In the meanwhile Lady Patience, with Betty by her side, had been walking towards the forge as rapidly as the state of the road permitted.
A sudden turn of the path brought her within sight of the cross-ways and of the old gallows, on which a fragment of rain-spattered rag still fluttered ghostlike in the wind.
But here, within a few yards of her goal, she stopped suddenly, with eyes dilated, and hands pressed convulsively to her heart, in an agony of terror. Walking quickly on the road from Wirksworth towards Stitch's cottage were some half-dozen red-coated figures, the foremost man amongst them wearing three stripes upon his sleeve.
Soldiers with a sergeant at the forge! What could it mean but awful peril for the fugitive?
Her halt had been but momentary, the next instant she was flying down the pathway closely followed by Betty, and had reached the shed just as the soldiers were skirting the cottage towards it.
She glanced within, and gave a quick sigh of relief: there was no sign of her brother, and John was busy at this anvil.
Already the smith had caught sight of her.
"Hush!" he whispered reassuringly, "have no fear, my lady. I've had soldiers here before."
"But they'll recognise me, perhaps . . . or guess . . ."
"No, no! my lady! Do you pretend to be a waiting wench. They are men from Derby mostly, and not like to know your face."
There was not a moment to be lost. Patience realised this, together with the certainty that her own coolness and presence of mind might prove the one chance of safety for her brother.
"Halt!" came in loud accents from the sergeant outside.
"The lock, Master Stich," said Patience, loudly and carelessly, as the sergeant stepped into the doorway, "is it ready? Her ladyship's coach is following me from Aldwark, and will be at the cross-roads anon."
"Quite ready, mistress," replied the smith, casting a rapid glance at the soldier, who stood in the entrance with hand to hat in military salute.
The latter took a rapid survey of the interior of the forge, then said politely--
"Your pardon, ladies!"
"Well, and what is it now, Sergeant?" queried John, with affected impatience.
"I have heard that there's a stranger at your forge, smith," replied the soldier. "My corporal came down from Aldwark early this afternoon and told me about him. I'd like just to have a talk with him."
"One moment, Sergeant," said John, interposing his burly figure between Patience and the prying eyes of the young soldier.
"I think you'll find the lock quite secure now, mistress," he said, trying, good, honest fellow that he was, to put as much meaning into the careless sentences as he dared. She mutely thanked him with her eyes, took the padlock from his hands, and gave him over some money for his pains, the while her heart was nearly bursting with the agony of suspense.
"No stranger, Sergeant," rejoined the smith, once more turning with well-assumed indifference to the soldier, "only my nephew out o' Nottingham. Your corporal was a Derby man, and knew the lad's mother, my sister Hannah!"
"Quite so, quite so, smith," quoth the Sergeant, pleasantly; "then you won't mind my searching your forge and cottage just for form's sake."
Even then Patience did not betray herself either by a look or a quiver of the voice.
"Lud! how tiresome be those soldiers," she said with an affected pout. "I'd hoped to wait here in peace, friend smith, until the arrival of her ladyship's coach."
"Nay, mistress, you need not be disturbed," said the smith, jovially, "the Sergeant is but jesting, eh, friend?" he added, turning to the soldier. "There! I give you my word, Master Sergeant, that there is naught here for you to find."
"I've my orders, smith," said the Sergeant, more curtly.
"Nay, friend," interposed Lady Patience, "surely you overstep your orders. John Stich is honest and loyal, you do him indignity by such unjust suspicions."
"Your pardon, ma'am, but I know my duty. There's no suspicion against the smith, but there are many rebels in hiding about here, and I've strict orders to be on the lookout for one in particular, Philip Gascoyne, Earl of Stretton, who is known to be in these parts."
John Stich interrupted him with a loud guffaw.
"Lud, man!" he said, "there's no room for a noble lord in a wayside smithy; you waste your time."
"My orders say I've the right to search," quoth the Sergeant, firmly, "and search I'm going to."
Then he turned to his squad, who were standing at attention outside.
"Follow me, men," he said, as he stepped forward into the forge.
Fortunately the remote corners of the shed were dark, and Patience still had her hood and cloak wrapped closely round her, or her deathlike pallor, the wild, terrified look in her eyes, would at this moment have betrayed her in spite of herself.
But honest John was standing in the way of the Sergeant.
"Look'ee here, Sergeant," he said quietly, "I'm a man of few words, but I'm a free-born Englishman, and my home is my castle. It's an insult to a free and loyal citizen for soldiers to search his home, as if he were a felon. I say you shall not enter, so you take yourself off, before you come by a broken head."
"Smith, you're a fool," commented the Sergeant, with a shrug of the shoulders, "and do yourself no good."
"That's as it may be, friend," quoth John. "There are fools in every walk of life. You be a stranger in these parts and don't know me, but folk'll tell you that what John Stich once says, that he'll stick to. So forewarned is forearmed, friend Sergeant. Eh?"
But to this the Sergeant had but one reply, and that was directed to his own squad.
