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The Slowcoach by E. V. Lucas

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In conclusion it may be said that, as it turned out, no more was heard of
the matter by Colonel Myddelton. The Roundhead Captain felt that the day's
work did not sufficiently redound to his credit, and he shrank from the
chaff that would follow when it was known that a girl and some schoolboys
had outwitted him. He therefore kept silence.

Some years had to pass before Barbara and Philip received their reward; but
one of the first acts of the Merry Monarch on ascending the throne was to
make Philip a knight and to send Barbara a pair of very beautiful horses
and a carriage.

THERE WAS A SILENCE AFTER GODFREY FAIRFAX HAD FINISHED.

THEN, "IS IT TRUE?" GREGORY ASKED.

"IS IT A GOOD STORY?" THE AUTHOR INQUIRED, BY WAY OF REPLY.

"OH, YES," SAID GREGORY. "RIPPING!"

"THEN LET'S CONSIDER IT TRUE," SAID MISS REDSTONE.

"OF COURSE IT'S TRUE," SAID HESTER.

"DO YOU LIKE IT AS WELL AS 'FOR THE GOOD CAUSE?" MISS REDSTONE ASKED HORACE.

"NOT QUITE," HE SAID, "BUT VERY NEARLY."

"AND YOU?" SHE INQUIRED OF JACK.

"IT'S JOLLY INTERESTING," HE SAID, "ANYWAY."

"WELL, I'M VERY MUCH OBLIGED TO YOU FOR LISTENING TO ME SO LONG," MISS
REDSTONE SAID. "YOU'VE BEEN VERY KIND, AND YOU'VE CHEERED ME UP EXTREMELY.
GOOD-BYE. I SHALL NEVER FORGET YOUR KINDNESS, AND I SHALL SEND YOU THE
STORY WHEN IT IS PRINTED."

AND AFTER GIVING HER THEIR ADDRESS, THEY RESUMED THEIR JOURNEY, AND
DISCUSSED THE ROMANCE AT INTERVALS ALL THE WAY TO BREDON HILL.

CHAPTER 15

THE ADVENTURE OF THE RUNAWAY PONIES

The distance from Evesham to Elmley Castle, a little village under Bredon
Hill, is only five or six miles, and the Slowcoaches were comfortably
encamped in a field there by six o'clock, for at Evesham they did no more
than walk through the churchyard to the beautiful square Bell Tower with
its little company of spires on the roof. Mary bought a guide at a shop at
the corner of the market-place and read the story.

This Bell Tower, with a gateway and a wall or so, is all that remains of a
Benedictine abbey which was built by the Bishop of Worcester in the reign
of Ethelred. The Bishop, it seems, had a swineherd named Eoves, who one
day, while wandering in the Forest of Arden ("In which the scene of 'As You
Like It' is laid, Hester, and which used to cover all the ground where
Evesham now stands"), was visited in a vision by three radiant damsels. He
returned at once and told the Bishop, who, on being led to the same spot,
after a preparation of fasting and prayer, had the same vision, and at once
recognized the damsels as the Virgin Mary and two Angels.

At that time the meaning of such heavenly visitations was plain, and the
Bishop at once set about building an abbey on the spot. He appointed
himself the first abbot and named it after his swineherd Eoves--Eoves'ham.

The abbey was large and prosperous, but the Danes destroyed it in one of
their raids, and it had to be rebuilt on a more splendid scale. Then came
Henry VIII. and his quarrel with the Church of Rome, and the abbey was
confiscated and given as a grant to Sir Philip Hoby, one of his friends,
who at
once (being a man of the type of the Rev. Francis Gastrell) raised what
money he could on it by turning it into a quarry for stones. And that is
why so many old houses in this neighbourhood have carved stones in their
walls.

The party then returned to the marketplace and walked down to the bridge,
where they joined Kink and set out for their goal.

Elmley Castle is one street, with a ruined cross at one end and the church
at the other, and the great hill over all. The cottages are as white as
snowdrops, and they have heavy thatch roofs. The women wear large blue
Worcestershire sunbonnets. The only shop is a post-office too, so that
Robert was able to send his telegrams very easily.

After supper some of them walked through the churchyard (which has a very
curious sun-dial in it) to the meadows beyond, in search of the castle, the
site of which is mentioned on the map, but is quite undiscoverable now;
while Robert made friends with an old labourer smoking his pipe outside the
great tithe barn, and asked him about the road up Bredon' as it was his
project to sleep on the very top of the hill the next night.

But the old man changed their plans completely; for he convinced Robert
that the Slowcoach would never get to the top without at least two more
horses to help, and even then it would be an unwise course to take, because
there was no proper road, and it might be badly shaken.

It was therefore arranged that the older and stronger children should take
their lunch to the top of the hill and eat it there, and that Kink, with
Hester and Gregory, should go round the hill? which rises all alone from
the plain like a great sleeping monster, on the flat roads, and meet them
on the other, or south side, at Beckford, in the afternoon; and they should
then go on for five or six miles farther to their campingground near
Oxenton.

The night was uneventful except for a rather startling visit from a
peacock, which stood just inside the boys' tent and uttered such sounds as
only a peacock can.

Both parties started early the next morning. Gregory and Hester, being for
the first time alone as owners of the Slowcoach, were very proud and
excited, and Gregory insisted upon Janet giving him two shillings in case
of any emergency, although Kink had plenty of money. The nice old women in
the Worcestershire sunbonnets came to see them start, and, well supplied
with stone gingerbeer from the Queen's Head--Queen Elizabeth's head, as it
happens--off they went, Gregory beside Kink, and Hester inside reading Hans
Andersen's story of the nightingale.

The others, after waving good-bye, set their feet bravely towards the
slopes of Bredon Hill--no small undertaking, for it is very steep and the
day was hot. But the pathway is pleasant, first passing by the gardens of
the great house, where, burning blue on the wall, they saw their visitor of
the night; and then through a deep lane to a hillocky meadow, and so up to
the turf of the higher slopes, where the views begin, and where it is very
agreeable to rest.

But Robert urged them on. "It is quite flat at the top," he said, "and
there is a tower at the very edge, and a perfect place for a picnic."

Here we will leave them, climbing pantingly up, and follow the Slowcoach,
as Moses drew it steadily along the lanes at the base of the hill, between
the high hedges. At first, as I said, Kink and Gregory walked; but after a
while they both sat in front, just over the shafts, and Gregory held the
reins (he called it driving), and they discussed life--which means that
Gregory asked a thousand questions and Kink did his best to answer or
ignore them.

"It's not true, is it, that when all the cows in a field stand up it's
going to rain?"

"Don't you think Bredon Hill would be a ripping place to start to fly from?"

"Shall we stop and cook our dinner, or have cold things?"

"It's not true, is it, that whenever you see a white horse you see a
red-haired girl? I suppose that means only in London, where there are so
many people?"

"Do you know that you can't walk over London Bridge without seeing a white
horse?"

"Do you think that Moses is ever going to have a stone in his shoe so that
I can get it out with my knife? Couldn't we drive him over a very stony
place?"

"You can't really tell the time by dandelions, can you?"

And so forth, till Kink's head would have ached if he had not trained it
not to.

Gregory was rattling on in this way when suddenly they heard a screaming
and scrambling and thudding behind them, and a moment later a chaise with a
little girl in it, drawn by a pair of grey ponies, dashed past at a fearful
pace, only just avoiding the caravan, and disappeared in a cloud of dust;
and then after a minute or so came a tremendous shattering crash, and all
was still.

"It's a smash-up," said Kink, urging Moses into a trot. "We must help
them;" and at the same time Hester's white face appeared at the window and
implored Kink to drive faster.

In a minute or so they saw a moving mass at the side of the road, which
they knew to be the broken chaise, and a farm labourer holding the head of
the one pony that was on its feet. Kink tied Moses to a gate-post, and ran
to the man's help, telling the children to wait a moment. Both were rather
frightened, and they stood hand in hand by Moses and watched.

They saw Kink lift something from the chaise and lay it on the grass. Then
they saw him hacking at the harness with his pruning-knife until the pony
was free, when the man led it to another gate-post and tied it there. Then
Kink hacked again, and drew the carriage away from the pony that was lying
on the ground; and then he and the man lifted the bundle once more and came
with it very carefully to the Slowcoach, Kink calling out to Gregory to
open the door and put some pillows on the floor.

When Kink and the man reached the Slowcoach, Hester saw that they were
carrying a girl of about her own age, who was lying in their arms quite
still, with her eyes closed.

They placed her gently on the cushions, and Kink dashed a little water on
her face.

After a moment or so she opened her eyes and asked where she was.

"You're all right," said Hester. "You've had an accident. We're taking care
of you."

Then the little girl remembered. "The ponies!" she cried. "Are they hurt?"

"I'm afraid one of them is," said Kink. "But never mind now. The great
thing is that you weren't thrown out. Keep quiet now, missie, and we'll
look after everything."

But the little girl would not be silenced.

"Which one is hurt?" she asked. "Which one? Is it Marshall or Snelgrove?"

"I don't know," said Kink. "They're both alike."

"Oh, no, they're not," said the little girl. "Marshall has a white star
between his eyes. Oh, do say Marshall's all right! Marshall's my very own."

