THE BUCCANEER FARMER
BY HAROLD BINDLOSS
PUBLISHED IN ENGLAND UNDER THE TITLE "ASKEW'S VICTORY"
PART I—AT ASHNESS
I THE LEASE
II THE OTTER HOUNDS
III A COUNCIL OF DEFENSE
IV THE PEAT CUTTERS
V RAILTON'S TALLY
VI BLEATARN GHYLL
VII THE RECKONING
VIII GRACE FINDS A WAY
IX THE PLAN WORKS
X JANET MEDDLES
XI OSBORN'S PRIDE GETS HURT
XII OSBORN INTERFERES
PART II—ON THE CARIBBEAN
I THE OLD BUCCANEER
II THE PRESIDIO
III THE GOLD ONZA
IV THE PRESIDENT'S BALL
V OLSEN'S OFFER
VI THE PRESIDENT'S WATCHERS
VII ADAM RESUMES CONTROL
VIII THE MANGROVE SWAMP
IX ADAM'S LAST REQUEST
X THE ROAD TO THE MISSION
XI KIT KEEPS HIS PROMISE
XII THE LAST CARGO
PART III—KIT'S RETURN
I KIT'S WELCOME
II A DANGEROUS TALENT
III THE HORSE SHOW
IV THE FLOOD
V KIT TELLS A STORY
VI THORN MAKES A PLAN
VII GERALD'S RETURN
VIII GRACE'S CONFIDENCE
IX KIT GOES TO THE RESCUE
X GRACE'S CHOICE
XI OSBORN'S SURRENDER
PART I—AT ASHNESS
The morning was bright after heavy rain, and when Osborn looked out of the library window a warm, south-west breeze shook the larches about Tarnside Hall. Now and then a shadow sped across the tarn, darkening the ripples that sparkled like silver when the cloud drove on. Osborn frowned, for he had meant to go fishing and it was a morning when the big, shy trout would rise. His game-keeper was waiting at the boathouse, but the postman had brought some letters that made him put off his sport.
This was annoying, because Osborn hated to be balked and seldom allowed anything to interfere with his amusements. One letter, from a housemaster at a famous public school, covered a number of bills, which, the writer stated somewhat curtly, ought to have been paid. Another announced that Hayes, the agent for the estate, and a tenant would wait upon Osborn, who knew what they meant to talk about. He admitted that a landlord had duties, but his generally demanded attention at an inconvenient time.
Osborn was fifty years of age. He had a ruddy skin and well-proportioned figure, and was, physically, a rather fine example of the sporting country gentleman. For all that, there were lines on his forehead and wrinkles about his eyes; his mouth was loose and sensual, and something about him hinted at indulgence. His manner, as a rule, was abrupt and often overbearing.
The library was spacious, the furniture in good taste but getting shabby. In fact, a certain look of age and shabbiness was typical of the house. Although the windows were open, the room had a damp smell, and the rows of books that Osborn never read were touched with mildew. Rain was plentiful in the north-country dale, coal was dear, and Mrs. Osborn was forced to study economy, partly because her husband would not.
By and by Osborn turned his glance from the window and fixed it on his son, who stood waiting across the big oak table. Gerald was a handsome lad, like his father, but marked by a certain refinement and a hint of delicacy. Although he felt anxious, his pose was free and graceful and his look undisturbed. Osborn threw the bills on the table.
"This kind of thing must stop," he said. "I haven't grumbled much, perhaps not as much as I ought, about your extravagance, but only a fool imagines he can spend more than he has got."
"We have had such fools in our family," the boy remarked, and stopped when he saw Osborn's color rise.
"It's a pity it's true," the latter agreed, with a patience he did not often use. "I'm paying for it now and you will pay a higher price, if you go on as you promise. You must pull up; I've done enough and am getting tired of self-denial."
Gerald's smile faded. He had inherited his extravagance from his father, but felt he must be cautious, although Osborn sometimes showed him a forbearance he used to nobody else.
"I'm sorry, sir," he said. "Perhaps I was extravagant, but if you don't want to be an outsider, you must do like the rest, and I understood you expected me to make friends among our own set. We can't be shabby."
He struck the right note, for Osborn was not clever and perhaps his strongest characteristic was his exaggerated family pride.
"You had enough and I paid your debts not long since," he said. "In fact, you have had more than your share, with the consequence that Grace gets less than hers." He knitted his brows as he indicated the house-master's curt letter. "Then, you have given a stranger an opportunity for writing to me like this."
Gerald, knowing his father's humor, saw he was getting on dangerous ground.
"Brown's a dry old prig, sir. Nothing sporting about him; he's hardly a gentleman."
Osborn was seldom logical and now his annoyance was rather concentrated on the master who had written to him with jarring frankness than on the extravagant lad.
"His letter implies it," he agreed and then pulled himself up. Gerald was clever and no doubt meant to divert his thoughts. "After all, this doesn't matter," he went on. "I'll pay these bills, but if you get into debt at Woolwich, you had better not come home. I have enough trouble about money, and your allowance is going to be a strain. There's another thing: Carter, who hasn't had your advantages, got in as a prize cadet."
Gerald smiled. "He hasn't got his commission. Old Harry means well, but he's not our sort, and these plodding, cramming fellows seldom make good officers."
"An officer must pay his mess bills, whether he's good or bad," Osborn rejoined. "If you go into the Horse Artillery, there won't be much money left when you have settled yours, so it might be prudent to begin some self-denial now. Anyhow, if you get into debt again, you know the consequences."
He raised his hand in dismissal and walked to the window when the lad went out. He had not taken the line he meant to take, but Gerald often, so to speak, eluded him. The lad had a way of hinting that they understood one another and Osborn vaguely suspected that he worked upon his prejudices; but he was a sportsman. He had pluck and knew what the Osborn traditions demanded. In fact, Gerald might go far, if he went straight.
Then Osborn thought he needed a drink, and after ringing a bell he sat down by the window with the tray and glass a servant brought. It was significant that he had given no order; the servants knew what the bell meant. When he had drained the glass he vacantly looked out. Boggy pasture and stony cornfields ran back from the tarn. Here and there a white farmstead, surrounded by stunted trees, stood at the hill foot; farther back a waterfall seamed the rocks and yellow grass with threads of foam; and then a lofty moor, red with heather, shut off the view.
The land was poor at the dale head, but there was better below, where the hills dropped down to the flat country, and, with the exception of Ashness farm, all was Osborn's, from Force Crag, where the beck plunged from the moor, to the rich bottoms round Allerby mill. Unfortunately, the estate was encumbered when he inherited it, and he had paid off one mortgage by raising another. He might perhaps have used other means, letting his sporting rights and using economy, but this would have jarred. The only Osborn who bothered about money was his wife, and Alice was parsimonious enough for both. Money was certainly what his agent called tight; but as long as he could give his friends some shooting and a good dinner and live as an Osborn ought to live, he was satisfied. Still, Gerald must have his chance at Woolwich and this needed thought. Osborn felt he would like another drink, but glanced at his watch and saw that his visitors would arrive in a few minutes.
They were punctual and Osborn got up when his agent and another man came in. Hayes was tall, urbane, and dressed with rather fastidious neatness; Bell was round-shouldered and shabby. He had a weather-beaten skin, gray hair, and small, cunning eyes. Osborn indicated chairs and sat down at the top of the big table. He disliked business and knew the others meant to persuade him to do something he would sooner leave alone. This would have been impossible had he not needed money.
"Mr. Bell wishes to know if his tender for the Slate Company's haulage is approved," Hayes began. "His traction engine is suited for the work and he is prepared to buy a trailer lurry, which we would find useful in the dale. Mechanical transport would be a public advantage on our hilly roads."
"It needs a good horse to bring half a load from station," Bell interposed. "T'lurry would move as much in yan day as farmers' carts in four."
Osborn agreed. He was not much of an economist, but it was obvious that time and labor were wasted when a farmer took a few sacks of potatoes to the railway and another a sack of wool. There was no difficulty about the tender, because Osborn was chairman of the small Slate Company; the trouble was that the contract would help Bell to carry out another plan. The fellow was greedy, and was getting a rather dangerous control; he had already a lease of the limekilns and Allerby mill. But his rents were regularly paid, and it was an advantage to deal with one prosperous tenant instead of several who had not his punctuality and capital.
"The trailer would be useful if you decided to make the new terrace you thought about," Hayes suggested. "The cost of carting the gravel and the slabs for the wall would be heavy; but I have no doubt Mr. Bell would undertake the work with the trailer on very reasonable terms."
"I might forget to send in t' bill. Yan good turn deserves another," Bell remarked.
Hayes frowned. He had meant to imply something like this, but Bell was too blunt. For all that, Osborn was not very fastidious and had long meant to make the terrace when funds permitted. In fact, he hardly saw the thing as a bribe; it was rather a graceful recognition of his authority.
"Very well," he said, "I'll sign the contract."
"There is another matter," Hayes resumed. "Mr. Bell is willing to take up Harkness' tenancy of the coal yard and seed store at the station. He hopes you will grant him a long lease."
Osborn pondered. Harkness had been drunken, careless, and often behind with his rent. He had let his business fall away and it was understood that Bell, who managed the opposition coal yard, had lent him small sums and until recently kept him on his feet. This was not because Bell was charitable, but because if Harkness came down while he had any trade left, a capable rival might take his place. In the meantime, his customers gradually went to Bell, and now Harkness had failed there was no business to attract a newcomer.
"I don't know," said Osborn, "I had thought of advertising the yard and store."
"You'll get nobody to pay what I'm offering," Bell replied. "A stranger would want to see Harkness' books and there's nowt in them as would tempt him to pay a decent rent. Then, with trailer going back from station, I could beat him on the haulage up the dale. He'd niver get his money back if he bowt an engine like mine."
This was plausible, but Osborn hesitated. He saw that Bell wanted a monopoly and had a vague notion that he ought to protect his tenants.
"It's sometimes an advantage to have two traders in a place," he remarked. "A certain amount of competition is healthy."
