Chapter XV

The Cannon-ball Reappears

When he got outside the house he found it was a lovely moonlight night. The houses on either side stood out with sharp outlines against the pale sky, and the tower of the cathedral looked almost fairylike in the distance.

But it cannot be said that either the houses or the cathedral occupied a place in Ned’s mind. What with the deceitful behaviour of Sam Hoggins and his wife, and hints which Ann and his aunt had let fall as to the reason of Bob’s hatred, he had plenty to think about. Yet, though the latter was the most important, the thing that aggravated him most was the discovery that Meg and Sam had deceived him.

“It is too bad,” he exclaimed indignantly, “I should have been half-way to London had it not been for them. I won’t stay another day with them after to-morrow, and they can’t make me.”

He was in no hurry to go home, in fact he did not much care whether he went back to the caravan or not. Without noticing where he was going, he had gradually left the city behind him, and had got into the country. It was very flat on either side, and the road to the north lay before him as straight as though it had been ruled by a ruler. The straightness of this road is accounted for by the fact that it was originally made by the Romans, who were the finest roadmakers in the world. This great north road, in days long gone by, was called Ermine Street, and ran from London though Enfield, Ware, Huntingdon, Lincoln, right away to the River Humber.

But Ned knew nothing of this, and perhaps would not have noticed the straightness of the road had it not been that this quality enabled him to see two persons who were walking towards him much sooner than he would have done had the road, like most roads, turned and twisted.

Ned was blessed with remarkably sharp sight, and though these two persons were nearly a quarter of a mile away, there was something he could see in their appearance even at that distance which excited his curiosity. One of the two persons was a man much taller than the other, which perhaps was nothing very extraordinary; but what was extraordinary was that he could not tell whether the other was a man or a woman. Half a dozen times he decided that the person must be a woman from the flowing garments which blew about as he walked, and as often he altered his mind, and said to himself that no woman would walk as this individual did, swinging the arms and legs like the sails of a windmill.

By and bye as the two got nearer he found that the last conjecture was the true one. The uncertain individual with the loose dress and the swinging arms was a man, and what was more, a Chinaman!

Ned knew him at once, and he knew also his companion.

“If it isn’t that Yankee chap that tried to steal Mr. Grigsby’s bag! A pair of thieves he and that Chinaman, I’ll swear!” exclaimed the lad.

But what could they be doing in Lincolnshire, was the mystery which Ned could not solve. Of all the strange things he had found out that day this was the strangest. How vividly the singular look of the Chinaman recalled that eventful night when he so cleverly outwitted the celestial and checkmated the American!

“I followed them before to some end. I’ve a good mind to follow ’em again,” he muttered. “They mean no good to some one, I know.”

While watching the two men approach he had sat down on the bank in a small opening in the hedge which bordered the road, and quick as thought he slid backward through the gap, and was out of sight in half a minute.

Presently the men went by without turning their heads towards the opening where he had disappeared, and he made sure they had not seen him. Waiting until they had got some distance away, he stole out cautiously, and keeping close to the hedge kept them in sight until they entered the city, when he ran forward fearing they might escape him in the streets.

But there was little chance of his missing them. It was nearly ten o’clock, and the good people of Lincoln were nearly all indoors eating their suppers, so that the streets were quite clear. The men made their way straight to the fair field, and thither Ned went also, but not without some trepidation lest he should meet Bob Locket.

This fear made him doubly careful, and instead of walking directly behind the two he dodged them from the back of the caravans and stalls, and finally saw them safely landed at a booth, which oddly enough was immediately at the back of the canvas which Sam had stuck up to prevent the cocoa-nut sticks from flying too far.

Ned watched them disappear, and then cautiously wound his way in and out the line of caravans so as to bring him in front of the booth. When he saw the flaring announcements outside he could scarcely believe his eyes, for on one side was a gaily painted canvas proclaiming that the interior was the great American shooting-gallery, while on the other an equally gay placard asserted that the attraction of the fair was the conjuring performance of the world-renowned Chinese juggler, Ah Ling Foo!

But as if to make assurance doubly sure, while, half hidden by the framework of a roundabout, Ned was gazing at the booth, the curtain forming the door was moved aside, and a man put his head out The boy had no doubt now that he had come upon the three partners, for the face of the man which the moonlight revealed was the face of his cousin Bob Locket!

The combination of these three men struck him with peculiar significance. How was it they had come together? It was more than strange, and he could not help thinking they had other business besides shooting and jugglery.

“I should like to stay and find out what it is, but I’m afraid. There’s only one more day for the fair, it’s true, but we’re so close together Bob might see me, and I wouldn’t like to fall into his hands again,” he muttered.

