John Stich ventured no further opposition, well knowing the reckless spirit which his own quiet devotion was powerless to keep in check; moreover, Lady Patience, closely followed by the ever-faithful Betty, had just entered by the door that gave from the yard.
"I was wondering, honest Stich," she said, "if my coach were yet in sight. Meseems the horses must have had sufficient rest by now."
"I'll just see, my lady," said John.
At first sound of her low, musical voice, Bathurst had turned to her, and now his eyes rested with undisguised admiration on her graceful figure, dimly outlined in the fast-gathering shadows. She too caught sight of him, and sorely against her will a vivid blush mounted to her cheeks. She pulled her cloak close to her, partly to hide the bunch of white roses that nestled in her belt.
Thus there was an instant's silence pause, during which two hearts, both young, both ardent, and imbued with the spirit of romance, beat--unknown to one another--in perfect unison.
And yet at this supreme moment in their lives--supreme though they themselves knew it not--neither of them had begun to think of love. In her there was just that delightful feeling of feminine curiosity, mingled with the subtle homage of a proud woman for the man who, in her presence, and for her sake, had proved himself brave, resourceful, full of invention and of pluck: there was also an unexplainable sense of the magnetism caused by the real personality, by the unmistakable vitality of the man. He lived, he felt, he thought differently to any one else, in a world quite apart and entirely his own, and she felt the magic of this sunny nature, of the merry, almost boyish laugh, overlying as it were the undercurrent of disappointment and melancholy which had never degenerated into cynicism.
But in him? Ah! in him there was above all a wild, passionate longing! the longing of an intensely human, aching heart, when it is brought nigh to its own highest ideal, and knows that that ideal is infinitely beyond his reach.
The broken-down gentleman! the notorious hero of midnight adventures! highwayman! robber! thief! what right had he even to look upon her, the perfect embodiment of exquisite womanhood, the beautiful realisation of man's tenderest dreams?
Perhaps at this one supreme moment in his reckless career the wild adventurer felt the first pang of humbled pride, of that pride which had defied existing laws and built up a code of its own. He understood then all at once the stern, iron-bound rule which makes of man--free lord of creation though he be--the slave of those same laws which he himself has set up for his own protection.
Beau Brocade, the highwayman, closed his eyes, and no longer dared to look on his dream.
He turned to his horse, and with great tenderness began stroking Jack o' Lantern's soft, responsive nose.
The next moment Stich, who had been busy with his work, looked up in sudden alarm.
"The soldiers!" he said briefly, "all running . . . the Sergeant's at the head o' them, and some of the shepherds at their heels."
At first Patience did not understand where the actual danger lay.
"My brother!" she gasped, terrified.
But a look from Bathurst reassured her.
"Absolutely safe," he said quickly and decisively, "a hiding-place known to no one but me. I give your ladyship my word of honour that there is not the remotest danger for him."
She felt all her terrors vanishing. But these few words spoken to comfort her went nigh to costing Bathurst dear. In those few brief seconds he had lost the opportunity of jumping on Jack o' Lantern's back and getting well away before the soldiers had reached the entrance of the forge, and had effectually barred his chance of escape.
As it was, he had only just undone the halter, and before he had time to lead Jack o' Lanter out, the voice of the Sergeant was heard quite close to the doorway, shouting breathlessly,--
"Forward! quick! Arrest that man!"
"My sword, John! for your life!" was Bathurst's ready answer to the challenge.
Stich darted to a corner of the forge. Lady Patience gave a quick, short gasp, she had suddenly realised that for some reason which she could not quite fathom, the manwho had so pluckily saved her brother from the soldiers an hour ago, was now himself in imminent danger.
Jack snatched the sword eagerly which the smith was holding out to him, and resting the point of the blade on the ground before him, he tested with evident satisfaction the temper of the steel. Not a moment too soon this, for already the Sergeant, running, panting, infuriated by the trick played upon him, had appeared in the doorway, closely followed by two of his men.
Caught like a rat in a hole, Jack was prepared to fight. Perhaps at bottom he was glad that circumstances had not compelled him to show a clean pair of heels before this new danger to himself. Alone, he might have liked to flee, before her, he preferred to fight.
"Odd's my life!" he said merrily, "'tis my friend, the Sergeant."
"You sent me on a fool's errand," shouted the latter as loudly as his scant breath would allow, "and 'tis my belief you are one of them rebel lords yourself: at any rate you shall give an account of yourself before the magistrate. And if the smith dares to interfere, he does so at his peril," he added, seeing that John Stich had seized his hammer, and was handling it ominously, fully prepared to resist the established authority on behalf of his friend.
But whilst the Sergeant parleyed, Jack, with the rapid keen eye of a practiced fencer, and the wary glance of a child of the Moor, had taken note of every advantage, however slight, which his present precarious position had left him.