"I don't know if it would be an advantage to the estate, and imagine you would not get a tenant to pay what Bell offers," Hayes replied. "Besides, rival traders sometimes agree to keep up prices, and competition does not always make things cheap."
"That's one of the ridiculous arguments people who want the Government to manage everything sometimes use," said Osborn with a scornful gesture.
Hayes smiled, "It is very well known that I am not an advocate of State ownership. All the same, unnecessary competition would be wasteful in the dale. For example, if you have two tenants at the station, the farmers who deal with the new man must use their carts, each coming separately for the small load a horse can take up Redmire bank, while Bell's trailer, after bringing down the slate, would go back empty. Then I hear some talk about a fresh appeal to the council to make the loop road round the hill."
For a moment or two Osborn did not answer. Redmire bank was an obstacle to horse traffic, and the road surveyor had plans for easing the gradient that would necessitate cutting down a wood where Osborn's pheasants found shelter. He had refused permission, and the matter had been dropped; but, if the farmers insisted, the council might be forced to use their powers. He was obstinate, and did not mean to let them have the wood unless he could get his price.
"You know my opinion about that?" he said.
"Yes," said Hayes; "I imagine it would be prudent not to have the matter brought up. However, if Bell can send back his lurry full, the economy is plain. It will enable him to sell his coal and seed at a moderate price and pay a higher rent."
"That's so," Osborn agreed, and knitted his brows.
He doubted if Bell would give his customers the benefit of the cheaper haulage, but the advantage of getting a higher rent was obvious. Osborn knew he was being persuaded to do a shabby thing and hesitated. Money, however, was needed and must be got.
"Very well," he said, "Mr. Bell can have the lease."
They talked about something else, and when Osborn went fishing after the others left the wind had dropped, the sun was bright, and the trout would not rise. He felt rather injured, because he had paid for his attention to duty, when he joined his wife and daughter at tea on the lawn.
A copper beech threw a cool shadow across the small table and basket chairs; the china and silver were old and good. Beyond the belt of wavering shade, the recently mown grass gave out a moist smell in the hot sun. The grass grew fine and close, for the turf was old, but there were patches of ugly weeds. The borders by the house were thinly planted and the color plan was rude, but one could not do much with a rheumatic gardener and a boy. There used to be two men, but Mrs. Osborn had insisted on cutting wages down.
Across the yew hedge, the tarn sparkled like a mirror and on its farther side, where a clump of dark pines overhung a beach of silver sand, the hillslopes shone with yellow grass, relieved by the green of fern and belts of moss. The spot was picturesque; the old house, with its low, straight front and mullioned windows, round which creepers grew, had a touch of quiet beauty. Osborn was proud of Tarnside, although he sometimes chafed because he had not enough money to care for it as he ought.
By and by he glanced at his wife, who had silently filled the cups and was cutting cake. She was a thin, quiet woman, with a hint of reserve in her delicately molded face. Sometimes she tactfully exercised a restraining influence, but for the most part acquiesced, for she had found out, soon after her marriage, that her husband must not be opposed.
Grace, who sat opposite, had recently come home from school, and was marked by an independence somewhat unusual at Tarnside. She argued with Osborn and was firm when he got angry. Then she had a fresh enthusiasm for change and improvement and a generous faith in what she thought was good. Since Osborn was obstinately conventional, this sometimes led to jars.
"After all, I'm going to have the terrace made," he remarked, and waited for his wife's approval.
"Is it prudent?" she asked hesitatingly. "If I remember, you thought the work would cost too much when we talked about it last."
"It will cost very little. In fact, I imagine the haulage of the gravel and the slabs for the wall will cost nothing," Osborn replied. "Bell has promised to bring me all the stuff we'll need with his new trailer."
"Oh," said Grace, rather sharply, "I suppose this means you have given him the lease of the station coal yard? No doubt he offered to bring the gravel before you agreed. He's cunning and knew you wanted the terrace."
"I can't remember if he offered before or afterwards," Osborn replied, with a touch of embarrassment. "Anyhow, I don't think it's important, because I did not allow his offer to persuade me. For all that, it's some satisfaction to get the work done cheap."
Grace pondered. She was intelligent; contact with her school companions had developed her character, and she had begun to understand Osborn since she came home. She knew he was easily deceived and sometimes half-consciously deceived himself.
"No," she said, "I don't think the work will really be cheap. It's often expensive to take a favor from a man like Bell. He will find a means of making you pay."
"Ridiculous! Bell can't make me pay."
"Then he will make somebody else pay for what he does for you, and it's hardly honest to let him," Grace insisted.
Mrs. Osborn gave her a warning glance and Osborn's face got red.
"It's a new thing for a young girl to criticize her father. This is what comes of indulging your mother and making some sacrifice to send you to an expensive modern school! If I'd had my way, you would have gone to another, where they teach the old-fashioned virtues: modesty, obedience, and respect for parents."
Grace smiled, because she knew the school Osborn meant and the type it produced. She was grateful to her mother for a better start.
"I'm sorry," she said quietly, but with a hint of resolution. "I don't want to criticize, but Bell is greedy and cunning, and now he has got both coal yards will charge the farmers more than he ought. He has already got too large a share of all the business that is done in the dale."
"It's obvious that you have learned less than you think," Osborn rejoined, feeling that he was on safer ground. "You don't seem to understand that concentration means economy. Bell, for example, buys and stores his goods in large quantities, instead of handling a number of small lots at different times, which would cost him more."
"I can see that," Grace admitted, "But I imagine he will keep all he saves. You know the farmers are grumbling about his charges."
Osborn frowned. "You talk too much to the farm people; I don't like it. You can be polite, but I want you to remember they are my tenants, and not to sympathize with their imaginary grievances. They're a grumbling lot, but will keep their places if you leave them alone."
He got up abruptly and when he went off across the lawn Mrs. Osborn gave the girl a reproachful glance.
"You are very rash, my dear. On the whole, your father was remarkably patient."
Grace laughed, a rather strained laugh, as Osborn's angry voice rose from behind a shrubbery.
"He isn't patient now, and I'm afraid Jackson is paying for my fault. However, I really think I was patient, too. To talk about people keeping their places is ridiculous; in fact, it's piffle! Father's notions are horribly out of date. One wonders he doesn't know."
"Things change. Perhaps we don't quite realize this when we are getting old. But you mustn't argue with your father. He doesn't like it, and when he's annoyed everybody suffers."
"It's true; but how illogical!" Grace remarked, and mused while she looked dreamily across the grass.
She was romantic and generous, and had learned something about social economy at the famous school; in fact, Osborn would have been startled had he suspected how much she knew. Nevertheless, she was young; her studies were half digested, and her theories crude. She had come home with a vague notion of playing the part of Lady Bountiful and putting things right, but had got a jar soon after she began. Her father's idea of justice was elementary: he resented her meddling, and was sometimes tyrannical. When it was obvious that he had taken an improper line he blamed his agent; but perhaps the worst was he seldom knew when he was wrong. Then the agent's main object was to extort as much money from the tenants as possible.
Grace did not see what she could do, although she felt that something ought to be done. She had a raw, undisciplined enthusiasm, and imagined that she was somehow responsible. Yet when she tried to use some influence her father got savage and she felt hurt. Well, she must try to be patient and tactful. While she meditated, Mrs. Osborn got up, and they went back to the house.
THE OTTER HOUNDS
Grace's tweed dress was wet and rather muddy when she stood with Gerald on a gravel bank at the head of a pool, where the beck from the tarn joined a larger stream that flowed through a neighboring dale. There had been some rain and the water was stained a warm claret-color by the peat. Bright sunshine pierced the tossing alder branches, and the rapid close by sparkled between belts of moving shade. Large white dogs with black and yellow spots swam uncertainly about the pool and searched the bank; a group of men stood in the rapid, while another group watched the tail of the pool. Somewhere between them a hard-pressed otter hid.
A few of the men wore red coats and belonged to the hunt; the rest were shepherds and farmers whom custom entitled to join in the sport. All carried long iron-pointed poles and waited with keen expectation the reappearance of the otter. Grace was perhaps the only one to feel a touch of pity for the exhausted animal and she wondered whether this was not a sentimental weakness. There was not much to be said for the otter's right to live; it was stealthy, cruel, and horribly destructive, killing many more fish and moorhens than it could eat. Indeed, before she went to school, she had followed the hunt with pleasant excitement, and was now rather surprised to find the sport had lost its zest.
The odds against the otter were too great, although it had for some hours baffled men who knew the river, and well-trained dogs. It had stolen up shallow rapids, slipping between the watchers' legs, dived under swimming dogs, made bold dashes along the bank, and hidden in belts of reeds. Its capture had often looked certain and yet it had escaped. At first Grace had noticed the animal's confidence, beauty of form, and strength; but it had gradually got slack, hesitating, and limp. Now, when it lurked, half-drowned, in the depths of the pool while its pitiless enemies waited for it to come up to breathe, she began to wish it would get away.
Thorn, the master of the hounds, was talking to his huntsman not far off. He was a friend of Osborn's, and Grace had once thought him a dashing and accomplished man of the world, but had recently, for no obvious reason, felt antagonistic. Alan was not as clever as she had imagined; he was smart, sometimes cheaply smart, which was another thing. Then he was beginning to get fat, and she vaguely shrank from the way he now and then looked at her. On the whole, it was a relief to note that he was occupied.
For a few moments Grace let her eyes wander up the dale to the crags where the force leaped down from the red moor at Malton Head. Belts of dry bent-grass shone like gold and mossy patches glimmered luminously green. The fall looked like white lace drawn across the stones. A streak of mist touched the lofty crag, and above it a soft white cloud trailed across the sky. Then she turned as her brother spoke.
"Alan has given us a good hunt and means to make a kill. He's rather a selfish beast and a bit too sure of himself; but he runs the pack well and knows how to get the best out of life. No Woolwich and sweating as a snubbed subaltern for him! He stopped at home, saw his tenants farmed well, and shot his game. That's my notion of a country gentleman!"
"Father can look after Tarnside and a duty goes with owning land," Grace remarked. "A landlord who need not work ought to serve the State. That idea was perhaps the best thing in the feudal system and it's not altogether forgotten yet. Father was right when he decided to make you a soldier."
