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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesPrince Fortunatus - Chapter 9. Venator Immemor
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Prince Fortunatus - Chapter 9. Venator Immemor Post by :bsmbahamas Category :Long Stories Author :William Black Date :May 2012 Read :1562

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Prince Fortunatus - Chapter 9. Venator Immemor

CHAPTER IX. VENATOR IMMEMOR

And why was it, when, in course of time, it became practicable to arrange a deer-stalking expedition for him, why was it that he voluntarily chose to encounter what Lord Rockminster had called the very extremes of fatigue and human misery? He knew that he was about to undergo tortures of anxiety and privation; and, what was worse, he knew he was going to miss. He had saturated his mind with gillies' stories of capital shots who had completely lost their nerve on first catching sight of a stag. The "buck-ague" was already upon him. Not for him was there waiting away in these wilds some Muckle Hart of Ben More to gain a deathless fame from his rifle-bullet. He was about to half-kill himself with the labors of a long and arduous expedition, and at the end of it he foresaw himself returning home defeated, dejected, in the deepest throes of mortification and chagrin.

And look what he was giving up. Here was a whole houseful of charming women all ready to pet him and make much of him; and in their society he would be at home, dealing with things with which he was familiar. Lady Sybil would be grateful to him if he helped her with the music she was arranging for "Alfred: a Masque;" he could be of abundant service, too, to Lady Rosamund, who was now making individual studies for her large drawing of "Luncheon on the Twelfth;" though perhaps he could not lend much aid to Lady Adela, who was understood to be getting on very well with her new novel. But, at all events, he would be in his own element; he would be among things that he understood; he would be no trembling ignoramus adventuring forth into the unknown. And yet when, early in the morning, the old and sturdy pony was brought round to the door, and when the brown-bearded Roderick had shouldered the rifle and was ready to set forth, Lionel had little thought of surrendering his chance to any one else.

"I call this very shabby treatment," his burly and good-humored host said, as he stood at the open door. "When a man goes stalking, if there's a pretty girl in the house, she ought to make her appearance and give him a little present for good luck. It's an understood thing; it's an old custom; and yet there isn't one of those lazy creatures down yet."

"This is the best I can do for you, old fellow," Percy Lestrange said, at the same moment. "I can't give you the flask, for my sister Georgie gave it to me; but I will lend it to you for the day; and it's filled with an excellent mixture of curacoa and brandy. You'll want some comfort? and I don't expect they'll let you smoke. What do you think of my crest?"

He handed the silver flask to Lionel, who found engraved on the side of it a merry and ingenious device, consisting of two briar-root pipes, crossed, and surrounded by a heraldic garter bearing the legend "_Dulce est de-sip-ere in loco?_" Was this Miss Georgia's little joke? Anyhow, he pocketed the flask with much gratitude; he guessed he might have need of it, if all tales were true.

"I hope you'll get a presentable head," Sir Hugh said, "The stags themselves are not in very good condition yet; but the horns are all right--the velvet's off."

"It doesn't much matter," Lionel made answer, contentedly. "I know beforehand I am going to miss. Well, good-bye, for the present! Go ahead, Maggie!"

But at the same moment there was a glimmer of a gray dress in the twilight of the hall; and the next moment Honnor Cunyngham appeared on the doorstep, the morning light shining on her smiling face.

"Mr. Moore," she said, coming forward without any kind of embarrassment, "there's an old custom--didn't my brother tell you?--you must take a little gift from some one in the house, just as you are going away, for good luck. You haven't yet? Here it is, then."

"It is exceedingly kind of you," said he; "and I wish I could make the omen come true; but I have no such hope. I know I am going to miss."

"You are going to kill a stag!" said she, confidently. "That is what you are going to do. Well, good-bye, and good-luck!"

