The Sad Shepherd by Henry Van Dyke


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Page 1

He walked looking on the ground, paying small heed to them. Now and
again, when the sound of pattering feet and panting breath and the
rustling and rending among the copses fell too far behind, he drew out
his shepherd's pipe and blew a strain of music, shrill and plaintive,
quavering and lamenting through the hollow night. He waited while the
troops of gray and black scuffled and bounded and trotted near to him.
Then he dropped the pipe into its place again and strode forward,
looking on the ground.

The fitful, shivery wind that rasped the hill-top, fluttered the rags
of his long mantle of Tyrian blue, torn by thorns and stained by
travel. The rich tunic of striped silk beneath it was worn thin, and
the girdle about his loins had lost all its ornaments of silver and
jewels. His curling hair hung down dishevelled under a turban of fine
linen, in which the gilt threads were frayed and tarnished; and his
shoes of soft leather were broken by the road. On his brown fingers the
places of the vanished rings were still marked in white skin. He
carried not the long staff nor the heavy nail-studded rod of the
shepherd, but a slender stick of carved cedar battered and scratched by
hard usage, and the handle, which must once have been of precious
metal, was missing.

He was a strange figure for that lonely place and that humble
occupation-a branch of faded beauty from some royal garden tossed by
rude winds into the wilderness-a pleasure craft adrift, buffeted and
broken, on rough seas.

But he seemed to have passed beyond caring. His young face was frayed
and threadbare as his garments. The splendor of the moonlight flooding
the wild world meant as little to him as the hardness of the rugged
track which he followed. He wrapped his tattered mantle closer around
him, and strode ahead, looking on the ground.

As the path dropped from the summit of the ridge toward the Valley of
Mills and passed among huge broken rocks, three men sprang at him from
the shadows. He lifted his stick, but let it fall again, and a strange
ghost of a smile twisted his face as they gripped him and threw him
down.

"You are rough beggars," he said. "Say what you want, you are welcome
to it."

"Your money, dog of a courtier," they muttered fiercely; "give us your
golden collar, Herod's hound, quick, or you die!"

"The quicker the better," he answered, closing his eyes.

The bewildered flock of sheep and goats, gathered in a silent ring,
stood at gaze while the robbers fumbled over their master.

"This is a stray dog," said one, "he has lost his collar, there is not
even the price of a mouthful of wine on him. Shall we kill him and
leave him for the vultures?" "What have the vultures done for us," said
another, "that we should feed them? Let us take his cloak and drive off
his flock, and leave him to die in his own time."

With a kick and a curse they left him. He opened his eyes and lay quiet
for a moment, with his twisted smile, watching the stars.

"You creep like snails," he said. "I thought you had marked my time
tonight. But not even that is given to me for nothing. I must pay for
all, it seems."

Far away, slowly scattering and receding, he heard the rustling and
bleating of his frightened flock as the robbers, running and shouting,
tried to drive them over the hills. Then he stood up and took the
shepherd's pipe, a worthless bit of reed, from the breast of his tunic.
He blew again that plaintive, piercing air, sounding it out over the
ridges and distant thickets. It seemed to have neither beginning nor
end; a melancholy, pleading tune that searched forever after something
lost.

While he played, the sheep and the goats, slipping away from their
captors by roundabout ways, hiding behind the laurel bushes, following
the dark gullies, leaping down the broken cliffs, came circling back to
him, one after another; and as they came, he interrupted his playing,
now and then, to call them by name. When they were nearly all
assembled, he went down swiftly toward the lower valley, and they
followed him, panting. At the last crook of the path on the steep
hillside a straggler came after him along the cliff. He looked up and
saw it outlined against the sky. Then he saw it leap, and slip, and
fall beyond the path into a deep cleft.

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Books | Photos | Paul Mutton | Sun 22nd Sep 2019, 16:51