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´╗┐Title: The Eagle's Nest
Author: Cartwright, S. E.
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "The Eagle's Nest" ***

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[Illustration: Cover art]



[Frontispiece: "LIE STILL," WHISPERED LEWIS, "SHE IS COMING THIS WAY!"]



The Eagle's Nest


BY

S. E. CARTWRIGHT

Author of "Tommy the Adventurous"



_Illustrated by William Rainey, R.I._



BLACKIE & SON LIMITED

LONDON AND GLASGOW

1899



  BLACKIE & SON LIMITED
    50 Old Bailey, London
    17 Stanhope Street, Glasgow
  BLACKIE & SON (INDIA) LIMITED
    Warwick House, Fort Street, Bombay
  BLACKIE & SON (CANADA) LIMITED
    1118 Bay Street, Toronto



Printed in Great Britain by Blackie & Son, Ltd., Glasgow



CONTENTS


Chap.

     I.  A WASP IN THE SCHOOLROOM
    II.  UNDER THE LABURNUM-TREE
   III.  THE EAGLE'S NEST
    IV.  A ROPE-LADDER
     V.  THE BOY WHO MOUNTED IT
    VI.  A VICTIM
   VII.  JACK AND JILL
  VIII.  AN EARLY CHASE
    IX.  AN ALARMING JUMP
     X.  THE TRESPASSER
    XI.  CERTAIN LITTLE GARDENS
   XII.  A NEW LADDER
  XIII.  THE BROWN BAG
   XIV.  KEEPING SHOP
    XV.  A CUSTOMER
   XVI.  IMPRISONED IN A PARLOUR
  XVII.  IN AN EMPTY HOUSE
 XVIII.  THE RETURN AFTER SHOPPING
   XIX.  AN INTERESTING DITCH
    XX.  DISPUTES
   XXI.  OLD GAMES
  XXII.  THE VISITORS
 XXIII.  AN END OF HIDING
  XXIV.  EXPLANATIONS



ILLUSTRATIONS


"LIE STILL," WHISPERED LEWIS, "SHE IS COMING THIS WAY!" . . . _Frontis._

A TALL, THIN MAN WAS CAREFULLY EXAMINING JACK

LEWIS WAS STILL LYING IN A SORT OF CRUMPLED-UP HEAP



THE EAGLE'S NEST


CHAPTER I

A WASP IN THE SCHOOLROOM

One bright May morning, Madge, Betty, and John were a little more
inattentive than usual over their lessons.  Miss Thompson was very
patient.  She knew that warm spring days were full of distracting
interests.  The first wasp of the season managed to get into the
schoolroom and buzz ostentatiously on the window-pane in the middle of
a history lesson.  There was a long pause of expectation on the part of
the three children.  Surely even a grown-up person could not be so
utterly uninterested as to allow a queen-wasp to escape alive?

"What was the chief event of the reign of Henry the Eighth?" continued
Miss Thompson, quite unmoved by the display of suppressed excitement
around her.  There was no answer, so she repeated the question a little
louder.

"May I kill it, or would you rather do it yourself?" said Madge
eagerly.  The three children had now shut their books and given up all
pretence of interest in anything except the wasp, which was trying
harder than ever to buzz right through the pane of glass.

"Really nobody would suppose that you were twelve years old!" said Miss
Thompson, in a vain effort to make her eldest pupil ashamed of herself.
"Now then, open your history and see what was the most important event,
if you can't remember."

"But it'll get away if you don't squash it!" shrieked John and Betty.
They were twins, and perhaps for that reason always spoke together.

"Do leave the poor creature alone!" said Miss Thompson imploringly.
"It cannot hurt you if you sit still and attend to your lessons."

"That's not what we are afraid of!" cried Madge; "it's the fruit!
Don't you know a queen-wasp has millions of children before the summer
is over, and we shan't have any fruit at all if you don't kill it!"

"No strawberries!  No peaches!  No nothing!" echoed the twins with
growing excitement.  "And it will be all your fault!  But of course you
don't care, as you never eat fruit.  Papa won't like it though.  He
always kills--"

"My dears, please don't make such a silly fuss about nothing,"
interrupted Miss Thompson, rising with considerable dignity from her
seat.  The children watched her with the most intense interest; but
when, instead of crushing the intruding wasp, she merely tried to brush
it out of the open window with her handkerchief, they broke out into
shouts of disapproval.  If the poor lady had let loose some peculiarly
savage wild beast on society she could not have been more severely
condemned by public opinion.  And the worst of it was, that the wasp
would not go!  She clung to the handkerchief, and when it was shaken at
the open window suddenly transferred herself to the sleeve of her
deliverer's dress.

Even Miss Thompson's calmness gave way under this trial.  She started
back with a slight scream.  The children were at her side in a moment,
beating and slapping at her arm, until they had inflicted almost as
much injury as a sting.

"It's fallen on the floor!" shrieked Madge.  "No! it's up again!  It's
back on the window!  Where's the squasher?"

There was one well-established way of killing wasps in the schoolroom
at Beechgrove.  This was with the heavy brass top of an old-fashioned
ink-bottle.  Its size and shape were all that could be desired, and it
was familiarly alluded to as "the squasher".  Even Miss Thompson when
in a hurry sometimes forgot to describe it as the top of an ink-bottle,
though she usually corrected herself afterwards.

At the present moment both Betty and John rushed to the table, and
began to fight vigorously for the possession of the much-coveted
instrument of destruction.

"Bring it quickly!" screamed Madge, who did not dare leave the window
for fear of losing sight of her prey.  "Bring it here, I say!  You
aren't going to squash it, you little sillies!  I'm the eldest, so it's
my place!"

"You unfair thing!  You squashed the last, so it's my turn!" shouted
John.  And while he turned to hurl defiance at his elder sister, Betty
seized the opportunity to twitch the object of strife out of his hand
and run off with it.

Something perilously like a free-fight was in progress, when Miss
Thompson recovered her self-possession and sternly ordered the children
to return to their seats.

"And the wasp?" they cried.  "It will get away, and make nests, and we
shall be stung, and have no fruit, and--"

"I will kill it myself," interrupted Miss Thompson, who now saw that
this was the only way to restore quiet.

"But why should you?" pleaded Madge.  "You don't like squashing wasps,
and we do."

"That's just the reason I am going to do it myself," said Miss Thompson
resolutely.  "Now go back to the table and find out the place in your
books."

"You are very unkind.  Yes, very unkind," grumbled the twins; but they
did not dare to flatly disobey, any more than Madge, who left the
window scowling horribly, and expressing an audible hope that everybody
who liked wasps should be stung by wasps.

It was particularly annoying that Miss Thompson took no notice of this
amiable speech, but after crushing the wasp with as little interest as
she would have buttoned a glove, returned quietly to her seat, and
inquired:

"What was the most important event in the reign of Henry the Eighth?"
precisely as if nothing had happened.

"Oh, I know the answer to that!" exclaimed John scornfully.  "I've
known that since I was a baby!"

"Well then, why do you require me to repeat the question so many
times?" very naturally observed Miss Thompson.  "Do give me a sensible
answer, and then I can pass on to something that you do not know so
well."

"Oh, of course, it was about all his wives having their heads cut off--"

"Not all!" interrupted Betty.  "Just let me say them!  Catherine of
Arragon was divorced, Anne Boleyn had--"

"Stop!" cried Miss Thompson.  "You are both wrong."

"No!  Really I am sure it's right!" exclaimed Betty.  "Isn't it, Madge?
You know you saw the place where her head was chopped off that time you
went to London with Aunt Mabel.  Nobody was allowed to walk on it, and
there were railings all round; and the policeman said one night in the
year her ghost--"

"Really this has nothing at all to do with your lesson," said Miss
Thompson, resolutely cutting short what threatened to be a very long
story.  "I never doubted that Anne Boleyn was beheaded," she continued.
"Only, as it happens, my question has nothing to do with Henry the
Eighth's wives.  Other events of much greater importance happened
during his reign, though you seem to have forgotten them.  The
Reformation, for instance."

"Oh, you meant that sort of thing, did you?" said John, every spark of
interest dying out of his voice.  It might be possible to remember a
few facts about axes and blocks, but church councils and acts of
parliament he felt to be altogether beneath his notice.  So he simply
gave up even the pretence of attending, and began to stare out of the
window at the gardener mowing the lawn.  "Once, twice, three times," he
counted, in a loud whisper, as the man passed the window with the
mowing-machine.

"Draw down the blind, John," said Miss Thompson.

There was a chorus of reproaches from all the children.  They
particularly disliked this punishment, which was only inflicted on rare
occasions when they had been unusually inattentive.

"Draw down the blind at once," repeated Miss Thompson.

"I always feel so gloomy when the blind is down," lamented Madge in a
very mournful tone.  "I know I can't do my lessons if the sun is all
shut out."

"My dear, they couldn't have been done worse this morning if you had
been shut up in the dark," replied Miss Thompson, trying to close the
discussion by again taking up the history-book.

But by this time John had wandered to the window, and was carefully
inspecting the dead wasp.  Not content with looking, he must needs take
it up to count how many legs it had.  "One, two, three, four."  John
was very fond of counting, especially at lesson-times.  But there was
one important item that he left out of his calculations--the sting!

"Oh! oh!  It hurts! it hurts!" shouted the little boy, as he hopped
about the room nursing his thumb.

"You silly child!  If you had only been obedient and done what I told
you, instead of playing with the wasp," began Miss Thompson.  Then she
remembered that it really was a waste of breath pointing out a moral to
a boy who was shouting and sobbing, so that he could not hear a word
she said.  "You had better go to the nursery," she added, "and have
something put on your hand.  No, you need not do any more lessons
before dinner.  You can go out into the garden, and your sisters will
join you when they have finished."

John was out of the schoolroom door almost before she had done
speaking.  When once in the passage his cries stopped suddenly.  He
knew better than to wake the baby out of its mid-day sleep.  So on
tiptoe, with carefully suppressed sobs, he entered the nursery, and
replied in whispers to Nurse's anxious inquiries after his injuries.
John had been her favourite charge until the recent arrival of a baby
brother.  Now she was fickle enough to prefer the baby, or at least to
behave as if she did.  Still, she lavished much compassion in dumb-show
on John's swollen thumb, and wrapped it in a blue bag, until he became
so interested in the process that he quite forgot it was hurting.  But
presently Baby stirred in his sleep, and Nurse being anxious to attend
to him, advised John to run out and play in the garden.

It was not strictly speaking kind, but at the same time it was very
natural conduct, that John should stand close outside the schoolroom
window making derisive faces at his two sisters, who were being
reluctantly introduced to the leading facts of English history.  Betty
first noticed him, and broke into a loud giggle.  Miss Thompson looked
up.

"If you are well enough to stand there grimacing in the sun, you are
well enough to come in and finish your lessons," was all she said.
John promptly fled out of sight round the corner.



CHAPTER II.

UNDER THE LABURNUM-TREE.

Within a few yards of the schoolroom window, but just out of sight,
stood a large laburnum-tree.  Behind it was a very substantial
bay-bush.  The two were planted at a corner of the house, with the
intention probably of cutting off a view of the kitchen windows from
the front.  But the children had elevated them into a far higher
position than that of a mere screen.  The laburnum-tree represented
their parliament-house.  In it, or under it, as the case might be, they
played most of their games, told most of their stories, originated most
of their schemes.

It was to this refuge that John fled when threatened with lessons.  It
was so conveniently near the schoolroom, that he could easily hear
through the open window when lessons were over; for since he had gone
out Miss Thompson had not punished the girls by making them sit behind
a closed window and drawn blind.  Besides, Madge and Betty were sure to
join him under the laburnum-tree directly they were released.  In the
meantime John enjoyed the unwonted luxury of a choice of seats.

There was only one drawback to the laburnum.  It was really such a nice
tree that one hardly likes to mention this one fault, but if the
children could have suggested any sort of improvement, it would have
been a little more sitting accommodation in the boughs.  Try as they
would they could never, all three, get up in it at once.  And John was
usually the one left out.  This was the way it happened.  Madge, being
two years older than the twins, and much larger, naturally always
seized the highest and most commodious place.  Then Betty, lightly
observing, "Ladies before gentlemen," would creep into a narrow little
fork between two branches at her sister's feet.  And all that remained
for John was a yard of slippery polished stem, on which nothing but a
fly could have sat.

John grumbled--it was one of the things he did best, according to his
sisters.  "Practice makes perfect," Betty used to say, alluding to this
habit of his.  She was fond of proverbs, and introduced them into her
conversation with more aptness than consideration for the feelings of
others.  But really about this matter of seats it did seem a little
hard on John to have always to crouch in the bay-bush, while his
sisters looked down on him from their lofty thrones,--even Betty's
boots on a level with his head.  Of course, they daily pointed out to
him that the crushed bay leaves gave out a delicious smell.  This was
quite true, but it in no way removed the original grievance.  One may
have too much even of bay leaves.

However, this morning for about half an hour John had undisturbed
possession of the laburnum-tree.  He began by trying Madge's seat, but
his legs being several inches shorter than hers dangled most
uncomfortably, instead of reaching the bough below.  In order to steady
himself he had to hold on with one hand, which was terribly
humiliating.  Madge, who could sit there in the most unconcerned
manner, plaiting rushes or carving a stick, would be sure to laugh at
him if she came out and noticed his difficulty.  He hastily slipped
down into Betty's seat.

Now it so happened that the twins were not at all alike in appearance.
John was a fine handsome boy, Betty rather a thin, under-sized girl;
consequently the fork between the laburnum branches into which she
fitted exactly would not admit her brother at all.  Except for the
glory of the thing, it was far safer and more comfortable down among
the bay leaves.  John was so seldom out in the garden without his
sisters that he had never before had a quiet opportunity for making
this discovery.  He was still thinking it over with puzzled
astonishment, when there was a loud sound of slamming doors, and Betty
ran out of the house, dangling her straw hat from her hand by a
worn-out bit of elastic.

"Madge kept in?" inquired John anxiously.

"Oh no!  It's her turn to put away the books and desks, that's all."

This was a relief, for though the twins were supposed to be
romantically devoted to each other, they were both in reality rather
dependent upon Madge, whose superior size, age, and experience made her
the undisputed leader in all their games.  John and Betty waited
impatiently, listening to the series of bangs which accompanied their
sister's rather abrupt restoration of order in the schoolroom.  At last
there were three crashes louder than all the former sounds.

"Hurrah!  There go the desks!" shouted John.  "That's the last thing
always.  She'll be here in a minute!"

In point of fact Madge joined them almost immediately.  "I've thought
of something," she said, directly she came within shouting distance.

There was some excitement at this announcement, for when Madge solemnly
observed that she had thought of something, it always meant that an
unusually interesting plan was about to be unfolded.  They all climbed
into their customary seats to await further developments.  As Betty was
nearest the laburnum-tree she scrambled up first, so that Madge had
presently to crawl right over her, even planting a pair of very
substantial and dusty boots in her younger sister's lap; but this was
by no means a sufficiently uncommon event to call for any remonstrance.
As for John, he squatted down among the bay leaves much more
contentedly than usual.  He had just found out that those lofty seats
up among the golden-chains, as the children called the laburnum
blossom, were not half as comfortable as they looked.

"This is what I have been thinking," began Madge, when she had settled
herself, not kicking Betty's head more than twice in the process.  "We
want some hiding-place where no one can find us."

"Yes! yes!" shouted the twins.

"Some place in a tree," continued Madge.

The applause became louder than ever.  Climbing trees was the favourite
amusement of all the children, and no game found favour for long which
did not include something of the kind.

"A tree like this, will it be?" inquired Betty.

"Of course not," replied Madge.  She had her own idea, and could not
help feeling rather irritated with the younger ones for not entering
into it without any explanations.  "This is hardly like a real tree,"
she continued; "more like a garden-seat, you know.  If we fell out of
it, I don't believe we should be hurt a bit."

This statement was felt by the assembled company to be quite true,
though perhaps a little ungrateful, seeing how very much use they made
of the laburnum.

"Now, I should like a tree which would be a real fortress," continued
Madge.  "A regular place of refuge--"

"What is a refuge?" interrupted John.

"Why, a place of safety, of course!  Where one can hide from the enemy
and--"

"What enemy?" again interrupted John.

"Oh, don't be so tiresome!" broke in Betty, who always understood
things a little quicker than her brother--or if not, pretended she did.
"Can't you fancy an enemy?  Men in armour, or lions, or Nurse when she
wants us to be put to bed."

John did not answer, being a little sulky.  Of course he could imagine
enemies just as well as his sisters; worse ones perhaps, with longer
spears and sharper teeth!  And he did not like being considered silly.

"What I think," continued Madge, who was accustomed to talk through
interruptions, so that she hardly noticed them; "what I think is that
we ought to make a kind of house up in a big tree, so high that no
grown-up people can possibly climb to it, and if we tumbled out we
should break our legs."

"I am afraid none of the garden trees will do," said Betty
thoughtfully, as she pondered over the required qualifications.

"Did I say it was to be in the garden?" snapped out Madge.  "It will be
in the fields--the farthest part of the fields.  And," she added,
leaning forward and whispering mysteriously, "I know the tree."

"Oh, which is it?  Where is it?" shouted the twins.  John's sulks at
once gave place to his curiosity.

"It's the beech-tree by the wall at the end of the Pig's Field,"
announced Madge.  "I have examined it, and it will do exactly."

"You do have such good plans!" murmured Betty admiringly.  Indeed, an
elder sister who can work out a project of this sort in her head
without saying a word to anyone, is a member of the family of whom one
may feel justly proud.

"But I hope there's a place for me in this grand tree of yours,"
observed John, in the accent of complaint that was rather habitual to
him.  "Because, if I've got to sit on the ground as I do here, and the
enemy comes, it won't be very nice for me; though of course you two
will be all right, so you won't care!" and he crushed the bay leaves
viciously under his feet until the air became quite aromatic.

"If you would only listen to me instead of grumbling you would hear my
whole plan," observed Madge, very reasonably.  "We shall not sit on
branches as we have always done before, we will build a house by
putting sticks for a floor.  A sort of huge nest, with lots of room for
us all.  Of course, if we build it ourselves, we can make it just as
large or as small as we like."

The audience was positively struck dumb by the magnificent ingenuity of
this new idea.  The clanging sound of a large bell at last broke the
silence.

"Oh, dear!  There is dinner in five minutes!" sighed Betty, wriggling
out of her narrow seat.  "And I upset the ink-bottle over my hands, so
that they will take longer to wash than usual, and there will be no
time to hear the rest of your plan now, because I promised to bring
Miss Thompson in a bunch of golden-chains."  And she began pulling down
the lowest boughs of the laburnum by swinging upon them with all her
weight.

"All right!" said Madge good-naturedly; "I'll help."  Climbing down to
the ground, she began to tear large sprays of golden blossom off the
boughs lowered by Betty's weight.  "There, I should think that's
enough!" she said, when her two hands were full to overflowing.  "Now
we had better run in, or we shall be late and lose our punctuality
marks!  But first I will tell you both one more thing.  I have even
thought of a name for this house in the tree.  The Eagle's Nest.  What
do you say to that?"  But the twins' admiration and enthusiasm for
their elder sister could not find a vent in mere words.



CHAPTER III.

THE EAGLE'S NEST.

A good name is half the battle.  That the Eagle's Nest was going to be
a magnificent success all the children felt at once.  Fortunately it
was Saturday, and there were no lessons to be done after dinner, so
they had a whole long afternoon in which to lay the foundations of
their new house.

When Captain West married and left the navy, many years before our
story begins, he had bought Beechgrove and the little farm attached to
the house.  So his children had no lack of fields and outhouses in
which to play, directly they were old enough for Nurse to trust them
out of her sight.  The only rule that they were bound to observe was:
Never to go off their father's property.  This was not often felt to be
an oppressive regulation, for the dozen fields of which the farm
consisted contained untold treasures, in the way of hedges rich in
birds' nests, and green slimy ponds alive with newts and tadpoles.  The
fact was, that the children had never yet found any day long enough to
explore the fields to their entire satisfaction.

But there was one corner of the Beechgrove farm which seemed more
mysteriously interesting than all the rest.  In the first place, it was
at an immense distance from the house; a grown-up person on a hot day
would very likely have taken nearly a quarter of an hour to walk there.
The children, of course, took much longer; they never went straight
anywhere, and even if they started to run they forgot half-way where
they were going, and wandered off in several directions, after passing
objects of interest, before they remembered.  So, excepting on long
summer afternoons, they very seldom got as far as this particular
corner, where the beech-trees grew in such abundance as to give their
name to the whole place.

There was another reason as well as its remoteness from civilization
which made the children regard this corner with a peculiarly awe-struck
interest.  On the other side of the high wall which bounded the farm at
this end lived an old lady, about whom most extraordinary stories were
told.  She was undoubtedly eccentric and fond of seclusion, as she had
spent a large sum of money on fencing her little property entirely
round with a stone wall about ten feet high.  Also, she never went for
walks; and it was said that tradesmen's carts were not admitted into
the garden, but had to wait outside on the road while the old
housekeeper carried all they brought through a door in the wall, which
she carefully closed behind her.  Nobody but the clergyman and the
doctor had been admitted to see Mrs. Howard for years; and they were
neither of them gossips, so the neighbourhood did not learn much after
their visits.  Some people said that the old lady was mad; others that
she had committed some terrible crime for which she had been sentenced
to imprisonment for life, but that being very rich, she had been
allowed to escape this disgrace on condition of paying a huge fine and
promising never to go outside those gloomy high walls.

The children firmly believed all the different stories they had been
told by successive nursery-maids, and even a legend started by the old
weeding-woman, to the effect that Mrs. Howard belonged to a very high
family living in London, and that having gone mad she took advantage of
her position to shoot at the Queen as she was driving through Hyde
Park.  The story broke off at this point, which was so unsatisfactory
that the children teased Mrs. Bunn to try and remember more, until,
being in a hurry to get on with her weeding, she hazarded a suggestion
that perhaps the poor lady was so mad that she forgot to load the
pistol.  As the Queen continued to live and reign, this really seemed
very probable.

Of course the little Wests could have asked their parents about Mrs.
Howard, and found out from them something more nearly approaching the
truth.  But on the whole they very much preferred being at liberty to
believe all sorts of wonderful and terrible reports.  It is such hard
work to satisfy one's natural craving for romantic adventure when one
is carefully brought up in a well-guarded nursery and schoolroom, that
it would be mere stupid ingratitude not to get all the excitement one
could out of a mysterious neighbour.

After this explanation, it can be better understood how very bold and
thrilling a proposal Madge made when she suggested that the Eagle's
Nest should be built in a beech-tree that actually overhung the
boundary wall.

"How are we to begin?  What shall we do first?" inquired the twins, as
with business-like rapidity the three children started off across the
fields immediately after their dinner.  For once none of them lingered
to pick buttercups, or even hunt the pigs.

"First we make the floor," said Madge, who was in a very good humour at
being so undoubtedly leader of the expedition.  "Until that is made we
have nothing to stand on while we are putting up the roof."

This was unquestionably true; besides, everybody felt that though a
very fairly satisfactory nest could be imagined open to the sky, some
sort of floor was an absolute necessity in a tree-house.

"But where shall we get the boards and nails from?" asked John,
thinking of the neat planks he had so often counted in the nursery.

"Boards and nails!" laughed Madge.  "Do you think it's going to be
exactly like the stupid sort of houses we are used to?  Perhaps you
expect to see a brown carpet with red spots, like the one in the
schoolroom?"

"Of course not!  Don't be so silly!" cried John angrily.  But all the
same, it must be confessed he could not imagine a house very unlike
Beechgrove.

"You see, this will be more of a nest," interposed Betty; "so it ought
to be made of sticks."

"That's it!  Follow me and I will show you where to get some."  And
Madge set off running across the field, closely pursued by the two
others.

It was not very difficult to guess where the sticks were to be found.
Every winter the wind had a delightful way of blowing down some large
boughs on the farm, and these used to be cut up and stacked together
until wanted for various purposes.  The children regarded these
windfalls as expressly designed for their convenience and amusement.
They climbed on the heavier logs, which were piled into temptingly
irregular mountains several feet high; and of the smaller sticks they
made every kind of defensive weapon.

Madge led the way straight to one of these wood-piles.  After much
study she chose several small branches, and all three children,
producing knives out of their pockets, set to work hacking off
unnecessary twigs.  The twigs being extremely tough and the knives not
at all sharp, this process took a long time, and the afternoon seemed
to be going by without their even coming in sight of Eagle's Nest.

"It's really no good trying to tidy up these sticks here!" Madge cried
at last in despair.  "Let us each carry as many branches as we can to
the Eagle's Nest, and we can trim them into shape there when we see
exactly what we want."

This seemed a particularly good idea, as all their hands were aching
after sawing away for so long with their blunt knives at the hard wood.
So a procession set out, each child dragging a branch along the ground.
By doing it that way they could move good-sized branches which would
afterwards cut up into several sticks.

"Oh, Madge, it's perfect!  It's quite perfect!" cried the twins some
time later, when, hot and panting, they at last dropped their burdens
beneath the great beech-tree by the wall.

"I really think it's pretty good," replied Madge modestly.  She felt
that as she had invented this plan herself it would not be good manners
for her to admire it too freely.  "You see those two boughs poking out
like great arms over the field?  The sticks must be long enough to
stretch from one to the other, and the Eagle's Nest when it is built
will be between them."

"Oh, why did we never think of it before!" exclaimed Betty, rolling on
the ground in an ecstasy of admiration.

"Well, you know we don't often come into this corner of the field to
look about," Madge reminded her; "it's so far from the house.  And
besides," she added frankly, "I used to be rather afraid of coming here
without Nurse when I was smaller, because of Mrs. Howard."

A shade of anxiety passed over the younger children's faces.  They had
forgotten all about that mysterious old lady behind the wall, with her
terrible character for madness and crime.  Yet she was possibly lurking
within a few yards of them, even listening to what they were saying.

"Do you think," began John seriously, "are you sure, that it's quite
safe here?"

"Quite safe," asserted Madge decidedly.  "If Mrs. Howard tried to come
an inch this side of the wall she would be a trespasser, and we could
send a policeman after her."

An elder sister who has mastered the law of trespass to this extent is
really an invaluable possession.  John's mind was quite set at rest,
and with a sigh of relief he again pulled out his knife and began
hacking away at a branch.

"I dare say you are both wondering how we are going to get up to the
Eagle's Nest," said Madge.  "Now I will show you."

She went to the wall against which the beech-tree was growing, and
deliberately put her toe into a deep crack between the stones where the
mortar had fallen out.  The others watched with the greatest
excitement, while, partly supported by inequalities on the trunk of the
tree, and partly taking advantage of projecting stones in the wall, she
slowly climbed up until she was on a level with the destined
foundations of the Eagle's Nest.