So the little party of three--Lionel, Roderick, and the attendant gillie--straightway left the lodge and began to make for the head of the strath. And it was not altogether about deer that Lionel was now thinking. The tiny, thin packet he held in his hand seemed to burn there. What was it Honnor Cunyngham had brought down-stairs for him? However trivial it might be, surely it was something he could keep. She had given it to him for good luck; but her wishes were not confined to this one day? Then, when he had got some distance from the house, so that his curiosity could not be observed, he threw the reins on Maggie's neck, and proceeded to open this small packet covered with white paper. What did he find there?--why-only a sixpence--a bright new sixpence--not to be compared in value with the dozens on dozens of presents which were lavished upon him by his fair admirers in London--courteous little attentions which, it must be confessed, he had grown to regard with a somewhat callous indifference. Only a small, bright coin this was; and yet he carefully wrapped up the precious talisman again in its bit of tissue paper; and as carefully he put it away in a waistcoat pocket, where it would be safe, even among the rough-and-tumble experiences that lay before him. The day seemed all the happier, all the more hopeful, that he knew this little token of friendly sympathy was in his possession. Ought not a lucky sixpence to have a hole bored in it? He could wear it in secret, even if she might not care to see it hanging at his watch-chain? and who could tell what subtle influence it might not bring to bear on his fortunes, wholly apart from the stalking of stags? He grew quite cheerful; he forgot his nervousness; he was talking gayly to the somewhat taciturn Roderick, who, nevertheless, no doubt much preferred to find his pupil in this confident mood.

Their course at first lay along the nearer bank of the Aivron; but, when they had got away up the strath towards the neighborhood of the Bad Step--which was, of course, impassable for the pony--Lionel had to separate from his companions and ford the river, following up the other side. Fortunately there was not much water in the stream; old Maggie knew her way well enough; and with nothing more than an occasional stumble among the slippery boulders and loose stones they reached the opposite bank in safety. About a mile farther up the return crossing had to be made; but this second ford was shallow and easy; and thenceforward the united party went on together. At last they struck the Geinig; and here a rude track took them away from the valley of the Aivron altogether, into a solitary land of moor and rock.

It was a still and rather louring morning; but yet he did not perceive any gloom in it at all; nay, there was rather a tender and wistful beauty up in this lonely wilderness he was entering. The heavy masses of cloud hung low and brooding over the purple hills; the heavens seemed to be in close communion with the murmuring streams in these otherwise voiceless solitudes; the long undulations were not darkly stained, they only lay under a soft, transparent shadow. Even among the grays and purple-grays of the sky there was here and there a mild sheen of silver; and now and again a pale radiance would begin to tell upon an uprising slope, until something almost like sunlight shone there, glorifying the lichened rocks and the crimson heather. This was one of the days that Honnor Cunyngham loved; and he, too, had got to appreciate their sombre beauty, the brooding calm, the gracious silence, when he went with her on her fishing expeditions into the wilds. And here was her favorite Geinig--sometimes with tawny masses boiling down between the boulders, sometimes sweeping in a black-brown current round a sudden curve, and sometimes racing over silver-gray shallows; but always with this continuous murmur that seemed to offer a kind of companionship where there was no other sound or sign of life. And would she be up here later on? he asked himself, with a curious kind of interest. Would she have a thought for the small party that had passed in the early morning and disappeared into the remote and secret fastnesses among those lonely hills? Might she linger on in the evening, in the hope of finding them coming home again--perchance with joyful news? For, after all, this lucky sixpence had buoyed up his spirits; he was not so entirely certain he would miss, if anything like a fair chance presented itself; and he knew that if that chance did offer, he would bring all that was in him to bear on the controlling of his nerves--he would not breathe--his life would be concentrated on the small cleft of the rifle--if his heart cracked in twain the instant after the trigger was pulled.

But these vague and anxious speculations were soon to be discarded for the immediate interests of the moment. They were getting near to the ground--after a sufficiently rough journey of close on eight miles; and now, as they came to the bed of a little burn, Lionel was bidden to descend from his venerable steed; the saddle was taken off; and old Maggie was hobbled, and left to occupy herself with the fresh, sweet grass growing near to the stream.

