while he sobbed quietly. Not till his master was close to the house did he venture to get up, shake a futile fist, and follow him.
"There now!" muttered Faro in great amazement. "Ain't that wonderful, now? Why didn't he try to kill the big slab? Me, I'd ha' had a try at it. But I reckon Fritz is sort of made different, and anyhow he'll want to do his kind master all the harm he can after this, which is what we wants."
Back in Coombe Wester he found Trevallion telling Capper and his wife the tale of the night's doings. Mrs. Capper was delighted, for she loved romance, and here was a story she would be able to tell for the rest of her days without fear of boring her hearers. But Capper looked grave.
"It's a pity Mr. Gilbert had to do it this way," he said. "Sir Anthony's a hard man, and if he's set his mind against Mr. Gilbert he won't change in a hurry. Not that I'd have had Miss Ann wed to that German, but it's a pity Mr. Gilbert gave him a sort of excuse, making that steam carriage. There wasn't any trouble before he started that."
"You're blaming me, eh?" Trevallion laughed. "Never mind, you'll know better some day, when Squire Vivian starts sending steam coaches over every road in England—or maybe building special roads too! You just remember my words when the time comes."
Capper shook his head dolefully. He said he didn't believe in newfangled notions. He had once made the journey to London with the old squire, Mr. Gilbert's father. They had travelled on horseback and hadn't hurried, but they reached London in three days. That was the way a gentleman ought to travel, not go tearing along so fast that he could hardly breathe.
"And if we'd been meant to go about on wheels, we'd be born with wheels instead of feet," he declared.
"Then why aren't we all born with leather soles and heels on our feet, seeing we have to wear shoes?" retorted Trevallion. "Or why aren't we born with nightcaps on our heads, since most folks use them? Talking of which, I'm going to bed. Come along, young Faro."
"I wasn't going to tell you, but mebbe you'd best know," said Faro, as they left the big house together. And he told Trevallion all about Fritz Hofer and his master.
"We-ell, I don't think the Squire would like it, but it's a mighty good thing to have a spy in the enemy's camp," Trevallion murmured. "So we'll keep our mouths shut and our eyes open, and try to find out what the baron's going to do."
"Me, I'll be a sap!" Faro said. "That's what we Romany folks call a snake. Snakes can see a lot when they crawl round in the grass, and they ain't easy to see. Good-night." He climbed to the loft above the stables where he slept, and was soon asleep. But he was up and doing soon after dawn. Mrs. Capper answered his demand for food with cold meat, bread, and cheese, and with these Faro disappeared into the woods. He wanted to know more about Baron von Koeffner. If the baron really had some sort of official work to do, surely he would begin to do it now that Ann Fetherston was lost to him, and Sir Anthony gone, perhaps for several days. With no one to talk to, he might get on with his job.
Perched in the fork of a tree from which he could see both the drive and the rear of Kettley House, Faro spent a couple of hours on watch. Nothing happened. Faro was beginning to grow tired when suddenly Von Koeffner appeared, followed by Fritz Hofer. Fritz carried a bait can, a basket, and cushions; and the pair took a narrow road running through the woods to the shore.
Von Koeffner strode ahead with his nose in the air, leaving Fritz to follow as best he could. Faro knew where they were going. In a cleft of the cliff, a mile or so from the boathouse in which Fritz had been a prisoner, Sir Anthony kept a boat used by some of the servants for fishing when the pilchard or mackerel shoals appeared off the coast. Knowing every inch of the country, Faro made a circuit at full speed and was hidden close to the boatshed when the baron and his helot appeared.
Von Koeffner barked his orders like the slave-driver he was, and Fritz obeyed, looking like a scared rabbit. But plainly he knew very little about boats, and it took him some time to launch the heavy craft down the slipway into the tiny cove that served as harbour. Von Koeffner settled down in the stern, arranged the cushions comfortably, and ordered Fritz to row out to sea.
Fritz obeyed. He could row a little. Probably he had practised before on a river or lake, in a light boat with light oars; but he wasn't used to rowing in a seaway with heavy oars, in a boat that weighed half a ton or so unloaded.
The pair made but slow progress, for the baron steered along the shore and round the little promontory beyond which lay Coombe Wester cove. Faro lost no time in racing across the narrow neck of land and dropping down into the brushwood fringing the cove.
"If he's going to fish in here I'd eat all he catches raw," thought Faro as the boat came round the point and drew in towards the tiny harbour. "My eye! Whatever is he doing that for?"
At an order from Von Koeffner, Fritz had shipped his oars. He took something from the bait can and cast it overboard, then hauled it in again. Faro saw that it was a heavy lead sinker, and saw too that the line attached to it was knotted at yard intervals. The baron made a note in a book.
Fritz rowed on a little way, made another cast, and the baron made another note. Slowly the boat moved along the shore. Faro kept abreast of it, always under cover, for every now and then the baron scanned the shore with a spyglass.
"He don't want to be seen doing this here," thought Faro. "And for why? Looks to me he's finding out just how deep the water is in the bay and up near to the beach. Why? Any one could tell him there's anus plenty water here, which is why them Free Traders uses it, besides having the road running handy to the shore."
And then a probable reason for Von Koeffner's odd doings occurred to Faro, and he chuckled. The German baron had pulled wool over Government's eyes properly. He'd got himself a passage over in a King's ship, and introductions to Sir Anthony Fetherston and other gentlemen, in order to arrange some big smuggling scheme!
All that Faro had heard about his doings fitted in with the notion. He'd been visiting houses and farms, looking at the horses kept on them, maybe arranging to hire them when he wanted them. Or perhaps he even meant to take them without any by-your-leave. Jack Nobody took what horses he needed from farmers' stables or fields, never asking permission, but paying for their use with a present of smuggled goods. He did it that way so that the owners of the horses couldn't be accused of aiding and abetting him.
Would Von Koeffner do as much? Faro doubted it. He had learned from the gossip of the servants at Kettley House that the baron was tightfisted, though he had plenty of money.
"Ten to one he'd take the horses and then try to diddle 'em—except he meant to run cargoes reg'lar. And if he's goin' to do that, then he'll be running crossways to Jack Nobody and spoilin' his trade, and Jack ain't the fella to stand that. Hooray!" exclaimed Faro. "I've got it! I'll jus' pass the word to Jack, and he'll fix him. I'll see about it this very night."
He watched Von Koeffner a little longer, saw him finish his survey of the bay and turn back towards the cove from which he had started, then returned to tell Trevallion of what he had seen.
"Perhaps you're right," said the Cornishman. "And 'set a thief to catch a thief' is a good saying. Where d'you go to meet this Jack Nobody? He don't tell a bellman, I guess."
"Us'll go for a ride to-night, and mebbe we'll strike lucky," replied Faro with a grin. "But mebbe it'll be best for you not to ask questions, then you won't be told no lies."
Trevallion took the hint, and held his tongue as the pair set out at dusk to ride westwards along the coast road for some miles, to halt at the mouth of a coombe or narrow valley in which grew a thin wood. Drifting smoke and the smell of something good to eat floated from it; firelight danced on the lower branches of the trees.
"Some o' my people," said Faro. "They mostly comes this way at this time o' year. There's two wagons."
The caravans stood in the mouth of the coombe, hobbled horses grazed along its slopes, and a group of men and women lounged by the fire, over which hung a big pot. As the riders approached, a boy squatting on a caravan roof whistled shrilly, and in a flash the men were on their feet.
Faro shouted something in Romany and dismounted. Trevallion hesitated. He had money in his pockets, and gipsies were often expert pickpockets. But Faro guessed the reason for his reluctance.
"It's orright, Mr. Trevallion!" he called. "You're made free o' the camp. Come on!"
"So long as the camp don't make free with me or my property, it's quite all right," grunted Trevallion, and tethering his mount, joined the group by the fire.
"They don't know where Jack Nobody is, but there's some one below as does. You follow me, and go careful," said Faro after a bit of talk.
Trevallion followed the boy through a narrow cleft at the seaward end of the coombe to the edge of a rock platform a hundred feet or more above the sea. Faro got down on his knees and felt about on the face of the rock, then swung over the verge.
"Gimme your hand. Here's a rope. You hang on to it and you'll be all right. There's steps cut all the way. It ain't far down. C'mon!"
Trevallion found the rope and followed Faro in anything but a happy frame of mind, for he was nervous about heights. But he hadn't very far to go. Some thirty feet down he felt hands on his ankles tugging his feet aside. He stepped on to a ledge beside Faro.
"Here you is, in one piece. Jus' a li'l way along. Watch out you don't slip."
Heart in mouth, Trevallion followed round a jutting shoulder of rock and into a cave, the mouth of which was hidden from above by overhanging rock and from below by weeds and grass growing on the ledge. A fire glowed red at the back; a queer, misshapen hobgoblin man plucked a flaring brand from it and hobbled forward; Trevallion saw the gleam of steel as he raised a pistol, covering the pair.
"What d'you want?" he asked in a croaking voice.
"Jack Nobody. Or, if he ain't here, word o' where we can talk wi' him," replied Faro, and added the password Jack had given to Gilbert Vivian. "Jack beats an ace."
The menacing pistol was lowered, the cripple stood aside.
"Why didn't 'ee say so at first?" he growled. "Come 'ee in. Now, what was it you was wanting to say to 'un?"
"None o' your business!" Faro snapped. "Question asked—is he here?"
"Sit down by t' fire." He pointed to a log set near a glowing fire bucket. Then, as they obeyed, flung a handful of dry twigs on the hot coals.
