‘I think we ought to be kind to our poor boots,’ he said. ‘They’ll get horrid wet.’
It was their first summer in boots, and they hated them, so they took them off, and slung them round their necks, and paddled joyfully over the dripping turf where the shadows lay the wrong way, like evening in the East. The sun was well up and warm, but by the brook the last of the night mist still fumed off the water. They picked up the chain of otter’s footprints on the mud, and followed it from the bank, between the weeds and the drenched mowing, while the birds shouted with surprise. Then the track left the brook and became a smear, as though a log had been dragged along.
They traced it into Three Cows meadow, over the mill-sluice to the Forge, round Hobden’s garden, and then up the slope till it ran out on the short turf and fern of Pook’s Hill, and they heard the cock-pheasants crowing in the woods behind them.
‘No use!’ said Dan, questing like a puzzled hound. ‘The dew’s drying off, and old Hobden says otters’ll travel for miles.’
‘I’m sure we’ve travelled miles.’ Una fanned herself with her hat. ‘How still it is! It’s going to be a regular roaster.’ She looked down the valley, where no chimney yet smoked.
‘Hobden’s up!’ Dan pointed to the open door of the Forge cottage. ‘What d’you suppose he has for breakfast?’
‘One of them. He says they eat good all times of the year,’ Una jerked her head at some stately pheasants going down to the brook for a drink.
A few steps farther on a fox broke almost under their bare feet, yapped, and trotted off.
‘Ah, Mus’ Reynolds—Mus’ Reynolds’—Dan was quoting from old Hobden,—‘if I knowed all you knowed, I’d know something.’ [See ‘The Winged Hats’ in Puck of Pook’s Hill.]
I say,’—Una lowered her voice—‘you know that funny feeling of things having happened before. I felt it when you said “Mus’ Reynolds.”’
‘So did I,’ Dan began. ‘What is it?’
They faced each other, stammering with excitement.
‘Wait a shake! I’ll remember in a minute. Wasn’t it something about a fox—last year? Oh, I nearly had it then!’ Dan cried.
‘Be quiet!’ said Una, prancing excitedly. ‘There was something happened before we met the fox last year. Hills! Broken Hills—the play at the theatre—see what you see—’
‘I remember now,’ Dan shouted. ‘It’s as plain as the nose on your face—Pook’s Hill—Puck’s Hill—Puck!’
‘I remember, too,’ said Una. ‘And it’s Midsummer Day again!’ The young fern on a knoll rustled, and Puck walked out, chewing a green-topped rush.
‘Good Midsummer Morning to you! Here’s a happy meeting,’ said he. They shook hands all round, and asked questions.
‘You’ve wintered well,’ he said after a while, and looked them up and down. ‘Nothing much wrong with you, seemingly.’
‘They’ve put us into boots,’ said Una. ‘Look at my feet—they’re all pale white, and my toes are squidged together awfully.’
‘Yes—boots make a difference.’ Puck wriggled his brown, square, hairy foot, and cropped a dandelion flower between the big toe and the next.
‘I could do that—last year,’ Dan said dismally, as he tried and failed. ‘And boots simply ruin one’s climbing.’
‘There must be some advantage to them, I suppose,’said Puck, ‘or folk wouldn’t wear them. Shall we come this way?’ They sauntered along side by side till they reached the gate at the far end of the hillside. Here they halted just like cattle, and let the sun warm their backs while they listened to the flies in the wood.
‘Little Lindens is awake,’ said Una, as she hung with her chin on the top rail. ‘See the chimney smoke?’
‘Today’s Thursday, isn’t it?’ Puck turned to look at the old pink farmhouse across the little valley. ‘Mrs Vincey’s baking day. Bread should rise well this weather.’ He yawned, and that set them both yawning.
The bracken about rustled and ticked and shook in every direction. They felt that little crowds were stealing past.
‘Doesn’t that sound like—er—the People of the Hills?’said Una.
‘It’s the birds and wild things drawing up to the woods before people get about,’ said Puck, as though he were Ridley the keeper.
‘Oh, we know that. I only said it sounded like.’
