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The ruddy glow of sunset was already fading into the sombre shadows of night, when two travelers might have been observed swiftly — at a pace of six miles in the hour descending the rugged side of a mountain; the younger bounding from crag to crag with the agility of a fawn, while his companion, whose aged limbs seemed ill at ease in the heavy chain armour habitually worn by tourists in that district, toiled on painfully at his side.
As is always the case under such circumstances, the younger knight was the first to break the silence. â€œA goodly pace, I trow!â€ he exclaimed. â€œWe sped not thus in the ascent!â€
â€œGoodly, indeed!â€ the other echoed with a groan. â€œWe clomb it but at three miles in the hour.â€
â€œAnd on the dead level our pace is —?â€ the younger suggested; for he was weak in statistics, and left all such details to his aged companion.
â€œFour miles in the hour,â€ the other wearily reeled. â€œNot an ounce more,â€ he added, with that love of metaphor so common in old age, â€œand not a farthing less!â€
â€œâ€™Twas three hours past high noon when we left our hostelry,â€ the young man said, musingly. â€œWe shall scarce be back by supper-time. Perchance mine host will roundly deny us all food!â€
â€œHe will chide our tardy return,â€ was the grave reply, â€œand such a rebuke will be meet.â€
â€œA brave conceit!â€ cried the other, with a merry laugh. â€œAnd should we bid him bring us yet another course, I trow his answer will be tart!â€
â€œWe shall but get our deserts,â€ sighed the elder knight, who had never seen a joke in his life, and was somewhat displeased at his companionâ€™s untimely levity. â€œâ€™Twill be nine of the clockâ€, he added in an undertone, â€œby the time we regain our hostelry. Full many a mile shall we have plodded this day!â€
â€œHow many? How many?â€ cried the eager youth, ever athirst for knowledge.
The old man was silent.
â€œTell meâ€, he answered, after a momentâ€™s thought, â€œwhat time it was when we stood together on yonder peak. Not exact to the minute!â€ he added hastily, reading a protest in the young manâ€™s face. â€œAn thy guess be within one poor half-hour of the mark, â€™tis all I ask of thy motherâ€™s son! Then will I tell thee, true to the last inch, how far we shall have trudged betwixt three and nine of the clock.â€
A groan was the young manâ€™s only reply; while his convulsed features and the deep wrinkles that chased each other across his manly brow, revealed the abyss of arithmetical agony into which one chance question had plunged him.