Chapter XIII
A Proposal and a Threat

Sir Humphrey Challoner had not been long in making up his mind to take Master Mittachip's pernicious advice. He twisted the old adage that "everything is fair in love" to be a justification of his own evil purpose. He was not by any means a bad man. Save for his somewhat inordinate love of money, he had none of the outrageous vices which were looked upon with leniency in the quality in those days.

He drank hard, and exacted his pound of flesh equally from all his tenants, but neither of these characteristics was unusual in an English squire of the early eighteenth century: a great many of them were impecunious, and all were fond of good cheer. Originally he had meant no harm to the young Earl of Stretton. His plan, as he clumsily conceived it, was to get Philip into trouble first, then to extricate him from it, for the sake of earning the gratitude of the richest heiress in the Midlands and the most beautiful woman in England to boot.

Sir Humphrey Challoner was not a diplomatist: he was a rough country gentleman of that time, with but scant notions of abstract right and wrong where his own desires were at stake.

His original plan had failed through that very Act of Parliament which placed Philip's life in immediate and imminent peril. Sir Humphrey did not desire the lad's death: of course not. He had nothing to gain thereby, and only wished for the sister's hand in marriage. He started for London post-haste, hoping still to use what influence he had, and also what knowledge he possessed of Philip's attitude at the time of the rebellion, in order to bring about the boy's justification and release.

That Patience had evidently found a means of proving her brother's innocence without his help was a bitter disappointment to Sir Humphrey. He knew that she would never marry him of her own free will, but only on compulsion or from gratitude.

The latter was now out of the question. He could do nothing to earn it. Compulsion was the only course, and Mittachip, with crafty persuasion, had shown him the possible way; therefore he went to the forge of John Stich to carry through the plan to that end.

It was close on sunset. On the Moor, gorse, bramble and heather were bathed in ruddy gold, the brilliant aftermath of this glowing September afternoon.

Sir Humphrey had walked over from the Moorhen; as soon as he entered the forge, the first thing he noticed was the beautiful chestnut horse tethered against the door-post, the same which he himself had declared that very day to be worth a small fortune. Fate was obviously playing into his hands. Mittachip had neither deceived him nor lured him with false hopes.

Otherwise the shed was empty: there was no sign of John Stich or of the stranger who rode the chestnut horse. Sir Humphrey went within and, as patiently as he could, set himself to wait.

When therefore Jack Bathurst returned to the forge some few minutes later, he found that her ladyship, Betty and Stich had gone, whilst, sitting on the edge of the rough deal table, and impatiently tapping his boot with a riding-whip, was no less a personage than the Squire of Hartington.

Jack had caught a glimpse of his Honour that night before on the Heath, under circumstances which even now brought a smile to his lips, and which incidentally had made the poor of Brassington richer by fifty guineas.

For a moment he hesitated whether he would go in or no. He had been masked during that incident, of course, and knew not even the A B C of fear. His dare-devil spirit of fun and adventure quickly gained the upper hand, and the next moment he had greeted his Honour with all the courtly grace he had at command.

Sir Humphrey looked at him keenly for a moment or two. Young and well looking! Oft to be seen at the forge at sundown! Odd's life but . . .

"Your servant, sir!" he said, returning the salutation.

Sir Humphrey was in on hurry. He firmly believed that Fate had decided to be kind to him in this matter, but he feared to brusque the situation, and thereby to imperil the successful issue of his scheme.

Therefore he passed the time of day with this well-looking stranger, he talked of the weather and the rains on the Moors, the bad state of the roads and the insufficiency of police in the county, of the late rebellion and the newest fashion in coats.

Jack Bathurst seemed to fall into his mood. He was shrewd enough to perceive that Sir Humphrey Challoner was in his own estimation playing a diplomatic game of cat and mouse, and it much intrigued Bathurst to know what his ultimate purpose might be. He had not long to wait; after some five minutes of casual conversation, Sir Humphrey went straight for his goal.

