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0105_001E The Lost Prince Frances Hodgson Burnett

VI The Drill and the Secret Party

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``Every night and every morning,'' said Marco, ``I shall pray that I may be called to do it, and that I may do it well.''

``You will do it well, Comrade, if you are called. That I could make oath,'' Loristan answered him.

The Squad had collected in the inclosure behind the church when Marco appeared at the arched end of the passage. The boys were drawn up with their rifles, but they all wore a rather dogged and sullen look. The explanation which darted into Marco's mind was that this was because The Rat was in a bad humor. He sat crouched together on his platform biting his nails fiercely, his elbows on his updrawn knees, his face twisted into a hideous scowl. He did not look around, or even look up from the cracked flagstone of the pavement on which his eyes were fixed.

Marco went forward with military step and stopped opposite to him with prompt salute.

``Sorry to be late, sir,'' he said, as if he had been a private speaking to his colonel.

``It's 'im, Rat! 'E's come, Rat!'' the Squad shouted. ``Look at 'im!''

But The Rat would not look, and did not even move.

``What's the matter?'' said Marco, with less ceremony than a private would have shown. ``There's no use in my coming here if you don't want me.''

`` 'E's got a grouch on 'cos you're late!'' called out the head of the line. ``No doin' nothin' when 'e's got a grouch on.''

``I sha'n't try to do anything,'' said Marco, his boy-face setting itself into good stubborn lines. ``That's not what I came here for. I came to drill. I've been with my father. He comes first. I can't join the Squad if he doesn't come first. We're not on active service, and we're not in barracks.''

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Then The Rat moved sharply and turned to look at him.

``I thought you weren't coming at all!'' he snapped and growled at once. ``My father said you wouldn't. He said you were a young swell for all your patched clothes. He said your father would think he was a swell, even if he was only a penny-a-liner on newspapers, and he wouldn't let you have anything to do with a vagabond and a nuisance. Nobody begged you to join. Your father can go to blazes!''

``Don't you speak in that way about my father,'' said Marco, quite quietly, ``because I can't knock you down.''

``I'll get up and let you!'' began The Rat, immediately white and raging. ``I can stand up with two sticks. I'll get up and let you!''

``No, you won't,'' said Marco. ``If you want to know what my father said, I can tell you. He said I could come as often as I liked --till I found out whether we should be friends or not. He says I shall find that out for myself.''

It was a strange thing The Rat did. It must always be remembered of him that his wretched father, who had each year sunk lower and lower in the under-world, had been a gentleman once, a man who had been familiar with good manners and had been educated in the customs of good breeding. Sometimes when he was drunk, and sometimes when he was partly sober, he talked to The Rat of many things the boy would otherwise never have heard of. That was why the lad was different from the other vagabonds. This, also, was why he suddenly altered the whole situation by doing this strange and unexpected thing. He utterly changed his expression and voice, fixing his sharp eyes shrewdly on Marco's. It was almost as if he were asking him a conundrum. He knew it would have been one to most boys of the class he appeared outwardly to belong to. He would either know the answer or he wouldn't.

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The Lost Prince
Frances Hodgson Burnett

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