Up leaped a bright flame, lighting their faces, and showing a pile of bales and corded boxes heaped in a recess. Several muskets and a wide-mouthed blunderbuss were laid on pegs driven into the rock face, powder flasks and bullet pouches hung beside them.
"Well, you oughter know us nex' time," remarked Faro as the flare died down. "What next?"
"You'll do!" said a jolly voice Trevallion recognized. The pile of bales moved, two of them fell, and out stepped the smuggler chief, Jack Nobody himself. "Got to be careful! That Renton now, he be mortal keen to catch me. He'll be catching more than he bargains for one o' these dark nights." He sat down on the log. "So your young squire and his lady got away from old Fire-and-Thunder Fetherston. I had word o' that this a'ternoon. Now what special business brought you askin' for me?"
Faro explained. He hadn't got far before Jack Nobody was rumbling softly, like a volcano in the distance or an angry mastiff.
"Come into my country, would he, the dirty furriner?" he growled. "Jus' let him try it! I'll give 'im proper what-for! When d'you think he'll be startin' in with his game?"
Faro couldn't say, but he told about his compact with Fritz Hofer. Fritz would tell him what his master was going to do, and Faro would pass it on to Jack.
"Orright. You leave the message here," began Jack, and paused, his hand dropping to the butt of one of the pistols in his belt, as something thudded on the ledge outside the cave mouth.
A gipsy boy, panting with haste, ran in and halted in the ring of firelight.
"Preventives!" he gasped. "That there Renton!" and went on in a swift gabble of Romany which Faro translated. "Five-and-twenty horse soldiers with him. They have left some on guard in the coombe, and t'others are spreading out along the cliff top. Dad took the saddles off your horses, Faro, and hid 'em in the living wagons. Dad says you best go home along by water 'cos the sojers will cop you if you tries to ride. Dad will send the horses along to-morrow and the saddles too."
"They're after you, Jack! Hadn't you best be moving off?" said Faro to Jack. "They ain't got nothing against us."
"Your steam wagon helped me get off wi' a fine load o' stuff. They knows it, and that there Renton means to get even with you along of it. Ain't that plenty against you?" growled Jack. "No, you got to do as the boy says, and go along wi' me. Shut the door, Denko."
Denko, the deformed man, was already moving. By the mouth of the cave he stopped, clutched at a projecting piece of rock, and pulled. With a grating sound a big rock that had appeared quite solid and immovable swung round on a hidden pivot and came to rest, completely filling the entrance of the cave.
"Clever, ain't it!" said Jack. "And cost me a pretty penny to have it fixed up; but it's worth it. Them fellas, supposin' they find the rope, which ain't likely, would just go on down to a cave wi' lobster pots in it and nothing else. Now, I'll take 'ee along and get 'ee home, but you'll ha' to wait till half ebb."
Trevallion looked around, at the rock roof and the rock floor and walls. They looked solid; the entrance was closed. How, then, would Jack take them to the sea?
Jack did not keep them long in doubt. Lighting a torch from the fire, he led his two guests into the recess from which he had appeared. A tug on an unseen handle and a slab of the rock swung inwards. Jack held the light aloft, showing a flight of roughly hewn steps descending a shaft cut out of the rock with immense labour.
"There was a sort of split here, but it was hard work," said Jack as he led the way. "My back door, d'you see? Ain't no use at the top o' the tide, bein' closed then. Here we are!"
The flight of steps ended in a sea cave. A narrow ledge of rock made a natural quay alongside a channel wide enough to let a large boat lie moored to a rock bollard. Several men lay in her, wrapped in cloaks and dozing. One was on the alert.
"Ain't time yet, Jack. We got to wait a quarter hour at the least," he said, and pointed to the farther end of the cave where a pale glow of light showed under the low arch of the cave's mouth. "Thought you wasn't going out yet a while?"
"Wants to take these here. The riders is up above, and they've got to go clear," replied Jack with a nod at Faro and Trevallion. "Don't know why riders should come this way. Some one must ha' talked too much. They ain't likely to find the way in here, and if they does the stair's shut now. Safe enough. Get aboard, mister!" He urged Trevallion and Faro to step into the stern, and followed himself. "We got to wait because of the bit o' swell outside," he explained, and silence fell.
Slowly the space of grey light grew broader. Jack Nobody sat up and snapped an order, four men got out their oars, a fifth took the tiller. They loosed the mooring line and shoved the boat towards the mouth of the cave.
"Now, ready! Do 'ee mind your heads," said Jack, watching the heave and swing of the water. "Now!" he boomed, and the oars dipped, the boat shot out clear of the low archway.
Rocks faced them, blocking view of the sea from the cave, and sight of the cave from the sea. To and fro twisted the boat amidst sunken rocks and sharp-toothed reefs just awash, rounded a long line of craggy serpentine, and so came out in the open sea.
Moonlight sparkled on the bay beyond the cliff shadow in which the boat lay, and touched the sails, the gilded truck, and gleaming bow wave of a large revenue cutter.
Jack growled like an angry dog about to attack, glanced back, then across the bay. The moonlight played upon the spray of a wave that broke upon the boat's bows..
"No use going back. I reckon we've been seen," Jack grunted. "Yes, there goes a light up aloft. And here comes that blamed cutter. They saw us."
A lantern swung to and fro on the cliff top, and at the signal the cutter came round on the other tack. With the wind right aft she came surging across the bay on a course that would inevitably bring the boat under her bows if Jack tried to reach Coombe Wester Cove or any landing-place by it; and at that time of the tide there was no landing anywhere else, except by sacrificing the boat.
Jack stared across the heaving swells at the cutter and headland behind her, then nodded to himself. He had made up his mind.
"Light the lantern and give the cutter a wave or two as'll make 'em think we're their pals. Up wi' the mast and the lug. We're goin' to meet 'em," he said.
"Be you mad?" asked the man who was steering, though the others jumped to obey the order. "She'll open fire the moment she sees we're trying to dodge her, which I take it you has in mind."
"She hasn't opened her ports to run her guns out yet. That'll take a minute, and mebbe luck'll help. Gimme!"
He took the tiller as the sail was hoisted and sheeted flat as it would go. The lantern waved. The signal was answered from the cutter, but she did not take in any canvas. Her big square sail bellying, she drove on before the wind, while the boat, tacking to and fro, drew steadily nearer.
Quickly they came within hailing distance. A big voice thundered through a speaking-trumpet:
"Come round under my stern as I lie to!" it said, and Jack waved the lantern to show he understood.
But he didn't obey. Even as the cutter's head began to swing round and her sails to flutter, Jack put his helm over, shot under the cutter's stern and was away on the other tack, boring up into the wind, making straight for the end of the promontory on which the sea was breaking heavily. Four men at the oars helped the sail.
The cutter could not follow quickly. She had first to take in the huge square sail, so valuable when running before the wind, but useless when going to windward. Then haul all her canvas flat as possible and tack after the nimble boat.
But her crew were well trained and in a couple of minutes the cutter was following; though she could not lie so close to the wind as the boat she was naturally the faster. Quickly she was within gun range.
"Now she'll be showin' her pretty teeth," said Jack, glancing back as the boat breasted a swell. "But there's an awful lot o' sea round about us and that's easier to hit. Now it's comin'."
The cutter had fallen off the wind, a bow gun jetted smoke and a roundshot struck the water a cable's length ahead of the boat, and skipped away into the surf around the rocks ahead.
"Not so bad!" said Jack coolly. "Pull, you cripples!" he shouted to the men at the oars. "Another half mile and we goes clear."
"Clear to the bottom!" growled one, but never slackened.
Again the cutter yawed, and this time four guns (her whole broadside) spat flame and smoke. Three of the shot went wide, but the fourth crashed through the bow of the boat, tearing away part of the gunwale and top-shake so that water came surging in as the next sea broke upon her.
Jack did not turn a hair. He pointed to a dipper lying on the floor boards and nudged Faro.
"Lend a hand, young 'un," he said, and Faro began to bale. Forward, one of the men worked desperately, trying to wedge a bit of canvas into the gap that grew wider with every heave.
"Touch and go!" thought Trevallion as he gauged the distance they had still to go before rounding the point. "If we get round we'll get away, for the cutter daren't come so close in, and we'll have a long start of—"
Crash! Smash! The cutter had fired another broadside, and this time with better aim and worse results for the fugitives. Two missiles had taken effect amidships, nearly cutting the boat in halves. In a moment the mast was down, the sail flew overboard, and the boat began to settle.
Trevallion kicked off his heavy riding-boots, grabbed an oar when one of the rowers dropped it, and grasping it with one hand, hauled Faro to him with the other as the boat sank under them.
"Hard luck!" sputtered Jack Nobody, swimming beside them. "Ain't far to go. Can 'ee manage, or do 'ee want a tow?"
"We'll manage," Trevallion said. "Kick out, Faro!"
The ebb-tide helped a little. Soon the swimmers were in the lee of the headland rocks, and climbed ashore over slippery seaweeds.
The cutter, having sunk the boat, had put about. Jack shook his fist at her as she sped down the bay before the wind once more.
"We got to hurry. They saw us land. They'll go tell the shore party, and they'll be waiting to head us off if we ain't quick. C'mon!"
They climbed the headland cliff and began to run. At once Trevallion missed his boots. His stockings were speedily in rags; he began to limp.
But he kept gamely on, for he saw how disastrous it would be if he were caught by the cavalry. His wet clothes alone would give evidence against him. Renton would jump at the opportunity of revenge, and he would be lucky if he got off with a fine.
Jack Nobody, who had been ahead, came back when he saw his plight.
"You ain't going to go much farther with them sore feet!" he exclaimed. "Up on my back! There's a farm along here a piece where you can mebbe get shoes. Hold on!"
