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[Illustration: "Quite a little party of friends to see him off." (p.
155)]




HIS BIG OPPORTUNITY

BY AMY LE FEUVRE

Author of "Probable Sons," "The Odd One,"
"Teddy's Button," etc, etc.

1898




Contents


Chapters

I. On the Garden Wall

II. A Song

III. Making An Opportunity

IV. An Awkward Visit

V. A Lost Donkey

VI. Rob

VII. A Walnut Story

VIII. The Bertrams' Leap

IX. Making His Leap

X. A Cripple

XI. A Gift to the Queen

XII. Letters

XIII. Old Principle

XIV. Heroes

XV. An Unwelcome Proposal

XVI. David and Jonathan

XVII. Boy's Big Opportunity




LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS.



Quite a Little Party of Friends to See Him Off

Old Principle Laughed at Dudley's Notion

"Now Then, You Rascals, What Are You Doing to My Donkey?"

"He's Dead, Ben - He's Dead!"




I


ON THE GARDEN WALL

They were sitting astride on the top of the old garden wall. Below them
on the one side stretched a sweet old-fashioned English garden lying in
the blaze of an August sun. In the distance, peeping from behind a
wealth of creepers and ivy was the old stone house. It was at an hour in
the afternoon when everything seemed to be at a standstill: two or three
dogs lay on the soft green lawn fast asleep, an old gardener smoking his
pipe and sitting on the edge of a wheelbarrow seemed following their
example; and birds and insects only kept up a monotonous and drowsy
dirge.

But the two little figures clad in white cricketting flannels, were full
of life and motion as they kept up an eager and animated conversation on
their lofty seat.

"You see, Dudley, if nothing happens, we will make it happen!"

"Then it isn't an opportunity."

"Yes it is. Why if those old fellows in olden times hadn't ridden off to
look for adventures they would never have found them at home."

"But an opportunity isn't an adventure."

"Yes, it is, you stupid! An adventure is something that happens, and so
is an opportunity."

The little speaker who announced this logic so dogmatically, was a slim
delicate boy with white face, and large brown eyes, and a crop of dark
unruly curls that had a trick of defying the hair cutter's skill, and of
growing so erratically that "Master Roy's head," was pronounced quite
unmanageable.

He was not a pretty boy, and was in delicate health, constantly subject
to attacks of bronchitis and asthma, yet his spirit was undaunted, and
as his old nurse often said, "his soul was too strong for his body."

Dudley, his little cousin, who sat facing him, on the contrary, was a
true specimen of a handsome English boy. Chestnut hair and bright blue
eyes, rosy cheeks, and an upright sturdy carriage, did much to commend
him to every one's favor: yet for force of character and intellect he
came far behind Roy.

He sat now pondering Roy's words, and kicking his heels against the
wall, whilst his eyes roved over the road on the outside of the garden
and away to a dark pine wood opposite.

"Here's one coming then," he said, suddenly; "now you'll have to use
it."

"Who? What? Where?"

"It's a man; a tramp, a traveller or a highwayman, and he may be all the
lot together! It's an opportunity, isn't it?"

Roy looked down the narrow lane outside the wall, and saw the figure of
a man approaching. His face lit up with eager resolve.

"He's a stranger, Dudley; he doesn't belong to the village; we'll ask
him who he is."

"Hulloo, you fellow," shouted Dudley in his shrill boyish treble; "where
do you come from? You don't belong to this part."

The man looked up at the boys curiously.

"And who may ye be, a-wall climbin' and a breakin' over in folks'
gardens to steal their fruit?"

"Don't you cheek us," said Roy, throwing his head up, and putting on his
most autocratic air; "this is our garden and our wall, and the road
you're walking on is our private road!"

"Then don't you take to insulting passers-by, or it will be the worse
for ye!" retorted the man.

The boys were silent.

"I'm sure he isn't an opportunity," whispered Dudley.

But Roy would not be disconcerted.

"Look here," he said, adopting a conciliatory tone; "we're looking out
for an opportunity to do some one some good, and then you came along,
that's why we spoke to you. Now just tell us if we can do it to you."

"Yes," Dudley struck in: "you seem rather down, do you want anything
that we can give you?"

