The Lost Sheep
THE LOST SHEEP
By HAROLD BINDLOSS
IT was getting dark when Grey and his young wife sat by a casement window at Hallows, in the North. They called Hallows home, although it was long since they had been there, and they lived at Newcastle, where they must return in a few days, when the new shooting tenant took possession. As Grey looked up the rugged dale, all he saw was his, but his inheritance had brought him care since his uncle's death. The duties he had paid were heavy, and his rents were low; but he loved Hallows, and it was there he had met his wife, whom he had not married long.
"What are you thinking about, Ninian?" she asked presently.
Grey laughed as he indicated the rocky hills, outlined in delicate shades of blue against a saffron sky. "My thoughts are up there among the fells with the Herdwick sheep, and I suspect the walk we took this afternoon let loose my imagination. After all, I'm Grey of Hallows, though for a long time I did not think the estate would be mine; and now it will cost me to go back to town and sell pig iron."
"It will cost me something, too," said Mrs. Grey, with a sympathetic smile. "But you imagined, if things went well for a few years, we might live at Hallows altogether."
"That's my main object. I've run some business risks to carry it out, but in the meantime it's a vague, romantic dream. I see myself going about the dale like a modern Caliph Haroun al-Raschid, finding out how my people live, and putting wrongs to right, and you my Lady Bountiful, charming away the troubles I can't touch."
"I don't like your Grand Vizier," said Mrs. Grey thoughtfully.
"Craig's a hard man, but he served my uncle well, and manages the estate with stern economy. When we talked over matters yesterday, he gave me something to think about. Lang of Blackdyke's lease falls in next week, but the old man has a traditional right to a renewal—his father and grandfather had Blackdykes."
"You must let him stop."
"Craig thinks not. Lang is nearly crippled by rheumatism, and has let his sheep run down, while Craig has another tenant ready. Rather an example of nepotism, because the fellow's his nephew; but he has capital enough to improve the flocks, and Lang has not. The trouble is, I can't allow myself to be ruled by sentiment."
"Sentiment is a better guide than greed."
Grey mused, looking up the dale, though the crags were getting black and indistinct. He loved the hills, and hoped some day to live at Hallows, and care for his estate, but this meant hard work and stern economy. He had got the land, but money was short.
"After all, the Grand Vizier is not supreme," Mrs. Grey resumed. "Your tenants have the right of appeal to Cæsar."
"Your metaphor's mixed," Grey rejoined, with a laugh. "Unfortunately, Cæsar needs his tribute."
"I don't mind if it is mixed. Hallows makes me romantic. I'd like to be Lady Bountiful, and to see my husband copy the good caliph. Well, I suppose, if you want to put things right when you haven't much money, you run some risk; but you know the motto of our county town: 'Be just and fear not.'"
Grey pulled the blinds across the casement and poked the fire. "Let's talk about something else. When we were on the fells to-day, I remembered the summer night, ten years since, when I walked twenty miles from Swindale to see you for five minutes at the station."
Mrs. Grey blushed. "You were wet and muddy—you fell into a peat-hole on Roughten Moor—but you thought it worth while then."
"I'd think it better worth while now. In fact, as I must go to Swindale on Wednesday, I thought of walking back, to see if I could recapture something of my old sensations. In those days I was a raw sentimentalist, but perhaps I was a better man than I have been since."
"Ah," said Mrs. Grey, "when you're sentimental I like you best!"
While Grey sat by his fireside, his tenant Lang held a family council in the big slate-flagged kitchen at Blackdykes. The flockmaster was gaunt and bent, and his face was worn, because he was slowly recovering from rheumatic fever, and luck had gone against him for the last three years. His wife and daughter sat opposite, and Mrs. Lang looked about the room with wistful eyes. The old china in the rack had been her mother's, and she had brought the bright copper kettles and oak meal-chest to Blackdykes thirty years ago. Tom, her son, who died in Australia, had sent her the money to buy the sewing-machine. All she saw stirred some poignant memory, and now it looked as if her treasures must be sold. To leave Blackdykes would mean a tearing up of roots that had struck deep, but she knew her husband would feel it worse.
Young Forsyth, Lucy's unacknowledged lover, leaned against the table, and Jim, the shepherd, occupied the middle of the floor. He and Forsyth had been on the hills the last two days, counting the Herdwick sheep.
"Stock's terrible poor and low," said Jim. "Matter o' four hundred pound to mak' up, I reckon, but I'm none counting the two score that's wandert."
Lang accepted his opinion, for Jim was an expert, but the blow was heavier than he thought. The recent summers had been wet and bleak, and he had sold more sheep than was prudent, to pay his debts. In the fell country it is usual for a tenant to take the flocks with the land, and leave them equal in number and condition when his lease runs out. If not, he must pay the difference in value, and Lang could not do so.
