Chapter 24 | Through a Knot-Hole | !Tention

Chapter Twenty Four.

“Yes, what is it?” cried Pen, starting up on the bed at a touch from his companion, who had laid his hand gently on the sleeping lad’s forehead, and then sinking back again with a faint ejaculation of pain.

“Don’t be scared, comrade; it’s only me. Does it hurt you?”

“Yes, my leg’s horribly stiff and painful.”

“Poor chap! Never mind. I will bathe it and dress it by-and-by if that old priest don’t do it. When you jumped up like that I thought you fancied it was the French coming.”

“I did, Punch,” said Pen with a faint smile. “I seem to have been dreaming all night that they were after us, and I could not get away because my leg hurt me so.”

“Then lie down again,” said Punch. “Things ain’t so bad as that. But, I say, comrade, I can’t help it; I am as bad as ever again.”

“Bad! Your wound?”

“No, no; that’s getting all right. But that old chap seems to have shut us up here and gone. Didn’t happen to see, did you, where he put the bread and onions? I am quite hollow inside.”

“No, Punch. I fell asleep, and I can’t recollect how or when.”

“That’s a pity, ’cause I know we should be welcome, and I can’t make out where he put the forage when he cleared away.”

It was the sunrise of a bright morning, and the sounds of bleating goats came plainly to the listeners’ ears as the nimble animals were making their way up the valley-side to their pasture.

Then all at once came the sharp creak of a board, and Punch dashed at his musket, caught it up, cocked it, and stood ready to use it in defence of his companion.

There was another creak or two, evidently from overhead, and as Punch stood there on the alert, his brows knit and teeth clenched, Pen softly stole his hand in the direction of his own musket and raised himself up on the bed ready to help.

Again there came a creak or two, a rustling in the corner of the room as of some one descending from above, and, though invisible, the muzzles of the two pieces were slowly lowered in the direction of the noise, till with a crack the door in the corner was thrust inward and the little old priest stood looking wonderingly from one to the other as he raised his hand.

It was as if this were a signal to disarm, when the two muskets were hurriedly replaced, and Punch advanced towards the corner of the room, offering to shake hands.

The priest smiled, took the boy’s fingers, and then, thrusting to the door, he crossed to the bed, felt Pen’s forehead, and afterwards pointed to the wounded leg.

The next minute he went to the door, removed the great bar, and admitted the bright light and fresh air of the morning in company with the louder bleating of the goats, which animals evidently came trotting up to the old man as he stepped back to look searchingly round. Then, after speaking kindly to them, he drove them away, returned into the room directly after with water, and proceeded to busily attend to Pen’s wound.

“That’s good of him,” said Punch petulantly, “and I am glad to see him do it, comrade; but I wish he’d thought to attend to my wound too—I mean, give me the chance to dress it myself with bread and onion poultice. I don’t know when I felt so hollow inside.”

But he had not long to wait, for, evidently well satisfied with the state of Pen’s injury, the priest finished attending to him as tenderly as if his touch were that of a woman, and then Punch was at rest, for the old man placed the last night’s simple fare before them, signed to them to eat, and, leaving them to themselves, went outside again, to sweep the valley below with a long and scrutinising gaze.

Twice over during the next two days Pen made an effort to rise, telling his companion when they were alone that if he had a stick he thought he could manage to limp along a short distance at a time, for it was very evident that the old man, their host, was uneasy in his own mind about their presence.

“He evidently wants to get rid of us, Punch.”

“Think so?” said the boy.

“Yes. See how he keeps fidgeting in and out to go on looking round to see if anybody’s coming.”

“Yes, I have noticed that,” said Punch. “He thinks the French are coming after us, and that he will get into trouble for keeping us here.”

“Yes; it’s plain enough, so let’s go.”

“But you can’t, comrade.”

“Yes, I can.”

“Not without making your wound worse. That’s what you would have said to me.”

“Then I must make it worse,” said Pen angrily. “Next time he comes in I’ll try to make him explain which way we ought to go to find some of our people.”

“Well, we can only try,” replied Punch, “for ’tain’t nice living on anybody when you can’t pay, and I do feel ashamed to eat as I do without being able to find money for it. ’Tain’t as if he was an enemy. I’d let him see then.”

“Go and open the door, Punch, and let the fresh air in. The sun does make this place so hot!”