The man glanced up at them to see if this was boyish impudence, but the
faces bending down were earnest and grave enough, and he said with a
short laugh, -

"Oh, I reckon there be just a few things I'm in want of; but as to your
givin' of them to me that be quite a different matter. Don't suppose ye
carry about jobs ready to hand in yer pockets, nor yet my set of tools
in pawn, nor yet a pint o' beer and a good hunk of bread and meat for a
starvin' feller! May be ye could tell me the way to the nearest pub, and
stand me a drink there!"

Roy thrust his hand immediately into his pocket, and pulled out amongst
a confused mass of boys' treasures a sixpence.

"I'll give you this if it will do you good," he said, holding it up
proudly. "I've kept it a whole two days without spending it. It will
give you some beer and bread and cheese, I expect. Is there anything
else we can do for you?"

"If you go to Mr. Selby, the rector, he'll put you in the way of work,"
shouted out Dudley, as the man catching the sixpence flung down to him
slouched off with muttered thanks.

"No parsons for me," was the rejoinder.

The boys watched his figure disappear down the road, and then Roy said
reflectively, -

"Too many opportunities like that would empty our pockets."

"And I wonder if it will really do him good," said Dudley; then glancing
over into the garden, he added: "Here comes Aunt Judy, she's calling
us."

Down the winding gravel path came their aunt; a strikingly handsome
woman. She looked up at her little nephews and laughed when she came to
the wall.

"Oh, you imps, do you know I've been hunting for you everywhere! You
will have a fall like Humpty Dumpty if you choose such high perches. Now
what comfort can you find, may I ask, in such a blazing breakneck seat?
Do you find broken bottles a soft cushion?"

"We've cleared those rotten things away here," said Dudley, preparing to
clamber down; "it's our watch tower, and we've a first-rate view, you
just come up and see!"

"Thank you, I would rather not attempt the climb. What have you been
talking about? Jonathan looks as grave as a judge."

Roy looked down at his aunt without moving.

"If you won't laugh or tell granny, we'll tell you, because you never
split if you say you won't."

"All right, I promise."

"Well, you see, this morning Mr. Selby gave us this for our copy: 'As ye
have opportunity do good unto all men,' and he told us of a King
somebody - I forget who - who used to write down at the end of each day on
a slate, - if he hadn't done any good to any one, - 'I've lost a day.' We
thought it would be a good plan to start this afternoon and see what we
could do. We tried on old Hal first, but he didn't seem to like it. He
was uncovering some of the frames, and so we went and uncovered all of
them, and then he said we had spoilt some of his seedlings, and nearly
went into a fit with rage. I turned the hose on him to cool him down. He
is asleep in the wheelbarrow now; we can see him from here. We really
came up here to get out of his way, his language was awful!"

"Come down, you monkey. I can't carry on a conversation with you so far
above me. Softly now. Bless the boys, how they can stick their toes into
such a wall is past my comprehension! Granny wants to see you before
your tea, so come along. And who else has been benefited by your good
deeds?"

They were walking toward the house by this time, each boy hanging on to
one of her arms. It was easy to see the affection between them.

Dudley eagerly poured out the story of the tramp, and Miss Bertram
listened sympathetically.

"Never send a man to a public house, boys - and never give him money for
beer. Perhaps he may have come down in the world through love of it. You
know I am always ready to give any one a relief ticket. That's the best
way to help such cases."

"Yes, but that would be your doing not ours."

"Money is a difficult way of helping," said Miss Bertram; "don't get
into the habit of thinking money is the only thing that will do people
good. It too often does them harm."

"Oh, I say! that's hard lines on me, when my last sixpence has gone, and
I was going to get a stunning ball old Principle has in his shop!"

Miss Bertram laughed at Roy's woe-begone little face.

"Never mind," she said, consolingly; "your intentions were good, and you
must buy your experience by mistakes as you go through life. Now go into
granny softly, both of you, and talk nicely to her. She will be one
person you can do good to, by brightening her up a little."

Dudley made a grimace at Roy; but both boys entered the house, and
crept into a cool half-darkened drawing-room on tiptoe, with hushed
voices and sober demeanor. A stern looking old lady sat upright in her
easy chair, knitting busily. She greeted the boys rather coldly.

"What have you been doing with yourselves? I sent for you some time ago.
Do you not remember that I like you to come to me every afternoon about
this hour?"

"Yes, granny," said Roy, climbing into an easy chair opposite her; "we
were coming only we didn't know it was so late: we were busy talking."