"Now then, my men," he said, "follow me! and you, John Stich," he added loudly and peremptorily, "stand aside in the name of the King!"
The men were ranged round the Sergeant with muskets grasped, ready to rush in the next moment at word of command. John Stich stood between them and a small wooden door, little more than a partition, behind which Philip, Earl of Stretton, was preparing to sell his life dearly.
That death would immediately follow capture was absolutely clear both to him and to his devoted sister, who with almost superhuman effort of will was making heroic efforts to keep all outward show of alarm in check. Even amongst these half-dozen soldiers any one of them might know Lord Stretton by sight, and was not likely to forget that twenty guineas--a large sum in those days--was the price the Hanoverian Government was prepared to pay for the head of a rebel.
Philip was a man condemned to death by Act of Parliament. If he were captured now, neither prayer, nor bribes, nor even proofs of innocence would avail him before an officious magistrate intent on doing his duty. A brief halt at Brassington court-house, an execution in the early dawn! . . . these were the awesome visions which passed before Patience's eyes, as with a last thought of anguish and despair she turned to God for help!
No doubt John Stich was equally aware of the imminence of the peril, and, determined to fight for the life of his lord, he brandished his mighty hammer over his head, and there was a look in the powerful man's eyes that made even the Sergeant pause awhile ere giving the final word of command.
Thus there was an instant's deadly silence whilst so many hearts were wildly beating in tumultuous emotion. Just one instant--a few seconds, mayhap, whilst even Nature seemed to stand still, and Time to pause before the next fateful minute.
And then a voice--a fresh, young, happy voice--was suddenly heard to sing, "My beautiful white rose."
It was not very distant: but twenty yards at most, and even now seemed to be making for the forge, drawing nearer and nearer.
Instinctively--what else could they do?--soldiers and Sergeant turned to look out upon the Heath. There was such magic in that merry, boyish voice, clear as that of the skylark, singing the quaint old ditty.
They looked and saw a stranger dressed in elegant almost foppish fashion, his brown hair free from powder, tied with a large bow at the nape of the neck, dainty lace at his throat and wrists, scarce a speck of mud upon his fine, well-cut coat. He was leading a beautiful chestnut horse by the bridle and had been singing as he walked.
Patience, too, catching at this happy interruption like a drowning man does at a straw, turned to look at the approaching stranger.
Her eyes were the first to meet his as he reached the entrance of the forge, and with an elaborate, courtly gesture he raised his three-cornered hat and made her a respectful bow.
Then he burst out laughing.
"Ho! ho! ho! but here's a pretty to-do. Why, John Stitch, my friend, you look a bit out of temper."
He stood there framed in the doorway, with the golden light of the afternoon sun throwing into bold silhouette his easy, graceful stature, and the pleasant picture of him, with one arm round the beautiful horse's neck and his slender fingers gently fondling its soft, quivering nose.
John Stich, at first sound of the stranger's voice, had relaxed from his defiant attitude, and a ray of hope had chased away the threatening look in his eyes.
"So would you be, Captain," he said gruffly, "with these red coats inside your house, and all their talk of rebels."
"Captain?" murmured the Sergeant.
"Aye, Captain Bathurst, my man, of His Majesty's White Dragoons," said the stranger, carelessly, as without more ado he led his horse within the forge and tethered it close to the entrance. Then he came forward and slapped the Sergeant vigorously on the back.
"And I'll go bail, Sergeant, that John Stich is no rebel. He's far too big a fool!" he added in an audible whisper, and with a merry twinkle in his grey eyes.
Patience still stood rigid, expectant, terrified in the darker corner of the shed. She had not yet realised whether she dared to hope, whether this young stranger, with his pleasant, boyish voice and debonnair manner, would have the power to stay the hand of Fate, which was even now raised against her brother.
Betty, behind her mistress, was too terrified to speak.
But already the Sergeant had recovered from his momentary surprise. At mention of the stranger's military rank he had raised his hand to his tricorne hat. Now he was ready to perform his duty, and gladly noted the smith's less aggressive attitude.
"At your service, Captain," he said, "and now I have my orders. I've a right o'search and . . ."
But like veritable quicksilver, Captain Bathurst was upon him in a moment.
"A right o' search!" he said excitedly. "A right o'search did you say, Sergeant? Odd's my life, but I'm in luck! Sergeant, you're the very man for me."
And he pulled the Sergeant by the sleeve.
"I pray you, sir. . ." protested the latter.
But the young man was not to be denied.
"Sergeant," he whispered significantly, "would you like to earn a hundred guineas?"
"One hundred guineas," rejoined the soldier readily enough; "that I would, sir, if you'll tell me how."
He kept an eye on the little wooden door behind John Stich, but his ear leaned towards the stranger; the bait was a tempting one, a hundred guineas was something of a fortune to a soldier of King George II.
"Listen, then," said Bathurst, mysteriously. "You've heard of Beau Brocade, the highwayman, haven't you?"
