"A knight," said Miss Drew, who was struggling to inspire her class with enthusiasm for Tennyson's "Idylls of the King," "a knight was a person who spent his time going round succouring the oppressed."
"Suckin' wot?" said William, bewildered.
"Succour means to help. He spent his time helping anyone who was in trouble."
"How much did he get for it?" asked William.
"Nothing, of course," said Miss Drew, appalled by the base commercialism of the twentieth century. "He helped the poor because he loved them, William. He had a lot of adventures and fighting and he helped beautiful, persecuted damsels."
William's respect for the knight rose.
"Of course," said Miss Drew hastily, "they needn't necessarily be beautiful, but, in most of the stories we have, they were beautiful."
Followed some stories of fighting and adventure and the rescuing of beautiful damsels. The idea of the thing began to take hold of William's imagination.
"I say," he said to his chum Ginger after school, "that knight thing sounds all right. Suckin'—I mean helpin' people an' fightin' an' all that. I wun't mind doin' it an' you could be my squire."
"Yes," said Ginger slowly, "I'd thought of doin' it, but I'd thought of you bein' the squire."
"Well," said William after a pause, "let's be squires in turn. You first," he added hastily.
"Wot'll you give me if I'm first?" said Ginger, displaying again the base commercialism of his age.
"I'll give you first drink out of a bottle of ginger-ale wot I'm goin' to get with my next money. It'll be three weeks off 'cause they're takin' the next two weeks to pay for an ole window wot my ball slipped into by mistake."
He spoke with the bitterness that always characterised his statements of the injustice of the grown-up world.
"All right," said Ginger.
"I won't forget about the drink of ginger-ale."
"No, you won't," said Ginger simply. "I'll remind you all right. Well, let's set off."
"'Course," said William, "it would be nicer with armour an' horses an' trumpets, but I 'spect folks ud think anyone a bit soft wot went about in the streets in armour now, 'cause these times is different. She said so. Anyway she said we could still be knights an' help people, di'n't she? Anyway, I'll get my bugle. That'll be something."
William's bugle had just returned to public life after one of its periodic terms of retirement into his father's keeping.
William took his bugle proudly in one hand and his pistol (the glorious result of a dip in the bran tub at a school party) in the other, and, sternly denying themselves the pleasures of afternoon school, off the two set upon the road of romance and adventure.
"I'll carry the bugle," said Ginger, "'cause I'm squire."
William was loth to give up his treasure.
"Well, I'll carry it now," he said, "but when I begin' fightin' folks, I'll give it you to hold."
They walked along for about a mile without meeting anyone. William began to be aware of a sinking feeling in the region of his waist.
"I wonder wot they eat," he said at last. "I'm gettin' so's I wouldn't mind sumthin' to eat."
"We di'n't ought to have set off before dinner," said the squire with after-the-event wisdom. "We ought to have waited till after dinner."
"You ought to have brought sumthin'," said William severely. "You're the squire. You're not much of a squire not to have brought sumthin' for me to eat."
"An' me," put in Ginger. "If I'd brought any I'd have brought it for me more'n for you."
William fingered his minute pistol.
"If we meet any wild animals ..." he said darkly.
A cow gazed at them mournfully over a hedge.
"You might go an' milk that," suggested William. "Milk 'ud be better'n nothing."
"You go 'an milk it."
"No, I'm not squire. I bet squires did the milkin'. Knights wu'n't of done the milkin'."
"I'll remember," said Ginger bitterly, "when you're squire, all the things wot you said a squire ought to do when I was squire."
They entered the field and gazed at the cow from a respectful distance. She turned her eyes upon them sadly.
"Go on!" said the knight to his reluctant squire.
"I'm not good at cows," objected that gentleman.
"Well, I will, then!" said William with reckless bravado, and advanced boldly upon the animal. The animal very slightly lowered its horns (perhaps in sign of greeting) and emitted a sonorous mo-o-o-o-o. Like lightning the gallant pair made for the road.
"Anyway," said William gloomily, "we'd got nothin' to put it in, so we'd only of got tossed for nothin', p'raps, if we'd gone on."
They walked on down the road till they came to a pair of iron gates and a drive that led up to a big house. William's spirits rose. His hunger was forgotten.
"Come on!" he said. "We might find someone to rescue here. It looks like a place where there might be someone to rescue."
There was no one in the garden to question the right of entry of two small boys armed with a bugle and a toy pistol. Unchallenged they went up to the house. While the knight was wondering whether to blow his bugle at the front door or by the open window, they caught sight suddenly of a vision inside the window. It was a girl as fair and slim and beautiful as any wandering knight could desire. And she was speaking fast and passionately.
William, ready for all contingencies, marshalled his forces.
"Follow me!" he whispered and crept on all fours nearer the window. They could see a man now, an elderly man with white hair and a white beard.
"And how long will you keep me in this vile prison?" she was saying in a voice that trembled with anger, "base wretch that you are!"
"Crumbs!" ejaculated William.
"Ha! Ha!" sneered the man. "I have you in my power. I will keep you here a prisoner till you sign the paper which will make me master of all your wealth, and beware, girl, if you do not sign, you may answer for it with your life!"
"Golly!" murmured William.
Then he crawled away into the bushes, followed by his attendant squire.