"Boys' chatter ought not to come before a grandmother's wishes."

There was silence; then Dudley struck in boldly:

"We were talking about good things, granny. It wasn't chatter. Roy and I
are going to look out for opportunities every day of our lives. Do you
think an opportunity is the same as an adventure? I don't think you have
adventures of doing good, do you?"

"Yes," asserted Roy, bobbing up and down in his chair excitedly; "King
Arthur and his knights did always. They never rode through a wood
without having an adventure, and it was always doing good, wasn't it,
granny?"

Conversation never slackened when the boys were present, and Mrs.
Bertram, though shrinking at all times from their high spirits and love
of fun, yet looked forward every day to their short visit. She was a
confirmed invalid, and rarely left the house, and her daughter Julia in
consequence took her place as mistress over the household.

Three years before, Roy and Dudley arrived within a month of each other,
to find a home with their grandmother. Roy, whose proper name was
Fitzroy, came from Canada, both his parents having died out there.
Dudley's father had died when he was a baby, but his mother had married
again in India; and upon her death which occurred not long after, his
stepfather had sent him home to his grandmother. From the first day that
they met, the boys were sworn friends; and their aunt dubbed them
"David" and "Jonathan" after having been an unseen witness of a very
solemn vow transacted between them under the shadow of the pines, only a
week after their meeting.

Roy's delicate health was a cause of great anxiety to his grandmother,
and if it had not been for Miss Bertram's wise tact and judgment, he
would have been imprisoned in one room and swathed in cotton wool most
of the year round. He had the advantage of having an old nurse who had
brought him up from his birth, and had come from Canada with him; and
she was as vigilant and experienced in managing his ailments as could be
desired. Poor little Roy, with his uncertain health, was heir to a very
large property of his father's not far away; and the responsibilities
awaiting him, and the knowledge that he would have so much power in his
hands, perhaps had the effect of making him weigh life more seriously
than would most boys of his age.

Later on after their visit to their grandmother was over, and tea had
been finished in the nursery, he wandered into his own little room, and
leaning out of his window, looked up into the clear sky above.

"I feel so small," was his wistful thought, "and heaven is so big; but
I'll do something big enough to get, 'Well done good and faithful
servant,' said to me when I die, I hope. And I'll try every day till I
do it!"




II


A SONG

"Come here, boys. I have had some new music from town, and here is a
song that you will like to listen to, I expect."

It was Miss Bertram who spoke, and her appearance in the nursery just
saved a free fight. Wet afternoons were always a sore trial to the boys:
their mornings were generally spent at the Rectory under Mr. Selby's
tuition, but their afternoons were their own, and it was hard to be kept
within four walls, and expected to make no sound to disturb their
grandmother's afternoon nap.

The old nurse was nodding in her chair, and her charges with jackets off
and rolled up shirt sleeves were advancing toward each other on tiptoe,
and muttering their threats in wrathful whispers.

"I'll show you I'm no coddle!"

"And I'll show you I'm no lazy lubber!"

At the sound of their aunt's voice they stopped; and each picked up his
jacket with some confusion, Dudley saying contentedly, "All right, old
fellow, pax now, and we'll finish it up to-morrow."

"Aunt Judy, do let us come into the drawing-room then, and hear you
sing; we're sick of this old nursery, we're too big to be kept here."

Roy spoke scornfully, but his aunt shook her head at him:

"Do you know this is the room I love best in the house? Your father and
I used it till we were double your age, and no place ever came up to it
in our estimation. Don't be little prigs and think yourselves men before
you're boys!"

"Why, Aunt Judy, we've been boys ever since we were born!"

"I look upon you as infants now," retorted Miss Bertram, laughing. "Come
along - tiptoe past granny's room, please, and no racing downstairs."

"We'll slide down the rails instead, we always do when granny is
asleep."

"Not when I am with you, thank you."

A few minutes afterward, and the boys were standing on either side of
the piano listening with delight to the song that has stirred so many
boyish hearts:

"'Tis a story, what a story, tho' it never made a noise
Of cherub-headed Jake and Jim, two little drummer boys
Of all the wildest scamps that e'er provoked a sergeant's eye,
They were first in every wickedness, but one thing could not lie,
And they longed to face the music, when the tidings from afar
Brought the news of wild disaster in a wild and savage war.
Said the Colonel, 'How can babies of battle bear the brunt?'
Said the little orphan rascals, 'please Sir, take us to the front!
And we'll play to the men in the far-off land,
When their eyes for home are dim;
If the Indians come, they shall hear our drum
In the van where the fight is grim.
Our lads we know, to the death will go,
If they're led by Jake and Jim.'