‘As I remember ’em, the People of the Hills used to make more noise. They’d settle down for the day rather like small birds settling down for the night. But that was in the days when they carried the high hand. Oh, me! The deeds that I’ve had act and part in, you’d scarcely believe!’
‘I like that!’ said Dan. ‘After all you told us last year, too!’
‘Only, the minute you went away, you made us forget everything,’ said Una.
Puck laughed and shook his head. ‘I shall this year, too. I’ve given you seizin’ of Old England, and I’ve taken away your Doubt and Fear, but your memory and remembrance between whiles I’ll keep where old Billy Trott kept his night-lines—and that’s where he could draw ’em up and hide ’em at need. Does that suit?’ He twinkled mischievously.
‘It’s got to suit,’said Una, and laughed. ‘We can’t magic back at you.’ She folded her arms and leaned against the gate. ‘Suppose, now, you wanted to magic me into something—an otter? Could you?’
‘Not with those boots round your neck.’
‘I’ll take them off.’ She threw them on the turf. Dan’s followed immediately. ‘Now!’ she said.
‘Less than ever now you’ve trusted me. Where there’s true faith, there’s no call for magic.’ Puck’s slow smile broadened all over his face.
‘But what have boots to do with it?’ said Una, perching on the gate.
‘There’s Cold Iron in them,’ said Puck, and settled beside her. ‘Nails in the soles, I mean. It makes a difference.’
‘Can’t you feel it does? You wouldn’t like to go back to bare feet again, same as last year, would you? Not really?’
‘No-o. I suppose I shouldn’t—not for always. I’m growing up, you know,’ said Una.
‘But you told us last year, in the Long Slip—at the theatre—that you didn’t mind Cold Iron,’said Dan.
‘I don’t; but folks in housen, as the People of the Hills call them, must be ruled by Cold Iron. Folk in housen are born on the near side of Cold Iron—there’s iron in every man’s house, isn’t there? They handle Cold Iron every day of their lives, and their fortune’s made or spoilt by Cold Iron in some shape or other. That’s how it goes with Flesh and Blood, and one can’t prevent it.’
‘I don’t quite see. How do you mean?’said Dan.
‘It would take me some time to tell you.’
‘Oh, it’s ever so long to breakfast,’ said Dan. ‘We looked in the larder before we came out.’ He unpocketed one big hunk of bread and Una another, which they shared with Puck.
‘That’s Little Lindens’ baking,’ he said, as his white teeth sunk in it. ‘I know Mrs Vincey’s hand.’ He ate with a slow sideways thrust and grind, just like old Hobden, and, like Hobden, hardly dropped a crumb. The sun flashed on Little Lindens’ windows, and the cloudless sky grew stiller and hotter in the valley.
‘Ah—Cold Iron,’ he said at last to the impatient children. ‘Folk in housen, as the People of the Hills say, grow careless about Cold Iron. They’ll nail the Horseshoe over the front door, and forget to put it over the back. Then, some time or other, the People of the Hills slip in, find the cradle-babe in the corner, and—’
‘Oh, I know. Steal it and leave a changeling,’Una cried.
‘No,’ said Puck firmly. ‘All that talk of changelings is people’s excuse for their own neglect. Never believe ’em. I’d whip ’em at the cart-tail through three parishes if I had my way.’
‘But they don’t do it now,’ said Una.
‘Whip, or neglect children? Umm! Some folks and some fields never alter. But the People of the Hills didn’t work any changeling tricks. They’d tiptoe in and whisper and weave round the cradle-babe in the chimney-corner—a fag-end of a charm here, or half a spell there—like kettles singing; but when the babe’s mind came to bud out afterwards, it would act differently from other people in its station. That’s no advantage to man or maid. So I wouldn’t allow it with my folks’ babies here. I told Sir Huon so once.’
‘Who was Sir Huon?’ Dan asked, and Puck turned on him in quiet astonishment.
‘Sir Huon of Bordeaux—he succeeded King Oberon. He had been a bold knight once, but he was lost on the road to Babylon, a long while back. Have you ever heard “How many miles to Babylon?”?’
