Watching the Cows
In the interval between his two letters - the one to Hempie, and the one to Master Nathaniel - Luke decided that his suspicions had been groundless, for the days at the farm were buzzing by with a soothing hum like that of summer insects, and Ranulph was growing gay and sunburned.
Then towards autumn Ranulph had begun to wilt, and finally Luke overheard the strange conversation he had reported in his letter to Master Nathaniel, and once again the farm grew hateful to him, and he followed Ranulph as if he were his shadow and counted the hours for the order to come from Master Nathaniel bidding them return to Lud.
Perhaps you may remember that on his first evening at the farm Ranulph had wanted to join the children who watched the widow's cows at night, but it had evidently been nothing but a passing whim, for he did not express the wish again.
And then at the end of June - as a matter of fact it was Midsummer day - the widow had asked him if he would not like that night to join the little herdsmen. But towards evening had come a steady downfall of rain, and the plan had fallen through.
It was not alluded to again till the end of October, three or four days before Master Nathaniel left Lud-in-the-Mist. It had been a very mild autumn in the West and the nights were fresh rather than cold, and when, that evening, the little boys came knocking at the door for their bread and cheese, the widow began to jeer at Ranulph, in a hearty jovial way, for being town-bred and never having spent a night under the sky.
"Why don't you go to-night with the little herdsmen? You wanted to when you first came here, and the Doctor said it would do you no harm."
Now Luke was feeling particularly downcast that night; no answer had come from Master Nathaniel to his letter, though it was well over a week since he had written. He felt forlorn and abandoned, with a weight of responsibility too heavy for his shoulders, and he was certainly not going to add to that weight by allowing Ranulph to run the risk of catching a bad chill. And as well, any suggestion that came from the widow was greeted by him with suspicion.
"Master Ranulph," he cried excitedly, "I can't let you go. His Worship and my old auntie wouldn't like it, what with the nights getting damp and all. No, Master Ranulph, be a good little chap and go to your bed as usual."
As he was speaking he caught Hazel's eye, and she gave him an almost imperceptible nod of approval.
But the widow cried, with a loud scornful laugh, in which Ranulph shrilly joined: "Too damp, indeed! When we haven't had so much as a drop of rain these four weeks! Don't let yourself be coddled, Master Ranulph. Young Hempen's nothing but an old maid in breeches. He's as bad as my Hazel. I've always said that if she doesn't die an old maid, it isn't that she wasn't born one!"
Hazel said nothing, but she fixed her eyes beseechingly on Luke.
But Ranulph, I fear, was a very spoiled little boy, and, into the bargain, he dearly loved annoying Luke; so he jumped up and down, shouting, "Old maid Hempen! Old maid Hempen! I'm going - so there!"
"That's right, little master!" laughed the widow. "You'll be a man before I am."
And the three little herdsmen, who had been watching this scene with shy amusement, grinned from ear to ear.
"Do as you like, then," said Luke sullenly, "but I'm coming too. And, anyway, you must wrap up as warmly as you can."
So they went upstairs to put on their boots and mufflers.
When they came down Hazel, with compressed lips and a little frown knitting her brows, gave them their rations of cheese and bread and honey, and then, with a furtive glance in the direction of the widow, who was standing with her back turned, talking to the little herdsmen, she slipped two sprigs of fennel into Luke's buttonhole. "Try and get Master Ranulph to wear one of them," she whispered.
This was not reassuring. But how is an undergardener, not yet turned eighteen, to curb the spoiled son of his master - especially when a strong-willed, elderly woman throws her weight into the other scale?
"Well, well," said the widow, bustling up, "it's high time you were off. You have a full three miles walk before you."
"Yes, yes, let's be off!" cried Ranulph excitedly; Luke felt it would be useless to protest further, so the little cavalcade dived into the moonlit night.
The world was looking very beautiful. At one end of the scale of darkness stood the pines, like rich black shadows; at the other end of the scale were the farm buildings, like white glimmering human masks. And in between these two extremes were all the various degrees of greyness - the shimmer of the Dapple that was more white than grey, and all the different trees - plane trees, liege-oaks, olives -and one could almost recognize their foliage by their lesser or greater degree of density.
