The gaffers stood round and shook their heads.
When the Coporal had finished reading the Royal Proclamation, one or two of them sighed in a desultory fashion, others murmured casually, "Lordy! Lordy! to think on it! Dearie me!"
The young ones neither sighed nor murmured. They looked at one another furtively, then glanced away again, as if afraid to read each other's throughs, and in a shameful manner wiped their moist hands against their rough cord breeches.
There were no women present fortunately: there had been heavy rains on the Moor these last three days, and what roads there were had become well-nigh impassable. Only a few men--some half-dozen, perhaps--out of the lonely homesteads from down Brassington way, had tramped in the wake of the little squad of soldiers, in order to hear this Act of Parliament read a the cross-roads, and to see the document duly pinned to the old gallows-tree.
Fortunately the rain had ceased momentarily, only a cool, brisk nor'-wester came blustering across the Heath, making the older men shiver beneath their thin, well-worn smocks.
North and south, east and west, Brassing Moor stretched its mournful lengths to the distant framework of the Peak far away, with mile upon mile of grey-green gorse and golden bracken and long shoots of purple-stemmed bramble, and here and there patches of vivid mauve, where the heather was just bursting into bloom; or anon a clump of dark first, with ruddy trunks and gaunt arms stretched menacingly over the sparse young life below.
And here, at the cross-roads, the Heath seemed more desolate than ever, despite that one cottage with the blacksmith's shed beyond it. The roads themselves, the one of Aldwark, the other from Wirksworth, the third little more than a morass, a short cut to Stretton, all bore mute testimony to the remoteness, the aloofness of this forgotten corner of eighteenth-century England.
Then there was the old gallows, whereupon many a foot-pad or sheep-stealer had paid full penalty for his crimes! True, John Stich, the blacksmith, now used it as a sign-post for his trade: a monster horseshoe hung there where once the bones of Dick Caldwell, the highwayman, had whitened in the bleak air of the Moor: still, at moments like these, when no one spoke, the wind seemed to bring and echo of ghostly sighs and laughter, for Dick had breathed his last with a coarse jest on his lips, and the ears of the timid seemed still to catch the eerie sound of his horse's hoofs ploughing the ruddy, shallow soil of the Heath.
For the moment, however, the cross-roads presented a scene of quite unusual animation: the Corporal and his squad looked resplendent in their scarlet tunics and white buckskins, and Mr. Inch, the beadle from Brassington, was also there in his gold-laced coat, bob-tailed wig and three-cornered hat: he had lent the dignity of his presence to this solemn occasion, and in high top-boots, bell in hand, had tramped five miles with the soldiers, so that he might shout a stentorian "Oyez! Oyez!" whenever they passed one of the few cottages along the road.
But no one spoke. The Corporal handed the Royal Proclamation to one of the soldiers; he too seemed nervous and ill at ease. The nor'-wester, with singular want of respect for the King and Parliament, commenced a vigorous attack upon the great document, pulling at it in wanton frolic, almost tearing it out of the hands of the young soldier, who did his best to fix it against the shaft of the old gallows.
The white parchment looked uncanny and ghostlike fluttering in the wind; no doubt the nor'-wester would soon tear it to rags.
"Lordy! Lordy! to think on it!"
There it was, fixed up at last. Up, so that any chance traveller who could might read. But those who were now assembled there--shepherds, most of them, on the Moor--viewed the written characters with awe and misgiving. They had had Mr. Inch's assurance that it was ill writ there, that the King himself had put his name to it; and the young Corporal, who had read it out, had received the document from his own superior officer, who in his turn had had it at the hands of His Grace the Duke of Cumberland himself.
"It having come to the knowledge of His Majesty's Parliament that certain subjects of the King have lately raised the standard of rebellion, setting up the Pretender, Charles Edward Stuart, above the King's most lawful Majesty, it is hereby enacted that these persons are guilty of high treason and by the laws of the kingdom are condemned to death. It is further enacted that it is unlawful for any loyal subject of the King to shelter or harbour, clothe or feed any such persons who are vile traitors and rebels to their King and country: and that any subject of His Majesty who kills such a traitor or rebel doth thereby commit and act of justice and loyalty, for which he may be rewarded by the sum of twenty guineas."
It was this last paragraph that made the gaffers shake their heads and say "Lordy! Lordy! to think on it! to think on it!" For it seemed but yesterday that the old Moor, aye, and the hamlets and villages of Derbyshire, were ringing with the wild shouts of Prince Charlie's Highland Brigade, but yesterday that his handsome face, his green bonnet laced with gold, his Highland plaid and rich accoutrements, had seemed to proclaim victory to the Stuart cause from one end of the country to the other.
To be sure, that glorious, mad, merry time had not lasted very long. All the wiseacres had foretold disaster when the Prince's standard broke, just as it was taken into my Lord Exeter's house in Full Street. The shaft had snapped clean in half. What could that portend but humiliation and defeat?