‘Of course,’ said Dan, flushing.
‘Well, Sir Huon was young when that song was new. But about tricks on mortal babies. I said to Sir Huon in the fern here, on just such a morning as this: “If you crave to act and influence on folk in housen, which I know is your desire, why don’t you take some human cradle-babe by fair dealing, and bring him up among yourselves on the far side of Cold Iron—as Oberon did in time past? Then you could make him a splendid fortune, and send him out into the world.”’
‘“Time past is past time,” says Sir Huon. “I doubt if we could do it. For one thing, the babe would have to be taken without wronging man, woman, or child. For another, he’d have to be born on the far side of Cold Iron—in some house where no Cold Iron ever stood; and for yet the third, he’d have to be kept from Cold Iron all his days till we let him find his fortune. No, it’s not easy,” he said, and he rode off, thinking. You see, Sir Huon had been a man once. ‘I happened to attend Lewes Market next Woden’s Day even, and watched the slaves being sold there—same as pigs are sold at Robertsbridge Market nowadays. Only, the pigs have rings on their noses, and the slaves had rings round their necks.’
‘What sort of rings?’ said Dan.
‘A ring of Cold Iron, four fingers wide, and a thumb thick, just like a quoit, but with a snap to it for to snap round the slave’s neck. They used to do a big trade in slave-rings at the Forge here, and ship them to all parts of Old England, packed in oak sawdust. But, as I was saying, there was a farmer out of the Weald who had bought a woman with a babe in her arms, and he didn’t want any encumbrances to her driving his beasts home for him.’
‘Beast himself!’ said Una, and kicked her bare heel on the gate.
‘So he blamed the auctioneer. “It’s none o’ my baby,” the wench puts in. “I took it off a woman in our gang who died on Terrible Down yesterday.” “I’ll take it off to the church then,” says the farmer. “Mother Church’ll make a monk of it, and we’ll step along home.”
‘It was dusk then. He slipped down to St Pancras’ Church, and laid the babe at the cold chapel door. I breathed on the back of his stooping neck—and—I’ve heard he never could be warm at any fire afterwards. I should have been surprised if he could! Then I whipped up the babe, and came flying home here like a bat to his belfry.
‘On the dewy break of morning of Thor’s own day—just such a day as this—I laid the babe outside the Hill here, and the People flocked up and wondered at the sight.
‘“You’ve brought him, then?” Sir Huon said, staring like any mortal man.
‘“Yes, and he’s brought his mouth with him, too,” I said. The babe was crying loud for his breakfast.
‘“What is he?” says Sir Huon, when the womenfolk had drawn him under to feed him.
‘“Full Moon and Morning Star may know,” I says. “I don’t. By what I could make out of him in the moonlight, he’s without brand or blemish. I’ll answer for it that he’s born on the far side of Cold Iron, for he was born under a shaw on Terrible Down, and I’ve wronged neither man, woman, nor child in taking him, for he is the son of a dead slave-woman.
‘“All to the good, Robin,” Sir Huon said. “He’ll be the less anxious to leave us. Oh, we’ll give him a splendid fortune, and we shall act and influence on folk in housen as we have always craved.” His Lady came up then, and drew him under to watch the babe’s wonderful doings.’ ‘Who was his Lady?’said Dan. ‘The Lady Esclairmonde. She had been a woman once, till she followed Sir Huon across the fern, as we say. Babies are no special treat to me—I’ve watched too many of them—so I stayed on the Hill. Presently I heard hammering down at the Forge there.’ Puck pointed towards Hobden’s cottage. ‘It was too early for any workmen, but it passed through my mind that the breaking day was Thor’s own day. A slow north-east wind blew up and set the oaks sawing and fretting in a way I remembered; so I slipped over to see what I could see.’
‘And what did you see?’ ‘A smith forging something or other out of Cold Iron. When it was finished, he weighed it in his hand (his back was towards me), and tossed it from him a longish quoit-throw down the valley. I saw Cold Iron flash in the sun, but I couldn’t quite make out where it fell. That didn’t trouble me. I knew it would be found sooner or later by someone.’
