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- The Splendid Spur - 15/44 -
of them: but ran back for Mistress Delia.
Together we descended to the hut. By this time the voices had faded away in distance. Yet to make sure that the rascals had really departed, we follow'd their tracks for some way, beside the stream; and suddenly came to a halt with cries of joyful surprise.
The brook had led us to a point where, over a stony fall veil'd with brown bracken, it plunged into a narrow ravine. Standing on the lip, where the water took a smoother glide before leaping, we saw the line of the ravine mark'd by a rift in the pines, and through this a slice of the country that lay below. 'Twas a level plain, well watered, and dotted here and there with houses. A range of wooded hills clos'd the view, and toward them a broad road wound gently, till the eye lost it at their base. All this was plain enough, in spite of the snow that cover'd the landscape. For the sun had burst out above, and the few flakes that still fell looked black against his brilliance and the dazzling country below.
But what caus'd our joy was to see, along the road, a small cavalcade moving away from us, with many bright glances of light and color, as their steel caps and sashes took the sunshine--a pretty sight, and the prettier because it meant our present deliverance.
The girl beside me gave a cry of delight, then sigh'd; and after a minute began to walk back toward the hut: where I left her, and ran up hill for the basket and ham. On my return, I found her examining a heap of rusty tools that, it seem'd, she had found on a shelf of the building. 'Twas no light help to the good fellowship that afterward united us, that from the first I could read her thoughts often without words; and for this reason, that her eyes were as candid as the noonday.
So now I answer'd her aloud---
"This afternoon we may venture down to the plain, where no doubt we shall find a clergyman to sell us a patch of holy ground--"
"Holy ground?" She look'd at me awhile and shook her head. "I am not of your religion," she said.
"And your father?"
"I think no man ever discovered my father's religion. Perhaps there was none to discover: but he was no bad father" she steadied her voice and went on:--"He would prefer the hillside to your 'holy ground.'"
So, an hour later, I delv'd his grave in the frosty earth, close by the spot where he lay. Somehow, I shiver'd all the while, and had a cruel shooting pain in my wound that was like to have mastered me before the task was ended. But I managed to lower the body softly into the hole and to cover it reverently from sight: and afterward stood leaning on my spade and feeling very light in the head, while the girl knelt and pray'd for her father's soul.
And the picture of her as she knelt is the last I remember, till I open'd my eyes, and was amazed to find myself on my back, and staring up at darkness.
"What has happen'd?"
"I think you are very ill," said a voice: "can you lean on me, and reach the hut?"
"Why, yes: that is, I think so. Why is everything dark?"
"The sun has been down for hours. You have been in a swoon first, and then talk'd--oh, such nonsense! Shame on me, to let you catch this chill!"
She help'd me to my feet and steadied me: and how we reached the hut I cannot tell you. It took more than one weary hour, as I now know; but, at the time, hours and minutes were one to me.
In that hut I lay four nights and four days, between ague fit and fever. And that is all the account I can give of the time, save that, on the second day, the girl left me alone in the hut and descended to the plain, where, after asking at many cottages for a physician, she was forced to be content with an old woman reputed to be amazingly well skill'd in herbs and medicines; whom, after a day's trial, she turn'd out of doors. On the fourth day, fearing for my life, she made another descent, and coming to a wayside tavern, purchased a pint of aqua vitae, carried it back, and mix'd a potion that threw me into a profuse sweat. The same evening I sat up, a sound man.
Indeed, so thoroughly was I recover'd that, waking early next morning, and finding my sweet nurse asleep from sheer weariness, in a corner of the hut, I stagger'd up from my bed of dried bracken, and out into the pure air. Rare it was to stand and drink it in like wine. A footstep arous'd me. 'Twas Mistress Delia: and turning, I held out my hand.
"Now this is famous," said she: "a day or two will see you as good a man as ever."
