But of course there was no time to be lost. Captain Jack Bathurst was the first to give the alarm.
"Those gallant lobsters won't be long in finding out that they've been hoodwinked," he said, "an I mistake not, they'll return here anon with a temper slightly the worse for wear. They must not find your lordship here at any rate," he added earnestly.
"But what's to be done?" asked Patience, all her anxiety returning in a trice, and intinctively turning for guidance to the man who already had done so much for her.
"For the next hour or two at any rate his lordship would undoubtedly be safer on the open Moor," said Bathurst, decisively. "'Tis night on sunset, and the shepherds are busy gathering in their flocks. There'll be no one about, and 'twould be safer."
"On the open Moor?"
"Aye! 'tis not a bad place," he said, with a touch of sadness in his fresh young voice. "I myself . . ."
He checked himself and continued more quietly,--
"Your lordship could return here after sundown. You'd be safe enough for the night. After that, an you'll grant me leave, my friend Stich and I will venture to devise some better plan for your safety. For the moment, I pray you, be guided by this good advice, and seek the protection of the open Moor."
He had spoken so earnestly, with such obvious heartfelt concern, and at the same time with such quiet firmness, that instictively Philip flet inclined to obey; the weaker nature turned for support to the stronger one, to whose dominating influence it felt compelled to yield. He turned to Patience, and her eyes seemed to tell him that she was ready to trust this stranger.
"Aye! I'll go, sir!" he sighed wearily.
He kissed his sister with all the fondness of his aching heart. All his hopes for the future were centred in her and in the long journey she was about to undertake for his sake.
Bathurst discreetly left brother and sister alone. He knew nothing of their affairs, of their plans, their hopes. Stitch was too loyal to speak of his lord, even to a man whom he trusted and respected as he did the Captain. The latter knew that a hunted man was in hiding in the smith's forge, he had taken a message from the man to the lady at Stretton Hall, now he knew for certain that the fugitive was the Earl of Stretton. But that was all.
Being outside the pale of the law himself, his sympathies at once ranged themselves on the side of the fugitive. Whther the latter were guilty or innocent matter little to Jack Bathurst; what did matter to him was that the most beautiful woman he had ever set eyes on was unhappy and in tears.
Philip, seeing that he could talk to his sister unobserved, whispered eagerly,--
"The letters, dear, have a care; how will you carry them?"
"In the drawer underneath the seat of the coach," she whispered in reply, "I'll not leave the coach day or night until I've reached London. From Wirksworth onwards I'll be travelling with relays: I need neither spare horses nor waste a moment's time. I can be in town in less than six days."
"When will your coach be ready?"
"In a few minutes now, and I'll start at once: but go, go now, dear," she urged tenderly, "since Captain Bathurst thinks it better that you should."
She kissed him again and again, her heart full of hope and excitement at thought of what she could do for him, yet aching because of this parting. It was terrible to leave him in this awful peril, to be far away if danger once again became imminent!
When at last he had torn himself away from her, he made quickly for the door, where Bathurst had been waiting for him.
"Ah, sir!" sighed Philip, bitterly, "'tis a sorry plight for a soldier and a gentleman to hide for his life like a coward and a thief."
But Bathurst before leaving was looking back at the beautiful picture of Patience's sweet face bathed in tears.
"Like a thief?" he murmured. "Nay, sir, thieves have no angels to guard and love them: methinks you have no cause to complain of your fate."
There was perhaps just a thought of bitterness in his voice as he said this, and Patience turned to him, and gazed at him in tender womanly pity through her tears. At once the electrical, sunny nature within him again gained the upper hand. Laughter and gaiety seemed with him to be always close to the surface, ready to ripple out at any moment, and calling forth hope and confidence in those around.
"An you'll accept my escort, sir," he said cheerfully to Philip. "I'll show you a sheltered spot known only to myself. . . and to Jack o' Lantern," he added, giving a passing tender tap to his beautiful horse. "He and I are very fond of the Moor, eh, Jack, old friend? . . . We are the two Jacks, you see, sir, and seldom are seen apart. Together we discovered the spot which I will show you, sir, and where you can lie perdu until nightfall. 'Tis safe and lonely and but a step from this forge."
Philip accepted the offer gratefully. Like his sister, he too felt that he could trust Jack Bathurst. As he walked by his side along the unbeaten track on the Heath, he viewed with some curiosity, not unmixed with boyish admiration, the tall, well-knit figure of his gallant rescuer. He tried to think of him as the notorious highwayman, Beau Brocade, on whose head the Government had put the price of a hundred guineas.
A hero of romance he was in the hearts of the whole country-side, yet a felon in the eyes of the law. Philip could just see his noble profile, with the well-cut features, the boyish, sensitive mouth, firm chin and straight, massive brow, over which a mass of heavy brown curls clustered in unruly profusion.
A brave man, surely--Philip had experienced that; a wise one too in spite of his youth. Stretton guessed his companion to be still under thirty years of age, and yet there was at times, in spite of the inherently sunny disposition below, a look of melancholy, of disappointment, in the deep grey eyes, which spoke of a wasted life, of opportunities lost perhaps, or of persistent adverse fate.
Through it all there was the quaint air of foppishness, the manners and apperance of a dandy about the Court. The caped coat was dark and serviceable, but it was of the finest cloth and of the latest, most fashionable cut, and beneath it peeped a dainty silk waistcoat, delicately embroidered.
The lace at the throat and wrists was of the finest Mechlin, and the boots, though stout and heavy, betrayed the smallness and the arch of the foot. Though Jack Bathurst had obviously been riding, he carried neither whip nor cane.
All that Philip observed in this rapid walk to the place of shelter which Bathurst had thought out for him, Patience, with a woman's quick perception, had noted from the first. To her, of course, the Captain was but a gallant stranger, good to look at and replete with all the chivalrous attributes this troubled century called forth in the hearts of her sons. She knew naught of Beau Brocade the highwayman, and probably would have recoiled in horror at thought of connecting the name of a thief with that of her newly-found hero of romance.
She stood in the doorway for some time, watching with glowing eyes the figures of the two men, until they disappeared behind a high clump of gorse: then with a curious little sigh she turned and went within.
John Stich and Mistress Betty were carrying on an animated conversation in a remote corner of the forge. Patience did not wish to disturb them: she was deeply grateful to John, and felt kindly disposed towards the suggestion of romance conveyed by the smith's obvious appreciation of pretty Mistress Betty.
She crossed the shed, and opening the door at the further end of it, she found that it gave upon a small yard which separated the forge from the cottage, and in which Stich and his mother, who kep house for him, had with tender care succeeded in cultivating a few flowers: only one or two tall hollyhocks, some gay-looking sunflowers, and a few sweet-scented herbs. And on the south aspect a lovely trail of creeping white rose, the kind known as "Five Sisters," threw its delicate fragrance over this little oasis in the wilderness of the Moor.
And, almost mechanically, whilst her fancy once more went a-roaming in the land of dreams, Patience began to hum the quaint old ditty: "My beautiful white rose."
Suddenly--at a quick thought mayhap--her eyes grew dim, her cheeks began to burn: she drew towards her a cluster of snowy blossoms, on which the earlier rains had left a mantle of glittering diamonds, and buried her glowing face in its pure, cool depths. Then she detached one lovely white rose from the parent bough, and, sighing, pinned it to her belt.