ABBIE FARWELL BROWN
E. BOYD SMITH
HOUGHTON MIFFLIN COMPANY
BOSTON AND NEW YORK
THE RIVERSIDE PRESS CAMBRIDGE
COPYRIGHT, 1909, BY ABBIE FARWELL BROWN
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
Published October 1909
To J.D. and K.D.
Kindest of neighbors and best of friends
to all the world and its
I. THE TUMBLERS II. THE FALL III. THE RUNAWAY IV. THE OX-CART V. THE HUNCHBACK VI. THE SILVER PIECE VIX. THE WANDERER VIII. THE RESCUE IX. THE ANIMAL KINGDOM X. THE HERMIT XI. THE PUPIL XII. THE BEAU XIII. A FOREST RAMBLE XIV. THE WOLF-BROTHER XV. THE GREEN STRANGER XVI. THE HUNT XVII. THE MESSENGER XVIII. THE CARRIER PIGEON XIX. THE JOURNEY XX. THE ARRIVAL XXI. THE PALACE XXII. THE PRINCE'S CHAMBER XXIII. THE CURE XXIV. THE KING XXV. THE FETE XXVI. THE TALISMAN CONCLUSION
THE THREE TUMBLERS GIGI RUNS AWAY HAVE YOU GOT MY BOY? A QUAINT PAIR OF WANDERERS THE CIRCLE OF ANIMALS WATCHED HIM JOHN TALKED WITH THEM YOU SHALL NOT KILL MY FRIEND THE BEAR THE KING SENDS FOR YOU A STRANGE COMPANY JOHN WAS PROTECTED BY POWERFUL FRIENDS HE STROKED THE SOFT BALL OF FUR I WISH I COULD DO IT MYSELF JOHN URGED THE CLUMSY FELLOW TO DANCE TO ME, MY BROTHERS! THE KING AND PRINCESS CAME TO VISIT HIM
JOHN OF THE WOODS
It was late of a beautiful afternoon in May. In the hedges outside the village roses were blossoming, yellow and white. Overhead the larks were singing their happiest songs, because the sky was so blue. But nearer the village the birds were silent, marveling at the strange noises which echoed up and down the narrow, crooked streets.
"Tom-tom; tom-tom; tom-tom"; the hollow thud of a little drum sounded from the market-place. Boys and girls began to run thither, crying to one another:—
"The Tumblers! The Tumblers have come. Hurry, oh, hurry!"
Three little brothers, Beppo, Giovanni, and Paolo, who had been poking about the market at their mother's heels, pricked up their ears and scurried eagerly after the other children.
Jostling one another good-naturedly, the crowd surged up to the market-place, which stood upon a little hill. In the middle was a stone fountain, whence the whole village was wont to draw all the water it needed. In those long-ago days folk were more sparing in the use of water than they are to-day, especially for washing. Perhaps we should not be so clean, if we had to bring every bucket of water that we used from the City Square!
"Tom-tom; tom-tom; tom-tom"; the little drum sounded louder and louder as the crowd increased. Men and women craned their necks to see who was beating it. The children squirmed their way through the crowd.
On the highest step of the fountain stood a man dressed in red and yellow, with little bells hung from every point of his clothing, which tinkled with each movement he made. In his left hand he held a small drum, from which hung streamers of red and green and yellow ribbon. This drum he beat regularly with the palm of his skinny right hand. He was a lean, dark man, with evil little red-rimmed eyes and a hump between his shoulders.
"Ho! Men and women! Lads and lasses!" he cried in a shrill, cracked voice of strange accent. "Hither, hither quickly, and make ready to give your pennies. For the tumbling is about to begin,—the most wonderful tumbling in the whole round world!"
Stretching out his arm, he pointed to the group below him. The crowd pressed forward and stood on tiptoe to see better. Beppo and Giovanni and Paolo wriggled through the forest of legs and skirts and came out into the open space which had been left about the fountain. And then they saw what the backs of the butcher and baker and candlestick-maker had hidden from them.
From the back of a forlorn little donkey that was tethered behind the fountain a roll of carpet had been taken and spread out on the ground. Beside this stood the three tumblers. One of them was a thin, dark man, small and wicked-looking, dressed, like the drum-beater, in red and yellow. The second tumbler was a huge fellow more than six feet tall, with a shaggy mane of black hair. His muscles stood out in great knots under the suit of green tights which he wore.
"A Giant he is! Faith, he could toss me over his shoulder like a meal-bag!" muttered the Blacksmith, who stood with crossed arms looking over the heads of the crowd. "And the wicked face of him! Ugh! I would not wish a quarrel with him!"
But the little boys in the front row were most interested in the third tumbler, who stood between the other two, with his arms folded, ready to begin.
This also was a figure in green, with short trunks of tarnished cloth-of-gold. But beside the Giant, in the same dress, he looked like a pigmy or a fairy mite. This third tumbler was a little fellow of about eight, very slender and childish in form, but lithe and well-knit. Instead of being dark and gypsy-like, as were the other three of the wandering band, this boy was fair, with a shock of golden hair falling about his shoulders, and with a skin of unusual whiteness, despite his life of exposure to sun and hard weather. And the eyes that looked wistfully at the children in front of him were blue as the depths into which the skylarks were at that moment diving rapturously. On the upper eyelid of the boy's left eye was a brown spot as big as an apple-seed. And this gave him a strange expression which was hard to forget. When he was grave, as now, it made him seem about to cry. If he should smile, the spot would give the mischievous look of a wink. But Gigi so seldom smiled in those days that few perhaps had noted this. On his left cheek was a dark spot also. But this was only a bruise. Bruises Gigi always had. But they were not always in the same place.
"Oh, the sweet Cherub!" said a motherly voice in the crowd. "I wonder if they are good to him. They look like cut-throats and murderers, but he is like the image of the little Saint John in church. Wolves, with a lamb in their clutches! Save us all! Suppose it were my Beppo!"
At these words of his mother's, Beppo giggled, and the boy looked at him gravely. The Hunchback with the drum had heard, too, and darted a furious glance into the crowd where the woman stood. Then, giving a loud double beat on the drum, he signaled for the tumbling to begin.
The three kicked off the sandals which protected their feet, stepped upon the carpet, and saluted the spectators. The Giant stretched himself flat, and, seizing Gigi in his strong arms, tossed him up in the air as one would toss a rubber ball. Up, down, then back and forth between the elder tumblers, flew the little green figure, when he touched ground always landing upon his toe-tips, and finishing each trick with a somersault, easy and graceful. The boy seemed made of thistledown, so light he was, so easily he rebounded from what he touched. The children in the circle about him stared open-mouthed and admiring. Oh! they wished, if only they could do those things! They thought Gigi the most fortunate boy in the world.
But Gigi never smiled. At the end of one trick the Giant growled a word under his breath, and made a motion at which the boy cringed. Something had gone not quite right, and trouble threatened. He bit his lip, and the performance went on as before.
Now Gigi had to do the most difficult trick of all. With the Giant as the base, and Cecco, the other tumbler, above, Gigi made the top of a living pyramid that ran, turned, twisted, and capered as the great strength of the Giant willed. At a signal they managed somehow to reverse their positions. All stood upon their heads; Gigi, with his little green legs waving in the air, heard shouts of applause which always greeted this favorite act. But the sound gave him no pleasure. He was tired; he was sore from a beating of the previous night, and his head ached from the blow which had made that ugly mark on his cheek. Gigi grew dizzy—
Suddenly a woman's voice screamed from the crowd:—
"Ah! The Cherub!"
Gigi had fallen from the top of the pyramid. He fell on his shoulder, and for a moment lay still. But presently he was on his feet, kissing his hand prettily to the crowd, and trying to pretend that he had fallen on purpose, as he had been taught. The Giant and Cecco were also quickly on their feet, and the three bowed, side by side, as a sign that the show was over.
Cecco hissed a word into Gigi's ear, and he knew what to fear next. He shuddered and tried to draw aside; but the Giant turned to him, livid with rage, and with one blow of his heavy hand struck him to the ground.
"So! You spoil us again!" he muttered. "You good-for-nothing! I'll teach you! Now take the tambourine and gather up the coins from the crowd. You'll get a beating anyway for this. But if you don't take up more than we had at the last town, you'll have such a trouncing as you never yet knew. Now then!"
Dazed and trembling, Gigi took the tambourine, and, shaking its little bells appealingly, went about among the people. They had already begun to scatter, with the wonderful agility of a crowd which has not paid. Some, however, still lingered from curiosity and with the hope of a second performance. A number of small copper coins Jingled into Gigi's tambourine. He approached the good woman who had shown an interest in him. She stooped down and thrust a piece of silver into his hand, whispering,—
"It is for yourself, child. Do not give it to the cruel men! Keep it to spend upon a feast-day, darling!"
Gigi looked at her, surprised. People so seldom spoke kindly to him! The brown spot upon his eyelid quivered. He seemed about to cry. The woman patted him on the head kindly.
"If they are cruel to you, I'd not stay with them," she whispered. "I'd run away.—Hey, Beppo! Hey, Giovanni! Paolo!" she called, "we must be off." And she turned to gather up her young ones, who were shouting about the market-place, trying to stand upon their heads as Gigi had done.
Gigi clasped the silver piece tightly in his hand, and went on, shaking the tambourine after the retreating crowd. But few more pennies were coaxed away. Presently he made his way back to the group of tumblers, now seated on the fountain-steps.
"Well, what have you?" growled the Giant. Gigi presented the tambourine with the few pennies rattling around somewhat lonesomely.
"Humph!" snarled Cecco. "Less than last time. Is that all?"
"A beating you get!" roared the Giant.