“Can’t, comrade.”

“Why not?”

“I did try while you was asleep; but he’s locked us in.”

“Nonsense! He fastens the door with that big bar, and there it is standing up by the side.”

“Yes, but there’s another one outside somewhere, for I tried, and the door won’t move. I think he’s gone to tell somebody we are here, and he has shut us up so that we sha’n’t get away while he’s gone.”

“No, no,” said Pen impatiently. “The old man means well to us; I am sure of that.”

“That’s what I keep thinking, comrade; but then I keep thinking, too, that he’s going to get something given him for taking two prisoners to give up to the French.”

“Nonsense! It is cowardly and ungenerous to think so.”

“Then what’s he been gone such a long time for? It’s hours since he went away and shut us in.”


“Yes; you don’t know, because you sleep so much.”

“Well, I don’t believe he’d betray us. The old man’s too good and generous for that.”

“Then, why has he made prisoners of us?” said Punch sourly. “Why has he shut us up?”

“To keep anybody else from coming in,” said Pen decisively. “What time can it be now?”

“Getting on towards sunset. Pst! Here he comes—or somebody else.”

All doubts as to who it was were put an end to the next minute, for the familiar step of the old priest approached the door. They plainly heard what seemed to be another bar removed, and the old man stood before them with a big basket on his arm, and remained looking back as if to see whether he had been followed.

Then, apparently satisfied, he came in, closed the door, and smilingly placed the contents of the basket before them.

He had evidently been some distance, and looked hot and weary; but he was quite ready to listen to Pen’s lame efforts to make known his desires that they should now say good-bye, and, with his help as to direction, continue their journey.

The little man stood up smiling before Pen, listening patiently to the lad’s blundering Latin, probably not understanding half, and only replying with a word or two from time to time, these words from their pronunciation puzzling Pen in turn; but it was evident to Punch, the listener, that on the whole a mutual understanding was arrived at, for all at once the priest offered Pen his arm, and as the lad took it he helped him to walk across the room and back to the pallet, where he pressed him back so that he sat down in spite of himself, when the old man patted him on the shoulder, smiling gently, and then going down on one knee passed his hand softly over the wound, and, looking up, shook his head sadly.

“What does he mean by that, Punch?” said Pen excitedly, as he sat, looking pinched of face and half-wild with excitement.

“It means, comrade, that you ain’t fit to go on the march. That’s what he means; I can make him out. He is saying as you must give it up, and I don’t think now as he means any harm.—I say, you don’t, do you, old chap?” he continued, turning sharply on the priest.

It seemed as if their host comprehended the boy’s words, for he patted Punch on the shoulder, smiling, and pointed to the basket, which he opened and displayed its contents.

Punch only caught a glimpse thereof; but he saw that there were bread and onions and goat’s-milk cheese before he turned sharply round, startled by a quick tapping at the closed door.

It was not only he who was startled, for the priest turned sharply and hurried to the door.

“Oh, comrade,” cried Punch in an excited whisper, “don’t say that he’s against us after all!”

But with the sturdy boy it was a word and a blow, for he made for his loaded musket and caught it up.

“Hist!” ejaculated the priest, turning upon him and raising one hand.

“Oh, I don’t care for that,” whispered Punch, “and I don’t mind what you are. If you sold us to the enemy you shall have the first shot.”

The priest shook his hand at him as if to bid him be silent; and then, placing his lips close to the door, he said something in Spanish, and listened to a reply that came in a hurried voice.

“Ah!” ejaculated the priest; and then he whispered again.

The next minute he was busy barring the closed door; and this done, he turned to the boys, to cross the room and open wide the cupboard-like door in the corner. Then, returning to Pen, he helped him to rise again, guided his halting steps, and half-carrying him to the step-like ladder urged him with a word or two to climb up.

“What does he mean, comrade?” whispered Punch.

“He means there’s somebody coming, and we are to go upstairs.”

“Let’s stop here, comrade, and fight it out.”

“No, he means well,” replied Pen; and, making a brave effort, he began to climb the ladder, pulling himself up, but panting heavily the while and drawing his breath with pain.

As soon as the old man saw that he was being obeyed he turned to Punch, caught up Pen’s musket, and signed to the boy to follow him.

“Well, you can’t mean to give us up,” said Punch excitedly, “or you wouldn’t want me to keep my gun and his.”

