CHAPTER XII

SAVAGES CONTINUED – MAKING THE SAILS

THE same evening, having got a great plateful of cherries, they went to work in the bench-room to cut out the sails from the parcel of canvas. There had been cherries in town weeks before, but these were the first considered ripe in the country, which is generally later. With a cherry in his mouth, Bevis spread the canvas out upon the floor, and marked it with his pencil. The rig was to be fore and aft, a mainsail and jib; the mast and gaff, or as they called it, the yard, were already finished. It took forty cherries to get it cut out properly, then they threw the other pieces aside, and placed the sails on the floor in the position they would be when fixed.

'You are sure they're not too big,' said Mark, 'if a white squall comes?'

'There are no white squalls now,' said Bevis on his knees, thoughtfully sucking a cherry-stone. 'It's cyclones now. The sails are just the right size, and of course we can take in a reef. You cut off – let me see – twenty bits of string, a foot – no, fifteen inches long: it's for the reefs.' Mark began to measure off the string from a quantity of the largest make, which they had bought for the purpose.

'There's the block,' he said. 'How are you going to manage about the pulley to haul up the mainsail?'

'The block's a bore,' mused Bevis, rolling his cherry-stone about. 'I don't think we could make one '

'Buy one.'

'Pooh! There's nothing in Latten; why you can't buy anything.' Mark was silent, he knew it was true. 'If we make a slit in the mast and put a little wheel in off a window-blind or something '

'That would do first-rate.'

'No it wouldn't; it would weaken the mast, stupe, and the first cylone would snap it.'

'So it would. Then we should drift ashore and get eaten.'

'Most likely.'

'Well, bore a hole and put the cord through that; that would not weaken it much.'

'No; but I know! A curtain-ring! Don't you see, you fasten the curtain-ring – it's brass – to the mast, and put the rope through, and it runs easy – brass is smooth.'

'Of course. Who's that?'

Some small stones came rattling in at the open window, and two voices shouted:

'I say! Holloa!'

Bevis and Mark went to the window and saw two of their friends, Bill and Wat, on the garden path below.

'When's the war going to begin?' asked Wat.

'Tell us about the war,' said Bill.

'The war's not ready,' said Bevis.

'Well, how long is it going to be?'

'Make haste.'

'Everybody's ready.'

'Lots of them. Do you think you shall want any more?'

'I know six,' said a third voice, and Tim came round the corner, having waited to steal a strawberry, 'and one's a whopper.'

'Let's begin.'

'Now then.'

'Oh! don't make such a noise,' said Bevis. The sails and the savages had rather put the war aside, but Mark had talked of it to others, and the idea spread in a minute; everybody jumped at it, and all the cry was War!

'Make me lieutenant,' said Andrew, appearing from the orchard.

'I want to carry the flag.'

'Come down and tell us.'

'How are we to tell you if you keep talking?' said Mark; Bevis put his head out of window by the pears, and they were quiet.

'I tell you the war's not ready,' he said; 'and you're as bad as rebels – I mean you're a mutiny to come here before you're sent for, and you ought to be shot' – ('Executed,' whispered Mark behind him) – 'executed, of course.'

'How are we to know when it's ready?'

'You'll be summoned,' said Bevis. 'There will be a muster-roll and a trumpet blown, and you'll have to march a thousand miles.'

'All right.'

'And the swords have to be made, and the eagles, besides the map of the roads and the grub' – ('Provisions,' said Mark) – 'provisions of course, and all the rest, and how do you think a war is to be got ready in a minute, you stupes!' in a tone of great indignation. They grumbled: they wanted a big battle on the spot.

'If you bother me much,' said Bevis, 'while I'm getting the fleet ready, there shan't be a war at all.'

'Are you getting a fleet?'

'Here are the sails,' said Mark, holding up some canvas.

'Well, you won't be long?'

'You'll let us know?'

'Shall we tell anybody else?'

'Lots,' said Bevis; 'tell lots. We're going to have the biggest armies ever seen.

'Thousands,' said Mark. 'Millions!'

'Millions !' said Bevis.

'Hurrah!' they shouted.

'Here,' said Bevis, throwing the remainder of the cherries out like a shower among them.

'Are you coming to quoits?'

'Oh! no,' said Mark, 'we have so much to do; now go away.'

The soldiery moved off through the garden, snatching lawlessly at any fruit they saw.

'Mark,' said Bevis on his knees again, 'these sails will have to be hemmed, you know.'