"Well," said William, his face purple with excitement, "we've found someone to rescue all right. He's a base wretch, wot she said, all right."
"Will you kill him?" said the awed squire.
"How big was he? Could you see?" said William the discreet.
"He was ever so big. Great big face he had, too, with a beard."
"Then I won't try killin' him—not straight off. I'll think of some plan—somethin' cunnin'."
He sat with his chin on his hands, gazing into space, till they were surprised by the opening of the front door and the appearance of a tall, thick-set, elderly man. William quivered with excitement. The man went along a path through the bushes. William and Ginger followed on all fours with elaborate caution. At every almost inaudible sound from Ginger, William turned his red, frowning face on to him with a resounding "Sh!" The path ended at a small shed with a locked door. The man opened the door—the key stood in the lock—and entered.
Promptly William, with a snarl expressive of cunning and triumph, hurled himself at the door and turned the key in the lock.
"Here!" came an angry shout from inside. "Who's that? What the devil——"
"You low ole caitiff!" said William through the keyhole.
"Who the deuce——?" exploded the voice.
"You base wretch, like wot she said you was," bawled William, his mouth still applied closely to the keyhole.
"Let me out at once, or I'll——"
"You mean ole oppressor!"
"Who the deuce are you? What's this tomfool trick? Let me out! Do you hear?"
A resounding kick shook the door.
"I've gotter pistol," said William sternly. "I'll shoot you dead if you kick the door down, you mangy ole beast!"
The sound of kicking ceased and a scrambling and scraping, accompanied by oaths, proceeded from the interior.
"I'll stay on guard," said William with the tense expression of the soldier at his post, "an' you go an' set her free. Go an' blow the bugle at the front door, then they'll know something's happened," he added simply.
Miss Priscilla Greene was pouring out tea in the drawing-room. Two young men and a maiden were the recipients of her hospitality.
"Dad will be here in a minute," she said. "He's just gone to the dark-room to see to some photos he'd left in toning or fixing, or something. We'll get on with the rehearsal as soon as he comes. We'd just rehearsed the scene he and I have together, so we're ready for the ones where we all come in."
"How did it go off?"
"Oh, quite well. We knew our parts, anyway."
"I think the village will enjoy it."
"Anyway, it's never very critical, is it? And it loves a melodrama."
"Yes. I wonder if father knows you're here. He said he'd come straight back. Perhaps I'd better go and find him."
"Oh, let me go, Miss Greene," said one of the youths ardently.
"Well, I don't know whether you'd find the place. It's a shed in the garden that he uses. We use half as a dark-room and half as a coal-cellar."
He stopped. A nightmare sound, as discordant as it was ear-splitting, filled the room. Miss Greene sank back into her chair, suddenly white. One of the young men let a cup of tea fall neatly from his fingers on to the floor and there crash into fragments. The young lady visitor emitted a scream that would have done credit to a factory siren. Then at the open French window appeared a small boy holding a bugle, purple-faced with the effort of his performance.
One of the young men was the first to recover speech. He stepped away from the broken crockery on the floor as if to disclaim all responsibility for it and said sternly:
"Did you make that horrible noise?"
Miss Greene began to laugh hysterically.
"Do have some tea now you've come," she said to Ginger.
Ginger remembered the pangs of hunger, of which excitement had momentarily rendered him oblivious, and, deciding that there was no time like the present, took a cake from the stand and began to consume it in silence.
"You'd better be careful," said the young lady to her hostess; "he might have escaped from the asylum. He looks mad. He had a very mad look, I thought, when he was standing at the window."
"He's evidently hungry, anyway. I can't think why father doesn't come."
Here Ginger, fortified by a walnut bun, remembered his mission.
"It's all right now," he said. "You can go home. He's shut up. Me an' William shut him up."
"You see!" said the young lady with a meaning glance around. "I said he was from the asylum. He looked mad. We'd better humour him and ring up the asylum. Have another cake, darling boy," she said in a tone of honeyed sweetness.
Nothing loth, Ginger selected an ornate pyramid of icing.
At this point there came a bellowing and crashing and tramping outside and Miss Priscilla's father, roaring fury and threats of vengeance, hurled himself into the room. Miss Priscilla's father had made his escape by a small window at the other end of the shed. To do this he had had to climb over the coals in the dark. His face and hands and clothes and once-white beard were covered with coal. His eyes gleamed whitely.
"An abominable attack ... utterly unprovoked ... dastardly ruffians!"
Here he stopped to splutter because his mouth was full of coal dust. While he was spluttering, William, who had just discovered that his bird had flown, appeared at the window.
"He's got out," he said reproachfully. "Look at him. He's got out. An' all our trouble for nothing. Why di'n't someone stop him gettin' out?"
William and Ginger sat on the railing that separated their houses.
"It's not really much fun bein' a knight," said William slowly.
"No," agreed Ginger. "You never know when folks is oppressed. An' anyway, wot's one afternoon away from school to make such a fuss about?"
"Seems to me from wot father said," went on William gloomily, "you'll have to wait a jolly long time for that drink of ginger-ale."
An expression of dejection came over Ginger's face.
"An' you wasn't even ever squire," he said. Then he brightened.
"They were jolly good cakes, wasn't they?" he said.
William's lips curved into a smile of blissful reminiscence.
"Jolly good!" he agreed.