"In the battle, 'mid the rattle, and the deadly hail of lead,
The two were in their glory - What did they know of dread?
And fierce the heathen cry arose across the Indian plain,
And 'twas Home, for the bravest there would never be again,
The raw recruits were restless, and they counted not the cost,
And the Colonel shouted, 'Steady lads, stand fast, or else we're lost.'
A rush! 'twas like an avalanche! a clash of steel and red!
A shock like mountain thunder, then the reg'ment turned and fled.
'Give me the drum, take the fife,' said Jake,
'And with all your might and main,
Play the old step now, for the reg'ment's sake
As they scatter along the plain.
We'll play them up to the front once more,
Tho' we never come back again.'

"Then might the world have seen two little dots in red,
Facing the foe, when the rest had turned and fled!
So young, so brave and gay, while others held their breath,
They played ev'ry inch of the way to meet their death;
And _then_ at last the reg'ment turned, for vengeance ev'ry man
To save the lads they turned and fought as only demons can;
They swept the foe before them across the mountain rim,
But victory that day could never bring back Jake or Jim.
And they silently stood where the children fell,
Not a word of triumph said,
For they knew who had led as they bowed each head,
And looked at the quiet dead;
That the fight was won, and the reg'ment saved,
By those two little dots in red."

Miss Bertram stole a glance at the boys' faces as she finished singing.

With a wriggle and a twist Dudley turned his back upon her; but not
before she had seen the blue eyes swimming with tears, and heard a
choking sob being hastily swallowed. Roy stood erect, his little face
quivering with emotion, and his usually pale cheek flushed a deep
crimson, whilst his small determined mouth and chin looked more resolute
and daring than ever. His hands thrust deep in the pockets of his
knickerbockers he looked straight before him and repeated with emphasis,

"They played every inch of the way to meet their death!"

"Regular little heroes, weren't they?" said Miss Bertram.

"Rather," came from Roy's lips, and then without another word he ran out
of the room.

"Do you like it, David?" Miss Bertram asked, touching Dudley lightly on
the shoulder.

"No - I - don't - it makes a fellow in a blue funk." And two fists were
hastily brushed across the eyes.

"Shall I sing you something more cheerful?"

"No, thanks, not to-night, I think I'll go to Roy."

And Dudley, too, made his exit, leaving his aunt touched and amused at
the effect of the song.

An hour after the rain had ceased, and the sun was shining out. Down the
village street walked the two boys enjoying their freedom more soberly
than was their wont.

"We must, we must, we _must_ be heroes, Dudley!"

"Yes, if we get a chance."

"But why shouldn't we have it as well as those two boys. I wonder
sometimes what God meant us to do when He made us! And I'm not going to
be in the dumps because I'm not very strong. For look at Nelson: old
Selby told us he was always very seedy and shaky, always ill; and not
being big in body doesn't matter, for Nelson was a little man and so was
Napoleon, and lots of the great men have been short and stumpy and
hideous! I mean to do something before I die, if only an opportunity
will come! Do you remember the story of the little chap in Holland, who
put his hand in the hole in the sand bank, and kept the whole ocean from
coming in and washing away hundreds of towns and villages? If I could
only do a thing like that, something that would do good to millions of
people; something that would be worth living for! If I could save
somebody's life from fire, or drowning, or some kind of danger! Don't
you long for something of that sort, eh?"

"I don't know that I do," was the slow response; "but I should like you
to get a chance of it if you want it so much."

"Oh, wasn't it splendid of those two little chaps - a whole regiment! And
only those two who didn't run away! I think I could stand fire like
that, couldn't you?"

"I would with you."

"But I don't expect I'll ever go into the army." This in sorrowful
tones.

"Why not?"

"Oh, they'd never have me. I'm too thin round the chest; nurse says I'm
like a bag of bones, and I wouldn't make a smart soldier. Now you'd be a
splendid one, no one could be ashamed of you."

"Well, I won't go without you."

"But I'll do something worth living for," repeated Roy, tossing up his
head and giving a stamp as he spoke; "and I'll seize the first
opportunity that comes."