"He can send me to Woolwich, but after all that's as far as he can go. You're not at your best when you're improving," Gerald rejoined; and added with a grin, "You don't like old Alan, do you? I thought you snubbed him half an hour since."
Grace colored, but did not answer. She had hurt her foot by falling from a mossy boulder and Thorn had come to help as she floundered across a shallow pool. She was draggled and her hair was loose, and Thorn's faint amusement annoyed her. Somehow it hinted at familiarity. She would not have resented it once, for they had been friends; but when she came home and he had tried to renew the friendship she had noted a subtle difference. Alan was forty, but now she had left school the disparity of their ages was, in a sense, much less marked. Then a shout roused her and she looked round.
Where the smooth, brown water ran past the alder roots, a very small, dark object moved in advance of a faint, widening ripple. Grace knew it was the point of the otter's head; the animal's lungs were empty since it remained up so long. Next moment plunging dogs churned the pool into foam, the object vanished, and men ran along the bank to the lower rapid, while those already there beat the shallow with their poles. The dogs bunched together and began to swim up stream; Gerald and one or two more plunged into the water, and for a few moments the otter showed itself again.
It looked like a fish and not an animal as it broke the surface, rising in graceful leaps. Then it went down, with the dogs swimming hard close behind, and Grace thought it must be caught. It was being steadily driven to the lower end of the stopped rapid, where the water was scarcely a foot deep. The animal reappeared, plunging in and out among the shallows but forging up stream, and the men who meant to turn it back closed up. There was one at every yard across the belt of sparkling foam. They had spiked poles to beat the water and it seemed impossible that their victim could get past.
Yet the otter vanished, and for a minute or two there was silence, until the dogs rushed up the bank. Then somebody shouted, the huntsman blew his horn, and a small, wedge-shaped ripple trailed, very slowly across the next pool. The otter had somehow stolen past the watchers' legs and reached deep water, but its slowness told that its strength had gone. The dogs took the water with a splash, and Grace turned her head. She felt pitiful and did not want to see the end. The animal had made a gallant fight, and she shrank from the butchery.
The clatter of heavy boots on stones suddenly stopped; there was a curious pause, and Grace looked up as somebody shouted: "'Gone to holt! Ca' off your hounds. Wheer's t' terrier?"
The hunt swept up the bank, smashed through a hedge, and spread along the margin of the neighboring pool. A few big alders grew beside its edge, sending down their roots into deep water; but for the most part the bank was supported by timbers driven into the soil, and freshly laid with neatly-bedded turf. Grace knew this had been done to protect the meadow, because the stream is thrown against the concave side when a pool lies in a bend.
As she stopped at the broken hedge a man ran past carrying a small wet terrier, and two or three more came up with spades. The otter could not escape now, since the hounds would watch the underwater entrance to the cave among the alder roots, while the terrier would crawl down from the other side. If a hole could not be found, the men would dig. They were interrupted soon after they began, for somebody said, "Put down your spade, Tom. Hold the terrier."
Grace studied the man who had interfered. He was young and on the whole attractive. His face was honest and sunburned; he carried himself well, and was dressed rather neatly in knickerbockers and shooting jacket. She knew Christopher Askew was the son of a neighboring farmer, who owned his land. Then, as the men stopped digging, Thorn pushed past.
"What's this?" he asked haughtily. "Why have you meddled?"
Askew looked hard at him, but answered in a quiet voice, "It cost us some trouble to mend the bank, and if you dig out the otter the stream will soon make an ugly gap."
"Then it's a matter of the cost!" said Thorn. "How much?"
"Not altogether," Askew replied, coloring. "It's a matter of the damage the next flood may do. We had an awkward job to strengthen the bank and I'm not going to have it cut."
"Noo, Kit, dinna spoil sport," the old huntsman urged. "It's none a trick for a canny lad to cheat the hounds."
"Put terrier in an' niver mind him!" shouted another, and there were cries of approval.
"Stop digging, Tom," Askew said with quiet firmness. "Pick up the dog."
"We are wasting time," Thorn remarked. "I don't like bargaining; you had better state your price."
Grace, looking on across the broken hedge, sympathized with the farmer. For one thing, she wanted the otter to escape; besides, she approved the man's resolute quietness. He had pluck, since it was plain that he was taking an unpopular line, and he used some self-control, because Thorn's tone was strongly provocative. In fact, she thought Thorn was not at his best; he was not entitled to suggest that the other was trying to extort as much money as he could.
"No more do I like bargaining," Askew replied. "There will be no digging here. You have smashed the hedge, and that's enough. Call off your dogs."
"So you mean to spoil sport, even if the damage costs you nothing? I know your kind; it's getting common."
"Oh, no," said Askew. "I won't have the bank cut down, but that is all. If you like, you can look for another otter on our part of the stream."
Thorn gave him a searching glance, and then, seeing he was resolute, shrugged contemptuously. The huntsman blew his horn, the dogs were drawn off, and Gerald followed the others across the field. Grace, however, sat down on a fallen tree to rest her foot and for a minute or two thought herself alone. Then she rose as Askew came through the gap in the hedge. He began to pull about the broken rails and thorns, but saw her when he looked up.
"They have left you behind, Miss Osborn," he remarked with a smile.
"I think I had enough; besides, I hurt my foot."
"No," said Grace. "I have only begun to feel it hurt, but I wish it wasn't quite so far to the bridge."
Askew looked at the water, measuring its height. "The stepping stones are not far off. One or two may be covered, but perhaps I could help you across and it would save you a mile."
Grace went on with him and they presently stopped beneath the alder branches by a sparkling shallow. Tall brush grew up the shady bank and briars trailed in the stream. A row of flat-topped stones ran across, but there were gaps where the current foamed over some that were lower than the rest. Grace's foot was getting worse, and sitting down on a slab of the slate stile, she glanced at her companion.
"I imagine it needed some pluck to stop the hunt," she said. "For one thing, you were alone; nobody agreed with you."
Askew smiled. "Opposition sometimes makes one obstinate. But do you think it's hard to stand alone?"
"Yes," said Grace, impulsively. "I know it's hard. Yet, of course, if you feel you are taking the proper line, you oughtn't to be daunted by what others think."
She stopped, remembering that the man was a stranger; and then resumed in a different tone, "But why did you really stop the hunt? Are you one of the people who don't believe in sport?"
"No," said Askew good humoredly. "It's curious that Mr. Thorn hinted something like that. Anyhow, I'm not a champion of the otter's right to destroy useful fish. I think they ought to be shot."
"Oh!" said Grace with a touch of indignation; "you would shoot an otter? Well, I suppose they must be killed; but to use a gun!"
"It's better for the otter. Which do you imagine it would choose—a mercifully sudden end, or two or three hours of agony, with men and dogs close behind, until the half-drowned, exhausted animal is torn to pieces or mangled by the poles?"
"I suppose one must answer as you expect."
"You're honest," Askew remarked. "I imagine it cost you something to agree!"
"It did," Grace admitted. "After all, you know our traditions, and many people, not cruel people, like the sport."
"That is so; but let's take the hunt to-day, for an example. There were three or four men without an occupation, and no doubt they find following the hounds healthy exercise. The others had left work that ought to be done; in fact, if you think, you'll own that some were men we have not much use for in the dale."
"Yes," said Grace, with some reluctance; "I know the men you mean. All the same, it is really not our business to decide if they ought to work or hunt."
Askew looked amused and she liked his twinkle. He was obviously intelligent, and on the whole she approved his unconventional point of view. Conventional insincerities were the rule at Tarnside. Besides, although it was possible she ought not to talk to the man with such freedom, her foot hurt and the stile made a comfortable seat. She liked to watch the shadows quiver on the stream and hear the current brawl among the stones. This was an excuse for stopping, since she would not acknowledge that the young farmer's society had some charm.
After a moment or two he resumed: "It is not my business, anyhow, and I don't want to argue if otter-hunting is a proper sport; it's an advantage, so to speak, to stick to the point. All I objected to was the hunt's breaking down the mended bank. There are not many good meadows at the dale-head, and grass land is too valuable to be destroyed. Don't you think this justifies my opposition?"
"I suppose it does," Grace agreed, and then decided that she had talked to him enough. "Well, I must go on," she added with a doubtful glance at the stream. "But it doesn't look as if one could get across."
"You can try," Askew replied, and jumping down stood in the water, holding out his hand. "Come on; there's not much risk of a slip."
Since it was too late to refuse, Grace took his hand and he waded across, steadying her, while the current rippled round his legs. Some of the stones were covered, but with his support she sprang across the gaps and the effort did not hurt her foot as much as she had thought. He was not awkward. She liked his firm grasp, and his care that she did not fall; particularly since she saw he was satisfied to give her the help she needed and knew when to stop. After she got across she thanked him and let him go.
When she crossed the field Askew went home in a thoughtful mood, though he was conscious of a pleasant thrill. He had felt the girl's charm strongly as he stood near her at the stile, and now tried to recapture the scene; the dark alder branches moving overhead, the sparkle of the water, and the light and shadow that touched his companion. Her face was attractive; although he was not a judge of female beauty, he knew its molding was good. Mouth, nose, and chin were finely but firmly lined; her color was delicate pink and white, and she had rather grave blue eyes. Her figure was marked by a touch of patrician grace. Askew smiled as he admitted that patrician was a word he disliked, but he could not think of another that quite expressed what he meant. Anyhow the girl's charm was strong; she was plucky and frank, perhaps because she knew her value and need not to pretend to dignity. In a sense, this was patrician, too.
All the same, Askew, though young and romantic, was not a fool. He had had a good education and had then spent two years at an agricultural college; but he was a farmer's son and he knew where he stood, from the Osborns' point of view. He had been of help, but this was no reason Miss Osborn should recognize him when they next met; yet he somehow thought she would. In the meantime, it was rash to think about her much, although his thoughts returned to the stile beneath the alders where he had watched the sun and shadow play about her face.
