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- The Herd Boy and His Hermit - 2/27 -
tone, before whooping again his answer to the shouts of Hob, which were coming nearer.
'I am so hungry!' said the little lady, in a weak, famished tone. 'Hast aught to eat?'
'I have finished my wallet, more's the pity!' said the boy, 'but never fear! Hold out but a few steps more, and Mother Doll will give thee bite and sup and bed.'
'Alack! Is it much further! My feet! they are so sore and weary--'
'Poor maiden, let me bear thee on!'
Hal took her up again, but they went more slowly, and were glad to see a tall figure before them, and hear the cry, 'How now, Hal boy, where hast been? What hast thou there?'
'A sorely weary little lady, Daddy Hob, lost from the hawking folk from the Priory,' responded Hal, panting a little as he set his burthen down, and Hob's stronger arms received her.
Hal next asked whether the flock had come back under charge of Piers, and was answered that all were safely at home, and after 'telling the tale' Hob had set out to find him. 'Thou shouldst not stray so far,' he said.
'I heard the maid cry, and went after her,' said Hal, 'all the way to the Blackreed Moss, and the springs, and 'twas hard getting over the swamp.'
'Well indeed ye were not both swallowed in it,' said Hob; 'God be praised for bringing you through! Poor wee bairn! Thou hast come far! From whence didst say?'
'From Greystone Priory,' wearily said the girl, who had her head down on Hob's shoulder, and seemed ready to fall asleep there.
'Her horse fell with her, and they were too bent on their sport to heed her,' explained the boy, as he trudged along beside Hob and his charge, 'so she wandered on foot till by good hap I heard her moan.'
'Ay, there will be a rare coil to-night for having missed her,' said Hob; 'but I've heard tell, my Lady Prioress heeds her hawks more than her nuns! But be she who she may, we'll have her home, and Mother Doll shall see to her, for she needs it sure, poor bairn. She is asleep already.'
So she was, with her head nestled into the shepherd's neck, nor did she waken when after a tramp of more than a mile the bleatings of the folded sheep announced that they were nearly arrived, and in the low doorway there shone a light, and in the light stood a motherly form, in a white woollen hood and dark serge dress. Tired as he was, Hal ran on to her, exclaiming 'All well, Mammy Doll?'
'Ah well!' she answered, 'thank the good God! I was in fear for thee, my boy! What's that Daddy hath? A strayed lamb?'
'Nay, Mammy, but a strayed maiden! 'Twas that kept me so long. I had to bear her through the burn at Blackreed, and drag her on as best I might, and she is worn out and weary.'
'Ay,' said Hob, as he came up. 'How now, my bit lassie?' as he put her into the outstretched arms of his wife, who sat down on the settle to receive her, still not half awake.
'She is well-nigh clemmed,' said Hal. 'She has had no bite nor sup all day, since her pony fell with her out a-hawking, and all were so hot on the chase that none heeded her.'
Mother Doll's exclamations of pity were profuse. There was a kettle of broth on the peat fire, and after placing the girl in a corner of the settle, she filled three wooden bowls, two of which she placed before Hal and the shepherd, making signs to the heavy-browed Piers to wait; and getting no reply from her worn-out guest, she took her in her arms, and fed her from a wooden spoon. Though without clear waking, mouthfuls were swallowed down, till the bowl was filled again and set before Piers.
'There, that will be enough this day!' said the good dame. 'Poor bairn! 'Twas scurvy treatment. Now will we put her to bed, and in the morn we will see how to deal with her.'
Hal insisted that the little lady should have his own bed--a chaff- stuffed mattress, covered with a woollen rug, in the recess behind the projecting hearth--a strange luxury for a farm boy; and Doll yielded very unwillingly when he spoke in a tone that savoured of command. The shaggy Piers had already curled himself up in a corner and gone to sleep.
CHAPTER II. THE SNOW-STORM
Yet stay, fair lady, rest awhile Beneath the cottage wall; See, through the hawthorns blows the cold wind, And drizzling rain doth fall.--OLD BALLAD.
Though Hal had gone to sleep very tired the night before, and only on a pile of hay, curled up with Watch, having yielded his own bed to the strange guest, he was awake before the sun, for it was the decline of the year, and the dawn was not early.