Dudley was silent. They had now reached the low stone bridge over the
river, a favorite resort amongst all the village boys for fishing; and
quite a little group of them were collected there. Roy and Dudley were
welcomed eagerly as though perhaps at times they were inclined to assume
patronizing and masterful airs; yet their extreme generosity and love
for all country sport made them general favorites with the villagers.

Roy was soon in the midst of an eager discussion about the best bait for
trout; and was presently startled by a heavy splash over the bridge.
Looking up, to his amazement, he saw Dudley struggling in the water.

"Help, Roy, I'm drowning!"

Both boys were capital swimmers, but Roy saw that Dudley seemed
incapable of keeping himself up, and in one second he threw off his
jacket, and dived head foremost off the bridge to the rescue. The
current of the river was strong here, for a mill wheel was only a short
distance off; and it was hard work to swim safely ashore. Roy
accomplished it successfully amidst the cheers of the admiring group on
the bridge; and when once on dry ground again, neither of the boys
seemed the worse for the wetting. In the hubbub that ensued Dubley was
not questioned as to the cause of the accident; but it appeared that his
feet had got entangled in some string and netting that one of the boys
had brought with him to the bridge, and it was this that had prevented
him from swimming.

"It's awfully nice that I had the chance of helping you," said Roy, as
the two boys were running home as fast as they could to change their
wet clothes; "I didn't hurt you in the water, did I? I believe I gave a
pretty good tug to your hair, I was awfully glad you hadn't had your
hair cut lately."

"You've saved my life," said Dudley, staring at Roy with a peculiar
gravity; "if you hadn't dashed over to me, I should have been sucked
down by that old wheel, and should have been a dead man by this time.
You've done to-day what you were longing to do."

"Yes, but I tell you I felt awfully squeamish when I saw you in the
water and thought I might be too late."

As they neared the house, Roy's pace slackened.

"Go on, Dudley, and leave me, I can't get on, I believe that horrid old
asthma is coming on, I'll follow slowly."

"I'm not quite such a cad," was Dudley's retort, and then hoisting Roy
up on his back, as if that mode of proceeding was quite a usual
occurrence, he made his way into the house.

They crept up to their bedrooms and changed their wet clothes before
they showed themselves to any one. Then Dudley waxed eloquent for the
occasion, and the story was told in drawing-room and servants' hall,
till every one was loud in their praises of the little rescuer.

"He looks too small to have done it," said Miss Bertram, smiling; for
though Roy was Dudley's senior by two months, he was a good head
shorter.

Roy got rather impatient under this adulation.

"Oh, shut up, Dudley, don't be such an ass, as if I could have done
anything else!"

An hour after, and Roy was sitting up in bed speechless and panting,
with the bronchitis kettle in full play, and nurse trying vainly to
battle with one of his worst bronchial attacks.

"I say " - he gasped at last; "do you think - I'm going to die - this
time?"

"Surely no, my pet. It's more asthma than bronchitis; I'll pull you
round, please God."

Midnight came, and when nurse left the room for a minute she found a
small figure crouched down outside the door.

It was Dudley.

"Oh, nurse, he's very bad, isn't he? Is he going to die? What shall I
do! I shall be his murderer, I've killed him!"

Dudley's eyes were wild with terror, and nurse tried to soothe him.

"Don't talk nonsense, but go to bed; he'll be better in the morning, I
hope. It's just the wet, and the strain of it that's done it. There's
none to blame. You couldn't help it, and he's been as bad as this
before and pulled through. Go to bed, laddie, and ask God to make him
better."

Dudley crept back to bed, and flung himself down on his pillows with a
fit of bitter weeping.

"She says I couldn't help it; oh, God, make him better, make him better,
do forgive me! I never thought of this!"




III


MAKING AN OPPORTUNITY

It was two days before Dudley was allowed to see the little invalid. The
doctor had been in constant attendance; but all danger was over now, and
Roy as usual was rapidly picking up his strength again.

"His constitution has wonderful rallying powers," the old doctor said;
"he is like a bit of india rubber!"

It seemed to Dudley that Roy's face had got wonderfully white and small;
and there was a weary worn look in his eyes, as he turned round to greet
him.

"Now sit down and talk to him, but don't let him do the talking," was
nurse's advice as she left the boys together.


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