He was Sir Jocelyn to his face; always behind his back Old Hunting-Cap, because he wore a brown and frayed hunting-cap of velvet on his few silver hairs. The world he dwelt in was a world of strangers. It was not only that he had outlived all the men and women of his day, but the children had grown up to look at him with an altered face. The people of old had been fond of him, had been ready to defend him with their lives against process-servers and bailiffs. They had shared his plenty, and amid the racketing and jaunting and jollity and good-will they had lived like a large family, of which he was the irresponsible king and chief. Now wherever he went he met cold faces and the eyes of enemies. It made him feel strangely old and cold and deserted. They had all gone away together, the dead, the loving and friendly of old; and he was like a sheep lost on the mountains in the drifts of winter.
He was so old that he had let the reins slip from his fingers, and things had been all of a muddle when young Jasper, the heir, had come and brushed him aside. Under Jasper's eyes he felt more naked and a-cold than even under the averted glances of the men and women whose baby heads he had patted. It came to him daily, like some bruit of a far-away storm, that Jasper was fighting his cause with the people, dragging arrears of rent from them, evicting, serving notices to quit; for Jasper believed in a fighting policy. But it made the old man more comfortless in a world where everyone used to be pleasant.
The mists gathered in the valleys, and began to creep up the hillside. Old Hunting-Cap wondered vaguely whether Lanty Hurley would remember to come for him, to help him home. A Hurley had always been his body-servant; but Lanty was not like those who had gone before him. Sir Jocelyn was so very old that he would not notice omissions. He was as well dozing under the foot of a tree as anywhere else, while Lanty never felt the hours pass sitting in the bar-parlour at the Widdy Doolin's with the widdy's daughter Mary on his knees. Often Old Hunting-Cap had trembled with a helpless gust of anger against Lanty; but to-day he was not in a mood for resentment. If the mists should come up and hide him, they would keep him in a friendlier world then he knew below at the castle. He muttered to himself--
"You are the one living thing left to me," he said.
The tree, that was known as Old Hunting-Cap's tree, had been planted the day he was born. His lady-mother had carried him in her arms when he was a little child to see how it thrived. "As the tree thrives the child lives," she had said to herself, and had looked at it wit gentile approval. In his industrious boyhood he had watered it and kept the clay to its roots. Under its boughs he had plighted his troth. He had come there with his despair the day his Mary was buried. It was the one thing that had kept for him an unchanged face. If he were to die under it in the mist he would be glad; far better than to die in the great four-poster in the Queen's Room, ringed about with indifferent and unfriendly faces tired of waiting for his last breath.
Some one strode towards him out of the mist. At first he thought it was a tall deer, but presently the figure revealed itself as that of his great-nephew, Jasper.
"You will die of the damp and cold," said the young man, angrily. "Where is that scoundrel Hurley? Is this how he neglects you?"
Old Hunting-Cap smiled at him childishly. Anger generally troubled him, but the concern for himself in this anger gave him a shock of pleasure.
"Never mind Lanty," he said. "He has forgotten me, and I have forgotten him. I was thinking of something, Jasper--something I wanted to ask you."
"You shall tell it to me. Only let me get you home to a fire. Hurley shall pay for this."
The old man got to his feet, helped by the strong young arms. He stood a minute trembling, and looked up at the tree.
"It seems a pity," he said. "But it will be lonely up here when I am gone. I should like to take it with me. It was always my tree. May I have it cut down, Jasper?"
"Why, Uncle Jocelyn, everything is yours," answered the young man, with a conscience-stricken air.
"Ah, no, everything is yours, my lad. I am too old--a cumberer of the ground. It seems a pity to take it from the light and air; but it is my tree. Cut it down, Jasper, and make a coffin of it."
The next day he came for the last time to see his tree. When the axe went to the heart of it, he cried out and fell forward; young Jasper only caught him in time. And then he was carried home and put to bed; and in a few hours he died, as though the tree had kept the life in him, and they must die together. So of Old Hunting-Cap's tree they made the solid planks for his coffin. It was as though it were a boat to carry him far away to the land of friendly faces.