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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesPrince Fortunatus - Chapter 11. The Phantom Stag
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Prince Fortunatus - Chapter 11. The Phantom Stag Post by :magicat90 Category :Long Stories Author :William Black Date :May 2012 Read :2821

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Prince Fortunatus - Chapter 11. The Phantom Stag

CHAPTER XI. THE PHANTOM STAG

But if he were so anxious about how he should sing (for his audience of one only) that old Scotch ballad, he was not acting very wisely, or else he had a sublime confidence in the soundness of his chest; for on his host's offering him another day's stalking, he cheerfully accepted the same; and that notwithstanding they had now fallen upon a period of extremely rough, cold, and wet weather. Was this another piece of bravado, then--undertaken to produce a favorable impression in a certain quarter--or had the hunter's hunger really got hold of him? On the evening before the appointed raid, even the foresters looked glum; the western hills were ominous and angry, and the wind that came howling down the strath seemed to foretell a storm. But he was not to be daunted; he said he would give up only when Roderick assured him that the expedition was quite impracticable and useless.

"I hear you are going after the deer to-morrow," said the pretty Miss Georgie Lestrange to him, in the drawing-room after dinner, while Lady Sybil was performing her famous fantasia "The Voices of the Moonlight," to which nobody listened but her own admiring self. "And I was told all about that custom of making the stalker a little present on his setting out, for good-luck. It was Honnor Cunyngham who did that for you last time, and I think it should be my turn to-morrow morning."

"Oh, thank you!" said he; but "Thank you for nothing!" he said in his heart; for why should any frivolous trinket--even when presented by this very charming and complaisant young damsel--be allowed to interfere with the prerogative of Miss Cunyngham's sacred talisman?

"I say," continued the bright-eyed, ruddy-haired lass, "what do you and Honnor Cunyngham talk about all day long, when you are away on those fishing excursions? Don't you bore each other to death? Oh, I know she's rather learned, though she doesn't bestow much of her knowledge upon us. Well, I'm not going to say anything against Honnor, for she's so awfully good-natured, you know; she allows her sisters-in-law to experiment on her as an audience, and she has always something friendly and nice to say, though I can guess what she thinks of it all. Now, what _do you two talk about all day long?"

"Well, there's the fishing," said he, "for one thing."

"Oh, don't tell me!" exclaimed this impertinent young hussy (while "The Voices of the Moonlight" moaned and mourned their mysterious regrets and despairs at the far end of the drawing-room). "Don't tell _me_! Honnor Cunyngham is far too good-looking for you to go talking salmon to her all day long. Very handsome I call her; don't you? She's so distinguished, somehow--so different from any one else. Of course you don't notice it up here so much, where she prides herself on roughing it--you never met her in London?--in London you should see her come into a drawing-room--her walk and manner are simply splendid. She'll never marry," continued this garrulous little person, with the coquettish _pince-nez perched on her not too Grecian nose. "I'm sure she won't. She despises men--all of them except her brother, Sir Hugh. Lord Rockminster admires her tremendously, but he's too lazy to say so, I suppose. How has she taken such a fancy to you?"

"I was not aware she had," Lionel discreetly made answer, though the question had startled him, and not with pain.

"Oh, yes, she has. Did she think you were lone and unprotected, being persecuted by the rest of us? I am quite certain she wouldn't allow my brother Percy to go fishing a whole day with her; most likely Lord Rockminster wouldn't care to take the trouble. I wonder if she hasn't a bit of a temper? Lady Rosamund is awful sometimes; but she doesn't show that to _you_--catch her! But Honnor Cunyngham--well, the only time I ever went with her on one of her storking expeditions, the water was low, and she thrashed away for hours, and saw nothing. At last a stot happened to come wandering along; and she said, quite savagely, 'I'm going to hook something!' You don't know what a stot is?--it's a young bullock. So she deliberately walked to within twenty yards or so of the animal, threw the line so that it just dropped across its neck, and the fly caught in the thick hair. You should have seen the gay performance that followed! The beast shook its head and shook its head--for it could feel the line, if it couldn't feel the fly; and then, getting alarmed, it started off up the hill, with the reel squealing just as if a salmon were on, and Honnor running after him as hard as she could over the bracken and heather. If it were rage made her hook the stot, she was laughing now--laughing so that when the beast stopped she could hardly reel in the line. And old Robert--I thought he would have had a fit. 'Will I gaff him now, Miss Honnor?' he cried, as he came running along. But the stot didn't mean to be gaffed. Off it set again; and Honnor after it, until at last it caught the line in a birch-bush and broke it; then, just as if nothing had happened, it began to graze, as usual. You should have seen the game that began then--old Robert and Honnor trying to get hold of the stot, so as to take the casting-line and the fly from its mane--it isn't a mane, but you know--and the stot trying to butt them whenever they came near. The end of it was that the beast shook off the fly for itself, and old Robert found it; but I wonder whether it were real rage that made Honnor Cunyngham hook the stot--"