On they trudged in silence, up the course of the Dapple - Luke too anxious and aggrieved to talk, Ranulph buried too deep in dreams, and the little herdsmen far too shy. There were nothing but rough cattle paths in the valley - heavy enough going by day, and doubly so by night, and before they had yet gone half the way Ranulph's feet began to lag.
"Would you like to rest a bit and then go back?" said Luke eagerly.
But Ranulph shook his head scornfully and mended his pace.
Nor did he allow himself to lag again till they reached their destination - a little oasis of rich pasturage, already on rising ground though still a mile or two away from the hills.
Once here - in their own kingdom, as it were - the little herdsmen became lively and natural; laughing and chatting with Ranulph, as they set about repairing such breaches as had been made in the huts by the rough and tumble of twelve odd hours. Then there was wood to be collected, and a fire to be lit - and into these tasks Ranulph threw himself with a gay, though rather feverish, vigour.
At last they settled down to their long watch -squatting round the fire, and laughing for sheer love of adventure as good campaigners should; for were there not marching towards them some eight dark hours equipped with who could say what curious weapons from the rich arsenal of night and day?
The cattle crouched round them in soft shadowy clumps, placidly munching, and dreaming with wide-open eyes. The narrow zone of colour created by the firelight was like the planet Earth - a little freak of brightness in a universe of impenetrable shadows.
Suddenly Luke noticed that each of the three little herdsmen was, like himself, wearing a sprig of fennel.
"I say! why are all you little chaps wearing fennel?" he blurted out.
They stared at him in amazement.
"But you be wearing a bit yourself, Master Hempen," said Toby, the eldest.
"I know" - and he could not resist adding in an offhand tone - "it was a present from a young lady. But do you always wear a bit in these parts?" he added.
"Always on this night of the year," said the children. And as Luke looked puzzled, Toby cried in surprise, "Don't you wear fennel in Lud on the last night of October?"
"No, we don't," answered Luke, a little crossly, "and why should we, I should like to know?"
"Why," cried Toby in a shocked voice, "because this is the night when the Silent People - the dead, you know -come back to Dorimare."
Ranulph looked up quickly. But Luke scowled; he was sick to death of western superstitions, and into the bargain he was feeling frightened. He removed the second sprig of fennel given him by Hazel from his button-hole, and holding it out to Ranulph, said, "Here, Master Ranulph! Stick that in your hatband or somewhere."
But Ranulph shook his head. "I don't want any fennel, thank you, Luke," he said. "I'm not frightened."
The children gazed at him in half-shocked admiration, and Luke sighed gloomily.
"Not frightened of… the Silent People?" queried Toby.
"No," answered Ranulph curtly. And then he added, "At least not to-night."
"I'll wager the widow Gibberty, at any rate, isn't wearing any fennel," said Luke, with a harsh laugh.
The children exchanged queer little glances and began to snigger. This aroused Luke's curiosity: "Now then, out with it, youngsters! Why doesn't the widow Gibberty wear fennel?"
But their only answer was to nudge each other, and snigger behind their fingers.
This put Luke on his mettle. "Look here, you bantams," he cried, "don't you forget that you've got the High Seneschal's son here, and if you know anything about the widow that's… well, that's a bit fishy, it's your duty to let me know. If you don't, you may find yourselves in gaol some day. So you just spit it out!" and he glared at them as fiercely as his kindly china-blue eyes would allow.
They began to look scared. "But the widow doesn't know we've seen anything… and if she found out, and that we'd been blabbing, oh my! wouldn't we catch it!" cried Toby, and his eyes grew round with terror at the mere thought.
"No, you won't catch it. I'll give you my word," said Luke. "And if you've really anything worth telling, the Seneschal will be very grateful, and each of you may find yourselves with more money in your pockets than your three fathers put together have ever had in all their lives. And, anyhow, to begin with, if you'll tell me what you know, you can toss up for this knife, and there's not a finer one to be found in all Lud," and he waved before their dazzled eyes his greatest treasure, a magnificent six-bladed knife, given him one Yule-tide by Master Nathaniel, with whom he had always been a favourite. At the sight of this marvel of cutlery, the little boys proved venal, and in voices scarcely above a whisper and with frequent frightened glances over their shoulders, as if the widow might be lurking in the shadows listening to them, they told their story.
