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MOTHER AND SON
My own, my own, thy fellow-guest I may not be, but rest thee, rest-- The lowly shepherd's life is best.--WORDSWORTH.
The Lady Threlkeld stood in the lower storey of her castle, a sort of rough-built hall or crypt, with a stone stair leading upward to the real castle hall above, while this served as a place where she met her husband's retainers and the poor around, and administered to their wants with her own hands, assisted by the maidens of her household.
Among the various hungry and diseased there limped in a sturdy beggar with a wallet on his back, and a broad shady hat, as though on pilgrimage. He was evidently a stranger among the rest, and had his leg and foot bound up, leaning heavily on a stout staff.
'Italy pilgrim, what ails thee?' demanded the lady, as he approached her.
'Alack, noble dame! we poor pilgrims must ever be moving on, however much it irks foot and limb, over these northern stones,' he answered, and his accent and tone were such that a thrill seemed to pass over the lady's whole person, but she controlled it, and only said, 'Tarry till these have received their alms, then will I see to thee and thy maimed foot. Give him a stool, Alice, while he waits.'
The various patients who claimed the lady's assistance were attended to, those who needed food were relieved, and in due time the hall was cleared, excepting of the lady, an old female servant, and Hob, who had sat all the time with his foot on a stool, and his back against the wall, more than half asleep after the toils and long journey of the night.
Then the Lady Threlkeld came to him, and making him a sign not to rise, said aloud, 'Good Gaffer, let me see what ails thy leg.' Then kneeling down and busying herself with the bandages, she looked up piteously in his face, with the partly breathed inquiry, 'My son?'
'Well, my lady, and grown into a stalwart lad,' was Hob's answer, with an eye on the door, and in a voice as low as his gruff tones would permit.
'And wherefore? What is it?' she asked anxiously. 'Be they on the track of my poor boy?'
'They may be,' answered Hob, 'wherefore I deemed it well to shift our quarters. As hap would have it, the lad fell upon a little wench lost in the mosses, and there was nothing for it but to bring her home for the night. I would have had her away as soon as day dawned, and no questions asked, but the witches, or the foul fiend himself, must needs bring up a snow-storm, and there was nothing for it but to let her bide in the cot all day, giving tongue as none but womenfolk can do; and behold she is the child of the Lord St. John of Bletso.'
'Nay, what should bring her north?'
'She wonnes at Greystone with the wild Prioress Selby, who lost her out hawking. Her father is a black Yorkist. I saw him up to his stirrups in blood at St. Albans!'
'But sure my boy did not make himself known to her?' exclaimed the lady.
'I trow not. He has been well warned, and is a lad of his word; but the two bairns, left to themselves, could scarce help finding out that each was of gentle blood and breeding, and how much more my goodwife cannot tell. I took the maid back so soon as it was safe yester morn, and sent back my young lord, much against his will, half-way to Greystone. And well was it I did so, for he was scarce over the ridge when a plump of spears came in sight on the search for him, and led by the young squire of Selby.'
'Ah! and if the damsel does but talk, even if she knows nought, the foe will draw their conclusions!' said the lady, clasping her hands. 'Oh, would that I had sent him abroad with his little brothers!'
'Nay, then might he have fallen into the hands of Bletso himself, and they say Burgundy is all for the Yorkists now,' said Hob. 'This is what I have done, gracious lady. I bade my good woman carry off all she could from the homestead and burn the rest; and for him we wot on, I sent him and his flock off westward, appointing each of them the same trysting-place--on the slope beneath Derwent Hill, my lady-- whence I thought, if it were your will and the good knight Sir Lancelot's, we might go nigher to the sea and the firth, where the Selby clan have no call, being at deadly feud with the Ridleys. So if the maiden's tongue goes fast, and the Prioress follows up the quest with young Selby, they will find nought for their pains.'
'Thou art a good guardian, Hob! Ah! where would my boy be save for thee? And thou sayest he is even now at the very border of the forest ground! Sure, there can be no cause that I should not go and see him. My heart hungers for my children. Oh, let me go with thee!'
'Sir Lancelot--' began Hob.
'He is away at the Warden's summons. He will scarce be back for a week or more. I will, I must go with thee, good Hob.'
'Not in your own person, good madam,' stipulated Hob. 'As thou knowest, there are those in Sir Lancelot's following who might be too apt to report of secret visits, and that were as ill as the Priory folk.'
