English Literature

Highway Pirates Or, The Secret Place at Coverthorne by Harold Avery

Highway Pirates Or, The Secret Place at Coverthorne by Harold Avery



“They’ve seen us! Run for it!”

My chosen friend, Miles Coverthorne, was the speaker. He sprang to his feet as he uttered the words, and darted like a rabbit into the bushes, I myself following hard at his heels. The seasons seem to have come earlier in those days, and though May was not out, the woods and countryside appeared clothed with all the richness of leafy June.

At headlong speed we dashed through the underwood, stung by hazel switches which struck us across the face like whips, and staggering as our feet caught in thick tufts of grass.

“Who is it—keepers?” I inquired.

“No; ‘Eagles’!” was the quick reply.

If anything had been needed to quicken my pace, this last word would have served the purpose. We both rushed wildly onward, as though our very lives were at stake.

It may be guessed that Miles did not mean to imply that a number of real eagles were swooping down upon us with the intention of bearing us away to some rocky crags, there to form an appetizing repast for their young; the word had, in this case, a special meaning, to explain which a slight digression will be necessary.

Many things have altered since the year 1830, and in no direction are greater changes manifested than in the schools and school life of that period compared with those of the present day. What the modern boy at Hobworth’s School (so called after its worthy founder) would think of the place if suddenly transferred back to the days when I went there as a boarder, I cannot imagine. Whole chapters might be devoted to a comparison of the past with the present, but for the purposes of our story only one point need be considered, and that is the great difference in the style and character of recreation out of school hours.

Though organized games, such as cricket, no doubt existed in the big public schools, they were unknown at Hobworth’s. Such sports as prisoner’s base, marbles, and an elaborate form of leap-frog called—if I remember rightly—”fly-the-garter,” we certainly indulged in; but, as might be expected, such amusements did not always satisfy the bolder spirits—the result being that these found vent for their adventurous inclinations in various expeditions, which more than once landed them in serious trouble with farmers and gamekeepers.

I cannot say that there was any vicious intention in these raids and forays. It was perhaps difficult for us boys to see the justice of certain men claiming all the birds’ eggs, squirrels, or hazel-nuts in the neighbourhood, especially as these things were of no value to their avowed owners. Again, if pheasants were disturbed, or fences broken, or perhaps a rabbit knocked over for the joy of subsequently cooking it surreptitiously in a coffee-pot, it was, after all, a very small matter, and not worth making a fuss about. So, at least, the youngster of that period would have argued.

Those were not happy times for the small and weak. Brute force was far too highly esteemed, and the champion fighter of a school was thought as much or even more of than the leading cricket or football player is to-day. It was an unpardonable sin for a small boy to sneak, but the cruelty and oppression of the more evil-minded of his elders was hardly deemed worthy of censure. Out of school hours very little notice was taken by masters of how their pupils employed their time, and as long as the latter refrained from bringing the place about their ears with any acts of particularly flagrant mischief, they were left pretty much to their own devices.

Partly for mutual protection against the violence of their fellows, and partly in pursuit of the questionable forms of recreation already referred to, the boys had formed themselves into a number of “tribes,” each under the leadership of some heavy-fisted chieftain to whom they swore allegiance, at the same time sharing all their worldly possessions with the other members of the band.

In course of time these various small communities became gradually absorbed into two large rival bands known as the “Foxes” and the “Eagles,” the peculiarity of name being due to an exciting story of adventure among the Indians which had been going the round of the school; for books of that kind were, in those days, a rare and highly-prized possession.

Skirmishes between parties of the two tribes were of frequent occurrence, and expeditions with various objects, and not unfrequently exciting endings, were indulged in almost every half-holiday afternoon. Miles and myself were numbered among the “Foxes,” while at the head of the “Eagles” was a notorious bully named Ben Liddle, who possessed all the nature and none of the nobility of the actual savage. This leader had lately laid claim to all the woods and country on the north side of the road which passed the school, as the hunting-ground of the “Eagles,” and had thrown out dark hints of a terrible vengeance which should be meted out to any luckless “Fox” who should be captured encroaching on this preserve.