One night, just before dawn, a cow called Cornflower, from the unusually blue colour of her hide, who had recently been added to the herd, suddenly grew restless and began to moo, the strange moo of blue cows that was like the cooing of doves, and then rose to her feet and trotted away into the darkness. Now Cornflower was a very valuable cow and the widow had given them special injunctions to look after her, so Toby, leaving the other two to mind the rest of the herd, dashed after her into the thinning darkness and though she had got a good start of him was able to keep in her track by the tinkling of her bell. Finally he came on her standing at the brink of the Dapple and nozzling the water. He went close up to her and found that she had got her teeth into something beneath the surface of the stream and was tearing at it in intense excitement. Just then who should drive up in a cart but the widow and Doctor Endymion Leer. They appeared much annoyed at finding Toby, but they helped him get Cornflower away from the water. Bits of straw were hanging from her mouth and it was stained with juices of a colour he had never seen before. The widow then told him to go back to his companions, and said she would herself take Cornflower back to the herd in the morning. And, to account for her sudden appearance on the scene, she said she had come with the doctor to try and catch a very rare fish that only rose to the surface an hour before sunrise. "But you see," went on Toby, "my dad's a great fisherman, and often takes me out with him, but he never told me about this fish in the Dapple that can only be caught before sunrise, and I thought I'd just like to have a peep at it. So instead of going back to the others right away, I hid, I did, behind some trees. And they took some nets, they did, out of the cart, but it wasn't fish they drew up in them… no it wasn't." He was suddenly seized with embarrassment, and he and his two little friends again began to snigger.
"Out with it!" cried Luke impatiently. "What was in their nets? You'll not get the knife for only half a story, you know."
"You say, Dorian," said Toby bashfully, nudging the second eldest boy; but Dorian, too, would only giggle and hang his head.
"I don't mind saying!" cried Peter, the youngest, valiantly. "It was fairy fruit - that's what it was!"
Luke sprang to his feet. "Busty Bridget!" he exclaimed in a horrified voice. Ranulph began to chuckle. "Didn't you guess right away what it was, Luke?" he asked.
"Yes," went on Peter, much elated by the effect his words had produced, "it was wicker baskets all full of fairy fruit, I know, because Cornflower had torn off the top of one of them."
"Yes," interrupted Toby, beginning to think that little Peter had stolen enough of his thunder, "she had torn off the top of one of the baskets, and I've never seen fruit like it; it was as if coloured stars had fallen from the sky into the grass, and were making all of the valley bright, and Cornflower, she was eating as if she would never stop… more like a bee among flowers, she was, than a common cow. And the widow and the doctor, though of course they were put out, they couldn't help laughing to see her. And her milk the next morning - oh my! It tasted of roses and shepherd's thyme, but she never came back to the herd, for the widow sold her to a farmer who lived twenty miles away, and…"
But Luke could contain himself no longer. "You little rascals!" he cried, "to think of all the trouble there is in Lud just now, and the magistrates and the town guard racking their brains to find out how the stuff gets across the border, and three little bantams like you knowing all about it, and not telling a soul! Why did you keep it to yourselves like that?"
"We were frightened of the widow," said Toby sheepishly. "You won't tell that we've blabbed," he added in an imploring voice.
"No, I'll see that you don't get into trouble," said Luke. "Here's the knife, and a coin to toss up for it with… Toasted Cheese! A nice place this, we've come to! Are you sure, young Toby, it was Dr. Leer you saw?" Toby nodded his head emphatically. "Aye, it was Dr. Leer and no mistake - her's my hand on it." And he stuck out a brown little paw.
"Well, I'm blessed! Dr. Leer!" exclaimed Luke; and Ranulph gave a little mocking laugh.
Luke fell into a brown study; surprise, indignation, and pleasant visions of himself swaggering in Lud, praised and flattered by all as the man who had run the smugglers to earth, chasing each other across the surface of his brain. And, in the light of Toby's story, could it be that the stranger whose mysterious conversation with the widow he had overheard was none other than the popular, kindly doctor, Endymion Leer? It seemed almost incredible.
