long Scotland was, and he had a sort of dim suspicion that London must be farther off than Elsie thought; but he did not feel much uneasiness.
After a while the road became rough and uneven, and at last it turned sharp round in the wrong direction, but just beyond them the low wall suddenly ended in a scattered heap of stony fragments, and the grass stretched fresh and green away to the hills.
"Come on, Duncan!" Elsie cried, dragging him after her on to the grass. "We'll be seeing the sea from that hill, I'll be bound!"
The hill was farther away than it looked, but they reached it after a good sharp scamper. "And now we'll just be after eating a bit of something before we go any farther," Elsie said, dropping down on the grass, very hot and breathless.
"I s'pose there'll be shops by-and-by," Duncan said, "or a farm, where we can get a drink of milk."
Elsie was thirsty, but she was not going to be daunted by such a small inconvenience.
They began hopefully to climb the hill. As they mounted they began to find it steep and tiring. After ten minutes they stopped short, fairly out of breath. To her disgust and surprise, Elsie found that the distance to the top of the hill looked even greater than when they had been quite down at the bottom of it, and steeper a very great deal. They rested for a while, catching hold of the tough heather stalks to prevent them from slipping, then went on again, on and on, with by-and-by another pause for breath. There was plenty of fun and excitement in the climb, the only drawback being the weight and inconvenience of their strong rough boots and Elsie's basket, which, however, were each of them too useful to be left behind.
At last, however, the children reached the top, and Elsie stood still, and looked all round in eager hope.
But, alas! the sight that met her view was one of keen disappointment. The side of the hill descended very steeply into a narrow valley, through which flowed a small stream. Beyond were hills stretching as far as she could see, until their tall peaks mingled with the clouds. Just then the sun disappeared, black shadows crept rapidly over the mountain-tops, the whole landscape appeared dark, gloomy, and frowning. Nowhere all around was a sight of any living thing, except a few sheep perched far up on a steep crag. Presently masses of vapour gathered over the hills, and began to roll down their sides, hiding first one and then another. Elsie turned away with a shudder. The cows feeding on the smooth grass below, the very sight of the road, lonely and deserted though it was, seemed cheerful indeed, compared with the awful loneliness of those grim, endless hills.
"It's no use going this way," she said, with a little shiver. "The sea is farther off than I thought. We should lose ourselves among the hills; and it's so cold up here, and not a soul to tell us the way, not even a shepherd. Let's go back."
They began to descend by a circuitous route, for the side was steep enough to make it a matter for care, and in places the soil was boggy, and in others the rocky ground had broken and crumbled away, leaving sharp precipitous edges.
When at last they reached the even space, there was no sign of a road to be seen. "It must be just over there," Elsie said, in some bewilderment. "Perhaps there's a bank at the side hiding it."
"We've come down quite a different place to where we went up," said Duncan, slowly. "D'you think we're lost, Elsie?"
"No, of course not," Elsie replied, confidently. "Come on, Duncan; the road can't be far off."
Duncan followed without a word. He was beginning to feel a bit tired, and somehow he could not help giving a thought to the snug kitchen at home, with the little wooden arm-chair in which he was accustomed to sit when he was done up with running about. The sight of the cottage would have been far more welcome to him even than that of the unknown father they were seeking. But he kept his thoughts to himself.
They found a roadway after a goodish bit of running hither and thither. Elsie had been wise enough to avoid the hills, for the day had clouded over and a chill breeze had sprung up. It was dull enough even here, far worse away among the steeps and hollows.
"I don't think we shall get to London very soon," Duncan ventured to say, after a while. "There isn't any one to ask the way. Do you think we've got near the end of Scotland yet?"
"We shan't get to London to-night," Elsie said, with the air of one who knew all about it. "Of course I knew that all along. We shall have to get a night's lodging, and go on to-morrow."
"But who'll give it to us?" asked the practical Duncan. "There isn't any houses."
"Oh, well! we shall come to some," Elsie said.
"Do you think I might take off my boots and stockings? they seem so heavy like," Duncan asked.
"If you like to carry 'em," Elsie replied shortly. "We'll want 'em when we get to London. Hark! I can hear a cart coming."
Yes, sure enough there was a sound of wheels, and presently there came into sight a man driving a small cart, drawn by a miserable, starved-looking horse, that shambled along with its head held down as if ready to drop. The cart was a dilapidated-looking affair, and the man who drove was well in keeping with his vehicle. He was clad in tattered garments, surmounted by an old sack, fastened together round his shoulders with a wooden skewer. His hair was coarse and matted, looking as if a comb had never made acquaintance with it, his face unmistakably emaciated, in spite of the dark hue it wore from constant exposure.
As he gradually overtook them, Elsie stood by the roadside, and beckoned to him to stop.
"How far are we from the houses?" she asked.
The man scratched his head and stared for a few seconds, then he replied, "Don't know of none this side o' Killochrie."
"How far is Killochrie?" Elsie asked.
"Weel, seven miles and a bittock—so—more or less."
Elsie stood still in perplexity. A Scottish mile is reckoned to be two English ones, and the bittock might mean anything—another Scottish mile or two, as the case might be. The prospect was not encouraging.
"Isn't there any house at all?" Elsie asked.
"Well, there's not to say a house—a croft or two an' a cottage. Where would you be going?"
"Oh, to Killochrie, that's just where!" Elsie answered very quickly, with a glance at Duncan.
"Ah, weel!" the man replied, waiting in stock silence for some one else to speak.
"Can you tell us the time?" Elsie asked.
"It might be five, or getting on to six, thereabouts," the man replied.
So late, and a matter of fifteen miles about to the nearest resting-place! What was to be done?
"Are you going to Killochrie?" Elsie asked suddenly.
"Weel, noa, not that—along the road."
"Would you mind our getting into the cart?"
The man scratched his head again, and looked at her in silence. Elsie began to think he was a little daft. Presently he replied, "You maun sit on it, if you like."
"On what?" Elsie asked sharply.
"The fish," the man replied.
Elsie and Duncan had both noticed a strange odour, which Elsie attributed to a stagnant pool of water near which they were standing. She now peered over the side of the cart, which was more like a lidless box on wheels than anything else, and she perceived that it was full of fish. The man occupied the only available sitting-place in front. What was to be done? Elsie looked all along the road. There was no sign of any other vehicle, not even a person to be seen. Their choice plainly lay between walking the whole distance or riding in the cart.
"We are very tired," Elsie said, dubiously. "Shall we get in, Duncan?"
Oh, how the vision of home rose up before Duncan's longing eyes! Mother would be at home now, just sitting down to tea, perhaps.
"If you'd like to," he said, without much interest.
"Ye might take the