Then, as the very climax to hopeless despair, Senior rolled heavily forward and lay prone, as helpless as a log, his face buried in the snow! His cap had fallen off, and Acton watched the black curls whitening in the storm.
How long he remained there, crouched before the motionless body, he does not know; only that he tried many times to shake the dying youth from the terrible torpor in vain. Senior breathed heavily, and that was all.
All hope had died in Acton’s breast. He threw himself forward beside his friend, and sobbed, with his face in the snow.
A sound reached Acton’s ears which brought him to his feet with a bound. He placed his hand to his ear, and sent his very soul to the effort to fix the sound again, above the roar of the wind. It was the deep, but not distant, low of cattle.
A third time did the low boom through the storm.
Almost frantic with a living hope, Acton turned to Senior. He raised the unconscious youth, and, by a mighty effort, got him upon his shoulders, and then staggered off in the direction of the sound. He has a faint recollection that he rolled over into the snow twice, that he waded across a river, with the water up to his arm-pits, and always that there was a weight on his neck that almost throttled him.... He felt that he was going mad. Then at last—it seemed many hours—a building, wreathed in white, seemed to spring up out of the storm. Delirious with joy, Acton staggered towards it with his burden. Some figures moved towards him, and Acton shouted for help as he pitched forward for the last time into the snow. He dimly remembers strong hands raising him up and helping him through a farmyard, which seemed somehow to tremble with the low of cattle, and then he was in a chair, and a fire in front of him.
* * * * *
An hour or two afterwards, Acton was seated before a table, and, in the intervals of gulping down hot coffee and swallowing food, told his tale. The peasant farmer and his wife listened open-eyed with astonishment. The farmer, from sheer amazement, dropped into the broadest Westmoreland dialect.
“How far did thoo carry t’other yan?”
“Don’t know, really. Seemed an awful way. I went through a river, I know. The water guggled under my arms.”
“River!” said the farmer, rising up and running his hand over Acton’s clothes. “He has, wife; he’s waded through t’ beck! Man, give us thee hand! Thoo’s a—thoo’s a good ’un. Noa! thoo shan’t stir. I’ll bring t’folk over t’fell mysel’!”
And he did—the farmhouse, a few hours afterwards, giving the snowed-up passengers a hospitality which none of them ever forgot.
There was the jolliest Christmas at “Raven Crag” that had ever been known. Mrs. Acton had whipped up a cohort of cousins et cousines—as they say in the French books—and even Grim found a partner, who didn’t dance half bad—for a girl. Did I say a jolly Christmas? Well, even jolly doesn’t quite do it justice.