Gigi shivered. "No,—not all," he said. "Here is a silver piece," and he held out the coin which the kind woman had given him.
"Ah, silver! that is better!" cried Tonio the Hunchback, with his eyes shining greedily. "Give it here"; and he snatched it and thrust it Into his pouch. Tonio was the treasurer of the gypsy band. But the Giant had been eyeing Gigi with an ugly gleam.
"He was keeping it!" he growled. "He did not mean to give it up. He would have stolen it!"
"It was mine!" cried Gigi with spirit. "She gave it to me and told me to keep it for a fiesta. But I gave it up because—because I did not want to be beaten again."
"You did not give it up soon enough!" roared the Giant, working himself into a terrible rage. "You shall smart for this, you whelp! After supper I will beat you as never a boy was beaten yet. But I must eat first. I must get up my strength. No supper for you, Gigi. Do you watch the donkey here while we go to the inn and spend the silver piece. Then, when we are camped outside the town,—then we will attend to you!"
It was but a step to the inn around the corner. Off went the three gypsies, leaving Gigi with the donkey beside the fountain. The poor animal stood with hanging head and flopping ears. He too was weary and heart-broken by a hard life and many beatings. His back was piled with the heavy roll of carpet and all the poor belongings of the band, including the tent for the night's lodging. For on these warm spring nights they slept in the open, usually outside the walls of some town. They were never welcome visitors, but vagrants and outcasts.
Gigi sat on the fountain-step with his aching head between his hands. He was very hungry, and his heart ached even more than his head or his empty stomach. He was so tired of their cruelties and their hard ways with him, which had been ever since he could remember. The kind word which the good woman had spoken to him had unnerved him, too. She had advised him to run away. Run away! He had thought of that before. But how could he do it? Tonio the Hunchback was so wicked and sharp! He would know just where to find a runaway. Cecco was so swift and lithe, like a cat! He would run after Gigi and capture him. The Giant was so big and cruel! He would kill Gigi when he was brought back. The boy shuddered at the thought.
Gigi pulled around him the old flapping cloak which he wore while traveling, to conceal his gaudy tumbler's costume. If he only had that silver piece perhaps he could do something, he thought. Much could be done with a silver piece. It was long since the band had seen one. They would be having a fine lark at the inn, eating and drinking! They would not be back for a long time.
Gigi looked up and around the marketplace. There was no one visible. The crowd had melted as if by magic. Every one was at supper,—every one but Gigi. What a chance to escape, if he were ever to try! The color leaped into the boy's pale cheeks. Why not? Now or never!
He rose to his feet, pulling his cloak closer about him, and looked stealthily up and down. The donkey lifted his head and eyed him wistfully, as if to say, "Oh, take me away, too!" But Gigi paid no attention to him. He was not cruel, but he had never learned to be kind. Without a pang, without a farewell to the beast who had been his companion and fellow-sufferer for so many long months, he turned his back on the fountain and stole down one of the darkest little side streets.
He ran on down, constantly down, for the village was on the side of a hill, and the market-place was at its top. Around sharp curves he turned, dived under dark archways and through dirty alleys, down flights of steps, until he was out of breath and too dizzy to go further. He had come out on the highroad, it seemed. The little brown cottages were farther apart here. It was more like the country, which Gigi loved. He turned into an enclosure and hid behind a stack of straw, panting.
He wondered if by this time they had discovered his flight, and he shivered to think of what Tonio and Cecco were saying if it were so. He looked up and down the road. There was something familiar about it. Yes, it was surely the road up which they had toiled that very afternoon, coming from the country and a far-off village. They had been planning to go on from here down the other side of the hill to the next village, Gigi knew. But now would they retrace their steps to look for him?
Just then he spied a black speck moving down the road toward him. Gigi's heart sank. Could they be after him already? He crouched closer behind the straw-stack, trembling. They must not find him!
Nearer and nearer came the speck. At last Gigi saw that it was a cart drawn by a team of white oxen, which accounted for the slowness of the pace. He sighed with relief. This at least he need not fear. As it came nearer, Gigi saw that in the cart were a woman and three little boys of about his own age. And presently, as he watched the lumbering team curiously, he recognized the very woman who had given him the silver piece an hour before. These, too, were the little boys who had faced him in the crowd. A sudden hope sprang into Gigi's heart. Perhaps she would help him to escape. Perhaps she would at least give him a lift on his way. He decided to risk it.
Gigi waited until the cart was nearly opposite, and he could hear the voices of the woman and the children talking and laughing together. Then he crept out from behind the stack and stepped to the side of the road.
The great, lumbering oxen eyed him curiously, but did not pause. The children stopped talking, and one of them pointed Gigi out to his mother.
"Look, Mama! A little boy!"
"Hello!" cried the woman in her hearty, kind voice, stopping the team. "What are you doing here, little lad?"
She did not recognize Gigi at once in his long traveling cloak. But suddenly he threw back the folds of it and showed the green tights underneath.
"Do you remember?" he said. "You told me to run away. Well, I have done it!"
"It is, the little tumbler! The tumbler, Mama!" cried the boys in one breath, clapping their hands with pleasure.
But the woman stared blankly. "My faith!" she said at last. "You lost no time in taking the hint. How did you get here so soon? We were homeward bound when you had scarcely finished tumbling. Now here you are before us, on foot!"
"I ran," said Gigi simply. "I came not by the highway, which is long and winding, but down steep streets like stairs, which brought me here very quickly."
"See the bruise on his cheek, mother!" cried Beppo, the littlest boy, pointing. The good woman saw it, and her eyes flashed.
"Oh! Oh!" she clucked. "The wicked men! Did they do that to you?"
"Yes. And they will do more if they catch me now," said Gigi. "I know. They have beaten me many times till I could not move. But if they catch me this time, they will kill me because I ran away. Will you help me?"
"Why, what can I do?" asked the woman uneasily, looking up and down the road. "If they should come now! You belong to them. I shall get myself into trouble."
Gigi's face fell. "Very well," he said. "Good-by. You were kind to me to-day, and I thought—perhaps—" He turned away, with his lips quivering.
"Stay!" cried the woman. "Where is the silver piece which I gave you? You can at least buy food and a night's lodging with that."
"They took it from me," said Gigi. "I had to give it up because there was so little money in the tambourine,—only coppers. They said people would not pay because I fell; and so they would beat me again."
"They took it from you! The thieves!" cried the woman angrily. "Nay, then I will indeed help you to escape. Climb in here, boy, among my youngsters. We have still an hour's ride down the road, and you shall go so far at least."
Gigi climbed into the cart and nestled down among the children. The woman clucked to the oxen, and forthwith they moved on down the highroad. The shadows were beginning to darken, and the birds had ceased to sing.
"Hiew! Hiew! Come up! Come up!" the woman urged on the great white oxen. "It is growing late, and the good man will wonder why we are so long returning from market. This has been our holiday," she explained to Gigi. "And to think that the Tumblers should have happened to come to the market this very day! The children will never forget!"
Beppo had been staring at Gigi with fascinated eyes. "How did you learn?" he asked suddenly. "Could I do it too?"
Gigi laughed. For the first time that day his face lost its sadness, and the brown spot on his eyelid, falling into one of the little creases, gave him a very mischievous look. He seemed to wink. Immediately the whole cartful of peasants began to laugh with him, they knew not why. They could not help it. This was what happened whenever Gigi laughed, as he seldom did.
But soon Gigi grew grave once more. "Why do you want to learn?" he asked. "It does not make me happy. For oh! they are so cruel!"
"Do they beat you much?" asked Paolo sympathetically. Gigi nodded his head with a sigh. "Very much," he said. "I am always black and blue."
"Am I too big to learn?" demanded Giovanni, the oldest boy, who was perhaps twelve and heavier than Gigi. "When did you begin?"
Gigi grew thoughtful. "Ever since I remember, I have tumbled," he said. "Ever since I was a baby, before I could even turn a somersault, they tossed me back and forth between them and made me kiss my hand to the people who stood about."
"And did they beat you then?" asked Beppo, doubling up his fists.
Gigi sighed again. "They always beat me," he said simply. "Whatever I did, they beat me when they were ugly. And that was always."
"Do you belong to them?" asked the woman suddenly. "They are Gypsies, black men. But you are fair like the people of the North. Where did they get you, Gigi?"
Gigi shook his head. "I do not know," he said. "I have belonged to them always, I think."
"Hark!" said Mother Margherita suddenly. "What's that?"
There was a faint noise far off on the road behind them. Gigi trembled. "They are coming for me!" he said. "What shall I do?"
"No, no," said the woman. "I do not fear that. It is too soon, surely. But it is growing dark here in the valley. This is a lonely spot, and there are many wicked men about besides your masters, Gigi."
"Thieves and villains!" whispered Giovanni. "Oh, mother, hide the bag of silver that you got at market!"
"Sh! Sh!" warned the mother sharply. "Do not speak of it! Hiew, hiew! Go on! go on!" And she urged the oxen faster.
But the great beasts would not hasten their pace for her. The noise came nearer. They could hear that it was the trotting of hoofs.
"There is only one animal," said Gigi, whose ears were keen. "I can hear his four feet patter. I think it is the donkey!"
"I can see him now!" cried Paolo. "It is a little man on a donkey. He is bending forward and beating it hard."
Gigi strained his eyes to see. "It is Tonio!" he whispered fearfully. "I know it! Oh, the Hunchback will kill me when he finds me! And he will take your silver, too!"
"Sh! Sh!" commanded the mother. "He shall not find you. Here, take this bag, Gigi. It will be safer with you. And here, creep under my skirts and keep close. He will never guess where you are!"