A COUNCIL OF DEFENCE
The sun had sunk behind the moors when Peter Askew sat by an open window in his big, slate-flagged kitchen at Ashness. All was quiet outside, except for the hoarse turmoil of the force and a distant bleating of sheep. In front, across a stony pasture, the fellside ran up abruptly; its summit, edged with purple heath, cut against a belt of yellow sky. The long, green slope was broken by rocky scars and dotted by small Herdwick sheep that looked like scattered stones until they moved.
The kitchen was shadowy, because the house was old and built with low, mullioned windows to keep out snow and storm, and a clump of stunted ash trees grew outside the courtyard wall. A fire of roots and peat, however, burned in the deep hearth, and now and then a flickering glow touched old copper and dark oak with red reflections. Collectors had sometimes offered to buy the tall clock and ponderous meal chest, but Askew would not sell. The most part of his furniture had been brought to Ashness by his great-grandfather.
Peter's face was brown and deeply lined, and his shoulders were bent, for he had led a life of steady toil. This was rather from choice than stern necessity, because he owned the farm and had money enough to cultivate it well. As a rule, he was reserved and thoughtful, but his neighbors trusted him. They knew he was clever, although he used their homely dialect and lived as frugally as themselves. In the dale, one worked hard and spent no more than one need. Yet Peter had broken the latter rule when he resolved to give his son a wider outlook than he had had.
Kit had gone from the lonely farm to a good school where he had beaten, by brains and resolution, the sons of professional and business men. His teachers said he had talent, and although Peter was often lonely since his wife died, he meant to give the lad his chance. Somewhat to his relief, Kit decided to return to the soil, and Peter sent him to an agricultural college. Since Kit meant to farm he should be armed by such advantages as modern science could give. It was obvious that he would need them all in the struggle against low prices and the inclement weather that vexed the dale. Now he had come home, in a sense not much changed, and Peter was satisfied. Kit and he seldom jarred, and the dalesfolk, who did not know how like they were under the surface, sometimes thought it strange.
Four or five of their neighbors sat in the kitchen, for the most part smoking quietly, but now and then grumbling about the recent heavy rain. This was not what they had come to talk about, and Peter waited. He knew their cautious reserve; they were obstinate and slow to move, and if he tried to hurry them might take alarm. By and by one knocked out his pipe.
"How are you getting forrad with t' peat-cutting?" he asked.
"We have cut enough to last for three or four months."
"You'll need it aw. Coal's a terrible price," another remarked.
"It will be dearer soon," said Peter. "Since Bell has t' lease o' both coal yards, he can charge what he likes."
"A grasping man! Yan canna get feeding stuff for stock, seed, an' lime, unless yan pays his price. Noo he has t' traction-engine, kilns, and mill, he'll own aw t' dale before lang."
"It's very possible, unless you stop him," Kit interposed.
"Landlord ought to stop him," one rejoined.
Kit smiled. "That's too much to expect; it's your business to help yourselves. Mr. Osborn takes the highest rent that's offered, and you missed your chance when you let Bell get Allerby mill."
"Neabody else had t' money," another grumbled.
"Two or three of us could have clubbed together and made a profit after selling feeding stuff at a moderate price."
The others were silent for a minute of two and Kit let them ponder. He had learned something about the wastefulness of individual effort, and on his return to Ashness had urged the farmers to join in bidding for a lease of the mill. They had refused, and would need careful handling now, for the old cooperative customs that had ruled in the dale before the railway came had gone.
"Poor folks willunt have much left for groceries when they have paid Bell's price for coal," said one. "Since he gets his money for hauling in t' slate, it costs him nowt to tak' a big load back on t' lurry; but, with Redmire bank to clim', it's a terrible loss o' time carting half a ton up dale."
"You won't be able to buy the half-ton unless you deal with Bell. I think you'll find he has a contract for all the coal that comes down the line."
They pondered this and another remarked, "Peat's terrible messy stuff and bad to dry at back end o' year."
"It can be dried," said an old man. "I mind the time when iver a load o' coals went past Allerby. Aw t' folk clubbed togedder to cut and haul t' peat from Malton. Browt it doon on stane-boats by the oad green road. Howiver, I reckon it cost them summat, counting their time"
Kit gave him a paper. "This is what our peat has cost us; I've charged our labor and what the horses would have earned if we had been paid for plowing."
They studied the figures, passing the paper around, and then one said, "But peat costs you nowt. Malton moor is yours and I ken nea ither peat worth cutting. Mayhappen yan could find some soft trash on the back moor, but I doot if Osborn would let yan bring it doon."
"Osborn does what his agent says, and it's weel kent Hayes is a friend o' Bell's," another agreed.
Peter smiled and gave Kit a warning glance. He suspected the agent had a private understanding that was not to his employer's benefit with Bell; but this was another matter. Peter had taught his son to concentrate on the business in hand.
"Weel," he said, "you can have aw t' peat you want and we willunt fratch if you pay me nowt. There's acres o' good stuff on Malton moor, and the value o' peat t' labor it costs to cut. Aw t' same, it willunt pay to send a man or two noo and then. You must work in a gang; ivery man at his proper job."
"It was done like that in oad days," said one.
Peter looked at Kit, who did not speak, for both knew when enough was said. Indeed, although he was hardly conscious of it yet, Kit had something of a leader's talent. For a few minutes the others smoked and thought. They were independent and suspicious about new plans, but it was obvious that the best defense against a monopoly was a combine. In fact, they began to see it was the only defense they had. Then one turned to Peter.
"If you're for stopping Bell robbing us and starving poor folk at Allerby, I'm with you."
One after another promised his support, a plan was agreed upon, and Peter was satisfied when his neighbors went away. They were patient, cautious, and hard to move; but he knew their obstinacy when they were roused. Now they had started, they would go on, stubbornly taking a road that was new to them. Bell, of course, would make a cunning fight, but Peter doubted if he would win.
"I reckon your plan will work," he said to Kit, with a nod of satisfaction.
Kit nodded and picking up his hat and some letters went out. As he walked down the dale the moon rose above a shadowy fell, touching the opposite hillside with silver light that reached the fields at the bottom farther on. Tall pikes of wet hay threw dark shadows across a meadow, and he heard the roar of a swollen beck. There was too much water in the dale, but Kit knew something might be done to make farming pay in spite of the weather. Land that had gone sour might be recovered by draining, and a bank could be built where the river now and then washed away the crops. Osborn, however, was poor and extravagant, and his agent's talents were rather applied to raising rents than improving the soil.
Kit stopped when he got near Allerby, where the dale widens and a cluster of low white houses stands among old trees. The village glimmered in the moonlight and beyond it rolling country, dotted by dark woods, ran back to the sea. A beck plunged down the hillside with a muffled roar, and a building, half in light and half in shadow, occupied the hollow of the ghyll. Kit, leaning on the bridge, watched the glistening thread of water that trickled over the new iron wheel, and noted the raw slate slabs that had been recently built into the mossy wall. A big traction engine, neatly covered by a tarpaulin, and a trailer lurry stood in front of the sliding door.
Osborn had spent some money here, for Allerby mill, with its seed and chemical manure stores, paid him a higher rent than the best of his small farms. It was obviously well managed by the tenant, and Kit approved. Modern machines and methods, although expensive, were good and were needed in the dale. The trouble was, they sometimes gave the man who could use them power to rob his poorer neighbors. Kit saw that concentrated power was often dangerous, and since unorganized, individual effort was no longer profitable, he knew no cure but cooperation.
Although young, he was seldom rash. Enthusiasm is not common in the bleak northern dales, whose inhabitants are, for the most part, conservative and slow. Wind and rain had hardened him and he had inherited a reserved strength and quietness from ancestors who had braved the storms that raged about Ashness. Yet the north is not always stern, for now and then the gray sky breaks, and fell and dale shine in dazzling light and melt with mystic beauty into passing shade. Kit, like his country, varied in his moods; sometimes he forgot to be practical and his caution vanished, leaving him romantic and imaginative.
He went on, and as he reached the first of the white houses a girl came out of a gate and stopped where the moonlight fell across the road. She had some beauty and her pose was graceful.
"Oh," she exclaimed, with rather exaggerated surprise, "it's Kit! I suppose you'll take this letter? I was going to the post."
Kit did not know much about young women, but hesitated, because he doubted if she wanted him to post the letter.
"If you like," he said. "I expect the causeway at the water-splash will be wet."
She gave him a curious smile. "Oh, well; here's the letter. Jim Nixon had to help me across the water when I went last night, and I don't suppose you're afraid of wetting your feet. You are used to it at Ashness."
"Yes," said Kit. "My boots are stronger than yours."
"Canny lad!" she answered, with a mocking laugh. Kit felt embarrassed, for he thought he saw what she meant. Janet Bell was something of a coquette.
"I heard people coming down the road not long since," she resumed. "Have you had a supper party? Tell your father I think he's shabby because he left me out."
"It wasn't a supper party and there were no women. Three or four neighbors came in."
"To grumble about the weather or argue about the sheep?"
"They did grumble about the weather," Kit replied.
Janet looked amused. "You're very cautious, my lad; but you needn't take it for granted I'm always on father's side. Do you think I don't know why your neighbors came?"
"You don't know altogether."
The moonlight was clear enough to show that Janet colored. "And you think I stopped you to find out?"
"I don't," said Kit, rather awkwardly. "Still, perhaps it's better that you shouldn't know."
"Oh," said she, with some emotion, "I can't tell if you mean to be nice or not. It's the lazy, feckless people who dislike father, because they're jealous; and they try to make things hard for me. Why should I suffer because he's cleverer than them?"
"You oughn't to suffer. I really don't think people blame you."
"They do blame me," Janet insisted. "You doubted if you could trust me just now."
This was true enough to embarrass Kit, but he said, "I didn't see why I should talk to you about our business; that was all. In fact, I don't mean to talk about it to anybody."
"Now you're nicer. I didn't like to feel you were taking particular care not to let me know. Well, of course, father's no friend of yours and perhaps he'll like you worse by and by. But, after all, does that matter?"
