Read CHAPTER VI.  LEFT TO THEMSELVES of Under the Storm Steadfast Charge, free online book, by Charlotte M. Yonge, on ReadCentral.com.

     “One look he cast upon the bier,
      Dashed from his eye the gathering tear,
      Then, like the high bred colt when freed
      First he essays his fire and speed,
      He vanished –­”
                                Scott.

Steadfast was worn and wearied out with grief and slept heavily, knowing at first that his brother was tossing about a good deal, but soon losing all perception, and not waking till on that summer morning the sun had made some progress in the sky.

Then he came to the sad recollection of the last dreadful day, and knew that he was lying on Master Blane’s kitchen floor.  He picked himself up, and at the same moment heard Jephthah calling him from the outside.

“Stead,” he said, “I am going!”

“Going!” said poor Stead, half asleep.

“Yes.  I shall never rest till I have had a shot at those barbarous German princes and the rest of the villains.  My father’s blood cries to me from the ground for vengeance.”

“Would father have said like that?” said the boy, bewildered, but conscious of something defective, though these were Bible words.

“That’s not the point!  Captain Venn called every man to take the sword and hew down the wicked, and slay the ungodly and the murderers.  I will!” cried Jeph, “none shall withhold me.”

He had caught more phrases from these fiery preachers than he himself knew, and they broke forth in this time of excitement.

“But, Jeph, what is to become of us?  The girls, and the little one!  You are the only one of us who can do a man’s work.”

“I could not keep you together!” said Jeph.  “Our house burnt by those accursed sons of Belial, all broken up, and only a lubber like you to help!  No, Goody Grace or some one will take in the girls for what’s left of the stock, and you can soon find a place ­a strong fellow like you; Master Blane might take you and make a smith of you, if you be not too slow and clumsy.”

“But Jeph ­”

“Withhold me not.  Is it not written ­”

“I wish you would not say is it not written,” broke in Stead, “I know it is, but you don’t say it right.”

“Because you are yet in darkness,” said Jeph, contemptuously.  “Hold your tongue.  I must be off at once.  Market folk can get into the town by the low lane out there, away from the camp of the spoilers, early in the morning, and I must hasten to enlist under Captain Venn.  No, don’t call the wenches, they would but strive to daunt my spirit in the holy work of vengeance on the bloodthirsty, and I can’t abide tears and whining.  See here, I found this in the corn bin.  I’m poor father’s heir.  You won’t want money, and I shall; so I shall take it, but I’ll come back and make all your fortunes when I am a captain or a colonel.  I wonder this is not more.  We got a heap of late.  Maybe father hid it somewhere else, but ’tis no use seeking now.  If you light upon it you are welcome to do what you will with it.  Fare thee well, Steadfast.  Do the best you can for the wenches, but a call is laid on me!  I have vowed to avenge the blood that was shed.”

He strode off into the steep woodland path that clothed the hill side, and Steadfast looked after him, and felt more utterly deserted than before.  Then he looked up to the sky, and tried to remember what was the promise to the fatherless children.  That made him wonder whether the Bible and Prayer-book had been burnt, and then his morning’s duty of providing milk for the little ones’ breakfast pressed upon him.  He took up a pail of Mrs. Blane’s which he thought he might borrow and went off in search of the cows.  So, murmuring the Lord’s Prayer as he walked, and making the resolution not to be dragged away from his trust in the cavern, nor to forsake his little sister ­he heard the lowing of the cows as he went over the hill, and found them standing at the gate of the fold yard, waiting to be eased of their milk.  Poor creatures, they seemed so glad to welcome him that it was the first thing that brought tears to his eyes, and they came with such a rush that he had much ado to keep them from dropping into the pail as he leant his head against Croppie’s ruddy side.

There was a little smouldering smoke; but the rain had checked the fire, and though the roof of the house was gone and it looked frightfully dreary and wretched, the walls were still standing and the pigs were grunting about the place.  However, Steadfast did not stop to see what was left within, as he knew Ben would be crying for food, but he carried his foaming pail back to Goody Grace’s as fast as he could, after turning out the cows on the common, not even stopping to count the sheep that were straggling about.

His sisters were watching anxiously from the door of Goody Grace’s hovel, and eagerly cried out “Where’s Jeph?”

