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Though the wind hummed among the chimneys and on the back of the roof, on either side of the lamp over the gateway the maples stood in the lee and waved their boughs gently, shedding a leaf now and then in some deflected gust. Beyond and to the left stretched a dim avenue, also of maples; and at the end of this, as he reached the gate, the boy could spy the lights of the fair.
There was no risk at all of losing his way.
He stepped briskly forth and down the avenue. Where the trees ended, and with them the high wall enclosing the inn's stable-yard, the wind rushed upon him with a whoop, and swept him off the side-walk almost to the middle of the road-way. But by this time the lights were close at hand. He pressed his little hat down on his head and battled his way towards them.
The first booth displayed sweetmeats; the next hung out lines of sailors' smocks, petticoats, sea-boots, oilskin coats and caps, that swayed according to their weight; the third was no booth but a wooden store, wherein a druggist dispensed his wares; the fourth, also of wood, belonged to a barber, and was capable of seating one customer at a time while the others waited their turn on the side-walk. Here--his shanty having no front--the barber kept them in good humour by chatting to all and sundry while he shaved; but a part of the crowd had good-naturedly drifted on to help his neighbour, a tobacco-seller, whose stall had suffered disaster. A painted wooden statue of a Cherokee Indian lay face downward across the walk, as the wind had blown it: bellying folds of canvas and tarpaulin hid the wreck of the poor man's stock-in-trade. Beyond this wreckage stood, in order, a vegetable stall, another sweetmeat stall, and a booth in which the boy (who cared little for sweetmeats, and, moreover, had just eaten his macaroon) took much more interest. For it was hung about with cages; and in the cages were birds of all kinds (but the most of them canaries), perched in the dull light of two horn lanterns, and asleep with open, shining eyes; and in the midst stood the proprietor, blowing delightful liquid notes upon a bird-call.
It fascinated Dicky; and he no sooner assured himself that the birds were really for sale--although no purchaser stepped forward--than there came upon him an overmastering desire to own a live canary in a cage and teach it with just such a whistle. (He had often wondered at the things upon which grown-up folk spent their money to the neglect of this world's true delights.) Edging his way to the stall, he was summoning up courage to ask the price of a bird, when the salesman caught sight him and affably spared him the trouble.
"Eh! here's my young lord wants a bird. . . . You may say what you like," said he, addressing the bystanders, "but there's none like the gentry for encouragin' trade. . . . And which shall it be sir? Here's a green parrot, now, I can recommend; or if your Honour prefers a bird that'll talk, this grey one. A beauty, see! And not a bad word in his repertory. Your honoured father shall not blame me for sellin' you a swearer."
The boy pointed to a cage on the man's right.
"A canary? . . . Well, and you're right. What is talk, after all, to compare with music? And chosen the best bird of my stock, you have; the pick of the whole crop. That's Quality, my friends; nothing but the best'll do for Quality, an' the instinct of it comes out young." The man, who was evidently an eccentric, ran his eye roguishly over the faces behind the boy and named his price; a high one--a very high one-- but one nicely calculated to lie on the right side of public reprobation.
Dicky laid his guinea on the sill. "I want a whistle, too," he said, "and my change, please."
The bird-fancier slapped his breeches pockets.
"A guinea? Bless me, but I must run around and ask one of my neighbours to oblige. Any of you got the change for a golden guinea about you?" he asked of the crowd.
"We ain't so lucky," said a voice somewhere at the back. "We don't carry guineas about, nor give 'em to our bastards."
A voice or two--a woman's among them--called "Shame!" "Hold your tongue, there!"
Dicky had his back to the speaker. He heard the word for the first time in his life, and had no notion of its meaning; but in a dim way he felt it to be an evil word, and also that the people were protesting out of pity. A rush of blood came to his face. He gulped, lifted his chin, and said, with his eyes steady on the face of the blinking fancier,--
"Give it back to me, please, and I will get it changed."
He took the coin, and walked away resolutely with a set white face. He saw none of the people who made way for him.
The bird-fancier stared after the small figure as it walked away into darkness. "Bastard?" he said. "There's Blood in that youngster, though he don't face ye again an' I lose my deal. Blood's blood, however ye come by it; you may take that on the word of a breeder. An' you ought to be ashamed, Sam Wilson--slingin' yer mud at a child!"
The word drummed in the boy's ears. What did it mean? What was the sneer in it? "Brat!" "cry-baby," "tell-tale," "story-teller," these were opprobrious words, to be resented in their degree; and all but the first covered accusations which not only must never be deserved, but obliged a gentleman, however young, to show fight. But "bastard"?
He felt that, whatever it meant, somehow it was worse than any; that honour called for the annihilation of the man that dared speak it; that there was weakness, perhaps even poltroonery, in merely walking away. If only he knew what the word meant!