"Not in a way," said Kit, pretending to be dull. "You have nothing to do with the dispute and we don't want to quarrel with your father, although we mean to carry out our plans."
Janet looked rather hard at him and there was some color in her face, but she forced a smile.
"Oh, well! Good-night! I've stopped you, and expect you want to get home."
She went back through the gate and Kit resumed his walk, struggling with an annoyance he felt was illogical. He knew something about Bell's household and imagined that Janet's life was not smooth. He was sorry for her, and it was, of course, unjust to blame her for her father's deeds. All the same, the favor she had sometimes shown him was embarrassing. He was not a philanderer, but he was young and she had made him feel that he had played an ungallant part. Jane was a flirt, but, after all, it would not have cost him much, so to speak, to play up to her. Perhaps he had acted like a prig. This made him angry, although he knew he had taken the proper line.
By and by he came to the water-splash, where a beck crossed the road. Its channel was paved, so that one could drive across, and at the side a stone causeway had been made for foot passengers. Sometimes, when the beck was unusually swollen, shallow water covered the stones, and Kit saw the significance of a statement of Janet's as he noted the width of the submerged spot. It looked as if Jim Nixon had carried her across. Then his annoyance vanished and he laughed. Gallant or not, he was satisfied to carry Janet's letter.
As he went on in the moonlight he began to see that there were some grounds for his reluctance to indulge the girl. He had thought about Miss Osborn often since he helped her across the stepping stones. He had not hesitated then, and although the things were different, to dwell upon the incident was perhaps rasher than indulging Janet. Miss Osborn had, no doubt, forgotten, but he had not. The trouble was, he could not forget; his imagination pictured her vividly, sitting beneath the alders talking to him.
With something of an effort Kit pulled himself up. He was a small farmer's son and the Osborns were important people. He knew Osborn's family pride, which he thought his daughter had inherited. In Osborn, it was marked by arrogance; in the girl by a gracious, half-stately calm. For all that, the pride was there, and Kit, resolving that he would not be a fool, went to the post office and put Janet's letter in the box.
THE PEAT CUTTERS
Osborn was dissatisfied and moody when, one afternoon, he stood, waiting for the grouse, behind a bank of turf on Malton moor. To begin with, he had played cards until the early morning with some of his guests and had been unlucky. Then he got up with a headache for which he held his wife accountable; Alice was getting horribly parsimonious, and had bothered him until he tried to cut down his wine merchant's bill by experimenting with cheaper liquor. His headache was the consequence. The whisky he had formerly kept never troubled him like that.
Moreover, it was perhaps a mistake to invite Jardine, although he sometimes gave one a useful hint about speculations on the Stock Exchange. The fellow went to bigger shoots and looked bored when Osborn's partridges were scarce and wild; besides, he had broken rules in order to get a shot when they walked the turnip fields in line. Osborn imagined Jardine would not have done so had he been a guest at one of the houses he boasted about visiting.
As they climbed Malton Head another of the party had broken Dowthwaite's drystone wall and the farmer had said more about the accident than the damage justified. In fact, Dowthwaite was rather aggressive, and now Osborn came to think of it, one or two others had recently grumbled about things they had hitherto borne without complaint.
In the meantime, Osborn and Thorn, who shared his butt, looked about while they waited for the beaters. The row of turf banks, regularly spaced, ran back to the Force Crags at the head of the dale. The red bloom of the ling was fading from the moor, which had begun to get brown. Sunshine and shadow swept across it, and the blue sky was dotted by flying, white-edged clouds. A keen wind swept the high tableland, and the grouse, flying before it, would come over the butts very fast.
In the distance, one could distinguish a row of figures that were presently lost in a hollow and got larger when they reappeared. They were beaters, driving the grouse, and by and by Osborn, picking up his glasses, saw clusters of small dark objects that skimmed and then dropped into the heath. It was satisfactory to note that they were numerous. Although the birds were rather wild, he could now give his friends some sport. After a time, however, the clusters of dark dots were seen first to scatter and then vanish. Osborn frowned as he gave Thorn the glasses.
"What does that mean? Looks as if the birds had broken back."
"Some have broken back," said Thorn. "If they've flown over the beaters, we have lost them for the afternoon." He paused and resumed: "I think the first lot are dropping. No; they're coming on."
Picking up his gun, he watched the advancing grouse. They flew low but very fast, making a few strokes at intervals and then sailing on stretched wings down the wind. In a few moments they were large and distinct, but there were not enough to cross more than the first two butts. When they were fifty yards off Thorn threw up his gun and two pale flashes leaped out. Osborn was slower and swung his barrel. The sharp reports were echoed from the next butt and a thin streak of smoke that looked gray in the sunshine drifted across the bank of turf. Two brown objects, spinning round, struck the heath and a few light feathers followed. The grouse that had escaped went on and got small again.
"Missed with my right," said Osborn. "Had to shoot on the swing. Don't know about the other barrel."
Thorn did know, but used some tact. "I may have been a trifle slow; my last bird was going very fast."
"I expect you saw whose bird it was," Osborn said to the lad who took their guns.
"Yes, sir; Mr. Thorn's, sir."
"Oh, well," said Osborn, forcing a smile as he turned to Thorn, "you have youth upon your side. Anyhow, I don't imagine the others have done much better, and it looks as if we might as well go home. When the birds broke back we lost the best chance we'll get. I wonder what spoiled the drive?"
"Something on the old green road, I think. The grouse turned as they crossed the hollow."
A short distance off there was a fold in the moor, and while Osborn wondered whether he would walk to the top a man came over the brow, leading two horses that hauled a clumsy sledge. Another team followed and presently four advanced across the heath.
"Now you know what spoiled the drive," Thorn remarked with some dryness. "You can't expect a good shoot on the day your tenants move their peat."
Osborn, who was very angry, picked up the glasses. "The first two are not my tenants. They're the Askews, and the boundary of their sheepwalk runs on this side of the green road."
"Then I suppose there's nothing to be said!"
In the meantime, Osborn's friends had left the other butts and come up, with Jardine in front. He was a fat, red-faced man, and as he got nearer remarked to his companions: "I call it wretched bad management! Somebody ought to have turned the fellows off the moor."
Osborn heard and glanced at Thorn as he left the butt. "There is something to be said; I'm going to relieve my mind."
He went off and signaled the farmers to stop. They waited, standing quietly by their horses. On the open moor, their powerful figures had a touch of grace, and their clothes, faded by sun and rain, harmonized with the color of the heath. Peter Askew's brown face was inscrutable when he fixed his steady eyes on Osborn.
"You turned back the grouse and spoiled the beat. Do you call that sporting?" Osborn asked.
"I'm sorry," Peter replied. "If I'd kenned you were shooting, mayhappen we could have put off loading the peat."
"You knew we were shooting when you saw the beaters."
"Aw, yis," said Peter. "It was over late then. I wadn't willingly spoil any man's sport, but we had browt up eight horses and had to get to work."
"You have plenty of work at Ashness."
"It's verra true; but the weather's our master and we canna awtogether do what we like. The peat's mair important than a few brace of grouse."
"Important to you!" Osborn rejoined. "But what about me and my friends? One has come from London for a few days' sport."
"Then I'm sorry he has lost the afternoon," Kit interposed quietly. "But you well know the wages laborers get in the dale, and there are old folks and some sick at Allerby who need a good fire. The winter's hard and some of the cottages are very damp."
"The farmers pay the wages."
"None of them make much money. They pay what their rent allows."
"I don't force up the rents. They're fixed by the terms new tenants are willing to offer when a lease runs out."
"That is so," Kit agreed. "I don't know that my neighbors grumble much because the rule works on your side. But peat is plentiful and we don't see why it can't be used when coal is dear."
"I imagine you can see an opportunity of selling the right to cut it," Osborn sneered.
"We are willing to sell at the buyers' price. Anybody who can't pay may have the peat for nothing. None of the day laborers has paid us yet and none shall be forced to pay."
Osborn did not know whether he could believe this statement or not, but he said ironically, "Then it looks as if you were generous! However, you are not a friend of my agent's and no doubt see a chance of making trouble. When you meddle with my tenants you play a risky game, and they may find they were foolish to join you."
One of the farmers who had stood quietly by Peter Askew looked up with a slow smile; another's weather-beaten face got a little harder. They were seldom noisily quarrelsome, but they were stubborn and remembered an injury long. Peter, however, interposed:
"We won't fratch; there's not much in arguing. You can beat moor t'ither side o' green road. Good day to you!"
He spoke to the horses and the sledge lurched forward with its chocolate-colored load. The other teams strained at the chains; there was a beat of hoofs, and the row of sledges moved noisily away. Osborn waited for a few moments, but his face was very red when he went back to the butts. The farmer's refusal to dispute with him was galling. For all that, he must try to find his friends some sport, and after consulting with his gamekeeper sent the beaters on across the moor.
The new drive was not successful, and in the evening the party came down the hill with a very poor bag. When they reached the Redmire wood Osborn stopped beside a broken hedge. Red beeches shone among the yellow birches and dark firs, the sun was low and its slanting rays touched the higher branches, but the gaps between the trunks were filled with shadow. A few bent figures moved in the gloom, and Osborn frowned when three or four children came down a drive, dragging a heavy fallen bough. An elderly woman with a sack upon her back followed them slowly, and it was obvious that cottagers from Allerby were gathering fuel.
"Confound them! This is too much!" he exclaimed and beckoned his gamekeeper. "If that is Mrs. Forsyth, tell her to come up."
The woman advanced and rested her sack upon the hedge. Her wrinkled face was wet with sweat, but she did not look alarmed.
"Eh!" she said, "sticks is heavy and I'm none so young as I was."
"You have no business in the wood," said Osborn sternly.
"There's nea place else where we can pick up sticks."
"That is your affair. You know you're not allowed to gather wood in my plantations."
"We canna gan withoot some kindling; when you canna keep it dry, peat is ill to light. Terrible messy stuff, too, and mak's nea end o' dirt."
The children came up and when they stood, open-mouthed, gazing at the party one of the sportsmen laughed.
"Then burn coal and the dirt won't bother you," Osborn rejoined.
