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   Chapter 1 THE ESCAPE.

Dick and Brownie By Mabel Quiller-Couch Characters: 15781

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


The summer sun blazed down scorchingly on the white road, on the wide stretch of moorland in the distance, and on the little coppice which grew not far from the road.

The only shady spot for miles, it seemed, was that one under the trees in the little coppice, where the caravan stood; but even there the heat was stifling, and the smell of hot blistering varnish mingled with the faint scent of honeysuckle and dog-roses.

Not a sound broke the stillness, for even the birds had been driven to shelter and to silence, and except for the rabbits very few other live things lived about there, to make any sounds. That afternoon there were four other live things in the coppice, but they too were silent, for they were wrapped in deep sleep. The four were a man and a woman, a horse and a dog, and of all the things in that stretch of country they were the most unlovely. The man and the woman were dirty, untidy, red-faced and coarse. Even in their sleep their faces looked cruel and sullen. The old horse standing patiently by, with drooping head and hopeless, patient eyes, looked starved and weak. His poor body was so thin that the bones seemed ready to push through the skin, on which showed the marks of the blows he had received that morning. The fourth creature there was a dog, as thin as the horse, but younger, a lank, yellow, ugly, big-bodied dog, with a clever head, bright, speaking brown eyes, and as keen a nose for scent as any dog ever born possessed.

The brown eyes had been closed for a while in slumber, but presently they opened alertly; a fly had bitten his nose, and the owner of the nose got up to catch the fly. This done, he looked around him. He looked with drooped ears and tail at the sleeping man and woman, with ears a little raised at the old horse, and then with both ears and tail alertly cocked he looked about him eagerly, even anxiously. A second later he was leaping up the steps and into the caravan; but in less than a minute he was out again, leaping over the steps at the other end, and out to the edge of the coppice. What he was in search of was not in the van, or under it, or anywhere near it.

The dog did not whine, or make a sound. He knew better than that. A whine would have brought a heavy boot flying through the air at him, or a stick across his back, or a kick in the ribs, if he were foolish enough to go within reach of a foot. With his long nose to the ground he stepped delicately to the edge of the coppice, then stood still looking about him, his brown eyes full of wistful anxiety.

He looked to the right, he looked to the left, he listened eagerly, then he stepped back to the van again. This time he found something. It was only a clue, but it sent his spirits up again, and with his nose to the ground he came quickly back to the edge of the little wood and beyond it; then, evidently satisfied, he took to his heels and raced away with a joy which almost forced a yelp of triumph from his throat.

The old horse raised his head and looked after the dog wistfully. "If only I were as young and fleet, and able to get away as quietly!" he thought longingly, and sighed a sigh which made his thin sides heave painfully. Then his head drooped again, even more sadly than before, and he closed his eyes patiently once more. He loved the lank yellow dog. Next to little Huldah he loved him better than anything in the world. It hurt him as much or more to hear the stick raining blows on them as it did to feel it on his own poor battered body, for his poor skin was hardened, but his feelings were not.

On each side of the wide road which ran past the coppice and away from it were sunk ditches and high hedges, separating it from a bit of wild moorland, which stretched away on either side as far as eye could see. Here and there in the hedges were gaps, through which a person or an animal could pass from the road to the moor, and back again. To Dick, who did not understand it, this was very bewildering. Ahead of him a black shadow would flit for a moment, dark against the dazzling white road, then it would disappear. It moved so swiftly and so close to the ground, that if it had not been for the scent he might have thought it was some animal dodging about among the ditches and dry grasses. Dick could not know that when it had slipped through a gap in the hedge it became, instead of a shadow, a solid little dingy brown figure.

Dick was puzzled. He was sure that Huldah was on ahead of him somewhere, and he was very sure that he wanted her, but he was not at all sure where she was, or that she wanted him; and there are times in the lives of caravan dogs when they are not wanted, and are made to know it. Dick had learnt that fact, but he wanted Huldah, and he could not help feeling that she wanted him. It was very seldom that she did not.

So he followed along slowly, keeping at a safe distance, his eyes and his senses all on the alert to find out if that shadow ahead of him was really his little mistress, or what it was-and if she would be angry if he ran after her and joined her.