‘How did you know?’Dan went on.
‘Because I knew the Smith that made it,’ said Puck quietly.
‘Wayland Smith?’ Una suggested. [See ‘Weland’s Sword’ in Puck of Pook’s Hill.]
‘No. I should have passed the time o’ day with Wayland Smith, of course. This other was different. So’—Puck made a queer crescent in the air with his finger—‘I counted the blades of grass under my nose till the wind dropped and he had gone—he and his Hammer.’
‘Was it Thor then?’ Una murmured under her breath.
‘Who else? It was Thor’s own day.’ Puck repeated the sign. ‘I didn’t tell Sir Huon or his Lady what I’d seen. Borrow trouble for yourself if that’s your nature, but don’t lend it to your neighbours. Moreover, I might have been mistaken about the Smith’s work. He might have been making things for mere amusement, though it wasn’t like him, or he might have thrown away an old piece of made iron. One can never be sure. So I held my tongue and enjoyed the babe. He was a wonderful child—and the People of the Hills were so set on him, they wouldn’t have believed me. He took to me wonderfully. As soon as he could walk he’d putter forth with me all about my Hill here. Fern makes soft falling! He knew when day broke on earth above, for he’d thump, thump, thump, like an old buck-rabbit in a bury, and I’d hear him say “Opy!” till some one who knew the Charm let him out, and then it would be “Robin! Robin!” all round Robin Hood’s barn, as we say, till he’d found me.’
‘The dear!’ said Una. ‘I’d like to have seen him!’ ‘Yes, he was a boy. And when it came to learning his words—spells and such-like—he’d sit on the Hill in the long shadows, worrying out bits of charms to try on passersby. And when the bird flew to him, or the tree bowed to him for pure love’s sake (like everything else on my Hill), he’d shout, “Robin! Look—see! Look, see, Robin!” and sputter out some spell or other that they had taught him, all wrong end first, till I hadn’t the heart to tell him it was his own dear self and not the words that worked the wonder. When he got more abreast of his words, and could cast spells for sure, as we say, he took more and more notice of things and people in the world. People, of course, always drew him, for he was mortal all through.
‘Seeing that he was free to move among folk in housen, under or over Cold Iron, I used to take him along with me, night-walking, where he could watch folk, and I could keep him from touching Cold Iron. That wasn’t so difficult as it sounds, because there are plenty of things besides Cold Iron in housen to catch a boy’s fancy. He was a handful, though! I shan’t forget when I took him to Little Lindens—his first night under a roof. The smell of the rushlights and the bacon on the beams—they were stuffing a feather-bed too, and it was a drizzling warm night—got into his head. Before I could stop him—we were hiding in the bakehouse—he’d whipped up a storm of wildfire, with flashlights and voices, which sent the folk shrieking into the garden, and a girl overset a hive there, and—of course he didn’t know till then such things could touch him—he got badly stung, and came home with his face looking like kidney potatoes! ‘You can imagine how angry Sir Huon and Lady Esclairmonde were with poor Robin! They said the Boy was never to be trusted with me night-walking any more—and he took about as much notice of their order as he did of the bee-stings. Night after night, as soon as it was dark, I’d pick up his whistle in the wet fern, and off we’d flit together among folk in housen till break of day—he asking questions, and I answering according to my knowledge. Then we fell into mischief again!’ Puck shook till the gate rattled.
‘We came across a man up at Brightling who was beating his wife with a bat in the garden. I was just going to toss the man over his own woodlump when the Boy jumped the hedge and ran at him. Of course the woman took her husband’s part, and while the man beat him, the woman scratted his face. It wasn’t till I danced among the cabbages like Brightling Beacon all ablaze that they gave up and ran indoors. The Boy’s fine green-and-gold clothes were torn all to pieces, and he had been welted in twenty places with the man’s bat, and scratted by the woman’s nails to pieces. He looked like a Robertsbridge hopper on a Monday morning.
