Mistress Betty was the first to recover from terror and surprise. She too had fixed a pair of large and wondering eyes upon the stranger.
"'Tis the gentleman who brought the letter from his lordship last night," she whispered to her mistress.
Patience closed her eyes for a moment: her spirit, which had gone a-roaming into the land of dreams, where dwell heroes and proud knights of old, came back to earth once more.
"Then he must have guessed my brother was here," she murmured, "and did it to save him."
But the tension being relaxed, already the bright and sunny nature, which appeared to be the chief characteristic of the stranger, quickly re-asserted itself, and soon he was laughing merrily.
"Oh! ho! gone, by my faith!" he said to John. "Odd's life! but he swallowed that, clean as a mullet after bait, eh, friend Stitch?"
It seemed as if he purposely avoided looking at Patience: perhaps, with the innate delicacy of a kindly nature, he wished to giver her time to recover her composure. But now she came forward, turning to him with a gentle smile that had an infinity of pathos in it.
"Sir," she said, "I would wish to thank you . . ."
He put up his hand, with a gesture of self-deprecation.
"To thank me, madam?" he said, with profound deference. "Nay! you do but jest. I have done nothing to deserve so great a favour."
He bowed to her with perfect courtly grace, but she would not be gainsaid. She wished to think that he had acted thus for her.
"Sir, you wrong your own most noble deed," she said. "Will you not allow me to keep this sweet illusion, that what you did just now, you did from the kindness of your heart, and because you saw that we were all anxious. . . and that . . . I was unhappy. . ."
She looked divinely faire as she stood there beside him, with the rays of the slanting September sun touching the halo of her hair with a wand of gold. Her voice was musical and low, and there was a catch in her throat as she held out one tiny, trembling hand to him.
He took it in his own strong grasp, and kept it a prisoner therein for awhile, then he bent his slim young figure and touched her finger-tips with his lips.
"Faith, madam!" he said, "by that sweet illusion, an it dwell awhile in your memory, I am more than repaid."
In the meanwhile John had pushed open the small door which led to the inner shed.
"Quite safe, my lord!" he shouted gaily, "only friends present."
Brother and sister, regardless of all save their own joy in this averted peril, were soon locked in each other's arms. Captain Bathurst had heard her happy cry: "Philip!" had seen the look of gladness brighten her tear-dimmed eyes, and a curious feeling of wrath, which he could not explain, caused him to turn away with a frown and a sigh.
Patience was clinging to her brother, half hysterical, nervous, excited.
"You are safe, dear," she murmured, touching with trembling motherly hands the dear head so lately in peril, "quite safe . . . let me feel your precious hands . . . oh! it was so horrible! . . . another moment and you were discovered! . . . Sir!" she added once more, turning to the stranger with the sweet impulse of her gratitude, "my thanks just now must have seemed so poor. . . I was nervous and excited . . . but see! here is one who owes you his life, and who, I know, would wish to join his thanks to mine."
But there was a change in his manner now. He bowed slightly before her and said very coldly,--
"Nay, madam! let me assure you once again that I have done naught to deserve your thanks. John Stitch is my friend, and he seemed in trouble . . . if I have had the honour to serve you at the same time, 'tis I who should render thanks."
She sighed, somewhat disappointed at his coldness. But Philip, with boyish impulse, held out both hands to him.
"Nay, sir," he said, "I know not who you are, but I heard everything from behind that door, and I know that I owe you my life. . ."
"I beg you, sir. . ."
"Another moment and I had rushed out and sold my life dearly. Your noble effort, sir, did more than save that life," he added, taking Patience's hand in his, "it spared a deep sorrow to one who is infinitely dear to me . . . my only sister."
"Your . . . your sister?"
"Aye! my sister, Lady Patience Gascoyne. I am the Earl of Stretton, unjustly attainted by Act of Parliament. The life you have just saved, sir, is henceforth at your command."
"Indeed, Philip," added Patience, gently, "we already are deeply in this gentleman's debt. Betty, who saw him, tells me that it was he who brought me your letter yester night."
"You, sir!" exclaimed Stretton in profound astonishment, "then you are . . ."
He paused instinctively, for he had remembered his conversation with John Stitch earlier in the day; he remembered the anger, the wonder, which he had felt when the smith told him that he had entrusted the precious letter for Lady Patience to Beau Brocade, the highwayman. . .
"Then you are . . .?" repeated Philip, mechanically.
Patience was clinging to her brother, with her back towards the stranger, so she did not see the swift look of appeal the slender finger put up in a mute, earnest prayer for silence. But now she turned and looked inquiringly at him, her eyes asking for a name by which she could remember him.
"Captain Jack Bathurst," he said, bowing low, "at your command."