Wild Life in the Land of the Giants - novelonlinefree.info
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"Well, you better not walk farther the night. There isn't another house now for seven miles. You're on the moor. I can give you a clean, nice bed, and breakfast any time you like in the morning."
I consulted with Jill and we concluded to stay.
When alone again we counted our money. Financial ruin did not stare us in the face, for our united fund from the savings of many a lucky penny--dear aunt was so good to us--came to a few s.h.i.+llings over seven pounds. We thought ourselves rich, but determined to be very cautious nevertheless.
We slept well and did not dream once. Our bedroom was a little attic, the window of which looked over the front causeway. The sound of many voices awoke us next morning. I sprang out of bed, and peeped cautiously out from under a corner of the blind.
To my horror and dismay the roadway was crowded with soldiers, and I could distinctly see the glitter of fixed bayonets. Pale and trembling were both of us now, but we dressed and waited. After about an hour's terrible suspense the party broke up, one half--who, by the way, had a prisoner--going south, and the rest going on in the direction of the moor.
The men were only hunting for deserters, after all, so our appet.i.te returned, and we did ample justice to the good things set before us by the kind landlady. Then we bade her good-bye, and started.
We had to move with great caution now, for we knew the soldiers were on ahead, and we did not know what might happen. However, nothing did happen all that forenoon. We must have missed our way somehow, for instead of coming to the one house the woman spoke of, we came to quite a little hamlet, with a shop or two, and here, not knowing what might be before us, we bought provisions enough in the shape of bacon, b.u.t.ter, bread, and red herrings--we were not dainty--to last us for a week at least.
Then cautiously inquiring our way north, and after making a hearty lunch at a small inn, we set out once more, and, feeling very buoyant and fresh, walked on as straight as the road would take us till nearly sundown.
We never came to an eminence, however, without getting up and gazing round us, and when we came to a wooded turn in the road we deserted it altogether and took to the bush.
Just about sundown we heard voices on ahead, and Jill and I leapt like deer behind a hedge, and lay as still as snakes do. We soon saw the gleam of scarlet. It was the soldiers returning, and with them, between men with fixed bayonets, a poor dejected-looking lad with his fatigue jacket open and soiled, and his head bare. He was handcuffed.
When right opposite us they all stopped.
"Give us a light, Bill," said one.
They had only stopped to light their pipes, though Jill and I trembled like aspen leaves. I noticed that one of the men, after he had taken a draw or two himself, wiped the pipe-stem and thrust it friendly-like into the the prisoner's mouth. He must have been a good man.
But we gathered enough from their conversation, brief as it was, to quite frighten us.
"He's on the moor," said one, "and they're bound to have him."
"A desperate character, isn't he?"
"Rather. Kill you as soon as wink."
Then they went on.
Who was this desperate character, abroad on the moor?
"Surely they can't refer to me, Jill?" I said.
"Oh no," said Jill; "certainly not. They would have mentioned me, you know."
"I don't think so, Jill. You are not such a desperate character as I am."
"Oh yes; I'm ten times worse," said Jill, awfully.
We soon after came into a country high, bleak, and desolate, with only here and there a clump of trees. Hills there were in plenty, but houses none.
And night was falling fast, and both of us were getting very tired. We would have to sleep out, that was evident, and so determined to take the first available shelter. So on coming to a bushy gully, with a tiny streamlet going singing down the centre of it, we left the road and followed the water upwards, and were soon at the foot of a rock. To my surprise, on pulling some bushes aside I found a cave.
Some shepherd's, evidently, we thought, for here was a bed of withered ferns, soft and dry; and not far from the mouth of the cave a place where a fire had been.
So we camped at once and lit a fire, for I had forgotten nothing. We made the fire between some stones, and placed thereon our tin billy with water to boil for tea.
We soon had made an excellent supper, and Jill's dear eyes sparkled as he sipped his tea.
"What a splendid bushman you are, Jack!" he said. "This is a first-rate sort of a life, and, don't you know, I wouldn't mind living this way for a month."
"Well," I said, "it seems pretty safe; and I propose we do stop here for a few days. By that time they will think we are far away, and never look here for us."
"Agreed," said Jill.
Then we went and gathered a quant.i.ty of fern, so that we had quite a delightful bed in the cave; and as night was now over all the wastes around us, we determined to retire. The stars were out and glimmering down, and bats wheeling about, and every now and then the _tu-whit-- tu-whoo_! of the brown owl made us start. It sounded so close to us, and oh, it was so mournful!
Other than that there was not a sound to be heard. We crept in, and I lit a candle as coolly as if I had been an old campaigner. I stuck it between two stones. Then I read a bit from mother's Bible, and down we lay after that, leaving the candle burning for company's sake. We did not like to be quite in the dark in so eeriesome a place.
But tired as we were, we lay and talked and planned for hours, and when I looked at my watch--yes, we each had a watch--I was surprised to find it was nearly twelve o'clock.
"We needn't hurry up in the morning though, Jill."
"a.s.suredly not," said Jill.
Five minutes after we were sound asleep.
It might have been an hour afterwards, or it might have been two. I know not. But I do know we both awoke with a start at the same moment, and sat up shaking and trembling with fear.
A terrible-looking man stood in the cave gazing down at us.
GOOD ADVICE FROM A STRANGE QUARTER--MIDNIGHT AND ANXIETY.
The state of my mind at this moment must have been akin to that of a snake-charmed bird. I felt utterly, abjectly helpless. Had the apparition taken a knife out and proceeded to kill us, I do not think I should have lifted a hand or uttered a cry, except a frightened moan like a person in a nightmare.
He stood and looked down at us long and earnestly. A strangely haggard, but not an evil face, black beard of a week's growth perhaps, and short dark hair hardly seen for the napkin that bound his head instead of a hat or cap.
We found voice at last, both at the same time. "Oh, sir," we said, beseechingly, "do not kill us!" He started as we spoke the last two words, started as if stung, and gazed behind him with quick dramatic action, his black eyes all ablaze for the moment. So have I often since seen a hunted wolf look when at bay.
The first words he spoke betrayed him to be a foreigner.
"Kill!" he said, "what for I kill you? You alone? All alone?"
"Yes," we replied, "yes, sir, quite alone."
"'Tis goot. Do not fear me. Where go you to-morrow day? What you do here?"
I glanced at him for a moment before I spoke, and the truth flashed across my mind. This was the terrible convict we heard the soldiers say was abroad on the moor. He was not in convict dress, and though his coat was in rags, his boots were good. We learned from him, afterwards, that he had exchanged clothes, strange though it appeared, with a scarecrow. There was some humour here, though sadly blended with deepest pathos.