"Of course not!" he said. "It was a mere piece of fun."

"It isn't fun when Lady Rosamund comes down-stairs in a bad temper--after you gentlemen have left," remarked Miss Georgie, significantly; and then she prattled away in this careful undertone. "What horrid stuff that fantasia is; don't you think so? A mixture of Wagner, and Chopin, and 'Home, Sweet Home.' Lady Adela has put you in her novel. Oh, yes, she has; she showed me the last pages this morning. You remember the young married English lady who is a great poetess?--well, she is rescued from drowning in the Bay of Syracuse by a young Greek sailor, and you are the Greek sailor. You'll be flattered by her description of you. You are entirely Greek and godlike--what is that bust?--Alcibiades?--no, no, he was a general, wasn't he?--Alcinous, is it?--or Antinous?--never mind, the bust you see so often in Florence and Rome--well, you're described as being like that; and the young English lady becomes your patron, and you're to be educated, and brought to London. But whether her husband is to be killed off, to make way for you, or whether she is going to hand you over to one of her sisters, I don't know yet. It must be rather nice to look at yourself in a novel, and see what other people think of you and what fate they ordain for you. Lady Adela has got all the criticisms of her last novel--all the nice ones, I mean--cut out and pasted on pages and bound in scarlet morocco. I told her she should have all the unpleasant ones cut out and bound in green--envy and jealousy, don't you see?--but she pretends not to have seen any besides those she has kept. The book is in her own room; I suppose she reads it over every night, before going to bed. And really, after so much praise, it is extraordinary that she is to have no money for the book--no, quite the reverse, I believe. She was looking forward to making Sir Hugh a very handsome present--all out of her own earnings, don't you know--and she wrote to the publishers; but, instead of Sir Hugh getting a present, he will have to give her a check to cover the deficit, poor man! Disappointing, isn't it?--quite horrid, I call it; and every one thought the novel such a success--your friend, Mr. Quirk, was most enthusiastic--and we made sure that the public would be equally impressed. It isn't the loss of the money that Lady Adela frets about; it is the publishers telling her that so few copies have been sold; and we made sure, from all that was said in the papers--especially those that Mr. Quirk was kind enough to send--that the book was going to be read everywhere. Mind you don't say anything of the young Greek sailor until Lady Adela herself shows you the MS.; and of course you mustn't recognize your own portrait, for that is merely a guess of mine. Oh, thank you, thank you!"

The last words were a murmur of gratitude to Lady Sybil Bourne for her kindness in playing this piece of her own composition; and thereafter Miss Georgie's engaging and instructive monologue was not resumed, for the evening was now about to be wound up by a round or two of poker, and at poker Miss Georgie was an eager adept.

All that night it poured a deluge, and the morning beheld the Aivron in roaring spate, the familiar landmarks of the banks having mostly disappeared and also many of the mid-channel rocks; while the blue-black current that came whirling down the strath seemed to bring with it the dull, constant thunder of the distant falls. The western hills looked wild and stormy; there was half a gale of wind tearing along the valley; and, if the torrents of the night had mitigated, there were still flying showers of rain that promised to make of the expedition anything but a pleasure excursion.

"Tell me if it is any use at all!" Lionel insisted, for it must be confessed that the keepers looked very doubtful.