"I'll stand for sixty pounds," said Forsyth awkwardly.
"It's mair than I thowt, but it willunt gan far," Lang replied, and added, while Lucy coloured: "You're a canny lad, but scientific farming runs away wi' money, and has browt thee nothing back."
Forsyth was silent, although the loan of sixty pounds would strain his finances. He had been to an agricultural college, and, starting with some capital, had boldly tried modern methods on his stock and land. The weather had been against him, and now his money was nearly gone. All the same, he knew the modern ways were best, and meant to hold on while he could.
"The wandert sheep will be at Swindale," Mrs. Lang remarked. "We must get them back and count them in."
"It might tak' a week, and Craig willunt give us time. There's snow on the tops noo, an' mair coming. Swindale sheep's thief sheep, not to hoad or bind, an' the moors yonner are aw unfenced."
"George will try," said Lucy, with a sparkle in her eyes.
"It willunt matter," Lang said gloomily. "Craig's for brekkin' lease, an' I'll have to gan. Wants Blackdykes for his nephew, who's as cunning as him." He paused, and asked with grim suspicion: "What browt stanes doon where the sheep got oot?"
Jim looked at Forsyth, whose face was rather stern. "Mayhappen the last storm, but I wouldn't say. Dyke's new and good."
"Mr. Grey's at Hallows. Suppose you had a word with him," Lucy suggested.
Lang shook his head. "I canna beg. Besides, he's unner his agent's thoom."
Lucy resolved to see Mrs. Grey, but she did not say so, and began to put supper on the table. It was not a cheerful meal, and when it was over she went to the porch with Forsyth.
"George," she said, "I know how hard a job it is, but you and Jim must bring the strayed sheep here for the count on Thursday morning. If there was no other reason, you must show father what you can do."
"I'll do my best," said Forsyth quietly, and, after kissing her, went off.
On Wednesday afternoon Grey left Swindale, where he had been kept longer than he expected. It was twenty miles to Hallows, and the last half of the way was rough; but there would be a moon, and he belonged to the Alpine Club. For a mile or two he followed the road, and then struck off across the moors, that rolled back to the rocky heights in the distance. The sun shone, but a bitter wind whipped his face, and leaden clouds rolled up behind the hills. Snow was coming, but he ought to get over Roughten-hause before the storm began, and after that the path was smooth and plain.
The snow on the heath got deeper as he went up, and he lost time pushing through the drifts. He thought of turning back, but it was a long journey round the hills by road, and he doubted if he could get a car, and, although he was hot and rather breathless, he went on. One got soft after sitting in an office, but for this a scramble across the fells against the stinging wind was the best cure.
By and by the sky got overcast, and he noted that the sheep were coming down to the low country. For the most part, they were Herdwicks, small, hardy animals, whose ancestors the Vikings had brought across; but they obviously knew what was coming. Grey tried to force the pace, but was not much comforted when he glanced at his watch. He had been slower than he calculated, and it was nearly dark. The moon was covered, and, although he had reached the summit of the moor, he must find his way across the rugged fells that rose, black and forbidding, against the deepening gloom.
Two hours later, as he stumbled among large, sharp stones in a gap between the hills, snow began to fall. This was awkward, because there was no path, and not far ahead two valleys branched off. It would be hard to distinguish between them in thick snow. He wore heavy boots and leggings, and now put on a leather jacket he had carried in a strap. Although he was breathing hard, he no longer felt hot, and when he left the defile, the bitter wind pierced him like a knife.
For all that, he stopped and tried to look about. From the dip of the ground it was obvious that he was on the edge of a large hollow; but he had come down the slope, so to speak, blind, and did not know where he would find shelter if he took the wrong turn. The flakes drove past in slanting lines, and he could not see six yards in front. He went straight down at a venture, plunging through deep drifts and tripping among stones, and knew he was at the bottom when he fell into a beck. This, however, was not much guide, because every hollow has its stream.
Still, he was in a valley, and could not leave it without knowing that he did so. He must follow the beck, and then, if he found he was on the right track, turn off up the sharp rise to Roughten-hause, three or four miles further on. It was impossible to stop for a rest, because no clothes will keep one warm when a north-easter hurls the snow across the high fells, and Grey got anxious as he followed the beck. Coming down Roughten-hause would be an awkward job, and, if he had gone the wrong way, he might freeze before he could reach a house. The snow beat upon his smarting face and clogged his eyelashes; the wind made breathing difficult.
After a time he started, for a new note pierced the roar the gale made among the rocks. He thought it was a whistle, and next moment heard a dog bark. Running forward, he found a man calling to an invisible dog.