"Hoo can we burn coal?" the woman asked. "Noo Tom Bell has lease o' baith yards, he's putten up t' price, and when you've paid what he's asking there's nowt left for meal. I canna work for Mrs. Osborn as I used, and with oad Jim yearning nobbut fifteen shilling—"
She paused for breath and wiped her hot face, and Osborn signed to the keeper. The woman was making him ridiculous.
"Turn them all out, Holliday," he said and went on with his friends.
"The old lady's talkative," one remarked. "Quite frank, but not at all angry; I thought her line was rather dignified. I've met country folks who'd have been servilely apologetic, and some who would have called you ugly names."
"These people are never apologetic," Osborn said dryly. "As a rule, they're not truculent, but they're devilish obstinate."
"I think I see. After all, it's possible to stick to your point without abusing your antagonist. I suppose you turned them out because of the pheasants?"
"Yes; good cover's scarce, and if the birds are disturbed they move down to Rafton Woods. For a sporting neighbor, Hayton hardly plays the game. To put down corn is, of course, allowable, but he uses damaged raisins!"
"Then you don't feed?"
"Very little," Osborn replied. "Corn's too dear. The Tarnside pheasants live on the country."
"I expect that really means they live on the farmers!"
Osborn frowned. It was Jardine's habit to make stupid remarks like that; Osborn wondered whether the fellow thought them smart.
"The farmers knew my rules when they signed the lease," he said. "Anyhow, pheasants do much less damage than ground game, and I don't think my tenants have left a hare in the dale."
Jardine began to talk about something else, and no more was said about Osborn's grievances until the party met on the new terrace in the twilight. The tarn glimmered with faint reflections from the west, but thin mist drifted across the pastures, and the hills rose, vague and black, against the sky, in which a half moon shone. Osborn, sitting at the top of the shallow steps that went down to the lawn, grumbled to his wife about the day's shooting.
"I don't think I'm an exacting landlord," he remarked. "In fact, since I ask for nothing but a little give-and-take, it's annoying when people spoil my sport. Dowthwaite made himself unpleasant about his broken wall, the Askews turned the grouse back, and then I found the Allerby cottage children, ransacking Redmire Wood when the pheasants were going to roost."
Grace, who stood close by with Thorn, indicated the smooth gravel and the low, wide-topped wall on which red geraniums grew.
"This," she said, "is a great improvement on the old grass bank. The wide steps and broad slate coping have an artistic effect. However, you can't often get the things you like without paying."
"Very true, but rather trite," Osborn agreed. "I don't see how it applies."
"Well, I'm really sympathetic about your spoiled day, but it looks as if all your disappointments sprang from the same cause."
"Ah!" said Osborn, sharply; "I suppose you mean the coal yards' lease?"
"I think I mean Bell's greediness. If he didn't charge so much for his coal, Askew would not have cut the peat, and the children would not have been sent to gather wood. Then Dowthwaite might not have grumbled about his wall; he feels the farmers have not been treated justly, and I imagine he blames you."
Osborn knitted his brows. "Then it's an example of the fellow's wrong-headed attitude! He and one or two others are treated better than they deserve, and would not be satisfied with anything I did. If you had to manage the estate, pay extortionate taxes, and make the unnecessary repairs the farmers demand, it would be interesting to see the line you would take."
"Perhaps the right line isn't easy," Grace admitted. "Still, if I wanted a guide, there's the motto of our county town: 'Be just and fear not.'"
Osborn looked at her with indignant surprise, and then shrugged scornfully. Thorn smiled.
"It's an excellent motto; but they chose it some time since. One imagines it's out of date now."
Grace colored and moved away, feeling embarrassed. She had made herself ridiculous, and perhaps sentiment such as she had indulged was cheap; but it hurt to feel that she, so to speak, stood alone. Although she had, no doubt, been imprudent, she had said what she felt, and Thorn had smiled. She turned to him angrily when he followed her along the terrace.
"I daresay I am a raw sentimentalist, but I'm glad I'm not up to date," she said. "I hate your modern smartness!"
Thorn, noting the hardness of her voice, stopped with an apologetic gesture and let her go.
Winter had begun, and although the briars shone red along the hedgerows and the stunted oaks had not lost all their leaves, bitter sleet blew across the dale when Grace went up the muddy lonning to Mireside farm. Railton's daughter had for a time helped the housekeeper at Tarnside, and Grace, hearing that the farmer had been ill, was going to ask about him. It was nearly dark when she entered the big kitchen. The lamp had not been lighted, but a peat fire burned in the wide grate, where irons for cooking pots hung above the blaze. A bright glow leaped up and spread about the kitchen, touching the people in the room, and then faded as she shut the massive door.
Grace thought her arrival had embarrassed the others, because nobody said anything for a moment or two. Railton sat in an old oak chair by the fire, with a stick near his hand; Tom, the shepherd, occupied the middle of the floor; and Kit Askew leaned against the table, at which Mrs. Railton and Lucy sat. Grace wished she could see them better, but the blaze had sunk and the fire burned low, giving out an aromatic smell, and throwing dull reflections on the old oak furniture, copper kettles, and tall brass candlesticks. As a rule, the lonely homesteads in the dales are furnished well, with objects made long since and handed down from father to son.
Then Mrs. Railton began to talk, rather nervously, and Grace turned to the farmer as the light spread about the room again. He had a thin, lined face; his shoulders were bent, and his pose was slack. Sickness no doubt accounted for something, but Grace imagined his attitude hinted at dejection.
"How are you to-day?" she asked.
"No varra weel. I'm none so young, and the wet and cold dinna agree with my oad bones. Mayhappen I'll be better soon, but noo when I'm needed I canna get aboot."
"He'll not can rest," Mrs. Railton interposed. "He was oot in sleet, boddering among t' sheep aw day."
"And weel you ken I had to gan," the farmer rejoined.
Mrs. Railton's silence implied agreement and Grace's curiosity was excited because of something she had heard at home. Railton's lease of the sheepwalk ran out in a few days, but he was by local custom entitled to its renewal after a review of the terms. Moreover, it was usual for the tenant to take the sheep with the farm, and leave them equal in number and condition when he went. The landlord could then demand a valuation and payment of the difference, if the flocks had fallen below the proper standard.
"Why are you forced to go out in this bitter weather?" she asked.
Railton hesitated, and then saw his daughter's meaning glance. Lucy was clever, and he thought she wanted him to be frank.
"I had to see how sheep were," he answered dully. "Not that it was o' mich use. T' lambs niver get over wet spring and t' ewes is poor. Then flock is weel under tally; I've lost two score Swinset Herdwicks, and the mak-up's next Thursday."
"But how did you lose forty sheep?" Grace asked.
"There was a hole in fell dyke and Swinset sheep are thief sheep, varra bad to hoad. I bowt ewes there and t' lambs followed when they wandert back to their heaf."
Grace pondered. She had noted some reserve in Railton's manner when he mentioned the broken dyke and knew the flockmasters were careful about their dry walls. The rest was plain; the heaf is the hill pasture where a lamb is born, and Swinset was fifteen miles away. It was a very large sheepwalk and much time would be needed to find the sheep on the wide belt of moor.
"If you know the sheep are at Swinset, they would be allowed for in the count," she said.
"I have my doubts. Mr. Hayes sent me notice tally would be taken on Thursday and he's a hard man."
Grace colored. Although she did not like Hayes, he was Osborn's agent. There was much she wanted to know, but she could not ask.
"Mr. Hayes cannot do exactly as he likes; he must get my father's consent," she said. "However, as I am going home by the field path, I had better start before it's dark."
"There's a broken gate that's awkward to open. I will come with you until you reach it," Kit remarked.
They went out together. The sleet had stopped, but leaden clouds rolled across the hills that glimmered white in the dusk. As they struck across a wet field Grace said:
"I suppose Railton's flock is below the proper standard and the count is short?"
"Yes; the two or three wet years have hit flock-masters hard and Railton had to sell more stock than was prudent, in order to pay his debts."
"Then if he can't pay the difference in number and value, the lease can be broken?"
Kit made a sign of agreement and Grace asked: "But do you think Hayes would break the lease and turn him out?"
"It's possible," Kit answered cautiously.
Grace gave him a sharp glance. "What do you really think, Mr. Askew? I want to know."
"Then, my notion is Hayes would like to get Mireside for Jim Richardson."
"Richardson is his nephew."
"Just so," said Kit, with some dryness. "All the same he'd make a good tenant. His father is rich enough to start him well."
Grace's eyes sparkled, for she saw where the hint led, but she hid her resentment, because, after all, she had doubts. Osborn needed money and Hayes was cunning.
"I imagine it would hurt Railton to leave."
"It would hurt him much. He was born at Mireside and his father took the farm from your grandfather, a very long time since. Then he's an old man and has not enough money to begin again at another place."
"Ah," said Grace, "it would be very hard if he had to go! But if he hasn't money, he couldn't carry on, even if we renewed the lease."
"We have had remarkably bad weather for two or three years and the cold rain killed the young lambs, but a change is due. A dry spring and fine summer would put the old man straight."
Grace was silent for a few moments and then looked at Kit with some color in her face.
"Thank you for making the situation plain. You were not anxious to do so, were you? I think you don't trust us!"
"I don't trust Hayes," Kit said awkwardly.
"But Hayes is our agent. We are accountable for what he does."
"In a way, I suppose you are accountable. For all that, when a landlord has a capable agent it is not the rule for him to meddle. I understand Mr. Osborn leaves much to Hayes."
Grace pondered. Kit's embarrassment indicated that he was trying to save her feelings, but he must know, as she knew, that a landlord was rightly judged by his agent's deeds. Although she rather liked Kit Askew, he had humiliated her.
"Well," she said resolutely, "something must be done. If the strayed sheep could be found, it would help."
"Yes," said Kit. "Tom and I start for Swinset to-morrow to try to bring them back. But if you'll wait a moment, I'll open the gate."
He walked through the mud the cattle had churned up, and, lifting the broken gate, pushed it back so that Grace could cross a drier spot. Then, as he stood with his hands on the rotten bars, she stopped.