"I'll go and see," said Gregory; and he ran off, and came back to say that
Marshall was the one that seemed to be all right, but Snelgrove had broken
his leg and couldn't move.

"Oh, I'm so glad about Marshall," said the girl; "but poor Tommy, how sorry
he'll be!"

"See if you can get up, missie," said Kink. "I want to know if you're hurt
anywhere."

The little girl sat up and then stood up. "I feel all right," she said,
"only very giddy."

Kink uttered a sigh of relief. "Drink this cold water," he said. "That will
make you much better. And now tell us all about the accident, because we
shall have to let your people know."

"Well," said the little girl, "mother and I were driving to Ashton to see
Aunt May; and mother had just got out to leave the _British Workman_ at old
Mr. Dimmock's, when the ponies took fright and ran away. I held the reins
as long as I could, and when I saw your caravan in front I screamed to warn
you, and then there was a terrible crash, and I don't remember anything
else."

"And what will your poor mamma be doing?" said Kink.

"Oh, poor mother!" said the little girl. "She'll be so nervous! But she'll
be coming after us as fast as she can, because she saw them start off."

"Then I think," said Kink, "the best thing to do is for us to leave this
man here to mind the ponies and tell your mamma you're all right; and we'll
go on to Ashton as quick as we can, and send back some help. We'll take you
to your aunt's, missie, and the man will tell your mamma when she comes up
what we've done. I'm so glad you're not hurt."

So Hester and Gregory were left with the little girl, who told them her
name was Patricia Mordan, and she was ten, and they lived near Fladbury,
and she had a King Charles spaniel; while Kink urged Moses towards Ashton,
which was only a mile or so away.

Hester put the kettle on the Beatrice stove, thinking that tea was the best
thing, and Gregory sat down and looked at their guest, and thought what a
splendid adventure it was to tell the others about when they met them
later.

Patricia, who was now in a deck-chair, examined the caravan in a kind of
ecstasy. "What a lovely place it is!" she said. "Do you really live here?
How scrumptiously exciting!"

"My bed's over there," said Gregory.

"Where do you stop at night?" Patricia asked.

"I have to go to the farmers and get leave to camp on their land," said
Gregory.

"And is it just you two and the driver?" Patricia asked.

"Oh, no," said Gregory; "there are five others, but they are walking over
Bredon Hill. They said we could not walk so far,
which is rot, of course; but I'm glad we didn't, because then we shouldn't
have been here to save your life."

"Mother will be very grateful to you for being so kind," said Patricia.
"Poor mother! she'll be so frightened about me. And Tommy--how dreadful for
him to lose Snelgrove!"

"Who's Tommy?" Gregory asked.

"Tommy's my brother," said Patricia. "He's twelve. Aunt May gave Snelgrove
to him and Marshall to me last Christmas. They've never run away before. I
wish we had a caravan."

"Caravans are very jolly," said Gregory. "Things are always happening, too."

"I'd rather have a sweet grey pony than a caravan," said Hester, bringing a
cup of tea.

CHAPTER 16

THE BLACK SPANIELS

Gregory, who was looking out of the door and meditating an escape from so
much dampness, and a conversation on the whole matter with Kink, exclaimed
suddenly, "Hello, I guess this is your mother."

"Yes, it is," cried Patricia, standing up and waving her handkerchief to a
lady seated in a milk-cart, which was being driven after them at a
tremendous pace. "I wondered who she'd get to bring her here, and it's
young Daniel Wilson. Tell your man to stop, please."

Mrs. Mordan, whom Gregory thought both a nice and a pretty lady, leapt out
of the milk-cart and ran up the steps of the Slowcoach, and mother and
daughter hugged each other for quite two minutes, while Gregory looked at
young Daniel Wilson, and Patricia began to cry afresh-- this time because
she was happy.

Mrs. Mordan was happy too. The grief she had felt for the accident and the
injury to poor Snelgrove, whom she had left in agony by the road, passed
away when she found her little daughter unhurt.

She sat holding Patricia's hand, and asked Hester a number of questions,
and gave her a number of thanks all together.

Gregory meanwhile had got out, and was asking young Daniel Wilson how
ponies are shot; and what he did about getting milk to the station when the
snow was two feet thick; and if the cows often kicked the buckets over.

"It's not us," said Hester, "it's Kink who was so useful."

"Who is Kink?" Mrs. Mordan asked.

"Our gardener," said Hester, "but he drives the caravan for us;" and
gradually she told the whole Slowcoach story.

By this time they were at Ashton, and, after giving instructions about
looking after the ponies,--sending for a veterinary surgeon and so
forth,--Mrs. Mordan showed Kink the way to Aunt May's house, which they
reached just before two.

Aunt May was standing by the gate? with five black spaniels about her,
looking anxiously down the road--a tall lady with grey hair and top-boots,
and a little whip in her hand.

"No," she said, as Kink stopped at the gate, "I don't want any chairs or
kettles mended, or, indeed, anything from you at all."

Kink, however, said nothing, but went to the back of the caravan and helped
Mrs. Mordan and Patricia down.

"My precious Lina!" exclaimed Aunt May, when she saw them. "Whatever has
happened?"

"I'll tell you about it indoors," said Mrs. Mordan. "These kind people are
going to stop here for lunch, if you've got enough."

"Of course there's enough," said Aunt May; "but I thought you were gipsies,
or tinkers, or something objectionable. You're not a tinker, are you?" she
said to Gregory.

"No," he said, "but I'd like to be a gypsy."

And so they reached the house, which was an old-fashioned one, all among
dark trees, with a very soft lawn in front of it.

Aunt May told Kink to go round to the back and be sure not to let Diogenes
and the dogs fight, and then she began to call at the top of her voice for
Simpkins.

After a while Simpkins appeared--an elderly bald man in a dress suit, who
was evidently the butler.

"Simpkins," said Aunt May, "there will be two more to lunch, and there's a
caravan at the back belonging to this gentleman here,"--indicating Gregory,
who immediately grew three inches all over,--"and please give the driver a
good dinner."

"Yes, my lady," said Simpkins; and Hester and Gregory at once began to look
at her with round eyes, for they had never before met anyone who was
titled--I mean to speak to, although they had seen the Lord Mayor (who is
of course a baronet) in his carriage only last November 9.

"And, Simpkins," said Aunt May, "take Mr. What is your name?" she asked
Gregory.

"Gregory Bruce Avory," said he.

"Take Mr. Bruce Avory to the Pink Room, and get him some hot water."

"Yes, my lady," said Simpkins, and Gregory grew another inch all over.

And then Aunt May led the others upstairs.

Gregory finished his washing first, and walked to the dining-room, which
opened on to the lawn, and was very bright and sweet-smelling. The walls
were covered with pictures, and there were roses in blue bowls wherever a
place could be found for them.

By the wall, in a row, were five round baskets, and directly Aunt May came
in the five black spaniels, who were with her, went each to his basket, and
lay there quietly, with his head resting on the edge and his eyes fixed on
his mistress. Their names were Mars, Saturn, Orion, Mercury, and Jupiter;
and from time to time Aunt May called one to her and gave it a little piece
of food, while the others glittered with expectation.

"Now," said Aunt May, "let's get on with our eatin', for I'm sure you're
all hungry, and I know I am. Patricia dear, do you think you can eat solid
things, or shall we get something else?"

Patricia, however, declared that she could eat anything.

"Mr. Bruce Avory," said Aunt May, "you're drinkin' nothing. Would you
rather have lemonade or barley-water?"

Poor Gregory! he knew what he wanted--lemonade--but he didn't know whether
he ought to address Aunt May as "My Lady " or "Your Ladyship " or "Lady
Rusper." He had tried to get a moment with Hester to ask about it, but
without success.

"If she was only our aunt!" he thought, and then said, without using any
name at all, that he would like lemonade.

Lady Rusper made them tell her the story all through once again, "right
from the beginnin'," as she called it; and just as Hester had got to the
end of her part of it a boy arrived leading Marshall, and Patricia leaped
up and rushed across the lawn to fondle her pony. Then she dashed back for
a piece of sugar, and was off again. The boy said that the blacksmith, who
was also a farrier, had seen Marshall, and declared he was quite sound; but
Snelgrove was done for completely, and the trap was too badly smashed ever
to be much use.

"Put Marshall in the stable," said Aunt May, "and have the trap brought here."

At the news about Snelgrove Patricia began to cry again.

"Well," said Aunt May, "we must see what can be done. I dare say there are
more ponies in the world. But I suppose we shall all be driven to motors
before long. It's a great shame. I spend most of my time detestin' the
things; but they've got to come. And now," she said to Hester, "tell me all
about your home and your caravan;" and Hester again told the story, saying
"Lady Rusper" with an ease that made Gregory gasp.

After lunch they all went to the stables, where, in a loose-box,
beautifully snug in the straw, lay another black spaniel, Venus, with three
puppies ("Oh, the darlings!" cried Hester) snuggling to her.

"Do you think your mother would let you keep a spaniel?" Aunt May asked.

"Oh, yes, now we've got Diogenes as a start," she answered.

"Very well, then," said Aunt May, "if you'd like one of these, you shall
have it directly it's old enough to be sent away--as a memory of to-day,
and as a thankofferin', too. Which would you like," she added, "Psyche,
Cicero, or Circe? This is Cicero, this is Circe, and this is Psyche."

