She was wet; her hair was matted over her forehead, the sleet lying in beads upon it. A hood that had been pulled hurriedly over her head was blown partly aside. Ralph would have drawn her to the fire.
“Not yet,” she said again. Her eyes looked troubled, startled, denoting pain.
“Then I will go with you at once,” he said.
They turned; Laddie darted out before them, and in a moment they were in the blackness of the night.
The storm had abated. The sleet and rain had ceased, but the wind still blew fierce and strong, driving black continents of cloud across a crescent moon. It was bitingly cold. Rotha walked fast and spoke little. Ralph understood their mission. “Is he far away?” he said.
Her voice had a tremor of emotion, and as the wind carried it to him it seemed freighted with sadness. But the girl would have hidden her fears.
“Perhaps he’s better now,” she said.
Ralph quickened his steps. The dog had gone on in front, and was lost in the darkness.
“Give me your hand, Rotha; the sleet is hard and slape.”
“Don’t heed me, Ralph; go faster; I’ll follow.”
Just then a sharp bark was heard close at hand, followed by another and another, but in a different key. Laddie had met a friend.
“He’s coming,” Rotha said, catching her breath.
With the shrill cry of a hunted creature that has got back, wounded, to its brethren, Sim seemed to leap upon them out of the darkness.
“Ralph, take me with you—take me with you; do not let me go back to the fell to-night. I cannot go—no, believe me, I cannot—I dare not. Take me, Ralph; have mercy on me; do not despise me for the coward that I am; it’s enough to make me curse the great God—no, no; not that neither. But, Ralph, Ralph—”
The poor fellow would have fallen breathless and exhausted at Ralph’s feet, but he held him up and spoke firmly but kindly to him,—
“Bravely, Sim; bravely, man; there,” he said, as the tailor regained some composure.
“You sha’n’t go back to-night. How wet you are, though! There’s not a dry rag to your body, man. You must first return with me to the fire at the Red Lion, and then we’ll go—”
“No, no, no!” cried Sim; “not there either—never there; better the wind and rain, aye, better anything, than that.”
And he turned his head over his shoulder as though peering into the darkness behind. Ralph understood him. There were wilder companions for this poor hunted creature than any that lived on the mountains.
“But you’ll never live through the night in clothes like these.”
Sim shivered with the cold; his teeth chattered; his lank hands shook as with ague.
“Never live? Oh, but I must not die, Ralph; no not yet—not yet.”