‘“Robin,” said he, while I was trying to clean him down with a bunch of hay, “I don’t quite understand folk in housen. I went to help that old woman, and she hit me, Robin!”
‘“What else did you expect?” I said. “That was the one time when you might have worked one of your charms, instead of running into three times your weight.”
‘“I didn’t think,” he says. “But I caught the man one on the head that was as good as any charm. Did you see it work, Robin?”
‘“Mind your nose,” I said. “Bleed it on a dockleaf—not your sleeve, for pity’s sake.” I knew what the Lady Esclairmonde would say.
‘He didn’t care. He was as happy as a gipsy with a stolen pony, and the front part of his gold coat, all blood and grass stains, looked like ancient sacrifices.
‘Of course the People of the Hills laid the blame on me. The Boy could do nothing wrong, in their eyes.
‘“You are bringing him up to act and influence on folk in housen, when you’re ready to let him go,” I said. “Now he’s begun to do it, why do you cry shame on me? That’s no shame. It’s his nature drawing him to his kind.
‘“But we don’t want him to begin that way,” the Lady Esclairmonde said. “We intend a splendid fortune for him—not your flitter-by-night, hedge-jumping, gipsy-work.”
‘“I don’t blame you, Robin,” says Sir Huon, “but I do think you might look after the Boy more closely.”
‘“I’ve kept him away from Cold Iron these sixteen years ,” I said. “You know as well as I do, the first time he touches Cold Iron he’ll find his own fortune, in spite of everything you intend for him. You owe me something for that.”
‘Sir Huon, having been a man, was going to allow me the right of it, but the Lady Esclairmonde, being the Mother of all Mothers, over-persuaded him.
‘“We’re very grateful,” Sir Huon said, “but we think that just for the present you are about too much with him on the Hill.”
‘“Though you have said it,” I said, “I will give you a second chance.” I did not like being called to account for my doings on my own Hill. I wouldn’t have stood it even that far except I loved the Boy.
‘“No! No!” says the Lady Esclairmonde. “He’s never any trouble when he’s left to me and himself. It’s your fault.”
‘“You have said it,” I answered. “Hear me! From now on till the Boy has found his fortune, whatever that may be, I vow to you all on my Hill, by Oak, and Ash, and Thorn, and by the Hammer of Asa Thor”—again Puck made that curious double-cut in the air—‘“that you may leave me out of all your counts and reckonings.” Then I went out’—he snapped his fingers—‘like the puff of a candle, and though they called and cried, they made nothing by it. I didn’t promise not to keep an eye on the Boy, though. I watched him close—close—close!
‘When he found what his people had forced me to do, he gave them a piece of his mind, but they all kissed and cried round him, and being only a boy, he came over to their way of thinking (I don’t blame him), and called himself unkind and ungrateful; and it all ended in fresh shows and plays, and magics to distract him from folk in housen. Dear heart alive! How he used to call and call on me, and I couldn’t answer, or even let him know that I was near!’
‘Not even once?’ said Una. ‘If he was very lonely?’
‘No, he couldn’t,’ said Dan, who had been thinking. ‘Didn’t you swear by the Hammer of Thor that you wouldn’t, Puck?’
‘By that Hammer!’ was the deep rumbled reply. Then he came back to his soft speaking voice. ‘And the Boy was lonely, when he couldn’t see me any more. He began to try to learn all learning (he had good teachers), but I saw him lift his eyes from the big black books towards folk in housen all the time. He studied song-making (good teachers he had too!), but he sang those songs with his back toward the Hill, and his face toward folk. I know! I have sat and grieved over him grieving within a rabbit’s jump of him. Then he studied the High, Low, and Middle Magic. He had promised the Lady Esclairmonde he would never go near folk in housen; so he had to make shows and shadows for his mind to chew on.’
‘What sort of shows?’ said Dan.