The retreat from Derby was still fresh in everyone's memory, and there were those from Wirksworth who remembered the rear-guard of Prince Charlie's army, the hussars with their half-starved horses and bedraggled finery, who had swept down on the villages and homesteads round about Ashbourne and had pillaged and plundered to their heart's content.
But then those were the fortunes of war; fighting, rushing, running, plundering, wild huzzars, mad cavalcades, noise, bustle, excitement, joy of victory, and sorrow of defeat;--but this!!...this Proclamation which the Corporal had brought all the way from Derby, and which had been signed by King George himself, this meant silence, hushed footsteps, a hidden figure perhaps, pallid and gaunt, hiding behind the boulders, or amidst the gorse on the Moor, or perishing mayhap at night, lost in the bog-land up Stretton way, whilst Judas-like treads crept stealthily on the track. It meant treachery too, the price of blood, a fellow-creature's life to be sold for twenty guineas.
No wonder the gaffers could think of nothing to say; no wonder the young men looked at one another shamefaced, and in fear.
Who knows? Any Derbyshire lad now might become a human bloodhound, a tracker of his fellow-creatures, a hunter of men. There were twenty guineas to be earned, and out there on the Heath, in the hut of the shepherd or the forge of the smith, many a pale wan face had been seen of late, which...
It was terrible to think on; for even out here, on Brassing Moor, there existed some knowledge of Tyburn Gate, and of Tower Hill.
At last the groups began to break up, the Corporal's work was done. His Majesty's Proclamation would flutter there in the cool September wind for awhile; then presently the crows would peck at it, the rain would dash it down, the last bit of dirty rag would be torn away by an October gale, but in the meanwhile the few inhabitants of Brassington and those of Aldwark would know that they might deny a starving fellow-creature bread and shelter, aye! and shoot him too, like a wild beast in a ditch, and have twenty guineas reward to boot.
"I've seen nought of John Stich, Master Inch," said the Corporal at last. "Be he from home?"
And he turned to where, just in the fork of the road, the thatched cottage, with a glimpse of the shed beyond it, stood solitary and still.
"Nay, I have not observated that fact, Master Corporal," replied Master Inch, clearing his throat for some of those words which had gained for him wide-spread admiration for miles around. "I had not observated that John Stich was from home. Though in verity it behooves me to say that I do not hear the sound of Master Stich's hammer upon his anvil."
"Then I'll go across at once," said the Coporal. "Forward, my men! John Stich might have saved me the trouble," he added, groping in his wallet for another copy of His Majesty's Proclamation.
"Nay, Master Corporal, do not give yourself the futile trouble of traversing the muddy road," said Mr. Inch, sententiously. "John Stich is a loyal subject of King George, and by my faith! he would not harbourgate a rebel, take my word for it. Although, mind you, Mr. Corporal, I have oft suspicionated..."
Mr. Inch, the beadle, looked cautiously round; all the pompousness of his manner had vanished in a trice. His broad face beneath the bob-tailed wig and three-cornered hat looked like a rosy receptacle of mysterious information, as he laid his fat hand on the Corporal's sleeve.
The straggling groups of yokels were fast disappearing down the muddy tracks; some were returning to Brassington, others were tramping Aldwark way; one wizened, solitary figure was slowly toiling up the road, litlte more than a quagmire, that led northward across the Heath towards Stretton Hall.
The soldiers stood at attention some fifteen yards away, mute and disinterested. From the shed beyond the cottage there suddenly came the sound of the blacksmith's hammer upon his anvil. Mr. Inch felt secure from observation.
"I have oft suspicionated John Stich, the smith, of befriending the foot-pads and highwaymen that haunt this God-forsaken Moor," he said, with an air of excited importance, rolling his beady eyes.
"Nay," laughed the Corporal, good-humouredly, as he shook off Master Inch's fat hand. "You'd best not whisper this confidence to John Stich himself. As I live, he would crack your skull for you, Master Beadle, aye, be it ever so full of dictionary words. John Stich is an honest man, I tell you," he added with a pleasant oath, "the most honest this side of the country, and don't you forget it."
But Mr. Inch did not approve of the young soldier's tone of familiarity. He drew up his five feet of broad stature to their full height.
"Nay, but I designated no harm, "he said, with offended dignity. "John Stich is a worth fellow, and I spoke of no ordinary foot-pads. My mind," he added, dwelling upon that mysterious possession with conscious pride, "my mind, I may say, was dominating on Beau Brocade."
And the Corporal laughed with obvious incredulity, which further nettled Mr. Inch, the beadle.
"Aye, Beau Brocade," he said hotly, "the malicious, pernicious, damned rascal, who gives us, that representate the majesty of the law, a mighty deal of trouble."
"Indeed?" sneered the Corporal.
"I dare swear that down at Derby," retorted Mr. Inch, spitefully, "you have not even heard of that personage."