"Now look here, Roderick," Lionel said, "I'm entirely in your hands, and mind you don't spare me. Since I'm in for it, I mean to see it through."

"When it is after a stag we are, there is no sparing of any one," said Roderick, significantly, as he took out his telescope. "And you will think of this, sir, that if we are crahling along, and come on the deer without expecting it, and if they see you, then you will lie still like a stone. Many's the time they will chist stand and look at you, if you do not move; and then slowly, slowly you will put your head down in the heather again, and wait till I tell you what to do. But if you go out of sight quick--ay, so will they."

At first, as it appeared to Lionel, they went forward with a dangerous fearlessness, the keeper merely using his natural eye-sight to search the slopes and corries; but presently he began to go more warily; again and again he paused, to watch the motion of the white rags of cloud clinging to the hillsides; and occasionally, as they got up into the higher country, he would lie down with his back on a convenient mound, cross one knee over the other, and, with this rest for his telescope, proceed to scrutinize, inch by inch, the vast prospect before him. There was no more talking now. There was a kind of stealthiness in their progress, even when they walked erect; but it soon appeared to Lionel that Roderick, who went first, seemed to be keeping a series of natural eminences between them and a certain distant tract of this silent and lonely land. It was only a guess; but it accounted for all kinds of circuitous little turns; anyhow, there was nothing for him but to follow blindly whither he was led. Of course he kept his eyes open; but there was no sign of life anywhere in this barren wilderness; there was nothing but the empty undulations of heath and thick grass, with sometimes a little tarn coming in sight, and always the farther hills forming a sort of solitary amphitheatre along the horizon.

Suddenly Roderick stopped short, and quietly put out his hand to arrest the progress of his companions. Involuntarily they stooped; and he not only did likewise, but presently he was on his back on the heather, with the telescope balanced as before. After a long and earnest scrutiny, he offered the glass to Lionel.

"They're there," he said, "but in an ahfu' bad place for us."

Eagerly Lionel got hold of the telescope and tried to balance it as the keeper had done; but either his hand was trembling, or the wind had a purchase on the long tube, or he was unaccustomed to its use; at all events he could make out nothing but nebulous and uncertain patches of color.

"Tell me where they are," he said, quickly, as he put aside the glass. "I have good eyes."

"Do you see the gray scar on the hillside yonder?--then right below that the rocks--and then the open place--can you see them now? Ay, and there's not a single hind with them--"

"They're all stags?" exclaimed Lionel, breathlessly.

"Every one," said Roderick. "And when there's no hinds with them, it is easier to get at them, for they're not near so wary as the hinds; but that is a bad place where they are feeding the now--a terrible bad place. I'm thinking it is no use to try to get near them there; but they will keep feeding on and on until they get over the ridge; and what we will do now is we will chist go aweh down wind, and get round to them from anither airt."

It was little that Lionel knew what was involved in this apparently simple scheme. At first everything was easy enough; for, when they had fallen back out of sight of the deer, they merely set forth upon a long walk down wind, going erect, without any trouble. It is true that Lionel in time began to think that the keeper, instead of having the deer in mind, was bent on a pilgrimage into Cromarty or Sutherland, or perhaps towards the shores of the Atlantic; but this interminable tramp was a mere trifle compared with their labors when they began to go up wind again. For now there was nothing but stooping and crawling and slouching behind hillocks, up peat-hags, and through marshy swamps; while the heat produced by all this painful toil was liable to a sudden chill whenever a halt was called to enable Roderick to writhe his prostrate figure up to the top of some slight eminence, where, raising his head inch by inch, he once more informed himself of the whereabouts of the deer. There seemed to be no end to this snake-like squirming along the ground and creeping behind rocks and hillocks; in fact, they were now in a quite different tract of country from that in which they had first caught sight of the stags--a much more wild and sombre landscape was this, with precipitous black crags overhanging a sullen and solitary loch that had not a bush or a tree along its lifeless shores. As for Lionel, he fought along without repining. His arms were soaking wet up to the elbows; his legs were in a like condition from the knee downward. Then he was damp with perspiration; while ever and anon, when he had to lie prone in the moist grass, or crouch like a frog behind a rock, the cold wind from the hills sent a shiver down his spine or seemed to strike like an icy dagger through his chest. But he took it all as part of the day's work. There was in his possession a little silver token that afforded him much content. He would acquit himself like a man--if he could; at any rate, he would not grumble.