"Why do all their names begin with 'S'?" Gregory asked; and it was not till
he told Janet about it that he understood why it was that everyone had
laughed so.

"And if you may keep two," Aunt May went on, speaking to Gregory, "I shall
send you one of the next litter. Vesta is going to have puppies soon. You
must write and let me know. And now, if your man has finished, I expect
you'd like to be gettin' on, or the others will be nervous about you."

And so, after Hester had chosen Circe, they all said very affectionate
farewells, and the Slowcoach rumbled forth again.

Meanwhile, what of Janet and Robert and Mary and Jack and Horace? They had
had no adventures at all--nothing but scenery and a pleasant picnic.

Robert had been rightly told about the summit of Bredon Hill, for there the
grass is as short as on the South Downs, and there is a deep fosse in which
to shelter from the wind.

The hill at this western point ends suddenly, at a kind of precipice, and
you look right over the valley of the Avon and the Severn to the Malverns.
Just below on the south-west is Tewkesbury, where the Severn and the Avon
meet, after that becoming the Severn only all the way to Bristol and the
sea. In the far south-west rises the point of the Sugar Loaf at
Abergavenny, and the blue distance is Wales-- the country of King Arthur
and Malory.

To the north-west is the smoke of Worcester, and immediately beneath the
hill, winding shiningly about, is the Avon, running by Bredon village and
the Combertons and Pershore, past Cropthorne (where Mr. MacAngus was
perhaps even now painting) and Wood Norton (where the Duke of Orleans, who
ought, Hester held, to be King of France to-day, lives) to Evesham, and the
weir where they had rowed about, and so on to Stratford.

Robert's maps, fortified by what he had picked up from the old man last
night, told them all these things, and told them also, more or less, what
the "coloured counties" were that they could see; for of course Mary wanted
to know that: Warwickshire, Gloucestershire, Oxfordshire, Worcestershire,
Herefordshire, Monmouthshire. After lunch Mary sang the beautiful Bredon
Hill song to them; and so they descended to the level ground and to Kink
and Hester and Gregory, little expecting to find them with such exciting
things to tell.

>From Beckford to Oxenton the great story lasted, eked out with questions
and answers as it proceeded. Thus, Horace wanted to know why Kink had not
sprung to the horses' heads and checked them in their wild career.

"We couldn't see them," said Gregory; "they were coming up behind, and we
were sitting in front."

Horace was dissatisfied.

"What frightened them?" Jack wanted to know; but Gregory could not say.
Patricia had not explained.

"Fancy not knowing what frightened them!" said Jack.

The fact was that both Jack and Horace were a little overtired, and perhaps
a little jealous of the eventfulness of the Slowcoach's day.

They had been talking so hard that they had not noticed the sky; and the
splashing of raindrops was the first knowledge they had that a storm was
coming. It was nearly seven, and suddenly they all knew that they were very
tired and hungry and rather chilly. Kink stopped Moses and suggested
camping at once.

"Where?" said Robert.

"Here," said Kink. "Under these trees. There'll be a downpour soon: better
get your supper at once."

They therefore did not make any effort to find a farm, but instantly
unpacked. Hitherto everything had gone smoothly, but this was a bad
evening. Nothing seemed to be in its place, and Hester, whose duty it was
to get enough dry wood, had forgotten all about it, and by the time a new
bundle could be brought it was damp. Then the matches blew out, and then,
when at last the fire was alight, the wind scattered the flames so that
there was no heat under the pot for more than a moment at a time. This
often happens when you are on caravan excursions.

Mary had arranged for a stew, but she soon discovered that there was no
chance of its being done for hours unless it could be moved into the
Slowcoach and cooked over the Beatrice stove; but when they got Beatrice
out, she was found to be empty, and no more oil was in the can.

"Who is the Keeper of the Oil?" Mary asked severely.

"I am," said Jack.

"Then where is it?" they asked.

"I had it filled at Stratford," said Jack. "Why," he exclaimed, "there's a
hole in it! It's all run away! How ghastly! It will be all over
everything."

And so it was; and the worst of it was that it had leaked into the
biscuits, too. Janet came to the rescue. "We must make it a tongue and
banana meal," she said.

"I hate bananas," said Gregory.

"Now, Horace," said Janet, "where's the tin-opener?"

How is it that everything goes wrong at once? Horace had to hunt for the
tinopener for twenty minutes, and turn the whole place upside down before
he could find it, and then it was too late.

Meanwhile the rain was steadily falling, and Kink and Robert were busy
getting up the tents before the ground underneath was too wet. Robert was
the only happy one. A few difficulties seemed to him to make the expedition
more real.

He came dripping into the Slowcoach and asked for his supper; but Horace
was still hunting for the tin-opener.

"Never mind about it," said Robert. "I'll open the thing with the hammer
and a knife. But what you want, Horace, is system."

"No; what I want is food," said Horace. "I'm dying."

"So am I," said Gregory.

"Well, eat a crust to go on with," said Janet. "There's the bread."

"I hate crusts," said Gregory.

"Surely crusts are better than dying of starvation," said Mary.

"No," said Gregory, who was prepared to be thoroughly unpleasant. "No, I'd
much rather die. I think I shall go to bed."

"Yes," said Robert, "do. People who can't stand a little hunger are no good
in caravans."

"Janet," said Gregory, "how can I go to bed with my boots on?"

"Then take them off," said Janet.

"There's a knot," said Gregory.

"Well, you must wait," said Janet. "I can't leave what I'm doing."

"I hate waiting," said Gregory.

Robert, however, became suddenly very stern. He advanced on Gregory with a
knife in his hand, and, swooping on the boot, cut both laces. "There," he
said, "get into bed, and you must buy some more laces at Cheltenham."

"I hate Cheltenham," said Gregory. But he said no more; he saw that Robert
was cross.

When, a little later, Janet took a plate of tongue over to his bunk, he was
fast asleep. The others had a dismal, grumpy meal, and they were glad when
the washing-up was done and it was bedtime. But no one had a good night.
The rain dropped from the trees on to the Slowcoach's roof with loud thuds,
and at midnight the thunder and lightning began, and Janet got up and
splashed out in the wet to the tent to ask Robert if they ought not to move
from under the trees. Robert had been lying awake thinking the same thing,
but Kink had gone off with Moses to the nearest farm, and the Slowcoach was
far too heavy to move without the horse. Diogenes whimpered on his chain.
If he could have spoken, he would have said, like Gregory, "I hate
thunder."

"Perhaps it won't get very near us," said Robert. "We must chance it, anyway."

But neither he nor Janet had any sleep until it was nearly time to get up,
when the sun began to shine again, and the miseries of the evening and
night before were forgotten.

Hester, however, had slept all through it, and had dreamed that ponies were
running away with her towards a country entirely peopled by black spaniels
and governed by a grey queen in top-boots.

As for Gregory, his dream was that he was Lord Bruce.

CHAPTER 17

THE ADVENTURE OF THE LOST BABY

They entered Cheltenham at about half-past eleven, and were having lunch on
the top of Leckhampton Hill, on the other side of it, by half-past one.
Robert had not allowed any stop in Cheltenham except for shopping. "We
don't want towns," he said, "except historic ones."

"But this is historic," said Jack; "Jessop was at school here."

The pull up Leckhampton Hill was very stiff, and they were all glad to take
lunch easily, and since Robert had arranged a short day--only three or four
miles more, to a very nice-looking spot on the other side of Birdlip--they
rested with clear consciences; and, as it happened, rested again in the
Birdlip Hotel, where they had tea in the garden overlooking the Severn
Valley on the top of just such a precipice as Bredon.

It was half-past three before they started again on their next five miles,
and they had done about three of them, and had just passed Teddington, when
Gregory, who was walking with Kink beside Moses, suddenly dashed ahead
towards a bundle which was lying in the middle of the road.

He bent down over it, and then began to shriek for the others to come too.

"What is it?" cried Jack, as they raced up.

"It's a baby!" Gregory said, wild with excitement. "A real baby!"

Janet, who had been behind, sprang forward as she heard these remarkable
words, and easily reached the bundle first.

"So it is," she exclaimed, picking it tenderly up and opening the wraps
round its face.

It was a swarthy mite, very tightly bound into its clothes.

"What an extraordinary thing!" said Mary. "Fancy finding a baby on the road!"

"It has probably been abandoned," said Hester. "Very likely it is of noble
birth, and was stolen by gipsies and stained brown, and now they are afraid
of pursuit and have left it."

"How could it be of noble birth?" Gregory asked. "Look how hideous it is!"

"Looks have nothing to do with high lineage," said Hester. "There have been
very ugly kings."

"It isn't hideous," said Janet. "It's a perfect darling. But what are we to
do with it?"

"If it's a boy," said Gregory, "let's keep it and make it into a long-stop.
We want one badly." (Gregory, as I have said, hated fielding.)

"Let's adopt it," said Hester. "Mother often says how she wishes we were
still babies."

"Don't let's adopt it if it's a girl," said Gregory.

"It doesn't matter what a baby is," said Hester,--"whether it's a boy or a
girl. The important thing is that it's a baby. When it gets too big, we can
let it go."