"Well, sir," said the bushy-bearded Roderick, "the deer will be down from the hills--oh, yes--but they'll be restless and moving about--"

"Do you expect I shall have a chance at one--that's all I want to know," was the next demand.

"Oh, yes, there may be that; but you'll get ahfu wet, sir--"

"I'm going," said he, definitely; whereupon the pony was straightway brought up to the door.

And here was Miss Georgie Lestrange, in a charming morning costume, which the male pen may not adequately describe, and she held a small packet in her hands.

"I told Honnor Cunyngham it was my turn," she said, with a kind of bashful smile, as she handed the little present to him, "and she only laughed--I wonder if she thinks she can command all the luck in Ross-shire; has she got a monopoly of it? Well, Mr. Moore, they all say you'll get fearfully wet; and that is a silk handkerchief you must put round your neck; what would the English public say if you went back from the Highlands with a hoarse throat!"

"I'm not thinking of the English public just at present," said he, cheerfully. "I'm thinking of the stag that is wandering about somewhere up in the hills; and I am certain your good wishes will get me a shot at him. How kind of you to get up so early!--good-bye!"

This, it must be admitted, was a most hypocritical speech; for although, as he rode away, he made a pretence of tying the pale pink neckerchief round his throat, it was on the influence of Miss Cunyngham's lucky sixpence--the pierced coin was secretly attached to his watch-chain--that he relied. In fact, before he had gone far from the lodge, he removed that babyish protection against the rain and stuck it in his pocket; he was not going to throw out a red flag to warn the deer.

After all, the morning was not quite so dismal as had been threatened; for now and again, as they went away up the strath, there was a break in the heavy skies; and then the river shone a deep and brilliant purple-blue--save where it came hurling in ale-hued masses over the rocks, or rushed in surging white foam through the stony channels. Sometimes a swift glimmer of sunlight smote down on the swinging current; but these flashes were brief, for the louring clouds were still being driven over from the west, and no one could tell what the day would bring forth.

"What will Miss Honnor do in a spate like that?" Lionel inquired of the head keeper. "Will she go out at all?"

"Oh, ay, Miss Honnor will go out," Roderick made answer; "but she will only be able to fish the tail-ends o' the pools--ay, and it will not be easy to put a fly over the water, unless the wind goes down a bit."

"But do you mean she will go out on a day like this?" he demanded again--as he looked at the wild skies and the thundering river.

"Oh, ay, if there's a chance at ahl Miss Honnor will be out," said Roderick, and he added, with a demure smile, "even if the chentlemen will be for staying at home."

However, Lionel had soon to consider his own attitude towards this swollen stream, when it became necessary to ford it on the hither side of the Bad Step. To tell the truth, when he regarded that racing current, he did not like the look of it at all.

"I don't see how we are to get across," he said, with some hesitation.

"Maggie knaws the weh," Roderick made answer, with a bit of a laugh.

"Yes, that's all very well," said the mounted huntsman. "I dare say she knows the way; but if she gets knocked over in the middle of the current, what is to become of me, or of her either?"

"She'll manage it, sir," said the keeper, confidently, "never fear."

Lionel was just on the point of saying, "Well, you come yourself and ride her across, and I'll go over the Bad Step on foot," but he did not like to show the white feather; so, somewhat apprehensively, he turned the old pony's head to the river-bank. And very soon he found that old Maggie knew much better what she was about than he did; for, as soon as she felt the weight of the water, she did not attempt to go straight across; she deliberately turned her head down-stream, put her buttocks against the force of the current, and thus sideways, and very cautiously, and with many a thrilling stumble and catching up again, she proceeded to ford this whirling Aivron. Never once did she expose herself broadside; her hind-legs were really doing most of the fight; and right gratefully did Lionel clap the neck of this wise beast when he found himself on solid land. The ford farther up was much less dangerous; and so once again the reunited party held on its way.

