CHAPTER I. IN THE MOSS
I can conduct you, lady, to a low
But loyal cottage where you may be safe
Till further quest.—Milton.
On a moorland slope where sheep and goats were dispersed among the rocks, there lay a young lad on his back, in a stout canvas cassock over his leathern coat, and stout leathern leggings over wooden shoes. Twilight was fast coming on; only a gleam of purple light rested on the top of the eastern hills, but was gradually fading away, though the sky to the westward still preserved a little pale golden light by the help of the descending crescent moon.
‘Go away, horned moon,’ murmured the boy. ’I want to see my stars come out before Hob comes to call me home, and the goats are getting up already. Moon, moon, thou mayst go quicker. Thou wilt have longer time to-morrow—and be higher in the sky, as well as bigger, and thou mightst let me see my star to-night! Ah! there is one high in the sunset, pale and fair, but not mine! That’s the evening star —one of the wanderers. Is it the same as comes in the morning betimes, when we do not have it at night? Like that it shines with steady light and twinkles not. I would that I knew! There! there’s mine, my own star, far up, only paling while the sun glaring blazes in the sky; mine own, he that from afar drives the stars in Charles’s Wain. There they come, the good old twinkling team of three, and the four of the Wain! Old Billy Goat knows them too! Up he gets, and all in his wake “Ha-ha-ha” he calls, and the Nannies answer. Ay, and the sheep are rising up too! How white they look in the moonshine! Piers—deaf as he is—waking at their music. Ba, they call the lambs! Nay, that’s no call of sheep or goat! ’Tis some child crying, all astray! Ha! Hilloa, where beest thou? Tarry till I come! Move not, or thou mayst be in the bogs and mosses! Come, Watch’—to a great unwieldy collie puppy—’let us find her.’
A feeble piteous sound answered him, and following the direction of the reply, he strode along, between the rocks and thorn-bushes that guarded the slope of the hill, to a valley covered with thick moss, veiling treacherously marshy ground in which it was easy to sink.
The cry came from the further side, where a mountain stream had force enough to struggle through the swamp. There were stepping-stones across the brook, which the boy knew, and he made his way from one to the other, calling out cheerily to the little figure that he began to discern in the fading light, and who answered him with tones evidently girlish, ’O come, come, shepherd! Here I am! I am lost and lorn! They will reward thee! Oh, come fast!’
’All in good time, lassie! Haste is no good here! I must look to my footing.’
Presently he was by the side of the wanderer, and could see that it was a maiden of ten or twelve years old, who somehow, even in the darkness, had not the air of one of the few inhabitants of that wild mountain district.