"I'm dreadfully afraid," said Janet, "that we shall have to try to find out
whose it is and give it back now."

"Well," said Mary, "we needn't try too hard, need we?"

"How are you going to try, anyway?" Jack asked, with some scorn. "You can't
stop everyone you see and say, 'Have you lost a baby?' This old man just
coming along, for instance."

"Wouldn't a good way," said Robert, "be to write a little placard:

FOUND, A BABY.

Inquire Within.

and stick it on the caravan?"

They liked that idea, but Janet suggested that it would be best to ask Kink
first.

"There's only one thing to do," said Kink, "and that is to hand it over to
the police at the next place we come to."

"Police again!" said Horace. "You're always talking of the police."

"Well," said Kink, "that's what they're for. And if you think a moment or
two, you'll all see what a trouble a baby would be. We shall reach Oxenton
in a little while, and we can leave the baby there."

But, as it happened, they had no need to, for there suddenly appeared
before them a caravan covered with baskets which was being urged towards
them by a young woman who tugged at the horse's head in a kind of frenzy.
As she drew nearer they could hear that she was wailing.

"It must be her baby," said Janet, holding the bundle up; but the woman did
not see it, and Janet told Jack to run on quickly and meet her, and tell
her that they had the baby and it was not hurt.

Jack did so, and the woman left the horse to be cared for by the man and
boy who walked behind, and ran to Janet, and seized the bundle from her,
and hugged it so tightly that the baby, for the first time, uttered a
little cry.

"Where did you find it?" the gipsy woman asked; and Janet told her the story.

"It must have rolled out of the van while I was in front with the horse,"
said the gipsy. "We didn't miss it. We've had to come back three miles at
least."

By this time the two caravans had met, and the man was brought up by the
woman and told the story, and they all expressed their gratitude to Janet
for nursing the child so kindly.

"Bless your pretty heart!" the gipsy woman said again and again, while her
husband asked if there was anything that they could do for her and her
party.

"I don't think so," said Janet. "We liked to take care of it, of course."

The gipsy man asked a number of questions about the Slowcoach, and then
suggested that he should show them a good place to camp, and make their
fire for them, and he added: "I'll tell you what--you all come and have
supper with us. I'll bet you've talked about playing at gipsies often
enough; well, we'll get a real gipsy supper--a slap-up one. What's the
time?"

He looked at the sun. "Nearly five. Well, we'll have supper at half-past
seven, and we'll do you proud. Will you come?"

Janet considered.

"Of course, Janet," said Robert.

"Why don't you say yes?" said Gregory.

Hester shrank a little towards the Slowcoach, and Janet went to talk to Kink.

She came back and thanked the gipsy, but said that they would not all come,
but the boys would gladly do so.

"I'm sorry you won't be there," said the man. "But we'll give the young
gents a square meal--and tasty, too! Something to relish! What do you say,
now," he asked Gregory, "to a hedgehog? I don't expect you've ever eaten
that."

"Hedgehog!" said Gregory. "No, but I've always wanted to." And, in fact, he
had been thinking of nothing else for the last five minutes.

"You shall have it," said the man. "Baked or stewed?"

"Which is best?" Gregory asked.

"Stewed," said the man. "But if you'd like it baked--Or, I'll tell you.
We'll have one of each. We got two to-day. This shall be a banquet."

The gipsies really were very grateful folk. The boy got wood for them; the
man made their fire--much better than it had ever been made before--and lit
it without any paper, and with only one match.

It was at last arranged that they should all share the same supper,
although the woman should sit with the girls and the boys with the man. And
so they did; and they found the hedgehog very good, especially the baked
one, which had been enclosed in a mould of clay and pushed right into the
middle of the fire. It tasted a little like pork, only more delicate.

"When you invited us to come to supper," Robert said, "you asked what the
time was, and then looked at the sun and said it was nearly five. And it
was--almost exactly. How do you do that?"

"Ah," said the gipsy, "I can't explain. There it is. I know by the sun, but
I can't teach you, because you must live out of doors and never have a
clock, or it's no good."

"And can you tell it when there's no sun?" Robert asked.

"Pretty well," said the man.

"How lucky you are!" said Horace.

"Well, I don't know," said the man. "What about rain? When it's raining
hard, and we're huddling in the van and can't
get any dry sticks for the fire, and our feet are soaked, what are you
doing? Why, you're all snug in your houses, with a real roof over you."

"I'd much rather live in a caravan than a house," said Horace.

The man laughed. "You're a young gent out for a spree," he said. "You don't
count. You wonder at me," he continued, "being able to tell the time by the
skies. But I dare say there's one, at any rate, of you who can find a train
in that thing they call Bradshaw, isn't there?"

"I can," said Robert.

"Well, there you are," said the gipsy. "What's luck? Nothing. Everyone's
got a little. No one's got much."

"Oh, but the millionaires?" said Horace.

"Millionaires!" said the gipsy. "Why, you don't think they're lucky, do you?"

"I always have done so," said Horace.

"Go on!" said the gipsy. "Why, we're luckier than what they are. We've got
enough to eat and drink,--and no one wants more,--and along with it no rent
and taxes, no servants, no tall hats, no offices, no motor-cars, no fear of
thieves. Millionaires have no rest at all. No sitting under a tree by the
fire smoking a pipe."

"And no hedgehogs," said Gregory.

"No--no hedgehogs. Nothing but butcher's meat that costs its weight in
gold. Take my advice, young gents," said the gipsy, "and never envy
anybody."

Meanwhile the others were very happy by the Slowcoach fire. The gipsy
woman, hugging her baby, kept as close to Janet as if she were a spaniel.
Their name was Lee, she said, and they made baskets. They lived at Reading
in the winter and were on the road all the rest of the year. The young boy
was her brother. His name was Keziah. Her husband's name was Jasper. The
baby's was Rhoda.

Hester was very anxious to ask questions about kidnapping, but she did not
quite like to, and was, in fact, silent.

The gipsy woman noticed it after a while, and remarked upon it. "That
little dark one there," she said; "why doesn't she speak?"

Janet said something about Hester being naturally quiet and thoughtful.

"Oh, no," said the woman, "I know what it is: she's frightened of me. She's
heard stories about the gipsies stealing children and staining their faces
with walnut juice; haven't you, dearie?"

Hester admitted it.

"There," said the woman, laughing triumphantly. "But don't be frightened,
dearie," she added. "That's only stories. And even if it ever did happen,
it couldn't again, what with railway trains and telegraphs and telephones
and motor-cars and newspapers. How could we help being found out? Why," she
continued, "so far from stealing children, there was a boy running away
from school once who offered us a pound to let him join our caravan and
stain his face and go with us to Bristol, where he could get on to a ship
as a stowaway, as he called it; but Jasper wouldn't let him. I wanted to;
but Jasper was dead against it. 'No,' he said, 'gipsies have a bad enough
time as it is, without getting into trouble helping boys to run away from
school.' That shows what we are, dearie," she added to Hester, with a
smile.

"And don't you ever tell fortunes?" Hester asked.

"I won't say I've never done that," the gypsy said.

"Won't you tell mine?" Hester asked. "I've got a sixpence."

"Just cross my hand with it," said the woman, "but don't give it to me. I
couldn't take money from any of you."

So Hester, with her heart beating very fast, crossed the gipsy's hand with
the sixpence, and the gipsy held both hers and peered at them very hard
while Janet nursed the baby.

"This," said the gipsy at last, "is a very remarkable hand. I see stories
and people reading them. I see a dark gentleman and a gentleman of middling
colour."

"Yes," said Hester. "Can't you tell me anything more about them?"

"Well," said the gipsy, "I can't, because they are only little boys just
now. But I see a beautiful wedding. White satin. Flowers. Bridesmaids."

The gipsy stopped, and Hester drew her hand back. It was terribly romantic
and exciting.

Before the woman said good night and went to her caravan, Hester took her
sixpence to Kink and asked him to bore a hole in it. And then she threaded
it on a piece of string and tied it round the baby's neck.

The gipsy woman was very grateful. "A beautiful wedding," she said again.
"Such flowers! Music, too."

"Wasn't it wonderful?" Hester said to Janet before they went to sleep.

"What?" Janet asked.

"The gipsy knowing I was fond of writing."

"No," said Janet, "it wasn't wonderful at all. There was a great ink stain
on your finger."

CHAPTER 18

THE ADVENTURE OF THE OLD IRISHWOMAN

When they awoke the next morning the gipsies had gone--nothing remained of
them but the burnt circle on the ground which any encampment makes and a
little rubbish; but at the mouth of the boys' tent lay a bundle of sticks
and two rabbits.

Kink looked at the rabbits with a narrow eye. "Better hurry up and get them
eaten," he said, "or one of those policemen that Master Campbell is so fond
of may be asking awkward questions. And it wouldn't be a bad thing," Kink
added, "to have a good look round and see if there's anything missing."

"Oh, Kink," said Janet, "how horrid you are to be so suspicious! And after
all their gratitude, too!"

"Yes," said Kink; "but gipsies is gipsies. They were gipsies before they
were grateful, and I reckon they'll be gipsies after."

But in spite of his examination he found no signs of any theft.