For a mile, for two miles, they went on like this, then the moor ended, and roads and fields and houses came in sight. The black shadow, which was really a little brown girl, stood for a moment under the shelter of the hedge and looked hurriedly about her. "Which'll be the safest way to go?" she gasped to herself, and wished her heart would not thump so hard, for it made her tremble so that she could hardly stand or move. She shaded her eyes with her little sun-burnt hand and looked about her anxiously.

"They'd be certain sure to take the van along the main road," she said to herself; "and anyway somebody might see me, and tell 'im. He's sure to ask everybody if they've seen me." A sob caught in her throat, and tears came very near her eyes. She had often and often thought of running away, but had never before had the courage and the opportunity at the same time, and now that she had got both, and had seized them, she was horribly frightened.

She was not so frightened by the prospect of want and loneliness and uncertainty which lay before her, as she was by the thought of being caught, and taken back again. The risk of capture after this bold step of hers, and what would follow, were so terrible that the mere thought of them made her turn off the high road at a run, and dash into the nearest lane she came to. She had the sense to choose one on the opposite side of the road, lest she should find herself back on the moor again. A moor was so treacherous, there was no shelter, and one never knew when one would be pounced on. There was no shelter either, no food, no house, no safe hiding-place, and of course there was no chance of finding a friend there, who might take pity on her.

The lane she dashed into so blindly was a steep one, it led up, and up, and up, but the hedges were so high she could not see anything beyond them. They shut out all the air too, and the heat was quite stifling, her poor thin little face grew scarlet, the perspiration ran off her brow in heavy drops. She picked up her apron at last, to wipe them away, and then it was she found the bundle of raffia and the two or three baskets she had brought out to sell, when the thought had come to her that she would never go back any more-that here was the chance she had longed for. Now, when she noticed the baskets for the first time, her heart beat faster than ever, for she could well picture the rage there would be, when it was discovered that not only had she run away, but had taken with her two baskets ready for sale!

"They are mine! I made them," she gasped, nervously, "and I left some behind!" but her alarm put fresh energy into her tired feet, and, in spite of the heat and her weariness, she ran, and ran madly, she did not know or care whither, as long as she got lost.

Wherever she saw a way, she took it; the more winding it was the better. Anything rather than keep to a straight, direct road that they could trace.

At one moment she thought of hiding away her baskets and raffia, but she was very, very hungry by this time, and with the baskets lay her only chance of being able to buy food, and oh, she needed food badly. She needed it so much that at last, from sheer exhaustion, she had to stop and lie down on the ground to recover herself.

It was then that Huldah first caught sight of Dick. All the way she had gone, he had followed her at a distance, careful never to get too close, cautiously keeping well out of sight, running when she ran, drawing back and half-concealing himself when she slackened her pace, and there was a likelihood of her looking around. Now at last, though, they had come to moorland again, with only a big boulder here and there for shelter, and when Huldah suddenly fell down, exhausted, Dick, in his fright at seeing her lying on the ground motionless, forgot all about hiding away. Everything but concern for his little mistress went out of his head. Huldah, lying flat on the ground with her head resting on her outstretched arm, her face turned away from the pitiless sun, saw nothing. She did not want to see anything; the desolateness of the great bare stretch of land frightened her. She felt terribly frightened, and terribly lonely. Should she die here, she wondered, alone! At the prospect a sob broke from her.

To poor Dick, who had crept up so close that he stood beside her, this was too much. At the sound of her distress he was so overcome, he could no longer keep his feelings under restraint. A bark broke from him, eager, coaxing, half frightened; then, repentant and ashamed, he thrust his hot nose into Huldah's hand, and licked it apologetically.

Weary, dead-beat as she was, Huldah sprang up into a sitting position. "Dick!" she cried, "oh, Dick! How did you come here? Oh, I am so glad, so glad!" and flinging her arms round his long yellow neck she burst into happy tears. Dick was delighted. Instead of being scolded, he was petted, and his little mistress was plainly glad to see him. He was as hungry as she was, and very nearly as tired, but nothing mattered to him now.

"Oh, Dick, how did you come? and, oh, won't they beat us if they catch us! and-and oh, I hope they won't beat poor old Charlie worse than ever, because they are angry. Oh, I do wish Charlie was here too. Poor old Charlie! he will be so lonely."