He had found his way back by this time to Sam’s caravan. He had not eaten anything since dinner, and was very hungry. He found that Sam and his wife had already had supper, and Sam himself, after having indulged in a pipe, had gone fast asleep on the floor.

“I thought you’d given us the slip,” said Meg in no very gracious tone.

“Not yet, ma’am. I should like to have some supper first.”

“You ought to think yourself fortunate there’s supper for you. There, look sharp and eat it. I can’t stand waiting about all day for boys.”

Meg, it was clear, was in a bad temper; and as Ned did not care to engage in a quarrel he said nothing, but sat down to some bread and cheese, which he despatched in a remarkably quick time.

“You’d better clear out,” said Meg when he had finished. “I want to tidy up the place a bit afore I go to bed, and don’t want you bothering me.”

Ned accordingly took his cap and went out. He was half inclined to go there and then and never return, but he could not make up his mind. It would be better on the whole, he thought, to wait and keep to his agreement.

“Hi! you, Ned,” shouted Meg, suddenly appearing at the door of the caravan. “Just fix up the canvas there. It’ll be torn to ribbons. Here’s some string.”

And she pointed to a place where the wind, which had been very high all that day, had torn the canvas from the pole.

“I suppose I’d better do it,” he thought.

He picked up the ball of string which Meg had thrown to him, walked towards the canvas, and set about repairing it.

He had not been more than two minutes at his work when he heard the shrill voice of the Chinaman exclaim:

Chin chin, chop chop. Muchey richy after.”

“Ah Ling’s right,” replied some one with a nasal twang. It was not his cousin’s voice, so it must be the American who spoke, thought Ned.

“Supper first and then to divide the swag, eh, Bob?”

“Right you are, though I shouldn’t ha’ thought as chin chin, chop chop, meant all that.”

Chin chin is food, chop chop is quick, right away, smart,” Ned heard the American explain.

And soon by the clattering of a plate, and the guggling sound of some liquid being poured from a bottle, Ned guessed the men were at supper.

Now, as we have already said, the conjuring and shooting booth was close to the canvas which Ned was mending. Indeed so close was it that scarcely a foot of ground was between the two. The word “swag” mentioned by the American told Ned much more than it would another boy, because he knew well enough that it generally meant the proceeds of some robbery. Seeing that the booth was so close, it occurred to him that he might reach it easily without moving from his own side of the canvas, make a hole in a portion of the slight woodwork of which the booth was composed, and by just putting his head through the hole torn by the wind, see into the interior.

He was more fortunate than he expected to be. The back of the booth was made of very thin planks of wood called matchboard lining, scarcely more than an eighth of an inch thick. These had been loosely nailed on uprights, and the whole roughly papered. Owing to the contraction of the paper in drying there was a crack half an inch at the widest part extending quite a couple of feet, and through this he could see easily enough.

There they were, the Chinaman, the American, and his cousin, seated round a small coke fire, and eating their dinners with much appetite, particularly the Chinaman, who was devouring a big plate of boiled rice with extraordinary rapidity, his chop-sticks travelling between the food and his mouth at express speed. They were, indeed, so busily engaged in eating that they talked but little, yet every word they uttered was heard distinctly by Ned. Above them swung a flaring naphtha lamp, and by its light the boy could easily see their features.

When they had finished, Ah Ling, who seemed to act as the servant, cleared away the plates, leaving, however, the mugs, for the big stone bottle had still plenty of beer in it, and Ned’s attention grew keener than ever, for some odd preparations were being made.

From a basket Bob Locket produced a couple of files and half a dozen of steel wedges, sharpened to a fine point and of various sizes, and brought from a corner a huge sledge-hammer. These he placed on the ground. Then he and the American went to a dark corner of the booth and brought between them a sack, which apparently contained something that was very heavy.

This was deposited by the side of the files and wedges. Bob and Hosea Lampard took hold of the bottom of the sack, lifted it up, gave it a vigorous shake, and out rolled a black shining round cannon-ball!

Ned was transfixed with astonishment. The cannon-ball that Jack Grigsby had nearly been robbed of once by the identical Chinaman and American who were now before him, the cannon-ball that he had seen every day of his life at Gibraltar Cottage, to be here in a booth in a country fair! It was incredible.

Of course there was more than one cannon-ball in the world, and had the men been perfect strangers to him Ned would not have thought so much of the matter, though the coincidence would have been strange. But to see a cannon-ball, as nearly as possible like the one he had left behind in the pilot’s house, in the possession of the very two men who wanted to get hold of it, was something so remarkable, he could not but think the cannon-ball before him had been stolen from Gibraltar Cottage.

But he had little time to think over all this, for what was going on before his eyes was so singular it drove everything else out of his head.

