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CHAPTER VI
Hunted


I don't know exactly how it happened. Perhaps Caroline was too sleepy to bump her head seven times on the pillow before she went to sleep. Or perhaps that excellent spell cannot always be relied upon to work. At any rate, none of the children woke till Jane came to draw up the blinds and let the half-past seven sunshine into their rooms.

Then Caroline woke quite thoroughly, looked at her little watch, and leaped out of bed.

'What's the hurry, miss?' asked Jane, as Caroline stood, a little unsteady, in the middle of the room, rubbing her eyes and yawning. 'It hasn't but just gone the half-hour.'

'I was dreaming,' said Caroline; and when Jane was gone she shook Charlotte and said, 'I say! Did anything happen last night?'

'No,' said Charlotte, behaving like a dormouse.

Caroline caught up her dressing-gown and crept along to Charles's room. He was sitting up in bed, looking wildly at the wardrobe. Its doors were open, and there was nothing on the shelves (which were all in their proper places) except clean paper and little bags of lavender that smell sweet through their white muslin veils.

'Whatever's happened?' asked Caroline, fearing the worst.

'Oh, nothing,' said Charles, rather crossly. 'Only I had a silly dream, and when I woke up I thought it was true, and of course it wasn't.'

'I thought it was a dream, too, when I first woke. And Charlotte says nothing happened last night. What did you dream?'

He told her a little.

'But I dreamed all that, too,' said Caroline, anxiously, 'about the fern-seed and Rupert, and our playing Arab Saracens and hunting the biscuits. We couldn't both dream the same thing. Where did you put the biscuits in your dream—what was left of them?'

'You put them on the dressing-table.'

'Well, they aren't there now,' said she.

'Then it was a dream,' said he; 'and we both dreamed it.'

The two looked at each other blankly.

'I dreamed I dressed his wounds—sponged his feet, I mean,' she added, after a pause full of doubt. 'The mud was thick—if it wasn't a dream it'll be in the basin.'

But Jane knew her duty too well for there to be anything in the basin except a bright brass can of hot water with a clean towel laid neatly across it.

'Well, the fern-seed did something, anyhow, if it only made us dream like that,' said Caroline. But Charles wanted to know how she knew they hadn't dreamed the fern-seed as well.

'Oh, you get dressed.' said his sister, shortly, and went to her own dressing.

Charlotte, when really roused, owned that she remembered Rupert's coming. But, if he had come, he had gone and left no trace. And it is rare for boys to do that.

The children agreed that it must have been a dream, after the eating of the fern-seed, for all of them, for some reason that I can't understand, agreed that the fern-seed eating, at any rate, was real.

Breakfast seemed less interesting than usual, and when, after the meal, Mrs. Wilmington minced a request to them to go out for the morning, 'the same as you were requested to do yesterday,' they went with slow footsteps and boots strangely weighy.

'Let's get out of sight of the house,' said Charlotte, heavily.

They went away beyond the shrubbery, to a wood where there were oak trees and hazels and dog-wood and silver birches and here and there a black yew, with open bracken-feathered glades between. Here they found a little glade between a honeysuckle and a sweet chestnut and a hazel thicket, flattened the bracken, and sat down amid the sweet scent of it.

'To hold a council about the wonderful dream we've all of us had,' said Caroline, slowly.

But the council, if it could be called one, was brief and languid.

'I'd rather think first,' said Caroline. And the others said so would they.

'I could think better with my head on your lap, Caro,' Charles said.

And Charlotte murmured, 'Bunch the fern up closer under my back, Caro.'

And when the sun came over the top of the sweet chestnut, it fell upon a warm and comfortable heap of children asleep.

You really can't stay up all night, or even dream that you sit up, and then hold important councils next day just as though nothing had happened.

When the children awoke, because the sun had crept up over the sweet chestnut and was shining straight into their eyes, everything looked different and much more interesting.

'I tell you what,' said Charlotte. 'Let's do fern-seed again.'

'It's only on the eve off——' Charles began, but Charlotte interrupted.