They were away soon after breakfast, which seemed a little flat at first
after the excitement of last night. But they soon lost that feeling in
hunger. It was a very windy day, with showers now and then; but it was
bracing too, especially on this very high road, hundreds of feet above the
sea-level.

Robert pointed out how straight it was, and told them it was made by the
Romans eighteen hundred years ago, and it ran right through Cirencester
(which they called Corinium) to Speen (which they called Spinae). Its name
was then Ermin Street. And it amused the children to imagine they too were
Romans clanking along this fine highway.

It was after lunch that they came upon an old woman--sitting beside the
road just beyond Tredington. Long before they reached her they heard her
moaning and groaning.

"What is it?" Janet asked.

The old woman moaned and groaned.

"Are you ill?" Janet asked.

The old woman groaned and moaned.

"Kinky," said Janet, "come and see if we can help her."

Kink murmured to himself and came to her.

"What's up, missis?" he asked.

"It's my poor heart," said the old woman with an Irish brogue. "I'm very
queer. It's near death I am. For the love of Heaven give me a ride in the
beautiful caravan."

"Where do you want to go?" Kink growled at her.

"To Alverminster," she said. "To see my daughter. She lives there. She's
been married these five years to a carpenter, and she's just had another
baby, bless it's wee face! But me poor heart's that bad I can't go another
step."

Kink drew Janet aside. "She's an old humbug," he said, "and she smells of
gin. Better let her be."

"Oh, Kinky," said Janet, "how can we! The poor old thing, and her daughter
waiting to see her!"

"Daughter!" Kink snorted. "She's got no daughter. She's trying it on."

"How horrid you are!" Janet said. "I mean to give her a lift, anyway."

"It's against my advice," said Kink. "Anyway, promise me you won't give her
any money."

"Very well," said Janet, and she invited the old woman to sit on a chair at
the back of the caravan.

"The saints protect you for your kindness!" said the old woman, getting to
her feet and making her way up the steps with more ease than Janet had
dared to expect. "The saints protect you all--all except that suspicious
ould gossoon wid the whip," she added, glowering at Kink, who was by no
means backward in glowering at her in reply.

"If you had such a thing as a drop of spirits," said the old woman to
Janet, who had taken a seat beside her, "I should be all right. The doctor
says that there's nothing like a little stimulant for such flutterings and
spasms as worry me."

"I'm afraid we haven't," said Janet; "but I could make you a cup of tea."

"There's a darlin'," said the old woman. "It's not so helpful as spirits,
but there's comfort in it too."

Her sharp little eyes followed Janet as she moved about and brought
together all the tea requisites.

"You're a handy young lady," she said, "and may Heaven send you a fine
husband when the time comes! Ah, it's myself as a girl you remind me of,
with your quick, pretty ways."

"Where did you live when you were a girl?" Janet asked.

"In a little village called Kilbeggy," said the old woman. "My father was a
farmer there until the trouble came upon him. But it's little enough
happiness we had after that, and niver a piece of meat passed our lips for
years. Nothing but potatoes and bread. And you're eating meat twice a day,
I'm thinking, all of you. Ah, it's a strange world, and a very gay one when
you're rich. I was rich once, me darlin'."

"Were you?" Janet asked in surprise.

"Oh, yes," said the old woman, "I was rich once. Me husband was a licensed
victualler in Harrow, and we kept our own wagonette. Many's the time I've
driven it meself into London, to a stable in the Edgeware Road, where I
left it to do me shopping. It was an elegant carriage, and a white horse
not so unlike your own, only smaller."

Janet handed her the tea.

"Thank you, me darlin'," said the old woman. "I'm feeling better already.
That's a beautiful locket you're wearing-- it is the very image of one that
belonged to me poor little Clara that died."

The old woman began to cry. Janet was greatly distressed. "I can't help
it," said the old woman. "Me poor little Clara! I kept it for years and
years, and then it was taken from me by my landlady's son, a
good-for-nothing blackguard, in lodgings off the Pentonville Road." She
sobbed afresh. "I've never been happy since," she said.

"Oh," Janet exclaimed, "do take this. I don't want it, I'm sure, if it
would make you happy."

"But it's robbing you of it I am," said the old woman, as her hand closed
on it.

"I'd much rather you had it," Janet replied.

"Heaven bless your kind heart!" said the old woman.

They jogged on, and she continued to look around her and to ask questions.
She asked all about Janet's home and parents.

"Could you," she said at last, "lend me a shilling, my dear? It's to buy
the little baby some mittens, his poor hands get that cold. I don't want
you to give it, but couldn't you lend it me only for to-day? I'll post you
a beautiful postal order to-night, which my daughter's husband will get for
me, or a beautiful row of stamps, if you'll give me the address of the
grand house you'll be staying in at Stratford."

But Janet was firm; she had promised Kink.

"Not for the poor little mite's cold hands?" said the old woman.

It was very hard, but Janet had to say no.

The old woman said no more for some time. Then suddenly, "Did you ever see
the late King, God bless him?" she asked.

"Yes," said Janet, "I saw him once. It was at the opening of Parliament."

"Then you can tell me," said the old woman, "something I want to know; for
I was arguing it with my daughter's husband the last time I was here, and I
want to convince him. He says--my daughter's husband, that is--that the
King had thick hair on the top of his head, God bless him! and I say he
hadn't. What I say is, he'd got all the hair he needed. So if you ever saw
him, you could tell me."

"Oh, no, I can't," Janet said. "When I saw him he was in a carriage."

"What a pity!" said the old woman. "But haven't you a portrait of him
anywhere?"

"No, I'm sure we haven't," said Janet. "Perhaps we ought to have! It would
be more loyal, wouldn't it?"

"Never mind," said the old woman; "only it would put my mind at rest." And
then suddenly she began to laugh. "Why," she said, "how silly we are! Of
course you've got portraits of him--lashin's of them, darlin'."

"Where?" Janet exclaimed.

"In your purse," said the old woman. "On the blessed money. On the
shillings and sixpences, my dear."

"Of. course," said Janet, laughing too; and she drew out her purse and
looked at the money it contained. There was half a sovereign and half a
crown and some smaller coins; but none were new ones: all were of
Victoria's reign.

"What a pity!" said the old woman again--perhaps one of your brothers or
sisters has some more. Not the old blackguard driving, of course."

"Yes," said Janet; "I'll see;" and descended the steps, and soon after
returned with an Edward shilling.

The old woman took it and examined head. "I was right," she said, "God
bless him! He was as thin on the top as my own poor father was, rest his
soul! Well, dear, and now I'll say good-bye," she added soon after, as she
rose to her feet and gave the shilling back. "If you'll make that spalpeen
stop, I'll get down, for me daughter's cottage is just over there, across
fields. Thank you very kindly for the tea and your sweet company. Good-bye,
good bye," she called, "and the saints protect you all!" and she hobbled
off through a gate
in the hedge.

At Alverminster Gregory insisted upon buying some acid-drops, and went to
Janet for a penny. But when she came to feel for her purse it was not to be
found. She hunted everywhere in the caravan, but in vain.

"When did you have it last?" Kink asked. "You haven't bought anything to-day."

"No," said Janet, "but I had it out when the old Irishwoman was there."

"I guessed she'd get some money out of you," said Kink.

"Oh, Kink!" said Janet; "she didn't. And after I had promised, too! All she
wanted to see was King Edward's head on a coin."

"What for?" Kink asked.

"To see if he was bald on the top or not," said Janet. "She had had an
argument with her daughter's husband about it. Which just proves that you
were wrong in thinking she had no daughter."

Kink smiled an annoying smile. "Well," he said, "what then?"

"We found a coin." said Janet. "and found that the King was bald on the
top. That's all."

"And shortly afterwards she got out?" Kink asked.

"Yes, soon afterwards."

Kink laughed very heartily. "Well," he said, "I could see she was an old
fraud, but I didn't think she would steal anything, or I wouldn't have let
her in the caravan at all."

"Steal!" Janet cried. "Why, do you think she stole it? It's very horrid and
unjust of you."

"Then where is it?" Kink asked. "That stuff about the King's head was a
trick. It's a clear case. We must go to the constable's house."

"Oh, no," said Janet, "we won't. She was a poor old thing, and her heart
was bad, and she was very unhappy, and I don't mind about the money."

"She's an old vagabond," said Kink.

"and her heart's as sound as mine. She wants locking up."

"I won't have it," said Janet again. "If she did steal it, it was very
wrong; but she has had very bad luck. Don't let's think any more about it,
but pay for the sweets and get on."

Poor Janet! no wonder she wanted the matter dropped, for there was her
locket to be explained if any of the others noticed it and asked questions.
She was very silent for some time, and walked alone, thinking hard. This
was her first experience of theft, and it hurt her.

The children, as it happened, never did notice the absence of the locket,
but they kept the memory of the old woman very green. Nothing after that
could be missed without some reference to her.

"Where's the corkscrew?" Robert would say. "I suppose Kathleen Mavourneen's
got it."

"It's no use," Jack would remark, "I can't find the salt. Erin go bragh!"

CHAPTER 19

THE LETTERS TO X.

They reached Cirencester at five o'clock, and at once turned to the left to
the Fairford road, intending to camp just outside the town till Monday; and
it was here that Gregory had his first rebuff in his capacity as Requester
of Camping Grounds. He brought it upon himself by refusing to let Mary
accompany him, and, indeed, refusing advice altogether.

