It was all that they knew of life, and that all was very pleasant to them. In spring, they hunted for birds'-nests in the copses, and among the rocks and gray stones that had fallen from them. In the copses built the blackbirds and thrushes; in the rocks the firetails; and the gray wagtails in the stones, which were so exactly of their own color, as to make it difficult to see them.
In summer, they gathered flowers and berries, and in the winter they played at horses, kings, and shops, and sundry other things in the house. On one of these occasions, a bright afternoon in autumn, the three children had rambled down the glen, and found a world of amusement in being teams of horses, in making a little mine at the foot of a tall cliff; and in marching for soldiers, for they had one day—the only time in their lives—seen some soldiers go through the village of Ashford, when they had gone there with their mother, for she now and then took them with her when she had something from the shop to carry besides her bundle of hose.
At length they came to the foot of an open hill, which swelled to a considerable height, with a round and climbable side, on which grew a wilderness of bushes, amid which lay scattered masses of gray crag. A small winding path went up this, and they followed it.
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It was not long, however, before they saw some things which excited their eager attention. Little David, who was the guide, and assumed to himself much importance as the protector of his sisters, exclaimed, "See here! His sisters, on seeing this, rushed on with like eagerness. They soon forsook the little winding and craggy footpath, and hurried through sinking masses of moss and dry grass, from bush to bush, and place to place.
They were soon far up above the valley, and almost every step revealed to them some delightful prize. The clusters of the mountain-bramble, resembling mulberries, and known only to the inhabitants of the hills, were abundant, and were rapidly devoured. The dewberry was as eagerly gathered—its large, purple fruit passing with them for blackberries.
In their hands were soon seen posies of the lovely grass of Parnassus, the mountain cistus, and the bright blue geranium. Higher and higher the little group ascended in this quest, till the sight of the wide, naked hills, and the hawks circling round the lofty, tower-like crags over their heads, made them feel serious and somewhat afraid. And with this he assumed a bold and defying aspect, and said, "Come along; there are nests in th' hazzles up yonder. He began to mount again, but the two girls hung back and said, "Nay, David, dunna go higher; we are both afreed;" and Jane added, "It's a long wee from hom, I'm sure.
They were the hawks that she meant, which hovered whimpering and screaming about the highest cliffs. David called them little cowards, but began to descend, and, presently, seeking for berries and flowers as they descended, they regained the little winding, craggy road, and, while they were calling to each other, discovered a remarkable echo on the opposite hill side. On this, they shouted to it, and laughed, and were half frightened when it laughed and shouted again.
Little Nancy said it must be an old man in the inside of the mountain; at which they were all really afraid, though David put on a big look, and said, "Nonsense! But at this David gave a wild whoop to frighten them, and when the hill whooped again, and the sisters began to run, he burst into laughter, and the strange spectral Ha! But now David seized them, and pulling their hands down from their heads, he said, "See here!
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Why, it's like a little house; let us stay and play a bit here. The sisters were still afraid, but the sight of this little hollow with its seats of crag had such a charm for them that they promised David they would stop awhile, if he would promise not to shout and awake the echo. David readily promised this, and so they sat down.
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David proposed to keep a school, and cut a hazel wand from a bush, and began to lord it over his two scholars in a very pompous manner. The two sisters pretended to be much afraid, and to read very diligently on pieces of flat stone which they had picked up. And then David became a sergeant, and was drilling them for soldiers, and stuck pieces of fern into their hair for cockades. And then, soon after, they were sheep, and he was the shepherd; and he was catching his flock and going to shear them, and made so much noise that Jane cried, "Hold!
At this they all were still. But David said, "Pho! There's [Pg ] going to be a dreadful starm. Let us hurry hom! David and Nancy both looked up, and agreed to run as fast down the hill as they could. But the next moment the driving storm swept over the hill, and the whole valley was hid in it. The three children still hurried on, but it became quite dark, and they soon lost the track, and were tossed about by the wind, so that they had difficulty to keep on their legs. Little Nancy began to cry, and the three taking hold of each other, endeavored in silence to make their way homeward.