He came to a halt opposite the drug store. He had once heard Dr. Lamerton, the apothecary at home, described as a "well-to-do" man. The phrase stuck in his small brain, and he connected the sale of drugs with wealth. (How, he reasoned, could any one be tempted to sell wares so nasty unless by prodigious profit?) He felt sure the drug-seller would be able to change the guinea for him, and walked in boldly. His ears were tingling, and he felt a call to assert himself.
There was a single customer in the store--a girl. With some surprise he recognised her for the girl who had beaten the flame out of the curtain.
She stood with her back to the doorway and a little sidewise by the counter, from behind which the drug-seller--a burly fellow in a suit of black--looked down on her doubtfully, rubbing his shaven chin while he glanced from her to something he held in his open palm.
"I'm askin' you," he said, "how you came by it?"
"It was given to me," the girl answered.
"That's a likely tale! Folks don't give money like this to a girl in your position; unless--"
Here the man paused.
"Is it a great deal of money?" she asked. There was astonishment in her voice, and a kind of suppressed eagerness.
"Oh, come now--that's too innocent by half! A guinea-piece is a guinea-piece, and a guinea is twenty-one shillings; and twenty-one shillings, likely enough, is more'n you'll earn in a year outside o' your keep. Who gave it ye?"
"A gentleman--the Collector--at the Inn just now.
"Ho!" said the drug-seller, with a world of meaning.
"But if," she went on, "it is worth so much as you say, there must be some mistake. Give it back to me, please. I am sorry for troubling you." She took a small, round parcel from her pocket, laid it on the counter, and held out her hand for the coin.
The drug-seller eyed her. "There must be some mistake, I guess," said he, as he gave back the gold piece. "No, and you can take up your packet too; I don't grudge two-pennyworth of salve. But wait a moment while I serve this small customer, for I want a word with you later. . . . Well, and what can I do for you, young gentleman?" he asked, turning to Dicky.
Dicky advanced to the shop-board, and as he did so the girl turned and recognised him with a faint, very shy smile.
"If you please," he said politely, "I want change for this--if you can spare it."
"Bless my soul!" exclaimed the man, staring. "What, another?"
"The bird-seller up the road had no change about him. And--and, if you please," went on Dick hardily, with a glance at the girl, "she hurt her hands putting out a fire just now. I expect my father gave her the money for that. But she must have burnt her hands dreffully!"--Dicky had not quite outgrown his infantile lisp--"and if she's come for stuff to put on them, please I want to pay for it."
"But I don't want you to," put in the girl, still hesitating by the counter.
"But I'd rather insisted Dicky.
"Tut!" said the drug-seller. "A matter of twopence won't break either of us. Captain Vyell's boy, are you? Well, then, I'll take your coppers on principle."
He counted out the change, and Dicky--who was not old enough yet to do sums--pretended to find it correct. But he was old enough to have acquired charming manners, and after thanking the drug-seller, gave the girl quite a grown-up little bow as he passed out.
She would have followed, but the man said, "Stay a moment. What's your name?"
"I was sixteen last month."
"Then listen to a word of advice, Ruth Josselin, and don't you take money like that from fine gentlemen like the Collector. They don't give it to the ugly ones. Understand?"
"Thank you," she said. "I am going to give it back;" and slipping the guinea into her pocket, she said "Good evening," and walked swiftly out in the wake of the child.
The drug-seller looked after her shrewdly. He was a moral man.
Ruth, hurrying out upon the side-walk, descried the child a few paces up the road. He had come to a halt; was, in fact, plucking up his courage to go and demand the bird-cage. She overtook him.
"I was sent out to look for you," she said. "I oughtn't to have wasted time buying that ointment; but my hands were hurting me. Please, you are to come home and change your clothes for dinner."
"I'll come in a minute," said Dicky, "if you'll stand here and wait."
He might be called by that word again; and without knowing why, he dreaded her hearing it. She waited while he trotted forward, nerving himself to face the crowd again. Lo! when he reached the booth, all the bystanders had melted away. The bird-seller was covering up his cages with loose wrappers, making ready to pack up for the night.
"Hello!" he said cheerfully. "Thought I'd lost you for good."
He took the child's money and handed the canary cage across the sill; also the bird-whistle, wrapped in a scrap of paper. Many times in the course of a career which brought him much fighting and some little fame, Dicky Vyell remembered this his first lesson in courage--that if you walk straight up to an enemy, as likely as not you find him vanished.
But he had not quite reached the end of his alarms. As he took the cage, a parrot at the back of the booth uplifted his voice and squawked,--
"No prerogative! No prerogative! No prerogative!"
"You mustn't mind him," said the bird-seller genially. "He's like the crowd--picks up a cry an' harps on it without understandin'."
Master Dicky understood it no better; but thanked the man and ran off, prize in hand, to rejoin the girl.
They hurried back to the Inn. At the gateway she paused.
"I let you say what was wrong just now," she explained. "Your father didn't give me that money for putting out the fire."
Here she hesitated. Dicky could not think what it mattered, or why her voice was so timid.
"Oh," said he carelessly, "I dare say it was just because he liked you. Father has plenty of money."
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