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   Chapter 2 A NIGHT SCARE.

Dick and Brownie By Mabel Quiller-Couch Characters: 18597

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04

Silence! Seconds passed, to Huldah they seemed endless, her heart, which at first had beat furiously, quieted down until it seemed scarcely to beat at all. Save for the good-night calls of the birds, and the sad mooing of a cow in a field not far away, the silence remained unbroken.

"Perhaps I didn't knock loud enough," thought Huldah, "or whoever's inside may be gone to sleep."

If her plight had been less desperate, she would never have had the courage to knock again, but she felt ill and exhausted and frightened, and something seemed to tell her that here she might find help. So, after waiting a little longer, she screwed up her courage again, and rapped once more, this time more loudly; and this time, at any rate, her knock called forth response. There were sounds of hasty shuffling steps across the floor, and then a voice, old and evidently trembling, called through the door, "Who is there?"

Huldah was puzzled how to answer. If she were to say "me," it would be only foolish, while if she called back, "I am Huldah Bate," her hearer would not know who Huldah Bate was. However, she had to say something, so she called back pleadingly, "I am a little girl, Huldah Bate, and please, ma'am, I'm starving, and-and please open the door. I can't hurt you, I am too little."

It was her voice even more than her words which induced Martha Perry to open her door to the suppliant. It was such a childish voice, and so weak, and pleading, and tired. So the bolts were drawn back, and the door was opened. It was only opened a few inches, but wide enough to let out a stream of light, which brought some comfort and hope to the child's heart and the dog's heart. Huldah stepped forward into the light to show herself.

"You are sure you 'aven't got anybody with you?" asked the woman, with nervous suspicion.

"No, ma'am, no one but Dick."

"Who's Dick?" hastily pushing the door close, in her alarm.

"Dick's my dog. He-he followed me. He's starving, too," and a sob broke from Huldah's throat. "We wouldn't hurt you, ma'am, for anything; we couldn't, we're dead-beat. I haven't had anything to eat since yesterday, and we've come miles and miles. I don't want to come in, ma'am," she pleaded, more and more eagerly, as the door remained rigidly closed, except for about three inches. "If only you'll give us a bit of bread. I haven't got any money, but I'll give you one of my baskets for it. Oh, please, ma'am, don't turn us away!" The tears began to rain down her thin white cheeks. She had borne all that she could bear, and she had not the strength to keep them back any longer.

Dick, who could never bear to see his little mistress crying, pushed himself forward; first he licked Huldah's hand, and then seated himself in front of her, as though to protect her from the ogress who made her cry. Something in the ogress's face, though, told Dick that she was not a real ogress, and he looked up at her with a world of pleading in his big brown eyes, and his long tail waving coaxingly.

"Poor doggie!" exclaimed the ogress. "Poor Dick, are you hungry, too? You do look tired and thin. Yes, you shall come in;" and the narrow stream of light became a wide river, which broke over the pair and surrounding them drew them in, until they found themselves safely landed in the cosiest little kitchen Huldah had ever seen.

It was really a very humble little kitchen, with signs of poverty everywhere, but to Huldah it was a palace. It was spotlessly clean, and as neat as a new pin, and to a child who had spent the greater part of her life in a dirty, untidy caravan, this was a sign of superiority, even of luxury.

To Dick the cleanness and neatness meant nothing, the rag mat before the hearth was the most luxurious thing he had ever seen in the whole of his life, and he stretched his lanky aching body on it with a deep sigh of perfect bliss, and promptly fell asleep.

Huldah and old Mrs. Perry meanwhile stood in the middle of the kitchen surveying each other.

"Sit down, child," said Martha, at last, "you look fit to drop."

She spoke brusquely but not unkindly.

"Thank you, ma'am," said Huldah, gratefully, and perched herself, with a long-drawn breath of excitement, on the edge of the hard chair nearest the door.

"Not there. Go and sit in the arm-chair by the fire-place.

Would you like a cup of tea?"

"Oh!" gasped Huldah, almost too delighted to be able to find words to answer with. There was more pleasure, though, in her tone than any number of words could have conveyed.