Then here was the Geinig--no longer the pretty and picturesque river that he knew, but a boiling and surging torrent sweeping in red wrath down its narrow and rocky channel. The farther heights, too, that now came into view, had lost their wonted pale and ethereal hues: there were no soft cloud-stains on the purple slopes of heather--a darkness dwelt over the land. As he gradually got up into that wilder country, the gloom grew more intense, the desolation more awful. The roar of the Geinig was lost now in this dreadful silence. He seemed to have left behind him all human sympathies and associations--to have forsaken his kindred and his kind--to have entered a strange world peopled only with dark phantoms and moving shadows and ghosts. A voiceless solitude, too, save for the moaning of the wind that came sweeping in bitter blasts down from the rainy hills. He did not recognize the features of this melancholy landscape; they had all changed since his last visit; nay, they were changing under his very eyes, as this or that far mountain-top receded behind a veil of gray, or a shadow of greater darkness advanced with stealthy tread along one of those lonely glens. There was something threatening in the aspect of both earth and sky; something louring, conspiring, as if some dread fate were awaiting this intruding stranger; at times he fancied he could hear low-murmuring voices, the first mutterings of distant thunder. What if some red bolt of lightning were suddenly to sever this blackness in twain and reveal its hidden and awful secrets? But no; there was no such friendly or avenging glare; the brooding skies lay over the sombre valleys, and the gloomy phantasmagoria slowly changed and changed in that unearthly twilight, as the mists and the wind and the rain transformed the solid hills and the straths into intermingling vapors and visions. A spectral world, unreal, and yet terrible; apparently voiceless and tenantless; and yet somehow suggesting that there were eyes watching, and vaguely moving and menacing shapes passing hither and thither before him in the gloom.

During these last few days he had been assuring himself that he would enter upon this second stalking expedition without any great tremor. It was only on the first occasion, when everything was strange and unknown to him, that he was naturally nervous. Even the keepers had declared that the shooting of the first stag was everything; that thereafter he would have confidence; that he would take the whole matter as coolly as themselves. And yet, when they now began to proceed more warily (old Maggie having been hobbled some way back) and when every corrie and slope and plateau had to be searched with the glass, he found himself growing not a little anxious at the thought of drawing the trigger; insomuch, indeed, that those sombre fancies of the imagination went out of his head altogether and gave place to the apprehension that on such a day it would be difficult to make a good shot. Their initial difficulty, however, was to find any trace of the "beasts." The wild weather had most likely driven them away from their usual haunts into some place of shelter, the smaller companies joining the main herd; at all events, up to lunch-time the stalkers had seen nothing. It was during this brief rest--in a deep peat-hag, down which trickled a little stream of rain-water--that Lionel discovered two things: first, that he was wet to the skin, and, second, that the wind in these altitudes was of an Arctic keenness. So long as he had been kept going, he had not paid much attention; but now this bitter blast seemed to pierce him to the very marrow; and he began to think that these were very pleasant conditions for a professional singer to be in--for a professional singer whose very existence depended on his voice.

"Here goes for congestion of the lungs," he philosophically observed to himself, as he shiveringly munched his wet sandwiches.

Presently Roderick came along the peat-hag.

"Would you like to wait here, sir, for a while?" said he, in his accustomed undertone. "I'm thinking Alec and me will go aweh up to the top of Meall-Breac and hef a look round there; and if we are seeing nothing, we will come back this weh and go down the Corrie-nam-Miseag--"

"And I am to wait here for you?" Lionel exclaimed. "Not if I know it! By the time you come back, Roderick, you would find me a frozen corpse. I've got to keep moving somehow, and I may as well go on with you. I suppose I cannot have a cigarette before setting out?"

"Aw, naw, sir!" Roderick pleaded. "In this weather, you cannot say where the deer may be--you may happen on them at any moment--and there will be plenty of time for you to smok on the weh hom."

"Very well," Lionel said; and he got up and tried to shake his blood into freer circulation; then he set out with his two companions for the summit of Meall-Breac.

This steep ascent was fatiguing enough; but, at all events, it restored some warmth to his body. He did not go quite to the top; he sat down on a lichened stone, while Roderick proceeded to crawl, inch by inch, until his head and glass were just over the crest of a certain knoll. A long scrutiny followed; then the forester slowly disappeared--the gillie following in his serpent-like track; and Lionel sat on in apathetic patience, slowly getting chilled again. He asked himself what Nina would say to him if she knew of these escapades. He held his back to the wind until he was frozen that way; then he turned his face to the chill blast, folding his arms across his chest. He took a sip from Percy Lestrange's flask; but that was more for employment than anything else, for he discovered there was no real warmth to be got that way. He thought Roderick was never coming back from the top of the hill. He would have started off down the ascent again, but that they might miss him; besides, he might do something fatally wrong. So he sat on this cold stone and shivered, and began to think of Kensal Green.