'So they will.'

'We can't do it. You must take them home to Frances, and make her stitch them; roll them up and go directly.'

'I don't want to go home,' said Mark. 'And perhaps she won't stitch them.'

'I'm sure she will; she will do anything for me.'

'So she will,' said Mark rather sullenly. 'Everybody does everything for you.'

Bevis had rolled up the sails, quite indifferent as to what people did for him, and put them into Mark's unwilling hands.

'Now you can have the donkey, and mind and come back before breakfast.'

'I can't catch him,' said Mark.

'No; no more can I – stop. John Young's sure to be in the stable: he can.'

'Ah,' said Mark, brightening up a little, 'that moke is a beast.'

John Young, having stipulated for a 'pot,' went to catch the donkey; they sat down in the shed to wait for him, but as he did not come for some time they went after him. They met him in the next field leading the donkey with a halter, and red as fire from running. They took the halter and sent John away for the 'pot.' There was a wicked thought in their hearts, and they wanted witnesses away. So soon as John had gone, Mark looked at Bevis, and Bevis looked at Mark. Mark growled, Bevis stamped his feet. 'Beast!' said Mark.

'Wretch!' said Bevis.

'You – you – you, Thing,' said Mark; they ground their teeth, and glared at the animal. They led him all fearful to a tree, a little tree but stout enough; it was an ash, and it grew somewhat away from the hedge. They tied him firmly to the tree, and then they scourged this miserable citizen.

All the times they had run in vain to catch him; all the times they had had to walk when they might have ridden one behind the other on his back; all his refusals to be tempted; all the wrongs they had endured at his heels boiled in their breasts. They broke their sticks upon his back, they cut new ones, and smashed them too, they hurled the fragments at him, and then got some more. They thrashed, thwacked, banged, thumped, poked, prodded, kicked, belaboured, bumped, and hit him, working themselves into a frenzy of rage.

Mark fetched a pole to knock him the harder as it was heavy; Bevis crushed into the hedge, and brought out a dead log to hurl at him, a log he could but just lift and swung to throw with difficulty – the same Bevis who put an aspen leaf carefully under the fly to save it from drowning. The sky was blue, and the evening beautiful, but no one came to help the donkey.

When they were tired, they sat down and rested, and after they were cooler, and had recovered from the fatigue, they loosed him quite cowed this time and docile, and Mark, with the parcel of sails, got on his back. After all this onslaught there did not seem any difference in him except that his coat had been well dusted. This immunity aggravated them; they could not hurt him.

'Put him in the stable all night,' said Bevis, 'and don't give him anything to eat.'

'And no water,' said Mark, as he rode off. 'So I will.'

And so he did. But the donkey had cropped all day, and was full, and just before John Young caught him had had a draught rather unusual for him and equal to an omen, at the drinking-place by the raft. The donkey slept, and beat them.

After Mark had gone Bevis returned to the bench-room, and fastened a brass curtain-ring to the mast, which they had carried up there. When he had finished, noticing the three phials of poison, he thought he would go and see if he could find out any more fatal plants. There was an ancient encyclopaedia in the book-case, in which he had read many curious things, such as would not be considered practical enough for modern publication, which must be dry or nothing. Among the rest was a page of chemical signs and those used by the alchemists, some of which he had copied off for magic. Pulling out the volumes, which were piled haphazard, like bricks shot out of a cart, there was one that had all the alphabets employed in the different languages, Coptic, Gothic, Ethiopic Syriac, and so on.

The Arabic took his fancy as the most mysterious – the sweeping curves, the quivering lines, the blots where the reed pen thickened, there was no knowing what such writing might not mean. How mystic the lettering which forms the running ornament of the Alhambra! It is the writing of the Orient, of the alchemist and enchanter, the astrologer and the prophet.

Bevis copied the alphabet, and then he made a roll of a broad sheet of yellowish paper torn from the end of one of the large volumes, a fly-leaf, and wrote the letters upon it in such a manner as their shape and flowing contour arranged themselves. With these he mingled the alchemic signs for fire and air and water, and so by the time the dusk crept into the parlour and filled it with shadow he had completed a manuscript. This he rolled up and tied with string, intending to bury it in the sand of the quarry, so that when they sailed round in the ship they might land and discover it.

Mark returned to breakfast, and said that Frances had promised to hem the sails, and thought it would not take long. Bevis showed him the roll. 'It looks magic,' said Mark. 'What does it mean?'