"Now hand me up a branch," she cried, "and I will lay the first stone
of our house!"

"But I thought you said it was to be all sticks?" objected John.

"Do try and not be stupid!" exclaimed Betty rather sharply, as she
wrestled with a branch far beyond her strength to lift single-handed.
"One always talks of laying the first stone, you know, whatever the
place is built of.  At least I never heard of laying the first brick!
And please help me to lift up the end of this branch, I can't push it
high enough, and it will get entangled in my hair and knock off my hat."

The twins struggled unsuccessfully to lift the heavy branch high enough
for Madge to reach.  She stooped forward as far as she dared, almost
losing her balance indeed, in her effort to get hold of this refractory
foundation-stone.  "If you two were only a little taller!" she
exclaimed reproachfully.

Betty looked down abashed.  She was short for her age, and knew it.
Quite an inch more in the wrong than John.  But she had ideas.

"If we knotted all our handkerchiefs together and tied them to one end
of the branch, you could pull it up easily," she suggested.

In ten minutes more the first stick, or stone, of the Eagle's Nest was
laid amidst shouts of congratulation and rejoicing.



CHAPTER IV.

A ROPE-LADDER.

Building even the most simple sort of house is a very great work.  A
nest ought to be begun and finished in less than a week--at least year
after year birds accomplish something of the sort without our ever
thinking them particularly clever or industrious.  But the Eagle's Nest
at Beechgrove was terribly incomplete, even after a fortnight's labour
had been expended on it.

"It doesn't look as if it would ever be finished," said John
mournfully, "and yet we have worked so hard."

His spirits were apt to give way when anything went wrong either at
lessons or play, and the first sign of depression was that he sat still
and did nothing.

"You see, making the steps up the wall took a very long time," said
Betty, who was vigorously sawing away at some twigs with a knife that
had lately lost the little edge it ever boasted.  "But they are very
good steps," she added proudly.

By scratching patiently with sharp stones and long-suffering knives,
the children had managed to remove a good deal of mortar from cracks
about a foot apart all up the wall, so now there was no difficulty in
finding a sufficient resting-place for their feet.  This was much
lighter work than dragging heavy branches across the field from the
wood-pile, and had consequently been more popular with everybody.  But
at last Madge had been obliged to remind her little band of labourers
that even the best sort of staircase, if it led nowhere, was not very
serviceable.  So then they began to drag branches again, and very weary
work they found it.  And now at the end of a fortnight there were only
five rough misshapen logs pulled up into the right place, with a great
many torn pocket-handkerchiefs to show what a hard struggle it had been
to lift them from the ground.  No wonder John was becoming
faint-hearted.

"You talked about a house big enough to hold several people, with a
nice roof in case it rained," he said reproachfully.

Madge represented that it so seldom rained in June they could easily
wait for their roof a little longer.  "One can put that on at any
time," she urged.  "There is a good bough above, and we could spread an
old shawl over it like a tent, or we might make a sort of wren's nest
with sticks all up the sides and top, and crawl in through a hole.
That would be very cozy, only I am afraid it would take a good many
sticks, and you none of you like getting sticks."

"No, I don't," said John stoutly.  "I've dragged enough of those old
things across the field, and I won't be bothered with them any more.
And it's no good talking about making it like a wren's nest--silly
little birds that never fight or anything!  What do eagles want with
those sort of stuffy little houses?"

When John embarked on a thoroughly unreasonable grumble, it was no good
arguing with him or interrupting him until he stopped from sheer loss
of breath.  So while he went on fault-finding, Madge was making up her
mind to a great resolve.  When at last he came to an end, she spoke out
so decidedly that the twins were compelled to listen to her.

"Do you want to make the Eagle's Nest a great success--much the nicest
thing we have ever done, or do you want to give it up altogether?" she
inquired sternly.

"Not give it up!  Of course, not give it up!" cried the two younger
ones.

"Very well.  I'm glad you said that.  It would be a very cowardly and
stupid thing to give it up when we have gone so far, but you can do
just as you like."

"I never wanted to give it up," began John, in an injured tone; "only I
don't want--"

"Well, if we are going on with it, I have quite settled what we will
do," interrupted Madge briskly.  "We will work away as hard as we can
at it all the afternoon, and then whatever state it is in when the
tea-bell rings we will declare it finished for the present, and begin
to use it to play in.  Of course, we can improve it as much as we like
after, but we won't go on working any more just at present."

This suggestion met with general approval, for though the children had
not at first minded the hard work of dragging branches from the
wood-stack, now that much the same thing had been going on for a
fortnight, they were getting rather tired of it and beginning to want a
change.  But after Madge's sensible proposal they worked away with all
their first energy for the next two hours, and by the time the distant
sounds of the tea-bell were heard across the fields, a very nice little
platform had been built in the tree.

"I don't know what anybody could want better!" cried Madge, clapping
her hands in high glee.  "We will open it on Monday afternoon."

"It looks pretty open now without any walls or ceiling," observed John,
who was always a little contradictory.

"Of course I mean open it as the Prince of Wales opens a hospital,"
Madge said with dignity.

"I know that well enough!  You needn't always think I'm so stupid!"
growled John.

This kind of conversation took place several times a day, but seldom
ended in a real quarrel unless the children were rather tired or cross.
To-day they were fortunately all in capital spirits at having finished
their great work.

It seemed long to wait until Monday afternoon.  But at last the time
passed, and they were all standing together under the great beech-tree,
with Madge explaining how the opening ceremony was to be performed.

"We will ascend the grand staircase," she said, "and standing in the
assembly-room, the president (that's me, you know) will declare the
buildings to be solemnly opened for public use."

This certainly sounded very well, though nobody knew exactly what it
meant.  The fact was that Madge repeated certain sentences she had read
in newspapers, without troubling very much about the meaning.

"And when you've done that what shall we do?" inquired John.

"Well, if you can't think of anything to play when you have got into
the Eagle's Nest you had better stay in the nursery and play with
Baby," said Madge scornfully.

"Let us begin to ascend directly, and then we shall have more time for
playing," interposed Betty, intent on keeping the peace.

"The president leads the way, of course!" exclaimed Madge, planting her
toe in one of the niches of the wall.  "I suppose both of you are
obliged to use all the steps," she added carelessly.  "I am so tall
that I can stretch two at a time."

"So can I!" chimed in John; "it's only Betty who can't reach.  Just get
out of the way and I'll show you what I can do."

He immediately lifted his foot to the level of his chin, grabbed wildly
at a projecting stone far above his head, missed it, and fell heavily
on his back in a tuft of sting-nettles.

There was a good deal of confusion.  Both the girls very kindly tried
to help their brother up, and were naturally rather indignant when he
hit out wildly at them, under the mistaken impression that they had
pushed him down.  Then they all stung their hands, and there was a long
argument about who ought to have cleared the sting-nettles away from
under the tree.  But the simple idea of making up for past neglect by
doing it now did not occur to any of them.

At last Madge recalled them all to their senses by declaring that she
saw old Barton, the farm-man, in the distance, carrying the milk-pails.
Though he was two fields off there could be no mistake, because he kept
the pails so brightly polished that they glittered like diamonds in the
sun.  And he never started to milk the cows until the stable clock had
struck four, so his appearance was a positive proof that the afternoon
was passing rapidly by.

"I say, it's nearly tea-time!  And I thought we had only just finished
dinner!  I do believe holiday afternoons are much shorter than others!"
exclaimed John.

He was so overcome by this discovery that he allowed Madge to mount the
grand staircase without interruption.  But she did not avail herself of
the rare chance of making a dignified welcoming speech to the younger
ones as they climbed up behind her, for at that moment she was seized
by a new idea of such importance that she was almost choked with
anxiety to impart it at once to the others.

"This building is open!" she shouted impatiently.  "And come on
quickly, you two!  I want to tell--"

"That's not the way people open things!" interrupted John.  "It takes a
much longer time than that.  You ought to say its name, and make a
speech about what it will be used for.  Oughtn't she, Betty?"

Betty said nothing.  She made a general rule of backing up her elder
sister in family disputes, and yet she could not help feeling that in
this case John had a just cause of complaint.  The ceremony had been
very disappointing.

"Very well then," said Madge, seeing that it was no use to fight
against public opinion, "I suppose I must do it all over again.
Although I have something to say that you can't even imagine."

"I don't believe there is such a thing," said John stolidly.  "I can
imagine anything a girl can, I know that."

Old as she was, Madge nearly cried with impatience.  "If you are going
to contradict and argue," she began, "it's no good--"

"We will be quiet!  We will really!" interrupted Betty, who, on the
whole, had a peace-loving disposition.

"Very well then," said Madge, recovering herself a little, but still
speaking with rather terrific dignity.  "I declare this Eagle's Nest
open.  It has been erected regardless of trouble and expense by--by--"

"The young eagles," suggested Betty.

"Yes, by the young eagles," continued Madge, "for the use and amusement
of--of--"

"The young eagles," again suggested Betty.

"Of course!  Amusement of the young eagles," repeated Madge rather
inattentively, for she was thinking of something else.  "And we hope
they will enjoy it!  And I think that's all.  Now I'll tell you my last
plan!"

"All right!" muttered John, settling himself with a contented grunt
upon the sticks.  Now that the new building had been properly opened,
his mind was at rest.

"Well, this is what I think," began Madge.  "It's rather absurd for us
to have a grand staircase up to our place of refuge.  What we want is a
ladder that we can pull up after us so that the enemy can't follow!"

"What a splendid idea!" said Betty admiringly.  "But I am afraid Barton
would never allow us to take his ladders out of the barn.  He is always
dreadfully cross if we only take them out to look at a bird's nest, and
he finds they have gone.  And he would be sure to see us carrying them
across the fields."

"Yes, but you see I have thought of all that!" replied Madge with a
smile of superior wisdom.  "I told you I had a good idea, and I have,
though John did not believe it!  What do you say to a rope-ladder?"



CHAPTER V.

THE BOY WHO MOUNTED IT.

It is just possible that there comes a time of life when the heart does
not beat responsively at the bare suggestion of a rope-ladder.  Then a
desert island will have lost its charm, and wild beasts be no longer a
source of terror or interest.  Betty and John had, fortunately for
them, not yet reached this miserable epoch.  At their sister's last
words they shouted and danced about on the uneven sticks until they
were in imminent danger of falling out of the Eagle's Nest much faster
than they climbed in.

"I thought you would consider it a good idea," said Madge modestly.

"Rather!  I should think so!  It's the awfullest, jolliest notion!  It
is! it is!" cried the twins alternately.  At that moment they felt that
nobody ever had ideas quite as good as Madge's.

But presently John, as usual, saw an objection to the scheme.

"I'm afraid string won't be strong enough," he began gloomily.  "It
might bear Betty's weight, but it certainly won't ours."  He was at
least two inches taller, and several pounds heavier than his twin
sister, and was never tired of drawing attention to the fact.

"Do you think we are heavier than those great bundles of hay that
Barton carries on his back when he is going to feed the cows in the
winter?" inquired Madge.

John looked rather puzzled by this mysterious question, but Betty
interposed hastily: "Oh, no!  They must be much heavier than us!  Why,
Barton can sometimes hardly load them on his back and stoops almost
double as he walks.  And I know he can carry two of us, because one day
when John and I were sitting on the pig-sty wall he came and just
lifted us off one under each arm, and carried us all the way back to
the garden as easily as possible."

"It wasn't because we were sitting on the pigsty wall that he lifted us
off," observed John.  "We are allowed to sit there as much as we
like--at least you aren't, because it dirties your frocks, but I am.
It was because you were throwing stones at the little pigs and he
thought you would hurt them."

"It wasn't stones!" cried Betty indignantly.  "It was little bits of
moss I picked off the walls, because they had nothing green to
eat--only--"

"Oh, children!  Don't be so silly!  Wrangling on about things that
don't matter in the least!" interrupted Madge in her most sensible
manner.  "We all agree about the only thing of any consequence," she
continued.  "The ropes that go round the bundles of hay would be strong
enough to bear us.  And I know where to get them!  They are coiled up
behind the manger in the cow-house, and Barton has not used them lately
as the cows are not having hay in the fields now."

After this speech the children naturally lost very little time in
running to the cow-house.  There, lying in a dark corner, were several
coils of rope of unequal length, but all most reassuringly thick.  They
chose out two pieces that seemed as if they had been made on purpose to
form the sides of a rope-ladder, and carried them off in triumph to the
Eagle's Nest, feeling like a successful party of marauding barons in
the middle ages.  Just as they had hidden the rope in a fork of the
beech-tree the bell for tea rang, and work was over for that afternoon.
In warm weather, when the children strayed far from the house, Mrs.
West had a large bell rung outside the door at meal-times, so there was
really no excuse for not coming in.  However, even with this
precaution, Miss Thompson had so frequently to wait that she had lately
made a rule to the effect that a quarter of an hour after the right
time for tea to begin the cake and jam should be sent out of the room,
and only bread and butter left.  The children had been conspicuously
more inclined to punctuality since this rule was made.

Everything connected with the Eagle's Nest took much more time and
labour than was ever expected.  It sounds an easy thing enough to make
a rope-ladder when once the materials have been collected.  But even
with Barton's ropes, and Nurse's best ball of string, which John had
quietly brought away in his pocket, it was no simple matter.  After
many days spent in faithfully following out all the directions given
for the manufacture of rope-ladders in various books of adventures, the
children produced something up which an intrepid traveller might
possibly have crawled in preference to being eaten by a very hungry
lion.  With great pride they tied the upper ends of the two ropes
firmly to a bough just above the Eagle's Nest.  That part of the job
was very effectually done.  The children could be trusted to tie secure
knots, they had such constant practice.

"Hurrah!  Finished at last!" cried Madge, giving the ropes a severe
jerk to test their firmness.  "And now, who shall be the first to mount
up our new ladder?"

"Let me!" cried a strange voice.

The children started so violently that they almost fell out of the
Eagle's Nest.  They looked all round in bewilderment, and at last,
directly under the beech-tree, on the other side of the wall, they saw
a boy watching them intently.

"If you will drop the end of the ladder down this way I know I can
climb up," he said.  "I've been looking at you for a long time, only
you were so busy you didn't notice me.  And I want to get up and have a
look at that place you have built in the tree."

Betty and John turned to Madge and remained silent.  The occasion was
so strange that they gladly yielded to their elder sister the privilege
of deciding what was to be done.  But for once even the masterful Madge
had some difficulty in making up her mind.  There were so many things
to be considered before taking any decisive action.

Of course it would be delightful to exhibit all their inventions and
contrivances to a stranger, a boy who was apparently of an exact age to
take an intelligent interest in such matters.  But then, on the other
hand, they had never been given permission to speak to this boy, and
perhaps it was not the right thing to do.

"Still, I don't remember that we have ever been forbidden to talk to
strangers, have we?" said Madge aloud.  She was very anxious to be
provided with an excuse for inviting this new boy to join the party.

"No, I don't think we have ever actually been told not to speak to
people we don't know," said Betty thoughtfully.  "But then, you know,
Mama and Miss Thompson would never think of our meeting a stranger in
the fields, and of course we don't go on the roads by ourselves."

This was perfectly true, but it did not suit Madge at all.

"I don't know what people think," she said impatiently; "only what they
say.  And if we have never been forbidden to speak to a stranger, I
expect there is no harm in it.  We are forbidden things fast enough if
they are wrong.  Sometimes it seems as if there would be hardly
anything left that we are allowed to do!"  She spoke rather recklessly,
having half made up her mind to do something that she knew perfectly
well was not right, and hoping by talking very loud and fast to stifle
the voice of her conscience.

"You are keeping me a precious long time waiting!" called out the boy
from below.  "You don't mean to say you are such a set of babies that
you are afraid to let down the ladder for me without first running back
to the nursery to ask permission?"

At this taunt Madge became very red.  "I've got nothing to do with the
nursery, and I'm not afraid of anybody!" she exclaimed.  These bold
statements were not only silly but untrue; however, she did not stop to
think of that in her overwhelming hurry to convince this stranger that
she was not a little child, as he seemed to think, but a big girl with
a will of her own.  "And just to show you that I needn't trouble about
anybody's permission, I invite you to join us up here," she added.

"That's right!  You are a good sort, I can see!" returned the boy.
"Drop down that old ladder of yours, and I will be with you in a couple
of seconds!  Now, look sharp, you two little ones.  Lend a hand with
the rope, can't you!  What's the good of staring at me like two stuffed
owls?"

To say the truth, Betty and John were both rather frightened by Madge's
daring behaviour.  They were by no means better children than she was,
but they seldom ventured to be naughty on such a large scale as this.
When Madge's pride was once roused she never stopped to think of
consequences; but it is only fair to add, that being the eldest she
generally same in for the largest share of punishment if they all did
wrong together.

"Is he really coming up the ladder to play with us?" muttered Betty
rather breathlessly in her sister's ear.  "Do you think we shall be
allowed--"

"Here, you parcel of babies, get out of the way!" interrupted the boy.
"You've got nothing to do with it.  Just chuck me down the rope," he
added to Madge, "and if the babies don't like it they can run home and
play in the nursery.  We don't want them interfering with us!  Rather
not!"

Madge could not resist this flattering appeal.  She did so enjoy being
treated as a person of some importance, and not classed with the little
ones.  "Here goes!" she cried defiantly, and taking hold of the
rope-ladder she dropped the end of it over the wall.

There was an anxious struggle.  The strange boy appeared very active,
for though one or two of the short sticks that formed the rungs of the
ladder slipped (for it was almost impossible to tie them securely to
the rope sides), yet he clung on with hands and feet like a monkey.
When he came within reach Madge stooped down and stretched out her hand
to him.

"Welcome to Eagle's Nest!" she said proudly, as she pulled him up to
her side in the tree.



CHAPTER VI.

A VICTIM.

"So this is what you call Eagle's Nest?" cried the new-comer.  "What a
rum place!"

"It's a fortress," observed Madge with considerable dignity, for she
did not quite like the want of respect with which he was criticising
their great achievement.  "It is only accessible by a rope-ladder and
one other--"  She stopped suddenly, thinking that after all it might
not be wise to confide all their secrets to a stranger until he proved
himself worthy of confidence.

"Oh, you needn't trouble to tell me," replied the boy; "I shall find it
out quickly enough.  I find out everything.  I found you out playing up
in this tree, though you couldn't see me."

"We did not know there were any children on the other side of the wall,
so we didn't look particularly," explained Madge.  "We thought an old
lady lived--"

"Old Mother Howard you mean?" interrupted the boy.  "Yes, she lives
there right enough.  And a rum old woman she is too!"

"Is she your mother, then?" asked John, rather puzzled by this speech.

"Rather not!  I should jolly well like to see her dare to be my
mother!" said the boy indignantly.  "I'm an orphan, and she says she is
some relation and has a right to bring me up.  But I'll tell you
something,"--he lowered his voice mysteriously, and the others crept a
little nearer to him,--"it's my belief she is only trying to get all my
money!"

"How dreadful!" exclaimed Madge.  "I didn't know that people really did
that sort of thing nowadays."

"Oh, don't they just!" said the boy, seemingly delighted by the
impression his words had produced.  "I'll just tell you how she has
treated me.  My father was a very rich man and I am his only child, so
of course I ought to be rich, oughtn't I?  Well, I hardly ever have any
pocket-money at all!"

"We have threepence a week," said Betty with justifiable pride.  But a
moment later she was sorry that she had appeared to boast of their
superior good fortune.

"Threepence a week!  Do you indeed?  But I dare say you have everything
you want directly you ask for it?" observed the boy very dolefully.
"What should you say if you had been left an orphan at the mercy of a
cruel guardian, who sent you first to a school where they starved you,
then to a school where they beat you, and then here where they do both?"

"Do you mean that Mrs. Howard starves and beats you?" inquired Madge,
horrified by these disclosures.

"Oh, rather!  Dry bread for dinner, and if you won't eat it you are
locked up in the cellar until you do.  It's quite dark, and the black
beetles crawl over you.  Ugh!  Have you ever had a black beetle walk
across your face?"

"No!" exclaimed Madge; "I've never touched one.  Cook says she
sometimes sees them on the kitchen floor at night, but of course we are
in bed then."

"Well, think of being shut up in a perfectly dark cellar--"

"Is it underground?" interrupted John.

"Jolly well underground I should say!" continued the boy.  "Fifty steps
down, and an iron door at the top and the bottom of the stairs, so that
however much you shouted nobody could possibly hear you.  And nothing
but slimy black earth to lie upon."

"How do you know it's black if you are in the dark?" asked Betty, so
deeply interested in this terrible tale that she wished to understand
every detail.

"I tell you I know it is black!" said the boy sharply.  "Black, and
covered with pools of dirty water.  And there are toads all about.  If
you don't believe me, though, I won't tell you any more about it."

"Oh, I do believe you!  It wasn't that at all," said Betty.  "But what
a dreadful woman Mrs. Howard must be!  Jane says the village people
think she is quite mad."

"And who is Jane?"

"She is our nurse-maid.  But everybody thinks the same.  Very likely
Father and Mother do, only they never talk about Mrs. Howard to us."

"I dare say she is mad," said the boy.  "I can tell you enough things
about her to make your hair stand on end, although I have only been
here a week."

"But how did you come here, and what is your name?  And how old are
you?" asked Madge.

"My name is Lewis Brand, and I was fourteen last Christmas."

"Then you are two years older than me!" cried Madge, this announcement
putting everything else out of her head.  "I had no idea you were so
old as that.  And you have been at school?"

"Two schools, and now I have been sent to prison here."

"I shall go to school soon," interposed John, who was rather ashamed of
his want of experience before this big boy.  John had been kept at home
a little longer than would otherwise have been the case, because his
mother had a romantic idea that the twins were inseparable.  It had
lately become apparent, however, that John and Betty were most
affectionate when they did not see too much of each other; and since a
baby-boy had lately appeared in the nursery, Captain West had felt that
his eldest son could be very well spared to go to school.

"Ah, school is bad enough!" said Lewis gloomily.  "You wait till you
get there!  You'll just jolly well wish you were home again!  But," he
broke off suddenly, "do let us begin to play.  Talking all the
afternoon is dull work."

It was wonderful how soon the victim of Mrs. Howard's cruelties
recovered his spirits when they once started a game.  He established
himself as chief of a tribe of wild Indians, with the modest title
"Bravest of the Brave".  And he led his warriors to victory with such
shrill battle-cries that the veriest coward would have felt compelled
to follow him.  The absence of enemies was the chief want that
afternoon.  They had to pretend that some iron railings on the other
side of the field were an army advancing towards them in the distance.

"But it is much more fun when the enemy is alive, so that he runs away
and we can hurt him," explained Madge.  "Next time we will try to drive
the pigs up to this end of the field when we are coming here.  They
make capital enemies, they scream so beautifully while they are running
away."

It seemed to be taken for granted by everybody that in future Lewis
would often join the three Wests in their games.

"And I'm sure Mama won't mind your coming to play with us when she
hears how cruelly you are treated at home," observed Betty.

"You don't mean to say you were going to tell anybody that you met me
here!" cried Lewis excitedly.  "Now, that's just like a girl!  They
never can keep the least bit of a secret.  If you say a single word
about me to anybody at all I shall never be able to come here any more.
And very likely something dreadful will happen to me."

"But Mama would not tell Mrs. Howard if I asked her not.  Besides, she
doesn't even know her," argued Betty, who was rather frightened at the
prospect of keeping such a very large secret for an indefinite period.

"I tell you I shall be put in that dark cellar, and fed--"  Lewis
suddenly broke off, and whispered in a tone of real terror, "Lie down
flat!  Keep still!  There she is!"

All four children happened to be on the Eagle's Nest at the moment,
having just returned from a most violent raid against the Iron-Railing
tribe, which, however, did not seem in any hurry to avenge its wrongs
by pursuing the enemy back to his stronghold.  At Lewis's words they
all crouched down on the sticks, making themselves as small as
possible.  And they looked in the direction to which he silently
pointed.

From the height of the Eagle's Nest it was possible to see over the
boundary wall into Mrs. Howard's domain.  It is a fact, however, that
until to-day the children had found this view exceedingly uneventful.
At the bottom of the wall there was a small orchard, beyond that a
glimpse could be caught of an old-fashioned garden and the end of a
brick house.  It was all very ordinary and homely-looking, not at all
like the surroundings one naturally expects to find associated with
deeds of wrong and cruelty.  But since the children had heard of the
fearful cellar beneath that innocent brick house, they shuddered as
they glanced towards it.  And to-day for the first time they saw
someone moving about the garden.

"Lie still," whispered Lewis, "as still as death!  She is coming this
way!"

Full of mingled terror and curiosity, Madge, Betty, and John lay
motionless, hardly moving an eyelid.  It was Lewis who fidgeted
decidedly the most, in spite of his having been the one to give the
order for silence.  And presently through a gate from the garden came
an old lady.  She was dressed all in gray--gown, shawl, and bonnet, and
most delicately clean and neat she looked.  In her hand she carried a
nosegay of white flowers, and a few paces behind her solemnly stalked a
large black cat.

There were only two remarkable things about this old lady's
appearance--always excepting her extreme air of daintiness.  One was
the smallness of her size, the other her funny trick of nodding her
head continually.  The latter seemed as much a habit with her as
breathing; she nodded at the buttercups and daisies beneath her feet,
and she nodded at the two sleek cows, who stopped chewing the cud for a
moment to gaze back with blinking, white-lashed eyes.  She even nodded
more than once towards the beech-tree, until Madge made sure that they
were discovered, and began to prepare a fine speech, defying Mrs.
Howard to trespass one inch on Captain West's land.  But after all
there was no opportunity for delivering this timely warning, as the old
lady glided slowly on through the orchard, and having gently inspected
(and nodded to) every individual apple-tree, she returned to the garden
and disappeared round a corner of the house, closely followed by the
black cat.

"So that's Mrs. Howard!" exclaimed Madge, stretching her cramped limbs
after the effort of remaining still so long.  "She doesn't look as if
she could hurt you very much.  Why, I don't believe she is as tall as I
am!"

"Perhaps not," replied Lewis.  "But I never said she shut me up
herself, did I?  She keeps a sort of jailer to do that.  And she stands
and grins on the top step while he is hurling me into the cellar below.
You should see her grin!"

"But she looks so gentle," objected Betty.

"I'll tell you the reason of that.  It's to deceive people and get them
into her clutches," said Lewis.  "Now I must be off, or they will
half-murder me if they find out where I have been.  I'll try and come
another day if I can give old Mother Howard the slip."  And seizing the
rope-ladder, which had been hidden among the branches, he again dropped
it over the wall.  Climbing down the ladder was a much quicker matter
than climbing up, and in a couple of minutes he was safely running
across the orchard towards the brick house.