"Is the hause in front?" Grey asked.
"Mayhappen about a mile," said the other.
"Are you going across?"
"Weel," said the man cautiously, "we're gan t' try."
Then another man came out of the driving snow, and stated that they were taking some Herdwicks to Blackdykes—that was, he added, if they could find the hause. Grey went on with them, and, although he could not see the sheep, now and then heard a dog bark. He thought there were two dogs, one guarding each hillside, while the Herdwicks went slowly down the valley.
"It boddered us to get ewes off Swindale moors," the shepherd said. "Lang bought them there, and they wandert back. Noo they're not travelling varra weel. It's t' lambs is leading them; they're hungry for Blackdykes heaf."
Grey understood. The "heaf" is the hillside where a lamb is born, and the Herdwick's homing instinct is as strong as the carrier pigeon's. For all that, much would depend on the dogs when they came to the crags about Roughten-hause. There was a sheepfold at the bottom of the rise, with a ruined mine-building close by; and when the men stopped and shouted, dogs barked on the hill, and Grey heard the patter of little feet in the snow. The Herdwicks came down in a white mass, and when they were folded, the men sought the shelter of the old shaft-house. Some bracken was stacked in a corner, rotten beams lay about, and when the shepherd lighted a fire, his companion brought out some bread and meat.
"Help yourself, if you've a mind," he said to Grey. "We got dinner early, and need a snack and rest before we climb the hause."
"The drifts will be deep," said Grey. "At a pinch, we could stop the night."
The other shook his head. "The sheep must be at Blackdykes by daybreak to make up Lang's lease tally."
"Ah!" said Grey, who saw they did not know him. "But if they're Blackdykes sheep, how did they get to Swindale?"
"It's not very plain. The ewes came from Swindale, and there was a gap in the fell wall."
"You mean the wall fell down?"
"No," broke in the shepherd, "stanes didn't fall."
Grey pondered, because he thought the other gave the shepherd a warning glance, and he remembered his wife's remark about Haroun al-Raschid. It looked as if he had an opportunity of playing the good caliph's part.
"Lang's a tenant of Hallows, I think," he said.
"So am I," said the younger man. "I'm Lang's neighbour."
Grey knew him now, and had heard that Forsyth would like to be Lang's son-in-law.
"Try my sandwiches," he said, taking out a packet and a pocket-flask. "Lang's rather in low water, isn't he?"
Forsyth nodded. "The last wet years have hit us all. A dry lambing season and fine summer would put us on our feet. But do you know Lang?"
"I've seen him—I used to visit Hallows when I was young. That was in Heron Grey's time. I remember he liked to be thought a good landlord."
"We're under his nephew now. He's said to mean well, but his agent is hard."
"Landlords as live somewheres else want nothing but their rent," the shepherd remarked, after draining the flask. "They willunt be boddered. If the farmer gets behind, oot he gans."
"I expect they have their troubles now and then," said Grey. "But if Lang knew the sheep were at Swindale, the agent would surely let him count them in?"
"You'll not ken owd Craig," the shepherd rejoined, and threw out dark hints about the broken wall.
Grey lighted his pipe and pondered while he smoked. He imagined he saw how things had gone, and the answers to his tactful questions gave him food for thought. Forsyth used some reserve, and the shepherd's remarks were not very plain, but one could see where their suspicions led. After a time Forsyth got up and looked out.
"You can't see a yard, and there's nothing to stop us going over the Force-crag if we miss the track," he said. "Though the drifts are getting deeper, we'll have to wait."
Grey pulled some bracken over him and, leaning back against the wall, shut his eyes. He was too cold to sleep, and listened dully to his companions' broken talk, from which he gathered something about Lang's troubles and Craig's intrigues. At length they were silent, and for some hours he shivered in the bitter draughts, while the storm raged about the ruined walls. Then the shepherd got on his feet and looked out.
"Sky's brekkin' a bit," he said. "We mun gan on noo."
They had trouble to get the sheep to leave the fold, and Grey's teeth chattered as he helped. When the flock straggled out and, herded by the dogs, began the steep ascent, he felt too numbed to follow, but by degrees a little warmth came back as he struggled through the drifts. The snow had got thinner, and, although be could hardly see where he went, the barking dogs and a blurred row of sheep moved on in front.
When they reached the hause, an elusive glimmer of moonlight touched the vague, dark rocks and the edge of a great black gulf. The wind, eddying among the crags, buffeted them savagely, but its scream was broken by the roar of the force, and Grey knew where he was when the dim light suddenly faded. One must keep to the left-hand, and avoid the spot where the noisy beck plunged over the Force-crag. He hoped the dogs and the Herdwicks knew the way, for the snow was getting thick again.