It was then decided that the lady should put on the disguise of a countrywoman bringing eggs and meat to sell at the castle, and meet Hob near the postern, whence a path led to Penrith.
Hob, having received a lump of oatcake and a draught of very small ale, limped out of the court, and, so soon as he could find a convenient spot behind the gorse bushes, divested himself of his bandages, and changed the side of his shepherd's plaid to one much older and more weather-beaten; also his pilgrim's hat for one in his pouch--a blue bonnet, more like the national Scottish head-gear, hiding the hat in the gorse.
Then he lay down and waited, where he could see a window, whence a red kerchief was to be fluttered to show when the lady would be ready for him to attend her. He waited long, for she had first to disarm suspicion by presiding at the general meal of the household, and showing no undue haste.
At last, though not till after he had more than once fallen asleep and feared that he had missed the signal, or that his wife and 'Hal' might be tempted to some imprudence while waiting, he beheld the kerchief waving in the sunset light of the afternoon, and presently, shrouded in such a black and white shepherd's maud as his own, and in a russet gown with a basket on her arm, his lady came forth and joined him.
His first thought was how would she return again, when the darkness was begun, but her only answer was, 'Heed not that! My child, I must see.'
Indeed, she was almost too breathless and eager with haste, as he guided her over the rough and difficult path, or rather track, to answer his inquiries as to what was to be done next. Her view, however, agreed with his, that they must lurk in the borders of the woodland for a day or two till Sir Lancelot's return, when he would direct them to a place where he could put them under the protection of one of the tenants of his manor. It was a long walk, longer than Hob had perhaps felt when he had undertaken to conduct the lady through it, for ladies, though inured to many dangers in those days, were unaccustomed to travelling on their own feet; but the mother's heart seemed to heed no obstacle, though moments came when she had to lean heavily on her companion, and he even had to lift her over brooks or pools; but happily the sun had not set when they made their way through the tangles of the wood, and at last saw before them the fitful glow of a fire of dead leaves, branches and twigs, while the bark of a dog greeted the rustling, they made.
'Sweetheart, my faithful!' then shouted Hob, and in another moment there was a cry, 'Ha! Halloa! Master Hob--beest there?'
'His voice!--my son's!' gasped the lady, and sank for a moment of overwhelming joy against the faithful retainer, while the shaggy dog leapt upon them both.
'Ay, lad, here--and some one else.'
The boy crashed through the underwood, and stood on the path in a moment's hesitation. Mother and son were face to face!
The years that had passed had changed the lad from almost a babe into a well-grown strong boy but the mother was little altered, and as she held out her arms no word was wasted ere he sprang into them, and his face was hidden on her neck as when he knew his way into her embrace of old!
When the intense rapturous hold was loosed they were aware of Goodwife Dolly looking on with clasped hands and streaming eyes, giving thanks for the meeting of her dear lady and the charge whom she and her husband had so faithfully kept.
When the mother and son had leisure to look round, and there was a pleased survey of the boy's height and strength, Goodwife Dolly came forward to beg the lady to come to her fire, and rest under the gipsy tent which she and nephew Piers--her real herd-boy, a rough, shaggy, almost dumb and imbecile lad--had raised with branches, skins and canvas, to protect their few articles of property. There was a smouldering fire, over which Doll had prepared a rabbit which the dog had caught, and which she had intended for Hal's supper and that of her husband if he came home in time. While the lady lavished thanks upon her for all she had done for the boy she was intent on improving the rude meal, so as to strengthen her mistress after her long walk, and for the return. The lady, however, could see and think of nothing but her son, while he returned her tearful gaze with open eyes, gathering up his old recollections of her.
'Mother!' he said--with a half-wondering tone, as the recollections of six years old came back to him more fully, and then he nestled again in her arms as if she were far more real to him than at first-- 'Mother!' And then, as she sobbed over him, 'The little one?'
'The babe is well, when last I heard of her, in a convent at York. Thou rememberest her?'
'Ay--my little sister! Ay,' he said, with a considering interrogative sound, 'I mind her well, and old Bunce too, that taught me to ride.'
But Hob interrupted the reminiscences by bringing up the pony on which Anne had ridden, and insisting that the lady should not tarry longer. 'He,' indicating Hal, might walk beside her through the wood, and thus prolong their interview, but, as she well knew, it was entirely unsafe to remain any longer away from the castle.
