Chapter XVI.

I RAN—on—on—I knew not, and I know not, whither—until I met, at last, one of the green-coated guardians of Bathonian peace. To him I told my tale; but as, in my agitation, I made a very disconnected story of it, and as, moreover—like many another private in the police force, in all parts of the world blessed with that stiff-stocked British institution—he was a very thick-headed, brutal fellow; he thought I had been instigated by some wag to hoax him, and, boxing my ears, bade me go about my business.

Discouraged by this rebuff, I wandered disconsolately up and down the muddy, monotonous streets of pepper-and-salt houses, afraid again to approach a policeman, and yet feeling myself and accomplice in the Avon-street

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robbers' plotted crime so long as I kept their secret. After weary circuitous ramblings, I strolled into the abbey churchyard. Jacob's-ladders, with angels acrobatizing on them, are carved on the front of the cathedral. These angels being clad in what seem shabby black sacks, and having altogether a very dirty, battered, disreputable look, brought the burglars more vividly than ever to my mind. So, perhaps, would the scoundrels scale the Clifton House now that they had lost their door-opener, and enter by an upper window. The gleaming salvers in the silversmith's at the corner reminded me of the expected spoil. The gilt Greek on the Pump room to me was merely suggestive of scholastic tasks and tortures. I did not feel inclined to loiter in a spot so thronged with disagreeable mementoes, but trotting over the damp flags on which a shower was once more pattering briskly, I passed under the colonnade, and found myself, of course, opposite the White Hart.

Just then a mud-splashed coach from Bristol pulled up at the inn, to change horses. The rain rattled on the umbrellas of the outside passengers, and one who had not the protection of a parapluie began to complain of the drippings from his neighbour's. The querulous voice seemed familiar to me. I looked up, and there was—Pig: a moist mass of misery and ill-temper. Beside him sat a footman whom I thought I had seen before. Through the breath-dimmed glasses, I caught a glimpse of two passengers, whom I was sure I had seen before. I could not be mistaken as to that blue face and that cataract of golden hair. I stood fascinated—fastened to the pavement, as it were—spell-bound by mingled pleasure, astonishment, and fear. I was soon observed. Down jumped Chawls, and running to the coach-window and pointing towards me, said,

“There's the boy, sir!”

I see him,” answered Mr. Maurice, exploding from the vehicle.

“Don't hurt him,” cried little Bella, as her impetuous grandpapa's goloshes floundered in the mid-road mire.

“So I've caught you, have I?” grunted Pig, clutching me by the collar.

Whack—thwack—scrunch—ugh! Mr. Maurice's black stick had descended on my master's shoulders, bonneted him, and doubled him up by a thrust below the belt.

“Hands off!” shouted the fiery little man. “You're throttling the lad. Who asked you to stop him, I should like to know!”

“He's run away from school, sir,” gasped Pig, rubbing his stomach, and turning very pale.

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“Please, sir, they're going to rob your house, sir, and the police won't mind me,” I sobbed out at the same time.

“Why, what the devil's the meaning of all this? Who's that man, you little mystery of a maniac?” was Mr. Maurice's rejoinder.

“Pig, sir,” said I, as bold as brass; for I saw that the old gentleman was on my side.

“And is Pig going to rob my house? I should like to see him at it! What on earth do you mean? But it's nonsense standing here in the rain, talking riddles like a parcel of fools. Come inside Mister—Mister—PIG!”

So saying, Mr. Maurice took my hand, and elbowing his way through the crowd of idlers that this passage of arms had attracted, crossed the street, and entered the hotel; followed—very reluctantly—by my craven captor.

As soon as we were in the coffee-room, Pig repeated his accusation against me, and told how, having hunted for me fruitlessly in Bristol the day before, he had been directed by Daddy to take the London coach and travel some twenty or thirty miles along the London road in search of me. I, on the other hand, related as briefly as I could my Avon-street adventures, and entreated Mr. Maurice not to let Pig conduct me back to school.

“And where do you want to go?” asked Mr. Maurice.

“Home, sir (a choking sob)—to my mother's.

“And where is home?”

“Helensburgh, sir.”

“What!—does your mother keep a school there?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Oh, you little fool! Why didn't you tell me that yesterday? Ah! but then I should have had my house robbed. For a wonder, all's for the best. We're going to——”

“Now then, gen'l'men, if you please,” said the coachman, putting his mottled face into the room.

“Oh, yes, ah—here, James, send my man to me—what does the scoundrel mean by mounting before his maater? I'm not going on with you now, but I shall catch you before you've gone two stages. Give an eye to the luggage, and keep my place, and the little girl's, and the man's—and, by-the-bye, there's a vacant inside place—keep that, too.”

The jarvie touched his hat in acknowledgment of the gratuity that accompanied these instructions, and soon summoned Chawls from his perch. Mr. Maurice meanwhile had lifted Bella and Fido from the coach,

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and came into the coffee-room with them just as the coach-wheels fired their valedictory salute of mud against its windows.

“What are you stopping for?” was his unceremonious address to Pig. “Don't you see the coach is gone?”

“I'm not going any farther up, sir; I must return to Bristol with this young gentleman.”