Then he had to tell them that Jeph was gone for a soldier, to have his revenge for his father’s death.

“Jeph gone too!” said poor Patience, looking pale.  “Oh, what shall we ever do?”

“He did not think of that, I’ll warrant, the selfish fellow,” said Goody Grace.  “That’s the way with lads, nought but themselves.”

“It was because of what they did to poor father,” replied Stead.

“And if he, or the folks he is gone to, call that the Christian religion, ’tis more than I do!” rejoined the old woman.  “I wish I had met him, I’d have given him a bit of my mind about going off to his revenge, as he calls it, without ever a thought what was to become of his own flesh and blood here.”

“He did say I might go to service (not that I shall), and that some one would take you in for the cattle’s sake.”

“O don’t do that, Stead,” cried Patience, “don’t let us part!” He had only just time to answer, “No such thing,” for people were coming about them by this time, one after another emerging from the cottages that stood around the village green.  The women were all hotly angry with Jeph for going off and leaving his young brothers and sisters to shift for themselves.

“He was ever an idle fellow,” said one, “always running after the soldiers and only wanting an excuse.”

“Best thing he could do for himself or them,” growled old Green.

“Eh!  What, Gaffer Green!  To go off without a word or saying by your leave to his poor little sister before his good father be cold in his grave,” exclaimed a whole clamour of voices.

“Belike he knew what a clack of women’s tongues there would be, and would fain be out of it,” replied the old man shrewdly.

It was a clamour that oppressed poor Patience and made her feel sick with sorrow and noise.  Everybody meant to be very kind and pitiful, but there was a great deal too much of it, and they felt quite bewildered by the offers made them.  Farmer Mill’s wife, of Elmwood Cross, two miles off, was reported by her sister to want a stout girl to help her, but there was no chance of her taking Rusha or the baby as well as Patience.  Goody Grace could not undertake the care of Ben unless she could have Patience, because she was so often called away from home, nor could she support them without the cows.  Smith Blane might have taken Stead, but his wife would not hear of being troubled with Rusha.  And Dame Oates might endure Rusha for the sake of a useful girl like Patience, but certainly not the baby.  It was an utter Babel and confusion, and in the midst of it all, Patience crept up to her brother who stood all the time like a stock, and said “Oh!  Stead, I cannot give up Ben to anyone.  Cannot we all keep together?”

“Hush, Patty!  That’s what I mean to do, if you will stand by me,” he whispered, “wait till all the clack is over.”

And there he waited with Patience by his side while the parish seemed to be endlessly striving over them.  If one woman seemed about to make a proposal, half-a-dozen more fell on her and vowed that the poor orphans would be starved and overworked; till she turned on the foremost with “And hadn’t your poor prentice lad to go before the justices to shew the weals on his back?” “Aye, Joan Stubbs, and what are you speaking up for but to get the poor children’s sheep?  Hey, you now, Stead Kenton ­Lack-a-day, where be they?”

For while the dispute was at its loudest and hottest, Stead had taken Rusha by the hand, made a sign to Patience, and the four deserted children had quietly gone away together into the copsewood that led to the little glen where the brook ran, and where was the cave that Steadfast looked on as his special charge.  Rusha, frightened by the loud voices and angry gestures, had begun to cry, and beg she might not be given to anyone, but stay with her Patty and Stead.

“And so you shall, my pretty,” said Steadfast, sitting down on the stump of a tree, and taking her on his knee, while Toby nuzzled up to them.

“Then you think we can go on keeping ourselves, and not letting them part us,” said Patience, earnestly.  “If I have done the house work all this time, and we have the fields, and all the beasts.  We have only lost the house, and I could never bear to live there again,” she added, with a shudder.

“No,” said Steadfast, “it is too near the road while these savage fellows are about.  Besides ­” and there he checked himself and added, “I’ll tell you, Patty.  Do you remember the old stone cot down there in the wood?”

“Where the old hermit lived in the blind Popish times?”

“Aye.  We’ll live there.  No soldiers will ever find us out there, Patty.”

“Oh! oh! that is good,” said Patience.  “We shall like that, shan’t we, Rusha?”

“And,” added Steadfast, “there is an old cowshed against the rock down there, where we could harbour the beasts, for ’tis them that the soldiers are most after.”