He marched off to the farmhouse, which could be seen in the distance across
the meadows, full of assurance; but misfortunes began at once. No sooner
was he well in the first meadow than a flock of geese suddenly appeared
from nowhere and approached him. There is something very horrid about the
approach of a flock of geese. They are not really dangerous, but they lower
their heads and hiss and come on so steadily and are so impossible to deal
with. A dog can be hit with a stick; but you can't hit a goose. There were
no stones to throw, and the stupid, angry birds came every moment nearer.

Gregory did not wish to go back, and did not want to appear frightened in
the eyes of the others, who were very likely watching, and he therefore had
nothing to do but run as fast as he could for the farther gate and scramble
over it.

Here he paused for a moment, to be in no way reassured by the sight, much
too near the path, of a number of bullocks. In the ordinary way Gregory did
not mind bullocks --did not, in fact, think about them--but just now he was
flustered and rather nervous. However, he walked steadily forward and got
safely past the first. Then, with his face kept straight and brave, but his
eye anxiously peering through the back of his head to see what the first
was doing, he approached the second and got past that all right. But the
third gave him a wild and, as it seemed, furious look, and this turned him
cold; and then he was perfectly certain that he could feel the others close
behind him breathing hot on his neck, and once again he broke into a
terrified run, and so gained the next gate, over which he may be said to
have fallen rather than climbed.

On the other and safe side he paused again, and again looked for the enemy.
Seeing none, he once more started forward.

This was the last meadow, and the farm was at the end of it, and Gregory
was quite close to the farm, when suddenly there appeared, right in his
path, with a challenging tail in air, a large dog--a collie.

Gregory stopped and the collie stopped, and the two looked at each other
carefully.

Gregory remembered all that he had ever heard about collies being
treacherous and fierce.

He advanced a step; the collie did not move.

He advanced another step; and then, to his horror, the collie began to
advance too, lifting his feet high and dangerously.

Gregory forced himself to say, "Good dog! " but the collie still advanced.

Gregory said, "Poor fellow, then!" and the collie at once did something
perfectly awful: he growled.

Gregory had no courage left. His tongue and lips refused to obey him. He
felt his knees turning to water.

How he wished he had let Mary come too! Dogs always liked her. Why was it
that dogs liked some people and not others? he asked himself. Ridiculous!
No one liked dogs better than he, if this ass of a collie only knew it.

Meanwhile, the collie, still growling, drew nearer, and Gregory felt
himself pricking all over. Where would it bite him first? he wondered.

But just as he had given up all hope, a voice called out sharply, "Caesar,
come here!" and the collie turned and ran to where a tall, red-faced man
was standing.

"What do you want?" the man then said to Gregory, with equal sharpness.
"You're trespassing."

Gregory was frankly crying now--with relief; but he pulled himself together
and said he wanted to see the farmer.

"I'm the farmer," said the man. "What is it?"

Gregory explained what he had come for.

"No," said the farmer, "not on my land."

Gregory said that other farmers had said yes.

"I don't care," said the farmer, "I say NO."

Gregory longed to ask if there was another way back, but he had not the
courage, and he turned and made again for the gate of the bullock meadow.

The bullocks were still near the path, so he climbed softly over the gate,
as he feared they might hear him, and crept round by the hedge to the next
gate without attracting any notice.

Had he only known, he might have gone safely by the path, for one bullock
was saying to another: "There's that little duffer going all that long way
out of his course just for fear of us. What do you say to trotting down to
the gate and giving him another scare?"

"No," said the other. "It's not worth while. He's very small, too, and
these horns, you know--they are a bit startling. Besides, there are all
those flies by the gate."

"True," said the other; "but it makes me smile, all the same."

So Gregory got out safely, and, performing the same manoeuvre with the
geese, he reached the caravan and Janet's arms without further misfortune.

The others were of course disappointed at the result of his mission, and
walked on another half-mile, much farther from Cirencester than they had
wished to be, to the next farm.

There Mary and Hester made the request, which was at once granted; and the
farmer and his wife were so much interested that they both walked down to
the Slowcoach and examined it, and the farmer advised its being taken into
a yard where there was a great empty barn and backed against that; so that
they had the whole of the barn as a kind of anteroom, and a most enchanting
smell of hay everywhere.

"All I ask," he said, "is that you don't burn the place down with your
cooking."

The pot was then filled and placed on the fire. Kink skinned the rabbits
and Janet and Mary put them in, while Jack and Robert and Horace walked
into Cirencester to buy eatables and picture postcards and send off the
telegram.

That evening after supper Janet suggested that it might be the best
opportunity they would have to write the letters to X. of which they had
often talked; so they made themselves comfortable in the caravan and on the
barn floor, and each wrote something, not after the style of the Snarker's
game at Oxford, but quite separately.

Janet wrote:

"Saturday Evening, July 8,

"In a Barn near Cirencester.

DEAR X.,

"We thank you very much for the caravan, which is much the most beautiful
present that anyone can ever have had. We have now been in it nearly ten
days, and we like it more every day. We have called it the Slowcoach. The
party is seven, and Kink, who drives. We have with us Mary and Jack
Rotheram and Horace Campbell; but whether you know who they are or not, of
course I don't know. I hope some day you will tell us who you are.

"I am,
"Yours sincerely,

JANET AVORY.

Mary Rotheram wrote:

DEAR MR. X.

Then she crossed out the "Mr." because, as she said, it might be a lady,
and began again:

DEAR X.,

"I am not one of the Avories, and the caravan was therefore not given to
me, but my brother and I have been so happy in it that I want to say thank
you for it quite as if I were an Avory all the time. We live near them at
Chiswick, you know. It has been a supreme holiday, with hardly any rain and
no real troubles, although even the strongest people must sometimes get a
little tired of walking on dusty roads and having to wait for meals. We
each have a special duty, and I am the head cook, but Janet is really
better at it than I am. Our only real disappointment is that caravaning
makes you so tired that there is no chance of cricket, for we brought
cricket things with us, but have never been able to use them. We might have
done so at Salford, perhaps, but the river was so very tempting that we
rowed about instead.

"Yours sincerely and gratefully,

MARY ROTHERAM.

Jack Rotheram wrote:

DEAR X.,

"My sister Mary has said who I am, but she has not explained how it is I am
here. It is because my brother William and I tossed up for it; He called
'Heads,' and it was tails, so I won at once. And then he said 'Threes,'
which means the best out of three, and this time he called 'Tails' and it
was heads, so that settled the thing absolutely. He was, of course, most
frightfully sick about it, but the next time the Avories go out in the
caravan they are going to ask him and not me, which will put the thing
right. It is a ripping caravan, and I am sure I thank you very much,
although it's not mine.

"Yours truly,

"JOHN ILFORD ROTHERAM.

Robert, who was not a sprightly writer, merely described the course they
had followed, which we all know. The only news he had to give was at the
end: "So far, up to the time of writing, my pedometer registers fifty-six
miles; which is, of course, only what I have walked, and not what we have
done, for we all take turns to ride for fear of getting too tired and being
seedy. The caravan has done altogether one hundred and forty miles, and
since we were in it ninety miles exactly."

Horace, after great difficulty, wrote:

DEAR X.,

"I am having a top-hole holiday in the caravan you gave the Avories. I am
the Keeper of the Tin-opener.

"Yours truly,

HORACE CAMPBELL.

Hester wrote:

DEAR X.,

"I have long wanted to write to you and tell you that we adore the
Slowcoach, which is the name we have given your caravan, and think you were
awfully clever to think of it and to make it so complete.

We have not had to buy anything, and the only thing you forgot was the
license; but Uncle Christopher remembered. I love walking behind the
Slowcoach and seeing the world pass by. But the evenings are the most
alluring, and I like to wake up at night and hear the birds and animals
just outside the window, although on the first night I was frightened. We
had one evening with real gipsies, but Janet would not allow me to go
inside their caravan, because of fleas and things. But I could see through
the door that it was not so attractive as the Slowcoach. I wish this
journey would never end, but I fear it has to do so on Tuesday, which draws
nearer every moment.

"I am,

"Your grateful and admiring friend,

HESTER MARGARET AVORY.

"P.S.--I hope we shall never know who you are, because anonymous things are
so much more exciting.

"P.S. 2.--We have met many motors, and they are always coming up behind us
and making us jump and blinding us with dust, but we have never envied
them."

Gregory wrote painfully:

DEAR X.,

"Thank you most awfully for the Slowcoach. It is very good and suitable. I
am the Keeper of the Corkscrew, and also the Requester of Camping-Grounds.

"Your affectionate

GREGORY BRUCE AVORY.

CHAPTER 20

THE ADVENTURE OF THE LINE OF POETRY

ON the next morning, which was Sunday, Jack hurried through his dressing
and washing at a great pace and instantly disappeared. The others were just
beginning breakfast when he came rushing up in a state of wild excitement,
calling, "Kink! Kink!"

"What is it?" said that leisurely man.

"It's a rabbit!" cried Jack. "I've caught it, and I don't know how to kill
it."

"Oh, Jack," said Mary, running up, "don't kill it! Why should it be killed?"