After what seemed ages of this inconceivable torture, Lionel was immensely relieved to find the keeper, after a careful survey from the top of a mound to which he had crawled, motion with his hand to him to come up to his side. This he did with the greatest circumspection, scarcely raising his head above the grass and heather; and then, when he had joined Roderick, he began to peer through the waving stalks and twigs just before his eyes. Suddenly his gaze was arrested by certain brown tips--tips that were moving; were these the stags' horns, he asked himself, in a kind of bewilderment of fear? There could be no doubt of it. The beasts were now lying down--he could not see their bodies--but clearly enough he could make out their branching antlers, as they lazily moved their heads, or perhaps turned to flick a fly away.

"They're too far off, aren't they?" Lionel whispered--and, despite all his sworn resolves to keep calm, he felt his heart going as if it would choke him.

"They're lying down now," Roderick said, with professional coolness, "and they're right out in the open; it is no use at all trying to get near them until they get up in the afternoon and begin to feed again, and then maybe they will feed over the shoulder yonder. No use at all," said he; but just at this moment his quick eye caught sight of something else that had just appeared on the edge of one of the lower slopes, and the expression of his face instantly changed--into something like alarm. "Bless me, look at that now!"

Lionel slowly and cautiously turned his head; and then, quite clearly, he could see a small company of seven or eight stags that had come along from quite a different direction. They paused at the crest of the slope, looking all about them.

"Was ever anything so mischievous?" Roderick exclaimed, in smothered vexation. "If they come over this way they will get our wind; and then it is good-bye to all of them. And we cannot get away neither--well, well, was there ever the like now? There is only the one chance--mebbe they will go along to the others, and keep with them till they begin feeding in the afternoon. Indeed, now, it is a terrible peety if we are to miss such a chance--and not a hind anywhere to be on the watch!"

Happily, however, Roderick's immediate fears were soon dispelled. The new-comers slowly descended the slope; then they bore up the valley again; and after walking about awhile, they followed the example of the rest of the herd and lay down on the heather.

"Ay, ay, that is better now," Roderick said, with much satisfaction. "That is ferry well now. And since there is nothing to be done till the whole of them get up to feed in the afternoon, we will chist creep aweh into a peat-hag and wait there, and you can have your lunch, sir."

So there was another crawling performance down from this exposed height; and eventually the small party managed to hide themselves in a black and moist peat-hag, where their extremely frugal repast was produced.

"But look here, Roderick," Lionel said, "it's only twelve o'clock now; do you mean to say we have to stop in this wet hole till two or three in the afternoon?"

"Ay, chist that," the keeper said, coolly. "They will begin to feed about three; and until they go over the ridge, it is no use at all trying to get near them."

"And what are we to do all the time?"

"Chist wait," Roderick said, with much simplicity; and then he and the gillie withdrew a little way down the peat-hag, so that they might have their luncheon and a cautious whispering in Gaelic by themselves.

It was tantalizing in the last degree. The breathless consciousness that the deer were close by made him all the more impatient for the half-dreaded opportunity of having a shot at one of them. He wished it was well over. If he were going to miss, he wanted to have his agony of mortification encountered and done with, instead of enduring this maddening delay. The peat-hag became a prison; and a very uncomfortable prison, too. His sandwiches were soon disposed of; thereafter--what? He dared not smoke; he had no book with him; the keeper and the gillie, having withdrawn themselves, were exchanging confidences in their native tongue. His clothes were wet and cold and clammy; Percy Lestrange's flask appeared to afford him no comfort whatever. And of course the longer he brooded over the chances of hit or miss, the more appalling became the responsibility. How much depended on that fifteenth part of a second! He was half inclined to say, "Here, Roderick, I can bear this anxiety no longer. Let us get as near the deer as we can; sight the rifle for a long distance, you whistle the stags on to their legs--and I'll blaze into the thick of them. Anything to get the shot over and done with!"