As this meant nothing less than calmly appropriating all the places where any good sport could be obtained, the claim was naturally resented by the “Foxes;” and though Kerry, our chief, had not as yet made any public pronouncement on the subject, it was understood that before long the matter would be discussed, probably in a grand pitched battle between the tribes, when this and other causes of disagreement would be settled once for all.

But even Ben Liddle’s threats were not sufficient to keep enterprising “Foxes” on the south side of the road. Miles and I had already made several expeditions into the forbidden territory, perhaps rather enjoying the extra risk of capture by “Eagles,” added to the chance of being chased by keepers. On this particular Saturday afternoon we had penetrated into the depths of a favourite haunt named Patchley Wood. The arms of an “Indian” at such times, I might explain, were a big catapult, a pocketful of pebbles, and a short stick with a lump of lead at the end, in shape somewhat resembling a life-preserver. This weapon—known to us as a “squaler”—was capable of being flung with great force and precision. With the whole of this outfit we were duly provided.

We had been in the woods perhaps half an hour, and had lain down to rest at the foot of a tree, when my companion’s quick eye detected the approach of the enemy, with the result that we immediately took flight in the manner which has already been described.

At headlong speed we dashed off through the bushes, regardless of the noise we made; for any hope we might hitherto have entertained of escaping unobserved had been dispelled by the shout sent up by the “Eagles” the moment we moved. On we ran, the enemy following hard in pursuit, crashing through the underwood, while Liddle’s voice rang out yelling directions to his followers, heedless of the risk he ran of attracting the notice of the keepers. If captured by the rival chief, we knew we might expect no mercy; and though the pair of us were pretty swift-footed, we felt that nothing short of a stroke of luck would save us, for among the “braves” now in pursuit were some of the best runners in the school.

To lessen still more our hope of escape, before us rose a gentle slope, on which the underwood grew so sparse and thin as to render it certain that we should be seen by our pursuers as we breasted the rise. We laboured on up the hill, gasping for breath as we neared the top; then a yell of triumph from behind, as our pursuers caught sight of us, goaded us to pull ourselves together in one last effort to escape.

Plunging into the thickets, which now became again more dense, we had not gone twenty yards when Miles caught his foot in a root, and came down headlong. He recovered himself immediately from the shock of the fall, and attempted to scramble to his feet, but sank down again with a smothered cry of pain.

“I’m done for,” he said. “I’ve twisted my ankle. Go on; don’t wait!”

Anxious as I was to outdistance the “Eagles,” I had certainly no thought of leaving Miles to their tender mercies, and glancing round I saw, close at hand, the trunk of a large tree which had recently been felled, together with a large heap of branches which had been lopped off by the woodcutters. Though a very poor one, it was our only chance; so, half carrying Miles, I got him to the spot. We flung ourselves down in a little vacant space between the trunk and the pile of wood, and at the same moment heard Liddle and the foremost of his band gain the summit of the slope, and come bursting through the bushes.

Possibly if we had had a better start, the “Eagles” might have searched for and found us; as it was, they never thought we should pull up with them so close at our heels, and the wood pile was such a poor place of concealment that it did not seem to attract their attention or arouse their suspicion. They rushed on, whooping as they went; and those following behind, no doubt thinking that their comrades in front had us in view, paid no heed to anything but the headlong chase. Thus it came about that, much to our surprise, as we lay panting on the ground we had the satisfaction of hearing the last of our pursuers go racing past, leaving us unmolested to recover our wind and make off in another direction.

“I thought my ankle was broken,” muttered Miles, “but it’s only a sharp twist. I think I can hobble along; and we’d better get out of this as soon as we can, for they may find they’ve overrun us, and turn back.”

We paused for a moment to get our bearings.

“The road must be close here,” I remarked. “Once across it we shall be in our own territory, and can easily escape.”

