Near to this place I caught the scoundrels who I judged did steal him from me, and I made them confess; they said he was at large again, and they had tracked him to your door. They showed me his very footprints. Now palter no more; for look you, holy sir, an' thou produce him not--Where is the boy?"
"O good sir, peradventure you mean the ragged regal vagrant that tarried here the night. If such as you take an interest in such as he, know, then, that I have sent him of an errand. He will be back anon."
"How soon? How soon? Come, waste not the time--cannot I overtake him? How soon will he be back?"
"Thou need'st not stir; he will return quickly."
"So be it, then. I will try to wait. But stop!--YOU sent him of an errand?--you! Verily this is a lie--he would not go. He would pull thy old beard, an' thou didst offer him such an insolence. Thou hast lied, friend; thou hast surely lied! He would not go for thee, nor for any man."
"For any MAN--no; haply not. But I am not a man."
"WHAT! Now o' God's name what art thou, then?"
"It is a secret--mark thou reveal it not. I am an archangel!"
There was a tremendous ejaculation from Miles Hendon--not altogether unprofane--followed by--
"This doth well and truly account for his complaisance! Right well I knew he would budge nor hand nor foot in the menial service of any mortal; but, lord, even a king must obey when an archangel gives the word o' command! Let me--'sh! What noise was that?"
All this while the little King had been yonder, alternately quaking with terror and trembling with hope; and all the while, too, he had thrown all the strength he could into his anguished moanings, constantly expecting them to reach Hendon's ear, but always realising, with bitterness, that they failed, or at least made no impression. So this last remark of his servant came as comes a reviving breath from fresh fields to the dying; and he exerted himself once more, and with all his energy, just as the hermit was saying--
"Noise? I heard only the wind."
"Mayhap it was. Yes, doubtless that was it. I have been hearing it faintly all the--there it is again! It is not the wind! What an odd sound! Come, we will hunt it out!"
Now the King's joy was nearly insupportable. His tired lungs did their utmost--and hopefully, too--but the sealed jaws and the muffling sheepskin sadly crippled the effort. Then the poor fellow's heart sank, to hear the hermit say--
"Ah, it came from without--I think from the copse yonder. Come, I will lead the way."
The King heard the two pass out, talking; heard their footsteps die quickly away--then he was alone with a boding, brooding, awful silence.
It seemed an age till he heard the steps and voices approaching again--and this time he heard an added sound,--the trampling of hoofs, apparently. Then he heard Hendon say--
"I will not wait longer. I CANNOT wait longer. He has lost his way in this thick wood. Which direction took he? Quick--point it out to me."
"He--but wait; I will go with thee."
"Good--good! Why, truly thou art better than thy looks. Marry I do not think there's not another archangel with so right a heart as thine. Wilt ride? Wilt take the wee donkey that's for my boy, or wilt thou fork thy holy legs over this ill-conditioned slave of a mule that I have provided for myself?--and had been cheated in too, had he cost but the indifferent sum of a month's usury on a brass farthing let to a tinker out of work."
"No--ride thy mule, and lead thine ass; I am surer on mine own feet, and will walk."
"Then prithee mind the little beast for me while I take my life in my hands and make what success I may toward mounting the big one."
Then followed a confusion of kicks, cuffs, tramplings and plungings, accompanied by a thunderous intermingling of volleyed curses, and finally a bitter apostrophe to the mule, which must have broken its spirit, for hostilities seemed to cease from that moment.
With unutterable misery the fettered little King heard the voices and footsteps fade away and die out.