CHAPTER VII.

JACK AND JILL.

When Lewis Brand had disappeared from sight, the three children left in
the Eagle's Nest could scarcely believe that since dinner-time so many
curious things had happened.  A strange boy, of whose existence they
were not aware two hours before, had been playing with them just as if
they had known each other all their lives.  He had, moreover, told them
his history, which was quite as wonderful as many fairy stories.  And
they had seen the mysterious Mrs. Howard.

These extraordinary new experiences had the effect of quite throwing
the rope-ladder into the background, and they actually forgot all about
its existence, and descended by the wall in the old way at the warning
sound of the tea-bell.  John was the first to notice this omission.

"Oughtn't we to climb up again and come down by the ladder?" he said.

"Oh no, bother the ladder!" replied Madge, so curtly that the others
stared at her in surprise.

"But the ladder was your idea, your very own idea.  And I thought you
were so proud of it!" observed Betty in a bewildered voice.

"Oh yes, so I was!" cried Madge impatiently.  "But don't you see, so
many new things have happened that they have nearly put the old things
out of my head.  The ladder is quite safe up there twisted round the
bough.  Barton will never think of looking in the tree even if he does
miss it, but it's my belief he doesn't count the ropes all through the
summer.  Now let us hurry back or there will be a fuss about our
keeping tea waiting, and we sha'n't be allowed to go so far away in the
fields.  You know Miss Thompson once threatened not to let us out of
sight of the schoolroom window if we so often came in late."

On the way home Madge impressed upon the other two the necessity of not
boasting of their adventure.

"Mayn't we even say that we have seen Mrs. Howard?  Not even tell
Jane?" they asked.

"Certainly not," said Madge sternly.  "It is not our own secret,
remember.  It is Lewis's.  And we have promised him to say nothing
about it, so of course we mustn't."

When the case was put that way it certainly sounded right to hold one's
tongue.  And yet a little time before it had seemed equally right to go
home and confess that they had taken the unusual step of talking to a
stranger.  The younger ones couldn't help feeling that this was very
confusing.  Besides, it was disappointing to be forbidden to tell Jane
that they now knew more about Mrs. Howard even than she did.

They would have discussed the subject all the way home if the sight of
Captain West coming to meet them across the fields had not given an
entirely new turn to their thoughts.  As soon as they came near enough
to hear what he said he shouted out:

"Come along quickly!  I have been looking for you ever since I came
back from Churchbury.  There is a surprise for you!"

There was nothing the children liked better than being with their
father.  He was away a great part of every day attending Magistrates'
meetings, Boards of Guardians, and other useful county work.  When he
came home late in the afternoon, Madge, Betty, and John made such a
rush for him that Mrs. West often complained that she could not get any
attention until the children had gone to bed.  It was no use her trying
to talk, she said, every word was drowned by the three loud voices that
insisted upon being heard and answered.

At the bare mention of a surprise the children set off running.  They
knew of old that their father's surprises usually meant a new toy or
something good to eat.  As they rushed up to him he quietly stepped on
one side, and they all three rolled over in a heap.

"That was a fine escape for me," laughed Captain West.  "If I hadn't
been on the look-out you would have knocked me over too, I suppose.
No, I will not be pawed by six dirty hands!  There's nothing in my
pocket, I tell you!"

"But you said there was a surprise!" panted John, who had not been able
to run quite as fast as his sisters, and consequently had fallen on the
top of the heap and was the first to rise.

"Quite true!  But all surprises aren't made of chocolate, and don't
live in my pocket as you seem to think," replied Captain West.  "This
one came from America.  Now guess what it is?"

"But we can't!" shouted three despairing voices.  "Oh, please tell us!
Do tell us!"

"Nonsense!  A little thinking strengthens the mind," said Captain West
calmly.  "You all learn geography.  Now what comes from America?"

"Christopher Columbus!" screamed Betty, who was in such a hurry to
answer first that she had not listened very attentively to the question.

"Very well.  I promise that if he comes you shall have him all to
yourself," observed her father.

"Oh, I didn't mean that!  Let me try again!" cried the little girl, who
had just discovered from the laughter of the others that she had said
something rather foolish.

"No, no!  You have had your turn, and if you didn't listen I can't help
it.  What do you say, Madge?"

"Corn, cotton, india-rubber--"

"Oh, stop!  That will do.  I don't want the whole geography-book from
end to end.  What do you say, John?"

"I say the same as the others," replied John, who did not take the
trouble to think on his own account, and fancied this statement must be
safe.

"What!" cried Captain West, pretending to be much alarmed at the news;
"you really think Christopher Columbus and all the products of North
and South America have come as a little surprise to us?  This is very
overpowering.  Before proceeding any further in my investigations I
shall certainly require some tea to strengthen me;" and he started off
walking rapidly towards the house.

"Papa!  That's too bad!  We can't eat any tea until we know what it
is!" they all shouted.

"I am sorry for that," said Captain West coolly; "because I happen to
be very hungry, as I only had a biscuit for lunch at Churchbury.  It
will be rather dull work watching me, I am afraid."

At this moment Mrs. West appeared at the drawing-room window, holding
up a cup as a signal to her husband that his tea was ready.  He hurried
towards her immediately, telling the children that he should be ready
in a quarter of an hour.  So there was nothing for it but to wash their
hands and run to the schoolroom, where they arrived just in time to
save the jam, which was in the very act of being carried out of the
room.  And after all, in spite of their excitement, they contrived to
make a very good tea, for it was a long time since dinner, and they had
hardly been still for a moment.

Mrs. West was not very strong, so that she had to spend a great deal of
the day on the sofa, and could seldom join in the children's out-door
amusements.  But this surprise from America was so exceptionally
interesting that she declared she must come out and see it; so, with a
shawl carefully tied round her, she accompanied her husband and
children to the stables after tea.

"Take care!" cried Captain West, with his hand on the latch of one of
the stable doors; "take care it doesn't jump out!"

"Is it alive?  Can it run?  Will it bite?" asked the children in
astonishment.

But before they had time to say more the door was opened, and they
caught sight of two most graceful little goats shrinking timidly into a
corner.

"Are they for us?" inquired Madge, in a wondering tone of voice; for,
so far, they had never owned anything larger than a pet rabbit, and the
idea of having these beautiful goats for their own seemed almost too
good to be true.

"They are absolutely your property," said Captain West.  "I have
nothing to do with them at all, except that I suppose I shall have the
honour of paying for what they eat and break."

"Oh, Papa!  They look much too dainty to break anything with their tiny
little hoofs," said Madge reproachfully.  "And I can see they will eat
very little.  But how do you think we had better divide two between
three of us?"

"There are several ways," replied her father.  "You might have the
heads, Betty the bodies, and John the tails."

But this suggestion did not give entire satisfaction.

"If Madge wanted to feed her heads in the stable just when I had my
bodies out walking on the road, how should we manage?" asked Betty.

"That is indeed a difficult question to decide," said Captain West
thoughtfully.  "I see that it is a much more difficult matter to keep
goats than I had ever imagined.  Perhaps after all it would be safer to
send them back to America?"

"Oh, no!  But I see you don't mean it!" cried Madge.  "You are only
joking."

"I don't know about that," said her father.  "It isn't a very joking
matter.  One of my old friends who has been lately travelling about
America just writes to say that he has brought back a charming pair of
little goats, and as he can't keep them in his London house he is
sending them as a present to my children.  He might have consulted me
first, I think, especially as the goats arrived a few hours after the
letter."

"Oh, but you wouldn't have stopped them?  They are such darlings!"
cried Madge.  "They won't give any trouble, and they will draw a little
cart."

"Well, they look rather wild for that kind of work at present,"
observed Captain West; "but I dare say they will grow tamer.  And as
they are here I suppose I must make the best of them, as I do of wasps
and rats."

"How can you compare them to such nasty things?" demanded Madge
indignantly.  "Although I know you only do it to tease us!  And now we
must think of names.  That is always so hard, because we can never
quite agree about names.  The white mice all died before we could make
up our minds what to call them."

"Then I am thankful to say the poor goats will be saved from that
fate," said her father.  "My friend expressly says that they have
names.  They are called Jack and Jill!"



CHAPTER VIII.

AN EARLY CHASE.

The excitement of the goats' arrival quite put all thoughts of Lewis
Brand and his wonderful story out of the children's heads.  Fortunately
the evenings were light and long, for there was a great deal to be done
before the two pets could be considered safely housed for the night.
Captain West objected to their remaining any longer in the stables as
he could not spare the room, so there was a great discussion about
where they could be shut up for the night.  At last it was decided that
a railed-off corner of the cow-house, where calves generally lived,
would be very suitable, and in the daytime, of course, they could be
loose in the fields with the other animals.  As they seemed rather
wild, it was safer to shut them up at night for fear of their wandering
away.  So the children were at last persuaded to leave them for the
night, with a plentiful supply of fresh grass, in case they should wake
and feel hungry.

"What a lot of things have happened to-day!" exclaimed Betty when she
and Madge were both in bed, and Jane had left the room with her usual
piece of good advice to them to go to sleep at once.  Two children
occupying beds in the same room were not very likely to take such a
sensible piece of advice, and in point of fact Madge and Betty often
talked away merrily for a long time.  "Sometimes it seems as if nothing
happened for weeks, and to-day there are so many things I can hardly
remember them all," continued Betty.  "Doesn't it seem a long time
since we let down the rope-ladder and that boy climbed into the Eagle's
Nest?"

"Yes.  But do be quiet, I want to go to sleep," said Madge rather
crossly.  She had been feeling so much happier since she had quite
forgotten Lewis Brand and the difficulties connected with him, that she
was not at all grateful for having the whole affair brought back to her
mind again.

But Betty could not leave the subject alone.  "Do you think Lewis is a
nice boy?" she inquired.  "I didn't like him at first, because he has
such a white face and hardly any eyebrows!"

"What a silly reason for not liking a person," said Madge.  "As if they
could help their eyebrows!"

"I know it's silly," returned Betty humbly.  "But don't you find it
very difficult to like people when they have nasty faces?"

"I never think about their faces," said Madge in a superior way.  "If
they are jolly I like them soon enough, however ugly they are!"

"Oh, so do I!" exclaimed Betty, now rather ashamed of her criticisms as
she found that Madge considered them silly.  "At first I thought he was
going to be rather proud and stuck-up because he was so much older than
we are, but afterwards he seemed very nice when we began to play.  I
wonder if we shall ever see him again?"

"I'm sure I don't know!  Let us go to sleep now, I'm tired of talking;"
and Madge burrowed so deeply under the bed-clothes that it was quite
impossible to carry on any sort of conversation with her.

Perhaps it was because Madge went to sleep rather early that evening
that she was enabled to wake proportionately early the following
morning.  It was fairly light and fine, though not sunny.  She got out
of bed and went to the window.  Madge invariably looked out of the
window the first thing in the morning, but to-day she was rewarded by
seeing something that had never met her eyes before.

On the lawn, directly in front of the house, was a large flower-bed,
containing many roses of different colours.  They were Mrs. West's
favourite flowers, and even when she could not go out, she enjoyed
seeing them from the drawing-room window.  In the middle of this
flower-bed now stood Jack and Jill, cropping off and devouring dozens
of rose-buds with evident relish.

Madge rubbed her eyes and looked again.  It was no dream, and there was
no possibility of a mistake.  She had seen the goats safely shut into
the calves' house the night before, and here they were loose and
walking about the garden.  She could not understand in the least how it
had happened; but nevertheless it was a fact.  And, moreover, they were
eating her mother's favourite roses as fast as they could.  She tapped
gently on the window-pane, but the goats took absolutely no notice.  At
this rate there would not be a rose left by the time the gardener came
to work.

A great idea occurred to Madge.  We know that she was rather
independent, as befitted the eldest of a family, and decidedly fond of
managing things her own way.  So it presently came about that she
decided not to let the roses be eaten, and not to disturb anybody else,
but to drive Jack and Jill out of the garden all by herself.  Perhaps
it seemed rather unkind not to wake Betty, who was sleeping quietly in
her little bed in the other corner of the room.  However, she looked so
comfortable that it was almost a pity to disturb her, and after all she
was two years younger than Madge, and could not reasonably expect to do
exactly the same things as her elder sister.  She would be very full of
reproaches when she woke up, but Madge resolved to risk a little
sisterly abuse sooner than permit anyone to share the glory of her
exploit.

It really does not take very long to dress if one omits all ornamental
additions, and dispenses with everything in the shape of a bath!  Jack
and Jill had not time to do more than taste the succulent young shoots
of half a dozen rose-trees before Madge had crept downstairs and
quietly opened the front-door.  Then with a half-suppressed shout of
battle she rushed towards them, waving a walking-stick which she had
the presence of mind to snatch up in passing through the hall.  The
goats both gave a guilty start at the first sound, and then crossed the
lawn in a series of most amazing bounds.  Madge afterwards compared
them to gigantic grasshoppers; and, indeed, as she panted hopelessly
behind them, she would scarcely have felt surprised if one of her
nimble pets had, with a higher leap than usual, suddenly perched on the
bough of a tree or the roof of a house!

Madge had often laughed at her father's little terrier, Snap, for
chasing the sparrows up and down the lawn in the vain hope of some day
catching them, but she soon began to realize that she had started on
quite as hopeless an enterprise herself.  However rapidly she ran along
the paths, however stealthily she stalked behind the bushes, Jack and
Jill proved quicker and more artful.  When, with untold trouble, she
had driven them into a corner, and was advancing with outstretched
hands to grasp their pert little horns, they would just toss their
heads, and without any apparent effort skip right over her shoulder and
be off half across the garden almost before she could turn round.

"I do believe I shall have to go back and fetch Betty after all,"
muttered Madge, when this sort of thing had gone on so long that she
was fairly tired out.  "Not that she can run half as fast as I can, her
legs are so short!  But she could help.  I really can't be expected to
do all the work by myself!"

Madge was getting tired, and consequently cross.  So, rather funnily,
she was beginning to feel it quite a grievance that nobody had come out
to help her to drive the goats, forgetting that it was entirely her own
wish to undertake the job alone.  As she somewhat sullenly walked
towards the house, she prepared several severe speeches to be addressed
to Betty on the selfishness of lying in bed and leaving her sister to
do all the work.  But just as she was getting into a state of
considerable indignation, out of the open front-door walked her father.

Captain West had evidently dressed in a hurry like his daughter.  In
point of fact he had been suddenly wakened by one of Madge's
involuntary cries, for though she had every intention of being very
quiet, she could not altogether suppress an occasional shout when the
goats were unusually irritating.  He had started up and looked into the
passage.  All seemed quiet, but a gleam of light in the hall below
showed him that the front-door was open.  Between three and four
o'clock in the morning this was a fairly peculiar circumstance.  So,
returning to his room he hastily slipped on the first clothes he came
across and proceeded downstairs, to find out who was about at that
early hour.

"Hullo, Madge!  What on earth are you doing?" he exclaimed, as he
suddenly found himself face to face with his eldest daughter.

Madge explained the whole story in rather a confused, disjointed sort
of way.  It was not at all the triumphal return to the house that she
had planned.  If things had gone as she intended she would easily have
caught Jack and Jill; they would have come to eat a little grass out of
her hand, and then she would gently but firmly have led them back to
the calves' house.  Here she would have secured the door more skilfully
than her elders had done the previous evening, so that there would have
been no further possibility of escape for the prisoners.  And then she
would have strolled quietly back to the house, and explained to an
admiring audience at breakfast-time what precautions she had taken for
the safety of the garden while the more negligent members of the family
slept.  It was certainly very disappointing to be treated by her father
as a naughty child instead of a heroine, and scolded for her stupidity
in running out on the wet grass in thin shoes.

"But I couldn't expect it to be wet in the summer," replied Madge, who
would seldom admit that she was in the wrong without an argument.

"Don't talk nonsense!" said Captain West severely.  He would play with
the children all day, and readily forgive them any damage they did
through carelessness, but he never could stand their trying to argue
that wrong was right.  "You know as much about dew as I do," he
continued; "and I have put on thick boots while you have been running
about for an hour in dripping wet shoes."

It was quite impossible to deny this, for Madge's feet presented a most
miserable appearance.  She had been running through the shrubberies,
where the long wet grass reached up to her knees, and her kid shoes
were also scratched and muddy.

"If I go in and put on thick boots may I come out again and help you to
drive the goats?" inquired Madge anxiously.

Seeing how very wet she was, Captain West did not dare grant this
request, but ordered her straight back to bed.  With many a grumble
Madge returned to her room and threw all her clothes in a heap on the
floor.  Then she slowly climbed into bed, protesting to herself that
she should be sure to lie awake until it was time to get up, in spite
of which resolve she fell asleep in about two minutes.

Whether Jack and Jill thought that Captain West did not look like a
person to be trifled with, or whether they were really getting a little
tired of their prolonged frolic, it is impossible to say.  At all
events, soon after he appeared they allowed themselves to be quietly
driven to the end of the garden and out through the door into the
farmyard, where they remained until Barton came to milk the cows in the
morning.



CHAPTER IX.

AN ALARMING JUMP.

"I'll tell you what it is, children," said Captain West briskly as he
entered the dining-room rather late for breakfast, "if these pets of
yours are going to keep me trotting about the garden at night I shall
lose my excellent character for punctuality in the morning.  Why, here
is Madge coming down late too, and looking very displeased with the
world.  I don't know if Jack and Jill are responsible for her frowns as
well as my lateness; if so, they have a good deal upon their
consciences!"

The fact of the matter was, that poor Madge was labouring under a
grievance.  In the morning she and Betty usually tried who should get
down earliest to breakfast, and to-day, as might have been expected,
Madge's shoes had shrunk up so uncomfortably after their wetting that
she could not get them on without a great deal of rough handling.  And
then, to make matters worse, Nurse had declared that they were still
damp, and made her take them off again to be put in front of the fire
and thoroughly dried.  Of course Betty was downstairs and half through
a basin of bread-and-milk before Madge appeared, with a very gloomy
countenance.

However, Captain West could not abide melancholy faces around the
table, and he began to make such outrageous suggestions about a fitting
punishment for the goats who had disturbed his night's rest, that at
last even Madge was compelled to relax into a smile.

"Oh, don't pretend you will shave them, Papa!  I don't believe anybody
could make them stand still enough to be shaved," she said.  "And as
for harnessing them to the brougham, you know they are so small they
would slip through the horses' great collars.  But it would be very
nice to have a tiny cart that they really could draw," she added
wistfully.

"I think the first thing is to accustom your steeds to come when they
are called," replied Captain West.  "It will be very awkward if,
whenever you want to go for a drive, you have to chase them up hill and
down dale for an hour before you can catch them."

Acting on this suggestion, the children spent all their spare moments
during the next day or two in trying to make friends with the goats.
They were so successful, that at last Jack would consent to be led
about by a bit of string tied to one of his horns, almost as quietly as
a little dog.  Jill remained shy to the last, and in spite of being
perpetually offered the most tempting bits of carrot, could never
summon up sufficient courage to eat anything out of the children's
hands.

"Now that Jack is so tame he shall join in all our games," said Madge.
So the children led him about everywhere with them in the garden and
fields.  But they never dared let go the string, or he would be off,
running and leaping into the most extraordinary places before they
could come up with him again.

Poor Barton was much perplexed where to shut up the two goats at night.
The cow-house was a perfect failure; Jack and Jill stayed in it just as
long as they liked, and not a moment longer.  Unless all the doors and
windows were shut, which was very stuffy in hot weather, there was no
keeping them in an instant after they had decided to take a walk.  And
if they got out, they were not content to stay in the fields, but
always found their way into the garden, where they cropped off the most
cherished shrubs and flowers.

At last Barton hit on the plan of putting them into an empty pig-sty
for the night and spreading a piece of old netting over the opening.
This was very successful for a time.

When Jack was sufficiently tamed to be led about it occurred to the
children that they might now introduce him to the Eagle's Nest.  They
had rather neglected their fortress of late, having had so much
occupation at home with the goats; in fact they had not visited the
beech-tree for nearly a week, not since the eventful day when they had
seen Mrs. Howard and made acquaintance with Lewis Brand.  In the new
interest of training Jack and Jill everything else had been forgotten.
But as they came near the Eagle's Nest all their old excitement in it
revived.

"Will Jack have to walk up the grand staircase or the rope-ladder?"
inquired John.  "Or shall we have to lift him?"

"We can't stretch high enough to do that," observed Betty.

It was left to Madge as usual to decide this important question.  She
gave it as her opinion that with a little help from behind Jack could
mount the grand staircase.  "I will go up first," she said, "and pull
at his horns.  Then I can let down the rope-ladder for you two."

"I thought we left the rope-ladder coiled round that bough just above
the Eagle's Nest," remarked Betty, "but I can't see it there now."

"Little Blind Eyes!  Of course it must be there.  I twisted it round
the branch rather tightly, on purpose that it shouldn't show from
below!" cried Madge rather impatiently, for she was leading Jack by a
piece of string, and as he continually hung back to nibble bits of
grass that looked especially tempting, it required a great deal of
waiting about and coaxing to get along at all.

"I can't see it there now," repeated Betty obstinately.

"Oh, don't go on staring up at that old rope-ladder!" exclaimed Madge,
"You just hold Jack at the bottom of the tree while I climb the grand
staircase.  And then, when I am ready to pull his horns, both push him
from behind as hard as you can."

Whether Jack was more active even than they had credited him with
being, or whether the twins pushed harder than had been expected, will
never be known.  At all events, long before Madge was firmly seated on
the Eagle's Nest there was a terrific scramble, and the goat bounded
past her almost knocking her out of the tree.  In the struggle not to
fall she very naturally dropped the leading-string and clung with both
hands to a bough.  Jack took advantage of his opportunity.  Without
pausing more than a second on the Eagle's Nest he skipped lightly on to
the top of the boundary wall, and from there took a tremendous jump
right into Mrs. Howard's orchard.

"He's gone!" shrieked Madge.  "Oh, what shall we do!"

Quite overcome by this unforeseen calamity, the children actually
forgot to quarrel among themselves about who was responsible for the
accident.  They all crouched down on the sticks composing the Eagle's
Nest, and watched almost in silence the scene that was going on down in
the orchard.  At first Jack appeared frantic with delight at having
regained his freedom and discovered a new playground.  He scampered
round and round the orchard, kicking up his heels, and disturbing
horribly the placid old cows who were standing half asleep in the
shade, chewing the cud and slowly whisking their tails to drive the
flies off their sleek backs.  But after a time it seemed as if Jack
began to feel rather strange amidst his new surroundings.  He left off
frisking, and wandered restlessly about the orchard as if searching for
some way to get out.  Once or twice he looked up at the wall and
bleated rather piteously.

"He wants to get back," said Betty.  "Do you think he can possibly jump
up the wall again?"  She spoke almost in a whisper, having an
uncomfortable feeling that if Mrs. Howard heard strange voices she
might appear as suddenly as she had done on the last occasion.

"It's too high and straight even for Jack," replied Madge sadly.  "You
know the trunk of the tree helped him on this side, and, besides, you
and John were both pushing him from behind."

"I've thought of a way," cried Betty.  "Only I'm not quite sure whether
I should dare to do it.  I would, if you promised to come with me.  It
is for two of us to go down the rope-ladder into the orchard and try to
catch Jack, and then--"

"Push him up the wall again, you mean?" interrupted Madge eagerly.
"Yes, we'll do it!  It's the only way we can get Jack back."

"But won't it be trespassing to go into Mrs. Howard's field?" inquired
John.

This suggestion rather damped the spirits of the party.  They knew that
if you were caught trespassing, very terrible though ill-defined things
might happen.  When Barton found that village boys had been walking
over the farm, searching for birds' nests and trampling down the mowing
grass, he always said they had better not let him catch them
trespassing or they would never forget it.  He never condescended to
explain exactly what punishment awaited them; but it sounded rather
like imprisonment for life, with hard labour.  So the little Wests grew
up with a wholesome terror of being found trespassing, believing that
such an offence might lead to something much more severe than the
scolding at home, which was all the punishment they received for
ordinary acts of mischief.

"Perhaps it would not count as trespassing if we stood on the
rope-ladder," said Betty hopefully.  "And Jack might come to us if we
called him.  Anyhow, we could climb up again quickly if we saw Mrs.
Howard coming, and she could never say that we had been exactly on her
land."

"I tell you what," said Madge after a moment's thought, "I shall go
down the rope-ladder after Jack even if I have to run into the middle
of the field to catch him.  And if it's trespassing I can't help it.
You two can sit in the Eagle's Nest and warn me if you see any danger.
I would rather do it all by myself."

When Madge spoke in that decided kind of way, the younger ones knew
that she had made up her mind.  And they were justly proud of her
bravery and energy.  But an unexpected obstacle prevented Madge from
carrying her heroic design into execution.  When they began to search
for the rope-ladder it was not there!

No doubt Madge had been perfectly correct in saying that she had left
it safely coiled round a branch, the last time they played at the
Eagle's Nest.  Only Betty had been equally right as she crossed the
field in saying that she could not see it there to-day.  The children
would probably have noticed its disappearance much sooner if they had
not been so absorbed in watching Jack.  There seemed really nothing
left to be done; for even Madge with all her length of limb and daring
courage could not get up or down a wall ten feet high without any help.



CHAPTER X.

THE TRESPASSER.

"Look! look!" exclaimed Betty suddenly, in a hoarse whisper.  She
pointed towards the orchard, and then crouched down behind a branch,
trying to look even smaller than nature had made her.  The others
followed her example, until they were not much more conspicuous than
three young squirrels.  But though the children scarcely dared breathe
in their anxiety to remain hidden, six eager eyes were strained towards
a certain point in the orchard.

A tall, thin man, with a gray beard, was standing not many yards from
Jack, carefully examining him through an eye-glass.  How the man got
there nobody knew; possibly he rose up from the earth or fell down from
the sky; more probably he walked out of Mrs. Howard's garden gate while
the children were hunting for their rope-ladder.  At any rate he seemed
immensely surprised at Jack's presence in the orchard.

[Illustration: A TALL, THIN MAN WAS CAREFULLY EXAMINING JACK]

The gray-bearded man stood irresolute for some time, as if unable to
make up his mind exactly how to treat the intruder.  At last he walked
away towards the house, shouting to someone in the garden to come to
his assistance.  Presently in answer to his call a boy ran across the
field.  Even in the distance the children recognized that it was Lewis
Brand, and they became if possible more interested in the proceedings
than they were before.

With considerable difficulty the gray-bearded man and Lewis hunted Jack
into a corner of the field, but just as they were about to catch the
goat he invariably sprang past them and escaped.  Madge could hardly
keep from laughing aloud, because it was all so exactly what had
happened to her when she tried to drive Jack and Jill out of the garden.