Indeed, this intolerable waiting was about as bad a thing as could have happened to his nerves; but it did not last quite as long as the keeper had anticipated; for about two o'clock Roderick ascertained that the stags were up again and feeding. This was good news--anything was good news, in fact, that broke in upon this sickening suspense; had Lionel been informed that the deer had taken alarm and disappeared at full gallop, he would have said "Amen!" and set out for home with a light heart. But, by and by, when it was discovered that the stags had gone over the ridge--one of them remained on the crest for a long time, staring right across the valley, so that the stalkers dared not move hand or foot--when this last sentinel had also withdrawn, the slouching and skulking devices of the morning had to be resumed. Not a word was spoken; but Lionel knew that the fateful moment was approaching. Then, when they began to ascend the ridge over which the stags had disappeared, their progress culminated in a laborious crawl, Roderick going first, with the rifle in one hand, Lionel dragging himself after, the gillie coming on as best he might. It was slow work now. The keeper went forward inch by inch, as if at any moment he expected to find a stag staring down upon him. And at last he lay quite still; then, with the slightest movement of his disengaged hand, he beckoned Lionel to come up beside him.

Now was the time for all his desperate and summoned calmness. He shut his lips firm, breathing only by his nose; he gradually pushed his way through the tall, withered grass; and at last, when he was almost side by side with Roderick, he peered forward. They were startlingly near, those brown and dun beasts with the branching antlers!--he almost shrank back--and yet he gazed and gazed with a strange fascination. The stags, which were not more than fifty or sixty yards off, were quite unconscious of any danger; they were quietly feeding; sometimes one of them would cease and raise his head and look lazily around. Just at this moment, too, a pale sunlight began to shine over the plateau on which they stood; and a very pretty picture it lit up--the silver-gray rocks, the wide heath, and those slim and elegant creatures grouped here and there as chance directed. Every single feature of the scene (as he discovered long thereafter) was burned into Lionel's brain; yet he was not aware of it at the time; his whole attention, as he imagined, was directed towards keeping himself cool and restrained and ready to obey Roderick's mute directions. The rifle was stealthily given to him, and as stealthily pushed through the grass. With his fore-finger the keeper indicated the stag at which Lionel was to fire; it was rather lighter in color than the others, and was standing a little way apart. Lionel took time to consider, as he thought; in reality it was to still the quick pulsation of his heart; and as he did so the stag, unfortunately for him, moved, so that, instead of offering him an easy broadside shot, it almost faced him, with its head down. Still, at any moment it might afford a fairer mark; and so, with the utmost caution, and with his lips still shut tight, he slowly raised himself somewhat, and got the rifle into his hands. Yes, the stag had again moved; its shoulder was exposed; his eyes inquired of Roderick if now was the time; and the keeper nodded assent.

The awful crisis had arrived; and he seemed to blind himself and deaden himself to all things in this mortal world except the little notch in the rifle, the shining sight, and that fawn-colored object over there. He took a long breath; he steadied and steadied the slightly trembling barrel until it appeared perfectly motionless; and then--he fired!

Alas! at the very moment that he pulled the trigger--when it was too late for him to change his purpose--the stag threw up its head to flick at its side with its horns, and thus quite altered its position; he knew he ought not to fire--but it was too late--too late--and in the very act of pulling the trigger he felt that he had missed.

Roderick sprang to his feet; for the deer, notwithstanding that they could not have discerned where the danger lay, with one consent bounded forward and made for a rocky defile on the farther side of the plateau.

"Come on, sir! Come on, sir!" the keeper called to Lionel. "You've hit him. Come along, sir!"

"I haven't hit him--I missed--missed clean!" was the hopeless answer.