Taking the lead, and with my companion hobbling along in the rear, I headed for the edge of the wood. Fortune seemed to be favouring us, for we found a gap in the hedge through which Miles was able to scramble in spite of his disabled foot. I followed with a jump, and we were just congratulating ourselves on having outwitted the hostile “tribe,” when a long-drawn yell, which we at once recognized as their war-cry, caused us to turn our heads. Away down the road stood a solitary “brave,” who had evidently been sent there by Liddle to give warning if we should break out of the wood. The yell was immediately answered by others, and a moment later several of our foes came bursting through the hedge, though at a spot some distance beyond the post occupied by their scout.

Escape seemed out of the question. It was impossible for Miles, with his wrenched ankle, to scramble over ditches and hedges, and we had no choice but to keep on the road. In despair we turned and ran towards the school, Coverthorne hobbling and hopping along as best he could, with clenched teeth and subdued groans. Then suddenly, as we turned a corner, we came face to face with a gentleman on horseback, who on seeing us abruptly reined in his steed.

My first fearful thought was that this must be Squire Eastman, the owner of the woods in which we had been trespassing; but a second glance showed me that I was mistaken, and at the same time I heard Miles exclaim,—

“Hullo, young man!” remarked the horseman; “you seem in a hurry. What’s the matter? Late for school?”

“No, thank you, uncle,” gasped the boy; “it’s only—only a game.”

Mr. Nicholas Coverthorne was a hard-featured man, with cold gray eyes and a rather harsh voice. He rode a big black horse, and seemed to control the animal with a wrist of iron. Something in his manner and appearance caused me to take an instinctive dislike to him, though at the time of this our first meeting I certainly had reason to feel grateful for his opportune appearance, which was undoubtedly the means of delivering us out of the hands of our enemies. As the leading “braves” turned the corner, they promptly wheeled about and fled back the way they had come, shouting out to their comrades that we had been caught by the squire, at which intelligence the band quickly dispersed over the fields, and made their way back to the school by different routes.

A few more sentences passed between uncle and nephew, and though not any more observant of such things than most boys, it struck me at once that the relationship between them did not appear to be very cordial. Mr. Coverthorne explained that he had been over to see a neighbouring farmer about the sale of a horse.

“I’m going to stay with a friend at Round Green to-night,” he said. “It’s rather too far to get here from home and back in the same day, though I daresay Nimrod would take me all the way if I let him.”

The speaker laughed in a mirthless manner, and after a few more questions as to how his nephew was getting on at school, and when the holidays began, wished us good-bye, and, with a parting nod, went on his way.

Miles seemed glad to get the interview ended, and turned to me with what seemed almost a sigh of relief as the horseman disappeared round the bend in the road.

“Come on,” he said. “The ‘Eagles’ may be hiding somewhere, and rush out as soon as the horse has passed them. That was my uncle Nicholas,” he continued, as he hobbled along. “I don’t think I ever told you about him. He’s my father’s only brother, but they quarrelled some years ago, and now they never meet or speak.”

“Why was that?” I asked.

“Oh, it was about the property. My grandfather left Coverthorne and almost all the land to my father, and Uncle Nicholas had only a small farm called Stonebank; but before that he’d had a lot of money to enable him to start in business, and he lost it all in speculation. He said at my grandfather’s death that the property and land ought to have been divided, but my father told him he had already had his share in money.”

“Your people have lived at Coverthorne an awful time, haven’t they?” I asked.

“Oh yes. It’s a dear old house, with low rooms and big latticed windows with stone mullions, and a broad oak staircase. There’s an old sundial in the garden which was put there in Queen Elizabeth’s reign; and what’s more, the house has a secret place which nobody can find.”

“A secret place! what’s that?” I inquired, pricking up my ears.

“Why, it’s a little secret chamber or hiding-place which has been made somewhere in the building years and years ago, when there might be chances of people having to be concealed to save their lives. There is a rule in our family, handed down from one generation to another, that the whereabouts of the secret place must only be known to the owner of the house, and be told by him to the heir when he is twenty-one.”

“Then you yourself don’t know where it is?”

“No; my father will tell me when I come of age. Of course if he were dying, or were going on a long journey from which he might never return, or anything of that kind were to happen, he would tell me at once, else the secret might be lost for ever.”

