Chapter XIII

Ned Hears Strange News

We are once more at the old cathedral city of Lincoln. The streets are for once positively crowded, and the shopkeepers are almost lively, for it is fair time, and the country people for miles round have trooped in, some to sell their sheep and cattle, others to make purchases, and others to see the sights. One country fair is a great deal like another, so that I need not say very much about the fair itself. To Ned the novelty had gone off, and even if his work of picking up the cocoa-nut sticks had not kept him fully employed, he would not have spent much time in the fair itself, but would have preferred to ramble about the streets.

Now Lincoln fair begins on the 24th of April and lasts for four days; and it so happened in this particular year that Sunday fell on the 26th so that there was an interval, when of course no business was done. Ned had thus the day to himself.

Wandering about the city in the morning he noticed that all the church-going people were streaming in one direction towards the cathedral. “I wonder what a cathedral’s like inside!” he thought.

Then he looked at his travel-stained clothes, and the fine dresses of the ladies, and the well-brushed coats and trousers of the gentlemen, and shook his head.

“I suppose they’d turn me out,” he muttered.

But the bells from the tower sounded so sweetly he couldn’t help staying and listening. They seemed to draw him on, and gradually he ascended the hill leading to the cathedral, and at last found himself outside the porch as Great Tom​—​the largest bell in the famous peal of Lincoln cathedral​—​was striking ten o’clock. Soon he heard the solemn yet sweet tones of the organ, and he crept inside the porch. Then came, as he thought, the most beautiful sounds he had ever heard in his life, the singing of the choir. He felt spellbound, for it seemed to him the voices were more like those of angels than of men and boys.

He could no longer resist the influence of the place. He stole softly in, and looked up wonderingly at the high vaulted roof, the pillars and the carvings. One of the vergers glanced severely and suspiciously at him as if he was not quite sure so shabby a looking boy should be admitted, but he said nothing, and Ned made his way to some benches where a number of people were sitting. There was room for him next to a woman who had her head bent down studying her prayerbook, and he sat down a little distance from her.

For a time the stillness, broken only by the voice of the clergyman and the responses of the people, had a strangely soothing effect upon him. Perhaps it was all the more noticeable because for the last two days he had lived amid an incessant din and turmoil. However, whether this was so or not it was very pleasant, he thought, to be in that peaceful place, and he was very glad he had come.

He did not know very much about the church service; but had he been in the habit of going to church all his life, he could not have behaved better. Keeping a watch upon the people round about him, he rose when they did, sat down when they did, and knelt when they did. But when the sermon came his vigilance was fairly overcome. Where he was sitting was outside what is called the “choir”​—​a portion of the cathedral set apart for the service, and separated from the main body by great gates. So far away was he from the preacher, and so subdued was the preacher’s voice, that after nodding several times, and recovering himself just at the point when he was in danger of falling off his seat, Ned gradually subsided into the most delicious sleep he had ever experienced.

As a rule the verger of a cathedral, or for the matter of that the beadle of a church, has a very decided opinion that to sleep while the sermon is being preached is a most dreadful crime. In a grown-up person it is bad enough, but in a boy or a girl it is abominable. Accordingly it was not long before Mr. Giles Scroggins, the head verger at Lincoln Cathedral, and a most important person in his way, spied out the unfortunate Ned, and pounced down upon him as a spider pounces on a fly.

Unconscious of the approach of the enemy, Ned was in the middle of a most delightful dream, wherein he saw himself once more at Stepney playing with Nellie in Jack Grigsby’s back garden. He thought he was digging his playmate’s flower-bed, when suddenly the wooden admiral, with a look of anger on his usually amiable face, lifted his arm and brought it down on Ned’s head with tremendous force.

The next thing Ned felt was a hand laid on his collar, and himself being dragged he didn’t know exactly where. Finally having by this time become thoroughly awake, he was made aware of the crime he had committed.

“If you can’t behave yourself you’d better get out,” said Mr. Scroggins in a hoarse voice. Mr. Scroggins was a dark-featured individual with huge black whiskers just turning gray, black eyebrows which stuck out as if they were always being brushed the wrong way, and a red nose of the kind which is known as of the “bottle” shape, and he looked so formidable that the boy was positively frightened.

“I haven’t done anything,” he ventured to say.

“Don’t let me catch you here again, that’s all,” was the only answer Mr. Scroggins deigned to give.

Naturally the little incident attracted some attention, for the good people, who could no more hear the sermon than could Ned, and also I daresay had felt quite as sleepy as he did, were glad of something to look at. Ned, consequently, with one side of his face burning and red from the rousing slap with which Mr. Scroggins had honoured him, and which in his dream he had attributed to the admiral, felt exceedingly awkward, and ruefully picking up his cap prepared to get away as soon as he could.

So with Mr. Scroggins marching solemnly behind, and keeping his eyes fixed upon the delinquent lest he should be inclined to be rebellious, Ned went out feeling extremely like a criminal.

Now it so happened that Ned was not the only one who quitted the cathedral at this moment. The woman near whom he had been sitting, and who like the rest had turned to see what was the matter, had risen after the boy had been so ignominiously expelled and had followed him out.

Ned was walking away feeling very indignant at his treatment, when he felt a hand laid on his shoulder. He at once thought it was a fresh outrage on the part of Mr. Scroggins, and he turned round determined, now that he was no longer inside the building, not to submit to any more bullying.

