[Illustration: The circle of animals watched him.]
When the day was over, John would throw himself on a soft bed of moss under a tree, beside the Hermit seated on a log. Then they would read or talk, and tell stories of what they had seen in the world of men. Brutus would be curled down between them. Blanche and her kittens, big and little, would play with John’s hair as he lay there. The squirrel, perched on the boy’s doubled-up knees, would chatter and crack nuts. The brown hares would run to and fro over his feet, while the doe and her little fawn nibbled the grass close by, listening to the sound of the human voices as though they liked it.
What a happy home it was! John wondered if ever any boy was so lucky as he.
John had grown to love the little four-footed brothers dearly, and they were great friends of his. But still the Hermit seemed to have a charm about him which John lacked, and which drew even the strange new creatures to him and made them trust him from the first. John longed to learn this secret. But when he asked the old man about it he looked at the boy kindly and said,—
“It will come, my son, with time. Love, live, and learn.”
John had been with the Hermit some months, when happened an adventure that interested him more than anything which had befallen. He was walking one day with the old man in a part of the forest far distant from their hut. They were looking for a rare and wonderful herb which the sage needed to distill a certain precious balm.
“This should be the spot,” said the old man, going toward a heap of rocks around which grew a tangle of shrubs and creepers. “The plant which I seek is shy, and hides in the shadows of sheltered places. Yonder is a cave, where first I made my dwelling when I came to the forest, before I built the hut in which we now live. And at the entrance, I remember, grew the herb of grace, which more than once has done me service in healing the hurts of my pets.”
The Hermit plunged eagerly forward to the rocks. John followed close behind. At the entrance to the cave the old man stooped to pluck the herb which they had come so far to seek, and John, clambering beside him, bent curiously to peer into the cave. Suddenly a sound from within made him start. The Hermit paused in his task, and both stared motionless into the blackness of the cave. Presently the sound came again,—a deep growl ending in a whine.
“Some animal in pain,” whispered the Hermit to John. “Stay you here, my son. I will discover what it may be.”
“Nay, father!” pleaded the boy. “It may be some fierce creature; it may hurt you. Do not go!”
The old man turned beaming eyes upon him. “Never yet have I been hurt by an animal,” he said gently. “My body bears only the scars of human hands. I am not afraid. But do you stay here, my son. You have not yet quite learned the language of dumb things.”