"The kettle is on the boil. I was just going to have a cup myself, before I went to bed."

"Oh, thank you, ma'am!" gasped Huldah, feebly, but again with a world of gratitude in her tone.

"Put down your load for a time, then, and rest your arms." Then, as her eyes fell on the baskets the child had been carrying, "Was it one of those you offered me for a bit of bread?"

"Yes, ma'am," answered Huldah, shyly.

"Well, you meant well, I don't doubt, but those baskets are worth more than a bit of bread. They ought to sell for eighteenpence or two shillings each, I should say."

"Yes, ma'am, Aunt Emma always asks half-a-crown, and then comes down to two shillings or eighteenpence," said Huldah, innocently.

"Who's Aunt Emma?"

Huldah hesitated a moment, somewhat at a loss how to explain. "She isn't my real aunt, though I calls her so. She and Uncle Tom ain't any relation to me really. They're called Smith, and my name is Huldah Bate; but when mother died-"

"Haven't you got any mother?"

"No, ma'am, and father is dead too. He died when I was too little to remember, and mother earned her living by making baskets, and when I was big enough she taught me."

"How long ago did your mother die?" asked Mrs. Perry, more gently.

"Two years, ma'am, and when she died Aunt Emma and Uncle Tom said I was to go and live with them. They said mother had said I was to."

"Um! Did your mother think so much of them, then?"

"No, ma'am. They was always too rough for mother, they drinks a lot, and-and swears terrible, and they'm always fighting."

"I wonder at your mother leaving you to such people to be took care of."

"I don't believe mother ever did," said Huldah, "she never told me so, anyway," and she burst into bitter sobs; "but there wasn't anybody else there, and they told the parish orf'cer that I was their little girl, and then they went away as fast as they could, and took me with them."

"Are they kind to you?"

"They beat me-they're always beating me, or Dick, or Charlie,- Charlie is the old horse that draws the van,-and I'd sooner be beaten myself than see them being knocked about. We don't ever get enough to eat, but that isn't so bad as the beatings."

"Poor child! You both look as if you had never had enough to eat in your lives. Did they make baskets too?"

"No, ma'am, they can't. They make clothes-pegs, and they sell brushes and mats, but my baskets brought them in as much as a pound a week sometimes, and oh!" and she gasped at the thought, "Uncle Tom will be angry, when he finds I don't come back!" and her eyes were full of terror as she thought of his passion.

Mrs. Perry disappeared into the little scullery behind the kitchen, and opened the door of the safe where she kept her scanty store of food. There was very little in it but a ham-bone, a few eggs, a loaf of bread, and a tiny bit of butter. The bone she had, earlier in the day, decided would make her some pea-soup for to-morrow's dinner, but she thought of poor Dick and his hollow sides, and came to the conclusion that her soup would taste just as good without the bone; and Dick, when he really grasped the fact that the whole of the big bone was really meant for him, soon showed her that no ham-bone in the world had ever given more complete satisfaction.

"Could you eat an egg?"

Huldah stared blankly at her hostess. She could not at first realise that the question was meant for her. "An egg! Me! Oh, yes, ma'am, but I don't want anything so-so good as that." She could have eaten anything, no matter how plain, or poor, or unappetizing. But an egg! One of the greatest luxuries she had ever tasted. "A bit of dry bread will be plenty good enough. Eggs cost a lot, and-and-"

"My hens lay eggs for me in plenty. I don't ever have to buy one," said the old woman, proudly. "I've got some fine hens."

"Do you keep a farm, ma'am?"

Mrs. Perry smiled and sighed. "No, child; a few hens don't make a farm. I had a cow at one time, but all that's left is the house she lived in. Now, draw over to the table and have your supper."

At any other time Huldah would have been shy of eating before a stranger, for in the caravan good manners were only a subject for sneers and laughter, and she remembered enough of her mother's teaching to know how shocking to ordinary eyes Mr. and Mrs. Smith's behaviour would have seemed. To-night, though, she was too ravenously hungry for shyness to have much play. She tried to remember all she could of what her mother had taught her, and got through fairly creditably.