The Wests wondered a good deal if Lewis had any idea that the goat
belonged to them, and whether he noticed them crouching in the
beech-tree.  For a long time he seemed absolutely unconscious of their
presence, but suddenly, when the gray-bearded man's back was turned,
Lewis looked towards the Eagle's Nest and unmistakably smiled.  In a
moment Madge had replied by waving her pocket-handkerchief frantically
among the branches.

Instead of replying in a friendly spirit to this signal, Lewis made the
most horrible grimace, put his finger to his lip, and turned away
resolutely.

"We must keep very quiet.  He is afraid of being seen," whispered
Madge, putting her handkerchief away.  But she could not help feeling
rather mortified that Lewis had not trusted to her discretion only to
wave when his companion was looking the other way.  She was not in the
habit of doing stupid things, and Lewis might have known it.

After a great deal of running up and down, the gray-bearded man seemed
to consider it a hopeless task ever to catch Jack, so he changed his
plan and tried to drive the goat into a little shed in the corner of
the field.  This was a much easier feat to accomplish, and in ten
minutes more Jack was safely imprisoned and the door shut.  Then the
gray-bearded man, evidently much exhausted by his exertions, walked off
to the garden, fanning himself with his black felt hat as he went.
Lewis lingered behind his companion for one moment, and rapidly made a
mysterious series of signs.  First he pointed at the door of the shed
where Jack was inclosed, then drew his hand across his own throat
several times.  Lastly he shook his fist violently at the back of the
gray-bearded man as he followed him out of the field.

"What did Lewis mean by making all those funny faces?" asked John,
when, the enemy being quite out of sight, the children dared once more
speak and move.

"I don't know," said Madge.  "It looked as if he were angry with that
man--"

"No!" interrupted Betty.  "It's worse than that!  Lewis was trying to
show us that the gray-bearded man is going to hurt poor Jack.  I
believe he has gone for a knife to cut his throat!"

There was a horrified silence after these words, for the more the
children thought over them the more likely did it appear that Lewis's
signs had really contained some such terrible meaning.  Madge as usual
was the first to come out with a heroic resolution.

"If that terrible man comes back with a knife to murder Jack," she
said, "I shall jump off the wall and attack him with a stick.  Very
likely I shall break both my legs, but I don't care.  I can't leave
Jack to his fate."

Betty and John listened with uneasy admiration.  They were just as
sorry about Jack as Madge was; almost in tears at the idea of his
possible death.  But they did not feel brave enough to jump off the
wall and risk breaking their legs.  If it had been one leg between them
perhaps they might have faced it, but four legs were too many for even
brave twins to sacrifice.

"Why do you think you will break them both if you jump?" asked Betty
anxiously, hoping against hope that there might be some miscalculation.

"Because I know you can break one leg if you only fall five or six
feet, and this is double that height," replied Madge promptly.

Such logical reasoning did not admit of a single ray of hope.

"I don't think we are big enough to jump, then," said Betty modestly.
And for once John did not contradict her.

However, for the second time that afternoon Madge was spared having to
carry out a heroic resolve.  The gray-bearded man did not return,
either with or without a knife.  It is true that Jack's voice could
occasionally be heard raised in distressed accents from the inside of
the shed.  But unless his life was in imminent danger, even Madge did
not feel inclined to sacrifice her limbs.

"After all, it was entirely his own fault jumping over the wall," she
remarked when they had waited a long time without anything happening.

"And they don't seem to be going to kill him," observed Betty.

"And it's long past tea-time," added John.

This last consideration decided the children, and they returned to the
house without taking any further steps towards rescuing Jack.

Nothing more was heard of the missing pet that evening.  The children
did not say anything about his escape, and their father happened to be
staying out rather late, so that when he came home Barton had left
work.  The old man had noticed that there was only one goat in the
field when he went to drive them in for the night, but he did not waste
much time hunting for Jack, having expressed his opinion from the first
that it would be a good job when those nasty creatures either ran away
or got sent off in disgrace!  He did not like any pets, regarding them
as useless creatures who ate food, gave trouble, and repaid nothing.
If he had been allowed his way the children's tame rabbits and pigeons
would all have gone into pies.

Of course there was a good deal of anxiety about Jack's fate among the
only three people at Beechgrove who knew all the facts of his
disappearance.  As the hours passed by, and they actually went to bed
and got up again without hearing any news, they began to wonder if,
after all, they should never know what had become of him.  When they
all went to the schoolroom, and lessons began as usual, this really
seemed rather probable.  But in the middle of saying the English dates
there was a knock at the door.  John noticed it first, not because his
hearing was particularly acute so much as on account of its being his
turn to say the next date--which he had forgotten.

"Do attend, John!" said Miss Thompson.  "Who came after Queen Anne?
You always forget!"

"But there was a knock at the door, I am sure!  Yes, there's another!"
And for once John proved to be in the right, for at that moment Captain
West entered the room.

"I'm dreadfully sorry to interrupt," he said to Miss Thompson, "for I
can see by the children's faces that something very interesting is
going on--"

"Oh, Papa!" interrupted Betty.  "Why, it's only the English dates!"

"Well, what can be more interesting?"  But as nobody answered he
continued: "However, I haven't time to discuss the delights of your
various studies, I must leave that to you and Miss Thompson to settle
between you.  All I want to say at present is, that you children must
really be careful and not get me into trouble with my neighbours.  I
have just had a letter brought by Mrs. Howard's servant making
complaints.  Now mind, I can't have any more of this trespassing on--"

"We didn't step on Mrs. Howard's ground!  Not one single inch!"
interrupted Madge.

"I didn't ever suppose that you did, considering the height of the wall
you would be obliged to climb over to get there!" said Captain West.
"But there has been a trespasser on her land all the same, and I hold
you partly responsible for him."

"Is it Jack?" gasped Madge.  "What has she done with him?  Oh, please
tell me!"

"Why, sent him back, to be sure, with a polite note requesting me to
keep him under better control," answered Captain West.  "It seems that
he got over the wall into her field somehow, and they shut him up for a
time.  But he got loose before long, as usual, and in chasing him about
the garden some boy broke a cucumber-frame, and poor Jack got all the
blame for that as well as for destroying a row of early peas.  So he
was sent back in sad disgrace."

"Did Mrs. Howard try to kill him?" asked John solemnly.

"Kill him?  No!" laughed Captain West.  "Did you think she wanted roast
kid for dinner?  But how did he manage to jump over such a high wall, I
wonder?  I suppose he did it while you were in the fields with him, as
you seem to know all about it?"

"He jerked the string out of my hand and went off with it," said Madge.

"And jumped the wall, I suppose?" added her father.  "Well, it's a
tremendous height even for a goat, but one never can tell how high they
will go.  However, I mustn't interrupt you any more at lesson-time."

"This will teach Jack to look before he leaps," said Betty softly as
the door shut behind her father.  She always enjoyed having the last
word, especially if she could twist it into a proverb.

The children were much relieved at this happy conclusion to their
anxiety; but their delight was somewhat lessened when Captain West made
a rule that Jack and Jill were never to be let out of their pig-sty
unless he was at home to see that they did not get into mischief.  The
poor goats did not at all approve of remaining prisoners so much of
their time; but really it seemed the only way of preventing them from
breaking bounds.  The children did what they could to cheer their pets
in captivity by bringing them handfuls of cabbages and carrots at all
hours in the day, and Jack and Jill began to grow so fat that before
long it was to be hoped they would lose all taste for jumping.



CHAPTER XI.

CERTAIN LITTLE GARDENS.

It is wonderful how often grown-up people walk about the world with
their eyes shut.  Captain West thought himself decidedly an observant
man.  He was fond of his garden, and even worked in it for hours at a
time; but he never noticed that within his domain there were sundry
other little gardens, just as carefully tended, and exhibiting a much
greater ingenuity of arrangement than his own.  For instance, there was
one within a few yards of the schoolroom window, just at the corner of
the house, under the laburnum-tree.  Here Betty was working hard one
morning, when, having finished her lessons with unusual quickness, she
was allowed out of the schoolroom half an hour before the others.

A more unpromising site for a garden it would have been difficult to
imagine.  All that the ordinary world saw were two stone slabs, that
had something to do with lighting a cellar below the house.  But the
children had long ago discovered, that one stone being several inches
higher than the other, water poured on it would rush like a miniature
cascade to the lower level.  This was by no means the only possibility
of amusement that the stones afforded.  A large crack ran down the
centre of each, and these when properly blocked with mud at either end
made two admirable lakes.  There were other smaller cracks, in which
the children from time to time planted a daisy or a laburnum seed.
Once or twice they had been known to grow, which was distinctly
encouraging.

This little pleasure-ground had lately suffered considerable neglect,
owing to the number of exciting events that had occurred.  Besides,
when Madge was out of doors she liked larger and more energetic
amusements.  But Betty was devoted to arranging her little garden in
new ways, and directly she found herself alone she began to work out a
scheme for beautifying it that she had long had in her head.  The lakes
were carefully formed with some nice sticky handfuls of clay at either
end to keep in the water.  This had often been done before, but it was
quite a new thing, and entirely Betty's own idea, to cover the mud
banks with glittering fragments of gravel, so that they looked like
rockeries.  She also stuck bits of grass round the edges to do duty for
rushes, and very well they looked.  But the most happy thought of all
was making imitation water-lilies out of nasturtium leaves.  When that
was done, Betty stopped to admire her work with very natural pride.  It
seemed almost as perfect as human skill could make it.

At that moment up came John.  He had finished his lessons before Madge,
who, it seemed, had got into difficulties over her sums, from which she
was not likely to emerge until dinner-time.  John admired the new
arrangements exceedingly, and also contributed a suggestion to the
effect that there should be a fleet on the lake.

"Yes, but one of our boats will fill up the whole lake," said Betty,
who did not quite appreciate having her own arrangements interfered
with by a new-comer.

John made no direct answer, but dipping his hand deep into his pocket,
he drew out about a dozen nut-shells and deposited them on the stone.

Betty examined the heap carefully.  "There isn't a single kernel left,
not half a one!" she said in a tone of disappointment.  "What's the
good of bringing those?"

"Boats, don't you see?" explained John.  And really the nut-shells,
such of them at least as were not too utterly smashed, made excellent
boats, in exact proportion to the size of the lake.  When a little
extra excitement was required, Betty scraped away the mud that blocked
back the water on the upper stone, and a cataract rushed out, bearing
the whole fleet with it, and plunged recklessly into the depths of the
lower pool.

Once they adjourned for a short time to another little garden that had
lately been planned out in the middle of a shrubbery.  To approach it,
one had first to cross a broad flower-border that edged the shrubbery.
Theoretically the children always jumped this flower-bed, leaving no
trace of their footsteps, but in practice, as it was rather wide, they
usually alighted heavily in the middle of it.  Many a broken geranium
and crushed heliotrope testified to their unsuccessful efforts, and
Captain West, having no clue to their proceedings, was often driven to
wonder what charm--except naughtiness--there could be about jumping on
the flower-beds.  He had not penetrated into the middle of the
shrubbery for years; never since the laurels and hollies had grown into
a solid prickly barrier against the outer world.  So he could not
possibly guess that somewhere out of sight a weakly bush had been
gradually choked to death by its more robust companions, and that the
children on one of their voyages of discovery had noticed this, and
decided that since the poor thing was nearly dead it would obviously be
more sensible to pull it up and make a garden in its place.  Of course,
the ground was so full of the roots of trees that ordinary digging was
quite out of the question; a spade (even if Madge stepped on it with
both feet and all her weight) would not go in more than half an inch.
But in the end the children very satisfactorily scratched up the ground
for about a square yard with pointed sticks, and put in a row of
primroses upside down, because they had been told that if planted in
that position they would come up red.  This experiment failed with the
greatest regularity year after year in whatever corner of the garden it
was tried.  Yet both children and gardeners are such hopeful people,
that when the two are combined one may expect to see absolutely
impossible feats cheerfully embarked upon as often as the sun rises.

Betty and John did not go to this charming retreat empty-handed.  The
former had some plants torn up by the roots, the latter a half-filled
watering-pot.  The fact was that several small things had been left
over after finishing the naval display, and it seemed a pity to waste
them.  Water, for instance, was always valuable, because there was a
certain amount of difficulty about getting it.  The gardener objected
to their drawing off much from his pump, which was apt to run dry in
hot weather, while if they went indoors to get a drop from a tap they
were at once set upon by innumerable people ordering them not to make
messes and wet their frocks.  So when some water was left over from
flooding the lake, it was proposed not to throw it away, but to carry
it to the shrubbery garden, where there were several languishing
plants.  There was the inevitable little struggle for possession of the
watering-pot; but Betty was not unreasonable, so she gave it up when
John pointed out that she had the undivided enjoyment of it while he
was at lessons.  And in its place she carried two or three very
drooping nasturtium plants, that had unfortunately come up by the roots
while she was picking their leaves.  They would do very well to plant
in the shrubbery, where the sun could never manage to pierce the screen
of overhanging boughs even at mid-day.  All gardeners know that a hot
sun has a very disastrous effect on newly-moved plants, especially if
their roots are mostly torn off.

"I'll hold the watering-pot while you jump over the geranium-bed," said
Betty.  "You know we broke two last week, and Papa said if he caught--"

"Nonsense!  It's only you girls with your skirts who break things,"
interrupted John, clutching his watering-pot tighter than ever, for he
strongly suspected his sister of intending to wile it away from him.
He jumped, the watering-pot was heavy, and the weight all on one side.
Consequently he fell, and his fall was unusually disastrous, being
marked by more than the ordinary number of crushed geraniums and
scattered earth.  Of course the water was all upset, principally into
his boots: and Betty threw away her nasturtiums in disgust, for it was
quite useless to plant them dry, and they had both been warned off the
pump and the tap that very morning.  There might easily have been some
rather bitter reproaches at this point, but fortunately Madge was sent
out to summon them to dinner.

"I want you to do something for me this afternoon," she said to Betty
and John as they returned to the house.  "Miss Thompson is going to
take me to Churchbury shopping, and I think Lewis will be expecting me
at the Eagle's Nest.  I said something about it yesterday before I knew
that I was going shopping."

"But why can't John and I go and talk to him?" answered Betty.  "We
aren't all going shopping."

"You don't think he will care to talk to little things like you?"
laughed Madge.  "Why, he is two years older than me even; but, of
course, that isn't much.  I only want you to tell him why I haven't
come, and that we shall have the usual afternoon holiday on Saturday.
Then you can come straight back, for I am sure he won't stop with you."

Since the day that Jack jumped over the wall Lewis had talked to the
children several times, standing close under the tree, and keeping an
anxious eye in the direction of Mrs. Howard's house all the while.  Of
course he could not climb up to play with them since the rope-ladder so
mysteriously disappeared.  There had been no explanation of that
strange disappearance.  At first the children feared that Barton had
found their hiding-place, and recovered his missing property; but they
soon made up their minds that this could not be the case, when the old
man continued to meet them every day without any signs of anger.  For
when Barton suspected that they had been in mischief, he did not
hesitate to scold them severely himself, and also complain to their
father.  They often got into trouble this way when he found them
hunting the pigs too vigorously, or playing tricks with the milk-pails.
He would certainly have made a great fuss about their borrowing his
ropes without leave, and knotting them all over.  So, as he said
nothing, it was pretty certain that he knew nothing.

But though Lewis Brand was now completely cut off from the Eagle's
Nest, being on a lower level by about a dozen feet than the children
who were sitting in it, he contrived to tell them a wonderful number of
stories about himself and the bad treatment which he suffered, speaking
all the while in a loud whisper that was very impressive.  In this way
they heard, among other curious facts, that the gray-bearded man was
the jailer of whose cruelties Lewis had already told them.  The
children were surprised at this, for the gray-bearded man had not
looked either very powerful or very savage.  But they accepted from
Lewis the explanation that he was a hypocrite.



CHAPTER XII.

A NEW LADDER.

John and Betty started rather unwillingly on their task.  It seemed
sadly dull to walk across several fields under a burning sun merely to
deliver a message for Madge, while she was enjoying an afternoon among
the Churchbury shops.  Of course they were at perfect liberty to stay
playing in the Eagle's Nest as long as they liked.  But somehow they
did not care to linger there by themselves.  Without Madge's
substantial protection the shade of the spreading beech-trees seemed
more gloomy, and the distance from the house greater, even than usual.
Besides, when Madge was not present to remind them of the laws of
trespass, they could not help feeling as if Mrs. Howard might pounce
upon them at any moment and drag them over the wall to her darkest
cellars.  So they only intended just to give their message to Lewis if
he appeared, and then to hurry back to those little gardens of which
they were so fond, where there was always something to be done, and no
fear of being kidnapped.

However, everything turned out as differently as possible to what they
had expected.  No sooner had they climbed on to the Eagle's Nest than
they heard a low whistle, and looking down saw Lewis gliding along on
his side of the wall with the stealthy tread of an Indian on an enemy's
trail.  He was a thin boy, with a white face, and always looked over
his shoulder as if he expected some foe to be coming up behind him.

"Madge can't come.  She had to go to Churchbury shopping.  She told us
to tell you," said Betty, leaning down from her perch and speaking as
low as she could.  The children at Beechgrove shouted so much when they
were at home, that it was always a great effort to them to lower their
voices.  Lewis, on the contrary, had the art of carrying on a long
conversation all in whispers, it seemed natural to him.

"All right!  Never mind.  We can do just as well without her," was the
unexpected answer.

Betty looked puzzled.  "Shall I give her any message from you about
Saturday?" Betty said, preparing to leave the Eagle's Nest.

"What are you in such a hurry to be off for?" cried Lewis, rather
louder than usual.  "Aren't you going to stop and talk?"

"But Madge isn't here, and--"

"Oh, bother Madge!" interrupted Lewis.  "You and John aren't her
slaves, are you?  Can't we have a bit of fun by ourselves for once,
without having her interfering and trying to manage everything?  I
often wonder you two stand it!  I know I wouldn't!"

"But I thought you and Madge were such friends!" said Betty, much
bewildered by the strangeness of this declaration.

"She thinks you don't care to speak to us.  Only to her, because she is
older," chimed in John.

"Well, that's just where she makes a mistake," said Lewis roughly.  "I
can't abide girls who think they are so grand, and are always ordering
other people about!  Why, to hear her talk of this Eagle's Nest one
would believe she made it all herself, and I daresay you and John
worked just as hard as she did."

Now until this moment it had never struck Betty and John as strange
that Madge should take the lead in everything.  She was the oldest,
biggest, and strongest of the three; and if she usually had her own way
about everything, it had only seemed natural to the others that this
should be so.  Besides, she took all the trouble of making plans for
them, and they really had much more fun under her guidance than they
would have had alone.  So it was quite a new view to them that they
were oppressed, but when it had once been put into their heads they
began to think that perhaps they had something to complain of after all.

"Now you won't be such silly sneaks as to go and tell Madge everything
I have been saying?" observed Lewis rather anxiously when he noticed
what a serious impression his words were making.  "If you are such
babies as that I shall never speak to you again.  And I have not been
saying any harm either, you know."  He was beginning to fear, from the
twins' solemn faces, that they would go home and repeat his words to
Madge.  "Only I have always thought you two looked such jolly little
things, if your sister would give you a chance of being spoken to, or
played with," he added.

All this was excessively flattering coming from a big boy of fourteen,
and after some more remarks of the sort Betty and John began to feel
that they were very fine people, who had always, rather unjustly, been
kept in the background by their elder sister.  For the first time in
their lives they looked upon Madge as a tyrant.

"I should like to come up there and play with you," continued Lewis.
"Only the wall is rather too high for me to climb now that the ladder
has gone.  Oh, I have a good idea!  Capital!  The very thing!  Why
didn't we think of it before, I wonder?"

"What is it?" cried the twins.  "What have you thought of?"

Lewis did not answer, but turned away and ran quickly to the shed where
Jack had been shut up.  Presently he came out again, dragging some iron
railings, which with considerable trouble he got as far as the
overhanging boughs of the beech-tree.

"There's a ladder for you!" he exclaimed proudly, as he propped the
railings against the wall.

"It's splendid!  Quite splendid!" shouted the twins, forgetting in
their excitement how near they were to the terrible house with the
cellar.

"Hush!  Hush!" whispered Lewis.  "If you make such a noise we shall be
caught, and all our fun stopped.  And it's not quite perfect either.
Not high enough.  See!"

In point of fact the top bar of the railings was only five feet from
the ground, so that it did not reach more than half-way up the wall.
It was very nice as far as it went, but more of it was badly wanted.
However, Lewis was not easily discouraged.  He returned to the shed,
where there were several more railings, and dragged out another.  "They
are dreadfully heavy," he said; "but I don't care.  I shall go on
fetching them until I get enough to reach the top of the wall.  I know
there are a heap of them in the shed.  They are kept there when they
are not being used to divide the field."

"Take care you don't tumble!  Oh, that's beautiful!  I do wish we could
help you!" cried the twins, looking on in the highest admiration while
Lewis slowly pushed and pulled one railing on the top of another
against the wall.  Then he tied them together with some bits of string
out of his pocket, and proceeded to mount.  It was not a very steady
ladder, but with the wall to lean against there was small fear of
falling, and when near the top of it Lewis could reach the hands that
were eagerly stretched out to help him.  In another moment he was
sitting on the Eagle's Nest.

"This is a goodish sort of tree," he remarked, looking round with a
patronizing air.  "Very easy to climb, of course--"

"Oh, but I can go much higher than these boughs by the wall!"
interrupted Betty.  "So high that my feet are where your head is now."

"That's not much," said Lewis scornfully.  "Girls never can climb much.
They just flop about, and catch their frocks in all the branches, and
get giddy, and cry to be helped down again!"

Betty flushed hotly.  "You are talking nonsense!" she shrieked.  "Silly
nonsense!  I can climb much higher than John; and as for crying--"

Her remarks were promptly cut short by a hand being roughly pressed
over her mouth.  "Hold your tongue!" whispered Lewis.  "Unless you wish
old Mother Howard and her slave-drivers to be after us!"

At this terrible threat Betty looked nervously towards the brick house.
But there was nothing to be seen in that direction except the quiet old
cows in the orchard below.  She was so reassured by seeing them chewing
the cud, as if nothing dreadful could possibly happen, that she
regained sufficient courage to remark defiantly that after all Mrs.
Howard did not seem a very formidable person.

"That shows all you know about it!" replied Lewis.  "I can tell you a
very different tale.  If you two will promise faithfully not to say a
single word of what I tell you to anybody--not to Madge, or your nurse,
or anybody,--then I will tell you something that nobody else knows.
Only it's a secret, you must remember,--a dead secret."

This was very solemn work.  Betty and John glanced at each other, both
longing to know the secret, and yet a little afraid of the conditions
that had been imposed.

"Mightn't we just tell Madge if she promises not to repeat it?" Betty
ventured to say.

"Certainly not!  We don't want Madge poking her interfering nose into
everything, do we?" replied Lewis rudely.  "Just make up your minds
whether you want to hear a most terrible and extraordinary thing, or
not, for I can't wait much longer.  But if I don't tell you to-day I
sha'n't breathe a word of it another time, so it's no good teasing me
again."

This last remark decided Betty.  She was very curious by nature, and
could not bear to miss any piece of news that promised to be
interesting.

"I think I must hear the secret, although I would much rather tell
Madge about it," she said in a hesitating voice.  "And if you don't
like to promise, John, you must go a little way off and stop your ears."

But John was not equal to so much self-restraint.  If Betty had
resisted the temptation of hearing the secret he would have done so
too, but he could not possibly let her enjoy the advantage of knowing
more than he did.  "I promise not to tell," he grunted.

"Ah, that's all very well!" exclaimed Lewis; "but I must see if you two
babies can keep a secret.  Just put out your hands.  Now I am going to
pinch your little fingers, and if you cry out it means that you can't
be trusted."  And pinch he did, and very hard too, but the twins
bravely clenched their teeth and said nothing.

When Lewis had teased them to his heart's content, he began his
wonderful tale by whispering in a mysterious voice:

"Do you know what Mrs. Howard really is?"

"An old lady," replied Betty very naturally.  "Your aunt, perhaps?  No?
But she looks rather like it, doesn't she?"

"Ah! but she is something quite different really," said Lewis.  And
after pausing a short time to heighten Betty's curiosity, he added:
"She is a witch!"

The twins started back, hardly able to believe their ears.  "But there
aren't any witches now!" they cried.  "Besides, there aren't such
things really.  They used to be burned, but Miss Thompson says most
likely they were only poor old women who couldn't hurt anybody."

"I don't care a bit what Miss Thompson or anybody says," replied Lewis.
"Mrs. Howard is an old witch, you can tell that by the black cat that
follows her everywhere.  That's a sure sign."

Betty hardly knew what to say, for she had once seen a picture of a
witch, and there was undoubtedly a black cat crouching in the corner of
it.

"You noticed the way she shook her head, I dare say?" continued Lewis,
who was delighted by the awestruck looks of his two companions.  "Well,
she is muttering spells when she does that.  She has the power to
destroy things if she says the right words.  Any morning I may wake up
and find the house changed into a heap of dust, or perhaps be struck
dead myself."

It seemed impossible that such things should be going on almost within
sight of Miss Thompson's schoolroom window.  And yet, judging by the
gravity of Lewis's face, he was speaking in most sober earnest.  John
and Betty pressed tighter together, and took hold of each other's hands.

"I hope for your sakes that the old witch won't find out you've been
talking to me," continued Lewis solemnly.

"Why what would she do?" Betty ventured to ask.

"That would depend on what sort of a temper she happened to be in," was
the reassuring reply.

And then Lewis proceeded to tell such terrible tales about Mrs.
Howard's power and malignity, that the poor twins longed to be safely
back at home, out of sight of that weird brick house, whose commonplace
walls concealed such dreadful deeds of cruelty.



CHAPTER XIII.

THE BROWN BAG.

Madge was spending her afternoon in a still more stirring manner than
the twins.  A shopping expedition to Churchbury was always an
excitement, and it was extraordinary how many little purchases seemed
absolutely necessary directly the children found out that one of them
was going to town.

Madge was heavily laden with money.  Five shillings and sevenpence,
mostly in coppers, take up a great deal of room.  This sum represented
the joint property of Madge, Betty, and John.  They collected it in a
tin money-box shaped like a small doll's house, with a slit in the roof
to drop in the pennies.  Miss Thompson kept the key of the front-door,
and they had to apply to her for it before any money could be taken
out.  They had made this rule themselves, because they found that
unless their money was locked up so that they could not get at it
without a little trouble, they used it as soon as it was given them.
To-day they had all three asked for the key, and opened the front-door
with pleasant anticipations of finding a fortune inside.  They were
able to judge in some measure of the probable extent of their fortune
by the weight of the tin house.  Luckily there was no space required
for sitting-rooms or stairs inside the house (which was in fact rather
a sham, being really nothing better than a box), so that it would hold
an almost unlimited quantity of money.  Even five shillings and
sevenpence did not half fill it.