"Oh! we know well enough that Brassing Moor harbours more miscreants than any corner of the country," laughed the young soldier, "but methought Beau Brocade only existed in the imagination of your half-witted yokels about here."
"There you are in grave error, Master Corporal," remarked the beadle with dignity. "Beau Brocade, permit me to observe, does exist in the flesh. 'Twas only last night Sir Humphrey Challoner's coach was stopped not three miles from Hartington, and his Honour robbed of fifty guineas, by that pernicious highwayman."
"Then you must lay this Beau Brocade by the heels, Master Inch."
"Aye! that's easily said. Lay him by the heels forsooth, and who's going to do that, pray?"
"Nay, that's your affair. You don't expect His Grace the Duke of Comberland to lend you a portion of his army, do you?"
"His Grace might do worse. Beau Brocade is a dangerous rascal to the quality."
"Only to the quality?"
"Aye, he'll not touch a poor man; 'tis only the rich he is after, and uses but little of his ill-gotten gain on himself."
"How so?" asked the Corporal, eagerly, for in spite of the excitement of camp life round about Derby, the fame of the daring highwayman had ere now tickled the fancy of the young soldiers of the Duke of Cumberland's army.
"Why, I told you Sir Humphrey Challoner was robbed on the Heath last night--robbed of fifty guineas, eh?" said Master Inch, whispering in eager confidence. "Well, this morning, when Squire West arrived at the court-house, he found fifty guineas in the poor box."
"Well, that's not the first time nor yet the second that such a matter has occurred. The dolts round about here, the lads from Bassington or Aldwark, or even from Wirksworth, would never willingly lay a hand on Beau Brocade. The rascal knows it well enough, and carries on his shameful trade with impunity."
"Odd's fish! but meseems the trade is not so shameful after all. What is the fellow like?"
"Nay, no one has ever seen his face, though his figure on the Moor is familiar to many. He is always dressed in the latest fashion, hence the villagers have called him Beau Brocade. Some say he is a royal prince in disguise--he always wears a mask; some say he is the Pretender, Charles Stuart himself; others declare his face is pitted with smallpox; others that he has the face of a pig, and the ears of a mule, that he is covered with hairs like a spaniel, or has a blue skin like an ape. But no one knows, and with half the villagers on the Heath to aid and abet him, he is not like to be laid by the heels."
"A fine story, Master Inch," laughed the Corporal. "And is there no reward for the capture of your pig-faced, hairy, blue-skinned royal prince disguised as a common highwayman?"
"Aye, a reward of a hundred guineas," said Mr. Inch, in a whisper that was hardly audible above the murmur of the wind. "A hundred guineas for the capture of Beau Brocade."
The Corporal gave a long significant whistle.
"And no one bold enough to attempt the capture?" he said derisively.
Mr. Inch shook his head sadly.
"No one could do it single-handed; the rascal is cunning as well as bold, and..."
But at this point even Mr. Inch's voluble tongue was suddenly and summarily silenced. The words died in his throat; his bell, the badge of his important public office, fell with a mighty clatter on the ground.
A laugh, a long, loud, joyous, mirthful laugh, rang clear as a silver gong across the lonely Moor. Such a laugh as would make anyone's heart glad to hear, the laugh of a free man, of a man who is whole-hearted, of a man who has never ceased to be a boy.
And pompous Mr. Inch slowly turned on his heel, as did also the young Corporal, and both gazed out upon the Heath; the patient little squad of soldiers too, all fixed their eyes upon one spot, just beyond John Stich's forge and cottage, not fifty yards away.
There, clearly outlined against the could-laden sky, was the graceful figure of a horse and rider; the horse, a sleek chestnut thoroughbred, which filled all the soldiers' hearts with envy and covetousness; the rider, a youthful, upright figure, whose every movement betokened strength of limb and elasticity of muscle, the very pose a model of ease and grace, the shoulders broad; the head, with a black mask worn over the face, was carried high and erect.
In truth it was a goodly picture to look upon, with that massive band of white clouds, and the little patches of vivid blue as a rich, shimmering dome above it, the gold-tipped bracken, the purple heather all around, and far away as a mist-covered background, the green-clad hills and massive Tors of Derbyshire.
So good a picture was it that the tardy September sun peeped through the clouds and had a look at that fine specimen of eighteenth-century English manhood, then paused awhile, perchance to hear again that mirthful, happy laugh.
Then game a gust of wind, the sun retreated, the soldiers gasped, and lo! before Mr. Inch or Mr. Corporal had realized that the picture was made of flesh and blood, horse and rider has disappeared, there, far out across the Heath, beyond the gorse and bramble and the budding heather, with not a handful of dusk to mark the way they went.
Only once from far, very far, almost from fairyland, there came, like the echo of a sliver bell, the sound of that mad, merry laugh.
"Beau Brocade, as I live!" murmured Mr. Inch, under his breath.