Amid the havoc made by the fever amongst men, women, and children, the immunity of the beasts and birds had a sad strangeness.
There was a small herd of pigs which changed hands three times in ten days. The last purchaser hesitated, and was only induced by the cheapness of the bargain to suppress a feeling that they brought ill-luck. Cats mewed wistfully about desolated hearths. One dog moaned near the big grave in which his master lay, and others, with sad sagacious eyes, went to look for new friends and homes.
It was a day or two after the burial of the miller’s three children, that, as Jan sat at dinner with Abel and his two parents, he was struck by the way in which the mill cats hung about Abel, purring and rubbing themselves against his legs.
“I do think they misses the others,” he whispered to his foster-brother, and his tears fell thick and fast on to his plate.
Abel made no answer. He did not wish Jan to know that he had given all his food by bits to the cats, because he could not swallow it himself. But, later in the day, Jan found him in the round-house, lying on an empty sack, with his head against a full one.
“Don’t ’ee tell mother,” he said; “but I do feel bad.”
And as Jan sat down, and put his arms about him, on the very spot where they had so often sat together, learning the alphabet and educating their thumbs, Abel laid his head on his foster-brother’s shoulder, saying, —
“I do think, Janny dear, that Mary, she wants me, and the others too. I think I be going after them. But thee’ll look to mother, Janny dear, eh?”
“But I want thee, too, Abel dear,” sobbed Jan.
“I be thinking perhaps them that brought thee hither’ll fetch thee away some day, Jan. But thee’ll see to mother?” repeated Abel, his eyes wandering restlessly with a look of pain.
Jan knew now that he was only an adopted child of the windmill, though he stoutly ignored the fact, being very fond of his foster-parents.
Abel’s illness came with the force of a fresh blow. There had been a slight pause in the course of the fever at the mill, and it seemed as if these two boys were to be spared. Abel had been busy helping his father to burn the infected bedding, etc., that very morning, and at night he lay raving.
He raved of Jan’s picture which swung unheeded above Master Chuter’s door, and confused it with some church-window that he seemed to fancy Jan had painted; then of his dead brothers and sisters. And then from time to time he rambled about a great flock of sheep which he saw covering the vast plains about the windmill, and which he wearied himself in trying to count. And, as he tossed, he complained in piteous tones about some man who seemed to be the shepherd, and who would not do something that Abel wanted.
For the most part, he knew no one but Jan, and then only when Jan touched him. It seemed to give him pleasure. He understood nothing that was said to him, except in brief intervals. Once, after a short sleep, he opened his eyes and recognized the schoolmaster.