"Now," said Mrs. Perry, when that wonderful, glorious meal was at last ended, "where did you think of going for the night?"

"I don't know," sighed Huldah, wistfully. "I hadn't th

ought of anywhere perticler. I daresay there's a rick or a hedge we can lay down under. I don't mind where I go, so long as Uncle Tom don't find us."

"Well, I can't give you a bed here. I've only this room and my bedroom, and-and-" Mrs. Perry did not like to explain that she was too nervous, and too doubtful of Huldah's honesty to leave her alone in the kitchen, while she herself went to bed and to sleep. To her mind all gipsies, and all gipsy children, were thieves, and though she was interested in Huldah, and felt very sorry for her, she had, after all, only known her about an hour, and knew nothing of her past history. In her heart she could not as yet believe all her story, or bring herself to trust her.

The child instinctively felt something of this distrust, and it hurt her. Her eyes filled, but she forced back the tears, and spoke out bravely.

"I shall do all right, thank you, ma'am. We'll be going on again, now. I ain't afraid of nothing when I've got Dick with me, and-and thank you, ma'am, for all you've given us; but I wish you'd 'ave one of my baskets, ma'am, please! I can easy make another, and I'd be glad if you would, please, ma'am."

Mrs. Perry felt a prick of conscience, and her heart melted. She could see that the child's feelings were hurt, and that her self-respect made her anxious to pay for all they had received.

"If you wouldn't mind sleeping in the barn in the garden, you and your dog, you're welcome. It's as clean as can be, and there's plenty of nice straw there, to make a comfortable bed for you. You'd be under shelter there, and if so be as your uncle should come this way, he'd never find you there."

Instead of conferring a favour, she found herself almost asking the child to stay, and to Huldah the temptation was too great to be resisted. To be safe from her uncle! She felt she could bear anything, if she could only for a few hours feel quite safe. She was so tired, too, so dead-tired, she did not know, in spite of her brave words, how she could possibly drag her weary body a step further.

A few moments later the front-door had been securely bolted, and Mrs. Perry, lantern in hand, was conducting her two strange visitors out of the back door and down the garden.

"That's the fowls' house," she explained, flashing her lantern over the door of the little building as they passed it, "and here is the barn."

She opened the door, and threw the lantern light all over the wooden shed. It was spotlessly clean, and sweet with the smell of the straw which was scattered about one end of it. There were some bundles and some loose straw lying on the ground. Huldah sank down on one of the bundles with a little cry of relief, while Dick burrowed delightedly in the loose straw.

"You won't be afraid, you think?"

"No, ma'am, thank you, not with Dick," she answered, bravely.

She did not feel quite so brave, though, when the light had gone, and she heard the house-door bolted, and found herself and Dick shut in alone in the dark in that great empty strange place. She did wish that Mrs. Perry had seen fit to leave them the lantern. Rats loved straw, Huldah knew, so did mice, and she was dreadfully afraid of both. The moonlight shone in through the sides of the barn, and Huldah had a feeling that eyes were at all the chinks, watching her.

To try to forget the rats and mice and not to see the eyes, she nestled down in the straw, with one bundle at her head and another at her back, and hoped she would soon fall asleep and forget everything. But though she was so tired, or, perhaps, because she was overtired, sleep when it did come was not sound or pleasant. Every time Dick rustled the straw, she awoke. Every time a bird called or an owl hooted, she started up wide awake. She woke once from a dream of her uncle, with, as she thought, his voice echoing in her ear. Another time she felt certain he was banging at the barn door, trying to get in, to beat her and Dick, and take them both back.

"Oh, I wish it was morning!" she sighed, and sat up on her straw bed, to see if daylight was beginning to dawn yet.

But all was dark still; even the moon had gone. She was just about to lie wearily down again, when a real, not a dream sound, caught her ear. The sound of nailed boots on stones, and stealthy footsteps.

"It really is someone climbing the wall and coming up the garden," she thought to herself, and her mouth and throat grew dry with terror, and her heart beat suffocatingly. "Dick!" she gasped, in a low voice. "Dick, they're coming, they've found us. Listen!"