The Sergeant and two men were in the doorway, momentarily pausing in order to recover their breath. Three more of the squad were running foward along the road, but were still some little distance off, and would be a few minutes before they reached the smithy.
Further on still there were the others, at present only appearing as scarlet dots on the Heath. Close on the heels of the Sergeant, two or three shepherds, with Jock Miggs in their rear, had come to see what was happening in the forge.
It had taken Jack Bathurst only a couple of seconds to note all these details. Luck so far favoured him that, for the next minutes or two at least, he would only have to deal with the Sergeant and two soldiers.
"Into it, my men! Arrest him in the name of the King!" shouted the Sergeant, and the two soldiers, grasping their bayonets, made a rush for the interior of the shed, ready to surround Jack and his horse.
But quick as a lightning flash, Bathurst gave Jack o' Lantern a slight prick in the ribs with his sword; the nervous creature, already rendered restive by the sudden noise, began to plunge and rear, and thus, as his master had hoped, scattered the compact group of assailants momentarily away from the vicinity of his hoofs.
This gave the young man the desired opportunity. Nimble as a fox when hotly persued, he stepped back and with one bound took up a position on the top of a solid oak table, which stood in the deep shadow caused by the doorway, thus, for the moment, leaving Jack o' Lantern as a barrier between himself and his enemies.
"Friend Stich," he shouted from this exalted height, "do you stand by the ladies. Stir not from their side whatever happens, nor interfere 'tween me and the soldiers at your peril."
The lust of battle was upon him now. He was satisfied with his position and longed to begin the fight. On his left was the outside wall of the shed, and guarding his right was the huge furnace of the smithy, out of which the burning embers cast fitful flickering lights upon his tall, slim figure, and drew from his blade sparks of blood-red gold.
He had wrapped the thick capes of his heavy cloth coat round his left arm: the fold of it hung down to his feet, forming a shield round the lower part of his figure.
Already the soldiers had recovered from the short panic caused by Jack o' Lantern's timely rearing. One of them now seized the horse by the bridle and led him out into the open, thus exposing Bathurst more full to the onslaught of their bayonets.
Jack was fully prepared for them, and as soon as the Sergeant had given the order to attack, his steel began to dart in and out of the gloom like some live snake, with otngue of steel; illumined by the fitful embers of the furnace fire, it seemed to give forth a thousand sparks of witch-like flame with every turn of the cunning wrist. The outline of his head and shoulders was lost in the dense shadows above, whilst his assailants stood in the full glare of the setting sun, which, hot and blinding, came streaming into the shed.
Dazed by the flickering light of the furnace and the sunset glow beyond, the soldiers made very ineffectual plunges into the dark shadow, whence, fending and parrying, and with many a quip and sally, Jack had at first an easy task in keeping them at bay.
This was mere child's play to him; already one of the men had an ugly gash in his cheek, and the next moment saw the Sergeant reeling backwards, with a well-directed thrust through his right arm.
But easy and exciting as was this brilliant swordplay, it could not in the long run be of much avail. Hardly had the Sergeant fallen back than three more soldiers, also hot and furious, came rushing in to reinforce their comrades. Bathurst had in his day been counted the finest fencer in England, his wrist was as fresh and strong as the steel which he held, but the odds were beginning to accumulate against him.
Five men in the shed, and the others could not be very far away!
John Stich felt his muscles nearly cracking with the vigorous effort to maintain his quiescent position and not to come to the rescue of his hard-pressed friend.
Suddenly one of the soldiers levelled his musket.
Patience saw it and gave a cry of horror. Stich, throwing prudence to the winds, would have rushed forward, to prevent this awful thing at any cost, but the Sergeant, though wounded, had lost none of his zest and his eye had been fixed on the smith.
"Keep back the smith!" he shouted, "use your bayonets! quick!"
And as two of his men obeyed him, he himself threw his full weight against John, and together the three men succeeded in rendering the worthy fellow momentarily powerless.
"Captain! Captain!" he shouted desperately, "have a care!"
Of course Jack had realised the danger. The group of his assailants stood out in every detail before him, like a clear-cut sunlit picture. But against the musket levelled at him he could do nothing, it was Luck's chance to do him a good turn; he himself was hard-pressed by two men close to his knees.
Patience felt as if her heart would cease to beat, her impulse was to rush blindly, stupidly forward, when suddenly a piping voice, vague and uncertain, was heard above the click of Jack's sword.
"Don't 'ee let 'em get 'ee, sir!" and Jock Miggs, with trembling, yet determined hands, gave a vigorous tug to the coat-tails of the soldier, who was even now pulling the trigger of his musket. The latter, who had been aiming very deliberately for the one bright patch on Jack's person caused by the red glow of the furnace, lost his aim: there was a loud report, and a bullet went whizzing high above Bathurst's head, and buried itself in the woodwork above him.