He began to run. The rest of his crew were already far ahead. They were out of sight when at last Jack slowed by the stackyard gate of a farm beside the road that ran by Coombe Wester, and set Trevallion down.
"Get shoes—or mebbe better lie up till daylight. Get 'em to dry your clothes. I ha' to get on. Good luck to all of us. I'll send a man to get news, young un!" said Jack, and ran off at a wonderful pace.
Trevallion turned towards the farmhouse. No light showed anywhere. Everyone was asleep. Faro frowned. He knew the place.
"If we go waking Drewitt up he'll just as like as not turn nasty," whispered Faro. "He's one o' Sir Anthony's tenants. Me and him had words along of some Romany p'isoning of his pig, and then chargin' him a shilling for curing it. He tried to hit me wi' a stick, and I hit him wi' a stone, and we ain't loving each other. You just lie up in the barn, I'll go on home and bring your shoes and a hoss, and—Quick! Here's the riders coming!" he finished abruptly, and dragged Trevallion towards a half-cut straw stack.
"Lie down; I'll cover you!" he whispered, and drew loose straw over the Cornishman and himself. "Saw the glint o' their brassy hats," he explained. "They was coming riding on the grass to be quiet. Listen! There they are."
There was a sound of galloping horses, the clink of accoutrements, as the horsemen swept past. Presently they came back again, and a couple halted by the stackyard gate.
"Look into that barn, men!" rasped a harsh voice.
"Renton!" whispered Faro. "Keep awful still."
The two men dismounted. They passed close to where Trevallion and Faro lay, thrust open the barn door and went inside. A minute later they returned growling.
"Let the Preventive chaps do their own dirty work, that's what I says," one was saying. "I 'listed to fight, not run after Free Traders that ain't doin' anyone no harm."
"Mebbe you're right—but don't let him hear you say it," replied the other.
With jingle of chains and clatter of hoofs the troop rode off, and Faro sat up.
"Now you can go into the barn. I'll be back in a coupla hours or so if I don't get stopped. Lie close!"
Trevallion crept under the hay in the barn, tucked himself up snugly, and as he began to get warm, fell asleep.
Perhaps an hour had passed when he was awakened by the faint click of the opening door. Trevallion began to sit up, remembered where he was, and lay still, but not before he had made noise enough to halt the intruder.
"Be still—or I fire," whispered the man who had entered.
It was no countryman's voice, not even an English voice, but harsh and guttural, even in a whisper. Trevallion had only seen the German at a distance, and had never heard him speak, but he recognized Von Koeffner, because there was no one else with that peculiar accent in the whole countryside.
What was he doing there, miles away from Kettley House in the small hours of the morning?
Trevallion stirred again, rustling the hay of set purpose this time, then meowed like a cat that is scared, but is willing to be friendly. "Meow! meow!"
"Ach! Poo-oor poosey!" purred the German in wheedling tones. "Corn' here then, yess!"
But naturally Trevallion lay perfectly still, and satisfied that a cat had made the sound, Von Koeffner opened the sliding-shutter of a dark lantern. If he had switched the beam of light towards the spot from which the sound had come he might have seen something to make him suspicious, for now Trevallion felt that he was steaming hot. However, he appeared to be in a hurry. The rays fell upon the big feed-box from which the farm horses were supplied with corn. He lifted the lid.
"Going to help himself to a feed for his beast," thought Trevallion. "Regular German style, that, of living on the land as you go."
But he was mistaken. The unseen watcher could not see clearly what happened, but at least Von Koeffner didn't take any corn from the bin. Rather he seemed to be putting something in, something which he mixed with the corn, using a bit of stick to stir it. Then he lowered the lid of the bin, closed the lantern shutter, and went silently out.
Trevallion sprang up, tiptoed to the door, and peered out. He was in time to see the baron mount a horse at the gate and ride off, keeping carefully on the grass edge of the road.
What had he been doing? Trevallion could not even guess, and he could not examine the corn bin because he had no light, nor any means of making one. He lay down again, snoozed for a while, and awoke to find Faro beside him.
The grey light of dawn showed through the doorway. Faro was dangling shoes and stocking before him.
"Hurry! The farmer'!! be getting out soon. Had to wait a bit along of them soldiers on the road," Faro said.
"That Von Koeffner was here," Trevallion told him as he hurriedly put on footwear. "He put something in the corn bin. Look and see what it was."
But Faro couldn't see anything amiss with the corn. He put a handful in his pocket to examine at leisure, then hurried Trevallion away. And so, with sunrise, the inventor returned to Coombe Wester and bed. Faro spent a little while comparing the grain he had pocketed with the corn in the home stables feed-box, but he could not find anything different from ordinary corn about it. He set it aside in a gallipot for further scrutiny.
"I'm mighty sure he didn't go out there in the middle o' the night jus' to amoose hisself!" concluded Faro. "But I got to show it to some one who knows. Old Elijah Faa, now, could tell me. I'll keep the corn till he comes along this way."
SIR ANTHONY FETHERSTON knew when he was beaten. He had done his best to catch Gilbert Vivian and his daughter Ann, but having failed, through no fault of his own, he gave up the chase. Four days after Ann's midnight elopement he was back in Kettley House. He called all his servants together in the big hall and told them that, his daughter having disobeyed him, he disowned her. None of them was ever to mention her name within his hearing again, or have anything to do with any one belonging to Coombe Wester. He caused all Ann's belongings to be packed up and sent them over to Coombe Wester in three trunks, on the carrier's cart.
"And they do tell me as he's sent word round to everyone, all the gentry, telling 'em he won't have no more to do with Squire Vivian nor her, when they comes back," said the old carrier. "Real hard, ain't he? Be it true that they've been and hooked it off to Gretna? Then good luck to 'em!"
He drank the health of the couple in a mug of Mr. Capper's special ale, and went on to spread the news all along his route to Exeter.
Gilbert Vivian, Ann Fetherston, and Jim rolled steadily northwards. Their only trouble was getting a supply of fuel, for wood charcoal was but little used in the north; but there was plenty of sea-coal, as coal from the mines of Newcastle and the Midlands was called in the south, because it was carried by sea, and this gave plenty of heat though a good deal of smoke as well.
Jim Vivian was usually well grimed at the end of a day's run, but by now he was an experienced stoker and kept Ariel going at a regular pace.
And so, without any more adventures, they reached first Gretna on the English side of the border and then Gretna Green in Scotland. Half an hour later, with most of the villagers for witnesses, Gilbert and Ann were married by the blacksmith, according to the laws of Scotland.
"And now what do you mean to do, Gil?" asked Jim as they returned to the little inn.
"Why not take a trip to Edinburgh? I've heard it's worth seeing. Take a post-chaise and plenty of time. You're not in any hurry now. I could drive Ariel back by myself. I'd take longer, of course, but I could do it."
"What do you say, Ann? I leave it to you," said Gilbert.
"Then let us go home and face trouble as soon as possible," replied Ann. "And let us travel back as we came. Ariel shakes one up, but once having travelled by steam, post-chaises are terribly slow by comparison. We can go back a different way, can't we?"
"Yes. I'm glad you think as I do. We'll face the music together, my dear, if there is to be any. We'll go first to Carlisle, and then down through the Midlands, and run home to Coombe Wester from the other side. So we'll avoid meeting any troublesome folks who might want to question us. Get going, Jim! It's Southward ho!"
And two hours after they had entered Scotland they recrossed the border.
Three nights in succession Faro had gone to the place where he had arranged to meet Fritz Hofer and had seen nothing of him. On the fourth night he had waited for an hour, and was about to return home, convinced that the man had played him false, when he heard stealthy footsteps, and Fritz arrived breathless.
"Com' I could not till now," he panted. "Now der old man, Sir Fetherston, has return, there is watch kept that no one shall corn' this way to talk with der Vivian peoples. This night I go around. Because der Herr Baron rides far I have time to do it."
"Seeing you're here, you may as well get on wi' the tale," suggested Faro. "What has he been doing?"
"Every day he rides out to der high rock and watches sheeps," said Fritz. "Der sheeps that on der sea sail. At night he goes to ride, I know not where. I have heard he tell Sir Fetherston it is to learn how long it take to ride from one place to another place in der night. And all for to gif word if der French should come to der land!"
Faro laughed. Sir Anthony Fetherston was being hoodwinked, he was certain, for he was now quite convinced that Baron von Koeffner meant to smuggle in a cargo of contraband goods and was riding around o' nights to conclude his arrangements for carrying the stuff away inland.
"Perhaps he signals to one of the ships?" he suggested.
Fritz thought that perhaps the baron did signal, but he had never seen him doing it. He had cured a horse that was very sick that belonged to Herr Townley. But Herr Townley was not satisfied, for now all his horses were sick, and he had said that the Herr Baron was a quack and knew nothing about doctoring horses, because he had let the sickness spread.
Faro pricked up his ears. This was not the first he had heard about sickness among horses. Only that afternoon a farmer who rented one of Gilbert Vivian's best farms had ridden over to Coombe Wester. All his horses were ill with a mysterious sickness which rendered them quite useless. And he had spoken about the strange malady having appeared at several other places in the neighbourhood.
"I reckon it's something like the plague that used to spread from house to house and one village to another," he said. "Only it attacks horses, not humans."
Faro remembered this. He resolved to ask whether Von Koeffner had been to visit Radley Grange Farm.
"Do you think Von Koeffner makes the horses sick?" he demanded. "I dunno as he could do it, and I dunno why he should do it, but perhaps he does?"
He expected Fritz to deny this at once, but the German only shook his head doubtfully.