'The seed goes on when once you've planted it—chewed it, I mean. I'm certain it does. If we don't see anything, we may dream something more.'

'There wouldn't be time for a really thick dream before dinner,' Charles objected.

'Never mind! Let's try. If we are late for dinner we'd tell the truth and say that we fell asleep in the woods. There's such heaps of fern here it would be simply silly not to try.'

There was something in this. Fern-seed was chewed once more. Bracken, I have heard really well-educated people say, is not a fern at all, but it seemed a fern to them. And it certainly did its, best to act up to what was expected, of it. For when the three removed the little green damp pads from their eyes and blinked at the green leaves, there in the thick of them was Rupert, looking at them between the hazel thicket and the honeysuckle—a real live Rupert, and no dream-nonsense about him.

'Was it a dream last night?' they all asked him, in an eager chorus. 'When you came to the window?'

'Of course it wasn't,' he said, flatly. 'Only I was so afraid of being nabbed. So I got out early and put the shelves back and the pillows on the bed, and I took the biscuits; I thought you wouldn't mind——'

'Not a bit. Rather not'—chorus of polite hospitality.

'And I got out of your dressing-room window and down the ivy; it was quite easy. And I cut across the grass and in under those fancy sort of fir trees, the ones that drag their branches—you know—in the avenue. And I saw you come out, but the place was all thick with gardeners and people. So I waited till their dinner-bell rang, and then I crept out here, and I was just going to say "Hi!" when you stuck that green stuff on your eyes. It looks nasty. What did you do it for?'

They told him.

'That's rummy,' he said, sitting among them quite at his ease, with one hand in his pocket. 'Because I knew fern-seed made you invisible—it says so in Shakespeare, you know—and I ate a bit coming along, just on the chance it might be some good—so that no one should see me, you know—and nobody did till you did. So,' he went on more slowly, 'perhaps I was really invisible until you put the fern-seed on your eyes.'

'What a perfectly splendid idea!' cried Charlotte. 'Because that makes it all true. We were most awfully ill when we thought it had only just made us dream. I say! Do, now, do tell us how you ran away and why—and what you're going to do, and everything.'

'I thought,' Rupert answered, carelessly, 'of running away to sea. But it's a long way to the coast. I would much rather stop here with you. Couldn't you hide me in a log-hut or something, like a runaway slave? Just till they stopped looking for me. And I could write to my father in India and ask him to let me stay here instead of with old Mug's brother. Couldn't you hide me till the answer came?'

'We could try,' said Charles, a little doubtfully.

But Charlotte said, 'Of course we can—we will! Only, why are you so different? You seem miles older than you were when we saw you on the platform.'

'You'd look miles older if you'd locked your master in his study and then done a bunk—and been running and hiding for half a day and a night,' said Rupert, a little crossly.

'But what did he do to you?' they asked.

'Well, you saw what he was like in the train.'

'But you seemed so frightened of him. I wonder you dared to run away.'

'That wasn't funk—in the train. That was just suppressed fury,' Rupert explained, tranquilly. 'I was wondering where I should run to if I had to run. And then I did have to run—like Billy-o! And when I saw the name on a sign-post I remembered what you'd said about "true to the death"—and I kept behind the hedges, because I wasn't sure about the fern-seed being any good, and I got up a tree and I saw you go by, and when you came back with the parson I just followed on quietly till I got to outside your house. I hoped you'd come out, but you didn't. And I hid under one of those fancy firs, and then, I suppose, I went to sleep, and when I woke up there was a light in a window, and I went towards it, stupid, like a bird. You know how sparrows come out of the ivy if you show a light?'

They didn't.

'Well, they do. And then I saw you monkeying about. I was glad, I tell you. And I tapped on the window, and—you know the rest,' he ended, like a hero in a book.

'But what did the Murdstone man do to you?' Charlotte insisted on knowing.

