Beau Brocade drew rein on the spur of the hill. He had galloped all the way from the forge, out towards the sunset, then on, ever on, over gorse and bracken, on red sandy soil and soft carpet of ling, on, still on!
Overhead, on the blue-green dome of the evening sky, a giant comet, made up of myriads of tiny, rose-tipped clouds, formed a fairy way, ever diminishing, ever more radiant, pointing westwards to the setting sun, where orange and crimson and blue melted in one glorious mist of gold.
Out far away, the distant Tors glowed in the evening light, like great barriers to some mystic elusive land beyond.
Jack o' Lantern had responded to his master's mood. The reins falling loosely on his neck, needing neither guide nor spur, save the excitement of his own mad career, he had continued his wild gallop on the Heath, until a sudden jerk of the reins brought him to a standstill on the very edge of a steep declivity, with quivering flanks and sensitive nerves all a-tremble, even as the last ruddy glow died out in the western sky.
One by one the myriads or rose-tipped clouds now put on their grey cloaks of evening. From the rain-soaked ground and dripping branches of bramble or fern, a blue mist was rising upwards, blending deep shadows and tender lights in one hazy monotone.
Gradually every sound died out upon the Heath, only from afar came intermittently the mournful booming of a solitary bittern, astray from its nest, or now and then the sudden quaking of a tuft of grass, a tremor amidst the young fronds of the bracken, there, where a melancholy toad was seeking shelter for the night.
Awesome, silent, majestic, the great Moor was at peace. The passions, the strife, the turmoil of mankind seemed far, very far away: further than that twinkling star which peeped down, shy and solitary, from across the rolling billows of boundless universe.
Beau Brocade stretched out both arms, and sighed in an agony of longing. Fire was in his veins, a burning thirst in his heart, for something he dared not define.
How empty seemed his life! how wrecked! how hopelessly wasted!
Yet he loved the Moor, the peace, the solitude: he loved the sunset on the Heath and every sound of animal life in this lonesomeee vastness.
But to-night! . . .
One smile from a woman's lips, a glow of pride in her eyes, just one cluster of snow-white roses at her breast, and all the glories of Nature in her most lavish mood seemed tame, empty, oh! unutterably poor.
Nay! he would have bartered his very soul at this moment to undo the past few years. To be once more Jack Bathurst of His Majesty's regiment of Guards, before one evening's mistake ruined the whole of his life. A quarrel over a game of cards, a sudden blind, unreasoning rage, a blow against his superior officer, and this same Jack Bathurst, the dandy about town, the gallant, enthusiastic, promising young soldier, was degraded from his military rank and thrown, resourceless, disgraced, banished, upon a merciless world, that has neither pity nor pardon for failures or mistakes.
But, quite unlike the young Earl of Stretton, Jack Bathurst indulged in no morbid self-condemnation. Fate and he had thrown the dice, and he had lost. But there was too much of the untamed devil in him, too much spirit of wild adventure, to allow him to stoop to the thousand and one expedients, the shifts, the humiliations which the world holds in store for the broken-down gentleman.
Moneyless, friendless, with his career irretrievably ruined, he yet scorned the life of the outcast or the pariah, of that wretched fragment of humanity that hangs on the fringe of society, envying the pleasures it can no longer share, haunting the gambling booths or noisy brothels of the towns, grateful for a nod, a handshake, from some other fragment less miserable than itself.
No! a thousand times no!
Jack Bathurst looked the future that was before him squarely in the face, then chose the life of the outlaw with a price upon his head. Aye! and forced that life to yield to him its full measure of delights: the rough, stormy nights on the Moor! the wild gallops over gorse and bramble, with the keen nor'-wester lashing his face and whipping up his blood, and with a posse of soldiers at his heels! the devil-may-care, mad, merry existence of the outlaw, who cuts a purse by night, and carries his life on his saddle-bow!
That he chose and more! for he chose the love of the poor for miles around! the blessings spoken by suffering and patient lips upon the name of the highwayman, of Beau Brocade, who took from the rich at risk of his life in order to give to the needy.
And now at even, on Brassing Moor, when a lonely shepherd caught sight of a chestnut horse bearing a slim, masked figure on its back, or heard in the distance a young voice, fresh as a skylark, singing some half-sad, half-lively ditty, he would turn his weary eyes in simple faith upwards to the stars and murmur gently,--
"God bless Beau Brocade!"
Perhaps He had!
The stars knew, but they did not tell!