By their united efforts the coffin was raised off the horse’s back and lowered. The three men were in the act of doing this, when Betsy, suddenly freed from the burden which she had carried, pranced aside, looked startled, plunged through the gate, and made off down the road.
“Let her go,” said Ralph, and turned his attention once more to what now lay on the ground.
Then Angus Ray was lowered into his last home, and the flakes of snow fell over him like a white and silent pall.
Ralph stood aside while the old man threw back the earth. It fell from the spade in hollow thuds.
Sim crouched beside a stone, and looked on with frightened eyes.
The sods were replaced; there was a mound the more in the little churchyard of Askham, and that was the end. The clerk shouldered his spade and prepared to lock the gate.
It was then they were aware that there came from over their heads a sound like the murmuring of a brook under the leaves of June; like the breaking of deep waters at a weir; like the rolling of foam-capped wavelets against an echoing rock. Look up! Every leafless bough of yonder lofty elder-tree is thick with birds. Listen! A moment, and their song has ceased; they have risen on the wing; they are gone like a cloud Of black rain through the white feathery air. Then silence everywhere.
Was it God’s sign and symbol—God’s message to the soul of this stricken man? God’s truce?
Who shall say it was not!
“A load is lifted off my heart,” said Ralph. He was thinking of the terrible night he had spent on the fells. And indeed there was the light of another look in his face. His father had sepulture. God had shown him this mercy as a sign that what he purposed to do ought to be done. Such was Ralph’s reading of the accidental finding of the horse.
They bade good morning to the old man and left him. Then they walked to the angle of the roads where the guidepost stood. The arms were covered with the snow, and Ralph climbed on to the stone wall behind and brushed their letters clear.
“To Kendal.” That pointed in the direction from whence they came.
“That’s our road,” said Sim.
“No,” said Ralph; “this is it—’To Penrith and Carlisle.’”
What chance remained now to Robbie?
FATE THAT IMPEDES, FALL BACK.
A few minutes after the coach arrived at Mardale, Robbie was toiling along in the darkness over an unfamiliar road. That tiresome old headache was coming back to him, and he lifted a handful of snow now and again to cool his aching forehead.
It was a weary, weary tramp, such as only young, strong limbs, and a stout heart could have sustained. Villages were passed, but they lay as quiet as the people that slumbered in them. Five hours had gone by before Robbie encountered a living soul.