Dick wagged his tail and looked about him. Perhaps he was thinking that Charlie might have been able to find something to eat in that bare spot, but that it was more than they could. Huldah realised this too, and with a sigh she scrambled on to her aching feet again. She must find somebody to help them-a house and food of some kind.

"You shall lead the way this time, Dick. You are clever, and can scent things out. You'll know which way to go to find houses."

It took Dick a little while to understand that he was expected to run ahead now, not to follow, and indeed it is doubtful if he did understand it, but a rabbit popping up ahead of them at that moment drew him on, and Huldah more slowly followed. It was a very zig-zag way that Dick took them, for he was intent on finding rabbits, not houses, but, fortunately, it led them at last to a house, too.

The sun was going down in a crimson glory, and a mistiness was creeping up over the land on all sides, when, to her great relief, Huldah saw the welcome sight of smoke rising out of chimneys, then other signs of life, and presently came to a farm standing in the middle of a large yard. The yard seemed very full of animals, and where there were no animals there were hay-ricks and corn, and empty upturned carts and waggons.

It was a lonely-looking place in that evening light, and the melancholy mooing of the cows, the good-night cluckings of the hens, the bleating of the sheep, seemed to add to the desolateness. As Huldah and Dick drew nearer, another and more terrifying sound arose, and that was the barking of dogs. Dogs sprang up from everywhere, or so it seemed to poor little Huldah, and, forgetting the coming night, her hunger and everything else, she fled from the place, shrieking to Dick to follow her.

Fortunately, Dick obeyed. Hunger and tiredness had taken most of his spirit out of him, or he could never have resisted such an opportunity for a fight; the enemy numbered six to one, too, not to speak of the farmer, who was armed with a long whip, and two or three workmen, who were well provided with sticks or pitchforks, and hungry, footsore Dick did not at that moment feel equal to facing them all, and doing himself justice. So, with an impudent flick of his tail he followed Huldah, with the air of one who would not deign to fight mere farm-dogs.

It was a very weary, dejected pair, though, that at last stopped running, and summoned courage to stand and look about them once more; and the fright had so shaken Huldah's courage that when presently she caught sight of more smoking chimneys, and a group of little grey stone houses, and other signs of life not far ahead of them, she felt almost more sorry than glad.

When she came closer, and found the village street full of people, she felt decidedly sorry, and wished wildly that she had gone any other way, and so avoided them.

After the terrible heat of the day, men, women and children had all turned out of their close, stifling cottages, and were sitting or lounging about on doorstep or pavement, enjoying the coolness of the evening air; and, having nothing to do and little to talk about, and not much to look at, they naturally took a great interest in the odd-looking pair which came suddenly into their midst. The dusty, shabby little girl and the lanky yellow dog.

Huldah did not appreciate their interest. She felt ill with nervousness, when she saw all the eyes turned towards her, and, she longed to be out on the moor again,-anywhere, lost, hungry, lonely, tired, rather than under this fire of eyes. She had wanted very much to try to sell one of her baskets, that she might be able to buy some bread, but the staring people daunted her. She felt she could not have stopped and spoken to one of them, or have offered her wares, to have saved her life. It was all she could do to drag her trembling limbs past them, and out of their sight.

The end of the street was reached at last, though the cottages grew more and more scattered, then stopped altogether, and the pair found themselves alone once more. Poor Dick was by this time past doing anything but plod wearily along, his tail down, his ears drooping, his tongue hanging out. Huldah herself was in a half-dazed state, she scarcely knew where she was, or what she was doing. She plodded on and on mechanically, every step becoming harder, every yard a greater tax on her. She had almost given up hope, and decided to lie down under a hedge for the night, when her dim eyes were attracted by a light which suddenly shone out on the darkness, down a little lane on her right.

She paused in her walk, and stood gazing at it longingly. To the exhausted, lonely, frightened child it seemed a beautiful sight. It was like a friendly smile, a kindly welcome reaching out to her in her hopelessness.

"I will go and ask them to help me," she thought, dully. "They won't kill me; perhaps they'll give me a bit of bread for one of my baskets. They won't call the p'lice so late as this."

Dick looked up at her and obediently followed. It was all one to him where he went. He had no hopes and no fears, he was better off than poor Huldah in that respect, but he roused to renewed interest and expectation when his little mistress stopped before a cottage, and walking timidly up the garden, knocked at the front door.

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