"I tell ye ye've hit him!" the keeper exclaimed. "Run, sir, run!--if he's only wounded he may need the other barrel. God bless me, did ye not hear the thud when the ball struck?"

Thus admonished Lionel unwittingly, but nevertheless as quickly as he could, followed the keeper; and he could show a nimble pair of heels when he chose, even when he was hampered with this heavy rifle. Not that he had any heart in the chase. The stag had swerved aside just as he fired; he knew he must have missed. At the same time any one who goes out with a professional stalker must be content to become as clay in the hands of the potter; so Lionel did as he was bid; and though he could not overtake Roderick, he was not far behind him when they both reached the pass down which the deer had fled.

And there the splendid animals were still in view--bounding up a stony hillside some distance off, in straggling twos and threes, and going at a prodigious speed. But where was the light-colored stag? Certainly not among those brown beasts whose scrambling up that steep face was sending a shower of stones and debris down into the silent glen below.

"I'm thinking he's no far aweh," Roderick said, eagerly scanning all the ground in front of them. "We'll chist go forrit, sir; and you'll be ready to shoot, for, if he's only wounded, he may be up and off again when he sees us."

"But do you really think I hit him?" Lionel said, anxiously enough.

"I _sah him struck," the keeper said, emphatically. "But he never dropped--no, not once on his knees even. He was off with the best of them; and that's what meks me think he was well hit, and that he's no far aweh."

So they went forward on the track of the herd, slowly, and searching every dip and hollow. For Lionel it was a period of agonizing uncertainty. One moment he would buoy himself up with the assurance that the keeper must know; the rest he convinced himself that he had missed the stag clean. Now he would be wondering whether this wide, undulating plain really contained the slain monarch of the mists; again he pictured to himself that light-colored, fleet-footed creature far away in advance of all his companions, making for some distant sanctuary among the mountains.

"Here he is, sir!" Roderick cried, with a quick little chuckle; and the words sent a thrill through Lionel such as he had never experienced in his life before. "No--he's quite dead," the keeper continued, seeing that the younger man was making ready to raise his rifle again. "I was thinking he was well hit--and no far aweh."

At the same moment Lionel had eagerly run forward. With what joy and pride--with what a curious sense of elation--with what a disposition of good-will towards all the world--he now beheld this splendid beast lying in the deep peat-hag that had hitherto hidden it from view. The stag's last effort had been to clear this gully; but it had only managed to strike the opposite bank with its forefeet when the death-wound did its work, and then the hapless animal had rolled back with its final groan into the position in which they now found it. In a second, Roderick was down in the peat-hag beside it, holding up its head by one of the horns, and examining the bulletmark.

"Well, sir," said he, with a humorous smile that did not often lighten up his visage, "if this is what you will be calling the missing of a stag, it is a ferry good way to miss it; for I never sah a better shot in my life."

"It's a fluke, then, Roderick; I declare to you I was certain I had missed," said he--though he hardly knew what he was saying; a kind of bewilderment of joy possessed him--he could not keep his eyes off the dead stag--and now, if he had only chanced to notice it, his hand was certainly trembling. Probably Roderick did not know what a fluke was; in any case his response was:

"Well, sir, I'm chist going to drink your good health; ay, and more good luck to you, sir; and it's ferry glad I am that you hef got your first stag!" and therewith he pulled out his small zinc flask.

"Oh, but you mustn't draw on your own supplies!" Lionel exclaimed, in the fulness of his pride and gratitude. "See, here is a flask filled with famous stuff. You take it--you and Alec; I don't want any more to-day."

"Do not be so sure of that," the keeper said, shrewdly, and he modestly declined to take Percy Lestrange's decorated flask. "It's a long walk from home we are; far longer than you think; and mebbe there will be some showers before we get back home."

"I don't care if there's thunder and lightning all the way!" Lionel cried, gayly. "But I'll tell you what, Roderick, I wish you'd lend me your pipe. Have you plenty of tobacco? A cigarette is too feeble a thing to smoke by the side of a dead stag. And--and on my way south I mean to stop at Inverness, and I'll send you as much tobacco as will last you right through the winter; for you see I'm very proud of my first stag--and, of course, it was all owing to your skill in stalking."

