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The Great North Road
by [?]


Nance Holdaway was on her knees before the fire blowing the green wood that voluminously smoked upon the dogs, and only now and then shot forth a smothered flame; her knees already ached and her eyes smarted, for she had been some while at this ungrateful task, but her mind was gone far away to meet the coming stranger. Now she met him in the wood, now at the castle gate, now in the kitchen by candle-light; each fresh presentment eclipsed the one before; a form so elegant, manners so sedate, a countenance so brave and comely, a voice so winning and resolute–sure such a man was never seen! The thick-coming fancies poured and brightened in her head like the smoke and flames upon the hearth.

Presently the heavy foot of her uncle Jonathan was heard upon the stair, and as he entered the room she bent the closer to her work. He glanced at the green fagots with a sneer, and looked askance at the bed and the white sheets, at the strip of carpet laid, like an island, on the great expanse of the stone floor, and at the broken glazing of the casement clumsily repaired with paper.

‘Leave that fire a-be,’ he cried. ‘What, have I toiled all my life to turn innkeeper at the hind end? Leave it a-be, I say.’

‘La, uncle, it doesn’t burn a bit; it only smokes,’ said Nance, looking up from her position.

‘You are come of decent people on both sides,’ returned the old man. ‘Who are you to blow the coals for any Robin-run-agate? Get up, get on your hood, make yourself useful, and be off to the “Green Dragon.”‘

‘I thought you was to go yourself,’ Nance faltered.

‘So did I,’ quoth Jonathan; ‘but it appears I was mistook.’

The very excess of her eagerness alarmed her, and she began to hang back. ‘I think I would rather not, dear uncle,’ she said. ‘Night is at hand, and I think, dear, I would rather not.’

‘Now you look here,’ replied Jonathan, ‘I have my lord’s orders, have I not? Little he gives me, but it’s all my livelihood. And do you fancy, if I disobey my lord, I’m likely to turn round for a lass like you? No, I’ve that hell-fire of pain in my old knee, I wouldn’t walk a mile, not for King George upon his bended knees.’ And he walked to the window and looked down the steep scarp to where the river foamed in the bottom of the dell.

Nance stayed for no more bidding. In her own room, by the glimmer of the twilight, she washed her hands and pulled on her Sunday mittens; adjusted her black hood, and tied a dozen times its cherry ribbons; and in less than ten minutes, with a fluttering heart and excellently bright eyes, she passed forth under the arch and over the bridge, into the thickening shadows of the groves. A well- marked wheel-track conducted her. The wood, which upon both sides of the river dell was a mere scrambling thicket of hazel, hawthorn, and holly, boasted on the level of more considerable timber. Beeches came to a good growth, with here and there an oak; and the track now passed under a high arcade of branches, and now ran under the open sky in glades. As the girl proceeded these glades became more frequent, the trees began again to decline in size, and the wood to degenerate into furzy coverts. Last of all there was a fringe of elders; and beyond that the track came forth upon an open, rolling moorland, dotted with wind-bowed and scanty bushes, and all golden brown with the winter, like a grouse. Right over against the girl the last red embers of the sunset burned under horizontal clouds; the night fell clear and still and frosty, and the track in low and marshy passages began to crackle under foot with ice.