Of course Madge could not take a tin house with chimneys in her pocket
to Churchbury on a shopping expedition, and she signally failed in an
attempt to squeeze the money into her purse.  Betty and John offered
theirs in addition; but at this point she was met by a fresh
difficulty, no pocket will hold three purses unnaturally distended with
pennies.

"I really do think I had better only take my share and leave you two
your own money to spend another day," Madge had observed rather
dolefully, for she had been looking forward with some pride to the
unusually substantial purchases that the possession of their united
fortunes would enable her to make.

But John and Betty would not hear of this suggestion for a moment.
They were longing to spend their saved-up hoards of money, and as there
was no immediate prospect of their going to Churchbury themselves, they
had been counting on Madge returning in the evening laden with
interesting purchases.

There was a short period of dismayed silence.  Then Betty suddenly
broke out: "I know a way!  Wait just a second!"

She rushed excitedly off, and returned waving a neat bag of shiny brown
calico.

"Why, that's what Nurse made for you to pack your best shoes in when
you went away on visits!" exclaimed Madge.

"Yes, it was made out of a bit of lining that was left over from Mama's
last winter dress, and it has got a wreathing-string and everything,"
replied Betty proudly.  "It really seems as if Nurse had made it on
purpose for a money-bag."

To make a long story short, the brown calico bag appeared so exactly
suited to hold the sum of five shillings and sevenpence (mostly in
pennies), that it would have been a stupid neglect of opportunities not
to use it.  Madge quickly emptied the contents of the tin house into
their new resting-place, and then started for Churchbury with the
comfortable feeling of having practically boundless wealth at her
disposal.

Now it happened that Miss Thompson had several errands of a peculiarly
uninteresting nature to do in the town, as Mrs. West had asked her to
buy a number of things for the household.  Generally the children
enjoyed being inside any sort of shop, but after watching Miss Thompson
carefully select dusters and pantry-clothes, cotton, tape, and buttons,
for what appeared an interminable time, Madge sighed deeply.

"If you are tired of sitting still you may go outside and look at the
shop windows," said Miss Thompson.  "I have not nearly finished yet,
and it fidgets me to hear you sighing in such a despairing way."

"It's only because I'm afraid of not having time to buy all the things
we want if we stay here so long," explained Madge.

"Why, what do you want?"

"Oh, Miss Thompson!  You know we have five shillings and sevenpence to
spend!" cried Madge reproachfully.  "And we all want a nice thing
apiece out of it, and one or two little extra things if there is money
enough."

"And you have not yet decided on what you are going to buy, I suppose,"
said Miss Thompson; "and are waiting to choose until you get into the
right sort of shop?"

Madge admitted that this was the case.

"But if I may go outside and walk up and down the street, I dare say I
shall find something in the windows by the time you are ready," she
added.

Miss Thompson thought this rather a good plan, as she knew from past
experience what a very long time it always took the children to decide
on how to lay out their money to the best advantage.  So after Madge
had been solemnly warned not to wander far, she was allowed to go out
in the street by herself for a few minutes.

It was an exciting moment when the little girl found herself walking
sedately up the pavement alone.  She had never been quite so
independent before in her life, and she hoped that the passers-by all
noticed there was not any grown-up person in charge of her.  But they
were mostly too occupied to take any interest in this event.  Possibly
there were so many little girls in Churchbury that the appearance of
one extra did not strike people as particularly remarkable.

At any rate Madge herself felt all the importance of the occasion.  She
walked soberly along with the heavy little brown bag hanging from her
wrist by its string.  Secured in this way, there was no chance of her
forgetting its existence and leaving it on the counter of a shop.  She
had done this once with a purse, and Miss Thompson had been obliged to
go back to most of the places where she had been shopping before she
could recover it for Madge.  But a brown bag tied firmly round the
wrist of its owner really seemed safe from any sort of accident.

Madge had no wish to wander far away, but unfortunately the dulness of
the large linen-draper's shop that she had just left seemed to pervade
its neighbours on either side; for about fifty yards there was nothing
to be seen but highly respectable and uninteresting tailors' and
shoemakers' establishments.  Thus it came about that Madge walked
almost to the end of the street before she found a shop window that
held any objects of the kind for which she was looking.  At last she
stopped in front of a small stationer's.  There, arranged among the
piles of writing-paper and envelopes, were a quantity of little
ornaments and toys.

Madge was growing rather old to care about regular playthings, and yet
she could not resist the charms of a tiny doll's dressing-table covered
with miniature hair-brushes and combs.  She wondered how much it cost,
and whether Betty would want to share it with her.

"John won't care for it, I suppose," she muttered to herself.  "At
least he will think it grander to pretend that he doesn't like such a
girlish thing, though I dare say he will always be wanting to play with
it.  After all, one can't choose things that will suit everybody, and I
know I could make such a dear little pin-cushion to stand on that
table, with very small pins stuck into it in a pattern.  I've got a bit
of silk that would do exactly--Oh!  What has happened?  Oh, dear! oh,
dear!"

Poor Madge!  While thinking over the various ways in which she could
amuse herself with the doll's dressing-table, she had been excitedly
swinging the little brown bag up and down by the string.  Five
shillings and sevenpence, mostly in pennies, is rather heavy; an
insecurely tied knot gave way, and the bag suddenly fell with a loud
clatter--not to the ground, that would have been a very bearable
misfortune, but through a grating in the pavement on which Madge
happened to be standing at the moment.

It does not often fall to a person's lot to drop his whole fortune down
a grating into someone else's cellar.  It seemed to Madge as if no such
terrible fate had ever overtaken a human being before.  If the brown
bag had contained nothing but her own money, she would have preferred
leaving it where it fell, to making a fuss about recovering it.  She
could not bear to be thought stupid, and yet it did not seem very
clever to have lost the bag of which she was professing to take so much
care.  But as Betty's and John's money had also disappeared down the
dark grating, it seemed quite hopeless to hush the matter up.  They
would naturally question her until they found out the truth, and then
loudly express their opinion of her selfishness if she had not made
every possible effort to recover their missing property.

Madge looked despairingly down the street in the hope of seeing Miss
Thompson, but only an unceasing stream of strangers passed and repassed
the spot where she stood.  Then she stooped down and peered through the
grating.  It was so dark down below that she could not distinguish the
bag; only, of course, having seen it fall, and even heard the clatter
of some of the coins as they rolled out, she knew it must be there.
She did not like to leave the spot and go back to Miss Thompson.  It
seemed as if the money would be more likely to disappear in her
absence; although she could not really take care of it by standing on
top of the grating, yet she felt as if she could.

While hesitating what to do next, Madge happened to look through the
window of the stationer's shop, and saw an elderly woman sitting behind
the counter.  She had spectacles on her nose, and such a very mild
appearance that Madge at last decided to go in and explain the whole
matter to her.  If the woman would only let her run down to the cellar
and pick up the money, nobody at home need ever know anything about the
silly accident.



CHAPTER XIV.

KEEPING SHOP.

"Please may I just look in your cellar for a minute?" began Madge very
politely, as she entered the shop.  "I am very sorry to trouble you,
but I won't be long."

"What did you say you wanted, miss?" inquired the old woman, thinking
that she had not heard correctly what Madge asked for.  "You must
excuse me, miss," she went on, "for ever since I had the influenza last
winter my hearing has not been what it was before.  It's very awkward
in the shop, as you may think.  Many days I get one of my
grand-children, a little girl about your age, to come and help me, but
this week she has gone off to visit an aunt in London.  Of course that
was a great treat for her, so I couldn't think of interfering with it,
and I am trying to do the best I can alone."

Another time Madge would have been much interested in hearing all about
the little girl who helped her grandmother to keep shop; but now she
was in a great hurry to get her money back before Miss Thompson came to
look for her, so directly the old woman stopped speaking she began a
more detailed explanation of what she wanted, in a particularly clear
voice.

"If it was only my own money I wouldn't interrupt you to look for it,"
she said, "although it is five shillings and sevenpence.  But it
belongs to the others as well, and, of course, they are expecting me to
choose all sorts of nice things in the shops.  They will be so
disappointed if I don't get it back in time to buy something before we
have to start home.  It seemed so safe in a brown money-bag, you know;
at least it was really Betty's shoe-bag, only she took them out and put
them in her drawer.  I don't think Nurse knew she had done it.  But
what I wanted to tell you was, that I believe I can find it in a minute
if you will only let me run down to your cellar."

It is to be feared that the old woman understood even less than she
heard of this long speech.  One sentence, however, reached her ears,
and to this she replied.

"I haven't any cellar, miss," she said.

"But--but--"  Madge did not dare contradict her flatly.  Yet there was
the grating in the pavement outside.  "Please come to the door a
minute," she cried, "and I will show you what I mean, Mrs--  Oh, I am
so sorry!  I don't know your name!"

"My name is Mrs. Winter, and I've kept this shop ever since I became a
widow thirty years ago," said the old woman.  Then pitying Madge's
blushes she continued: "It doesn't matter about not knowing my name,
miss.  Don't give it another thought.  Mrs. Winter is my name, as I
said, and it is certainly written above the door, but perhaps you
didn't notice it."

"No, I didn't look there!  That was very stupid indeed of me!"
exclaimed Madge, who had been rather afraid that the old woman might be
vexed at her name not being better known.  "But I shall remember that
you are Mrs. Winter always now," she added.  "And now please let me
show you where the brown bag dropped."

"Ah, down there was it?" said Mrs. Winter, coming to the door.  "You
will have a troublesome job to get in there, I am afraid.  That cellar
belongs to the large house next door that's empty.  The whole place is
shut up, and the man who keeps the key lives at the other side of the
town."

"What shall I do?  What shall I do?" repeated poor Madge, her spirits
quite giving way at this discouraging news.  Up to that time she had
fancied that if she could once explain the state of the case to Mrs.
Winter all would be well.  And now it turned out that after all Mrs.
Winter had no more power to get back the bag than Madge herself.  Of
course at twelve years old one can't cry before strangers, but if Madge
had only been the same age as the twins, it is very certain that she
would have relieved herself by bursting into tears.  Even as it was she
looked so miserable as to excite Mrs. Winter's compassion.

"There!  Don't you fret about your money, my dear," she said, patting
Madge kindly on the shoulder.  "It will be all safe down that grating,
never fear!  There are too many locked doors to the house for anybody
to run away with it, and the rats and spiders won't do it any harm.
And when the man who keeps the key comes to open the windows and air
the rooms a bit I'll try and catch him.  He is generally here about
once or twice a week, and I'll see that you get back your money safe
enough."

"It's very kind of you," said Madge dolefully; "but I am afraid it will
not be of much use unless I can get back the money this afternoon.  You
see, we live in the country, and we hardly ever come to Churchbury;
only now and then for a great treat.  And Betty and John are expecting
their toys this evening, or books, or chocolates.  I was to choose
whatever I thought they would like best, and now I can't get anything."

"Dear! dear!" exclaimed kind Mrs. Winter, in a tone of deep concern.
And then she proceeded to ask a great many questions about what had
happened.

As Madge finished her sad story the old woman broke out into
lamentations.

"If only I had someone to keep the shop for half an hour I would go
after the man myself and try to get the key, that I would," she said.
"But little Ann is away, and--"

"Who is little Ann?" interrupted Madge.

"Why, my grandchild to be sure!" rejoined Mrs. Winter.  "And not so
little either, only that's a manner of speaking I got into when she was
a baby, and now I keep on forgetting that she has turned thirteen and
able to help me in the shop as well as any grown-up woman."

"I shall be thirteen very soon myself," said Madge eagerly.  "Don't you
think I could stay in the shop just as Ann does, while you go to find
the man with the key?  Oh, please let me try!  I'm sure I could manage
it if you are quick."

Mrs. Winter hesitated.  It is true that Madge was just as tall as her
own grand-daughter, but then Ann knew the ways of the shop; and it was
a very different thing leaving her in charge to confiding all one's
property to the care of a perfect stranger.  Mrs. Winter, however, did
not feel any distrust of Madge, and quite believed the story about the
lost bag of money.  She could see that it was not the invention of an
impostor, who wished to get an opportunity for pilfering little things
out of the shop.  In fact, the more Mrs. Winter thought about the case
the more inclined she felt to help in the recovery of the brown bag.
She was one if those kindly people who naturally interest themselves in
their neighbours' affairs, and she felt strongly tempted to take a part
in the little adventure.

"After all it's no great work to stand behind the counter and see that
the things are safe," said Mrs. Winter reflectively.

"Oh, yes, I'm sure I could do that!" replied Madge.  "But then if
anybody came to buy.  They do sometimes, I suppose?"

"Of course they do, or what would be the sense of calling it a shop,"
said Mrs. Winter rather sharply.  "You mustn't think because you caught
me just sitting down to knit for a few minutes this afternoon that
business is in any way slack.  That's just my quiet time for an hour or
so then.  But you wait till about tea-time, and there isn't standing
room for anyone in the shop many an evening.  I know I could do with
another pair of hands easily!  What with one wanting writing-paper, and
another pencils, and another a bottle of ink, it may be!  And the
children running in with their pennies to ask for some of the little
things you may have noticed in the window; I always keep a lot of
knick-knacks for them."

All this sounded very alarming.  Even Madge began to doubt her own
capacity for standing behind the counter and awaiting such an
overpowering rush of business.  However, she presently remembered that
Mrs. Winter had referred to the afternoon as being usually a very quiet
time, and certainly nothing could have looked more peaceful than the
old woman sitting quietly nodding over her knitting, and occasionally
flicking a speck of dust off the goods nearest her.  Besides, on
careful consideration, the shop was so small that three or four
customers would have great difficulty in getting inside it at once, so
perhaps the crowd of which Mrs. Winter spoke was not really of such an
alarming size.  At all events she wanted to get the brown bag back very
much, and it was worth risking something for its recovery.

After a great deal of persuasion Mrs. Winter consented to put on her
bonnet and go in search of the man with the key.  Up to the last moment
she poured out an unceasing flow of instructions to Madge how to behave
under every possible circumstance.  "And if anybody should come while I
am away, which it's to be hoped they won't, you must just make a bit of
conversation about the weather or something till I come back," she
concluded.  "That's what Ann does when I've stepped out for a moment,
and she doesn't know the price of a thing somebody inquires for.  Why,
the child will chat away as cleverly as possible about the new electric
lights in the town, or the spring flower-show, or what not, and nobody
could ever guess that she is only filling up the time till I come back!
And that's what you must try and do."  With these words Mrs. Winter
left the shop.

It was a funny position for Madge, left all alone in charge of a shop.
If anybody had told her that it was going to happen she would have been
delighted at such an amusing prospect, and would certainly not have
been troubled by any modest doubts as to her power of selling like a
regular shop-woman.  But now that the situation had actually come to
pass she felt unusually nervous, and very much hoped that her talents
would not be tested by any customer coming while she was alone.  For
the first quarter of an hour she stood anxiously staring through the
glass at the passers-by, expecting each person to stop and come in at
the door.  Nobody came, however, and in spite of Mrs. Winter's repeated
assurances of the popularity of her little shop, it seemed strangely
neglected that afternoon by the inhabitants of Churchbury.

Madge gradually became calmer as she found that nothing was going to
happen, and with the comfortable reflection that Mrs. Winter must be
back before long she began to amuse herself by examining the contents
of the shop.



CHAPTER XV.

A CUSTOMER.

It was really very interesting to be inside the counter instead of
outside, and in a position to examine everything carefully without any
interference.  On the rare occasions when Madge, Betty, and John went
shopping, it always seemed to them as if no sooner had they caught a
glimpse of some especially fascinating book, picture, or toy, than they
were instantly hauled away to one of those dull linen-draper's
establishments in which grown-up people so mysteriously delight to
linger.  As for examining anything closely, that was quite out of the
question when they went shopping with Miss Thompson.  Ever since the
time when Betty had knocked two china ornaments off a shelf and broken
them to pieces while stretching out her hand to pick up a pepper-pot in
the shape of an owl, there had been a strict rule that the children
should touch nothing in shops.  It was a dreadfully dull rule, because,
of course, nobody can look at things comfortably from a yard off and
without handling them at all.  The prettiest doll loses most of its
interest if one cannot count how many petticoats there are under its
dress, and examine how much of its neck is made of wax, and where the
stuffing begins.  And what can be duller than a mechanical mouse,
unless one can wind it up to run on the floor?

Madge decided at once that under such very peculiar circumstances as
the present she need not keep to Miss Thompson's rule.  After all it
would be simply ridiculous to be standing inside the counter and left
in charge of the shop without even daring to look at the things she was
supposed to be selling.  So, to provide herself as it were with a good
excuse, she took up a duster that she found lying on a chair, and began
carefully to rub over all the interesting things.  The piles of
envelopes and writing-paper Madge did not consider required much
dusting, but pen-wipers in the shape of pigs, and work-boxes covered
with shells arranged in patterns, clearly called for a great deal of
attention.

Although Mrs. Winter was very particular about calling her shop a
stationer's, she really seemed to sell a little of everything.  Madge
could see very well that it was just the kind of place where she would
be able to choose the sort of interesting things that Betty and John
expected.  When she got her money back she would set seriously to work
to spend it at Mrs. Winter's before she met with any further
misadventures.

"It isn't many people who have first kept a shop and then bought things
out of it all in one afternoon, I should think," she said aloud, as she
vigorously dusted a mug adorned with coloured portraits of the royal
family.

At that moment there was a great push, and the door flew open.

"How quick you have been!" began Madge; then she stopped suddenly and
almost dropped the mug.  It was not Mrs. Winter who came in, but a girl
a few years older than herself, evidently a customer.

"I want a fashion-paper," said the new-comer in a harsh voice.  "One of
those with big coloured pictures of ladies in party-dresses and
ball-gowns.  Something smart, you know.  It's for myself--Miss Amelia
Block of Ivy Villa."

Madge felt that she was expected to know the name, and that Miss Amelia
Block was, in her own estimation at least, a very important person.
Perhaps she was in the habit of buying fashion-papers at this shop.
She probably had copied her hat, which was very large and profusely
trimmed with pink ribbon, out of one of the coloured pictures of which
she seemed so fond.  It was a pity, Madge thought, that her face,
instead of being pretty and smiling, as the ladies are always
represented in fashion-papers, was ugly and cross-looking.  And a pair
of very dirty gray kid gloves, with most of their buttons off, did not
improve her appearance by any means.

"I do hope she intends to buy some new gloves before she has any more
smart dresses or hats made," Madge could not help thinking.

In the meantime Miss Block was walking slowly round, or to speak more
correctly, turning on her heels, in the middle of the tiny shop.  "You
don't seem to have much choice of fashion-papers here," she said rudely.

Madge did not reply, for the very excellent reason that she had not an
idea what fashion-papers Mrs. Winter kept.

"Haven't you anything more stylish than this?" inquired Miss Block,
picking up an illustrated magazine off the counter, and pointing
contemptuously to the picture of two ladies in their best dresses on
the cover.  "I'm going to several parties and bazaars," she explained,
"and, of course, I don't want to look a regular dowdy."

"No, I see you don't," said Madge, staring at the enormous pink hat,
and then without intending it her eyes suddenly fell to the dirty gray
kid gloves.

Miss Block evidently thought that the little girl was intentionally
trying to make her feel uncomfortable.  She became very red, and
hurriedly hid her hands in the folds of her skirt.

"If you will kindly give me what I asked for at once, instead of
standing there giggling at your betters, I'll be very much obliged to
you," she said, speaking even more disagreeably than before.

Madge was quite taken aback by this address.  She never had the least
intention of behaving rudely, although it was true that in the bottom
of her heart she did not at all admire Miss Block's appearance.  Still,
she had not meant to show her feelings so plainly.  While she stood
speechless, wondering how she could best beg her customer's pardon,
Miss Block burst out into a storm of abuse that would better have
befitted a neglected street child than such a very smartly dressed
young woman.

"You just wait a bit till I see your grandmother!" she cried.  "I'll
soon give her a bit of my mind for leaving such a vulgar chit of a
child in charge of her shop!  It's my own fault I suppose for coming to
such a low place instead of going to the largest shops in the town,
which I might as well do.  And in future I shall certainly go where I
shall be treated like a young lady!  Mrs. Winter needn't look for my
patronage any more, I can tell you.  She may think I am going to submit
quietly to being insulted by her pert little granddaughter, but she
will soon find out--"

"Please, I am not Mrs. Winter's grandchild, so you need not say that!"
interrupted Madge, suddenly recovering the use of her voice.  Her anger
at this undeserved abuse almost got the better of her shyness.  "I've
got nothing to do with Mrs. Winter," she continued.  "But it's a nice
shop and I won't hear it abused.  I dare say there are heaps of
fashion-papers in it, only I don't know where to find them--"

"If you aren't Mrs. Winter's grand-daughter, who are you then, I should
very much like to know?" said Miss Block, looking at Madge curiously
across the counter.

"That's no business of yours," replied Madge, with more truth than
politeness.  In point of fact she did not wish this very disagreeable
young person to find out her name.  It seemed as if the adventure might
end rather sillily, and Madge was not at all anxious for her part in it
to be widely known.

Miss Block did not appear daunted by the abrupt answer she had
received.  On the contrary, she gave a curious smile when Madge
declined to tell her name, and nodded her head, repeating softly to
herself, "I thought so.  Just as I thought."

"What did you think?" said Madge at last, feeling intolerably irritated
at her customer's mysterious words and manners.

"Well, it wouldn't require a very clever person to guess what you are!"
replied Miss Block triumphantly.  She spoke as if she had just made
some great discovery that gave her infinite pleasure.

"You don't really know who I am, do you?" said Madge with considerable
anxiety.

"Well, I am generally considered as sharp as my neighbours, I believe!"
retorted Miss Block.  "And I can make a pretty good guess!  When I find
somebody in a shop who doesn't know where any of the things are kept,
although I see her pulling them all about as I come in; and when she
gets very frightened, and won't tell her name or how she got there, I
call that person a thief!"

"A thief!  You think I am a thief!" cried Madge, almost more astonished
than offended by such an extraordinary accusation.  "Why, Mrs. Winter
herself told me to stay in the shop while she went off to find the man
who--"

"Oh yes!  A very fine story.  I have heard of that kind of excuse
before!" interrupted Miss Block mockingly.  "It's my belief you just
slipped in when poor old Mrs. Winter was out of the way for a minute,
and if I hadn't luckily caught you in the very act you would have been
off with your pockets crammed--"

"How can you say such things!" cried Madge.  "Why, I have money to pay
for everything I want, only it's dropped down the grating into the
cellar of the next house, as I was just going to tell you.  And while
Mrs. Winter went to get the key I was making up my mind what I would
buy presently.  And as I have five shillings and sevenpence to spend
(it's not all mine exactly, but nearly the same thing), you certainly
need not say that I wasn't going to pay!"

"Now that's a very interesting story!  So interesting that I'll give
you the chance of repeating it to a policeman, and we'll see what he
says to it," remarked Miss Block, at the same time moving towards the
street door as if to go out.

Madge could hardly believe her ears.  A policeman being called to
examine her just as if she were really a thief!  It seemed impossible,
but Miss Block, with a most unpleasant smile, was actually turning the
door-handle, when she was suddenly seized round the waist by two strong
arms.

"You sha'n't do it!" cried Madge hysterically.  "You sha'n't do it, I
tell you!"

She was a tall, strong girl for her age, and having sprung on Miss
Block from behind and taken her quite by surprise, she had no
difficulty in dragging her across the little shop.

Miss Block uttered a series of frightened shrieks and tried to wrench
herself free, but though taller she was not nearly so active as Madge.
While struggling together the two girls pushed heavily against a door
at the back of the shop that led into Mrs. Winter's little
sitting-room.  It burst open, and they both fell headlong on to a black
horse-hair sofa which occupied a prominent position in the room.  Madge
recovered first from the shock of the fall, and darting back into the
shop slammed the door behind her, turning the key in the lock.



CHAPTER XVI.

IMPRISONED IN A PARLOUR

On finding herself imprisoned in the little parlour Miss Block began to
scream.  The noise she had been making before was nothing compared to
what she made now.  One would never have supposed that the wearer of
such a magnificent pink hat could scream as loud as she did.  Madge
looked anxiously at the faces of the passers-by in the street, but
apparently the sounds were considerably softened by coming through two
closed doors, at all events nobody took any notice of the turmoil.  If
only no more customers came to the shop all might be well; but Madge
could not help feeling that she was running a great risk of getting
mixed up in a really serious affair.  Without knowing much about the
law, she understood very well that it was exceedingly unusual conduct,
to say the least of it, first to knock a strange lady down, and then
shut her into somebody else's back parlour.  Of course, Madge had
rolled over at the same time as her prisoner, and indeed hurt her own
elbow rather severely against the wooden framework of the sofa, so that
the two girls had really fared very equally.  In spite of this Madge
felt convinced that Miss Block would describe herself in the future as
having been violently assaulted.  It might even turn out that, quite
unintentionally, Madge had broken the law, and now deserved to be
seized by the policeman with whom Miss Block had threatened her a few
minutes previously.  Then, the very idea of being a fit object for the
attention of a policeman seemed absurd; but now Madge could not feel
quite as consciously innocent as she would have wished.

Until to-day it had never occurred to Madge that she could possibly
break the law except by trespassing on her neighbours' property.  The
children were all terribly afraid of being caught doing that, because
old Barton had often told them warning stories of boys who had been
sent to prison for this offence.  But now it seemed that it was much
easier to get into the clutches of the law than they had imagined.
Miss Block between her shrieks might be heard loudly requesting the
presence of a policeman, and it could hardly be expected that she would
go on much longer without attracting any attention.

On the whole, Madge's best chance of safety seemed to be in trying to
make friends with her late adversary.  She stood close to the parlour
door, and seizing an opportunity when Miss Block's shrieks became a
little fainter (probably owing to loss of breath), she put her mouth
close to the key-hole and shouted:

"I am very sorry I was rough.  Please listen, I have something to say."

Miss Block did not answer, but she did what was still better, she
stopped screaming for a minute.

"It was like this," continued Madge, still shouting through the
key-hole.  "I dropped all our money, five shillings and sevenpence, you
know, down the grating in the pavement outside.  And when I came and
told Mrs. Winter, she promised to fetch the man who kept the key of the
house if I would stay--"

"I don't believe a word of it!" suddenly shrieked Miss Block from
behind the door.  "I expect you rushed in and knocked the poor old
woman down like you did me!  I shouldn't be a bit surprised to hear
that she was lying unconscious behind the counter at this very moment!"