They went down into a fog of tossing flakes, dropping from stone to stone, and sliding down steep white slopes. Sometimes Grey's companions shouted and the dogs barked, but, for the most part, he could not see the men or sheep. By and by he felt lost for a minute or two, and then a dim white figure came up and pulled him back. Grey did not know who it was, but, looking down, saw the slope he had followed break off. He knew he had unconsciously ventured upon a cornice overhanging the gulf.
After this he tried to be cautious, but presently lost his foothold and rolled down an awkward pitch. He stopped with a jolt that shook him, but saw that he was getting down among the rocks, and felt the wind less violent. He got his breath easier, and could see a few yards, but it was a keen relief when he found level ground under his feet. Somehow they had come down the hause, and now a safe but narrow path ran along the hillside. For all that, dawn had broken some time before they came down the ghyll by Blackdykes Farm, and Grey was not surprised to note a row of empty traps standing outside a barn. The dalesfolk get up early, and there was, no doubt, much to be done at Blackdykes that morning.
Men and dogs were busy among a mass of bleating sheep, and one shouted to Forsyth as the Herdwicks crossed the swollen beck with a confused splashing and a click of little, feet on stone. A man drove the sheep into a snowy field, and Grey and Forsyth went on to the house and entered the kitchen.
A peat fire burned in the hollow hearth; the table was covered with cups and dirty plates. Mrs. Lang and Lucy bustled about, but Lang sat in a big chair, with a stick near his hand. He started as the men came in, and a lady sitting at the far end of the table got up with a cry.
"Ninian! I thought you were lost, and drove over to get help. But Mr. Lang declared you would turn back before the snow came. He said nobody but a shepherd could cross the fells last night."
Grey laughed. "It was an awkward job, but I belong to the Alpine Club. For all that, I don't know I'd have got across but for the Herdwicks."
Forsyth gave him a puzzled glance, while the shepherd, who had followed them, grinned. But Lucy asked: "Have you got the sheep, George?"
"Aw t' lot's in beck field," said shepherd Jim.
Lucy lifted her head proudly and her eyes sparkled. "I told father you would bring them, though there's none but you in all the dale could have found them on the snowy moors and driven them across the hause." Then she turned to Lang. "You'll not talk lightly of my lad and his new ways again."
Lang smiled, and, beckoning Forsyth, gave him his gnarled hand. "It seems I'll none have cause. The old ways for the old men, but mayhappen the young and new are better."
"I had help," said Forsyth, looking at Grey with some embarrassment, and Mrs. Grey interposed—
"But what have you been doing, Ninian?"
"I was driving my tenant's sheep," Grey answered, with a smile. "Anyhow, they were in front, and I was remarkably glad to be behind. When you're dealing with Herdwicks, there's some truth in the nursery rhyme: 'Leave them alone, and they'll come home.'"
"Ours weren't left alone," Lucy objected; "George went to find them."
Then the shepherd turned to Grey and chuckled. "I've seen landlords riding in motor-cars, and sometimes drinking whisky behind t' groase-butts when they had a pony to tak' them up, but niver before did I see yan follying sheep doon Roughten-hause. Weel, ye ken mair aboot Herdwicks noo than ye did."
In the meantime Mrs. Lang had brought out fresh dishes, and in a few minutes Grey and his companions sat down to an abundant meal. When it was over, Mrs. Grey asked softly: "What are you going to do about the lease, Ninian?"
"I'll try to be just," Grey answered, with a meaning smile.
"Ah," said Mrs. Grey, "I knew you would not be afraid."
Grey gave the others his tobacco-pouch, and they began to smoke, for there was time to be occupied. Lang had exercised his traditional right to have his flocks judged by a jury of his peers, and it was an hour later when the men outside returned. Craig, the agent, hid a frown when he saw his employer.
"We have counted and valued the stock," he said; and when he read some figures from his pocket-book, the farmers who had followed him in agreed.
"That's counting the two score fra Swindale?" Lang asked.
"They are counted," the agent replied, and turned to Grey. "You have heard the shortage. Perhaps we had now better talk over the matter privately with Mr. Lang."
"You needn't," said the flockmaster. "I canna pay."
For a moment all were silent, but Mrs. Grey watched her husband with a satisfied smile when he got up.
"The matter's simple, and there's not much to be said. Mr. Lang will pay when he's able. The lease stands."
Craig coloured with angry disappointment. "Aren't you rash, Mr. Grey? The estate will suffer, and you're, so to speak, forming an awkward precedent."
"That's my affair," Grey said dryly. "There's more about this business than is obvious on the surface, and I may make some inquiries. In the meantime give me the documents you brought and your fountain pen."
He wrote across the deed of lease, and then, getting up, smiled as he gave the paper to Mrs. Lang.