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The Blanket of the Dark Chapter 1 The Painted Floor 2

 The Blanket of the Dark Chapter 1 The Painted Floor 2

When the last of the company had jolted round the far corner the stage was empty for a while. The amethyst was going out of the air, and giving place to that lemon afterglow which in a fine summer never leaves the sky till it is ousted by the splendours of dawn. The ribbon of road was beginning to glimmer white, and the high wooded sides of the glen to lose their detail to the eye and become massed shadows.... But the play was not yet ended, for up the road towards him came a solitary rider.

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Down a gap from the west fell a shaft of lingering sunlight which illumined the traveller. Peter saw a tall man mounted on a weedy roan, which seemed to have come far, for it stumbled at the lift of the hill. His head was covered with an old plumeless bonnet, he had no cloak, his doublet was plain grey, his trunks seemed to be of leather, and between them and his boots were hose of a dingy red. He wore a narrow belt fastened in front with a jewel,  and from that belt hung a silver dagger-sheath, while at his side dangled a long sword. But it did not need the weapons to proclaim that this was no servant. The man's whole poise spoke of confidence and pride. His shaven face was weathered like a tinker's, his eyes searched the covert as if looking for opposition, his mouth was puckered to a whistle, and now and then he flung back his head and sniffed the evening odours.

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Peter watched and admired with a pain at his heart. Here was one who rode the broad ways of the world and feared nothing; a masterful man who would have his way with life; one who had seen with his own eyes that wonderful earth of which Peter had only read; a fierce soul who would be a deadly enemy, but who might also be a delectable comrade, for there was ease and jollity in his air. Peter sighed at this glimpse of the unattainable.

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And then he saw the seventh magpie.

The heats of the day, the constant feasting of the eyes upon blue horizons, had had the effect of wine upon Peter's brain, and this drunkenness had been increased by the spectacle of the masterful traveller. The scholar, whose days were spent among books, felt himself within hail of the pomp of life. He had almost forgotten the heavy thoughts which had burdened him so many days. The hour was growing late, and he was miles from his bed in the Castle precincts, but he had no intention of going home yet awhile. For he was near to a place which was his own discovery, his special sanctuary , and he was minded to visit it before he slept....

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And then came the seventh magpie, a chequered zigzag in that dim world. The bird was an invitation to adventure. Peter rose from his eyrie, shook the moss and twigs from his clothes, and scrambled down the slope to the highway. He was clad in a tunic and long summer hose of thin woollen, and his gown, which was the badge of studentship, he carried loose on his arm.

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He padded in the sweet-smelling dust of the road for a little way, and then turned to his left to climb the farther side of the hollow. He had forgotten about the Egyptians in the covert. They were still there, and had settled down for the night, for suddenly he saw in a cleft beside him the glow of a little fire on which a pot was bubbling. He was too late to avoid it, his foot slipped, he slid into the cleft, and found a hand at his throat. The hand was relaxed, and the grip changed to his shoulder, while a small covered lantern was flashed in his face.

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Shaken and startled, he saw one of the gipsies standing above him, a man with a thin wolfish face and burning eyes. Peter's youth and the sight of the gown on his arm apparently convinced the man that here was no danger. He grunted, and picked up what seemed to be a book which had fallen to the ground.

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