Mother Margherita spread out her generous draperies, which luckily were both long and wide, and Gigi crept under them, being wholly covered. The other boys huddled close, shivering with a not wholly unpleasant excitement. This was an adventure indeed for a holiday!
The rider drew nearer and nearer, lashing the poor donkey unmercifully. At last they could see his face, red and lowering.
"Halt!" he cried suddenly. "You in the cart there, halt!"
The oxen stopped. The cart came to a standstill. The boys huddled closer, and Gigi's heart beat like a tambourine. He was sure that Tonio would hear it.
"What do you want?" asked Mother Margherita, and her usually kind voice was harsh.
"You seem to have a load of young cubs there," shouted Tonio. "Have you got my boy, Gigi the Tumbler, among them? Some one has stolen the little monster."
"What are you talking about!" answered Mother Margherita sharply. "I am a respectable countrywoman returning from market-day with my children. What business have I with tumblers and vagrants!"
"That I'll see for myself, woman," said Tonio, jumping unsteadily down from the donkey and approaching the cart. Tonio had been drinking, and his little eyes were red and fierce.
"Keep your hands off my children!" cried their plucky mother, brandishing her whip. But Tonio was not to be kept away.
"I will see them!" he snarled. He thrust his ugly face into those of the three boys, one after another, eyeing them sharply in the growing darkness. But there was little about these sun-browned, black-eyed youngsters to suggest the slender, fair-haired Gigi.
Tonio peered into the cart. He even thrust his long, lean hand into the straw that covered the floor, and felt about the corners, while the boys wriggled away from his touch like eels from a landing-net. Gigi held his breath. But Mother Margherita would not tamely endure all this.
"Get along, you vermin!" she cried, striking at his hands as he approached the forward end of the cart. "Can't you see that the boy is not here? What would he be doing in my cart, anyway? I'll trouble you to let us go on our way in peace. My man in the house down yonder will be out to help us with his crossbow and his dogs, if we scream a bit louder. Be off with you, and look for your boy in the village. Is it likely he would have come so far as this, the poor tired little lad?"
"The others are searching the village," growled the Hunchback tipsily. "They'll find him if he's there. 'Tis likely you are right. And then! I must be there to help at the punishing. Oh! that will be sport!—Have any other teams passed you on the road?" he asked suddenly. "Have you overtaken no one on foot?"
"We have passed no one," said Mother Margherita truthfully, starting up the oxen. "Hiew! Hiew! Go on! go on," she clucked. "We must get home to bed."
The Hunchback withdrew from the cart unsteadily, and mounted his donkey. For a moment he looked doubtfully up and down the road, then he turned the poor tired animal's head once more toward the village, and they began to plod back up the slope.
"The Lord forgive me!" whispered Mother Margherita piously. "I told a lie, and before my children, too! But it was to spare a child suffering, perhaps death. Surely, the Lord who loves little children will forgive me this sin."
So the good woman mused, as, faint with terror and gasping for breath, Gigi came out from under her skirts. He handed back the bag of silver, and gave a sigh of relief. The little boys seized him rapturously.
"You are saved, Gigi!" cried Paolo.
"He will never find you now," said Giovanni.
"See, we are almost home! You shall come and live with us and teach us how to tumble!" cried Beppo, hugging his new friend closely. But Mother Margherita interrupted him.
"Not so fast, not so fast, children," she warned. "Gigi is saved for now. But we may be able to do little more for him. Your father is master in the house, remember. Your father may not be pleased with what we have done. Never promise what you may not be able to give, my Beppo." And she fell to musing again rather uneasily.
The boys were all suddenly silent, and Gigi, who had warmed to their kindness, felt a sudden chill. He had not thought of anything beyond the safety of the moment. He had made no plans, he had only hoped vaguely that these good people might help him. But now, what was to happen next? Was there still something more to fear?
Suddenly the flash of a lantern lighted the road ahead. A man's voice hailed them loudly. "Hello! Hello! Will you never be coming home?"
"Father! It is father!" cried the three boys in an answering shout. Then with a common thought they all stopped short, and Gigi felt them looking at him in the darkness.
"What will he think of Gigi?" he heard Beppo whisper to his brothers.
"Sh!" warned Mother Margherita. And the man's voice sounded nearer.
"Hello, old woman!" it called gruffly. "Well, you did come back, didn't you? I began to believe that you had all run away."
"Run away!" There was a little pause before any one answered. And Gigi felt the elbows of the boys nudging him in the side.
"Father's angry!" they whispered. "Father is terrible when he is angry. You had better look out!"
Then Gigi knew that there was something else to fear that night. And his heart sank. Was there to be no end of his troubles?
THE SILVER PIECE
The team stopped in front of a stone cottage, from the window of which the light shone hospitably. They all jumped down from the cart, and under cover of the darkness Mother Margherita hustled Gigi with the other boys into the house, while Giuseppe, the father, cared for the oxen.
The mother busied herself in preparing supper, and the boys scattered about on various errands. But Gigi sat in a corner by the fire, too tired to move or speak. He had thrown off his long cloak, and the fire glanced brightly upon the green and gold costume of this quaint little figure, so out of place in the simple cottage. Presently Giuseppe entered with a heavy tread, and paused in amazement at what he saw on his hearthstone.
"Hello!" he cried gruffly. "What's this?"
Mother Margherita came forward quickly. "It is a little tumbler," she said. "We saw him do his tricks at the market to-day. The Gypsies beat him, and he has run away. Let us give him at least supper and a shelter for the night, Giuseppe?" Her tone was beseeching.
"Hum!" grumbled Giuseppe doubtfully. "A runaway! A tumbler! A thief, I dare say, as well. A pretty fellow to bring into an honest man's house! His master will be after him, and then we shall all get into trouble for sheltering a runaway. Margherita, you were always a foolish woman! Is this all you have to show for market-day? Where is the money?"
"Here it is, Giuseppe," said the mother, handing him the bag of silver, which he thrust into his pocket. "Now let us have supper. You can count the silver afterward, and we will tell you about everything when that is over."
With a very bad grace the father watched the little stranger timidly take his place at the board between Paolo and Giovanni, Beppo crying because he could not have the tumbler next to him also.
There was much to talk about at that meal. They had to describe the holiday at market, which was a great event for the little family. Then there were the Tumblers; and the adventure of Gigi and the Hunchback,—that was the most exciting of all. And how near they came to losing the bag of silver which they had earned by selling their vegetables at the market! Giuseppe asked Gigi many questions, not unkindly, but with a bluntness that made the boy wince. And often Mother Margherita spoke up for him, with a kind answer. Gigi grew paler and paler, and his food lay almost untouched on his plate. He was too tired to eat.
At last, when supper was finished. Mother Margherita rose and lighted a candle. "Come with me, Gigi," she said, "and I will show you where you are to sleep this night."
Gigi followed her readily, glad to escape further questioning, and eager to rest his aching head. The little boys called after him a hearty good-night. But Giuseppe saw him go without a word, casting sidewise looks after the retreating figures, and grunting sourly.
There was no room for Gigi in the loft where the family slept. But out in the stable, beside the oxen, was a fresh pile of straw, a fine bed for the tired little wanderer. When Mother Margherita had bidden him a kind good-night and had closed the stable door behind her, Gigi threw himself upon the straw and was almost Instantly asleep. The oxen breathed gently beside him, chewing their cud. Everything was still and peaceful. And the night passed.
"Cock-a-doodle-doo!" crowed the first cock, speaking the same tongue that he learned at the beginning of the world, and that he always uses in every land, among every people.
It was but a few moments later when Gigi was awakened suddenly by a touch on his shoulder. The boy opened his eyes and stared about, bewildered. He did not know where he was. Who was this bending over him in the dim light? Not Tonio; not Cecco; not the Giant? Then he recognized Mother Margherita, stooping low with a pitiful expression on her face. She had a little bundle in her hand.
"Get up, Gigi," she whispered. "You must be off. My man is so angry! He vows he will take you to the village to-day and give you up to your masters. He thinks you are a thief, Gigi. But I do not believe that you stole the silver piece."
"The silver piece!" cried Gigi, still more bewildered.
"Sh!" cautioned the woman, laying a hand on his lips. "Giuseppe must not know that I am here. He sleeps still. When we counted the money in the bag we found it short by one piece of silver, besides the one I gave you. That was my own to do with as I chose. But he believes that you stole another when you were holding the bag for me, hiding under my skirts."
"I did not take it!" cried Gigi, wide-awake now. "Oh, I would not steal from you,—not from you, the only person who was ever kind to me!"
"There, there! I told him so!" said the good woman soothingly. "I told him I must have lost it at the market when I was making change for somebody. But he will not believe. You must be off, Gigi, before he wakes, or you will have to go back to those cruel fellows. Giuseppe is so set! Like a mule he is when he is angry!"
Gigi sprang to his feet and looked wildly around. "Where shall I go? What shall I do?" he asked.
Mother Margherita looked at the pale little lad and her eyes filled. "Poor little fellow!" she sighed. "Suppose you were one of my boys, Beppo or Paolo! But we must lose no time"; and she dashed the tears from her eyes. "Here is your cloak to hide that gaudy dress. And here is a bundle of food,—all I could spare without the good man's knowledge. For it must seem that you have run away of your own accord. I know that will make him sure that you are a thief. But I dare not let him guess that I have warned you and helped you to escape. You do not know Giuseppe's anger!—Farewell, dear little lad, and may the Saints have you in their keeping."
She led him to the door and pointed out the direction, in the gray dawn. She showed him where, to the north, by a great tree, a lane branched from the highroad. "Follow that," she said. "It will be safer in case you are pursued. And it comes at last to the great road into another country. There perhaps you will be safe and find friends who can help you more than I have done. Though none can wish you better." And she hugged him close. "Farewell, Gigi!"