But on one thing he was resolved - for once he would assert himself, and Ranulph should not spend another night at the widow Gibberty's farm.
Toby won the toss and pocketed the knife with a grin of satisfaction, and by degrees the talk became as flickering and intermittent as the light of the dying fire, which they were too idle to feed with sticks; and finally it was quenched to silence, and they yielded to the curious drugged sensation that comes from being out of doors and wide-awake at night.
It was as if the earth had been transported to the sky, and they had been left behind in chaos, and were gazing up at its towns and beasts and heroes flattened out in constellations and looking like the stippled pictures in a neolithic cave. And the Milky Way was the only road visible in the universe.
Now and then a toad harped on its one silvery note, and from time to time a little breeze would spring up and then die down.
Suddenly Ranulph broke the silence with the startling question, "How far is it from here to Fairyland?"
The little boys nudged one another and again began to snigger behind their hands.
"For shame, Master Ranulph!" cried Luke indignantly, "talking like that before youngsters!"
"But I want to know!" said Ranulph petulantly.
"Tell what your old granny used to say, Dorian," giggled Toby.
And Dorian was finally persuaded to repeat the old saying: "A thousand leagues by the great West Road and ten by the Milky Way."
Ranulph sprang to his feet, and with rather a wild laugh, he cried, "Let's have a race to Fairyland. I bet it will be me that gets there first. One, two, three - and away!"
And he would actually have plunged off into the darkness, had not the little boys, half shocked, half admiring, flung themselves on him and dragged him back.
"There's an imp of mischief got into you to-night, Master Ranulph," growled Luke.
"You shouldn't joke about things like that… specially to-night, Master Chanticleer," said Toby gravely.
"You're right there, young Toby," said Luke, "I only wish he had half your sense."
"It was just a bit of fun, wasn't it, Master Chanticleer? You didn't really want us to race to… yonder?" asked little Peter, peering through the darkness at Ranulph with scared eyes.
"Of course it was only fun," said Luke.
But Ranulph said nothing.
Again they lapsed into silence. And all round them, subject to blind taciturn laws, and heedless of man, myriads of things were happening, in the grass, in the trees, in the sky.
Luke yawned and stretched himself. "It must be getting near dawn," he said.
They had successfully doubled the dangerous cape of midnight, and he began to feel secure of safely weathering what remained of their dark voyage.
It was the hour when night-watchers begin to idealize their bed, and, with Sancho Panza, to bless the man who invented it. They shuddered, and drew their cloaks closer round their shoulders.
Then, something happened. It was not so much a modification of the darkness, as a sigh of relief, a slight relaxing of tension, so that one felt, rather than saw, that the night had suddenly lost a shade of its density… ah! yes; there! between these two shoulders of the hills she is bleeding to death.
At first the spot was merely a degree less black than the rest of the sky. Then it turned grey, then yellow, then red. And the earth was undergoing the same transformation. Here and there patches of greyness broke out in the blackness of the grass, and after a few seconds one saw that they were clumps of flowers. Then the greyness became filtered with a delicate sea-green; and next, one realized that the grey-green belonged to the foliage, against which the petals were beginning to show white - and then pink, or yellow, or blue; but a yellow like that of primroses, a blue like that of certain wild periwinkles, colours so elusive that one suspects them to be due to some passing accident of light, and that, were one to pick the flower, it would prove to be pure white.
Ah, there can be no doubt of it now! The blues and yellows are real and perdurable. Colour is steadily flowing through the veins of the earth, and we may take heart, for she will soon be restored to life again. But had we kept one eye on the sky we should have noticed that a star was quenched with every flower that reappeared on earth.
And now the valley is again red and gold with vineyards, the hills are clothed with pines, and the Dapple is rosy.
Then a cock crowed, and another answered it, and then another - a ghostly sound, which, surely, did not belong to the smiling, triumphant earth, but rather to one of those distant dying stars.
But what had taken Ranulph? He had sprung to his feet and was standing motionless, a strange light in his eyes.
And then again, from a still more distant star, it seemed, another cock crowed, and another answered it.
"The piper! the piper!" cried Ranulph in a loud triumphant voice. And, before his astonished companions could get to their feet, he was dashing up one of the bridle-paths towards the Debatable Hills.