'I don't know,' said Bevis. 'That is what we shall have to find out when we discover it. Besides, the magic is never in the writing; it is what you see when you read it – it's like looking in a looking-glass, and seeing people moving about a thousand miles away.'

'I know,' said Mark. 'We can put it in a sand-martin's hole, then it won't get wet if it rains.'

They started for the bathing-place, and carefully deposited the roll in a sand-martin's hole some way up the face of the quarry, covering it with sand. To know the spot again, they counted and found it was the third burrow to the right, if you stood by the stone-heap and looked straight towards the first sycamore tree. Having taken the bearings, they dragged the catamaran down to the water, and had a swim. When they came out, and were running about on the high ground by the sycamores, they caught sight of a dog-cart slowly crossing the field a long way off, and immediately hid behind a tree to reconnoitre the new savage, themselves unseen.

'It's Jack,' said Bevis; 'I'm sure it is.' It was Jack, and he was going at a walking pace, because the track across the field was rough, and he did not care to get to the gateway before the man sent to open it had arrived there. His object was to look at some grass to rent for his sheep.

'Yes, it's Jack,' said Mark, very slowly and doubtfully. Bevis looked at him.

'Well, suppose it is; he won't hurt us. We can easily shoot him if he comes here.'

'But the letter,' said Mark.

'What letter7'

Mark had started for his clothes, which were in a heap on the sward; he seized his coat, and drew a note much frayed from one of the pockets. He looked at it, heaved a deep sigh, and ran with all his might to intercept Jack. Bevis watched him tearing across the field and laughed; then he sat down on the grass to wait for him.

Mark, out of breath and with thistles in his feet, would never have overtaken the dog-cart had not Jack seen him coming and stopped. He could not speak, but handed up the note in silence, more like Cupid than messengers generally. He panted so that he could not run away directly, as he had intended.

'You rascal,' said Jack, flicking at him with his whip. 'How long have you had this in your pocket?'

Mark tried to run away, he could only trot; Jack turned his mare's head, as if half-inclined to drive after him.

'If you come,' said Mark, shaking his fist, 'we'll shoot you and stick a spear into you. Aha! you're afraid ! aha !'

Jack was too eager to read his note to take vengeance. Mark walked away jeering at him. The reins hung down, and the mare cropped as the master read. Mark laughed to think he had got off so easily, for the letter had been in his pocket a week, though he had faithfully promised to deliver it the same day - for a shilling. Had he not been sent home with the sails it might have remained another week, till the envelope was fretted through.

Frances asked if he had given it to Jack. Mark started. 'Ah,' said she, 'you have forgotten it.'

'Of course I have,' said Mark. 'It's so long ago.'

'Then you did really?'

'How stupid you are,' said Mark; and Frances could not press him further, lest she should seem too anxious about Jack. So the young dog escaped, but he did not dare delay longer, and had not Jack happened to cross the field meant to have ridden up to his house on the donkey. When Jack had read the note he looked at the retreating figure of Cupid and opened his lips, but caught his breath as it were and did not say it. He put his whip aside as he drove on, lest he should unjustly punish the mare.

Mark strolled leisurely back to the bathing-place, but when he got there Bevis was not to be seen. He looked round at the water, the quarry, the sycamore trees. He ran down to the water's edge with his heart beating and a wild terror causing a whirling sensation in his eyes, for the thought in the instant came to him that Bevis had gone out of his depth. He tried to shout 'Bevis!' but he was choked; he raised his hands; as he looked across the water he suddenly saw something white moving among the fir trees at the head of the gulf.

He knew it was Bevis, but he was so overcome he sat down on the sward to watch, he could not stand up. The something white was stealthily passing from tree to tree like an Indian. Mark looked round, and saw his own harpoon on the grass, but at once missed the bow and arrows. His terror had suspended his observation, else he would have noticed this before.

Bevis, when Mark ran with the letter to Jack, had sat down on the sward to wait for him, and by and by, while still, and looking out over the water, his quiet eye became conscious of a slight movement opposite at the mouth of the Nile. There was a ripple, and from the high ground where he sat he could see the reflection of the trees in the water there undulate, though their own boughs shut off the light air from the surface. He got up, took his bow and arrows, and went into the firs. The dead dry needles or leaves on the ground felt rough to his naked feet, and he had to take care not to step on the hard cones. A few small bramble bushes forced him to go aside, so that it took him some little time to get near the Nile.

