Chapter XVII
A Faithful Friend

How long he stood there on the spur of the hill he could not afterwards have told. It may have been a few seconds, perhaps it was an eternity.

During those few seconds or that eternity, the world was re-created for him: for him it became more beautiful than he had ever conceived it in his dreams. A woman's smile ahd changed it into an earthly paradise. A new and strange happiness filled his being, and set brain and sinews on fire. A happiness so great that his heart well nigh broke with the burden of it, and the bitter longing for what could never be.

The cry of a moorhen thrice repeated at intervals roused him from his dreams.

"John Stich," he murmured, "I wonder now what brings him out to-night!"

And with a final sigh of deep regret, a defiant toss of the head, Beau Brocade turned Jack o' Lantern's head northwards whence the cry had come.

There a rough track, scarce perceptible amongst the bracken, led straight up to the forge of John Stich. Horse and rider knew every inch of the way, although for the moment the fitful moon still hid her light behind a bank of clouds, and the mist now enveloped the Moor in a thick mantle of gloom.

Soon the sensitive ears of the highwayman, accustomed to every sound, had perceived heavy foot-steps on the unbeaten track, and presently a burly figure detached itself from the darkness beyond and came rapidly forward.

"Odd's my life! but it's friend John!" said Beau Brocade, with a great show of severity. "Zounds! but this is rank insubordination! How dare you follow me on the Heath, you villain, and leave your noble guest unprotected? What?"

"His lordship is safe enough, Captain," said the smith, who at sight of the young man had heaved an obvious sigh of relief, "and I could not rest until I'd seen you again."

"Faith! you can't do that in this confounded mist, eh, John?" quoth Bathurst, lightly. But his fresh young voice had softened with a quaint tenderness, whilst he looked down, smiling at the upturned face of his devoted friend.

"Well! what about my friend, the Sergeant and the soldiers, eh?" he added gaily.

"Oh! the Sergeant is too sick to speak," rejoined the smith, earnestly, "but the men vow you're a rebel lord. Those that were fit walked down to Brassington directly after you left: one man, who was wounded in the arm, started for Aldwark: they've gone to get help, Captain; either more soldiers, or loafers from the villages who may be tempted by the reward. They'll scour this Heath for you, from Aldwark to the cross-roads, and from Brassington to Wirksworth, and . . ."

"And so much the better, friend Stich, for while they hunt for me his lordship will be safe."

"But have a care, Captain! they're determined men, now, for you've fooled them twice. Be gy! but you've never been in so tight a corner before."

"Pshaw!" quoth Beau Brocade, lightly, "life is none too precious a boon for me that I should make an effort to save it."

"Captain. . ." murmured Stich, reproachfully.

"There, friend John," added the young man, with that same touch of almost womanly tenderness, that had endeared him to the heart of honest Stich, "there! there! have no fear for me! I tell thee, man, they'll not get me on this Heath! Think you the furze and bracken, the heron or peewit would betray me? Me, their friend! Not they! I am safe enough!" he continued, while a strange ring of excitement made his young voice quiver. "Let them after me, and leave her brother in peace! And then, John! when he is safe . . . perhaps I may see her smile once more! . . . Heigh-ho! A fool am I, friend! a fool, I tell thee! fit for the gallows-tree outside thy forge!"

John said nothing: he could not see Jack's face in the gloom, and did not understand his wild, mad mood, but his faithful heart ached to hear the ring of bitter longing in the voice of his friend.

There was a moment's pause, whilst Bathurst made a visible effort to control his excitement. Then he said more calmly,--

"Here, John! take this money, friend!"

He dived in the pocket of his big caped coat and then placed in John's hand the two bags of money he had extracted from Master Mittachip and his clerk.

"I've just got it from a blood-sucking agent of Sir Humphrey Challoner's; 'tis money wrung from poor people, who can ill afford it."

"Aye! aye!" quoth John, with a sigh.

"I want two guineas to go to Mistress Haddakin, who has just lost her husband: the poor wretch is nigh to starving. Then thirty shillings are for the Widow Coggins, up Hartington way: those blood-suckers took her last shilling yesterday. Wilt see to it, friend John?"

"Aye! aye!"

"The rest is for the poor-box at Aldwark this time. Perhaps there'll be more before the morn."

"Captian. . ."

"Hush! don't begin to lecture, John!" said Beau Brocade, with curious earnestness. "I tell thee, friend, there's madness in my veins to-night. I pray thee go back home, and leave me to myself."

"Don't send me away, Captain," pleaded John. "I. . . I . . .am uneasy, and . . ."

"Dear, kind, faithful John," murmured Bathurst. "Zounds! but I'm an ungrateful wretch, for I vow thou dost love me, friend."

"You know I do, Captain. I . . .I . . .I'd give . . ."

"Nay. . . nothing!" interrupted Jack, quickly, "give me nothing but that love of thine, friend. . . it is more precious than life . . . but I pray thee, let me be to-night . . . I swear to thee I'll do no harm . . . I'll see thee in the morn, John . . . I'll be safe. . . never fear!"

John Stich sighed. He knew that further protest was useless. Already Beau Brocade had turned Jack o' Lantern's head once more towards the crest of the hill. The smith waited awhile, listening while he could to the sound of the horse's hoofs on the rain-sodden earth. His honest heart was devoured with anxiety both for his friend and for the brave young lady who was journeying townwards to-night.

Suddenly it seemed to him as if far away he could hear the creaking of wheels on the distant Wirksworth road. The air was so still, that presently he could hear it quite distinctly. 'Twas her ladyship's coach, no doubt, plying its slow, wearying way along the quaggy road.

It would be midway to the little town by now.

The narrow track on which John stood cut the road at right angles, about a mile and a half away. The smith took to blaming himself that he had kept her ladyship's journey a secret from Beau Brocade. The latter was a monarch on the Heath: he would have kept footpads at bay, watched and guarded the coach, and seen it, mayhap, safely as far as Wirksworth.

Never for a moment did the slightest fear cross the smith's mind that the notorious highwayman would stop Lady Patience's coach. Still, a warning would not have come amiss. Perhaps it was not too late. The road wound in and out a good deal, skirting bog-land or massive boulders. John hoped that on the path he might yet come across Jack o' Lantern and his master, before they had met the coach.

He started to run and had covered nearly a mile when suddenly he heard a shout, which made his honest heart almost stop in its beating, a shout, followed by two pistol shots in rapid succession.

The shout had rung out clear and distinct in the fresh, lusty voice of Beau Brocade.

"Stand and deliver!"

John dared not think what the pistol shots had meant.

With elbows now pressed to his sides, he began running at a wild gallop along the rough, unbeaten track, towards the point whence shots and shout had come.