Madge was dreadfully disappointed by this fresh outbreak.  She had
hoped, judging by Miss Block's momentary calm, that she was becoming
more reasonable, and that the door might soon be unlocked without there
being any danger of a policeman being summoned.  But this last absurd
accusation of injuring Mrs. Winter was the worst of all.  It would
clearly be extreme folly to release Miss Block while she was capable of
such malicious misrepresentations.

"I can't let you out unless you promise solemnly on your word and
honour not to tell anybody silly stories about my stealing, or hurting
Mrs. Winter.  As if I would do such a thing!" shouted Madge through the
key-hole.

"Help!  Fire!  Murder!  Thieves!" shrieked Miss Block in reply.

"If you go on making that noise I won't unlock the door at all until
Mrs. Winter comes back," threatened Madge, rendered desperate by terror.

"You won't let me out, won't you?  Then I'll smash everything in this
room with the poker!" screamed Miss Block in a voice choking with rage.

There was an ominous pause followed by a loud crash.

"Oh, please don't break Mrs. Winter's things!  Please don't!" implored
Madge.  "It isn't her fault, you know, or mine either for the matter of
that!  The whole thing is a mistake, just because you won't listen to
the true--"

"I am going to wait exactly one minute," interrupted Miss Block, "and
at the end of that time if the door isn't opened I shall knock the
clock off the chimney-piece, and the glass shade that is over it too!"

Poor Madge was almost wild with terror at this horrid threat.  She
broke out into incoherent cries and entreaties for mercy, to which
there was no reply.  Then she dashed to the street door in the hope of
seeing Mrs. Winter, but only an unceasing flow of strangers passed
along the pavement outside.

"The minute is over!" screamed Miss Block.  "Let me out at once or--"

Madge was dreadfully afraid of a policeman, and felt that, very
shortly, the worst terror of her life would come to pass and she would
be dragged off to prison.  Still, she could not let kind old Mrs.
Winter's best clock be broken on her account.  She unlocked the parlour
door and flung it wide open.

Out bounded Miss Block, her face scarlet with rage, the pink hat cocked
unbecomingly over one ear.  "You miserable, impertinent, thieving
little wretch!" she stammered, literally sobbing with fury.  "I'll soon
teach--"

"My dear child!  What has happened, and what are you doing?"
interrupted a calm voice.

Unnoticed by the two angry girls the street door had opened, and there
stood Miss Thompson.  When things came to be explained afterwards there
was nothing very strange about her arriving at that moment, but to
Madge her appearance seemed so opportune as to be little short of
miraculous.  In point of fact Miss Thompson had left the linen-draper's
shortly before, and on looking up and down the street for her pupil had
seen her face peeping out of Mrs. Winter's door.  Madge at the time had
been so occupied in watching for Mrs. Winter that she had no thoughts
to spare for anyone else, and never noticed Miss Thompson until she
heard her voice.

Miss Block was not at the best of times a well-bred girl, and now, her
face distorted with passion she seemed ready, positively, to fly at
Madge.  Anything like opposition or argument would have produced a
regular torrent of rude words and foolish accusations.  But Miss
Thompson did not give her any chance of being insulting; she was so
calm herself, and so full of dignified apologies for Madge's behaviour,
that before long the angry girl left off sobbing hysterically and began
to listen to reason.

When Miss Block had heard the whole story she felt distinctly
uncomfortable.  Captain West was exceedingly well known in the
neighbourhood, and the last thing Miss Block would have wished to do
was to call his daughter a thief; but how could she guess that a
plainly-dressed little girl in a small shop belonged to anyone of
importance?  Miss Block was sufficiently vulgar to have different
manners for different classes of society.  It confused her very much to
find that she had treated Captain West's daughter as if she were Mrs.
Winter's grandchild, or even someone poorer.

"Well, I'm very sorry for all that's happened," she said awkwardly.
"It's been a mistake, and I hope Captain West won't think any more
about it."  Miss Thompson politely assured her that Captain West would
attach no importance to the unpleasant interview that had taken place
between his daughter and Miss Block, in fact that he would probably
never hear of it.

"That's a good thing!" cried Miss Block, evidently much relieved by
this assurance.  "Then I think I'll be going.  And," she added, pausing
for a moment in the doorway, "there's not much fear of my coming here
again!  I might have guessed something would happen in a low little
place like this!  None of these vulgar poky shops for me in future!"

Miss Thompson was about to speak rather sharply in defence of Mrs.
Winter, when Miss Block cut her short by flouncing noisily out of the
shop.

There was a short silence, and then Miss Thompson said: "I need not
point out to you, Madge, the extreme vulgarity of that last remark?"

"About the poky little shop, do you mean?" asked Madge shyly.

"Yes, indeed.  I doubt whether anybody has ever before behaved half so
rudely in this little house as the smartly-dressed girl who has just
gone out of it.  I am glad to see, however, that she has not really
broken anything in the parlour, only knocked over a small table to try
and frighten you with the noise.  But we won't talk of her any more."
And Miss Thompson shrugged her shoulders impatiently.

Fortunately, at this point Mrs. Winter returned, bringing with her the
key of the empty house that she had actually persuaded the caretaker to
lend her.

"I have promised faithfully to return it to him this evening, miss,"
said the kind old woman.  "He made some little difficulties at first
about letting it go out of his own hands, but being in the shoe-making
business he couldn't come himself till after work hours, and I told him
the young lady was in a sad way to be getting home again before
tea-time--"

"I don't think the young lady is half as anxious to get home in good
time as I am!" laughed Miss Thompson.  Then she thanked Mrs. Winter
heartily for the trouble she had taken to get back the children's
money.  "And now that we have the key," she concluded, "it will soon be
recovered.  I will stay in the shop, and if any customers come I will
ask them to wait a few minutes until Mrs. Winter returns."

Madge was quite satisfied with this arrangement; she had had enough of
keeping shop for one afternoon.  Besides, she was very anxious to see
the inside of the empty house.



CHAPTER XVII.

IN AN EMPTY HOUSE.

It was with a certain air of importance that Mrs. Winter walked along
the pavement, closely followed by Madge.  The friendly old woman always
took a great interest in her neighbours' affairs, and she thoroughly
enjoyed seeing the recovery of the lost money with her own eyes.  When,
after about a dozen steps, the front-door of the adjoining house was
reached, Mrs. Winter smiled with conscious pride as she put the key
into the key-hole.  It was a critical moment.  If the children ever
recovered their lost money it would be entirely owing to her exertions.
Not many elderly women in Churchbury that afternoon were playing such
an exciting part.

The street in which Mrs. Winter lived was an old one, and consequently
built without any regularity.  It thus happened that next to Mrs.
Winter's tiny shop stood a substantial family dwelling-house, whose
cellars, as it has been said, took up rather more room on the pavement
than seemed rightly to belong to them.  Since the death of the last
occupant some time before, the house had stood empty; only the
caretaker visited it occasionally to air the rooms.

When Mrs. Winter pushed the heavy, creaking front-door open Madge
followed her into a roomy hall, out of which a handsome staircase led
to the upper part of the house.  It was all very dignified and dreary.
When the door was shut the noise echoed all over the house.  It was not
a very cheerful sound, especially heard in the sombre twilight caused
by windows with the blinds all drawn down.

"We shall want a light for the cellar," observed Mrs. Winter.  "The man
said I should find all that was required on the window-sill in the
hall--and here it is too!" she continued joyfully, holding up as she
spoke a box of matches and a short candle stuck in a bottle.

Madge was exceedingly interested in this simple form of candlestick,
and asked permission to carry it, in spite of the grease trickling down
the bottle on to her fingers at every draught, as soon as the candle
was lighted.

"It's a fine house.  I've been over it many a time in old Doctor
Freeman's day," said Mrs. Winter thoughtfully.  "But it isn't much to
see now since the sale, with all the furniture gone out of the rooms
and the carpets up.  Besides, we have not the time to lose going over
it, or the lady will get tired of waiting for you."

Madge always liked investigating unknown places and things, but still
she could not deny that Miss Thompson was awaiting her return rather
anxiously.  And when Mrs. Winter, taking another key fully as large as
the first, proceeded to push open a heavy door and disclose a steep
flight of slippery stone steps leading downwards into the cellars,
Madge had the comfort of feeling that at all events she was seeing the
most interesting part of the house.  The bedrooms, or even attics,
could not be as thrilling as that yawning chasm beneath her feet into
which she was now about to plunge.

"Poor old Doctor Freeman set a great store on his collection of wine,"
observed Mrs. Winter as she slowly went down the cellar steps, feeling
with her hands along the wall, for the bit of candle that Madge carried
in front gave a very insufficient light, and she was terribly afraid of
slipping.  However, her nervousness did not prevent her from giving
Madge a long account of the sale that had taken place after Dr.
Freeman's death, and of the large sums of money that people gave for
his treasured collections of wine.

"And to my thinking he would have been much wiser to drink it himself,
poor gentleman!" she concluded.  "But each one knows what he likes
best, and if he preferred the look of the bottles to the taste of what
was in them--well, 'twas his own to do what he liked with!"

Madge did not listen very attentively to Mrs. Winter's somewhat
rambling discourse.  By this time they had reached the bottom step, and
another large key having been produced the last heavy door was opened
with a loud creak.  To any young lady who had read as many fairy-tales
as Madge, the situation irresistibly suggested a subterranean cavern,
in which unlimited gold was stored away by thrifty dwarfs.

"And there really is a lot of money there," thought Madge; "five
shillings and sevenpence might easily be called a heap of
treasure--with a little pretending.  But I do wish Betty and John were
here to help to discover it!  We should have so much more fun."

Mrs. Winter was not a very satisfactory companion on an adventurous
expedition.  She was kindness itself--nobody could have been more
good-natured,--but she did not seem quite to enter into the spirit of
the thing.  The dark mysterious cavern remained to her nothing but Dr.
Freeman's empty wine-cellar; and it evidently never occurred to her for
a moment that there was anything to be gained by calling the candle-end
a torch!  Life in the nursery and schoolroom at home had afforded Madge
comparatively few opportunities for real adventure; and when one
suddenly fell across her path it was tiresome to have an unappreciative
companion who took everything as a matter of course.

Presently a trifling accident brought about a change in the situation.
At the farther end of the long cellar there was a very faint glimmer of
light coming through a grating overhead.

"That's where your money dropped down," observed Mrs. Winter.  "You are
sure to find it scattered on the ground under the grating."

At this suggestion Madge very naturally ran forward, and the violent
draught coming from the opening above blew out the candle she carried
in her hand.

Poor Mrs. Winter was greatly disturbed by suddenly finding herself in
the dark.  Even by the light of the candle it had seemed hard work to
her coming down the steep steps, and how she was ever to get up them
again in total darkness she really did not know.  Yet she would not
consent to let Madge go back to the hall where the matches had had been
left and light the candle, fearing that the little girl might set fire
to the house.

"Then I may stay here in the dark by myself while you go, may I?"
pleaded Madge, who did not wish to waste a minute of her time in this
exciting place.

"Yes, I suppose so," replied Mrs. Winter, rather wondering at the
little girl's taste, but too much occupied in the effort of feeling her
way to the stairs to pay much attention to anything else.  Presently
she could be heard slowly mounting step by step, then the door at the
top of the stairs shut with a noisy clang behind her, and there was
silence.

Madge was all alone in the dark.  It was certainly delightfully
exciting, but not, strictly speaking, quite so enjoyable as she had
anticipated.  The chief pleasure would be in afterwards describing to
Betty and John what had happened.  In the meantime she would be very
brave, and Mrs. Winter might return at any moment with the candle.

The worst of darkness and silence is, that they seem to increase every
moment.  What is merely gloomy at first becomes almost intolerable as
time goes on.  All sorts of horrid ideas came into Madge's head.  Could
it be that Mrs. Winter had shut her in and gone home?  Or fallen down
in a fit in the hall?  Or that the cellar door had slammed with a
spring-lock and could not be got open again?  None of these
suppositions would have seemed very probable in the light; but Madge
was becoming too frightened to form a clear judgment on the subject.
She longed to call out in the hopes of getting an answer from Mrs.
Winter, but dread of hearing her own voice echoing through the empty
house kept her silent.  And from the same cause she remained standing
motionless on the spot where she had been left.  The terror of stepping
on some strange soft object that would squeak or squash under her feet
was enough to keep her still.  She thought of Lewis Brand's tales about
rats and toads in Mrs. Howard's cellar, and she wondered that he did
not go mad when shut up among them.

As Madge was standing stiff with fright, and straining her ears to
catch a distant sound of footsteps that never seemed to come, she
suddenly remembered the grating at the farther end of the cellar.
"What a stupid creature I am!" she exclaimed joyfully, as, turning her
head, she again caught sight of the reassuring glimmer of light behind
her.  It had been there all the time, while she was staring into the
darkness in the opposite direction.

In another moment Madge was cautiously creeping towards the grating.
She could only go slowly pushing one foot before her in order to avoid
stepping heavily on some hidden horror; for the daylight struggling
through the tiny opening overhead only faintly lighted the ground
immediately below, leaving the rest of the cellar in total darkness.

Even this feeble patch of twilight quite restored Madge's confidence.
She would reach it and feel about for the lost money, then if Mrs.
Winter did not speedily return she could no doubt find her way back up
the cellar steps without any help.  When Madge was not frightened she
was just as sensible and energetic as a grown-up person.

Hardly had she resolved on this most practical course, however, when
there was a wild scuffle round her legs, and something brushed past her
with glaring eyes--something that uttered confused sounds of rage as it
lurked in the darkness to spring out upon her.

Poor Madge!  She forgot her age, her dignity, and her character for
good common sense.  She only remembered alarming stories about
hobgoblins and witches, and she began to scream.  Luckily Mrs. Winter
had by this time found the box of matches, and very soon returned with
the candle.  Then all at once the scene changed.  The mysterious
haunted cavern again became nothing but a large cellar full of empty
shelves, hung with festoons of cobwebs.  And the lurking monster turned
out to be a half-starved kitten, that must at some time have followed
the caretaker down the steps and got locked in.

With trembling hands and a rather shamefaced expression Madge collected
the fallen coins, many of which had rolled out of the bag to some
distance.  She could not bear to think that Mrs. Winter had heard her
screaming like a frightened baby.  The annoyance of this recollection
prevented her from taking any interest in the poor kitten that Mrs.
Winter was gently coaxing towards her; and it was not until they were
again back in the little shop that Madge regained her customary good
spirits.



CHAPTER XVIII.

THE RETURN AFTER SHOPPING.

After all, there was very little time left for the important work of
choosing toys.  Madge did her best to make up her mind in a hurry,
assisted by a good deal of judicious advice from Miss Thompson.  But
that was not the way in which she enjoyed shopping.  She liked to dwell
on every purchase, carefully calculating whether its merits justified
its price, and trying to imagine how it would look when the stuffing
came out of it, or the paint was rubbed off.  When the money was not
all her own, and the toys not all for herself, as in the present
instance, it naturally much increased the difficulty of selection.
There were the tastes and needs of different people to be considered,
their various wants and wishes to be recalled.  Madge was a most
conscientious shopper, and in the main a thoughtful elder sister.  She
would have scorned to spend Betty's and John's money and not give them
full satisfaction.

"My dear child," said Miss Thompson at last, "I have really waited as
long as I dare.  We must go to the place where we left the carriage,
and start home.  Your parents will think we have met with an accident."

"Oh, please wait a minute!  Just one minute!" begged Madge.  "I haven't
half chosen yet.  That's to say, I have put together a lot of things
that might do, but I want to look through them before I quite settle."

"Perhaps I can help you to decide?" said Miss Thompson briskly.
"What's this?  A whip and a boat for John?  Surely that is exactly what
he had last time we went shopping?"

"Yes; but he has broken the old whip, and he wants another boat,"
explained Madge.  "They have just put such a nice great tub of water in
the garden, because the pump has gone dry with the hot weather, and we
sail--"

"Oh, that's all right!" interrupted Miss Thompson.  "So long as you
know what you like and are satisfied.  And Betty is to have this doll,
I suppose, and that trumpet?  Isn't she getting rather old for a
trumpet?"

"But she likes a trumpet better than anything, except a whistle,"
explained Madge hurriedly.  "We all like trumpets or anything that
makes a noise."

"You are welcome to your noises so long as I hear nothing of them in
the schoolroom!" laughed Miss Thompson.  "And you have chosen a knife
and a china tea-pot for yourself, I see.  Well, now be quick and let
Mrs. Winter make up the bill."

"But there was a lot of other little things I want to get!" cried
Madge.  "I have not had time to think properly yet."

Miss Thompson looked at her watch, and said that she would wait exactly
five minutes and no more.  At the end of that period Madge with many
groans of regret was obliged to turn away from the counter, feeling
that if she only had all the time she wanted she would immediately put
back most of the things she had chosen and select fresh ones.  Perhaps
it was just as well that she was rather hurried, for at this rate there
would have been no end to the shopping.

Mrs. Winter parted from her customers with many invitations to them to
return and see how the poor half-starved kitten prospered under her
care.  She had already put him to bed in a basket in the back-kitchen,
after giving him two whole saucers of milk, that he drank without
stopping.  Altogether it seemed probable that he would find the shop a
much more agreeable residence than the cellar, where, judging by the
prominence of his ribs, he must have kept himself alive on a very
limited supply of mice and black-beetles.

It was long past the usual time for schoolroom tea when Miss Thompson
and Madge returned home.  The twins, it may be remembered, had been
climbing in the Eagle's Nest a good part of the afternoon, and were
consequently as hungry as people who have been playing for hours in the
open air have a right to be.  They were waiting on the door-step when
the carriage drove up, and began at once to reproach Madge for being so
late, and to inquire what she had brought.

"Come along," said Miss Thompson briskly.  "Not a word is to be spoken
until Madge has taken off her hat and we are seated at the tea-table.
If we begin to embark on our adventures now, we shall never get any tea
to-night."

The children grumbled, but they were forced to obey, as Miss Thompson
waited to see Madge walk upstairs before she took off her own jacket.
Long experience had taught her that if an exciting story was once
begun, even tea would be forgotten.

At last, however, the delightful moment had arrived, when the children
were all seated round the table and at liberty to recount their
afternoon's occupations.  Of course, Madge's adventures were altogether
so out of the common as to throw everything else into the shade.  The
twins said nothing about their meeting with Lewis, and Madge never
thought of inquiring what they had been doing.  They did not
intentionally conceal anything, but in the excitement of hearing about
the loss and recovery of the brown bag they completely forgot what, up
to that time, had been a great source of pride--namely, that they had
been associating on equal terms of friendship with a big school-boy.
Even when tea was over and Miss Thompson left them alone, they forgot
to tell Madge how they had spent the afternoon, in the interest of
looking at the new purchases.

"Well, I suppose all's well that ends well," remarked Betty solemnly,
as she helped to unpack the brown paper parcels on the schoolroom
table.  "Only it must have been very terrible in that cellar,
especially when you saw those flaming eyes in the dark!  What colour
were they, green or yellow?"

"Oh, I hardly remember!  The colour of cats' eyes, I suppose!" replied
Madge rather impatiently.

She did not much care to dwell upon that time in the cellar, when she
had mistaken the poor starved kitten for some sort of hobgoblin, and
screamed at it in a way that was most unworthy of her age and good
sense.  To change the subject, she asked John how he liked the things
she had chosen for him.

"The ship is all right," he said slowly, "and so is the whip.  At least
it's not quite so big as the one I got last time, and it cost a penny
more, but still it will do.  Only--"

"Well, what's the matter?" interrupted Madge.  "What have you got to
grumble at now, I should like to know?"

She spoke sharply, for, with all her kindness, she could not bear to
have the younger ones finding fault with anything she did.  So long as
they were duly grateful she would work hard to amuse them; but the
moment they began to criticise her conduct in any way there was trouble.

"Do you think you could have chosen anything better yourself?" she said
scornfully.  "You had better try next time if you think it's so easy!"

"I didn't say the things were not nice things," observed John in his
quiet obstinate way.  "I never meant that.  Only I can't understand how
you spent our money.  That's all."

"Why it's as simple as A B C!" broke out Madge.  "Just listen, you
little silly, and I'll tell you.  I took five shillings and sevenpence,
didn't I?"

"Of course you did!  In the brown bag," answered Betty, although nobody
had spoken to her.

John merely nodded his head to show that he was following the argument
up to this point.

"And as the money belonged to us all we were all to share alike,"
proceeded Madge rapidly.  "So I got a ship and a doll and a knife, each
costing a shilling.  And we had one apiece.  That's three shillings.
Then the whip and the trumpet and the tea-pot cost sixpence each.  That
comes to four shillings and sixpence.  And the packets of sugar-plums,
and pipes for blowing soap-bubbles, come to tenpence.  That makes five
shillings and four-pence.  And--and--"

"And that's all!" interrupted John.  "But you took five shillings and
sevenpence in the brown bag, you know.  I remember counting it; didn't
we, Betty?"

"Oh, I'm well aware of that!" cried Madge impatiently.  "If you will
only just keep quiet I can make it right in a moment.  I must have
added up wrongly while you were chattering."  And spreading all the
purchases out on the table she tried to count them more carefully over
again, repeating their prices as she did so.  But it was no use.  Try
as she might her accounts would not come perfectly right.  There was
threepence missing, and Madge could not account for it at all.

"It must have slipped out of the bag and be lying in a corner of that
cellar," said Betty with considerable reason.  "Threepence is such a
very tiny bit of money you would never see it in the dark, or even by
the light of one candle."

"Perhaps not.  I suppose that is what has happened," admitted poor
Madge.  She was ready to cry with mortification at having had the worst
of the argument with John, in spite of his being two years younger than
herself and very much her inferior in arithmetic.  Besides, she knew
that if she had, as seemed most probable, left a threepenny piece on
the cellar floor, it was all owing to that annoying fit of nervousness
that had suddenly come over her in the dark.  At the time that she
picked up the money she was still suffering from the fright caused by
the sudden appearance of the kitten, and no doubt had been too much
upset to notice very carefully what she was doing.  But she did not
like to explain all this to the twins, who were in the habit of looking
upon her as the living embodiment of courage.  So she merely laid the
blame on the dim light of the cellar.

The consequence of this was, that when John next found himself alone
with Betty he began to grumble.

"It's all very well for Madge to say she didn't see the threepenny
bit," he said, "but I think she ought to have stayed there looking
until she did see it.  She can see things very well when she tries.  I
don't believe she took any trouble about it, because it belonged to us."

"But part of it belonged to her," objected Betty.

"Only one part," said John persistently, "and two parts belonged to us.
So of course it was more ours than hers, and that's why she didn't
trouble to look for it."

"Do you think so really?" said Betty in an irresolute tone.  She had
great faith in Madge always acting for the best, but these new
arguments were rather disturbing.

"I'll tell you what it is," continued John.  "Madge thinks herself a
much grander person than we are, because she is a little older.  And it
isn't fair.  Lewis said he wouldn't be ordered about by her if he were
in my place, and I won't either.  After all, she is only a girl!"

After this remark the conversation became rather quarrelsome.  Betty
objected to the expression, "only a girl", and retorted by some very
rude remarks about boys in general and her brother in particular.  She
reminded him with unpleasant emphasis of how slow he was at climbing
trees compared with Madge, and she dwelt with more truth than
politeness on the fact that he had once grown giddy on the roof of the
cow-house, and had to be ignominiously helped down by his sisters.  But
in the long run John's solid persistency got the best of it, and in
spite of Betty's wish to believe that Madge always acted for the best,
she was gradually talked over into thinking that there was some real
grievance in her elder sister always taking the lead.

Whenever Lewis Brand had an opportunity of talking to the twins by
themselves he mischievously encouraged this idea, so that disagreements
among the children became a matter of everyday occurrence.



CHAPTER XIX.

AN INTERESTING DITCH.

If a stranger had happened to meet Madge, Betty, and John one fine
Saturday afternoon a few weeks later in the summer, he would probably
have imagined that they were hurrying to the sea-side.  It was
certainly an odd way to get there, across the fields and through a
grove of beech-trees; but where else could they be going, each carrying
a boat?

They passed by the Eagle's Nest for once without even glancing up at
it, and walking a little farther along the field stopped by a deep
ditch.  Now, even during the hottest summer weather this delightful
ditch seldom became completely dry.  A tiny stream generally contrived
to trickle along the bottom, pushing its way in and out among the dead
leaves and sticks that the wind blew into its course.  During the
winter months the ditch sometimes got blocked with this sort of
rubbish, and then the water being kept back very rapidly rose and
flooded over the field.  However, old Barton was always on the look-out
for accidents, and on extra wet days generally marched out with a sack
over his shoulders to keep them comparatively dry, and cleared away the
drifts of dead leaves with his spade so that the stream should flow
freely.  Of course, the children would have loved to accompany him on
these expeditions, but they always took place on such wet days that the
thing was not to be thought of seriously.

But though the children were never allowed to help in moderating a
regular winter flood, they valued the ditch highly as a place where
they could always collect enough water to sail their boats in a
thoroughly satisfactory manner.  They had done it so often that they
did not take very long time in setting to work.  Betty and John going
down on their knees began to build the mud and dead leaves at the
bottom of the ditch into a great barrier across the narrowest part,
while Madge with a stick cleared the course of the stream from all
obstructions above.  It was the way in which they made tiny ponds in
the cracks of the big stones under the laburnum-tree, only of course
this was hundreds of times larger.

The water soon began to rise.  It is most surprising what a lot of
water even a tiny stream contains if one can once prevent it from all
running away!  When the ditch was about half-full, the children
launched their boats and made them go imaginary voyages from port to
port, carrying merchandise.

"I will be London," said Madge, "and Betty can be Cardiff, and--"

"I can choose for myself without your help!" interrupted John
peevishly.  "I'll be Birmingham."

"Oh, you choose very cleverly for yourself!" jeered Madge.  "I wonder
how you can think of such difficult places!"

"You think nobody can be clever except yourself, but you are finely
mistaken," rejoined John seriously; and he could not imagine why both
his sisters burst out laughing.  "There isn't much joke that I can see
in that," he said.

"The joke is about Birmingham, you know," explained Betty.  "It isn't a
port."

"Then it ought to be," said John decidedly.

"Perhaps you had better write to the Queen and suggest that it should
be made into one," remarked Madge.  But then, seeing that her brother
looked vexed at his mistake, she continued cheerfully: "I have thought
of a new and much better plan.  We will not have real towns, but we
will call them after our own names--Madgebury, Bettybury, and Johnbury!"

This idea gave very general satisfaction, and the game proceeded most
peacefully for some time.  A vessel laden with acorns started from
Madgebury and went to Johnbury, crossing on the way another ship full
of horse-chestnuts.  From Bettybury a small wooden doll set out on a
voyage of discovery into unknown regions, the owners carefully
superintending the course of their vessels and guiding them by long
strings.  Once the strings got entangled and there was a terrific
shipwreck in Johnbury harbour, most of the cargo, consisting of
marbles, being lost in the mud at the bottom.  After this collision it
was discovered that the sails of two of the vessels were injured, so
the ship-owners decided to retire for a short time to Eagle's Nest and
work at some necessary repairs.