'He was playing up for a row from the very first,' said Rupert; 'and when we got to his beastly house that night'—Rupert lowered his voice and spoke in a tone of deep disgust and bitterness—'he gave me bread and milk to eat. Bread and milk—with a teaspoon! And when I said I'd rather not, he said I must learn to eat what was set before me. And he talked about discipline and showed me a cane. He said he was glad there were no other little boys there—little boys!—because he could devote himself entirely to breaking me in.'

'Beast!' said Charlotte.

'He thought I was a muff of a white rabbit,' said Rupert; 'but he knows the difference now.'

I hope you will not think base scorn of Charles and Caroline when I own that they were both feeling a little uncomfortable in the presence of this young desperado. Fern-seed is all very well, and so is the idea of running away from school, but that any master should really be so piglike as to make running away necessary—this came too near to the really terrible for them to feel quite easy about it.

'He must be like the Spanish Inquisition,' said Charlotte, indignantly. 'Why isn't he put in prison now there are proper laws?'

But Charles and Caroline still felt that it was less likely that the Murdstone man should be so hateful, than that Rupert should be drawing long-bows to excuse his running away. If he had been timid and miserable they would have believed him more. As it was, he was easy when he wasn't defiant.

You know that feeling—when you are not quite sure of someone you want to be kind to—when you can't be quite certain that if you believe what they say you won't be being unjust to somebody else. It is a hateful feeling. There is nothing more miserable than not being able to trust some one you want to trust. You know, perhaps, what that sensation is? Rupert, at any rate, must have known it, and must have known that the others were feeling it, for he suddenly pulled his hand out from his pocket.

'Look here, then,' he said. 'But—no, I don't blame you. I know it's not the sort of thing you'd expect to be true. Yes. He did it. The first night. About the bread and milk. Came and did it after I was in bed. With a ruler.'

'It' was a blue bruise and a slight red graze across the back of the hand that, till now, had been hidden.

'I believed you—without that,' said Charlotte, with hot cheeks. 'I know there are people like that. Like Uncle Tom's Cabin.'


The Wonderful Garden -p093.jpg

'I believed you—without that,' said Charlotte.


'We do believe you,' said Caroline, earnestly. 'Who said we didn't?'

And Charles said: 'Of course we do—what nonsense! We'll bring you a paper and pencil and an envelope, and you can write to your father. And we will conceal you.'

'Right O!' said Rupert. 'Hush!'

They hushed, and, Rupert pointing through the blue gap between the oak and the honeysuckle, their eyes followed the pointing of his finger. A figure was coming up the drive—a figure in blue.

'Go and see what it is,' whispered Rupert, 'but don't let on.'

'I'll go,' said Charlotte, jumping up.

'But what'll you say if they ask you what you've come in for? Charles asked.

'I shall say I've come in to fetch you a pocket-handkerchief,' said Charlotte, witheringly, because, you wanted one so badly. You always do.'

She went.

'Look here,' said Caroline, once more thrilling to the part of the protecting Saracen maiden. 'Suppose they're after you? Let's cover you up with leaves and bracken, so that your tweediness won't show through the trees if they look—and bracken over your head. Creep through the bracken; don't crush it more than you can help.'

Rupert was entirely hidden when Charlotte returned, very much out of breath, from an unexpected part of the wood.

'I came round,' she whispered, 'to put them off the scent.'

'Who?' asked Rupert, under the leaves.

'The Police,' said Charlotte, with calm frankness and a full sense of the tremendous news she was bringing. 'They're inquiring after you. They've traced you to Hadlow.'

'What did they say at the house?'

'They hadn't seen you, but the Police might search the grounds.'

'What did you say?'

'I wasn't asked,' said Charlotte, demurely. 'But I'll tell you what I did say. You lie mouse-still, Rupert; it's all right. I'm glad you're buried, though.'

'What did you say?'

'I said.' Charlotte answered, glowing with the pride of a successful strategist—'I said we'd help them to search! Come on, the three C.'s. Round the back way! We'll help them to search for their runaway boy—so we will! And when they've gone we'll bring you something to eat—something really nice—not just biscuits. Don't you worry. The three C.'s are yours to the death.'