"Aye, aye," nodded the Sergeant, "who hasn't?"
"Well then you know that there is a price of a hundred guineas for his capture, eh? . . . Think of it, Sergeant! . . . A hundred guineas! . . . a little fortune, eh?"
The Sergeant's eyes twinkled at the thought. The soldiers too listened with eager interest, for teh stranger was no longer talking in a whisper. A hundred guineas! three little words of wondrous magic, which had the power to rouse most men to excitement in those days of penury.
Lady Patience's whole soul seemed to have taken refuge in her eyes. Her body leaning forward, her lips parted with a quick-drawn breath, she gazed upon the stranger, wondering what he would do. That he was purposely diverting the Sergeant's attention from his purpose she did not dare to think, that he was succeeding beyond her wildest hopes was not in doubt for a moment.
And yet there did not seem much gained by averting the fearful catastrophe for the span of a few brief minutes.
"Aye! a fortune indeed!" sighed the Sergeant, with obvious longing.
"And I have sworn to lay that dare-devil highwayman by the heels," continued the young man. "I know where he lies hidden at this very moment, but, by Satan and all his crew, I cannot lay hands upon the rascal."
"The house is private! worse luck! I have no right of search!"
The Sergeant gave a knowing wink.
"Hm!" he said. "I understand."
Then he added significantly,--
"But the reward?"
"Odd's life! you shall have the whole of that, Sergeant, and, if your men will help me, there shall be another hundred to divide between them. I have sworn to lay the rogue by the heels for my honour's sake. Would you believe me, Sergeant, 'tis but a week ago that rascally highwayman robbed me in broad daylight! . . . fifty guineas he took from me. Now I've a bet with Captain Borrowdale, five hundred guineas aside, that I'll bring about the rogue's capture."
There was no doubt now that the Sergeant's interest was fully aroused; the soldiers, at mention of the reward which was to be theirs, hung upon their Sergeant's lips, hoping for the order to march on this very lucrative errand.
"Hm!" muttered the latter, with a knowing wink, "perhaps the highwayman is a personal enemy of yours as well, sir!"
"Aye!" sighed Captain Bathurst, pathetically, "the worst I ever had."
"And you'd be mightily glad to see him hanged, an I mistake not. What?"
"Zounds! but I wouldn't say that exactly, Sergeant, but . . . I have no love for him . . . 'tis many an ill turn he has done me of late."
"I understand! Then the reward?"
"You shall have every penny of it, friend, and a hundred guineas for your men. What say you, gallant soldiers?" And he turned gaily to the little squad, who had stood at very close attention all this while.
But there was no need to make this direct appeal. The men were only too ready to be up and doing, to earn the reward and leave John Stich and the very problematical revel to look after themselves.
"Now, quick's the word," said the young man, briskly, "there's not a moment to be lost."
"At your service, Captain," replied the Sergeant, turning once more towards the inner door before which John Stich still held guard, "as soon as I've searched the forge . . ."
"Nay, man, an you waste a minute, you and your men will miss Beau Brocade and the hundred guineas reward. Quick, man!" he added hurriedly, seeing that the soldier had paused irresolute, "quick! with your fellows straight up the road that leads northward. I'm on horseback--I'll overtake you as soon as may be."
"But . . ."
"You'll see a lonely cottage about half a mile from here, then a bridle path on the left; follow that, you'll come to a house that was once an inn. The rascal is there. I saw him not half an hour ago."
"But the rebel, Captain. . ." feebly protested the Sergeant, "my duty. . ."
"Nay, Sergeant, as you will," said Bathurst, coolly, with a great show of complete indifference; "but while you parely here, Beau Brocade will slip through your fingers. He is at the house now: he may be gone by sunset. Odd's life! search for your rebels! go on! waste time! and the hundred guineas are lost to you and your men for ever."
It was obvious that both sergeant and men were determined not to lose this opportunity of a bold bid for fortune.
"Done with you, sir," he said resolutely. "After all," he added, as a concession to his own sense of duty, "I can always come back and search the forge afterwards."
All the soldiers seemed as one man to be uttering a sigh of relief and eager anticipation, and even before the Sergeant had spoken the word, they turned to go.
"You are a wise man, Sergeant," said Bathurst, jovially. "Off with you! straight along that road you see before you. The cottage is just beyond that clump of distant firs, there you'll see the bridle path. But I'll overtake you before then, never fear. Time to give my horse a handful of oats. . ."
But even while he spoke the Sergeant had called "Attention!"
"I'll not fail you, sir," he shouted excitedly. "A hundred guineas! odd's my life! 'tis a fortune! Left turn! Quick march!"
The young man stood in the doorway and watched the little squad as, preceded by their Sergeant, they plodded their way northwards in quest of fortune. John Stich too followed them with his eyes, until the bend in the road hid the red coats from view. Then both turned and came within.
But Lady Patience through it all never looked at the soldiers; her eyes, large, glowing, magnetic, were fixed upon the stranger in the forge, as if in a trance of joy and gratitude.