Then he had to always keep a tree trunk in front of him, and to step slowly that his head might not be seen before he could see what it was himself. He stooped as the ripples on the other side of the brook became visible; then gradually lifting his head, sheltered by a large alder, he traced the ripples back to the shore under the bank, and saw a moor-cock feeding by the roots of a willow. Bevis waited till the cock turned his back, then he stole another step forward to the alder.

It was about ten yards to the willow which hung over the water, but he could not get any nearer, for there was no more cover beyond the alder - the true savage is never content unless he is close to his game. Bevis grasped his bow firm in his left hand, drew the arrow quick but steadily - not with a jerk - and as the sharp point covered the bird, loosed it. There was a splash and a fluttering and he knew instantly that he had hit. 'Mark! Mark!' he shouted, and ran down the bank, heedless of the jagged stones. Mark heard, and came racing through the firs.

The arrow had struck the moor-cock's wing, but even then the bird would have got away, for the point had no barb, and in diving and struggling it would have come out, had not he been so near the willow. The spike went through his wing and nailed it to a thick root; the arrow quivered as it was stopped by the wood. Bevis seized him by the neck and drew the arrow out.

'Kill him! Kill him!' shouted Mark. The other savage pulled the neck, and Mark, leaping down the jagged stones, took the dead bird in his eager hands.

'Here's where the arrow went in.'

'There's three feathers in the water.'

'Feel how warm he is.'

'Look at the thick red on his bill.'

'See his claws.'

'Hurrah!'

'Let's eat him.'

'Raw?'

'No. Cook him.'

'All right. Make a fire.'

Thus the savages gloated over their prey. They went back up the bank and through the firs to the sward.

'Where shall we make the fire?' said Mark. 'In the quarry?'

'That old stupe may come for sand.'

'So he may. Let's make it here.'

'Everybody would see.'

'By the hedge towards the elms then.'

'No. I know, in the hollow.'

'Of course, nobody would come there.'

'Pick up some sticks.'

'Come and help me.'

'I shall dress – there are brambles.'

So they dressed, and then found that Mark had broken a nail, and Bevis had cut his foot with the sharp edge of a fossil shell projecting from one of the stones. But that was a trifle; they could think of nothing but the bird. While they were gathering armfuls of dead sticks from among the trees, they remembered that John Young, who always paunched the rabbits and hares and got everything ready for the kitchen, said coots and moorhens must be skinned, they could not be plucked because of the 'dowl.'

Dowl is the fluff, the tiny featherets no fingers can remove. So after they had carried the wood they had collected to the round hollow in the field beyond the sycamore trees, they took out their knives, and haggled the skin off. They built their fire very skilfully; they had made so many in the Peninsula (for there is nothing so pleasant as making a fire out of doors) that they had learnt exactly how to do it. Two short sticks were stuck in the ground and a third across to them, like a triangle. Against this frame a number of the smallest and driest sticks were leaned, so that they made a tiny hut. Outside these there was a second layer of longer sticks; all standing, or rather leaning against the first.

If a stick is placed across, lying horizontally, supposing it catches fire, it just burns through the middle and that is all, the ends go out. If it is stood nearly upright, the flame draws up it; it is certain to catch; it burns longer and leaves a good ember. They arranged the rest of their bundles ready to be thrown on when wanted, and then put some paper, a handful of dry grass, and a quantity of the least and driest twigs, like those used in birds'-nests, inside the little hut. Then having completed the pile they remembered they had no matches.

'It's very lucky,' said Bevis. 'If we had we should have to throw them away. Matches are not proper.'

'Two pieces of wood,' said Mark. 'I know; you rub them together till they catch fire, and one piece must be hard and the other soft.'

'Yes,' said Bevis, and taking out his knife he cut off the end of one of the larger dead branches they had collected, and made a smooth side to it. Mark had some difficulty in finding a soft piece to rub on it, for those which touched soft crumbled when rubbed on the hard surface Bevis had prepared. A bit of willow seemed best, and Bevis seizing it first, rubbed it to and fro till his arm ached and his face glowed. Mark, Iying on the grass, watched to see the slight tongue of flame shoot up, but it did not come.

Bevis stopped, tired, and putting his hand on the smooth surface found it quite warm, so that they had no doubt they could do it in time. Mark tried next, and then Bevis again, and Mark followed him; but though the wood became warm it would not burst into flame, as it ought to have done.