"Mebbe he do nod cure the horses, mebbe he do. I nod know; only that he go always with a bag of der corn he gif to Herr Townley's horse and der Radley farm horses and others also, yens."
"Corn? He takes corn with him?" asked Faro eagerly.
"Yess. Always a little bag. He takes it full, he come back and it is empty."
"Well, you shan't go back empty!" said Faro, and gave him another of Trevallion's guineas. "You come to-morrow night if you've got anything fresh to tell me. You won't lose by it."
Faro hurried back to Coombe Wester. He was puzzled. If Von Koeffner wanted horses to assist in carrying away smuggled goods, he wouldn't start sickness among them, surely. Then what other object could he have in mind? Suddenly Faro halted and began to laugh. He had solved the riddle—or thought he had.
"It's the drows, played a new way!" he chuckled.
"Drows" was the stuff with which gipsies sometimes poisoned a farmer's pig. When the poison had done its work and the farmer was about to bury the animal, the innocent-appearing gipsies would come along and, hearing the sad news, would offer to buy the dead pig for about the value of its bristles. Then, a little later, there would be roast pork for dinner in the caravans, for the drows didn't render the meat uneatable.
Von Koeffner, then, was working a somewhat similar trick, Faro thought. He was making these horses sick so that he might be paid for curing them; or else that he might buy them cheaper, and use them for smuggling!
Full of his notion he went capering home. There was a light in the stable. Old Graden, the groom, who complained that the squire had lost interest in horses since he'd taken up with the iron coach, was talking to Capper. He looked very grave.
"All of 'em bad since this morning, and now Red King's gone, and I'm feared Black Elf won't last the night out," he was saying as Faro arrived.
"What's that?" asked Faro. Of late he had had little to do with the horses even though he slept in the stable loft, for Graden had been angry with him for being so much with Trevallion, whom he hated. "You don't mean to say Red King's—dead?"
"Which is just what I was saying!" snapped Graden. "And a fat lot you care. All you think of is that steam kettle, and—"
"Never mind that there now!" interrupted Faro. "I s'pose you haven't seen the German chap, Von Koeffner, that the squire potted, hanging round and about, or sneaking to the corn bin? Or any one from Kettley?"
"What you talking about?" began Graden, and paused with mouth open. "There was young Sam Horn come over yesterday 'long about sundown. He was in the stable by himself for two-three minutes before I saw him, andthen he sort of dithered as if he didn't quite know what he wanted. Said he'd like to leave Sir Anthony but wasn't quite sure, and I sent him off wi' a flea in his ear for not knowing his own mind."
"Sam Horn always was a rat! I'll lay he done it—p'isoned the corn in the bin, being paid to do that same by the German!" shouted Faro. He whipped out his long knife, tried the edge with his thumb, and sheathed it again. "And I'm goin' right over there now to cut the truth out of him, the dirty, sneakin' hound!"
He turned and would have raced off into the night if Graden hadn't gripped him.
"No, you don't! You ain't goin' to get yourself hung along of that rascal! Stand still!" he growled. "If you can get any sort of proof—what's the matter, Mr. Capper?"
Capper had held up a hand hushing Graden. And then, through the stillness that had fallen with the coming of darkness, drifted a strange, rhythmic sound, growing momentarily louder, a regular puff-uff-uf uff! like the sighing breath of some gigantic animal. All three recognized the sound in a flash.
"Hooray! Mr. Gil!" yelled Faro. "Comin' down the Lunnon road! There! He's comin' over the gravel patch at Spanley Corner! I'm goin' to get Trevallion 'cos it's his coach!"
But the Cornishman had been wakeful. He had heard the breathing of his offspring afar off, and now arrived at the run. Nearer and nearer came the sound. Capper fetched his wife and the old gun he had kept ready loaded lest burglars break in during his master's absence.
Light glowed along the avenue, thrown by Ariel's lamps, and the steam coach slowed to a stop before the door.
"Hooray!" roared the little group, and Capper fired both barrels of the gun in the air. "Welcome home, sir, and ma'am," cried Capper. "And did you have a pleasant trip? Not having word when you were coming back, there's nothing hot, ma'am, but Mrs. Capper will turn to at once, and—"
"Nothing, Capper, to-night, but a little of cold food," interrupted Gilbert, getting down and helping Ann to alight. "Is all well? You've had no trouble, I suppose?"
"A-plenty, sir! The horses have been poisoned—Red King dead and t'others going. I'm afeared!" cried Graden. "And Faro reckons it was done to the order o' that Dutchy chap that you pipped—and a pity you didn't settle him, sir!"
And then Faro had his say, and wound up by suggesting that he should go in search of old Elijah Faa, a gipsy who knew more about horses and their troubles than any horse doctor.
"I'll show him a li'l bit o' corn I brought from Drewitt's the night we went to see Jack Nobody. He'll be able to say if it's what did the p'isoning. He'll be camping along in Dene Hollow jus' now."
"Very well. But how will you get there if we have no horses?" said Gilbert. "Ariel can't tackle that rough bit of country."
"I can run, sir, and mebbe I can get a hoss at Perrin's farm. He'm one o' your men, sir, and he'd lemme have it. Now I'll be goin' and be back before mornin'."
"Very good. Here's a guinea for your friend, Elijah. Bring him back with you. He shall have a good fee if he can but save the horses," said Gilbert.
"I'll bring 'un." Faro pocketed the coin and ran to the stables. Jim Vivian, very tired and stiff from a long day as stoker, limped after him.
"I'm coming, too, Faro," he called as the gipsy boy reappeared stowing the suspected corn in a bag. "There may be danger. If that German really did this, he may be on the look-out to stop any one fetching help."
"Then I'll get on faster by myself, Mr. Jim. You looks awful tired. You couldn't keep up wi' me for a mile. You go to bed. I'll be orright. Back in the morning."
With the words Faro was off, running fast. Jim yawned and went back to the house. Trevallion, after a few words with Gilbert, had run his darling Ariel back to the shed where it had been built.
"I'll have a snooze, get up early, and go to meet Faro as he's coming back," decided Jim, and went to bed.
Though Faro Lee had seemed cool enough, he was really hot with anger against the dastardly scoundrel who had poisoned the horses. If he had encountered either Von Koeffner or Sir Anthony's stable boy, Sam Horn, he would probably have done his best to settle the account with his knife, or the pistol he had taken from Fritz Hofer, for he was as reckless at heart as any of his law-defying ancestors.
But no one appeared to bar his way as he ran along the coast road for a little way, then turned inland towards Perrin's, where he hoped to get a horse.
As a general rule the farmer and his family would have been asleep for hours at this time of night, but as Faro approached he saw the light of a lantern glowing from the stable door and heard the sound of voices.
"This looks sort of bad!" he muttered, and presently found his fears were well grounded, for Perrin and one of his men were hard at work doctoring five of the farm horses. A sixth, the cob on which Perrin rode to market, lay dead in its stall.
"Has that German, Von Koeffner, that's been staying wi' Sir Anthony Fetherston, been here?" asked Faro, without waiting for an explanation.
"He come over two days ago. A bit standoffish in his ways, but he reckoned to know all about horses," Perrin replied. "Why d'you ask like that? D'you mean that he's got something to do wi' it?"
"Yes. All our horses is bad and Red King's dead—and that's the way the German'll be if I can manage!" snarled Faro. "You come over to Coombe Wester in the morning, and I reckon we'll be going to talk wi' Koeffy. But just now I'm going for a man as can mebbe cure the horses."
He was off, leaving Perrin gaping. A little farther along he left the road and struck out across the lonely moor. He had some eight miles to go, which would take him about an hour and a half to cover at a jog trot. He would get a horse for the journey back. Old Elijah Faa would jump at the chance of making a little money and would waste no time.
Perhaps the same lot of gipsies who had been encamped in the coombe above Jack Nobody's cave might be in Dene Hollow. From them he might learn where Jack was. It would be fine if he could be set on Von Koeffner, Faro thought. If the German was going to set up as a rival smuggler the fur would soon be flying.
But Faro was puzzled. He didn't see why Von Koeffner should want to begin work by poisoning all the horses round the cove where he was going to land the smuggled goods.
"It just don't make sense," he thought. "Mebbe it's to spite our squire, but then he's gone about it so everyone'll know he had a hand in it. And Sir Anthony'll kick him out, soon as he knows, which'll be to-morrow. I'll see to it if no one else does! But it's all daft, or too deep for me."
He hurried on, keeping his line by the stars, and so at last came to the top of the ridge above Dene Hollow. A couple of thousand years before, ancient Britons had made a village there and fortified it with a deep ditch and rampart of earth running all round it, and including the pond in the hollow. It was a good sheltered camping ground, and was seldom empty.
But as Faro halted and peered down he could see only one small fire and no living wagons at all, nor could he hear the movements of any horses. He raced down the slope into the deep shadows cast by a group of trees growing beside the pond. Something moved across the dim glow cast by the dying fire burning in front of a tiny tent. It was a donkey, so old and stiff that one might almost hear its joints creak.
"Who walks there?" croaked a hoarse voice from the tent, a voice which Faro recognized, for it belonged to Elijah Faa's wife.
"It's Faro Lee, Mother Rachel," he replied. "Where be Elijah and all t'others? I want him quick."
"Then want's your master!" growled the old woman. "For yesterday a Gorgio cove came riding, and soldiers with him, and they took Elijah and all the men to Exeter lock-up, my dear. The Gorgio cove had sworn to all the hosses that they was stole from him in the North country, and he had got a warrant and all. And it's all black lies, my dear, for the nags were got fair and square in a swap. But they're all in the lock-up, and there they shall stay, being held for trial, and that's not for a month maybe. And the hosses stays in a pound and all our folks is waiting near Exeter to give their testimony, which it won't be heard against the Gorgio cove's, which—"
"What did the Gorgio cove look like?" asked Faro, cutting short the old woman's tale.