Suddenly he heard footsteps behind him; he turned and found the two men coming towards him.

"Not a sign of anything, sir," was Roderick's report. "It's awfu' dark and difficult to see, and the clouds are down all along Glen Bhoideach. We'll just step along by the Corrie-nam-Miseag. They very often stop for a while in the corrie when they're crossing over to Achnadruim."

Lionel was not sorry to be again in motion, and yet very soon he found that motion was not an unmixed joy; for these two fellows, who were now going down wind along the route they had come, and therefore walking fearlessly, took enormously long strides and held straight on, no matter what sort of ground they were covering. For the sake of his country, he fought hard to keep up with them; he would not have them say they could outwalk an Englishman--and an Englishman considerably younger than either of them; but the way those two went over this rough and broken land was most extraordinary. And it seemed so easy; they did not appear to be putting forth any exertion; in spite of all he could do, he began to lag a little; and so he thought he would mitigate their ardor by engaging them in a little conversation.

"Roderick," said he, "do you think this neighborhood was ever inhabited?"

"Inhabited?" said Roderick, turning in surprise. "Oh, ay, it was inhabited ahlways--by foxes and eagles."

"Not by human beings?"

"Well, they would be ferry clever that could get a living out of land like this," Roderick said, simply.

"But they say in the House of Commons that the deer-forests are depriving a large portion of the population of a means of subsistence," Lionel observed--rather breathlessly, for these long strides were fearful.

"Ay, do they say that now?" Roderick made answer, with much simplicity. "In the House of Commons? I'm thinking there is some foolish men in the House of Commons. Mebbe they would not like themselves to come here and try to get their living out of rocks and peat-hags."

"But don't you think there may have been people in these parts before the ancient forests rotted down into peat?" Lionel again inquired.

"I do not know about that," Roderick said, discreetly; perhaps he knew that his opinions about prehistoric man were not of great value.

But what Lionel discovered was that talking in no wise interfered with the tremendous pace of the forester; and he was just on the point of begging for a respite from this intolerable exertion when a change in their direction caused both Roderick and the gillie to proceed more circumspectly: they were now coming in view of the Corrie-nam-Miseag, and they had to approach with care, slinking along through hollows and behind mounds and rocks.

By this time, it must be confessed, Lionel was thoroughly dead-beat: he was wet through, icily cold, and miserable to the verge of despair. The afternoon was well advanced; they had seen no sign of a stag anywhere; the gloomy evening threatened to bring darkness on prematurely; and but for very shame's sake, he would have entreated them to abandon this fruitless enterprise, and set out for the far-off region of warmth and reasonable comfort and dry clothes. And yet when Roderick, having crawled up to the top of a small height, suddenly and eagerly signalled for Lionel to follow him, all this hopeless lassitude was instantly forgotten. His heart began to burn, if his limbs were deadly cold; and quickly he was on the ground, too, moving himself up alongside the keeper. The glass was given him, but his trembling fingers could not hold it straight; he put it down, and by and by his natural eyes showed him what he thought were some slightly moving objects.

"There's two of them--two stags," Roderick whispered, "and we can get at them easily if there's no more wandering about that I cannot see. Mebbe the others are over that hull. There's one of them is a fine big beast, but he has only the one horn; the other one, his head is not ferry good. But a stag is a stag whatever; and the evening is wearing on. Now come aweh with me, sir."

What Roderick meant by getting at them easily Lionel was now to find out; he thought he would never have done with this agonizing stooping and crawling and wading through burns. Long before they had got to the neighborhood of the deer, he wished heartily that the night would come suddenly down, or the stags take the alarm and make off--anything, so that he might be released from this unspeakable toil and suffering. And yet he held on, in a sort of blind, despairing fashion; the idea in his head being that if nature gave way he would simply lie down and fall asleep in the heather--whether to wake again or not he hardly cared. But by and by he was to have his reward. Roderick was making for a certain cluster of rocks; and when these were reached, Lionel found, to his inexpressible joy, not only that he was allowed to stand upright, but that the stalk had been accomplished. By peering over one of the boulders, he could see both stags quietly feeding at something like seventy yards' distance. It was going to be an easy shot in every way; himself in ample concealment; a rock on which to rest his rifle; the deer without thought of danger. He would take his time and calm down his nerves.