There were embraces and sobbing thanks exchanged between the lady and her son's old nurse, and then Hal, at a growling hint from Hob, came forward, and awkwardly helped her to her saddle. He walked by her side through the wood, holding her rein, while Hob, going before, did his best in the twilight to clear away the tangled branches and brambles that fell across the path, and were near of striking the lady across the face as she rode.
On the way she talked to her son about his remembrances, anxious to know how far his dim recollections went of the old paternal castle in Bedfordshire, of his infant sister and brother, and his father. Of him he had little recollection, only of being lifted in his arms, kissed and blessed, and seeing him ride away with his troop, clanking in their armour. After that he remembered nothing, save the being put into a homelier dress, and travelling on Nurse Dolly's lap in a wain, up and down, it seemed to him, for ever, till at last clearer recollections awoke in him, and he knew himself as Hal the shepherd's boy, with the sheep around him, and the blue starry sky above him.
'Dost thou remember what thou wast called in those times?' asked his mother.
'I was always Hal. The little one was Meg,' he said.
'Even so, my boy, my dear boy! But knowst thou no more than this?'
'Methinks, methinks there were serving-men that called me the young Lord. Ay, so! But nurse said I must forget all that. Mother dear, when that maiden came and talked of tilts and lances, meseemed that I recollected somewhat. Was then my father a knight?'
'Alack! alack! my child, that thou shouldst not know!'
'Memories came back with that maiden's voice and thine,' said Hal, in a bewildered tone. 'My father! Was he then slain when he rode farther?'
'Ah! I may tell thee now thou art old enough to guard thyself,' she said. 'Thy father, whom our blessed Lord assoilzie, was the Lord Clifford, slain by savage hands on Towton field for his faith to King Harry! Thou, my poor boy, art the Baron of Clifford, though while this cruel House of York be in power thou must keep in hiding from them in this mean disguise. Woe worth the day!'
'And am I then a baron--a lord?' said the boy. 'Great lords have books. Were there not some big ones on the hall window seats? Did not Brother Eldred begin to teach me my letters? I would that I could go on to learn more!'
'Oh, I would that thou couldst have all knightly training, and learn to use sword and lance like thy gallant father!'
'Nay, but I saw a poor man fall off his horse and lie hurt, I do not want those hard, cruel ways. And my father was slain. Must a lord go to battle?'
'Boy, boy, thou wilt not belie thy Clifford blood,' cried the lady in consternation, which was increased when he said, 'I have no mind to go out and kill folks or be killed. I had rather mark the stars and tend my sheep.'
'Alack! alack! This comes of keeping company with the sheep. That my son, and my lord's son, should be infected with their sheepish nature!'
'Never fear, madam,' said Hob. 'When occasion comes, and strength is grown, his blood will show itself.'
'If I could only give him knightly breeding!' sighed the lady. 'Sir Lancelot may find the way. I cannot see him grow up a mere shepherd boy.'
'Content you, madam,' said Hob. 'Never did I see a shepherd boy with the wisdom and the thought there is in that curly pate!'
'Wisdom! thought!' muttered the lady. 'Those did not save our good King, only made him a saint. I had rather hear the boy talk of sword and lance than prate of books and stars! And that wench, whom to our misfortune thou didst find! What didst tell her?'
'I told her nought, mother, for I had nought to tell.'
'She scented mystery, though,' said Hob. 'She saw he was no herd boy.'
'Nay? Though he holds himself like a lout untrained! Would that I could have thee in hand, my son, to make thee meet to tread in thy brave father's steps! But now, comrade of sheep thou art, and I fear me thou wilt ever be! But that maid, I trust that she perceived nothing in thy bearing or speech?'
'She will not betray whatever she perceived,' said Hal stoutly.
The wood was by this time nearly past, and the moment of parting had come. The lady had decided on going on foot to the little grey stone church whose low square tower could be seen rising like another rock. Thither she could repair in her plaid, and by-and-by throw it off, and return in her own character to the castle, as though she had gone forth to worship there. When lifted off the shaggy pony she threw her arms round Hal, kissed him passionately, and bade him never breathe a word of it, but never to forget that a baron he was, and bound to be a good brave knight, fit to avenge his father's death!
Hal came to understand from Dolly's explanations that his recent abode had been on the estate of his grandfather, Baron de Vesci, at Londesborough, but his mother had since married Sir Lancelot Threlkeld, and had intimated that her boy should be removed thither as soon as might be expedient, and therefore the house on the Yorkshire moor had been broken up.
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