"Don't start for Swinset until you hear from me," she said. "Thank you. Good night!"
Grace went on and Kit turned back to the farm with a satisfaction that made his heart beat. In a way, the girl had given him her confidence; she had, at least, not hidden her feelings. Her proud calm was only on the surface; it covered a generous, impulsive nature. Then she had pluck, because he could understand her difficulties. She was loyal to her father, but hated injustice and was quickly moved to sympathy. All the same, he had noted that when she spoke of Osborn renewing the lease she said we, and since he knew why she had done so, it gave him cause to think.
It was the code of the old school; the family stood together, a compact unit to which she belonged and for whose deeds she believed herself accountable. In a sense, this was rather fine; but Kit, knowing Osborn's pride, saw it would confine their friendship to narrow limits. Still he had no ground for imagining she was his friend, and he tried to fix his thoughts upon the search for the sheep. Grace obviously meant to talk to Osborn, but Kit did not believe the latter would be moved by her arguments.
When Kit returned to the farm kitchen Railton was sitting moodily by the fire and his wife's face was sternly set. They are not an emotional people in the dales, and her trouble was too deep for useless tears, but as she glanced about the room all she saw wakened poignant memories. The old china in the rack had been her mother's; she had brought it and the black oak meal-chest to Mireside thirty years since. The copper kettles and jelly-pan were wedding presents, and Tom, her son, who died in Australia, had sent the money to buy the sewing machine. Now it looked as if her household treasures must be sold, and to leave Mireside would mean the tearing up of roots that had struck deep. Besides, while she would suffer it would hurt her husband worse. When Kit came in she gave him a keen glance.
"Weel, what had Miss Osborn to say?"
"She didn't say much; I think she means to talk to Osborn."
Railton looked up gloomily. "T' lass has a good heart, but talking to Osborn will be o' nea use. Hayes is real master and he wants Mireside for Jim Richardson."
Kit made a sign of agreement. "The fellow's getting dangerous and must be stopped. I suspect he's backing Bell and now he means to use his nephew; it's not altogether for Richardson's sake he wants to break your lease. Some day I imagine Osborn will find his agent owns the estate; but that's not our business. Well, Peter told me to remind you that you and he are old friends, and if a hundred pounds would be some help—"
"It would be a big help," said Railton, and Kit turned to the shepherd when Mrs. Railton awkwardly began to thank him.
"About the broken dyke, Tom? What d'you think brought it down?"
"I canna tell. Dyke's good and there was nea wind."
They were all silent for a few moments, and then Kit said, "Well, Richardson is a cunning hound." He paused and picked up his hat before he turned to Railton. "I've a job at Ashness that must be finished to-night. There's not much time, but if it's possible Tom and I will find the sheep."
In the meantime, Grace walked home thinking hard. Kit was Railton's friend, but he had used some tact, until she forced him to tell her the truth. This, however, was not important, because she had got a jar. It looked as if Osborn had consented to a cruel plot; a landlord ought to help his tenants and not take advantage of their need. She tried not to blame him; he had a bad agent, who used a dangerous influence. She must try to protect him from the fellow and, in a way, from his own carelessness.
After all, it was, for the most part, carelessness, because he did not know Hayes as she knew him. Still, she had not undertaken an easy thing and she braced herself as she went up the steps of the new terrace. Grace hated the terrace. It was the price they, the Osborns, had taken for a shabby deed, and for which poor people and hard-worked women paid. Grace knew about the extra dust that peat fires caused and how often the bread was spoiled.
When she entered the library Osborn was studying some documents. He looked up impatiently, and she said, "I was at Mireside. Railton's no better and is much disturbed about his lease."
"Not more disturbed than he deserves!" Osborn rejoined. "The fellow has been getting slack for some time; he sold his store sheep imprudently and let the flock run down."
"He has been ill and the weather has been bad for some years."
"Exactly. A cautious man provides for bad years; he knows they will come."
Grace was surprised her father did not see that his statement had a humorous touch, since improvident extravagance was his rule; but it was obvious that he did not.
"One cannot save much money when rents are high and prices are low."
"Do you know much about these matters?" Osborn asked.
"I have heard the farmers talk. Sometimes I ask them questions."
Osborn frowned. "You talk too much to the farmers. I don't like it. You know this."
"Well," said Grace, "I think you ought not to break Railton's lease."
Grace hesitated. She began to see that Osborn could not be moved, but she had undertaken to plead Railton's cause.
"He's an old man and has been at Mireside all his life. He has worked hard and always paid his rent. Now he's ill and in trouble, it would be shabby to turn him out because there's a risk—it's only a risk—that we might lose something by letting him stay."
"You don't seem to understand a landlord's duty," Osborn rejoined. "He is, so to speak, the steward in charge of the estate; it belongs to the family and is not his. He must hand it on in good order and this means he cannot indulge his sentimental impulses. If he keeps a bad tenant from pity, or because he's afraid to seem harsh, he robs his heir."
Grace knew there were other, and perhaps worse, ways of robbing one's heir; but she said, "Aren't you taking Hayes's view that Railton is a bad tenant? After all, we are responsible."
"Then you suggest that Hayes is mistaken?" Osborn asked ironically.
"I don't know if he's mistaken or not," said Grace, with a steady look. "I know he's greedy and unjust. But there's a thing you ought not to let him do. Railton has lost forty sheep, that have strayed back to Swinset, and Hayes doesn't mean to count them in the tally."
Osborn's face got red and he knitted his brows. "I have tried to be patient; but this is too much! Do you know more about managing an estate than a clever agent? Or do you think I'm a fool and Hayes leads me like a child? Anyhow, you are much too young to criticize my actions. Let us have no more of it! An unmarried girl is not entitled to opinions that clash with her parents'."
Grace went out silently. To know that she had failed hurt her pride, and it hurt worse to suspect that her father had got angry because he knew she was right. Besides, she felt strangely alone; as she had often felt since she came home. Gerald was careless and thought about nothing but his extravagant amusements; her mother's main object was to avoid jars and smooth over awkward situations. Then, she had household cares; money was scarce, and since Osborn hated self-denial, she must economize. Grace could not tell her her troubles; but there was a way by which Railton might save his lease and Kit could help. Getting a pencil and paper, she wrote him a very short note:
"You must find Railton's sheep."
Then, knowing that she was rash, she went to look for the gardener's boy, and sent him to Ashness.
It was getting dark when Kit and Tom, the shepherd, stopped to rest behind a cairn on the summit of Swinset moor. Close by, the two score sheep stood in a compact flock, with heads towards the panting dogs. They were Herdwicks, a small, hardy breed that best withstands the rain and snow that sweep the high fells in the lambing season. When he had lighted his pipe, Kit thoughtfully looked about.
On one side the barren moor, getting dim in the distance, rolled back to the edge of the low country. Here and there patches of melting sleet gleamed a livid white among the withered ling, and storm-torn hummocks of peaty soil shone dark chocolate-brown. These were the only touches of color in the dreary landscape, except for the streak of pale-yellow sky that glimmered above a long black ridge. On the other side, a line of rugged fells with summits lost in snow clouds, rose dark and forbidding. It was very cold and a biting wind swept the heath.
Kit was tired, for he had been on the moor since morning and had not eaten much. It was an awkward matter to find the sheep, and then the men and dogs had some difficulty to keep the ewes moving, because the Herdwick never willingly leaves the neighborhood where it was born and will, if possible, return. The lambs, now grown large and fat, gave less trouble, and when they sometimes stopped irresolutely while the ewes tried to break away Kit understood their hesitation. Two instincts were at work: it was natural to follow their dams, but Mireside was their native heath and they knew they were going to be taken home.
Now they had gone some distance, Kit had to make a choice. One could reach Mireside by a rough moor-land road, but it went round the hills and there was a shorter way across the range. If he went round, he might arrive late for the reckoning and some of the lambs would get footsore and stop. On the other hand, he knew the fells and shrank from trying to find his way among the crags in the dark. It was, however, important that he should not be late. Hayes was hard, and the Herdwicks must arrive in time to be tallied with the rest of Railton's flock. In the dale, a tenant had a traditional right to have his sheep valued by a jury of his neighbors and Hayes had fixed the time at eight o'clock next day. The animals, however, must be sorted and penned before this, and the work would begin early in the morning.
"We had better try the fells, Tom," said Kit.
The shepherd looked at the threatening sky and fading line of rugged heights.
"Aw, yes. It's gan t' be a rough neet, but we'll try 't. We can rest a bit at oad mine-house this side Bleatarn ghyll."
Now their route was fixed, Kit mused about something else. Railton was his neighbor, but, except for this, Kit had no particular grounds for helping him; he had obviously nothing to gain. Then, the peat-cutting was his plan; he had, without altogether meaning to do so, allowed himself to become the leader of the revolt against Osborn. In a way, of course, he was the proper man, because Ashness belonged to his father, and Hayes could not punish him for meddling. Still, Hayes could punish the tenant farmers and Kit knew they ran some risk.
On the whole, he thought the risk worth while. He had a talent that was beginning to develop for leading and saw when one could negotiate and when one must fight. He did not want to fight Osborn, but was being forced into the conflict, and it was comforting to feel that Miss Osborn was not against him. Her note, telling him he must find the sheep, was in his pocket, and he thought it had cost her something to write. She was generous and plucky and he must not hesitate. After all, the job was his and since he had accepted it, he must, if needful, bear the consequences. Knocking out his pipe, he got up.
"We'll make a start, Tom," he said.
The shepherd shouted to the dogs, the flock broke up and trailed out across the heath. The ewes moved slowly, turning now and then, and Kit thought it ominous that they met other flocks coming down. The Herdwicks knew the weather and were heading for the sheltered dales. For all that, he pushed on, with a bitter wind in his face, and by and by cold rain began to fall. It changed to sleet and the night had got very dark when they crossed the shoulder of a stony fell. One could not see fifty yards, but the steepness of the slope and the click of little hoofs on the wet rock told Kit where they were.