It was a warm afternoon, and the shade of the great spreading
beech-tree was particularly pleasant after an hour spent in the glaring
sun by the ditch.  The children sat about in idle lounging attitudes,
mending their boats and talking in a leisurely fashion.

"I wish I hadn't lost all those marbles," remarked John mournfully.  "I
only found four, and I believe there were quite eight in the ship, only
the mud was so soft they sank out of sight at once.  I squeezed it all
over with my hands to try and find them, but I couldn't."

"I should think you will lose those four as well, if you try and carry
them in your pocket," said Madge.  "Don't you remember what a big hole
you have in it, and how your knife dropped on the schoolroom floor this
morning when you were saying your lessons?"

"But I must put them somewhere," answered John peevishly.  "I can't
leave them behind, and I can't carry them in my hand when I am mending
my ship."

"I've got a capital idea!" broke in Betty.  "We will have a
treasure-house in the Eagle's Nest, and we can safely hide away the
things we don't want there.  And I see just the place that will do!"
With an excited cry she scrambled up to a hole in the tree a few feet
above the platform of sticks on which they sat.  "Isn't this the very
place?" she shouted.

"The very place!  The very place!" echoed John; and immediately the
three children began to empty out their pockets and decide what they
would leave in the Eagle's Nest storehouse.  John's marbles and various
small articles belonging to the girls, such as pencils, both slate and
lead, a broken knife, and a doll's boot, were carefully stored away
packed in dock leaves.

"We can leave them there all right," said Madge.  "Even if it rains
they can't get wet in this beautiful hole.  It's a regular out-of-door
cupboard, and I shall keep lots of my things here now that we have
found it."

This plan was so incomparably more interesting than putting one's
possessions back tamely in the schoolroom or nursery, that the hole was
soon filled with oddly-shaped parcels tied up in leaves and twists of
grass.

"That's done!" exclaimed Madge at last with a sigh of satisfaction, as
she covered the opening to the hole with an enormous bunch of elder
flowers, which she fondly hoped looked so natural that no passing enemy
would suspect they concealed a treasure-house.  "Now shall we go back
and sail our boats or--Oh, look!" her voice rose to a shriek.  And well
it might.

Quite taken up with their present occupation, the children had entirely
forgotten the fact that they had left the ditch blocked, so that the
stream could not flow away as usual.  The water had been rising for the
last hour or more, and all one end of the field was rapidly turning
into a swamp.  Rivulets of water were finding their way in and out
among the rank tufts of long grass, and at this rate Eagle's Nest
itself would be surrounded by the evening.

It was a moment of most intense excitement.  There were hurried
consultations among the children, and even a daring suggestion that the
flood should be allowed to rise until they were left upon an
impregnable island.  But a certain longing for tea, combined with a
wholesome dread of Barton, prevented this alarmingly bold scheme from
being carried out.

"If we had only known what was going to happen and brought provisions
with us, what fun it would have been to stay here all night!" cried
Madge, who dearly loved an adventure.  "I think if I had brought the
piece of bread that they put by the side of my plate at dinner, and
that I never eat, it would have been enough to keep me alive all night."

"I should like sandwiches better," observed John.

"Very likely!" rejoined Madge impatiently.  "Honey and cream are very
nice too, and just what people always carry with them when they are out
all night in a forest!"

"They would be very good, but much stickier than sandwiches," began
John, then stopped as both his sisters burst out laughing.  "I don't
see anything funny," he said sulkily.  "They are very sticky, you know
they are!"

"We were laughing at your idea of having all sorts of nice things to
eat when you were escaping from the enemy," explained Betty.  "It's a
time for hardships--"

"I don't care to live on hardships," interrupted John.

"Well, it doesn't matter, because I think we had better go home to tea
after all," observed Madge.  "I don't really mind Barton complaining
about us much; and it would have been frightful fun to sit in the
Eagle's Nest and see everybody on the other side of the water scolding
and threatening us without being able to get at us.  But I dare say
Mama would have been rather anxious about our staying out all night in
the damp."

Though troublesome and thoughtless the children were really
affectionate, and this consideration weighed with them.  They gave up
all idea of allowing the advancing torrent to cut them off from any
communication with the world.  (When we talk of the torrent, it must be
understood that it might not have appeared quite worthy of the name to
grown-up people; but that is how the children managed to see it.)

Having decided to resist the temptation of camping-out for a night, the
next question was how to avoid getting into serious trouble with
Barton, who would be dreadfully cross if he came in the morning and
found the field turned into a swamp.  It was all very well for Madge to
talk defiantly about not minding if Barton scolded or not; but the fact
was that everybody, even Captain West, stood in respectful awe of the
old man's stern disapproval.

"I do wish you children would not be so disobedient to me before
Barton.  I can see he thinks you are spoilt, and it makes me feel so
dreadfully ashamed of myself!" Captain West would laughingly say; and
though, of course, this was only a joke, there can be little doubt that
Barton would have brought up a family very strictly if it had been left
to him.

"We can't go home and leave it like this," said Madge, looking round
despairingly on the ever-widening circle of glistening wet that was
spreading through the grass.

"If we took away the mud that we put across the ditch, would not the
stream run down the ditch again as usual?" suggested John.

"Of course, we all know that!  But who can get through the water to
clear it out?" cried Betty.

There was an anxious pause.  Then suddenly in a tone of solemn
resolution Madge announced that she was once more ready to take the
post of danger.

"You will get your boots wet through, and catch cold," said Betty
nervously.

Without replying to this remonstrance Madge climbed down from the
Eagle's Nest.  It was the work of a moment to remove not only her boots
but also her stockings.  Then she plunged into the soaking grass, the
water splashing up round her bare feet at every step.  It was a wet
job, and a dirty one, but Madge accomplished it safely, and Barton
never guessed next day how near he had been to finding the meadow
flooded.



CHAPTER XX.

DISPUTES.

The treasure-house in Eagle's Nest did not turn out quite such a happy
idea as was anticipated.  For a few days after causing the ditch to
overflow the children rather avoided that part of the fields.  It
seemed prudent not to give Barton any occasion to connect them in his
mind with the extra muddiness of the corner between Eagle's Nest and
the ditch.  But when nearly a week had passed by without any awkward
inquiries being made, and it was considered safe to return to their old
haunts, an unpleasant surprise awaited them.  Some of their
carefully-stored-away possessions were missing!

John's marbles could nowhere be found.  This was a most unfortunate
fact; but when, after a hurried turning out of the contents of the
treasure-house, it became apparent that a pencil also belonging to John
was missing, there was a positive uproar.  Betty had only lost an old
pocket-book with all the leaves torn out, and she was not even quite
sure that she had ever put it into the hole.  Madge had lost nothing.

"I do say it's a shame!" shouted John positively, dancing about on the
platform of the Eagle's Nest with rage.  "It's a horrid shame!  All my
things are lost, and--"

"If you stamp so hard your foot will stick in the cracks of the floor,
like the dwarf in the fairy-story," interrupted Madge.

"Oh, it's all very well to laugh!  Laugh away!" shouted John.  "That's
just like you!  Put in all your own things safely enough, and left mine
out!  And then you laugh.  But I won't stand being bullied by a great
ugly thing--"  Here his voice fortunately became choked with angry sobs.

"What is the matter?  What nonsense you are talking!" exclaimed Madge
impatiently.  "All the things were put into the hole at the same time.
You saw me do it yourself, because I happened to be nearest to the
treasure-house."

"And I believe I saw you pushing my things on one side to make room for
your own!" rejoined John.  "And very likely you slily took some of mine
out and threw them away, so that the hole should not be too full."

"Well, if you believe all that you must be a little idiot!" said Madge
scornfully; and Betty cried: "How can you say such things?  Of course
she wouldn't!"

"I think she would," asserted John, with irritating obstinacy.  "She
thinks she can do as she likes with us and our things.  Lewis often
says--"

"So it is Lewis who has been putting all these stupid ideas into your
head?" interrupted Madge.  "I could not think why you had become so
discontented and grumbling all of a sudden!  Now I see what it is, and
I'll never speak to that sneak again!"

"He is a very nice boy, very nice indeed," repeated John.  "And I like
talking to him much better than playing with girls."

"You are welcome to him, I'm sure!" exclaimed Madge tempestuously.  "A
horrid sneak who used to be always laughing at you little ones to me,
and calling you silly babies!  And then directly my back is turned for
an afternoon, he goes trying to set you against me.  No, I don't want
him coming sucking up to me any more, that's certain!"  And a good deal
more of the same sort; for when Madge was indignant, she had an
extraordinary flow of very forcible but inelegant language.  "Now for
my part I'm going away from here directly," she concluded.  "John will
stop and tell tales to his friend, I suppose.  Betty can do as she
likes."

Betty did not look as grateful as she might for this kind permission.
She was a peace-loving little person, and always particularly disliked
being called upon to take sides in family disputes.

"Can't we all go away and play together just as we used to, before we
knew Lewis?" she said at last.  "We really had more fun then than we
have now, because we were not always afraid that something would be
found out."

"You are quite right!" answered Madge heartily.  "We built this Eagle's
Nest to play in, didn't we?  But now, instead of playing we are always
watching and waiting for Lewis, and when he comes we can't have any
fun, because if we make a noise somebody may catch us.  It seems rather
a sneaking business altogether."

Betty was quite of this opinion.  If she had not been drawn on by her
elder sister's enthusiasm in the first instance, she would never have
done anything so boldly naughty as to make friends with a strange boy.
The constant fear of discovery had weighed heavily upon her, and on
more than one occasion lately she had trembled all over if anyone had
called her suddenly, thinking that the whole affair was discovered and
she was about to be blamed.  "Yes, do let us play somewhere else.  And
then perhaps Lewis will get tired of coming to look for us," she said
fervently.

"At first I was sorry for him," continued Madge, "and I should be now,
only he is so mean.  Of course I shall never betray him to anybody, and
get him punished for climbing over the wall.  But I won't speak to him
after he has proved a sneak!"

In the end Madge and Betty went off together to play elsewhere, while
John remained behind in the Eagle's Nest, saying that he should wait
there for his friend.  But it was not very cheerful work sitting alone
on a bough in sight of that terrible red brick house, after the girls
had disappeared.  He would gladly have climbed down and ran after them,
if he had not boasted so loudly of his preference for Lewis's society.
And when Lewis at last came he was not a very cheery companion.  John
tried to feel flattered at being left alone with such a big boy, and to
get all the comfort he could out of his companion's abuse of girls in
general, and Madge in particular.  But when Lewis began to tell long
dreary stories about the cruel doings that went on under Mrs. Howard's
roof, the small listener soon realized that the presence of a strong
and courageous elder sister would be very comforting indeed.  He tried
to keep up his spirits by reflecting that there was no fear of his
being entrapped from the Beechgrove side of the wall.

"Ah!  Don't you make too sure of that," said Lewis.  "The last boy Mrs.
Howard stole was bigger than you, I think."

"Does she steal children, then?" cried John in terrified accents.  "I
didn't know anybody could do that nowadays!  Why don't the police stop
her?"

"That's just the question!  My belief is that she's more artful than a
whole army of police," answered Lewis.  "I don't know how it's done of
course, but I expect that man with a gray beard wanders about the road
after dark and catches them as they are going home from school, perhaps
in the evening--"

"Catches them?  What does he catch?" interrupted John.

"Why, catches boys about your size, of course!  I've just said so,
haven't I?  How stupid you are!" answered Lewis, speaking quite as
contemptuously as Madge in her most overbearing moods.  "And then they
are locked into the cellars under the house.--Chained?  Oh yes! hand
and foot.  Gags in their mouths too, if they groan loudly enough to be
heard.  I know the sound when I am awake at night.  Mrs. Howard calls
it the wind in the chimneys, but I know better than that."

"But what does she want boys for?" asked John in a trembling voice.

"Nobody knows.  Perhaps she sells them as slaves to the black people,
just as black people used to be sold to white.  Perhaps she keeps them
prisoners for life in her cellars.  Nobody knows."  Lewis began to
whistle, and positively declined to give any further information.

"I think I'll go home, it's getting rather late," said John presently.
"And very likely I sha'n't be able to come here to-morrow to meet you.
It doesn't seem quite safe to come every day if that dreadful man is
always on the look-out.  Besides, I don't think I shall have much time
after lessons, some days we dig in our gardens."

"You aren't afraid to come without your sisters, I suppose?  It looks
remarkably like it," said Lewis disagreeably.

"No! of course not!" cried John, as he hurriedly scrambled out of the
tree.

In another moment he was in full flight home.  It did not require much
persuasion on Betty's part that evening to convince him that, after
all, one's own brothers and sisters are much safer and pleasanter
companions than any chance strangers.

"But," concluded Betty, "though Lewis talks so much about the dangers
he goes through I don't believe he is half as brave as Madge.  See how
she plunged into that water the other day without hesitating an
instant, though it was very cold, for my hands were quite blue after
sailing my boat.  It's so odd how water keeps cold even in the summer!
But I don't think Lewis could have done it.  He made such a fuss when
he scratched his hand with a sharp stone in the wall one day.  Of
course he is very brave about being shut up in those dreadful cellars;
only I don't think they can be quite so dreadful as he pretends, or
nobody could bear them."

"Don't you think it is quite true about the cellars, then?" asked John,
eagerly grasping at a ray of hope.  If the cellars were not dungeons
swarming with toads, then there might also be some mistake about little
boys being stolen and sold as slaves to black people.  So he waited
anxiously for Betty's opinion on the subject.

"Well, I suppose it is true that he is shut up in those dark places,"
she replied thoughtfully; "because, you see, he can tell us all about
them; the slimy walls I mean, and the black pools of dirty water.  Only
I don't believe he is quite as brave as he makes out.  I dare say he
cries and screams when he is locked in."

This answer did not do much to calm John's fears.  After some natural
hesitation at owning himself in the wrong, he said shyly:

"I don't think I care so very much about Lewis after all.  He bullies
just as much as Madge, and doesn't play such amusing games either."

"No, indeed he doesn't!" chimed in Betty eagerly.  "It was much more
amusing before we knew him, and there was no hiding things and being
afraid of being found out.  It doesn't seem right when we are trusted
to go out by ourselves--"

"Oh, I don't know about that!" interrupted John.  "I can't see any harm
in it, not for me at least, because I am a boy, and boys don't stop to
ask whether they may speak to people.  I dare say you and Madge ought
not to have done it, as you are girls.  But," he added, rather less
grandly, "I think I will play with you to-morrow instead of going to
talk to Lewis.  That's to say, I will come if Madge won't be nasty and
disagreeable."

"Of course she won't!  I'll talk to her about it, and she will be right
enough when she hears you are not going to follow Lewis any more!"
cried Betty, rejoicing in the prospect of the good time coming when
they would once more all three play harmoniously together, without the
interference of any mischief-making stranger.



CHAPTER XXI.

OLD GAMES.

It was many weeks since the children had started out in such high
spirits as they did on the following afternoon.  As long as they were
secretly meeting Lewis, there was always a certain mystery about their
doings which, though at first very exciting, soon became oppressive.
They were in the main truthful, straightforward children, and when they
were tempted first to talk to Lewis, and then to promise secrecy about
having done so, they had not foreseen what an amount of concealment
this conduct would give rise to in the future.  Often when chattering
about their doings before Miss Thompson or their parents, references to
Lewis and his wonderful tales nearly slipped out, and the subject had
to be awkwardly changed.  Once or twice questions were asked to which
the children, though they avoided telling downright falsehoods in
reply, yet gave wilfully misleading answers.  And they had been
sufficiently well brought-up for this course of little deceptions to
make them feel thoroughly uncomfortable.

It was a real relief to have done with Lewis and all concealment, and
to be starting off boldly to play their old games, which, though a
little noisy and rough, were admittedly innocent.  Sometimes they were
explorers discovering the source of the Nile; another day they would be
an eager party of adventurers hunting for gold in Australia.  In either
case they carried long sticks and shouted the whole time.  To-day, as
it happened, they were big-game hunters, looking out for giraffes,
elephants, and an occasional lion.  They expected to find them behind
the hay-ricks or in the poultry-yard; failing those likely spots, they
would try the cow-house.

"I hope my new rifle will act to-day," observed Madge, shouldering a
pea-stick with great dignity.  "Last time I was out it missed fire, and
I lost a fine buck in the forest."

This piece of information was received with perfect gravity by the
other children.  The only way to enjoy games properly is to be quite
serious about them.

"I have slain twenty wolves with this spear!" cried John suddenly.

"But that's no reason why you should poke my eye out with it!"
exclaimed Betty, seizing the rough end of a long stick that was being
brandished close to her head.

"Oh, I'm so sorry!  Your cheek is bleeding.  Let's look!" and John
proceeded to examine his handiwork with more apparent interest than
regret.

"It's nothing!  A miss is as good as a mile!" answered Betty
impatiently, as she scrubbed her cheek with a dirty handkerchief.  It
was considered a great breach of etiquette to acknowledge that one was
hurt when playing a game.  At lessons, on the contrary, a little fuss
about a scratch or bruise was allowable, because it took up time which
otherwise would have been devoted to study.

"Hist!  Go gently!  We are tracking the wild boar to his lair!"
muttered Madge.  "Conceal yourselves from view behind the brushwood and
creep after me."

Now, a mere ordinary grown-up person would have been puzzled how to
carry out this order in a field where the grass was only about an inch
long.  He would have looked in vain for any shelter behind which even
to hide his boots; he would in fact have been deplorably dense and
literal.  The three children did not hesitate for a minute.  They
slouched their hats forward over their faces, that being a concealment
behind which it was recognized that no wild boar would be likely to
penetrate; and they bent their knees into a fancied imitation of the
attitude of an Indian on the war-path.  This was the established mode
of attacking a herd of wild animals.

"Halt!  They have caught sight of us!  Make ready your weapons!" cried
Madge in a sort of suppressed shout.  "They are preparing to charge!
Look out!"

If the six black Berkshire pigs lying asleep in the sun under the wall
were really preparing to charge they dissembled their purpose
remarkably well.  Half opening their tiny eyes they blinked lazily at
their assailants, and it was not until they had received several sharp
pokes from the long sticks that they would move from the spot where
they were lying.  Even then they only tottered a few steps farther off,
and sank down again in a great heaving sleepy mass.

"If we threw a few stones at them perhaps they would run?" suggested
John.

"Better not," said Madge; "supposing Barton saw us he would be sure to
say we were hurting them."

"I only meant small ones, of course," answered John; "but I dare say he
would make a fuss and tell Papa some long story, just as he did about
our hunting the cows when we were only trying to catch the calf.  He
always thinks things are so much worse than they are really.  But how
shall we move the pigs without stones?"

Even Madge could not suggest a remedy for the pigs' excessive
drowsiness.  Words, or rather shouts, seemed thrown away upon their
dull ears, and more active interference was impossible with Barton
hovering in the neighbourhood.  The chase threatened to come to a
stand-still, when Betty burst into an agitated war-cry.

"The enemy are upon us!  No, I forgot!  The elephants, I mean!  They
are galloping towards us!  We shall be overwhelmed!"

She waved her stick defiantly as she screamed, in the spirit of one
prepared to perish sooner than surrender.

This time the alarm had sufficient foundation in fact to be very
exciting.  A young heifer, attracted by the noise, and probably
thinking that it had some connection with Barton and hay, set off
trotting across the field, followed at a discreet pace by all the
milking-cows.  In the distance, with the help of a little imagination,
they made quite a formidable array.

"We are outnumbered!  There is no dishonour in flight!" shouted Madge
in the grand phrases gained from books, that were always employed on
these occasions.  "Rush for the fort!" she continued.  "The fort under
the oak-tree!"

The children needed no further instructions.  They had well-established
settlements under several of the trees, consisting of fallen branches
that had been chopped into logs and piled in a heap to remain there
until wanted.  In a few minutes more they were defying elephants and
everything else from the summit of a log-pile fully five feet high,
their backs planted firmly against the solid trunk of the oak-tree.  So
safe did they feel that it was annoying of the cows not to come on
faster, and they took it as nothing short of a direct insult when the
leading heifer, to whom they had all along alluded as a mad bull, gave
up the pursuit and began quietly to eat.

"There's no spirit in anything, elephants or bulls!  I never saw
anything like it!" said Madge in a tone of utter disgust.  "If they
won't run away how can one hunt them?"

"But what is that coming in and out of the farmyard doorway?  It isn't
there always," said John, screwing up his eyes and trying to see across
the field in the blinding sunshine.

"I think it's a dog!  I am almost sure it is," observed Betty
nervously.  "I do hope it is not a mad dog that has strayed in off the
road."

"That's not very likely," laughed Madge.  "There aren't many mad dogs
on the road, in fact I know people are obliged to keep them shut up at
home, or muzzled, or--"

"Yes, I dare say that is the rule.  But suppose this one had escaped
without anybody noticing him?" said Betty, who was very much afraid of
dogs; "and suppose he smelt us out, and followed us down here?"

"Well, I should just pat him on the head," said Madge loftily.  "You
can make friends with any dog if you aren't afraid of him."

"I say!" exclaimed John suddenly.  "It's that brute belonging to the
butcher, that bit the postman.  He is wandering about the field, I can
see him quite plainly.  The butcher must be in the yard talking to
Barton about buying the calf.  I think we had better run back to the
house."  Even the courageous Madge prepared to act on this suggestion.
They had been warned never to go near the butcher's dog, and it really
seemed almost beyond the bounds of sport to wait patiently until he
chose to bite them.

"We will run for the house!" cried Madge, rather enjoying the
excitement.  "Now, off!"

As is often the case, Betty, being the most nervous and anxious to get
away, made a false start, her foot slipped between two logs of wood and
remained firmly jammed.  "Oh stop! stop!" she cried, as the others, not
noticing her misfortune, were hurrying away across the field in the
direction of home.  "I can't get out!  Don't run away!" she wailed
frantically, twisting and tugging at her foot, but only succeeding in
hurting her ankle rather severely.

The large dog, who had up to this time contented himself with sniffing
about at the top of the field near the yard where his master was
standing, being attracted by the noise now began prowling like a wolf
nearer and nearer to the oak-tree.  Betty, looking up from an
ineffectual struggle to roll the logs farther apart, saw him half-way
across the field towards her, and gave a terrific scream.

"What's that?" cried Madge, checking herself and looking back.  "Why,
Betty has never come!  What's the matter?"  While speaking she had
turned and was rushing back towards her younger sister.

"The dog is coming!  Look!  He is coming!" shrieked Betty, almost
frantic with fright.

"I'll keep him off!  Trust me!" gasped Madge, breathless with running,
as she posted herself in front of the logs, waving her stick like a
battle-axe.  Her courage was undeniable, and fortunately her strength
was not put to any proof, as the butcher, hearing terrified cries,
stepped outside the yard and whistled to his dog.

"There! it has turned round!  It is running back to its master!  Barton
is there, so he will take care that it doesn't follow us again.  I dare
say it would not have bitten, though," said Madge soothingly, as Betty
sobbed on her shoulder.

John came up at this moment, and they both tried to push the heavy logs
away, but could not move them an inch, even with all their strength.
At one time it really seemed as if Betty must remain there all night.

"It's no use pulling any more," panted Madge, scarlet from her efforts.
"I shall run up to Papa's workshop and get his little axe.  Then I can
chop away the log enough for her to get out."

Possibly Betty was terrified by the prospect of having an axe wielded
by alarmingly energetic but unskilled hands too near her foot.  At all
events she not only dried her tears at this suggestion, but twisted her
ankle so actively about that it slipped out of the crack as
mysteriously as it had gone in.  There was no harm done, except various
bruises which had been chiefly caused by her efforts to escape.

In spite of some natural disappointment at not having any occasion to
exhibit her powers as a woodcutter, Madge congratulated her sister
heartily on getting loose, and the three children returned towards the
house.  Miss Thompson was looking for them in the garden.  They ran up
to her, concluding that as usual they were late for tea and she had
come to remind them of it.

"For once you are wrong," she said.  "At least it is just tea-time, but
that was not why I was trying to find you.  Now wash your hands, brush
your hair, and go to the schoolroom.  There you will find three
visitors."



CHAPTER XXII.

THE VISITORS.

The children were far quicker than usual in carrying out Miss
Thompson's directions and preparing themselves for tea.  They were
exceedingly curious to see the visitors, who, contrary to all custom,
seemed to have been shown into the school-room instead of the
drawing-room.  And yet they were also a little shy, so that there was
none of the usual crowding at the doorway in trying who should enter
first.  The younger ones very contentedly stood aside and allowed Madge
to take the lead without a murmur.

An elderly person, in a large black velvet bonnet, sat with her back to
the window, a very gaily-dressed little girl standing by her side.  The
children looked vacantly from one to the other, wondering why they had
come.

"Well, Madge!" exclaimed Miss Thompson, "how much longer are you going
to stand there before you speak to Mrs. Winter, who has come all the
way from Churchbury to bring you a present?"

"Of course it's Mrs. Winter!" cried Madge, who had really been
completely mystified by the presence of the best black velvet bonnet,
so unlike the rather shabby straw hat in which Mrs. Winter had helped
to search for the missing brown bag.

"And this is Mrs. Winter's grandchild," continued Miss Thompson.  "Her
name is Ann--"

"Is that Ann?" cried three excited voices; and the children pressed
eagerly forward to have a good look at the little girl who, though
scarcely older than themselves, was frequently left in charge of a real
shop.

Ann was a large solid-looking girl of thirteen, in a red cashmere frock
that was hardly as bright as her plump cheeks.  Her hair had evidently
been plaited very tightly overnight, so that it stood out in a frizzled
mass all round her head.  The whole effect was very large and bright.

"I have brought you a new pet," said Mrs. Winter addressing Madge;
"something you have seen before, but it looks rather different now."
She opened a large basket that was on the floor beside her, and lifted
out a pretty tortoise-shell cat.

"What a love!" cried Madge.  "Is it the kitten we found in the cellar?
But it looks quite big and fat now, only the colour is the same."

"Ah, it's wonderful what care and good feeding will do for any animal!"
observed Mrs. Winter.  "You remember how scared the poor creature was
at first?  Well, now she is so tame that she will sit on my shoulder.
Just see."

While the cat exhibited two or three little tricks, such as standing on
her hind legs to eat a bit of bread, Mrs. Winter explained that she had
always intended to make a present of the pretty creature to the young
lady who had been so frightened by her in the cellar.

"So, this being early-closing day in the town, I borrowed Mrs. Smith's
pony-trap and drove out, bringing little Ann with me for company," she
said.