‘Just boy’s Magic as we say. I’ll show you some, some time. It pleased him for the while, and it didn’t hurt any one in particular except a few men coming home late from the taverns. But I knew what it was a sign of, and I followed him like a weasel follows a rabbit. As good a boy as ever lived! I’ve seen him with Sir Huon and the Lady Esclairmonde stepping just as they stepped to avoid the track of Cold Iron in a furrow, or walking wide of some old ash-tot because a man had left his swop-hook or spade there; and all his heart aching to go straightforward among folk in housen all the time. Oh, a good boy! They always intended a fine fortune for him—but they could never find it in their heart to let him begin. I’ve heard that many warned them, but they wouldn’t be warned. So it happened as it happened.
‘One hot night I saw the Boy roving about here wrapped in his flaming discontents. There was flash on flash against the clouds, and rush on rush of shadows down the valley till the shaws were full of his hounds giving tongue, and the woodways were packed with his knights in armour riding down into the water-mists—all his own Magic, of course. Behind them you could see great castles lifting slow and splendid on arches of moonshine, with maidens waving their hands at the windows, which all turned into roaring rivers; and then would come the darkness of his own young heart wiping out the whole slateful. But boy’s Magic doesn’t trouble me—or Merlin’s either for that matter. I followed the Boy by the flashes and the whirling wildfire of his discontent, and oh, but I grieved for him! Oh, but I grieved for him! He pounded back and forth like a bullock in a strange pasture—sometimes alone—sometimes waist-deep among his shadow-hounds—sometimes leading his shadow-knights on a hawk-winged horse to rescue his shadow-girls. I never guessed he had such Magic at his command; but it’s often that way with boys.
‘Just when the owl comes home for the second time, I saw Sir Huon and the Lady ride down my Hill, where there’s not much Magic allowed except mine. They were very pleased at the Boy’s Magic—the valley flared with it—and I heard them settling his splendid fortune when they should find it in their hearts to let him go to act and influence among folk in housen. Sir Huon was for making him a great King somewhere or other, and the Lady was for making him a marvellous wise man whom all should praise for his skill and kindness. She was very kind-hearted.
‘Of a sudden we saw the flashes of his discontents turned back on the clouds, and his shadow-hounds stopped baying.
‘“There’s Magic fighting Magic over yonder,” the Lady Esclairmonde cried, reigning up. “Who is against him?”
‘I could have told her, but I did not count it any of my business to speak of Asa Thor’s comings and goings.
‘How did you know?’said Una.
‘A slow North-East wind blew up, sawing and fretting through the oaks in a way I remembered. The wildfire roared up, one last time in one sheet, and snuffed out like a rushlight, and a bucketful of stinging hail fell. We heard the Boy walking in the Long Slip - where I first met you.
‘“Here, oh, come here!” said the Lady Esclairmonde, and stretched out her arms in the dark.
‘He was coming slowly, but he stumbled in the footpath, being, of course, mortal man.
‘“Why, what’s this?” he said to himself. We three heard him.
‘“Hold, lad, hold! ’Ware Cold Iron!” said Sir Huon, and they two swept down like nightjars, crying as they rode.
‘I ran at their stirrups, but it was too late. We felt that the Boy had touched Cold Iron somewhere in the dark, for the Horses of the Hill shied off, and whipped round, snorting.
‘Then I judged it was time for me to show myself in my own shape; so I did.
‘“Whatever it is,” I said, “he has taken hold of it. Now we must find out whatever it is that he has taken hold of, for that will be his fortune.”
‘“Come here, Robin,” the Boy shouted, as soon as he heard my voice. “I don’t know what I’ve hold of.”
‘“It is in your hands,” I called back. “Tell us if it is hard and cold, with jewels atop. For that will be a King’s Sceptre. “
‘“Not by a furrow-long,” he said, and stooped and tugged in the dark. We heard him.
‘“Has it a handle and two cutting edges?” I called. “For that’ll be a Knight’s Sword.”
‘“No, it hasn’t,” he says. “It’s neither ploughshare, whittle, hook, nor crook, nor aught I’ve yet seen men handle.” By this time he was scratting in the dirt to prise it up.
‘“Whatever it is, you know who put it there, Robin,” said Sir Huon to me, “or you would not ask those questions. You should have told me as soon as you knew.”
