The King shuddered, as all could see. “I hunt,” he said,—and it was strange to see how he was almost apologetic,—“I hunt all animals mercilessly, because through them the Prince my son was slain. I will hunt them out of my kingdom, until not one remains. I will slay them until the ground is soaked with their blood! Not an animal, save such as are of use, shall exist in all my land. I will have no pets—no singing birds. I hate them all!”
“Ay,” said the Hermit, shaking his head sadly, “you hate them all! But I love them all. And here they come to me. ’The sparrow hath found a house and the swallow a nest where she may lay her young.’ I will protect them with my life. You dare not kill me, O King! Godless though you are, once you were a Christian, and you know the meaning of the words I spoke when I said that this was holy ground.”
He drew from his bosom the iron Cross which he wore, and held it up before the King.
The monarch shrank back and seemed to hesitate. Suddenly he wheeled his horse and blew a blast upon his bugle. “Back!” he cried somewhat bitterly. “We will not linger here for a paltry doe. Let us leave this cursed wood and this crusty hermit. Back to our own demesne, where we shall find sport enough, I dare say.”
Once more he blew his horn and bounded forward out of the clearing; the nobles after him, and the cowed, disappointed dogs trailing at the rear with tails between their legs. John could not help feeling sorry for them. Poor things! They at least knew no better.
John was just stooping to pet the frightened deer, when an arrow whizzed over his shoulder and struck the creature in the haunch. The poor animal gave a cry of pain, and blood dyed the gray mantle of the Hermit, the first blood shed in that place of peace.
With a shout of anger John leaped up and looked over his shoulder. A familiar wicked face grinned back at him, as a horse and rider galloped into the forest. The King’s son had skulked behind to shoot that shaft.
“My son!” cried the Hermit, laying trembling hands on John’s shoulder. “It was meant for you. You would have died had you not stooped at that moment to caress the doe.”
“Poor doe!” said John, kneeling beside her and busying himself with the arrow. “You have saved my life. Now we must save yours. My father, I think she is not badly hurt.”
And he began to stanch the blood and bind up the wound with the skill which the Hermit had taught him.
But the old man stood for a long time gazing into the forest after the party of huntsmen. “A murderer and a coward,” he said. “In sanctuary he has shed innocent blood. For many evil deeds the price will surely be paid. And the price is heavy.”
The little deer was not greatly hurt by the cowardly hunter. John and the Hermit nursed her tenderly, and so great was their knowledge of healing balms that she was soon nibbling the grass about their dooryard, as sprightly as ever, save for a slight lameness in one leg.