“Let us go down to it at once,” cried the girl, joyfully.

But Steadfast thought it would be wiser to go first to the ruins of their home; before, as he said, anyone else did so, to see what could be saved therefrom.

Patience shrank from the spectacle, and Rusha hung upon her, saying the soldiers would be there, and beginning to cry.  At that moment, however, Tom Gates’ voice came near shouting for “Stead!  Stead Kenton!”

“Come on, Stead.  You’ll be prentice-lad to Dick Stiggins the tailor, if so be you bring Whitefoot and the geese for your fee; and Goodman Bold will have the big wench; and Goody Grace will make shift with the little ones, provided she has the kine!”

“We don’t mean to be beholden to none of them,” said Steadfast, sturdily, with his hands in his pockets.  “We mean to keep what belongs to us, and work for ourselves.”

“And God will help us,” Patience added softly.

“Ho, ho!” cried Tom, and proud of having found them, he ran before them back to the village green, and roared out, “Here they be!  And they say as how they don’t want none of you, but will keep themselves.  Ha! ha!”

Anyone who saw those four young orphans would not have thought their trying to keep themselves a laughing matter; and the village folk, who had been just before so unwilling to undertake them, now began scolding and blaming them for their folly and ingratitude.

Nothing indeed makes people so angry as when a kindness which has cost them a great effort turns out not to be wanted.

“Look for nothing from us,” cried Dame Bold.  “I’d have made a good housewife of you, you ungrateful hussy, and now you may thank yourself, if you come to begging, I shall have nothing for you.”

“Beggary and rags,” repeated the tailor.  “Aye, aye; ’tis all very fine strolling about after the sheep with your hands in your pockets in summer weather, but you’ll sing another song in winter time, and be sorry you did not know when you had a good offer.”

“The babe will die as sure as ’tis born,” added Jean Oates.

“If they be not all slain by the mad Prince’s troopers up in that place by the roadside,” said another.

Blacksmith Blane and Goody Grace were in the meantime asking the children what they meant to do, and Stead told them in a few words.  Goody Grace shook her head over little Ben, but Blane declared that after all it might be the best thing they could do to keep their land and beasts together.  Ten to one that foolish lad Jephthah would come back with his tail between his legs, and though it would serve him right, what would they do if all were broken up?  Then he slapped Stead on the back, called him a sensible, steady lad, and promised always to be his friend.

Moreover he gave up his morning’s work to come with the children to their homestead, and see what could be saved.  It was a real kindness, not only because his protection made Patience much less afraid to go near the place, and his strong arm would be a great help to them, but because he was parish constable and had authority to drive away the rough lads whom they found already hanging about the ruins, and who had frightened Patience’s poor cat up into the ash tree.

The boys and two curs were dancing round the tree, and one boy was stripping off his smock to climb up and throw poor pussy down among them when Master Blane’s angry shout and flourished staff put them all to flight, and Patience and Rusha began to coax the cat to come down to them.

Hunting her had had one good effect, it had occupied the boys and prevented them from carrying anything off.  The stable was safe.  What had been burnt was the hay rick, whence the flames had climbed to the house.  The roof had fallen in, and the walls and chimney stood up blackened and dismal, but there was a good deal of stone about the house, the roof was of shingle, and the heavy fall, together with the pouring rain, had done much to choke the fire, so that when Blane began to throw aside the charred bits of beams and of the upper floor, more proved to be unburnt, or at least only singed, than could have been expected.

The great black iron pot still hung in the chimney with the very meal and kail broth that Patience had been boiling in it, and Rusha’s little stool stood by the hearth.  Then the great chest, or ark as Patience called it, where all the Sunday clothes were kept, had been crushed in and the upper things singed, but all below was safe.  The beds and bedding were gone; but then the best bed had been only a box in the wall with an open side, and the others only chaff or straw stuffed into a sack.

Patience’s crocks, trenchers, and cups were gone too, all except one horn mug; but two knives and some spoons were extracted from the ashes.  Furniture was much more scanty everywhere than now.  There was not much to lose, and of that they had lost less than they had feared.

“And see here, Stead,” said Patience joyfully holding up a lesser box kept within the other.