‘“What could you or I have done against the Smith that made it and laid it for him to find?” I said, and I whispered Sir Huon what I had seen at the Forge on Thor’s Day, when the babe was first brought to the Hill.
‘“Oh, good-bye, our dreams!” said Sir Huon. “It’s neither sceptre, sword, nor plough! Maybe yet it’s a bookful of learning, bound with iron clasps. There’s a chance for a splendid fortune in that sometimes.”
‘But we knew we were only speaking to comfort ourselves, and the Lady Esclairmonde, having been a woman, said so.
‘“Thur aie! Thor help us!” the Boy called. “It is round, without end, Cold Iron, four fingers wide and a thumb thick, and there is writing on the breadth of it.”
‘“Read the writing if you have the learning,” I called. The darkness had lifted by then, and the owl was out over the fern again.
‘He called back, reading the runes on the iron:
And there he stood, in clear starlight, with a new, heavy, shining slave-ring round his proud neck.
‘“Is this how it goes?” he asked, while the Lady Esclairmonde cried.
‘“That is how it goes,” I said. He hadn’t snapped the catch home yet, though.
‘“What fortune does it mean for him?” said Sir Huon, while the Boy fingered the ring. “You who walk under Cold Iron, you must tell us and teach us.”
‘“Tell I can, but teach I cannot,” I said. “The virtue of the Ring is only that he must go among folk in housen henceforward, doing what they want done, or what he knows they need, all Old England over. Never will he be his own master, nor yet ever any man’s. He will get half he gives, and give twice what he gets, till his life’s last breath; and if he lays aside his load before he draws that last breath, all his work will go for naught.”
‘“Oh, cruel, wicked Thor!” cried the Lady Esclairmonde. “Ah, look see, all of you! The catch is still open! He hasn’t locked it. He can still take it off. He can still come back. Come back!” She went as near as she dared, but she could not lay hands on Cold Iron. The Boy could have taken it off, yes. We waited to see if he would, but he put up his hand, and the snap locked home.
‘“What else could I have done?” said he.
‘“Surely, then, you will do,” I said. “Morning’s coming, and if you three have any farewells to make, make them now, for, after sunrise, Cold Iron must be your master.” ‘So the three sat down, cheek by wet cheek, telling over their farewells till morning light. As good a boy as ever lived, he was.’
‘And what happened to him?’ asked Dan.
‘When morning came, Cold Iron was master of him and his fortune, and he went to work among folk in housen. Presently he came across a maid like-minded with himself, and they were wedded, and had bushels of children, as the saying is. Perhaps you’ll meet some of his breed, this year.’
‘Thank you,’ said Una. ‘But what did the poor Lady Esclairmonde do?’
‘What can you do when Asa Thor lays the Cold Iron in a lad’s path? She and Sir Huon were comforted to think they had given the Boy good store of learning to act and influence on folk in housen. For he was a good boy! Isn’t it getting on for breakfast-time? I’ll walk with you a piece.’
When they were well in the centre of the bone-dry fern, Dan nudged Una, who stopped and put on a boot as quickly as she could. ‘Now,’ she said, ‘you can’t get any Oak, Ash, and Thorn leaves from here, and’—she balanced wildly on one leg—‘I’m standing on Cold Iron. What’ll you do if we don’t go away?’
‘E-eh? Of all mortal impudence!’said Puck, as Dan, also in one boot, grabbed his sister’s hand to steady himself. He walked round them, shaking with delight. ‘You think I can only work with a handful of dead leaves? This comes of taking away your Doubt and Fear! I’ll show you!’
A minute later they charged into old Hobden at his simple breakfast of cold roast pheasant, shouting that there was a wasps’ nest in the fern which they had nearly stepped on, and asking him to come and smoke it out. ‘It’s too early for wops-nests, an’ I don’t go diggin’ in the Hill, not for shillin’s,’ said the old man placidly. ‘You’ve a thorn in your foot, Miss Una. Sit down, and put on your t’other boot. You’re too old to be caperin’ barefoot on an empty stomach. Stay it with this chicken o’ mine.’