"For supper, of course," said Jack. "Come on, Kink! Quick, or it will get
away!"

They all left their breakfast and followed Jack, and when they came up to
him he was kneeling over a kicking object.

"Oh, Kink," he said, "do hold it and kill it! How do you do it? The gipsy
boy didn't show me properly."

"The gipsy boy?" said Mary.

"Yes, he gave me a wire. See, it's round its neck. That's how I caught him.
Do kill him, Kink!"

"Please don't do anything of the kind," said Janet. "We don't want to eat
rabbits we catch like that."

"No," said Hester, "please don't kill it. Please let it go."

"What mollycoddles you are!" said Jack. How do you suppose rabbits are
killed, anyway? You eat them all right when they're cooked."

"I couldn't eat a rabbit that I had seen struggling alive," said Janet.

"No," said Mary. "Oh, Jack, please let him go! You've caught him, and
that's the great thing; and now be merciful."

Kink still held the struggling creature.

"I vote he's let loose again," said Robert. "I don't want any of him."

"No, and I'm sure I don't," said Gregory; "but wouldn't it be fun to keep
him in a hutch?"

"Wild rabbits are no good in hutches," said Kink.

Jack was very sullen. "It's awful rot," he said. "You all ought to be
vegetarians if you talk like that. But we'll let him go," and he loosened
the wire and the rabbit dashed away.

"A nice return to the gipsy for his kindness," Jack muttered.

Kink watched the rabbit till it was out of sight. "Whose rabbit do you
suppose that was?" he asked.

"Mine," said Jack.

"What about the farmer?" said Kink.

"A nice return for a night's lodging-- poaching his rabbits."

"Poaching!" cried Horace. "Is that poaching? Is Jack a poacher? Oh, how
splendid! Jack's a poacher! Jack's a poacher! I wish I was."

"I'd never thought of it as poaching," said Jack, who was not a little
proud of his new character.

"When did you set the wire?" Horace asked him.

"Late last night," said Jack. "After you had turned in."

"Wasn't it pitch dark?" Horace asked.

"There was a moon," said Jack, feeling twice his ordinary size.

"But what did you do?" Horace asked.

"Well," said Jack, "I had noticed some rabbits in that field on our way
back from Cirencester, so I just crept off in the dark and found a hole,
and took a strong stick and drove that into the ground, and then fixed the
wire to it with the noose open, like this, so that the rabbit would run
right into it when it came out. And it did! Poaching's frightfully simple."

"Yes," said Horace, "but it wants courage."

"Oh, yes," said Jack lightly. "Of course one mustn't be a fool or a coward."

It was arranged that Janet and Jack and Robert and Hester should go to
church, and Mary and the others stay behind to cook. The boys walked, but
Janet and Hester were driven in by the farmer in his chaise. Janet had a
rather uncomfortable moment at the beginning of the sermon, for the text
was taken from Matthew xxii, where the piece of money is produced, and the
question asked, "Whose is this image and superscription?" Of course they
all thought simultaneously of the old Irishwoman, and gave Janet a quick
glance. She was very glad that Kink (who was a Dissenter) was not with them
to fix his old laughing eye upon her.

Mary had worked very hard over the Sunday dinner, and a great surprise was
waiting for the four church-goers--nothing less than a beefsteak pudding
with the most perfect soft crust and heaps of juice; and afterwards
pancakes. The farmer's wife sent down some strawberries and cream, so that
it was a real feast. The only one of them that was not hungry was Mary, who
was too hot and tired of cooking to be able to eat much.

In spite of this huge and momentous dinner, all the children went out on
Sunday afternoon to explore the neighbourhood, except Hester, who said she
had something very important to do and begged to be allowed to remain alone
in the Slowcoach. Kink said that he would stay there, too.

On the other side of Cirencester is a very beautiful park, with a broad
avenue through it from the gates right in the town itself. The farmer's
wife had told them of its attractions, and also of a ruined house known as
Alfred's Hall, and a point called the Seven Ways where seven green avenues
met, and a canal that ran through a tunnel, and, all within the
possibilities of good walkers, the source of the Thames itself. "And," said
she, "after you have seen that--the tiny spring which makes that wonderful
river that runs right through London--oh, I've been to London in my time!--
you can come back to Cirencester by the Fosse Way--the Roman road to Bath."
They could not, of course, see all these
things, but they went to the ruined house, which was very romantic and
exactly the place for Hester had she only been with them; and they roamed
about the park, which was very vast and wonderful.

They had a little adventure, too, for as they were walking along, on the
way back--coming back, of course, by a different way, for Robert could not
bear the thought of not doing so--Mary chanced to say, with reference to
the plans for the future which Robert was describing:

"To-morrow to fresh fields and pastures new,"

that being her idea of the last line of Milton's "Lycidas," which they had
all learned quite recently.

"Not 'fresh fields,'" Janet corrected,

"'fresh woods.'"

"'Fields,'" said Mary.

"'Woods,'" said Janet.

"I'm sure it's 'fields,'" said Mary.

"But it's silly," said Janet, "to say 'fresh fields and pastures new,'
because they mean the same thing. 'Fresh woods' would mean something
different."

"I can't help it," said Mary; "that's Milton's affair. 'Fresh fields.'"

Janet called to Robert. "Is it 'fresh fields and pastures new,' or 'fresh
woods and pastures new'?" she asked him.

"'Fresh fields,'" he said.

Janet asked Jack. "I don't know," he said, "but 'fresh woods' sounds more
sensible."

"Oh, dear," said Janet, "I wish we had a Milton!"

"Well, we haven't," said Robert, " and you're not likely to find one at
Cirencester to-day, unless, of course, the vicar has one."

"Oh, yes," said Janet, "of course--the vicar. He's certain to have one."

"But who'll ask him?" said Horace.

"Janet will," said Mary.

"Oh, no," said Janet.

"Well, it's your affair," said Robert.

"Not more than Mary's," said Janet. "Mary, will you ask him?"

"No," said Mary, "I don't think I could. Not the vicar. I might be willing
to ask the curate."

"What a ripping idea!" said Jack. "Of course the curate would be much
easier. We'll ask where he lives."

They did so at a small tobacconist's that was open, and found that the
curate had rooms at Myrtle Villa, quite close by.

They therefore marched towards Myrtle Villa, but first arranged to draw
lots to see who should ring the bell and make the inquiry. They tore up
paper of different sizes, and it was agreed that the holders of the longest
and the shortest pieces should go--the longest to put the question, the
shortest to ring and lend support. The result was that Mary drew the
longest and Gregory the smallest.

Gregory was furious. "I don't even know what it's all about," he complained.

They told him.

"How rotten!" he said. "What's it matter?"

Mary, however, led him off to the house, and he rang the bell with vigour.

A smiling girl opened the door and asked what they wanted.

"Is the curate at home?" Mary asked.

The girl said that he was.

"Will you ask him if he will speak to us for a moment?" said Mary.

"What about?" asked the girl. "He has a friend with him."

"I don't think you'd understand if we told you," said Mary.

"I must know what it's about," said the girl. "He doesn't like to be
disturbed on Sunday afternoons."

"Has he got a lot of books--poetry books?" Gregory asked.

"Yes," said the girl, "heaps."

"Then it's about Milton," said Mary.

"Milton the baker!" exclaimed the girl. "He's not dead, is he?"

"Milton the poet," said Mary.

"I'm all in a maze," said the girl. "I don't know what you're talking
about. But I suppose I'd better tell him."

The girl left them on the mat and knocked at a door just inside.

"Come in," said a man's voice.

"Please, sir," said the girl, "there are two children asking about someone
named Milton."

The owner of the voice laughed. "Are they?" he said. "Well, they've come to
the right shop." And then the door opened wider and a tall and handsome
young man came out, dressed in a cricket blazer over a clergyman's
waistcoat and collar, and smoking a large pipe.

"What's all this about Milton?" he said cheerily. "What Milton? Not the poet?"

"Yes," said Mary.

"Oh, I say, this is too good," said the young clergyman. "Vernon," he
called out, "come here and see a deputation from Milton."

Another young man joined him, equally pleasant looking, and they all shook
hands.

"Come inside," said the young clergyman.

"There are four others waiting in the road," said Gregory. "Then fetch them
in too," said the young clergyman. And Janet and Robert and Jack and Horace
were brought in.

"Now," said the young clergyman, "have some tea." And he rang the bell and
ordered enough tea for eight.

When the girl had gone, he asked for full particulars, and then gave his
verdict.

"'Fresh woods and pastures new.'"

"Oh, rubbish!" said Vernon. "I've always learned 'fresh fields and pastures
new.'"

"That's what I say," said Mary.

"And so do I," said Robert and Horace.

"I think YOU'RE right," said Janet to the young clergyman.

"Well," he said, "I'll look it up." And he began to hunt for Milton on his
shelves.

"Oh, not yet!" said Vernon. "Let's have some fun first. Let's see who are
the 'fielders' and who are the 'wooders.' All 'fielders' this way."

Mary, Robert, and Horace ranged themselves beside him, leaving Janet and
Jack with the young clergyman, whom Vernon called Rod.

Gregory looked at both sides, and did not move.

"Haven't you any views about it?" asked Vernon.