Dick raised himself on his haunches, with his ears cocked. Huldah was seized with sudden fear that he would growl, and so betray their hiding-place, for her uncle would recognise Dick's growl in a moment. She laid her hand on his collar firmly. "Quiet!" she commanded, firmly, and knew that he would obey. She tried to peer out through the chinks, but it was hard to move without rustling the straw, and all without was black as pitch.

Then suddenly, quite close to her on the other side of the planking, sounded a whisper, and Huldah never knew afterwards whether she was most frightened or relieved-frightened by the nearness of somebody, or relieved that the somebody was not her "uncle."

"Bill, where's the sack?" the voice asked, impatiently.

"I dunno!" answered another voice, sourly. "You had it. I've cut my knee on that there wall; I can feel the blood running down my leg."

"You always manages to do something," was all the sympathy Bill got. "We've got to 'ave the sack, so you'd better find it. How're we to carry the birds without it? In our hats?"

"It's the fowls!" thought Huldah, thrilling with excitement. "They're going to steal the fowls. Oh, they shan't! The lady'll think it's me. Oh, what can I do? How can I tell her? I must stop them, somehow!"

Bill had gone back in search of the sack, and the other thief stood waiting for him. Huldah had time to think, but no plan came to her. She did not know her way, nor where to turn for help; and if she screamed, they would only find her out, and knock her about. They would steal the fowls all the same. A slight movement beside her recalled her thoughts, and sent her spirits up with a bound. "Dick! why, of course Dick would help her!"

Quick as thought she crept to the door, and with one hand on Dick's collar she gently raised the latch with the other. Bill had evidently found the sack, for the thieves were together again; she heard them whispering. One even seemed to be already fumbling with the latch of the fowls' house door.

"Quick, Dick, catch them!" she whispered, excitedly. "Go for them, Dick! bring them down!" With one fierce yelp Dick was out of her grasp and out of her sight.

It had all happened so swiftly that the thieves were bewildered, dazed, and frightened almost beyond power of speech or movement. They had heard nothing, and certainly had expected nothing, yet suddenly, from somewhere quite near by, came a voice, and out of the darkness came a large dog bounding upon them, growling savagely. For a second they were too frightened to move; then, with an oath, they dashed across the garden, making for the wall they had come over. Fast though they went, Dick was after them and on them, and Bob, as well as Bill, knew what it was to feel blood trickling down his leg. Bob yelled, Bill groaned, Dick growled and snarled and barked furiously with excitement. The frightened hens, startled by the hubbub, added their share to the uproar.

In the cottage a curtain was drawn back quickly from a window, and a white frightened face stared out. Huldah caught sight of it, and coming out of the shelter of the barn, raced eagerly along the path to the house.

"It's all right," she cried, panting. "It's all right, ma'am, some fellows come stealing your fowls, but Dick's after them."

Dick was after them, but he could not capture them; he was but a young dog, and the enemy was two to one. A heavy kick sent him rolling over, just as the thieves reached the wall, and before he could pick himself up again they were over it, and making good their escape.

At the sound of Dick's cry Huldah went flying back to the spot whence the sound came. "Oh, Dick, Dick, what have they done!" she cried, terrified.

Dick, though, was not one to make a fuss about anything. Kicks he was well accustomed to. Men, according to his experience, were given to kicking. Limping heavily, but mightily pleased with his fray, he came running up to her. Huldah knelt down in the path beside him, and hugged him to her. "Oh, Dick!" she cried, anxiously, passing her little hand over him to feel for any hurt. "Poor Dick, you are always getting knocked about by somebody!"

But Dick was far less concerned than she was. All that really troubled him was that his enemies had escaped him, and had got off so lightly.

"Huldah! Huldah!" called a frightened voice from the doorway. "Whatever is happening? Oh, do come in, child, and bring Dick. I am terrified to be left alone! Come in, both of you, and shut the door;" and at the sound of her voice Dick gave up his frantic search for his enemies, and limped quickly back. When the lady who gave him the ham-bone called, she must never be kept waiting!

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