’Be it so, then. Stopchase, let the men be ready at this hour on the morrow. The rest of the day is their own.’
So saying, Roger Heywood turned away, in no small distress, although he concealed it, both at the loss of the mare and his son’s grief over it. Betaking himself to his study, he plunged himself straightway deep in the comfort of the last born and longest named of Milton’s tracts.
The moment he was gone, Richard, who had now made up his mind as to his first procedure, sent Stopchase away, saddled Oliver, rode slowly out of the yard, and struck across the fields. After a half-hour’s ride he stopped at a lonely cottage at the foot of a rock on the banks of the Usk. There he dismounted, and having fastened his horse to the little gate in front, entered a small garden full of sweet-smelling herbs mingled with a few flowers, and going up to the door, knocked, and then lifted the latch.
The witch’s cottage.
Richard was met on the threshold by mistress Rees, in the same old-fashioned dress, all but the hat, which I have already described. On her head she wore a widow’s cap, with large crown, thick frill, and black ribbon encircling it between them. She welcomed him with the kindness almost of an old nurse, and led the way to the one chair in the room—beside the hearth, where a fire of peat was smouldering rather than burning beneath the griddle, on which she was cooking oat-cake. The cottage was clean and tidy. From the smoky rafters hung many bunches of dried herbs, which she used partly for medicines, partly for charms.
To herself, the line dividing these uses was not very clearly discernible.
‘I am in trouble, mistress Rees,’ said Richard, as he seated himself.
‘Most men do be in trouble most times, master Heywood,’ returned the old woman. ’Dost find thou hast taken the wrong part, eh?—There be no need to tell what aileth thee. ’Tis a bit easier to cast off a maiden than to forget her—eh?’
’No, mistress Rees. I came not to trouble thee concerning what is past and gone,’ said Richard with a sigh. ’It is a taste of thy knowledge I want rather than of thy skill.’
‘What skill I have is honest,’ said the old woman.
’Far be it from thee to say otherwise, mother Rees. But I need it not now. Tell me, hast thou not been once and again within the great gates of Raglan castle?’
‘Yes, my son—oftener than I can tell thee,’ answered the old woman. ’It is but a se’night agone that I sat a talking with my son Thomas Rees in the chimney corner of Raglan kitchen, after the supper was served and the cook at rest. It was there my lad was turnspit once upon a time, for as great a man as he is now with my lord and all the household. Those were hard times after my good man left me, master Heywood. But the cream will to the top, and there is my son now—who but he in kitchen and hall? Well, of all places in the mortal world, that Raglan passes!’