“Oh, you must return to Bristol with this young gentleman, must you? Now, I tell you what it is, Mr. Pig, if you don't take that ugly face of yours out of this room in two twos, I'll make it uglier—if that's possible. This young gentleman is the son of an old friend of mine, and I'm not going to have him thrashed by a fellow like you. I know you have used him shamefully. How often has he flogged you, Arthur? Quick, boy, count, and I'll give him double.”

Pig waited to hear no more, but retreated with ignominious precipitancy.

Presently a police inspector, for whom Mr. Maurice had sent, made his appearance: a florid, sandy-whiskered man, with a cold, cruel, blue eye, that made me wince when he looked at me. I was so dirty that, no doubt, he considered me at first a little blackguard thief whom he would soon have to take into custody. We adjourned to a private room, and I once more told my tale, saying as little as I could about Tom—I felt grateful for his kindness, and wanted to screen him if possible. The inspector instantly recognised the house in which I had been kept, from my description of “Mother,” but thought that the thieves, alarmed by my escape, would not be likely to be found in it, and that, in all probability, they would not now attempt to carry out their scheme—at all events, at the time originally fixed. However, if Mr. Maurice would furnish him with credentials, he would go over to Clifton and garrison the house for the night with a band of the local police, and direct them to watch it sharply for the future. It would be well, he added, for Mr. Maurice to order his plate to be sent to his banker's until his return home, and to hire two or three men on whom he could rely to sleep in the house, as the women servants might feel nervous. A letter of introduction and commands was soon written to the housekeeper: and with this, and some of Mr. Maurice's gold, in his pocket, the inspector took his departure, promising that he would personally superintend the removal of the plate and secure trustworthy sentinels—he would be delighted, he was sure, to do anything for so liberal a gentleman. Chawls, then, to his infinite disgust, had to escort me to a clothier's, and procure me a ready-made outfit, complete from top to toe. Feeling civilised again with clean linen, clean face, sound shoes,

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and new clothes, I sat bodkin between Bella and Mr. Maurice in the post-chaise he had engaged—hurrying as fast as four galloping horses could drag it in pursuit of the London coach.

We went at such a rate that we overtook it at the end of the first stage, but meantime I had been able to tell of the cruelty that had driven me from school, and my manifold adventures since—moving the old man to alternate wrath and mirth, and Bella to tearful pity, not unmingled with admiration; and to learn how it was that she was going to school when the Christmas holidays were so close at hand.

Mr. Maurice, I found, had been suddenly summoned to Marseilles, and having known my father long ago, had determined to leave his little girl in the care of my mother during his absence from England.

He made very light of my truancy, said that he had run away from school, and that I had done perfectly right in leaving such a set of brute as he was sure my late mates and masters were, and promised to make my peace at home. Although rough-rinded as a pomegranate, he had as soft a heart. In a short time I quite loved the crusty, kind, ungentle old gentleman.

My recollections of our journey to town are very dream-like. I was very, very happy—escaped for ever from that hateful school (Mr. Maurice had sworn that I should never go back to it), loaded with kindness, and seated by Bella, who seemed to think me an unprecedented little hero—but I was, also, very, very sleepy, for toil and excitement had completely tired me out.

I remember stopping to dine at the inn that has been converted into the Marlborough College, and peeping through the red window-curtains of the warm, bright dining-room into the damp dusk outside. The rain dimpled the face of the dimly-seen black oblong fishpond behind the house, and as I thought of the wet, weary walk, that I was taking at that time, on the day before, I luxuriated in the present comfort of the snug chamber, and the prospective comfort of the cosy coach which would carry me in a few hours, without any effort of my own, over the long, long miles that had seemed so drealily interminable when I counted the mile-stones, a wretched little foot-sore, frightened tramp.

I remember, too, waking as the coach rolled through Windsor Forest. A frost had set in. The musical jingle of the harness, the clear ring of the team's “tattling hoofs” as they struck the glassy ground, the sharp snap of the brittle twigs, and the crackling of the crisp leaves crushed beneath the wheels, and every now and then, a low, melancholy sough of wind, like the sigh of a troubled dreamer, were the only sounds that broke

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the stillness of the closing night, or rather, early morn. The stars, newly burnished as it were, flashed their blue light from the black sky. The moon was sinking behind a clump of leafless trees that “flecked” her pale, sad face “with bars;” solemn as the last look of a dying friend, her level beams streamed through the network of dark branches over the hushed and shadowy park. Just off the road, a herd of dappled deer lay couched in the withered, rime-betinselled fern. Through the right-hand window I indistinctly saw a colossal equestrian statue: the outlines both of steed and rider melting into the circumambient gloom—gloaming would be a better word—of silvery gray. On the left stretched the Long Walk, a hazy vista ending in a still hazier mass of huddled towers.

I woke again as we rattled into St. Martin's-le-Grand. The great city still wore its dressing-gown of orange—tawny cabs, carts, foot-passengers, seen through the raw, yellow fog, had the look of magic-lantern figures exhibited by a bungler who cannot find the proper focus for his light. The pillars of the Post Office, the huge dome of St. Paul's, loomed unsubstantial in the mist. Far up, seemingly without any support, the cross which a straggling sunbeam had managed to reach, blazed like a motionless, meteor.

A sharp turn, deeper darkness, and a rumbling archway—and the coach, looking very shabby after its long journey—with a record of its route written on it in the soils of half-a-dozen shires, came to a standstill in the yard of the Bull-and-Mouth.