"Which one?" he whispered to Roderick.

"The one with the one horn is a fine beast," the keeper whispered in return; "and the other one, his head is worth nothing at all."

With extremest caution Lionel put the muzzle over the ledge of the rock, and pushed it quietly forward. He made sure of his footing. He got hold of the barrel with his left hand, and of the stock with his right; he fixed the rifle firmly against his shoulder, and took slow and steady aim. He was not so nervous this time; indeed, everything was in his favor: the stag standing broadside on and hardly moving, and this rock offering so convenient a rest. He held his breath for a moment--concentrated all his attention on the long, smooth barrel--and fired.

"You've got him, sir!" exclaimed Roderick, in an eager whisper, and still keeping his head down; but seeing that the other stag had caught sight of the rifle-smoke and was off at the top of his speed, he rose from his place of concealment and jumped on to the rock that had been hiding him.

"Ay, ay, sir, he'll no go far," he cried to Lionel, who was scrambling up to the same place. "There, he's down again on his knees. Come aweh, sir? we'll go after him. Give me the rifle."

Lionel had just time to get a glimpse of the wounded stag, which was stumbling pitifully along--far behind its now disappearing companion--when he had to descend from the rock in order to follow Roderick. All three ran quickly down the hill and rounded into the hollow where they had last seen the stag, following up his track, and looking out everywhere for his prostrate body. But the farther they went, the more amazed became Roderick and the gillie; there was no sign of the beast that both of them declared could not have run a couple of hundred yards. The track of him disappeared in the bed of a burn and could not be recovered, search as they would; so they proceeded to explore every adjacent hollow and peat-bag, in the certainty that within a very few minutes they must find the lost quarry. The few minutes lengthened out and out; half-hours went by; and yet there was no sign. They went away down the burn; they went away up the burn; they made wider casts, and narrowed in, like so many retrievers; and all to no purpose. And meanwhile darkness and the night were coming on.

"He's lying dead somewhere, as sure as anything can be," Roderick said, looking entirely puzzled and crestfallen; "and we'll hef to bring up a terrier in the morning and search for him. I never sah the like o' that in my life. When he fell where he stood I made sure he was feenished; then he was up again and ran a little weh, and again he went down on his knees--"

"It was then I saw him," Lionel exclaimed, "and I expected him to drop the next moment. Why, he _must be about here, Roderick, he couldn't vanish into the air--he wasn't a ghost--for I heard the thud of the bullet when it struck him--"

"Ay, and me too," Roderick said, "but we will do no good now, for it is getting so dark; and you hef to cross the two fords, sir--"

"The fords!" said Lionel. "By Jove! I forgot them. I say, we must hurry on. I suppose you are sure to find him in the morning?"

"We will bring up a terrier whatever," Roderick said, doubtfully; for he seemed to have been entirely disconcerted by the disappearance of the phantom stag. "Ay, I hef known them rin a long weh after being wounded--miles and miles they will go--but this wan wass so hard hit, I thought he would drop directly. The teffle tek him--I could hef given him the other barrel myself!"

And still they seemed loath to leave the ground, notwithstanding the gathering darkness. They kept wandering about, examining and searching; until it was quite obvious that even if the stag were lying within easy distance of them they could hardly distinguish it; so finally they withdrew, beaten and baffled, and made away down to the lower country, where the old pony Maggie was probably wondering at their unusual length of absence.