Roderick handed the young man his pipe and pouch.

"Indeed, you could not do better, sir, than sit down and hef a smoke, while me and Alec are gralloching the beast. Then we'll drag him to a safe place, and cover him up with heather, and send for him the morn's morning."

"Couldn't you put him on the pony and take him down with us? I can walk," Lionel suggested; for had he not some dim vision in his mind of a triumphal procession down the strath, towards the dusk of the evening, with perhaps a group of fair spectators awaiting him at the door of the lodge?

"Well, sir," the keeper made answer, as he drew out his gralloching knife, "you see, there's few things more difficult than to strap a deer on the back of a powny when there's no proper deer-saddle. No, sir, we'll just leave him in a safe place for the night and send for him in the morning."

"And do you call that a good head to get stuffed Roderick?" the young man asked, still gazing on his splendid prize.

"Aw, well, I hef seen better heads, and I hef seen worse heads," the keeper said, evasively. "But the velvet is off the horns whatever."

This was tremendously strong tobacco that Roderick had handed him, and yet, as it seemed to him, he had never smelt a sweeter fragrance perfuming the soft mountain air. Nor did these appear grim and awful solitudes any longer; they were friendly solitudes, rather; as he sat and peacefully and joyously smoked, he studied every feature of them--each rock and swamp and barren slope, every hill and corrie and misty mountain-top; and he knew that while life remained to him he would never forget this memorable scene--with the slain stag in the foreground. No, nor how could he ever forget that wan glare of sunlight that had come along the plateau where the deer were quietly feeding?--he seemed to see again each individual blade of grass close to his face, as well as the noble quarry that had held him breathless. And then he took out the bright little coin; surely Honnor Cunyngham could not object to his wearing it, seeing that it had proved itself such a potent charm? He rejoiced that he had not been frightened off his expedition by tales of its monotonous sufferings and dire fatigues. This was something better than arranging an out-of-door performance for a parcel of amateurs! Stiff and sore he was, his clothes were mostly soaked and caked with mire, and he did not know what he had not done to his shins and knees and elbows; but he did not mind all that; Honnor Cunyngham was right--as he rode down Strathaivron that evening towards the lodge, it would not be of fatigues and privations he would be thinking! it would be of the lordly stag left away up there in the hills, to be sent for and brought down in triumph the next day.

By the time they had got the stag conveyed to a place of concealment, and carefully covered over with heather, the afternoon was well advanced; then they set out for the little corrie in which the pony had been left. But Lionel was now to discover that they had come much farther into these wilds than he had imagined; indeed, when they at length came upon the stolid and unconcerned Maggie, he did not in the least regret that it was a riding-saddle, not a deer-saddle, they had brought with them in the morning. He had offered to walk these remaining eight miles in order to have the proud satisfaction of taking the stag home with them; now he was just as well content that it was he, and not the slain deer, that Maggie was to carry down to Strathaivron. So he lit another cigarette, got into the saddle, and with a light heart set forth upon the long and tedious jog-jog down towards the region of comparative civilization.

Yet it was hardly so tedious, after all. He was mentally going over again and again every point and incident of the day's thrilling experiences; and now it seemed as if it were a long time since he had been squirming through the heather, with all his limbs aching, and his heart ready to burst. He recalled that beautiful picture of the stags feeding on the lonely plateau; he wondered now that he was able to steady the rifle-barrel until it ceased to be tremulous; he asked himself whether he had not in reality pulled the trigger just before the stag swerved its head aside. And what would have been his feelings now, supposing he had missed? Riding home in silence and dejection--trying to account for the incomprehensible blunder--fearing to think of what he would have to say to the people at the lodge. And he was not at all sorry to reflect that, as soon as the little party got back home, Miss Honnor Cunyngham should see for herself that he, a mere singer out of comedy-opera, was not afraid to face the hardships that had proved too much for Lord Rockminster--yes, and that he had faced them to some purpose.