"Odd's life!" he said suddenly, interrupting his own flow of small talk, "it wonders me how long that rascally smith'll stay away from his work. Adsbud! but he's a lazy vagabond. What say you, sir?"

"Nay! you, sir, wrong an honest man," replied Bathurst. "John Stich is a steady worker. Shall I call him for you? I know my way about his cottage."

"Nay, I thank you, sir! my purpose can wait. Truth to tell," added his Honour, carelessly, "'twas not the blacksmith's work I needed, but his help in a trifling matter of business."

"Indeed?"

"You'll be surprised perhaps at my question, sir, but have you ever heard mention of that fellow, Beau Brocade?"

"Oh! . . . vaguely. . ."

"A highwayman, sir, and a consummate rogue, yet your honest John Stich is said to be his friend."

"Indeed?"

'Now, an you'll believe me, sir, I have a mind to speak with the rascal."

"Indeed? then you are bolder than most, sir," said Jack, cheerfully. He was really beginning to wonder what the Squire of Hartington was driving at.

"It seems strange, doesn't it? but to be frank with you, I'm in two minds about that rogue."

"How so?"

"Well! I have a score to settle with him, and a business to propose; and I cannot decide which course to adopt."

"You, sir, being so clever, might perhaps manage both," said Bathurst, with a touch of sarcasm.

"Hm! I wonder now," continued Sir Humphrey, not wishing to notice the slight impertinence. "I wonder now what an independent gentleman like yourself would advise me to do. I have not the honour of knowing who you are," he added with grave condescension, "but I can see that you are, like myself, a gentleman."

Bathurst bowed in polite acknowledgment.

"I should be proud to serve you with advice, sir, since you desire it."

"Well! as I have said, I have a score to settle with the rogue. He stole fifty guineas from me last night."

"Ah me!" sighed Jack, with a melancholy shake of the head, "then I fear me he'll never haunt the Heath again."

"What mean you, sir?"

"Nay! I can picture the rascal now, after you, sir, had punished him for his impudence! A mangled, bleeding wreck! But there! I have no pity for him! Daring to measure his valour against your noted prowess!"

"Quite so! quite so!" quoth his Honour, whilst smothering a curse at this more obvious piece of insolence.

"But I entreat your pardon. I was interrupting the story."

"I saw the rogue, sir," said Sir Humphrey, glancing significantly at the young man, "saw him clearly by the light of my carriage lanthorns. He was masked, of course, but I'd know him anywhere, and could denounce him to-morrow."

He had risen to his feet, and with legs apart, standing face to face with Bathurst, he spoke every word as if he meant them to act as a threat.

"There are plenty of soldiers about these parts now, even if the country folk won't touch their vaunted hero of romance. I could get him hanged, sir, within a week. A cordon of soldiers round this Heath, my word to swear his identity, and . . . But there!" he added with a jovial laugh, "'tis no concern of yours is it, sir? You were kind enough to promise me your advice. This is one of my alternatives, the score I'd wish to settle; there's still the business I could offer the rogue."

Sir Humphrey had looked the young man squarely in the face whilst he uttered his threat, but had seen nothing there, save the merriest, the most light-hearted of smiles.

"I can scarce advise you, sir," said Bathurst, still smiling, "unless I know the business as well."

"Well, sir, you know of old Lady Rounce, do you not? the meanest, ugliest old witch in the county, eh? Well! she is on her way to London, and carries with her a mass of money, wrung from her miserable tenants."

"Faith, sir! you paint a most entrancing picture of the lady."

"Now, an that rascal Beau Brocade were willing to serve me, he could at one stroke save his own neck from the gallows, enrich himself, right the innocent and confound a wicked old woman."

"And how could this galaxy of noble deeds be accomplished at one stroke, sir?"

"Her ladyship's coach will pass over the Heath to-night. It should be at the cross-roads soon. There will be all the old harridan's money and jewels to be got out of it."

"Of course."

"And also a packet of love-letters, which doubtless will be hidden away in the receptacle beneath the seat."

"Letters?" queried Bathurst. "Hm! I doubt me if love-letters would tempt a gentleman of the road."