The ball had been fixed tightly in a kind of vice by Bob Locket and Hosea Lampard, and then the former, taking up one of the files, began to work away as if he wanted to cut it in half. After filing for about two minutes or so, Lampard and Ah Ling anxiously watching meanwhile, Locket left off and looked carefully at the small line he had made in the metal. A singular change came over his face, and Ned could see his hands tremble with excitement.

“You’re a pair of cheats!” he burst out all at once, and dashed the file to the ground.

“Cheats!” echoed Lampard. “What d’ye mean, Mr. Bob Locket? If anybody is a cheat it’s yourself, I reckon.”

“Look at it for yourselves. Look at it, I say. It’s iron!” shouted Locket.

His companions bent down instantly and almost put their noses against the cannon-ball, so closely did they peer into it.

The next word Ned heard was an oath from the American, who, springing to his feet, clutched Locket by the throat and shook him as though he had been a kitten.

“You thief!” he hissed. “You’ve changed it​—​you know you have.”

“Let go!” gurgled Bob Locket, half black in the face. “Let go!”

Hosea Lampard relaxed his grasp a little, and Bob, giving his head a wrench, shook himself free.

“You’re a nice ’un, you are, to pretty near kill a fellow. The thing’s never been out of your sight. If anybody’s played us false, it’s your Chinese friend there. I told you I never thought much of him.”

Upon this, Lampard, who was in a furious passion, turned upon Ah Ling, who immediately fell upon his knees, and in the most abject fashion protested that he had acted honestly throughout. Then all three began to talking excitedly together, and so great was the confusion Ned could not distinguish one voice from another.

Suddenly there was a lull. The American loosed the vice, seized the cannon-ball, turned it round, and began filing at the opposite side till the perspiration poured off his face. Then once more all three examined the marks which had been filed, only to burst out into a fresh torrent of reproaches mingled with oaths and lamentations.

Now the only part of this scene which was at all intelligible to Ned was that the three men expected to find the cannon-ball quite different from what it was. Still clearer was it to him that the ball had been stolen from Jack Grigsby, and that if Jack Grigsby valued it, no matter how worthless it was, he would do his best to restore it.

If he had been in any doubt about the matter the conversation which ensued would have settled it.

“Wasn’t it all a lie, now, that you told me about this cannon-ball?” said Locket after his rage had subsided, and after he had been staring in the fire for two or three minutes in a state of stupefaction.

“Lie,” retorted Lampard. “No. I tell you Ah Ling saw it in the captain’s cabin, and so did I. Excepting the sailor who told you by accident, and it was only hearsay on his part, none of the crew knew what we did. And I’ll swear that old fellow Jack Grigsby took it home.”

“Then what’s the meaning of that useless thing?” demanded Locket pointing to the despised cannon-ball.

“How should I know? You were one of the party that took it​—​”

“Say, stole it. What’s the use of mincing the matter?” put in Locket sullenly.

“Well, ‘stole’ it, if you like; I don’t care. You were one, I repeat, and you know as much about it as we do, I calc’late.”

“All I’ve got to say is that it’s a beastly shame,” groaned Locket.

And this seemed to be the opinion of the three, for they sat there in the most dejected attitude possible.

“I tell you what, Robert Locket,” said at last the American. “I guess we’d better dissolve partnership. This shooting game’s too slow for me. You Britishers don’t spend enough money. They’ve got no spirit, they haven’t.”

“What! and leave you alone to have another try for the cannon-ball? You’re very artful, cap’en, but you’re not artful enough to do me. Now I’ll just ask you a plain question. Do you believe there’s another cannon-ball, and that we’ve got the wrong one? That’s the point.”

“Of course I do,” returned Hosea Lampard after thinking a little while.

“Well, then, why shouldn’t we have another try? The old man’s house is easy enough to break into?”

“Oh, if that’s your game I’m with you.”

And then their voices gradually died away into a whisper.

Ned could hear no more, and so he crept away, his head confused and in a whirl. What was he to do? he asked himself. To go to the police station, was his first thought; but how could he get away at that time of night without exciting suspicion?

“I won’t say anything to Sam about it. He’s deceived me once, but he sha’n’t do it a second time,” he muttered. “I’ll get up as soon as it’s daylight to-morrow morning and go to the police.”

And his mind made up on this point he went back to the caravan, Meg receiving him with a scowl, for he was now entirely out of her favour.

“You’d better get to bed. Hanging about so late at night, I’ve no patience with you.”

Ned did not think it worth while to answer, but went quickly to the corner where his bed was, and threw himself down.

But not to sleep.

Hour after hour he heard chime from the cathedral clock, and then when it was broad daylight he got up softly, dressed himself, and went out without making the least noise.