He was not the first awake--Hob and Piers were already busy on the outside, and Mother Doll had emerged from the box bed which made almost a separate apartment, and was raking together the peat, so as to revive the slumbering fire. The hovel, for it was hardly more, was built of rough stone and thatched with reeds, with large stones to keep the roof down in the high mountain blasts. There was only one room, earthen floored, and with no furniture save a big chest, a rude table, a settle and a few stools, besides the big kettle and a few crocks and wooden bowls. Yet whereas all was clean, it had an air of comfort and civilisation beyond any of the cabins in the neighbourhood, more especially as there was even a rude chimney-piece projecting far into the room, and in the niche behind this lay the little girl in her clothes, fast asleep.
Very young and childish she looked as she lay, her lips partly unclosed, her dark hair straying beyond her hand, and her black lashes resting on her delicate brunette cheeks, slightly flushed with sleep. Hal could not help standing for a minute gazing at her in a sort of wondering curiosity, till roused by the voice of Mother Doll.
'Go thy ways, my bairn, to wash in the burn. Here's thy comb. I must have the lassie up before the shepherd comes back, though 'tis amost a pity to wake her! There, she is stirring! Best be off with thee, my bonnie lad.'
It was spoken more in the tone of nurse to nursling than of mother to son, still less that of mistress to farm boy; but Hal obeyed, only observing, 'Take care of her.'
'Ay, my pretty, will not I,' murmured the old woman, as the child turned round on her pillow, put up a hand, rubbed her eyes, and disclosed a pair of sleepy brown orbs, gazed about, and demanded, 'What's this? Who's this?'
''Tis Hob Hogward's hut, my bonnie lamb, where you are full welcome! Here, take a sup of warm milk.'
'I mind me now,' said the girl, sitting up, and holding out her hands for the bowl. 'They all left me, and the lad brought me--a great lubber lout--'
'Nay, nay, mistress, you'll scarce say so when you see him by day--a well-grown youth as can bear himself with any.'
'Where is he?' asked the girl, gazing round; 'I want him to take me back. This place is not one for me. The Sisters will be seeking me! Oh, what a coil they must be in!'
'We will have you back, my bairn, so soon as my goodman can go with you, but now I would have you up and dressed, ay, and washed, ere he and Hal come in. Then after meat and prayer you will be ready to go.'
'To Greystone Priory,' returned the girl. 'Yea, I would have thee to know,' she added, with a little dignity that sat drolly on her bare feet and disordered hair and cap as she rose out of bed, 'that the Sisters are accountable for me. I am the Lady Anne St. John. My father is a lord in Bedfordshire, but he is gone to the wars in Burgundy, and bestowed me in a convent at York while he was abroad, but the Mother thought her house would be safer if I were away at the cell at Greystone when Queen Margaret and the Red Rose came north.'
'And is that the way they keep you safe?' asked the hostess, who meanwhile was attending to her in a way that, if the Lady Anne had known it, was like the tendance of her own nurse at home, instead of that of a rough peasant woman.
'Oh, we all like the chase, and the Mother had a new cast of hawks that she wanted to fly. There came out a heron, and she threw off the new one, and it went careering up--and up--and we all rode after, and just as the bird was about to pounce down, into a dyke went my pony, Imp, and not one of them saw! Not Bertram Selby, the Sisters, nor the groom, nor the rabble rout that had come out of Greystone; and before I could get free they were off; and the pony, Imp of Evil that he is, has not learnt to know me or my voice, and would not let me catch him, but cantered off--either after the other horses or to the Priory. I knew not where I was, and halloaed myself hoarse, but no one heard, and I went on and on, and lost my way!'
'I did hear tell that the Lady Prioress minded her hawks more than her Hours,' said Mother Doll.
'And that's sooth,' said the Lady Anne, beginning to prove herself a chatterbox. 'The merlins have better hoods than the Sisters; and as to the Hours, no one ever gets up in the night to say Nocturns or even Matins but old Sister Scholastica, and she is as strict and cross as may be.'
Here the flow of confidence was interrupted by the return of Hal, who gazed eagerly, though in a shamefaced way, at the guest as he set down a bowl of ewe milk. She was a well-grown girl of ten, slender, and bearing herself like one high bred and well trained in
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