With a lump in his throat, Gigi left the only roof that had ever shown him kindness. In the gray dawn he crept out to the highroad. There was no time to be lost, for already the east was growing pink, and soon the sun would be making long shadows on the open road. Giuseppe would surely spy him and bring him back.
As soon as he was outside the farm enclosure, Gigi began to run. But he found that he was stiff and sore from his fall of the day before, and from the many beatings which he had received of late. Every bone in his body ached, and especially his head, which throbbed so as to make him faint. Still he ran on. For more than anything else he feared being captured and sent back to the Gypsies.
At last Gigi came to the great tree where branched the cross-road to the north. Here he turned aside. Then he drew a deep breath, feeling safer. He ceased running, and presently, being hungry and tired, he sat down upon a stone and opened the bundle which Mother Margherita had given him. He found bread and cheese, and began to eat greedily, until he remembered that he knew not where he should find dinner and supper. He looked at the remnant of bread and cheese longingly, but at last wrapped it up and put it back into the little pouch which, as was the custom in those times, he wore at his belt.
The lane upon which he was now traveling was shadier than the highroad, and as he went on the trees grew even taller and bigger. Apparently the way was leading through the outskirts of a forest. The lane was more crooked, also. Gigi could not see far either before or behind him, because of the constant turnings.
Suddenly, he stopped short and listened. There was a sound; yes, there certainly was a sound on the road behind him,—the noise of galloping hoofs.
Gigi was seized with a panic. Without stopping to think, he plunged from the road into the forest, and began to run wildly through the underbrush. He did not care in which direction he went,—anywhere, as far as possible from the pursuing hoof-beats.
On, on he plunged, sometimes sprawling over roots of trees, sometimes bruising himself against low branches or stumbling upon stones which seemed to rise up on purpose to delay him; torn by briars and tripped by clutching vines. But always he ran on and on, this way and that, wherever there seemed an opening in the forest, which was continually growing denser and more wild.
How long he wandered he did not know. The sun was high in the heavens when at last, wholly exhausted, Gigi fell upon a bank of moss. His weary bones ached. He was too tired to move, but lay there motionless, and presently he fell into a troubled sleep. When he awoke with a start, it was growing dark, and he was very hungry. He felt for the pouch into which he had put his bits of bread and cheese, but it was gone! He must have lost it when pushing through the bushes.
What was he to do? He knew he must find his way back to the highroad, where he could perhaps beg a supper at some cottage. But how was he to know which way to go? He looked up and around him in despair. He was in the midst of the wildest kind of forest. The trees grew close together, and there was no path, no sign that men had ever passed this way.
Moreover, it was growing darker every minute. Already the shadows behind the trees were black and terrible. Gigi suddenly remembered that there were fierce animals in the forests. In those days, all over Europe bears and wolves and many kinds of wild beasts, large and small, wandered wherever there were trees and hiding-places; in fact, one might meet them anywhere except in cities and towns. And sometimes in winter, when they were very hungry, bold wolves prowled even in the market-places.
Gigi shuddered. He dared not think of sleep, alone in this dreadful place. He must try to find the road. Once more he crawled to his feet and began to stagger through the darkness, groping with his hands to ward off the branches which scratched his face and the thorns which tore his garments into rags.
Now there began to be strange sounds in the forest. The birds had ceased to sing, save for a chirp now and then as Gigi's passing wakened some tired songster. But there were other noises which Gigi did not understand, and which set his heart to knocking fearfully; the cracking of twigs far off and near at hand; little scurries in the underbrush as he approached; now and then the crash of something bounding through the bushes in the distance; sometimes a squeak or a chatter which sounded terrible to the little boy's unaccustomed ears. And finally, far off in the forest, came a long, low howl that set his teeth to chattering.
Was it a wolf? The thought was more than Gigi could bear. He fainted, and fell forward into a bed of soft green moss.
Gigi must have lain all night where he fell. For when he opened his eyes the sun was shining dimly through the dense leaves of the tree overhead. He remembered only the last thing he had heard before his eyes closed,—that long howl in the darkness. So it was with a thrill of terror that he felt a strange touch on his face. Something warm and wet was passing over his cheek. Something soft and warm was cuddling close to his side. He thrust out his hand feebly, groping at something to help him rise. His fingers closed in thick, soft hair. Suddenly Gigi knew what was happening to his face. Some big animal was licking it with a coarse but gentle tongue!
Was it the wolf that had howled? A dreadful thought! Gigi screamed aloud. He struck at the creature with all the strength he had, which was little enough.
"Get away! Go along with you!" he cried in Gypsy gibberish.
In answer, the animal uttered a whine, very gentle, very piteous; and it began to lick the hand which had struck it.
Gigi's eyes had now grown used to the half-light. Suddenly he saw what had lain beside him, keeping him warm all night. It was a great shaggy dog, brown and white. Around his neck was a heavy collar of leather studded with nails. Gigi did not like dogs. The only ones he knew had always chased the Tumblers and barked at them as they entered or left a village. Sometimes they had snapped at Gigi's heels so viciously that he had cried out. And then Cecco would cuff him for making a fuss.
But this dog seemed friendly. He looked up in Gigi's face, and wagged his tail pleasantly. He whined and put his nose in Gigi's hand; then he got to his feet and ran away a few steps, looking back at the boy and waiting. Gigi did not know what it meant. But when the dog saw that the boy was not following, he went back and repeated his action. Several times he did this, and still Gigi lay looking at him, too tired and too weak to make an effort, even to think. At last the dog came back once more. This time he took Gigi's hand between his teeth, very gently, and began to pull him in the direction toward which he had first gone. Then Gigi knew. The dog was trying to lead him somewhere!
A throb of hope warmed his heart. Perhaps this was a friend who would bring him out of the dreadful forest to some place where he could eat. For oh, he was so hungry! He dragged himself to his feet, and tried to follow, leaning a hand on the dog's neck. The creature was wild with joy, and began to bark and wag his tail furiously. Even this motion made the boy totter, he was so weak. He took a few steps, then he had to stop. He was sore all over, dizzy and faint. He lay down on the ground with his head between his hands. And once more the good dog crept near and poked his wet nose into Gigi's face, licking his cheek.
The boy reached out a hand and patted him timidly. It was the first time Gigi had ever felt friendly toward an animal!
When the dog found that it was of no use to try to lead Gigi on, he sat still and seemed to think for a few moments. Then he came close and crouched in the moss beside Gigi, whining softly and rubbing his nose against the boy's knee. Evidently he wanted his new friend to do something. The boy looked at him wearily, and wondered. He took hold of the collar about the dog's neck. Yes! that was it! The dog barked and wagged his tail, but did not move. He was still waiting. Gigi looked at the big fellow lying there. He was almost as large as the little donkey who bore the luggage of the Tumblers upon their journeys. He was big enough to carry Gigi himself. Was that what the creature meant?
Gigi lifted one leg over the dog's back, keeping hold of the collar as tightly as he could. The animal rose to his feet with a glad bark. Yes, this was what he wanted. He began to move forward slowly, for Gigi was a heavy burden and his feet nearly touched the ground.
Slowly they moved through the forest, a quaint pair of wanderers. Sometimes Gigi felt faint and ill, and lay forward, resting his head on the dog's soft neck. Sometimes they stopped to rest. Then Gigi lay flat on the moss, with the dog stretched out close to his side. But they were both unwilling to waste many minutes so.
THE ANIMAL KINGDOM
Presently Gigi and the dog came to a clearing in the forest. All about was as wild as anything they had passed. But here, quite alone, stood a little hut made of logs and branches twisted together.
The first thing that Gigi saw, after the hut itself, was an old man in a coarse gray gown, sitting on a stump, reading a book. His head was bare, and he had a long white beard. His feet were bare, too, and he wore leather sandals. A rope was tied about his waist. Gigi had sometimes seen men so dressed plodding along the highroad or begging from the townsfolk. If he thought about them at all, he believed them to be some rival sort of performers, like the Tumblers themselves. It seemed very queer to see one of the Gray Men here in the lonely forest,—and with such strange companions! Gigi stared and stared again, rubbing his tired eyes to make sure that they saw aright.
On the old man's knees was curled, asleep, a comfortable white cat. Three little kittens played with the knotted ends of his girdle, swarming up and down the gray gown of the reader. On his shoulder perched a squirrel, busily eating a nut which he held in his little paws. Close by, a brown and white deer grazed about the door of the little hut. A great black raven hopped gravely about the old man's feet, now and then picking up a bug. Lying peacefully asleep in front of the hut door, like a yellow mat of fur, a fox was stretched. In and out among the rose-bushes of a tiny garden which was planted beneath the window of the hut, hopped several brown hares, seeming much at home. The old man's head nodded forward on his book. He could sleep soundly, it seemed, with all these little live things swarming about him. Even as his gray locks swept the page, a thrush fluttered down and lighted gently on the bald crown, beginning to sing so sweetly that Gigi held his breath.
All this the boy saw in that first glimpse before he and the dog parted the bushes and came out into the clearing. In that instant everything changed. The dog gave a sharp bark of pleasure. The old man let the book fall from his hand, and sat staring. The animals leaped from their slumbers and scuttled away in every direction, some into the hut, some into the neighboring bushes, some melting as if by magic into the forest. The squirrel and the thrush took shelter in the treetops. Only the raven, with ruffled feathers, remained at the old man's side, turning a fierce little eye upon the newcomer.
By this time Gigi had thrown himself from the dog's back, and stood feebly leaning against a tree. Released from his burden, the dog bounded forward, and was soon leaping upon the old man's shoulders, covering his face and hands and feet with eager kisses.