Very friendly sounded the voice of the Geinig, when it first struck upon his ear; they were getting into a recognizable neighborhood now; here were familiar features--not a waste of the awful and unknown. But it was too much to expect that Miss Cunyngham should still be lingering by any of those pools; the evening was closing in; she must have set out for home long ago, fishing her way down as she went. They passed a shepherd's solitary cottage; the old man came out to hear the news--which was told him in Gaelic. They reached the banks of the Aivron, and trudged along under the tall cliffs and through the scattered birch and hazel. Then came the fording of the river--the tramp along the other side--the return ford--and the small home-going party was reunited again. They skirted the glassy sweeps of the Long Pool, the darker swirls of the Small Pool, and the saffron-tinted masses of foam hurling down between the borders of the Rock Pool; and then at last they came in view of the spacious valley, and far away in the midst of it Strathaivron Lodge.

Had they been coming back with bad news this might have been rather a melancholy sight, perhaps--the long, wide strath with the wan shades of twilight stealing over the meadows and the woods and the winding river; but now (to Lionel at least) it was nothing but beautiful. If the glen itself looked ghostly and lifeless and colorless, there were warmer hues overhead; for a pale salmon-flush still suffused the sky; and where that half-crimson glow, just over the dark, heather-stained hill, faded into an exquisite transparent lilac, there hung a full moon--a moon of the lightest and clearest gold, with its mysterious continents appearing as faint gray films. The prevailing peace seemed to grow more profound with the coming of the night. But this was not a night to be feared--this was a night to be welcomed--a night with that fair golden moon hanging high in the heavens, the mistress and guardian of the silent vale.

When Lionel rode up to the door of the lodge, he found all the gentlemen of the house congregated there and dressed for dinner. Sir Hugh held up his hand.

"No, not one word!" he cried. "Not necessary. I can always tell. It is written in every line of your face."

"It isn't a hind, is it?" inquired Lord Rockminster, doubtfully.

"A hind of ten points!" Lionel said, with a laugh, as he pushed his way through. "Well, I must see if I can have a hot bath to soften my bones."

"My good fellow, it's waiting for you," his host said. "I told Jeffreys the moment I saw you coming down the strath. We'll put back dinner a bit; but be as quick as you can."

At the same moment there appeared a white-draped figure on the landing above, leaning over the balustrade.

"What have you done, Mr. Moore?" called down the well-known voice of Honnor Cunyngham.

"I've got a stag," he said, looking up with a good deal of satisfaction--or gratitude, perhaps?--in his eyes.

"How many points?"

"Ten."

"Well done! Didn't I tell you you would get a stag?"

"It's all owing to the lucky sixpence you gave me," he said; and she laughed, as she turned away to go to her room.

After a welcome bath he dressed as quickly as he could for dinner--dressed so quickly, indeed, that he thought he was entitled to glance at the outside of the pile of letters awaiting him there on the mantelpiece. He had a large correspondence, from all kinds of people; and when he was in a hurry this brief scrutiny of the address was all he allowed himself; he usually could tell if there was anything of unusual importance. On the present occasion the only handwriting that arrested him for a second was Nina's; and some sort of half-understood compunction made him open her letter. Well, it was not a letter; it was merely a little printed form, such as is put about the stalls and boxes of a theatre when an announcement has to be made. This announcement read as follows:


"NOTICE: In consequence of the sudden indisposition
of MISS BURGOYNE, the part of 'Grace Mainwaring'
will be sustained this evening by MISS ANTONIA ROSS"


--while above these printed words Nina had written, in a rather trembling hand: "_Ah, Leo, if you were only here to-night!_" Apparently she had scribbled this brief message before the performance; perhaps haste or nervousness might account for the uncertain writing. So Nina was to have her great opportunity after all, he said to himself, as he went joyfully down-stairs to join the brilliant assemblage in the drawing-room. Poor Nina!--he had of late almost forgotten her existence.

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