Disposition to resist passed away the next moment, for the old man pressed the second musket into his hand and urged him towards the door.

“Can you get up, comrade?” whispered Punch, who was now all excited action.

“Yes,” came in a hoarse whisper, and a loud creak came from the ceiling.

“Ketch hold of these guns then. He wants me to bring the forage-basket.—Got ’em?” he continued, as he placed the two pieces together and held them up against the ladder.

Bonum!” ejaculated the priest, who stood close up, as the two muskets were drawn upwards and disappeared.

“Right, sir,” said Punch in answer, and he took hold of the basket, raised it above his head, took a step or two, then whispered, “Basket! Got it, comrade?”

“Yes,” And it was drawn up after the muskets, the boards overhead creaking loudly the while.

“Anything else, master?—What, take this ’ere jar of water? Right! Of course! Here, comrade, you must look out now. Lean down and catch hold of the jar; and take care as you don’t slop it over.”

Presto!” whispered the priest.

“Hi, presto!” muttered Punch. “That’s what the conjuror said,” he continued to himself, “and it means, ‘Look sharp!’ Got it, comrade?”

“Yes,” came in Pen’s eager whisper.

“Oh, I say,” muttered Punch, “I don’t want my face washed!”

Bonum! Presto!” whispered the priest, as Punch shrank back with his face dripping; and, pressing the boy into the opening, he closed the door upon him and then hurried to the cottage entrance, took down the bar, throw the door wide, and then began slowly to strike a light, after placing a lamp upon the rough table.

By this time Punch had reached the little loft-like chamber, where Pen was lying beside the water-vessel.

“What game’s this, comrade?” he whispered, breathless with his exertions.

“Hist! Hist!” came from below.

“It’s all very fine,” muttered Punch to himself; and he changed his position, with the result that the boards upon which he knelt creaked once more.

“Hist! Hist!” came again from below.

“Oh, all right then. I hear you,” muttered the boy; and he cautiously drew himself to where he could place his eye to a large hole from which a knot in the plank had fallen out, so that he could now see what was going on below.

“Here, this caps me,” he said to himself. “I don’t want to think he’s a bad un, but he’s took down the bar and shoved the door wide-open. It don’t mean, do it, that he’s sent for some one to come and take us? No, or he wouldn’t have given us our guns.”

Nick, nick, nick, nick, went the flint against the steel; and the boy watched the sparks flying till one of them seemed to settle lightly in the priest’s tinder-box, and the next minute that single spark began to glow as the old man deliberately breathed upon it till the tinder grew plain before the watcher’s eyes, and the shape of the old man’s bald head, with its roll of fat across the back of the neck, stood out like a silhouette.

Then there was a rustling sound, and the boy saw the point of a match applied, and marked that that point was formed of pale yellow brimstone, which began to turn of a lambent blue as it melted and quivered, and anon grew a flame-colour as the burning mineral fired the match.

A deep, heavy breath as of relief rose now through the floor as the old man applied the burning match to the wick of his oil-lamp, and Punch drew back from the knot-hole, for the loft was dimly lit up by the rays which came through the cracks of the badly laid floor, so that it seemed to him as if this could be no hiding-place, for any one in the room below must for certain be aware of the presence of any one in the loft.

In spite of himself, Punch started and extended his hand to catch at his comrade’s arm, for he could see him plainly, though dimly, lying with the muskets on one side, the basket and jar of water upon the other, while half-behind him, where he himself lay, there was the black trap-like opening through which he had climbed.

The boy’s was a very slight movement, but it was sufficient to make a board creak, and a warning “Hist!” came once more from below; while, as he looked downward, the boy found that he could see what the old man was doing, as he drew his lamp across the rough table and bent over a little open book, while he began muttering softly, half-aloud, as he read from his Book of Hours.

Punch softly pressed his comrade’s arm, and then there was a slight movement and the pressure was returned.

“Wonder whether he can see too,” thought Punch; and then in spite of himself he started, and his breath seemed to come thick and short, for plainly from a short distance off came the unmistakable tramp of marching men.

“Then he has sold us after all,” thought the boy, and by slow degrees he strained himself over so that he could look through the knot-hole again. To his great surprise the priest had not stirred, but was bending over his book, and his muttered words rose softly to the boy’s ear, while the old man seemed to be in profound ignorance of the approaching steps.