"Down, Brutus, down!" said the old man, in a tongue which Gigi could not understand. "Where hast thou been so long, good dog? And what new pet hast thou brought for my colony?" He looked towards Gigi with keen, kind eyes. "Come hither, my lad," he said in the same tongue.
But Gigi only stared, not understanding. He was growing afraid of this queer old man, who spoke a strange language and had wild animals for his friends; who read, too, in a great black book! Gigi had heard of wicked wizards and sorcerers, and he believed that he saw one now. He turned about and tried to run away. But his poor head grew dizzy, and before he knew it he had fallen, and lay sobbing and shivering, unable to rise.
Presently he felt the dog's gentle tongue licking his face. A moment after, kind, strong arms lifted him and bore him into the little hut. The old man laid Gigi on a cot beside the window, and after laying his hand on the boy's head and wrist, went away and returned with something in a cup.
"Drink this, my child," he said. And this time Gigi understood. He drank and felt better. Then the old man asked him in the tongue which Gigi knew, "Are you hungry, lad?"
The boy nodded, and his eyes must have told how nearly starved he was. The old man went swiftly to a little cupboard in the wall, and soon came back with bread and milk in an earthen bowl.
"Eat," he said, lifting Gigi's head on his arm. "Eat this good bread, my son, and drink the warm milk of my friend the doe, which I had just set aside, not expecting you. Then you shall sleep here on my pallet. And soon we shall be right smiling and happy all!"
The kind old eyes beamed on Gigi while he devoured his breakfast like a starved animal, without a word of thanks. When he had finished, the kind old hands brought water and bathed the tired body, bound up the bleeding hands and feet with refreshing ointment, and laid Gigi back again to rest upon the cot beside the rose-screened window.
There Gigi lay and slept; slept and dreamed; dreamed and went over again by fits and starts the strange adventures of the past two days. But strangest of all, though by far the pleasantest, was that picture which he had seen when he came out into the clearing upon the back of Brutus. And this picture, with queer variations, filled the foreground of Gigi's dreaming.
They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.—HOLY WRIT.
For three days Gigi lay on the pallet of the good Hermit, near to death. And for three days the great dog lay on guard by his side. The Hermit went softly to and fro, taking tender care of the boy and giving him medicine made from wonderful herbs which he had found in the woods. Often he knelt in a corner of the hut, before a rude wooden Cross, and said prayers; this seemed to give him strength for his work and hope for its result. So that when he rose, his face would be bright and happy.
This was he doing the third morning when Gigi awoke, feeling better. The ache was gone from his limbs and the dizziness from his head. He awoke with a long sigh, and for the first time since he lay down on the Hermit's pallet he looked around him with interest. At first he did not know where he was.
The hut was small and bare. In one corner was a cupboard where the Hermit kept his scanty supply of food and the medicines which he distilled. Against the wall was a bench, beside a table made of a tree-stump, and on the table lay a great black book. Opposite the bed was the Cross of wood fastened to the wall, and below it the good Hermit knelt with bowed head. Gigi wondered what he was doing. He himself knew no prayers.
Gigi's eyes wandered to the door, which stood open. On the sill the cat and her kittens were playing. Outside he could catch a glimpse of various animals frisking about the dooryard. Birds sang merrily in the trees overhead and in the bushes just outside the window. The raven hopped into the doorway and stood looking saucily at Gigi, with head on one side. It was all so peaceful, so quiet, so different from anything which Gigi had known, that he thought it must be a dream. He sighed again, and turned over, stretching out his arm. In doing so he touched the hairy neck of Brutus, who was still sleeping by his bed. Instantly the dog sprang up and began to lick the boy's face. At the same moment, with a pious gesture, the Hermit also rose and came toward the cot, smiling kindly.
"You are better, my son?" he asked, laying a cool hand upon Gigi's forehead. "Ah, yes! You will soon be quite yourself."
Gigi stared up at him contentedly. "Who are you?" he asked. He had never been taught manners, and he could no longer hide his curiosity.
"I am a Hermit," answered the old man. "I live here alone with my animals, as you see. I pass the days in prayer and meditation, studying the Lord's Holy Book and the living works of His hands."
"Why do you live away from men?" asked Gigi again.
The Hermit's face grew sad.
"Men are wicked and cruel, child," he said. "Men hurt and kill one another. They love to slay the innocent animals for sport. In their kingdoms is no love. I have made myself here an animal kingdom, where all is love and peace."
"Do all animals know you?" asked Gigi, wondering.
"With time I can make friends with them all," said the Hermit, smiling. "One has but to love and understand and be patient. See!"
He gave a peculiar call. Instantly there came tumbling into the hut, until it nearly overflowed, a strange medley of creatures,—hares, mice, birds, kittens, squirrels. Last of all peered into the doorway a deer and her little speckled fawn.
The dog sat quite still, not moving a muscle. He had been trained not to frighten his more timid neighbors.
"Follow the example of Brutus, my son," said the Hermit gently. "Make no sudden movement and do not speak. They know my voice, and they will learn yours. But you are still a stranger to them, and must expect them to be shy."
The animals crowded lovingly about the Hermit, some springing upon his shoulders and knees, the birds flitting about his head.
Gigi thought he had never seen so wonderful a sight. "Oh!" thought he, "if I could only do this, what money might I not take from a crowd on market-days!"
After talking to his pets and caressing them tenderly, the old man dismissed them to the outdoor sunshine, so that he was alone with Gigi, who could then be free to move and speak once more.
"The beloved innocents!" said the Hermit, with a sigh. "Who could ever willfully injure one of them. God's creatures?—But now, my son, tell me about yourself," he broke off. "Who are you? Whence do you come? Whither are you going?"
"I do not know," said Gigi simply, in answer to all three questions. And then he told his story as he had told it to Mother Margherita.
The old man listened pitifully. "Poor little lad!" he said. "Men have been cruel to you, also. You have no home, no friends, no past, and no future. What shall we do with you?"
"Oh, let me stay with you!" cried Gigi, clasping his hands. "You are so good and wise. Teach me! Teach me to be good and wise, too. Take me into your animal kingdom, and teach me to make them all my friends. I could do such tricks with them,—far better than tumbling. I should grow rich!"
The old man shook his head. "That cannot be," he said. "I cannot teach men to grow rich. Nor would I see my animals made ridiculous for money. I came here to be a hermit. I vowed to have nothing more to do with human folk, only with the animals whom they persecute. But I never thought that a child would seek my roof."
Pie looked at Gigi doubtfully. The boy returned the look, and the brown spot on his eyelid trembled piteously. The Hermit blinked.
"Yes, you are a poor little animal, too," he said at last. "You are ignorant and innocent as they. I cannot turn you away. Perhaps I can teach you better things than tricks. Perhaps I can make you a disciple and a Christian. If you are teachable, I can make you wise with the knowledge of herbs and healing. If I send back to the world which I have left one man useful, tender, strong, and good, perhaps he may be able to do more than I have done to stay the march of evil."
Gigi did not understand the words at all, but the tone was kind. He pushed the bandage from his head, looked up at the Hermit, and smiled his own strange smile. "I think you will not beat me," he said. The brown spot on his eyelid gave him the wink of mischief.
"Beat you!" The old man's face broke into an answering smile, and he rocked to and fro with pleasure in Gigi's little joke. Then he bent forward suddenly, and stared into the boy's face with a keen look.
"The wicked eye of him!" he said, talking to himself. "How like it is! Strange, strange! About nine years old, he is. Nine years ago—" He paused, gazing at Gigi, and murmuring under his breath. "What are you wearing about your neck?" he asked suddenly.
Gigi put his hand to a tiny silver chain which just peeped above his green doublet, and drew out a flat piece of silver of strange shape, and with one side carved deeply with a notched Cross.
"Where did you get this?" asked the Hermit, strangely excited.
"I do not know," said Gigi, wondering. "I have worn it always. Not even Cecco dared take it from me. I have heard him say so. But I do not know why!"
"The lost one!" cried the Hermit, embracing Gigi, with tears in his eyes. Then, crossing himself, he added piously, "Dear little lad! We are in the Lord's hands. Gigi, you shall stay with me until the time is come. But you wear the Cross, a blessed emblem. I shall call you no more by that heathen Gypsy name. You shall bear the beloved Christian name of John, to which perhaps you have as good a right as any. Ah! I will not tell you more. I will wait until I see if you be worthy indeed. If not—his son shall never know!"
All this Gigi did not understand. But he was happy to know that he might stay. And he began his new life as one of the Hermit's animal kingdom by hugging close old Brutus, his first four-footed friend, who had brought him safely to this haven.
But ask now the beasts and they shall teach thee, and the fowls of the air and they shall tell thee.—HOLY WRIT.
Gigi the Gypsy was now become John; no longer an outcast and a wanderer, but a happy little Christian boy. Surely no child ever lived so strange a life as he. Surely no boy ever had such queer playmates, or studied in so wild a school.
First of all he had to become acquainted with his oddly-mixed family of two-footed and four-footed brothers. Brutus was his friend from the beginning. The great dog seemed to have adopted for his very own the boy whom, led by some kindly angel, he had found that night in the forest. But the other creatures were shy at first. They ran at the sound of John's shrill boyish voice, and shrank from his quick movements. They hid in the bushes when he came dashing and dancing into the clearing after a romp with Brutus, and it would take some patience to coax them back again.
John saw that this troubled the good old Hermit, whom he loved better every day, and he tried to imitate his teacher's gentle voice and manner and his soft tread. The little tumbler was himself light as a feather, and graceful as the deer, his new-found sister. He was quick to learn and naturally gentle, though his cruel life had made him careless and rough. Soon he had made friends with all the Hermit's pets, so that they knew and loved him almost as well as they did the master of this forest-school.