"He had a green coat, my dear, and gold lace on it, and his arm was hurt, for it was bound up and in a sling, and he talked queer in an outland way and—"
"And there's not a horse to be had anywhere round!" Faro exclaimed. "Mother Rachel, that fella's a bad un—but I wish I knowed what he's up to. Whatever it be, it'll come to a head tomorrow in the morning, and I got to get back and tell Mr. Gilbert. Ha' you seen Jack Nobody?"
"Jack, he went Portland way I did hear and ain't come back yet. You can take my Cuddy, Faro, if you wants him."
"I'll get on quicker on my two legs. Goodnight, Mother! Our squire'll try get Elijah out o' gaol."
Up the hill trotted Faro. Eight miles to cover as quickly as he could. He had no notion what Baron von Koeffner could have in mind, but he was certain that it would bode no good to Coombe Wester, quite sure that the trouble would begin with the morning light. And already the sky was beginning to brighten a little in the east. He must hurry.
But though he was very tough, Faro wasn't made of steel. He could run no more, but had to walk. Before he was half way back the light of dawn was reddening the sky.
On the high ground beyond Perrin's farm he halted for a minute's rest. He could see the bay spread out before him. A light mist lay low on the sea, hiding the hulls of some seven or eight vessels standing in towards the cove. The light wasn't strong enough to show them clearly, but Faro could see that four at least were men-of-war.
"Heavy frigates, mebbe," he thought. "Or p'raps that big un furthest out is a three-decker.
What are they doing in here anyways? Waiting to catch some Frenchy p'raps—like the one that nearly copped the Swallow."
Then he went on, and in a few strides had lost sight of the sea. At last he reached the road. A man was walking wearily along towards Coombe Wester. Faro recognized Renton, the Excise man, and hesitated for a moment. Renton was no friend. Should he slip behind the hedge and try to pass him? But the Excise man seemed to feel eyes on him; he turned, nodded, and beckoned Faro to approach.
"You belong to Squire Vivian's place, don't you?" he asked. "And Vivian pipped that German who's staying at Kettley?"
"That's so. And a pity he didn't put his bullet through the fella's head instead of his arm," replied Faro. "Has he been p'isoning your horses same as all the others round about?"
"What? Why—yes, he came yesterday—but—are you sure of what you say?" demanded Renton. "It's a very serious charge. Baron von Koeffner stopped to talk a little yesterday, and told us he had word that that knave, Jack Nobody, was shifting some smuggled goods to a house near Exeter. I sent my man off with the news at once and started myself a couple of hours ago. But my horse was taken with shivers of a sudden and with no more warning fell down dead. And so I started to return, and went to Perrin and found him—"
"Jus' so. I know. And you'd best come back with me to Coombe Wester and see t'squire. There's going to be mortal queer doings, so hurry your pins," said Faro, and set the pace.
JIM VIVIAN was up with the dawn. There was some mist around the house, and in his mind also; a confused memory of Von Koeffner's evil doings mingled with recollections of a dream in which he'd been back aboard the Swallow, and about to fire her bow-gun.
"It's beginner's luck!" he heard himself saying as he awoke, and laughed, for surely the words were a good omen.
The house was silent. Jim crept downstairs, helped himself to some food in the pantry, then went out. He meant to take Ariel, and run along the road to Perrin's to pick up Faro and the wise Elijah. After Elijah had found out what had caused the death of Red King, and the sickness of the other horses, they would go to Kettley House and accuse Von Koeffiler—if he was still there—and at any rate enlighten Sir Anthony about the true character of his guest.
Jim stopped at the stables. Graden, grey faced, for he had not slept, gave bad news. Black Elf was dead and two other horses were not likely to recover. The others might pull through, but they would 'be useless for weeks.
"And I'd like to put a bullet in the brute that did it, sir," snarled Graden. "Even if he was a prince, let alone a baron."
"Perhaps you'll have the chance presently," Jim said consolingly, and went on to the shed where Ariel was housed.
Dick Trevallion, already oily and smudged, had disconnected piston-rods and beam-connections, and was removing a cylinder head. Ariel was so dismantled that an hour's work would be needed to put the machinery together again.
"I'm taking a look at the bearings to see how they've stood the wear and tear," Trevallion explained. "On the whole, very well so far, though maybe we could get a harder brass for—"
"Please put everything together again as quick as you can," Jim said. "I don't know what's going to happen, but surely that brute didn't poison horses wholesale merely for a joke—and Arias the only wagon that can move for miles around. Get it done quick! I'm going to meet Faro."
Jim was quickly out upon the shore road where he was bound to meet Faro returning. The mist or fog was thick there, though it was slowly thinning, and he could see no more than a couple of yards in front. The sea was silent, but somewhere close by was a cracking and snapping, the sounds made by a fire. A warm glow shone through the mist, Jim ran towards it, and stopped in astonishment. The boathouse was blazing furiously, a keg of tar which had been broken open by the doorway sending a column of black smoke high into the air, proving, if proof had been needed, that the fire was no accident.
But why should any one have troubled to set fire to a ramshackle old shanty, holding nothing but sails, paint, and old rope? Jim couldn't find an answer, but, at least, it was plain that he had best rouse the household of Coombe Wester, and prepare for trouble—though he hadn't a notion of what form the trouble would take.
Up the path slanting along the face of the low cliff he ran, reached the top and clear air, for the fog was lifting fast and he could see the bay. Eight ships were standing in, heading directly towards the cove. Several were regular ships of war, the others were merchantmen, but carried guns; and as with narrowed eyes he stared at the foremost of the squadron, Jim recognized her. She was the thirty-six gun frigate, La Belle Bretagne, the ship which had chased the Swallow sloop, the ship upon which he had proved his beginner's luck as a gunner.
Beyond her lay a two-decker sixty-four gun ship and a couple of light frigates coming into line to cover the landing, while the other ships, which were crowded with soldiers, tacked slowly to the cove, guided by that column of black smoke from the burning boathouse. Jim understood all in a sudden blaze of enlightenment.
"They're going to land in force. Then they may march for Plymouth, and come down on it from behind. That treacherous hound Von Koeffner has arranged it all. He's a spy in the French service, even though he may be a baron in Hanover. And he poisoned the horses so that we shouldn't give the alarm by—"
Jim turned on his heel at a sudden noise behind him—turned to confront Von Koeffner himself. The spy had come silently out from behind a clump of bushes. A long-barrelled pistol swung, club fashion, in his left hand, whirled aloft, and even as Jim began to duck, fell crashing on the boy's head. A blaze of stars and Jim was down and, for a while, out.
The spy glared at him. For a moment he looked as though he meant to kick his senseless victim over the cliff, but a hail came from the sea.
"You vill keep!" growled Von Koeffner, and hurried down the path as a boat loomed through the mist and grounded on the beach.
Four soldiers, stalwart grenadiers, with bayonets fixed and muskets cocked, were the first to land. They took up their position by the foot of the cliff as coolly as though they were mounting guard in their own country, and not in England. Two officers in cloaks followed. Von Koeffner came running up. He saluted with his left arm, then took out a folded map.
"All you require is here, my general," he said, unfolding the sheet. "Observe, here are the cross-roads marked, the height of hills, with the points where artillery may be placed, also the points where streams may most easily be crossed."
"Good, very good," replied the elder of the officers. "This saves us a lot of time and trouble. You are worth a regiment to us, Baron. First, we must seize upon our base. It is near here, the place you have selected?"
"Quite near, my general. Look, it is this house called Coombe Wester. A battery here on the mound beside the house would sweep the road. There is a tower from which you may see for miles. It has a good well, and there is a little stream also; and there is good cover down to the sea."
"Excellent! Let us go!"
"Pardon, my general, but we had better take some men to secure the place at once. There may be some resistance. I would suggest a half company in the house, another on the eastward road, and another to the westward on the road above us."
"Very well. Dupont, signal the nearest transport to start disembarking at once," said the general, and glanced sharply towards the top of the cliff, which was now becoming visible as the mist melted away. "Some one spoke up there, I believe," he said.
"I will see. I had a little trouble with a boy. I will make him quite safe," Von Koeffner said, and started up the cliff path.
About the same moment that Jim Vivian fell beneath the spy's pistol butt at one end of the two miles' stretch of road beside the sea, Faro Lee and Renton the riding officer came out into the open, and from their position above the layer of fog saw the squadron advancing towards the shore. The ships had hoisted their colours. The red, white, and blue of France flapped lazily in the slow breeze, so even if they had had no eyes for differences of build and rig, Renton and the gipsy would have recognized the vessels at once.
"By gum! Frenchies!" gasped Faro.
"And they're going to try a landing!" exclaimed Renton.
"Crikey! And not a horse anywhere round to carry word to the soldiers and get ships out. Oh, I sees it now!" cried Faro, shaking a fist at the empty sky. "That Dutchy! He's fixed it all. Renton, we've got to get the steam coach to do the job horses can't. We got to run hard or they'll be gettin' between us and Coombe Wester and catching the Squire unawares like."
And Faro set off at a fast jog-trot, which Renton imitated as well as riding-boots would allow. The fog shredded away; from the nearest of the ships in the bay came the thin squealing of boat falls; a couple of big boats were lowered.
"This looks like business. Those are veteran soldiers," said Renton. "There's going to be big trouble if they get a foothold here. Hurry! I believe I can see field guns on the deck of that ship."
