The procession had just emerged from the lane, and had turned into the old road that hugged the margin of the mere, when two men walked slowly by in the opposite direction. Dark as it had been when Willy encountered these men before, he had not an instant’s doubt as to their identity.
The reports of Ralph’s disappearance, which Matthew had so assiduously promulgated in whispers, had reached the destination which Ralph had designed for them. The representatives of the Carlisle high constable were conscious that they had labored under serious disadvantages in their efforts to capture a dalesman in his own stronghold of the mountains. Moreover, their zeal was not so ardent as to make them eager to risk the dangers of an arrest that was likely to be full of peril. They were willing enough to accept the story of Ralph’s flight, but they could not reasonably neglect this opportunity to assure themselves of its credibility. So they had beaten about the house during the morning under the pioneering of the villager whom they had injudiciously chosen as their guide, and now they scanned the faces of the mourners who set out on the long mountain journey.
Old Matthew’s risibility was evidently much tickled by the sense of their thwarted purpose. Despite the mournful conditions under which he was at that moment abroad, he could not forbear to wish them, from his place in the procession, “a gay canny mornin’”; and failing to satisfy himself with the effect produced by this insinuating salutation, he could not resist the further temptation of reminding them that they had frightened and not caught their game.
“Fleyin’ a bird’s not the way to grip it,” he cried, to the obvious horror of the clergyman, whose first impulse was to remonstrate with the weaver on his levity, but whose maturer reflections induced the more passive protest of a lifted head and a suddenly elevated nose.
This form of contempt might have escaped the observation of the person for whom it was intended had not Reuben Thwaite, who walked beside Matthew, gently emphasized it with a jerk of the elbow and a motion of the thumb.
“He’ll glower at the moon till he falls in the midden,” said Matthew with a grunt of amused interest.
The two strangers had now gone by, and Willy Ray breathed freely, as he thought that with this encounter the threatened danger had probably been averted.
Then the procession wound its way slowly along the breast of Bracken Water. When Robbie Anderson, in front, had reached a point at which a path went up from the pack-horse road to the top of the Armboth Fell, he paused for a moment, as though uncertain whether to pursue it.
“Keep to the auld corpse road,” cried Matthew; and then, in explanation of his advice, he explained the ancient Cumbrian land law, by which a path becomes public property if a dead body is carried over it.