That was a sombre ride home. It was now raining heavily; and all the night seemed to be filled with a murmuring of streams and a moaning of winds among the invisible hills. Roderick walked by the pony's head; and Lionel could just make him out, and no more, so pitch dark it was. Of course he had no idea of the route he was taking or of the nature of the ground they were getting over; but he could guess from Maggie's cautious steps when they were going over rough places, or he could hear the splash of her feet when they were crossing a swamp. Not a word was uttered; no doubt all the forester's attention was bent on making out a path; while as for Lionel, he was too wet and cold and miserable to think of talking to anybody. If he had certainly known that somewhere or other he had left up there a stag, which they could bring down in the morning, that would have consoled him somewhat; but it was just as likely as not that all this privation and fatigue had been endured for nothing. As they trudged along through the gloomy night, the rain fell more heavily than ever, and the bitter wind seemed to search out every bone in his body.

And then when at length they came within sound of the Geinig, that was no longer a friendly voice welcoming them back to more familiar regions; it was an angry and threatening roar; he could see nothing; he could only imagine the wild torrent hurling along through this black desolation.

"Look here, Roderick," he said, "mind you keep away from that river. If we should stumble down one of the steep banks, we should never be heard of again."

"Oh, ay, we're a long distance from the ruvver? and it is as well to keep aweh; for if we were to get into the Geinig to-night, we would be tekken down like straws."

And how welcome was the small red ray that told of the shepherd's cottage just below the juncture of the Geinig and Aivron. It was a cheerful beacon; it spoke of human association and companionship; the moan of the hurrying Aivron seemed to have less of boding in it now. It is true they still had the two fords to encounter, and another long and weary tramp, before they got back to the lodge; but here at least was some assurance that they were out of those storm-haunted solitudes where the night was now holding high revel. That ray of light streaming from the solitary little window seemed to Lionel a blessed thing; it served to dissipate the horrors of this murmuring and threatening blackness all around him; it cheered and warmed his heart; it was a joyful assurance that they were on the right way for home. When they reached the cottage, they knocked at the door; and presently there was a delightful, ruddy glow in the midst of the dark. Would the gentleman not come in and warm himself at the fire and get his clothes dried? No: Lionel said that getting wet through once was better than getting wet through twice; he would go on as he was. But might he have a glass of milk? The shepherd disappeared, and returned with a tumbler of milk and a piece of oatcake; and never in his life had the famous baritone from the far city of London tasted anything sweeter, for he was half-dead with hunger. Greatly refreshed by this opportune bit and sup, the tired and "droukit" rider cheerfully resumed his way; and it was with a stout heart that, after a certain time, he found Roderick cautiously leading the pony down to the water's edge. And then a sudden thought struck him.

"Look here, Roderick," said he, "I suppose I can get across this ford safely enough; but how on earth am I to know when I get to the next one? I can't see a yard in front of the pony's head."

"I'm coming with ye, sir," was the simple answer; and at the same moment there was a general splashing which told him that both Maggie and the tall keeper were in the rushing stream.

"Well, I suppose you can't be wetter than you are," he said.

"Indeed, that's true," Roderick answered, with much composure.

Now this first ford, though a ticklish thing in the pitch darkness, they managed successfully enough; but the next one proved a terrible business. Roderick went by the pony's head, with his hand on the bridle; but whether he helped Maggie, or whether Maggie helped him, it would be hard to say. Lionel could only guess what a mighty floundering there was going on; but Roderick kept encouraging his four-footed companion to hold up; and more than once, when they attained a safe footing, he called a halt to let the faithful Maggie recover her breath.

"Take your feet out o' the stirrups, sir," he said, when they were about half-way across; "there's some nasty sharp ledges the other side, and if she loses her footing you'll chist slip off before she goes over; and it will not tek ye above the waist whatever, so that you can get ashore by yourself."

When they did reach those ledges, Maggie seemed to understand the awkwardness of the situation quite as well as he; she went forward only an inch or two at a time; and if her hind-feet occasionally skated a little, her fore-feet remained firm where she had planted them. As for Lionel, he was, of course, quite helpless; he did not seek to interfere in any way; he was merely ready to slip off the saddle if Maggie rolled over. But presently a sudden red flash revealed to him that they were near land (this was Alec striking a vesuvian to give them a friendly lead); there was some further cautious sliding and stumbling forward; then the uplifting of Maggie's neck and shoulders told him she had gained solid ground and was going up the bank. Never was soft and sure footfall more welcome.