In his green doublet and hose, clumsily patched with pieces of gray serge from the Hermit's own cloak, John rambled about the wild woods, looking like one of the fairy-folk of whom legends tell. Often he went with the wise old man, who gave him lessons of the forest which he knew so well. John learned to steal on tiptoe and surprise the ways of the wood-folk,—the shy birds and the shyer little brothers who live in the moss and mould. He grew wise in the lore of flowers and herbs, and could tell where each one grew and when it blossomed, and which ones, giving their life-blood for the sake of men, could cure disease and bring comfort to the ailing. At night they watched the moon and the far-off, tiny stars. These, too, became friends, many of them known to John by name. He loved each one, for the Hermit said that they also were his brothers and sisters, like the birds and beasts and fishes; all being the children of that Father who had made this beautiful world to be the home where all should live together.
But the book of Nature was not all that John studied in these days. He learned to read also the written language of men, and studied the wise and holy words which have kept goodness before men's sight since knowledge began. Until now John had never opened a book or held a pen. But the Hermit taught him wisely and well, and soon he was in a fair way to become a scholar.
A busy life he led, what with his studies indoors and out and his duties about the hut,—for the Hermit taught him to be deft in all tasks, however simple and homely. John could cut up firewood or cook a porridge with as happy a face as he wore when he played with Brutus or sang the morning hymn of praise at the good Hermit's side.
One thing his teacher would not have him forget. He must practice his tumbling every day. For the Hermit said, "No skill once learned will ever come amiss, my son. You spent years and suffered hardly to gain this agility. It seems to me not frivolous nor undignified, but a beautiful thing, to keep one's body lithe and graceful even as are the free-natured animals. Then practice, John; and some day even this skill may not come amiss."
So the boy practiced daily in front of the cabin. He danced and tumbled; he turned somersaults and stood on his head; he leaped with a pole and swung nimbly as a monkey from the limbs of the overhanging trees. And the circle of animals watched him gravely, marveling no doubt at the strange antics of their brother; but, being now used to his voice and manner, neither annoyed nor shocked by anything which he might do.
When the day was over, John would throw himself on a soft bed of moss under a tree, beside the Hermit seated on a log. Then they would read or talk, and tell stories of what they had seen in the world of men. Brutus would be curled down between them. Blanche and her kittens, big and little, would play with John's hair as he lay there. The squirrel, perched on the boy's doubled-up knees, would chatter and crack nuts. The brown hares would run to and fro over his feet, while the doe and her little fawn nibbled the grass close by, listening to the sound of the human voices as though they liked it.
What a happy home it was! John wondered if ever any boy was so lucky as he.
John had grown to love the little four-footed brothers dearly, and they were great friends of his. But still the Hermit seemed to have a charm about him which John lacked, and which drew even the strange new creatures to him and made them trust him from the first. John longed to learn this secret. But when he asked the old man about it he looked at the boy kindly and said,—
"It will come, my son, with time. Love, live, and learn."
John had been with the Hermit some months, when happened an adventure that interested him more than anything which had befallen. He was walking one day with the old man in a part of the forest far distant from their hut. They were looking for a rare and wonderful herb which the sage needed to distill a certain precious balm.
"This should be the spot," said the old man, going toward a heap of rocks around which grew a tangle of shrubs and creepers. "The plant which I seek is shy, and hides in the shadows of sheltered places. Yonder is a cave, where first I made my dwelling when I came to the forest, before I built the hut in which we now live. And at the entrance, I remember, grew the herb of grace, which more than once has done me service in healing the hurts of my pets."
The Hermit plunged eagerly forward to the rocks. John followed close behind. At the entrance to the cave the old man stooped to pluck the herb which they had come so far to seek, and John, clambering beside him, bent curiously to peer into the cave. Suddenly a sound from within made him start. The Hermit paused in his task, and both stared motionless into the blackness of the cave. Presently the sound came again,—a deep growl ending in a whine.
"Some animal in pain," whispered the Hermit to John. "Stay you here, my son. I will discover what it may be."
"Nay, father!" pleaded the boy. "It may be some fierce creature; it may hurt you. Do not go!"
The old man turned beaming eyes upon him. "Never yet have I been hurt by an animal," he said gently. "My body bears only the scars of human hands. I am not afraid. But do you stay here, my son. You have not yet quite learned the language of dumb things."
"I shall go with you!" said John to himself. He seized the staff which the Hermit had dropped, and followed close upon his heels.
Soon their eyes became more used to the darkness of the cave, with which the Hermit was already familiar. Presently out of the shadows in a far corner they spied two red eyes glaring upon them. Behind the eyes bulked a huge, apparently shapeless form. It half rose as they drew near, and again they heard the growl of anger. But as the creature made a sudden movement, the growl turned into a howl of agony, and it rolled back into the corner, whimpering.
John plucked the Hermit by his robe. "It is a bear!" he said. "I have met them sometimes upon the highways, traveling with mountebanks. And the men told me that they were very fierce and hard to tame. Be careful, my father! Go not near, I beseech you!"
But the old man paid no heed to his words. Bending forward, he made a strange sound in his throat, a soothing, cooing noise. The bear heard it, and ceased to whine. They saw the ugly head rear up and look at the Hermit wildly. Again he made the sound, and stooping without fear brought his face close to the bear's great body. The animal did not move.
Presently the Hermit turned to John. "The poor beast has a wounded paw," he said. "An arrow has hurt it badly."
He unfastened from his girdle a cup which he always carried in his wanderings.
"Here, my son," he said, "fill this at the spring which we passed yonder. The creature suffers from thirst."
John hesitated. "Is it safe to leave you here alone with this wild beast?" he asked.
The Hermit smiled. "Quite safe," he said. "Do you think I need your protection? Brother Bear will soon know me for his friend."
When John returned he found the Hermit sitting on the floor of the cave, with the bear's paw resting on his knee. The animal was quiet, save for a whimpering now and then. John could see his little red eyes fixed upon the Hermit with a curious look of wonder and appeal. He seemed unable to move, and the Hermit touched the beast quite naturally, as if he were a great kitten. The bear stirred and turned his eyes when John entered.
"Thanks, son," said the Hermit, taking the cup from the boy's hand; and, turning again to' the bear, he held it to the animal's mouth. "Drink, brother," he said.
Eagerly the bear lapped up the water.
"Now, my son," said the Hermit to John, "go you to the entrance of the cave and pluck me a handful of the healing herb-leaves. I must bind up this suffering paw."
"Surely, father," begged John, "you will not try to touch the creature's wound. He will tear you to pieces!"
The old man turned reproachful eyes upon him. "Son," he said, "I have tried to teach you obedience. Go, get me the leaves."
Without more words John hastened to do as he was bid. When he returned with a handful of the plant, he found that the Hermit had bathed the wounded paw of the now quiet animal. He had torn a strip of linen from the shirt which he wore under his gray robe, and was making this into a bandage. Soon he had crushed the leaves and had bound them upon the foot of the bear, who lay still and gentle under his hands. John stared, amazed.
"Now we will go home," said the Hermit softly, "and you, John, shall return with food for this poor hungry brother. You will soon make him your dear friend also. For, you see, he asks only love and patience. Men have been cruel to him. But we will be kind to our Brother Bear."
Thus John learned a new lesson of courtesy to the wilder, bigger beasts. That same day he made the long journey a second time, bringing the bear his dinner, with a comb of wild honey which the Hermit had found on the way home. And he had the joy of seeing the creature act no longer like an enemy, but like a timid friend.
Day after day John went and ministered to the sick animal. At last, there came a joyous time when the bear rose to greet him on his approach. The injured paw was healed. And when John left the cave that night, the bear hobbled at his heels, even to the clearing where the Hermit lived. He would not go farther at that time. He sat down on his haunches outside the border of tall trees, and when John tried to coax him he looked at the hut doubtfully. At the sight of Brutus he made lumberingly away.
A few evenings later, the bear came of his own accord to beg for his supper; and at last this became a custom. Soon he also was accounted a member of the animal kingdom, and became good friends with them all. In time John taught him many tricks, such as he had seen the mountebanks do with their traveling bears. But unlike them, John taught only by kindness; and his bear learned the faster.
A FOREST RAMBLE
"Father," said John one summer afternoon, when his tasks for the day were quite finished, "Brutus and I are going for a long walk."
"Very well, my son," answered the Hermit, "I will bide here and read my book, for the heat has made me somewhat weary. But see that you return before sunset."
"Yes, father," said John.
Slinging over his shoulder a little basket in which to fetch home any strange plants which he might find in the forest, John whistled to Brutus, and the pair trotted away together as they loved to do. The Hermit looked after them, and smiled.
"John is a good boy," he said. "One day he will be a fine man. May the Saints help me to make him worthy of his father and of the name he bears." Then he turned to his beloved book.
John and Brutus went merrily through the forest, the boy singing under his breath snatches of the cheerful hymns that he and the Hermit loved. The dog ran ahead, exploring in the bushes, sometimes disappearing for long minutes at a time, but ever returning to rub his nose in John's hand and exchange a silent word with him. They were not going for any particular errand to any especial spot. They were just rambling wherever the forest looked inviting; which is the nicest way to travel through the woods,—especially if one of you can be trusted to find the way home, however wavering may be the trail that you leave behind. It was what John loved to do more than anything in the world.