To his surprise it was not the verger, but the woman who had been sitting on the same bench with him. He had not taken much notice of her while in the cathedral, for his attention had been too much occupied with the service, but now they were face to face he uttered a joyful cry of recognition.

It was Ann Locket, the wife of his cousin Bob Locket.

“Why, Ann, I never expected to see you.”

“Nor I you, dear.”

The woman was paler and more faded than when Ned last saw her at the “Jolly Waterman.” Indeed she looked so thin and wasted that Ned, young as he was, could see that she was very ill.

“Come here, Ned,” she whispered, “I want to talk to you.”

She looked round with quite a frightened glance, and led the wondering boy to an unfrequented part of the cathedral close.

“Tell me, my dear,” said she, “have you come here with Bob?”

“Come here with Bob?” repeated the boy in astonishment. “Of course I haven’t.”

“Then you do not know he is at Lincoln?”

At Lincoln! How extraordinary that chance should have brought him to the same place as his cousin, the man whom of all others in the world he most feared to meet.

“No,” he replied. “I have not heard anything about Bob since he had me taken away. Some day Bob and me’ll meet, and I’ll pay him out for all his cruelty. You’ll see if I don’t.”

“Hush, dear! Bob is a very wicked man, but he is my husband, worse luck. Don’t let us talk of him just now. Tell me about yourself, and what you have been doing. You have grown such a fine big strong fellow, no wonder I did not know you when you were sitting in the cathedral.”

And this was the fact. Living almost entirely in the pure air of the country for the last few weeks, and working hard all the time, had wonderfully improved Ned’s stature and strength; and Ann, who last saw him when he was pale and thin from confinement and semi-starvation, was not far from the truth when she said she did not know him.

Of course he had a great deal to tell, and the woman listened attentively to the story of his adventures. But when he wound up with saying that he had remained with his friends Meg and Sam because they were going to London, she smiled.

“They’ve been imposing on you, Ned, if they told you that. Why, ever since you’ve been with them they’ve been travelling away from London.”

“What! isn’t Lincoln on the road to London, then?”

“Of course it is if you go back all the way you came, through Grantham and Stamford.”

Ned was so enraged at the trick played on him that for a few moments he could not speak.

“It is too bad!” at last he cried. “I can see now what they’ve done. They wanted me to work for ’em for next to nothing, and I suppose they thought I wouldn’t have joined them if I hadn’t believed they were going to London.”

“Well, dear, there are more ways than one of getting to London. You mustn’t stop in Lincoln, that’s certain, for you are not safe here.”

“Not safe, Ann? Why, what is there to be afraid of?”

“Didn’t I tell you that Bob was here? Ah! you don’t know what he’s capable of. He hates you, and​—​but I dare not, no, I dare not tell you any more. You must go away at once, Ned. I would not have Bob find out you were here for worlds.”

Ned was confounded, stupefied. He could not understand why his cousin should hate him so. And it was something more than an ordinary hatred too, for, as he had gathered from what he overheard the canal boatmen Mattie and Coney saying. Bob had paid them five pounds to take him away, and Bob, he knew well, was not the man to spend five pounds unless he had a very good reason for so doing.

“And why is Bob in Lincoln?” he presently asked.

“Don’t you know that his mother and your aunt lives here?”

“My aunt! I never knew I had an aunt.”

“Ah! it’s a long time since she’s seen you. She’s cross and sour in her manner, but she’s got a good heart. I must take you to her, Ned. Poor thing, she’s had a lot to try her. Things have been very bad with us, Ned, since you were sent away. It seems like a judgment on us, that it does. We had to shut up the ‘Jolly Waterman,’ and without a farthing in my pocket, for Bob had gone off I don’t know where, I had to beg my way down here to Bob’s mother. She was the only one I could turn to. Well, I hadn’t been here a week before we had a letter from Bob, saying he’d gone into partnership with two friends, and he was coming down to the fair.”

All this was wonderful news, but it did not explain to Ned why his cousin hated him. It was curious, he thought, that he had not met Bob at the fair, but no doubt this was owing to the fact that both had been too busy to go far from the spots where their business was being carried on.

“And what line is Bob in?”

“Something to do with shooting and conjuring, but I don’t exactly know. He tells me he is making money, but I don’t get any of it, nor his mother either.”

“Shooting and conjuring!” thought the boy. “I must keep a sharp look-out for the shooting-galleries and the conjuring booths.”

“You said just now, Ann, there were more ways of getting to London than one. I wish you’d tell me how to do it. I must go back to Mr. Grigsby. He’ll think I’m the most ungrateful chap in the world. But you know I’m not, am I?”

Ann thought for a moment and then said, “If your aunt liked she could pay for you to go to London by the train. It will be such a surprise for her when you come, for she doesn’t know whether you’re alive or dead.”

“And when shall I come?”

“To-night after dark. If you see a light in the window you will know that Bob is not there, and you may safely knock.”

“Very well, I will come; but you haven’t told me where the house is.”

Ann described as well as she could, the quaint house built in the old abbey wall, and Ned having already noticed it because of its singular appearance, there was little fear of his making a mistake, and so, after imploring him to be careful and keep a good look-out for Bob Locket, the woman went away, leaving Ned pondering over the strange intelligence he had just heard.