Two hours afterwards, he stopped for breath at the bottom of a narrow valley. The sleet had turned to driving snow, the wind howled in the rocks above, and a swollen beck brawled angrily among the stones. Tom was hardly distinguishable a few yards ahead and Kit could not see the sheep, but the barking of the dogs came faintly down the steep white slope. The Herdwicks were strung out along the hillside, with a dog below and above, and it was comforting to know they could not leave the valley, which was shut in by rugged crags. For a time, driving them would be easy; but it would be different when they left the water and climbed the rise to Bleatarn ghyll.
"How far are we off the mine-house, Tom?" he shouted.
"I dinna ken," said the shepherd. "Mayhappen two miles. Ewes is travelling better; t'lambs is leading them."
Kit agreed, and they pushed on through the snow. After a time, the ground got steeper, and when they crossed the noisy beck and scrambled up a shaly bank, Kit was glad to see a broken wall loom among the tossing flakes. This was the shaft-house of an abandoned mine, and there was a sheep-fold, built with pulled-down material, close by. He shouted and waited until he heard the dogs bark and a rattle of stones. The Herdwicks were coming down and presently broke out from the snow in a compact, struggling flock. Tom shouted and threw a hurdle across the entrance when the dogs had driven the sheep into the fold.
"I dinna ken if snow'll tak' off or not, but it's early yet and we must have a rest before we try ghyll," he said.
They went into the shaft-house and Kit struck a match. One end of the building had been pulled down and the snow blew in through holes in the roof, but a pile of dry fern filled a corner and rotten beams lay about. With some trouble, they lighted a fire and, sitting down close by, took out the food they had brought. The wind screamed about the ruined walls, the smoke eddied round them, and now and then a shower of snow fell on their heads, but they had some shelter and could, if forced, wait for morning.
"Miss Osborn's a bonny lass and kind; but I reckon she couldn't talk her father round," Tom presently remarked.
"No," said Kit. "I believe she tried."
"Favors her mother," Tom resumed. "Mrs. Osborn's heart is good, but at Tarnside women dinna count. It's a kind o' pity, because t' Osborn menfolk are lakers and always was."
A laker is a lounging pleasure-seeker and Kit admitted that the remark was justified.
"I sometimes think Osborn means well," he said.
"Mayhappen! For aw his ordering folks aboot, he's wake; like his father, I mind him weel. Might mak' a fair landlord if he was letten and had t' money; but oad Hayes is grasping and always at his tail."
"The rent-roll's good. The estate could be managed well."
"There's t' mortgages and Osborn canna keep money. When he has it he must spend. There would be nea poor landlord's, if I had my way. I'd let them putten rents up if they had money and spent it on the land. Low rent means poor farming."
Kit knew this was true on the Tarnside estate. Dykes that had kept the floods off the meadows were falling down, drains were choked, and land that had grown good crops was going sour. The wise use of capital would make a wholesome change, but Kit did not altogether like centralized control. Although it was economical, the landlord got the main advantage, and there was much a farmer could do, in cooperation with his neighbors, to help himself, if his lease was long enough. Then, joint action was once common in the dale. Men pooled their labor and implements at hay time and harvest, and combined for their mutual benefit in other ways. Now it looked as if they might combine again.
"Are they grumbling much at Allerby about burning peat?" he asked.
"T' women grumble," Tom said dryly. "But they willunt stop, for aw the dirt peat maks an' they canna get ovens hot. I reckon Bell has mair coal coming in than he can get shut of. When I was at station last t' yards was nearly full."
"I rather think Bell has been too greedy. He must pay for the coal as it arrives and his money is probably getting short; the traction engine and trailer cost a good sum, and he has spent something on the lime-kilns. In fact, if we hold on, he's bound to give way."
"Then we'll brek him. Our folks are slow to fratch, but they're not quick at letting go," said Tom, who paused and added: "I wunner where Bell got his money; he had none when he took a job at mill in oad Osborn's time."
This started Kit on another line of thought. Bell had, no doubt, saved something, for he was parsimonious, and was too keen a business man to leave his money in the bank. All he made by one speculation was sunk in another; but, after allowing for this, it was hard to see where he got the capital for his numerous ventures. Kit wondered whether Hayes helped; if he did, it was not from friendship. The agent was clever and might be playing a cunning game, in which he used both Osborn and Bell. In fact, Kit thought if he were Osborn he would watch Hayes. This, however, was not his business, and getting up he went to a hole in the wall.
It was snowing very hard; he could see nothing but a haze of tossing flakes, and the wind filled the valley with its roar. He could hardly hear the beck a few yards off.
"The drifts will be getting deep, but we can't start yet," he said. "If we miss the track at the top, there's nothing to stop us falling over the Ling Crag."
Tom agreed, and Kit shivered when he sat down again. He was cold and tired, and the worst part of the journey must yet be made. Looking at his watch he resigned himself to wait, and leaned back with eyes closed against the wall while a wet dog crouched at his feet. An hour or two passed and then Tom got up.
"Snow's takin' off," he said. "We must try it."
Kit, pulling himself together, went out and faced the storm. The snow was thinner, but the wind had not dropped and buffeted him savagely as he struggled through a drift to the fold. The dogs had some trouble to drive out the sheep, and when they straggled through the opening Kit imagined the lambs went in front. In a few moments the flock vanished, and he breathed hard as he followed their track up hill. Now and then the dogs barked, but for the most part he heard nothing except the roar of the wind in the crags. He hoped the dogs could find the path across the narrow tableland between two branching ghylls, because it was obvious that his judgment might be at fault. However, there were the lambs; one could trust a Herdwick to return to its heaf.
When he reached the top the wind had blown away the snow, and he stood near the middle of a narrow belt of heath, with his feet sinking in a bog. On each side, he got a glimpse of dark rocks, streaked with white where the wind had packed the snow into the gullies. In front there was a gulf, down which his path led. Scattered snowflakes and rolling mist streamed up from the forbidding hollow. At first he could see nothing of the sheep, but as he floundered across the bog the dogs barked and he found them presently, guarding the flock in a hollow among the crags.
The sheep broke away and Kit pushed on across the narrow belt of bog that was dotted by the marks of little feet. Sometimes he slackened his pace to wait for Tom; the shepherd was getting old and the long climb had tired him. Both stopped for some moments when they reached the brow of the descent, and Kit, bracing himself against the storm tried to look about. He thought he saw the flock close in front.
"They seem doubtful where to go," he said.
"We can do nowt but leave them to find t' ghyll," the shepherd remarked.
Kit agreed. Bleatarn ghyll was beneath him, but there was another hollow and it is hard to walk straight down hill in the dark. He must trust the sheep, and, huddling close together, they refused to leave the crag. When the dogs drove them out they vanished, and since the ground was bare of snow they left no tracks. He stumbled on, falling into pools and stumbling across banks of stones, and soon stopped again. He had come down the slope, so to speak, blindly, and now stood on the edge of a vast, dark pit. One could not see beyond the edge, but the confused noises that came up hinted at profound depth. The gale shrieked, but he heard the roar of falling water and the rattle of stones the wind dislodged.
"Do you think this is Beatarn ghyll?" he asked.
"I dinna ken," Tom answered; and added hopefully, "if it's t'ither, we'll mayhappen find oot before we step over Ling Crag."
They went down at a venture, whistling vainly for the dogs. The drop was very sharp, and now they were leaving the wind-swept pass, the snow had begun to pack among the stones and boggy grass. Still, so far as they could see, there were no marks of little feet and they wondered what had happened to the flock, until a faint bark came out of the mist. The noise got louder and Kit knew the dogs were running round the stopping sheep.
"We're right," he said. "They've gone through the broken wall and the dogs are holding them at the top of the force."
A few minutes afterwards he scrambled over a pile of fallen stones, shouted to Tom, and began to run, for he understood what had happened. The broken wall marked the boundary of the Mireside heaf and the sheep were now on familiar ground. It was his business to drive them to the farm, but they were trying to turn off to look for shelter among the crags. At the force, where the Bleatarn beck leaps in linked falls to the valley, one could get down between the water and the rocks; on the other side, a path about a foot wide led across the face of a precipice. In daylight, if the stones were dry, a man with steady nerves could use the path, but when slab and scree were packed with snow nothing but a Herdwick could cross it safely. The dogs knew this and were trying to hold the flock.
When the men came up they saw an indistinct, woolly mass on the other side of the beck. The mass was not level but slanted sharply, and the sheep at the bottom sent down showers of stones as they surged to and fro, with heads turned to the dogs. It was obvious that they did not mean to go down the ghyll, and Herdwicks born among the crags can climb where no dog can follow.
"The dogs canna turn them," gasped Tom. "They'll be away ower Eel Scar; they're brekkin' noo."
The flock began to open out and three or four sheep straggled forward, but Kit's bob-tailed dog slid down a snowy slab and fell upon the first. The sheep ran back, but the others stood and Kit saw the dog could not stop them long. The Herdwicks knew the advantage was theirs on ground like this.
Jumping from a boulder, he fell into the swollen beck and made his way up the nearly perpendicular slab. At the top he found a dangerous ledge and advanced upon the sheep, which had their backs to the stream. Twining his fingers in a lamb's wool, he picked up the animal and balancing himself precariously threw it as far as he could. It fell into the beck and scrambled out on the other side, where the track led down the ghyll. The effort had cost him much, for his heart beat and he gasped for breath, but he doubted if he had done enough. Dragging another lamb from the flock, he hurled it into the water, and then his foot slipped and he rolled down the slab and fell in the snow.
He got up, badly shaken, and saw that his plan had worked. Sheep will follow a leader and the flock was straggling down the ghyll behind the lambs. Kit recrossed the beck and descended cautiously, keeping close to the rocks. The ghyll is a rough climb in daylight, and summer tourists, trying to cross the fells, often turn back at the bottom. There is no path and one scrambles over large, sharp stones, some of which are loose and fall at a touch. In places, banks of treacherous gravel drop to the beck, which plunges over ledges into deep, spray-veiled pools. Now the stones were slippery with snow, the wind raged, and mist and tossing flakes hid the ground a few yards ahead.