"An' I believe someone's lying beside the road up near the smoke—looking like yes, it's Jim," said Faro hoarsely, and sprinted.
It was lucky that Jim had a hard skull; lucky that Von Koeffner had struck no second blow. Jim had gone down and out, but he had not stayed out. He was coming back to his senses when Faro arrived, scrubbed his face and the back of his neck with his hard paws, and so revived him completely.
"The Baron—Von Koeffner—is down there, I think. He gave me this," Jim muttered, feeling a great lump on his head. "Let's get away."
"Hush!" Renton had come up, and, lying down, peered over the verge.
He saw the soldiers; saw the general and Baron von Koeffner on the path, leading the way up. Every moment that the landing could be delayed was valuable.
"Give me your pistol, Faro, I have two double barrels of my own. That's five shots, and I seldom miss. Get word to Exeter or any point along the coast. Tell my officer I couldn't do any more than slow the invaders a little. Get away, quick!"
"They'll do you in," warned Faro, passing his pistol, then helping Jim to his feet. "You can't stop an army."
"No—but I'll stop the fellow who brought 'em here. Good-bye!" said Renton. He took careful aim, and even as Faro dragged Jim Vivian away, let fly at Von Koeffner.
The baron reeled, clutched at a projecting rock, and sank slowly to his knees. The general behind him whipped out a pistol and fired in return. Then Renton blazed away a second shot, hit the officer in the shoulder, and chuckled savagely as he heard him yell an order to the four soldiers below, who, unable to shoot at the exciseman because their officer was in the way, had sprinted out upon the beach.
Like one, three muskets banged, their bullets whined over the spot where Renton had been. He showed himself farther along the cliff, snapped a shot that winged one of the grenadiers, and dodged away before the fourth musketeer could draw a bead on him.
Von Koeffner stirred. He was mortally wounded, but desire for revenge on his slayer gave him strength to shout:
"Farther—along—there are a dozen paths up," he called. "Take him—in flank!"
The grenadier who had been hit sat down and began to bind up his wound, the others raced along the beach, found an easy path, and dashed up it. Renton drew back from the cliff's edge, dived into the bushes on the farther side of the road, and reloaded the pistols he had fired.
He meant to delay the invading Frenchmen as long as possible, so that a messenger might have a chance of getting away before they could draw a cordon round the landing-place. He was doing what he thought to be his duty, and no notion that he was in fact a hero crossed his mind. With the three pistols laid before him, he waited.
The three grenadiers popped up over the edge of the cliff well out of pistol range, and peered about, looking for their quarry. Renton kept still, The waiting game suited him. Every minute gained meant that a messenger would get farther without chance of being pursued.
And then, as the nearest of the transports drew closer to the shore, he heard a sudden nickering and neighing of horses. The men who had planned this coup had thought of everything, and had provided cavalry with which to close the ring around Coombe Wester. Whether the messenger travelled on foot or on the steam coach, he would be caught by the horsemen, Renton thought, if he had not started at once. Carefully he parted the twigs of the bush behind which he lay and peered out.
Yes, the nearest transport ship had anchored close to the beach, a big flat boat was alongside, and horses, already saddled, were being lowered in canvas slings. The riders, armed with sabre and carbine, dropped down beside their steeds; with a round dozen aboard, the lighter moved off, steering for a spot some quarter of a mile farther westwards, where a little gulley made ascent of the cliff easy for horses.
Renton had meant to cover the retreat of Faro and Jim Vivian a little longer before retiring himself, but he saw that with horsemen taking part, he would not have a chance of safety if he waited. He would be overtaken and cut down in a few minutes at most, once they were landed; so, picking up his pistols, he ducked low and began to thread a way through the roadside covert.
But he forgot caution and the sharpshooters behind. They couldn't see him, but they could see the movements of the branches overhead. Aiming low, they let fly.
Thud! Something that felt like a sledgehammer smashed upon Renton's shoulder blade, hurling him forward against a tree trunk. Stunned and dizzy, he clung to it with his other hand, for the right arm had suddenly become numbed and useless.
"Hit! I'm hit!" he thought. "This won't do! Got to tell Vivian—cavalry coming. Got to!"
Loosing his hold he reeled forward, came to the end of the drive leading to the house, and hurried on at a staggering run. He heard the beat of hoofs behind him, drew a pistol for one last shot. But the horsemen did not approach Coombe Wester; they galloped on towards the main road beyond Kettley House. Renton glimpsed them speeding past, and groaned. The enemy had closed the gate of escape, and he must hurry to warn Faro or whoever might be going to try to run the gauntlet, that the attempt would be useless. Now he was in sight of the house. He saw a group of people on the steps, but he could no longer see clearly. Everything swam before his eyes as he reeled on. Someone—it was Gilbert Vivian—ran to him and steadied him as he sank down on the steps before the door.
"They've picketed the Dorchester road—and they'll be in force on the shore road—to Exeter," he muttered thickly. "Sorry I—couldn't stop them. They're too many!"
With the words he lapsed into unconsciousness. Gilbert and old Capper carried him into the hall; Mrs. Capper and her husband got busy dressing his wound, and Gilbert hastened out again as Ann called to him.
"Ariel's coming," she said. "Do you think you can let Jim risk his life? If the French are on the shore road, Ariel will never get through."
"I would go myself," Gil began. "But it might be said I was running away."
"No, your place is here. You said we could hold this house till help came—"
"If your father and his men come in time. Graden should be there by now. Jim and Trevallion must take their chance." Gil ran out as Ariel, steered by Jim, with Trevallion as stoker, stopped before the door. The Cornishman had worked double tides at pulling the engine together again; smudged with oil and soot, he grinned cheerily as he held out a hand.
"If they don't shoot too straight, we'll get through, Squire!" he said. "And then nobody will be able to say Ariel can't beat horseflesh. I'll try to persuade 'em to let us tow a gun. That ought to convince even a wooden-headed soldier."
"Perhaps—and maybe my rifle may prove itself useful too. Good luck!" Gilbert shook Trevallion's hand, patted Jim's shoulder, and stood aside as Ariel began to move.
Twenty-seven miles to go, no great distance, perhaps, but the roads were bad, and the fuel Trevallion had piled aboard was not of very good quality.
"We'll rush 'em!" cried Jim as they neared the end of the drive. "Faro said that villain Von Koeffner was down, so they won't know what to make of us. And if Faro gets more help, Gil may hold out. The old house stood a siege in Cromwell's day, so...Now, then, here we go!"
Ariel swung out from the avenue upon the open coast road. The transports were all close to the shore now, boats were filling with infantry, a gun was being swung into a flat boat—and half a squadron of light cavalry was cantering up the road towards the adventurous pair.
"Hang on, Trevallion!" yelled Jim, and opening the throttle wide, steered straight at the oncoming horsemen.
Those Frenchmen were trained soldiers and brave men. They would not have flinched from the onset of double their number of cavalry. But this monstrous thing jetting steam and smoke, thundering towards them at a thoroughbred's racing pace, was altogether too much for the nerves of their horses. Up went the foremost on their hind legs, swinging round, cannoning into those behind, who, in turn, glimpsed the terror and did the like.
On one side was the low cliff, on the other brushwood. Like one horse the thoroughly scared animals chose the safe side, and stampeded! Men, tossed from their saddles, rolled to the safety of the roadside ditch as Ariel thundered down upon them, too disconcerted to think of using their weapons. Only one man, a captain or major, mastered his frightened horse in time to wheel it round and draw a big pistol as Ariel crashed past throwing up a cloud of dust.
Bang! Thud! Trevallion uttered a low cry of pain. The heavy bullet had found its billet in his body.
For a moment he sagged against the strap which he had secured to the seat beside the furnace to prevent himself from being jerked from his perch. He was hard hit. But if he should fail in this supreme moment of peril, all would be lost. With a tremendous effort of will power he kept his seat, ready to throw in more of the fuel which would be needed before they could win clear.
Whee-ee! Musket balls fired from the beach below whined past his head. Whang! A grenadier with more valour than discretion had stopped in the middle of the road ahead. He fired almost at point blank, but at the last moment his nerve failed him and the bullet that should have gone through Jim's head went a trifle high, and glanced off the funnel behind him.
A little too late the bold grenadier leapt aside. One of Ariel's fore-wheels caught a leg, sent the man flying to the very verge of the cliff, where he clung shouting.
"We're past 'em!" yelled Jim. "Keep her going! They're chasing us!"
Half a dozen horsemen had regained control of their mounts, and were coming on at a gallop, but Ariel was flying along at full speed, and it was plain that they had no chance of overtaking their quarry.
But down on the beach an officer was waving his hat, signalling to the nearest frigate. A puff of smoke jetted from her side, a roundshot whizzed across the road barely a couple of lengths ahead of Ariel, and crashed into the brushwood beyond.
"Keep her going! They'll give us a broadside next!" bawled Jim. "Half a mile to go!"
Somehow Trevallion found strength to shout in answer: "All's well! We'll do it!"
He rattled the furnace door open, thrust in a measure of coal, clanged the door shut, then slowly settled back in his seat. Ariel leapt forward, moving faster than before, as though the inanimate steel and brass knew the need for haste.
Again smoke gushed from the frigate's guns, five of them this time. A tornado of sound seemed to burst upon Ariel. Shot howled above, behind, and before, one bounded upon the road, sending a shower of earth high in air—but none touched the flying steam carriage.
On, up a slope, then abruptly Ariel was out of sight of ships and soldiers behind a shoulder of rock, and turning inland, away from the sea. Against all chances the pair had run the gauntlet and won through—with Ariel undamaged.