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But presently they all stumbled over a large stone, and fell some distance down the hill. They were not hurt, but much frightened, for they now remembered the precipices, and were afraid every minute of going over them. They now strove to find the track by going up again, but they could not find it any where.
Sometimes they went upward till they thought they were quite too far, and then they went downward till they were completely bewildered; and then, like the Babes in the Wood, "They sate them down and cried. But ere they had sate long, they heard footsteps, and listened. They certainly heard them and shouted, but there was no answer. David shouted, "Help! The wind swept fiercely by; the hawks whimpered from the high crags, lost in the darkness of the storm; and the rain fell, driving along icy cold. Presently there was a gleam of light through the clouds; the hill side became visible, and through the haze they saw a tall figure as of an old man ascending the hill.
He appeared to carry two loads slung from his shoulders by a strap; a box hanging before, and a bag hanging at his back. He wound up the hill slowly and wearily, and presently he stopped, and relieving himself of his load, seated himself on a piece of crag to rest. Again David shouted, but there still was no answer. The old man sate as if no shout had been heard—immovable. But the old man made no sign of recognition.
He did not even turn his head, but he took off his hat and began to wipe his brow as if warm with the ascent. I'll run and see. It's perhaps the old man out of the mountain that's been mocking us. Perhaps," added Jane, "he only comes out in starms and darkness. I'll see who it is;" and away he darted, spite of the poor girls' crying in terror, "Don't; don't, David; oh, don't! But David was gone. He was not long in reaching the old man, who sate on his stone breathing hard, as if out of breath with his ascent, but not appearing to perceive David's approach.
The rain and the wind drove fiercely upon him, but he did not seem to mind it. David was half afraid to approach close to him, but he called out, "Help! In an instant David was at his side; seized his coat to make him aware of his presence, and, on the old man perceiving him, shouted in his ear, "Which is the way down here, Mester Turton? Where's the track? Weighs o' the back?
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Why, what art ta doing here, my lad, in such a starm? Isn't it David Dunster's lad? David nodded. What dun they do letting thee be upon th' hills in such a dee as this? David nodded his thanks, and turned to descend the track, while the old man, adjusting his burden again, silently and wearily recommenced his way upward. David shouted to his sisters as he descended, and they quickly replied.
He called to them to come toward him, as he was on the track, and was afraid to quit it again. They endeavored to do this; but the darkness was now redoubled, and the wind and rain became more furious than ever. The two sisters were soon bewildered among the bushes; and David, who kept calling to them at intervals to direct their course toward him, soon heard them crying bitterly.
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At this, he forgot the necessity of keeping the track, and darting toward them, soon found them, by continuing to call to them, and took their hands to lead them to the track. But they were now drenched through with the rain, and shivered with cold and fear.
David, with a stout heart, endeavored to cheer them. He told them the track was close by, and that they would soon be at home. But though the track was not ten yards off, somehow they did not find it. Bushes and projecting rocks turned them out of their course; and, owing to the confusion caused by the wind, the darkness, and their terror, they searched in vain for the track.
Sometimes they thought they had found it, and went on a few paces, only to stumble over loose stones, or get entangled in the bushes.
It was now absolutely becoming night. Their terrors increased greatly. They shouted and cried aloud, in the hope of making their parents hear them. They felt sure that both father and [Pg ] mother must be come home; and as sure that they would be hunting for them. But they did not reflect that their parents could not tell in what direction they had gone.
Both father and mother were come home, and the mother had instantly rushed out to try to find them, on perceiving that they were not in the house. She had hurried to and fro, and called—not at first supposing they would be far. But when she heard nothing of them, she ran in, and begged of her husband to join in the search. But at first David Dunster would do nothing.
He was angry at them for going away from the house, and said he was too tired to go on a wild-goose chase through the plantations after them. Let them alone, and they'l come home, with a good long tail behind them. With this piece of a child's song of sheep, David sat down to his supper, and Betty Dunster hurried up the valley, shouting, "Children, where are you?
When she heard nothing of them, she hurried still more wildly up the hill toward the village. When she arrived there—the distance of a mile —she inquired from house to house, but no one had seen any thing of them.