The arrival of this belated and bedrenched little party at the lodge created no little surprise; for it had been concluded that, having been led away by a long stalk, or perhaps following a wounded deer into unexpected regions, and finding themselves overtaken by the dark, they had struck across country for the Aivron-Bridge Inn, to pass the night there. However, Sir Hugh bustled about to have his guest properly looked after; and when Lionel had got into dry clothes and swallowed some bit of warmed-up dinner, he went into the drawing-room, where they were all of them playing poker--all of them, that is to say, except Lord Fareborough, who, in a big easy-chair by the fire, was nursing his five-and-twenty ailments, and no doubt inwardly cursing those people for the chatter they were keeping up. They stopped their game when Lionel entered, to hear the news; and when he had told his heartrending tale, Lady Adela's brother lazily called to her:

"I say, Addie, there's a chance for you to try that terrier of yours. If he's as intelligent as you say, send him out with the Billies to-morrow, and see if he can find the stag for them."

"Why, of course," Lady Adela instantly responded. "Mr. Moore, I have just become possessed of the wisest little terrier in the whole world, I do believe. He only arrived this evening; but he and I have been friends for a long time; I bought him only yesterday from a shepherd down the strath. Oh, I must show you the letter that came with the dog. Georgie, dear, would you mind running into my room and bringing me a letter you will find on the dressing-table?"

Miss Georgie was absent only a couple of seconds; when she returned she handed Lionel the following epistle, which was written on a rather shabby sheet of paper. Its contents, however, were of independent value:

"ALTNASHIELACH. _Tuesday moarning._

"LADY ADDELA CUNNINGHAM,--

"HONNERD LADY,--I am sendin you the terrier by my sin Jeames that was takking the milk from Bragla to your ladyship's house the last year when he was butten by the red dog and your ladyship so kind as to giv him five shullins the terrier's name is Donacha bit he will soon answer to his English name that is Duncan Honnerd Lady you must be kind to him for he will be a little shy the first time he is awa from home and because he will not understand your languish as he was taught Gealic he got plenty of Blood on the foxes he can warry wan with himself alone let me no how you will be please with him and if he is behaved and obadient I will be glad to have the news

"from your ladyship's humble servant

"MAGNUS ROSS, _Altnashielach_"

"A wee terrier that can worry a fox all by himself must be a gallant little beast, mustn't he?" said Lady Adela, who seemed quite proud of her new acquisition. "And I know he will find that stag for you, Mr. Moore, if he is to be found; for Donacha, or Duncan, is the wisest little creature you ever saw, I wish I could talk Gaelic, just to make him feel at home the first few days." Then she turned to her companions. "Who began this round--Mr. Lestrange? Very well, when it comes to Sybil, I propose we let you gentlemen go off to your cigars in the gun-room; for poor Mr. Moore, I know, hasn't been allowed to smoke all day; and I am sure he must be far too tired to think of playing poker. How many do you want, Rose?"

When this round of poker was finished, the gentlemen did not seem to resent being dismissed to the so-called gun-room, where, round the great blazing peat fire, and with cigars and pipes and whiskey-and-soda to console them in their banishment, Lionel was called upon to give them more minute details regarding his day's adventures. And very various were the opinions expressed as to the chances of that stag being found. Some ominous stories were told of the extraordinary distances deer were known to have run even when mortally wounded; and there were possibilities suggested of his having fallen into a rapid watercourse and been carried down to the rushing river; while Sir Hugh ventured to hint that, if he were not found on the morrow, the probability was that some shepherd, in his remote and lonely shieling just outside the forest, would be feasting on venison for a considerable time to come. Lionel cared less now; heat and food had thawed him into a passive frame of mind; he was tired, worn out, and sleepy; and very glad was he when he was allowed to go to bed.

As a matter of fact, that magic one-horned stag was not found on the next day; no, nor any following day; nor has it ever been heard of since in those parts. And if it vanished from the earth through some evil enchantment, be sure that Lionel--who had picked up some of the superstitions of the neighborhood, and who had profited on a former occasion by the possession of a lucky sixpence--be sure he attributed his cruel ill-fortune, solely and wholly, to that wretched red rag that had been given him by Miss Georgie Lestrange.

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