"No," said Gregory; "I never heard the thing before. What does it matter?"

"Very well, then," said Rod; "here's the tea. You pour it out for us. I
like three lumps of sugar in mine. Now," he continued, "the rout of the
'fielders' is about to begin. Of course it's 'woods.' Why, I can see the
word now in Milton's own handwriting, as I used to see it in the Library at
Trinity."

"I'm so sure it's 'fields,'" said Vernon, that I declare myself willing to
go without cake for tea if it isn't."

"Will you put half a crown in the plate next Sunday if it's 'woods'?" said
Rod.

"Oh, I say, that's a bit stiff," said Vernon. Half a crown?"

"Very well, then," said Rod, "two bob. Will you put two bob in the plate
next Sunday if it's 'woods'?"

"Yes, I will," said Vernon. "But if it's 'fields,' what will you do? You
mayn't take a shilling out?"

"No," said Rod; "if it's 'fields' I'll eat my best hat."

"I hope it's fields,'" said Gregory.

"Horrid little boy!" said Rod. "But now we'll see."

He opened Milton slowly, and turned over the pages of "Lycidas." "Ha! ha!"
he said; "no cake for Charles Vernon, Esquire, and two bob for Mother
Church. And my best hat saved. Listen:

"'At last he rose and twitch'd his mantle blue:
To-morrow to fresh woods, and pastures new.'"

"No cake!" groaned Vernon. "Repulsive children!" he continued tragically.
"Why did you knock at this unhappy door and ask your foolish question here?
Are there no other houses in Cirencester? No cake! No cake!"

They screamed with laughter.

"I like them," said Rod. "They're nice children. I hope they'll come again.
And now for a large tea, with plenty of cake for all but one of us."

They would have liked to stay a long time, for Rod and Vernon were very
kind and amusing, but Janet had Hester on her mind, left alone in the
Slowcoach; and so directly tea was finished they said good-bye.

When Hester was told about their adventure, she said: "How silly you all are!"

"Why?" they asked indignantly.

"For two reasons," said Hester. "One is that it is, of course, 'fresh
woods.' Anyone ought to know that. And the other is that we've got the
'Blue Poetry Book' with it in, here in the caravan."

"That doesn't matter," said Gregory. "We met a jolly decent clergyman."

What Hester's great business had been Janet soon learned, for as soon as
they were alone Hester slipped some sheets of paper into Janet's hand and
asked her to read them very privately. Janet retired to the boudoir end of
the caravan and read. It was a poem entitled:

ODE TO THE REV. FRANCIS GASTREEE

(Dedicated to Mr. Nicholas Imber)

O thou most base,
Who hadst possession of the dwelling-place
Of William Shakespeare, Stratford's loveliest son,
What is it thou hast done?
Thou shouldst have treasur'd it, as in a case
We keep a diamond or other jewel.
Instead of which thou didst it quite erase,
O wicked man, O fool!
What should be done to thee?
Hang'ed upon a tree?
Or in the pillory
Placed for all to pelt with eggs and bitter zest?
Aye, that were best.
Would that thou wert i' th' pillory this moment
And Stratford all in foment,
Thou knave, thou cad,
Thou everything that's bad!

HESTER MARGARET AVORY.

Janet said it was splendid, after you had got hold of the difficult rhyming
idea.

"That's because it's an ode," said Hester. "Odes go like that. All jumpy.
And you mustn't say 'you' in an ode. You must say 'thou."'

"But what shall you do with it?" Janet asked.

"I want to send it to Mr. Imber," said Hester. "He said something ought to
be done. He gave me his address; do you think we could post it this
evening?"

Janet said they could, and they walked to the post-office and sent it off,
together with a letter to Mrs. Avory, and picture postcards for Runcie and
Collins. The budget for X. they kept, as they had not brought his address
with them.

CHAPTER 21

COLLINS'S PEOPLE

They resumed their journey the next morning, a little depressed in spirits,
for the end was so near. It was now Monday, and they had to be home
again--that is to say, in their home without wheels--to-morrow night, and
the thought was not exhilarating. Moreover, as Robert's compass only too
plainly showed, they were now for the first time since they started moving
due east, or towards Chiswick, instead of away from it, as theretofore.

Holidays of a fortnight always go faster in the second week than the first;
but the last two days absolutely fly.

They were now bound for Faringdon through Fairford; and the night--the last
night--was to be spent, if possible, on the farm of Collins's brother, near
Lechlade.

At Fairford they had their lunch and explored the church, which is one of
the most remarkable in England. It was built, they learned from Robert's
"Road Book," by a rich merchant in the reign of Henry VII. named John Tame.
Being something of a privateer too, he had the good fortune to capture a
vessel on its way from Belgium to Italy laden with stained glass, and,
having secured this booty, he erected the church in order to make use of
it.

Horace admired this story immensely, and set John Tame with his other
heroes--Raffles and Robin Hood--forthwith.

Then came the hunt for Lycett's Farm, where Collins's people now lived, of
which they knew no more than that Lechlade was the postal address. It might
be this side of Lechlade, and it might be far on the other. Collins had had
the map placed before her, but could make nothing of it. (Cooks never can
read maps.)

After about two miles out of Fairford Robert began to ask. There were no
people on the road--indeed, one of the things that they had noticed
throughout their travels was how few persons were to be met; and they had
therefore to knock at a door here and there, or approach labourers in the
fields. Their ignorance of the name either of Lycett's or of Collins was
amazing.

"Never heard tell of such a place," said one.

"Not hereabouts," said another.

"Collins?" said a third. "There's a stone-mason of that name over at
Highworth; but I don't know of no farmer."

"Maybe you're thinking of Sadler's," another suggested.

Robert, who was getting testy, asked why. "Sadler's doesn't sound a bit
either like Collins or Lycett's," he said.

"No," the man agreed, "it doesn't."

But at last a butcher's boy on a bicycle came along, and Janet stopped him.

"Lycett's?" he said. Then he brightened. "Lickets, perhaps you mean. That's
up the next turning to the left. I don't know who's got it, because I'm a
stranger here, but I've heard that Lickets lies that way."

So Robert was recalled from a distant meadow where he had seen a man
working, and they hurried on.

The turning was not a main road, but a long lane, which was so narrow that
nothing else could possibly have passed by had they met anything; and for a
while nothing did come. And then suddenly at a bend there was a fat farmer
driving a dogcart straight at them.

He pulled up at once, and roared out: "Where be you coming to, then? We
don't want no gipsies here."

Kink stopped too, and the farmer and he glared at each other.

"You must back down to the next gate," said the farmer.

"Back yourself," said Kink. "Your load's lighter than mine."

"But it's my land you're on," said the farmer.

"It's a public road," said Kink.

It looked as though they might stay there for ever, but suddenly the farmer
began to laugh. "Why, you're not gipsies," he said. "I believe you're
Avories."

"That's so," said Kink.

"Well, I'm blessed!" the farmer cried. "And to think we should be falling
out when I've been waiting to see you these many days! My name's Pescod. My
halfsister's your cook."

Mr. Pescod climbed out of his cart and shook hands with all the children.
"Now I'll turn," he said, with a smile to Kink, and he led his horse up the
lane, talking all the while, while the Slowcoach followed. They told him
about their difficulty in finding any trace of him, and he called Collins a
donkey for not directing them better, and forgetting to say that her name
and his were different.

"Never mind," he said; "here you are at last. We've been looking out for
you for a long time. My missis never hears wheels nowadays but what she
runs to the door to see if it's you."

Lycett's farm was a long, low, white house with a yew hedge leading from
the garden gate to the front door. This hedge, of which Collins had told
them, was famous in the neighbourhood; for it was enormously old, and as
thick almost as masonry, and it was kept so carefully clipped that it was
as smooth also as a wall. At the gate itself the yews were cut into tall
pillars with a pheasant at the top of each, and then there were smaller
pillars at intervals all the way up the path, about twenty yards, with a
thick joining band of yew between them. They were so massive that very
little light could get into the front windows or the doorway; but, as Mr.
Pescod said. "anyone can have light, few yew hedges like that in the
world."

Mrs. Pescod was a comfortable, smiling woman whose one idea was that
everyone must either be hungry or in need of feeding up. All of the
children in turn she looked at anxiously, saying that she was sure that
they had not had enough to eat. As a matter of fact, they had not perhaps
eaten as much as they would have done at Chiswick, and they had, of course,
worked harder; but they were all very well, and said so. But it made no
difference to Mrs. Pescod.

"Ah, my dear," she said to Janet, "you're pale. I shouldn't like you to go
back to your ma looking like that. No, while you're here you must have
three good meals. A good tea, and a good supper, and a good breakfast. I
wish you'd stay longer, and let me have a real go at you; but if you can't,
you can't, and there's an end of it."

Mrs. Pescod's notion of a good tea was terrific. Eggs for everyone to begin
with (to Gregory's great pleasure, for an egg with his tea was almost his
favourite treat). Freshly baked hot cakes soaking in butter. Hot toast.
Three kinds of jam. Bread and butter. Watercress. Mustard and cress. This
was at five o'clock, and as supper was at half-past eight, Janet urged the
others to explore as much as possible, or they would have no appetite, and
then Mrs. Pescod would be miserable.

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