"Nay, sir," replied his Honour, now dropping his voice to a confidential whisper, "these are letters which, if published, would compromise an artless young lady, whom old Lady Rounce pursues with her hatred and spite. Now I would give a hundred guineas to any person who will bring me those letters at the Moorhen to-morrow. Surely to a gentleman of the road the game would be worth the candle. Lady Rounce carries money with her besides, and her diamonds. What think you of it, sir?"

"'Tis somewhat difficult to advise," said Bathurst, meditatively.

"Ah well!" said Sir Humphrey with affected indifference, "'tis really not much to me. On the whole perhaps I would prefer to deliver the rascal into the hands of my friend Squire West at Brassington. Any way, I have the night to think the matter over; 'tis too late now to wait for that lout, John Stich. I would have preferred to have had your advice, sir. I dare say 'tis difficult to give. And you a stranger too. I would have liked to save a young girl from the clutches of that old witch, Lady Rounce, and if Beau Brocade rendered me that service, I'd be tempted to hold my tongue about him . . . He should have the hundred guineas to-morrow and have nought to fear from me, if he brought me those letters. If not . . . well! . . . well! . . . we shall see . . . The old gallows here have long been idle . . . we shall see . . . we shall see . . . Good-day to you sir. . . proud to have met you . . . No . . . I'll not wait for John Stich. Is this your horse? . . . pretty creature! . . . Good-day, sir . . . good-day."

His Honour was extremely condescending and pleasant. He bowed very politely to Bathurst, patted the beautiful chestnut horse, and showed no further desire to talk with John Stich.

Bathurst, with a frown on his handsome face, watched the Squire of Hartington's burly figure disappear round the bend in the road.

"I wonder now," he mused, "what mischief he's brewing. He seemed to me up to no good. I suppose he guessed who I was."

While he stood there watching, John Stich quickly entered the forge from the rear.

"I was in the cottage, Captain," he said, "my mother was serving the ladies with some milk. But just now I saw Sir Humphrey Challoner walking away from the forge. I feared he might see you."

"He did see me, honest friend," said Jack, lightly. "His Honour and I have just had a long and animated conversation together."

"Great Heavens! the man is furious with you, Captain!" said the smith, with genuine anxiety in his gruff voice, "he saw you distinctly on the Heath last night. He may have recognised you to-day."

"He did recognise me."

"And may be brewing the devil's own mischief against you."

"Oh, ho!" laughed the young man, with a careless shrug of the shoulders, "against me? . . . Well! you know, honest John, I am bound to end on the gallows. . ."

"Sooner or later! Sooner or later!" he added merrily, noting John's look of sorrowful alarm. "They've not got me yet, though there are so many soldiers about, as that piece of underdone roast-beef said just now."

"You'll not tell me what Sir Humphrey Challoner spoke to you about?"

"No, friend, I will not," said Jack, with a look of infinite kindness and placing a slender white hand on the smith's broad shoulder. "You are my friend, you know, you shoe and care after my horse, you shelter and comfort me. May Heaven's legions of angels bless you for that. Of my life on the Heath I'll never tell you aught, whatever you may guess. 'Tis better so. I'll not have you compromised, or implicated in my adventures. In case . . . well! . . . if they do catch me, you know, friend, 'tis better for your sake that you should know nothing."

"But you'll not go on the Heath to-night, Captain," pleaded the smith, with a tremor in his voice.

"Aye! that I will, John Stith," rejoined Bathurst, with a careless laugh, which now had an unmistakable ring of bitterness, "to stop a coach, to lift a purse! that's my business . . . Aye! I'll to the Heath, friend, 'tis my only home you know, ere I find a resting-place on the gallows yonder."

John sighed and turned away, and thus did not hear the faint murmur that came of a great and good heart over-full with longing and disappointment.

"My beautiful white rose! . . . how pale she looked . . . and how exquisitely fair! . . . Ah! me . . . if only . . . Jack! Jack! don't be a fool!" he added with a short, deep sigh, "'tis to late, remember, for Beau Brocade to go galloping after an illusion!"