"Hooray! We've done them!" Jim shouted, passed a hand across his streaming face, and blinked in astonishment, for the hand was red! That bullet had come closer than he had thought, so close that it had cut a neat groove through his hair and scraped the scalp beneath. No wonder he had thought he had had a close shave!
But it was only a scratch after all, nothing to bother about. Ariel was slowing, though, as they neared the top of the ridge. Jim ventured to glance behind him and caught a glimpse of Trevallion's white face.
"Are you badly hurt?" he asked, and then, as Ariel reached the top of the ascent, stopped and went to Trevallion's side.
The Cornishman still breathed, but he was badly hurt. Jim saw that he could do nothing for him except get him to a doctor as quickly as possible. He stoked up, and got going again, hearing once more, before he dipped into the valley beyond, the thunder of French guns behind him. What were they firing at?
GILBERT VIVIAN knew little about soldiering, but he had common sense, and knew that his old house was the strongest and most easily defended of any in the neighbourhood; and, so long as it held out, the invaders could not advance very far along the main road. So when Jim and Faro returned, he had sent the gipsy boy off towards Perrin's farm and Graden to Sir Anthony Fetherston, to summon help.
Jim, game in spite of a splitting headache, had mounted Ariel and gone off with Trevallion. And as the steam carriage rolled out of sight Gilbert ordered in the gardener, the stable-boy, and the odd man, and served out guns to them.
Capper armed himself with a blunderbuss, a fearsome weapon charged with half a pound of slugs, and stationed himself at the narrow window beside the front door. Gilbert took his rifle—that rifle with the oval bullets which he had not touched since the day of Trevallion's coming, and went to a window on the first floor. Ann joined him with a brace of pistols.
"You'd better join Mrs. Capper and the maids in the cellar," growled Gilbert. "Bullets will be flying presently, and fighting isn't women's work."
"Mrs. Capper is sitting behind Capper in the hall with a powder flask and a bag of nails to reload the blunderbuss. I sent the maids to the attics to give us word when father is coming," replied Ann coolly. "So I'm going to stay with you. I can load a pistol even if I'm not a very good shot. But listen! They're shooting—at Jim and Trevallion!"
The crack of muskets echoed up the empty drive. Gilbert smiled grimly as he nodded.
"That means they are getting through," he said, as the firing continued. "The French wouldn't keep on shooting if they had stopped them. Hallo! Guns! The ships are firing on them."
"Yes. But—Ariel can't be easy to hit," whispered Ann. "They'll be running fast and—"
"And there's a lot of empty space all round a running hare," Gil said comfortingly. "There! The guns have stopped. That means they have got through—and here comes your father. Let's meet him."
Sir Anthony Fetherston came bursting through the shrubbery bordering the drive, leading half a score of his men armed with guns and pistols, prodding a reluctant fellow onward with the muzzle of the fowling-piece he carried.
"Why—that's Von Koeffner's servant—Fritz Hofer," exclaimed Ann. "He looks as though he were going to be hanged."
"No beauty!" Gil agreed, and flinging open the door held out his hand. "Are we friends again, sir? Graden has told you about the German?"
"I've been a fool, my boy!" replied Sir Anthony. "Forgive and forget, will ye? Ann, my dear, you'll forgive your old dad, who only meant to do the best for you!"
"Why, yes, Father, since you didn't succeed," laughed Ann. "But come in quickly. There are horsemen. They're coming here."
A score or so of cavalry had appeared in the avenue, but halted uncertainly as they saw the men in front of the house. Then they dismounted. Gil glanced at them, and waved Sir Anthony's men in.
"Up to the first floor windows and hold your fire till you get the word," he ordered. "What are you going to do with this fellow, Sir Anthony?" he added, nodding towards Fritz Hofer, who, shivering with fear, had retreated to a corner of the hall. "Wouldn't it be safer to tie him up or put him in the cellar?"
"He's a poor creature, but he hates his master, so let him bide."
Sir Anthony halted on the threshold. "Here comes a French officer doing the polite with a flag of truce."
A young officer, waving a white handkerchief, cantered up, halted before the door, and saluted.
"Messieurs, I must ask you to surrender this house," he said in good English. "We regret to incommode you, but it is war. No harm shall be done, you shall go away on parole after giving up your weapons."
"Very kind and considerate," replied Sir Anthony. "But you'll have to go back, mossoo, and say that we very much regret we can't accept the invitation. We're going to hold this house, and be hanged to you!"
"But this is madness! We have guns, thousands of men! We will storm this house, for we need it. Save yourself and the lives of all those with you, I beg," said the officer. "Truly it is insane to think of resistance."
"All the same, we'll go on being mad," said Gilbert. "We have sent for help. Presently you will be attacked from two sides on the land, while a strong squadron will deal with your ships. I think you had better retire while you can."
"If all this is going to happen, we had better make haste to secure your house," the young man replied lightly. "I regret the necessity. Messieurs, my compliments. We attack in two minutes."
Again he saluted, turned, and rode back to his waiting men.
"So Jim and Trevallion got through! If they hadn't he would have told us," Gilbert said, securing the door. "There's a sporting chance that Trevallion's steam carriage may save us, Sir Anthony—when horses have failed. At least, nothing else can. Shall we go up?"
There was a pause while the young officer made his report to a superior. Then the cavalry horses were picketed, and trailing their carbines the men ran forward in two groups on either side of the drive, taking cover amongst the shrubs as they neared the house, and creeping up with every musket shot.
A bugle rang out, into the drive galloped four horses, a field-gun rolling behind them. Wheeling round, the gun was unlimbered.
Sir Anthony groaned.
"All of three hundred yards and out of range! Not worth wasting powder on 'em. And a few rounds will breach the wall or blow in the door!" he exclaimed.
"Let—us—see!" murmured Gilbert. "I think the officer directing the gunners is the best mark. So!" And he fired his rifle.
The gunner officer staggered and fell, shot through a leg, the gunners in act of loading the gun stopped to glare in amazement at the puff of white smoke floating away from the window through which Gilbert had fired, for it was much beyond the range of an ordinary musket. But again the bugle sounded, and from the dismounted men in the shrubbery came a rattling, irregular volley. Bullets crashed through the window and plunged into the inner wall, bringing down showers of plaster, but doing no other damage, for Gilbert had stepped back into cover and was recharging his rifle.
"That's a fine weapon, Gil. I've never seen such a shot at the distance. If we but had a dozen of them we'd keep those fellows off for a week. We could shoot them down at that gun and--"
A thunderous crash cut short Sir Anthony. The gun had been fired. The round shot had smashed a hole in the wall directly above the front door, at which it had been aimed, and brought down an old trophy of arms hanging on the inner wall.
Up rose the shrill voice of Mrs. Capper. She wasn't afraid, but very angry.
"There! They've gone and spoiled old Sir Gervaise's helmet," she cried. "Shoot 'em down, Capper! Fire!"
"But, m'dear, the blunderbuss can't reach 'em at this distance," remonstrated Capper. "Be a bit patient, m'love, till they come a bit nearer, and then you'll see me riddle 'em."
"Then I wish they'd hurry up," snorted Mrs. Capper. "I've got the week's washing to see to, and I can't get on till they've gone."
Crack! Again Gilbert Vivian had fired his rifle, and the man sponging out the gun fell sprawling. In hot haste Gilbert began to reload while dropping shots from the shrubbery searched the windows and wounded one of Sir Anthony's men as they replied.
"Hurry, man!" shouted Sir Anthony as Gil hammered a bullet down the rifle barrel. "Can't you be quicker? They're putting in the charge. Now they're ramming home the ball—and priming the gun. They'll blow in the door if—"
"Ready!" said Gilbert and took aim at the gun-layer who, a port fire smoking in hand, was correcting the gun's aim.
Crack! The bullet sped to its mark, the gun-layer reeled back, the port fire fell from his hand upon the touch-hole, firing the gun. Boom! Crash! The shot went high, hitting the roof parapet, and playing havoc with the tiles before bringing up against a chimney and sending a rain of bricks into the yard behind the house.
"That hasn't done much harm, and doesn't get them much forrader," chuckled Sir Anthony, reloading his piece, for he had been firing from the window at the skirmishers in the bushes. "They didn't calculate on meeting a weapon like yours. We'll hold them for a while yet."
"Think so, sir? I doubt it. Look over yonder," said Gilbert and pointed.
Beyond the line of shrubbery the ground rose a little so that the shakos of a full company of infantry showed above it as they advanced at the double to support the cavalry skirmishers. They reached the shrubbery, deployed into line, and--
"Down, lads!" shouted Sir Anthony. "Down on your noses!"
The few remaining bits of window glass and frames flew in fragments as a volley rang out. The room was filled with plaster dust, blinding the defenders for a few moments—long enough to allow a squad headed by a couple of pioneers armed with broad axes to dash across the drive and up the steps towards the front door.
Bang! With a roar nearly as loud as the field gun's, Capper's beloved blunderbuss delivered its load of nails and shot amongst the party with amazing results. Down went the pioneers, down went several beyond them—and down went Capper with a resounding thud as he sat involuntarily on the floor, blown off his feet by the recoil.
"Blaze away, boys!" shouted Gilbert as the attackers gave back. "Pepper 'em! Help is coming."
And though he was thinking only of the help which might come from Exeter, he saw some of the Frenchmen turning to peer into the wood upon their flank. A moment later smoke jetted from the edge of the wood in a dozen places, a wild yell resounded, and out charged a mob of men armed with pitchforks, reaping hooks, scythes, and a few muskets. Capering ahead of them was Faro, a pistol in each hand, yelling shrilly at the top of his voice.
