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Maggie began to think that Tom must be right about the gipsies: they must certainly be thieves, unless the man meant to return her thimble by-and-by. All thieves, except Robin Hood, were wicked people.
The women now saw she was frightened.
"We've got nothing nice for a lady to eat," said the old woman, in her coaxing tone. "And she's so hungry, sweet little lady!"
"Here, my dear, try if you can eat a bit o' this," said the younger woman, handing some of the stew on a brown dish with an iron spoon to Maggie, who dared not refuse it, though fear had chased away her appetite. If her father would but come by in the gig and take her up! Or even if Jack the Giantkiller, or Mr. Greatheart, or St. George who slew the dragon on the half-pennies, would happen to pass that way!
"What! you don't like the smell of it, my dear," said the young woman, observing that Maggie did not even take a spoonful of the stew. "Try a bit—come."
"No, thank you," said Maggie, trying to smile in a friendly way. "I haven't time, I think—it seems getting darker. I think I must go home now, and come again another day, and then I can bring you a basket with some jam-tarts and things."
Maggie rose from her seat, when the old gipsy-woman said, "Stop a bit, stop a bit, little lady; we'll take you home all safe when we've done supper. You shall ride home like a lady."
Maggie sat down again, with little faith in this promise, though she presently saw the tall girl putting a bridle on the donkey and throwing a couple of bags on his back.
"Now, then, little missis," said the younger man, rising and leading the donkey forward, "tell us where you live. What's the name o' the place?"
"Dorlcote Mill is my home," said Maggie eagerly. "My father is Mr. Tulliver; he lives there."
"What! a big mill a little way this side o' St. Ogg's?"
"Yes," said Maggie. "Is it far off? I think I should like to walk there, if you please."
"No, no, it'll be getting dark; we must make haste. And the donkey'll carry you as nice as can be—you'll see."
He lifted Maggie as he spoke, and set her on the donkey.
"Here's your pretty bonnet," said the younger woman, putting it on Maggie's head. "And you'll say we've been very good to you, won't you, and what a nice little lady we said you was?"
"Oh yes, thank you," said Maggie; "I'm very much obliged to you. But I wish you'd go with me too."
"Ah, you're fondest o' me, aren't you?" said the woman. "But I can't go; you'll go too fast for me."
It now appeared that the man also was to be seated on the donkey, holding Maggie before him, and no nightmare had ever seemed to her more horrible. When the woman had patted her on the back, and said "good-bye," the donkey, at a strong hint from the man's stick, set off at a rapid walk along the lane towards the point Maggie had come from an hour ago.
Maggie was completely terrified at this ride on a short-paced donkey, with a gipsy behind her, who considered that he was earning half a crown. Two low thatched cottages—the only houses they passed in this lane—seemed to add to the dreariness. They had no windows to speak of, and the doors were closed. It was probable that they were inhabited by witches, and it was a relief to find that the donkey did not stop there.
At last—oh, sight of joy!—this lane, the longest in the world, was coming to an end, and was opening on a broad highroad, where there was actually a coach passing! And there was a finger-post at the corner. She had surely seen that finger-post before—"To St. Ogg's, 2 miles."
The gipsy really meant to take her home, then. He was probably a good man after all, and might have been rather hurt at the thought that she didn't like coming with him alone. This idea became stronger as she felt more and more certain that she knew the road quite well, when, as they reached a cross-road, Maggie caught sight of some one coming on a horse which seemed familiar to her.
"Oh, stop, stop!" she cried out. "There's my father!—O father, father!"
The sudden joy was almost painful, and before her father reached her she was sobbing. Great was Mr. Tulliver's wonder, for he had been paying a visit to a married sister, and had not yet been home.
"Why, what's the meaning o' this?" he said, checking his horse, while Maggie slipped from the donkey and ran to her father's stirrup.
"The little miss lost herself, I reckon," said the gipsy. "She'd come to our tent at the far end o' Dunlow Lane, and I was bringing her where she said her home was. It's a good way to come arter being on the tramp all day."
"Oh yes, father, he's been very good to bring me home," said Maggie—"a very kind, good man!"
"Here, then, my man," said Mr. Tulliver, taking out five shillings. "It's the best day's work you ever did. I couldn't afford to lose the little wench. Here, lift her up before me."
"Why, Maggie, how's this, how's this?" he said, as they rode along, while she laid her head against her father and sobbed. "How came you to be rambling about and lose yourself?"
"O father," sobbed Maggie, "I ran away because I was so unhappy—Tom was so angry with me. I couldn't bear it."
"Pooh, pooh!" said Mr. Tulliver soothingly; "you mustn't think o' running away from father. What 'ud father do without his little wench?"
"Oh no, I never will again, father—never."
Mr. Tulliver spoke his mind very strongly when he reached home that evening, and Maggie never heard one reproach from her mother, or one taunt from Tom, about running away to be queen of the gipsies.
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