Master Mittachip, on his lean nag, with his clerk, Master Duffy, on the pillion behind him, was on his way to Brassington.
Sir Humphrey Challoner had not returned to the Moorhen after his visit to the forge until the sun was very low down in the west. He had bidden the attorney to await him at the inn, and Master Mittachip had not dared to disobey.
Yet the delay meant the crossing of the Heath along the bridle path to Brassington, well after the shadows of evening had lent the lonely Moor an air of awesome desolation. There were the footpads, and the pixies, the human and fairy midnight marauders, who all found the steep declivities, the clumps of gorse and bracken, the hollows and the pits, safe resting-places by day, but who were wont to emerge from their lair after dark for the terror and better undoing of the unfortunate, belated traveller.
Then there was Beau Brocade!
Master Duffy too was very timid, and clung with trembling arms to the meagre figure of the attorney.
"Nay! Master Duffy!" quoth Mittachip, with affected firmness, "why do you pry about so? Are you afraid?"
"Nay! nay! Master Mittachip," replied the clerk, whose teeth were chattering audibly, "I am . . . n. . . n . . . not af . . . f . . .f . . . fraid."
"Tush, man, you have me near you," rejoined Mittachip, boldly. "See! I am armed! Look at my pistols!"
And he leant back in the saddle, so as to give Master Duffy a good view of a pair of huge pistols that protruded ostentatiously from his belt.
Yet all around the air was still, the solitary Heath was at peace, even the breezy nor'-wester, that had blustered throughout the day, seemed to have lain down to rest.
Far out eastwards, the moon, behind a fast dispersing bank of clouds, was casting a silver radiance that was not yet a light, but only a herald of the glittering radiance to come.
The Moor was silent and at peace: only at times there came the sound of a gentle flutter, a moorhen perhaps within its nest, or a belated lizard seeking its home.
Whenever these slight sounds occurred, Master Mittachip's hands that held the reins trembled visibly, and his clerk clung more closely to him.
"What was that?" said the attorney in an awed whisper, as his frightened ears caught a more distinct noise.
"W. . . .w . . . why don't you draw your p . . .p . . . pistols, Master Mittachip?" murmured Duffy, in mad alarm.
The noise was hushed again, but to the overwrought nerves of the two men in terror, there came the certain, awful perception that some one was on the Heath besides themselves, some one not far off, whom the mist hid from their view, but who knew that they were travelling along the bridle path, who could see and perhaps hear them.
"Truth to tell, Master Duffy," whispered the attorney, whose teeth too had begun to chatter, "Truth to tell, it's no use my drawing them . . . they . . . they are not loaded."
Master Duffy nearly fell off the pillion in his fright.
"There's neither powder nor shot in them," continued Master Mittachip, ruefully.
"Th. . .the . . . then we are lost!" was Master Duffy's ejaculation of woe.
"Eh?--what?" quoth Mittachip, "but your pistols are charged."
And his pointed elbow sought behind it for the handles of two formidable weapons, which were stuck in Master Duffy's belt.
"N. . .n. . .nay!" whispered the clerk, who now was blue with terror. "I dqared not carry the weapons loaded. . . . I trusted to your valour, Master Mittachip, to protect us."
"What was that?"
Again that noise! This time a good deal nearer, and it seemed to Master Mittachip's affrighted eyes as if he saw something moving on the bridle path before him. But he would not show too many signs of fear before his own clerk.
"Tush, man!" he said with as much boldness as he could command. "'Tis only a lizard in the grass mayhap. We'll ride on quite boldly. We can't be far from Brassington now, and no footpads would dare to attack two lusty fellows on horseback, with pistols showing in their belts! . . . Lord!" he added with a shudder, "how lonely this place appears!"
"And that rascal, Beau Brocade, haunts this Heath every night, I'm told," murmured Master Duffy, who felt more dead than alive.
"Sh! sh! sh! speak not of the devil, Master Duffy, lest he appear!. . ."
The two men now clunt trembling to one another; not ten paces from them there came the sound of a horse's snorting, then suddenly a voice rang out clearly through the mist-laden air,--
"Hello! who goes there?"
"The Lord have mercy up on!" whispered Mittachip.
"It must be Beau Brocade himself," echoed the clerk.
The next moment a horse and rider came into view. Master Mittachip and his clerk were too terrified even to look. The former had jerked the reins and brought his lean nag to a standstill, and both men now sat with eyes closed, teeth chattering, their very faces distorted with fear.
Beau Brocade had reined his horse quite close to them, and was peering through his black mask at the two terror-stricken faces. Evidently they amused him vastly, for he burst out laughing.
"Odd's my life! here's a pretty pair of scarecrows! . . . Well! I see you can stand, so now let's see what you've got to deliver!"
At this Master Mittachip contrived to open his eyes for a second; but the black mask, and the heavily cloaked figure looked so ghostlike, so awful in the mist, that he promptly closed them again, and murmured with a shudder,--
"Mercy, oh, noble sir! We. . .we are poor men! . . .k"
"Poor-spirited men, you mean?" quoty Beau Brocade, giving the trembling figure a quick, vigorous shake. "Now then! off that nag of yours! Quick's the word!"
But even before this word of command Master Mittachip, dragging his clerk after him, had tumbled, quaking, off his horse. They now stood clinging to each other, a miserable bundle of frightened humanity.
