Then they talked together long and earnestly, these three, under the shadow of the terrible mystery that hung above them all, of life and death. Ralph spoke as one overawed by a sense of fatality. The world and its vicissitudes had left behind engraven on his heart a message and lesson, and it was not altogether a hopeful one. He saw that fate hung by a thread; that our lives are turned on the pivot of some mere chance; that, traced back to their source, all our joys and all our sorrows appear to come of some accident no more momentous than a word or a look. In solemn tones he seemed to say that there is a plague-spot of evil at the core of this world and this life, and that it infects everything. We may do our best—we should do our best—but we are not therefore to expect reward. Perhaps that reward will come to us while we live. More likely it will be the crown laid on our grave. Happy are we if our loves find fulfilment—if no curse rests upon them. Should we hope on? He hardly knew. Destiny works her own way!
Thus they talked in that solitary house among the mountains. They sat far into the night, these rude sons and this daughter of the hills, groping in their own uncertain, unlearned way after solutions of life’s problems that wiser heads than theirs ages on ages before and since have never compassed, shouting for echoes into the voiceless caverns of the world’s great and awful mysteries.
AT SUNRISE ON THE RAISE.
The friends thou hast,
and their adoption tried,
Grapple them to thy soul with hooks of steel.
At sunrise the following morning two men walked through Wythburn towards the hillock known as the Raise, down the long road that led to the south. The younger man had attained to the maturity of full manhood. Brawny and stalwart, with limbs that strode firmly over the ground; with an air of quiet and reposeful power; with a steadily poised head; with a full bass voice, soft, yet deep; with a face that had for its utmost beauty the beauty of virile strength and resolution, softened, perhaps, into tenderness of expression by washing in the waters of sorrow,—such, now, was Ralph Ray. Over a jerkin he wore the long sack coat, belted and buckled, of the dalesmen of his country. Beneath a close-fitting goatskin cap his short, wavy hair lay thick and black. A pack was strapped about him from shoulder to waist. He carried the long staff of a mountaineer.
Were there in the wide world of varying forms and faces a form and a face so much unlike his own as were those of the man who walked, nay, jerked along, in short, fitful paces, by his side? Little and slight, with long thin gray hair and dishevelled beard, with the startled eyes of a frighted fawn, and with its short, fearful glances, with a sharp face, worn into deep ridges that changed their shape with every step and every word, with nervous, twitching fingers, with a shrill voice and quick speech,—it was Simeon Stagg, the outcast, the castaway.