It contained her mother’s Bible and Prayer-book.  The covers were turned up, a little warped by the heat, and some of the corners of the leaves were browned, but otherwise they were unhurt.

“I was in hopes ’twas the money box,” said Blane.

“Jeph has got the bag,” said Patience.

“More shame for him,” growled their friend.  Steadfast did not think it necessary to say that was not all the hoard.

Another thing about which Patience was very anxious was the meal chest.  With much difficulty they reached it.  It had been broken in by the fall of the roof, and some of the contents were scattered, but enough was gathered up in a pail fetched from the stable to last for some little time.  There were some eggs likewise in the nests, and altogether Goodman Blane allowed that, if the young Kentons could take care of themselves, and keep things together, they had decided for the best; if they could, that was to say.  And he helped them to carry their heavier things to the glen.  He wanted to see if it were fit for their habitation, but Steadfast was almost sorry to show anyone the way, in spite of his trust and gratitude to the blacksmith.

However, of course, it was not possible to keep this strange hiding-place a secret, so he led the way by the path the cattle had trodden out through the brushwood to the open space where they drank, and where stood the hermit’s hut, a dreary looking den built of big stones, and with rough slates covering it.  There was a kind of hole for the doorway, and another for the smoke to get out at.  Blane whistled with dismay at the sight of it, and told Stead he could not take the children to such a place.

“We will get it better,” said Stead.

“That we will,” returned Patience, who felt anything better than being separated from her brother.

“It is weather-tight,” added Stead, “and when it is cleaned out you will see!”

“And the soldiers will never find it,” added Patience.

“There is something in that,” said Blane.  “But at any rate, though it be summer, you can never sleep there to-night.”

“The girls cannot,” said Stead, “but I shall, to look after things.”

These were long days, and by the evening many of the remnants of household stuff had been brought, the cows and Whitefoot had been tied up in their dilapidated shed, with all the hay Stead could gather together to make them feel at home.  There was a hollow under the rock where he hoped to keep the pigs, but neither they nor the sheep could be brought in at present.  They must take their chance, the sheep on the moor, the pigs grubbing about the ruins of the farmyard.  The soldiers must be too busy for marauding, to judge by the constant firing that had gone on all day, the sharp rattle of the musquets, and now and then the grave roll of a cannon.

Stead had been too busy to attend, but half the village had been watching from the height, which accounted perhaps for the move from the farm having been so uninterrupted after the first.

It was not yet dark, when, tired out by his day’s hard work, Stead sat himself down at the opening of his hut with Toby by his side.  The evening gold of the sky could hardly be seen through the hazel and mountain-ash bushes that clothed the steep opposite bank of the glen and gave him a feeling of security.  The brook rippled along below, plainly to be heard since all other sounds had ceased except the purring of a night-jar and the cows chewing their cud.  There was a little green glade of short grass sloping down to the stream from the hut where the rabbits were at play, but on each side the trees and brushwood were thick, with only a small path through, much overgrown, and behind the rock rose like a wall, overhung with ivy and traveller’s joy.  Only one who knew the place could have found the shed among the thicket where the cows were fastened, far less the cavern half-way up the side of the rock where lay the treasures for which Steadfast was a watchman.  He thought for a moment of seeing if all were safe, but then decided, like a wise boy, that to disturb the creepers, and wear a path to the place, was the worst thing he could do if he wished for concealment.  He had had his supper at the village, and had no more to do, and after the long day of going to and fro, even Toby was too much tired to worry the rabbits, though he had had no heavy weights to carry.  Perhaps, indeed, the poor dog had no spirits to interfere with their sports, as they sat upright, jumped over one another, and flashed their little white tails.  He missed his old master, and knew perfectly well that his young master was in trouble and distress, as he crept close up to the boy’s breast, and looked up in his face.  Stead’s hand patted the rough, wiry hair, and there was a sort of comfort in the creature’s love.  But how hard it was to believe that only yesterday he had a father and a home, and that now his elder brother was gone, and he had the great charge on him of being the mainstay of the three younger ones, as well as of protecting that treasure in the cavern which his father had so solemnly entrusted to him.

The boy knelt down to say his prayers, and as he did so, all alone in the darkening wood, the words “Father of the fatherless, Helper of the helpless,” came to his aid.