“Is it big enough for a man to get into?”

“Oh yes—big enough for two people to stand in, so father says.”

“Then surely it must be easy to find. I can’t see how it’s possible for there to be a little room in a house without people knowing it is there. I believe I could find it for you if you gave me the chance.”

Miles laughed.

“You’d better come over and try,” he answered. “Now, that’s a good idea. You must come and stay with me for part of the summer holidays, and we’ll have heaps of fun. It would be jolly to have you, for I often find it dull with no cousins or friends of my own age.”

The proposal struck me as most delightful. During the last few moments I had been picturing up the ancient house, with its old-world associations and romantic hidden chamber, and comparing it, in my mind, with the prosaic red-brick building in which my own parents lived. Moreover, Coverthorne, I knew, was situated on the sea-coast, and only about a quarter of a mile from the summit of the rugged cliffs. I had often listened with envy to my friend’s tales of wrecks and smugglers, and longed to have an opportunity of wandering over the wide headlands, climbing the rocks and exploring the caves. Now the prospect of such treats being actually in store made me feel quite a thrill of delightful anticipation.

I had not finished thanking Miles and telling him how much I should like to come, when we reached the school. Passing through a side door we entered the playground, and were almost immediately surrounded by a crowd of “Foxes,” who had somehow got wind of our escape from the “Eagles,” and were eager to have a detailed account of the adventure.

Telling our story, and receiving the congratulations of the other members of our “tribe,” so much occupied our attention that we hardly noticed the sound of a horse galloping down the road and stopping in front of the schoolhouse; but a few moments later Sparrow, the porter, crossed the playground and, addressing Miles, told him he was wanted at once by Dr. Bagley.

A message of that kind from the headmaster usually meant that there was trouble in the wind.

“Hullo!” exclaimed a boy named Seaton, “what’s the row, I wonder? He’ll want you next, Eden. You must have been seen in the woods, and the squire has sent some one over to complain.”

Reluctantly Miles followed the porter. In no very enviable frame of mind I waited, expecting every minute to be ordered to appear before the doctor in his study. Still no such message came, nor did Miles return to inform us of his fate. We heard the horseman ride away again, but the height of the playground wall prevented our seeing whether he really were one of the men-servants from the Hall. A little later Liddle returned with a band of his “braves;” but the “Foxes” being also present in force, he could only shake his fist at me, and repeat his former threats of what he would do if he caught us on the hunting-ground of the “Eagles.” At length the bell rang, and we moved towards the house.

Hardly had I entered the door when I met Sparrow.

“Have you heard the news, Master Eden?” he exclaimed. “Dreadful—dreadful! Poor Master Coverthorne! His father’s been shot—mortally wounded—and is most probably dead by this time. It’s a great question if the young gentleman will ever see him alive.”

“What!” I cried—”Mr. Coverthorne shot! How did it happen?”

“It’s true enough,” answered Sparrow. “I had it all from the messenger himself. Mr. Coverthorne was out shooting with a party, and a gen’leman’s gun went off by accident as he was climbing a hedge. Mr. Coverthorne was shot in the breast. They got a trap, and took him to the Crown at Welmington, and sent for a surgeon. He wanted particular to see his son, so one of the postboys rode over; but it’s hardly likely the young gentleman will get there in time.”

“What a dreadful thing!” I muttered. “Poor Miles! I wish I could have seen him before he went.”

The news of this terrible blow which had so suddenly fallen on my companion shocked me almost as much as if the trouble had been my own. When adventuring together into the woods that afternoon, how little he imagined what the immediate future had in store!

I sat down with the rest in the long, bare dining-room, but had little heart to eat; the thought of Miles being hurried along the country road, not knowing whether he would find his father alive or dead, weighed down my spirits. If his father died, the only relative he would have in the world, besides his widowed mother, would be his uncle Nicholas; and remembering the latter’s hard face and harsh voice, and the story of the brothers’ quarrel, my mind was filled with dark forebodings for the future of my friend.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s