The woods were cool and green and full of lovely light. It was so still and peaceful, too! The tiny queer noises all about, which once, before he knew the kingdom of the forest, had frightened him so much, now filled John with the keenest joy. Often he paused and listened eagerly. He liked to feel that he was surrounded everywhere by little brothers, seen and unseen. With a word to Brutus, which made the dog lie down and keep perfectly quiet, John would steal forward softly and peer through a screen of bushes, or into a treetop, and watch the housekeeping of some shy brother beast or bird. Once he flung himself flat on the ground, and lay for a long time eagerly watching the antics of a beetle. A little later, with Brutus patiently beside him, he sat cross-legged for ten minutes, waiting to see how a certain big yellow spider would spin her web between two branches of a rose-bush.
They wandered on and on. A great golden butterfly rose before them from a bed of lilies, and together he and Brutus ran after it; not to capture and kill it, oh no! for to John the wonder of the flower with wings lay in the life which gave it power to move about and pay calls upon the other blossoms that must be always stay-at-homes. John chased it gaily, as one brother plays with another. And when it lighted on a rose-bush or a yellow broom-flower, or poised on a swaying blade of grass, he crept up and admired its lovely colors without touching the fragile thing. But at last, as if suddenly remembering an errand which it had forgotten, the butterfly soared quickly up and away over the treetops and out of sight.
"Good-by, little brother!" called John after it. "I wish I could fly as you do and look down upon the kingdom of the forest! Then indeed I would learn all the secrets of our friends up in the treetops there, who hide their nests so selfishly. Oh, I should so love to see all the little baby birds! To be sure, some that I have seen in the ground-nests are ugly enough. Oh, the big mouths of them! Oh, the bald skins and prickly pin-feathers! Ha! ha!" John laughed so heartily that Brutus came running up to see what the joke was. "O Brutus!" cried John. "I think I know why the father and mother birds build their nests so high. They are ashamed to have any one see their funny little ones before they are quite dressed!"
Brutus looked up in John's face and seemed to smile. The boy and the dog often had talks together in this wise.
"I think I will ask them," said John. "Now, Brutus, lie still." He gave a peculiar whistle, waited a moment, and repeated it, twice, thrice. At the first call there was a fluttering in the branches overhead. At the second call one saw the silhouettes of tiny bodies dropping from branch to branch ever nearer to the boy below. At the third, there was a flutter, a rush of wings, and a flock of dear little birds came flying to John's shoulder, to his out-stretched arms, to his head; so that presently he looked like a green bush which they had chosen for their perch.
John talked with them in his own way, with chirps and lisping of the lips, and they were no more afraid of him than of a good-natured tree. But after a while, a fly, which had been tickling Brutus's nose, grew so impertinent that the poor dog had to punish him with his paw. At the sudden movement the birds fluttered away, and John looked reproachfully at his friend. But when he saw the drop of blood on the dog's nose he forgave him.
"Poor Brutus!" he said. "You kept still as long as you could, I know. And indeed, it is time we were moving. Come, Brutus!"
The pair continued their voyage of discovery. The woods are so full of thrilling stories for those who know how to read them! A field-mouse's nest in a tuft of grass; a beehive in a hollow tree; tracks of a wild boar in the muddy edge of the brook; a beautiful lizard changing color to match the leaves and moss over which it crept. John longed to carry this little brother home to join the circle of pets. But he knew it was kinder to leave him there, where perhaps he had a home and family.
And oh, the flowers! So many kinds, so fragrant and so beautiful! John gathered a great armful to carry back to the Hermit. And so the minutes went; the shadows began to lengthen, and it was time to turn homeward.
John whistled to Brutus, to call him for the home-going. But just then he spied a new plant whose name he did not know. He was stooping over to examine the lovely pink blossoms, when Brutus came bounding up to him, behaving strangely. He whined and looked distressed; he started away into the bushes, begging John to follow. Evidently he had found something which he wished John to see. The boy laid down his armful of flowers and ran after the dog, as swiftly and softly as he could; for he did not know what forest secret he might be about to discover.
Brutus led him straight to a hollow under a great rock. And there John soon saw the cause of the dog's excitement. Stretched out on a bed of leaves were four little gray bodies. John ran up to them with a cry.
"Why, they are puppies!" he said. "Brutus, you have found some little brothers of your own!"
Brutus whined and sniffed about the rock strangely. John bent over the little bodies, which lay quite still and seemed to be asleep. He touched one softly. It was stiff and cold.
"Oh, they are dead, poor little things!" said John. "I am so sorry. I hoped to take them home to my father. How came they here, I wonder? They must have starved to death!"
Just then John saw one of the puppies give a tiny shiver. Its legs moved feebly and its eyes opened. "Ah! One of them still lives!" he cried eagerly. "Perhaps I can save its life, the dear little thing!"
He took the gray body up in his arms and hugged it tenderly, but it made no response. Then, laying it down again on the leaves, he drew from his basket a crust of bread which he had brought to nibble while he walked. (It is such fun to have something to nibble when one goes for a ramble in the woods!) John ran to the brook which babbled close by, and, dipping the bread in the water until it was soft, returned to put some in the mouth of the little gray thing that lay so pitifully on the leaves.
"Eat, little brother!" said John.
Brutus looked on gravely. The puppy opened its mouth feebly and swallowed a bit of bread. After the first taste it grew eager, and began to nibble hungrily. John gave it all he had, and was overjoyed to see it gradually gain strength. But still it could not stand on its weak little legs.
"We must take him home, Brutus," said John. "We will make him well and strong, then we shall have another little dog to be your baby brother."
Brutus said nothing, though perhaps he knew better. Presently he was trotting homeward; tracing backward, as no human being could have done, the winding way by which they had come through the dense forest. Behind him came John, carrying the little gray creature tenderly in his arms, and with the basket full of flowers on his back. And so at last they reached the hut, in the door of which stood the Hermit, shading his eyes and looking anxiously for them.
"My son!" he cried gladly when they appeared. "You were gone so long that I feared you were lost, even with Brutus to guide you. It is after sundown. Where have you been, and what do you bring there?"
"We have been—I know not where," said John; "farther than I have gone since I came to the forest. It must be near the homes of men. For see! We have found a little dog! His brothers were lying dead beside him; I think they were starved to death. But this one lives, and some day I hope he will grow into a big dog like Brutus,—though indeed he does not look much like him now!"
So John prattled eagerly, laying the little creature in the old man's arms. But the Hermit looked at it and looked again. Then he smiled at John.
"Ah, Son!" he said. "This will never be a dog like Brutus. You have brought home a baby wolf!"
"A wolf!" cried John. "He looks quite like a puppy, and he is gentle, too!"
"They are much alike," said the Hermit. "You saved this poor little cub in good time, John. He is very weak. Probably his mother was killed by some hunters, who left her little ones there to starve. That is what they do, John, never stopping to think what suffering they cause. But let us now feed this little fellow with warm milk, and we shall soon have him as gay as ever. I am glad that you brought him, John. We needed a wolf-brother in our kingdom."
"But, Father! a wolf!" cried John, with a shudder. He had not forgotten the horror of his first night alone in the forest, and the long howl which had made him lose his senses. "Oh, will he not grow big and eat us up, my father? Yes; that was why Brutus acted so strangely. He knew it was no puppy, although I told him so."
"It is quite safe to keep him, John," said the Hermit. "We cannot turn him out to starve, for he is too young to care for himself. You will see to-morrow that he will play like any puppy. Brutus and he will be great friends,—they are relatives already. Once upon a time Brutus had a wolf for his ancestor. And as we ourselves know not from whom we may be descended, so must we treat all creatures as our brothers. Yes, this wolfkin will grow up lean and ugly-looking, like any wolf. But we will teach him to be kind and gentle, John, even as Brutus is."
And the Hermit was right. The wolf-cub soon became the pet and plaything of the animal kingdom. With food and care he grew into a round, roly-poly ball of fur. He played merrily with Brutus and the kittens. And though at first he was a bit rough, they and John taught him better ways, so that he kicked and bit his friends no longer.
As the months went by, they watched him change gradually from cub to wolf. They were sorry to see him lose his puppy looks and frisky manners. But what could they do? It is a great pity, but no one has yet discovered how to make babies of any sort remain babies. Gradually he lost his roundness. He grew longer and longer, until he was stretched out into four feet of gaunt yellowish-gray wolf. But still he remained quiet and gentle with his friends, quick to learn and ready to obey.
He was a perfectly good wolf, and he loved John so dearly that he could scarcely be separated from him. He followed the boy wherever he went, and lay down beside him when he slept, like any watch-dog. And though he was so gentle in the animal kingdom, the Hermit knew that it would go hard with any one who should try to hurt Wolf's little master.
Yet he and Brutus were the best of friends. The good dog was too noble to be jealous.
THE GREEN STRANGER
For five happy years John lived with the good Hermit, and became a sturdy lad of fourteen before anything new happened of great moment to the animal kingdom. In all this time he had seen no human creature except the Hermit himself. Their hut was so far in the forest that no travelers ever passed that way.
But John was never lonely, for he had the kindest of fathers in the Hermit, and the happiest of comrades and playmates in the circle of pets, ever increasing, who gathered about the abode of peace. Brutus was still his dearest friend. But the wolf was almost as intimate. As for Bruin, he was never a constant dweller with the colony, but came and went at will. Sometimes he disappeared for weeks at a time, and they knew that he was wandering through the forest which stretched for miles in every direction, pathless and uninhabited. And sometimes they wondered what adventures the big brother might be enjoying.
"If only he could tell me!" wished John. But this kind of gossip was still impossible between them.
One day John was out in the forest, not far from the Hermit's hut, cutting wood for the winter, which was near at hand. He was alone, for a wonder. The wolf had come with him, but had now trotted away into the forest on business of his own. The bear had disappeared some weeks before, on one of his pilgrimages. Brutus was at that moment with the Hermit in the hut; for the dog divided his attentions between the young friend and the old.