A very mixed lot was that mob. It was made up of farmers and their men, gipsies, and several nondescript fellows, the biggest of whom Gilbert was certain he had seen before, though then he was wearing a mask. He was in command.
"At 'em, me pretties," he bellowed in a big seamanly voice. "Give 'em what for!" Waving a cutlass, he leapt ahead of Faro.
With that they were into the Frenchmen who, taken by surprise and attacked on their flank, were rolled up in a brace of shakes, and driven in confusion back upon the cavalry skirmishers. Perhaps if they had been well armed and disciplined, the gang that Faro had collected might even have captured the gun, but discipline, and muskets with bayonets, proved too much for the attackers.
The Frenchmen rallied, formed up, and charged. In a moment the tables were turned.
"Get into the house," yelled Faro. "Get in before they loads their guns. Hook it, me daisies!"
Some of the men obeyed and dashed towards the house. The man with the cutlass heard the gipsy, but shook his head.
"I'm best in the open, lad," he said. "Into the wood, boys. Follow Jack!" he roared, and herding his fellows before him, dashed through and over a bunch of the cavalry men.
In the space of half a minute these very irregular warriors were gone, some into the house with Faro, the rest into the woods, from which they began to snipe the enemy.
But more men were being rapidly landed. Another couple of companies of infantry doubled to the rear of the house, and taking cover behind the wall of the kitchen garden, opened fire upon the back windows. Others joined the men beside the gun, and running forward plastered the front rooms with bullets. The gun was reloaded without further loss, for Gilbert Vivian was given no more chances of shooting with impunity. As he leaned out to mark down another artilleryman, a bullet struck the rifle lock a glancing blow, and though by a minor miracle Gilbert wasn't hit, the hammer of the rifle was smashed, rendering the weapon useless.
Then as no more bullets reached the gun, the crew took heart of grace and plenty of time to aim. Crash! The gun boomed, there was a thundering bang in the hall, and once more the voice of Mrs. Capper rose in a long wail of despair, for the ball had driven through the front door.
"Oh, ma'am, they've been and hit the chivy cupboard," she cried. "Shoot, Capper! You haven't been shooting enough. Fire at 'em."
"I will in a moment, m'dear, since they're going to break in. Get away into the cellar, quick," replied Capper as heavy blows thudded on the door. "We'll be fighting in here in a minute."
"Then I'm going to stay, Capper my man," said the dame stoutly, picking up a pike which had fallen from the wall. "I can pink one of them, I hope."
With clattering of feet the whole garrison of the house tumbled downstairs into the hall, prepared to defend the place to the last. The door was yielding. A crack appeared running from the hole made by the roundshot to the top. It widened as a broad axe struck and struck again.
Sir Anthony fired his piece point blank through the opening, scoring a hit. A volley came in return, and—
A bugle blew, sounding the same call again and again, a call that one of Sir Anthony's men who had served abroad knew.
"That's the 'Retire' they're blowing back yonder, Sir Anthony," he shouted. "And I do believe they're drawing off."
Reckless of stray bullets, Gilbert Vivian sprang to a window and leant out. The bugle still blew insistently. The gun was being limbered up, the horses appeared, the dismounted cavalry who had acted as skirmishers got into their saddles while the infantry returned at the double. Forming a column of fours, they began to march, a couple of platoons facing about and retreating slowly with faces to the foe, as a rearguard.
Then, from somewhere at no great distance from the house rang out a thud, six times repeated in quick succession as a battery of field guns came into action. Was that an echo from beyond the woods around Kettley House? Gilbert ran aloft to the attics, climbed out upon the roof through the hole made by the cannon shot. From the ridge he had an excellent view of the bay, part of the shore road, and the road running past Kettley House.
Heads appeared beside the parapet. Faro scrambled up to the ridge and seated himself, handing Gilbert a telescope. Then the big man who was called Jack Nobody followed.
"Reckon I've got to see too, Squire," he said apologetically. "Why, they're firing at something ashore—and some guns are firing at them. See the splashes. And they look to be getting their men aboard again."
Gilbert nodded. He could see the boats going to and fro between shore and ships, while the water foamed with plunging and skipping missiles. From the shore of the cove came the rattle of musketry, the crash of an occasional volley, the crackle of irregular firing. The invaders had been surprised themselves and were now heavily engaged to cover their retreat.
"They're gettin' more than they bargained for," chuckled Jack Nobody. "And somebody'll get his ears slapped when they goes back to tell how they haven't done nothing that they was sent out to do. See them topsails comin' down channel? That there's the squadron from Portland, and if they has luck they'll cop these Frenchies fairly. And who d'you think gave 'em the office? Me, Squire, me! Was in the Channel yesterday on me own business and saw them ships. I asks myself what they could be after, for I saw hosses aboard. Then I remembers what young Faro had told me about seeing the German fella taking soundings, and that sort of gave me the notion. I puhings together—and here comes the ships."
It was obvious that other defenders were busy already. The sound of firing grew louder. The French men-of-war were blazing away with every gun they could bring to bear on the shore, while the transports, having taken aboard the soldiers, were making sail out of the bay.
The sixty-four and the frigates fired their last broadsides, and stood out to sea, the whole flotilla piling on sail.
Jack Nobody stared after them for a long minute, then shook his head.
"Reckon they've got luck, too," he said, "unless the wind drops they'll get to Brest easy enough. Now, seeing a lot of sodgers'll be here soon, and mebbe some of 'em will be askin' questions about me, I'll be going."
"Thanks for your help," began Gilbert. "I'd like to reward you in some way—if I can."
"Leave your stable doors unlocked on calm nights when the moon's full, then," replied Jack with a laugh. "But we ain't the sort that weighs and measures good turns, Squire. Good-morning to you. Same to you, Faro."
He dropped into the attic and was gone. And a few moments later Ariel came into view running slowly and leaving a heavy trail of smoke. Gilbert hastened down with Faro at his heels. They reached the door as the steam carriage rolled slowly up and stopped. Jim Vivian, his face smeared with soot and blood, got stiffly down from his seat. The man on the rear platform looked around grinning. Gilbert gripped his brother's hands and squeezed them affectionately.
"Are you hurt?" he asked. "Only a graze? That's good! Where's Trevallion?"
"I'm all right, but Trevallion's badly hurt. That man's a hero, Gil. He kept Ariel going after he'd received a wound that would have stopped most men. We'd have been caught if he hadn't. And never a groan out of him though he must have been in great pain. I got him to a doctor as soon as I could, and he said he'd recover, though he'll be ill for a long time. Did you hear the ships shooting at us? That was very scaring."
"Yes. But what happened? How did you manage to get back so soon?" asked Gilbert.
"That was luck. The commandant at Exeter had ordered a field day, and everything was moving out when I rolled up. Trevallion being shot and the bullet marks on Ariel convinced the general that I was telling the truth, and he sent off cavalry and guns at once. I towed a gun and got to the ridge first. The infantry are coming on in carts, but they won't be needed. The French must have thought we were a very much bigger force than we are."
"They went because ships are coming from Portland," said Gilbert. "Didn't want their retreat to be cut off. But have any of your generals got a notion why they tried it at all? It seems a mad sort of thing to attempt."
"Just what I said. But the soldiers say that the attempt was probably only a sort of dress rehearsal, to test our people and see how quickly we could gather a defending force. They may try it again—with an army."
"And no better result," growled Gilbert, and glanced towards Ariel. The man Jim had hired in Exeter to stoke the boiler was busied with something that seemed to need wire and strength. "What's that fellow of yours doing, Jim? Are you sure he's to be trusted?"
"I showed him how to stoke, and he has done fairly well." Jim stared and his eyes narrowed. "He must have a full head of steam, but I don't see any escaping from the safety valve."
At that moment the man stepped down from his perch, and Jim's eyes popped.
"I told him to tie up the pump valve, which is leaking—and he's tied the safety valve down," he gasped. "Blow off—or you'll be blown up," he roared and started down the steps towards the engine.
The new stoker threw one terror-stricken and horrified glance at the rumbling boiler and sprang away in panic. And a split second later, as though it had waited till the coast was clear, the boiler blew up.
Every one near was knocked flat by the blast. The few panes of glass that remained intact in the house were broken, the air was filled with flying fragments—but no one was touched. Then as the cloud of smoke and steam blew away, Gilbert and Jim groaned in dismay, for Ariel was an utter wreck. The boiler was torn and twisted, the cylinders blown from their attachments hung crazily from beams, and connecting-rods were twisted and displaced.
Stunned by the mishap more than by the violence of the explosion, Gilbert and Jim stood silent. Ariel had played a great part in their lives, had carried Gil and Ann safely through their elopement, and now had savd their home from the destruction that would have befallen it if help had been long delayed. Ann, coming softly behind the pair, knew what they were thinking.
"Don't take it too much to heart, my dears," she said cheerily. "Brass and copper and steel can be put together, and the men who built Ariel once can build it again, better than before, so why worry? When Trevallion is better, you can start again. Is all well, Dad?"
Sir Anthony, who had been talking with a couple of officers, came bustling up.
"Hey, Gil! I'm getting the loan of a couple of horses from Colonel Dentwood for a day or two till I get fresh stock—and he'll be pleased to let you have a couple also." He jerked a thumb at the wreck of Ariel. "And let that be a lesson to you, my boy. Put not your trust in steam kettles that are liable to blow you to bits."
"Certainly not, sir," murmured Gilbert Vivian. "Not till the next time. What is it, Capper?"
The old butler had touched his arm. Now he glanced round the group of officers gathering in the drive.
How many of these gents will be staying for lunch, sir? he whispered.
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