"And Mrs. West wishes you to rest and have some tea before you return,"
added Miss Thompson.  "So let us all sit down at once, and Pussy shall
have a saucer to herself in the corner of the room."

When tea was finished the children asked permission to show Ann their
gardens, and pick her a bunch of flowers before she returned to the
town.  Mrs. Winter preferred sitting indoors in the shade, until her
grandchild was ready to start.

It must be owned that as long as they were in the schoolroom Ann had
proved disappointingly dull.  Instead of enlightening them on her
method of keeping shop when she was left in sole charge, she sat
stolidly munching cake, and hardly replying when she was spoken to by
Miss Thompson.  In point of fact poor Ann was rendered desperately shy
by being dressed up in all her finest clothes to come on this important
visit.  All the way to Beechgrove her grandmother had been warning her
that she must behave beautifully if they were asked to go inside the
house, and the consequence was that the poor girl was almost afraid to
speak, for fear of saying or doing the wrong thing.  But when once in
the garden her shyness of the young ladies rapidly faded away.

"Do you ever climb trees or sail boats in ditches?" inquired Madge,
when they had at last got on easy conversational terms with their
visitor.

Ann explained that there were only a limited number of trees in
Churchbury, and that the police forbid any interference with them.  "Of
course some of the children sail their boats in the gutters after a
storm," she added; "but Mother wouldn't like us to do that.  She always
makes us keep ourselves to ourselves."

"But here it's quite different!" broke in Madge.  "We do just what we
like, only there is rather a fuss if we tear our clothes very badly.
You might begin on an easy tree."

"Perhaps she would like to see the pigs and cows first?" interposed
Betty, who could not help noticing that their guest showed some natural
reluctance to risk the red cashmere frock among unknown and probably
prickly branches.

Ann had been afraid to say that she did not at all wish to climb trees,
but she eagerly grasped at this chance of a reprieve, and they all set
off towards the pig-sty.  Now the young Wests always regarded the
little farmyard over which Barton presided as far the most interesting
part of Beechgrove.  If their mother had visitors she invariably took
them to see the greenhouses, a dull sort of entertainment, as it seemed
to the children.  Certainly some people would stand for half an hour in
front of a row of pots asking questions and reading the names on wooden
labels.  It seemed incredible that they should derive amusement from
this monotonous performance, so the children concluded that they did it
merely because some such absurd custom was demanded by good manners of
all guests.  Now, looking at the pigs was quite a different affair.
There was some pleasure to be got out of that, and as Ann stood on
tiptoe to peep over the wooden door of the sty they felt convinced that
they were giving her an unusual treat.

Unfortunately, one has to be accustomed to pigs to appreciate them
properly.  When a gigantic old sow was at last lured out of her
sleeping apartment by a shower of acorns, artfully thrown against her
flabby sides, the Wests shrieked with delight because she was followed
by her whole family.

"I never saw them all out before although they are nearly a month old,"
observed Madge, wishing delicately to impress upon the stranger that
she was unusually lucky.

"We never saw them all out before," echoed John.  "You see there are
three in the trough, and one all sticky who has just crawled out, that
makes four.  Then there are five squeezed up in the mud behind the
sow's back and two under her snout, so you can see the whole eleven at
once.  She had thirteen, but two of them were squashed to death the
first day.  Barton found them both flat; he says she must have slept on
top of them by mistake.  Our sows generally do when they have a lot of
children."

"Do you notice that little black one with a white patch under his right
eye?" inquired Betty, feeling that it was now her turn to do the
honours of the pig-sty.  "We call him Spot.  He is such a little love,
only horribly greedy.  That is why he is in such a mess, he will crawl
in the trough and get covered with milk.  Sometimes Barton brings him
outside for us to pat.  I wonder if we could possibly get him for
ourselves if we poked the sow off with sticks so that she shouldn't
push through the door when it is opened?"

"Oh, don't try!  Please don't open the door!" begged Ann.  "I couldn't
bear to have those horrid smelly creatures coming after me.  I know I
should scream if they got loose!"

"Don't you like pigs, then?"  This inquiry came in tones of
astonishment from all three children.

"Like them?  No!  They smell that horrid it quite upsets me!"  Poor
Ann's disgust was so genuine that she quite forgot to speak as
correctly as she had succeeded in doing up to this point.

It was in vain that the Wests pointed out how baby pigs are quite as
pretty as kittens or puppies when they roll playfully over on their
mother's fat sides.  Ann only held her nose and turned away her face;
even when Spot went through the most ridiculous antics, pulling his
little brother Whitey all about the sty by his tail, she expressed no
admiration.

"Well, if you really don't like them I suppose we had better go and see
the cows," said Madge rather impatiently.  It is always disappointing,
and gives very unnecessary trouble, when visitors will not share one's
own tastes.  Madge had relied on the pigs as an enormous attraction to
a town child, and she was proportionately irritated when the
entertainment failed.  "I suppose you don't think cows dirty?" she
asked with elaborate politeness.

No, Ann had no objection to cows.  On the contrary, she knew a milkman
who kept some cows on the outskirts of the town, and she sometimes went
there and had a tumbler of new milk for a treat.  To be sure she felt a
little timid when Madge pushed a cabbage into her hand, and told her to
feed a large red cow with particularly sharp horns.  The children had a
habit of each adopting a cow and feeding it themselves when there were
any cabbages or pea-stalks to spare.  Every cow, of course, had a name.

"That red one is quite new.  She only came on Saturday," observed John.
"So we haven't yet settled who she is to belong to, and that is why you
can feed her.  But we are going to call her Spiteful, because she
shakes her head so crossly and has such very sharp horns."

This was rather a formidable introduction to a cow, and it is not to be
wondered at that Ann soon incurred the scorn of the other children by
dropping her cabbage on the ground and retiring behind the railings.
She afterwards accused Spiteful of having tried to bite her.

"Well, if you don't care for feeding the animals perhaps you would like
to play in the hay-loft?" said Madge with calm patience.

"Oh, yes!  That is just what I should like!" cried Ann eagerly.  A loft
seemed to present fewer possibilities of danger than any of the other
places of amusement to which they had yet taken her.

There was a little difficulty about climbing a ladder out of the yard.
Ann was awkward, and the red cashmere dress being rather long she
continually tripped over it.  But when they had once safely reached the
loft they had a grand game of play among the great heaps of hay and
straw, scattering them untidily all over the neatly-swept floor in a
way that was certain to drive Barton almost wild whenever he discovered
it.

The distant ringing of a large bell at last broke in upon the
children's shouts.

"That is to call us," explained Madge.  "They always ring it when we
are out in the fields and forget tea.  But it can't be tea now because
we have had it.  I expect Mrs. Winter wants to go home."

"Oh, whatever will Grandmama say when she sees my dress!" wailed Ann as
they emerged from the gloom of the loft into full daylight.  "It was
new to go to London," she continued sadly; "and Mother said it would do
to wear on Sundays all through the year."

The red cashmere had indeed suffered sadly.  It bore greasy traces of
having been in contact with the pig-sty door all down its front, and
was also torn in more than one place.  Mrs. Winter was very much
distressed by her grandchild's appearance when they returned to the
house, and scolded her somewhat severely for having behaved in a rough
and unmannerly fashion when out on a visit.  Poor Ann burst into tears,
and was only partially comforted when Miss Thompson took her upstairs
and kindly stitched together the worst of the rents so that she might
not look absolutely ragged on her way home.

When the little pony cart drove away from the door Madge returned
rather thoughtfully to the schoolroom with the tortoise-shell cat in
her arms.

"It seems a curious thing," she said, "that people are not always happy
when you mean them to be.  I thought Ann would like the same things as
we do, and after all she has gone away almost crying, and hasn't
enjoyed herself a bit."

"Another time," answered Miss Thompson, "when you really wish to give
your guests pleasure, you had better consult their tastes instead of
your own.  If you had only considered for a moment, it was not probable
that a town child would be as familiar with animals as you are; and it
was also easy to see that Ann had been dressed in her best clothes for
the afternoon and was afraid of hurting them."

"Perhaps so," said Madge.  "But I always think it's rather stupid of
people who don't like the same things as we do, don't you?"



CHAPTER XXIII.

AN END OF HIDING.

At the earliest opportunity on the following day Madge, Betty, and John
returned to the loft to finish their interrupted game.  They were three
cavaliers hiding from Cromwell's soldiers, and really a better place of
concealment could not have been found than the loft, where by simply
closing a door they were in almost complete darkness.  Madge, as
captain, neglected no opportunity of ensuring the safety of her
followers.  She made them crouch down behind the straw, and lie so
still that even the most sharp-sighted Roundheads would scarcely have
suspected their existence.

"I will steal out to keep watch," she whispered, creeping on her hands
and knees towards the closed door.  "Posted by the crack of the hinges
I can survey the whole country, and watch the march of the rebel troops
without being seen.  Then when--  Oh!"

The door suddenly flew open in her face, almost knocking her over.  A
head appeared at the top of the ladder.  It was Lewis Brand's!

If the children had really been discovered by Cromwell's soldiers they
could hardly have been more frightened.  Lewis had time to step off the
ladder and come into the loft before they recovered themselves
sufficiently to speak.

"You don't seem overjoyed to see a friend?" he remarked sneeringly.

"Oh, do go away!" cried Betty nervously.  "Somebody will see you!  I
know they will!"

"It's very kind of you to be so anxious on my account, but I think I
can take care of myself," said Lewis with a disagreeable laugh.  "You
thought you had all got away from me, did you?  Pretty sort of friends,
I call you!  All going off one day without saying a word, and never
coming back."

"After all, we are not obliged to play with you!" exclaimed Madge with
some spirit.

"Aren't you indeed?  We shall soon see!" replied Lewis.  "I'm not at
all sure that you can get away from me!  I sat on the wall and watched
you come down here after dinner, then I seized my opportunity when
nobody was about, and ran across the fields to join you.  It was worth
seeing how frightened you all were when I quietly stepped in at the
door!  And wherever you go to play I shall turn up in just the same
way.  You see if I don't!"

"What nonsense!  We can play in the garden if we like!" said Madge
defiantly.

"So you can!  And find me hiding in the potting-shed and behind the
cucumber-frames," replied Lewis.

Betty began to cry.  It was not very brave of her, but then she had
been rejoicing so much at getting rid of Lewis and his mysteries, and
was so horribly disappointed when they all returned.

"I won't have you coming back here to tease us all!" cried Madge
angrily.  "I am sorry we ever spoke to you.  It was wrong of us, and I
heartily wish we hadn't.  If you go on--"

"Mind, you promised faithfully not to tell anybody about me,"
interrupted Lewis.  "If you say a single word about my coming over the
wall you will have told a lie."

"Yes, that's the worst of it," admitted Madge.  "And yet it seems just
as untruthful to meet you and pretend we are only playing by ourselves.
Either way it's wrong."

"Very likely," said Lewis carelessly.  "That's your affair.  It's too
late to draw back now."

There was a silence, during which the three Wests heartily repented
their naughty folly in having secretly made such an undesirable
acquaintance.

Presently there was a heavy footstep in the yard below.

"What's that?" whispered Lewis, in a very different voice to the
bullying accents in which he had just been speaking.

"It is Barton driving the cows into the yard to be milked," replied
Madge softly.  "He always does it about this time."

"But how am I to get down the ladder to go home if he is standing at
the bottom?" inquired Lewis nervously.

"I never thought of that!  He will be in the yard for the next hour,"
answered Madge.  "Of course we don't mind passing him, because we are
allowed to play up here; only he doesn't like us making the hay as
untidy as it is now.  But I'm sure you can't get down without being
seen."

"You won't all run away and leave me caught like a rat in a trap, will
you?" begged Lewis, almost whimpering with fright.

"Is it likely?" replied Madge in her finest tone of scorn.  "Stay
quiet," she added with contemptuous kindness, "and we will get you out
of it somehow."

It is in moments of peril that a true leader shines most.  While Lewis
lay cowering behind the straw, and the twins waited expectantly for
some suggestion, Madge calmly looked round the loft and originated a
plan.  "I know how you can get away," she said, after some moments of
earnest thought.  "There is that little door at the back of the loft,
it does not look out into the yard but out upon the hay-ricks, in fact
that is where they put the hay up into the loft.  If you get down that
side Barton can't possibly see you while he is milking the cows in the
yard."

"Oh, that's a capital idea!  I'll go at once!" cried Lewis.  "Not that
I am really afraid of your old man or anybody," he added, with a return
of his customary boastful manner.  "Only I don't want to get you all
into trouble."

"You have become very brave all of a sudden," said Madge, who by this
time heartily despised him for his mixture of bragging and cowardice.
"It's fortunate you are not afraid of anything," she added rather
maliciously, "because you see there is no ladder outside this door, so
you will have to drop down to the ground as best you can."

"It isn't very far, I suppose?" asked Lewis anxiously.  But when the
loft door was at last opened--rather a difficult job to accomplish
quietly, as the hinges were rusty and would creak,--he declared that he
could not possibly get down without a ladder.

"But you must!" exclaimed Madge impatiently.  "It's your only chance of
getting away without being seen."

"I shall be hurt!  I know I shall!" moaned Lewis, as he drew back with
a shiver from the open door.

"It isn't so very far," said Betty encouragingly.  "Not higher than a
room, I think."

Still Lewis hung back.  "Oh, dear Madge," he whined, "couldn't you
manage to carry the ladder round from the yard to the door at the back?"

"Well, if you can't possibly get down without it I will try!" said
Madge desperately.  "Betty and John must come with me, as the ladder is
so long I can't carry it alone.  I am afraid Barton will make a fuss
when he sees us moving it, though."

"Oh no, he won't!  I dare say he won't notice you," asserted Lewis,
only intent on his own safety, and not caring in the least what risks
other people ran on his account.

But in the excitement of the moment the children had raised their
voices rather loudly, and Barton heard them as he milked the cows in
the yard below.

"Now, you young ladies and Master John, you are breaking that straw all
to pieces, I'll be bound!" he shouted.  "I'll be up and see what you
are about directly I've done with this cow, that I will!  Tossing the
hay all over the floor, when it was only put tidy the other day!"

"Will he come up really?" whispered Lewis, white with terror.  "Yes?
Oh, help me to get away!  Help me!"

"I will try," said Madge, once more taking the lead; "but you must do
as I tell you.  Now if you had a rope to hold on to do you think you
could get down to the ground?"

"Yes, I think I could.  But where is the rope?  Please be quick!"

"Of course we can't get a rope here!" answered Madge sharply.  She was
losing all patience with this coward, who only thought of his own
comfort and safety.  However, she had pledged herself to do her best
for him, so she continued: "We will tie all our pocket-handkerchiefs
together.  They will reach a good way towards the ground."

This really seemed an excellent idea, although when it came to be
worked out John could not make any contribution, having left his
handkerchief in the pocket of another coat.  The knots also took up a
terrible amount of material, so that the completed rope was not a very
long affair.

"Do you think it is strong?" asked Lewis nervously.  "And that you can
hold my weight?"

"No fear of that!"  Madge squatted down by the door, Betty held her
firmly by the waist, and John tugged at the back.  "Now we are ready,"
they said.

There was really no excuse for any further delay.  Lewis desperately
seized the end of the knotted handkerchiefs and stood for a moment
irresolute on the edge of the wall.  Then suddenly, thinking he heard
Barton coming behind him, he sprang forward with such a jerk that the
handkerchiefs slipped through his fingers and he fell heavily to the
ground.

"Well, that is his own fault, not ours!" exclaimed Madge.  "We held the
rope tight enough, and if he chose to jump in that silly way nobody
could help it!"  Her indignation, however, gave way to fear, as Lewis
continued to lie motionless on the ground.  "Is he hurt, or only
shamming?" she said.  "Lewis!  Lewis! get up and run home before anyone
sees you!"  Even this appeal produced no effect on the prostrate
figure, and the children became seriously alarmed.

"I don't think he can be pretending," observed Betty; "he would be
afraid to lie there so near the yard.  Besides, he is in such a funny
position."

"I must go down and see what is the matter," said Madge decidedly.
"No, I sha'n't try the handkerchiefs, we have had enough of them, and I
don't think you two really are strong enough to hold me up."  Without
waiting to discuss the matter any further she climbed down the ladder
and ran through the yard.

"Hullo, Miss Madge, where are you off to?" cried old Barton from the
corner of the cow-house.  "Up to some mischief again, I can see by the
pace you are running?  Whatever have you been doing now, I wonder?"

Madge rushed on without answering, and disappeared round the end of the
buildings.  Lewis was still lying in a sort of crumpled-up heap when
she reached him.  He did not attempt to rise or even speak when she
pulled him by the arm.  "I am afraid he must be badly hurt!" she cried
anxiously to Betty and John, who were staring with white frightened
faces from the open door of the loft above.

[Illustration: LEWIS WAS STILL LYING IN A SORT OF CRUMPLED-UP HEAP]

"What shall you do?" they asked.  "Will he get better?  Can we help?"

"It's something too bad for us.  I shall call Barton to look at him,"
replied Madge.  There were exclamations of astonishment from the twins.
"Yes, it's no good trying to keep it a secret about Lewis any longer,"
she said gravely.  "Of course we shall be scolded, but that can't be
helped."

When Barton came he took a very grave view of the case.  "Seems as if
the young gentleman were mortal bad," he said.  "Better run up to the
house and call someone at once.  It's a question if he ever walks home
again, wherever he comes from!"

"Does Barton mean he will die?" asked John in an awestruck whisper as
the three children ran off for help.  Nobody cared to be left behind
with Barton by the side of that still figure on the ground.

"Oh no!  Barton only said that to try and frighten us," answered Madge
with a would-be hopeful air.  But in her heart fear that Lewis was
already dead so overcame all other considerations that she rushed into
the house calling for help without a moment's thought of the blame she
was about to incur.

Fortunately Captain West was at home that afternoon.  He understood at
once that somebody was hurt while doing something in the loft, and
naturally concluded that it was old Barton, whose business it was to
carry down the hay when wanted.

"Did he slip on the ladder?" inquired Captain West as he hurried back
with the children.

"Oh no! getting out of that little square door at the back of the loft.
You see, he was sliding down our handkerchiefs and they slipped--"

"Barton sliding down your handkerchiefs?" repeated Captain West in a
tone of great astonishment.

"No, of course not!" laughed Madge rather hysterically.  "It was
Lewis--that's to say, a boy who came over the wall--when we were in the
Eagle's Nest, you know."

"I don't know in the least what you are talking about," said Captain
West; "but I can see he is badly hurt," he added as they came in sight
of Lewis lying just as he fell, for old Barton had been afraid of
trying to move him alone.

"Look here," began Captain West after a short examination of the
injured boy, "you, Betty, run back to the house and ask your mother to
send for the doctor.  Don't frighten her more than you can help.  John,
go and fetch the gardener as quickly as possible; we must get this poor
boy carried home and properly attended to.  Now, Madge," he added when
the twins had started on their errands, "collect yourself, please, and
speak the truth.  Where does this boy come from?"

"From Mrs. Howard's, over the wall," answered Madge quietly, though she
could not help trembling with excitement.  "He lives with her and is
very cruelly treated, so we began to talk one day when we were in the
Eagle's Nest, and--"

"That will do for the present," interrupted Captain West.  "Now I don't
want any of you here any more.  Go off to the schoolroom and stay there
till bed-time, unless I send for you."



CHAPTER XXIV.

EXPLANATIONS.

After so much excitement it seemed intolerably dull to sit quietly hour
after hour in the schoolroom without knowing what was going on.  Even
Miss Thompson could not attend to them, for she was sitting with their
mother, who happened to be unwell in bed.  The children had time to
talk over and imagine every kind of terrible conclusion to the accident
before their father was ready to come and see them.

"Will he get better?" Madge inquired in a trembling voice as soon as
the door opened.

"Get better?  Yes, I should hope so in every way," answered Captain
West, sitting down and taking the twins gently on his knees, while
Madge hung over the back of his chair.  "It's a bad accident though,"
he continued.  "A broken leg and some injury to the head.  He only
regained consciousness just before I left Mrs. Howard's."

"Oh, what were they doing with him?  I hope they won't lock him into
the cellar now he is ill!" cried Betty compassionately.

"My dear child!  What are you thinking about?  Do we usually lock
people in cellars when they are ill?" laughed her father.  "No, he was
in a remarkably nice bedroom, with a hospital nurse and Dr. Brown in
attendance on him when I left."

Betty felt greatly relieved.  It seemed impossible to believe that much
cruelty would take place in the presence of Dr. Brown, who always
ordered her black-currant tea when she had a cough, and told Nurse to
put as little mustard as possible in the poultices.

"But why should you expect that boy to be ill-treated at home?"
inquired Captain West.  "From what I hear about him I should think it
is much more likely he has been spoilt!"

"Ah! it isn't his real home," explained Betty, "and that Mrs. Howard is
a terrible person."

She was going to add that the old lady had the reputation of being a
witch, but the accusation seemed too absurd to be urged in broad
daylight in the school-room.  So she only mentioned a few of Lewis's
tales about Mrs. Howard's cruelty to him.

Captain West listened for a minute and then fairly burst out laughing.
"Do you really mean that you believed all that?" he said.  "You
seriously thought boys were stolen, and shut up in dark cellars, and
all the rest of it?"

The children hung their heads, suddenly feeling rather ashamed of the
ease with which they had been imposed upon, for they could see that
their father did not believe a word of the horrors.

"But other people beside Lewis Brand have told us that Mrs. Howard is
very dreadful and mysterious," observed Madge, who did not at all like
finding herself quite in the wrong.  "When Mrs. Bunn is weeding the
garden she sometimes tells us what people in the village say--"

"She would be better employed pulling up groundsel!" interrupted
Captain West.  "But what does she tell you about starving boys in
cellars full of black-beetles?"

Madge was bound to admit that she had never heard this particular
accusation against Mrs. Howard from anybody except Lewis.

"But people say she is mad and never will see strangers.  And we have
looked at her over the wall, so we know something about it," she
persisted.

"And you saw a very delicate-looking old lady tottering along and
nodding her head?  Just so.  Now listen to me.  Many years ago poor
Mrs. Howard had a very serious illness, which left her with some
disease of the nerves so that she cannot keep her head still for a
moment.  Ever since then she has shut herself up and avoided seeing
strangers, as she is very shy about her infirmity being noticed.  And I
must say," concluded Captain West, "that I am vexed to think my
children should have tried to pry into what did not in the least
concern them."

"I am sorry we looked at her, if that is the reason she nodded so
funnily to the cows," said Madge.  "But were not any of the stories
Lewis told us true?  About the cellars, and the jailer with the gray
beard?"

"I cannot tell you anything definite about Mrs. Howard's cellars,
except that, judging by the size of the house, they must be very
small," answered Captain West.  "But this I know for a fact.  The boy
Lewis Brand is an orphan with no money of his own, and Mrs. Howard
being an old friend of his parents generously offered to adopt him and
bring him up.  Unfortunately, owing to his mother's long illness, Lewis
was very much neglected as a child, and got into such bad habits that
he has been nothing but an anxiety to his kind friend from the first.
He has already been expelled from two schools, and Mrs. Howard is at
present trying to educate him at home with a tutor--that gentleman with
the gray beard you saw."

"Well, I never heard of such a horrid story-telling boy!" exclaimed
Madge impetuously.  "And so ungrateful too!  But why should he have
told such dreadful untruths about Mrs. Howard?"

"To frighten you, I expect," replied Captain West.  "The reason they
would not keep him at school was because he would tease and frighten
the younger boys.  He seems a born bully."

"And a great coward into the bargain!" added Madge.  "You should have
seen how frightened--"

"I dare say!" interrupted her father.  "The two things generally go
together.  His only excuse is that he was badly trained when young.
However, you will probably admit that in future it will be wiser to let
us choose your friends for you?"

The children had no answer to make.  They were thoroughly ashamed of
themselves.  When their father left the room they began to discuss the
subject in all its bearings.

"I don't want to abuse Lewis as he is ill," said Madge.  "That would be
mean.  But I must tell you both something very suspicious that
happened.  When I was standing by him just after he fell from the loft
I happened to step on something hard.  I stooped to see what it was,
picked it up, and here it is!"

"One of my marbles!" cried John.  "One of those I lost out of the
treasure-house!  I am quite sure it is, because of the funny red mark I
painted myself on the side."

"You did it with my new paints," chimed in Betty.

"But how did the marble come there?" asked John, much bewildered, but
holding tightly on to his newly-recovered treasure for fear it should
again disappear.

"Well, of course I can't tell for certain," said Madge.  "I can only
guess.  But it seems as if it must have fallen out of Lewis's pocket."

"Then you think he took our things out of the treasure-hole?" cried
Betty.  "He never could have been so wicked as to steal them, and then
come pretending he was so sorry for our loss and wondering where they
had gone!"

"Perhaps he didn't actually mean to steal them, only to tease us,"
suggested Madge.  "And I feel sure now that he took the rope-ladder,"
she continued.  "You know he pretended at the time that he couldn't get
up the wall without it; but that was only to deceive us.  He had those
iron railings for ladders, though he said nothing about them until
later."

"Oh, Madge!" exclaimed the twins.  They could think of nothing else to
say.  The contemplation of such deliberate perfidy was too
overpowering.  The more they recalled Lewis's dark hints and malicious
suggestions about other people, the more disgusted they felt with him,
and the more vexed with themselves for having been so completely
deceived.  "We might have known there was something wrong when he made
us promise not to say anything about him!" they said.  "Never again
will we have a secret friend!"

Captain West went several times to see Lewis during his long illness,
and did his best to make the unfortunate boy understand the reason why
he was an unfit companion for other children.  At first Lewis seemed to
regard his untruths and deceptions merely in the light of very clever
jokes; but gradually some faint sense of shame appeared to steal over
him, though whether on account of his faults or only because they had
been discovered, Captain West could not very well make out.

"What will become of Lewis Brand?" asked the children one day when
their father had just returned from visiting him.

"Directly he is well enough to walk he is going to live with a
gentleman who has great experience with boys, and who will do his best
to counteract the faults that you all find so shameful in Lewis," said
Captain West.  "But in justice to the poor boy I must add one thing.
He was much neglected as a little child, and had none of the advantages
of an affectionate and careful training.  Now, in proportion to his
opportunities, perhaps he did not behave worse than certain children
who, with no excuses at all, tried to deceive--"

"Do you mean us?" interrupted Madge, with a very red face.  She did not
at all appreciate being compared in any way with Lewis, for whose
conduct she felt great contempt.  And yet there was a certain element
of truth in her father's words that could not be ignored.

"Well, we will say no more about that," continued Captain West
cheerfully.  "I think after what has happened I can trust you all not
to embark again on secret friendships with strangers?"

"No!  Indeed we will not!" cried the three children.  And they kept
their resolution.





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