John had lifted his axe to attack a certain tree when, with a scurry of little feet, a frightened hare came bounding past him, ears laid back and eyes bulging with fear. It was so strange to see a startled creature in this peaceful wood, that John dropped his axe wonderingly. Then he noted that the birds were chattering nervously overhead, and his quick ear caught furtive rustlings in the underbrush all around him. The forest was alive with fears. Presently the wolf came bounding past, with wild eyes, evidently making for the hut. John called, but the frightened creature did not pause.
Very soon John heard over his shoulder an unusual sound. He turned quickly, and saw a sight which made his heart rise in his throat.
Across an open glade in the wood his friend the bear was lumbering on all fours, wild-eyed, with lolling tongue and panting breath. Close behind him came on foot a young man, several years older than John, dressed in a suit of green velvet, with a plumed cap. In his hand he bore a long spear, and he was charging upon the bear with a cruel light in his eyes. Suddenly Bruin made for a tree, and began to climb, clutching the bark frantically with his claws. At sight of his prey about to escape, the stranger gave a loud, fierce cry and dashed forward, at the same time drawing from behind his shoulder a bow such as men used in hunting. He fitted an arrow to the string, and was about to shoot, when John sprang forward with blazing eyes.
"You shall not shoot!" he cried. "This is a peaceful wood. You shall not kill my friend the bear."
At this unexpected happening, the young man turned with a start and a snarl, like a dog from whom one would take away his bone.
"Who are you?" he cried angrily. "How dare you interrupt my sport! Do you know who I am?"
"I do not care who you are!" answered John. "You shall not hunt in these woods, You must go away."
The face of the stranger was white with rage. He turned from the tree in which the bear had now found a place of safety behind a crotch, and pointed his arrow at John. The lad saw his danger. Even as the stranger drew the arrow to its head John leaped forward; before the other knew what was happening, John seized him in his arms and with a mighty effort wrenched away the weapon. It was wonderful how easily he mastered this fellow, who was some inches taller than himself.
Beside himself with rage, the stranger grappled with John, and then began a wrestling match strange to see. If the bear up in the tree knew what it all meant, he must have been very much excited.
The two lads clinched, swayed, and finally fell to the ground, rolling over and over. The stranger pummeled and kicked, scratched and bit. John merely defended himself, holding his enemy firmly and trying to keep him under. It was easy to see that he was the stronger of the two. Presently the young man began to weaken, and at last John felt the stranger's body grow limp in his clutch. He felt a thrill of triumph such as the Hermit certainly had never taught him. But suddenly, remembering the duty of a noble foe, he rose to his feet, leaving the stranger lying where he was.
He was not badly hurt. Presently he also rose, sullenly, and pulled on his cap which had fallen off. John had taken possession of his spear and bow. He now gravely handed an arrow to the young man.
"You may keep that," he said politely. "I think you can do no harm with that."
The stranger turned crimson, and his face was wicked to see.
"You shall pay for this!" he spluttered, with sobs in his voice. "No one can injure me without danger. You shall—"
At this moment, not far away in the direction of the Hermit's hut, a horn sounded. Once, twice, thrice, it blew vigorously, as if giving a command. Both John and the stranger started.
"I must go!" muttered the latter to himself. "Needs must at that call." And without another word or glance at John, he ran to his horse, which was tethered close by, and was soon galloping away in the direction of the bugle-call.
Trembling with excitement and with alarm at this coming of strangers to the forest which so long had been at peace, John hurried back to the hut. But Bruin remained safe in his tree.
He seemed to have no wish to come down And learn what all these strange doings meant.
John found the Hermit sitting as usual beside the door of his hut, reading his book. He was surrounded by his family of pets. Brutus bounded to meet John, but the boy was too excited to give him the usual caress.
"Father!" he cried, "have you heard or seen nothing? There are strangers in the forest, wicked strangers who hunt our friends the beasts. I have but now come from such a terrible scene!"
He covered his face with his hands. The Hermit started to his feet.
"What has happened?" he quavered. "Just now the wolf came leaping into the hut; but I feared nothing. Your clothes are torn. Your face is bloody. Who has been hurting you, my son?"
But before John could answer came again the call of a bugle, this time very near, "Tara! Tara! Tara!"
"Huntsmen!" cried the Hermit. "Send Brutus into the hut." John drove the dog inside, and some of the house-pets with him. Already the others had taken alarm at the threatening noise and were scattering in every direction.
Nearer and nearer came the sound of galloping hoofs, the baying of hounds, the shouts of many men. John and the Hermit stood with pale faces, waiting.
Suddenly into the clearing bounded a frightened deer,—a slender dappled creature with brown eyes. Straight to the Hermit she ran, and dropped panting at his feet.
"It is our doe!" cried John, his face turning whiter. "O father! They are hunting her!"
The old man said nothing, but stooped and threw his mantle over the trembling creature. Hardly had he done so when the hounds burst into the clearing, barking fiercely, rushing towards the spot where the deer lay.
The Hermit raised his staff and stepped forward with a quick word. Instantly the dogs paused, cringing. They snarled and snapped their teeth, but made no motion to draw nearer. There was another loud bugle-blast, and a group of horsemen burst into the open space.
"Hola! Hola! The stand!" cried the foremost rider, flourishing his sword. The others clustered about this leader. He was a tall, oldish man, red-faced and fierce-eyed. Like the stranger whom John had met, he was magnificently dressed in green velvet, with a gold chain about his neck, and a star blazing on his breast. He wore also a green cap bound with a gold band, from which a golden feather drooped to his shoulder. The gloves which he wore, the baldric of his bugle, and the hilt of the sword which he brandished aloft, glittered with jewels.
When he spied the Hermit standing with upraised staff over the deer, while the dogs cowered at his feet, he drew up his horse and gave a shout of wonder. Then once more there was a moment of intense silence in that spot whose quiet had been broken by such a din. Thereafter the splendid leader of the hunt spoke in a brutal voice.
"Ho! Who are you who interrupt our hunt and stand between us and our quarry? Stand aside, old man, whoever you are. This is no place for you. The deer is ours." He flourished his jeweled sword eagerly.
"I shall not stand aside," said the Hermit. "This doe is mine, my friend and companion. Her milk has nourished me many a day, and she shall not die in this place which is my home."
"Shall not die?" cried the huntsman hoarsely. "Do you know to whom you speak?"
"I can guess," said the Hermit quietly. "From his cruelty and his free speech I judge it must be he who calls himself king of the realm beyond this forest."
"King of this forest and lord of all that dwell therein," shouted the huntsman ferociously. "And who are you who dare oppose me?"
"I am a hermit," said the old man simply. "My service is to God, whom you dishonor. My friends are the creatures whom you hunt. My study is to save life, which you would destroy. Depart, and leave in peace this place where life is sacred."
"Depart!" roared the King, while his nobles crowded around him, murmuring and bending threatening looks upon the Hermit and the lad. "Not till yonder animal is slain. Ho, have at her!"
With prick of spur he urged his horse forward. But quick as thought the Hermit with his staff drew a circle around himself and John and the doe, which still lay panting at his feet, wrapped in the gray mantle.
"Dare not to cross this line!" he cried. "This ground is holy. Years ago in the Father's name I consecrated it. 'Tis holy as any cathedral, and 'tis sanctuary for man and beast. Hear what the Lord says to you: 'They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain.'"
The Hermit raised his hand and spoke a word to the horses that were being urged forward. With a shrill whinny they rose on their hind legs, pawing the air, and refused to advance.
"What witchcraft is this!" cried the King, spurring his steed cruelly. But the animal, like the dogs, obeyed the Hermit's will rather than the King's.
"No witchcraft," said the Hermit, still guarding the deer with his upraised staff. "It is the Lord's will. You, who have ever disobeyed His holy word, perhaps know not how dear to Him were the birds and beasts. His first companions. His childhood friends. And to this day, for He Himself hath said it, not a sparrow falleth without His knowledge and pity. O wicked man! How then can you delight to kill?"
The King gazed at the Hermit like one in a dream. "How dare you say such things to me, your King?" he said at last.
"You are no king of mine, thank God!" said the Hermit. "I am an exile. I am of no land. This forest is my domain, my animal kingdom. Depart, I beg, without more bloodshed. O King, already in time past the hunt has cost you dear. Will you not take heed lest the Lord punish you further for your sins?"
The King turned pale. "This is certainly witchcraft!" he muttered. "What know you of the past?" he cried, almost as if against his will.
"I know much," said the Hermit calmly. "I know that hunting cost the life of your eldest son. Will you not heed that warning, lest more ill befall?"
There was a stir among the nobles, and John saw the young man with whom he had wrestled a short time before spur his horse forward to the King's side. His face was black and angry.
"Sire—father," he said. "Will you not end this parley and slay them all? I would have a hand in it for the sake of that young cub there!" and he shook his fist toward John. But more he did not say; perhaps he was ashamed to tell how the wood-boy had got the best of him.
"Ay," said the Hermit, pointing a finger at him and shaking it sadly. "The second son follows in the footsteps of his brother, and like his father is cruel, bloodthirsty, revengeful. Beware, O King! Beware, King's son! For happiness was never yet distilled from innocent blood, nor life from death."
The King shuddered, as all could see. "I hunt," he said,—and it was strange to see how he was almost apologetic,—"I hunt all animals mercilessly, because through them the Prince my son was slain. I will hunt them out of my kingdom, until not one remains. I will slay them until the ground is soaked with their blood! Not an animal, save such as are of use, shall exist in all my land. I will have no pets—no singing birds. I hate them all!"