"Come!" said Beau Brocade, looking down with some amusement at the spectacle. "I'm not going to hurt you--I never shoot at snipe! But you'll have to turn out your pockets and sharp too, an you want to resume your journey to-night."
He had seized Master Duffy by the collar. The clerk was an all too-ready prey for any highwayman, and stooping from his saddle, Beau Brocade had quickly extracted a leather bag from the pocket of his coat.
"Oho! guineas, as I live!"
"Kind sir," began Duffy, tremblingly.
"Now, listen to me, both of you," said Beau Brocade, trying to hide his enjoyment of the scene under an air of great sternness. "I know who you are. I know what work you've been doing this afternoon. Extorting rents barely due from a few wretched people, for your employers as hard-hearted as yourselves."
"Kind sir. . ."
"Silence! or I shoot! Besides, 'twere no use to tell me lies. The people about here know me. They call me Beau Brocade. I know them and their troubles. I happened to hear, for instance, that you extracted two guineas from the Widow Coggins, threatening her with a process for dilapidations unless she gave you hush-money."
"'Twas not our fault, kind sir. . ."
"Then there was Mistress Haddakin, from whom you extracted fifty shillings for a new gate, which you don't intend to put up for her: and this, although she has only just buried her husband, and had a baby sick at home. You put on finer airs with the poor people than you do with me, eh?"
"'Tis not our money, sir," protested Master Mittachip, humbly.
"Some of it goes into your own pockets. Hush-money, blood-money, I call it. That's what I want from you, and then a bit over for the poor-box on behalf of your employers."
He weighed the leather bag which he had taken out of Master Duffy's pocket.
"This'll do for the poor-box. Now I want the five pounds you extorted from Widow Coggins and Mistress Haddakin. The poor women'll be glad of it on the morrow."
"I haven't a penny more than that bagful, sir," protested Master Mittachip. "My employers took all the money from me. 'Twere their rents I was collecting. I swear it, sir, kind sir! on my word of honour! And I am an honest man!"
And Beau Brocade reined his horse back a few paces.
"Come here!" he repeated.
Mittachip was too frightened to disobey. He came forward, limping very perceptibly.
"Why do you walk like that?" asked Beau Brocade.
"I'm a feeble old man and rheumatic," whined Mittachip, despondently.
"Then 'twere better to ease the load out of your boot, friend. Sit down here and take it off."
And he pointed to a piece of boulder projecting through the shallow earth.
But this Master Mittachip seemed very loth to do.
"Kind sir. . ." he protested again.
"Sit down and take off the right boot!" repeated Beau Brocade more peremptorily, and with a gay laugh and mock threatening gesture he pointed the muzzle of his pistol at the terror-stricken attorney.
There was naught to do but to obey: and quickly too. Master Mittachip cursed the rascally highwayman under his breath, and even consigned him to eternal damnation, before he finally handed him up his boot.
Beau Brocade turned it over, shook it, and a bag of jingling guineas fell at Jack o' Lantern's feet.
"Give me that bag!"
"Sir! kind sir!" moaned Master Mittachip, as he obediently handed up the bag of gold to his merciless assailant. "Have pity! I am a ruined man! 'Tis Sir Humphrey Challoner's money. I've been collecting it for him. . . and he's a hard man!"
"Oh!" said Beau Brocade, "'tis Sir Humphrey Challoner's money, is it? Nay! you old scarecrow, but 'tis his Honour himself sent me on the Heath to-night. Oho!" he added, whilst his merry, boyish laugh went echoing through the evening air, "methinks Sir Humphrey will enjoy the joke. Do you tell him, friend--an you see him in the morn--that you've met Beau Brocade and that he'll do his Honour's bidding."
He counted some of the money out of the bag and put it in his pocket: the remainder he handed back to the astonished lawyer.
"There!" he said with sudden earnestness, "I'll only make restitution to the poor whom you have robbed. You may thank your stars that an angel came down from heaven to-day and cast eyes of tender pity upon me, so that I care not to rob you, save for those in dire want. You may mount that nag of yours now, and continue your journey to Brassington. No turning aside, remember, and answer me when I challenge your good-night."
Master Mittachip and his clerk had no call to be told twice. They mounted with as much agility as their trembling limbs would allow. Truly they considered themselves lucky in having saved some money out of the clutches of the rogue, and did not care to speculate on the cause of their good fortune.
A few minutes later their lean horse was once more on its way, bearing its double burden. At first they had both looked back, attracted--now that their terror was gone--by the sight of that tall, youthful figure on the beautiful thoroughbred standing there on the crest of the hill and gradually growing more and more dim in the fast-gathering mist.
The bridle path at this point dips very suddenly and a sharp declivity leads thence, straight on to Brassington.
Beau Brocade's sharp eyes, accustomed to the gloom, watched horse and riders until the mist enveloped them and hid them from his view. Then he called loudly,--
And faintly echoing came the quaking reply,--
After that there was silence again. The outlaw was alone upon the Heath once more, the Heath which had been his home for so long.
For him it had no cruelty and held no terror: the tall gorse and bracken oft sheltered him from the rain! Wrapped in his greatcoat, he had oft watched the tiny lizards darting to and fro in the grass, or listened to the melancholy cry of moorhen or heron. The tiny rough branches of the heather had been a warm carpet on which he had slept on lazy afternoons.
The outlaw found a friend in great and lonely Nature, and when he was aweary he laid his head on her motherly breast, and like a child found rest.