"A day or two? To-morrow at latest, I shall make trial to start." I noted a sudden change on her face, and added: "Indeed, you must hear my reasons before setting me down for an ingrate;" and told her of the King's letter that I carried. "I hoped that for a while our ways might lie together," said I; and broke off, for she was looking me earnestly in the face.
"Sir, as you know, my brother Anthony was to have met me--nay, for pity's sake, turn not your face away! I have guess'd--the sword you carry--I mark'd it. Sir, be merciful, and tell me!"
I led her a little aside to the foot of a tall pine; and there, tho' it rung my heart, told her all; and left her to wrestle with this final sorrow. She was so tender a thing to be stricken thus, that I who had dealt the blow crept back to the hut, covering my eyes. In an hour's time I look'd out. She was gone.
At nightfall she return'd, white with grief and fatigue; yet I was glad to see her eyes red and swol'n with weeping. Throughout our supper she kept silence; but when 'twas over, look'd up and spoke in a steady tone----
"Sir, I have a favor to ask, and must risk being held importunate--"
"From you to me," I put in, "all talk of favors had best be dropp'd."
"No--listen. If ever it befel you to lose father or mother or dearly loved friend, you will know how the anguish stuns--Oh sir! to-day the sun seem'd fallen out of heaven, and I a blind creature left groping in the void. Indeed, sir, 'tis no wonder: I had a father, brother, and servant ready to die for me--three hearts to love and lean on: and to-day they are gone."
I would have spoken, but she held up a hand.
"Now when you spoke of Anthony--a dear lad!--I lay for some time dazed with grief. By little and little, as the truth grew plainer, the pain grew also past bearing. I stood up and stagger'd into the woods to escape it. I went fast and straight, heeding nothing, for at first my senses were all confus'd: but in a while the walking clear'd my wits, and I could think: and thinking, I could weep: and having wept, could fortify my heart. Here is the upshot, sir--tho' 'tis held immodest for a maid to ask even far less of a man. We are both bound for Cornwall--you on an honorable mission, I for my father's estate of Gleys, wherefrom (as your tale proves) some unseen hands are thrusting me. Alike we carry our lives in our hands. You must go forward: I may not go back. For from a King who cannot right his own affairs there is little hope; and in Cornwall I have surer friends than he. Therefore take me, sir--take me for a comrade! Am I sad? Do you fear a weary journey? I will smile--laugh --sing--put sorrow behind me. I will contrive a thousand ways to cheat the milestones. At the first hint of tears, discard me, and go your way with no prick of conscience. Only try me--oh, the shame of speaking thus!"
Her voice had grown more rapid toward the close: and now, breaking off, she put both hands to cover her face, that was hot with blushes. I went over and took them in mine:
"You have made me the blithest man alive," said I.
She drew back a pace with a frighten'd look, and would have pull'd her hands away.
"Because," I went on quickly, "you have paid me this high compliment, to trust me. Proud was I to listen to you; and merrily will the miles pass with you for comrade. And so I say--Mistress Killigrew, take me for your servant."
To my extreme discomposure, as I dropp'd her hands, her eyes were twinkling with laughter.
"Dear now; I see a dull prospect ahead if we use these long titles!"
"Indeed, sir, please yourself. Only as I intend to call you 'Jack' perhaps 'Delia' will be more of a piece than 'Mistress Killigrew.'" She dropp'd me a mock curtsey. "And now, Jack, be a good boy, and hitch me this quilt across the hut. I bought it yesterday at a cottage below here----"
She ended the sentence with the prettiest blush imaginable; and so, having fix'd her screen, we shook hands on our comradeship, and wish'd each other good night.
I LOSE THE KING'S LETTER; AND AM CARRIED TO BRISTOL.
Almost before daylight we were afoot, and the first ray of cold sunshine found us stepping from the woods into the plain, where now the snow was vanished and a glistening coat of rime spread over all things. Down here the pines gave way to bare elms and poplars, thickly dotted, and among them the twisting smoke of farmstead and cottage, here and there, and the morning stir of kitchen and stable very musical in the crisp air.
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