This was the signal for a new phase of this curious and unequal struggle. The shepherds, at first, knowing nothing of the cause of this quarrel, had stood open-mouthed, somewhat frightened and awaiting events, at a short distance from the scene of the scuffle.
But when the chestnut horse had been led out into the open, they suddenly had an inkling as to who its owner was. Jack o' Lantern, bearing the masked highwayman on his back, was well known to the poor folk on Brassing Moor.
Beau Brocade, who but yesterday had left fifty guineas in the Brassington poor-box! Beau Brocade, the hero of the Heath! He! to be caught by a parcel of red coats?
Never! Jock Miggs but voiced the feeling of the majority.
"Noa! Noa!" they shouted lustily. "Don't 'ee let 'em get 'ee, sir!"
"Not if I can help it, friends!" rejoined Bathurst in gay response.
They did not resist the soldiers; not they! Your Derbyshire yokel is too cautious an individual to run absolutely counter to established authority, but they saw their friend, their helper and benefactor, in trouble and they did what they could to help him. They got in the way, jostled the soldiers when they dared, kept the attention of one or two occupied, preventing a general onslaught on the oak table, on which Bathurst, still alert, still keen, was holding his own against such terrible odds.
"There's for you, my gallant lobster," quoth Jack, gaily.
He was standing far back on the table, entrenched between the wall on one side and the furnace on the other, and every time one of the soldiers ventured too near, his sword would dart out of the gloom: it seemed like a living creature of fire and steel, so quick and bold were his feints and parries, his sudden attacks in quarte and sixte, and all the while he kept one eye on the open Moor, where Jack o' Lantern, quivering with impatience, stood pawing the ground, and sniffing the keen evening air, ready to carry his master away, out upon the Heath, out of sight and out of danger.
Obviously the unequal contest could not last much longer. Jack knew that as well as any one. Already the red dots in the far distance had drawn considerably nearer, the next few minutes would bring this fresh reinforcement to the wearied, exhausted assailants.
The Sergeant too was ready to seize his best opportunity. He still kept two men on guard over the smith, but he soon saw that the two, who were storming Bathurst's improvised citadel, were no match with their clumsy bayonets against a brilliant fencer who, moreover, had the advantage of light and shadow, and of his elevated position.
Though he was wounded, and bleeding profusely, he had set his heart on the capture of this mysterious stranger, and having cast a glance on the open Moor beyond, he saw with renewed zest two more of his men hurrying along. With all the strength he had left he shouted to them to come on, and then turned to encourage the others.
"Take it easy, my men! Hold out a moment longer. We've got the rebel at last."
But Jack too had seen and understood. He was neither tired nor hurt, but two more men against him would inevitably prove his undoing. Already he could hear the shouts of the soldiers hurrying in response to their Sergeant's call. The next minute they would be in the forge.
A sudden change of tactics led his two assailants to venture nearer than they had done hitherto; he drew back into the shadows, and they, fired by the lust of capture, under the impression that he was at last exhausted, ventured nearer and nearer still; already they were leaning over the edge of the table, one man was thrusting at Bathurst's legs, when the latter, with a rapidity that seemed quicker than a flash of lightning, disengaged his left arm from his heavy coat, and with both hands threw it right over the heads of the two men. Before they had time to release themselves from its fold, Jack, with one bound was off the table, and the next instant he had torn open the door of the furnace and dragged out the huge iron poker with which the smith raked his fire, and with a cry of triumph slung this new and formidable weapon high over his head.
The effect of this sudden move was one of uncontrollable panic: the red-hot metal, as he swung it over his head, dropped a far-reaching shower of burning sparks; soldiers and Sergeant all drew back instictively, and Jack, still brandishing his weapon, reached the entrance and was out in the open before any one dared to stop him.
There he flung the great glowing thing in the direction of his assailants, who even now were rallying to the attack.
But the moment had been precious to Bathurst, and Jack o' Lantern was a king among horses. Without use of stirrup or rein, Jack, like the true child of the wild Moor that he was, flung himself upon the beautiful creature's back.
Thus Patience saw him for one brief second, framed in the doorway of the forge, the last rays of the setting sun forming a background of crimson and gold for his slim, upright figure, and the brown curls on his head.
It was but a moment's vision, but one she would carry enshrined in her memory through all the years to come. His eyes, large, glowing, magnetic, met hers in a flash, and hers, bright with unshed tears, met his in quick response.
"Soldiers!" he shouted, as he rode away, "an you think I am a rebel lord, then after me, quick! whilst I ride towards the sunset."